December 31, 2013

Movie Review: Grudge Match **

Story: Old
Script: Sad
Jokes: Lame
Performances: Lackluster
Sentimentality: In spades
Stallones's face: Over-cooked
Nothing feels innovative or new here. Everyone's played these roles in other films and no one appears all that excited to be here. Kim Basinger, in particular, seems completely uninterested in her role although she has nice chemistry with Stallone, and she looks gorgeous.
The best part of the film is when the final credits roll - not just because it's finally over but because there's a post-credit scene with Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson. Worth waiting for.
Two of five stars for Grudge Match.

December 30, 2013

Movie Review: Inside Llewyn Davis **

If I'd been able to get inside Llewyn Davis, Inside Llewyn Davis might have worked better. I didn't get to
know or sympathize with who he was supposed to be, and it's hard to root for someone who just keeps doing stupid things. He's a guy who doesn't care about much except his music. Sort of. Otherwise, Jean (Carey Mulligan) and the cat seemed to have equal, but not immense, importance in his life.
There's lots of Oscar buzz around this film - I don't see it. But it's the Coen Brothers and the Academy seems to love them. Their films are off and on for me, Fargo and No Country For Old Men being my favorites, but I would have to say mostly off.
I loved the look of Inside Llewyn Davis. I just wish I liked the character more. Or at least sympathized with him. Or knew him.
Two of five stars for Inside Llewyn Davis.

December 27, 2013

Movie Review: American Hustle ***1/2

The true star of this film is the double-stick tape that's used to prevent us from catching a glimpse of Amy
Adams' and Jennifer Lawrence's nipples. Their breasts are in full view through most of the movie, in their cut-to-the-navel wardrobe, and you keep waiting for something to fall out. Nothing ever does, but truly, the view is enchanting.
There's a lot of Oscar buzz around American Hustle and while I don't think it has Best Picture potential the performances are all pretty spectacular. If my theory holds (read my review of The Dallas Buyers Club to see what I'm referring to), Christian Bale will get a nomination for this role because he gained 40 lbs. Also, he's really great. As are Bradley Cooper, my girl Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner. Jennifer Lawrence is good but not great in this film but she'll probably get a nomination anyway because she's the darling of Hollywood at the moment.
American Hustle is an interesting, if complicated, story. I remember Abscam but didn't remember the details so I can't say how much of this is accurate, but loved how in the beginning these word flash on the screen: "Some of this actually happened." The story drags in the middle, making me look at my watch, and some of it is a stretch - the relationship between Bradley Cooper's character and his boss, played by Louis C.K., for one. But it's a beautiful period piece and a couple of good hours of entertainment.
Oh, and Christian Bales' comb-over should get a Best Special Effects nomination.
Three and a half stars out of five for American Hustle.

December 26, 2013

Movie Review: Her *****

Her is a film about love and loss and where we find our connections. This is a perfect role for Joaquin Phoenix. He's fantastic as Theodore, a forlorn, vulnerable, lonely man who writes other people's love letters for a living at a delightfully named company, I love the opening sequence which is an extreme close-up of his face where he speaks heart-warming words of love and you slowly realize he's speaking a letter into his computer when the camera pulls back and you begin to see and hear other cubicle people doing the same thing.
Theodore is separated from the wife he's known since childhood and falls in love with Samantha, the intelligent voice on his operating system, created from a combination of human traits to anticipate and respond to his personality. Samantha is voiced by Scartlett Johanssen, and I fell in love with her, too. She's clever and funny and charming.
The story takes place sometime in the future and if you think things are bad now, just wait. This seems very real to me, a world where people don't talk to each other, only into their headsets. It's beautifully filmed in this strange but not so strange world.
Amy Adams is Amy (the character's name), Theodore's friend whose husband leaves and who falls in love with her own operating system. There's no more appealing screen presence than Amy Adams.
Her is a very clever and creative commentary on this disconnected/super-connected world we live in, how we all strive for that human bond, and the unexpected places we might find it.
I loved this film. Five of five stars for Her.

December 23, 2013

Movie Review: Saving Mr. Banks ***1/2

Saving Mr. Banks is a sweet story about an irascible woman and the man (Walt Disney) who tenaciously cracks the code of her impossibility. The film is inspired by the true story of P.L. Travers who wrote Mary Poppins, and who was loathe to sell the movie rights to Disney until her financial situation forced her to.
The film paints Walt Disney as something of a sweet dufus. Tom Hanks is good in the role but it's not much of a part, in my opinion. Emma Thompson is wonderful as the author but I wish it had been written with a lighter hand. Paul Giamatti has an odd role as the limo driver who turns out to be the only American the author can stomach, and who penetrates the armor she protects herself with.
It's an engaging story and I was certainly entertained for two hours but I would have liked it better if it had more substance and less fancy.
Lots of 'buts' here. Three and a half stars for Saving Mr. Banks.

December 21, 2013

Writing Tip: Does Your Opening Page Grab Your Readers?

When people peruse bookshelves, looking for something new and exciting to read, they look first at the cover (more about that in another post) and then they often open the book and read the first page. As writers we basically have those first few paragraphs to grab their attention, hold it and turn them into buyers. It's not much to go on, so it better be spectacular, right? If it's not, back on the shelf your book goes.
Somewhat more importantly, if you want to get your book published in the first place, agents and editors judge manuscripts in the same way.

Ray Rhamey, writes a wonderful column called Flog a Pro in my favorite writing website Writer Unboxed, where he analyzes a first manuscript page of a popular book to see if it passes the test. It's a given that the work must be beautifully written (Fifty Shade of Grey notwithstanding), or at least competently written (Fifty Shades of Grey notwithstanding) but after that Ray says people will stop reading if those lines don't contain these essential elements:

  • Story questions
  • Tension (in the reader, not just the characters)
  • Voice
  • Clarity
  • Scene-setting
  • Character
Whether you agree with him or not it's an interesting exercise. Read Ray's latest column about a David Baldacci bestseller - then do it with your own first page and see how it stacks up. 

December 12, 2013

Movie Review: Dallas Buyers Club ***1/2

Matthew McConaughey will surely get an Oscar nomination for his role in Dallas Buyers Club. The Academy loves actors who drastically alter their physical appearance, and MM is excruciating to look at in this film so...perfect! Oscar nod assured.
He's also very good in the role. Is he great? Not to me, but I'm not a big fan, though in my opinion it's one of his better roles. He melted (literally) into the part.
It's an engrossing story about real-life Ron Woodroof, an electrician/cowboy/gigolo, who's diagnosed with AIDS and fights to bring the right drugs to his fellow-sufferers, skirting right around the FDA. It's of the Rocky, Norma Rae, Rudy genre and it's hard not to root for the little guy, especially the one who fights the system and wins.
It's a great story, a pretty good film and a really good performance by McConaughey.
Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune thinks Jared Leto will also get an Oscar nomination for his role as Woodroof's transvestite business partner but I thought his performance was uneven. However...he lost 30 lbs. for the role, so who knows?
I just hope they both put on some weight before the Academy Awards.
Three and a half stars for Dallas Buyers Club.

December 5, 2013

Travel: Ireland for Thanksgiving 2013

This year I got it in my head that I wanted to go away for Thanksgiving. I had no particular destination in mind, I just wanted it to be somewhere I haven’t been and I didn’t want to spend a ton of money. 
Enter Groupon. I get emails from them all the time, for mani-pedis, restaurant discounts, bicycle tours…and there are always really attractive travel deals at the end. Does that sound scary? Groupon for travel? Anyway, Ireland had never been at the very top of my list – not that I didn’t want to go, just that there were other places I wanted to go first. But a Groupon deal came up that I couldn’t refuse, and when I told my best travel buddy Claire about it, she was in. Here’s our deal: $1099, which included air (non-stop flights Chicago to Dublin both ways), six nights at the Ritz-Carlton and a car. How could we pass that up, right?
And here’s what I found out about Ireland: Irish people are the nicest people in the world, bar none. Everyone we talked to, everyone we asked questions of, everyone we got restaurant recommendations from, any store clerk, bus driver, post office clerk…they were all wonderful. They may not be the most attractive people in the world – they’re plain people – not sophisticated, not into fashion or makeup (but very few fat people) – but they are hands down the nicest. And – bonus – they have a fabulous sense of humor. I love the Irish!IMG_1570
Our Aer Lingus flight left at 7p and was uneventful, not very crowded (check out the O’Hare tram all decked out for Christmas) and landed in Dublin at 9 on T’giving day. We picked up our rental car (paying a little extra for an automatic – we didn’t need to remember to drive on the wrong side of the road AND shift with the wrong hand) and drove to Powerscourt, about 45 minutes south of Dublin, to our gorgeous hotel, near the sweet little town of Enniskerry.
After a little nap we got a bus from Enniskerry to Dublin, about an hour trip. Okay, maybe we weren’t in the best location but it was nice not to have to drive and park, and then we didn’t worry if we had a little too much Jamisons or Guinness. We did that bus trip almost every day.
While we were waiting for the bus on that first day we went into a little antique shop in Enniskerry and talked to artist and shop-keeper Brian Merry who called his daughter to get restaurant recommendations for us in Dublin, and we ended up at Brasserie Sixty6, where we ate seared tuna for Thanksgiving dinner.
On Friday we went back into Dublin, had a light breakfast in the tea room at Clery’s department store and then we got a ticket for the Hop On Hop Off bus, which is a great way to tour Dublin, and did a Pat Liddy walking tour with our guide, Liam. IMG_1592 See that needle-like structure in the middle of the picture to the right? It’s called The Spire, and Dubliners hate it. Liam told us a few of its nicknames: the stiletto in the ghetto, the stiffy near the Liffey (the river that runs through Dublin), the erection near the intersection… Seems Dubliners have clever, rhyming nicknames for everything.
On that tour we also saw Trinity College, The Church (used to be a church in the 18th century, now a cafe and restaurant), the Temple Bar area, Christ Church Cathedral. I’m sure there’s more that I’m forgetting.
Poppies in Enniskerry (left, below) became our go-to breakfast place. There were always locals who, after the second day, said good morning to us. So lovely. Their food is all homemade: breakfasts, quiche, scones, porridge, sandwiches, desserts, etc. On our last day we got a big hug from the lovely young lady who worked there.Poppies
Days are really short in Dublin - sunrise about eight and sunset about four. They tell us in the summer it's light til almost eleven.
I didn’t expect Ireland to be a gastronomic powerhouse but we happily had amazing meals. Every one. Before the theatre one evening we went to The Church, just because it’s so iconic, not thinking the food would be exceptional, but we were wrong. It was amazing. Other restaurants we loved: Emilia’s in Enniskerry, 101 Talbot Restaurant in Dublin, 3 Qs in Greystones.
There’s so much to do in Ireland and we only scratched the surface but here’s some of it: we saw two productions at The Abbey Theatre; a one-man show called Silent and a play about the Irish uprising called The Risen. We went to the Writers Museum, Kilmainham Gaol, Irish Museum of Modern Art, drove to Glendalough to see a 6th century monastic settlement, had lunch in the lovely little coastal town of Greystones, visited the Trim Castle built in the 1200s, saw the spectacular Powerscourt Gardens…
Enjoy the pictures but know they don’t capture the beauty. IMG_1751

And finally, if you find yourself in Ireland and you’re doing a crossword puzzle and you need a 20-letter word for ‘photography,’ here you go:IMG_1827