11.30.2007

Recent Visitors

It's always neat to check on where our traffic is coming from. Welcome visitors from Morocco, Egypt, Nigeria, and yes, that's Singapore off to the right. Cool!

--Jonas

Brooklyn Rules (2007)

Now that "The Sopranos" is really off the air, and we can all ponder what that ending really meant (if anything), Sopranos veteran writer, Terrence Winter, turns attention to writing a mob movie. Brooklyn Rules tries to combine a coming of age story for three Bay Ridge young men against the backdrop of the mid-80's New York mob scene. While plenty of reviewers dismissed this film for the limited use of its only star, Alec Baldwin, I really don't like his work (or how he treats his daughter), so that was fine by me.

A trio of Brooklyn early twenty year olds are struggling to find their place in the world. The local tough guy in their neighborhood, Caesar Manganaro (Baldwin) seems all powerful, and runs the area for the mob. The kids look up to him, and one pathway leads to becoming one of his crew, and one of the kids goes this route. For another, he decides to go to Columbia University where he is pre-law, and wants to get out of the ol' neighborhood, although getting out is never easy. Finally, for the third, he takes a pathway all of his own.

As Brooklyn Rules proceeds, it starts to feel like a lot of other mob movies, notably, A Bronx Tale, which is indisputably the stronger film. Still, there haven't been too many mob movies lately, and Brooklyn Rules can stand on its own. While many of the one liners between the characters are cliches and sophomoric, it does develop the relationship between them, and we do understand where they're all coming from.

One of the strengths of this film is the setting of New York City, and how they effectively used it in the film. The Verrazano Bridge is seen in the background of many shots, and they make the trip to a Brooklyn hotspot of the Spumoni Gardens. They also show Columbia University, and the scene in Manhattan's diamond district is quite hilarious.

With the disclaimer that Brooklyn Rules doesn't break any new ground, than I'm going to recommend it as just an enjoyable coming of age story in Brooklyn. Alec Baldwin fans can look elsewhere. Also of note is that among the 80's soundtrack for this film is Dire Straits' "Walk of Life."

Overall Grade: B

Reviewed by Jonas

Catch and Release (2006)

Catch and Release is one of those films that defies a neat category. While at times it resembles a romantic comedy, there are plenty of moments that are too dramatic for the typical romantic comedy. No, this film straddles the categories, and maybe this is why it had only a lukewarm reception at the box office.
I read the back of the DVD box, and I wondered how much of a downer Catch and Release was going to be. The plot is based around Gray, ably played by Jennifer Garner showing us that she can do a more serious role than 13 Going On 30 that doesn't involve kicking bad guys like in her show "Alias." Anyway, we open the film with Gray attending a funeral. You see, her fiancé ends up dying while going away for his bachelor weekend right before the wedding. However, this film doesn't focus on the death; this is really a film about picking up the pieces of life, and moving on from tragedy.

As Catch and Release proceeds, we start to wonder how much she really knew about her fiancé. As Gray cleans up her fiancé's things to prepare to move on, she starts to discover things she never knew about him. You know, little details like he was a millionaire, and that he had another woman and a child on the West coast. You know, just a few things he didn't get around to telling her.

Thankfully, Gray is not alone in her quest. Her fiance's friends come to her aid including Fritz (Timothy Olyphant), Dennis (Sam Jaeger), and Sam (Kevin Smith). Sam is an interesting character as he is especially hard hit by the loss, and he continually spouts for the wisdom from the back of Celestial Seasonings tea boxes that he is employed doing (although he misses so much work you start to wonder how he could still have a job). Together, they comfort each other in the tragedy, and keep each other out of trouble as they move on.

I must say that the fiancé's mother, Mrs. Douglas played by Fiona Shaw seems rather unbelievable. I think she would have had much more anger towards Gray, and would never really accept the illegitimate child in light of what she finds out. Also, I doubt that she would have let Gray keep the engagement ring and acted so civilly when she asked for it to be returned.

Overall, I did enjoy this film. Catch and Release was not what I expected, and that is a good thing. It doesn't fit into a neat genre, but it tells a real story. After all, life is a combination of comedy and drama, and this is a film that successfully mirrors it. I also enjoyed the scenery in the film from its setting in Boulder, Colorado.

Overall Grade: B+

Reviewed by Jonas

11.26.2007

The Plutonium Blonde - John Zakour & Lawrence Ganem (2001)

This is not a great book. That said, it's a pretty good book and a lot of fun. The Plutonium Blonde (and the sequel, The Doomsday Brunette) follow the adventures of hard-boiled 21st century detective Zachary Nixon Johnson, the last last licensed PI on Earth. That, and the title, should tell you if you are going to like this book.

The style is light and breezy; it's pun-laced sci-fi comedy, with nods to classic noir and pulp, and occasional bits of sly social commentary (such as the predilection of the current administration to label everything with "New", causing confusion when talking about "New Mexico." Or does one mean "New New Mexico?") The characters are fun, if not particularly deep. The plot is not terribly complex but has a number of cliffhangers appropriate to a pulp serial, and a momentum that keeps one reading rapidly to the end.

Ultimately, it's not the kind of book that will change your life or stick with you for years and years. It is, however, exactly the kind of book that one reads and enjoys over a Thanksgiving Holiday when one wants to relax and doesn't want anything too deep.

Overall Grade: B

11.25.2007

TripleA

I know that at least a few folks that read this site will recall the study breaks in the honors lounge at our alma mater. Being a bunch of geeks, we didn't have that beer keg hidden in the back, and we certainly weren't inhaling anything (except the fumes of the organic chemistry lab). Rather, there were two popular board games that entertained us for years. One was Risk, and the more complicated one was Axis & Allies.

While both were fun, the downside was that the setup and clean up was a job in itself. Also, there were lots of little plastic pieces that were easy to lose, never to be found again (they're probably in between some sofa cushions somewhere). Anyway, it always seemed like the perfect game to put onto a computer adaptation. Not only that, but I recently stumbled upon it, and it's multiplatform for Windoze, Apple, and even Linux, and it's open source freeware. Cool!

You can jump over here for some more details and a screenshot, and where there is a link for download as well. I'm debating starting an email game, so feel free to weigh in on the comments either way. Hey, it's still an entertaining way to kill some time...

Overall Grade: B+

Reviewed by Jonas

11.23.2007

The Ice Limit (2000)

I always enjoy the writing duo of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. Together, they are masters of the technothriller, and also incorporate the timeless theme of man versus nature. Time after time, they can tell a great story of man taking on some project, planning it to the nth degree, and it all turning to junk as the characters couldn't plan for every eventuality.

While many of their novels focus of Agent Pendergrast, The Ice Limit is an earlier one, and really has none of their recurring characters (although they always manage to sneak in some reference to another novel's character somewhere in their ever expanding universe; see here for details).

In The Ice Limit, the task centers around the retrieval of a meteorite. While it seems simple at first, the level of difficulty grows as the details emerge: it's on an island near the Drake Passage, it will be the heaviest object ever moved by man, it's winter, the Chilean government would block expedition if they knew about it, it's of an unknown substance that's harder than anything on the Moh's scale, and the list goes on and on, including one more little detail: if you touch it you'll die instantly from the energy contained within. Yeah, this should be an easy day's work, right?

Billionaire Palmer Lloyd wants this rock at his new museum in the Hudson Valley to be his centerpiece exhibit. What's a rich guy with tons of money to do? He enlists the aid of an engineering consulting firm, Effective Engineering Solutions, who agree to take on the job for an exorbitant price. In order to move the meteorite they even refit an oil supertanker for the task, but need to hire a skipper with a checkered past for this most unusual moving job.

As the novel proceeds, it gets more and more interesting. The title refers to the place down by Antarctica where it's so cold that there is always ice on the ocean. Needless to say, at some point they end up down there, and it's a great ride for the reader as we follow the twists and turns of this awesome technothriller. While some of the science is literally out of this world, I could find no fault with any of it.

My only criticism of this book is that at the conclusion, it kind of has an unsettling feeling, and not a real resolution. While the authors originally intended it as such, they did take things a little further and wrote a web only epilogue to The Ice Limit. While that adds a little to the overall story, reportedly they do have a sequel planned, but no word when that might be out. In the meantime, for a science minded individual seeking some great fiction, it's hard to top the writing of Preston & Childs.

Overall Grade: A

Reviewed by Jonas

Addendum: The day I put up this review, I find this story about a ship down in the area of the ice limit.

Galactic, From the Corner to the Block (Anti, 2007)

The New Orleans band Galactic have incorporated many of the sounds of their home city into their style, from jazz to funk to rock to hip-hop. While they have worked primarily as an instrumental act, they decided to bring in a bunch of different rappers and local artists to contribute vocals for their new album From the Corner to the Block. The album had a few delays in its completion due to a major stumbling block that went by the name of Katrina, but Galactic persevered and the result is a breath of fresh musical air.

To be fair, the idea of combining rap with the sound of a full backing band is hardly new. I'm really very surprised it hasn't been done more often, given that it has generally worked. Run-D.M.C. brought a rock edge to their raps that culminated with their hugely successful 1986 cover of Aerosmith's "Walk This Way" -- a hit that, ironically, catapulted Aerosmith all the way back from the abyss to the pinnacle of arena rock without helping Run-D.M.C.'s longevity much at all. MTV Unplugged had one show featuring an assortment of rappers performing with a full band backing them up; LL Cool J doing "Mama Said Knock You Out" during this concert was the best performance the program ever aired. So Galactic has basically put their own spin on a tried and true concept.

Despite the large number of guests on From the Corner to the Block, Galactic are clearly in charge of the proceedings, and the album generally works because they back up the raps with an ideal combination of groove and muscle. This combination is best embodied in the opening song and single "What You Need," a clever and funny rap about a shady but strangely endearing street vendor by San Francisco's Lyrics Born. The similarly aggressive "Hustle Up," with vocals from Boots Riley, is another highlight. The title track, featuring local rapper Juvenile and the Soul Rebels Brass Band, adds plenty of New Orleans flavor to the mix as well.

From the Corner to the Block is a fun and energetic mixture of a wide range of musical styles. With the music industry doing its best to categorize its "product" into easily discernible sub-genres, it's always refreshing to hear a band like Galactic stand against that trend and do their own thing.

Overall grade: B+

reviewed by Scott

Evan Almighty (2007)

It always takes some work to build a sequel that is better than the original (but few are even as good as in the end). The goal of Evan Almighty was to further the story of Bruce Almighty, and the original title of this film was Bruce Almighty 2. While Morgan Freeman reprises his role as God, the comedy of the original was mostly provided by Jim Carrey, who does not return for this sophomore effort of the Almighty franchise. Instead, Steve Carrell, who was only a minor player in Bruce Almighty, is the comedic engine this time out, and it's pretty clear that he's more than a few cylinders short of Jim Carrey's V10 comedic power.

The premise is actually pretty clever. Carrell is Evan Baxter, a family man who arrives in Washington DC as a newly elected congressman with the self appointed manifesto of changing the world. His wife Joan is ably portrayed by Lauren Graham, although she wasted her time with this film. One day, Evan is given the task by God to build an ark in his Virginia housing development. Reprising the Biblical story of Noah, at first he resists, then he reluctantly proceeds as his family and neighbors look on at someone in need of psychiatric inpatient therapy. You know, the whole prophet not believed in his own time thing. His family eventually comes on board as the animals line up two by two, and the onlookers heckle even louder. This modern twist on a well known ancient tale should have proven fertile ground for plenty of comedy and plot.

Instead, Evan Almighty injects another superficial story on top of this timeless tale. They put Goodman in as crooked Congressman Chuck Long who attempts to get the freshman Evan to sponsor his bill that caters to big business. This turns into an utter sideshow as the attempts at humor are summer campish with doses of bird droppings and groin trauma are way overutilized, and not even funny in the end. Add in characters, that aside from Evan, are fairly unidimensional, and you can see why this film was made for ten year olds only.

While considerable effort and expense went into building a 450 foot ark in a Virginia housing development under construction, this is all undone by subpar special effects once the ark is underway. It's always a challenge to do waves and water with computer animation, but a decade after Titanic, and how many generations later of computer hardware and software, I would expect something to look a lot more convincing than Super Nintendo level graphics.

While there were a few details, like the Ark Building For Dummies book, that could have almost redeemed this film, in the end, they don't. There's too many cliche's, not enough depth, and you can see everything that's going to happen from a mile away. Unfortunately, the acting talent was wasted on Evan Almighty, and I really wish that it was simply a totally different film.

Overall Grade: C+

Reviewed by Jonas

Stephanie Daley (2006)

Tilda Swinton and Amber Tamblyn star in Stephanie Daley, an introspective look at the disastrous result of a teenage pregnancy. In short, while the theme of a teenage pregnancy ending in the child murdering the baby has been done umpteen times before, this movie offers nothing new, nor breaks any new ground. Read on if you need to hear more, although at this point, I wouldn't blame to if you wanted to skip on to the next review...

Tamblyn plays Stephanie Daley, the Church going model of a sixteen year old. She heads on over to a party, and a chance encounter with a departing soldier (it was somewhat coerced), results in a nine month problem. Faster than you can say "family planning," Stephanie heads into the bathroom stall, has the child, and we have a dead infant. Just like in plenty of other films, it becomes a question of stillborn infant, or murdered newborn.

Sorting out this mess is forensic psychologist Lydie Crane (Swinton). She is going through her own crisis as well as she is pregnant. This is the first of several parallels between the two of them, as well as their love of cats.

This film is an unmitigated disaster. It starts out that the pace is glacially slow, and not the chunks of ice that are melting in Greenland of late. Contributing to the confusion is that the story is told simultaneously as the base story of Stephanie conceiving and her subsequent pregnancy, and then the subsequent sorting out is superimposed on top of it. This type of storytelling works well in a film like Momento (where it creatively simulates the short term memory issue the protagonist is experiencing), but in very few other films. I think the film could have held my attention better with more of a straight through plot as this one had me hitting the INFO button on the DVD remote every few minutes to figure out when it would end.

While the performances of the two women were decent, neither is a standout. Combine that with a confusing screenplay, and you can confidently take Stephanie Daley off of the NetFlix queue. This movie feels like an overgrown ABC After School Special, and that's where this film should have stayed.

Overall Grade: D

Reviewed by Jonas

11.21.2007

Radiohead, In Rainbows (TBD Records, 2008)

I've never really been sure what to make of Radiohead. They were originally presented as the British answer to Seattle grunge when "Creep" hit MTV in 1993, but their ambitions were bigger than that. Influenced by the art rock of the seventies but remaining firmly grounded in the present, the band has created its own unique style that defies any sort of categorization. Nobody else sounds like Radiohead, it's not clear that anybody else would even know how to sound like them, and they like it that way. When they brought in Nigel Godrich to co-produce their recordings with them, starting with their third album OK Computer in 1997, Radiohead became the most talked about current band in rock. They have now held that distinction for over a decade. I never really jumped on the bandwagon, though. I'd hear individual songs on the radio and wonder what the big deal was. Their songs aren't the kind that will grab the attention of somebody only casually listening.

Of course, that's the wrong way to listen to Radiohead. Their albums are meant to be listened to as a whole, without any distractions, because the appeal of Radiohead comes from their sonic textures and superlative production standards. Simply put, nobody in rock is making better-produced recordings than Radiohead. When you consider what The Beatles accomplished with four-track analog equipment, it's a rather embarrassing commentary on the state of the music industry that with all the technological advances of the last forty years, only Radiohead has managed to advance the art of recording rock music any further. But they have advanced it.

Radiohead's new album In Rainbows will not get officially released until the end of the year, but it has been available online as a download for over a month now. The music has a little bit of everything. "Bodysnatchers" features the driving guitars that were conspicuously absent from a couple of Radiohead's more recent albums. "All I Need" is backed by electronics, while "Faust Arp" features some orchestration coupled with a pair of acoustic guitars. The soulful "Reckoner" is driven by a great sounding, heavily echoed drum track. And as always, all the songs are topped off by the eerie voice of Thom Yorke. The sound of In Rainbows lives up to the high standards that Radiohead have set for themselves. People who like to listen closely for the little details, or who appreciate what goes into producing a record, will find lots of sonic treats here.

Still, I can't escape my initial hang-ups with the band. The whole of In Rainbows is far greater than the sum of the individual parts, but I think part of the reason for that is that the individual tracks are only OK on their own. Radiohead are unquestionably elite recording artists, but I'm not so sure that they're elite songmakers. If you ask me to come up with a particularly noteworthy lyric or melody line, I don't think I could do it.

So on one hand, In Rainbows is another feast for the ears from the band that currently defines the state of the art of rock recording. On the other hand, if you're looking for a great song rather than a great recording, this might not be the best place to start.

Overall grade: B+

reviewed by Scott

11.18.2007

No Country for Old Men

The Coen Brothers return to the crime drama with No Country for Old Men, a suspenseful murder-chase story set in Texas in the 1980s.

A stoic Texan named Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is hunting when he spies a number of jeeps in the middle of nowhere. Closer inspection reveals a bloody scene -- several dead Mexicans and pitbulls, apparently shot in a drug dispiute -- along with a massive amount of cocaine and $2 million in a satchel. Llewelyn takes the satchel of money, hiding it in his trailer and telling his wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald) nothing about what he saw. Unfortunately, a trip back to the scene of the crime exposes Llewelyn to the bad guys, who pursue him. The deadliest and most relentless in Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a quiet, focused psychopath whose weapon of choice is a pressurized air gun he carries around quite freely. Chigurh is also sought by Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), a world-weary law enforcement official who's after Chigurh even before learning about the massacre; and Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson), hired by the folks who wanted to sell the drugs initially.

Much like the movie A Simple Plan, No Country for Old Men is about a seemingly sinple act that soon spirals out of control. LLwelyn first sees the money as a chance for him and his wife to retire, but soon he's sending her to relatives and jumping at every strange car outside his new hotel room and every footsteps outside his door. There are also parallels between Llewelyn and Anton: Both men are willing to fight and kill for what they believe in -- Llewelyn for his wife, Anton for his twisted principles (such as letting someone live or die based on a coin toss) -- and think they're unstoppable in their quests. Tommy Lee Jones' sheriff is almost an innocent bystander, someone with the power of the law yet feeling like a bystander unable to stop or slow the carnage happening around him.

Joel and Ethan Coen bring a measured, steady pace to their movie that creates an air of realism (no wacky characters like in Fargo or The Big Lebowski) and generate a degree of suspense that becomes almost unbearable. The acting is first rate, with special credit for Bardem for making his killer so chilling, and the final payoff will leave you thinking. If you can handle the violence here, No Country for Old Men is an experience at the movies you won't soon forget.

Overall grade: A-

Reviewed by James Lynch

11.16.2007

Mark Knopfler, Kill To Get Crimson (Warner Brothers, 2007)


A struggling tattoo artist reflects on how his true love entered his life. An actor returns to his hometown, only to meet with disappointment and a lot of gossip. An aspiring rock star makes big promises to his lady. A boxer recalls learning how to dance in secondary school. A man has his passion for painting stymied at every corner. A woman falls for a gypsy tinker and accepts the lifestyle that comes with him.

These are the quirky characters which populate the songs of Kill to Get Crimson, the new album from Mark Knopfler. Knopfler has always been a storyteller at heart. In most of his best songs, from "Sultans of Swing" off the first Dire Straits album nearly thirty years ago to the present, Knopfler sings from the perspectives of people quite different from himself. Sometimes he sings with a lot of sentimentality, other times he sings with tongue planted firmly in cheek. Kill to Get Crimson leans a bit more in the latter direction than most of his work.

Musically, Knopfler has more or less abandoned the harder rock and extended guitar solos of his now distant past for a more rustic and folksy approach that suits this batch of songs well. Kill to Get Crimson does sound different from Knopfler's recent solo work, though, in the sense that he breaks from his usual set of chord progressions. The melodies and structure of the songs on the album have a strong Celtic feel to them, to a greater degree even than on a number of songs off of his previous albums that have featured Irish instrumentation. As a result, the new album is refreshingly less predictable than its immediate predecessors.

I've often made the criticism, when discussing Mark Knopfler's solo work, that he's gotten too laid back for his own good. And yes, that still applies to Kill to Get Crimson. This album features some of Knopfler's best songwriting in a while, though, particularly on "True Love Will Never Fade" and "Secondary Waltz." The fans who've stuck around will certainly be pleased with it.

Overall grade: B+

reviewed by Scott

Fracture (2007)

Nobody, (and I do mean nobody!) does creepy quite like Anthony Hopkins. This is the actor who brought Dr. Hannibal Lecter to life in The Silence of the Lambs, and in Fracture he is just about as creepy as he's ever been.

Hopkins is Ted Crawford, a well off (euphemism for "filthy stinkin' rich," seriously, his house is impressive) consultant structural engineer type. His wife, Jennifer (Embeth Davidtz), is seriously younger than him. Jennifer gets involved in an extramarital affair with a police detective, and Ted finds out about it. Now that we have the love triangle, Ted decides to end it, by killing his wife. As there are witnesses to the shots, and he even admits it initially, this is a slam dunk case for the district attorney. Willy Beachum, played by Ryan Gosling, a young hotshot with a 97% conviction rate, takes on the case as his "last hurrah," even though he has one foot out the door at the DA's office as he heads out for greener pastures (with the green being from the cash at his new practice, not from the grass). With the stage set, how hard is it going to be to convict this guy? It gets pretty tough as Ted finds loophole after loophole, taunts Willy every step of the way, and even takes pleasure out of the whole thing as he makes a mockery out of the legal system.

The acting in Fracture is top notch, however the plot has some holes in it. Much of the story focuses on no murder weapon as the gun can't be found. It seemed like a "Scooby Doo" ending when at the end (SPOILER ALERT!) we find out that the gun was switched. How exactly did Ted get the gun back to the police detective without him noticing? And he didn't realize it had been fired recently? It simply doesn't fit together as tidily as I would like it to.

Then there is the medical problem I found that I can add to my list of medical related entertainment issues. Let's review our CPR: Find someone unconscious on the ground,call 911, then two rescue breaths, and check for a pulse. If they have a pulse then no compressions, if no pulse then start the compressions. Pretty easy, no? I guess that Fracture skimped on the medical consultants as we see the wife on the ground, they check for a pulse, state that she has one, and then start compressions. Huh? There's just no scenario where that makes any sense from what we see in the film.

Putting this all together, we have a finely acted film, but a cookie cutter, paint by numbers screenplay that limits this thriller. Fracture is decent, but with some of these issues solved, it could have been a lot stronger. Anthony Hopkins fans should seek it out, and the rest can wait for it to be on TV.

Overall Grade: B-

Reviewed by Jonas

11.14.2007

Nato Caliph, Cipher Inside (F5 Records, 2007)


As anybody who's followed our blog for any length of time knows, we don't review a whole lot of rap and hip-hop recordings here. So we were a little bit surprised when we were invited to download the album Cipher Inside by the St. Louis rapper Nato Caliph and provide a review for it online. I figured it couldn't hurt to give it a fair hearing, so I took up the offer.

On the positive side, Nato Caliph is as different from mainstream rappers as a typical folksinger is different from the latest American Idol star. With lyrics that are often both thoughtful and thought-provoking, Caliph eschews flash and showiness in favor of simple beats and some very serious politicizing. In addition to frequent barbs at the militarism of the Bush administration, he directs some of his anger towards the gang violence plaguing his own neighborhood and also to his fellow rappers. "A bunch of words to a beat mean nothing if they're only helping you," Caliph says in his opening salvo on "Physics 720 (and the Universal Laws of)," criticizing the selfishness in the rap community. He urges his listeners to arm themselves with knowledge as the means of getting out of the ghetto. Caliph frequently works with guest rappers; I'll wager a guess that most of them are friends of his from the St. Louis hip-hop scene.

I can't argue with what Caliph says. Instead, my criticism of the recording is that the underlying music isn't all that interesting, lacking the same care that Caliph put into the lyrics. In a week or two I'll be reviewing an album called From the Corner to the Block by the New Orleans funk band Galactic, in which the band gets a bunch of rappers to provide the lyrics. Without going into too much detail here about the other album, I think Caliph's raps would benefit enormously from that kind of backing, and Galactic could have used a contribution or two from Caliph as well. Still, Caliph's raps serve as a firm example that there's more to the genre than what is generally presented on MTV. Then again, there's a lot more to every style of contemporary popular music than what you see and hear in the media, so there's no reason to regard rap any differently.

Overall grade: B-

reviewed by Scott

11.10.2007

John Fogerty, Revival (Fantasy, 2007)

For those of you young enough to require an introduction, John Fogerty was the voice and lead guitar behind Creedence Clearwater Revival, who still get my vote for the greatest rock band that the United States has produced. The band split up in 1972 on less than amicable terms, and Fogerty had to forfeit the rights to his many classic songs like "Proud Mary" and "Fortunate Son" in order to secure his musical independence. Fogerty resurfaces with new material only periodically, and his new CD Revival is just the seventh album he's recorded in the thirty-five years since Creedence split. It does in fact mark a bit of a revival, in that he has returned to Fantasy Records, Creedence's old label; this was made possible by the fact that the band's former manager no longer has a vested interest in the label.

Fogerty's previous album Deja Vu All Over Again boasted a great song in its title track, a lament about the unfortunate parallels between Vietnam and the present situation in Iraq. Revival may not have a song that good on it, but it's a much more consistent album from top to bottom. The opening song "Don't You Wish It Was True" is a wistful but optimistic look at the way things should be in the world. "Gunslinger" reflects Fogerty's desire to see somebody come in (presumably in the political sense) and clean house. "Creedence Song" tells how Fogerty met his wife -- she was waiting tables at a diner and got his attention by getting one of his songs played on the jukebox. Fogerty also gets a few pointed barbs in at the Bush administration with "Long Cold Night" and "I Can't Take It No More."

The album also rocks a bit harder on the whole than Fogerty's recent efforts, while maintaining Fogerty's very distinct style. The nostalgic "Summer of Love" finds Fogerty cranking the amps up. On the minute-and-a-half "I Can't Take It No More," he evokes both The Ramones and Little Richard to get his point across. The playing of Fogerty and his four-piece backing band is solid throughout, and absolutely no rock singer from the sixties has as maintained the potency of his singing voice to anywhere near the same degree that John Fogerty has.

Revival may not have any classic songs on it, but it's a fun rocking album all the way through. John Fogerty sounds like he's enjoying making music more now than he ever has, and the enthusiasm is definitely contagious on this record.

Overall grade: A-

reviewed by Scott
photo by Annie Wells/Los Angeles Times

11.09.2007

Pushing Daisies, ABC Television, Season One

Sometimes a new television show receives tremendous buzz before its release -- and Pushing Daisies deserves it! This show is a breath of fresh air that has remained consistently entertaining as a technicolor fairy tale with romance, adventure, mystery, whimsy, comedy, a sophisticated narrator, and lots of dead bodies.

As a child, young Ned had a crush on his next-door neighbor, young Charlotte "Chuck" Charles. Ned also discovered a special ability: He could bring the dead back to life with a touch! However, this ability had two drawbacks: If he touched the resurrected person again they would die and stay dead, and if he didn't touch them within a minute someone else would die. He learned these lessons the hard way: When Ned brought his mother back to life Chuck's father dropped dead a minute later; and when Ned's resurrected mom kissed him goodnight she flopped back to death. Ned was sent away to school, while Chuck was raised by her aunts Lily Charles (Swoozie Kurtz) and Vivian Charles (Ellen Greene), who had been professional synchronized swimmers until Lily lost an eye while changing a litter box.

On to the present! The grown-up Ned (a delightfully awkward Lee Pace) has become a piemaker at a restaurant called the Piehole, where he resists the frequent advances of waitress Olive Snook (Kristin Chenoweth). Ned also tries to keep his ability a secret, but he was discovered by burly private investigator Emerson Cod (Chi McBride), who came up with a way for them to make money: Emerson finds high-profile murder cases; Ned brings the victim back to life with a touch, finds out who killed them, then touches them again less than a minute later; and they find and catch the criminal and split the reward money. Oh, and Ned lives with his dog -- the first thing he brought back from the dead -- who's still alive and happy even though his master can't pet him.

Things get complicated -- well, more complicated -- when, investigating a big murder on a cruise, Ned finds out the victim was Chuck from his childhood. After Ned brings Chuck (now played by the lovely Anna Friel) back, he can't bear to make her dead again. So now Emerson isn't thrilled to have "the dead girl" always hanging around, Chuck is upset she can't return to her aunts, Olive is incredibly jealous of the new woman in Ned's life, and Ned and Chuck are very much in love -- and she'll die the moment they touch.

Pushing Daisies is like a Tim Burton romantic comedy, with seemingly grim elements being transformed into magic. The cast is absolutely likeable, and the stories manage to be creative week after week. In addition, all of the characters keep growing and surprising us as the show goes on: Olive is still jealous of Chuck but becomes friends with Lily and Vivian; Ned struggles with whether or not to tell Chuck that he caused her father's death; and tough-guy Emerson knits when stressed. The language isn't realistic, but it is consistently clever and amusing ("You seem decidedly unhappy." "I haven't decided anything of the sort yet.")

I cannot recommend this show highly enough. It's consistently intelligent, thoroughly quotable, and tremendously entertaining. Set aside time every Wednesday night for Pushing Daisies.

Overall grade: A+

Reviewed by James Lynch

Sex Sells (1994)

Considering how controversial, silly, serious, and sexual the world of porn is, making a boring comedy about it seems a nigh-impossible feat. Unfortunately, the comedy Sex Sells manages this horrendous feat.

This movie uses the mocumentary format as Bernard Michael Hyman (Jay Michael Ferguson) films and follows around legendary porn director Chuck Steak (Mark DeCarlo) as Chuck creates his latest skin flick from start to finish. All the characters are involved in this latest porno, including "old pro" Roxy Free (Priscilla Barnes) and computer genius and new starlet Purcey Galore (Lisa Jay). And these "funny" character names should give you an idea of the level of sophistication of the movie.

Sex Sells can't even decide on its tone. There are times when it goes for broad comedy, such as a porn star who claims a 42" piece of equipment (which, of course, shoots up and hits the cameraman) or auditions (where women are told it pays $500 a day, while men are told it's $75 a day and they have to provide everything needed themselves). There are times when the movie goes for a "serious" feel, as when the stars consistently manipulate Bernard or talk about tricks of the trade. And the movie also veers into melodrama as secrets are revealed, twisted, and used; when one character comments "It's a frickin' soap opera" all I could think was "ain't that the truth." And none of these elements work: Sex Sells isn't funny, serious, or engaging.

I got this movie when the local video store was closing and Sex Sells was for sale cheaper than it would be to rent. I still feel ripped off. If you want to see a funny movie about porn, go with the great Orgazmo by Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Avoid Sex Sells.

Overall grade: F

Reviewed by James Lynch

Blades of Glory (2007)

Blades of Glory is the latest Will Ferrell formula sports parody. I think in the end, I'm simply not much of a fan of Ferrell's peculiar brand of comedy.

The film's premise is that Chazz Michael Michaels (Ferrell), and Jimmy MacElroy (Heder- who I think was dismal in Napoleon Dynamite), both get barred from men's figure skating. From the film's poster, it's not too much of a stretch to figure out what happens next. Yup, the two of them take advantage of some loophole and become an all male couple in pairs skating. Yeah, it's pretty ridiculous, and that's before they head out onto the ice.

The outfits these two wear are seriously deranged, as is much of the dialogue from their mouths as this film progresses. I can't believe some of the lines that are uttered, and not in a good way. Craig T. Nelson plays their coach as he essentially reprises his role from his television series by that name, although this time out it's skating (with practice in a fish freezer no less) and not football. There are also several cameo appearances (maybe that makes it a minor role) of Scott Hamilton playing himself as a sports anchor.

There are a few highlights. When a chase on the streets ensues on ice skates, it was mildly entertaining. Also, the choreography of the final routine, including the infamous "Iron Lotus" did hold my attention. Unfortunately, the rest of it didn't, and as such, I'm going to recommend that unless you are a huge Ferrell fan, I'd leave Blades of Glory on the ice. This is another example of the few decent parts not adding up to a decent film. Then again, Ferrell's latest film, Semi-Pro is following the same formula and due out in February '08 so someone must like this kind of stuff.

Overall Grade: C

Reviewed by Jonas

Secret Honor (1999)

After reading, Honor Bound, and Blood and Honor, it was time to read Secret Honor which concludes the series, well kind of, but we'll get to that in a minute.

You may recall that the Honor Bound series, as the author refers to it, focuses around Clete Frede, and his efforts in the OSS in Argentina during WW II. Those looking for that aspect of the story do get it. We follow Frede, who has gotten Dorotea "in the family way" and needs a shotgun, no make that sooner rather than later, wedding ceremony to make things right. Money talks to the Church, and the usual year of mourning after the death of his father is waived as his family provides significant funds to the local Church. All in all, there was much description of the events leading to the wedding, so I was a surprised, and even disappointed that the ceremony itself was only briefly described.

In fact, only about half of Secret Honor takes place in Argentina. In typical WEB Griffin fashion, after getting us interested in one main character, he then focuses on another one. This time it's Peter, a decorated German officer in Argentina. After he comes under suspect after a German resupply mission goes bad, and he gets ordered back to Germany for an investigation. Interestingly, he really is an Argentinian sympathizer, and he shares his father's goal to assassinate Hitler. Apparently, at least a few German officers felt that the war was not just, saw the concentration camps for the atrocity that they were, and realized that the Axis was going to lose the war when it was all said and done. The two things they did about it were to stash money overseas (which came up in the previous novel), and to plot against their leader.

While Peter is in Germany, we do get some fascinating side trips. One is a trip to Hitler's secret bunker complex, where the decorating was all done with bomb proof cement. I've seen a History Channel segment on this, but it was great to read the author's descriptions as well. The other is a trip to the development facility of the Messerschmitt Me 262, the first jet fighter aircraft. The history of this plane is fascinating, as well as how its potential was not realized early enough during the war. Still, while this airfield makes for an intriguing pit stop, it really doesn't integrate well into the rest of the overall novel, or the series.

At the end of the novel, we kind of just stop. After several years, and no follow up, I think that we should consider the series complete. However, it just doesn't feel like it is. Perhaps the book sales were not as robust as planned, so Griffin turned his attention to more profitable projects. That said, compared to The Corps, or The Brotherhood series, the Honor Bound novels simply do not come together nearly as well as they did. While these novels are interesting, they really don't represent the author's best work. Keeping that in mind, Secret Honor is the weakest novel of the series as well.

Overall Grade: B-

Reviewed by Jonas

11.08.2007

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Children of Húrin (Houghton Mifflin, 2007)


J.R.R. Tolkien wrote many volumes of stories about the early history of Middle Earth, of which only a fraction had been published at the time of his death in 1973. His son Christopher, now in his eighties, took control of his writings, and over the years has made much of Tolkien's left-over work available to the public. Most of the short stories concerning elves, men, and higher entities that created the world Tolkien used as the setting for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were compiled by Christopher Tolkien and published as The Silmarillion in 1977, but a handful of stories were long enough to stand alone as novels. One of these stories, The Children of Húrin, has been edited and organized into a presentable format, and was published for the first time in 2007.

The story is set at a time when the power of the evil entity Morgoth, of whom Sauron was a servant, was in ascendancy in Middle Earth. Húrin is a powerful warrior, called into action to lead his men into a great battle against the forces of Morgoth. To say that the battle goes poorly would be a considerable understatement. Húrin survives the battle, but is taken prisoner. He defies Morgoth's torments, but Morgoth curses him by making him see the world through his eyes, including the various misfortunes that beset Húrin's family as he is kept a powerless captive.

From this point, the story focuses on Húrin's son, Túrin. Húrin's first daughter Urwen died young, and his other daughter Niënor does not play a major role until the final few chapters. Like his father, Túrin grows into a formidable warrior of no small repute, but ill fortune follows him everywhere he tries to go. His friends include both elves and humans, but invariably his relationships are twisted into something negative. His bitterest rival and nemesis is the wingless dragon Glaurung, a powerful ally of Morgoth. Glaurung causes much death and destruction to those who would be Túrin's allies, leading to a climactic encounter and the final dramatic revelations.

While Tolkien tried to emulate the heroic Nordic and Anglo-Saxon narratives with The Lord of the Rings, The Children of Húrin owes just as much to classical and Shakespearean tragedy. Pride, envy, and anger regularly affect the actions of Túrin or those around him, with the results invariably proving fatal to somebody. Even Túrin's triumphant moments prove horribly pyrrhic. The characters in this story are all more like Boromir, the good soldier whose desire for power undoes him, than the other members of the Fellowship in The Lord of the Rings whose nobility of spirit makes the defeat of Sauron possible. That Tolkien makes their endeavors less successful is a reflection of the same philosophy which underlies his famous trilogy, namely that you can't overcome great evil in a lasting and meaningful way while still allowing yourself to be influenced by its enticements.

My technical complaint with The Children of Húrin stems from the chapters being titled too explicitly. For example, the chapter called "The Death of Beleg" tells you that Túrin's dearest friend meets his end before you get to read about it. Far too much information is given away in this fashion, and given the nature of the story, any hope by the reader that an upturn in Túrin's fortunes can be sustained is squashed in advance. Otherwise, the writing is pure J. R. R. Tolkien, although you have to be the kind of fan that finds his digressions into elf-lore and the deep history of Middle Earth fascinating to appreciate this book. If you're not familiar with his writings, definitely read The Hobbit and especially The Lord of the Rings first. Tolkien fans who liked The Silmarillion will like this just as much, unless they're overly partial to the "happily ever after" kind of ending.

Overall grade: B+

reviewed by Scott

11.05.2007

Daily Living in the Twelfth Century - Urban Tigner Holmes, Jr. (1952)

I'm a fan of the "Daily Living" style of history books; I want to state that up front. When done well, these books capture the feel of a different age in the way that a list of important events, people and cultural trends can not. When done poorly, they are a waste of time, as the author swirls in a morass of speculation and hypothesis. I am pleased to report that Prof. Holmes has done his task well.

Has has chosen as his framing device the journey of Alexander Neckam from London to Paris in 1178 (or thereabouts) and his subsequent years of study in the latter city. The use of this historical person allows Holmes to smoothly show and discuss the things that Neckam might see and do. By choosing a foreigner in Paris, he is able to make comparisons and contrasts to life in London without seeming forced.

Holmes' style is easy and readable, but make no mistake, this is a well-documented piece of work. The references in the text are appropriate and illustrative without being intrusive. The extensive endnotes are available for those who wish to read them, but are not necessary for the reader who is willing to simply accept that Holmes has done his homework. (A tiny quibble about the notes: often the quoted source is Latin, sometimes old French, and a translation is not always included. This is a minor failing, though.)

The book is perhaps not quite as accessible as the current gold standard of "Daily Living" books, the series by Joseph and Francis Gies. At a few points, there is an assumption of at least passing familiarity with medieval history, and the reliance on Latin or French terms rather than a modern English equivalent is almost certainly more accurate but may be a little off-putting for the casual reader. For even an amateur scholar, though, those asides and references are invaluable! Sometimes there is no real modern equivalent, and using one would load it with inappropriate connotations.

Overall, the book is quite a useful addition to the library of a medieval scholar, or aspiring medieval scholar, and a particularly useful addition if one is collecting a shelf of "daily life" sorts of books.

Overall Grade: A-

11.02.2007

Roachford, Word of Mouth (Peppermint Jam, 2006)


Twenty years ago, English singer/songwriter/keyboardist Andrew Roachford and his band Roachford nearly changed the world. Well, the idea of combining funk and soul with aggressive hard rock was certainly a good one, and the band executed the idea flawlessly on their self-titled debut album. There was a slight obstacle in their way, though, in the form of formatted radio. The classic opening single "Cuddly Toy (Feel for Me)" turned a few heads (like mine) when the video made MTV, but it was too black for rock radio to pick it up and too rock to crack black radio. Despite favorable press and healthy sales in Europe, Roachford disappeared quickly in the United States. The buzz the band had generated wasn't even enough to get the band's second album Get Ready released in this country. The third album Permanent Shade of Blue did get a release here, but was packaged with a live EP for the price of two compact discs. So only the handful of people who remembered Roachford and still cared enough to fork over $30 for one album of new material heard the album. I suppose this was better than not getting the record released here at all, but it certainly didn't result in a whole lot of chart action. And that was the last time Roachford sold any new music in the United States.

The 1998 album Feel remains Roachford's strongest to date, but the band had begun to disintegrate. While it was always kind of blurry, the distinction between Andrew Roachford the singer and Roachford the musical entity more or less vanished at this point. Feel also marked a change in Roachford's musical direction. While containing the definitive Roachford rocker in "How Could I? (Insecurity)," the album also featured some ballads and an increased reliance on acoustic guitars. After a 2000 compilation The Roachford Files tied up the remaining loose ends, Andrew Roachford returned in 2003 with a scaled-back solo album called Heart of the Matter Vol. 1. Featuring sparse arrangements consisting almost exclusively of Roachford's vocals and keyboards plus a drum machine, this album veered strongly in the direction of contemporary R&B.

I periodically check Roachford's website to find out if something new is going on, and that's how I found out about Word of Mouth. Roachford has brought back the full band sound with a new core of backing musicians. Stylistically, there is a little bit of everything on Word of Mouth, from rock to pop to ballads to hard funk to disco to classic soul. Roachford channels influences as diverse as Marvin Gaye and George Michael, and continues his pattern of taking ideas from many sources and creating something distinct out of it. It may be tough for a given listener to like every track as a result, but Roachford can still be very, very good when he wants to be. "It's Alright" will definitely please fans of the early Roachford sound. The gospel-tinged "Tomorrow" is first-rate soul. "Work It Out" is an impassioned plea for harmony. "Pop Muzak," a collaboration with Turkish-German DJ/producer Mousse T., has a catchy chorus that compels the listener to sing along. The essential funk of "Shake It!" pretty much speaks for itself.

Andrew Roachford has been a lot of things over the course of his career, but he's never been dull. Circumstances have made it difficult to keep up with him -- hell, it would have been impossible without the Internet -- but Word of Mouth proves that he's still worth following twenty years after he first came to my attention.

Overall grade: A-

reviewed by Scott

Wired Science, PBS (2007)

Wired is a monthly magazine that takes an edgy look at the current going ons in the world of science and technology, with a bent towards computers. It also does a good job of making science personal, and showing the good folks that make a living doing this sort of thing.

PBS has a new show this season called Wired Science. It is a weekly news magazine that follows the Wired magazine formula. With interest among today's children in math and science at an all time low compared to the rest of the industrialized world, this is a great idea for a new show.

Each hour long episode is composed of around five stories. Topics have ranged from plastic floating in the Pacific Ocean, to childhood chemistry sets and why today's kids don't use them, to growing organs for transplantation, testing baseballs (see the image to the right) and netbot attacks. Each of the stories is more in depth than would be found if this type of show ever made it to commercial television- and that's a good thing.

One fun segment each week is What's Inside. They show a series of chemicals, and as they get put on the counter, and snippets are told about them (eg, HCl, a really strong acid, or Sodium, an explosive metal etc.), while we as the audience try to guess whatever could all of this go into making. At the end of this short piece, they reveal the item, and it's invariably some common household product, or even food. Ummm, yum!

Overall, this is exactly the type of show that PBS should be making. It is edutainment- a good mix of education and entertainment, suitable for both adults and children alike. Check Wired Science out online with their video snippets, or full strength on Wednesdays at 8 PM, EST.

Overall Grade: B+

Reviewed by Jonas

Emergency: True Stories From the Nation's ERs (1997)

While much of healthcare is a business these days, it is certainly more than that. Much more. Within the walls of any given hospital, on any given day, is birth, life, death, suffering and hope. Probably the part of the hospital that exemplifies this more than anywhere else, all simultaneously, is the Emergency Room (Emergency Department if you wish to be PC).

From the view of the outsider, what goes on in an ER can be likened to controlled chaos. Even for those that work there, it can be a draining experience as they run from one disaster to another patching together the very broken.

It can also be a somewhat mystical experience. In my orientation to medical school, a priest on staff at the hospital welcomed us, and exalted us the "Priests of the new millenium." At first it sounded like blasphemy, but it wasn't. While none of us were putting on a collar, or carrying healing oil for sacraments, we would be trained to deal with many of the same life changing moments that for the past two millenium or so that were the exclusive playground for the priesthood.

With this as a jumping point, the book Emergency!, edited by Dr. Mark Brown seeks to share some of these tales from the Emergency Room. It is a collection of truth stranger than fact stories collected not only from doctors, but also from physician assistants and nurses as well. All the names have been changed, and besides, this was before all of the HIPAA privacy stuff started anyway.

Many of the stories felt familiar. Let's face it, change the location, but people pretty much do the same things everywhere whether its sticking things into orifices that weren't intended as receptacles for anything, illicit drugs, violence, or trauma.

After a while, the stories felt too short, and I wanted them to be a little more developed as many of them were only a paragraph or two and deserved a fuller treatment. It was also wearing to read many of them back to back, kind of like running around the ER for 24 hours straight with pain in your feet, for example.

With some better organization, a more even tone, and better developed stories, Emergency! could be the best thing since "Grey's Anatomy" hit the small screen. As it is, if you want a glimpse into what goes on in an ER, it's worth a quick look.

Overall Grade: B-

Reviewed by Jonas

Zodiac (2007)

With Halloween this week, I turned my armchair towards the really creepy movie, Zodiac. This is the film that tells the story of the Zodiac Killer who had a string of serial murders starting in the late 60's and continuing into the 70's. He taunted investigators with his letters to the newspapers often containing ciphers and other cryptic messages. Zodiac stars Jake Gyllenhall, Mark Ruffalo, and Anthony Edwards.

The film opens in 1968, at what became to be known as the Lake Herman killing. Zodiac shoots two high school students who are at a desolate lover's lane. He then calls the police to tell them where to find the bodies. After his next murder, he sends letters to the local papers and describes details that only the killer would know, along with a substitution cipher. Creepy.

As the film develops, it is mostly formulaic. One seriously creepy murder after another, although this killer, unlike some other serial murders doesn't follow a strict pattern as he uses different methods, and age groups.

Somewhat predictably, as is par for the course in such films, the police are seen as rather inept, and several steps behind the Zodiac Killer as the spree develops, and the bodies pile up. Hampering their efforts is that the murders took place in different counties, and they're not doing a good job of sharing the leads and information that develops. Ruffalo and Edwards ably play two of the detectives on the case.

As this story develops, Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhall), a political cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper becomes rather obsessed with this story. He eventually quits his job to investigate the Zodiac murders full time. His efforts culminate in a published book, Zodiac.

This was a good choice for a creepy Halloween thriller, but it really was only slightly above average. For starters, it's over two and half hours, and it definitely needed some nip and tuck to keep the pace tighter. Maybe we didn't need to portray every murder in such detail? In addition, while there is plenty of tension, it doesn't build like it could have as the story progresses; at times it feels like we're going nowhere fast, and we are. Also, while it is well acted, there is no standout performance here. Finally, Zodiac is kind of a downer, as these folks become obsessed with the killer, and it ruins their lives as they pursue him. Therefore, if you really want a crime thriller then this is a reasonable choice, but I would say that it is good, and not excellent.

Of note, the Zodiac case is still open, and while there was one suspect that seemed likely, forensic evidence using modern DNA analysis did not support him being the killer.

Overall Grade: B

Reviewed by Jonas

Freeway (1996)

If Freeway didn't have two big name stars in it, namely Reese Witherspoon and Keifer Sutherland in it, no one would even look at this movie. Actually, even with the two of them in it, this film is still pretty awful as it tries to be a modern Little Red Riding Hood.

The plot is based on that there is a killer on the I-5 in Southern California (SoCal to those that live out there). Witherspoon is Vanessa Lutz, a troubled teen who can barely read. Her mother is a prostitute. Her father gets high on illicit drugs and molests his daughter. When the police show up, the parents are taken away, and social services is to deal with Vanessa. Before they can, Vanessa sneaks off, and makes a run for it. Before too long, Bob Wolverton (Keifer Sutherland) picks Vanessa up after some car trouble. Surprise, surprise, he turns out to be the I-5 killer. What follows next is contrived violent drama.

I found Freeway to be thoroughly unsatisfying. This is the kind of film that they parody in films like Scary Movie X. If it wasn't for the two notable stars, this film would be forgotten, and even with them, I would still pass this one by.

Overall Grade: D

Reviewed by Jonas