Dune by Frank Herbert – A Book Review

I’m ashamed to admit that I’d never read Dune. With the new movie on the way, I figured I better rectify that omission. Believe it or not, I started reading Dune in early October and only just finished it in late December. So, did I like it? More importantly, do I recommend it?

To answer the first question, yes, I did like it. I liked that it took its time building a world, a culture, an entire existence within many, many pages. I liked that it proved a fully immersive experience, created very real characters, and allowed the story to unfold at a thorough pace. I liked that Frank Herbert developed a new language, a synthesized religion, and a unique ecology specific to the planet in which Dune occurs. I liked Dune’s intelligence, daringness, and ingenuity.

That being said, I’m in no hurry to read the subsequent additions to the plight. I’m an impatient reader. I want to read as many books as possible, and so I often naturally gravitate to smaller, faster reads. I can’t remember the last time I spent three months reading a single book.

Even so, I do recommend Dune. It is one of the few books out there that actually make you feel as though you’ve fully lived the characters’ lives. It is epic in every sense of the word, and, most impressively, it predates such sci-fi stalwarts as Star Trek and Star Wars. I can’t imagine Dune was quite like anything else at the time it was published, and though it’s obviously been often imitated, it still struck me as completely unique. To read Dune is to find yourself in an utterly familiar yet astoundingly innovative world.

Though it’s a tremendous time investment, I’m glad I finally read Dune.

By the way, the afterward by Herbert’s son, Brian, proved to be my favorite part of the entire book.

Soul – A Movie Review

I loved Soul, but my kids can’t necessarily say the same.

If you’re unfamiliar with the film, the premise is that Joe, a middle school band teacher, is finally about to catch his big break after years of near misses. He’s landed a coveted jazz gig, one that could literally change his life, but then experiences an accident that will probably end up killing him hours before his performance. He travels to a point leading to “the great beyond,” but manages to escape that plane of existence by finding the place souls reside before being born. From that moment forth, he attempts to hitch a ride back to Earth in order to repossess his own body.

Does that sound complicated? It is. Yet, for as complex and even existential as Soul is, it unfolds in a fairly straightforward manner.

At its heart, Soul is about managing what drives us in life while still maintaining a willingness to enjoy every day. It’s an important lesson, one that I think many adults will respond to. Furthermore, as a parent, I strongly reacted to how we guide our children through childhood. We so often want our children to find “their thing,” to excel in a specific area, that we forget to allow them to simply explore all of life’s facets. Soul reminds us that living well should be enough.

The animation is, as you would expect from Pixar, exquisite. In fact, my wife commented that, until the characters enter the frame, the Earthly environments are photorealistic. I also have to commend the surrealistic scenarios depicting those moments beyond reality as we know it. They were challenging, astonishing, fun, and beautiful.

In fact, Pixar showed incredible bravery in even making Soul. This is a high-concept, philosophical, even potentially controversial film–and it’s a children’s movie! But, even having said all that, it’s fun. It’s funny. Even while diving deeply into the meaning of life, it’s still graceful and lighthearted.

Of course, when a movie features a jazz musician, the jazz must be perfect. Jon Batiste fills that role flawlessly. And as for those reality-bending moments outside of life as we know it? Who else could be better at that kind of music than Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails fame?

Finally, Jamie Foxx delivers a likability to Joe even when Joe is not always likable. Joe has allowed his passion to overtake virtually every other aspect of his life, and Foxx understands how to convey this without making Joe seem villainous. Tina Fey plays a soul named 22 who becomes ensnared in Joe’s plot to return to Earth, and, like Joe, 22 is not always her best self. Yet, Tina Fey straddles that line between making 22 both annoying and lovable that, frankly, shouldn’t have worked. In the end, both Foxx and Fey’s voices are the reason the movie hits the emotional pitch that it does.

However, though my wife and I loved it, I should note that my kids weren’t crazy about it. My eight-year-old had a little trouble following the plot and said everything kind of looked the same, whereas my twelve-year-old described it as just “okay” and kind of “weird.”

Pixar has sometimes been accused of making very adult children’s movies, and I wonder if Soul will end up winning over more adults than children. Regardless, Soul is a daring, gorgeous movie that isn’t afraid to tackle truly existential issues.

Wonder Woman: 1984 – A (Spoiler-Free) Movie Review

Let me start by saying that I adore the first Wonder Woman film. That moment when Wonder Woman climbs out of the trenches and crosses No Man’s Land … I think it will forevermore be one of the most iconic cinematic scenes in movie history. Furthermore, it had a tight storyline, introduced the entire world and culture of Themyscira, and provided a potent moment in history with World War I. True, the final battle with the prerequisite big bad left something to be desired, but otherwise the movie proved a total success. It had heart, humor, and a real soul.

1984 has … some … of those things … at times.

I’m afraid Wonder Woman: 1984 fell a little flat with me.

The good news is that there’s a lot to like about Wonder Woman: 1984. Kristen Wiig totally sold me as Barbara Minerva. Furthermore, I think we all need to give Wiig huge respect for filming an intense action movie at forty-five years of age. She looks amazing and we get to see her as the superstar she’s always been.

Gal Gadot, as usual, oozes charisma and her chemistry with Chris Pine is as sharp as ever.

The opening scene featuring the Amazons during Diana’s childhood is superb. I’ve heard rumors they are making a spinoff film focusing upon the Amazons and I think that’s a very wise decision. I just pray they continue to include Robin Wright and Connie Nielson.

Also, the final scene of the movie, particularly in how it relates to Barbara Minerva, is wonderful. They fixed everything that disappointed me about the final scene in the first film.

Unfortunately, though they got the ending right in Wonder Woman: 1984, I fear they missed several steps getting there. My major issue with the film centers around its central premise. I won’t spoil it for you, but it explains how Chris Pine’s dead character returns and how Barbara Minerva undergoes a certain change. Look, I know we’re dealing with fantasy, but after such a relatively grounded first film deeply rooted in the horrors or World War I, 1984’s premise seemed rather silly. Sadly, that premise never led anywhere more complex than its most basic concept. The story, as a whole, just didn’t work for me.

I’m also afraid that the special effects simply didn’t hold up to the first film. Diana is now using her magic lasso much like Tarzan uses vines or Spider-Man uses webs. I kept finding myself getting distracted by the physics of the lasso and how Diana swinging about didn’t ever look natural. The lasso seemed to appear and disappear at will and didn’t adhere to any certain length or rigidity. Simply put, it didn’t look good.

Finally, Wonder Woman: 1984 struck me as a series of vignettes rather than a complete story. The opening scene on Themyscira is so beautiful, but ultimately unnecessary to the overall story. Most of Chris Pine’s scenes are there for comedic effect and could have been left on the cutting room floor. Diana experiences some new revelations about her abilities that are, honestly, unnecessary to the story as well and rather contradictory to what we’ve seen from her in Batman v Superman and Justice League. Finally, the incredible moment in the trailer when Wonder Woman lassos lightening? Total letdown.

I really do regret to say that Wonder Woman: 1984 is not as well written as its predecessor, the special effects are not as good as its predecessor, and it’s nowhere near as substantive as its predecessor. However, I’ll keep watching Wonder Woman movies because I love the character, I love Themyscira, and I love Gal Gadot working with Patty Jenkins.

The New Mutants – A Movie Review

Honestly, The New Mutants proved to be an entertaining watch. I understand this movie has suffered a great deal of drama and has, consequently, been lampooned in the court of public opinion, but it actually has a lot going for it.

First of all, The New Mutants is packed with young star power. Maisie Williams from Game of Thrones, Anya Joy-Taylor from The Queen’s Gambit, and Charlie Heaton from Stranger Things all have featured roles.

Secondly, it’s a relatively small film. The cast is limited, the setting is isolated, and the story is tightly focused on basically six people.

Finally, you don’t need to know much of anything to watch The New Mutants. It’s pretty much a standalone film with only passing references to the X-Men universe in which it presumably belongs. I appreciated that it wasn’t your typical superhero fare in that it felt far more akin to a horror movie than anything. Yes, these are characters based on those from the comic books, and they have mutant abilities, but none of them yearn to put on tights or go save the world.

This is not to say that The New Mutants is perfect. The story is a little confusing, the dialogue is–at times–cliched. But, the special effects are pretty fun, especially when Heaton and Joy-Taylor’s characters power up.

At a touch over ninety minutes, The New Mutants is a very easy watch. I suspect we will see much more in the decades to come from these young stars, so this will be a provocative film to look back upon.

Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey – A Movie Review

If you’re looking for a movie to watch as a whole family, I completely recommend Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey, available to stream on Netflix.

Full of stars with excellent singing and dancing, Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey is also funny, wholesome, entertaining, and full of surprisingly good special effects.

I don’t want to disparage Netflix, but I wasn’t expecting the quality evident in Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey. Don Juan Diego, played by Ricky Martin, is a metallic puppet that looked so grounded in reality that I found myself mesmerized–he quickly became my favorite character! Furthermore, a robot eventually appears that is also thoroughly realistic. The sets are extraordinary as the tale unfolds in some sort of a steampunk alternate world where technology is both amazingly complex but also archaic. The costumes are intricate and beautiful to behold. This movie is honestly a pleasure to view.

But the songs and the dancing, for me, are the real draw. I guess that shouldn’t come as a surprise, though, because John Legend played a role in writing the music. Plus, who knew Forest Whitaker could sing? I’ve been watching this man since Platoon and I had no idea. And, of course, Keegan-Michael Key played a bad guy who’s still pretty darn likable and not all that terribly bad. (If you ever want to go on a deep dive with me, I think Key’s character was simply the victim of mistreatment by Whitaker’s character that led him to his villainous ways.) The entire cast is really a delight.

The story is a little scattershot and takes a few detours, but it all ends up making sense and works. Again, for a Netflix movie, it proved unexpectedly coherent.

So if you need a good movie to watch this weekend with the family, give this one a shot. I think everyone will enjoy it.