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.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Captain Fantastic: Not So Fantastic

Movie Review: Captain Fantastic (2016)
Version: Library Borrow

My wife and I are huge fans of Viggo Mortensen. Some of the movies he has appeared in have been a little strange, but he has also been in some great films  (Lord of the Ring trilogy, Hidalgo, Witness, to name just a few). Captain Fantastic falls in line with the former group, the strange ones. It says something about his strength as an actor that despite the subject matter he was Oscar nominated for the lead role, however.

Mortensen plays Ben, the father of a small group of kids estranged from their mother by illness. All their young lives they have lived off the grid, forced there by their parents' devotion to total honesty and living apart from the dangers of a society too hung up on technology, a divorce from nature, and the greed of capitalism. When the mother was forced into hospitalization by her illness, Ben had become the single parent to boys and girls -- one a teenager becoming ready to explore the world on his own terms -- teaching them how to live by nature's rules while schooling them in everything they might need to know in a modern world. When the mother dies, Ben and his family must cross a divide wider than the outback where they live to realize her last requests to reality, opposed by their mother's bitterly reluctant father. It becomes a mission to Ben and his children, but one they come to realize may cost them their safety and their family.

Most of the cast features minor actors. Only Viggo Mortensen and Frank Langella, who plays the difficult father-in-law, are recognizable talent. But the acting is well done. It's the plot and story line that are strange, making the film not so fantastic. The film opens with one of the younger boys leaping onto a deer and cutting its throat. He is rewarded in a coming-of-age ceremony by eating the deer's fresh heart. Ben explains sex to his youngest daughter as if she were a mature child. When Ben and his kids visit family on the way to the mother's funeral, Ben contradicts the host parents, giving the full details of his wife's health problems in front of the protective host family's children. Ben's family travels by a school bus converted into a travel home but they have limited money, so they fund their trip by stealing, which he excuses by turning it into a game of sticking it to capitalism. When one of the children runs away from their family to be with the grandparents, Ben sends his young daughter into physical danger to climb onto the slick clay-tile roof and enter the home to bring the boy back. While you have to admire the father for his devotion to honesty and search for living close to nature, the journey the family is on is dangerous, and that in the end becomes the reality that Ben and his family find they can't live with.

I like unusual stories, those involving complex and unusual characters played by great actors with deep range. But honestly, I found this film difficult to watch. It was "way out there" on many levels. I can kind of see why Mortensen was nominated for an Oscar, but I have found him more likable in other roles far more suitable for the nomination.

As I've said earlier, I don't like giving lackluster reviews for books or films, but I can't give my wholehearted support to Captain Fantastic. I can see it becoming a cult classic one day. But I can't see recommending it as a top pick of must-see films if you have a list. Let me know if you disagree.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Florence Foster Jenkins: Rich Characters, Great Actors, a Story Worth Telling

Movie Review: Florence Foster Jenkins (2016)
Version: Library Borrow

The Academy Awards recognized a full spectrum of very interesting movies this year, and Florence Foster Jenkins was one of them, its leading actress, Meryl Steep, the main reason to watch. However, the film included rave performances by Streep's leading man, Hugh Grant, and the grand supporting actor acknowledged with a nomination, Simon Helberg.

That said, what a strange bird this tale is. Streep plays the title character, Florence Foster Jenkins, a well-off turn-of-the-20th-century society woman who fashions herself not just an opera buff, but a talented singer. She is encouraged by her more realistic yet doting husband, St Clair Bayfield, played by Hugh Grant, who is willing to spend plenty of Jenkins' money to keep her happy. In fact, he hires the city's renown orchestral conductor to tutor Jenkins and Helberg's character Cosme McMoon, a struggling professional concert pianist, to play for her. Bayfield also pays people to attend Jenkins' performances. She doesn't sing at all well.

Jenkins is oblivious to her failures while giving her all to her efforts. Helberg provides a wonderful performance as the epitome of the professional who recognizes the hopelessness of her dreams, giving fun facial expressions as Jenkins fails time after time to reach notes or carry tunes, yet is humane in his appreciation for her hopes and desire not to see her embarrassed.

Yet, this film isn't a comedy. And it isn't fiction. Florence Foster Jenkins was a real person and this story is real. It's actually a love story.

Without giving away too much of the story -- because I'd love for you to see this very human story -- it is safe to say that Jenkins was sick and her husband Bayfield, who you might have been tempted to think was trying to live comfortably off of her riches, was at least also trying to help her live comfortably in her final days. He deeply loved a woman he couldn't physically love. And so he provided for her by indulging the fantasy she held that she could sing the opera that she so loved. McMoon loved her spirit and her appreciation for the art. Together, they supported her in her last days.

If you are tempted to laugh at her in the beginning of the film, you will learn to admire her courage and love her verve. And you will join in the appreciation the crowds come to find in the gift Jenkins bestows on them by giving her all of herself.

Meryl Streep put herself out there professionally to play someone who couldn't sing worth a tin nickel. Streep is a fine singer and has sung in other performances. But she proved herself the ultimate professional playing this part. It's worth seeing this film just to see her play this part to deftly. It's also worth it to see Helberg react to her miss all of those notes.

This may not have seemed like the movie you were dying to see. But honestly, I urge you to see Florence Foster Jenkins at least once. See the story that great actors risk to take on because the characters are that rich and, in the end, the story is worth the telling.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Manchester by the Sea: Mostly Deep Valleys of Emotion

Movie Review: Manchester by the Sea (2016)
Version: Library Borrow

Manchester by the Sea won Academy Award(R) Oscars for Casey Affleck as Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay for Kenneth Lonergran. That's the best I can say for it. Sorry.

Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a down and out maintenance man at an apartment building in the rougher side of Boston. He mostly plays opposite Lucas Hedges as teenager Patrick, Lee's orphaned nephew who is left without family when his father suddenly dies. Patrick is left with his father's home and professional fishing launch in Manchester By The Sea, an hour or so up the coast from Boston, and Patrick's father has left young Patrick's care to Lee in his will. Lee isn't prepared to take on that responsibility.

Lee is full on adult angst, Patrick is full of teen angst. You find out during the long slough that is this 2 hours and 17 minutes of film that there are deep holes in Lee's life and why he isn't prepared to take on the stewardship of Patrick's life. Patrick is ready to take on life on his own terms, but what he really wants is family love and to not be left behind.

I watched the entire film looking for a reason for Casey Affleck to win Oscar for this role, but to me his performance was wooden, his emotional journey was understated. Dozens of other actors could have played Lee Chandler better. Kenneth Lonergran also directed the film. It was long, dragging for most of the film time. I don't see how it was Oscar worthy. There really was no sentimentality to the story, at least as demonstrated in the movie. It was as bleak as the Boston neighborhood in which part of it was shot. There were few rises in the drama, few peaks in the action. It was mostly deep valleys of emotion, a dark and depressing film in my eyes.

I don't like writing reviews of poor performances. But to be true to my readers, I have to tell it like it is. Maybe seeing Manchester by the Sea you will disagree with me. Let me know. Maybe I missed something. As I see it, I can't recommend this movie.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Arrival: Good Science, Well Developed Theme, Top Notch Science Fiction

Movie Review: Arrival (2016)
Version: Library Borrow

Back in November 2016 I wrote a review of the short story on which the movie Arrival was based. I was disappointed in it. The film version is far better.

Amy Adams plays Louise Banks, a linguist who is recruited by the United States government to break the language code of the aliens who arrive on Earth and park their oblong ship above a seemingly random open field out West. Jeremy Renner plays Ian Donnelly, a physicist who is also recruited, his job to figure out the science behind the alien ship. Together, they are supposed to find out why the aliens are here -- what is their purpose? They have counterparts all over the world working to decipher the intentions of similar alien craft parked over similarly random parts of the globe. Everything is fine as the team works to communicate with the aliens, until the Russians and the Chinese think they've discovered something sinister in the aliens' intentions.

Global colleagues who have been collaborating suddenly break off communications. Anti-alien activists plant a device on the alien ship hovering over the U.S. Every advance that Banks and Donnelly have made suddenly begin to unravel just as they think they're making breakthroughs. The alien ships lift away. And our heroes - and we - are left hanging, wondering what do the aliens want and will this lead to war or to losing any chance at communication?

Arrival is top notch science fiction. It doesn't rely so much on special effects as good science and well developed theme. The acting is great and the plot line is solid. You move quickly through the hour and 56 minutes without feeling lost. And just when you feel all is crumbling around you, hope is revived.

Now, it doesn't seem perfect at first, the story line seeming to move around between time and space, which can be disorienting. But you find out later why the writers and director did this thematically. It's genius, actually. I won't spoil the film for you explaining it here, but suffice it to say, I loved how it dovetails with the big reveal toward the end.

I had been waiting to see this film from the first time I saw a movie trailer on TV. I wasn't disappointed. I don't think you will be disappointed watching it, either. Sorry, Ted Chiang (author), but I loved the movie much more than the short story on which it was based.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Passengers: If You Want a Good Time

Movie Review: Passengers (2016)
Version: Library Borrow

I couldn't tell from the preview trailers what this movie was really about, and to be honest, the trailers didn't do the film justice. I'm glad that I ignored them because Passengers is a terrific film.

Jim Preston and Aurora Lane have booked a spaceflight to a world 120 years into their future, their flight time slowed through cryogenics. But there's a malfunction on this dreamy spaceship awakens them much too early, and they must try to fix the problem or learn how to deal with arriving at their destination dead of old age. Many cataclysms await them in the attempt, of course.

Chris Pratt is the irrepressible Jim Preston, a lowly mechanic booked on the cheap ticket. Jennifer Lawrence is the smart, indomitable writer booked on first class. Together, they navigate the uncertain future. But there's a secret held between them that threatens their collaboration and its efficacy is upheld only at the discretion of the seemingly trustworthy robotic waiter Arthur, played brilliantly by Michael Sheen. Just when all hell is breaking loose, another soul is awakened early, Gus Mancuso, a member of the crew, played deftly by Laurence Fishburne. Not everyone's future is bright and rosey, as you might surmise.

As a science fiction flick, Passengers is well done stylistically, with excellent special effects, and thematically, with a great story line. Even the science seems pretty well intact. As a drama, the film is full of plot twists and complex conflicts that keep you engaged in the one hour 56 minute run. As a romance story, it has it's great moments as well, as Preston and Lane fall in love over their roles as the sole couple run wild in this enormous ship hurtling through the glorious vastness of space with only themselves (and, well, mechanical Arthur) to answer to. But then, there's that secret between them.

In the end, the questions are, will they find a way to go back to sleep to survive the trip to their new world, or will they find a way to live their romance out together, or will some other calamity swallow their ship and their lives much too early? And then there's that damned secret.

From the movie trailers, I was prepared to not particularly like this film. But this is why I rarely give much credence to movie trailers. This is a great film. Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence are always fun to watch. Michael Sheen shines in his role, and Laurence Fishburne is elegant in his portrayal. And just when you think you know where the story is headed, up pops surprise after surprise, right up to the end.

If you want a good time, watch Passengers.


Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Accountant: Part Slick Spy Novel, Part Skillful Detective Page Turner

Movie Review: The Accountant (2016)
Version: Library Borrow

Christian Wolf is in the cross hairs of the Treasury Department, so this is a mystery. Bad guys are in Christian Wolf's cross hairs, so this is a thriller. But The Accountant is so much more than a mystery thriller. It's a deep exploration into Christian Wolf as a character that led up to these cross hairs in a complex plot line that switches back and forth over decades exploring his childhood growing up severe autism and his life as an accountant for average Americans but more importantly for gang lords and international money launderers.

Dana Cummings is the special agent for the Treasury department tasked by Director Ray King to track down Wolf. Cummings has a questionable past, which she lied about on her security application, but she turns out to be as good a field agent as the analyst she's been hiding as, and King blackmails her into pursuing Wolf to save her job. Part of the mystery is why.

Wolf is played deftly by Ben Affleck as a quiet, socially awkward accountant with amazing math and pattern-recognition skills. Anna Kendrick is excellent as Cummings, the unsure analyst thrown into field work with the threat of discovery hovering over her head. J.K. Simmons is the consummate brash lead investigator begging for a comeuppance. Then we are introduced to Lamar Blackburn, a billionaire prosthetics developer played by John Lithgow, who can play a bad guy as deliciously as a good guy, so you don't know till it's too late which his character is, and his brash body guard Brax, played by Jon Bernthal. And the plots thicken and twist.

What's remarkable about this film is the way it interplays between slick spy novel with tones of superhero mythos, skillful detective page turner with tones of urgent FBI manhunt, and caring romantic study of the life of an autistic child who is forced to grow into a productive life. Wolf's father is a military man who hires martial arts experts to train his sons in self defense because he fears they may be abused or taken advantage later in life, then encourages them to street fight bullies who have made fun of them in school. The result is that Christian Wolf is still autistic but he can handle the world but the world isn't ready for Christian Wolf.

There are lots of amazing scenes of Wolf's early years that demonstrate severe autism and its effects on children and their families. In one early scene, Wolf is working a jig saw puzzle with the picture side down and nearly completes it by pattern recognition alone, but one piece is missing and he goes ballistic. He must complete the puzzle! It takes another autistic child watching him to calm him down. This scene is key to later in the film as Wolf requires closure on the things he starts and deals with the people in his life. If you have ever wondered about people with autism, this film is an interesting exploration of their world.

This is one of Affleck's better movies. He doesn't come off wooden in it. It paces well for two hours and eight minutes. And the ending is full of surprises. I can highly recommend The Accountant for audiences teen and older. There are some scenes that may be a bit scary for kids, not to mention lots of martial arts and gun shots to the head.


Saturday, February 04, 2017

True Faith and Allegiance: Gets a Hearty "Pick it Up!" From Me

Book Review: Tom Clancy True Faith and Allegiance by Mark Greaney
Version: Library Hard Cover

True Faith and Allegiance is the fourth Tom Clancy novel (Jack Ryan series) by Mark Greaney, and maybe the best. It's certainly the longest. It follows Command Authority (written with the late Tom Clancy), Full Force and Effect, and Commander in Chief, involving the same set of characters. The previous four involved Russian intrigue; True Faith and Allegiance involves ISIS attacks on America through Romanian and Saudi Arabian subterfuge, and it's written with the same realism and backdrop of today's national security headlines.

In these series, Jack Ryan is a former CIA analyst (but often turned operative) who is now the president of the United States, and each of these stories could be pulled from today's news headlines. If you want to know what's going on inside Russia, read these stories. Much of the intrigue behind the 2016 presidential election could be explained in them. If you want to know what hackers could do with a breach of our national intelligence and how ISIS could profit from it, read True Faith and Allegiance. Greaney is a master of using research to bring detail to his work and build authenticity in his stories, making each book a riveting read. Although, I found the action didn't get really exciting until chapter 57. Still, building up to chapter 57 was an interesting and intriguing read!

While Jack Ryan is president, most of the stories involve his son, Jack Ryan, Jr., an intelligence analyst (but often turned operative) who works for a private consulting company that aids the CIA, State Department, FBI, and Homeland Security to keep the nation safe. Part of the tension comes from the worry the president has for the safety of his son. The other part comes from the pace and action throughout the novel, sandwiched between intel you receive as a reader between the good guys and the bad guys as plots play out, actions are taken and countered, and lives are endangered. You as a reader are brought along as a close observer, watching the whole affair unfold in vivid detail. And it's hard to put the novel down once you are engaged.

Jack Junior is accompanied by a host of likable supporting characters who keep him safe or help him solve puzzles and mysteries and the dangerous situations he inevitably gets himself into. And you're right there with him, in the thick of the fight.

I said I thought this was the best of them so far. Perhaps it's because the thick of the action actually takes place in America. It involves place we can all associate with, cities we know or have heard about. And if we've read the other books in the series, characters we've come to know and care about. In the end, the bad guys get what's coming to them, too, which is always satisfying.

A good spy novel is always worth a read, and Truth Faith and Allegiance gets a hearty "Pick it up!" from me.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Powder of Death: A Great Adventure

Book Review: Powder of Death by Julian Stockwin
Version: hard cover, personal purchase

Historical novels can be a fun retelling of historic events fictionalized to fill in details when we don't know the whole story. Author Julian Stockwin has become a master at this craft, no more so than in Powder of Death (2016), the story of how gunpowder came to thirteenth century England through the Crusades and Europe to bring King Edward III victory against the brutal Scots.

Powder of Death is more than a simple retelling of the story, however. It's really a travel adventure, kind of a story of discovery in the exploration of strange new lands, which begins as an attempt at personal redemption but turns into a seeking of wealth wielding a seemingly magical concoction. Stockwin writes brilliantly, bringing wonderful characters to life in a wholly realistic setting exploring history and times in thoroughly researched detail, which is his habit.

The book can be perceived into two parts.

The first part is almost Tolkien-like, Fellowship of the Rings in tone, as the main character, Jared, sets off for the Crusades on a pilgrimage seeking redemption for a terrible deed. Perkyn, a sidekick and protector from Jared's small English village, joins him as they set off for parts unknown, wide eyed and innocent to the world. They fail to reach their goal, but they succeed in participating in the Crusades, where Jared uses his skills as a blacksmith to aid gallant knights in defending a Crusader stronghold far from Jerusalem against a devastating Muslim attack. In the end, Jared and Perkyn are captured and enslaved, but with his blacksmithing skills, he is retained to help the Muslims take the stronghold. It is here that Jared learns of a strange and magical powder that can take down mighty fortresses.

The second part brings Jared and Perkyn back to England. He has the secret of the powder, although not the details of its making, and his goal is to avenge the reason for his seeking redemption, using the powder. It becomes his mission in life, his obsession, and over the ensuing chapters Jared, with Perkyn's aid, tries to work out how to use this mysterious powder to bring down the high and mighty. It brings Jared back to his village, only to discover he has changed as has his village, and it isn't really where he wants to be. He moves to Coventry seeking to set up a business, but the guilds there won't allow him. So he seeks other avenues and meets up with the wife of his late cousin, who likes his vision for using the powder. Over months and years he tests the powder in various ways to use it as a weapon against a host of foes. Powers in Italy and Belgium show interest. But there is always an impediment to Jared's experiments. Ultimately, his quest brings him back to England and the Court of young Edward III.

The chapters are short but the story is long and captivating. The plan is cunning and the struggle is compelling. Your payoff is the life-changing journey.

I'm a big fan of Julian Stockwin novels. He doesn't disappoint. Powder of Death is a good example. Like The Silk Tree before it and his long-running Kydd Series novels that continue as I write, Stockwin is a master teller of grand historical fiction tales. Pick one, any one, and you will be highly entertained. Today, I suggest you read Powder of Death. It's a great adventure.

Update: Available April 20, 2017, in paperback (or now worldwide at bookdepository.com)

Friday, January 13, 2017

The Dying Art of Book Repair

Recommended Read: "He Fixes the Cracked Spines of Books..."

From The New York Times, by Kirk Johnson, an article about Donald Vass of Seattle, "who has spent the last 26 years mending and tending to books for the King County Public Library system" in the Seattle, Washington, area. "He believes he will be the last full-time traditional bookbinder ever to take up shears, brushes and needles here." Great article on a man dedicated to the love of books and the art of repairing them, both for the public library system and even some patrons who track him down and ask him to save a treasured volume.

What happens to worn out old books? Many, perhaps most, get tossed into the trash bin. Some are shelved in an archive or on a dusty old shelf. But some get mended to live a longer life, to be read another "day." With the surge in ebooks and the ease of finding used books on the Internet, there is less "need" to repair the old and worn out. Still, in some places with the right finances, the will remains to repair and maintain what may be saved.

Saturday, January 07, 2017

Command Authority: Third Great Book Out of Three

Book Review: Command Authority by Tom Clancy with Mark Greaney
Version: Public Library

Command Authority is another great read and in times with today's headlines, published in 2014.

This is the third Jack Ryan character-driven book I've read, which dates before Full Force and Effect  (2015) and Commander in Chief (2016). The latter two were written by Mark Greany after the passing of Tom Clancy (2013). Command Authority was written by Tom Clancy with the assistance of Mark Greany.

This story takes place during a Russian invasion of Ukraine and the Crimea, with Valerie Volodin as the prop character representing Vladimir Putin. It is as real as fiction gets, shadowing the actual Ukraine conflict of 2014. The Russian espionage set up in the story is totally believable when you consider the recent Russian hacking of U.S. political resources and disinformation campaign and a purported attempted Russian hacking of the U.S. electrical grid through a portal in Vermont. Tom Clancy and Mark Greany write with great authenticity, using everyday detail and current events to bring vivid clarity to their plot and settings.

Command Authority also takes us back to events during the Cold War and the break up of the Soviet Union, and how it led up to the creation of the Russian Oligarchs, who ostensibly run Russia now.

Along with accurate historical and current event details, Clancy creates likable characters in Jack Ryan, president in this and the other two books, and Ryan's son, Jack, Jr., and others with whom these main characters work. These all meld together to make the story readable and enjoyable, and propel the reader into a story line that is hard to put down once you become engaged. So it is with Command Authority. As with any story of substance, these characters face dangers and conflicts you can see vividly in your mind as you read, and you care that they succeed or whether they fail, taking you along their journey through to the end of the book not daring to leave the story lest you leave them hanging. It's well written and time well spent traveling along with the characters on their adventure.

Tom Clancy is a dominant writer in this field of suspense and thriller spy writers, and in this series of books you can see why. Mark Greaney ably picks up Clancy's baton and runs well with it, continuing the saga of these well-established characters. Well done, Greaney!

I would rate this and the other two novels five spy daggers out of five.

The next Tom Clancy novel by Mark Greaney is True Faith and Allegiance, out now.