Book Review: Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 1/5 stars

“Mockingjay” is book three of the grossly overhyped “Hunger Games” trilogy.  One last time, we join Katniss Everdeen and her thoughts as they both wander mostly aimlessly through the world of Panem as a revolution is fought around them.

“Mockingjay” is a testament to the severe limitations of a first-person present tense narrative.  You are stuck in the head of one person who, for much of the book, just has things happen to her and around her instead of her actions leading the narrative.  Throughout the book, Katniss devolves into something almost less than human as she deals with the PTSD from the Games and heaps blame on herself for the deaths of the thousands who are losing their lives in the revolution against the Capitol.  The book is, just like Katniss Everdeen’s sanity, purely superficial.  It is not exciting.  It is not insightful.  It does not delve deep into any of hundreds of interesting topics or moral questions brought up in its pages.

Looking back, I recognize that even the first book had these limitations.  Why the much better review for that one than the next two?  Simply because there was a world building aspect to it that the second book almost stopped doing and the third book completely stopped doing.  Without the thoughts and ideas of a brand new world, there’s not much there.

What’s most galling about the third book and what earns it the one star in my estimation is the absolutely ludicrous series of decisions that are made by people who should know basic rules of combat and the downright silly series of traps that make up the defenses of the Capitol.  The latter is by far the worst offender.  If you had your choice between a series of certainly deadly but much less deadly than the deadliest trap or the deadliest trap which can really only be avoided by pure luck, which would you spread around the city for your defenses?  If you didn’t choose the latter, you are either a moron or developing a video game.

Even the big twist surprise at the end of the book is a snore.  Without spoiling anything, Katniss does something pretty stupid and shocking.  She then sits in a room alone for months.  Exciting.  Although, you really shouldn’t be surprised at the letdown by that point.  Variations on that theme happen a few times to Katniss.

Quite disappointing to say the least.  My suggestion is to pretend that Katniss and Peeta eat the berries at the end of the first book.  That way you can skip the next two books.  Dammit, I’m still going to see the final “Mockingjay Part 2” movie.

Oh, and a special message to Katniss Everdeen and fans of Cinna everywhere.  You do realize that he was as much of an evil person as everyone else who Katniss is pissed at for manipulating her.  In fact, Cinna is the worst of the bunch.  He was obviously in on the plot to make Katniss a rallying point.  He is solely responsible for sculpting Katniss’ image into the girl the world wanted instead of the girl she actually was.  He also designed her battle armor.  But Cinna’s the one looking out for Katniss while Haymitch, Plutarch, and Coin deserve nothing but scorn?  Please.

Movie Review: Straight Outta Compton

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 4/5 stars

Bottom Line:   A well developed, well told biopic of the genre defining rap group NWA. Some great music and good acting.  Becomes a little lost in the last act.

I was a high schooler when NWA’s debut album, “Straight Outta Compton”, first came out.  Besides all the controversy surrounding the group, the music pretty much wasn’t on my radar.  I remember being more amused by the lyrical battles between Ice Cube and NWA (which are awesome!) than enjoying their other social commentary stuff (which is also pretty good).  This movie spans the forming of the group up to shortly after the death of founding member, Easy-E when NWA was getting back together to tour.

Much ink has been spilled over the glossing over of history in the movie, but I think it’s as fair as possible given that there is only so much that can be put in two and a half hours.  The members of NWA are shown as human beings who both did things wrong and right.  Yep, both they and their lyrics were misogynist.  Yep, both they and their lyrics were violent.  What’s surprising is how little ink I’ve seen spilled over how topical NWA’s socially conscious lyrics continue to be two and a half decades later.  What’s even more surprising retrospectively is how much white America feared a bunch of young kids blowing off steam by using one of the only creative outlets available to them.

The movie gets a little lost when it gets into the handling of the Rodney King beating and subsequent not guilty verdict of the LAPD police officers.  It figures prominently in the movie, but there’s not much except looks of incredulity offered by the band members along with a really weird scene of them driving slowly through the riots that ensued after the verdict came in.  I’m sure their reactions were much more emotional than what was portrayed and I think the director missed a good opportunity to use a universal historical moment to help non-blacks understand where the rage from their lyrics comes from.

There is also some decent acting in this movie from relative unknowns (and Paul Giamatti).  Throughout the movie, I found it eerie how much the actor who played Ice Cube looked kinda like him but not quite only to find out from the credits that it was his son, O’Shea Jackson Jr., who had never acted before this role and who you can see growing into the role as the movie progressed.  I especially liked Jason Mitchell as Easy-E, who in the beginning of the movie I couldn’t get out of my head how he looked kind of like a young Dave Chappelle.  Corey Hawkins played Dr. Dre very effectively as well.  I would not be at all surprised if this movie kick starts all of their careers.

If you remember the days of NWA, you should certainly see this movie.  If you want to see how little has changed in so many years, you should definitely see this movie.  If you like biopics and especially ones about musicians, you will not be disappointed in this movie.  It has that rare combination of entertainment and information that doesn’t come often.

Oh, and I also discovered that Suge Knight is still alive.  I thought he was killed.  He’s only been shot half a million times and survived it all.  Dude has nine lives, most of the rest of which will probably be served in jail.

Movie Review: Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 4/5 stars

Bottom Line: A well put together spy thriller.  Plenty of suspenseful action.  More of a buddy film than a team film.

The Impossible Mission Force (IMF) is back and this time they’re fighting to take down a shadow force of anti-IMF agents called the Syndicate determined to reshape the world into something something pretend I’m saying something that makes sense by performing all sorts of heinous deeds.  Yeah, the whole plan for what the Syndicate is trying to accomplish is kind of vague, but that can be forgiven because the rest of the movie is pretty solid.

There is not really an IMF this time, it having been disbanded early in the movie.  What we have is Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) going all rogue (though not the rogue in the title) in an effort to find out what the Syndicate (the rogue in the title) is up to.  Ethan eventually gets Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) to help him in his shenanigans, but that’s mostly it.  The other regulars are more thrown in for exposition in the case of William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) or for “oh am I in this too?” for Luther Stickwell (Ving Rhames).  There is also the femme fatal, Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), who you are never quite sure what side she’s fighting for.  The result is a streamlined spy thriller with a surprisingly tight plot.

What I liked best about the film was the way it used technology.  Most spy thrillers use technology as a means of overcoming human adversaries.  In this film, it is used almost entirely to only overcome other technology, with a little bit of flash thrown in.  The race to use that technology often requires action sequences where it is up to the human to fight against the technology mono-a-machineo.  This makes for a much better film than using technology to save the day or the ample use of fake masks that occurred in the other “Mission: Impossible” films.

There is much to like here and much to recommend.  This is a movie that doesn’t really slow down much for its entire 131 minutes running time.  The result is leaving the theater with a feeling of time well spent.  I can’t really see any fans of the genre being disappointed in the movie.

Book Review: Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 2/5 stars

“Catching Fire” contains absolutely zero character development and produces very little in the way of furthering any meaningful plot.  This was surprising to me as I really enjoyed its movie equivalent.  I can report that all the stuff that I thought would be explained better in the book than in the movie was not.

The plot for “Catching Fire” can best be described so: The Capitol is watching you, Katniss, you made us look silly.  I’ll be good.  Oh, look, rebellion!  Oh, look, another Hunger Games and the twist is Katniss and Peeta are back in it!  I will save you!  No, I will save you!  No, I will save you!  No, I will save you!  No, we all will save you!  Game over!  There’s a rebellion?  The end.

The…whatever it is between Peeta and Katniss…is especially vomit inducing.  It’s like a romance between two kindergarteners.  Peeta has always loved Katniss even though you could count on one hand the number of words the two had exchanged before the first Hunger Games.  Katniss at least has conflicted feelings for how/why/if she loves Peeta, but she keeps up the whole “does he love me or is he playing a game” thing no matter how many times he chastely sleeps beside her.  Why in the world would she want to risk all to save him?  Because he’s a good person.  Ignore all the doubts Katniss expresses throughout, there’s a book to write.

The Quarter Quell, what each 25th year of the Hunger Games is called, is a complete waste of time.  It’s used solely as a mechanism for producing intrigue when any thinking person would have made damn sure there is no intrigue to be had this late in the game.  The design of the Arena is pretty cool at least with its hourly horror shows.  Even that is spoiled, though, by the absolutely preposterous plan thought up by a supposed genius to kill the final two remaining Career Tributes.

The book ends with one of those “oh, so that was the plan all along” moments followed quickly by “boy, was that stupid”.  And with that it reminds me why it’s classified as young adult fiction.  But this is young adult fiction that thinks young adults are shallow.  If I weren’t a completist, I’d probably skip reading the third book, but alas, I will power through the third.  There is a war coming after all.

Movie Review: Fantastic Four

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 1/5 stars

Bottom Line: The amount of good material in this movie adds up to about five minutes.  The rest ranges from mildly interesting to “oh, get on with it already”.

Longest.  Origin story.  Ever.  Why, oh why did we have to sit through a half hour of Reed Richards and Ben Grimm becoming bestest buds in grammar school?  Who thought that was a good idea?  You want to establish that they’re best friends?  Do a five minute back and forth between the two of them prior to their high school science project.  But that would have required someone who could write.  Which this movie didn’t have.  And we’re only half way through the origin story at this point.  Another half hour or so is spent introducing Sue and Johnny Storm and Victor Von Doom.  None of them are interesting.  Well, maybe Von Doom is a little interesting, but his story is completely glossed over and it’s only interesting because you fill in the blanks yourself.  Then finally, FINALLY, they become the Fantastic Four.  And are immediately captured and tested on for a half hour.  Then they fight Dr. Doom for ten minutes and the movie’s over.

So yeah, don’t waste your time.  It’s barely worth writing this review.  There hasn’t been a good Fantastic Four movie yet and, in fact, they keep getting worse.  Marvel had quite a good streak going and they blew it.

Now, let’s talk about how chicken shit Hollywood is.  Spoiler warning for all you racist comic book dweebs.  Johnny Storm is black.  *gasp*  Yes, there are a lot of people pissed off about that.  Welcome to post-racial America.  Actually, I’m pissed off about that too.  Not because Johnny Storm is black, but because Sue Storm is white.  She was adopted, you see, and they have a very cringe inducing scene where they explain that.  Heaven forbid two of the four heroes are black!  And we couldn’t possibly have a mixed race relationship between Reed Richards and Sue Storm in this day and age.  Too many racists would need to be led to the fainting couch and given smelling salts.  And every movie needs its pretty white woman.

Book Review: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 4/5 stars

Yes, I’m reading the “Hunger Games” trilogy.  No, so far I don’t regret it.  I actually found the first book quite enjoyable.  It has a very good pace and is quite exciting.  It is also a very easy read and the 400 or so pages just fly by.  I’m not sure if Collins wrote the book with a movie in mind or if my judgement is clouded by actually seeing the movie, but the book reads like it was made to be a movie.

There are basically three acts to the book.  You have the build up to the Hunger Games, the Hunger Games themselves, and the aftermath of the Hunger Games.  The build up establishes the world of Panem and especially the coal mining District 12.  It establishes the major characters and their relationships.  It’s a pretty solid introduction.  Act 2 introduces a bunch of secondary characters who are really superfluous except for Haymitch who is the only one that it actually feels like there is a human connection to the main characters.  More on that later.  The post-Hunger Games stuff is kind of meh.  There are lots of “oh, you’re in even more danger than you were when you were fighting for your live” and little in actual explanation.  It was a poor way to end a book, but i assume this will be rectified in the next book because I have seen the movies.

Collins’ main flaw is in character interaction.  Katniss and Peeta…ugh.  Peeta’s motivations and actions make some sense, but Collins writes Katniss as completely out of character deliberately dense towards Peeta just to make the story more “interesting”.  And I still don’t get how Peeta’s alliances in the Games makes sense.  Then there’s Katniss’ relationship with Cinna.  Katniss and Cinna become fast friends because, well, it can probably just be boiled down to “he dresses me pretty”.  It is not unbelievable that Katniss would strike up a friendship with Cinna, but that possibility is not at all conveyed by the written word.  And here’s where I get in trouble.  Even Rue…  Poor little Rue who reminds Katniss so much of her sister Prim.  At least that establishes some sort of emotional tie with Rue, but it’s really with Prim.  The entire time spent with Rue is probably two days max.  But you, the reader, do get to know Rue in that time so the bait is set and the hook is drawn and Rue becomes a favorite character for all of eternity.  For me, the best thing about the Rue story (and the whole book) was when the people of District 11(?) sent the gift of bread to Katniss.  Now THAT was sad and touching.  It’s not all bad, though.  District 12 is alive with interesting characters that Katniss interacts with on a daily basis.  Collins is very comfortable writing about that.

The world of Panem is pretty interesting, if a little vague. You can actually imagine a country being built around Panem’s ideals.  Keep the plebeians segregated and poor but producing while the oligarchs live it up in outrageous luxury in the Capitol.  It’s easy to imagine because those countries exist already to varying lesser degrees.  And while there are no Hunger Games, there is certainly privileged disdain for the poor and downtrodden to the point of not really caring if they live or die.  I look forward to the fleshing out of the world of Panem in the future novels.

“The Hunger Games” is a solid young adult book.  Sure, it has its glaring flaws, but they are easily overlooked by just how readable the book is.  The plot is good, if a bit derivative, and just vague enough where you get to throw your own ideals into the holes to make the book about whatever you want it to be about.  This is a great beach reading book.

Because Of Course

And what shows up the day after I get back from GenCon?

image

Exploding Kittens. Well played, Exploding Kittens team. Well played.

Movie Review: Trainwreck

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 4/5 stars

Bottom Line: An awkwardly hilarious movie but not in the laugh-out-loud way.

Amy Schumer is at her comedic prime.  She’s just killing everything.  If you have not seen her “12 Angry Men” parody, you need to do so.  If you don’t like it you are no longer my friend.  She continues that streak in “Trainwreck”.  Schumer’s comedy can be best described as awkwardly hilarious.  Amy wrote as well as starred in the movie so it is just chock full of Schumerisms.  What’s a Schumerism?  Take gender norms, turn them on their head, spin them around until they throw up, and then make fun of them.  And you have a Schumerism.  Her humor comes at you sideways and you often don’t even see it coming.  It’s like an aneurysm only of laughter.

“Trainwreck” is a somewhat stereotypical raunchy rom-com only almost every gender role is completely reversed.  And yes, Judd Apatow directed it.  Beacuse of course he did.  Schumer plays Amy, a hard-drinking, raunchy woman who sleeps with just about anyone with a penis.  That is until she meets a guy and falls in love and screws it up and must mend her ways to get him back.  So, yeah, nothing groundbreaking with the plot.  But it’s in the execution where this movie succeeds.  There are some great awkward sex scenes as well as some surprisingly good supporting acting jobs by the likes of John Cena as Amy’s go-to boy toy, Colin Quinn as Amy’s dad, and LeBron James as some Bizzaro World version of himself.  Amy Schumer herself stands out as well.  She has some decent dramatic acting chops to go along with her impeccable comedic timing.  If she ever decides to drop the straight comedy thing she should certainly have a career as a dramatist if she wants it.

My one complaint about the film is that is could have done with some strategic editing.  A few of the scenes went on for a little too long and could have benefitted by some tightening up.  You don’t see many two-hour long comedies and while the movie was still really good, it felt like two hours.

“Trainwreck” was an incredibly fun movie.  It’s one of those movies that you’ll find yourself illegally streaming every few years to relive the laughter.  Sure, it’s a plot that’s been done before, but the comedy has all sorts of uniqueness to it that will have you coming back for more.

Book Review: A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 5/5 stars

What happens when you have time to kill and find yourself between books?  You go to Project Gutenberg and download a classic essay that has withstood the sands of time.  Project Gutenberg, to know it is to love it.

Fully titled “A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People From Being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick”, but more popularly known simply as “A Modest Proposal”, it is a short essay in which Swift proposes the eating of Irish babies as a solution to the societal ills of poverty and overcrowding.  The reason this essay has had a place in the human psyche for centuries is because it is as pertinent now as it was then.

Why, then, hasn’t anyone tried to mimic Swift with an updated version satirizing current events?  My guess is that deadpan satire is all but dead.  Our Jon Stewarts and Stephen Colberts only work because they are clearly lampooning politics.  A Swiftian essay on, say Greece for example, is much more likely to be taken as a serious and worthwhile suggestion by those who think the current situation is being handled gracefully.  I’m looking at you Germany.

Some German intellectual really needs to step up and write that essay.  “A Modest Proposal for Preventing the People of Greece From Being a Burden to Themselves and the European Union, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Public”.  It really has to be in German.  Wouldn’t have the same impact in English.  Get cracking.

“A Modest Proposal” is worth reading if only to see how far we haven’t come.  It doesn’t take a lot of time to read, but will likely stay with you if you are of the social justice bent.

Book Review: Unnatural Creatures

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 4/5 stars

Say Neil Gaiman decided to put together a bunch of short stories from various authors from various times which all had the theme of an animal which doesn’t quite belong in nature.  You’d want to read that book, right?  Yes, yes you would.  Enter, “Unnatural Creatures”.   As an added benefit, proceeds from the sale of “Unnatural Creatures” will benefit the nonprofit 826DC, whose mission it is to foster creative writing skills in children.  Almost makes me feel guilty that I got my copy from the library.  Almost.

There are sixteen short stories found in this volume.  Contained therein are werewolves, unusual spots, griffins, cocatoucans, phoenixes, and more.  The stories are written by a whole list of authors you probably have never heard of and were first penned from as far back as the late 1800s up to present day.  The high quality of said stories shows that Gaiman went to great lengths to choose the perfect sixteen to go together.  There isn’t a loser in the bunch.

Each story opens with a short couple of paragraphs by Gaiman introducing the author as well as describing what drew him to the story.  It’s a nice touch that often fails when putting compilations together, but not here.  Gaiman is succinct and descriptive, a gift that is hard to come by.

My loan from the library expired and I’m finding it more difficult than it is worth to find a list of the stories on the interwebs so I’ll have to go by memory of some of my favorites.  And sorry, but I’m not going to remember any of the authors.  The one about the unusual spot on the dining room tablecloth actually doesn’t have a name, but a picture for a name.  It’s almost Lovecraftian with its tale of extradimensional intrigue.  Another that stands out is the one about the epicurean club with poor long-term memory searching for a morsel that they haven’t digested yet.  Probably my favorite is “The Griffin and the Minor Canon” which is about a Griffin who longs to see what he looks like and finds his likeness in a statue on the parapets of a church in which the Canon resides.  It is certainly the most complex of the sixteen.  But really, you can’t go wrong with any of them.

Even though I did not buy this book, “Unnatural Creatures” is worth buying.  Not only do you get a solid collection of short stories, but you also get to benefit a good cause.  Short stories, to me, are the most difficult literary form to do well so when you find a good collection like “Unnatural Creatures”, you should treasure it.