The Manhattan Project (1986)

So with the Academy Awards this week, I was supposed to go out and watch all the films that won, right? Well, it takes a lot of work to swim upstream sometimes, and I looked at a film from 1986 instead. Specifically, I don't remember hearing anything about this film called The Manhattan Project, so I decided to take a look as the title intrigued me.

No, this is not the documentary of the top secret WW II project that resulted in the making of the first atomic bomb. While that would make a compelling film, this one focuses on a scientist in the mid 80's that comes up with a method of making ultra pure plutonium for use in atomic bombs. The government decides to fast track it, and they setup a new lab in Ithaca, NY, not far from Cornell University. The scientist, played by John Lithgow, takes an attraction in his realtor, Elizabeth Stephens (Jill Eikenberry). He decides to befriend Elizabeth's son, Paul (Christopher Collett) who is scientifically precocious. Next thing we know we have Paul getting the grand tour of a top secret governmental facility. Kind of implausible so far, no? Well, it gets worse when Paul decides to head back there, and sneak out some plutonium with the assistance of his new girlfriend. Uh, huh. Then to bring attention to the nuclear issue, what better way than to build a nuclear bomb for the regional science fair. Yeah, like any of this is going to happen.

Despite that The Manhattan Project is completely implausible, it was entertaining on some zany level. Perhaps it was just nostalgia on my part, but it did remind of the high school science fairs, although no one showed up with a nuclear bomb (I did try to replicate the Mendel genetics experiment, but I couldn't even get one seed to grow! I also did one on wind energy, but I was probably too far ahead of my time, but then again, it's still too far ahead for most folks). Anyway, getting back to the film, while it's not well acted, and you have to suspend some belief to help the plot along, it's not the worst film ever. It does have a certain element of suspense and kind of a "thriller lite" as we never really think the world is about to detonate. After all, when else but the 1980's could one make a film about a teenager making a nuclear bomb in their bedroom? These days, Homeland Security would probably censor it.

Overall Grade: B-

Reviewed by Jonas


I Could Never Be Your Woman (2007)

I Could Never Be Your Woman is another entry into the ever popular romantic comedy genre. It stars Michelle Pfeiffer and Paul Rudd. The key to a good romantic comedy is there needs to be something keeping the lovers apart, and in this case it is their age. Once the film gets underway, we learn that Pfeiffer's character, Rosie, a television screenwriter, is over forty years old. Rudd plays Adam, a twenty something actor that is playing a high school student on her TV show. Clearly age is keeping them apart, and that is the stumbling block.

Juxtaposed on top of this is Rosie's teenage daughter, Izzie (Saoirse Ronan) who is tossing her Barbie dolls for teenagehood as the film progresses. While the relationship between the adults seems artificial, she is the one strong performance in this film (not counting the Henry Winkler cameo, gotta love "The Fonz").

Adding to the wackiness, and artificialness is Tracey Ullman, who gets tossed into far too many scenes as Mother Nature. It doesn't add anything to the story, and rather serves to distract as she wanders onto a Hollywood backlot. I think some type of narration or voice over would have worked much better than to have her in the middle of a scenes where she clearly didn't belong.

Cutting to the chase, I Could Never Be Your Woman is a lackluster film, and easy to skip. Think of it as "I Could Never Be Your Film;" the few catchy one liners can't save this film from mediocrity.

Overall Grade: C

Reviewed by Jonas


Justice League: The New Frontier

Nostalgia and newness mix in the direct-to-dvd animated movie Justice League: The New Frontier. This story, based on the comic book of the same name (or "graphic novel," for those who don't like to admit they enjoyed a comic book), imagines a time when superheroes were both feared and loved.

It's the 1950s, and public resentment and government legislation have driven many heroes into retirement. The Flash (Neil Patrick Harris) and Batman (Jeremy Sisto) are outlaws, Wonder Woman (Lucy Lawless) travels overseas engaging in some rough help for women, and Superman (Kyle MacLachlan) has accepted the government's restrictions. Meanwhile pilot Hal Jordan (David Borneaz) is on his own journey to fly to the stars -- and the martian J'onn J'onzz (Miguel Ferrer) was transported to Earth.

As for plot, Justice League: The New Frontier can be divided in two halves. The first half involves a mysterious force called the Center, that affects the weak-minded and results in cultist followings and suicides. The second half has a giant monster that the heroes must fight.

The focus of this movie isn't any of the big three -- Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman -- but rather three other characters. The Flash has to deal with being a public hero that no one trusts or likes, while Hal Jordan keeps trying to do the right thing on his road to heroics. (If you don't who he becomes, I won't spoil it for you.) And J'onn J'onzz functions as the character providing an outsider's view on the state of the world.

Justice League: The New Frontier is for more mature audiences, both in its older visual style and the large amount of violence and blood present. (There's a suicide before the opening credits.) Unfortunately, by working in so many characters the movie can't focus on many of them. Except for the Flash, Hal, and J'onn most characters get very little time in the movie. Heck, Green Arrow spends more time flying a plane than shooting arrows! And except for the social commentary, the story isn't that unusual.

The voice talent is excellent here. Lucy Lawless is such a natural choice for Wonder Woman, it's surprising this is her first take on the role; and Neil Patrick Harris shines as the Flash, balancing his idealism in being a hero with the frustration at the world around him. There is also support from Kyra Sedgwick as Lois Lane and Brooke Shields as Carol Ferris.

Justice League: The New Frontier is a decent movie, strengthened by its voices and visuals but weakened by an overabundance of characters. This isn't required viewing, but it's a fun romp for those who freely admit that they read comic books.

(The dvd comes in both a standard edition -- with commentaries, history, and a preview of the upcoming Batman anime cartoon -- and a deluxe edition with a feature on the Legion of Doom, plus three episodes from the Justice League cartoon.)

Overall grade: B

Reviewed by James Lynch


Smash Lab, Season One, Discovery

It seems like the Discovery Channel has one runaway hit these days: Mythbusters. Some days, they can show reruns from morning to night, and faithful fans flock to see the great myths of our day tested. Unfortunately, it's hard to make a whole channel out of one show.

So, in the 10 PM Wednesday time slot, after Mythbusters, Discovery has been airing a new show for the last few weeks by the name of Smash Lab. The idea is that a team of four crafty science types take existing materials, and try to reengineer them to solve a problem in ways that would make any Lifehacker proud. Examples of recent attempts include fireproofing a home with Nanogel, blastproofing a house with truck bed liner, and using a magnetic descent system for high rise fire escape. Like Mythbusters, things are tried on a smaller scale, and we end with something going down in flames or being destroyed.

To put it bluntly, this is no Mythbusters. While the team all have their strengths, I don't necessarily buy into their labels as three are really engineers, and the last is an industrial designer. (As an aside, I don't think of engineers as scientists, even though they certainly use science). Anyway, with Mythbusters, it never feels dumbed down, even when they're doing something useless, ridiculous, or just clowning around in some goofy outfit. In comparison, Smash Lab has a dumbed down feel as they rarely explain any of the science beyond a very cursory level that many of us outgrew by elementary school. It's a shame because this is another missed opportunity to (a) get children more educated in science, and (b) get more adults interested in the why's and the how's of our physical universe (obscure reference inserted). Also contributing to the dumbed down feel of the show is that each time they go to commercial break, they come back and give a lengthy summary of the last few minutes as if I had the attention span of a gnat.

If the show is really this bad, why the heck am I watching it? I suppose it's from a lack of other science related television choices, and I've probably painted it poorer than it really is (also, I've probably seen just about every Mythbusters episode, and many a few times). For example, when writing this article, I came across the Smash Lab blog. In it, they expand on, and give some of the physics behind what they're doing. It's too bad that more of that type of content doesn't make it into the show. While I'm sure a whiteboard full of formulas won't make for compelling TV, we shouldn't have to get a Sesame Street version of science brought to us by the letter "n" and the number "5." Catch Smash Lab on Wednesdays at 10 PM, or online here for the next few months, just be prepared to be talked down to.

Overall Grade: B-

Reviewed by Jonas

PS: I've found that fast forwarding the show after each commercial break, thereby bypassing the incessant summarization makes Smash Lab a lot more watchable.

The Big Bad Swim (2006)

Hmmm. Let's take a bunch of adults that are taking an adult "learn to swim class" at the local community pool (I recall this as the "guppy" level at summer camp). We'll make it a combination drama and comedy, a "dramedy" if you will. We'll try to give plenty of the characters some depth, and make them a little complex. What do we get? On the one hand is the film The Big Bad Swim, and on the other hand, it doesn't amount to all that much.

Brewster plays Amy Pierson, a soon to be divorced calculus teacher that is entering a mid life crisis as her husband, a teacher at the same school, has an affair with a coworker. She decides in the middle of this to learn to swim. While there, the instructor, Hunter McCarthy (Ricky Ullman) portrays one who has his own damage, and while he knows how to swim, he has his own set of issues that he carries around. And thus it goes on with each character flawed in some way, and all coming together with the common goal of learning to swim.

Overall, I found this film rather lackluster, with all the excitement of balancing my checking account. At times the characters bordered on quirky, but too often they came off as droll. While we avoided typical stereotypes, and unidimensionality that often plague these films, we traded that in for something too realistic, and without a good story. The drama is uninspiring, and the comedy is nonexistent in The Big Bad Swim.

Overall Grade: C-

Reviewed by Jonas

Men At War, Book II, The Secret Warriors

After starting off the Men At War series with The Last Heroes, it was time to turn my attention to the second book in the series, The Secret Warriors. This chapter in the role that the OSS played during WW II pushed the plot along with most of the major characters returning for another tour of duty.

The book starts and ends quite strongly, with the level of action and intensity that this author is known for. Much of the plot focuses on obtaining the uranium needed for the first atomic bombs. I never really thought about it, but the ore needed for the uranium, at least suggested in this book, came from a mine in Africa. More specifically, it was from the Belgian Congo, and was swiped from under the nose of the Germans, and smuggled out on a cargo plane. It's quite an interesting tale to hear how this was accomplished, at considerable peril. There are also some interesting cameos along the way including Charles Lindbergh (an aviation consultant during WW II), and Joseph Kennedy, Jr.

The downside of The Secret Warriors is that it sags for much of the middle, with a confusing cast of characters that make you wonder who the main players even are at times. In addition, Griffin's writing style, a terse, newspaper one, doesn't necessarily add to the excitement at times. To the best of my knowledge, the first four books of the Men At War series were originally published under a pseudonym, and while it is recognizable as Griffin, it's hardly the author's strongest work.

Grade: B-

Reviewed by Jonas


The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

Ah, the glorious road of the champion! Honing one's skills and strength! Seeking victory, recognition, and even glory! And battling a giant ape throwing battles at you! Okay, that last part is a bit unusual, but it forms the basis of the documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. And it's quite compelling.

The King of Kong looks at the world of competitive gaming -- not current video games or card games or board games, but arcade games from the 1980s. The story begins in 1982, when a LIFE Magazine photo shoot brought together some of the best arcade players at the time. Billy Mitchell held the record for Donkey Kong -- and held the record into the 21st century. He has other successes since then -- his business, his family -- and claims his determination in winning the record is how he approaches life.

The challenge to Mitchell's record comes from an unlikely person: Steve Wiebe. Steve is a family man who has had varied interests several brushes with victory but never quite reached the top; some family members and friends even wonder if he has OCD. During a period of unemployment Steve gets a Donkey Kong machine -- and tapes himself breaking the world record!

What follows is a give-and-take battle between Wiebe and Mitchell to claim the title of the greatest Donkey Kong player in the world. This begins as bragging rights within the organization that tracks record holders for arcade games, but the competition becomes more serious when the Guiness Book of World Records gets involved.

The world of competitive gaming could have become bathetic -- adults obsessed about winning at arcade games from the 1980s -- but The King of Kong transforms this into a classic battle between the underdog and the empowered. Billy Mitchell is established as the villain fairly early, from having his fans (one describes himself as Mitchell's "protege") spy on Steve Wiebe's record-breaking attempts to his questioning Wiebe mailing in a tape of his record -- then doing the same thing himself. As for Steve Wiebe, he's made out to be a simple man who broke a held record and just wants to prove it.

We also see the world around these two people. The hardcore competitive gamers appear obsessive, from referee Walter Day linking his meditation and work with keeping these records to the people who brag that they play the games every day in the hopes of breaking these records. The outside people are mostly represented by Wiebe's family: His wife alternately supports his obsession and wishes it was over, while his young daughter wonders why he cares about it at all. The end result is a nice balance of this world, from inside and outside.

A good documentary can invest the viewer in something they may not have cared about (or even known about) before, and The King of Kong delivers. Framed as a classic struggle, this documentary gets us to care about the people involved, to wonder who will come out on top concerning a game we probably haven't played in years. The King of Kong is a fascinating look at the nature of competition, the quest for perfection -- and those deadly barrels.

Overall grade: A

Reviewed by James Lynch

X by Kylie Minogue

When Kylie Minogue does her music right, it can be an enjoyable distraction, something fun to have in the background at a party or on the radio on a quick drive. That's missing from X, her latest album.

X is a very consistent combination of disco styling, synthesizers, and pithy lyrics about being in love and being in lust -- and it's not a good mixture. There are sound effects, background noises, and mixing effects that could have come from the worst club singles of the 1980s. The lyrics are painful ("To your head bone/ Temple bone/ Through your jaw bone/ To your neck bone/ Collar bone/ Medic go on/To your back bone/ Moving on/Through your hip bone When you Play it on your speakerphone") and pure fluff. There are only two decent songs on this album -- "2 Hearts" and "Sensitized" -- but even these are just passable. Since Kylie Minogue has been making music since the 1980s, one would have hoped she'd try for something a little more than overproduced club tunes.

Kylie Minogue has enjoyed more popularity overseas than in the United States, so it's no surprise that X hasn't been released in America. This isn't a loss for America. If you really miss the sound of Stacey Q or wish today's top 40 had more of a disco feel, you may find something good here. Otherwise, steer very clear of X.

Overall grade: D-

Reviewed by James Lynch



Nightnoise were a musical quartet whose career spanned the better part of two decades. Although three quarters of the band came from Ireland, the group was based in Portland, Oregon. Despite backgrounds in traditional Irish music, classical, and jazz, the band's style has most frequently been categorized, for better or worse, as New Age. The band released seven albums between 1983 and 1997 on Windham Hill Records.

Guitarist Mícheál Ó Domhnaill was well versed in the musical traditions of his native Ireland. As part of The Bothy Band, Mícheál was rightfully considered a legendary figure in Irish folk circles, but that had translated to zero commercial success during The Bothy Band's brief but extremely noteworthy career. When the band broke up in 1979, three members -- Ó Domhnaill, his sister Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill (vocals and keyboards), and fiddler Kevin Burke -- relocated to Portland, Oregon. Mícheál made a couple of duet recordings with Burke, while Tríona recorded with the band Touchstone. After a couple of years, though, Mícheál was ready for a change of pace. He met up with Billy Oskay, a violinist originally from the town of Kingston in upstate New York. Despite Oskay's classical background, the two had plenty of common musical interests and started working together.

The duo's subdued, pensive compositions attracted the attention of Windham Hill Records, a label that was big in the genre of New Age music. In 1982, when the Donnegal quintet Clannad reinvented themselves while composing the soundtrack to the BBC mini-series Harry's Game, they swung the door to the New Age market wide open for other Irish musicians to follow. However, and not entirely without justification, the term "New Age" has some negative connotations in popular culture. Nightnoise would have to compete for shelf space in record stores with seemingly anybody with a synthesizer and tin whistle who could record enough tunes with long pauses in the melodies and not too frequent chord changes to make an album, call the album Celtic something or another, and get at least a few people to buy it. There was plenty of room in the genre for genuine artistry, though, and Windham Hill could guarantee Ó Domhnaill and Oskay a base audience. As a result, both the label and the musicians had much to benefit from the partnership that would last the full fifteen years of Nightnoise's recording career.

While the 1983 LP Nightnoise was officially credited to Billy Oskay and Mícheál Ó Domhnaill as a duo, it set the tone for the subsequent albums credited to the group Nightnoise. All the instrumental pieces were composed either by Oskay or Ó Domhnaill. In addition to the guitar and violin, all the pieces had a keyboard part, and most included a flute or whistle as well. The style of the tunes was quiet, sparse, and subdued, providing the foundation of the basic sound that Nightnoise would carry with them foe their career. The main criticism of this record, which also carried over into subsequent Nightnoise recordings, was that it requires a great deal of patience for the listener to distinguish most of the tunes from each other. There were a few exceptions, though. Ó Domhnaill's "Bridges" features a haunting theme on the guitar that lingers in the mind long after the track stops playing. The album closes with a nice extended suite of tune fragments called "The Cricket's Wicket."

The project was put on hold for a couple of years after the first release. Ó Domhnaill joined his sister Tríona in a group called Relativity which also featured the Scottish brothers Phil (accordion) and Johnny (fiddle) Cunningham from the band Silly Wizard. When Ó Domhnaill and Oskay reconvened, they recruited Irish flautist Brian Dunning and officially named themselves Nightnoise. Most of the 1987 album Something of Time was recorded as a trio, with the two founding members taking turns overdubbing keyboard tracks. It was clear that they needed a full-time keyboardist, though, and Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill was the obvious first choice. Tríona played on one piece on the album, her own composition "Après-Midi," but she was a full-time member of Nightnoise from that point forward. The most distinctive track on Something of Time was the opening tune "Timewinds," an Oskay composition. Despite a synthesizer that sounds dated today -- ironically, the folk and classical elements in Nightnoise's sound generally hold up better -- "Timewinds" has a vibrance to it that most of the other tunes lack. Ó Domhnaill's jig "Wiggy Wiggy" showed off his and Dunning's Irish roots. It marked the band's first attempt to blend traditional Irish music in with the basic Nightnoise sound, and it worked pretty well. On the whole, though, Something of Time was a bit too formulaic, and I'd rate it as the weakest CD in the Nightnoise catalog.

The next album, At The End Of The Evening, came out in 1988. Having Tríona on board for the entirety of the writing and recording process made a huge difference. For one thing, her keyboard playing provided a solid instrumental foundation for the rest of the band to build on. The title song, written and sung by Tríona, was the first Nightnoise track to feature vocals and gave the album some needed variety. Tríona's most significant contribution to the album, though, was her classic composition "At The Races." This joyously bouncy instrumental would become Nightnoise's signature track. The other really good tune on this album is Dunning's minor-key waltz "Forgotten Carnival." While not dramatically different in approach from its predecessor, At The End Of The Evening was a clear step forward for Nightnoise.

1990's The Parting Tide was a bit anomalous for the band. In general the composing responsibilities on Nightnoise albums were distributed more or less evenly between the members, but for this album, five of the nine pieces were composed by Tríona. By contrast, founding members Mícheál Ó Domhnaill and Billy Oskay composed only one tune apiece. Still, the album showed some good variety. Dunning contributed a pair of strong tunes in the waltz "Bleu" and the extended suite "The Kid In The Cot." Tríona started to lead the band into a more Irish direction with the Gaelic song "An Irish Carol" and the tune "Jig Of Sorts." Oskay's lone contribution "The Tryst" was his strongest for the band, but it would also prove to be his last. Oskay had set up his own recording studio called Big Red Studio, and he left the band to give the studio his full attention. The 1992 compilation A Windham Hill Retrospective neatly summed up Nightnoise's career up to that point. While it did mark the end of an era for the band, Nightnoise were still far from finished.

Johnny Cunningham had played with Mícheál and Tríona in Relativity, and while his speciality was the more aggressive variety of Celtic fiddle music, he was somebody that the members of Nightnoise knew well and knew they could work with. Besides, the 1993 album Shadow of Time clearly indicated that the band had become eager to work their Irish roots into the Nightnoise sound to a much greater degree than they had up to this point. Dunning's edgy jig "Silky Flanks" is arguably the one Nightnoise tune you might hear at a pub session. Tríona sang "The Rose of Tralee," a well-known Irish standard, on this CD. Mícheál's composition "The March Air" concludes with a Gaelic song whose melody had been performed at President Kennedy's funeral. And in his one lead vocal on any Nightnoise album, Mícheál reprised "Fionnghuala," a classic bit of Scots Gaelic mouth music from the repertoire of The Bothy Band. While the basic elements of Nightnoise's established sound remained firmly in place, Shadow of Time was both the most diverse and energetic Nightnoise album to date.

Nightnoise returned in 1995 with A Different Shore. While a bit more subtle than its predecessor, this album did have a few fine waltzes in Cunningham's "Morning In Madrid" and Dunning's "Clouds Go By," a nice instrumental from Ó Domhnaill called "For Eamonn" that evoked the early Nightnoise sound, and Tríona's best vocal contribution to the band in "Falling Apples." My favorite track, though, is Dunning's "The Busker on the Bridge," which features a peculiar but fun vocal interruption in the middle. Following closely on the heels of A Different Shore came the live album The White Horse Sessions, recorded mostly in a studio in front of a small Portland audience in March 1996. Most of the material came from previous recordings, but the performance included three solid new tunes and a great Celtified adaptation of Van Morrison's "Moondance." The concert had solid energy throughout, and the band seemed to finally find just the right balance between traditional and modern musical arrangements. The White Horse Sessions was arguably Nightnoise's finest recording.

It also proved to be their last. Mícheál, Tríona, and Brian Dunning returned home to Ireland, while Johnny Cunningham remained in the States. Nightnoise re-convened occasionally in Ireland with John Fitzpatrick handling the fiddling over the next few years, but the band never sat down together for long enough to record a full-length album. The recent past has been horribly cruel to the band members. Cunningham suffered a fatal heart attack in December 2003. Then, in 2006, Mícheál Ó Domhnaill passed away from a fall in his house. Any chance of Nightnoise returning to action almost certainly died with him.

How you view the legacy of Nightnoise depends a lot on your perspective. For a fan of New Age music, Nightnoise were a flagship band who brought quality and credibility to a genre that didn't always enjoy the best of reputations otherwise, and whose popularity has waned considerably in the intervening years. As a folk music fan familiar with the other work of Mícheál and Tríona and of Johnny Cunningham, I consider Nightnoise to be a worthy endeavor by some world-class performers, but most of their music fell a bit short of these musicians' best work. There were some exceptions, though. Certainly "At The Races" is a very memorable tune, and a lot of Dunning's contributions were subtly effective. To those not familiar with Nightnoise I would certainly recommend The White Horse Sessions and A Windham Hill Retrospective, followed by Shadow of Time if they decide they want to hear more.

reviewed by Scott

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

Shanghai Kiss (2007)

Among this week's mediocre films, there was one surprise gem, Shanghai Kiss. It stars Ken Leung ("Lost") and Hayden Panettiere ("Heroes"). While Panettiere fills the DVD cover (pictured to the right), this film is really about Leung.

Leung plays Liam Liu, an Asian American that has been born and raised in NYC. A son of Chinese immigrants, he has never been to China, and doesn't speak Chinese. Running from the strained relationship with his drunken father, he heads to Los Angeles where he is an aspiring, no make that an out of work, actor. He struggles to pay the rent and find work, and a chance meeting on the bus finds him a girlfriend, of sorts. The issue is Adelaide (Panettiere) is considerably younger, much richer, and still in high school.

All right, so far this seemed to be not too different than plenty of other romantic comedies, but thankfully, we avoid the formula that's been overdone to the point of monotony. Rather Liam ends up inheriting a house in Shanghai from a grandmother that he's never met. He heads to China for a quick sale, and to pocket the cash. However, this ends up being a journey into his first his Chinese roots, and ultimately into himself. After meeting a Chinese woman, Micki (Kelly Hu), Liam decides that he wants to move to Shanghai and inhabit the house left to him. As the rest of the story progresses, Liam experiences several setbacks, but ultimately exhibits substantial personal growth as he realizes that love is more important than money. There is also the theme of culture and tradition as he finds himself caught between the land of his birth, and the land of his people.

Aside from the well done plot, and frequent sarcastic one liners that kept my attention throughout, this film also makes it on its strong use of the city of Shanghai. I know someone that bought an apartment there a few years ago, and he described it as a vibrant city with phenomenal growth. From what is seen in Shanghai Kiss, it looks like a cross between the Vegas Strip, and Times Square, with a cosmopolitan Asian flair. All I can say is that too often our network TV doesn't show us what is going on in China, and I was quite engaged to see what a happening city Shanghai is these days.

In conclusion, Shanghai Kiss is a sleeper of a hit. While it hits all the requisite high notes for a romantic comedy, it shows that a film of this genre can be anything but ordinary. It is well worth seeking out on DVD.

Overall Grade: A-

Reviewed by Jonas

International Traffic

Now, if that's not international traffic, I'm not sure what is. Welcome visitors, including those from the nation of "misc." I wonder why Sweden is number 4?

The Hunting Party (2007)

Richard Gere and Terrence Howard star in The Hunting Party. It is a look back at the Kosovo Conflict, and whatever happened to the war criminals in the aftermath.

Gere is Simon, a field reporter that brought the conflict to US television. He was on the front lines, right in the thick of things, and did whatever it took to get the story. At his side throughout, Howard is Duck, his faithful cameraman that shot the whole thing, even while taking a few bullets himself. After an on air meltdown by Simon, as he tried to set the TV anchor straight as to what was really going on in the war zone, he was dropped from the network, and began a downward spiral. After some stints on some lesser networks, Simon ultimately drops to freelance reporting, while Duck gets the cushiest job at the network. For the fifth anniversary of the conflict, the two have a chance to reunite. They both want to know why none of the war criminals have been caught, despite some of their names being in the local phone book. Thus begins their adventure into discovery of the truth.

The Hunting Party, despite being closely based on actual events, simply tries to be more entertaining than serious, and that is where it fails. The reporters, despite having seemingly hourly brushes with death, simply take it all in stride like we're in some Austin Powers movie, where no one ever really dies. While it is infuriating that so many of the war criminals are still at large, and those charged in catching them are perfectly content not do so, this film doesn't do enough to show the injustice of the large genocide and resulting refugees. Rather, it just goes about it matter of factly. The tone of the film would fit a Disney ride, and while entertaining, it doesn't give the topic and theme of The Hunting Party the seriousness it deserves.

Overall Grade: C+

Reviewed by Jonas

The Last Time (2006)

The Last Time is a lackluster look at the high pressure world of business sales. It stars Michael Keaton, Amber Valletta, and Brendan Fraser.

The premise is that Keaton is Ted, the all confident master salesmen moving some industrial product (that is purposely kept vague throughout the film). He is the top seller out of his office. He gets partnered up with Fraser who portrays Jamie, the Middle Western bumpkin that was a big fish in a small pond back home, but now is in over his head. Relocating to NY, he now is on his way to living the American dream with a big house in suburbia, and an attractive wife, Belisa (Amber Valletta). The one thing holding Jamie back is that his sales have turned cold, and we're talking ice cold. In fact, since he relocated, despite being a superstar in Ohio, he can't sell one darn thing. As the film progresses, Belisa and Ted have an affair.

For the majority of this film, it was simply too predictable. At many points, I was easily anticipating the next line, or what would happen next wondering why anyone would make a movie with a plot with so few twists and turns. However, in the last few minutes, that I won't give away, it all becomes clear, and I was lulled out of my sense of normalcy. It also gives new meaning to the phrase "It's just business."

The Last Time, despite a good performance by Keaton, would have been a C+ without the last ten minutes, so it was saved by the bell (or the DVD eject button in this case).

Overall Grade: B-

Reviewed by Jonas

Trailer here.


American Gangster

America's love/hate interest with the cool criminal continues with American Gangster, the latest movie following the rise and fall of a powerful crime lord. This movie, set mostly in New Jersey during the 1970s, takes us on two parallel paths: the gangster and the police officer after him.

Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) is the bodyguard, enforcer, and go-to man for a gangster in Harlem. When Frank's boss dies, Frank treats the drug trade like a business. He travels to Thailand to arrange for shipments of pure heroin to the U.S. (with help from the military), gives it his own name, and sells it cheaper than others are. This works perfectly and quickly catapults Frank to success: When Frank likens his product to Pepsi in name recognition and reputation, it's a twisted but appropriate comparison.

Frank also strives for independence and professionalism. He doesn't work for anyone, placing himself at the top and having others work under him. He avoids flashy clothes or an ostentatious lifestyle (when he wears a big mink coat and hat from his wife, that comes back to haunt him twice), hires his relatives as much as possible, and maintains necessary business relationships (usually commenting "My man" to whoever he makes an arrangement with) while killing anyone who gets in his way.

On the other side of this tale is Detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe). Richie is a policeman whose integrity gets him in trouble from both criminals and his fellow police. Continually honest -- at the opening of the film he and his partner find almost a million dollars, which Richie makes them turn in -- Richie struggles against a seemingly endless tide of crooks and crooked policemen who have much more money than he does. (This character is not a paragon of virtue: His womanizing costs him his marriage and child.)

Director Ridley Scott manages to get the perfect results from his actors in American Gangster. Denzel Washington is intensely focused without going overboard, creating a protagonist whose focus is solely on his success, not on the dangers or consequences. Russell Crowe gives us an honest, hard-working guy who's weary from tilting at windmills but keeps at it because it's the right thing to do. And the supporting cast is quite good, though the focus is clearly on the two leads. The culture of the 1970s is also reflected in the news coverage of the war in Vietnam, which goes up and down along with the fortunes of Frank Lewis.

Be sure to check out American Gangster for an intelligent, exciting, and very well-acted drama about crime, honesty, business, and the American dream.

Overall grade: A-

Reviewed by James Lynch

Anna Ternheim (Decca Records, 2007)

Although Swedish songstress Anna Ternheim has released two full-length albums in Europe, this self-titled EP is her first American release. This EP may only have six songs running twenty-three minutes, but it was enough to convince me that Anna Ternheim is one of the best singer-songwriters going right now.

The album opens with a song called "Lovers Dream (Naked Version)." An alternate version, for which a video exists, was a single off of Ternheim's 2006 album Separation Road. The arrangement for this version consists only of an acoustic guitar and some orchestration beneath the vocals, but the overall effect is simply stunning. The shifting between major and minor keys, combined with some complex chord progressions, evokes some of Nick Drake's stronger material and carries a similar emotional potency. Ternheim's voice is a bit dry, but she really knows how to write melodies that not only bring out the best qualities in her singing, but enable her to effectively haunt the listener without overextending her vocal range. The second song "Bridges" is the EP's one new track. While this song features a more standard rock backing than the first one, the lyrics are actually a bit disturbing; Ternheim assumes the perspective of a person on the controlling end of what is clearly not a healthy relationship. The dissonant arrangement and harsh electric guitar further enhance the song's creepy, unsettling feel. The irony continues with "Today Is A Good Day," a happy breakup song that was another single off of Separation Road. Again, Ternheim shows a mastery of chordal structure well beyond her experience.

On "I'll Follow You Tonight," a single off her first album Somebody Outside, Ternheim sings about sticking with somebody one night longer, against her own better judgement. In addition to having a great melody in her distinctive style, this song reflects a remarkable sense of poetic balance, especially coming from a writer whose first language is not English. "And I'll follow you to any doorstep, any hallway, with hope of finding more, and not get shallow, not get bored, and find it useless, feeling meaningless, and just as low as I was high the night before." The EP also includes one cover, David Bowie's "China Girl." Ternheim does the song her way, not only bearing little similarity beyond the words to the original, but almost making you think that Bowie had intended for her to sing it all along. The last and most accessible song on the disc is "My Secret," also off of Somebody Outside. Even with an uncharacteristically positive love song, Ternheim seems to be cognizant of the risks involved. Still, this song is very catchy and singable.

Like Beth Orton, Anna Ternheim is not the kind of singer you go to when you're in the mood for some feel-good fluff. An evidently displeased poster below a YouTube video of another of her songs suggested that "People that can write such lyrics should be locked up." But I've always found dark music to be therapeutic, and the songs on this EP compare favorably with Orton's best songs. Given how highly I regard Orton's albums like Central Reservation and Daybreaker, that's saying a hell of a lot. I wouldn't rate Anna Ternheim quite as highly as I'd rate Pina, my favorite performer of the decade, at least not yet -- the originality in Pina's music and vocals still takes the cake. But Anna Ternheim is the superior lyricist, and like Pina she has a scary amount of raw talent. This EP would have been no worse than #2 on my top 10 list for 2007, and it already sets the bar for 2008 pretty high.

Overall grade: A

reviewed by Scott


Why Did I Get Married? (2007)

I've enjoyed Tyler Perry's previous works, and on face value, they are fine. However, there always seemed to be an element of the more serious missing from his films, and we thought that Perry could deal with a more serious subject. Well, this time out, he takes up the issue of infidelity and midlife crisis among a set of African American couples, and almost makes it through the movie without anyone donning a fat suit in Why Did I Get Married?

These four couples have an annual retreat, and it is a time to do some exercises, and meet up with friends. They have been doing this since they all graduated college together. One of them is a psychology professor, and writes books about their experience. This time, when they meet up in snowy Colorado, one of the husbands decides to bring his mistress along, as well as his wife! While at first the rest are condemning of this obvious and blatant infidelity, as Why Did I Get Married? progresses, we realize that each of the couples is dealing with its own set of challenges.

When I first read the back of the box, I was wondering if this was going to be one of these films where everyone is just sitting around "chewing the cud" for 120 minutes, and no conclusion is ever reached. Thankfully, this is not the case. Perry takes on the emotionally charged subject of marriages at the decade mark, as the characters approach the age for a case of midlife crisis. Thankfully, while the serious is there, there is enough comedy thrown in to keep the experience enjoyable as we work towards a conclusion for each of the characters.

Overall, this film is considerably more serious than his other works. There's no fried chicken jokes, and we don't end up in the more stereotypical Atlanta ghetto that his last movie showed. Perry is quite talented as he wrote the screenplay, directed the film, and acted in it as well, so this film makes it on his talent above anyone elses. Finally, Perry lets someone else wear the fat suit this time out. I recommend it to Perry fans, and those looking at a new view into this complicated subject matter.

Overall Grade: B+

Reviewed by Jonas

Gone Baby Gone (2007)

Ben Affleck cowrote the screenplay for this film, and directs an impressive cast including his brother Casey, and other notables including Morgan Freeman, Michelle Monaghan and Ed Harris in Gone Baby Gone. Unfortunately, this film runs short of steam prematurely.

The plot centers around the sudden disappearance of a young child, Amanda McCready (Madeline O'Brien). This is a detective type of movie, and in that formula, the police are generally inept, and they live up to thaat task. The child is gone, and after a few days, the trail is getting ice cold with no leads. Enter Casey Affleck as Patrick Kenzie (Hmm, I wonder why he got the job...), with his sidekick, Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan) who are private detectives that use their street smarts of the inner city of Boston, and knowledge of the neighborhoods to pick up the scent of a trail. So far, this is kind of like a young Sherlock Holmes, and I was enjoying this film. The one exception to the inept police is Morgan Freeman's character, a Captain in the abducted child unit that lost his own daughter due to a murder, and he has had an exemplary career of doing what is right.

All of a sudden, around halfway through, the wheels fall off this train, and we come to a screeching halt. The characters get confusing, and things start to get implausible. How did they end up in the middle of that drug bust? And why when Casey Affleck's character shoots an unarmed man, do the police cover the whole thing up, even if he was guilty? Since when do PI's become the judge, jury and executioner, and the police go along with it? And at the end, the outcome of all of this, which I will restrain myself from giving away, makes equally no sense that no neighbors would have called the police.

Anyway, Gone Baby Gone is a well acted film, and flies well for the first half, but like a hypoglycemic marathoner, simply runs out of steam, and can't go the distance. While some interesting issues of absolute vs relative morality get raised, the whole thing is framed out of ridiculousness, so it's just not that relevant.

Overall Grade: B--

Reviewed by Jonas

The Hoax (2006)

The Hoax is a film that looks at the greatest literary hoax ever attempted.It is based on a true story. It stars Richard Gere, and Marcia Gay Harden.

Richard Gere portrays Clifford Irving, a struggling author. After his latest book is killed by a prerelease review, he needs to come up with something big, no make that really big to take the literary world by storm. He decides to come up with an authorized biography of Howard Hughes, the more than eccentric billionaire that hadn't been seen in years. Forging a release that authorizes the biography, Irving takes us on a journey of lies and deception that remind me of the phrase "if you're gonna tell a lie, make it a big one." Along the way, assisted by a coauthor, and his wife, Elizabeth (Marcia Gay Harden) this threesome take their publisher along for a ride when they run out of excuses, they simply attribute whatever weirdness to Howard Hughes' eccentricity. Ironically, the book is never published, but the account of the hoax got published and formed the basis of the film.

The Hoax is an enjoyable look at how far some folks will go to deceive when their back is up against a wall. Every time you think that a sane man would just come clean, they manage to take this whole thing one step further. The one standout feature of the film is that it takes place in 1971, and they did manage to recapture the early '70's in fashion, autos, decorations, and just about everything else. The Hoax is an eccentric look at trying to get to know an even more eccentric subject.

Overall Grade: B

Reviewed by Jonas

MythBusters, Discovery Channel

"Could that really happen?" is one of the most common responses to a wild myth or tall tale. The show MythBusters tackles these myths, applying the scientific method, improvised technology, and an exuberant sense of humor.
The stars of MythBusters are Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage, two special effects veterans. They're joined by some younger scientists: Kari Byron, Salvatore Belleci ("Tory"), and Grant Imahara. Each episode has them tackling between three and five myths, with Jamie and Adam usually working together on some, and Kari, Salvatore, and Grant (Editor's note: otherwise known as "the build team") working together on the others.

The myths are those that can be scientifically recreated in a controlled setting. You won't see these folks trying to find Bigfoot, prove or disprove the existence of the afterlife, or attempting to communicate with UFOs. You will see them trying to create an exploding jawbreaker, slide down a ski lift cable with jeans, cut down a tree with a machine gun, or escape from a car that's underwater. Crashes and explosions are very frequent.

Some shows have a random collection of myths, though theme shows are not uncommon: They've done shows focusing on myths in James Bond movies, the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, airplanes, driving, superheroes, and a two-parter focusing on the movie Jaws. We get to see the folks from the start of exploring a myth -- usually figuring things out and using models to see how it should work -- to building what they need to try things and finally going "full scale." They explain the principles behind what they're doing ("warning: science content" pops up before these moments) and attack each myth with zeal and focus. Their personalities come through a lot: Adam is almost childlike, bouncing with energy and likely to come up with an elaborate solution, while Jamie is more subdued and pragmatic. At the end, they declare the myth busted (it wouldn't work), plausible (they had partial success or demonstrated that it could work), or confirmed (it worked!).

MythBusters is often as concerned with big effects as the proof or refutation of the myth, and they'll keep going after the answer is known. (For example, they disproved quickly that James Bond's gun wouldn't ignite a propane tank -- it didn't even penetrate the container -- so they kept using bigger and bigger guns until they had a boom.) The show can also get a bit cheesy at times, especially if Adam puts on a costume, adopts an accent, or both. That said, MythBusters does a great job of both educating and entertaining, and I'll keep tuning in to see what myth they tackle next!

Overall grade: A-

Reviewed by James Lynch


The Lookout

While some crime dramas focus on the execution of the crime, others are more concerned with the human element and the people involved with the crime. Both elements blend together in The Lookout: how the people get brought into the situation is as significant as the situation itself.
Chris Pratt (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a popular high-school hockey star whose reckless driving kills two passengers in his car, injured a third, and leaves him physically and mentally damaged. Four years later, Chris has trouble holding things, trouble remembering things (he keeps a notebook with important things to do), and trouble sequencing -- remembering the order of things as simple as his daily routine. Chris cleans a bank (that won't let him try being a teller), lives with his blind friend Lewis (Jeff Daniels), and dealing with his family. Chris is frustrated that his life has changed so much and feels helpless and angry at his situation.

Chris meets Gary Spargo (Matthew Goode) at a bar, and they seem to hit it off immediately. Gary shares some of Chris' frustrations, listens to him, and even hooks him up with an atttractive lady named Luvlee (Ilsa Fisher). It isn't hard to see that Gary has an ulterior motive, and it soon comes out: Gary and his associates are planning to rob the bank Chris works at, and they want him to help. They need Chris to act as the lookout, warning them if Deputy Ted (Sergio Di Zio) stops by. Gary plays on Chris' feelings of helplessness, offering him a glimpse of a better life: "My old man used to say to me, probably the only thing we ever really agreed on, was that whoever has the money has the power. You might wanna jot that down in your book. It's something you're gonna need to remember."

The Lookout does a very good job of drawing us into Chris' world. From his daily recitations of what he does each day ("Once upon a time, I woke up. I took a shower. With soap.") to his frustration with family and friends, Chris is a very real and very sympathetic character thanks to Joseph Gordon-Levitt's powerful performance. The supporting cast also does an excellent job, from Gary's effective manipulation -- it seems he spent as much time casing out Chris as the bank -- to Lewis' combination of pragmatism and optimism that is so lacking in Chris. If you want to check out a very good crime drama, take a look at The Lookout.

Overall grade: B+

Reviewed by James Lynch


The Big Bang Theory, Season 1, CBS Television

With the writer's strike halting production of TV shows for the majority of the TV season, I've not had too many shows to review lately. I also prefer dramas over comedies, as they're often just not that funny IMHO. At any rate, even given the above, and the abbreviated season, there was one show that I really enjoyed. A good comedy should mirror life, and this one hit the nail on the head.

The show I'm talking about is The Big Bang Theory. Here we have a group of four Cal-Tech post doctoral physicists that personify the nerd lifestyle. These guys have whiteboards with equations on them in their apartment's living room. Much of the plot focuses on roommates Leonard and Sheldon. They entertain themselves with Klingon Boggle, have their cereal organized by fiber content, and play Halo 3 every Wednesday. As much as they are alike, the tension develops because Sheldon is the child prodigy who truly doesn't fit into the real world outside the protective bubble of the college campus. Leonard, on the other hand, is not quite his intellectual equal, but wants to get romantically involved with their neighbor, Penny. She is far simpler, no intellectual giant, and rather pretty. While Sheldon is just about oblivious to her beauty, Leonard obsesses with asking her out, but never seems to be able to accomplish this.

Joining this love triangle of a physics sort are co-scientists Howard and Raj. Howard is socially inept and equates sex with love. Raj is foreign born, and I chuckle every time he talks about not liking Indian food.

There were eight episodes made this season, so we definitely got shortchanged. Still, reportedly it got picked up for next year, assuming that the writers will be producing scripts, which seems likely, and with some luck, we'll see a few more episodes this season. The Big Bang Theory makes me laugh, and think, which is quite rare these days (and I see a little piece of Sheldon in many of us).

Overall Grade: A

Reviewed by Jonas

See full episodes here.

More video clips here.

PS: I've never played Klingon Boggle.

3:10 to Yuma (2007)

Russell Crowe and Christian Bale star in 3:10 to Yuma, an old style Western. Forget that nobody makes a film like this anymore, put your spurs on, load up your six shooter and saddle up for this review. This film is a remake of a 1957 film by the same name.

Crowe plays Ben Wade, a Jesse James style Western bandit that spends his day robbing stagecoaches outside town with his gang. Even an armored stagecoach with a Gatling gun (kind of ridiculous, I don't think it was ever done) can't keep the boys from getting the goods and killing the Pinkertons guarding it. Bale plays Dan Evans, the honest rancher with the family, facing the drought and the bank getting ready to foreclose, etc, etc, etc- you know, the guy with the white hat in most Western flicks. He is a Civil War vet, an amputee, and a sharpshooter from his regiment days. This makes Evans the perfect guy to accompany the Pinks to bring Wade to catch the 3:10 train to the Yuma federal prison. Besides, he needs the $200 in cash to save everything his family has worked for.

Needless to say, it doesn't quite go down as expected. After bringing Wade home (????!) as a diversion, and meeting the whole family (kind of ridiculous), they take a cross desert trip. Along the way, even I wanted to shoot Wade a few times as he incessantly attacks his captors, and gets temporary control of their weapons until subdued again. I was starting to wonder if Evans was doing this job too cheaply! The film progresses past the railway, and takes us to the inevitable shootout in the town waiting for the train.

In many respects, 3:10 to Yuma is the classic American Western reborn for a more modern audience. As "The West" is so intricately embedded in the American psyche, I do occasionally enjoy seeing a film like this. However, at many parts it was predictable as I found myself shouting at the TV "Don't go outside, they're waiting for you!" right before some character gets inevitably shot. The only new ground here is that their is no moral absolutism here. The good guys have to bend their morals to get the job done, and the villain prisoner attempts to redeem himself by the film's end.

Overall, 3:10 to Yuma is a little too slowly paced and predictable for my taste. It's not that it's a bad film, it's just that it's not a really good one.

Overall Grade: B

Reviewed by Jonas


PS: There's a medical tie in here. After the stagecoach robbery, the Pinkerton gets shot with a pistol. A few scenes later, we see that his abdomen has been turned into hamburger meat. First of all, it was more consistent with a shotgun blast, and no single bullet from a pistol could produce that injury. Then we see the town vet pull the bullet out with a pair of blacksmith pliers. For the rest of the film, the character is fine. Huh? It was a severe injury which would be difficult to repair using modern surgical techniques including prosthetic mesh, antibiotics, and advancement flaps. And this is just for the abdominal wall portion of the wound. I find it completely implausible that nothing in the abdomen was hit, which would have been fatal in those days, as abdominal surgery, and even sterility were decades away. Sorry folks, but they should have just given the character a different injury if they needed him throughout the film.


Korea Strait (2007)

When we last left our self doubting protagonist, Dan Lenson, the Navy Commander that singlehandedly saves the world a few times, and continually deals with criticisms from his superiors, he was shoreside in The Threat. This time, Poyer gets him back on the ocean in Korea Strait.

As Lenson has lost a few ships along the way, they probably would force him into retirement, but that Medal of Honor that he got back in Black Storm keeps him around. The Navy assigns Lenson to TAG, also known as the "tactical analysis team" that runs wargames, collects data, and then looks at the results to advise the military on how to better utilize the assets (rather plausible, but as far as I can tell the name of the unit is fictitious, but more like this). Lenson ends up in the middle of a wargames involving the South Koreans, the Japanese, the US, and the Australian Navy. He's only a data collector, and has no control of the ship. The test is to practice tracking submarines off of the Korean coast. How much trouble could the guy end up in this time out when he's not even in command of a ship?

Well, if Lenson is involved, quite a bit, but of course it's never really his fault. First, the exercise almost gets canceled when the US sub is almost rammed by the aggressive South Koreans. Then an impending typhoon sends the Japanese and Aussies back home. After riding out the storm (which the author apparently did and inspired the novel), a pack of North Korean subs comes sneaking through the area, and we get a glimpse into what the start of the Korean War, Part II might look like, and how delicately peace is preserved in this region.

Overall, Korea Strait is one really strong novel. Aside from it being well plotted, and going at breakneck speed for a mere 300 pages, it feels like it's considerably longer, and more developed. If it did all that it would still be a good book, but what makes it awesome is that the paragraphs read like poetry. The prose is written in such a way that if you randomly pick a page, the vivid descriptions of the sea, the strong use of action verbs, and the emotions conveyed hardly seem like they would add up to a military thriller. This is the true genius of Korea Strait, and why it gets our highest grade. If you've never read Poyer's work, you should, and Korea Strait may be his best novel so far (there are ten in this series that he refers to as "the tales of the modern navy").

Overall Grade: A+

Reviewed by Jonas

Home of the Brave (2006)

Home of the Brave is a film that looks at what happens to soldiers after they come home from war, and attempt to pickup their broken lives, hampered by their emotional and physical scars. It stars Samuel Jackson, Jessica Biel, Brian Presley and 50 Cent. This theme, which has been done before in films like Born on the Fourth of July is told within the context of the current Iraqi conflict.

The film opens with our soldiers going on a humanitarian supply run, with the knowledge that they are going home in a couple of weeks. Unfortunately, they get ambushed in an urban environment, and severe casualties ensue. Biel's character, Vanessa Price, sustains a severe injury that results in the loss of her hand. When the dust settles, she ends up in rehab, and the unit of Army Reservists gets shipped back to their home state of Washington.

While all seems well at first, we see the emotional scars that they all bear. The soldiers manifest classic signs of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) with emotional outbursts, aggression, and insomnia. They all seek to self medicate with alcohol, which inevitably makes the situation worse. They are unfocused, and it interferes with their work, or even their ability to get a job. We follow the characters as they weave among the VA bureaucracy, and attend support groups, which they resist going to.

There are two medial tie ins to Home of the Brave. The first is that during the time I spent at the VA hospital, I did see plenty of manifestations of PTSD like this. While it was far more common among the Vietnam veterans, after the film Saving Private Ryan came out, and suddenly emotions had been stirred that were long ago compartmentalized, it got to the point that support groups for WW II veterans were started to deal with some of these issues. The other medial issue is that when Vanessa Price's hand is bleeding, they used QuickClot to control the bleeding and achieve hemostasis, which is a new topical hemostatic agent used frequently in the military, but only rarely stateside at this point.

Overall, Home of the Brave is a difficult film to watch. The acting was well done, and the theme of emotional battle scars is one that our nation needs to be more cognizant of. Unfortunately, I feel that at times the film gives things the made for TV movie approach to important issues. For example, Samuel Jackson's character, despite heavy drinking, never hits rock bottom. It would have been more powerful had he been involved in a car accident while under the influence, or been unable to perform his duties as a doctor due to being impaired. Instead, we just get that he decides to "quit the bottle," and he does with no adverse effects- hardly realistic. Still, Home of the Brave takes up an important topic that is far too often ignored, and it makes for a powerful film.

Overall Grade: B

Reviewed by Jonas


A Pair of Musicals

Straying from the usual here, I'm going to group two reviews into one post. These two films go together under the general theme and disclaimer that while I like music, and I generally enjoy movies, for whatever reason, I just don't like movies that are musicals, and these two films didn't change that opinion by all that much.

Hairspray (2007)

First up is Hairspray. This is the 2007 film remake of a 1988 film, that was also a Broadway play. It features a plot that focuses on Baltimore in 1962, and racial integration on some American Bandstand knockoff show. It features John Travolta, Michelle Pfeifer, and newcomer Nikki Blonsky who was plucked from serving ice cream at a Cold Stone Creamery for the part in a real life "rags to riches" tale. While Nikki is well cast, I'm still wondering why we needed to have Travolta dressed in drag to play her mother. The novelty of this quickly wears off, and just didn't make sense to me. The highlight of Hairspray is the rockin' late 50's tunes, and proof that this endurable style of music can transcend generation, and that rock 'n roll is here to stay. Unfortunately, it can only save this saccharin sweet film that bases its theme on acceptance of all, by so much. Too bad the plot was too shallow, as a film like Talk To Me did a much better job of conveying this theme with the depth it deserves.

Overall Grade: C

Once (2006)

The second musical this week is less of a traditional one, the film Once. Instead of the snappy show tunes and the orchestra overture, we have two musicians turned actors, Glen Hansard, and Marketa Irglova, and not exactly well known ones at that. Hansard is the street performer by night with his guitar on the streets of Dublin, and by day he works at his father's vacuum cleaner shop. Irglova is a struggling Czech immigrant who cleans houses to support her daughter and mother. Together, they click, (after she gets her vacuum fixed of course). There is too much of a raw edge to this film that left me with a low budget feeling like we were making a rockumentary at some points. Also, too much of the dialogue gets done in foreign tongues, and with no subtitles that leaves us out of what is going on behind all the chatter. In addition, the plot kind of falls apart as the film concludes leaving us to wonder what this was all about. Still, the songs at least fit into the story better here, and don't feel as artificial as a singing squirrel in the forest that characterizes too many musicals. I'm thinking the bottom line is that this film is worth looking at Once if you're a fan of some simple acoustic folk rock. While the love affair between these two seems destined for the ages at the start, if fizzles faster than a stale pop rock.

Overall Grade: B-

Reviewed by Jonas