Saturday, February 29, 2020

Flicks I Saw in February

Dolittle is the first of two movies I saw in one week that I could have missed seeing without altering my life very much for the richer or the poorer. It's become a hissing and a byword in the popular press, but I don't think it's all that scandalously bad. It has some cute images and set pieces in it, featuring a mad veterinarian, a gentle boy, a bunch of not so much talking animals as animals whose language the doctor and the boy can understand, some special effects that didn't knock my socks off but weren't absolutely atrocious either, and a story somewhat based on the series of books by Hugh Lofting that have so far fallen from favor that they practically have to be rewritten before anyone will allow them to be reprinted these days.

Leading the cast is Robert Downey Jr., fresh off his blockbuster role as Iron Man, putting on a conspicuously unsuitable (for him) Welsh accent. Also appearing in it are Antonio Banderas, Michael Sheen, Jim Broadbent, and the voice talents of several well-known actors who are now probably thanking their deities, stars, agents, etc. for that fact that, with a couple exceptions (cough Emma Thompson cough) nobody recognized them.

Three Scenes that Made It For Me: (1) Using a spot of reflected light to distract a ravening tiger - like a kitty with a laser pointer. (2) The gross-out scene in which Dolittle sorts out a dragon's bowel obstruction. Flatulent fireworms! (3) The daft adventures of James the dragonfly.

Bad Boys for Life was the other movie I went to see and came away feeling that my life wasn't particularly changed. In fact, I was kind of disgusted with it. It's a sequel to a movie I didn't like 25 years ago, featuring some of the same actors (Will Smith, Martin Lawrence, etc.), 25 years older but not much wiser. The bad guys are monstrous and the good guys aren't much better, especially by the end of the film, where everything gets turned around to an extent that good people's deaths and bad people's acts of homicide wash out into a general moral grayness that, frankly, left an acid taste at the back of my mouth.

I'm not really up to awarding this movie Three Scenes that Made It For Me. The most I'm willing to put to the film's credit are Three Characters I Cared About: (1) The former super-soldier who needs therapy after committing acts of violence. (2) The police captain who gets sniper-shot in the middle of being a nice family man. (3) The villain who used to be on Martin's pee-wee basketball team and is all, "Coach Burnett?" while being brutally interrogated in a moving vehicle. If he had grown up a little less evil, I might have cared about him more. But that "Coach Burnett?" got me just enough that I found it hard to watch him get shot in the face, just so a badder bad guy could improve his aim at Will Smith. As for that badder guy getting rehabilitated at the end of the movie, I didn't buy it and I didn't like it. Some buddy cop banter, acrobatic murder and high-energy chase scenes aside, this movie is one I'll forget with pleasure.

The Last Full Measure is the one movie I saw in a theater in February that really made my day. It's based on the real story of a U.S. Air Force enlisted airman whose heroism earned him a rare (for a non-commissioned USAF guy) Congressional Medal of Honor decades after his death. William Pitsenbarger, Jr. rappelled out of a helicopter to provide air rescue for the wounded survivors of an Army unit that got smashed to bits, first by friendly fire and then by the Viet Cong. Something like 30 years later, an at first unenthusiastic Department of Defense bureaucrat gets stuck with the assignment of trying to push Pitsenbarger's bid for a medal forward. At first the desk jockey doesn't really care, but then he falls in love with the young hero's still grieving parents, and he slowly starts to break through the barriers that have kept the boy from being medaled – including a couple of old soldiers' personal motives to cover up their own embarrassing mistakes.

Besides being Peter Fonda's last film role, the movie also makes beautiful use of Christopher Plummer, Ed Harris, Samuel L. Jackson, William Hurt, Diane Ladd, John Savage, Amy Madigan and Bradley Whitford. It also features Michael Imperioli, Linus Roache, Sebastian Stan, Alison Sudol and Robert Pine, not to mention a lineup of men's-cologne-ad-model-caliber faces as the young guys in uniform (notably War Horse's Jeremy Irvine as Pitsenbarger). Together, they tell a story out of chronological sequence, timed for maximum dramatic effect. Neither my parents, with whom I saw the movie, nor I made it out of the show dry-eyed.

Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) Pitsenbarger's letter to his sweetheart, trying to explain as best he can why he puts his life on the line for others. (2) The scene where Pits' parents come to the bureaucrat's house for dinner and the father (Plummer) says grace, thanking God for everything the desk jockey (Stan) is doing for them – and absolutely torpedoing Stan's plan to tell them he can't do any more for them. (3) One of the vets whose life Pits saved (played by Savage) shows Stan a butterfly sanctuary he created on the spot where he looked up and saw Pits descending from the sky, like an angel. There really are so many other scenes I could mention – including the emotionally wrecking confessions of the vets played by Jackson and Harris as they finally open their hearts and their mouths to Stan's inquiries. It's a movie that powerfully does honor to the sacrifices of parents, sweethearts, the men who made it home and those who didn't in a war some vets still, to this day, can't talk about – the price they continue to pay – and a vanishingly rare reward that matters more on an emotional level than any real value it might have. This film has my unreserved recommendation.

The Train to Impossible Places

The Train to Impossible Places
by P.G. Bell
Recommended Ages: 10+

One night, Suzy is awakened by a noise from downstairs and discovers a small troll named Fletch laying a railroad in her family's front hall. Then a magical mail train shows up, and the walls and ceiling move out of the way. Unwilling to let Fletch wipe her memory, Suzy hops on the train and takes off on an adventure through the Impossible Places of the world, from the Obsidian Tower of a terrifying witch to a whole troll city, hanging underneath a bridge across a bottomless chasm. She agrees to become a postie (postal carrier) on board the Impossible Postal Express, which is powered by exploding bananas and can go anywhere from the bottom of the ocean to the hollow center of the moon. But her adventure gets off to a troubling start when she steals the first package she's supposed to deliver.

In Suzy's defense, the package asked her to steal it. It looks like a snow globe containing a ceramic frog, but actually it's a boy named Frederick who claims to have information that could save the world. Unfortunately, that awful witch is chasing them from one direction, and the curator of the world's largest library is after him from the other. Armed soldiers, animated statues, pirate ghosts and an old trolls' home full of retired posties get involved, too. Meanwhile, Suzy struggles with a moral quandary, realizing that whatever she does, it will involve betraying one of her new friends.

This book is way out there. It's funny, bizarre and kooky. It opens up not just one world, but a whimsical network of worlds held together by "fuzzics." It challenges a literal-minded, rational girl to open her mind to magical possibilities. It generates warmth, suspense, excitement, surprise, sympathy and some chilling dread. You worry about what choices Suzy is going to make and whether there's any way for her to make it all right. And you'll look forward to a return visit.

This is the first children's book by a Welsh author who has also written two sequels, The Great Brain Robbery and, expected in 2021, The World That Wasn't There.

Monday, February 24, 2020

The Hotel Between

The Hotel Between
by Sean Easley
Recommended Ages: 11+

Cameron worries a lot. He worries about his twin sister Cassia, who is physically disabled and has lots of health problems. He worries so often about his list of Worst Ways to Die that he doesn't go anywhere or do anything. He would do anything to get his father back. All he knows about his parents is that, one day when they were babies, his dad left him and Cass with their Oma along with two carved wooden coins, claiming that their mother was gone and that he had to go on the run. He never returned.

One day, while taking a shortcut home from school, Cam sees something odd going on at a depressed neighborhood strip mall. A door opens and behind it, he glimpses something impossible – a huge interior with arches and corridors and staircases stretching into the distance in all directions. A boy dressed as a bellman sneaks him in, and Cam begins an adventure in a hotel that has doors leading to places all over the world.

Cam soon learns to suspect that this place had something to do with his father's disappearance, and he allows himself to be recruited into a conspiracy to uncover the secrets of the Hotel Between. But then he starts to feel confused about whom he should and shouldn't trust. Treachery is afoot. The magical tree that gives life to the whole Hotel hasn't been seen since the day his mom died and his dad disappeared. A museum curator known within the Hotel as the Competition, and to Cam personally as Mr. Stripe, has a mysterious agenda. So, for that matter, does Mr. Agapios, the Old Man who runs the Hotel. It seems to have something to do with stealing groups of children from all over the world. But what happens to them? And what became of the tree?

As Cameron slowly gets closer to figuring out what happened to his parents – partly thanks to dreams coming to him through his father's coin – the stakes get bigger and more dangerous. The whole Hotel is in danger of falling apart. Its staff and the Competition both bristle with strange tools and weapons – from dusters that can make things stick together to a key that can blow things to smithereens; door hinges that create magical connections between faraway places and written contracts that can turn anyone, even Cameron, into an unwitting tool of the enemy.

This debut novel by a Texan author has a sequel, The Key of Lost Things. It shows tremendous promise, brimming with strange magic, touching humanity and an evident belief that the world can and must change into a kinder, safer place for children. Cameron is a flawed and confused kid, but his flaws and confusion will go to your heart, as will his relationships with many other characters in this story. While he's still finding out what's really going on and who stands on which side of it, you'll share in lots of surprises, some of them quite terrible. But the most wonderful surprise is what Cameron does with his knowledge once he does figure all that out.

Funny, thrilling, moving, with a socially relevant message that hints at mysterious depths but doesn't quite cross the line into tedious preachiness, it's a neat book that I think could appeal especially to fans of Narnia, Earthsea, Susan Cooper and Diana Wynne Jones.

Sunday, February 16, 2020


by S.J. Kincaid
Recommended Ages: 13+

Tom is something like a dystopian future boy raised by wolves. He has grown up in a series of casinos, trailing behind his gambling addict dad, after his mom dumped them to shack up with a corporate twerp. Tom himself has learned to survive, and even to be a parent for his parent, by conning cocky gamesters into trying to beat him at his own game – which is to say, anything in Virtual Reality. Illegal betting, cutting school (a last-chance, VR school sorta like the one the hero goes to in Ready Player One), and an unhealthy diet have worked together to mold Tom into a shrimpy, zit-pocked, unsavory young specimen of humanity's bright future. But he does have the exact combination of two traits that a certain Gen. Marsh has been looking for – tactical brilliance and a killer instinct. Marsh recruits Tom right out of the casino and takes him to the Pentagonal Spire – you know, that great big tower thingy built right atop the Pentagon – where the Indo-American alliance trains its elite defence force for World War III. Kids, naturally.

Strike that: kids, surgically implanted with a microprocessor that turns them into geniuses. They don't have to study; all their lessons download straight into their brain. Tom's chip, in tandem with nutritional supplements, see him through a quick growth spurt (alas, terminated too soon), clears up his acne and enables him to exercise and practice combat skills in a totally immersive Virtual Reality world. Ultimately, his goal and that of his classmates is to make it to the top level of the program, where a few elite kids duke it out with the Russo-Chinese bloc using outer-space weapons controlled by their technologically enhanced brains.

That's where warfare's at, in Tom's era. No more blowing up stuff or wiping out people. Just a remote-control match between two superpowers over the resources of the outer solar system. Tom can't wait to be part of it. He chafes against the authority structure of his school. He crushes on an enemy combatant whose genius for mayhem he can spot anywhere, even though her (?) identity is Top Secret. He gets recruited, against his will, into a conspiracy to get a combatant sponsored by his mom's boyfriend's corporation into the upper echelon. He gets accused of having something to do with a sabotage threat against the whole program. And he has to face a terrible dilemma between two choices – either to be cashiered out of the program and lose everything that has started to make him special, or to have his mind torn apart by a cybersecurity officer who is obsessed with learning his secrets. When he goes for Plan C, where he just has to win a battle against the unbeatable Medusa in front of an avidly watching world, he goes all in.

Wow. Just wow. This is a terrific piece of entertainment. Tom is not a 100-percent sympathetic character, but you get what motivates him and you enjoy the mischief he makes. It's a book full of weirdly innovative ideas and unexpected twists. It sizzles with action, one exciting battle after another. It pops with humor and fun banter between oddball characters you'll come to love. It has multiple layers of conflict, each of them compelling in its own way, and floating over everything is a thought-provoking look at the implications of having a chip in your brain that could make you think, say, do or be whatever the person controlling the code wants you to. It could make you a different person. This isn't the only issue the book invites readers to grapple with. There's also an insight into a point in history, which is just about upon us now, where warfare and even genocide are carried out not so much by nations as by multi-national corporations. Tom's possible future is kind of chilling, actually. But he's committed to it, and it'll be fun to see where he goes in it.

This is the first book of the Insignia series, which also includes Vortex and Catalyst. People who liked Orson Scott Card's Ender series may get a kick out of it, but I reckon it's the people who feel Ender's Game is lacking something – like, a sense of humor – who will be most pleased to find it here, in abundance. S.J. Kincaid is also the author of the Diabolic series (The Diabolic, The Empress), whose third book (The Nemesis) is due for release in August 2020.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Smoke and Summons

Smoke and Summons
by Charlie N. Holmberg
Recommended Ages: 13+

Sandis is a vessel. In the dangerous, occult underground of the city of Dresberg, that makes her pretty much the slave of a guy named Kazen, who summons numina – creatures from another plane of existence, commonly known as demons – into the bodies of people like her. When she is in the full throes of a summoning, Sandis loses herself and becomes a fire horse that Kazen uses to terrorize his enemies and punish people who let him down.

One day, Sandis witnesses another vessel being torn to pieces when Kazen attempts to summon something too big and powerful – something even her fire horse is afraid of – so she runs. By a combination of chance and reckless impulse, she runs right into the life of a young thief named Rone, who has a magical secret of his own: an ancient artifact that, once every 24 hours, grants him a single minute of immortality. Suddenly they're both wanted by Kazen's gang of enforcers, on the run from corrupt police, and in constant danger from other vessels Sandis might once have considered friends.

Even in a crowded city, there seems to be nowhere to hide. What Sandis is, the religion of Divinity calls blasmphemy. Even in these days of widespread public corruption, if the police catch her, she'll be executed without delay. Rone, meanwhile, is desperate to save his mother from being unjustly imprisoned for a crime he, Rone, committed. The pair are almost constantly being chased, getting into spectacular fights, facing terrifying monsters (not to mention mobsters), at times herded into traps. Their enemies always seem to be just a step behind, or maybe several steps ahead. Their escapes are so narrow, and the places remaining for them to hide keep growing scarcer, until the atmosphere of doom, dread, and suspense becomes almost unbearable. Budding love, surprise revelations, a touch of betrayal, a pinch of redemption, scenes of chilling menace, a daring rescue attempt and an awful climax mingling terror and despair round out the astoundingly original shape of an action-filled, powerful, world-building tale that leaves me wanting more.

It's only fair to issue an Occult Content Advisory for this first of (currently) three books in the Numina series by an author from a family that gives boyish names to girls. The sequels are Myths and Mortals and Siege and Sacrifice. Other titles by Holmberg include Followed by Frost; Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet; The Fifth Doll; Veins of Gold; The Will and the Wilds; Spellbreaker and the (currently) four-book Paper Magician series, half of which I've read and my enthusiasm for which led me to this book.

The Fire Chronicle

The Fire Chronicle
by John Stephens
Recommended Ages: 11+

Kate, Michael and Emma aren't orphans, but they haven't seen their parents in over a decade. Moving from orphanage to orphanage, they are pursued by a race of creatures they unaffectionately call "screechers," harassed by the minions of an evil sorcerer named Dire Magnus, and menaced by a half-giant named Rourke who seems like what Hagrid might have become if he were bald, Irish and evil. Kate possesses the Emerald Atlas, one of the three Books of Beginning that control all of creation; it enables her to travel through time. A prophecy looms over them all, hinting that they will bring together all three Books. Even with an eccentric wizard (Dr. Pym) and a powerful warrior (Gabriel) devoted to helping them, the kids don't have a moment's peace.

After the screechers' latest attack, Kate has become separated from her younger siblings, going back in time to 1899 – shortly before the magical world went into hiding. In the snowy streets of New York City, she gets entangled with the destiny of a very special boy. Meanwhile, back in the 21st century (ugh, time travel!), Michael and Emma share a hair-raising, tomb-raiding adventure, traverse Antarctic snowfields and steamy jungles, and face such terrifying creatures as the consequences of Michael's betrayal (in their previous adventure) on Emma's heart and mind. And also, a dragon.

So, it's a scary, hazardous adventure for all three kids and many other people besides. The future of the world depends on them, on how they rise to the terrifying occasion and show courage, loyalty and love. Whether they're exploring a picturesque historical period or trespassing in the land of the dead, exposing frauds and traitors or trying to turn the course of history, they're really special kids. Michael doesn't know his own courage. Emma has a knack for trouble but also a touching vulnerability. Kate has been strong for both of them, but now finds herself in heartbreaking danger. And they're mixing it up with dwarves, trolls, elves, and other magical creatures in a battle between good and evil in which, it is hinted, the three siblings may be unwitting pawns of a sinister agenda.

It's hard not to hang on every turn of their fortunes, and to sense dreadful and exciting things to come as Michael becomes master of a Chronicle that knows the heart of every living person – a responsibility that tests his strength to the limit and threatens to overwhelm who he is – and as it becomes clear that Emma is destined to grapple with the awful Book of the Dead.

This is the second book of the "Books of Beginning" trilogy, sandwiched between The Emerald Atlas and The Black Reckoning. Stephens is a TV producer and writer known for his work on Gossip Girl, The O.C., Gilmore Girls and Gotham.