Saturday, June 25, 2016

Avenger by Frederick Forsyth (♦♦♦♦)

I could never do justice to Frederick Forsyth in summarizing his plots. The following blurb of Avenger has been taken from Barnes & Noble:

Attorney Calvin Dexter hangs his shingle in a quiet New Jersey town, has a reasonably successful practice, and takes the hills strong while triathlon training. But Dexter is no ordinary man.

The summer before he goes to college, Ricky Colenso travels to Bosnia to volunteer as an aid worker. A few weeks later, he disappears and is never heard from again. A family grieves and is offered little hope—in the fog of that horrible time and place, the killer, too, has vanished.

Or so it would seem. For in a world that has forgotten right and wrong, there are few like Cal Dexter who can settle the score. And so, years later, a worldwide chase is on and Dexter begins to draw a net around the killer. But this time CIA agent Paul Devereux must find a way to stop Dexter before his quest for vengeance throws the world into chaos.

Avenger has a more modern feel than some of Forsyth's earlier works I have read, such as The Fourth Protocol and The Fist of God. While the latter two have a very complex structure of storytelling, Avenger is an easier to read and to follow, though still multi-layered, thriller gem.

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 (i.e., the four Guyanas) with the depth of a master. In Avenger, he covers the Vietnam War, Cambodia, and the Serbo-Croatian conflict in painstaking detail. The result is a very polished work of fiction that will make you wonder repetitively, what if...

The ending is as intriguing as it is surprising.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Snapshots - #3

TV shows...

Penny Dreadful (♦♦♦♦♦): Several months ago, I discovered the Showtime series Penny Dreadful, featuring archetypal horror characters such as Victor Frankenstein, Dorian Gray, Van Helsing, Dr. Jekyll, a werewolf, witches, and vampires. Season 1 was about devil possession and the harboring of dark secrets. Season 2 was based on witchcraft and its power to do evil. Season 3, the one currently available, deals with vampires. All evil forces aim to win the soul of Miss Vanessa Ives—a young woman conflicted about her past and her belief in God. Will Vanessa surrender this time to the charms of no other than Dracula? Or will her friends be able to save her?

I started binge-watching the first two seasons of Penny Dreadful towards last year's end, and couldn't stop until I digested it whole. As you may have realized, it is very dark, gothic, but also mouth watering addictive. It isn't exactly scary, though there is a lot of gore sometimes, with just the right dose of evil to make you shudder and ask for more. If you like suspense with a good dose of the supernatural, like I do, then this show is for you.

Silicon Valley (♦♦♦♦): In Season 2, the guys deal with a lawsuit that ends up in arbitration. And Richard outgrows his good guy persona and starts making cutthroat business decisions to save his company.

In Season 3, Richard has been fired as the CEO of his own company, and as CTO, he is consulted on possible products to market, but Richard is convinced that the current CEO of Pied Piper doesn't know what is best for the company.

There was a point early on in Season 2 in which I started to wonder if the edginess of Season 1 had been lost. I needed not have worried; Season 2 and 3 of Silicon Valley are as hysterical and edgy as the freshman season. And just as crazy.

And now the movies...

The Great Gatsby (2013) (♦♦♦♦): This remake of the 1974 classic star Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, and Carey Mulligan, as Jay Gatsby, Nick Carraway, and Daisy Buchanan, respectively.

If I thought that the 1974 movie was a little subdued in acting and mood, this one is very emotionally charged. All the performances are top notch, particularly DiCaprio’s and Joel Edgerton’s as Tom Buchanan. This 2013 remake was revamped with skimpy costumes and cabaret inspired choreography at Gatsby’s parties, music courtesy of the latest and among the greatest stars in today’s musical scene, such as Kanye West, Jay Z, Beyoncé, Alicia Keys… Glitter, excess, jazz, and shady characters, it’s all there.

This movie version follows the book very closely, even the dialogues, thus I felt sad in the end. Very good watch!

Big Eyes (♦♦♦♦): Margaret, a divorcée painter with a child to support in the 1950s America, marries another painter—or is he?—to have an uncontested steady income to avoid losing custody of her small daughter. Soon enough, Margaret and Walter are painting side by side. Walter is business savvy, a fast talker, and one thing leads to another and next time we know, Walter has taken credit for the paintings of children with big, soulful eyes, his wife paints.

Big Eyes is directed by Tim Burton. As Burton’s movies go, this one is atypical. Not the usual quirky, oddball characters; these characters are more earthy, and real. It helps that it is a true story of sorts, and helped all the more by the wonderful performances of Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz in the leading roles—the latter so funny as the con painter that I found myself laughing out loud at several times during the movie.

Begin Again (♦♦♦½): I had a good time watching Keira Knightley as a song writer/singer who gets an opportunity to record an album in the streets of New York City, after her famous boyfriend cheats on her.

Keira Knightley is not much of a singer really, and none of the melodies are catchy enough to transcend the movie, but it didn’t seem to matter much for enjoyed the story and the evolution of the characters through it.

Inside Llewyn Davis (♦♦♦): Llewyn Davis is a folk singer with ambition to make it in the music world but without a good, catchy repertoire to get him there. His album, Inside Llewyn Davis, is sitting in boxes for lack of sales. Surely everything would be different if his duo partner hadn’t taken his life, would it? Homeless and crashing on his friends’ couches for a few nights, he gets gigs that barely cover his living expenses.

Like Begin Again, Inside Llewyn Davis is a musical movie, except that unlike Keira Knightley, Oscar Isaac can carry a tune. Too bad for his expressionless eyes—I know they were meant to convey hopelessness, but they didn’t help this movie any—and the odd songs were rather depressive. The only good thing going on for this movie was Oscar Isaac in a career-making role. I rather preferred his performance in A Most Violent Year.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Snapshots- #2

TV shows…

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (♦♦♦♦): This BBC adaptation of the eponymous novel by Susanna Clarke, recounts the feud between the two greatest British magicians of the age: Gilbert Norrell and Jonathan Strange, who came to restore English magic as prophesied by the book of the Raven King. Only when a faire king—or is it the devil?—enchants Arabella Strange, Jonathan’s wife, and steals her away, Jonathan and Norrell join forces to bring her back and fulfill the entire prophecy.

This period drama takes place during and after the Napoleonic Wars. It is a quintessential British drama with magic as a twist. It has great (but not Hollywood style) special effects. I confess myself curious of what premium cable channels like HBO, Showtime, or Starz, would have accomplished with the same material. Addictive, entrancing and very, very dark, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is a cautionary tale for those who dabble in magic, as they may summon forces beyond their control.

Black Sails (♦♦♦♦): I've been watching Season 1 of this Starz pirate show that is filled with historical anachronisms particularly in speech, but I can't resist a good adventure. Though so far the taking of L'Urca de Lima (a Spanish treasure galleon) is still in its planning stages, it promises to be the mother of all battles to capture a humongous treasure even by today's standards. So far the action is only on land...Will Captain Flint and his crew make it to the sea? And most importantly, will Captain Flint be able to quash dissension before his crew topples him?

And now the movies... 

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (♦♦♦): episode VII of the Star Wars saga, has tried to adhere to the original as much as possible; I just don't think it is that solid an installment. I took issues with several subplots such as the identity of Kylo Ren, and the fate of Han Solo, but I can't explain more without spoilers. Another thing that bugged me is who was Rey? And why was the Force strong with her? I'm sure those answers will become apparent as the saga continues, but they should have emphasized more the strength of the plot rather than rely so heavily on special effects...Just saying...

Danny Collins (♦♦♦): Al Pacino stars as Danny Collins, an aging rock star who receives as a birthday present a letter John Lennon penned to him after reading what Danny said in an interview with a magazine. Upon reading the letter, Danny Collins abandons his life of vices, and settles indefinitely in New Jersey to attempt reconnecting with his estranged adult son and his family.

Danny Collins is an OK family drama with some good moments courtesy of seven- year-old Hope, Danny's granddaughter, a child with ADHD, and lighthearted innuendo between Danny and Mary—the hotel manager of the Hilton where Danny is lodged. Don't expect much and you may well enjoy this movie.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

The Revenant (♦♦♦)

Glass is the guide of a fur enterprise in the American West. His son Hawk, a half Indian, is everyone Glass has left in the world. When, running from Indians, Glass is severely mauled by a grizzly bear, the remaining members of his expedition must carry him.

Faced with a rocky incline, the Captain offers money to Hawk and two other members of the expedition to stay behind with Glass until he meets his Maker. Only Glass refuses to die. Hawk is killed, and Glass is left for dead in the midst of a brutal winter. But he discovers that his will to survive at any cost, and the need to avenge the death of his son are stronger than any obstacle man or nature puts in his path.

I am a fan of Alejandro García Iñárritu, who directed, wrote the script and produced The Revenant. His best known movies like 21 Grams, and Babel, have a circular storyline in which characters' fates meet in the end. I like that. Lately, however, Iñárritu has abandoned that non-linear narrative in favor of more linear storytelling (e.g. Biutiful, Birdman, and now The Revenant), and it seems it's paying off.

The Revenant has a very elemental quality, from the raw characters' performances to the primeval nature of the environment in which it is shot. DiCaprio's Glass gets mauled by a bear, eats raw fish, raw bison, spends a blizzard, naked, in the innards of a dead horse, and endures the unimaginable to survive.

I have never seen anything quite like it. I heard Leo DiCaprio talk about the process of filming this movie. Apparently they endured more or less what the film reflects. That's quite gutsy if you ask me.

The performances were stellar, from minor characters like Domnhall Gleeson as the Captain, Forrest Goodluck (Hawk) and Will Poulter (Bridger), to the villain Fitzgerald, interpreted by Tom Hardy, and Leonardo DiCaprio as Glass.

Leonardo DiCaprio has extraordinary performances under his belt—The Aviator, The Departed, Revolutionary Road, Blood Diamond, Inception, J. Edgar—but in The Revenant he left his soul in the arena, so to speak.

I do not consider The Revenant a spectacular movie; it didn't take my breath away, but DiCaprio's performance is the essence of that movie, and worth watching if for nothing else.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Snapshots - 1

The title of this recurring feature was inadvertently suggested by Dorothy @ The Nature of Things. Thanks, Dorothy!

Following the format of Latest Updates 1 and Latest Updates 2, I intend to publish snapshots of movies and TV shows that I have recently watched that don’t merit a full post for whatever reason.

TV shows…

Wolf Hall (♦♦♦♦): I watched the first episode of this miniseries months ago, and I thought the narration was dry, the characters not that compelling, so I put it aside without any perspective to watch it again. This month, after watching the only season of The White Queen, I decided to give Wolf Hall another try and what difference that made! I have spent the last few weeks in the company of British royalty.

Wolf Hall, an adaptation of the eponymous novel by Hilary Mantel, chronicles the years between 1529 and 1536 in the life of Henry VIII from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell, whom, from humble beginnings, rose to the position of king’s private secretary under Anne Boleyn’s sponsorship.

The series starts with the king seeking divorce from Katherine of Aragon to free himself to marry Anne Boleyn, the split from Rome and Henry VIII assuming the reins of the Church of England, the marriage to Anne Boleyn, and Anne’s subsequent fall from grace when she failed to give the king a live male heir.

I did like Wolf Hall very much. I appreciated the maneuvering and power struggles in a court whose king got increasingly volatile as years went by. I particularly liked Thomas Cromwell, not because he was particularly a sympathetic character, but because he knew to navigate the waters of the morally complex world which he inhabited. Was he perfect? Far from it! And that was his main appeal.

Silicon Valley (♦♦♦♦): I really liked Season 1 of this HBO comedy about five nerds who start an IT company and have to develop a business plan and its company’s culture.

Silicon Valley is hysterical, so much so that almost peed my pant in a fit of laughter. The writers nailed the nerdy talk and the uncertainty of being a specialist in your field but not knowing how to follow up with a sound business plan to obtain financing for your startup company.

If you like The Big Bang, you’ll appreciate Silicon Valley even more because it is funnier, and probably truer to life.

The movies…

Mission: Impossible- Rogue Nation (♦♦♦♦): Ethan Hunt and the IMF chase an elusive terrorist organization-- constituted by rogue agents from the world's intelligence agencies who have been declared dead--spreading chaos all around. This Rogue Nation is known as The Syndicate, and to prove its existence Ethan Hunt will have to match wits with Ilsa Faust, a disavowed MI-6 agent.

Sex appeal, check. Dangerous acrobatics on the side of a plane, check. Lots of action, check. Stellar cast, check. This franchise has all the elements of a commercial success, and like its predecessors, it doesn't disappoint. Where else can you see Tom Cruise these days if not in Mission: Impossible or edgy action-sci-fi movies?

Deadpool (♦♦♦): this is not a superhero movie. It stars an anti hero who gets converted into a mutant super fighter looking for a cure for his terminal cancer.

Deadpool lands some really good jokes, even at the expense of Ryan Reynolds' good looks courtesy of Ryan Reynolds himself, but The Green Lantern should have been proof enough that he is not a superhero kind of guy. Give him some romantic movies and you may resurrect an almost dead genre.

Maleficent (♦♦♦): Lots of great special effects and a very solid performance by Angelina Jolie as Maleficent in this Disney retell of Sleeping Beauty, make this an OK watch. Expect lots of sugary drama too.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

A Perfumer's Secret by Adria J. Cimino (♦♦♦♦)

Amidst the competition to win a prestigious position as in-house perfumer for a renowned designer’s house, NYC-based Zoe Flore learns that she has inherited—from an unknown great aunt in Grasse, France—the formula to her mother's unforgettable signature scent.

Winning the contract with her mother's perfume soon takes a backseat when the formula is stolen and Zoe is forced to recreate it from memory. But a family she didn't know existed isn't the only thing that Zoe will find on her trip; she will unwillingly join forces with a competitor, and learn of a thwarted love affair that broke her mother's heart and which she never forgot.

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. I liked it a great deal and read it faster than I have been reading for months. Gorgeously described, this novel details the quest of a woman to find her sense of self and belonging in the world. Interlaced with the beautiful descriptions of abstract fragrances and what not, were some expletives that felt out of place, but I guess people in idyllic places use bad words as well.

Somehow the novel felt like an American story transplanted to a small French town, (e.g., using the phrase "downtown Grasse", teenagers eating pizza, fries with ketchup, and drinking soda like there was no tomorrow...) I have no way to know if those things I picked up were or not out of place, but they seemed more at home in America than in France.

Despite some minor flaws that may very well be a matter of taste, A Perfumer's Secret is a novel that deserves to be read on the basis of its luscious images.

DISCLAIMER: I received from the author a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Latest Updates (2)

It has been a while since I have posted regularly. That is not to say that I haven’t been indulging in my two favorite hobbies: watching movies/TV shows and reading. Au contraire, I have been very busy in both activities, but I haven’t found much to say about the movies I have watched. Today I’m going to give you brief glimpses into the impressions those movies I have seen lately have made.

Jurassic World (♦♦♦♦): I had to watch this movie twice to really like it. First I saw it and found just OK; not much chemistry between the protagonists, hard to get humor, weak plot…Then I saw Legends of the Guardians co-starring Chris Pratt, with his wry sense of humor, and then I watched Jurassic World again. What a difference that made! The second time around I had a blast. I found it entertaining, funny, and with lots of chemistry between Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard. A little family drama and lots of cool and mean-looking dinosaurs went a long way!

Fantastic Four (♦♦♦): As you know, I am a superhero kind of girl, but I do like good plots, humor, and very good performances. In my opinion this movie remake lacked all these elements, so I found it very mediocre.

Joy (♦♦♦): Yet another collaboration between Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper that just didn’t pan out—this is their fourth, two very good, two mediocre ones. In my opinion it was due to the ambivalence of its genre; the director and screenwriters didn’t settle on just comedy or drama, they went for both and the movie suffered in consequence. Jennifer Lawrence is funny as a crazy lady, a-la Silver Linings Playbook, but not so much as a broke housewife looking for someone to finance her invention.

The Lady in the Van (♦♦♦): A great performance by Maggie Smith, who managed to fill the screen with her charisma every second she got, should have earned her an Oscar nomination. Lots of heart, a cantankerous old lady with unintended sense of humor, an underlying mystery, and great music make this movie a must-see. Why I didn’t like it better? Gosh, I don’t know.

San Andreas (♦♦♦): Sometimes I crave disasters movies, if only as mindless entertainment, and that’s exactly what I got…A devastated state of California due to the mother of all earthquakes, and some family drama thrown into the mix. Don’t expect more than what it is and you might just like it.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Latest Updates (1)

It has been a while since I have posted regularly. That is not to say that I haven’t been indulging in my two favorite hobbies: watching movies/TV shows and reading. Au contraire, I have been very busy in both activities, but I haven’t found much to say about the movies I have watched. Today I’m going to give you brief glimpses into the impressions those movies I have seen lately have made.

First the TV shows…

I’m glad that the new season of Games of Thrones is back and that the characters whose stories were left untold in season 5 are back. Some of those characters are the Stark siblings who have undergone terrible tragedies during the show. I am excited about how Jon Snow’s character has been handled, but it makes me think that there is something true about those conspiracy theories circling online about Jon Snow being part Stark, part Targaeryen.

Also, I have been busy watching the first and only season of the Starz show The White Queen, which encompasses the first three books of the series by Philippa Gregory on the War of the Roses. Great performances and deadly serious power struggles make this show the real life Games of Thrones. I think it’s a darn shame that there weren’t more seasons to watch.

And now the movies…

Effie Gray (♦♦♦): with a solid screenplay written by Emma Thompson, the Pre-Raphaelite movement as background, the undeniable growing attraction between Effie and Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais, and Effie Gray being among the first (if not the first) woman to seek a divorce in England from her famous spouse—art critic John Ruskin—, Effie Gray had many things working for it, but it didn’t deliver on its promise.

The Hateful Eight (♦♦♦½): I like Quentin Tarantino movies, but sometimes they can go overboard with the language and the gore. In this one there is not too much use of the N word, but it is as bloody as any horror movie can get. There are positive things working for it though, the plot and execution are very interesting. It is also good fun as well. And the ensemble cast just makes it worthwhile.
In a year full of lackluster productions, The Hateful Eight deserves an honorable mention.

Shelter (♦♦♦): In the streets of New York City, two homeless persons fall in love and look for redemption, one by cleaning up from her drug addiction, the other, by helping her regain her footing. Directed by Paul Bettany, this film is well acted by both Jennifer Connelly and Anthony Mackie. The redemption process is at times depleting and painful to watch, but it is worth it. Too bad the good performances weren’t enough to lift this movie to a must-see category.

Mad Max: Fury Road (♦♦♦): If you watched this year’s Oscars, then you couldn’t have missed the deluge of awards this movie earned in the technical categories. I agree with those awards. Fury Road was an over-the-top extravaganza that didn’t score too many points by virtue of its performances (though they were very good), but by stressing the technical achievements of its very creative crew.

Pitch Perfect 2 (♦♦♦♦): I’m not sure what the target audience is for this movie…High schoolers? College students? I don’t know, but despite me being not its intended audience I enjoyed it a great deal, not so much for its semi-crude humor but for the very creative a capella musical arrangements. I always enjoy music in movies.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Kilo Two Bravo (♦♦♦♦½)

In September 2006, a British platoon in the Kajaki region of Afghanistan is making a routine patrol and encounters a minefield in a wadi. With several casualties and no prospect of an immediate evacuation, they make do with the personnel and medical supplies they have at their disposal.

It's been a while since I have said Wow at the end of a movie. Kilo Two Bravo is a war movie, and among the most realistic I have ever seen. I don't have artsy standards when it comes to war movies; I don't think, unlike most people, that Saving Private Ryan is among the best war movies ever.

I have never been able to watch war movies with the same eyes after seeing Black Hawk Down, Special Forces, or Zero Dark Thirty. Kilo Two Bravo, being based on a true story, certainly belongs in my Wow category.

A movie about a platoon that encounters enemy fire is nothing new, but when a movie reflects the scary moments of war that follow absolute boredom, then that's worth watching because you know is the real deal. Kilo Two Bravo puts in perspective a book I read relatively recently, The Shadow Patrol written by Alex Berenson, who spent time in Afghanistan to gain insight about soldiers' day to day life in a war zone.

Interlaced with desperate humor, Kilo Two Bravo ably depicts the horror of war, and the sacrifices made by men and women in the military to defend the freedoms we take for granted in the Western world.

The ladies who typically read this blog will probably shy away from this movie, but I urge the men in their lives to give this movie a try; if it doesn't make them cry at least it will make them think.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Thor: The Dark World (♦♦♦♦)

After the events related in Thor (Thor, revisited), and Marvel's The Avengers, we find Thor back in Asgard with Loki as his prisoner. The destruction of Bifrost (in the first installment) has left the Nine Realms in a state of unrest. Thor and his Asgardian warriors have restored peace.

Meanwhile, a great threat has resurfaced to threaten the stability of the Nine Realms. Jane Foster has found a site of great energy disturbance. In there, she comes in contact with an anomalous substance that predates the birth of the universe, an energy so powerful that threatens to immerse in darkness all that exists.

The luscious feel and out of this world special effects, together with the solid screenplay, and excellent ensemble cast that made the first Thor (Thor, revisited) so successful have been kept in place. Darkness has crept in, however, and make no mistake, Thor: The Dark World is true to its title, but there is new ingredient in this installment that hasn't been as apparent before: Loki's sense of humor. Somewhat cynical, Loki's humor peppers scenes that may have been boring otherwise, and in none of the movies that came before, namely Thor (Thor, revisited) and Marvel's The Avengers, has Loki's personality threatened to steal the show. Never has he been as duplicitous or as charming.

As in Thor (Thor, revisited), the ensemble cast has fun working together and it shows, as the chemistry is palpable.

Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Natalie Portman as Jane Foster, Tom Hiddleston as Loki, Idris Elba as Heimdall, Anthony Hopkins as Odin, Renee Russo as Frigga, Stellan Skarsgård as Erick Selvig, Kat Dennings as Darcy, Jaimie Alexander as Lady Sif, Zachary Levy as Fandral, Ray Stevenson as Volstagg, and Tadanobu Asano as Hogun all reprise their roles.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith (♦♦♦♦)

Marty de Groot comes from old money, his ancestors having made their fortunes in the Netherlands around 1600s. He lives with his wife Rachel in a penthouse apartment in Upper East Side, New York City in 1957. Marty is a lawyer and works at a law firm but suspects he'll never make partner. But he does. In fact, a lot of good things, both big and small, start happening after he discovers that a painting he owned has been stolen and replaced by a copy.

Ellie Shipley is an Australian twenty-something who lives in a cheap apartment in Brooklyn. Ellie is writing a dissertation towards her doctorate in history of art with an emphasis on female Dutch painters of the seventeenth century. When a partner brings her the privately-owned, only painting attributed to Dutch painter Sara de Vos for her to copy, Ellie is more than intrigued, she is hooked.

Forty three years later in present day Sydney, Australia, Ellie is about to come face to face with the folly of her youth, because she is curating an exhibit of female Dutch painters of the 1600s and both paintings by Sara de Vos, the original and the copy, are heading her way and threatening with unraveling her carefully constructed professional life.

I took forever (a month in fact) to read this book due to all sorts of things happening in my life in the last month, but I managed to finish and like very much this rather small tome.

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith is a multilayered 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 eyes. This level of painstaking detail reminded me of Waking Raphael by Leslie Forbes and The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro.

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos moves back and forth between the years 1957-1958 in Marty’s and Ellie’s lives and 1636-1637 in Sara’s life, then fast forwards to present day (year 2000) and the year 1649. I’ve found books in which the shifting focus complicates the plot but it isn’t an issue in this novel thanks, in part, to the well defined periods when the story takes place, and to the deftness of Smith to steer the reader through the story.

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

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Iron Man (♦♦♦♦♦)

Millionaire and heir of Stark Enterprise—weapons manufacturer with army contracts—Tony Stark is taken hostage in Afghanistan after the Humvee convoy in which he is traveling takes heavy enemy fire. Tony is imprisoned in a cave and given little time but all resources to reproduce his latest masterpiece: the Jericho missile…Only Tony has other plans. He builds an iron suit propelled by the very battery that is saving his heart from being shredded by the remaining shrapnel in his chest.

Directed and produced in part by Jon Favreau, the original Iron Man is the crème-de-la-crème of Marvel's universe. With a witty and stylish screenplay that makes science super cool, and top of the art special effects, there is no other alternative than to shine. But if those elements aren't attractive enough, the ensemble cast is just the superglue that holds this marvel together.

Robert Downey Jr., in the leading role as Tony Stark, has gravitas as a serious actor, yet he is hip enough as to embody an engineering prodigy that is at the same time suave with women. I don't think those abound. ( ;-) )

Cool as well are Gwyneth Paltrow as the polished and very capable Pepper Potts, Tony's personal assistant, who happens to be his everything including his crush as well; Terrence Howard in both a playful yet serious role as Colonel Rhodey, gives a positive spin from government perspective to Tony's escapades; and Jeff Bridges as Obediah, is Tony's mentor and manages the day to day operations of Stark Enterprise. Also in the first reference to a branch up franchise (Avengers) is the appearance of Clark Gregg, as Agent Coulson of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Thor (revisited) (♦♦♦♦)

The realm of Asgard has an uneasy peace with the neighboring realm of the Frost Giants, but when some of its inhabitants intrude in Asgard palace’s weapons hall, impetuous Thor interprets it as an act of war. Odin, king of Asgard, banishes Thor from his realm to suffer penance for his rash actions and learn humility among humans.

Directed by classical thespian and director Kenneth Brannagh, Thor benefits from a solid screenplay that combines elements of superhero fare and Norse mythology, and the classical training of the movie's director. The result is a very polished production that is, at once, visually lush, smart in concept and development, and with a great cast ensemble.

There is newcomer Chris Hemsworth, in the leading role, who by the way looks like Thor himself, and seasoned actors of the caliber of Anthony Hopkins as Allfather Odin, Renee Russo as Odin's wife, Natalie Portman as Jane, Thor's love interest, Stellan Skarsgård as Erik, Tom Hiddleston as trickster Loki, Idris Elba as Heimdall, Asgard's Gatekeeper, Clark Gregg in a small role as Agent Coulson of S.H.I.E.L.D., and Jeremy Renner in a cameo appearance as Hawkeye

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Concussion (♦♦♦♦)

Nigerian-born immigrant, Neuropathologist Dr. Bennett Omalu found something—in the brain of former Pittsburgh’s Steelers Mike Webster, a.k.a., Iron Mike—that he couldn’t ignore. Despite the appearance of a healthy brain in CAT scans, Webster’s brain under the microscope showed great concentrations of toxic proteins as result of repeated blows to the head over a lifetime of playing football, which most definitely triggered his deteriorating mental state after his retirement as a professional football player.

Over the course of the next five to six years, Dr. Omalu detected the same phenomenon in four other dead professional football players and reported his findings in the medical literature. Meanwhile, the NFL fervently denied that concussions contributed to mental health deterioration. Until…they couldn’t ignore the buzz any longer.

As a reader of this blog, it may come as no surprise to you that I have watched a lot of movie adaptations but have read very few of the books on which those movies are based. Concussion by Jeanne Marie Laskas, the non-fiction book chronicling the discovery of CTE and the fallout between the NFL and Neuropathologist Dr. Bennett Omalu as a consequence of that discovery, is one of a few exceptions, as I read the book last year.

Having read so few sources on which movies are based, makes me, in my opinion, to appreciate the movies better as I have no preconceived notions of how the material should be presented. Watching Concussion, I found myself questioning certain creative licenses such as presenting the movie in a thriller package, as opposed to a life journey.

I had issues with several scenes that distorted the timeline in the book or amplified the message in misleading ways. For example,

1) the detention and subsequent trial of world renowned pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht. In the movie, it seems that the FBI had an issue with Dr. Omalu putting the NFL in the spotlight—for keeping football players in the dark as to the negative impact of repeated blows to the head—and forced his hand by citing his immigration status to make him testify against his mentor as a means of silencing both. That wasn't the case at all. Dr. Wecht's case, though flimsy at best, was rooted in professional rivalries rather than on the long reach of the professional football association.

2) there was a scene in which Prema, Dr. Omalu's wife, was followed by a stranger's car to submit Dr. Omalu into silence; as a result of that chase, Prema had a miscarriage. If that ever happened, it wasn't in the book at all.

The reason I had issues with those scenes is that, though they appear in the movie for shock value, they diminish the veracity of the account overall, and that's too bad because the book Concussion was flawless. In spite of the NFL trying to strip Dr. Omalu of his scientific standing, and many threatening phone calls, their lives were never in physical danger (at least I didn't get that message from the book).

Having mentioned what I thought were the bad aspects of the movie, I’m going to redirect towards the good ones. The movie was successful illustrating scientific concepts, resorting to comparisons between animals’ anatomies and that of a human head to convey why blows to the head may damage the brain.

I thought this was among the best movies of the year, and I must say this because 2015 was a year full of very mediocre movies, some of which made it to the Oscars on the basis of acting alone. Was it Oscar worthy? Absolutely! In fact, watching Concussion, I was surprised that the movie didn’t do as well as I expected because its topic is incendiary and relevant. Maybe years of talking about the negative impact of concussions in sports, have diluted the severity of the message.

Was Will Smith’s performance worthy of an Oscar nomination? Most definitely! I thought Smith’s performance in Concussion was on par with the one in Seven Pounds, which most people don’t like but I think it’s one of his strongest performances, and The Pursuit of Happyness. I don’t cite Ali because I have never watched it.

And there it is…. Travesty! Of the movies showcasing black talent among last year’s crop, I think this one was the most accomplished both artistically and acting-wise.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Creed (♦♦♦♦)

Adonis Johnson is the son that late heavyweight champion Apollo Creed never knew. After having been brought up as a son by Apollo's wife, Adonis has gotten an education and a promotion working in finance, but he leaves his current life behind to move to Philadelphia, home of Rocky Balboa. Adonis thinks he can be as great a boxer as his father if he can get Rocky to train him… After all, they are practically family, aren't they?

Nothing gets my adrenaline pumping like a well made sport movie. I typically prefer football, but boxing underdog stories are close second. Last year two boxing movies came out: Southpaw and Creed. I thought that Southpaw was just OK, but Creed was certainty gutsy and inspiring.

If you keep up with Oscar news, you probably know about the controversy for lack of black talent at this year's Oscars. While I don't think that newcomer Michael B. Jordan's performance was on par with Bryan Cranston's in Trumbo, Michael Fassbender's in Steve Jobs, or Eddie Redmayne's in The Danish Girl, for example--I don't mention DiCaprio's because I have yet to see The Revenant--I do think his performance is one to watch. Creed belongs in the same league as any of the Rocky movies and, between Sylvester Stallone and Michael B. Jordan may have managed to breathe new life into a franchise long dead due to the main star's aging.

If Creed is not an artsy gem, it certainly is a very good sport movie with great performances and, as B. Jordan may discover, there are a bunch of actors who have astronomical money-making franchises who may never make it to the Oscars, or win one.

I certainly wouldn't object seeing B. Jordan reprising the role of Adonis Creed if he manages to shine with the same intensity that earned him Oscar buzz.