Friday, April 28, 2017

The Stranger in the Woods: Well Written, Even-Handed, Deeply Personal Biography

Book Review: The Stranger in the Woods: by Michael Finkel
Version: Library eBook Borrow

The full title of this book is The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit. It is, indeed, an extraordinary story. Whether the character in this true story is truly a hermit, as the character disputes, is padrt of what this story is about and which author Michael Finkel explores in part.

Christopher Knight disappeared at around the age of 20. He remained aloof from family and friends for approximately 25 years, living in the woods out of contact with others, although he could never fully escape the sounds of those who inhabited the nearby cabins and homes and a nearby camp. He, in turn, had an impact on them when he put off starving by invading their cabins, homes, and camp to steal food and clothing and other things he needed to survive. Yet Knight was disciplined in his thievery, never harming anyone and never damaging property. What he wanted - needed - was solitude, and so, he lived alone, surrounded really only by nature.

Knight was eventually caught and jailed, and journalist Michael Finkel contacted him, first by mail and then by visiting him several times in jail. What he found was a man unprepared to deal with others, who could not meet another's gaze, who while he attempted to interact with his jail mates ultimately failed to adequately socialize. Knight and Finkel formed not a friendship but an acquaintance as Finkel learned his story and tried to figure out what made Knight "tick", over seven months. Finkel lived in Montana so had to travel to Maine, leaving behind his wife and children to pursue this story. Throughout their interactions, Knight never really came to appreciate their interactions and after his case finally came to court and resolution, begged to be left alone.

Throughout this book, Finkel analyzes what makes for a true hermit and whether Knight fits that mold. He explores other explanations based on psychologist examinations and discussions with other psychologists. It may be that Knight was autistic or a schizoid or other diagnosis of a person who finds human interaction difficult to deal with. But entirely, this is a thoroughly humane look at a person who needed to step away from humanity for relief from continual bombardment of social cues and expectations that he couldn't understand or meet. At one point, Knight suggests what he wants is to wander off into the woods once again in the deep of winter and let Mother Nature take him, and Finkel panics, unsure whether to intervene in some way, breaking his bond with Knight, or stay silent, breaking a moral or ethical barrier.

The Stranger in the Woods is a well written, even-handed yet deeply personal biography of a troubled soul, someone who was possibly best left alone by society but best served by the telling of his story. You can be the judge by reading Knight's story. I think you will be touched by the pure honesty of the subject and the author in dealing with the details.

Moana: One More in a Long String of Disney Hits

Movie Review: Moana (2016)
Version: Library Borrow

Moana is a larger than life ancient Polynesian-island adventure featuring a fearless heroine and a reluctant demigod at odds over rescuing the island's people from a natural disaster the demigod caused from long ago. It requires the chieftain's impetuous daughter to disobey her father's command to remain on the island, daring to escape the boundaries of safety to seek a resolution only the bravest soul may face.

This fine family film features the voices of Aul'l Cravalho as the heroine, Moana, and Dwayne Johnson as the demigod, Maui. Together, they take you on a fantastic race across the seas and battle terrible foes to finally return the heart of the goddess Te Fiti to its rightful place and bring life back to Moana's island and, thus, sustenance back to her people. You are immersed in a world of myth, magic, and music!

The animated characters are lovable, the action thrilling, the backgrounds and colors brilliant, and the story line intriguing. This is one more in a long string of Disney hits featuring adept female heroines that everyone in the family can enjoy. It well earned its two Oscar nominations (Best Animated Feature Film and Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures [Original Song]) and another 11 wins and 67 nominations for other awards including Golden Globes and BAFTA.

Kick back with the family some evening or weekend and enjoy Moana, an entertaining bit of Polynesian mythology that's fun for all ages!

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Assassin's Creed: There Is Much to Like!

Movie Review: Assassin's Creed (2016)
Version: Library Borrow

I have always been intrigued by the Assassin's Creed video game series since it firsts emerged on the market in 2007. I've never played it, although we just got the original game from the library now that we have seen the movie. There is something interesting and invigorating about the concept of stealthy assassins, and these came into being during the Crusades.

But the film version of Assassin's Creed takes place in the present day when a corporation develops technology that can unlock someone's genetic past. Michael Fassbender plays Cal Lynch, a killer on death row, and his assassin ancestor, Aguilar. Lynch is given the lethal dose to take his life before witnesses, then is whisked away to a remote location, where he is brought back to awareness and hooked up to a machine and injected with chemicals that tap his genetic past.

Marion Cotillard plays Sofia, the scientist behind the technology, who wants to bring out the Saracen assassin Aguilar in Lynch. Jeremy Irons plays her father, Rikkin, who has ulterior motives and works on behalf of the Templars who seek a buried treasure they hope Lynch can help find through Aguilar's memories.

Through re-enacting Aguilar's battles and quests, Lynch learns new fighting and battle skills. And he learns that other subjects being held in the corporate facility are his allies. Their goal is to protect the object the modern day Templars seek, whether by helping Lynch against the corporation or by protecting the object from Lynch.

There is much to like about Assassin's Creed. Fassbender is great in the part, adept in the fight scenes and a keen adversary to Irons, who often plays a scheming villain. Cotillard is excellent as the focused scientist in search of the truth with a secret crush on her subject. The settings are well imagined, too, enveloping you into an extraordinary fantasy world of crusaders and assassins.

I would recommend this for family viewing, especially for young teens and older. There are lots of battle scenes. I'm not sure youngsters should be exposed to the corporal punishment scene at the beginning. But the rest of the film is great fun. Do buy, rent, or borrow Assassin's Creed soon.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Zootopia: You May Want to See It More Than Once

Movie Review: Zootopia (2016)
Version: Library Borrow

Zootopia won the Academy Award for best animated film this year, and for good reason. Everything about this movie is well done, from the casting to the acting to the character development to the animation to the set design. And if you don't give a hoot about that kind of thing, you can still enjoy Zootopia, because it's a great story portrayed in a brilliant panorama of color and characters. How's that for an endorsement for your family's evening entertainment?

Judy Hopps, voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin, is a small town bunny who has always wanted to escape her family carrot farm and make it to the big city - Zootopia - to become a cop. Nick Wilde, voiced by Jason Bateman, is a big city fox who was mistrusted as a child by the other animals in his urban neighborhood and grew up scratching out a living scamming the local ice cream shoppe for ice pops, which he melts and resells to easily scam-able lemmings. Judy gets her dream job as a cop but is forced to do parking meter duty and meets Nick during one of his scams. When animals mysteriously come up missing and the police force can't make progress on any of the cases, Judy gets her big break, talking her Sergeant into letting her track down just one of the cases. And Nick joins her in the pursuit.

Zootopia isn't just one large city environment. It takes in every possible world you can imagine, from the desert to the arctic to the underworld, and lots more besides. As Judy and Nick look for clues, they explore these multitude of environments and encounter a lively cast of interesting characters you might find in a zoo or in moor or out on the Serengeti or anywhere else in the wide world. In one particularly funny scene, Nick takes Judy to the Department of Motor Vehicles to search out a clue. The clerks are sloths, which are notoriously slow, and Nick forces Judy to go through a painfully sluggish question and answer session with one of the clerks that is hilarious, although I think the writers could have shortened this bit some.

Naturally, the characters are keyed to the stereotypical attributes of each animal, and these are played up for fun in the story line. In the case of the villain in the movie, it becomes a red herring, so you won't know who that is until the end.

Zootopia is a great family film and I highly recommend it. You may find you will want to watch it more than once to catch all the sight gags running in the background. But do see Zootopia at least once!

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Deepwater Horizon: A Drama Bigger Than Life About a Disaster That Was Bigger Than Life

Movie Review: Deepwater Horizon (2016)
Version: Library Borrow

Deepwater Horizon is a dramatic retelling of the 2010 oil drilling disaster offshore of Louisiana. It features a fine cast and awesome special effects to do right by the fateful events of that horrific day when BP (British Petroleum) let the bottom line put lives at stake and cost the lives of nearly a dozen hardworking men drilling for profits on a floating drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico.

The cast is led by Mark Wahlberg as Mike Williams and Kurt Russell as Jimmy Harrell, who arrive by helicopter to take over their shift as BP executives rush to bring the rig online and finally pump oil and make some money. But on the shift before, BP had made the serious mistake of forgoing critical pressure tests. Mike and Jimmy force the issue on their shift, the BP executives allowing a minimal test that seems to show no problems. But things go horribly wrong and deep sea valves can't take the pressure, sending mud and then water and then gas up the pipes, blowing up the floating rig, starting a fire no one can squelch, killing 11. A nearby ship ordered by BP to standby to load oil is there to rescue men ordered to abandon the rig, who jump into the sea. Families back on land hear of the disaster at sea and are desperate to hear news, but are told little.

The drama focuses on the events on the platform at sea and then the eventual rescue and reuniting with family on land. There is a final scene of Mike and Jimmy giving evidence in court, but what you mostly witness is the foolishness of the BP executives and the bravery of the men on the rig. The scenes are cataclysmic. They don't leave much to the imagination. In the end, in every frame you can feel the trauma of those who suffered the disaster.

Deepwater Horizon is a first class disaster film done right. It touches on a moment in history we should all remember, and it gives us a glimpse into heroism, the consequences of foolishness, and results of refusing to give up when doing what's right is what is best. This drama is bigger than life because the disaster was bigger than life, at a time when lives were truly at risk.

I can say without a doubt, you should see this film. It honors those who died by telling in excruciating detail how they died. But this isn't gratuitous violence, this is truth.

Monday, April 24, 2017

American Pastoral: There Was Nothing There

Movie Review: American Pastoral (2017)
Version: Library Borrow

American Pastoral is the second strange movie I have seen lately. At least Captain Fantastic seemed to have some reason behind it. American Pastoral seemed senseless.

Here's the way IMDB describes it: "An All-American college star and his beauty queen wife watch their seemingly perfect life fall apart, as their daughter joins the turmoil of '60s America." The film opens as Nathan Zuckerman (played by David Strathairn) reluctantly attends a high school reunion. There, he runs into an old friend he hasn't seen in ages, Jerry Levov, brother to the great All-American legend Swede Levov, whose amazing sports achievements are displayed in the high school hallway. Zukerman finds out Jerry is only there because he is in town for Swede's funeral. From there, Zuckerman functions as the narrator into what turns out to be the turbulent life of a man whose life had been full of sweet promise.

Swede Levov (played by Ewan McGregor, who also directed the film) inherited the very successful glove manufacturing business from his father and turned it into an even greater success. He married a gorgeous beauty queen contestant, Dawn Levov (played by Jennifer Connelly), who made it all the way to the Miss New Jersey finals. They lived in the country with acreage, drove a fine car, and lacked nothing. He was the one man whose life Zuckerman thought was made of dreams. Then they had a daughter, Merry. Merry was beautiful, but developed a problem stuttering. She never grew out of stuttering and a counselor suggested it was a way of dealing with feeling insecure in the face of the beauty of her mother. At one point, Merry (played by Dakota Fanning) wants her father to kiss her. He kisses her on the cheek. She asks him to "really kiss" her. With a smile, he kisses her more firmly on the cheek. "No; kiss me like you kiss Mommy," she says. Swede says, "No!" and drives off furious. Merry is deeply hurt by his rejection. From there, Swede and Dawn's live goes horribly downhill.

Merry can't stand her mother. She rebels against both parents. This film takes place during the anti-war '60s and Merry latches on to the rebelliousness of the times. She leaves home. Swede and Dawn try to bring her home, but Merry leaves again, for good. The rest of the film finds Swede and Dawn drastically searching for her. It's years before Swede finds her, when another young woman shows up to torture him with teases about her whereabouts. It's a totally depressing encounter when he finds her. There is no hope between them

There is nothing socially redeeming about this film. It is a miasma of despair.

Zuckerman's conclusion at the end of the film is that we can be wrong about someone we think we know. And he was totally wrong about the man he thought had everything going for him. And I ask myself, is that really the point of this sad, sad, useless film? What are we to learn from it? Most films give you something to grasp from it, something to learn for the better. There was nothing there.

If this was a diss of the 1960's, it fails to make a cogent point about that era of discord. If it seeks to point out that money and success doesn't bring happiness, it slams the point like hitting a finishing nail with a sledge hammer, overpowering the message with its brutality. If it wants to show that not every happy tale has a happy ending, it slaps us in the face multiple times and shoves our face in the mire of life to make the point.

If you dare see this film, make it a double feature with something uplifting and fun as a followup. I can't recommend it as a standalone.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Doctor Strange: Holy Cow, I Love It!

Movie Review: Doctor Strange (2016)
Version: Library Borrow

Holy cow! I'm tired of Marvel Comics superhero movie conversions, but I loved Doctor Strange!

Benedict Cumberbatch, always larger than life in his character portrayals, is the perfect choice to play the lead in this futuristic fantasy superhero film that also delves into martial arts mysticism.

Dr. Stephen Strange is a world class surgeon with an extreme focus on his work. When he's more focused on his work than on driving, he gets into a horrible accident, the consequences of which are damage to the nerves and tendons in his talented hands. Seeking redemption through Eastern Mysticism, Dr. Strange heads to Nepal, where he is taken under the tutelage of The Ancient One, a sorcerer played by Tilda Swinton. Dr. Strange learns the ancient arts of defending the Earth from attack by other dimensions in the multiverse.

Dr. Strange is more than adept at learning the arts and becomes a top student, consuming knowledge from ancient books at a furious rate. It ultimately brings him into conflict with Dormammu, the lord of the Dark Dimension, who has been plotting to take over the Earth and foil The Ancient One. Being a genius, Dr. Strange uses his smarts to overcome Dormammu. As is usual in a Marvel Comics superhero story, the hero's mentor dies in defending the Earth and a colleague turns to the dark side after becoming disillusioned by the hero's actions.

I won't say more about the story line to ensure I don't spoil anything. (Wikipedia explains Dr. Strange (film).)

The film features lots of martial arts battles and cheeky dialog. The special effects are great, and the cast is a winner, too. I can't think of anyone in the family this film isn't great for, unless it's someone who doesn't like fight scenes, fantasy films, superhero movies, or fun. Our whole family loved it and I think your family will, too.