Lost, 2/21/07

After last week's dismal flashback episode, Lost almost, well "lost" me as a viewer. I was starting to wonder if the writers and producers ever really had an overall plot that the show was going in, or were they simply lost and confused as well. Anyway, after missing it on Wednesday, I was curious, and caught it online through the ABC site. I'm seriously glad that I made the effort.

Maybe it's that the surgeon has always been my favorite character on the island (I wonder why?). Finally, this week we got back to the plot, and showed a few things focusing on him. This time the background story contributed something as we got into that tat on Jack's arm. Seriously, I know just about no doctors with tatoos, so I've always wondered where he got such a large mark on the deltoid. A pretty dame was involved; I shoulda guessed something like that happened! Anyway, did anyone else notice that his tatoo is twice the size now compared to what she did? Me thinks we only got half the story on that issue so far.

Also, this week, we focused back on Jack with "The Others," and the escapees journey back to the main island. Once again I'm intrigued, and will make an effort to watch. In my view, the old Lost has returned, and it is for the better.

Episode Grade: A- (I'm still taking points off for last week!)

Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs, Franklin Institute Science Museum, Philadelphia PA

photo by Ian Mylott

Earlier this month, the Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia opened King Tut and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs, its exhibit of the treasures of the tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun. This marks the second time that these items have been displayed in the United States. While Tut's funeral mask, the most famous artifact retrieved from the tomb, isn't part of this exhibit, viewers do get to see most of the stunning assortment of personal, ceremonial, and religious items enclosed with Tutankhamun to accompany him on his journey into the afterlife.

The exhibit opens with a couple of rooms worth of artifacts from the time period immediately preceding Tutankhamun's reign, in order to provide some historical context. In short, Tut's immediate predecessor (and likely father) Akhenaten had replaced the polytheistic religion which had dominated Egypt with worship only of the sun god Aten. Naturally the priests of the other gods didn't care much for this transition and eagerly exerted influence over Tutankhamun, only nine when he ascended to the throne, to restore the old temples to their prominence. These preliminary artifacts took up four rooms, with six further rooms holding the items from Tut's tomb. These items ranged from the really lavish, gilded funerary objects to mundane personal items like a board game called Senet. (Who knew that Tut was a gamer geek?) The degree of lighting varied substantially from room to room. While the exhibit was planned out well enough to avoid significant crowding -- I was at a Van Gogh exhibit at the Met just over a year ago that was much more packed -- but the darkness in several of the rooms made moving around a bit difficult.

Still, given what was on display, any problems with the lighting were minor inconveniences. The artwork, the hieroglyphics, and the great care and expense that went into making all these objects -- tomb discoverer Howard Carter's memorable quote "everywhere the glint of gold" is no exaggeration -- are impressive enough on their own merits, but I had to keep reminding myself that the things I was looking at were made over 3000 years ago.

It's somewhat ironic that Tutankhamun is the most famous of the pharaohs not because of his accomplishments as a ruler, but rather largely because of his lack of accomplishments. He was forgotten very quickly, and as other tombs in the Valley of the Kings were looted, the location of his became inaccessible and was ultimately lost to history. As a result, the fantastic riches inside remained undisturbed for millennia, and now you can see them for yourself. There's so much history, art, and culture contained in the exhibit, even without some of the tomb's most famous relics, that the opportunity to see them is not one to be missed.

Behind the Lines

In this seventh part of the series, Griffin manages to turn some obscure history into a full blown plot. More specifically, Behind the Lines deals with the guerilla resistance in the Philippines after MacArthur withdrew, and the Japanese occupied the island nation.

With Douglas "El Supremo" MacArthur withdrawn from the Philippines to Australia, most of the remaining US forces surrendered when Corregidor, their island fortress fell. However, there were some that didn't go along with this plan. Wendell Fertig was a lieutenant colonel in the Army reserve, in the engineering corps; on paper an unlikely person to organize and lead a resistance movement. However, he ends up doing just that.

In order to increase his stature among the Filipinos, Fertig self promotes himself to General. Various troops come to join his rag tag group which attack Japanese convoys to procure supplies. With a radio, they attempt to establish contact with their military forces across the ocean.

With Fertig's group back in touch, it becomes a political football as to if and how the US military should assist him. Apparently MacArthur had felt previously that guerilla operations could not be mounted, and didn't want to be proven wrong by an engineering corps light colonel, from the reserves no less.

They decide that with the Army turning a cold shoulder that the Marines can take on the challenge. Also, the newly formed OSS (which eventually evolved into our CIA), also is trying to get involved like "a camel sticking its nose into a tent." In other words, they're not welcome, and even worse, their point man is Macklin, the lying, conniving and cowardly officer that everyone loves to hate from earlier novels in the series. Leading the Marines is Ken "Killer" McCoy, who was introduced in the first novel, but we haven't seen nearly enough of lately. Just to keep things interesting, Macklin outranks McCoy, but will be shot if he impedes the mission!

Also contributing to the depth of the novel, is the way that that Griffin handles the radio codes. By taking us through the various substitution ciphers, we gain a much better appreciation of creating and breaking a code. I’ve often wondered how they work, and now I have an appreciation of the intricacies of creating and breaking such transmissions.

I enjoyed Behind the Line very much. As is typical of Griffin, this work is historically accurate, and overflows with realism. I recommend Behind the Lines to any World War II buff.

Overall Grade: A

For our review of the eighth novel, In Danger's Path, see here.


This Film Is Not Yet Rated

How do movies get rated? Why all secrecy about the people chosen to review movies for rating? And do major studios pictures get preferential treatment over independent films? Kirby Dick tries to address these questions and issues with his documentary THIS FILM IS NOT YET RATED. Unfortunately, this subject deserved more serious treatment that Dick gives it here.

The focus of THIS FILM IS NOT YET RATED is the distinction between the R and NC-17 ratings, since NC-17 can result in not only everyone under 17 being banned from a movie but also a loss of advertising avenues. The highlight of this documentary is the series of interviews with filmmakers who have fought the NC-17 rating their movies received; these include Kevin Smith (who, surprisingly, discussed the battle over JERSEY GIRL instead of CLERKS), Kimberly Peirce (BOYS DON'T CRY), John Waters (A DIRTY SHAME), Marry Harron (AMERICAN PSYCHO), and Wayne Kramer and Maria Bello (THE COOLER).

Dick provides a lot of evidence of the inequalities in the rating system. Using many examples, he shows that there's a hierarchy of acceptability: Violence is more okay than sex, and heterosexual sex is more okay than kinky or gay sex. There's also evidence that studios get away with more in their ratings, and they get more detailed notes on what to cut to get that desired R rating. He also provides a brief history of the ratings system, and outrage over the mystery and bureaucracy surrounding the rating and appeals processes. (For example, when appealing a rating no other movies can be referenced, presumably so the standard used for one movie isn't applied to another.)

Dick swerves massively off course when THIS FILM IS NOT YET RATED focuses on the investigation of the raters. He decides to find out who the current raters are, to show the hypocricy around them. (The MPAA says they all have children under 17, yet the investigation reveals many of their kids are in their 20s or 30s.) Instead of simply giving us the result of the investigation, he joins the investigators through their research. The result: less time covering the ratings system or interviewing fascinating filmmakers, and more time digging through garbage, tailing cars, and using hidden cameras.

Dick also manipulates the material shamelessly. Very few interviews are given that support the ratings system; instead, he uses clips of Jack Valenti (who headed the ratings board for decades) that are followed by facts contradicting those clips. When Dick can't get permission to show or play conversations with ratings board members about this documentary getting a NC-17 rating, he uses computer animations (with rolling eyes) and actors to make them less credible. And it's no coincidence that Dick talks about one of his investigator's lesbian lifestyle with the segment showing how the ratings board is tougher on gay and lesbian sex. And did he really expect his film -- filled with images that got other movies a NC-17 rating -- would get rated R?

THIS FILM IS NOT YET RATED is a good start at looking at how movies get rated, but it's too manipulative and self-involved for such a serious topic. I hope this movie inspires someone else to make a better documentary on this topic.

Overall Grade: C

Reviewed by James Lynch


Lost Returns, and I'm Bored

I'm what you might call, a "casual fan" of ABC's show, Lost. While others may carefully study every detail, I really just want to see what happens on the island. The show has way too many commercials, and the hiatus from the fall until the last two weeks didn't help anything either. Also, the many flashbacks rarely add much to the show in my view, so I just flip to something else, and return when they're done for some more plot. Seriously, otherwise the show gets way boring at times, at least for me.

Last week's episode left us in the middle of an escape, and the Doctor, Jack, willing to sacrifice himself for his friends. I was very disappointed this week. It was an entire flashback focusing on Desmond, the guy they found in the hatch. He's always been a minor player, and an afterthought, at least for me. A whole episode of his back story? Does anyone really care that much about him? There are already too many plot lines in progress to spend this much time on developing something else that's quite frankly, not that intriguing anyway.

All I know is that with my strategy, I kept switching back and forth, and from the best I could tell, there was less than five minutes of time spent on the island. I'm sorry, but the flashbacks shouldn't be the main attraction. If they want to know why the ratings are sagging with each season, this just might have something to do with it.

I still haven't decided what's going to be the plan for next week. I may very well not even tune in, and head on over to elsewhere. That's a shame because this show used to be great!

This Week's Episode Grade: D

The Guardian (2006)

The Guardian is a blockbuster action movie. It stars Kevin Costner, and Ashton Kutcher. It focuses on the rescue swimmers of the US Coast Guard; these are the courageous folks that jump out of a helicopter with flippers on to rescue you when your ship sinks.

I'll admit that I was prejudiced by other critics who said that The Guardian was merely a remake of An Officer and a Gentleman, and Costner was not as good as Lou Gossett, Jr. Still, the coming attraction looked good, so I decided to watch this lengthy 2:19 film. I'm very glad I did, as The Guardian is much more like the early, formula Tom Cruise films, like The Color of Money, or Days of Thunder. Even though this is a lengthy film, it moved well, and didn't seem like it needed more trimming.

Kevin Costner plays a Ben Randall, Senior Chief Rescue Swimmer in the Coast Guard. He is as experienced as they come, and lives for the job. Through a series of events, he ends up running the Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer School. Enter Ashton Kutcher, who plays Jake "Goldfish" Fischer, the new hot shot student. He's a high school swim champ who endeavors to be the best. Here we have the makings of the master and apprentice relationship. Costner has several "innovative" activities for the new recruits that try to better bridge the gap between the training program, and what the job really demands. There is a definite turning point in their relationship after the bar fight at the Navy's stomping ground. And by the end of this film, the relationship develops even further.

Throughout The Guardian, there was a lot of effort to portray the rescue swimmers accurately. Kutcher spent eight months learning to be a rescue swimmer! They had numerous technical advisors, including former and current rescue swimmers. Scenes were filmed on location at the actual Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer School. They built a wave pool that could produce nine foot waves to portray the Bering Sea (in an ironic twist of fate, it was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, and had to be rebuilt on another site). The director and actors flew out on a Coast Guard helicopter to gain some first hand experience. Even the extras were Olympic swimmers, and rescue swimmers.

All of this attention to detail really pays off and comes together. Through this crackling realism, we enjoy a great tale of the master and the apprentice. While saving a life isn't exactly a foreign concept in my chosen profession, jumping from a helicopter into a stormy, freezing sea is. These Coast Guard Rescue Swimmers are true heroes, and The Guardian is able to tell their story, through the film. If you're looking for action and adventure, with a great story, then this film delivers the goods.

Overall Grade: A+


Winter On Long Island Video

In an Armchair first, when an atmospheric scientist gets busy with a video camera, we end up with views of ice sail boats...


Almost all the fiction and films about zombies focus on the immediate threat they present, how the protagonists escape, defeat, or succumb to the mindless, undead killing machines that pursue them. Max Brooks takes a different approach in WORLD WAR Z: His tale is told by the survivors, after the fact.

The framework is WORLD WAR Z is simple: Twelve years after the great zombie war, an author of the United Nation’s Postwar Commission Report decides to collect the stories of the people involved in all facets of the war. So he interviews people – injecting him into the stories as little as possible – and gathers the stories together in sections (such as the early days when the outbreak was described as “African rabies,” to the darkest times of the war, to the push to retake the world) that, together, chart the development of what happened.

The survivors interviewed are a truly varied lot. They not only come from different countries, but they also had very different roles in the war. There’s an entrepreneur who shamelessly made money off the initial panic – and refuses to apologize from profiting from all the death. There are politicians who re-created their countries after the fall, sometimes advancing (Cuba became capitalist!) or going back (as Russia became a dictatorship again). A soldier tells the horrors of the Battle of Yonkers, the first massive defeat for the human armies; a wheelchair-bound patrolman talks about how to beat the zombies one on one. And we learn about the Redeker Plan, the template begun in South Africa, and adopted almost everywhere else, that calculated, through horrifying scientific methodology, not just who would be saved, but how the rest would be sacrificed to ensure the survival of the saved.

WORLD WAR Z goes beyond the zombie threat to how people tried to keep their humanity during the crisis. One woman recounts how when so many people fled north to Canada (where the cold would slow down or even stop the zombies), the initial camaraderie shared by those survivors degenerated as food ran out. A Chinese military official struggled with his decision to effectively desert the army and steal a nuclear submarine for the survival of his crew. We even hear from a “feral child,” one of the children who survived and grew in the wild when their parents (and towns) were killed.

Max Brooks (who previously “covered” the zombie threat with his tongue-in-cheek book THE ZOMBIE SURVIVAL GUIDE) gives us a compelling look (or, more accurately, look back) at how humanity would react to and handle a crisis. His characters are all diverse, believable, and affected in different ways by a catastrophe that brought out both the worst and the best in people. The zombies aren’t what’s important (for example, we never learn what started it all); the people are, and the mosaic of their stories creates a picture of what happened in the war and what is happening now. WORLD WAR Z is an original, engaging take on zombies – and the people who were changed by them.

Overall grade: A


Treasure of Khan (2006)

Treasure of Khan is the latest Clive Cussler novel. In the followup to Black Wind, Clive once again has the assistance of his son Dirk who is preparing to take the reins at some point. Treasure of Khan is in the Dirk Pitt series of Cussler novels which is his largest series (including this one, it's up to eighteen novels which is more than most series make it to).

One of Cussler's signature items is the background story. Through it, he vivdly sets the historical background for the modern day action that ensues. Like in Cussler's novel Sahara (as an aside the book was awesome, but the movie was awful), there are two separate background stories that really contribute to the depth of the whole plot.

For those not familiar with this series, it is based upon the adventures of Dirk Pitt, and his lifelong pal, Al Giordano. They are a bunch of marine engineers who work for a fictitious government office, known as NUMA, that is devoted to exploring and preserving the planet's oceans. Through the years, they have ended up in many situations, and while many involve the ocean, they have saved the world countless times from a variety of threats.

I think the Cussler men are starting to run a little short of ideas as this time the setting is focused around the deserts of Mongolia. While it serves to keep the location exotic, it makes our marine engineers, well, like "fish out of water." Through some creative planning, and nearby bodies of water, at least they are able to put their nautical skills to good use.

As the eighteenth novel in the series, Treasure of Khan definitely follows the winning formula. In one way, we don't stray too far from what obviously works. More specifically, the elements of the classic car, Hiram Yeager- the computer specialist, Pearlmutter- the ocean historian, retired Admiral Sandecker cutting through red tape, and the damsel in distress are all utilized, as they are throughout the Cussler novels. However, I can tell you that he deviates just enough from the usual, including placing them out of the usual order, to keep the experience fresh. Also, Dirk's children, Dirk Jr. and Summer get featured, but they don't steal the show like in some of the recent novels which didn't quite feel the same.

Treasure of Khan, despite its lengthy 552 pages, is an exceedingly well written novel. Pick any page, and we can experience the care that was used by the Cusslers to carefully construct their prose. The compact descriptions strongly evoke vivid imagery. Also, the sentences flow like a lazy babbling brook that few other writers can match.

As if you couldn't tell by now, I really enjoyed Treasure of Khan. We've all come to expect a lot from a Cussler novel, and this one clearly delivers. Even when compared to Cussler's other works, an unfairly lofty standard, Treasure of Khan stands out among the best of the series, and I wholeheartedly recommend it. My only caveat is that if you haven't read this series before, don't start at the end as it's worth the journey to do it right.

Overall Grade: A+


Jim Moginie, Alas Folkloric (EMI, 2006)

As far as I'm concerned, no rock band of the past thirty years has produced as much quality music as the Australian band Midnight Oil. Their combination of strong melodies, a tireless commitment to principle, and furious energy produced a series of great albums between 1978 and 2002. Almost all of the attention people have given to the band focuses on Peter Garrett, their tall, intimidating, opinionated, and profoundly unstylish singer who currently sits on the front bench for the opposition party in the Australian Parliament. But that paints a misleading picture, as the bulk of Midnight Oil's songwriting and the heart of their sound came from drummer Rob Hirst and guitarist/keyboardist Jim Moginie. With Garrett committed to politics full-time, the remaining band members have pursued other projects. Bones Hillman was last seen playing bass with Russell Crowe and the Ordinary Fear of God. (Yes, it's that Russell Crowe.) Hirst has a number of side projects, most notably The Ghostwriters, and he recently recruited guitarist Martin Rotsey for another group of his called The Angry Tradesmen. That has left Moginie to produce the first true solo album from any Midnight Oil member, called Alas Folkloric.

The album opens with the aggressive "All Around The World," with guest appearances from Hirst and Rotsey. Hirst's manic drumming gives this angry lament of the state of world affairs the feel of vintage Midnight Oil, but while it's one of my favorite tracks on the CD, I couldn't help wondering how this would have sounded with Garrett singing lead instead of Moginie. Otherwise, Moginie refrains from sounding too much like his former band. A number of the songs aim for an ambience reminiscent of many Daniel Lanois-produced recordings, most notably the beautifully eerie "A Curse On Both Your Houses." On the upbeat side, "Outer Space" is brilliant power pop with a psychedelic twist, and an obvious choice for a single. Despite clocking in at less than a minute, the turbocharged instrumental "Zero to 110" shows that Moginie can still rev it up with the best of them.

On the whole, Alas Folkloric is a very worthy effort from an elite musician whose contributions to some of the best rock and roll in my lifetime generally go overlooked. Moginie's voice lacks the confidence and polish of somebody more accustomed to singing lead, but it has sincerity to it and a distinctive character that serves these songs well enough. This album probably won't get a whole lot of attention here in the U.S., and I doubt Moginie and his backing band The Family Dog will cross the Pacific any time soon, but fans of quality rock should get to know Jim Moginie. At the very least, anybody who liked Midnight Oil should make the effort to get this CD.

As an added bonus, the version of Alas Folkloric I purchased includes the four-song 1996 EP by Fuzz Face, a project which featured Moginie and frequent Midnight Oil producer Nick Launay. This disc is over-the-top loud, which some listeners will enjoy a lot more than others. It's noteworthy in a historical context, because it reflects the sonic experimentation that Moginie would bring to Midnight Oil's 1998 CD Redneck Wonderland, the most musically challenging (and my personal favorite) of their albums. The opening song "Mr. Doomsday" is especially a keeper.

Overall grade: B+


The Dream of Scipio - Iain Pears (2002)

The Dream of Scipio weaves together the tales of three men spread across history, all at times when Jews were under direct attack - the fall of Roman Gaul in the 5th Century, the Avignon Papacy in the 14th and occupied France in World War II. The men are connected by geography, they all dwell in Vaison near Avignon, and by their connection with Neoplatonic philosophy and thought. Pears connects them in other ways as well, in their private lives and loves, each one in turn mirroring and informing the relationships, choices, successes, failures and deaths of the others. He deftly shuttles back and forth in time, here showing Manlius Hippomanes' negotiation with the Burgandian "barbarians," there showing Julian Barneuve's reluctant capitulation to Nazi rule, yonder showing Olivier de Noyen trapped in the power politics of the medieval church. The resultant tapestry, if I may be permitted to extend the metaphor, is sprawling, richly textured story, telling its compelling tale in bright colours, but not neglecting the use of light and shadow to show both the heights of human nature and the depths to which human spirit can sink.

Pears executes his book very well; the characters are well-drawn and their story, although we know early on what their fates will, no!, must be, the telling of the tale is enough to keep the reader interested. The structure, daunting at first glance, soon becomes natural to the reader, who begins to expect an anachronistic counterpoint to whatever event has just occurred, and the leaps from era to era are made with nary a qualm. The three storylines compliment each other beautifully, and although one could hypothetically extract each tale and read it as a stand-alone, to do so would be like listening to a single instrument out of the orchestra and claiming to know the symphony.

One effect of this structure is that the inevitability of death is everywhere; the device of the three ages demands it. We know that when Olivier finds Manlius's manuscript of The Dream of Scipio (a commentary on Cicero's work of the same name), that Manlius is long dead, and when Julian discovers Olivier's poetry, Olivier is long since dust.

Pears also uses the book to meditate on the nature of civilization and humanity, and does so in a less heavy-handed way than Franz Werfel does in Star of the Unborn (reviewed earlier on this site). Here the philosophy serves the story, rather than having the story be an excuse for the philosophy.

Overall Grade: A


Adaro, Schlaraffenland (Inside Out, 2004)

In recent years, Germany has developed a scene for modern, progressive interpretations of Medieval music. I have already reviewed The Best of Corvus Corax for this site; that band combines first-millennium texts with a wall of bagpipes and drums and an over-the-top stage presentation. By contrast, Adaro (named after a creature that is half-human, half-fish) is more accessible. Most of their material comes from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, but their rocked-out arrangements are clearly aimed to reach a mainstream audience, at least in their homeland. The band is fronted by Christoph Pelgen and Konstanze Kulinsky (whose appearance reminds me very much of Amy Lee of Evanescence). Besides singing, Pelgen plays whistles and bagpipes while Kulinsky plays the hurdy-gurdy. The band's muscle is supplied by guitarist Jürgen Treyz, bassist Henrik Mumm, and drummer Jörg Bielfeldt.

Their most recent album Schlaraffenland came out in 2004. Schlaraffenland, according to the lyrics of the title song that opens the album, is a mythical place where everything goes right. While most bands who specialize in Medieval material prefer the darker, more violent songs, Adaro generally tries to keep things upbeat and positive. The music varies from very hard rock to soft acoustic ballads, with Pelgen and Kulinsky often finding creative ways to make their instruments fit in. The sound of the German language takes some getting used to -- it lacks the inherent alliteration that made Finnish immediately infectious to me, the percussiveness that gives African songs their punch, or the ethereal quality that makes Gaelic so enchanting -- but it does have its own charm, and grows on you if you let it. Highlights include the title song, the pleasantly melodic "Lieg Still," the aggressive "Minne ist ein suser Nam'," and especially the Medieval mayhem of "Komm her zur mir."

On the whole, I found Schlaraffenland to be quite a bit of fun. I have a slight preference for the darker edginess of The Best of Corvus Corax, but in Adaro's defense, that CD is a compilation of a decade's worth of material while Schlaraffenland is one studio album. For all their archaic trappings, they rock hard and have a pop sensibility, and should appeal to a broad audience in spite of the language barrier.

Overall grade: B+


Armchair 2.0

By now, our faithful readership has noticed that we've done a little "face lift" around the ol' Armchair Critic. Last week Blogger finally let our team blog go to the newer 2.0 interface. Hopefully it will be more stable than the previous version. I also took the opportunity to clean up some of the clutter that had accumulated over the past year.

The killer app of Blogger 2.0 is the tags. This makes it real simple to find more content. For example, clicking on a musical group's, or author's name in the tags at the end of the post will bring up all of the reviews we've done by that particular group or actor. It also allows us to easily keep track of how many movie reviews we've done, and more easily find older content for us as well as our readership. Another advantage is that we can more easily add online videos, like the one I found below.

Thanks for bearing with us during the last week or so, and things should run normally from here on out...at least for a while!

Star Wars Gangsta Rap

An inventive mashup of various Star Wars scenes set to rap music. May the force be with you!

Overall Grade: B+

Employee of the Month (2006)

Cinema takes on “big block” retailing in Employee of the Month, which was recently released on DVD. Most of the action takes place at a Shopper’s Club, which is a thinly disguised Costco. On the one hand, we have Zack, played by Dane Cook, who is a bottom of the food chain “boxboy” whose only ambition in life is to do as little as possible. On the other hand, we have Vince, played by Dax Shephard who is the obnoxious star employee who has been the employee of the month for the last seventeen months. Number eighteen will put him on the fast track to a career in management. Enter beautiful coworker Amy, played by Jessica Simpson (who thankfully doesn’t break into song…), and as fast as you can say “Price check on register one!” we have the major makings of a love triangle.

Employee of the Month successfully walks the line between entertaining comedy and silliness. It’s always just on the verge of degenerating past silliness to stupid, but in my view, it stays out of that abyss. While this film brought back a few personal memories of a summer spent in the grocery industry, I enjoyed it quite much. While a lot of films bill themselves as a romantic comedy and are almost devoid of any humor, Employee of the Month delivers a larger share of comedy than romance. With that in mind, it’s an enjoyable ninety minute diversion that doesn’t take anything too seriously, and focuses simply on entertainment.

Overall Grade: B+


The Great Raid (2005)

When I think of the grand epic war movie, modern examples include Saving Private Ryan, and Pearl Harbor. The Great Raid tries to fit in with this exclusive crowd, but falls short of this lofty benchmark.

The story to be told centers around a raid by the US Army Rangers during World War II. The goal was to liberate a prison camp of American GI’s that were captured by the Japanese when they invaded and occupied the Philippines. These five hundred soldiers in the camp were survivors of the infamous Batann Death March. The liberation of these American POW’s was the largest raid ever attempted, and the most successful ever in American military history. Certainly, with a background story like that, the film should have an epic plot, and at many points it does.

The Great Raid
starts off strong. In the opening scenes, vintage footage is shown of the era and some historical background is presented in a succint and informative fashion. After this powerful start, we end up with multiple thirty second scenes that keep changing locations to various places in the Philippines. This results in some confusion and fragmentation. After this settles down, we focus on the Rangers, led by a Lt. Colonel, ably played by Benjamin Bratt.

Just when we start getting the plot moving, we take an extended tour to Manila, showcasing a nurse played by Connie Francis, and the Filipino underground movement. While I’m sure most of this was based on fact, very little of this subplot ultimately ties in to the main plot of the raid. I feel that it is a distraction, and contributes to the slow feel of this 2:10 film. Sure, it tries to make the nurse a romantic interest of one of the prisoners, but it feels like this was artificially laid onto the plot to make this appeal to folks beyond history buffs. I think this film could have been edited down to a tighter and better movie, and ultimately reaching its potential.

The last hour is well done. Here we focus on the title of the film and show the great raid. They had expert military advisors, and had put the actors through a two week boot camp to make them look and feel less like actors and more like soldiers. What results is quite good, and the props all looked quite authentic. Unfortunately, it takes a little bit too long to get to this point.

The Great Raid is a story that should be told and not forgotten. The DVD includes a WW II timeline that features some interesting trivia, and a featurette on the boot camp that the actors went through. As long as we realize that this film is not in the same category as the great war epics, we can enjoy it for what it is- a decent story slowed down by a distraction. If you have enough time to devote to it, check it out.

Overall Grade: B

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Hard Promises (MCA, 1981)

The fortunes of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers had already gone through several ups and downs by the time Hard Promises, their fourth album, was released in 1981. They had started battling with their record label when their second album You're Gonna Get It was a commercial disappointment, but Petty would develop a reputation for really delivering the goods when his career needed it the most. Boasting a number of quality singles, including and especially the chart-topper "Refugee," the 1979 LP Damn The Torpedoes returned Petty and the Heartbreakers both to the spotlight and to their label's good graces, but extremely strong and deep albums like Damn The Torpedoes and Petty's 1989 solo album Full Moon Fever are more of the exception than the rule in Petty's discography. Still, pretty much all of his albums have contained at least one or two strong singles and a couple of other fine tracks. Such is the case with Hard Promises, the follow-up to Damn The Torpedoes.

Hard Promises opens with one of Petty's trademark songs, "The Waiting," featuring a distinctive opening riff on Petty's electric 12-string guitar. Mike Campbell's wailing lead guitar takes the spotlight on the second song "A Woman In Love (It's Not Me)," another fine single. Most of the remainder of the album is par for the course by Petty's standards, with Petty's nasal Dylanesque vocals, decent melodies, and the Heartbreakers' standard, Byrds-influenced no-frills rock. The exception is excellent ballad "Insider," boasting the backing vocals of Stevie Nicks. Petty and the Heartbreakers also collaborated with Nicks that year on the hit single "Stop Dragging My Heart Around," off Nicks' solo LP Bella Donna.

The biggest criticism you can make about the early Heartbreakers recordings is that the sound does tend to get a bit predictable. What Petty, Campbell, organist Benmont Tench, bassist Ron Blair, and drummer Stan Lynch lacked in variety, however, they made up for with superior musicianship and chemistry, coupled with a strong resolve to stick to the rootsy rock and roll they loved and knew how to play well, even as punk and new wave raged on all around them. This would turn out to be the last album by the original Heartbreakers line-up, as Blair left the band shortly afterwards and was replaced by Howie Epstein. (Blair did return to the band in 2002 during the recording of The Last DJ.) Petty and the Heartbreakers went on to make more albums of comparable quality to Hard Promises through the early to mid 80's. Their popularity slowly but steadily declined through this period, though, before the combination of Petty's involvement with The Traveling Wilburys and the release of Full Moon Fever thrust Petty back into the spotlight in a big way yet again.

Overall Grade: B