Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Meg by Steve Alten (Book Review)

Meg (Revised and Expanded Edition)
By Steve Alten
Ebook Price: $5.99

The Mariana Trench, located in the Pacific, is the deepest part of the ocean and is seven miles deep and 1,550 miles long. You hear the quote that we know more about deep space than we do about our own oceans and it's true. You wouldn't think anything big would be alive down there in the cold dark...but underwater volcanoes have created somewhat of a greenhouse effect on the ocean's bottom. A layer of heated ash has formed a canopy deep below that allows a strata of undersea life, including giant cuttlefish, dinosaurs...and megalodons, huge sharks that grow up to 80 feet long!

Two groups of people have converged on the Mariana Trench for different reasons. The Defense Department has sent a Navy ship along with scientists to retrieve mysterious manganese nodules. The pilot of the sub sent down to get the nodules is Jonas Taylor, a naval commander. There is also a research ship studying underwater volcanoes in the area.

During the naval dive, Jonas has a run-in with a megalodon and lives are lost. Since Jonas is the only survivor of the dive, the Navy thinks he's crazy when he tells them his sub was attacked by a giant shark. They believe he is delusional and he is dishonorably discharged from the service.

Jonas spends the next seven years going back to college to get his doctorate in marine paleontology, with a specialization in megalodons. When an old friend asks for his help in figuring out what is going wrong with an earthquake early detection system set up in the Trench, Jonas begins to find himself drawn back toward making another dive, and facing an old terror.

This revised and expanded edition of Meg also includes the prequel ebook Meg: Origins so if you buy this edition, don't make the mistake of also buying that.

I'll start this review by saying this is one of the most awful books I've ever read. But saying that, I couldn't help but also enjoy it. It was the horrible fascination of looking at a train wreck, a car wreck, and a plane crash all at the same time. What was my first inkling that it was going to be bad? When one of the characters studying the underwater volcanoes sees a blip on the boat's radar and his first statement is to say its a megaladon! Bear in mind, this is before ANYONE has seen a meg in the book or is even LOOKING for one, or even comprehending there are megs still alive in the trench. But for some reason, this character is just AUTOMATIC....ITS A MEGALADON!! It was so comical.

At the beginning of the book, the author Steve Alten argues, and I would say a bit tongue in cheek, that megs could really be alive swimming somewhere down in the depths and offers flimsy scientific evidence for this....but then includes a scene where a T-Rex takes on a meg even though megs didn't exist in the same time period as the dinosaurs. It is fascinating to think that early humans might have actually glimpsed one of these behemoths though, or might even have had to fight against them.

There are some other far-fetched components of the book, like dinosaurs evolving gills, but once you realize this is a pulp novel, reminiscent of the early 1930s with modern trappings, you start to relax and let the fact that Meg is the anti-Moby Dick wash over you and you begin to enjoy its horror much as you would an Ed Wood film.

All the main male characters are good looking and physically fit and all the women are beautiful and have big boobs. They engage in infantile Me Tarzan You Jane relationships right out of early Clive Cussler or bad 1970s paperback adventure series.

There was also rampant drug abuse of prescription medications all through the book. I was kind of amazed how many tranquilizers the pilots and crew of the deep sea subs took when they were operating equipment worth millions and millions of dollars. And the fact that the main character who was supposed to be the best sub pilot had problems with claustrophobia! Doesn't seem like that would be your best line of work!

Something else that created a lot of drag on the narrative, at least at the beginning of the book, were these abrupt info dumps of "non-fiction" material  that just suddenly appear right out of Wikipedia. You'll be following the plot with the main character Jonas going down into the trench and then out of the blue, you'll have an encyclopedia entry about the trench or megs etc. It was quite jarring and thankfully they ended after the first 20-30% of the book.

I liked the fact that all the bad people in the book get killed. In Steve Alten's universe, anyone that's even slightly on his bad side is killed in one manner or another. Don't get me wrong, innocent people die in this book, but all the jerks...even those on the periphery meet their maker sooner or later. In that way it's very old fashioned.

One scene in the novel pretty much sums up the whole volume and it's the subject of the cover art of the edition I read. A surfing contest is going on (have no idea WHY it wouldn't be cancelled with a megalodon on the loose). The meg appears to chomp on the contestants but one surfer is able to juke and jive around the attacking shark, makes it to the beach on his board, WINS the contest, AND asks a pretty girl spectator to go out with him!

If you can read the preceding paragraph and laugh, then you'll get some enjoyment out of this book. If you roll your eyes in disgust, then skip it.

My Grade: A-

The movie version drops in about 3 weeks. Produced by communists, it will probably be very bad.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Ant-Man and the Wasp (Movie Review)

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)
Directed by Peyton Reed
Screenplay by Chris McKenna, Paul Rudd, Erik Sommers, Andrew Barrer, and Gabriel Ferrari

It's been a while since I've seen the original Ant-Man or Civil War, so I was at a bit of a loss at the beginning of this movie when it started. Apparently, Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) broke the law when he joined forces with Captain America and his pals to fight against the Avengers and was sentenced to two years of house arrest. If he can just manage to stay out of trouble for three more days, his sentence will be over and he will be a free man. But we all know THAT'S not going to happen!

Decades ago the ORIGINAL Ant-Man and Wasp (played by Michael Douglas and Michelle Pfeiffer) had to disarm a missile that was threatening innocent lives and the only way to stop it was for the Wasp to shrink all the way down to the subatomic quantum realm. Problem is that when you shrink that small, there's only a very small chance of ever coming out alive. Dr. Henry Pym and his daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly) just assumed she died there. But then Scott Lang has a dream about Janet, the original Wasp, which leads Pym and Hope to believe that she might still be alive somewhere in the subatomic realm.

The basic plot of the movie is all the heroes banding together to find Janet Van Dyne. The problem besides finding a method to locate her is that the tech they need is in the hands of an unsavory black market dealer named Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins) who wants a slice of  Pym's tech as well. And he's willing to kill to get it. Complicating things further is a mysterious entity named Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen) who wants the tech as well...and her ability to phase-shift at will and fighting skills makes her a formidable adversary.

There are a LOT of things to like about this movie. The cast is top of the line and did a great job. I haven't seen a lot of Evangeline Lilly's work except for the Hobbit movies and the previous Ant-Man but she's always interesting to watch. She had to show a lot of range in this film and she pulled it off brilliantly, from hard ass attitude to vulnerable and fragile hope (sorry about the pun). All the action scenes in the movie are done with a lot of imagination and energy but I especially enjoyed a solo fight the Wasp has towards the beginning of the film.

Of course, the old vets Michael Douglas, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Laurence Fishburne are consummate pros and probably needed very little direction. It was really cool to see that trio together because I don't think they've ever been in one movie as a trio. So to see them work together is a treat.

Hannah John-Kamen as Ghost does a good job and continues the trend of Marvel villains not being clones of Dr. Evil, but have their own motivations and tragedies that have brought them to the point of doing evil things. Sonny Burch on the other hand, is just there to chew up the scenery, much as Klaw did in The Black Panther. Andy Serkis had some very sharp teeth for that job, Goggins is also more than up to the challenge and seems to be enjoying himself.

The action sequences were really fresh because Ant-Man, Wasp, and Dr. Pym have shrinking and enlarging abilities which they activate seamlessly but they can also do the same to objects as well. I loved that Dr. Pym carried a whole collection of vehicles in a old Hot Wheels case identical to one I had as a kid. Or for example, when some bad guys are trying to make a quick exit from a room, they are blocked by a enlarged salt shaker! The special effects were on point, mixing spectacle and retro fun in just the right amounts.

The only thing I didn't like about the movie was the "Marvel Witty Patter". At certain points, and you see them coming a mile away, Paul Rudd and/or Michael Pena just go off on annoying tangents. They play word games or endless variations of  "Who's on Second?" and at some point it just wasn't funny to me. Same thing happened with Thor Ragnarok. It's so awkward and jarring...the movie is flowing along fine and then all of the sudden, it's like someone hits "Comedy Button" and it's completely out of context of the movie....and then after a few minutes, someone says "Cut, Back to Main Movie". I guess it's a minor complaint, but most of the comedy scenes/arguments/dialogue did not work for me at all.

I have to say, when the first Ant-Man movie was announced I thought it was the dumbest idea I had ever heard. But I was pleasantly surprised with the movie and its success. Without the addition of the Wasp in this second installment I don't think Paul Rudd would have been interesting enough to keep my attention. It was only a one time deal. But Evangeline, just like in the movie, makes Ant-Man MORE. I look forward to the next film in this series.

My Grade: B+

Monday, July 2, 2018

Treasure Island (1950) Movie Review

Treasure Island (1950)
Directed by Victor Fleming
Screenplay by Lawrence Edward Watkin

Having just finished reading the book by Robert Louis Stevenson and never having seen this movie, I came to its viewing with a lot of built in prejudice because it was a "Disney" film. I expected it to be kind of slapstick and sanitized with pirates falling over dead in their best John Woo poses with no blood whatsoever. So imagine my shock when someone gets shot in the face and there is actual blood splatter! Not that I'm into gore, but I was pleasantly surprised that this film wasn't as dated as I thought it was going to be. You might even call it GRITTY. I mean, the pirates are unshaven, ramshackle, and dirty. And believable most of all.

All of the actors were great. The standout of course was Robert Newton's take on Long John Silver, where are the film pirate archetypes were originated. From his "ARRRRR" to the ever constant talking parrot on his shoulder and a peg leg. He plays it to the hilt in every scene...maybe even a tad OVER the top but his performance is a delight. Bobby Driscoll does a fine job as the young Jim Hawkins, displaying just the right amounts of naivete and bravery. Silver and him are almost an anti-Dynamic Duo, sometimes working together but just as likely to be enemies.

I was happily delighted that the film was mainly true to the novel. They might have left out some bits for time reasons, but essentially, the story is all here. Next up on my list is to watch the 1934 version of Treasure Island with Jackie Cooper as Jim!

My Grade: B 

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson (Book Review)

Treasure Island
By Robert Louis Stevenson
Published by Barnes and Noble Books, 2005
Print Price: $7.95

It's the latter half of the 1700s in England and Jim Hawkins, the son of an innkeeper, has acquired a treasure map that will lead him to a fortune in gold and coins. He took it off the dead body of the pirate Billy Bones, who once served under the legendary buccaneer Captain Flint. Before he died, Flint told Billy where his booty was buried on Treasure Island. Now Jim is the only one that knows where it's at. His life is quickly put in danger because Flint's old crew, led by the peg legged Long John Silver wants the map and the treasure too!

Jim enlists the aid of the local physician, Dr. Livesey, and also Squire Trelawney, a wealthy landowner and magistrate. Trelawney is already loaded with money but also wants more, so he buys a ship and hires an honest captain to guide them to the island. Where he messes up is hiring Long John Silver as the cook! Of course, none of the good guys know Silver's true identity. The Squire lets Silver pick most of the crew for the expedition, so he loads it with his own men. Soon the ship is sailing off to Treasure Island.

The reason I picked up this book was that I had recently finished watching all four seasons of the tv series Black Sails, which serves as a prequel to this novel. From what I can tell, the book takes place about 25-30 years after the events of season 4. I was very curious to read Treasure Island and find out how the characters from the show ended up. I have to say, I was pretty disappointed, except for Long John Silver.

In Black Sails, Captain Flint's crew were brave, clever, tough, and resourceful. They were hard as nails. The pirates in Treasure Island are, for the most part, buffoons who get picked off like the bad guys in the A-Team. Even Silver, who was one of the smartest fictional characters I've ever encountered in the tv show, gets outsmarted constantly by a young boy in this book. In the show, the pirates had very strict codes of honor but in this book, they are constantly on the verge of mutiny and very undisciplined.

Because Jim Hawkins is so brave and smart compared to the pirates, this book almost plays out like an 1880s version of Home Alone. He's always a step ahead of them and always takes more initiative than the adults. I don't think it ever mentions his age but I felt like he was around 14 or 15. Don't get me wrong. I liked Jim. I can see why this book became an instant classic back in the day for young boys. Finally, an adventure where the main protagonist was someone their age.

Silver was the closest in feel to his character from Black Sails. In Treasure Island he was at turns polite, friendly, murderous, loyal and disloyal, liar and truth-teller, friend and enemy at the same time. He was the most interesting personality in the book. He was always looking for the best angle in any situation where he would come out at the most advantage. You couldn't help liking him even though you knew at the right time, he would stab you in the back...LITERALLY.

Treasure Island was a good adventure even though its latter half wasn't as interesting and atmospheric as its first half. If you come to the book like I did fresh from Black Sails, you need to lower your expectations and judge the book on its own merits, not those of the tv show.

My Grade: B

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Roxana by Daniel Defoe (Book Review)

By Daniel Defoe
Published by Penguin Classics, 1987
Price: $9.95

Roxana is just one of the aliases, or titles, that the protagonist of this faux biography, takes during her lifetime. Her real name is Mademoiselle de Beleau, but I don't think that at any point she actually addresses her self as such. So for the purposes of this review, I'll just call her Roxana.

Roxana is born in France but at an early age her parents immigrate to England to escape religious persecution. She grows up well cultured, smart, pretty and lacking nothing. At the age of 15, her father arranges for her to get married to the handsome son of a prosperous brewer. Finding him at first very attractive, Roxana soon learns that her attractive new husband is a complete idiot. He has no interest in his father's business and is only concerned with partying, hunting, and travelling. To no one's surprise, after his father's death, the brewery business goes to hell and then her husband burns through her substantial dowry as well. Roxana's brother, who was holding a legacy from her own father, makes some bad business deals and ends up in debtor's prison and loses her money as well! On top of this Roxana has five small children to feed! Her husband runs off and abandons her and their kids to their fate! And their landlord wants his rent.

Roxana convinces some of her husband's well-off relatives to take her children in, but she is at a loss as to how she herself is going to survive. This was England in the late 1600s, so there's no welfare or Medicaid or unemployment you can collect. If you were poor, you just DIED. The only help she has is her young maid, Amy, who decides to stay on with her mistress and work for free.

Luckily...I guess, rescue comes in the form of her landlord. He sees her situation and starts to be really nice to her. Letting her live in her rooms for free, giving her all kinds of gifts. I'm sure you're thinking this a bit seedy, but he even proposes to live with her as husband and wife and gives her money guarantees of his sincerity. Roxana eventually agrees and so begins a long life of Roxana living with men and being supported by them but never wanting to be tied down and ruled over by them by getting married.

The thing about Roxana that I found puzzling was that all her life she thought of herself as a "whore". I didn't see her as that at all. She just didn't want men to have power over her. She didn't ask for money or jewels or gifts from the men she was with. In fact, she went out of her way not to ask of them any favors or compensation. They do give her those things but only because they really like her or love her. And it wasn't like she was sleeping with multiple dudes at the same time or being a female "playa". For the most part, when she was in a "relationship" with a man, she was monogamous. They were almost like common law marriages. In fact, most of the men treated her like a wife.

I think Roxana was too hard on herself. She liked to have sex. There's nothing wrong with that. She was even ok with a threesome with her maid and one of her beaus. Roxana liked nice things. She liked socializing. Again, there's nothing wrong with any of those things. She was kinda into free love 300 years before it became a thing. Eventually, she DOES amass great wealth, but still continues her pattern of living with men without ever marrying them. She likes their companionship but males back then had ultimate power legally back then. After experiencing what she did with her first husband, she never again let her affairs be ruled by a fool.

On the back of this book, it says this novel is about "the decline and defeat of a woman fatally tempted by the sinful glamour of immorality". Again, I don't see it that way. I ADMIRE Roxana. That she was able to stay independent most of her life and not only survive but thrive. The only thing that was an enemy to her were the societal codes of her time. Unmarried women who slept with men were seen as harlots. I admired her strength and ability to move on even though society and her religion were constantly telling her she was a horrible person.

Roxana is not a saint. She commits some pretty brutal acts, mostly to her children. Like an NFL player she has multiple kids by multiple men. She doesn't really have any attachment to any of them and usually finds a way to dump them on a relative of her lover or finds some kind hearted sucker, I mean soul, to take care of them. That was pretty despicable of her. She saw children more as an unfortunate byproduct of sex rather than living beings to cherish and love.

I really liked the character of Amy as well. Her relationship with Roxana is much like a Batman/Robin, Don Quixote/Sancho Panza dynamic. Amy is her true friend through thick and thin, almost a sister. She is loyal to a fault, even offering to sleep with Roxana's lovers to help her out at certain points. There is a hint here and there that something sexual might even have went down with the two women, much before the current OBSESSION with bisexuality.

This was Daniel Defoe's last book and another quote from the back says it is "the only of Defoe's novels that does not end with the triumph of its protagonist". I disagree. I think Roxana lived the life she wanted. She did what she wanted. She slept with who she wanted. She was in charge of her destiny. Her "tragic" end only occupies about one paragraph in this book. Her life is the rest. I think Defoe had to punish her with her moral doubts throughout the book to sabotage his admiration of her. But he did subtitle the book "The Fortunate Mistress". The moral police of his time would never have stood for Roxana NOT getting punished for her decadent ways. So Defoe gives a couple of winks to the reader that yeah, Roxana knows she's a bad girl. But a fascinating woman controlled by none.

My Grade: A