Monthly Archives: October 2015

Book Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 4/5 stars

Mark Watney has been left behind on Mars.  Oops.  These things happen.  The only thing left to do is survive and try to come up with a plan to get off the planet.  This is all revealed on page one.  The rest of the book deals with Watney’s survival and NASA’s plans to get him back.

Man vs. Nature stories are nothing new, but we’re dealing with a whole new level of Nature here.  Mars.  This allows uber-nerd Weir to delve deep into his knowledge of all things Space to come up with a unique take on an old plot.  A majority of the story is told in the form of log entries by Mark Watney as he recounts his efforts to stay alive and not accidentally kill himself on the unforgiving planet.  The log entries are counterbalanced by a real-time third person narrative of the efforts of NASA and JPL to get their astronaut back home.  Weir gets the mix right.  The log entries can get a bit dry at times , but are packed full of science and humor which works really well.  There are also a few bird’s eye view of Mars chapters as Weir describes what’s going on with the planet.  They are necessary pieces that seem a bit out of place with the general narrative style, but Weir handles them as well as can be expected.  And really, Mars can be considered the antagonist so why not check up on what’s happening with it and its attempts to make Watney not alive.

It is not often that I can say the movie is better than the book, but that is true in the case of “The Martian”.  What is even more amazing is the book is pretty darn good.  The movie very deftly cuts much of the problem parts of the book out completely while still keeping the book’s smarts and humor.  I would have much preferred to see the book’s ending in the movie than the Hollywood ending they went with and I was very happy that the book didn’t have the movie’s ending as I worried about when I did the movie review.  You should both see the movie and read the book.  They are both worth your time and each has its unique charm.

Movie Review: The Last Witch Hunter

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 3/5 stars

Bottom Line: Starts strong. Finishes with Vin Diesel “acting”.  Should be called “The Last Witch Follower”.

Yet another great premise ruined by bad writing.  And bad acting.  And little action.  And Vin Diesel.  I mean, wow, is Vin Diesel a bad actor.  Yes, this isn’t much of a surprise, but they made the mistake in this movie of putting him in the same scenes as people that can act.  I was surprised to see both Michael Caine and Elijah Wood in the movie and thought that boded well for the quality.  I was wrong. They just made Vin Diesel look all the worse.

The premise is pretty cool.  It is a world of humans and witches.  In the distant past, witches don’t much like the humans and attempt to unleash the Black Plague on the world thus killing off the humans.  A band of Witch Hunters travel to the heart of the Witch Queen’s lair to do battle with her and bring her evil schemes to an end.  The sole survivor of the battle, Kaulder (Vin Diesel), successfully kills the Witch Queen only to have her curse him with immortality as she dies.  Fast forward to present day and the still immortal Kaulder now occupies a world where the humans and witches have struck a pact to live peacefully together and Kaulder now plays the role of detective, hunting down witches who break the pact and bringing them before a Witch’s Council that pass judgement.

It’s a great setup.  the problem is there’s no follow through.  Very little actual hunting occurs.  The action follows this sort of setup:

Vin Diesel: Hi there, I can’t act.

Witch: Oh, you’re the scary Witch Hunter.

Vin Diesel: Damn skippy. You have no idea what powers you hold please be careful.

Witch: I see the errors of my ways.  Thank you.

Vin Diesel: Now I must be off for I have other witches to talk to and scare with my mere presence.

I am being slightly unfair.  There is also this setup:

Vin Diesel: Yep, still can’t act. Also, I am surprisingly trusting of witches and their magic and thus must fall asleep from the spell the witch puts on me thus putting me in great peril.  I sure hope Ygritte from “Game of Thrones” (Rose Leslie) can save my ass from this evil witch.

Ygritte: You know nothing Vin Diesel.  And boy, you really cannot act. You make me look like Michael Caine in comparison.

Michael Caine: Well, he does only because the geniuses who wrote this script decided to make me die almost immediately upon being introduced.

Elijah Wood: But then I take your place and the script writers also decide to criminally underutilize me as well and then when they do use me they give me this completely out of left field plot twist that makes no sense.

Ygritte: Guys?  This is a movie, can we please get on with it, I’m about to save Vin Diesel’s ass.  Again.

Michael Caine: Isn’t it really better this way?  You know, him asleep and all?

Ygritte: Point taken, but unlike you and Elijah, I still need to make a career for myself and this could be my big break.

Elijah Wood: Let her be, Michael.  We were both here once too.

Michael Caine: *sighs* Fine, hobbit, have it your way, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Ygritte: Thanks.  Ok, get up you sorry excuse for an action star.

Vin Diesel: Here I am, what did I miss?

The biggest problem is this is a movie that seems to want to look pretty more than it wants to express any coherent plot.  This would be all fine and good if half the looking pretty involved some ass-kicking of witches.  That key ingredient is, alas, lacking.  Sad to see another good premise go to waste, but at least I’ve now seen this movie so you don’t have to.

Book Review: Between The World And Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 5/5 stars

You should read this book.  Yes you.  If you think #blacklivesmatter, it will settle in your psyche what it’s like to grow up Black in the United States.  If you think #alllivesmatter, it is required reading for you to understand how uniquely put upon Blacks in the U.S. have been, are, and will continue to be as long as you remain so short-sighted to their struggle.  If you don’t know what all the commotion is about or are of the opinion that Blacks just need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, you owe it to yourself and our country to get educated on the subject and “Between the World and Me” is one of the best primers around.

I have now read “Between the World and Me” twice and it hits just as hard with the second reading as it did with the first.  Ta-Nehisi Coates is quickly becoming the voice of our generation.  He is the conscience of the U.S.; that nagging thought in the back of our minds that things aren’t right and need to be fixed; that thought that gets louder and louder until you can ignore it no longer.  No modern day writer can so effortlessly spring to life with the written word the state of race relations as he.

Coates’ story is told as a letter to his son.  It is an interesting vehicle.  Coates is speaking to you as though you are his son.  He is asking you to be a black teenager and to try to see the world that Coates sees through the lens of your experiences so far as his son.  As someone who has seen racism first hand and knows as least something of the Black Experience and is sympathetic to it, I found it very effective.  I am not sure that others who are outside the Experience will have the empathy to relate.  Books like this make me wish there were reality TV shows about book clubs where people of varying backgrounds get together to discuss the topics brought up in the book.  Man, this is total NPR bait.  Why has this not happened yet?  But I digress.

“Between the World and Me” is part biography, part history, part evolutionary, and all devastating.  Coates brings a clarity to race relations that most writers can’t manage. For example, the Dream.  The Dream is the ugly and all too real underbelly of the axiomatic American Dream.  Work hard, do right, be successful.  America, can do no wrong.  The flaw is in you if you don’t make it.  Ignore the past.  Put blinders on to the present.  The future is bright for everyone.

The most devastating of Coates’ stories is his retelling of the murder of Prince Jones, an acquaintance of Coates’ during his time at Howard University, at the hands of a police officer.  Prince’s family was THE success story.  His parents had “made it”.  They were able to provide safety and comfort.  But the success story of Black America can still be snatched away by the Dream.  Prince’s success story ended at the hands of a Prince George County police officer who followed a black man (that didn’t nearly match the description of the person he was looking for) through three states and gunned Prince Jones down steps away from the house of his fiancee.  The shooting was ruled justified.  Everyone quickly forgot.  It is as familiar a story as it is heartbreaking.

I am as pessimistic as Coates that things will get better.  That we, as a country, will someday remove our blinders.  That we, as a country, will someday see the ugliness of our past and learn from it.  But I have to say, despite the pessimism, despite the sadness, despite the rote stories of blacks being gunned down, “Between the World and Me” still brings me hope.  The stories are getting out there and seeping into our subconscious.  Coates has a vision and a new mandate in the form of a MacArthur Genius Grant to continue fueling the struggle with his gift of words.  I look forward with relish to his works yet to come.

Movie Review: The Martian

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 5/5 stars

Bottom Line: A funny, suspenseful, gripping drama chock full of SCIENCE!

Matt Damon should really never travel outside of his immediate surroundings.  Between “Saving Private Ryan” and “Interstellar” and now “The Martian”, things don’t go well for him when he travels more than a few thousand miles from home.  This time he needs rescuing from Mars.  Only problem is everyone thinks he’s dead.  Ouch.  So, yeah, step one, let N.A.S.A. know you’re alive.  Step two, survive for the thousand or so days it will take to launch a rescue mission.  Step three, profit?

I was a bit worried going in to the movie that we’d just be getting another “Castaway” only with Matt Damon talking to volleyballs on Mars instead of Tom Hanks on a deserted island.  Luckily, that worry was cast aside early as proof of life of Mark Watney (Matt Damon) was quickly reestablished with N.A.S.A. which enabled a pleasant back and forth of Watney vying for survival against the inhospitable Mars and N.A.S.A. trying to figure out if and how to get Watney back.  And, boy, do each of them have a boatload of problems to solve.  This is where the movie shines.  It makes science both informative and entertaining like few other movies have been able to do.  My favorite is the surprise guest appearance of a certain legendary vehicle that is used in an ingenious way to solve one of the bigger problems that Mark Watney has.

If I had to come up with one complaint about the movie, it would be that the final rescue was a tad too Hollywood-ish.  I get that you want to eke out every last drop from the suspense sponge, but a series of unfortunate events rarely leads to a pleasant outcome.  The sheer amount of things that had to go perfectly to counteract the unfortunate events was so daunting that it made the rescue a little roll-your-eyes.  But what do you expect?  Of course it’s going to be like that.  The trick will be if the book is like that too.

I probably liked this movie a lot more than I should have, but I am a sucker for well written science packed (and accurate-ish) movies.  With some rare exceptions like the insta-pressurizing airlocks which were obviously done for ease of film making, I can’t really come up with any glaring science flaws upon first watch.  And there were definitely be multiple watches of this movie in the future.  Now on to the book which I was hoping to get to before watching the movie.

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.