Thursday, October 05, 2017

2017 National Book Awards: Five Finalists Announced

Followup: 2017 National Book Awards
Five Finalists Announced for Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, and Young People's Literature

Following up on my article on the 2017 National Book Awards Literary Prize List on September 29, the five finalists have been announced for each category.

National Book Awards Week begins November 14 with a livestreamed Teen Press Conference in the morning and finalists readings in the evening. The National Book Award Ceremony and Benefit Gala will occur and be livestreamed on November 15, when the winners will be announced.

Congratulations to all!

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Transformers: The Last Knight: Falls Far Short of the Franchise

Movie Review: Transformers: The Last Knight (2017)
Version: Library borrow

Sorry to be a party pooper, but Transformers: The Last Knight is a mess of a movie. The fifth in the series of Transformers films misses on so many levels, despite a pretty good cast and some pretty good special effects.

Let's start off with the good aspects of the film. It brings back all the great characters we've come to love. Mark Wahlberg as Cade Yeager, for one. Optimus Prime and Bumblebee as the main Transformers, for others. Then Stanley Tucci makes a memorable cameo appearance early on as Merlin, which fills in some back story for the Transformers mythology. But then the film begins to fall apart.

It introduces two totally dispensable characters: Jimmy, who is the caretaker of the Transformers while Earth is at war with them and they are in hiding out in the desert, and Izabella, who is an orphaned 14 year old in the canyons of ruined Chicago whose only "family" is a barely surviving Transformer. Cade rescues her from attack by the TFN (Transformers Reaction Force), but when she wants tag along, and she still manages to follow him everywhere. And from then on, she serves no purpose other than, perhaps, to attract a younger audience to the film. I'm not sure why Jimmy is there once Cade and cadre escape an attack by the TFN.

And that brings me to the next failure of the film. It jumps from venue to venue in the blink of an eye, without establishing spacial relationships. You go from cityscapes to desert landscapes to cityscapes and on and on. In one setting, Cade and his group run away from the TFN, who appear to be right on their tail, to arrive miles ahead in an isolated small desert town.  They battle it out on the street, in a store, then suddenly in a large cathedral, then all of a sudden they're in a glass-faced skyscraper! When that gets blown to bits, they're suddenly back in the streets of the small town. Ohhhh-kay. Then a shiny British robot shows up to rescue them and take them to a waiting flying wing (propeller-driven) plane and they fly off across the ocean to England, with no intercept.

Here we meet Sir Edmund Burton, played by the amazing Anthony Hopkins, who isn't amazing at all in this film. He's a mantle piece, try though he might. And we meet Vivian Wembley, played by Laura Haddock, who is actually refreshing relief in this film. Burton and Wembley are important as the story evolves. They represent past and present in the Transformers universe and they are key to saving the Earth from destruction by Quintessa, the creator of Cybertron, the Transformers' home world.

A good part of this film is cgi generated, obviously, so a good part of the acting is by voice. But I can't give much credit to this part of the film for making it work. It's just typical animation work. It works off the script. The scale of the work is pretty amazing in parts, but other parts are disappointingly "normal" for this franchise. I can't get into too much detail without revealing spoilers.

To wrap up this review, there really were few redeeming qualities to this film. The story was bland. It lacked a back bone, it lacked an emotional impact, it lacked a professional quality. There were so many times I shook my head while watching it, shouted out, "What the hell is going on?" because I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Honestly, the producers fell far short of protecting this franchise.

Friday, September 29, 2017

National Book Awards 2017 American Literary Prize List Announced

National Book Awards 2017 American Literary Prize Lists

Every mid-September, the list of 10 competing books in each category for the National Book Awards American Literary Prize is announced, with the five finalists announced by mid-October (this year it will be announced October 4). The Award Ceremony for the winners and Benefit Gala will be held November 15.

Here are the ten books selected in each category for the 2017 National Book Awards, just recently announced. The categories are fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and young people's literature.

These books were selected by a panel of judges composed of writers, literary critics, and booksellers from the thousands of books that are published each year. According to the Award's website rule page, "In order to be eligible for the Award, a book must be written by an American citizen and published by an American publisher between December 1 of the previous year and November 30 of the current year. Self-published books are only eligible if the author/publisher publishes the work of other authors in addition to his own." They were submitted by their publishers.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Best Books: Esquire's 35 Best Books of 2017

Best Books: Esquire's 35 Best Books of 2017 (So Far)
Published: Sept 7, 2017

As we head into the last quarter of the year, it's a good time to look back through the list of books that have made reading fun or interesting or even a challenge. I begin with Esquire's "35 Best Books of 2017 (So Far)". As they say in their introduction, "Whether you like your reading sexy and satirical or political and polarizing, these stand-out books are guaranteed to challenge the status quo and spark timely conversation."

Take the link above to their article and see what you think of their list. How many have you read -- or might you read?

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Booksville Just Broke 50,000 Pageviews Threshold!

My personal thank you to all my readers on the Booksville Book Review and Movie Review blog. It just broke the 50,000 pageviews threshold! That was never a goal, even as I approached that number, just an abstract number like watching the miles tick off on the car odometer. But now that I have reached it, I am grateful for each and every person who has taken the time to view my pages. My actual goal was simply to provide objective reviews of every book I have read and every movie I have watched and hoped you have found them useful. If you have returned to view pages multiple times, then thank you again and again.

Please feel welcome to comment on anything I write, and please feel free to share the reviews if you find something useful.

Friday, September 22, 2017

The Red Turtle: A Magical Journey for the Soul

Movie Review: The Red Turtle (2016)
Version: Starz on Demand

One of the more curious animated films recently is The Red Turtle, directed and co-scripted with Pascale Ferran by Michael Dudok de Wit. There is virtually no dialogue, only the occasional "Hey! Hey!" It is all action, but the story line is simple enough, every nuance plain enough, no need for dialogue.

Simply, a man struggles for his life on a rolling sea in the middle of a storm, eventually ending up on a deserted beach on a small lonely island. Besides the abundant beach and a prominent rocky outcrop that overlooks everything, there is a deep bamboo forest and a few coconut trees, along with a fresh water pool -- all the things he needs to sustain himself. Despite living on a paradise, the man is lonely and bored all on his own, and unable to do anything about it in his seclusion, he tries building a raft of fallen bamboo to escape, but something unseen from below batters his raft and he must return to his solo habitat. He tries it again, and the same thing happens. And again. And again. Finally, the man catches the culprit, a large red turtle, which he follows back to the beach and bodily turns over, leaving it to die on the dry beach in revenge. Eventually the man feels remorse and tries to revive the red turtle, but it has already died. Falling asleep, he later awakens to find the turtle's shell has split and a woman arises from the red turtle's shell. This changes the man's life, giving him a companion and spouse, with which he father's a son and with whom he can grow old on this prison island. The story goes on to chronicle the wonderful life they live together, the ups and the downs, even the moment the son reaches lonely adulthood and says goodbye, swimming away.

In many ways, this film is magical, saying so much with the expressions on the characters' faces and their gestures, eliciting so much emotion and communicating so much of the story through color and music. You never doubt for a moment what is going on in the story. And living through the lives of the characters so intimately by watching everything unfold, never needing to intrude with dialogue, it is a far more powerful telling of the story. It's almost real-life like.

No one leaves watching The Red Turtle untouched by the story. It's a magical journey for the soul.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Moonlight: An Important Story of Courage and Perseverance

Movie Review: Moonlight (2016)
Version: Library borrow

As complex and riveting a story as I have seen in a long time is Moonlight. It traces the story of a young African American gay man growing up on the rough streets of Miami. We see his difficult life as a bullied quiet "little" boy of around age 9, as an abused teen, and as a recovering adult. It is vague about his sexuality, although there is one explicit scene in his teen years when a close friend introduces him to gay sex on a lonely beach at night. Less vague are the scenes of motherly neglect as he is growing up and the abuse he receives as a weak male by other children when he is a boy and when is a teen, even receiving a beating on the playground, an act forced on his close friend by the other more aggressive teens.

The main character is Chiron, played at various ages by Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes. He is mentored as a child by a neighborhood drug dealer named Juan (played by Mahershala Ali) and given shelter by Juan's caring girlfriend Teresa (played by Janelle Monáe) when Chiron's mother Paula (played by Naomie Harris) sends him away so she can do drugs or be instead with her boyfriends. Later as a teen Chiron has no mentors, just the shelter of Teresa's home and the friendship of boyhood friend Kevin, played at various ages by Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, and André Holland. After his beating on the playground, usually weak teen Chiron has finally had enough and returns to class to take a chair to the back of the head of the main bully who brought on his beating, resulting in his arrest. We next find him on the streets of Miami as a drug dealer. It's been years since his beating, since getting out of jail, and Chiron has moved on and changed his life.

Out of the blue, Chiron gets a call from his old friend Kevin, the one who gave him the beating in the playground. He's wondering what he's been up to all these years. What's he up to now? And we find out how their two lives have changed. Kevin was Chiron's close friend, who shored him up when others were picking on him, who stood at his side until he was challenged by the stronger bullies to act out against Chiron. Now there is an implicit invitation for Chiron to visit Kevin in Atlanta and when Chiron drive up to see him out of the blue, there's another implicit invitation. Chiron has driven all the way there to see what it's all about. 

Everywhere in Chiron's life there is danger. There is betrayal (except for Juan and Teresa). There is abuse. We are always wondering where his life will turn. Even at the end, when there is a slight twist of fate, we wonder where Chiron's life will turn. 

Moonlight won the Best Picture Oscar Award. It was promoted as being controversial because it was a daring movie about a Black homosexual. But having seen it, I would say it is less about that than it is about the abuse of the weak and the rise of the abused against horrific odds.

A good film, a daring film, a film exploring new ground in old territory, Moonlight is an important story of courage and perseverance in a difficult world. It's definitely worth seeing. 

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Collateral Beauty: Mostly Window Dressing to Get You to the Surprise Ending

Movie Review: Collateral Beauty (2016)
Version: Library borrow

In Collateral Beauty, Howard and Whit partner to create a successful advertising agency, along with the sweat and dedication of Claire and Simon. But when Howard suffers the death of his very young daughter, he retreats from reality and life, putting in peril all that he, Whit, Claire, and Simon have built. Nothing anyone tries to do to help him resolves Howard's deep sorrow. Howard's destructive behaviors begin to affect business to the point that the agency is about to collapse, and Whit decides to sell it rather than have it fail. To do so, Whit has to be able to prove that Howard is mentally incompetent to make the decision on the sale. With the uneasy assistance of Claire and Simon, and the help of three stage actors and a private detective, Whit sets out on an intervention to either bring Howard to his senses or provide the proof he needs.

This film takes a lot on its shoulders to make a point, a point attempted to be made in its title. But the execution comes in the telling, and that's where it comes up short. You have to think long and hard to fit the pieces of the puzzle together, and as obscure as the title is and as strange as the pieces of the puzzle are, it's easy to fumble with the point of the story. The themes are Love, Time, and Death, portrayed by the three actors that Whit employs for the intervention. But it is never really clear how those themes fit into the death of the daughter and how Howard deals with it. Moreover, the title, "collateral beauty" doesn't begin to explain either the desired outcome or the achieved outcome of the story, even though it is referenced at the beginning and end of the film. This is, unfortunately, a scripting problem. The story line is too complex, the writing too evasive.

What is good about Collateral Beauty is the acting. Will Smith puts on an emotional tour de force as Howard, the grieving father. Naomi Harris is riveting as Madeline, the grief counselor but who turns out to have a surprising connection to Howard. Helen Mirren is delicious as the actor portraying Death, Jacob Latimore puts on a strong performance as the actor portraying Time, and Keira Nightley is winsome as the actor portraying Love. Edward Norton as Whit, Kate Winslet as Claire, and Michael Peña as Simon are good as well. Their performances bring a depth to the story that makes up for what the writing fails to provide.

I've read a few explanations for the meaning behind the title in an attempt to understand it. The surprise ending probably best sheds light on everything, but if you have to wait till the last minute for the "Aha!" moment, then the film has failed. All the rest is window dressing simply to get you to the end. In this sense, I believe you will likely find yourself scratching your head looking for its meaning right up to the end and wondering why you sat through everything else. 

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2: A Great Followup to the Original

Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
Version: Library borrow

Hollywood has a much better success rate lately with sequels. That's certainly true with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, a great followup to its original, Guardians of the Galaxy. Partly, it's because the old cast and crew are back. And it's sci-fi/fantasy film magic.

Fresh back from saving Xandar from the wrath of Ronan, the Guardians return heroes. They've become a solid team, like a family of squabbling siblings, and now they need to help team leader Peter Quill, a.k.a. Star Lord, find his true heritage. In the middle of a mighty battle, just when they seem to have met their match against a forceful foe, comes a mighty savior: Ego.

At first, Ego seems pretty cool. He's more than a savior, he's the creator. More than the creator, he's Peter's father. And Ego wants super son to join him in his newest quest of greatness. Then things turn sour, as father and son come to odds and Peter must rely on family and old enemies-turned-allies to battle an all powerful god. 

The special effects in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 are pretty cool. Not, maybe, as cool as in, say, Star Wars or Star Trek, but pretty cool in a fantasy film kind of way. They stretch the imagination and help build an amazing universe you can believe in despite the way the story tellers stretch nature. Adding to the appeal of the film are the zany characters, built both around the scripting and the actors, played once again by Chris Pratt as Peter Quill/Star Lord, Zoe Saldana as Gamora, Dave Bautisa as Drax, Bradley Cooper as Rocket, and Vin Diesel as Baby Groot (adorable this time around). Michael Rooker returns as Yondu, the blue-faced leader of the resistance gang with the pet arrow he can control with a serious series of whistles. New to the cast is Kurt Russell as Ego. Between the fun script and the cast's natural sense of humor, the narrative plays out with lots of interesting twists and gags.

Now, this wouldn't make a bid for best picture of the year or award winner in any category, but it would make a bid for greatest way to spend an evening with the family. It's fast paced and entertaining, and afterwards you won't feel like you wasted your time or your money (assuming you paid to see it). I would have no trouble recommending this film to friends or family. If you haven't yet seen Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, put it on your list to see soon!

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Thieves of Threadneedle Street: A True Crime that Is as Good as a Good Mystery

Book Review: Thieves of Threadneedle Street by Nicholas Booth
Version: Hard cover library borrow

The full title is Thieves of Threadneedle Street, "The Incredible True Story of the American Forgers Who Nearly Broke the Bank of England". It nearly broke me as a reader, so long and convoluted a narrative is this true crime story. The telling of the story weaves back and forth across time and place so often as to often be hard to follow. Not the fault of the author, however, is the difficulty in keeping track of all the names, the aliases used by the characters who perpetrated the crimes, which also made it difficult to keep track of the story line.

If you look at Thieves of Threadneedle Street as a detective novel instead of a true crime work, you could hardly find a more amazing story in a Sherlock Holmes tale. In 1873, two American brothers, Austin and George Bidwell, in collaboraton with two other Americans, George Macdonnel and Edward Noyes Hills, exploited a weakness in the lending system at the Bank of England, along with other banks in England, France, and Germany. They learned their craft frauding businesses and banks in America. Using both their own names and multiple aliases, living in multiple hotels and doing business in various multiple companies, they lived off the good intentions and naivete of the ancient institutions of Europe to borrow, sell, and launder money, knowing their loans wouldn't come due for three months, by which time they would be well gone. Because of their use of aliases, no one would be sure who did what, covering the tracks of their misdeeds, or so they thought. But as with all good detective novels -- or as in the case of this true crime story -- criminals always make mistakes, and a good detective will always catch them. So it was that Willie Pinkerton, of the legendary Pinkerton Detective Agency in Chicago, New York City, and elsewhere in America, who had been hunting them down for their crimes in the United States, became active in the case for the Bank of England and brought them to justice.

The Bidwells, Macdonnel, and Hills were geniuses in forgery. If not for a few mistakes and one eagle-eyed examiner at the Bank of England, they might have gotten away with it. The four forgers were also very slippery and had nearly escaped the clutches of law enforcement, often aided by dishonest police who were easily bribed. Their adventures took them across the continent of Europe and eventually to Cuba and back to America in an attempt to escape. Pinkerton found them and brought them back to London to trial. Even so, the Bidwells had arranged multiple times for conspirators to break them, even at the last minute, but Pinkerton and the stalwart British police figured it out and stopped them.

Interesting to me living in West Michigan (USA), the Bidwells have a connection to this area. They were born in Adrian, Michigan, and when they were young their family moved to Grand Rapids, where their father ran a confectionery store. They owned a cabin at Black Lake near Muskegon, Michigan. The confectionery business failed, and the family moved to New York City, which is where the Bidwells came into contact with criminals and learned forgery. I wasn't aware of the local connections when I picked the story off the shelves.

Now, I am not a fan of true crime reads. I do like a good mystery and I am definitely a fan of a well-written Sherlock Holmes story. It was in reading Thieves of Threadneedle Street in this sense that I came to enjoy it. If it were just not so convoluted in the telling I might have enjoyed it more.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet: A Moving Film About a Young Boy's Life Journey

Movie Review: The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet (2013)
Version: Library borrow

The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet is a character-driven story that revolves around 10 year old prodigy T.S. Spivet, a misunderstood and under appreciated genius cartographer and science geek just yearning for some love. It is played to perfection by young new actor, Kyle Catlett, who in many ways reminds me of a misunderstood and under appreciated Kevin played by Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone, minus the tantrums and mischievous pranks.

T.S. (S is for Sparrow) lives in the wide open spaces of Montana with his father, mother, and 14 year old sister, all who are too self-absorbed to give him the love he needs. There is also T.S.'s twin brother, Layton, who is his father's favorite, because he is as much like his dad as T.S. is like his mother. But Layton is accidentally killed doing a science experiment with T.S. meant to bond the two together. The accident seems to drive everyone in the family farther apart rather than bringing them closer together. Even T.S.'s mother, after whom he supposedly takes, becomes more obsessed with her study of bugs than with her remaining son.

Now, T.S. has mapped out plans for a perpetual motion machine and sends them to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. And one day, in the midst of family turmoil, he receives a call inviting him to come to Washington to receive the prestigious Baird Award and give a speech. They don't realize the genius behind the machine is a 10 year old. At first he makes up excuses why can't be there, but as he discovers that, in his own mind he won't be missed anyway, T.S. calls back and accepts the invitation. Early in the morning he packs his bag -- underwear, raisins, binoculars, and a few sundry other things a 10 year old would think to take, plus his mother's diary -- and quietly leaves the family ranch to stow away on a freight train, headed for the Smithsonian.

From there, the story becomes a life's journey of self discovery.

The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet includes a great ensemble cast with fine performances, including Helena Bonham Carter as his preoccupied mother and Judy Davis as the frenetic, PR-obsessed Smithsonian assistant director. The distant father is played by Callum Keith Rennie and the out-of-touch sister is played by Niamh Wilson. Appreciate twin brother Layton is played by Jakob Davies. But all told, this film is driven by the power of the performance by Catlett, on whose young shoulders this story's success depends.

Ironically, the setting for this tale is America -- Montana, a mid-stop in Chicago, and Washington, D.C., and the stretch of country in between. But this is a Canadian film, with parts shot in British Columbia and Alberta as well as in Chicago and Washington. So there are some interesting quirks to the film. Some of the characters that T.S. meets along the way come off not quite believable, in a Canadian sort of way. In one situation, T.S. runs away from a railway security guard and separated from his train ride, he takes to hitchhiking along the highway. A trucker stop to pick him up. That should raise all kinds of red flags but to our friendlier, gentler Canadian friends, that might not seem like a problem. I don't know what the child abduction statistics are in Canada, but apparently they aren't high enough to cause a film director to shy away from that scene.

This film leads me back to a comment I made in an earlier post. Some of the best films are independent films, and The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet is a great example. Rather than lots of flashes and explosions and car chases or celebrity sex scenes, the heart of this film is totally character driven about a young boy's fearless life journey. It's a great film, and one every family can enjoy.

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Despicable Me 3: Gru Meets Dru and the Fun Begins Once Again

Movie Review: Despicable Me 3 (2017)
Version: Paid movie theater viewing

They're back -- Gru, Lucy, Margo, Edith, Agnes, and all who knows how many adorable minions each who has a name -- in Despicable Me 3. You would think after two tries that a third movie would fall flat on its despicable face. Not so. Despicable Me 3 finds the crew as irrepressibly lovable and fun as the first time we met them. And this time, there's one more member of the crew to love: Gru's twin brother, Dru.

Gru and Lucy are fired from the Anti-Villain League for failing to catch Balthazar Bratt, newest arch enemy of goodness, even though they retrieved the target of Bratt's villainy, the world's largest gem. So for the rest of the movie there is battle between Gru and Lucy to retrieve the gem. Meanwhile, Gru and his family receives a mysterious invitation to visit a far off property which turns out to belong to his long lost -- and unknown -- twin brother, Dru. It turns out Gru's mother and father were spies during the Great War and had a falling out, each deciding to take and raise one son. Dru was raised in the shadow of his father's success as an evil spy while also watching his brother's success as an international bad guy. Now seeing Gru unemployed, Dru wants to join forces to do evil together, as it was meant to be. Gru, of course, has a family to think of, and is resistant, but Dru draws him into intrigue. And there's the matter of Balthazar Bratt to deal with.

The minions, meanwhile, have left the household, having lost faith in Dru because he has been fired but also because he refuses to turn back to doing evil. Theirs is a hilarious side story of getting into trouble, ending up in prison -- which they dominate as a tribe, escape and run off in search of a mission, only to be reintroduced to Gru with Dru. In my opinion, they steal the show, once again.

Gru and Dru are played with delicious joy once again by Steve Carell. Returning as his adorable wife Lucy is Kristen Wiig. The quirky Balthazar Bratt is played by Trey Parker. Also returning, Miranda Cosgrove is daughter Margo, Dana Gaier is daughter Edith, and Nev Scharrel is huggable daughter Agnes. You can't find a more wonderful ensemble cast for an animated film. The ensemble cast for all those adorable minions is one guy: Pierre Coffin. I'd love to have a conversation with him about how he assembles that dialogue!

Technically, the animation is flawless, from color to set decoration to character creation to lighting and on and on. The Despicable Me franchise remains one of my favorite for story telling and attention to detail. It is consistently excellent, and that continued in Despicable Me 3. The history of sequels in film isn't very good, but with this franchise they have kept our faith through two. I'd love to see a third sequel.

I don't know how long Despicable Me 3 will remain in theaters. It opened at the end of June in most markets, early July in some others, and late August in a very few others. But it's worth paying to see on the big screen. If you miss it in theaters, definitely see it on DVD or Blu-Ray or on cable or satellite TV. It's great fun!

Monday, September 04, 2017

Central Intelligence: Watch It for the Comedy and the Actors and You'll Be Fine

Movie Review: Central Intelligence (2016)
Version: HBO on demand

Central Intelligence is a great vehicle for Kevin Hart, maybe not so much for Dwayne Johnson. For Kevin Hart, it shows great range as an actor. For Dwayne Johnson, it rips apart his image as a macho tough guy with softer edges -- his character is a vulnerable guy bullied as a teen, which despite reworking his tubby body into a muscular powerhouse wimps out at the sight of his former bullies.

That said, Central Intelligence is innocent fun for weekend entertainment. The gist of the film is Calvin Joyner (played by Kevin Hart), once elected in high school as most likely to succeed who finds himself 20 years later married to his prom queen high school sweetheart a less than successful accountant, while she's a full partner at a top legal firm. His biggest decision is whether to accompany her to the high school reunion, when out of nowhere comes Bob Stone (played by Dwayne Johnson), a dweeb embarrassed the day of the prom by bullies by forcing him in a full auditorium naked, to the roar of the crowd. But Stone is now totally different, chiseled into a slim, muscle-toned Adonis. Back in high school, Calvin had been Bob's only friend, offering Bob his letter jacket to sneak out of the auditorium, and he wants to make connections with Calvin again, meet up over some drinks. Rather than meet with his wife, Maggie (played by Danielle Nicolet) to discuss going to the class reunion, Calvin chooses the meet up with Bob. And thus ensues an unlikely alliance that becomes an enlistment to help Bob on a CIA mission to secure national secrets, much to Calvin's distaste.

Central Intelligence is a comedy, with Dwayne Johnson playing up a very insecure Bob Stone. It's almost creepy the ease with which he assumes this character. Kevin Hart is masterful as the man out of his element who definitely doesn't want to be there but shoved into the role, but still resisting all the way. Well into the film arrives Justin Bateman as Trevor, the high school bully become stock trader who amiably assists the secret agent duo in uncovering a stock trading code, but then turning on a dime to return to his evil self to torment them. He's actually quite good at playing a bully. Amy Ryan plays Agent Pamela Harris, head of a CIA team trying to stop Bob, who they suspect of being a double agent, and Bob, who they see as his accomplice. Johnson gets to flex his muscles and kick a few asses, so he isn't totally out of his element, and so Central Intelligence also gets to be a typical spy movie at the same time.

There isn't much by way of technology, design, or special effects to make this film stand out. It's all about the comedy and minimal action. Watch it for the story and actors and you will be fine. Don't expect too much and you won't be disappointed.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Sing Street: Full of Soul and Character

Movie Review: Sing Street (2016)
Version: Library borrow

Sometimes it's good to get away from Hollywood blockbusters and watch an independent film. Sing Street is a delightful film from Ireland full of grit and character and soul.

Director John Carney made a movie about all the things he wanted to do as a teen in Ireland but was never able to do. It takes place in the mid-1980's, when music was in a transition to video, its sound and lyrics also in transition, which becomes the pathway for a boy's dreams of meeting a mysteriously beautiful girl by creating a band and writing music to woo her.  Carney's homage to his unfulfilled boyhood lives out in a film about life during the hard times in Dublin, Ireland, that is as much art as it is entertainment.

Newcomer Ferdia Walsh-Peelo plays the lead as Conor, the teen lad forced to change schools because financial times are hard at home. Jack Reynor plays Brenan, the drop-out older brother whose dreams have faded but rediscovers them in mentoring his younger sibling. School is a jungle enabled by abusive Catholic priests trying herd to rebellious youth, including a handful of young men who find a common bond in '80's music. Lucy Boynton plays Raphina, the girl who dreams of a career in modeling in London and plays along with Conor and the band, told she can be in their music video, the idea being it could help her modeling career.

With the exception of Boyton, the acting in the beginning of the film is amateurish, but as the film moves along and the plot and the music progresses, the acting improves and melds seamlessly into the background. The lads mature as characters and performers, their costumes and music maturing before our very eyes as the story becomes more real. Boyton is flawless throughout. Walsh-Peelo at first is hesitant as a singer, but quickly takes to the role as lead singer in the band. Mark McKenna who plays Eamon, Conor's music and lyrics collaborator, who can play every instrument in the band, and helps Conor write the music that will attract Raphina's attention, is flawless as a supporting actor. The other members of the band create a winsome ensemble of lovable characters. You even come to like the school bully by the end of the film.

Most independent films, especially foreign films, are more character driven than the Hollywood blockbusters we're driven by marketing efforts to see at our local theaters. Sing Street is full of character. It has the grit of the streets and alleyways of downtrodden Dublin. And it has the soul of a lost nation seeking direction, seeking a way out of its misery, and seeking young love. There is so much to love about this film. The final scenes will steal your heart away.

Do yourself a favor and watch Sing Street. It's what good film making is all about.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Einstein: His Life and His Universe: He Was Brilliant But He Had Relationship Issues

Book Review: Einstein: His Life and His Universe by Walter Isaacson
Version: eBook library borrow

I watched the series Genius, on National Geographic Channel I believe, that delved into the life of genius physicist Albert Einstein. I was so enthralled that I wanted to read the book on which the series was based, Einstein: His Life and His Universe. Now I wish I hadn't done either.

As a science nerd all my life, I held Albert Einstein as one of my heroes. He died in 1955, six years after I was born. We shared the same initials (A.E.). I wanted to be a physicist, because of him. Then I saw the series and read this book. It turns out, Einstein was kind of a cad.

As the series and the book details, he didn't mind misusing people to further his personal goals and complete his work. He relied on the adept mathematical skills of his first wife to proof his own, but he didn't give her credit for his discoveries, even though they discussed his ideas and she was key to the efficacy of his calculations. They married and had children, and he forced her to care for them instead of furthering her own science and mathematics career. Many of his discoveries picked up from the ideas and work of other physicists rather than being original. And he cheated on both wives, one of whom was a cousin. Now, creatively he was a great thinker and was able to extend the work of others because of his keen insights -- no doubt about it.  Einstein was a visual thinker and did several key thought experiments to concept physics in ways other scientists of his time couldn't. That really was his gift. But he had relationship problems.

As we learn in the made-for-TV series and in the book from which it was closely developed, Einstein misused the people around him, from his professors to his wives, to his children. He rarely saw his sons. He had mistresses while he was married. He even led on a fiancee who was the daughter of a family who took him in while he attended university when others forsook him, carrying on a long-distance relationship while he carried on with the woman who would become his first wife, whom he would then divorce for his second wife, a cousin.

The book is well researched and well written. I don't mean to detract from it or the well-produced television series. In the series, it is well acted and well written. But when I realize what a horrible person he was even into later life, well, sometimes your idols are better off left unexplored.

Einstein did do one other thing very well. He understood the power of the atom and the menace the German physicists presented in their search for the atom bomb, preparing the United States for the eventuality of the development such a weapon in their hands. And as the United States prepared for such a weapon themselves, Einstein joined other scientists in opposing it. In this, he became a voice of reason, finally using his celebrity and his prominence for good. So, perhaps, this story isn't entirely a disappointment.

Still, I have many mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, we should acknowledge knowledge gained. On the other, we should be grateful for the unsullied images of long past heroes whom we cherish. Nothing can be changed having finally understood Einstein's personal shortcomings. He was still brilliant in his science insights. In sum, I'm sorry I read this book.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Go, Go, Gorillas: A Romping Bedtime Tale: Ten Smiling Gorilla Thumbs Up!

Book Review: Go, Go, Gorillas: A Romping Bedtime Tale by Patrick Wensick
Version: From the bookstore

Ever wonder why the gorillas are always laying around or sleeping when you visit them in the zoo? Author Patrick Wensick answers this curiosity in his brilliant new children's picture book, Go, Go, Gorillas: A Romping Bedtime Tale. It is illustrated with rambunctious fun by Nate Wragg.

Maybe you've noticed when you visit the zoo that the gorillas laze around a lot. Patrick Wensick has an interesting idea why, and I'll guarantee you, it's not what you're thinking. In this fun bedtime story for your little ones, Wensick takes you on an imaginative journey through the zoo when most little eyes are asleep, providing your little ones' minds with a fun transition to their own pleasant dream time. And you will have as much fun reading it to them or with them as they will have taking the journey with you.

I found Go, Go, Gorillas in the Children's Picture Books section at my neighborhood Barnes and Nobles store and online at It didn't take long to get caught up in the amazing adventure of the story and I know that children everywhere will, too. I can give it ten smiling gorilla thumbs up!

Monday, August 21, 2017

The Great Gilly Hopkins: An Emotional Ride Through the Lives of the Characters

Movie Review: The Great Gilly Hopkins (2015)
Version: Library borrow

I last saw Sophie Nelisse in the exceptional lead role in The Book Thief. She returns in the amazing lead role as The Great Gilly Hopkins.

Gilly is an unruly unwanted 12-year-old foster child hoping to reunite with her mother. But for a schoolyard-wise, book-smart child, she just doesn't have a clue. She has been through the foster care mill and landing in the home of foster mother Maime Trotter (played by charmer Kathy Bates) and the classroom of Ms Harris (played by invincible Octavia Spencer), Gilly puts up a battle to beat the system and find the mother who abandoned her. But through all her devious plots and plans, she outsmarts herself and loses the only real home she's finally found love. You see, in walks her grandmother Nonnie (played by steelie-eyed Glenn Close), who has only recently discovered she has a granddaughter, just as everyone Gilly cares about is sick with the flu, leaving the home in a mess, and Nonnie is determine to rescue the daughter of her daughter. Also in the mix is Gilly's mother, who abandoned Gilly at a very young age and shows up briefly for Christmas.

Now, Kathy Bates overacts as a country-bumpkinish caring foster-care mom, but Octavia Spencer is smart as whip as the teacher who can't be fooled and Glenn Close is adept as the distant grandmother reaching out to connect with the daughter she never really had. Also fine in this cast is Bill Cobbs as Mr. Randolph, the blind older neighbor who shares his wisdom and compassion with a confused and rebellious youth desperately seeking love in all the wrong places. Sophie Nelisse provides that delicate vulnerability her character needs, which she was so good at showing us in The Book Thief.

Although the setting is current, The Great Gilly Hopkins has an old fashioned feel with themes and tones that last the test of time. It could have taken place at any time over the last 50 years and still been current. I predict this movie will still stand up in the next 50 years. The cars may look a little old by then, but there are few of them in the movie and your focus is really on the characters, which is what this story is really about.

The Great Gilly Hopkins is one of those movies where you don't watch for the dazzle, the scenery, or the action. You watch it for the emotional ride through the lives of the characters. See it! 

Friday, August 18, 2017

Collide: A Cheap Fast and Furious Ripoff and Disappointing

Movie Review: Collide (2016)
Version: Library borrow

Collide turned out to be the second of two bad movies of a double feature at home. I would call it a cheap Fast and Furious ripoff, with Nicholas Hoult as down-and-out American Casey Stein trying to reboot his life of poor choices in Germany, where he meets bar keep Juiliette (played by Felicity Jones). She isn't into this loser, but he inserts himself into her life and he promises to change his ways as an errand boy for East European Geran (played by Ben Kingsley), which he does by quitting that work and working in a metal reclamation center. Then Casey learns that Juiliette is seriously ill and as an American she isn't covered for the kidney transplant she needs to stay alive and requires six-figure money fast. So he rejoins Geran in a scheme to heist drugs and cash from money laundering kingpin Hagen Kahl (played exquisitely by Anthony Hopkins). From there, the story becomes a car chase movie with smoke and mirrors, but without the ensemble cast of a Fast and Furious.

I said that Anthony Hopkins is exquisite as Kahl. If there is a saving grace to the movie, it is Hopkins who, as ever, is the consummate professional actor giving depth and range to his character. There are hints of Hannibal Lecter from Hannibal as well as William Parrish from Meet Joe Black in this character. He is menacing in parts, elegant and patrician in others. Contrast him with Ben Kingsley who, fine actor as he has been, seems to have become stereotyped as these slimy accented characters with little dimension. In Collide, he plays a caricature of a character, almost a comic relief to Kahl. Geran could have been so much more dangerous, so much more threatening, so much more scheming. There is also not all that much depth to the Juilette character. Casey gets by as a schemer and it isn't until the end that we find out he's really much smarter than he lets on. And this is probably as much a scripting problem as an acting one. For an actor, it's in the portrayal, in the facial expressions, in the voice and pauses. In the script, it's the situations created and the dialogue provided. In Collide, the script certainly failed.

The big reveal at the end is plainly a cheat. Again, this is a scripting problem. Why wait till the end to surprise your audience? Why not give us hints along the way so we can say, "Ah, yes, now it makes sense!" Instead, we say, "Oh, thanks, now you tell us!" Perhaps the title Collide is about the collision between audience expectations and reality when you get to the end of a disappointing movie.

Viewer beware: Watch Collide at your own risk. Perhaps fast forward to the Anthony Hopkins parts and you will be just fine. Otherwise, I suggest you give it a skip.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul: New Cast Flop

Movie Review: Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul (2017)
Version: Library borrow

This is going to be short and -- well, not sweet. We've enjoyed the Diary of a Wimpy Kid movies as a family, in the way any family can. They've been fun. The characters have been interesting, the stories pitting everyone in one calamity after another and teaching young viewers a lesson by the end. And the actors playing the characters have been charismatic in their parts. We "grew up" with them in their roles. The Long Haul is da bomb, but as in a bomb. It screws with everything we grew to like in the series, changing the entire cast.

It's understandable to the extent that all the youngsters were growing too old to play Greg, Rowley, and gang. But why fool with Mom, Dad, and Rodrick, who were perfect as cast? I'll give credit to Jason Drucker as Greg, who comes the closest to being likable and emerging as a realistic replacement. And Alicia Silverstone isn't horrible as Mom, but she still just doesn't cut it with the persona. Tom Everett as Dad is so far off the mark as the frenetic Dad and Charlie Wright doesn't begin to play the sloth and evil that his predecessor did as Rodrick.

The gist of the story is Mom and Dad packing Greg, Manny, and Rodrick into the family van for a trip to visit "Meemaw" in celebration of her 90th birthday. Greg and Rodrick only give in to the trip with the hope of secretly visiting a gamer conference, changing the van's GPS to get them there without Mom and Dad knowing. There is, of course, the usual lame parental effort to make the trip fun and the kids doing everything they can to ignore it all, and there's the stopover at a less than one-star-rated motel plus an encounter with a less than friendly family to add conflict and humor.

So, while the scenarios are pure Diary, the cast is clueless and spoils it. We just couldn't get over the new cast enough to enjoy this movie. Sorry, guys, but you pulled the rug out from under us on this one and the movie ended up as a flop on our floor.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children: The Good Writing Makes This Book

Book Review: Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
Version: Library ebook borrow

I saw the movie Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children directed by Tim Burton, so I decided I should read the book. Usually, the book is full of greater insights into the tale and has more depth and you get to know the characters better. Not so here.

For well into the first three-quarters of the book the movie and the book track nearly identically. It's the story of the boy who has grown up being told the most fantastic stories by his grandfather, and when his grandfather dies a mysterious and horrific death and tells him he must seek out a teacher from earlier in his life, the boy goes to Wales with his father to seek her out. When he gets there, initially all he finds is an old ruin of a home for peculiar children. But upon further investigation he finds a portal to the past and visits both the teacher and the peculiar children, and in doing so he discovers the answer to the mystery of his grandfather's death and why his grandfather was insistent on his seeking out the teacher. We meet the wonderful teacher and the very interesting children. And we meet the beasts at whose hands the boy's grandfather meets his death, who want to kill the teacher, the peculiar children, and the boy.

It's the last quarter of the book where the story diverges from the movie. There is no gigantic battle scene at a seaside entertainment midway. And there is no emotional reunion with the grandfather at the end. But there is more to the romance with the grandfather's former peculiar love interest, which is this case is the girl who can light fire with her hands and not the girl who can fly. And the book includes all the peculiar photos which inspired the writing of the book in the first place. (Note: In creating an ebook out of an original book file, it isn't always easy to include images and graphics. It was integral to story, so bravo to Riggs for including them!)

I think we can blame the lack of additional depth to this series of stories being in the young adult or teen genre, which tend to be shorter, less complex stories. Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, however, is well written, with wonderful descriptions and imaginative passages. It's worth the read just for that. There are sequels to this book. I'm not a fan of horror or peculiar stories, so I haven't decided whether to read them, but if you want to read good writing, I suggest you give this book and the others a try.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Shack: It's Not About Religion, It's About Healing

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

If you're turned off by religion-based films ... hold on, The Shack is different! This one doesn't try to convert you and, at least in my mind, this one isn't sickly sweet. It actually answers some pretty basic questions on a lot of peoples' minds about God and when bad things happen, and it addresses how we heel as wounded individuals. It ministers to a character but it doesn't preach to us. It's a story.

Mack Phillips has suffered some tragedies in his life, the most traumatic the recent loss of his youngest daughter Missy while under his care at a camp. Someone abducted her while he was rescuing his older daughter and son during a canoe incident on a lake, and while police find evidence of her abduction at a nearby shack, the body is never found. Mack feels a deep remorse that tears him apart, also pulling him apart from his other family relationships. Months later, still mourning, he receives a letter he assumes is a taunt from the abductor inviting him to encounter him back at the shack, and he goes to take on the killer of his daughter. But when we goes he finds an encounter of an entirely different kind. There, he meets God in three persons, who challenge his notions of loss, guilt, judgment, revenge, and forgiveness. As an audience, we may find ourselves challenged in our notions as well, including of who God is and how God works in our daily lives.

The Shack features a very good cast, including Sam Worthington as Mack and, very interestingly, Oscar nominee Octavia Spencer as Papa (God the nurturing "Father") as well as Native American Graham Greene as Papa (God the "Father" when you need strength). Avraham Aviv Alush plays Messia (God the Son) and Sumire Matsubara plays Sarayu (which means "the wind", God the Holy Spirit). It's a fine ensemble cast that plays heavenly intervention on a strictly human level -- casting no lightning bolts, no fire and brimstone, only serenity.

There is also an amazing garden filled with wild flowers, in which Sarayu asks Mack to help her prepare the area for a big event the next day. To say more than that would be to provide spoilers, but what follows the next day can be gut wrenching and beautiful at the same time.

This is a film that I warn you starts off kind of cheesy but soon becomes beautiful and then powerful. I challenge you to watch it all the way through. If by the end you decide I was wrong, I'll allow you to wag your finger at me and tell me I was wrong. But I think you'll find The Shack is much less about religion and way more about healing. 

Thursday, August 10, 2017

The LEGO Batman Movie: Not as Good as the Original But Still Fun-tastic

Movie Review: The LEGO Batman Movie (2017)
Version: Library borrow

What would happen if The Joker rounded up all of Batman's most sinister enemies and brought them together to battle the night crusader? Uh, the lone crusader? Uh, the LEGO version of the lone night crusader? That's sorta kinda the theme behind The LEGO Batman Movie, with the added twist that Batman has unwittingly adopted a teen who idolizes him and he can't shake the capable young crusader wannabe. Also add into the twist a lot of other familiar bad guys, like Sauron from The Lord of the Rings... oh, you have to see this fun-tastic stop-action animation film to believe it.

Now, my daughter and I agree this isn't as fun as the original LEGO movie, but it's still great entertainment for every age group. There are the usual sight gags, hilarious dialogue, generously quirky characters, and amazing LEGO land creations set to motion. You even have your choice of super duper bat machines to drool over. It's simply great fun. And this time, there are no human characters to get in the way of the story line. Well, there is the voice cast, featuring Will Arnett as Batman/Bruce Wayne, Michael Cera as Dick Grayson/Robin, Ralph Fiennes as Alfred Pennyworth, Siri as 'Puter, and Zach Galifianakis as Joker, but the add, not intrude. Only thing missing is a catchy tune like "Everything's Awesome", as we had in the original. Oh, well, you can't have everything.

So, what would happen in this scenario? Well, everyone finds his or her right place in the Gotham City scheme of things, and that includes the audience. We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, and we think you will, too. Buy it, rent it, or borrow The LEGO Batman Movie from the library, but do see it, soon.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

The Boss Baby: We Can't Give This Movie Even a Grudging Thumbs Up

Movie Review: The Boss Baby (2017)
Version: Library borrow

Can you imagine Alec Baldwin as cute and cuddly little baby? Me, neither, but he pulls it off in the animated movie, The Boss Baby. It's with his voice, of course, playing a baby sent to a family to solve the big mystery behind the puppy-cute boom that threatens to replace babies among families.

His chief rival is seven-year-old Tim, Mom and Dad's favorite huggable until Baby Boss shows up, and who plots to overcome the competition. It's only when the two reach the conclusion that working together they can both solve their individual problems that the two team up and, as a result, realize they actually like each other.

Animation is often powered by its voice talent. In The Boss Baby, Alec Baldwin is just one of the powerhouses.Tim is well voiced by Miles Bakshi. Jimmy Kimmel plays Dad and Lisa Kudrow plays Mom. But really, Alec Baldwin drives this movie. All of it!

The animation itself is imaginative, but not spectacular. And I have reached the conclusion that without Baldwin to drive this film, The Boss Baby wouldn't have much going for it. OK, babies are cute, puppies are cute, but you can get those with a live action movie -- you can get them on social media any day. The plot is interesting, but the conflicts don't move you. And the art is nothing to draw home about.

As a family, we all agreed we were glad we didn't pay to see The Boss Baby at the theater. It was an "OK" DVD borrow, but we were sure we wouldn't want to pay for it on cable, on demand, or at a rental store, either. Sorry, guys, we can't give this movie even a grudging thumbs up.

Friday, August 04, 2017

The Founder: A Phenomenal Story and a Commanding Performance

Movie Review: The Founder (2016)
Version: Library borrow

Sit back and be prepared to be floored by The Founder, the movie and the performance.

It's 1954 and drive-in restaurants -- what we would call junk food havens today -- were the "in" thing across America. The only problem was, they attracted a bad element: rebellious, unruly teens. And for the customers, they were slow and undependable on service. Ray Kroc was a salesman most of his life with a face and pitch most targets of his "charm" could remember, and he was crossing the Midwest selling five-spindle milkshake makers, with no one buying. And then, suddenly, he got an order for six, in San Bernadino, California. So Ray drove out to San Bernadino in his dusty, rusty DeSoto to check out this McDonald's drive-in restaurant and discovered a miracle of innovation and great food with speedy service. He wanted in! Dick and Mac McDonald were skeptical, but Ray put on the charm and with persistence, talked them into franchising their local successful business model across the country. And so the story of The Founder of McDonald's begins.

Michael Keaton puts on a command performance as the tired aging salesman who has tried just about every gimmick to find "the big one" that will make him rich, then nails it through blind ambition, dogged persistence, and sheer ruthlessness. The McDonald brothers, played by Nick Offerman as Dick and John Carroll Lynch as Mac, weren't prepared for the force of nature that was Ray Kroc, and he eats them up for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with Keaton playing all the parts with absolute brilliance. Why he wasn't nominated for an Oscar for this role, I have no idea. As the tale starts out Kroc is a likable enough character, struggling to make a sale, disappointed in what life serves up to him. Mid-way through you begin to sense Kroc has become obsessed and is in over his head, and you feel for him. But by the end, he becomes a despicable fiend. The McDonald brothers, at first sticklers for staying true to their vision and intransigent to any change, become pawns to Kroc's mercenary schemes and in the end the victims. 

I don't know how much of this story is true and how much is screenwriter's license to make the film more interesting, but if it's half as true as in real life, unless you are a true dog-eat-dog capitalist at heart, I guarantee you will come away despising Ray Kroc after watching The Founder. I certainly wasn't prepared for the revelations. But you will be amazed at the original McDonalds' innovations and dogged faith to the genius of what they had created. 

There are other side plots to the story that I won't get into here that make the story equally intriguing, along with the actors who played them out. Together, they tell the story of the founding of McDonalds Corporation and the people who made it one of the most successful franchises in America -- in the world. 

I can say, without a doubt, you should see this film. For Keaton's commanding performance if not to learn the story behind bringing you your neighborhood McDonald's. It's a phenomenal story.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Saturn Run: Sound Science and Sound Writing

Book Review: Saturn Run by John Sanford and Ctein
Version: Hard cover library borrow

Interestingly, the first time I tried to read Saturn Run, I thought the first few pages were hog wash and I returned the book to the library. Low and behold, a few months later I looked for something interesting to read and didn't recognize the title and borrowed the book again. This time, I fell in love with the book. What's a reader to say?

What would you do if the president of the United States asked you to join a crew headed to a distant planet in our solar system to beat the rest of the world to tap into a suspected alien base? And what would you think if one of the other major powers jumped into the race to beat you there, and their crew was most likely filled with military personnel, while yours was filled with scientists, engineers, and just a few security personnel? And what if on the way your head of security had a good-odds suspicion that there was a spy on board your ship sabotaging your engines? That's part of the story line behind Saturn Run, about a U.S. rocket headed to Saturn attempting to beat the Chinese there to secure alien technological secrets before anyone else. The crew is made up of engineers, scientists, an anthropologist, a video photographer, a news reporter, a national security operative, and a handful of assorted others. On the China ship is a military crew hellbent on beating the Americans there. Along the way, the U.S. ship loses an engine and a chief engineer, slowing its progress, but not enough for the Chinese to beat them. But when the China ship arrives, it's apparent their ship is disabled and the U.S. ship must decide whether to give them aid. Along with the hard science in this space adventure, then, is also political intrigue. And who in the end wins the alien technology. And what about the aliens at the base?

Saturn Run is well thought out and plotted, and the authors put a lot of effort into making the engineering as accurate as possible so the space ships could reach Saturn in months instead of years. The characters are realistic, although I kept wondering, would the United States really send amateur space travelers or would it send seasoned astronauts who also trained in the other disciplines? The U.S. ship is a reworked International Space Station, and I have some doubts about the feasibility of that as well. Still, it doesn't get in the way of a good story. It includes a great surprise at the end, making the long slog through 486 pages worth the read.

Ever have one of those books it takes more than once to become vested in? That's the way it was for me with Saturn Run. I think you should give it a try. It's a great story and worth a read.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

The Fate of the Furious: A Swift Kick in the Gear Box

Movie Review: The Fate of the Furious (2017)
Version: Library borrow

The Fate of the Furious isn't your daddy's Fast and Furious, little buddy. The eighth movie in the franchise series starts off on the fast and furious streets of Havana, Cuba, with a street race, but that's where the hot-car thrills end. Dom (played as always by Vin Diesel) is recruited by a bad-ass fem antagonist to go after world-class weapons of mass destruction, even betraying his closest friends who go in hot pursuit. And no one can figure out what turned him from a good guy into a bad guy. It turns out bad-ass fem Cipher (played by Charlize Theron) has a couple of hostages in tow who are close to Dom's heart, and she won't release them until Dom helps her capture a Russian submarine along the coast of the frozen Barents Sea.

Back are Michelle Rodriguez as Letty, Dom's former love interest and now wife; Tyrese Gibson as Roman; Ludacris as Tej Parker; and Nathalie Emmanuel as Ramsey, the new crew member rescued in episode 7. Also back are Dwayne Johnson as Federal Agent Hobbs and Jason Statham as Deckard, who were at each others' throats in episode 7 but now reunite to go after Dom to stop Cipher. Shepherding resources to support the crew is Mr Nobody (played by Kurt Russell), who now has an assistant, Little Nobody, played by Scott Eastwood. Helen Mirren gets a cameo role as Magdalene Shaw, Deckard's mother, whom Dom meets to enroll Deckard's help.

Now, even without the street races, there are still plenty of thrills in this film with lots of hot cars and military hardware to pump up the action, on the streets, in the air, and across the ice. And what would a Fast and Furious movie be without some male bravado and back talk? Yep, that's there, too.

As always, it's the action that makes this movie, but it wouldn't be the Fast and the Furious without the characters, with their sassy interplay. After seven episodes, the actors have the mojo down pat, and this ensemble cast is perfect in making everything work. You can even let the glaring plot holes pass because the action and the characters are so fun to watch. Mentioning the plot holes would require telling more of the plot, which would entail spoilers, so I won't go into detail, but I'm sure you won't have any trouble spotting the plot holes on your own. Anyway, you don't go to see a film like The Fate of the Furious for airtight plots, you go for the action.

The Blu-ray version of the movie includes a set of very interesting extras, including some insights into the Cipher character. If you can afford to buy or rent it instead of the standard DVD, I would do so. And by all means, for a fast and furious evening of fun without spending a lot of time thinking, pop in The Fate of the Furious and enjoy the show. It's a swift kick in the gear box!

Monday, July 24, 2017

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children: A Whimsical World Beset by Strangeness

Movie Review: Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (2016)
Version: HBO free preview

Think of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children as a peculiar alternative world to Harry Potter or X-Men. No one is a wizard but everyone has special powers. Even many of the adults. And main character Jabob is one of them, plucked from the world of unpeculiar people by unfortunate events surrounding a visit to his grandfather's former Cornwall village to discover the secrets unfolded to him over the years in tales told to him by his grandfather when Jacob visits the past through a portal. There he meets the characters of those tales he has seen in old photographs and the very proper Miss Peregrine, whose mission has always been to protect them. It turns out these peculiar children have very powerful enemies, and it's up to Jacob to protect them.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children is directed by Tim Burton, so as expected you find a selection of strange, almost grotesque personifications of these peculiar children. One otherwise delightful young girl hides a sharp-toothed maw under long red curls at the nape of her neck. Twins wear gunnysacks over their entire bodies with strange eyes, noses, and mouths stitched where faces should appear, and when facing foes lifting the sacks turns the foes into cement. Monsters on the enemy side have no faces, just round alien heads with mouths full of sharp teeth and tall snake-like bodies. The main bad guy, Barron (played by Samuel L. Jackson) has whites for eyes and jagged teeth like a dinosaur. To keep their evil powers, the bad guys pluck out eye balls and eat them -- pretty grim!

The saving grace for the story are the really more innocent personalities of the peculiar children, who are really more childlike than their powers or some of their personifications might suggest. They are, after all, children. And they are protected by the brilliant, almost Holmsian Miss Peregrine. Every evening at exactly the same time she resets time to the same moment before the Home for Peculiar Children is bombed by German Nazi planes, preserving not only their lives but also their youth and their innocence.

Miss Peregrine is portrayed with exceptional exactness by Eva Green, smokes a pipe and breezes through a line of deductive reasoning that rivals Sherlock Holmes. Asa Butterfield plays Jacob, the youth wonder; Butterfield often plays these parts of the awkward youth who steps in to save the day. Terence Stamp is Abe, Jacob's grandfather, who is ably patient with young Jacob's many questions and, despite many of his more villainous roles of the past, makes a pretty good grandfather. Ella Purnell plays Emma, Jacob's love interest and his lifeline between his own world and the world of peculiars. Along with the other children, it's a fine ensemble cast that wins the film for the viewer.

I'm not a Tim Burton fan, but Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children was one of his better efforts, in which he managed to create a whimsical world beset by strangeness. Well imagined and well done.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life: Predictable Teen Fare with an Unpredictable Ending

Movie Review: Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life (2016)
Version: Library borrow

James Patterson used to write mysteries. Now he also writes kids books. And one of them turned into a movie called Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life.

Like The Wimpy Kid series, the Middle School series features the daily foibles of being a teen in the middle school or junior high school years of life. The young teens are the stars, with the main characters as the lovable, likable average American kids just trying to make it through the rough years of school, targeted by bullies, nervous at encounters with the opposite sex, and embarrassed by dorky parents. So it is in this film, in which Rafe (played by Griffin Gluck) and his best friend Leo (played by Thomas Barbusca) end up in the misfits class, his parent's last hope to find an educational home for their troubled son. The evil principal and his assistant principal are sticklers for rules -- there are something like 130 of them -- and every encounter Rafe has with them is because of a rules violation. Rafe is also a doodler who keeps a journal of sketches detailing his daily happenings in life, including his encounters with Principal Dwight (played by Andy Daly), and when the principal finds it he throws it into a bucket of acid, destroying Rafe's lifetime of creative effort. In retaliation, Rafe and his best bud Leo decide to defiantly break every rule in Principal Dwight's book. And so, mayhem breaks out, one broken rule at a time, making Dwight's life a misery and boosting Rafe's chops among his classmates. Rafe's mother is a single mom who has attracted an annoying suitor (played by Rob Riggle), who will do anything to get rid of Rafe and his sister Georgia (played by Alexa Nizenson), and a plot arises to send Rafe to military school, when Principal Dwight discovers who's behind all the rules breaking. But all is not what it seems as the kids get the best of the adults.

The kids are all adorable in this formula teen film, the adults are predictable, and the story line is mildly entertaining, but there's a surprise at the end, and the doodles in Rafe's journal occasionally come to life as animated characters, which adds an interesting dimension to the storytelling.

While I had fun watching this with my daughter, I'm not sure I would have chosen it over other films. Maybe if you have teens looking for something to keep them entertained on a rainy day this would be great for them. If you're an adult, you might find it mildly entertaining, too.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Beauty and the Beast: Live-Action Film Surpasses Expectations

Movie Review: Beauty and the Beast (2017)
Version: Library borrow

It can be so difficult to translate an animated classic into a live-action film. Disney has proven itself up to the task with Jungle Book (2016) and now Beauty and the Beast.

With an all-star cast, a fantasy village set, an expanded mythology, and two new songs added to the original list of memorable tunes, this new version of "a tale as old as time" succeeds with ease in recasting one of Disney's most loved films. 

Emma Watson is incandescent as Belle, slightly re-envisioned as the tinkerer in the family and a self-reliant maiden who won't settle for just any man. Dan Stevens is a sturdy, turbulent Beast, vulnerable when he needs to be but irritable when inconvenienced and threatening when endangered. Luke Evans is wonderful as self-obsessed Gaston, putting on a commanding performance in the musical portions. Josh Gad pretty much steals the show as irascible LeFou, less bumbling and more comical than his animated version. Also putting in notable performances are Ewan McGregor as Lumiere the candlestick, Ian McKellan as Cogsworth the mantel clock, and Emma Thompson as Mrs. Potts the tea pot -- honestly, I didn't know it was them doing the voice work until their transformations into human form at the end. 

In case you don't know the story line, Belle is a smart maiden in a small French town pursued by Gaston, who has just returned to his home village from war looking for a wife -- and he's made up his mind to marry Belle, who simply isn't interested. They have nothing in common. LeFou is Gaston's aide de camp, returning with him. Maurice is Belle's father, an inventor and artist. The Beast was once a self-centered prince who was put under a spell by an enchantress when he failed to give her shelter during a storm, and she turned him into a beast and his servants into various pieces of furniture. The enchantress gave the prince a rose and when he refused it, she made it part of the spell: If the Beast didn't find true love by the time the last pedal fell from the rose, everyone in the castle would remain as they were in the spell for all time. If he does find true love, everyone would come back to human form and live happily ever after. Maurice comes to the castle after becoming lost in the woods, looking for shelter during a storm and is imprisoned by the Beast. When Belle comes looking for him, the Beast lets her exchange her life for her father's and becomes the Beast's and the servants' last hope to return to their lives.

There are parts of this film I liked much better than the original, and there are parts of the animated original you just can't replace. For instance, it's impossible to replace the magic of the ballroom scene in the animated film, hard though they tried. On the other hand, the dance sequence in the real ballroom was much lovelier. And the barroom musical scene had far more power to it with real actors than could be shown in the animated piece. So the transition to live-action film was a mixed blessing for me. It's also easier to make a village come to life in animated film, but the set decoration in the live-action film was simply amazing, built to exquisite detail on a stage lot.

The Blue-ray version of this film has extras, including the making of the film that explains the intricate detail the set decorators went into in creating the village. They also show the masterful effort the director and actors went into for the first reading of the script, including singing the music and dancing the scenes. These extras are well worth watching -- after seeing the film, of course. You will appreciate the magic of the film even more, I assure you.

While I originally wasn't convinced enough of the need to see a remake of Beauty and the Beast to see it in the theater (my wife and daughter were), I'm glad I finally saw it, on DVD. If you missed it in the theater, too, make a point to see it now. And as I said, it's worth getting the Blue-ray for the extras.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Sully: Well Told Story of the "Miracle on the Hudson" Emergency Landing

Movie Review: Sully (2016)
Version: Library borrow

You may remember the "Miracle on the Hudson" landing of a passenger plane on the frigid Hudson River in New York City in January 2009. Captain Chelsey "Sully" Sullenberger became an instant hero for saving the lives of all 155 aboard his flight when the plane was disabled by a bird strike that took out both engines and required an emergency landing. That's the story depicted in great detail in the film Sully.

While the film shows as the dramatic events unfold in the flight, the real conflict is between Sully, played with excellence by Tom Hanks, co-pilot Jeff Skiles (played by Aaron Eckhart), and the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) members, played by Jamey Sheridan, Mike O'Malley, and Anna Gunn. The NTSB was just doing its job investigating what happened in ditching a perfect good commercial aircraft into the Hudson River instead of returning to any of a few nearby airports, the investigation turns personal when the Board questions Sully's judgment and 30-some years of flight experience in making the decision. But it turns out not everything is as it seems in the investigation, and Sully and Skiles must defend their assumptions, their decisions, and their actions.

Laura Linney plays Sully's wife, following the drama on her own at home. She always seems to play a downer part, and in Sully it's no different.

Tom Hanks is humanly likable as Sully, a non-assuming professional pilot just doing his job to protect his passengers and crew. Eckhart is smart as the capable and loyal co-pilot, who doesn't for a second doubt decisions reached in the cockpit, despite the computer simulations and pilot simulated runs. And Sheridan and O'Malley are masterfully plotting as the Board members eager to show Sully and Skiles weren't heroes but endangered the crew and passengers and needlessly destroyed a multi-million-dollar piece of equipment. The acting is good and the script is well written to produce a fine drama that tells a wonderfully human drama.

The movie includes impressive film sequences of the bird strikes, the plane approach around skyscraper-infested New York City, and that final breathtaking landing into the Hudson River, not to mention the amazing escape from the plane and rescue by NYC ferries and police. You can't help but be moved by all that Sully and Skiles faced to bring all aboard that flight out of danger safely.

This is definitely a film everyone in the family can watch. Heroes aren't born easily, and Sully is a fine example of what one man, one team, went through to make the grade.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Rock Dog: Good Family Entertainment with a Good Message

Movie Review: Rock Dog (2016)
Version: Library borrow

It's not often you run into a Tibetan Mastiff who dreams of becoming a rock star. That's the plot behind the enjoyable animated film Rock Dog.

Bodi (played by Luke Wilson) lives in the snow capped mountains among his Tibetan brethren, when a radio falls from the sky, awakening his dream. He leaves for the big city in the lowlands below, where he meets a wily cast of urban characters, including a gang of hungry wolves, a disparate group of street musicians, and a reclusive rock star.

Bodi is working on getting his big break with the hope of getting a music lesson from rock star Angus Scattergood (played by Eddie Izzard), when he is hunted down by the gang of wolves, who want Bodi to lead them to his home with defenseless sheep. He is supported by four hapless street musicians played by Kenan Thompson as Riff, Mae Whitman as Darma, Jorge Garcia as Germur, and Matt Dillon as Trey. Bodi pursues a reluctant Scattergood, who is working on his next big release but is having a major creative block, when he hears Bodi playing a self-written tune he likes. Then the wolves find Bodi and mayhem breaks out as the everyone is out to get Bodi.

This isn't the best movie in the world, but it has a terrific ending, and who can resist the comedic voice talents of Eddie Izzard and Lewis Black as the bad guy, head wolf Linnux. Rock Dog makes good family entertainment for any age, and it has a good message.