Thursday, July 30, 2009

Movie review: Appaloosa

I am a sucker for westerns: cowboys, lawmen, saloons, horses, ridin' and shootin'. I am also a sucker for Ed Harris (mmmmmmmmmmmm), so when Appaloosa came up in the Blockbuster Online queue, I got all giddy. Pluswhich, westerns are one of the few genres Mr. Mouse and I like in common and it'd been a while since we watched a movie together. (As I may have mentioned before, Mr. Mouse does not like science fiction, fantasy, really violent thrillers - with the exception of some gangster movies - foreign films, animated movies, movies based on videogames or comic books, period pieces or horror flicks. That pretty much leaves dark comedies, some gangster movies and westerns for us to share.)

Appaloosa is set in 1882 New Mexico. Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and Everett Hitch (a finely-mustachioed Viggo Mortensen) are lawmen for hire, partnered these last dozen or so years. They've been hired by the Town of Appaloosa, NM, to clean up the town - specifically to deal with crooked rancher Bragg (Jeremy Irons, with a dubious accent) who has recently shot the town's marshall and deputies. Virgil and Everett immediately make it known that they are the new law and, more importantly, they are really good shots. At some point, a young ranchhand promises to testify against Bragg and Virgil and Everett are able to take him into custody.

It's a woman who screws everything up. Alison French, played simperingly by Renee Zellweger, is a widow who comes to town with nothing but a dollar, the ability to play piano and the ambition to catch herself a man. She comes between Virgil and Everett, although not exactly as you would think, and manages to get herself taken hostage when Bragg's men try to bust him loose. I won't give it all away but there are shoot-outs and broken hearts and just one of the heroes rides away into the sunset.

Appaloosa is an okay movie, not great. Based on the novel by Robert B. Parker, the film was co-written and directed by Ed Harris himself. He's got a nice eye for framing shots - many of which are quite lovely - but the story and characters seem lightweight somehow. It could be the fault of the source material, I suppose, but I haven't read the book. Viggo Mortensen does a nice job with what he's been given: his Everett is in the unlucky position of being smarter than his boss, the uncomplicated Virgil. But they're a good team, both the characters and the two actors portraying them - there's a sense of trust and loyalty between them.

When we turned the movie off, Mr. Mouse said, "Eh," which while not a ringing endorsement, at least proves that he stayed awake for the whole thing which is something in and of itself. If you enjoy westerns, you'll like Appaloosa well enough but I wouldn't bother rearranging my movie queue to get it to your mailbox any sooner.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Book review: The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud

The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud is a wonderful, engaging, intelligent novel set among the glittering intelligentsia of 2001 Manhattan. Built around three college friends, now in their thirties and struggling to make their mark in the world, the novel observes the ebb and flow of art and fakery, brilliance and posturing, glamour, success and ambition.

The three friends are Marina, the beautiful and indulged daughter of Murray Thwaite, journalist and honored author, struggling to finish her own first book and prove herself as her father’s daughter; Julius, a broke freelance film and book critic, gay, cynical, clever and yearning for both the finer things in life and a relationship that lasts more than a few passionate moments; and Danielle, who is lovely and bright, a public television producer in search of the perfect show, but who must fight to keep out of Marina’s dazzling shadow.

Only Marina is a native New Yorker (an entitled former socialite who has had to move back in with her parents, to her chagrin); but Danielle and Julius have made NYC their adopted home. Their three lives entwine and intertwine, and then being to pull apart as new relationships insinuate themselves. Marina meets the man she believes she’ll marry – he’s arrogant, ambitious and no one else likes him – Julius is completely absorbed by life with his new lover and Danielle begins a secret affair with a married man.

Things are thrown into further disarray when Marina’s cousin, the fat and awkward Frederick, comes to NYC to join the ranks of the intelligentsia. Initially mentored by his uncle Murray, Frederick decides to expose him as a pretentious fraud, the repercussions of which shake the lives of the people around him.

Messud is a fantastic writer, almost Austen-esque in her observations of the preening, posturing New York literary society. Even if the daily details of her characters’ lives may be unfamiliar, the ache of unfulfilled promise, of hopes and dreams not quite attained, is easily identifiable, and yet presented drolly, with good humor. I wanted to include a throwaway passage here, an observation that is so keen and true and funny that it made me laugh out loud, remembering when I’d done something similar with my friends; The Emperor’s Children is full of other similar, priceless observations:
…[t]he three women were playing the dessert game – each trying to hide her sentiments about the course while simultaneously attempting to gauge those of her companions; a routine in which the younger two rightly surmised that[the older woman] was more hopeful for a sweet than they were anxious to avoid one, so that they ordered, eventually, a single chocolate pot de crème and three spoons …
The book takes a darker tone in the last third as 9/11 blasts its way through the city. I understand the author’s desire to include it, addressing the global and personal changes it wreaked upon her characters, but at the same time I mourned the loss of joy from the novel’s language, mirroring of course the loss of joy from its denizens.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

BBC America kicks ass

I was simply blown away by the Torchwood S3/miniseries (subtitled Children of Earth) that ran M-F this past week. Holy friggin' moly, that was great! Despite not being a Dr. Who-ligan, I enjoyed the first two seasons of its spin-off (see here, here, here and here) and was dismayed that the third season would only be a five-episode miniseries. But the miniseries was vastly better than the first two seasons, pared down, action-packed from the get-go, funny, exciting and heart-breaking.

An alien race has come to Earth and demanded 10% of the planet's children or it will eradicate the entire human race. The aliens are dealing with the Brits because this is the second time they've come to Earth: back in 1965 the British government gave them twelve children in hopes they would go away. The Welsh Torchwood unit is poised and ready to help, but the government, keeping their 1965 dealings with the aliens a secret, confounds them at every turn. The thing is, while the government is as much the Big Bad as the aliens, the viewer does not have an easy time knowing whom to side with. Would you sacrifice 3,500,000 children to save the remaining billions of people? And if so, how do you pick who is sacrificed?

Russell T. Davies has now supplanted Joss Whedon as the most ruthless television writer/producer: SPOILER he has killed off three of the five original cast members in 3 seasons; he has a government worker, betrayed by his boss, the British Prime Minister, shoot his two daughters, his wife and then himself, rather than give his children to the aliens; and Captain Jack is forced to sacrifice his only daughter's only child to save the planet. Grim, heartrending stuff - and really good television. END SPOILER.

The ending of Children of Earth was ambiguous as to whether there will be any more Torchwood episodes - Davies and the show's stars (those still living) seem ready and willing to do more, so fork over the money, BBC! It looks like I'm going to have to start watching Dr. Who episodes (man oh man that's going to take me decades, isn't it?) so as not to lose touch with this world. In the meantime, I urge you to rent or buy Torchwood 1, 2, and 3 (the last of which should be coming out on DVD very soon).

Also, I caught the pilot of Being Human, a new (new to the U.S.) supernatural BBC America show about a ghost, a werewolf and a vampire who are flat-mates. The pilot was a little rough, as pilots are wont to do, as it seemed as though the viewer was dumped into the show somewhere in the middle and had to figure out what was going on (as in, how did the vampire and the werewolf, who were already acquaintances before they occupied the flat that holds the ghost, first meet? although I suspect we'll get to see that as the series goes on). The show seems to be trying for a balance of horror and humor, like Buffy et als., and does fairly well; the werewolf when not wolfing out is a little squirrelly for my taste, but the gore is quite bloody, so that's fun. I suspect Being Human will only get better as it goes along and plan to keep it in the DVR queue for the duration.

Book reviews: Life Support and Bloodstream by Tess Gerritsen

Author Tess Gerritsen left a successful practice as an internist to raise her children, live the way life should be™ (?) in Maine, and write intelligent medical thrillers. She’s now garnered the writing thing into a very successful second career: 20+ novels, some of them New York Times bestsellers. Lucky Tess!

The first one I read, Life Support, is actually her second suspense/thriller (her first, Harvest, was checked out of my local library). ER doc Toby Harper is a well-liked, capable, driver doctor, who prefers control in her professional life because caring for her Alzheimer’s-stricken mother leaves her little semblance of control in her personal life. She stumbles upon what may be a virulent brain disease but, before she can get a handle on it, the patient, a confused and naked elderly man, disappears without a trace from her emergency room. When Toby discovers a second patient with similar symptoms, she is all of a sudden down the rabbit hole … and bodies start piling up. I liked this one quite a bit.

Bloodstream, Gerritsen’s third medical thriller – I do try to go in order, but these medical thrillers are stand-alones and there's no need to – follows a general practitioner, a widow “from away” who is trying to raise her troubled teenager in a stereotypical small Maine town. A rash of violence begins to course through the town’s children and the good doctor is in a race against time to figure out the cause, whether drugs (the logical choice for much of Maine), environmental contaminants or icky brain parasites. This book was rather weaker than Life Support, I thought. I didn’t think Gerritsen quite captured the tone of the town and things seemed to wrap up in a hurry.

These books were fun: quickly paced, many layered, fairly well plotted, full of smart-sounding medical stuff (but not to the point of incomprehensibility). Gerritsen doesn’t shy away from the gore either: in Life Support the characters spend a lot of time doing autopsies and performing bloody surgeries that go very, very wrong; in Bloodstream there are similar exsanguinary surgeries that seemed slightly out of place, as though there merely to up the gore factor. It’s been a while since I’ve read any medical thrillers and these were a nice re-entry to the genre.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Book review: Old Fish Hawk by Mitchell Jayne

The Fish Hawk is an old Indian man, living out his declining years in the frontier town of Bent’s Ford, Missouri. He lived most of his life away from his people, the Osage, and seems to see no need to leave the white folk now. He is drunk most of the time but the townspeople abide his drunkenness because he is useful to them: he is skilled at training and healing dogs and livestock, and he is a talented hunter and woodsman.

When the surrounding farms start getting ravaged by an ancient wild boar, larger and more vicious than any wild pig anyone has seen, folks get their dander up. But when the local simpleton, a gentle soul who has befriended the Fish Hawk, is killed by the boar, the old Indian takes it as his mission to hunt and kill the beast. During the course of the hunt, the Fish Hawk comes to some realizations about his life – both he and his quarry are the last of their kind, relics from another age – and how he would like to live the rest of it.

Old Fish Hawk, by Mitchell Jayne, is a wonderful book, an adventure tale rife with old-time woodlore (and far superior to the last Mitchell Jayne book I read). The author is obviously a woodsman himself, his descriptions of the Missourian forest and animals eloquent and informative. A huge amount of information about frontier life is passed along to the reader as well, from hunting to farming to food preservation and tanning techniques. Anyone interested in frontier Missouri life would do well to pick this book up.

This is by no means a dry history book, however. Its characters are interesting – funny, stubborn, wise, foolish – and nearly every one of them undergoes some personal development by the book’s end. The story is a classic one – man vs. beast – but there is also an exploration of the individual vs. himself that makes it more than a mere adventure story.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Before we get to all those book reviews

I must rant a little.

Did anyone else bother to watch that enormous waste of time and studio money, Harper’s Island, all the way to the end? I’m embarrassed to say that I did, although by the final pathetic two hours you could scarcely hear its tedious and trite dialogue over all the screamed epithets coming from my end of the couch. (Mr. Mouse sat on his end, quietly reading a magazine, and shaking his head at all the nonsense.)

I had high hopes at the outset: large cast containing both known and unknown faces (including one of my personal favorites, Jim Beaver f/k/a darling “Ellsworth” from Deadwood); gorgeous creepy setting; an Agatha Christie-esque concept as the wedding party gets picked off one by one; the promise of surprisingly gory and imaginative deaths. They even did pretty well for the first few episodes – Harry Hamlin got hacked in two and they even showed the dangling entrails! (in silhouette) – plus I have a soft spot for Christopher Gorham. Skinny boy can now fill out a sweater just fine.

But alas, the early promise was not to be. Gorham just couldn’t carry the show alone and the heroine, “Abby,” played by Irish lass Elaine Cassidy, consistently sucked the life out of every scene she was in. And she was in a lot. She seems to be of the Annabeth Gish School of Acting whereby standing around with her mouth open, looking poleaxed, is used to express "surprise," "horror," "sadness," "stomach upset" and "deep thought."

They actually reeled me back in for a few minutes at the end of E11 ("Splash"*), when fan-favorite characters Chloe and Cal were killed off: as the two were trapped on a narrow bridge spanning a rocky river, the Big Bad Serial Killer, John Wakefield, stabbed valiant little Cal in the heart. Then Chloe, showing more depth than she had in all the prior episodes put together, declared “You can’t have me” and dropped herself into the river to die with her man. It was actually an extremely good scene, all three actors giving it their all.

And then AARGH! The last two episodes just totally blew. The dialogue: appallingly awful. The plot wrap up: no plausible motivation for Wakefield’s killings (crazy? cranky? what?) and the motivation for SPOILER Gorham as the surprise-reveal Serial Killer Jr. was that for HE WAS SAD BECAUSE HE WAS ADOPTED. End spoiler. Oh dear god. Are you kidding? That’s it? I’ve sat through all these episodes and he killed all those people because his feelings were hurt? As one of the other characters said, “Grow a pair. Get over it.” I realize that the writers knew the series had been cancelled, and they were trying to wrap things up, but really? Total crap.

I have to admit that I did like the very last bit, showing the pre-wedding video where the main characters, now mostly dead, had recorded their wishes to the bride- and groom-to-be. It was bittersweet, seeing that after knowing what all transpired, and just slightly creepy to close with Gorham’s groom. That was a nice touch, but the nice touches were too far and few between. Good riddance to Harper’s Island.

* Another nice touch, which I have only just now discovered on the treasure trove that is, were the lovely, onomatopeiac episode titles, which include "Thwack," "Sploosh," "Gurgle," "Seep" and "Snap." Heh.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Vacation summation

Hi, all. We just got back from a well-needed vacation (poor Mr. Mouse hadn't had a week off for a year1) and are now making our way through the mountains of laundry that need to be done. We had decent weather, dry enough that Mr. Mouse was able to get his 25-80 mile bike ride in nearly every day; I, being not so much with the bicycling, read ten books. Since you're about to be inundated with book reviews, therefore, here's how it broke down.
  • 11 library books and 1 loaner
  • 9 read cover-to-cover and the loaner book finished up
  • of the read books: 2 British murder mysteries, 2 medical thrillers, 2 modern novels, 3 fantasy novels (1 classic, 2 modern) and 1 novel set in pioneer Missouri
  • of the unread books: 1 nigh-imprenetrable fantasy novel and 1 "jolly romp" of a 1960s English novel
  • 4 male authors, 8 female
  • and we made it to the brew pub every day.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Bidding a fond adieu to the X-Files

I pounced upon my Blockbuster-by-mail DVD envelopes with a squeal of glee last week. This caused Mr. Mouse to ask what had been delivered. The first two disks of the final season, a/k/a S9, of the X-Files, of course. Mr. Mouse then asked why I was so squealy - hadn't I already watched all the seasons when they originally aired (not to mention every SciFi SyFy re-run I can find)? Yes, I have seen all the episodes already, but no, that's not why I was excited. The excitement comes from nearing the end of my quest to re-watch all nine seasons.

About this here series end, then. I wrote about this not too long ago, musing that Agent Doggett (Robert Patrick) did a pretty good job picking up the pieces after David Duchovny bailed. Now, after watching S9E1-8, I'd like to say that Agent Monica Reyes (Annabeth Gish) is no Robert Patrick. Good grief, she SUCKS. She can't act for shit, standing around all cow-eyed and dim, and her line readings are, like, try to keep up, Gish! Ugh.

And while I'm complaining about the final X-Files season, Scully is driving me nuts too. Gone is the tough, no-nonsense, trigger-happy agent we knew and loved for eight seasons. All she's done to date in S9 is mope about her lost love and baby-daddy Mulder, even calling herself "Dana" in her weepy emails to him. Since when did they ever call each other by their first names? Ugh again. And, to rub salt in the wound, she even handed off her gun to stoopid Agent Reyes in one episode. The old Scully would never give her gun to anyone.

Anyway, I'm glad the X-Files didn't go any further than this ninth season since it was, by that time, a pale imitation of its former self. I'm also glad to be watching the final episodes again, though, because I do love serialized television and this show had enough good in it to compensate for this weak sauce. It's like saying good-bye to a very old friend.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Wherefore art thou Warehouse 13?

I'm not exactly sure that the paraphrase in the post title works, but then again I'm not exactly sure that Warehouse 13 actually works either. I've seen the two hour pilot and I liked it more at the end than I did at the beginning, so I guess that's something.

Warehouse 13 is one of the SciFi *grrrrrrr* SyFy Channel's new series. It focuses on two Secret Service agents, Pete Lattimer and Myka Barry (?), who have been reassigned from President-protecting duty to a ginormous warehouse in the middle of Nowhere, South Dakota. In this warehouse are oodles of artifacts that have some sort of power, mostly un-understood by modern man. So the Warehouse folks roam the planet, tracking, neutralizing and collecting these artifacts, and then bringing them back to SD for safekeeping/storage.

Warehouse 13 is being marketed as a much "lighter" show, more Eureka than BSG. Reviewers are comparing it to a blend of The X-Files with Indiana Jones as the two leads are male/believer and female/skeptic, plus all powerful and mysterious artifacts. W13 seems to have a little difficulty with pacing (the pilot's climatic scene took waaaaaaaaaaay too long) and getting the comedy/drama blend just right, something I expect will get better as the series progresses. There was a self-immolation that was definitely not funny, but the bit with an Aladdin's lamp that gives you a ferret when you wish for something impossible - that was good.

I'm going to keep it on my DVR list for now as (1) the previews for upcoming episodes look good (Six makes an appearance!) and (2) there just really isn't much else decent to watch right now. Did any of you give ol' Warehouse 13 a try too? What did you think of it?

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Book review: Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer

As I’ve mentioned here before, I’m trying to sell my house. When that happens, Mr. Mouse and I are going to move to Utah, Salt Lake City specifically, and ski our little brains out. Whenever I tell people that we’re moving to SLC, they always go, “Oh. Ooh. Have you read Under the Banner of Heaven?” So I finally did. Holy moly.

On July 24, 1984, in American Fork, Utah, two brothers, Ron and Dan Lafferty, murdered their sister-in-law, Brenda, and her 15-month-old baby daughter. The Lafferty brothers did it because God told them to. Ron and Dan Lafferty are (or were, in Ron’s case, as he was subsequently executed by firing squad) Fundamentalist Mormons.

In Under the Banner of Heaven, Jon Krakauer interweaves this true-crime 1984 murder story with the fascinating history of the Church of Latter Day Saints, showing the undercurrent of violence and bloodshed prevalent in the religion since the early days, a legacy that endures in the Mormon Fundamentalist sect and which the two Lafferty brothers wholeheartedly embraced.

Mormonism is impressive, seemingly a force of nature. A huge and globally important religion – over eleven million members, world-wide - it was begun by the charismatic Joseph Smith in upstate New York, in 1830. Smith was the ultimate salesman, by all accounts handsome, articulate and charming. When he announced that the angel Moroni had given him a set of golden plates written with a sacred text, and had provided him with “magic spectacles” with which to read the sacred text, amazingly, people believed him. And when Smith said that the angel had taken the golden plates and magic eyeglasses back, but he, Joseph Smith, would tell them what had been written there, people still believed him.

Part of the reason people believed Smith was because in the nascent Mormon faith, God would speak directly to anyone, – a freedom most religions of the time would not countenance. Neither was the God of the Mormons a punishing God: He wanted His people to be happy, healthy and productive. These tenets were attractive to folks and Smith drew converts like flies to honey.

Later, of course, Smith had a “revelation” that only specific Mormon prophets, like himself, would be speaking directly to God, thus cutting down on the hoi polloi’s input into how things should be run. Further “revelations” led Smith to incorporate “celestial” or “plural” marriage into Mormonism – that, or because Smith couldn’t keep it in his pants. When the Mormon Church, under serious pressure from the U.S. government, officially denounced polygamy in 1890, the schism between mainstream Mormons and the Fundamentalists began.

Krakauer has a knack for capturing and keeping his readers. Using his by-now familiar prose style - clear, descriptive, unflinching, touched with dry humor and with great compassion for his subject – he goes through the history of the LDS Church which will be largely unfamiliar to Gentiles (according to the LDS, all non-Mormons are referred to as “Gentiles,” even those of Jewish faith), and alternates the historical chapters with more modern chapters, including many candid interviews with both current and former Fundamentalist Mormons. As the book builds, Krakauer shows how the last 180 years have crafted the intensely faithful and violent FLDS: from the Mormons being brutally ostracized and driven across the country until they finally found refuge in the barrens of the Great Salt Lake, to the horrific murder of Gentile emigrants in the Meadow Mountains Massacre, to the seeming abundance of sexual abuse and pedophilia in plural marriage.

Any fundamentalist religious movement – Mormon, Muslim, evangelical Christian, Jewish – is frightening to mainstreamers. Fundamentalists read their sacred texts as literal and wish to return to their church’s earliest state. The Fundamentalist Mormons believe wholeheartedly in the Book of Mormon, no exceptions, and to Ron and Dan Lafferty - extremists even for fundamentalists – that included blood atonement, sanctioned by God, against people who didn’t follow the Work, specifically their pretty, young sister-in-law, who chafed against the plural marriages surrounding her, and their infant niece.

I have enjoyed Krakauer’s previous work and Under the Banner of Heaven didn’t let me down. As an avowed agnostic, this book was a true page-turner, fascinating, horrifying and amazing.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Stuck in the doldrums

Man, I tell you what. It's big-time doldrums around here. The weather is el sucko, as it is all up and down the East Coast, what with the rain and the clouds and the fog and the rain. We saw the sun three times in the month of June, I think, and not three full days either - one of those times it broke through the clouds for a couple of hours but was raining again by the afternoon. It's all anyone can talk about and we are all gloooooooomy.

Plus there's bupkes for good television on in the summertime (I am so sad I had to give up HBO!) and I haven't been to the movies in ages (I watched Walk Hard: the Dewey Cox Story last night with Mr. Mouse but the less said about that movie the better*). I'm reading two books right now, both of them pretty good, but have finished neither of them. I haven't even had any bacon lately!

All I've got for you is this link: Futuristic Movie Timeline. It's this great chart that this guy put together with classic sci-fi/future movies, graphing out in chronological order when the movies take place, along with when they were released. It's both interesting and pretty and if I ever sell this damn house and move out to Utah and buy a new house and get my own office, I want a poster-sized one for the wall. Go check it out! (And thanks to Kevin C. for the link!)

* I will grant you that the cast is very impressive. As is Jenna Fischer's cleavage.