Wednesday, October 10, 2018

My Recent Absence

Dear readers:
My sincerest apologies for not posting in a very long time. I have been on a forced hiatus after a complex and serious surgery and a lengthy recovery. In my defense, I did try to write a couple of reviews after a while, but they just weren't up to quality and I didn't post them. Please accept my apologies as I look forward to the day I may be able to return to this review platform. I hope you have seen some good films and read some enjoyable books.

About a month after my surgery I finally had the wherewithal to finally read. An author had sent me a book to review, but it arrived the day I was to leave for the hospital and it lay dormant for that whole month but not off my mind. So as soon as I could work up the energy and the frame of mind, I opened the covers of the new book and soaked in its well-written words, deep characters, and well-framed plot. Normally I would whip through such a book in a day or two but this took me three or four, but only because I was still not fully myself. It felt wonderful to read and stimulate my mind again.

I have also since watch a dozen movies. We had already worked through most of the Oscar nods, but not all of them so we had a few surprises left. And there a few non-Oscar surprises awaiting us as well.

After all this, I really wanted to share with you my reactions to this book and these films. I wish I had been able to do so. Perhaps soon. Since I made the attempt on two of them, I may still go back to the reviews and try to salvage them for you.

It's been an interesting five months of my life. I thank the University of Michigan health care system, which took such good care of me during my surgery and my after care. I have my final post-surgical exam this next week - yay! I'll be glad when it's all finally over and I can carry on as before.

See you soon.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Downsizing: A Satire that Can Be Fun but also Dark

Movie Review: Downsizing (2017)
Version: Library Blu-Ray borrow

Downsizing is a social satire on the moment in which humanity realizes it cannot sustain its assault on the natural world. The story takes on life in the form of Paul Safranek (played affably by Matt Damon), who with his wife Audrey (played by Kristen Wiig) decide to join the downsizing movement, which seeks to reduce its environmental impact by becoming physically much smaller, thus reducing the size of its needs and the refuse it puts into the environment. All is going well as Paul and Audrey sell off their normal-scale belongings and prepare to downsize, right up until the moment the organization doing the downsizing shaves off all their bodily hair. Suddenly, Audrey isn't so sure about her commitment to the movement and, not coincidentally, Paul. But Paul doesn't find out until he has been irreversibly reduced to five inches tall.

Waking up in the much smaller world nude and vulnerable and concerned that Audrey isn't by his side as promised, Paul receives a phone call. It's Audrey. As her hair is being shaved and a single eyebrow has been removed, she realizes she has been doing this for Paul and what she really wants is to do something for her self. This sends Paul for a loop. What does she mean, she was doing it for Paul? They were in this together. And doing something for herself? What about him? But alas, it's too late and now Paul is on his own.

Paul is taken to his new home, a gigantic mansion -- now for one. But Audrey sues for divorce. When they sold off their assets it translated into much greater value in the smaller world, but now that is reduced severely with the settlement and Paul finds himself living in a small apartment, alone. He tries dating, meeting a single woman whom he invites to his unimpressive new home. But the neighbor upstairs is throwing a party, and it's too noisy for an intimate dinner. Asking the neighbor to tone it down, Paul meets Dusan Mirkovic (played by Christoph Waltz), a bon vivant character who has learned how to profit from the downsizing movement. And who, incidentally, has connections to the leader of the downsizing movement in Norway, Dr. Jorgen Asbjørnsen.

Invited to one of Mirkovic's parties, Paul meets figures from around the world who have joined the downsizing movement, and he is encouraged to join Mirkovic on a trip to Norway to meet Asbjørnsen. They make the journey, which takes them to the original downsized village, where they discover there is bad news: not enough people have joined the downsizing movement and global warming has resulted in the melting of the Arctic permafrost, releasing historic amounts of methane, which will result in a huge extinction event. The only way for humanity to survive is for the colony to retreat to a secure facility deep in the mountains, and Paul is invited to join them. Thus, Paul has a life-changing decision to make.

Early in Downsizing, this is a fun film, the screenwriters and director and crew envision a world in which people are made small and what life might be like that tiny. And how small people might live side by side with big people. Matt Damon is perfect in the role as Paul, doing his best to get along in life to make things better for others. But the story begins to take a dark turn when Audrey changes her mind, then divorces him, and his new life turns sour. Even when he meets Ngoc Lan Tran (played by Hong Chau), Mirkovic's apartment cleaner, and falls in love with her, there are bitter aspects to their story, keeping the story dark despite turns of humor. In the ending, it is deeply dark as we find out that Earth is struggling for survival.

As I said, Downsizing is a social satire. This film is a satire about humanity's struggle and often failure to do the right things. When they most count, humans often do what is best for themselves, as the character Audrey does, leaving in their wake those who live more largely by doing what is best for the whole, as the downsizing colony had been trying to do. Caught in the middle are those who try make the right decisions to make the world a better place.

This can be a depressing film watched to its end. Don't see it thinking it will be all fun. Do watch it for its message as warning about the future of our planet, however, because we are surely headed for an environmental apocalypse. There just isn't any way to downsize people to reduce their environmental footprint, and likely they wouldn't if given a choice anyway. Perhaps this film is more real thematically than we can imagine.

I give Downsizing enthusiastic thumbs-up for imagination. The juxtaposition between small and large worlds is fun, and the bit about shaving big people before and exposing their vulnerability is very interesting. However, it was a little strange to see how small Paul's apartment was only to see him go upstairs one floor and see how expansive Mirkovic's apartment was -- that looked like a plot hole. And as satire can be, it seemed a bit preachy under the surface. I get the idea, but are you willing to sit through a film with a message?

To recap, Downsizing is initially a fun story about people downsizing to save the planet that turns dark and depressing at the end. It has definite fun moments, but you may have to fight to stick with it to the end.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

The Greatest Showman: One of the Great Musical Films of Our Times

Movie Review: The Greatest Showman (2017)
Version: Cable on-demand purchase

I've heard lots of good things about The Greatest Showman, and now I've seen them. Electrifying performances and wonderful music and dance scenes make it one of the great musical films of our times. Key to it is the talent of lead actor Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum.

P.T. or Phineas or Phin as his character is variously called during the story starts out as a penniless orphan in rough city streets, but he gets a break working for the railroad and works his way up to the finance division. He marries his lifelong sweetheart, Charity, the daughter of a wealthy man who has no appreciation for the uncouth upstart but can't stop his daughter from marrying Barnum. When the railroad goes belly up, Barnum uses a "borrowed" issue of company stock a collateral for a loan to start a introduce a museum of amazing wax figures, which is an immediate flop. Then Barnum gets the idea to gather the area's oddballs and freaks to perform before the common people in a warehouse theater, and it's a success, although local people think it's an abomination, egged on by poor reviews by high-brow critics. Barnum taps the creative wits of a successful but unhappy theatrical writer and producer, Phillip Carlyle, who he hopes can attract a more high-brow audience. Carlyle does his best, but it's an uphill battle, until he arranges for Barnum to meet Europe's finest opera singer, Jenny Lind, and Barnum finally gets his chance to up his credentials among the elites. But at what cost to the rest of the cast, the show, and worst of all, his family?

Now, the other performances in this film are great. Zac Efron is great at Carlyle. Zendaya is beautiful as the trapeze artist who becomes Carlyle's love interest. Michele Williams plays Barnum's devoted wife, Charity. Rebecca Ferguson shines as the elegant Jenny Lind. And among the oddity and freak show performers, Keala Settle is commanding as Lettie Lutz the bearded lady while Sam Humphrey is lovable as Tom Thumb the dwarf with an often scalding sense of humor. But the actor to commands the center of the screen at all times -- ironically, the ringleader of the circus -- is Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum. Without him in the lead, this film would not be as powerful. His swagger, his verve, his expression, his whole-body commitment to character and performance make this film. In fact, as I watched the end of the film, I noticed that when Barnum hands off the circus ringleader job to Carlyle, try as he might, Zac Efron diminished the performance. He couldn't have carried off Jackman's role. Jackman is that good!

As much as the performances were important to this film, so was the music, written by the Academy Award lyricists of La La Land. The lyrics were stirring, many as stirring as the pieces for Les Misérables (in which Jackman was also the lead actor).

There is so much to enjoy in watching The Greatest Showman. You can't miss it. Now that it's available on DVD and Blu-Ray, you can enjoy it at home with the whole family.

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

The Man Who Invented Christmas: The Story Behind the Story

Book Review: The Man Who Invented Christmas by Les Standiford
Version: CloudLibrary borrow

Practically everyone knows the story of A Christmas Carol, usually from the many films based on the book. But how many of us know the story behind the story? I recently reviewed the movie about Charles Dickens's struggle to write A Christmas Carol, but this is my take on the book on which that movie was based.

I read the book, The Mad Who Invented Christmas, subtitled "How Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits" to see if the film was speculative fiction imagining what it was like for Dickens to write his classic tale, or if it was fact-based biography. It is, in fact, a biography and well told.

Here is the synopsis of the book provided on

Just before Christmas in 1843, a debt-ridden and dispirited Charles Dickens wrote a small book he hoped would keep his creditors at bay. His publisher turned it down, so Dickens used what little money he had to put out A Christmas Carol himself. He worried it might be the end of his career as a novelist.
The book immediately caused a sensation. And it breathed new life into a holiday that had fallen into disfavor, undermined by lingering Puritanism and the cold modernity of the Industrial Revolution. It was a harsh and dreary age, in desperate need of spiritual renewal, ready to embrace a book that ended with blessings for one and all.
With warmth, wit, and an infusion of Christmas cheer, Les Standiford whisks us back to Victorian England, its most beloved storyteller, and the birth of the Christmas we know best. The Man Who Invented Christmas is a rich and satisfying read for Scrooges and sentimentalists alike.

Now, this is a fairly accurate description of the story line to the book. I'm not sure about the "warmth, wit, and an infusion of Christmas cheer", but the rest of it fits. You learn all about the Dickens's life at the time of his writing of A Christmas Carol and his life that may have led to his imagining of the characters and settings and the story itself. I'm told by others that Dickens was a dismal husband and father, and that isn't reflected in this book.

Also interesting in this read is the history of book publishing and sales and how they factored into Dickens's writing and publishing of his book. For instance, most of his books were first serialized in magazines, then compiled into books, advertised in newspapers and magazines. Book stores didn't emerge until publishing houses needed to find a way to sell excess stock and created stores at their facilities, where readers could browse titles. You know those book stalls you see at airports? They got their start in railway stations in Britain as publishers marketed excess stocks of books to travelers on trains. For A Christmas Carol, Dickens went around the serialization process and published directly as a book.

The Man Who Invented Christmas also goes into Dickens's frequently repeated themes of Christmas and charity in his other books. So, this book isn't just about A Christmas Carol. It's an exploration of his whole persona and his ideals.

As any book will do, it goes well beyond the scope of the movie based on the book. I found it an interesting and compelling read. If you are a Dickens fan, you will want to read The Man Who Invented Christmas.

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

The Monk of Mokha: No Better Book to Curl Up With a Cup of Coffee

Book Review: The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers
Version: CloudLibrary borrow

The Monk of Mokha is the story of Mokhtar Alkhanshali, a very young Yemeni American searching for his life's destiny in an uncertain world. At the same time, it's the story of coffee, in particular coffee from Yemen, which though it isn't the origin of the coffee plant it is the origin of cultivated coffee and probably the finest coffee in the world.

Mokhtar was very young when his parents, immigrants from Ibb, Yemen, uprooted him from New York City and moved him to San Francisco, California. As with most immigrants, Mokhtar's parents worked hard and expected much from their son, but he didn't have the drive or the passion to study as they wanted him to -- they wanted him to do well in school and become a lawyer. His life would take him in a different direction.

You see, Mokhtar seemed hopelessly lost academically, so his parents sent him to stay with his grandfather in Yemen for a year. There, he learned personal discipline and passion for a purpose. He also saw how people in the third world lived. When he returned to San Francisco, Mokhtar was a changed young man. He studied more fruitfully, although he still didn't see this parent's vision for his future. Within him kindled an entrepreneurial spirit. He took on many low-paying jobs, including one as a doorman at a luxury apartment building in the Embarcadero District. It was there he became impassioned with coffee and saw the statue of the Monk of Mokha at the Hills Brothers headquarters building across the street from the apartment complex and the story of coffee's origins. You can actually see the statue if you look for the Hills Brothers building on Google Maps at 2 Harrison Street and take the Street View tour to The Embarcadero side of the building, just around the corner from Harrison Street.

(Photo from Google Maps Street View)

While Mokhtar visited his grandfather he saw coffee plants -- trees or shrubs, really -- but didn't know what he was looking at. Becoming obsessed with the topic through visits to upscale coffee shops, cafes, tasting rooms, and eventually a training center, Mokhtar learned all about coffee plants, the coffee fruit, coffee beans, and the process of cleaning away the fruit to the bean and then roasting it. He also learned about the care of the trees and selecting the best fruit for harvest, and the best way to store and roast the beans, not to mention which varieties make the best drinks.

What Mokhtar learned was that the best coffee in the world at one time came from Yemen, but with the strife in the Middle East, over time the coffee trade in Yemen had faded away. Over centuries coffee seedlings had made their way over vast places around the world, and those places had replaced Yemen and even Ethiopia (where the first plants had been discovered) as sources for coffee.

As a Yemeni American, Mokhtar decided he wanted to become a coffee importer to bring the coffee trade back to his people in Yemen. And The Monk of Mokha is a lot about his journey of discovery and his struggle to accomplish that goal at his very young age during the civil war that grew in Yemen as he tried to rebuild the coffee business there.

Besides a very intriguing story behind this young man's life and struggles, you learn a lot about coffee and the coffee business. For instance, did you know that a top professional coffee roaster has 800 aroma and taste complexities to consider when roasting coffee? And did you know that from the growing of a coffee plant through picking the fruit and processing to the barista at your favorite coffee shop serving you a cup, twenty people will have handled those coffee beans? And your coffee beans may have come from India, Kenya, Mexico, or Java, among others? There are only a couple of thousand coffee quality testers (Q graders) in the world, and Mokhtar because the first Arab Q grader, despite coffee's geographic origins.

I'm not a coffee drinker, probably because when I first tested coffee I was just a teen in the 1960's and coffee was bitter and, as you will learn in The Monk of Mokha, that was a terrible time in the quality of commercialized coffee. But having read this book, I'm ready to try different veritals of coffee to see if there isn't something I can enjoy along with my wife. The book even discusses the different kinds different people likely would enjoy. Did you know smokers would probably like a darker blend because their taste buds have been affected by their smoking? Or that you should never drink a cup of coffee hot, because the heat causes the taste buds to clench up, keeping them from fully tasting the coffee?

Nowadays, artisan coffee has become as ritualized as enjoying wine, with cupping and spooning and tasting sessions similar to smelling and swirling and slurping wines.

All of this blends into an amazing read on coffee and Mokhtar's obsession with bringing Yemeni coffee back into the market for its remarkably high quality taste and helping the struggling people of Yemen prosper more fully in the process. It's also a riviting read about a young man who put his life on the line during a tense time in Yemen's history to achieve his personal goals but also to help his people. And the end of the story provides a stirring conclusion of human triumph you will enjoy to the last page.

Most readers, young adults and older, enjoy a good cup of coffee. I can't think of a better read to curl up with your favorite brew than The Monk of Mokha.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Geostorm: Be Sure to Miss It!

Movie Review: Geostorm (2017)
Version: Library borrow

In 1996 there was a film called Night of the Twisters that was one of the worst movies I have ever seen. I would rate Geostorm right up there with it. Both involve impossible story lines with poor acting performances. At least with Geostorm there was a fairly good cast. Unfortunately, the script was trash.

Here is how the story is describe on the IMDB website:
When catastrophic climate change endangers Earth's very survival, world governments unite and create the Dutch Boy Program: a world wide net of satellites, surrounding the planet, that are armed with geoengineering technologies designed to stave off the natural disasters. After successfully protecting the planet for three years, something is starting to go wrong. Two estranged brothers are tasked with solving the program's malfunction before a world wide Geostorm can engulf the planet.

First of all, no governmental body, worldwide or otherwise, would name a science project "Dutch Boy Program" -- it doesn't make any sense! Second, the program has been hacked to attack the weather and create havoc around the world, but half the attacks don't actually attack the weather and don't even make sense. Third, this supposed "geostorm" is really about upsetting the climate, not the weather, and that would take much longer than the time shown in the movie. When they finally subdue the satellite system, it calms down immediately, also not realistic. Finally, the bad guys hack the space station and its network of interchangeable satellites, which they make go berserk. But when they go berserk inside the space station, there's no threat of loss of air pressure as pieces of steel go flying through windows.

The cast is all right, but they're most miscast in this film. Gerard Butler doesn't come off as a tech or scientist. Andy Garcia is supposed to be the president but he just doesn't fit the part. Ed Harris plays the character in charge of the Dutch Boy Program but he has more gravitas to play president, yet he plays the bad guy. Andy Garcia has played gangsters! Why wasn't he cast as the bad guy?

I wasn't impressed by the writing, either. The dialogue was sloppy. The plotting was unrealistic as were the conflict resolutions. The whole film was simply ugly. If someone asked me what I thought of Geostorm, I'd say, "Be sure to miss it!" Sorry, Geostorm fans.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

The Post: Something Seems Amiss

Movie Review: The Post (2017)
Version: Library Blu-Ray

I am from the Boomer generation, so I remember Daniel Ellsberg, the Washington Post, and the battle with the Nixon Administration over the Pentagon Papers. The Post is that dramatic story told from the view of the Washington Post with two of the world's best stars: Meryl Steep as Washington Post owner Kay Graham and Tom Hanks as its editor Ben Bradlee.

In this film version of the story, Kay Graham has taken over as publisher of the Washington Post after the death of her husband amid doubts of her ability to lead. The Post has been operating more as a city paper instead of the national paper it should be, trying to compete against the giant New York Times, which keeps scooping them on big stories on their home turf. Ben Bradlee is driving his reporters to dig deeper and harder, but somehow the Times is more able. As leaks develop in a secret story about a government cover up in the veracity of the Vietnam War, the Post finally gets a break as the Nixon Administration takes the Times to court and shuts down reporting. A mysterious woman drops off copies of pages of the Pentagon Papers on a Post reporter's desk, and a race against time ensues to publish without suffering wrath of the White House. Meanwhile, Graham is trying to take the Post public on the stock exchange with investors tempted to pull out and financial advisers telling her the paper's finances need the cash infusion.

Also at stake for Graham are personal relationships with people in the Nixon Administration at risk, like Defense Secretary Robert McNamara (played by Bruce Greenwood). And there is Daniel Ellsberg (played by Matthew Rhys), a Defense Department staffer who faces espionage charges for leaking the documents. It's high stakes risks for everyone involved, included Graham and Bradlee, who could go to jail.

Streep and Hanks at the acting helm brings huge star power to this film. High stakes for the characters brings huge drama. As historical fiction, you can't offer greater conflict in a story than Washington power brokers going after each other in a battle over first-amendment rights versus military-industrial interests. Yet somehow something seems amiss in this film. It feels like a viewer setup, even knowing this story from having lived during the times. This is a Steven Spielberg film, which would normally be a set up for quality. But there are subtle hiccups. And I think it may be shot setups, the way the lines are so casually delivered with obvious acting versus the usual natural deliveries by Hanks and Streep. And here is my sneeking suspicion: I watched it on Blu-Ray, which brings a visual clarity to movies that lets you see all the ugly warts of production. I miss the graininess of a good film. Watching a digital "film" is like watching the "filming" live and so, watching a live performance. There's no romancing of the audience with the beauty of the celluloid. And Blu-Ray enhances that clarity. It actually spoils the movie for me. I don't want to see the action live. I want to see the story through the artificiality of the lens and actual film. And this, I posit, is what spoils The Post.

The Post is a good story. The narrative arc holds together. The dramatic story (the script) holds together. The history holds together. Maybe it's the forced acting that just doesn't hold together -- maybe they tried too hard. But for me, seeing it on Blu-Ray really spoiled it for me. If you see The Post, at least see it on regular DVD. And focus on the history that was made within the story. Because that was the story.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Thor: Ragnarok: If You Love the Marvel Universe, Likely You'll Love This

Movie Review: Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
Version: Library borrow

Although I'm not a continuing fan of Thor stories, but my wife and my daughter loved Thor: Ragnorok, the latest installment in the film franchise. In it, Chris Hemsworth reprises the leading role with the same cheeky pluck, making it another fun film. Tom Hiddleston returns as troublesome brother Loki, although not so menacingly. Anthony Hopkins is again their father Odin, although he is looking a might old and retiring. Idris Elba is also back as Heimdall, the guardian to the entrance of Asgard who has left the guardhouse for other missions.

New to Thor: Ragnorok are some other characters from the Marvel universe: Bruce Banner (aka The Hulk), played by Mark Ruffalo, and Doctor Strange (played by Benedict Cumberbatch). Also joining the cast are Karl Urban as Skurge, who becomes the servile assistant to Hela (played by Cate Blanchett), Thor's older sister and chief antagonist in the story. Jeff Goldblum appears as the Grandmaster of Sakaar, who controls the bizarre world centered around ancient-Rome-like competitions for profit.

In this film, Thor is imprisoned on Sakaar while Odin has retired to some quiet retreat on Earth, as Hela returns from excile to claim Odin's throne. Thor must escape Sakaar and return to Asgard in time to save Asgard from Ragnarok, which is their word for destruction of their homeworld. Loki has disguised himself as Odin and subjected the people of Asgard to imagining all is the right in their world while doting on his very pleasure, so when Thor returns to ask for Loki's help, he's a bit resistant at first. Yet, they are finally reunited in purpose, and they battle the more powerful Hela for the survival of Asgard.

There isn't a whole lot new to this universe of stories, except the arrival of Hela. I was really bored. You have to come to this film because you love the characters. Really, they are the story.

If you are into the whole Thor and Asgard thing, you will likely love this world and the fun. If you are into the whole superheroes thing, then you will equally enjoy the interplay between the various characters from the Marvel universe uniting behind Thor and Loki. A fun time may be had be all. If.

I guess the word to the wise is, if you love Marvel-universe sequels, see it -- you'll love it. If you don't, see something else.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens Changed the Way We View Christmas

Movie Review: The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017)
Version: Library borrow

The Man Who Invented Christmas is really a film for the holiday season. It recently released as a DVD so we just watched it. Although you can wait to see it sometime closer between Thanksgiving and Christmas, now is a good time to see it, too.

We likely are all familiar with Charles Dickens, the author of A Christmas Carol. Certainly, we all know the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, Bob Cratchit, Tiny Tim, the three spirits, and how a miserable, miserly old man learned the true spirit of Christmas and became a more compassionate human being. What most of us don't know is the story about how Dickens came to write the story. That's what The Man Who Invented Christmas is all about.

In 1843, Charles Dickens was coming off the tremendous success of his book Oliver Twist. Then he had a few flops and his career as a writer seemed to be on the wane. His finances were hurting and he struggled to write his next great novel. This film explores his struggles, both to write A Christmas Carol, and a demon deep inside himself that became the greatest block to finishing the novel that would change the way the world perceived how we celebrate Christmas and the struggles of the poor.

Charles Dickens (played by Dan Stevens) is a fairly happy family man with a brood of noisy children in a large home in the heart of busy London. He is easily distracted by their noises and demands quiet. And his father John Dickens (played by Jonathan Pryce) is a constant distraction, so he has paid for a home for his parents in the country, even provided a stipend for them to keep them there. Yet John Dickens manages to seep back into London for a bothersome visit, much to Charles's irritation. Meanwhile, redecorating his home, Charles finds himself in need of more money and his publisher is in want of another book before they will give him more money. Unable to reach agreement on a book idea, Charles decides to finance it himself, going to a money-grubbing lender with a high financing rate. But this doesn't deter Charles. What looms greater than the lending rate is the looming publishing deadline -- six weeks to write and print the book before Christmas! Charles sends his friend John Forster (played by Justin Edwards) to help make arrangements, including finding an illustrator.

And so off Charles Dickens goes to write his book, fresh without a real concept. Thus we delve into his creative process. He meets people whose names and characteristics he gathers as grist for characters. He hears people say unsettling or encouraging things that become mill for the grindstone for dialogue. A happy older couple dancing in the street become models for the Fizzywigs. And then there's Ebenezer Scrooge (played by Christopher Plummer), who seeps in from the recesses of a dark doorway as Charles works in his study, and they play off each other as the character forms himself in Charles's mind. Little by little, you other characters from the story join the chorus of voices helping Charles Dickens talk out the story and tease out its plots and themes. Should Tiny Tim die? Shouldn't Scrooge save him? Why would he do that? Can a man change? It really is an amazing look into the way a writer works and how a story develops. And then there's the moment an author develops writer's block!

What is keeping Charles Dickens from writing the final chapter, the ending of A Christmas Carol? It turns out there is a secret buried in his worst nightmares, a horrific memory from his childhood from which he cannot escape. And until he resolves that past he cannot resolve his story.

The Man Who Invented Christmas is many things. It's about an amazing nineteenth century author. It's about memorable classic characters. It's about great actors playing well written parts -- Jonathan Pryce is wonderful as the scoundrel of a father and Christopher Plummer is brilliant as an irascible and scheming Scrooge. But the art direction of this film is wonderful, too, taking you deep into the winding alleyways and bustling streets and dark pubs and other public places of Dicken's time. There is also the disturbingly dark and dank children's workhouse where Dicken's spent a part of his childhood to contend with. All this makes the film come alive and breathe as if you were actually there, looking over their shoulders.

In addition to being the story about how A Christmas Carol came to be written, it is also a story about how a popular author came to change the way the world sees Christmas and how it changed the way the world responds to need. You will see that at the end of the film, before the closing credits. It really is an incredible true story. He really did invent Christmas, the Christmas we still know and love in our own time. See and show it to your own family.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle: A Great Laugh for the Whole Family

Movie Review: Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017)
Version: Library borrow

I haven't enjoyed a movie like Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle in a long time -- it was full of laughs! Grab-your-tummy laughs. Laugh-out-loud laughs. Giggle in your guts laughs.

Four misfit teens end up in detention at school. Rather than sitting at desks doing boring homework for detention, they're assigned to pull staples from old magazines as punishment, and unsupervised by the school counselor, they look for other diversions when they become bored to tears. Spencer (initially played by Alex Wolff) finds a dusty old video console with a game cartridge, which he hooks up to a dilapidated old analog TV. One by one Spencer and the other characters come over and pick out game characters to play. Spencer is a quiet nerd. Fridge (initially played by Ser'Darious Blain) is a tall, over confident jock. Bethany (initially played by Madison Iseman) is a self-absorbed blonde bomb. Martha (initially played by Morgan Turner) is a reclusive girl who lacks self confidence. As they pick out different macho sounding game characters and start the game, they are sucked into the console and are brought into the jungle land of Jumanji.

As Spencer, Fridge, Bethany, an Martha arrive, they become the characters they have chosen -- and totally unlike themselves physically. Spencer is this tall, handsome, muscular heroic figure (played by macho man Dwayne Johnson). Fridge is a short, scrawny Black dude (played by fearful comedian Kevin Hart). Bethany the young and beautiful becomes this squat, fat, bearded older dude (played by Jack Black). And Martha the insecure and unsocial becomes the fearless and badass (played by Karen Gilann). Into the story, they are joined by Nick Jonas as Alex, who had been an earlier player lost in the game and unable to escape on his own but learns to team up with the others to battle the game.

As with the original movie Jumanji, the idea is that once you begin playing you can't quit until you finish the game, and you face many ultimate dangers. In this case, the players are set on an island jungle where they must find their way across the land to locate a stolen jewel and return it to its rightful place. Working against them are a plethora of jungle animals and the bad guy who originally removed the jewel from its place of honor. As with many video games, the players are given clues and goals to accomplish before they can reach each step of the game. And each character they play has abilities and weaknesses, which they can use to help them or which provides conflict in reaching their goals. And each character has three lives to spend trying to reach their goals. If they are killed, they come back.

What's so amazingly fun about this movie is watching Johnson, Hart, and Black play reverse roles from their stereotypes. Johnson the testosterone-driven hero becomes a mild and meek guy unsure of the way to proceed. Hart whose character originally is this self-confident jock becomes this insecure little man. Black plays off femininity and girlish charm while oozing fat-old-guy ugliness. And they're hilarious. There's a scene in which Hart and Black have to take a leak and Black, originally a girl, discovers her penis for the first time, and it's handled with sensitivity but it's so funny. Just seeing Jack Black play a light-headed, self-absorbed beauty queen is uproariously funny. And when Nick Jonas's character Alex arrives, Jack Black's character Bethany becomes so giddy. Again, so funny! Karen Gilann's character Martha becomes a badass martial artist, often a scream as she tackles bad buys on motorcycles or in a fight in the jungle.

The situations the writers put these characters and actors into are imaginative and simply fun to watch. And as the story progresses, you watch them grow as persons, so this isn't just a movie about jokes, there's a message there, too.

When the movie was over, we discussed which version of Jumanji we liked best. My daughter and I thought we liked Welcome to the Jungle best. My wife thought she still liked the original best, despite having spent a good portion of Welcome to the Jungle giggling with the two of us. In my humble opinion, you get the adventure, the conflict, the danger, and the great characters of the original in this second film, but you get the added benefit of tons of laughter. And darn it, as much as I loved the late Robin Williams in the original, there was something really original about the casting of Johnson, Hart, and Black in Welcome to the Jungle.

If you want a movie where you can relax over a good laugh -- no, a great laugh -- definitely see Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. You won't regret it. Giggles for the whole family.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Ready Player One: Something Spectacular You Need to See on a Big Screen

Movie Review: Ready Player One (2018)
Version: Theater ticket purchase

Being retired and thrifty, we rarely go to the theater to see a movie. When we go to the theater, it is to purposely see a film that is best seen on the big screen. Something larger than life, something spectacular, or something that can envelope you in its world by filling your vision with the screen. Such a film is Ready Player One.

Now, our daughter is really into video games and my wife and I are really into the sci-fi and fantasy genres, so this was all an added motivation to see this film. We were all well rewarded by the experience.

Ready Player One is the story about teen Wade Watts living in the harsh environs of the year 2045, when just about everyone escapes their ugly reality by playing video games using VR (virtual reality) technology. They become immersed in the gaming environment. You can be anyone going anywhere, playing any game. Watts chooses to escape in OASIS, described in IMDB as "created by the brilliant and eccentric James Halliday, who left his immense fortune and total control of the Oasis to the winner of a three-part contest he designed to find a worthy heir." The inventor has buried an "easter egg" in the game, and capturing it is goal of the game, giving the winner access to Halliday's fortune and control of the game. To capture the easter egg, one must first find a series of keys, which unlock a variety of abilities. The problem is, everyone in the world is after this easter egg, including a multi-national billion-dollar corporation that has turned its considerable resources -- money and intellectual talent -- to researching and figuring out the mysteries of the game. Along Watt's journey to unlocking the mysteries himself, he meets competitive gaming friends, all disguised as characters that hide their real identities, to help him as they learn to team up to win this game together.

There are portions of the game where you meet the live analogs to the gaming characters, and none of them are what you expect. One of Watt's most bad-ass competitor friends turns out to be an 11 year old boy, who is tired of being dismissed for his young age but is a fearless ninja warrior in the game. Another is a teen girl who is unconfident in her person because of a facial blemish but who is fearsome in competition. Still another is a rad Black woman who poses as a bulky muscular Black dude. The fourth is a skinny Asian nerd whose avatar is a skilled warrior. Watts himself is an orphaned teen who lives in a junkyard community with his aunt and her abusive boyfriend, but his avatar is an awesome smooth talking, easily mobile dude who cannot fail. All are metaphors for kids with self doubts in the real world but find strength and courage and abilities in this amazing world of make believe, and together they are like superheroes whom the world learns to cheer on as they battle the evil corporate empire to win the game.

I'm not listing the actors in this film because they are secondary to the characters. Sure, the actors make the characters, but even more so does the animation. And besides the exceptional scripting that makes for excellent storytelling, here the storytelling really is brought to life by the amazing animation. You are transported to a fantastic universe of the imagination (and here I use the word "fantastic" in its literal meaning) through the animation. Speaking of "easter eggs", this film is full of them. There are tons of visual references to game and animated movie characters and worlds all over the place. The movie makers must have kept the intellectual property lawyers busy big time keeping track of all the references, some pointed and some merely in the background visuals. You may have to see this film a couple of times just to spot them all. Others are intentional, such as the use of the Iron Giant as a prop during the competition. But the sheer imagination used to create and maintain the narrative arc of this film is astounding.

There are also subtle backstory references in this film that fans of this genre of story may appreciate. Jack Rylance, who plays Halliday, has been in another film to which this part may be a vague homage. I won't tell you what it is -- see if you can figure out what it is. I didn't catch it, my wife did. It's another kind of easter egg, if you will. Aren't these the kinds of things, the little bits of extra meanings great film makers put into films that mean something to lovers of film, which tell you as a viewer or audience that they care deeply about what they are doing; as a story teller that you are in this together in revealing the truths told in the film?

To try to sum up how the three of us felt about this film, let me say it was a total hit. The story line, the setting, the characters, the universe in which it occurs, and the full embodiment in which you are wrapped in which to experience it were one wonderful experience in cinema. To me, you really need to see it on the big screen. Save that, see it on as large a screen as you can if you see in when it comes out on DVD -- get the BlueRay version. Immerse yourself in and become part of that universe. You will be glad you did. Oh, and keep your eye open for all the easter eggs.

Ready Player One is a fun romp, a joyous visual journey, and a meaningful trek into a greater truth. See it!

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Lady Bird: Coming of Age? Human Interest? Or Just a Great Family Film?

Movie Review: Lady Bird (2017)
Version: Library borrow

Lady Bird is an exceptional film with great acting and a fine script. It has the feel of an independent film in which the characters are finely crafted over a deeply woven story. There are many emotional tugs among the many important characters, although Lady Bird is the main character and her main foil is her mother, Marion. So this is bumpy ride from many perspectives. But don't be fooled, Lady Bird isn't a tragedy, it has a happy ending.

The story is about a high school senior in a lower middle class family who yearns for a better, more glamorous life. Her name is Christine but she demands to be called Lady Bird. She is forced to attend a Catholic school but she deeply resents it. Her mother wants her to apply to in-state colleges but she wants attend East Coast Ivy League schools. She all but abandons her lifelong best friend for a shallow rich girl, even pretending to live in a home she has always dreamed was her home to garner acceptance. When she falls head-over-heels in love with Danny O'Neill, she is shocked to find out he is gay, and abandons him for a heart throb who turns out to be nothing like she expects. And then there's Lady Bird's family. Her mother is constantly on her case about achieving more and making better life choices. Her father is on her side, her only real anchor, but her mother berates their relationship. All comes crashing down around Lady Bird as she is forced to make the most important decisions in her life.

This is really a coming of age story, and it's played with great earnest by Saoirse Ronan as Lady Bird McPherson. She shows uncertainty and angst, engaging in mischief with ease. Then there's Marion, the embattled mother who takes on the world and the unruly daughter like a real trooper, played by Laurie Metcalf. Few play the irritable, force-of-nature mother like Metcalf. Bayne Gibby is adorable as best friend Casey and Lucas Hedges is interesting as the misunderstood gay Danny. Tracy Letts warms you over as the protective father, Larry. It's a great ensemble cast.

You might think this is a "girl's night out" movie, but it's really a great human interest movie about people who dream of living beyond their limited circumstances and the battle between generations. It would be easy to recast Lady Bird as a guy, changing the character's name, of course, and see the drama play out similarly. As such, this is a drama that families in general can relate to, and I recommend it for anyone with growing teens.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Ferdinand: A Fun Upgrade of a Classic Cartoon Well Told for a Modern Age

Movie Review: Ferdinand (2017)
Version: Library borrow

Ferdinand, the 2017 animated film about the pacifist bull with a love for flowers, was once a Disney cartoon. In this updated version by 20th Century Fox, the basic story line is the same but the narrative arc is extended and the characters are more robust and far more interesting. Sort of as the saying goes, this isn't your Grandma's Ferdinand -- it's been beefed up for the modern age.

In this version, Ferdinand the bull begins as a young calf surrounded by other calves at a Spanish bull-training camp. Spain's greatest matador, El Primero, picks his bulls for the bull ring from this academy (Casa del Toro), and when it comes to light that the bulls he picks never return after their day of glory, Ferdinand decides this isn't the life for him. He escapes and ends up on the flower farm of young Nana, who raises him as her pet, fortunately in his favorite venue, in fields full of fragrant flowers. But Ferdinand eventually grows into a full-size bull, and one day he disobeys Nana and her father and comes into town for the flower festival, where a bee pokes Ferdinand, sending him into a rage. Ferdinand is captured and wisked back to Casa del Toro, where he is finally picked by El Primero to fight his final battle in the bull ring. But the fight doesn't go as El Primero or Ferdinand or the crowd expect, setting up a battle royale with unexpected consequences.

There is a fun cast of new characters like Lupe the goat (played by Kate McKinnon), who trains Ferdinand (played by John Cena) for the bull ring. Then there's Angus, a Scottish bull (played by David Tennant) and Bones (played by Anthony Anderson) a skinny runt of a bull, totally never going to be picked by a matador but interesting foils for Ferdinand and his antagonist and competitor for selection by El Primero, Valiente (played by Bobby Cannavale). Adorable Nana is played by Lily Day. Together, these characters help Ferdinand navigate his uncertain life as a bull against stereotype and support his final struggle when he is forced to battle his worst nightmare, the battle for his life.

There isn't much amazing about the animation or the artwork here. It's all story and characters. Ferdinand is mostly a story for kids, although parents can enjoy it, too. One scene adults can enjoy is a take off on the cliche "bull in a china shop", in which Ferdinand accidentally finds himself inside an actual china shop. It's handled with a lot of fun. I'm not sure kids will get the "inside joke" as easily as their parents will.

Should you see Ferdinand? By all means! It's a fun upgrade of a classic cartoon, well told and well shown for a modern age.

Monday, April 09, 2018

Coco: An Amazing Animated Film Full of Character and Color

Movie Review: Coco (2017)
Version: Library Borrow

Coco wasn't what we were expecting. First, Coco isn't the main character of the film, that's Miguel. Second, Coco isn't about skeletons, they're incidental to the main focus of the story. Contrary to our expectations, Coco is a wonderfully imaginative exploration of the importance of family and remembering our past, told through the richness of Mexican culture.

As we begin this amazing emotional journey, young Miguel finds himself in conflict with his family in preparation for the Dia de la Muerta (Day of the Dead), the traditional festival for remembering family who have passed away. Their home is decorated with pictures of the dead family members surrounded by flowers and candles and food, as is the town, which is preparing for a festival full of celebration including a musical competition. Only, Miguel's family has banned music. And as Miguel expresses his desire to compete, everyone tries to put a stop to it, quick. After his grandmother splinters his homemade guitar, Miguel seeks to "borrow" the guitar displayed at the town's shrine to the greatest writer and singer of music of all time, Ernesto de la Cruz. As Miguel strums the strings, he is transported to the Land of the Dead, and his adventure begins.

Miguel first encounters his past relatives, ones whose photos he saw displayed at home. He knows them on sight despite their being skeletons, and they know him. He can only return home with their blessing, but they will only give him their blessing if he consents to never engage in music, and there is his conflict, because he has always admired Ernesto de la Cruz and wants to make music like him. So he seeks out de la Cruz for his blessing. On the way, he meets up with Héctor, whom he overhears saying has a personal acquaintance with de la Cruz, and the search is on. But things turn out not to be as they appear. And time isn't on Miguel's side, because he has to return to the Land of the Living before sunrise or he must remain in the Land of the Dead for all time. It's in his search for de la Cruz that he learns that family is far more important than music and that his family learns that music may be far more important than old betrayals.

Usually I will go into a list of the voice actors who play the characters, but they are much less important to this film than is the animation to bringing life to this story. I don't want to downplay the artistry of the actors -- the producers made it clear they wanted to use authentic Mexican actors for these parts. But the point is, what breathes authenticity into the characters and the story are the pictures, the colors, the architecture, and the symbols, all brought to life through the animation. And it is a vivid display, particularly in the Land of the Dead -- with such intricate detail and such amazing clarity. Too, the character art is so articulate. Mamá Coco, wrinkled with age, is incredibly detailed!

My daughter didn't want to see Coco in the theater because of all the skeletons, but seeing it on DVD, she loved the film. Our whole family loved it. The themes, the animation, the colors, and the characters make this a wonderful family film and an exciting adventure everyone can enjoy.

Sunday, April 08, 2018

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri: Bold, Deep, and Dark. But See It!

Movie Review: Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)
Version: Library borrow

It's bold, it's deep, and it's dark. That's Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, the story of about Mildred Hayes, a mother so obsessed by grief with the unsolved brutal death of her daughter, she will go to any length to resolve it. But it's not the only thing she is obsessed over.

Mildred is driven to avenge any slight, any abuse, anyone who gets in her way, including the local police. Months have passed since the murder and no one has been arrested. Mildred decides it's time to motivate the police to take action, so she buys three billboards near town to shame them to do more. But her action sets into motion a series of actions by others that sets the town afire. What ensues is a set of one-up battles between Mildred and many of the town's most notable figures. Caught in the middle are her son, still grieving the loss of his sister, the owner of the ad agency Mildred hired to put up the billboards, Mildred's boss, and the town's sheriff, who is dying of pancreatic cancer. Few are left unscathed.

This is an amazing film. Amazing for its brutality, for one thing -- this isn't a film for youngsters! Amazing for its language -- this isn't a film for the language sensitive. Amazing for the depth of characters. Amazing for its depth of plot and conflict. With the cast, I doubt I need to tell you, it's also amazing for its acting.

Mildred is played by Oscar winner Frances McDormand, who won the award again in 2018 for this very role. She displays such resilience as an abuse survivor and the grieving mother of a raped-while-dying daughter with whom the night before her death she'd had an ugly fight, yet someone who is steel-strong in a battle to the end to avenge all wrongs. Sheriff Willoughby is played by Oscar nominee Woody Harrelson. He often plays villains or troubled characters, but in Three Billboards he puts in a fine performance as a sympathetic sheriff sorry that he's unable to catch the bad guy yet the target of the billboards. Character actor Sam Rockwell won the 2018 Oscar for his portrayal of deputy Dixon, who is an uneducated bigot and after-work drunk that terrorizes the town but in the end learns to soften his heart. Lucas Hedges plays Mildred's son Robbie, who pays for Mildred's acts of anger by the actions of others in the community and by having to face the billboards, which stand along the road outside their home. Peter Dinklage has a minor part as James, who witnesses a lot of the destructive things Mildred does in retaliation but has a soft spot in his heart for her, protecting her from the consequences. In all, this is an exceptional cast playing out an exceptional script with a well laid out plot with so much conflict and action, there's barely room for resolution. In fact, by the end of the film, you're going to want a sequel to see how the story actually ends. Don't say I didn't warn you!

If it weren't for all the conflict and action, I would tell you this is a deeply character-driven film. But in the end, the conflict and plot win out over characterization, as strong as character development is. And the strongest character by far is Mildred, who won't take no for an answer and won't let any attack go unanswered. There's a restaurant scene in which Mildred's abusive ex-husband walks up to taunt her for dating James, who is a dwarf. He really lays it on heavy. Then Mildred and James have a fight and James tells her off and leaves. Mildred has had it with her husband, who is sitting at a table with his 19 year old girl friend, and she grabs the left over bottle of wine from her own table holding the bottle like a club and you swear she's going to swipe that across her husband's ugly smirking face -- and he looks like he thinks so, too, as she walks up. But Mildred tells her husband to take care of the girl (you can see in her eyes she is thinking, "like you didn't take care of me or our daughter") and sets the bottle on the table as a gift. It's a wonderfully dramatic yet sensitive scene, considering all that we have seen earlier in the film.

For all the violence and conflict in the film, the characters soften and begin to regret their actions. And you are left wondering how this will all resolve itself. In a sense, this is a story about redemption and the two characters most in need of redemption -- Mildred and Dixon -- ride off seeking revenge yet ponder if that will really come in the end. 

In addition to the two acting Oscar awards, Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri was nominated for a host or other Oscars: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Harrelson), Best Original Score, Best Original Screenplay, Best Film Editing. It deserved every one of those nominations. I'm not a fan of gratuitous foul language (there's plenty of that here) or gratuitous violence (there was a ton of violence), but I am a fan of films of depth and Three Billboards had plenty of that. If you can take the violence and language, by all means see this film!

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Down and Across: Intriguing Coming of Age Story Is a Fun Read!

Book Review: Down and Across by Arvin Ahmadi
Version: Library borrow

Do you have "grit"? Saaket "Scott" Ferdowski didn't think he did and he went in search of it one summer break, unbeknownst to his parents while they traveled overseas. So unfolds the intriguing coming of age story in Down and Across.

Scott was a junior in high school and he was supposed to be working on a summer internship his very strict father had set up for him for while they were away. Instead, he quit the internship and left his hometown in Philly for Washington, D.C., to see a psychology professor at Georgetown University who specializes in "grit". It was supposed to be a short trip, just a few days in the big city, long enough to get some help straightening out what Scott saw as a life of failure. It turned into a four-week stint, an adventure he didn't, couldn't, see coming.

This is the unfolding journey of life story in Down and Across, written by first-time novelist Arvin Ahmadi. In it, Scott meets an undisciplined adventuress named Fiora who gets him into all kinds of trouble, a friendly bartender who watches his back, an iron-willed student on a make-it-or-break summer lark of her own, a psychology professor who gives in to help Scott after several attempts to resist his pleas for help, and a host of other strange characters who hang out in his world. Throughout this story written for a teen fiction audience but is also readable and enjoyable for older readers, we can't help but empathize with this youngster lost in the abyss of youth in search of identity. And we can't help but remember our own struggles to figure out who we are, where we are, where we want to go in life and how to get there, and how we rustle up the grit to survive the journey. And if you are a teen fighting through those struggles now, you will surely identify with the challenges and self-doubts and urges Scott faces.

Ahmadi has a wonderful writing style with an easily accessible "voice", creating relatable characters suffering through amazing situations. The title relates to the characters working crossword puzzles, which becomes a metaphor for working through life's challenges, yet its 320 pages are a fun, quick read. Do you have grit? Read Down and Across and find out.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Roman J. Israel, Esq.: Drama, Thriller -- Winner!

Movie Review: Roman J. Israel, Esq. (2017)
Version: Library borrow

Roman J. Israel, Esq., a driven, idealistic defense attorney, finds himself in a tumultuous series of events that lead to a crisis and the necessity for extreme action.

ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ. is a dramatic thriller set in the underbelly of the overburdened Los Angeles criminal court system. Denzel Washington stars as Roman Israel, a driven, idealistic defense attorney who, through a tumultuous series of events, finds himself in a crisis that leads to extreme action. Colin Farrell costars as the monied, cutthroat lawyer who recruits Roman to his firm.

Denzel Washington as Roman J. Israel, Esq.
Colin Farrell as George Pierce
Carmen Ejogo as Maya Alston

Roman J. Israel, Esq. is described in as "a dramatic thriller set in the underbelly of the overburdened Los Angeles criminal court system." I would describe it as a drama heavy on the injustice of the overburdened criminal court system with much less of the thriller. The thriller comes at the very end -- no spoilers here.

Roman Israel is savant in a small but determined civil rights law office serving the under-served victims of the justice system. His partner is a brilliant attorney who brilliantly represents their clients in court, while Israel does all the research and case preparation back in the office. His partner has all the authority of accomplishment while Israel has all the legal smarts. But Israel's partner has a heart attack and dies, and his family decides to liquidate the firm, turning over everything to friend and legal mentee George Pierce. Pierce brings Israel into his own legal firm out of respect for the partner and in deference to Israel, who has no other prospects for employment.

Israel has personality quirks, making him difficult to work with and difficult on his clients. But what we come to find is that he has a brilliant legal mind. And Pierce, who is at first reluctant to keep Israel on the payroll because of mistakes in his handling of cases, comes to appreciate Israel's strategies and perspectives. Remembering the devotion to justice the partner taught him in law school, Pierce has a change in heart, reorganizing his law firm and re-energizing Israel's mission. But just as Israel and Pierce's relationship begins to warm, other things take a turn for the worse.

Roman J. Israel, Esq. is played by Denzel Washington, who brings heart and soul to the role. Is there anything he can't play with brilliance? Colin Farrell plays Pierce with intensity. He often plays a bad guy and here he starts off as one yet turns it around into a good guy like the flip of a coin. And for Israel there is an awkward but growing love interest, Maya Alston, played with energy yet earnestness by Carmen Ejogo. It's a fine cast that plays with your emotions and tugs at your heart in a story that could easily just be an angry rant about life in "the underbelly of Los Angeles". This film is really an uplifting story about rising above the underbelly.

Don't look at Roman J. Israel, Esq. as being about urban life; look at it as being about doing your utmost with what you have, about making the most of your talents despite the obstacles built up around you. The tragedy isn't where you live or how you live, but not allowing where and how you live to keep you down. Roman J. Israel, Esp. -- he kept emphasizing the "Esquire" throughout the movie -- rose above it all. We can all relate to that message. See it!

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Tom Clancy Power and Empire: Spy, Thriller ... or Horror Story?

Book Review: Tom Clancy Power and Empire by Marc Cameron
Version: Library borrow

I'm not sure how to describe Tom Clancy novels. Spy? Thriller? Whatever they are, I really enjoy them, and Tom Clancy Power and Empire is among them. Different authors have picked up writing the series, and this book is authored by Marc Cameron, who does the series justice.

Each book works with the same basic set of characters. Principal among them are Jack Ryan, the president, and Jack Ryan, Jr., his son. Then there the team members of The Campus and members of Jack Ryan's administration. Thus, there is continuity and familiarity and common themes throughout the series. It's like a continuing series. And that can be fun.

There are Jack Ryan stories and there are Jack Ryan, Jr., stories, by the way, each which focus mostly on that main character, although either may also appear in any story. In this case, Power and Empire focuses on President Jack Ryan.

Here is how describes the book:
A newly belligerent Chinese government leaves US President Jack Ryan with only a few desperate options in this continuation of the #1 New York Times bestselling Tom Clancy series. Jack Ryan is dealing with an aggressive challenge from the Chinese government. Pawns are being moved around a global chessboard: an attack on an oil platform in Africa, a terrorist strike on an American destroyer and a storm tossed American spy ship that may fall into Chinese hands. It seems that President Zhao is determined to limit Ryan's choices in the upcoming G20 negotiations. But there are hints that there's even more going on behind the scene. A routine traffic stop in rural Texas leads to a shocking discovery--a link to a Chinese spy who may have intelligence that lays bare an unexpected revelation. John Clark and the members of the Campus are in close pursuit, but can they get the information in time?

However, this book also delves deeply into a darker corner of the world, perhaps more deeply than hinted in the description above: child slavery and prostitution. This book spends considerable space to Jack Ryan, Jr. and The Campus team hunting down the kingpins of an international child slavery  and prostitution ring, and it gets quite graphic in its details. Character John Clark is obsessive in his pursuit and manic in his drive to take revenge on the culprits. So in this sense, this book is less about spies and national security and more about private posses seeking justice. Thus, is it even thriller or horror story?

I wasn't prepared for the darker part of the story. It was startling. So before you pick up this book, be aware! I'm not saying don't read it -- I'm saying, know what you're getting into. This is the seamy side of life.

Tom Clancy set up a terrific series for other authors to follow in his footsteps. It is well thought out, and every book I have read has followed current news cycles for the details of each new story. So each book is realistic and believable. Tom Clancy Power and Empire is very much so. I enjoyed it. If you can get through the dark, seamy part, as I did, I think you will, too.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The Star: A Quality Animated Film for the Whole Family

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

We are well beyond Christmas, but we just watched The Star, which is an animated movie about the birth of Jesus Christ. I'm writing this during Holy Week, just ahead of Easter, so this may still have resonance for some audiences. It's a well-done film for the whole family that makes the birth story easily understandable for all ages, which fun side characters who make the story fun and relatable yet don't get in the way of the actual story. My older daughter who has intellectual disabilities and finds religious topics difficult to comprehend finally understood the Christmas story, thanks to The Star.

Adults may find the side characters -- donkeys, a mountain-climbing sheep, a silly dove, delirious camels, and Roman killer dogs -- silly and distracting. But they do keep the story from being overly simplified and slightly preachy. And kids love silly and distracting animal animated stories, so there's that.

The voice cast is pretty amazing, too. Steven Yeun plays Bo, a donkey who attaches himself to Mary and Joseph as they walk their way to Bethlehem for the Roman census, unaware that a seething Roman with two fearsome dogs is tracking them down. Keegan-Michael Key plays Dave, Bo's best friend, who is obsessed with joining a royal caravan instead and is a distraction from helping Mary and Joseph. Aidy Bryant plays Ruth, a bouncy sheep in search of this amazing star that has suddenly appeared in the sky and who helps Bo pursue Mary and Joseph in the wilderness. They comprise the core of the animal characters. Gina Rodriguez plays Mary and Zachary Levi plays Joseph. Also includes Christopher Plummer, Kelly Clarkson, Anthony Anderson, Patricia Heaton, Kris Kristofferson, Kristin Chenoweth, Mariah Carey, and Oprah Winfrey.

In The Star, Mary has been visited by the angel Gabriel to announce that she will become the mother of the promised Messiah. She finally returns from her months-long visit with her cousin Elizabeth to an anxious Joseph, who is ready to wed her. Then he discovers she is pregnant and begins to rethink his marriage, when he, too, is visited by Gabriel, and accepts his role, although not without trepidation over the responsibility of raising the child who will be the savior of the world. Then along comes the Roman census, requiring Joseph as the head of household to go to Bethlehem to register his family. Bo, meanwhile, is a lowly donkey tied to a mill grinding wheat. He can see through a knot hole in the wall a procession through town of a royal caravan, and his dream is to join the procession. His friend Dave, a wily dove, shares his dream. They escape, only to be chased by Bo's owner, and hide in Joseph's garden. Mary splints Bo's wounded leg and gives him extra tender care, creating a bond and allegiance that will end Bo's and Dave's dream of joining the caravan. And when a Roman thug arrives looking to find and kill Mary and the child in her womb, Bo goes all out to protect the special family he has adopted as his own. It is both a race to Bethlehem and to give safe birth to the Savior, with the help of Bo, Dave, and a few fun characters along the way.

In addition to a good story line, interesting characters, and great voice acting, The Story features top animation. This isn't a cheap production. It's right up there with hit films like Coco, Ferdinand, and the LEGO movies (although those were a different technology). You don't have to worry about your family being bored or weirded out by a cheap rip-off because of the quality -- the quality is there.

I can say without a doubt, The Star is a good film for the family, whether it's for Christmas or for Easter. Or anytime you want to entertain your youngsters with a good story.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Murder on the Orient Express: Not a Must-See or a Want-to-See, Perhaps Just an Okay-See

Movie Review: Murder on the Orient Express (2017)
Version: Library borrow

Murder on the Orient Express is a remake of a remake of a remake of a remake of an Agatha Christie murder mystery classic. Yes, there have been five films of this story, beginning in 1974. Enough, already! Honestly, I don't think anyone can play a better Hercule Poirot than David Suchet, but in this version Kenneth Branagh gives it his best shot. It isn't enough. I haven't seen the other versions besides the 1974 film, so I cannot comment on them, but I preferred the 1974 cast other than Albert Finney as Poirot. Alfred Molina played the leading role in 2001 and he's a fine actor, so he could very well have pulled it off to satisfaction.

Here is the gist of the plot. The world's best detective takes the world's most lavish train, the Orient Express, from Istanbul to Paris, counting on a relaxing trip. On the way, there is a murder. Of course, only Poirot can solve it. Since the train has been moving the whole time, everyone onboard is a suspect -- everyone except Poirot. In this version, Poirot is taking the trip because he is exhausted from a strenuous examination of another murder and wishes to take the long journey as a form of holiday, so he isn't receptive to investigating the murder. In fact, earlier the victim has asked him to be his body guard, but Poirot refuses. Partway into the trip as the train makes its way into the mountainous terrain of Yugoslavia, an avalanche blocks the tracks, nearly knocking the locomotive off and setting up a long wait for help to arrive. Poirot is a friend of the owner of the Orient Express, who begs him to investigate before the Yugoslavian authorities arrive. He reluctantly agrees, and so the battle of wits between Poirot and the suspects begins.

As with past films, Murder on the Orient Express relies on a long list of recognizable actors to attract an audience. Kenneth Branagh directs as well as acts in this. Judi Dench is always a welcome presence. There is also Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Willem Dafoe, Penélope Cruz, and Derek Jacobi, along with a group of lesser knows. It is an ensemble cast, which makes the story work. If it weren't for the familiar faces, would we care as much about the characters? I wonder.

Branagh's Belgian accent leaves much to be desired. Poirot is fastidious in all his ways, and Branagh fails to carry out the character in this way, also He could easily be playing some other famous detective, although I couldn't place a name on him. I would ask, might Johnny Depp not have done better service to this role? Something to have considered, Mr Branagh the director. I can see it, considering the eccentricity of some of the roles Depp has played (consider the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland).

So, to conclude, I can't say 2017's Murder on the Orient Express is a must-see, or even a want-to-see. If you're bored some evening or weekend, it's an okay-see. If nothing else, see if for the stars and the scenery.

Friday, March 23, 2018

The Shape of Water: A Beautifully Humane Film

Movie Review: The Shape of Water (2017)
Version: Cable purchase

For transparency, let me begin by saying I've never cared for alien-monster movies. But The Shape of Water isn't your typical alien-monster movie. Actually, the "monster" in the film isn't an alien and it isn't really a monster. On the IMDB page, it is listed as "Amphibian Man".

Now let me explain why I was blown away by the humane element of this film. Amphibian Man has been dragged from a rain forest in South America by an American intelligence officer during Cold-War-era America, sometime in early 1960's. He is seen as a threat and treated as a monster, but Amphibian Man is far from one. He is sentient, with more than simply intelligence but also with an emotional core, a soul. He only acts out aggressively in response to abuse, torture really, by the intelligence officer, played venomously and angrily by Michael Shannon. It is rare to see a film treat a non-human being with sympathy, but we find it even more so in The Shape of Water.

Without treating Amphibian Man simply as a threatening monster but as another thinking, feeling, sympathetic character on par with any human, it allows the viewer to focus on the themes on humanity instead of the horror of monstrosity. The real monster, it shows, is the inhumanity of human against humanity, depicted by the way Shannon's character, Strickland, treats the other characters in the film: mute character Elisa, played with precision by Sally Hawkins; African American character Zelda, played with passion by Octavia Spencer; the other cleaning staff, mostly composed of minorities; and the scientist seeking to save Amphibian Man from Strickland's abuses, Dr Hoffstetler, also a Russian asset, played by Michael Stuhlbarg. There is a point during the story in which Strickland ponders creation and whether anyone but his own kind could have been created in the image of God, using it as a crutch to abuse others, anyone who doesn't mirror his white maleness but especially Amphibian Man, showing no pity and no empathy for others.

The theme of The Shape of Water, however, is isolation and loneliness. Elisa, who is a mute, feels lonely and isolated by her inability to speak. She immediately relates to Amphibian Man, who is alone and isolated in the government research facility in which she is a lowly scrub woman, working around barriers to accessing the room where he is locked up to communicate with him and come to know him as a person rather than as a strange being. Strickland uses Amphibian Man's isolation to torture him with plans to disembowel the creature to learn more about his dual ability to breathe in the water and out. Elisa hatches a plan to save Amphibian Man, with the help of Zelda and Elisa's graphics artist friend Giles, with her ultimate plan being to release Amphibian Man when the spring rains come and flood the canals, so he can swim away to safety. But getting to that time and place is fraught with risks and difficulties. Part of the danger involves Soviet spies, who also want to get their hands on Amphibian Man. Another part is the military, who put pressure on Strickland to gut Amphibian Man and end the research project. Still another is Strickland's search for vengeance against Amphibian Man for biting off his fingers in an abuse-baited attack early in the film -- Strickland seethes with hatred. You could also say that Strickland felt isolated and lonely in a world of "others", who aren't like him. And Hoffstetler felt isolated and lonely as a Russian asset. They all encountered Amphibian Man in a different way and their lives changed as a result of their encounters.

You might not relate as well to Strickland's mindset if you didn't live through the Cold War days, but you might be able to understand the personality of a bigot, which Strickland clearly is. Someone  showing disregard for both Zelda and her husband in their own home, weaker (in his eyes) Elisa, and of course, the creature who couldn't possibly be created in the image of Strickland's God and, thus, unworthy of respect or mercy. But perhaps you can relate to many characters' humanity and how it was shaped by the amphibian in the water. It may well be that you will be shaped by it, too.

Why watch The Shape of Water? It's a well-made film with compelling characters and worthy themes. It's more than entertaining, although it is that, too. It's a beautiful film about acceptance and freedom of spirit, and it's about finding commonality in the uncommon among us. The Shape of Water won Best Picture Oscar for a reason. Because it earned it.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Wonder: A Feel-Good Movie with a Sympathetic Message

Movie Review: Wonder (2017)
Version: Library borrow

Sometimes you just want to see a feel-good movie. Wonder is that film.

Auggie (played to perfection by Jacob Trembley) was born with facial disfigurements that required multiple operations and a "lifetime" of parental love and nurturing to help him through its consequences. But it was finally time for Mom and Dad to cut the strings and send him off to school -- to fifth grade -- where he would learn how to navigate the world of real people and their prejudices. This basically is the story of Wonder and the world of August "Auggie" Pullman, his mother Isabel (played by Julia Roberts), his father Nate (played by Owen Wilson), and his sister Via (played by Izabela Vidovic).

In this heart-warming story, Mom sends Auggie off to school, where he faces discrimination, bullying, and false friendships, despite the support of his family and the school principal. Over time, Auggie's classmates come to learn it's not the face but the heart and the spirit that make for the best friends, and his parents come to realize their decision to mainstream their son was the right decision after all.

This film has all the look and feel of any quality independent, which are at their core character driven. You cannot help but embrace Auggie, feel empathy for Isabel and Nate, and give encouragement for Via caught in the middle. Part of it is because of the greatness of the acting, but another part is the story line with its message of compassion for those who are judged by their looks rather than by the content of their character, not to mention the benefit of giving the misguided a second chance.

So, Wonder is good entertainment, but it is also a good vehicle for guiding our families about how to better interact with others. We are not all what we seem. Most of us aren't. Wonder helps us explore that truth in a sympathetic and empathetic and entertaining way. Great viewing for the whole family.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Blade Runner 2049: As Dark, Dank, and Mystical as the Original

Movie Review: Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
Version: Library borrow

Blade Runner 2049 is the sequel to the 1982 scifi hit, Blade Runner, and takes place thirty years later. It is as dark, dank, and mystical as the original, but it is as equally imaginative and amazing to watch.

In today's version, original protagonist Rick Deckard (played once again by Harrison Ford) has gone missing for thirty years. Our new protagonist "K" (played by Ryan Gosling), is an enigmatic LAPD officer and blade runner with no human name gunning for rogue replicants with little apparent regard for life. He does, however, have a soft spot for a holographic heart throb named Joi (played by Ana de Armas), whom he upgrades from apartment mate to case partner in a heart beat. She helps K seek out Deckard, whom K finds is tied into a mysterious case involving an old corpse with indications of a replicant childbirth, which is both unheard of and troublesome for human-replicant relations. He finds himself opposed by a stealthy and dangerous replicant named Luv (played by Sylvia Hoeks), who is also in search of Deckard and the child they both find out still exists. Both think Deckard is the key to finding the child -- Luv for using the child to further research into replicant birthing, and K for killing. Deckard, hiding in deserted Las Vegas, hid the child thirty years ago and has no idea where it is, yet K and Luv battle it out for control of existing clues.

What is intriguing about Blade Runner 2049 is its breadth of vision and attention to detail. The director, set designer, and cinematographer went into great depth to tell this story. The constant fog and drip of water, the great wall protecting the city from the ocean and the powerful ocean waves on its opposing side, the gritty urban facade and the sleazy sexual debauchery of urban decay, the dank loneliness of the countryside. Every imaginative detail is there, lending authenticity to the story. The characters are made powerfully real by great acting performances. Yet true to the original Blade Runner, not much of that universe seems to have changed, visually.

What is mystical is the story line. But then, this is science fiction, a story of a future world in which we aren't totally familiar. The idea of replicants, the people who hunt them down if they get out of line, and a dystopian future existence unrelatable to us naturally makes this all confusing to us. Even though stories of dystopian futures is a popular genre today. That's really what made the original Blade Runner interesting before and now Blade Runner 2049 interesting now. They explore ideas that make us uncomfortable and themes that seem unfathomable yet potentially unavoidable.

Walking out of the theater, or if you're watching it on DVD walking away from the TV screen, and back into reality, you can feel a sense of relief in today's world, even as crazy at it sometimes seems. You can tell yourself, "Thank God this make-believe world is a long time away, and maybe there's still time to avoid it." But then, as of this writing, 2049 is only 31 years in the future. Can we see the Earth getting to this place by then? It is, after all, just science fiction -- right?