Movie Review: American Sniper

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 3/5 stars

Bottom Line: Good look into the psychology of a soldier.  Very strange way to tell a story, but it works.  Not sure about the Oscar buzz surrounding the movie.

Here it is Martin Luther King Jr. Day and I’m reviewing a war movie.  Oh, the irony.  Good news is this is not a movie that glorifies war, though Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) certainly believes in his mission.  Chris Kyle was a real person and this movie was based on a book based on his life.  There are a lot of soldiers alive today because of his exploits with a sniper rifle.  The Navy SEALs trained him to be a killer and he excelled at it and, like so many veterans, he lost his humanity in the process.  That’s about as good a one sentence synopsis of the movie as I think you’ll find.

The story is told in jarring clips.  We flash from Chris about to make his first human kill to his childhood and killing his first deer.  He’s on the phone with his wife when a firefight breaks out then he’s suddenly home with her.  Such is the life of a soldier.  You hold on to the memories that allow you to keep going and everything else is background noise.  It is very strange to watch a movie unfold like this and it’s really only after thinking about it after the fact that I think it worked well.

I did not know going into the movie that this was a true story and knowing that certainly changes how I viewed the movie post-hoc.  If this were not a true story, I do not believe there would be any Oscar nominations in the offing.  It is still a decently told story and worth seeing, but knowing that there is a person who actually experienced this filters our perceptions immensely.  Add to this America’s glorification of the military and our wanting to do everything for our soldiers except give them the equipment they need and the care they deserve and you have yourselves an Oscar nomination or six.  It certainly deserves the lesser nominations for screenplay, editing, and mixing, but best picture or best actor?  Nah.  Bradley Cooper was very good at displaying no emotion whatsoever, but I’m not sure that actually takes much skill as an actor.  I see the nominations as more an homage to Chris Kyle’s life.

Book Review: Walden by Henry David Thoreau

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 3/5 stars

I very quickly fell in love with “Walden” as I started to read it.  It has an allure to it that can suck you in.  Living on the outskirts of humanity, fending for yourself, answering to no one, it’s attractive.  Thoreau also peppers his accounts of his experiment in the woods with keen insights into humanity.  This makes him eminently quotable.  For instance: “Prejudices, it is well known, are most difficult to eradicate from the heart whose soil has never been loosened or fertilised by education:  they grow there, firm as weeds among stones.”  I think the reason why you don’t see his quotes more often is how verbose and descriptive he tends to be.  I chose that quote not because it is one of my favorites but because it is by far the shortest I had highlighted.  Quotes tend to be pithy.  Thoreau does not know the meaning of the word “pithy”.

I then very gradually fell out of love with “Walden”.  So much of the middle of the book is spent on simply describing Walden Pond and its environs, flora, fauna, visitors, oh, and what seemed like a billion pages on how deep Walden Pond is and talking about the ice that forms upon it.  Ugh.   I’ve never experienced such a reversal of my interest during my reading of a book before.

The final chapter picked back up the spirit of the first few chapters and things got interesting again as he delved into his politics.  Thoreau was a fascinating person.  Judging from his writing, if he were alive today, I think he’d be a Libertarian.  Much of what he has to say about people borders on condescending and much of what he has to say about politics smashes right through that border.

“Walden” is a slog to get through.  Whether it is worth it much depends on the reader.  If you often find yourself thinking about living a life of simplicity and solitude, there is much here for you.  If you enjoy the intricacies of the English language and teasing out meanings from complicated sentences, there is much here for you as well.  If you don’t find either of those appealing, you’d best look elsewhere for your entertainment.  I would recommend “Walden” to anyone and if they start out enjoying the first chapter, they should continue reading until they get bored and then just skip to the last chapter.  I am incapable of taking such advice, but others are not as completist as me either.

Give Me Land Lots Of Land Under Starry Skies Above

Interactive maps are one of the greatest advances that the interwebs have brought to the masses.  The maps themselves can tell a story and the story can be fleshed out by various links and addenda.  And this is how you do an interactive map right:

More of this, please.  The map shows all the takings of land from the Native Americans by the United States of America.  History is so depressing.  You can play the timeline to show year by year what portion of land was ceded to the U.S.  You can also click anywhere on the map and get a listing of all of the treaties and cessions that occurred for any piece of land.

Movie Review: Taken 3

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 3/5 stars

Bottom Line: A mess of a movie, but enjoyable nonetheless.  Not as much Liam Neeson kick-assedry as I would have liked.  Don’t try to make sense of the plot.

There isn’t much that can said about “Taken 3″.  If you’ve seen the first two, you know what to expect.  If at all possible, the third in the trilogy has an even more absurd plot, but plots are secondary when you’re watching a movie like this.  This one, though, the absurdity of the plot gets in the way and, in some ways, enhances the enjoyment of the film.  This doesn’t put it in “so bad it’s good” territory, but it helps you keep a sense of humor about the movie you are watching.

One thing missing is an astronomical body count.  This is mostly because of the plot.  Much of ass-kickery in the movie is Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) escaping time and again from the police.  And if you’re a good guy, killing police is a big no-no unless said police are corrupt.  The police in the movie are shown as mostly bumbling incompetents except for Detective Franck Dotzler (Forest Whitaker) who is mostly useless except for his OCD habits and providing multiple opportunities to tell us how Mills is too smart for them.  There is quite the body count tally at the end but it’s more of a spree killing than a sustained bad-assedness campaign.  Then there are your unnecessary explosions, which I admit are cool even as you’re rolling your eyes at the over-the-topedness of the amount of flame and damage caused by a rolling car.

“Taken 3″ is a movie that makes fun of itself.  At least, I hope that’s what they were doing.  The ending suggests to me that they were making fun of themselves the entire time, but it is really hard to tell.  My suggestion is to go into the movie assuming it’s true and it will make the movie more enjoyable.

You Should Read The Weekly Sift

Perhaps my favorite blog out there right now is The Weekly Sift.  The gentleman who writes it is one of the most level-headed and insightful people writing on the interwebs these days.  He only posts on Mondays so there’s no garbage and everything is well researched and insightful.  I give a little squee of dorkish delight every Monday when his posts pop up as I’m scrolling through my RSS feed.  I want to be him when I grow up.

His latest is Am I Charlie? Should I Be?  It is pitch perfect and not only gets to the heart of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, but drill into the soul of the Freedom of Speech debate.

No, You Are Certainly Not Charlie Hebdo

I only read David Brooks when his word salad op-eds go viral.  This is a good choice for both my health and my sanity.  David Brooks is the Kim Kardashian of the journalism world.  That he has a following at all is proof to me that kids these days are no more stupid than the adults that accuse them of such.  In his latest, he complains about the hurt fee fees of the left when people express vile opinions.  What follows is my first FJM treatment.  Brooks’ words are in bold, my responses are not.

I Am Not Charlie Hebdo

Are you sure?  Your writing is every bit as offensive as their cartoons.  Or at least it should be considered such.  Wait, no, you’re right.  They occasionally make a valid point, you do not.

The journalists at Charlie Hebdo are now rightly being celebrated as martyrs on behalf of freedom of expression

Uh oh, I smell a false equivalence coming.

but let’s face it:

Can we not?  Please, please, just shut up now and save us all from your mindless drivel.

If they had tried to publish their satirical newspaper on any American university campus over the last two decades it wouldn’t have lasted 30 seconds. Student and faculty groups would have accused them of hate speech. The administration would have cut financing and shut them down.

Wow, with the very first sentence he’s already comparing the massacre of civilians whose only crime was publishing offensive material to student protests and with the very next two he proves he has absolutely no idea what Freedom of Speech means.  I got news for you, Davey, Freedom of Speech does not mean Freedom From Consequences.  The groups that you are about to spend 800 words whining about are tackling offensive speech the way it should be tackled.

Public reaction to the attack in Paris has revealed that there are a lot of people who are quick to lionize those who offend the views of Islamist terrorists in France but who are a lot less tolerant toward those who offend their own views at home.

Because they’re dead, you moron!  No one would give a crap otherwise.  Hell, Charlie Hebdo was firebombed and no one gave a crap.  But yeah, when a couple of whack-a-loons decide to introduce the insides of peoples’ bodies to a few ounces of lead just because they are offensive, we’re going to take notice.

Just look at all the people who have overreacted to campus micro-aggressions.

Oh, crap, here it comes.

The University of Illinois fired a professor who taught the Roman Catholic view on homosexuality.

Yep, this is certainly as bad as 12 dead people.

The University of Kansas suspended a professor for writing a harsh tweet against the N.R.A.

You centrist you!

Vanderbilt University derecognized a Christian group that insisted that it be led by Christians.

I love the smell of Christian persecution in the morning time.  Oh, wait, no, the first was teaching something that has no place in a classroom, the second, I have no idea what you are talking about, but again, Speech has Consequences, and the third is a fairly common sense policy about inclusion.

Americans may laud Charlie Hebdo for being brave enough to publish cartoons ridiculing the Prophet Muhammad, but, if Ayaan Hirsi Ali is invited to campus, there are often calls to deny her a podium.

Shoot me.  More lack of understanding about  Freedom of Speech.  Listen up, Bobo, the Charlie Hebdo people are dead.  Ayaan Hirsi Ali is alive.  Charlie Hebdo created its own platform for its speech, Ayaan Hirsi Ali is not entitled to be given a platform wherever she shows up.  That’s not how it works.

 So this might be a teachable moment.

Hey something I agree with!  David Brooks is a hack who doesn’t understand a single thing about Freedom of Speech or anything else, for that matter.  Lesson learned.  The End.

As we are mortified by the slaughter of those writers and editors in Paris, it’s a good time to come up with a less hypocritical approach to our own controversial figures, provocateurs and satirists.

Dammit, he thinks there’s another lesson to be learned!  And that lesson is, apparently, to give our controversial figures carte blanche to say what they want where they want whenever they want.  Or something.

The first thing to say, I suppose, is that whatever you might have put on your Facebook page yesterday, it is inaccurate for most of us to claim, Je Suis Charlie Hebdo, or I Am Charlie Hebdo.

In which Brooks shows his complete ignorance of how the the English language works.  If I say “David Brooks is a douche”, I am not saying that he is the actual feminine product, I am saying that they are both items which, despite the incontrovertible proof that they do no actual good, continue to exist because of a combination of snappy packaging and shaming.

Most of us don’t actually engage in the sort of deliberately offensive humor that that newspaper specializes in.

Yes we do.  Every single one of us.  Without exception.  For instance, I’m about to tell a joke that even makes the infamous The Aristocrats joke to shame.  David Brooks.

 We might have started out that way.

Insert picture of David Brooks in a three-way with Jesus and Muhammad here.

When you are 13, it seems daring and provocative to “épater la bourgeoisie,” to stick a finger in the eye of authority, to ridicule other people’s religious beliefs.

Hurray for Google Translate!

But after a while that seems puerile.

And this is why you (and most of your profession) fail as a journalist.  It’s your freakin’ job to stick a finger in the eye of authority!

Most of us move toward more complicated views of reality and more forgiving views of others.

In which David Brooks proves he has never talked to another human being.  Ever.

(Ridicule becomes less fun as you become more aware of your own frequent ridiculousness.)

If Brooks were at all aware of his own constant ridiculousness, we wouldn’t have to read this article.

Most of us do try to show a modicum of respect for people of different creeds and faiths.

Um, what?  Don’t you cover politics?

We do try to open conversations with listening rather than insult.

In which David Brooks proves he doesn’t know how a conversation works.

Yet, at the same time, most of us know that provocateurs and other outlandish figures serve useful public roles. Satirists and ridiculers expose our weakness and vanity when we are feeling proud. They puncture the self-puffery of the successful. They level social inequality by bringing the mighty low. When they are effective they help us address our foibles communally, since laughter is one of the ultimate bonding experiences.

Moreover, provocateurs and ridiculers expose the stupidity of the fundamentalists. Fundamentalists are people who take everything literally. They are incapable of multiple viewpoints. They are incapable of seeing that while their religion may be worthy of the deepest reverence, it is also true that most religions are kind of weird. Satirists expose those who are incapable of laughing at themselves and teach the rest of us that we probably should.

This is how you fill column space, folks!  A few definitions, a few innocuous generalities and we’re good to print!

In short, in thinking about provocateurs and insulters, we want to maintain standards of civility and respect while at the same time allowing room for those creative and challenging folks who are uninhibited by good manners and taste.

Now he’s just repeating himself.

If you try to pull off this delicate balance with law, speech codes and banned speakers, you’ll end up with crude censorship and a strangled conversation. It’s almost always wrong to try to suppress speech, erect speech codes and disinvite speakers.

Come see the violence inherent in the system!  Help, help, I’m being repressed!  Oh, wait, no, no one is.  If you can carve a space for your speech, you are welcome to that space.  I am not required to provide that space for you.

Fortunately, social manners are more malleable and supple than laws and codes.

David Brooks should never, ever use the word “supple”.  Please, Anonymous, hack his computer and remove it from his dictionary.

Most societies have successfully maintained standards of civility and respect while keeping open avenues for those who are funny, uncivil and offensive.

Except for pretty much every society that has come before us, but who’s counting?

In most societies, there’s the adults’ table and there’s the kids’ table.

Guess which one Brooks thinks he sits at!

The people who read Le Monde or the establishment organs are at the adults’ table.

Pompous much?  You know damn well it took every fiber of his being not to use the New York Times as an example.  Establishment organs?

The jesters, the holy fools and people like Ann Coulter and Bill Maher are at the kids’ table. They’re not granted complete respectability, but they are heard because in their unguided missile manner, they sometimes say necessary things that no one else is saying.

Ah, the “both sides do it” argument rears its ugly head along with some great false equivalence.  Ann Coulter and Bill Maher are not at all the same.  One is a joke and the other is a comedian.  Also, the world is surprised to know that David Brooks thinks Ann Coulter has ever said a “necessary thing”.  Says a lot about you Dave.

Healthy societies, in other words, don’t suppress speech, but they do grant different standing to different sorts of people.

In which David Brooks makes the arguments for “separate but equal”.

Wise and considerate scholars are heard with high respect.

Tell that to climate scientists, Barack Obama, or anyone trying to make even the most reasoned response to the realities of our justice system.

Satirists are heard with bemused semirespect.

Way to throw pretty much the only group of journalists worth listening to a bone.

Racists and anti-Semites are heard through a filter of opprobrium and disrespect.

Explain the Republican party.

People who want to be heard attentively have to earn it through their conduct.

Again, explain the Republican party.

The massacre at Charlie Hebdo should be an occasion to end speech codes.

Nothing up my sleeve!  Presto!  I saw a bird get into an argument with a squirrel the other day.  This should be used as an occasion to end speech codes.  Plus, who is enforcing speech codes?  Oh, right, nobody.

And it should remind us to be legally tolerant toward offensive voices, even as we are socially discriminating.

Do you know who is legally tolerant toward offensive voices?  The entire freakin’ country!  Do you know who would benefit from reading this David Brooks article?  No one.

She Gonna Catch Up On The Rebound A Da Medicide

Good news, everybody!  Scientists have discovered a new class of antibiotics.  Well, not so much discovered as finally got off their lazy asses and tried doing something other than growing things in a petri dish.  How amazing is this discovery?  Well, it’s been almost 30 years since the last discovery and it’s been getting pretty scary out there in the medicine world as the current batch of antibiotics gets less and less effective.

The new antibiotic, called texiobactin, has been known to scientists, but has been largely ignored because it doesn’t grow well inside a petri dish.  In order to grow texiobactin, scientists had to get a little dirty.  Literally.  Like, in the real use of the word literally, not in the purloined use that actually means figuratively.  Scientists have to get texiobatin from the dirt!  They do this by using an incredibly clever device with an incredibly unclever name called the iChip.  If I understand it correctly, the iChip works kind of like a sorting device.  It lets in only a specific type of bacteria, in the case of texiobactin that would be eleftheria terrae. You put some eleftheria terrae in the chamber of the iChip and then you bury it in soil where the bacteria grows.  The iChip then allows more eleftheria terrae into the chamber as it grows around the device.

So far, scientists have discovered as many as 25 different bacteria that show promise using this method.  Of them, the eleftheria terrae/texiobactin one shows the most promise.  As with most brand new discoveries, there is a bit of hyperbole involved.  People involved are saying that this new antibiotic should stay effective for 30 years or more.  That’s all fine and good, I’m sure, under normal circumstances, but in our over-prescriptive society, I’d give it 10-15 years tops before bacterial immunities to the antibiotic start to appear.  Maybe we’ll have learned our lesson by then and slowed down our antibiotic addiction.

Of course, the usual caveats apply; this is a new discovery, these things take time, sometimes what seems promising turns out to be a dud, blah, blah, blah.  Still, this has the feel of practicality to it so my powers of prognostication give it a 75% chance of coming to fruit.  Let’s hope.

Charlie Hebdo Remembered

Terrorists attacked the Paris headquarters of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo earlier today.  12 people are known dead with a few more currently in critical condition.  While details are sketchy and the attackers are still on the loose, it seems certain that this was in retaliation for the paper mocking Islam and printing multiple Mohammad cartoons.  This is tragic and incredibly stupid.  How anyone thinks that someone putting pen and pencil to paper should be met with violence is beyond me.

How does one respond to such inanity?  To me, a perfect response would be for every newspaper in the free world to pick a day and, as a sign of unity, print one of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons.  This one is my favorite:

“Love is stronger than hate”


Movie Review: Into The Woods

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 3/5 Stars

Bottom Line: The songs are done right.  The story is more fleshed out than the play.  Sadly, the fleshing out makes for a boring second act.

“Into the Woods” is one of my favorite plays due to a certain redhead with an amazing singing voice who introduced me to it many generations ago.  I’ve seen the play a few times and was trepidatiously eager when I heard Disney was making a film of the play.  Because Disney.  It’s a fairly adult themed play.  Would they tame down the Wolf?  Would they gloss over the adultery?  Would they dance around the death?  Would they do the magnificent musical score justice? The answers are no, somewhat, yes, and YES!

Act 1 was a marvel.  The casting was perfect except, maybe, for Johnny Depp as the Wolf.  Though it is easy to see Johnny Depp as a creepy pedophile, he doesn’t really do “Hello, Little Girl” justice.  It’s not bad, but neither is it fantastic.  It’s just there.  I also was a little put off by the kid they cast as Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) at first, but he grew on me.  Other than that, my goodness, did they do the first act right.  It contained all the magic and beauty that I wanted to see for the movie.  No one can top Bernadette Peters as the Witch, but my does Meryl Streep give her a run for her money.  Even the odd choices for cast members like Chris Pine as Prince Charming worked well.

Then, sadly, Act 2 happened and all of the magic disappeared.  Even the play suffers somewhat in the second act, but the movie, instead of using the time to make sense of a fairly convoluted plot, decides to go on a half hour long song drought where there’s lots of exposition on what’s going on before just throwing together all of the remaining songs together in a haphazard fashion.  The songs are still great, but even I saw my interest waning by the time they got around to them.  If they threw in an original number in that half hour gap, maybe making fun of the craziness of the entire situation, the second act would have been much more enjoyable.

They really should have just ended the film at the end of the first act.  It’s certainly a little “happily ever after”, which Stephen Sondheim doesn’t do, but it’s a complete movie and was thoroughly enjoyable up to that point.  What you end up with is another movie with a fantastic soundtrack that is well worth getting.  I can see getting the DVD and fast forwarding through the bad parts to get to your favorite song, but it’s not worth sitting in the theater for.

So, yes we’ve had this moment.  Even though it was a bad one.  And Rob Marshall’s made atonement by making “Chicago” which is a rad one.

Book Review: 2014 Revue

And so ends year two of book reviews.  You can also check out my 2013 Revue if you are so inclined.  My book reading suffered greatly this year due to an extremely distracted mind due to personal issues and I’m sure the reviews reflect that slightly.  C’est la vie.  I read 19 books this year.  What a paltry sum.  I continued my life long quest to read all the books that I should have read a long time ago.  8 of my 19 books fell into that category.  Here’s a recap with links to the reviews.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot – 4/5 stars

The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie – 3/5 stars

Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – 5/5 stars

Pirate Cinema by Cory Doctorow – 2/5 stars

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift – 2/5 stars

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg – 2/5 stars

Treasure Island by Robert Lewis Stevenson – 5/5 stars

The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. – 3/5 stars

Redshirts by John Scalzi – 3/5 stars

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley – 3/5 stars

Dracula by Bram Stoker – 3/5 stars

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn – 3/5 stars

Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder by Lawrence Weschler – 4/5 stars

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman – 5/5 stars

Wuthering Heights by Emile Bronte – 3/5 stars

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte – 4/5 stars

Zoe’s Tale by John Scalzi – 3/5 stars

The Human Division by John Scalzi – 4/5 stars

Against a Dark Background by Ian M. Banks – 3/5 stars