Stuck In Traffic current events, cultural phenomena, true stories Sat, 26 Aug 2017 10:05:08 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Review: Wonder Woman (2017) Wed, 07 Jun 2017 09:21:08 +0000 Wonder Woman 2017

With all the hype, controversy, and buzz by the yammering classes surrounding the reboot of the Wonder Woman franchise, I was afraid this was going to be a shrill, preachy, agenda-fied move. Nothing could be further from the truth. I’m happy to say that Director Patti Jenkins got the tone of the movie just right and Gal Gadot played the title role with a steel-eyed idealism that vaults Wonder Woman from just a superhero to an archetype.

You can’t help but compare this movie to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). And yeah, it feels like the story writers and script writers have deeply studied those movies. But that’s not to say they copied the MCU moves, but that they learned from them. They learned that it’s not enough to show spectacular action scenes. It’s not enough to sprinkle in light-hearted moments through out the movie. It’s not enough to build mythic backstories for our heroes. That’s all well and good and you see that in the Wonder Woman movie.

Wonder Woman’s story is literally a myth that runs smack dab into the worst of the 20th century. Culture clash ensues. Sometimes in a funny way. I especially liked how they handled the “woman who’s never met a man” aspects. It’s not handled in a sophomoric way. But Chris Pine, as Wonder Woman’s guide to the 20th century, does a good job at conveying the awkwardness around teaching Wonder Woman about the differences between the sexes.

But what makes the movie work is its unabashed idealism. Over and over again, we see scenes where key characters make a difficult choice to Do The Right Thing even when their family, friends, superiors, government is telling them to ignore the problem, or let someone else handle it, or give up in advance because the problem is too hard. And yeah, choosing to do the right thing requires practice, bravery, and a willingness to make sacrifices that can’t be undone.

Hopefully Wonder Woman will inspire generations of young women and men to follow Wonder Woman’s example.

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Review: Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol 2 Tue, 16 May 2017 10:59:50 +0000

Because the first Guardians Of The Galaxy was so dang popular, it was almost impossible for Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 to be a failure. Everyone involved in this movie seemed determined to crank up everything you love about the first movie to 11. They didn’t hold anything back. The result is a roller coaster of a movie that leaves you a little queasy like maybe you ate half a bucket too much popcorn.

But ya know what? It was totally worth it. Like the first movie, Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol 2 puts the fun back into dysfunctional family while they save the universe from a roguish bad-boy  set on making every civilization in the universe in his own image. Yes, we are talking about a Celestial, if you follow the Marvel Universe.

If you liked Baby Groot in the first move, you get plenty of him Vol.2. If you loved Drax’s too blunt for civil company comments, you get even more of it in Vol 2. If you enjoyed Gamora’s killer action scenes and eye-rolls at Peter, you get plenty of both in Vol. 2.

It’s more of the same, lots more of it. Almost too much.

The only other thing I’ll say about the movie is that I have been totally vindicated with regard to the Truth about Peter’s father!


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Review: Fate Of The Furious Sun, 16 Apr 2017 23:46:40 +0000

At this point in the Fast and The Furious franchise, these actors good probably knock these movies out in a long weekend. Everyone knows what to do, it’s just a matter of changing the locations, the kinds of transportation they are going to race, and what’s going to blow up in what order. And I have to say it’s kinda awesome in a way. The Fate Of The Furious has to to a bit of back peddling to work out why former enemies are now on the same team, but that only takes a few seconds of monologuing here and there. Don’t worry, nothing impedes the action scenes in any way. That is after all why you go to these things.

To call out any of the actors in particular would be unfair to the others. No one holds back from chewing the scenery.

The trailer shows a nuclear sub literally chasing our heroes across a frozen sea, and I will just say that the trailer does not do it justice in any way. Plus, there’s heat seeking missles.

Oh and don’t miss the “Cuban mile” race in Havana.

Oh and don’t miss the swarm if hijacked cars in NYC

I could go on. But if you like car chase movies, and who doesn’t really, this will be a great way to spend an afternoon.


Review: Ghost In The Shell Sun, 16 Apr 2017 23:29:11 +0000 Ghost In The Shell

Ghost in the Shell is a manga / graphic novel series by Masamune Shirow and made into a 2017 movie directed by Rupert Sanders. I never read the graphic novels, so I leave it to others to decide if it’s a fair retelling of the original series. But I will say this, I got the distinct feeling that scenes/characters/plot points were being crammed into the movie in order to get as much of the story into the movie as possible. This might have been a mistake because there were so many scenes in the movie where I felt like I was missing the point.

On a positive note, I can say that the movie invests a lot of time and effort in the world building and this future feels gritty and real and just a little dark. Blade Runner springs to mind as the obvious comparison point. The plot follows the story of a character names Major, who is a fully mechanized android fighting machine. She is so realistic that by all appearances Major is a human woman. But every bit of her is artificial except for one important part, her brain.

Supposedly, Major is a woman who was in a major accident and would have died except for being saved by a major defense contractor running this weapons development program. Becuas eMajor is nothing if not a first class killing machine. It’s a thing of beauty to see her take down an entire room of machine-gun toting bad guys like a ballerina who’s not even breaking a sweat.

But weird glitches start appearing in her perception of reality and soon Major is questioning her humanity or what she is or even if she can ever know what she is.

Or so I assume. Despite the world building, despite the careful unfolding of who/what Major is. I never really got that sense of humanity. Scarlett Johanssen never convinces me she’s a human being questiioning/searching for her humanity. There’s no moment like Batty’s “tears in the rain monologue.” You see Major investigating her past, trying to fit the pieces together, but she’s wooden, mechanical.

Is that how the author intended? Did the director fail to realize the story? Is it a problem with Johanssen’s performance. I couldn’t say. But whatever the reason, it’s not satisfying as Blade Runner.

But I give the movie props as a totally immersive world building experience and the action is top notch. So I give it a thumbs up even though I can’t say it’s a brilliant movie.

Kong: Skull Island Sun, 12 Mar 2017 09:41:02 +0000 Kong: Skull Island

The weird thing about Kong: Skull Island is that it’s not a King Kong move.  It doesn’t follow the traditional arc of a King Kong movie at all. The traditional theme of, “Oh, no, it wasn’t the airplanes. It was Beauty killed the Beast” is no where to be found in this movie. Instead they decided to take every anti-Vietnam War movie ever made and munge them all together. But instead of fighting the Viet Cong, our heroes are fighting Kong.

You got yer ugly american types who are clueless and careless about the indigenous people. You got your usual cadre and army guys pulled straight out of casting from Apocalypse Now, including one full-on crazy officer. You got the beautiful and idealistic reporter representing the anti- war movement. You got the white men gone native. Two of them actually, one crazy and one more of a mercenary.  You got the peaceful socialist natives/villager who love everyone. And in the movie the part of the People’s Liberation Army of South Vietnam is played by Kong.

Kong: Skull Island is either one big inside joke or a propaganda film agitating against a war that’s been over and done with for four decades. In either case, you kinda have to ask yourself, “what’s the point?”

The point seems to be an exercise in rendering huge CGI monsters for Kong and our heroes to fight along the way. And I have to say the movie really does a good job rendering the monsters and choreographing the fight scenes.

The cast is full of A-List talent. And I give them and the director credit for not camping it up too much. There are a couple of scenes where you kinda get the impression they are trying not to smile at what they are doing. But for the most part, they play their roles as if this is a Serious War Movie.

My favorite line in the movie came from a grizzled, boots on the ground veteran known simply as Cole. He’s one messed up dude but you can can tell he’s Seen A Lot Of Action. And after our band of merry men have their first disastrous encounter  with Kong who takes down their helicopters by throwing trees at them, he simply says, “There’s no tactical precedent for that. We did the best we could.” That line kinda says it all about this movie. It’s a perfect line regardless of whether you are talking about Kong or the Vietnam War.

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Review: Logan Wed, 08 Mar 2017 12:29:05 +0000
Logan Official Trailer 1 (2017) – Hugh Jackman (screen grab) CR: Marvel Entertainment

Logan is not your typical Marvel super-hero movie. There’s no spandex-clad, broad-chested, flying super heroes swooping in to save the day.  In this movie, the superheroes are just trying to get through the day. Turns out, in the Marvel Universe at least, the mutants can’t escape their humanity despite their super powers. They get old. Their bodies start falling apart. They can’t automagically heal themselves the way they used to. And maybe more importantly, they start to lose interest in trying to save the world.

The movie opens with Logan (Hugh Jackman) and Caliban (Stephen Merchant) providing hospice care to a dying Professor X (Patrick Stewart). It’s brutally realistic. Logan and Caliban fuss over whose turn it is to watch Professor X. They worry about getting his meds. They have to deal the most dangerous brain in the world developing dementia.

Despite his every effort to withdraw from the world, Logan gets dragged into a mission, of sorts. Not a save humanity level mission, but more of an underground railroad thing. It’s fascinating to see his reaction to it. Even as he’s fighting the bad guys, you can tell it comes more from frustration than anything else. His heart just isn’t in the game anymore.

For a movie like this you might expect a change in heart. You might expect to see a renewed faith in a belief that it’s all been worth it. You might expect to see Logan take some joy and pride in completing one last mission. But death sucks no matter how much you try to dress it up and the movie ending is as brutally realistic as its beginning.

Much has been written about the influence of western movies on Logan. It’s there. It’s not at all subtle. But I took pride in recognizing one tiny detail. The costumers dressed Logan up the same way Johnny Cash dressed in his later years and even his hair had a half-wolverine/half Johnny Cash look to tit.

Patrick Stewart does a great job as the aging Professor X. He injects the necessary gravitas into the movie so that you truly believe that what Logan and Caliban actually care about is Professor X and the mission is just the distraction that’s keeping them from their duties.

What about Hugh Jackman? I’m not going to say that this is a defining role for him. But I’ll say that this role gave him the chance to actually do some acting that goes far beyond his previous roles as Wolverine and he was definitely up to the task.




Review: The Last Word Wed, 08 Mar 2017 11:48:39 +0000 The Last Word with Shirley MacLaine

The Last Word is a story about an Harriet (Shirley MacLaine) who is an aging control-freak who bullies her local newspaper into forcing their obituary writer Anne (Amanda Seyfried) to write Harriet’s obit before she dies so that Harriet can ensure that it’s done right. Harriet discovers, in her eighties mind you, that her life doesn’t exactly make for a compelling obit and sets out to change that, with Anne in tow. Hilarity doesn’t exactly ensue. It’s actually kinda of sad  to see Harriet desperately trying to construct a life worth memorializing. And of course Anne starts to realize the same thing, that in her own way, her life also isn’t worth memorializing.

If there’s a point to the movie, I guess it’s that curmudgeons are people too. When you understand their back story, when you see the path they’ve travelled and the circumstances of their past, you tend to become a lot more sympathetic with them. You might even come to respect them.

The plot unfolds entirely predictably. You could set a metronome to its beats. But sometimes you don’t watch a movie to surprise you with plot twists or new insights into the world. Sometimes you watch a movie to reassure you and confirm your basic beliefs. The Last Word falls into that category. As you watch it unfold, as you see the stereotypes peel away to reveal real people, the movie becomes more and more satisfying. There are one or two scenes that cross the line into saccharine sappiness. But mostly it stays grounded in reality just enough to be believable.

The movie is really all about Shirley MacLaine playing the aging curmudgeon and she does it well. Amanda Seyfried is good as the character foil, playing the young woman full of fears and insecurities about her place in life.

The Last Word is a feel-good movie for the aging, control-freak, curmudgeons out there and all those that see themselves heading in that direction.

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Review: Leviathan Wakes (Book 1 of The Expanse trilogy) Sat, 25 Feb 2017 20:02:42 +0000 Leviathan WakesLeviathan Wakes is great space opera / political thriller. Authors do a great job of portraying the strengths/weaknesses/paranoia/world view of all three of the major factions and how they react to the Big Threat. The science has just enough of a whiff of realism to feel like the near future though I doubt hard sf geeks will be fully satisfied.

There are two point of view characters and the story bounces back and forth between the two of them and so there are lots of cliff hangers that keep you turning pages.

I thoroughly enjoyed the first installment of this trilogy I was not aware of this trilogy until the syfy tv series and I have been reading the book more or less in tandem with the show. It’s been a lot of fun because the screen writers do a terrific job of adding characters to the story (whom I gather make appearances later in the trilogy) but the plot lines up pretty darn seamlessly with all the plot points in the novel. So that works. But I have to say the novels give you so much more perspective on the characters and their situation in life and their world view that you are missing out if you don’t read the books AND watch the tv series.

Follow me on Goodreads.

Da Da Da Sun, 05 Feb 2017 01:44:53 +0000 So this song floated across the transom of my mind recently. I feel kinda embarrassed to even admit it. But there it is. It’s like it’s the perfect example of all the trends that seemed oh so hot in the early 80’s that now make us cringe. I don’t blame Trio, they were just riding the wave of what was happening at the time.

Raise your hand if you can remember the major brand name that used this song as a theme for some of it’s commercials. (No fair looking it up on Wikipedia.)

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Review: Sherlock Holmes, “The Final Problem” Thu, 19 Jan 2017 10:09:10 +0000 Sherlock Holmes prays for a new screenwriter.
Sherlock Holmes prays for a new screenwriter.

Just got finished watching Sherlock Holmes, Series 4, episode 3, “The Final Problem,” and I can say with some certainty that I am done with the show. This used to be one of my all time favorite shows, ever. And it has all been ruined in the span of a few episodes by one man. His name is Steven Moffat.

Let me be clear. Steven Moffat needs to be locked away into his own personal Sherrinford and never again given access to a keyboard.

Moffat is no longer a story teller. He’s an insane man obsessed with being clever. All he cares about is seeing how cleverly he can fold one plot into another into another. One big reality bending plot twist after another. One big personality change after another. Buildings folding into other buildings. Dreams becoming reality. Reality becoming dreams. And maybe you can give the man credit for clever plotting. But he’s no longer telling a Sherlock Holmes story. He’s telling the Let Me Show You How Clever A Writer I Am story.

We’ve seen Moffat ruin Dr Who the exact same way and now he’s ruined Sherlock. And what’s most telling to me is that at the end of “The Final Problem” Moffat sheepishly tries to return his game pieces back to their original positions on the game board. It’s like he realizes he’s gone too far and in the last five minutes he tries to undo all the damage he’s done. But he can’t. The characters are literally picking through the rubble trying to reassemble something approximating their former lives. But they can’t.

If there is a season 5, I won’t be wasting my time if Moffat is the writer.

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Review: Hidden Figures Wed, 11 Jan 2017 11:25:30 +0000

Hidden Figures could well be the feel-good movie of the decade. Heck, Hidden Figures could quite possibly be the most feel-good movie of the new millennium so far. So much to like about this movie, it’s hard to know where to begin.

The movie focuses on three black women in the sixties who against all the odds, got an education, in mathematics no less, and excelled at it so much that they became crucial to the NASA space program.  Actually, while the movie focuses on three of them, there was a whole department of black women “calculators” working for NASA doing really really hard math and working under tremendous pressure. And the movie does this in a visually compelling way. It’s difficult to visually show people using their brains and difficult to visually communicate that math is hard, but can be conquered. I can see this moving being used to advocate STEM studies among women and minorities for decades.

But math is upstaged by the women’s fight against institutionalized racism of the day. What I like about it is how matter-of-factly it is presented. How it was such an everyday fact of life thing. It wasn’t stormtroopers banging down doors in the middle of the night or crosses burning in the yard. The movie focuses on the everyday institutionalized racism these women had to face. I think there are probably a lot of people today who have never experienced of seen that kind of racism and I really appreciated how it was presented in the movie. There were the usual things like sitting in the back of the bus, having separate sections of the library, segregated bathrooms. But there were also things like not being allowed to take classes necessary for career advancement because they were only taught at the “white” schools.

But the movie was not about racism or the movement to end segregation. The movie was about the women’s personal stories. The racism was there because it was everywhere. In the end, these women succeeded both because they worked hard and were good at what they did and because they had the courage to confront the individuals who stood in their way and they confronted the racism person-to-person.

And while it’s necessary to have political movements and street protests and all the other sort of revolutionary things you think of when you think of Big Change, it’s also necessary, maybe even more necessary, to confront the racism or whatever the Evil is, one on one, person to person. Because when people are forced to confront their personal actions, their personal part, they tend to change their mind and do the right thing. That’s what I thought was so inspiring about the movie.


Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman Fri, 06 Jan 2017 02:01:38 +0000 They say one’s true colors are revealed in times of great distress, so the End Of The World, Armageddon ought to be the ultimate Sorting Hat, to borrow an image. That’s the premise of Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. The book is loosely framed by the prophecies of one Agnes Nutter, Witch, who, in the true spirit of the great prophets is both accurate and unfathomable.

One thing is clear, with Armageddon on the way, everyone has a job to do. Lots of stuff needs to get done. Lots of prophecies have to be completed and checked off the list. The book is full of a wide ranging cast of characters from the divine to the profane each with a part to play in the End Times. But true colors are revealed. Not everyone is as enthusiastic about their part as they could be. Some are somewhat creative in their interpretation of their role. And there’s at least one character in this Divine Tragi-comedy who wasn’t informed of their Part in it. That’s where the fun begins.

Every page is crammed full of every kind of humor and wordplay you can imagine. You can imagine Gaiman & Pratchett cracking each other up for hours at a time while they wrote this book. But the side-splitting humor is just cover fire for the poignant, emotionally satisfying wallop hidden in the hellfire and brimstone. To say more would spoil it.

Get the book for yourself.

Good Omens by Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett


Review: Rogue One – A Star Wars Story Sat, 17 Dec 2016 17:35:14 +0000 Rogue One - A Star Wars Story

Wow! I am happy to report that the Star Wars franchise is back on track. Having watched Rogue One twice now, I have to say it ranks very near the top of my favorite movies in the franchise.

What sets this movie apart from its predecessors I think is that it’s less “cartoonish” and more real-world. In particular, real life is messy, full of difficult decisions with real consequences. In the real world, there is less monologuing and more taking action. Less rah-rah and more just doing it. Rogue One is full of that attitude.

It’s very tough to capture the plot in just a few sentences, but suffice to say that the movie focuses on Jyn Erso. She’s the daughter of a well known engineer/scientist Galen Erson but was separated from him when the Empire abducts him and takes him away to work on a secret project against his will. Her mother is killed at the same time. Jyn is orphaned and is cared/for raised by a veteran rebel mercenary by the name of Saw Gerrera. But she eventually gets left behind by even him and she has to make her own way in the world, apparently living just under the radar until she gets caught by the Empire for some petty crime.

But that’s just the setting that the movie launches from. As the movie starts there are rumors of a Empire pilot defecting to get a message from Galen Urso out from the labs and even more rumors about what he might have been working on for the Empire.

The movie follows everyone’s reaction to that event. The rebel Alliance is trying to figure out if the rumors are true and if so what to do about it. Jyn obviously wants to reunite with her father, though if the rumors are true, she’s not sure. The Empire wants to track down the defector and squash the spread of the rumors.

One of the things I really liked about the movie is that no one has all the information. Everyone is acting on imperfect and incomplete information. Everyone’s fears of what Might Be True drive them as much as the facts of the situation. People’s prejudices come out. Everyone is afraid.

Another thing I like about the movie is how the rebel Alliance is portrayed. In other movies they are portrayed as almost mystical keepers of the light and truth. In this movie, the Alliance is fractured, afraid, and poorly funded. People argue. People have varying degrees of dedication to the cause. People have personal agendas. Also, people are injured, handicapped, dirty, and worn out.

Which leads me to the war angle. I don’t think any of the other Star Wars movies have done as good a job of portraying real people fighting in a war. People are afraid, they are taking risks, making mistakes. And most importantly, you get a real sense from the Alliance that they are fighting a hopeless battle but they are doing it anyway. And there is a lot of self-sacrifice for the greater good in this movie. And it’s not done with two minute dramatic monologues followed by a neat and tidy death. No. Over and over again, you see characters in this movie, both major and minor matter-of-factly making sacrifices during battle to make sure there’s still a chance of success. I think that’s awesome.

Finally, I can’t help but make an observation that I hope is not too spoiler-ish. The director seems to have gone to great lengths to make you feel like your watching a real war movie and the movie is chock full of visual references to other wars we’ve seen on TV. There are tons of visual elements that are reminiscent of WW II movies and Vietnam War movies. Once you see the first one, you start to see them everywhere.

Review: Arrival Sat, 03 Dec 2016 02:04:47 +0000 Arrival movie 2016

Arrival is a high-concept science fiction movie, aiming to take its place among movies like 2001, Bladerunner, and Moon. I think it mostly succeeds. Twelve gravity-defying oblong things from outer space land at various places across the globe. They are mysteriously non-communicative. But every so many hours a door opens up in them and they admit a few humans in.  The bulk of the movie focuses themes traditionally known as “first contact.” How do you establish a means of communication with aliens that are so far advanced, you don’t really have a common frame of reference?

The movie focuses on linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) as she tries to establish some means of communication with the aliens and he tries to figure out how the aliens command gravity. As you might expect, mistakes are made, miscommunications are made, with unspeakably dangerous consequences.

It’s interesting to see how Banks manages her work communicating with aliens. It’s kind of a talky movie, lots of poignant looks and rhetorical questions. But that doesn’t mean the movie can’t have its surprising moments. It does, in a very satisfying way. It’s not the latest superhero action popcorn movie, but it’s very engaging.


Dr. Strange review Tue, 29 Nov 2016 09:14:16 +0000 Dr. Strange Promo shot

Dr. Strange is the origin story of one of central characters of the Marvel Universe. Like many of the stories in the Marvel Universe, it tells the story of a human’s journey into a superhero. But most stories like this involve people who are either destined to become superheroes and discover their talents, or they tell the stories of people who are victims of circumstance who accidentally become superheroes, or the tell stories of people whose virtue earns them the right to become a superhero.

Not so with Dr. Strange. Dr. Strange starts out has a hot shot neuro-surgeon who is arrogant, condescending and throughly unlikeable in every respect. He’s the kind of  guy that you are just waiting for the world to exact its revenge on him. And it does in a truly graphic and horrifying way. You almost feel sorry for him instead of feeling like he got what’s coming to him.  And that’s what starts him down his journey into superhero-dom.

The thing is, his journey into the one of the most god-like superheroes in the Marvel universe doesn’t really involve a change of heart or a change of attitude. The first time I watched the movie, I completely missed the scene that was intended to be his Big Turn. The second time I saw the move, I caught it. But I didn’t feel it. Whether it’s due to the screen play, or Benedict Cumberbatch’s acting, or whatever, I didn’t feel like he ever evolved or transcended his mortal self into the Dr. Strange who takes his place in the pantheon of Marvel gods.

On the other hand, the special effects depicting the mystical world that Dr. Strange rules are some of the most trippy visuals I’ve ever seen on screen. And they are very fluid and integrated into the world so well that bending of space and time just feels natural to these folks.

And the action sequences are well done, I truly felt like Dr. Strange got thrown into the mystic world well before he was ready and he was both trying to figure things out without a guide or mentor and trying to stay alive at the same time.

So there’s a lot to like about the move. Good popcorn movie. But so far I’m not a fan of Dr. Strange, the character. What’s to like about him?




Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them Sun, 20 Nov 2016 12:00:35 +0000 Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find THem

I’m not into the Harry Potter universe. I only read the first couple of books, but I have seen all the movies at least once. So I’m not qualified to, nor interested in, debating about how/if Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them  this movie is an appropriate contribution to the Harry Potter canon.  My only comment on that front is that J.K. Rowling is credited as the writer. That should be enough for anyone.

The capsule synopsis reads:

The adventures of writer Newt Scamander in New York’s secret community of witches and wizards seventy years before Harry Potter reads his book in school.

It was explained to me later that the book that is referenced in the title of the movie is mentioned and referred to several times throughout the Harry Potter story as a reference/text book at some of the Hogwarts classes. I think that’s a cool tie-in to the main movies.

One of the things I like most about the movie is that the lead character is not a budding super hero. We know that he was kicked-out of Hogwarts and has since been wandering the world, writing his book. But people aren’t quite sure exactly where he’s been or what he’s been doing. It’s not that he’s some magical James Dean or Jack Kerouac. Turns out that he’s extremely socially awkward. He seems to be a borderline Aspbergers’ Syndrome case. He’s awkward around people, avoids eye-contact, stammers whenever he’s speaking about important things. But when he’s talking about the subject he’s focused on, fantastic beasts, he knows exactly what to say & what to do.  I’m glad to see a lead character like this, with both strengths and weaknesses. Kudos to Eddie Redmayne for his portrayal.

The movie is set, I think, in the late 1930’s, maybe early 40’s in New York City. It’s kind of a pastiche of styles and visuals so it’s hard to pin down. You get hints of early colonial America. You get hints of the 20’s era speakeasy culture. You get hints of 40’s era gangsters and the early days of the FBI. This kind of bothered me, the inconsistency of the time period. But it doesn’t ruin the story for me.

Newt has come to New York on a mission known only to himself. But he quickly gets drawn into a zany adventure to round up some escaped Fantasic Beasts, which threaten to expose the magical world to “nonmajs” which is what the Americans call non-magical people.  He gets drawn into the magic community which is organized much differently than what we see in the Harry Potter movies. I suppose for the Harry Potter fans, this is interesting, but for people who aren’t that into the canon, I think it got in the way.

There were plenty of moments in the movie, where everyone had to pause to let the special effects department wow us with the portrayal of Magic In Action. Visually interesting, kind of fun to watch. Kids are gonna love it.

Which brings me to the beasts. Many of them felt improbable, even in the world of Harry Potter. Seemed like beasts were invented to fit into the spots in the story line. “Here we need a cute furry beasts that does X. There we need a large scary beast that nonetheless is not particularly aggressive, etc.” But the special effect team did a great job bringing them to life.

I won’t spoil the movie except to say that as Newt chases his beasts, and we see the American version of the magic world unfold, there are other, darker forces that creep into the story to keep things on edge.

I really liked the supporting characters in the movie. In the Harry Potter movies, all too often the supporting characters are there just to have frailties to make Harry look good. But in this movie, every character is their own person, with their own goals in life and goals for today and their own foibles.

I thought the plot was kind of thin, there were too many pauses for special effects spectaculars, and I didn’t particularly care about all the effort spent to establish the universe of the movie. But I liked the lead character a lot. I liked the supporting characters a lot. So I’d give a thumbs up to this movie as a popcorn adventure movie with interesting characters.

Review: Deadpool Tue, 16 Feb 2016 00:24:42 +0000 Deadpool

Deadpool is the latest movie in the Marvel franchise, based on the comic book character of the same name.  Yet another “anti-hero” hero movie. Deadpool is about a guy who’s life is ruined by becoming a super-hero and rather than find solace in the abstract rewards of his higher calling, he’s pissed about it and will never, ever forgive the universe for doing that to him.

I kinda like that premise. A super-hero who is bitter and cold about being a super-hero. It’s been done before. (Hancock springs to mind.) But what sets Deadpool apart from every other superhero movie I’ve ever seen is the style of humor, which is absolutely unique among super-hero movies.

It’s like the crews of and Girls Gone Wild got together to make Marvel movie. Yeah. THAT kind of humor.

I’m just going to admit this right now. I laughed my ass off in this movie from beginning to end. Maybe I shouldn’t be proud of that. But the snarky, campy, bawdy humor was at the end of the day, just fine. For adults. Only adults. No kids. None. Not even mature for their age adolescents. Seriously. If you have kids, see the movie first before you take them. Otherwise you may find yourself having to ‘splain stuff you’d rather not have to and you may find you have to look a lot of it up in the Urban Dictionary.

Much has been made of the violence and gore in this movie. Maybe it’s just because I’d seen the Revenant recently, but the gore and violence never crossed the line for me. Yes, the blood and violence is more explicit that the usual Marvel movie because it’s Rated R. But I’ve seen plenty of R rated movies that push those limits far more than Deadpool did.

Ryan Reynolds does a good job balancing the snark and the hate-my-life insolence. Supporting cast is fine. The one noteworthy supporting cast is best friend/buddy/barkeep. I liked how that character never sugarcoats or tries to make Deadpool see a positive side in his situation. Instead, like a true friend, he tells it like it is with a gallows humor honesty and supports Deadpool when he can.

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Review: Hail, Caesar Tue, 16 Feb 2016 00:01:26 +0000 Hail, Caesar!

Hail, Caesar is the latest screwball comedy from the Cohen Brother. It’s set during the golden age of Hollywood. Contrary to the pre-movie press. The protagonist is NOT the George Clooney character. It’s about Josh Brolin’s character, Eddie Mannix, who is apparently a mid-to high-level executive in the studio. He’s a “fixer” which is to say he keeps the movie stars in line and out of trouble. So when George Clooney’s Baird Whitlock character gets abducted from the set of a Roman-era film about Jesus by an underground cell of Holywood communists, it’s Eddie’s job to take care of it.

A surreal romp through back lots and sound stages ensues. We see Busby Berkeley inspired aquatic choreography, WW II sailor dance numbers, cheesy wild west sets, and incredibly pretentious snobby dramas. And the Cohen Brothers, if nothing else, entertain us by gently skewering everyone of those types of movies and they just generally have fun poking fun at all of the Hollywood stereotypes.

There are amusing visual jokes, very witty dialog, inside baseball references, and I have to say each scene in the movie is enjoyable, amusing, even funny in places. But the movie as a whole doesn’t add up to much. You almost get to then end before you realize the movie, in theory, is about Eddie at a mid-life crisis and trying to take a few minutes here and there out of his crazy busy day to think about it.

Soooo  yeah, I have to say I enjoyed almost every minute of the movie. And honestly, that’s all I really need. Who cares if the end doesn’t do much if you enjoyed how you got there?

Review: The Revenant Mon, 15 Feb 2016 23:43:26 +0000 The Revenant

The Revenant is about a fur trader/guide named Hugh Glass in the 1820’s or so leading an expedition. It’s unclear to me exactly where it takes place. Probably upstate New York or even further north. Let’s just say someplace really really cold and beautiful. It’s an incredibly dangerous job. Wild animals. Indians. The weather. Leonardo DiCaprio plays the lead character supported by Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter, Forrest Goodluck and others.

Hugh Glass is very nearly killed early on in the film in a scene that defies belief in its technical accomplishment (how did they do that without actually killing anyone?) and in its gruesomeness. And that traumatic event is just the beginning. The company of men he was ostensibly guiding are now forced with having to figure out their own way, having to somehow keep Hugh alive, having to avoid the bloodthirsty Indians, and having to keep warm enough to live through the nights.

That’s the setup for what turns out to be a classic, larger-than-life, “western.” It turns into a character study about who’s going to abandon their civilized ways and how they are going to rationalize it to themselves when they get home. There are some characters who keep their humanity and some that don’t. Some lose their way and almost come back but fail. And to some extent, like all westerns, that’s what keeps the movie interesting. And Leo diCaprio’s character drives the whole thing simply by surviving, by drawing one breath after another when that’s all he can do, and slowly, literally digging himself out of a grave.

The Revenant was just about the most difficult movie I’ve ever sat through. Partly because of the brutality and the gore, partly because it’s so painful to see people’ abandoning whatever pretense at being civilized that they used to have.

The ending is kind of a mess. It’s less of a resolution and more not knowing what to do next. The movie literally ends between footsteps. But I liked how the protagonist drove all the secondary characters just by staying alive and that’s a good story.  But don’t go if you don’t have the stomach for blood and gore. All the pre-release hype about how violent and brutal the movie is was pretty much accurate.

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Review: Wild Fri, 02 Jan 2015 03:41:45 +0000 WILD - Reese Whiterspoon

Cheryl Strayed and her hiking partner, “The Monster”

tells the true story of Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon), a woman who hiked the 1100 mile Pacific Coast Trail, by herself. As the movie opens her friends are trying to do that thing where you try to be both supporting and gently suggesting you might be going off the deep end. But Cheryl Strayed is determined to launch herself on the trek.

As she begins her journey, it’s immediately obvious that she has no idea what she’s getting into and is woefully unprepared (or is it over prepared) to do such strenuous hiking. But what’s not obvious is why she’s doing this to herself. You find out pretty quick that she’s recently divorced. But as she struggles through the desert heat, she has lots of time to ponder over her life and predicament and we get a glimpses through Cheryl’s flashbacks, mutterings to herself, and, well, visions.

It’s easy to imagine bad things happening to a single woman alone hiking through the desert, especially one who’s struggling with the task. And as the miles start to pile up, the trail seems to be getting more and more dangerous, her mental state becomes more and more tenuous, and the landscape becomes more and more surreal.

It’s a gut wrenching story that unfolds. The real plot unfolds in the flashbacks, many revolving around her relationship with her mother played by Laura Dern. And although she doesn’t get that much screen time, it’s a crucial role and I think it might be my favorite Laura Dern role ever.

Reese Whitherspoon has turned in an Oscar worthy performance on this one. I highly recommend it but prepare yourself for a gut wrenching experience.

Review: Chef Fri, 02 Jan 2015 03:00:31 +0000 Jon Favreau ChefChef Carl Casper and his buddies at work try to figure out that Twitter thing

The Chef has got to be one of the most feel-good movies I’ve seen in a good long while. Jon Favreau writes, directs, and stars as a Chef Carl Casper, who loses his job has head chef in a Los Angeles restaurant because he can’t stand working for The Man (Dustin Hoffman). You know from the title that he attempts to restart is career by buying a food truck. Of course, any idiot can guess that it’s more than his career that needs work.

What follows is an entirely predictable plot. Tired even. But the movie is completely saved by the personality of the Carl Casper character and the chemistry between him and the people around him. His co-workers at the restaurant, Tony (Bobby Cannavale) and Martin (John Leguizamo) keep the kitchen lively and have both the fierce loyalty and tell it like it is honesty that only true friends have. Scarlett Johansson plays the hostess at the restaurant and Casper’s emerging love interest. Sofía Vergara plays Inez, the ex-wife that’s divorced from Casper for unspecified reasons and who clearly still cares for him. And newcomer Emjay Anthony plays the ten year-old son who wants nothing more than to hang out with his Dad. Like most kids, he’s growing up in the social media culture and isn’t afraid to use it. Finally, there is Oliver Platt who plays the apparently cold and heartless food critic who kickstarts the whole plot by ripping Casper to shreds in a review.  The ensemble cast has such a good interplay with each other that the plot becomes a secondary issue in the movie.

As an added bonus, this movie is case study in the right way and wrong way to engage the internet. If you don’t get what the fuss is about around things like Twitter, this movie is a good primer.

Review: Imitation Game Tue, 30 Dec 2014 00:21:51 +0000 The Imitation Game - Benedict Cumberbatch

Imitation Game is a movie about the secret effort by the British during World War II to break the German’s “Enigma” code which was used to encrypt all their military communications. It focuses on the recruitment of Alan Turing to the team of linguists, chess players, and cryptographers that were pulled into a fake “radio factory” where they struggled to break the code while British citizens where dying constantly in battle.

It’s well known that Alan Turing was gay during an era when homosexuality was against the law in Britain (and elsewhere) and his life was destroyed by the laws of the very government he saved. It’s unclear how much of the plot of the story revolving around Turing’s life as true and how much of it was “dramatized” for the movie. But I’ll say this, they did a really good job bringing the plot around the war together with the plot about his personal life. In fact, in a dramatic monologue about 2/3 through the movie Turing lectures a police officer about what would later become known as the Turing Test and how to distinguish between a machine and a “normal” human being. The parallels to how Turing was treated are petty obvious and  kudos to the screenwriter for taking a less-is-more approach to it and kudos to Benedict Cumberbatch for his pitch perfect Asperger’s-esque delivery.

Here’s my problem with the movie though. It could have been a very interesting movie without even touching on Turing’s personal life.  The team is so focused on solving the “puzzle” they are going after that they are shocked at the implications of their success. That turn could have sustained the movie all by itself.

So what you get in the second half of the movie is a divergence of the plot lines that had come together so well during the first part of the movie and I didn’t think either was dealt with very well and the closing scenes had to be patched up with multiple expository screens of text to try to complete the story at the end.

Having said all that, I can recommend the movie. It’s a great period piece that does a good job dramatizing how tenuous the war effort was in Britain at the time. It shows well the sacrifices people made. It shows well the restrictive social norms of the day. And they also did a good job of contrating the work of the cryptography team against the work of the everyday soldier.

The Maze Runner Wed, 15 Oct 2014 00:07:19 +0000 The Maze Runner
The Maze Runner

The Maze Runner
 is a great kids movie. It’s mysterious, full of action, full of danger. Like the Hunger Games, Divergent and other young adult movies, the premise is kind of ridiculous and you just have to kind of take it at face value. It’s in the script. For some reason kids are being deposited in a bucolic “Glade,” which is a central park-like wilderness. The kids have had their memories erased and they have to learn to work together to get through the day. The Glade is surrounded on all sides by these huge stone halls that they can’t get over. But during the day, huge walls slide apart revealing an entrance to a maze. They can go explore the maze, but at night the doors close and no one who’s trapped in the maze at night ever survives or is seen again.

So what are the boys going to do? How are they going to get out of the maze? Should they even try? When Thomas, our hero, arrives on the scene.  He’s just like the other boys. His memory has been erased. He has know idea about who he is, why he is there, or how to survive. But for some reason the fragile balance of existence the boys have established in the Glade starts to unravel. And when the mysterious forces driving the scene introduce a girl into the community things go even more haywire, especially for our hero Thomas.

But not in the way you’d think.

I liked the movie because not only is it a well-paced action movie, it shows kids dealing with their fears, learning to be brave, learning to be independent thinkers, and learning to to take action and make shit happen.


The Boxtrolls Sat, 04 Oct 2014 01:38:26 +0000 The Boxtrolls
Is he a boy or a boxtroll?

The Boxtrolls is a children’s, well PG rated, fairy tale movie filmed in good old-fashioned stop-motion animation with some apparent CGI added in. It’s got an amazing storybook look and feel to it and top notch voice acting behind the characters. It tells the story of a little boy who was kidnapped by these creatures called boxtrolls that live in the sewers under the city. At night the box trolls come out and steal bits and pieces of metal and machinery and take them back to their lair. In a Tarzan-esque story plot, the boy is not eaten alive by the box trolls as rumors in the city go, but is instead raised as a box troll. His name is “Eggs,” because all the box trolls wear boxes much like hermit crabs wear shells and they call each other by the pictures on their boxes. Why was Eggs kidnapped? Why was he raised to be a boxtroll? And why are the humans above hell-bent on destroying the boxtrolls? These are the questions that get explored as the story unfolds.

There are lots of sight gags and kid humor one-liners. Lots of action sequences and visual wild rides. When I watched the film there were lots of kids in the audience obviously having a blast. And I had a blast too. There were a few winks and nods to the adults in the audience through character names, street names, and the occasional one-liner. But there wasn’t too much of that, which was actually good because it didn’t get in the way of the story book feel to the movie.

What I appreciated most though is that the movie actually has danger in it. So many kids movies have child-proofed and padded the plots so much they are nothing but mush. This movie showed kids in peril. It showed kids running for their lives. It showed kids (and box trolls) getting hurt. But it also showed kids mustering their courage and doing daring and brave things for the right reasons.

The creative force behind the movie is Laika Entertainment, which is the same company that produced Coraline.  I liked Coraline a lot and I have to say this one wasn’t quite as good. But I still enjoyed it thoroughly and felt like I got my money’s worth.

Review: The Wolf Of Wall Street Tue, 31 Dec 2013 01:36:58 +0000 Wolf Of Wall Street The Wolf Of Wall Street has so much gratuitous sex in it I’m almost tempted to not write a review but instead write an indictment of it using The Miller Test. You get dancing hookers with marching bands, restroom sex, orgies on flying planes, forced sex, and one particularly charming shot of a lit candle sticking out of Leonardo DiCaprio’s butt.  Sorry, if you think that counts as a spoiler, but, really, you need to know what you are getting into.

In between the sex scenes, there’s a story arc about Jordan Belfort’s humble start as a broker on Wall Street and being corrupted by some really awful people into learning how to convince people to buy stocks over the phone. He’s taught not to care about clients but to care about bringing in commissions. He learns well and pretty soon he’s running his own firm and perfecting many varied ways to use and abuse people and separate them from their money. And it’s all morbidly fascinating because of two aspects of the plot.

The first aspect of the plot that saves the movie is that you simply can’t believe how awful a person Belfort is and how awful all his cronies are. There’s one particular scene where he and his cronies are boarding an international flight and they are so drunk they can’t get in their seats and the women flight attendants are trying to get them to sit down and are as diplomatically as possible ignoring all the grabbing and kissing they from the drunkards. And it’s just awful. You feel so sorry for the flight attendants and you simply can’t believe how awful these people are. It’s one of those things where you can’t tear your eyes away from it even though you don’t want to watch it.

The second aspect of the plot that saves the movie, and what I think the whole movie is about, is you can’t believe how much Belfort got away with. You learn pretty early on that he’s being investigated by the SEC and the FBI. Part of the anticipation in the movie is that you expect his empire to come tumbling down at any moment. But time and again, he gets away with it. And when the law finally catches up with him, well, let’s just say it’s not exactly a triumph of good over evil, decency over immorality.

In the end, I think the point is that Belfort may have gotten justice, but not what he deserved.

Director Martin Scorsese tried to turn the story into an indictment of Wall Street in general, but I think he fails on this point. We see what awful people Belfort and his gang of hooligans are. But they are awful people. We don’t see the system itself as being bad.

Which brings me to my big complaint about the movie. The SEC and the FBI aren’t after Belfort because he has an appetite for expensive and kinky hookers. Nor are they after him because of his hefty appetite for every recreational drug there is. They are after him because he commits fraud on a massive scale. And this is barely shown in the movie. We never see the effects of Belfort’s operations on the small investors who lost a total of $110 million in his fraudulent schemes.  There are a couple of head nods to it, but it’s never explored in the movie.

It’s a three hour movie. Scorsese could have dropped one of the orgy scenes and squeezed in a scene or two about the lives Belfort’s team ruined.

If you need to be convinced that there are awful people in the world, without scruples and morals, you might want to see this movie. But if you already know that, I’m not sure this movie is worth three hours of your life.

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Review: Some Remarks by Neal Stephenson Mon, 30 Dec 2013 18:51:24 +0000 Some Remarks by Neal StephensonSome Remarks: Essays and Other Writing by Neal Stephenson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Some Remarks by Neal Stephenson collects some of his noteworthy interviews, magazine article, and a couple of short fiction pieces. There isn’t much of an overall theme or idea tying them all together. Each item is stand-alone.

The longest item in the collection is “In The Kingdom of Mao Bell,” in which Stephenson tells the story of the construction of the world longest telephone cable. Stephenson really gets into both the grit and and science of such a large undertaking. You get both an insight into the type of guy it takes to lay underwater cable and the geo-politics of deciding where it’s going to go and who’s going to fund it. The story telling style of the piece is much like his novels. It’s all about the details and the facts and not so much about making a big point at the end.

There are a couple of short fiction pieces that are already showing how well Stephenson’s writing can stand the test of time. One if a short story called “Spew,” which is largely about surveillance culture told from the perspective of an insider, the guys doing the surveillance. The other one I liked quite a bit is “The Great Simoleon Caper,” which is about the forces shaping the emergence of electronic currencies. This short story is thought-provoking in the context of Bitcoin and the forces at play behind it.

“Blind Secularism” also impressed me. It covers the FBI’s failure to understand the Branch Davidians view of the world and the media’s inability to portray either the government point of view of the Branch Davidian point of view effectively.

Of the interviews published in the book, I thought the Salon interview was the best. The interviewer did a good job getting Stephenson to talk about the core ideas in his Baroque Cycle series.

I guess I have to say I enjoyed every item included in the book and I’m glad I had the chance to read it. His style of storytelling, whether it be in fiction or non-fiction is very appealing and that makes the book worthwhile. You get more insight into Stephenson as a person by reading these which I am sure will make reading his novels even more entertaining. This is definitely supplemental material to his main body of work, but still very enjoyable.

View all my reviews

Disney Killed Darth Vader Wed, 25 Dec 2013 16:43:12 +0000 Darth Vader rides the Mad Tea Party

Count me among the many Star Wars fans that laments what Disney has done to the Star Wars franchise. Disney has taken one of the epic tales of good vs. evil with some truly scary characters and some truly inspiring and brave characters and filed off all the edgy bits into a bland set of characters.

The worst damage has been done to Darth Vader.  In the Star Wars trilogy, he represents everything we fear is going to happen to us. He’s a tragic character who pays the price of his poor choices for his entire life and it propels him to destroy entire planets.

But the Disney-fied version of Darth Vader has been reduced to a black-masked guy who wanders the park just like Donald Duck and Goofy. He’s never actually shown being menacing, angry, or evil. He just shows up in the park unexpectedly. The most menacing he ever gets is being someone who can surprise Dad when he shows up unexpectedly.

And worst of all, Darth Vader has been subjugated to pimping the theme parks. He’s been shown riding rides at the Disney World, even the Mad Tea Party ride. It’s ridiculous to see Darth Vader spinning round in the whirling tea cups. Presumably behind that faceless mask he wears there’s an Anikan Skywalker laughing and giggling like a little child again.

The thing is, it’s so unnecessary. There was no reason that Disney had to soften the image of Star Wars to the point of blandness. They could have left it alone, exactly as is, and it still would have been a hugely popular attraction at their parks. And more to the point, when they get around to producing more  Star Wars movies, they would have had a fanbase world wide ready to take in the new installments of the Star Wars story. But if they are going to morph the characters into Just Another Disney Story, they are only going to appeal to the younger kids who don’t know any better.

Disney is shooting themselves in the foot by giving Darth Vader the PR makeover. It’s just not right. It’s sad.

See the travesty for yourself:

photo credit

Review: American Hustle Mon, 23 Dec 2013 02:25:09 +0000 Irving Rosenfeld, Sydney Prosser, and Richie DiMaso, Stayin' Alive
Irving Rosenfeld, Sydney Prosser, and Richie DiMaso, Stayin’ Alive

American Hustle is to the 70’s what The Sting is to the 30s. It’s both an excellent heist movie loosely based on the AbScam scandal of the late 70’s and a tongue-in-cheek homage to the era the movie is set in. The plot centers around two small time con artists, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and a woman named Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), who are making a pretty good life for themselves selling fake financial services, false certificates of deposit, and forged artwork. As they work their marks, they find themselves falling in love, which is complicated by the fact that Irving is married to Rosalyn Rosenfeld (Jennifer Lawrence). She doesn’t really love Irving, but clings to their marriage out of fear of change and holds their son as hostage against any threat of divorce from Irving.

Irving and Sydney are doing ok, until they get caught in a sting operation by Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). The charges and evidence against the two are not enough to arrest Irving. But Richie holds Sydney in jail. Charges are pending, but basically Richie is holding Sydney hostage to get at Irving. They strike a deal whereby Irving and Sydney agree to teach Richie how they run their scams. The deal is if they help Richie with four busts, he drops the charges against them.

And so the trio enter into an unholy alliance, no one really trusting each other. Problem is, Richie is Ambitious with a capital A and what starts out to be small time sting operation starts escalating and spinning out of control. It evolves into an amazingly complex scam where you are never quite sure where anyone’s allegiance lies and it becomes increasingly clear that everyone’s lives are at risk if the operation falls apart.

As events unfold we get the good, the bad, and the ugly of 1970’s pop culture, fashion, and attitudes. For those old enough to have lived through the 70’s, the nostalgia factor alone is worth the ticket price.

Like The Sting, American Hustle has to lay out a very complicated heist in away that makes it reasonably easy for the audience to follow without revealing too much at one time. I’m glad to be able to say that American Hustle did this very well.

In addition to the four leads, there is an amazing ensemble of supporting actors which truly sell the 70’s for us. One performance in particular that stood out for me was Jeremy Renner’s performance as Mayor Carmine Polito.

Highly recommended.

How the NSA ruined NCIS Sun, 22 Dec 2013 16:19:38 +0000 Eleanor "Mary Sue" Bishop
Eleanor “Mary Sue” Bishop

It’s bad enough that the NSA has ruined the internet. They had to go an ruin one one my favorite TV shows too. The  new NCIS character, NSA Analyst Eleanor “Ellie” Bishop, so completely dominates the rest of the NCIS team that everyone else might was well not show up for work. Even Gibbs is superfluous in her presence.

CBS describes Ellie Bishop as “a mysterious mixture of analytic brilliance, fierce determination and idealism who specializes in international threat assessment and global preparation.” But after hearing me rant about why she’s such a problem for NCIS, my wife introduced me to a fandom term that captures exactly what’s wrong with the new character. As written and portrayed in the show so far at least, Ellie Bishop fits the definition of a “mary sue,” a character that is so perfect she is annoying.

We first see her when the crew has to visit the NSA as part of a murder investigation. Ellie is sprawled out on a floor listening to her ipod, deeply concentrating on some papers. Look! She’s edgy! She doesn’t sit at a desk. Ooooooo. Turns out, of course, she literally wrote the play book that the week’s evil mastermind is following. So only she can truly understand the motivations of the killer and get to the bottom of it. Gibbs is so impressed that he asks her to join the team at the end of the episode. But wait. Turns out she beat him to that too, having previously applied for NCIS several years ago. All Gibbs had to do is pull her old application out of the files and put it in front of her.

In one recent episode, the crew is in the NCIS office discussing the known facts of the case. But Ellie can’t join the team. She’s sitting on her desk,  not at it of course, that would be too conventional, deeply engrossed in her laptop. Gibbs keeps trying to get her to join the team but she refuses. This level of insubordination from anyone else on the team would have earned her a good gibbslap.  But not Ellie. Oh no. She’s “special.” And as it turns out, all the work that the team had done was completely superfluous because she remembered some minute something that she’d read at the NSA a long time ago and sure enough, bingo. There’s the bad guy on her laptop.  In their world they could save a lot of money if NCIS would just outsource everything to the NSA.

There is another scene, having to do with an abandoned car, in which Ellie upstages Gibbs himself. The team has located the car, I think even impounded it. I forget what the team decides to do but Ellie comes up with the idea to put the car back and wait for the villain to return to it. It doesn’t bother me that Ellie Bishop came up with a good idea. What bothers me is that Gibbs acknowledges it as a better idea. If a similar scene had been played out with any other character, either Gibbs would have silently acknowledged that’s the right thing to do by giving the character one of his famous silent, ‘what are you waiting for” stares or we’d find out that he’d already given the orders to someone else to do what had been recommended. But  not in Ellie’s case. She has to be the new top dog in the office which everyone revolves around.

The one head nod given to hint that maybe, Ellie isn’t completely perfect is that she’s a little bit awkward and ham-fisted in social situations that require a little finesse and empathy. In one of the recent episodes a couple is watching their kid die from some unknown mysterious disease and Ellie proceeds to accidentally talk about all the gruesome things the kid might have within earshot of the parents. This of course upsets the parents even more.  But of course Ellie Bishop can have no imperfections. She can’t have character flaws that she has to live with like the rest of the team. By the end of the episode she confronts the parents again, apologizes to them and by the end of her monologue the parents not only forgive her, they love her.

The “mary sue” phenomena is almost always the result of a “self-insert” into a story. I.e. it’s an ego stroke to someone who wants to be perfect in the fictitious world. So this raises the question in my mind, who inserted them-self into NCIS? I suppose it could have been one of the writers. But the writers have a ten season track record of shuttling both major characters and minor characters in and out of the milieu without upsetting the fundamental balance of the show. So I have a hard time believing that the writers fumbled so badly on the Ellie Bishop character.

My theory, and it is just that, a theory, is that somehow the NSA is the one who self-inserted themselves into the story. After all, they are the ones with the tarnished image these days and therefore most susceptible to the mary-sue mistake. I’m not suggesting that it was anything nefarious per se. But I can imagine someone coming up with the idea of wanting to have a positive portrayal of the NSA in pop culture and made a few calls to the right execs at CBS who might have suggested to the writers that the new character replacement for Ziva be “a mysterious mixture of analytic brilliance, fierce determination and idealism who specializes in international threat assessment and global preparation.” I mean doesn’t that sound like how the NSA would describe itself and not how a real writer would summarize a real flesh and blood human being?

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Review: Thor: The Dark World Sat, 09 Nov 2013 12:19:36 +0000 Thor dark world asgard

Thor: The Dark World is an excellent follow up to the first Thor movie in all the essentials. People will argue for decades about which super-hero / comic book movie is better than the others. But I don’t think anyone can dispute that the Thor movies are visually the most beautiful and stunning. You truly get an cosmic scale experience in this movie. When they say “the nine realms” are converging, you are convinced it’s real. Like the first movie, they manage to combine the visual tropes of fantasy and science fiction so that they seem like the same thing, a point made explicit in one of the minor scenes. Even in this golden age of special effects, Thor: The Dark World stands out from all the others.

The other thing I liked about the latest Thor movie is that there are some Big Themes driving the plot of the movie. They are present from the very beginning through the end and yet not once does anyone have to pause the action of the movie to monologue so that the Big Theme can be spelled out for us. Every bit of it comes through the actions of the characters and what they say to each other. I think this is both a testament to the screen writers and Stan Lee’s vision for the characters.

Character-wise, everyone seemed consistent with the first movie, except for the Erik Selvig character who was sadly short-changed in the movie, being relegated to comic relief mostly. But everyone else gets their time on screen to do what they do best. I particularly liked how Thor’s henchmen helped him escape from Asgard when Asgard needed escaping from. But my favorite of the minor characters is still Heimdall, the gatekeeper who is fierce warrior, wise man, loyal servant, and shrewd politician all rolled up into one.

And then there’s the action sequences. In less skilled hands, the Big Battle scene could have come off as farce. But it was came across as a battle that ran through time and space while the fate of the universe hung in the balance. And once again, the world is saved only because someone deliberately, at great cost, chose to do the Right Thing. And that is how all comic book movies should end.



Review: Gravity Sun, 06 Oct 2013 23:10:14 +0000 gravity-explosion

In science fiction circles, there’s a style of story telling called “hard science fiction,” which attempts to portray the future as realistically as possible, making reasonable extrapolations from known facts about the Way Things Work. Gravity is about the hardest hard science fiction movie I’ve ever seen. It feels like it could happen tomorrow.

It’s scary as hell and makes you realize just how laughable most science fiction is these days with their artificial gravity, and force fields and ray guns. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney sell their respective roles convincingly, but the real stars are the effects people and, no doubt, gazillions of people who worked endless hours to get all the teeny tiny details just right.

Gravity also makes you appreciate just how fragile human beings are and just how quickly things can go Terribly Wrong. To say any more about the plot would spoil it so I won’t. But I will say that I’ve seen it both in 3D IMAX and regular screen. You still get the a good sense of scale on the regular scale. But dang, the 3D version makes the devastation all that more scary. Highly recommended to see it in 3D.



Review: The Wolverine *spoilers* Sat, 27 Jul 2013 14:38:31 +0000 *minor spoilers ahead*
The Wolverine (2013)

The Wolverine opens with Logan (Hugh Jackman)  in self-imposed exile, afraid he will continue to hurt the ones he loves. I didn’t remember the back story but apparently he accidentally eviscerated his love, Jean. We get flashbacks to get us up to speed on it. Apparently, Logan doesn’t want to be The Wolverine anymore. He’d rather hang out in the wilderness with the bears. So you’d think that when he gets the chance to stop being The Wolverine, he’d take it. And that’s the set up, at least at first, for the movie.  Back in World War II, The Wolverine saves a Japanese officer, Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi),  from the nuclear bomb blast at Nagasaki. The Japanese officer has since become one of the most powerful, and most eccentric, businessmen in Japan.  Yashida is obsessed with death and immortality. On his deathbed, Yashida offers Logan the one thing he thinks he can’t have: death.

But before The Wolverine can respond to Yashida’s offer, Yashida dies, dragging The Wolverine into a whirlwind of violence and political maneuvering to take over control of Yashida’s empire. There’s so many super-heroes, gangsters, princesses, ronin, and politicians fighting it out you almost need a cheat sheet to keep up with the action.

As The Wolverine tears up Japan from one end of the island to the other he also has to Deal With His Stuff. This is well handled. The movie never descends into smarmy speechifying. And most importantly, the story never puts The Wolverine on a pedestal, never holds him up as a paragon of virtue. And that brings me to why I like the movie. The Wolverine might be a superhero, but he’s not super-human. He’s got faults, and foibles, and falabilities just like the rest of us.

And the theme becomes less about the pros and cons of immortality and more about our falabilities making us human. Every single character in the movie makes mistakes, poor judgments, and wrong turns as the drama unfolds. And those poor choices make the inevitable conflicts, right up to the monster ninja robot fight scene, believable.

On the action adventure front. there are some truly spectacular hand-to-hand fight scenes, which I’d never seen done before. Some pretty good martial arts sword play, none of which, thankfully, is performed by The Woverine.

Props go out to Tao Okamoto as Mariko who plays Yashida’s granddaugher  and Rila Fukushima as Yukio, Mariko’s adopted sister. They are the touchstones to traditional Japanese society and current Japanese pop culture that run throughout the movie. They give the movie wieght and context for Logan’s character to act.

One minute of goldfish Mon, 22 Jul 2013 19:41:31 +0000

From the Magic Wings Butterfly House, Durham Museum of Life and Science. June 20, 2013.

one minute of goldfish


Coolest alpaca in the barnyard Mon, 22 Jul 2013 01:42:52 +0000 Coolest Alpaca in the ba

Another pic from this weekend’s visit to the Durham Museum Life and Science. That’s one self-confident alpaca!



Review: Red 2 Sun, 21 Jul 2013 01:41:35 +0000 red-2-12

RED 2 picks up the story not too long after the first RED movie ends. Bruce Willis plays Frank, a “retired” special ops agent for the CIA, who would like nothing better than to settle for a nice, easy going suburban life. In the first RED movie, the problem was that for some reason a bunch of people from all over the world are trying to kill him and the woman he has a crush on, Sara (Mary Louise Parker). In RED 2, Bruce would still like to retire to the ‘burbs, but Sarah, now his wife, would like nothing better to get into the Special Ops game. And yes, special ops people from all over the world are trying to kill him again and this time there’s a nuclear device gone missing.

You might think that’s thin gruel for a plot, and you are right. But the plot just serves as a device to let the cast dig into some of the most amusing and endearing killers to hit the screen. John Malkovich and Helen Mirren return to their roles as fello special Ops retirees forced back into the business. Catherine Zeta-Jones, Byung-hun Lee, and Anthony Hopkins join the cast. If you liked the first RED movie, you’ll enjoy RED 2 also.

It’s hard to understate how much fun this movie is. Every scene, whether it be a gunfight, car chase, or lover’s quarrel in a car is visually compelling, a little silly, but not too silly.  All the characters, even the bad guys, are older folks who’ve been around the block a few times and they just don’t take anything too seriously anymore and they see right through everyone’s pretensions. They’ve seen it all and done it all before and that turns out to be their super-power.

Plus there’s the fact that they are unashamed to be the good guys. If there’s a theme in this thin movie, it’s that the good guys always win. And that’s pretty refreshing in an era of anti-heroes.

And finally, I have to repeat what I said in my review of the first RED. The trailer had me at Helen Mirren firing automatic weapons. And in RED 2 we get to see her adding her deadly grace in one fight scene after another, including the movie’s scariest car chase scene.

RED 2 Helen Mirren

Red 2 Helen Mirren Cammo




Review: The Heat Sat, 13 Jul 2013 22:48:45 +0000 The Heat - Melissa McCarthy

The Heat stars Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy but you might as well call this movie The Melissa McCarthy show. She fills every scene with her huge, in-your-face presence. It’s supposed to be a buddy cop movie but Sandra Bullock gets squeezed out of every scene.  But here’s the thing, the movie is pretty damn funny. Melissa McCarthy is obviously ad-libbing through big chunks of the movie and I was holding my sides from laughing so hard. She’s got the rude, crude, heart-of-gold good cop vibe going for her and by the end of the movie, after you catch your breath from all that laughing, you’ll realize that you’ve been inspired to go curse in the face of someone who really needs to be cursed at.



Review: Pacific Rim Sat, 13 Jul 2013 22:20:26 +0000 Pacific Rim

There are two categories of people that might want to go see Pacific Rim. This first are people, like me, who spent a large number of Saturday nights during their grade school years staying up way past midnight on Saturday nights so they could watch all the Japanese monster movies on late night TV. They were awful, rubber-suited man-type monsters, but in 2cd and 3rd grade that was enough to spark the imagination.  Pacific Rim is equally awful, but they manage to copy every single trope from those old movies. The panicked crowd scenes, the underground bomb shelter scenes, the gold-toothed business man, the half-crazy research scientists. The square jawed military leader. It’s all there.

The second type of audience for this movie are computer programmers who specialize on computer-generated film sequences. The utter detail of these battle scenes between the robot warriors and the monsters is amazing. It feels like you can see every shard glass falling from every toppled building in palettes of gazillions of colors and deep, high-fidelity sound. It’s almost computer graphics porn.

Everything else about the movie is utterly forgettable.

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B-I-N-G-O Wed, 05 Jun 2013 10:32:21 +0000 It was Bingo night on Ocracoke Island.


The weekly game is sponsored by the Ocracoke Volunteer Fire Department to help them raise funds for their new Fire Station.


Bingo works

$12 gets you a pad of Bingo cards. Each Card has six “blocks” of Bingo pads. For each of the 12 games you play all six blocks simultaneously.


When you pay for your cards you can pick up pencils and crayons to mark your blocks. But the real hard core Bingo players use special bottles of ink called “dabbers.” To mark their blocks. Being a sucker for technology, I had to have one. They are the perfect size to fill a square without blocking out the number.


They run through a fixed set of different games the require filling out different patterns on your card, plus a few special high pot games that cost extra.



For people who like to review what’s been called, there’s a huge scoreboard like thing that shows what numbers have been called.



Like airplane flights they are very strict about phones being off during play, presumably in order to not break the concentration of the little old ladies that were playing three or four cards simultaneously.
Sadly this is the closest I came to winning:

You also get tickets for door prizes. There is popcorn. Everyone is friendly. Not a bad way to spend an evening at the beach!

John Scalzi at Quail Ridge Books Thu, 30 May 2013 13:46:57 +0000

John Scalzi reading at Quail Ridge Books

John Scalzi was the featured guest at a book reading hosted at Quail Ridge Books on May29, 2013.  He read from his recently released Human Division, the latest in his Old Man’s War series and from The Mallet Of Loving Correction, the second collection of material from his blog. He was introduced by Sandy Berman who tells the story of how she was introduced to John Scalzi’s books. The bookstore was packed with science fiction fans from the Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill area and more than 20 attendees drove from out of state to attend the book reading.

John Scalzi’s first reading was from a short story that comes at the end of The Human Division, in which an alien diplomat enjoys a bag of fresh churros while talking to some school kids.  The second reading was an open letter/essay responding (“correcting”) a CNN article from Joe Peacock complaining about cosplayers at Comicon, and it’s a perfect example of his “Mallet of Loving Correction.”

John Scalzi wrapped up the reading with a Q&A from the audience which was nicely spoiler free.  He signed books afterwards and Quail Ridge books reports that they sold all their copies of The Human Division.

About John Scalzi

John_ScalziJohn Scalzi has been a science fiction fan and writer who is probably best known for his Old Man’s War series of science fiction books. He also has a large body of non-fiction work which includes writing film criticism for The Fresno Bee and numerous other online columns for AOL and others. He is also widely known for his daily blog, called Whatever, in which, in his words, he “taunts the tauntable.”

John Scalzi has won numerous awards in the science fiction community, including the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. He’s won the Locus Award for Best First Novel and has been nominated for the Hugo award multiple times for Best Novel and has won the Hugo for Best Fan Writer.



Star Trek: Into Darkness Sat, 25 May 2013 20:16:05 +0000 Star Trek: Into Darkness

 Is he a criminal or an enemy combatant?

Review: Star Trek: Into Darkness

Make no mistake about it. Star Trek: Into Darkness is a great summer action movie. There’s plenty of dazzling chase scenes, on the ground, in the air, in space. There are more than a few not-sure-how-they’re-going-to-get-out-of-it moments, and a cast of characters that you can like and root for. I walked out of it wanting to be part of the action. That’s what a summer action movie should be.

Like all Star Trek stories, there are references to current events and current moral issues. In this movie they explore the tension between the expediency of killing off a Bad Guy with military technology vs. due process of law. We see in the movie several instances where the temptation to give into expediency creeps up on characters in subtle ways. Not all of them are able to resist the temptation. And some times they simply try to shove our problems under the rug, or into the deep-freeze in the case of the movie.

Benedict Cumberbatch puts a new spin on a familiar Bad Guy. He is well motivated, scary, and dangerous. He keeps the movie moving, so to speak.

For serious Star Trek fans, the move creaked under the burden of trying to move the Star Trek cannon too far too fast.  The most egregious example of this was the relationship between Spock and Kirk. They are still in the trying to tolerate each other stage at the beginning of the movie and we’re expected to believe they’re lifelong friends by the end of the movie. I think I speak for lots of Star Trek fans when I say this made us feel manipulated, especially since there were clear attempts to reference some of the past Star Trek movies.

We were also expected to believe that Kirk is the only one in Star Fleet that has half a brain when it comes to military matters. And in fact the movie raises the issue about just what exactly _is_ Star Fleet? Is it a military organization or an scientific one or an exploratory one? This movie more than most raises the question and make Star Fleet appear weak and muddled.

But when you look at the movie on the small scale, there are plenty of good moments. The relationship between Uhura and Spock moves along nicely, with a few bumps in the road. Spock himself emerges as one of the most interesting characters, at one point, while being “called on the carpet” by Pike for violating the Prime Directive, Spock delivers the movie’s one truly funny moment:

Christopher Pike: Are you giving me attitude, Spock?
Spock: I am expressing multiple attitudes simultaneously sir, to which one are you referring?

What makes it so funny is you don’t actually know if Spock is being impertinent or not.

Kirk is still somewhat a cardboard character. But he’s got an infectious leadership about him that makes the crew fiercely loyal. That’s all we really need to know about Kirk. Well, that and the fact that he gets all the girls.

The other minor characters are don’t get much development. But they are consistent with the first reboot movie and they are lots of fun. There are hints that Sulu is destined for a Captains chair someday. One can hope, but are we just being manipulated again?

Oh and one last thing. All franchise movies have to tease you about what’s coming next. This movie is no exception and unless I miss my mark, we’re going to get to see an all out war with the Klingons. Hooray! I’m tired of the Star Trek: Next Generation portrayal of the Klingons as misunderstood warriors that we can deal with. They are much more interesting as Bad Guys.


Iron Man 3 – The Clothes Don’t Make The Man Mon, 20 May 2013 01:38:54 +0000 Iron Man 3 - Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark

 Tony Stark – The clothes don’t make the man.

Iron Man 3 – The Clothes Don’t Make The Man

Iron Man 3 cranks flying suit to up to 11. There are more flying  Iron Men suits than you can shake a stick at. Some have good guys in them. Some have bad guys in them. Some have innocent victims in them. Some have no one in them, being remotely directed and controlled by Jarvis, whose artificial intelligence stretches credibility even in the Marvel Universe. And as if that isn’t enough, now the individual pieces of the suit are self propelled and can fly hundreds of miles to find Tony Stark and save him. And all these flying Iron Man suits are fighting and blowing stuff up real good.  There’s so much flying around and blowing stuff up it almost hides the fact the thing that actually makes the Iron Man Movies fun is not the flying suits of armor, but Tony Stark.

Tony Stark is a superhero because he is a tinkerer. He’s a geek guy that figures stuff up and makes stuff. He is the epitome of the kid who won’t stop asking why and who won’t stop questioning authority. He’s got attitude. He won’t back down from a fight. He’s a super-hero because he is his own man on his own terms. That glowing chest thing and the iron suit are just by-products. The best scene of in the whole movie is when he has to fight his way into the bad guys lair sans iron suit, relying only on his wits and a trip to the hardware store.  That was more inspiring than 100 iron man suits.

And in the end, even Tony himself gets to the point where he’s Had Enough of the toys because they start getting in the way of love.  And that’s the turning point of the movie, well after the smoke clears from all the explosions.