Grief Is the Thing With Feathers by Max Porter – A Book Review

I once again must thank Literary Hub’s “The 50 Best Contemporary Novels Under 200 Pages” for suggesting yet another novella, this time the book called Grief Is the Thing With Feathers by Max Porter.

At just 114 pages, this novella is a series of paragraphs and stanzas exploring the utter heartbreak of a man after losing his young wife. He must now raise their two boys alone, and he hasn’t a clue how to do so. A crow appears to guide the man through his grief, comfort the children, and help out in any possible way. However, Crow’s also there to encourage chaos, to promote carnage, and to spout madness.

Crow is a complicated figure in this book, especially because I’m not convinced he was ever really there at all. Or perhaps he was grief personified. Or maybe he represented the delicate balance between tranquility and turmoil that exists perpetually within our daily lives. It would also make sense if he was death. Maybe he was just a crow? Like I said–complicated.

As I mentioned, Grief Is the Thing With Feathers is a quick read due to its unconventional formatting. Somewhere between prose and poem, the novella flies by for the invested reader.

That being said, I had a hard time making the time to read it. I found myself a little disinterested throughout, though, I will admit, the last few pages were strikingly emotional.

I think everyone who reads Grief Is the Thing With Feathers will have a different encounter. The material is both universal and very specific, yet everyone will connect with it in some capacity. I can’t say I particularly enjoyed the book, but I do admit that it’s a book every reader should experience for themselves.

Cruella – A Movie Review

I can’t lie–I loved Disney’s Cruella.

In fact, I was willing to pay the Disney Plus Premier fee so that my family could see it when it first came out, but nobody wanted to give it a shot. I thought it would be kind of strange if I watched it alone, so I agreed to wait until it arrived on Disney Plus for free.

That day finally arrived, and so my wife, daughters, and I all had a movie night last night on the couch.

I loved it. My daughters loved it. My wife fell asleep, but, to be fair, she’d had a long week.

Cruella delves into the history of the title character, all the way back to childhood. We learn how she became just so evil, though, honestly, I’ve never seen 101 Dalmatians, so I don’t know just how evil she actually got.

What I do know is that in Cruella, she’s not evil, nor is she good. Like all of us, she exists in a shade of grey. We simply dabble in that area–she tends to exist there while sliding from one end of the spectrum to the other.

The trailers initially caught my interest with Cruella. They looked stylish, interesting, and fun. Furthermore, I believe in Emma Stone. She rarely makes a bad movie. If she felt Cruella deserved her talents, I was more than happy to bear witness. Plus, let’s not forget Emma Thompson. Thompson has been Hollywood elite for decades. These are two Oscar winners, folks. Disney or not, they both wouldn’t have signed on to Cruella unless they thought it had promise.

Simply put–it’s a good movie. It’s entertaining, it looks great, the costumes are fantastic, there’s plenty of action, the soundtrack is amazing (listened to it just this morning), the special effects are extravagant, the acting is excellent, it’s safe for the whole family, and the comedy is actually pretty funny.

In fact, Cruella’s two friends/henchmen, Jasper and Horace, are hilarious. Best of all? They are perhaps two of the most capable henchmen in the history of cinema. Cruella pulls off some pretty impressive feats in this film, all due to the efforts of Jasper and Horace, played by Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser. Oh, and let’s not forget Buddy and Wink, the adorable canine companions of Cruella, Jasper, and Horace. Though they aren’t Dalmatians, they are responsible for a large part of Cruella’s comedy.

Look, I’ve tried to offer some valuable insight into why I liked Cruella, but it really just comes down this–it’s cool. The filming is cool. The music is cool. The actors are cool. The costumes are cool. It just felt cool.

Don’t believe me? Go watch it for yourself and let me know what you think.

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson – A Book Review

I’ve enjoyed short novellas all summer that were recommended by Literary Hub’s “The 50 Best Contemporary Novels Under 200 Pages.” I just finished my favorite one yet – Train Dreams by Denis Johnson.

I find it very hard to believe this book is only 116 pages. Though I flew through it, I literally felt as though I had lived a lifetime alongside the protagonist, Robert Grainer.

Set at the turn of the 20th Century, Grainer is an outdoorsman accustomed to working on bridges, in the woods, with animals, and under consistently harsh conditions. He ranges throughout the northwest during his early life but does indeed eventually settle down as circumstances dictate. Grainer is an unassuming man, a capable man, and a man who wants to be moral even while acknowledging he sometimes isn’t. Grainer suffers horrific tragedy throughout his life, yet he persists.

As I said, though the book is only 116 pages, we experience flashes of Grainer’s life in potent, concise, brilliantly constructed vignettes. “Epic” seems an improbable word to use in describing such a brief work, but I can’t help admitting that “epic” is the first word that comes to mind while trying to describe Train Dreams.

Sometimes surreal, oftentimes brutally realistic, Train Dreams is easily counted among my favorite reads of late. I look forward to finding more works by Denis Johnson.

Stitch Fix For Men – A Successful Experiment

I recently started a new career in the corporate world, one that allows me to be a bit more daring than my previous profession in education. As a teacher, I always tried to dress rather conservatively. I didn’t want to stand out too much. It’s daunting enough to face down 150 teenagers every day–I didn’t want my clothing to be a topic of their interest.

However, while I knew I wanted to upgrade my wardrobe and expand my style, I didn’t know where to begin. I’ve never been great at shopping, making outfits, or seeing the possibilities in clothing. Most of my outfits came from Kohls, Target, and sometimes Amazon. While they were nice enough, they were fairly bland and similar to what every other man in my community wore.

Somewhere around the time I accepted my new position I saw an advertisement for Stitch Fix For Men. I knew of Stitch Fix. My wife had tried it several years ago. I have to admit, though, that I wasn’t aware they had a division aimed specifically at men. I visited their website and saw great potential. The outfits looked good, fit my desired style, and would be sent right to my front door. It doesn’t get much easier than that, right?

As I filled out my profile questionnaire at their website, I was able to describe my tastes, my wants, my dislikes, my preferred fits, my texture preferences, my favorite colors, and so much more. I was even able to detail the fact that I was starting a new job and wanted a focus placed upon business casual. I told them I would like blazers coupled with business casual shirts, pants, and shoes.

I got an email from Stitch Fix For Men showing me what my stylist, Caitlin, had chosen for my first “fix.” I had a list of about ten items and I could choose up to five. If I only saw three that I liked, I’d have to accept her judgement on two choices that I wouldn’t have a chance to review. In this particular case, I easily found five items I liked from the provided list.

A bit later, my first “fix” arrived right on my doorstep! Caitlin hit a homerun. Everything looked great; everything fit great. If I didn’t like any of the items, Stitch Fix For Men provided a prelabeled envelope to return those items in. However, if you stick with all five, you get a big discount. In fact, you don’t even pay until after you receive the items.

So far, out of four “fixes,” I’ve kept all five items per “fix” that Caitlin picked for me. My only slight complication arrived when I received a shirt sized too big for me, but the exchange for the proper size could not have been simpler.

Stitch Fix For Men is the perfect situation for me. I get a variety of styles that mix and match well together. My stylist is sending me things specifically filling my needs, and I even get the opportunity to provide feedback on fits, cuts, and styles. They also provide cards with each clothing item you receive showing you how to pair it with other styles that might be in your closet.

Finally, you can set the frequency at which you’d like to get your “fixes.” I go about once a month, but you can alter your schedule according to your needs or budget.

As you can see, Stich Fix For Men is the perfect “fix” to my current situation. Though I would love to, I’m not sure I’ll stick with it perpetually due to cost. However, in terms of providing an almost instant wardrobe, I couldn’t have asked for anything better. In fact, I’ve included snapshots below of everything that I’ve received so far.

If Stitch Fix For Men sounds like a good fit for you, check them out at this address: https://www.stitchfix.com/men

The Suicide Squad – A Movie Review

James Gunn’s R-rated version of The Suicide Squad is exactly what you would expect it to be. Yes, the humor is still there. Yep, the zaniness is off the charts. But this is Gunn with the kid gloves resoundingly off. The first ten minutes of the film are ludicrously violent and he never takes his foot off the accelerator from there.

That’s not to say I didn’t like it–I liked The Suicide Squad very much!

Gunn perfectly understands the premise of this group. These are very bad criminals literally on suicide missions in the hopes of reducing very long prison sentences. It doesn’t have to be more complicated than that.

However, Gunn also appreciates the fact that these are comic book characters. Peacemaker looks like he stepped right off the page, yet it makes total sense with his character. Javelin, Savant, Weasel, King Shark, Mongal, Polka-Dot Man–they look almost exactly like they do in the comics. Yet, somehow, Gunn made them loveable, intense, disturbed, and dynamic. Well … some more than others.

Speaking of which, The Suicide Squad lives up to its name. Gunn takes his cue from Cormac McCarthy and doesn’t get too attached to any of his characters. I’m not a fan of killing off characters for shock value, but with a name like Suicide Squad, you kind of have to expect someone to die, right? Frankly, some of the deaths surprised even me.

My only complaint is Bloodsport, played by Idris Elba. Elba is a fine actor, and Bloodsport is a cool character, but he seemed so similar to Will Smith’s Deadshot in terms of storyline and abilities that it felt almost like they were hoping the audience wouldn’t notice these were two different characters. Bloodsport is an expert marksmen trying to help his daughter while finding the goodness within. Sound familiar? I liked Ebla just fine, but there’s a classic Suicide Squad character out there called The Bronze Tiger that probably would have been a better choice. The Bronze Tiger is an expert martial artist and former member of the League Of Assassins. His character could have been a good way to set one of the lead characters apart from Deadshot.

The core characters of the movie were fun to watch, especially John Cena’s Peacemaker. Though an incredibly violent man, they played Peacemaker for a lot of laughs and Cena pulled it off by playing it as straight as he could. King Shark looked amazing and, like Peacemaker, spurred forth much of the humor even as he was literally tearing people in half. Joel Kinnaman once again had to be the straight man but Gunn even allowed his character some breathing room and moments of levity. Of course, Margot Robbie is Harley Quinn and brings something unique to the screen every time she plays the character. Viola Davis as Amanda Waller? Chilling.

However, James Gunn completely won me over with the last act of the film. I won’t spoil it in case you somehow missed it, but the last act of the movie is about as bonkers as you can get and I couldn’t believe I was actually watching it unfold. Gunn said Warner Brothers let him do whatever he wanted, and I believe it! I never, ever thought I’d see a certain monster from DC Comics in a blockbuster movie, but there he was, and he looked both terrifying and ridiculously silly–in a good way!

So as you can see, I had a fun time watching The Suicide Squad. There were so many jokes coming so fast with so much going on all of the time that I definitely need to watch it again. Luckily, it’s so crazy and fun that I won’t mind doing so at all.

The Neon Demon – A Movie Review

I have to admit that I’ve noticed this film on Amazon Prime Video for several years and it always piqued my curiosity. I recently read an article touting it as a hidden gem among the Amazon library, and so I finally decided to give it a watch.

The Neon Demon stars Elle Fanning as a sixteen-year-old model who comes to LA and instantly gets noticed. Her simple, natural beauty wins over photographers and fashion icons alike. Jenna Malone plays Ruby, a make-up artist who says she wants to watch out for Fanning’s character, Jesse, but seems to also sometimes put Jesse in precarious positions. Keanu Reeves plays a man who runs the cheap motel Jesse stays in, and his intent is obviously nefarious from the beginning. Abbey Lee and Bella Heathcote play perfect models who are apparently friends with Ruby and insanely jealous of Jesse.

As the movie progresses, Jesse says and does things that make it appear as though she may be far more than she seems. At times the movie leads the audience to believe she undergoes entire personality shifts and, in fact, may be the very demon the title suggests. She regularly claims to be dangerous despite her mousy, wide-eyed disposition.

This goes on for the first three-quarters of the film. It is slow, visually striking, stiffly acted by otherwise talented actors, and more than a bit disjointed. And then the last quarter of the movie unfolds. The last act is gory, disturbing, twisted, and surprising. I appreciate that this sudden turn of events was indeed hinted at throughout the film, but I found Jesse’s ultimate fate disappointing because it struck me as inconsistent with the rest of the film in regards to her character.

I’m afraid I cannot recommend The Neon Demon to the casual viewer. It’s not particularly enjoyable, entertaining, or thrilling. I could see film students or movie experts appreciating some of the stylistic choices made by the film, however.

Jungle Cruise – A Movie Review

I struggle with paying the extra $30 for a movie on Disney Plus when I already pay for a Disney Plus subscription. Quite honestly, I feel a little fleeced when it happens. Of course, I can rationalize it by saying, “Well, you know, we’d spend more at the actual theater if it wasn’t available on Disney Plus, so we’re ultimately coming out ahead.” Anyway, we paid the thirty bucks.

And you know what? As my youngest daughter said halfway through Jungle Cruise: “This is totally worth the money!”

Yes, I’m a dad, so my kids get to hear me groan about extra expenditures.

But she was right. Believe it or not, Jungle Cruise absolutely lived up to the purchase price.

I’ve read a few headlines saying Jungle Cruise is nothing more than an advertisement for the theme ride, and I have to disagree. Yes, the movie is obviously inspired by the attraction and so there are going to be similarities, but I honestly believe this film could have stood on its own with a different name and been just fine.

True, it’s borrowing moves from some pretty successful playbooks. It’s a little bit Jumanji: Welcome To the Jungle, a little bit Pirates Of the Caribbean, and a little bit Raiders Of the Lost Ark, but those are not bad movies to emulate, right?

Most of the film, as you would expect, occurs either on or in water, and so you have to appreciate the technical execution of filming this thing. It also looks fabulous in terms of water crafts, costumes, architecture, flora, animals, and general scenery. The film is set in 1916, so making these items look authentic would not have been easy feats to accomplish. Furthermore, for the most part, the film’s CGI was above average, especially in regards to a certain big cat. CGI can really suffer on the small screen, and Jungle Cruise had a few CGI stumbles, but overall it appeared fairly seamless.

The plot is pretty familiar in terms of generalities. Person A has an object leading to a treasure. Person A needs Person B to guide her to said treasure. Person B is not entirely trustworthy or who he seems. Person A has doubts. Adventure ensues. Person A and B then … Well, that would be a spoiler, wouldn’t it?

Yet, even though the plot is tried and true, the chemistry between the leads is absolutely what makes this movie work. Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt, on their own, are about as charismatic as it gets. Put them together, along with Blunt’s onscreen brother played by Jack Whitehall, and you have a terrific trinity perhaps rivaling Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford. (Okay, maybe I took that one too far.) They really do sizzle together, though.

With tons of great humor, lots of terrible dad jokes, ample action, fantastic adventure, and some thrilling but not-too-frightening jump scares, Jungle Cruise managed to entertain both of my kids, my wife, and me. It’s pretty rare that all four of us are equally satisfied.

That being said, if you’re looking to spend theater prices without actually going to the theater, you can’t do much better in terms of a family film than Jungle Cruise. Enjoy!

(P.S. Once everyone has seen it and I don’t have to worry about spoilers, I plan to write a thorough analysis explaining the purpose behind Johnson’s dad jokes. As a former teacher, I totally related. Stay tuned!)