Friday, March 29, 2013

And the Oscar goes to Argo

I have not seen all of the 2012 nominees for the Academy Award in the Best Picture category.  Eventually I would like to see all of the rest, except Amour.  As the caregiver for an elderly parent that film isn't something I can deal with at the moment.

Be that as it may, I wanted to post a review of the Oscar-winning Argo.  A lot of people in the industry expressed their surprise when this film won many major awards during this past award season.  Let's face it, Argo was up against some excellent films, directed and produced by Hollywood's elite.  I don't remember another recent year with such a number of superb films, each so worthy of recognition.

Argo is a story based on actual events.  Militant students in Iran stormed the US Embassy in Tehran and took the staff hostage.  They wanted their ousted former ruler, the Shah, returned for trial and summary execution from his safe haven in New York.  In actuality, he was dying of cancer.  Our government would not return our former ally on humanitarian grounds, given his condition.  Also, we have never negotiated with terrorists.  Thus, the embassy staff were hostages for 444 days.

As a sapient life form in those times, I remember them well.  Nightly we were treated to screaming demonstrations on the evening news with American flags burned by the militant students in Tehran.  Once or twice a week, they would parade blindfolded hostages before the camera and state they would be tried for espionage and executed.  It was a horrific time, we felt so helpless.  They had our people and we could do nothing except pray and adorn every home and streetlight with yellow ribbons after a popular song of the day.

When we sent in special forces to rescue them, the mission was an embarrassing failure, resulting in the death of some of the rescuers.  The whole affair made Jimmy Carter a one term president.  The Iranians did not release the hostages until Ronald Reagan took the oath of office.

Enough with the history lesson - unknown to the general public, some six employees of the US Embassy managed to escape before the entire compound was overrun.  After going to the British and New Zealand representatives where they were rejected, they found sanctuary at the Canadian Embassy.  And there they stayed hidden, never venturing outside.

Our government knew where the fugitives were hidden.  The CIA worked on possible means to help them escape.  Had they been caught, they would have been executed on the spot by the hotheaded gangs of roaming students.

Argo is the story of the plan chosen to get the six to safety out of Iran.  There were some ridiculous plans discussed - have the six pretend to be teachers for Iranian kids, or crop inspectors - though it was the middle of winter and the snow-covered ground was bereft of vegetation.  All foreign teachers had already left the country.  Then there was my favorite - have the six bicycle the 500 miles through mountainous terrain to escape the country.  Who did the CIA think these people were?  International professional cyclists?  And didn't the agency realize six foreigners with North American accents would not be able to blend in with the populace?  And what about trying to escape a modern country on bicycles anyway?  They couldn't peddle fast enough.  Not even Lance Armstrong in his heyday could outrun motorized vehicles, well not for long, anyway.

In the end, the Argo scenario was chosen.  With the assistance of a CIA operative (Ben Affleck) the six would pretend to be a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a science-fiction film to be called Argo.  With the help of an Oscar winning make-up artist, played by John Goodman, and a famous producer, played by Alan Arkin, the CIA created Hollywood buzz about the upcoming film.

There were articles in the trade papers about the film.  A reading of the script was held for reporters using costumed professional actors to generate interest in the film.  It was the era of the original Star Wars movie.  Every studio wanted a sci-fi hit.  My favorite things they did to further the illusion were to create posters for the film and story boards illustrating the action scenes.  That was a touch of genius that helped them in the end.

Argo has many tense moments and a few genuinely funny ones.  The humor is mostly provided by John Goodman and Alan Arkin, both excellent in their roles.  The makeup artist and the producer knew from the beginning that the picture would never be made.  But they also knew what elements needed to be there to make the film seem real.  As Arkin's character said, some of the Iranians had relatives in the US who would know if the film seemed like a real project.  He also had a great line to the effect that if his name was going to be on a fake picture, it was going to be a fake hit!

SPOILER ALERT! - In the end, the mission was successful, but they barely got out in time.  The revolutionary guard was literally driving on the runway trying to stop the departing plane.

When they were safely home, the Canadian ambassador and his government were given the credit for the operation.  After all, it was imperative for the health and safety of the remaining hostages that the US have no apparent involvement.  Otherwise the hostages still in custody would be in danger of retaliation.

The Argo operation as a CIA led mission was only revealed years later when President Clinton finally released the information.  The operative that Affleck played was awarded the highest medal that the American intelligence agencies can bestow.  However, it was done in secret and he could not keep it.  When the information was released finally to the public, he got his medal back for good.  He has been named one of the top 50 most important covert operatives in the history of our nation.

I've read other reviews of Argo that state the reason this picture took the Best Picture Oscar is that it represents Hollywood doing an exceptional deed.  I can understand that point of view.  But I also know Argo is an entertaining picture about a heretofore unknown incident in a painful time for the United States.

The cast and script are excellent.  The film truly captures the tense fear of that time.  For someone who lived through that time, some of the scenes are hard to take.

I recommend Argo as a great movie that depicts a positive incident during a dark time. 

Check it out!

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

"Lincoln" directed by Steven Spielberg

On to the next best picture nominee for 2012 - Lincoln.  Taken in part from a recent book by legendary historian, Doris Kearns Goodwin, in some sense this is a scholarly film.  It focuses on the last months of the war and a little portrayed incident in the life of our 16th president - the fight to pass the Emancipation Amendment to be adopted into the Constitution.  Thankfully, it spares the audience the trauma of witnessing the assassination, for which I was grateful.

Spielberg has long shown us that he is a master at making movies.  We are reminded again by the quality of this film.

As the Democrats and Republicans (yes, they were both involved back then, too) bicker and fight over whether to free the slaves, we are shown a side of Lincoln that isn't often discussed.  He was a politician and a good one.

The film is impressive in the quality of the sets, the costumes, the location shoots particularly the battle scenes, and the superb cast in even the most minor roles.

But the unquestioned star of this production is Daniel Day-Lewis.  He IS Lincoln, portraying a gangly, country-bred man with enough native intelligence to learn the law by reading law books under the tutelage of a small town lawyer.

His Lincoln is a fully realized human being, worn down by five years of war, and the death of two of his sons.  His marriage is not happy, his domestic life has been cast aside by the responsibilities he carries for the nation.  He rarely sleeps much and is worn down by the heavy burden of a war-time president.  Yet, he frequently tells stories, anecdotes to relieve the tension of the situation and make his point.  David Strathairn as dour Secretary of State Seward, at one point rushes out of the room proclaiming "I can't take another of his stories!"

If you've read any biographies of Lincoln, you will recognize Day-Lewis' portrayal.  His cultured English voice becomes a graveled tone with unmistakable overtones of Lincoln's rural roots.

Also exceptional in the cast are Sally Fields as Mary Todd Lincoln, David Strathairn - mentioned previously, and Tommy Lee Jones in an Academy Award nominated performance as an abolitionist supporting the amendment to abolish slavery in the United States for all time.  You will recognize other actors in the cast, although it make take you a while under all the facial hair typical of the time. I saw Tim Blake Nelson whom I loved in "O' Brother, Were Art Thou" especially his rendition of "He's in the jailhouse now."  He plays a member of the House of Representatives who supports the amendment.  Look for other familiar faces, you'll be surprised at the depth of the cast.

The mark of a good director is the finished product - the play or the film.  Lincoln was directed by one of our best directors in the film industry.  It is a seamless production, worthy of a viewing.

As with the previously reviewed film, "Les Miz", "Lincoln" shows a realistic version of life in the time portrayed in the film. It also shows us an exceptional man born to greatness who changed our nation forever and saved our country in one of its darkest hours.

Bravo, Mr. Spielberg and everyone who worked on the picture.

You will laugh and you might cry.  I hope you are as impressed with the film as I was.  Daniel Day-Lewis is a superb actor.  This performance is one of his best.

Until next time, take care and enjoy our wonderful pop culture.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Les Miserables

Well, anybody who knows me probably knows what my reaction to the film version of "Les Miserables" would be.  I wept buckets, literally cried off my mascara, and genuinely LOVED it.

Ahem, I do have history with this "musical".  I've seen it performed on stage twice.  After the first time, I got the soundtrack and learned all the songs.  Then in the car on long trips, especially, I'd sing along to the soundtrack and do everybody's part, from Valjean to Fantine to even Javert...Also, as a true theater geek, the staging (meaning the clever sets that could fold and unfold to make different scenes) mesmerized me.  I remember sitting on the fourth row from the stage and leaning way over to the side to figure out the silent hydraulic connections that moved the revolving stage.  ("Wow, how cool was that?!!")  I was so close that when they fired the cannons at the barricade I was coughing from the smoke.

"Les Miserables" is a magical interpretation of the classic French novel by Victor Hugo.  It is a brilliant piece, but I believe it is more opera than musical comedy - very little about it is a comedy. Even the innkeeper and his wife, who are the comic relief, have some very dark moments.

Tom Hooper (The King's Speech) has given us a film that incorporates the scope of the screen.  In the theater, we have to be very clever with sets and movement to suggest space.  In film, they shoot on locations, giving an enormous scope to the movie, even though the acting style is smaller, more intimate, due to the capabilities of close camera work on the characters.

There's been a lot of buzz because the film actors sang live during their takes, instead of lip-synching to a recorded "perfect" version.  Well, guys, that's what most stage actors do in every show.  It is the exception rather than the rule for them to lip-synch.  You may not always get the most perfect version but the actors can get deeply into their roles and put the emotion in the music.

In the film version of "Les Miserables" the emotion is so deep into the music, it will knock you off your feet.  Songs such as "Bring Him Home" sung by Valjean (Hugh Jackman), "I Dreamed a Dream" sung by Fantine (Anne Hathaway), and the poignant "Empty Chairs and Empty Tables" sung my Marius (sorry I was crying too hard to read the end credits...) are delivered so passionately, they are memorable in film history.  The last song is especially bittersweet because when Les Miz became a world-wide stage sensation, "Empty Chairs and Empty Tables" was adopted by the AIDS activists.  It reminds me of some of my theater friends we lost to that disease.

Anyway, back to the film--- Jackman's voice is surprising in its range.  Valjean's songs, indeed most of the songs in this show, are difficult to sing.  Another point for considering this an opera.  I've heard criticism of Russell Crowe's voice in the role of Javert, but I think he did a valiant job.  You could hear his zeal at first, his determination, and his sad bewilderment at the end.

I've heard the great Patti LuPone's rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" from the original Broadway cast.  She is a powerful singer and a wonderful actress.  Anne Hathaway does not have as powerful a voice, but she turned in a mesmerizing performance, with intense emotion suitable for the medium of film.

Then we come to my favorite song, "On My Own," sung by Samantha Barks as the tragic Eponine - yes I know Fantine is tragic, too, but somehow Eponine speaks more to me.  Besides, they're allowed to have more tragic characters.  They're miserable, right?  Ms. Barks has played Eponine onstage and was spot on with the music, again wringing tears from my eyes.  It's a darned good thing I watched this at home instead of embarrassing myself in a movie theater.  Nobody likes it when the woman in the next row is sobbing and having major hiccups.

Oh, and by the way, Ms. Barks has the tiniest waist I've ever seen on a woman, even a young one, without the aid of a very tightly laced corset.  Trust me, she could not have sung like she did if she was corseted so tightly.

Amanda Seyfried, also seen in "Mamma Mia", has such a high, sweet soprano, she made an excellent adult Cosette. 

 I was impressed by the voices of the film's cast, even the minor characters and extras. As I said, it is not an easy score to sing.

In this version of the film, Tom Hooper as director has managed to give us all a glimpse of the real streets of Paris during the time portrayed.  I know the scene with Valjean carrying Marius through the infamous sewers of Paris was so realistic you could almost smell the excrement.  Let's face it, as dirty and tawdry as some of the characters looked you could almost smell them, too.  Bravo to the costume designer, the art director, and everyone else who helped bring this to such vivid life.

Also, BIG KUDOS to the voice coaches who helped the singers do so well.  It was a lovely job all the way around.

There is a reason this play was translated into many different languages and played successfully all over the world.  It speaks to the human condition - people from every corner of the world can relate to it.  The film carries on that powerful tradition.

When the book was published, it was translated into English. Confederate soldiers kept tattered copies and read them aloud around the campfire during the Civil War identifying with the young student rebels in the story. They called it "Lee's Miserables."

Is this the best picture of 2012?  That's for you to decide.  It's so very different, but then all the other nominees are different from each other.  That's the beauty of our pop culture - we're all free to have our favorites, which may or may not win awards.

Okay, on to Spielberg's film "Lincoln."  The dvd is due out on Tuesday.  I'll watch it and post my review this week.

Enjoy your favorite form of entertainment!

Friday, March 22, 2013

Olympus Has Fallen

Today, on a whim, I actually went to a movie theater and saw Olympus Has Fallen.  The stars aligned perfectly and I had some free time.

Besides, I've been fascinated by Gerard Butler ever since I saw him in Dracula 2000.  I remembered that face, even though he didn't speak much.  Then, of course, he starred in the movie version of Phantom, as the title character.  From then on he's been impossible for me to forget.

Aaron Eckhart is the actor after whom I modeled the hero in my Regency novel.  Yep, Sheridan St. John is a dead ringer for Aaron Eckhart.  I decided that when I saw Battle: Los Angeles in 2011.

I've been following the promos for Olympus Has Fallen from the beginning.  So, breaking tradition, I saw a film on its opening day.

This is a great action picture.  The formula for this one is the original Die Hard.  Big bad terrorists successfully attack the White House and get the President (Eckhart), the Vice-President, and a few other members of the Cabinet and national security team as hostages.

They killed a bunch of the secret service, military, and DC Police in the battle to take and keep the building.  But there's one guy, former Secret Service agent, Mike Banning (Butler), whose knowledge of the building lets him sneak in and wage a one-man war.

I won't spoil it for you by telling you more than that. 

This is a rip-snortin' adventure, as we'd say down home in Texas.  I was literally on the edge of my seat in some scenes.  There are lots of special effects, explosions, decimating of national monuments, gunning down innocent civilians, etc.  And the final plan is so dastardly, it firmly plants the leader of the terrorists as one of the biggest and baddest in movie history.

There's some dark humor, but Banning doesn't have a signature saying - no Yippee Ki Yay.  However, he does exactly what he says he will.  So, that's something.

Look for Angela Bassett, Morgan Freeman, and Academy Award winner Melissa Leo in key supporting roles.  I remember when Freeman played the President in Deep Impact years ago.  He's the Speaker of the House in this one and the acting president for a while.  I don't know about you, but hearing him speak as the President seems appropriate.  He has such an authoritative voice.

If you're looking for a great escape and like high action movies, go see Olympus Has Fallen.  You'll have a great time.

Okay, when I got home, the UPS guy had already delivered my Les Miz dvd.  Guess today is a double feature day.  Woooooo Hoooooo!

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

Okay, here we go.  Most of the recent nominees for Best Picture at the Academy Awards are coming out on video and pay-per-view.  I'll be doing movie reviews for the next couple of weeks.

Last night I watched "Zero Dark Thirty" directed by Kathryn Bigelow of "The Hurt Locker" fame.

I have to admit I was a bit confused until I read the disclaimer at the end of the credits.  It is a "fictionalized" version of some actual events, with some created scenes, dialogue, and characters.

That makes sense.  I didn't think they'd be identifying actual Navy SEALS or CIA operatives.

But my point is, the film is so realistic, I wondered how much is fiction and how much isn't.  I can certainly see why some of our government folks were upset by this film and the free-handed use of torture.  It is frequent and graphic.  In fact a goodly portion of the film in the beginning is devoted to torture, either committing acts of it, or planning how to do it.

Jessica Chastain stars as Maya (nobody on the side of the US has a last name in the film.)  She tells someone she was recruited for the CIA straight from high school.  According to Maya, her entire twelve year career has been spent in pursuit of bin Laden.  (Osama or Usama, whichever you prefer.)

Maya is like a voice in the wilderness.  She knows her subject and is certain she can anticipate his moves.  The intelligence establishment as well as the military think they know America's number one public enemy better than she does.

Through driven determination and plain old stubbornness, Maya finally gets the bosses to accept her theory.  In that, the character of Maya reminds me of Carrie on Showtime's series "Homeland."  The two characters achieve their goals in different ways, but you know you'd better not cross either one.

Ms. Chastain does an admirable job as Maya.  She does not let up for a moment.  Also notable are Jennifer Ehle as an upper level CIA manager, and Kyle Chandler as a section chief.  James Gandolfini is almost unrecognizable as the White House liaison, who is very different from Tony Soprano.  A surprising cameo role is played by John Barrowman, aka Captain Jack of "Doctor Who" and "Torchwood" fame.  He's been showing up in several things lately.  He plays a sinister billionaire on C&W's series "Arrow."

The cast works well together in scenes of intensity and action.  Honestly I don't think Maya smiled more than twice in the film.  It is doubtful either smile reached her eyes...

After the film's climax, the killing of bin Laden, the tension melts away.  Maya is left shaken and teary-eyed after she officially identifies his body, while the returned Seal Team in the background looks over the electronic gear taken from his home.  The last scene has her boarding a military transport plane, clearly exhausted, and hollow-eyed.  You know Maya, the character, is suffering from spending all that energy for this outcome.  Somewhere deep inside, she has to be wondering what she's going to do now...

Zero Dark Thirty is a serious, dark film in which actual terrorist attacks are realistically depicted.  The film begins over a soundtrack of phone calls for help on 9/11, radio signals from or to the doomed planes.  I wondered if they were recreations until I heard the American Airlines staff lose contact with Betty Ong, a flight attendant on the American Airlines flight that slammed into the first tower.  I've heard that conversation and recognized the voices as those of the actual participants.

In other words, don't watch this film prepared to be "entertained."  It is a worthy depiction of dedicated men and women determined to succeed in the name of the victims of that dark time in our recent history.

Like many Americans that May 1st night, I was glad we got bin Laden.  I did not jubilantly celebrate like the young people I saw on the news.  I can understand Maya's reaction when it was all over.  Where indeed do we go from here?

This is a well-made film, one worthy of viewing.

I hope to post a review of "Les Miserables" in the next few days. 

Until then enjoy our rich pop culture in every way you choose.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Best Man by Karen Hudgins

This is a charming novel.  It's the story of wedding couture designer, Geneva "Poppy" Pembroke, and the man who endangered her beloved career.  Doug Abbott injured her when he rode accidentally into the stands at a polo match.  Trouble is, he does not remember the aftermath of the crash due to his own injuries.

His brother is soon to be married.  The bride-to-be insists on having the famous Lady Gen design their wedding.  Doug is his brother's best man.  Naturally, though Poppy may want to avoid Doug, she cannot.  But the real trouble is, she's not at all sure she wants to avoid him.  While he is more than willing to spend his time with her, until he regains his memory of the incident and her injuries.

Throw in elements of danger from an unknown source and you have a most enjoyable read.  Will they resolve things and get their happy ending?

Ms. Hudgins is a wonderful writer.  Her research is impeccable.  She writes beautiful descriptions of Lady Gen's designs.  She also writes most knowledgeably of Doug Abbott's life as a vintner for his family's business, as well as the game of polo.

Her characters live on the page, touching the reader with their emotions and their situation.  The settings for her scenes are vivid and memorable.  You can picture Doug's family home, Poppy's workroom, and the beautiful scenery of the surrounding area.

Winner of one of the 2012 Heart of Excellence awards, Best Man is a great book to savor.

Warning, Ms. Hudgins is as good at describing delicious food as she is everything else.  As a dieter, she made me long to cheat!! 

This is the fifth published novel by Ms. Hudgins.  Enjoy!

Geneva "Poppy" Pembrooke, wedding couture designer, yearns to forget the rugged Thistle polo player who jeopardized her career and health. Yet how can she when he sets her heart on fire and is the Best Man for her client’s wedding of the year?

 Doug Abbott, country vintner, discovers that he'd injured beautiful Lady Gen in a tragic polo accident. He can't forgive himself, but when foul play evidence surfaces things change, and he fights for a second chance to win her heart.



 Links to Purchase:
Publisher -
for print version or digital -

Barnes and Noble -

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Life of Pi

As usual, I'm late to the party in seeing Ang Lee's wondrous film, "Life of Pi."  But I saw it last night and frankly it blew me away.  I watched the Academy Awards presentations, of course, and saw the film clips from this movie and the other nominees.  I remember they included two scenes, the whale jumping over the lifeboat on a star-filled night when the sea was phosphorescent, and also the scene of the zoo animals breaking their tethers under water.  Though the scenes were beautiful and intriguing, they did not prepare me for the scope of this film.

"Life of Pi" is taken from a novel by Yann Martel, published originally in 2001.  Guess what I used my one-click last night to order from Amazon?  After seeing the movie, I want to read the book.

The movie is told as a flashback.  A writer is visiting an Indian professor at his home in Canada.  The writer has been sent to him by a mutual friend.  The friend told the author that the professor had an exciting tale to tell.  After polite conversation and a vegetarian lunch, the professor begins the tale of his youth.

Pi's father owned a zoo.  People loved to come to the beautiful grounds to visit the animals, of which there was a wide variety.  Pi grows to be a teen-ager in the early moments of the tale.  Along the way, he studies Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism, deciding to practice all three.  His father does not understand this and berates his youngest son.  Pi also has developed a relationship with the adult Bengal tiger in the zoo.

The father decides in a very brutal way to show Pi that the tiger has no soul and is NOT his friend.  That was one of the scenes I could not watch.

Pi studies the drums and becomes a musician, playing for dance students.  He falls in love with one of the young dancers.

His father announces one night that he has been offered a job in Canada.  He plans to sell the animals to zoos in North America.  The whole family will accompany them on the freighter taking the animals across the sea.  Pi does not want to leave India, lose the animals, or leave his love.  But he has no choice.

The freighter begins to sink out to sea.  Pi makes it to the one lifeboat that gets launched, along with several of the animals.  When the boat goes down, Pi realizes his entire family is gone.

I won't talk about the fate of the rest of the animals.  There was another scene I did not watch.

At any rate, Pi is left alone with the tiger.  He begins a spiritual quest which teaches him life lessons as well as knowledge of his own abilities.

During the many days he and the tiger are shipwrecked, drifting on the sea, he experiences incredible wonders - such as scenes of flying fish, the whale jumping over the boat, a sky painted in navy and deep rose at sunset, rain when both Pi and the tiger are dying of thirst, star-filled night skies in which Pi finds comfort, a floating island of seaweed filled unexpectedly with life and death, visions of the lost animals swimming underwater, a raging thunderstorm in which Pi finds God, and finally the miracle of waking on a beach.

I'm not going to spoil the film for you by revealing the rest of the story.  You already know he survived because it's his story to tell...

This is a stunningly beautiful film, both visually and spiritually.  It is certainly Ang Lee's masterpiece to date.  I know it did not win Best Picture at the Oscars, but it won almost everything else for it's quality of production.  Everything melds together, the visuals, the actors, the music, the colors - I could go on and on.  It is a complete lyrical vision from a team of very talented artists.

Don't miss this film.  It is truly a work of art, a one-of-a-kind collaboration.

Until next time, read, watch, listen, and enjoy.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Immortal Ever After by Lynsay Sands

New York Times and USA Today bestselling author, Lynsay Sands, has given us another wonderful novel in her Argeneau Series.  Immortal Ever After is the story of veterinarian Valerie Moyer.  While walking her dog one night, she is abducted and plunged into a waking nightmare.

She finds herself caged in a large dog crate on the floor of a dark, dank basement.  There are other women there, similarly caged.  They never see each other's faces, only hear their voices when it is safe to talk.  Each night, one woman is removed, bathed and groomed for her night with the "master".  When it is Valerie's turn, she can barely remember anything but terror and pain.  She has two big puncture wounds on her neck.  She resolves to escape.  When her next turn with the "master" comes, she is ready. After a harrowing escape, she manages to call 911 for help.  She is injured further jumping out of a second story window and rolls under the shrubbery to hide where it is safe until the authorities arrive.

Days later, she awakens in a house with strangers.  She is told she is in a safe house to protect her from her kidnapper who was never caught.  As she begins to recover from her ordeal, she finds herself attracted to Anders, the man who found her and brought her to the safe house.  Instinctively, she trusts Anders.  But there is something different about him.  Valerie isn't quite sure what it is.  Any questions she asks him about himself, he evades or answers in general terms.  What is it about this man that attracts her so much?  What is he hiding?

Valerie's story is filled with danger as her kidnapper is tracked.  She doesn't know what to think.  Vampires are only fiction, aren't they?

Immortal Ever After unfolds richly, a sensual treat of a love story spiced with tension and looming danger. 

It is a read in one sitting novel - at least it was for me.  While I admit I have long been a fan of Ms. Sands' work, this is one of her best.  Her characters are vivid, navigating the paranormal world realistically, with emotions the reader can understand.  Added to the story are a host of familiar characters who had their own stories in this wonderful series.

If you aren't familiar with Lynsay Sands, you are in for a real treat.  This novel is a must read for fans of vampire romance. 

If you haven't read any of the Argeneau Novels, why not?  You'll love them.  Brava, Ms. Sands!

A kiss doesn’t mean eternity . . .
Valerie Moyer doesn’t believe in vampires—until she is kidnapped by a fanged psychopath! After escaping her bloodthirsty captor, she’s through with creatures of the night. Until she finds herself under the protection of the darkly handsome Anders. Not only is she expected to accept that Anders is immortal, but also that she is the woman destined to be his life mate!

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Red Dawn vs. Red Dawn Redux

In 1984, the late John Milius, talented screenwriter and director, premiered his latest film called Red Dawn.  It starred Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen, C. Thomas Howell, among others.  They were all much younger in those days...I can relate.  Patrick Swayze left us a few years ago.  Charlie Sheen went berserk, to put it politely, though he has calmed down a bit.  And C. Thomas Howell is currently playing a graying, grizzled, foul-mouthed police veteran on TNT's series Southland.  He was the most transformed at the end of the movie.  He started out as a skinny teen-ager wearing a Star Wars cap, who threw up the first time he had to shoot somebody.  At the end he was the most lethal, cold-blooded killer of the group.

In case you never saw the original, it was the story of a group of high school students and what they did during an invasion of the United States.  In those days, the Soviets invaded suddenly with Cubans and Nicaraguans in their ranks for purposes of the movie.  Of course, three years earlier they had invaded Afghanistan for real, in much the same way. 

The older brother Jed, (Patrick Swayze) drove his pickup to the high school and picked up his brother (Charlie Sheen) and some of his friends with Soviet soldiers firing at them, and dropping out of the sky in parachutes.  They gathered supplies and ran to the mountains to hide.

Gathering more kids on the way, they became a resistance group.  They called themselves Wolverines, after their high school mascot.  The Soviets came to know the name Wolverines and despise it.  Jed planned their attacks and led the group.  In town, their parents and classmates were rounded up and confined for re-education, fed propaganda and beaten into submission.  Of course few of them submitted.

I remember one shot in the original movie, when the enemy had just invaded, shooting many people.  One Soviet soldier passed a car with a bumper sticker saying "I'll give up my gun when they pry it from my cold, dead fingers."  There was a dead American lying behind the car.  The soldier reached down and took the gun out of the dead man's fingers.

At the end of the movie, two of the kids escaped, on Jed's orders, that they get to the free zone and live, telling people what the Wolverines had done.  The others were killed one by one during the course of the movie.  At the end, there was a narration spoken by one of the survivors talking about fighting World War III and how the "children" helped to win the war, over shots of a monument to them on the mountaintop.

Released in 2012, though made earlier, a second version of Red Dawn, was directed by Chris Bradley.  Chris Hemsworth (Thor, The Avengers, Jim Kirk's father in Abrams Star Trek movie) plays Jed.  Josh Peck plays his younger brother.  There are several recognized young actors in the cast.  This time it's set in Spokane, WA.  Same story, though, Jed is the older brother out of high school.  This time, he's a Marine, on leave from fighting in Iraq.  (the film was made in 2010 and not released due to budget issues until 2012.)  This time the enemy is the North Koreans, though apparently it was originally supposed to be the Chinese.  There are still some Russian advisers with them, special forces types.

The invasion begins with the loss of all power due, we learn later in the film, to an EMP (electro magnetic pulse) weapon that fries computer circuitry and all things electronic.  In the chaos, they drop down in parachutes, drive up in their versions of Humvees, and generally shoot lots of innocent people. 

Jed takes the kids to his family's cabin in the mountains and things go on from there.  In this film, the Wolverines are more sophisticated.  They've got a combat trained Marine leading them.  He trains them in weapons, explosives, and hand-to-hand combat.  They perform ambushes that are orchestrated and successful.  And they always grab the soldier's weapons, ammo, vehicles, etc.  So pretty soon, they are well armed and dangerously clever.

The redux is much more optimistic than the original.  When Marines fly into the mountain area in a helicopter, they come looking for the Wolverines to help them on a mission.  It is successful and marks a turning point in the war. A few of them get killed in the course of the action, including Jed. But they hurt the invaders far worse than in the original film. The Wolverines refuse to ride out of the combat zone with the Marines when they leave.

The movie ends with Jed's younger brother recruiting more people to fight with the Wolverines, giving them the same speech Jed had given in the beginning.  The Wolverines then take their greater numbers and storm the re-education camp, freeing the people detained there.

I liked both movies well enough.  The first one, given its time and the circumstances (a rural town with a smaller population) was more realistic.  It was a sad film that made you think, at least it made me think...

The second one was a more positive film given the ending that left you cheering for the Wolverines and all they accomplished.

They're both entertaining, it just depends on your mood.  I happened to see the original on late night tv recently, before I saw the new one, just out on video.

Of course, I think John Milius' best work was The Wind and The Lion, a rip-roaring adventure, starring Sean Connery, as a chief of Berbers in the Sahara.  This was based on an actual incident that had American Marines invading Tripoli and taking over the country, basically.  You know, like "From the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli"?  In the movie, Connery, handsome Berber with a Scottish brogue (okay, but I can forgive him anything), kidnaps a wise-cracking Candice Bergen, which infuriates the American president, Teddy Roosevelt.  That one's a lot of fun.  Milius knew his stuff, though he took liberties with history.  But then that's Hollywood for you.

If you are interested in history, read about it, don't believe everything you see in the movies.

Until next time, take care, and watch, read, or listen to some talented artist's creation.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Three Keys to Murder by Gary Williams and Vicky Knerly

Three Keys to Murder, by the writing team of Gary Williams and Vicky Knerly, is the first mystery I've read in years.  A friend recommended the book to me.  So I put aside my traditional disinterest in the genre and read it.  I was most pleasantly surprised.

It is a story that will grab your attention and sweep you along to its conclusion.  Authors are trained to start each story in a way that will hook their readers and keep them interested.  Mr. Williams and Ms. Knerly did just that.  The story begins with foreboding that leads to a shocking and painful event.  The tale rolls on from there.  Darkness threatens at every turn.  The truth always seems just a heartbeat away.

The characters are engaging, realistic people caught in a terrible web of shadowed intrigue.  Some people are not at all who they seem.  The story plays with us as readers until we want to warn the characters, "hey, wait!  Don't do that!" 

The story is filled with delicious tension that trickles down the spine, spurring us on until the surprising conclusion.  This is a page-turner in the best sense.  I didn't want to put it down.

This novel is also steeped in Florida history, well researched and accurate.  It adds a layer of pathos to the story. 

Three Keys to Murder is a skillful, well-balanced tale that will keep you interested until the very end.

It's a great read.  Enjoy!


On Amelia Island, Florida, 36-year-old journalist Fawn Cortez is adjusting to life in her new surroundings as she prepares for her upcoming marriage. Her father’s tragic death earlier in the year still haunts her. For decades, Juan Velarde Cortez obsessively hunted a legendary treasure, and his passing has left unresolved feelings for Fawn. Now, when a series of grisly killings rock the small island community—each victim’s face has a distinct signature—Fawn suspects a bizarre connection between the murders, her father’s quest, and the death ritual of an infamous Seminole Indian from the 1800s. A cigar box that once belonged to her father appears to hold the key. As Fawn draws closer and closer to solving the 200-year-old puzzle and determining the killer’s identity, she will be forced to unravel historical clues that will lead her on a harrowing journey. Time is quickly running out as a serial killer is watching and waiting in the shadows. Will Fawn discover the truth before she becomes the next victim? With historical links and storyline twists, this follow-up to Gary Williams’ & Vicky Knerly’s debut novel, “Death in the Beginning,” engages all the necessary elements of and delivers a fast-paced, heart-pounding thriller.

Links to purchase:


Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Midnight in Paris vs. Battleship

My tastes can be varied to the point of nonsense at times.  That's okay.  I love pop culture as you can probably tell from my blog posts.  My late mother gave me her love of movies.  We went to the movies together from the time I was very young.  When I was twelve, she took me to see Gone With the Wind, her all-time favorite.  Anyhow, she instilled in me a passion for movies.  I took it a step further than she did, though.

I like all kinds of movies.  My tastes run the gamut from drama to comedy to historical to action pictures to super heroes to sci-fi, paranormal, and the occasional war picture.  (Someday I'll write about The Pacific - an excellent mini-series from HBO created and produced by Stephen Spielberg and Tom Hanks.)

A case in point, this last Saturday night, I was home with my two shih tzus watching premium cable.  So I watched back-to-back movies. The first was Midnight in Paris, a charming comedy from 2011.

When Midnight in Paris came out, I read the reviews and thought it looked mildly interesting.  The title put me off.  Unfortunately, that was the name of a particularly pervasive perfume that was modestly priced when I was in elementary school.  It was given away on television game shows back then.  When it showed up in dime stores (think Woolworth's) I finally got to smell it...I could understand why it was given away so frequently - nobody wanted to buy it.

I'm sure that sensory memory made me reluctant to see the film of the same name.  A few months ago, a friend recommended the movie so I decided to watch it last Saturday on HBO.

Anyhow it's the story of a screenwriter played by Owen Wilson.  He has been successful writing scripts for Hollywood, but is working on a novel, the project dearest to his heart.  He comes to Paris with his obnoxious fiancee and her more obnoxious parents.  In her case that apple landed right at the bottom of the tree...So the writer starts walking around Paris at midnight.  He gets lost the first night, cannot find his way back to the hotel.  This antique car stops, a man gets out and beckons him to join the party.  It seems the man is F. Scott Fitzgerald and he is accompanied by his fabled wife Zelda.  In their world it's in the late 1920s.  Gil (the Wilson character) has walked into another time.

Each night he waits anxiously for the car to pick him up.  He meets Gertrude Stein, Hemingway, Picasso, Salvador Dali, a number of luminaries from the period.  He also meets Picasso's current mistress, a lovely young woman played by Marianne Cotillard.  Gil falls in love with her and feels more comfortable with her than he ever has with his fiancee.

He gets Gertrude Stein to read his novel.  She critiques it and he rewrites the book.  Hemingway also reads it and gives it his approval.  Talk about a dream for a writer!!!

I won't spoil the movie for you by revealing anything else.  This is a beautifully told story.  The romantic streets of Paris glisten with rain on nights when the moon goes in and out of the clouds.  The film is shot with filters to soften the focus on those nights, making it look like a treasured memory.  I don't blame Gil at all for waiting anxiously all day until he can be with his friends once more.

It is a beautiful love story steeped in nostalgia for the best of the past.  It teaches the lesson that no matter the era, the contemporary inhabitants long for an earlier time, no matter how wonderful we latecomers may think their time was.

It's a great movie for a quiet night, a little popcorn, a little wine, whatever you like with your movies.  It is best seen with someone you love.  Enjoy!

The other film I watched was Battleship, produced by Hasbro, the company that created the game, Battleship.  It is a rousing adventure in which you certainly must suspend your disbelief.  I loved it.

It's the story of two brothers, one, played by Alexander Skarsgard (aka the 1000 year old Viking vampire, Eric Northman, on True blood.)  Insert howling here... The younger brother is played by Taylor Kitsch (aka John Carter in the film by that name.)  Insert a wolf whistle here...

The older brother (Skarsgard) Stone Hopper, is a commander in the US Navy and the younger brother (Kitsch) is an unemployed construction worker who is always messing up.  When the movie opens, he does something so stupid, that his older brother tells him, "that's it.  You're joining me in the Navy."  Then it's three years later and younger brother Alex is in the Navy with the rank of lieutenant.  He is still messing up, however.  (How did he make it to lieutenant?!!)

Anyhow, aliens invade the Earth and head for Hawaii where there is a transmission station on a mountaintop that has been broadcasting signals to outer space via satellite.  The Navy is conducting war games with other countries in the waters around Hawaii.  The aliens successfully block off the area around their target which prevents most of the Navy ships from getting through the shielding.  The area includes the Hawaiian islands.  The only ships in the area are missile bearing destroyers, one from Japan and two from the US Navy.  One of the US ships is commanded by Stone.  Alex is an officer serving on the other one. 

The aliens have surprising technology and weapons.  Two of the Navy ships are lost.  The third ship wounds the aliens badly before being destroyed as well.  The survivors make their way to the USS Missouri, a World War II battleship, now docked as a museum.  In reality, the USS Missouri was the ship on which the Japanese surrender was signed in 1945.  In the movie, there are former members of the crew who work on her now that she's a museum.  With their help and expertise, the old battleship goes out for one more battle.

The USS Missouri wins the day with the assistance ashore of a wounded veteran from the war in Afghanistan - he wears two prosthetic legs, his physical therapist (who happens to be Alex's girlfriend), and a wimpy scientist from the mountaintop station.

UPDATE:  I learned that Lt. Col. Mick Canales was played by real-life Col. Greg Gadson, an active Army officer.  Col. Gadson graduated from West Point where he played on the football team.  He lost his legs in a roadside bomb explosion in Iraq several years ago.  Since then, he has become a motivational speaker when his schedule permits.  His role in the movie was his first acting job. He performed his own fighting wearing the titanium legs he wears daily.  That's more impressive than any movie.  Thank you Col. Gadson for your service...

They win the day and the Earth is saved!  Was there ever any doubt?  It's a great action picture with good special effects and excellent resolution of the story at the end.  Look for Rihanna in a surprisingly good acting job as a weapons expert.  Her "Mahalo, M..." is right up there with Bruce Willis' "Yippee Ky Yea, M..."

Besides the end credits roll to Creedence Clearwater Revival's song Fortunate Son, which had me playing my invisible drums and engaging in some lively chair dancing...What else could you want?

It's got everything - hunky actors, a brave wounded warrior (who is realistically played and who does an honorable job in the part), mean technologically superior aliens who seem to be insurmountable, but are soundly beaten in the end...

I'll take my Alexander Skarsgard dosages whenever I can.  True Blood doesn't come back until June.

Oh, and on that note, I am now reading George R.R. Martin's book Game of Thrones on which the HBO series is based.  I've watched the two seasons of the series, so the book isn't any surprise so far.
That series comes back for its third season later this month...

Whew, it's a lot of work being a pop culture diva!

Until next time, take care out there.