The Night Circus

What if your first kiss was held suspended in time, bestowed as all in the room succumb to the power of magic?

There’s no doubt Erin Morgenstern has created magic. In her debut novel, two opponents fight in a lifelong battle of skill versus skill in a mysterious challenge that threatens to rip the world apart. Well, some of it anyway.

The black and white tents of Les Cirques des Reves appear without warning, suddenly occupying space that was empty the day before. Drawn by its mystery, townspeople enter and are enthralled by nights filled with mystery and feats of extraordinary talent. But who is behind it all?

Bound as children to a contest they do not understand, raised without love by men they barely know, Celia and Marco are rivals in an arena that defies convention. It is a dreamland, one that speaks to the hearts, souls and imaginations of not only the audience, but the creators of each exhibit. Dazzling and intricate, the circus is a living thing, and perhaps Morgenstern’s most brilliant invention. Every decadent page speaks of love, betrayal, hope, mystery and magic. It’s a love story, but it’s so much more. As pawns trapped in a cruel wager between two powerful, magical and proud men, Celia and Marco must not only discover the nature of the challenge, but how to play and ultimately win. Each tent is not only a display of immense talent, but a secret token of affection to one another. Poetry runs down the trunk of a tree, an ice forest grows and blooms and a reflecting pool transcends grief and loss.

I was drawn in by the early buzz, but skeptical of the label “Harry Potter for adults.” I take issue with this. It is a desperate plug for publishers and entertainment houses in a post-Harry Potter and Twilight world to gain what they love most: money. First of all, Harry Potter is just as much for adults as it is for kids and teens. It’s just that good. Tread carefully when invoking Harry’s name, people! Anyway, I received my copy, and from the very first line, I was entranced. The hook is fantastic. It’s a confident work, and I will smile whenever I see splashes of red alongside black & white. I’m certain it will be a trend, with the book generating its own reveurs. The book is not for the impatient: though the chapters are brief, each slice of the circus is delivered leisurely. Glimpses are provided through different characters, descriptions of challenges created and answered and through the players themselves. It’s slow, but maddening only because the desire to know more about the circus is so strong.

I want to say more, but some tents are left better explored at one’s own pace. Enjoy.

The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan

Imagine a world that has grown tired of you. Not just tired, it has systematically and efficiently eliminated all of your kind. Except you. You are the last, and you are tired.

Jacob Marlowe is 200 years old. He’s literally been there, done that. Healthy and hunted, he makes evading the WOCOP (World Organisation for the Control of Occult Phenomena) look easy, even if it requires heels and makeup. Between his existential crisis and tortured memories, Jake feeds. He is blunt, jaded and consumed with ennui as he describes his appetites for flesh, devoured or sexually dominated, without holding back. He wants to die, but the world isn’t quite through with him yet. He cannot repress his murderous nature, nor does he try. He simply copes, and keeps moving.

Beyond a thinking plot (are humans really better?) there’s action aplenty. Graphic, brutal action. Duncan’s biting cynicism stands in stark relief from the cruel mechanisms of lycanthropy. Literary references and modern British prose can take several pages to encapsulate the reader, but the payoff is worth it in this unique take on a potentially exhausted genre.

Recommended for the reader seeking a good gory romp this Halloween. I’ll not give too much away, but we may see more of Duncan’s universe. ( I hope so!)

Dream House

2011 Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz, Naomi Watts

Directed by Jim Sheridan

Anyone who has the slightest interest in basic psychology or dream interpretation probably knows the significance of a house – the family’s home – as a symbol for something else: the “self.” Upper floors in the house represent the higher consciousness while the basement represents the basic, primal, hidden aspects of the personality, and sometimes even the darker, negative desires. In other words, the condition of the house reflects the subject’s state of mind.

Dream House opens with Daniel Craig’s character choosing to leave a lucrative, successful job in the city to move to a suburban home with his wife (Rachel Weisz) and two little girls, where he will be a full-time writer. This is the house of their dreams where they spend their days painting and decorating, basking in their good fortune and the love they share.

It isn’t too long, though, before something sinister disturbs the tranquility of their idyllic existence. Strange and frightening figures lurk in the darkness outside, scaring the children as well as Mom and Dad. One night Dad is awakened by a strange noise and searches the house to find a group of teenage goths partying in the basement.

Dream House Movie Poster

In search of a reason for these happenings and protection for his family, Dad starts making inquiries and discovers that their “dream house” was the scene of a grisly murder five years before – a mother and two daughters were shot to death by their husband/father who was unable to stand trial for the murders due to his impaired mental state. He spent five years in a mental facility and has just been released. Could this be the man seen lurking in the shadows, watching the family who now occupy the house? Is he a danger to them? The one sympathetic neighbor (Naomi Watts) who talks to Daniel Craig also seems to be hiding something. Does she know something about the house or the murders that she isn’t willing to disclose?

Piecing together the puzzle of what’s going on takes Daniel Craig into some very dark corners of his own mind; the truth he discovers threatens not only his sanity but the very existence of his family. Before long the beautiful house of his dreams takes on the appearance of a deserted, dilapidated house of horrors. But how much is real – and how much is only in his mind?

Jim Sheridan has infused an otherwise run-of-the-mill suspense film with believable scenarios, relying not on shock and gore as so-called “entertainment,” choosing instead to thoroughly develop sympathetic and likable characters. Even when what you might think is the “big reveal” occurs sooner than expected, the story has you hooked and demands full attention through to the end. Daniel Craig’s excellent performance as a man driven to madness trying desperately to protect his family elevates it from a somewhat predictable thriller to an absorbing character study. A demonstration of his exceptional acting skills is provided while watching him come to the inevitable realization of the actual truth. And the one or two scenes giving us a satisfying look at those ripped abs doesn’t hurt a bit.

Cosmic Twins rating: Double Serving

Room

Room
 
Imagine living in an 11×11 foot room for all of your life with nothing but a soundproof sky-light and an old television as windows to the outside world. Imagine that your only friends are the furniture and occasional insects that inhabit this room. 
 
This is the setting for 5-year-old narrator Jack and his Ma in Emma Donoghue’s 
Man Booker Prize winning novel, Room.
 
The reader is invited into Jack’s world on his fifth birthday, and one gets a glimpse 
of the horror of their situation and the undeniable bond of love between a mother 
and her child. Jack is an extremely intelligent and curious child and his mother has 
realized now that Jack has turned five and has even more questions than ever that it is time for her to tell him the truth about her kidnapping and his subsequent birth at the hands of their captor, “Old Nick.”  
 
To complicate matters further, Ma has told Jack for his whole life, in an effort to make his situation more bearable, that the people, things and places he has seen on television and read in his collection of five books are all make believe. Now Jack has to struggle with the reality of his existence in a world much larger than the confines of Room.

Room is a beautiful and poignant look at the human will to survive and the deep bond between a mother and child and the lengths that they will go to for each other.

Moneyball

 

2011 Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Phillip Seymour Hoffman

“It’s hard not to get romantic about baseball,” says Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) in this latest sports movie. Really? What’s so romantic about baseball? From my perspective, having enjoyed my fair share of T-ball and Little League seasons, it’s a fairly slow-paced, usually long game that inspires grown men to spout obscure statistics and get practically misty-eyed talking about legendary players. Isn’t it a kids’ game that grown-ups have turned into a multi-billion dollar business? Well… sort of, but maybe it’s also more than that.

Inspired by the book about the real Billy Beane and actual events in 2002-2003, Moneyball tells the story of how one team’s General Manager (the GM for those who are more familiar with professional sports than I am) changed the game of baseball forever by ignoring conventional wisdom about how to choose players to assemble a winning Major League Baseball team. The problem, apparently, has to do with the ability to afford players with the right combinations of certain outstanding skills.  A team such as the Oakland A’s, with a meager budget for player salaries, has practically no hope of competing with a lavishly funded team such as the New York Yankees. Rich teams dominate every season and go to the World Series year after year. Hence the entire title of the book by Michael Lewis: Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game.

In order to level the playing field, so to speak, someone, somehow must start to figure out how to put together a winning team on a tiny budget. Billy Beane stumbles upon fresh-faced, recent Yale graduate Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) with a degree in economics and a deep abiding love of baseball who seems to have the magic formula for just such a predicament. With Peter’s help and computer whiz-kid number crunching abilities, Billy starts acquiring players in a way that antagonizes more than one or two long-time A’s talent scouts, not to mention the team’s coach (Phillip Seymour Hoffman in a supporting role).

Moneyball Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill

Will this new method of team-building prove to be the right course, or will Billy be ridiculed out of a job? An added dimension to an already intriguing story is that Billy Beane gave up a full scholarship to Stanford University to play baseball in the Major Leagues. Recruited for his good looks and amazing abilities to hit, throw, run, and whatever else is required to be a baseball superstar, no one can adequately explain why Billy’s career as a professional player never really took off. Still craving the “wins,” Billy as a GM is still devoted to the game and probably has a unique insight into why Peter’s team-building choices could really work.

I’ve seen many sports-themed movies over the years, many about baseball: Mr. Baseball, The Natural, Angels in the Outfield, Eight Men Out, Bull Durham, Major League, The Rookie, and A League of Their Own, to name a few. I remember enjoying Field of Dreams, but not quite understanding the mysticism of it. Some of the better “sports-as-metaphor” non-baseball movies that I’ve enjoyed include The Mighty Ducks, Miracle, Remember the Titans, Bend it Like Beckham, Invictus, The Blind Side, etc. Moneyball is as good as any of these.

I’m not especially keen on any movie just because it involves sports, but I do like really good movies. Moneyball is a really good movie. It forgoes the mysticism of why baseball matters so much to so many fans and gives insight into what it’s really like to be a professional player and how the business side of the game takes a toll on the mind as well as the body. Surprisingly, perhaps, this film deftly gets to the heart of the matter by putting emotions front and center in a story about a subject that is dominated by statistics. At the very least, I’m starting to understand why some people find it “hard not to get romantic about baseball.” Hill was superb as the baseball-loving genius computer geek and (forgive me for using another sports metaphor here, but it actually is appropriate) Pitt hit it out of the park in his performance as athlete turned GM searching for a way to achieve the ultimate goal: winning the last game of the season.

Cosmic Twins Popcorn Rating: Full Bucket

Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed

Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed is, at the very least, a thought-provoking movie that may either get your blood boiling or leave you shaking your head at the absurd idea of Ben Stein (yep, the teacher from the move Ferris Bueller’s Day Off who monotoned his way to celebrity with the famous line “Bueller? Bueller? Bueller? Bueller?”) investigating why the American scientific community is apparently black-balling any one – regardless of status or credentials – who dares to even entertain the idea of Intelligent Design in a serious way. Stein’s main goal may be less rooted in an effort to promote Intelligent Design as a sound scientific theory than it is an effort to prevent the suppression of scientific inquiry in modern America. After all, wasn’t America founded on the principals of freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom of religion, and a whole host of other freedoms we would dearly love to take for granted?

Ben Stein - Expelled

Sure to be controversial and already panned by the majority of reviewers, this movie deserves to be viewed by open-minded people who may be unaware of the current state of science education in the U.S. Stein has uncovered an “elitist scientific establishment that has traded in its skepticism for dogma… and that allows absolutely no dissent from Charles Darwin’s theory of random mutation and natural selection. What freedom-loving American wouldn’t be outraged?” We enjoyed it immensely; it was surprisingly entertaining, and refreshingly thoughtful.

Excerpt from http://www.christianitytoday.com/movies/reviews/2008/expelled.html:

On the one hand, it does accomplish what its title infers. “Expelled” refers to several college profs and scientists who were reportedly denied tenure or lost their jobs because they dared to mention Intelligent Design (ID) in the classroom, in research papers, or on the job. The film presents these cases in varying degrees of detail, but always implying that a clear injustice was done in each situation. The film’s subtitle, “No Intelligence Allowed,” refers to what Stein and the filmmakers decry as a lack of “academic freedom” or “open inquiry” in academia and the scientific community. The movie argues that gatekeepers in those circles aren’t even allowing ID as a topic of discussion. Of course, filmmakers only depicted those situations which support their premise—the movie was made by a company called Premise Media—but ignore any cases of public school classrooms across America where ID theory is at least discussed, if not taught.

So, the film succeeds in making the point that Intelligent Design should at least be on the table for discussion. But if you’re looking for ammunition to argue your Darwinist friends under the table, you may want to look elsewhere. While Expelled certainly leans heavily toward the ID side of the debate, it’s not trying to present an airtight case, or to shut the door on evolutionary theory. But there are plenty of interesting interviews along the way, with scholars and scientists coming from all perspectives on the issue. And even though the filmmakers are ID believers, they didn’t merely throw softball questions to the experts on their side. They—mainly Stein, a decent interviewer—challenged many of the ID proponents’ claims, pushing them to further explanation and clarification.

And filmmakers can’t be accused of denying Darwin proponents equal opportunity—Dawkins, PZ Myers, Will Provine, and Eugenie Scott, among others, get plenty of screen time. While they certainly edited these interviews for their own purposes, it’s clear the filmmaker didn’t pull a cut-and-paste way-out-of-context fast one either—this is no Michael Moore hack job, slicing and splicing every which way so you have no clue what footage to trust, or not.

The film’s biggest flaw is a too-long segment where Stein explores Darwinism’s alleged connection to Hitler, Nazism, and the Holocaust, essentially implying that such horrific events are almost a necessary result of belief in evolution. In an interview with CT Movies, Stein said he was especially taken by the book From Darwin to Hitler, saying that “It’s about how Darwin’s theory . . . led to the murder of millions of innocent people.” Well, maybe, or maybe not. That may be a theme to be more fully explored in another documentary, but for the purposes of this film, it seemed too tangential.

But another result of wartime Germany did not seem tangential—recurrent images of the Berlin Wall as a metaphor for the supposed “wall” in academia and scientific circles, the wall that represents the two “sides” of the debate. The filmmakers—and Stein—would say that the wall is very real, that it was constructed by the “thought police” of the scientific community (read: evolutionists) who have no intent of allowing ID proponents any access to the other side.

I.e., no intelligence allowed. It’s not even up for discussion. And the film leaves us wondering, “Why not?”

Cosmic Twins Popcorn Rating: Double Serving