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.

Movie Review: Everest

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 4/5 stars

Bottom Line: Slow start. Good finish. Some awe inspiring shots of Everest.

In 1996, a bunch of really stupid people paid an exorbitant amount of money to a handful of hot-shot experienced mountain climbing guides who made decisions that were detrimental to the safety of their clients and eight of them never returned, including three of the guides.  This is their story.  Dun-DUN.

When I first saw a preview for “Everest”, I thought that they were finally making Jon Krakauer’s wonderful book, “Into Thin Air”, into a movie. I was wrong.  Well, kind of.  You see, “Everest” does, indeed, tell the same story as the true-life account retold by Krakauer in his book, but the movie is not associated with Krakauer or his book despite the fact that Krakauer was actually on that fateful climb to the top of Everest and he is a character in the movie.  This reeks of Hollywood shenanigans, but I suppose there’s no copyright on real life events.

As explained in the movie, you are quite literally dying on the final leg up to the top of Mt. Everest.  Why would anyone want to put themselves through this?  Because it’s there.  But also, my god is Everest beautiful.  I’m sure the beauty of the mountain is farthest from the minds of climbers as they’re suffering their way up the mountain, but its sheer magnificence must be at least part of the reason people with too much money flock to the top of Mt. Everest.  This is one of those movies where the backdrop becomes one of the characters.  Seeing “Everest” on the big screen is worth it just for the mountain.

A movie like this requires a lot of setup.  There is a large cast of characters and it takes time to get to know them, but you need to know them in order for the final act to have any personal meaning at all.  This makes the beginning a bit slow.  It’s worth it, though.  The payoff is big and it is interesting both how much preparation is made into getting the clients up the mountain and how much silly bravado is exhibited by many of the climbers.

Things don’t get really interesting until the climbers finally reach the summit.  Then all hell breaks loose as what was a climbing movie with the mountain as a protagonist becomes a rescue movie with the mountain as an antagonist.  It’s a combination of a bunch of really dumb decisions, horrible miscommunications, and bad luck that led to the results of that day.  It is shot beautifully with no punches pulled.  The most harrowing part of the movie comes from an absolutely insane helicopter rescue attempt that requires a special amount of stupid to even consider let alone try.

You want to see “Everest” in the theater mostly for the absolute beauty of the scenery.  If you are going to wait until it hits homes, be sure to crash a friend’s house with a nice home-theater system to watch it.  Either way, this is a movie well worth seeing.

Movie Review: The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 3/5 stars

Bottom Line: Wants to be a good movie but doesn’t quite get there.  One bad casting choice.  Decent premise and fun, light action.

I have no recollections of watching “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” reruns as a child even though I remember it being on and absolutely loving “The Avengers” (no not THOSE Avengers) reruns.  This means I really didn’t know much about the premise of the show going into the movie besides the fact that it was one of many spy shows from the 60s and my mom liked it.

The movie version is an origin story.  Set in the post-World War II era when the Cold War was just getting started, it follows he of the best spy name ever, Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) as he is sent on a mission to rescue Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander) from East Berlin before Russian spy Ilya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) gets to her.  Gaby is the daughter of a German nuclear scientist who recently turned up after being AWOL for years and both the U.S. and Russia want their hands on him.  All three end up having to team up to find the man after it is discovered that a shadowy organization plans to use his nuclear knowledge for their own devices.

This is a Guy Ritchie film and it shows.  Very stylistic.  Very cool.  Very nonchalant.  This works out pretty well except for Henry Cavill.  At time, Cavill pulls it off nicely.  Like when he stops for a snack break inside a truck while his unwilling partner, Ilya, is chased by guards only to step in and save him in the nick of time.  At other times, Cavill is king of off-putting.  It has something to do with his voice more than his mannerisms, I think.  He never quite strikes that devil-may-care attitude with his talk.  It was, at times, hard to get past.

The movie ends with a very obvious sequel setup as the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement is formed.  What a mouthful.  We’ll stick with U.N.C.L.E.  Sadly, I do not foresee a sequel in this franchise’s future.  It did pretty poorly at the box office.  That’s kind of a shame as the whole premise for it is quite good.  You have the whole East/West tension thing going on.  Plus each of the main characters are interesting in their own right to be able to dig some good stories out of them.  It’s also nice to have a spy movie that obviously doesn’t take itself too seriously without being silly.  Oh well.

You will like this film if: You like light spy action films.  You have nostalgia for the TV show.  You like Guy Richie-style movies.  You enjoy caper-ish plots.

You will not like this film if: You dislike Henry Cavill.  You think any sign of cooperation between the U.S. and Russia is a sign of the imminent destruction of democracy.  You think spy films should be serious as sin.

Movie Review: No Escape

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 3/5 stars

Bottom Line: The second best chase movie of the year.  Lots of good suspense and action.

Every chase movie ever made from this point on will have to be compared to “Mad Max: Fury Road” which is a chase masterpiece.  “No Escape” is no “Fury Road” but it is still a worth while movie.  The premise is an interesting one.  Jack Dwyer (Owen Wilson) and his family relocate to Unnamed Asian Country for Jack’s job and happen to arrive just as a coup erupts.  The coup is in reaction to corporate malfeasance of Jack’s company which makes Jack and the other expatriates target number one for the angry mob’s wrath.  The Dwyers must thus escape from the angry mob to safety.

What makes “No Escape” a bit different than most chase movies is the Dwyers have two small children who they must cart around.  Yes, the children are used mostly as props, but they are used very effectively and believably as props.  There is one scene in particular where Jack must throw his children across a chasm between two buildings that is heart-in-your-throat chilling.

The one major failing of “No Escape” is its use of Hammond (Pierce Brosnan), an obvious intelligence officer of some sort who ends up helping the Dwyers escape because he helped Jack’s company infiltrate the country thus causing the conditions for the coup.  Hammond is actually a good character story wise until he explains that he’s helping the Dwyers because he feels guilty and wants to correct a wrong when it could have totally worked to say that he was just doing his job of making sure that people under his protection safely made their way out.  And it certainly would have made it possible for them to skip the most roll-your-eyes moment of the movie which kind of ruined the end.

Despite its imperfections, “No Escape” is a fun movie and brings its own unique spin to the genre.  It’s certainly worth a lazy couch day watching.

When Is This Coming To Chicago?

There is currently a musical called “Hamilton” playing in New York.  It’s a retelling of Alexander Hamilton’s life set to rap. NPR has the entire soundtrack.  Listen to it.  It is spectacular.

Movie Review: Mr Holmes

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 4/5 stars

Bottom Line: Delightful story and well acted.  A good combination of intrigue and lightness.  Plus, it’s Sherlock Holmes!

It is sometimes strange how two unrelated yet so similar works of art fall into your lap within a short period of time.  Neil Gaiman’s “Trigger Warning” book, which I recently finished reading featured a Sherlock Holmes short story called “The Case of Death and Honey” which took an older Sherlock Holmes and sent him to China after the death of his brother Mycroft looking for bees that may provide the secret to everlasting life.  Not two weeks later, I see “Mr. Holmes”, a story about a retired Sherlock Holmes who travels to China to procure a royal jelly only produced by bees that feed on a specific type of flower which gives the imbiber a more clearly focused mind.  The two are different enough in content but too eerily similar in a number of details for there not to be an influence.  The influence would be on Gaiman in this case as his story was first published in 2011 as best as I can tell and the book “A Slight Trick of the Mind” (on which “Mr. Holmes” is based) was published in 2005.  I don’t recall Gaiman citing “A Slight Trick of the Mind” as an influence, but it wouldn’t have meant anything to me when I read Gaiman’s story.

“Mr. Holmes” is about how much it sucks to get old.  Sherlock Holmes languishes in retirement with his bees in a cottage in the countryside where he is taken care of by a housekeeper and her son.  In the early stages of a mind wasting disease, he spends much of his time trying to recollect his final case which he believes caused him to go into retirement. The story is really a mystery within a mystery as Holmes both tries to piece together the fragments of his brain while also trying to piece together the facts of his final case at the same time.  What a drag it is to get old. He finds in the housekeeper’s young son a kindred spirit and someone to whom he can pass on a bit of his legacy.  Through the kid, Holmes recovers some of his own humanity.

I remember coming out of the theater and saying to my brother, “That was delightful.” And that word really sums up “Mr. Holmes” nicely.  Sherlock Holmes is played by Ian McKellen who needs to make a billion more movies before he dies.  Either that or get into infinite hijinks with Patrick Stewart.  It is because of McKellen that I say the movie was delightful. Very few actors have his range an depth.  He has support by Laura Linney who plays the housekeeper, Mrs. Munro, and Milo Parker who plays her son, Roger.  Milo Parker, despite having only a handful of credits to his name, none of which are even familiar to me, has one of those faces that makes you absolutely sure that you’ve seen him in something before.  It’s disconcerting.There have been many a final story written about the great Sherlock Holmes.  I think none are as fitting as “Mr. Holmes”.  Sherlock Holmes was brilliant and above all others in intellect, but in the end he was human subject to all the frailties of any other human and longed for human contact just like any other human.  It’s a little sad and a little inspiring and well worth your time.

Book Review: Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 4/5 stars

Fully titled “Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances”, this book contains a series of short stories written by Gaiman throughout the years with the a bit too common theme of stories that might trigger some latent emotion in either the characters or the readers.  Gaiman can be forgiven for this easy bait of a title because he starts the book off with a foreword about trigger warnings that is both educational and elucidating and shows the mounds of respect for people with different experiences that Gaiman has always shown.  For those of you who don’t know or never heard, Gaiman recently made popular the replacing of the phrase “political correctness” with the phrase “treating people with respect”.  Which is about as spot on a response to people who complain about political correctness as I can think of.

Before Gaiman gets to the stories, he provides a section where he describes various details about each story, whether it was how the story came to be or who inspired him or where he was during the writing.  I am a sucker for stuff like this even though it neither adds nor subtracts to the stories themselves.  It gives a writer’s insight into the murky process of story creation.  My one complaint is Kindle.  Or, more likely, whoever put the Kindle version together.  Gaiman put these insightful tidbits all in one place with a command to the reader do with it as they will.  Read them now.  Read them as you read the stories.  Read them all afterwards.  Ignore them completely. I wanted to read them as I read the stories and each story title was actually a hyperlink and I was so excited that someone had actually thought of linking back to the tidbits.  Well, they didn’t.  They linked back to the table of contents. Ugh.  So I just ended up reading all the tidbits at the end of the book.

On to the stories.  It is very difficult to rate the true worth of an anthology of short stories.  Do you give heavier weight to the Doctor Who story that made you want to give the Doctor Who TV show one last try no matter how many times you’ve been disappointed because if they were written like Gaiman can write it, the show’s got to be good? Or the Sherlock Holmes retirement story that rekindled your love for Arthur Conan Doyle’s prose? Or being able to reacquaint yourself with Shadow from “American Gods” and falling back in like he was a fast friend from youth?  Then there are the stories whose existence seems to stem from the command that a writer must write; always.  Should their presence detract from the magic within the pages?  But there are also the stories that kindle your fears; that winding path to emptiness inside your own head that you both know and forget that you are on over and over again.  That isn’t easy to capture. I lean towards the magic.  And there is much magic to be had with “Trigger Warning”.

If you enjoy short stories as much as I do, you will get a lot of pleasure from reading “Trigger Warning”.  If you fall more on the meh side of short stories, there’s a bit of chaff to get through to get to the wheat, but it’s still worth it.  If you don’t like short stories at all, you should burn in the sixth circle of hell which is eternal death by paper cut because you obviously have no soul. #kiddingnotkidding

Time To Play Catch Up

I am woefully behind in my blogging.  There are (I think) three movies and one book to be reviewed.  The reason for my lackadaisicalness is that the ‘N’ key on my tablet keyboard (which I use almost exclusively for blog posts) decided to stop working and typing large amounts of text with missing ‘N’s everywhere is daunting.  You gotta type the whole thing out, then remove the tablet from its cradle and hunt and peck every instance of missing ‘N’.  It was hellish enough typing out important emails and pithy responses to Facebook messages.  Those days are now over, though, for I am the brand new owner of a Lenovo ThinkPad Yoga 15.  It’s pretty and boots up in less than 10 seconds and has a touchscreen.  I should have probably just gone for a 13″ one as the 15″ is a bit unwieldy dimension wise which will make it difficult to pack, but it’s only 6ish pounds so it’s still light as hell.  On to blogging.

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.