Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Emoji Movie: Great Family Entertainment for This New Years

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

If you're looking for a fun movie to share with the kids this New Years (or new year), consider The Emoji Movie. I wouldn't rate it up there with Inside Out, but it shares some of the colors and emotional tugs of that film, and The Emoji Movie has tons more interesting characters for kids to laugh about and with. Just think about all the amazing emojis you, and possibly they, encounter on social media and in other modern day situations -- they're there as fun characters in this animated film.

The basis of the story is a multi-expression emoji named Gene who's too timid to express himself when chosen by timid coming-of-age teen Alex to communicate with a girl he desperately wants to hang out with. When Gene accidentally shows the wrong expression, it releases a chain of unfortunate consequences for Gene and the seemingly unlimited universe of other emojis who inhabit Alex's smartphone, and thus Alex decides to take his phone in to wipe it clean. Then it becomes a race against time for Gene and his best friend, Hi-5, to get to the Cloud, where they will be safe. Getting in their way are a series of other characters intent on eliminating Gene, who they see as the reason imminent demise. Coming to Gene and Hi-5's rescue is Jailbreak, a princess turned hacker who just wants to be free to be herself.

The film features a great cast, including T.J. Miller as the voice of Gene, James Cordon as Hi-5, and Anna Faris as Jailbreak. There are some amazing cameo voices as well. Most hilarious for me is Patrick Stewart as Poop -- his credits list him as "Sir" Patrick Stewart, which makes me wonder if he insisted on the honorific in exchange for playing such a -- pardon the pun and language -- "crappy" part. Rachel Ray is the voice of Spam!

The design and animation are colorful and entertaining, as well. There's something fun for every age, a joke that everyone in the family can enjoy. I suppose this will hit closest to home for young and older teens, but younger kids will love the wild and crazy characters just as easily. Adults will find plenty to giggle at, too.

As I said, this doesn't rise to the quality of Disney's Inside Out, with its serious themes and its cuddly creations. But The Emoji Movie is still fun to watch. And it will entertain the whole family on a cold winter evening as 2017 turns into 2018 or even after.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

The Baltic Prize: Number Nineteen Is Another Winner!

Book Review: The Baltic Prize by Julian Stockwin
Version: Author furnished ebook

If you have read this review blog for long you know I am a huge fan of Julian Stockwin’s Thomas Kydd age-of-sail series. The Baltic Prize is the nineteenth adventure in that series, and after two slight twists to his successful format in Inferno and Persephone, Stockwin returns to its roots in a stirring tale of conflict and battle at sea. A return well done!

Stockwin’s stock in trade is historical fiction, basing his stories on detailed research and bringing that detail to his stories. For that reason, Inferno was more about the siege of Copenhagen and the failed negotiation to "borrow" the Danish Navy and less about the sea adventure. It was a necessary diversion, which brought us to this next tale. In The Baltic Prize, he returns us to the waters off the coast of Denmark, where the Danes hold the choking point of islands that secure the waters of the Baltic Sea.

In 1808 Napoleon has taken over most of Europe and cut off Britain’s economic ties to most of the continent. Once ally Russia has now joined forces with Napoleon, cutting off access to the continent from the north. It leaves only Sweden as their ally. Britain’s access to Swedish ports must be through the Baltic Sea, and the Danes have a score to settle with Britain after the burning of their capital and the taking of their navy.

With that as a backdrop, The Baltic Prize sets up for a challenge to France, Russia, and Denmark as Britain organizes a new naval squadron to ally with Sweden, which is under attack by Russia, to defend the Baltic route to the continent, and Captain Sir Thomas Kydd and his heralded frigate Tyger are among the fleet. Their charge is to defend the British merchant fleet trying to reach European ports. Their challenges are French privateers that raid the merchant ships at will, a newly built fleet of Danish gunboats that resourcefully go after both merchant ships and British naval ships caught dead in failing winds, and an increasingly more aggressive Russian Navy looking to stake a claim to Swedish ports.

Increasing the challenge is an erratic Swedish king and his now untrustworthy navy, not to mention a British general who insists on ticking off the king. It’s always something, isn’t it?

We find Kydd and the Tyger crew getting plumb assignments hunting down privateers, taking on gunboats, and seeking out the hiding places of sneaky “Ruskies”, with daring skirmishes and dangerous raids. Kydd must not only warily track his opponents, but he finds he must tread difficult waters among his colleagues, many of whom are jealous of his rise in position and he suspects of sabotaging his missions.

And always in the back of Kydd’s mind as he manages a life of danger at sea is his beloved Persephone, whom he has married and left back in England to manage their new estate.

As always with Stockwin’s stories, the characters are engaging, the story is full of exciting action, and much of the story is real, based on historical research. You learn about history as you enjoy a rousing tale. And as with every Kydd tale, I couldn’t put the book down once I started reading. In my book, number nineteen -- The Baltic Prize -- is another winner!

I read this as an ebook, but it's available in U.S. and Canada beginning January 2, 2018.

Monday, December 18, 2017

The Circle: Solid on Story Line and Character Development

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

There was something creepy about The Circle. Not in a horror-movie way. Not in a sexual-assault way. But in an invasion-of-your-privacy way. And that's what this film is about, really, advanced technology's potential to invade your privacy in the most personal and devastating ways. For that reason alone, it's worth seeing, to explore what you may not imagine your giving technology access to while you're visiting Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and Snapshot and all of those other "entertaining" programs on the Internet.

What enhances the creep factor is having usually affable, lovable Tom Hanks play the bad guy. He's not a violent bad guy. He's not a seductive bad guy. But he is a manipulator and someone who takes advantage of the weak and innocent. And when you are used to seeing him play good guys most of the time, seeing him play this kind of role rips your heart out. He plays the CEO of The Circle, the tech and social media company that just wants to connect the world for the betterment of human kind.

Playing opposite him is Emma Watson, who is the weak, innocent young woman who doesn't seem to have the strength or the will or the sophistication to resist Hank's charm or manipulations. She just goes along to get along. And Watson is so appealing as an actor that you can't help but feel for her as she keeps digging herself deeper into a hole as she advances in the company.

The basic story is that as Mae, one-time customer service rep for the city water department, she gets the job of a lifetime at The Circle. She starts out as a customer relations agent. But Hank's character, Bailey, and his COO Stenton (played by Patton Oswalt), see potential in her, and they give her an exciting new assignment. Now, The Circle is a social media program available all over the world, and its thing is connecting people and promoting openness and transparency. So this new assignment is to wear a camera and expose herself to cameras that The Circle has posted everywhere, to follow her every move, everywhere. She becomes an overnight success, people all over the world following her and loving her. But there are complications as the world taps into her relationships with others in her life, bringing unintended consequences, some of them devastating. In the background is a reclusive employee (Ty, played by John Boyega), who shows Mae the inner workings of The Circle and its dangerous potential. Their only solution is to challenge The Circle.

The look and feel of The Circle is today's Google or Facebook, but bigger and badder. The company's campus is amazing, full of fun places to work, exciting activities, inviting parties, and constant interaction between employees and frequent innovation. But hidden beneath the surface is a desire to control the world for profit.

If you spend a lot of time on social media, this movie will make you think twice about how and how much you share your personal information. That's really how The Circle might creep you out. That can be a good thing. But remember, it's just a movie. And it's a good one, well acted and well scripted. The futuristic graphics are solid and the limited special effects are great.

This was the last film for Bill Paxton, who plays Mae's father, who suffers from Multiple Sclerosis in the story. Paxton died early this year from complications of a surgical procedure for an aneurysm. He gave a fine final performance.

The Circle isn't an amazing film, but it is a good one, solid on story line and character development.

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.