Tag Archives: Katie Recommends

Katie Recommends: Orphan Black

You all know how obsessed I am with award shows. So when, among the Emmy talk, I heard in many places that an actress named Tatiana Maslany had been robbed of a nomination for her work on a sci-fi show called Orphan Black, I decided to check it out. This past weekend, I watched all ten episodes of Season 1 on On Demand.


And I discovered that those people were wrong. Tatiana Maslany does not deserve an Emmy nomination. She deserves at least six Emmy nominations. You see, she doesn’t just play one character- she plays several clones, and she does so extraordinarily well.


Let’s start from the beginning. In the pilot, Sarah Manning, a British-Canadian small-time crook who grew up in foster care, sees a woman in a train station who looks just like her. Seconds later, the woman has committed suicide by jumping in front of a train. Sarah wastes no time in snatching the woman’s purse. She discovers that the woman, Beth Childs, was a cop with $75,000 in the bank. Seeing an opportunity to start over with the young daughter from whom she’s been estranged, Sarah decides to impersonate Beth to get the money.

But things quickly get complicated when Sarah realizes that Beth isn’t the her only lookalike. There’s a German woman who’s shot to death soon after Sarah meets her. There’s an uptight soccer mom named Allison and a dreadlocked science geek named Cosima. There are others who have also turned up dead- and there’s one who might be a killer.

All of these women, of course, are clones. They’re unwilling participants in a science experiment, and now someone is killing them off. And I can’t say much more without giving too much away!

Tatiana Maslany. Seriously, I can’t say enough good things about her on this show. The clones are all distinguished by hairdos and clothes, but she gives them all distinct mannerisms and speech patterns that make them impossible to confuse. She also makes layered characters out of people who could easily just be “types.” I found myself forgetting that the same actress plays so many characters. There are even some points when the clones impersonate each other and you find yourself thinking, “Who’d ever buy that Allison is Sarah?…Oh, wait, they’re actually played by the same person.”

Sarah is the clone we get to know first, and there turns out to be a lot more to her than initially meets the eye. We first see her stealing Beth’s purse seconds after Beth’s gruesome suicide, but she becomes more and more interesting as we learn about her childhood as an orphan in foster care, her love for and struggle to reconnect with the daughter who’s being raised by the same foster mother Sarah grew up with, and her past with an abusive ex-boyfriend. But the clones aren’t the only characters to watch. My favorite non-clone is Sarah’s snarky but loyal foster brother Felix, who serves as her confidant and often lends a hand when she needs help with a crazy situation she’s found herself in.

It’s a drama, obviously- did I mention someone is trying to kill them?- but it can also be very funny. Allison, the kind of suburban mother who hosts weekly neighborhood potlucks and has a whole room for her crafts, can be hilarious when her prim facade starts to crack. And one kind of interesting thing is that people never need much time to adjust to the news about the clones- which, while it might not be the most realistic reaction, means that not a lot of time is wasted on exposition.

The funny thing is that aside from The X-Files, I’m not into sci-fi at all. But this show rocks, and you have plenty of time to get caught up before Season 2 premieres on BBC America in the spring!

Katie Recommends: The Lizzie Bennet Diaries

Jane Austen, 200 years after the publication of Pride and Prejudice, is still everywhere in popular culture. Even though her books are all set in a time and place that we can only imagine, the characters are people we can recognize in our own worlds, and the emotions and romances in them are timeless.

Clueless did a modern retelling of Emma, and now The Lizzie Bennet Diaries is doing the same thing with Pride and Prejudice—but in a much more interesting way. It’s a web series consisting of several three- to seven-minute YouTube videos, purportedly the video diaries of Lizzie, in this version a twenty-four-year-old grad student studying mass communications. This Lizzie, wonderfully played by Ashley Clements, lives somewhere in California with her family: her Southern-accented mother, who like the Mrs. Bennet of P&P is desperate to see her daughters married with babies; her laconic father; her older sister Jane, an unfailingly sweet fashion merchandizer; and her younger sister Lydia, the twenty-year-old wild child of the family. (Mary, in this version, is their cousin, and Kitty is literally a kitty.) Lizzie’s best friend Charlotte edits her videos for her and sometimes appears on camera. (Side note: for awhile the commercial at the beginning of every video was that stupid Pepsi commercial with Sofia Vergara at a wedding. That commercial doesn’t even make sense! Did she crash a wedding just to get Pepsi? She didn’t have an easier way of getting some soda?)

Here’s the first episode:

Plot-wise, the story stays pretty true to the plot of Pride and Prejudice. Lizzie meets Darcy at a wedding and takes an instant dislike to him, while Jane meets the equivalent of Mr. Bingley, here a med student named “Bing Lee.” Some conversations unfold in front of the camera, but a lot of others are reenacted with costume theater. Lizzie’s parents and, later, Catherine de Bourgh (who is here a venture capitalist who has invested in Mr. Collins’s digital media company) never appear on camera and are hilariously portrayed by Lizzie with token costumes. Lizzie also imitates other characters from the show, and Ashley Clements is pretty brilliant at it. The most recent episode (#96) has a lot of impressions in it (but don’t watch it out of order—you won’t appreciate her imitations if you haven’t seen the rest of the show!).  Darcy, in fact, doesn’t appear on camera until 60 episodes in, but prior to that, we see plenty of conversations with him through Lizzie’s reenactments—where, of course, her titular prejudice takes over. But after he does appear on camera (and, spoiler alert, is quite attractive), we see Lizzie start to fall in love with him in spite of herself.

Once the show got going, the producers started a few spinoffs. Lydia, played by the very talented Mary Kate Wiles, starts her own vlogs. Lydia is pretty unlikeable in P&P, but here she is hilarious. Those vlogs eventually take a dark turn as the modern equivalent of the Wickham scandal looms, and we see Lydia, who’d been an energetic little firecracker for the whole series, reveal her insecurities. (Wickham, in this version, is a swim coach with killer abs.) There are also videos with Charlotte’s sister Maria documenting her internship at Mr. Collins’s company as well as a series with Darcy’s sister Gigi demonstrating a product called Domino from Darcy’s company, Pemberley Digital. All of these spinoffs play into the overall plot, and you can follow the whole story in order here.

And aside from that, this show is really a transmedia triumph. The characters all have Twitter accounts and talk to each other there (you can check this list to follow all of the characters in the LBD universe) as well as Tumblr pages, and Jane is on Pinterest. And recently, Gigi Darcy did this in-character interview with Leaky News.

There are a lot of awesome moments throughout the series. In Episode 69, Lizzie takes a break and Lydia and Jane take over. Lydia giggles hysterically over “69,” while Jane, uncharacteristically, does a spot-on impression of Lydia…and then immediately apologizes. In Episode 83, Lizzie and Darcy flirt and Lizzie manages to convince him to participate in some costume theater, with really entertaining results. But like I said, watch the whole thing in order!

The Lizzie Bennet Diaries is unfortunately ending in two weeks with their 100thepisode (well, 100th of the main show, not counting the spinoffs), so you’ll have to do a lot of catching up if you haven’t seen it yet. But if you like Pride and Prejudice, you absolutely should.

Katie Recommends: Hymnal for Dirty Girls

So my friend Rebekah Matthews is kind of a big deal. And not just because she overanalyzes TV more than I do, is a mom to two adorable cats (including this one-eyed YouTube star), and sits next to me at work, which means she hears me swearing at my computer under my breath a lot. She’s also a ridiculously talented writer who has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and made Wigleaf Magazine’s list of Top 50 (Very) Short Fictions TWICE this year. Don’t believe me? Read a few of her published short stories here, here, and here, and tell me she’s not awesome.

So, you liked what you read? You’re in luck, because Rebekah’s first short story collection, Hymnal for Dirty Girls, was just published by Big Rodent. I got my copy in the mail today and it completely made my day!

Those three stories are in it along with one about a Mormon fashion blogger, one about the things teenage girls confess to each other, and one that awesomely begins, “Someone keeps leaving used condoms outside my apartment.” You can order the book here, and you definitely should!

Katie Recommends: YA Edition

So, now that I’ve ranted about people who get snobby about YA lit, it’s time to recommend some of those books I love so much. Some of these are more middle-grade than YA, but whatever the label, they’re high quality books that you might have fond memories of reading as a kid—or, if you haven’t read them yet, you might enjoy reading as an adult.

The Book Thief by Markus Zuzak

I first read this book about five years ago. Warning: do not read it on public transportation. I started crying on the T when I finished it.

Anyway, it takes place in Nazi Germany, and it is narrated by Death himself. Death is not a villain, just a benign force with a job to do. It tells the story of Liesel, a foster child who has lost her brother and been abandoned by her parents. The family she lives with is hiding a Jewish man in the basement, and as the war goes on and life becomes more and more chaotic, Liesel finds comfort by stealing books wherever she can find them to read and share with others. It’s a wonderful book—sad, but absolutely beautifully written.

I Am the Messenger by Markus Zuzak

This isn’t as heavy as The Book Thief, but just as deep. Ed Kennedy is a nineteen-year-old cabbie and kind of a loser, with little in his life to be proud of. Then one day, after he foils a bank robbery, he receives an Ace of Diamonds in the mail with a list of addresses and times. Soon he realizes that they represent tasks that he must complete. The whole idea behind the book is that people are capable of much more than they realize, and although that’s a platitude that you can tell yourselves a million times but never believe, it touched me deeply when I read it here.

The Giver by Lois Lowry

This might be the highest-concept children’s novel I’ve ever read. It creates a dystopian world devoid of color, of music, of strong emotions, and most of all, of choice. In the community where twelve-year-old Jonas lives, everything is decided by orderly process—a person’s career, spouse, number of children, and the ages at which certain milestones, such as riding a bike, are reached. But when Jonas turns twelve, he learns that he has been selected to be the Receiver of Memory and learn about the past. An old man he calls the Giver transmits memories to Jonas, and he begins to know of the joy and sorrow of the world before the only world he has ever known. Despite the heavy subject matter, it’s easy to understand and extremely thought-provoking. If you didn’t read this as a kid, believe me, you will still enjoy it now.

Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes by Chris Crutcher

Eric, a shy, overweight teenager, bonded with his best friend, Sarah Byrnes, over their shared status as outsiders. Sarah Byrnes has lived with horrific scars on her face and hands since being burned at age three. One day, Sarah Byrnes suddenly stops speaking and is placed in a hospital, and eventually Eric discovers a horrible secret that she has been hiding for years. Besides the friendship at the heart of the book, which rings very true, there are a lot of interesting subplots that add a lot to the book—Eric’s conflicts with a swimming teammate (side note: I love this book for actually portraying competitive swimming in a pretty realistic way—movies and TV never get swimming right); a class at school that causes characters to reflect on issues like abortion, suicide, and religion; romantic possibilities for both Eric and his single mother. Although it certainly has flaws, not the least of which is the implausibility of Eric not guessing Sarah Byrnes’s secret earlier, this book has stayed in my thoughts for so long because its characters are so memorable, and even most of the characters who start off unlikeable have moments of redemption. Ms. Lemry, Eric’s compassionate teacher and swim coach, was one who especially stuck with me.

Looking for Alaska by John Green

I just read this book recently and liked it a lot. The book starts “one hundred thirty-six days before” and ends “one hundred thirty-six days after.” In the “Before” section, Miles Halter leaves the high school where he’s been an outcast to attend a boarding school in Alabama. Immediately, he makes friends, including his roommate, nicknamed “the Colonel,” and a beautiful and charismatic girl named Alaska. Halfway through the book, we learn that the “before” and “after refer to Alaska’s sudden death in a car crash that may or may not have been a suicide. As Miles and the Colonel try to uncover clues to explain Alaska’s death, Miles realizes how little he really knew about the girl he’d been so infatuated with. As sad as it is, there is a lot of humor mixed in and a lot of memorable, wonderfully drawn characters.

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

I actually blogged about this book awhile ago, but it’s worth mentioning again. This is a young adult novel that begins after a teenage girl named Hannah commits suicide. The narrator, Clay, had a crush on Hannah and is devastated by her death. Then one day, he gets a package in the mail containing several audio tapes. Before her death, Hannah recorded herself explaining her state of mind before her suicide. Each side of each tape explains what one person did that played a part in her decision to end her life, and the tapes have been passed down from one person mentioned on the tapes to another, in the order that they’re mentioned. A lot of actions had unintended consequences, and Hannah herself is not innocent in that regard. It did bother me how Hannah seemed to blame her problems on so many other people and had so little regard for her parents, who weren’t the source of her problems. But this was an engrossing, thought-provoking read overall, and I like that the book acknowledges that suicidal depression isn’t always caused by one big thing, but sometimes by smaller things that add up and spiral out of control.

The Wayside School series by Louis Sachar

Okay, I feel like I’ve recommended a lot of very dark books here, so now for something lighter. These books—Sideways Stories from Wayside School, Wayside School is Falling Down, and Wayside School Gets a Little Stranger— are really for younger kids—I first read them in third grade—but I find them just as entertaining now. They’re about a wacky thirty-story-high school with one classroom on each floor—except there is no nineteenth story. The books, too, have thirty “stories.” Most stories focus on one kid in Mrs. Jewls’ class on the thirtieth story. All kinds of crazy things happen—a teacher who turns kids into apples, a talking dead rat, three strange men with an attaché case who show up at unexpected times to keep the school in order. They’re hilarious and a lot of fun to read.

 

Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech

This is the Newbery Medal winner from 1995. Thirteen-year-old Sal is traveling across America with her quirky grandparents and begins to tell them a story about her friend Phoebe. Shortly after Sal and her father moved to a new town, Sal’s new friend Phoebe’s mother disappears suddenly. Phoebe is convinced that her mother has been murdered by a young man who has been showing up at her front door, or perhaps by a neighbor who she thinks has murdered her husband. But as she tells Phoebe’s story, Sal starts reflecting on the absence of her own mother, a Native American whose personal problems led her to leave home. It’s a wonderful story—gently funny in some places, deeply sad in others.

 

Absolutely Normal Chaos by Sharon Creech

Technically, this is a prequel to Walk Two Moons, but it doesn’t matter what order you read them in. The main character in this book, Mary Lou, is a minor character in Walk Two Moons. She’s been assigned to keep a journal over the summer for school, and she ends up documenting a crazy summer. While living in a chaotic household with her parents and four siblings, she experiences everything from the unexpected death of a neighbor to conflict with a friend to a developing crush on a classmate to the arrival of a quiet and occasionally frustrating cousin to stay with them for the summer. She also reads The Odyssey and provides her own entertaining commentary as she makes her way through it. There are serious moments, but for the most part, this is a much lighter read than Walk Two Moons, with laugh-out-loud funny moments throughout.

Katie Recommends: Downton Abbey

Right before the second season premiered in the US last month, I started hearing about Downton Abbey everywhere, kind of the way Mad Men was suddenly everywhere before its second season. So I decided to check it out.

I learned my lesson about blogging about shows before the season finale—The Killing’s season finale was so bad it soured me on the whole show and I probably won’t watch Season 2. Happily, I can’t say the same of Downton Abbey, whose second season finished just as I got caught up with the show.

If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s a quick crash course. Downton Abbey is a large estate in England inhabited by Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham; his American wife Cora; their three young adult daughters, Mary, Edith, and Sybil; Robert’s mother Violet; a cute yellow Lab named Isis; and a whole army of servants. The first season starts out in the spring of 1912 as the Titanic has just sunk. Unfortunately, the heir to the estate, their cousin Patrick, is killed in the shipwreck. Patrick was unofficially engaged to the eldest daughter Mary, therefore ensuring that she would inherit the estate despite an entail prohibiting her from doing so because she is a woman. With Patrick dead, they have to track down the new heir—a distant cousin named Matthew who works as a lawyer. That would be nothing to sneeze at for most of us, but for English aristocrats one hundred years ago, even an upper middle class working man is light years away from what they’re used to.

Nevertheless, Matthew and his widowed, former nurse mother, Isobel, move onto the property at Downton. While there are some clashes initially, and while Matthew and Mary get off on the wrong foot, Matthew becomes a part of the family. Matthew and Mary eventually develop a friendship that may become more, and may save Mary from a scandal she has found herself in.

By Season 2, however, World War I has rolled around and things have changed. The old societal order seems less important, and barriers are being broken down. What it will mean when the war is over is less clear.

That was all purposely vague to avoid spoilers, but trust me, there is a LOT to love about this show. The characters, for one, are wonderfully interesting and sympathetic. Maggie Smith as Violet, the Dowager Countess of Grantham, steals every scene she’s in. She’s such a snob, but you know that she loves her family beneath it all, and she comes up with such brilliant one-liners. When a character she doesn’t like tells her that she won’t be seeing him again, she replies, “Do you promise?” When Sybil starts getting involved in politics, Mary comments that Sybil is entitled to her opinion, to which the Countess retorts, “No, she is not entitled to her opinion until she gets married, and then her husband will tell her what her opinion is!” When she and Isobel quarrel over something Isobel thinks she has done, the Countess defends herself, ending with, “Put that in your pipe and smoke it!”

Despite him being way too old for me, I have a bit of a crush on the Earl. He’s warm and gentle and very proud of his family and his estate, taking his role as caretaker of Downton Abbey seriously. He treats his family and his servants with kindness, often reserving judgment on people who have made mistakes, and despite the concern for rank that permeates the world he lives in, he wants above all for those he loves to be happy. He’s certainly not perfect—he can be stubborn and set in his ways and towards the end of Season 2 he does something that made me yell at the TV, but whenever he messes up, he immediately feels guilty and tries to right his wrong as soon as possible. He is a gentleman in every sense of the word.

It has been a long time since I have shipped a couple as much as I have shipped Matthew and Mary. Mary is terrified of what she does not know, and her decisions concerning relationships always revolve around this uncertainty. But she does love Matthew, and their scenes together are wonderfully romantic and sweet. Also, Matthew is quite attractive.

While Mary is afraid of change, the youngest daughter, Sybil, wholeheartedly embraces it. She gets involved with women’s rights in the first season, and when World War I rolls around, not content to sit idly by, she becomes a nurse to take care of wounded soldiers. In Season 2, she begins a romance widely considered taboo. She’s a beautiful, kind, wealthy young woman who could have anyone she wanted, but she is willing to give up the life she’s always known for love.

The middle daughter, Edith, is kind of a bitch but is starting to grow on me. She has a contentious relationship with her older sister Mary, and she does something so awful to Mary in Season 1 that it’s impossible to sympathize with her. But it’s easy to feel bad for her for other reasons. While Mary was engaged to Patrick, it was Edith who loved him and mourned his death the most. I think she has a bit of middle-child syndrome, and as the least attractive of the sisters, no one expects much from her. Her parents even comment at one point that she’ll probably not marry and instead take care of them in their old age.

The narrative focuses about equally on the aristocrats upstairs and the servants downstairs. The mild-mannered valet, John Bates, can’t seem to catch a break, as his past misfortunes keep coming back to haunt him. His ongoing relationship with a maid named Anna is so sweet, and you keep rooting for them despite all the obstacles they face.

There are all kinds of interesting characters among the servants, too: Carson, the professional and fiercely devoted butler; Thomas, the evil gay footman who is always causing trouble somewhere; O’Brien, the lady’s maid who is usually plotting along with Thomas; Daisy, the honest-to-a-fault and easily frightened kitchen maid; and Branson, the highly political chauffeur who strongly influences Sybil. These are just some of the servants we meet, and the personal, romantic, and family issues they all face often parallel what is going on with the family they serve.

The 1910s and 1920s are such an interesting period in history that I’m surprised there isn’t more historical fiction about that time. As the study of modernism in eleventh-grade English class taught me, it was an era where the world was changing in so many ways—women’s rights, socialism, a changing map of Europe. One theme we see gradually emerging over the course of the show is the breakdown of the traditional class structure and people looking to break out of the boxes they’ve been born into. In the first season, it’s a bit more subtle—an upper middle-class lawyer potentially inheriting a large estate, a maid dreaming of getting a job as a secretary instead—but after the war, it is visible on a larger scale. Servants try out alternate roles as many of the men go off to war, Sybil works as a nurse, Edith learns to drive a tractor in the absence of men to do that work, and romances that once seemed forbidden are suddenly possible. As the soldiers in the war find out, bullets and bombs aren’t concerned with social class out on the battlefield.

And on a shallow note? THE CLOTHES. Oh, my God, the clothes.

I covet these women’s wardrobes. If I’ll never be able to spend my days traipsing around a beautiful estate, reading, spending time with friends, and meeting attractive men, as these women do before the war, can I at least get to wear beautiful dresses like these?

The show certainly isn’t perfect. It’s a soap opera, plain and simple, and occasionally the plots get a bit ridiculous or predictable. There are also times when one storyline gets too much attention or when we should see more of another story to be able to understand it better, and one character introduced in the second season is so one-dimensional that her motivations are difficult to understand. But the acting is universally wonderful and, above all, at the end of each episode you truly feel that you have traveled to another world. What more could you want out of a TV show?

Katie Recommends: Crazy, Stupid, Love.

I didn’t think much of this movie when I first heard of it, but it got very good reviews and word-of-mouth, so I made a mental note to check it out. By the time I finally did, it had been in the theaters for awhile, and I’d kind of forgotten why I wanted to see it. So I was pleasantly surprised when it turned out to be one of the most enjoyable comedies I’d seen in awhile.

Here’s the thing: I absolutely love good romantic comedies. “Good” is the key word. They have to be both genuinely romantic and genuinely funny to be good, but sadly, Hollywood has long since forgotten how to make good rom-coms. But Crazy, Stupid, Love. (what’s with the weird punctuation, by the way?) is not only genuinely romantic and genuinely funny, but unpredictable. An unpredictable romantic comedy is rarer than an imperfection on Ryan Gosling’s body (which, by the way, is on display in its full glory in this movie), but this movie actually is. Part of the reason why is that it’s an ensemble movie—there are several storylines going on simultaneously. In the opening scene, Emily (Julianne Moore) drops a bomb on Cal (Steve Carell) in a restaurant: she’s been cheating on him with a colleague and wants a divorce. Depressed, Cal takes to moping about his life in a bar that Jacob (Gosling), a smooth young womanizer, frequents. Jacob decides to become Cal’s wingman and takes it upon himself to mold Cal into his own image. We had previously seen Jacob trying to pick up Hannah (Emma Stone), a pragmatic recent law school graduate, in the same bar, but she resisted his advances. That’s not the last we see of the two of them together, though. Meanwhile, Cal and Emily’s seventeen-year-old babysitter, Jessica (Analeigh Tipton) has a crush on Cal, while their thirteen-year-old son Robbie (Jonah Bobo) pines for Jessica.

Unpredictable? Suprisingly so. A friend had mentioned to me that there was a big twist she didn’t see coming—for me, there were two. Combine that with believable characters, lots of laugh-out-loud moments, and some moments that are genuinely touching, and you’ve got yourself one very good movie. It won’t win any Oscars or anything, but it definitely gives me hope that Hollywood might have some more good rom-coms up its sleeves.

Other movies I’ve seen lately:

Margaret

There’s an interesting story behind this movie. Director Kenneth Lonergan, whose previous movie was 2000’s You Can Count on Me, shot this movie, which stars Anna Paquin, Mark Ruffalo, and Matt Damon, among others, back in 2005. Then he and the studio spent years fighting over the movie’s final cut. There were lawsuits involved and it was a whole big mess. While they were waiting for the movie to come out, Anna Paquin went on to star on True Blood and win a Golden Globe, Mark Ruffalo went on to get an Oscar nomination for The Kids Are All Right, and Matt Damon kind of shrugged and said, “Eh, I’m still Matt Damon. Hey, why don’t I go get revenge on Jimmy Kimmel?” Unfortunately, when the movie finally did premiere, it got very little notice despite good reviews. In Boston, it was in the theater for about a week, and I only got to see it because the Brattle Theater showed it last weekend.

Anyway, Paquin plays Lisa, a high school student in New York wracked with guilt over her involvement in a fatal bus accident. As Lisa is running alongside a bus trying to get the driver’s (Ruffalo) attention, the bus runs a red light and kills a woman (Allison Janney) in the crosswalk. In a state of shock and grief, Lisa lies when the police ask her if the light was red or green, but as the enormity of the situation hits her, she does everything she can think of to try to make amends.

The title comes from this poem, which Lisa is studying in school. It’s definitely a downer, so don’t watch this movie if you’re in the mood for something light, and I can definitely see the signs of a fight over the final cut. There are some scenes the movie could definitely do without and others that seem to be missing an additional scene. But overall, it’s a great movie, and the acting, especially by Paquin, is excellent.

The Help

I had recently read the book, and the movie did not disappoint. It was very well-cast: Emma Stone as Skeeter, Viola Davis as Aibileen, Octavia Spencer as Minny, Bryce Dallas Howard as Hilly, Allison Janney as Skeeter’s mother. Some of those were surprising choices, but I think they all worked out well. And Jessica Chastain was a hilarious Celia Foote—she’s an actress I hope to see more of.

I’ve described my feelings on the book already, and the movie didn’t change much other than changing the sequence of some events. The one pretty big changed involved the reasons around Constantine’s firing—they cut the Lulubelle story, I’m guessing, because Lulubelle would have been hard to cast. One thing I loved about this movie, though, is how it’s completely about women and their friendships with each other. Ever since I learned about the Bechdel Test, I can’t help but put every movie I see through it (although there are plenty of good movies that don’t pass it—and some, like Crazy, Stupid, Love., don’t involve women talking about anything but a man but also don’t involve men talking about anything but women), but this one aces the test. There’s one very small romantic subplot, but it’s almost beside the point. People have focused on the role of racism in this movie, but I think it’s just as much about sexism.

Bridesmaids

What, you haven’t seen it yet? What the hell are you waiting for? Go rent it now! Seriously, though, this is one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen. Kristen Wiig needs to be a leading lady more often. I LOVE that this was such a breakout movie for Melissa McCarthy, whom I have loved since her days as Sookie on Gilmore Girls. I love that it didn’t go for any of the wedding clichés—there’s no Hangover-esque bachelorette party and no obnoxious Bridezilla (in fact, the bride, played by Maya Rudolph, is the normal one). And I love that, despite being about an impending wedding, it’s not about romance as much as it is about women’s friendships. Like I said about The Help, it’s a topic that doesn’t get enough attention in the movies, and I hope the success of this movie means that we’ll see more movies focused on women.

Katie Recommends: Maine

How has it been this long since I’ve written about books?! It’s certainly not because I haven’t been reading—I’ve read quite a few books since my last post about them. So, time to remedy that by doing a Katie Recommends about books.

Maine is J. Courtney Sullivan’s second novel—the first was Commencement, which I’ve already written about. Like Commencement, this book alternates between four different viewpoints, but this time, they’re the voices of four different women in different generations of the same Irish Catholic family: the alcoholic octogenarian matriarch, the outspoken family black sheep, the desperate housewife lamenting the current state of her family, and the thirty-two-year-old unexpectedly pregnant by her immature boyfriend. As the book continues, we learn a lot about the family backstory and what makes these women the way they are. Meanwhile, family conflicts play out as these four women convene at their family vacation house in Maine.

On a personal note, I loved the recognition I found in a lot of things—I have vacationed several times on the southern coast of Maine and knew a lot of the places they referred to, and I’m also from a large, Irish Catholic, Bostonian family. Little things made me laugh, too, like the obituaries being referred to as the “Irish sports page” (my Irish great-grandmother apparently used to pick up the paper and say, “Let’s see who’s dead now.”). But even if you don’t have that personal connection, the characters are very easy to relate to, and there’s both a lot of humor and some very emotional moments.

Usually when I do a “Katie Recommends” post, I throw in some things that I don’t like, but it’s been so long since I’ve written about books that I’m just going to stick with the best books I’ve read. So, for other books I’ve been reading lately:

Sing Them Home by Stephanie Kallos

I read a positive review for this book in the Globe, put it on my Goodreads “To Read” list, and kind of forgot about it until I was running out of ideas for what to read. So I bought this book last year before I went to Aruba along with three others, and this was the last one I read. My expectations weren’t that high, but oh.my.God. This book is amazing. It’s about three siblings from Nebraska who lost their mother, Hope, as children. Hope, who suffered from multiple sclerosis, disappeared when she was swept up in a tornado. The siblings are now in their thirties. Larken is an overweight professor struggling with fear and unrequited love. Gaelan is a promiscuous TV weatherman whose relationships are all very superficial. Bonnie is a quirky townie who works odd jobs and searches the garbage left behind after storms. When their father is killed by lightning, they travel back to their Welsh-American hometown of Emlyn Springs, Nebraska to observe old Welsh funeral customs and confront the truth about their mother’s disappearance, which we learn about through Hope’s old diary entries. The characters are so sympathetic and real, and the writing is just lovely. There are some wonderful lines in which Kallos gives us insight to the minds of the dead: what they see, what they want, what they feel.



Broken For You by Stephanie Kallos

Since I loved Sing Them Home so much, of course I had to read Stephanie Kallos’s first book, Broken For You. Both books are very warm, sad, and occasionally funny, with quirky, imperfect, lovable characters. This one is about Margaret, a divorced septuagenarian dying of brain cancer who decides to take a boarder into her Seattle mansion. Wanda, a young stage manager reeling from a difficult breakup, answers the ad, and moves in not knowing about Margaret’s illness. Both women have heartache in their past: Margaret’s divorce followed the death of her son, and her house is haunted by the ghost of her difficult mother. Wanda was abandoned by her parents as a child and is secretly trying to track down the boyfriend who broke her heart. Margaret also struggles with the knowledge that the beautiful antique china she owns was stolen by her father from European Jewish families during World War II—until she responds by breaking the china with Wanda, who then turns it into beautiful mosaic art. While I did like Sing Them Home better—this book’s plot relies a bit too much on coincidence—it’s still a beautiful, highly enjoyable novel. I can’t wait for Stephanie Kallos to write another book.



The Nobodies Album by Carolyn Parkhurst

This is Carolyn Parkhurst’s third novel. I’ve read the other two, and this one makes her 3 for 3 with me. In fact, I like this one even better than The Dogs of Babel and Lost and Found. The protagonist, Octavia Frost, is a middle-aged novelist whose latest project is a book that rewrites all of the last chapters of her novels so that they no longer end tragically or reveal the pieces of her life, which has included the deaths of her husband and young daughter years ago in an accident, that have found their way into the books. As she’s about to turn in her final draft, she hears on the news that her estranged son, a famous rock star, has been arrested for the murder of his girlfriend. As she sets out to reconnect with the son she hasn’t spoken to in years, she discovers a lot of secrets about his life and starts to piece together how and why the murder happened. This book not only has a very original, suspenseful plot, but also includes the final chapters of Octavia’s books, both the original and rewritten versions. A lot of them sound like really good books—I kind of hope that Carolyn Parkhurst writes them for real!

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore

This must have been an incredibly difficult book to write. It’s a comedic book that follows the life of Jesus Christ from childhood to crucifixion from the perspective of his made-up best friend that stays pretty close to the Bible story. And somehow, it’s funny and irreverent but also respectful of Christianity and the historical Jesus. A lot of the plot concentrates on the years before Jesus starts his ministry, of which the Bible says nothing. According to this book, Jesus spent those years traveling through Asia meeting the three kings who came to the manger where he was born. Biff’s personality can get a little irritating at times—he has a tendency to act like a 1st-century frat boy—but overall this was a fun, hilarious read.

The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

Normally, very poetic language doesn’t do much for me, but the language used in this book is just gorgeous. Which is strange, because it’s a book about five sisters who all kill themselves. It’s written in the collective “we,” similar to Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End or Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” as the young boys of the town describe the sheltered but fascinating Lisbon sisters, aged 13-17, who become all the more mysterious and beautiful to them after the youngest sister takes her own life. The title pretty much gives away the tragic nature of the story, but it’s a wonderful book that manages to make the story beautiful without romanticizing suicide.

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

I’ve had a bad run of luck with Pulitzer Prize winners—didn’t like The Road or The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, was meh on Tinkers and March, and liked but didn’t love Olive Kitteridge. But Middlesex, which won the Pulitzer in 2003? This I loved. It takes some serious talent to create an epic family saga with sympathetic and unforgettable characters that’s centered around consentual incest and intersexuality. Narrated like a Greek tragedy (it even starts out, “Tell me, O Muse,”) by Cal/Callie, a young man with a rare form of intersexuality that caused him to appear and be raised as a female during his childhood, it follows Cal’s grandparents as they immigrate to Michigan from Greece and start a family, all while hiding the secret of how their relationship began. This is just an amazingly well-written book—I can’t wait for Eugenides’s next novel.

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

Kyley gave me this book for my birthday, and it is HILARIOUS. It takes place in 1960s New Orleans and follows Ignatius J. Reilly, an obese, oddly-dressed thirty-year-old man who lives with his long-suffering mother and, despite his master’s degree and tendency to use multisyllabic words, is oblivious to the way the world works and will bellow at and berate anyone who gets in his way. After a car accident that puts his mother in debt, he is forced to go out and find a job and, in doing so, meets some quirky characters almost as crazy as he, plus causes a lot of chaos.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

I read this book just in time for the movie, which I’m planning on seeing. I know everyone and their second cousin’s dog has read this book, but you know what? Usually when a book becomes that popular, it’s because a lot of people liked it. And I am one of them. It’s narrated in different chapters by Skeeter, a white, struggling, single, twenty-something writer (like me!) in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi (or not so much like me at all), and two black maids, Aibileen and Minny. After discovering that the maid who raised her has left, which her family refuses to talk about, and rapidly tiring of her racist housewife friends, Skeeter gets the idea to interview the maids in Jackson for an anonymous book detailing their experiences. Although the maids are risking their jobs and even their lives as civil rights-era violence spreads through Mississippi, they decide that their stories need to be told. While the book certainly isn’t perfect, the characters are very well-written and the plot is, to use a cliché, a page-turner, with a lot of humor thrown into a story with serious subject matter.

Katie Recommends: The Killing

With Mad Men not coming back until next March, I had a hole to fill in my TV schedule. So I started watching AMC’s newest show, The Killing, which is apparently based on a Danish show called Forbrydelsen.

And boy, am I glad I did. There are only three episodes left this season, so it’s a bit too late for you to start watching, but I definitely recommend DVR-ing the reruns or watching the whole season when it comes out on DVD.

Each episode documents one day in the investigation into the murder of seventeen-year-old Rosie Larsen, who, after a high school dance, was found dead the trunk of a car in a lake. The car belonged to the campaign of Darren Richmond, a city councilor running for mayor of Seattle. The detective investigating the case, Sarah Linden, was about to leave Seattle for California to get married, but as she gets further into her investigation, her departure looks less and less likely.

The story is told with no flashbacks and has three main storylines: Linden and her replacement, Stephen Holder, investigating the murder; the Richmond campaign’s struggles in the aftermath of the killing; and the grieving of Rosie’s parents, Mitch (for Michelle) and Stan.

I won’t go into detail about the suspects or motives for those who haven’t seen it, but it’s very suspenseful and well-acted and I never want an episode to end. If you’re an X-Files fan, Linden, played by Mireille Enos, reminds me so much of Dana Scully—a petite, VERY SERIOUS redhead who’s consumed with her work.

The show isn’t perfect—there’s a lot of implausibility, including there only being two detectives on the case, leads they didn’t follow up on sooner, and the fact that it is constantly pouring out (I’m told it doesn’t rain that much in Seattle). But it’s very, very good and easy to get addicted to.

Other shows I’ve been watching:

Glee
When this show premiered, everyone loved it because it was so different from anything else on TV. But the tide has turned and now no one can speak about Glee without complaining about it. Everyone, it seems, has a problem with something about this show. Obviously conservatives don’t like the gay characters. Other people complain that a character is reinforcing a stereotype, or that a character needs a love interest, or that Character X isn’t getting enough screen time while Character Y is getting too much and there’s not enough focus on Ship A and too much on Ship B. Oh, and Rachel is an annoying diva, Finn’s voice isn’t good enough, the characters are inconsistently written, and Will is unprofessional. Plus, it’s gotten too episodic and preachy. Did I miss anything?

I’ll give you that the episodes are a bit preachier and more episodic (“The Religion Episode,” “The Britney Spears Episode” “The Prom Episode”) than they used to be. But everything else is just complaints about things that have been there from the beginning.

This is the thing. Glee is not a show meant to be taken too seriously. It’s a farce. It’s not, and has never been, in any way realistic. I mean, the first episode had Will planting pot on Finn to blackmail him into joining the glee club, for God’s sake. And personally, I don’t watch it because I want something to relate to or because I ship any characters. I watch it because it’s funny and sweet and has good music.

Also, keep in mind—this is the only show on TV that has characters with such diversity of races, religions, sexual orientations, sizes, and abilities. It does its best to show each character positively, and it cannot please everyone. With all the whining about various Issues on sites like the rapidly-getting-on-my-nerves Jezebel, I’m not surprised that so many other shows are less diverse. Showrunners figure they’ll never be able to satisfy everyone and just stick with casts of white heterosexual characters.

Modern Family
This summer I’m going to be catching up with the Season 1 DVDs. I just started watching this season and I love it. But who doesn’t? It’s gotten all kinds of critical acclaim and awards and isn’t doing too badly in the ratings, either. This is one show that manages to hit all the right notes—it’s often laugh-out-loud funny, every single character is likeable, and it’s often very touching without being sappy. The characters could so easily be clichés—trophy wife, doofy dad, ditzy teenager, flamboyant gay guy—but instead they manage to come across as real and full of personality as well as funny. The acting is excellent, and basically, if you’re not already watching this show, you should be.

Jersey Shore
What can I say? I love this show and I can’t wait for the new season. I know a lot of people think this show is a sign of the apocalypse. It’s true that the people on it are ridiculous and not people you’d ever want to know in real life, but…well, sometimes they’re funny and entertaining, too. And no one on the show is all bad. Okay, I’m done trying to justify it. Let me have my guilty pleasure!

Katie Recommends: Winter’s Bone

I had never heard of Winter’s Bone until I read a review of it in the Globe that compared it to Frozen River. As it happened, I was going to be in Brookline that night, so I decided to make a trip to the Coolidge Corner Theatre to see it. And boy, I’m glad I did.

Like Frozen River, Winter’s Bone takes place in a very poor, remote area of the country—in this case, the Missouri Ozarks. But while the protagonist of Frozen River was a world-weary mother, this one is a seventeen-year-old girl who’s been dealt a tough hand in life but hasn’t given up yet. Ree Dolly, played by a lovely young actress named Jennifer Lawrence, is basically raising her two younger siblings by herself. Her mother has an unspecified mental illness that has left her silent and in a world of her own, and her father, a meth dealer, is missing. Then the police show up and tell Ree that her father has missed a court date and has put the house up as bail. If Ree can’t find him, or at least prove that he’s dead, she and her family will lose the house. So Ree takes off into the scary underbelly of the world she lives in, in the process learning a lot of things she never wanted to know.

I’d never heard of Jennifer Lawrence until I saw this movie—IMDB tells me that previously, she was best known for playing the daughter on The Bill Engvall Show—but although the year is young, I’m already hoping that she gets an Oscar nomination. Ree is such a fantastic character. She’s smart and caring but rough around the edges, and Lawrence plays her with such strength that, despite the terrible circumstances Ree is stuck in through no fault of her own, you never feel too sorry for her. Parts of the movie are intense and frightening, and you probably shouldn’t see it if violence bothers you, but otherwise, see it as soon as you can.

Other movies I’ve seen recently:
Toy Story 3
What’s up with these Pixar movies making me cry? The marriage montage in Up was one thing, but this movie had me crying over toys getting left behind when their kids grow up. And that right there tells you all you need to know. It’s got every bit of the charm of the first two movies, and you won’t be disappointed.

The Runaways
I didn’t know much about the real Runaways, the all-girl group from the 70s that is the subject of this movie, before I saw it, but it didn’t really matter. It’s the same music industry story you’ve seen in a million other movies—band gets together, band becomes famous, band’s manager is an asshole, band starts fighting and drugs enter the picture, band breaks up. But in this case, it somehow works. Maybe it’s the novelty of a true story about an all-girl group. Or seeing Dakota Fanning, whom I still remember as the little girl in I Am Sam, playing Cherie Currie as a skanky drug addict. Or Kristen Stewart’s astoundingly convincing portrayal of Joan Jett (yes, that Kristen Stewart). Whatever the reason, it’s worth renting when it comes out on DVD.

Shutter Island
Holy shit. This is one freaky movie. I knew that it was based on a Dennis Lehane novel, so I think I was expecting it to be like Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone, both gritty crime stories set in rough neighborhoods of Boston. Shutter Island, on the other hand, is more like a Gothic horror story. Leonardo DiCaprio plays a federal marshal investigating the disappearance of a woman from an institution for the criminally insane in the Boston Harbor Islands. But soon, the woman’s disappearance becomes besides the point. All kinds of strange things start to happen—so many that you can barely keep track of them—and it seems clear that the hospital is not what it seems to be. I still don’t quite know what to make of this movie. It’s definitely unsettling, so I think it did what it set out to do, but I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it.

Katie Recommends: Oscar Edition

This year, I decided that I’d see all the Best Picture nominees before the Oscars. Unfortunately, I forgot that this year they’d upped the Best Picture nominees to ten. Nevertheless, I did see all ten of them before the Oscars, and here are my thoughts on the Best Picture nominees.

Up
I knew it wasn’t going to win, but this was actually my favorite nominee. It’s wonderful— funny, suspenseful, touching, and, at the beginning, incredibly sad. (The marriage montage? Tell me you weren’t crying during that.)

An Education
If I did a regular “Katie Recommends,” this would get top billing—it’s a gem of a movie that not enough people have seen. Carey Mulligan is fantastic as Jenny, a smart sixteen-year-old girl in the London suburbs in the early 1960s. Jenny’s well-meaning but overbearing parents are pressuring her to get into Oxford to study English. Then she meets David (Peter Saarsgard), a charming older man who gives her a ride home one day. Soon, he’s swept her off her feet, taking her to jazz clubs, the opera, even Paris—and charming her parents into letting her go. It’s so much more exciting than what she’s used to that she starts wondering what the point of all she’s been working toward is—why go to Oxford and then pursue the limited career opportunities she’ll have as a woman when she could have all the excitement David is able to offer her? The screenplay is by Nick Hornby, which is in itself a reason to see it, and combined with Mulligan’s acting, you start to find Jenny’s logic convincing, even as you begin to see that there’s something sketchy about David (not going to spoil the ending). It’s also unexpectedly funny—Alfred Molina as Jenny’s father, in particular, adds a lot to the movie.

Precious
I definitely recommend this movie, but you need to be in the right mood to see it. Precious is an obese, illiterate teenager whose mother physically and emotionally abuses her and whose father rapes her, resulting in two pregnancies. Mo’Nique is fantastically scary as the mother, and some parts of it are very intense. But weirdly, it’s as uplifting as it is depressing. Gabourey Sidibe, who plays Precious, is almost as good as Mo’Nique—I can’t believe she’d never acted before this. You’ve probably heard about Mariah Carey and her mustache, too (she’s not bad, but it’s not a terribly demanding part), but I’m really surprised Paula Patton hasn’t gotten more attention for her role as the teacher who helps Precious get her life on track. I wouldn’t say she was the character I remembered most, but she was up there.

Up In the Air
It seems like a lot of people are kind of meh on this movie, but I really liked it. For one thing, it’s very timely—George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a guy who works for a company that fires people from other companies, and considering they probably started planning for the movie before the unemployment rate started plummeting, the filmmakers are probably jumping for joy about the recession. Ryan is based out of Omaha, but really lives in the sky, flying all over the country without any connections to any one place or any one person. In a job where he’s paid to disrupt people’s lives, there’s no sense of accomplishment, so he finds a reward in collecting frequent flyer miles and membership reward points. But then his company brings in Natalie (Anna Kendrick), a twenty-something Ivy League grad, who has the idea to do the firing via videoconferencing. Ryan does not take this well—but first he has to travel with Natalie, showing her how the firing is done. It’s directed by Jason Reitman, whose last movie was Juno, a kind of unconventional romantic comedy. If you see this movie, you need to know that despite what you see on the commercials, it’s not remotely a romantic comedy. Also, while I love George Clooney, I don’t think he should have gotten an Oscar nomination—he’s playing the same role he always plays. Vera Farmiga, who plays a business traveler whom Ryan gets romantically involved with, shouldn’t have been nominated either. But Anna Kendrick is fabulous. Until I saw Precious, I was rooting for her to win Best Supporting Actress. Now I think Mo’Nique totally deserved the Oscar, but I hope this is just the beginning of a long, illustrious career for Kendrick.

The Hurt Locker
I probably wouldn’t have seen The Hurt Locker had it not been nominated for (and later won) Best Picture—war movies are just not my thing. That said, The Hurt Locker is extremely well-done for what it is. It’s one of those movies that’s easy to sum up in one sentence—it’s about soldiers dismantling bombs in Iraq. Jeremy Renner is great as one particularly reckless soldier, and the direction is fabulous. The script was written by a journalist who spent time with a unit like this in Iraq, and the result is a surprisingly apolitical movie, considering that it’s set in Iraq in 2004.

Avatar
You’ve already heard my thoughts on another James Cameron movie. While my thoughts on this one are not quite as enthusiastic, I will say that Avatar is definitely worth seeing, and if you do see it, you should see it in the theater in 3-D. Visually, it’s absolutely beautiful. The writing, however, is awful. It’s incredibly simplistic with one-dimensional characters and a plot that’s stolen from the 90s kids’ movie FernGully. I’ve heard people read a lot into it—it’s a metaphor for Iraq, it’s anti-American, blah blah blah fishcakes—but honestly, I don’t think James Cameron was thinking about it that hard. And one random little thing that kept bugging me—the protagonist, played by Sam Worthington, is a paraplegic. The movie takes place in 2149—they’re invading other planets, but they haven’t found a cure for paralysis by then? Really? On the plus side, Sam Worthington is quite attractive.

District 9
I actually didn’t like this movie at all. It takes place in South Africa after a race of aliens have ended up stranded on Earth, and the government has to round up and relocate the aliens, who are derogatorily referred to as “prawns.” I think the biggest problem with it is that it’s told in a mockumentary style, which would work for a comedy, but in this case keeps you from getting drawn into the story. It’s too bad, too, because it had the potential to be an interesting commentary on racism and xenophobia, but for that to happen we would have to care about the rest of the movie.

A Serious Man
I’m not usually a fan of the Coen Brothers—I liked Fargo, but absolutely hated No Country for Old Men—but this movie wasn’t bad. Starring absolutely no one you’ve ever heard of, it’s about a Jewish professor in 1967 Minnesota whose life is falling apart to the point of absurdity. His wife has left him for another man, forcing him to sleep in a motel along with his freeloading brother. His kids are stealing from him, the father of a student is trying to bribe him into passing his son, he’s up for tenure and someone is writing letters to the committee telling them he shouldn’t be granted it, and he’s in the middle of a property dispute with his neighbor. A friend suggests that he consult with three rabbis, which he does, but he never finds the answers that would help him make sense of all the chaos. None of this is as depressing as it sounds, by the way—it’s more of a black comedy than anything else. I didn’t love it, I didn’t hate it…it’s somewhere in the middle of movies that came out last year.

Inglorious Bastards
A lot of people like this movie, but I just could not get into it. Don’t quite know why. Christoph Waltz is great as a Nazi, though.

The Blind Side
I liked this movie, but it won’t appeal to everyone. You’ve seen the commercials, and it’s exactly what it looks like—a sappy, feel-good sports movie based on a true story. Personally, I have a weakness for that kind of movie, so I enjoyed it. I don’t think Sandra Bullock was any better than the other Best Actress nominees, although her winning was worth it just for her great speech. However, I completely understood why she was nominated after seeing an interview with Leigh Anne Tuohy, the woman she portrays in the film. Leigh Anne seems like someone out of one of those Real Housewives shows— a bleached blonde, type A interior decorator from Memphis whose husband owns a bunch of Taco Bells and whose expression tells you that you won’t win any argument you start with her, and Bullock completely nails this woman’s personality, mannerisms, accent, and manner of speaking. My one issue with is it is that it doesn’t give Michael Oher enough credit for his own success—yes, he had a lot of help from his adoptive family, but many kids in similar circumstances wouldn’t have thrived the way he did. But if you like movies like Rudy or Remember the Titans, you’ll like this one, too.