February 2007 Archives

Library Gold

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I found some serious gold on the New Book shelf at my local library.  I returned Flood and Crisscross and checked out the New Book shelves before heading down to the fiction and mystery section.  I returned Crisscross, although I hadn't gotten too far into it, for a couple of reasons. It is the ninth (I think) book in the "Repairman Jack" series, and the first few chapters did plenty of referencing back to the last few books.  And it was yet another New York City book.  After reading the last Reacher book, as well as Flood, both set in NYC, I just couldn't face another one.  As a Boston Boy, it was NYC overload and I needed a break.  I'll request the first of the "Repairman Jack" novels, The Tomb, some day soon and start from the beginning.  My girls can read their Magic Treehouse series willy-nilly, but I need to read a series from the beginning.

The special I uncovered was The One From The Other by Philip Kerr.  His Berlin Noir trilogy was perahps the finest set of mystery/noir books I've ever read.  In fact, it is one of the few books to have stuck with me through a whole set of moves and I pulled it up from a downstairs bookshelf.  I think I may have to re-read it, and then jump into TOFTO.  Kerr is a really good writer.  Berlin Noir includes three books with Inspector Bernie Gunther, who is is private investigator in Berlin just as Nazi Germany fell.  March Violets, The Pale Criminal and A German Requiem comprise the trilogy and the writing, setting and characters are completely unforgetable. It is a seriously wonderful trilogy.  He followed that up with A Philosophical Investigation, which is a bizarre and engrossing mystery, set in the future, IIRC.  Other books I've read by him include The Grid (about a modern building that turns deadly), Esau (a wild ape gets civilized), A Five-Year Plan (an incredibly funny crime caper) The Second Angel (an amazing book about a blood disease), and The Shot (a cool thriller about a killer forced to assinate JFK).  As you can see, he is incredibly versatile and can write in just about any genre.  Anyway, I'm looking forward to meeting Gunther again!

I also tracked down a new author mentioned in the Boston Sunday Globe this week that I hadn't heard of before.  Tim Dorsey was compared favorably with Carl Hiassen, who is a favorite of mine (although his last couple have felt tired), so I grabbed his second novel, Hammerhead Ranch Motel.  Another author mentioned in the paper was Val McDermid. The book reviewed, The Grave Tatoo, "doesn't meet the standards McDermid set for herself with previous novels like A Place of Execution," so I grabbed Execution instead.

Movie review: The Winslow Boy

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I finally got around to watching The Winslow Boy, a David Mamet movie of a Terence Rattigan play (also a 1948 movie). I've blown hot and cold when it comes to Mamet films.  While I thought early Mamet movies were quite clever, lately they've been grating on me, because they've been too clever by half, with far too fanciful dialog and purposefully misleading characters. I went into this one thinking perhaps some of his more annoying excesses would be tempered by adapting a play.

In this adaptation of an actual case establishing a legal precedence, little Ronnie Winslow is expelled from the Royal Naval Academy after he is found guilty of stealing a five shilling postal order.  His father is convinced of his innocence, so he begins a long, adruous crusade to clear the Winslow name.  Kate, his eldest daughter and suffragette (Rebecca Pidgeon, Mamet's wife), also joins in the fight, threatening her engagement with John Watherstone, an officer in the army.  They convince the famous barrister Sir Robert Morton (Jeremy Northam) to plead the case, despite Kate's misgivings, thinking him a tool of the capitalistic society.  The film explores the pressures the family comes into as the case drags on.

Frankly, I don't get the point of this movie. It isn't a courtroom drama; there's even very little in the way of exploring the actual case.  The pressures the family come under are told in a strangely detached fashion, as the camera (and the viewer) seem to just watch as the story unfolds, emotionally distant. I never really became involved with the story or the family. I certainly never understood the legal points, nor why it was such a "landmark" case.

I thought Pidgeon and Northam were fantastic in their acting.  The prim and proper attitude of the middle class English fit Pidgeon's somewhat arch acting style very well, and Northam could really bring on the intensity. The DVD looked good, although the sound was only Dolby Digital 2.0. In the end, while not a complete waste of time, The Winslow Boy wasn't engaging enough for me to recommend the film.



Book review: Flood

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Flood is the first book in a long running series (up to 15 novels by now) of mystery novels starring the paranoid and careful Burke, who plumbs the very lowest depths of New York City.  Written by attorney turned author Andrew Vachss, it is a confident and long mystery novel.

Burke is your typical low brow detective, slumming it in a building where he uses another tenant's (drug-dealing hippies) phone line.  He gets hired by Miss Flood (I don't think we ever get a first name), to find a child-raping scumball who killed some friends of hers.  She wants revenge and wants Burke to track him down. Then she wants to finish him off with her martial arts.

There is your typical motley collection of helpers - Max is his silent strong "brother", Mole is the electronics whiz who lives in a junkyard, The Prophet is some kind of whacked out informer, Michelle is a transvestite prostitute, and Pansy is his Neapolitan mastiff who guards the office. Burke deals with lowlifes, some of whom have a code of honor and some who don't.

It is a good book, but it went on far too long for me.  At almost 350 pages, it is about 100 pages too many for a fast-paced mystery thriller (see Swierczynski's stuff).  It was well written but I thought Burke had too many dichotomies, perhaps a failing common to first novels.  He was downtrodden, but he had an unbelievable array of gadgets.  He pretended to be a bit of sleazeball but he really wasn't and had a heart of gold. Perhaps the next in the series, Strega, will be a little more polished.  Flood was good enough for me to want to read the follow up, but not good enough for me to have already ordered it at the library.

Flood
Andrew Vachss



Movie review: Moulin Rouge!

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The third and most successful of Baz Luhrmann's "Red Curtain" trilogy (also includes Strictly Ballroom and Romeo + Juliet), Moulin Rouge! was a smash hit and was nominated for 8 Oscars, including Best Picture, winning two (Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design).  It is an over-the-top visual spectacle, which appropriates plenty of love songs in its retelling of various operas.  A totally unique cinematographic accomplishment, it's a lot of fun to watch, even if it can get tiring.

Ewan McGregor's Christian is a pennyless Scottish writer who moves to Paris during the late 1800s to be a part of the Bohemian Revolution and gets involved in a group of actors who are trying to get a play ready for Zidler (Jim Broadbent) and the famous Moulin Rouge.  He meets the incomparable Satine (a very sultry Nicole Kidman, who fractured ribs and injured her knee practicing a dance for the movie), a courtesan of immense reputation, and gets involved with her.  At the same time, though, she is courted by The Duke (Richard Roxburgh) and his money. But Satine is also battling consumption and time is running out in more ways than one.

The first time I saw this movie, I was completely blown away.  The visuals are simply incredible and the action and camera work frenetic.  I also loved the way contemporary love songs are melded into the storyline, and trying to guess what the song is.  The only original song for the movie, "Come What May", is definitely the weakest.  I liked it so much I went out and bought the DVD.  But unfortunately, repeated viewings make the unique look just get tiring.  It stops being fascinating and you wish Luhrmann would just calm down a bit.

But it had been a while since I last saw it, and it was the first time on my new HDTV, so it didn't come off as badly.  This despite the fact I just couldn't get the DVD player and the TV to agree on a display, as the TV insisted on giving me black bars on the top and bottom.  I'll need to work on the technical parts of this a little more. As I've also gotten more into absinthe since the last time I watched it, we had fun playing "spot the absinthe glass" while watching it too. The two DVD set I have has lots of cool extras, including a spot where you can play editor yourself, as it shows three of the dances with four cameras and you can select which one on the fly.  There's two commentary tracks (I haven't listened to either) and various music videos and isolated songs.  Lots of good stuff here!

I wonder why Luhrmann hasn't been up to much since Moulin?  Looks like perhaps directing for the stage and other things, although he seems to be working on a new movie staring Nicole Kidman called Australia.  He has a truly unique vision and I hope he can produce more movies.



Book review: Freethinkers

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Freethinkers : a history of American secularism by Susan Jacoby is a very well written book documenting some of the most important and some long forgotten heroes of the secularist and freethinker movements over the last 250 years of American history.  Beginning with the founding fathers and, in particular, Thomas Paine and moving on up to today's radical Right, Jacoby writes an excellent book on both secularism and anti-secularism in American history.

Thomas Paine is a major part of the book's beginning.  A hero of the American revolution due to his popular Common Senses pamphlet, he became a pariah soon afterwards, once his Rights of Man was published, which begins a long, sad history of spineless publishers not willing to give voice to unpopular views, even if it sells well. Rights of Man and its insistence on human, rather than divine, rights, ostracized him from society, especially once it became linked with the worst excesses of the French Revolution.

Then, of course, comes the big divide in American history, the American Civil War.  William Lloyd Garrison features prominently in this section of course, including the many freethinkers he published in his abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator and how ashamed organized religion should have been due to its unfailing support for slavery.  Jacoby also explains the distinct lack of African-American freethinker voices by pointing out that the church was one of the few cultural organizations left alone by whites. Thus it became a true focal point for blacks, which continues to this day.  Even during the civil rights movement in the 60s, white freethinkers from the north, while giving up their lives for the cause (including the only martyred female), were viewed with suspicion by many civil rights leaders who were also deeply involved in the church, who were threatened by their secularism and wanted no part of losing their religion.

Then comes the "Golden Age of Freethought", led by the inimitable Robert G. Ingersoll, known as "The Great Agnostic", who gave speeches to packed house on Darwin, secularism and agnosticism.  One of my favorite quotes in the book come from a eulogy he gave for a friend's child:

Every cradle asks us "Whence?" and every coffin "Whither?"  The poor barbarian weeping above his dead can answer the question as intelligently and satisfactorily as the robed priest of the most authentic creed.  The tearful ignorance of the one is just as consoling as the learned and unmeaning words of the other.

The womans suffrage movement is also documented, as well as the nascent effort at a more general woman's right to control her own destiny and body.  The schism between the group focused on voter rights and the group with a wider agenda, lead by Lucretia Mott on one hand and Elizabeth Cady Stanton on the other.

But after the "Golden Age", the freethinker movement lacked a charismatic leader and fractured into many different causes.  This leads the book to also devolve into more of an anti-secularism history, showing the rise of the Catholic Church and, in general, documenting more of an against rather than a for movement.  Did you know it was illegal in New York in the 1920s to even talk about birth control? So the last third of the book discusses more of the attempts to silence freethinkers, rather than any true leaders of the movement.  So I found this section a little harder going.

But, all in all, a wonderfully comprehensive history of secularism in America.  Jacoby writes very well and brings to light many early figures who deserve wider recognition. I, for one, intend on reading up on Ingersoll especially.



Movie review (repost) : Limbo

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I figure while I'm on a John Sayles kick, I might as well post my Sept. 25, 2002 review of Limbo, his Alaskan adventure movie. The commentary track on Roan Inish reminded me a lot of the commentary track here, as both movies had to deal with the sea, as both wind and tide wreak havoc with film making!


Yet another tour de force by one of my favorite directors, John Sayles, Limbo brings us the story of three people thrown together in a nearly impossible situation in the wilds of Alaska, and shows us how this trio fights to stay alive. Yet this 1999 movie is more than just a survival flick, as Sayles spends a lot of time introducing the main characters, and giving us real insight into what makes each of them tick.  A typically solid effort from Sayles, rewarding the careful viewer with wonderful insights into the human character.

David Strathairn plays Joe Gastineau, a handyman at a lodge in Alaska with a tragedy in his past that changed his life forever.  He crosses paths with Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio's Donna De Angelo, a singer following her dream into the Northern Exposure, when she quits her band and strikes back out on her own, her teenage daughter in tow yet again.  They gradually become interested in each other, with the added discovery that De Angelo's daughter, played by virtual newcomer Vanessa Martinez, also has a crush on Gastineau.  All three are gradually explained to the viewer, with each giving masterful performances.  Then Gastineau's slippery half brother Bobby (Casey Siemaszko) shows up, asking Joe to accompany him on a quick boat ride north.

Joe invites Donna and daughter Noelle along for the ride, and we are treated to a nice sailing scene.  However, misadventure befalls them, and Joe, Donna, and Noelle are stranded on a remote island with some drug lord's thugs gunning for them.  They race into the hills and manage to escape into the interior of the island, even though it leaves them with few options. They come upon an old fur trader's house and settle in, both hoping and dreading rescue. While there, Noelle uncovers a diary and reads to the others about the tough life of a fur raising family, drawing parallels with her relationship with her mother. Do they get rescued? And if so, is it the good guys or the bad guys who rescue them?

As usual, Sayles draws out some great performances.  I was particularly struck by Ms. Martinez' portrayal of teenage angst, something I'm not normally keen on watching.  Been there, done that, got the t-shirt, don't need to watch it again!  But she is perfectly believable and the script gives her lots to do.  The relationship between Gastineau and De Angelo is also a treat to watch unfold, as Sayles doesn't rush right in but instead gives us and the characters time to get to know each other. A pretty solid movie about relationships, with no easy answers - like real life relationships even!  The ending is purposefully left "in limbo", because Sayles wants to emphasize the strengthening relationships by having the three of them commit to the rescue together, rather than worrying about tying up all the loose ends.

As I wrote earlier, Sayles is one of my favorite director's, but oddly enough I wouldn't say any of his movies are my favorites.  They are all solid efforts, with an interesting voice, but never seem to take that leap from solid to spectacular.  Limbo stays a little too detached, like you're watching a movie rather than getting involved with the people.

The DVD is just great!  The pictures are beautiful and the songs in this music-filled movie are well chosen, from folk songs to a stirring guiter instrumental played during the sailing scene.  Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio does a particularly good job with one of my favorite Richard Thompson songs, Dimming of the Day.  She sings the songs herself, as the intelligent commentary track by Sayles tells us.  It also tells us that the Springsteen song that plays over the credits, is specially written for this movie and is the only song he performs entirely in falsetto.

So I'd say this is a definite must-watch, even if it isn't a must own.  The commentary track is one of the few I've listened to, and Sayles gives us real insight into how to make a movie.  He talks about how hard the sound is to get right on a movie, especially in a noisy car.  And how difficult the lighting can be.  And even the tide fighting against you, as in one scene where they have to keep moving a rock back as the tide goes out during each take!  I'm constantly amazed how actors can keep their focus and intensity, take after take, and this commentary track really shows us this.



Movie review: The Secret of Roan Inish

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The girls and I watched The Secret of Roan Inish this afternoon, as I took the day off to hang out with them during their February vacation.   We followed up with a lunch out and a few hours of sledding, so all in all, a good time was had by all.

This was especially true for the movie.  I was a little worried going into it, as I wasn't sure how interesting it would be for them. And some comments on Netflix said the Irish accent was hard to understand, with one commenter going as far to suggest turning on the subtitles! I'm not sure what they were thinking of, as none of us had a problem with the accents, although they did want to know what "daft" meant.

In The Secret of Roan Inish, Fiona, played with an amazing winsomeness by newcomer Jeni Courtney, gets sent back to Ireland after her mother dies after the family relocated to Glasgow for the work.  She gets sent to stay with her grandparents, who are living on the shore, just across from the ancestral home on the island of Roan Inish, which they had all evacuated a few years before. Fiona's younger brother was lost during the move as his cradle got washed out to sea.  But could he still be there on the island? And can Fiona and her cousin Eamon figure out how to rescue him?

Based on the popular children's book, The Secret of Ron Mor Skerry by Rosalie K. Fry, John Sayles, as both the director and screenwriter, once again hits a home run.  While the twisting narrative was probably a bit hard for the girls to follow (lots of stories, dreams and remembrances, some told with voice overs and some not), we all really enjoyed the movie.  It was, perhaps, a tad talky at times, but still engrossing, even for the six year old.

After we watched it, I watched the Sayles commentary, like I always do for a Sayles movie, as the commentaries are usually insightful and interesting.  And this one was no exception. He does a great job of explaining both the trivia of the movie and the thoughts behind the shot making. But other than the commentary and some trailers, there were no other extras.  The soundtrack for the movie was only Dolby Digital 2.0, and the picture itself was a little fuzzy, perhaps befitting its budget movie status.  I'm not really sure what earned it the PG rating.  Perhaps the early funeral of her mother, and some scenes of the selkie, her great-great-grandmother as a mythical creature able to turn human by shedding her seal skin.  But the girls enjoyed it as much as I did. Another Sayles winner, for sure.



After being totally blown away by Moulin Rouge, I decided to watch Luhrmann's directorial debut, Strictly Ballroom. A very nice little picture, with some great Australian pictures.  Luhrmann is an amazing talent, even if he can be a little over the top.  I originally wrote this on June 14, 2002.



Baz Luhrmann's (Moulin Rouge) first directorial effort, Strictly Ballroom, is a perfectly nice little movie.  The story of a Australian boy (Scott, played by Paul Mercurio ) raised as a ballroom dancer by his parents, rebelling against the strictures of the dance and desiring to add his own stamp.  This upsets the status quo and gets everyone in a tizzy.  He joins forces with a bit of an ugly duckling (Fran, played by Tara Morice) and dazzles the ballroom dancing world.

Luhrmann mixes comedy, dancing, sound and light in a nice froth, making for a very watchable movie.  The over-the-top touches he employs in Moulin Rouge! only really appear in a wondeful flashback, where Scott finally finds out about his father's past history as a ballroom dancer rebel himself.  Luhrmann signals his proclivity for reds, as it is the predominant color here, as in Moulin.

The DVD is pretty good, as it includes a documentary on ballroom dancing, and a commentary track by Luhrmann.  Sometimes the color seems off, but with Luhrmann it can be hard to tell if he means it or not.  Faces are tinted green or nearly washed out in red, etc. There is one breathtaking shot of Scott and Fran walking in the far background, with a deep blue sky, brown path and lush green grass all around them. Really shows up nice on the DVD.

All in all, a good rental, with some smiling moments, no real laugh out loud parts. Solid acting by the two leads, in their first movie.




QotD: Favorite Poem - Absinthia Taetra

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What is one of your favorite poems?
Submitted by marvel is my pen name.

I'm crazy about absinthe.  Love everything about it, from the taste to the lurid history.  Ernest Dowson was one of the more famous (or would that be infamous?) writers of the Decadent Movement, along with other fellow absinthe drinkers like Oscar Wilde, Arthur Rimbaud, and Paul Verlaine, all of whom would live fast, die young and leave a good corpse.  He didn't actually produce much poetry in his short life, but this particular prose poem is a nice hymn to absinthe:

Absinthia Taetra

Green changed to white, emerald to opal; nothing was changed.

The man let the water trickle gently into his glass, and as the
  green clouded, a mist fell from his mind.

Then he drank opaline.

Memories and terrors beset him. The past tore after him like a
  panther and through the blackness of the present he saw the
  luminous tiger eyes of the things to be.

But he drank opaline.

And that obscure night of the soul, and the valley of humiliation,
  through which he stumbled, were forgotten. He saw blue vistas
  of undiscovered countries, high prospects and a quiet, caressing
  sea. The past shed its perfume over him, to-day held his hand
  as if it were a little child, and tomorrow shone like a white
  star: nothing was changed.

He drank opaline.

The man had known the obscure night of the soul, and lay even
  now in the valley of humiliation; and the tiger menace of the
  things to be was red in the skies. But for a little while he
  had forgotten.

Green changed to white, emerald to opal; nothing was changed.

Movie Review: Le Cercle Rouge

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I finally got around to watching Le Cercle Rouge and it was well worth the wait.  A classic French crime drama, the cinematography was truly memorable and the action, acting and storyline were top notch.  This movie was truly worthy of the Criterion label and its classic status in the crime film genre.

Corey (a very dashing Alain Deleon) has just been released from a 5 year stay in prison. He's been offered some kind of "slam dunk" heist on the outside, although it isn't clear what it is nor whether he's that interested.  Vogel (Gian Maria Volontè) is on a train, making his way to court, guarded by Mattei (Bourvil).  Vogel makes his break and the chase is on!

In ways reminiscent of the two Swierczynski novels I've just reviewed (The Wheelman and The Blonde), paths cross with each other in surprising ways, usually ending in violence.  Vogel and Corey begin planning the heist suggested by Corey's jailer and the job is underway. More violence follows and it ends as suggested by the memorable quote:

All men are guilty. They're born innocent, but it doesn't last.

A wonderfully quiet movie, with a minimum of dialog as befitting its near film noir status.  The subtitles were done well and there were some amazing shots.  I particularly loved the shot in the beginning of the train.  It begins with a close up view of Vogel and Mattei in the sleeping car, with Vogel handcuffed to the top bunk.  It quickly pulls away to a far shot of the train speeding through the night. Very cool effect.

Yves Montand does a very nice turn as the ex-cop sharpshooter who helps out during the heist.  The actual crime, and even the planning for it, is only a small portion of the actual film, which is quite different from most heist films, like say Rififi, where the planning and carrying out of the heist is an integral part of the film.  In Cercle, it just seems like something these guys were going to do, and the feeling of an almost inevitable fall hangs over the entire picture. 

The DVD itself was pretty barren.  No extras at all.  The picture was pretty good, albeit a tad murky and not incredibly sharp.  And the subtitles had a weird jaggedness to them.  But the colors were great. I especially loved the chase scene through the woods, with the browns and the weird greens.  A great movie and a must see for any heist film fans



Book Review: The Wheelman

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The Wheelman was yet another wild ride with Duane Swierczynski, author of The Blonde. Wheelman was his first book, and actually kind of a series with The Blonde, as a major character in the latter book makes a surprise appearance in Wheelman.  A short book, one I read in about 3 days, it was nonetheless a great read and highly recommended.

Patrick Lennon is an experienced and much sought after wheelman, or the guy who drives the getaway car.  His latest job is with Bling and Holden, to knock off a Wachovia Bank that is getting a fresh delivery of $650,000 for the mayor to hand out in a much publicized buyout of houses.  However, the job, not surprisingly, goes wrong right from the start and Lennon spends the rest of the book barely escaping with his life as he tries to figure out just what went wrong and who did the doublecross.

The body count is high in this book, and many of the characters barely escape two, three or even more times before finally getting put down the pipe.  Houses blow up, cars get crashed, and people get doublecrossed at every turn.  There's some funny serendipity, as various characters come across each other's paths at truly unforgettable times. It can be hard to keep track, as the short chapters jump from one perspective to another, but I think it all comes together in the end.

A wonderful ride is given to us by The Wheelman, and I would really suggest reading Swierczynski's first two books in order, something I usually try to do.  I was unaware of the connection between the two books, as The Blonde is more of an offshoot story rather than a true sequel.  Read them both and enjoy!
!

The Wheelman
Duane Swierczynski


Reading and Watching

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I've been busy reading a couple of books and, just for giggles, I started a third.  Usually, I'm reading a "heavy" non-fiction and then I throw in one or two lighter fiction reads.  Freethinkers : a history of American secularism by  Susan Jacoby is the heavy non-fiction book and I'm about 2/3 done with it. I've made it up to the beginning of the 1900s, just after the "Golden Age" of "freethinkers".  I showed it to a friend of mine and he said he didn't want to read it, as it would make him too depressed.  And yeah, it could also be subtitled "The history of non-believer persecution in the USA", as it pretty much chronicles one religious fanatic after another attempting to silence those who would keep us free from religion, as important an American right as freedom of religion. But it's a good read and I'm looking forward to moving into the 20th century.

Unfortunately, I had to return my other non-fiction book I was going to read.  Called King Leopold's ghost : a story of greed, terror, and heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild, it promised an excellent book on a tragic story of slavery and personal greed in Africa.  You can only renew a book once at my library, and so my time had run out. I will re-request the book though, and have it for another go 'round.

I'm also reading Flood by Andrew Vachss.  A very good first novel, even if it seems to be trying a little too hard to have a morally ambiguous PI with the proverbial heart of gold.  I'm enjoying it very much and am already looking forward to the next in the series. The other light reading book is The Wheelman by Duane Swierczynski. This is his first novel, and I am as wild about this one as I was about his second, The Blonde.  There's already been several laugh out loud spots and the action is fast and furious. What fun!

My three Netflix movies are The Winslow Boy, The Secret of Roan Inish and Le Cercle Rouge. Yeah, I still have watched Cercle yet, although I believe I'll put it on my player this evening.  Roan Inish promises to be a good movie to watch with the girls, although they may find it hard to understand the promised heavy Irish brogues.  One comment on IMDB said to turn on the subtitles!  And I'm not sure how Winslow got on my list or even how it made it all the way to the top, as I'm constantly adding new movies and moving them to the top of the queue. I guess I watched a bunch of Netflix movies over the past few weeks, so the queue is finally moving along.  I almost, for the first time, had all three of my Netflix discs in the mail at the same time, but I got sick and couldn't face reading the Cercle subtitles.


Movie review (repost) : Passion Fish

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I'm a true John Sayles fanatic.  I simple adore every movie he's made.  They haven't all been classics, necessarily, but they have all told a rich story in a unique way.  And Passion Fish, which I first watched on May 2, 2003, is another feather in his impressive cap.



Passion Fish is yet another John Sayles triumph.  As usual, he wrote, produced and directed this 1992 movie, which is about two women struggling to adapt to their changing lives.  As is also typical of a Sayles movie, there are strong performances all around. 

May-Alice Culhane (a remarkable performance by Mary McDonnell), a successful soap opera actress, wakes in a hospital bed, paralyzed from the waist down after being involved in an auto accident.  Showing no desire to rehab, she finally goes back to her birthplace in Louisiana, back to the ancestral home that stands unoccupied until she gets there.  Determined to make both her and her caretaker's lives miserable, she scares off one after another, until Chantelle shows up.

Alfre Woodard is simply amazing as the tightly wound Chantelle, who needs the caretaker job so much she is willing to put up with May-Alice's bouts of depression, verbal tongue lashings and downright nastiness.  The two strong-willed women clash but gradually (of course) learn to work together to improve both their broken lives.

I've had the DVD from Netflix for a month or more, and just hadn't been willing to give it a chance. This despite it being a John Sayles movie, who has never failed me in the past.  I just didn't feel like another "two people clash and learn to love each other" movie, sort of like Driving Miss Daisy (which, by the way, I loved). But I finally popped it in and I guess I shouldn't be surprised that I really enjoyed myself.  Sayles never fails to generate wonderful acting.  It's obvious the actors like working with him.  The supporting cast was tremendous, including Sayles regular David Strathairn as the married Cajun homeboy who rekindles a crush on May-Alice, Vondie Curtis-Hall as the flamboyant Creole who hits it off with Chantelle, and even the various vistors to their home, like the 2 old high school "chums" of May-Alice and the 3 former cast members of her soap opera.

There were a couple of slow points in the movie (I would have trimmed the cast member visit by half or more).  And there is only so much even a talented guy like Sayles can do with the rather hackneyed plot.  But it is so wonderfully acted, beautifully photographed, and with a solid soundtrack, that these sins can be forgiven.

The DVD, which must be an early one, is devoid of extras.  Which is too bad, as I really enjoyed Sayles' commentary on the Limbo DVD.  And it is only in Dobly Surround, not any 5.1 format.  But still a really fun movie, and one I highly recommend for a rental.



Movie review (repost) : Mad Max

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While I liked the milieu and the feel of the first two Mad Max movies, in the end I was left strangely unsatisfied by both.  The violent climax of both movies did not leave me either fulfilled or triumphant. Each had its problems with how the final battle played out, and didn't hit an emotional home run.  But both were good, escapist fun, so I guess I can't complain too much.  I originally reported on Mad Max on July 20, 2003.


Warning - Spoilers Ahead!


Mad Max was the movie that really introduced Mel Gibson to the world.  He made a huge splash in this George Miller apocalyptic adventure film that did a boffo box office take when it came out in 1979, making Gibson an international film star, and spawned two sequels. 

Max Rockatansky is the star pursuit man in the police squad in this dystopian Australian future.  He earns his living chasing down crazed punks and removing them from the road, one way or the otherp.  But he is really a man torn, feeling that he is getting no better than the "skags" that he puts out of business. He just wants out, to spend time with his wife and baby boy.

The Powers That Be try to seduce him with the promise of an even faster and more powerful car, but then his partner and best friend gets toasted by a gang bent on revenge.  He finally puts in his resignation and heads for the countryside in his van with his family, trying to unwind.

But fate has other plans for him.  While at a repair shop getting a flat fixed, his wife and baby boy head to a local ice cream shoppe and get accosted, coincidently enough, by the same motorcycle gang that did in his partner.  She manages to escape them by kneeing the head crazy in the groin, racing to Max and they make a getaway on the open road.

They finally make it to a nice place on the beach somewhere, but the gang has tracked them down and chases his wife off the beach.  While Max tries to find them in the forest, they circle back, grab the baby, and try to get at his wife again.  But the old lady who owns the place manages to get the drop on them, get the baby back, and the trio race off after locking the baddies in the barn.  But the gang busts out and head off for the women and baby, while Max races back to the farm.

The car overheats (they had stopped to fix the fan belt), and for some reason, his wife decides to head down the middle of the road carrying the baby, with the motorcycle gang in hot pursuit.  They run her down, killing her and the baby, with Max showing up just moments too late. There's a nice distance shot from behind, as he races up to the two heaps on the road, and screams to the sky in pain.

He of course heads back to the force, gets the hot new car, and justice is served, but it leaves Max a dead man inside, only to show up in the next movie, The Road Warrior.

There are some great chase scenes in this movie, and the archetypes used are just picture perfect.  Miller gets the most of The Star Cop, The Best Partner, The Wonderful Wife and Baby, The Tough Boss, The Crazy Mob Leader, The Heartless Second in Command, etc.  But the movie falls apart in the little places.  Despite setting up a seemingly inevitable revenge factor, the gang only accidently comes across Max and his family, having forgotten entirely about them.  She runs right down the middle of the road, after making the seemingly inexplicable decision for flight without Max around.

The climatic battle between Max, the gang leader and his heartless second in command comes off as rushed. One shot kills the second, with almost no battle.  The chase after the leader and his subsequent demise was excellent though.  And they do try to show Max struggling with his own humanity in several places, only to lose the battle in the end.  But it seems just a tad forced. And the parents kept ignoring the baby at the strangest moments.

Many similiar problems crop up in the superior sequel, but they aren't quite as obvious, perhaps because both Gibson and Miller have a couple more years experience behind them.  But both endings are strangely unsatisfying, for reasons that still mystify.  They seem to have their ducks all set up and then miss the home run ball, settling for a ground rule double.

The DVD of Mad Max is excellent.  The picture is crisp and wide screen, and they have thoughtfully included the original Aussie dialog - can you believe when it was first released in the US, they felt the need to dub in American voices and dialog?  There's also a well thought of commentary by the production staff, but I haven't watched it yet. I did watch one puff piece included on the rise of Mel Gibson, and there is another short documentary that I haven't watched yet.  So this is an excellent DVD value, even if the movie seems to be overrated.


I'm a huge Brothers Coen fan, knocked out right from the start of Blood Simple, through Fargo and on to O Brother, Where Art Thou.  But I have to admit there are several of Coen movies that I just don't get.  Barton Fink was the first one, and I added The Man Who Wasn't There to this list when I watched it on August 13, 2002.  I've been told by folks whose opinion I respect there's more to this movie than my first watching opened up to me, but I'm not sure I'm ready to give it another chance.



The brilliant brother duo of Joel and Ethan Coen strike again with The Man Who Wasn't There, a black and white film noir about a laconic, chain-smoking man caught up in his own web of lies, blackmail and murder. This duo, who were behind some of my favorite movies including Fargo (1996), Blood Simple (1984), and O Brother, Where Art Thou (2000), strikes again with an odd, very slow paced and ultimately unsatisfying look at a crime spun out of control. 

Billy Bob Thornton plays Ed Crane, a quiet loser who works in a barbershop with his loqacious brother-in-law Frank Raffo, played by Michael Badalucco, who had a great appeareance as Dillinger in O Brother, Where For Art Thou.  His wife, played by Frances McDormand (Joel's real life wife), is a bookkeeper at a department store and much more of an outgoing person.  Ed Crane dreams up a plot to blackmail his wife's boss into giving him money for a harebrained scheme to invest in dry-cleaning and things spin rapidly out of control from there, as the connections circle back to haunt the unlucky Crane.  His wife is charged with Crane's murder of her boss and "the best defense lawyer in town" is called in to defend her innocence.  Freddy Riedenschneider, played with scene chewing panache by Tony Shalhoub, comes in to try and save the day

To call this movie "low key" is to understate the case!  In some ways, that is part of the interest, in that it mirrors Ed Crane's outlook completely - low key and almost sleep walking through life. And when he finally makes a grab for the brass ring, he falls off the merry go round!  But it does make for an extremely slow paced movie.  No real surprises, but a few laughs, as things turn out as expected but for completely unexpected reasons

The cinematography is typically Coen brothers/Roger Deakins pristine.  Just some unbelievable clarity and sharpness is reflected in the DVD, with some real interesting uses of light and shadows.  They weren't afraid to shoot when you couldn't make out much of what was going on.  Another cinematographic touch was that there were very few grays, mostly just black and white, another sly bit of commentary, I think.  The shots of Ed & Doris Crane in the lockup with Riedenschneider are some classic bits of cinematography.  But all in all, something of a disappointment to this Coen Brothers fan.




Boston Rocks!

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While cleaning up the lower level of the house in preparation for moving my office down there, I listened to some old-timey rock 'n' roll.  First, I hooked up my turntable to play some vinyl.  It's so hard to believe that I realized my girls had probably never even seen a vinyl record before, so I brought one up and did a short show and tell.  They were fascinated with the look and feel of a good old-fashioned 33 LP.  Of course, my Marantz receiver doesn't have phono inputs, so I had to dust off the old Technics and plug the turntable into there, and feed the Rec Out from there to my Marantz in order to play the albums!

I have two treasures that I don't believe are out on CD.  Both are pressing from local artists who received some national notice. The first is short LP called "Special Pain" by Robert Ellis Orral.  He actually hit 31 on the charts in 1981 with its I Couldn't Say No, a wonderful duet with Carlene Carter. I'll bet this song must show up on some CD collection of 80s hits, but I wasn't able to find it during a short search.  He later moved to Nashville, where he had a couple of country hits and continues to write songs, record and produce. I heard he had written the duet with a Boston contemporary, Laurie Sargeant of Face To Face ("10-9-8") in mind, but couldn't get together for the recording.

Next up was Private Lightning, a popular local group who never got the backing to make it big time like contemporaries The Cars and Aerosmith.  Unfortunately, my record is warped and I could only play the last two songs on each side, so I couldn't even hear their wondrous "Physical Speed".  The violin playing of Patty Van Ness and the voice of Adam Sherman made for an unforgettable sound.  I needed a fix so bad, I emailed a friend to have him check the shape of his LP. He said it was playable, although he recalled a scratch that had a deleterious effect on two of the songs.  So I ordered a copy for $10 from an internet retailer and I'm hoping it comes in soon!

Once I get my office moved downstairs, I will definitely record both of these. I think I also have a Face To Face vinyl lying around somewhere.  Ah, the early 80s, when I was big into local rock. Private Lightning, Face To Face, The Fools, New England, The Incredible Two Man Band - rockin' times!


Movie review: Bubba Ho-Tep

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I watched another free OnDemand movie last night while vegging out in bed before going to sleep.  This time, it was the comedy/horror cult hit, Bubba Ho-tep, the small 2002 flick starring Bruce Campbell and Ossie Davis. A very clever, funny, and basically charming movie, perfect for a laid back Saturday night.

Campbell plays Elvis Presley, or maybe he's really Sebastian Haff, Elvis impersonator. Or maybe it is Elvis pretending to be Sebastian. Or maybe he's Sebastian, who really thinks he's Elvis.  In any case, he teams up with JFK, played by Ossie Davis(!), who's been dyed black and had his brain replaced by a bag of sand.  These two do battle with Bubba Ho-Tep, a mummy who has been using the Shady Rest Convalescence Home in east Texas as his personal soul farm.

A movie with far more depth than it has any right to, with interesting commentary on growing old, dealing with the elderly and knowing who you are.  Throw in a great performance by Bruce Campbell, some laughs and some scares and you have a movie with surprising depth for a small horror flick.  I enjoyed it quite a bit, and got several laughs to go with it.  



Movie Review: Tombstone

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I watched Tombstone yesterday, via the Comcast OnDemand service.  It was the only free HD movie that looked even a little interesting, and I was too lazy to even get up and select a DVD.  It came across pretty sharply and, while it wasn't a classic by any means, it wasn't a complete waste of time either.

Tombstone is the 1993 western by director George Cosmatos, who only directed one more movie before dying of lung cancer a couple of years ago.  It features a whole raft of current and future stars, including Kurt Russell, Val Kilmer, and Sam Elliot, as well as a few up-and-comers in bit parts, like Thomas Haden Church, Billy Bob Thornton and even Terry O'Quinn ("Lost"'s John Locke), in a retelling of the famous "Shoout at the OK Corral".

Kurt Russell does a mighty turn as the legendary Wyatt Earp (whose descendant, Wyatt Earp, actually has a role in the movie!). Val Kilmer is the star of the show, with an intense portrayal of his sidekick, Doc Holliday, dying of tuberculosis but determined to help out Wyatt one more time.  Plenty of shootouts follow. I can't even begin to guess what the final body count was in this movie, which went on for too long and had several silly love interests.  It didn't have the mythic quality I look for in my Westerns, but it was fun to watch.



Shakespeare In Love was a good, safe, Oscar winner, grabbing 7 statues in 1998.  Very clever movie with great performances and, for you Shakespeare buffs (of which I am, sadly, not), I'll bet there's a million inside jokes. I wrote about this entertaining flick on November 22, 2002, but I've seen it several times since.



Shakespeare In Love is the 1998 blockbuster that won 7 Academy Awards, including Best Leading Actress for Gwyneth Paltrow, Best Supporting Actress for Judi Dench, and the big enchillada, Best Picture.  Reflecting the non-discrimatory tastes of the Academy voters, this is a very pleasing film without any hard edges, but a wonderful time nonetheless. I liked it so much I bought the DVD, as it is defintely worth watching a few times. 

Joseph Fiennes (Ralph Fienne's little brother) is William Shakespeare and he is in a ton of trouble.  He's got writer's block while working on his new pirate play (Romeo and Ethel the Pirate's Daughter!) and two theater owners breathing down his neck for him to produce.  While hanging out with some musician friends at a local ball, he becomes smitten with the very beautiful Viola De Lesseps, played with incredible charm, beauty and intensity by Ms. Paltrow.  Ms. Lesseps desperately wants to become involved in a play, but contemporary social (and legal) mores prohibit it.  But she dresses up as a boy and gets the leading part in the now energized Shakespeare's new play.

Eventually Shakespeare unveils the ruse and they become involved, despite the vast difference in social standing - her the daughter of a very rich noble, him nearly a pauper, earning a living by writing, of all things, plays.  Then she becomes forcibly engaged to the mean Lambert, who only wants her father's money. Lead by her muse, William goes on to write Romeo and Juliet, one of the most enduring and romantic plays of all time.

It is all incredibly charming, witty and fun to watch.  All the actors are superb, including Geoffery Rush as one of the theater owners at his wit's end trying to get this play produced (he keeps saying the wonderful line "Strangely enough, it all turns out well." - "How?" - "I don't know. It's a mystery."), Martin Clunes as Burbage, who is owed money by Rush and decides to bankroll the new "pirate" play, and Simon Callow, who is trying to close down the playhouses, as well as the aforementioned actors. Fiennes gives a nuanced performance as Shakespeare and I'm surprised to see he wasn't even nominated.

Shakespeare in Love does not require knowledge of Shakespearean lore.  I know a little but not all that much, and I'm sure there is plenty more depth to be plumbed if you did know more about his plays and the times (there's plenty of lines dropped from various of his plays, I'm sure).  But it is such a clever screenplay, and a powerful love story, that it overcomes any inside jokes and becomes a really fun night at the movies.




Book Review: The Hard Way

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I think the Reacher series has run out of steam and that Lee Child is just writing them now by rote.  I wasn't crazy about the previous one (One Shot, which I hear has been optioned for a movie), and I liked The Hard Way, the tenth and most recent one, even less.  Once again, I had the twist figured out well in advance and it made the second half of the book even more laborious.  There also seemed to be way too many descriptions that read like a computer direction giver - left on 42nd, right on Washington, etc. Filler with no reason.  Very unlike the earlier Reacher novels.

In Hard Way, Reacher gets accidentally involved (as usual) with a kidnapping. This time, the wife and daughter of a very hard man got kidnapped and he turns to Reacher for help.  Along the way, Jack Reacher meets a few characters, and each seems more ludicrous than the previous.  Again, right on cue, the books ends in a crescendo of violence and Reacher slips away.

As much as I hate to say it, I think I can now declare a Reacher moratorium.  The first few books were very clever and had a unique voice, whether it was first or third person.  But the last few have had a mechanical quality to them and I think I'm all done.  Reacher has become a parody of his original vision. Oh well, it was good while it lasted.



The Seven Samurai is one of my favorite all time movies, so I just had to pick up the American remake called The Maginificent Seven. I've watched this a few times since, but this review was written on October 28, 2002. Sorry about the messed up IMDB links, but it was written before IMDB changed their URL scheme. I should watch this again.


The Magnificent Seven is an icon of a movie, perhaps the best known Western of its time. With a soon to be famous cast, an archetypical story lifted from the Kurosawa's incomparable Seven Samurai, and accompanied by one of the most famous movie scores of all time, The Magnificent Seven is a movie to be watched and enjoyed again and again.  And the DVD is spectacular to boot! 

A small town in Mexico is being terrorized by bandits, so the villagers send a party north of the border to buy some guns.  But they soon realize they know nothing about fighting, as they watched Chris Adams (play by a wonderfully stoic Yul Brynner) drive a hearse through town against much opposition, backed by Vin, played with panache and flair by Steve McQueen.  So the villagers ask Chris to hire a crew to come help protect them, with Vin being the first to sign up.  This is quickly followed by the inclusion of Bernarndo (Charles Bronson), Lee (Robert Vaughn), Harry (Brad Dexter), Britt (James Coburn), and the anxious to please kid, Chico (Horst Buchholz).  They are all down on their luck in some fashion or another, and gladly accept the minimal wages offered to protect the village against the depradations of the vicous local bandito, Calvera (played by a Jew from New York, Eli Wallach!).

They slowly whip the villagers in shape, while sparks fly between themselves and the villagers, as well as personalities clashing between the gunfighters.  Several vintage scenes follow, including two major dustups with the bandito gang. Quotable lines flow freely, as do memorable camera shots and, of course, Elmer Bernstein's score, with its "dum dum de dum" base beat - all you need is a couple notes, just like Williams' Jaws theme, and you go "Oh yeah, that one!"

It's just one of the funnest movies I've watched in a long time.  Everyone seems to be having a good time, and according to the pretty solid "Making of..." movie that comes with the DVD, they were!  Competition and testosterone was the name of the game - if Brynner had a big horse, McQueen wanted a bigger one!  Great lines (see the IMDB entry for a long list of them) and a solid story make this a "Must Have" DVD.  And I'm looking forward to hearing the commentary track by Wallach, Colburn and others.


Movie Review: Witness

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I watched the wonderful Peter Weir film Witness yesterday, in fits and bunches.  I wanted to see how the incredible John Seale cinematography looked on my HDTV, as there are some breathtaking shots of waving hay, sunrises and other evocative images.  I especially groove to the menace shown at the end of the film, when the car filled with the bad guys appears over the ridge, turns out its lights and ominously slips backwards.

Unfortunately, the DVD I have is a very old one, and thus the transfer is abysmal.  Speckling all over the place, distortion, and otherwise nearly unwatchable on my 50in Sony Grand WEGA.  Luckily, the great story and amazing Maurice Jarre soundtrack remained unaffected and I was able to watch it one more time.

What a streak Peter Weir had:

Heck, even Mosquito Coast, which followed Witness, was a pretty solid movie, if a little off kilter. I kind of lost track of him for a bit after that, although Master and Commander was a great seafaring flick, if not at the same psychological level as the aforementioned five. I blame Weir (and Beresford and Schepsi too) for my love of all things Australian!

[<== SPOILER ALERT!! ==>]


Witness follows the adventures of John Book (Harrison Ford, in one of his best dramatic roles), a police detective trying to solve the case of a murdered undercover police officer. The murder was witnessed by an Amish boy (a remarkably cute Lukas Haas), traveling with his mom (the too sexy for Amish clothes Kelly McGillis) to Baltimore. After Book uncovers a nefarious internal plot, he smuggles them back to their Amish farm and, in the process, comes under their care.  A very nice set of "fish out of water" vignettes ensues, as the violent, modern Book tries to recover in the staid Amish community.  A violent ending is foreordained though and, in the end, the two worlds pull apart Book and Rachel Lapp.

I saw this when it first came out in the movie theaters. My date insisted the two should have come together in the end. But I think the tenderness of their inevitable parting only added to the realism of the entire movie.

[<== END SPOILER ALERT!! ==>]


Watching this today brings a special sense of poignancy, in light of the heinous Amish school shootings of last fall. A touching, sensitive movie, still a favorite despite the poor DVD video.  Perhaps the newer, Special Collector's Edition disc will show better.




Book Review: Fiasco

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I finally finished Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq by Pulitzer Prize winning author Thomas Ricks the other day, which made it a very unusual book for me, as I cannot seem finish these books chronicling the idiocy of today's Bush regime. I get too frustrated at the lack of responsibility and culpability.  Books like "Bushworld" by the late, great, Molly Ivins, or "Worse Than Watergate" by John Dean, get me throwing my hands up in despair at the prospect of our country ever recovering from its criminal mishandling by Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld triumverate..

But "Fiasco" was different, despite how close to home it hits, as I have a nephew who is serving his second tour of duty over there, in a Stryker unit, on the front lines of urban assault teams.  Maybe because it is more of a military history of the general disaster that is the Iraq quagmire that kept it from getting too frustrating.  The politicos doomed the invasion right from the start, with mismanaged resources and fuzzy goals.  Amazingly to me, Risk assigns plenty of the blame to Paul Wolfowitz, the assistant defense secretary, who showed amazing clout for such a low level position.  In many ways, though, that symbolizes the Bush regime, where the shadowy masters control the stage from behind the curtains.

I had a great line ready to go, from a counterinsurgency expert quoted in the book, but unfortunately, I can't find the page I wrote it on. Basically, it was a sad retelling of the old "Those who don't remember history are doomed to repeat it" maxim, especially vis-a-vis counterinsurgency.  While the parallels with Vietnam are striking, the author also goes to great lengths to compare the Iraq fiasco with France's battles in Algiers during the 50s, where another foreign power tried to control an Arabic counterinsurgency. In fact, one of the commanders there wrote a very influential book on how to wage a counterinsurgency war, a manual that was sadly ignored in the lead up to this one.  That reminds me - I should move the movie The Battle of Algiers up in my Netflix queue.

One of the most striking dichotomies documented by Ricks was how the Bush junta cherry picked all the intelligence for a worst case scenario when it came to making the case for war, while it continued to anticipate the absolute best possible scenario for its resolution, while making almost no plans for any other possible outcome. Rumsfield in particular is excoriated for underestimating the time, money and manpower needed to do the job right, which, in the end, made everything much worse. Paul Bremer, the diplomatic head of Iraq during the crucial early postwar reconstruction, also comes under heavy criticism for his heavy handed approach and lack of understanding for how things were working.  Another favorite scapegoat was General Tommy Franks, the military leader in Iraq, who didn't seem to understand the special nature of a counterinsurgency war, instead thinking that a heavy hand could cure all ills.

The author did seem to think highly of General Patreus, recently named head of all troops in Iraq.  In fact, the author wondered why he was passed over for this post at the end of the book, despite his considerable success in northern Iraq. So maybe there's some hope yet, although personally I don't have much confidence, given the incredible blunders made so far.  So if you are interested in the best political and, most importantly, military history of the "situation" in Iraq, you need go no further than Fiasco.


QotD: Never Seen It

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What's the most famous movie you've never seen? 
Submitted by Mike.

According to the IMDB Top 250 (an admittedly suspect source, considering the second movie on the list is "The Shawshank Redemption'!), the most "famous" movie I haven't seen yet is Lord of The Rings: Return of the King, which clocks in as the fourth best movie of all time (!).  I watched the first LotR movie, Fellowship, and liked it well enough.  I got about halfway through the second one, The Two Towers, when my rental DVD started to skip and I was never interested enough in it to go back.  I have to agree with one reviewer on the whole trilogy - it's just one damn thing after another!  But maybe with my nice new HDTV, it would be more fun.  I liked the books well enough, back in the day, but found them a little boring upon re-reading them recently. And I'm just not a sci-fi/fantasy guy any more.

Movie Review: The Great Escape

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I decided, despite my increasing temperature and decreasing health, to tackle the nearly three hour marathon that is The Great Escape.  This Steve McQueen epic is a staple of late night television, so I was familiar with bits and pieces of the movie, but I had never sat down to watch the entire movie. And its 172 minute length had kept it on the table and out of my DVD player for quite some time.  But we got the girls to bed early, so I decided to try it out.

And I'm glad I did.  This prisoner of war epic was truly a blast to watch.  My ill health meant the ending couldn't come fast enough, though, so I'm afraid I can't really do it justice. I wonder if some better editing couldn't have trimmed some time off, but, for the most part, it was time well spent. 76 of a planned 250 made it out of the wire, and only three of those made it to freedom.  Fifty were murdered in cold blood by the Germans after capture, resulting in the execution of 14 Germans after the war.

So a pretty sad and tragic episode is made into a movie highlighting the struggles of the POWs to tunnel their way to freedom.  McQueen keeps getting captured and thrown into the cooler, where he occupies his time planning his next escape.  The others spend their time digging three tunnels, trying to reach outside the fences and to the forest. They come up 20 feet short, which is one reason only a small fraction of the planned 250 actually escape. The iconic motorcycle escape scene, added at the insistence of Steve McQueen, provide some real thrills.

A good movie marred by a bizarre display.  The DVD I had showed the movie as a 16:9 picture, but much smaller than my TV, surrounded by black.  I'm not sure exactly what was going on here, but it sure looked weird and detracted mightily from the experience, as did the stereo soundtrack.  But it was nice to finally see this movie from start to finish.



Abbott and Costello Afternoon

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We've all been trying to recover from colds and fevers, so Friday afternoon, the girls and I settled in to watch a classic - Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. They were initially disappointed that it was a black and white movie, but by the end, R. said that "Even black and white movies can be fun!".

In this comedy-horror classic, Costello (Wilbur Grey) and Abbott (Chick Young) are shipping clerks who get involved with a plot by Dracula (Bela Legosi) to revive Frankenstein's Monster (Glenn Strange), using Abbott's(!) brain.  The Wolfman (Lon Chaney Jr.) is trying to help them expose the nefarious plot, while he battles his own full moon affliction.

I really enjoyed this, and so did the girls. Like Maltin's review says, an important part of the movie is the fact the monsters all play it straight and the laughs just come from the goofing done by Costello.  He keeps seeing the monsters but no one believes him.  We even watched it a second time on Saturday, and the girls, especially A (who is 6) enjoyed it even more.  She liked it better, she said, because she wasn't as scared.  There are a few close calls, where Abbott barely escapes capture.  The ending, with Frankenstein's monster walking through some flames, was a little intense too, I thought. I could've done without them watching the wide shot of a burning Frankenstein, before he plunged through the dock. But it didn't seem to bother the girls.

On Saturday, we followed up a repeat viewing of "Meets Frankenstein" with the other movie on the DVD, Mexican Hayride. In this tepid affair, Costello plays Joe Bascom, a schlub played for a sucker by Abbott's Harry Lambert. Abbott gets chased around Mexico City, even after he's named "Amigo Americano" and given the keys to the city. Mayhem ensues, including a bullfight which received many guffaws from the audience, especially when Abbott gets head butted out of the ring and then falls back in, riding away on the bull.

"Mexican Hayride" wasn't that great an A&C effort, a Cole Porter Broadway musical without the music. But we still enjoyed it, and I think I might have to pick up this Volume 3 DVD, which also includes the classic "In The Foreign Legion" and "Meet the Invisible Man".



Beanie Riddle answer

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I'm just going to steal David's answer to the beanie riddle, as it is 100% correct:


If the guy in the back saw 2 white beanies, he would have known he had a black beanie on his head. So our hero knows both he and the guy behind him can't both have white beanies.  Now the guy behind him understands this too, so he knows the same thing.  So if he sees a white beanie in front of him, he knows he must have a black beanie on his head.  So since he hasn't said anything either, he must see a black beanie on the guy in front.

Lantana

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I'm going to re-post some reviews I've done over the years on another moribund web site. I'm goint to start with a review of Lantana, a sadly neglected Australian film that was just wonderful. I originally watched this on May 26, 2003.


Lantana is a "a noxious and troublesome weed", according to the movie's official web site, and symbolizes the tangled web we weave, when relationships get weird.  It bills itself as a "mystery for grownups", but it is as much about people as it is about the case getting solved.  A fascinating look into four troubled marriages, this movie import from Australia was one of my favorites of this year. 

Detective Leon Zat, played with astonishing intensity by Without a Trace's Anthony LaPaglia, is called in to investigate the myserious disappearance of psychiatrist Valerie Somers (Barbara Hershey).  Zat is plagued by his own demons, the biggest of which is his guilt over cheating on his wife of many years, Sonja (longtime Australian TV actress, Kerry Armstrong), so he has a hard time staying focused on the possible crime.  He immediately suspects Somers' husband (Geoffry Rush), and leans on him very harshly from the start

Things get even more strained for Det. Zat when his lover (Rachael Blake) witnesses her friend and neighbor behaving in a very odd manner the very night of Somers' disappearance, and finally works up the courage to call her suspicions in to the police.  Accusations fly, tempers flare, marriages crumble and, finally, the case gets solved.  But all the relationships are strained to the breaking point, and the movie ends with lives in disarray.

Some have complained that the movie depended too much on coincidence, and there are several of them. But none of them are central to the mystery; they just make for some interesting and humorous twists to the story, like when Zat and his lover's ex-husband unknowingly bump into each other at a bar one evening, and talk about life, then later meet at her house.  The serendipity of several of the meetings just adds to the wonderful spice of the movie, not detract from it.

The performances all around were standouts.  LaPaglia was great as the tormented (admittedly by his own weaknesses) detective.  Hershey was good as the psychiatrist who goes missing, and Rush as her forlorned husband, as they both struggled to overcome the murder of their young daughter many years ago, gradually drifting further and further apart.  The two main female protagonists (Anderson and Blank) really play their roles with aplomb, as the suffering wife and the disaffected lover, roles that can be hard to pull off without being caricatures.

The DVD was pretty solid, with nice visuals, excellent music (a taste of which can be found on the web site), and some clever camera work.  Not too many extras, just a little "Making of..." puff piece that at least adds some to the explanation of the movie and its actors.  This is one library DVD that I'm definitely thinking of adding to my collection, as its portrayal of real people with real problems is watchable many times over.




Beanie Riddle

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3 POW officers were rounded up by a few guards. They were shown a box containing 5 beanies: 3 black, 2 white. They were then blindfolded and taken out into the yard. There they were lined up one behind the other, facing the same direction, so that the POW in back could see the 2 in front of him, the middle POW could see the 1 in front of him, and the POW in front couldn't see either. The guards randomly selected 3 beanies, placed 1 on each of their heads and took off the blindfolds. They were instructed that if any word came out of their mouths that wasn't the color of the beanie on their own head, they would all be shot. Any POW could answer and they were to be left in formation until they got it right. After a while out there the POW in front said with absolute confidence "I am wearing a black beanie", and he was right....how did he know what color beanie was on his head?

Answer tomorrow!

Lost and Stumbling

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My buddy and I watched another episode of Lost, the television series last night.  This was episode seven, Moth, where Charlie's back story is explored - his time in the band, his doubts about doing it at all, and him trying to get his brother back into it. A fun episode.  The whole series is proving to be a fun watch, albeit over the top.

I received The Best of Bud Abbott & Lou Costello: Vol. 3, Disc one the other day from Netflix. I got lucky because the reason I ordered it was to get Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein and it isn't too clear which movie is on what disc, but I got this movie. There are 4 discs in Vol. 3 and Netflix only ships one at a time.  But this one is a true classic A&C movie and I'm looking forward to watching it with my girls.  Luckily, they aren't afraid of a black and white movie.  We had a good time watching The Miracle Worker, as R. was studying Hellen Keller at school. And A. and I watched the first half of To Kill A Mockingbird, which she found fascinating. Not sure how far I'd go in that movie with her, though.

I'm racing through Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, as it is due today and I doubt I can renew it.  Love it so far, in a depressing, watching a train wreck, kind of way.  I should have it done by Monday.



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