Mapping the Interior by Stephen Gram Jones – A Book Review

Most of my recent reads come from a list of recommendations by Literary Hub’s “The 50 Best Contemporary Novels Under 200 Pages.” Mapping the Interior is from among those many wonderful books.

Written by Stephen Graham Jones, Mapping the Interior is a concise 107 pages. It’s told from the perspective of a Native American boy nearing his teens. His mother moved he and his little brother–who seems to have some health challenges–off of their reservation and into a lackluster trailer. The boy reveals his father died some time ago, so no one is more surprised than he when that very same father appears in their home. Their real father is dead and buried, though. This is something … different.

For such a slim book, Mapping the Interior dives into some rather poignant issues such as poverty, racism, violence, alcoholism, bullying, brotherly love, motherly love, disabled family members, and absentee fathers. Running throughout all of these themes, however, is a sense of dread as a monster seems to persistently lurk.

At times surreal, Mapping the Interior plays with the reader a bit as it teases fantasy while dealing very much in reality. Those two genres eventually merge and it becomes difficult to separate fact versus fiction as our narrator may or may not be totally reliable. There were several moments in the book when I had to read a paragraph over to be certain I read it correctly, but this wasn’t a bad thing. Mapping the Interior demands your engagement.

My only criticism of the book pertains to the ending. It managed a consistent, fast-moving pace until the very end, when the pace suddenly hit lightspeed. I understand the point Jones wanted to make about fathers and sons, but the last ten pages of the book were frustratingly rushed. In all honestly, the last ten pages should have been given another hundred pages if not an entire follow-up book.

If you like thoughtful, brief works that aren’t afraid to dabble in horror, I highly recommend Mapping the Interior.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings – A Movie Review

My daughter and I, who both love movies, haven’t been to a theater during the entire pandemic. However, for an MCU theater-only release, and because we’re both vaccinated, we decided to make our triumphant return in order to see Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.

I won’t lie – it wasn’t a totally comfortable situation at the theater. Even with that being said, though, we’re SO glad we went.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is absolutely an action comedy with moments of fairly poignant emotional drama. I know Marvel often goes for that concept, but they resoundingly connect on Shang-Chi. Furthermore, the special effects are phenomenal, but it’s the hand-to-hand martial arts that will mesmerize you. Best of all? The story isn’t too bad, either.

I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t very familiar with Shang-Chi despite the fact that I grew up reading Marvel Comics. Shang-Chi has been a comic book character since 1973, after all. Even so, I knew every thing I needed to know about the MCU Shang-Chi within moments of his introduction on screen. He puts his dishes in the sink after joining Katy’s family for breakfast. He kisses Katy’s grandmother on the head before taking his leave. Bam. There it is. He’s not just a hero, he’s nice.

However, when the fighting starts, and you won’t have to wait long, prepare to see Shang-Chi unleased. You’ve seen parts of the bus fight in the previews – you haven’t seen anything yet. It is a thrilling moment and firmly establishes that Simu Liu has both the charisma and the physicality to headline an MCU martial arts action movie.

Speaking of which, the heart and soul of this film is Simu Liu, who plays Shang-Chi, and Awkwafina, who plays Katy. Their comedic chemistry is a blast and I honestly believed they were the best of friends. I look forward to seeing these two for many years to come.

Tony Chiu-Wai Leung plays Shang-Chi’s father, the true leader of The Ten Rings. Marvel has given us heroes with daddy issues before, but Leung might be the first one who actually elicited sympathy from me – maybe even a bit of empathy. His story is vital to the overall plot, and though father/son conflicts are something of a fantasy trope, this one still felt uniquely fresh.

I promise not to spoil anything, but there are many, many delightful surprises in this film. There are several actors I want to commend, but I don’t want to ruin anything for you. Just know that I’ve only touched upon the three you’ve seen in previews. This film is full of performances that will both catch you off guard and make perfect sense to you.

In the end, I found the story fairly captivating. The comedic friendship between Shang-Chi and Katy were my favorite parts, the backstory with Shang-Chi’s father proved interesting enough, other elements of Shang-Chi’s family also held my attention, but the last act’s “big battle” was problematic. These giant end-of-movie-fights are escalating to an impossible degree. It was visually magnificent, but the stakes seemed way too high for such a predictable outcome. Believe it or not, Shang-Chi struck me as oddly intimate throughout most of the film – the ending contradicted that more tightly-woven approach. But, the ending got the Shang-Chi character where he needed to go, and now his future is wide open.

If you’re vaccinated and comfortable going to the theater, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is certainly worth the trip. My daughter and I immensely enjoyed it from start to finish. Loveable characters, big laughs, thrilling action, cool story – you can’t ask for much more than that of an MCU movie, right?

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.

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!)

Winter In the Blood by James Welch – A Book Review

Once again, I must give Literary Hub’s “The 50 Best Contemporary Novels Under 200 Pages” credit for helping me find yet another substantial read. This time, it is the novella Winter In the Blood by James Welch. At just 138 pages, it is indeed a brief, yet potent, experience.

Though it’s a provocative, expertly executed book, I must admit that I didn’t find it all that engaging. This could be due to the author’s intent. Welch wrote the book in such a way that its slow, simmering plot mirrors the personality of the narrator.

By my estimation, our narrator is in his early thirties living on the Fort Belknap Reservation in Montana at some point during the 1960s. A woman, possibly a new wife, has stolen his gun and electric razor and he decides to reclaim his two most prized possessions. During his meandering quest, we get a sense of his poverty, the difficulties of life surrounding his area, the aimlessness of his adulthood, but also the joy and camaraderie he experienced during his youth. Those smarter than I could perhaps argue the existence of an extended metaphor throughout the novella, but I’ll attempt no such thing.

Though we never learn the narrator’s name, we learn that alcohol is a prevalent constant amongst his friends, family, and he, and it seems responsible for many hardships he endures throughout the book. (Obviously those hardships are ultimately due to the mistreatment of tribes across the continent throughout the last several centuries, but I’m speaking in a more immediate sense.) At times, those hardships feel almost surreal. I never quite decided if that was a result of the alcohol or the author employing a fluid style. By story’s end, we’ve learned a lot about the narrator, especially due to a major revelation concerning his heritage.

The execution of Winter In the Blood was quite interesting, but, as I said, I never connected with the book. Sometimes this is no fault of a work. Sometimes the demands of life can impair the enjoyment of reading, and sometimes those demands can enhance the joy of reading. Whatever the case may be, while I appreciate a great deal about Winter in the Blood, at this point, I can’t personally say I’d recommend it. Because it’s so short, though, if it sounds remotely interesting to you, you should give it a try. It won’t take up much of your time.

Space Jam: A New Legacy – A Movie Review

I found myself thoroughly entertained by Space Jam: A New Legacy as I watched it with my kids.

Look, you know what you’re getting with this. LeBron James is playing basketball with Looney Tunes characters. What more can you expect from a movie with this premise?

Is LeBron the world’s greatest actor? No, but he’s not bad. He really isn’t. And you can’t deny he’s got real charisma both on the court and on the big screen.

Furthermore, the Looney Tunes gang is hilarious. Who doesn’t love Bugs, Lola, Porky, Daffy, and the rest of the crew?

Of course, I love Warner Bros. Entertainment and all of their properties, so seeing character cameos from Harry Potter, Batman, Justice League, Wonder Woman, Iron Giant, Flintstones, Jetsons, Mad Max, Game of Thrones, Scooby Doo, and Lord Of the Rings, among many, many others, proved a delight. I hit pause several times to see who all stood courtside during the big game. Is it corporate synergy at the maximum level? Yes, absolutely. But, again, I’m not asking for much from Space Jam: A New Legacy other than to be purely entertained.

You know who was great, though? Don Cheadle. Of course, this should come as no surprise. I won’t spoil it, but he plays a major role in the movie and he gives it his all. In the span of a few weeks, I’ve seen him in a Marvel movie, a Soderburgh film, and now this. Talk about multifaceted!

And, okay, yes, LeBron isn’t winning an Oscar anytime soon (though–again–he was not bad), but the film’s plot and actual story held up. I found the tone consistent, the ending logically concluded the events preceding it, and the climax struck me as fairly emotional. For a Space Jam movie, I thought it was pretty tightly written and executed with a positive message.

In the end, I think Space Jam: A New Legacy is a fine family movie. I laughed the whole way through, loved all the character cameos, and remembered why I enjoyed Looney Tunes so much as a kid.

Gunpowder Milkshake – A Movie Review

There’s a lot to like about Gunpowder Milkshake. It’s a star-studded action movie with plenty of style and pop. Karen Gillan has paid her dues since Dr. Who, and it’s wonderful to see her in a big-budget starring role. Let’s not forget about Hollywood stalwarts such as Lena Headey, Carla Gugino, Angela Bassett, Michelle Yeoh, as well as up-and-comer Chloe Coleman. (Seriously, check out this young lady’s IMDB page. She’s 13 years old.) Paul Giamatti is even in this thing!

Karen Gillan plays Sam, a prestige assassin who finds herself stuck in a moral dilemma when she takes responsibility for a young girl’s safety. Though she hasn’t spoken to her assassin mom or her mom’s … eccentric … friends in years, she reluctantly goes to them for help. They help her, there’s a ton of violence, we see huge action scenes, and we get plenty of chuckles along the way.

While I appreciate the film’s verve as well as the above actors giving it their all, the tone of the movie truly confused me. Sometimes it was very heartfelt, sometimes it seemed to be a satire, sometimes it wanted to be a pure action flick, sometimes it tried to prove itself as a hyper stylized piece of art, and sometimes it came off as a comedy. I’m all for bending genre, but Gunpowder Milkshake created a jarring experience that ultimately distracted me to the point I couldn’t settle in.

Honestly, there were moments when I felt as though I was watching a bad imitation of Quentin Tarantino.

It’s such a shame, because I wanted to like Gunpowder Milkshake so much more than I actually did. I was rooting for it to be great. However, there’s plenty of room for a sequel. I will definitely give it another chance if they keep the story going on the basis of the actors alone.