Monthly Archives: February 2018

Book Review: The Giver by Lois Lowry

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 2/5 stars

I have never been so excited at the start of a novel only to be so supremely disappointed by the end. The setup for “The Giver” had so much potential and every bit of it goes to waste. The book starts with what looks like a fairly normal family, of which Jonas is the eldest 12 year old son and main character. There’s definite weirdness going on, but have you seen families? They’re all weird in their own special way and many are completely dysfunctional. Dysfunctional Jonas’ family is not. They do very useful and healthy things together like eat meals and talk about their emotions and share their dreams. The setup is almost utopian. Utopian is boring, though, and this is a dystopian young adult’s novel so you just know not everything is what it seems.

It is slowly revealed that Jonas lives in a society that is obsessed with “sameness” and birth to death is rigidly controlled. Babies are given to families and named at age one. Clothes are assigned at different ages. Bikes are given to children at age nine. Jobs are given at age twelve. Color doesn’t exist. Topography doesn’t exist. Asking questions that make people uncomfortable is outlawed. Rules are strictly enforced and chronic offenders are “released from the community”. This is very obviously a euphemism for killed, and makes one of the surprises pretty darn lame. Maybe not for the target audience, I guess. The society is overseen by a council of Elders who create the rules. They oversee every child’s development and assign jobs based on ability. Since Jonas is the main character and this is a dystopian young adult novel, you just know he’s going to get one of the cool and important jobs. I guess you’re right? Well, besides the fact that the job makes absolutely no sense and how it works makes no sense and how it doesn’t work makes no sense and the plot they hatch to change things makes no sense and how it goes wrong makes no sense and Jonas’ decisions make no sense and how it ends so suddenly makes no sense and how the heck there are three other books in this series makes no sense.

I guess you might actually still want to read “The Giver” after reading my review so I won’t give away any of the issues but it left me seething with rage at almost every point after Jonas got his job. That is an incorrect use of words. Let me rephrase. “The Giver” left me with a profound disappointment over the fact that such an auspicious beginning could be transformed into the turgid mess it became. That is also an incorrect use of words. One last time. I mildly annoyed that I read this book despite the fact that I really liked the beginning. There, better.

If you want to teach your kids about the dangers of “sameness”, have them read “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut. It is complete and succinct and won’t leave you with a bitter taste in your mouth over the lazy path “The Giver” decides to take.

Movie Review: Black Panther

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 5/5 stars

Bottom Line: Good story. Good villain. Good design. Good god go see this movie.

You don’t necessarily expect a Marvel movie to have depth to it. You go in expecting a fun little story with some comedy and wonderful visuals woven around some impossibly strong beings with imaginative backstories fighting a one-dimensional villain that is used to push the plot. “Black Panther” completely breaks the mold by combining all of the best elements of all the movies and intertwining them with legitimate and deep social commentary.

Wakanda is an extremely reclusive, technologically superior, and imaginary African country run by a monarch which practices a policy of non-intervention with the outside world unless Wakanda’s immediate interest is concerned. Wakanda has the resources and the expertise to help those around them, they just decide not to in order to preserve their way of life. Wakanda’s newest monarch, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is theoretically amenable to changing that fact, mostly because of the influence of his girlfriend, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o). Wakanda’s isolationist tendencies come back to bite them when a poor decision by the previous monarch shows up in the form of Eric Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) to reclaim power from T’Challa. Killmonger runs on a campaign of Wakanda First with a side of Make Wakanda Great Again and wrests control from T’Challa.

Eric Killmonger is probably the best single-shot villain that Marvel has ever produced for a movie. His story is a bit over the top, but his ambitions make sense and his motives are clear. Plus, he’s kind of right except for the whole “enslave the world” thing. It is absolutely irresponsible of Wakanda to sit in absolute comfort while those around it suffer. Killmonger rips that conceit right open while showing the dark half of the interventionist spectrum. He also exposes the fact that blind loyalty to tradition can have chilling and devastating effects. Not bad for a Marvel villain day’s work.

“Black Panther” is also spectacularly beautiful from start to finish. The costume designs are exactingly perfect and if the people behind it do not win an Academy Award, it is a true travesty of movie justice. They pay homage to so many African traditions and put a futuristic spin on each. The graphics, too, are outstanding. Wakanda is a stunning blend of traditional design with technological elements. Afro-futurism at its best. All this is also tied together by a steady backbeat of a melange of African and Hip Hop. Basically, the entire movie exudes so much cool, you’d expect to see Jidenna traipsing in the background of each scene. Excuse me for a second while I go watch the “Classic Man” video.

I am guessing most of the arguments around “Black Panther” will be whether it is the best or second best Marvel movie ever made. Other’s number one and number two picks will vary, but “Black Panther” will be either or in just about everybody’s estimation. Except racists. And I’m not saying you’re necessarily a racist if “Black Panther” isn’t in your top two, but you’re on the same side as racists. That’s all I’m saying. Regardless whether you’re racist or not, you should definitely go and see “Black Panther”.

I would be remiss if I did not mention how culturally significant “Black Panther” is. I went to a 10:40 AM show, which is usually populated by my brother and myself and a couple of older folk who have been awake since 5 AM. This showing was in the largest theater and was probably about 80% full. And while the showing is usually predominantly White,, this was easily majority Black. I have never seen so many Black teens at a movie in my life. There was also a fairly large showing of older folk, some dressed in traditional African garb! It was a delightful movie watching experience made even better by the diverse audience. Maybe Hollywood is finally coming to realize that there is a massive audience for well made and minority led movies.

Book Review: Matilda by Roald Dahl

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 4/5 stars

“Matilda” is an absolutely delightful children’s book that should be read by all. It teaches a very important lesson that children should learn at a very young age: Adults suck. Not all of them, but way more than there should be. They are all too often our parents and our teachers and others whose primary responsibility should be children. Then there are the adults that don’t quite suck, but allow the adults that suck to continue sucking. And some, I assume, are good people.

“Matilda” tells the story of a precocious young girl named Matilda, duh, who is just about everything you would want any young person to be. Parents would love her. Teachers would praise her. Other children would want to be her. But since that would be a really boring and highly improbable read, just about every adult is a source of torment for Matilda. Still not quite probable, but much less improbable than the perfection her life should be. Throughout the book, Matilda exacts her revenge upon her tormentors in ingenious, albeit petty, fashion. But what else are you going to do when you’re a child in an adult’s world?

Things get a little weird when supernatural elements creep into the book. It’s a very strange and unfortunate turn for an otherwise wonderful book. Dahl writes it out almost as quickly as he wrote it in, but I am not sure why he included it in the first place when the whole child outsmarting adults thing was going so very well. Maybe Dahl just ran out of ways to be clever and had a deadline to finish.

It would be remiss of me to not mention the spectacular illustrations that accompany the text. They were created by one Quentin Blake and they capture the mood of the novel perfectly. I think they work best in stark black and white, but color ones are also available. Little Matilda reading a giant newspaper brings a smile to my face every time I see it.

If I were writing this novel, I would have made the adults suck theme complete by having Miss Honey actually be a witch and Matilda never be seen again. There may be a reason why I don’t write children’s books, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.

Such a delight! Read “Matilda” to your children tonight! Parents full of spite! Matilda puts up a fight. A headmistress of great might! The children she does smite!  Matilda sets her right. Miss Honey the white knight! Matilda restores her birthright. Her parents take flight! Matilda turns out alright.

Book Review: Lamb by Christopher Moore

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 4/5 stars

Fully titled “Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal”, this is a very serious retelling of what Christopher Moore envisioned what Jesus Christ’s childhood would have been like. I’m just kidding. This is a comedy. And a really well written one. You see, despite what the gospels want you to know, Jesus, or Joshua as he was really know, had an actual childhood and he spent it mostly trying to figure out what exactly it means to be the Christ. He receives absolutely no help from his father in this endeavor, but he does have his best friend Biff to help him through. The gospels don’t want you to know about him either! It’s a conspiracy! During Joshua’s effort to find out what’s what, Biff selflessly helps Joshua learn about sin by demonstration and follows him around Africa and Southeast Asia as he tracks down the three wise men that visited him as a babe.

“Lamb” is quite funny and Christopher Moore is gifted at extracting the humor out of every possible situation. The completely made up stuff about Joshua’s childhood is perfect in just about every possible way. The almost assuredly made up stuff that you find in the gospels that Moore touches on is also enjoyable, but at some points feels a bit forced to the story. The entire book is light-hearted and fun, but also with a bit of reverence for the subject you wouldn’t expect.

Reading “Lamb” makes me want to read more of Moore’s books. I guess that’s really all you have to know to recognize that I recommend reading this book. Moore is equal parts Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett in his humor, but has his own unique writing style. I am looking forward to exploring him further.

Movie Review: I, Tonya

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 5/5 stars

Bottom Line: Being better than everyone means nothing if they don’t want you in their club. The press is horrible. The 24 hour news cycle is toxic. You are also horrible. This movie tells you all of that in a really funny and entertaining way.

All of you probably know of Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), but do you really KNOW Tonya Harding? Probably not. Even “the incident”, which was played ad nauseum and is the only reason most people even knows of Tonya Harding, has a different retelling for just about everyone who “remembers” it. “I, Tonya” retells her story fairly and respectfully and hilariously using much of the real words of the real individuals. The hilarity stems mostly from the fact that everyone involved with Tonya was a complete moron and incapable of doing anything right. Except her mom, LaVona Golden (Allison Janney). She is a straight devil. But also hilarious in ways that should make you cringe when you know this movie character is a real person.

This film is superbly acted and both Margot Robbie and my super crush Allison Janney deserve their nominations. Especially Allison Janney. Even Sebastian Stan as Jeff Gilooly probably deserved a best supporting actor nomination. The other Oscar nomination is for best editing and again, very deservedly so. The film is shot in a mocumentary style very fitting for its comedic story. The director also makes judicious use of breaking the fourth wall. Editing for a film like this has to be exacting in order to make the shots both believable and seamless. All the more amazing is the fact that the movie really tackles some serious social issues like class and domestic violence and the media and you. Yes you. You are a horrible person.

You can’t help but feel a little sad for Tonya Harding after watching “I, Tonya”. She was dealt a horrible hand. Bad family. Bad husband. Not too bright. Entire U.S. Figure Skating association against her solely because of her background. Her entire life was pretty much destroyed and she probably didn’t deserve to be for the sins she committed. But could she skate! She was probably the single best skater in her time. She was the first American woman to land the triple axle jump in competition. To understand how rare that feat is, she did that in 1991. The first woman to land a triple axle in the Olympics just did so in 2018. Only eight women total have accomplished this feat. So yeah. Big deal.

It is rare to come out of a movie and feel so delighted. And guilty. But mostly delighted. “I, Tonya” is easily one of the best movies of 2017 and probably will be up there for 2018 as well. Get to the theaters while you can and if you miss it, be sure to subscribe to whatever streaming service picks up this gem.

Movie Review: The Post

Jean-Paul’s rating: 4/5 stars

Bottom Line: An appropriate movie released at the appropriate time given current events. A strong press is essential for a strong democracy.

Do you know who Daniel Ellsberg is? Well you should. It is a shame that his story is not on the tip of the tongue of every American. He exposed top secret documents exposing decades of lies and misinformation across four different Presidential administrations. You may know those documents as the Pentagon Papers. Those papers prove that we were in Vietnam for as long as we were mostly just to save face and say we have not lost a war. We sent children to die and we killed children just so we would continue to feel good about ourselves. Sure, some would consider Ellsberg a hero while others would consider him a traitor. And sure, every whistle-blower from Edward Snowden to Chelsea Manning probably did what they did with Ellsberg’s legacy in their minds. But Ellsberg taught us important lessons: A strong Executive branch is exceedingly dangerous and a robust and fearless press corp is democracy’s best check against a strong Executive branch when the Legislative branch colludes with the Executive branch. HAHAHA! I’m just kidding. We’ve learned nothing. We still love our bullies and sociopaths and our press is at best ineffective and at worst complicit.

“The Post” tells the story of Daniel Ellsberg. Well, not really. “The Post” tells the story of how weird and incestuous the press can be with politics and how even something as groundbreaking as the Pentagon Papers almost never saw the light of day partly because of that incestuous relationship. The heart of the story follows Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), the owner of the Washington Post and a woman in a good ole boy’s club. Her husband was the previous owner and she took over after his suicide. She is just taking the Post public in order to raise some money to afford some good reporters to produce good news. During all this, the Pentagon Papers falls in her lap and she has to juggle the opposing interests of her friends, like Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), her board, her investors, and her newsroom and decide whether to publish the Papers or not.

Meryl Streep absolutely steals the show and Kay Graham is an incredibly interesting character. I don’t know how true to life Streep played Graham, but all the lilts and affectations and conflicting emotions and strengths that Streep portrays Graham as having make her very worthy of the nominations she has received for this role. She is helped by Tom Hanks as Bob Bradlee, the executive editor of the Post. Watching the two of them butt heads is a delight. It is a spectacular cast all together, but Streep is easily the star.

This being the only of the Best Picture nominees I have seen, I can’t really say whether it should win or not, nor can I say whether it deserved the nomination given the field it was up against. What I can say is that “The Post” is well worth your time for its history and its story and its acting and for the mirror it shines onto present events.