Archive for the ‘Movie Reviews’ Category

Movie Reviews # 47…

Friday, July 21st, 2017

War for the Planet of the Apes. Matt Reeves, dir. Andy Serkis (of Lord of the Rings fame, as Gollum) does another incredible job as Caesar, the leader of the apes. I liked the ape actors better than the human ones, and for good reason (see below).

Starting with Boule’s book, these stories have never been good or believable sci-fi. Sure, a virus can cause major changes (see my More than Human: The Mensa Contagion, for example), but producing intelligent apes who spend most of a movie on horseback doesn’t qualify as a reasonable futuristic extrapolation. For this movie’s plot, some reviewers have mentioned a parallel with The Ten Commandments (curiously Charlton Heston was in that one as well as the first Planet). I’d go further: This is the biblical Exodus story!

I was sitting in the theater thinking, “The screenwriter has plagiarized this story from somewhere. It’s too familiar.” Walking to the parking lot, it hit me. Can you plagiarize the Bible? Guess so. That aside, you can’t help cheering for the apes; human beings are definitely the bad guys here. The apes are the Jewish slaves from the Exodus story; the nasty humans are the enslaving Egyptians.

I’m not sure who the little girl represents. She’s the only good human around, that’s for sure, but both she and the evil human colonel can recognize the humanity in the apes, especially Caesar. Maybe Reeves wrote her in so not all humans are bad, or he was trying to avoid critics who might scream that he’s sexist. Unlike the original with Heston, there aren’t really any women in Reeves’s trilogy.

This movie is better than the average summer drivel that’s been served up by Hollywood. Wonder Woman beats it as an action flick, though. We’ll see how Spidey does—I wasn’t impressed by the previews.

Aren’t you getting tired of these franchise remakes? Maybe the remake of Murder on the Orient Express will finally kill you with indigestion—I hope not. Can’t they do anything original anymore in Glitter City?

***

Rembrandt’s Angel (a mystery/thriller from Penmore Press). To what lengths would you go to recover a stolen masterpiece? Scotland Yard’s Arts and Antiques Inspector Esther Brookstone goes the extra mile. She and paramour/sidekick Bastiann van Coevorden, an Interpol agent, set out to outwit the dealers of stolen art and recover “An Angel with Titus’ Features,” a Rembrandt painting stolen by the Nazis in World War Two. Their efforts lead to much more, as they uncover an international conspiracy that threatens Europe. During their dangerous adventures, their relationship solidifies and becomes a full-blown romance. This book is available in ebook format at Amazon and at Smashwords and its affiliate retailers. It’s available as a print version at Amazon, B&N, or your favorite bookstore (if not there, ask for it). Happy reading!

In libris libertas!

Movie Reviews #46…

Friday, June 9th, 2017

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. Ronning and Sandberg, dirs. One thing I strive for in my series of books is consistency. In the five movies in this movie series, there is none. I guess Disney doesn’t care as long as the movie makes money. If you take it as a stand-alone, it’s a mixed bag, with other flaws I will describe.

Depp is his usual mumbling, bumbling self as Jack Sparrow, of course. Bardem is OK as Salazar, although he tends to overact. Rush is much better as Barbossa (obviously the better actor in the trio). And I didn’t care at all for the romantic duo, so I won’t even tell you who they are.

If you think this looks awfully like the previous movies (emphasis on the “awfully”), you’re right. Magic and fantasy take precedence, of course, and the movie plays the usual havoc with history, a characteristic of Hollywood in general and Disney in particular. I’m just tired of the whole series—more tired of it than the Star Wars one. Maybe people go for the driving music (it gave me a headache) and the visuals (often blurred and lost in obscurity).

I guess that production crew of thousands listed in the credits must stay employed. Speaking of the credits, there’s an end piece after the credits that tries to set up another “sequel” (without the consistency, though, it’s hard to call any one movie the sequel to the previous one). If you haven’t reached the two-Excedrin level with the music, which accompanies that long list of credits, wait for the end piece and tell me via email what sequel they’re trying to set up—another ho-hum movie adrift in blockbuster seas?

Wonder Woman. Patty Jenkins, dir. I’m not sure this is the celebration of feminism that reviewers want it to be, but it’s a lot of fun, and it features a kick-ass female who reminds me of some of my own characters. Gal Gadot does a great job as Diana and Chris Pines excels as Steve, the British spy who lands a stolen German plane in the Amazons’ lagoon. Viewers can debate which actor, Gadot or Lynda Carter, is more ravishing, but they’re both ex-beauty queens. I suspect Gadot does a lot of her own stunts; she taught combat during her tour in the Israeli army. Look for more Gadot in future films.

This is an origins story that’s a bit long and convoluted with some obvious questions like: What became of the German battleship? Why did the villain send the heroes to the WWI frontlines instead of killing them outright in London? Why doesn’t Wonder Woman grow old if she grew from a child to a woman? And why did her mother worry about her safety in training as an Amazon warrior knowing her secret past?

Again, the driving, pounding music gave me a headache, but that’s par for the course in these Hollywood action thrillers. Visual effects are fantastic, though.

If you like these movies derived from comic characters (the first for Wonder Woman if you discount her brief appearance in Batman v. Superman—which just about stole the show, I might add), this is a great movie to see.

***

Rembrandt’s Angel. To what lengths would you go to recover a stolen masterpiece? Scotland Yard’s Arts and Antiques Inspector Esther Brookstone goes the extra mile. She and paramour/sidekick Bastiann van Coevorden, an Interpol agent, set out to outwit the dealers of stolen art and recover “An Angel with Titus’ Features,” a Rembrandt painting stolen by the Nazis in World War Two. Their efforts lead to much more, as they uncover an international conspiracy that threatens Europe. During their dangerous adventures, their relationship solidifies and becomes a full-blown romance. Published by Penmore Press, this novel is available in ebook format at Amazon, Smashwords, Kobo, B&N, and Apple, and in print through Amazon or your local bookstore (if they don’t have it, ask them to order it). Great summer reading!

In libris libertas! 

Movie Reviews #45…

Friday, June 2nd, 2017

Alien: Covenant. Ridley Scott, Dir. What! Another prequel to that great sci-fi movie Alien? This one “fits” in between Prometheus and that first movie. Whereas the first move featured a bunch of gruff, seasoned interstellar miners who didn’t pay much attention to Ripley—they all worked for an evil corporation—this tale is about a colony ship carrying hundreds of colonists in cryosleep and thousands of frozen human embryos. I liked that old mining ship better. And here there’s no evil corporation. (Funny how sci-fi movies have the theme of an evil corporation. I guess the screenwriters didn’t want to duplicate the first movie or bring to mind Avatar.)

The crew here also seems to be badly unprepared for the voyage too—screamers not knowing what to do in an emergency, a religious fruitcake (nothing is made of this in the movie, though, so why was it included?) who inherits the job of captain, and a protagonist who’s a bit teary all the way (with her lack of fortitude, she can’t begin to compare with Ripley, except for one scene towards the end that plagiarizes the second movie). Covenant is the starship’s name and is basically run by Mother. AI, supercomputer? No one knows. Mother is a bit stupid, though, because she isn’t able to distinguish between the two androids. Sure they look alike—both played by Fassbender in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hide roles—but Mother shouldn’t be bothered by physical look-alikes because she only “sees” their inner electronics. Fassbender’s probably the best actor here, by the way, but that’s not saying much.

Bottom line: this is a mixed bag, and I’m getting a bit tired of this whole franchise. The good: The fantastic visuals and eerie music. The bad: All the acting. The ugly: Ridley’s obsession with the idea that humans were created by aliens. While the latter is a common theme (I liked the short sci-fi story where we’re all descended from space vermin, “rats” fleeing a doomed starship—does anyone remember the title?), and was carried to the extreme in Arthur C. Clarke’s last Rama book, it always begs the question of who created those creative aliens. Zeno’s Paradox doesn’t apply here, and I can’t even place it in the Darwin evolution v. creationist debate’s spectrum (aliens aren’t gods), but if you care, you can ask Scott.

***

The Collector. In #5 of the “Detectives Chen and Castilblanco Series,” the detectives set out to solve the murder of a Manhattan art dealer. After twists and turns, they discover that the crime leads to something perverse financed by stolen artworks from the Gardner Museum in Boston as collateral. This intriguing and profoundly disturbing mystery/thriller/suspense novel is the crime-fighting duo’s toughest case so far. It also introduces Scotland Yard Arts and Antiques Inspector Esther Brookstone, the protagonist of my new book Rembrandt’s Angel (Penmore Press). The ebook The Collector is on sale now at Smashwords in all ebook formats; use coupon code SV28G. My new novel Rembrandt’s Angel is available in ebook format on Amazon, Smashwords, Kobo, B&N, and Apple and will be available in print format on Amazon or at your local bookstore via Ingram (if they don’t have it, ask them to order it).

In libris libertas!

Movie Reviews #44…

Friday, February 17th, 2017

Lion. Garth Davis, dir. Great movie, like many movies based on books and not cobbled together screenplays. The book in question, a true story, is A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley with Larry Buttrose. The movie stars Dev Patel as the older Saroo and the awesomely cute Sunny Pawar as the young Saroo. Rooney Mara plays grown-up Saroo’s girlfriend, Nicole Kidman and David Wenham, Sue and John Brierley, the couple who adopted Saroo, Priyanka Bose his birth-mother, and Abhishek Bharate the older brother who lost him.

Maybe the book covers the big gap in the middle where the young boy becomes a man in Tasmania. The movie doesn’t, but you will not miss it.  The story unfolds at a leisurely but intense pace. Some great scenery from the island and the depiction of impoverished existence in remote Indian villages and Calcutta provide an anguishing contrast between Third World and First World existence. I was moved by the children’s desperation in Saroo’s orphanage. This movie is definitely worth seeing. It received a Best Pic Golden Globe award and Kidman and Patel received supporting actor globes. I’m happy I didn’t miss it.

***

Gaia and the Goliaths. An environmental activist is murdered on a street in Manhattan after a protest. NYPD homicide Detectives Chen and Castilblanco get the case. While pursuing the clues to find those responsible, they discover the activist’s boyfriend is in danger because he has key information that will expose an international conspiracy involving Europe, Russia, and the U.S. As the tangled web unravels, an old nemesis of the detectives makes his appearance. #7 in the detectives’ series. Available on Amazon in .mobi (Kindle) format and on Smashwords in all ebook formats, and all the latter’s affiliated retailers (Apple, B&N, Kobo, etc) and lenders (Overdrive, etc). #1, The Midas Bomb, is on sale on Smashwords until March 1: use coupon code PV57D. The whole series is now available on Amazon and Smashwords.

In libris libertas!

 

Movie Reviews #43…

Friday, January 20th, 2017

Hidden Figures. Theodore Melfi, dir. Racial and gender biases in science and technology are always ugly. As a working scientist, I always thought everyone should be given an equal opportunity to show what they can do, especially in critical R&D where time constraints must be met head on by the best and brightest. I still do. This movie follows three black women—Katherine Goble Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson, played ably and respectively by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae—who contributed significantly to the Mercury program that put John Glenn in orbit. That was just the beginning of their illustrious careers in space science; the movie doesn’t consider the rest except in the credits at the end. This is a history rarely told by white historians documenting the U.S. space program.

The era covered in the movie was at the beginning of the civil rights movement. Blacks still set in the back of the bus and had to use separate water fountains and bathrooms. Those were minor but flagrant and demeaning inconveniences compared to the discrimination in education and opportunities. These three women and many others had to overcome that, not an easy task in the old white boys’ world of space science at the time. The three main characters had two strikes against them before even stepping to the plate: being black and being women. They still hit home runs.

Excellent acting and screenplay based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly make this movie one of the most entertaining and meaningful I’ve seen lately. Melfi’s excellent screenplay was surely made easier to achieve with such a book to inspire him.  In spite of the blatant discrimination portrayed (I imagine it being much worse), this is the kind of feel-good movie we need now as we still face these problems and an uncertain future with the new president-elect and his cronies, not to mention the current attitude by many budget-cutting politicos that the space program is a waste of money.

Recommended for all audiences, but especially for today’s STEM students who are minorities and/or female—don’t ever let anyone tell you that you can’t be successful in an R&D career in science and technology. Show what you can do!

***

Silicon Slummin’…and Just Gettin’ By. The Silicon Valley hasn’t seen anyone like Mary Jo Melendez, ex-USN Master-at-Arms, and she’s not sure she wants to stay there either. Readers met the MECHs (Mechanically Enhanced Cybernetic Humans) in Muddlin’ Through. Russia and the U.S. still want them and think Mary Jo knows where they are. But they have to compete with Mary Jo’s stalker. Unlike the first book in the series, this one doesn’t travel around the world, but the dangers for her might be worse. This mystery/suspense/thriller novel is available in all ebook formats.

In libris libertas!

Movie Reviews #42…

Friday, January 13th, 2017

Manchester by the Sea. Ken Lonergan, dir (he also wrote the sappy screenplay). As much as I like this area near Boston, this movie didn’t live up to its pre-Oscar hype. It’s sappy, boring, and depressing—a real downer. Matt Damon says it’s “real life” in his pimping of the movie. Maybe Damon and the Affleck brothers should get a reality check! While most people have some negatives to contend with, and that’s part of the human condition that can affect anyone, what happens to Lee Chandler in this movie is six-sigma from the norm and is enough to make anyone suicidal. Casey Affleck overacts in his role as Chandler, mumbling his lines along with other “superstars.” Lucas Hedges as Patrick Chandler is the best actor in the movie. And FYI to Mr. Lonergan: there are blacks in Boston. Like the Academy Awards last year, not a black face in sight in this movie. No other minorities either, except maybe the internist. Just old white boys…ho hum for two hours of boredom.

***

Muddlin’ Through. Mary Jo Melendez is an ex-USN Master-at-Arms who is ready to start her new civilian life as a security guard. She is framed for her sister and brother-in-law’s murders. This mystery/suspense/thriller novel describes how she works to clear her name and pay back the group that framed her. In the process, she discovers the MECHs, Mechanically Enhanced Cybernetic Humans, and an intense romance as she runs around the U.S., South America, and Europe. Available in all ebook formats through Amazon and Smashwords and its retailers.

In libris libertas!

Movie Reviews #41…

Friday, December 9th, 2016

Mars. OK, half movie, half pop science program. This series on the National Geographic channel jumps back and forth between sci-fi (the movie) and mostly current science and technology (pop science). If you can get past that boring, pedantic, and new Cosmos guy, Neil deGrasse Tyson, who seems to be the expert on everything and everywhere on TV these days (will he soon be in a Lincoln car commercial?), and the smiling Martian, Andy Weir, it’s an OK hour each week compared to the rest of the shlock on TV. I find the jumps disconcerting, though, and the sci-fi plot badly written and contrived.

There are many good sci-fi tales about Mars, from Heinlein’s Podkayne to Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, that are neither badly written nor contrived. If you skip through the boring potato-farming lessons, Weir’s The Martian is OK too. But this TV series creates numerous accidents for dramatic effect, not unusual for the genre, but they all seem like clichés here and far too numerous. (And I’ve just seen the first two “episodes,” so it will probably only get worse.)

Portraying the real psychological stress for human Mars explorers would be enough if done well, especially what will occur even during the long journey to Mars, which is mostly neglected by the TV writers. Even The Martian downplayed that—probably a good thing because, added to the potato farming, readers and viewers would end up in a mental institution pounding the walls and wringing their hands, or just slashing their wrists. But this will be an important factor in any colonialization of Mars (see the shipboard scene in my More than Human: The Mensa Contagion and references at the end of that book).

Still, let’s wish the series well. It’s new, it’s different, and it beats Happy Days reruns (hey, isn’t that the guy selling reverse mortgages now?). For TV these days, those are all pluses.

***

Teeter-Totter between Lust and Murder. #3 in the “Detectives Chen and Castilblanco Series,” this mystery/suspense/thriller novel has more twists and turns than a carnival pretzel. Chen is accused of murder, so naturally Castilblanco tries to help her. But there is a lot more to the murder than meets the eye. Readers will have a great time unraveling it all with these NYPD homicide detectives and will be kept guessing right up to the climax. Soon available in all ebook formats.

In libris libertas! 

Movie Reviews #40…

Friday, November 25th, 2016

Loving. Jeff Nichols, writer/dir. While this true story is a better romance than anything schlockmeister Sparks writes, it’s much more. It’s a slow, intense suspense story that’s better than almost any fiction you can find! Although I knew the ending, that “spoiler alert” didn’t spoil any of my interest and enjoyment.

Let’s face it: this story of a white man married to a black woman and their long fight to make that legitimate in a state still having an egregious anti-miscegenation law on its books, a relic of segregation in this country, laid the foundation for the fight in favor of same-sex marriage and other battles about personal rights in this country. That moves this film far above anything Hollywood usually releases. Of course, in the Age of Trumpism, it probably won’t do well, but one can hope. (The assignment of the film to theaters known for artsy flicks won’t help—not many of those around anymore!)

The Lovings, brilliantly played by little-known actors Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, possessed a simple genius, especially the black woman, and a polite stubbornness that allowed them to do battle in a legal system stacked against them. They had some help, of course, from an ACLU legal team (not a frivolous choice by them in this case) and the media. Others less strong than the Lovings would have thrown in the towel and lived elsewhere, but they had a special nexus with the land and their (mostly) colorblind setting of family and friends (interestingly, not only bigoted whites were telling them they were doing wrong!). For the actors who portrayed the couple, I hope to see some Oscar nominations at least. Their portrayal of the tense years leading up to the SCOTUS decision in their favor cannot be improved.

The Commonwealth of Virginia, a bastion of the slaving South in 1860, thought it could still deny people the right to marry whom they choose 100 years after the Civil War. They were wrong. We see yet another cornerstone of segregated America crumble here and another step taken toward realizing a colorblind America and world, MLK’s dream (the current election is a setback, of course).  Younger generations might not understand these struggles, but they were progressive advances important for America.

So the story is much more than the simple story of Mr. and Mrs. Loving. You should see this movie for many reasons—how romance and love can steel a couple for important battles, for a different take on race relations, and for important history brought to life by two talented actors. Probably the Lovings’ story basically wrote the screenplay, but Nichols’s direction turned it into a powerful statement—sometimes an understated drama can speak more powerfully than any strident historical biopic.

***

Action on the southern border! No, it’s not Trump beginning the construction of The Wall. It’s Chen and Castilblanco fighting terrorists, a cartel, and neo-Nazi militias. In Angels Need Not Apply, the deadly duo from the “Detectives Chen and Castilblanco Series” go undercover to fight crime as part of a national task force. This novel is available in all ebook formats.

In libris libertas!

Movie Reviews # 39…

Friday, November 18th, 2016

Arrival. Denis Villeneuve, dir. The ETs are called Heptapods, but they look like elongated octopi standing on their tippytoes. I’ve always been fascinated by the challenge of ET/human communication (see Sing a Samba Galacticaalso available in other ebook formatsor the PDF free for the asking, “Portal in the Pines”), so you’d think this movie would be like a full glass of Jameson for me. 90% of it was. I’ll have to go read Ted Chiang’s novella “Story of Your Life” now to answer some questions. Yeah, OK, the ETs form of communication was via circles with fuzz, squirted out from those feet like octopis’ ink emissions. But why circles? And the fuzz looked very fractal, so can there really be information content there (there are data compression schemes that are fractal-based).

Amy Adams, who plays Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist, is a wee bit too fragile but does a pretty good job as main character, but not Oscar caliber as some critics claim. Jeremy Brenner plays Dr. Ian Donnelly, a theoretical physicist. It seems like Hollywood needs a romantic complement to a protagonist even when the sexes are reversed. I guess Ian’s needed to give the hugs the fragile Louise desperately needs? The rest of the cast is just so-so. At least they didn’t make the black guy (Forrest Whittaker) the villain—that job was handled by paranoid government leaders all around the world.

I’m still thinking about this one. The best two sci-fi movies of all time, Alien and Blade Runner, were also notable for their quiet, mysterious, and scary intensity. That’s all Arrival has going for it basically, but it’s well done (the score helps). The violence, unlike those two famous movies, is minimal. In that sense, it’s more like The Martian, although not nearly so scientific (and thankfully the Heptapods don’t grow potatoes).  I’ll have to say that the intensity makes the time fly, and you’ll want to eat some popcorn instead of your nails. The movie certainly offers an important lesson: people will get creeped out when confronting something radically different. Some viewers said it “blew their mind.” (That is done with very few glitzy special effects, by the way, making me wonder why all the visual effects crews listed in the credits were necessary. Maybe I didn’t register their subtlety.)

Chiang’s novella was originally offered as a PDF like The Martian. I’ve started doing that too, mainly because I can’t afford to publish everything I write. It’s comforting that someone in Hollywood still reads original sci-fi literature. (Watched an old Star Trek episode I’d missed last Saturday—so much better than ones from the other series because it was written by a REAL sci-fi writer, not a wannabe screenwriter). I just wish some titles were changed: Arrival is even lamer than “Story of Your Life.” Titles are important, but writers seem to be hooked on lame ones recently.

In libris libertas!

Movie Reviews #38…

Friday, October 28th, 2016

The Accountant. Gavin O’Connor, dir. I generally find the pretty-boy half of the Affleck/Damon duo (Good Will Hunting) overrated as an actor and a bad role model for all his philandering, so I was surprised when Ben Affleck as creative accountant Christian Wolff did a pretty good job in this movie. His highly functional autistic character, a money-manager for several criminal concerns, comes across as almost believable in this movie, but I’d like to hear what experts say. Like Rainman, Wolff is intensely focused and very good with numbers; unlike Rainman, Wolff had an Army father with a broomstick up his butt who thought the only way his son could protect himself from those who considered him different and bullied him was to beat the crap out of them. His brother Brax, played well as an adult by Jon Bernthal, is also a victim of his father who cares too much about his father’s treatment of Christian. In this sense, this movie can be seen as a general indictment against parents who end up destroying their children’s lives, and not just children with special needs.

There are several characters who are superfluous here. First, consider Treasury agents Ray King (played by J. K. Simmons) and Marybeth Medina (played by Cynthia Addai-Robinson)—I’d write one of these two out of the script. Medina is a token black good character (Hollywood’s answer to the Oscars fiasco?) where Hollywood couldn’t leave well enough alone, making the character have a shady past when she grew up in Baltimore (turns out it was only shady because “the system” made it so, maybe making that subplot into a wee bit of a pithy social statement). Too much attention is paid to these two, and then they become irrelevant (they don’t even show up for the climax). Simmons is an old agent who’s guilty of always looking for the “big case,” messes up with another accountant turned informer, and generally uses Medina’s past as leverage to control her. Maybe the two characters should be combined.

(more…)