Movie Review: Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018)


Title: Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald
Release Date: November 16, 2018
Director: David Yates
Production Company: Warner Bros. Pictures | Heyday Films
Summary/Review:

This sequel to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them reunites Newt Scamander with his friends Tina, Queenie, and Jacob for a new adventure largely based in Paris.  While the first movie was mostly a romp with unsettling danger bubbling in the background of the wizarding world, this movie foregrounds the growing conflict of Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) and the wizards who wish to stop him.  A young Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) recruits Newt (Eddie Redmayne) to go to Paris to find Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller). Queenie (Alison Sudol) and Jacob (Dan Fogler) join in to catch up with Tina (Katherine Waterston) who is already in Paris looking for Creedence.

What follows is a jumbled mess.  The storytelling is very poor here, as the film throws in some interesting fan service (an appearance by the 600-year-old Nicolas Flamel, a flashback to Newt’s days at Hogwarts), but really makes no effort to tie it into a sensible plot.  Depp mails it in as a boring Grindelwald, Zoe Kravitz is wasted in an underdeveloped role as Leta Lestrange, and worst of all the returning characters are poorly used.  Tina and Jacob are minimized in their roles, and Queenie – one of the most delightful and loving characters in the first film – becomes evil? Early in the movie she puts a love charm on Jacob and later she joins Grindelwald, all so that she can marry a No-Maj, even though Grindelwald is vehemently racist against non-magical peoples. I get the point is that good people support autocracy when they’re desperate, but her motivations here are nonsensical.

There are some big twists at the end of the movie that don’t help make this mess of a movie any better.  There are more Fantastic Beasts movies to come, but I’m not looking forward to them.

Rating: *1/2

Book Review: Doomsday Book by Connie Willis


Author: Connie Willis
Title: Doomsday Book
Narrator: Jenny Sterlin
Publication Info: Recorded Books, Inc., 2000 (Originally published in 1993)
Previously Read by the Same Author:

Summary/Review:

I first read Doomsday Book 16 years ago and it immediately became one of my favorite books and lead me to several other Willis’ novels. This novel begins in Oxford in 2054 where history students use time travel technology to observe the past.  Willis has written several loosely-connected novels and short stories using this same premise.

In this novel, undergraduate Kivrin Engle desires to study the Middle Ages, even though the time travel net has never been used to travel that far back in the past.  The leader of the Medieval Studies department is eager to make a splash by permitting Kivrin to go the the 14th century, and even bypasses some of the standard safety protocols. Kivrin’s advisor and mentor, Mr. Dunworthy, is frustrated by Medieval’s carelessness and deeply worried about what dangers Kivrin may face in the time of cuthroats and Black Death.

The stage is set for Something to Go Wrong, with the twist being that an outbreak of deadly influenza strikes Oxford, with the city placed under quarantine.  The engineer who ran the time travel net for Kivrin’s drop into the past is one of the first to fall ill, thus making it impossible to retrieve Kivrin.  Mr. Dunworthy ends up helping his friend Dr. Mary Ahrens care for the sick, and also watching Mary’s visiting nephew Colin, with whom he forms a paternal relationship.

Meanwhile, in the 14th century, Kivrin has also been stricken with influenza. In a state of delirium, she is brought to the home of a village near Oxford to the home of a minor noble family, and nursed back to health. Some of the best scenes illustrating “the past is a different country” involve Kivrin initially having trouble communicating with her hosts, despite her studies and a translator implanted in her head.  Kivrin also has a recorder imbedded in her hand, cleverly allowing her to look like she’s praying when recording her thoughts, and many passages of the novel are in the form of her journal entries.

Once Kivrin recovers from her illness, she forms a bond with the children of the household, the playful 5-year-old Agnes, and the more serious Rosemund, who at the age of 12 is already promised in marriage to a much older man.  Kivrin essentially becames a caretaker for the children, aiding the overtaxed Lady Eliwys, while being an object of scorn and suscpicion for Eliwys’ mother-in-law Lady Imeyne. It is rare to have a female protagonist in time travel stories, often for the practical reason that for most of history the life of women was severely restricted and dangerous.  But through Kivrin’s point of view, the reader gets an (admitedly fictional) look into the overlooked women’s domestic sphere of the Middle Ages.

Another key character in the medieval storyline is Father Roche.  The poor and uneducated priest is mocked by Lady Imeyne, but nevertheless is devout to God and the community.  Kivrin forms a strong relationship with Father Roche as well, and despite her own lack of faith, recognizes Roche as a good person. Father Roche by turn, sees Kivrin as an angel, and while literally not true, it’s easy to see why her sudden appearance and seemingly magical skills would be interpreted as such from his worldview.

There are a couple of other twists in the plot, that I won’t spoil here, although I will not that the source of the 21st century influenza outbreak is a genius plot device.  By and large, things don’t turn out well for most of the characters in both storylines.  And since Willis is excellent at developing the characters and their relationships, Doomsday Book is a heartbreaking novel.  Nevertheless, it is also uplifting, because it emphasizes love in the relationships (Kivrin and Father Roche, Mr. Dunworthy and Colin, and others) among people who are neither related nor romantically involved, which is surprisingly uncommon in fiction.

Doomsday Book is not a flawless novel and others have pointed out its anachronisms and the many coincidences in the plot that are just too neat and tidy.  I think what’s good about the book outweighs these problems for the most part. One distracting problem with this book is that Willis envisioned a future with the technology for time travel and implanting translators and recorders in the body, but she did not anticipate mobile telephones (even though they already existed at the time this novel was published).  Instead, people in the future Oxford story use video phones, a device that is found in a lot of futuristic fiction of the 20th century (see 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, and Until the End of the World for prominent examples).  This would just be a small quirk, but so much of the novel relies on characters needing to find a phone and not being able to reach others by phone that it becomes laughable at times.

Overall, this is a terrific book in the time travel genre and one with a lot of humanity and heart. And a future without mobile phones really doesn’t sound all that bad.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)


Title: Solo: A Star Wars Story
Release Date: May 25, 2018
Director: Ron Howard
Production Company:Walt Disney Studios
Motion Pictures
Summary/Review:

Han Solo is one of the most beloved characters in movie history and in 4 movies (and a holiday special), he was portrayed by Harrison Ford, arguably the most popular actor of the past five decades.  A Han Solo movie without Harrison Ford is missing an essential element.  Not that Alden Ehrenreich can be blamed as he does an excellent job performing as a young Han, it’s just not possible for him to be the same character.

As one might expect from an origin story, a lot of familiar aspects of the Han Solo character are introduced here.  We see Han get his last name, meet Chewbacca(Joonas Suotamo) for the first time, get his blaster, meet Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), and acquire the Millenium Falcon.  The notorious Kessel Run is even part of the plot.  Many of the movies set pieces are generic  or derivative action-adventure tropes.  Early on, landspeeders are used in a classic car chase, then there’s a railroad heist, and finally scenes of the Falcon dodging asteroids and a space creature reminiscent of Empire Strikes Back.

Where Solo works best is around the edges, where we see the people and events that shape Han Solo into becoming both cynical and self-interested and having a big heart with a weakness for the underdog.  The former is demonstrated by Han’s mentor/antagonist Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) who repeatedly instructs Han to not trust anyone.  Another important figure is Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), Han’s childhood sweetheart.  At the start of the film, we see them both trying to escape their home planet of Corellia, but Qi’ra is captured at a checkpoint.  Han serves in the Imperial Navy for three years with plans to go back to rescue her, but when they meet again, she has found her own way out, and it’s strongly implied that she’s done some unsavory things in the process.

Han’s heart is shown again and again.  He’s placed in a pit to fight Chewbacca to the death, but realizes that they are both prisoners and finds a way for both of them to escape.  A big twist in the film involves another antagonist Enfys Nest (Erin Kellyman), and Han’s response to new knowledge is very telling.  Even Han’s final confrontation with Tobias is one that’s filled with tears, rather than celebration.

Solo has a lot in common with the other Star Wars Story, Rogue One, in that it shows the People’s perspective of the galaxy rather than one of royals, knights, and generals.  Imperial officers are typically unquestionably evil, but the one who recruits Han has a tender moment where he calls Han “son.”  Of course he also promises Han that he’ll be flying starships, so it’s very telling when the movie jumps ahead three years to show Han in a battle, on foot.  Deconstructing the myth of Imperial efficiency, the battle is depicted as a mess with no clear objectives and the officers having nothing more to offer than catchphrases.  Also like Rogue One, one of the best characters is a droid.  In this case Lando’s companion Elthree (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) who speaks the truth that has been evident through all the Star Wars movies: droids are treated as slaves and need to be liberated.

The movie never seems to decide whether it wants to be a romp or to delve into the more serious undertones of poverty in the Empire and what that drives people to do.  As a result the movie is a bit uneven and not as good as it could be.  Nevertheless, the acting is strong, the humor is sharp, and Solo is generally an entertaining movie.  It’s a worthy addition to the Star Wars saga (and certainly better than any of the prequels).

Rating: ***

Book Review: Christmas on a Rational Planet by Lawrence Miles


Author: Lawrence Miles
Title: Christmas on a Rational Planet
Publication Info: London : Doctor Who Books, 1996.
Summary/Review:

This is the first Doctor Who novel by Lawrence Miles, who would later go on to be one of the leading writers of the Eighth Doctor Adventures, introduce the Faction Paradox, and co-wrote the history of Doctor Who series About Time.  But in this first novel, Roz is trapped in a town in New York in 1799, Chris is trapped in the TARDIS with someone trying to kill him, and secret socities are worshipping Satan and the like.  The book is interesting at parts, but also just weird in ways that makes it hard to follow.

Rating: **1/2

Movie Review: The Unicorn Store (2019)


Title:The Unicorn Store
Release Date: April 5, 2019
Director: Brie Larson
Production Company: The District
Summary/Review:

This movie directed by and starring Brie Larson is about a girl named Kit who grows up enjoying princesses, fairies, and rainbows and yearns to be an artists. But when the professor at her art school disapproves her Lisa Frank-style painting, Kit flunks out of college and is forced to move back in with her parents.  Suffering from depression Kit decides that she has to become a responsible adult and takes a temp job.  Some of the funniest scenes are basically Kit cosplaying at adulthood, and finding the people in the office is are also neither mature nor have it all together. (And 20+ years after being a temp myself, I had to laugh that temps are still expected to make lots of photocopies, and are complimented for being good at it).

Kit receives strange invitations which lead her to The Store where The Salesman offers to fulfill her dream of owning a unicorn.  The Salesman is played by Samuel L. Jackson (who had such great chemistry with Larson in Captain Marvel)  who plays against his tough guy persona, but still manages to drop in some profanities.  In order to earn the unicorn, Kit must provide her a home, food, and a loving environment (meaning she has to work out her diffrences with her parents).

Kit takes on the first task by hiring Virgil (Mamoudou Athie) from a local hardware store to build a unicorn house.  Virgil is also in a low-level job for which he feels he has not talent and is uncertain about his future, and it appears he takes on the seemingly absurd task out of curiousity more than anything else.  But Kit and Virgil form a bond and their friendship begins to help them grow and change.  Kit also gets the opportunity from her creepy boss to work on an ad campaign, which gives her a chance to use her artistic talents.

The unicorn plot could’ve gone in some predictable ways.  Either The Saleman could’ve been a scam artist or Kit could’ve been delusional.  But I’m glad that the story went another way entirely. The premise of the movie is basically having the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope be the main character and then justifying her place as a real person.  After all athletic boys are allowed to become jocks when their men even if they no longer play sports, and the itnerests of nerdy boys are well catered to for adult men, so why not make a space for women who still love unicorns and rainbows.

The cast in this film are great, especially Athie and Joan Cusack and Bradley Whitford as Kit’s parents.  Nevertheless, I felt the humor was just a bit off and the movie was less satisfying than it had the potential to be.

Rating: ***

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone by J.K. Rowling


Author: J.K. Rowling
Title: Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone
Narrator: Jim Dale
Publication Info: 1999 Listening Library
Summary/Review:

My daughter is working her way through the Harry Potter ouevre, and I decided I should revisit the books myself, and have someone read them to me (Jim Dale does a charming job).  I am impressed at how much of the full story is established in the first book.  I mean Sirius Black is mentioned on the first page, for starters.  But the basics details of Hogwarts and the Wizarding World are all very well established in this book.  This novel is also a good stand-alone story (IIRC, so are the 2nd and 3rd books, while 4 through 7 are more of an ongoing story).  It’s hard to remember what I thought when I first read this book around 15 years ago, but I have to say it holds up well.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)


Title: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Release Date: November 18, 2016
Director: David Yates
Production Company: Warner Bros. Pictures
Summary/Review:

The first spinoff movie from Harry Potter’s Wizarding World introduces mazizooligist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), author of the eponomynous textbook used at Hogwarts.  Set in the 1920s, the British Scamander arrives in New York City with a suitcase full of magical creatures.  His ultimate purpose in being there is revealed slowly of the film, but first, hijinks!  Newt accidentally swaps suitcases with a non magical person, Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), and several creatures escape.  As Newt and Jacob look for the missing animals, they draw the attention of an American witch, Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterson), who has recently lost her position as auror.  More hijinks ensue and Tina is forced to bring Newt and Jacob to her apartment and introduce them to her charming sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), who has the ability to read minds.

The film feels at first a comedy of errors and takes time to delight in introducing aspects of the Wizarding World outside of Hogwarts and Great Britain, with a lot of fun visual effects.  But there’s more going on here as the story unfolds.  First, there’s the New Salem Philanthropic Society, a 20th century heir to the Salem witch hysteria, who are openly promoting that wizads and witches are real (true, in the story) and need to be defeated. Second, the dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald is on the loose and killing magical and non-magical people alike.

I enjoy the culture clashes between the British and American wizards.  Americans very practically call non-magical people “No-Maj” instead of “Muggles,” which sounds as silly as calling a truck a lorry, when you think of it.  Instead of a Ministry of Magic, the USA’s wizarding government is the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA), where Tina works.  And even though only European schools participated in the Triwizarding tournament, there is an American school of witchcraft and wizardry as well, called Ilvermorny.  And I’ve learned from Wikipedia that Ilvermorny is in Massachusetts, on the peak of Mt. Greylock, so wizards also send their children to New England for their education.

Newt Scamander is very good with magical creatures, but is a bit awkward around people.  Redmayne plays his introversion well, and I enjoy seeing another quiet lead character in an action-fantasy film to go along with Rogue One.  Despite being the main character, Newt is more of the straight man to the quirkier characters of Jacob, Tina, and Queenie.  The leading quartet have a lot of chemistry and I enjoy seeing them playing of one another.  They carry the film that at times is a bit thin on plot.

Rating: ***

Book Review: Alcatraz Versus the Dark Talent by Brandon Sanderson


Author: Brandon Sanderson
TitleAlcatraz Versus the Dark Talent
Narrator: Ramon de Ocampo
Publication Info: Recorded Books (2016)

Previously Read By the Same Author:  Alcatraz Versus the Evil LibrariansAlcatraz Versus the Scrivener’s Bones, Alcatraz Versus the Knights of Crystallia and Alcatraz Versus the Shattered Lens
Summary/Review:

The fifth and possibly final Alcatraz book picks up where the previous one ended with Alcatraz having destroyed all of his family’s talents.  Now he must ally with his mother – an evil librarian – to stop his father, a Free Kingdomer whose desire to give every one on Earth a Smedry Talent which could have disastrous consequences.  Smedry and his team go to the Evil Librarian’s Highbrary – a.k.a The Library of Congress in an alternate universe version of Washington, DC.  Unfortunately, Smedry’s friend and defender, Bastille remains in stasis for the better part of the book.  Smedry and Bastille’s love/hate chemistry when they are together is one of the best part of the series and this book suffers from its absence (although when Bastille finally makes her entrance, it’s spectacular).  The book has the usual clever wordplay – including a chapter of delicious puns – but it feels like Sanderson’s heart is not really in it anymore, and it is the weakest book in the series.  Or it could be Alcatraz, who obstinately states this is the last part of his biography after an uncharacteristically dark ending to the book.  But Alcatraz is an unreliable narrator who has lied to us before, and there are clues that this is all just a big cliffhanger leading to yet another book.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)


Title: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
Release Date: November 16, 2001
Director: Chris Columbus
Production Company: Warner Bros. Pictures
Summary/Review:

My daughter has succumbed to the Harry Potter bug and wanted to watch the first movie this weekend (a bit of peer pressure since of her best buds was watching the movie too). I hadn’t seen this movie in about 17 years or so (!).  It was a reminder that the movie series (as does the book) starts off with a fairly simple plot compared with the intricate world-building it would acquire later.  It was also a reminder that Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint were oh-so-little when this all started, and it was an impressive job of casting at that age to get actors who’d do so well over 8 movies and into their adult careers.  Chris Columbus takes a safe-but-boring approach to directing, I think some other directors are more creative and adventurous later in the series, but nevertheless the movie has its charms in bringing the books to life for the first time.

Rating: ***

Book Review: Just War by Lance Parkin


Author: Lance Parkin
TitleJust War
Publication Info: London : Doctor Who Books, c1996.
Summary/Review:

The Seventh Doctor makes frequent visits to World War II: The Curse of Fenric on tv, Colditz on audio, Timewyrm: Exodus and this book in the Virgin New Adventures. We begin this book with one of this Doctor’s great manipulative plans.  Roz and Chris are working with British intelligence in London, Benny is undercover with the Resistance in Guernsey, and the Doctor is seeking a particularly genius Nazi scientist.  Things go horribly wrong, of course, and as happens all to often in the New Adventures, it leads to a companion getting tortured. The book features a strong narrative though, one of the most easily readable New Adventures, with great character moments for Benny, Roz, and Chris.  It’s also close to being a pure historical, with The Butterfly Effect and the Doctor’s hubris being the main antagonists outside of the Nazis.

Rating: ***1/2