Friday, September 22, 2017

Book Review - Brave Companions: Portraits in History by David McCullough

History is so important. So many people and their contributions have been

Brave Companions: Portraits in History is a collection of short, historical writings by David McCullough. It's available as an eBook, audiobook, and those paper things your grandparents used to read.

The Good


Journey to the Top of the World. This tells the story of an early scientist and his journey thru South America. His name and contributions are mostly unknown today, and yet at the time he was one of the greatest living scientists making some of the most remarkable discoveries. This section is heavily science focused, but still interesting.

The American Adventure of Louis Agassiz. This is another mostly unknown scientist and educator today who was a major name in his day. He was a bit essentric, which makes his story a little more interesting.

Glory Days in Medora. This is the story of the creation of the myth of the Old West. It was a bit sad and melancholy but still fascinating.

Remington. This is the story of a western artist. I found it interesting, because I'm an artist and the author focused on the method and progression. But to a nonartist this will probably be seen as boring.

Steam Road to El Dorado. This is the story of the Panama Railroad. If you've read McCullough's Panama Canal book, then it's nearly the same story only shorter. But it is still interesting and worth the read.

The Builders. This was probably the most interesting the essays. It tells the story of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, and it is a fascinating story filled with drama, twists, and unbelievable events.

The Treasure from the Carpentry Shop. This is the story of the discovery of the plans for the Brooklyn Bridge and the unbelievable treasure of craftsmanship they were. The story itself is pretty mediocre, but it makes an excellent coda to the story of the Bridge itself, and for that I enjoyed it.

Long-Distance Vision. This tells the story of the writings of the early aviators of the 20th Century and makes several interesting observations, such as how no other group had similar literary aspirations or accomplishments. The author postulates that the factors which drove these individuals to fly during the experimental days of aviation are the same factors that causes one to write. I had heard of these pilots, but I had never heard of any of their books, but I plan to check them out.

Extraordinary Times. This was a really interesting look at the history of the world from 1936 to the present focusing on the political events while ignoring the cultural and technological changes. Despite the glaring omissions and prejudices for the best known events, he makes many excellent observations that I found insightful.

The Bad


The Unexpected Mrs. Stowe. This tells the story of the writing of Uncle Tom's Cabin. The name of the book and basic plot is well known, although the author and details of the writing are less so. I found this chapter so boring I actually hit skip halfway thru.


Cross the Blue Mountain.
 This is the meanderings of an author I've never heard of and have no intention of reading after hearing his story.


The Lonely War of a Good Angry Man. This is a rant against strip mining. Instead of presenting a logical case with facts, it really is little more than an angry rant of an angry man.

Miriam Rothschild. I have heard of this person, but the story was more strange than interesting. I was glad when it finally ended.

South of Kankakee: A Day with David Plowden. I love photography, and I found the ideas interesting, but the way it was told could have been so much better executed.

Washington on the Potomac. I learned a lot of interesting history from this, but it was sure a painful trip to get to it. It could have been more interestingly told.

Recommended Itinerary. The point this chapter made was excellent and one ever American needs to be aware of. I just wish it wasn't so painful to get thru.

Simon Willard's Clock. Like the last chapter, this one made excellent points. But again, I wish it hadn't been so painful to get thru.

What I Would Like to Have Seen

I wish the writing had been stronger. This was not up to David McCullough's usual standard, and I was very disappointed.

Overall

Brave Companions: Portraits in History by David McCullough is a mixed bag of essays and speeches he's written over many years. Most featured people I had never heard of, and a few I can see why. But others made significant contributions and should be better known. Some of the essays were very concise and fascinating while others meandered to uninteresting places. Overall, I give it 3.5 out of 5 eReaders.

   

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Friday, September 8, 2017

Book Review: The Android's Dream by John Scalzi


After reading the last John Scalzi book, Fuzzy Nation, and being extremely disappointed by it, I became very hesitant to pick up another one of his books. But this one was on sale and had a pretty blue cover, so I closed my eyes and clicked "buy".

The Android's Dream is a science fiction, space opera, political comedy written by John Scalzi. It's available as an eBook, audiobook, and those paper things your grandparents used to read.

Overview


The leader of an alien world is assassinated, and citizens of Earth have to help install the next ruler by finding a certain bread of sheep. (Trust me, it's actually a great book despite the incredibly stupid premise.)

The Good


Characters. The characters are incredibly likable. Each feels very real, but not incompetent, which too many authors do. Some are more powerful or more able than any real person should be, but that's what makes science fiction fiction and fun.

Dialog. If you've ever read anything by John Scalzi, you've read this type of dialog before. He's only able to write in one voice well. But this is him at his best with that voice.

Twists. This story has a lot of twists, some I saw coming, but others I did. Yet all of them felt right and earned. None felt contrived or pulled out of left corner.

Narration. Wil Wheaton has the perfect voice for this kind of story and tells it just how it should be told.


The Bad


Names. The alien names are a little hard to remember or keep straight. They sound so similar and more like noise than deliberate sound.


Dated. You can tell this book is a decade or too old, because some of the references and details are very dated, but not dated enough to make it feel period. But it doesn't spoil the story.

What I Would Like to Have Seen

I wouldn't have done anything differently.

Overall

The Android's Dream by John Scalzi is an exciting, hilarious, twist-filled ride with interesting characters and a very satisfying ending that ties everything up but doesn't make it seem too easy or too neat. I give it 5 out of 5 eReaders.

     

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Monday, September 4, 2017

Movie Review: Death Note (2017 Netflix Original Film)

I enjoy reading manga and watching anime, and I get excited for every film adaption that comes along, even though I usually end up disappointed. But let's face it--they only works that would work as a direct adaption are Astro Boy and Akira. Everything else would require a lot of adapting, and die hard fans tend to get mad at such meddling. And most of the time the adapting isn't a great film on its own nor contains enough of the original to make the fans happy. Death Note is an exception. I've never seen the anime or read the manga, so I had no preconceived ideas and can judge the film on its own merits.

Death Note is a 2017 Netflix Original horror film based on the manga and anime of the same name. It tells the story of a boy who is given a journal with which he can kill anyone by writing their name in it. It is rated TV-MA for language, violence, and gore and is appropriate for adults.

The Good


Adaption. I'm really impressed at what an amazing job the filmmakers did to adapt this story. They took the basic elements, ideas, and themes from the manga and created a wholly American production. Watching it, you'd never know this was based on a Japanese property. It had a solid story, a cohesive plot, and developed the themes well. I can understand superfans of the original being upset at all the changes (I myself do the same with properties I love), but they were necessary to make a good film. A direct adaption wouldn't have attracted an American audience.

Pacing. Even though this is based on a Japanese comic and show, it's been completely translated into an American film and so it moves very quickly and never drags. Those who are used to the extreme decompression of anime (it takes four times as long to tell the same story) have complained that it moves too quickly, but an American audience will appreciate the pacing.

Actors. I really like the actors cast as Light, his girlfriend, his father, and the rest (with one exception). They all fit the roles well. I think the reason there has been so much backlash against them online is because of how anti-white certain parts of society are becoming--this prejudice and bias blind them to what's really going on in front of their eyes.

Ryuk. The death god could have gone really badly, but the filmmakers played it smart by hiring a great actor to voice the character and they showed him in the shadows so the cgi wasn't so distracting. He was great every time he appeared on screen, but he wasn't overused so each appearance had maximum impact.

The Bad


L.  I did not like the character of L at all. I did not like the actor they chose to portray him, nor did I like the way he was portrayed. He started out as an interesting character but quickly turned into a schizophrenic nut who was little more than a plot devise.

Music.  During two dramatic moments at the end the filmmakers inserted two old pop songs that did not fit at all and interrupted the drama. I'm not sure what they were thinking.

What I Would Like to Have Seen


I wish it hadn't been so gory. It wasn't necessary to see the actual deaths, and the special effects used almost looked silly.

Overall


Death Note (2017 Netflix Original) is a well-crafted adaption taking the basic elements, ideas, and themes from the manga and created a wholly American production that has a solid story and clear plot. Superfans of the original will probably be upset at all the changes, but they were necessary to make a good film. A direct adaption wouldn't have been a strong movie nor attracted an American audience. I give it a solid 4.5 out of 5 boxes of popcorn.

     


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Friday, September 1, 2017

TV Show Review - Atom: The Beginning


I am a huge fan of Osamu Tezuka and his most famous creation Mighty Atom aka.Astro Boy. I own all the Manga and have both TV series Tezuka worked on on DVD. There is something magical about his creation that transcends time and national borders. I've been less fond of adaptions of Tezuka's work by other people. They always seem to miss the essential heart in most of Tezuka's work.

Atom: The Beginning is a 2017 12-episode anime based on Osamu Tezuka's Mighty Atom (aka Astro Boy) that focuses on the creators and early attempts at creating a robot. It is rated G and appropriate for all ages.

The Good


Main Characters. The main characters are so well developed and explored; they feel real and I want to see more of them. They also have such a great relationship that is masterfully explored both with times they get along and times they lock horns. It's very dynamic. In the Astro Boy manga, Tenma is shown as a fairly sinister character with little compassion. This version explores why he's like that and makes you feel sympathetic for him.

Six (Mighty Atom Prototype). This takes place before the creation of Astro Boy, a robot that is so human. This offers an excellent explanation for how that is possible and shows you what early attempts to create such a personality look like. It is so well thought out.

Action. This show is filed with some amazing action that is beautifully animated and makes you feel like you are in the middle of it. It couldn't have been handled better.

The Bad


Pacing.  Like most anime this show is very decompressed, which means it moves very slowly and takes awhile to get anywhere. For a western audience, this would be pretty boring.

Flat Characters.  While the main characters are extremely well developed and interesting, most of the other characters are very flat and uninteresting. Most are little more than plot devices.

What I Would Like to Have Seen


I think the producers took the right approach and did a great job adding to the existing mythology. There's nothing I would have done differently.

Overall


Atom: The Beginning is a charming anime that focuses on Tenma and Ochanomizu's years in school developing robots. It does an excellent job examining their relationship, their differences, and their goals as well as the birth of Astro Boy's basic character. Like most anime, it is slowly paced with amazing action scenes disbursed throughout. I give this show 4 out of 5 remotes.

   


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Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Book Review: The Spaceship Next Door by Gene Doucette

I've read and watched so much science fiction, that I sometimes find myself getting bored with the genre. It's always nice to find a fresh take on an old troupe.

The Spaceship Next Door is a science fiction dry comedy about first contact with aliens written by Gene Doucette. It's available as an eBook, audiobook, and those paper things your grandparents used to read.

Overview


A spaceship lands in a small town and does nothing for years while the army and several conspiracy theorists camp around it studying it. Then one day everything changes.

The Good


Approach. This story is about aliens landing on Earth for the first time. That's a premise I've seen hundreds of times, but the author found a unique approach that was different enough to be interesting and not feel repetitive.

Voice. The story has a very strong voice that adds to the mood and feel and point of view of the story.


The Bad


Characters. The characters were really dull and uninteresting. The author did a competent job of developing them, so that wasn't the problem. They just weren't that interesting.


Pacing. The book moves very slowly with an even pace. Most of the book is spent with the characters wondering what is going on with little revealed until the end. By then the reader just doesn't care anymore.

What I Would Like to Have Seen

I wish the story had more to it: more interesting characters, more twists in the plot, more original ideas. While the overall idea was something I hadn't read yet, it wasn't a strong enough idea to be the sole strong point.

Overall

The Spaceship Next Door by Gene Doucette offers a new spin to the First Contact Troupe of science fiction and has a great, quaint voice with lots of dry humor. Unfortunately, the characters are uninteresting, the pace slow, and the overall plot kind of boring. I give it 3 out of 5 eReaders.

   


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Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Movie Review: The Founder

I tend to enjoy a lot of independent films and biographies. I also think Michael Keaton is a great actor. So this movie seemed like one I would like.

The Founder is a 2017 drama based on the story of how McDonalds came to be. It is rated PG-13 for language and is appropriate for teens and up.

The Good


Acting. Michael Keaton is a great actor, and he pulled off this role marvelously. I never once felt like I was looking at or watching Michael Keaton. He really sold the character.

Storytelling. The story of the McDonalds brothers, Ray Kroc, and the rise of the greatest fast food chain in history is an intriguing story, and this movie did and excellent job bringing it to like and making you feel what each player felt and understand what each player's motivation was.

Visuals.
 The way this movie was shot from the camera angles to the colors to pacing felt very much like a 1950s or 1970s movie, which is appropriate considering the time period this takes place. I really felt like I was watching a window to the past.

The Bad


Pacing.  This movie did drag towards the beginning and from time to time. It spent too long on boring actions and ugly scenery. I get what the filmmakers were going for, but it didn't add.

What I Would Like to Have Seen


I appreciate how focused the film was on Ray Kroc and his story, but other characters had a lot to do with his story and they were little more than set pieces in this movie. I wish their contributions and stories had gotten a little more screen time.

Overall


The Founder is well-crafted movie that does an excellent job of telling the fascinating story behind the founding of McDonalds. The acting and filming are so well done that it feels like a window into the past. I give it a solid 4.5 out of 5 boxes of popcorn.

     


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Saturday, August 19, 2017

TV Show Review: Marvel's Defenders (Netflix Original Series)


When I heard about the Marvel's Defenders TV series from Marvel, I couldn't wait for it to arrive. After watching the masterpiece that is Marvel's DareDevil, I became even more excited. So how did the reality match up to my ridiculously lofty expectations? Fortunately, the other Marvel series were pretty disappointing and tempered my excitement.

Marvel's Defenders is an 8-episode 2017 Netflix Original Mini-series based on the Marvel Comics superhero characters of Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Iron Fist, and Power Man. It is rated TV-MA for language, violence, and gore and is appropriate for older teens and up.

The Good


Characters. The best part of this mini-series was the characters. While Daredevil was the only character strong enough to carry his own show, as a team all the characters work well and are likable. I also appreciated how all the major characters from the previous mini-series were included in this, several having fairly large roles.

Lack of CGI, Wirework, Green Screen, and other Special FX.
 I love how down to earth and real this show looks. There are no cgi Hulks or green screen battle scenes or wirework flying or other special effects one sees in almost every superhero adaption that look mediocre now and will look terrible in ten years. This all looks very real, and will hold up for years to come while other superhero adaptions will just get sillier and sillier as time moves on.

Tying up Previous Threads. I was concerned about how the producers would be able to stuff all four characters and their stories from five 13-episode series into one 8-episode mini-series, but they did it. All of the storylines and conflicts from the previous Netflix Original Series were tied up nicely with the characters set up to start new stories. And it was all done very satisfactorily with nothing feeling rushed or short changed.

Colors.  The first two episodes make use of each character's unique color (Daredevil - red, Jessica Jones - blue, Iron Fist - green, Luke Cage - yellow) in the background to signal who was being featured at the moment. It was subtle, but a nice touch.

The Bad


Pacing.  The first two episodes moved very slowly and dragged. Too little happened both plot wise and emotionally. The story didn't really pick up and get going until halfway thru the third episode.

Fragmented Story Telling.  The producers made a very deliberate effort to give each character equal screen time and not wait too long to show the next character. This caused the first few episodes to feel like brief vignettes that felt very disjointed and unconnected.

Scope / Gravitas.  Other than the earthquake early in the series, the stakes never felt very high nor the danger very real. Almost all the peril came from characters saying this was series, but the audience never saw it on screen and so never really felt like the stakes were very high or New York was in that much danger.

Production Design.  The previous series had beautiful visuals in set design and action scenes. This mini-series lacked the grandeur and beautiful visuals I've come to expect from these shows.

What I Would Like to Have Seen


I wish the story had been stronger by focusing on one or two main arcs instead of fracturing the plot so everyone had equal screen time and things to do. I also wish the show had looked as nice as the previous mini-series with better sets and other visuals.

Overall


Marvel's Defenders does an excellent job of bringing these four very separate heroes and their stories together and tying up all the threads and storylines that have been playing out during the previous five series. While it begins a little slow and fractured, by the third episode, the story kicks into high gear and holds your attention. I'm excited for Phase Two. I give this show 4 out of 5 remotes.



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Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Movie Review: Batman and Harley Quinn (DC Universe Original Movie)

The DC Universe Original Movies have been pretty hit or miss for me. Some of them, like Batman: Under the Red Hood or Justice League: New Frontier, have been absolutely brilliant. Others, such as Superman: Doomsday or Batman: Gotham Knight, have been painfully unwatchable. While the trailer for Batman and Harley Quinn didn't appear to be anything special, it was in the style of Batman: The Animated Series and had input from Bruce Timm, so I decided to give it a chance.

Batman and Harley Quinn is a 2017 DC Universe Original Movie. It was released theatrically for one night via Fathom Events and then released as Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital HD. It is rated PG-13 for language, sexual content, and violence and is appropriate for older teens and up.

The Good


Acting. The acting was really strong, especially Harley Quinn's character. She felt like a real person with real struggles and real motivations.

Humor. This movie had some pretty funny jokes that I hadn't heard in a Batman story before.

References. This film made a lot of references to previous versions of Batman, especially the 1966 Adam West version and, of course, Batman: The Animated Series. Some of the references, such as the visual sound effects, were pretty clever and went places I hadn't seen visual sound effects go. I also appreciated Catwoman's cat men lackeys.

The Bad


Thin Story.  This story was a simple bad guys get super weapon that will destroy the world and Batman stops them plot with nothing to make it stand out from any other story. There were no twists, surprises, or anything else standout to justify this film's existence.

Florian Man. I applaud DC for using lesser known villains, but other than the name, he was manaical thug number 10. He had no real personality or distinguishing characteristic.

Too Even Pacing. This movie suffered from poor pacing. The fight scenes and the slow scenes moved at the same pace making them all feel a little boring. It really needed variety and to pick up the pace during the action scenes so they were exciting instead of blah.

Lack of Color. Batman: The Animated Series was dark, but also very colorful with bold, high chroma hues which made it a wonder to behold and was a great contrast to the darker tone and stories. This film was very dull and grey. The dull colors only made the slow pace feel even slower and the dull story seem duller.

What I Would Like to Have Seen


I wish this had a better story that deserved to be a movie. It really felt like a machine had generated this movie based on a prescribed formula and past episodes. There was nothing original or notable in the plot.

Overall


Batman and Harley Quinn does an excellent job exploring Harley Quinn, her motivations, and her struggles and has some pretty funny jokes and cameos. Unfortunately, the story is very thin with clich├ęd villains and plots. I give it 3.5 out of 5 boxes of popcorn.

   


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