Archive for the ‘John’s Reviews – books, movies, whatever’ Category

Mitty, Non-Stop, and The Winter Soldier

Posted in John's Reviews - books, movies, whatever  by John Brown on October 13th, 2014

the-secret-life-of-walter-mitty-poster-bigThe previews for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty didn’t look interesting at all. Furthermore, I’m not the biggest Ben Stiller fan. He’s a fine actor; I just haven’t been in the audience for a lot of his movies. Then someone I know recommended the film, and I decided to give it a go with Nellie.

We didn’t have high hopes. I mean, look at the movie poster. Does that get you excited? She thought it was going to be dumb. I thought it was going to be dumb. But after five minutes, we found ourselves enjoying the characters and story. We finished it, both of us absolutely delighted. I liked it so much I corralled my two daughters into watching it with me. Then I watched it again. I think I watched it four times total. And I enjoyed it as much, maybe more, each time.

Walter is a great guy who has had to play it safe and practical his whole life. When his and his co-worker’s jobs are threatened, he takes action and finds himself on a journey that starts in, ta-dum, Greenland. The movie’s got adventure, a slow-burn romance, and a cast of funny and quirky characters. But it isn’t mad-cap humor. It’s not a gushing love story. It’s something else. Something that left me feeling like my life had been leavened with a fine light joy. Give it a shot; I think you’ll be glad you did.

* * *

non-stop-movie-posterThe previews for Non-Stop with Liam Neeson and Julianne Moore looked great. I’m happy to report that it was every bit as good as the previews promised.

Neeson plays a federal air marshal. While on a flight from New York to London, he gets a text telling him that unless 150 million dollars is transferred to an offshore account, someone will die every 20 minutes. But it’s not so easy finding the killer. The deaths are almost inexplicable. And things soon start to spin out of control.

This movie is filled with surprises and suspense. And it moves. Thrillers normally move quickly, but this one was on turbo. But that doesn’t mean the story was a bunch of light and noise. Quite the contrary. The writers skillfully balance the mystery, action, suspense, and even the character backstories. A lot of folks liked Taken. I liked this better than that film. In fact, it’s one of the better thrillers I’ve seen these last few years.

* * *

winter-soldier-poster-no-maskI’m a superhero lover, have been since I was a kid watching the Superfriends cartoon every Saturday morning. But I never know if I’m going to enjoy a superhero movie. I love the genre, but for some reason so many of the films go for effect over story. It drives me nuts. The movie ends, the lights turn on, and I sit in my seat and go “huh.” So I’m happy to report that Captain America: The Winter Soldier actually delivers.

I cannot say the same for Captain America: The First Avenger, the first in this series. That movie fell apart halfway through the film. The beginning was this wonderful story about a runt trying to do his duty and volunteer. The second half lost all its heart and turned into one big yawn. So for those of you who didn’t like that first film, know that this is a case of the sequel being far better than the original.

In this one, SHIELD, the organization that directs the Avengers, comes under attack from within. Captain America and Black Widow have to uncover who is behind it and stop them before it’s too late. There are a lot of cool visuals and awesome action scenes. For example, I loved how Captain America “parachutes” into the opening mission. I enjoyed watching him and Black Widow fight in their distinctive ways. But the film didn’t focus on the tech or the super powers. It focused on the characters and the story. The plot includes a number of delicious surprises and reveals. There are funny moments and some poignant ones. And not only did this movie, unlike the first one, develop a single story all the way through, but it also echoes with our current search for national security.

If you liked Iron Man and Iron Man 3, I think you’ll enjoy Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

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Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

Posted in John's Reviews - books, movies, whatever  by John Brown on October 5th, 2014

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Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand is the finest book I’ve read in some time.

It’s tells an engrossing and true World War 2 story about Louis Zamperini, who started out in life as a steal-and-run trouble-maker. He was a kid who’d try the patience of Job. His mother tried to reform him to no avail. His father administered spankings, but physical punishment seemed to have no effect. Louis was constantly in trouble with neighbors, school mates, cops, teachers, store owners.

Louis’s older brother thought Louis would succeed if he were to just receive some positive attention. He thought track, a very popular sport at the time, was just the ticket. Louis loved his brother. In 9th grade he tried running, but the workouts chafed, and then one day he had an altercation with his parents. Louis figured the train would take him away from all his problems. So he ran away, hopped a boxcar, and very quickly learned the freedom of the rails wasn’t freedom at all. It sucked.

When he returned home, defeated, he decided to submit to his brother’s plan. This time it was just what the doctor ordered. Louis ran like mad. He broke records. He got a scholarship to USC and broke more. Louis ran in the 1936 Olympic Games. He didn’t win, but he would the next time they came around. However, the world was in turmoil back then, and Germany and Japan had their own plans which changed Louis’s life forever. He became a bombardier in the Pacific theater.

And that’s where I’m going to stop. The story that awaits you is truly amazing. And Hillenbrand brings it to life with surprising and powerful details. From start to last, I was enthralled. And towards the end, just when I thought the story was over, it took a turn that lifted it from being just another WW2 story with plenty of action to a tale that goes right to the heart of what it means to live. I wept, not for Louis’s pain, as awful as that was, but for something far more vital.

When I first saw the book, its sepia-washed cover turned me away from the tale. But with so many folks talking about it, I thought I’d give the first pages a go. I was delighted, but didn’t make it a priority. Not long after that, my 10th grade nephew told me how much he enjoyed it, and that prompted me to go back (and I’m so glad I did). It’s not that this is a kid’s book or that my nephew has the maturity of an older man. He’s definitely got some reading chops, but it’s not about an advanced writing style either. What is enthralling old and young alike is Zamperini’s story and Hillebrand’s skills in telling it.

How much do I like this book? I’m reading it again, slowly this time, so I can savor every word. Let me recommend you do yourself a favor. If you read one book this year, make it Unbroken.

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No. I’m Fine by Howard and Sandra Tayler

Posted in John's Reviews - books, movies, whatever  by John Brown on September 13th, 2014

Robison_Wells____Green_Hills_Photography_0-201x300Sometimes it’s the small things that make the most difference.

Like sharing an issue you might be dealing with.

I was once at a writer’s retreat at a home above the Sundance ski resort. I’d be asked to present to some of the other writers there. Robison Wells, who writes awesome YA,  was also presenting. He talked about marketing and plot, but the presentation that was probably most memorable was the one he gave on the obsessive compulsive disorder he deals with.

He started off by telling us folks really didn’t know what they were talking about when they talked about obsessive compulsive disorder. He described it this way. He said he and his wife were sitting on the couch watching TV one evening. She said she was craving some ice cream, orangesicles, I think. He replied that he was craving banging his head into the wall. She anticipated some delicious ice cream. He anticipated some delicious head whacking. He then pointed at the wall behind all of us and said that it would feel so good to bang his head on the corner of the wall behind us. Needless to say, he had our attention.

He went on to explain more about this condition and mental illness in general and urged us, when we wrote about it, to get it right. To be accurate. To not turn such conditions into happy-happy super powers, nor to make them into things to be feared.

By the way, Robison had a fine little dog with him. Not some yapper to carry about in a purse, but a nice little companion. I keep wanting to call her Abby, but I know that’s not its name. We learned that his dog was trained to watch him and remind him to take his meds. It appeared that Robison would sometimes rationalize away doing that.

Robison isn’t crazy. We didn’t have a dangerous wild man among us. He’s just a guy who has to deal with some kinks in his hoses.

HowardTayler2So what happened next? Well, nothing. We had a great retreat and went home. But the story doesn’t end there. See, if an issue is taboo, it becomes very difficult to deal with it. As an individual, a couple, a family, a community. In fact, hiding something like this only creates more problems. For example, if Robison ever says he’s going out to pick up some hammers, we  now know that we probably ought to have someone go with him (grin). So Robison not only wanted to educate us, he also wanted to help bring mental illness out of the dark. And he’s talked about this issue in a number of different places.

Howard Tayler, the cartoonist, heard him talk about the self-harm once. He saw the good being open did and decided to write a bit about some things he has to deal with. Howard’s got a tricky bit of depression he has to manage. Sandra, Howard’s wife, decided to add to it what it was like being married to someone with such an issue.

Now, I didn’t know the Taylers had written anything up until last week at Comic Con. During the event a woman talked to me. In our conversation she indicated that she’d been wrangling with some mental crap, but that Howard’s comments about his had helped her. We continued with our discussion, and she left. On Friday evening after the expo for the Salt Lake City Comic Con had closed, I walked around the event floor, chatting with some folks I hadn’t had time to visit during the event. I stopped at Howard’s booth and said hello to him and Sandra. They were busy, and I didn’t stay long, but as I went to walk away, I thought I should pass on what the woman had said. So I did. I didn’t know what comments she was talking about. All I knew was that Howard had helped her. And I wanted to make sure he knew it.

SandraTaylerWe talked some more as they tried to clean up their booth before Howard had to run off to a panel. Then Howard handed me “No. I’m Fine”.  It’s a little 15-page booklet that contains the title story, written by Howard, plus the essay “Married to Depression” by Sandra, his wife.

The story is an excellent short that gives you the feeling of what’s it like to be dealing with one form of the bugger. The essay reveals a bit of what it’s like as the spouse and recommends some action. But the thing I found so wonderful about both the story and the essay was the example of tender love in the midst of adversity.

I’m a writer. I can’t help but be drawn to potential characters and stories. The view we get of these two in this booklet is good stuff to build some characters on. Of course, that’s not the reason to read the booklet. The reason is because what they share is fascinating and tender—it’s good drama—and, if you or someone you know is dealing with these issues, it just might help.

Go read “No. I’m Fine” and “Married to Depression”. You’ll be glad you did.

While we’re talking about this, those of you who have been following this blog know that I’ve had a few dust-ups with depression myself. I wrote about it and the tools I used to deal with it then and when it tries to come back to town. After reading the Tayler’s stuff, you’ll want to look at it as well.

Edit 9/14: Addeded links to “Married to Depression”

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Saving Mr. Banks, Elementary, Captain Phillips, & Lone Survivor

Posted in John's Reviews - books, movies, whatever  by John Brown on June 23rd, 2014
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Saving Mr BanksOver the last two months I’ve been able to squeeze in a couple of hours to watch a few shows and some episodes of a TV series. I was plesantly surprised to have actually had a wonderfully good run. If you haven’t watched any of these, you’re in for some awesome entertainment.


Saving Mr. Banks

I didn’t think I’d like this movie. I enjoyed Mary Poppins as a child and enjoyed it again with my kids. But a movie on Disney getting the rights to make a movie? Boring. Except I was completely wrong. This is not a story about some woman selling the rights to her story. It’s about why she never wanted to sell the rights to Disney in the first place. It’s about her childhood and the real source of Mary Poppins. And to pull that off Saving Mr. Banks has to tell two stories: an often funny one about P.L. Travers who does not want to license her story and Disney’s final attempt to win her over, and a poignant one that reveals why Travers was so resistant. And it leaves the last twist, one that expands the meaning of the title in the viewer’s heart, to the very end. I loved this movie. I loved Hanks as the affable Disney and Thompson as the irascible Ms. Travers. Loved all of the other characters. If you enjoyed dramas like Miss Potter or The Blind Side, you’ll love this too.


ElementaryElementary

I thought: another Sherlock Holmes series? Puh-lease. Yes, the two films featuring Robert Downing Jr. and Jude Law and the BBC series with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman were superb. I loved both. But another Sherlock? Surely this is going to be some cheap attempt to capitalize on the success of the other two, something that is direct-to-DVD quality. Who is going to do it as well as Downing and Cumberbatch?

Boy, was I wrong (yet again!)

Elementary is delightful. Sherlock, played by the talented Johnny Lee Miller who made Eli Stone such a joy, is a modern day Brit living in New York. He’s in the final stages of drug rehab, living with a “sober companion.” The companion is Joan Watson, played by Lucy Lui. The Captain of the NYPD is one of Sherlock’s old friends an appeciates his skills and so brings him in as a consultant on various cases.

So how could they do anything different? Yes, you have the quick powers of observation and intellectual acrobatics the other Sherlocks have. But the female Watson and the whole recovering addict angle takes the stories in a new direction. This Sherlock has a past that haunts him. And this Watson is maybe a bit quicker than the other two, as wonderful as they are.

I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it, but there is room for three Sherlocks and Watsons. I can’t tell you which of the three pairs I enjoy more.

Captain_Phillips_PosterCaptain Phillips

As soon as the news stories about Somali pirates started breaking back in 2008 I knew it would lead to some thrillers. Heck, Abdul Hassan, “The One Who Never Sleeps” was one of the first zings I posted on this site. What I didn’t know was that the big thriller would be based on an actual story: the 2009 hijacking of the US-flagged MV Maersk Alabama, the first American cargo ship to be hijacked in two hundred years. Phillips is played by Tom Hanks, who always gives a great performance. But I also found the portrayal of the pirates interesting as well. As I did the many unexpected details of how these pirates operate and how the incident was brought to a close. If you like realistic thrillers, you’ll enjoy Captain Phillips.

Lone Survivor

I reviewed the book Lone Survior back in 2011. You can read my full report there, but the bottom line is that it was an awesome read. However, as with all awesome reads, you become a bit wary of the films based on those books. I’m happy to say the filmmakers did a great job on this one. They paid huge attention to detail because they wanted to honor the fallen soldiers by getting it right.

Lone_Survivor_posterIn order to get it right, they brought Marcus Luttrel, the author, and a number of other SEALs onto the project as consultants. The SEALs put the actors through some basic training before they even began shooting. This was to not only help the actors get to the point where they handle their weapons and gear as someone seasoned might, but also so they could feel what is was to work as a team, an important part of being a SEAL. The SEALs stayed on to provide input as well during the shooting.

But the details went beyond that. I have never seen a military film that felt as real to me, especially when it came to the characters. SEALs are warriors. But that doesn’t capture the variety they come in. And in the opening 25% of the movie we see sides to these men that many movies do not portray. It was so refreshing! In fact, without the groundwork laid in the beginning, this film wouldn’t have had near the impact it did. Yeah, the action is ACTION! It’s thrilling. You have never seen some of the shots the film portrays. But the action means nothing without the men.

And this story is about the men.

It’s about what it means to be one of those guys and gals who put their lives on the line for the rest of us. And if you want a special treat, when the film is over, you’ll watch all the extras.

The f-word is used about five million times in this movie. I usually don’t like a lot of vulgarity in my entertainment. But I cut the folks some slack in this case because I felt the story was worth it. Besides, I didn’t consider it entertainment anyway, more documentary.

If you are interested in what it’s like for Special Operations forces, if you want a story to help you see what so many are doing for the rest of us, I don’t know that it gets any better than this.

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Author Janci Patterson Goes Indie

Posted in John's Reviews - books, movies, whatever  by John Brown on June 18th, 2014

Everythings Fine by Janci PattersonI met Janci Patterson a few years ago when she was shopping her book Chasing the Skip to NY publishers. It’s about a girl named Ricki. Her mother flakes and runs off,  and so Ricki goes to live with her estranged Dad who happens to be a bounty hunter. I was hooked right there. But it gets better. Ricki gets to ride along and help and, wouldn’t you know it, develops a crush on a guy the dad is chasing.

I loved the premise. Traditional publisher Henry Holt loved it too and thought Janci had done a great job telling the tale, so they made her an offer that Janci accepted. It was published in 2012.

Sounds like a match made in heaven, right?

Well, Janci just released another book called Everything’s Fine, a mystery about a girl named Kira. Her best friend commits suicide immediately after her first date with her longtime crush, Bradley Johansen. Kira’s devastated and wondering why. She’s sure the answers are in her friend’s journal. As she searches for it she quickly learns she’s not the only one who wants that journal. Someone else is trying to keep the secrets the journal contains hidden.

Another great premise. And this book won the Utah Art’s Council award for Best Young Adult Novel. Clearly, Janci can tell a story. But Janci didn’t take this one to NY.

She’s publishing it as an indie.

Here are her own words explaining what helped convince her going indie was doable.

A Paradigm Shift

For years I refused to think about self-publishing. This wasn’t because of the stigma, honestly, but because of all the work I watched my self-publisher friends put into creating, shipping, and marketing their books. I couldn’t do that! I told myself. I wanted to be a writer, not a publisher.

When it became obvious to me that self-publishing was the next logical step in my career, I was terrified. Having published with a big publisher, I wasn’t willing to skip steps in the publishing process–it was my editor’s keen eye and the rounds of revision we did together that transformed CHASING THE SKIP from a messy dJanci Patterson - Chasing-the-Skip-webraft into a product I was proud of. I wanted to be just as proud of my independent work, and for that, I knew I’d need help.

I knew just enough about book and cover design to know that I couldn’t slap them together on my own and expect them to be instantly good. But when I did the math on what I’d have to pay an editor and a book designer and a cover designer to put out even one book (let alone the several I have waiting), I knew that I couldn’t afford it. Self-publishing felt even more impossible than selling books in New York–I knew how I wanted to do it, but I didn’t have the resources.

So it was with this trapped feeling that I attended the Precision Editing Group’s workshop on indie publishing last fall. The workshop was packed with great information, but the thing that impacted me the most was a presentation by Heather Horrocks. She was talking about the importance of editors, and as a side comment, said something to the effect of, “yes, all my books have now been edited, but when I first got started, I didn’t have an editor because I couldn’t afford it.”

It’s not my intention to suggest that editing isn’t important, because it is. But that one sentence blew my mind. I’d been working with the New York publishing paradigm for fourteen years. And in that world, there are very few ways to be published. You query agents. You send books to publishers. You do your very best to follow all of the guidelines and to do everything perfectly right, hoping to minimize the barriers that stand between you and success as a writer.

But this self-publishing thing was a whole different game. I sat in the audience at the workshop, stunned. That was the moment when I finally realized this truth: there are as many ways to publish as there are people who are publishing. There is no one right way to do it. There are so many things you can do that can help you succeed. It’s better to do something than nothing, because nothing is never the road to success. Even if that means you’re doing it wrong.

So when I got home, I made a list of my assets. Forget about what I lacked. Forget about what I didn’t know. What did I know how to do? What resources did I have access to? And, most importantly, who could I ask for help?

If you’re looking to self-publish, I’d suggest that you do the same. Because here’s the thing–your list of assets is going to be uniquely yours. You have a unique set of skills; you know a unique network of people. You don’t need to worry about who and what you don’t know. Instead, focus on what you do have, what you can do. If you’ve been writing for years, you probably have some book-related skills. If you’re part of a community of writers to which you regularly contribute, you probably have some friends who you’ve helped in the past, or can help in the present, who would be motivated to help you out in return. Start from there, and you can pick up the rest as you go along.

In the end, I did have my book edited (repeatedly!) and my cover designed by a graphic designer. I was able to do that because I had friends who believe in me who were willing to enter into financial agreements that didn’t involve them getting paid in full upfront. I wouldn’t have thought to work out those arrangements when I was focused on doing things right–it was only when I opened my vision to look at what was possible that I began to envision what shape my own unique path might take.

Each path to publication is different, not only for each writer, but also for each book. With all the options available to us, it’s not enough to focus on our feet, doing only the next “right” step. Opportunity is everywhere. Focus on what you have, and even if you don’t win the jackpot on the first try, at least you’ll be playing the game.

 

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How to be a hero in your own house

Posted in John's Reviews - books, movies, whatever  by John Brown on June 17th, 2014

I have four daughters.

My four daughters have long hair.

That long hair finds its way into our drains. (Yes, despite our telling them to get it into that thing called a waste basket.)

Said hair might flow down the pipes. But said hair does not. Life is not that easy. Instead, some evil house spirit catches the hair just as it begins its voyage and turns it from a luscious thing of beauty into a gunky demon of drain death.

You would think that Drano could defeat this black magic. But Drano gets its butt kicked every time. Drano is in the pee-wee league against this thing. Drano is like a kitten. And gunk demons don’t listen to kittens.

So for the last few years, we’d blast with Drano and then still have to stand up to our calves in water when we took a shower. Or wait as the sink decided it might finally slowly empty and leave soap scum, whiskers, and toothpaste on the sides for everyone’s viewing pleasure. And then we had to do the slow clean (I hate the slow clean).

Recently, I was strolling along in a hardware store and saw this.

Zip-it drain cleaning tool

Click on the picture. Get a good look. I bought ye handy yellow flex sword. And I did verily slay the monster lurking in every drain in our  house.

I am the MAN!

If you have drain issues, let me suggest you be the hero and buy your own sword. It’s called the Zip-It drain cleaning tool. If you’re a weird-o, in addition to being the hero, you can also use it to draw forth disgusting things to scare nieces and nephews with. Just saying.

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