Book Review: Dawn by Elie Wiesel

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 4/5 stars

The most shocking thing I discovered upon reading “Dawn” is how little I know about the history of the creation of the state of Israel. In my mind the narrative went kind of as follows: The world, feeling absolutely horrible about the mass extermination of Jews and their complicity of silence in not doing anything about it decided to partition Palestine into two countries so the Jews would have their own homeland. It didn’t happen like that. Like at all. Boy did our world history classes suck back then. And now. But we’re Americans, we like our history sanitized.

“Dawn” is not autobiographical like “Night” was, but it is still a very obviously personal novel as Elie Wiesel tries to put to paper his struggles both with his post-Buchenwald life and all the psychological horrors that go with it and with what the Jewish people had to become in order to make their state of Israel a reality. It follows a boy named Elisha whose background is much like Wiesel’s. Elisha is lost both physically and spiritually in Paris after being freed from the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. While in this lost state, he is visited by a man named Gad who works for what can only be described as a terrorist movement in Palestine that is trying to wrest the land away from British control and establish a Jewish state. Gad manipulates Elisha’s religiosity by behaving like the rabbinical messenger of fate, Meshulah. Elisha accepts and joins the Movement. I am not sure if Wiesel meant Elisha’s acceptance to be one of manipulation, but that is how I took it. Elisha is eventually tasked with the murder of a British officer named John Dawson whom they have captured in retaliation for the British capture of a fellow Movement member named David B Moshe. Moshe is scheduled to be hanged at dawn for his crimes. If the hanging goes on, John Dawson’s death will soon follow at the hands of Elisha. The book explores Elisha’s coming to terms with this very personal killing.

This is another very powerful novel by Wiesel. His use of the dead coming to visit Elisha is very effective, especially Elisha’s childhood self who “died” prior to being sent to the concentration camps. His dead mother’s (as well as other’s) use of the phrase “Poor boy!” to describe Elisha and the predicament he finds himself is haunting. “This is war”, is the refrain of his compatriots who do not envy Elisha’s task. Yes, it is war. But does it have to be? Is there another way? The novel asks those questions, but has no answers for us. How could it? Jews had a different answer for a very long time and look where it got them. It’s time to try something different. But at what cost? This fight for independence was the beginning of something or possibly the end of something. But what? I’m not sure Wiesel knows the answer, but he is very effective in asking the question.

I would not say that “Dawn” is quite as effective of a story as “Night” is, which again should be read by everyone, but it is a wonderful “coming to grasps with horror” novel. If such could ever be described as wonderful. It is certainly a novel that makes you think. About war. About life. About death.  And novels like that don’t come around very often.

Book Review: Night by Elie Wiesel

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 5/5 stars

“Night” is one of those books that is very difficult to read because of the subject matter but is a must read exactly because of that subject matter. It is the biographical story of teenage Elie Wiesel’s time in World War Two and traces his time from the beginnings of World War Two in Sighet, Hungary, to the rounding up of the Jews in his town in 1944, to his travails in the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, to his emancipation at the end of World War Two. It is important to be reminded again and again that this stuff happened. It is so far outside our experience that it’s very difficult to believe that it did happen. That it does happen in places we don’t care about. That it can happen. Even here. Even now.

I have, for a long time, been uncomfortable with the concept of good and evil and the battle of good versus evil with which a majority of humanity seems to view the world. Reading “Night” greatly reinforced that discomfort. I choose to view the world as comprised of those who have retained their humanity and those who have lost it or have had it taken away from them. Our humanity is a fragile and precious thing that can be snuffed out as easily as blowing out birthday candles. Luckily, we share a common interest in our own humanity and the humanity of those close to us. Sadly, we choose to retain the humanity of our own cohort at the expense of the humanity of another cohort. I use the word “cohort” on purpose because the big trouble comes when we become militaristic against another group of people. This is what happened to the Jews in World War Two. The Nazi cohort went against the Jewish cohort and systematically and effectively removed the Jewish humanity while maintaining a perverse Nazi humanity as justification. The Nazis definitely took it to the extreme, but war requires both a loss of one’s own humanity with regards to the “enemy” and a reinforcement of one’s own belonging. This is the central terror of Nationalism. And once the Jewish humanity was removed well past the stereotypical nonsense that still pervades society today, it became trivial to snuff their souls. Because they don’t have them. Look at them fighting for scraps. They kill each other for a piece of bread. I can beat this one’s father right in front of him and he will do nothing. Surely they wouldn’t participate in the killing of their own people if they were human. It is a mercy to kill them. They are suffering. You don’t feel bad for putting down a horse who is lame. Is the Jew who killed another Jew for his shoes evil? Is the father who shared his bread with his starving son good? No, one had his humanity stripped from him and the other was able to maintain it for at least a portion of the time.

Reading “Night” should be thought of as taking a journey of the soul. There are times when I was close to tears and I still well up in the eyes thinking about those times. There are times of such stark beauty that it is almost preposterous to believe that such things can exist in dark times and I still smile when I think of them. Well, smile and well up with tears. It’s an emotionally complicated book. My journey is continuing with Elie Wiesel’s other two books in the trilogy, “Dawn”, and “Day”. Do yourself a favor and read “Night”. If you’ve already read it, read it again.

Book Review: The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 4/5 stars

“The Alchemist” has the power of vocabulary that will stay with you for the rest of your life. I will from this day forth forever be living my Personal Legend. Perceived truths of goodness and love will always come from the Soul of the World. Being able to communicate with individuals or animals or nature without the use of spoken word will always be speaking with the Language of the World. So poetic! It is a very influential book, indeed, that can impart such things unto its reader and any book that can do so deserves to be read by everyone.

The story revolves around a young shepherd boy named Santiago, but throughout just called the boy, who has a recurring dream. This dream informs him that he should go to the Pyramids in Egypt to find a great treasure. While extremely content with his shepherd life, the boy is disturbed by the dream enough that he follows it and meets a series of figures along the way who encourage him to do so. Thus begins the boy’s Personal Legend.

The ideas in this book are romantic and seductive. How could it not be when it’s called following your Personal Legend? The boy travels from place to place, sometimes finding things easy, sometimes finding thing difficult and meets all of these interesting people, some following their Personal Legend, some not. It’s basically my dream life. Where the book shines, though, is in its ideas about love. There aren’t any mind-blowing pronouncements or earth-shattering revelations about love, just more of a matter-of-factly but beautifully stated and mentally appealing realities about love. I didn’t come out of the book thinking “Wow, now that’s love!”, but more of “Oh, of course that’s love! Why would it be any other way?”. I found it immensely satisfying.

The ending, I will admit, is a bit trite for my tastes. Not nearly as trite as I was fearing, fortunately, but there are a variety of other endings that I would have been quite happy with. It should also be said that the ability to follow your Personal Legend comes from a place of extreme privilege. One of the themes of the book is that the whole universe conspires to help you on your Personal Legend if you are willing to follow it. It is true that the boy suffers hardships, but his starting point was as a pretty successful shepherd. There is not any acknowledgement of this in the book. Those who are not following their Personal Legend are portrayed as scared or lazy, not necessarily in a bad way, mind you, just kind of now worthy. It’s not quite a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” message, but it teeters dangerously close to it.

“The Alchemist” is a book very much worth reading. It is beautiful and won’t take much of your time to boot. It is eminently quotable and poetically delicious. I shall leave you with a quote from the book that I think sums up the wonderful qualities of “The Alchemist” nicely: “Everything that happens once can never happen again. But everything that happens twice will surely happen a third time.”

Movie Review: Suburbicon

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 2/5 stars

Bottom Line: A slow crawl through the incongruities of suburban life that ramps up quickly at the end and has a somewhat satisfying ending.

“Surburbicon” has a lot going for it. It was written by the Coen brothers, directed by George Clooney, and stars Matt Damon and Julianne Moore. Wait, no, that’s all it has going for it. It all should count for something, but it doesn’t. What you get instead is a ploddingly paced crawl through the banalities of evil set in a suburban environment.

Coen brothers films are like a frame of bowling with manual pin setters. They spend an inordinate amount of time painstakingly setting up the pins and then knock them all down with a bowling ball in a matter of seconds. “Suburbicon” follows this analogy. But whereas most of the enjoyment of their films is the setting up of the pins, here the pins seem to be set up haphazardly and in such a way that it takes a few extra throws of the ball to knock them all down. Don’t you worry, the pins do, indeed come down, and somewhat satisfyingly, but there’s still a messiness to it that leaves a bit of a feeling of being let down.

It’s best to view the film as told exclusively through the eyes of a child. In this case, Nicky (Noah Jupe), the son of Gardener (Matt Damon). It would make the simplistic, almost childlike, dialogue and the incongruous scenes make a lot more sense. Even though Nicky is not in a lot of the scenes, the movie is mostly about how the innocent have to survive the evils that surround them and how they eventually become immune or desensitized to them.

There are a few excellent scenes worth mentioning. The first is the initial interaction of Bud Cooper (Oscar Issac), a suspicious insurance investigator who interviews Margaret (Julianne Moore) about the insurance claim that Gardener has filed. Bud Cooper is the quintessential Coen brothers character, wily, suspicious, gregarious, dangerous, and Oscar Issac serves him up perfectly. The other is the scene where Uncle Mitch (Gary Basaraba) saves Nicky and puts him in the closet. It is a harrowing and tense scene, but also touching. Uncle Mitch can best be described as a well meaning but crass person and his well meaningness comes out in this scene.

The Coen brothers are excellent writers and a miss here and there is to be expected. “Suburbicon” is a solid miss. This isn’t a completely unenjoyable movie, but neither is there much enjoyment. I highly recommend you go watch just about any of their other movies instead of watching this one. Except “The Big Lebowski”, though I recognize that I am about the only person on the face of this earth that didn’t like that movie.

Movie Review: American Made

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 3/5 stars

Bottom Line: A decent enough movie, but an incredibly crazy story! The things our government does…

“American Made” is one of those movies where it’s very difficult to tell fact from fiction. It purports to be based on the life of Barry Seal, a former commercial pilot who gets caught by the CIA smuggling Cuban cigars and ends up working for the CIA to avoid jail. This work includes running drugs, guns, money, and information back and forth between the U.S. and various Central and South American countries. Some of these details are almost assuredly untrue, but the movie contains so much truthiness that it’s all pretty easy to believe. For instance, the fact that Seal was first arrested for trying to smuggle explosives while working for TWA, not cigars, is completely absent from the movie. In the same vein, like anything to do with the CIA, it is almost impossible to tell what, if any, involvement Seal had with this clandestine organization.

Regardless of the inability to tell fact from fiction, the life of Barry Seal was absolutely insane and it makes really good fodder for a movie. The movie itself suffers from pacing problems and at almost two hours, could certainly do with some trimming. This is covered well by all of the absolutely incredulous stuff that happens throughout. Did the CIA really buy hundreds of acres of land for Seal to operate off of?  Did Seal really smuggle Contras into Mena, Arkansas for the CIA to train? Did Seal really meet George W. Bush in the White House and talk about their shared piloting experience? Who cares! Just believe it while you’re watching the movie and figure out the facts, as far as they’ll get you, and have a good time.

“American Made” is by no means in the neighborhood of required watching. It’s enjoyable enough for a rainy day, though. Those of you who live and breath government conspiracy theories will likely get a lot of enjoyment. Like I said, the truthiness is strong with this one and it’s really easy to get sucked into it.

Movie Review: Marshall

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 3/5 stars

Bottom Line: Thurgood Marshall was an unbelievable human being. This movie doesn’t do him justice. It’s still good, though.

Thurgood Marshall is one of those characters from history that defies reality. There is no way that someone like him could actually exist, is there? Well, yes, he certainly did and he left an indelible mark on the United States of America. To have him replaced on the Supreme Court by the likes of Clarence Thomas is almost as big a slap in the face of history as replacing Barack Obama with Donald Trump. The history of racism knows no lows and has a deep and long memory and will always exact its revenge for perceived slights. I kind of feel the same way about this movie. It is a slight against Thurgood Marshall’s legacy while wrapped in the veneer of an homage to the larger than life man.

I should back up a little and say that this is actually a good movie. It follows one of Thurgood Marshall’s (Chadwick Boseman) early cases when he was the only lawyer working for the NAACP. He enlists the help of an insurance claims lawyer named Sam Friedman (Josh Gad who is apparently required to be in every movie this year) since Marshall is not licensed to practice law in the state. The case is a defense of a black man who is accused of raping a white woman. Unsurprisingly, this case is both racially and politically charged. The movie is a very effective and slick courtroom drama and the topic is handled with both seriousness and some wink-nudge humor. Boseman does an excellent job of portraying Thurgood Marshall. You get the feeling that Marshall is one of those incredibly likeable and charismatic individuals whose job has taught him exactly how much of an asshole to be in any given situation. Gad as Friedman is also quite effective as a successful Jewish lawyer who doesn’t really want any part in the whole affair but is drawn in by Marshall as I’m sure hundreds of other people were.

What’s the problem then? Why does this movie do Thurgood Marshall a disservice? Because the movie is as much about Sam Friedman as it is about Thurgood Marshall and only barely touches on the large life of an African American icon. Already having one movie made about Marshall, what are the chances of another being produced, let alone one that sufficiently extols the greatness of this man? If not zero, the chances are very close to that number. What Marshall deserves is a Netflix series. Season after season of his trials, tribulations, successes, and failures, all wrapped around the thousands of people his legacy has touched.

You should all go see this movie. It really is good despite my social justice warrior outrage. But do yourself a favor. After seeing the movie, pick up a biography of the man. I certainly plan to.

Book Review: Dreams Of Gods And Monsters by Laini Taylor

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 3/5 stars

“Dreams of Gods and Monsters” is book three of Laini Taylor’s “Daughter of Smoke and Bone” series. It brings the trilogy to a satisfying conclusion. This novel recaptures much of the magic that made book one a delight to read and that was missing in “Days of Blood and Starlight“. Though, it does take a while for the story to get going. Whereas book one was all hope and love and magic ending in tragedy, and book two was almost all tragedy, book three starts with tragedy and grows back into hope and love and magic. It also ties myths and legends brought up in book one rather satisfactorily.

For the longest time, something was picking at my brain while I was reading this book, but I couldn’t figure it out. There was a complete not-rightness to it that was thwarting my enjoyment. Finally, around half way through, I figured it out. It was time. Or more specifically, the complete lack of passage of it. The entire novel takes place over a span of just about 72 hours if you don’t count the epilogue. In that time, an impossible amount of events take place. Worlds are traversed, large distances are flown, patience is lost because of decisions taking too much time. Once I figured that out, I started to enjoy the book a lot more. I am not sure if it was because of that or because it happened to coincide with the return of a bit of mirth and levity to the story. It might also be because the wishes finally made a comeback. Wishes in the trilogy were a beautiful source of ridiculousness packed into an almost currency-like system. They were completely lacking in book two and it was all the worse for it.

Any softness of plot and sloppiness of storytelling, for instance book three has a bit of a deus ex machina going on, is overcome by Laini Taylor’s writing style. She has an almost melodic, poetic voice in her writing. It isn’t often where I find myself paying much attention to the chapter titles, but hers are delightful and intriguing in how they fit into the chapter’s story. It isn’t just that, though. Taylor is also quite adept at capturing little moments with clarity and beauty. I feel as if she’s almost missed her literary calling and instead of writing novels, she should try her hand at the short story, the most difficult of narratives.

Having finished the trilogy, I am not sure I can whole-heartedly recommend reading it even though I quite enjoyed the journey. I think the hopeless romantics in the audience will get a lot of enjoyment out of these books. Also, Taylor has also created quite an imaginative world and has left enough rough edges to allow the more creative among us to smooth out those edges with their own stories. I also must remind myself that these are young adult books and, while pretty dark at times for young adults, it is a series that would very likely appeal to them as well.

Movie Review: Blade Runner 2049

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 4/5 stars

Bottom Line: A beautiful movie from start to finish with a good story to boot. Did not at all seem like a 164 minute movie.

Our dark, dismal future never looked so beautiful. There can be a captivating quality to bleakness, an allure to destitution. This movie captures those qualities perfectly. There is so much attention to detail in the movie the mind boggles. Add to that a perfectly jarring soundtrack and you have a handful of Academy Awards just waiting for you to pick up.

I have not seen the first “Blade Runner” movie (I know, heaven forbid!) and I can safely say that you don’t need any of the knowledge from the first to enjoy the second even though Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) from the first movie is integral to the second. Blade Runners are kind of like bounty hunters. They search for replicants, which are basically engineered humans created to do horrible tasks for “real” humans, and either capture or kill them, replicants being outlawed after a couple replicant mutinies. In “Blade Runner 2049”, a new version of replicants are legal because they are more loyal, but the remaining old versions are still hunted down. Officer K (Ryan Gosling) is a newer version replicant working for the LAPD to hunt down the old versions. While hunting down an older replicant, Officer K discovers a secret and attempts to track down the source, all the while being followed by his creator, Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), and Wallace’s replicant agent, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), who also want to know the answer to this secret.

As this is a movie mainly about “fake” humans, it delves greatly into the concept of what it is to be human. Can a replicant have a soul? Can a replicant love? What even is love? Does someone have to be real to be loved? Does someone have to be real to love? So, yeah, lots of thoughts on what love really is. Those scenes are some of the most touching moments of the film.

When you can make a 164 minute movie and make it seem like no time has passed, you know you’ve made a good movie. “Blade Runner 2049” definitely fits that bill. Sure, there’s lots of establishing shots and scenes made more for their beauty than for their utility, but you won’t regret any of those scenes. This is film making at its finest and deserves to be seen on the big screen.

Movie Review: Battle Of The Sexes

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 4/5 stars

Bottom Line: Man, Billy Jean King is awesome. And Bobby Riggs was a lovable prick. This is their story. Dun DUN!

The Battle of the Sexes, a tennis match between Billy Jean King and Bobby Riggs, happened the week before I was born so I don’t have a memory of it at all nor do I recall hearing anything about it until previews of this movie started showing. For most of the world, it was merely a spectacle, but for Billy Jean King, it was dead serious. It was about pride and position and being taken seriously in the world of tennis and general misogyny. That was 1973. Very little has changed. Women still have to fight for equal pay in the sports arena even when they draw larger crowds, bring in more revenue, and outperform the men’s teams.

The Battle of the Sexes tennis match is more of an epilogue to the movie than the main attraction. The meat of this movie focuses on Billy Jean King’s (Emma Stone) fight for equality in tennis and being a complete bad-ass while doing so. Whereas most people would simply cave to demands if it meant the very real and likely loss of your career, King and the rest of the women players walked away from the professional tennis league they were a part of to start their own women’s league after a protest over equal pay. What strength these women had! The two other tangential stories that are important to this movie are King’s discovery of her own sexuality, which appeared to be handled beautifully in real life by all parties involved, and the showmanship and gross misogyny of Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell). Bobby Riggs was what you’d call a character. A compulsive schemer and gambler, a theatrical sideshow and provocateur, you never quite get the feel for who the real Bobby Riggs was. Perhaps he didn’t even know himself. Despite being all that and an all around prick a lot of the time, he comes off as very lovable.

This movie is filled with great acting, not just by the two stars, Stone and Carell, but also Sarah Silverman as Gladys Heldman who was a character all unto herself and Natalie Morales as Rosie Casals who was also quite instrumental in paving the way for women’s tennis, though the movie doesn’t quite get into that story. The writing is also excellent and the dialogue is crisp and witty.

This is one of those movies that I would recommend everyone see. Even if you know and lived through the tennis match, there was so much happening behind the scenes that you probably don’t know about but should. It helps that it is a legitimately good movie. Though the Battle of the Sexes is a bit of a misnomer. It wasn’t then, nor does it continue to be today a battle between men and women, but a battle between dominance and equality. I like to think that equality will someday win through, but man has it been a long, though slough.

Movie Review: Kingsman: The Golden Circle

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 3/5 stars

Bottom Line: Takes a while to get into. Still has some of the ridiculous magic as the first movie, but not as much. A lot of self-referential jokes.

I was in a bad mood going into this movie. Not a good way to write an impartial review. So be warned.

Movie #2 follows much in the mold of movie #1. Since movie #1 was an origin movie of sorts, there was a lot of beginning material to work with. Movie #2 didn’t have that advantage so I was interested to see how they would transition into this already built world. The answer is with a bang. Whereas your traditional James Bond movie would go for a semi-plausible chase scene, Kingsman decides to go all out bonkers. It was probably a lot more fun that I thought it was because, like I said, bad mood. I found myself doing a lot of eye rolling.

I did finally start to get into the swing of the movie after they the villain Poppy’s (Julianne Moore) ridiculous plot for world domination. Like in movie #1, Poppy’s plans are absolutely insane, but come from a place where there’s a whole lot more truth than people might be comfortable with. From that point on, the movie is a good time. There are ridiculous fight scenes and double crosses and evil politicians and Elton John!

While it is not absolutely necessary to see movie #1, it will certainly help you appreciate movie #2 a lot more. There is a lot of self-referential humor in movie #2 that requires having seen movie #1 to appreciate. It is sprinkled throughout and I’m sure I missed a lot of it. This is one of those things where it would be cool to look up all the self-referential bits to see what you caught and what you missed.

My bad mood aside, I did enjoy this movie. Others, whose opinions I respect, said that it was very worthy of the title Kingsman. I will take their word and recommend this movie to you if you thought the original was a crazy good time like I did.