Monday, May 21, 2018

Downsizing: A Satire that Can Be Fun but also Dark

Movie Review: Downsizing (2017)
Version: Library Blu-Ray borrow

Downsizing is a social satire on the moment in which humanity realizes it cannot sustain its assault on the natural world. The story takes on life in the form of Paul Safranek (played affably by Matt Damon), who with his wife Audrey (played by Kristen Wiig) decide to join the downsizing movement, which seeks to reduce its environmental impact by becoming physically much smaller, thus reducing the size of its needs and the refuse it puts into the environment. All is going well as Paul and Audrey sell off their normal-scale belongings and prepare to downsize, right up until the moment the organization doing the downsizing shaves off all their bodily hair. Suddenly, Audrey isn't so sure about her commitment to the movement and, not coincidentally, Paul. But Paul doesn't find out until he has been irreversibly reduced to five inches tall.

Waking up in the much smaller world nude and vulnerable and concerned that Audrey isn't by his side as promised, Paul receives a phone call. It's Audrey. As her hair is being shaved and a single eyebrow has been removed, she realizes she has been doing this for Paul and what she really wants is to do something for her self. This sends Paul for a loop. What does she mean, she was doing it for Paul? They were in this together. And doing something for herself? What about him? But alas, it's too late and now Paul is on his own.

Paul is taken to his new home, a gigantic mansion -- now for one. But Audrey sues for divorce. When they sold off their assets it translated into much greater value in the smaller world, but now that is reduced severely with the settlement and Paul finds himself living in a small apartment, alone. He tries dating, meeting a single woman whom he invites to his unimpressive new home. But the neighbor upstairs is throwing a party, and it's too noisy for an intimate dinner. Asking the neighbor to tone it down, Paul meets Dusan Mirkovic (played by Christoph Waltz), a bon vivant character who has learned how to profit from the downsizing movement. And who, incidentally, has connections to the leader of the downsizing movement in Norway, Dr. Jorgen Asbjørnsen.

Invited to one of Mirkovic's parties, Paul meets figures from around the world who have joined the downsizing movement, and he is encouraged to join Mirkovic on a trip to Norway to meet Asbjørnsen. They make the journey, which takes them to the original downsized village, where they discover there is bad news: not enough people have joined the downsizing movement and global warming has resulted in the melting of the Arctic permafrost, releasing historic amounts of methane, which will result in a huge extinction event. The only way for humanity to survive is for the colony to retreat to a secure facility deep in the mountains, and Paul is invited to join them. Thus, Paul has a life-changing decision to make.

Early in Downsizing, this is a fun film, the screenwriters and director and crew envision a world in which people are made small and what life might be like that tiny. And how small people might live side by side with big people. Matt Damon is perfect in the role as Paul, doing his best to get along in life to make things better for others. But the story begins to take a dark turn when Audrey changes her mind, then divorces him, and his new life turns sour. Even when he meets Ngoc Lan Tran (played by Hong Chau), Mirkovic's apartment cleaner, and falls in love with her, there are bitter aspects to their story, keeping the story dark despite turns of humor. In the ending, it is deeply dark as we find out that Earth is struggling for survival.

As I said, Downsizing is a social satire. This film is a satire about humanity's struggle and often failure to do the right things. When they most count, humans often do what is best for themselves, as the character Audrey does, leaving in their wake those who live more largely by doing what is best for the whole, as the downsizing colony had been trying to do. Caught in the middle are those who try make the right decisions to make the world a better place.

This can be a depressing film watched to its end. Don't see it thinking it will be all fun. Do watch it for its message as warning about the future of our planet, however, because we are surely headed for an environmental apocalypse. There just isn't any way to downsize people to reduce their environmental footprint, and likely they wouldn't if given a choice anyway. Perhaps this film is more real thematically than we can imagine.

I give Downsizing enthusiastic thumbs-up for imagination. The juxtaposition between small and large worlds is fun, and the bit about shaving big people before and exposing their vulnerability is very interesting. However, it was a little strange to see how small Paul's apartment was only to see him go upstairs one floor and see how expansive Mirkovic's apartment was -- that looked like a plot hole. And as satire can be, it seemed a bit preachy under the surface. I get the idea, but are you willing to sit through a film with a message?

To recap, Downsizing is initially a fun story about people downsizing to save the planet that turns dark and depressing at the end. It has definite fun moments, but you may have to fight to stick with it to the end.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

The Greatest Showman: One of the Great Musical Films of Our Times

Movie Review: The Greatest Showman (2017)
Version: Cable on-demand purchase

I've heard lots of good things about The Greatest Showman, and now I've seen them. Electrifying performances and wonderful music and dance scenes make it one of the great musical films of our times. Key to it is the talent of lead actor Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum.

P.T. or Phineas or Phin as his character is variously called during the story starts out as a penniless orphan in rough city streets, but he gets a break working for the railroad and works his way up to the finance division. He marries his lifelong sweetheart, Charity, the daughter of a wealthy man who has no appreciation for the uncouth upstart but can't stop his daughter from marrying Barnum. When the railroad goes belly up, Barnum uses a "borrowed" issue of company stock a collateral for a loan to start a introduce a museum of amazing wax figures, which is an immediate flop. Then Barnum gets the idea to gather the area's oddballs and freaks to perform before the common people in a warehouse theater, and it's a success, although local people think it's an abomination, egged on by poor reviews by high-brow critics. Barnum taps the creative wits of a successful but unhappy theatrical writer and producer, Phillip Carlyle, who he hopes can attract a more high-brow audience. Carlyle does his best, but it's an uphill battle, until he arranges for Barnum to meet Europe's finest opera singer, Jenny Lind, and Barnum finally gets his chance to up his credentials among the elites. But at what cost to the rest of the cast, the show, and worst of all, his family?

Now, the other performances in this film are great. Zac Efron is great at Carlyle. Zendaya is beautiful as the trapeze artist who becomes Carlyle's love interest. Michele Williams plays Barnum's devoted wife, Charity. Rebecca Ferguson shines as the elegant Jenny Lind. And among the oddity and freak show performers, Keala Settle is commanding as Lettie Lutz the bearded lady while Sam Humphrey is lovable as Tom Thumb the dwarf with an often scalding sense of humor. But the actor to commands the center of the screen at all times -- ironically, the ringleader of the circus -- is Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum. Without him in the lead, this film would not be as powerful. His swagger, his verve, his expression, his whole-body commitment to character and performance make this film. In fact, as I watched the end of the film, I noticed that when Barnum hands off the circus ringleader job to Carlyle, try as he might, Zac Efron diminished the performance. He couldn't have carried off Jackman's role. Jackman is that good!

As much as the performances were important to this film, so was the music, written by the Academy Award lyricists of La La Land. The lyrics were stirring, many as stirring as the pieces for Les Misérables (in which Jackman was also the lead actor).

There is so much to enjoy in watching The Greatest Showman. You can't miss it. Now that it's available on DVD and Blu-Ray, you can enjoy it at home with the whole family.

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

The Man Who Invented Christmas: The Story Behind the Story

Book Review: The Man Who Invented Christmas by Les Standiford
Version: CloudLibrary borrow

Practically everyone knows the story of A Christmas Carol, usually from the many films based on the book. But how many of us know the story behind the story? I recently reviewed the movie about Charles Dickens's struggle to write A Christmas Carol, but this is my take on the book on which that movie was based.

I read the book, The Mad Who Invented Christmas, subtitled "How Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits" to see if the film was speculative fiction imagining what it was like for Dickens to write his classic tale, or if it was fact-based biography. It is, in fact, a biography and well told.

Here is the synopsis of the book provided on Amazon.com:

Just before Christmas in 1843, a debt-ridden and dispirited Charles Dickens wrote a small book he hoped would keep his creditors at bay. His publisher turned it down, so Dickens used what little money he had to put out A Christmas Carol himself. He worried it might be the end of his career as a novelist.
The book immediately caused a sensation. And it breathed new life into a holiday that had fallen into disfavor, undermined by lingering Puritanism and the cold modernity of the Industrial Revolution. It was a harsh and dreary age, in desperate need of spiritual renewal, ready to embrace a book that ended with blessings for one and all.
With warmth, wit, and an infusion of Christmas cheer, Les Standiford whisks us back to Victorian England, its most beloved storyteller, and the birth of the Christmas we know best. The Man Who Invented Christmas is a rich and satisfying read for Scrooges and sentimentalists alike.

Now, this is a fairly accurate description of the story line to the book. I'm not sure about the "warmth, wit, and an infusion of Christmas cheer", but the rest of it fits. You learn all about the Dickens's life at the time of his writing of A Christmas Carol and his life that may have led to his imagining of the characters and settings and the story itself. I'm told by others that Dickens was a dismal husband and father, and that isn't reflected in this book.

Also interesting in this read is the history of book publishing and sales and how they factored into Dickens's writing and publishing of his book. For instance, most of his books were first serialized in magazines, then compiled into books, advertised in newspapers and magazines. Book stores didn't emerge until publishing houses needed to find a way to sell excess stock and created stores at their facilities, where readers could browse titles. You know those book stalls you see at airports? They got their start in railway stations in Britain as publishers marketed excess stocks of books to travelers on trains. For A Christmas Carol, Dickens went around the serialization process and published directly as a book.

The Man Who Invented Christmas also goes into Dickens's frequently repeated themes of Christmas and charity in his other books. So, this book isn't just about A Christmas Carol. It's an exploration of his whole persona and his ideals.

As any book will do, it goes well beyond the scope of the movie based on the book. I found it an interesting and compelling read. If you are a Dickens fan, you will want to read The Man Who Invented Christmas.

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

The Monk of Mokha: No Better Book to Curl Up With a Cup of Coffee

Book Review: The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers
Version: CloudLibrary borrow

The Monk of Mokha is the story of Mokhtar Alkhanshali, a very young Yemeni American searching for his life's destiny in an uncertain world. At the same time, it's the story of coffee, in particular coffee from Yemen, which though it isn't the origin of the coffee plant it is the origin of cultivated coffee and probably the finest coffee in the world.

Mokhtar was very young when his parents, immigrants from Ibb, Yemen, uprooted him from New York City and moved him to San Francisco, California. As with most immigrants, Mokhtar's parents worked hard and expected much from their son, but he didn't have the drive or the passion to study as they wanted him to -- they wanted him to do well in school and become a lawyer. His life would take him in a different direction.

You see, Mokhtar seemed hopelessly lost academically, so his parents sent him to stay with his grandfather in Yemen for a year. There, he learned personal discipline and passion for a purpose. He also saw how people in the third world lived. When he returned to San Francisco, Mokhtar was a changed young man. He studied more fruitfully, although he still didn't see this parent's vision for his future. Within him kindled an entrepreneurial spirit. He took on many low-paying jobs, including one as a doorman at a luxury apartment building in the Embarcadero District. It was there he became impassioned with coffee and saw the statue of the Monk of Mokha at the Hills Brothers headquarters building across the street from the apartment complex and the story of coffee's origins. You can actually see the statue if you look for the Hills Brothers building on Google Maps at 2 Harrison Street and take the Street View tour to The Embarcadero side of the building, just around the corner from Harrison Street.

(Photo from Google Maps Street View)

While Mokhtar visited his grandfather he saw coffee plants -- trees or shrubs, really -- but didn't know what he was looking at. Becoming obsessed with the topic through visits to upscale coffee shops, cafes, tasting rooms, and eventually a training center, Mokhtar learned all about coffee plants, the coffee fruit, coffee beans, and the process of cleaning away the fruit to the bean and then roasting it. He also learned about the care of the trees and selecting the best fruit for harvest, and the best way to store and roast the beans, not to mention which varieties make the best drinks.

What Mokhtar learned was that the best coffee in the world at one time came from Yemen, but with the strife in the Middle East, over time the coffee trade in Yemen had faded away. Over centuries coffee seedlings had made their way over vast places around the world, and those places had replaced Yemen and even Ethiopia (where the first plants had been discovered) as sources for coffee.

As a Yemeni American, Mokhtar decided he wanted to become a coffee importer to bring the coffee trade back to his people in Yemen. And The Monk of Mokha is a lot about his journey of discovery and his struggle to accomplish that goal at his very young age during the civil war that grew in Yemen as he tried to rebuild the coffee business there.

Besides a very intriguing story behind this young man's life and struggles, you learn a lot about coffee and the coffee business. For instance, did you know that a top professional coffee roaster has 800 aroma and taste complexities to consider when roasting coffee? And did you know that from the growing of a coffee plant through picking the fruit and processing to the barista at your favorite coffee shop serving you a cup, twenty people will have handled those coffee beans? And your coffee beans may have come from India, Kenya, Mexico, or Java, among others? There are only a couple of thousand coffee quality testers (Q graders) in the world, and Mokhtar because the first Arab Q grader, despite coffee's geographic origins.

I'm not a coffee drinker, probably because when I first tested coffee I was just a teen in the 1960's and coffee was bitter and, as you will learn in The Monk of Mokha, that was a terrible time in the quality of commercialized coffee. But having read this book, I'm ready to try different veritals of coffee to see if there isn't something I can enjoy along with my wife. The book even discusses the different kinds different people likely would enjoy. Did you know smokers would probably like a darker blend because their taste buds have been affected by their smoking? Or that you should never drink a cup of coffee hot, because the heat causes the taste buds to clench up, keeping them from fully tasting the coffee?

Nowadays, artisan coffee has become as ritualized as enjoying wine, with cupping and spooning and tasting sessions similar to smelling and swirling and slurping wines.

All of this blends into an amazing read on coffee and Mokhtar's obsession with bringing Yemeni coffee back into the market for its remarkably high quality taste and helping the struggling people of Yemen prosper more fully in the process. It's also a riviting read about a young man who put his life on the line during a tense time in Yemen's history to achieve his personal goals but also to help his people. And the end of the story provides a stirring conclusion of human triumph you will enjoy to the last page.

Most readers, young adults and older, enjoy a good cup of coffee. I can't think of a better read to curl up with your favorite brew than The Monk of Mokha.


Sunday, April 29, 2018

Geostorm: Be Sure to Miss It!

Movie Review: Geostorm (2017)
Version: Library borrow

In 1996 there was a film called Night of the Twisters that was one of the worst movies I have ever seen. I would rate Geostorm right up there with it. Both involve impossible story lines with poor acting performances. At least with Geostorm there was a fairly good cast. Unfortunately, the script was trash.

Here is how the story is describe on the IMDB website:
When catastrophic climate change endangers Earth's very survival, world governments unite and create the Dutch Boy Program: a world wide net of satellites, surrounding the planet, that are armed with geoengineering technologies designed to stave off the natural disasters. After successfully protecting the planet for three years, something is starting to go wrong. Two estranged brothers are tasked with solving the program's malfunction before a world wide Geostorm can engulf the planet.

First of all, no governmental body, worldwide or otherwise, would name a science project "Dutch Boy Program" -- it doesn't make any sense! Second, the program has been hacked to attack the weather and create havoc around the world, but half the attacks don't actually attack the weather and don't even make sense. Third, this supposed "geostorm" is really about upsetting the climate, not the weather, and that would take much longer than the time shown in the movie. When they finally subdue the satellite system, it calms down immediately, also not realistic. Finally, the bad guys hack the space station and its network of interchangeable satellites, which they make go berserk. But when they go berserk inside the space station, there's no threat of loss of air pressure as pieces of steel go flying through windows.

The cast is all right, but they're most miscast in this film. Gerard Butler doesn't come off as a tech or scientist. Andy Garcia is supposed to be the president but he just doesn't fit the part. Ed Harris plays the character in charge of the Dutch Boy Program but he has more gravitas to play president, yet he plays the bad guy. Andy Garcia has played gangsters! Why wasn't he cast as the bad guy?

I wasn't impressed by the writing, either. The dialogue was sloppy. The plotting was unrealistic as were the conflict resolutions. The whole film was simply ugly. If someone asked me what I thought of Geostorm, I'd say, "Be sure to miss it!" Sorry, Geostorm fans.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

The Post: Something Seems Amiss

Movie Review: The Post (2017)
Version: Library Blu-Ray

I am from the Boomer generation, so I remember Daniel Ellsberg, the Washington Post, and the battle with the Nixon Administration over the Pentagon Papers. The Post is that dramatic story told from the view of the Washington Post with two of the world's best stars: Meryl Steep as Washington Post owner Kay Graham and Tom Hanks as its editor Ben Bradlee.

In this film version of the story, Kay Graham has taken over as publisher of the Washington Post after the death of her husband amid doubts of her ability to lead. The Post has been operating more as a city paper instead of the national paper it should be, trying to compete against the giant New York Times, which keeps scooping them on big stories on their home turf. Ben Bradlee is driving his reporters to dig deeper and harder, but somehow the Times is more able. As leaks develop in a secret story about a government cover up in the veracity of the Vietnam War, the Post finally gets a break as the Nixon Administration takes the Times to court and shuts down reporting. A mysterious woman drops off copies of pages of the Pentagon Papers on a Post reporter's desk, and a race against time ensues to publish without suffering wrath of the White House. Meanwhile, Graham is trying to take the Post public on the stock exchange with investors tempted to pull out and financial advisers telling her the paper's finances need the cash infusion.

Also at stake for Graham are personal relationships with people in the Nixon Administration at risk, like Defense Secretary Robert McNamara (played by Bruce Greenwood). And there is Daniel Ellsberg (played by Matthew Rhys), a Defense Department staffer who faces espionage charges for leaking the documents. It's high stakes risks for everyone involved, included Graham and Bradlee, who could go to jail.

Streep and Hanks at the acting helm brings huge star power to this film. High stakes for the characters brings huge drama. As historical fiction, you can't offer greater conflict in a story than Washington power brokers going after each other in a battle over first-amendment rights versus military-industrial interests. Yet somehow something seems amiss in this film. It feels like a viewer setup, even knowing this story from having lived during the times. This is a Steven Spielberg film, which would normally be a set up for quality. But there are subtle hiccups. And I think it may be shot setups, the way the lines are so casually delivered with obvious acting versus the usual natural deliveries by Hanks and Streep. And here is my sneeking suspicion: I watched it on Blu-Ray, which brings a visual clarity to movies that lets you see all the ugly warts of production. I miss the graininess of a good film. Watching a digital "film" is like watching the "filming" live and so, watching a live performance. There's no romancing of the audience with the beauty of the celluloid. And Blu-Ray enhances that clarity. It actually spoils the movie for me. I don't want to see the action live. I want to see the story through the artificiality of the lens and actual film. And this, I posit, is what spoils The Post.

The Post is a good story. The narrative arc holds together. The dramatic story (the script) holds together. The history holds together. Maybe it's the forced acting that just doesn't hold together -- maybe they tried too hard. But for me, seeing it on Blu-Ray really spoiled it for me. If you see The Post, at least see it on regular DVD. And focus on the history that was made within the story. Because that was the story.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Thor: Ragnarok: If You Love the Marvel Universe, Likely You'll Love This

Movie Review: Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
Version: Library borrow

Although I'm not a continuing fan of Thor stories, but my wife and my daughter loved Thor: Ragnorok, the latest installment in the film franchise. In it, Chris Hemsworth reprises the leading role with the same cheeky pluck, making it another fun film. Tom Hiddleston returns as troublesome brother Loki, although not so menacingly. Anthony Hopkins is again their father Odin, although he is looking a might old and retiring. Idris Elba is also back as Heimdall, the guardian to the entrance of Asgard who has left the guardhouse for other missions.

New to Thor: Ragnorok are some other characters from the Marvel universe: Bruce Banner (aka The Hulk), played by Mark Ruffalo, and Doctor Strange (played by Benedict Cumberbatch). Also joining the cast are Karl Urban as Skurge, who becomes the servile assistant to Hela (played by Cate Blanchett), Thor's older sister and chief antagonist in the story. Jeff Goldblum appears as the Grandmaster of Sakaar, who controls the bizarre world centered around ancient-Rome-like competitions for profit.

In this film, Thor is imprisoned on Sakaar while Odin has retired to some quiet retreat on Earth, as Hela returns from excile to claim Odin's throne. Thor must escape Sakaar and return to Asgard in time to save Asgard from Ragnarok, which is their word for destruction of their homeworld. Loki has disguised himself as Odin and subjected the people of Asgard to imagining all is the right in their world while doting on his very pleasure, so when Thor returns to ask for Loki's help, he's a bit resistant at first. Yet, they are finally reunited in purpose, and they battle the more powerful Hela for the survival of Asgard.

There isn't a whole lot new to this universe of stories, except the arrival of Hela. I was really bored. You have to come to this film because you love the characters. Really, they are the story.

If you are into the whole Thor and Asgard thing, you will likely love this world and the fun. If you are into the whole superheroes thing, then you will equally enjoy the interplay between the various characters from the Marvel universe uniting behind Thor and Loki. A fun time may be had be all. If.

I guess the word to the wise is, if you love Marvel-universe sequels, see it -- you'll love it. If you don't, see something else.