Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul: New Cast Flop

Movie Review: Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul (2017)
Version: Library borrow

A Heffley family road trip to attend Meemaw's 90th birthday party goes hilariously off course thanks to Greg's newest scheme to get to a video gaming convention.

Jason Drucker as Greg
Alicia Silverstone as Susan (Mom)
Tom Everett Scott as Frank (Dad)
Charlie Wright as Rodrick (big brother)
Dylan and Wyatt Walters as Manny (little brother)

This is going to be short and -- well, not sweet. We've enjoyed the Diary of a Wimpy Kid movies as a family, in the way any family can. They've been fun. The characters have been interesting, the stories pitting everyone in one calamity after another and teaching young viewers a lesson by the end. And the actors playing the characters have been charismatic in their parts. We "grew up" with them in their roles. The Long Haul is da bomb, but as in a bomb. It screws with everything we grew to like in the series, changing the entire cast.

It's understandable to the extent that all the youngsters were growing too old to play Greg, Rowley, and gang. But why fool with Mom, Dad, and Rodrick, who were perfect as cast? I'll give credit to Jason Drucker as Greg, who comes the closest to being likable and emerging as a realistic replacement. And Alicia Silverstone isn't horrible as Mom, but she still just doesn't cut it with the persona. Tom Everett as Dad is so far off the mark as the frenetic Dad and Charlie Wright doesn't begin to play the sloth and evil that his predecessor did as Rodrick.

The gist of the story is Mom and Dad packing Greg, Manny, and Rodrick into the family van for a trip to visit "Meemaw" in celebration of her 90th birthday. Grey and Rodrick only give in to the trip with the hope of secretly visiting a gamer conference, changing the van's GPS to get them there without Mom and Dad knowing. There is, of course, the usual lame parental effort to make the trip fun and the kids doing everything they can to ignore it all, and there's the stopover at a less than one-star-rated motel plus an encounter with a less than friendly family to add conflict and humor.

So, while the scenarios are pure Diary, the cast is clueless and spoils it. We just couldn't get over the new cast enough to enjoy this movie. Sorry, guys, but you pulled the rug out from under us on this one and the movie ended up as a flop on our floor.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children: The Good Writing Makes This Book

Book Review: Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
Version: Library ebook borrow

I saw the movie Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children directed by Tim Burton, so I decided I should read the book. Usually, the book is full of greater insights into the tale and has more depth and you get to know the characters better. Not so here.

For well into the first three-quarters of the book the movie and the book track nearly identically. It's the story of the boy who has grown up being told the most fantastic stories by his grandfather, and when his grandfather dies a mysterious and horrific death and tells him he must seek out a teacher from earlier in his life, the boy goes to Wales with his father to seek her out. When he gets there, initially all he finds is an old ruin of a home for peculiar children. But upon further investigation he finds a portal to the past and visits both the teacher and the peculiar children, and in doing so he discovers the answer to the mystery of his grandfather's death and why his grandfather was insistent on his seeking out the teacher. We meet the wonderful teacher and the very interesting children. And we meet the beasts at whose hands the boy's grandfather meets his death, who want to kill the teacher, the peculiar children, and the boy.

It's the last quarter of the book where the story diverges from the movie. There is no gigantic battle scene at a seaside entertainment midway. And there is no emotional reunion with the grandfather at the end. But there is more to the romance with the grandfather's former peculiar love interest, which is this case is the girl who can light fire with her hands and not the girl who can fly. And the book includes all the peculiar photos which inspired the writing of the book in the first place. (Note: In creating an ebook out of an original book file, it isn't always easy to include images and graphics. It was integral to story, so bravo to Riggs for including them!)

I think we can blame the lack of additional depth to this series of stories being in the young adult or teen genre, which tend to be shorter, less complex stories. Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, however, is well written, with wonderful descriptions and imaginative passages. It's worth the read just for that. There are sequels to this book. I'm not a fan of horror or peculiar stories, so I haven't decided whether to read them, but if you want to read good writing, I suggest you give this book and the others a try.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Shack: It's Not About Religion, It's About Healing

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

If you're turned off by religion-based films ... hold on, The Shack is different! This one doesn't try to convert you and, at least in my mind, this one isn't sickly sweet. It actually answers some pretty basic questions on a lot of peoples' minds about God and when bad things happen, and it addresses how we heel as wounded individuals. It ministers to a character but it doesn't preach to us. It's a story.

Mack Phillips has suffered some tragedies in his life, the most traumatic the recent loss of his youngest daughter Missy while under his care at a camp. Someone abducted her while he was rescuing his older daughter and son during a canoe incident on a lake, and while police find evidence of her abduction at a nearby shack, the body is never found. Mack feels a deep remorse that tears him apart, also pulling him apart from his other family relationships. Months later, still mourning, he receives a letter he assumes is a taunt from the abductor inviting him to encounter him back at the shack, and he goes to take on the killer of his daughter. But when we goes he finds an encounter of an entirely different kind. There, he meets God in three persons, who challenge his notions of loss, guilt, judgment, revenge, and forgiveness. As an audience, we may find ourselves challenged in our notions as well, including of who God is and how God works in our daily lives.

The Shack features a very good cast, including Sam Worthington as Mack and, very interestingly, Oscar nominee Octavia Spencer as Papa (God the nurturing "Father") as well as Native American Graham Greene as Papa (God the "Father" when you need strength). Avraham Aviv Alush plays Messia (God the Son) and Sumire Matsubara plays Sarayu (which means "the wind", God the Holy Spirit). It's a fine ensemble cast that plays heavenly intervention on a strictly human level -- casting no lightning bolts, no fire and brimstone, only serenity.

There is also an amazing garden filled with wild flowers, in which Sarayu asks Mack to help her prepare the area for a big event the next day. To say more than that would be to provide spoilers, but what follows the next day can be gut wrenching and beautiful at the same time.

This is a film that I warn you starts off kind of cheesy but soon becomes beautiful and then powerful. I challenge you to watch it all the way through. If by the end you decide I was wrong, I'll allow you to wag your finger at me and tell me I was wrong. But I think you'll find The Shack is much less about religion and way more about healing. 

Thursday, August 10, 2017

The LEGO Batman Movie: Not as Good as the Original But Still Fun-tastic

Movie Review: The LEGO Batman Movie (2017)
Version: Library borrow

What would happen if The Joker rounded up all of Batman's most sinister enemies and brought them together to battle the night crusader? Uh, the lone crusader? Uh, the LEGO version of the lone night crusader? That's sorta kinda the theme behind The LEGO Batman Movie, with the added twist that Batman has unwittingly adopted a teen who idolizes him and he can't shake the capable young crusader wannabe. Also add into the twist a lot of other familiar bad guys, like Sauron from The Lord of the Rings... oh, you have to see this fun-tastic stop-action animation film to believe it.

Now, my daughter and I agree this isn't as fun as the original LEGO movie, but it's still great entertainment for every age group. There are the usual sight gags, hilarious dialogue, generously quirky characters, and amazing LEGO land creations set to motion. You even have your choice of super duper bat machines to drool over. It's simply great fun. And this time, there are no human characters to get in the way of the story line. Well, there is the voice cast, featuring Will Arnett as Batman/Bruce Wayne, Michael Cera as Dick Grayson/Robin, Ralph Fiennes as Alfred Pennyworth, Siri as 'Puter, and Zach Galifianakis as Joker, but the add, not intrude. Only thing missing is a catchy tune like "Everything's Awesome", as we had in the original. Oh, well, you can't have everything.

So, what would happen in this scenario? Well, everyone finds his or her right place in the Gotham City scheme of things, and that includes the audience. We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, and we think you will, too. Buy it, rent it, or borrow The LEGO Batman Movie from the library, but do see it, soon.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

The Boss Baby: We Can't Give This Movie Even a Grudging Thumbs Up

Movie Review: The Boss Baby (2017)
Version: Library borrow

Can you imagine Alec Baldwin as cute and cuddly little baby? Me, neither, but he pulls it off in the animated movie, The Boss Baby. It's with his voice, of course, playing a baby sent to a family to solve the big mystery behind the puppy-cute boom that threatens to replace babies among families.

His chief rival is seven-year-old Tim, Mom and Dad's favorite huggable until Baby Boss shows up, and who plots to overcome the competition. It's only when the two reach the conclusion that working together they can both solve their individual problems that the two team up and, as a result, realize they actually like each other.

Animation is often powered by its voice talent. In The Boss Baby, Alec Baldwin is just one of the powerhouses.Tim is well voiced by Miles Bakshi. Jimmy Kimmel plays Dad and Lisa Kudrow plays Mom. But really, Alec Baldwin drives this movie. All of it!

The animation itself is imaginative, but not spectacular. And I have reached the conclusion that without Baldwin to drive this film, The Boss Baby wouldn't have much going for it. OK, babies are cute, puppies are cute, but you can get those with a live action movie -- you can get them on social media any day. The plot is interesting, but the conflicts don't move you. And the art is nothing to draw home about.

As a family, we all agreed we were glad we didn't pay to see The Boss Baby at the theater. It was an "OK" DVD borrow, but we were sure we wouldn't want to pay for it on cable, on demand, or at a rental store, either. Sorry, guys, we can't give this movie even a grudging thumbs up.

Friday, August 04, 2017

The Founder: A Phenomenal Story and a Commanding Performance

Movie Review: The Founder (2016)
Version: Library borrow

Sit back and be prepared to be floored by The Founder, the movie and the performance.

It's 1954 and drive-in restaurants -- what we would call junk food havens today -- were the "in" thing across America. The only problem was, they attracted a bad element: rebellious, unruly teens. And for the customers, they were slow and undependable on service. Ray Kroc was a salesman most of his life with a face and pitch most targets of his "charm" could remember, and he was crossing the Midwest selling five-spindle milkshake makers, with no one buying. And then, suddenly, he got an order for six, in San Bernadino, California. So Ray drove out to San Bernadino in his dusty, rusty DeSoto to check out this McDonald's drive-in restaurant and discovered a miracle of innovation and great food with speedy service. He wanted in! Dick and Mac McDonald were skeptical, but Ray put on the charm and with persistence, talked them into franchising their local successful business model across the country. And so the story of The Founder of McDonald's begins.

Michael Keaton puts on a command performance as the tired aging salesman who has tried just about every gimmick to find "the big one" that will make him rich, then nails it through blind ambition, dogged persistence, and sheer ruthlessness. The McDonald brothers, played by Nick Offerman as Dick and John Carroll Lynch as Mac, weren't prepared for the force of nature that was Ray Kroc, and he eats them up for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with Keaton playing all the parts with absolute brilliance. Why he wasn't nominated for an Oscar for this role, I have no idea. As the tale starts out Kroc is a likable enough character, struggling to make a sale, disappointed in what life serves up to him. Mid-way through you begin to sense Kroc has become obsessed and is in over his head, and you feel for him. But by the end, he becomes a despicable fiend. The McDonald brothers, at first sticklers for staying true to their vision and intransigent to any change, become pawns to Kroc's mercenary schemes and in the end the victims. 

I don't know how much of this story is true and how much is screenwriter's license to make the film more interesting, but if it's half as true as in real life, unless you are a true dog-eat-dog capitalist at heart, I guarantee you will come away despising Ray Kroc after watching The Founder. I certainly wasn't prepared for the revelations. But you will be amazed at the original McDonalds' innovations and dogged faith to the genius of what they had created. 

There are other side plots to the story that I won't get into here that make the story equally intriguing, along with the actors who played them out. Together, they tell the story of the founding of McDonalds Corporation and the people who made it one of the most successful franchises in America -- in the world. 

I can say, without a doubt, you should see this film. For Keaton's commanding performance if not to learn the story behind bringing you your neighborhood McDonald's. It's a phenomenal story.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Saturn Run: Sound Science and Sound Writing

Book Review: Saturn Run by John Sanford and Ctein
Version: Hard cover library borrow

Interestingly, the first time I tried to read Saturn Run, I thought the first few pages were hog wash and I returned the book to the library. Low and behold, a few months later I looked for something interesting to read and didn't recognize the title and borrowed the book again. This time, I fell in love with the book. What's a reader to say?

What would you do if the president of the United States asked you to join a crew headed to a distant planet in our solar system to beat the rest of the world to tap into a suspected alien base? And what would you think if one of the other major powers jumped into the race to beat you there, and their crew was most likely filled with military personnel, while yours was filled with scientists, engineers, and just a few security personnel? And what if on the way your head of security had a good-odds suspicion that there was a spy on board your ship sabotaging your engines? That's part of the story line behind Saturn Run, about a U.S. rocket headed to Saturn attempting to beat the Chinese there to secure alien technological secrets before anyone else. The crew is made up of engineers, scientists, an anthropologist, a video photographer, a news reporter, a national security operative, and a handful of assorted others. On the China ship is a military crew hellbent on beating the Americans there. Along the way, the U.S. ship loses an engine and a chief engineer, slowing its progress, but not enough for the Chinese to beat them. But when the China ship arrives, it's apparent their ship is disabled and the U.S. ship must decide whether to give them aid. Along with the hard science in this space adventure, then, is also political intrigue. And who in the end wins the alien technology. And what about the aliens at the base?

Saturn Run is well thought out and plotted, and the authors put a lot of effort into making the engineering as accurate as possible so the space ships could reach Saturn in months instead of years. The characters are realistic, although I kept wondering, would the United States really send amateur space travelers or would it send seasoned astronauts who also trained in the other disciplines? The U.S. ship is a reworked International Space Station, and I have some doubts about the feasibility of that as well. Still, it doesn't get in the way of a good story. It includes a great surprise at the end, making the long slog through 486 pages worth the read.

Ever have one of those books it takes more than once to become vested in? That's the way it was for me with Saturn Run. I think you should give it a try. It's a great story and worth a read.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

The Fate of the Furious: A Swift Kick in the Gear Box

Movie Review: The Fate of the Furious (2017)
Version: Library borrow

The Fate of the Furious isn't your daddy's Fast and Furious, little buddy. The eighth movie in the franchise series starts off on the fast and furious streets of Havana, Cuba, with a street race, but that's where the hot-car thrills end. Dom (played as always by Vin Diesel) is recruited by a bad-ass fem antagonist to go after world-class weapons of mass destruction, even betraying his closest friends who go in hot pursuit. And no one can figure out what turned him from a good guy into a bad guy. It turns out bad-ass fem Cipher (played by Charlize Theron) has a couple of hostages in tow who are close to Dom's heart, and she won't release them until Dom helps her capture a Russian submarine along the coast of the frozen Barents Sea.

Back are Michelle Rodriguez as Letty, Dom's former love interest and now wife; Tyrese Gibson as Roman; Ludacris as Tej Parker; and Nathalie Emmanuel as Ramsey, the new crew member rescued in episode 7. Also back are Dwayne Johnson as Federal Agent Hobbs and Jason Statham as Deckard, who were at each others' throats in episode 7 but now reunite to go after Dom to stop Cipher. Shepherding resources to support the crew is Mr Nobody (played by Kurt Russell), who now has an assistant, Little Nobody, played by Scott Eastwood. Helen Mirren gets a cameo role as Magdalene Shaw, Deckard's mother, whom Dom meets to enroll Deckard's help.

Now, even without the street races, there are still plenty of thrills in this film with lots of hot cars and military hardware to pump up the action, on the streets, in the air, and across the ice. And what would a Fast and Furious movie be without some male bravado and back talk? Yep, that's there, too.

As always, it's the action that makes this movie, but it wouldn't be the Fast and the Furious without the characters, with their sassy interplay. After seven episodes, the actors have the mojo down pat, and this ensemble cast is perfect in making everything work. You can even let the glaring plot holes pass because the action and the characters are so fun to watch. Mentioning the plot holes would require telling more of the plot, which would entail spoilers, so I won't go into detail, but I'm sure you won't have any trouble spotting the plot holes on your own. Anyway, you don't go to see a film like The Fate of the Furious for airtight plots, you go for the action.

The Blu-ray version of the movie includes a set of very interesting extras, including some insights into the Cipher character. If you can afford to buy or rent it instead of the standard DVD, I would do so. And by all means, for a fast and furious evening of fun without spending a lot of time thinking, pop in The Fate of the Furious and enjoy the show. It's a swift kick in the gear box!