Monday, March 19, 2018

Movie Review: Tomb Raiders (2018)

Stars: 3 out of 5
Pros: Good if unbelievable action
Cons: Rest of the film needs to be better
The Bottom Line:
Video game film
Plenty of action but needs
Rest to be better

“It’ll Be an Adventure.”  “Death is Not an Adventure.”

Since I was never super into video games, I don’t know much about most of them, and Tomb Raider is no exception.  I even ignored the two earlier movies released based on the franchise, but when I saw the previews for the 2018 film, I decided to give it a chance.  It looked like it could be a lot of fun.  Sadly, it wasn’t as good as I hoped it would be.

Seven years ago, Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander) lost her father when he went off on a trip and never returned.  While the rest of the world assumes he is dead, she hasn’t given up hope, which is why he hasn’t signed the papers that official declare him dead and give her access to the considerable Croft estate.  When she is finally convinced to do that, she is given a puzzle that she quickly figures out.

That puzzle leads her to a secret room that where her father kept his real work and a recording from him that tells her to burn all his research and notes on something called Himiko.  He insists that an organization called Trinity is after it, and the fate of the world is at stake.  While Lara doesn’t buy into that, she does use the research to trace her father’s last trip.  Is he really gone?  What will Lara find?

Based on the previews, I was expecting an action movie.  And there was certainly lots of action.  I didn’t find it all plausible, but I kept reminding myself to just let it go.  After all, realistic action isn’t necessarily the point of an action movie.  Having fun while watching the impossible is.

I don’t have high standards for the other parts of an action movie, however, this film didn’t seem to be trying that hard.  The plot was decent, but fairly predictable.  I found myself getting bored in the scenes between the action.

Part of that comes from the lack of character development.  We really get the very minimum on any of the characters.  Heck, you’ll noticed that I only named a couple in my plot teaser.  That’s because there really isn’t much to make them memorable.  And this isn’t the fault of the actors – the script lets them down.

The effects in the film are good.  In fact, there were times that the way scenes were filmed definitely payed homage to the film’s video game roots.  I’m sure fans who came to the film because they love the games will appreciate that.

As I was watching, I couldn’t help but compare this movie to the Indiana Jones movies.  This film definitely fits into that genre; however, it feels like a poor imitation.  Even the lesser Indiana Jones movies have more life and fun than this movie.

It’s not that I didn’t enjoy Tomb Raider at times.  I just found it disappointing as a whole.  I think fans of the video game franchise will enjoy it, but the rest of us can definitely skip this one.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Ornament Review: Noelville Mouse House - 2015 Hallmark Release

Stars: 3 out of 5
Pros: Cute small design
Cons: Doesn’t light up
The Bottom Line:
Miniature house
But not good series tie in
Done better next year

Noelville’s First Mini Piece is Average

2015 saw the official end of the Noelville series.  However, Hallmark still chose to include it in the pieces they released as part of their event for ornament collects that year in the form of the Noelville Mouse House miniature ornament.

If you are familiar with the series, you know what to expect here.  This is a gingerbread house decked out in all kinds of sugary goodness.  There are hard candies on the roof, gumdrop bushes, and candy canes on the corners.  There’s a gingerbread man (not mouse) in the front window waving at us.

You’ll note that I said this is a miniature ornament.  It’s only about an inch in any direction, so it is significantly smaller than the rest of the series.

The other difference from the rest of the series is the fact that it doesn’t light up.  Oh, I get that it is a miniature ornament, but the thing with the Noelville series is that it lights up.  Honestly, I found this highly disappointing.  I must not have been the only one since they essentially released this ornament the next year with a light element.  The roof is thin enough that light will filter through it, which is very pretty, but it’s not the same thing at all.

Being a house, this ornament does have a nice flat base, but if you set this out, it will get lost in a bigger display if you aren’t careful.  The loop is a little too far backward, and as a result, the ornament tips forward a tad.

Completists (like me, unfortunately) will want to get the Noelville Mouse House, but anyone else can skip it, especially in light of the Sweet Little Mouse House that Hallmark released the next year.

Check out the rest of the Noelville ornament series.

Original Price: $9.95

Saturday, March 17, 2018

March 17th's Weekly TV Thoughts

I'd forgotten that CBS will have March Madness for the next couple of weeks, but I really am surprised that the CW seems to be taking off a couple of weeks as well.  I guess I'll enjoy the quiet while I can.

Meanwhile, This is Us ended for the season, and I think I added a new show to my roster.

Once Upon a Time (3/9) – Regina has ties to the Princess and the Frog characters?  Really?  Once again, one of my problems with this season is the attempts to bring other characters and tie them in with characters we already know.  Interested in where they will go with this, however.  Not ruling it out completely yet.  Glad Lucy knows what is going on now as well.  And was it me, or was Victoria’s death almost brushed aside.

American Ninja Warrior – USA Vs. the World – I was impressed with how the Latin America team did, especially compared to last year.  If they hadn’t reset the points, I suspect it would have been the USA that won, so I’m glad they did.  I wonder how much having seen the obstacles makes any difference.  I’m shocked at how poorly the team from Asia did.  I constantly think they will do better than they do.  Is it the course or something else that trips them up?

Deception – I wasn’t looking for a new show, but one preview of this and I was intrigued.  It was just what it promised – a slick and fun mystery show, and the magic element is going to be fun.  I wish we weren’t trying to get someone out of jail – I don’t need that extra story.  I can tell I’m going to have to pay more attention than normal to this one since the magic happens very quickly.

Legends of Tomorrow – That felt like a Halloween episode.  I’ve been saying that a lot about this show recently, haven’t I?  I liked what they did with Wally, although I can’t say there were any real surprises in there.  And I’m assuming they were using recordings with the actor lip syncing to the real Elvis.  Either that, or he has a future as an Elvis impersonator.

The Flash – Not the first time I’ve seen the power switching storyline, but I still enjoyed it here.  That was because they actually used it to advance the characters, especially Iris and Ralph.  Plus, I wonder if this new meta is going to play into defeating Devoe.  And will Harry have the brain power to do it?  His thinking cap does seem to be working for him.

This is Us – Now that’s how you do a season finale.  So much better than last year’s.  I felt like they were tying up so much of this season and teasing us with what is coming in the future.  I’m really worried about the far future, and Deja is going to be a huge issue going forward.  But I’m curious to see Kevin with Zoe.  And Kate is obviously proving Toby’s parents wrong.  What is going on with him?  It really does look like they will be stronger next season.  At least I hope so.

Survivor – I’m going to give them credit for breaking the curse of that idol.  It was used.  The player who used it didn’t go out, although his alliance member did.  And they tried very hard to shake things up with it.  That was pretty impressive, and you have to hand it to Jeff for not giving away that they was lying through his teeth.

Designated Survivor – The season finally seems to be gaining a little steam.  I’m actually on the President’s side with the video.  Not saying his apology wasn’t excellent, but I really don’t see how what he did to the prisoner was wrong, all things considered.  Love how he resolved the land issue, and honestly, I think imminent domain is overused period.  The hacker storyline is getting very interesting.  Love the essay sub-plot, and the final scenes with his brother were outstanding.  Yep, an all-around great episode.

Ninja Vs. Ninja – I’m not too surprised about who is moving on from tonight.  I was actually surprised the Olympias made it as far as they did since they aren’t among the best that Ninja has to offer.  I was very impressed with how they did.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Movie Review: Deadly Deed - A Fixer Upper Mystery

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Confusing mystery, advance on the romantic front
Cons: Hallmark cheese
The Bottom Line:
Charity house death
Filled with some great twists and turns
And fun characters

Good Deed Leads to Murder

Hallmark seems to be spacing out their original mystery movies a bit more this year.  Best I can tell, March only has one new movie, and it’s a return to Lighthouse Cove and the Fixer Upper Mystery franchise with Deadly Deed.

Shannon Hughes (Jewel) has agreed to renovate a home into several low income apartments.  The local bank has donated the foreclosed property, and one condition is that the project has to be finished in three months.  It’s daunting, but with the number of volunteers, including some of the proposed residents, it should be doable.

Before work begins on the first day, the bank’s president, Potter, comes by for a photo op for the local paper.  He was against this house being donated, but the bank’s board overruled him, and after the picture is taken, he makes his displeasure known, making several of the people there mad.  That night, Shannon returns to drop off some supplies needed for the next day and discovers Potter’s body.  Who did he make mad enough to kill him?

I was impressed with the mystery here.  Sometimes in Hallmark movies, it is obvious who the killer is thanks to the lack of actors playing suspects.  Here, there were enough suspects and twists that I was certainly confused until Shannon pieced things together at the end.

Meanwhile, we got some development in Shannon’s relationship with Mac (Colin Ferguson) thanks in part of a visit from his teenaged niece Callie (Lilah Fitzgerald).  I was a bit worried early on, but Callie was a great addition to the movie.  She provides a clue or two for the mystery as well as nudging Shannon and Mac forward.  She bordered a bit on the cute side, but I will take that over surly teenager, which is where I thought they might be going when she was mentioned at first.

Of course, we do have the usual Hallmark movie cheese warning.  The acting is good, but there is that factor in all Hallmark productions.  Just keep it in mind and you’ll be fine.

Deadly Deed was a fun mystery that kept me engaged the entire time.  Next time you are looking for a light mystery movie, be sure to give this one a try.

March 16th's Book Beginning and Friday 56

Welcome to this week's Book Beginning and Friday 56.

This week, I'm featuring an ebook I just finished, Cardiac Arrest by Lisa Q. Mathews.

This is the first book in the Ladies Smythe & Westin series, and it is fabulous.  I will be reviewing it on Thursday, so I hope you'll come back then.

Meantime, here are a couple of teasers for you.  Up first, the beginning:

As a general rule, Dorothy Westin preferred to mind her own business.  But the leggy blonde on the top-of-the-line smartphone three lounge chairs down was making that rather difficult.

And, from 56% into the book, we find this:

The powder room door flew open and Summer quickly ducked behind the Laura Ashley drapes.  Someone was in an even bigger hurry than she'd been, and sounded just as upset.

Have a great weekend.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Book Review: The Tuscan Child by Rhys Bowen

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Strong characters, good story
Cons: None worth dwelling on
The Bottom Line:
A hidden letter
Sends Joanna on a quest
In delightful book

Can Joanna Solve the Mystery of Her Father’s Past?

Rhys Bowen has been on my auto buy list for years.  It helps that I’ve enjoyed her various series, and the stand alones she’s branched out to are just as good.  The Tuscan Child expertly juggles two different time lines to tell one outstanding story.

When Joanna Langley’s father, Hugo, dies, she returns to what is left of the family estate in the English countryside.  Hugo had been forced to sell it years ago when his own father died, so there isn’t much for Joanna to take care of except sort through for any personal effects from his life she might want.  She isn’t expecting to find anything she is interested in, but in an old trunk, she stumbles across a letter written to someone named Sofia in Italy.  Even weirder, it references Hugo having hidden “our beautiful boy.”

Joanna knew her father had been shot down over Italy during World War II, but that’s all she knew of the time.  But now she is wondering if she has a half-brother.  Curious, she sets out for the Tuscany region of Italy.  What will she find there?

This book tells us the story from Hugo’s point of view in December of 1944 and Joanna’s perspective in 1973.  The two time periods are easy to follow since each chapter has a clear heading.  Additionally, the 1944 chapters are narrated in third person while Joanna narrates the 1973 chapters in first person.  By the time the book is finished, we have a full understanding of just what happened back then.

But the book is more than a mystery.  In some ways, it feels like a coming of age story for Joanna.  Oh, she’s in her late 20’s, but she grows so much over the course of the book, I feel the description fits.

Of course, that means the mystery might be slower than some would like.  I might surprise you when I saw I didn’t mind.  There was enough of a mystery there to keep me going, but I was so engaged with Joanna and her journey that I was hooked the entire way through.  Honestly, I’m ready to visit Tuscany myself now; the book made it that appealing.

Obviously, I loved the characters.  They drew me into the book and I really did feel like I’d made some new friends by the time everything was done.

Please don’t take my comments about the plot the wrong way.  The mystery element of what happened in 1944 and how that is playing out in 1973 is well done.  Between the two time periods, we get a full picture of what happened to Hugo back then and a resolution to the “modern” storyline as well.  I had no questions left by the time I turned the final page.

About my only complaint was one of my own making.  Despite the headers at the beginning of every chapter, I had the hardest time remembering that Joanna’s parts of the book took place in 1973.  I can be so dense sometimes, can’t I?  And it was all completely on me, too.

The Tuscan Child was a bit of a change of pace for me, and I enjoyed every page of it.  Set aside some time and get lost in Tuscany with this great book.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Book Review: The Grave's a Fine and Private Place by Alan Bradley (Flavia de Luce #9)

Stars: 3 out of 5
Pros: Flavia; updates on her
Cons: Very weak mystery
The Bottom Line:
Holiday setting
Gives updates on Flavia
With weak mystery

Fishing for Bodies

Cliffhangers work.  Oh, I don’t like them, especially in books, but they make coming back for the latest in a series a complete priority.  It’s why I was anxious to read The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place, the latest Flavia de Luce mystery.  After how the last one ended, I had to know what was going to happen to Flavia next.

For those who haven’t met Flavia, she is now a twelve-year-old chemist in 1952 England.  And if you haven’t met her, you could easily jump in here.  Yes, the ending of the last book would be ruined, and you wouldn’t have the complete background on some of the character relationships, but you would get what you need here.

In order to help her family deal with their grief, Flavia, her two older sisters, and the family’s servant Dogger have been shipped off on holiday.  They are supposed to be enjoying several peaceful days of boating, and Dogger has just happened to pick a location where a vicar poisoned three ladies in his congregation with the communion wine.  While Flavia is thinking about this crime, she is letting her hand drift in the water and suddenly grabs something.  Instead of the fish she thinks it might be, she discovers it’s a body.  Was there foul play?  Can Flavia figure out what happened to the corpse?

Maybe it was because I had to wait for this book while I’ve read the others closer together (I started this series late), or maybe it is because the series is still uneven, but I found this one a bit weak.  The plots tend to wander even at the best of times, so I wasn’t too surprised when that happened here.  However, I found a part where Flavia envisions what happened when the three women were poisoned to be preposterous instead of cute, which is how I’m sure we were supposed to find it.  When it came time for the climax, things were just too rushed, with surmises and guesses being treated by fact.  And if Flavia’s view of the villain’s motive was the case, it was extremely weak.

Fortunately, we have the characters to pull us through.  Yes, fans like me wanting to know what happens next will be glad to get the updates Flavia gives us early on in the book.  There are some developments in other relationships as well, which I appreciated; I especially loved the new side we got to see of Dogger.  But this is still Flavia’s show, and she is in top form.  She meets a wild assortment of suspects that entertain as always.

I’m continuing this series on audio.  Seriously, if you haven’t given Jayne Entwistle’s efforts a change, you really need to do that.  She brings Flavia to vivid life, and considering she’s our narrator, that can’t be easy.  The other characters are good, too.  And Jayne does all this without taking over the book.  It truly is marvelous.

With how this book ends, I’m curious to know what will come next for Flavia.  I could see the series progressing in a new direction from here.  Or I could imagine the series ending here.  That final scene plays well either way.

The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place is entertaining, but as a mystery it is weak.  This book is best read by fans wanted to know what is next for Flavia.

Check out the rest of Flavia's adventures.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Book Review: Death al Fresco by Leslie Karst (Sally Solari #3)

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Strong characters, good mystery
Cons: Sub-plots a little too strong at times
The Bottom Line:
Fisherman in kelp
Ties to family restaurant
Gives us fun third book

Corpse in the Kelp

Despite being a California native, I haven’t spent as much time on the California central coast as I would like.  I’m not quite sure why Santa Cruz in particular has had such a pull for me, but at least I can visit it virtually with the Sally Solari series.  Death al Fresco is the latest in the series, and it’s another good book.

Since inheriting Gauguin from her aunt, she has attempted to leave her job at Solari’s, the restaurant her father owns.  Just when she thinks she is out, her father manages to pull her back in.  Right now, he has agreed to put on a dinner for the visiting dignitaries from Santa Cruz’s sister city in Italy.  It’s a great honor, and he needs her help.  How can she say no?

On top of all this, Sally and her friend Eric have signed up for an outdoor painting class visiting various locations round town on different Saturdays.  This particular Saturday, Sally has brought her dog along since they are painting at a dog friendly beach.  When Buster wanders off, she tries to stop him from playing with the kelp he’s found only to realize there is a body in the kelp.  The man was a regular at Solari’s, and as his last days are pieced together, the circumstances don’t look good for Sally and her family.  Can she figure out what happened?

As you might have guessed from my synopsis, this book has a lot going on with a couple of very strong sub-plots.  I did feel that slowed down the main mystery a little, but I enjoyed these sub-plots.  The mystery does have good suspects and kept me guessing until the very end.  Of course, everything made sense by the time we reached the ending.

One reason I didn’t mind the sub-plots so much is that they involved some of the series regulars.  As a result, they allow us to see them and get some great character development for them.  I enjoy this cast of characters, so that’s a very good thing.  Sally is a strong main character as well, and it is a pleasure to spend time with her.  The suspects hold their own with the series regulars.  I felt they were all real and viable suspects.

With a book set partially in two different restaurants, it’s no surprise that we get some recipes in the back.  They are more gourmet than what we find in many culinary cozies, as well.  After reading this book, you can try your hand at such recipes as Duck a la Lilikoi, Black Cod with Miso and Sake, and a spinach salad.

Sally is a wonderful host to Santa Cruz.  Truly, this is the next best thing to being there in person.  So if you are looking for a coastal get away, you’ll want to pick up Death al Fresco.

NOTE: I received an ARC of this book.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Movie Review: Despicable Me 3

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Laughs and fun
Cons: Sub-plots feel tacked on
The Bottom Line:
Gru, Minions are back
Sub-plots distract from story
Still fun overall

A Bit Busy, but Mostly Fun

I’ve been surprised at just how charming the Despicable Me movies have turned out to be, so I was looking forward to catch up with Gru and the rest of the gang in Despicable Me 3.  This movie suffered from a few too many storylines, but overall, it was still enjoyable.

The movie opens as Gru (voiced by Steve Carell) and his new wife Lucy (Kristen Wiig) are on their latest mission for the Anti-Villain League.  Their target is Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker), a former childhood actor who turned to villainy when his show was canceled.  However, things quickly go wrong, and Gru and Lucy both wind up fired.

While Gru is still processing this bit of news, he gets the surprise of his life – he has a twin brother named Dru (also Steve Carell).  Dru wants to start on a life of crime, and he hopes to team up with Gru to do it.  Will Gru return to villainy?

This story alone would be enough to carry the movie, and it is a great plot.  I figured out where they were going with it fairly early on, but I didn’t care because watching them get there was a lot of fun.

But the problem is they decided to water things down with several sub-plots.  Admittedly, these sub-plots allow some of the other characters to shine, but they feel like they are there more as padding than as part of the film.  True, two of the sub-plots, Lucy’s attempts to be a good mother to the three girls and the majority of the minions striking out on their own, both factor into the main plot’s climax, so it’s only Agnes’ hunt for a real live unicorn that really doesn’t come into play at the end.  Don’t get me wrong, I love all of the characters, but I feel like they could have been worked into the main plot better.

Now this isn’t to say that the movie isn’t entertaining.  I laughed quite a bit and smiled even more.  The film entertains, which is the entire point, right?

Like with the other movies in the franchise, the animation is very stylized.  It isn’t going for the hyper realistic look of other animated movies, but it certainly works for these movies.

And the voice cast continues to be wonderful.  They bring their characters to life in such a way that you get caught up in the story.

My issues with the plot aside, Despicable Me 3 will entertain fans of the franchise.  If you are one of them, you’ll definitely want to check this movie out.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Play Review: Godspell at Glendale Centre Theatre

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Fun with music and a strong message
Cons: A major theological point that would have made the final better
The Bottom Line:
70’s stage play
Excellent production
Quirky but still fun

Wonderful Night at the Theater

Over 20 years ago, I first saw Godspell in the theater, and I very quickly fell in love with this quirky musical.  I’ve bought two different versions of the soundtrack and the movie in the intervening years, but I haven’t gotten to see it in the theater since.  When I saw that Glendale Centre Theatre, my favorite theater here in Southern California, was going to put it on, I immediately put it on my calendar.

If you aren’t familiar with this musical, it was originally produced in 1971 Off Broadway and is an early musical from Stephen Schwartz, composer of such musicals as Wicked and Pippin as well as songs for such Disney movies as Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Enchanted.  This musical tells the story of the life of Jesus, and the “book,” aka the script, consists almost completely of texts from the Gospels.  There are only 10 members of the cast, with many of them taking on various roles.  Jesus is played by one person, but the rest of the characters help him act out what he is teaching.  This is especially true when it comes to the parables.  They transition into the songs are various times.  A few of these songs are taken from the Bible, but most are completely original.

I cannot emphasize enough that this play is certainly something different.  The first clue is Jesus’ costume.  In this play, he is wearing a Superman hoodie and suspenders.  The rest of the cast wear costumes that harken back to the 70’s.  The acting is a mix of improve and vaudeville.  Even knowing that, it still takes me about 20 minutes to fully get into the play or movie.  But once I do, it is a ton of fun.

Obviously, the play walks a fine line of having fun and still being respectful of the source material, especially for those of us who are Christians.  This production does a great job of that.  There are a couple of moments I don’t like, but they are in the script and pass quickly.

And the singing.  This cast is absolutely amazing!  They were belting out the songs with gusto, and I was floored at the voices some of them had.  While only two of the characters have names, every member of the cast gets his or her moment to shine, and they make the most of them.  Some of the cast members even played instruments on stage, which I believe is a first, at least in the plays I’ve seen at this particular theater.

One reason I love Glendale Centre Theatre is because it is a theater in the round.  The cast makes outstanding use of the stage.  There are minimal sets and props, and they are constantly moving around the space.  Because the audience is right there, they even get to involve us a couple of times, which adds to the fun.  The choreography is top notch, and they even have added a few more modern jokes that the audience loved.  My favorite adlib came in the song “Turn Back, O Man” and played off one of the lines in the song.

One of the oddities of the play is that the only other actor playing a certain part starts the play as John the Baptist and then becomes Judas after that.  This is in the script, but why the script didn’t have two different actors play these two critical parts is beyond me.

It has been years since I saw the first production back in college, but as I recall, they included Jesus’ resurrection.  The movie, famously, does not.  This production also leaves it out.  As a Christian, I found that very troubling.  To quote Paul in I Corinthians 15, “If Christ has not raised from the dead, we are of all men most to be pitied.”  I get what they were trying to say with the ending they did here, but I think it would have been more powerful with a resurrected Jesus.  Apparently this version is truer to the script, so my issue is with the script.  Still, I find it very disappointing.

That complaint aside, I loved it.  The scripture coming to life in front of me touched me in a new way.  I know the passages, but there were reminders I needed to hear yet again.  The songs are wonderful; I have many of them memorized, but I loved seeing them performed again.  While the first act is filled with fun, the second act gets more serious as the death of Jesus nears, and I was surprised I was almost crying at the end.  The cast is that good.

The theater is normally dark Sunday through Wednesday, but they are putting on Godspell those days during the month of March.  It is well worth making the extra effort to go it the play on these non-traditional days.  Heck, if money weren’t tight right now, I’d certainly go back to see it again.