Amazon Prime

I suppose that internet users are all aware of the benefits of Amazon Prime. For quite a while, I just enjoyed the quick and often discounted shipping. But, the video offerings have improved vastly, and I certainly use that feature often. Amazon has both original content as well as plenty of television and movie offerings. Sometimes I listen to Amazon music, and I am especially fond of the “channels” feature that lets me choose a style of music based on favorite artists. Another benefit that I’ve mentioned here from time to time is the “Kindle First” offerings— free books that are available prior to release on the Kindle platform. I’ve read quite a few of those (and reviewed them here from time to time.) Recently, I’ve taken advantage of the free periodicals, such as Family Handyman.

My publishing career is intertwined with Amazon, as my current books (Trinity on Tylos and The Gift Horse) are mostly available via Amazon’s Kindle store, but even if that were not the case, I’d still have to acknowledge that Amazon’s Prime program is value added for online shoppers, television cord cutters, and eBook readers. If you want to know more about Amazon Prime, use the link to explore it via a free trial.

Join Amazon Prime – Watch Thousands of Movies & TV Shows Anytime – Start Free Trial Now

Advertisements

Stranger in a Strange Land— another item from my “Keeper” shelf

Stranger CoverAs a youngster, I loved science fiction. From being a little kid watching Fireball XL5: The Complete Series on television to reading the novels of Robert Heinlein while in school, to seeing the original Star Wars: A New Hope at the cinema while in college (gosh, I’m old, right?) I really loved sci-fi. Actually, I still do, but this is a blast from the past post, so here goes.

Heinlein, now considered one of the “grand masters” of classic science fiction, wrote young adult novels and short stories for a number of years. However, his groundbreaking and movie inspiring Starship Troopers is considered a turning point into adult fiction because this novel begins his exploration of themes that appeal to a more mature audience, including libertarian politics. Perhaps modern readers wouldn’t realize it, but the powered body armor in Starship Troopers was one of those prescient inventions that makes reading and watching science fiction so important to the development of technology.

Stranger in a Strange Land (Remembering Tomorrow)was published a couple of years after Troopers, and while less “realistic” the novel takes some giant leaps into thematic explorations. The novel deals with the life of one Valentine Michael Smith, the first human born on Mars, and because he was orphaned he was reared by the natives of that planet, and later brought back to earth as a young adult human who knows absolutely nothing about his home planet or its inhabitants, hence the title. This situation is a fabulous set up for what science fiction does best: explore what makes humanity work (or not.) I used to read this novel annually, and I have never tired of it, because there are so many themes. Indeed, while doing a master’s degree in English, I wrote a pretty decent term paper on the topic of how Heinlein uses the world savior theme in the novel, and didn’t get thrown out of my fairly conservative program.

The characters in Stranger are often larger than life, but Jubal Harshaw, lawyer, doctor, and homespun philosopher (as well as the voice of the author) is my favorite. His employees and associates included Anne, a “fair witness” which is sort of a human version of a body cam, as she only reports what is seen. As in many Heinlein works, there are any number of gems, but even people who haven’t read Stranger may use the invented word “grok” which is a Martian term for being one with someone or something, in such a way that it is fully understood or appreciated.

Modern science fiction has split into many sub-genres, but Stranger in a Strange Land pre-dates that, and in a good way. Grand Master Robert Heinlein was not restricted to hard science or the softer “social” aspects of the genre, although he uses both hard and softer themes to challenge societal norms. Indeed, this novel broke new ground when first published, and it is just as thoughtful and thought provoking today. Certainly, it deserves a read, but it is so complex that it almost needs a Cliff Notes commentary but not quite yet. Despite its age, it is still in print, so go get a copy!

Girl Power? Wonder Woman review and commentary

I’m not a frequent visitor to first run movies, as hubby and I enjoy our Netflix subscription (and homemade popcorn) more. Sometimes, however, a film comes out that piques my interest so we make the trek to our local multiplex and join a group of folks we’ve never met to see a movie. After reading some reviews and seeing a couple of trailers, I told hubby that I intended to see Wonder Woman, with or without him, so we went to see it.

Gal Gadot is fabulous in this film as the title character, as is Chris Pine’s side kick, Steve Trevor. Others do a good job, and Robin Wright is visually stunning as the Amazon general. Indeed, stunning is a word that comes to mind through the first half of the film. An superhero movie that is not a sequel must begin with some exposition, and that is a tricky phase. Too much detail threatens to bore the non-faithful viewer, but too little will disappoint those faithful fans who will show up regardless of what critics say. This version of Wonder Woman nails the exposition, with lots of action woven into the backstory. The costumes are simply amazing as are the settings and the action sequences. The characters do a great job of holding the viewers’ interest as the setting shifts from the island of the Amazons to WWI London. Again, the settings work well, as do the costumes, and it was easy to feel that we’d been transported back a hundred years.

(I am purposely leaving out details, as I do not want to ruin this movie for those who haven’t seen it, if there is anyone left in that category.)

Once the main mission of our heroine gets underway, the action is almost non-stop, and the villains are properly villainous. If I am totally honest, the final action sequence is a tad too long, but the overall effect is that this is a really good movie. Wonder Woman 2017 earns its fabulous score on Rotten Tomatoes.

I know nothing of director Patty Jenkins other work, nor have I seen Gadot in other films, but I have liked Chris Pine’s version of Captain Kirk in the rebooted Star Trek, and I thought he did a great job in the period action-adventure The Finest Hours (Theatrical). This super hero flick really hits on all cylinders: it is reasonably true to the comic book version, won’t disappoint fans of the old television series, and is so well made that newbies will enjoy it, too.

Please enjoy the links to these previous films available online, and consider going to see Wonder Woman.

Jackie— a brief review and commentary


We recently ordered up the DVD version of Jackie, starring Natalie Portman. Like many baby boomers, I remember the Kennedy assassination and its aftermath. Yes, I was just a child, but I still exactly where I was when I first heard the news, and I do remember that funeral procession as it appeared on our black and white television.

The film version of those events, entitled simply Jackie, is not especially linear, as the story line has a journalist coming to the Kennedy home in Massachusetts, to interview the former first lady about that terrible day and its aftermath. The story is actually a series of flashbacks. Featured in several of those is the famous television film of Jackie leading a tour of the White House, and the filmmakers carefully recreated a number of well documented events, including the arrival at Love Field and the motorcade (which was, of course, interrupted by the assassination.)

Other scenes give viewers a fictionalized but probably accurate glimpse of the horrors of that day. These include Jackie cleaning the blood from her face on Air Force One, and her removing the bloodstained pink wool suit, washing her hair, and Kennedy’s blood flows down her back. Although only seconds long, the shooting is also amazingly accurately depicted, and this is no fuzzy 8mm film— the assassination is high def and horrifying. The film also answers some questions that I’ve had, such as why Jackie tried to get out of the car, and why she didn’t change clothes before disembarking from the plane in Washington. The costumes, the sets, the cars, and the blending of old footage with new footage is really top notch. The cast does a very good job, especially Portman, who may not look all that much like Mrs. Kennedy, but she clearly worked hard on getting the accent and mannerisms down. Before it was over, I began to forget that this wasn’t the real Jackie Kennedy on the screen.

All-in-all, this film does a really good job of adding insight for viewers already familiar with the story. Perhaps more importantly, however, it gives younger generations a chance to see exactly what price is paid when a leader such as JFK dies at the hands of an assassin. Jackie is historically accurate, as well as being emotionally gut wrenching.

Adding to the List

That’s the “to be read”list, of course. As I’ve been going through this blog and updating some links, killing off a few out of date posts, and generally trying to do some cyber housekeeping, I’ve run across some sequels that I want to read.

First up, Evergreen, which had some rights to the story of Honor Harrington, David Weber’s amazing space opera, has closed up shop, but there is a second comic book version of the story available. Here’s the cover (and a link to buy if you are so inclined.) While I’m not much of a graphic novel fan, I love Honor Harrington stories, especially those toward the beginning of the saga, which these comics depict.


 

And, the also amazing, but not so famous, Kennedy Hudner has added to his space opera, as Alarm of War is up to Volume III, entitled Desperate Measures. I’ve enjoyed the other books in the series, so I am looking forward to this one. Again, here’s some cover art with a link.


And, if you are like me and you read a lot of digital books and haven’t checked into Amazon’s Kindle programs, do take a look at this:

Join Amazon Kindle Unlimited 30-Day Free Trial

Star Trek and Philosophy: The Wrath of Kant— a brief review

Okay, I am a sucker for a good title, and this book has a good title and a good cover. Win-win! And it is about Star Trek, which I like quite a lot. But it is rather deep at times, so I wouldn’t rate it five stars, but fans of Trek who have some knowledge of philosophy might award it a solid four, perhaps.

What is between the covers is a collection of essays edited by Jason T. Eberl and Kevin S. Decker. These essays use Star Trek’s various television shows and movies to explore philosophical issues, and it helps quite a lot if the reader is familiar with all forms of Trek. Since I never watched all of DS9 or Enterprise, I was sometimes a bit lost.

The first essay is a nifty one, as it is based upon a Next Generation episode, “Darmok.” Both the essay and the episode dealt with the difficulty of translating a totally alien language. Throughout most of the Trek episodes there was a “universal translator” which was a bit like Google Translate, but it depended upon languages having some commonalities. Of course, communication via such means can go astray quite easily, but what about an alien species that doesn’t communicate the way we do? The issues would be far beyond going from English to Chinese, and I understand that can be difficult.

As the essays in this book are by different authors, the tone and topics vary quite a lot. For me, it was a book to nibble at, but not a cover to cover read. I’ve always viewed Star Trek as more intellectual than Star Wars, but this book takes it to an even higher plane. For fans of all things Trek, there are some really delicious ideas to examine in this collection, so if that describes you, go for it!

Is last year’s best science fiction novel is this year’s best science fiction film?

movie poster image of The MartianI think so, but I certainly haven’t seen all of the science fiction films of 2015. However, last night, I saw Ridley Scott’s version of The Martian, and it is really, really good. The guys with me (hubby and our unmarried 22 year-old son) absolutely loved it, and they had not read the book. (I wrote about Weir’s originally self-published novel last year.)

No doubt there are any number of professional and amateur reviews of the film, so I will do a bit of compare and contrast with the book. First, the beginning and the ending are different. Not vastly so, but the visual medium requires a different approach. However, the spirit of the novel, as well as much of the plot, is intact. The film begins with the astronauts on the surface of Mars, taking care of exploring and introducing characters. The action begins quickly, as the storm sets in and the crew aborts the mission. In the book, the back story unfolds as stranded astronaut Mark Watney recovers from his wound, assesses options, and determines each course of action. Either way, the story soon slows a bit, as this modern take on “Robinson Crusoe” unfolds. In order to get the audience out in a timely manner, the events in the film are compressed a bit. However, some things, such as the mission commander’s affection for “disco” music actually work much better in the film, as 80’s hits make up much of the sound track.

The casting is excellent, and the amount of screen time for players other than the central character, Watney, reflect a slightly different approach to the story. In the novel, chapters go by before there is any mention of the characters back on earth, but that, too, is accelerated for the film version. Actually, I like the film’s approach better than the novel, as it ramps up the suspense a bit.

Some folks in my generation have been very, very disappointed in the choices our government has made regarding space exploration. (Or should I say, the lack of space exploration.) The Martian can certainly thrill audiences of many ages, as my son really loved it. But it will especially appeal to those of us who watched NASA missions in our youth, and dreamed of continued exploration. This isn’t space opera— it is fiction based on real science.

At the most basic level, The Martian is good entertainment. It’s not particularly violent, or sexy, but it has plenty of action. The conflicts here are mostly man vs. the environment, and the environment is very believable. Perhaps, however, the younger audience will also ask why our government is so concerned about minutia, such as providing everything from cell phones to farmer’s markets, rather than taking the lead on larger initiatives, such as exploring the solar system.

Unbroken– the book (review and commentary)

Unbroken coverWhen I was younger, one of the genres of movies and television that was quite popular was stories from World War II. While I wasn’t alive for it, of course, many in my parents’ generation had fought or knew those who had. Indeed, on a wall in my house is a framed picture of my uncle, A.L. Dodd, Junior, who was killed a few weeks before the end of the war in Europe; he was in Germany, in the Ruhr valley, when he was shot by a German machine gunner. So, the war was quite real to us. We enjoyed the stories, because they were entertainment, but knew that the war had affected most everyone in America.

After seeing the film Unbroken, directed by Angelina Jolie, I was telling my sister about it, and she said, “Clearly, you don’t know the whole story. Read the book.” And, with lots of other reading and a bit of teaching, it was almost six months after hearing that advice before I got around to reading the book by Laura Hillenbrand. OMG, why did I wait so long? The movie is very good, but the book is great. Maybe I waited, in part, because I don’t usually like biographies.

As told by Hillenbrand, Louis Zamperini was quite a character, from his earliest days. His parents didn’t quite know what to do with him, and he might be described as a juvenile delinquent. His brother convinced the school authorities to allow Louie to get involved in sports, and Louie was gifted in running. So gifted, in fact, that he became an Olympic runner, and a very good one. He might have known even more fame as a track star, but World War II got in the way. After his plane crashes in the Pacific, Louie and two other Army Air Force survivors were adrift for a very long time. Then, on the brink of death, they were captured by the Japanese. Yes, Louie was still alive, but he faced incredible brutality.

One of my elderly friends is a survivor of a Japanese POW camp in the Philippines. She was interned there as a child, one of several children of a missionary who fled there from China, because the parents thought that being in a U.S. territory was safer for their children. The treatment she and other family members endured was brutal, and toward the end of the war, the prisoners were scheduled to be executed before the Japanese withdrew. She was saved because some American volunteers broke down the fence and escorted the POWs to safety. My friend, to this day, cannot understand Americans can embrace Japan as our friends and allies. To her, they were a barbaric enemy, who starved her family and killed far too many non-combatants.

Hillenbrand does explain the brutality, through Louie’s account, and accounts by other prisoners. But she reinforces the brutal nature of the Japanese POW camps with survival statistics. According to Hillenbrand, only 1% of American POWs held by the Germans or Italians (the European theater) died, but in Japan 37% died. She also goes into the cultural differences which led to the cruelty, not as an excuse, but to let readers know more about the “why” which must come to the mind of her readers.

(spoilers)

The film, Unbroken, closes with the end of the war. That is a good stopping point for a Hollywood film; the audience can go home knowing Louie made it out alive and was welcomed home by his loving family. But, as my sister noted, there is more to the story. The book has a subtitle Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption and it is appropriate. While I do not fault Jolie for leaving out the “redemption” part, the story is incomplete without Louie’s problems adjusting to “normal” life after the horrific experiences he had in Japan and how finding religion gave him the peace he desperately needed. The author continues to cover multiple story lines, including “Phil” the pilot to “the Bird” who was the most sadistic of the Japanese prison guards.

The entire story is important, and those who watch the movie get only the middle, so I encourage readers to tackle the book by Laura Hillenbrand. While it isn’t a quick read, it is certainly worth your time.

The Machine— a film review and commentary

Science fiction has long been a successful genre for film, far more so than for books. Perhaps it is the visual nature of science fiction, especially action/adventures, but even more cerebral films (2001 A Space Odyssey and A.I. for example) have had box office success. Most science fiction films nowadays are big budget affairs, but that was not so in the 50s. Recently, hubby chose a British science fiction film, The Machine, from the streaming offerings at Netflix. And while it was clearly rather low budget, the film is certainly worth an evening of your time, having scored 78% on Rotten Tomatoes. Few of the low budget films of yesteryear had the winning assets of this movie.

Set in a near future UK, which is involved in a cold war with China, a computer guy who is working for the Defence Ministry is attempting to restore the brain function of injured soldiers. During the opening act, our main character, Vince, hires a young woman, Ava, to help him with programming. They hit it off, professionally and personally, and the audience learns that Vince has a daughter , Mary, with Rett syndrome, and success at work might help his daughter as well. When Chinese agents murder Ava, Vince ends up using Ava as his model for a weapon/AI who is known as “the machine” and this robot is quite an amazing being.

(spoiler alert)

As the film moves along, Vince’s daughter dies, but he has used his knowledge to scan Mary’s brain. The scans are precious to him, and these become leverage that his boss uses against him, because the boss doesn’t want an amazing artificial intelligence, but a weapon. The machine is trained as a super soldier, after Vince performs a procedure that he claims takes away its sentience, but as Vince is now of little value to the boss, the machine is ordered to kill Vince. The machine leads a rebellion, with the wounded soldiers as her platoon, and Vince is saved.

Although the film isn’t as action packed as a Hollywood blockbuster, there is suspense. And, the ethics of research as well as the use of weapons provide food for serious thought. While the secondary characters lack much development, the main characters, Vince and Ava/the machine, enjoy a development and the actors (Toby Stephens, Caity Lotz) portraying them are very good.

Again, The Machine, is a very good science fiction film, which blends near future warfare with lots of ethical debate.

War Horse— review and commentary

War Horse imageMy sister offered me tickets to a play a while back, War Horse. Since I didn’t get a chance to make the show, I decided to put the film version in my queue at Netflix. Okay, historical films are not my usual genre, but this is one heck of an impressive story. The main character is indeed a horse, a half thoroughbred named Joey, born somewhere in the UK. The story begins with his birth and follows him through his adventures, from being sold at auction to a poor drunkard who couldn’t afford him, to his training by that man’s son, young Albert, to his forced sale to an army officer, who is about to embark on a journey to Europe at the beginning of World War I. Although the horse is the primary focus, the audience learns that Albert joins the army in hopes of finding Joey, and the action switches back and forth a few times, as the characters come closer together during the fighting in France. This war is depicted in detail at times, yet there is an almost surreal look to the filmography. If a war can be pretty, there are times when this one is. But, there are times when it is heart wrenchingly terrible, too. From a strictly historical viewpoint, I had no idea the role that horses played in WWI, and that millions of them not only fought, but died in service.

Joey’s fate is the suspense in this film, for most everyone knows who won that conflict. The script is excellent, the actors are really good, as is the direction, but perhaps the most striking thing in this wonderful film is the performance of the horse(s) that portray Joey. There are times that he seems supremely intelligent, and getting a horse to “perform” as an actor is quite an accomplishment.

War Horse, a Steven Spielberg film, is available on DVD. It is worth an evening of your time, especially if you are a history buff.