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Contact Carl Sagan
Contact Contact follows Eleanor Arroway on her quest to find evidence of extraterrestrial life in the galaxy. Arroway, the main protagonist, is a woman. I have probably read a little over 100 science fiction novels in my life - a number that makes me a fan, but not an expert - and I would guess that 10% of those novels were lead by a female protagonist. There are more that have developed female characters, but few see the story from a woman’s perspective. Not only is the story told from one woman’s perspective, it is told from a woman’s perspective in the general sense. Arroway excels in her field of astronomy but must fight to be heard and acknowledged in the male-dominated profession. Its focus on the female protagonist and the female perspective makes it, given the numbers of women in science, a very important novel.

Contact very much loves the “science” in “science fiction” - specifically astronomy. It dives deep into the known and theoretical phenomenon of the field. After Arroway’s radio observatory detects an extraterrestrial message the world works to decode it with mathematics. When the message is decoded it is revealed to contain schematics for building a machine of unknown function. A massive engineering project is undertaken by the nations of the world to build the alien machine with heretofore unknown technology.

What made Contact the most quintessential “science” science fiction book for me was the lack of a big payoff. Not only was there a lack any great action scene, there wasn’t even a satisfying revelation at the end. Sure, the scientists and select government officials know what was found when Ellie and the other four travelers went down that wormhole, but society only thinks of it as a failure. Science doesn’t have dramatic payoffs. It has years and years of incremental gains and disappointing results until slowly the solution coalesces.

In addition to a strong statement in favor of feminism, the story is built around Sagan’s political opposition to nuclear weapons. “The Message”, and “The Machine” that follows, are global phenomena. Many nations play a role in acquiring and decoding the message. The Americans need the Soviets and vice versa. Given the rotation of the Earth there is no way one nation can acquire the entire message without receivers all over the Earth. The multi-layered complexity of the message means there is no way one nation has the expertise to crack it alone. A nationless idealism pervades in the post-Message world. Cold War politics are a hindrance to achieving a grand goal. Transnationalism surpasses nationalism and xenophobia. Humans have been so selfish and nasty and warlike before, but this will bring in a new age of cooperation.

The aliens, the five interstellar travelers learn, won’t let us partake in interstellar travel or the great engineering projects of the galaxy if we don’t shape up. It’s a similar theme I saw in The Day the Earth Stood Still, where the warlike humans are put on notice that their violence will not be tolerated. We are children in a universe of accomplished adults. I admit to finding this theme somewhat distasteful. If Earth were ever contacted by extraterrestrial intelligence it would make sense that the aliens were much more advance than humans. It’s not that I dislike the fact that they are more advanced but rather what that is used for. The paternalistic aliens are a deus ex machina for whatever societal ill the author is criticizing.

Sagan sets up The Message as a battleground between science and religion. One side thinks it is a message from intelligent life, the other from God. Arroway spars with two religious leaders, Billy Jo Rankin and Palmer Joss, over the meaning of The Message. While she easily vanquishes the more fanatical Rankin, she befriends Joss. It is here that this battle between science and religion goes from confrontational to compromising. Joss is able to see past strict adherence of scripture while Arroway’s experience on The Machine opens to her the possibility of a creator, deep within the galaxy.

This is not Arroway becoming religious though. She most certainly rejects belief without evidence. But that does not mean she is devoid of spiritualism. She views the universe through a different lens than Joss, but they end up having the same feelings about it. As logical as the novel was, it’s also a novel for dreamers. Ellie believes, to the detriment of her career, that intelligent life is out there. For all the hard science in her brain she still loves to gaze at the stars.
 
434 pages
0-671-00410-7
This product was released around 1985 by Mass Market Paperback
I consumed this around January 2015
More: Contact
Posted by: Jeff Egnaczyk at: 1/26/2015 9:54:39 PM
 
333
Ted Seth MacFarlane
Ted Mark Wahlberg is John Bennett, a man not interested in the responsibilities of adulthood. John was an unpopular kid. Lacking friends, he wished his prized teddy bear could be his real friend. Lo and behold, the wish came true. After his parents came to terms with a talking toy, the boy and the bear become best friends. Ted acts as John’s protector, shielding him from loneliness and thunderstorms.

Ted is a media sensation for a while but, like any sensation, the attention dies out and he returns to the uneventfulness of life. With the exception of a few deranged fans (Giovanni Ribisi), the talking bear is able to live a normal life. Through it all the friendship pact remains. In fact, the relationship is remarkably similar 30 years later. Instead of being heartwarming and cute though, their story is wild and sophomoric.

After all these years Ted is still sheltering John from real life. John is content with smoking marijuana and drinking beer instead of working hard to advance his career and his relationship with Lori, his girlfriend of 4 years (Mila Kunis). John and Ted are best friends - life long friends - and the movie makes it clear that this is a good thing to have in life. The problem is that the comfort their relationship provides has held them back from progressing as people.

Ted is one of the funnier movies I’ve seen in a while. Ted, the sarcastic talking teddy bear voiced by Seth MacFarlane, pulls much of the weight. His voice sounds a lot like MacFarlane’s Peter Griffin from Family Guy, a point that is exploited later in the film. Ted is crass and condescending, which obviously works because teddy bears are usually cuddly and cute.

The movie is at its worst when it tries to be too crazy. A fight scene involving Mark Wahlberg and a teddy bear was probably too hard to pass up, but the violence was predictable and it dragged on. There is also an extended party scene with Sam J. Jones, the actor who played Flash Gordon. Jones is a childhood idol of John and Ted who turns out to be an epic partier. Once you get past the shock value of a teddy bear doing cocaine and singing karaoke, I didn’t think the scene was very funny. Generally I thought the movie was best when Ted was being sarcastic and John was being lovably dumb.

Jessica Barth is hilarious as Ted’s trashy girlfriend Tami-Lynn. The movie takes a lot of shots at some of the more stereotypical aspects of the Boston area. Wahlberg being a native of the area, the jokes come off more as in-jokes rather than malicious jabs at the town. John’s co-workers, played by Patrick Warburton and Matt Walsh, act as some more comic relief. Joel McHale works well as Lori’s sleezy boss. Mila Kunis isn’t a main factor in the comedy, but she plays along and doesn’t get relegated to being a wet blanket.

A major problem with the film are racist and homophobic jokes John and Ted tell. I get that the jokes were not meant to be hurtful. They were meant to show the two as immature. At one point though there is a scene with a horribly racist Asian stereotype that makes it clear that the use of the jokes goes beyond making a point about John and Ted. It’s lazy and thoughtless humor.

Ultimately, what elevates (and saves) Ted is its sincerity. It’s ridiculous in many ways, but at their core the characters are good people.
 
106 minutes
This product was released around June 2012
I consumed this around August 2014
More: Ted
Posted by: Jeff Egnaczyk at: 10/2/2014 8:49:49 PM
 
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White House Down Roland Emmerich
White House Down If you’re watching White House Down and you feel like you’ve seen the movie before it’s because you have - it was called Die Hard. More accurately, White House Down follows the Die Hard playbook. Terrorists take over a building, easily overwhelming any security force present. They take hostages, but miss one man who was present only by chance. It doesn’t seem like a big deal except that this guy is weapons trained - law enforcement, a soldier. He immediately becomes a thorn in their sides, as he tries to save the hostages, one of whom is a family member. The response from law enforcement is inept. There’s even a hacker, a rooftop battle interrupted by a helicopter, and a twist with respect to the terrorists’ goals.

White House Down is a good bad movie. It’s a 2.5 out of 5 on a global scale, but rated on a scale of bad action movies it’s actually a little higher. The acting and character development is bad. Jamie Foxx is exceptionally poor compared to his past work. I don’t think he’s presidential material. His portrayal comes off as somewhere between a scared academic and his character in Any Given Sunday. I actually think I would have liked it better if they had just gone the full Willie Beamen. Richard Jenkins is miscast as the powerful Speaker of the House. Nicolas Wright plays Donnie the tour guide, an ill-conceived attempt at comic relief. Maggie Gyllenhaal is decent as a Secret Service agent. James Woods plays her traitorous boss, Walker. There’s something about Woods in his old age that just doesn’t work for me. It’s almost like I’m still stuck on him as a younger actor. I can never speak ill of Lance Reddick. Jimmi Simpson reprises his role as a hacker (House of Cards) and creepy dude (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia). Kevin Rankin, of the Nazi gang in Breaking Bad fame, reprises his role as a right-wing nutjob. Stenz (Jason Clarke), the main terrorist, annoyingly oscillates between a skilled professional and a hot head. The key to the movie, in terms of casting, is Channing Tatum as Cale. He’s bad, but I found myself still rooting for him. He is what he is. This movie is probably his ceiling and you can’t hold that against him. I think his performance is a microcosm of my feelings on the movie as a whole: bad, but without any grand delusions about itself.

Acting isn’t what you judge a bad summer action film on though - it’s action. Here White House Down is a mixed bag. The hand to hand combat and gun fight scenes aren’t bad. Tatum is believable as an action star. One of the things I didn’t like about those scenes - especially so in the climactic battle between Stenz and Cale - is the use of “bitch”. I don’t dislike it in the sense that the word is sexist, rather it seems out of place. This was what I was saying earlier about Stenz’s oscillating character. He’s the professional, politically-minded terrorist so I would have liked to see him written that way in the fight scenes. “Bitch” just seems too low brow. Cale suffers from the use of “bitch” too. He’s a dad trying to work his way up the ladder to impress his daughter and serve his country. In fact, his lack of cynicism compared to John McClane is a big differentiating factor between White House Down and Die Hard. Yet both of them succumb to this jockish language when fighting.

The CGI is low quality. Tanks, car chases, explosions, jets, Air Force One, and Delta Force on helicopters all make appearances. The helicopter scenes especially expose the CGI as below industry standard. The scenes themselves aren’t ridiculous. There is a car chase on the front lawn of the White House that wasn’t all that poorly executed except for the fact that the army encamped outside does nothing to stop it. It might be a bit much that Norad is hacked and shoots down the Vice President’s plane. Maybe the worst part in terms of CGI and most ill-conceived in terms of plot is the general destruction of the White House. Visually it doesn’t look good and it seems even more implausible than other pieces of the plot that the American government would let everything that happens inside happen.

Speaking of implausible, the aspect of the movie that ultimately does the most damage to its credibility is the initial takeover of the White House. Walker, the head of the Secret Service, is out for revenge. His son was killed in a military raid on Iran and he blames the President (or so we’re lead to believe). He helps a group of terrorists made up of soldiers burned by the United States gain access to the White House. When they make their move they easily dispatch every guard, Marine, and Secret Service agent in the building. In suits, in uniform, in SWAT gear, on the roof, at desks, in rooms, in the yard, in the halls - they all go down without hitting one terrorist, falling like grass beneath a mower blade. When the Army moves on the White House they are repelled. When Delta Force comes not one of the most highly trained soldiers in the world can infiltrate the building.

However, when Cale, who works on a congressional security detail, makes a move to break away they miss him. He was there for an interview and a tour so he doesn’t even have a handgun. In each successive encounter he and the President are able to kill the highly trained mercenaries that cut down the entire security force of the most secure building in the world. It was as implausible as it was obvious that it was going to happen. Would it have been so bad for some of the terrorists to get cut down by a Secret Service agent? Could some of the response teams get blocked off?

For an action film, White House Down is surprisingly anti-right wing in its politics. Speaker Raphelson ends up being the other mastermind of the plot against the White House. His motivation is to stop a peace deal that would have hurt his backers in the defense industry. There’s even Roger Skinner (Andrew Simms), a bloviating talking head and obvious reference to Rush Limbaugh who ends up blubbering in tears when he’s taken hostage. I wouldn’t read too much into it, I just didn’t expect a pro-peace, anti-war message.
 
131 minutes
This product was released around June 2013
I consumed this around September 2014
More: White House Down
Posted by: Jeff Egnaczyk at: 9/9/2014 11:40:57 PM
 
22
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy Tomas Alfredson
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy A mole has infiltrated British intelligence. George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is brought back from retirement to secretly flush it out. He recruits Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) from the agency to extract information. Smiley was forced into retirement after an agent (Mark Strong as Jim Prideaux) is killed on a mission in Hungary that Smiley’s boss (John Hurt as “Control”) authorized. The new leadership (Toby Jones as Percy Alleline,Colin Firth as Bill Haydon, Ciarán Hinds asa Roy Bland, David Dencik as Toby Esterhase) is enamoured with operation “Witchcraft”, which they believe is acquiring solid intelligence from Russia, but which “Control” always believed was bogus. I was reminded of my reading of Legacy of Ashes, a book about the failures of America’s Central Intelligence Agency. It contains many stories of Russians duping Americans, with disastrous consequences. Throughout Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy it is clear that British intelligence is being beaten by its Russian enemies because of a lack of skill, experience, ruthlessness, and commitment.

A film adaptation of a spy novel, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is thick with intrigue. Nothing builds the suspense better than Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Smiley. From the beginning Smiley is something different from his counterparts. While Control is full of vitriol - even when he’s enjoying himself at a part - Smiley is quiet and contemplative. When the time comes to investigate, his manner is almost excruciating in its deliberateness. His questioning of suspects and analyzing of clues both happen slowly and with much care. When revelations occur Smiley handles them with an impressive nonchalance. He is a master. His use of baby-faced Peter accents this. Peter is young and less experienced. Smiley brings him along slowly such that Peter feels like a surrogate for the audience, itself full of intelligence novices.
 
This product was released around January 2012
I consumed this around August 2014
More: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Posted by: Jeff Egnaczyk at: 9/1/2014 9:24:39 PM
 
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Nightfall Isaac Asimov
Nightfall Nightfall is a story that is very much the essence of science fiction. What would happen if something was different? Take away a part of our world that we take for granted and see how things would develop. Then give it back.

The planet Lagash has six suns. Its inhabitants have never experienced the darkness of night. What would total darkness feel like if you had never experienced it? How would you combat it if it never occurred to you that it was a problem?

Isaac Asimov was one of the first writers I was introduced to in the science fiction genre. Like Arthur C. Clarke he was a giant whose stories embraced science. Nightfall is thick with it. The law of universal gravitation and heliocentric orbit are part of the plot. More importantly, the process through which these theories were developed is part of the plot. For it is not facts that make up science, rather, it is the scientific method that investigates observations and develops them into facts - and then develops those facts into better facts.

The story’s protagonists - its heroes - are archaeologists, astronomers, and psychologists. The events leading up to Nightfall entail the uncovering of a previously unknown danger. Archaeologists on Lagash discover a periodic destruction of civilization on the planet. Astronomers find anomalies in the orbits of the suns that coincide with that destruction. A psychologist learns something about the human mind.

All of this leads to a startling conclusion of three parts.
  • Every 2,000 years the suns align such that the sky goes dark.
  • People are unaccustomed to the dark, and react with extreme fear when faced with prolonged exposure.
  • People will do whatever they can to expunge the darkness, including lighting fire to everything in sight.
The villains are those who seek to belittle inquiry. A media outlet ignorantly wages a public campaign against the scientists. A religious cult has reached the same conclusion as the scientists but ascribes it to divine intervention, not natural laws. Asimov is clever in his refutation of religious dogma. His scientists actually went to the cult for help when they could not square their data. Accounts from sacred books gave them the knowledge they needed to accurately predict the coming events. While they confirm the dire predictions of the religion they actually refute the mysticism behind it. It is vintage Asimov.

This is a review of the short story version of Nightfall, a story I count as one of the better short stories I’ve ever heard.
 
91 minutes
none
This product was released around September 1941 by Escape Pod
I consumed this around August 2014
More: Nightfall
Posted by: Jeff Egnaczyk at: 8/28/2014 9:25:04 PM
 
4444
Man of Steel Zack Snyder
Man of Steel Man of Steel is a superhero movie, no doubt. It’s Superman flying through the sky at faster than the speed of sound, crashing into buildings, and fighting his enemies in epic fashion. The fight scenes are almost exclusively computer generated. This film doesn't mess around. It’s Superman so there’s nothing realistic about what he can do. The combatants are borderline cartoons with human heads spliced onto them. I can't disparage any of the computer graphics, but I found myself bored with the fight scenes. I think maybe I just don't enjoy extended fight scenes anymore. The ebb and flow is predictable and the violence is what you expect, and the decisive moment is never all that surprising.

A reboot of the franchise, Man of Steel is also an origins story. The planet Krypton is dying, its leaders having mined its core for energy. In the midst of an attempted coup by General Zod (Michael Shannon), Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and Lara Lor-Van (Ayelet Zurer) send their infant son to the distant planet of Earth. Their hope is that Kal, infused with the genetic history of their people, will keep the Kryptonian race alive amongst the similar looking human species. Eventually Zod and his exiled team come looking for Kal, who is living on Earth as Clark Kent (Henry Cavill).

The opening scenes on Krypton are immediately very intense. The computer generated scenery is grand and the costumes and set design ornate, reminiscent of classic space science fiction. The plot involves the death of a world, and the desperate measures people are willing to go to in order to save it. Dramatic music pervades every early scene.

On Earth Clark Kent flies under the radar. As he grows he learns of his powers and has trouble harnessing them. His parents (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane) help him control them but also demand he hide his gifts, knowing the world is not ready for them. Despite that, a young Kent cannot help but use his strength for good. His father urges him to wait for the right time to reveal himself to the world, even stopping Kent from saving his own life.

I generally liked the film. It had a serious tone but could also be humorous and heart warming. Clark’s concern for his family and other’s safety is really what the idea of Superman is all about, and I think Man of Steel does a good job portraying that. I’m not a superhero expert but it does seem that deep sense of responsibility is what makes Superman more than a guy in a cape that can fly.

Michael Shannon is great as Zod. Like his role in Boardwalk Empire he plays a great villain. There is no humor in his face in either role. I can foresee him having a long career playing the bad guy.

These rebel Kryptonians (including his second in command Faora, played by Antje Traue) differed from my memory of Zod from the Christopher Reeve series. Whereas Zod and his acolytes from those films come off as cold and arrogant, these Kryptonians are passionate about their cause. The original villains, in their tight black suits, looked like they were straight out of a professional wrestling character brainstorming session meant to find the next hated bad guy. In this round Zod and his are in futuristic military uniforms and operate more like a military unit. The fire in Zod’s eyes comes from the death of his home planet and the coup he attempted, while fueled by ego in some ways, was born of a legitimate grievance against the failures of the ruling class. You almost sympathize with him.

I liked Christopher Meloni in a non-sex crimes investigator role as Colonel Nathan Hardy. Harry Lennix and Richard Schiff, are also not bad as members of the American military leadership. I thought the Daily Planet staff could have been better. Amy Adams was fine as Lois Lane. I don’t know if Laurence Fishburne fit well as her boss. Michael Kelly (House of Cards) also appears.
 
143 minutes
This product was released around June 2013
I consumed this around August 2014
More: Man of Steel
Posted by: Jeff Egnaczyk at: 8/3/2014 11:23:32 PM
 
333
The Campaign Jay Roach
The Campaign There is one scene in The Campaign where Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis) warns his wife (Sarah Baker) and two boys (Kya Haywood, Grant Goodman) that he’ll be running for office and to expect media scrutiny. He asks the boys to tell him any secrets they may have, promising them he won’t be mad. The first confession is about using the lord’s name in vain, to which Marty fights to hold back whatever anger a man as upbeat as him could ever muster. From there though the boys and his wife let loose a flurry of disturbing revelations. This is the funniest part of the movie and the only scene that I can remember sustaining for longer than a one-liner. The only other memorable part was Mrs Yao (Karen Maruyama), an Asian housekeeper, being forced to speak in an old black southern accent to please her boss, Huggins’ father (Brian Cox). When I think about it though, it would have been funnier if she just had that accent.

The Campaign suffers from being too goofy and not cynical enough. I expected a series of missteps by US Representative Cam Brady (Will Ferrell), a veteran politician who is in actuality an empty suit, and from Huggins, a well-intentioned novice entering a field of ill-intentioned experts. Right off the bat though, as Brady’s campaign manager (Jason Sudeikis) tries to explain to him why his raunchy call to Christian family (headed by Jack McBrayer) is bad for his campaign, everything done by either of the candidates is enough to end their career. There’s no subtlety. In response to Huggins’ advances in the polls, Brady contracts a nasty campaign ad. This would have been a great opportunity to show an exaggerated look at the wrongs of modern American campaigns. But the ad doesn’t contain a sliver of credibility because by the time we get to it something somewhat subtle wouldn’t fit into the tone of the movie. By the time election day arrives the campaign has seen candidates brawling, a sex tape made into an ad, a DUI police chase, that raunchy phone call, a baby punched in the face, a dog punched in the face, and one candidate shooting the other.

There are some scenes that prove the filmmakers could have made a more clever statement about politics, which, whether you care about that or not, would have at least lead to a better, funnier movie. The civility brunch and the pre-debate handshake are times when the two candidates feign friendship but are trash talking each other under their breath. There are dodged questions in the debate replaced with bad talking points. Brady’s first scene shows him repeating boring messaging to groups as diverse as the troops and amusement ride operators. Ad hominem attacks abound. There are dumb, angry voters who focus too much on the personal image of the candidates.

Unfortunately Will Ferrell’s character goes straight to ten, as it seems he does in most every movie where he leads. It’s too bad, because Ferrell and Galifianakis are really perfect for their parts. Ferrell, even if he just ripped off his own Ron Burgundy from Anchor Man, plays a perfect pompous jerk. What could be better for a four term congressional representative? Galifianakis looks the part of a first timer, timid in the face of the bright lights.

In the end The Campaign does make a ham-fisted attempt at a point about money in politics. Brady and Huggins both rebel against a pair of political kingmakers subtly named the Motch brothers (John Lithgow, Dan Aykroyd). But the movie never attempted a serious statement about politics, opting for over the top antics instead, so it doesn’t work.
 
85 minutes
This product was released around August 2012
I consumed this around July 2014
More: The Campaign
Posted by: Jeff Egnaczyk at: 7/15/2014 9:00:24 PM
 
22
A Dance with Dragons George R.R. Martin
A Dance with Dragons A Dance with Dragons runs chronologically parallel to A Feast for Crows, eventually meeting up with the characters of the series’ fourth book and continuing on for several hundred more pages. Some major storylines and popular characters who were omitted in the fourth book return. Most importantly Jon Snow at the Wall, Bran Stark beyond the Wall, Daenerys Targaryen and Barristan Selmy ruling in Meereen, and Tyrion Lannister on the run from King’s Landing. Theon Greyjoy (omitted from the A Storm of Swords as well) in Bolton captivity and Davos Seaworth in White Harbor return after being assumed dead. We find new characters Quentyn Martell and Griff both on separate quests to Meereen. Finally Arya Stark, Asha Greyjoy, Cersei and Jaime Lannister, and Victarion Greyjoy, whose storylines were running parallel in A Feast for Crows, signaling a syncing of the chronology.

Maybe it’s just me, but I think we the readers were always meant to be partial to the North. The Starks, if not always the most prepared to play the game of thrones, were always the most moral actors. I was pleased to see some of the oft mentioned Northmen play a larger role in the storytelling. The beheading of Davos Seaworth in part four never made sense given the losses White Harbor suffered at the Red Wedding so the few chapters with Wyman Manderly clear a lot up. He and Robett Glover of Deepwood Motte pledge their loyalty to Stannis and scheme their revenge on the Boltons. Manderly especially is portrayed as quite cunning in contrast to the his outward appearance as “Lord Too-Fat-to-Sit-a-Horse”. The anger he secretly harbors towards those who murdered his family members reminds me of Doran Martell’s simmering rage from the previous book. The mountain clans - the Flints of the mountains, the Wulls, Norreys, and Liddles - show their loyalty to House Stark by allying with Stannis as well. They prove the better winter marchers on Stannis’ ill-advise trek to Winterfell. The Umbers, whom I always wanted to see more of because I enjoyed the Greatjon, split their allegiance with the Boltons and Stannis, but state that they will refuse to fight each other, leaving open the possibility that they are actually on the same side. The struggle for power at Karhold after the execution of Rickard Karstark comes into play as well. Alysane Mormont pledges Bear Island’s support to Stannis as well. Even what we learn about the now hated Boltons, a ruthlessly cruel house, is welcome.

The different houses and alliances of the Known World are one of the more nerdy aspects of the series that I enjoy. A Dance with Dragons is great in this respect because it dives deep into the politics at and beyond the Wall, across the Narrow Sea, and in Slaver’s Bay.

At the Wall Jon Snow makes the bold decision to integrate the recently defeated Wildling army south of the Wall and even into the Night’s Watch. Tormund Giantsbane works with Snow to bring thousands of Wildlings from different clans south of the Wall. Mance Rayder is used by Melisandre. Signor, the new Magnar of Thenn, is married to Alys Karstark to sure up the Thenn’s alliance to the Watch. Others like the Weeper, Rattleshirt, Varamyr Sixskins, Wun Wun the giant, and dozens of other characters are mentioned, adding to the richness and detail of Martin’s Known World. On top of that characters like Tormund, Val, and Mance are given important parts, adding some depth and likability to the mostly villainized Wildings. Throughout the series Martin is at his best when a previously hated character is given depth.

As with each previous installment we learn more about the history and politics of the Known World. Across the Narrow Sea on Tyrion’s journey we more of Pentos, Volantis, and other Free Cities. Beyond the Wall we are introduced to the oft mentioned Children of the Forrest. In Barristan Selmy’s much deserved point of view chapters we learn more about the events preceding Robert’s Rebellion.

Another interesting plot device is the use of sellswords. Talked about often in the earlier books, which mostly took place in Westeros, they now serve as important actors in the warring in Slaver’s Bay.

It looks as if the much respected Golden Company is on its way to Meereen. However, on the advice of Tyrion Lannister it changes course to Westeros. Here “Griff” - actually the long-thought dead Jon Connington - begins a quest to win the Iron Throne for “Young Griff” - actually Aegon the long-thought dead son of Rhaegar Targaryen. This is probably the biggest of all of the surprises in this fifth book.

In Meereen different companies are allied against each other in the siege of the city. On the queen’s side are Barristan Selmy with his knights-in-training; freedmen companies such as Symon Stripeback’s Free Brothers, Marselen’s Mother's Men, and the Stalwart Shields; Skahaz mo Kandaq’s Brazen Beasts serving as the city watch; the remains of Dany’s Dothraki warriors; the Stormcrow mercenaries lead by Dany’s love interest, Daario Naharis; the Unsullied lead by Grey Worm; and, of course, 3 dragons.

Against the queen are the masters of Yunkai and their slave army; the Long Lances sellsword company; a Quarthian fleet; the Tattered Prince’s Windblown company; Bloodbeard’s Company of the Cat; Ben Plumm’s Second Sons; and slingers from the city of Tolos. Plumm and the Second Sons, having once betrayed their employer to Daenerys, betray her to Yunkai. Quarthian Xaro Xhoan Daxos was once Daenerys’ suitor but is angered at her insistence at stopping the slave trade. The Tattered Prince decides to put himself in a position to easily switch sides if the war turns. Against both sides is a mounting plague.

It’s dizzying to try to keep track of the names, groups, and alliances. Martin could have been forgiven for putting less effort into the world outside of Westeros. But he refuses to skimp on characters, politics, and geography at any point. It’s probably the reason his planned trilogy will stretch to at least seven books.

-power hard to hold By the end of the novel a main theme we witness is that of characters in over their heads. Quentyn Martell has come too late and with too little support and charisma to win the hand of Daenerys Targaryen. His response is to try to mount one of the queen’s two remaining captive dragons.

Roose Bolton, having just ascended to Warden of the North, realizes he has enemies all around him. Almost every house in the North lost men at the Red Wedding and none of them believe the lies the Boltons and Freys are using to justify the massacre.

Despite Stannis’ victory at the Wall and in Deepwood Motte, his momentum is slowed by a blizzard on the way to Winterfell.

The young command of Jon Snow is fraught with peril as he tries to integrate the long-time enemies of the Watch into its ranks. Many of his brothers make their reservations known while others openly defy his leadership. Stannis’ presence at the Wall tests the Watch’s neutrality. Snow haggles with the king at every turn, careful to tow the line between fighting for the Watch and defying a king. Lady Melisandre seems threatening but more often than not she tries to warn Snow of danger. All the while, as men bicker, an invasion from the Others looms.

As the story returns to Asha Greyjoy she is barely holding on to the iron born foothold in the North.

Maybe even Daenerys Targaryen has overestimated her ability to rule. The Sons of Harpy insurgency is cutting down her forces within her city walls. Her idealistic stand against slavery runs up against cold economics and the status quo. Trade, not human rights, are what the merchants of Quarth, Tolos, Volantis, and Yunkai value. She relies heavily on sellswords, traditionally unloyal allies.

The story reminds us that taking power is not the same as keeping it. Gaining power eliminates some problems but creates others. In fact the amount of peril you’re in and the number of enemies you have seems directly proportional to the amount of power you have. Jon Snow was always in danger as a soldier of the Night’s Watch - from Wildlings, and Others to Watch leaders like Aliser Thorne. In general though he was unimportant and forgettable. When he became Lord Commander his decisions can anger the entire Watch and the self-styled King of Westeros. Asha’s power play on the Pyke in the previous book put her in her brother Euron’s crosshairs when she could have easily become his loyal soldier. Now she languishes in her newly acquired forrest castle, surrounded by enemies with no support. The treachery of the Boltons bought them the North, but didn’t buy them lasting allies to hold it. Stannis is able to quickly win parts of the North, but in order to maintain his standing he must build on it quickly, leaving him on a disastrous winter march. And Dany, of course, is seemingly on the brink of disaster after having just conquered three great cities. Martin never gives the reader a minute to relax. There is no such thing as victory in the long run.
 
1040 pages
978-0553582017
This product was released around 2011 by Bantam
I consumed this around June 2014
More: A Dance with Dragons
Posted by: Jeff Egnaczyk at: 7/14/2014 8:55:53 PM
 
4444
We're the Millers Rawson Marshall Thurber
We're the Millers The most crucial aspect needed for a road comedy to succeed is chemistry between the travelers. In the case of We’re the Millers, the RV contains four characters who need to mesh - the ring leader, David, a drug dealer (Jason Sudeikis); Rose the stripper evicted from her apartment (Jennifer Aniston); Kenny the dorky kid who idolizes David (Will Poulter); and Casey the runaway (Emma Roberts). The two biggest named stars - Aniston and Sudeikis - have the most responsibility to make sure this happens. They hate each and then they fall in love is the cliche and We’re the Millers doesn’t do much to dissuade the audience that that is where the movie is going. To begin with they hate each other, Rose only agreeing to go along with David because her situation, like his, is desperate. They bicker. Things go bad. Slowly their relationship thaws. David tells the story of how they met to fellow campers - Edie (Kathryn Hahn), Don (Nick Offerman), and Melissa (Molly C. Quinn). Then a twinkle of understanding and compassion for each other’s situation. But by the time they get to an aborted kiss you can tell they’re just not clicking. By the end of the movie I was praying the filmmakers would have the nerve to simply not go there, given how poorly the two coalesced. It’s not like anyone was expecting too much from this film, so it’s not the worst thing to stick to a formula. But the formula for this cliche requires chemistry and it just wasn’t there.

Sudeikis and Aniston are fun actors in the right roles. One of those roles is not lead in a summer comedy. Sudeikis is funny as a low-key drug dealer, clever and sarcastic. That’s not where We’re the Millers is trying to make its money though. When the “family” takes to the road the filmmakers attempt to escalate the comedy beyond snappy dialog and into more crazy situations. In general this doesn’t lead to a better movie in the first place so this is not Sudeikis’ fault. Faced with this situation as the lead, Sudeikis seems to strain to reach the more outlandish tenor of the movie.

Aniston too is funny in the right spot. Early on she is good as the elder sensible dancer at the strip club. Even as David’s neighbor Rose has some stingingly good put downs. When on the road though she seems stiff. In fact her best contributions are when she’s pretending to be a traditional mother in a nuclear family.

Roberts as the petulant daughter and Poulter as the dorky son contrast well but I don’t remember much from their interactions other than Casey teaching Kenny how to kiss, and then Rose joining in as the filmmakers play a funny trick on your sense of decency.

Finally, Ed Helms starts off as drug kingpin Brad Gurdlinger, but ultimately it’s another drug dealer - Tomer Sisley as Pablo Chacon, along with thug-character actor Matthew Willig - who ends up chasing them. Gurdlinger is funny because he’s a lively businessman with a killer whale in a huge aquarium in his office. He smiles when he’s acting like your friend and he smiles when he threatens to kill you if you don’t smuggle drugs across the border. With Chacon the filmmakers play it straight. He’s a bad guy. It’s a good plot twist, but unfortunately Chacon isn’t really that scary. They should have just stuck with Helms.
 
110 minutes
This product was released around August 2013
I consumed this around July 2014
More: We're the Millers
Posted by: Jeff Egnaczyk at: 7/6/2014 2:02:38 PM
 
22
Ender's Game Gavin Hood
Ender's Game Ender’s Game is one of the earliest science fictions novels I ever read. I loved it and always wanted to see it made into a movie, that is until I saw I, Robot made into a movie. My expectations were that Ender’s Game the film would butcher the novel, but I was pleasantly surprised.

I don’t remember the finer points of the novel’s plot but I thought the film did well a few big ones. The film gives some time to the Ender-Valentine-Peter relationship, but ignores the political activism of Valentine and Peter. Ender’s ruthlessness when threatened is a major part of the film though. When a fellow student, Stilson, attacks him Ender brutally beats him. This plays into the film’s climax where Ender destroys the entire enemy planet even at the expense of a large part of his fleet. What won Ender a place in battle school and eventually the position of fleet commander was that when confronted with a threat he fought to not only win the current battle, but all future battles.

For all his ruthlessness though, Ender is still a boy. He is ashamed by his attack on Stilson and wants to quit after he almost kills fellow battle school commander Bonzo Madrid. When he finds out his final battle simulation in which he destroys the entire Formic race was actually a real battle, he considers himself a monster. He understands what it takes to end a threat but can’t deal with the consequences of such actions.

The ethics of Ender’s training also looms large. At its worst the military command tricks Ender into committing a genocide. Even before that he - a 10 year old - is deliberately isolated from his fellow trainees as a way to build his leadership abilities. Worried about his psyche, Major Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis), a psychologist, secretly monitors him until Colonel Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford) shuts her down and relieves her of her position. Even the use of a childhood hero, war hero Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley), in his training is manipulative.

I thought the film had great special effects and really made the best out of the few action scenes from the novel. The book isn’t stuffed with action. The action comes from the battle school capture the flag game and the fleet simulations. To me these were always meant to be more intellectually intense than physical. I’d rather a film-adaptation stay true to the original story, but there usually has to be some action to make the film viable to a larger audience.

The militaristic atmosphere was intense as well. The training sequences combined with the overarching goal of needing to save the world really drew me into the story.
 
114 minutes
This product was released around November 2013
I consumed this around July 2014
More: Ender's Game
Posted by: Jeff Egnaczyk at: 7/2/2014 10:11:00 PM
 
333
Cloud Atlas Tom Tykwer
Cloud Atlas Having read the novel, I wasn’t sure how the film was going to handle six similarly themed chronologies. At nearly three hours the film certainly tries to give each sufficient air time. Already knowing where the plot was going - as well as having read more in-depth evaluations of the book - I didn’t feel lost. Despite my previous knowledge of the story though the swapping between plots still felt dizzying. To the film’s credit the cinematography, sets, effects, and costume for each story were great. Furthermore, each scene was interesting while it was going on. They didn’t cheat any of the story lines. I’m just not sure if the way the stories were stitched together made the film as a whole good. Ultimately what did in the film for me was that I already knew the film’s deeper meaning and therefore trying to link up the different plots wasn’t challenging. Add to that that I watched it in parts over the course of the week, usually late at night, and I don’t think I gave it a fair chance.

I probably liked the 1973 San Francisco story the best, with Halle Barry as Luisa Rey. Tom Hanks felt wrong in every one of his roles. I think he's at the point where the audience can't divorce Tom Hanks from the character he's playing. Hugo Weaving, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant, and Keith David also make appearances.
 
172 minutes
This product was released around October 2012
I consumed this around June 2014
More: Cloud Atlas
Posted by: Jeff Egnaczyk at: 6/30/2014 9:14:31 PM
 
22
The Siege Edward Zwick
The Siege For the uncynical, The Siege, a movie about terrorist attacks in New York City, should be a great movie. Given the events of September 11 just three years later, the movie is surprisingly prescient with regards to the debates about civil liberties that ensued, but incorrectly optimistic about what side of those debates would prevail. Played by Denzel Washington’s, FBI agent Anthony “Hub” Hubbard is meant to be the ideal, tirelessly fighting the terrorists while also striving to uphold the Constitution and the American way of life.

Bruce Willis’ General Devereaux gives lip-service to those ideals as well. In fact, my interpretation of his character is that he actually does believe in them, but when presented with the power to stop a string of terrorist attacks in New York City abuses his power.

It is Devereaux’s apprehension of the fictitious Sheikh Ahmed bin Talal (Ahmed Ben Larby) that sets terrorists upon New York City. First a warning. A paint bomb on a bus comes with a call for the release of their Sheikh. When that warning is not headed, terrorists blow up the next bus. Next a theater is bombed killing many high-profile New Yorkers. As calls for a possible military occupation of New York grow louder, the FBI’s headquarters are hit with a truck bomb, killing a staggering 600 people. I remember the first time I watched The Seige actually being taken aback by the number. Despite the objections of Hubbard and Devereaux, the President declares marital law.

Despite his newfound power Devereaux shows concern for the implications, claiming
I am here serving my president, and quite possibly not in the best interests of our nation. My profession does not allow me to make that kind of distinction.
The general soon ratchets up the security though, rounding up Arab men in Brooklyn and putting them in cages in Yankee Stadium (in the Bronx). Despite this an Arab-rights activist (Hany Kamal) pledges the support of the community because people are generally good in this film, terrorists exempted.
I represent the Arab Antidefamation League. Whatever injustices my people may be suffering at this very difficult moment, we will continue to show our commitment to this country.
Everyone will soldier on because they love America and because, as Hubbard extolls, New York is just as strong as others who have dealt with terrorism.
London. Paris. Athens. Rome. Belfast. Beruit. We're not the first city to have to deal with terrorism. Tel Aviv. The day after they bombed the market in Tel Aviv the market was open and it was full. This is New York City. We can take it.
The people of New York, attacked by Arab terrorism, angrily protest the occupation and the interment in the streets even when confronted by their troops. The Siege is shooting for that sweet spot of security and civil liberties that will be forever debated in American politics.

Does this jibe with what happened after 9/11? It’s not that I expected the makers of The Siege to accurately gauge the reaction to a string of terrorist attacks, it’s just that the movie, released so close to 9/11, runs counter to the celebrated militarism and condoned torture we saw.

The military clashes with Hubbard’s team. The casting, it should be noted, was very good. Tony Shalhoub and Lance Reddick are favorites of mine. Reddick, with his deep voice, always plays a great member of law enforcement. Shalhoub routinely upstages everyone but Washington. He is strong when dealing with suspects like Samir Nazhde (Sami Bouajila) or agents like Elise Kraft (Annette Benning), a CIA agent whose political allegiances within the government are not clear. Sopranos star David Proval plays a part. The team is rounded out by Lianna Pai and Mark Valley.

Hubbard, in spite of the FBI’s diminished capacity and mandate, pushes on with the investigation. Devereaux’s intelligence unit surveils the team in order to get to their suspects first. When Hubbard apprehends Tariq Husseini (Amro Salama), the military takes him away by force, resulting in more losses for the FBI (Reddick included). Husseini is tortured and then, having no intelligence of value, is murdered under Devereaux’s orders. Against this Hubbard fights.
Come on General, you've lost men, I've lost men, but you - you, you can't do this! What, what if they don't even want the sheik, have you considered that? What if what they really want is for us to herd our children into stadiums like we're doing? And put soldiers on the street and have Americans looking over their shoulders? Bend the law, shred the Constitution just a little bit? Because if we torture him, General, we do that and everything we have fought, and bled, and died for is over. And they've won. They've already won!
And finally Hubbard prevails, convincing the general to stand down.
You have the right to remain silent. You have the right to a fair trial. You have the right not to be tortured, not to be murdered, rights that you took away from Tariq Husseini. You have those rights because of the men who came before you who wore that uniform. Because of the men and women who are standing here right now waiting for you to give them the order to fire. Give them the order, General.
It is a film with good intentions and a good cast, with a little bit of action and suspense, but maybe lacking some cynicism.
 
116 minutes
This product was released around November 1998
I consumed this around 1999, May 2014
More: The Siege
Posted by: Jeff Egnaczyk at: 5/30/2014 10:16:31 PM
 
333
The Bourne Legacy Tony Gilroy
The Bourne Legacy For the fourth movie in a trilogy, The Bourne Legacy isn’t so bad. It overlaps some of The Bourne Supremacy with the CIA and military reeling after Jason Bourne publicly exposes the secret programs - Treadstone and Blackbriar - from the original trilogy. Eric Byer (Edward Norton) is brought in for damage control. He decides to end the current incarnation of these programs - Outcome - so as to hopefully keep the next generations viable - by killing existing agents. All but one, Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), are killed. Cross barely escapes into the Alaskan wilderness. He has to come back to Washington though because his enhancements require him to be on a medication schedule and he is running out.

Meanwhile a researcher (Željko Ivanek, from one of my favorites, Homicide) goes on a killing spree in a lab, wiping out all of his colleagues save for Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz). He kills himself before security can bring him down. It’s clear that this isn’t a co-worker snapping, but rather a mission to eliminate those with knowledge of Outcome. At home Shearing is visited by agents pretending to be investigators who attempt to pose a suicide.

Suddenly Cross breaks into the house and dispatches four agents with martial arts, firearms, and explosives. They escape to the Philippines where Shearing knows the pills Cross needs are manufactured. Cross fears he will revert to his pre-enhanced self, a mentally deficient army recruit. Not only is his strength and quickness enhanced but he is hyper intelligent. If that goes he’ll no chance of outwitting the government and staying alive. Shearing engineers a virus that will eliminate the need for the pills. Cross in a weakened state after receiving the injection is able to defeat another enhanced agent. The two escape and sail away happily like Jason Bourne in one of the earlier movies.

From the start, with the drone attack on Cross in Alaska, we see more computer aided special effects. Right after that Cross captures a wolf and forces it to ingest a tracking chip as a way to throw off the drone. Again, computer graphics, this time not really believable. There is still plenty of physical action, with hand to hand combat in Shearing’s home and in the pharmaceutical factory in Manilla.

The murder-suicide scene is probably the most realistically intense scene. There was something about Željko Ivanek’s character methodically stalking unarmed, educated, middle-aged researchers that got my heart racing. It’s probably because it was the danger any office worker could imagine themselves in.

The final foot and motorcycle chase with Manilla cops, Cross, and an enhanced agent (Louis Ozawa Changchien) sent by Bryer to kill Cross is also pretty good. It's fast moving and action packed. It had some visible computer graphics that the original movies either didn't have or that they hid better, but never really went over the top with explosions or unrealistic stunts. It probably wasn’t as good as the best scenes in the first three movies but it kept true to what made the Bourne movies good, namely eschewing too much computer graphics in action scenes.

Jeremy Reyner isn't Matt Damon but he was good. Ed Norton is always a treat. I wish he would do more movies. A good job was done of keeping continuity despite losing Damon. Though he wasn't in the movie they mentioned him and even showed his picture several times. Though she didn't play a major role, Landy makes an appearance as her character is the payday in the Jason Bourne damage control. Footage from the previous movie - the assassination of the journalist - is even shown.
 
135 minutes
This product was released around August 2012
I consumed this around March 2014
More: The Bourne Legacy
Posted by: Jeff Egnaczyk at: 5/27/2014 8:32:36 PM
 
333
Patton Franklin J. Schaffner
Patton Patton gives equal treatment to George S. Patton’s strengths and weaknesses, his victories and his failings. Patton is a warrior through and through. A student of war he believes he was literally part of decisive battles throughout history. As a strong disciplinarian he gets results from the start, taking command of a previously defeated and dejected group and leading them to an impressive victory over German forces in Africa. He loves the battle. He wants the battle. It’s not for his country that he wants to fight though. Patton wants glory and a place in history.

This introduces us to the flip side of the coin. While Patton honors those that bleed and die for him, he’s all too willing to send them into unnecessarily risky battles for his own aggrandizement. He is obsessed with his place in history. The battle strategies he pitches to fellow generals seem to be excuses to put himself in the position to fulfill his destiny.

Patton is portrayed as a master of discipline, but ironically his major failing is his lack of discipline. The general blusters through a hospital tent, pinning a medal on an injured soldier and ejecting soldiers he believes intentionally wounded themselves to get out of combat. When he encounters a soldier with “shell shock” he berates and assaults him for what Patton perceives as cowardice. As a general there’s no need to resort to violence. As he did with the soldiers with self-inflicted wounds he could have just ordered the shell shocked soldier out of the tent and back to the front lines. A lack of discipline lead him to strike out.

As the war winds down he insults America’s Russian allies by suggesting the United States and Great Britain will rule the post-war world. He then directly insults a Russian general. Later he carelessly compares participation in American political parties to the same in the Nazi party.

As was probably the case with many of his peers, Patton disagrees with certain strategic decisions. In his dealings with the press he is unable to bite his tongue with regards to these disagreements. Reporters easily goad him into criticizing Eisenhower and Montgomery. Unsatisfied with the Allied plan of attack in Italy he races ahead to gain the glory of taking the town of Messina. His punishment is to serve as a decoy to the D-Day invasion.

After the war he loses his command after suggesting the United States should continue fighting westward against its Russian allies, even going on to suggest that he could incite such a conflict. Time and time again his inability to follow orders the way he expects his subordinates to costs him the chance to obtain the glory he so desires. Pride just gets in the way.



I thought George C. Scott was very good as Patton, though I liked Karl Malden as Omar Bradley even better. General Montgomery (Michael Bates) is Patton’s antagonist most of the film, but I thought the film tried too hard to make him unlikable. I liked the scenes showing the focus German central command put on understanding Patton as a way to defeat him. The final description of Patton by the researcher was poignant: “the pure warrior a magnificent anachronism”. I loved the war trumpets that subtly played in certain scenes, always when Patton was in a reflective state, never during the fighting. The famous opening scene with Patton giving a speech in front of a huge American flag covering the entire shot was obviously very good. The battle scenes were nothing great by today’s standards, but I’m not sure how they would have rated at the time of the movie’s release.
 
172 minutes
This product was released around April 1970
I consumed this around May 2014
More: Patton
Posted by: Jeff Egnaczyk at: 5/20/2014 9:22:14 PM
 
333
Point Break Kathryn Bigelow
Point Break Keanu Reeves' performance enters "so bad it's good" territory. Some of his lines are absolutely tortured. When he explains to Bodhi (Patrick Swayze) "I am an F. B. I. agent!" it's almost like he's pronouncing the periods in the acronym. I laughed out loud at "Fuck, why can't I ever say what I really mean." Emotions are not his strong suit. The dialog isn’t great to begin with, and the general “California surf culture tone” of the movie combined with Reeves’ acting makes it hard to take the movie seriously at times.

Bank robberies and foot chases are always fun, so Point Break has some enjoyable action sequences. The aforementioned Bodhi leads a crew - Roach (James LeGros), Grommet (Bojesse Christopher), and Nathaniel (John Philbin) - on a series of successful bank robberies. They come in loud and fast wearing masks of ex-presidents (LBJ, Nixon, Carter, and Reagan), get out in under two minutes, and never use their weapons. FBI Agent Angelo Pappas (Gary Busey) rightly theorizes the "Ex-Presidents" crew is a group of surfers, robbing banks as the follow the best waves across the globe. Unrealistic as it may sound I liked the concept. Bank robbery movies have been done and done, so this felt like a genuine attempt to do something new.

An out of shape old timer, Pappas is considered somewhat of an eccentric joke at the field office. Busey, with his wild eyes and expressive face, sells this well and adds a bit of intensity to boot. His superior, agent Ben Harp (the always abrasive John C. McGinley), seems to relish sticking him with the inexperienced agent, Johnny Utah (Reeves). He describes the new guy as such:
You're a real blue flame special, aren't you, son? Young, dumb and full of come, I know.
Johnny Football Hero buys into Pappas’ theory though. The two hatch a plan to have Utah take up surfing hoping to stumble into a lead. The young agent nearly gets himself drowned. Surfer and future love interest Tyler Endicott (Lori Petty of A League of Their Own fame) drags him to shore on his first attempt. Later he's saved by Bodhi from a violent group of surfers (including Anthony Kiedis!). And just like that he accidentally infiltrates the group and stumbles on proof that they are in fact the "ghosts", as Pappas calls them, responsible for 28 robberies over the years. Soon after they confirm their suspicions Utah and Pappas catch the Ex-Presidents getting away from their last job of the summer. A pretty good car chase ensues followed by a damn good foot chase between Utah and Bodhi, ending in the famous scene where Utah refuses to shoot a masked Bodhi as he climbs a fence, instead firing his gun up in the air as he lets out a primal scream of frustration.

Bodhi is portrayed as some sort of Zen surfer, and the group is later portrayed as fighting against the conformity of "the system". However, I interpreted the surfing and the bank robbing and eventually the skydiving as the actions of thrill seekers increasingly looking more like macho young men with a death wish. It’s possible that was the intent of the portrayal - to show the inconsistencies of the crew’s beliefs versus their actions - but Bodhi’s final ill-fated scene makes him out to be a true believer in the power of nature, one who reveres the ocean. I didn't think it added up.
 
122 minutes
This product was released around 1991
I consumed this around April 2014
More: Point Break
Posted by: Jeff Egnaczyk at: 4/20/2014 9:37:24 PM
 
22
Heat Michael Mann
Heat At nearly three hours Heat is long enough to properly handle more than just a bank heist. The film begins with a crew getting into position for an armored car robbery. They are as efficient as the cast is good - Robert De Niro as Neil McCauley, Val Kilmer as Chris Shiherlis, Tom Sizemore as Michael Cheritto, Danny Trejo as Trejo. They come prepared with stolen vehicles, hockey masks, high powered guns, bullet-proof vests, and explosives. A timer tells them when the police should arrive. Traffic spikes are laid down to impede the law’s progress. Their effects are burned. A professional job, it goes wrong when a new recruit, Waingro (Kevin Gage), unnecessarily shoots a guard. The rest of the crew doesn’t blink - though it wasn’t the plan they eliminate the other two so there aren’t any witnesses to the murder.

There’s this “we’re pros” theme running through the film. After the three guards are killed at the beginning McCauley is enraged at Waingro. The implication is that they’re professionals, not violent thugs. When desperate though they’ll kill without much thought. They have no problem violently subduing security guards in a bank heist. When they almost pull of their final heist Shiherlis notices Hanna’s crew closing in on them and fires his high powered rifle into a busy street. McCauley, Cheritto, and Shiherlis fight for their lives in a busy downtown street, spilling into a crowded supermarket parking lot. Cheritto takes a young girl hostage. There story is good, their parts are acted well, we might even be rooting for them, but there is no doubt they are the bad guys.

Back at start, Waingro escapes when the group tries to off him for his misstep and later causes trouble by alerting the victim of the crime, a money laundered named Zant (William Fichtner), of the identity of the crew. Now they have two problems. Zant and his henchmen (Henry Rollins) are after them, but so is Lt. Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino). Hanna versus McCauley is one of the best cat and mouse games I’ve ever seen. Hanna is committed and intense, McCauley is professional and precise. Both know their craft. Hanna has a pretty good cast as well - Mykelti Williamson, whom I really like, get the most time as Sergeant Drucker, Wes Studi, another actor I like, as Detective Casals, Ted Levine and his mustache as Detective Bosko, and Jerry Trimble as the younger Detective Schwartz - but the story is Hanna versus McCauley, or if you want to step outside the story, Pacino versus DeNiro.

It’s all very macho, the two alpha males going at each other, Hanna knowing who the criminal is, McCauley knowing he’s being chased. Most action films fail at this because they lay it on thick and don’t have the actors to back it up. Heat, with Pacino’s bursting intensity and DeNiro’s severe demeanor, pulls it off. When Hanna decides to confront McCauley and invite him to get a cup of coffee the dialog between Pacino and DeNiro is a movie classic.

I mentioned at the start that Heat is nearly 3 hours long. What that does is allow the film to succeed where most action films fail - the family subplot. For most action films this is garnish next to a steak. In Heat it’s at least the potatoes. The running theme in all of these throughout is that the business of cops and robbers takes a toll on relationships. The families of Trejo, Shiherlis, and Breedan (Trejo’s replacement as driver, played by Dennis Haysbert) are each shown experiencing hardship as a result of their profession. But like the main storyline, the real focus is on DeNiro and Pacino.

Neither McCauley nor Hanna can maintain a healthy relationship because they are both invested in the same game. McCauley is a professional criminal and so he’ll never be able to settle down. He’ll always have to watch his back. He’ll never be able to cultivate a relationship because he can never be sure when he’ll have to pick up and leave.
A guy told me one time, "Don't let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner."
This is what he lives by. When he has to run after his last job goes bad, he almost breaks with this advice, taking Eady (Amy Brenneman), a woman he’s grown close with, along. For a minute, even before the job, he let himself believe he could have companionship. While he was quite cognizant of the dangers of growing attached, it’s clear he yearned for the intimacy. When push comes to shove though he abandons her and runs for his life.

Hanna is the opposite side of the same coin. Whereas McCauley is always being chased, Hanna is always chasing. He’s not as open about his inability to commit, but he comes around to admitting it. To McCauley he divulges he is on his third failed marriage, and later to his wife, Justine (Diane Venora), he admits that it can’t work, that his work is his life. Neither will ever be able to take the time to build a lasting relationship with family.

Heat has great action and great acting, but what sets it apart from generic action movies is the effort put into the personal aspect of the story.

Other appearances include Jon Voight as the guy who sets McCauley’s crew up with jobs, Hank Azaria, Tone Loc, Natalie Portman as Justine’s daughter, Jeremy Piven as the criminal surgeon, and Ashley Judd as Shiherlis’ wife Charlene.
 
170 minutes
This product was released around December 1995
I consumed this around March 2014
More: Heat
Posted by: Jeff Egnaczyk at: 3/29/2014 4:01:12 PM
 
4444
Batman Begins Christopher Nolan
Batman Begins Batman Begins is a welcome reboot of the Batman franchise. In a departure from the comic-book nature of the previous silver screen series,

As the title suggests, this is an origins story. It covers Bruce Wayne's fear of bats and the death of his parents (Linus Roache and Sara Stewart as Thomas and Martha Wayne). In this version young Bruce Wayne attempts to avenge his father but is thwarted when crime lord Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) has Joe Chill (Richard Brake) murdered for snitching. Wayne then leaves Gotham to travel the world learning about the criminal element. In his travels he meets Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) who recruits him to his League of Shadows, an organization initially thought to fight corruption. Here is where Wayne becomes skilled in martial arts. It is also here where Wayne commits himself to cleaning Gotham.

What I liked about this movie is Batman is so raw. It really is "Batman begins". He starts with almost nothing. With the help of Lucious Fox (Morgan Freeman) down in the basement of Wayne Enterprises, he builds what is to become the bat suit from technology that never made it to market. Fox and his Applied Science Division become a sort of skunk works for Wayne. He starts with the aforementioned survival suit, then orders Kevlar gloves, a memory fiber cape for gliding, and a grappling gun. Finally Fox introduces him to "The Tumbler", a low riding armored car that becomes the Batmobile.

He later builds the Bat cave with his staunchest ally, his butler Alfred (played perfectly by Michael Caine). More importantly, he builds his image as Bruce Wayne, a rich uncaring playboy, to keep his identity as Batman a secret. As Batman he approaches James Gordon (Gary Oldman is great in an understated way) to build an alliance with one of the few straight cops in Gotham. We are also introduced to Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes). The film is building the canon of Batman.

For most of the action is hand-to-hand combat, not big time special effects. The physical stunts feel real because the film-makers don't make them appear easy and don't leave Batman without scars. Jumping between buildings almost kills Batman several times. Fights leave him bruised. Fires leave him burned. For now, Batman is a vigilante. It will take practice to become a superhero. And even when that happens, it's clear that - as has always been the case with Batman - it will be science, skill, and strength - not super powers - that bring him victory.

The climactic action scene, in which Batman fights Ra's al Ghul on an elevated train, wasn't the most grand action scene in film history, but it still felt too big given the dark, physically intense nature of the action for most of the film. While the movie is certainly carefully crafted, the look of Batman Begins is one that almost eschews polish.

It even looks like Batman is starting off small. He's taking on Falcone, the most powerful crime lord in Gotham. Falcone isn't the typical super villain we think of Batman fighting. Sure, he's dangerous. He's got an army of thugs and he's paid off cops, politicians, and judges all over the city. But he's a run of the mill criminal out for money and power. It is Ra's al Ghul and his League of Shadows that are more like the type of enemy Batman faces. Batman battles villains with a cause, bad guys out for revenge, and psychopaths out to destroy things for fun. Wayne escaped the League of Shadows when he learned of their intent to destroy the admittedly corrupt Gotham. But it turns out they followed him, and the man he thought to be his mentor is actually the mastermind of the plot to destroy Gotham. Ghul and his ally Dr. Crane, a mad scientist type who uses neurotoxins as weapons, are the type of villain Batman is used to facing. The revelation that it is these characters we should fear is a great twist and escalates the danger in the plot.
 
140 minutes
This product was released around June 2005
I consumed this around 2006, January 2014
More: Batman Begins
Posted by: Jeff Egnaczyk at: 3/2/2014 2:41:18 PM
 
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A Good Day to Die Hard John Moore
A Good Day to Die Hard I think the best thing you can say about A Good Day to Die Hard is that it’s the fourth best Die Hard movie. Die Hard is another class, with Die Hard 2 coming in a distant second. Die Hard with a Vengance has its problems but is still enjoyable. Then there’s this one, followed by Live Free or Die Hard. I looked back and found my review of the fourth, and noticed I gave it a higher rating than I did this one, but I’ll chalk that up to more lenient tastes in my younger days.

John McClane (Bruce Willis in case you didn’t know) gets news of the arrest of his son (he has a son!) in Russia of all places. Of course, McClane makes the trip to Moscow - and you were wondering how trouble always seems to find him. This makes four of five Die Hard movies where one of John’s relatives are in danger - his wife Holly in the first two, he calls Holly in the third but she isn’t in any danger, Lucy his daughter in the fourth, and now his estranged son, John. McClane gets one look at his son on a perp walk before the courthouse is bombed at the behest of high-ranking Russian politician Viktor Chagarin (Sergei Kolesnikov) in an attempt to shut up political prisoner Yuri Komarov (Sebastian Koch). This is good news for Jack (Jai Courtney) because it turns out he is no common criminal. He’s part of a CIA operation to free Komarov. His crime was meant to get him in the courthouse with Komarov and then apparently wait for a terrorist attack that he and CIA had no knowledge of. He grabs Yuri and all is going well until his father runs out in front of his getaway vehicle. The momentary pause in the escape leads to the Chagarin’s men catching up to them. A destructive chase with no regard for human or automobile life ensues on the streets of Moscow. Lead henchman Alik (Radivoje Bukvic) chases Jack in what is called a Ural Typhoon, a monstrous armored vehicle, while John harries them in a carjacked Mercedes SUV. Somehow John is able to disrupt the bad guys and survive a terrible crash in classic McClane fashion.

They get to a safe house. The safe house is attacked and Jack’s partner (Cole Hauser) is killed. Yuri will only go with them if they get his daughter. He meets his daughter, Irina (Yuliya Snigir), but she’s with the bad guys. Alik is going to kill the McClanes (he hates Americans), but they escape. Alik and Irina come back in one of those hellish looking Russian helicopters with the double bubble glass in the front. Jack and John jump out - actually, through - a window, fall through a scaffolding, down a construction garbage shoot, all the while avoiding rounds from the helicopter before they crash to the ground.

They walk away. I would love to see a full body CT scan of this man some day.

It turns out Chagarin wants a file from Komarov that implicates the former in the Chernobyl disaster. Think of this plot twist from a Russian perspective. Now reverse it. Having a plot centered around Chernobyl in an American film is like a Russian filmmaker having a plot twist centered around Area 51 or 9/11. It’s like they took the one thing everyone knows about Russia just to be safe.

A key with Die Hard movies is the villain. Who we are rooting against is a little confusing in this fifth installment. It starts off as Chagarin and Alik, with Irina joining them later, only to have it turn out that Komarov and his daughter were playing the Russians and Americans the whole time. Chagarin is a departure from the classic Die Hard villain in that he’s a high ranking bad guy, but he barely appears. Alik is the “anger beneath a veneer of nonchalance” variety of villain. His personality is more like Karl (Alexander Godunov, from the first) or Mathias Targo (Nick Wyman, from the third) in that he’s more flappable and prone to be vicious. Komarov is more of the type of villain we’re used to. Like Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) or Simon Gruber (Jeremy Irons) before him, Komarov is a sophisticated European villain who turns out to be a thief rather than a political terrorist. The problem is he doesn’t get much screen time as the villain, and barely has time to match wits with McClane.

The action is all over the city of Moscow and then out into Chernobyl. It’s a departure from the first two, which were boxed into one setting (an office building, an airport), but it’s what the last three have become, each sprawling out into a different city (New York, DC, and now Moscow).

Like all Die Hard movies the action doesn’t disappoint. And like most action franchises it increases in magnitude. The physical violence is intense, though I only counted one of the brutal hand to hand fight scenes that Die Hard fans have grown accustomed to.

McClane is obviously the draw in these films as the every day cop up against a sophisticated villain with a well-oiled operation. These situations find him and he grudgingly accepts his lumps while trying to save the day. McClane breaks into this schtick too early in this go round. Right from the start he’s cracking wise almost as if he expects it. Maybe after four movies he does expect it. It does change the character though. In previous movies his humor was dark and self deprecating. It’s employed as a coping mechanism because McClane is in over his head in a situation he didn’t sign up for. In this movie McClane seems to relish it.
 
98 minutes
This product was released around January 2013
I consumed this around January 2014
More: A Good Day to Die Hard
Posted by: Jeff Egnaczyk at: 2/23/2014 3:09:16 PM
 
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Gateway Frederik Pohl
Gateway We know something is wrong with Robinette Broadhead because we first meet him tied down with straps in therapy. The pain he is trying to heal originated on Gateway, a space station on an asteroid in the solar system. "Inside were the stars" (23), so the powerful nations of the solar system (US, USSR, an Asian empire, Brazil, Venus) built a space station on it. Found on the asteroid were a network of tunnels and thousands of space ships from an unknown race of aliens, later named the Heechee. There are three sizes of ships, which fit three exact crew sizes: 1, 3, and 5. The fleet is mostly operational and uses an unknown fuel source to travel faster than light, making the aptly named asteroid a portal to the parts unknown. The problem is that while they can be turned on and made to travel, no one has yet figured out how to pilot them. That doesn't stop people from flying them. Each craft has a programmable dashboard, but Gateway corporation scientists and engineers have not been able to discern the pattern behind the levers and lights. Once a destination is found that pattern should be reproducible, but then it is less lucrative. So the only guarantee is that each journey will take its crew...somewhere. The other side of the journey may hold riches, but it also might be the setting for a gruesome death, or a quick death, or starvation...or nothing of interest. The corporation knows just enough to get a lot of people killed. Despite the high attrition rate, people willingly sign up, and they’re not in a hurry to go back. (35)
There's no charge for a return trip to where you came from, by the way. The rockets always come up fuller than they return. They call it wastage.

The return trip is free...but to what?
Down on Earth vast swaths of land are virtual wasteland as humans extract the last bits of oil the planet has to offer.
Apart from the parks, there is only the surface of Wyoming, and as far as you can see it looks like the surface of the Moon. Nothing green anywhere. Nothing alive. No birds, no squirrels, no pets. A few sludgy, squdgy creeks that for some reason are always bright ochre-red under the oil. They tell us that we’re lucky at that, because our part of Wyoming was shaft-mined. In Colorado, where they strip-mined, things were even worse.
Surely it's used for mechanical and electrical energy in some capacity, but what we’re meant to believe is that its most important use is for food. Yeast and bacteria skimmed off the top of shale oil in places like Wyoming, Colorado, and the Appalachians are turned into the protein that feeds the continent.

Pohl creates a rich environment up on Gateway. It's like a combination of a city, a cave, and a dormitory. There are rooms that the Broadheads of the solar system must rent. There’s a food hall, which is maybe the same place that has the bar. Drop shafts take people up levels, tunnels take them along the same level. There are, of course, the launch areas for the ships. Veteran crew members and scientists give educational lectures. A "central park" scrubs the interior of carbon dioxide. All of that seems standard. Maybe even the chapel makes sense given the perilous nature of the exploration. But then there’s a museum of artifacts from the Heechee and from other worlds that have been discovered. Maybe the flight crews would visit, but then we find out that there are tourists on the rock. There’s also a casino for people like Broadhead to waste away in. There are even food carts and a semblance of market economy existing in this little world. Throughout the book, in places somewhat unrelated to the current progression of the plot, Pohl scatters one page notes - classified ads, trip reports, historical descriptions, lecture notes, contracts - to create a more realistic feel for the history of and the current culture on Gateway.

Gateway, as mentioned before, is managed by the Gateway corporation. You would think that a novel which goes to great lengths to show how easily people can be killed traversing the hostile vacuum of space would take the obvious step of making the corporation that sends them out greedy, uncaring, and cruel. This is not what Pohl describes. The corporation gives out money for what is discovered. In fact, discoveries are quite lucrative. If a site is worth going back to the discoverers get royalties on what it made off the site. It is even mentioned that it will try to find ways to compensate crews who hit a worthless discovery. It’s almost as if Pohl is describing a business run by engineers and scientists rather than the captains of industry.

Broadhead won a lottery and bought himself a one-way ticket out of the food mines. He used all he had to get there, and it felt good. (30)
I don’t know if I can make you feel it, how the universe looked to me from Gateway: like being young with Full Medical. Like a menu in the best restaurant in the world, when somebody else is going to pick up the check. Like a girl you've just met who likes you. Like an unopened gift.
There’s something about this quote that I love. It just says it so nicely. Despite this, he’s not eager to make an expedition. During his long uneventful stay he meets and falls in love with Klara, another resident of Gateway who isn't in a hurry to explore. There is an uncomfortable sense of apprehension that pervades their time on Gateway. It actually fills the reader with unease. What is stopping them from making a journey?
About eighty percent of flights from Gateway come up empty. About fifteen percent don’t come back at all. So one person in twenty, on average, comes back from a prospecting trip with something that Gateway - that mankind in general - can make a profit on. Most of even those are lucky if they collect enough to pay their costs for getting her in the first place.
If we break down this paragraph (35) we can start to figure out why. Eighty percent of expeditions come back with nothing, so there’s a big chance a person might just be a failure. There’s a lot of consternation among crew members about what ship to take and who to take it with because, given the fifteen percent who die on expeditions, failure seems like a worthless risk. Death is the most powerful source of fear there is. Maybe there's even a little fear of success, even if it’s only a one in twenty chance. Most people who come to Gateway must have been desperate on Earth. Maybe the idea of wealth and fame scares them. Success or failure, most can't even pay for their journey nor can they afford to stay on Gateway indefinitely. Being sent back to Earth always lingers. (28)
"Not right this minute." I mean what was the advantage? If I hadn't liked what they said, I might have changed my mind, and what other options did I have, really? Being a prospector is pretty scary. I hate the idea of being killed. I hate the idea of dying at all, ever; not being alive anymore, having everything stop, knowing that all those other people would go on living and having sex and joy without me being there to share it. But I didn't hate it as much as I hated the idea of going back to the food mines.


Not knowing what is on the other end of an expedition might be the scariest part of all. Death is one thing, but how is it going to come? It could be quick and painless, or it could be long and painful. Death is not always the worst thing you can imagine either. Some people come back having lost their mind because of the intense experience of the journey. Their body might be physically destroyed because of trauma during the journey or at the destination. They may have seen their friends die horrible deaths while they have been spared. There are literally thousands of scenarios (if not more) that could be imagined on the other end of an expedition.

There's more with Rob and Klara though. They have formed a bond on Gateway where most people have left all their bonds behind on Earth. Deep down I think they know their relationship is a mistake if they want to succeed on Gateway, but they do love each other, and so it keeps them stationary.

The novel jumps between Broadhead's past on Gateway and present sessions with his robot calm and tireless logical therapist, Sigfrid. The sessions seem like a distraction from the amazingness of Gateway. They don't seem to advance the plot either. We know Robin (or Rob or Bob) is struggling with emotional pain, and we think it stems from something that happened on Gateway. While his continuing participation in these sessions indicates he wants to expunge himself of that pain, he acts evasive and combative instead of forthcoming indicating he cannot bear to cure himself. The sessions are brutal, with Broadhead often ending up emotionally drained in tears. (pg 17)
It is very hard, sometimes, to fool him. I get to the end of a session absolutely limp, with the feeling that if I had stayed with him for one more minute I would have found myself falling right down into that pain and it would have destroyed me.

Or cured me. Perhaps they are the same thing.
The chapters describing his sessions weren't compelling to me. It is not until the final session that the previous ones are vindicated. In that session is one of the greatest revelations I have ever read in science fiction. I put it on par with what is discovered in Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End. The revelation in Gateway does hard science fiction proud, as it takes a little knowledge of relativity to understand. We find out that Broadhead became rich on just his third trip out, but the rest of the crew of two ships (an experimental trip) was lost when they were pulled into a black hole. Rob's escape doomed the rest of the crew, and Rob can’t tell if he meant to jettison himself or the other nine to safety. Is he a murderer or did he accidentally kill them while trying to be a hero. The story in itself is a pretty good revelation, but that’s not what sets the climax of Gateway apart. See, no matter his intentions, there is no way Bob is a murderer...yet. Because of gravitational time dilation, Klara and the rest of the crew haven't died yet. Years have passed, dozens of sessions have come and gone and the crew is still living in the moments after Bob has left them for dead. (276)
"Don't you understand, Sigfrid? That’s the point. I not only killed her, I’m still killing her!"

Patiently: "Do you think what you just said is true, Bob?"

"She think it is! Now, and forever, as long as I live. It isn't years ago that it happened for her. It's only a few minutes, and it goes on for all of my life. I'm down here, getting older, trying to forget, and there's Klara up there in Sagittarius YY, floating around like a fly in amber!"

I drop to the bare plastic mat, sobbing. [...]

"Let the pain out, Bob," Sigfrid says gently. "Let it all out."

"What do you think I'm doing?" I roll over on the foam mat, staring at the ceiling. "I could get over the pain and the guilt, Sigfrid, if she could. But for her it isn't over. She's out there, stuck in time."

"Go ahead, Bob," he encourages.

"I am going ahead. Every second is still the newest second in her mind - the second when I threw her life away to save my own. I'll live and get old and die before she lives past that second, Sigfrid."

"Keep going, Bob. Say it all."

"She's thinking I betrayed her, and she's thinking it now! I can’t live with that."
The last session, interspersed with the telling of the climactic scene at the black hole, is intense reading.
 
278 pages
0-345-47583-6
This product was released around 1977 by Ballantine Books
I consumed this around Late 2013
More: Gateway
Posted by: Jeff Egnaczyk at: 2/21/2014 9:00:16 PM
 
4444
Snow White and the Huntsman Rupert Sanders
Snow White and the Huntsman Snow White and the Huntsman is not a good movie, but I didn't hate it. The main characters - Kristen Stewart as Snow White, Chris Hemsworth as The Huntsman, and Charlize Theron as the queen Ravenna - did not put in standout performances. The dialog becomes very flowery and cliched (of the knights and kings variety) as the film progresses. Major changes in plot don't really seem to fit together at times.

The movie boasts some visually interesting and diverse scenes. The fights scenes, with armored knights riding into battle, were good. The special effects around the queen augmented the portrayal of her evil nature. I thought the film did a good job depicting the gloom the queen cast over the kingdom. Before she arrived the castle was carpeted in beautiful white snow. After she kills the king and her army takes over, the castle is dark and dirty. Where once there was a beautiful northern European landscape around the castle, a dark forest of desolation resides. The dark forest scene is followed by a scene in a lush fairy sanctuary full of frolicking forest animals. The problem is that these two scenes seem to be thrown together with dwarf glue. I say that because in between the forest and the sanctuary Snow White and the Huntsman are captured by 8 dwarves (one of which is Ian McShane!) as they evade the queen's brother (Sam Spruell) and his thugs. At some point Snow White talks down a tree troll. There's a large white stag found in the fairy sanctuary that apparently means something. You see the problem.

The queen brings death to the world, while somehow Snow White is supposed to bring life back. But the film does a poor job of making that link be an important part of the story, and ultimately seems to even drop it.
 
127 minutes
This product was released around June 2012
I consumed this around February 2014
More: Snow White and the Huntsman
Posted by: Jeff Egnaczyk at: 2/13/2014 10:18:24 PM
 
22

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