Book Review: 2016 Revue

I read a lot.  Sadly, books are probably only about 25% of what I read.  Here’s what I read in 2016.  11 measly books.  Sheesh.  I pretty much stuck to sci-fi this year, with a little non-fiction thrown in.  There were a bunch of short story compendiums that were mostly so-so except for the wonderful “The Other Half of the Sky”.  David Foster Wallace was definitely the highlight of the year and, sadly, the first book I read this year.  I’m going to try to branch out from sci-fi in 2017, but 2017 is certainly going to need some good escapism.

Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace – 5/5 stars

The Hidden Reality by Brian Greene – 3/5 stars

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow – 4/5 stars

Crandolin by Anna Tambour – 2/5 stars

The Narrator by Michael Cisco – 1/5 stars

Not Dark Yet by Berit Ellingsen – 3/5 stars

The Bestiary edited by Ann VanderMeer – 3/5 stars

The Eisenberg Constant by Eugen Egner – 3/5 stars

The Other Half of the Sky edited by Athena Andreadis – 5/5 stars

Clarkesworld: Year Six edited by Neil Clarke – 2/5 stars

A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick – 2/5 stars

Movie Review: 2016 Revue

Movies.  I see a lot of them.  39 in total. Here’s what I saw in 2016.  I continue to be too lazy to index all my movies.  This was probably the best year of movies since I’ve been reviewing.  Marvel movies killed it and animated movies did quite well too.  Also, lots of movies beginning with “The”.

The Hateful Eight – 4/5 stars

The Revenant – 4/5 stars

The Boy – 3/5 stars

The Finest Hours – 3/5 stars

Deadpool – 5/5 stars

London Has Fallen – 3/5 stars

10 Cloverfield Lane – 4/5 stars

Zootopia – 4/5 stars

A War – 4/5 stars

Batman v Superman – 3/5 stars

Eye in the Sky – 5/5 stars

Midnight Special – 3/5 stars

Criminal – 2/5 stars

The Jungle Book (2016) – 3/5 stars

Captain America: Civil War – 5/5 stars

Money Monster – 3/5 stars

The Nice Guys – 4/5 stars

X-Men: Apocalypse – 3/5 stars

Now You See Me 2 – 2/5 stars

Independence Day: Resurgence – 2/5 stars

Finding Dory – 4/5 stars

The Secret Life of Pets – 3/5 stars

Star Trek: Beyond – 3/5 stars

Jason Bourne – 2/5 stars

Ghostbusters (2016) – 3/5 stars

Pete’s Dragon (2016) – 3/5 stars

War Dogs – 4/5 stars

Hell or High Water – 4/5 stars

Sully – 3/5 stars

The Magnificent Seven (2016) – 3/5 stars

Birth of a Nation – 3/5 stars

Doctor Strange – 4/5 stars

Arrival – 4/5 stars

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – 2/5 stars

Allied – 2/5 stars

Moana – 4/5 stars

Rogue One – 4/5 stars

Passengers – 3/5 stars

Live by Night – 3/5 stars

Movie Review: Live By Night

Jean-Paul’s Review: 3/5 stars

Bottom Line: A sprawling epic with gangsters and shootouts.  A little too much going on, but doesn’t get out of control.

“Live by Night” is about a Prohibition era Irish Boston gangster, Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck), whose libido gets the best of him and lands him in trouble with the local Irish mob boss.  What an original concept.  From there, it goes crazy.  Joe escapes the mob boss only to land in jail for a bank robbery gone wrong where police got killed only to be saved from certain death by his father who is a cop, spends years in jail, joins the Italian mob in order to get revenge on the Irish mob boss, moves down to Florida to get said revenge, doesn’t really get revenge as much as build the biggest rum running racket known to man, fights the KKK, tries to get gambling legalized only to be thwarted by a prostitute drug addict turned preacher whom he rescued from addiction, gets double crossed by the Italian mob boss and finally gets revenge on the Irish mob boss, leaves the life only to have the love of his life killed by the father of the prostitute he once saved because he kind of blackmailed the father with pictures of the daughter, and lives out his life with his son.  And I skipped a bunch of stuff too.  This is a sprawling story but it works.

The movie was written by, directed by, and stars Ben Affleck and he has a solid list of backup actors helping him including Elle Fanning as Jim’s original love interest, Brendan Gleeson as Jim’s father, Zoe Saldana as Jim’s second love interest, and Chris Cooper as the father of the prostitute, just to name a few.  Add to that, some wonderful Prohibition Era backdrops and costuming and you have a solid movie.  The only real problem with it is the superfluous stories that don’t really add much to the movie.  It’s perfectly fine to create a sprawling epic, but you must make damn sure you have a good editor if you’re going to do so.

I’d say “Live by Night” is definitely worth seeing.  My initial reaction was to give it four stars but only held back as I thought about it some more.  It is a very enjoyable movie from an entertainment point of view as long as you don’t think to much about its failings after the fact.

Movie Review: Passengers

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 3/5 stars

Bottom Line: Three movies in one.  All work ok.  Good chemistry between Pratt and Lawrence.

“Passengers” is a fun movie but one that can’t commit to what it wants to be.  It starts with an interesting if incredibly far fetched premise.  What happens if an interstellar colony ship malfunctions and one of the stasis capsules lets a passenger out 90 years before the ship is to arrive?  You have to completely ignore the fact that any series of failures like the ship experienced would definitely wake up crew members to deal with the problems.  After all, that’s their job.  Regardless, that’s exactly what happens to Jim Preston (Chris Pratt).  What follows is your typical stranded on a desert island scenario only on a ship surrounded by 5,000 sleeping humans and all of your other needs taken care of as well.  With only the android bartender, Arthur (Michael Sheen), as company, Jim slowly starts going insane as he tries to think of ways to wake the crew or put himself back to sleep.

After a year of living alone and creeping ever closer to insanity, Jim gets company in the form of Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence).  I don’t really have much to say about this portion of the movie except that Pratt and Lawrence have good chemistry together and it’s fun to watch Jim and Aurora getting to know each other and falling in love.  Then there is this great horrible reveal that tears Jim and Aurora apart and the movie finds itself in a bit of a tangle.  There’s nowhere to go.  You have a ship falling apart and the two people alive can’t be in the same room together and they have no way of fixing the ship.  So enter crewmember Gus Mancuso (Lawrence Fishburne) whose stasis chamber also malfunctioned.  What a stroke of luck.  Gus’ sole purpose is to give them access to parts of the ship they couldn’t get to before.  That function done, he gives a nice pep talk and dies.  Jim and Aurora then start scouring the ship for what is broken before the ship goes kablooey.  Do they fix it in time?  I guess you’ll have to tune in to find out.

I have a lot of problems with the end of the movie because of the questions that went unanswered, but the movie ended so abruptly that you don’t really get to process it.  Other than that, this movie is just fine.  It’s a decent enough date movie and there’s some nice effects and technological wonders.  It’s two hours spent well even if it is not terribly groundbreaking.

Book Review: A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 2/5 stars

I have come to think of “A Scanner Darkly” as an artifact of its time.  It is semi-autobiographical and written about a time in Philip K. Dick’s life where he was recently divorced (again) and spent a few years in the early 70s inviting various teen-ish druggies to live in his house so he wouldn’t be alone.  Obviously, he did a lot of drugs in that period.  He also lost a lot of friends to drugs during that period.  Thus was born “A Scanner Darkly”.  I say the book is an artifact of its time because the drug culture back then was vastly different from what it is today, or at least vastly different from how popular culture portrays the 70s drug culture vs. the 90s and beyond drug culture, because let’s face it, a drug culture expert I am not.  “A Scanner Darkly” is not violence-free, but it’s a far cry from the hyper-violent drug culture we see today.  That makes it very difficult to relate to the individuals who are just going through their daily motions and decidedly not in a buddy drug comedy a la Cheech and Chong or Harold and Kumar.

The story deals with Bob Arctor who is really “Fred”, an undercover agent whose identity is even hidden by his bosses by a scramble suit which jumbles a person’s appearance.  In the line of duty as an undercover druggie, Bob gets addicted to Substance D, a made up drug that plays into the story.  Much of the story is about Bob’s descent into addiction and the symptoms he starts to exhibit.  It’s a bit trippy and somewhat interesting from a psychological perspective, but it’s mostly dry and plodding as a story.  Bob’s addiction is a very necessary plot point in the story, but the entire book is basically Bob’s addiction with a loose plot to give the book some semblance of a narrative.

“A Scanner Darkly” is basically an attempt to keep kids off drugs.  It’s every bad anti-drug commercial from the 80s.  This is drugs. *holds up egg*  This is your brain on drugs. *cracks egg into hot frying pan* Any questions?  Only 200+ pages of it.  Personally, I’d rather have watched the commercial again and saved myself hours of reading.

Clarkesworld: Year Six edited by Neil Clarke

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 2/5 stars

Clarkesworld” is an online, totally free collection of sci-fi and fantasy short stories that also publishes a magazine of said stories.  Neil Clarke is the purveyor of said totally-free-if-you’d-like endeavor and all sorts of kudos to him for keeping this alive.

“Clarkesworld: Year Six” is a collection of all the fiction stories the magazine produced in its sixth year.  As you might expect from a totally-free-if-you’d-like collection of stories, it’s very hit and miss, mostly miss.  There are a total of 34 stories that comprise year six and only a handful are good.  My favorite story is probably “Fragmentation, or Ten Thousand Goodbyes” by Tom Crosshill.  It can be a little hard to follow as it blurs the line between humanity and AI, but the exploration of that line is well crafted and intriguing.  Another story that left an impression was “A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight” by Xia Jia.  It is about a young girl growing up in a ghost town filled with robots that time has forgotten, but all is not what it seems.

This is not a terribly good collection of stories, but you should buy it and support things like “Clarkesworld” anyway.  Why?  First off, did I mention it was free for people who can’t afford it?  Beyond that, though, writing short stories is incredibly hard and getting your short story published is even harder.  Magazines like “Clarkesworld” provide a needed outlet for would-be writers to show their stuff to a wider audience beyond their tiny little blog that about 10 people read.  *looks around furtively* Outlets like this are vital for incubating new talent and should be encouraged and supported.  I mean, seriously, the dude asks for a donation of $1 per month to keep the magazine going.  Switch your order from a daily venti latte to a grande and support 20 magazines like this.

Twas The Night Before The Trump Presidency

Twas the night before the Trump presidency and all through the States
People were sitting and fretting and rewatching debates.
“She’s smoother, more polished, what a president should be”,
They said as they worried what a Trump presidency would be.
“Whatever shall we do for the next four or eight years?”
The thought of two terms brought them all close to tears.

Obamacare is almost certainly dead on arrival.
Millions of people back to scrimping and saving for survival.
And then all the Dreamers who may soon be deported.
People making their minds based on news that’s distorted.
Women reverted to abortions in back alleys.
Hundreds of coffins draped with lilies of the valley.

Meanwhile, Trump stacked his cabinet with some horribles.
Clinton was right! This was a basket of deplorables!
People who believe the solution to our crisis
Is to gather up our troops and go after ISIS.
And not only ISIS, but all of Islam.
From a person who can’t tell Iman from an Imam.

“The science is not in, climate change is not real”,
Trump said as he looked around for what he could steal.
“This time we will win! Our enemies grow stronger by the hour!”,
he screamed as he placed all his children into power.
“No conflict of interest”, he said with a Tweet.
While around him, business interests were kissing his feet.

Suddenly, what’s that? A knocking at my door?
I open ‘er up and I’m pushed to the floor.
“You’re coming with us”, said the men in the suits.
Though at the time, all I saw was the soles of their boots.
“What is it I’ve done? I’m innocent, I swear!”
“Justice will be meted out by the man with the hair!”

“This poem is pathetic, it’s useless, it’s sad!”,
Trump said to this author, “You’ve really been quite bad!”
“Can’t you see what I’m doing? I’ll make America great!”
“And all I get is mocking and laughing, derision and hate.”
“You leave me no choice, I’ll tweet this poem a FAIL!”
He motions to his guards and they cart me to jail.

Movie Review: Rogue One

Jean-Paul’s rating: 4/5 stars

Bottom Line: A good Star Wars movie?  Yes!  Good story.  Good acting.  Good diversity.  George R.R. Martin would be proud.

The Star Wars series has has a bumpy run.  Even the most recent “The Force Awakens” was more of a fun movie than a good movie.  “Rogue One”, I am happy to say, is legitimately good.  What makes it good is that it wraps a coherent story around a series of characters with actual depth.  Even more so, what makes it good are the stories that it doesn’t tell.  How did Jyn land in prison?  Why did Saw break with the Alliance?  Is Chirrut a Jedi?  How did Baze come to be Chirrut’s guardian?  In each case, you’re given just enough context of the characters to make them whole while still wanting to know more about them.  These are all signs of a great script writer.  When you’re watching the movie, think about it.  These are all brand new characters to a vast majority of Star Wars fans and yet, by the end, you feel like they’re always been part of the story.  Admittedly, this is partly because we know where the story goes from here, but it’s still quite the accomplishment.

Another big winner in this movie is diversity.  The only white males with speaking roles belong to the Empire.  I exaggerate some, but the Alliance is robustly comprised of women and people of color and aliens and very few have American English accents.  You know, like any galaxy spanning epic would be comprised.  Comparisons to the Trump presidency abound.

There is also a lot of death in this movie.  Like George R. R. Martin levels of death.  None of the death scenes are as cool as Martin’s, but this is, nominally, a kids movie after all.  And given the story, those of you who follow the Star Wars universe should not be surprised that your favorite character is unlikely to make it out unscathed from this story.

I’ll likely see this movie multiple times.  If only to remind myself how bad the other films are in comparison.  I recently watched the end of “Revenge of the Sith” and my god is it bad.  Dialogue, acting, everything.  Can we please get a remake of episodes one through three by the script writers for “Rogue One”, Disney?  Pretty please?

Another note on 3D.  3D continues to be a waste of money and “Rogue One” is no exception.  I went to see this one in 3D mostly because I wanted to take advantage of a better sound system.  Because Star Wars.

Movie Review: Moana

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 4/5 stars

Bottom Line:  Beautifully rendered, well thought out story line with some wonderful songs and an annoying pet sidekick.  Preceded by a lackluster short.

Let’s start with the short animated film that Pixar has made ubiquitous for animated movies.  This one is called “Inner Workings” and it has a clever pitch.  What if your organs were active members in the choices you make during your day?  Unfortunately, the pitch is the only thing that is clever.  There are some inspired moments in the short like when he has to empty his bladder, but mostly it’s just a battle between the brain and the heart.  Hint: The brain wins.  As my brother mentioned, it would have been better if the movie ended with the guy ignoring his brain and following his heart and going surfing only to get eaten by a shark.  I’m guessing there’s a reason why we don’t make children’s shows.

The feature film, “Moana”, is delightful despite following the trite Disney Princesses model of animation.  Disney has once again decided to forego their traditional pencil and ink animation method for the computer generated animation that has practically taken over animated films in general.  The did, after all, pay all that money to buy Pixar.  Might as well take advantage of all that technology.  And take advantage of that technology, they did.  When you’re making a movie about island life, water is going to invariably play an important part and the computer generated water is especially effective.  Really, though, everything about the movie is gorgeous from the islands themselves, to the islanders, to the water, to the ghostly ancestors, to the animated tattoos of the demigod Maui, to the sea life.

What Disney film would be complete without songs?  The soundtrack to “Moana” is probably one of the best Disney has produced.  Of special note are the main song, “How Far I’ll Go”, which is soaring in its breadth and scope, as well as the playful “You’re Welcome” which shows off Dwayne Johnson’s singing chops in his role as Maui.

My only real complaint about the movie is the animal sidekicks.  In this one, there’s a piglet and a mentally challenged rooster.  The piglet is harmless and cute and mostly useless.  The rooster I just don’t get.  This makes two Disney films in a row that incorporate mentally challenged animals, the first being “Finding Dory” which featured both a bird and a seal.  I just don’t get the humor in making fun of animals whose entire purpose is to act even stupider than they normally would.  There is nothing redeeming about the rooster’s stupidity at all.  It would be one thing if the rooster kept doing this one stupid thing and it turns out that stupid thing ends up saving the day, but nope, just a stupid rooster doing stupid things and having jokes about it being eaten thrown at it by Maui.

Regardless of my petty complaints, this is a very solid movie.  Its story is engaging for both adults and children and there are elements that will be enjoyed by both throughout.  It also helps that Lin-Manuel Miranda of “Hamilton” fame both wrote some of the songs and sang a few in the movie.  Or at least for me.  I’m a little obsessed with “Hamilton”.

Movie Review: Allied

Jean-Paul’s rating: 2/5 stars

Bottom Line: Either a poorly done love story that wants to be a spy story or a poorly done spy story that wants to be a love story.

“Allied” opens with Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) parachuting from a plane somewhere over the deserts of northern Africa.  The camera pans and rolls and moves through the fabric of the parachute as Max floats to the ground.  This is the first in a series of really weird camera views interspersed throughout the movie.  As if the director can bring some sort of liveliness to the movie to a pedestrian movie through camera stunts.  And pedestrian is the right word because we’re then treated to Max walking through the desert for 5 minutes.  Yep, pacing is going to be a problem in this movie.

Max is a Canadian spy and he’s in Africa to meet up with his “wife”, Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard), a French resistance spy, so they can assassinate a Nazi ambassador.  Because that’s how you win wars, by assassinating random ambassadors.  Their master plan is to snag a rare invitation to a heavily armed and secure party for the ambassador, hid guns under the drinks table, and flip over the table and shoot up the place when the ambassador arrives.  This plan somehow works.  Oh, and they also fall in love in the short period of time they are together even though most of the time is spent talking about how falling in love is stupid for spies.

Fast forward a few years and they’re married and have a one year old child.  But what’s this?  Marianne may be a Nazi spy?  The real Marianne Beausejour was reported killed?  What’s a doting husband to do with this information?  This could make for a good movie!  But instead, we’re treated to Max doing a bunch of stupid things to try to prove her innocence.  There is some intrigue that makes for some decent suspense, but that doesn’t last too long because of the absurdity of the whole Max side of the story.  Then there’s the ending which is ridiculously drawn out even though you know exactly how it must end.

Was Marianne a spy?  I guess you’ll have to not watch the movie and not find out.  Because really, you shouldn’t see this movie.  It is mostly lifeless except for the acting ability of the two stars.  Such a shame because a double agent wife has such great possibilities and they are mostly spoiled in this movie.