BOOK: The Bear by Claire Cameron (2014)

April 19, 2014

thebearThis creative but ultimately ineffective novel begins with our narrator, 5 year-old Anna, happily snuggling up in her tent after a day of canoeing with her family to a small, forested island where they’re planning to camp for the weekend.  Held tight in one arm is her teddy bear Gwen; tucked in a sleeping bag next to her, her baby brother, 2 year-old Stick, obnoxiously snoring away as usual.

While she dozes off to sleep, Anna can smell bacon frying up and hear her parents laughing and talking in soft voices on the other side of the tent flap.  Tempted to pop her head out just to reassure herself everything is as it should be, Anna instead decides to be a “good girl” and stay in bed as told.  She cozies up to Gwen, whose smell she finds reassuring, and takes comfort in the fact “we are 4″ (that is, her whole family is there).

Then suddenly the voices change and Anna snaps awake.  Her mother seems angry; her father’s tone drops low and quiet and calm.  Just as Anna starts to sit up to try to listen more closely, though, her dad comes bursting through the tent flap, looking furious (she thinks).  He grabs her and Stick, races outside, throws them both into the family’s oversized Coleman cooler, jams a rock into the corner of the lid to keep it propped open slightly for air — and then turns the latch to lock them in, hissing at them to STAY THERE.

Convinced they’re being punished, though what for, they have no idea, Anna and Stick lie quietly in the cooler for a while — a familiar place from their hours of playing hide-and-seek in it at home and so not immediately alarming to either of them.

But as time passes and she ceases being able to hear her parents, this lengthy time-out starts to seem unfair. Plus, they’re only 2, and Anna wants to be 4 again (this number thing recurs throughout the novel and was, I thought, an adept way to show Anna’s anxiety about being separated from her family).  Then Stick poops his pants — argh!  The stench is overwhelming and Anna wants OUT, so she calls to her parents at last, attracting instead the attention of what appears to her to be a big black dog.  The dog begins sniffing and pawing at the cooler, finally knocking it around so much the latch breaks (luckily, he doesn’t notice and instead goes back to smacking and crunching on what sounds to Anna like a meaty bone — it’s the same sound she’s heard when her neighbor’s dog Snoopy has scored a tasty post-dinner chicken leg, so she assumes her parents like the dog and have given him a treat).

Eventually, Anna hears the dog leave, and she opens the lid to get out with her brother.

. . . And thus begins the story of a 5 year-old girl whose parents have just been killed (and eaten, ugh) by a bear and who is now alone in the woods with a 2 year-old and no comprehension whatsoever of what’s just happened or what might be coming next.

In theory, this is a truly incredible novel.  Anna’s narration is a fascinating mix of childish stream of consciousness and observation, giving us a close look at how a 5 year-old perceives the world.  The beginning of the novel and the end are the strongest, as we watch Anna struggle first with trying to figure out what’s going on and later with the confusing nature of her own emotional responses.

The problem with having a 5 year-old as your narrator, though, reveals itself once you get past the initial fascination with the idea of having a 5 year-old as your narrator. There’s a reason why 5 year-olds aren’t more widely published, after all, and that reason is that they aren’t terribly proficient writers.  As an experiment, The Bear is intriguing and unique.  As a novel, on the other hand, it’s easily four times too long.  This story would’ve been far more effectively told in a much shorter format — a novella or even a short story could’ve made it a piece of absolute genius.  Instead, the end result is weakened tremendously by the need to fill so many pages with the observations of a child who doesn’t really have anything to do or say.   Ever spend a lot of time with a bored kid?  It’s not usually when they’re at their most entertaining, know what I mean?

Though the end of the book is strong and moving, so much slogging through tedium was required to get there, any power it might have had was almost completely sapped by my increasing impatience overall.  If you’re looking for a good suspenseful story about two children who survive a bear attack, in other words, this is not the book for you. I feel like I read somewhere recently that there’s a plan to adapt this story for a film, though, and if that happens, I’d definitely be interested in seeing it — at its heart, this really is a very good story.  But it’s definitely the rare occasion where a novel that has a unique narrator, told primarily through that narrator’s thoughts, would actually make for a far stronger movie than book.

Despite my disappointment and frustration, I do think there’s some value to picking this one up; if you’re interested in the study of writing, for example, you’ll find a lot to chew on here (pun intended, sorry).  My advice?  Read the first and last 50 pages for the sake of the experiment, and save yourself 150 pages of Stick annoying his big sister by pooping all over the place. After all, if you have children, you probably get quite enough of that at home already.


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MOVIE: Europa Report (2013)

April 15, 2014

europareportIn last week’s review of the sci-fi flick Apollo 18, I mentioned that I’d recently been down to visit my mother, and thus had a couple of good-bad movie reviews to send your way.  This is the second from that series, and, as with Apollo 18, we were pleasantly surprised by the quality of writing, acting, and production here too.  I can’t actually explain that stroke of luck; it’s very unlike us. (Though one of you guys recommended this one to me a while back — was that you, RogerBW? If so, thank you!)

The movie begins with the CEO of Europa Ventures telling the story, documentary-style, of the Europa One mission.  When it was discovered that Jupiter’s moon (Europa, dig?) was covered in liquid water deep under its frozen crust, the desire to become the first to discover evidence of life elsewhere in the universe was too hard to resist.  The corporation hired six astronauts, who set out about 2 years ago planning to land on the moon, take samples from that liquid water, and see if it had anything interesting swimming around in it.  Six months into the flight, comms were lost in a solar storm, and Europa Ventures heard nary a thing until nearly 14 months later (present day), when suddenly they received a huge stream of video footage and evidence the entire crew was dead.


As we learn from the “found footage” that follows, the solar storm not only knocked out communications, but cost the mission the life of a crew member, who went out on a space walk to try to fix the problem and became contaminated with a deadly chemical. Realizing he couldn’t go back on board without killing everybody else, he cut himself loose, a gut-punching scene for all parties (especially me, because that was Sharlto Copley’s character and I love him).  Despite the death of both their comms and their friend, however, the team decided to press on with the mission.

Fourteen months later, Europa One finally landed on the moon’s surface, their bad luck continuing when they completely missed their targeted landing zone.  The crew managed to drill through the ice below the ship anyway and sent a probe down to collect samples, but they were in the wrong spot and the samples sucked.  Desperate to make the mission a success, if only for the sake of their fallen comrade, one of the astronauts insisted on going outside the ship to collect samples by hand, where she miraculously managed to find what looked exactly like a single-celled organism noodling around in one of her vials.  Everyone on board cheers!  Victory! And then: Oh, hey, what’s that bright light over there?  Let me go take a closer look. . . Wow, this is weird. . . AHHHHHHHHH!

See, because while in the real world, finding evidence of life elsewhere in the universe would be super cool, in sci-fi movies that’s the kind of thing that almost always ends in tears.  And so it goes with Europa Report.

While I confess I was a little disappointed in the ending of this movie (we finally see a creature, for one thing, and this is a low-budget sci-fi movie which means that creature was pretty lame), overall, I was really impressed by the quality of the writing, acting, and special effects. The (mostly computer-generated) sets looked pretty amazing — as it turns out, the filmmakers used NASA and JPL maps to design the movie’s Europa in the film, which is cool, and also used real footage from the International Space Station as inspiration for a lot of scenes on board the ship.  Their research work shows.

Overall, I think both Mom and I would say this is another good choice for fans of space sci-fi.   And there you go, guys: Apollo 18 and Europa Report — I just mapped out your next movie night double-feature (apologies in advance to your friends and family.)


[Netflix it (on streaming) | Amazon Buy/Rent]

Genre: Science Fiction, Space Disaster
Cast: Christian Camargo, Embeth Davidtz, Anamaria Marinca, Michael Nyqvist, Daniel Wu, Karolina Wydra, Sharlto Copley

MOVIE: Apollo 18 (2011)

April 7, 2014

apollo18I was recently down for a long weekend at my parents’ house, which is all the explanation I need to provide, I assume, for the fact I’m about to post a couple of reviews of cheesy sci-fi movies.  My mom and I are big fans of the craptastic genre; the worse the movie, the happier we are about it (to a certain point, mind you — even dedicated garbage-lovers like us occasionally turn a movie off after ten minutes of insufferable dumb-dom).

This one ended up surprising us, though.  We went into it expecting good-bad trashy sci-fi, and instead were rewarded with good-good trashy sci-fi.  I love it when that happens!

Aside from an intriguing story, which I’ll get to in a minute, this movie stood out to me as a primo example of how smart filmmakers can turn a low budget flick into a film as effective as its high-budget genre-mates.  We had just watched Gravity right before watching this (Mom hadn’t seen it yet), and while I was expecting that to make all sub-par special effects stand out as extra sub-par, I ended up being incredibly impressed by the scenes of weightlessness in Apollo 18.  They were just as believable as comparable scenes in Gravity (though obviously not done to the same extent/degree), and were done simply, primarily using camera angles and careful choreography of the actors’ body movements (plus one spinning pen trick).  Pretty cool.

The movie’s story begins with the publicly-announced cancellation of the Apollo 18 moon mission, due to budgetary concerns.  But on the sly, the crew is quickly informed the cancellation is a ruse — the mission is still happening, it’s just going to be disguised as a satellite launch to avoid arousing suspicion from the rest of the world.  The mission’s purpose is being kept quiet, the men are told, because it involves the installation of a series of sensors on the moon’s surface engineered to alert the U.S. government in case of an ICBM missile launch by one of its enemies.

At first, everything seems to be going as planned — two of the astronauts head down to the surface, the third remaining on the mothership in orbit, and begin setting up the sensors.  As they work, they also collect the usual rock samples, bringing them back aboard the LEM with them (obviously, they don’t realize they’re in a sci-fi movie, where even moon rocks cannot be trusted).

Day one goes great, they sleep well despite the cramped quarters, and the next day they head back outside for more work where they are startled to discover. . .


Hey, did you leave these groovy prints, man?  No, man, did you?  No, man.  Well, who left ‘em, then? I don’t know, man! Why you askin’ me? This ain’t groovy, man!  These prints are trippy!  (I’m paraphrasing, based on the fact this is set in the 70s, when, for all you young’uns out there, people use to say “man” and “groovy” and “trippy” a lot.)

Because they don’t know any better (see above re: unaware they’re in a sci-fi movie), the astronauts decide to follow the prints, and manage to track them back to an abandoned Soviet LK lander.  Nearby, they also find the body of a dead cosmonaut.  Clearly, the Soviets know this lander is on the moon along with the cosmonaut(s) who flew it — so wait, did the U.S. know about this?  Was this a secret Soviet mission?  Is OUR secret mission actually about THIS secret mission?  This is totally harshing my mellow!

When the next morning our intrepid heroes arise to discover the flag they’d planted outside has vanished, they decide they’ve had enough and start packing their stuff up.  “Man, this is OUTTA SIGHT, and WE ARE OUTTA HERE.”

Only, naturally, this is a sci-fi movie (see above re: this is a sci-fi movie), so, of course, when they try to take off, the ship shakes so violently they’re forced to abort.  One of the dudes dons his space suit and ventures outside to try to figure out what’s wrong, but minutes later returns into view, screaming that something in his suit is attacking him.  Back on board, the men discover the only thing in the suit other than the guy and his brand new gaping chest wound is a moon rock.  The moon rock attacked him?  Can you dig it?  FAR OUT!  (I am so sorry — for the record, nobody in the movie actually talks like this; I just can’t help myself.)

From there, things go from “that’s not good” to “holy crap,” culminating in “daaaaang!”

In other words, we totally dug it.

I noticed Rotten Tomatoes gave Apollo 18 a score of only 24%, based on 60 or so critic reviews and that a lot of the complaints were about the movie’s slow start.  I attribute this to the fact this movie is erroneously classified as a horror flick instead of a science fiction one.  If you go into it expecting horror, you’re definitely going to find the lack of action in the first 45 minutes kind of frustrating.

On the other hand, if you go into it expecting science fiction, the first 45 minutes are all about a mission to the moon in 1974, complete with scenes of giddy weightlessness, a cool lunar module, and a group of astronauts embarking on their dream mission into the final frontier.  Nothing boring about that to us cool cats, that’s for sure! To us, the moon rocks that come to life and eat people at the end were just a bonus.

Anyway, definitely two thumbs up from us, and recommended if this is your kind of thing. Catch you on the flip side, man!

[Stream at Netflix | Buy/Rent at Amazon]

Genre: Science Fiction, Space Disaster
Cast: Warren Christie, Lloyd Owen, Ryan Robbins, Ali Liebert, Andrew Airlie, Michael Kopsa , Erica Carroll

BOOK: The Martian by Andy Weir (2011/2013)

April 1, 2014

martianAttention all fans of space-based science fiction: this book is a must-read!  It’s a must-not-miss!  It’s a must-buy!  It’s a must-call-in-sick-to-work-and-spend-all-day-reading!  It’s a must-everything!  IT IS A MUST!

This hilariously funny and absolutely fascinating story is about a botanist/engineer on a mission to Mars who gets separated from his crew in a disaster and ends up stranded alone. Mark Watney and his crewmates were on the planet’s surface when a dust/windstorm suddenly kicked up, with gusts so powerful they began to tip the MAV over (Mars Ascent Vehicle — how they get back to the mothership).  While racing to the MAV to evacuate before it got trashed by the storm, Watney was struck by a piece of debris that punctured his abdomen.  The force of the blow, combined with the minimal gravity of Mars, sent him flying into the swirling dust, and the damage to his suit knocked out his life support computer, sending faulty readings to the rest of the crew — to them, Mark looked dead; there was nothing they could do but leave him behind and get to safety themselves.

To Mark, on the other hand, Mark was very much alive — and now he was also stuck alone on the surface of Mars with no way to send an SOS to Earth.

After an initial round of losing his cool, Mark, an extremely sensible dude, pulls himself up and heads into the hab (a huge inflated tent where the crew lived and worked) to assess his situation.  He’s got about 9 months of rations, a gadget that recycles water from the air and his urine and makes it potable again, several bottles of emergency water, about 10 potatoes they were saving for a holiday dinner, plenty of air to breathe, and a reliable shelter.  He’s got tools.  He’s got a bag of dirt from Earth he was going to use in his botany experiments.  He’s got one HELL of a sense of humor.  And, most importantly, Mark’s got moxie.  As it turns out, moxie really comes in handy when you’re stranded on Mars.  It’s a life saver, in fact.

Figuring he’s now stuck there for somewhere around four years, when the next planned mission to Mars is scheduled to land, Mark begins putting his noggin to work to figure out how to make 9 months of rations last 48.  The novel is told primarily through entries in his journal, which detail his work (along with his random thoughts about Aquaman) as he begins working out how to convert Martian sand into soil he can grow Earth potatoes in, and then make enough water out of hydrogen, oxygen, and science (!) to water those crops indefinitely (without simultaneously blowing himself up <– the true trick to making water).

Meanwhile, alternating chapters come to us from Mission Control on Earth, where a satellite specialist has just taken a look at the latest pictures of the Mars hab, expecting to see it destroyed by the storm, and instead sees things that can’t possibly be right.  How did the rover end up connected to the hab’s air lock?  It wasn’t like that when the crew evacuat. . . holy shit, IS THAT MARK WATNEY?!

Eventually, Mark is able to rig up a way to communicate with Mission Control, and the various players, including his old crew, start working out a daring rescue plan.  Meanwhile, we get treated to what is easily the most thoroughly entertaining — funny, smart, sharp, fascinating, impossible to put down — novels I have read in a really long time.

Oh man.  Honestly.  I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a novel as much as I enjoyed this novel.  It’s THAT GOOD, people.

Inspirational story: The Martian started out in 2011 as a self-published e-book Weir sold on Amazon for about a buck.  As word of mouth spread, more and more copies sold, piquing the interest of Random House who finally offered Weir a book deal last year.  That was quickly followed by a movie deal, no doubt partly inspired by the success of the film Gravity. In other words, the novel this computer nerd guy thought only his mom and best friends would buy has just exploded all the way to Hollywood — pretty darn great.  Now, here’s hoping he’s already hard at work on the sequel (I’m totally game for a sequel, Andy!).



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BOOK: Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital by Sheri Fink (2013)

March 18, 2014

fivedaysOn August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans.  Most of us know what happened after that, when the levees failed, the city flooded, and over 14,000 people ended up trapped in horrific conditions at the Super Dome for days without any supply drops or rescue attempts, thanks more or less equally to the innumerable failures of both federal and local government and the sheer magnitude of the disaster at hand.

Fewer people, however, know about what was going on in the hospitals of the region, which, unlike the rest of the city, were not under mandatory evacuation and thus remained full of patients and staff (as well as family members and dozens of pets), struggling on as the power went out, the water began to rise, supplies got low, and life support machines failed.

This book, which began as a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative news article for the New York Times and ProPublica, tells the story of the most infamous of those hospitals, Memorial Medical Center, where, weeks after Katrina was over, details about a series of “mercy killings” hit the media.

It’s the story of a group of doctors and nurses struggling to care over a hundred of patients, many of whom had life-threatening conditions, as the air conditioning went out (resulting in temperatures of up to 110 in some parts of the building), water became contaminated, food got scarce, the plumbing failed, the stench of human waste and dead animals thickened the already-stifling air, and violence broke out all around the city outside.

It’s also the story of a hospital (one of many just like it) that was completely unprepared for a disaster of this scale.  Despite all the federal funding and training for terrorist attack readiness post-9/11, most of the hospitals in the New Orleans region hadn’t bothered doing much prep for natural disasters, particularly floods.  And even fewer had given any thought to what might happen if the power went out and stayed out. (In many cases, hospitals even kept their back-up generators in the basement or on lower floors, where they were almost immediately incapacitated by water as soon as the levees broke.)

It’s ALSO the story of Tenet Healthcare and the federal government — two forces that could’ve acted much more quickly and efficiently and saved countless more lives if they hadn’t had their heads so far up their butts.  Tenet, the corporation that owned Memorial, even received numerous phone calls at their Texas HQ early in the week from people and organizations with helicopters offering to assist with rescue efforts — offers they rejected, telling people the federal government was in charge and they could do nothing.

Helicopters did finally start landing at Memorial a day or two after the levees broke.  But by then, the staff were so overwhelmed and underprepared they hardly knew how to respond.  Elevators were out, so every patient evacuated had to be carried up numerous flights of stairs by staff (one reason given for leaving obese patients out of the initial rescue plan), and there was a total lack of leadership.  The whole place was in chaos.  Ultimately, a decision was made to get the healthiest people out first — the opposite of standard triage and not something that had ever been discussed and formalized outside of an actual crisis situation.

By Thursday morning, five days after the hurricane had struck and the levees broken, the sickest were dying, and two doctors and a handful of nurses made the decision to euthanize several of them rather than let their suffering continue, something they did without consent from the patients themselves or their family members.  After all, they’d been euthanizing pets for several days already and for the same reasons — imminent, painful death and fear they’d be abandoned to die alone (pets were not being allowed on the helicopters or boats, and the sickest of the patients were theoretically too ill to be safely moved).  Was the animals’ suffering somehow more worthy of mercy? Was that mercy at all?

By the time everyone finally got out, there were 45 corpses in Memorial — dramatically more than at any other hospital affected by Katrina.  Forensic pathologists found deadly levels of pain killers and sedatives in several of the dead, including one man who had reportedly been in relatively stable condition, but weighed over 300 pounds.  Was he euthanized because nobody wanted to try to carry such a heavy man up the stairs?  It’s impossible to know for sure, but I definitely got the distinct impression Fink believed that played a part, though I’ll also say one of the most powerful elements of this book is Fink’s relatably authentic tone — compassionate, confused — and her clear lack of clarity in her own opinion on what happened.

This book is extremely detailed, based on interviews with over 500 people and covering not only the actual events in the hospital, but the entirety of the aftermath, when Dr. Anna Pou and two nurses were accused of the first-degree murder of four patients by the state attorney general, much to the horror of many who felt they did the best they could under the unfathomable circumstances.

Though a Grand Jury ultimately refused to indict, the debate about whether or not euthanasia was the right move continues, and only gets more complicated, in my opinion, the more you learn about what actually happened.  For that reason alone, I think this book is an extremely important one.  It really challenged my thinking on the subject (I went into the book confident the doctors had made the right choice — and left it a little less certain, while simultaneously recognizing the value of hindsight in regards to that, something the doctors and nurses in the moment didn’t have).

This book is incredibly hard to read — it’s heartbreaking, terrifying, discouraging (especially the epilogue, where Fink describes the myriad ways in which hospitals appear NOT to have learned any lessons from Katrina), and tragic.  But it’s also fascinating and a good reminder of what happens to human beings when they are put in desperate situations — both the bad and the good. (And there was a lot — a lot, a lot, a lot — of good, too.)  Though it has a few weak spots — Fink is at her best when describing the situation inside the hospital, but much of the middle-to-end portion of the book, focusing on the investigation and Grand Jury case, gets bogged down by repetition and relatively unimportant detail — overall, this is a powerful book — well-written, extraordinarily well-researched — and a vital record of one of the most heinous natural horrors this country has seen.

Recommended, though if you can’t bring yourself to read the whole book, I’ll let you off the hook as long as you read the original article, located online here:  It’s worth your time, and it’s important.  So.  Read it.


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MOVIE: You’re Next (2011)

March 14, 2014

yourenextThis horror flick opens as an older couple celebrating their 35th wedding anniversary head out to the family summer home, where they meet up with their adult children (and assorted spouses) for a weekend’s celebration together.

It’s family time as usual, except for one recent addition to the clan:  their son Crispian’s new girlfriend Erin, who has a thick Australian accent . . . AND A DARK, DARK SECRET.  (Cue “dun-dun-DUN!” music.) (Only not really, because her secret is really more ridiculous than DARK, DARK.)

At first, everything goes pretty much as expected — family banter, family strain, all on display at the dinner table.  Then, out of the blue, an arrow comes flying through a window, and the family finds themselves under vicious attack from strangers in masks hiding right outside.

As they make a series of really idiotic decisions resulting in a series of really gore-iotic deaths, the movie spins around and around in all-too-familiar circles, offering very little in the way of creative ideas, until we get to the end — which is about as all-too-familiar as they come.

In other words:  Yawn.

I hadn’t been all that interested in seeing this movie when it first came out — despite its general panning from movie critics, the Liv Tyler/Scott Speedman movie The Strangers had been very successful in creeping me the heck out, and after seeing that one (plus, Ils (Them), a similar, but even scarier French film I reviewed in the same post with The Strangers), I kind of swore off the home-invasion-horror genre for a while.  I love scary movies, but I like my scares a little less “could actually happen to me,” know what I mean?

I kept hearing that You’re Next was clever, well-written, and even a bit darkly comic, though, so I gave it a shot.  Here’s my rundown on those three descriptors:

Clever:  Where? There’s nothing here I haven’t seen done before in a myriad of different ways, and the “twist” in the middle, revealing the reason for the attack, was as original as the cliche I’m about to use to describe it:  visible from a mile away.  Plus, giving the killers an actual reason for doing what they’re doing, even if it’s an interesting reason (which it isn’t here, I’m just pretending) immediately takes away some of the fear factor — when the killers in The Strangers answered the question, “Why are you doing this to us?” with “Because you were home,” for example, my stomach flipped.  Man.  That is WAY scarier than [reason provided by the killers in You're Next] (spoiler avoidance!).

Well-written:  The dialogue was fine, but in order to be an effectively scary movie, I have to be scared for the characters I’m watching, and in order for me to do that, I have to at least care about them a little.  Hard to do when they’re all really, really boring.  Erin was the one tiny standout, and that was only because she was a curious mix of homicidal maniac and moralist (about as curious a mix as curious mixes come, frankly).

Darkly comic:  Oh, maybe.  I never know what people mean by “darkly comic” half the time anyway.  I didn’t feel this was a “comic” movie, dark or otherwise, but that may be because I was so bored so quickly I didn’t have the energy to be bleakly amused.

I used to watch just about every horror movie I could get my hands on, but I confess that over the last couple of years, I’ve started to lose a lot of my patience.  I think I’ve just seen too many now — nothing strikes me as unique anymore.  Here’s hoping a filmmaker comes along soon who can truly revitalize the genre, because we’re long overdue for something interesting.

Anyway, I suggest giving this one a pass.  But if you’re looking for a good scary home invasion movie, go check out my double-feature review of The Strangers and Ils, because one or both of those ought to be sufficient for a couple of weeks of double-checking the locks on your doors at night.  And have any of you guys seen The Purge?  I keep checking it out from the library and sending it back unwatched.  Should I watch? Don’t steer me wrong!

[Netflix it | Amazon Buy/Rent]

Genre: Horror
Cast: Sharni Vinson, Joe Swanberg, AJ Bowen, Nicholas Tucci

MOVIE: Big Miracle (2012)

March 11, 2014

bigmiracleA few weeks ago, I was stuck at home sick for a couple of days.  Lying around on the couch feeling crappy, I couldn’t find anything on Amazon Prime or Netflix I wanted to watch (rawr!), and I was getting more and more cranky and annoyed as the morning progressed (“rawr!” is often my state of mine when I’m home sick — I lack patience for illness).

We had recently signed up for HBO, so in a last ditch attempt to find something with which to occupy myself (OCCUPY MEG STREET!), I activated their HBO Go app on our Smart TV and started flipping through the options.

While poking around in there, I came across the movie Big Miracle, a “family” movie starring Drew Barrymore and John Krasinski. The description said it based on a true story about a pod of gray whales that got trapped in the ice outside Barrow, Alaska in the late 1980s.

I love both Drew and John (not to mention Rob Riggle, Tim Blake Nelson, Kristen Bell, and Ted Danson, who are also all in this film), I’ve always liked stories about whales, AND I’ve always been utterly fascinated by Barrow, Alaska (it’s weird, I know, especially considering how much I hate being cold).  I’ve always wanted to go there — I’m drawn to it for some reason I can’t even begin to explain.  I’ll watch anything set there — from cheesy stuff like 30 Days of Night to the thought-provoking indie film On the Ice (highly recommended, by the way).

In other words, this movie sounded like it was exactly what I needed.  FIRED UP! FEELS GOOD!  Pass me some juice; let’s do this thing!

I’m pleased to report I ended up finding this movie exactly as entertaining as I’d hoped it would be, and I don’t think it’s because I’d hit rock-bottom-boredom right before I turned it on (though, that’s certainly possible).

The screenplay is based on the non-fiction book Freeing the Whales by Tom Rose and is about what became known as “Operation Breakthrough” (OB).  In October 1988, an Inupiaq hunter in Barrow came across a mid-sized hole in the iced-over Beaufort Sea where three whales (two adults and a baby) were trapped.  Because whales have to breathe air, they couldn’t leave the area — the ice had frozen over before they had gotten out to open sea and they wouldn’t be able to hold their breaths long enough to get from the hole they were stuck in all the way out.

The hunter immediately reported the pod, and soon reporters and activists were flying in from all over.  As each attempt to get the whales out fails, the group of residents and outsiders start coming together to pool their ideas and try to find a solution, learning an  important lesson about letting bygones be bygones for the sake of the greater good (for example, the corporate CEO has to learn to work with the Greenpeace lady — two people not typically palling around a lot in real life).  Also, there is a sweet little romantic subplot, which is always nice.

How they end up freeing the whales is pretty amazing, and though the movie ends on a more optimistic note than the “real” story did, that’s what I want in a movie when I’m sick anyway — I want optimism, goddamn it! — so that was fine by me.

All in all, this is a really sweet, good-natured movie that would be extremely appealing to kids and adults alike.  Definitely one to rent on family movie night, I would say.  Recommended!

[Netflix it | Amazon Buy/Rent]

Genre:  Kids, Drama
Cast: Drew Barrymore, John Krasinski, Kristen Bell, Vinessa Shaw, Stephen Root, Ted Danson, Dermot Mulroney, Rob Riggle, Michael Gaston, Tim Blake Nelson

MOVIE: Captain Phillips (2013)

March 4, 2014

capphilWhen I first saw the trailer for this film, I confess I bristled a bit.  Despite the fact it’s based on a true story, making it slightly more difficult to accuse it of being an unfair portrayal (not completely, but slightly), my first thought as the trailer got into full swing was, “America’s sweetheart attacked by evil, evil black men!”  Though  that’s obviously true on one level — the real Captain Phillips and his crew were, in fact, attacked by a group of black Somali pirates — it’s waaaay more complicated than that, and the trailer didn’t inspire much confidence in me that the filmmakers were on it.

As the film came and went from theaters, I kept reading extremely positive reviews of it — both of the acting and of the “compassionate” take on the issues surrounding the story.  So, I finally sat down and watched the thing last weekend.  Unfortunately, given those same rave reviews, I have a feeling my final opinion isn’t going to be terribly popular.  It may not even be entirely fair — I’ve been extremely interested in African politics and economics since high school (particularly West and East African — less so North and South), and have strong opinions on the subject that admittedly can cloud my perception at times.  Nevertheless, clouded or not, this was my reaction, and it feels valid to me, so here we go.

The movie tells the based-on-a-true-story of Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks), whose cargo ship, the Maersk Alabama, was taken hostage by a small group of Somali pirates in 2009.  Cargo ships traveling in that region at that time (and now as well, though not to the same degree) were being attacked so often by pirates the area was officially declared a “war risk zone,” subject to higher insurance premiums for all the vessels traveling through it (in other words, this had a cost for corporations beyond the obvious ransom-y things).  Ship captains were continually warned about the risk of pirates, and companies developed a long list of procedures used to try to deter or block them from getting on board.

Despite constant drilling on those procedures by Captain Phillips, though, when the Somali pirates in this story speed into view, there’s no stopping them (the Alabama crew manages to keep the pirates off the ship initially but not ultimately).  Once aboard, the small crew of four “bad guys” make their demands — they will hold the ship and its people hostage, releasing them only in exchange for a million dollars.

The movie is primarily focused on the interactions between Phillips and the head pirate, Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi, who just got an Oscar nom for his work in this film).  There’s definitely an attempt to make Muse seem like a nice enough fellow — at least inasmuch as he’s the only pirate in the group who doesn’t want to kill anyone, and who has some ideas on how to keep the violence to a minimum.

But, of course, his partners are the usual movie-style African bad guys, filled with fury and blood lust, not to mention extreme greed.  (When Phillips offers them the $30,000 in the ship’s safe, for example, the  implication when they refuse is that it’s not enough because they’re greedy, know they can get more, and therefore want more.  In reality, it’s got less to do with personal greed, and more to do with the fact returning with “only” $30,000 is a great way to get themselves shot by their bosses.)

Making matters worse, as Phillips and Muse are trying to come up with a plan to get out of this thing alive, the U.S. Navy arrives on the scene and begins preparing to send a team of SEALS in to kill or capture all the bad guys.   Phillips talks the pirates into getting into the lifeboat so they can get the hell out of Dodge, and they, in turn, trick him into getting in there with them — the better to ransom him with, my dear.

Soon, Phillips and the four scary, evil pirates are stuck together in a tiny little motorized boat, the entire U.S.  Navy (feels like!) hard at their heels.  By the end of the incident, all but one of the bad guys are dead, one is sent to the U.S. and sentenced to 33 years in jail, and Phillips is on his way to writing a book that will eventually be made into, FULL CIRCLE!, this movie. (Note: sorry if that’s a spoiler, but this WAS in the news, you know.)

The film makes the most minimal of efforts to try to convey the idea that the pirates are not necessarily pirates by choice.  The opening scenes include one of Phillips at home with his wife, all smoochy kissy, followed by a scene of the pirates in Somalia, where they are being ordered by their warlord boss to go get a ship and not come back without a million bucks in their pockets.  Later, Muse says two things to Hanks that support this idea — “We [pirates] are just fisherman” and  something about how “we all have bosses” (in other words, both Muse and Phillips are doing what they have been told to do).

The problem is, without any real context for either of those two statements, they’re not terribly meaningful, I would wager, for the majority of the audience.  “We are just fisherman” comes off sounding rather a lot like Tony Soprano’s “I work in waste management,” for example.   Yet, the fact is, Somalian piracy DOES have its roots in the fishing industry, and was, at least initially, an attempt to try to protect that industry and the families dependent on it.

You see, in 1991, dictator Siad Barre was overthrown, plunging the country into war as multiple sides battled for dominance.  This left Somalia with no central government to defend the country’s economic interests — including the “exclusive economic zone” (EEZ) off their coast (territory rights to the waters and their fish).  As soon as the government fell into disarray, fleets from Europe and Asia quickly took advantage, rushing to the EEZ and fishing the crap out of it.

Initially, the groups of “pirates” were the same fishermen who had made their livelihoods working those waters, now struggling to regain control and push out the Europeans and Asians exploiting their political upheaval. (The United Nations has reported that an estimated $300 million worth of seafood is stolen from Somali waters every year — so, you know, if you wanna talk about piracy, let’s talk about piracy. . .)

As the country continued to dive and more and more Somalians began to spiral down into extreme poverty, the fishermen realized how lucrative full-on piracy could be and started using it to help make money more directly — through a focus on theft and ransom instead.

After that, Somalian warlords inevitably got involved, forming increasingly sophisticated gangs. By the time Captain Phillips’s ship sailed into the region, warlords were calling all the shots, piracy had become one of the only real ways the average Somalian male could make enough money to feed his family, and trying to quit a pirate “gang” was about as safe a move as ratting out the mob.

None of this is explained in the movie, and the result of this lack of context or background is that we in the audience can’t help but see the pirates as evil men who need to be stopped at any cost.  They are vicious men, driven predominantly by greed — not human beings with a complex set of needs and wants.  Though initially, Muse is presented in a semi-sympathetic way, it gets harder and harder to hold onto that view the more you watch Forrest Gump suffer (though, Gump-jokes aside, Tom Hanks IS actually phenomenal in this film — the scene after he is rescued and in the US ship’s clinic is a powerful one, no argument there).

Then the U.S. Navy shows up, and things get even more disconcerting, as it becomes harder and harder to ignore the contrast between the “heroes” and the “villains.”  The nasty, scary pirates?  Are actually four utterly emaciated, dirt-poor, black teenagers (they were all under the age of 20; the real-life Muse was estimated to be between 17-19 years old), now being chased by dozens of highly trained, fully-armed white guys.

I get that this is how it went down and that it’s also how Phillips got out alive, so it’s arguable I’m being unfair.  I can picture some readers interpreting this as me saying we should never make a film — no matter how accurate — about black people attacking white people because that alone is somehow inherently racist.  Let me be clear, though: that is NOT what I’m saying.

What I’m saying is that this movie’s attempt to tell a rich story by including a look at the perspective of the Somalian pirates is so half-assed it almost ends up doing more harm than good, if you ask me (if there even was an attempt to tell  a rich story here, a dubious premise in the first place).  Without any such depth, Captain Phillips just becomes yet another in a long line of exciting, entertaining, but ultimately empty action flicks.

The filmmaker made very clear choices to keep things simple here — the Navy’s the good guys, the pirates the bad.  But the total lack of political context made me uncomfortable as a viewer, and I left feeling disappointed by all the wasted potential.  Captain Phillips could have been the platform for a truly thoughtful look at class and culture in Africa (and elsewhere), but instead takes a token shot at providing “the other side” and then it aims itself squarely at Hollywood-blockbuster-dom and fires.

And, man? I hate it when that happens.

I’m not saying this is a bad movie — as action flicks go, it’s well-made, well-acted, and satisfyingly suspenseful.  But as thought-provoking flicks go, it’s a total flop.  At least, it was a total flop for me.  I’d be curious to hear what others who saw it think about all this, so if you’d like to share your experience, hitten zee comments!

(By the way, up next in my DVD pile is the film A Hijacking, a Danish film telling a similar story about Somalian pirates, but in a much more effective way (or so I’ve heard). Watch for a review of that coming soon!  Here’s the trailer:

[Prequeue at Netflix | Buy/Rent at Amazon]

Genre: Drama
Cast: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali

BOOK: Sycamore Row by John Grisham (2013)

February 26, 2014

sycarmoreI’m not a big John Grisham reader — over the years, I’ve probably only picked up two or three of his books and while I’ve enjoyed them, I’ve never really been full-on bitten by the Grisham bug.  I’ve seen almost all of the movies based on his novels, though, and typically have liked them better than the books they were based on — as with Stephen King, I’ve often felt Grisham is a better storyteller than he is a writer.

I picked this one up, in fact, because I had just seen the Matthew McConaughey film A Time to Kill recently for the first time in years, and I had forgotten how good it was. For those who have forgotten or never saw the film/read the book, that story is about a young  Mississippi lawyer, Jake Brigance, defending a black father, Carl Lee Hailey, on trial for capital murder after killing the two racists who brutally assault his little girl.

Sycamore Row is a sequel to A Time to Kill, picking up a few years later.  Brigance is enjoying a booming career, thanks to his success in the Carl Lee Hailey case.  Also thanks to that case, he’s become the most trusted advocate for African American families in the region. It’s that reputation that undoubtedly made Seth Hubbard choose Jake to be the executor of his estate — a selection Brigance discovers the day after Hubbard’s suicide, when he receives a letter from the dead man in the mail.  The letter tells Jake to read the enclosed document — a handwritten will — but keep it a secret until the day after his funeral.   Then Jake is to file it with the court and get ready to defend it tooth and nail.  Why?  Because first Seth Hubbard changed his mind, and then he changed his will — his estate, all $24 million of it, is no longer to be equally divided up amongst his two (bratty) children, but instead to be given, almost in full, to his black housekeeper Lettie Lang.


As soon as the funeral is over, a huge legal battle erupts as the family members ousted by the new will try to claw their way back in.  Their father was dying of cancer and had prescriptions for heavy-duty pain medications; he can’t possibly have been in his right mind when he wrote this cuckoo-crazy new will, they argue.  Add to that the fact a previous employer of Lettie’s, another elderly person, had done almost the same thing decades earlier, not to mention Lettie’s no-good husband’s massive gambling debts, and it sure looks like Lettie may have intentionally influenced Seth’s choices at the end when he was blitzed on medication and blinded by intractable pain.

Yet as Jake and his old mentor Lucian look into the past for answers, the reason Hubbard made the decision he did becomes clear.  It’s a decision rooted in guilt over an incident a generation before his own, involving both the Hubbard and Lang families, a plot of land, and a hangin’ tree.  Over the span of the novel’s story, as more is revealed both about the past and about the present, the question becomes less, “Does Lettie Lang deserve the money?” and more “Will the people of Clanton –  white OR black — stand for letting a black woman become the richest person in town?”  The answer to the former might be an easy “yes,” but the answer to the latter is a whole lot more complicated — especially in Ford County, Mississippi.

Despite the fact Grisham goes a little overboard here and there with the drudgery of probate law (I mean, thanks for striving for realism, and all, but you could strive for a little less realism next time, sir. Because: zzzzzzz . . .), this is a really entertaining, well-written novel.  It clearly sets up the Brigance character for future novels, as well — something I’d definitely welcome after reading this one.  Solid, entertaining, and thought-provoking.



[Buy from an Indie Bookstore | Buy from Amazon | Browse more book reviews | Search book reviews]

MOVIE: Black Rock (2012)

February 14, 2014

blackrockI wasn’t expecting much from this movie — it’d been on my radar for about a year now, and I’d even gone as far as watching the preview a few times. But though it sounded like a female take on the movie Deliverance, a concept I found promising in theory, I read a few reviews that said that was pretty much ALL it was.  That it didn’t go any further than that — just a straight-up “campers attacked in woods by rednecks” with no attempt to  explore any larger ideas.

When it turned up on a blogger’s list of his favorite horror movies of the year, though, I decided to give up and give in (though I’d argue this isn’t a horror movie at all — it’s a thriller.  There’s a difference. No, srsly, there is. THIS IS IMPORTANT. (Okay, not really.)).

Oddly enough, the critiques of Black Rock I’d read got it backwards, in my opinion — the problem with this movie isn’t that it makes no attempt to explore any larger ideas, it’s that it tries too hard to explore larger ideas and fails to pull it off.

The story is about three young women, Abby, Lou, and Sarah — best friends since childhood until two of them got into a massive fight and quit speaking to each other.  In an attempt to mend the rift, Sarah tricks the other two into joining her for a camping trip on Black Rock, a remote island off the coast of Maine where the girls had camped many times before as kids.   After an initial round of, “If SHE’S going, I’M staying!,” Lou and Abby finally give in and the three women head out for their trip.

Back when they were girls, they’d buried a time capsule on the island, drawing themselves a rudimentary map so they could go back as adults and  dig it up.  Sarah’s plan to “rebond” Abby and Lou involves spending their first afternoon tracking the capsule down.  But the plan backfires when, after hours of hiking (and bickering), they can’t find the damn X marking the damn spot.  Finally, they give up for the night, build a fire, and pitch their tent.

They’re just settling in when they hear a noise from the ridge above them.  Suddenly, three men appear — a group of hunters armed with rifles.  After exchanging a few words, Abby realizes one of the hunters, a dude named Henry, is the brother of an old high school classmate of hers.  So she invites the fellas down to the beach to hang out and pass a bottle around.

The evening starts out fun, as the gang eats, drinks, and gets to know one another.  But things get a bit tense when it’s revealed that the three men are Army buddies who, just a few weeks prior, had been dishonorably discharged from duty in the Middle East after Henry had carried out some kind of act of unsanctioned violence.  When Derek and Alex say they credited Henry’s act with saving their lives, though, the women relax again. Surely the military just overreacted about whatever it was,. These fellas seem like good guys! Here, pass me the whiskey, glug, glug!

Not long after, Abby has one drink too many and begins to flirt shamelessly with Henry.  Seductively, she invites him to join her for a walk in the (now completely dark) woods, and he agrees with a wink at the others around the campfire.  Back in the trees, Abby starts to kiss Henry, but when he presses her for more, she changes her mind and says she wants to return to the group.  Only, Henry isn’t taking no for an answer, and as he pushes her down to the ground, she picks up a rock and bashes him over the head, accidentally killing him.

When Henry’s pals find out what happened, there’s no sympathy for the bruised and battered Abby.  Instead, they both go absolutely apeshit.  Soon, the girls are running for their lives, trapped on a tiny island with no way to contact the outside world.  You can pretty much take the story from there.

Black Rock is not a terrible movie — it’s entertaining enough.  But it has some pretty major flaws. To begin with, there’s nothing unique about any of the female characters — they play very strongly into stereotype, right down to the (over) peppering of their dialogue with the filler word “like” (which, frankly, really started to grate on me by the end).  Nor is there anything terribly compelling about their relationship with each other.

Even worse, while the movie attempts to make a very obvious point about a woman’s right to say no at any stage during a sexual encounter (no matter how much she’s been flirting), I think the writer (Mark Duplass, director/star Katie Aselton’s husband) thought he was doing more with that concept than he actually managed to accomplish.  The other women are all quick to dismiss her feelings of guilt (of course it’s not your fault! you did nothing wrong!), but ultimately, both Abby and her friends are SEVERELY punished for her actions. I’m not sure that was QUITE the take-home message we were supposed to be getting.

I was also really bothered by the characterization of the men, which was completely nuance-free.  There’s no attempt to make them seem like actual thinking, feeling human beings — they’re just rapist, murdering monsters, which makes them about as interesting as, say, Michael Myers.  There’s plenty of room in this film for thoughtful characterizations on both sides of the gender bar, but none of that happens.

And, man, don’t even get me started on the completely bizarro scene in which the women get soaking wet and strip completely naked when they start to get cold — in the dark, in the middle of the woods, while being chased by violent rapist murderers.  Riiiiiight.  While that might make sense from a survival perspective, when they end up later running off, boobs a’flyin’, without taking their clothes with them, all that plot device’s legitimacy and integrity runs off with them.  No woman being chased by violent bad guys would be so willing to be completely unclothed for that long, to be that physically exposed.  At a minimum, I think underwear would stay firmly in place. This just didn’t make any sense, which made it feel either like an attempt to get the attention of the males in the audience, or, more likely, an attempt on the part of the (male) writer to make some kind of point about the women’s confidence in their bodies, their selves.  Perhaps we were supposed to think of them as strong Amazonian warriors, refusing to conform to society’s mores for women?  Only, it really only ended up feeling extremely awkward and nonsensical, and more than a little disturbing.  I honestly don’t quite know what to make of that scene, but it sure bugged me.

But, you know, whatever.  The biggest problem with this movie is that I got the sense from it quickly that it was trying to give a “feminist” spin to a fairly classic tale, making some kind of big, important point about women (or maybe about women in film).  But when you try to do something like that and it’s clear you just don’t get it, that makes your movie a lot worse than if you’d just stuck with straight-on, boring ol’ action thrills.

They really should’ve stuck with straight-on, boring ol’ action thrills, is what I’m saying.

In any case, it’s not unwatchable.  Which is more than I can say for some of Lake Bell’s other movies.  So there you go.

[Netflix it | Amazon Buy/Rent]

Genre: Thriller
Cast: Katie Aselton, Lake Bell, Kate Bosworth, Will Bouvier, Jay Paulson, Anslem Richardson, Carl K. Aselton III


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