Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Conclave by Robert Harris (♦♦♦♦)

The Pope is dead. Cardinals from all over the Christendom begin to arrive in the Vatican to choose the new Pontifice. The last Cardinal to arrive in Casa Santa Marta is the Archbishop of Baghdad; he claims to having been created in pectore (kept close to the chest, as in secret). His documentations support his claim, and he is admitted.

As Cardinals assemble in a conclave, factions emerge and personal interests align according to the currents extant in the Church today (i.e., traditionalists, moderates, liberation theologists, etc). On one side are the Third World Cardinals, grouping those of Africa, Latin America and Asia. The North Americans have a contingent as well, as do the Europeans and the Italians. The Italians in particular, are divided into two factions; those who support the Patriarch of Venice—a staunch traditionalist—, and those who see the more moderate former Secretary of State, Cardinal Bellini, as an attractive alternative. In the middle of it all, is Jacopo Cardinal Lomeli, the Dean of the College of Cardinals, who with steadfast leadership will have to keep those interests in check to prevent further divisions in the Church.

Years ago I read two books in Morris West’s Vatican trilogy that are, for me at least, the stick with which I measure every book on Vatican politics. They were not only well written, but turned out to be prophetic as well. I also read White Smoke by Andrew Greeley, a novel about a conclave written by a priest-author. I have also made quite a bit of research on Popes, Vatican politics, and a Pontifice election process. So as I was reading Conclave by Robert Harris I kept telling myself that he wasn’t breaking new ground with this novel.

Robert Harris certainly didn’t tread new ground in Conclave, but the politics and trivia he went into, he nailed. He also commented on current affairs of the Church as a keen observer. In addition, he managed to breathe life into one of the most bureaucratic machines on earth. And let me tell you, that conclave was far from boring…And that ending! Oh, my! In my opinion, Robert Harris succeeded in making his readers aware that while the election of a Pontifice may be guided by the Holy Spirit, there are men with ambitions and agendas doing the choosing, and those elements come into play to influence the outcome.

If you are into Vatican politics, as I am, you will appreciate Robert Harris incursion into this sub-genre. If you are not into that, you may read it and learn new things in the process.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (♦♦♦♦)

Blurb taken from Barnes and Noble:

February 1862. The Civil War is less than one year old. The fighting has begun in earnest, and the nation has begun to realize it is in for a long, bloody struggle. Meanwhile, President Lincoln’s beloved eleven-year-old son, Willie, lies upstairs in the White House, gravely ill. In a matter of days, despite predictions of a recovery, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery…Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returns, alone, to the crypt several times to hold his boy’s body.

From that seed of historical truth, George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of its realistic, historical framework into a supernatural realm both hilarious and terrifying. Willie Lincoln finds himself in a strange purgatory where ghosts mingle, gripe, commiserate, quarrel, and enact bizarre acts of penance. Within this transitional state—called, in the Tibetan tradition, the bardo—a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie’s soul.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders is an unconventional novel, both in topic and structure. Interspersed with the chapters that describe the spiritual journey of young Willie Lincoln in the graveyard, are chapters sprinkled with historical sources about: 1) the official reception the Lincolns had at the White House while young Willie lay sick in bed; 2) the opinion some of his contemporaries had on President Lincoln’s character and management of the war effort; 3) the first big battle of the Civil War in which the casualties amounted to more than a thousand; and 4) accounts on young Willie’s character and personality.

The chapters in the graveyard are structured more or less like a theatrical production, or an endless conversation primarily among three main characters—those that protect Willie’s soul and try to convince him to move on—through which Willie’s soul’s journey in the graveyard emerges. The rest of the inhabitants of the graveyard tell their stories too, giving a glimpse of contemporary living through all walks of life.

As I said before, Lincoln in the Bardo is an unconventional novel, but don’t let that be off-putting. I found it endearing and I chuckled on occasions despite the somber topic. I also learned a bit about President Lincoln through the historical sources. My only complaint is that I wish it had been a tad shorter, particularly towards the end.

DISCLAIMER: I received from the publisher a free galley of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Stolen Beauty by Laurie Lico Albanese (♦♦♦♦)

Klimt’s muse and art patron, Adele Bloch-Bauer, and Maria Altmann, Adele’s niece, narrate their lives and times in Vienna of fin de siècle and the first half of the 20th century. Klimt’s works of art and the Nazi occupation of Austria with the emotional scars and physical horrors inflicted on the Jewish population—first in Austria and eventually all over Europe—provide the backdrops, as do the Nazis’ thievery of art, wealth and goods.

Stolen Beauty has as its subjects the lives of Adele Bloch-Bauer—subject of Gustav Klimt’s portrait “Portrait of Adele Block-Bauer 1”, nicknamed by the Nazis “Lady in Gold”—and of Maria Altmann, Adele’s niece. Maria Altmann is the subject of the 2015 movie Woman in Gold, which chronicles her legal efforts to be recognized as the rightful heiress of the above-named portrait, and recover it after being illegally appropriated by the Nazis during their occupation of Austria in 1938.

If you saw the movie, as I did, you probably think you know the story that Stolen Beauty depicts, but it isn’t so. In Woman in Gold, Maria left her parents in Vienna and escaped the Nazis almost by chance, somehow making it to America where she lived until old age. Thus, Laurie Lico Albanese sets on a journey to bring Marie Altmann’s life as a newlywed in 1938, Vienna, her escape from the Nazis with her husband, first to England and then to America, and the dispersion of her brothers to Canada, and her uncle Ferdinand to Switzerland, where he died at the end of the war.

Stolen Beauty brings to life fin de siècle, Vienna, the Secessionist art movement of which Gustav Klimt was the most prominent figure, the upper stratus of Vienna’s society of which Adele Bloch-Bauer and her industrialist husband Ferdinand Bauer were indisputable rulers. Furthermore, the novel explores Adele Bloch’s youth as an idealist—with dreams of becoming an educated woman of the world, just as men could—, her friendship with Ferdinand Bauer (her sister Thedy’s brother-in-law), and eventually the marriage that cemented a dynasty.

Through the early years of the 20th century, we witness Adele become a woman ahead of her times as she reads philosophy, anatomy, classic literature, and art, and host salons for intellectual discussions about modernity. Of particular interest to Adele is the Secessionist art movement; she becomes Klimt’s patron, friend, and, according to Lico Albanese, much rumored lover. Adele’s friendship and patronage would spark Klimt’s critically acclaimed and much celebrated golden phase. In return, Klimt would awaken in young Adele a fiery sexual goddess.

Stolen Beauty, in case you haven’t discovered, has a dual narrative: Adele’s and Maria’s. It also includes, in italics, separate sections that focus on tidbits about the eras, and their personages. I had a hard time trying to forget what I knew from the movie Woman in Gold since both narratives are in disagreement, thus I think the novel can be best enjoyed if one has no previous exposure to the characters; that said I liked Stolen Beauty very much. The only thing that nagged somewhat was Adele and Klimt’s entanglement; I thought it was deceitful.

Stolen Beauty is a novel of art, love, loss, courage facing insurmountable odds, and sexual desire and awakening. It is also an exploration on marriage, faithfulness, and fulfillment as an individual within a marriage; it is a novel on promises broken, haunting memories, and finally, about redemption and the power of family. In all these counts, Stolen Beauty succeeds.

DISCLAIMER: I received from the publisher a free galley of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, January 27, 2017

The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald (♦♦♦♦)

Young Anthony Patch is handsome, and Harvard educated. The grandson of an industrialist turned reformer, he has a steady income that buys him a comfortable life style. He doesn’t think women are suitable companions for him until he meets Gloria Gilbert, a dazzling beauty who is a force of nature. They court, marry, and begin a life of over-the-top partying and entertainment that within years diminish their income considerably. Then WWI erupts, and as Anthony experiences life in the army, his disillusionment sends him into a downwards spin that ends in alcoholism.

I finished The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald last night and ever since I have been wondering how to approach my review. It was a great story, though not a great novel. The era portrayed is the Jazz Age, as was in The Great Gatsby, from 1911 to a few years after WWI. If The Great Gatsby is a tightly woven novel, evidence of a writer at the peak of his game, portraying the lights and shadows of an era, in The Beautiful and Damned we see the sophomore work of a writer, portraying mainly the shadows.

Its sentences are lyrical, beautifully constructed, with very accessible language. The novel has three parts, each consisting of three very long chapters. Fitzgerald spikes the dialogues with keen observations about life and human nature, leaving, at least in the first part of the book, no other choice than to chuckle; he also peppers the dialogues with cynicism—rare among the young and privileged—, that increase in frequency and somberness as the novel progresses. Perhaps the book should have benefited from a tighter edition process though I’m not sure I would change anything in the telling of the story, except perhaps less Maury Noble’s and Anthony’s ramblings on literature, philosophy, and the stupidity of women.

As I said, the editing should have been tighter, but I wouldn’t change a thing in the telling of the story. The first part describes Anthony Patch’s lavish life as a bachelor with a steady income, his courtship with young, beautiful, and reckless Gloria Gilbert, and their marriage. In the second part, WWI erupts and Anthony, guided by a false sense of patriotism, enrolls in the army. In the third part, Anthony comes back from the army to face his and Gloria’s ever diminishing fortune, and they fall from good society while he descends into alcoholism. The second and third part of the novel are increasingly somber in mood, because Anthony’s decline into alcoholism is slow and we get front seat into what is like to be in the life and mind of an alcoholic. We also get front seat into the decline of a marriage. It is not pretty, and makes for a difficult reading.

The Beautiful and Damned is a character study rather than the portrayal of an era. It is also a class study. It emphasizes the class divide, how the young, beautiful, and rich feel that life is an endless sea of possibility but don’t feel the need to work towards a goal. Anthony and Gloria are young and beautiful when the novel begins, and they worship those assets as well as money above all else. As they grow older, particularly Gloria feels that her life doesn’t have much meaning once she loses her beauty, which is her trademark in good society. As their fortune dwindles, they realize that the only thing they have is each other, and they don’t even like each other anymore. The beautiful has become damned.

Despite the numerous criticisms I attached to this novel, I really liked it, and the ending was so fitting that made me say wow. While The Beautiful and Damned is no Gatsby, it has its own merits, and gives a glimpse into the creative process of a literary icon.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Captain America: Civil War (♦♦♦♦)

From the Russo brothers, who directed the edgy spy thriller Captain America: The Winter Soldier, comes this new Captain America production in the same vein as its most immediate predecessor. There is more territory to cover in Civil War. Two of the original Avengers are missing (i.e., Thor and The Hulk). Hawkeye has more or less retired to his country estate. Tony Stark seems concentrated on funding research, while the two remaining (Natasha Romanoff and Steve Rogers) have, since the events related in Avengers: Age of Ultron, focused their efforts on training the latest crop of Avengers (Vision, a.k.a. Jarvis with a body, Wanda Maximoff, the surviving twin with mental manipulation skills, and Sam Wilson, a.k.a. Falcon).

Thanks to their latest escapade, after which a lot of destruction has been left to clean up by the Wakandans in Nigeria, the Avengers are divided. Tony Stark, Rhodey, Natasha, and Vision are in favor of signing an agreement to regulate the comings and goings of the Avengers by the U.N. Steve Rogers disagrees; in his camp are Wanda and Sam Wilson.

Just when a hundred plus countries meet in Berlin to sign the accord, a bomb goes off killing many of the participants, including the king of the Wakandans. His son, newly minted king, swears vengeance against the author of the massacre who appears to be Bucky Barnes, a.k.a., The Winter Soldier.

Steve Rogers tries, with Sam's help, to reel in Bucky, but he learns that Bucky wasn't the perpetrator. After a complicated chase, Bucky, Rogers, and Sam are detained along with the new king of the Wakandans, who as a Black Panther, had been in Bucky's hot pursuit. Next thing we know, the Avengers will be pitted against each other as planned by a man who has lost everyone because of them.

This is by far my favorite Captain America installment. The humor is understated as the drama that pits them against each other takes center stage. This is an Avengers movie of sorts, since the most recent troop of Avengers plus two more Marvel characters that we have independently come to know (Ant-Man and Spiderman), participate in the showdown. In the spirit that joins them, Natasha asks Hawkeye amidst the fight: “we are still friends, right?”—to which he replies “depends on how hard you hit me.”

Besides the wry humor that is signature to these characters, there are the kick butt fighting scenes, the added dramatic elements that bring new depth to the characters and the plot, and the uncertainty of not knowing if these former allies will be ever reunited. All in all, a solid installment in the Captain America franchise as well as the Avengers'.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Why I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming by Mike Brown (♦♦♦♦)

On August 25, 2006, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) took a deciding vote on the fate of Pluto as a planet. That day, Pluto was demoted from being the ninth planet in our solar system to “dwarf planet”. But as it happens, Pluto's fate was inextricably linked to an object 3% bigger than Pluto which was discovered by Dr. Mike Brown et al. in the trans-Neptunian region known as the Kuiper belt, of which until then, Pluto was the largest inhabitant.

The Kuiper belt was discovered in 1992. By 1997, almost a hundred bodies had been found. Suddenly the study of those objects located beyond Neptune became a hot field in astronomy. Dr. Mike Brown's search for a planet beyond Pluto started around that time, using, initially, the 48-inch Schmidt telescope at Palomar Observatory in Pasadena, California. His survey of the sky took two years and didn't yield the desired result. He refers to that time as follows: “...I talked to my friends about planets. I thought about names for new planets. I gave lectures about the possibility of new planets. I did everything I could, except finding new planets.” By 1999, about 500 bodies in the Kuiper belt were known.

After three years of systematically surveying the sky and writing computer code to process the images in the computer, the searching had amounted to nothing, but by mid 2001, the photographic plates of the 48-inch Schmidt telescope at Palomar Observatory were replaced by a modern digital camera that was able to detect fainter things in the sky. Within months, Dr. Brown's graduate student started finding things. In June 2002, they found an unusually bright wandering object which they nicknamed “Object X”.

“Object X goes around the sun every 288 years in an orbit closer to circular than even most of the planets, but it is tilted away from the planets by 8 degrees.” Comparatively, Pluto, considered the oddball among the (former nine) planets, orbits the sun in an elongated, rather circular orbit, and unlike its (former) counterparts, it is tilted in a 20° angle away from the rest—unlike the others which orbit the sun in rather flat disks. Like on Pluto's, there is dirty ice on the surface of “Object X”, and frozen methane, the latter “never before seen anywhere in the Kuiper belt.”

Years later, a graduate student of Dr. Brown would speculate that as Titan, Pluto and most of the objects in the Kuiper belt “had formed with methane, but the gravitational pull of Object X [being so small] was not quite strong enough to hold on to the methane forever. With the Keck telescope...the last remnants of frost on a cold dying world [had been observed].” “Object X” ended up being half the size of Pluto, and was formally named Quaoar.

In the fall of 2003, the small telescope at Palomar was fitted with a new super camera. Dr. Brown, suddenly working on his own again, refined the computer software and discarded 10% of the sky in the pictures to get rid of camera flubs. As potentially golden images became more manageable, Dr. Brown began to find more unusually bright wandering objects. Nothing significant, but it was a step in the right direction.

In November 2003, he found a faint object that moved at half the speed of anything he had ever seen. Something more than three times the distance of Pluto, with an extremely elongated orbit—it takes 11,000 years to go around the sun—, beyond anything seen thus far in the solar system. The object was nicknamed The Flying Dutchman, as the ship of folklore. Dr. Brown theorized that Dutch could have acquired its odd orbit at the birth of the sun 4.5 billion years ago when stars just like ours populated the sky, which “could have pushed Dutch around and put it exactly where it is now...Dutch was not just a chunk of ice and rock at the edge of the solar system. It was a fossil left over from the birth of the sun.” Dutch was officially named Sedna, after the goddess of the sea in Inuit mythology. Sedna was found to be three-quarters the size of Pluto.

Two days after Christmas in 2004, Dr. Brown observed his brightest wandering object yet. He nicknamed it Santa in honor of the season. Its orbit was elliptical and tilted, as objects in the Kuiper Belt have. After a lot of controversy about its actual time, place, and team of discovery, it was officially named Haumea after the Hawaiian goddess of childbirth, a suitable name since “many objects in the outer solar system can now be traced back to having originally been part of the surface of this object.” It has been theorized that “early in the history of the solar system, a much larger Haumea was smashed by another icy object in the Kuiper belt travelling at something like ten thousand miles per hour...The glancing blow left Haumea spinning faster than anything else in the solar system.” Its two moons, chunks of Haumea, were named Hi'iaka and Namaka. Haumea is covered in pure ice and is smaller than Pluto. It weighs one-third as much as Pluto and its moon Hi'iaka goes around it every forty-nine days.

Two weeks after the discovery of Santa (now Haumea), Dr. Brown discovered a brighter object still, four times more distant than Pluto. It takes 557 years to go around the sun. It was nicknamed Xena, after TV's warrior princess. Its surface is covered in solid frozen methane, like Pluto's. It was temporarily considered the tenth planet and it is one of the main reasons why Pluto was demoted from planethood. It was officially named Eris, after the Greek goddess of discord and strife. Its moon was called Dysnomia. Eris is 27% more massive than Pluto. “Since Pluto and Eris are nearly identical in size, the interior of Eris must be made out of heavier material. In this part of the solar system, the insides of bodies are almost entirely made up of rock and ice. Eris weighs so much that it must be almost entirely rock, while Pluto has significant quantities of frozen water hidden inside it.”

In April 2004, Dr. Brown found yet another wandering object, brighter than any of the previous two. He nicknamed it Easterbunny. As Xena’s, its surface is like Pluto's, “covered with large amounts of almost pure methane ice, a consequence of the fact that it is just a little smaller than Pluto and lacks enough gravity to hold a substantial nitrogen atmosphere.” Its official name became Makemake, after the fertility god of the island of Rapa Nui (Easter Island).

Why I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming by Mike Brown is for the most part a science memoir of almost a decade long search for trans-Neptunian objects of significance, now denominated “dwarf planets” (for lack of a better term). His memoir also details his initial steps in the dark as a young Caltech professor, meeting his wife-to-be, how they romanced, married, and had a daughter.

Mike Brown could have come across as a pompous know-it-all because he certainly has the expertise to back it up. Instead, his memoir is candid—he admits there were times he was completely in the dark, and how, at least once, after his graduate student Chad moved on, he felt he was in over his head and wanted to quit his planet search. At once funny and page-turning, Why I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming will both instruct and entertain you, and will do so in under 300 pages.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Top Films of 2016 (Available for Rent Before December 31, 2016)

I watched an impressive 60 movies available for rent before December 31, 2016. Out those 60, I wrote mini-reviews of 17 of them in the feature “Snapshots”. Since I didn’t visit the cinema to watch the releases that typically make it to the awards shows, I decided to compile this list based on the movies that were available for rent at the time this list was finished. I’ll probably update it between the months of March and April of 2017 when all the award season titles will most likely be available.
The Tiger (Daeho, South Korean), (♦♦♦♦♦): This film is best defined as a thriller, though there are powerful dramatic moments as well. Nuanced acting, the musical score, the cinematography…contribute to an edge-of-your-seat experience that you won't soon forget.
13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (♦♦♦♦♦): pure adrenaline ride in the tradition of Black Hawk Down is this Michael Bay's production. John Krazinski, as a Special Op contractor for CIA, gives his best performance ever.
Eye in the Sky (♦♦♦♦♦): is a taut military thriller about the complexities—moral, political, and legal, of collateral damage—in modern warfare. Nuanced performances and great case in point make this thriller a must see.

Captain Fantastic (♦♦♦♦♦): this Indie gem is achingly funny, acutely smart, a roller coaster of emotions, and overall, a journey of the heart. Frank Langella gives a solid performance. Viggo Mortensen is brilliant in his role, and so are the six precocious and very peculiar kids, who ably keep up with Mortensen, and who embrace their roles in such a way that one hardly believes they are acting…Don't miss it as you may be missing a movie filled with whip cracking social commentary.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (New Zealand) (♦♦♦♦♦): this quirky indie film about a boy searching for people to call family, made me laugh almost from start to finish. I bet you’ll have a pretty good time watching this one!

Deadpool (♦♦♦♦): I was expecting a traditional superhero movie, but Deadpool is more spoof than standard superhero fare, and a very good one at that. It is surprisingly and acutely funny, courtesy of a very smartly written screenplay. And Ryan Reynolds...he rocks in this role…
Hail, Caesar! (♦♦♦♦): There are very good moments in this movie and the screenplay is a gem, but above all, major kudos to the all-star ensemble cast for making it seem effortless.

Fathers and Daughters (♦♦♦♦): This movie is drama heaven. It has a gorgeous musical score, and it’s beautifully acted by the top notch ensemble cast, but especially by Russell Crowe and Amanda Seyfried in the leading roles…This is easily one of the best movies I have seen so far this year. Not to be missed!

Love and Friendship (♦♦♦♦): This film is adapted from Jane Austen's novella Lady Susan. When it started I thought it was going to be a boring period drama starring Kate Beckinsale but I rolled my eyes too early perhaps. Love and Friendship is acutely funny, thanks mostly to Beckinsale as Lady Susan, who caused multiple complications...

The Jungle Book (♦♦♦♦): is a Disney production directed by Jon Favreau. The sweetness, the playing mood with lighting effects, the happy ending, and catchy, danceable songs are Disney studios trademark. The combination of great cinematography, special effects, and a stellar cast lending their voices to mesmerizing animals, make this film a must-see for the whole family.

Demolition (♦♦♦♦): This movie is not a comedy but it made me laugh out loud almost to the end…Supporting characters deserve accolades, but it is really Jake Gyllenhaal that makes this production a must-see.

Café Society (♦♦♦♦): is written and directed by Woody Allen; it has a light, dreamy quality, with fresh dialogues, gorgeous music, lots of 1930s Hollywood name-dropping, and great laugh out loud moments poking fun at the differences between the Christian and Jewish faiths, and NY City's underbelly…The ensemble cast makes this screenplay jewel come alive.

Hell or High Water (♦♦♦♦): is a testosterone charged, fast paced Western with a modern twist. The horses have been exchanged by old wheels, but the bank robberies, the shootouts, the die-hard law enforcers, strong females in need, decaying towns, and the big guns are present in full force... Brilliantly acted, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, and Jeff Bridges give career changing performances.

Me Before You (♦♦♦♦): the quirky humor courtesy of Emilia Clarke’s outfits didn’t work that well on me, but the blooming romance and the effervescent chemistry between the leading couple and the drama at the heart of which was the right of someone disabled and suffering to a dignified end of life torn my heart in pieces.
Special mentions:

Captain America: Civil War (♦♦♦♦): I had to watch this movie a few times to appreciate it, and yet I’m not sure it is a strong four, but how could I fail to mention it when most of Marvel’s superheroes were present in one form or another? Besides, this was the epic showdown that seems to have scattered the Avengers for good. (?)

Born to be Blue (♦♦♦½): is one of the reasons why I enjoy artsy dramas. It has many elements that make it worth watching: 1) great introspective music; 2) Ethan Hawke is amazing in the leading role—his performance has been described as that of a virtuoso; 3) the film leaves you uneasy, with the wheels of your mind working over-time…I highly recommend Born to be Blue, as you may be watching one of the best acting performances of 2016.

10 Cloverfield Lane (♦♦♦½): The claustrophobic feel of this movie—from keeping the cast to a bare minimum, to the setting being almost completely indoors, to the ambivalence of Howard's mental state—is not only palpable but quite intentional as well. What prevented me from giving this movie a higher rating was that wacky ending, that though fitting, I didn't like too much.

Gods of Egypt (♦♦♦½): this production can boast of being visually lavish, of its solid performances, and of being highly entertaining.

The Man Who Knew Infinity (♦♦♦½): will appeal mainly to scientists and science enthusiasts, though everyone can enjoy it due to the wonderful performances by Jeremy Irons, Dev Patel and Toby Jones in the leading roles.

Nerve (♦♦♦½): is a hair-rising-at-the-back-of-your-neck thriller about the dangers posed by modern technology and a follow-the-pack mentality. Dynamic camera shoots, excellent photography of the Manhattan night scene, tight editing, and good acting make this film an "enjoyable" viewing experience.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Snapshots - #13

TV shows...

Outlander (♦♦♦♦): in Season 1, volume 2, just as Claire is about to return to 1945, she realizes she loves Jamie and stays put. Both flee to Lallybroch, home to the Fraser clan, of which Jamie is laird. As bad luck would have it, Jamie and Jack Randall, the captain of the British troops, cross paths again, and, as always, Jamie will be in the lose end.

Season 1, volume 2 feels like a transitional set of episodes that bring volume 1 episodes to their head. In volume 2, Claire realizes that she loves Jamie Fraser and shares the secret of her provenance with him. A chain of events test their commitment to each other and their vows, mostly in the last two episodes, which get overwhelmingly brutal on account of torture.

The great acting, the wry humor, the incandescent chemistry between Jamie and Claire, as well as the spectacular Scottish landscape are still signature elements of the series in volume 2 of Season 1, all marvelous reasons to keep watching this series.

The movies...

Captain Fantastic (♦♦♦♦♦): Ben is rearing his six children in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. Despite far from conventional, the kids are outstandingly educated. When news of their mother's tragic suicide reaches them, the kids convince Ben to travel all to attend their mother's funeral in New Mexico. The kids' education doesn't sit well with Ben's father-in-law, who is determined to get custody of the kids. When an unlucky incident puts one of his kids at risk, Ben must consider if living in the wild is the best he can do for them.

This Indie gem is achingly funny, acutely smart, a roller coaster of emotions, and overall, a journey of the heart. Frank Langella gives a solid, spirited performance as the kids' grandfather. Viggo Mortensen, in the role of Ben, gives a career defining performance, not a small task for an actor who has spearheaded movies such as A Perfect Murder, A History of Violence, Appaloosa, Eastern Promises, and Hidalgo. If Mortensen is brilliant in his role, so are the six precocious and very peculiar kids, who ably keep up with Mortensen, and who embrace their roles in such a way that one hardly believes they are acting.

I had a frolicking time with this romp. Don't miss it as you may be missing a movie filled with whip cracking social commentary.

Hell or High Water (♦♦♦♦): Toby Howard owns a farm in Texas that he is about to lose to the bank. There is oil in the land, but he is in such a financial hole that he even owes money to his ex-wife in child support for their two children. Toby refuses to hand in the farm, so he conceives a plan—aided by his ex-convict older brother Tanner, to rob small branches of the bank that owns his reverse mortgage—to gather enough money to pay off the mortgage, the back taxes, and put the land in a trust so his kids, because he is putting it in his kids' names, never again worry about money. They only have to keep it small, don't shoot anyone, and outsmart two law enforcement officers hot on their trail.

Hell or High Water is a testosterone charged, fast paced Western with a modern twist. The horses have been exchanged by old wheels, but the bank robberies, the shootouts, the die-hard law enforcers, strong females in need, decaying towns, and the big guns are present in full force...The action unfolds in Texas, after all! The social commentary referring to predatory banking practices and poverty cannot be ignored.

Brilliantly acted, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, and Jeff Bridges give career changing performances. I wasn't fond of Jeff Bridges' (as the old Sheriff) Texan accent; I thought he sounded like drunken lawman "Rooster" Cogburn in the Coen brothers' adaptation of True Grit (2010), a character also interpreted by Bridges. I wasn't too fond of the Indian bashing either; it was a little too much. Aside from those two things, no detail was left to chance, either with the flawless screenplay, the acting, and production-wise.

Hell or High Water is, by far, one of the most impressive movies I have seen this year before the onslaught of awards' season's contenders.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

My Reading Year 2016 in Retrospect

Image copyright unknown; taken from Imanada.com
I only finished 12 books this year, though I started several more which I abandoned—even at the 300 pages mark—to read at a later time. However, I can’t complain about the quality of the books I finished, I rated the majority of them four stars or higher.

Books read:            
Fiction: 11                 Non-Fiction: 1                      Re-reads:  1

Genres: (some of these may overlap)

Historical Fiction: 3                           Popular Science: 1

Mystery/Suspense: 2

Contemporary Literature: 4            Thrillers/Espionage: 4

Jessica @ Bookworm Chronicles adapted some of these questions that I borrowed because I found them fun and revealing; I added other categories as I saw fit.

Best book of the year (I couldn’t possibly pick just one): Best Books I Read in 2016 

Favorite cover: A Desperate Fortune by Susanna Kearsley

Favorite new authors (to me): Thomas Hager; Melanie Benjamin

Most thrilling (unputdownable): The Fist of God by Frederick Forsyth

The juiciest: The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin

Most beautifully written: A Perfumer's Secret by Adria J. Cimino

Most memorable characters:
·         The devious: Truman Capote and his “Swans” in The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin

·         The twisted: Jericho—the mystery Iraqui spy in The Fist of God by Frederick Forsyth; Saladin—mastermind terrorist in The Black Widow by Daniel Silva

The sucker punch: The Black Widow by Daniel Silva

·         Influenced others: The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith

·         Drew in most pageviews: The Fist of God by Frederick Forsyth; A Desperate Fortune by Susanna Kearsley; A Perfumer's Secret by Adria J. Cimino; The Black Widow by Daniel Silva

·         Drew in most comments: Named of the Dragon by Susanna Kearsley; A Desperate Fortune by Susanna Kearsley; A Perfumer's Secret by Adria J. Cimino

Had the greatest impact: The Alchemy of Air: A Jewish Genius, A Doomed Tycoon, and the Scientific Discovery that Fed the World, but Fueled the Rise of Hitler by Thomas Hager

Saturday, December 17, 2016

The Tourist by Olen Steinhauer (♦♦♦)

Milo Weaver has a complex personal history that he has hidden from everyone—his immediate family and his employer, the CIA. Milo is the American son of a former KGB colonel and of an anarchist mother with serious terrorist tendencies. His loyalty could be challenged if the CIA were to know that, you see?

Despite his complicated upbringing Milo is a good tourist, famed even. When a friend’s loyalty is questioned—a former tourist who has risen in the Paris’ desk—Milo intercedes and gets hints of a case he has followed for years, but his friend is killed and Milo is under suspicion…Strong suspicion…

On the run and with no one to trust, Milo travels to Europe to follow his late friend’s findings, but he soon realizes he is not closer to the answers he seeks. Apparently someone on the inside is feeding him false intelligence, but with what purpose?

The Tourist, the first installment in a trilogy detailing the adventures and misfortunes of spy Milo Weaver, is the second novel I have read by Olen Steinhauer after All the Old Knives. I loved the latter; the former, not so much. If in All the Old Knives, Steinhauer displayed a heavy Le Carré influence down to the style of narrative, in The Tourist, his Le Carré influence is more subtle, mostly present in the tourists’ pragmatic views of life as spies, and the not so happy, yet realistic—given the events—ending.

The Tourist is full of lies, half-truths, secrets, and double-crosses that make its premise endearing; unfortunately, it is written in an uneven style, reason why I rated it three stars.  It begins with a sort of prologue set in September 2001. The plot picks up in July, 2007, and unfolds during that entire month. The first part becomes page-turning as we get a glimpse of the conspiracies Milo Weaver is trying to unravel. As part one concludes—the reader knowing what happened—, the second part begins with the reader newly in the dark as Milo is imprisoned for alleged crimes. The pace in the last part picks up again as Milo’s secret past is revealed, and the novel reaches a bittersweet ending, Le Carré’s style.

I have the feeling that with a tighter editing The Tourist would have been a very good, maybe a great spy novel, but the ups and downs of the pacing didn’t allow it. I don’t enjoy the bleak outlook of life that certain spy novels display; Le Carré is famous for his anti-climatic endings, and The Tourist follows that path as well. That is not to say that the novel is bleak overall, it is not; there are very funny moments between Milo and Einner, a fellow tourist, on account of the fabled “Black Book”, and Milo’s father’s views on Communism, of which he was an important part.

Despite The Tourist not being that solid a beginning, I thought that Milo Weaver was an intriguing enough character to make me want following his path in the secret world.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Best Books I Read in 2016

I hadn’t realized until I was compiling this list that out of the unimpressive 12 books I managed to finish this year, only two I rated below four stars. That says a great deal about the quality of the books I finished. The following is a compilation of the books I liked best in 2016.

The Fist of God by Frederick Forsyth (♦♦♦♦): is not a crash course, but a full immersion in the 1st Gulf War complete with army acronyms, rogue hero pilots, and top notch espionage. Taut, dense, and brimming with useful (and likely) insider's information, it took me ages to absorb it all, and what a ride that was.

The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin (♦♦♦♦): reads like those appetizing stories in contemporary celebrity magazines like Star and Us Weekly that few people confess to reading, or liking. I read them and like them, so I enjoyed The Swans... a great deal.

Named of the Dragon by Susanna Kearsley (♦♦♦♦): I had a great time reading this book. In it, Susanna Kearsley weaves Celtic legends and myths to create a story that, though contemporary, recreates a time of forgotten heroes and prophesied greatness, bringing to the fore the vastness and richness of Welsh and Celtic traditions.

A Desperate Fortune by Susanna Kearsley (♦♦♦♦): Kearsley never disappoints me; her writing style is effortless, flowy, and as familiar and comforting as apple pie, or a warm summer afternoon. I can't pinpoint where her style secret resides, I just surrender to the experience. As is always the case, her research is impeccable, despite taking creative licenses that she admits to, both with characters and situations.

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith (♦♦♦♦): is a multi-layered story on several fronts. The de Vos’ paintings being carefully built (when painted) or deconstructed (when forged) from the ground layers up made me visualize the processes as if they had been unfolding in front of my own eyes.

A Perfumer's Secret by Adria J. Cimino (♦♦♦♦): If you marvel at the color of sunrise or the smell of jasmine in a summer afternoon, then you should read A Perfumer's Secret… Gorgeously described, this novel details the quest of a woman to find her sense of self and belonging in the world.

Avenger by Frederick Forsyth (♦♦♦♦): I never stop marveling at Forsyth's talent for spinning a great story, particularly one which does both, entertain and inform the reader at the same time. Forsyth talks about conflagrations the world over and several countries' political intricacies with the depth of a master.

The Black Widow by Daniel Silva (♦♦♦♦♦): is a page turner of the highest order, a combination of great sense of humor, with more laugh out loud moments than ever before, but it also details the most chaotic and lethal deeds that terrorists may be able to conceive and carry out.

The Alchemy of Air: A Jewish Genius, A Doomed Tycoon, and the Scientific Discovery that Fed the World, but Fueled the Rise of Hitler by Thomas Hager (♦♦♦♦♦): is chock-full with valuable historical information. I read the book twice, back-to-back, to grasp its scope and to try summarizing it as best as I could.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Snapshots - #12

TV shows...

Outlander (♦♦♦♦): Claire Beauchamp, a British combat nurse in WWII, is in the Scottish Highlands, six months after the end of the war, on a second honeymoon with husband Frank Randall. Frank is researching his genealogy, and this trip proves an excuse to find out more about one of his ancestors.

The night of Samhain, Claire and Frank witness a druid ritual in the site of an ancient circle of stones rumored to have magical powers. The morning after, Claire touches the large stone at the center of the circle, and is transported to the year 1743, when Scottish Highlanders are organizing the second Jacobite rebellion to depose King George II of England and replace him with Prince Charles, son of James Stuart, rightful heir to the throne of England.

Among the Highlanders, Claire is seen with a mixture of admiration and suspicion, the former due to her skills as a healer, the latter mostly because she cannot truly explain her purpose among them. When she makes a powerful enemy in the despotic captain of the British troops, her husband's ancestor, she will be forced to marry spirited highlander Jamie Fraser, who has a price on his head.

Season 1 of Starz TV show Outlander, an adaptation of Diana Gabaldon's series, is really good. The second Jacobite insurrection plays a key role in the story. The period after 1743 and its players are brought to life in all its glory. I found the time-travel angle more believable than the way Susanna Kearsley depicted it in The Rose Garden; I even accepted it as something plausible.

Despite being a historical drama with a good dose of romance—women are most likely the target audience—, there is plenty of gore and violence (amputations, floggings, attempted rape) not for the faint of heart. The love scenes are done very well, and Caitriona Balfe, Claire, has incandescent chemistry with both leading men, particularly with Sam Heughan, the actor who plays Jamie.

Magnificent photography of the Scottish Highlands, fleshed out characters that one cares for, solid acting, rich historical details, great costume designs, and traditional folktales, make the Outlander series a must-see.

The movies...

Café Society (♦♦♦♦): Brooklyn native Bobby Dorfman travels to Los Angeles in 1930s, looking for work. His uncle manages a stars’ agency. Bobby’s uncle hires him to run errands for the agency. Meanwhile, Bobby falls in love with a young secretary named Vonnie, but the romance is doomed to fail when Vonnie leaves him for an older, recently separated married man who happens to be Bobby’s uncle. Disillusioned, Bobby goes back to New York, where he settles down and co-manages the glamorous Café Society, a nightclub that becomes the place to see and be seen at.

Café Society is written and directed by Woody Allen, and it has the light touch, though slightly (just slightly) less charm than Midnight in Paris. It has that dreamy quality of Midnight in Paris, just a bit earthier, with fresh dialogs, gorgeous music, lots of 1930s Hollywood name-dropping courtesy of a movies exec and his young trophy wife, and great laugh out loud moments poking fun at the differences between the Christian and Jewish faiths, and NY City's underbelly.

The ensemble cast makes this screenplay jewel come alive. Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart, who are on a roll lately with very good performances under their belts—Eisenberg as Lex Luthor in Batman v Superman, and Stewart as Valentine in The Clouds of Sils Maria)—, are particularly noteworthy.

Nerve (♦♦♦½): What starts as a seemingly innocent internet dare game, derives into an adrenaline fueled experience that may put the lives of some teenagers at risk over the course of a night around NY City.

Nerve is a hair-rising-at-the-back-of-your- neck thriller about the dangers posed by modern technology and a follow-the-pack mentality. Dynamic camera shoots, excellent photography of the Manhattan night scene, tight editing, and good acting make this film an "enjoyable" viewing experience.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (♦♦♦♦)

Steve Rogers (a.k.a., Captain America) leads a rescue mission of hostages, taken by pirates, aboard a S.H.I.E.L.D.'s carrier. Natasha Romanoff (a.k.a., Black Widow) backups the content of the master computer aboard the vessel, which, as it turns out, not even S.H.I.E.L.D.'s director Nick Fury can access.

Furthermore, there is an attempt on the life of director Fury. Captain America and agent Romanoff team up to uncover the truth behind the premeditated targeting of their leader. At every step they meet assassins with huge firepower intent on stopping them. Unsure of whom to trust, they enlist the help of outsider paratrooper Sam Wilson (a.k.a., The Falcon) to expose a secret arm inside S.H.I.E.L.D., an arm whose beginning dates back to WWII and whose most lethal enforcer is a ghost, someone known only as The Winter Soldier.

I liked this movie very much. While The First Avenger was all about establishing Captain America as a historical character, with the corresponding appeal of a hunk in uniform, The Winter Soldier is a solid spy thriller with an edge.

The sex appeal is still there: Steve Rogers and Natasha are easy to look at, and there are moments when one may imagine them hooking up; fortunately the story is meatier than that. The humor has been toned down a bit, though it occasionally peppers the thick plot—as when Rogers tells Natasha "yeah, I bet you look real bad in a bikini"—and it's OK because this screenplay has places to go and they do it in a reasonable timeframe.

The dynamic camera work, so characteristic of superhero movies, imparts edge-of-your-seat action, as do the multitude of well choreographed fighting scenes—I loved the one in which a pack of agents try to tackle Rogers inside an elevator; I'm sure anyone can figure out the result. Another very accomplished set of scenes were the ones on top of the flying carrier with Captain America fighting The Winter Soldier. Who can bet on either one when it is two genetically modified super soldiers fighting with all they got?

The Winter Soldier is more in the vein of a Daniel Craig's Bond movie than standard superhero fare, and the closing credits are perhaps a nod to Bond as well with the characters drawn in profile on a black and white screen. The Bond comparison is quite auspicious since this is the darkest yet most solid back-story to come from the Avengers by far.