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.

Movie Review: Money Monster

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 3/5 stars

Bottom Line: A fluffy and enjoyable movie featuring two of the best actors in the business.  Manages to delightfully surprise the audience a few times.

Jim Cramer = Lee Gates.  Mad Money = Money Monster.  Lee Gates is an asshole and his show “Money Monster” is entertainment at best and a scam at worst.  You do the distributive math.  It’s weird watching a movie whose main character is so obviously drawn from real life.  I guess when you have such an over the top personality to draw from in real life, why try bending that mold at all.  That said, I can’t imagine this movie ever being made if not for the star power behind its making.  It’s obviously not meant to be a blockbuster and it’s really unclear that the movie has much of an audience beyond the star power drawing people to the movie.

Lee Gates (George Clooney) is the host of a TV show that predicts stock market winners in the most outrageously theatrical ways.  Needless to say, this isn’t a very good way for the people watching at home to make money.  When one man, Kyle (Jack O’Connell), invests all he has in one of Gates’ “sure thing” stocks and it bombs, he decides to take Lee hostage to get answers.

It’s a good premise for a movie and the whole hostage situation proceeds in a pleasingly organic way.  There are some funny and some surprising elements to the hostage situation that are also pretty realistic.  Then the movie goes for the easy path and attempts to make Gates the hero.  The denouement is kind of a mess.  It’s predicated on a bunch of happy coincidences and is not very satisfying.  I had the hope that the producer, Patty Finn (Julia Roberts), was actually in on the hostage situation the whole time and was manipulating things to get Gates to admit he was a fraud that hurt people.  But nooooo.  Instead it’s a fake software glitch and hackers and trips to South Africa and an insider who is conveniently able to manipulate the greedy, corrupt CEO into a position where he will have to confess to the world of his crimes.  It was still enjoyable, but I like my version better.

It’s always a pleasure to see Julia Roberts or George Clooney in a film.  This has both and their great chemistry alone makes this worth seeing.  The movie was also directed by Jodie Foster, whom I had no idea even directed movies.  That’s a lot of star power for one film.  I wouldn’t quite say that “Money Monster” is worth seeing, but it is enjoyable enough to watch if you’re looking to watch a movie and nothing much else is showing.

Movie Review: Captain America: Civil War

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 5/5 stars

Bottom Line: Possibly the best Marvel movie to date.  Well crafted, well choreographed.  A lot going on but it is all done in an amazingly controlled way.

There is a lot going on in “Captain America: Civil War”.  I mean a whole lot.  Tons of old favorite superheroes.  A few new superheroes.  Complicated plots.  Wonderfully choreographed fight scenes.  Pitch perfect humor.  In less capable hands (*cough* Zach Snyder *cough*), it could easily lead to an amalgam of scenes thrown together without much cohesion to tie the movie together.  Anthony and Joe Russo somehow avoided this trap and spliced together a wonderful movie.

The primary driver of the action is the simple premise that the Avengers are a group of beings who, for better or worse, have caused some serious collateral damage in their quest to “save” humanity and yet are unanswerable to anyone but themselves.  The nations of the world think that needs to change.  Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) agrees with them.  Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) disagrees.  This causes a rift in the Avengers and they take sides.  It’s a pretty heavy premise to hang a whole movie around.  That it succeeds in making both sides so believable that you can empathize with both is a minor movie miracle.  It’s a heady topic, but this is a serious movie that knows not to take itself too seriously.  It is interspersed with spiffy one-liners and visual gags which do not detract from the story or the action at all.

Added to all of this are some beautiful fight scenes.  I mean, superheros vs. superheroes, yes please!  I’m sure someone dorkier than I can point to a plethora of tag team moves taken straight from the comics, but the way they all worked together was so much fun.  Sure, some of it is silly, but, uh, did I mention they are superheroes?

I have only a few minor quibbles.  The biggest of which is the fact that this is a movie about the unintended consequences of the superheroes’ actions and yet they decided to take the easy way out and make sure this didn’t apply to the superheroes themselves.  I get it, they want to protect their intellectual property, but superheroes come back from the dead or are replaced all the time in the comics.  It would have been nice to see that happen here.  Also, the only scene that didn’t really work too well for me was the part when Tony Stark recruits Peter Parker (Tom Holland).  It felt a little too gimmicky.  Tom Holland, by the way, appears to be a great choice for Spiderman.

If you’re a dork, you have already seen this movie and likely mostly agree with me as to how good it was.  If you’re not a dork, you should go see this movie as well because it is that good.  If you’ve not seen the other Captain America/Avenger movies, I’d recommend seeing it with a dork so they can fill you in on some of the finer dorkness that might not make sense to a neophyte.  Of all the movies that have been made in the Marvel universe so far, this is probably the best introduction even if you are picking it up in the middle of the action.

Movie Review: The Jungle Book

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 3/5 stars

Bottom Line: A perfectly enjoyable kid’s movie, though not much for adults.  Beautiful effects.  Mostly wonderful acting.

I was wary going into seeing Disney’s retelling of their classic “The Jungle Book”.  The whole “everything is computer generated except Mowgli” thing was a tough sell.  The CGI was fairly seemless and gorgeous.  Neel Sethi, who plays Mowgli, does a pretty good job interacting with thin air.  This is a pretty challenging role for someone so young and he mostly pulls it off.  The rest of the generated animals were pretty well done as well.  The dark, deep voice of Idris Elba makes for a convincing Shere Khan.  Stately and aloof Bagheera is voiced by Ben Kingsley.  Bill Murray plays himself as Baloo.  Lupita Nyong’o, who has the best name ever, is motherly and protective as Raksha.

There were a few disappointing performances.  Kaa as voiced by Scarlett Johansson, I felt, was not menacing enough.  Although, she did do the slipperiness of his voice quite well.  Then there was King Louie.  Ugh, King Louie.  Didn’t like that part of the movie at all.  First, they make him monstrously large to the point he towers over everyone including Baloo.  Then they give him the voice of Christopher Walken who does not in any way evoke the presence of a larger than life figure.  Then they make King Louie sing in pretty much the same timbre as the cartoon version.  All sorts of bad decisions.

There is very little singing in this version.  Mowgli and Baloo do a fairly organic rendition of “Bear Necessities” in that it really fits with their personalities and neither of them can sing very well at all.  And King Louie’s “I Want to Be Like You” just feels completely out of place.  So, of course, they decide to do the whole song during the closing credits.  It would have been nice if they had made “I Want to Be Like You” more menacing to fit King Louie’s personality during the movie and then do the light, fluffy version of the original cartoon during the credits.

If you have kids, I’d say it’s worth taking them to see “The Jungle Book”.  It’s pleasant and light and has enough eye candy to keep them entertained.  If you don’t, meh.  If you like kid’s movies, it’s worth your time.  If you don’t, you should probably find your entertainment elsewhere.

Movie Review: Criminal

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 2/5 stars

Bottom Line: The only thing criminal about this movie is the script.  Takes a good, if preposterous, premise and turns the preposterousness up to 11.

This movie is a lot like Ted Cruz.  I want to punch both in the face.  But while my reasons for wanting to punch Ted Cruz in the face don’t go much beyond “Look at that face!”, my reasons for wanting to punch “Criminal” in the face are well reasoned.

The movie starts out pretty well.  Bill Pope (Ryan Reynolds) is a CIA agent who was tortured and killed by an unknown assailant and has information vital to an operation the CIA is trying to pull off.  They contact Dr. Franks (Tommy Lee Jones) who has been working with ways of transferring memories from one rat to another.  Dr. Franks chooses as the recipient of these memories Jericho Stewart (Kevin Costner), a sociopath whose brain damage at an early age makes him uniquely qualified for said memory transfer because…because.  The reason doesn’t matter.  It’s a pretty cool sci-fi-ish setup.

So now you have a sociopath of the variety with absolutely no filters and no ability to feel emotions with the memories of a CIA agent slowly leaking into his consciousness.  What do you think is going to happen?  Chaos of course.  Wild escapes.  Chases.  Plots.  Schemes.  Jericho falling in love with Bill Pope’s wife Jill (Gal Gadot).  The works.

It is with the latter, Jericho falling for Jill where all semblance of agency are lost.  Not for Jericho, but for Jill.  It totally makes sense for Jericho to become flooded with Bill’s memories of his wife and experience some of the love Bill felt for Jill.  The problem is Jill freakin’ reciprocates.  After Jericho breaks into her house, ties her up, menaces her daughter, and breaks into her house a second time.  All because Jericho can touch his nose just like Bill did to indicate that he loves Jill.  You can stretch credulity some with this setup and, say, have her help Jericho escape his pursuers, but reciprocating his love?  WTF, script writers?  This utter nonsense continues all the way to the closing credits.  Thus my desire to punch this movie in the face.

Besides the part that makes Jean-Paul want to smash, it’s a decent story.  It’s a shame that I couldn’t get Jean-Paul smash out of my head for almost the entire second half of the movie.  Cut all that BS out and you might have a pretty decent movie.  With it, ugh, go see something else.

Movie Review: Midnight Special

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 3/5 stars

Bottom Line: Great premise.  Great build up.  Complete let-down of an ending.

What we have here is a failure to resolve anything.  Or, to be fair, things are resolved but not in a terribly satisfying way.  It is hard to explain why without saying things that I would consider ruining the enjoyment of the movie.  This is definitely one of those movies that is best to enter into with a tabula rasa.  I will point to one inconsequential tidbit as an example.  At the very beginning, Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher) is kidnapped by his father Roy (Michael Shannon) and Roy’s friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton).  An Amber Alert goes out telling everyone to be on the lookout for them.  Not once is it explained who called in the kid as missing.  It is explained why various parties wouldn’t have done so, but never who did.  It’s a minor point, but there are major points galore that are never explained by the time the closing credits roll.

Where he’s going he doesn’t need roads.  “Midnight Special” is a journey.  Along the journey, the questions pile up as you try to figure out the role each person plays and wonder what’s up with the kid.  It is effectively done.  Much of this is due to the wonderful ensemble cast including Kirsten Dunst (who is one of maybe three women who have a speaking role in the movie) and Adam Driver (who I still don’t understand why women find attractive).  It is also a really good story.  All of the elements are there for a terrific movie.  It probably says more about the type of movie I want to see than it does about the quality of the movie that the ending was like a giant balloon being deflated and had me leaving the movie with a sense of emptiness which ruined my enjoyment up to that point.  Also, if you can explain to me why the movie is named “Midnight Special”, you win the grand prize.  It didn’t even have the Creedence Clearwater Revival song in its soundtrack.  Or even better, the LedBelly version.

If you want answers or the truth, you can’t handle this movie.  But if you want a slickly built, tension building chase movie, “Midnight Special” is worth your time even if you are disappointed with the ending.