A Breaking Bad inventory

Today we’re going to review one of the greatest TV series ever made. Breaking Bad (BB) may have concluded in 2013, but it left a lasting imprint. I’ve watched every episode of the programme over the past two months. This is usually not the case; Stranger Things is the only other show that comes to mind recently. Years ago, Dexter likewise enthralled me, and I ran the gamut. On the surface, BB masquerades as a heavy drama, but there’s so much more to it. Simply put, BB is as compulsive viewing as it gets. Here are some observations about BB:

  1. The opening sequences to the episodes are done differently. Sometimes they seem irrelevant, until the unfolding instalment says otherwise. There was one where the two Salamanca cousins were wreaking havoc, but we did not know them. Another had a child catching spiders. There were a few that were shot in the desert. Kudos to the team: the camera work was always brilliant.  
  2. Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) loves wearing baggy clothes. The Jesse character, one of the show’s leads, always preferred two sizes bigger. Whether it’s jeans, sweaters or jackets, you can count on Pinkman. Funny enough, his fashion style reminded me of my younger self. I used to favour larger dimensions than slim or regular fits, but I’ve changed my getup thereafter. ‘But you know the business and I know the chemistry’.
  3. It’s not all drama. BB has its share of comic relief. One time, Jesse picked up Walter (Bryan Cranston) at the airport…in their meth RV. Another time Walter brought home a massive pizza and tried to make peace with his wife. She didn’t accept his olive branch, leaving him frustrated as hell. In his failure, he flung the oversized pie, which landed on their roof. Meanwhile, Walter loves cooking in his underwear, which gets the attention of Krazy-8 (the local distributor). This leads him to ask: ‘Are you a f…king nudist or something?’ Walter’s preference has been parodied a little, including Neil Harris’s famous strut at the Emmy’s. Jesse also keeps addressing Walter, as Mr White, which reminds me of Hugo Weaving. In Matrix, Agent Smith (Weaving) keeps calling Neo (Keanu) as Mr Anderson. BB is also not on the same level of gratuitous violence as GoT, which I reviewed last week.
  4. Trophy don’t lie. During its five-year run, BB amassed a total of 16 Emmys, including multiple wins by Cranston and Paul. The former notably transitioned into a producer role during BB’s time. Walter White is middle America, from a house with mortgage to a lowly job as long-time high school Chemistry teacher. At the start, he was having a mid-life crisis. The sudden on-set of lung cancer enables an epiphany, and he spends his last years as the local ‘cook’.
  5. Call me Heisenberg. The appellation was pure genius. Mr White hid behind that imposing persona, with its historical undertones. Runners feared him, and they dare not say his name. This allowed him to focus on cooking the purest and bluest meth on the market, even if methylamine was an issue. As a side note, White had also been addressed as W.W. (his initials). He uses American poet Walt Whitman as a scapegoat to hide his true persona. ‘Say my name.’
  6. The bell. There’s this old guy named Hector who’s confined to a wheelchair. He used to be a key figure in the Mexican cartel before Father Time got the better of him. The bell is his only means of communicating. So, people learned that getting an alphabet in front of him was the best bet. Don Salamanca would ring the bell for every correct letter. Now this is tedious work but not unrewarding. I just found the whole bell thing as very fresh. You don’t see that on every day telly. When he keeps ringing the bell to confirm ‘Walter White’ as his nephew’s killer, this seemed like a watershed. Meanwhile, his banishment to a wheelchair was no coincidence as he had authored many crimes during his time.
  7. Los Pollos Hermanos: the best chicken in town. Apart from Walter and Jesse’s home, one restaurant named Pollos Hermanos figures prominently in the series. As you will know, one Gus Fring owns the fast food chain. The stores are a front for Fring’s drug and money laundering business. Pollos becomes a default meeting place for his associates. Mr Fring apparently owns 12 stores; the pollo frito looks very succulent. In killing Fring, Walter bit the hand that fed him. He would become like a nomad, and his colleagues were not pleased. Why ruin a good thing, where everything went like clockwork?
  8. The Big C. When my mentor asked the class what’s the Big C, they replied, ‘Cancer’ in unison. Wrong! Conscience, that’s the Big C. BB has both – in spades. Walter H. White has cancer, while Jesse struggles with his conscience. After losing his partner Jane to an overdose, shooting Gale point-blank, and seeing Todd gun down the kid, Jesse was breaking. Just like cancer, no amount of chemo can negate the build-up of guilt inside. Like Pinkman, the horror you witness gnaws at your shell and you become disillusioned. Things had deteriorated to a point where Jesse works as an informant to the DEA. At series’s end, Jesse has lost all interest in cooking meth and the syndicate forces him to cook batches. He wants nothing to do with Mr White. The remorse has eaten him alive. ‘Yes. Lung cancer. Inoperable.’
  9. What’s with those titles? Seven Thirty-Seven; Negro y Azul; Box Cutter; Problem Dog; Madrigal. At some point, these titles would mean something. Every ep is a much-watch. I tried watching The Sopranos a few years back, which forms an interesting comparison. Both are crime dramas, with strong performances, and plotlines. While I had access to Sopranos, I never ventured beyond the third or fourth series. In case you’re wondering, Sopranos has more Emmy nods (21), and has likewise been hailed as a classic. Yet BB is practically the gold standard when it comes to crime dramas, where every ep counts or no ep counts. BB provides a revealing look into the dark side, dealing with themes and issues that are both familiar and foreign.
  10. Family man. Throughout the series, Walter reiterates that he did this for his family. One reason was behind all the cooking, all the lies, all the murders: to ensure that his family has a bright future. He cooked thousands of pounds of ice, swiped gallons of methylamine, hoodwinked his family, and his murders cut across the heirarchy. He convinces his wife that he sources weed, and for a while, blatantly denies that he owns a second cell phone. He is able to deflect attention from the DEA for most of the show’s run. Regardless, he loves his family dearly, buying them the best cars, and paying for their rehab, but is nowhere to be seen during his daughter’s birth. Instead, he is doing a drug run – prioritising greenback over his daughter. He has a strong bond with Flynn, his only son, but resorts to deceit to cover his tracks. All this time, he hides under the mistruth that he is winning big in gambling. He is so adept at fabrication that he has a tailor-made response for everything. Lying has become his second nature. Given, he has more money that he can count, but for what? Walter’s family can’t splurge since doing so would alert the Feds. As someone else has told me, you also can’t bring your riches to the next life. ‘I am not in danger. I AM the danger.’

As you can see, BB is must-watch entertainment. From Heisenberg to the DEA, Pollos Hermanos to the Big C, BB is a binge-worthy (some say cringe-worthy) concoction that will keep you hooked. No wonder critics could never tire of heaping praise (and accolades).

Rating: 5/5

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Game of Thrones reviewed

Game of Thrones (GoT) is an epic adventure into another universe. We are teleported to the two continents of Westeros and Essos, seeing sword fights unfold, hearing of squires, direwolves, and whitewalkers. We behold the three-eyed raven transformed, and sight ‘the oldest profession in the world’. Based on George R.R. Martin’s chronicles, the series equivalent has been lauded for a massive and talented ensemble, sumptuous filming locations, and superb storylines. Both loyal and casual observers have been debating the show since even before its run. I must admit that I only started watching GoT early this year. I have taken in almost every episode of the first six seasons, but I’ll probably skip the last one as I heard it wasn’t up to par. While I admit that the show has been over for months, allow me to provide my informed opinion of the programme.  

Greatest ever?

When people talk of GoT, ‘the greatest ever’ and ‘in a league of its own’ are common reactions. I would admit that GoT is a very good programme and may even have the distinction of being called great. However, I would stop short of calling it as one of the best, even though it is one letter away from GOAT. Regardless, GoT is unlike perhaps any other programme on telly. The period drama is not a novelty. With its depictions of war and brothels, Rome would come to mind. How about The Vampire Diaries? The Tudors? Even Spartacus? These shows have varying degrees of success, but none soar higher than GoT.

Plotlines

Since GoT is epic in scale, multiple storylines are necessary. There’s Jon Snow with the Night’s Watch together with his trusty sidekick Sam. He breaks from tradition in his dealing with the wildlings but his daring and EEO makes for a great Lord Commander. Meanwhile, Dany is the mother of dragons who recruits armies so that she could claim victory at King’s Landing. Emilia Clarke essays a solid rendition as the aspiring Queen. Then there’s Stannis Baratheon, who calls himself ‘the one true king.’ He is bunched with Sir Davos and the Red Woman. Tyrion Lannister may not be physically imposing but makes up for it with wisdom. Peter Dinklage gives the role of his career as Tyrion, winning three Emmy’s along the way. Not only is he guileful and witty, he also does a pretty good Briton accent. We follow Arya Stark from the North and beyond, as she makes enemies and allies. She would work for Tywin Lannister, live on the run, before finding Braavos. She repeats the names of every animal on her hit list, vowing to avenge her family. Valaar Morghulis (‘All men must die’).

Power dynamics

GoT is rife with backstabbing, traitoring, secret alliances, misogyny, even barbarity. In some cases, women are not treated well. The ending to season 5 is exhibit-A. There is a balance of injustice and retribution. Oftentimes, the scumbags get what they deserve. This is a long list and the best example would be King Joffrey, who stands as the most vile, retched, detestable character on the show. After his reign of terror, he met His Maker. Walder Frey butchered an entire clan; he ended up being butchered himself. Tywin Lannister sentenced his own child; he got an arrow for his troubles. Whether it’s royals, lowly soldiers, or influential clergies, poetic justice does not discriminate. However, in some instances, the good guys perish: what befell the Starks would be a fitting example. Myrcella Baratheon was another unwitting casualty. The series displays the relevance of power dynamics: how people handle this. Many would kill for it, and when it’s finally theirs, they’ll make sure to eliminate the threats, even if this is their own kin. The biggest prize of all, the biggest carrot dangled, is the Iron Throne. Through six seasons, only one family has sat on that imposing chair, though many covet this.

Mythical creature

While other series seek to dispel myth, GoT revels in them. That’s why dragons are featured, paraded as Dany’s pets who do her bidding. They annihilate all her enemies. Then there’s direwolves, who function much like dragons, though they are less majestic. Who could forget the magic water in Braavos? Or milk of the poppy? The whitewalkers remain the most feared villains; they snatch babies, but are they real? Even the actions of some characters seem stuff of legends. During his trials, Tyrion averted disaster as two gentlemen agreed to fight for him. I’m pretty sure that’s not the case in real life. When the protagonists are in danger, someone – or something – would intervene. Even Jon Snow had seemed superhuman given the right healer.

Stunning visuals

In this regard, GoT plays more like a videogame than TV production. We see the turrets, the snow-capped mountains, the garrisons, the battle scars. If we were to judge a series on the merits of its choreography, GoT easily gets a 5/5. The programme is one of the most visually astounding projects on TV’s for all of its run. Have I mentioned that it has killer plotlines? I have not read the books, but I heard they’re really something. They also require a lot of hard work, thus making me admire those who could spare the effort. The show has done exceptionally well when cleaving closely to the source material. However, GoT has gotten only mixed results when doing otherwise. In particular, the last season had been a little mess.

Thanks for the memories

The show does what great series have done: giving viewers a bit of everything. From laughs to magic, anger and bitterness to satisfaction, action to walls of silence, GoT is escapism. I remember meeting a die-hard once; this was before Season 8. He told me that he’s sighted every episode so far. He might have even done the books; I couldn’t remember. ‘I love Game of Thrones’, he admitted. Seeing the sun set on GoT is rather sad; I was hoping for another 3 seasons. Yet maybe season 8’s mixed bag is an omen: GoT has run its course. Like all good things, GoT must come to an end.

Rating: 4.75/5

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The Farewell reviewed

Yesterday, my friend and I caught a movie at the cinemas. I’ve only heard about The Farewell last week, having stumbled upon the trailer. We both liked what we saw and agreed to see it. Having a July release in the States, Farewell had just opened here last week. Reviews of the film were overwhelmingly positive. Awkwafina, fresh from her breakout roles in Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich, was praised for her standout performance. Critics have noted that the small-budget picture was a breath of fresh air against the cavalcade of summer blockbusters. My friend admitted that his co-worker raved about Farewell, though he had heard of this production ‘two months ago’.

Orient

The majority of the film was in Chinese (with English subtitles) and this struck me. Only the first fifteen minutes or so was set in the Big Apple; the rest was shot in Changchun. Obviously, I did not know that the writer-director was Chinese-American. Farewell also had an all-Asian cast, which included veteran actor Tzi Ma. Farewell tells the story of Billi (Awkwafina), an aspiring writer who returns to China with her family in order to give her Nai Nai a proper goodbye. This was upon learning that the latter had stage 4 lung cancer. Apparently, in China, relatives do not inform their kin if they have a terminal illness. Thus, the film shows a clash of cultures between East and West. There are chopsticks as opposed to spoon and fork. Moreover, the next generation such as Billi and her cousins lock horns with their elders. At one point, Billi’s uncle says that Americans put themselves first while the Chinese put family first. As my friend pointed out, it’s a case of the individual versus the collective. There is constant debate on whether living in China is better than the US, and vice-versa.

Wedding

The family converges on Changchun in the guise of celebrating Hao Hao’s nuptials with a woman from America. While the planning occupies them, Nai Nai is their real concern. They talk about their fears, their future without the matriarch, life, and death. They stay together as this reunion is decades in the making. They ache more for Nai Nai than for themselves. Haibin, the eldest son, even gives a teary speech during his son’s wedding. Before the end, her clarifies that they were ‘tears of happiness’. Meanwhile, Billi is conflicted: whether to inform her dear Nai Nai of her malady or obey the wishes of her family.

Dramedy

The slow pace also struck me. Billed as a comedy-drama, this was more deliberate than comical. Of course, Farewell had its fair share of laughs. I remember this cute kid with a trasher haircut saying ‘Don’t call me Little Bao. I am just Bao!’ Most of the spoofs stemmed from the cultural differences. There is a special place for Awkwafina in Nai Nai’s heart, always looking out for her. The former repays her grandmother’s love, volunteering to stay in Changchun and care for her. At times, Billi struggles to communicate in Chinese. This is both a blessing and a curse. She is able to hide things from her grandma, as the latter cannot understand English. However, her limitations hurt her. For instance, she has to ask the equivalent of congrats while making speech on stage.

Lost in Translation

My pal commented before the movie that Billi is a very different role from Peik Lin in Crazy Rich. While the latter was riotous, Billi is rather reserved. With her simple look and unassuming persona, Billi is Peik Lin’s alter ego. That doesn’t remove an inspired performance from Awkwafina. The movie reminded me a bit of Lost in Translation, a slow drama with a punch, the female lead giving a laudable effort. Like Farewell, a female director (Sofia Coppola) was also at the helm. Both projects also garnered universal acclaim. Though critics and audiences have adored Farewell, this wasn’t the best film of the year. While there are similarities, this is likewise no Dead Europe. I saw that one with the same chum a while back. I recall it as having a very disappointing ending.

Rating: 3.95

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Sabado nights

Don’t let the title fool you: this post has nothing to do with nights. FYI the heading need not always reflect the article’s content. For instance, there is little or no catchers in Salinger’s novel. I am not here though to give a stance on that observation. Rather, I am here to share how I usually spent my Saturday afternoons when I was a teen. My junior year of high school, I discovered this thing called UAAP. This was no coincidence, as in years prior I did not have the chance to do so. Let’s just say that I am thankful for NSTP and some serious class work, which then ensured that I could follow the action. For more information about the former, check out my older post.

UAAP

Of course, I’ve heard about the UAAP, the premiere collegiate competition in the country. Students battled it out in various sports, doing it all so that their uni would emerge as the overall champion in the comp. Almost all of these sports were not televised on TV, everything except the all-important men’s basketball. Athletes have up to five years of college eligibility, and the games were always intense. After all, these were the finest schools in the country and there were no holds barred. They had the best jerseys, the optimal players, the coolest commentators, and they battled it out in the Big Dome.

Comp

During my time, there were eight teams in the field. The season had two stages: the elimination round and the Final Four. In the former, teams followed a dual round robin format where they matched up against the rest of the league twice. The teams with the four best records advance to the playoff level. The top two squads obtain a twice to beat edge in the next round and the two Final Four victors play each other in a best of three championship. Thus, the UAAP was a short season, with each quintet playing a minimum of fourteen weekends. This mostly overlapped with the first semester of the school year. Perhaps I feel nostalgic because of the advent of September, where the business end of the games would unfold.  

Fave

The Blue Eagles were my favourite team during these tilts. Run by the Jesuits in a sprawling campus on Loyala Heights, Ateneo is an Ivy League school. Their prestigious location and long history mean that only the best recruits could join their varsity. They are among the perennial frontrunners in the comp. I am not only a fan of their colours, but I like their style of play. During my time, LA Tenorio was their best player. Dude was able to nab a triple double in the classification phase. Of course, the point guard was able to parlay his college success into a long, decorated career in the PBA.

Rivalry

Any convo of the UAAP wars would not be complete without mentioning the Ateneo-La Salle rivalry. Said fireworks is the most storied and enduring tussle in the history of local college hoops. I remember during those days that the air changed whenever their next game rolled around. Ateneo were always slow starters and La Salle – led by the electric Joseph Yeo – would get off to flying starts. It was like the Celtics-Lakers, which had a little of everything: terrific offense, stingy defence, dagger three’s, hard fouls, one-on-one exploits, teamwork, ball hogs, ball hawks, no-look passes, ball fakes, and Cold Wars that could escalate quickly. They usually went down to the wire, sometimes even to the last few possessions.

The play

Game One of the 2006 Men’s Finals was one of the most memorable matches I witnessed. Down one with one tick left, Ateneo coach Norman Black called timeout and drew up a play on his board. Point guard Macky Escalona fired a touchdown pass from half-court, faking once before hitting Doug Kramer perfectly underneath the basket. The giant then turned and sunk the layup. Easy. The play was reminiscent of Grant Hill’s full-court pass to Christian Laettner. This was also a good comparison since it kept their title hopes alive, although the US NCAA is single elimination. Sadly though, my Eagles would lose the next two tilts – and the series. I remember that finale for being a stormy encounter, with the typhoon Milenyo and flooding forcing the postponement of Game 2.

Teamwork

The UST quintet, under the direction of new coach Pido Jarencio, shocked the Eagles with their hard-nosed play, versatility, and poise. They did not have stars, but their teamwork was their strength. Some would also say that they have the best team colours, and it is hard not to agree. Meanwhile, a UP cager named Axel stole the scene for being one of the best rebounders despite his height (5-11). He just had an uncanny nose for the ball, his height be damned. The Tamaraws of FEU were a powerhouse team in those days, bolstered by the talents of Arwind Santos and Dennis Miranda. I recall how they almost won the chip against the Archers, but Arwind rushed his tip just as Denok’s shot was on the verge of dropping through. I remember my classmate saying ‘Mataas kaya yung point guard ng FEU.’ I told him he’s not that tall, only 5-8. I would later learn that I was feeding my friend bad information as Miranda was a legit 5-11, and NOT 5-8. Yes, he was indeed tall for a one. Speaking of facilitators, there was a time where Adamson’s slight point guard went down the court and made a post-up move not once but TWICE. This play intrigued the announcers to say the least. How about the time when a certain centre named Howie became a hot potato at the free throw line? Or those Maroons, who, in spite of a dismal start, almost made the Finals? There’s a lot more to the games than jump shots.

A portrait

All this is old info, more like a time capsule or even an anachronism. The guys I’ve mentioned have long moved on to greener pastures. But once upon a time, they were my heroes. They were the hot topics in our section, and those precious years where I tuned in were a portrait into my youth.

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Once Upon a Time in Hollywood reviewed

Once upon a time in Hollywood had scaled the box office for two weeks when my friend and I finally saw it. ‘The ninth film from writer-director Quentin Tarantino’ was not only an audience champion but critics have likewise raved about it. The film is also notable for featuring Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt in their first picture together. Aside from those two, Hollywood also had Al Pacino, Dakota Fanning and Aussie Margot Robbie in smaller roles. Set during the last years of Hollywood’s Golden Age, the production reminded me of my recent Baldacci read, with its retro vibe, older technology, and where everything was cheaper. Hollywood also had the staple of seventies culture: hippies, free love, smoking joints, and bell bottoms – to name a few.

Dalton and Booth

When I asked my friend if he liked it, he answered that he did. We agreed though that it was a slow movie. For starters, the film is lengthy. Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) is a fading TV star. His shining role a few years back seems like ages ago. He is always with his stunt double, Cliff Booth (Pitt). The latter functions as his all-in-one assistant. Unknown to his workmates, Dalton lost his license a few months back and Booth has been driving him everywhere since then. Booth is also his handyman and his runner. Both Booth and Dalton talk with a Southern drawl. Of course, if you’re wondering whether that duo is real, then you’re somewhat mistaken. Dalton and Booth are not actual persons, but they are fictionalised. I thought the pair were purely imagined, but some research showed how other performers inspired their characters.

Italia

Dalton lives next door to Sharon Tate and director Roman Polanski in an exclusive neighbourhood. They do not interact until much later, despite being adjacent to each other. This is a nod to the film’s tagline of ‘multiple storylines…’ Tate is the budding movie star who becomes pregnant. As mentioned, Tate and Dalton do not cross paths for much of the film, living mostly in different circles. Rick’s career had deteriorated to a point where his agent, Marvin Schwarz (Pacino), was convincing him to head to Italy for a career resurgence. Initially reticent, Dalton eventually agrees to go. After six months and four Westerns abroad, he comes back to the land of the free. He is a changed man, with an Italian wife in tow.

Lighter moments

Hollywood reminded me of The Sopranos. There are a few lighter moments, especially a scene where Rick forgets his lines. That scene was reminiscent of a famous TV boo-boo a while ago. The picture isn’t all about castings, lines, and stuntmen; the Manson family likewise figures. There was also an eerie scene with Pitt, who scours the Manson valley in search of George, a former colleague. The latter has a hard time hearing and recognising him, mistaking him for someone else and not fully comprehending his statements. George watches the show, FBI, with his fellow hippie, while Dalton and Booth would watch it on the same day that the latter pays George a visit. Ironic.

Old School

Hats up to Tarantino for resurrecting a bygone era, complete with classic autos and vintage products. There was also a Bruce Lee sighting, although the real Bruce wouldn’t be one-upped by Booth. Calvin’s dog was a life saver, rescuing the distressed before bedtime. The image of the iconic Pan-Am jets was rather nostalgic, as was the price for a movie ticket.  The climax, though fictionalised, was classic Tarantino with blood, guts, and gore. The ensemble cast made their mark: Damian Lewis, a familiar face from Homeland, took on the role of big shot Steve McQueen. Kurt Russell also had a bit part. I likewise recognised one of the cult members in the apex, who portrays Robin in a popular series. This film was also significant as being Luke Perry’s final outing.  

Likes and dislikes

I loved the imagery, the story, the unbridled ending, the fullness of the players, the pulsing characters brought to life, and the vibe. I disliked the running time, the surplus of scenes, and the slow pace. Not a bad introduction to Quentin, but not a great one either.

Rating: 3.8/5       

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Newest catalogue

Five weeks have gone by since my last list. Since then, Sydney has had a blast of sunshine even as thick snow blanketed the hinterlands. As usual, five different writers have penned the quintet of reads that I’ve covered. I’ve managed my second helpings of Baldacci and Simsion, while tackling two memoirs. Furthermore, I’ve also got cracking on the Will Trent series. Below is the full inventory, in order of finish.

1. Breaking Badly (Georgie Dent). An eye-opening account of one woman’s battle with her mind, I’ve had this on my radar for a while. I was among the first batch of patrons to get this at my repository. This book lets us in on a number of years in the author’s life: from her insecure teens to her agonising time at a law firm, her hospitalisation to her recovery. I would admit that it’s a more challenging read than other memoirs. Yet once you capture it, it has a long-lasting impact. I truly felt for Georgie: conflicted, long-suffering, and fragile. Going from one health practitioner to the next, with never-ending diagnoses, can break anyone. Don’t even get me started on the surgeries. Aside from being excessive, they were also unnecessary.

The memoir was funny at times. The support and care she received from family and friends never failed to amaze me. What stands out in the book to me is finding your mission and the fear of failure. She stuck with law since she was afraid of the response should she shift careers. This only exacerbated her worries and contributed to her meltdown. As Clint Eastwood once said, ‘Man should know his limitations.’ Do not wade through something that does not give you satisfactory returns. To quote a philosopher, ‘Find a job you love, and you will not work a day in your life.’ I’m glad that Dent realised her calling, both as writer and mother.

Rating: 4.2/5

2. The Rosie Result (Graeme Simsion). The final chapter in the Don Tillman trilogy; I skipped the second act as I heard it wasn’t that good. Don and his family return to Melbourne after ten years in New York. His son, Hudson, has real issues fitting in his new school, and it’s up to Don to save the day. Who else would be more suitable to meet this problem than Don, who spent his whole life trying to adapt? Even as both parents keep getting called to the principal’s office, Don refuses his son from taking the autism test. Tillman is all in as he tries to remodel Hudson, buying him new clothes, expanding his social circle, and teaching him how to ride a bike. Along the way, he himself encounters his share of tight spots. Instead of lecturing genetics and jump-starting cutting-edge research, Tillman establishes his own high-tech bar. A free-flowing read, this is an inside look into the struggles and hopes of the autism community. While the dialogue may at times be straight out of a science lab, this is a pleasant effort that would be well worth your eyes.

Rating: 4.3/5

3. One Good Deed (Baldacci). My second Baldacci novel started out slowly, taking its time to percolate. Yet once things got going, putting down this book was tough. One tells the story of Aloysius Archer, straight out of prison, who starts his new life as a parolee in Poca City. Of course, this is hardly a fresh idea. Remember The Majestic? How about Wayward Pines? In some respects, One has elements of The Majestic in that it is set in the 50s. Archer took part in the war but gets caught in a bad situation which sends him to jail. What makes this an irresistible read is the old school vibe, the full characters, the retro language, and the intricate plotlines. On the other hand, I didn’t appreciate the inordinate emphasis on attire description. I wonder if this is the norm with 50s novels.   

The shuffling of cards sparks the drama. In particular, the death of a main player spurs the action and takes the book on a different path. The moment of the death scene was like Kiefer Sutherland strapping on a bulletproof vest. It was that good. One has got far less chapters than The Last Mile, meaning longer sections. Unlike Connelly, Baldacci does not have breaks within his chapters. That matters little though when you tell stories this well.

Rating: 4.65/5

4. Triptych (Slaughter). The first in the Will Trent series, released in 2006. I’ve only recently discovered Slaughter, and her murder mysteries are almost as good as Connelly. Here, we are introduced to detective Will Trent and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI). Trent is sent to investigate a brutal murder in Atlanta and joins forces with the local PD, which includes dodgy Michael Ormewood. Slaughter takes us to the sights of Atlanta, rich, poor, lavish and crumbling. We also learn that in spite of Will’s competence, he is dyslexic, but this doesn’t hinder him from chasing the bad guys. Moreover, Will comes from a foster home, where he forges an on-again, off-again relationship with Angie Polaski. The latter works undercover with vice as ‘Robin’ and the death (of her colleague) shakes her.

We get to meet John Shelley, recently released after the mutilation of a girl twenty years ago. Is he the killer? Did he perpetuate all these murders of mostly underage women? Or is the real killer still out there, biding his time, bamboozling the authorities? Triptych is unlike Connelly’s The Poet, which keeps you guessing till the end. Here the matador’s identity is revealed quite early, making it more like The Departed. However, the plot remains very well-constructed and is a top-notch thriller. Aside from killings and police work, Triptych is also a chronicle of a mother’s undying love for her boy. Through thick and thin, good times and bad, in sickness and in health, till her last breath, Emily would support John, her only son. All in all, Triptych is a good introduction to Will Trent and Karin Slaughter’s universe and exhibits the power of family, transcending prison walls and razor wires.    

Rating: 4.75/5

5. Jonathan Thurston: The Autobiography. This JT memoir is my most recent read. Don’t be confused; it’s not Justin Timberlake but Jonathan Thurston, widely regarded as one of the greatest league players. He wasn’t always on a pedestal, initially knocked as being ‘too skinny, too slow and too wild to succeed.’ He famously gave away his championship ring as a rookie reserve at the Bulldogs. Eleven years later, he kicked the winning goal during golden point which capped off the Cowboys’ march to the title. This book examines his rise from humble beginnings to the junior leagues and finally, the NRL. We are there as he is on the verge of quitting rugby and juggles other sports instead. Most importantly, we grasp his Indigenous heritage, his off-field generosity, and his love for family, club, and country. His steely resolve in the face of crisis awes us, never more apparent than in the dying seconds of the 2015 Grand Final, where he almost single-handedly rallies his squad to the chip. I must admit that I had given up on the Cowboys that night, seeing as they were behind with minutes to spare. This doesn’t diminish what truly was a fairy tale ending. Looking forward to reading the rest.

Rating: TBD

I usually only go for one non-fiction book with every list, making it one-fifth of the cume. This time, I bumped it up to forty percent. Last year, I read nil non-fiction books. Out of the six I’ve crested this year, five of them were memoirs. As of late August, I’m currently on my twenty fifth read. It’s good to have some variety, not just all novels. Once you’ve started, branching out is the next logical step. Cheers, to more variation!   

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Fahrenheit 9/11 reviewed

Recently, I watched Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 for the first time. I’ve sighted this doco at the video shop before, back when renting DVD’s was still the norm. However, documentary filmmaking did not hold my attention in those days. Released in ’04 during the height of the Iraq War, 9/11 is noted for being the highest-grossing doco of all time. Raking in $122 M at the box office, it is almost $50 M clear of the second-placer. Furthermore, 9/11 garnered the Palm D’or gong at Cannes, awarded annually for the best film screened at the Festival. This is in addition to the Oscar which Moore won for his work a year prior.

Riveting

All these accolades would indicate a riveting watch. On the other hand, one would wonder if the picture is still relevant. After all, it’s been fifteen years and the Iraq War and George Bush have long disappeared. However, we can learn a lot from retro films – especially those that a guru like Moore has produced. The sombre tone of the movie reminded me a little of The Untold History of U.S. Moore expertly laces army, war, and rally footage with his own interviews of involved subjects. From the bereaved to soldiers, army recruiters to bureaucrats, Congressmen to protesters, there is never a scarcity of intriguing players. The action unfolds in real time and we are aboard as the Secret Service questions Moore in front of the Saudi embassy.

Conspiracy theory

Like Untold, 9/11 aims to bring a long-running conspiracy to the fore. Though one sided in its rhetoric, Fahrenheit delivers its message, dropping a few bombs along the way. The scam of the Iraq War is Moore’s biggest missile. Rather than viewing the invasion as a response to 9/11, Moore advances that the war is the elite’s narcissist and greedy manoeuvre. Moore shows collusion at the highest levels and how Iraq’s oil reserves prompted the American invasion. As one Gordon Babbitt put it, ‘there’s no area for business as Iraq’. The filmmaker uncovers that the government’s tough stance against state-sponsored terror was all a show. For instance, the White House offered no explanation as to why over a hundred Saudis jetted out of the US two days after 9/11. As one pessimist maintained, they deserved to be questioned at the very least.

The War

Moore shows that we cannot trust our leaders. From the outset, he proposes the dodgy 2000 election result as exhibit-A. He focuses on the Florida outcome where Bush claims a dubious victory. He also shows how Bush practically took a five-month break to rehabilitate his image. Bush overlooked more pressing concerns which may have prevented the 9/11 attacks. Despite the War being a farce, the Army needed more lives to waste. They may have been 120,000-strong but must have been thrice as large. So, they sent officers on recruiting trips across the country. They promised hopes of a better life and went to poorer communities in particular, such as Lansing (Moore’s hometown). They swore that the new recruits would serve in America, but they were often the first ones sent to the battle zone. Bush also extended the so-called Coalition of the Willing, which included countries like Costa Rica and Morocco. This was all a ruse to justify the need for more Yankees in combat, as these states had marginal armies – if at all.

Where are the weapons?

Moore asks a lot of questions and he doesn’t discriminate. He heard that only one son out of two hundred Representatives was stationed in Iraq. He then set up outside Congress and tried to sell Iraq incursions to lawmakers. The Solons were dismissive. Speaking of Congress, they passed the Patriot Act without actually reading the bill. When questioned about this, they suggested that it was too much trouble. Moore instead resorted to reading the bill out loud outside the House. He seeks the family of the fallen warriors and shares their grief with the world. He even interviews some returned soldiers, reliving the horrors of war. At one point, he attends a nondescript, informal peace club that was an unwitting victim in the War. Early on, Moore showcased the injustice of government regulation, especially in what you can and cannot bring on planes. The director asserted that the government was sending the wrong memo. In the end, one older lady verbalised what everyone was thinking: ‘Where are the weapons of mass destruction?’

Lessons

Moore ends his film with two terrific quotes, including one by Orwell. The late atheist Christopher Hitchens has interpreted the 1984 quote as equating America with terrorists, the Taliban and jihadists. Others have posited Moore’s film as riddled with lies and half-truths, with little facts in between. I must admit that the movie never presents a balanced view and is clearly an anti-Bush campaign. You would really hate the portrayal if you were a Republican. Regardless, the doco was not only a ringing commercial success but critics likewise adored it upon release. Despite the touchy subject matter and some predictable backlash, the film is often cited as one of the best documentaries ever made. There is no doubt that, while the war is over, Fahrenheit is a relic that holds some important lessons. Fifteen years later, and with the video stores long gone, the message remains strong.   

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