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Archive for the ‘Two Stars’ Category

Dell (Kevin Hart) is a recently paroled ex-convict. His teenage son and his wife do not respect him. He has not been a father or provider by a long shot. On his search for a job, he stumbles upon the opportunity to be a caretaker for the paraplegic billionaire Phil (Bryan Cranston). Even though he is not qualified whatsoever, Phil takes a liking to him and over time, the relationship changes both of them. The unlikely pair become friends.

The movie is based on a true story first told by the French film The Intouchables. The critics of The Upside are blasting it and comparing it to the supposedly much better The Intouchables. I have not seen that film, so I am not qualified to judge, but I can say that I enjoyed watching The Upside more than I expected. It’s a heartfelt comedy that lifts the human spirit.

I have a pet peeve about movie titles that don’t make sense to me. The Upside is one of those. I can’t figure out why they named it that. There must be some upside with this film.

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Just as I was finished reading Where the Crawdads Sing, as I was transitioning back to Sapiens, I received an email from my friend Wolfgang recommending The Red Badge of Courage. How could I resist?

Within minutes I had downloaded the book and started reading. I recognized the first few pages and concluded that I must have read it before, many years ago, and forgotten all about it.

Not so. I now realize that I had started reading it – after all, it’s a classic – but put it aside after the first session, never to pick it up again. In my days of  reading hardcopy books that was quite possible. Once a book went down below the top five on the reading stack, there was a real chance that it never came to light again, ever. And so it must have been with The Red Badge of Courage.

It tells the story of “The Youth” as the author refers to him, a farm boy named Henry Fleming who enlists in the Union Army during the American Civil War, against his mother’s advice, as many a boy was wont to do when peer pressure was applied. He goes to war with gusto, only to realize that war is weeks and weeks of boredom, interrupted by occasional hours of terror and fright during battles. In the Civil War, men lined up shoulder to shoulder in rows, facing the enemy, who also lined up. Then they shot salvos at each other, which randomly thinned out the respective lines. Reloading took much time, getting ready for the next salvo. The human soldier was completely expendable. I don’t know how I would handle such a situation, and I am grateful that I never in my life had to. But the youth was terrified and ran away in shame. Eventually he found his way back to his regiment, and through successive engagements found his courage, and eventually became a hero to himself and his comrades. The title “the red badge of courage” comes from a red blood stain from a battle injury.

Stephen Crane wrote the book decades after the war and published it in 1893. He never experienced war firsthand himself, so his descriptions all came from what others told him. Notable also is that Crane died of tuberculosis in Germany in a sanatorium in the Black Forest in 1900 at the young age of 28. The Red Badge of Courage was his most acclaimed novel. It is a short book that you can read in a few hours, and many readers find it boring and challenging to read. All of the dialog is in southern farmer dialect, heavy with apostrophes and difficult to read. Here is an example:

But the tall soldier continued to beg in a lowly way. He now hung babelike to the youth’s arm. His eyes rolled in the wildness of his terror. “I was allus a good friend t’ yeh, wa’n’t I, Henry? I ’ve allus been a pretty good feller, ain’t I? An’ it ain’t much t’ ask, is it? Jest t’ pull me along outer th’ road? I ’d do it fer you, wouldn’t I, Henry?” He paused in piteous anxiety to await his friend’s reply.

— Crane, Stephen. The Red Badge of Courage (AmazonClassics Edition) (p. 67).

This is difficult for us Americans to read. I wonder how Wolfgang fared, being a native German reader? But then again, he told me he read War and Peace in Russian, so this must be a walk in the park in comparison.

I stuck with it and finished the book. I am not much of a “classics” guy, and The Red Badge of Courage, while an impressive little story, didn’t touch me all that much. I felt like I was reading it as a result of a class assignment, which, in a way, it was. I finished it, and in my subjective rating it gets two stars.

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I was around in 1988, when Senator Gart Hart (Hugh Jackman) was considered the front runner for the Democratic presidential nomination. We know how it all ended. Hart exited the race not too long after a story broke about an extramarital relationship with a woman named Donna Rice.

In 1988, tabloid journalism surfaced for the first time in a presidential election. It is now 30 years later, and it seems like tabloid journalism is all we get anymore in high profile elections. Gary Hart was an Eagle Scout compared to Donald Trump. Our senses are now dull, and our sensitivity numbed. The office of the presidency will not be the same again.

But in the days of Gary Hart, different rules applied.

This documentary drama tells the story of the rise and fall of Gary Hart, the man who almost might have been president, until some “Monkey Business” got in the way. The Front Runner is an entertaining and informative film into the way we run our presidential elections and I enjoyed the window into the past.

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Nels Coxman (Liam Neeson) is a quiet, shy working-class man who lives with his wife (Laura Dern) in the mountains outside Denver. He is the local snowplow driver and a respected citizen.

Their young son, who works at the local airport as a baggage handler, is killed one night. When Nels tries to figure out what happened, he runs into the underworld of the local drug traffickers. As he is faced with brutality and criminality, he quickly turns vigilante and picks off the bad guys, one at a time, using fists, guns, snowplows, tree trimming tractors, axes, and anything you might find in a maintenance garage for heavy machinery.

I expected Cold Pursuit to be an action thriller as many other Liam Neeson movies, and it is, but it’s also a dark comedy. I laughed more than I expected, and in the end I walked out chuckling.

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When Tim Lake (Domhnall Gleeson) is 21, his father (Bill Nighy) pulls him aside and tells him that the men in his family have always had the ability to travel through time. They can do it at will by going into a dark area like a closet or a bathroom with the lights off, clenching their fists, closing their eyes and wishing for another time. Boom, there they arrive, properly dressed the way they were at that time.

He can’t seem to find a girlfriend, so he decides he is going to use his new skill to get one. That does not turn out quite the way he expected. When he meets a girl and falls in love, she gives him her number, and he bounds away excited. Mission accomplished! But then he travels back in time to help out a friend and realizes too late that he is now in a time where he has never met the girl and never received her phone number. He now has to figure out how to meet her again – but where to start?

I ran across this 2013 movie at a hotel flipping through the HBO channels. Time travel is one of my favorite science fiction genres (just search this block for the category and it’ll be obvious I am an aficionado –>) so this was a natural choice to stop on. The mechanics of time travel in this story are very simple and not scientific, like they would be in a fairy tale, which this essentially is.

About Time is light feel-good movie with no antagonists but perhaps life itself and the curve balls it throws at you. It plays in England, the characters are all delightful and light, and life is — almost — perfect. When the credits rolled I was convinced that I need to live every day as best as I can and I was satisfied.

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Adolf Eichmann was Hitler’s “architect of the final solution” and one of the most notorious henchmen of the Nazi regime. He was one of the few senior Nazis who did not commit suicide but managed to escape to Argentina after the war. He lived a quiet life with his wife and two children, and worked as a manager at an automotive factory.

In 1960, Israel’s intelligence agency Mossad got a tip from agent Peter Malkin. He convinced them to try to find and abduct Eichmann and bring him to Israel to stand trial.

The movie deals with the soul of a Nazi, and how he justified his deeds at the time, and how he lives with himself afterwards. “I just followed orders, like everyone else,” is the simple answer most of the monsters of history have used to justify their bloody deeds. It also addresses the role the Argentinian government played in protecting the Germans.

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Forrest Tucker (Robert Redford) is an old man who escaped from prison at age 70. Rather than lying low, he starts robbing banks. He walks in quietly like an elderly gentleman, shows the stunned teller his gun, and walks out with a bag of money – over and over again. He is such an unlikely robber, he gets away with it. On one of his road trips he runs into a woman (Sissy Spacek) with whom he starts a friendship.

The movie is base on the true story of Forrest Tucker, who was a misfit as a youth and spent time in juvenile correction facilities and prisons dozens of times throughout his life.

Robert Redford and Sissy Spacek are seasoned actors who obviously carry the movie. It’s light, and I didn’t find any great value. I enjoyed watching it, but I knew I’d better write this review soon lest I forget all about it.

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April May (yes, that’s the name) is a twenty-three-year-old girl just out of college trying to find herself, her life, and her career in New York City of today. Running around the city on 29th Street at three a.m., she finds an “absolutely remarkable” statue – a ten-foot-tall robot-like transformer wearing samurai armor on the sidewalk in front of a Chipotle.

She calls her friend Andy and they make a video together in the middle of the night and by the next day April is a YouTube sensation.

They name the robot Carl, and they quickly learn that there are 64 more identical Carls in all the major cities around the world. They appear to be made out of a material that is “impossible” and nothing can move or damage them.

April quickly figures that the Carls are alien in origin, and she proceeds as if this was “first contact” with an alien race.

Without planning for it, April is quickly world-famous as one of the most recognizable personality on social media, becoming the human face of the Carls and whatever their purpose is.

Hank Green, the author, is a YouTube star, and he brings the world of social media to the reader. Not everyone is a young social media expert, and this story illustrates somewhat how the world of social media works. It’s a very readable book, and I turned the pages quickly and somewhat enjoyed the story.

It does become more and more “unlikely” as it progresses, and the ending is outright hokey, setting it up for a sequel, like any good YouTube video would. The characters are pretty shallow and the dialog is often awkward. The plot does not make much sense, and the central conflict between good and evil appears very contrived.

Reading this book will give you ideas about social media, but it won’t do anything else of value or inspiration.

I definitely don’t need to read the next book when it comes out. April May was not a well-enough defined character for me to care about any further. The story has fizzled out.

 

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Can You Ever Forgive Me is based on the true story of Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), a celebrity biographer whose books were once on the bestseller lists in the 1970 and 1980 decades. In 1991, her career in decline, she is broke and cannot pay her rent. She is a curmudgeon. When her cat gets ill and the veterinarian refuses treatment because she already owes $78, which she cannot pay, she gets desperate.

By coincidence she discovers that there is a market for original documents, particularly signed letters, by celebrities. Collectors will pay several hundred dollars for an authentic letter.

She collects a few different vintage typewriters, practices forging of signatures, and starts cranking out fake letters. That quickly takes care of groceries, rent and veterinarian bills and she is back in business. Eventually she recruits her gay friend Jack (Richard E. Grant) to do the peddling, while she is producing the product.

Can You Ever Forgive Me is about artists and writers and their careers. Every career has a peak, and there is a downslide from that peak and for some, who saved up enough resources, it is bearable, and for others, like Lee, it is catastrophic. She is not willing to accept her situation, will not bow to taking on a “regular” job like the rest of us, but is obsessed with using her writing skills to make a living. She almost succeeds.

Eventually, however, a house built on deception will come crashing down.

 

 

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Simon is a well-adjusted high school senior. For his 17th birthday, his parents give him a car. His sister adores him, and his parents are professionals.  They live in a nice home in the suburbs. Simon is part of a group of good friends. He participates in the high school play. His life is perfect. Except for this massive secret he carries around with him: he is gay.

He senses that it’s time to come out and unburden himself from this load and he is starting to think of a plan. But then, by accident, he walks away from a computer in the library with his email account open – and his secret is there for an enterprising classmate to explore. His plans go sideways very quickly and his coming out is not at all what he had in mind.

Love, Simon is a coming of age movie of a fairytale kind. It’s a teenage soap opera. The world is perfect. I could not figure out where it played. The landscape looks like somewhere in Pennsylvania, but there is no foul weather at Thanksgiving and no snow at Christmas. Everyone lives in stately houses. All the kids in high school look healthy, well-adjusted, smart and engaged. The teachers and the principal are models of their profession. There are no bullies. There are no villains in this movie. Simon’s parents are perfect. His mother is a counselor (or doctor, it was not clear to me) and his father a sensitive, caring man. His sister is an aspiring chef who cooks the meals for the family.

It’s a perfect little world, except for Simon’s homosexuality. But even that is not controversial. It’s like the entire school was waiting for Simon to come out and be happy ever after.

Love, Simon is cute and entertaining. And that’s all I have to say.

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Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is a hired gun who tracks down missing girls. He is a veteran of the Special Forces and a former FBI agent. Haunted by violent flashbacks to his own childhood under the boot of an abusive father, and traumatized by his experiences as a soldier, he has more demons in his own head than the real world could ever hurl at him.

It’s not clear what drives such a man to a career where he would encounter brutal violence by the real scum of humanity, those that think it’s right to drug young girls so they can use them as prostitutes and sex slaves. Joe’s favorite weapon in his fight seems to be a hammer.

That should give you an idea that this is not shoot me up gangster movie. This is a film where you sometimes end up closing your eyes because you really don’t want to see what’s going to happen next.

He lovingly cares for his elderly mother in his New York City home. When she gets killed while somebody is trying to get to him, he realizes that the case he is working on may not be as simple as he thought. And that is the start of his one-man war against some very powerful people.

The plot is mysterious and riveting at the same time. I have to admit, to fully understand it, I had to look it up on Wikipedia afterwards to fill in some of the blanks.

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Tami (Shailene Woodley) is a 19-year-old girl who drifted to Tahiti to get away from her childhood and youth of neglect and abuse in a broken family in San Diego. Richard (Sam Claflin) is an English young sailor who worked in a shipyard and built himself a sailboat. As he enters the port in Tahiti he sees Tami working on the docks and is smitten. The two fall in love. Friends of Richard show up in Tahiti and tell him they have to fly back to Europe for an emergency. Would he do them a favor and sail their boat back to San Diego?

Tami and Richard set sail across the Pacific and eventually head straight into a catastrophic hurricane. Changing course too late, they soon face an impossible sea. Richard gets swept off the boat by a giant wave braking over the bow, and Tami gets knocked out down in the cabin. The boat loses its masts and is severely damaged, but continues to float.

Tami awakens and quickly realizes that there is no hope for rescue.

This movie is based on a true story. It’s a bit disjointed to watch. How do you make a movie that is interesting and suspenseful about sitting in a boat adrift in an endless ocean alone for a month and a half?

When I was in my teen years, sailing the world was also my number one dream. Of course, I never even set foot in a sailboat in the ocean until decades later when I realized that there were risks and dangers associated with sailing on the high seas, and tremendous sacrifices. Adrift reminded me of that. But it did rekindle some of those old dreams.

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Molly’s Game is a documentary-style movie with large narrated portions portraying the life and “career” of real-life Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain). During her youth, driven by aggressive parents (her father is played by Kevin Costner), she was an Olympic-class skier. After a serious accident she had to drop out of competitive skiing and eventually stumbled upon poker games. She put on games, got tips for her services, while she watched the elite gamble, and sometimes destroy each other’s lives. Like in most gambling environments, corruption and the mob was not far away, and things got complicated very quickly. Eventually she was arrested by the FBI, and large sections of the movie illustrate her interactions with her lawyer.

There isn’t that much going on in Molly’s Game, and while it kept my attention sufficiently to keep watching to see what happened next, I found it quite uninspiring. This is the kind of movie you can watch while doing other things to keep your attention. I played Sudoko on my smartphone to keep my mind busy while Molly’s Game ambled along.

Forgettable.

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Brad Sloan (Ben Stiller) graduated from college in Boston and went on to have a successful and comfortable life in Sacramento, California. He has a beautiful and sweet wife who works for the government, and a son who is smart, laid back, and a musical prodigy. Brad, you would think, has it made.

When he accompanies his son Troy (Austin Abrams) to Boston to interview at Harvard, he goes through an existential crisis. He compares his life, which he considers boring and unsuccessful, with those of his college friends, a bestselling author, a Hollywood producer, a tech entrepreneur and a hedge fund creator. As he watches his son’s success, he doubts himself, and as he interacts with his friends he gradually finds out things are not exactly what they seem.

Just maybe he is successful after all?

Brad’s Status is a slow movie, mostly because there is very little action and a lot of narration. We are not watching what’s going on, we’re told about what’s going on, all through the movie. The characters, with the exception of Brad, are not very credible. We’re told that Troy is a gifted musician, yet we never even witness him playing a single key on the piano, his supposed instrument. Troy is a nice, laid-back kid, but he does not strike me as a prodigy and somebody with a mission. He ends up interviewing at Harvard somewhat by accident. Brad is boring, to watch, to be with, and to listen to.

After a very slow and somewhat boring start, the story picks up a bit of speed, and somehow, at the end, when the credits rolled, I was actually satisfied. The best thing about this entire movie is the second it ends.

You’ll just have to watch it and see for yourself.


 

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Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign

Clinton just came out with her own book, titled What Happened. After reading Shattered I decided I don’t need to read Hillary’s book.

Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes are political writers who had deep access to all levels of the Clinton campaign. Through their insight, they have reconstructed the spirit of the campaign from before it actually began, through election night.

The insight is “shattering.” The campaign was never streamlined. Terrible infighting at the top levels caused the strategy to lack cohesiveness and resulted in a poorly defined message. Hillary never quite clarified why the people should elect her, other than she was, well, Hillary Clinton. Power struggles, lack of direction from the top, and poor use of funding based on analytics that was terribly flawed were the main causes of the eventual defeat.

The campaign didn’t know how close Trump was. Bill Clinton waved off the Virginia governor from coming to New York for the victory celebration immediately after Florida, one of the first states, was called for Trump.

Bill Clinton knew then.

I have always said that Trump did not win the election. Clinton lost it.

After reading Shattered, I am more convinced than ever that this was the case. The Democratic Party elevated an entitled, ego-driven politician, with a muddled message, with terrible baggage, who made very poor decisions along with way, and pegged her against the greatest wild card in American history, Donald Trump. The Democratic Party lost, Hillary will never be president, and the country is being damaged and looted by a self-serving populist con man.

Shattered is a hard book to read. If you are really into politics, if you want to work in a campaign, if that’s your career, this is a good book to internalize. It shows how politics works. I am more interested in the cliff notes, so from time to time the reading was too detailed and dry.

But  then, if you’re going to read one book about “what happened,” this is the book you should read.

 

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