Movie Review: The Power of the Dog (2021)

The Burbank brothers jointly own a ranch in Montana of 1925. Both are bachelors.

Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) is the rough cowboy who manages the physical work on the ranch. He is rough, uncouth, obnoxious, brutal actually, and as a result of those qualities he happens to be successful running the cattle ranch and the bunch of cowboys who do the work.

George (Jesse Plemons) takes care of the business side of the ranch. He is quiet, gentle, calm, sensitive and somewhat overweight. On a cattle drive on horses, while Phil wears chaps, George wears a suit and tie, sometimes even a bow tie. They are wealthy enough to be part of Montana society, and when the governor is in town, George invites him to the ranch for dinner.

The brothers have deep respect for one another, almost to the point of co-dependency. Phil calls George “Fatso” in front of the men, and George grudgingly accepts it. When Phil is expected to make a showing at the table with the governor, George tells him awkwardly that he should wash up before joining. Phil stinks.

One day, on a cattle drive, George meets Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst), the widow inn-keeper with an awkward but smart young son who is studying to become a doctor. George and Rose get married, and the dynamics on the ranch change drastically.

The Power of the Dog is a highly acclaimed film with great reviews, and yet, I could do very little with it. From the very beginning, I found it very slow-moving. For the most part I didn’t know what was going on, I still don’t know what the power of the dog means. I had to look it up. There is a bible verse:

Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog.

If you can figure this out, please comment here and let me know.

There are many mysteries about the plot and the story, and what is actually going on. One scene has to do with anthrax, which caused me to look up the origin of the substance:

Anthrax is most common in agricultural regions of Central and South America, sub-Saharan Africa, central and southwestern Asia, southern and Eastern Europe, and the Caribbean. Anthrax is rare in the United States, but sporadic outbreaks do occur in wild and domestic grazing animals such as cattle or deer.

There is a lot of mystery around this film, and perhaps it is one of those that requires you to read the novel first. It is based on Thomas Savage’s  1967 novel of the same name. Here is the description in Amazon:

Set in the wide-open spaces of the American West, The Power of the Dog is a stunning story of domestic tyranny, brutal masculinity, and thrilling defiance from one of the most powerful and distinctive voices in American literature. The novel tells the story of two brothers — one magnetic but cruel, the other gentle and quiet — and of the mother and son whose arrival on the brothers’ ranch shatters an already tenuous peace. From the novel’s startling first paragraph to its very last word, Thomas Savage’s voice — and the intense passion of his characters — holds readers in thrall.

Maybe I need to read the book to understand it.

Everything else would be speculation.

Book Review: The Power – by Naomi Alderman

The Power is a what-if book.

Stephen King is a master of what-if books.

For instance, his novel Under the Dome is based on this premise: What if a bubble-like, transparent, but completely impenetrable dome a few miles across suddenly was placed over a New England town? Nobody gets in, nobody gets out. What would happen? Then King builds an entire novel around this unlikely, impossible and ridiculous assumption.

In King’s novel The Stand, he speculates that a human-made deadly virus accidentally gets out and kills 99.9999 percent of the population. Only a handful individuals survive. That’s the what-if scenario. Then a novel of well over a thousand pages follows, building an entire world based on that premise.

Stephenson also likes to write what-if novels. Seveneves starts: THE MOON BLEW UP WITHOUT WARNING AND FOR NO APPARENT reason. What would happen if that actually occurred?

The Power is a what-if book. What if women all of a sudden had an electrostatic power that they could use just by touching something or someone? What if a woman could touch a person’s hand and inflict an electric tingle, or a shock that would cause severe pain, or an immense jolt that would even kill a person? If women had that power, would there still be rape? How would society change?

This novel follows a handful of diverse characters, including a young Nigerian man, the daughter of a London organized crime boss, and abused orphan in Florida, an ambitious politician, and many others. The story develops as the world discovers this new reality, and society goes through massive changes.

Those changes are not pretty.

Book Review: Split Second – by Douglas E. Richards

A brilliant physicist discovers that he can transport matter back in time, but only by 45.15 millionths of a second. That does not seem like a capability a that has any practical applications. However, as soon as the physicist sends an email to a close associate asking him to check his math, he and his girlfriend are abducted by a black operations team.

While that does seem like really bad news, it quickly gets worse, when the government team gets attacked on route by another force, which results in a gun battle that kills everyone but the girlfriend, who barely escapes. She hires a private detective to help her figure out what is going on.

What could possibly be so important that the government is literally willing to kill for it in cold blood?

Douglas E. Richards knows how to write page turners. His heroes are the most brilliant in their fields in the world. His villains are the most ruthless.

The concept of time travel in Split Second is based on leaving a copy of an object in the same space, while the earth moves to a different space in a given time interval. The earth rotates in 24 hours, which means that any point on its surface moves faster than a jet plane toward the east. The earth also circles around the sun in 365 days. The sun circles around the center of the galaxy once in about 250 million years. And our entire galaxy moves in yet another direction in space. Physicists have determined that this means that you and I move about 242 miles per second. This means that we, and any object, move about 58 feet in 45 microseconds. With the technology these guys invented, you can make a duplicate of any object and have it appear 58 feet away from where you copied it. It’s all very complicated and makes for a good story.

But somehow the author glossed over the minor point that the direction of the duplication always needs to trail the movement of the earth in the universe, which is in a constant direction. So as the earth rotates, this can be up, or down, or towards the west or east or anything in between. It can’t be controlled.

Yes, this is science fiction and you just have to accept that there is some magic tech involved. However, it bothered me that a book based on this much Einsteinian thought experimentation left this minor detail out of the equation. It kept getting in my way as I followed the plot.

Richards lives in San Diego, and so do I. This means that many of the locales he uses are very familiar to me and I can actually almost follow along, from Torrey Pines to San Ysidro, from Camp Pendleton to Orange County. Most importantly, I have spend a lot of time hiking and off-roading on Palomar Mountain, which is an important location in the plot of this story, and I therefore had very vivid and clear pictures in my head as I read the book.

I enjoyed Split Second enough to read it within a few days while traveling. I bought the second book in the series titled Time Frame since I was sure I’d want to know how the story continues. But after reading a few dozen pages into the sequel I quickly lost interest. I am sure it’s also a very fast-paced plot but I just wasn’t interested in reading more about this specific cast of characters and I decided not to read the next one after all.

Book Review: Sea of Tranquility – by Emily St. John Mandel

Sea of Tranquility is a misleading title for this book. This is a book about a pandemic (which came out just in April of 2022) which is meaningful as we all have learned a thing or two about pandemics in the last few years. It’s a book about time travel with an unusual twist, and of course it was the time travel part that got my attention first. It has very little to do with what we associate with the Sea of Tranquility, the location of the Apollo 11 moon landing, other than there are several moon bases near that location by the year 2200, two of which play a major role in the plot.

It’s also about the idea or concept that our entire world is just a simulation, an elaborate video game that someone or something else is playing.

The story starts in 1912 with the hapless son of a British aristocrat who has been sent to exile in British Columbia, and plays in part in the late 20th century, and then again in early 2200 and 2400.

There really is not one single protagonist to follow. It’s a group of people and it takes some time for the tale’s threads to get woven together into a consistent tapestry, but in the end it all makes sense.

It made me marvel about what it would be like to live on the moon and it provides some good and descriptive passages. It’s a quick read, and I enjoyed the book.

 

Movie Review: Hustle (2022)

Stanley Sugerman (Adam Sandler) is a pro basketball scout for the Philadelphia 76ers. The life on the road for a scout is brutal. His daughter is a teenager, and he has missed all of her birthdays. While his family is loving and understanding, the stress on him is enormous. The owner of the team and his mentor suddenly dies, and when his son takes over the management, Stanley soon finds himself fired.

He goes on a scouting mission in Madrid, Spain and accidentally discovers Bo Cruz, an amateur player who plays hustle basketball on the streets for money. When he sees a possible superstar, the convinces Bo to let him coach and train him for the NBA.

There is a bit of Rocky in Hustle, and the training scenes, even though they are somewhat drawn out, are very reminiscent of Rocky Balboa running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the steps that have become known as the Rocky Steps. Bo also trains in the early morning hours in Philadelphia. Hustle is a predictable underdog movie. If you like pro basketball, you’ll enjoy some of the legends who appear and play themselves.

Movie Review: Hell or High Water (2016)

Toby Howard (Chris Pine) is an unemployed oil worker in Texas. After his mother passed away, he is about to lose the family ranch due to the foreclosure by the Texas Midland Bank. He is divorced and his two sons live with his ex-wife.

His brother Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) is released from prison. To get even with the bank, the two brothers start a string of bank robberies, always targeting Texas Midland Bank branches.

Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) is just before retirement, when he is intrigued by this case and decides to solve it. He gets into the heads of the robbers, tries to find their motive and expect their next move.

Hell or High Water is a story about despair and hopelessness in rural Texas. It’s an adventure story where the heroes don’t have superpowers and gun shots kill. Jeff Bridges does a great job playing a crotchety old ranger with a lot of experience who uses his brain to outfox the thugs.

Book Review: The Vanished Birds – by Simon Jimenez

The Vanished Birds is the debut novel of Simon Jimenez. It is a big novel, dealing with humanity and its place in a world where star travel is commonplace, where there are many worlds populated by humans, and where large corporations are the de-facto governments that set all the rules and have ultimate power over the people.

The central character is Nia, a young female captain of a trader star ship with a crew of just a handful of people, a pilot, an engineer, a maintenance tech, a doctor, and someone in charge of cargo. Star ships travel through “folds” which are a sort of hyperspace where time is distorted like it would be at relativistic speeds.

Kaeda, a young boy on an agricultural planet meets Nia for the first time when he is 7 years old. She gives him a flute, which he treasures. The ship only stays for a day to take on cargo, and then leaves, to come back 15 years later, on the next “shipment day.” That’s how long it takes for the round trip. However, on board the ship, only 8 months pass. When Nia returns 8 months later, Kaeda is now 22 and they start a love-affair – at least so Kaeda thinks. Within a few years of Nia’s time, she sees him a few more times as he ages, and Kaeda’s entire live passes. He is an old man the last time she visits.

There is also an Asian engineer named Fumiko, who designs space stations. And there is a mute boy who apparently has  extraordinary powers.

As you might guess, this book is definitely a space opera that speculates on humanity’s distant future and extraordinary technology. It’s a large book with big ideas. Interestingly, there are no intelligent aliens in this world, which seems strange, given the scope of humanity’s reach.

I liked the concepts, I enjoyed reading it, but I would not classify it as a great novel, even through it was nominated for a number of awards.

Movie Review: Cry Macho (2001)

It’s 1979. Mike Milo (Clint Eastwood) is a former rodeo star and horseman who has obviously aged beyond his prime. His former boss and rancher Howard (Dwight Yoakam) has a 13-year-old son named Rafael or “Rafo” who lives with his estranged ex-wife in Mexico City. He thinks he is being abused and wants to bring him home to Texas to live with him. But Howard has legal issues and cannot travel to Mexico himself.

Mike owes Howard a favor. Howard coerces Mike to go to Mexico in his stead and essentially kidnap his son. Mike drives his beat-up Suburban to Mexico City and promptly finds the ex-wife. She is completely self-absorbed and surrounded by dangerous thugs. Rafo is a wayward kid who has gotten into cockfighting, and it appears that the only thing in life he loves is his rooster Macho.

On their way home via the backroads of Mexico, the two face a number of challenges, which bring the unlikely pair together and each is forced to face his own demons.

Cry Macho is a feel-good movie, with a little of an unrealistic bent.

Based on the 1975 novel by N. Richard Nash of the same name, Cry Macho is another Eastwood attempt to make a movie similar to Gran Torino, which I thought was a masterpiece. But Cry Macho didn’t quite work the same way for me. Eastwood was 90 in 2021 when he made the movie and starred in it. I just couldn’t be convinced that the rancher would send such an old man to do his dirty work, and when Mike, during a stop on the way home, started breaking wild horses on behalf of a Mexican rancher, none of that seemed realistic. It could been a better movie if someone else had played that role.

Some of those flaws notwithstanding, I enjoyed watching Cry Macho. It was a good movie to watch with headphones on whiling away the hours during a long flight back from Europe.

Movie Review: Menari (2020)

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.

Movie Review: Fatherhood (2021)

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.

Book Review: Marsbound – by Joe Haldeman

It’s late 21st century on Earth. There is now a space elevator in the Pacific off the Galapagos Islands that allows humans to reach space in a two-week elevator ride, rather than a 12-minute rocket blast. There is a Hilton hotel midway in the balance point of the elevator.

Carmen Dula is a 19-year-old girl traveling to Mars with her family as part of a group of scientist colonists, adding to the 100 or so people already living on Mars.

The story tells about the ride on the space elevator in great detail and much more elaborately than I have read in any other science fiction story. The reader will understand space elevators after this. Then it tells of the months long journey on a spaceship to Mars, the landing there, and the integration of the new colonists with the existing people there.

Carmen is not necessarily an obedient young woman. One night she defies all colony rules, as well as all common sense, and leaves the station in a spacesuit all alone, telling nobody where she went. Sure enough, she has an accident many kilometers away from the base, and believes she is about to die – when she gets rescued – by Martians.

At this point, the story took a completely different turn from what I expected, having read The Martian by Andy Weir recently. Weir stays with current technology in his book and does not venture into a speculative technological future. Haldeman stretches things here.

Moderate Spoiler Below

As it turns out, the Martians in this book are a race artificially created by “The Others” to keep an eye on humanity. Some 30,000 years ago, The Others visited the solar system, found early human hunter gatherers and decided that they could easily evolve into a space-traveling race. They put an outpost on Mars to monitor Earth, which took no effort at all for 30,000 years, until the humans started broadcasting in the early 20th century. Then they got busy and started learning human culture and languages simply from humanity’s broadcasts.

The Others are a highly advanced race which lives in a silicon-based environment embedded in liquid nitrogen. Their metabolism is more than a 100 times slower than that of humans, so there is no way for them to communicate with humans directly. However, they have created artificial sentinels that can translate between the thoughts of the others and humans.

The humans aren’t doing too well – being a bellicose race and never trusting others, and within just a few years of learning of The Others humanity does one stupid thing after another to stoke the ire of The Others.

Then they strike.

End of Spoiler

Haldeman likes to tell near-future stories with space travel and relativistic concepts interwoven, and that makes for an interesting read, albeit a far-fetched one. With the story being told by an immature girl at least for the first half of the book, it feels a bit  juvenile at times, and there is a little bit more sex in the story than is necessary to make it succeed. Nonetheless, I enjoyed it and the concepts described, particularly the experience of the space elevator.

Movie Review: East-Side Sushi (2014)

Juana (Diana Elizabeth Torres) is a Hispanic girl in Oakland, California. She is a young single mother of a school-age girl, and she lives and works with her father. They work incredibly hard, both in several different jobs, just to make ends meet. She wakes up her daughter at 4:00am and gets her ready to school before she goes and prepares fruit for the fruit cart she runs. Her daughter sleeps in the car until she gets dropped off at school. Thugs with guns on the streets rob her of the few dollars she earned and beat her. In her other jobs she cleans offices (and toilets), washes cars, and she has lots of experience as a cook in Mexican restaurants.

When see sees no way out, she notices a help-wanted sign outside an upscale sushi restaurant. She applies for an entry-level kitchen position and gets it. Culture shock engulfs her and her daughter and father when it becomes obvious that Japanese cuisine is completely alien to them. But Juana works hard, learns fast, and quickly becomes noticed in the restaurant by the lead sushi chef. When she aspires to become a chef, she hits several glass ceilings at once. She is a woman. She is not Japanese or at least Asian. She is not authentic.

East-Side Sushi is a predictable story where the heroine lifts herself and her family up against all odds. What I found most rewarding in watching this movie was the depiction of the life of Hispanics in Californian society. We see them as vendors at street corners. We see them in the parks. We see them working in the fields and yards, we see them working in restaurants and in childcare. They are everywhere. They work incredibly hard. They are diligent. This movie gives us a glimpse behind the scenes of what we see in public, and I may think differently next time I see a street vendor selling fruit cups.

Book Review: Mindbridge – by Joe Haldeman

Mankind has discovered the secret to “faster than light travel” or more specifically, teleportation. It is possible for humans to enter a small machine and be transported to distant worlds instantaneously. The technology is called the Levant-Meyer Translation or LMT for short. It consumes an enormous amount of power. In addition, the travelers only stay out a certain amount of time, before they are pulled back to point of origin. This is called the slingshot effect. The machine can calculate how long and how far the travelers will go.

Using this method, there is a special Agency of Extraterrestrial Development that recruits and trains “Tamers,” young people of superior intelligence, technical and military skills, to first visit other worlds, explore them, and then possibly start colonizing them. Jacque Lefavre is such a tamer.

During his first trip they discover a nonsentient alien animal that, when touched, allows reading of other people’s minds. They call them mindbridges or bridges for short. Using those bridges, the humans also encounter the first sentient alien race, called the L’vrai. They are ancient, star-traveling, and apparently extremely hostile to humans. They do not use the LMT technology, but they have star travel at relativistic speed, and humanity discovers that they are encroaching closer to the human home world, currently hanging around Sirius, just 8.6 light years away.

Earth has to move fast to prepare for this threat.

Mindbridge is an entertaining science fiction story, but not in the class of other Haldeman’s books. My favorite was The Accidental Time Traveler, which I read and reviewed over 10 years ago and gave 4 stars. Of course, Haldeman’s most famous book is The Forever War, which I actually read twice. I liked the concepts of Mindbridge, but some of the implementation and plot content seemed awkward and contrived to me.

Movie Review: Just Getting Started

Duke (Morgan Freeman) is the manager of the Villa Capri, an upscale resort community for senior citizens in Palm Springs. He loves to be the king of the castle. He is freewheeling, his staff loves and supports him, the women residents adore him, and he is surrounded by a court of friends. Things are good in Duke’s kingdom as he prepares for Christmas with live camels in the nativity scene.

When Leo (Tommy Lee Jones) moves into unit 71, things change quickly. The women call him “new food on the buffet” and Duke finds out quickly that Leo is a better poker player and golfer. When his ladies start fawning over Leo, Duke realizes he’ll be trouble.

Then Suzie (Rene Russo) shows up in town and both mean are smitten. As it turns out, though, she is from the corporate office of the Villa Capri, essentially Duke’s boss, and sent to clean house – starting with firing him.

Before long, everyone is after Duke. Leo steals the show, Suzie is getting him fired, and somebody else is apparently trying to kill him.

Just Getting Started is a light comedy that makes us all laugh. It’s a silly little story with some unexpected twists, but is is carried by the star power of a  strong cast of veteran actors. And that makes it an enjoyable movie to watch and get away for a little while.

Book Review: The Three-Body Problem – by Cixin Liu

Most of my reviews start with a brief overview of the book, perhaps a few sections of quotes, while making sure I don’t include any spoilers. Then I talk about how I felt about the book and why I rated it a certain way. If I can relate it to similar books I have read and reviewed, I might draw the parallels and provide cross references.

I can’t do that with The Three-Body Problem. It is too different from anything I have read before. I have to attack this one from an “out of the box” viewpoint. It is definitely the first time I ever read a book by a Chinese author. It is fairly well translated by Ken Liu, and he even has a section in the book at the end where he talks about his efforts translating it. I have a lot of experience with how language changes your thinking, even the person that you are, from studying multiple languages, English being my third one. I also have several years of Japanese, both writing, reading and speaking under my belt. Although my Japanese is very, very rusty, I have experienced how an eastern language results in very different thinking from that of the Romance and Germanic languages.

I know nothing of Chinese, but reading this book has me inspired to pick up Chinese 101 and see where it leads me.

The Three-Body Problem starts in the early 1960s in the midst of the Chinese cultural revolution, when scientists and other educated people were vilified, persecuted and often publicly executed. It follows a young female scientist who witnesses the brutal killing of her father and is subsequently hauled off into a remote research station where she would presumably spend the rest of her life. Alas, the cultural revolution changed faster than people could age, and quickly modern China arose all within the lifetimes of young people born in the 1940s and 1950s. The book gives an in-depth insight into the Chinese soul, their views on class status and particularly education and science.

But it is a science fiction book. The three-body problem is a mathematical problem that arises from trying to predict the orbital motions of three bodies – three stars. Our sun is a single star, and our eight planets have circled the star now more or less stably for over four billion years. We have a stable solar system. But not all star systems are single stars. Many star systems are binary systems, and there may be planets orbiting one of the stars, or perhaps both, and the second star can have severely destabilizing gravitational influences on the planet. We don’t actually know enough about planets in binary star systems, but we have pretty good mathematical models that can predict what happens.

But things change entirely when you add a third star. The fate of any planets in such a system is what one might call chaotic. And yet, the nearest star system to our own is that of Alpha Centauri, which consists of Alpha Centauri A and B, a binary system, and Proxima Centauri, a third star a bit further away from the other two. As unlikely as it may seem, the premise of The Three-Body Problem is that an intelligent civilization far advanced technologically from our own has developed in the Alpha Centauri system, and humans have made contact.

As that, The Three-Body Problem is a first contact novel.

The book was in my reading library, and I had started working on it some years ago, but abandoned it, finding it hard to read. Then recently a colleague recommended it to me out of the blue, and that motivated me to pick it up again and work through it. It takes some time to get used to the Chinese way of thinking. I found many differences, but I also found many surprising commonalities. Modern Chinese do not appear all that different from modern Americans. The story is complex, there are many side plots, not all of them necessary. That made some of the sections seem bloated and unnecessary to me. There is also no end, it just finishes abruptly, setting up for the sequel.

Overall, The Three-Body Problem is a science-heavy science fiction work, which speculates much about physics at the particle level, and what a vastly advanced scientific society could do to humankind, should it want to do it harm.

Yes, first contact is not pleasant or rewarding with the denizens of Alpha Centauri.