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Archive for the ‘Two and a Half Stars’ Category

We went to see The Big Sick because I heard from a friend that she “had laughed so hard” and it was one of the funniest movies in a long time. In addition, it was rated 98% in the Tomatometer. Look, the poster says “gut-bustingly funny!”

So we went and knew nothing about what we were going to see. Usually I check the reviews, or at least a trailer, but not this time.

It wasn’t funny. I didn’t think it was a romantic comedy. I didn’t think it was a comedy at all.

It is a film about a true story of culture clashes. Kumail Nanjiani (played by the writer of the movie Kumail Nanjiani, playing himself) is a budding stand-up comedian, Uber driver, and son of Pakistani immigrants who first meets Emily (Zoe Kazan) when she heckles him at a gig in a bar. After a one-night-stand they decide to meet again.

Kumail’s mother is trying to arrange a marriage for him and invites an endless stream of women to dinner for him to meet and hopefully pick for marriage. Emily is a graduate student in psychology, with bigoted parents and no idea what she is getting into when she gets involved with Kumail. The unlikely pair slowly, steadily and delightfully falls in love.

But as it is with courtships across cultures and races, they sometimes come apart, and the two break up. Then Emily, unexpectedly, gets very sick with a strange illness that nobody seems to be able to identify. She is in a medically induced coma for a good part of the story, while Kumail and Emily’s parents Terry (Ray Romano) and Beth (Holly Hunter) form an unexpected bond while they spend their time in hospital waiting rooms.

While it wasn’t gut-bustingly funny at all, I did chuckle from time to time and I was amused. The Big Sick is a timely movie, as it addresses some of the Islamophobia that we experience now. It shows that these strange people from Pakistan are not all terrorists, but people with feelings, with emotions, with love and dedication, like all of us. It brings us all a bit closer.

The two main actors do a wonderful job, and Ray Romano makes a great hapless dad for Emily.

We enjoyed two hours away from our world in a story of culture clashes and the rise of the human spirit.

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The full title of the book is:

Aliens: The World’s Leading Scientists on the Search for Extraterrestrial Life

Aliens are little grey humanoids with big heads, large black eyes, slit mouths, and sometimes they speak English. Or are they?

I have always been of the opinion that we are in no way prepared for a meeting with actual aliens, if they exist.

Homo sapiens has been on the planet for about 200,000 years. Recent discoveries have moved it up to about 300,000 years, yet to be confirmed. Bottlenose dolphins have been around for about 15 million years, and I actually believe they are just as smart was we are, they just haven’t become toolmakers, because they evolved in an environment that does not require shelter, and where food floats by them so they didn’t need to develop agriculture to survive. But I digress.

Dolphins are alien intelligences, and they have lived next to us for the duration of our entire existence. The ancient Romans talked about dolphins and interactions with them. Yet, with advanced computer technologies, translation software, and decades of research into dolphin language, we still haven’t communicated yet.

Because communication with aliens is very hard.

If real aliens landed on earth, we earthlings couldn’t do a thing with them other than look at them. And they would look at us, marvel at our “intelligence” like we marvel about the intelligence of octopuses (or dolphins) and that’s where it would end.

Aliens is a collection of scientific essays about aliens and an excellent reference work. It analyzes the origin of life on earth, how life could have developed (or not developed) on other worlds, the likelihood of that having occurred, and the odds of us ever meeting another civilization.

If you have ever wondered if we are alone, read Aliens and you will marvel and be inspired.

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Rose (Allison Williams) thinks it’s time to take her boyfriend of five months, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), to meet her parents and family upstate over the weekend. “Do they know I’m black” Chris asks her when they pack. “No. But don’t worry. My father would have voted for Obama for a third time if he could have” she responds.

When they arrive, her parents, Missy and Dean Armitage, seem almost overly accommodating. There isn’t a moment of hesitation, an “oh” reflex of any type. It’s as if it was the most normal thing ever. But it turns out to be an unusual family. Dean is a neurosurgeon, Missy a psychiatrist and hypnotherapist. Soon she offers to break Chris’ habit of smoking by administering a ten-minute hypnosis session. But he declines.

Chris is well adjusted and secure, and he deals with the complicated and stressful situation remarkably well. Soon, however, small discoveries reveal that all is not quite what it seems. The black servants of the Armitages are exhibiting slightly “off” behavior, which he finds puzzling. And telltale signs of something not quite right start escalating when party guests arrive.

Get Out is not a movie about racism or race relations at all, even though it looks that way. Get Out is a thriller and its objective is not to educate us, or make us think. It’s to entertain. There is very little more I can say without spoiling things, so I won’t.

The critics on the Tomatometer gave this a 99, the audience an 88. This is a high rating for a movie where I recognized none of the actors, a movie which I watched not because I was interested about the subject, but because of the rating, and because it was highly recommended to me.

I was thoroughly entertained. I enjoyed the suspense. I appreciated the plot and its crescendo. And when it was done, I said “oh well” and knew I would soon forget all about it.

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Frank Adler (Chris Evans) is a blue-collar single man in a coastal town in Florida. He fixes boats at the local marina, and lives in a small apartment – with his 7-year-old nice Mary (Mckenna Grace). The little girl’s mother, Frank’s sister, committed suicide when her daughter was an infant, and with the child’s father nowhere to be found, she made sure that Frank would raise her.

Mary turned out to be a child prodigy in mathematics, just like her mother was. Frank is trying hard to make sure the girl has a normal life, goes to a normal school and grows up as a normal child. That is difficult in their family background, and when Frank’s mother Evelyn steps into the picture, things get acrimonious. Evelyn wants Mary to be what her mother was not, and she plans to take her away from Frank.

Gifted is a study of character. It explores the morality of raising children as we want to raise them, rather than how the children want to grow up. Anyone with a child prodigy, whether that be an Olympian, a chess master, a world-class musician or an academic superstar faces this problem: Should we sponsor the talent, or should we let the child decide and live her life?

One thing is for sure, Mckenna Grace, the little girl, does a remarkable and marvelous job of acting in this film. She is completely convincing, all the way through, when posing as a smart-aleck mathematical genius in school, when dealing with the adults around her, and when – in the course of the plot – she is hurt to the core, and the deep pain and utter feeling of abandonment oozes out of her.

There is a bit of tearjerker in Gifted, just enough to get us thoroughly involved, and at the end, I asked myself whether this was a true story — it felt like it was.

It wasn’t.

But it was a rewarding movie to watch.

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Antonina Żabińska (Jessica Chastain) is the zookeeper’s wife. With her husband, Dr. Jan Żabiński (Johan Heldenbergh) they run the Warsaw zoo in the late 1930s. The story starts in the summer of 1939. The zoo is very successful, due to the loving care of the Żabińskis.

Then, in September 1939, Hitler invades Poland and overruns the country within just a few days. The zoo is bombed. Many animals are shot by soldiers. The Żabińskis do whatever they can to keep the zoo and  the animals safe.

In the process of saving some Jewish friends by hiding them in their basement, they discover that they can help many others.  Pretty soon there is a veritable “underground railroad” passing through the Warsaw zoo. But eventually, the Nazis close in.

The Nazis made it a crime, punishable by death, to help another human being out of misery, if that human being was of a category they had arbitrarily and unilaterally labeled undesirable. We all know how that all ended.

Yet, in our country, we are starting to do the very same thing today. We choose a religion we don’t like, and we start harassing members of that religion. We try to ban them from our country. Hooligans attack them on the street, knowing that the government tacitly backs them up.

Folks, there are movies about this kind of thing! Like the Zookeeper’s Wife! Don’t we ever learn?

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Cady McCall is an iOS game programmer who just struck it rich by publishing a hit game which she sold to Apple. As she walks home alone from a meeting at night in Seattle, she is followed and then mugged. A rescuer comes along just as she passes out.

When she wakes up, she is in a moldy and dirty room in London in the 1880s, with a man named Titanic Smith, a U.S. Marshal from the Wild West.

As the two try to figure out what happened to them, they have a number of adventures in time, with one trip even to ancient Rome.

A Girl in Time is a time travel adventure story, and that’s how I came across it. The first third of the book was hard to read for me. The author, an experienced writer of many other books, mostly in the genre of alternative history, uses too many trite clichés that I found distracting. I have this pet peeve about meals always being “washed down” with a couple of beers. Here is another example:

They did not return to her apartment. Not this time. Instead they caught a cab to the Alexis Hotel after she’d grabbed a couple of adjoining rooms on Expedia.

Who “grabs” a room?

Also, the author applies a strange point of view switch, that, if it were executed correctly, could work quite well.

For instance, Cady is a 2016 American hip girl in her early twenties. And she speaks and thinks like one. Smith is a 19th century U.S Marshal from the West. He has a folksy way of talking and thinking. The author switches between the two points of view and gets into the heads of the protagonists, so we hear them thinking, but the switch occurs randomly inside paragraphs or chapters, which results in occasional confusion. Who is telling the story?

Generally, when an author does this, he works using alternate chapters with different view points, and it’s pronounced and clear. Now we’re seeing the story from Cady’s point of view, now from Smith’s.

A little editing of the books structure could have fixed this.

Now here is the cool part, if you’re still reading: About 40% into the book, Smith and Cady land by accident in Seattle in 2019, and a different 2019 it is.

Donald Trump is now president for life. The United States has become a dystopian fascist country. Homeland Security agents are executing brutal raids on citizens, reminiscent of the Gestapo in East Germany. People get arrested for criticizing the government. They get sent to “the Wall” to perform forced labor. Here is Cady talking:

“Oh, you mean when I rescued you from the fucking Fourth Reich run by an angry Cheetos demon and its talking peehole?”

I got a kick out of the Fourth Reich episode, since I found it so timely. I cannot tell when Birmingham released A Girl in Time; the book oddly lacks a copyright page. He must have written it before Trump was elected, and he simply played on the theme. We’re obviously not a dystopian fascist country yet, but some of the things being done now are very scary and Birmingham predicted them in this novel.

Some Amazon reviewers blasted the writer for letting his political views come through and using the book to lecture. For me, it was the opposite.

As far as time travel adventures go, this is a so-so book and I am not sure I’ll be interested in reading the sequel when it comes out – but I might.

As far as the sequence on Trump, it made this book, and therefore, even though I would have only given it a two-star rating, I bumped it up by half a star. It will probably boost Trump’s ego when he finds out he is a character in a novel, even though not a flattering one.

Trump, the angry Cheetos demon!

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manchester-by-the-sea

After this brother Joe’s sudden death, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) finds out that he has appointed him as sole guardian of his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Lee is a janitor in Quincy, south of Boston, about an hour and a half’s drive from Manchester, his home town. When he returns to take care of his brother’s funeral and will, the is thrown back into his former life, with all the vengeance and violence that former life can muster.

The movie tells the story of the Chandler family’s misfortunes in frequent flashbacks, and gradually we come to understand why Lee is so stoic and void of emotion in his pathetic life as a bachelor in a one-room basement apartment, unclogging other people’s drains.

His nephew Patrick is 16 years old, has two girlfriends at the same time, plays hockey, basketball and is part of a teenage band. His life is full, and Lee’s life has no room for him.

This film is rated with 97% on the Tomatometer, so I expected that it would blow me away. I found Affleck’s acting intense and as I walked out I thought he’d get an Oscar for it. But Trisha, who watched it with me, didn’t agree at all. She pointed out the he had one face throughout the entire movie, the one in the photograph above, and that set the mood. No Oscar. Thinking more about it, I must agree. His mood was as gray at the winter in Manchester, Massachusetts, and the entire movie was gray and drab.

But then again, that’s what Lee’s life was like after his brother died, and perhaps that’s the story. I’ll let you be the judge, since despite my low two and a half star rating, I recommend you watch it.

Rating - Two and a Half Stars

 

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arrival

 
Twelve giant mysterious alien space craft the shape of avocado halves land in different areas of the globe. Mankind, as you would expect, goes crazy and in the frenzy escalates itself to the edge of global war. The American landing takes place in Montana. American Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) is in charge of the makeshift tent army base at the ship. Since communications with the aliens is crucial, he recruits Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a renowned linguist, and Dr. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a world-famous physicist, as the team leaders in their fields. Backed by a team of military specialists, they enter the vessel. They learn quickly that physics as we know it does not hold true. For instance, as soon as they are inside the ship and make contact with its surface, artificial gravity allows them to walk up vertical walls.

And then they meet the aliens.

This is my kind of movie. When it was advertised at 100% on the Tomatometer, we went to see it on opening night. It has meanwhile been downgraded to 93%.

There are a lot of things about this movie that I liked, and a few things that I want to criticize.

I loved the soundtrack. It is a perfect match for the movie and its ambiance. I also loved the fact that the aliens are not little green men, or greys, or humanoids at all. The aliens are very, very different from us, which is what I would expect aliens to be like. I also enjoyed that the movie’s central plot relates to the relativity of time, something I am also inherently interested in. It portrays those concepts well and effectively by using them as central drivers of the story.

Here is what I had trouble with, and it’s also related to the central plot of the movie: Communications with aliens. I have written much about alien linguistics over the years. One review titled  Dolphins, Myths & Transformation – by Ryan DeMares is an example.

The fact is: We have aliens right here on our planet: dolphins. They are as intelligent was humans are, as far as we can tell, they have language, and our genomes are basically the same. We have lived with dolphins around us since antiquity. Roman writers talk about dolphins: the Latin word delphinus is the origin of our word for dolphins. And yet, in all these centuries of trying, and in recent decades with powerful computer technology, including the application of neural networks, we have not yet broken the code. We cannot even communicate with dolphins in a rudimentary way. We don’t understand them, and they don’t understand us. We don’t have a dolphin dictionary yet – even though there are many teams working on one now.

Yet, Louise Banks, in a few weeks, figures out a dictionary of rudimentary terms and even a sentence structure that allows her to communicate with the aliens. Their written language is not based on symbols like ours, but concepts projected in inkblot-type rings that are seemingly formed out of an ink-like material. You can see some of the alien “sentences” in the picture at the top of this post, represented by the circular structures pasted on the wall behind Ian and Louise. Not only do the Americans figure out the language, but the Russians, Chinese and a few other countries independently do also. And all of them, within a short time, come to the conclusion that the aliens mean us harm because they’re talking about “weapons.” How the humans figured out a translation between an alien ink cloud and the word weapon, among many other words, is not explained.

The central plot about Arrival is how we communicate, and how our communications affects our lives – and times. Perhaps I know too much about the subject, and therefore it didn’t seem real and believable to me. Perhaps I am overly critical. It just didn’t work.

However, if you simply accept that we’re going to be able to communicate with aliens, while everything else about them remains completely and utterly mysterious – ahem – alien, then you might enjoy this film very much.

Rating - Two and a Half Stars

 

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the long way

I have heard science fiction writers say that they are writing the books they’d like to read. Well, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is a book I would want to write because I would like to read it.

The debut novel by Becky Chambers is a quirky little road trip story, except the participants are not a motley crew of young adults driving from New York to the American West in a VW van. Rather, a crew of humans and aliens are on a trip in a space ship from the human “area” of the galaxy to the “core” where an obnoxious and dangerous alien race wields power.

The Wayfarer is a tunneling ship – that’s a spaceship designed to punch hyperspace tunnels into space so you can travel thousands of light years in a few hours. How that is done, how the science of it all works, is not explained, and it really does not matter much to advance the story.

When I said it’s a road trip story, I mean that it does not have much of a plot or a conflict. The joy of reading it is simply following the crew from adventure to adventure.

The universe they live in is one where humans are not the primary race. There are three founding races that formed the “Galactic Commons” long before humans even had technology, let alone space travel. One of the races are the Harmagians, a mollusk-like race with tentacles and slimy skin, but no feet, so they have to move around in wheelchair-like carts. Then there are the Aandrisks. They are lizard-like creatures, a bit like velociraptors but with more gentle, human-like faces. They have scales, are cold-blooded, and have claws. They also have to molt. The third funding race are the Aeluons, humanoid creatures, with scales, and no vocal chords, that communicate with the coloring of their skin. They are perceived as beautiful by humans. Humans were only very recently voted in to join the Galactic Commons as a member race. They therefore don’t carry much weight yet.

Rosemary Harper, a human with a secret in her history, is getting away from it all by joining the Wayfarer as a clerk. The captain of the Wayfarer is Ashby, a human. Its pilot is Sissix, an Aandrisk. Its medical officer and cook is Dr. Chef, a Grum. Grums are an almost extinct, ancient race, that have six “handfeet” that they can use interchangeably, multiple throats, and many other very alien features. Then there is Corbin, the ship’s algaeist, a human, and Kizzy and Jenks, the techs, also humans whose job it is keep the ship running. Finally, there is Ohan, the ship’s navigator, a Sianat, which is a feline-like race with fur and four legs. Ohan is extremely reclusive, but a vital member of the crew because due to a strange viral condition is able to visualize hyperspace, a crucial skill if the job of the ship is to “punch holes” into space to create wormholes for other ships to travel through.

How this crew interacts with each other and with other aliens is what the book is mostly about. Other aliens they come across are the Toremi Ka, a very nasty sort with four legs with knees bent the wrong way, or the Quelin, lobster-like creatures with lots of clicking legs and a centaur-like torso and head.

I was fascinated with all the aliens and their interactions, both individually on the ship, and as races with each other, in the Galactic Commons, with all its politics and social structure. But there were some flaws with this book.

As some Amazon reviewers noted, the dialog is sometimes that of high school girls, perhaps because Kizzy, the tech, is a ditsy, albeit brilliant, chick.

My major complaint is that most of the aliens are really humans dressed up as aliens. While their bodies and structures are very different, they pretty much think and feel like humans in other bodies. To me, they are not alien enough.

I also found that the author didn’t describe them well enough. So I could picture them somewhat, but not sufficiently to, say, draw or paint them. I’d have to make a lot of things up. I would say that if you write a book which is centrally focused around aliens interacting, you should do a much better job putting pictures of those aliens into my head. The aliens are all about the same size, approximately human, so they can all interact, sort of like in the bar scenes of the Star Wars movies.

Here is what pushed it over the top, though. Some of the humans and aliens had the hots for each other. There is one central plotline revolving around a sexual relationship between a Human and an Aeluon, and another between a Human and an Aandrisk. That was too much for me. I can’t imagine how one would get sexually attracted to an alien, no matter how humanoid that alien is. And how would that work, claws, tentacles and all, not to speak of sex organs, if there even are any in the aliens. So while it was tastefully handled by the author, it just made it too outlandish and farfetched for me, and I was always reminded that, yes, I was reading a book, and I just had to accept that this was somehow possible.

For me, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet was eminently readable, a page-turner even, with some major flaws that I was willing to forgive. I read that Becky Chambers is working on a sequel.

I will read the sequel when it comes out in October.

Rating - Two and a Half Stars

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Obama is five years younger than I am. In six months he’ll be an ex-president after 8 years in office. They have already made a movie about, of all things, his first date with his wife. Say want you want, he is a remarkable man.

Southside2

Southside With You plays on one summer day in Chicago in 1989, when Michelle Robinson went on a first date with the summer intern Barack Obama at her lawfirm, where she was a second-year associate. Michelle didn’t want it to be a date. Barack insisted and made it one. Their day meanders through an art exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, to a screening of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, then to a community organizing event, drinks and finally to the site of their first kiss outside of an ice cream parlor.

I knew Southside With You is about the young Obamas, but I didn’t know the entire movie was about one single day.

It is a portrait of a young couple that went on to do extraordinary things. Whether you are a fan or opponent of Obama, there is no denying he made history. That one day in Chicago may well have been a turning point in world history, if one may assume that Obama might not have become The Obama without the partnership of Michelle. None of us will ever know, of course, but I ruminate about such turns – or perhaps I would call them – simple twists of fate.

Southside1

Who would have thought in 1989 that the skinny couple above (in a picture taken during the time the movie plays) would be moving into the White House less than 19 years hence.

If you are a supporter of Obama, you’ll likely enjoy this movie as a portrait of the young man to make an extraordinary difference in our nation’s history. I read both of Obama’s books before he became president, and they helped form my opinion at the time. Here are my reviews of those books:

Dreams from my Father

The Audacity of Hope

This movie does a good job rounding out the background.

Rating - Two and a Half Stars

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War Dogs

I am a government contractor myself. I respond to government RFPs, just like the two guys in this movie do. They sell bullets and guns. I sell software systems. But the process is the same. And yes, it sure looks like there is money to be made in arms.

I do not know how authentic this movie actually is. It portrays two young  kids (Jonah Hill, Miles Teller) with little education, barely out of high school, who stumbled into dealing with arms, getting rich quickly.

Or do they? There are always hurdles, and sometimes the hurdles to our successes are within ourselves.

War Dogs is an enjoyable movie to watch and I am afraid it’s probably closer to the truth of government contracting than I’d like to think.

Makes you want to get on that website right away and start getting rich quick, from the crumbs.

Rating - Two and a Half Stars

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EyeintheSky

Warfare, during the times of the Spartans, or the Romans, was conducted by highly trained men with swords going at each other. In the American Civil War, lines of men, shoulder to shoulder, shot at each other with muskets and as the lines dropped, battles were won.

But now is the time of killer robots in the sky. Well, not quite yet. Let’s give it another few decades before we need to worry about the science fiction killer machines that descend on the world and kill humans. Right now, the killer machines are called drones and their use has been perfected over the last decade or so. The Obama presidency is marked by the use of drones.

The “pilot” sits in an air-conditioned trailer outside Las Vegas, surrounded by video screens, flying a with a joy stick like in the video games he grew up with, and directed by a colonel through a set of headphones.

The “commander” could be anywhere else in the world, like in the Pentagon, in the White House, or, as in the case of Eye in the Sky, somewhere in England.

The “ground troops” are individuals or commandos near the target, in this case somewhere in Somalia.

The “generals” are sitting in their war rooms, directed by politicians out playing golf. In this case, the politicians are taking a break from their Ping-Pong game in China to give the order that will have people killed.

The “players” of this war are spread all over the world.

But ground zero is a shack in a slum neighborhood in Somalia, which just happens to contain five major terrorists at the same time – and therefore needs to be taken out. If only there were not a young girl selling her bread on a stand just outside the walls of the house in the crosshairs. If the missile is launched, surely she will die. And all participants know it, except for the one who gives the final order – by being interrupted in his Ping-Pong game.

Eye in the Sky is a riveting account of the moral implications of modern warfare, where immense damage can be inflicted on innocent lives on the other side of the world by the simple push of a button on a joystick in the Nevada desert.

All the warriors go home after the mission, to their families in their suburban houses all over the world, but the little girl in Somalia, who happened to be at the very wrong place at the very wrong time, never gets to go home at all.

Eye in the Sky is reminiscent of the 2015 movie Good Kill, where the same type of moral conflict is highlighted. There is no way to walk away from this movie without being aware of the immense responsibility of the commander-in-chief who literally decides if someone lives or dies. This is even more relevant today during our tumultuous election season, where there is at least one candidate who seems to be proud of showing the world that he does not care about anybody but himself.

Rating - Two and a Half Stars

 

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War and Peace

I finished reading War and Peace. I am pretty much the only person I know that has read War and Peace all the way through. If a reader wants to challenge me on this, leave a comment!

With over 580,000 words (in English), the book is listed on Wikipedia’s list of longest books as number 22.

The only books I also know on this list is Les Misérables by Victor Hugo with 655,000 words, and Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand with 645,000 words, which I have actually read and reviewed here.

But why am I whining about how long the book is? Because it’s iconic for its length. When our English teacher told us that an assigned essay would not have to be too long, he would say: “You don’t need to write War and Peace.”

It also took me longer than any other book I can remember. I started reading this around New Years 2016, and look, it’s almost Tax Day 2016, that’s how long it took me. I am starving for other reading material. I can’t wait to start another book, any other book!

War and Peace is one of the central pieces of world literature. In 2007, Time magazine ranked War and Peace third in its poll of the 10 greatest books of all time. Tolstoy’s other major work, Anna Karenina, was first. Incidentally, Anna Karenina is one major novel I have actually read twice, listed with a few others here. Newsweek ranked War and Peace first in its list of 100 greatest books in 2009.

War and Peace plays in Russia, mostly in and around Moscow, during the Napoleonic Wars, and the central action is the invasion of Russia by Napoleon in 1812. While there are hundreds of important characters in the book, there are some protagonists that the work follows from beginning to end. One is Pierre Bezukhov, an illegitimate son of a count who grows up a misfit and then unexpectedly becomes one of the richest men in Russia when his father dies and leaves his estate to him. Another is Prince Andrew, who becomes an officer in the war. Natasha Rostov is a the young and beautiful daughter of a count who is the object of intrigue by both Andrew and Pierre, and a number of other suitors.

The book follows mostly members of the nobility. We get to learn how Russian nobility lived, and there are enough princes and princesses, and counts and countesses in War and Peace to last me a lifetime. While Tolstoy clearly spent a lot of time and effort describing the lifestyles of the rich, famous and glamorous of Russian society around 1800, I felt that I didn’t learn enough about the lives of the peasantry, the soldiers and the ordinary workers. As it seems, half the book is filled with endless petty conversations between princes, counts and their panderers in the drawing rooms of Russian estates. Real people, the servants, the footmen, the nurses and tutors, are only referenced. They hardly ever talk. It’s as if life only consisted of the one percent.

From reading Anna Karenina (Tolstoy), The Brothers Karamazov (Dostoevsky), Fathers and Sons (Turgenev), all playing in Russia of the Czars, I have a completely different picture of Russian life in its glory days than I do of Russia today, when we think of oligarchs, Putin, Soviets, Stalin, and communism. Read War and Peace, experience how the gentry lived and used and abused the people, and you will understand why the Russian revolution happened about 100 years after War and Peace played. The people, the workers, the serfs, the peasants, they couldn’t take it anymore. Alas, it didn’t last long, and a new breed of abusers took over, not by inherited titles, but by power. That’s what made Russia what it is today.

War and Peace tells a story of epic proportions and provides endless material to marvel about. It is an unforgettable book – and it is very, very challenging to read and finish.

So while it behooves me to give such a classic work four stars, I simply didn’t experience it that way. It’s a must-read, yes, but it’s not a page turner.

You don’t read War and Peace, War and Peace reads you!

Rating - Two and a Half Stars

 

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10 Cloverfield Lane

Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is leaving her boyfriend. She moves out of their apartment in the city, driving into the countryside when, out of nowhere, she gets hit, her car careens off the road and flips upside down. She wakes up in a cellar with cinderblock walls, on a mattress, an IV in her arm, her leg in a brace, and chained to a pipe along the wall. She has no idea where she is.

It turns out she is in the “custody” of Howard Stambler (John Goodman), who has been preparing for a doomsday scenario all his life. He claims that the end of the world as we know it has come, and rather than being antagonistic, she should be grateful for his care and protection.

Howard is just a bit too crazy, too strange, for her to accept that reality and she starts plotting for her escape.

10 Cloverfield Lane is a suspense drama with just a few actors, almost like a play. John Goodman performs in one of his best roles ever, and he is perfect for it. Howard is on the one side a compassionate uncle-figure, on the other side a stark-raving-mad conspiracy fiend, and I found myself wondering all through the film whether I should trust Howard, or whether he was actually the problem.

The ending is not what I thought it would be, so the surprise element worked well for me. The movie was suspenseful and quite entertaining, but in the end I would not call it a great movie – it was just “good.”

You should go and see it.

Rating - Two and a Half Stars

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A Walk in the Woods

Many years ago I read the book A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson. It’s one of those books that you can randomly open up at any page, point to any paragraph and start reading, and within a few seconds you crack up and often laugh out loud. It’s one of the funniest books ever.

The movie is about Bryson (Robert Redford), a writer who decides to hike the Appalachian Trail (the AT), and can’t find anybody to hike with him, except his cantankerous, out of shape friend Katz (Nick Nolte). So they go off and hike into the woods, where they encounter odd characters, rain, snow, endless woods, priceless vistas and the bottoms of their souls. There is something in hiking that opens up a man. Bryson and Katz are going through some good male bonding out in the elements.

The movie A Walk in the Woods is nothing like the book. The funny scenes are a bit predictable and slapsticky. And the story, while cute, doesn’t much follow the book at all, other than both are about hiking. In the end, that’s what it’s all about, and I would not be surprised if the southern terminus of the AT were not swamped next spring with lots of Bryson and Katz pairs, at least for the first few days.

Two stars for the movie, and half a star because it’s about hiking. Hey, I can do that!

Rating - Two and a Half Stars

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