Movie Review: Crimson Peak

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 2/5 stars

Bottom Line: Well costumed and well designed.  Interesting setup with little notable follow-through.  Goes for cheap scares that don’t really even play a part in the plot.

Ghosts are real.  This much I know.  I know this because Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) told me so.  She’s seen them all her life.  Well, except for the time between birth and when her mother died and then the time between when her mother died and when the main story starts.  So really, she’s seen one ghost many years ago as a child.  But who’s counting?  Well, ok, me.  Not a good start to a movie when you begin with a lie just to set mood.

Then comes a decent, if a little longish setup.  There are plenty of holes that can be poked in this setup, but most of those are only visible in hindsight.  If I weren’t writing this review, I’d probably never have even thought of them.  The one that did bother me is, this is supposed to be a ghost story, right?  Where are the ghosts?  Or, more to the point, where are the ghosts that actually mean something?  They’re used mostly as background noise with a little bit of dire foreboding thrown in.  Some talk, most just wail.  Luckily (?), the ones that could actually further the plot only wail.  The dire foreboding is soundly ignored like all dire foreboding should be.  It is giving away nothing so here is the sole dire foreboding: Beware Crimson Peak!  Edith Cushing, of course, then blindly follows Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) back to a severely dilapidated mansion on top of a hill surrounded by red mud that oozes out of the ground and literally runs down the walls defying all rules of gravity and then is shocked (shocked, I tell you!) to learn days later when Thomas casually mentions that they call the place Crimson Peak.  “Oh,” says Edith, “I thought of it more as a Scarlet Knoll”.  Ok, she doesn’t really utter those words, but she does express shock and finally realizes that she might be in trouble.

It is unfortunate that the story is so soft because the acting is pretty good and the design is outstanding.  This movie would have been better as a straight horror story or a straight whodunnit.  Instead it’s an amalgam of horror and whodunnit with little to like about either portion.  That’s Guillermo del Toro for you, though, top notch style always, very shaky on the substance.

I Saw A Police Officer Discharge His Weapon

Chalk this up to strange things you witness that will never again be seen by me or most people.  I was driving down Harlem around 130ish and there were police lights up ahead in the left lane and a car in the median coming from the other direction with some damage to it.  Oh, great, an accident.  Traffic’s still moving though so I figure it must not be too bad.  I get closer and the officer grabs something from his trunk and stops our single file line of traffic to walk over to the shoulder on our side and starts investigating something just off the side of the road in the grass.  Traffic starts moving slowly again until the officer once again signals us to stop.  We’re stopped for five seconds or so and then there’s the unmistakable sound of a shotgun being discharged.  TCHHHH!  He walks back across traffic, stows his weapon and lets us proceed.  I hate gaper’s blocks so I didn’t get a terribly good look at the animal that he put out of its misery, but it didn’t look terribly deerish, which was my first guess given the area.  But who knows what a car mangled and bloody deer would look like laying in the grass on the side of the road in the dark.

Movie Review: Spectre

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 3/5 stars

Bottom Line: Typical James Bond fare. Daniel Craig remains the best Bond. Christoph Waltz is tragically under utilized.

There are certain things that you expect from a Bond film.  “Spectre” has them all.  And it does them all with enough flair that I can proudly proclaim: Yep, this was a Bond film.

Opening Sequence: Pretty solid.  It takes place in Mexico City during the Dia de los Muertos celebration.  It is both a vivid and gorgeous backdrop for the opening sequence.  I wanted to see more of it, but this is a Bond opening sequence so chaos must follow.  And it does.  We’re treated to assassinations and bombs blowing up and a harrowing helicopter sequence.  There’s a bit of suspension of disbelief necessary, but the backdrop is so pretty it is easily overlooked.

Opening Credits: Standard fare.  There is a decent enough opening song by Sam Smith called “Writing’s on the Wall” (YouTube).  Dude’s got an impressive vocal range.  The credits are your typical mostly naked silhouette ladies warping and gyrating in between semi-violent imagery.  There’s nothing terribly new or exciting about it.

Bond Babe: Lea Seydoux.  She is gorgeous and she kicks ass on her own. She is strong, successful, and confident.  Her only problem is believing that Bond is a good guy.  I mean, really?

Bond Villain: Christoph Waltz.  Nuff said.  But seriously, he is horribly underutilized.  I don’t recall if all Bond films were like this or if it’s more of a trend with the Daniel Craig Bond.  You get these great actors to play the villain and then you don’t really give them much of a part to play until you’re over half way through the film.  Tragic.

Menacing Evil Sidekick: David Bautista.  He is sufficiently both menacing and evil.

Evil Hideout: Crater in the middle of an African desert complete with trophy case containing the meteorite that created said crater.  Has this been done before?  Seems familiar.  Either way, classic evil lair.

Insane Plot to Take Over the World: Your usual “create a massive computer based spy network and convince the world to all use said network by a series of targeted terrorist bombings” plot.  It’s somewhat interesting if a little far fetched.

All in all, this is a solid Bond film.  It’s probably the second best of Craig’s Bond films behind “Casino Royale”.  Though, for the life of me, I can’t remember much details behind any of them besides the opening sequence for “Casino Royale” which was probably the best opening sequence of any Bond film.  And that’s really Bond in a nutshell.  Entertaining, but mostly forgettable.  Just like my movie reviews.

Movie Review: Bridge Of Spies

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 4/5 stars

Bottom Line: A fascinating look at Cold War political intrigue.  Directed by Spielberg and written by the Coen brothers!?

“Bridge of Spies” is more two hour long episodes in a TV series than it is one movie.  The first episode shows insurance lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks) being called by his nation to defend Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel (brilliantly played by  Mark Rylance).  Instead of putting up a half-hearted defense of the almost assuredly guilty Abel, Donovan enacts a full-throated Constitutional defense of the spy much to the chagrin of the rest of the country.  Donovan represents everything that is right with the United States while the rest of the country represents everything that is wrong with the United States.  This is just one of many examples in our history of how we fetishize the Constitution until it becomes inconvenient to do so.  Then we just throw it away until it no longer poses the inconvenience.  A true test of a belief is when it becomes inconvenient to believe it and we fail miserably at those tests all too often.  There is kind of a “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” feel for this half of the film with the one good and unassuming person against the establishment.  Only not quite as comical.

Episode two has Donovan returning to some sort or normalcy when his nation calls upon him once again.  This time, he has to negotiate a spy swap between the U.S.S.R. and the U.S.A.  The swap is between Abel and shot down U-2 pilot Gary Powers.  Donovan goes to Berlin and travels back and forth between East and West Berlin to broker the deal.  This is more of a spy/political intrigue episode as we see how three vying factions work things out to make the trade.  Once again, Donovan bucks authority and bargains for a third person to be released.  And once again, Donovan is fighting to do the right thing while his country simply wants him to do the expedient thing.

I was amazed, as the closing credits rolled, to find out that this was written by the Coen brothers along with Mark Chapman.  I was thinking why they wouldn’t advertise that and the answer immediately hit me that this is not a Coen brothers movie and advertising it as such would only lead to disappointment.  Putting Spielberg’s name along with Tom Hanks was the correct choice.

I highly recommend this movie for anyone who is a Cold War buff.  Or history in general.  I’m not sure how true to life the movie is, but Donovan should certainly be looked upon as one of the greatest Americans of the time.  He took on challenges no one else would and defended the Constitutional ideal to the best of his abilities.  Who could ask for anything more?

Book Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 4/5 stars

Mark Watney has been left behind on Mars.  Oops.  These things happen.  The only thing left to do is survive and try to come up with a plan to get off the planet.  This is all revealed on page one.  The rest of the book deals with Watney’s survival and NASA’s plans to get him back.

Man vs. Nature stories are nothing new, but we’re dealing with a whole new level of Nature here.  Mars.  This allows uber-nerd Weir to delve deep into his knowledge of all things Space to come up with a unique take on an old plot.  A majority of the story is told in the form of log entries by Mark Watney as he recounts his efforts to stay alive and not accidentally kill himself on the unforgiving planet.  The log entries are counterbalanced by a real-time third person narrative of the efforts of NASA and JPL to get their astronaut back home.  Weir gets the mix right.  The log entries can get a bit dry at times , but are packed full of science and humor which works really well.  There are also a few bird’s eye view of Mars chapters as Weir describes what’s going on with the planet.  They are necessary pieces that seem a bit out of place with the general narrative style, but Weir handles them as well as can be expected.  And really, Mars can be considered the antagonist so why not check up on what’s happening with it and its attempts to make Watney not alive.

It is not often that I can say the movie is better than the book, but that is true in the case of “The Martian”.  What is even more amazing is the book is pretty darn good.  The movie very deftly cuts much of the problem parts of the book out completely while still keeping the book’s smarts and humor.  I would have much preferred to see the book’s ending in the movie than the Hollywood ending they went with and I was very happy that the book didn’t have the movie’s ending as I worried about when I did the movie review.  You should both see the movie and read the book.  They are both worth your time and each has its unique charm.

Movie Review: The Last Witch Hunter

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 3/5 stars

Bottom Line: Starts strong. Finishes with Vin Diesel “acting”.  Should be called “The Last Witch Follower”.

Yet another great premise ruined by bad writing.  And bad acting.  And little action.  And Vin Diesel.  I mean, wow, is Vin Diesel a bad actor.  Yes, this isn’t much of a surprise, but they made the mistake in this movie of putting him in the same scenes as people that can act.  I was surprised to see both Michael Caine and Elijah Wood in the movie and thought that boded well for the quality.  I was wrong. They just made Vin Diesel look all the worse.

The premise is pretty cool.  It is a world of humans and witches.  In the distant past, witches don’t much like the humans and attempt to unleash the Black Plague on the world thus killing off the humans.  A band of Witch Hunters travel to the heart of the Witch Queen’s lair to do battle with her and bring her evil schemes to an end.  The sole survivor of the battle, Kaulder (Vin Diesel), successfully kills the Witch Queen only to have her curse him with immortality as she dies.  Fast forward to present day and the still immortal Kaulder now occupies a world where the humans and witches have struck a pact to live peacefully together and Kaulder now plays the role of detective, hunting down witches who break the pact and bringing them before a Witch’s Council that pass judgement.

It’s a great setup.  the problem is there’s no follow through.  Very little actual hunting occurs.  The action follows this sort of setup:

Vin Diesel: Hi there, I can’t act.

Witch: Oh, you’re the scary Witch Hunter.

Vin Diesel: Damn skippy. You have no idea what powers you hold please be careful.

Witch: I see the errors of my ways.  Thank you.

Vin Diesel: Now I must be off for I have other witches to talk to and scare with my mere presence.

I am being slightly unfair.  There is also this setup:

Vin Diesel: Yep, still can’t act. Also, I am surprisingly trusting of witches and their magic and thus must fall asleep from the spell the witch puts on me thus putting me in great peril.  I sure hope Ygritte from “Game of Thrones” (Rose Leslie) can save my ass from this evil witch.

Ygritte: You know nothing Vin Diesel.  And boy, you really cannot act. You make me look like Michael Caine in comparison.

Michael Caine: Well, he does only because the geniuses who wrote this script decided to make me die almost immediately upon being introduced.

Elijah Wood: But then I take your place and the script writers also decide to criminally underutilize me as well and then when they do use me they give me this completely out of left field plot twist that makes no sense.

Ygritte: Guys?  This is a movie, can we please get on with it, I’m about to save Vin Diesel’s ass.  Again.

Michael Caine: Isn’t it really better this way?  You know, him asleep and all?

Ygritte: Point taken, but unlike you and Elijah, I still need to make a career for myself and this could be my big break.

Elijah Wood: Let her be, Michael.  We were both here once too.

Michael Caine: *sighs* Fine, hobbit, have it your way, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Ygritte: Thanks.  Ok, get up you sorry excuse for an action star.

Vin Diesel: Here I am, what did I miss?

The biggest problem is this is a movie that seems to want to look pretty more than it wants to express any coherent plot.  This would be all fine and good if half the looking pretty involved some ass-kicking of witches.  That key ingredient is, alas, lacking.  Sad to see another good premise go to waste, but at least I’ve now seen this movie so you don’t have to.

Book Review: Between The World And Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 5/5 stars

You should read this book.  Yes you.  If you think #blacklivesmatter, it will settle in your psyche what it’s like to grow up Black in the United States.  If you think #alllivesmatter, it is required reading for you to understand how uniquely put upon Blacks in the U.S. have been, are, and will continue to be as long as you remain so short-sighted to their struggle.  If you don’t know what all the commotion is about or are of the opinion that Blacks just need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, you owe it to yourself and our country to get educated on the subject and “Between the World and Me” is one of the best primers around.

I have now read “Between the World and Me” twice and it hits just as hard with the second reading as it did with the first.  Ta-Nehisi Coates is quickly becoming the voice of our generation.  He is the conscience of the U.S.; that nagging thought in the back of our minds that things aren’t right and need to be fixed; that thought that gets louder and louder until you can ignore it no longer.  No modern day writer can so effortlessly spring to life with the written word the state of race relations as he.

Coates’ story is told as a letter to his son.  It is an interesting vehicle.  Coates is speaking to you as though you are his son.  He is asking you to be a black teenager and to try to see the world that Coates sees through the lens of your experiences so far as his son.  As someone who has seen racism first hand and knows as least something of the Black Experience and is sympathetic to it, I found it very effective.  I am not sure that others who are outside the Experience will have the empathy to relate.  Books like this make me wish there were reality TV shows about book clubs where people of varying backgrounds get together to discuss the topics brought up in the book.  Man, this is total NPR bait.  Why has this not happened yet?  But I digress.

“Between the World and Me” is part biography, part history, part evolutionary, and all devastating.  Coates brings a clarity to race relations that most writers can’t manage. For example, the Dream.  The Dream is the ugly and all too real underbelly of the axiomatic American Dream.  Work hard, do right, be successful.  America, can do no wrong.  The flaw is in you if you don’t make it.  Ignore the past.  Put blinders on to the present.  The future is bright for everyone.

The most devastating of Coates’ stories is his retelling of the murder of Prince Jones, an acquaintance of Coates’ during his time at Howard University, at the hands of a police officer.  Prince’s family was THE success story.  His parents had “made it”.  They were able to provide safety and comfort.  But the success story of Black America can still be snatched away by the Dream.  Prince’s success story ended at the hands of a Prince George County police officer who followed a black man (that didn’t nearly match the description of the person he was looking for) through three states and gunned Prince Jones down steps away from the house of his fiancee.  The shooting was ruled justified.  Everyone quickly forgot.  It is as familiar a story as it is heartbreaking.

I am as pessimistic as Coates that things will get better.  That we, as a country, will someday remove our blinders.  That we, as a country, will someday see the ugliness of our past and learn from it.  But I have to say, despite the pessimism, despite the sadness, despite the rote stories of blacks being gunned down, “Between the World and Me” still brings me hope.  The stories are getting out there and seeping into our subconscious.  Coates has a vision and a new mandate in the form of a MacArthur Genius Grant to continue fueling the struggle with his gift of words.  I look forward with relish to his works yet to come.

Movie Review: The Martian

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 5/5 stars

Bottom Line: A funny, suspenseful, gripping drama chock full of SCIENCE!

Matt Damon should really never travel outside of his immediate surroundings.  Between “Saving Private Ryan” and “Interstellar” and now “The Martian”, things don’t go well for him when he travels more than a few thousand miles from home.  This time he needs rescuing from Mars.  Only problem is everyone thinks he’s dead.  Ouch.  So, yeah, step one, let N.A.S.A. know you’re alive.  Step two, survive for the thousand or so days it will take to launch a rescue mission.  Step three, profit?

I was a bit worried going in to the movie that we’d just be getting another “Castaway” only with Matt Damon talking to volleyballs on Mars instead of Tom Hanks on a deserted island.  Luckily, that worry was cast aside early as proof of life of Mark Watney (Matt Damon) was quickly reestablished with N.A.S.A. which enabled a pleasant back and forth of Watney vying for survival against the inhospitable Mars and N.A.S.A. trying to figure out if and how to get Watney back.  And, boy, do each of them have a boatload of problems to solve.  This is where the movie shines.  It makes science both informative and entertaining like few other movies have been able to do.  My favorite is the surprise guest appearance of a certain legendary vehicle that is used in an ingenious way to solve one of the bigger problems that Mark Watney has.

If I had to come up with one complaint about the movie, it would be that the final rescue was a tad too Hollywood-ish.  I get that you want to eke out every last drop from the suspense sponge, but a series of unfortunate events rarely leads to a pleasant outcome.  The sheer amount of things that had to go perfectly to counteract the unfortunate events was so daunting that it made the rescue a little roll-your-eyes.  But what do you expect?  Of course it’s going to be like that.  The trick will be if the book is like that too.

I probably liked this movie a lot more than I should have, but I am a sucker for well written science packed (and accurate-ish) movies.  With some rare exceptions like the insta-pressurizing airlocks which were obviously done for ease of film making, I can’t really come up with any glaring science flaws upon first watch.  And there were definitely be multiple watches of this movie in the future.  Now on to the book which I was hoping to get to before watching the movie.

Book Review: Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 4/5 stars

There is a lot of controversy over the seeming disparate views of Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s two books.  I say that anybody who believes that the character of Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird” and the character of Atticus Finch in “Go Set a Watchman” must be two distinct individuals knows nothing about what it means to be a racist.  Not believing in the whole Atticus Finch is much the reason why racism can still be so prevalent today and yet so hidden from most people’s existence.  Humanity is more Atticus Finch than we would like to believe.  Humanity is also more Jean Louise Finch than we should be comfortable with.  We have all the racism of Atticus while at the same time we have all the naivety and blindness of Jean Louise when it comes to that racism.

“Go Set a Watchman” is an important book more for the subjects it brings up than for the content it contains.  It is basically a loss of innocence story.  Content-wise it is quite uneven.  The first half of the book contains much of the magic that made “To Kill a Mockingbird” one of America’s most beloved books.  An adult Jean Louise Finch comes back to Macomb County from New York after being away for an unspecified amount of time and spends much of the first half of the book reacquainting herself with family and friends and reminiscing about her youth.  This is all a setup for the second half where realities are revealed that makes Jean Louise question everything she holds sacred as her hero father is revealed to be all too human.  Jean Louise’s attempts to reconcile all of this new knowledge is much weaker.  Racism and the way it presents itself is a very difficult task to tackle and Harper Lee, in some ways, gets the nuance of the argument right.  In other ways, it seems a bit forced and lacking in depth.

Much of the problem, I think, is that Harper Lee might have had a very specific portion of the population in mind when she wrote the book.  That is, those people who believe that States’ Rights are being overrun by the U.S. government.  I say this because the whole argument starts with the premise that the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka was a horrible decision because it infringed on States’ Rights.  Both Jean Louise and Atticus agree on this point.  This is an argument that could only ring true for those individuals who still think the Civil War was about States’ Rights and not slavery.  This is such a blatantly false premise on which to start an argument that much of what follows can be toppled by the slighted poke against the Jenga tower of rationalization that Lee builds.  And yet, Lee is presenting the argument that is the foundation of a good portion of the population’s belief system.  So maybe Lee is talking to everybody.  She gets across the rationale of the South (for lack of a better word) to those who might not have been exposed to such thought; and she takes digs at racism in small ways that might be enough to shake the fragile foundations on which racism stands.  Yeah, I’m probably reading way too much into this now.

The book ends more on an inspiring tone than a hopeful one.  Yes, Jean Louise and Atticus make up and Atticus is proud of Jean Louise for taking her stand, but there is still this new gulf between them that is only bridged by Uncle Jack’s wise words: “The time your friends need you is when they’re wrong, Jean Louise.  They don’t need you when they’re right.”  Words to live by as we confront those who believe in a “real America”.

And I will end with another quote from the book that rings quite true to me, again spoken by Uncle Jack: “Prejudice, a dirty word, and faith, a clean one, have something in common: they both begin where reason ends.”  May reason never end.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Genius!

I don’t much follow the MacArthur Genius Grants because they tend to go to individuals for esoteric subjects that I don’t much care about.  This year is different because one of my favorite writers, Ta-Nehisi Coates, was granted a fellowship this year.  Coates has long been a person I would like in my neighborhood and he hasn’t disappointed me since.  Most people like to brag about how they were fans of a band back well before they were famous.  I’m like that with Ta-Nehisi Coates.

YOU SHOULD READ ALL THE THINGS! (Insert Hyperbole and a Half graphic here).  Seriously, Coates is required reading if you want to understand race relations in the U.S. today.  I recently finished “Between the World and Me” which is a masterpiece and should be read by everyone with a pulse.  It is heavy and deep and I’m waiting on a reread before I write my review because it’s a whole lot to take in.  In the meantime, if you haven’t read his two brilliant long form articles, “The Case for Reparations” and “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration“, you should do so.

I look forward to what Coates will do when unfettered by the shackles of worrying about a paycheck.  I expect great things from him.  As does he from himself.

And if that weren’t enough, Lin-Manuel Miranda also was awarded a fellowship this year.  Don’t know who he is?  Me either.  But, I recently posted about his new play, “Hamilton“, which debuted this year and it is well worth listening to the entire awesome soundtrack.  I wonder what he’ll come up with next.