Review: New Pompeii (Daniel Godfrey)

June 13, 2016

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Disclaimer: I received a free copy of Daniel Godfrey’s New Pompeii for review purposes.

A quick glance at the book’s synopsis had me hooked.  A company has found a way to bring people from the past forward through time and land them in the present day.  Their biggest challenge so far was to rescue the population of Pompeii moments before it was destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius.

Nick Houghton is a historian who is running out of career options.  When he is approached by NovusPart and offered him a position as the company’s historical advisor, he jumps at the chance.

The people from Pompeii weren’t just dropped into modern-day Manhattan, of course.  Dropping them into a world with cars, electricity, and Twitter would be a complete sensory overload.  Instead, NovusPart has created a full-scale replica of Pompeii in a remote part of Asia.  The company has fabricated a decree from the emperor that gives them great control over the city.

As Nick soon discovers, this is not a perfect world.  The Pompeiians know that something is amiss.  Like the fact that Vesuvius is just gone.  And the fact that they never see any visitors from other city.  They’ve been told that there is great chaos in the empire, but come on – literally NOBODY from outside ever visits?  The leaders know that they are dependent on the Johnny-come-lately strangers for their survival, and this causes great concern.  In other words, the natives are growing restless, and it’s up to Nick to help NovusPart figure out how to solve this problem.

Story

I found the concept interesting, and the book had a good pace.  It contained enough detail about historical Pompeii to be enjoyable, but it doesn’t require the reader to be an expert.  I had some basic knowledge of Pompeii,  but some of the details made me stop and think.  I had forgotten that the citizens would have had slaves, and that saving their lives may have simply increased the duration of their suffering.

Characters

Nick is without a doubt the lead character in the book.  However, there are quite a few other characters who have significant roles.  The characters are well-defined, and I found myself with emotional reactions to many of that.  That’s my general test for how well characters are developed – if I have some sort of emotional reaction to a character – positive or negative – the author did a good job developing the character.

New Pompeii’s Verdict

As you can probably tell, I enjoyed New Pompeii.  It’s a nice, easy read, and you’ll learn a few things about history in the process of reading the book.  There are enough plot twists to keep you on your toes.  I gave this a grade of four stars on Goodreads, but would have given 4.5 stars if I had that option.

New Pompeii comes out on June 21, with a sequel planned for 2017.  You can buy it now now from Amazon and other retailers.  If your favorite bookstore doesn’t have it, ask them to order a copy.

 

 

Budget Tablet: HP 10 G2 (Android 5)

May 26, 2016

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I recently decided to buy a tablet.  I’ve thought about it in the past, but recently received a financial award at work and decided to spend a (small) chunk of it on myself and save the rest.

We do already have some tablets in the house:

  • A Kindle Fire 1st generation – Fewer and fewer apps have retained support for this device.  It’s 4 1/2 years old and uses a non-standard version of Android.  It no longer works with MLB.TV, which is a problem.  We bought it secondhand, and it was a nice starter tablet, but it’s time to move on.
  • The kids each have the low-end  version of the new Kindle Fire.  They have a six inch display (1280 X 800) and 8 GB of storage.  No card slot.  These are OK for reading, Netflix, and MineCraft, but not really suitable for use as a full fledged tablet.
  • My wife has an iPad Mini 2.  8 inch display, with a resolution of 2048 X 1536 and 16 GB of storage (no card slot).  If money was no object, this would be a great option.  But money IS an object.  The WiFi-only model starts at $269 and the WiFi+Cellular model is $399.  I’m not spending that much on a tablet for myself.

So, what am I looking for in a tablet?

  • First of all, it absolutely must run MLB.TV smoothly.  This is non-negotiable.  I’ll run a lot of other apps, but baseball comes first.
  • It must run a stock or nearly stock version of Android 5+.  There are many things I like about Amazon, but I’m not a fan of the way they’ve modified Android on the Kindle Fire.  Also, a stock version likely means the device will retain support longer.  It’s much easier to drop support for an Android variant that has a relatively small user base than to drop it for a stock version that has a much longer base.
  • A reputable manufacturer.  There are many manufacturers that I’ve never heard of, and I’m not willing to take the risk.
  • 8″ or larger display
  • $100-$125 price range

I quickly narrowed down my options to a refurb model of the HP 10 G2 tablet.  It shipped with Android 5.01 and had a 10″ display.  The price for the HP-certified refurb was $114.99.  HP, of course, is a well-established hardware  manufacturer.  It has 1 GB of RAM and 16 GB of storage, with an SD card slot that can handle up to 64 GB cards.

Was in the perfect choice?  Not exactly.  Although I’ve general had good luck with refurbs, it’s not exactly the same as a new.  The resolution is 1280 X 800, a fraction of the iPad’s resolution.  HD content won’t look as nice.

At this point, a friend suggested that I look at the 2013 model of the Google Nexus 7.  As a Google-branded device, by definition it runs a stock version of Android.  Although it’s a 7 inch display, HD content will look nice with the 1920 X 1200 resolution.  It is two years older than the HP, which is a slightly negative in my mind.  However, it as twice as much RAM – 2 GB.

At this point, it’s pretty much a tossup.  I value my friend’s insights, and if I can get the Nexus for the same price, I probably will.

If I want a Nexus 7 in “very good” condition, it’ll cost $170.  A refurb model is $205.  As nice as the Nexus 7 sounds, I’m not going to pay that much.  I buy the HP.

What do I think so far?

  • Seems to be well constructed
  • It does a great job running MLB.TV
  • The relatively low resolution isn’t really an issue.  This isn’t a huge surprise – I’m not a huge videophile
  • Battery drains at a rate of 25% per hour while watching baseball, suggesting a four hour battery life for baseball watching

This is the first time I’ve used a stock Android device.  The Kindle OS is pretty similar, and over the past couple of decades, I’ve used pretty much every publicly available OS, so it’s a pretty easy transition  – and when I’m not sure how to do something, I can just ask Google.

Overall, for $115, the HP 10 G2 is a good deal.

 

Review: Hotel Transylvania

March 4, 2013

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Here is another in a series of movie reviews. This week, the topic is “Hotel Transylvania”. The basic story is a protective single dad with a teenage daughter who wants her freedom. The twist is that they are vampires, not the sparkling melodramatic vampires from “Twilight”, but a cartoon version of Count Dracula and his daughter. To protect his daughter, the Count builds a resort for monsters, safe from people.

The movie covers just the weekend of Mavis’ (the count’s daughter) birthday. All of the classic monsters are in attendance, but the security is not what the count thinks it is. A human shows up. The mayhem and slapstick that ensues involves the Count trying not to kill the uninvited guest and hiding him from the rest of the monsters. This is both to save his resort and protect his daughter. The problem is, the young people fall in love.

This is definitely a family, focusing on younger children, type movie. Great escape from politics, world events and the economy. It is a cartoon, so do not expect much in deep thought. Fun for all and worth renting. It is long past being in theaters, even rerun and discount theaters.

 

Movie Review: Parental Guidance

February 25, 2013

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Here is another in a series of movie reviews. Since the Oscars were handed out Sunday night, reviewing a relatively minor movie seemed appropriate. This week, the topic is “Parental Guidance”. The basic story is a set of grandparents are asked to watch their grand children for a week while their daughter spends some alone time with her husband. The grand parents, Billy Crystal and Bette Midler, are not the favored grandparents. Their only child, Marisa Tomei, does not trust them to take care of her children in the correct way, since they did such a bad job with her.

Marisa’s character has bought into all of the most modern fads in child rearing; no sugar, no direct confrontation, no winners or losers. Her parents are much more conventional. The movie explores the absurdities of the modern method and the conflict of old school versus new age. It also deals with adults addressing their own relationship issues using children as the mode of communication.

The kids carry most of the movie, but Billy Crystal has finally gotten back to the rapid fire delivery that made him a success in the eighties and nineties. Bette Midler is just wonderful, as she is in almost every role that she has ever played. Bette and the character whom she plays, help Billy and his character in every way except final enlightenment. That comes from the kids, and the son in law, Tom Everett Scott.

The film is enjoyable throughout. Many of the scenes are formula, but they work. It is an uplifting storey, the type that we all need to see from time to time. It has already finished its pass through the major theaters, but it is showing in the discount cinemas and will be on video soon. It is worth the time to watch.

Movie Review – The Hobbit

January 31, 2013

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Peter Jackson has released the first of three films based on The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien. He is cashing in on his success with the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Many people are questioning how he can make three movies from one book when he made three movies from six books (three volumes of two books each). This has a simple answer, because he wants to.

If you are a purist, you will not like this movie. If you did not like Lord of the Rings, you will not like this movie. If you liked Lord of the Rings, but do not like humor in this setting, you will not like this movie. If however, you are willing to accept Jackson’s interpretation of the book and understand that the book was written as a children’s story as opposed to the Lord of the Rings which is a young adult story, you will like the movie.

Like Jackson’s other efforts, the scenery is spectacular, the characters are unique and the story is well told. He has added characters and developed back story into the main plot. He has altered character development and situations both as artistic license and to make it something that can be shown on a movie screen. There are just some things that can be written that cannot be translated into film.

In my opinion, the characters of Bilbo and Gollum are portrayed spectacularly well. The characters of the Dwarves who are actually developed (there are 13 of them) deviate from the book, but not necessarily in a bad way. In the book, many of the dwarves are not sympathetic to others, while they are much more humane in the movie.

The comic relief is almost too much. In the Lord of the Rings, Merry and Pippin provide breaks in an otherwise depressing series of events. In The Hobbit, the serious events provide breaks from the comic relief. Again this is acceptable as this is a children’s story.

Ian McKellen is by far the best part of the movie as he portrays Gandalf the Grey again. It almost seems he was born to play this part. Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee and Hugo Weaving return in their previous roles as Galadriel, Saruman, and Elrond. Although Elrond is in the book, the others are not, again this is part of Jackson’s effort to bring the back story to the foreground.

Elijah Wood and Ian Holm return with cameos as Frodo and an old Bilbo to bring everyone back to middle earth. Martin Freeman plays the young Bilbo, but Richard Armitage as Thoren Oakenshield is by far the star of this movie. The actor and the character take center stage from early in the film to the closing credits.

All in all, this is a good film. If you fall into any of the “will not like” categories I listed in the first paragraph, wait for it to come out on video, but I still recommend it even for you. If you do not fall into the “will not like” categories, this is one movie that falls into worth the full price at the theatre.

 

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Review: Hit Me by Lawrence Block

December 3, 2012

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The first time I encountered Lawrence Block’s hit man, Keller, I wasn’t overly impressed.  I finished the book, but Keller just didn’t see to resonate with me nearly as well as other Block characters like gentleman burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr or private eye Matt Scudder.  A couple of years later, I discovered that one of the Keller books, Hit and Run, took place in my home state of Iowa.  That was enough of a reason for me to give Keller a second chance.  This time, he quickly grew on me (much like a fungus).  I became fond of Keller and have read several of the Keller books since then.

Several months ago, Block announced that a new Keller book, Hit Me, would be coming out in February.  I pre-ordered it immediately, so that it would magically appear on my Kindle on the release date.

Then, last week, something appears in my inbox.  An advanced reading copy of the book.  Yes, Christmas came early this year …

Without further ado, let’s get to the book.

Hit Me, like several other Keller books, is broken into a number of shorter works.  In the case of Hit Me, these are five stories: Keller in Dallas, Keller’s Homecoming, Keller at Sea, Keller’s Sideline, and Keller’s Obligation.  While the stories mesh with each other chronologically, they can also be read independently of each other.  The final story ends rather abruptly, leaving you wanting more. 

The People

An important aspect of the Keller books has always been Keller’s relationship with Dot, the woman who lines up work for him.  Although Keller and Dot go long stretches without contact, she often knows him better than he knows himself.  In theory, their relationship is professional.  However, in reality, they are very good friends.  Their phone conversations often drift into fun trivial tangents.  However, other times they discuss the big question: is it morally acceptable to kill people for profit?

In Hit and Run, Keller was forced to abandon New York City.  He ended up landing in New Orleans in the typical “boy meets girl, boy kills girl’s attacker, boy marries girl” fashion.  Keller is now a family man, settled down with a wife and young daughter.  This makes him wonder if it’s time to leave his line of work behind – but he always seems to get drawn back in.  His wife, Julia, is aware of his secret, and she has to figure out what she thinks of a man who kills for a living.  The story Keller at Sea gives us a prolonged look at Julia.

I’m hoping there are many more Keller books in the future.  Keller’s daughter (inverted) Jenny is just three years old now.  At some point in the future, will she learn what her daddy does for a living?  Will she eventually join the family business?   

The Stories

The five stories in the book take Keller away from his New Orleans home to Dallas, New York, an ocean cruise, Cheyenne, Denver, and Buffalo (coincidentally, the author’s childhood home).  The people targeted by Keller’s clients include a wealthy criminal, a prominent member of the clergy, and a fourteen year old stamp collector (Keller wouldn’t kill a kid – would he?).  We also see Keller being seduced – by a lonely widow and a sexy widow-wannabe.  Will Keller give in to temptation, or stay true to Julia (come on, Keller, keep it zipped)?

Although Keller’s moral compass might be a few degrees away from true north, he still does have a basic sense of right and wrong guiding his life.  He always strives to get the job done with a minimal amount of collateral damage.  However, Keller’s killings never go exactly according to plan.  Some little wrinkle always pops up – sometimes organically and sometimes supplied by Dot – and Keller needs to determine the best way to handle it.  Even dream jobs aren’t without their challenges … 

Keller always attacks the situation in a matter-of-fact way.  It’s interesting to see a killer portrayed as a true professional.  Killing someone isn’t as easy as flying to a different city, shooting them in the head, and flying back home.  The killing is only half the job – getting away with it is the other half.  Proper preparation prevents piss-poor performance, as they say.

For those of your who are currently apprentices in the profession, the Keller books are a good way to learn some tricks of the trade.

Block is a master story-teller.  He managed to make even the most mundane details seem interesting.  Why would anyone really care what Keller eats for breakfast?  Well, I would – Keller’s thought process on the topic is pretty interesting. 

In terms of mood, the Keller stories fall somewhere between the Bernie and Scudder books.  Not as lighthearted as Bernie can be at times, but not as dark as the Scudder books can sometimes get.

The Stamps

Many years ago, Keller got into stamp collecting as a way to hide his ill-gotten gains.  The Keller books have always discussed philately.  If you’re a stamp collector yourself, you’re likely to enjoy Keller’s pursuit of various stamps and interaction with other collectors.  You may also learn a few things about geography and history along the way.  The author draws upon his own philatelic experiences for the Keller character.  In fact, Block has published a book about his stamp collecting experiences,  Generally Speaking, which is composed of columns he wrote for Linn’s Stamp News.  If you read Generally Speaking (which I, as a non-collector, found very enjoyable) you’ll note a lot of similarities between Keller and the author.

The killings, however, are purely works of fiction.

Probably.

Verdict

If you’re a Keller fan, definitely pre-order.  These are very interesting Keller tales that show our hero moving to a new phase of his life.  If you haven’t tried the Keller books yet, give Hit Me a chance.  You won’t regret it.
 

 

Amazon Announces New Kindle Models

September 12, 2012

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Amazon has refreshed their Kindle lineup.  You can now spending anywhere from $69 to $499 on a Kindle-branded device.  Obviously, with such a spread in price, there are going to be large differences in the actual devices.  $69 gets you the bare bones 6″ model that is (almost) exclusively a reader, and has no color.  The $599 Kindle Fire 4G LTE in 8.9″, full color, 64 GB of storage, and runs on a 4G LTE network.

Reader or Tablet?

I think Amazon made a smart decision when they branded the higher end models Kindle Fire.  This nicely breaks the models into two families.  The Kindle Fires are tablets which run apps and also allow you to read.  The other Kindle models have very limited functionality beyond reading.  Customers will have different preferences.

Let’s take a look at the existing Kindle product line:

Note: prices shown are for the “with special offers” version which inserts advertisements (and coupons) into the screen savers.  These never appear within the text of the book you are reading, just the screen savers.  Many people like them, but for $20 more you can opt for a model that doesn’t have them.

Kindle readers

Kindle (WiFi)
$69
This is the bare bones model.  It’s a basic ebook reader, with access to Amazon’s large collection of books.  It’s a good price for an entry level reader, especially one with the backing of a strong brand.  If all you’re going to do is read, and you’re reading in well-lit areas, this is a good reader for you.
Kindle PaperWhite (WiFi)
$119
The PaperWhite has a higher resolution and contrast than older Kindle, but what really sets it apart is the presence of a built-in light.  This makes the PaperWhite more suitable for bedtime reading if your partner is trying to sleep.A 3G version is available for $179.  This allows you to use Amazon’s free 3G service (as well as WiFi) to download books.  There’s also a rudimentary web browser that you can use in a pinch – it’s OK for some lightweight browsing while you’re killing time at the mall, but it’s not well suited for heavy duty browsing.
Kindle KeyBoard (3G + WiFi)
$139
This is the only Kindle with a physical keyboard.  I have an older version of the Kindle Keyboard (mine has 3G, but not WiFi), and I like the keyboard for my occasional web browsing sessions.  Probably a niche product at this point, although I’m in that niche.

 

Kindle Fire tablets

Kindle Fire
$159
This is the new and improved version of the original Fire, at a lower price.  7″ display, WiFi, 8 GB of storage, and the ability to add apps.  Oh, and you can read books on it, too.  Inexpensive entry level tablet. I actually just bought a used first edition Kindle Fire myself. Ships Sept 14.
 Kindle Fire HD
$199
The HD has an HD display, Dolby Audio, WiFi, and come in a 16GB model for $199 or a 32 GB model for $249.  Ships September 24.
Fire HD 8.9″
$299
 You can get the HD with a larger screen (8.9″ compared to the standard Fire size of 7″) for $299 (16GB) or $369 (32GB).  Ships November 20.
 Fire HD 8.9″ 4G LTE Wireless
$499
This model is available for $499 (32GB) or $599 (64GB).  They key feature is that it runs on 4G LTE networks (as well as WiFi).  You can buy a year of service from Amazon for $50 (250MB per month).  There are also options to upgrade the plan to 3GB or 5GB per month.  It’s quite possible this cost of the data plan will change in the futue, but $50 for the first year is a steal.  Ships November 20.

 

Book Review: The Brahms Deception

August 1, 2012

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Clara Schumann

Clara Schumann

It takes a good author to get me to read a book on a topic that doesn’t particularly interest me.  Louise Marley accomplishes this feat with her book The Brahms Deception.  While my eclectic music collection does contain a handful of album of classical music, it’s usually an afterthought – and when I do listen to classical, it’s generally Tchaikovsky.  Marley got me to read – and enjoy – a book featuring Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann.  For a reason that eludes me, Amazon thought I’d like the book and recommended it to me.  The price – $2.99 – was right, and I like the summary, so I bought the book.

The plot

The basic plot is that a company has found a way to transport people into the past … sort of.  Participants can hear and see what is going on in a particular place and time in the past, but they can’t interact with the people.  It’s a great way do to academic research on a topic – researchers can get information from directly observing the subject of their interest.

Then, during one such voyage, something completely unexpected happens – and it threatens to alter the fragile timeline.  Kristian North is called in to try to help resolve the situation.  Kristian quickly find the problem – but solving it is a far more complex endeavor.

I love time travel stories that are well done, so this element convinced me to buy the book.

Characters

Kristian is the main character in the book.  He’s definitely a flawed character, but it’s still really easy to cheer for him.  He tries to do what he feels is right, even if others may disagree with him.

Many of the other modern day characters are females.  In general, Kristian’s life is largely influenced by the women in his life – his sister, his former lover, the barmaid at the place where he plays piano, and others.  It’s notable how few men make any sort of impression in his life.

Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann are also a big part of the book.  I hadn’t even heard or Schumann before I read The Brahms Deception, and I knew very little about Brahms.  I ended up hitting Wikipedia a few times as I read through the book, seeking bits of information about Brahms and Schumann.  Not only does this book educate, but it entertains.

Other

The characters moves around through a few different geographic locations.  A considerable amount of the action occurs in Italy.  Some of it in 1861 Italy and some of it in current day Italy.  Considerable attention is given to the sights and sounds of 1861 Italy.  There’s also more focus on the food than you typically see in a book.

While music is a focal point of the book, it doesn’t completely overwhelm the plot.  You can enjoy this book even if you don’t have a considerable amount of musical knowledge – as was my case.

There are also a few instances of foreign language being used – some German and some Italian.  Most of this can be figured out based on the context.

Verdict

I loved the book and immediately wished there was a sequel.  I tried to figure out the twists and turns, but more often than not I guessed wrong.  I really like the way that Marley handled many of the aspects of time travel, including the always troubling issue of how a change in the past ripples forward into the future.

You could say this is a suspense novel, a romance novel, or a novel about music.  Whichever you enjoy, there’s a good chance you’ll like The Brahms Deception.

 

 

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Water For Elephants

July 18, 2012

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Water for Elephants

Water for Elephants (Photo credit: Djumbo)

The first time I started reading Water for Elephants, I put it down after about a dozen pages.  It didn’t grab me, so I stopped reading and went to something else.  Then I decided to give it another chance and quickly finished it.

Plot

The story in set in the 1931 and follows Jacob as he runs away from his life after a personal tragedy.  He jumps aboard a train bound for parts unknown.  Had this been a normal train, Jacob may have ridden for several hundred miles, jumped off, and found a job in a factory somewhere.  But this is no normal train – it’s a circus train.  After a rough introduction, Jacob’s training as a veterinarian lands him a job as the circus vet.  Jacob soon falls hard for the beautiful Marlena – who is, of course, married to a sadistically cruel man.

The book pulls back the tent flap and gives an interesting look into the life of the circus workers.   Not just the more glamorous lives of the performers (who are granted two buckets of water per day for washing!)  The working men often didn’t get paid, and at times would just be thrown from the moving train (redlighted).

Characters

The book’s characters are definitely very entertaining.  The love triangle of Jacob, Marlena, and August forms the backbone of the plot.  It’s very easy to cheer for Jacob and Marlena, even though Marlena is cheating on her husband.  (However, he’s jerk, so he had it coming).

The supporting case is also strong.  While the Jacob and Marlena are clear protagonists and August is the main antagonist, several of the other characters flip between roles; at some points helping Jacob and at other points hindering him.  The circus animals also play a large part in the book, notably Rosie the elephant.

Gotcha

One thing I enjoyed about the book was a very clever “gotcha”.  I enjoy being tricked by an author as long as it’s not something completely out of right field (such as a character presented as a human suddenly becoming the pet goldfish in the last scene).  In Water for Elephants, we are tricked, but the author is being completely fair.

Verdict

I loved the book.  Those who are interested in circuses, life in the 1930s, or animals may enjoy the book.  Sara Gruen’s other books also have animals as a central focus.  Although I really enjoyed Water for Elephants, I’m not sure I’ll read her other books, as I don’t generally read animal books.
 


BookMovie

 

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Movie Review: John Carter

July 10, 2012

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John Carter, Warlord of Mars

John Carter, Warlord of Mars (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I will admit up front that I did not see John Carter in the theater, I watched it on video. I had high expectations. I had read all of the John Carter stories, and they are the comic book type stories that were written to make into movies before there were movies. The technology has advanced to make the special effects believable and Disney as the studio meant that there would not be unnecessary violence or adult content.

I was disappointed. Things just happened, with little or no explanation. The scenery and non-human characters were wonderfully portrayed, but the development was lacking. Now this next comment is just a pet peeve, but every one was chained when captured, but no-one ever unlocked the chain. Instead they would cut the chain with a sword. Now does that make sense? I was also disappointed by the apparent copying of entire chunks from other movies. The most blatant was the arena battle which was a re-enactment of the arena battle from Star Wars Episode II.

They did develop the undying love between the two main characters. Their interaction kept the movie from being turned off before the climax. The actors and actresses themselves played their roles very well, especially the villain. The “others” who are trying to control the action fall into the standard trap of most action films. They explain their complicated plans and expose their weaknesses just prior to trying to kill the hero, resulting in his escape and victory. It completely eliminates the need for the hero to have a brain, which in this case he does not.

My recommendation is to wait until the video is in the discount pile if you really think you want to see this movie.

I will be taking a break from movie reviews for a while and return to writing about writing next week.
 

 

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