Monday, May 30, 2016

Summer Reads Lists

Just found an article in Google News headlined as "The books critics say you should read this summer" (via Quartz blog). Take a look and let me know what you think. Any titles you'll be picking up for your bookshelf this summer?

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Chasing the Last Laugh: More Documentary than Interesting Read

Book Review: Chasing the Last Laugh by Richard Zacks

This will be a short review. I found this book tedious reading. Although I was once a fan of Mark Twain and, in fact, have a collection of his works, this biography of his latter years came off for me as more documentary than interesting narrative.

At the end of the 19th century, Mark Twain was once America's best paid author. But through faulty investing and a senseless trust in those who handled his money, Twain fell on hard times. His wife Livy had a rich inheritance and Twain spent through a good part of that as a result, but she felt honor bound to pay back their debts, even as they faced the embarrassment of bankruptcy.

This book is about the solution Twain and a close associate devised to help pay off their debts and earn money to live on. And that was a year long trip across the United States and to Australia, New Zealand, India, and other parts of the world on a speaking tour, where Twain could entertain audiences with his wit and wisdom. It gets into very specific detail about his debts, their causes, and those who tried to help him overcome them.

In all fairness to the reader, I didn't finish the book. It was a depressing read and I found it not humorous as his writings often were. The detailed accounting of his life's miseries and setbacks dragged me down. I suppose it was important to tell the whole story, but it wasn't my kind of read.

Mark Twain was an American original. Knowing about his later years probably makes this an important read, if you can wade through the detail and get through the morbidity of his failures. But then you lose the sense of the mythological humor figure that was Samuel Clemens. In this case, you aren't chasing the last laugh at all.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Sleeping Giants: Science Fiction, Mystery, and Not So Thriller

Book Review: Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel (Library Copy)

I haven't read a good science fiction since The Maze Runner series. The back cover sells Sleeping Giants as "Reminiscent of The Martian and World War Z," but believe me, Sleeping Giants isn't anything like The Martian. I can't speak for World War Z, having not read it. It also sells itself as a mystery, but it doesn't get to the mysterious intensity of the The Maze Runner stories.

Clearly, the science fiction is apparent in this book. There is much mystery in the book, too. There is the strange giant hand discovered in the beginning of the story, and the giant forearm a bit later on, plus the rest of the body parts, not to mention the overall purpose of the "sleeping" giant once they put everything together. The entire story surrounds a small team of researchers from academia, the military, and a leader we even unto the end of the book know nothing about, all trying to unwrap the conundrum that is this ancient alien battle bot that as we read on learn has enormous powers. Neuvel handles that story line deftly.

In the sense that it involves an indestructible robot sent by aliens that is meant to ensure peace, that is there for defensive purposes, not offensive, and that we are strung along until near the end of the story to learn of its true purpose and power, Sleeping Giants really is more like The Day the Earth Stood Still. In that it involves no interceding alien being spokesperson, it falls short of that classic film - either version.

This book has lofty goals and meets many of them. It is interesting. It's characters are multidimensional and likable, even the enigmatic leader. The main plot behind the story is even mildly possible. The narrative style is unique, using memos, interviews, lunch discussions, phone conversations, and other inventive techniques to tell the story. Unfortunately, as much as it succeeds it also disappoints. For one thing, he fails to finish the story. It suggests that there may be more than one sleeping giant, yet we are never provided even a glint of that part of the story. We are told that the purpose of the sleeping giant may be to defend against alien invasion, but we are never allowed to witness that prospect. And worst of all, Neuvel doesn't resolve the dilemma of the characters - we leave them in limbo. Perhaps he is going to resolve this in the sequel. But even so, Neuvel should have written an ending, a conclusion from which the sequel might spring.

I guess my conclusion would be that Sleeping Giants was definitely a science fiction and a mystery - an interesting read, even enjoyable for the most part - but with missing elements and no ending, it was also a no thriller. As the first part of the Themis Files series, let's hope it gets better from here.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Pan: A Fantasy Voyage of the Imagination

Movie Review: Pan (2015)

I'm tired of movie retreads. But I wasn't tired of the Pan remake of the classic Peter Pan story. It was imaginative, colorful, fluent, evocative, and most of all, it was fun. For all ages.

This version of the classic Peter Pan tale tells the story of Peter's origins. He is an orphan, left as a baby on the doorstep of a nunnery in World War II London. The nunnery runs an orphanage, and the orphanage sells the young boys to pirates, who arrive in the night to drop down from sailing ships in the sky to take them away to Neverland. In Neverland the boys are "freed" to mine for "pixem" (fairy dust) on behalf of the most famous and fearsome pirate of all time, Blackbeard. But when Peter's mother left him at the nunnery, she left him with a small token around his neck: a tiny pan or flute that proves that he is no ordinary boy. He's a foretold boy who can fly, who will save the inhabitants of the island.

Lifted up to Neverland with other boys one night, Peter is taken to Neverland to toil away on Blackbeard's behalf. And the battle to save Neverland and kill Blackbeard begins. Along the way, Peter meets Hook, an adventurer who befriends the young lad, and Tiger Lily, who protects the fairies from the pirates. When it is discovered that Peter can fly, the conflict between Peter and Blackbeard is set up and the battle between them begins, with Hook and Tiger Lily at his side against Blackbeard and his band of merry pirates.

The acting in this film is superb. Hugh Jackman is barely recognizable but brilliant as Blackbeard. The film introduces Levi Miller as Peter, commanding in the role for one so young. Garrett Hedlund is Hook, surprisingly likable for the scourge of a character he is usually portrayed. And Rooney Mara is Tiger Lily, a beautiful but fearsome tribal princess sworn to protect the fairies.

The staging, the set decoration, the visuals, the color, the effects are all wonderful. Even the flying sequences are accomplished effortlessly. One example of the brilliance of this film is that gunshots are seen not simply as gun flashes with shot flying but as bursts of powdery color. The fairies are winged sparkles of color. The tribe's encampment is a concoction of colorful wigwams and tents and tree houses, almost carnival like. The Neverland island is an amazing amalgam of jungle-like rain forests and caves. Mermaids are beautiful swimming creatures with shimmers in their tails. And the crocodiles are giants that can leap through the air. Neverland and the trip there are a fantasy voyage of the imagination.

In Neverland mythology, the boy who can fly comes to kill Blackbeard. And Blackbeard is intent on mining the entire island of pixem, which rejuvenates him, the last part of the island not yet mined being where the fairies live, hidden. And so the final epic battle is between Blackbeard and Peter, who doesn't believe he can really fly. But when all of Neverland is at stake, Peter's faith in himself is put to the test. Ships fly, fairies fly, crocodiles fly - oh why, oh why, can't I?

I've seen a lot of the Peter Pan films and I think this is one of the best. For sheer fun and imagination it tops all the others. Pan makes for a great evening of family entertainment. Watch it on DVD.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Victor Frankenstein: Campy, Hokey - Still, Not Your Typical Frankenstein Remake

Movie Review: Victor Frankenstein (2015)

Enough already of the movie remakes! Victor Frankenstein is one of those. Hollywood is hurting for good scripts - I get it. But that doesn't mean I have to like it.

Victor Frankenstein features James McAvoy as the named character, now as the rich-kid medical student who doesn't feel fulfilled by his medical studies and is failing, so he decides to go off on his own and research bringing the dead back to life. Daniel Radcliffe is his sidekick, a bumbling but brilliant hunchback picked up from the circus, who creates chaos during an act that results in a death. Hunted down for that murder, Frankenstein gives the Radcliffe character the name of his "traveling" roommate, Igor, and invites him to be his assistant. Turns out the hunched back comes from an abscess along "Igor's" spine, which Frankenstein removes and then straightens his spine. Lame excuse to give Radcliffe the Igor name to fit in with the Frankenstein franchise (sorry, pun not intended, but we'll keep it).

What is unique about this version is that instead of just working on a re-animating a human, this story begins with Frankenstein attempting to reanimate other dead animals first. Also new, Frankenstein and Igor are pursued by a policeman driven by evidence from the death at the circus that leads him to believe someone is toying with nature, against his puritan beliefs. In some ways, he is almost a caricature of Sherlock Holmes in his methods and his intensity. It isn't until Frankenstein presents his findings before the royal medical society, fails, and is driven out of London that he moves to a remote location that Frankenstein pursues the re-animation of a human. Igor has given up on the effort for moral reasons, but then suddenly has a change of heart and seeks out Frankenstein again.

All of the elements of this story converge at the coastal location as a strong storm approaches from the sea and Frankenstein attempts to bring a human form back to life using lightning. Igor arrives in time to assist, while the police officer arrives in time to try to stop him. I won't spoil the ending other than to comment that the closing was hokey.

There is a love interest in the story, Lorelei. Instead of being for Frankenstein, Lorelei is for Igor. That's totally different, as is the entire story being told from Igor's perspective.

I've never been a fan of "monster" stories, of which I would label any Frankenstein story. This version was sufficiently different to make it a diversion, but parts of Victor Frankenstein were so campy or hokey as to make them a distraction. So I can't recommend this film wholeheartedly. Perhaps come Halloween, if you want a silly monster movie for the fun of it, this one would make a good chuckle.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Room: Creepy and Scary Yet Also Brilliantly Told

Movie Review: Room (2015)

Room is both creepy and scary, yet it's also intelligently told not as a horror tale nor as a thriller. It delves deeply into the experiences of the victims of a pedophile kidnapped as a teen and the son who is birthed as a result of her imprisonment as a teen.

The film begins simply enough showing the mother, Ma , and her son, Jack, living a normal seeming life in a small apartment. There's a bed and a bath and a kitchen. As the story expands, so does your sense of their isolation. The only window in the room is a skylight. They exercise there, play there, do chores there. But never do Ma and Jack ever leave the room. Food is provided. And while Jack wakes up in Ma's bed, you find that when Jack goes to bed he sleeps in the bottom of the wardrobe. When the pedophile Old Nick shows up, there's an electronic series of tones, and Ma puts Jack to bed. Old Nick then gets into bed with Ma.

Jack's toys are simple. They are the occasional books, some of which are beyond his reading age. Others are toys he has made out of everyday objects, like egg shells and toilet paper rolls. Ma tells Jack stories, and they imagine a world beyond that of their small room. But you then realize, Jack has never seen anything or anyone outside the walls of what turns out to be a backyard shed.

Never sensationalized, Room is adeptly told with realism. Theirs is a world of isolation and terror. Old Nick comes for his predatory sex, although you never really see that - it is implied. Then one night Jack is awake and emerges from the wardrobe to find Old Nick in bed with Ma. He quietly walks over to the bed to investigate and Old Nick wakes up. Curious about Jack, he talks to him and Ma wakes up and attacks Old Nick. "Don't ever touch Jack!" Old Nick rolls over on her and nearly chokes her, demonstrating his dominance. He angrily leaves and turns off the power to the room. It's winter and the room gets cold. Very cold. It's then that Ma comes up with her plan to help Jack escape.

Jack is courageous as he pulls off Ma's escape plan. Never having seen anything outside the room, Jack is exposed to a seemingly limitless world, overwhelming to his senses. But Jack is strong. And Jack brings help for Ma. But their struggle is only half over. For while Ma coped with her imprisonment and bringing up Jack in their isolation, now freed she must cope with their freedom and the implications of their confinement and the violence and shame of their life with a pedophile. It's a long, enduring journey. And in the end, it is Jack's strength that rescues Ma.

With extreme sensitivity, Room brilliantly tells the story of their journey. While I don't recommend this film for every audience, it is a story well told for many. I can now see why it was nominated for and won so many top awards. It will help you understand what families go through when a child is kidnapped and is years later rescued.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Ex Machina: Intelligent AI Movie with a Potent Surprise at the End

Movie Review: Ex Machina (2015)

Ex Machina isn't so much a robot movie as it is a movie about artificial intelligence (AI). It just so happens that this AI has a body and so takes the form of a robot. And so the whole plot for this movie revolves around AI consciousness issues. And it explores those issues intelligently and with a potent surprise at the end.

As the story begins, the main character, Caleb, wins a company competition to spend a week with his reclusive boss, Nathan, on a top secret project. To what purpose? As the smartest, most adept company programmer, it's his job to determine if Nathan's latest AI model, Ava, can pass the Turing Test and appear totally consciously aware.

The setting is a secure remote location that is so removed from civilization, access requires arrival by helicopter and a walk along and across a river. Nathan immediately sets boundaries, like providing access to only certain rooms of the underground bunker by swipe card. And Caleb interviews Ava behind a reinforced-glass barrier. Throughout the interview process, Nathan watches by video - in fact, there are times Nathan watches Caleb by video when Caleb isn't at all aware of the surveillance.

As Caleb interviews Ava, he asks a series of questions to determine if Ava is actually thinking on her own or she is merely acting on an algorithm that mimics individual thought. Pretty soon the question isn't just whether Ava can think on her own, but whether Ava "likes" Caleb. And the questions continue to morph as the interviews progress.

Ava has control over the bunker power and turns it off occasionally, using the short power outages to say things to Caleb while the sound is cut to Nathan. She creates doubt in Caleb's mind whether Nathan is telling Caleb the truth. When Caleb has finally had enough, he creates a plan to escape with Ava.

But then we discover that as much as we think we know what's going on, we find new twists to the plot, twists the lead to a real surprise.

I have to say, this is one of the creepiest AI movies I have seen. I'm not all comfortable with the idea of developing AI to its fullest extent as it is, and Ex Machina does nothing make me any more comfortable with the idea. As a story, it's a brilliantly executed bait-and-switch, not that you aren't expecting twists and turns, but more that you aren't expecting what you finally get.

This movie obviously isn't for kids. Teens will probably lap it up. Techies and geeks will likely love it. If you like science fiction/mystery and technology and are interested in the idea of artificial intelligence, likely you will like Ex Machina, too. But I'm betting you won't see the end coming and it's really worth seeing the movie just for that surprise.