5.30.2008

Lars and the Real Girl (2007)

Lars and the Real Girl is just one more example of how to make a movie...NOT! It features Ryan Gosling as Lars Lindstrom in a largely forgettable performance.

The plot skirts the border of the ridiculous, and falls off into stupid at several points. Lars is a cubicle worker, good natured guy, who lives in his brother's garage despite owning half the house. He's kind of lonely, so despite several interested woman, he decides to order a full size, made to order sex doll from the internet. The funny thing is that he then mentally constructs her into a real live woman, and brings her into his daily routine, taking her to the doctor, family dinners and company parties, as his friends, family and coworkers look on a la "The Emperor's New Clothes." This all progresses until it just stops without any real explanation, and he goes out with a coworker.

Lars and the Real Girl just fails to make the sense it could have, and plunges along aimlessly for too long of this painful to watch film. As I was watching it, to pass the boredom, I was trying to remake it. It probably could have worked better as some type of romantic comedy as Margo, the coworker is competing with the life sized doll for his attention. It definitely could have been improved if we made it into a more serious drama as Lars is working through some unresolved relationship issues, guided by the doctor. This gets very cursorily insinuated, but never synthesized into anything, or even confirmed and brought together like it could have.

What we are left with is a drama that's not serious enough, with the ridiculous elements of a comedy that don't make one laugh, or even raise a smile. You understand my reasons why Lars and the Real Girl simply doesn't make for a film worth watching.

Overall Grade: D

Reviewed by Jonas

Charlie Wilson's War (2007)

Want to know why the national deficit of the US is so high? Look no further than Charlie Wilson's War which stars Julia Roberts, Tom Hanks and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

This film is the story of how a congressman from Texas, Charlie Wilson (Hanks), aided by a Texas socialite (Roberts) were able to fund a war in Afghanistan. This Charlie Wilson was hardly a model public servant as he owes everyone a favor, and hardly keeps a low profile with the ladies. It comes to his attention in 1980 that the Soviets had invaded Afghanistan, and the atrocities they were committing forced many to flee to neighboring countries like Pakistan. By equipping the resistance with the latest in weapons, the Afghanis were able to turn this into "Russia's Vietnam," as Stinger shoulder fired missiles took down the Russian helicopters. In order to buy this technology, Wilson took the budget for clandestine operations from $5 million to $500 million. Hoffman plays Gust Avrakotos, a disgruntled CIA agent who is finally getting a chance to help kill some Russians. Eventually, the Russians retreated, and the film mentions how "we screwed it up in the end."

While I'm generally a big fan of highlighting obscure history, Charlie Wilson's War just didn't do it for me. Maybe it was because Wilson has too many flaws to be a hero as he incessantly throws money on a problem he barely understands. Hanks does a good job of portraying this flawed congressman, but by the end, you hardly think he should be getting an award for anything, and you wonder where the White House was in any of this as a Congressional committee ratchets up the spending into the stratosphere.

My other problem is that this film really doesn't give enough background history. I would venture to say that not too many Americans were aware of what was going on in Afghanistan in 1980, and even less recall it. The film needed to do a better job reminding us that this was less than a decade after the end of Vietnam, the bungled Iran hostage rescue was even more recent and Americans would not have supported troops in Afghanistan. While arming the resistance was a reasonable option at the time, the film does not mention that at least some of those same weapons we supplied were used against American troops when we invaded for the War on Terror and had to be bought back(which makes this taxpayer think that we should be very careful who we hand out our missiles to).

This film ends by saying we didn't do enough. I'm not sure anyone in the 80's could have foreseen the Taliban coming to power in Afghanistan, or what else we were supposed to do. I'm also not sure what the implication is to the Iraq War- does the film suggest we should never leave or spend even more money? For this reviewer, raising questions without any answers made for an unsatisfying experience. Despite the star power, Charlie Wilson's War doesn't twinkle.

Overall Grade: C

Reviewed by Jonas

Candles On Bay Street (2006)

You can always count on a Hallmark movie to provide a tearjerker, and Candles On Bay Street is no exception.

This film takes place in a typical Maine small town; the kind of place that kids growing up can't wait to get out of, and once they do, they want to return to raise their family. Exemplifying this are the town veterinarians, a husband and wife team. The husband grew up in the town, went away for college, and returned with his wife and started a veterinary clinic. All is status quo until his childhood neighbor/sweetheart bops back into town with a child to reside in her parents old house.

The crisis occurs when it is revealed that the mother is imminently dying of cancer, and there is no one to raise the boy (even though up until this point she was the picture of health). Faster than you can say "Hallmark greeting card," the search is on to find a good home for the boy. With a plot twist you can see from the town lighthouse, you can guess where the boy ends up.

How dismal is this film? Actually for a made for television flick, it's not terrible. The acting is decent, and the setting is engaging. The pacing keeps moving along, and the veterinary cases that get sprinkled into the film helped to keep me interested. Candles On Bay Street, while emotional, makes an ok dramatic film. Catch it on The Hallmark Channel.

Overall Grade: B

Reviewed by Jonas

Mudcrutch (Reprise Records, 2008)


Mudcrutch was a band that formed in Gainesville, Florida in the early seventies. Fronted by singer/bassist Tom Petty, Mudcrutch based their sound on the later recordings of The Byrds, which combined traditional folk and country with hard-edged rock. In addition to Petty, the original band featured the dueling guitars of Mike Campbell and Tom Leadon, with drummer Randall Marsh completing the quartet. By the time the band headed to Los Angeles in 1974 to pursue a record deal, Leadon had been replaced by another guitarist and Benmont Tench had been added on keyboards. They released one single in 1975, but that was as much interest as they could generate. Mudcrutch quickly disintegrated, and the band members crawled their way back to Gainesville. Petty would not be deterred that easily, though. He traded in his bass for a jangly electric 12-string, formed a backing band called The Heartbreakers which included (and still does include) Campbell and Tench, and went back to L. A. to try his luck a second time. The rest, of course, is history.

You might think that the story of Mudcrutch would have ended there, and for thirty-two years you would have been right. But Petty has, on a number of occasions over the past twenty years, stepped at least a little bit away from The Heartbreakers as his whims have suited him. At some point last he year, he decided that he wanted to make the kind of album Mudcrutch would have made. The idea eventually morphed from making an album that sounded like Mudcrutch into having the album actually performed by Mudcrutch. Campbell and Tench were recruited easily enough, but I have to think that Leadon and Marsh were taken aback by the initial phone call.

The album, simply titled Mudcrutch, does have a bit of a throwback feel to it, starting with the traditional American folk standard "Shady Grove" and continuing with a combination of vintage classic rock with a few country songs thrown in for good measure. The album differs from a typical Petty album in several ways. There are several covers, most notably The Byrds' "Lover of the Bayou," and Petty lets both Leadon and Tench take a turn singing lead on the album. The double lead guitar sound on the band's harder rock songs also distinguishes Mudcrutch from what The Heartbreakers generally have done. The band even engages in an extended but subdued jam on the nine-minute song "Crystal River." The performances are strong throughout the record, and Leadon and Marsh hold their own very nicely with three much more experienced professional musicians.

Given those qualifications, Mudcrutch is still dominated by the singing and songwriting of Tom Petty. And that is a good thing, as this is the best Petty album since Wildflowers in 1994. The particularly strong track "Scare Easy" is an obvious single. A lot of Petty's albums are a little too uniformly mid-tempo rock, but this album has an excellent mix of harder and softer songs. In fact, the more energetic songs come across as a breath of fresh air, and Petty sound generally revitalized on this recording.

To say the least, it's very strange to see a band that had basically been a footnote in another band's history for over thirty years show up and make the debut album that never happened in 1975. But Tom Petty has some experience making strange ideas work. The combination of Petty being in fine form, Campbell and Tench providing their usually solid support, and Leadon and Marsh taking full advantage of their long-delayed big break makes Mudcrutch a solid album. Petty fans will have no difficulty getting into this, and people looking for something new in a classic rock vein will find plenty to like as well.

Overall grade: A-


reviewed by Scott


"Scare Easy"



"Lover of the Bayou"

5.29.2008

Blue Angels Over Jones Beach



Over this past weekend, I saw the Blue Angels perform over Jones Beach. I thought about posting some pics, but I took on the challenge of remixing the stills, and some video into a very short movie type piece, in an Armchair Critic first. It's a bit of a challenge to capture the planes as they're either (a) flying by too fast, or (b) too far away. Given those limits, let me know what you think. FYI, this is the first time I've edited video or tried this type of thing.

Jonas

5.25.2008

Shinobi: Heart Under Blade (2005)

Wild kung-fu meets political intrigue meets troubled romance in Shinobi: Heart Under Blade. This wire-fu Japanese martial arts movie blends several elements together in a story that works pretty well.

In 17th-century Japan, two clans -- Manjidani Koga and Tsubagakure Iga -- have Shinobi, warriors with almost supernatural powers. The two clans, living in hidden villages, have a longstanding hatred of each other but maintain a truce brought about by a previous emperor. Fearing the power these clans have, the current emperor rescinds the truce and declares a battle to the death between the five greatest warriors of each clan.

In the midst of these politics are the star-crossed lovers Oboro (Yukie Nakama) and Gennosuke (Joe Odagiri). They are not only members of the opposing clans, but the grandchildren of the clans' leaders. Gennosuke believes it's only a matter of time until they can marry, while Oboro fears their destiny will keep them apart and their marriage can happen "only in our dreams." When clan leaders Ogen (Lily) and Danjo Kogo (Minoru Terada) slay each other, Oboro and Gennosuke become the leaders of their clans. Gennosuke sets off with his warriors to confront the emperor, while Oboro pursues them for combat.

Shinobi: Heart Under Blade has plenty of highly stylized action. The Shinobi have a variety of powers, from the feral man-beast with steel claws, to the warrior whose sleeves and wires can let him fly through the air or capture enemies, to the seductress who breathes poison. (It's very reminiscient of the anime cartoon Naruto, from warriors bouncing from tree to tree to their swatting throwing stars out of the air.) Unfortunately, as with many ensemble movies (such as the X-Men franchise), most characters are one dimensional and exist only to show their powers. (The second disc has plenty of behind-the-scenes material on the action, from storyboards to the filming of the battles.)

As for the non-action scenes, be they romance or poltical, they work to a certain extent. While Shinobi: Heart Under Blade has beautiful visuals, it lacks the subtlety and grandeur of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon but still manages to include intelligence in-between the fight scenes. Many characters argue that violence is the only life they can ever know, and the division between clan destiny and personal desire is handled well by Nakama and Odagiri.

If you're looking for a martial arts film that's more than just fighting, I highly recommend Shinobi: Heart Under Blade. This movie isn't perfect, but it blends preternatural kung-fu with romance and intelligence.

Overall Grade: B+

Reviewed by James Lynch

The Old 97's -- Blame It On Gravity

Ready for some rock-country songs about heartbreak and being unlucky in love? Blame It On Grvaity, the Old 97's first fully new album in four years, has the band doing what they always do, which is also what they do best.

After the too-clever opening track "The Fool," Blame It On Gravity jumps into the losers in love formula that is the bread and butter of the Old 97's. Whether it's a mournful ode to being alone ("The Color of a Lonely Heart Is Blue") or a rough morning after ("yeah I got brains and I got brawn oh but not enough of either one to wanna go on"), these tunes are for someone who missed romance, by design or accident, and wails about it. For this, Rhett Miller's slightly awkward but passionate voice nails the mood perfectly. (The one non-romance song is "Here's to the Halcyon," in which a sea captain with a disreputable past is going down with the ship and bargaining with God. It's a funny piece, finding humor in the contrast between his promises and life: "I'll pore over my Bible and I'll pour out all my gin.")

Blame It On Gravity is an inconsistent album, with some killer tracks and others that fall flat. And while it's not uncommon for a band to tackle the same themes all the time, this album sometimes has music that's extremely similar to older song the Old 97's have done. But there's plenty here that lends itself to multiple listenings, and an average album by the Old 97's is still superior to most music that gets released!

Overall Grade: B

Reviewed by James Lynch

5.24.2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (Paramount/Lucasfilm Ltd., 2008)


One of the silver screen's biggest action movie icon returns as Harrison Ford reprises his legendary role in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Directed by Steven Spielberg, this movie marks the first appearance of Indiana Jones on film in 19 years. Now it's 1957, at the height of the Cold War, when Professor Jones meets up with Mutt Willams (Shia LaBeouf), a rebellious young man who has a proposition for the Dr. Jones: help him find the coveted and feared Crystal Skull of Akator. Their quest leads them to the remote corners of Peru, where they come upon a cadre of Soviet agents, led by Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), who is also scouring the globe for the precious skull. But along the way they save Marion Ravenwood Karen Allen). And only Indy, Mutt, and Marion can stop this powerful artifact from falling into the hands of those who plan to use it to dominate the world. But it's a great movie, so go and see it. For more info go to www.indianajones.com.

Overall Grade: A+

reviewed by Ian Mylott

Mark Fry, Dreaming with Alice (Sunbeam Records, 2006 re-issue, originally released 1972)


About a month ago I reviewed Shooting the Moon, the second album by the intriguing English musician Mark Fry. Part of what makes Mark Fry so intriguing is that his sophomore effort followed a mere thirty-six years after his debut, Dreaming with Alice. Fry was studying art in Italy in 1972, and a friend set him up in a recoding studio in Rome to cut an album with a handful of musician friends whose names Fry has long since forgotten. The original LP never got released outside of Italy, but somehow the album's reputation spread by word of mouth, and for fans of psychedelic folk the album is considered a classic. Bootleg versions popped up all over the place, and copies of the original release have sold for over $2000 at auction. Fry, meanwhile, tried unsuccessfully to get a record deal back home in England, and has spent most of his life between traveling and making a living selling his paintings in France. While he had long stopped pursuing music professionally, he enthusiastically lent his support and participation when Sunbeam Records re-issued Dreaming with Alice in 2006. Thirty-four years after its recording, it was officially released outside of Italy for the very first time.

After listening to Dreaming with Alice, it's not hard to figure out why the album appeals so strongly to a specific group of music listeners. Fry's style on this recording evokes performers like Donovan and Syd Barrett, with all the hippie mysticism and other accessories (legal and otherwise) which that implies. But if you're into psychedelic music, especially with acoustic guitars, then you'll find much to like on Dreaming with Alice. The music is as dreamlike and trance-inducing as the album's title implies, but it is also quite melodic. The title song is unique in that its nine verses are not played together, but with one verse at a time prefacing each of the other tracks. The playing, considering it was done in an inferior studio (the soundproofing was so poor they couldn't use drums), is remarkably solid and tight as well. The highlight for me is a six-minute song called "The Witch," a steady, determined jam that makes as good a use of the sitar in a rock context as any song outside of "Norwegian Wood."

Dreaming with Alice probably won't please everybody. For reasons both good and bad, hippie music doesn't quite have universal appeal, or even as broad an audience it had when this album was made. But this album is an excellent example of its genre, worthy of the cult reputation it has garnered. As for Mark Fry, he has as remarkable a story as any singer I'm aware of, and his copious liner notes are as fascinating as the music is. I have no idea how often he goes back to Wonderland to visit Alice these days, but as long as he brings some good music back with him I'm OK with it.

Overall grade: A-


reviewed by Scott

5.23.2008

Household Gods - Judith Tarr and Harry Turtledove (1999)

Household Gods is a fish out of water tale, where a high powered 90's lawyer and single mother is transported back to the body of an ancestor living in the Roman city of Carnuntum towards the end of the 2nd century AD. Nicole, our protagonist, finds life in the distant past jarring and most of the action and conflict in the book comes from her adjusting to daily life in a frontier town during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. Nicole learns a lot about herself during her time in Carnuntum and when she is returned to the present she's a better and happier person.

If you think that sounds like a heartwarming Disney or Lifetime channel movie, you're not too far off the mark. This book annoyed me, which is not to say that I didn't finish reading it. To be a bit clearer, Nicole annoyed me. Her constant culture shock, powered by late twentieth century American self-righteousness, was an almost constant grating presence through the first half of the book. Ironically (at least, ironically for those of you familiar with my "Daily Life ..." reviews), this was the portion of the book where Nicole learned to deal with "Daily Life in the Roman Empire". The problem was that every new facet of daily life was viewed through Nicole's eyes, which meant that it was all horrible, primitive and barbaric. That means that almost every bit of history which appears in the book is prefixed by a sentence like, "Everything was suddenly horrifying." After the first twenty times, that gets a little old.

As far as the history goes, that works rather well. The Daily Life portion of the book is interesting and even pointing out the differences between now and then isn't a bad idea. If only you didn't have to endure Nicole's whiny internal debates.

The book does settle down by the middle, and even if it resolves itself into a rather too tidy ending, it has some very enjoyable moments. As a fictionalized account of life in a frontier Roman town, it's fascinating and well executed. The grafting of a rather cliche plot on top of it works less well, but is only really intrusive at the beginning and the very end. I can't recommend the book whole heartedly, but neither is it without merit.

Overall Grade: C+

5.21.2008

Into The Wild (2007)

A look at one teen's attempt to toss it all and start again is the story behind Into the Wild. While it's based on a true story, and could have been fairly compelling, it simply is not.

Emile Hirsch plays Chris McCandless, a spoiled recent college grad. His parents are buying him a new car for his college graduation, and he is going to law school in the Fall. So what does he do? He carefully lays a plan to drive cross country, and escape out West. Along the way he spends all of his money, and abandons his car. He does meet a few interesting characters, and he mooches lives off other's generosity along the way, including some hippies that grew older, but never grew up. When it all gets to be too much, he seeks out the desolation of Alaska, and makes a home in the bush of Alaska (yes, that's the term according to the one person I ever met from Alaska, who drove to NY camping out along the way on what passes for a highway "up there" that was really a gravel road, but alas I digress). He spends what's left of an Alaskan winter camping out in an abandoned bus, believing he is finally free. He then realizes that he is trapped by the river of melting snow, eats some plants he found, and succumbs to their toxicity. His family (William Hurt as his father) had searched for him in vain, but eventually some moose hunters find him dead.

For starters, the timeline of the film is just too confusing. Rather than do a simple start to finish, they insist on going between the current Alaskan camp out, and the background story of how we got there. The result is a disjointed mess, despite liberal use of the text titles that are artificially flashing across the screen incessantly. My other criticism of this film is that it drags on like a miniseries that is trying to fluff in the scenes between commercials. It's got more long pans of nature scenes than the National Geographic Channel, but in this type of film it just delays the story. Speaking of delay, Into the wild is lopsided. While half the fun may be getting there, we spend like 75% of the film on getting to Alaska, and then maybe the remaining quarter on what happens there, the more compelling part. Had we equalized it some, or at least streamlined the journey, we could have kept my interest longer.

Into the Wild, while compelling in concept, fails to execute what it started, and is too slowly paced to recommend it.

Overall Grade: C-

Reviewed by Jonas

5.19.2008

The Final Season (2007)

The Final Season is a look at a small town's love of their local high school baseball team. It stars Sean Astin and Tom Arnold.

The action takes place in Norway, Iowa. It's a small midwestern town that makes Des Moines look like big city. With a town of 500 folks, many farmers, and a school of 100, what this town lacks in sheer numbers, it makes up for in heart. Despite the small talent pool, their high school's baseball team has won 19 championships in a row, no small feat by any measure. Unfortunately, due to downsizing and budget constraints, some genius comes up with the bright idea to close the local public school, and combine districts. While this makes sense financially, the town loses their baseball team in the process.

The school board decides that that Norway can have one final season, but they want the winning team to go out as losers to ease the transition. To do this, they nix the longtime coach, and put in his understudy that was with him for two months, and coached girl's volleyball before that. Enter Coach Kent Stock, played by Sean Astin. Needless to say, he has shoes so large that his hobbit sized feet will never fill. After gaining the respect of his players, he goes on to lead the team in one final season.

The Final Season reminds me of the opposite of another baseball film, The Bad News Bears. Here we have another team, but they're all high school all stars, fighting for the chance to play. It's based on a true story, which always helps in the realism department. My only real criticisms of the film are that it's a little too slowly paced, and some of the characters are too stereotypical. Other than that, if you want a movie about baseball, it's a decent film, and too bad it didn't get more attention.

Overall Grade: B

Reviewed by Jonas

5.16.2008

Anna Ternheim, Halfway to Fivepoints (Decca, 2008)


A couple of months ago, Anna Ternheim released a self-titled EP which I reviewed very favorably here. The six songs on Anna Ternheim were gleaned from two full-length albums and a handful of EP's that have been available in her native Sweden and the rest of Europe for a while, but the EP was her debut American release. A full-length album and tour were promised for the spring, and Halfway to Fivepoints came out in late April. Most of the songs on Halfway to Fivepoints were also previously released in Europe, but a few tracks are new. But the album reflects the same remarkable songwriting ability that caused me to rate the EP so highly.

Everything I say about Anna Ternheim needs to come with the disclaimer that all her songs come from a very dark place. Ternheim's work follows in the footsteps of the early recordings of Sarah McLachlan and Beth Orton, in that she taps into emotional depths that most people would just as soon pretend aren't there. However, despite English not being her native language, Ternheim combines a stark lyrical directness with a great poetic sensibility, to a degree that McLachlan and Orton can't match. The subject matter of the lyrics is often quite intense, and Ternheim frequently sings from the perspective of characters who don't necessarily reflect herself or are even admirable. On "Bridges," for example, Ternheim takes on the role of the controlling person in a very unhealthy relationship. On "Such A Lonely Soul," the woman in the song contemplates how to keep her lover's wife in the dark about what's going on. "Why trouble her lonely soul, she doesn't have to know, why tell her, it would hurt her so," Ternheim sings with no small amount of irony. Even the happiest song on the album, "Today Is a Good Day," is about a break-up.

Musically, Ternheim and producer Andreas Dählback aim for a cross between folk and alternative. Ternheim generally sounds more in her element on the quieter material, both with her own compositions and with her cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Little Lies." Like her cover of "China Girl" on the EP, Ternheim sings "Little Lies" in her own distinct style, and the cover is both radically different from, and considerably more compelling than, the original. On the album's best track "No Subtle Men," Ternheim sings about continuing to turn suitors away even though she's not so young anymore, and the conflict of emotions that result. By contrast, the arrangements on the album's rock songs don't always do the lyrics justice. "To Be Gone," an otherwise strong song about teenage depression, felt too retrained to be, while the electric version of "Lovers Dream" sounds cluttered compared to the stunning orchestrated acoustic version the was released on the EP.

In fact, despite having twice as many songs as the EP, Halfway to Fivepoints isn't quite as good. The EP's two strongest songs, "I'll Follow You Tonight" and "My Secret," are both better than anything included here. I also didn't see the point of having two songs overlap on both releases, and I'm really sorry they didn't include the song "Better Be" that I've seen on YouTube. Having said all that, Halfway to Fivepoints is still a solid release, full of extremely well written but very challenging, unnerving songs that are both beautiful and brutal in their emotional impact.

Overall grade: A-

reviewed by Scott

Witness (1985)

This week's 80's film is Witness. It stars Harrison Ford, Kelly McGillis and Danny Glover in this dramatic film.

Harrison Ford is John Book, a Philadelphia police detective. He gets involved investigating a murder at a train station of a fellow police officer that was undercover. There is one witness to the crime, Samuel, a young Amish boy, who is like a fish out of water in the big city. He was traveling with his mother Rachel (Kelly McGillis) to visit a family member in Baltimore. As John looks into the murder, and delves deeper, it becomes clear that the crime is bigger than originally suspected, and now his, Samuel's and Rachel's live are all in danger. Faster than we can say "plain people of Lancaster County," the trio is off to the Amish Experience make themselves scarce and stay among Rachel's kind. Along the way, we get a firsthand look into Amish life, and even a barn raising (after all Harrison Ford had worked as a carpenter before he hit stardom so it wasn't much of a stretch). It all ends in a climax that has John Book taking out the baddies singlehandedly, and the Amish folks doing their best to stay out of the way.

I think this may be the third time I'm seeing Witness. It's one of those classic films that everyone should see at least once, and stands up to repeated viewing. I remain a Harrison Ford fan, and while his Han Solo and Indiana Jones roles get all the attention, this film shows his flexibility, and what he can do with a more serious role. In fact, I think this may be one of his best performances, but he has had so many, it would be hard to narrow it down to one best. On top of that, in Witness the care taken to show the Amish in a realistic fashion was well done.

Witness is a very strong film. If you haven't seen it yet, it's worth seeking out, and if you've seen it before it's a treat to watch it again.

Overall Grade: A

Reviewed by Jonas

27 Dresses (2008)

We've all heard the phrase "always the bridesmaid, never the bride" to describe a woman that has been to everyone's wedding except her own. In 27 Dresses this saying forms the basis of this romantic comedy.

Katherine Heigl plays Jane Nichols. She's the overefficient personal assistant to George (Edward Burns) at a outdoor oriented catalog clothing purveyor. Jane has been to no less than twenty-seven weddings as a bridesmaid, and her closet is stuffed with the hideous dresses. Seriously, Jane could be a professional bridesmaid, and she is often roped into called upon to be the maid of honor at these affairs. The film starts as she is attends two weddings on the same night as she hops back and forth in a taxi (how NY!).

The conflict comes as she loses her Day Runner in the cab, and a newspaper reporter, Kevin, that just happens to cover the weddings section happens upon it. He tries to ask her out, but she would rather pursue an interest with her boss, who only sees her professionally, and ineptly wonders aloud "Who should I take to this function?" as Jane stand idly by hoping in anticipation. The second plot twist is that Jane's sister, Tess comes into town, and faster than we can say "sisterhood" Jane's boss is head over heels with Tess, who he hardly knows, and isn't as compatible as he thinks he is with.

Stop this bus, I want to get off! Ok, I'll grant you this is all predictable with a capital "P." This is the overdone romantic comedy formula film, and we're not breaking any ground here. However, 27 Dresses does have redeeming features aplenty.

First of all, Katherine Heigl is excellent. Maybe I'm just a fan of her work from "Grey's Anatomy," (ironically a show I haven't reviewed, but faithfully watch, and know a thing or two about the setting and plot line). Then, unlike many films that fall under the category of romantic comedy, this one actually has some humor in it. Let's agree that most bridesmaid dresses give new meaning to the word hideous, and would never be worn outside of a wedding. To have an entire closet of these montroscopies, that she models is quite amusing to watch as we see the various themes of weddings she has attended (pictured in this post are the dresses from the Caribbean and Indian weddings). Finally, while predictable, 27 Dresses just provides some solid entertainment. For two hours of diversion, it nicely fits the bill.

Overall Grade: B+

Reviewed by Jonas

Michael Clayton (2007)

George Clooney takes a well deserved break from being Danny Ocean in the drama, Michael Clayton. It is a variant from the usual type of lawyer movies, typified by John Grisham's work where most of the action takes place in the courtroom. This is more of a morality play and character study that reminds me of The Insider at some points.

Clooney portrays Michael Clayton, a lawyer in a high power NYC law firm. His position is "the fixer," which makes him a highly paid janitor that uses his legal degree to clean up messes, while the rest of the firm focuses on the usual duties (not to be confused with this fixer). The movie starts at the end, as Clayton heads to Westchester to start the cleanup process for a well to do man that ran someone over and then left the scene of the accident. On his return trip, his car ends up blowing up. We rewind four days to piece together how he ends up being the target of a murder plot (I kinda wish they would just run it from start to finish as it gets more confusing this way, and didn't add much overall). Along the way, we see Clayton is trying to fix his brother's gambling debt, and his relationship with his son is strained. His law firm has been defending a agriculture chemical company from a massive lawsuit, which will be hard to wiggle out of, and the senior partner on the case goes completely manic when he is needed most requiring the services of the fixer to make it right. Through it all, Clooney portrays a man that is in this world deeply, skirts the law himself, and in the end, just wants to get out of the situation that is his daily life.

In my analysis, I can see why folks thought this film was so great, but I don't agree. While Clooney's performance is strong, I found the plot confusing at points, and not quite right. Seriously, after working for a multimillion law firm for years and not making partner, would Clooney's "golden parachute" be $75,000 that he has to beg for? Michael Clayton just didn't end with a satisfying sense of finality that I would have expected from it. While die hard Clooney fans will find this film a treat, I just don't what the hoopla was all about.

Overall Grade: B

Reviewed by Jonas

Picture Perfect (1997)

Maybe they should have renamed this film Not So Picture Perfect as it did disappoint. Let's enumerate how this film failed.

Jennifer Aniston is Kate Mosley, a twenty something dynamo of creativity for a Manhattan advertising agency. Faster than you can say "Madison Avenue," she's masterminding an entire campaign that lands her agency the big bucks deal. So far, I was hooked into the rest of the film. Then, she gets passed over for an obvious and well deserved promotion. When she inquires into why she's being passed over, the crux of it is that she's single, has no debt, and is too mobile- in other words she can change jobs too easily, and is not shackled down tight enough. I was intrigued with Picture Perfect at this point.

What follows goes off the deep end along the way. Kate then decides to remedy this apparent "defect" and gets some guy to pose as her fiancee. He is Nick, the wedding videographer played by Jay Mohr, a man she met at a friend's wedding. The doors now seem to be opening up for her both professionally and personally. On the work front, her boss now takes her more seriously, and she is meeting the right people and the glass ceiling has opened. Personally, coworker Sam (Kevin Bacon), who didn't look at her twice when she was available, now has a romantic interest in her.

While the almost ritualistic formula for this type of romantic comedy is setup in the plot, Picture Perfect falls short. The characters are all unidimensional, and felt better suited for a half hour second rate comedy than the silver screen. It also isn't too humorous as a comedy, and not terribly romantic either. With so many films out there Picture Perfect just isn't that strong of an entry.

Overall Grade: C

Reviewed by Jonas

5.14.2008

The B-52s, "FUNPLEX"

It's been quite a while since the B-52s released an album, but they're back in party mode with Funplex. Original members Kate Pierson, Fred Schneider, Cindy Wilson and Keith Strickland have put together a solid, fun collection of party songs.

All the songs here are unapologetically light, often very silly, usually involve sex or sexual innuendo, and pretty catchy. "Funplex," the first single, is all about heartbreak at the mall. "Love in the Year 3000" wonders what future will bring for love and comes up with "Robots, Bootybots, Erotobots... in the spandex spiral vortex." In "Dancing Now" the cure for a broken heart is to keep dancing, and you can just guess what the "Deviant Ingredient" is.

All the songs on Funplex have a lot of energy, from the pounding percussion to soaring vocals. After a while, the songs have a similar sound and can blend together in the mind's ear after the album is done. Still, the B-52s clearly wanted to make an album that was just about fun, love, and sex with no deeper meanings or goals... and they succeeded at that. If you're having a party, want some fun songs to blast in the car, or just want to put your mind on hold and listen to something fun, pick up Funplex.

Walk All Over Me (2007)

The straight-to-dvd movie Walk All Over Me aims to be a blend of comedy, suspense, and kinkiness, but it misses the mark on all three levels. Instead, the movie gives us one-dimensional characters, few laughs, fewer suspenseful moments, and way overdone cinematic techniques.

Alberta (Leelee Sobieski) is a perpetual screw-up. She literally flees from a job at a small gas station in the middle of nowhere when she misplaces the money her boyfriend was to give to a dangerous man. She travels to Vancouver to stay with her big sister Celene (Tricia Helfer, best known as the seductive Cylon on the new Battlestar Galactica). Celine is confident, has a specific life plan, lives in a great house... and happens to be a professional dominatrix. Celine isn't thrilled to have Alberta there, but offers to put her up.

Alberta gets a job at a big retail store, but soon she starts screwing up and needs more money. She goes through Celine's tapes of prospective clients, pretends to be Celine, and meets Paul (Jacob Tierney) to earn some money. After a slightly comical meeting at a mall, they head back to Paul's house -- where he's ambushed. Paul's partner-in-crime Rene (Lothaire Bluteau) is convinced that Paul stole half a million dollars from him, and he brought dangerous thug Isaac (Michael Adamthwaite) and Isaac's codependent brother Aaron (Michael Eklund) to convince Paul to give back the money. Alberta flees (again), but she manages to leave enough info for the bad guys to follow her back to Celine's house.

This movie would have been better if the characters had any depth, but that is sorely lacking. Alberta spends the movie nervous, apologizing, and promising to make up for her latest mistake. Celine is always in control and ruthless -- not that different than Helfer's role on Battlestar Galactica. And the criminals are fairly routine: the mastermind boss, the unstable dangerous one, and the flunky who'll go along with anything.

The story doesn't go anywhere worth following either. Perhaps the idea of a nervous and uncertain woman pretending to be a dominatrix is amusing in theory, but it gets old pretty fast here. (There are a few chuckles seeing Alberta being nervous while acting dominant in the middle of a food court.) There are very few laughs, less suspense, a lot of overdone slow-motion, several plot points that make no sense, and an inability to have anyone drive without hitting something -- even if the car has to swerve for no reason other than to hit something. As for kinkiness, it's an R-rated movie: All you have are Tricia Helfer in some fetish clothes (quite nice, but hardly worth sitting through the whole movie), a few sex toys, and Spencer (Ross McMillan), Celine's submissive client who wanders through the action clueless while bossed around by Celine and Alberta.

If you're looking for a movie with kinkiness, comedy, and heart, watch the nigh-infinitely superior Secretary. Walk All Over Me is a comedy that's rarely amusing, an action movie that's a bit dull, and a kinky movie that's pretty vanilla. My advice: Walk away from this one.

Overall Grade: D+

Reviewed by James Lynch

5.13.2008

To The Death (2008)


We've been big fans of the Patrick Robinson series of naval novels, and have reviewed some of them. Apparently, we got someone's attention, and I've been sent an advanced excerpt of the first third of his latest novel. I've also been given permission to "share the wealth," and now you too can download it in a PDF. So, now in an Armchair Critic first, you too can get started on To The Death, which won't be out in hardcover for a few weeks. Happy reading!

Download here

Jonas

5.12.2008

Top Gun (1986)

I hadn't looked back at a 1980's film in a while, but as I recall Top Gun was one of those films that everyone saw back when we were in high school. It was the film that jump started so many careers with an A list that includes Tom Cruise, Anthony Edwards, Val Kilmer, Meg Ryan, Kelly McGillis, all coproduced by blockbuster creator Jerry Bruckheimer.

The story behind the making of Top Gun has to be kept in mind to understand the film. Reportedly, the script was done, and it called for numerous shots of naval aircraft on an aircraft carrier. These days, you'd just do it in CGI, and no one would be the wiser. However, Top Gun is perhaps the last great blockbuster action film that didn't use any CGI, and everything is real. Instead, they got in touch with the Navy, who agreed to provide an aircraft carrier and whatever else they needed for the project. The Navy was being so helpful because in the early 80's the military, still with the memories of Vietnam fresh in most Americans minds, had a serious PR problem. So, the Navy would cooperate, but they wanted to be able to rewrite the script to cast themselves in a more favorable light. Given that background, we can see how we ended up with a two hour recruiting session for a film.

Tom Cruise is the prototypical Navy flier, whose code name is Maverick. He pushes the plane to the limits, and is the guy you want on your side, but his commanding officer thinks he's a bit of a screwup. His Radar Intercept Officer (the guy in the back seat who does the electronics in the F-14), played by Anthony Edwards, goes by the call sign Goose. Together, after they chase off some Russian Migs they become the team to get sent to Top Gun, the popular name for the Navy Fighter Weapons School at Miramar Naval Air Station where the Navy's best 1% of fliers hone their skills in air to air combat, and compete for the crown of being the best of the best (of note, the school is now in Nevada; sounds funny to have a Naval Air Station so far from water, but that's budget cuts). Along the way Maverick has a romantic interest with one of the professors, Charlie (McGillis) a lay consultant to the military with a doctorate in astrophysics (probably would have made more sense for her to be an aviation engineer).

The real stars of the show, besides the actors, are the military hardware. The aircraft carrier featured is the USS Enterprise. The jets featured include the F-14 which was the Navy's fighter jet until it got replaced by the F/A-18 in the late 80's, although the last ones were only decommissioned two years ago. The "enemy" at the school is the F-5, which is a light fighter that was sold by the US and saw service in other countries, but was limited to being a trainer for the US military. Interestingly, the enemy they fight, a MiG-28, which seems to me to be presumed to be Soviet (although it may have originally been North Korean in the script but in the rewrite it became some generic communist country) is not really any real plane at all, and was played by more F-5 fighters that were painted black to look like the bad guys.

Overall, despite the film being so pro military, it still works. The acting is well done, and the action is top notch summer blockbuster fare. It gets a little dated for some segments, but all in all, Top Gun has fared well during the last two decades. Even if you saw it in theaters, it's still worth a second watching of this classic on DVD.

Overall Grade: A-

Reviewed by Jonas

U.S. Marshals (1998)

I've consistently liked the film The Fugitive, and was even a fan of the CBS TV show by the same name that extended it (although I still am annoyed that the show just stopped and never had any ending of some sort). At any rate, U.S. Marshals is kind of a "companion film" to what some call "the fugitive franchise."

Tommy Lee Jones reprises his role as Chief Deputy Marshal Samuel Gerard who works for the U.S. Marshal service. The beginning starts off with some nailbiting action as a plane full of prisoners, kind of like in Con Air, but this flight is more business class than the chaos of the latter movie. After the plane crash, a prisoner is at large, Mark Sheridan, played by Wesley Snipes. Joe Pantoliano and Robert Downey, Jr. round out the fugitive hunting team that gets hastily organized. However, as the film progresses, we learn that there's more to Sheridan than meets the eye, and this is no simple manhunt for an escaped prisoner, and there are levels of complexity to this prisoner's alleged crimes which are not what they appear to be.

This film stands on its own, but it's nowhere in the same class as The Fugitive, which is a far better film in terms of plot, and pacing. I found myself kind of bored with U.S. Marshals, and the characters are not engaging or engrossing enough. While it was nice to see a reprise of Tommy Lee Jones' character of the Deputy Marshal, in U.S. Marshals it's definitely a little hollow compared to the earlier film.

Overall Grade: C+

Reviewed by Jonas

5.09.2008

Legends of the Fall (1994)

Legends of the Fall is one of those films that I kept hearing about, but somehow never saw even though it's over a decade old. Through the magic of DVD's, this deficit was easy enough to fix. The star studded cast includes Brad Pitt, Anthony Hopkins, Aidan Quinn and Julia Ormond.

This is an epic kind of film, the kind that Hollywood only rarely embarks on these days in this era of sequels, and lower budget fluff (the last film I saw that was truly epic was this one from a while ago). Legends of the Fall takes place mostly in Montana, around the beginning of the twentieth century, which is an interesting time historically as America is assuming her place on the world stage as a serious player, and the industrial revolution is finishing up as the next era is beginning.

Anyway, enough history. The film follows the tale of three brothers, their father, a woman, and some American Indian ranch hands. The father is Colonel William Ludlow, played by Anthony Hopkins giving a masterful performance that makes the film worth watching just for that. He's a retired officer from the Western Indian Wars, and one day chooses to toss his saber and make a home in the wilderness of the American West by the Rocky Mountains of Montana with his three sons. The youngest son, Tristan is partially raised by the American Indian ranch hand, One Stab (Gordon Tootoosis) who is far more part of the extended family than hired help. The conflict occurs early on when son Samuel returns from back East with a potential fianceè to meet the family, Susannah Fincannon (Ormond). While I thought she was coming for a week or two, she moves in for the winter. The three boys, against the severest objections of their veteran father, then decide to join the fight in World War I, and Samuel pays the ultimate price. The two sons return home, but they clearly bear the scars of battle. What makes matters worse is that they both fall in love with Samuel's fianceè, Susannah.

What follows is a tale that is both timeless and classic. As time passes, we see the changes in America first hand impacting the family, and in turn their relationships. The film is also done so well that the characters have a very real sense about them, with layers of complexity and nuance developing them into real figures, and not just actors.

The character of Tristan is quite well developed. While he is not an American Indian, he ends up being a "half breed" of sorts by virtue that One Stab was his surrogate father. Whenever adversity strikes, he goes back to this Indian heritage and training, and becomes the warrior brave- whether it is appropriate or not. He also makes an interesting contrast to another character, Isabel Two. While she is of mixed ancestry, and was raised more as an American Indian culturally, the Colonel educates her in academics, which is the enantiomer of Tristan (ok, I'll admit that I've been waiting for years to use that word and it finally fits somewhere). It is any wonder that these two characters are attracted to each other as they dovetail perfectly in their upbringing.

Legends of the Fall is one of those epic films that most will enjoy, and everybody should see at least once. It works on many levels, including character, costume, scenery, cinematography, and some really great performances by some of Hollywood's best. If you haven't had the opportunity to see it, it's well worth seeking out on disc.

Overall Grade: A+

Reviewed by Jonas

PORNOGRAPHY: THE SECRET HISTORY OF CIVILISATION

With all the passions, positive and negative, roused by pornography it can be hard to view it objectively or historically. This task is handled admirably in Pornography: The Secret History of Cilivisation which looks at pornography from the ancient past to what it may become in the future.

This documentary, originally a British television series, is divided into six parts: The Road to Ruin looks at how the excavation of Pompeii's ruins led to the origin of the idea of pornography; The Sacred and Profane examines how the printing press affected pornography; The Mechanical Eye explores how photogaphy led to the porn magazine; Twentieth Century Foxy shows porn and the motion picture came together; Sex Lives on Videotape takes on the effect of video on adult theaters and consumers; and Pornotopia tackles the Internet and porn. Each segment is very focused and includes interviews with historians, art experts, and members of the adult industry.

Pornography: The Secret History of Civilisation does an excellent job of providing a detailed historical overview of the forms and impact of erotic materials throughout history. This series avoids titillation or sensationalism, instead providing a fascinating look at pornography -- and, by extension, human sexuality -- from ancient times to the upcoming future. There are a few dramatic sound effects or visual effects thrown in, but these don't distract from an intelligent and fascinating treatment of the erotic side of humanity.

I do have two small complaints with this documentary. First, while Pornography: The Secret History of Civilisation strives for objectively, there is a noticable lack of anyone or anything suggesting a negative side of pornography. (For example, the documentary described Linda Lovelace becoming the first porn superstar after Deep Throat; but it doesn't mention that she spent the rest of her life crusading against porn and telling people that watching Deep Throat is watching her get raped on film.) Second, when discussing home viewing of pornography this documentary implies the viewing audience is composed of single men, ignoring the expansion of erotica to include women and couples.

Pornography: The Secret History of Civilisation is a wonderful history lesson about what humans enjoyed, enjoy, and will enjoy in the realm of sex and sexuality. I highly recommend viewing this great documentary -- especially with a loved one!

Overall grade: A

Reviewed by James Lynch

Music Within (2007)

Music Within is one of those stand up and cheer films based on a true story. The real life hero is Richard Pimentel, a colorful speaker that took a circuitous route to where he ended up in life.

Pimentel is ably played by Ron Livingston. As a young man, while he doesn't have the money for college, he is a gifted speaker. He auditions up at the university for Ben Padrow (the ever present, but consistently good Hector Elizondo) the toughest speech professor since mine back in college. While the speeches that Pimentel gives for the audition are nothing short of impressive, Padrow suggests that Pimentel get some "real life experience" so he actually has something to talk about. Well, that goal for some experience leads Pimentel to Vietnam, where needless to say he gets more than he bargains for. After completing a heroic mission, meriting a personal thank you from his CO, as he plays cards with some buddies he ends up deaf from an incoming projectile.

The Army's answer is to discharge him, send him his disability check, and they don't think it's worth even putting the money into him to send him to college (enlightened thinking of the 70's). Pimentel teaches himself to read lips, befriends another disabled person, Art Honeyman (Michael Sheen), and soon gets a job where he is overpaid and underworked at an insurance company where they don't even know he's deaf. Now most guys out there would have rested on their laurels at that point, right? Not Pimentel who then leaves the cushy insurance job to help his fellow vets, and ends up being one of the key players in the Americans with Disabilities Act decades later.

Music Within has an amazing background story. Telling the story of Richard Pimentel, not exactly a household name, and what he achieved in the face of adversity should have made for a compelling movie. However, unlike films such as Freedom Writers, or The Ron Clark Story I just didn't feel the heroic part as much. Maybe I just didn't know where this was going for most of the film, but I was quite surprised at the end to hear that this guy had anything to do that was on the national stage. Maybe for too much of the film, Music Within just feels like a second tier affair, which is too bad given its subject matter. It's more of a "sit up and smile" than a "stand up and cheer" film, but still, I've seen worse. This is the point at which fellow Armchair Critic reviewer JB often says something like "it's not that it's a bad film, it's just that it's not a very good one" and that pretty much sums up what we have here.

Overall Grade: B-

Reviewed by Jonas

5.08.2008

Live Free or Die Hard (2007)

I've never been a big fan of the Die Hard movies, and even less of a fan of Bruce Willis. They keep churning out these 80's flicks reloaded (eg: Terminator, Knight Rider, Rocky, Voltron, Rambo, Transformers, etc) to capitalize on the nostalgia of the Generation Xer's, and I generally see right through it as most have fallen quite short of the originals. However, when I read the back of the DVD, I was intrigued by the plot, and brought Live Free or Die Hard home.

Live Free or Die Hard focuses on an online terrorism scenario where the FBI Cyber Security division gets hacked, as well as multiple vital services that our country depends on: energy, transportation, water, and communication. Think this is a ridiculous plot? Unfortunately, it's not. I'm still bothered by the blackout that affected most of the Northeast US back in 2003 for a few days. What did they tell us at the time? Lightening storm when there weather radar was clear? Who really knows, and according to the conspiracy theorists, it may have been Chinese hackers. Lest we think this is limited to some kooks out there, here's something more authoritative and recent.

At any rate, getting back to the film Live Free or Die Hard, within the borders of the US the hackers have setup to take down and paralyze the US. By getting snippets of code from the best hackers, and promptly blowing up their computers with their unknowing accomplices, they've created a cold trail and isolated themselves pretty well. One of these hackers is Matt Farrell played by Justin Long. At the start of the attack, the FBI asks for some assistance from local law enforcement, and Bruce Willis, I mean John McLane a veteran NYC detective, is to pick up the hacker and deliver him to FBI Headquarters in Washington, DC. It's not exactly a shock when we end up with Long and McLane in the middle of a gun battle against the baddies unloading the clips in his sorrowfully inadequate pistol against an automatic rifle. As the film progresses, we end up with Willis and Long working some serious OT to save the US of A from heading back into some type of Amish chaos where all technology is not working.

Overall, of all the Die Hard films, Live Free or Die Hard is my favorite. Unfortunately, Willis' acting prowess is still limited and hardly of any breadth or width. If you want a decent summer style blockbuster thriller (the scene in the tunnel was quite good) with some exploding special effects, than this film can get the job done.

Overall Grade: B

Reviewed by Jonas

Inconceivable - Ben Elton (1999)

Inconceivable is the punny title of Ben Elton's book about a couple and their difficulty having children. One might not think that infertility is a subject rife with comedic potential, but in the sharp and sometimes cruel hands of Ben Elton it makes for a very funny book indeed.

The book is written as an almost epistolatory novel, although instead of letters it is told in alternating extracts from the journals being written by Sam and Lucy, the childless couple. It is a device which works pretty well, giving a "he said/she said" feel to the proceedings. Sam's entries are funny and have a distinct male voice. Lucy's entries are funny and have a distinctive voice, too, but I wonder if the voice is a little stereotypical rather than distinctively female. (The voice sounded plausible to me, but I'm not a female and by definition poorly equipped to judge ...)

The through line, of course, is the various ups and downs of trying to get pregnant. There is lots of material here from New Age suggestions to make love on sites of mystic power to the indignities necessary for the various modern medical techniques. Interweaving with that story are subplots concerning Sam's attempt to kickstart his writing career by writing about their problems, and Lucy's response to that.

Elton's style is sharp and biting, almost mean at times, with an earthy streak that crops up now and then. Those familiar with British television might recognize the names Blackadder, The Young Ones and The Thin Blue Line, shows for which he was a writer. That's not to say there aren't moments of tenderness in the book, far from it! He brings a sense of reality to the relationship between Sam and Lucy, which is tender but tense, a complex and conflicted affair.

The book was adapted into a screenplay and made into the movie Maybe Baby, which is a little ironic since that's what happened in the book itself. There's a sort of snake eating it's own tail sense to that. The movie was directed by Elton and stars the usual passle of folks, including Hugh Laurie of House fame. All of which is rather beside the point.

The point being that the book is quite good, not a deep and world shaking read, but funny and a little poignant at places and worth the time if you need a break from Proust or whatever magnum opus you are currently perusing.

Overall Grade: B+

5.03.2008

Iron Man (2008)

The summer blockbuster starts in May this year, and it starts with a bang: Iron Man is a big-budget superhero movie that works very well!

The story follows the comic book character's origin quite closely. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is a brilliant inventor, president of Stark Industries, famous, and wealthy. He's also a hedonist, willing to drink, gamble, and have one-night stands instead of keeping appointments. His assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is always trying to keep him on track, his military friend Jim Rhodes (Terrence Howard) wants him to live up to his potential, and his business partner Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) is happy that Stark Industries is making money by making weapons.

Everything changes when, on a trip in Afghanistan, the military convoy transporting Stark is ambushed -- with Stark Industries weapons -- and Stark is injured and captured. Terrorist leader Raza (Faran Tahir) wants Stark to build them some weapons, but Stark finds inspiration in crisis and, with help, builds a large, clunky suit of armor that can shoot flames, punch through steel doors, and fly. Once Stark gets back to the states, he announces that Stark Industries will no longer make weapons. He also begins a very personal project which, after quite a bit of trial and error with a gray suit of armor, leads to the traditional red-and-gold armor Iron Man fans know so well. He makes it his mission to destroy all the weapons his company had made that are being used by the wrong people.

All is not well, though. Stane is outraged that the company that relies on making weapons will not keep building weapons. Further, Raza has found the scraps of the original armor and blueprints from Stark, leading to an even bigger, more powerful suit of armor...

Iron Man is an excellent action movie. First and foremost is the casting. Robert Downey Jr. is Tony Stark, both as the carefree self-absorbed jerk and then as the man whose eyes are opened to the consequences of his actions, and the heroism needed to make up for his cast. Gwyneth Paltrow has a lot of fun with her role, making Pepper into a smart, sprightly woman who both likes her boss and recognizes his flaws; their scenes together have both romantic tension and plenty of laughs. The supporting cast is also excellent, from the shady villains to Terrence Howard as the more responsible pal who's always frustrated by his friend's behavior.

The action and effects also work very well. The armors are a combination of sliding metal and hydraulic gears, creating something both futuristic and almost believable. Director Jon Favreau does better with the Stark-Pepper interaction than with the fight scenes at the end, but the effects are smooth enough that those shortcomings are minimal. My only complaint is that the movie strains itself towards the end by making the bad guys excessively evil so there's no way anyone but hatred for them.

Fans of the Iron Man comic book will find plenty of inside references, from possible characters in future films to a post-credit cameo that could set up a major storyline in the inevitable sequel. Folks who don't know the character will have no problem following the creation and rise of this techno-hero. It's nice to see a superhero movie and a big-budget blockbuster that's funny, exciting, intelligent, and thoroughly entertaining. Iron Man is a great start to the summer movie season.

Overall Grade: A

Reviewed by James Lynch

Moving Cloud, "Welcome: Who Are You?" (GO' Danish Folk Music, 2008)


The traditional music of Denmark is something of a melting pot, with influences not just from the Nordic countries but also from Celtic music as well. There has been enough cross-pollenation with Ireland for a session scene to take hold in Denmark, from which the band Moving Cloud emerged twenty years ago. Moving Cloud have been through a few changes in the intervening years, but their fine energetic sound makes them worthy of mention with the good Irish session-style bands from Ireland and elsewhere. (Please be advised that there was a Donegal-based band also named Moving Cloud -- the members of the two bands were evidently so fond of the same particular reel that they both named themselves after it -- that released two albums in the nineties. While I imagine they'd appeal to the same audience, they are two different bands, from different places, with different personnel.) Their newest album "Welcome: Who Are You?", produced by the venerable Dónal Lunny, came out in February.

The primary distinguishing element of Moving Cloud's sound is the heavy reliance on percussion. Svend Kjeldsen has been banging on the bodhrán and other assorted instruments for the band since their inception, and is the only person to be part of every Moving Cloud lineup to date. He provides a steady backbeat and groove to most of the pieces on the album. He is assisted on a couple of tracks by step dancer Mette Løvschal, a relative newcomer to the group. They collaborate on a unique recitation called "Anahorish... My Place of Clear Water," the most intriguing track on the album. Filling out the band's sound are long-time members John Pilkington (vocals, guitar, bouzouki) and Klavs Vester (flutes and whistles), along with the band's newest member, fiddler Christopher Davis Maack.

Outside of "Anahorish," "Welcome: Who Are You?" follows a tried and true pattern for albums of Irish session music. There are sets of jigs and reels, there are slower pieces, and Pilkington throws in a few songs for good measure. A lot of bands follow the same general approach, but Moving Cloud should still get noticed in the crowd because they play particularly well, with a healthy amount of energy and spirit. Now, I could understand it if somebody with a thousand or two Celtic albums might be more demanding than I am, but I actually haven't listened to a whole lot of new Irish-style CD's lately, and I found "Welcome: Who Are You?" to be a breath of fresh air.

Overall grade: B

reviewed by Scott


Reprinted with permission from The Green Man Review
Copyright 2008 The Green Man Review

5.01.2008

Majestrum - Matthew Hughes (2006)

Majestrum, subtitled "A Tale of Henghis Hapthorn," is the first book in a series of tales featuring "the foremost freelance discriminator" of a far future "Old Earth." The setting is at a point where technology is about to enter a period of decline and magic is about to return to ascendancy, part of a cycle which has been repeated numerous times we are told. Hapthorn is a detective in the classic vein with more than a simple nod to Sherlock Holmes, although less than a full pastiche.

The plot, as one would expect, revolves around the tension between the "highly calibrated mind" of a scientific detective faced with the possibility of magic involved in a case. The ground covered here is something of an inversion of the idea covered by quite a few authors over the years - "The Magic Goes Away" by Niven comes to mind - and a look at the cycle coming back around to magic is refreshing. Hapthorn has, in a backstory which is never fully explained, faced a thaumaturge with the result that his intuitive faculty has been split off into a separate sort of consciousness sharing his head. The adventure also caused his "integrator,"a sort of programmed hardware/software agent and AI, to turn into a familiar which serves the same function.

The story is essentially a mystery, which means that it can not be too fully explicated without giving away the solution. Hapthorn is drawn into a complicated plot when an aristocrat, Lord Afre, hires him for what seems like a straightforward investigation into his daughter's suitor. Afre fears that the suitor is a gold-digger and wishes him investigated. Hughes starts from this well-trodden ground and develops a complicated and devious plot. Some of the twists and turns will be no surprise to those familiar with the mystery genre, but they are handled deftly enough.

Hughes style is consciously artificial; it reads like someone writing in a mock Victorian style, which is part of the reason why there is a Holmesian feel. It is affected, but works well with the plot and setting. The first chapter or so took a little getting used to, but then it settled down and was actually quite delightful. Hughes handles his characters moderately well, although to be fair, the only ones who truly matter are Hapthorn himself, his "other self" and his integrator/familiar. All the others are mere supporting characters, sketched in sufficiently for the short time they are present in the narrative.

The book, thus, is concerned almost exclusively with Hapthorn as articulated in Hughes' style. Readers who are not engaged by Hapthorn will find little else to distract them; although the plot is sturdy enough, the true meat is Hapthorn and his inner conflicts. Fortunately, that's enough.

Overall Grade: B