Sunday, August 31, 2008

Gentlemen, start your DVRs

It's that time again, o avid television viewers: the fall premieres are upon us! Here's what I'm interested in this year:

  • True Blood - HBO, 9:00 p.m., 9/7 (it's gotta be better than Moonlight)
  • Dexter - Showtime, 9:00 p.m., 9/28
  • Fringe - Fox, 8:00 p.m., 9/9 (the new X-Files with Pacey)
  • Eli Stone - ABC, 10:00 p.m., 10/14
Fridays and Saturdays - nothin' doin' as yet

Lost will be back in February, I think, and BSG around then too (?). Joss Whedon's new show, Dollhouse comes on in February as well as a mid-season replacement. I am SO excited to have some Whedony television again - it's going to be awesome. And speaking of awesome, can anyone tell me what's going on with Friday Night Lights? Is it only on DirecTV or is it somewhere in the cable-wastelands too?

Okay then. What will you be watching?

Friday, August 29, 2008

Get into the groove

I've been stuck in a serious '80s rut - must stem from watching the unbleeped version of The Breakfast Club last weekend. The "Eighties Mix" playlist has been the only thing in rotation on my iPod of late. Here's what the last ten tunes turned out to be:

  • Nightboat - Duran Duran
  • Life During Wartime - Talking Heads
  • Runaway - Bon Jovi
  • Expresso Love - Dire Straits
  • Ignoreland - R.E.M.
  • Love Is the Drug - Roxy Music
  • (Do Not) Stand in the Shadows - Billy Idol
  • Letter Never Sent - R.E.M.
  • Burn For You - INXS
  • Ship of Fools - World Party

Now, if I were to switch over to the main library which contains the entire Mouse music collection, the next ten would be a little bit different:

  • Shellshock - New Order
  • My Way - Frank Sinatra
  • Hard to Be - The Vaughan Brothers
  • Hot Tub - Don Campbell
  • In The Rapids - Genesis
  • Let My Love Open the Door - Pete Townshend
  • Take Me to the River - Talking Heads
  • Let's Go Crazy - Prince
  • Carry On - Crosby Stills Nash & Young
  • Hips Don't Lie - Shakira

Can you tell which of those came from Mr. Mouse's CDs?

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

555 - restaurant review

Mr. Mouse and I had an anniversary and a gift certificate recently, so we decided to try one of Portland’s swankiest kitchens, 555 (located at 555 Congress Street). We made a reservation a week in advance which turned out to be smart; despite the late seating on a Monday night, the restaurant’s dining room and bar were both bustling. The restaurant space is gorgeous - open kitchen (of course - it's Portland after all), copper detailing, an upper seating area around the balcony looking down at the main dining floor.

Since it was a school night, we opted out of pre-dinner cocktails and simply ordered a bottle of wine. We Mouses like reds from Chile, Australia and New Zealand (because we are not pretentious oenophiles, plus we’re cheap and these countries have a good quality/value ratio) and were pleased to discover plenty of these on the list, finally going with a Villa Maria Pinot Noir from New Zealand. I didn’t care for it that much at first, but as the bottle breathed and the wine warmed slightly, it was quite quaffable.

We split an order of the Blue Hill mussels as an appetizer which were just incredible. The mussels were tender and the creamy broth contained house pickled cherry peppers, chive butter and roasted garlic had a great kick to it. Thick slices of toasted bread came with for dipping and I caught Mr. Mouse sneaking a spoonful of just broth because it was just that good.

For dinner, I selected the pan grilled pork tenderloin served with a teeny, tender cornmeal biscuit, local green and yellow beans, chanterelles and some nutty grains. Mr. Mouse (who picks his entrees based on what they don’t have - no mushrooms, chunky or whole tomatoes or avocado) went with the cod, which I believe was served with some sort of roasted pepper remoulade and grains as well … although I didn’t get to sneak a bite for myself and thus am a little unclear on exactly what he had.

The portion sizes could have been slightly bigger: they certainly weren’t Hugo’s-tiny, thank goodness, and while it was good to depart without feeling overstuffed, I’m sure Mr. Mouse could have used a little more protein on his plate. The food was all fine, but nothing spectacular and not certainly not any better than what you’ll find in other higher-end Portland restaurants (like Bay Bay Grill, Vignola or Street & Co., etc.).

Here’s the thing about our dinner at 555: the service was terrible on the night we were there. Now, perhaps it’s because we were there on a Monday and the A-staff wasn’t on the floor, and maybe if we were to go back it would be better. But this is what we got. We arrived right on time for our reservation but were kept waiting while an older couple, who walked in behind us with a reservation for the same time, were seated first. The busgirl spilled water all over the table when she filled Mr. Mouse’s glass. It took at least ten minutes for our waiter to even stop by menus/wine list, and then he didn’t come back to take the drink order for another 5-10 minutes.

We finally ordered the appetizer and entrees all at once and then, after waiting with an empty table for 20ish minutes, the mussels came out at the same time as our meals. Our waiter apologized and whisked the entrees away; Mr. Mouse watched as they disappeared into the kitchen but couldn’t tell if they were simply being kept warm or if we were going to get fresh new meals (the pork tenderloin was not at all overdone, although the cod was crispy-outside/mushy-inside, so who knows). Then, we had to twiddle our thumbs with a bowl of empty mussel shells before being cleared and served our meals...

Long story short, we were kept waiting a LOT - before, after and in between courses – while we noticed other diners, seated after us, being well attended to. I didn’t take it personally but it was disappointing, especially given the excellent level of service we have received from the above-mentioned other higher-end Portland restaurants. 555 is one of the few Maine restaurants that seems to always get a mention in the big glossy food and wine magazines. I’m sure its reputation is well-deserved but for the money we paid, the experience we got was lacking.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Movie review: The Singing Detective

“All clues. No solutions.” This is the tag-line of the strange little 2003 film, The Singing Detective, screenplay by Dennis Potter (and a retrofit of the British miniseries). Packed with a great cast and a wonderful soundtrack, I don’t remember this non-linear fantasy detective story ever being promoted for the theaters. It would have been a tough one to market - am I right or am I right?

The main story is that of Dan Dark (Robert Downey, Jr.), a bitter, angry writer who has been hospitalized for a chronic skin condition. A prisoner of his own scaly, suppurating integument, Dark is vicious to all around him – his wife Nicola (Robin Wright Penn, who has never been more gorgeous), the physicians trying to treat him, the sweet little nurse (Katie Holmes, harmless as usual) – and his only source of comfort is a retreat into fantasy as his alter-ego, a noir detective investigating the murder of a prostitute. The hospital forces Dark to visit the odd staff shrink (Mel Gibson, unrecognizable and completely cast against type) who recognizes a deep-seated misogyny in his irascible patient and forces him to face its origins. Meanwhile, Dark’s wife is in cahoots with a sleazy movie producer (Jeremy Northram) to steal Dark’s screenplay adaptation of his biggest book, The Singing Detective ... although this may just be Dark’s paranoiac delusions. It’s just not clear.

That’s the main story. There’s also Dark’s flashbacks to his desolate childhood: as a boy, inadvertently catching his mother (Carla Gugino) in an affair (also Jeremy Northram) and her later suicide after backsliding into prostitution. The third storyline, interwoven with the modern story and the flashbacks, is the tale of the Singing Detective himself (Downey, Jr.), hired by a rich man (also Jeremy Northram) to clear his name of the murder of a prostitute (also Robin Wright Penn) which was actually done by hired thugs (Adrian Brody and Jon Polito) paid by Northram. It’s a lot to keep track of – ooh! there’s also lip-synced fantasy musical numbers – and it really gets weird when the hired thugs show up in the modern Dark’s hospital to kill him, with the Singing Detective showing up to save the day. Sort of.

Robert Downey, Jr., is brilliant, as expected: brittle and funny and nasty and so very wounded. He is a joy to watch (in almost anything, I think). Gibson underplays his eccentric psychiatrist nicely; everyone else does a good, solid job – no scenery-chewers here. I had a little trouble catching some of the dialogue: Downey, Jr., speaks very quickly and often very softly; cranking the volume up on my television was fine until it cut to a musical number and blew out my eardrums.

The one real problem I had with this movie goes back to the tag-line: All clues, no solutions. In Myers-Briggs I am strongly a “J” (Judging”) which means that I like closure … and movies like this bug the hell out of me - all middle and no real beginning or end. I can deal with the non-linear storytelling if issues get resolved (Memento is one of my favorite movies after all) but here there’s no resolution for almost anything other than Dark checking out of the hospital. The Detective doesn’t close his case; we don’t know if Nicola and the sleazy producer steal Dark’s screenplay; we don’t find out why the thugs keep appearing in all three time/storylines; Dark has a break-through but then his therapy stops short. C'mon - don't leave me hanging! How about some solutions, at least?! Grrr.

I found The Singing Detective smart, entertaining and full of possibilities, but ultimately frustrating and unfulfilling. That's okay - they can't all be Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Next stop on my RDJ tour: Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Today is my unbirthday, but still

From The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent., comes this edificational meme: Look up your birthday in Wikipedia. Pick four events, three births, two deaths and an holiday.

1297 - Monaco gains its independence.
1835 - The United States national debt is 0 for the first and only time.
1877 - Crazy Horse and his warriors fight their last battle with the U.S. Cavalry at Wolf Mountain (Montana Territory).
1973 - Watergate scandal: the trial of seven men accused of illegal entry into Dem. Party HQ at Watergate begins.

1935 - Elvis Presley, American singer and guitarist (d. 1977)
1947 - David Bowie, English musician
1971 - Jason Giambi, American baseball player

1324 - Marco Polo, Italian explorer (b. 1254)
1996 - Francois Mitterand, President of France (b. 1916)

St. Thorfinn Feastday (no offense, but the holiday selection was pretty sparse)

Thursday, August 21, 2008

In which I once again promise to do better, and soon

The reason why this blog has been so full of nothing all summer (aside from the truly pathetic summer television offerings during a truly pathetically-weathered summer during which I should have been able to offer up lots of viewed television had it not been so pathetic ... whoa, that sentence just got away from me there) is because Mr. Mouse and I are moving out west and I've been busy doing non-bloggable things. Like painting. De-junking and de-cluttering. Putting the house on the market. Getting our jobs in order (transfer for Mr. M; notice and start a search for a replacement for me). Selling the boat. Vacuuming the house and mowing the lawn seemingly every frickin' day. That sort of stuff.

None of which you, my teeming horde of fans, really care about. What you care about is this:
  • One month 'til Heroes! I'm very excited for S3:Villains. Everyone knows the villains are more fun than the heroes. Just go see The Dark Knight - there's the proof right there.
  • Here's a test to see how psychotic you are, compliments of the folks over at Dexter. Season 3 starts up on Showtime on September 28th. (I've only got a 30% killer instinct: that's relatively well-balanced ... and "dull." Story of my life.)
  • Imodium, those good anti-diarrheal folks, have updated the internets with The Most Valuable Tool in the History of Ever: a map that shows you all the public-accessible bathrooms in any zip code. Portland (ME) has ten, apparently. (thank you to Andrew Wheeler for the link)
  • Since I sent back the remaining Undeclared (and unwatched) DVDs, is speeding through my queue and sending me The Singing Detective (Robert Downey, Jr.!), Hard Candy (Ellen Page!) and The Food of the Gods (a 1976 horror flick that I'm planning to review for Final Girl's next Film Club - stay tuned!)

Monday, August 18, 2008

Well, I declare!

Undeclared was really not very good and the network may have been right to cancel it (gasp!). Mr. Mouse and I did our best and finally gave up after episode 6, mailing the rest of the DVDs back to unwatched. The show was neither funny nor charming; none of the characters were either resonant or endearing; and they resulted to stunt casting early on (episode 3 - Will Ferrell and 5 - Adam Sandler). I'm superglad that Judd Apatow et al. got over the sophomore slump that was Undeclared because it would have been a shame to waste all the potential and talent they displayed in the wonderful Freaks and Geeks.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Book review: the Chronicles of Elantra series

After a busy and tiring weekend, there's nothing I like better to do than sit on my front steps with a cold drink, basking in the setting sun and writing a book report for you all. No, really. I didn't at all want to crash in front of the t.v. and veg out to Olympic track and field. I wanted to do this. So pay attention, be interested and go borrow these books from your local library.

As I mentioned a couple of posts ago, I've been reading a bunch of fantasy subgenre books loaned to me by my friend Brownie. I'm currently in the middle of the third volume of Michelle Sagara's Chronicles of Elantra series: Cast in Shadow, Cast in Courtlight and Cast in Secret.

Set in whole new magic-riddled world, these three books (and there's at least two more to come) focus on young Kaylin Neya, a human corporal in the Hawk division of the Halls of Law (a police detective, if you will). Humans are not the only denizens of this world. There are also Leontines (humanoid lions), Aerians (winged humanoids), Tha'alani (mind-reading humanoids with creepy tentacles coming out of their foreheads), Barrani (sort of like Tolkien's Elves: immortal, inhumanly beautiful, fierce warriors) and Dragons (immortal and usually taking humanoid form, although able to shift back into their true dragon-shape if need be).

Kaylin, an orphan and former thief from the wrong side of the tracks, is woefully unsuited for her role as a officer of the law required to interact with all the different races. But in spite of her lack of education, ill manners, short temper and penchant for swearing, Kaylin does have something that keeps her involved with all the players in town: mystical words and symbols are magically tattooed all over her body and enable her to wield both a great healing power and a great destructive power. She hates the magic; she doesn't know why she was chosen to bear it; and unseen forces are maneuvering to get her on their side.

In the first book, Cast in Shadow, we are introduced to Kaylin and her world. Children are being mysteriously and ritually murdered and Kaylin's past is tied directly to the killings. Michelle Sagara does a great job of unwinding Kaylin's past and bringing all the various characters into the story, with a nice dry sense of humor too.

Cast in Courtlight picks up almost immediately after the end of the first book. Kaylin's recent success has brought her to the notice of the Barrani High Court and she is called there to heal the High Lord's heir. She is particularly out of her element at the High Court and dangers unfold all around her. I liked Courtlight the least of the three books: it was less funny than the other two and got bogged down in too much metaphysics.

I'm currently about halfway through Cast in Secret, which has returned to form as a police procedural rife with sarcastic humor. Sent to investigate the theft of a magical reliquary, Kaylin soon discovers missing children and the possible end of all things. I can't tell you how it ends because I don't know yet - but it's a page-turner!

These books aren't fabulous literature (and could use some more stringent editing, frankly: Sagara uses more commas than I do!), but they're intelligent, engrossing fantasy and worth a read if you like that sort of thing. Thanks, Brownie!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Everything's better with bacon

I'm hoping to have a new book review up tomorrow but I have got to mow the lawn first. Usually by this time of summer, the grass has burnt to a crisp and I don't have to mow much-if-at-all. But not this summer: with all the rain, the lawn is lush and flourishing and growing too fast to keep up with. (Note to self: next house, smaller yard/less mowing.)

In the interim, check out these things I just learned about:

Someone has created the perfect food: chocolate-covered bacon. I'm drooling just thinking about it.

The winners of the 2008 Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest are in! This contest pays homage to the notorious Victorian novelist Edward George Earl Bulwer-Lytton (he who first penned "It was a dark and stormy night.") and challenges entrants to write the worst opening lines to imaginary novels. I lost count of how many times I laughed out loud and truly the grand prize winner is spectacular in its awfulness.

I recently stumbled upon Legend of Neil, another very effin' funny web-series about gamers; LoN is about a regular Joe Neil who gets transported into his Legend of Zelda videogame and turned into an elf. It's not as sophisticated as The Guild, and it's definitely much coarser, but it's still terribly funny.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

DVD review: The Animatrix

Friend of the blog Kevin C., who is a longtime anime fan, loaned me his copy of the Wachowski brothers' The Animatrix, a compendium of animated shorts based on and supplementing the Matrix trilogy.

An incredibly brief rundown of the nine stories:
  • Final Flight of the Osiris - what happened to the ship Osiris, the aftermath of which was dealt with in the last Matrix movie and the subsequent Matrix videogame. CG-animation a la Beowulf
  • The Second Renaissance Parts I and II - the story of how the machines came to rise up and create the Matrix. Traditional Japanimation.
  • Kid's Story - a high school student self-actualizes himself out of the Matrix and into reality, looking for Neo (who is impressed). Rougher animation showing the pencil-strokes in the drawings.
  • Program - a training simulation in which a rebel is faced with a friend who wishes to give up the fight and return to the Matrix. Traditional anime with ancient Japanese imagery (quite beautiful).
  • World Record - an athlete on the verge of self-actualization has agents trying to keep him in control. Stylized, almost grotesque animation (my least favorite of the bunch).
  • Beyond - a lost cat leads to a "haunted house" where the Matrix code is starting to wear thin. Traditional animation with near-photorealism at times.
  • A Detective Story - agents try to catch Trinity. Black and white animation with a heavy noir feeling - very cool.
  • Matriculated - rebels catch and attempt to recondition some of the machines. This looked like a sophisticated Aeon Flux (not surprisingly as the writer/director, Peter Chung, is one and the same) plus a fair bit of CG-animation.

The DVD has a bunch of extras: "making of" documentaries for each short, including discussion of the animation style (in case you want something more than my poor attempts at description above); a very interesting piece called "Scrolls to Screen: the History and Culture of Anime" which I found very informative; director commentaries on four of the shorts (note: each of the short films was directed by a different anime director, hence the wondrous array of styles); director and animation producer bios; and a trailer for the videogame. There are plenty of subtitles (English, Spanish and French) and you can hear the films in either English or Japanese.

This is a must-see for Matrix fans and animation fans alike, although I would really recommend seeing all three Matrix movies (diminishing returns and all) before delving into this disk.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Thoughts on The Dark Knight

I finally saw The Dark Knight on Friday - am I the last person in the country to have seen it? (No, that'll be Mr. Mouse who never will.) Since there's been scads and scads of reviews about it, I'm sure I don't have anything original to say, but it's sort of required writing for a movie blog, innit?

Let's just get this out of the way: Heath Ledger was brilliant as the Joker: mesmerizing, compelling, disturbing, brilliant right from the first disappearing pencil moment (when the entire audience jumped and sighed, "Oooooohhh"). One of the online reviews I've read said that the issue with the heretofore iconic Jack Nicholson/Joker portrayal is that it was clearly "Nicholson as the Joker." Not so with Ledger's performance: there was no Heath seeping through - he completely gave himself over to that maniacal agent of chaos and we all believed it. Whether his subsequent and sad death was due to his believing it too we'll never really know. But it's a damn shame we'll never be able to see him reprise the role.

Another one I believed: Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent. I don't read Batman comics so all I knew of the Harvey Dent character was Tommy Lee Jones's version (yeesh). Eckhart's Dent shone like an avenging angel bent on saving his tortured city. Beautiful, righteous and fearless, Dent's subsequent fall was all the more horrific because of his purity. And that nightmarish Two-Face make-up? Holy shit. I think that with all the commotion over Ledger and his Joker, the filmmakers were able to keep Dent's transformation under wraps to good effect.

In fact, the characters, their development and their convincing interactions with each other were my favorite thing about this movie - pretty remarkable for a blockbuster of this type. Gary Oldman continues to be incredible as Saint Commissioner Jim Gordon - which in a lesser movie would be a thankless throwaway role; Michael Caine is charming and dry and fatherly and makes all of us wish we could have a butler; Morgan Freeman brings depth and wisdom (doesn't he always?) even with such little screen time. Maggie Gyllenhaal is a vast improvement over that limp Katie Holmes ... although I confess that I was still relieved when SPOILER JUST IN CASE YOU HAVEN'T SEEN IT they killed Rachel off, thinking "finally." I get that Dent needed pretty strong motivation to snap but keep the love interest stuff out of my superhero movies, please. It just eats up valuable screen time. END SPOILER NOW GO SEE THE MOVIE.

I guess the reigning presumption has been that Gotham City is a fictionalized version of NYC, but I gotta say that per director Christopher Nolan's vision, Chicago = awesome as Gotham. Chicago's got such a history that you can easily believe Gotham as a seething mass of corrupt cops, Italian mobsters, Russian, black and Asian gangsters all fighting for a piece of the pie.

All this being said, I didn't walk out of the theater thinking, omigodbestmovieever! It ran a little long, particularly towards the end; I had trouble with the editing of some of the action and fight scenes (too fast and jumbled to see what was going on); and Christian Bale's Batman-voice bugged the crap out of me. I understand the character's desire to disguise his voice for secrecy's sake but what was merely a deepening and gruffness in Batman Begins was way over the top in this movie. Nobody talks like that - not even Batman.

I did not, however, have a problem with the dark tone of the movie - I like dark stuff - and I think they did it the right way: these stories of the Joker and Harvey Dent and corruption do not lend themselves to puns and easy laughs. The Dark Knight proves that superhero movies do not have to be lighthearted to be good. Is it the best comic book movie ever? I don't know (I did walk out of Iron Man thinking, omigodsomuchfunthatwasawesome!) but The Dark Knight is on the short list for sure.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Movies in the mountains

Are any of you gentle readers going to the Telluride Film Festival this Labor Day weekend (August 29-September 1, 2008)? From their website it looks like passes are totally sold out - good for them! - although they put available individual tickets on sale at each of the venues if there are any left after the passholders are seated.

The movies shown are always a secret 'til you get there but past films debuting in Telluride have been El Mariachi, Sling Blade, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, El Norte, Talk to Her, Stranger than Paradise and Bowling for Columbine. Not too shabby!

Click on the widgety thing FMI:

Thursday, August 7, 2008

I really have been busy, see?

I've got a smorgasbord of pop-culturey tidbits for you today, just a smattering really. I've got a lot of irons in the fire/balls in the air/cats in the cradle and once I finish something - anything! - I'll be more verbose. That's a total promise.

  • Mr. Mouse and I have been watching Undeclared on DVD and have gotten through four episodes. It was Judd Apatow's sophomore attempt at television after Freaks and Geeks - it's getting a B/B+ thus far. It's not nearly as charming or funny as FandG; I haven't been able to connect with any of the characters yet; and the dad-in-midlife-crisis-who-tags-along-during-his-son's-frosh-year-at-college is super-annoying. There are only seventeen episodes, however, and at around 24 minutes each I think we'll make it all the way through.
  • I've been reading a bunch of fantasy books loaned to me by my friend Brownie: Heart of Stone and House of Cards by C.E. Murphy; and Cast in Shadow and Cast in Courtlight (halfway through the last) by Michelle Sagara. These are both series and I'll do write-ups once I finish the third of each. They're pretty good for what they are - dragons and gargoyles and girl-power - set respectively in modern day NYC and some imaginary world. And there's actually a LOT of plot in each series - which is why I stopped reading Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake books which ended up being softcore porn with a non-sex paragraph here and there.
  • The Olympics are tomorrow! Mr. Mouse and I love the Olympics, both the winter and the summer games. Good thing the DVR is practically empty as we'll fill it right up (durn jobs again getting in the way of my television viewing). We prefer the sports that are quantifiable - races and games (track & field, soccer, swimming, volleyball) - to the subjective ones that are judged (gymnastics). Mr. Mouse would like me to add that we are in no way interested in the ridiculous Opening Ceremonies (we'll be churning through more Undeclared eps instead).
  • My favorite BtVS/Firefly/BSG writer, Jane Espenson, is slated to write a two-hour t.v. movie for Battlestar Galactica which will air in 2009 after the series ends. The movie will be directed by Admiral Adama himself, Edward James Olmos, and apparently focus on the Cylons right after they destroyed the humans' worlds. Here's a link to the L.A. Times story (thanks to Whedonesque for the link). Jane is awesome: funny, smart and great at characters. This t.v. movie will be a treat.
  • I'm getting off work at 3:00 p.m. tomorrow so I think I'll finally go see a matinee of Dark Knight. Also, when I mentioned that I'd been reading very good things about the new Judd Apatow/Seth Rogen/James Franco stoner-action-comedy, Pineapple Express, Mr. Mouse actually said, out loud and not crossing his fingers or rolling his eyes, "I would go see that in the theater with you." I was in shock and totally speechless for nearly two seconds (!!) - he never is interested in going to the movies. Now, if I can only get him to buy the tickets too.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Movie review: The Eye (2002)

The Heroes webisode #3, the concluding chapter of the supersonic mailman, Echo DeMille, is here. I thought the first webisode (that's a craptastic word, isn't it: "webisode") was pretty good/had a lot of potential, but the second and third fell off badly. It was nice to see a familiar face at the end there, however.

On the movie-ish side of things, I still haven't seen Dark Knight or X-Files 2.0 but I did catch Gin gwai, a/k/a the original The Eye, on IFC the other night. Let me make it perfectly clear that this is not the flick remake "starring" Jessica Alba. (I think you should have to be able to actually act to "star" in something, but that's just me. I liked JA well enough in Dark Angel where she played a socially misfit, genetically manipulated, ass-kicking post-apocalyptic pseudopunk but it's been all downhill since then.) Nope, I caught the original Hong Kong flick, subtitles and all.

What I know about Asian cinema wouldn't fill a shoebox, and what I know about Asian horror is even less. I wouldn't call The Eye a horror film, however: it's really a ghost story. Pretty Wong Kar Mun, blind since the age of two, has received corneal transplants but her new eyes see a lot more than she hoped: the ghosts of the recently, suddenly and unfortunately deceased, as well as the spirits who come to escort them to the next world. Mun is understandably freaked out and travels to Thailand, hunky psychologist in tow, to learn what she can about the organ donor. The girl whose eyes Mun now has was some sort of psychic who foresaw all the deaths of the people in her village; she was considered a witch, tormented and committed suicide in her bedroom. It falls to Mun to soothe her troubled spirit and send her on her way.

This little movie (around 1.5 hours in length) is pretty good: decently acted, atmospheric, a couple of jump scares and creepy faces, negligible gore. I kept thinking that the subtitles were going to bump me out of it but I stayed engaged throughout the movie. And the cinematography is interesting, veering in and out of frame and focus, giving us a sense of how disoriented Mun must be, learning first to see at all and then to see such horrors.

I did have a couple of small story quibbles but they're minor. After she's seen some truly weird shit, Mun needs to talk to her hottie shrink. While she waits for him to finish an appointment, she goes to a restaurant where she sees a ghostly woman and baby hovering around the beef. Trying not to wig, she is completely surprised when a waitress says to her, "Oh, you see them too? They don't usually like to be seen" ... and then walks off, never to be heard from again. Um, no: you would grab that waitress and demand some explanations, and then drag her off to your shrink as proof that you weren't crazy (or at least weren't alone in your insanity). My other issue was that while Mun sees both restless ghosts and precognitive visions of death, the eye donor only saw the deaths-to-come. It was never explained why Mun was all ghost-whispery instead of just another Cassandra. As I said, minor stuff.

In sum, The Eye is an entertaining ghost story and good for folks who prefer boo to blood. It wasn't compelling enough, however, to make me want to watch the American version to get outraged over yet another Hollywood debacle remake of an original Asian film. The American one's got a better poster tho'.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Desert oases

The mouse is back in the house, y'all! Thanks eversomuch for your patience: Mr. Mouse and I just had to get away for a bit. And what's the exact opposite of the humid Maine coastline? The arid Utah desert ... so that's where we went. Temperatures were higher than normal (mid-90s to low-100s in the deserts and the valleys; high 70s to mid-80s in the mountains) but since the humdity was around the 18% range, it truly wasn't that bad. I mean, 100+ is definitely hot but any sweat evaporates immediately, keeping you cool(-ish) and dry. Dehydration is an issue at those temperatures but we were careful and I think I drank more water than I ever have in my life. I also drank a really lot of beer, and have some new places to tell you about!

Moab Brewery, Moab, Utah. Moab is a small mellow town in the southeast of the state. It's full of outdoors outfitters as it's a jumping-off place for mountain-biking, hiking, rafting, OHVing (off-highway vehicles, a/k/a ATVs, dirt bikes and 4x4s), etc. We hiked in Arches National Park and along the Slickrock mountain bike trail, and took our rental Ford Fusion off-road in the La Sal National Forest ... ultimately getting lost and finding ourselves in the John Brown Canyon in Gateway, Colorado. Since Moab is a tourist-destination there are a ton of restaurants and bars, including the Moab Brewery which we went to twice. Mr. Mouse liked the Scorpion Pale Ale (not too hoppy); I tried the Deadhorse Ale (a traditional English mild ale) and the Derailleur Ale (amber). I do wish I'd tried the stout as it looked excellent, but it was just too damn hot outside to consider. The food is pretty good too: a typical brewpub menu with strong Tex-Mex tendencies.

Porcupine Pub & Grille, Salt Lake City. After hiking at the Albion campground above the Alta ski resort - up to a gorgeous little mountain lake surrounded by incredible wildflowers - we were exceedingly parched and had to stop at the Porcupine to recover. While not in fact a brewpub, they have 24 beers on tap and specialize in Utah's local suds, featuring brews from Moab, Squatter's, Red Rock, Rooster's, Wasatch, Park City and Uinta breweries. I had more Deadhorse ale (Moab) while Mr. Mouse quaffed some Uinta Cutthroat Pale Ale; we weren't terribly hungry but did try a cup of gazpacho and a bowl of chorizo and black bean soup, both of which were quite good but less spicy than we had hoped. The Porcupine is a great space, located at the mouth of Big Cottonwood Canyon (the road to Brighton and Solitude ski areas) and well-attended by both locals and tourists.

Desert Edge Brewery at the Pub, Salt Lake City. Located in funky Trolley Square, the upscale shopping center and national historical register site, this brewpub/restaurant has exceedingly uncomfortable barstools (designed so that you don't linger too too long, I presume) but good beer and food. We had fresh and tasty burritos and washed them down with pale and amber ales, respectively. The barstaff's t-shirts read "3.2 and proud of it" which is a reference to the low alcohol content of Utah beers; for those of us visiting from out of town, 3.2 means you can drink more before the buzz kicks in - which is not necessarily a bad thing when you're sipping tasty micros.

Note: the last picture is "Owachomo," the oldest bridge at Natural Bridges National Monument. Check out that blue sky.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Book review: Secrets of the Sea: a novel by Nicholas Shakespeare

Secrets of the Sea is a gorgeous new novel, set at the end of the world in a small town in Tasmania, and focusing on the love- and life-story of two tormented people, Merridy and Alex Dove.

Alex is an orphan, both of his parents killed by a logging truck accident when he was only eleven. After being brought back to England by relatives for his school years, he returns as an adult to the tiny, fictitious town of Wellington Point on the coast of Tasmania, to sell his parents’ farm. Despite knowing nothing about farming, Alex falls in love with the land and determines to make a go of it – repairing the farmhouse and outbuildings, learning to plant and harvest crops, investing in a good sized mob (Australian for “flock”) of sheep.

He’s just about to the point where he can break even when he meets Merridy, a beautiful but removed girl who is being chased by all the single fellows in Wellington Point. A civil engineering student in Melbourne, Merridy has dropped out of school to help her mother nurse her stroke-ridden father; Merridy’s father has basically come home to wither and die. This isn’t the only sorrow plaguing her family, however: years ago Merridy’s brother Hector, age seven, wandered off and disappeared forever. His body was never found; her mother has never been quite right since then; and Merridy has vowed to never love anyone because of the potential for hurt.

Alex is smitten with her and she likes his prepossession, his ability to work with his hands and his quiet hurt, which is so similar to her own. They marry – even though she does not love him, trusting him when he says she will grow into it – and settle into farm life, hoping for children. There are lambs and chicks and calves and puppies a-plenty, but no children for the Doves. It weighs heavily upon them, threatening to shatter the fragile life they have built with each other. When a mighty storm batters the harbor, wrecking a touring boat and casting ashore Kish, a youthful juvenile delinquent, Alex and Merridy’s lives do implode but the resulting devastation is just what these two wounded people need to truly heal with each other.

This novel, while not an overtly happy story, is nonetheless a joy to read. Although focusing on Alex and Merridy, the other characters weave in and out of the narrative – no one is superfluous, everything once mentioned comes into play later in the book. A couple of minor characters (an old man who writes the town newsletter and an itinerant English spearfisherman) have the funny role of Greek chorus, watching the action and commenting on it, but only being tangentially involved; it’s unusual but it works. The author, Nicholas Shakespeare, who lives in England but spends four months out of the year in Tasmania, does a wonderful job of evoking the joys and tribulations of small town life: the busybodies, the network of support, the impact of personal tragedy on the community as a whole.

Secrets of the Sea is a fantastic, thoughtful novel. It is an intense love story, grounded in earth and saltwater, and in love as much with Tasmania as with its protagonists.