Thursday, July 19, 2012

Movie Review: The Dark Knight Rises

Christopher Nolan does not yet have an Academy Award for directing a film.  Think about that when you're walking out of the theater after seeing this film tomorrow (or this weekend, or next week), and realize, as I have, what an outrage it will be if he doesn't at least earn a nomination for his work on this Batman trilogy, particularly for creating a third and final installment that closes the series just about perfectly.

A few tidbits right off the bat about what made this film such a wonderful experience for a fan who, like many, has been anticipating its arrival since 2008:

1.  Tom Hardy acts just about as well as anyone can with use of about 20% of his face, so definite kudos there.  Anne Hathaway is also surprisingly compelling as Cat Woman/Selina Kyle.

2.  Other performances that are downright spectacular include those from Joseph Gordon Levitt, Michael Caine, and Matthew Modine (and a note on him:  is it pure coincidence that not only is his character as annoyingly stubborn as a certain former president, but Modine even resembles him a bit?).

3.  Hans Zimmer's musical score, as in the previous two films, is impeccable.  It ties the film together thematically while incorporating critical parts of the previous installments' motifs, which left me with an additional underlying feeling of unity between the stories, something you certainly don't get with most films and their sequels.

4.  Maybe it's simply because this film is the most current, but the destruction and fear presented on the screen feels more real--and more frighteningly plausible-- than ever before.  It's impossible not to feel on the edge of your seat.

5.  There is a, shall we say, patriotic moment just shy of the climax of Bane's reign of terror that is downright eerie.  It will literally give you chills (and you will know exactly which part I mean when you've seen the film).

The Dark Knight showed us the horrors that could emerge as a result of one man's thirst for chaos; its sequel takes things a step further by showing us chaos on a truly grand scale, and the unexpected ways in which such chaos can test us.  This installment brings us Bane, a super-strong, super-scary (he wears a mask all the time!  his voice sounds like a child's nightmare!) mercenary who wants to fulfill Ra's al Ghul's mission to raze Gotham to the ground.  The brilliance of this detail in particular is that it brings the trilogy full circle, taking us all the way back to Batman Begins and the original intention behind the League of Shadows, who trained Batman in his fightin' ways.  Bane operates in a manner similar to The Joker, at least in philosophy:  preying on the already existent fears and tensions between people, which in this film find themselves heavily rooted in politics and the ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor.  Not referencing the explosion of animosity between the 99 and 1 percent would make the film feel less relevant to the modern viewer, something Nolan realizes and makes certain to incorporate seamlessly. 

It is also here in the final film of the trilogy that Christian Bale seems to find his footing as Bruce Wayne/Batman at last, balancing between his old arrogance and the anguish that has manifested as a result of the events of The Dark Knight.  Wayne is broken, largely due to his lingering guilt over Rachel's death, and doesn't want to play his role as Batman anymore.  His eventual return to action is a slow burn to which many factors contribute, making it all the more satisfying to see him finally put the suit back on and take to the streets of Gotham once again.  Bale found himself somewhat overshadowed in The Dark Knight by his peers' performances (as well as the superior material they were given to work with), but here he makes Bruce/Batman almost likeable again, and definitely more relatable.

One of the more striking elements of the story (and one of the few I can really discuss without any significant spoilers), is the character study of the men I'll refer to as "the three orphans of Gotham."  We have Bruce Wayne, whose story we've heard (and seen) innumerable times; we also have rookie character and police officer John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who empathizes with Bruce yet retains the idealism Wayne never quite had; and finally, we have Bane, abandoned by just about everyone he loved and resigned to using his physical strength as a means of expressing his pain.  Nolan is doing something compelling by having these three juxtaposed so closely together; their individual actions and insights show how different and strangely similar their circumstances have made them, and the heroic (or anti-heroic, in Bane's case) attributes of each seem to highlight those of the other two.  It seems yet another fantastic illustration (this trilogy is so very good at these) of how just one nuance in our choices can make us a completely different person than we might otherwise have been.  And after all, Batman has always been about choices, hasn't it?  I can't think of a better way to really drive this home in the last leg of the story.

Are there are a couple of flaws in this film?  Sure.  The romance that crops up in this installment feel less than sizzling, and finds itself both ill-timed and poorly executed.  Then again, I have yet to find a superhero movie that also deals really well with a realistic romantic relationship--it's often the first thing sacrificed in the name of creating more explosions or introducing additional plot twists.  The only other complaint that springs to mind about this film, though, is that some of the fights and action sequences feel a bit drawn out (keep in mind this is from someone who is admittedly not the biggest fan of such things), and again, this is probably due to the need to appeal to the summer blockbuster crowd, not all of whom would be willing to sit through nearly three hours of complex plotting and nuanced references to the previous two films as well as their comic book origins without an explosion or two.

Of course, everyone and their brother is going to inevitably compare this film to its predecessor, which is (arguably) one of the better films ever made.  The Dark Knight (2008) was special because it had The Joker, who supplied the film with two critical things:  the first was an absolutely unbeatable performance from the late Heath Ledger, the second was a staggering degree of unpredictability.  The Dark Knight Rises' plot twists don't hold quite the same shock value as those we saw in the previous film, particularly because so many of the big 'twist' moments have their origins in the comics, which have been around and available for decades (so actually they're not really 'spoilers' at all); even Bane in all his terrifying glory has features you can anticipate once you've seen a scene or two and grasped his M.O.  His plan is to introduce anarchy, similar to The Joker, but said plan has a very clear and distinct structure, complete with deadlines; whereas with Ledger's Joker you felt he honestly could do just about anything at any time.  So yes, The Dark Knight Rises falls ever so slightly short of our collectively elevated expectations in this sense.

That does not, by any stretch of the imagination, make it any less of a cinematic achievement.  The Dark Knight Rises does everything a good 'last leg of the trilogy' film should do, and does all of those things very, very well.  The Dark Knight's intention was to take you from the foundation laid in Batman Begins and plunge you into a state of uncertainty and emotional investment, raising the stakes significantly by the end of its tale.  The task of The Dark Knight Rises, then, is to bring that excitement up to a fever pitch, then bring you back down in time for a cathartic conclusion.  Those expecting this film to look exactly like The Dark Knight are expecting the wrong film entirely, and will inevitably be disappointed.  For an interesting interpretation of how Christopher Nolan may have structured the trilogy (and how we can see The Dark Knight Rises succeeding in its particular role) I refer you to this article , in which the author explores the mission of each film as part of a kind of triptych of storytelling.  He also speculates at length about what will happen in The Dark Knight Rises (the article was written in 2011), getting some things (I won't say which here, don't worry) almost exactly right, which only adds weight to his theory about what Nolan is attempting beneath the already dense surface of these films.

I wouldn't dream of giving away the ending, but suffice it to say, The Dark Knight Rises ends on a truly satisfying note, one that befits the two preceding films as well as it does the two preceding hours.  Several loose ends are tied up (or in some cases, just a bit less loose) in a way that shows the care and craftsmanship that went into this story.  The conclusion is beautiful as well as cathartic, and though it feels like a firm rounding out of the tail end of Batman's saga, the door is left open just a crack for some intriguing possibilities down the road.

In other words, exactly as it should be.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Movie Review: The Amazing Spider-Man

This film is already taking the box office by storm (remember that despite the odd decision to open it on a Tuesday, its opening weekend is technically not even over yet), which would seem to earn it some credibility in the face of no small amount of skepticism.  Fans, critics, and the general public alike (myself among them) wondered why another installment of Spider Man's saga was necessary, particularly so soon after the most recent trilogy's conclusion, and especially given that the new film as pitched seemed like it would retell parts of the legendary tale that we'd already seen on screen.  And maybe it was curiosity that drove millions to theaters this week to check out the Marc Webb (500 Days of Summer) directed re-boot-- that was definitely part of the motivation for me (that, and a possibly unhealthy love of all things Andrew Garfield).  Already people have asked me if the new film is better or worse than the 2002 version, and I have to say, I think that is not the question we should be asking.  The real question is, do we need both of these Spider Man films?  And the answer, surprisingly, is yes.

Let's recall first the release of the first Tobey Maguire/Sam Raimi Spider-Man.  It was the spring of 2002, and at least here in the US, the atmosphere was still tense and fearful in the aftermath of September 11th.  The film industry seemed almost as lost as we were-- I can't for the life of me recall any truly inspiring or exciting films that came out and took us by storm during the beginning of 2002.  But then Spider-Man came along and we were surprised to realize that we were ready to go to the movies again, ready to be inspired and feel that sense of hope some of us had thought we'd lost.  And the Spider-Man of 2002 was the perfect film to provide that for us.  If we had gone out to the theaters that spring to find a British actor starring in a film that had a lot of confusing nuances about good and evil, its appeal would have been lost on us.  I know that for me, as a then-thirteen year old, the reboot's intentions and probably parts of its plot would have sailed right over my head.  But Raimi and co. knew what they were doing, and they knew the audience they were doing it for.  Spider-Man had a tidy plot with a clear good vs. evil framework; a hero who quickly developed the kind of confidence and swagger (well, at least as much swagger as a nerdy white teenager can have) that we thought we ourselves had lost; not to mention it was set in New York City, which at the time was considered by many the heart of our nation.  American flags, a certain degree of solidarity among the city dwellers, and a strong message of perseverance colored and enhanced what might have been an otherwise mediocre film, and its release could not have been more timely.

Here in 2012, only ten years later, we have a different set of expectations for our superhero films.  We turned a significant corner with 2008's The Dark Knight, which managed to integrate the age-old ideas behind comic book heroes into a complicated, chaotic, and thoroughly modern world.  The success of the film (and the popularity of its villain) illustrated that we were a country and an audience grown darker, and that we wanted our movies to reflect that.  I would wager that 2002's Spider-Man released now, with our thick veil of cynicism in place, would not fare as well.  There was a degree of almost magic about that film, the idea of accidents and coincidences turning out for the best a core part of its mythology, and back then we needed to see that kind of movie.  Now, though, we want a hero who is deeply flawed, who might stumble and fall along the way, who just wants to be normal, whatever that means.  The Amazing Spider-Man achieves this, with Andrew Garfield's spot-on combination of awkwardness and brooding, as well as a staunch unwillingness to mask his emotions (or, indeed, his face--he just kept taking off that darn mask!).  Garfield's Spider-Man represents this generation so accurately that he feels relateable, almost painfully so.  I think the key to understanding why we need both of these films lies in the portrayal:  today's teenager would struggle to realistically identify with Maguire's optimistic, almost bright and shiny Peter Parker; nor could the kids of 2002 get on board with Garfield's more contemplative, conflicted incarnation.  Just goes to show, I suppose, that a decade can make a world of difference.

The minds behind The Amazing Spider-Man knew, obviously, that they were headed into potentially hostile territory in making this film, and the balance they manage to strike between paying respect to what we've already seen of the story and re-examining or altering the details is highly satisfying.  It feels reverent without being over the top, showing that this isn't an attempt to erase what has already been written, but to supplement it with a deeper understanding of how this all came about.

And in the end that's what I loved most about The Amazing Spider-Man:  it wasn't your average action-filled, simple plot movie.  In fact, I was kind of amazed at how long it took for us to actually arrive at the first significant action sequence.  Once you've seen the whole film, however, you find yourself realizing that the depth with which it paints the characters makes you feel that much more connected to them.  Garfield's Peter Parker/Spider-Man spends more time simply sitting and thinking than any superhero I think I've ever seen in a film, but for his character it makes so much sense.  You'd be disappointed, I think, to see him simply throw himself into being Spider-Man without much consideration for the consequences, after the way his character is introduced and fleshed out.  Gwen Stacy is a similarly interesting character, in that we get so much more valuable information about who she is than we ever did with Mary Jane Watson.  Gwen cottons on to the danger of dating a superhero right away--she's even the one who points the problem out to Peter!  She's also much more autonomous:  every time she winds up in danger it's because she's put herself there intentionally with the goal of helping the people she loves.  Sure, she does need to be rescued occasionally (I think technically that only happens once in the film) because this is a superhero movie after all, but you definitely aren't left wondering whether she can hold her own.  This, I think, is another mark of how far we've come (all political women's rights issues aside)-- the 2012 audience demands a female lead who isn't simply there to look pretty (even though she does, because gosh darn it Emma Stone is adorable). 

The film also strives to emphasize that, even given these amazing powers, Peter Parker is never going to be some larger-than-life iconic figure.  This is illustrated beautifully in a climactic scene in which Spider-Man is trying to rescue a young boy from a burning vehicle.  His words and his expression show real terror, like he knows he has no business being there trying to act the hero.  There are also some great scenes with his aunt and uncle that illustrate those relationships in a much more satisfying way than the original film (the fact that in this version Uncle Ben and Aunt May are portrayed by Martin Sheen and Sally Field also helps).  Peter's motivations for nearly all of his actions as Spider-Man are also inextricably linked to his deep need to understand and feel connected to his family, first in his search for an old friend of his father's and later in his quest to avenge Uncle Ben's death.  This seems to me significantly better motivation than wanting to buy a car to impress a pretty girl.

Overall, this film has an emotional core that I wasn't quite expecting--the cast is small but determined to provide genuine insight into each and every character, and to make sure that when those characters are placed in peril, it's gonna frickin' hurt.  It also leaves the door wide open for a sequel that could go in almost any direction and which is sure to be capable of equally heart-wrenching moments--let's not forget that in the comic books Gwen Stacy dies horrifically when Spider-Man fails to save her from the Green Goblin.  Given the acting abilities of Stone and Garfield as well as how well this film has invested us in their relationship, I'm already dreading this moment in the inevitable sequel.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Emmys 2012: Who Should (and Who Will) Get a Nod

It's nearly that time again, that time when I will inevitably be disappointed by the disparity between who I fervently believe ought to be recognized for their work on television, and who will actually be nominated come July 19th.  Thus I've compiled a list of predictions here, to be taken with a heavy grain of salt (most of them are just who I'm personally pulling for after a season spent studying television avidly), of some of the individuals who likely will receive a nomination, and those who are already (and will sadly only ever be) winners in my mind.

Best Supporting Actress, Drama:

Maisie Williams, Game of Thrones
Now I know people aren't going to take me seriously on this one (despite the fact that the execs at HBO themselves submitted Williams for consideration), but I am absolutely convinced that this girl deserves some recognition.  Her scenes with Charles Dance in particular were extremely impressive, and for me definitely improved a couple of episodes that were otherwise just a little lackluster.  I don't think she's ready/has enough of a presence on the show just yet to merit a win (I'm pretty sure Christina Hendricks is the actress to beat in this category this year), but a nomination would be huge for the show and for Williams.  And no, I'm definitely not biased because she portrays my favorite character in the entire series.

Christina Hendricks, Mad Men
I'm not nearly caught on up Mad Men yet, but the buzz surrounding Hendricks and her performances during the series' long-awaited fifth season are almost impossible to avoid.  I love the character of Joan, and from what I can tell she's come a long way since we met her five years ago.  Hendricks certainly deserves a win, even if she's not my personal favorite of the bunch.

Jessica Capshaw, Grey's Anatomy 
Another one I feel some people might scoff at, given the somewhat depleted reputation Grey's has had in the past couple of years.  However, as someone who loyally watched every week this season and tracked the many, many goings-on at Seattle Grace with renewed enthusiasm, I would like to honestly endorse Ms. Jessica Capshaw, who plays Dr. Arizona Robbins on the show.  I know a lot of people would like to see Sandra Oh recognized for her work this season (and I acknowledge she did have quite the dramatic arc), I think what Capshaw did with her character's admittedly diminished screen time was much more subtle and at least equally, if not more, impressive.

Maggie Smith, Downton Abbey 
I think Smith is a shoe-in for a nomination again this year, because her character has emerged as the representative icon for this show as it has exploded in popularity.  Sure, some of the Dowager Countess' zingers lacked a little of their season one sting, but we got to see a different side of her during some of the more dramatic scenes during this past season.  That, and Maggie Smith is a gosh-darn living legend, people.  

Best Supporting Actor, Drama:

Peter Dinklage, Game of Thrones
Can you tell yet that Game of Thrones is pretty much the only drama I watch regularly?  Well, that and Downton Abbey, but I think the second season of the former did a better job avoiding the sophomore slump than the latter.  Peter Dinklage will definitely be nominated-- his character and the actor himself are fan favorites-- but whether he'll win is still up for debate.

Best Supporting Actress, Comedy:
I think it speaks to how wonderful some of the comedic ensembles on TV are right now that I can think of many more candidates for the Supporting categories than the Lead ones.  The six women here (and the six men in the next section) are the result of narrowing down an even lengthier list of deserving candidates.

Aubrey Plaza, Parks and Recreation
Plaza continued to do something amazing during Parks' fourth season:  slowly growing a heart in the once-empty chest of one April Ludgate while continuing to be snarky and hilarious to boot.   Her arc this season had her growing up alongside her husband Andy, from tackling an ambitious bucket list to auditing college courses to making steps (baby steps, sure, but steps nonetheless) toward actual careers and adulthood.  She also surprised just about everyone by turning out to be the most logical stand-in for Leslie at the Parks Department during the latter's campaign.  She did set up Tom and Ann, who quickly became one of the more tedious couples on television, but I think we can forgive her that one.

Eliza Coupe, Happy Endings
She plays the neurotic, sometimes too-serious Jane to absolute perfection every week.  Coupe is an example of someone who knows her character so well you get the sense she could play the part in her sleep.  She also adds a different nuance to the show's humor, with most of her co-stars relying on more goofy humor in contrast to her snark. This is a show that is gaining more and more momentum with each episode, and it's about time it (and its performers) started gaining the recognition they deserve.  I'd love to see that start with Eliza Coupe.

Kristen Wiig, Saturday Night Live
This season on SNL was basically The Kristen Wiig Show, featuring Some Other People.  And hey, she's earned it.  Wiig has been honing her craft and only getting funnier since she started on the show, inventing dozens of hilarious and memorable characters and helping to bring the show back from a bit of a slump.  I would honestly love to see Wiig honored for her last year on the show, and I think a lot of other people would, too.

Julie Bowen, Modern Family
 I'm including her in here not because Modern Family's third season was really awards-worthy, but because Bowen and her on-screen counterpart, Ty Burrell, continue to be consistently funny even in the face of lackluster writing and beaten-to-death jokes.  That, and she'll almost definitely be nominated, and I don't want people thinking I guessed wrong.

Maya Rudolph, Up All Night
Her crazy talk show host Ava provided some often much-needed wackiness to the plight of the Brinkleys during the show's freshman season.  I'm not expecting a win (I'm not even realistically expecting a nomination), but Rudolph would be my pick to round out this category, and I'd like to see the show get a nod to recognize the things it has done well so far.

Cobie Smulders, How I Met Your Mother 
Normally things get complicated when the Emmys try to honor someone for their more dramatic work in the comedy category; however, it is not unprecedented.  And Smulders did some fantastic work with Robin's personal arc this season, carrying the action during several episodes that were a bit less than the show's gold standard.

Best Supporting Actor, Comedy:

Nick Offerman, Parks and Recreation
 Not giving this man the win in this category would be an outrage.  Not giving him a nomination would be a crime, for which I would expect the Emmy voters to be arrested immediately.  Offerman keeps Ron Swanson dimensional, intriguing, and hilarious episode after episode, and after four seasons has not disappointed yet.  Also, Offerman is one half of the team presenting the nominations on July 19th, so it'd be kind of an additional bummer for him to have to stand there while he goes unrecognized in his category yet again.

Danny Pudi, Community
Let's be honest here.  Abed was the true star of Community's third season.  He carried many of the major plots, and played a character who was equal parts multi-faceted and dramatic as well as hilarious in his own, hyper observant way.  Pudi deserves a nomination at the very least; it would be a damn shame to let an episode like "Virtual Systems Analysis" go to waste.

Chris Pratt, Parks and Recreation
Pratt's Andy is consistently funny, every single episode, and he owes that less to his cemented status as the resident lovable dummy than to Chris Pratt's impeccable timing and instincts.  He is that rare performer who I absolutely believe is capable of taking material that lies flat on the page and taking to a whole new and unexpected level.  I'd love to see all the men (and ladies) of Parks up for nominations, but I'll settle for at least this guy.

Aziz Ansari, Parks and Recreation
Again, consistently funny, and Ansari was given a bit more to work with this season with Tom's Entertainment 720 story line (we can just ignore the Tom/Ann arc, right?).  I think Aziz is repeatedly underestimated and undervalued, and that he deserves a shot at this prize at least as much as any of the increasingly boring dudes over on Modern Family.

Rainn Wilson, The Office
Wilson deserves a medal for carrying The Office this season.  It seemed the show could not go on without Michael Scott (and in many ways, it has failed to do so), and even fan favorites Jim, Pam, and Andy seemed to fall flat in season 8.  But it was Dwight--crazier than ever, always power-hungry Dwight--who continued to strive for hilarity every damn time.  Give him the recognition he deserves for accomplishing a seemingly impossible feat.

Ty Burrell, Modern Family
Burrell will be nominated, and he's the only Modern Family cast member I feel has actually earned it again.  He continues to combine his awkward humor with some genuine emotional moments in a way that is just downright pleasing to watch.

Best Actress, Comedy:

Amy Poehler, Parks and Recreation
If Amy Poehler doesn't walk away with this award this year there is just no justice in the world.  This was the year she took a character (Leslie Knope) whom most people found annoying at best when the series premiered, and brought her to an unexpected and absolutely delightful moment of triumph and likeability.  That's on top of her never-wavering ability to be both the most sincere character on television as well as one of the most hilarious.

Lena Dunham, Girls
Dunham will get a nomination, as the Emmy voters are perennially in love with quirky new shows as well as pretty much anything to air on HBO.  Throw in the fact that Judd Apatow has a producer credit, and they'll be queuing up to hand awards to the girls of Girls (see what I did there?).  I'm perfectly okay with Dunham being nominated, but there is no universe (and I think she'd agree) in which she deserves this award over Amy Poehler.

Zooey Deschanel, New Girl
 Ugh.  Much as I'd like to hope people are over Deschanel and Jess Day, I'm sure they aren't.  I'm sure she'll be nominated, but again, Poehler is the one to top here.

Tina Fey, 30 Rock
Another likely lock for a nomination, but 30 Rock's sixth season just didn't measure up to its predecessors.  I think Fey is also the co-nominee most likely to be outraged alongside me if Amy Poehler doesn't win.

...Is it clear yet who I'm rooting for here?  I basically watch the Emmys to see if they finally validate Poehler and Parks.  I hope this is the year I'm finally not disappointed.

Best Actor, Comedy:

Joel McHale, Community
I think this nomination would please me just because McHale probably takes himself the least seriously as an actor out of everyone in the field.  He really has grown as a performer and as a character on Community, though, and it shows throughout season three.  I would also love to hear his acceptance speech.

Adam Scott, Parks and Recreation
Oh Ben Wyatt, do you even understand how many women out there adore you?  That alone would be reason enough for Scott to deserve a nomination.  But romance aside, Ben had a lot of wonderfully witty, genuine moments of his own this season on Parks, which is why the powers that be likely saw fit to submit him for consideration as a Lead Actor.  I will definitely be rooting for him come Emmy night.

Best Drama:

Game of Thrones
I just love this show so much, and I would love for it to unseat a favorite like Homeland or Mad Men.  Let's show the world (or at least, the fraction of the world who pay attention to the Emmy awards) that a little show about dragons and magic and kings and kick-ass ladies can beat a navel-gazing drama or a lackluster procedural fair and square.

Downton Abbey
Downton took a big risk moving themselves to this category (they could have dominated in the Mini-Series department), and I'm not entirely sure it will pay off, given the competition.  I'd love to see it creep into the list of nominees, though, and I think it has a decent chance at doing so.

Mad Men
Will be nominated, will probably win.  Will probably surprise no one.

Breaking Bad
Again unsurprising, though a potential contender to unseat Mad Men

Best Comedy:

Parks and Recreation
Please, TV gods, please just once give the award to my all-time favorite comedy series.  Please.

Modern Family
The third season was extremely sub-par compared to the previous two, and I think everyone knows it, but doesn't want to admit it because of the show's popularity.  This will win if the Emmy voters continue their unfortunate habit of simply checking the same names year after year.
Happy Endings
More people need to be watching (and appreciating) this show.  End of story.  But seriously, this is one of the best ensemble casts on TV, with some of the sharpest writing. Hopefully Emmy voters take notice.

Maybe all the controversy over its near-cancellation, move to Friday nights, and loss of producer Dan Harmon will finally have earned this show the notice it so sorely deserves.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Reading List Round-Up 2012: Books 34-45

After realizing last time around that I'd gotten more than a little behind on this resolution (that'll happen when real-life things like job changing and moving house take over your time and energy), I've been scrambling to catch up and try to get back on pace with my reading.  Although I didn't quite make it (I should be at 50 as of today, July 1st), I made more progress than I expected.  And in my defense, some of these books were really darn long (lookin' at you in particular, George RR Martin).  There wasn't really any discernible theme that linked these books together, except maybe that the ones that sounded great were only mediocre (Damned, Super Sad True Love Story), and the ones I wasn't initially psyched about (Paper Towns, A Feast for Crows) wound up grabbing hold of me and refusing to let go.

Crossers by Phillip Caputo

I am sad to say I didn't make it past page 60 on this one.  I usually make an effort to finish all the books I start, but this was just not my style at all, and there were too many other good books waiting for me to spend any more time on it.  If you're a fan of what was shaping up to be (based on what I read) something of a modern day Western with some apt social commentary thrown in, you might have more luck with this one than I did.

A Storm of Swords by George RR Martin

I'd heard it said that this is the best book in the series, and by the end of the first handful of chapters I was fully convinced of this fact.  It doesn't hurt that it has huge doses of my favorite characters (Arya Stark, Jon Snow, and Tyrion Lannister) and amazing plot twists (even though I was spoiled/fully prepared for arguably the book's biggest shocking turn of events, it still managed to make my heart race and bring tears to my eyes).  More than that, though,  the third installment of Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series just cements his status as a genius, because so many tiny seeds of information planted way back in the first novel come to fruition in ways I never even imagined, yet which make complete sense once they've all been laid on the table.  I can't talk much more about this one without completely nerding out and going overboard, but suffice it to say, if you're looking for a book series to get hooked on, this one would be a fabulous choice, and one that will keep you coming back for more.

The Friday Night Knitting Club by Kate Jacobs

This book could have been good were it not written by someone with a high school grasp of storytelling.  I realize how arrogant that must read, but seriously, there are pages of front-loaded character descriptions in the first chapter, wildly alternating point of view (as in, switching from one character to another within the same paragraph, which is a HUGE no-no unless you're some kind of stream of consciousness genius, which Jacobs is not), and just plain bad diction.  I wanted to get through this book quickly because the premise seemed charming and straightforward, but it was a challenge because I was so busy cringing and/or imagining how I might improve upon the prose.

Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut

Wonderful in that uniquely Vonnegut way-- this book is both funny and painfully accurate in its disconnected presentation of humanity, our values, and why we do the things we do.   And though it's still a little offbeat (though really, what did Vonnegut ever write that wasn't), this is definitely one of the more accessible of his novels, and one I would certainly recommend as a great introduction to an undervalued author. 

Damned by Chuck Palahniuk

Palahniuk's books have, in my opinion, been growing weaker with each passing year.  Even Tell All, the last of his more recent novels that I read, pales in comparison to his earlier work; and Damned, despite its admittedly imaginative premise and usual amount of trademark Chuck snark, was just plain forgettable.   Maybe I'm jaded; maybe I just have higher expectations of the man who brought us Fight Club.

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Schteynhart

As much as I admired a lot of the work Schteynhart put into constructing his bleak vision of America's future, it is always very difficult for me (and, I'm sure, many others) to really get on board with a novel where I absolutely loathe both of the main characters.  And yes, there are definitely characters in literature whom you hate in a good way, usually because their depravity intrigues you; but Leonard and Eunice, the two participants in the title's love story, are miserable, entitled, and spend most of the novel whining, unable to really put the global events around them into proper perspective.  I guess the best way to sum it up is to say that in the end, I didn't feel that the love story was all that sad at all-- mostly I was just overwhelmingly glad to be finished reading about it. 

50 Shades of Grey by E. L. James

Yup, I read it.  I'm not proud--curiosity got the better of me, okay? And it was even more awful than I'd anticipated.  You can read a full account of my journey into this trash at this link, but in summary I'll say that the controversial sex scenes you keep hearing about are far and away the least offensive, outrageous, and/or terrifying parts of this novel.  And I'm using the word "novel" extremely loosely.

A Feast for Crows by George R.R. Martin

So there's nothing bad about this book, strictly speaking, it's just a little bit underwhelming in the aftermath of Storm of Swords.  It's got a lot of fresh set-up and foundation laying to do, because of the million and one big reveals/payoffs at the end of Swords and the fact that there are three more books in the works, so as long as you keep that in mind A Feast for Crows still manages to be pretty enjoyable.  My only complaint is the narration choices, because in this book we're hearing primarily from characters who haven't been given their own chapters in the past, and for good reason.  Imagine if J.K. Rowling had decided to write Order of the Phoenix from the perspective of Winky the House Elf or Professor Sprout or Bellatrix LeStrange-- interesting perspectives, sure, but not necessarily who we want to hear from in the wake of everything that happened in the previous book.  A Feast for Crows also doesn't ever really achieve the same exciting pace as the previous novels, something probably to do with the POV characters and longer chapters, but maybe also just because it felt like we were getting an imbalance of background information compared to action in this book.

Onward by Howard Schultz

I got this book free since I was recently hired as a barista, which means there was no real reason not to read it.  I definitely found it interesting, and would recommend it to anyone who either works for Starbucks or patronizes them on a regular basis-- there are a lot of insights behind the practices and products that help clarify them.  Schultz writes in a very straightforward, clear style that is easy to follow and makes this a quick read as well.

Room:  A Novel by Emma Donoghue

It's clear from the first pages that this is not a book for everyone.  For those who (like me) are often pulled out of the story by a strange dialect or speech affect on the part of the narrator, it will be a struggle to get through this one, as the story is told entirely from the perspective of five-year-old Jack, a child who is living in captivity with his mother in a small room, which for him comprises an entire universe and meticulous routine.  As the story progresses, more and more of the world outside is revealed to Jack, and his mother is revealed to be much stronger and much more cunning than she initially appeared.  Interestingly, this one is based loosely on a true story.

Paper Towns by John Green

What a beautiful, strange, angsty little book.  Green manages to near-perfectly capture the adolescent voice and provides thoroughly relatable characters to boot.  There are some moments in here that it would be tempting to label as cliche, but the ending in particular more than compensates for that.  Additionally, this one took me about 2.5 hours to read, so it's a quick read that'll stick with you long after you've closed the book itself.

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

This book provides a touching fictionalized account of Ernest Hemingway's marriage to his first wife, Hadley, told from her point of view.  For anyone interested in all things related to Hemingway (like myself), this book is food for thought, if a bit trite and flowery at times.  Hadley somehow manages to come across as both whiny and surprisingly strong almost simultaneously.  McLain trips over herself occasionally in the prose, trying a bit too hard, perhaps, to emulate the writer around whom the action centers, but on the whole this is a fast, fun read.

Best Book:  A Storm of Swords by George RR Martin
Honorable Mention:  Paper Towns by John Green
Worst Book: Fifty Shades of Grey by E L James (absolutely unsurprising)
Fastest Read:  Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut