Revised Review Ratings

Up front, I need to tell you: three stars is positive. Two stars is “okay,” that is I’m ambivalent or indifferent about the book or show. I’ll usually tell you why. Four stars means I really like it. Five stars I’m trying to reserve for books and movies which are special. Why they’re special will vary and I’ll tell you why in the review.

While I use the usual five star rating scale, I’m trying to be more rigorous. Previously, a book I liked got four stars, now it gets only three.

I made that alteration in 2014 so that my four and five star ratings really meant something. I don’t want to give only 1 and 5 star ratings, then whine because the scale is so restrictive.

There’s a sixth rating: “gave up.” I apply what I variously call the 50-page and the 100 page test. As Frank Zappa said, “So many books, so little time.” Some books are so bad that I quit them within the first ten pages; those you’ll never hear about–I delete them from my database. But some books seemed to have enough quality that I soldiered through 50 or 100 pages (depending on the length of the book and the deepness of my exasperation) before I quit. Those reviews (and the single star ratings) tend to only posted on unless I feel you need to know.)

I’m not especially qualified for reviewing books other than liking to read. I am a college graduate and have a master’s degree. I’ve read thousands (of documented) novels and hundreds of non-fiction books. I’ve attended half a dozen writing conferences as I struggled to learn the craft myself. I know from first-hand experience that it’s harder than it looks. Few of us can be Tolkiens or Rothfusses; in fact, I’d settle for producing the page-turning excitement of a David Weber space opera or be able to evoke mood like Jodi Picoult.

I have adolescent tastes and standards. Engaging characters and strong plots are preferred, and happy endings, especially unexpected ones. I like humor. Not big on graphic or gratuitous violence or sex. Most of all I like the story that’s believable in its context (especially hard in science fiction, where so few authors passed high school physics). As Coleridge suggested, I’m willing to suspend my disbelief but I expect the author to meet me halfway with a coherent tale.

Likewise, I have no special credential for reviewing movies; I probably see many fewer than the average American and most of them on video.

So, my ratings are conservative but, I hope, informed.

Movie Review: Mom’s Night Out (Four Stars)

Theatrical Release Poster

Movie Review: Mom’s Night Out by the Erwin Brothers

Four Stars

“Ya’ll spend so much time beatin’ yourself up, it must be exhausting.”

Hilarious. Released in 2014, a comedy about ordinary folks reaching for normal. In the tradition of It’s a Wonderful Life., Mom’s Night Out affirms those who opt for the mundane and ordinary life.

“The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world.” (William Ross Wallace , 1865)

I suspect they had a lot of fun making this movie. The production values are made-for-TV level. Lots of sight gags, sometimes to the point of being slapstick.

“Call off the choppers.” “Awww”

Good-hearted. Doesn’t take itself too seriously.

“You just be you; He’ll take care of the rest.”

Movie Re-review: The Force Awakens, Star Wars, Episode VII Four Stars

(Warning: spoilers abound)

Movie Re-review: The Force Awakens, Star Wars, Episode VII

Four Stars out of Five.

My first impression report is here. On second thought:

My son took his friend’s son to Episode Seven, then subjected him (and us) to a marathon viewing of all six previous episodes over two days. Seeing the movies in such close proximity heightens the contrast between the first six and the new one. For one thing, the first, especially Episodes Four through Six (We’ll have that convoluted timeline forever; thank you, George Lucas), have a cleaner, simpler quality. More straightforward space opera and hero’s adventure.

Episode Seven is gritty. Jakku is as dry as Tatooine, but dustier and filled with space ship—military space ship—wreckage. Takodana is humid with clouds and spray from vessels flying close to the surface. The Imperial craft are as OCD clean as ever, but all the resistance and non-affiliated vessels show wear, and kluged modifications and age.

The first six had a childlike simplicity missing from VII. The Force Awakens is darker, more violent. Balancing that is the greater acting ability of the new leads. Let’s be honest: Hamil was not much in Episode Four, and Fisher never learned to act. Daisy Ridley and John Bayega show potential. Adam Driver needs to abandon Christian Hayden as his role model.

None of them are particularly logical. When you step into the Galaxy Far, Far Away, check your credulity at the door. You have to be very willing to suspend your disbelief.

It felt a lot like one of the better (there are lots of bad ones) modern re-telling of classic movies. In fact, many folks noted the similarity between the plot lines of Episodes IV and VII. They even resurrected Yoda … sort of.

So? Let go. Enjoy.

Let the Force be with You.


Movie Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens (no spoilers) Five Stars

Movie Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens directed, co-produced and co-written by J. J. Abrams

Five Stars out of Five

Oh, yeah! Despite the hype (maybe because of the hype) this movie still might have been a turkey. It’s not. It is an enjoyable, self-contained adventure with plenty of hooks backward and forward.

Good story. Good character development. Good misdirection and foreshadowing. Large scale and intimate. Hope and fear. Tragedy and triumph. Epic.

I have seen every Star Wars movie during the week it was first released. Yes, I saw Episode IV, as they now call it, in 1977. The Force Awakens ranks with the best of the first six episodes.

Quibbles. I saw the normal format movie in a normal theater. Many camera pans dissolved into blurs. This picture cries for 48 frames per second. The sound track was too loud.

I’ll revise this in a couple of weeks to tell you how I really feel, but any meaningful discussion will involve spoilers.

For now: go, see it.


Movie Review: The Good Dinosaur by Disney/Pixar (Five Stars)

Movie Review: The Good Dinosaur by Disney/Pixar

Five Stars out of Five

A speculative fiction based on the Chicxulub impactor missing the earth, therefore not killing the dinosaur 65 million years ago. In this tale the dinosaurs are the intelligent (some more than others) creatures, and the emerging cave men are language-challenged “critters.”

Good story, fantastic rendering of the background. The Yellowstone/Teton area obviously inspired the setting. The moving water and clouds are rendered better than photo-realistic. (The latter reminiscent of N. C. Wyeth’s best.)

Though apparently aimed at children and rated PG, the violence level shocked some of the little ones in the showing we attended. we heard screams and crying following some of the death and dismemberment scenes.

Poor John Ratzenberger. Included once as Pixar’s lucky charm; he’s reduced again to a character with the least lines.

Movie Review: Cowboys and Aliens (Three Stars)

Movie Review: Cowboys and Aliens directed by John Favreau

Three Stars out of Five

Did not see this when it was released because, despite the draw of Harrison Ford and Danial Craig on the marquee, the premise seemed silly. Silly perhaps, but well done.

The story opens as an archetypal western with the hero seeking his identity, a strange artifact, a wise old man, and confrontations with both official and unofficial authority. Then the aliens show up. If War of the Worlds was plausible in 1897 (or 1938), then why not in the 1870s?

Good action, good special effects, good scenery. (Technical level of a made-for-television movie.) Predictable, but fun. Good hearted.

Excellent support for pop corn futures.

Movie Review: Woodlawn directed by Andrew and Jon Erwin (Five Stars)

Movie Review: Woodlawn directed by Andrew and Jon Erwin

Five Stars out of Five.

“This is what happens when God shows up.”

I was surprised. I don’t much care for sports or sports movies, but Woodlawn catapults the viewer into early 1970s Birmingham, Alabama, “the most segregated town in America.” Though focused on Woodlawn High’s running sensation Tony Nathan, It’s about a lot more than high school football. “Based on a true story” of how the adults and youth of that city dealt with forced racial integration. There are good and bad guys on both sides.

Incredibly entertaining as well as pointedly positive. So much of the action follows the actual events that verifying the plot should be easy.

Well done.

“One way.”

Movie Review: The Martian by Ridley Scott (Five Stars)

Movie Review: The Martian by Ridley Scott

Five Stars out of Five.

The best science fiction movie I’ve seen this decade. Most of the promotional stuff was not in the movie.

Follows the book—mostly. Good script; good cast; good effects. Looked as if it was filmed on mars, not in front of a blue screen.

This is real science fiction. All those others (Star Wars/Trek, Doctor Who, Marvel, etc.) are fantasy in a “scientific” or alternate universe setting.)

Matt Damon nailed Mark Watney.

See it.

Movie Review: War Room (Four Stars)

“WarRoomMoviePoster” by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia –

Movie Review: War Room by Alex and Stephen Kendrick

Four Stars out of Five

The Kendricks’ Christian films keep getting better. Their fifth effort surpasses all their previous works in both production quality, acting and script. Christian drama, like Christian fiction, has been faulted for unreality and syrupy sweetness. War Room suffered from neither. This film (set like the preceding in North Carolina) blazes new casting territory for the Kendricks in featuring blacks as principals.

Christians and seekers will both find an honest portrayal of the stresses and troubles of modern life and a biblical approach to dealing with it. If you don’t know a Miss Clara, you should.

The opening matinee was well-attended, though the median age was probably 65. Spontaneous “Amens” and “Preach on” were heard during the showing as well as a round of applause at the end.

Double Dutch jump rope is a team competition sport? Impressive!

If you only see one movie this year, see this one.

Addendum: After several days of reflection, I realize this review falls short in two ways.

First and simplest, at the technical level War Room is not a Hollywood production. It lacks the big names and special effects—not to mention big budget—of major studio productions. That said, its cinematic quality compares favorably with the best independent releases.

Second and more fundamental, War Room depicts a depth of reality with which many viewers may be unfamiliar. That a supernatural dimension (for want of a better word) exists is essential to understanding of this movie.

Most people worldwide say they believe in a reality beyond—more fundamental—than that revealed by the senses and physical instrumentation. Christians, Moslems, Hindus, Jews, Wiccan, and members of less numerous orders all declare an overarching truth behind what we see, touch and smell. Further, we believe that in this greater reality exist entities which Continue reading

Movie Review: American Sniper (Four Stars)

“American Sniper poster” by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia –

Movie Review: American Sniper

Four Stars out of Five

Didn’t see this in theaters because I’d heard so much politicized comment. Also, as a veteran of a couple wars, I really don’t enjoy war movies. (Folks who’ve never been shot at or had a SCUD dropped on them won’t understand.)

Turns out, Clint Eastwood (producer and director) does a good job capturing the monomania of the lead character and the destruction he wrought both in combat and at home. War costs those left behind almost as much as those who go; something those who go seldom understand. (We understand that those at home don’t understand what those in combat experience.) This point is emphasized in a scene when Chris (midday in Iraq) is talking by cell phone to his wife Taya (midday in Texas). His convoy is jumped, and he drops his phone to do his duty. Taya is left listening to the explosions, shouts and shooting.

Technical quibbles: Everything in Iraq is too clean. The soldiers always wear clean, pressed uniforms. They bleed, but they never sweat. Even though vehicles have painted symbology (skulls, etc.), they are never dirty. As mentioned before, Eastwood apparently forgot that Iraq is on the opposite side of the world from Texas. (I can’t imagine calling home on a cell phone during a combat operation. Even as late as the Gulf War, contact was the occasional arranged phone call or snail mail.)

Eastwood does remind us of the plight of the Iraqis caught in the middle. Since we cut and ran, those Iraqis who helped us most, the embedded interpreters, are been left to the vengeance of their radicalized neighbors. America won’t even give them asylum.

People like Winston Churchill and George Washington, who are thrilled to have bullets flying around them, are demonstratively crazy. War is hell. That humans practice it upon other humans is proof of our fallen nature. That some people are so protective of nation and friends, that they put themselves in harm’s way to protect them, is humbling.

Yes, somethings are worth fighting to defend, but we shouldn’t go looking for fights. That’s being a bully; something Chris’ father taught him not to be.