Friday, October 30, 2009

Disco Utopia

Jack the Ripper at large in present day San Francisco? That's the premise behind the time travel movie Time After Time starring Malcolm McDowell and Mary Steenburgen. In 1880s London, writer H.G. Wells shows off his newly constructed time machine to several of his friends. They are somewhat skeptical that it will actually work, but when the police appear, one of the men jumps in the time machine and transports himself nearly 100 years into the future. Wells quickly realizes that his former friend, John Leslie Stephenson, must be Jack the Ripper, and that it is his responsibility to catch him.

Wells is somewhat excited about traveling into the future, because he is certain that people will have reached utopia due to continuing development and societal changes. When he arrives in 1979 San Francisco, he is, of course, astounded by all the new inventions that greet him. He is also saddened at the news reports of wars, shootings and violence. Naturally, he has no trouble tracking down the Ripper, and he confronts him in his hotel and attempts to force him to return to Victorian England. Luckily, there happens to be an H.G. Wells exhibit on at a local museum, which includes the time machine as one of the displays. Not surprisingly, the Ripper has no intention of going back. He escapes and continues his murderous deeds.

Wells is assisted in his search for the Ripper by an American bank clerk named Amy.
Unfortunately, the police are no help when he attempts to inform them that he knows the identity of the killer. This is likely due to the fact that when the police ask Wells for his name, he tells them it is Sherlock Holmes. There is some predictable action and some suspense as Wells and Amy close in on the Ripper. Since the film dates from 1979, the special effects are somewhat amusing and consist mostly of flashing lights and colorful swirls as the "time machine" lifts off.

The story is mostly enjoyable, except for the performance of Mary Steenburgen. I've seen her in many film and TV roles, and she's always done a wonderful job but something was clearly amiss here. She looks dozy and speaks in a strange, almost drugged manner. It's very annoying.

At the end of the movie there is a statement which points out that Wells was greatly ahead of his time. In his writings he anticipated many social and technological changes, including space travel and socialism. It's amusing that this film suggests that the reason he knew about those things was that he had visited the future and seen them firsthand!

Final Verdict for Time After Time: Two Gherkins, for being an interesting concept, but a rather dated look

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Yellowstone DVD winners!

Yay! I'm happy to have had so many wonderful comments on my Yellowstone: Battle for Life DVD giveaway. I used Random.org to choose the winners and they were:

Marcia

Erin Cook

degood

The winners have all been notified and the DVDs have been mailed out! Thanks again to everyone who participated and I hope to have more giveaways in the future!

On another note, I was saddened to hear today that Barbara Windsor will be leaving Eastenders next year. She's played the part of Peggy Mitchell since 1994 (although she wasn't the original actress cast in the part). It will be interesting to see how she goes out. Hopefully she will run off into the sunset with a young hunk -- and thus be available for some guest appearances in the future!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Not so much Sherlock Holmes as Dear Abby

After finishing the first Maisie Dobbs novel, I was excited to read the second one to continue following her exploits. In Birds of a Feather, Maisie continues her successful detective agency along with help from her assistant Billy Beale.

Maisie is called in by a powerful businessman, Joseph Waite, to discover why his daughter Charlotte is missing. He is a gruff, unpleasant man and doesn't really seem all that concerned about the fate of his daughter. He is more worried about appearances should the story get out.

At the same time, Maisie's police colleague Inspector Stratton is investigating several brutal murders. Maisie investigates the crime scenes and discovers a similar item was left at each: a single white feather. Maisie is then able to link the missing girl and the current murders with events that happened during World War I, when Maisie worked as a nurse. The police, of course, are not at all convinced by Maisie's theory, but she arrives at the truth at last.

Unfortunately, the story doesn't end there. Maisie, apparently buoyed by her success in the case, takes it upon herself to go all preachy, and bestow a great deal of unwanted advice on people who would not realistically take it from her. While the story was a decent enough mystery, the sudden emergence of Maisie as someone who knows how to settle problems for everyone (whether they wanted her advice or not) was a bit unnecessary. Save the preaching for a more appropriate character, Ms. Winspear!

Final Verdict for Birds of a Feather: Two Gherkins, for being a mostly enjoyable visit with an interesting character

Monday, October 26, 2009

An unexpected fortune

Imagine my shock, no -- my jaw-dropping horror-- at the title screen of the program At Home with the Braithwaites (or should that be "Braithwaite's"). According to the title screen, it should be the latter. Horrors! Apparently the convention of just sticking an apostrophe in now and again, no matter whether it is actually needed, is not just an American invention. Or maybe it's some of that American culture that we're so fond of exporting. Whatever the explanation, I was pleased to see that the next 5 episodes had lost the offending apostrophe, and we could get on with concentrating on the events in the series.

And the events are really worth concentrating on. Allison (played by Amanda Redman -- she of the improbable blue eyes) is a kindly mother of three who spends her spare time volunteering at the nursing home. Her husband, David (the usually adorable Peter Davison), is self-important, pompous and having an affair with his divorced secretary. Their three girls all have problems to varying degrees. Virginia, the eldest, is a self-proclaimed lesbian who has just flunked out of university. Second daughter Sarah has written an obscene poem to a supposedly gay teacher, and is being pushed toward counseling. Instead, she drops out of school to work at a convenience store. Youngest child Charlotte is, well, somewhat odd -- always sneaking around, spying, eavesdropping and generally being a creepy nuisance (although for all her spying, she doesn't seem to uncover many of the family's secrets).

Into the midst of all this, Allison wins £38 million on a lottery ticket daughter Charlotte gave her for her birthday. While her family screams and fusses around her, she decides not to tell anyone close to her that she's won. Instead, she hires one of her friends from the nursing home and a sympathetic accountant and starts a charitable organization. Her goal is to invest the winnings, hire staff to help out on specialized tasks, and use the interest the money generates to fund worthy projects.

There are many complications along the way. The local press know that someone in the area has won the big jackpot, and they are closing in on Allison. After her daughter Virginia suffers a crisis, Allison confides her secret and Virginia launches herself on a spending spree. She gets Virginia a "job" at her corporation, but Virginia is more interested in shopping and speeding around in her new Lotus.

In the meantime, middle daughter Sarah leaves home with the unambitious boy-next-door and sets up housekeeping with him in a run-down flat. Her father tries to get her to come back home, but Sarah knows about his secret dalliances with the secretary.

Eventually, all the secrets come boiling out at the same time (and, in true Eastenders fashion, mostly in public). The first series ends with Allison's family now aware of her win, but there are still plenty of questions up in the air -- will her marriage stay intact? Will Sarah remain at home or go back to the boyfriend? Will Virginia put her mechanical skills to work, or continue to be a waster? Will Charlotte's snooping ever uncover anything juicy?

All those questions and presumably more are eventually answered, since this series ran for 4 seasons. Sadly, Netflix only has the first one so far. I'll have to hope Santa makes a stopover by the UK before he delivers my Christmas gifts this year!

Final Verdict for At Home with the Braithwaites: Four Gherkins, for being an intriguing story with plenty of drama and comedy

Friday, October 16, 2009

The beauty and hardship of Yellowstone (and a giveaway!)


The BBC has a worldwide reputation for its high-quality and well-made programs, and now there is a new offering to add to the list. Yellowstone: Battle for Life follows the animals who live in Yellowstone over the course of three seasons. The impact of Winter, Summer and Autumn on the lives of the animals are shown in 3 separate episodes, each lasting 50 minutes. As well as documenting the struggle for survival among species such as bison and elk, the abundance and natural beauty of the landscape are also on display.

Here are two video clips that give a taste of the program:



Elk with some serious horn issues:


The majestic bison:



Thanks to Bridget Murphy Groller from Warner Bros., I have 3 copies of Yellowstone: Battle for Life to give away! To enter, please leave a comment stating whether you have been to Yellowstone. If not, let me know your favorite place to observe nature! The winners will be chosen on Monday, Oct. 26 by random.org. I'll notify the winners by email, who will have 3 days to get back to me before a new winner is drawn. Please be sure your email address is in the comment or on your profile so I can contact you. I'd hate for you to lose out on winning one of these wonderful DVDs!

Good luck!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

OK, so I have a thing for Steve Buscemi

As someone who never met a self-help book she didn't like, I was expecting great things from Helping Me Help Myself by Beth Lisick. Over the course of a year, Lisick reads a book by one self-help guru per month and tries to follow that plan. She is hoping that after a year, she will suddenly have a clean house, a clear direction in life and a magically obedient child. Things don't turn out as planned, though . . .

It was somewhat refreshing to read about someone who needs the self-help more than I do, but it did get tiring after a while. Lisick and her husband live in an apparently not-very-good neighborhood in San Francisco, in a disorganized, disintegrating house. They both apparently decided to give up the security of full-time jobs to "live their dreams" -- in his case, operating a recording studio, in hers, freelance writing (neither of which is very successful in monetary terms). They also have an out of control 4 year old son who refuses to comply with any orders/requests/suggestions that his parents might issue. It doesn't take long for the reader to agree that, yes, this is a woman who needs the help of some help.

For someone with chronic money troubles, Lisick is able to get funds to attend several functions featuring the self-help biggies -- Steven Covey in Chicago, a Richard Simmons "Cruise to Lose," a retreat in San Diego at the "Chopra Center," etc. The problem is that although she can summarize what each person is trying to teach her, she approaches nearly every new book with a sense of skepticism and snarkiness that shows she really has no intention of following through. In other words, most of the efforts are a waste of time.

She felt that Richard Simmons was truly warm, approachable and somewhat mesmerizing, but was less than impressed with the rest of the celebrities. Naturally, during the weight loss cruise, she "didn't really need to lose any weight" but luckily, she had an overweight friend who went on the cruise with her (and slept-in during most of the morning workout sessions). She also seemed to half-heartedly follow through with the organizational suggestions offered by Julie Morgenstern's coach -- buying a few totes and clearing out some broken junk out of drawers and closets. In the end, even that attempt was not really successful. Lisick has the unfortunate solution to junk of "I'll just put it down in the basement," so rather than dealing with problems, she just moves them to another area of the house.

It was interesting to learn, however, that Sylvia Browne says the world only has 95 years left before it self-destructs. Maybe Lisick feels it just won't be worth the effort to straighten out her life if the world is winding down. Still, her overviews of the programs discussed are interesting and the fact that she is a fellow Steve Buscemi fan is also a point in her favor!

Final Verdict for Helping Me Help Myself: Two Gherkins for some interesting overviews of popular self-help books, but a general lack of effort on the part of the author to implement them in her own life

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Fountains of blood and more!

Life in the time of King Henry VIII is as unstable as always, but lawyer Matthew Shardlake is jarred out of his comfortable routine working at the Inns of Court by the murder of his friend Roger Elliard. It turns out to be only one in a series of murders committed in the latest Shardlake mystery Revelation by C.J. Sansom. Shardlake and his assistant Jack Barak are further disturbed when they discover that the killer is apparently enacting punishments from the Book of Revelation for his victims. They discover what is happening, how many murders are left, and the probable fate that awaits the victims, but they don't know who the killer is or where he will strike next. Because one of the early victims of the killer had a connection to Lady Catherine Parr, the latest woman to catch King Henry's eye, powerful men induce Shardlake to investigate the killings, but to keep the matter private.

At the same time, Shardlake has been asked to represent a teen aged boy who is being held in Bedlam with religious mania. While trying to track down a deranged killer, Shardlake must make frequent trips to the asylum to monitor the condition and progress of his charge.

The events in Revelation take place around 18 months after the last book in the series, Sovereign, ended and our old friends from the earlier books again play a large part in the story. Barak and Tamasin are now married but are becoming increasingly estranged after a personal tragedy. Guy, now practicing as a doctor, also has some unpleasant experiences with a young apprentice.

I enjoyed this return to the Tudor days of England. As always, there were plenty of details about life at that time, which helped to bring the story to life. There were also many threads which were left dangling for possible future adventures for Shardlake and Barak, so I'm anxiously awaiting the next installment! So far, my favorite book in the series has been Dark Fire, where the two heroes were constantly in perilous situations. The other books have been exciting also, but not as suspenseful.

Final Verdict for Revelation: Four Gherkins, for being an evocative look at a fascinating time in history

Monday, October 5, 2009

My observation would be quiet and not intrusive

One of my favorite books (even though it's not by a British writer) is A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. The evocative New Orleans setting on Constantinople Street, the hilarious turns of phrase, and the larger-than-life character of Ignatius J. Reilly all come together in a comic masterpiece. I knew that the author had committed suicide at a young age, but I really didn't know much else about him. I was excited to see that several biographies have been published recently, including Ignatius Rising by Rene Pol Nevils & Deborah George Hardy.

John Kennedy Toole was the only child of Thelma and John Toole, born to the couple late in life. Ken, as he was known, quickly became the center of his obsessive mother's life. She was something of an odd character, known in the neighborhood for giving "elocution" lessons and singing and playing the piano for any visitors who might stop by. Mr. Toole, a car salesman, was totally dominated and overshadowed by his overbearing wife. Many people are quoted in the book as saying they had always thought Mrs. Toole was a widow when Ken was growing up. In fact, both parents outlived him.

Ken showed early brilliance (which is mother was eager to tell everyone about) and eventually earned several degrees. His adult life alternated with teaching positions while also working on a Ph.D. at Columbia. While in New York, he enjoyed big-city living, while at the same time feeling an unbearable pull back to New Orleans. His parents were elderly, his father showing signs of dementia, and he was their only means of support. Eventually, he decided to return south and possibly finish his degree there.

Unfortunately, he was unable to accomplish much of anything while living at home with his parents. His mother wanted Ken as a drinking buddy, and refused to allow him private time to write or study. He was rescued from this existence by being drafted. While in the army, he was stationed in Puerto Rico. He seems to have excelled at army life, at least in the beginning. Ken was fluent in Spanish, and was put in charge of a group of college graduates who were teaching the Puerto Rican recruits English. However, there really wasn't much work to do, so it was here, the authors believe, that Ken began writing what would eventually become A Confederacy of Dunces.

Although he dated some women during his high school and college days, the authors believe Ken was homosexual. There were flamboyant homosexuals in the same barracks as Ken, but he was very prudish and tended to remain aloof from them. His personal conflicts ended up costing him much good will, as he delayed in getting help for one of the homosexual soldiers who attempted suicide. After that incident, (although it was not reported in official channels) both Ken and the army lost enthusiasm for each other.

Back home in New Orleans after his army service, Ken started teaching at a private girl's college while living at home with his parents. It was at this time that he sent his manuscript out to Simon & Schuster, with the hopes of getting it published. Simon & Schuster was described as a "small, family-owned publishing house" in 1964. The novel came to the attention of senior editor Robert Gottlieb. There are many letters between Ken and Gottlieb that are included in the book. Gottlieb dithered for over two years over publishing the book. He kept giving vague rejections, such as the fact that the book didn't have "a real point" (this from someone who holds Thomas Pynchon up as a great novelist!) and that he liked the book, but didn't know how to fix it. Ken was alternately encouraged and deflated. Finally, after two years with no progress, Ken asked for the manuscript to be returned. He then placed it on top of his wardrobe, where it remained, more or less, for the rest of his life.

After his bitter disappointment at not getting the book published, Ken began to exhibit signs of mental illness. Whether it was all due to his lack of literary success is debatable, but he eventually withdrew money from his bank account and disappeared. Where he was during the last two months of his life has not been discovered. He was found in his car on March 26, 1969 having committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning. He was 32 years old.

His mother, for whom Ken had been the focus of her life, was completely broken by his death. She did not let his death diminish her view that he was one of the most brilliant, talented people who ever lived, however. When she heard that the author Walker Percy would be teaching a class in New Orleans, she showed up at his office with the manuscript and demanded he read it. Thus began the long and tenuous process of getting the book published. Without the single-mindedness and determination of Thelma, A Confederacy of Dunces would never have been published. At the same time, her abrasive personality and martyr complex offended and repelled everyone she dealt with. Even after the book was published (and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize), legal wranglings helped Thelma alienate even more people.

Although I knew a biography of someone who ultimately committed suicide wouldn't be a laugh riot, I was distressed to read just how dysfunctional John Kennedy Toole's life really was. Growing up with an overbearing mother he was unable to ever detach from, conflicted about his sexuality, and unsuccessful as a writer, Ken comes across as a sad and lonely character. Which makes his creation of Ignatius and his world all the more of an amazing achievement.

Final Verdict for Ignatius Rising: Four Gherkins, for providing a fascinating look into the mind of a troubled genius