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Zachary Koenig RSS Feed (Burnsville, MN)

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2.0 out of 5 stars Has All The Necessary Cliches, But None Of The Necessary Character Development, July 26, 2015
This review is from: Southpaw (Amazon Instant Video)
Despite the fact that boxing really hasn't been all that relevant for quite some time, boxing movies (or "fight movies" in general) are a favorite of mine. I count the "Rocky" series, "The Champ", "Real Steel", "The Fighter", and "Warrior" to be some of my favorite films of all-time. The reason? Boxing movies really aren't about boxing. They are about revealing character. There may not be a more straightforward sport: hit the other person repeatedly until him or you can't continue. Yet, it is through that ferocious simplicity that great character stories can be told and relationship examined. Sadly, "Southpaw" doesn't do nearly a good enough job with that character/relationship-building, instead just content to throw out all the old boxing cliches and hope they meld into something inspirational. They do not.

For a basic plot summary, "Southpaw" tells the story of Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal), a light-heavyweight champion at the top of his game. He has beaten all-comers, has a beautiful wife (Rachel McAdams), and a lovely daughter (Oona Laurence). The only problem? Billy can't walk away from any fight (in OR out of the ring) and it leads to a brawl in which a great tragedy befalls him and his family. Starting over basically from square one, Billy finds a new trainer in Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker) and begins to rebuild both his own life and that of his newly-shaped family.

Despite my earlier praise for the "fight movie" genre, many of its movies do use rather predictable cliches when dealing with the actual boxing portion of the flicks. In "Southpaw", every single one of those cliches is used in order to try and create a large amount of drama. There is the riches-to-rags-and-back-again story, the grizzled old trainer with the odd methods, the fracturing of the family life due to a violent sport, and the corruption of the entire business. Heck, "Southpaw" even rips off the old "Rocky IV" sequence of having interspersed shots of two boxing training with different styles...this time just set to an Eminem rap tune instead of a score.

Unfortunately, all those cliches do is cover up for the fact that the characters in this movie are not well-written or well-conceived whatsoever, and the plot adds absolutely nothing new to the genre. It is completely hollow once you look past the surface material. Sadder still, there really isn't even anything that I can point to as being really good about the film, besides perhaps the acting of Gyllenhaal (which itself is even "just okay" as there is no dramatic meat for him to work with). To be honest, a more accurate rating of this film for me would be 1.5 stars. I'll round it up to two stars because it at least as some coherency to it, but that is truly the only reason. Nothing else made me care about what I was seeing.

I was very disappointed in "Southpaw", as (when I first saw its trailers a few months ago) I predicted it would be perhaps the best movie I've seen all year. Boy, was that ever a "punch to the gut" (pardon the pun). Instead, it ended up as one of the most bland, hollow movies I've seen in quite sometime. Unless you've never seen a fight movie in your life and want to catch up on the mechanics of how they work, "Southpaw" will likely underwhelm you to the point of boredom. It just doesn't have any dramatic substance.

I Don't Care if We Never Get Back: 30 Games in 30 Days on the Best Worst Baseball Road Trip Ever
I Don't Care if We Never Get Back: 30 Games in 30 Days on the Best Worst Baseball Road Trip Ever
by Ben Blatt
Edition: Paperback
Price: $10.41
58 used & new from $6.42

5.0 out of 5 stars Nothing Like A Baseball Roadtrip!, July 25, 2015
For a number of years now, I have enjoyed seeing my hometown Minnesota Twins play in some opposing stadiums. While home stadiums are always great, there isn't anything quite like the experience of hitting the road and getting first-ups in a new and sometimes strange/wonderful ballpark. As such, I could really appreciate the concept behind "I Don't Care If We Never Get Back".

Basically, this is a story about Ben and Eric and their epic baseball road trip...all thirty stadiums in thirty days. Ben is the stat geek in love with baseball who meticulously plans this epic, improbably trip, while Eric is more the free spirit who doesn't really even like baseball but is just "along for the ride", and what a crazy ride it turns out to be!

From a few of my own baseball trips, I know that life on the road can get crazy, so I really enjoyed hearing the antics and situations that Ben and Eric get themselves into over the course of their journey. There is a certain bond that forms between people driving hundreds of miles a day and sleeping at a new hotel each night, and these two do a great job of reflecting that. A lot of fun also mixed with high anxiety, flaring tempers, and seemingly impossible travel goals that are more often than not met.

Really, about the only criticism I can give this book is that it might paint with a bit too broad of strokes sometimes. The narrative of "Ben the stat geek" and "Eric the annoyed friend" is used again and again. Perhaps that is indeed what the trip was for many stretches, but I have to believe that the pair enjoyed the whole experience a bit more than what was let on. This "emotional stuff" is covered a bit towards the end, but I wish that deeper material could have been present even a bit early. A very small "complaint", however, in the grand scheme of things.

Overall, this book was a joy and a riot to read! For any baseball fan who has traveled any distance to watch their team wear the visiting uniforms, you will find things to relate to in Eric and Ben's journey. While I could never see myself planning such am ambitious/crazy journey, there were times when I felt extremely jealous of their trip. I'm glad they decided to publish it for all to read!

Wayward Pines Season 1
Wayward Pines Season 1
Price: $17.99

5.0 out of 5 stars A Giant, Crazy Mystery, July 25, 2015
The FOX network has a strange history with mystery/scifi shows. The X-Files practically gave the fledgling network life, yet they are also notorious for cutting shows down that still have solid audiences (Firefly; Fringe) or promoting shows ad naseum and then pulling the plug before they can even get going (Alcatraz; Almost Human). Combined with the fact that notoriously "hit big or miss big" director M. Night Shyamalan was at the helm, I honestly had no idea what to expect from "Wayward Pines". What I found was that if (as a viewer) you can throw caution to the wind and expect something crazy and mysterious, this is a show that will thrill you in nearly every episode.

Because the show is such a giant mystery, I can't give too much away in terms of plot. The basic premise is that Secret Service agent Ethan Burke (Matt Dillon) gets involved in a car crash while on a mission to find fellow agent Kate Hewson (Carla Gugino). When he wakes up, he discovers himself in the small, "cozy" community of Wayward Pines...where not everything (or anything) is quite as it seems and there doesn't seem to be any immediate way to leave. A mysterious, tough-talking sheriff (Terrance Howard) and a friendly female confidant (Juliette Lewis) seem to be Ethan's only hope of figuring out exactly what is up with this weird town. Then, in another "accident", Ethan's wife Theresa (Shannyn Sossamon) and son Ben (Charlie Tahan) show up in Wayward Pines, and the stakes get raised even further.

The main advice I can give anyone watching Wayward Pines is to stick with it for at least 3-4 episodes (if you are at all intrigued) before passing judgement. For the first two episodes, I didn't know what to think, but then I realized that this is pretty much the hallmark of the show. It pulls no punches and knows no bounds in terms of crazy plot twists and character developments. Characters can be killed off at a moment's notice, and by the end of the series the plot described above is almost completely moot, as so much is covered in just ten episodes. So, make sure to give it a fair shake.

For those of you who especially love mysteries, Wayward Pines definitely is full-to-bursting in that department. Nearly every episode is packed with twists and turns and huge reveals. Though not nearly as ambitious as a show like The X-Files, Wayward Pines gives off a similar vibe in its fearlessness with plots and characters.

Kudos must also be given to three other actors I haven't even mentioned yet: Toby Jones is his usual odd self in a pivotal role, Sarah Jeffrey is charming/innocent as a love interest for young Ben, and Hope Davis plays a school teacher who I really can't say any more about (!)

Simply put, if you like mysteries and you like solid science fiction, I think you will take to Wayward Pines as much as I did. I really liked how FOX (right from the get-go) advertised this as a "event miniseries" and likely not a long-running affair. I suppose the ending is ambiguous enough to continue on at some point, but I think part of the reason the series succeeded in the first place is because the writers/producers were able to go "all out" for ten episodes and not have to worry about getting cancelled or jerked around by the network. I would be perfectly fine with these episodes standing alone as a great mystery story.

Inside Out (Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack + Digital Copy)
Inside Out (Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack + Digital Copy)
Price: $22.99

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining, But Not As "On Point" As Other Pixar Efforts, July 25, 2015
Toy Story...Wall-E...Up...Finding Nemo...etc. When a company (Pixar) makes films of that caliber, it is a difficult task to keep "upping the ante" with subsequent releases. While "Inside Out" is (at the very least) entertaining, it doesn't quite live up to the bar of greatness set by previous Pixar installments.

For a basic plot summary, "Inside Out" tells the story of an 11-year old girl named Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias), who is moving from Minnesota to San Francisco. This is obviously a big change in Riley's life, and it is when we are introduced to the emotions inside her head: Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), & Disgust (Mindy Kaling). All of Riley's outward emotions are controlled by these core emotions in the "command center" of her brain. As Riley struggles to acclimate to her new home, school, and environment, these emotions struggle to figure out their place in the overall scheme of her personality.

The concept behind "Inside Out" is original and entertaining. It's fun/interesting to see our emotions represented like that, and it provides for both some very happy/uplifting, as well as very sad/depressing, moments throughout. In terms of original concept and interesting ideas, "Inside Out" may actually be one of Pixar's best.

However, I found the execution of those ideas to be only so-so. I had two complaints (this is coming from an adult perspective, of course) while watching the movie...

1. When the camera "pulls back" to see Riley interacting with her parents and environment, that is when this film works the best. However, a majority of the film is spent inside Riley's brain dealing with the emotions themselves. For example, a subplot involving Joy being separated from the command center takes up quite a bit of time. I just wish things could have been a bit more balanced.

2. More so than any other Pixar film, "Inside Out" seems to really "go for the cry", so to speak. I've never been in a theater where so many sniffles and even outright sobbing could be heard. I have no problem with that at face value, as great films are supposed to grab at the emotions, but this one just felt expressly made to do so. I shed some tears at the end of "Toy Story 3" and at the beginning of "Up", but I really feel that was because those montages were so well-made and natural to the plot of those films. With "Inside Out", at times I felt like the entire point of the experience was to have parents bawling.

That being said, even though this one didn't rank as high as other Pixar efforts in my book, it was still fun to watch. I thoroughly enjoyed the unique concept and really liked the parts where the emotions in Riley's (and her parents') brain directly influence conversations and interactions in the real world. Highly recommended for all audiences and (as usual) perfect for families. But be warned: if you are a parent, you might want to keep a few tissues handy.

Disney's Inside Out Cinestory
Disney's Inside Out Cinestory
by Michael Arndt
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.43
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5.0 out of 5 stars A Great Way To Promote Reading Interest, July 25, 2015
The novelization of films can often be given a “bad rap” in the sense that they are “copying” what the movie did and just putting it in readable form. While that indeed is exactly what is being done, in the technical sense, I have also seen a number of examples in my life where the lure of cinema material changed into book format has jump-started interest in young readers.

For a basic plot summary, “Inside Out: Cinestory Comic” is an exact re-telling of Pixar’s “Inside Out”, following the plot of that film to a tee. Young Riley and her parents pull up stakes from Minnesota and move to San Francisco, where the transition to everyday life isn’t easy for any involved. This is primarily expressed via representations of Riley’s key emotions in her brain: Joy, Anger, Sadness, Fear, & Disgust.

Once again, let me re-iterate that this is the EXACT SAME story as the movie…not a spin-off tale. What you saw in the theater is what you are
getting here.

I could see this book having a “double-barreled” appeal to youngsters: It may catch their eye after watching the film, or (once the movie hits home video) it could go the opposite way, with children reading this book and then getting excited to watch the movie.

Either way, I think that books like this can go quite far in promoting exciting reading for children. Disney/Pixar collaborations are so popular with that set these days that it really is a no-brainer to “port” them into readable form.

Steve Jobs: Insanely Great
Steve Jobs: Insanely Great
by Jessie Hartland
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $13.71
56 used & new from $7.09

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Simple, Yet Engaging, Look At The Life Of A Tech Icon, July 21, 2015
There is no denying that Steve Jobs will go down in history as one of the greatest innovators of all-time. Yet, there are likely many youngsters who don’t understand how/why he is important, and how (without him) those ubiquitous phones in their pockets may not exist. That is where “Steve Jobs: Insanely Great” thrives…giving a graphic history of Jobs’ life in an easily accessible form.

This is a pretty standard biography of Jobs’ life and career set in a graphic novel format. It starts with his birth, ends with his death, and covers pretty much all the important moments in between.

The subject matter, of course, is what will draw both young and old to this book. Even though we all seem to have a smartphone in our pocket these days, I think we are still amazed at how quickly that technology developed. Looking at the life of Mr. Jobs is a nice parallel for understanding how we went from computers that took up entire rooms to the small, sleek, stylish devices we have now.

Another positive from “Insanely Great” is that it is long enough (at 223 pages) to give some real insight into the man and the times around him. The book doesn’t shy away from the fact that Jobs was often hated by his employees, but it doesn’t demonize him for it either. Instead, it takes a good “middle of the road” approach to Jobs’ biography…laying out what is known about him and letting the reader decide what they think.

Overall, it was fun to read this graphic novel, and because of the ease of the format it truly can be enjoyed by pretty much all-comers. The art was intriguing and pleasing to look at on each page, while the subject matter is so fascinating that you can’t help but turn the page again and again.

A.D. The Bible Continues: Exodus
A.D. The Bible Continues: Exodus
Price: $0.00

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Great Look At How Things Might Have Been, July 18, 2015
After the rousing success that was "The Bible", NBC brought the format back with "A.D.: The Bible Continues". While the ratings weren't near the original, in terms of quality the series was very well-done and just as entertaining as its predecessor.

The main plots of "A.D." revolve around three main topics:

1. The disciples of Jesus, led by Peter (Adam Levy), who are given the creed to preach His word. The problem, of course, is that Jerusalem is under strong Roman control, leading to unending conflict.

2. Pontius Pilate (Vincent Regan), Roman official stationed in Jerusalem, trying to deal with the "Jesus followers", while being advised by wife Claudia (Joanne Whalley).

3. Caiaphus (Richard Coyle), leader of the Jewish temple, and wife Leah (Jodhi May), who are caught in the middle of the Roman/Christian conflict.

The strength of this miniseries is that it shows a very intriguing "what could have been" scenario about the start of the spread of Christianity by the Disciples. You relaly get a look at how they were likely thinking/feeling in relation to their relationship with Jesus and his teachings. Too often, individuals from the Bible are looked upon as "larger than life" or somehow separated from the "average man". However, that was not the cause whatsoever. These are real people trying to comprehend the plan for God's kingdom, so obviously that is going to cause some mistakes to be made and many conflicts to arise. "A.D." doesn't shy away from any of that.

The acting and overall production value is also quite strong. This is a far cry from some cheesy re-enactment one might find on a religious network. "A.D." is a bona fide dramatic series. It just happens to be telling a story from the Bible instead of a story that someone penned in a script.

Simply put, I enjoyed "A.D." nearly as much as I did "The Bible" (the sheer breadth of the latter probably sneaks it ahead of the former by just a bit). I mainly appreciated how it didn't "preach" to the audience and chose rather to give a more individualized perspective of events: how the Disciples (and those around them) chose to react to the Resurrection and Jesus' creed to preach his word. Scholars of the Bible would likely enjoy this series, but I think its biggest fan-base would come from those who a bit more "layman" in terms of Biblical knowledge, for this one shows not just the faith of early Christians, but also the "nuts and bolts" of how that faith changed the world.

Heart-Shaped Box: A Novel
Heart-Shaped Box: A Novel
by Joe Hill
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.43
83 used & new from $4.49

3.0 out of 5 stars A Decently Entertaining Ghost Story, July 16, 2015
I'll be honest and say that the only reason I picked up this book is because Joe Hill is the son of my favorite author of all-time, Stephen King, and I wanted to see how his writing style compared to "The Master". That being said, I went into the experience wanting to give it a fair shake (comparing it to King's success is extremely unfair). What ended up happening is that while "Heart-Shaped Box" definitely did not overwhelm me, it was a solid ghost story that got better as it went along.

For a basic plot summary, "Heart-Shaped Box" is the story of Judas Coyne, a famous rock musician who likes to collect two things: girlfriends and ghostly paraphernalia. One day, Jonas' manager finds an auction online claiming that a man's suit possess a ghost. On a whim, Judas decides to make the purchase...quickly finding out that it was the trap of a former girlfriend's obsessive family. The catch? The suit in the heart-shaped box contains something more terrifying than Judas and his current fling, Marybeth, can possibly imagine, requiring them to hit the road in search of answers.

I really struggled to get through the first 150 or so pages of "Heart-Shaped Box", finding it tedious and not all that developed. It seemed like a really simple, really predictable ghost story.

However, from that point on the story really started to pick up. The turning point is when Hill starts delving into the backgrounds of Judas and Marybeth, as that is really where the drama in the story lies. Sure, the ghostly presence is creepy and provides the impetus for action, but the tales of both the protagonists and where they came from are just as creepy in their own way. Like most of his father's greatest tales, Hill's greatest success in this one comes from the examination of some very interesting characters and how they come to terms with what has happened in their past and move forward from it.

Thus, I have to give "Heart-Shaped Box" a middling grade. It isn't one of my favorite novels, by any means, but it did just enough (especially after the slow beginning) to keep me turning the pages and interested in the characters. I am cautiously optimistic about the further works of Mr. Hill. Not terribly excited to dive right into the next one, but I would have at least some confidence in doing so knowing that the storytelling prowess does exist in some shape and form.

Into the Killing Seas
Into the Killing Seas
by Michael P. Spradlin
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $13.59
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great WWII Survival Adventure, July 15, 2015
This review is from: Into the Killing Seas (Hardcover)
In recent years, the story of Louis Zamperini (immortalized in both print and visual media) and his harrowing tale of survival captivated the nation. While reading Michael P. Spradlin’s “Into The Killing Seas”, I couldn’t help but wonder if that “Unbroken” story didn’t have a bit of an influence on the tale, as it also is an incredible story (this time told in historical-fiction style) of the U.S.S. Indianapolis sinking towards the end of WWII.

For a basic plot summary, this novel tells the story of two young brothers, Patrick & Teddy, who are separated from their parents due to the war (living in an orphanage in the Pacific) and wanting desperately to get back to them. When the boys make the acquaintance of Benny, a crew member on the Indianapolis, they hatch a plan to hide themselves on the ship as stowaways. Of course, the ship is attack by the Japanese and sunk, leaving hundreds of men—including Benny, Patrick, & Teddy—in the shark-infested waters.

First and foremost, “Into The Killing Seas” is a great adventure/survival tale. Young readers will be mesmerized by the exploits of the young boys, especially when the sharks show up and must be reckoned with. Very exciting reading.

What author Spradlin also does very well, however, is create characters that are interesting and unique. Sometimes, books aimed at YA audiences contain more “caricatures” than “characters”, but this is profoundly not the case here. The three boys think/act like real young boys might, and the interplay between them is always fresh & interesting.

Finally, even though I won’t reveal much here due to potential spoilers, the ending of this book will throw you for such a big loop that even adult readers won’t see it coming. The fact that Spradlin can pull off such a remarkable ending in a YA novel (by their very nature being relatively simple compared to “adult” novels) speaks volumes towards his writing craftsmanship.

I very much enjoyed reading “Into The Killing Seas” and would highly recommend it to any and all readers. The text type is rather large and the books has the look/feel of something you would find in a middle school media center, but (even if you are an adult) don’t let that dissuade you from giving it a chance. In the tradition of “Unbroken”, it has a great survival story to tell.

Tru Detective
Tru Detective
by Norah McClintock
Edition: Paperback
Price: $13.41
46 used & new from $9.40

2.0 out of 5 stars Great Initial Mystery Setup Descends Into Muddled Crime Drama, July 15, 2015
This review is from: Tru Detective (Paperback)
After the first 5-6 pages of this graphic novel, it looks to be perfectly set up as a great mystery. Teenaged Tru is awaiting a date with his girlfriend…who never shows. Tru becomes angry and has a bit too much to drink, tearing apart his apartment in his drunken frustrations. The next morning, two detectives turn up on his doorstep and inform him that his girlfriend has been found murdered…and he is the prime suspect.

Simply put, the first half of this graphic mystery is where the story really shines. Author Norah McClintock sets up a scenario in which there really is a pretty solid mystery playing out, with Tru on the run trying to prove his innocence.

Unfortunately, the second half of the novel falls into some very typical, predictable, and confusing stereotypes of the crime genre. Too many characters are introduced into the mix, the Russian Mob makes an appearance, a nightclub factors into the disappearance, and it all climaxes with guns drawn and bullets flying. In other words, very typical crime noir fare. In essence, the great setup falls into formula.

As such, I can’t really say I enjoyed “Tru Detective” all that much. It intrigued me enough initially to keep reading to the end, but by the final pages I was more “glad to be done” than really caring about what was transpiring. I’ll put it this way: the dark, noir-style illustrations from Steven P. Hughes are more in line with the tone of the story than the initial high-mystery setup.

I’d give this one 2.5 stars if possible, but I have to round down because to me it wasn’t even at the “okay” status.

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