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Archive for the ‘Two and a Half Stars’ Category

There isn’t an American alive who has not heard the name Chappaquiddick, an odd name that nobody before 1969 would have known how to even pronounce.

With both of his famous brothers assassinated, Senator Ted Kennedy was the star of the Democratic party and well on his way to the White House. One fateful night, he had too much to drink and went for a drive with a young woman who was an aide to his brother before and whom he tried to recruit. He loses control of his car as he drives off a bridge. The car flips over and end up wheels up in the water.

He comes to in the water outside of the car, but the car is closed, and the woman is still insight, fighting to get out. He tries to free her but is not successful and eventually walks away. It’s not clear to the viewer how this was even possible. But that’s his story.

As the night progresses, he makes a number of mistakes, and by morning, the Kennedy spin machine is in full swing. We witness political power gone unchecked, when his aides start fabricating the reality they need for their wonder boy to continue to have a political future.

Ted didn’t run for president for 1972, like he had planned. American history may have been forever changed that night in Chappaquiddick. Ted ran for president in 1980 but did not succeed. However, he did continue to serve in the United States Senate until his death in 2009. As a senator for 47 years, he was the fourth-longest-continuously-serving senator in U.S. history.

The movie Chappaquiddick tells this mystery story for those of us that never really studied the details, and it gives an inside glimpse into one of America’s most powerful families of the 1960s.

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John Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix) was a 21-year-old alcoholic when he went out bar hopping with his friend Dexter (Jack Black) in his VW bug. Late at night, Dexter passed out and drove the bug into a pole at 90 miles per hour. He walked away with hardly a scratch. John was paralyzed from the shoulders down.

But that didn’t stop him from drinking. He kept at it for another six years before he found himself in a group of Alcoholics Anonymous sponsored by Donny (Jonah Hill).

As he came to terms with his situation he discovered that he had a knack for dark humor and he started drawing cartoons. Eventually he was able to publish them in the local paper in Portland and, while many people were offended due to the nature of his subjects, he found an international following and fame.

The movie is based on the real life story of John Callahan. Adapted by Gus Van Sant from Callaghan’s autobiography, it is a powerful treatment of addiction and alcoholism, and it illustrates vigorously what it does to a person’s dignity and well-being. Obviously most people do not have Callahan’s zest for life and humor, and his luck and skill to pull off a successful career, partly based on his experiences in life.

A couple of observations: Joaquin Phoenix does a remarkable job with this role. Jack Black looks like he gained an incredible amount of weight. I hardly recognized him. And – this is the most remarkable fact – I didn’t even realize that Donny was played by Jonah Hill (see the person on the right in the photo above). He looks so different from his usual roles, he is so much slimmer, it never even crossed my mind that it was Jonah Hill. Now I want to watch the movie again just to observe his performance.

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is a powerful movie that is NOT a comedy, as the trailer might make you believe.

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Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a hapless silver miner in 1898 in the California desert. One day, completely alone, he falls down a shaft and breaks his leg. By pure chance, he happens upon oil. Relentlessly, he learns the oil business. He raises his infant son, whose mother died in childbirth, by taking him with him to the places where he works. The boy grows up learning the business from his father.

To get the rights to the land where he wants to drill, the sweet-talks the owners to give him permission to drill their land, or to sell the land to him outright. As the years go by, he builds an oil empire, and gradually, power and money consume him.

Over time he makes enemies of all the people around him, and at the height of his wealth and power, he starts battling with his own son.

There Will Be Blood plays in the California desert. After living in California for well more than half of my life, I consider myself a native, and I recognized the natural landscape. Outsiders think of California covered with palm trees. California is mostly desert, completely dry, dusty, rocky, with few shrubs or trees. This movie shows California as it looked a hundred years ago, before suburbs and urban sprawl took over. The hardness and harshness of life comes through, and the frantic search for a way to make a living is in everyone’s eyes.

I found this movie very hard to watch, depressing most of the time, and way too long at 158 minutes. But Daniel Day-Lewis is a master actor, and he carries the film.

I warn you, this is not relaxing or enjoyable, but it is educational.

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Christoph Wilder is an airline captain licensed to fly the huge double-decker Airbus A380. On a trip from New York to Europe, the plane flies through a volcanic ash cloud that air traffic control didn’t know was there. All four engines die, and the huge plane becomes a glider over the icy North Atlantic. By sheer steel nerves and drawing on deep experience, he manages an emergency landing in the U.K. Everyone is saved, except for one elderlyt man who dies of cardiac arrest during the commotion.

But the airline is worried about negative publicity and grounds him. In order to continue flying, he takes on a job with a top-secret German government research project, flying an A380 built out to be a time machine. During the maiden voyage, when they are just planning on testing the equipment, things go horribly wrong and they end up in Germany in 1939, the day before the assassination attempt on Hitler in Munich.

Very quickly their time travel adventure turns into an apocalyptic nightmare with seemingly no way out, where the future of humanity is at stake.

Peterson is a German writer, and the locales and the characters are all German, which I actually found refreshing, since pretty much all science fiction I read is American. The German backdrop and story line was a nice change.

I was critical of the book, because the trip through the volcanic ash cloud and the aftermath took a full 25% of the book, before the interesting story even started. I made a note of that to mention it in my review, since I felt the whole thing could have been left out completely without affecting the plot in any way. So it was a slow start, but the story kept getting more and more interesting, and I kept reading. I forgave the author for the rookie start and let it go.

But then there was the ending, which surprised me completely and tied it all together. In fact, the ending was so good that I changed my expected rating of the book from two to two and a half stars.

A quick read, and a good addition to my time travel library.

 

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Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain) is one of the most formidable lobbyists in Washington. She is creative, but ruthless, and her reputation and success record indicates that she is ready to do whatever necessary to win. Along comes the NRA. They approach her firm and want her to take a case bolstering the NRA by attracting female voters for the cause. Since she does not agree with this message but rather has the opposite ideological view, she turns them down, and in the process ends up losing her job with her firm. She defects and takes half of her team with her.

Now the battle of her life is underway, where the opponent is the NRA, one of the most powerful special interests in Washington, represented by her old firm. The odds are impossible. But Miss Sloane always wins.

I watched Miss Sloane right after watching Molly’s Game and writing this review just yesterday. The two movies almost overlapped in my head, since Jessica Chastain plays a very similar person in both movies, a very bright, self-assured, articulate, determined maverick woman.

Miss Sloane was released in 2016, but it is a very timely film to watch now as its subject deals with gun control, the power of the NRA lobby, corruption in government as it relates to the Second Amendment. The movement the Florida high school kids set in motion after the most recent school massacre there relates perfectly to the topics Miss Sloane deals with.

Of course, I am not sure if Washington really works the way it is portrayed in this movie, but if it is, it’s frightening. It seemed very realistic to me, except for the remote-controlled cockroaches. You’ll just have to watch to find out what those are about!

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A suicidal eccentric American billionaire industrialist accidentally crosses paths with a disembodied alien intelligence he calls Ell.  The two team up.

Through complex space/time machinations he is able to download his 70-year-old self into his 10-year-old body of his youth. Through a large portion of the book we accompany him reliving his life a second time around, trying to make changes to the way it went the first time.

He ends up inventing a time/space travel machine. Eventually he uploads his own identity into a machine and starts becoming a disembodied intelligence himself. Ah, eternal life!

For my taste, there was too much psychobabble about disembodied intelligence, but in the end, I enjoyed reading the book, it was quite well-written, and I must say that it’s required reading for anyone interested in the time travel genre.

Enjoy!

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A young Marine gets killed in 2003 in Iraq. His father, Richard “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell), himself a Vietnam Veteran, has to go and meet the plane that brings his son’s casket before he is buried at Arlington Cemetery. But Doc can’t do it alone. He travels and seeks out two buddies from his time in Vietnam, the former Marines Sal (Bryan Cranston), who now runs a bar, and Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), who is a minister. He convinces the two of them to accompany him on his trip.

Along the way, they decide they don’t want the son to be buried at Arlington, but rather in his hometown in New Hampshire. Being forced to be together, they reminisce about shared memories of the war. Each has to confront his own demons of the past, of an experience that has shaped their lives, obviously for the rest of their lives.

The insanity of America that keeps sending its sons and daughters to far-away lands to fight for a cause that means nothing to them, and to die for their country in the name of freedom, which is obviously a sham, came out strong as I watched Last Flag Flying. Don’t we ever learn?

In a time when our leaders seems to have less scruples than ever, when they don’t hesitate to send other people’s sons and daughters into harm’s way for political convenience – and money – it is ever more important for all of us to see deep into the souls of those hapless soldiers when they come back, broken, damaged, or dead.

That’s what Last Flag Standing made me think about.

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Starting in the 1960s, and going forward through the decades, a serial killer, who picked seemingly random victims, raged in the San Francisco area. He wrote messages to the media in advance to “prove” he was the killer and took tokens of evidence at the crime scene.

This inspired an intense manhunt.

Zodiac is an intense crime thriller and includes great, talented performances by Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., and Mark Ruffalo.


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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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