Monthly Archives: November 2014

It’s Snraining!


The picture doesn’t do it justice, but it is what can only be described as snraining outside right now. There is a moderately heavy rain falling and mixed with that is a swirling snowfall. It is bizarrely beautiful.

Movie Review: Mockingjay Part 1

Jean-Paul’s rating: 4/5 stars

Bottom Line: As good as or better than “Catching Fire”.  More great acting.  More great design.  For once, a movie where I get the bland, interchangeable, good-looking men confused.

And we’ve come to the final book of the “Hunger Games” series.  The studios, in their infinite wisdom, have decided to split the final book into two movies because money.  This is always something to be wary of, but there’s enough material in “Mockingjay Part 1” to make it both enjoyable and to leave you guessing as to what will happen when Part 2 comes out.

If you recall from my “Catching Fire” review, I’ve been looking forward to seeing “Mockingjay”.  “Catching Fire” had a lot to recommend itself and I’m happy to see that “Mockingjay” is a worthy successor in the series.  Whereas I though there was some silliness in “Catching Fire”, there was none of that in “Mockingjay”.  “Mockingjay” was also more internally consistent, which I assume is what you get when you have two movies to tell your story.

Once again, we have some superb acting jobs by the inestimable Donald Sutherland (President Snow) and by the better every time you see her Jennifer Lawrence (Katniss).  In fact, there’s a scene in this movie where Jennifer Lawrence has to pretend to act poorly and you totally believe it.  So yeah, she acts really well acting poorly.  That’s talent.  New to the series in Julian Moore who portrays President Coin very effectively.  It is also good to see the now deceased Phillip Seymore Hoffman back as Plutarch Heavensbee (He died after filming most of his “Mockingjay” lines).  Other than that, the performances are all effective to meh.  I’ve always found Josh Hutcherson’s portrayal of Peeta to be sort of annoying, but he’s better in this one.  The one thing that I found funny is how I could not tell Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and Finnick (Sam Clafin) apart through most of the movie.  If they had switched roles halfway through the film, I would have been none the wiser.

Another good thing about this movie is how much the great design work really shines through.  It was just as good in the previous films, but the gaudy pomposity of the Capitol always kind of drowned out the attention to detail paid in the Districts.  Here, with very few Capitol scenes, the amount of detail paid to the scenes can really take center stage.

My only real complaint about the movie is that I think they ended the movie wrong.  There is this one scene, which I will not spoil, where I whispered over to my brother and said “Right there is where they should have ended this movie”.  You’ll know it when you see it.  Some stuff happens beyond that, but it saddens me when definitive shocking endings are wasted.

I would probably recommend a rewatching of “Catching Fire” prior to watching this movie as there were times when I was scratching my head trying to recall things that they referenced from the prior movie.  Other than that, what we have here is another winner in what’s turning out to be a very effective series of movies. Needless to say, I am looking forward to seeing the next as well.

Book Review: The Human Division by John Scalzi

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 4/5 stars

Dear John Scalzi, please ink a deal with either HBO or Netflix or some other production company that can make the Old Man’s War universe a television reality.  Thank you, everybody.

“The Human Division” is the last book until the next book of the Old Man’s War universe.  It’s not really a novel as much as it is a series of short stories, most of which center on the same characters.  Taken together, they provide a timeline of events after John Perry’s exploits in “The Last Colony”.  The focus this time, however, is the Colonial Union’s State Department.  Or, to be more precise, a single crew of diplomats as they traverse the galaxy signing trade agreements and being the friendly face of the Colonial Union as they finally attempt diplomacy instead of that whole blowing everything up thing they were doing before.

The characters in this book are mostly new, except for Harry Wilson who made an appearance in “Old Man’s War” as part of the same Old Geezer Club (or something like that) as John Perry when they joined the Colonial Defense Force.  We are introduced to various memorable characters such as Ode Abumwe, the stern and stately ambassador, Hart Schmidt, the one often responsible for getting the team both in and out of trouble, and Danielle Lowen, the U.S. diplomat who all to often gets caught up in Schmidt’s and Wilson’s adventures.

As you can imagine, the diplomatic universe is rife with Scalzian wit opportunities and John Scalzi does not disappoint.  We are treated to such gems as a traditional salt-water-spitting-in-the-face ceremonial greeting and beloved dogs being swallowed by plants and Wilson fighting a member of an alien race completely naked as part of a diplomatic test of strengths between the two races.  Throughout, you have the light, friendly banter between Wilson and Schmidt and Lowen as they proceed from one adventure to another.  It’s a treat.

I can’t help but feel that serials like the ones contained in this book are what the Old Man’s War universe was meant for.  They are just the right length for Scalzi’s wit and ability to write individual scenes.  I hope for many more iterations to come.  And I also mysteriously want a churro.

Movie Review: Big Hero 6

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 3/5 stars

Bottom Line: A fun kids movie.  Cute and inventive.  Some humor for the adults, but not much.  Disney’s attempt to be Pixar.

The good news is that you don’t need to see any of “Big Hero 1-5” in order to understand the story of “Big Hero 6”.  That’s a joke.  I know that there weren’t five other prequels to this movie.  It does raise the question of what they would call a sequel to this movie, though.

“Big Hero 6” is very loosely based on a Marvel comic series of the same name.  This version follows a bunch of nerds who develop really awesome science projects.  They then go on to incorporate those science projects into super hero costumes.  If you want any further proof that nerdism has gone mainstream, look no further.  The devices used are mostly really clever with a little silly thrown in.  As an added plus, the team is also very diverse.

There is a lot of stuff here for kids to enjoy.  It’s maybe a little too cutesy at times for the adults and the “lesson” is kind of blah, but all in all, what we have here is an all around well put together movie that adults can tolerate, if not enjoy, and kids will really like.  The animation is crisp and unique.  Baymax, the cute rubbery robot, plays very well as a comic foil.  Besides Hiro, the teenage genius, the other characters don’t get as much fleshing out, but there’s enough to feel for them.  The villain is kind of one-dimensional and not terribly believable, but this is a kids movie.

Disney really tried to copy the winning Pixar formula here and fell a little short.  The animation is similar and they even have John Lasseter of “Toy Story” fame producing it.  There was even the ubiquitous short animation film before the main movie that Pixar pioneered.  That leads me to wonder why they didn’t just hand the movie over to Pixar completely since they own them.  I guess Disney wants to show that its animation studio can produce CG movies as good as Pixar can.

If you like kids movies, you’ll probably enjoy this one.  I found it a fun time even though the pacing was strange at times.  There’s no real need to see it in the theater if you have a decent home television, but if you don’t crisp animation is always worth going to the theater for.

Movie Review: Interstellar

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 3/5 stars

Bottom Line: A movie with mostly good science!  Decent story, if a little overwrought.  Magnificent scenery.  IMAX sound adds to the enjoyment.  Questionable ending.

“Interstellar” is a beautiful movie.  It paints a stark, somewhat believable future and throws us on a last-ditch effort to save humanity.  From the Earth, to space, to planets both known and unknown, to black holes, it is gorgeous.  But a gorgeous movie doesn’t necessarily mean a good movie.  So how does this one hold up?  Meh, it was decent.

On some level, I must have liked it because its two hour and forty-five minute run time did not feel like it at all.  The plot interesting and doesn’t really slow down.  There are some things that bothered me like how can you not know the basic composition of a planet prior to landing on it?  Or how can a habitable planet orbit so close to a black hole that it brings relativity into play?  The former, I am almost sure is possible today, the latter, I may just not know enough about planetary formation.  These things can be forgiven because they lead to some spectacular what-if situations that will mess with your mind.  I’m also pretty sure there’s a fairly large plot hole in the film, but I’d have to rewatch it to be sure.

And then there’s the ending.  It seems as if it were tacked on to make the movie a little more feel-good.  I won’t spoil anything, but the decisions that were made seem both unlikely and unnecessary.  There wasn’t much of an emotional attachment to make the decision that was made and there seemed to be plenty of other options available that would be much more palatable.  Oh, and don’t even get me started on the whole cause-effect stuff that ties everything together.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the awesome sound in the movie.  I watched the movie in one of those almost-but-not-quite-IMAX theaters where the sound quality is excellent and the screen is larger than normal, but not true IMAX size.  The sound in this movie adds much to this adventure.  When ships are taking off, you actually feel like you’re taking off with them, minus the 10 G-forces.  For this reason, I would highly recommend you watch the movie in as high quality a theater as possible.

All things considered,I enjoyed the movie and would recommend that anyone who has a hankerin’ for space go see it in the theater.  Others, I’m not sure about.  I think this is a good general audience movie, but can’t subjectively say if the non-space loving general public will enjoy it.

Ignore Me At Your Own Peril!

Two years ago, after Obama’s election to his second term, I decided to make some predictions about how his second term would go.  With the midterm elections now behind us, it seems like a good time to review how well my prognostication skills held up.

  • Jumping off the fiscal cliff – Nailed it.  Really, a no-brainer given the political climate at the time.
  • Grand Bargain budget – Meh, I’ll give myself partial credit for this one.  It’s mostly been continuing resolution after continuing resolution, but Obama did get a lot of the stuff he set out to get.  There’s still time for this one to come true, but I predicted it for 2013.
  • Immigration reform – This one has yet to come true, but I actually predicted that it wouldn’t come true until after the midterms.  I have confidence that it still will happen.
  • Status quo midterm elections – Again, I’ll give myself partial credit.  Republicans picked up more House seats that I expected, but I was right with the Senate.  The makeup doesn’t really change anything from the last two years though.
  • Economy markedly improve – Two years to go and we’re already there.  This is the unsung hero of Obama’s second term so far.  Never has the economy grown so much and the sitting President not garnered rave reviews for it.
  • Housing industry grows quickly – This has already happened too.  So much so that people are saying we may be in another housing bubble.  That’s nonsense, though.  Despite the growth, we’re still not keeping up with housing needs.
  • Stellar stock market – The Dow started around 13,000 for Obama’s second term, it’s now past 17,000.  A 30%+ increase?  Yep, that’s stellar.
  • Obamacare fully implemented – We’re just waiting on the small business requirement which is gearing up right now.  People loves them some Obamacare…as long as it’s not called Obamacare.

That’s some Nostradamus-level prediction ability right there.  If people would only listen to me, all our world’s problems would be solved.  But I’m like Cassandra over here.  Or maybe Rodney Dangerfield.

Illinois Voters Make No Sense

Today is the day where I pull my hair out trying to make sense of the myriad contradictions in the patterns of what I assume are generally smartish people.  I know I shouldn’t do this.  It’s bad for my health.  But I can’t help myself.  Here we go.

There were a lot of ballot measures to vote for and they are quite telling of the dichotomy of how voters think and how voters feel.  This election, I think, shows that Illinoisans’ thinking is pretty Democratic given the results of the ballot measures.  But then they let their feelings get in the way and vote for Republicans who will invariably vote against any bill that comes up in support of the same ballot measures that voters overwhelmingly support.  Why?  This makes no sense.

Let’s take the Voter’s Rights Amendment as an example.  It amends the Illinois Constitution to basically say that you can’t discriminate when signing up people to vote or against people actually voting.  What it really boils down to, and was sold as, is an anti-voter ID law amendment.  It passed overwhelmingly garnering 72% of the vote.  This is a very solid Democratic amendment and hundreds of thousands of people who otherwise voted Republican voted in favor of it.

The list goes on.  There was a measure to call for the increase of the minimum wage in Illinois to $10/hour.  It passed with 67% of the vote.  The measure calling for health insurance plans to cover birth control?  It passed with 66% of the vote.  The measure calling for incomes of over $1M to be taxed an extra 3% to cover school funding?  Passed with 64% of the vote.

All of these measures are distinctly Democratic in nature.  If I were to give you just the above information to go on, what would you think the results of the races would be?  Did you say Democrats pretty much sweeping ultra-blue Illinois?  Yeah, not so much.

Bruce Rauner, our new Republican Governor, won every county except Cook, which is still counting the votes and the only reason why Quinn hasn’t conceded yet.  The U.S. House was fairly evenly split with a 10-8 Democratic/Republican split.  Career Politician and Democrat Dick Durbin pretty handily beat Career Also-Ran Jim Oberweis.  And, in State politics, Democrats still retain supermajorities in both the House and the Senate thanks to some legendary gerrymandering shenanigans.

It will be interesting to see what Rauner does when bills supporting the ballot initiatives cross his desk.  He has claimed to be for raising the minimum wage, but with the huge caveat that it must be packaged with a plethora of “business friendly” attachments.  I haven’t been able to find much information on how he stands with the others.

So yeah, Illinois is pretty weird politically.  We seem to be a very blue state where state politics is concerned but we veer frighteningly rightward in our national politics.  What ever could be the cause of such a dichotomy?

Book Review: Zoe’s Tale by John Scalzi

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 3/5 stars

And we’re back into John Scalzi’s excellent “Old Man’s War” universe!  If I were to sum up “Zoe’s Tale” in one word it would be: cute.  I’m sure John Scalzi would be thrilled.  But I don’t mean it as an insult.  In many ways, Scalzi has succeeded where others have failed.  For starters, he successfully wrote a book from a female teenage protagonist’s point of view without coming off as a creepy guy.  I’m looking at you, Piers Anthony!  On top of that, the teenagers are actually pretty teenagey.  Another thing that’s not easy to pull off as an adult writer without teenagers.

If in reading “Zoe’s Tale” you get the feeling that you’ve been here before, it’s because you have.  If you’ve previously read “The Last Colony“, that is.  This book tells the same story as “The Last Colony”, only from Zoe’s point of view.  It also fills in gaps in the story from “The Last Colony” that people were curious about.

Zoe, if you will recall is the teenage adopted daughter of John Perry and Jane Sagan.  And she has a…complicated…history.  After all, it’s not all teenagers that have an entire race following their every word and action.  And there’s also the two Obin bodyguards, Hickory and Dickory, who record and transmit her words and actions.  Just what every teenager wants.  To say that Zoe lives an interesting life is an understatement.  Scalzi does a good job of delving into what that life would be like from a teenage perspective.  And, of course, there’s Scalzi’s wit and sarcasm which is always a pleasure to read.

If you are a fan of the “Old Man’s War” universe, “Zoe’s Tale” is worth reading.  Any extra tidbits you can get from a well written universe is always worth it as long as the story is reasonably well done.  And this one is.  The extra stuff with the werewolves, Zoe’s relationship with the Obin, and her diplomatic mission are all delicious morsels to sate your “Old Man’s War” fix.  As a stand-alone book, I would not recommend “Zoe’s Tale” at all, except maybe to teenagers who would like to read a book with a teenage protagonist.  The book does read like a stand-alone book, but there’s not much “there” there to make it worth while outside of the deeper “Old Man’s War” universe.

Vote For Judges!

It’s that time of year again where I harangue all of my friends about the importance of getting out to vote, if only just for the judges.  My Chicago area peeps have it easy.  They can just go to the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice’s handy-dandy recommendations page.  Local elections are very important and often overlooked with all the national election noise machines in full effect.  Don’t believe me?  Well maybe you will listen to John Oliver:

Spread the word!


Movie Review: John Wick

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 3/5 stars

Bottom Line: Mindless fun.  Good stylized violence.  A wicked sense of humor.

Poor Alfie Allen!  I didn’t think it was possible to be typecast as a young upstart who consistently pines for the approval of his father and fails miserably, but there you have it.  You may know Alfie Allen as Theon Greyjoy from “Game of Thrones”.  In “John Wick”, he reprises his role as Theon, but this time he is called Iosef Tarasov and he is the son of a gangland mafia boss.  He has a chance meeting with John Wick (Keanu Reeves) at a gas station and really likes John’s car.  Boy, did he pick the wrong person to steal a car from.  I won’t spoil more than that, because if you don’t know more than that about the movie, I’ll completely spoil John Wick’s motivation for you.

“John Wick” is a fun movie.  It is carefully crafted and scenes are created with an abundance of attention to detail.  I was surprised to learn that “John Wick” does not come from any comic book or regular book series.  For a stand-alone movie with no background source material to borrow from, there is certainly a lot of world-building in the movie.  The “John Wick” underworld is a universe within itself with all sorts of rules and etiquette.

Another surprising thing about this movie is the amount of legitimately funny dry humor in the movie.  It’s all done in a deadpan way without any accompanying music or action and the result is dead air filled with an audience that is laughing.  I don’t think I’ve been more aware of audience laughter in a movie.  It’s a bit eerie, especially given the source material.

The one major complaint I have about the movie is how poorly all these little things get wrapped up in the end.  It’s almost sloppy.  It slightly ruined my enjoyment of the movie.  It makes me think that they had an alternate ending in mind that didn’t test well so they threw this ending together.  Or maybe ending movies is just really difficult and this is the best they could come up with.  Regardless, “John Wick” is a fun ride despite its warts.  I would certainly enjoy a sequel if it’s of the quality of the first three-fourths of the movie.