Movie Review: First Man

  • Director:  Damien Chazelle
  • Rating: PG-13
  • Starring: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler
  • Screenplay: Josh Singer 
  • Based on the Book by: James R. Hansen
  • Music By: Justin Hurwitz
  • Cinematography: Linus Sandgren
  • Premiered: October 12, 2018 (USA)
  • First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong, 2005, Simon & Schuster

Synopsis: A look at the life of the astronaut, Neil Armstrong, and the legendary space mission that led him to become the first man to walk on the Moon on July 20, 1969. (From IMDb)

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Review: Have you ever looked up into the sky and wondered about what lies above? Somewhere, beyond the stars, a whole universe of wondrous discoveries lay waiting for someone to stumble upon. Back in the 1960’s, America needed a morale win. The then United Socialist States of Russia, modern Russia, launched Sputnik-1 in 1957. This sparked major concerns in America over the Soviet Union not only conquering space first but also the possibility of weaponized satellites. In a world growing increasingly smaller, only space remained as the last great frontier for countries to conquer.

On May 25, 1961 President John F. Kennedy announced his intention for America to send a man to the moon before the end of the decade. A number of political factors affected the timing of this decision. Kennedy felt incredibly pressured to have the United States overtake the Soviet Union in the “space race.” Four years after the Sputnik launch in 1957, the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space on April 12, 1961. This greatly embarrassed the U.S. when Alan Shepard became the first American in space on May 5. However, Shepard only completed a short suborbital flight instead of orbiting the Earth like Gagarin. The Bay of Pigs fiasco in mid-April tarnished Kennedy’s reputation and he wanted a task that the U.S. could achieve before the Soviet Union. After consulting with Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, NASA Administrator James Webb, and other officials, Kennedy concluded that landing an American on the Moon would be an incredibly challenging technological feat. Putting a man on the moon was one part of space exploration where the U.S. could overcome the Soviets. Many historians view the massive growth of NASA in the 1960’s as an extension of the cold war.

First Man takes place between 1961 and 1969, the height of the space race.  In 1961 Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) worked as a test pilot in California. While Neil is flying planes in the Mojave desert, he and his wife, Janet (Claire Foy), lose their second child, Karen, to brain cancer. Shortly afterwards, Neil is hired to join NASA’s space program in Houston, Texas. There, he and Janet befriend the other astronauts chosen for the moon mission: Ed White (Jason Clarke), Elliott See (Patrick Fugit), Jim Lovell (Pablo Schreiber), and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stall). The families bond as the men embark on often dangerous missions leading up to Armstrong becoming the first man to walk on the moon in 1969.

Damien Chazelle chooses to focus on the life of Armstrong and how the NASA program shaped his life. Armstrong suffers greatly from the death of Karen. Her cancer was the one thing he could not solve, despite trying desperately hard to solve the equation. Gosling does an excellent job of portraying a deeply feeling man who compartmentalizes his emotions to an extreme. Unsurprisingly, Karen’s death deeply impacts Neil’s relationship with Janet. The NASA program presents a fresh start for the family and a way to move past the tragedy of Karen’s death.

Since no one had ever attempted to land a living, breathing human on the moon before, NASA needed to perfect several scientific innovations in order to make sure the launch vehicles were safe. As a result, Armstrong single-mindedly  dedicates himself to his job. With outside pressure from the government and protesters, NASA attempts to be first to the moon – through any means possible. This massive undertaking involved writing new science just to figure out how to safely launch a vessel out of the atmosphere and back again without killing anyone.

 The main narrative arc follows Armstrong’ struggles to balance his professional and personal responsibilities. While he uses work to distract himself from the pain of Karen’s death, he increasingly grows distant from his family. Singer, the screenwriter, strikes a delicate harmony between the two aspects of Armstrong’s life: the raw, emotional examination of the Armstrong’s’ home life and the high-stakes world of NASA where death and danger hang in the air. Both aspects are given equal time to shine and paints a fascinating portrait of the man at its center.

Gosling provides another strong and understated performance. His version of Neil is a focused and introverted man haunted by the past and driven by the future. At times, Neil comes across as distant and cold, but moments of touching humanity woven throughout make Neil feel like a complete person. Claire Foy has the more relatable role and serves as the rock of the Armstrong family. However, her dreams of a “normal” life quickly dissipate as Neil becomes more involved at NASA. In lesser hands, Janet would have come across as a cliché, but the script gives Janet a lot of autonomy and she asserts herself to great effect several times. Foy portrays Janet masterfully and is responsible for delivering some of film’s most heart-wrenching scenes when confronting the harsh realities of Neil’s job.

While Foy is an excellent actress, her attempts at an American Midwestern accent came across as extremely affected several times. Her British accent appeared a couple of times throughout the film, especially during the emotional sequences. However, this in no way dampened Foy’s performance. But the occasional slip-ups did make Janet feel a little less “real”.

The film opens with a dizzying test flight on the rocket-powered X-15 — a scene that Chazelle juxtapositions with the heartbreaking sequence of Karen deteriorating. After her death, Neil does not allow anyone to see him break down. This stoicism continues throughout his life as he survives the death of fellow pilots and astronauts. Armstrong does not comes across as some kind of space cowboy or an ambitious jerk. Instead, he is humble and hardworking. Given his emotional distance, Armstrong is not an infinitely likable. However, his strength of character and remarkable achievements far outweigh the negative aspects of is personality.  

I would recommend seeing First Man in theaters. The amazing cinematography, especially the space and rocket sequences, really shine on the big screen. Like Interstellar, the space and planet/moon sequences fill up the screen and transport the viewer literally out of this world. While this is a story about the NASA space program, Chazelle keeps the film tightly focused on the two Armstrongs and does not attempt to capture every major event or figure involved.

Unlike other movies made about this time period, which superficially include the astronauts’ wives as an attempt at character development, Chazelle gives Janet plenty of screen time. Just like in war, the wives must keep the home front running, maintain the house, tamper down nerves, and hope that the men do not die in an explosion. Even though we all know Armstrong makes it to the moon and back, the tension keeps you on the edge of your seat.

After numerous failed missions and several horrific deaths, NASA making it to the moon feels like a lost cause. Then, just when it seems impossible, the rocket launches with Aldrin and Armstrong safely cocooned inside. They make it to the surface and take one giant leap for mankind.

If you want a snapshot of how Sputnik-1 and the NASA program affected and influenced the younger generation, I recommend Rocket Boys by Homer Hickam Jr and its movie adaptation October Sky

Top 5 Movie Soundtracks of 2018

Bohemian Rhapsody

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Why it is great: Who does not enjoy rock n roll music? My first introduction to Queen’s music came from the movie The Mighty Ducks where they sang We Are the Champions. Produced by Jim Beach (Queen’s Manager), Robert Taylor (the drummer), and Brian May (the guitarist), the soundtrack includes cuts from the movie and remastered versions of Queen’s original releases. This is not a greatest hit album, it is a collection of the songs that made Queen famous and beloved. Rock n roll music today bears little resemblance to the aggression and complexity of the songs created in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

Best tracks: “We Will Rock You, We Are The Champions”, “Radio Ga-Ga” “Hammer to Fall” “Bohemian Rhapsody”

Available at (On November 30): Spotify, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, etc…

Bad Times at the El Royale

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Why it is great: Music from the 1950’s and 1960’s remain quite popular in Hollywood films. For instance, the Guardians of the Galaxy films utilize hits from the late ’60s and early 70’s to great effect. Bad Times takes place in the mid-1960’s during the time of Vietnam War protests and the Charles Manson murders. The music on the soundtrack draws from the juxtaposition of optimism and cynicism that existed in popular culture at the time. If you are a fan of protest music and the Motown sound of the ’60’s, this soundtrack includes a nice snapshot of the era.

Best tracks: “Baby I Love You” by Tommy Roe, “He’s a Rebel”  by Alana Da Fonseca, “This Old Heart of Mine” by The Isley Brothers, “Bend Me, Shape Me” by The American Breed

Available at: Spotify, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, etc…

Black Panther

Why it is great: Two soundtrack exist for the film: Black Panther (Original Score) by Ludwig Göransson and Black Panther: The Album by Kendrick Lamar. Both albums are excellent. First with Ludwig Göransson. His score focuses on traditional African music with a hip-hop flare composed for an orchestra. Göransson actually visited Africa in order to research traditional and modern African music. Most of the songs in the score use talking drums and tambins in the composition, both are traditional African instruments. When combined with the classical orchestra, the result is amazing. Kendrick Lamar, the Pulitzer Prize-winning rapper, wrote original songs for the film. He also contributed vocals to every track, including those where he did not sing lead.  Additional collaboraters include Khalid, Vince Staples, Jorja Smith, SZA, Future, and James Blake.

Best tracks: “Black Panther” by Kendrick Lamar, “Wakanda Origins” by Ludwig Göransson, “Wakanda” (featuring Baaba Maal) by Ludwig Göransson, “The Great Mound Battle” by Ludwig Göransson, “Opps (with Yugen Blakrok)” by Vince Staples, Yugen Blakrok, and Kendrick Lamar

Black Panther (Score) Available at: Spotify, Amazon, Barnes & NobleiTunes, etc…

Black Panther: The Album Available at: Spotify, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, etc…

Solo: A Star Wars Story

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Why it is great: Star Wars is synonymous with John Williams. The Imperial March and the Star Wars Theme are two instantly recognizable songs, no Star Wars film feels complete until they appear. Haunting, intimidating, and inspiring all at once, Williams mastered the art of soundtrack perfection. Despite your thoughts on the Solo Movie, the soundtrack lives up to the excellence of the original sound. While Williams did not compose the entire soundtrack, his iconic songs feature prominently.  John Powell, the composer behind How to Train Your DragonHappy Feet, and Shrek, composed the majority of the music. Powell weaved his own unique sounds between Williams’s signature orchestral compositions.

Best tracks: “Chicken in the Pot” by John Powell, “The Adventures of Han” by John Williams, “Lando’s Closet” by John Powell

Available at: Spotify, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, etc…

Ocean’s 8

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Why it is great: While I did not really enjoy the film, the soundtrack included some great music. Like most modern movies nowadays, the film has two “soundtracks”. The original score contains tracks written and composed by Daniel Pemberton and the other one is a selection of popular music used throughout the film.  The selection of “popular” songs varies wildly in tone and genre; Bach’s “Fugue In D Minor” is slightly different from “Hypnotize” by The Notorious B.I.G.. All together, the song choices help to accentuate the various dramatic and humorous moments in the narrative. Surprisingly, neither Rihanna nor Awkwafina contributed a song or a cover to the soundtrack.

Best tracks: “Me and Mr Jones” by Amy Winehouse, “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” by Nancy Sinatra, “Superfly” by Curtis Mayfield

Available at: Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Spotify, iTunes, etc…

Jane Austen-Pride & Prejudice

Themes Explored: manners, societal pressures, matrimony, pride, prejudice, love, loss, sibling rivalries, sibling relationships, social critique, reputation, marriage, parental approval, British aristocracy, femininity, class, family, virtue, honor, purity.

Synopsis: Originally published in 1813, this romantic novel charts the life and times of Elizabeth Bennet and her four sisters as they navigate society.  

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“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”

Review: Pride & Prejudice remains one of the best satirical and social critiques of the social pressures and expectations of women in the eighteenth century (Jan 1, 1701 – Dec 31, 1800). The story endures due to the clear writing and the universal themes of love, loss, and second chances. During the eighteenth century in England (and the rest of the civilized world at the time), a woman’s main marriage currency were her reputation and femininity. Lose your reputation and you squander your only shot at securing a decent husband with a steady income. Women, especially members of the aristocracy, had to adhere to certain rules and behavior in both the private and public sphere. Several of the Bennet sisters step outside of these restrictions in ways that harmed their whole family’s reputations.

Mr. Bennet, Esquire, the patriarch of the now-dwindling Bennet family married Mrs. Bennet, the daughter of a Meryton attorney, Mr. Gardener Sr. Together the couple produced five daughters: Jane, Elizabeth (“Lizzy”/”Eliza”), Mary, Catherine (“Kitty”), and Lydia Bennet. At the beginning of the novel, none of the girls are married or engaged.

Mr. Bennet owned an entailed estate, which meant that he had no sons. As such, all his property and money automatically goes to the closest male relative in the event of his death. In this case, Mr. Collins, a paternal cousin. All the girls would receive a modest dowry but could not inherit Longbourn House. However, Mr. Collins’ would lose his inheritance if one of Mr. Bennet’s daughters gave birth to a son before his death. This grandson would then become the new heir presumptive by virtue of being Mr. Bennet’s closest living male relative. Entailments only passed through the male line. If Mr. Collins married one of one of Mr. Bennet’s daughters and fathered a son, he would guarantee inheriting Longbourn.

Within the hierarchy of British Aristocracy, the Bennet family existed on the lower end of high society. While Mr. Bennet was a gentleman, he was not directly related to the peerage. Landed gentry, like the Bennet’s, is a distinctive British social class between the peerage and the common man. The gentry consisted of landowners who could live entirely from rental income and/or the proceeds from a country estate. Socially, the gentry socialized “below”, the aristocracy or peerage, although some of the landed gentry possessed significant more wealth than the peerage and many gentry were the younger sons of the aristocrats. Since their fathers’ possessed money, many women from the landed gentry social class could marry “up” into the peerage due to significant dowries. At this particular period, a lot of the aristocracy were land rich but cash poor. Marrying a woman who came with a significant dowry (50,000 pounds+) could solve many problems.

The Bennet sisters suffered on the marriage market since they only had a dowry of between 200-500 pounds apiece. Mr. Bennet only pulled in an annual income of 2,000 pounds, a decent income but not enough to allow five daughters to make advantageous marriages. Lizzy and Darcy, socially, belong to the same social class. However, Darcy’s family descended from the peerage, so has higher standing in aristocratic circles.

In the eighteenth century, a household of five girls with no advantage other than good looks and feminine accomplishments, presented many challenges. Yet Mr and Mrs Bennet failed to prepare their girls for the marriage market. Mrs Bennet, a rather unrefined woman, repeatedly made a spectacle of herself, incapable of realizing that crude manners would deter any rich, eligible young man who noticed any of her daughters. Mr Bennet only married Mrs Bennet for her looks and later realized that he disliked her personality. He became an indifferent husband and gave up on reining in his wife’s and younger daughters’ embarrassing behavior.

All five girls acted in accordance with the education they received. Jane and Elizabeth, the two eldest and prettiest, show irreproachable conduct and have their father’s respect and appreciation. Mary, the third oldest, displays intellectual and musical pretensions but possess few looks. Kitty and Lydia, the two youngest, run wild under the rather careless supervision of their mother.

Extended members of the Bennet family include Mrs Bennet’s brother and sister – Mr. Gardiner and Mrs. Philips-and the pompous and foolish Mr. William Collins. Mrs. Philips and Mr. Gardiner  contribute significantly to the progress of the story and act as surrogate parental figure to Jane and Lizzy in their times of need.  Mr. Collins’s provides a link between the gentry of Hertfordshire and the incredibly wealth Lady Catherine de Bourgh and her nephew, Mr. Darcy.

As the title suggests, prejudice forms one of the main themes of the novel. Prejudice is one of many obstacles that gets in the way of Lizzy and Mr. Darcy from connecting. Mr. Darcy judges Lizzy harshly based upon her lower social standing and the uncouth behavior of Mrs. Bennet. He does not immediately notice her strength of character since he is above her in class and believes himself superior. This prejudice also influences why Darcy dissuades Bingley from pursuing Jane, even though they complement each other in every way despite the differences in social standing.

On the other side, Lizzy’s pride causes her to misjudge Darcy and treat him poorly in subsequent meetings. Jane Austen believed firmly in the importance of love in a marriage. In Austen’s view, Lizzy rejects Mr. Darcy’s first proposal because she neither loves nor respects him. Lizzy wanted a marriage where she can respect her husband and he respects her, unlike the example of her parents. This is in direct contrast to the union of Charlotte Lucas and Mr Collins. Charlotte only accepted Collins’ proposal because she needed the respectability and security of marriage. Otherwise, she risked becoming a burden to her brothers upon the death of their father. However, Charlotte neither loves nor respects her husband. Collins merely presented the only way for Charlotte to secure her future.

The lines of class remain strictly enforced by the characters. Austen satirizes this class-consciousness, particularly through Mr. Collins, who spends his time flattering Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Several other characters, including Mr. Darcy, share Collins’ extreme conscience of class. Miss Bingley and Wickham will doing anything required to raise their social standing. Mr. Collins’s views are merely the most obvious.

In the depiction of the Darcy-Elizabeth and Bingley-Jane marriages, Austen displays how love and happiness can overcome class boundaries and prejudices. The underlying implication being that such prejudices are hollow and unnecessary. On the other hand, one critique of Austen is that she is also a classist, as she does not represent anyone from the lower classes. Those servants she does portray are generally happy with their lot. While Austen does criticize class structure, her critique solely focuses on the differences housed within the upper segments of society.

Austen is certainly critical of the gender injustices present in English society, particularly within the institution of marriage. Many of the women in the novel must marry to secure their financial security. Through the characters of Lizzy and Jane, Austen shows that women possess equal intelligence and capabilities as their male counterparts. Jane herself went against convention by remaining unmarried and earning a living through writing. In her personal correspondences, Austen advised her friends to marry for love. Lizzy’s happy marriage reveals Austen’s belief that a woman should remain independent until she meets the right man. Pride & Prejudice remains a popular novel as the themes of class, love, marriage, and societal responsibility still exist today and shape people’s behavior and preconceptions.

Pride & Prejudice, 1813, Modern Library, ISBN: 9780679783268

Jean Lee Latham-Carry On, Mr Bowditch

Themes Explored: masculinity, apprenticeship, growing up, sailing, historical fiction, classic literature, children’s literature, biographical fiction, Newberry Medal Winner, America, navigation, hero, strength, ingenuity, perseverance

Synopsis: Nathaniel Bowditch grew up in a sailor’s world—Salem in the early days, when tall-masted ships from foreign ports crowded the wharves. Nat did not have the makings of a sailor; he was too small. Nat may have been slight of build, but no one guessed that he had the persistence and determination to master sea navigation in the days when men sailed only by “log, lead, and lookout.” Nat’s long hours of study and observation, collected in his famous work, The American Practical Navigator (also known as the “Sailors’ Bible”), stunned the sailing community and made him a New England hero. (Adapted from Goodreads)

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Review: I have always harbored a dream of running away and sailing the world. Sadly, I suffer from seasickness. Growing up I loved to read adventure stories, especially ones focused on sailing and exploring faraway lands. Sailing always seemed like an exciting way to live. Carry on Mr Bowditch explores the birth of modern navigation through the eyes of the Nat Bowditch.

Nathaniel “Nat” Bowditch, grew up in a poor household as the younger son of a cooper, a maker of wooden barrels.

Nat loves school, especially mathematics, and dreams of attending Harvard University. Due to economic hardship, he quits school to make barrels with his father. He eventually ends up as an indentured servant to a ship’s chandler (a store specializing in supplies or equipment for ships). Determined to continue his education, he teaches himself Latin. After nine years, his indenture is complete and Nat goes to sea.

During his sailing adventure, Nat discovers that the navigational sources used by the ship’s crew contained extensive and dangerous errors. He decides to compile a new book of navigational information. This book, The American Practical Navigator, is still in use today. Eventually Nat becomes a captain himself. Thanks to his work on improving navigational understanding, Nat received an honorary Master of Arts degree from Harvard.

This book contains everything you want in a children’s story: action, adventure, perseverance, hardship, success, and an unflagging sense of purpose backed up with sheer determination. Nat wanted more out of life than making barrels or twisting rope. Since he needed an education to move up in the world, he used the resources available to educate himself.

Narrative wise, the book covers approximately twenty years in under three hundred pages. Themes like death, loss, romance, and love appear throughout the story but never become the focal point. The narrative focuses on a young man trying to improve his life and letting nothing or no one dissuade him from his path. If you are looking for a solid children’s book that teaches some American history in an enjoyable manner, check out Carry On Mr Bowditch. You will all want to sail off into the horizon after finishing this fabulous book.

Carry On Mr Bowditch, 1955, HMH Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 9780618250745

Dear Student Loans. I Hate You.

Dear Student Loans,

I hate you.

Every month the majority of my paycheck goes toward paying of a college experience that I do not think was worth the diploma. I have an expensive fire starter decorated with my name and fancy Latin script no one in my graduating class could read.

Thanks to a decision I made at 18, I now spend all my free time thinking about debt and how to repay it off as quickly as possible. Why does society think giving a bunch of eighteen year-olds thousands of dollars of debt is a good idea? Outside of a few people, who really knows what profession they want to spend the rest of their lives pursuing?

You know what an undergraduate degree prepares you for, graduate school.

I worked all through college because I could not afford to have a negative income. In addition, I was just a little too “rich” to qualify as poor.  If I wanted to go on school-sponsored field trips, conferences, eat off-campus occasionally, or go to an off-campus event, I had to work. Even over the summer and breaks. Naturally, I could not afford to work unpaid internships like many of my peers, which really hurt on the job market. It seems most employers prefer students with a bunch of internships than someone who held down a job while in school full time and never missed a deadline (professionally or academically).

One summer I held down a full time (paid) internship, three part-time jobs, and passed two graduate level classes with A’s. That summer sucked, but I time managed my way through multiple obligations. Not that anyone seems to finds that impressive. The guy I dated that summer complained about his “busy” schedule. He worked one full-time job and dropped out of a fully funded master’s program. Yet, he was the “busy” one. That relationship did not last long. Shocking I know. 

Do not get me wrong, I am on track to pay off my loans. I decided against stretching them out to the maximum twenty-year repayment schedule. I would rather suffer now than have these stupid payments hanging over my head for most of my adult life. However, the payments still sting every month. This experience definitely put me off borrowing money in any form. It just is not worth the pain.

Anyways, to my student loans, I hate you. Once I pay you off, we are never ever getting back together.

Sincerely,

Me.

P.S. I know this has nothing to do with books or movies, but I felt the need to rant.

Movie Review: Bad Times at the El Royale

  • Director: Drew Goddard
  • Rating: R
  • Starring: Jeff Bridges, Jon Hamm, Dakota Johnson, Cynthia Erivo, Chris Hemsworth, Lewis Pullman
  • Screenplay: Drew Goddard
  • Music By: Michael Giacchino
  • Cinematography: Seamus McGarvey
  • Running Time: 141 Minutes
  • Premiered: October 12, 2018 (USA)

Synopsis: Circa 1968, several strangers, most with a secret to bury, meet by chance at Lake Tahoe’s El Royale, a rundown hotel with a dark past. Over the course of one night, everyone will show their true colors – before everything goes to hell. (From IMDb)

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Review: Many check in, but few check out. In a run down motel on the border of California and Nevada, The El Royale Motel stands as a beacon to older times. Pictures of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr, and many other stars of a bygone era decorate the walls. The whiffs of power from visiting politicians still linger in the halls. Now that the golden era has passed, the motel stands as a reminder of simpler days. Into this trophy of past glory gather seven strangers, each with a different reason for not wanting to be disturbed.

Stranger 1: Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm)-a vacuum cleaner salesman with more to him than meets the eye.

Stranger 2: Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo)-a struggling African-American soul singer passing through on her way to a gig in Reno.

Stranger 3: Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges)-a pastor with a fading memory and a shady past.

Stranger 4: Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson)-a young, hippie woman with an attitude and a wish to not be disturbed.

Stranger 5: Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman)-the troubled motel receptionist/chef/maintenance man/seemingly the only motel employee.

Stranger 6: Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth)-a strange man who is somehow connected to Emily.

Stranger 7: Rose Summerspring (Cailee Spaeny)-Emily’s troubled younger sister.

The events depicted in Bad Times at the El Royale occurs over the course of one night at the El Royale motel. When struggling singer Darlene Sweet arrives looking for a room, she encounters Laramie Sullivan and Father Daniel Flynn at the check in desk. While the El Royale was once a bustling and successful business, given that the motel employees only one concierge – the young Miles Miller – the lodge’s heydays are ancient history. Each person who checks in hides their own secrets, including Emily Summerspring and her sister Rose Summerspring.

However, even the motel hides some secrets, as one of the guests discovers a secret hallway that allows Miles to watch what occurs in the rooms without the knowledge of the guests. The movie showcases the various perspectives by giving each character a brief vignette. These vignettes focus on each of the inhabitants who only cross paths with each other as they attempt to keep their own intentions secret. Just when the narrative appears to go one direction, a giant swerve occurs in the form charismatic cult leader Billy Lee. He arrives at the motel to retrieve a stolen item. As the various paths, pasts, and problems of characters, it remains to be seen who will survive long enough to check out in the morning.

America in the 1960s featured a time of heightened political and social issues due to the unpopularity of the Vietnam War and the momentum of the Civil Rights Movement. Bad Times at the El Royale taps into the discontentment of this era to fabulous effect. While movie remains rooted in the 1960s, it also subtly comments on the nature of politics today. One particular line in narrative so perfectly captures the cyclical nature of powerful men abusing this position just because they can. Drew Goddard has crafted a beautiful genre film that is also well written and acted to perfection. Each twist digs up a new and unexpected turn.

The cast keeps the narrative moving. Keep in mind, Bad Times relies on character development and dialogue to move the story forward. Little action occurs. Bridges and Hamm offer great turns in their particular roles, bringing the right amount of gravitas and charm to make their characters believable. Hemsworth plays crazy amazingly well. Cult leader Billy Lee is equal parts charming and menacing. Johnson and Spaeny make compelling sisters, while Pullman plays the troubled Miles with a surprising amount of depth. This is one of the few ensemble-style films where no one felt out of place. All the actors held their own.

With such a strong cast, it would seem impossible for any actor to stand out. However, Bad Times at the El Royale belongs to Cynthia Erivo. While a newcomer to Hollywood, she is a veteran of the stage. She won a Tony Award for her role in the musical adaptation of The Color Purple. Erivo brings her extensive talents to the big screen – including her singing voice – and elevates the movie by portraying as the enthralling Darlene. Her singing voice is absolutely gorgeous and she actually sings in the movie, acapella style.

I deeply enjoyed this movie. Everything from the plotting, to the characters, to the gorgeous 1960s style cinematography worked extremely well and made the film a wonderful viewing experience. This is a slow burning narrative since the action relies upon character development, not high speed chases. In the days of multiple sequels, prequels, and spin offs, a standalone story with a superstar cast is a refreshing change. If you are in the mood for a slower paced but deeply intriguing movie, check out Bad Times at the El Royale.  

Top 5 Female Driven Comedies

The First Wives Club (1996)

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  • Director: Hugh Wilson
  • Writers: Olivia Goldsmith (novel), Robert Harling (screenplay)
  • Starring: Diane Keaton, Goldie Hawn, Bette Midler, Maggie Smith
  • Synopsis: Reunited by the death of a college friend, three divorced women seek revenge on the husbands who left them for younger women. (From IMDb)

Review: A group of mid life women find their lives in tatters when a friend from college suddenly commits suicide. Their chance reunion reveals that all three women are stuck in quickly imploding relationships as their husbands are all chasing younger and thinner women. Teaming together, they pursue a plan to make their husbands pay.

I love this movie so much. It is the perfect antidote to the romantic comedy. What happen after happily, ever after? Prince Charming leaves Cinderella when the mid-life crisis strikes. Suddenly, any woman is more attractive than the one he has at home. The First Wives club manages to convey a message about female empowerment without resorting to degrading or crude humor. Annie (Keaton), Elise (Hawn), and Brenda (Midler) all look for a new lease on life now that their husbands left. All three actresses play off each other extremely well and convincingly portray three women looking for new identities. The comedy is on point and sharply written. I wish more female comedy focused on witty humor over physical slapstick.

“Don’t get mad. Get everything.”

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

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  • Director: Howard Hawks
  • Writers: Dudley Nichols (screen play), Hagar Wilde (screen play)
  • Stars: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Charles Ruggles
  • Synopsis: While trying to secure a $1 million donation for his museum, a befuddled paleontologist is pursued by a flighty and often irritating heiress and her pet leopard, Baby (From IMDb).

Review: Katherine Hepburn knew how to light up a scene. She absolutely shines in this gem of a screwball comedy. Hepburn portrays Susan, a high flying, fast talking heiress with a pet leopard (Baby). Through a series of misadventures, she ends up hijacking the life of David, played by Cary Grant. A rather dry professor, David is on the verge of marrying his assistant when Susan breezes into his life.

What makes this movie shine is the excellent cast and the fact that Grant could keep a straight face while Hepburn spouted out her rapid fire lines. This was actually Hepburn’s first comedy. Howard Hawks hired several veteran vaudeville actors to train her and work on comedic timing. The movie actually flopped when it debuted but went on to make a nice return for Hepburn. Her estate still receives loyalties from this film.  If you are a fan of screwball comedies, classic cinema, Hepburn, Grant, or all of the above, Bringing Up Baby is an excellent antidote for bad weather blues.

 “And so begins the hilarious adventure of Professor David Huxley and Miss Susan Vance, a flutter-brained vixen with love in her heart!”

What’s Up Doc? (1972)

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  • Director: Peter Bogdanovich
  • Writers: Buck Henry (screenplay), David Newman (screenplay)
  • Stars: Barbra Streisand, Ryan O’Neal
  • Synopsis: The accidental mix-up of four identical plaid overnight bags leads to a series of increasingly wild and wacky situations. (From IMDb)

Review: Two researchers have come to San Francisco to compete for a grant in Music. Howard Bannister seems a bit distracted, and that was before he meets her, Judy Maxwell. A total stranger Judy seems to have devoted her life to confusing and embarrassing the stoic Howard. At the same time another woman has her jewels stolen and a government whistle blower arrives with his stolen top secret papers. All, of course have the same style and color overnight bag. High jinks ensue.

Bogdanovich made this film as a homage to the screwball comedies of the 1920’s and 1930’s, specifically Bringing up Baby. The screenplay is full of visual humor and one liners. Ryan O’Neal plays the straight man to Barbra Streisand’s crazy lady and it works. There is one truly impressive sequence spoofing the car chase from Bullitt. This involves   pane of glass being moved across the street in San Francisco while a car chase occurs on the other end of the street. It is an excellent example of humor, timing, backdrop, and action. I would say that the humor stands up today. The only thing that really dates the movie is the atrocious 70’s fashion. The film’s title comes from Bugs Bunny famous “What’s Up, Doc?” catch-phrase.

“A screwball comedy. Remember them?”

Auntie Mame (1958)

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  • Director: Morton DaCosta
  • Writers: Betty Comden (screenplay), Adolph Green (screenplay)
  • Stars: Rosalind Russell, Forrest Tucker, Coral Browne
  • Synopsis: An orphan goes to live with his free-spirited aunt. Conflict ensues when the executor of his father’s estate objects to the aunt’s lifestyle. (From IMDb)

Review: Mame is an unconventional individualist socialite from the roaring 1920’s. When her staid brother dies, she discovers that she is the guardian of her nephew, Patrick. However, Patrick’s father designated an executor to his will to protect the boy from Mame’s unconventional approach to life. Patrick and Mame become devoted to each other in spite of this restriction, and together journey through Patrick’s childhood and the great depression.

This movie is about growing up, both for Mame and Patrick. A devoted bachelorette, Mame lives a freewheeling life full of glamorous parties and bathtub gin. Patrick comes from a staid and proper household. He discovers a whole new approach to living when he goes to live with Mame. Together they figure out what it means to live a fulfilling life. Russell really shines in this role, she starred in the Broadway production from October 1956 to June 1958. While the graphics and film editing definitely date the movie, the humor stands the test of time. 

“Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death!”

You Can’t Take It with You (1938)

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  • Director: Frank Capra
  • Writers: Robert Riskin (screen play), George S. Kaufman (based upon the play by) \
  • Stars: Jean Arthur, James Stewart, Lionel Barrymore
  • Synopsis: A man from a family of rich snobs becomes engaged to a woman from a good-natured but decidedly eccentric family. (From IMDb)

Review: The movie is exceedingly funnier than the play. Pretty stenographer Alice Sycamore is in love with her boss Tony Kirby, who is the vice-president of the powerful company owned by his father Anthony P. Kirby. Kirby Sr. is running a monopoly in the weapons industry and needs to buy one last house in a twelve block area. This house is owned by Alice’s grandfather Martin Vanderhof. However, Martin does not care for money prioritizes fun and friendship.  This makes Kirby Sr incredibly antagonistic since Martin will not sell. When Tony proposes to Alice, there is an inevitable clash of classes and lifestyles.

This is a comedy of manners and misunderstanding. I watched it numerous times as a kid, I had a rather large crush on Jimmy Stewart at the time. Whereas the play only features 19 characters, the movie has 153. It was the first of only two Best Picture Academy Award winners to have been adapted for the screen from a Pulitzer Prize winning play. The movie works due to the earnest honesty portrayed by Stewart and the contrast with the eccentric sophistication of Arthur’s Sycamore. It has everything you would want from a comedy: witty dialogue, strong characters, wacky relatives, a ballerina, explosions, misunderstandings, and numerous twists and turns.

“You’ll love them all for giving you the swellest time you’ve ever had!”

J.D. Vance-Hillbilly Elegy

Themes Explored: nonfiction, autobiography, upward mobility, poverty, middle class, the Rust Belt, rural America, memoir, biography, opioid crisis, narcotics, alcoholism, bankruptcy, welfare, politics, work ethic, the Marine Corps, semper fidelis, Law School, Yale, hillbilly, Appalachia, blue collar jobs, steel industry, manufacturing

Synopsis:  J. D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hung around your neck. The Vance family story begins hopefully in postwar America. J. D.’s grandparents were “dirt poor and in love,” and moved north from Kentucky’s Appalachia region to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them. They raised a middle-class family.

Vance’s grandparents, aunt, uncle, sister, and, most of all, his mother, struggled profoundly with the demands of their new middle-class life, and were never able to fully escape the legacy of abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and trauma so characteristic of their part of America. A deeply moving memoir with its share of humor and vividly colorful figures, Hillbilly Elegy is the story of how upward mobility really feels. (Adapted from Goodreads)

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Review: Due to my parents’ education and professional choices, my childhood was a solidly middle class lifestyle. We have always lived in safe neighborhoods with paved streets, low crime, and plenty of educational and recreational resources at our disposal. Overall, my childhood was idyllic. Today, I live in a nice area and can walk outside late at night and know nothing terrible will happen.

Not everyone, even in America, can say the same.

Outside of the urban areas, America houses a vast array of rural communities. Since the end of the steel era, many industrial and manufacturing towns struggled to provide an industry for the local workers. A couple of decades ago, many people could graduate high school and walk immediately into a well-paying blue-collar job. These professions provided stable employment, loads of benefits, retirement pensions, and enough take home pay for people to buy houses, nice cars, and take a modest vacation. A middle class lifestyle was attainable without obtaining a college degree.

Then the steel and manufacturing industries dried up and moved overseas. Almost overnight an entire group of people saw their chances of a middle class lifestyle disappear. Due to numerous circumstances-education, money, lack of knowledge, location-people struggled to reinvent themselves or pursue opportunities outside of their dying towns. The government stepped in and started dispersing welfare checks and offering subsidized housing.

A few years ago, a new terror gripped these rural towns: opioids.  Nothing robs an individual of choice and opportunity like drugs. This destructive nirvana quickly engulfed many desperate people and transformed struggling towns into ghettos filled with a permanently baked population.

Against this backdrop, a young J.D. Vance grew into adulthood. His parents separated when he was young and his mother soon developed a lifelong drug habit. Vance’s father went away, found religion, and remarried. Vance grew up bouncing around with his unreliable mother. Only his grandparents provided a sense of stability.

His grandfather had worked for a local manufacturing plant until it folded. While his grandparents were dirt poor, they had their pride. They never relied on government charity, kept their house and yard clean, and tried to steer their young grandson in a better direction.

 Poverty was the family tradition. Vance’s ancestors came from a long line of sharecroppers, coal miners, machinists, and millworkers. All low-paying, body-destroying occupations that have nearly vanished over the years due to outsourcing and automation.

A lot of his cousins, neighbors, extended relatives, and other members of the community practiced learned poverty. They spent their way into bankruptcy by purchasing giant television, iPads, and smartphones. The children wear nice clothes due to an over reliance on high-interest credit cards and payday loans. Homes are refinanced for more spending money. When the bills catch up with everyone, they declare bankruptcy and skip the neighborhood, often leaving the houses full of garbage. Since everyone does this, no one questions the system and the cycle continues into perpetuity.

J.D. grew up in Middletown, Ohio, a rotting steel town filled with people who emigrated from Kentucky.  Mamaw and Papaw — his maternal grandparents — settled in Middletown shortly after World War II in search of a better life. While Mamaw and Papaw managed to achieve a lower middle-class life, they never quite managed to shed their Appalachian values and habits. Some habits were positive, like loyalty and patriotism. However, the negative habits, like domestic violence and verbal abuse, did not lead to a harmonious family life.

Papaw came home drunk most nights while Mamaw, “a violent nondrunk,” forever taunted him. This domestic subterfuge took the form of Mamaw serving her husband plates of garbage for dinner or dousing him with gasoline. Unsurprisingly, this destructive behavior negatively affected their children. J.D.’s mother mastered the art of instability: violent, feckless, prone to hysteria, and sexual promiscuity.  A long stint in rehab did nothing to curb a budding addiction to prescription narcotics, she eventually took up heroin. Over the course of her life, she went through numerous boyfriends and at least five husbands. Her one redeeming factor was a love of reading and she made sure to pass this passion on to her son.

With such a mother, JD seemed destined to follow a similar path of self-destruction. However, JD’s grandparents eventually reconciled and became his unofficial guardians. Mamaw took it upon herself to make sure JD rose above his circumstances.  She comes across as foul-mouthed and overflowing with tough love. In a town where most children never graduate high school, she made sure JD finished.

 Upon graduation, JD enlisted in the Marine Corps. The Marines taught JD how to balance a checkbook, make a budget, eat proper nutrition, take pride in his appearance, and how to function in society outside of Middletown. Unlike his childhood, his young adulthood revolved around structure and planning for the future. For this first time in his life, JD felt a glimmer of hope that his life would turn out better than those of his peers. After his four years in the Marines, JD went on to graduate from Ohio State University and Yale Law School, the first in his family to earn a Bachelor’s Degree and finish graduate school.

 Hillbilly Elegy paints a picture of a culture in crisis. Since the main employers left town-mainly blue collar jobs-people filled the void with drugs. Vance recounts many personal stories, memories which are better experienced on the page than in real life. A running theme underlying all his anecdotes is the question: How much should he hold his hillbilly kin responsible for their own misfortunes?

Vance deeply believes in personal responsibility and a strong work ethic. He takes umbrage with an old school acquaintance who quit his job because he hated waking up early, only to blame the “Obama economy” for lack of work. A former co-worker at a tile warehouse would miss work multiple times a week due to lack of interest in his (well paying) job, even though his girlfriend was pregnant.

Everyone is a product of their upbringing. Parents, uncles, aunts, cousins, neighbors, and the community at large influences how children view the world. Surround someone with a lot of work shy complainers and the odd are the child will grow up into a work shy complainer. Psychologists subscribe to the notion that each person is a conglomeration of the five people they interact with the most. When you grow up in a poor home with bad role models, your chances of succeeding go way down. Yet, anyone who tries hard enough can rise above their circumstances and form a better life.

Hillbilly Elegy combines both autobiography and an exploration of some of the poorest and least socially cohesive areas in the United States. At the end of the day, regardless of how you grew up, you have the power to forge a new life for yourself. Be it through education or the military, opportunities exist to break a generations long cycle of poverty and dysfunction.

Hillbilly Elegy, Harper, 2016, ISBN: 9780062300546 

Its the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown

  • Director: Bill Melendez
  • Rating: Not Rated
  • Starring: Peter Robbins, Christopher Shea, Sally Dryer, Cathy Steinberg
  • Screenplay: Charles M Schulz
  • Based on the Comics By: Charles M Schulz
  • Music By: Vince Guaraldi            
  • Film Editing: Robert T. Gillis       
  • Running Time: 25 Minutes
  • Premiered: October 27, 1966 (TV)

Synopsis: The Peanuts gang celebrates Halloween while Linus waits for the Great Pumpkin. (From IMDb)

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Review: I have never enjoyed frightening movies, I like psychological thrillers, but not scare-me-sleepless type films.  Halloween always involved one movie: It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. My father loved this movie as a kid and insisted that all of his children watched it at least once. Ever since my fifth birthday, The Great Pumpkin is the only movie I associate with Halloween.

It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown debuted in 1966 as an American prime time animated television special. This was the third animated special based upon the Peanuts cartoon by Charles Schulz. It was also the first special to use the pattern of a short phrase, followed by “Charlie Brown”, a titular sequence that became the norm for all subsequent Peanuts specials.  From 1966 to 2000, CBS had the syndication rights and aired the special every Halloween. Starting in 2001, ABC took over the airing rights and also plays it every Halloween week.  

Narrative wise, the film follows a simple pattern: Linus believes in the Great Pumpkin and no one else does. Despite the fact that the Pumpkin never appears, Linus holds out hope this this year the Great Pumpkin will finally appear.

On Halloween night, while the rest of the gang goes trick-or-treating, Linus and Sally wait patiently for the Great Pumpkin. Sally only hanging out in the patch due to her unrequited crush on Linus. After waiting all evening, Linus spots a shadowy figure rising from the moonlit patch, assumes it is the Great Pumpkin, and faints. Sally realizes it is only Snoopy. When Linus wakes, she furiously yells at him for making her miss Halloween.

When daylight arrives, Charlie Brown and Linus lean against a wall and commiserate about the previous night’s disappointments. Charlie Brown attempts to console his friend. This infuriates Linus, who begins to vow that the Great Pumpkin will come to the pumpkin patch next year. Charlie Brown listens with an annoyed look as the credits roll.

Like all the Peanuts specials, the run time is just long enough to tell a story without over staying its welcome. The animation holds up for the most part, the restored versions look pretty good, even on high resolution screens.

This film will always have strong nostalgic value. Fall never seems complete until It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown debuts.

Happy Halloween!

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Dan Lyons-Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble

Themes Explored: silicon valley, marketing, inbound marketing, startup culture, career, journalism, death of print, layoffs, graduation, corporate culture, utopia, digital marketing, spam mail, ageism, Fraternities, Sororities, college culture, Millennials,  Boomers, professionalism, corporate espionage, Nonfiction, satire, technology, Boston

Synopsis: For twenty-five years Dan Lyons was a magazine writer at the top of his profession–until one Friday morning when he received a phone call: Poof. His job no longer existed. Dan was, in a word, screwed. Then an idea hit. Dan had long reported on Silicon Valley and the tech explosion. Why not join it? HubSpot, a Boston start-up, was flush with $100 million in venture capital. They offered Dan a pile of stock options for the vague role of “marketing fellow.” What could go wrong? 

HubSpotters were true believers: They were making the world a better place … by selling email spam. With a cast of characters that includes devilish angel investors, fad-chasing venture capitalists, entrepreneurs and “wantrapreneurs,” bloggers and brogrammers, social climbers and sociopaths, Disrupted is a gripping and definitive account of life in the (second) tech bubble. (Adapted from Goodreads)

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Review: Ashley for President! 

Startup culture seems tailor-made to extend the fraternity-sorority lifestyle long after college graduation. Beer taps and candy walls do not necessarily appeal to experienced working professionals. Young college kids fresh from the high of graduation looking for a good time? They eat those types of rewards right up, quite literally. Never mind the fact that any money spent maintaining such a monstrosity of sugar and alcohol could go towards salary increases and performance bonuses.

Bring on the skittles!

Startups remain the domain of Under-30s for a reason, mainly the long hours, poor pay, and the fact that my generation seems perfectly happy working for complementary M&Ms instead of cost-of-living adjustments. All so we can work for a “cool” company that offers multi-colored lounge spaces that strongly resemble childhood rec rooms. Once the dreaded “thirtieth” birthday approaches, life in a startup world becomes uncomfortable. Silicon Valley and the technology sector in general craves youthful exuberance over experience. Hence, many young workers join startups under the lure of saving the world and then are spit out once they age out of the narrow box of Silicon Valley “age appropriateness”.

Enter the “diversity hire”. Dan Lyons, a 50ish former technology writer, finds himself jobless after Newsweek cut most of its editorial staff. Desperate for employment since his wife quit her job a week before he was laid off and they were about to embark on a non-refundable European vacation, Lyons took the first offer he could find. He entered the brave world of a local startup as a “marketing fellow”.

Behold the world of HubSpot, an “inbound marketing” company located in Boston, Massachusetts. Inbound Marketing supposedly encompasses blogs, and social publishing, but generally seems to dissolve into multiple emails sent daily in a vain attempt to get frustrated office workers to click on the links. Outbound marketing refers to traditional advertising channels: radio, print, television, and so forth.

If HubSpot did not actually exist, you would think Lyons created a clever parody of startup culture. However, HubSpot is a real company. Based upon Lyons’s descriptions, HubSpot culture draws inspiration from three sources: Orwellian doublespeak, the movie Office Space and Scientology.

One of the founders of the company brings a teddy bear (yes, a stuffed, child’s toy) to meetings to represent the average customer. Apparently, HubSpot believes the teddy bear accurately represents the intelligence and skill of the average customer. Like most internet companies, HubSpot earned a $2 billion valuation, even though it has never turned a profit and sells a lackluster product.

During the period described in Disrupted, HubSpot’s main office occupies several floors of a 19th-century furniture factory. The building features exposed beams, frosted glass, a big atrium, and modern art hanging in the lobby.

The actual office resembles a child’s playroom: bright colors, plenty of “adult” toys (Foosball tables, ping-pong, etc..) and a nap room with a hammock and palm tree murals on the wall. Google started the whole office-playground fusion trend that spread like a bad virus among technology companies. Work can no longer just be work, now work must also equal fun.

According to Lyons, the HubSpot office contains “neighborhoods” named after parts of Boston: North End, South End, and Charlestown. One neighborhood contains musical instruments, in case people want to have an impromptu jam session during the workday. Every neighborhood contains kitchens, with automatic espresso machines, and lounge areas with couches and chalkboard walls where people can scribe inspirational messages reminding each other how cool they are because they work at HubSpot. One gem included “There is a reason we have two ears and one mouth. So that we listen twice as much as we speak.”

On the ground floor, the main conference room doubles as the game room, or, more appropriately, the game room doubles as a conference room. This contains the fraternity staples of Foosball, Ping-Pong, indoor shuffleboard, and video games. The cafeteria contains industrial refrigerators stocked with cases of beer, cabinets with bagels and cereal, and the “candy wall”.  Prospective employees particularly enjoy visiting the candy wall. Teams go on outings to play trampoline dodgeball, race go-karts, and compete in laser tag competitions.

Multiple dogs walk around the HubSpot office because some therapist explained that animals bring a “calming nature” to the workplace. Every day at noon, a group of the young male initiates meet to do push-ups together. The second floor contains shower rooms, which the company installed as a courtesy for people who bike to work or jog at lunchtime. However, the showers quickly became the designated “sex cabins” every Friday when the happy hour went overly long. The janitorial staff did not appreciate this development.

Nobody has a dedicated office or desk. Every three months, everyone switches seats, even the CEO. HubSpot refers to this as a “seating hack”. Supposedly this reminds everyone that change is the only constant.

All HubSpot employees must follow the precepts outlined in the company’s culture code. The culture code is a 128-slide PowerPoint deck titled “The HubSpot Culture Code: Creating a Company We Love.”

The code’s creator is HubSpot’s co-founder, Dharmesh Shah. Inside the company, employees views him as a pseudo-spiritual leader. This code depicts a corporate utopia where the needs of the individual become secondary to the needs of the group. One slide declares that “team > individual,”—employees are encouraged to not worry about work-life balance because work is their life.

This seems to be a theme among startups.

Come to work never leave. A corporate horror story.  

All Hubspotters must strive to fulfill a concept known as “HEART”, an acronym that stands for humble, effective, adaptable, remarkable, and transparent. The ultimate HubSpotter employee can “make magic” when embodying all five traits of HEART.

This mumbo-jumbo culture code became an enormous PR coup for the company and a model that many other startups have emulated. When Dharmesh posted these slides online, they received more than 1 million views. He is now writing a book on startup corporate culture.

One quirk of HubSpeak involves “graduation”. Whenever someone quits or is fired, the event is referred to as “graduation.” The Vice President of Marketing would send out emails like “Team, just letting you know that William has graduated from HubSpot, and we’re excited to see how he uses his superpowers in his next big adventure!” Only during the next day would everyone notice that William is gone and his desk cleared out. Somehow, management arranged employees’ exits without anyone noticing.

Lyons started at HubSpot under the illusion that technology companies began with great inventions. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak built a personal computer. Bill Gates and Paul Allen developed programming languages and an operating system. Sergey Brin and Larry Page revolutionized the internet with the Google search engine. Engineering came first, and sales came later. After all, how can you sell a product that does not exist?

HubSpot inverted this practice. The founder’s first hires included a head of sales and a head of marketing, even though they had no product to sell. HubSpot began life as a sales operation in search of a product. Not surprisingly, HubSpot operates at a loss. Another reason to hire the fresh college graduate, cheap labor.

How do you entice hundreds of people to work in sales and marketing for the lowest possible wages? You hire people right out of college and make work seem fun. Provide free beer, games, and decorate the place to resemble a grown up kindergarten. Then throw parties every Friday and on major holidays with complementary alcohol. Do that and voila, you can tap into an endless supply of fraternity brothers who will work 20 hour days in a telemarketing boiler room for $35,000 a year. (Most of the sales team is male, the women send the spam emails)

Supposedly, my generation does not care about money. At least, that is what the experts espouse, so they must be right.  Millennials want a sense of mission. Therefore, startups provide a mission. They tell their employees how special they are and that it is harder to get a job there than to get into Harvard. Make a team logo. Provide company branded swag, mainly hats and T-shirts. Dangle the prospect that some lucky few might get rich. Add beer, stir, and bake.

Lyons lasted one year at HubSpot. He left to write for the HBO show Silicon Valley.

Disrupted provides an entertaining, if rather sad, depiction of a startup that has to provide a candy wall to hide the fact that the product is sub par and basically just spam.

This is why your mother wants you to attend medical school.

Otherwise, you might find yourself sending emails about how Tiffani and Brittani rock. 

Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble, Hachette Books, 2016, ISBN: 9780316306089

Rin Chupeco- The Bone Witch

Themes Explored: fantasy, paranormal, young adult, coming of age, witches, Geisha, death, life, resurrection, mentor-mentee relationship, sibling relationships, politics, hunting, magic, necromancy, ghosts

Synopsis: When Tea accidentally resurrects her brother from the dead, she learns she is different from the other witches in her family. Her gift for necromancy means that she’s a bone witch, a title that makes her feared and ostracized by her community. Tea finds solace and guidance with an older bone witch, who takes Tea and her brother to another land for training.

Review: In her new home, Tea puts all her energy into becoming an asha-one who can wield elemental magic. But dark forces are approaching quickly, and in the face of danger, Tea will have to overcome her obstacles…and make a powerful choice.(Adapted from Goodreads)

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Review: This story combines Memoirs of a Geisha with every zombie-vampire-ghost-monster movie ever made. I started this book with no expectations and came away with mixed feelings. Few of the young adult fantasies I have read utilize Japanese culture as a background. The geisha theme plays a strong role in the evolution of the character Tea. The Bone Witch imagines a world where different witches possess various powers, with bone witches having the power over life and death. As a result, the bone witches, or Dark Asha, must deal with discrimination and outright hatred. However, they perform necessary tasks that keep terrors away, so the villagers begrudgingly accept the bone witches existence.

Tea comes from a family of witches. Two of her sisters possess power over water and healing. One of her brothers, Fox, joins the local army and sets off to fight an unknown enemy.  Fox comes home in a coffin. Overcome with grief, Tea feels a quickening in her power and raises Fox from the dead. Scared, the villagers view Tea and Fox as abominations. Another bone witch, Mykaela, feels the disturbance in the “dark” and discovers Tea. Mykaela takes Tea on as an apprentice. Fox tags along since he is neither dead nor fully alive and needs Tea to keep him alive.

 Bone witches train to raise monsters called daeva, kill them before they regenerate, and harvest the magical stones found in their innards. This process repeats every seven years. Soldiers, called Deatseekers, and other routinely die from daeva ripping them apart, though the book usually glosses over the gore. Under the tutelage of Mykaela, Tea studies hard and sacrifices much to learn her craft, even though she’s shunned for the kind of magic she can wield in some circles. Tea studies at an “asha-training” house and must master the fine arts of entertaining. This includes dancing, singing, music, combat, and history/politics. Each asha completes this training over the course of several years in order to, eventually, entertain wealthy clients at the various teahouses and private parties held throughout the kingdoms. Influential asha serve as political advisors, bodyguards, and, sometimes, the spouses of kings.

Each asha must build up a collection of hua, gowns that seem similar to traditional kimonos. These garments contain magic woven into the fabric that enhances the asha’s beauty and grace. About 2/3rds of the book deals with Tea’s life at the asha house and her emerging power. As this is a young adult novel, Tea, naturally, contains the most talent and power ever seen in the kingdom. Combined with teenage willfulness and arrogance, she presents a formidable challenge for her instructors. As Mykaela’s health fails from years of overextending her magical abilities, Tea soon finds herself to thrust into real responsibility before anyone thinks she is ready.

Narrative wise, the chapters alternate between Tea as an apprentice from ages 12 to 15 and her exile. By the age of 17, Tea lives as a hermit in caves on a distant beach. A bard, who feels more like an investigative journalist, finds her so he can tell her story. Over the course of their conversation, Tea describes her childhood, raising Fox from the dead, her apprenticeship, and her plans for revenge. During her seven day conversation with the Bard, Tea raises numerous daeva from the dead to create a monstrous army, her uses for them left unanswered.

A unexplored love triangle (because all YA novels seem to require triangle-shaped love affairs) emerges between Tea, Prince Kance, and his cousin Kalan. Thankfully, the romance angle takes a backseat and comes across more of a well-developed crush than romance. Kalan, the battle hardened 17 year  old, felt like a false character. His age and depiction do not mesh, I pictured him as a battle hardened 30 year old not a teenager.

Anyways, Tea and Fox remain the two focal characters. While Fox is technically dead, he shares a unique relationship with Tea. Since she brought him back to life, he became her “familiar”. His life “energy” ties in directly to Tea’s magic. Due to their sibling relationship before his change in body temperature, Fox and Tea have an affectionate but slightly combative dynamic. He chafes at the boundaries of his new reality and attempts to develop a life outside of the asha house. However, he also accompanies Tea everywhere and serves as her voice of reason, when she chooses to listen. By the end of the book, Tea and Fox no long talk with  each other.

The world building is beautiful. Chupeco dedicates long passages to creating the multicultural yet strongly Japanese tinted world. By the end of the book, more questions exist than answers. Why the daeva exist, Tea’s exile, her great betrayal, why she wants revenge, and her estrangement from Fox all remain unanswered mysteries. Hopefully these mysteries will receive answers in the sequel.

Finally, despite the excellent world building, not a lot happens in this novel. As in nothing happens until the final two chapters. Most of the book revolves solely around Tea’s apprenticeship and the world of the asha houses. While I enjoyed the book, the lack of answers and minimal action made the narrative a bit of a slog to get through. However, I am intrigued enough to read the sequel.

The Bone Witch, 2017, Sourcebooks Fire, ISBN: 9781492635826

John Carreyrou: Bad Blood-Secrets & Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup

Themes Explored: fraud, technology, cult of personality, Steve Jobs, Apple, Silicon Valley, healthcare, healthcare startups, medical technology, innovation, investing, venture capital, fraud, nonfiction, crime, true crime, business, mystery, scientific innovation, science, blood testing

Synopsis:  In 2014, Theranos founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes was widely seen as the female Steve Jobs: a brilliant Stanford dropout whose startup “unicorn” promised to revolutionize the medical industry with a machine that would make blood testing significantly faster and easier. Backed by investors such as Larry Ellison (Oracle Founder) and Tim Draper, Theranos sold shares in a fundraising round that valued the company at more than $9 billion, putting Holmes’s worth at an estimated $4.7 billion. There was just one problem: The technology didn’t work.

A riveting story of the biggest corporate fraud since Enron, a tale of ambition and hubris set amid the bold promises of Silicon Valley. (Adapted from Goodreads)

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Review: American culture celebrates the underdogs, brilliant inventors, and, more recently, the college dropout geniuses who become billionaires. Silicon Valley celebrates three main startup personalities: Bill Gates (Microsoft), Steve Jobs (Apple), and Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook). All three dropped out of college and built highly successful technology companies.

Other regarded founders include Travis Kalanick (UBER), Jack Dorsey (Twitter), Larry Page and Sergey Brin (Google/Alphabet), and Evan Spiegel (Snapchat). All these founders created massively popular products that revolutionized their industries.  

One problem.

All of these brilliant founders were male.

Silicon Valley and the technology sector at large have salivated waiting for a female technology founder to emerge from the shadows. Enter Elizabeth Holmes, a brilliant (then) nineteen year old with a needle phobia and plan to revolutionize the world of blood testing.

Modern medicine requires blood testing; it is the primary way to diagnose diseases. Usually doctors draw several vials of blood in order to conduct multiple tests. For people who hate needles, blood testing is an unpleasant, but necessary evil. Holmes envisioned creating a system that can run upwards of 1,000 tests using only a pinprick of blood drawn from the finger. Due to contamination issues, all blood for testing come from veins in the arm. 

While attending Stanford University, Holmes filed a patent for a wearable patch that could adjust drug dosages and notify doctors of variables in patients’ blood. Soon afterwards, Holmes dropped out Stanford to start her company, Theranos (derived from a combination of the words “therapy” and “diagnosis”). She soon moved on from the patch and decided to focus on making blood testing cheaper and more accessible to consumers. Originally, Holmes envisioned putting a Theranos machine in every persons home.

Almost immediately, Theranos raised millions of dollars.  By December 2004, the company raised over $6 million from investors and earned a valuation of $30 million. After Series B and C fundraising, Holmes raised $45 million in venture capital. By June of 2012, Theranos headquarters moved out of a rented basement office into the former Facebook corporate building. Significant news coverage in September 2013 allowed Theranos to raise over $400 million in investments and earn a valuation of $9 billion.  As Holmes held majority stock options, was CEO, and Chairman of the Board, she soon found herself the toast of Silicon Valley.

 The first female billionaire technology founder finally emerged!

Theranos received such significant investment and valuation because Holmes claimed to have developed devices to automate and miniaturize tests using microscopic blood volumes. Theranos dubbed the collection vessel the “nanotainer” and the analysis machine the “Edison.” Early skeptics criticized the machines since Holmes refused to have her equipment undergo outside testing and peer review. After severe scrutiny, Holmes allowed the Cleveland Clinic to complete a validation study of her technology.

In March of 2016, a study authored by 13 scientists appeared in the Journal of Clinical Investigation. The authors determined that the Theranos technology contained fatal flaws and delivered unreliable results. Edison Machines could not recreate two identical tests from the same sample. Even though the technology did not pass a peer review test, Holmes launched the product into the consumer market. She inked deals with Walgreens and Safeway to roll out the Theranos machines in the respective stores “wellness centers”. Early pilot programs for the product did not go well and doctors routinely complained about the lack of reliable test results.

Elizabeth Holmes, as portrayed in this book, does not come across in a positive light. She desperately wanted the world to see her as the reincarnation of Steve Jobs, and took to wearing a black turtleneck and black pants, in homage to Jobs’ famous ensembles. As she read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs, Theranos employees guessed which chapter she finished based upon the leadership mantras she espoused.

Still, Holmes is not the only villain. Theranos’s second-in-command, Sunny Balwani, holds a lot of blame. Sunny was not only the second-in-command, but also Holmes’ boyfriend. A fact they chose to hide from investors. (Most investors like to know if the CEO is sleeping with the COO)

Yes. Silicon Valley’s first female billionaire hired her boyfriend.

Over the course of the book’s narrative, Balwani’s behavior ranged from petty to vindictive. He harangued employees about the number of hours they worked and used security footage to track their comings and goings. Holmes and Balwani encouraged employees to work on the weekends and not pursue interests outside of work. At one point, after a round of resignations, Balwani and Holmes held a company wide meeting where he declared that “anyone not prepared to show complete devotion and unmitigated loyalty to the company should ‘get the f*** out.’ ” Holmes then declared that she was building a “religion” and distributed copies of The Alchemist to everyone.

Despite the promising facade Holmes painted in multiple interviews, the technology simply did not work and continually produced erroneous results.  Holmes is currently facing a criminal trial for wire fraud. This book is a fascinating look into the cultic world of Silicon Valley startups. Despite the success achieved by multiple college-dropouts, not everyone who chooses to leave school early is going to reach billionaire status. Rolling out a slightly underdeveloped app is much different from debuting a flawed medical device that could result in people’s death. Watch the news for updated information about Holmes ongoing legal woes.

Jennifer Lawrence is portraying Holmes in the upcoming movie adaptation of the book.

(As an aside, the most successful startups tend to be founded by people aged 42 and above. Shockingly, experience and industry knowledge tends to pay off over the long run.)

Bad Blood: Secrets & Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, 2018, Knopf Publishing Group, ISBN: 9781524731656

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