Saturday, June 25, 2011


The Flick: Buck

The Peeps: Buck Brannaman, Robert Redford, et al.

The Dealio: This is the non-fictional account of the true horse whisperer. He who provided the background, the body double and the heart and soul of the inspiration for the book and the movie of the same name. Buck, as one half of a team (his older bro was the other half) performs a trick rope handling act that propels the duo to the forefront of country and western entertainment. But there is a darker side to the teamwork, the professional performance and the abilities: while the boys are still very young, they are being abused by their father, 'a man with a vicious temper'. This was a man who brooked no less-than-perfect outcomes, and beat his children until they were nearly unconscious to make a point. As a result, Buck (real name, Dan) seeks mentorship from a series of patient, slow-talking and slow-acting empathetic men. By the time he was removed from the situation which has caused so much damage to his young self, Dan/Buck has already established himself as a talented and capable performer. But he feels that something is lacking in his life. Then, he is placed with a family which, eventually winds up fostering or adopting over two dozen young men. This family becomes Brannaman's inspiration, motivation and refuge. And he begins to learn something very important. About kids and about horses: respect is all.

The Grading Session: 4.87 pengies out of 5. This is a very fine- if not perfect- little indie. Anyone who loves horses, or kids, or touching tributes to the unvanquished spirit of the Wild West- this is the flick for you. Although the music only really melds with the film after the credits begin to run, there is much to admire and to become choked up about (which). And, always, there is the spectre of possible failure floating above the entire enterprise. Touching, but bittersweet.

Lessons Learned: A kind, but firm, word and consistent treatment will rule the day. Also this: sadly, not everyone is redeemable. Lastly this: 'you have a choice to make: you can do what was done to you. Or, you can make a change. But, you do have a choice.' Yep: true dat.

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Lock Artist

The Book: The Lock Artist

The Writer: Steve Hamilton

The Dealio: Michael would like to tell you his story. No. Really. He would like to tell you his story, but he can't. He hasn't spoken since, as an 8 yr old, he experienced something so traumatic, it rendered him, literally, speechless. So, Mike, now 18 years old, and behind bars, is going to write his story and allow you to arrive at your own conclusions about him. Oh, and why is 'our hero' behind bars? Well, it's an interesting story, told-written- by leap-frogging between the past and the present. We learn that 'Miracle Boy' Michael has grown up to become a 'box man': a safe-cracker extraordinaire. And along the way, we bump into characters whose names read like a blend of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and something out of Dashiel Hammett ('Sleepy Eyes', 'The Ghost', 'Fishing Hat' and 'Shark Eyes' to name a few). As Michael slowly begins to unspool the events- and the people- who diverted him into his current residence, a creeping sense of dread and emergency begins to stir, then stalk. We sort of know how this will end, because of the way it began: Michael, in jail, mute and pining for the one who got away.

The Grading Session: 4.81 pengies out of 5. This was an engaging and involving story, and several times, I found myself turning it off (yep, another audio book. What can I say? Have audio book, will travel), in favor of Jack Johnston or Elliott Smith, my anxiety over Mike's sitch so snagged my empathies. Also, the uniqueness of the story- we become privy to the man's- and boy's- thoughts, as if we were inside his brain. Everyone else in the tale has to guess and hope for the best. At times, so much detail about the science of cracking a safe was tedious- hence the yanking of a few percents of points. But, overall, this is an ambitious and compelling story, well executed.

Lessons Learned: I would make a lousy lock artist; apparently, one has to have some math skills as well as a near photographic memory. Alas, I am apparently unburdened by either. Next (everyone, all together now): if the deal looks too good to be the other way. Fast. No, faster! Finally this: a safe is NOT just like a woman. I don't care what 'The Ghost' says.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

In The Garden Of Beasts

The Book: In The Garden of Beasts

The Author: Erik Larson

The Dealio: As is his custom, Larson takes a non-fictional subject and casts a light on it. A light which seems to say, 'Listen, folks. I could not make this stuff up!' This time, his stompin' ground is Berlin in 1933. There is a new sheriff (actually, ambassador) in town, and his name is William Dodd. William is an odd fit: not part of the Harvard-bred 'Pretty Good Club', he was not even Roosevelt's third or fourth pick for the job. A scholar, writer and lecturer, Dodd was a man who valued the economies of life and struck a sombre chord with the decadent and indulgent social elite of '30's Germany. Along with his (mostly silent, at least in this telling) wife Marty, carefree, spoiled and scandalously unfettered daughter, Martha, and son, Bill, they hit Germany at about the same time as Hitler's rise to power. The entire family seemed, at first, to look upon Hitler's rise as a great step forward for Germany: all that building, all those fresh-scrubbed youth, healthy and jolly and so well-organised! But, a more ominous picture begins to emerge, as incidents of attacks on Americans and Germans alike are reported- for infractions ranging from failure to tender the Hitler salute, to being snatched up, off the street for 'protective custody'. Martha, alone, soars above the common fray, disinclined to see any threats from the Nazis, even sashaying around the German countryside with the first head of the Gestapo. But her father soon begins a series of frantic calls-to-action by his fellow ambassadors to Germany, and the State Dept back home. Naturally, everyone of weight seems to resent his Cassandra cries, and ignores him, redirecting his attention back towards the more important matters- such as obtaining payback for the various loans extended to Germany after WWI. Then, Dodd's predictions begin to turn into actual threats, serious enough that they will drag the US- and most of the rest of the world- into war. Again.

The Grading Session: 4.41 pengies out of 5. I was absolutely crazy for Larson's previous books, which I devoured at the speed of sound. I was so excited to get this latest, but wound up...disappointed. Harumph. I felt very little empathy for the major players in the story, true. But the greater sin, for me, was that the material was very repetitious, and could have used a great red pencil wielded by someone with a sense for streamlining. I also did not care for the long, drawn-out post-script. It was obvious to me that the State Dept career elite were anti-Dodd from the git-go, so why the need to harp on their reactions to his economies and persistent cries for action? Got it after the first 10 mentions. If the idea was for me to share in Dodd's frustration...mission accomplished. But, as I (often) say: an okay book by a really good writer is still worth the investment of time. Your mileage may differ.

Lessons Learned: First: you can't hit it out of the park every time at bat. Next: there are always those who are blind in the face of incontestable evidence. And, finally, this: Jeffrey Deaver (yay!) wrote a fictional book- Garden of Beasts, in 2004, which features an American 'button man' sent to Germany in the '30's to neutralise (or, at the very least, minimise) the Nazi threat. And I have ordered it. So, we can do the taste test right here...maybe.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Midnight In Paris

The Flick: Midnight In Paris

The Peeps: Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Mimi Kennedy, Michael Sheen, Kathy Bates, Adrien Brody, Marion Cottillard, etc.

The Dealio: A family plus their daughter's fiancee pop over to Paris for a mix of biz and vacay. Wilson plays the Woody-Allenesque Gil, a seriously blocked writer, and tag along fiance, who is madly, passionately in love...with Paree. McAdam's Inez, the other half of this couple, is not so sure. But she admits to being thrilled to encounter ex-love interest and current obnoxious authority on, well, everything (Just ask him. He would be happy to set you straight). After a series of painful and annoying tours, narrated by Sheen's know-it-all Paul, Gil decides to take a breather, and wander through the streets, savoring the ambiance of long-gone eras. That's when the idea of seeing Paris through very different eyes takes shape. Just at midnight, Gil is approached by a luxe, vintage car and encouraged by the occupants to hop aboard. What follows next is an unpredictably personal encounter with luminaries of Paris in the Roaring '20's, a time when Gil feels Paris was the center of the creative universe. Imagine being able to pass your manuscript to Gertrude Stein, or Papa Hemingway for critiquing. Then, imagine trying to explain yourself to your present-day fiancee, a hard-headed- and hard-hearted- thoroughly modern woman of the 21st century. (Pause here to picture Allen fumbling through a series of misadventures and explaining them to a jaundiced, disbelieving Keaton).

The Grading Session: 4.88 pengies out of 5. This is a lovely return to Allen's comedic storytelling, updated with newer box-office candy in the form of Wilson, McAdams and their band of co-conspirators. This is a precise, and yet, intensely poetic homage to a city, to creativity and to inspiration, wherever it is to be found. Welcome back, Woody.

Lessons Learned: Everyone has a dream of the ideal setting in which to make the most of themselves and their dreams. And everyone else is absolutely sure that they alone have captured the identity of that perfect time and place. And absolutely sure that you are terribly, wretchedly mistaken. What is your perfect time and place?

Friday, June 10, 2011

Super 8

The Flick: Super 8

The Actors: Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Riley Griffiths, Kyle Chandler, Ron Eldard, Noah Emmerich, etc.

The Dealio: It is the '80's in microscopic Lillian, Ohio. Joe Lamb- and his deputy-father- are still stunned and stunted by the sudden death of Joe's mom in a mill accident. Joe's dad wants to send him to baseball camp. But Joe prefers to stay put, seeking distraction and comfort from the clutch of misfits whose major topic of conversation- and main focus during every hour of every day- is the completion of the zombie movie Charles- a self assured young man with an eye for the 'mint shot'- is constantly struggling to get onto film. If only they had a story.
One night, the usual suspects are joined by the latest addition to the script- 'the PI's wife' (Fanning in an incredibly moving performance). As they secretly film at the local rail station, the group watch, shocked, a horrendous crash, an explosion and a...what? Just before they scatter, the band is warned by another witness- this one, an adult- that 'if they find out you know, they will kill you and your families.' Naturally, the teens immediately agree to keep 'it' a secret. Easier said than done. Especially when weird things start happening: all the dogs in town disappear. Then people, too...then things like microwaves and washing machines, and...well, before the budding film-makers know it, they have got themselves some sort of really great, action-packed story. And a trunk-load of trouble.

The Grading Session: 4.85 pengies out of 5. I really liked this one, as you can tell. I admit that part of the enjoyment was in reliving the days when my own sons were running the area, scouting locales and recruiting neighbors to star in their very, very early indie films. That part truly touched this mom's heart. In addition, there was some pretty corny music that we uncool adultoids still find somehow endearing. Adults and juvies alike were all well-developed, multi-dimensional portrayals. Why not give it 5 pengies? Well, in the last 20 minutes, I started to feel a sense of 'Come on, wrap it up...but make it heartfelt and like that.' The conclusion was both over-hasty and over- simplistic, almost as child-like as the film-makers' assumption that they were making grand art. It just didn't quite fit in with everything that had come before. But I quibble.

Lessons Learned: I do not trust Noah Emmerich any time he has shown up on screen since Frequency. He has lost some ground with me and will have to earn that back. Also this: when did the ultimate in scariness (Starship Troopers, Alien, Predator) suddenly become...bug-like creatures? I think peeps who look and act just like us, but...(da-da-da-DUUUUUUUHHHH) some how aren't, are far scarier. Lastly this: if you are in the practise of leaving the theatre as soon as the show is over, you are gonna miss a lot of really cool stuff, my friend. So- a word to the wise? Just don't do that. Sit. Relax. Enjoy.

X-Men: First Class

The Flick: X-Men: First Class

The Actors: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbinder, Kevin Bacon, Jennifer Lawrence, Rose Byrne, Oliver Platt, Zoe Kravitz, Nicholas Hoult, January Jones, etc.

The Dealio: Although it would probably give the entire creative crew the peadoodles for me to say this, that's a risk I am willing to take: this is an origins movie. By and large, it does a really grand job of giving the run-up stories of all the major players in the X-Men series. Charles Xavier starts a school for those- like himself- who are 'differently gifted'. In other words, mutants or those who have extremely highly developed talents, like reading minds, flying, using mind-power to move/control things, or- my personal favorite- the ability to spit napalm lougies. The non-mutant others- the world over, it seems- are both intrigued and frightened by the mutants and are undecided about whether to harness their talents for the good of all mankind...or hunt them out of existence. Of course, you just gotta know there is also a cadre of bad hats who would love nothing more than to convert the mutants into a personal evil delivery system. Therein lies the tale.

The Grading Session: 4.38 pengies out of 5. A couple of notes: definite style points for the inclusion of both Wolverine (funny, dude!), and Rebecca Romijn (in a fast-forward to the future, adult Mystique) in this movie. But then I have to deduct a few style points for the fact that Lawrence looked very Muppets-meet-Smurfs- and obviously wearing whatever the high tech version of long johns is-during her transformation into young Mystique. I also did not buy the instant friendship and deep devotion between Erik and Xavier. It seemed to speak to either great gullibility on the part of Xavier or short-cutting their friendship's development on the screen.

Lessons Learned: Oh, so many. Where to begin? Well, first of all, my data base for Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon has just exploded. Almost makes the game far too cinchy. Also- on a related topic, if any character played by Bacon offers you chocolate, in any! Next: January Jones has finally found her acting niche: lobotmised 60's Stepford wives, fembots and emote-free mutants. These are her peeps. Lastly, this: the bad mutant-team always gets the mutants with the best powers (please see napalm-loughie-spit, vaporising the enemy and rapid transit...without the need for a vehicle). Having feet like hands just is not a match for all of the other fire-power.

Saturday, June 4, 2011


The Book: Firewall

The Author: Henning Mankell

The Dealio: First, a loner with a knack (might as well say 'obsession') for details drops over, dead, in front of an ATM. Next, a cab driver is violently and inexplicably attacked by two teenage girls. Kurt Wallander (our leading man, and the focus of a series on PBS starring Kenneth Branaugh as K. W.), a middle aged, diabetic, disgruntled and dogged homicide investigator is presented with a tough task: getting others, especially those in positions of authority to stop focusing on him and start seeing connections between the two cases. When a third murder scoots the connection to the front of the line, you might think Wallander would be allowed at least a second to bask in the glow of 'I told you so.' Nope. Instead, he finds himself the subject of the most inflammatory sort of scrutiny by journalists and being undercut by coworkers. Add in his overwhelming loneliness, his painfully inept attempts to re-establish connections with his adult daughter, and his strictly old school style of policing, (no computers, thank you very much), and the result is the crusty sort of curmudgeon you really, really want to succeed. The action is extremely fast-paced, especially in the first three-quarters of the story. The characters are believable and distinct. And, since Wallander shows up in quite a few novels, I look forward to exploring them, as well.
However, I must comment on the reader of this audio book: Dick Hill's narration has never been one of my faves. He also reads the Reacher series audios, and my complaints about his renderings of both are identical: his usual voice- which he reserves for the lead character- is fine. All others, male or female, adult or child, are pretty standard and indistinguishable, if a bit nasally. Which is a debit.

The Grading Session: 4.56 pengies out of 5. Points off for so many loose ends. One or two would be acceptable. There were far too many- and I can only hope that, as sometimes happens with cop/detective/mystery novel, these might be address in future Wallander outings. I reckon I was looking for something to fill the void in my life left when I finished the Millennium Trilogy. Naturally, there is no Lisbeth Salander to be found here. Not even a reasonable facsimile. And Wallander is no Blomqvist. But there is something immediately engaging about this prickly bear of a man who is trying to mend his loner ways and get to the bottom of the violence that swirls around his small Swedish town. So far, so good. I have a second story queued up and waiting.

Lessons Learned: Sometimes people are just cruel and violent, no matter their age. And there is no real reason why. It just happens. Unfortunately. Now, here's one for the ages: if you can't figure out why someone is suddenly enthralled by you, and the situation seems too good to be's time to start looking for cracks in that very fine veneer. And they will be there. Oh, yes. They will most assuredly be there.


The Book: Bossypants

The Author: Tina Fey

The Dealio: As related by Tina Fey, Bossypants is a zigzag of a road trip through her life. To date. There are tantalising behind-the-scenes glimpses at everything from how she interviewed with Lorne Michaels to become a writer on Saturday Night Live (don't finish his sentences), decoding that mysterious lip-treatment Sarah Palin uses (lipliner and chapstick) and the Secrets to how 30 Rock turned up on our TVs and wound up with numerous Emmys (there are two: She wrote about her own experiences, then exaggerated them, but not by much. And, of course, Alec Baldwin). But wait! There's more!
Fey is a snarky, self-deprecating, quick thinking- and talking- person who was meant to read her own stories. She shares a considerable number of characteristics with most of us: she over-thinks her decisions, and then mentally scolds herself for the choice she eventually makes.So she's got that going for her. She doesn't quite see herself the way others do. And, more personally, she does read blogs and reacts to what people say about her in them. She never narcs on any 'Dee Bees' by name. Darn it. And she is generous to a fault with anyone who has given her an opportunity, (Lorne Michaels), a moment of their time (Oprah Winfrey), or a show of support (Alec Baldwin). She loves her family, while being aware of their shortcomings- as well as her own. I do so like that in a person, a celebrity and a writer. She says the kinds of things I wish I had said at the time...and so does she. Whatever the topic, she not only has an opinion, but can actually stop traffic with it. That's a powerful force, there! And it is a silly delight to bask in it.

The Grading Session: 4.89 pengies out of 5. No points off for soundtrack. I especially enjoyed the inclusion of a couple of the election run-up pieces straight from SNL. As Fey herself would say, 'Check your PDF. '

Lessons Learned: Everyone faces the future filled with self-doubts...unless they are fairly clueless about the possibility of life after high school and think that high school existence is neverending. Also this: She would make a great dinner or party guest (and Alec Baldwin, too).