Book Review: The Narrator by Michael Cisco

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 1/5 stars

I can only imagine that this novel was an experiment.  Populate a world with both the mundane and the fantastical and blur them all together.  Add to it a special character called a “Narrator” whose job it is to follow along on the action and put into words all that he sees and does.  Make that Narrator very bad at his job.  Write a novel from that Narrator’s perspective.  What you are left with is a jumbled confusion.  While I was able to track the basics of the story, at very few points did I have a concrete picture of the how or the where or the why or the what of what people were doing.

Many of the descriptives in the book read like the author picked the most obscure words out of a thesaurus and sprinkled them throughout.  I have never used the dictionary more than while reading this book.  There are also many instances of the Narrator making simple grammatical errors and then correcting them in the next sentence.  Add to that the fact that this Narrator is describing a fantastical world with places and characters that require well thought out narratives in order to understand and you have one hell of a confusing jumble of a mess.  I mean, there’s never really even any explanation as to why there are these Narrators to begin with or why they’re entrusted with the telling of history.

I’m sure much of what I said above is exactly the point of the novel.  It’s an accurate description of what it must be like to go through war.  A jumbled mess of marching from place to place with randomly interspersed bouts of extreme violence.  Perhaps the Narrator lost his mind in the process and the result is the jumbled mess of his attempts to do his job.  Good reading material it is not, however.  If I had to describe the novel in a way that you might be able to understand, I’d say you start with the story of “Heart of Darkness”, add a hint of Lovecraftian horror, then sprinkle with a dash of “A Clockwork Orange” then mix with some “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, but that makes “The Narrator” sound much better of a read than it actually is.

Scrubs

Ok, see, ok, last night I had a dream where I was in an episode of Scrubs and JD was in the bathroom of a macaroni and cheese restaurant and he was going to write a message on a strip of paper and leave half of it in a bowl of mac and cheese on the sink and put the other half of it in his mouth and then he would wait to see who got to it and ate it first, me or Turk, and then reveal to us what the other side of the message was.  Ok, bye.

Movie Review: The Secret Life Of Pets

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 3/5 stars

Bottom Line: A mildly entertaining kids movie.  Not much for adults.  Visually gorgeous.

Pets have secrets.  The minute you leave them alone, they throw wild parties and visit other pets and talk and behave all around like teenagers.  Well, at least for the first fifteen minutes of the movie they do.  Then they mostly do all the same stuff right out in the open for all humans to see.  So really the movie should have been called “The Not So Secret Lives of Pets”.  The “Secret Lives” parts of the movie are clever and fun, but there’s only so much you can do with it while also trying to tell a story and advance a plot.  Except if you’re Pixar.  In fact, upon seeing the previews for “The Secret Life of Pets”, I started calling it “Toy Story 4” because of the similarities, but the truth is this movie is lazier than the worst Pixar film (“Cars”?).

The basic premise of the plot is that Max (Louie C.K.) has a loving owner who one day brings home another dog, Duke (Eric Stonestreet).  Max doesn’t like Duke and tries to get rid of him.  Duke returns the favor.  They find themselves alone on the streets.  If you had to guess what would happen to two pet dogs that find themselves in this situation, what do you think would happens next?  If you said, “They get caught by the dog catcher”, you win a prize!  Like I said, lazy.  The rest of the movie is them trying to get back home.  There’s enough to be entertaining, but nothing particularly worth recommending.

And now a brief word on stereotypes in Hollywood.  While the cast for this movie is slightly more diverse than a Republican’s list of summer interns, it still lacks diversity.  Where it does have diversity is in the form of the main villain, a psychopathic bunny named Snowball played by Kevin Hart who, you may know, is black.  So the one main role that goes to a black man happens to be the villain.  Wonderful.

If you want to see a good animated movie that’s out now, go see “Finding Dory“.  If you’ve already seen that, “The Secret Life of Pets” pales in comparison, but is still not bad, especially if you have children.  There’s plenty of cuteness, a tad of cleverness, and lots of beautiful.

Movie Review: Finding Dory

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 4/5 stars

Bottom Line: One of the best shorts Pixar has made.  Not quite as good as “Finding Nemo” but still very enjoyable.  I like shells!

“Finding Dory” has the adorableness knob turned to 11.  This begins even before the movie starts with the ubiquitous Pixar short that runs before the main attraction.  This time it’s “Piper”, a story about a newly fledged sandpiper and it’s first experiences on the beach.  The animation is gorgeous.  We’re talking almost lifelike.  You’d be hard pressed to be able to tell the animated ocean from a real ocean at times.   The short also introduces a theme that bleeds into “Finding Dory” itself; there is always more than one way to do something.  In the baby sandpiper’s case, it’s a clever way to catch shells 100% of the time.  If you don’t enjoy this short, you have no heart.

My main concern with “Finding Dory” was the ability to make an entire movie centered around a character whose shtick is constantly forgetting things.  It’s a great concept for a secondary character and Ellen DeGeneres is wonderful and the only person I can imagine in the role, but how do you translate that into a full length animation?  Partially, the answer to that question is backstory.  And you can not find a more adorable backstory than the one featuring baby Dory.  It really sets the stage for adult Dory’s adventures.  Another answer is you cram as many disabled characters as possible into the story.  You have Nemo with his one little fin.  You have Dory with her memory loss.  You have an octopus missing a leg.  You have a near-sighted whale shark.  You have a beluga whose sonar doesn’t work.  All have a part to play in helping Dory reunite with her parents.  It’s a great lesson for the kiddies.

The one thing I could have done without is the car chase scene.  “What’s wrong with a car chase scene?”, you might ask?  I would answer that it involves sea animals driving the car, or truck in this case.  If it were a quick five minute bit, it would have probably been ok, but this went on for some time and it just pushes the suspension of disbelief a little too far.  Other than that, it was a thoroughly enjoyable movie.

Parents be warned, taking your children to this movie may result in seeing this movie over and over and over and over again.  But since you’ve already decided to spawn, you’re probably already well aware of that fact because of all of the other Pixar movies known to man.  Others, this is a fun movie well worth watching and you’ll likely enjoy the hell out of it.

Movie Review: Independence Day: Resurgence

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 2/5 stars

Bottom Line: Just like the original movie but with none of the charisma.

“Independence Day: Resurgence” answers the question; can Will Smith take a completely mediocre movie and make it a blockbuster success by sheer charm alone?  No one was really asking that question, but the answer is indubitably yes.  The two movies are almost interchangeable plot wise, but this sequel has all of the charm of a toaster with a fork stuck in it.

It is unclear how they got so many of the original stars to return to make this film.  My only guess is boatloads of money.  In some cases, even that appeared to be not enough.  Case in point: Bill Pullman.  I imagine the negotiations going somewhat like this:

Producers: Here’s the script, come on and do the sequel.

Pullman: *reads script and momentarily channels Will Smith*  Aw, hell no!

Producers: Here is a boatload of money.

Pullman: Tempting, but not enough.

Producers: That’s all the money we have.  We blew the rest on alcohol and drank ourselves stupid when we realized how crappy the script is.  Is there anything else we can offer you? *holds out a can of PBR*

Pullman:  *shotguns the PBR* Ok, I’ll do it, but I’m going to be drunk for the entire production!

Producers: Deal!

You watch the movie and tell me I’m wrong.

Though I am loathe to admit it, I did still somewhat enjoy the movie.  It required two things: 1) letting go of all of my critical thinking skills, 2) some really bad dialogue.  First some set up.  Generically Handsome Dude #1 (Liam “the lesser” Hemsworth) and Generically Beautiful Chick 1 (Maika Monroe) are in a generic relationship and GBC#1 wants GBD#1 to look at houses she has sent him but he hasn’t quite gotten around to it.  Aliens then attack (spoiler!) and cause devastation the likes of which the Earth has never seen.   While rushing off to fight the aliens, GBD#1 mentions that he looked at the houses and has picked the one they will buy together.  How he has had the time to do this while not having a second of time to spare is beyond me.  GBC#1 is all happy that her man has made this incredibly important decision for her.  GBD#1 then says, “If it’s still there…”  And they both have a good laugh.  At this point, I whisper to my brother, “It’s funny because billions of people have just died.”  And that’s how I learned to stop worrying and love ID:R.

I miss you Will Smith.  Generic Black Dude #1 (Jessie T. Usher) could not replace you.  Even the movie missed you as it showed your portrait on the wall and copious lines of dialogue were spilled about you to try to get your magic back.  Alas, it was not to be.  Thus, “Independence Day: Resurgence” will go down in history as the film that answered the question, yes, a single soul can save a relentlessly mediocre movie.

Book Review: Crandolin by Anna Tambour

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 2/5 stars

Imagine you are using drugs.  These drugs make you hallucinate a little bit.  They also take the ordered sections of your brain and shuffle them together just once, but you’re not really very good at shuffling either so the last parts just kind of get tucked down at the bottom of the deck.  Then, suddenly, there is a pen in your hand and a stack of paper in front of you.  You start writing.  That is the best description I can give behind the genesis of Anna Tambour’s “Crandolin”.

The book starts out in what can only be described as micro-chapters.  It flits and darts from place to place and time to time and person to person with so few words separating the chapters that you don’t know whether you’re coming or going and you don’t have a clue what the characters mean to each other or where or when they are.  It’s dizzying to the point that you stop caring.  Eventually, the book coalesces into something more tangible and you get a solid feeling for who is where and when, but there is still a disjointedness because it’s never quite clear who or what is being pursued or even if there is any point to the story at all.

This may be one of those books that you appreciate more when you read it a second time.  You know, if you’re an English major.  But since I’m here for you, the common bookworm, and not those ivory tower prigs, maybe if I explain the story a bit you’ll enjoy it a little more than I did.

There’s this guy named Nick Kippax.  You might call him an epicurean.  Always searching for new and exciting flavors and recipes.  One day, he finds this cookbook with a recipe on how to cook a crandolin.  Crandolins totally don’t exist.  On the page of that recipe is a mysterious stain.  Maybe it’s a stain from the last time someone cooked the recipe.  Why not taste it?  Thus Nick Kippax finds himself blown into tiny pieces and spread across time and space.  One piece finds him/itself as a Gorbachevian spot on the face of a young woman who works on a train in Russia with a bunch of people who are in love with her.  Another piece finds him/itself in some jars of honey belonging to the best honey maker in the world which a man who makes sweets envies and kidnaps.  Another is in a birds nest somewhere?  Maybe another is in a virgin’s pubic hair that some weirdo wants to make a mustache out of, I think?  There’s also this old dude who isn’t real, but is, and goes around planting factual stories in writers’ minds and is going senile.  There’s also this woman who isn’t real, but is, and goes around planting fanciful stories in writers’ minds and is looking for something.  There’s this bunch of dudes questing for a girl locked in a tower by her father who has just died.  A bunch of stuff happens to them.  The end.

Did I make you want to read the book?  No?  What if I told you there was lots of sex in it?  There isn’t, but would that change your mind?  I have failed as a book salesman.

Book Review: Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 4/5 stars

You know that scene in “Spaceballs” where Dark Helmet asks “How many assholes we got on this ship?” and the entire crew raises their hand and says “Yo!”?  The more I read about our Founding Fathers, the more I picture George Washington as Dark Helmet and the rest of the Founding Fathers as the crew of the ship.  They were all such assholes.  They were petty, vindictive, and cocksure.  This is also somewhat comforting of a revelation because it shows modern politics to be not nearly the black hole of pettiness and despair as it would seem without the historical context.  We revere our Founding Fathers like we revere our guns; with a tunnel-vision that is so narrow as to be awe-inspiring.

Without a doubt, the king of the Founding Assholes was Alexander Hamilton.  He also happened to be truly brilliant, a polymath of the highest order, and perhaps the most prolific writer the world has ever known.  His story is equal parts inspirational and a testament to the dangers of letting the demons of your past destroy you.  Ron Chernow’s biography does a good job of highlighting both the good Hamilton and the bad Hamilton.

The Good Hamilton:  Dude was a genius.  Anything he put his mind to he excelled at.  He overcame astronomical odds to rise farther above his station than would seem possible.  Before all you “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” people take him on as your personal hero, remember he had lots of help; free passage on a ship, free schooling, a decent support system.  People love to overlook those things.  Hamilton could also write.  And boy, did he write. Ask his opinion on the color blue and you’ll have a 10,000 word essay about its transcendent beauty by nightfall.  Personally, I also think that he’s by far the main reason why the United States has lasted as long as it has and grown as powerful as it has.   He wrote the book on American economics.  Probably about 100 books if you joined all of his essays and laws together.

The Bad Hamilton: Dude had skin as thin as your 100-years old grandmother.  Insult him, cross him, look at him funny, and you’ll soon see a 10,000 word essay published in the paper on how horrible of a person you were.  Partly, this was understandable.  People did hate him.  Irrationally so.  Many thought he didn’t deserve to be where he was just because of where he came from.  He suffered decades of bilious rumors and innuendo both during his life and decades after his death and was determined to fight tooth and nail against it while he could.  This also led him to see attacks where there weren’t any and to fight against ghosts of his own making.  Want some insight as to why Hillary Clinton is the way she is? Get to know Alexander Hamilton.  The worst thing about Hamilton is a shared dishonor.  He and Thomas Jefferson double-handedly brought into existence our dreaded two-party system through their often petty squabbles with each other.

I have a few minor critiques of the book.  First, it seems to diminish in readability during the post-Treasury period of Hamilton’s life, becoming somewhat of a slog to get through.  I am not sure if it’s because Chernow got tired of writing his 800+ page project or I got tired of the 800+ page book or Hamilton’s later life was that much less exciting.  Second, Chernow spills a lot of ink talking about Hamilton’s personal rise and fall, but having read the book, I see plenty of evidence of a rise and little evidence of a “fall”.  Hamilton was Hamilton from start to finish.  Even when he was out of favor politically, he was still always in the thick of things, if behind the scenes.  The only fall was his untimely death at the hands of Aaron Burr.

If you can stand to get through such a large book, Chernow’s “Alexander Hamilton” biography offers great insights into the life of the most interesting of America’s Founding Fathers.  There’s lots to love and lots to hate about the man.  Both are on display in this book.

A brief note to fans of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash hit “Hamilton: The Musical”: Mr. Miranda is a genius.  I am as overly obsessed with the musical as you are.  But please recognize the fact that he takes great liberties with historical facts to present a compelling story.  This should go without saying, but people are people.

Movie Review: Now You See Me 2

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 2/5 stars

Bottom Line: A mess of a movie.  All the complications of the original movie but with none of the magic.

The original “Now You See Me” was not a good movie but it was a fun movie.  It had magic in both the stage magic sense and the movie magic sense.  “Now You See Me 2” is even less of a not good movie than the first and while it retains some of its stage magic sense, it has none of the movie magic of the first.

The movie starts out strong enough reintroducing much of the old cast and a new female Horseman.  It has the feel and fun tone that was present in the first movie.  That goes away pretty quickly after the introductions are complete.  We are then subjected to the Horsemen coming out of hiding to perform an expose of some tech giant who is “stealing everybody’s information” with his new gizmo.  Scary.  Everything is not what it seems, though.  You see, this whole expose is actually part of a long con revenge game by Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), who they sent to jail in the first movie.  Thaddeus exposes the Horsemen and with the help of Harry Potter, who faked his own death because of ???, blackmails the Horsemen into stealing a microchip that ??? in order to ??? thus enabling the bad guys to ???.  Meanwhile, the Horsemen plot ways to keep the microchip out of the bad guy’s hands and ??? in grand style while simultaneously keeping the FBI chasing their own tail.  There is also the mysterious Eye organization which feeds information to the Horsemen in order to ???.  In the end, it turns out that just about everyone you see was actually in on the plot the entire time and people you thought were friends were enemies and people you thought were enemies were friends and there are big reveals and it all leaves you feeling so ???.

Play Mad Libs with the above paragraph as much as you like.  No matter what you come up with, it will probably make as much sense as this movie did.  That isn’t to say there was nothing good about the movie.  The magic tricks themselves were generally pretty cool and had enough reveal/secrecy to keep you guessing.  It’s just, man, what a mess of a movie.  Take your hard earned money elsewhere, I says.

Movie Review: X-Men: Apocalypse

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 3/5 stars

Bottom Line: Lots of ground to cover, little ground that was covered was worth covering.  Apocalypse’s mutant power is apparently boring us to death with his talking.

It is very difficult to make an effective superhero movie without an effective villain.  Apocalypse, you would think, fits that bill.  Nigh undefeatable.  Possesses an indescribable amalgam of mutant powers.  Has visions of world domination spanning millennia and has practical experience in the matter.  It’s a stellar villain resume.

Witnessing Apocalypse in action, however, and you get the distinct feeling that he drastically embellished the truth on his resume. For starters, Apocalypse’s super powers seem to be limited to: 1) pushing people into rock just enough to make some undefined point, 2) watching all of Netflix in a few seconds, 3) making other mutants’ powers stronger, 4) controlling people’s minds, 5) teleporting he and as many friends anywhere he wants, 6) making pyramids, 7) stopping things from hitting him.  All fine mutant powers, surely, but only the mind control and Netflix watching screams super villain..

And why stick with the Four Horsemen theme?  That turned out so well for you the first time.  At least put out an ad on Craigslist first:  God-emperor seeks four highly powerful mutants to do bidding.  Must enjoy being mind-controlled and being belittled for even the smallest of mistakes.  Loving cats a plus.  But no, you go ahead and take all of half a day and pick the first four mutants you stumble across and see how that turns out for you.  That’s right, you end up with Angel as one of your horsemen.  Way to go Mr. World Conqueror.

Then there’s your abysmal lack of imagination.  You discover the ability to mind-control literally every human being on the planet and your first thought is to take control of every nuclear missile operator and have them launch those missiles into space even though 80% of them don’t physically have that capability?  And your reasoning is, “You don’t get to destroy yourselves, only I get to destroy you!  At a point and time of my choosing which may or may not be a few hours hence when I make my new buddy Magneto suck all the metal from around the world to Cairo to make pyramids even though I have already made it abundantly clear that one of my powers is to make pyramids.”?  Why not take, oh, ten seconds and teleport your new-if-slightly-underpowered-in-some-cases Horsemen and yourself to this new mind-control ability so you can defend it at all costs?

Sorry, Apocalypse, you are the Donald Trump of super villains.  You use other people to achieve greatness and pretend it’s you that did it all.  You make poor decisions and then blame others for your mistakes.  Your greatest superpower appears to be derision.

All that said, “X-Men: Apocalypse” is not a bad movie.  It just lacks imagination in its main story line.  My recommendation is that you view the movie as a series of vignettes, most of which should have been explored further instead of bothering with the plot such that it is.

Movie Review: The Nice Guys

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 4/5 stars

Bottom Line:  WTF did I just watch?  In a good way.

“The Nice Guys” is one of the strangest movies I have watched in a long time.  Delightfully so.  Its opening is classic film noir with Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) providing the voice over setting up the story behind the newly dead porn star and her out of control car.  Jackson Healy is the guy you call when you want other guys to stop doing things you disapprove of.  This is normally done with a set of brass knuckles to the face.  It’s effective.  Healy is contracted by a young woman, Amelia Kuttner (Margaret Qualley) who wants him to stop a man from looking for her.  That man is Holland March (Ryan Gosling), a private detective hired by the dead porn star’s aunt who swears she saw the porn star alive days after her death.  That Holland March would take the money of an old, half blind woman who obviously saw no such thing tells you all you need to know about Mr. March.

The movie starts at a zaniness level of about 3 and slowly pumps its way to 11 by the end.  At the beginning, I was all “Oh, this is going to be a film noir set in the 70s with some comedic elements starring Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling?  Win!” and it kind of is that, but a whole lot more as well.  The movie has some great dialogue and blends standard humor with some terrific slapstick that you wouldn’t think Ryan Gosling capable of pulling off.  But it is Ryan Gosling so you should really know better.

Holland and Jackson are joined in much of their adventure by Holland’s teenage daughter Holly (Angourie Rice, which is an awesome name), who plays both the adult in the Holland/Holly relationship and the conscience of the team.  The movie treats Holly as a fully functional human being which is great to see in a movie.  She gets kidnapped.  She saves herself.  She gets put in a life threatening situation, she grabs the hidden gun and attempts to fend off the killer.  Hurray for teenage girls not just being used as a plot point!

As the credits ran, I found myself figuratively scratching my head trying to figure out what the heck I just watched.  Was this just weird or brilliant?  Turns out it was weirdly brilliant.  The more I looked back on it and the more I discussed it, the more I liked it.  This is a completely different movie and very much worth seeing.  The ending kind of sets up the possibility of a “Nice Guys 2” and I hope it happens.  There is a lot of chemistry with this sleuthing trio and I wouldn’t mind seeing them back together for another round of zaniness.