7.30.2007

Weird Heroes Volume 1 - Edited by Byron Preiss (1975)

Weird Heroes was a strange idea: an attempt to publish some new pulp stories, only with a focus not on violence. Byron Preiss brought together writers and artists into this project with mixed results.

There is one standout story - a glorious train wreck by Philip Jose Farmer entitled Greatheart Silver in Showdown at Shootout, where Farmer pays a funny and bloody homage to all the old pulp heroes. The book is probably worth it for that story alone.

The rest of the stories are only so-so, and one Rose in the Sunshine State is a good story which just seems wildly out of place in this collection.

The stories are illustrated, although not excessively, and the pictures do add to the overall effect.

Ultimately, the experiment, while interesting is not wildly successful - with the exception of the Farmer story.

Overall Grade: C

Merlin's Bones - Fred Saberhagen (1995)

Saberhagen is another of those old warhorse sf/fantasy authors. Most famous for the Beserker series, which has a fanatic cult following and at least two games that I know of, he's also written a series of books "setting the record" straight about Dracula, a long series of fantasy books about magic swords, and a variety of stand-alone novels. When he's good, he's very good indeed, and when he's bad he's still pretty good.

Sadly, this book is only pretty good. It's still worth reading, since it is, after all, pretty good, but it's not Saberhagen's best work. The plot concerns a search for, yes, Merlin's bones by a bunch of Arthurian characters that survived the fall of Camelot: Mordre, Morgan le Fay and the Fisher King. It jumps back and forward in time as well, with the action that takes place just after the fall alternating with action that takes place in the early 21st century.

Saberhagen weaves these strands together deftly enough, and the plot holds together fairly well, but the overall effect is workmanlike rather than brilliant. The ideas are there, and the skill is certainly there, but the whole just doesn't sing.

There are moments that are wonderful, though, and a few lovely conceits, such as the idea that all libraries are, on some level, linked and one can use the right technology or magic or combination to move between and betwixt. The start is a bit slow, but it settles into a good pace fairly early on and finishes strong.

It does present an interesting take on the whole Arthurian legend, partly by dealing with the aftermath which tends to get neglected, and for fans of the mythos/legend, it is a worthy addition to the collection.

But, to quote Berke Breathed, "it just doesn't soar, dammit."

Overall Grade: B

7.27.2007

The Perfect Storm (2000)

While I rarely rewatch films, quite seldomly there are a few that I really enjoy. I decided to rescreen The Perfect Storm, and see how it has held up through the years. It stars George Clooney, Diane Lane, and Mark Wahlberg.

The story, which is based on actual events, centers around a New England town, Gloucester, MA, which is a fishing town. Clooney plays Capt. Billy Tyne, who runs the Andrea Gale, a swordfishing boat, for the ship's owner. After he returns from a bad outing, he rounds up the crew for one more outing before closing out the season as a chance to bring in the big catch. In order to fill the hold, he heads out to the Flemish Cap, where he has a great catch. Unfortunately, just as he is filling up the hold, his ice machine conks out. Rather than let the fish rot, they make an ill fated decision to try for home through the perfect storm- where two fronts and a hurricane are converging.

I enjoyed The Perfect Storm immensely the first time, and just as much the second. The special effects are well done as we see the waves battering the fisherman and their boat. The acting is well done, and I think Clooney will be well remembered for this role. Also, Mark Wahlberg and Diane Lane gave strong performances. Finally, the soundtrack is great, as it was done by composer James Horner, better known for the music of Titanic, among a long and distinguished career.

If you missed The Perfect Storm the first time around, definitely catch it on DVD. It's already a classic, and a great thriller of the sea.


Overall Grade: A

The Astronaut Farmer (2006)


Billy Bob Thornton plays Charlie Farmer in the film, The Astronaut Farmer. This movie portrays the ambition of a Texas rancher, and his dream that wouldn't die, despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles and adversity. Along the way, he assisted by his somewhat more grounded wife, Audrey Farmer, portrayed by Virginia Madsen.

Charlie was a military pilot with all the "right stuff." While he was in the exclusive NASA astronaut club, he retires from the military before he gets his turn comes up to leave the planet. Now he is living the “American dream” with a heavily mortgaged cattle ranch, a wife and three kids. Faster than we can say "blastoff," this father scrapes together some funds, puts his aerospace degree to work, and is assembling a bona fide rocket in his barn, pieced together from boneyard space program parts. When he tries to procure some rocket fuel, the federal agencies descend and things get really interesting.

The storyline of this film definitely crosses into Mythbuster's "Implausible" at more than one point. Still, The Astronaut Farmer is more about one man's dream than about hard space science. While this film is entertaining, it is largely forgettable. While the mission control scene was lifted from the film Apollo 13 (how could one antenna station in Texas contact the capsule on the other side of the planet?), The Astronaut Farmer is not quite even the "Lite" version of a top notch space film. View it more as entertainment, and simply enjoy.

Overall Grade: B

DC Comics Covergirls

Ah, those lovely ladies of the DC Comics universe: powerful, attractive, seductive, and often wearing skin-tight outfits. But what is their history? What variety is present among the women of these comics? DC Comics Covergirls is a coffee table book that provides the reader with images, histories, and details on these characters.

Comic book author Louise Simonson is the guide through the women that have graced the covers of DC Comics from the 1940 through the present. After a quick history lesson of female characters in the primarily male comic book universe, DC Comics Covergirls focuses on different characters (Wonder Woman, Lois Lane, Supergirl) and groups of women (Gotham Girls includes Batgirl, Catwoman, Harly Quinn, and Poison Ivy, while Vertigo and New Generation sections include women on the covers of an amazingly diverse series of comic books).

The artwork collected is amazing. Fans hoping for cheesecake-style pictures won't be disappointed, but there is also tremendous variety in the artwork. Different artists have radical visions of their heroines, or borrow from pop culture, or create truly visionary, dazzling images. Simonson is an excellent tour guide through this universe, filling us in on the backgrounds to these characters and how the art reflects changes in the characters. Every image also includes the cover artist, year of publication, and a sectence or two from Simonson about the picture. And Adam Hughes, who made a substantial amount of the art here, offers up the One Undeniable Truth in his introduction. What more could you want?

DC Comics Covergirls is a beautiful, informative, and indispensible tome featuring many of the most iconic and up-and-coming women of the DC Comics universe. This is a wonderful book that deserves a place in the library of any comic book fan or lover of art.

Overall Grade: A

Reviewed by James Lynch

Shooter (2007)

If the idea of a sniper disturbs you, then Shooter will certainly send shivers up, and down, your spine. This film stars Mark Wahlberg and Danny Glover as we enter a world of sniper and countersniper.

Wahlberg plays Bob Lee Swagger, a retired Marine Gunnery Sergeant whose expertise was in being a sniper- some say he is the best around. In the opening sequence, he and his partner take on a whole company of enemy soldiers, and force them to retreat in a scene that would be at home in any Rambo film. Disillusioned at how his country treats him afterwords, he retires to the beautiful Wyoming wilderness. In a scene reminiscent of FireFox, Colonel Isaac Johnson, played by Danny Glover and his crew of operatives show up to recruit Wahlberg back into duty. There is credible evidence of an assassination plot against the President, and they think it will be a sniper shot from way far off. After whistling some patriotic tunes, Glover gets Wahlberg to come back to civilization to protect the leader of the free world. Unfortunately for Wahlberg, he is being set up big time, and soon it is him against the entire FBI.

Warning: Science Content!

At one point in the film, Wahlberg takes a bullet in the right upper chest. While it is lower than the one in Babel, and thus the subclavian vessels would not have been traumatized. Still, even a small caliber bullet from a handgun into the chest would have been likely to cause a pneumothorax, which untreated is universally lethal. How does Wahlberg treat this on the run? First, he uses the military’s new super hemostatic powder to arrest the bleeding. Ok, that would probably work, although no one really bleeds to death from skin edges, or the muscles of the chect wall. Next, he decides to give himself some IV fluids via water, mixed with salt, piped through some tubing from under the car’s hood, and into the vein via a marinade injecting needle. This totally wouldn’t work- none of this is sterile, the sodium content of the fluid would be so wrong, it wouldn’t be leakproof, air could enter the tubing causing an embolism, and the needle looked too large for the vein, especially for inserting it yourself, and likely too blunt. As if this couldn’t get any worse, then he uses the gas from a can of Redi-Whip topping to provide anesthesia for his wound debridement. Again, nitrous oxide, even at 100% (which is impossible to administer because you’d asphyxiate from hypoxia), is simply not capable of providing general anesthesia. Finally, he uses sugar as a disinfectant for the wound, and while this sounds ridiculous, there are still a few in modern medicine that seriously use this technique. Overall, the medical details of the plot are in need of a serious dose of accuracy. For example, if they had made the leg wound more serious, and left out the chest and the IV, this all would make considerably more sense.

Leaving aside the medical details, Shooter is a great thriller. The plot moves along well, and there are enough twists and turns to keep your attention. It also makes a few references to the Kennedy assassination, and seeing how the facts and evidence gets distorted in this film makes one wonder what really went on that day when JFK was killed. Shooter is an action packed film for those that want a good modern day conspiracy thriller.

Overall Grade: B+ (It would have been higher if the medical details were more plausible).

Cars (2006)


Cars is a look at a rookie race car struggling on its climb to fame and fortune. It features the voices of Owen Wilson, Paul Newman, and Bonnie Hunt. It features an entire society of automobiles and other vehicles, but no humans.

The plot unfolds as the Piston Cup race ends in a truly photo finish resulting in a three way tie. The winner will be decided in a final race in California. Along the way our rookie racer, Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) falls off the flatbed, ends up in a Route 66 town, and learns a few things about himself, as well as racing. He is guided along the way, kind of like in an early Tom Cruise "formula film" by the old master, Doc Hudson, whose voice is supplied by none other than Paul Newman who is over 80 years old these days. The story mostly takes place in Radiator Springs, a Route 66 Western town that is as fascinating as any of the characters.

The really outstanding aspect of this movie is the computer animated graphics. While the story is a little trite and predictable, the awesome animation is what really held my interest throughout Cars with a level of realism that was never possible with traditional animation. As these race cars speed around the track, it looks quite realistic, and is quite a bit better than what was possible even a few short years ago.

If you want a very visually engaging film with a so-so plot, than Cars is for you, as well as the whole family.

Overall Grade: B

7.26.2007

Very Bad Deaths - Spider Robinson (2004)

Spider Robinson was saddled early in his career with a New York Times review that nominated him as "the new Robert Heinlein." Whether or not that's true, what is true is that he's a damn fine writer. He is most famous for his Callahan's books, of which this is not one.

Very Bad Deaths is Robinson's take on a thriller with just a single element, well maybe two, of fantasy or science fiction. Told in the first person, our hero, a suicidal journalist named Russell Walker, is presented with unimpeachable evidence of a horrific crime which is to take place soon.

The unimpeachable source is an old college friend who is a telepath. But reading minds hurts, and reading nasty minds hurts more. The telepath learned of the proposed crime in the simplest fashion possible - he heard it in the killer's thoughts. Of course, the killer was in a private plane flying over the place where the telepath had fled to avoid reading minds. And in the few seconds he was in range, the psychopath didn't think of anything convenient like his own full name, the names of his proposed victims or their addresses. No, rather he dwelt on what he would do to them - what very bad deaths he would inflict.

Thus Robinson neatly turns the usual conundrum about telepathy in mysteries on its head. Walker knows very little, but must act or an innocent family will be tortured physically and psychically in a variety of truly horrible ways by a killer who is the Aristotle of cruelty.

Robinson is like Heinlein in some ways. His characters draw you in, Walker, the telepath, the cop who Walker gets involved, and even the killer are all compellingly drawn. At least the first three are all folks you might like to get to know, the last you devoutly hope you never meet. And you do get to know them all, at least a little, through the pages of the book.

Overall Grade: B+

7.22.2007

CBGBs Forever

The New York City club CBGBs may be the founding location of punk rock music in the United States, giving many bands a place to play their music loud and fast for the first time. The tribute album CBGBs Forever reflects the energy and the diversity inspired by this landmark club.

The collection of music on this tribute album is quite varied chronologically, with older bands such as Blondie, Talking Heads, the Ramones and the Damned represented alongside contemporary acts like Green Day, Velvet Revolver and Good Charlotte. And while the songs belong to the punk movement, there's quite a bit of diversity here: There's anger in songs like "Favorite Son" and "Cochise," political commentary in "My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down" and even romance and teen lust in "Mountain" and "Hanging on the Telephone." Considering how serious U2 seems to take themselves these days, it's fun to hear them cover the Ramones' "Beat On The Brat."


Alas, the title and purpose of this album are ironic: CBGBs Forever was created to raise money for the legal battle to keep the club open, yet CBGBs lost that fight and closed down. But the music here demonstrates what an impact CBGBs had on the music scene. The final song on the album is "Sonic Reducer" by the Dead Boys, a song containing the raw anger and ambition of the punk music scene. It's a perfect end to the album, and a great reminder of what CBGBs was to so many.


Overall Grade: A-

Reviewed by James Lynch

7.20.2007

Children of Men (2006)

Children of Men is a futuristic look at society two decades into the future. It stars Clive Owen.

This film takes place in the year 2027. Rather than things being so technologically advanced, the writers chose to have their technology circa 2010, because at that point the world fell apart- literally. The entire planet is in turmoil with anarchy prevalent everywhere except for Great Britian. “Jolly Good!” for the Brits, as theirs is the only country left. As if this wasn’t enough of a problem, on top of that, no one has been able to have a baby in almost twenty years. While the infertility specialists must be busy working on the problem, the other issue of the day is that England has been overrun with illegal aliens, called “fugees,” short for fugitives in the film.

While this is a cautionary, and apocalyptic look at mankind’s future, there is much unexplained here. Why is the world in anarchy, and the fugitives in England? What is the reason for worldwide infertility? And why is one women appearing to carry her pregnancy to term? Even at the end, I’m unsettled and wondering why raise so many questions without answers (kind of like a Senator Chucky Schumer Sunday press conference...).

While Children of Men has some intriguing visual imagery, including the futuristic cars designed to look beat up and old, the story is clearly lacking here. I feel like this movie was very half baked and too far from the mainstream to appeal to a mass audience.

Overall Grade: C

Run Silent, Run Deep (1955)

Sometimes there’s no substitute for being there. I find that the best novels are from those that can convey there actual experience into fiction. While any of us could write a novel of World War II, for example, few would have the first hand knowledge that author Edward Beach brings to the table. You see, he was a submarine commander in the Pacific during WWII, and although Run Silent, Run Deep is a fictional work, it is still firmly grounded in what really went on from someone who did it in this author's debut novel.

The novel opens shortly after Pearl Harbor, and the “sleeping giant of America” comes off of its peacetime footings and scaling up for war. We meet the characters as they are training on an old WWI sub at the base at New London, Connecticut. In a rush to get subs into the battle, folks are getting promoted to sub commander who in peacetime would take a lot longer. Also, a bit of a love triangle develops between the sub captain, his executive officer and a civilian female.

After taking a new sub through the Panama Canal, we find our crew going up against Bungo Pete- a Japanese destroyer commanded by an ex-submariner. He knows the American tactics too well, and proves a formal adversary against several of the sub crews as he sinks them one by one. I definitely give credit to the men that went out in these boats that were so crude compared to modern standards. For example, they barely had sonar, and half the time they attacked from the surface because it was easier than using the periscope!

Compounding the American challenges is a torpedo that doesn’t work correctly. Even with vigilant maintenance, the torpedo that the American subs are firing has a high fail rate, striking the target and literally bouncing off. Our captain on a shore side assignment takes on the challenge of dealing with this. Finally, in an epic sea battle that would make Herman Melville proud, the latest American sub goes up against Bungo Pete’s destroyer in a death match to the very end.

I enjoyed this novel very much. As an aside, I had read this work when I was a lot younger, and I had enjoyed it quite a bit that time also so it was interesting to see how much my taste hasn’t changed. The descriptions of Pearl Harbor, and Waikiki are also very accurate, and again the author’s first hand experience come into play here. While this novel is over fifty years old, it still reads well, and is a classic at this point. Fans of either World War II, or the Navy will enjoy Run Silent, Run Deep very much.

Overall Grade: A-

Dreamgirls (2006)

It’s always difficult to adapt entertainment from one genre to the next. For example, only rarely does a film accurately portray what really goes on in the book. Similarly, a successful Broadway musical, like Dreamgirls, is quite the challenge to adapt to the big screen.

With that said, a star studded cast put forth an outstanding effort to convey the energy of musical theater onto film. This includes Jamie Foxx, Eddie Murphy, Beyonce Knowles, Danny Glover and Jennifer Hudson of American Idol runner up "fame." The plot is loosely based on the real life climb to stardom of Diana Ross and the Supremes. Why we need to thinly disguise the real basis of the story, I’m still not quite sure. The play apparently gets done in two acts, the first is the mid 60’s, and the second is the mid 70’s which the film follows as well.

While the musical choreography and vocals were well done, I will admit that at times the plot ran thin. On more than one occasion I felt like I was watching a Motown video more than a film. Rather than have some meaningful dialogue at several points that would clarify where things were going, the screenplay too easily resorted to yet another song. In a live Broadway show it would seem more appropriate, but in the film it feels somewhat overdone.



Still, Dreamgirls is quite entertaining. It is enjoyable to hear how the music progresses during the decade represented in the film. Some historical footage of relevant news is interspersed, and this serves to give the music some context. When you want some Motown tunes, and can’t get tickets for a Broadway show, then Dreamgirls should be a reasonable substitute. Jennifer Hudson’s vocals are excellent, and the audience must continually wonder how she didn’t win on American Idol. Just bear in mind where Dreamgirls came from because as a film on its own, its merely average.

Overall Grade: B


The Lake House (2006)

I remember when this film came out, the critics killed it, and I avoided it like the plague. Still, I was always raised to think for myself, so I checked it out and was pleasantly surprised. The Lake House features Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves.

The premise of the film is a little wacky. Bullock plays Kate Forster a medicine doctor practicing in Chicago in 2006. Reeves portrays Alex Wyler, an architect designing housing in 2004. They both are living in this lake house which rises on stilts from the shore of the lake. They exchange notes via the mailbox out front, and they are having this romantic relationship as neither can find their soul mate in their current “time zone.”

While I realize that the premise put many other critics off, at the very least if we think of it as a romance/time travel movie, it does win some points for originality. Also, as the film progresses, things do finally come together better than in many other films. Also, the visual imagery of the film, complete with the beautiful lake and stunning shots of Chicago contribute to a high quality feel of this film. The acting was also strongly done.

In conclusion, I did enjoy this film quite a bit despite how so many other critics felt. Those looking for a different type of romance movie should check out The Lake House.

Overall Grade: B+


7.19.2007

The Fear in Yesterday's Rings - George C. Chesbro (1991)

The "Mongo" series is an odd duck. The books aren't pure mysteries, but they aren't quite horror, nor thriller, nor fantasy. What they are is weird and jolly good fun. This book is the tenth in the series of fourteen, and all of the books are worth checking out.

Dr. Robert Frederickson, aka Mongo the Magnificent, is an ex-circus performer, a dwarf acrobat in fact, turned criminologist. His brother, Garth, is an ex-cop. His friends included other circus folk, Vietnam vets, secret government agents and assorted misfits and outcasts. They find themselves opposing US and foreign black-ops groups, con-men using the trappings of Satanism, and international cartels of various types of bad guys.

The Fear in Yesterday's Rings takes Mongo back to his roots in a small traveling circus. He's out to help out an old friend, the former owner, by buying it back for him to run. Coincidentally, there have been a number of lurid "werewolf" murders in the area. But Mongo has no interest in that. At first.

Of course, no one believes that he's just out looking to buy a circus, and there is something odd about the circus ...

The book builds tension nicely, and the climax is more thriller than mystery, but good thriller. Chesbro writes well, and his characters are engaging and Mongo himself is a delightful creation. The whole series is recommended.

Overall Grade: B

7.17.2007

Bimbos of the Death Sun - Sharyn McCrumb (1988)

Bimbos of the Death Sun has become something of a cult classic in the last twenty years, more for its setting than for any other merit. Which is not to say that it doesn't have other merits, merely that they are overshadowed by the crisp and accurate portrayal of the sci-fi/fantasy con which forms the backdrop to the story.

The title of the book is also the title of the book written by the hero of the book - if that sounds a little self-referential, that could almost be a through-line for the entire book. The hero, Dr. James Owen Mega, has written a hard SF novel retitled by his publisher with an eye to titillation. He is a professor at the local college and unfamilar with the whole fandom scene, thus playing the role of ignorant newcomer to whom folks can explain things - not-so-incidentally providing explanations to readers to whom a large science-fiction and fantasy convention of the 80's may be a completely different and strange world. (Although to be fair, even to those of us who went to some of these in our misspent youth, the world remains strange just not as different.)

The mystery itself is rather pedestrian. McCrumb has written better, if more mainstream, mysteries. What makes Bimbos such a hit is the dizzying array of characters, almost all stereotypes, but lovingly drawn. As someone who did hit a few of these cons in the 80's, I recognized every character in the book. Indeed, I probably was at least one or two of them. The book captures a time and place very well, and was a wonderful nostalgia trip. McCrumb does write well, and if the plotting of this book is a little sub-standard, that's OK because that's not really the point.

For gamers or sci-fi/fantasy fans, especially those who came of age in the 80's, the book is a welcome blast from the past. Even without that background, it's a pretty good read, it just won't resonate as well. Still it's a fast, light read and recommended - although copies may be hard to come by.

Overall Grade: B

7.13.2007

Miss Potter (2006)

Before Harry Potter was all the rage, Beatrix Potter, author of the Peter Rabbit Tales, was THE Potter. In fact, a short century ago, she was developing into the most popular children’s author of all time. In the film Miss Potter, Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor ably help recreate this fascinating tale.

Beatrix Potter (Renee Zellweger) comes from a well to do British family. Rather than getting married as society and family expected of a proper young lady, she spends her time coming up with stories and watercolor illustrations to accompany them. After selling some of her images to greeting card companies, she pitches her idea to a book publisher. The two senior brothers of the publisher push her off on their "new to the business" little brother Norman Warne (Ewan McGregor) to basically get him out of their way. What results is a series of books with worldwide sales that would make even JK Rowling proud.

The other side of the plot shows us the romance between the author and her publisher in 1902. Needless to say, the world was a much different place back then. Seeing the courtship, from a bygone era, complete with chaperon, and with letters, not phone calls and instant messages puts our current era of instant communications into a new focus. Miss Potter also touches on the author’s devotion to the Lake District of England, and its eventual preservation through her land purchases and bequests after her death.

Miss Potter is not only a delightful film, but it is also great insight into a very popular author. Renee Zellweger, with her British accent still ready to go after Bridget Jones's Diary (and its forgettable sequel), does a great job with the role. Miss Potter is a pleasant look into both this popular author, and England at the turn of the century for all ages.

Overall Grade: A-


Don't Forget the Lyrics! (Fox Television)

You can always count on the Fox network to come out with some almost original programming. The same week that NBC decides to debut their new singing game show, "The Singing Bee," they decide to come out with Don't Forget the Lyrics! We start with a set and prize structure awfully similar to "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?" (complete with lifelines that get redubbed backup singers for the musical theme). Add in categories of songs that are reminiscent of "Jeopardy." The final ingredient is a dash of karaoke thrown into the mix.

A single contestant is in the spotlight, and they get to choose what type of song to sing. Then the band strikes it up, and it's karaoke time- off pitch, off rhythm and all. As there is some serious money here, the missing words seem to be in one of the later verses that most people only hum along to. At the appropriate time, the lyrics stop, the band plays on, and we find out how well the contestant really knows the song as they fill in the missing 4 to 10 words. It was fun to be able to play along at home- although I quickly realized that I didn't know the lyrics to many of these songs, although they were popular songs. At the top level is the million dollar song, it's probably something a little more obscure.

Overall, for a summer filler show, I did find Don't Forget the Lyrics! entertaining this week. Whether it will grow anything beyond that remains to be seen. Host Wayne Brady, no stranger to music from "The Drew Carey Show" where many of his impromptu lyrics to songs were classically hilarious, adds energy to the stage as he dances and sings along. Anyone who knows their music, and could use some serious extra cash should consider going on the show. If Scott wasn't busy next week, I'd suggest he take a profitable trip out to California...

Overall Grade: B-

Raise the Titanic! (1976)

Now that I've finished The Corps, I'm working on the handful of Clive Cussler novels that I haven't read yet. Raise the Titanic! is the third novel of the original Dirk Pitt series, and the fourth when we factor in the later released first novel, Pacific Vortex. You may recall that Raise the Titanic! got made into a film in the early 80's which was supposedly pretty bad, and the author consistently discourages folks from seeing.

While at the center of the plot is the plan to salvage the legendary passenger liner, there are plenty of subplots going on. We have a whole story around an imaginary element, Byzanium, which is required for a missile defense shield. Perhaps because the Titanic was found in more pieces that can be raised (intriguingly within two years of when this novel thought it would be found), or maybe because missile defense systems are no longer futuristic science fiction, but the whole central plot line seems a tad tired and dated. The parts with the Russians, practically sickle and hammer wielding, reinforce this concept of out of date.

While it was enjoyable to read about a more youthful Pitt, and hear about Admiral Sandecker less of a desk jockey and more hands on, I still missed many of the signature items that routinely appear in Cussler's later works. There is no car chase, no St. Julien Pearlmutter and his library, nor trip to Dirk's hangar. There were also too many characters for the size of this short novel that I found confusing at times to keep straight who everyone was.

In conclusion, Raise the Titanic! is one of my least favorite Dirk Pitt novels. That said that still makes it better than many other books out there. While it is hardly a timeless work, as so many of this author’s other novels are, it is still required reading for Cussler fans.

Overall Grade: B

Perfume (2001)

Perfume is a film that attempts to chronicle a Fashion Week in New York. It stars Jeff Goldbloom and Muriel Hemingway. The idea was to have a series of intertwining stories of the various characters as we proceed towards the big events of Fashion Week in NYC.

This film felt like an amateur film production from beginning to end. I'm still not sure how screenwriters and directors can't understand that their job is to tell a story. Start with a beginning, introduce the characters, have some conflict develop, and resolve it somehow by the end. Shakespeare was a master at this in his plays, and plenty of other folks understand how to set up a compelling plot. Unfortunately, the makers of Perfume do not. What results is a mish mosh (in kind terms) of characters, whose paths never really intertwine. There are way too many players, and a total lack of plot. Seriously, a ten year old with a borrowed video camera wandering around Fashion Week could tell a better story with a little help editing.

On top of this, for a movie that is supposed to be about New York, there were plenty of times I couldn't even tell what city I was in. A well shot film should use the location as an additional character, and they missed the boat here too. No, we don't need the Statue of Liberty in every other shot, but most of the film could have been shot in Chicago or Baltimore for the shots they got.

I hadn't heard of this film before, and I think Perfume should be forgotten.

Overall Grade: D-

Pride (2007)

Pride stars Terrence Howard, Bernie Mac and Tom Arnold. It is a look at a group of African American teens in a poor Philly suburb during 1974.

A PDR (Philadelphia Department of Recreation) Center is as good as shut down and closed. An out of work math teacher, Jim Ellis, played by Terrence Howard, gets a temporary job assignment to help the custodian pack it up. Drawing upon his high school swim days, he decides to fill up the pool. Only when the basketball hoops get dismantled, the teens decide to take a dip. One thing leads to another, and a rivalry quickly develops between the teens from the wrong side of town, and the swim team of Mainline Academy, a private school. The coach of Mainline is ably played by Tom Arnold (they're both basically "blow hards" so it wasn't really much of a stretch). Faster than we can say "inner city kids" we've got the PDR teens going stroke for stroke with the undefeated city champs. Their coach never gets to utilize his mathematics degree, and makes a career out of his temporary assignment.

Maybe I've seen too many of these films lately, but Pride is rather formulaic. While the swimming is a little different than the more usual basketball, this film feels like it all has been done before. Pride reminds me of a redone version of Glory Road, and not as strong. Also, while I often think these films need more editing, when I watched the deleted scenes on the DVD I thought they should be included in the film. I don't want to leave you with the impression that Pride is bad, it just follows the troubled inner city youth theme a little too closely without breaking any new ground. When you're in the mood for some “stand up and cheer,” check out Pride.

Overall Grade: B

Ozomatli, Don't Mess With The Dragon (Concord Records, 2007)

Ozomatli, who take their name from the Aztec astrological symbol of the monkey, are a multi-ethnic, multi-genre band from Los Angeles. For nearly a decade, they have combined rock, Latin music, and hip hop with outspoken political views, and are known for the party atmosphere at their shows. Their fourth studio CD has a great edgy title in Don't Mess with the Dragon, but the band have traded in some of their bluntness for more musicality and an increased emphasis on the fun in their music. Only "Magnolia Soul," about New Orleans, reflects the left-leaning politics that the band have typically worn on their sleeve. Naturally this hasn't pleased some of their older fans, but most of the basic elements of the Ozomatli sound remain in place. In fact, the album opens with a great one-two punch of the catchy single "Can't Stop" and an aggressive rap about their hometown called "City of Angels." The rest of the album doesn't quite reach the same heights, but as usual there's a little bit of something for everybody. They rap, they salsa, they get funky, they have group sing-alongs in both English and Spanish, and they generally have a good time. Don't Mess with the Dragon clocks in at under forty minutes, but I like it when bands don't pack their CD's with too much filler material simply because the CD gives them more space to work with.

My general impression of Ozomatli over the years is that they have a great attitude and a great underlying concept, but they haven't yet translated that into a consistently great album. While Don't Mess with the Dragon continues in this vein, it has plenty of good, fun songs to make it worth a few listens.

Overall grade: B

7.11.2007

The Essential Ellison - Harlan Ellison (1987)


Reviewing collections like this is akin to reviewing greatest hits albums - it's all stuff which is good, or it wouldn't make it to the anthology. Therefore, I will end the suspense - this is A rated, with the caveat that if you are already an Ellison fan you probably have most of these pieces somewhere already. With that out of the way ...

Harlan Ellison is a writer's writer. By that I mean that, when I read Ellison, it makes me want to go and write. Usually I end up reading more Ellison instead, though, which is no bad thing. This collection is a "35-Year Retrospective." What that means is that all the greatest hits are there, but also some early material, material that is weaker by most measures but which shows his development or is interesting for historical reasons - like "The Sword of Parmagon" published at the age of 15 in a kid's column in the local newspaper. Tracing the evolution of a writer as versatile as Ellison is fascinating.

What really sets Ellison apart from other, equally accomplished, writers of science-fiction is his out-of-genre work, especially his essays. While other writers, Isaac Asimov springs to mind, have tackled non-fiction or other genres, few have been such prolific essayists or so passionate in their execution. When Ellison rages, the rage flows from his soul to his pen to the page and, thence, to the soul of the reader. His columns on television (collected in The Glass Teat and The Other Glass Teat, with a few included here) are scathing indictments of a society that seems to value crap above quality in most of its entertainment. His essay "Our Little Miss" prefigures the media circus around Jon-Benet Ramsay as he rails against the sickness that parades toddlers in swimsuits in front of adults and calls it a "beauty pageant."

Ellison does not suffer fools gladly, and will gladly explain why in terms of vitriolic splendour.

Ellison has also written, and written well, for a variety of media - included in this collection is an entire teleplay for an "Our Man Flint" tv series, sadly unproduced. His observations on the business of writing for film and tv are tinged, or sometimes rife, with the frustration of one who sees potential wasted.

His vision is his and is uncompromising. Somehow, I Don't Think We're in Kansas, Toto is the story of how he lost vast sums of money rather than have corrupted junk go out under his name. The story of his lawsuit over the film The Terminator makes interesting reading, as well.

Ellison has never fit comfortably in the box labelled "science-fiction writer," although he tends to pigeon-holed there since most of his most famous pieces ("Repent, Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman and A Boy and His Dog, for instance, both included) can be categorised as such. Indeed, most of his fiction has some element of fantasy or "speculative fiction" to it, but it is not typical sci-fi fare (and he dislikes that contraction, I understand.)

Ellison is a complicated writer, a writer of both breadth and depth. A writer whose pre-occupations can be tracked through his body of work, and whose passion for his work - his art - and his rage at injustice, whether perpetrated directly against him or against others, is a light which illuminates almost every page.

If you've never read Ellison, then go forth and do so, This collection is fine way to go, although if you've never read Ellison before, start with the section entitled "Classics" and then go back and start over. Other collections would be good, too. Just go read some Ellison if you haven't.


Overall Rating: A

7.10.2007

Watherson: Carthy, Holy Heathens and the Old Green Man (Topic Records, 2006)


Norma Waterson was renowned for being part of the English family folk group The Watersons when she married guitarist Martin Carthy. Carthy had built up a large reputation in folk circles as a solo artist, in duets with legendary English fiddler Dave Swarbrick, and as a member of the folk/rock outfit Steeleye Span. (From a pop perspective, his claim to fame is that he taught Paul Simon how to play "Scarborough Fair" when Simon lived in London for a year in the early sixties.) The Watersons regrouped in 1972 after a brief hiatus with Carthy joining them, and Waterson and Carthy have been musical as well as romantic partners ever since. For the past decade, that has meant performing as the group Waterson: Carthy with their fiddling daughter Eliza Carthy and more recently with accordionist Tim van Eyken. Their latest project, called Holy Heathens and the Old Green Man, compiles secular and religious traditional English songs celebrating Christmas and the New Year. The vocal group The Devil's Interval joins Waterson: Carthy for many of the pieces, providing extra punch to some big, sing-along choruses.

Holy Heathens and the Old Green Man largely succeeds because of the fun, celebratory feel of many of the songs. While the harmonies in the group sing-a-longs could have been tighter, they do convey to the listener the sense of being at a feast in an old hall during the holiday season. None of the material would be immediately obvious to a pop music fan, although a few of the melodies are structured similarly to "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen." Martin Carthy's voice unfortunately shows some wear, but Waterson's distinctively jovial voice remains firmly intact and carries much of the album. The quieter material on the album is dominated by a pair of songs sung by Eliza, "Jack Frost" and the gospel song "Gloryland." Eliza continues to ably balance her fine solo career with her work with her parents, and shines in both contexts.

The music of Waterson: Carthy is unrepentantly traditional. Fans of old English folk songs, especially the Christmas carols, will enjoy Holy Heathens and the Old Green Man. Given how the same Christmas songs tend to get played over and over again starting earlier in November every year, whether they're any good or not, Waterson: Carthy breath some life into a wholly stagnant genre ironically by resurrecting older material that actually has some quality to it.

Overall grade: B

7.06.2007

Richard Thompson, Sweet Warrior (Shout Factory, 2007)

Few people familiar with the music of Richard Thompson would dispute that he is not only one of rock's elite songwriters, but also one of its masters of both the acoustic and electric guitar. And yet, despite forty years of high-quality music under his belt, Thompson remains a well-kept secret. His determination to maintain a low profile has probably cost him a sizable amount of fame and fortune, but I'm sure he'd argue that it's also kept his music fresh. Thompson has kept busy well into his fifties as well, as he marks his third straight year with a new album out with his release of Sweet Warrior.

Sweet Warrior marks a return for Thompson to a full-band, electric sound after a couple of albums of mellower material. Like most Richard Thompson albums, most of the songs on Sweet Warrior revolve around love gone wrong, with some social commentary thrown into boot. Thompson doesn't normally get overtly political, but he makes an exception with the song "Dad's Gonna Kill Me," sung from the perspective of a British soldier fearing for his life in Baghdad. "Nobody loves me here," the soldier keeps repeating, conveying a convincing sense of constant despair. Musically, most of the album treads on fairly familiar ground; the lively rocker "Bad Monkey," for example, will remind long-time fans of "Tear-Stained Letter." "Francesca" provides a welcome change of pace, though, as Thompson shows he can handle a Jamaican rhythm. My favorite track is "Johnny's Far Away," in which Thompson sets a traditional-feeling song of infidelity to an edgy rock beat in a jig rhythm.

Sweet Warrior is par for the course, by Richard Thompson's standards. On one hand, this means that his fans will find plenty of songs to their liking, and plenty of cool guitar parts to try (generally without success, in my case) to figure out how to play. On the other hand, there's no real stand-out track likely to win Thompson many new fans, the way that songs like "I Feel So Good" and the classic "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" off the album Rumor and Sigh first grabbed my attention back in 1991. But if you're curious to hear what Richard Thompson sounds like, Sweet Warrior is a perfectly good place to start; just don't expect to stop there.

Overall grade: B+

Winterpills, the light divides (Signature Sounds, 2007)

Winterpills' self-titled debut CD earned a fairly favorable review from me last year. Phillip Price (vocals, acoustic guitar, keyboards), Flora Reed (vocals, keyboards), Dennis Crommett (lead guitar), Dave Hower (drums), and newly added bassist Brian Akey have just released their sophomore effort the light divides, and not a whole lot has changed. From the ominous minor chords introducing the opening song "Lay Your Heartbreak," followed by Reed's haunting harmony over Price's lead vocals, it's pretty clear that the new album picks up right where the debut left off. For Price, writing pretty, melancholy melodies with dark and often cryptic lyrics ("Hide me, tell everyone where I am but please, hide me") comes naturally. This will limit the band's audience, of course; if you're the kind of person who frequently labels songs as "too depressing," you won't like this. Personally, I find that dark music in the hands of a capable songwriter (like Beth Orton, for example) can be very therapeutic.

While I wouldn't put Winterpills in quite the same category as Orton, they are solid performers, and Price is developing into a top-notch songwriter. As was true with the first album, the band's biggest strengths are Price's memorable melodies and the vocal interplay between Price and Reed. My favorite song is the very catchy waltz "A Ransom," with a classic perverse sing-along chorus of "This is what you will wear to the end of the world." Another strong track is the single "Broken Arm," in which Price appears to be singing about a woman who's left him broken in more than one place.

On the whole, Winterpills moves a step forward relative to their debut with the light divides. Like I said before, I can't really recommend this CD to everybody, but you don't have to be facing July with two holes in your heart (I'm certainly not!) to enjoy the music.

Overall grade: B+

Retreat, Hell! (2003)

I’m happy to report, that after under a year of reading (with a few interruptions…), I’ve been able to finish the ten part series of The Corps. The final part is entitled Retreat, Hell! and I enjoyed both the novel, as well as the entire series quite well.

The title of Retreat, Hell! is based on the famous quote during the Korean War when the Americans were pulling back from North to South Korea: “Retreat, hell, we’re just advancing in a different direction!” The final part of the saga focuses around the Korean conflict, and how the Americans advanced north of the 38th parallel in pursuit of the North Korean Army in the Fall of 1950. We have much of the usual cast of Marines including McCoy, Zimmerman, both Pickerings, and even Banning. We get an inside look at the politics around General “El Supremo” MacArthur, who President Truman realizes is a double edged sword, but keeps over there to prevent him for running for the Presidency. We also get to learn about CIA operations behind enemy lines that generate information about the Chinese presence in North Korea that was hidden from other military intelligence and reconnaissance. This part of Retreat, Hell! was pretty much what I expected without any great surprises.

However, much of this novel concerns itself with military healthcare. Griffin has touched on some of these issues before, but never at such length. We get an inside glimpse into the healthcare for our nation’s wounded, both physically and emotionally. I can also say that the author did a great job of integrating this into the narrative, and I can take no issue with any of the medical facts of the story so he must have done his homework.

Retreat, Hell! is a wonderful read. While it doesn’t stand on its own, it brings together a lot of the other novels, synthesizes, and finishes well. While it ends with some future directions for the characters, my only criticism is that the story doesn’t really feel complete. It’s been four years, and no other novels seem to be planned for the series, but I could definitely enjoy these characters for at least another novel or two. I’d love to read about MacArthur’s relief of command which occurred a few months after the novel ends. Does General Pickering stay with the CIA after the war? Does McCoy ever rise in rank above Major? What happens to the CIA after the Korean War? How about when one of those Marine Corsairs encounters a Russian MIG jet? If the mark of a good author is that they leave you wanting more, than Griffin has done a splendid job.

W.E.B. Griffin, in the afterword of the novel, shares with us that he had two excellent sources for these novels. The first is that he was a combat correspondent during the Korean War which gave him access to plenty of source material. The other is that he was personal friends with Lieutenant General Ned Almond, one of MacArthur’s inner circle, better known as “The Bataan Gang.” With this level of access to first hand and not generally known information, I can comprehend why this series is so rich in inside information that’s not found in the history books or on Wikipedia.

Preliminary Grade: A+



Final Comments on “The Corps” Series

Now that I’ve finished both The Brotherhood of War, and The Corps series, I can draw some conclusions. I think they both are excellent, but overall The Corps is the stronger series. This is because it is better organized, and it moves forward in a more linear fashion with really no backtracking that characterizes Brotherhood. The Corps is less ambitious in the years of the story taking us from the Shanghai Marines from 1938 on up to the Korean War in 1950. Brotherhood on the other hand starts in the middle of World War II, but takes us up through the middle of the Vietnam Conflict which spans a longer period. One other slight disappointment is that nowhere do any of the characters from the two series meet. I really was hoping that Killer McCoy was going to bump into Craig Lowell somewhere in Korea! Seriously though, anyone with an interest in the military will enjoy The Corps immensely. The only real downside is that they are addictive, so don’t plan on reading just one. Once started, you can’t be satisfied until all ten books have been read. The author does have some other, shorter series and we’ll be looking at some of those as well in the months ahead.

Overall Grade: A+

Keeping Mum (2005)

Whenever I see actor Rowan Atkinson, I immediately associate him with Britain’s popular physical comedian- Mr. Bean. When I saw that he was in the film Keeping Mum, I decided to check it out.

The plot focuses on family life in rural Britain. Atkinson is the small town’s vicar, and he has a wife and two children. While this should be honest small town living, it’s not exactly idyllic as the daughter is a nymphomaniac, the son is bullied at school, and their mother is having an affair with her golf pro- all while the vicar is oblivious to this as he focuses more on the well being of his congregation and the Church. In the middle of this, the family takes in a new housekeeper. Unbeknownst to the family, she was previously at a “home for the criminally insane” for committing murder, and still has no remorse, and no morals. If good comedy comes out of the impossible, than we have a good setup here.


Unfortunately, Keeping Mum bumps along, and not that much happens. Yes, the housekeeper does some mischief, but there’s really not much humor in killing a neighbor’s dog in the end. The family does get some healing, and acting more appropriately, but it all feels as believable as a Brady Bunch episode. In other words, things don’t really happen this way. Finally, Atkinson, who is so strong as a physical comedian never really gets to use his skills to bring this film to life.

In short, this film was merely average, but it could have been considerably better. For those wanting to see Atkinson at his comedic best, it’s still via the Mr. Bean television series.

Overall Grade: C+

Because I Said So (2007)


Because I Said So is a romantic comedy that explores the trouble in finding a soul mate, and the relationship between a mother and a daughter. It stars Mandy Moore, Lauren Graham and Diane Keaton.

We open the film with the marriages of the two older daughters. The youngest is awfully like her mother as they run a catering business. Her mother decides that her youngest needs some help in the boyfriend department, and she takes an online personal ad out for her, and takes it upon herself to interview prospective suitors (the group of misfits that show up is hilarious). One, an up and coming architect appears to be the ideal one. A chance meeting of the mother with the jazz guitarist at the hotel where she is doing the interviewing provides the basis of the romantic comedy. While the architect appears to be the better suited, is the musician really the better man for the daughter? The mother and the rest of the family can’t stay on the sidelines as both court the youngest daughter, and her relationship becomes a family affair.


Because I Said So (the title referring to what parents often tell children without really giving a reason), is an entertaining film. It is set in visually invigorating Los Angeles and they made an effort to set scenes in areas that the locals know, rather than the touristy spots that get overused. It is well plotted, paced, and humorous. While I didn’t hear much about this film, it is worth seeking out on DVD for a relaxing two hours.

Overall Grade: A-

Fay Grim (2006)


Rarely does a film seem this dismally bad, but Fay Grim gives new meaning to the term dismal. The plot, which centers around a mixup with some secret journals, has less depth than many spoofs. Complicating it is much name dropping of many other characters, often in passing, that only obscures things further. The acting, led by Parker Posey, is quite poor and one step below a high school drama production in most cases (I apologize if I offend anyone's alma mater with that statement...). Parker is much more capable than she acts in this film. To be avant garde artsy, they shot almost every scene at an unusual angle so be prepared to tilt your head back and forth as the horizon is constantly crooked. Finally, the few action sequences consist of a series of stills which also reinforce the notion of ultra low budget.

I'm sorry to say that I've seen higher quality content on YouTube than this film. Delete it from your NetFlix queue, and move on to anything else. There was absolutely nothing to like about this dud of a film.

Overall Grade: F

7.04.2007

Pickled, Potted & Canned - Sue Shepard (2000)

This book, with the somewhat stilted subtitle How the Art and Science of Food Preserving Changed the World, is an overview of food preservation methods from antiquity to the modern day, with some speculation thrown in about pre-history as well. It is arranged roughly chronologically with "primitive" methods first, then moving on to things like canning, freezing and freeze-drying.

What can I say? I loved it. For food geeks, especially food geeks with an interest in historical cooking and foodways (see my review of Le Ménagier de Paris), this is a great little book. The style is fairly light, and liberally sprinkled with anecdotes, but there is a good bibliography and the quotes in the text contribute to an overall feel of scholarly accuracy.

The book is very readable, even for those who aren't food geeks, and is packed with bits and pieces of information which even food geeks may find new. As a survey, it touches on preservation in a wide variety of cultures and climates, and the comparison is particularly useful for those who are more tightly focussed.

The history of food also provides an insight into social history, a window into the lives of people in bygone ages, even if those ages are only a hundred years ago - remember fresh-frozen foods and Clarence Birdseye? That's an extremely recent innovation.

In short, this book is very highly recommended for foodies, and highly recommended for everyone else. Bon appetit.

Overall Grade: A

7.01.2007

Preludes by Warren Zevon

We can now add Warren Zevon to the list of artists who have released posthumous albums. Preludes: Rare and Unreleased Recordings is a collection of demos, unreleased songs, and interviews from the late, great Warren Zevon. The resulting album is a decent bunch of songs from an outstanding performer.

Most of the songs on Preludes are quieter, more introspective tunes (with the exceptions of "Werewolves of London" and "Poor Poor Pitiful Me"). The older recordings sound like demo versions of the "official" versions, which sometimes yield new lyrics (as in "Poor Poor Pitiful Me") or a stark, simpler rendition. The new songs are alright: nothing outstanding, but more than just an experiment that will only appeal to people looking for new Zevon songs after his death. The interviews are similarly neither great nor awful. And in light of Warren Zevon's untimely death from long cancer, the live rendition of "Don't Let Us Get Sick" at the end of the album reminds us of whata great artist we lost.

If you're looking for Warren Zevon's greatest songs, go with his greatest hits compilation Genius; if you want to hear him rockin' loud and hard, pick up the recently-rereleased concert album Stand in the Fire. But if you've heard all those before and would like to hear some new material, Preludes will give you some new songs from Warren Zevon.


Overall Grade: B

Reviewed by James Lynch

You Kill Me

George Carlin observed that any topic can be made humorous with sufficient exaggeration. This theory is tested, successfully, with You Kill Me, a movie that blends alcoholism, romance, and professional killings.

Frank Falczenyk (Ben Kingsley) lives in Buffalo, NY, where he works as an assassin for his uncle Roman (Philip Baker Hall), leader of the Polish mob. Frank is also a heavy and continual drinker, and when he lets Irish mob leader Edward O'Leary (Dennis Farina) survive to make it to an important meeting, Roman sends Frank off to San Francisco to get sobered up.

In California Roman's watchdog Dave (Bill Pullman) sets Frank up with an apartment and a job in a funeral home. This job leads Frank to meeting Laurel (Tea Leoni), an attractive woman who's less than put off at the death of one of her relatives. Frank also starts going to AA, gets a sponsor in Tom (Owen Wilson), and starts to consider his faults. But Frank keeps relapsing, and back east the Irish mob is getting stronger and stronger.

You Kill Me is a more subtle comedy than many, with most of the humor coming from the ordinary way Frank (and soon, his circle of support) accept his role as a hired killer with near-perfect equanimity. Indeed, the disbelief that Frank has at his first AA meeting is mirrored in the others when Frank starts talking openly about his job. The cast is perfect: Ben Kingsley is wonderful as a man who has to face his life without alcohol for the first time ever, Tea Leoni shines as a woman who finds more to support in her new man than he does, and the supporting cast creates an air of realism to the situation. There is an amoral element to the story: Frank is the protagonist who's unrepentant about his life of killing, even while trying to change other parts of his life, and no one else seems bothered by his former and future profession as a killer.


You Kill Me doesn't have a lot of laugh-out-loud moments, but it provides its audience with intelligence, good acting, a nice sense of humor throughout, and -- a rarity for a comedy -- realism. This is a very enjoyable comedy.


Overall Grade: B+

Reviewed by James Lynch