Shailene Woodley

2016 Reading List #68: Big Little Lies, by Liane Moriarty

I’ve been in a very changeable reading mood lately. This mostly is manifesting itself in my spur-of-the-moment decisions to read something I just bought, regardless of how many things I’m already reading.

This is how I ended up reading Big Little Lies.

I’ve been mildly interested in this book since finding out HBO was doing a miniseries adaptation, but once the show’s trailer was released a few weeks ago, my resistance lowered, and I ordered the book last week. And then, though I was already reading four other books, I started reading it, too.

As it turns out, Big Little Lies is the perfect kind of juicy page-turner for spending a few days as a hermit. I didn’t read much of the book until Friday night, and then I blazed through over 300 pages yesterday when I decided I didn’t want to have to wait any longer to unravel the mysteries.

Big Little Lies is set in a small, coastal town in Australia and tells the story of four mothers whose children are in the same kindergarten class. I was admittedly skeptical about this plot set-up, mostly because I didn’t want it to be about bitchy rich mothers and their annoying children. The miniseries stars so many people I like (Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, Laura Dern, Alexander Skarsgard, Adam Scott, etc.) that I put this in the back of my mind and jumped in.

Thankfully, the story isn’t that at all—Moriarty herself mentions in the book’s acknowledgements that it’s a story of friendship, and it really is. Though there’s certainly a feud or two among parents, the book is much more about the importance of female companionship, which I really appreciated.

The real fun of the story, though, is that you know a murder happens among the kindergarten parents, though you don’t know the victim or the perpetrator. I did kind of guess at the ending early on, but that may have been because I was flipping through the novel to see where it was headed and got some hints.

Big Little Lies is enormously fun and worthy of a binge-read if you’re so inclined. Since the TV adaptation is due in early 2017, I’d recommend this during some quiet time over the holidays. Nothing says family like a good murder mystery.

 

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Book #15: The Descendants, by Kaui Hart Hemmings

Book #15: The Descendants, by Kaui Hart Hemmings

Since last fall, I’ve purchased lots of books at our local Half Price Books Outlet, which is kind of my new favorite place ever. Where else can you find great books for 25 cents? Anyway, The Descendants happened to be one of those purchases. I’ve only seen the film once, but that was enough to spark my interest in reading the book that went on to be the winner of the Best Adapted Screenplay category at the Oscars in 2012. I had somewhat mixed feelings while reading the book, and it certainly took me longer than expected to finish it (but, in my defense, I am in my final semester of college. Life is busy.). However, by the end of the novel, I was pleased with the overall experience, and I’d recommend it to fans of the film.

One thing I will say about my feelings of the book is that I was happy to see some things addressed in the novel that had been bothering me. Matt, the patriarch and narrator of this novel, is kind of a frustrating character. I was most annoyed by how he acted as times as a father; he was often uncommunicative and very distant from his daughters, and that really frustrated me. Later in the book, though, this was addressed by Matt himself and his older daughter, Alex, which made me very happy that what I thought were holes in the story were actually relevant to character development.

On another side note, while finishing the book yesterday, I unexpectedly found myself crying. A lot. It’s obviously an emotional story (Matt and his daughters are forced to come together because of his wife’s permanent coma), but I didn’t expect to react the way I did. There are a few very poignant scenes at the conclusion of the novel that absolutely make it worth reading.

Sundance 2014: The Most Magical Time of My Life

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This is me, standing in front of the Egyptian Theater at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.

You know how there are those milestone events that every person needs to experience in life? Like graduating from college, getting married, having kids, or even just reading a really great book? Well, the Sundance Film Festival was one of my milestones. I’m only 22-years-old, so I haven’t really had the chance to experience many of those other things (though I have lived a pretty amazingly privileged life), but Sundance was the kind of thing I never thought I’d have done by this age. However, I attended a presentation in February of 2013 on my college campus about the Oscars, and when the presenter (one of my former professors) mentioned after the presentation that he was working on organization a Study Away course to the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, I made the decision to do everything possible to make myself a part of that program.

Flash forward eleven months to January 14, 2014, when I boarded an airplane headed to Salt Lake City, en route to Park City, Utah, the location of the annual Sundance Film Festival. From that moment through the following ten days, my life was nothing short of extraordinary. If you know anything about me, you probably know that I like celebrities and all things pop culture (it is my major, after all), so Sundance was a mecca of sorts for me. My ten days in Park City resulted in me seeing 14 feature-length films, 2 short films, and nearly 60 celebrities. These statistics, in my mind, represent ten days very well spent. So here is my little way of trying to cram all the gloriousness that was Sundance into a few words in one small blog post. In the following paragraphs, you’ll find my reviews of the films I saw, lists of the celebrities I met, and any small tidbits I can try to fit in, though there’s no way I can do the reality justice. If you’d like to know more, trust me, you’d only be indulging me by asking, so feel free.

Celebrities I Saw at Sundance:

  • Mark Ruffalo, Christina Hendricks, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Scoot McNairy, Luke Wilson, Elizabeth Olsen, Mark Duplass, Bob Odenkirk, Bill Hader, Mandy Patinkin, Donald Faison, Mekhi Phifer, Ben Schwartz, Karen Gillan, Emily Browning, Hannah Murray, Pierre Boulanger, Stuart Murdoch, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, Jason Momoa, Christopher Meloni, Gabourey Sidibe, Anne Hathaway, Mary Steenburgen, Shiloh Fernandez, Billy Crudup, Lilly Collins, Mark Indelicato, Joe Swanberg, Steve Coogan, Matt Walsh, Ted Danson, Michael C. Hall, William H. Macy

Celebrities I Interacted With at Sundance:

  • Joe Manganiello, Aaron and Lauren Paul. John Slattery (who spent a few minutes with my friends and me discussing our lives), Richard Ayoade, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Chloe Grace Moretz, Sam Rockwell (with whom I discussed my fear of him since seeing him in The Green Mile), Dan Stevens, Jorge Garcia, Elijah Wood, Richard Schiff, Miles Teller, John Carroll Lynch, Mark Webber, Cameron Monaghan, Jason Ritter (who wished me a happy 13th birthday), Melanie Lynskey, Olly Alexander, Jim O’Heir, Shailene Woodley, Josh Wiggins, Deke Gardner, and Amy Poehler (the queen of my life)

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Aaron Paul entering the world premiere of his film, Hellion.

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My friend Kaitlynn and me with Jason Ritter.

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My friend Kaitlynn and me with Jim O’Heir, star of Parks and Recreation.

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Jorge Garcia, star of Lost, and me at the world premiere of The Guest.

Movies I Saw at Sundance:

  • The Double — This was definitely a successful way to start of my Sundance viewings. The Double had its premiere last fall at the Toronto International Film Festival, but it was still exciting to see it much earlier than the general public. The plot can be a bit confusing, and there’s no real sense of setting (a conscious choice on the director’s part), but the story is compelling and weird enough to keep you hooked. Jesse Eisenberg stars, playing two different characters who are essentially people with opposite personalities but identical appearances. If you’re into cerebral dramas (with a strong infusion of comedy), this is a movie for you.
  • The Guest — Putting my feelings about this movie into words has been a serious struggle. The Guest stars Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey fame as “David,” a man who’s just returned from a military tour in the Middle East and heads straight to the family of a fallen comrade. From the opening scenes, The Guest is clearly a spoof of sorts, making fun of the conventions of horror and thriller films. The movie is never exactly scary, but it does follow the same formula of many horror films. It’s very fun to watch, especially if you pick up on the multitude of references to Stanley Kubrick, John Carpenter, and Quentin Tarantino that the film makes. My only warning to my fellow Downton fanatics: Dan Stevens is playing someone completely, 100% different from Matthew Crawley. Be warned. You’re bound to have some serious emotions about this.

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Dan Stevens, star of The Guest and Downton Abbey, with me at the world premiere of The Guest.

 

  • Laggies — Laggies is the kind of movie that is almost certain to find success with “indie” summer audiences. This is the story of Megan (Keira Knightley), a twenty-eight-year-old experiencing a quarter-life crisis, who befriends Annika (Chloe Grace Moretz), a sixteen-year-old high school rebel. The movie is cute, funny, and sweet, but never really challenges the audience in any way. I would’ve preferred if it had been a bit edgier, but it was enjoyable as is, and I’m sure it will delight mass audiences upon its theatrical release.
  • God’s Pocket — God’s Pocket, John Slattery’s feature film directorial debut, is the story of several seedy characters in the late 1970s in New York. Despite its star-studded cast (which includes Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christina Hendricks, and Richard Jenkins), I didn’t really feel like this one hit the mark. I wasn’t entirely interested in the story, and it felt like the film was trying to cover too many plot lines in 90 minutes. The story was adapted from a novel, so I would like to think the the stories might be more flushed out on the page than they were on screen. Unfortunately, this ranked among my least favorite films I saw.

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My friends Kaitlynn and Lendee and me with John Slattery, director of the Sundance film God’s Pocket and star of Mad Men.

  • God Help the Girl — We now move to one of my very favorite films I saw at Sundance, a musical written by Stuart Murdoch of the band Belle and Sebastian. God Help the Girl is 111 minutes of pure, unadulterated joy, enhanced by a talented young cast who exemplify the therapeutic abilities of music. I cannot wait for this film to be released in some capacity where I can see it again and listen to the soundtrack over and over and over. I’m obsessed, which you might be able to tell from the glee on my face in the following picture.

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Olly Alexander, star of God Help the Girl and the cutest person ever, with me after the world premiere of his film.

  • Somewhere in the Valley… — This was the first short film I saw, and one I’m more than happy to forget. The plot line and jokes felt very forced, and the story was entirely unbelievable (though, according to the director, the story was based on something that really happened in Europe. Go figure.). I was very unimpressed by this film, but, thankfully, it was no indication of the quality of the film it preceded: La Bare.
  • La Bare — A documentary about male strippers directed by an actor from Magic Mike? What more can you want? (Okay, just kidding. Kind of.) La Bare is indeed a documentary about male strippers in Texas directed by Joe Manganiello of Magic Mike and True Blood fame, but it isn’t really the movie it sounds like. Just like Magic Mike, La Bare is about much more than male strippers, and I think Manganiello did a fantastic job in his directorial debut of capturing the nuances of the men he profiled, making them something much more than just caricatures of themselves. This shows that Manganiello might have a more promising future in entertainment that you’d expect, so watch out for him.

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Joe Manganiello, director of La Bare and star of Magic Mike and True Blood, with me after the world premiere of his film.

  • Hellion — Hellion is the kind of movie that sticks with you. This film tells the story of a young family in Texas, broken by the loss of the two young sons’ mother. Josh Wiggins and Deke Gardner play these boys and deliver standout performances as kids caught between wrong and right, and they are certainly young actors you should look out for. Aaron Paul and Juliette Lewis also give great performances as the only, semi-present adults in these kids’ lives. The final scenes in the film are both heartbreaking and frightening, and will certainly leave audiences with much to ponder for a long time after it ends.

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Aaron Paul, Josh Wiggins, and Deke Gardner during the Q&A after a screening of their film, Hellion.

  • Song One — Song One is the kind of movie that I can’t stop thinking about, but not in a good way. One of the first things I said after seeing it (the same point that was made by a critic from Variety) was that if the setting of this movie was moved south a few states to North Carolina, it’d be the story straight from the pages of Nicholas Sparks. Anne Hathaway stars as Franny, a doctoral student who returns home upon hearing that her (somewhat estranged) brother is in a coma after being hit by a car. The brother, Henry, is an aspiring musician, which leads Franny to contact his favorite singer, with whom she starts a romantic relationship. See the Nicholas Sparks happening? Overall, the movie was fine, nothing more, nothing less. Mary Steenburgen was the film’s highlight as Franny and Henry’s scene-stealing mother. Kind of a forgettable movie, though, and one I’m not likely to recommend.

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The cast (featuring Mary Steenburgen and Anne Hathaway) and director of Song One.

  • White Bird in a Blizzard — I didn’t really know what to expect from this film, but I’m very glad I saw it. Shailene Woodley stars as Kat, a girl trying to move on after her mother disappears. Though the movie sounds like a drama, it’s much funnier than you’d expect, and the comedy paired with the stylized cinematography make for a very entertaining movie experience. Also, watch out for a twist ending. It’s totally worth it.

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The director and cast (including Gabourey Sidibe, Shailene Woodley, and Christopher Meloni) of White Bird in a Blizzard.

  • Funnel — This was the second short film I saw, presented before our screening of Happy Christmas. Based on our first short film experience, I was a little wary of this one, but I was very pleasantly surprised. Funnel was hilariously funny and entertaining, with a deceptively simple plot focused on a man walking back to his car from a gas station after his car has stopped working. If you have a chance to see this, you should.
  • Happy Christmas — After recently watching Drinking Buddies, Joe Swanberg’s last film, I was very excited to see Happy Christmas, a movie starring Anna Kendrick as a somewhat lost twentysomething. The entire cast is great, and features a breakout performance by Swanberg’s two-year-old son, Jude (seriously, this baby is talented). The most surprising and impressive aspect of the film came in the Q&A following the screening, when Swanberg revealed to the audience that his cast improvised the entire movie from a twelve-page outline he’d written. This knowledge will give viewers a whole new perspective on this smart and entertaining film. I look forward to more work from Swanberg in the near future.

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Joe Swanberg, director and star of Happy Christmas, during a Q&A after a screening of his film.

  • The Skeleton Twins — This has been one of the most talked about films of Sundance this year, noted for Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig’s unexpectedly great performances in dramatic roles. In that regard, it’s satisfying to see that Hader and Wiig won’t be disappearing from fame after their respective departures from Saturday Night Live. This is a smart, well-acted, relatable family drama that’s sure to attract audiences, and one that will hopefully solidify Hader’s and Wiig’s roles as respected Hollywood actors.
  • Listen Up Philip — Listen Up Philip was the only Sundance film that I actively disliked. Despite the cast that I was very excited about (Jason Schwartzman, Elisabeth Moss, Krysten Ritter), I found this film exhausting, sexist, and annoying. Philip, played by Schwartzman, is completely unlikeable as a floundering writer; I never felt an ounce of sympathy toward him. The women in the film were the only slightly likelable characters, but their portrayal as victims of the men in their lives made them all seem dependent and pathetic, and I couldn’t really identify with them either. It should also be noted that I found the film’s director Alex Ross Perry to be kind of repulsive in the Q&A following the screening. He clearly put the worst of himself onscreen in the characters of Philip and Ike (Jonathan Price), and I didn’t find it at all enjoyable.
  • Whiplash — Thankfully, in light of the experience of Listen Up Philip, my next film was the most (deservedly) buzzed about film of Sundance: the opening night film, Whiplash. Whiplash is a movie about an aspiring jazz drummer (played by the fantastic Miles Teller) and his formidable teacher Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). The plot line is simple, but the movie is executed brilliantly, including sharp editing that only serves to enhance the strong musical elements of the film. If the final sequence of the film doesn’t leave you feeling surprised, breathless, and inspired, you’ve done something wrong. I really hope this film’s longevity plays out to keep in on the awards circuit radar for 2015, because it’s definitely deserving.

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My friend Kaitlynn and me with Miles Teller, star of Whiplash, on Main Street in Park City.

  • Freedom Summer — My final film at Sundance was a documentary about the summer of 1964 in Mississippi and the movement known as Freedom Summer in which primarily white college students traveled south to attempt to shed light on the racial injustices in the state. Though the subject matter was great, I didn’t feel like the film was executed as perfectly as it could have been, but it was still an interesting experience. The film was made in collaboration with PBS, and I think that’s quite clear in the way it’s put together; it felt much more like a TV documentary than one made for theaters. Despite these small qualms, I think this is an important film for Americans to see, especially since this is a relatively unknown movement in our not-so-distant past that should be a source of inspiration for the continuing social injustices in America today.

So, in a nutshell, these were the highlights of my Sundance experience. I’ve now returned to the real world, where I’m two days into my final semester as an undergraduate student (whaaat?). Here’s hoping that the buzz of Sundance doesn’t wear off until graduation! Sundance, I’ll see you in 2015.

 

Year in Review: 10 Favorite Books of 2013

As we near the end of 2013, I thought, like all other somewhat self-centers millennials, it might be fun to write a few year-end posts reflecting on my favorite pop culture ventures this year. To start it off, I’ve decided to discuss my favorite books I read in 2013, and I’ll move on to TV and movies closer to the end of the year (there are still too many worthwhile movies to see before I can make my decisions!). So, in the order in which I read them, here are the 10 books I most enjoyed this year.

Little Women

1. Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott, completed January 2013

There isn’t much more to say than that this is a rather perfect read, especially in winter, for all female audiences. I’d also like to say it’s appropriate for male readers, but there’s something about the March women that speaks to women of all ages. This is one of those stories that can simultaneously warm and break your heart, and it certain to be one you’ll want to revisit.

 A Moveable Feast

2. A Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway, completed March 2013

It’s no secret that I’m a bit of a Hemingway fangirl, so you can’t be too surprised here. Not only does this book present Hemingway’s characteristically simple writing style, it also features the idyllic setting of Paris in the 1920s. As a French major who loves Papa Hemingway, this book is basically catnip for me. An added bonus: my favorite Hemingway wife, Hadley, is present for the majority of the book. She’s perfect, and you should read this, but only after familiarizing yourself with some of Hemingway’s great fictional writing. This cannot be fully appreciated if you don’t know Hemingway’s writing or life to some extent.

Fault in Our Stars

3. The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green, completed March 2013

In all fairness, this was a reread, but it doesn’t get any less devastatingly perfect the second time around. In fact, I think I cried more this time because I knew what was coming. Even though this book was just released last year, it’s become an instant classic; it’s an absolutely essential read for young and old audiences. John Green, you’re a god. And an added perk: the film adaptation will be released in June of 2014, so if you haven’t read this yet, be sure to before then.

The Great Gatsby

4. The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, completed May 2013

Another reread, but also a perfect classic. I reread Gatsby before the new film was released, and I was happy to realize that I was just as enamored with the book now as I was when I first read it four years ago. Fitzgerald’s story is timeless and brilliant; I feel like I marked or underlined every other sentence because I loved the language so much. If you’re looking for “easy” but literary reading material, this is a must read.

The Awakening

5. The Awakening, by Kate Chopin, completed May 2013

Before I started this novel I basically knew the whole story; I remember hearing my fellow students complain about the ending my junior year of high school. This knowledge, however, did not stop me from loving the 100-page novel so important to feminist literature. I understand why my classmates disliked this story in the past, but since I was four years older when I read it, I think I had the necessary perspective to understand how great it really is.

Divergent

6. Divergent, by Veronica Roth, completed June 2013

I debated reading this series for a while before finally buying the first installment on a whim, and I’m so very glad I did. This series is definitely for fans of The Hunger Games as it also features a strong-willed teenage female as the story’s heroine, but it’s important not to compare the two series too often. The film adaptation of Divergent comes out in March of 2014, and the sequel begins filming in April, so read this over Christmas break if you want to be part of the hype for what I imagine will be the next big thing in teen reading.

The Penultimate Peril

7. The Penultimate Peril, by Lemony Snicket, completed July 2013

I’m happy to say I completed the entire Series of Unfortunate Events in 2013, and there’s really only one reason why this one stands out as my favorite: this book had one of the funniest lines I’ve ever read in children’s literature (if you’re interested, I posted it as a quote in July after finishing the book). The entire series is great, but I’m not sure I’ll ever quit laughing over some of the humor in this one.

The Cuckoo's Calling

8. The Cuckoo’s Calling, by Robert Galbraith, completed August 2013

This is probably the most talked-about book of 2013 due to its real author: J.K. Rowling. It was definitely worth the fuss. The twists and turns are sure to keep readers’ attention, but the story also keeps to a rather straight and simple format that makes it an easy read. I certainly hope Rowling feels compelled to continue this in the future.

My Antonia

9. My Antonia, by Willa Cather, completed August 2013

Like The AwakeningMy Antonia is a notable work of female literature, though the settings and events of the two couldn’t be more different. As an almost-native of the plains of Nebraska, this novel speaks to me in a way that’s probably difficult for most readers to comprehend. Cather captures the frontier lifestyle of Nebraska perfectly; one reason I enjoyed this book so much was that I felt so at peace when reading it. I could feel the wind and smell the earth that can only be understood by visiting the region. This is certainly a novel I’d recommend, but a regional recognition is almost imperative to really appreciate it.

The Giver

10. The Giver, by Lois Lowry, completed November 2013

I had a hard time picking my final book, partially because this fall I took a long time to get through one reading project, but also because nothing else was really standing out to be as especially stellar. Maybe I’m being picky, but I had a hard time picking great books from those I read this year. On a positive note, I read several things outside my normal genres this year and completed some bucket list goals (A Series of Unfortunate Events, for instance) while exceeding my year’s goal by 10 books (so far). Ultimately, my favorite book I’ve read recently was probably The Giver, though I wasn’t totally satisfied by it. I liked the story so much for probably three-quarters of the novel, but I felt like Lowry rushed through the book’s climax and conclusion so much that I was left in a lurch. The ending chapters struck me as very odd, and I’m interested to see if it plays better on screen when the film adaptation is released in 2014.

So, what books did you read this year? If nothing else, here’s to a 2014 filled with quickly turning pages and stories worth reading.

Book List Update #9: 41-45

Even though I’ve completed my goal for the year, I’m continuing my busy reading for the year. Here are the latest updates.

Bridget Jones's Diary

41. Bridget Jones’s Diary, Helen Fielding

I’ve been a fan of the film adaptation of this novel since it came out 10 years ago, so I was very excited to read the book. Though I may be biased, I believe the film fixed the book’s problems. Most of the characters are more likeable in the movie, particularly Bridget’s mother, and even Bridget herself. Also, the movie does a much better job of developing Daniel and Mark as characters, allowing the audience a better understanding of Bridget and her often confusing decisions. If you’re new to this story, I would definitely recommend the movie over the book, but I’m the type of person who likes to be thorough. Either way, the story is great.

Repotting Harry Potter

42. Repotting Harry Potter, James W. Thomas

As you may know, I’m in the process of writing my undergraduate Honors thesis project on the literary merits of the Potter series, and this is one of the many sources I’ve collected on the subject. I read a shorter article by James W. Thomas previously that I enjoyed, and this book is essentially an expansion of that article, giving book-by-book breakdowns of the Potter series and analyzing it chapters at a time. I think Thomas’s writing gets a bit repetitive at times, but he makes great points and offers insights into all kinds of minor details us Potter fanatics love. On a related note, Thomas also referred to Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner many times throughout this book, references which are quite pleasing to me being a major fan of those authors as well. I intend to refer to Thomas’s writing in my own project, so this was definitely a worthwhile read.

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43. A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams

Reading classics is always fun, especially when they’re as good as A Streetcar Named Desire. I’m really anxious to watch the movie, because I’m a firm believer in seeing plays as they’re meant to be seen. This is a great American story comparable to The Glass Menagerie or Death of a Salesman. If you’re interested in theatre, this is a must read.

'salem's Lot

44. ‘salem’s Lot, Stephen King

This has certainly been my slowest reading venture of the year, but sometimes school must take precedence over fun. However, I’m happy I didn’t finish this until mid-October, because it certainly fits in well with the Halloween season. This is great for fans of Stephen King, Dracula, or anything of the horror genre. It’s a long book, but apart from a few slower parts, it’s an entertaining read.

Allegiant

 

45. Allegiant, Veronica Roth

Over the summer I became a quick fan of the Divergent series, so the release of the final installment last week was a highly anticipated event for me. I had my suspicions about the book’s ending early on, and as much as I wish I hadn’t been correct, I was. Without giving away any spoilers: it’s a very bittersweet ending. Overall, though, it’s a satisfying conclusion to this trilogy, though the story is a bit slower and less riveting than in the two previous novels. Either way, I’m very excited for the first movie installment to be released in March, and I certainly expect to revisit this series from time to time in the future.