The Book Stops Here

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On the heels of a couple rough deadlines, I’m popping in briefly to deliver the grim news that the TBR Triple Dog Dare was a complete bust for me this year. Not only did I not finish the multitude of books in my TBR pile, but I’ve only finished four books so far in 2014! Bad reader no biscuit.

TDD

Of course, I saw far more movies than I usually do in March, but still, I am way behind on my New Year’s resolutions, which mostly had to do with reading. I think I’ve turned the corner in terms of my schedule, but one never knows. However, I am on the verge of finishing a bunch of titles and am bound and determined to complete my Goodreads reading challenge (66 books) this year. And, of course, there is War and Peace looming in the distance as well.

Here’s hoping that by the time “The (Half) Year in Books” rolls around, I’ll actually have something to say!

Holy Bechdel, Batman!

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Today you will take a test that will help you discover who you truly are. The future belongs to those who know where they belong.

I’m not a big fan of the Bechdel test, but it can be a useful tool in reminding oneself how far (or not) women have come in the world. Or at least in the world of Hollywood.

If you are not familiar with it, the rules of the Bechdel Test are simple. To “pass” the test, a movie has to have:
1) at least two women in it, who
2) talk to each other, about
3) something besides a man

Sadly, very few Hollywood films pass this basic test. According to Vocativ, of the fifty highest-grossing films in 2013, a year where the biggest box-office hit of the year was The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, only 36 percent passed the Bechdel test.

However, maybe there’s hope. In venturing out to the movies this March, I found myself inundated with kick-ass female characters. A fitting tribute to Women’s History Month I suppose. In any case, a big thank you to both the cinéphile and film critic in my life, who managed to get me out to the theaters four times already this month, which is pretty much unheard of for me outside of Oscar season.

New BFFs Zoë Kravitz and Shailene Woodley are dauntless in  Divergent.

New BFFs Zoë Kravitz and Shailene Woodley are dauntless in Divergent.

Divergent

Divergent passes Bechdel with flying colors. It was also my favorite of the films in this post. And, lest you think my love of The Hunger Games series means I’m some kind of Divergent fan girl, I actually hadn’t read these books before seeing the movie.

I was a bit worried at the start because, frankly, I found the underlying premise of this post-apocalyptic world and the five factions (Amity, Erudite, Candor, Dauntless, and Abnegation) ridiculous, but, after the initial set-up, I got really into it. The script is rather clunky, but luckily much of the film is just one long training montage, and who doesn’t love a good training montage? Crazy people, that’s who. [Side note: Is there any doubt I would be Candor? I think not.]

Overall, I liked the look of the film and thought the cast was quite strong. Shailene Woodley is not as convincing an action heroine as Jennifer Lawrence, but she sells the romance a heck of a lot better. As does Theo James. I really found Zoë Kravitz appealing as “new best friend” Christina, although maybe that’s because she was Candor. Bonus props to the filmmakers for their diverse casting. For more on the subject of race and typecasting, I suggest reading this interview with Mekhi Phifer and Maggie Q, who popped in briefly to introduce the film at the screening I attended. I’m glad I enjoyed the movie, since we waited over an hour for them to arrive.

Veronica Mars

I was really looking forward to Veronica Mars. And, while I thoroughly enjoyed it, I think it’s pretty much one for the fans. You’ll love it if you liked the show (and I highly recommend having watched it recently to get all the callbacks to the series), but it’s more of an extended episode of TV than anything else. Of course, it’s always nice to see a female lead with smarts and moxie on the big screen and this film had no problem passing the Bechdel bar: It does so during the opening scene, which shows Veronica being interviewed for a position at a prestigious New York law firm by none other than Jamie Lee Curtis.

Muppets Most Wanted

Amidst this dystopian, pseudo-noir fare, you might think that the family-friendly musical starring the beloved Muppets would stand out for its progressive values. You would be wrong. Instead, Muppets Most Wanted fails Bechdel spectacularly and is by far the least feminist film on this list. Given what comes next, that’s really saying something. While certainly enjoyable (I especially loved the Busby Berkeley-esque opening number), the one prominent female character (besides Miss Piggy) is a sad-sack officer in a Russian gulag who inexplicably moons after Kermit. And a major plot point is how Kermit can’t commit. Seriously? If that weren’t bad enough, I’d be surprised if even a quarter of the cameos were women. What the hell? Get it together, Muppets, and enter the twenty-first century.

300: Rise of an Empire

While there are so many things you are probably asking yourself upon seeing this film listed here, I will only say that I went unwillingly, but I’m awfully glad I did. It’s true that 300: Rise of an Empire doesn’t come close to passing the Bechdel test (although it does have two female characters, Artemisia and Queen Gorgo, they do not speak to each other), but I would argue that it passes in spirit, like Gravity, in that the female lead makes the film. I could not take my eyes off Artemisia, played by Eva Green—both her attitude and her costumes were a glory to behold. The fact that she was based on an actual historical figure, Artemisia I of Caria, one-time commander of the Persian navy? Priceless. It’s quite gory, but any movie that makes you pull down your Herodotus upon returning home can’t be all bad, can it? [Feminist bonus: the men are dressed far more scantily than the women.]

Bow down, peasants, it's Artemisia, commander of the Persian f*cking navy.

Bow down, peasants, it’s the commander of the Persian f*cking navy.

Orange Is the New Book

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As I said in my Year in Stuff post at the end of last year, I’ve found the Women’s Prize for Fiction to be a great source for book recommendations, with the past two winners (The Song of Achilles and May We Be Forgiven) being two of my favorite reads of recent years.

One of the most prestigious literary awards in the world, the Women’s Prize for Fiction, previously known as the Orange Prize and currently called the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction (as part of a three-year partnership), “celebrates excellence, originality, and accessibility in women’s writing from throughout the world.”

The longlist was announced in London today, and includes these twenty titles:
Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigerian)
Maddaddam, Margaret Atwood (Canadian)
The Dogs of Littlefield, Suzanne Berne (American)
The Shadow of the Crescent Moon, Fatima Bhutto (Pakistani)
The Bear, Claire Cameron (Canadian)
Eleven Days, Lea Carpenter (American)
The Strangler Vine, M.J. Carter (British)
The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton (New Zealand/Canadian)
Reasons She Goes to the Woods, Deborah Kay Davies (British)
The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert (American)
Burial Rites, Hannah Kent (Australian)
The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner (American)
The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri (Indian/American)
The Undertaking, Audrey Magee (Irish)
A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, Eimear McBride (Irish)
Almost English, Charlotte Mendelson (British)
Still Life With Bread Crumbs, Anna Quindlen (American)
The Burgess Boys, Elizabeth Strout (American)
The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt (American)
All the Birds, Singing, Evie Wyld (British)

The shortlist will be announced on April 7 and the winner on June 4.

Probably highest on my list to check out is Burial Rites by Hannah Kent, which I’ve had my eye on for some time as it takes place in Iceland, one of my dream destinations. Luckily, this one should come off of library hold just about the time my TBR Triple Dog Dare challenge is over. Perfect.

burial-rites

I’m also very interested in All the Birds, Singing and Americanah, both of which I’ve heard fabulous things about, as well as The Goldfinch, which I haven’t quite decided about yet. I will almost certainly read Atwood’s Maddaddam eventually, but I need to read The Year of the Flood (the second volume in the trilogy) first. Finally, I did try to read The Luminaries at the end of last year, but I just couldn’t get into it.

Have you read anything on this list? Are you looking forward to any of these titles in particular?

Oscar Blitz: Wish List

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And the Oscar goes to…

gravity poster

You may be wondering why I haven’t been doing my traditional Oscar Blitz posts. One reason is that I’ve been busy with work, but the main one is that, having seen six of the nine films nominated for Best Picture (American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, Gravity, Her, and 12 Years a Slave), I’m fairly uninspired by this crop of movies.

Gravity was an incredible theater experience, and 12 Years a Slave is certainly an important film, but I’m not sure I’d call either a “great” film. Of course, the Oscars often aren’t about great films, so I suppose this is nothing new. However, this year, I did see a number of films that weren’t nominated for anything but that I’d recommend over most of the films below. I will be posting about them later in the year.

With that said, and based on what I’ve seen (the only movie listed below that I have not seen is Nebraska), here is what or who I would like to see win tonight, in order of preference within each category.

Best Picture
Gravity
12 Years a Slave
Her

Directing
Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity)
Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave)
Alexander Payne (Nebraska)

Adapted Screenplay
Before Midnight
12 Years a Slave
Captain Phillips

Original Screenplay
Her
Dallas Buyers Club
American Hustle

Actor in a Leading Role
Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave)
Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)
Bruce Dern (Nebraska)

Actor in a Supporting Role
Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips)
Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club)
Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave)

Actress in a Leading Role
Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)
Sandra Bullock (Gravity)
Amy Adams (American Hustle)

Actress in a Supporting Role
Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave)
Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine)
Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle)

Cinematography
Roger A. Deakins (Prisoners)
Bruno Delbonnel (Inside Llewyn Davis)
Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity)

Film Editing
Gravity
Captain Phillips
12 Years a Slave

Costume Design
The Great Gatsby
12 Years a Slave
American Hustle

Production Design
Her
The Great Gatsby
12 Years a Slave

Sound Editing
All Is Lost
Gravity
Captain Phillips

Sound Mixing
Inside Llewyn Davis
Gravity
Captain Phillips

Visual Effects
Gravity

Documentary Feature
The Square
20 Feet from Stardom
The Act of Killing

Animated Short Film
Mr. Hublot
Get a Horse!
Feral

Live Action Short Film
Avant Que De Tout Perdre (Just Before Losing Everything)
Aquel No Era Yo (That Wasn’t Me)
The Voorman Problem

Oscar Statues

Who would you like to see take home one of these golden boys?

Oscar Blitz: Short Changed

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For the fifth year in a row, I’ve been able to make the live-action and animated short film nominees part of my Oscar blitz. This year, I’ve been so busy, they were actually the first categories I filled on my Oscar scorecard.Oscar Blitz 3: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Both sets of five nominated films, as well as the documentary shorts, play at theaters around the country and I highly encourage you to seek them out. You can see where to find them here.

While in the past, this outing (usually with La Maratonista) has been one of the highlights of my Oscar Blitz, as you may have guessed from the title of this post, the collections were less than impressive this year.

In the live-action program, the two I preferred are Aquel No Era Yo (That Wasn’t Me), a Spanish film about the kidnapping of two aid workers in Sierra Leone, and Avant Que De Tout Perdre (Just Before Losing Everything), a French film about a woman and her two children on the day they leave her abusive husband. The husband is played by Denis Menochet, best known for playing the farmer in the opening of Quentin Tarentino’s Inglourious Basterds.

Boy soldiers capture two Spaniards and their guide in Aquel No Era Yo.

Boy soldiers capture two Spaniards and their guide in Aquel No Era Yo.

The Voorman Problem, starring Martin Freeman and Tom Hollander, is a fascinating concept with great potential, but just didn’t seem complete to me. Finally, as often seems to happen, the two oddest entries are from Nordic countries: Helium (Denmark) and Pitääkö Mun Kaikki Hoitaa? (Do I Have To Take Care Of Everything?) (Finland). The latter, about a wife and mother who tries to get her family to the church on time for a wedding, was hilarious, but extremely short.

Martin Freeman stars as a skeptical lawyer in The Voorman Problem.

Martin Freeman stars as a skeptical lawyer in The Voorman Problem.

I don’t have a particularly good track record on picking winners in this category, and this year I wouldn’t even attempt to guess, although The Voorman Problem may have an edge simply because of the popularity of its two leads. In general, I have a better track record with the animated shorts (my favorite has almost always won this category), but I really didn’t like any of the nominees this year.

Once again, Magic Light Pictures, who brought us The Gruffalo and The Gruffalo’s Child, deliver a beautifully animated but fairly long and boring children’s story (Room on the Broom, the story of a witch and her animals, the plot of which is entirely obvious after about five minutes). Walt Disney Studios, who won the Oscar last year with the delightful Paperman, play with old-school and new-school animation to great effect in Get a Horse! Not really a fan of the original Mickey Mouse shorts, I could only appreciate this from a technical standpoint, especially since it called to mind The Purple Rose of Cairo—and do you really want to be reminded of Woody Allen right now? I don’t.

Peg-Leg Pete looks out of the screen at Mickey Mouse in Get a Horse!

Peg-Leg Pete looks out of the screen at Mickey Mouse in Get a Horse!

The other three shorts all had interesting elements, but none completely won me over. Feral, about a hunter who finds (and tries to civilize) a wild boy living among wolves, was probably the most avant-garde, both in its look and story. Possessions, a Japanese film about a warrior who takes shelter in a haunted temple during a rainstorm, had some gorgeous bits, but was ultimately too scattered in its storytelling. Finally, Mr. Hublot, which of these three probably has the best shot at the title, was a cute, quirky Delicatessen sort of film.

Mr. Hublot’s post-apocalyptic steampunk world is a feast for the eyes.

Mr. Hublot’s post-apocalyptic steampunk world is a feast for the eyes.

Even if this wasn’t the best collection, I highly encourage you to support these films by viewing them in a theater near you or purchasing them on iTunes.

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