Monday, September 26, 2011

NEW BOOK REVIEW: A Traitor to Memory

When it comes to books, I don't really think I have a favorite genre. But if I did have a favorite, it wouldn't be mystery/crime stories. It's not that I don't enjoy them. They are definitely good for a relaxing, diversional activity, but they almost never make me think, "Wow that was great!"

Elizabeth George is apparently some kind of stellar mystery writer, but if I am being completely honest, I wasn't particularly impressed. It was an entertaining story, but that's about it. And if that's all your looking for, as is sometimes the case, then it's fine.

The book is around 1000 pages, which is long enough to get quite a bit of detail. Unfortunately, I found the detail got a little boring. I found myself skimming along through some paragraphs trying to find something pertinent to advancing the storyline. When you start thinking, "Blah, blah, blah, just get to the point," that is not a ringing endorsement for the writing.

On the whole, though, the plotline held my interest. It involves a very dysfunctional family with some bigtime skeletons in the closet, and I enjoyed the way the connections between the various characters eventually came to light. However, New Scotland Yard didn't fare too well here. They were sort of dull and unimpressive. In some situations, dull and unimpressive works well because it seems to more accurately reflect reality. In this genre, however, it just makes it kind of a yawn.

Bottomline: Liked it; didn't love it.

( FYI : This is not a new book. It was published in 2002)

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


I know, I know, I am so late for the "A" train. Where in the hell have I been? Even my mother watches this show. I finally watched it when they re-aired the final two episodes of the second season the other night. My thoughts? Sure, I am always happy to share an opinion.

First, let me say, I loved it. I am apparently now in line with the many other critics and fans who think this is one slick, irresistibly entertaining production.  I can't even make "good" and "bad" lists (as I am usually so inclined to do) because it was all good for me. However, if you don't like slick productions, morally corrupt characters, or sexual drama, this may not be for you.

The acting is great; everyone is at the top of his/her game. The writing is great, storylines as well as dialogue. They do a great job of weaving shorter term legal case stories with the ongoing plotline. It's far from a novel formula, but damn, it's well done.

Favorite Persons:

Julianna Margulies  looks stunning in this show. She is gorgeous. Her performances in the episodes that I saw were riveting. There was one particular exchange with her mother-in-law that I would have re-wound and replayed if that were an option. ( Nope, no DVR for me). If you've seen it, you'll know exactly what I am talking about. 

Archie Panjabi is a lovely, and brilliant, provocateur in thigh-high black boots. She gets to play a fascinating character who appears very closed. As we see in these episodes, however, she may play it close to the vest, but she certainly is not devoid of deeply felt emotions. 

Chris Noth. Thank goodness he has had a steady career. Next to the beloved Jerry Orbach's portrayal of Lenny Briscoe, Chris Noth's Mike Logan (in the original Law and Order series) was the most believable cop-character on television.  Then he moved on to Sex and the City, where he was very believable as sexy big-shot, Mr. Big. His character on The Good Wife is reminiscent of Mr. Big in many respects, albeit far more complex, and he is perfect in the role.

Christine Baranski > love her. She totally nails her part as senior partner of a prestigious law firm. If she walked into a real board room and opened her mouth you wouldn't bat an eye---she embodies that smart, assured, uh-oh- it's-a-shark persona.

Big ups to The Good Wife.

Friday, September 16, 2011

NEW REVIEW: Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

And speaking of martial arts films, I just caught this one in Berkeley. It's in fairly wide release, so it isn't too hard to find. It received an 84% positive rating from Rotten Tomatoes, and although I didn't like it quite that much, I'd at least give it 3 out of 5 stars. Stars are easier to manage than percentages.

The story centers around the only female emperor of China. She is preparing for her grand coronation event, but a couple of mysterious deaths cast a worrisome light on the preparations. Empress Wu elects to release the infamous Detective Dee from prison to solve the case.

The Good

* Cool sets, costumes, and scenery depicting ancient China.
* An ultimately fun detective story with a very likable hero.
* A pretty woman doing some pretty bad-a** kung-fu tricks with ropes.
* Those mysterious deaths: gnarly.

The Bad

* Especially in the beginning, it had some of that classic goofy 'kung-fu movie' acting 
* It also has some pretty terrible ( i.e. cheesy) dialogue. 
   I never know if it's actually the dialogue or just the translation that's cheesy.
* There is a lot of that jumpy-flying around stuff. 
   I guess this could be considered a pro or a con, but it looks goofy to me most of        the time.  I try my best to just accept it as part of the genre.
* The story is fairly predictable.

I've got a couple more movie trips planned for this month, so I'll give you the skinny on those. Don't worry, neither of them is a kung-fu movie.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

HAI YA!!! Martial Arts Flicks for the Non-Martial Arts Fan

Oh, my, my, my, how I dreaded the horrible kung-fu movies---the awful dubbing, the ridiculous dialogue, the goofy characters. Now, a lot of these movies are old, low-budget jobs, and maybe it's just something you accept and how I love crappy television sometimes (okay, LOTS of times). I feel a little bad saying that I didn't really like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, even though I know it was a very well-crafted film which was highly regarded by the film-making community. Despite my general non-love for martial arts flicks, there later came to be a few martial arts films that I really did appreciate. One of them remains the single most visually stunning film I have ever seen.

You'll notice that Time Magazine called it "a masterpiece". That's a pretty good review, huh?

Like my previous martial arts movie experiences, I did not go to this one exactly willingly. Then along came a fight scene in the rain that was just stunning---the color palette, the sound of the rain drops, the camerawork. You coulda stuffed a big ole apple in my mouth when my jaw dropped open (although, I'd prefer a taco). Later, the movie went on to include exquisite color-themed scenes that were truly like watching live-action art. And to top it all off, Hero left a lump in my throat at the end. It is a tale about war and the hard question we'd often like to put off : Is it sometimes just and necessary to fight for the greater good?  

IMPORTANT VIEWING NOTE: To fully appreciate these films, they need to be viewed on a large, high-quality screen. Hit up your friends with the nice big tv or home theater set-up. Do NOT use the dubbing feature. Just put on your specs and read the subtitles. Dubbing should be banned.

Okay, so, House of Flying Daggers: No surprise that it is also a really beautiful movie since it is from the same director. It's an exciting tale, quite romantic, along with being action packed. The main character is portrayed by the gorgeous Ziyi Zhang, who is amazing to watch. And probably the part I enjoyed the most? The unexpected plot twists. Mucho fun.

The Kill Bill movies are not ( with a big N) for everyone. They are very stylized in that hokey 70's kind of way. More importantly, they are terribly violent. Did I enjoy the films? Yes, I did. Were there people that hated them? I am quite sure there were. How will you know if you can handle it? If you are okay with those grindhouse flicks, you'll be fine with these. These are like a cakewalk compared to those.

Hopefully, I've convinced you to give martial arts flicks another chance. Like me, you might really be pleasantly surprised! Don't try any of those moves at home, though (wink-wink).

PS. That Five Finger Exploding Heart move does not work, anyway. I tried it three or four times.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: The Little Stranger

I have zero literary expertise, so on that level I can only defer to the Man Booker Prize committee who thought highly enough of this novel to rank it as a finalist. I would imagine, though, when it comes to how your book-buying public reacts to your writing, the ultimate achievement would be for readers to say, "I could not put it down."  To Sarah Waters: Mission accomplished.

I received this book from my sister Saturday afternoon, began reading Saturday evening, very reluctantly went to sleep at 1:00am, up at 8:00am, and finished the book without leaving my bed. "I could not put it down" is often not meant literally, but not in this case. I could not put the darn thing down. I am not sure that I can even clearly explain why.

As far as being 'un-put-down-able', the first reason you might expect would be that it's terribly suspenseful, keeping you on the edge of your seat waiting for the next horror to occur. But, really, it wasn't that at all. I mean certainly, it is a bit suspenseful, but it goes on for about 100 pages before much of anything really happens. ( Don't misunderstand, even in those first 100 pages you could not have wrestled the book out of my hands).

I might attribute the interest to the subject matter, a decaying stately English home and the decaying gentry class, which is certainly interesting, but not exactly page-turner material. It could be the characters that are so compelling, but no, it's not really them either. At least at the outset, everyone seems rather normal with the expected burdens of their life's lot. The writing style itself befits the subject matter, but it wasn't the kind of prose that made me think, "Oh, this writing is so beautiful (or clever or what have you)." 

 I can only conclude that the success of the book is in the combination of setting, subject matter, characters and writing style which, while none particularly stood out on its own, as a sum total worked incredibly well. It completely and utterly draws you in to its world.

I won't go into the story detail, no spoilers here, but it's a historical, curious and melancholy gothic mystery.
And it doesn't like to be set to rest until finished!

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Feeling bold? Just walk in and see whatever is playing in the next 5 minutes!

I really recommend trying this with an open-minded friend. It's a bit of a crapshoot, but also a bit of an adventure, which is great. I have done this on two occasions, both with my big sis. Amazingly, we really enjoyed it. There is one tip before you try it: each time we were at a Landmark Theater. I think it would be more risky at your local cineplex. You could end up seeing Big Mommas: Like Father Like Son (yes, that really is a movie). We were very fortunate and ended up with Vacation Movies both times! These are available now on DVD, so read on for my reviews to see if they might be something you'd like.

This is a 2009 film starring Patricia Clarkson (love her!) and Alexander Siddig (new to me, but loved him in this). It is a romance of sorts, but it's also one of those movies where nothing much really happens. It essentially just follows two people spending time together and getting to know and appreciate each other.

The scenes of Cairo are GOR-geous. Lemme tell ya, Ms. Clarkson's hotel room is outta this world...not creepy-gaudy like something in Dubai, but simply elegant with a stunning view. Anyway, you get to take a boat ride, see the pyramids, go to the desert, and attend a wedding. It's an excellent vacation, but a very subtle, slow moving one. Bottom line, if you aren't into subtle, this isn't for you.

The thing that was nonsensical in the movie? She's a New York editor married to a UN official, but her first day out in Cairo she walks around town in a sleeveless blouse and skirt (and ends up getting harassed by men). Given her background, I'd think she would have a little more travel savvy. Granted it looked like it was hotter than hell there, but they could have resolved that issue by having her put on a scarf/wrap in her hotel room, and then simply removing it outside with an obvious expression of feeling overheated. 

Minor complaints aside, I really enjoyed the movie and would be happy to see it again.

This 2008 film takes place in 1950's era New Zealand, and opens with three young Dutch women on a flight there to meet their new husbands.

This one's also a romance, but more of a dramatic saga that spans decades, taking you through marriage, childbirth, reconciliation and death. It reminds me a bit of one of those epic mini-series like The Thornbirds. I'd never pick New Zealand as someplace high on my list of travel destinations, but I really enjoyed this trip. Not picking it is what made it a fun adventure.

Funny thing happened at the theater, though. Rutger Hauer appears briefly at the beginning of the film, but we didn't know he was in it. Just prior to going into the theater, we were looking at a newspaper that had a little blurb about some movie called Hobo With a Shotgun starring a craggy-looking Rutger Hauer. We sat down to watch our movie, and there was Rutger. My sister and I turned to each other, each with big-eyes and an expression that said, "Cripes! We're in Hobo With a Shotgun. RUN for the door." 

Friday, September 9, 2011

NEW REVIEW: Don't Be Afraid of the Dark

********SPOILER ALERT********

To My Family, Friends, and Anyone Else Who Might Be Mildly Interested :

If I get sucked into the ground through some hole in the basement filled with evil creatures, then would you PLEASE call the frickin' police, the X-Files unit, the wrecking-ball company, and the work crew to at least try to dig me out? Don't just pack-up and move, and then show up three months later for a one minute visit to the site of my disappearance. Geez.

Which brings me to my point: I think the major problem with this film is that it is not highly successful in drawing you in, nor in making you form an emotional connection with the protagonists. When a movie truly draws you in, you stop thinking outside the events of the story. This makes you less likely to ponder plot holes, and script issues, and unresolved storylines. 

I enjoyed the movie, I did feel pity for the little girl, and the Katie Holmes character was very likable. I just wasn't emotionally invested in them. I was a little on the fringes, free to let my thoughts wander and question things that didn't feel authentic or sensible.

There were some really good things about the movie:

1. Great-looking film.
2. Fantastic setting (both house and grounds) with some great set pieces, my personal favorites being a carousel lamp and a basement mural.
3. Successfully spooky atmosphere with good "jumps".
4. Good re-working of the original story.
5. It's an individual taste thing, but I really enjoyed the opening credits.

All in all, I'd give it 3 out of 5 stars. 

On a personal note, remember my post about spooky made-for-tv movies? This film is a remake of one of those movies. My little sister and I called the creatures from that version the 'monka-figs' because we thought they looked like a cross between monkeys and figs (yes--figs). And, sure, there might have been a couple of conversations about the monka-figs coming to take her away. Somehow, she was still happy to go see this version with me.

You wanna know the real scary thing that happened? She bought one of those fill-it yourself bags of candy, put in a small amount of Reeses Pieces and took it to the register. $11.96. No, I am not kidding.



Thursday, September 8, 2011

BATTER UP!! (Baseball In the Movies)

I have never really followed baseball---unless you count those couple of years when my home team was in the World Series, and every afternoon at school we got to close our books and turn on our classroom televisions. Catholic education definitely has its upsides. Anyway, despite my general lack of enthusiasm for actual baseball, I seem to thoroughly enjoy, and even be deeply moved by, a good baseball movie.

Eight Men Out

I've only seen this movie once, and years ago at that, but I remember clearly the strong emotional response that I had at the end of the film. During the last scenes when Buck Weaver is sitting in the stands, I felt that pit-in-the-stomach sense of sadness and loss. I felt it for Buck Weaver, for the sport of baseball, and for the country. It was very unexpected, and very moving. 

Film critic Roger Ebert, with whom I often agree, had this to say about the film:

It's an insider's movie, a baseball expert's film that is hard for the untutored to follow.

Balderdash! It is a fascinating true tale. As a viewer, it felt remarkably genuine, like being in a time-warp. The acting is strong, particularly by John Cusack, who seemed perfectly cast. This is a very good film, and not hard to follow, or at the very least, get the gist of enough to appreciate the impact. Luckily, the Rotten Tomatoes website called it " arguably the best baseball move ever made". So, someone over there was obviously able to follow it.

Sorry, Roger, you were mistaken on this one. I am amazed that you didn't feel like shedding a tear. I sure did.

Bull Durham

Another one that I saw only once years ago, but surprisingly enjoyed. This one sticks out in my memory as well, but the tears, of course, were from laughing too hard. Life in the minor leagues was apparently kind of a hoot.

Angels in the Outfield

This is a mild, funny, sweet-natured fantasy. Great movie for the kids; they'll love it. And if you're not a grumpy old movie snob, you'll enjoy it, too.

Field of Dreams

If you are like my sister, and fell asleep during this movie, tried to watch it again and couldn't get through it, then we are gonna have a problem. 

This movie is beautiful, and if you don't muster up a few tears when Ray chokes out, "Dad, you wanna have a catch?", then you need to have your heart examined. Granted, this is a big-time fantasy movie with a very spiritual feel, and both of those traits can be off-putting to a good many people. But to those people (of whom I am frequently one) I say, "Pffffftttttt." 

And on that note, I conclude the sharing of my extensive knowledge of baseball, America's pastime. I  think America should consider changing its pastime to watching movies. No? Okay, how about eating chips?

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Vacation Movies: Woody Allen Take Me Away

Don't let the title fool you; I am not a Woody Allen fan. At least not until recently. I am, however, a fan of travel itineraries for the financially-challenged. Sometimes you just want to be transported to someplace else. Care to travel on a budget of around ten dollars? Here are a few recommended destinations:

Midnight in Paris

Have I mentioned that I've never made a movie? Yeah, well, I can still have a judgement. I've made plenty of those. 

This film was truly charming, whimsical, and transporting.  This is one great Vacation Movie.

Great shots of Paris, terrific wardrobes, and unexpected travel companions will join you on your tour, led by your guide, a boyish and slightly befuddled Owen Wilson. 

Have a wonderful trip. I guarantee, you will wish you could stay in Paris a little longer.

Vicki Cristina Barcelona

Another fabulous vacation brought to you by Woody Allen. Who'da thunk? Certainly not me.

Chemistry 101:
Place three extremely sexually attractive people together in beautiful Barcelona, titrate with Penelope Cruz, and see if something explodes. 

This is one of those 'feast for the eyes' movies. It just has this airy, open, vacation-y feel. But, it's not for the kiddies. This is a humorous and titillating trip for adults. Be careful, you will be seduced.

Letters to Juliet

Remember how Stealing Beauty made you just want to to pack up and move to Italy? Oh, wait, that was me.

This is one of those super-lightweight romances, so just relax, quit being a stodgy snob, and try to enjoy yourself.

Again with the open air, and the eye-feast. I hate to be repetitive, but those are great qualities to look for in a Vacation Movie. Italy is so very photogenic. And it was so great to see Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero! I was so glad that they were able to make the trip with us.


Honorable Mention:  All those Bourne movies. Not very relaxing, but you get to travel around quite a bit.

And, sadly, this concludes today's journey. Please book with us again. We're running a special in April.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The '60's, the 70's and the Crappy, but Fantastical, Made-For-TV Movies

 Look, it's not like I've ever made a movie, so who am I to judge?  Still, I think it's fair to say that the made-for-tv movies of the 60's and 70's were kind of a cheese-ball fest. It's hard to take anyone wearing that much polyester seriously. On the other hand, whether you first saw these movies in reruns, or caught them on a first run back in the day, your childhood memory was indelibly imprinted with what might have been your first SCARY image ( and I am not referring to powder blue pants, although, obviously those send a shudder up your spine). Which brings me to this weekend.

I finally broke down and bought a new computer. Horrible experience. However, the newfound ease of watching videos, movies, and tv, without annoying stalls and buffering, makes it all worthwhile. So, I hit You Tube for some childhood reminiscence.

Picture Mommy Dead

Is that a great movie title or what?
Imprinted image from the movie: Some vague scary picture of a fancy house, a dead lady, a fire, and a grossly creepy song.
Memory of my childhood: Teaching said song to my little sister, and singing said song during a lengthy car ride with my parents. The worms crawl in the worms crawl out , through your stomach and out your mouth.
Until my mom said, "That's enough. Sing something else."

"Mommy" was portrayed by Zsa Zsa Gabor, which should tell you something right there. Something awesome, DUH.  As corny as it was, that movie made a big impression on me. It seems that, as a kid, most of my favorite movies were the ones that kind of got me spooked.

On the plus side with this film, it did not have one of those tv-movie endings which clearly identified the good guy and left things appropriately resolved.  It remained unnerving from start to finish.

Last night at midnight, I called my sister to sing to her. She was alone in a hotel room. Too perfect. She said something about us having watched things we shouldn't have been watching at that age. I disagree. Those scary stories were fun. Not much different than telling scary stories by the campfire. Not all kids enjoy being a little scared. Some kids get too scared. But for some of us? Goosebumps=Goodtimes.

Check out Crowhaven Farm. Features a super-creepy kid. Really.