The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)

The Pursuit of Happyness is a perfect example of an otherwise decent film that the coming attraction and publicity managed to ruin. I seriously knew just about the entire plot before I even watched the movie, and I don’t think that there was even one plot twist I was surprised about! Too bad that was the case because it significantly detracted from the experience.

The story features Will Smith portraying Chris Gardner. It's a real life "rags to riches" story that anyone who thinks the American dream is dead should watch. Gardner is a down on his luck medical salesman who is barely a paycheck away from bankruptcy, with only a high school education. When the opportunity to enter a stock broker trainee program presents itself, Gardner has to grab it. The real catch is that it involves a six months internship- without any paycheck (seriously, how do they expect folks to live?). To make matters worse, after the training, they only hire one out of the twenty, and the rest get nothing, and can’t apply the training to anything else as it is specific to that one company only. Under the best of circumstances it would be hard for one to work for six months for free, but Gardner has a family to support, and his wife is already working continuous "double shifts." Under very difficult circumstances, this intelligent guy makes the most of this opportunity, and the rest, as they say, is history.

I generally like a stand up and cheer flick, but The Pursuit of Happyness I found more exasperating than inspirational. Every time I didn't think he could drop any further, he manages to, whether it's losing his apartment, his car, his bank account is empty, or the place of last resort to spend the night has no room for him. Of note, Will Smith's real life son ably plays his son in the film. One criticism is that the scene in the Baptist Church with the church choir singing goes on way too long to say that one must keep the faith in this type of situation.

The Pursuit of Happyness
is an average film, with a predictable plot. If we keep that in mind, and toss away the hype, we can enjoy it for what it is. Those looking for some inspiration should give it a screening. After the film, those nostalgic for the 80's can break out their Rubik's Cube.

Overall Grade: B

The Second Horseman (2006)

I was slightly disappointed with the first novel I read by Kyle Mills, Burn Factor. However, it was a reader’s comment on my review that encouraged me to try another one (yes, comments are really taken that seriously around here). So this time I decided to read Mills most recent novel, The Second Horseman; I’m still somewhat disappointed.

Given the novel’s mere 290 pages, the plot is rather intricate. The main character is Brandon Vale, a master thief who specializes in big diamond heists, with a trademark of not injuring anyone to get the job done. He gets framed for a job he didn’t do, and ends up in the slammer serving out a sentence. With barely a year on his sentence, he abruptly gets broken out for a job (by some private CIA group) that only he can masterfully do. So far, I was definitely interested, and on board for the ride.

The job they need our protagonist for is a 200 million dollar cash heist. They plan to hit a cash run from a Vegas casino heading to the bank in San Francisco. The reason they need the money is that there just happens to be a dozen nuclear bombs on the open market that they plan to buy and shelve before someone more dangerous buys them. In other words, they can justify the thievery for the greater good. Things are getting thin, but I’ve put up with plots more ridiculous.

What follows really never lives up to potential. The “handler,” chosen for her good looks, is rather predictable as she falls in love with the one she was supposed to seduce. There are a lot of details left out of the heist, like how did they just happened to know about a nearby GPS tracking signal dropout zone. And really, who ever saw an eighteen wheeler with a Budweiser sign on the side of it? And what happened to the security and truck driver that were kidnapped with the loot? There’s some serious holes in this plot that conveniently get glossed over.

In my view, this novel needed some additional character development, some additional plot depth, and a rewrite so that it flowed better. I think the last Mills novel I read actually was a better book in the end. If you want a ridiculously plotted novel with flat characters, the The Second Horseman is for you. This author is definitely capable of writing better stuff.

Overall Grade: C+


Hot Fuzz

Some of the best parodies love their subjects while making fun of them. This is certainly true in Hot Fuzz: It's easy to believe that, like one of the characters, writers Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright have seen just about every action film ever made. The result is a hysterical romp that blends small rural English towns and blazing gun battles.

Sergeant Nicholas Angel (Simon Pegg) is a supercop, a London dynamo who's skilled at almost every form of policework -- especially dangerous ones. He's so obsessed with his work that his closest friend is a houseplant, his girlfriend leaves him, and his fellow officers want him gone because he's making them look bad. The result: Angel gets an unwanted promotion and a new assignment.

In short order Angel is in Sandford, an amazingly quiet town. The local police force is more interested in eating desserts that prosecuting crimes, letting offenses go by "for the greater good." The village watch is most concerned with a performance artist who pretends to be a statue. Angel's new partner is Danny Butterman (Nick Frost), the dopey, well-meaning son of the chief inspector; Danny also have a colossal action movie collection and he yearns for more shooting! And Angel's biggest case involves finding an escaped swan.

Things change quickly, though, as a large number of lethal accidents start befalling the citizenry. Local businessman Simon Skinner (Timothy Dalton) pops up at crime scenes makign sinister comments. And while the other police officers keep insisting these are only accidents, Angel and Danny wind up chasing a myserious person dressed in a black robe.

Hot Fuzz segues pretty quickly from quirky British town to roaring action flick -- and yet it somehow makes sense. Think of every action movie line, move, or cliche -- and you'll find it here. The comedy comes from two sides: Angel's anal-retentive obsessiveness about policework and Danny's lazy optimism. The film takes the notion of the quiet, quirky small British town and manages to turn it on its head (not unlike the Britcom The League of Gentlemen) quite beautifully and viciously. And while the whole movie is more than a bit silly, there are laughs from start to finish.

If you love action films, you'll enjoy seeing all of their elements done in Hot Fuzz to great comedic effect. If you haven't seen them, Hot Fuzz includes clips from Point Break and Bad Boys 2 to get you up to speed. So go see it already!

Overall Grade: A-

Reviewed by James Lynch

Thank God You're Here, NBC

I'm amused that the TV show Thank God You're Here claims originality for being an improvisational comedy. Improv has been a theater exercise for ages; it's been a stable of Christopher Guest films; it's the focus of the British and American shows Whose Line Is It Anyway? and a large part of Reno 911! Too bad Thank God You're Here isn't as funny as the rest of these; except for some of the theater classes.

Thank God You're Here is structured as a prizeless game show. Four celebrities each perform in sketches, but they don't know anything about the sketch they'll be in -- except for their costume and that they'll be greeted with someone saying "Thank God you're here." The celebrities then perform together in one sketch at the end. Dave Foley acts as a judge (meaning he presses a button to end the sketches and never says anything critical or negative), and David Alan Grier is the host with the most -- the most dull patter, that is. (He also pops up in a few sketches, getting laughs and applause for just showing up.) At the end Foley picks a winner, and that person gets a small glass trophy.

These weaknesses could be forgivable if the show was more creative. Alas, the setups are very predictable. When Brian Cranston is dressed as a rocker, his set is -- a rock studio! Jason Alexander gets outfitted as someone from Star Trek, and his set is -- a Star Trek-like starship! When the four players are dressed as vikings, they wind up in -- a viking hall! Where's the creativity or sense of silliness? Why not have an astronaut in a fast food joint, or a football player in the British parliament?

The celebrities have varying degrees of quality. Wayne Knight did a great job as a medical con man ("There's traditional medicine and alternative medicine. My product is an alternative to medicine") and Jennifer Coolidge was fun as a ditzy beauty pageant contestant. By contrast, Jason Alexander disappointed as he seemed to pause before every line; and if it does nothing else, Thank God You're Here reminds us that Tom Green should never be allowed on camera again. The supporting actors for the sketches are decent, but it's as if they are forbidden to be funny: All they do is ask open questions and pauses for the celebrities to fill in the blank. Instead of a wonderful comic blend, it's like a live-action rendition of Mad Libs.

I doubt Thank God You're Here will last long. No big loss.

Overall Grade: C-

Reviewed by James Lynch

Brandi Carlile, The Story (Columbia, 2007)

Brandi Carlile's self-titled 2005 debut CD made a big impression with me, due to the combination of some memorably catchy melodies and Carlile's husky, powerful alto. The past two years have seen her gradually building up a following, due to her strong live performances and some exposure on TV shows like Grey's Anatomy. Her sophomore effort The Story expands on the folk rock of the first album, branching out towards both country and harder rock. As before, her two primary accompanists and collaborators are identical twins Phil (bass) and Tim (lead guitar) Hanseroth. Renowned producer T Bone Burnett was brought to oversee the sessions for this recording.

One thing that becomes immediately obvious upon listening to The Story is that the vocals were done straight, with little or no overdubbing. Burnett clearly intended to capture the rawness in Carlile's vocals. I feel that the approach works well, and is needed to fully showcase the energy which Carlile puts into her singing, but it was the subject of a rather heated debate when the title song was the iTunes free download of the week about a month ago. Most of the comments centered around a moment nearly three minutes into the song, when Carlile's voice cracks as she reaches for a high note. One of the negative responders suggested that Simon Cowell would have a field day with that one, which led to somebody else suggesting that the American Idol audience wouldn't know honest music if they heard it. Indeed, the honesty in Brandi Carlile's music is her greatest asset (if you go for that sort of thing, naturally). Carlile sings from the heart, and that more than anything else gives her voice its power. The lyrics are likewise pointed and direct. The musical arrangements seldom differ from a standard two guitars, bass and drums format, but they suit Carlile's voice and style well.

The Story is a pretty solid CD from top to bottom. Standout tracks include a couple of particularly good rockers in "My Song" and "Losing Heart," a nice upbeat acoustic number in "Have You Ever," and an ominous minor-key ballad in "Shadow On The Wall." I don't think the best songs on the new CD match "Closer To You" and "Throw It All Away," the two real gems from Carlile's first album, so on the whole I probably wouldn't rate it quite as high. Still, anybody who liked the first CD will like this one as well, and anybody interested in hearing some honest, emotional, straight-from-the-gut singing and writing from a fresh young face on the music scene will want to give Brandi Carlile a listen.

Overall grade: B+

The Men in the Jungle - Norman Spinrad (1967)

Norman Spinrad is one of the old school of science-fiction writers. Like Harlan Ellison, he wrote teleplays (the Star Trek episode "The Doomsday Machine" is his), movie scripts, songs, short stories and novels. His books are commentaries, as most good science fiction and indeed most good fiction is, about society, politics and even what it means to be human.

The Men in the Jungle is an early novel, Spinrad's third, written in 1967. It transforms elements of Vietnam, Bolivia, Che Guevara and more, with a dash of Heart of Darkness, into a science fiction story about fomenting revolution on a backward planet. It asks the age old question of how can you kill a monster without becoming a monster yourself? It doesn't give any easy answers to that question of any of the others.

This is a horrible book, by which I mean it contains horrors. It is not a "horror" book, though. The horrors it illustrates are all too human. The society he paints is frighteningly believable from it's specially bred human killing machines to the specially bred human food animals to the institutionalized sadism of the the rules, the "Brotherhood of Pain."

While lacking the sophistication of Spinrad's later work, the book packs a visceral punch that rarely appears in his later work either. It is a difficult book to read, unremitting in its depictions of the depths to which humanity will sink. It would be nice to imagine that this sort of thing is simply a fiction, that no actual person or people would perpetuate such acts on other humans. But the atrocities of Nazi Germany, the genocide in Rwanda, the janjaweed militias and the situation in Darfur all show that reality is much, much worse than any fiction can ever be.

Perhaps that is why good science fiction works so well. By setting events in a different time or on a distant planet or both, the author gives his readers a little distance from the subject, allowing them to consider the horrors with some dispassion. It is to be hoped that by coping with the themes and issues in the abstract, they are better able to address the real issues when they arise. Or perhaps that is merely hopeless optomism.

As I say, this is a difficult book to read, requiring the reader to gaze into, if you will permit the phrase, the heart of darkness. And, even, into his own heart to regard the darkness that lies within. This book is not for everyone.

Overall Grade: B


The Drawing of the Dark - Tim Powers (1979)

Let me start by stating up front that Tim Powers is one of a handful of authors whose books I buy on sight. The Drawing of the Dark, one of his early novels which has recently been re-released, confirms my conviction that I am right to do so. Powers's best work combines history, fantasy and mythology into a heady brew that immmediately draws one into his world, a world which is more-or-less ours, but with hidden currents beneath the surface and where great events in history happen for reasons which are far more obscure and arcane than the commonly accepted ones.

For example, in this book, the siege of Vienna by the Turks in 1529 is because the forces of the East want to destroy or capture a brewery of exceptional mystical significance. Somehow, when Powers says that, it all makes perfect sense. The writing itself is superb, moving with excellent pace and clockwork intricacy. The research into the historical settings is good - and just gets better in his later books.

I don't really want to say much more about the plot, since a lot of the fun comes in seeing how the various pieces come together, so instead I'll content myself with comparing him to some other authors that are similar in some ways, or who strike me as being influenced by Powers.

Umberto Eco's Focault's Pendulum could almost be a Powers book. The idea that the a secret force has been manipulating things, the vast mystical conspiracy theory of it all, is the sort of thing that crops up in Powers. The Name of the Rose has a number of traits reminiscent of Powers as well; the tight and intricate plotting and historical placement.

Neil Gaiman's books have a similar feel as Powers's. His American Gods books in particular are very Powersian in their postulates that mundane history can be explained in terms of mystical, magical or mythical forces. Whereas Eco tends to avoid overt magic or fantasy, neither Gaiman nor Powers back off from it. Both Gaiman and Powers also like to deal with Ur-Myths, addressing for instance, the idea that Sigmund drawing Odin's sword from a tree trunk and Arthur drawing a sword from a stone are probably the same story ...

Ultimately, though, there is no one quite like Tim Powers. His books are splendid, and The Drawing of the Dark while perhaps not his absolute best (I think that The Anubis Gates has that honor), is a fine example. If you are familar with Powers and have not had a chance to read this book since it has been out of print, it is available again! If you have never read Powers, I envy you your first experience with this unique talent.

Overall Rating: A


Wyrd Sisters - Terry Pratchett (1980)

Pratchett is one of that rarified breed of writers, like Wodehouse, who are such singular stylists that all other facets of their work fade into pale insignificance in comparison. His most enduring creation is the Discworld, chronicled in more than thirty books and Lord only knows how many spin-offs and related projects. The Discworld is an eccentric (in many senses) fantasy world, people by a bizarre mix of incongruous characters. It is improbable, anachronistic and utterly charming. Pratchett's usual plan of attack is to take some work of fiction, or an entire genre, and recast it in his own inimitable style. Like few modern writers, but most older writers, his books work better the more familiar you are with literature in general.

Which brings us to Wyrd Sisters. The book is funny enough on its own, but if you know your Shakespeare, you catch the joke in the title and know some of what's to come. An impression confirmed when the book begins with this:

The night was as black as the inside of a cat. It
was the kind of night, you could believe, on which
gods moved men as though they were pawns on
the chessboard of fate. In the middle of this elemental
storm a fire gleamed among the dripping furze
bushes like the madness in a weasel's eye. It
illuminated three hunched figures. As the cauldron
bubbled an eldritch voice shrieked: "When shall
we three meet again?"

There was a pause.

Finally another voice said, in far more
ordinary tones: "Well, I can do next Tuesday."

With that we know that we are most definitely not in Macbeth, but the more you know about that play, the more in-jokes you get. If you don't think the above is even a little funny, then Pratchett may not be for you. If you do, then by all means give him a try. Wyrd Sisters is one of the best of the Discworld books, and is recommended on that account. It serves as a decent introduction to the series, which are so chaotic that reading them out of order is not a real problem. If one gets drawn in, then reading the first two books is probably a good idea; they are The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic.

Finally, let me add that Pratchett probably writes the funniest footnotes in fiction.

Overall Grade: A

(as a final note, there is an extensive wikipedia entry on Discworld.)

The Night Man - K.W. Jeter (1989)

K.W. Jeter writes both science-fiction and horror novels, and his science-fiction is good enough that I will sometimes try his horror. The Night Man is my most recent endeavor in that direction. Jeter writes well enough, but in this case the material simply doesn't stand up.

An abused boy summons a "protector" of sorts from the recesses of his mind, and this apparition revenges itself on the offenders. Jeter manages to wring a good deal of mileage out of a remarkable small number of violent encounters - this is not a "splatter" book in any way. There are some interesting moments, and it moves along to a reasonable if not inspired climax.

Essentially, though, that is the problem. The entire book is reasonable but not inspired. It is telling that the pull quotes on the cover refer to Jeter as a writer and to his body of work, but not to this title in particular. As a result, it is impossible to recommend The Night Man except to Jeter fans or afficionados. However, one can certainly recommend Jeter! If you have not tried his work, I would suggest beginning with The Glass Hammer or Dr. Adder.

Overall Grade: C


Jericho, CBS Television, Season One, 2006-07

I recall when I was younger that we used to have civil defense drills in school to prepare us for a nuclear attack by the Russians. When the siren went off, we would head on over to the cinderblock walls, and kneel down bracing for the potential attack that never came thankfully. It also occurred to us that living in a suburb of New York City, that while we might not be killed in the initial blast, clearly the winds would blow the fallout onto Long Island, and pretty much we would all probably die of radiation poisoning anyway over the next week. I had images of us huddling into the town hall radiation shelter eating stale crackers and drinking brackish water. I also realized that society as we know it would become nonexistent with a state of anarchy ensuing quite quickly among the few long term survivors.

Ah, the good old days! Now we realize that we’ll be dead from bird flu or anthrax long before the Russians send a missile our way. Be that as it may, CBS’ Jericho explores the “what if” scenario of a nuclear attack. The action takes place in a small Kansas town known as Jericho. It is clearly “Middle America” with small town living; the kind of place where you can sleep with the windows open, and most everyone knows everybody else. This small town tranquility gets shattered one day when America’s cities suffer the unthinkable: a nuclear holocaust.

Now, Jericho has been on since September, why am I bringing this up now? Well, I just started watching it. Through the online offerings of the network, I decided to start viewing it, and I’m already hooked. It reminds me of television’s Lost- a group of people struggling to survive under extremely difficult conditions, however, there is none of the mysterious wackiness that permeates the island that rarely gets explained, or the annoying back stories. No, Jericho is more of a “forward plot” type of experience so far, and at times it feels more like a movie or mini series than “just” a television show (Kind of like Surface from last season that got cancelled and left too many things hanging, but it was excellent up until that point).

Using the CBS Innertube video watching service I'm enjoying the ultimate time shifting experience. Forget VCR’s and DVD recorders- by viewing online, I can shift an entire season! I’ve really enjoyed the first two episodes, and for now, all of the episodes are online. If, like me, you’re looking for some new television amongst the frequent repeats of the last month, than head on over and check out Jericho. While I didn’t have time for it earlier in the season, I’m enjoying it now.

Grade: A-

In Danger's Path

In Danger’s Path is the eighth novel in WEB Griffin’s series of The Corps. While it weighs in at a lengthy 550 pages in hardcover, it is well worth the effort.

The main plot focuses on, true to Griffin’s other novels, a little more obscure history. The US Navy needs better weather information about the Northern Pacific. The Army and their Air Corps also need this same info as they plan ahead for an invasion of the Japanese islands. It is decided that weather data from Mongolia would be helpful to both services. The issue becomes as to which service will mount the mission, and how to setup a weather station in Japan’s backyard, and keep it supplied without the enemy bombing it. While this doesn’t get highlighted in history books, this mission and the weather station is historically true.

Griffin uses this as his starting point for this apocryphal story of some of our favorite US Marines to setup the weather station in the Gobi Desert (imaginatively called Operation Gobi- seriously they should have had a better code name than that!). The storyline divides between General Pickering, now a bigwig at the OSS (Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA) in charge of Pacific Operations. We follow the planning stages, and the interservice politics involved in a complicated mission on the other side of the world. There is also a sideline about a potential break in security that results in a shake up among the brass.

The other major plot line focuses on some issues that hadn’t seriously come up from the first novel in this series, Semper Fi. In typical Griffin fashion, he diabolically shelves these storylines on the back burner just until you start to give up hope (or at least forget…), and then he thrusts them into the forefront. More specifically, we hear more about the foreign wives left behind in China from the Marines that were withdrawn before World War II. He also interweaves some chronologically older events into this novel that brings things together. Seriously, anyone that can mesh eight books together into a cohesive plot line must be a master of their trade!

By the end of In Danger’s Path, it is 1943, all of the major characters in the series are featured, and a lot of loose ends get tied together. After eight novels, some of which are not exactly short, we have been taken on quite a tour of the Marines in World War Two. In my view, Griffin probably could have ended the series here. In fact it appears that this is the last of The Corps novels that deal with WW II. However, there are two more novels that head on over to the Korean War, and who knows if there are more coming.

Grade: A-

For reviews of the first six novels of the series, click here. For the seventh novel, Behind the Lines, see here.

Flyboys (2006)

Perhaps it is the lack of World War One films that got me instantly intrigued in the film Flyboys. Here we get a glimpse into Americans that volunteered for the Lafayette Escadrille, a squadron of American fighter pilots that fought before America entered the “war to end all wars.” In this early era of airplanes, this was dangerous to the point of bordering on suicidal as their life expectancy was measured in mere weeks.

The plot follows the young men of the squad from their joining up in the US, to their training, and on to combat. There is, as is almost predictable in these films, a romantic interest between one of the pilots and a French woman that intertwines the rest of the story.

On the downside, Flyboys is quite formulaic. We start with too many pilots to follow easily, but one by one they die off until we have it down to a core group to follow. There wasn't much surprise here as this 2 hour and nineteen minute film plodded along at points that probably could have been trimmed down to a more compact story of under two hours.

With those criticisms out in the open, there was a lot to like about this film. Visually, the film is quite strong as we show the biplanes flying over a rural France of World War I with its farmland, and rivers. The combat scenes are also very well done. Sure, it’s all digital effects, but how else can we see First World War biplanes dogfight, and even take on a zeppelin? In my view, these special effects truly are the spotlight of this film.

Overall, being a history, military and aviation buff, I did enjoy this film. Even for those that don’t share these interests, Flyboys is still a visual masterpiece at points, hampered by an average plot. Hollywood doesn’t make too many epic films anymore because of the financial risks involved, but this one takes its place in that grand tradition. It’s a shame that it was in theaters around the same time as Flags of Our Fathers which got all the attention, because Flyboys is a far better film. If you missed this one, definitely check it out on DVD; just be prepared with some extra popcorn for this long film.

Overall Grade: B+


The Kennedys, songs of the OPEN ROAD (Appleseed Recordings, 2006)

A couple of years ago, before a Sam Phillips concert at Joe's Pub in New York City, I got into a long discussion of music with a couple sitting at my table. We discussed the influences in Ms. Phillips' music, various world music acts we'd discovered, and the sorry state of commercial radio. After the show as I got up to leave, the woman introduced herself as Maura and the man as Pete. It didn't occur to me until I was outside that I had been sitting with the folk-rock duo The Kennedys. I guess I validated a point Pete made during our conversation about how hard it is to get noticed these days. As an avid fan of sixties rock who's played a 12-string guitar for nearly twenty years, I'm more or less The Kennedys' target audience, and I failed to recognize them while sharing a table and some conversation with them over several hours. Oops, my bad.

An oddity in music in that they've successfully balanced their marriage and a recording career for over a decade, Pete and Maura Kennedy are unrepentant believers in the power of rock and roll in its purest form. They tend to wear their influences on their sleeves even in their original compositions, but for their latest album songs of the OPEN ROAD, they decided to pay tribute to their favorite singers and songwriters directly with an album of covers. The writers covered range from fairly big stars like Bob Dylan and Stephen Stills, to less known but highly regarded performers like Nick Lowe and Jimmy Webb, to more recent voices like Victoria Williams and Nanci Griffith, to writers like the late Dave Carter who should be much better known than they are.

While I knew the names of all the writers, I was only really familiar with the original versions of two of the songs on this CD. The first of these is the classic Byrds' song "Eight Miles High." Given the complexity of the song, and the way it captures a particular moment in music and popular culture now forty years past, this was a very risky choice of songs. Pete maintains the intricacy of the original guitar arrangement while making it sound a bit more polished and less ominous. This might scandalize some people, but I think The Kennedys are trying to make the point that the song holds up even without the psychedelic underpinnings. Their version sounded fine to me on the whole, the glaring absence of the major seventh in the vocal harmonies notwithstanding. The other familiar song, and the real highlight of the album for me, was Dylan's "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall." The song's dark imagery holds up spectacularly well in the present -- a little too well, in fact, but that's hardly the fault of the song. Pete does a brilliant job of layering track after track of guitars and other guitar-like instruments under Maura's lead vocals, and the earnestness and passion in the singing and playing intensify beautifully as the verses get longer and longer. Unlike Edie Brickell's more familiar cover, which always felt watered down to me, The Kennedys' version has just the right amount of bite to it.

Not being familiar with the remaining songs, I could treat the rest of songs of the OPEN ROAD as an album of back-to-basics, no-frills acoustic guitar rock with some quality songwriting. Like I always say when I'm discussing Tom Petty's music, whatever strange places my musical wanderings may take me, there will always be room for music like this in my CD collection. I particularly liked Dave Carter's "Happytown (All Right With Me)." Carter's melodies frequently shine with a childlike happiness even when the tone of the lyrics is a bit more nuanced, and this song is a perfect example of that. The Brazilian feel of Stephen Stills' "Pretty Girl Why" and the fervent gospel of Mahalia Jackson's "I'm On My Way" provide some healthy diversity to the collection as well.

I suppose The Kennedys could be criticized for being so in awe of their influences that they don't really distinguish themselves musically from them. They can be forgiven for that, though, because their taste is impeccable. songs of the OPEN ROAD is a reverential collection of quality songs from some of the best writers in the folk and rock genres, and The Kennedys do a fine job performing them. The album will definitely appeal to fans of acoustic rock, especially if they have a soft spot for 12-strings. And if you're one of those people, find a picture of Pete and Maura and take a good, long look. You just might meet them at a show some day, and they deserve to be recognized.

Overall grade: B+

Reprinted with permission from The Green Man Review
Copyright 2007 The Green Man Review


Mail Order Wife (2005)

These days, for a grand or two, just about anyone can acquire a digital video camera, and a computer video workstation. Add in a compelling topic, and any average Joe can be a documentary filmmaker. Unfortunately, many of these budding Scorcese's films are better suited for YouTube than the big screen.

The premise of Mail Order Wife is based around a slightly below average guy decides to find his future wife from a catalog of foreign women. The film subsidizes him a couple grand, and welcome to America for a Southeast Asian woman. A couple of weeks later, they are married, and the film production is halted for the newlyweds. I kind of wish things had ended here.

What follows is a disturbing portrayal as the new marriage is not what it seems. The director tries to assist the Asian bride, but that was not without some serious strings. However, by the end, I was starting to wonder who really took the most advantage, and who to feel sorry for.

Mail Order Wife is a mostly forgettable pseudodocumentary that should convince any guy that just about any other method of finding a bride is preferable.

Overall Grade: C


Deep Six (1984)

While I generally try to read a series in order, for whatever reason, I find myself skipping around Cussler's longest running series of novels- the Dirk Pitt books. Deep Six is the sixth novel of the series.

I read in an interview that Cussler started to run out of plot ideas. On the one hand, it is certainly plausible that over three plus decades you craft so many fine novels, however, he feels the fault lies with that he uses several plot lines in each novel. Deep Six exemplifies this use of multiple plots.

The crux of Deep Six centers around abducting the President from his yacht, and brainwashing him, and then allowing them to return to power. Many novels would "make a meal" out of this plot alone, with the mayhem that ensues when the President declares Marshall law and locks out the Congress. Cussler adds in a background story of a lost ship at sea twenty years earlier with a valuable cargo. Then there is the plot about the toxic waste in the Bering Sea killing marine life. Also there's the computer hacking, and the multinational corporation involvement. And let's not forget about the final battle on the Mississippi Delta, and the Civil War reenactors that get pressed into duty! Do you see how Cussler can start to run short on material? Few authors out there can weld so many plot lines into a meaningful and seamless whole as Cussler can.

In my mind, Deep Six is a great example of Cussler's novels. The descriptions are spot on, and the dialogue is crisp. All of the major characters that appear in the later works figure into this one. If you want the American version of James Bond, then Deep Six is a good place to look. For a novel that's past the twenty year mark, I found Deep Six surprisingly contemporary.

Overall Grade: A

PS: We also find out how our hero, Pitt, met his boss, Sandecker, in this book.

You can read an excerpt here.


Instinkt, Grum (Go, 2006)

The Danish quintet Instinkt first came to my attention when their debut CD HUR! came out in 2002. Like other New Nordic folk bands such as Hedningarna and Gjallarhorn, Instinkt incorporates rock influences into their sound to bring out some of the more primal elements of the traditional music of their homeland. Their formula proved initially to be an effective one, as HUR! contained a number of excellent high-energy tracks. Last year Instinkt re-emerged with their sophomore effort Grum. While the energy level on the new album generally remains high, the band doesn't really do anything groundbreaking this time around. If anything, they seem to be contracting their musical horizons instead of expanding them.

For better or worse, the opening two instrumentals "Bjerglaaten" and "Bjerg 2" set the tone for the album. The tunes are fast-paced, but the arrangements sound formulaic, with standard rock drumming and a simple, straightforward melody played on the fiddle. Unfortunately much of the album follows suit, and a lot of things that made HUR! so interesting to me are missing from Grum. For starters, my favorite two tracks on HUR! were "Vilde Hvide" and "Disko Hopsa," a pair of songs. While there is some wordless vocalizing on a few tracks on Grum, there is one track with barely discernible words, a negligible amount of group singing on a couple of others, and that's it. This album also lacks any of the jazzy interludes, kulning (from one of the men in the band, no less), and the kind of edgy Swedish-style fiddle melodies that characterized much of HUR! and caused it to grab my attention. What's left is mostly indistinct instrumental tunes alternating between fast and slow. The two exceptions are the demented hoedown "Yummi Yah" and the hurdy-gurdy tune "Bollywood Express." While both of these tunes capture the fever pitch of the best tracks on HUR!, they also both go a little too far over the top with the screaming voices and screeching fiddles.

I suppose that Grum has some merit on its own terms, and people getting their introduction to the band might like it quite a bit more than I did. I based my expectations for the album on my previous experience with HUR!, though, and couldn't help but be disappointed. Grum just didn't keep my interest.

Overall grade: C+

Reprinted with permission from The Green Man Review
Copyright 2007 The Green Man Review



Do you long for the old days of cheap, exploitative double-feature flicks chock-filled with little plot and lots of gratituous violence and sex? If not, you really need to stay away from Grindhouse, the Quentin Tarantino-Robert Rodriguez double feature that revels in old sleaze nostaglia. There are deliberate elements of old cheap movies -- scratches on the film, "reel missing" announcements as the action is interrupted, fake trailers for more exploitation flicks -- mixed in with modern elements (text messaging, discussions of CGI and Bin Laden) -- but both movies act like they're in the '70s.

The first feature is "Planet Terror," Rodriguez' homage to cool kids and killer zombies. Melodrama abounds as Cherry (Rose McGowan), the go-go dancer with big dreams, meets up with her old flame Wray (Freddy Rodriguez), a bad boy with a mysterious past and dangerous skills. Meanwhile, at the hospital beautiful Dr. Dakota Block (Marley Shelton) is planning to leave her abusive husband Dr. William Block (Josh Brolin) for her lover (Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas). So what else could happen? Zombies!

Thanks to a clash between corrupt scientist Abby (Naveen Andrews) and military officer Muldoon (Bruce Willis), a green gas is released that's turning everyone into disgusting cannibalistic zombies. Who will survive? What is Wray's mysterious past? And will anything this summer be cooler than seeing Cherry wasting zombies with the assault rifle that replaced her missing leg? (The answer to the last is "no.") This movie is impressively superficial, which is both a blessing and a curse: You really get the feel for the simple good-vs.-evil conflicts the old movies gave their patrons, but very few actors stand out. It's sheer exploitation.

Such excess would be welcome in Tarantino's "Death Proof," the second full-length feature in Grindhouse. Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) is an older stuntman, charming ladies at a bar despite his scar. He's also a homicidal maniac, using his specially-reinforced car to terrorize and kill young women. Of course, some of these women have to fight back, leading to a long, wild car battle! This may sound exciting, and the car scenes certainly are, but Tarantino drags down the action with long scenes of dialogue that slow things down considerably. (It's a worse offense since he dedicates large amounts of time to characters who are soon killed and forgotten.) Russell has a fun time as the older guy maneuvering like a shark around the youngsters who ignore or make fun of him.

Grindhouse is fun fluff, albeit gruesome and t&a-filled fluff. It's nothing extraordinary and there's little you'll remember afterwards, but it is a fun ride while it lasts. And be honest: You really want to see the trailer for Werewolf Women of the S.S.

Overall Grade: B

Reviewed by James Lynch


English Passengers - Matthew Kneale (2000)

English Passengers is a study in contradictions. It's a funny book set against the decidely unfunny colonization of Tasmania and consequent extermination of the aboriginals. It's loaded with eccentric English characters, whose mind-warpingly patronizing attitudes make them despicable rather than endearing. It's the same kind of juxtaposition that works so well in, for instance, I Am a Camera (and its subsequent mutation into Cabaret). The comedy serves to highlight the essential tragedy.

The plot sounds innocent enough. A crew of funny rural types, in this case Manxmen, find themselves through a humorous encounter with an English revenue cutter, obliged to take a charter to Tasmania. The expedition was organized to prove the idea that Tasmania is the site of the Garden of Eden. A charming rural Churchman feels he can prove that by both geographical and Biblical evidence. On the way, they encounter quaint aboriginals, upper class English twits and surly convincts.

Of course, the Manxmen are smugglers fighting against English oppression. The revenue men are bullies. The Churchman is a megalomaniacal Religious extremist. The expedition includes a racist phrenologist. The quaint aboriginals all die. The English twits destroy the natives and their own poor convicts with casual brutality. The convicts start out rough and are thoroughly dehumanized by their mistreatment at the hands of their own countrymen.

And, of course, the broad strokes are true.

Structurally, the book takes the shape of interweaving first person narratives. The writing is sharp, and the various voices are clear and distinct. The various tales draw closer and closer as the book moves towards its denouement, pulling the reader in as a sense of fatal inevitability takes hold of the main characters.

The book was a Booker Prize Finalist, and a Whitbread Book of the Year. One can easily see why. It's a book that sticks with you, showing the reality that underlies an era so often glamourized, the days of Queen Victoria, when everyone did Hail Brittania. It is both funny and heartbreaking, no mean feat. It is well worth riding with English Passengers.

Overall Grade: A-

Fiamma Fumana, Onda (Omnium Recordings, 2006)

Fiamma Fumana built a solid reputation in world music circles with their first two albums, 1.0 and home, both of which combined the folk traditions of the province of Emilia Romagna in northern Italy with state-of-the-art electronics. The third album Onda ("Wave") finds the band in a state of transition, as their original singer Sylvia "Fiamma" Orlandi has left to pursue a solo career. The remaining members Albertico Cottica (accordion, piano, guitar), Lady Jessica Lombardi (piva emiliana bagpipes), and Mehdin Paolos (DJ) recruited Lisa Kant to take Fiamma's place, and have pressed on undaunted.

Despite the change in singers, Onda picks up sonically right where home left off. The band continues to find ways to put the sound of accordions and bagpipes into Italian dance clubs, and make old music sound fresh and hip. The one obvious expansion of the band's sound is the inclusion of rap in the opening song "Prendi L'Onda (Ride The Wave)." One of the two rappers used is Jovanotti, best known in the U.S. for hosting a fun but short-lived program of international music videos called Earth To MTV in the very early nineties. Kant deserves a lot of credit for stepping right in and sounding like she's always been there, and Cottica and Lombardi do a fine job of making sure their instruments fit in with the electronics instead of clashing with them.

While most of the songs on previous Fiamma Fumana albums were traditional, most of the songwriting on Onda is instead done in tandem by Cottica and Lombardi. Like the music, the styles in the lyrics cross several generations. Some of the lyrics are based on traditional songs and sung with the help of Coro delle Modine di Novi, a choir of elderly female rice weeders from the city of Modena in Emilia Romagna. Other songs have much more modern subject matter; "Check In," for example, talks about keeping touch electronically with friends and family while on the road. There are a lot of samples used on the album, the most significant of which are a couple of quotes from the late Scottish musician Martyn Bennett. Bennett combined traditional Scottish music with urban grooves. His influence on Fiamma Fumana's music is acknowledged in the liner notes, and the album is dedicated to his memory.

When I reviewed home a few years ago, I compared Fiamma Fumana with The Afro Celt Sound System, an Irish band which espouses a similar philosophy regarding the combination of traditional and ultra-modern influences. I felt that the band was still looking for the right amount of musicality to balance the electronics. Happily, I feel they've come closer with Onda. The album works nicely all the way through, whether the songs are more traditional ballads like "Angiolina" or pulsating dance tracks like "Non di Sola Andata (There Are No One Way Journeys)." The change in singers could have easily impeded the band's progress, but that didn't happen at all. Fiamma Fumana were already a pretty good band, but Onda shows a marked improvement over its predecessor. I'm confident that they will continue to get better with subsequent albums.

Overall grade: B+


Gomez, "Five Men In A Hut (A's B's and Rarities, 1998-2004)" (Hut Recordings, 2006)

Gomez are a five-piece band that hails from Southport, England. Their lineup of singer/guitarists Ian Ball, Tom Gray, and Ben Ottewell, plus bassist Paul Blackburn and drummer Olly Peacock, has remained constant since the band's inception in 1996. The band has a very quirky, eclectic sound, bouncing from indie rock to folk to psychedelic to electronic. Having only heard a couple of their songs, I figured their compilation two-CD set Five Men in a Hut (A's B's and Rarities: 1998-2004) would serve as a good introduction to the band.

While I'm not completely certain in hindsight that Five Men In A Hut is the best place to start with Gomez, I was certainly intrigued with what I heard. Gomez combines a strong sense of melody with lyrics of considerable depth and a healthy dose of whimsy. They're also extraordinarily rare among current rock bands in that they have three capable singers. While I think Ottewell's husky tenor clearly overshadows the other two, the contrasting voices and the personalities behind them provided enough diversity to sustain my interest through most of the two and a half hours of music on this album.

There were plenty of highlights for me. "Ping One Down" is catchy, upbeat electronica, and "Sweet Virginia" is a lightly orchestrated extended waltz with a very singable chorus. The most remarkable song on the album is "We Haven't Turned Around," a song about a person who wants to control everything regardless of the consequences. The song was recorded, curiously, in 1999; if it had been done in 2003 or later, it would be easy to make a guess about whom the song was written about. (And if that's not creepy enough, the video was shot in the immediate vicinity of what would become Ground Zero.) Predictably, I guess, the songs I most liked tuned out to be the "A's," or their singles. Only about a third of the songs on Five Men in a Hut appeared on the previous studio albums. While the remainder of this collection reflects the band's experimental and goofy side -- for example, the highly ironic "Dire Tribe" is a silly romp about trying all sorts of pharmaceuticals, legal and otherwise -- there are reasons why some of the "Rarities" are rare.

So while I'd strongly recommend checking Gomez out, I'm not sure yet if you'd be best served starting with Five Men In A Hut or one of their regular albums. I'm going to be moving on to their latest studio album How We Operate, from last year, as I already know two or three songs from the others because of Five Men in a Hut.

Overall grade: B+

Le Ménagier de Paris - the same (c. 1393)

Le Ménagier de Paris or The Goodman of Paris as it is often translated, is not going to be for everyone. It's intended for a rather specialized audience, but has a number of features which might of interest to a larger audience than one might initially suspect.

The book is a practical guideline to behavior, household management and cooking written by an old and relatively wealthy bourgousie for his young wife. In the French it would be what is called a primary research source, that is to say an actual medieval document. A 1928 translation by Eileen Power has recently been re-released, and is technically a secondary source since the translator has had to make certain choices in the process of translating. For those of us who do not speak Medieval French well enough to read the original, though, it will have to do as a research source.

It is also a remarkably readable book in it's own right, one that may appeal even to those who are not interested in the minutiae of medieval scholarship. The book is broken down into two sections. The first section, in nine articles, covers proper behaviour of a wife, especially a young one. The second, in five articles, treats of household management and cooking.

The first section is a fascinating window into daily life in a fourteenth century metropolis. The instructions remind the reader of how alien life was in that time, how restricted a woman's place was in middle-class medieval society. They also drive home how religion permeated every facet of life, a thing which is also alien to even the most devout Twentieth Century USAian. It provides a glimpe of a time and culture which is one of the roots of ours today, but which is, for all that, very strange to us.

The second section is a strange mix of the most useful and the most useless informaton, at least to most modern readers. The cooking section is remarkably accessible. A competent modern cook should be able to adapt ("redact," in the jargon) most of the recipes without too much effort, and may find much to spark their own culinary imagination. Mixed in with the recipes, though, are instructions on where to purchase ingredients and how much to pay for them. While this may have been a great boon in 1393 in Paris, it is not so useful these days to know that one should pay 12 pence for ten chickens or that the Porte-de-Paris has nineteen butchers who process 1,900 sheep, 400 oxen, 400 pigs and 200 calves weekly. (Although that may be interesting, it's not usefull in very many situations.)

For those with an interest in medieval daily life, the place of women in medieval Paris, medieval household management or medieval cooking it's a fabulous resource. For everyone else, it's probably not going to be your cup of tea.

Overall Rating: Not Rated



Flicka is another version of the stereotypical coming of age horse movie. It features Country singer Tim McGraw as the father of a family who struggles to raise quarter horses on a Wyoming ranch. When a wild mustang, eventually named Flicka appears on the scene, the family’s life becomes even more jumbled and challenging. Much of the plot gets devoted to the teenage daughter and her relationship with her father, this mustang, and how they are at odds with each other at times, and how she is also mirrors her father. This film also explores the issue of the financial difficulties of running a family run ranch given that the land is worth considerably more to real estate developers than what it is worth through livestock or agriculture production. A final theme of Flicka is how the children are needed to run the ranch, but if the next generation really is willing to embrace this as their livelihood, when a less rural lifestyle beckons so strongly.

Visually, Flicka is quite appealing. I’m not sure if this was filmed in Wyoming, the movie’s setting, or somewhere else (many modern day Westerns, like Open Range, are made in Canada to find enough open space), but the background landscape is stunningly beautiful. It made me think about a trip to Wyoming, a state I have not previously visited. If owning a horse ranch in Wyoming is so pretty, you can count me in!

While there really isn’t anything too new or groundbreaking here, what results is a timeless tale that is appropriate for the entire family. If you’ve enjoyed a film like Dreamer, or to a lesser extent Seabiscuit, than I’m sure that you’d enjoy Flicka as well. Those looking for “theater of the absurd” or avant garde type of fare should venture elsewhere.

Overall Grade: B+

Fast Food Nation

Since the topic of fast food got on the menu of Hollywood film making we’ve seen films made like Super Size Me, and now Fast Food Nation. This time, rather than look at fast food’s high caloric content contributing to our obesity epidemic, the topic du jour concerns the lack of safety to our food supply. Anyone who doubts the relevancy of this topic only needs to look at the recent issues with the pet food supply here in America as an example.

The story is told as a fictitious plot that involves the apocryphal maker of a hamburger, known as “The Big One” (an obvious stand in for Mickey D’s Big Mac), and some graduate students in microbiology finding that there is bacterial contamination in the burgers. This results in a marketing executive taking a trip to Colorado to the slaughterhouse, and seeing firsthand how the meat is processed. Along the way, he stops for some burgers, and meets some folks willing to talk about what really goes on at the plant, and it isn’t pretty. Let’s just say they have to trim a few items to make a profit on a dollar menu item, and cleanliness and safety don’t make the cut. Yeah, it’s graphic at times, and makes us wonder if we should take up vegetarianism, but this half of the movie is true to the mission of the title with a compelling theme and plot.

Somewhere through writing this long screenplay, they decide to water the whole experience down with a subplot that takes up at least half of the film, and threatens to take it over at several points. Not content to just bash our food safety at fast food restaurants, the film departs into the exploitation of illegal aliens. They show them crossing the Mexican border, passing through safe houses, and ending up working at the same meat packing plant. Along the way, we’re reading the English subtitles to the Spanish dialogue that goes on and on, but is advancing the main plot at a snail’s pace- or not at all. It never really ties all together, and at several points it feels like we’re watching two separate movies that got pasted together in some video editing experiment for YouTube. Granted, maybe the point is that big business exploits the illegal aliens, but in my view, that is too large of a theme and should warrant a separate film, like in A Day Without A Mexican.

I think Fast Food Nation’s message would be better told in more of a documentary format like Super Size Me. Some of the scenes in the meat packing plant left me wondering how much of this truly happens, and what proportion is Hollywood’s version of it. It’s a shame that a century later than when Sinclair Lewis wrote about the unsanitary conditions in Chicago meat packing plants that not much has changed. If you’ve been looking for a reason to eat less McDonald’s, or just want to be shocked and grossed out, then Fast Food Nation is for you. The rest can proceed through the “Drive Thru” to other fare.

Overall Grade: C