Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets: A Wild Ride Appropriate for Most Ages

Movie Review: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)
Version: Library borrow

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a wild ride. The vast number of alien species represented in this amazing science fiction film is just ... wow! I doubt film makers reach a thousand, but the creativity in this film just boggles the imagination, so you quickly lose count.

The story line takes place in the 28th century and involves humanity's outreach to the abundance of alien species at our doorstep, welcoming them to space station Alpha as it makes its way outward from the Solar System. But everything isn't peace and happiness, as interaction between humans and aliens sometimes involves conflict. And in one instance, an innocent race of peaceful aliens is sacrificed to save the human mission.

Major Valerian (played by Dane DeHaan) and his partner Sergeant Laureline (played by Cara Delevingne) are sent on a dangerous mission to retrieve the last member of a species of gem converters from a devastated planet. When they return successfully, they must save their commander (played by Clive Owen), who has been abducted on Alpha in a suspiciously infected area. What they discover hiding in the infected area changes everyone's understanding of one of Alpha's past missions and its future relations with the thousands of species it has encountered to date. Getting from beginning to end of this tale is an incredible journey!

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a majestic panoramic view of humankind's future in space while making a metaphoric statement about advanced civilizations' cruel treatment of those who are far less advanced. It uses sweeping vistas, imposing set designs, and daunting visual effects to take viewers on a fantastic trip through time and space, introducing us to amazing species and colorful (literal and figurative) characters. You won't leave watching this film unimpressed.

This film also doesn't take itself especially serious. There is plenty of humor in the story to lighten the atmosphere.

As a fan of science fiction and fantasy, I highly recommend Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets for teens and older audiences. Younger audiences may also appreciate it with adult supervision.


Monday, December 11, 2017

Criminal: Not a Fun Spy Romp, But Great Character Depth and Plot Complexity

Movie Review: Criminal (2016)
Version: Library borrow

What starts off with a small role for Ryan Reynolds opens the door for a huge role for Kevin Costner in 2016's Criminal, a gruff yet thoughtful action thriller set in the gritty streets of London.

The pace sets quickly with Bill Pope (played by Reynolds) chasing down leads on a shadowy hacker with nuclear launch codes to sell, driving through the streets of London and gunning down bad guys. But he quickly reaches his end in an empty warehouse, where he is brutally tortured for the information he has and then left for dead. Britain's MI6 and the CIA rescue him and keep in alive long enough for Dr. Franks (played by the stoic Tommy Lee Jones) to transfer his memory to an agent who can act on his leads. But the CIA doesn't want to try this untested technology on just any human. They reach out for someone expendable, someone who would be no loss if things got ugly, turned deadly. Jericho (played by Costner) is a dangerous convict with no emotional connection to others, a killer without remorse, basically an animal who is chained to the center of a cell to keep him away from any other human contact. The CIA's Quaker Wells (played explosively by Gary Oldman) has him transferred to London, where the technology is brutally applied to Jericho's mind, and he is set free to fund the hacker "The Dutchman" (played by Michael Pitt). Little by little, Pope's memories filter into Jericho's mind, giving him clues where to find The Dutchman and a bag of money promised to him. It also exposes Jericho to Pope's memories of his wife Jill (played by Gal Gadot) and his daughter Emma (played by Lara Decaro), and where they live. The hunt is on, and so is a slow evolution of Jericho from desperate killer to loving husband and father in search of redemption and saving the world from the threat of bad guys who want access to American nuclear launch codes.

This isn't your usual spy thriller nor your normal action film. It starts out fast and furious like a typical spy film, then settles back to an earthy, gritty, dark, and dank deep-state conspiracy sci-fi pic, only to evolve again into a human-interest story about a man fighting for his identity and his soul while being pursued by people on all sides obsessed with hunting down a guy with secrets to sell. Caught in the middle is the mother and her daughter, engaged with a dangerous man with hints of the husband and father they think is dead yet can only slowly hope live inside another man they really don't know.

Kevin Costner often plays very thoughtful characters and he brings that sensitivity to this otherwise unseemly role. He is violent, careless, intruding, and self-absorbed on the one had, while on the other you can see the wheels turning in his mind as the Pope character begins to influence Jericho's persona. And this makes the film a multidimensional experience, giving you hope for the character as you follow his progress through his seemingly impossible mission. He has been severely wounded by the surgical procedure to force the technology on his, he has bad headaches, and you can't help but feel for Jericho. And Costner pulls off the role, probably not the kind of character he might have chosen to play earlier in his career, with precision and excellence.

It's a pity that Reynolds' role was so short, because he's becoming known more recently for taking on action films and he's pretty good in them. His role as Bill Pope is no exception. I would like to have seen him more in this film.

Gal Gadot also shines in her role as the frantic mother and grieving wife, not to mention the fearful hostage and then the hopeful cohort to Jericho.

Gary Oldman is the badass of bad guys, forcing Jericho to undergo the procedure and then releasing him to find The Dutchman, promise Jericho the hidden stash of cash if he finds The Dutchman, and then when he thinks MI6 has located The Dutchman, abandoning Jericho in the streets of London. These are the roles Oldman has become more recently familiar with, and he plays it deftly here.

So, while Criminal is not a fun romp as spy thrillers go, it is a good film for its depth of characters and complexity of plot. I'd recommend it for older teens and adults. It might be too violent for youngsters.

Saturday, December 02, 2017

The Hitman's Bodyguard: A Thrill Ride, But Alas, It Can't Be for Everyone

Movie Review: The Hitman's Bodyguard (2017)
Version: Library borrow

I thought The Hitman's Bodyguard is supposed to be a comedy. You might say there are humorous moments, but it is more a trash-talking spy movie than a comedy, and with f-bombs a prominent feature, it definitely isn't something the whole family can watch. What's interesting is, Samuel L. Jackson is famous for using the f-bomb, but it is Salma Hayek playing his wife in this film who does most of the f-bombing.

In any other instance, The Hitman's Bodyguard would be a decent spy film. Ryan Reynolds plays Michael Bryce, a former CIA agent who turns freelance "Triple-A" bodyguard who loses his top-tier rating when someone he was guarding is killed at the last moment. Two years later, he finds himself called in by Amelia Roussel (played by Elodie Yung), his former and angry girl friend, to guard Darius Kincaid (played by Samuel L Jackson), the one man who can provide evidence to convict Belarusian dictator Vladislav Dukhovich (played by Gary Oldman) at the World Court at The Hague in The Netherlands. From the get-go, Bryce and Kincaid are at odds, Kincaid the guy who can't be killed and Bryce the guy who lacks self-confidence, although it's obvious he is talented and skilled. And from the get-go, Dukhovich's organization of henchmen is after Kincaid to keep him from testifying. The World Court has 27 hours for Kincaid to arrive and provide testimony, so the story is the struggle for Bryce to keep him alive long enough to testify, while Kincaid struggles to keep Bryce from getting in his way.

Meanwhile, Bryce has a personal struggle trying to repair his failed relationship with Roussel while Kincaid, seemingly a person with failed personal morals, tries to give him worldly advice about love and relationships. The stories of how the two met the loves of their lives is very interestingly told, and it turns out Kincaid has a very passionate and agile wife, while Bryce has a very passionate and righteous wife. This is a side story on its own worth seeing.

What makes for humor in The Hitman's Bodyguard is the give-and-take between Bryce and Kincaid, mostly given to Jackson's usual on-film character persona. It's almost as if the film were written around that persona. If it weren't for that, this film would be a straight out action film, and there are loads of action, which is actually the fun part of the film. The final third action sequences through the streets, alleys, and canals of Amsterdam are must-see sequences of stunt work!

Ryan Reynolds's laid back charm is a good counter to Samuel L Jackson's smooth-talking grit. They make a good pairing for this otherwise strained twosome. There's a great scene where Bryce gives up in frustration and sits at a bar talking to the bartender about his untenable situation while chaos runs amok around him, gun fire raging, cars crashing, people flying, bombs bursting, buildings crumbling, tables splintering, the bartender disappearing before his eyes behind the bar for safety, and Bryce barely blinking an eye. In the distance, Kincaid is fighting off several dozen bad guys on his own, tearing down the street in the background. It's a great scene.

But the final action sequence steals the cake, with the countdown to Bryce and Kincaid working in unison trying to get into the World Court within the last few seconds, just in time. And even then, it isn't over.

This isn't just any action movie. Not by a long shot. And it isn't a comedy. Not by a long shot. It's too bad it's laced with f-bombs, because I think otherwise kids could enjoy the thrill ride that The Hitman's Bodyguard is, too.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie: Good for a Giggle or Two

Movie Review: Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie (2017)
Version: Library borrow

Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie is as juvenile as you might expect it to be. Well, it is a movie for juveniles. But it is juvenile in a fun and upbeat way, so if your kids want to see it, you really don't have to worry. It's fun for them and you should get a few laughs out of it, too. It's full of enthusiasm and over-the-top kid pranks that kids can appreciate but are unrealistic, so don't worry that yours will get any crazy ideas. And it's great animation.

The gist of the story is that the two main characters, George and Harold, pull pranks at school because principal Mr Krupp makes school so miserable it's the only way to survive. And they pull epic pranks, mostly at the expense of Mr Krupp. Now, Mr Krupp doesn't like anything that kids like, especially arts programs, and especially the comic books the George and Harold write and draw involving a superhero named Captain Underpants. Mr Krupp's act of revenge against George and Harold is to assign them to separate school rooms, at opposite ends of the school, threatening to end their lifelong friendship. Sneaking into his office, they discover a drawer full of objects they have owned that Mr Krupp has taken from them, including a plastic hypnotizing ring, which they accidentally use to hypnotize Mr Krupp into believing he is and acting like Captain Underpants. And so the fun begins, as the belligerent Mr Krupp becomes the benign but blundering superhero of their dreams at the command of their every whim. Their only problem comes when Captain Underpants acts beyond their control to hire Professor Poopypants (I told you this was juvenile!) as the new science teacher, who then becomes the evil genius out to remove laughter from every student at school.

The only name I recognize among the voice actors is Kevin Hart as George. But everyone else delivers good performances in this entertaining ensemble cast: Thomas Middleditch as Harold, Ed Helms as Mr Krupp and Captain Underpants, and Nick Kroll as Professor Poopypants. The animation is well done, too. Nothing is done in proportion, which is usual in animation, but this is taken to extreme, which if you think about it, is appropriate for "the first epic movie". Everything technical about this kid-friendly film makes it a fun romp, and all kids, except perhaps the serially serious, will love it. And even the serially serious have a character they can appreciate: Melvin, who doesn't get any of George and Harold's jokes and pranks. Be careful of him, he becomes Professor Poopypants's accomplice!

Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie is based on the popular book series, but you don't really have to have read the books to enjoy the movie. Cuddle up with your little ones some cold evening and enjoy a giggle or two.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Atomic Blonde: Be Prepared to Be Blown Away

Movie Review: Atomic Blonde (2017)
Version: Library borrow

If you see Atomic Blonde, strap in -- it's going to be a wild ride. My wife said, "This is more amazing than John Wick!" I'm not sure it's more amazing, but it certainly has as much action and the plot has as many twists and turns. There are fewer changes of ammo and fewer dead bodies left by the end of the film, but Charlize Theron is deadly and packs just as powerful a punch. If you liked either or both of the John Wick movies, you'll like Atomic Blonde, too!

The Atomic Blonde is Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron), a sensual but savage MI6 secret agent sent by London to cold war era Berlin to track down a list of compromised double secret agents. An asset called Spyglass (played by Eddie Marsan) has it and local MI6 agent David Percival (Played by James McAvoy) hasn't been able to secure the list yet, so London sends in their best to intervene. Overlooking the interests of MI6 is Eric Gray (played by Toby Jones) and for the CIA is Emmet Kurzfield (played by John Goodman). The Soviets and East Germans want the list, too, and there are several crossings into and out of East Berlin, aided by the underground. But there are also double crossings and crossed allegiances. This story will have your head spinning by the end.

This is a great cast, from the electrifying Theron, to the stoic Jones, to the smarmy Goodman, to the intense McAvoy. The second string is equally good, rounding out the telling of this exciting spy thriller. And set decoration should get high kudos for creating every inch a dramatic backdrop for a dangerous city under siege.

From beginning to end, this film keeps you guessing about who are the good guys and who are the bad guys -- and who will win in the end. James Bond has nothing on Atomic Blonde for action, drama, thrill, or good versus evil. My advise: See Atomic Blonde and be prepared to be blown away.

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!

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales: Not the Best of the Series, By a Mile

Movie Review: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (2017)
Version: Library borrow

The most recent chapter in the Pirates of the Caribbean saga is Dead Men Tell No Tales. It doesn't measure up to its predecessors, not from the lack of will but from the lack of a good effort.

Here we find Jack Sparrow (played again by Johnny Depp) in threat for his life by a terrifying nemesis, one Captain Salazar (played by Javiere Bardem), whom Sparrow defeated long ago at the cost of his ship and crew on cruel rocks, trapped in the Devil's Triangle. Salazar's only hope of escape and revenge on Sparrow is seizing the legendary Trident of Poseidon. At Sparrow's aid is Henry Turner (played by Brenton Thwaites), son of Will Turner, who also seeks the Trident to free his father from the depths of the sea. In the mix is Captain Barbossa (played again by Geoffrey Rush), who is looking to profit from the Trident himself, and finds an interesting connection with Turner's love interest in the story, Carina Smyth (played by Kaya Scodelario).

Although this is a long, convoluted plot line, we find the usual silliness of the past Pirates of the Caribbean films, with the reappearance of many of our favorite crew from the Black Pearl. However, Jack Sparrow has lost some of his sass and swagger, and Captain Barbossa loses a bit of his nastiness by the end of the movie, although for a very good reason. Salazar's ship is a monstrosity and he is a monster driven by a hateful obsession over revenge, in an overly melodramatic way. All in all, this film is less fun and more sea drama, but without any real purpose.

The thrill of the film is built more around its reliance on CGI than the imagination of the screenwriters and cinematographers, so once again we are the victims of technology. I suspect even the make up and costume design are given heft by technology rather than actual human work. And that's a pity. I always feel cheated when most of the magic of the film is because someone created an alternate reality with a computer and software instead of humans creating a world with their bare hands and keen eyes.

Dead Men Tell No Tales is an okay film, but it's not the best of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Not by a mile. 

Saturday, October 21, 2017

The Foreigner: A Solid Action Film

Movie Review: The Foreigner (2017)
Version: Paid in-theater viewing

Ever since Jackie Chan "went Hollywood" his movie roles, at least the ones seen in the West, have been more slapstick comedy built around kung fun fighting. It hasn't been until recently that his roles have become more serious, as in The Karate Kid and Dragon Blade, save for his voice-over work. The third serious role Chan is taken on and just released in theaters is The Foreigner. He admitted in a U.S. late-night network interview it has been his plan to move in that direction, to become a serious actor.

In The Foreigner, Chan plays Quan Ngoc Minh, a humble London restaurant owner who loses his one last family member, his daughter, to a terrorist bombing as she enters a dress shop to prepare for a school dance. Filled with remorse, with the memories of the loss of the rest of the rest of his family to senseless political attack, Quan becomes obsessed with seeking revenge on whoever planted this bomb. His foe becomes a member of British Parliament from Belfast, Liam Hennessy, played by Pierce Brosnan. Quan is sure Hennessy knows who they are because of his past ties to the IRA (Irish Republian Army), and he seeks him out for help. But Hennessy hasn't a clue. He declares he hasn't been in the game for decades but is instead working to maintain the peace brokered over 19 years. Quan isn't convinced, and the movie becomes a cat and mouse game of Quan setting dangerous traps for Hennessy to convince him to give him the names of the bombers. Armed with a hefty security team, Hennessy attempts to stay ahead of Quan, but to no effect -- Quan is always a kung-fu step ahead of them. Quan is obsessed at getting the names, whatever the personal or professional cost to Hennessy.

It has always been a hallmark of Chan movies to get at least one fairly top name to play either the bad guy or one of the good guys along side him in his films, and so it is with The Foreigner. Brosnan is good as the Belfast antagonist opposite Chan, although his Northern Irish accent is a bit thin. Having played James Bond and Remington Steele probably helped established his chops as a spy-type, and she commands the screen. Having played the heavily grieving father in The Karate Kid prepared Chan for his role as well, although I thought he was more effective in Karate, perhaps even Oscar worthy. But they make a fine dueling pair in this action-filled drama which allows Brosnan to spar and Chan to kick-punch for which they are famous. Chan is getting older, so there isn't nearly enough kick-punch and stunt work as a lifelong Chan fan would like, but I'll take what I can get.

There are plenty of chase scenes and explosions, too. It's interesting to note that a double-decker bus explosion on a bridge over the River Thames was so realistic that nearby onlookers thought it was an actual terrorist bombing during shooting, and the production crew had to shut down briefly to calm nerves. Chan, producer of the film, takes his art seriously.

While I still liked The Karate Kid better, The Foreigner was still a good, solid film and worthy of any Jackie Chan or action-film fan. If I rated films, I'd give it four swift kung-fu knuckle punches out of five. 

Thursday, October 05, 2017

2017 National Book Awards: Five Finalists Announced

Followup: 2017 National Book Awards
Five Finalists Announced for Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, and Young People's Literature

Following up on my article on the 2017 National Book Awards Literary Prize List on September 29, the five finalists have been announced for each category.

National Book Awards Week begins November 14 with a livestreamed Teen Press Conference in the morning and finalists readings in the evening. The National Book Award Ceremony and Benefit Gala will occur and be livestreamed on November 15, when the winners will be announced.

Congratulations to all!

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Transformers: The Last Knight: Falls Far Short of the Franchise

Movie Review: Transformers: The Last Knight (2017)
Version: Library borrow

Sorry to be a party pooper, but Transformers: The Last Knight is a mess of a movie. The fifth in the series of Transformers films misses on so many levels, despite a pretty good cast and some pretty good special effects.

Let's start off with the good aspects of the film. It brings back all the great characters we've come to love. Mark Wahlberg as Cade Yeager, for one. Optimus Prime and Bumblebee as the main Transformers, for others. Then Stanley Tucci makes a memorable cameo appearance early on as Merlin, which fills in some back story for the Transformers mythology. But then the film begins to fall apart.

It introduces two totally dispensable characters: Jimmy, who is the caretaker of the Transformers while Earth is at war with them and they are in hiding out in the desert, and Izabella, who is an orphaned 14 year old in the canyons of ruined Chicago whose only "family" is a barely surviving Transformer. Cade rescues her from attack by the TFN (Transformers Reaction Force), but when she wants tag along, and she still manages to follow him everywhere. And from then on, she serves no purpose other than, perhaps, to attract a younger audience to the film. I'm not sure why Jimmy is there once Cade and cadre escape an attack by the TFN.

And that brings me to the next failure of the film. It jumps from venue to venue in the blink of an eye, without establishing spacial relationships. You go from cityscapes to desert landscapes to cityscapes and on and on. In one setting, Cade and his group run away from the TFN, who appear to be right on their tail, to arrive miles ahead in an isolated small desert town.  They battle it out on the street, in a store, then suddenly in a large cathedral, then all of a sudden they're in a glass-faced skyscraper! When that gets blown to bits, they're suddenly back in the streets of the small town. Ohhhh-kay. Then a shiny British robot shows up to rescue them and take them to a waiting flying wing (propeller-driven) plane and they fly off across the ocean to England, with no intercept.

Here we meet Sir Edmund Burton, played by the amazing Anthony Hopkins, who isn't amazing at all in this film. He's a mantle piece, try though he might. And we meet Vivian Wembley, played by Laura Haddock, who is actually refreshing relief in this film. Burton and Wembley are important as the story evolves. They represent past and present in the Transformers universe and they are key to saving the Earth from destruction by Quintessa, the creator of Cybertron, the Transformers' home world.

A good part of this film is cgi generated, obviously, so a good part of the acting is by voice. But I can't give much credit to this part of the film for making it work. It's just typical animation work. It works off the script. The scale of the work is pretty amazing in parts, but other parts are disappointingly "normal" for this franchise. I can't get into too much detail without revealing spoilers.

To wrap up this review, there really were few redeeming qualities to this film. The story was bland. It lacked a back bone, it lacked an emotional impact, it lacked a professional quality. There were so many times I shook my head while watching it, shouted out, "What the hell is going on?" because I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Honestly, the producers fell far short of protecting this franchise.

Friday, September 29, 2017

National Book Awards 2017 American Literary Prize List Announced

National Book Awards 2017 American Literary Prize Lists

Every mid-September, the list of 10 competing books in each category for the National Book Awards American Literary Prize is announced, with the five finalists announced by mid-October (this year it will be announced October 4). The Award Ceremony for the winners and Benefit Gala will be held November 15.

Here are the ten books selected in each category for the 2017 National Book Awards, just recently announced. The categories are fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and young people's literature.

These books were selected by a panel of judges composed of writers, literary critics, and booksellers from the thousands of books that are published each year. According to the Award's website rule page, "In order to be eligible for the Award, a book must be written by an American citizen and published by an American publisher between December 1 of the previous year and November 30 of the current year. Self-published books are only eligible if the author/publisher publishes the work of other authors in addition to his own." They were submitted by their publishers.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Best Books: Esquire's 35 Best Books of 2017

Best Books: Esquire's 35 Best Books of 2017 (So Far)
Published: Sept 7, 2017

As we head into the last quarter of the year, it's a good time to look back through the list of books that have made reading fun or interesting or even a challenge. I begin with Esquire's "35 Best Books of 2017 (So Far)". As they say in their introduction, "Whether you like your reading sexy and satirical or political and polarizing, these stand-out books are guaranteed to challenge the status quo and spark timely conversation."

Take the link above to their article and see what you think of their list. How many have you read -- or might you read?

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Booksville Just Broke 50,000 Pageviews Threshold!

My personal thank you to all my readers on the Booksville Book Review and Movie Review blog. It just broke the 50,000 pageviews threshold! That was never a goal, even as I approached that number, just an abstract number like watching the miles tick off on the car odometer. But now that I have reached it, I am grateful for each and every person who has taken the time to view my pages. My actual goal was simply to provide objective reviews of every book I have read and every movie I have watched and hoped you have found them useful. If you have returned to view pages multiple times, then thank you again and again.

Please feel welcome to comment on anything I write, and please feel free to share the reviews if you find something useful.

Friday, September 22, 2017

The Red Turtle: A Magical Journey for the Soul

Movie Review: The Red Turtle (2016)
Version: Starz on Demand

One of the more curious animated films recently is The Red Turtle, directed and co-scripted with Pascale Ferran by Michael Dudok de Wit. There is virtually no dialogue, only the occasional "Hey! Hey!" It is all action, but the story line is simple enough, every nuance plain enough, no need for dialogue.

Simply, a man struggles for his life on a rolling sea in the middle of a storm, eventually ending up on a deserted beach on a small lonely island. Besides the abundant beach and a prominent rocky outcrop that overlooks everything, there is a deep bamboo forest and a few coconut trees, along with a fresh water pool -- all the things he needs to sustain himself. Despite living on a paradise, the man is lonely and bored all on his own, and unable to do anything about it in his seclusion, he tries building a raft of fallen bamboo to escape, but something unseen from below batters his raft and he must return to his solo habitat. He tries it again, and the same thing happens. And again. And again. Finally, the man catches the culprit, a large red turtle, which he follows back to the beach and bodily turns over, leaving it to die on the dry beach in revenge. Eventually the man feels remorse and tries to revive the red turtle, but it has already died. Falling asleep, he later awakens to find the turtle's shell has split and a woman arises from the red turtle's shell. This changes the man's life, giving him a companion and spouse, with which he father's a son and with whom he can grow old on this prison island. The story goes on to chronicle the wonderful life they live together, the ups and the downs, even the moment the son reaches lonely adulthood and says goodbye, swimming away.

In many ways, this film is magical, saying so much with the expressions on the characters' faces and their gestures, eliciting so much emotion and communicating so much of the story through color and music. You never doubt for a moment what is going on in the story. And living through the lives of the characters so intimately by watching everything unfold, never needing to intrude with dialogue, it is a far more powerful telling of the story. It's almost real-life like.

No one leaves watching The Red Turtle untouched by the story. It's a magical journey for the soul.


Thursday, September 21, 2017

Moonlight: An Important Story of Courage and Perseverance

Movie Review: Moonlight (2016)
Version: Library borrow

As complex and riveting a story as I have seen in a long time is Moonlight. It traces the story of a young African American gay man growing up on the rough streets of Miami. We see his difficult life as a bullied quiet "little" boy of around age 9, as an abused teen, and as a recovering adult. It is vague about his sexuality, although there is one explicit scene in his teen years when a close friend introduces him to gay sex on a lonely beach at night. Less vague are the scenes of motherly neglect as he is growing up and the abuse he receives as a weak male by other children when he is a boy and when is a teen, even receiving a beating on the playground, an act forced on his close friend by the other more aggressive teens.

The main character is Chiron, played at various ages by Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes. He is mentored as a child by a neighborhood drug dealer named Juan (played by Mahershala Ali) and given shelter by Juan's caring girlfriend Teresa (played by Janelle Monáe) when Chiron's mother Paula (played by Naomie Harris) sends him away so she can do drugs or be instead with her boyfriends. Later as a teen Chiron has no mentors, just the shelter of Teresa's home and the friendship of boyhood friend Kevin, played at various ages by Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, and André Holland. After his beating on the playground, usually weak teen Chiron has finally had enough and returns to class to take a chair to the back of the head of the main bully who brought on his beating, resulting in his arrest. We next find him on the streets of Miami as a drug dealer. It's been years since his beating, since getting out of jail, and Chiron has moved on and changed his life.

Out of the blue, Chiron gets a call from his old friend Kevin, the one who gave him the beating in the playground. He's wondering what he's been up to all these years. What's he up to now? And we find out how their two lives have changed. Kevin was Chiron's close friend, who shored him up when others were picking on him, who stood at his side until he was challenged by the stronger bullies to act out against Chiron. Now there is an implicit invitation for Chiron to visit Kevin in Atlanta and when Chiron drive up to see him out of the blue, there's another implicit invitation. Chiron has driven all the way there to see what it's all about. 

Everywhere in Chiron's life there is danger. There is betrayal (except for Juan and Teresa). There is abuse. We are always wondering where his life will turn. Even at the end, when there is a slight twist of fate, we wonder where Chiron's life will turn. 

Moonlight won the Best Picture Oscar Award. It was promoted as being controversial because it was a daring movie about a Black homosexual. But having seen it, I would say it is less about that than it is about the abuse of the weak and the rise of the abused against horrific odds.

A good film, a daring film, a film exploring new ground in old territory, Moonlight is an important story of courage and perseverance in a difficult world. It's definitely worth seeing. 

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Collateral Beauty: Mostly Window Dressing to Get You to the Surprise Ending

Movie Review: Collateral Beauty (2016)
Version: Library borrow

In Collateral Beauty, Howard and Whit partner to create a successful advertising agency, along with the sweat and dedication of Claire and Simon. But when Howard suffers the death of his very young daughter, he retreats from reality and life, putting in peril all that he, Whit, Claire, and Simon have built. Nothing anyone tries to do to help him resolves Howard's deep sorrow. Howard's destructive behaviors begin to affect business to the point that the agency is about to collapse, and Whit decides to sell it rather than have it fail. To do so, Whit has to be able to prove that Howard is mentally incompetent to make the decision on the sale. With the uneasy assistance of Claire and Simon, and the help of three stage actors and a private detective, Whit sets out on an intervention to either bring Howard to his senses or provide the proof he needs.

This film takes a lot on its shoulders to make a point, a point attempted to be made in its title. But the execution comes in the telling, and that's where it comes up short. You have to think long and hard to fit the pieces of the puzzle together, and as obscure as the title is and as strange as the pieces of the puzzle are, it's easy to fumble with the point of the story. The themes are Love, Time, and Death, portrayed by the three actors that Whit employs for the intervention. But it is never really clear how those themes fit into the death of the daughter and how Howard deals with it. Moreover, the title, "collateral beauty" doesn't begin to explain either the desired outcome or the achieved outcome of the story, even though it is referenced at the beginning and end of the film. This is, unfortunately, a scripting problem. The story line is too complex, the writing too evasive.

What is good about Collateral Beauty is the acting. Will Smith puts on an emotional tour de force as Howard, the grieving father. Naomi Harris is riveting as Madeline, the grief counselor but who turns out to have a surprising connection to Howard. Helen Mirren is delicious as the actor portraying Death, Jacob Latimore puts on a strong performance as the actor portraying Time, and Keira Nightley is winsome as the actor portraying Love. Edward Norton as Whit, Kate Winslet as Claire, and Michael Peña as Simon are good as well. Their performances bring a depth to the story that makes up for what the writing fails to provide.

I've read a few explanations for the meaning behind the title in an attempt to understand it. The surprise ending probably best sheds light on everything, but if you have to wait till the last minute for the "Aha!" moment, then the film has failed. All the rest is window dressing simply to get you to the end. In this sense, I believe you will likely find yourself scratching your head looking for its meaning right up to the end and wondering why you sat through everything else. 

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2: A Great Followup to the Original

Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
Version: Library borrow

Hollywood has a much better success rate lately with sequels. That's certainly true with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, a great followup to its original, Guardians of the Galaxy. Partly, it's because the old cast and crew are back. And it's sci-fi/fantasy film magic.

Fresh back from saving Xandar from the wrath of Ronan, the Guardians return heroes. They've become a solid team, like a family of squabbling siblings, and now they need to help team leader Peter Quill, a.k.a. Star Lord, find his true heritage. In the middle of a mighty battle, just when they seem to have met their match against a forceful foe, comes a mighty savior: Ego.

At first, Ego seems pretty cool. He's more than a savior, he's the creator. More than the creator, he's Peter's father. And Ego wants super son to join him in his newest quest of greatness. Then things turn sour, as father and son come to odds and Peter must rely on family and old enemies-turned-allies to battle an all powerful god. 

The special effects in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 are pretty cool. Not, maybe, as cool as in, say, Star Wars or Star Trek, but pretty cool in a fantasy film kind of way. They stretch the imagination and help build an amazing universe you can believe in despite the way the story tellers stretch nature. Adding to the appeal of the film are the zany characters, built both around the scripting and the actors, played once again by Chris Pratt as Peter Quill/Star Lord, Zoe Saldana as Gamora, Dave Bautisa as Drax, Bradley Cooper as Rocket, and Vin Diesel as Baby Groot (adorable this time around). Michael Rooker returns as Yondu, the blue-faced leader of the resistance gang with the pet arrow he can control with a serious series of whistles. New to the cast is Kurt Russell as Ego. Between the fun script and the cast's natural sense of humor, the narrative plays out with lots of interesting twists and gags.

Now, this wouldn't make a bid for best picture of the year or award winner in any category, but it would make a bid for greatest way to spend an evening with the family. It's fast paced and entertaining, and afterwards you won't feel like you wasted your time or your money (assuming you paid to see it). I would have no trouble recommending this film to friends or family. If you haven't yet seen Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, put it on your list to see soon!



Thursday, September 07, 2017

Thieves of Threadneedle Street: A True Crime that Is as Good as a Good Mystery

Book Review: Thieves of Threadneedle Street by Nicholas Booth
Version: Hard cover library borrow

The full title is Thieves of Threadneedle Street, "The Incredible True Story of the American Forgers Who Nearly Broke the Bank of England". It nearly broke me as a reader, so long and convoluted a narrative is this true crime story. The telling of the story weaves back and forth across time and place so often as to often be hard to follow. Not the fault of the author, however, is the difficulty in keeping track of all the names, the aliases used by the characters who perpetrated the crimes, which also made it difficult to keep track of the story line.

If you look at Thieves of Threadneedle Street as a detective novel instead of a true crime work, you could hardly find a more amazing story in a Sherlock Holmes tale. In 1873, two American brothers, Austin and George Bidwell, in collaboraton with two other Americans, George Macdonnel and Edward Noyes Hills, exploited a weakness in the lending system at the Bank of England, along with other banks in England, France, and Germany. They learned their craft frauding businesses and banks in America. Using both their own names and multiple aliases, living in multiple hotels and doing business in various multiple companies, they lived off the good intentions and naivete of the ancient institutions of Europe to borrow, sell, and launder money, knowing their loans wouldn't come due for three months, by which time they would be well gone. Because of their use of aliases, no one would be sure who did what, covering the tracks of their misdeeds, or so they thought. But as with all good detective novels -- or as in the case of this true crime story -- criminals always make mistakes, and a good detective will always catch them. So it was that Willie Pinkerton, of the legendary Pinkerton Detective Agency in Chicago, New York City, and elsewhere in America, who had been hunting them down for their crimes in the United States, became active in the case for the Bank of England and brought them to justice.

The Bidwells, Macdonnel, and Hills were geniuses in forgery. If not for a few mistakes and one eagle-eyed examiner at the Bank of England, they might have gotten away with it. The four forgers were also very slippery and had nearly escaped the clutches of law enforcement, often aided by dishonest police who were easily bribed. Their adventures took them across the continent of Europe and eventually to Cuba and back to America in an attempt to escape. Pinkerton found them and brought them back to London to trial. Even so, the Bidwells had arranged multiple times for conspirators to break them, even at the last minute, but Pinkerton and the stalwart British police figured it out and stopped them.

Interesting to me living in West Michigan (USA), the Bidwells have a connection to this area. They were born in Adrian, Michigan, and when they were young their family moved to Grand Rapids, where their father ran a confectionery store. They owned a cabin at Black Lake near Muskegon, Michigan. The confectionery business failed, and the family moved to New York City, which is where the Bidwells came into contact with criminals and learned forgery. I wasn't aware of the local connections when I picked the story off the shelves.

Now, I am not a fan of true crime reads. I do like a good mystery and I am definitely a fan of a well-written Sherlock Holmes story. It was in reading Thieves of Threadneedle Street in this sense that I came to enjoy it. If it were just not so convoluted in the telling I might have enjoyed it more.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet: A Moving Film About a Young Boy's Life Journey

Movie Review: The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet (2013)
Version: Library borrow

The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet is a character-driven story that revolves around 10 year old prodigy T.S. Spivet, a misunderstood and under appreciated genius cartographer and science geek just yearning for some love. It is played to perfection by young new actor, Kyle Catlett, who in many ways reminds me of a misunderstood and under appreciated Kevin played by Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone, minus the tantrums and mischievous pranks.

T.S. (S is for Sparrow) lives in the wide open spaces of Montana with his father, mother, and 14 year old sister, all who are too self-absorbed to give him the love he needs. There is also T.S.'s twin brother, Layton, who is his father's favorite, because he is as much like his dad as T.S. is like his mother. But Layton is accidentally killed doing a science experiment with T.S. meant to bond the two together. The accident seems to drive everyone in the family farther apart rather than bringing them closer together. Even T.S.'s mother, after whom he supposedly takes, becomes more obsessed with her study of bugs than with her remaining son.

Now, T.S. has mapped out plans for a perpetual motion machine and sends them to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. And one day, in the midst of family turmoil, he receives a call inviting him to come to Washington to receive the prestigious Baird Award and give a speech. They don't realize the genius behind the machine is a 10 year old. At first he makes up excuses why can't be there, but as he discovers that, in his own mind he won't be missed anyway, T.S. calls back and accepts the invitation. Early in the morning he packs his bag -- underwear, raisins, binoculars, and a few sundry other things a 10 year old would think to take, plus his mother's diary -- and quietly leaves the family ranch to stow away on a freight train, headed for the Smithsonian.

From there, the story becomes a life's journey of self discovery.

The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet includes a great ensemble cast with fine performances, including Helena Bonham Carter as his preoccupied mother and Judy Davis as the frenetic, PR-obsessed Smithsonian assistant director. The distant father is played by Callum Keith Rennie and the out-of-touch sister is played by Niamh Wilson. Appreciate twin brother Layton is played by Jakob Davies. But all told, this film is driven by the power of the performance by Catlett, on whose young shoulders this story's success depends.

Ironically, the setting for this tale is America -- Montana, a mid-stop in Chicago, and Washington, D.C., and the stretch of country in between. But this is a Canadian film, with parts shot in British Columbia and Alberta as well as in Chicago and Washington. So there are some interesting quirks to the film. Some of the characters that T.S. meets along the way come off not quite believable, in a Canadian sort of way. In one situation, T.S. runs away from a railway security guard and separated from his train ride, he takes to hitchhiking along the highway. A trucker stop to pick him up. That should raise all kinds of red flags but to our friendlier, gentler Canadian friends, that might not seem like a problem. I don't know what the child abduction statistics are in Canada, but apparently they aren't high enough to cause a film director to shy away from that scene.

This film leads me back to a comment I made in an earlier post. Some of the best films are independent films, and The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet is a great example. Rather than lots of flashes and explosions and car chases or celebrity sex scenes, the heart of this film is totally character driven about a young boy's fearless life journey. It's a great film, and one every family can enjoy.


Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Despicable Me 3: Gru Meets Dru and the Fun Begins Once Again

Movie Review: Despicable Me 3 (2017)
Version: Paid movie theater viewing

They're back -- Gru, Lucy, Margo, Edith, Agnes, and all who knows how many adorable minions each who has a name -- in Despicable Me 3. You would think after two tries that a third movie would fall flat on its despicable face. Not so. Despicable Me 3 finds the crew as irrepressibly lovable and fun as the first time we met them. And this time, there's one more member of the crew to love: Gru's twin brother, Dru.

Gru and Lucy are fired from the Anti-Villain League for failing to catch Balthazar Bratt, newest arch enemy of goodness, even though they retrieved the target of Bratt's villainy, the world's largest gem. So for the rest of the movie there is battle between Gru and Lucy to retrieve the gem. Meanwhile, Gru and his family receives a mysterious invitation to visit a far off property which turns out to belong to his long lost -- and unknown -- twin brother, Dru. It turns out Gru's mother and father were spies during the Great War and had a falling out, each deciding to take and raise one son. Dru was raised in the shadow of his father's success as an evil spy while also watching his brother's success as an international bad guy. Now seeing Gru unemployed, Dru wants to join forces to do evil together, as it was meant to be. Gru, of course, has a family to think of, and is resistant, but Dru draws him into intrigue. And there's the matter of Balthazar Bratt to deal with.

The minions, meanwhile, have left the household, having lost faith in Dru because he has been fired but also because he refuses to turn back to doing evil. Theirs is a hilarious side story of getting into trouble, ending up in prison -- which they dominate as a tribe, escape and run off in search of a mission, only to be reintroduced to Gru with Dru. In my opinion, they steal the show, once again.

Gru and Dru are played with delicious joy once again by Steve Carell. Returning as his adorable wife Lucy is Kristen Wiig. The quirky Balthazar Bratt is played by Trey Parker. Also returning, Miranda Cosgrove is daughter Margo, Dana Gaier is daughter Edith, and Nev Scharrel is huggable daughter Agnes. You can't find a more wonderful ensemble cast for an animated film. The ensemble cast for all those adorable minions is one guy: Pierre Coffin. I'd love to have a conversation with him about how he assembles that dialogue!

Technically, the animation is flawless, from color to set decoration to character creation to lighting and on and on. The Despicable Me franchise remains one of my favorite for story telling and attention to detail. It is consistently excellent, and that continued in Despicable Me 3. The history of sequels in film isn't very good, but with this franchise they have kept our faith through two. I'd love to see a third sequel.

I don't know how long Despicable Me 3 will remain in theaters. It opened at the end of June in most markets, early July in some others, and late August in a very few others. But it's worth paying to see on the big screen. If you miss it in theaters, definitely see it on DVD or Blu-Ray or on cable or satellite TV. It's great fun!

Monday, September 04, 2017

Central Intelligence: Watch It for the Comedy and the Actors and You'll Be Fine

Movie Review: Central Intelligence (2016)
Version: HBO on demand

Central Intelligence is a great vehicle for Kevin Hart, maybe not so much for Dwayne Johnson. For Kevin Hart, it shows great range as an actor. For Dwayne Johnson, it rips apart his image as a macho tough guy with softer edges -- his character is a vulnerable guy bullied as a teen, which despite reworking his tubby body into a muscular powerhouse wimps out at the sight of his former bullies.

That said, Central Intelligence is innocent fun for weekend entertainment. The gist of the film is Calvin Joyner (played by Kevin Hart), once elected in high school as most likely to succeed who finds himself 20 years later married to his prom queen high school sweetheart a less than successful accountant, while she's a full partner at a top legal firm. His biggest decision is whether to accompany her to the high school reunion, when out of nowhere comes Bob Stone (played by Dwayne Johnson), a dweeb embarrassed the day of the prom by bullies by forcing him in a full auditorium naked, to the roar of the crowd. But Stone is now totally different, chiseled into a slim, muscle-toned Adonis. Back in high school, Calvin had been Bob's only friend, offering Bob his letter jacket to sneak out of the auditorium, and he wants to make connections with Calvin again, meet up over some drinks. Rather than meet with his wife, Maggie (played by Danielle Nicolet) to discuss going to the class reunion, Calvin chooses the meet up with Bob. And thus ensues an unlikely alliance that becomes an enlistment to help Bob on a CIA mission to secure national secrets, much to Calvin's distaste.

Central Intelligence is a comedy, with Dwayne Johnson playing up a very insecure Bob Stone. It's almost creepy the ease with which he assumes this character. Kevin Hart is masterful as the man out of his element who definitely doesn't want to be there but shoved into the role, but still resisting all the way. Well into the film arrives Justin Bateman as Trevor, the high school bully become stock trader who amiably assists the secret agent duo in uncovering a stock trading code, but then turning on a dime to return to his evil self to torment them. He's actually quite good at playing a bully. Amy Ryan plays Agent Pamela Harris, head of a CIA team trying to stop Bob, who they suspect of being a double agent, and Bob, who they see as his accomplice. Johnson gets to flex his muscles and kick a few asses, so he isn't totally out of his element, and so Central Intelligence also gets to be a typical spy movie at the same time.

There isn't much by way of technology, design, or special effects to make this film stand out. It's all about the comedy and minimal action. Watch it for the story and actors and you will be fine. Don't expect too much and you won't be disappointed.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Sing Street: Full of Soul and Character

Movie Review: Sing Street (2016)
Version: Library borrow

Sometimes it's good to get away from Hollywood blockbusters and watch an independent film. Sing Street is a delightful film from Ireland full of grit and character and soul.

Director John Carney made a movie about all the things he wanted to do as a teen in Ireland but was never able to do. It takes place in the mid-1980's, when music was in a transition to video, its sound and lyrics also in transition, which becomes the pathway for a boy's dreams of meeting a mysteriously beautiful girl by creating a band and writing music to woo her.  Carney's homage to his unfulfilled boyhood lives out in a film about life during the hard times in Dublin, Ireland, that is as much art as it is entertainment.

Newcomer Ferdia Walsh-Peelo plays the lead as Conor, the teen lad forced to change schools because financial times are hard at home. Jack Reynor plays Brenan, the drop-out older brother whose dreams have faded but rediscovers them in mentoring his younger sibling. School is a jungle enabled by abusive Catholic priests trying herd to rebellious youth, including a handful of young men who find a common bond in '80's music. Lucy Boynton plays Raphina, the girl who dreams of a career in modeling in London and plays along with Conor and the band, told she can be in their music video, the idea being it could help her modeling career.

With the exception of Boyton, the acting in the beginning of the film is amateurish, but as the film moves along and the plot and the music progresses, the acting improves and melds seamlessly into the background. The lads mature as characters and performers, their costumes and music maturing before our very eyes as the story becomes more real. Boyton is flawless throughout. Walsh-Peelo at first is hesitant as a singer, but quickly takes to the role as lead singer in the band. Mark McKenna who plays Eamon, Conor's music and lyrics collaborator, who can play every instrument in the band, and helps Conor write the music that will attract Raphina's attention, is flawless as a supporting actor. The other members of the band create a winsome ensemble of lovable characters. You even come to like the school bully by the end of the film.

Most independent films, especially foreign films, are more character driven than the Hollywood blockbusters we're driven by marketing efforts to see at our local theaters. Sing Street is full of character. It has the grit of the streets and alleyways of downtrodden Dublin. And it has the soul of a lost nation seeking direction, seeking a way out of its misery, and seeking young love. There is so much to love about this film. The final scenes will steal your heart away.

Do yourself a favor and watch Sing Street. It's what good film making is all about.




Friday, August 25, 2017

Einstein: His Life and His Universe: He Was Brilliant But He Had Relationship Issues

Book Review: Einstein: His Life and His Universe by Walter Isaacson
Version: eBook library borrow

I watched the series Genius, on National Geographic Channel I believe, that delved into the life of genius physicist Albert Einstein. I was so enthralled that I wanted to read the book on which the series was based, Einstein: His Life and His Universe. Now I wish I hadn't done either.

As a science nerd all my life, I held Albert Einstein as one of my heroes. He died in 1955, six years after I was born. We shared the same initials (A.E.). I wanted to be a physicist, because of him. Then I saw the series and read this book. It turns out, Einstein was kind of a cad.

As the series and the book details, he didn't mind misusing people to further his personal goals and complete his work. He relied on the adept mathematical skills of his first wife to proof his own, but he didn't give her credit for his discoveries, even though they discussed his ideas and she was key to the efficacy of his calculations. They married and had children, and he forced her to care for them instead of furthering her own science and mathematics career. Many of his discoveries picked up from the ideas and work of other physicists rather than being original. And he cheated on both wives, one of whom was a cousin. Now, creatively he was a great thinker and was able to extend the work of others because of his keen insights -- no doubt about it.  Einstein was a visual thinker and did several key thought experiments to concept physics in ways other scientists of his time couldn't. That really was his gift. But he had relationship problems.

As we learn in the made-for-TV series and in the book from which it was closely developed, Einstein misused the people around him, from his professors to his wives, to his children. He rarely saw his sons. He had mistresses while he was married. He even led on a fiancee who was the daughter of a family who took him in while he attended university when others forsook him, carrying on a long-distance relationship while he carried on with the woman who would become his first wife, whom he would then divorce for his second wife, a cousin.

The book is well researched and well written. I don't mean to detract from it or the well-produced television series. In the series, it is well acted and well written. But when I realize what a horrible person he was even into later life, well, sometimes your idols are better off left unexplored.

Einstein did do one other thing very well. He understood the power of the atom and the menace the German physicists presented in their search for the atom bomb, preparing the United States for the eventuality of the development such a weapon in their hands. And as the United States prepared for such a weapon themselves, Einstein joined other scientists in opposing it. In this, he became a voice of reason, finally using his celebrity and his prominence for good. So, perhaps, this story isn't entirely a disappointment.

Still, I have many mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, we should acknowledge knowledge gained. On the other, we should be grateful for the unsullied images of long past heroes whom we cherish. Nothing can be changed having finally understood Einstein's personal shortcomings. He was still brilliant in his science insights. In sum, I'm sorry I read this book.


Thursday, August 24, 2017

Go, Go, Gorillas: A Romping Bedtime Tale: Ten Smiling Gorilla Thumbs Up!

Book Review: Go, Go, Gorillas: A Romping Bedtime Tale by Patrick Wensick
Version: From the bookstore

Ever wonder why the gorillas are always laying around or sleeping when you visit them in the zoo? Author Patrick Wensick answers this curiosity in his brilliant new children's picture book, Go, Go, Gorillas: A Romping Bedtime Tale. It is illustrated with rambunctious fun by Nate Wragg.

Maybe you've noticed when you visit the zoo that the gorillas laze around a lot. Patrick Wensick has an interesting idea why, and I'll guarantee you, it's not what you're thinking. In this fun bedtime story for your little ones, Wensick takes you on an imaginative journey through the zoo when most little eyes are asleep, providing your little ones' minds with a fun transition to their own pleasant dream time. And you will have as much fun reading it to them or with them as they will have taking the journey with you.

I found Go, Go, Gorillas in the Children's Picture Books section at my neighborhood Barnes and Nobles store and online at Amazon.com. It didn't take long to get caught up in the amazing adventure of the story and I know that children everywhere will, too. I can give it ten smiling gorilla thumbs up!

Monday, August 21, 2017

The Great Gilly Hopkins: An Emotional Ride Through the Lives of the Characters

Movie Review: The Great Gilly Hopkins (2015)
Version: Library borrow

I last saw Sophie Nelisse in the exceptional lead role in The Book Thief. She returns in the amazing lead role as The Great Gilly Hopkins.

Gilly is an unruly unwanted 12-year-old foster child hoping to reunite with her mother. But for a schoolyard-wise, book-smart child, she just doesn't have a clue. She has been through the foster care mill and landing in the home of foster mother Maime Trotter (played by charmer Kathy Bates) and the classroom of Ms Harris (played by invincible Octavia Spencer), Gilly puts up a battle to beat the system and find the mother who abandoned her. But through all her devious plots and plans, she outsmarts herself and loses the only real home she's finally found love. You see, in walks her grandmother Nonnie (played by steelie-eyed Glenn Close), who has only recently discovered she has a granddaughter, just as everyone Gilly cares about is sick with the flu, leaving the home in a mess, and Nonnie is determine to rescue the daughter of her daughter. Also in the mix is Gilly's mother, who abandoned Gilly at a very young age and shows up briefly for Christmas.

Now, Kathy Bates overacts as a country-bumpkinish caring foster-care mom, but Octavia Spencer is smart as whip as the teacher who can't be fooled and Glenn Close is adept as the distant grandmother reaching out to connect with the daughter she never really had. Also fine in this cast is Bill Cobbs as Mr. Randolph, the blind older neighbor who shares his wisdom and compassion with a confused and rebellious youth desperately seeking love in all the wrong places. Sophie Nelisse provides that delicate vulnerability her character needs, which she was so good at showing us in The Book Thief.

Although the setting is current, The Great Gilly Hopkins has an old fashioned feel with themes and tones that last the test of time. It could have taken place at any time over the last 50 years and still been current. I predict this movie will still stand up in the next 50 years. The cars may look a little old by then, but there are few of them in the movie and your focus is really on the characters, which is what this story is really about.

The Great Gilly Hopkins is one of those movies where you don't watch for the dazzle, the scenery, or the action. You watch it for the emotional ride through the lives of the characters. See it!