Category Archives: Reviews

Rebel Yell by S. C. Gwynne

rebel-yell-the-violence-passion-and-redemption-of-stonewall-jackson-by-s-c-gwynneIn Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson, S. C. Gwynne brings to life Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson in a vivid narrative that is rich with military history, biographical detail, and personal conflict. Gwynne’s Jackson is not a man of myth–he is often petty, uncompromising, stubborn, and very human.

No one was perhaps a more unlikely war hero than Professor Thomas Jackson of the Virginia Military Institute. He was awkward and distant, fanatically religious and a hypochondriac. He believed one arm was longer than the other, a “deficiency” he tried to self-correct his whole life.

He was not only secretive with those under his command, but he could be petty and jealous as well. While briefly stationed in Florida after the Mexican War, he frequently quarreled with his commanding officer, Major William H. French. He finally accused French of adultery, despite circumstantial evidence and the harm his unfounded accusation would cause the man’s marriage and reputation. During the Civil War, he court-martialed Brigadier General Richard B. Garnett for ordering a retreat despite being outnumbered, pressed on three sides, and low on ammunition. General Robert E. Lee later had to order Jackson to release Garnett from arrest.

Jackson’s military victories propelled him to national fame in the fledgling Confederacy, but it won him the respect of his Northern opponents as well. Jackson wasn’t always a brilliant tactician, however. During the Peninsula Campaign, Jackson’s corps arrived in virtual secrecy in time for the Seven Days Battles. But Jackson’s men hardly participated, and Jackson himself was sleep deprived and often incoherent.

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Mother! A Pretentious Danse Macabre

 Mother! (2017), staring Jennifer Lawrence as the titular character and Javier Bardem as her husband, Him, is writer/director Darren Aronofsky’s nihilistic allegory for Biblical creation and the rape of nature. Though marketed as a psychological thriller, Aronofsky told Vanity Fair after the Toronto International Film Festival the film is “about how it must feel to be Mother Nature.” It was partially inspired by Shel Silverstein’s picture book The Giving Tree. No, really.

The story itself isn’t very interesting. A writer lives with his much younger wife in an old octagonal farm house on the prairie. Uninvited house guests interrupt their solitude. Their transgressions worsen, climaxing in a murder that leaves a permanent, bloody scar in the floor. Things settle down again after Mother becomes pregnant, but then crescendo into an orgy of violence and depravity as the writer’s fans take over the house and begin worshiping him.

It’s difficult to say for what audience Mother! was intended. People who enjoy long, boring interludes punctuated by moments of extreme violence? It’s not for the squeamish or easily triggered, but it’s not a work of genius either. For my part, it was painful to see talented actors and actresses, including Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer, wasted on this pretentious monstrosity.

Throughout the film, and especially in the final act, Mother is marginalized, tormented, brutalized, and violated. At one point, her clothes are torn open and she is repeatedly punched in the face. Finally, her heart is torn from her burnt chest. I think it’s a little bizarre that A-list actress Jennifer Lawrence, who prides herself on playing strong female leads and on being a role model for young women, would agree to star in her boyfriend’s deranged snuff film.

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To the Gates of Richmond by Stephen W. Sears

to-the-gates-of-richmond-the-peninsula-campaign-by-stephen-w-searsIn To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign, Stephen W. Sears charts the Peninsula Campaign of 1862, Union General George McClellan’s grand plan to march up the Virginia Peninsula and capture the Confederate capital. More men and weapons of war were assembled for this campaign than for any other operation of the American Civil War. For three months, McClellan crawled toward Richmond. When Robert E. Lee took command of Confederate forces, he drove McClellan back to his ships in seven bloody days. How did this happen? Sears examines the men (from lowly privates to generals) and the politics that changed the course of history.

Major General George B. McClellan was a complex figure. He was an outspoken Democrat who expressly fought only to preserve the Union. He was supremely confident in his own abilities and loved the Army of the Potomac. It loved him back. How then, with over 100,000 men under his command, did he not only fail to capture the Confederate capitol, but fail spectacularly?

Sears’ narrative is unparalleled. His writing is clear, concise, and informative. He portrays a McClellan broken by Robert E. Lee’s aggressiveness–his only thought was to preserve his beloved army from what he believed was a vastly superior rebel force. He gave up strategic ground and countless supplies just to escape. The Union Army’s loss of war material in the campaign was “beyond calculation.”

To the Gates of Richmond highlights many surprising details about this early chapter of the war. Not only did the Union Army employ hot air balloons and ironclad ships for the first time, but some soldiers purchased iron plates to use as body armor (soon discarded for being too heavy). The Confederates had tricks up their sleeves as well. General Gabriel J. Rains utilized improvised explosive devices (land “torpedoes”) to harass the advancing Yankees. The Confederate high command frowned on this tactic, however, and transferred him to apply his particular set of skills against enemy ships in the James River.

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IT: Classic Horror Reborn

Seven pre-teen outcasts overcome their fears to confront a shape-shifting creature that takes the form of Pennywise the Dancing Clown and awakens every 27 years to feed on children in It (2017), the latest film adaptation of Stephen King’s 1986 novel of the same name.

Written by Chase Palmer and Cary Fukunaga and directed by Andy Muschietti, It was filmed on a budget of $35 million and grossed over $117 million in its opening weekend. It revives classic American horror by delivering more than just jump scares. It was genuinely scary, but also at times heartfelt, funny, and sincere.

It‘s success is even more surprising given its director’s lack of experience. Andy Muschietti, an Argentine screenwriter, has only directed one other full-length feature. To entrust the long-anticipated reboot of one of Stephen King’s most iconic horror tales to an inexperienced director is, well, incredible. That he actually pulled off making It into a blockbuster will ensure a long career. It‘s opening box office earnings completely eclipse The Sixth Sense‘s and that film made director M. Night Shyamalan a household name.

I’m not a Stephen King fan and I don’t get the fascination with clowns. I never read the novel or saw the 1990 TV mini series staring Tim Curry, so I came to the theater without any preconceptions aside from bits and pieces of things I’ve heard about It over the years. Like most Stephen King novels, the horror element is a vehicle for exploring other issues, issues related to family, coming of age, bullying, confronting mortality, etc., all of which appear in this story.

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Stonewall Jackson’s 1862 Valley Campaign by Jonathan A. Noyalas

stonewall-jacksons-1862-valley-campaign-by-jonathan-a-noyalasIn Stonewall Jackson’s 1862 Valley Campaign, Jonathan A. Noyalas traces Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s 1862 Valley Campaign during the American Civil War. Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley was known as the “Breadbasket of the Confederacy” due to its ample harvests and transportation centers. The region became a magnet for both Union and Confederate armies during the Civil War, and nearly half of the thirteen major battles fought in the Valley occurred during this campaign.

Through diaries, letters, and battlefield accounts, Noyalas shows how those victories brought hope to an infant Confederate nation, transformed the lives of the Shenandoah Valley’s civilians, and emerged as Stonewall Jackson’s defining moment.

In March 1862, a 35,000-strong Union army led by Major General Nathanial P. Banks invaded the Shenandoah Valley from the north. General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson initially opposed him with just 3,500 men. By June 10, Jackson had driven the Yankees back into Maryland. The story of how he accomplished this is incredible. Professor Noyalas does an adequate job telling this story, but while he paints an interesting picture of the campaign’s impact on civilians, his military history falls short.

How the war affected civilians is a perspective you rarely read, especially when it comes to Union loyalists vs. Confederates in the Valley. Not every Virginian seethed at Major General Banks’ blue ranks marching through the streets. Some even cheered. Their neighbors, however, were happy to later point them out to Jackson’s men. I was surprised to read just how virulent the hatred was for Yankees. In an effort to scare the invaders, one resident of Winchester told a Union officer that after the Battle of Bull Run they collected Northern skulls and sold them for ten dollars!

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Wind River

A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service tracker and an FBI agent team up to solve a double homicide on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming in Wind River (2017). On a mission to hunt down mountain lions killing local cattle, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) discovers the body of 18-year-old Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Asbille). The FBI sends Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), a Nevada field agent, to determine whether a crime has been committed. They later find another body, deepening the mystery.

Wind River is writer-director Taylor Sheridan’s latest offering. Sheridan is known for writing Hell or High Water (2016) and Sicario (2015) and acting in a number of TV dramas. Wind River takes place in Wyoming in early spring and has a very Western feel, despite its snow-swept mountains. Stunning cinematography was not enough to make up for extremely slow pacing and lack of compelling story.

Some critics argue it is genre defying and highly original; I say it suffers from an identity crisis. Wind River is labeled a “murder mystery thriller film,” but isn’t either of those things. There’s no mystery because a flashback explains exactly what happened halfway through and the authorities never actually solve the crime or bring anyone to justice. It’s not a thriller because there’s no sense of suspense or urgency. Unlike a typical crime thriller, there’s no sense that one crime must be solved to prevent another from occurring.

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