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The author of The Vanishing Half, Brit Bennett, at age 32, is younger than my youngest child. She apparently grew up in Oceanside, California, which is about 30 minutes down the road from where I have lived for a lot longer than 32 years. Home.

Brit Bennett is an African American woman. For the remainder of this post I will no longer say African American, but use the terms “colored” or “black” or “dark” just as she uses those terms throughout the book.

The story starts in the early 1960s, and is about the Vignes twins, Desiree and Stella, who grow up in Mallard, Louisiana, a very small town in the country, almost entirely black, but the light version of black. So light, indeed, that the twins pass as white when they are out of their environment. As the twins grow up, they try to break away from the yokes of their ancestry, and each twin has her own way. Desiree is the outgoing one. Stella is the quiet one. When they move into New Orleans to get jobs, one day, Stella disappears. She is never seen again. Even private investigators can’t find her.

And that’s all I am going to tell you about the story, because you’ll need to read it for yourself.

The Vanishing Half is about racism in America, and it shows, without ever lecturing or judging, what it is like to be a colored person in our country. The subtle insinuations and the basic assumptions that we all have about black people come to life. As we experience this story, the absurdity of it all becomes obvious. The book deals not just with racism but also transgender issues, always nonchalantly, without getting in our face.

As I read The Vanishing Half, following the twins, their parents, their lovers, the fathers of their children, and their children, through their lives, I felt like I got to know them all intimately, and when the book was finally over, and I flipped the last page, I knew I’d miss the characters. I wanted it to continue. It is that kind of book.

And my awareness of what it’s like to be black in America was hugely elevated.

Brit Bennett, as such a young woman, has written a very wise book, and I will surely pick up her next ones.

And you should pick up this one.

Jupiter’s moon Europa is widely thought to have the conditions to support life, particularly when we discovered a vast ocean of liquid water below the moon’s solid crust of ice.

When unmanned probes return data suggesting that single-celled life exists, Earth sends a mission to to Jupiter to explore. Six astronauts embark on the mission. They eventually land on Europa and conduct “moon walks.” As it happens, an alien environment hosts surprises that they cannot have expected, and things start going wrong very fast.

Europa Report is a hard science fiction story on a low budget.

The space scenes during the journey, the realistic-seeming set in the space ship (see picture above of a cockpit cam), and the various extra-vehicular activities are neat to watch. The movie is trying to remain within the realm of today’s science, with not too much fiction. And that works.

The movie is not as satisfying to watch as I expected it to be.

It gets a solid one star in my ratings.

The Future is Here

George Jetson - Wikipedia

I just realized that George Jetson was born in 2022.

The farthest in the future that Marty McFly visited was 2015.

We have arrived. The future is here.

Korean family moves to Arkansas farm.

Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun) is a young Korean man with a wife and two children. They live in California and both work as “chicken sexer.” Yes, I didn’t realize that either, but young chicks are separated by gender. The males are useless and have no commercial value, so they are destroyed. Did you know that? The females get to live, to lay eggs, or to eventually end up on a rotisserie. It’s apparently not obvious to tell apart male and female chicks, and some people are professionals, who check this all day long on an assembly line of baby chicks. But I digress.

Jacob realizes that he wants more for himself and his family than working in an assembly line all his life. He takes his savings and moves the family to rural Arkansas. They buy a 50-acre farm. His dream is to grow Korean fruit and vegetables to sell at markets. Jacob loves the land, and he lovingly digs his hands into the rich Arkansas soil. But the wife is not all that happy with their situation, and grandma  Soonja (Yuh-Jung-Youn) plays a critical role in the future of the family.

Imagine a Korean family in rural Arkansas. What do do the people in the village think about them? How do their neighbors feel about them? There is definitely a lot of culture shock going both ways.

Seeing the plight of immigrants in America, trying so hard to just work and make a modest but satisfying living, is educational, especially at a time when our country’s leadership has been systematically vilifying immigrants against all common sense.

As the banner says: “This is the movie we need right now!”

I might note that this movie received a lot of Oscar nominations, and Yuh-Jung Youn, who played grandma Soonja, earned an Oscar for best performance by an actress in a supporting role.

Bill Baker (Matt Damon) is an oil-rig worker in Stillwater, Oklahoma. Things are not going well for him. He is unemployed and defeated. His college-age estranged daughter Allison is gay. She has already served five years of a nine-year sentence in prison in France for the alleged murder of her girlfriend.

Bill is sure of his daughter’s innocence, and without anything else to do, he travels to France and rents a place in Marseilles. He does not speak any French. When he tries the legal avenues to free his daughter, the language barrier and the complexity of the legal system get in the way. When it becomes obvious to him that the authorities are not going to help re-opening the case, he decides to take matters in his own hands.

Stillwater is a well-crafted tale of a vigilante father trying to make things right for his estranged daughter. The trailer made it seem like another Liam Neeson-esque story with lots of action by a bad-ass father getting even, but it’s not like that. Matt Damon plays Bill Baker like a real roughneck. Supposedly Damon went to spend time in Oklahoma getting to know oil workers to be able to become one.

He did that well, and it carries the movie. The plot has some interesting twists and that makes it worth watching.

 

A crew of three astronauts takes off on a mission to Mars. Shortly after takeoff they discover there is a stowaway on the ship, somehow stuck in the life support system. After they get him out and discuss the situation, they figure out that they can’t turn around anymore (interplanetary orbital mechanics) and – this is worse – there are not enough resources (water, food and mostly air) on the ship to sustain a 4th person for the duration of the trip. There is not much in this movie that makes sense. There are some pretty interesting special effects, particularly during the EVA, which had me fascinated. But that was all.

Don’t bother.

 

 

*** Warning Spoilers ***

How did the stowaway get into the innards of the life support system? And not make a peep all the way through launch preparations and launch?

Why did they not use tethers during the EVA? Rule number 1, use tethers at all times.

Why did they not tether the canister?

Why did they not wait out the solar storm before going back for the second canister? What was the rush?

Seriously, a couple of canisters of oxygen will make a difference between four people living and dying on a two-year journey?

How were they going to land on Mars? There was no lander in sight. If there had been, they could have used the lander to return to Earth, right?

Who designs a two-year mission that has zero margin of reserve oxygen, so that one small extra canister the size of a scuba bottle, makes the difference between life and death?

Mission control was completely absent and it appears that only the commander talked to them on her headphones. Nobody else ever communicated with them.

 

Matt (Kevin Hart), a young professional, finds himself in an impossible situation. His wife dies a day after giving birth to their first daughter.

Against all odds, he decides to raise his daughter by himself. Nobody believes he can do it. His good buddies Jordan and Oscar are always available to provide support.

In the end, Fatherhood is like a sitcom, with plenty of fabricated “funny” moments that are all predictable and that we have all seen before. The most moving part of the film is watching father and daughter clearly be “in love” and getting along with one another.

I agree, this is not a very helpful review. Just know, it’s a Netflix movie, and when you flip through its offering and can’t decide on anything, and you want to just enjoy it, feel good, and don’t think very hard, Fatherhood will do the job.

Today I went to Borrego Springs to do my annual New Year’s hike up Palm Canyon. Every year I take a picture of a little palm grove from the exact same spot. If you want to read up about some more history and see older pictures, this post gives you a few links.

This year, I took the picture with myself in it for scale:

After taking this picture, I hiked up to the oasis.

After many decades of growing, some idiot kids burned it down in 2019. All that remained were the charred stumps Fortunately, nature is resourceful and pretty much all the trees came back. With the “skirts” all gone, and the underbrush completely burned away, there is now a thicket of greenery on the bottom.

The forest service is also keeping people out of the grove itself to give it a chance to recover.

I have done this hike on New Year’s Day or the days after for decades now. But it’s special ever year.

Robin Feld (Nicholas Cage), who goes by Rob, is a truffle forager who lives alone, off the grid, in the wilderness in Oregon. He is a recluse. His only companion is a foraging pig, which helps him find the truffles. He obviously loves the pig, kind of like most people love their dogs. I know that pigs are very smart, but of course that’s something I have no direct evidence for.

In the middle of the night someone attacks him with a gun, shoots him, and steals the pig. Rob survives the attack, but is devastated and he embarks on a journey to find and recover the pig.

To do that, he has to face his former life and his demons. As it turns out, he used to be a renowned chef in Portland. Everyone in the culinary community looked up to chef Feld. But that was 15 years before. It all came crashing down when his wife died prematurely. He abandoned his life and career, and walked away into the woods.

Nicholas Cage is almost unrecognizable in this film. If I hadn’t known it was him from the advertisements for the movie, I would not have recognized him.

Pig is a dark movie and it takes an effort to watch, but the story is intriguing, and the unusual love of the man for the pig comes through strong.

I definitely recommend this. It’s one of the better movies of 2021.

Why would I possibly bother to review a movie that came out in 1975?

Because my commitment to myself is to review every movie I watch. Fortunately, I don’t watch too many, so I can keep this up.

In 1975, I was 18. I didn’t want to watch Rollerball then because it had a reputation of being a crappy movie. So I passed.

Over the years, it seems to have become a cult classic.

The other day it was my wife’s turn to pick the movie for the night. Not sure why she picked Rollerball, but “she made me watch it” even though I got sidetracked here and there by my iPhone.

It’s about a utopian culture in the future (of 1975) when all the power lies with corporations and executives are revered. Rollerball is an extremely violent sport, but it seems to rule the world. Teams are sponsored by big business and controlled by big business. Jonathan (James Caan) is the ultimate superhero of the sport. The chairman of the company wants him to retire from the sport, but Jonathan, ever the maverick, does not cooperate.

To get him out, they keep changing the rules of the game, making it ever more difficult to play (and survive). But Jonathan has plans for them.

The story is pretty simple, and the acting seemed horrible to me. But I am not sure if it was due to the fact that this was vintage 1975, and that’s just what they did then. I did get a kick out of what they thought the future would look like. This was before the first personal computers were even conceptualized. The computers they showed were DEC-like machines with big old RP06 drive cartridges we used in the late 1970ies.

I stayed with the movie – as a good husband will when the wife chooses and here is my rating. Please note that it’s half a star better than one of the worst movies I can ever remember watching: The Room (see review here).

Enjoy – at your own risk!

Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) is a doctoral student in astronomy. One night, when working with a telescope, she discovers a new comet. Researching the details with her professor, Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio), they come to the conclusion that the comet is larger than that of the Chicxulub impact event (see details here) that wiped out 75% of all flora and fauna on earth 65 million years ago. The problem is that the new comet is on its way to hit earth head-on in 6 months and 15 days.

The two understand that they have discovered a planet-killing catastrophe, and that mankind only has a little over 6 months to do something about it. They manage an audience at the White House with the help of the president’s chief science advisor, Dr. Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan). But when they arrive, President Orlean (Meryl Streep) is completely indifferent. Her political ambitions don’t allow the distraction of an imminent extinction event. Jason (Jonah Hill), the Chief of Staff who is also her son, even ridicules the astronomers and eventually they are sent away. Nothing will be done.

Thunderstruck, the scientists decide to turn the the media instead. They are invited to the popular morning show The Daily Rip, where they are also received as curious, cute scientists and not taken seriously. They are trying to make the  world just “Look Up” and see what’s coming.

Don’t Look Up is a satire, of course, and it is extremely timely. It portrays a White House full of sycophants, staffed by nepotism, with a President who is completely self-absorbed and clueless. Facing a catastrophic event coming up, nobody wants to bother with it. The negative message it creates in social media is simply inconvenient. The industrial complex quickly figures out how they could possibly get very rich off of this, the danger and risk to the world be damned. Nobody takes the scientists seriously. They become the villains.

And that, my friends, is the state of our world today.

Enjoy a good laugh while you’re watching, and don’t worry that it will make you want to cry because of the insanity of it all.

Trident’s Forge is Book 2 in Tomlinson’s series Children of a Dead Earth. Just yesterday I reviewed Book 1 here.

I wasn’t going to read the sequel, since the original book, a generation ship story, wasn’t all that exciting. However, the author roped me in with a few teaser chapters at the end of Book 1 and I read it anyway.

In Trident’s Forge, we meet the characters from The Ark again about three years after landing on the planet they call Gaia orbiting Tau Ceti. Mankind has gained a tenuous foothold. But on another continent on the planet, there is already a sentient race, they call them the Atlantians.

These aliens are slightly larger than humans, but humanoid with a head, two arms and legs, and very pliable, seemingly boneless bodies. It’s kind of strange that the author didn’t do a better job of describing how the aliens look. In my mind, they were simply big, gangly humans from the Bronze age.

Trident’s Forge is a First Contact story, albeit not one of the better ones I have read. The aliens are just like humans, with the same emotions, feelings, even reflexes. Other than looking a little different, and speaking a different language, they are just humans in costumes, and as a result, not very intriguing as aliens.

The story is another conspiracy story. Humanity has brought its worst attributes with them, including the greed of the elite class that will do anything to get rich and powerful at the expense of everyone else, including an entire sentient race. It’s a fast-moving story, quite readable, but unfortunately not very memorable.

I won’t be reading Book 3, even through I thumbed through the teaser chapters. There are too many other books on my reading shelf, and there is too little time left.

Mankind discovers a black hole heading directly into the solar system. Humanity faces complete obliteration as a result. Using all the world’s resources, they build a massive starship to send on its way to Tau Ceti, where a habitable planet was found that should be suitable for humans. The Ark, as the ship is called, travels at about 5% the speed of light. This means it will take almost two and a half centuries to bridge the gap of 12 lightyears. The Ark is truly a generation ship. All of the 50,000 people who were chosen to leave Earth would never see their destination but live out their lives on the ship. Entire new generations will be born, live their lives, and die, never seeing their destination. Imagine living on a ship now that left Earth at about the time of the American Declaration of Independence. That would be the timeframe.

The story starts just before arrival at Tau Ceti. Bryan Benson is a retired sports hero. He now works as a detective. After a crew member goes missing, he eventually discovers that a murder has taken place. As he digs deeper, he finds that there appears to be a conspiracy involving the most powerful people on the ship that could jeopardize the entire mission and possibly annihilate the last living members of the human race, the 50,000 souls living on the Ark.

I picked up this book because I love generation ship stories. I have read and reviewed five books about generation ships in this blog (you can find the reviews by selecting “Generation Ships” in the categories dropdown.

I enjoyed the description of the ship and its technology, but had a hard time picturing it in my head. The author does not do a very good job describing things.

The Ark is actually Book 1 of a series of three books titled “Children of a Dead Earth.” I didn’t think I’d go for the second in the series, but the publishers cleverly put the first few chapters into the end of this book, and it pulled me in. See my review of Book 2 next.

Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) is a failing advertising executive and miserable drunk. His wife calls him because he is missing his only daughter’s third birthday. He claims it’s because of work.

One raining night in 1993, he passes out in the rain on the sidewalk in front of this favorite bar after they locked him out. He wakes up and finds himself imprisoned in a nondescript, shabby motel room. His captors feed him mostly Chinese food along with a daily bottle of vodka to nurse his addiction. He stays locked up for 20 years, never learning why. Eventually he figures out he has to keep alive and healthy. He works out, practices martial arts he sees on TV, and plans his escape.

Then, suddenly, one day, he wakes up “free” in a trunk in the middle of a field in the country.

*** Spoiler Alert *** after this point, there are spoilers, but since I strongly recommend you do not bother to watch this movie, I am not sure it matters much.

As Joe awakes in the field, the viewer thinks this will be a Count of Monte Cristo story. A poor victim gets wrongfully imprisoned for decades, and then, when free, seeks revenge. Joe seeks revenge alright.

However, the story is so contrived, and the plot so complicated and outright silly, it’s hard to take this movie seriously. For instance, at one point he walks into the den of his captors pretending to be a food delivery man (for the Chinese food he had been fed for 20 years). He has no trouble walking into the facility where apparently many people are kept prisoner, under surveillance. He kills the few guards in reaches the inner sanctum, where he starts torturing the chief security guard. Nobody gets in his way. Then, suddenly, a dozen goons with fists. knives and clubs descend on him. With unbelievable superhero skills he either kills or beats all of them with just a hammer. When done, as he makes his way out, suddenly there is another dozen or more goons. Same thing once more. And then again.

Really?

There are also plot holes as big as a barndoor. For instance, the entire plot is based on a billionaire getting even with him, as he thought he did his family an injustice when they were both in college. So the billionaire has a motive to lock him up all these years and torture him. After all, there is a plan.

However, why are there all these other prisoners being monitored and held? Surely, they didn’t all harass him back in the day. The whole scheme just doesn’t add up.

After watching this all the way through, and wondering how I could possibly stay with it, I learned that this was a remake of a Korean movie of the same name from the year 2003. It actually got better reviews and maybe it was even halfway decent.

Oldboy was directed by Spike Lee. It was a box office bomb and one of the worst performances of Spike Lee’s career.

Why make a remake?

It is a horrible movie, with absolutely brutal violence so graphic that I had to look away. I didn’t want these images in my head.

And why the title Oldboy?

Absolutely, do not bother!

 

We like to go to a movie on Christmas Day in the afternoon. What were we thinking when we chose a movie titled Nightmare Alley to give us Christmas cheer?

Nightmare Alley plays in the late 1930s somewhere in America. Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) is a hapless young man who hates his father enough to make him freeze to death before he burns down his house with his body in it in the opening scene. As he escapes from the law, he ends up at a carnival by coincidence. Out of sheer desperation, he hires on and becomes a “carny.”

He learns quickly from his boss Clem (Willem Dafoe) and several other characters. The mystic Zeena lures him in, and her older and alcoholic husband Pete (David Strathairn) teaches him mentalism – appearing clairvoyant, revealing secrets about random people in the audience by verbal clues from an accomplice. He makes a name for himself in the carnival and is quite successful. Eventually he is put to he test by the female psychiatrist Lilith (Cate Blanchett) in the audience, who eventually becomes his accomplice and partner in crime in a series of ever more daring pursuits.

Watching Nightmare Alley is a nightmare. It is based on the 1946 novel Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham. In 1947, it was turned into a movie of the same name the same name starring Tyrone Power. So this is another remake. It’s over two and a half hours long, which is easily 45 minutes more than would have been necessary. It moves very slowly, and you never know where the story is going. For the longest time, there really does not seem to be a plot. It portrays the times in a moody and depressing light.

I learned what a “geek” is. Geek was originally an early 20th-century term for a carnival worker who was so unskilled that the only thing he could do at the carnival to entice an audience was to bite off the heads of live animals. Essentially, a geek was a socially undesirable person who lacked any skill or ability. Obviously, the term has morphed into something entirely different in the last three or four decades from those gruesome beginnings. But the geek in the carnival is more important than meets the eye at the beginning of the story.

This is a very well-done movie with an intricate plot and powerful cinematography which makes the experience depressing. It was too long. Too crazy.

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