Friday, July 13, 2012

After 60 Years, Fans Still "Singin' in the Rain"

In celebration this year of the 60th anniversary of the theatrical release of "Singin' in the Rain", local theaters, in partnership with Turner Classic Movies, held special screenings of the film last night. The movie was preceded by a filmed introduction by TCM's Robert Osborne, including clips of him recently interviewing the charming Debbie Reynolds, as well as interview clips with Donald O'Connor and Gene Kelly's widow and others. The interviews were good and quite interesting, but we were all quite excited when the movie finally started.

The theater was almost full, which was wonderful; hopefully that sets the precedent to screen more great classics. Some of us are young enough to have never seen these films on the big screen, and others are old enough to remember just how thrilling it is to watch a great movie in the theater. They truly don't make them like they used to.

I had forgotten just how great this movie is. I haven't watched "Singin'" in years. In fact, I'm not sure whether I've shown it to any of my children or not. I took my youngest, my 10-year old daughter, with me last night, though, and I intend to show my sons the film soon-- she kept commenting that Cosmo reminded her so much of my 13-year old, Ben (and I agree). 

Cosmo is by far my favorite character in the movie; O'Connor was an adorable mix of a Marx Brother and Danny Kaye (kids, if you don't know who they are, I would happily introduce you to some of their better films... after I stop weeping at your cinematic cultural ignorance...). He choreographed the superbly entertaining "Make 'Em Laugh", throwing in the funny bit with the dummy after his backstage schtick proved hilariously entertaining to the whole crew. He was a master of physical comedy, he was a fantastic singer and dancer, and frankly, he steals every scene he is in. Almost.
Debbie Reynolds at 19 absolutely glows onscreen. She was so beautiful and funny and had such a powerful presence that when she's on, it's hard to look at anyone else! She's wonderful. In the interview before the movie, she told how she had never really danced before-- amazing that she was able to keep up with Donald O'Connor and the great Gene Kelly in this film! She was the perfect choice for the role of Kathy and it was so much fun to watch her on that huge theatrical screen.

Gene Kelly directed this movie, and he certainly had a good eye for what worked well. His show-stopping performance in the title song is amazing- he is the ray of sunshine in that rainstorm. Every time I watch this movie, I want to go find some puddles to dance in. Here in Utah, we never get a downpour like the one in the movie (well, maybe not never, but seldom), so I haven't ever reenacted that scene, but wouldn't that be a joy? He makes it look effortless, though it was actually a lot of very hard work: isn't that what great performers do?
I would be remiss if I didn't mention the perfect performance of Jean Hagen as Lina Lamont. She is so funny and so believable and speaking of scene-stealing, she very nearly steals the whole show.

Rare is the movie that is so perfectly cast that you wouldn't change a single actor for another. "Singin' in the Rain" is that movie. It's often been called the "greatest movie musical of all time" and I'm inclined to agree. It's timeless, it's incredibly funny and heartwarming, the drama doesn't slide into melodramatic... it's a really great time at the movies. I am so glad I went to see it on a movie screen. 

My one complaint about this movie is the gratuitous ballet scene. Ugh. I assume that certain scenes were included to showcase Kelly's dancing ability, as well as Cyd Charisse's, but some of it feels like padding. "Broadway Rhythm" is okay, but way too long, and the whole long white veil duet-dance with the fans blowing the veil hither and thither is artistically lovely and yes, they are amazing dancers, but every time a movie musical goes into anything like that (think the even worse ballet in "Oklahoma" or the excessive "Minstrel" numbers in "White Christmas") I feel yanked out of the story. I love musicals, but I rather prefer song-and-dance that at least loosely relates to the actual storyline of the show. Meh... that's just me. And as I write this, I'm realizing that there are a great many songs in shows that don't relate to the story at all, which I do love, so maybe it's just that I'm nitpicky sometimes. 

If it's been a long time (or not) or you've never watched "Singin' in the Rain" you should really go give it another (or a first) look. It's classic, but timeless, cinema entertainment that the whole family will enjoy. I'll be fast-forwarding the aforementioned white-veil dance sequence when I show it to my boys, but other than that I think they'll love it.

In Which I Finally, FINALLY, Watch "Serenity"

Over a year ago, I watched every episode of "Firefly" on the insistent recommendation of my brother, who is a huge fan of all things Joss Whedon. It's basically a western-style science fiction show, about a group of folks on a spaceship who do their best to avoid the law (they are smugglers and bank robbers) and the "Reevers"- a population of insane, bloodthirsty folks who eat their victims alive. That's over-simplifying it a lot, but it's the gist. I'm sure there are many, many geek-fan sites out there that would give you a much better synopsis than that.

I enjoyed it; I found it amusing, engaging and unique. It took me a while to really get into it, but I did enjoy it. But I wasn't in a hurry to watch the movie that the much-lamented, cancelled show culminated in: 2005's "Serenity". I can't explain why, I just wasn't. My brother kept encouraging me to watch it, though, and after loving what Whedon did with "The Avengers", I decided I'd better give it a look.

I did enjoy it, though it's not my favorite movie ever, and I'm not in a hurry to see it again. Mostly I liked Nathan Fillion (of course); he's as adorable as ever- manly, but just soft-hearted enough, funny but deadly serious when needed. The story was tight, the action believable and exciting, and the special effects surprisingly good for a not-huge-budget film. There is a small amount of sexuality; consider yourselves warned (if you're worried about that)- mild PG-13 level, I would say.

The sci-fi elements are really quite good- the story revolves around River, a girl who was taken by the government and experimented on because she's psychic. Skills and information were implanted in her brain, and the government wants her back. Not knowing the details, the crew of Serenity take her and her brother (who stole her from the govt. facility) aboard in the first episode of the series. The series does not revolve around this storyline, it is one of many, but the film "Serenity" is about this storyline and how it affects the crew, what the secrets are that the government will kill River to keep hidden, etc. It is very well written- intelligent and fascinating. In true Joss Whedon style, there is a lot of humor, exciting action and lots of surprises. Oh, and as my sister-in-law warned me (after my frustration at Whedon killing off Agent Colson in "The Avengers" this year) Whedon always kills someone you love. Which, as I've said before, lends a bit of authenticity to even the most outlandish story, simply because that's the most logical scenario. Someone will/would die.

If you haven't watched "Firefly", you can still watch "Serenity" and understand it, mostly, but I would recommend watching all of "Firefly"'s 14 episodes first, so you have a good feeling for the cast and the characters, as well as the setting. Just be prepared that the pilot ep. is extra long.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Book Review: The Hollow City by Dan Wells

"The Hollow City" is about a man named Michael Shipman who has schizophrenia and finds himself in a mental hospital being treated with various drugs to help control hallucinations, having lost two weeks of recent memory, (which coincide with the gory murders of members of a nearby cult-- whom he believes kidnapped and murdered his mother right after his birth). As if that's not enough to wrap your head around, along with hallucinations of "faceless" men, he sees other things, hears voices and believes there is a massive conspiracy and a Plan that has something to do with him and is very dangerous.

As the story moves along, we are just as unsure as Michael about which people and events in his life are real or imagined, and the deeper aspects of mental illness, and its treatment, are explored through his first-person present-tense narration. They psychosomatic drugs he is treated with cause uncontrollable physical reactions: his teeth click, his head bobs and his left arm involuntarily and compulsively swings. The matter-of-fact way he narrates these things makes him so relatable. Don't we all try to hold back if our body tries to shake or twitch or fidget? Wouldn't it make you frustrated if you couldn't control your own body? I feel like I totally understand this, even though I don't have anything in my life quite like what Michael has. Which brings me to my next point:

Dan Wells is very good at planting readers right into the minds of his protagonists, and not only do you become deeply sympathetic to them, but his compassionate and honest storytelling make you love them. In his John Cleaver books, the protagonist is a sociopath, and I quickly found myself caring about, sympathizing with and, on some level, really understanding him-- his motivations, his feelings (and lack thereof) and how his mind worked. I connected with a sociopath, causing some pondering about how my own brain is wired. I love a book that makes me think, without overwhelming my puny brain.

In "The Hollow City", Dan has done the same thing with the schizophrenic patient. The story is so well written that as the reader experiences Michael's story, we feel his fear, love, hate, anger, frustration, confusion, sadness, and sometimes clarity right along with him. I've never known much about schizophrenia beyond the fact that people with it generally hear voices and hallucinate. I feel like I have a little more sympathy and a tiny bit more understanding of the disease now, and imagine that- gained from a work of fiction. As he said at the book signing,  (and I'm paraphrasing from my faulty memory, forgive me if I get it wrong) Dan didn't want to "demonize" or "canonize" mental illness, as so many fictional stories do. He wanted to make it real and relatable. He did just that.

The story is very good, the resolution satisfying and exciting, and the very last scene is AWESOME! I said it before, I think Dan Wells is a serious smarty-pants. I can't wait to see what he does next.

I blew through this book in about a day and a half (and had I not a full-time job, it would have only been a matter of hours); now what the heck should I read next? Suggestions?

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Amazing Amazing Spider-Man

Yesterday, to escape the heat and boredom, Kriss and I went to see "The Amazing Spider-Man", along with many, many other people. In fact, I think the matinee we attended was completely sold out. I'm very thankful for online ticketed seating at the Megaplex. One day I should write up a comparison of various local theaters' pros and cons. The Megaplex has many good things going for it, but I was disappointed once again, to have ads pop up after the coming-soon trailers. Oh well.

I went into this movie with pretty high expectations. My three teenage sons saw it the day before and came home raving about it, so I knew it would at least be good, if not great. I also read a couple of reviews online that prepared me for a very enjoyable afternoon at the movies. I was not disappointed.

Andrew Garfield is Spiderman. He's so good, I feel sorry for Toby McGuire. The inevitable comparisons won't come out in Toby's favor, and I'm sure he gave it his all, but Garfield is just better. Maybe some of that has to do with the writing, as well as directing, but Garfield has a more accurate look, more believable emotion, and at 29, he may be too old to be playing a teenager, but he is built small enough to pull it off, especially since he seems to remember very well what it feels like to be the sulky, moody, funny, goofy teenage boy. There were moments in the movie when he reminded me so much of my two older sons, who are close to the age Peter Parker is in this movie. He's cute, he's funny, he's brave and stupid and emotional and angry and resistant to anyone's help or comfort-- just like a teenage boy. It was very believable. I forgot I was watching Andrew Garfield, which is the hallmark of great acting. I loved seeing Spidey in full costume, talking on his cell phone and carrying a backpack-- excellent, subtle visual tidbits that enhance the realism of the story.

Emma Stone as Gwen Stacey does a fine job, she has an onscreen radiance, and she's cute in a normal girl kind of way. I think, though, that they overdid the short skirt and long socks look, personally. Whoever designed her costumes must have thought she was a very fashionable nerd-girl, which was a tad distracting. I doubt she could wear something bearing any of her legs in the laboratory atmosphere of Oscorp (where the character works) in the real world-- even with the lab coat. She is very good, though, and their chemistry works. And she's much better than Kirsten Dunst was as Mary Jane in the first three movies. (I apologize for continually bringing those up, but it's hard not to...)

I loved Dennis Leary as Gwen's father and the police captain, too. He's always solid. And The Lizard is a great "first" nemesis for Spidey, and I appreciated that the bulk of the film was spent with Peter's story, and the fights and drama with The Lizard neither took too long nor took over the movie.

The best scene stealing moment had to be Stan Lee's cameo-- easily the best one he's ever done. I laughed aloud, and normally I roll my eyes a bit when he does his thing. Hilarious and underplayed. I would be remiss if I didn't mention how perfect Martin Sheen was as Uncle Ben and Sally Field is always good, and her Aunt Mae was loving, stern and spot-on. I enjoyed C. Thomas Howell in a bit part, as well.

The special effects are truly AMAZING! I got lost in the movie as much because of the seamless CGI as for the story and acting. It really is nothing short of astounding that movies have come this far in just 10 years since the release of the first "Spider-Man"

It's a very clean film, which is great-- it makes it so much more accessible to people with standards. There's some kissing, and Garfield has his shirt off here and there, but it isn't gratuitous or sexual. There's no language and even the violence is comic-book style and at a level such that I think even my 10-year-old daughter could see the movie. (Not that that should set the standard for other parents, but in my mind, it's all good, clean fun.) It may feel too soon for this "reboot", but I'm glad the filmmakers didn't listen to detractors, and went ahead with the project. It's well worth your summer spending money to go check it out.

For some really fantastic photos from both the set and the film, as well as some of the publicity stuff, click this link to go to a blog with a whole bunch all in one place. Enjoy!

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Dan Wells Book Signing

As I get closer to 40, I'm trying to come out of my little cocoon of social anxiety and start doing things I don't normally do. This morning in a meeting with my boss, I asked him if he'd ever been to a book signing and in the ensuing conversation (he hadn't) mentioned that there was one tonight that I really wanted to go to celebrating the release of Dan Wells' new book, but because lately time off has become a rarity (the library is a circus from June-August) I hadn't asked. Also, because there was this little part of me that thought it might just chicken out and not go. He said, "Oh you should go. You can get off early, how does 6:30 sound?" Um... well... oookayy... I agreed, excited and trepedatious (5 point word, kids) and scrambling to find someone to go with me. (And by the way, I think I have the coolest boss EVER... just sayin'.)

First, I called my dad (the formerly famous film critic) and asked him what a book signing was like, since he's attended them on both sides of the table. He gave me the basics and said he would have gone with me had he known sooner. Dang. Then I called my sister, who is also a Dan Wells fan, but she also couldn't go. Husband? Meh... he would have gone, but I would have had to a. find a sitter for youngest child because her brothers would be at a service project and b. make him miss said service project, which he was supposed to attend. So I let him off the hook and figured I could count on my second son-- he's a reader, I thought, and he'd probably rather go with me for a couple of hours than move dirt with a shovel. No go. Stinker. I asked my friend Dannie. Nope. I called my friend Becky, with just minutes until I would be leaving, and though she's normally game for spontaneous fun (especially social time), she couldn't come either. 

What's a social-anxiety-prone girl to do?

So I ran out to my car, changed my clothes (yep, in the minivan. I'm tricky like that) and raced to Trolley Square. Every light from Tooele to Lakepoint was out. Super. Still, I made pretty good time and got there only about 15 minutes late.

Something you may or may not know about me: I loathe being late. It makes me so tense I can't stand it. So of course, I parked, left my van and went the wrong way, looking for Weller Book Works. It took me about 5 minutes to find a map and face the right direction and find the shop. Thankfully, Dan hadn't started his bit. In fact, I don't think I missed anything all that important. I'm so glad they had a guest from Wasatch Paranormal presenting first. Though, since Wells' new book isn't about ghosts, I'm not sure what the relationship was... maybe I missed that in the introduction portion of the evening, but I was happy to have not missed Dan's book reading. And while the guy was talking, my stomach flipped as I looked across the room and saw another of my very favorite authors, Brandon Sanderson, walk in! I knew he was going to be there, but it was so cool to see him in person. I'm not a crazy-stalker-fangirl, I just really like his writing. 

I took a seat (at the back, of course, luckily next to a display of the new book: "The Hollow City"), snatched one and settled in to listen. Once the paranormal guy was through, Dan took the floor, told us about the book, setting up the scene he would be reading. Only he didn't just read, he and a pair of actors (I assume) did sort of a readers theater of the scene. The scene was entertaining and interesting and did its job: made me want to read the book! These are my not-very-good pictures of Dan and Mary (?) during the reading:

After some Q&A, Dan invited us to have a treat and then line up to have our books signed (I so should have taken a picture of the goodies table... dangit.) They had donuts with bacon on top, peach rings (a reference to something in the book) and little cups with candy "pills" in them (the book is partly about mental illness). The bookstore man stood up and told us to purchase our books up front, then line up for autographs. I cheated a little. I took my un-paid-for book and zipped straight to the signatures line, shimmying in behind a rather large man. I've always been very good at getting to the front of the line fast-- partly because I'm not patient, and though socially anxious, I know how to be assertive (or aggressive) when called for. I was third in line. THIRD!! Yahoo! 

Being close to the front made me feel better about bringing all 4 of Dan's books I already owned, as well as the not-yet-paid-for new one to the table. I asked him to personalize them to Stephanie and he asked if I was the Tooele blogger. Gah! So cool that he's able to remember stuff like that! I was tickled, and we chatted a little as he signed my books- his notes are all funny (I know, he probably does the same phrases in all the books, but I love what he wrote), see the pictures. Then I shook his hand and walked away. Unlike the first guy in line who tried to have a long-ish conversation with him. Authors must both look forward to and dread book signings. :)

I made a beeline for the registers, paid for my book and turned around to see Brandon Sanderson behind me talking with some lady. I waited, trying not to hover, for them to wrap it up so I could meet him quickly before I left, but it was taking too long, so I turned and looked straight at him so he would know I was waiting to chat with him. He stopped talking and glanced at me, like, "yes?" so I said I just needed to shake his hand before I left and that I was a fan and would he be doing a big thing at Weller's for the last WOT book? He said probably, but even sooner, this fall, he'll be releasing a novella and would likely have an event. Yesss!! So excited about that... so I walked away and they resumed their conversation. I felt kind of bad about interrupting, but I like to get in, get done and get out, so I didn't really want to linger. 

I really wanted to have a photo of myself with both of the authors, but I chickened out. Maybe next time. :)

To wrap up this very long blog entry (thanks for sticking with me):

  1. I faced my social anxiety and my habitual homebodiness and did something I've never done before tonight. Alone. Yes. I feel good about that.
  2. I met and shook hands with two of my top 5 favorite authors. Not sure when I will have that chance again. I do wish I had gone to the Utah Writers conference with my friend Laura earlier this year, as both guys did workshops there, but this is almost as good. :)
  3. I made it home before dark, and had such a good time, I think I would do something like this again. 
Now, it's time to settle in and start "The Hollow City". If you're interested, here is my book review to the first Dan Wells book I ever read, which I randomly chose off the library shelf, about a year ago. If you haven't heard of him or read his stuff, I highly recommend you start  there. Or with "The Hollow City", which is unrelated to his other books and stands alone.

Oh, and one more thing. If you happen to be interested, here's Dan Wells' schedule for the remainder of his book tour. He's very nice and personable and you'd better meet him while you can, because he's moving to Germany when the tour is over. 

Monday, July 2, 2012

Book Review: Partials by Dan Wells

Dystopian fiction for teens has become so popular, it seems like everything now that doesn't have vampires or werewolves in it is set in a dystopian future. Dystopia is defined here as:

 DYSTOPIA (dystopic)An imagined universe (usually the future of our own world) in which a worst-case scenario is explored; the opposite of utopia. Dystopic stories have been especially influential on postmodernism, as writers and film-makers imagine the effects of various aspects of our current postmodern condition, for example, the world's take-over by machines (The Matrix); the social effects of the hyperreal (Neuromancer); a society completely run by media commercialism (The Running Man); the triumph of late capitalism (Blade Runner); bureaucratic control run amok (Brazil, 1984); and so on. 

Obvious examples include Suzanne Collins' wildly popular "Hunger Games" and the first dystopian series I remember reading, "The Shadow Children" by Margaret Peterson Haddix. Set in a future world where people are only allowed to have two children, the books are the story of secret third children. Other notable titles are "House of the Scorpion" by Nancy Farmer (a superb book, I don't want to tell you about it-- it's one you should just discover as you go. and "The Giver" by Lois Lowry, a disturbing story of a future where people are given community assignments and one young boy is assigned to apprentice with the community's Giver, who alone feels all the pain and joy of life. I'm sure there are many more.
Tonight I finished first in a new dystopian series cryptically titled "Partials"by Dan Wells. Wells is a genius at taking something popular and putting his unique stamp on it, twisting familiar themes (murder, mystery, etc.) into something completely unique. I'm a huge fan of his John Cleaver books, "I am Not a Serial Killer", "I Don't Want to Kill You" and "Mr. Monster", which are about a 14-year old boy who assists his mother in her morgue and is obsessed with serial killers. Recognizing his own sociopathic personality traits, he creates a rigid set of rules for himself to avoid ever actually becoming a killer. When people in town start dying, naturally he can't stop himself from investigating. There's mystery, science fiction and genuine characterization in these books that drew me in immediately. I like them better every time I go back and read them again. They have been compared to the "Dexter" series, but are so much better executed and unique that they stand out on their own.

Not sure what to expect from a Dan Wells YA title, though the cover is compelling and the title gives away very little (like a good movie trailer), I picked up "Partials" and started out. I admit, I was a little nervous. I don't like to read a lot of what's trendy, and since dystopian fiction is everywhere, I hesitated with this one. Also, I haven't read a lot of crossover authors and enjoyed both their adult and YA books. I really wanted to like it, and I was afraid I might not. Silly librarian. 

I haven't been doing as much reading lately as I used to (a serious repercussion of working at a library-- go figure) so I took a little time getting into the story, but once it gets going it is compelling and exciting and the characters are each unique and likeable. I don't want to spoil anything here, so I don't dare say too much. There was one twist-type-thing that I guessed right away (surprisingly-- usually I'm way off), and I was glad to see that Dan isn't afraid to kill off characters (that's not a spoiler, is it?); the death of characters (like my beloved Agent Colson in The Avengers- boo hoo!! Oh... if you haven't seen that movie, sorry for the spoiler AND what-- are you living in a cave? Get out more, people!!) can lend a feeling of authenticity to a story, where everyone always surviving becomes increasingly unrealistic as a story progresses. The  book is also intelligent-- methinks Dan's a smarty-pants. Sometimes I had to go back and skim over a previously read paragraph to make sure I was getting all the medical and sciency stuff. 

I did like the book, I will read the next in the series when it comes out, but I have to say it's not as good as the John Cleaver stuff. Though it really isn't fair to compare them, one being blood-and-guts-for-grownups and one being dystopian-future-for-teens. 

On a related note, I am heartbroken that I won't be going to Dan's big huzzah-huzzah book signing tomorrow night at Sam Weller's books in SLC for the release of his new novel, "The Hollow City", which sounds like a psychological thrill ride, and I can't wait to get my hands on it. I will be working. Yep. The evening before the 4th of July, I will be at my post at the library, a mere 25 minutes away, probably bored out of my mind and frustrated that I won't get to met Dan (and maybe Brandon Sanderson, be still my WOT-fan heart) and get my books signed (or as Dan cleverly puts it, "defaced"). 

If I can finagle it, I will go down to Orem for the signing at Barnes & Noble on July 23rd, but it isn't looking good. For one thing, crowds make me nervous; new experiences make me nervous (and I've never been to a book signing. As my sister eloquently put it-- "will it be full of weirdos?" And what about the book? Do I pre-order it? Do I buy one and bring it with me? Will he think I'm a crazy fan-middle-aged-girl if I bring my sack of already purchased Dan Wells books? Will there be a massive line?? Should I go early?); driving to Utah County makes me nervous (I've lived in Tooele County for 15 years-- I'm spoiled on roads that don't feel like I'm playing the live-action version of Burnout With Road Construction); parking in crowded places makes me nervous; but I digress. 

If you're already a fan of dystopian fiction at all, and even if you're not, you will probably like "Partials". The story is compelling and the end is very satisfying, while leaving the reader intrigued about where the characters will go next. Check it out!