Sunday, November 19, 2017

Escape from Darkness: Follow-up to Dark Charity Is Just as Riveting

Book Review: Escape from Darkness by J.L. Higgs
Version: Author provided

Escape from Darkness is another riveting read by author J.L. Higgs, book two in the United Earth Charity series, the followup to Dark Charity. If you loved book one, you will love book two. If you haven't read book one yet, it's a must read. Here's my review of it.

In Escape from Darkness, Ginny (Virginia) and Richie (Richard), now married, run the United Earth Charity. There are two parts to the charity: One part that does good deeds around the world, another part that runs interference for the charity when it runs into corruption -- the security side. The two don't always communicate well because, well, they're busy. Ginny has hired a new employee, Corey, who it seems has some dark secrets buried deep inside her subconscious about her past that concern the child slave camp where Ginny was held against her will in book one. Everyone on the staff wants to help her solve the mysteries of her past, including investigator James, who also develops a very close relationship with her. And complicating things are Corey's past boyfriend, who left when he found unexplained ugly scars on her body, and a co-worker, who was always thinking more of herself, both who suddenly want to help, too. Meanwhile, Gramps who raised Corey doesn't seem to remember her anymore and these crazy dreams about this young girl caught in a nightmare won't go away. Just as unsettling, someone strange is following her. And Ginny and Richie are trying to put an end to the slavery camps and help Corey. And there's this nettlesome corruption to work around. All blend into one amazing tale of mystery and drama and courage. You won't want to put it down.

Did I tell you there's a love story tucked into the middle of the story?

J.L. Higgs is a wonderful storyteller, creating vivid settings with great characters and amazing plot twists to develop story lines you can't second guess right up to the end. And that has you glued to the pages from beginning to finish. Escape from Darkness is one of those engrossing tales.

Friday, November 10, 2017

The Fault in Our Stars: Young Love in Tragedy Played with Perfection

Movie Review: The Fault in Our Stars (2014)
Version: Library borrow

Through the coming attractions previews on a couple of older movies, our family ran into some movies we had missed in the past. A seriously great film we picked up at the library is The Fault in Our Stars, the story of two teenagers who meet at a cancer support group, which leads to hanging out more together. What becomes a close friendship based on a shared life-and-death experience leads to a love-lost-to-death relationship, but not in a way you expect as you make your way through the story.

Hazel is undergoing continued cancer treatments with little hope for recovery, Augustus has lost a leg to cancer but is full of enthusiasm for life, always lifting her spirits. She has "wasted" her special wish earlier in life to go to Disney World, so he uses his to take her to Amsterdam to meet their favorite author, where they finally fall helplessly in love. Fouling their experience, they find their author isn't what he purports to be. Finally returning home, everything turns for the worse. But is their hope?

Hazel is played with perfection by Shailene Woodley, sometimes bright and hopeful, sometimes full of despair. Augustus is played with eloquence by Ansel Elgort, philosophical and brave and the supportive partner. Willem Dafoe plays an acerbic and acidic author darkened in his outlook on life by experiences he refuses to share.

This is really a story about star-crossed lovers whose crossing is destined too soon to pass in the night, but it's also about the passionate love of life and the unfairness of conditions beyond your control. It depends almost entirely upon the quality of the lead actors to pull off the story, and they do it with excellence. There is real chemistry between Woodley and Elgort, and thus you feel a passionate connection between Hazel and Augustus, for whom you yearn for a long life together. Yet The Fault in Our Stars is actually a tragedy, and so, like Romeo and Juliet, it is a love story that will not be.

The Fault in Our Stars will always be one of my favorite movies because it's the first time my daughter -- usually an animation and action film fan -- actually asked to see a romance film. Is she growing up a bit? Watching it with her, it was sort of like my first dance with her, seeing the young lady in her blossom just a little. (Don't tell her I said that!)

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Dark Charity: A Riveting Read from Page One

Book Review: Dark Charity (Book 1) by J.L. Higgs
Version: Author supplied

Dark Charity (United Earth Charity Book 1) is a riveting read from the first page. Once I started, I didn't want to put it down.

There are a host of interesting characters, from the main protagonist, Virginia, to the main antagonist, her uncle Anthony. Add in Anthony's partner in crimes, Virginia's overlooker Jess, a couple of bungling bad guys, a mysterious homeless guy who turns out to be a secret agent, and Virginia's stumbling block-turned-love interest, and you have the makings of a very interesting story.

I would call Dark Charity a combination spy novel/thriller/romance. Virginia is a wealthy teenager who finds herself under the control of her evil uncle and legal guardian Anthony, who is scheming to cash in on her inheritance. His idea is to marry her off to steal a family royal title and the family estate left by her parents, who mysteriously died when she was younger and left in the care of the mansion staff where she lives seemingly carefree. But more recently Virginia has been receiving a lot of death threats and she runs away with the aid of the charity organization her parents had set up, hoping to get away from the danger and her fears. Enter a hero, who protects her and with whom she falls madly in love. Yet, things aren't as they seem, and she must run away again, leading to more dangers and amazing twists and turns right up to the end.

Now, Dark Charity (United Earth Charity Book 1) is written by J.L. Higgs, who lives in Australia. She is a fine writer with great storytelling skills. I hear Book 2 is coming soon, and if you like Book 1, I'm betting you will like the sequel.

Monday, November 06, 2017

The Mummy: A Mess of Mixed Metaphors

Movie Review: The Mummy (2017)
Version: Library borrow

I would call 2017's The Mummy a mess of mixed metaphors: basically, Egyptian archaeology gone awry meets zombie apocalypse meets hokey Dr. Jekyl/Mr. Hyde. How can you mix all three in a movie and think it's going to turn out well?

This more recent remake of a remake of the original pits Indiana Jones wannabe Nick Morton (played by Tom Cruise) and his sidekick Chris Vail (played by Jake Johnson) against an evil ancient Egyptian queen, Ahmanet (played by Sofia Boutella), who was long ago buried under the sands of Mesopotamia and erased from history, only to be unleashed in modern day Iraq by Morton and Vail. Ahmanet decides Morton is her ideal male to be turned into an eternal god and unleashes all the undead to help her capture him. Meanwhile, archaeologist Jenny Halsey (played by Annabelle Wallis) comes on the scene and brings the sarcophagus and, thus, chaos to England, where she teams up with the dual personality Dr Jekyl/Mr. Hyde (played by Russell Crowe) to try to squelch Ahmanet and save Vail.

The Mummy, true to form with most Tom Cruise films, is full of action and special effects, so it has that going for it. In fact, there's quite a thrilling plane ride at the beginning of the film. But it's the silly constant onslaught of zombies that detracts from the narrative. And then there's the Dr. Jekyl character, who twice has to save himself from turning into the zany Mr. Hyde with a complicated chemical injection, which is a total and unnecessary distraction. Crowe is actually quite good in the role, it's just not important to the story line. Why not add Dr. Frankenstein and his monster while you're at it?

And then there's Tom Cruise portraying himself as the perfect figure for Ahmanet to kill to turn into the eternal god as her forever mate. He looks nothing like the original guy she was going to sacrifice for the role in the beginning of the movie. He's not even Egyptian! So that was totally bogus.

All these things combined soured the movie for me. Just too much silliness and thoughtlessness went into making this film. If I were grading this film I'd give it a C. If I were rating it, I would give it a 3 out of 5. If I were asked by a friend if it was worth seeing, I'd say, "Miss it."

Friday, November 03, 2017

Spy: A Seriously Funny Spoof of Spy Capers

Movie Review: Spy (2015)
Version: Library borrow

Melissa McCarthy is a real comedic treasure, and no where is it more apparent than in Spy, a 2015 spoof of James Bond and other spy capers. Capers actually spells out this story line quite well.

McCarthy plays Susan Cooper, a desk-bound CIA analyst who supports the on-site capers of master spy Bradley Fine (played by Jude Law). But when Fine is shot dead, Cooper takes on the assignment of hunting down his nemesis Rayna Boyanov (played by Rose Byrne), who possesses a nuclear bomb and intends to sell it to the highest bidder. In the mix is Fine's CIA competitor spy Rick Ford (played by Jason Statham, who usually plays a villain), a bungler who refuses to accept Cooper as an equal in the field but can't ever quite keep up with her. Allison Janney is excellent as Elaine Crocker, the director of the CIA, who must decide whether to send Cooper into the field.

If you watch this film, make yourself sit through the first half, which is slow as most of the jokes are embarrassingly immature visual prat-fall type humor. Then about half way through the movie someone woke up and the actual fun begins. The jokes become genuinely funny and McCarthy is really on her game. Seriously (how ironic, right?), make yourself sit through the first half to get to the funny material. It's like drinking the melt water at the top of the iced beverage to get to the good stuff below. You will be glad you did. The chase scene is hilarious, beginning with McCarthy's hijacking of a motor bike. The comedic genius goes on from there, one funny scene after another. You will be glad you sat through the first half to get here.

If you're a Melissa McCarthy fan, this is a perfect vehicle for you. It's a gem!

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming: Fresh, Energetic, and Full of Fun

Movie Review: Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
Version: Library borrow

Every couple of years there's a new Spider-Man remake. This year it was Spider-Man: Homecoming. You might think this Marvel Comics retread would be worn to the rims, but you would be wrong.

Homecoming is fresh and energetic and full of fun. 

It's fresh with the new face in the casting of Tom Holland in the lead role, coming off as this enthusiastic if awkward fifteen-year-old superhero intern at Stark Enterprises, eager to please his new mentor, Tony Stark. His squeaky teen voice gives the character a vulnerability and naivete that other Spider-man films lacked that helps build into the story line, which I will tell you about in a minute.

It's energetic in the enthusiasm with which Peter Parker takes on the opportunity to break out of the doldrums of his high school life and make a difference in the world, not to mention the excitement of working alongside his heroes in the Avengers team. And this film has tons of action, as Spider-Man tests his skills and his super cool new uniform, optimized with high tech features created by Stark Enteprises. Parker's frenetic youthful energy, and likely supercharged hormonal imbalance, gives him a boost on the screen, too.

It's full of fun, because there are lots of sight gags and missteps and humorous digs at the innocence of youth, the cynicism of adults, and the Avengers universe. Although, I could do without the continual cameo appearances of Stan Lee in every Marvel Comics movie. Jeez!

So here's the premise of the movie: Peter Parker is this super smart teen who has just finished an internship at Stark Enterprises. He is super geeked at having met Tony Stark (played by Robert Downey, Jr.) and the Avengers team, and he's ready for his first assignment. But Stark tells him to wait for his call, and sends Parker home with a new Spider-Man suit to finish school -- on the hush-hush. Parker keeps texting Stark through his handler, Happy Hogan (played by Jon Favreau), hoping for news but gets no answers. So he begins testing out his new suit and its limits, stopping petty crimes as he sees them on his flying swings around town. On one of his swoops, he discovers arms dealers and stumbles upon The Vulture (played by Michael Keaton), who will become an arch enemy. Back at school, as part of the very competitive debate team, Parker's friends are depending on his quick, keen mind to help them win the national championship, and he's too busy trying to track down his arch enemy to support his team. The Vulture turns out to have a much closer connection to Parker personally than he can ever imagine, and as Spider-Man battles The Vulture, things turn deadly.

Now, that's an oversimplification of the plot, which is full of interesting twists and surprises. And this version of Super-Man morphs some of the usual love interests (Liz is played by Laura Harrier) and character images with Aunt May (played by Marisa Tomei) and MJ, who isn't even revealed until the end of the film. Parker also gets a new best friend (played by Jacob Batalon), a geek who in a twist doesn't turn into a nemesis. It even manages to fit in some humorous cameos by Captain America and, more seriously, actress Tyne Daily. 

Maybe this film was focused on the younger demographic, but I think we can all be entertained by this more awkward, more youthful, more error-prone superhero, kind of the kid in all of us who just wants to be more than himself and isn't afraid to try. We've already seen the other iterations in earlier versions, and they were admirable versions of Spider-Man. But in Spider-Man: Homecoming, this was more fun. And, seriously (and ironically), can't movies be fun, too?

Friday, October 27, 2017

Wonder Woman: A Class Above Most Other Superhero Movies

Movie Review: Wonder Woman (2017)
Version: Library borrow

While my daughter and I saw Despicable Me 3 in the theater, my wife saw Wonder Woman. She said it was a great movie, and having seen it now myself, I can say she was right! I loved Wonder Woman, a class above most other superhero movies I have seen lately.

Diana is the princess of the Amazons, living on an island hidden from the god of war Aries, where she lives a sheltered life of privilege and protection. She has been secretly trained by her aunt, her mother the queen thinking she will never be in danger because their world is shielded from discovery. And then a war plane crashes off the coast and German war planes and warships come crashing through the shield to find the pilot, Steve Trevor, who tells her of the evil beyond her shores. Diana decides she can't stay in her safe haven while the world struggles beyond, and she leaves with Trevor to use her powers to save the world. And from there, it's Wonder Woman against the powers of World War I Germany and, she is sure, Aries who motivates them. Trevor is at her side, along with a small crew of memorable soldiers of fortune, who help Diana take down a huge host of bad guys.

Portrayed in the old TV series as a hot chick with amazing powers, this new film version features a woman superhero with substance. Diana is clearly a force to be reckoned with, and while she shows human vulnerabilities, there is never a moment in the story where she can't overcome them. Far from it. Yes, it's her uncertainties that put her in danger, yet it's when Diana realizes her full potential and the responsibilities of privilege that she dominates what at first seem like weaknesses to beat her enemies. And while the men cower behind metal in battle, Diana steps out to fearlessly battle bullets and bombs to win the day. She's one badass Wonder Woman.

Wonder Woman features a great cast. Gal Gadot is commanding as Diana, with Robin Wright as her imperial mother, Antiope. Chris Pine is irrepressible as Steve Trevor. The lovable soldiers of fortune are played by Saïd Taghmaoui as Sameer, Ewen Bremner as Charlie, and Eugene Brave Rock as The Chief. You won't find a more eery pair of bad guys than Danny Huston as Ludendorff and Elena Anaya as Dr. Maru (Dr Poison). David Thewlis fits in there somewhere as Sir Patrick, although I refuse to tell you how -- you'll just have to watch it to find out.

Now, no film is perfect, and Wonder Woman has its flaws. For instance, there are the occasional plot holes. Such as the battleship that pierces the island's shield to find Trevor's downed plane, but then just disappears without explanation when the story tellers are through with it as a threat. And Trevor suddenly appears with a German uniform to sneak into a military installation, without telling where he gets it. Those are just a couple of examples. But you can forgive these indiscretions when you enjoy the basic plot of the movie and characters and the acting.

There are so many superhero movies these days, it's easy to get tired of them and say, "Oh, not another one!" But I can tell you, Wonder Woman isn't just another superhero movie. It has great depth, with good writing, great acting, and a fresh take on an old story line. See it!