Movie Review: Sherlock Holmes

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Rachel McAdams, Mark Strong
Directed By: Guy Ritchie
Written By: Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham & Simon Kinberg (based on the characters created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)
Lin Pictures, 2009
PG-13; 128 minutes
4.5 stars (out of 5)


Okay, well, I've been a Sherlock Holmes fan all my life. And I've loved Robert Downey, Jr. ever since he re-emerged for Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, so . . . This movie hits my sweet spot from the start. I just wanted to be up front about that, since I like to show my biases when applicable.

What really works in this iteration of Holmes--of which there have been many, Holmes being the most-played character in film--is the chemistry between the chief actors as Holmes and Watson. After all, even in the original stories by Doyle, the key was that Watson had an actual affection for Holmes (and a certain awe of him), and Holmes had, well, as much affection for Watson as he had for anyone really, which is another discussion altogether.

Now Law does not play Watson as the loyal, doggish Watson that many have come to expect. Instead, Law's Watson knows his Holmes well enough to call him out on things when no one else would dare to do so. Good for him! This departure from the canon can be applauded, as in modern cinema the Watson of old would hardly hold up. In Doyle's works it was one thing; Watson was the reader's filter, and so he was required to be awe-struck by Holmes so that the reader could be as well. But in a movie, that wouldn't make for much of a character, aside from the possibility of a bumbling, comic sidekick, and we've seen that particular kind of Watson often enough.

Certainly the Holmes in this version is different, too. Many writers and filmmakers have taken liberties with the character in the past. After all, a great character without a completely fleshed-out history lends itself to that kind of thing. But here Holmes is . . . Should I say, almost but not quite himself? It was the Holmes of Doyle with a dash of frat boy or something. An odd mixture. It made Holmes warmer and more likable than he might normally be, but there were flashes where I wanted to put the breaks on and say, "No, no, no, that's not right!"

Holmes' digs at Inspector Lestrade were probably some of the best moments; they showed exactly the kind of dry humor one should expect from the Great Detective. But his continual attempts to dissuade Watson from his amorous leanings were really beneath the Holmes I have respect for. That was where the frat boy came in. Holmes and Watson were portrayed, in part, like college roomies, and the situation suggested that one of them was growing up and moving on and the other didn't want to. That particular note, for me, was a sour one. After all, Holmes as Doyle wrote him--and yes, I understand that someone else wrote this Holmes, but he's still based on Doyle's character more or less--might not have cared one way or another; as I recall, he didn't seem to when Watson married and moved away in the stories. That was an emotional realm in which Holmes did not trade. And even if he did care, he never would have said as much to Watson, no matter how much [repressed] affection he had for his friend.

My final bone to pick is with Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler. Good Lord, what a mess. She had zero chemistry with Robert Downey, Jr. for one thing. And she simply did not pull off the sense of clever that Irene Adler requires. Adler is, after all, supposedly Holmes' peer, and that is why she is the only woman in which he ever invested any of his attention. He was able to look past her gender (Holmes was a noted misogynist) to her very sharp mind, one he considered as sharp--or nearly--as his own. Moriarty, then, would be the other point to that triangle of persons that Holmes had a sort of respect for, which is one thing that this movie did well, though we didn't really meet Moriarty, though we surely will in the next film. We hope! (There will almost certainly be another film, as this one did so well at the box office.)

At any rate, Adler should have been more a match for Holmes' wits. I'm not sure whether the fault here lies with McAdams, the writers, or both. I felt like Adler had been thrown into the mix because they felt like there should be a woman in the movie and Adler is the go-to when one needs a woman in a Sherlock Holmes situation.

However, all that having been said, the movie was fun overall. High entertainment value; what more can one really ask from a movie? An interesting enough plot, though I did lean over to my husband a few times and hiss, "Pyramid of FEAR!" (a nod to Young Sherlock Holmes, with which I was obsessed as a child--and which to this day still has a fab take on Moriarty . . . though Daniel Davis also did a good Moriarty on Star Trek: The Next Generation, but I digress). Some minor issues with the obvious digital backgrounds in places, and with the scene in which they slog through the water only to be dry in the next moment, but whatever. (A friend also pointed out that the Tower Bridge is a ways down from Parliament, so the slog through the sewers must have been a long one.) Still and all, a good film and not the worst twist to Holmes that I've ever seen (or read), so I count it as a success.

Or my biases outweigh other factors. You decide.


Movie Review: The Hangover

Starring: Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis, Justin Bartha, Heather Graham
Directed By: Todd Phillips
Written By: Jon Lucas & Scott Moore
Warner Bros., 2009
R; 100 minutes
2.5 stars (out of 5)


Picked this one up On Demand (and in HD to boot); it wasn't as funny as I thought it would be, given all the hype about it.

Simple enough story: four friends--or three friends and a hanger-on (played by Galifianakis) who eventually morphs into a fourth friend--go to Vegas for a night of partying before one of the pals (Bartha, recognizable from his stint in the National Treasure movies) gets married. But apparently the [wolf] pack has so much fun, they can't remember anything the next morning, including where they left the groom-to-be. Hilarity ostensibly ensues, though not a ton of it.

Cooper stars as chief friend Phil, something of a jerk who thaws and softens a bit as things play out. The character development is really subtle here; you might miss it if you weren't looking for something more to the movie, which at times I desperately was.

Helms' character Stu has the deepest back story. He's a dentist with a bitchy and controlling girlfriend (Rachel Harris) that he plans to propose to at the upcoming nuptials. Phil--who says he hates his own life, which includes marriage and a child--berates Stu periodically for what he considers a terrible idea; namely, being at all involved with this harpy of a woman. Stu's plot line is the only one with an overt resolution, at least where this particular relationship is concerned. I won't say more because I don't want to spoil any additional plot points for those who haven't seen the movie but want to.

Galifianakis is generally considered the break-out star of this film, and rightfully so. His character Alan tags along with the others, as he is the bride-to-be's brother, a friendless sort of socially awkward weirdo complete with overgrown hair and a bad sense of personal style. But he goes from being cringe-worthy to somewhat warming as things start happening, and eventually emerges as a semi-hero.

One of the best things about this movie is that it featured--at length--a tiger. I love cats, big and small.

I was sorry that Bartha didn't have more to do, but as he's missing for most of the film . . .

In the end, I call the movie average, which is why it gets 2.5 stars. Decent character arcs but not nearly enough funny. Still and all, an okay flick for a night when you need some levity and nothing you have to concentrate too hard on.


Writing "Under the Dome"

I am currently reading Stephen King's latest, a rather large tome titled Under the Dome (full review to come, though I'll say I'm enjoying it). But as I considered the subject matter--a town finds itself isolated by an invisible force field--I found myself looking back at other of King's works and thinking that "under the dome" is the situation in pretty much any compelling narration, isn't it?

What I mean is: any good story is a situation involving contained people and forces. Whether it's the town of Jerusalem's Lot beset by vampires, the haunted Overlook Hotel in winter, or the whole of the USA after a virus leaves most people dead, the core of the story is set under a "dome" of circumstances that isolates them from the everyday, the normal, the mundane.

This goes for more than Mr. King's writing, but he's particularly adept at this slight of hand and mind. Reading his work is instructive.

I suppose this is also one of the reasons I really dislike the kind of mainstream literature so many academics tout; I find it dull. People living their lives and generally miserable--but without anything very interesting going on--doesn't make much of a story to my way of thinking.


Television Sneak Peek: Men of a Certain Age

Starring: Ray Romano, Scott Bakula, Andre Braugher
TNT, Mondays at 10:00 PM


Let's be clear from the start. I'm probably not the target audience for this show. For one thing, I'm a woman, and I think (though I'm not 100% sure) this show is for men. My best guess is that it's kind of a Sex and the City for men, but I don't know that for sure either because (a) I never watched Sex and the City, and (b) I'm not entirely sure what would count as a male version of that show. But three male friends (of a certain age) meeting at a booth at a local diner . . . That seems pretty close, right?

Okay, so I received a USB drive in the mail with an episode of this show on it for review. I can't tell if what I watched was the entire thing. It ran about 19 minutes, so . . . If this is going to be an hour-long drama (and I can't seem to find an answer to that on the TNT site), then clearly I didn't see the whole thing. Even if it's a half hour, there may have been some material cut. If that's NOT the case, then the editing on this show is wonky. In the sneak peek, the three friends go for a hike . . . But then you never actually see them do any hiking. So either this is a really badly handled plot point OR there was material missing from the episode.

The show is a drama. Not a bit of what I viewed had any amount of comedy in it. There were a couple things that maybe were supposed to be funny, but none of it was.

If the show is aimed at men, I should point out that my husband watched it with me and really disliked it. During a scene in which the three characters are riding in a truck (on the way to the unseen hike), my husband suggested the whole thing would be better if they were in Jurassic Park and one—or all—of them were eaten by dinosaurs.

It's a shame because I like these actors. And maybe 19 minutes just isn't enough time to flesh out everything in an appealing way. Three complex characters cannot be shown in full in such a short time.

This is the problem with television these days, the need for instant gratification and instant audience and instant success. People want their television like they want anything: immediately. If it could be injected into our eyeballs, maybe we'd be satisfied. But the slow build towards something—that jeopardizes a show because people lose interest in the first few minutes. And then the show is canceled after one airing and never gets the chance to gain traction.

Still, I wouldn't watch this show. I'm sure someone, somewhere would, but it's not for me.


Book Review: This Is Where I Leave You

Jonathan Tropper
Dutton, 2009
340 pages


You know how people all have to slow down and stare when they pass a wreck on the highway? That's what reading this book was like.

The story is of Judd Foxman. His father has just died, and he's been asked to come to the family home and sit shiva (that's a Jewish ritual) with his mother and siblings. The problem being that the family is hugely dysfunctional and, traditionally, shiva lasts seven days.

If that were Judd's only problem, his life might not be so bad. After all, he could make it through seven days and be done. BUT. Judd is also dealing with the fact that his wife has been sleeping with his boss. So now they are separated and moving toward divorce, and basically Judd's life is falling apart on all sides.

Sounds like a fun read, right? But the thing is, This Is Where I Leave You is, in fact, a real page-turner. Tropper tempers Judd's sad life with enough humor and interesting characters to lighten the load. It's a worthwhile undertaking, reading this book.

I'd tell you more, but I wouldn't want to give anything away. I can only say that it's well written, witty and touching all at once.


Book Review: Juliet, Naked

Nick Hornby
Riverhead, 2009
416 pages


At 416 pages, it would seem that Juliet, Naked is a long book, but it's not really. Not long in that it takes long to read, anyway. The trim size is small, and the print isn't, and besides all that, it's practically impossible to put down.

In Hornby's best since About a Boy, the author melds interesting characters—something he's always been good at—with an actual plot, which in past novels have sometimes been rather thin. Not saying Hornby hasn't done good work in the past. Of course he has. He typically takes the mundane moments in life and collects them around the characters he creates. But Juliet, Naked expands on that. The mundane gets a bit of the extraordinary thrown into it, and the world of the characters starts to spin in a different direction.

In a nutshell, and without giving too much away, the story is about Annie and Duncan. They've been together for 15 years, their relationship's growth stunted by lack of motivation to get past their own ideas about themselves: that they are (alas, were) college students, academics with interesting ideas and refined tastes. Duncan in particular is rather pleased with himself in general, considering himself an expert on his favorite musician among other things, wrapped up in pop culture of the obscure—and therefore high-minded, in his view—kind.

Annie, on the other hand, has begun to see things differently. And there is clearly no dragging Duncan out of the quicksand he's chosen to stand in, so . . . it's either sink with him or climb to safety on her own.

The crux of the story revolves around Duncan's favorite singer Tucker Crowe, who has fallen off the map almost literally; Crowe gave up his career 22 years before and no one has heard from him since, though one stalking fan claims to have taken a picture of him on a farm in rural Pennsylvania.

But really, the story is a jab at the academics who somehow believe "independent" and "rare" is somehow better than "common" and "popular." Duncan is insufferable and pathetic, and one never quite knows whether to feel sorry for him. He's an imbecile, so it's difficult to stay angry with him—rather like a stupid dog that isn't entirely sure what it's done to get yelled at—though there are a couple moments where Duncan comes close to understanding where he's gone wrong.

The story is mostly Annie's, a nice enough girl who is trying to figure out how to make up for 15 wasted years. Surely anyone who has spent time in a long relationship that has gone nowhere can sympathize.

In the end, it's a fine read with all of Hornby's hallmark humor set against the usual bouts of angst and self-doubt. It's about mistakes of the largest, most life-altering kind, and about the potential for redemption regardless of the size of the sins.


Book Review: The Masonic Myth: Unlocking the Truth About the Symbols, the Secret Rites, and the History of Freemasonry

Jay Kinney
HarperOne, 2009
280 pages
trade paperback


I grew up with the notion--whether absorbed subconsciously or told outright I don't remember--that Masons were bad. They were sinister in some unspecific way; they were a cult. This is what I grew up believing (and somehow that translated in my juvenile brain as Ben Franklin being a bad, bad man--but that's another story), and as Kinney points out in his book, it's what a lot of people believe. Without knowing the facts.

It's important to point out here that Kinney is, himself, a Mason. Who has, on top of his own immediate experience as a Mason, done eight years of research in order to write this book. This is presumed to mean that he knows what he's talking about.

The book itself takes a look at the perceptions of Freemasonry, along with the Masons' own self-reflective history, and its place in the wider world from roots to modern day. Kinney addresses the most common ideas (many of them misinformed) about Freemasonry--where the ideas stem from and the truth, if any, behind them. He presents a balanced view in showing that even Masons can have misperceptions about their origins.

Kinney also takes a look at the somewhat convoluted hierarchy of Freemasonry, the degrees and the York Rite and Scottish Rite. He discusses the symbols associated with Freemasonry. And also asks the question of whether Freemasonry is doomed, seeing as the number of initiates is steadily dropping.

For someone like me, The Masonic Myth offers a practical and interesting look at the subject. The book is educational without the dryness of a textbook. Kinney writes in an engaging tone peppered with wry humor. His lack of stuffiness or self-righteousness makes his book and subject accessible to the un- or under-educated reader.

Alas, Kinney is not likely to convert those who are steadfastly against Freemasonry; that group would surely point out that Kinney, as a Mason, can only benefit from lying (or at least committing the sin of omission). People looking for Da Vinci Code stylings need not apply here, as they will come away unsatisfied. BUT: anyone looking for the truth about Freemasonry--and there is nothing in The Masonic Myth to make this reader believe Kinney is hiding anything; his forthright tone takes each bull of contention (to mix metaphors) by the horns--would do well to peruse this book. An excerpt follows. (With permission from FSB Associates and the author.)

by Jay Kinney,
Author of The Masonic Myth: Unlocking the Truth About the Symbols, the Secret Rites, and the History of Freemasonry

In 2001, just a month after I had received my first-degree initiation into Freemasonry, my wife and I took a trip to England. Our hotel in London, as it turned out, was within walking distance of Freemasons' Hall, the imposing stone headquarters of the United Grand Lodge of England, the administrative body overseeing English Masonry.

Normally, public tours of Freemasons' Hall are provided daily, but by happenstance the tours were not available on the day we first visited there. It was the day of the Grand Lodge's quarterly communication, when representatives from lodges and provincial bodies around England meet to take care of business. Do come again another day, we were told, and you'll be able to take a tour.

And then a most curious sight unfolded before our eyes as we turned to leave and stood at the top of the steps leading down to the street from the side entrance. A series of black taxicabs pulled up to the curb in front of Freemasons' Hall and proceeded to emit nearly identical passengers: the proverbial Men in Black -- men dressed in black suits with black neckties, all carrying black briefcases. The men -- all Masons -- ran up the steps and through the doors of Freemasons' Hall as more taxis arrived, emitting more Men in Black.

Was this real life, or had we somehow stumbled into a scene from a Monty Python movie? To our American eyes, it was an almost comical sight, but I also felt a tiny shiver go up my spine. Masonry has been accused by some of being a cult, and the scene before us didn't exactly disprove the accusation. What had I gotten myself into, exactly?

It didn't take long for me to deconstruct the strangeness of the Men in Black episode. The quarterly meeting was about to begin. The arriving Masons had likely taken trains into London and caught cabs to take them to Freemasons' Hall. Most London taxis of that era were black, for reasons having nothing to do with Masonry. Unlike much of American Masonry, English Masonry has had a simple but narrow dress code for its meetings: white shirt, black suit and tie. (In a culture still given to subtle class distinctions such as old school ties, the requirement of a simple black tie for all can enhance the feeling of brotherhood.) And the black briefcases? Those were actually apron cases, in which brethren keep the ceremonial aprons that are worn during Masonic meetings. (The aprons commemorate the workmen's aprons used by the stonemasons, the supposed ancestors of modern Freemasonry.)

However, it would be a matter of years before I was able to answer the deeper question of what I had gotten myself into.

There are any number of legitimate questions that arise when one tries to grasp what Masonry is. Is it really a secret society -- and if so, why all the secrecy? Where did it really come from? What's with all the ritual and regalia? Why the grandiose titles and honorifics? What's with the proliferation of degrees and orders and interrelated Masonic side organizations? And, when all is said and done, what's the point of all this rigmarole? Is there some secret payoff that justifies the enormous amount of time and effort that has been spent over centuries in maintaining this enigmatic institution?

Because the answers to these questions are not self-evident -- even to some Masons, and especially to non-Masons -- a barrage of pseudo-answers has too often rushed in to fill the void. Some of these, such as the imaginative speculations of "alternative historians," are harmless enough, at least if they aren't mistaken for historical facts. But other explanations, especially those of hostile anti-Masons, are dangerous, not merely to Masons but to society at large. The Nazis rose to power in Germany in part by scapegoating Jews and Masons, while in the present era Masonic lodges have been the target of Islamist terrorists. Dark accusations about Freemasonry as a satanic cult or a tool of a hidden power elite may be bestsellers for many publishers, but such pseudo-answers poison the well of public knowledge with delusional claims and paranoid misinterpretations.

Of course, everyone loves a good yarn, which is partly why Dan Brown's books have been so popular. Secretive brotherhoods can be excellent devices in suspense thrillers, but novels are, by their very nature, fiction. A novelist can make those links that raise the hair on one's neck, and a good writer can make you believe them. But once the novel is over, it is good to do a reality check. They say that truth is stranger than fiction. Let's see if that's true.

The above is an excerpt from the book The Masonic Myth: Unlocking the Truth About the Symbols, the Secret Rites, and the History of Freemasonry by Jay Kinney. The above excerpt is a digitally scanned reproduction of text from print. Although this excerpt has been proofread, occasional errors may appear due to the scanning process. Please refer to the finished book for accuracy.

Copyright © 2009 Jay Kinney, author of The Masonic Myth: Unlocking the Truth About the Symbols, the Secret Rites, and the History of Freemasonry

Author Bio
Jay Kinney, author of The Masonic Myth: Unlocking the Truth About the Symbols, the Secret Rites, and the History of Freemasonry, is coauthor of Hidden Wisdom: A Guide to the Western Inner Traditions. For fifteen years, he was publisher and editor-in-chief of Gnosis, the premier journal covering esoteric traditions and spiritual paths. In addition, Kinney is a member of Mill Valley Lodge #356 and Mission Lodge #169, F&AM, in California; a member of the York Rite; and a 32° KCCH in the Scottish Rite. He has twice been a speaker at the California Masonic Symposium, and is a recipient of the Albert G. Mackey Award for Excellence in Masonic Research. He has extensive contacts within Freemasonry and, as librarian and director of research for the San Francisco Scottish Rite, has access to many resources and Masonic records that have eluded most popular writers on this topic.

For more information please visit www.harpercollins.com and www.jaykinney.com.



Small hiatus as I recently had emergency surgery. Good news is I have a stack of books to read and review, so stay tuned!


Movie Review: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Michael Gambon, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Alan Rickman, Jim Broadbent
Directed By: David Yates
Written By: Steve Kloves (from the novel by J.K. Rowling)
Warner Bros., 2008
PG; 153 minutes
2.5 stars (out of 5)



My initial impression of the sixth Harry Potter movie was exactly thus: that it was disjointed in a way that made parts of it almost dreamlike--you know, the way dreams jump around or abruptly change? I don't know if this is a result of the writing or editing or directing or all of the above. It seems that perhaps the whole of the crew was trying to be all things to all viewers--that they were trying to include the cute and funny adolescent love/angst as well as advance the plot--and so they put all the elements in some kind of cinematic blender and we ended up with a strange smoothie of a movie.

Half-Blood Prince has, for one thing, a fair bit of humor, mostly stemming from the budding emotions of its principle characters. Harry is starting to realize he likes Ron's sister Ginny as more than just, er, his best friend's sister. And while Hermione has acknowledged to herself (and eventually Harry) her warm feelings for Ron, it takes Ron a little longer to begin to sort things out. In fact, by the end of the movie it hasn't yet become clear to him that maybe Hermione is more than a really good friend.

Yet one of the most humorous scenes involves Harry's getting high on a luck potion that is designed to ensure his success is getting some information from Potions professor Horace Slughorn (played to perfection by Broadbent). Radcliffe plays Harry as punchy and carefree, sort of a side to Harry everyone has always wanted to see; the boy as he would have been if such heavy cares had not been pressed upon him. The scene is a fun turn.

Meanwhile, Tom Felton as Draco Malfoy finally gets a chance at some real acting in Half-Blood Prince, managing to portray the almost paralyzing fear that Draco endures as he attempts to carry out Voldemort's orders. For not having many lines, Felton uses his facial expressions and body language to full extent and allows the audience to almost sympathize--while still maintaining the distance required from the character. Not even in the book is it quite as clear that Draco has the opportunity to become the next, or another, Voldemort--that he's standing on the precipice of a chasm and it's a question of whether he'll step back or fall in.

Alan Rickman, too, did well with his few scenes; in the moment he is forced to kill Dumbledore, his delivery is especially keen.

That all said, much is lacking in Half-Blood Prince, including cohesion. I've mentioned the jumpy aspect of the way the movie is pieced together. Another problem is the fact that the more "real" elements--the character development and interaction, including Draco's anxiety and the lovesick drama/humor of the others--simply is far more interesting here than the plot line. The audience is supposed to be curious about Draco and the Vanishing Chest, but we really aren't. The mystery of who the Half-Blood Prince really is gets tossed aside into one throw-away line by Rickman's Snape, in which he informs Harry that he is the Half-Blood Prince. Should we care why he gave himself such a moniker? Evidently not. Even the core story of Harry looking at memories of Voldemort's time at Hogwarts and getting information from Slughorn so that he and Dumbledore can go in search of the horcruxes stutters in intermittent fashion until the near end of this long film, only to have it all come up short in the last scene, in which Harry reveals the horcrux he and Dumbledore went to collect is a fraud. And Dumbledore's funeral, which was a touching scene in the book, has been eliminated from the film.

In the end, Half-Blood Prince works only as a bridge to the saga's looming end (said to be coming in two final movies as they divide Rowling's Deathly Hallows). It does not stand on its own merit, and its singular entertainment value is decidedly limited.


Book Review: Annie's Ghosts

Steve Luxenberg
Hyperion, 2009
402 pages


In Annie's Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret, Steve Luxenberg delves into the divide between the knowable and the unknowable--that is, the space between what can be discovered by dogged detective work, and what can only be guessed at because the answers to some questions die along with the people who know those answers.

The situation is in itself a compelling mystery, both to the author whose story it is, and to the reader. Luxenberg's mother Beth had always made it distinctively clear that she was an only child. In fact, it was something she seemed proud of, given how often she would bring it up. And no one in the family thought much about it until they discovered it wasn't true.

What Luxenberg would eventually discover is that his mother had had a younger sister named Annie. An aging Beth had said as much to one of her doctors, though she'd said the sister was sent away at age two. Picking up this thread, Luxenberg would go on to find out after his mother's death that his unknown aunt was actually sent away at age 21 . . . And so the detective work would begin. How had his mother managed to hide an entire childhood spent with a younger sister? And why hide it at all? Meanwhile, why had Annie been sent away to a mental institution?

In Annie's Ghosts, Luxenberg details the slog through old records and red tape that was required to get to some of the answers he desired. That might sound dull, but Luxenberg is a good writer and spins everything into a mix of journalistic integrity and personal human interest. The result is a fascinating read.

Below I have an article by Luxenberg regarding that mix of truth and fiction, which I hope you'll enjoy. (Used with permission of FSB Associates.)

Memoirs, Movies and Those (Mostly) True Stories
A Writer's Take on Reality's Rough Edges

By Steve Luxenberg,
Author of Annie's Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret

Why do they do it?

Why do so many film makers put "based on a true story" or some variation as one of their opening frames, when they have freely altered the truth of the story?

Because it works. Because those words retain their mesmerizing power, even though they are misused or stretched at times to the point where there's little relationship between the story being told and the facts that gave rise to them. Truth-twisting in film has become so accepted that reviewers rarely comment on it or point out the discrepancies between fact and fiction, between information and invention.

As a long-time journalist and a first-time author, I'm probably more fascinated than most people at the transformation of a nonfiction work from book to screen. In researching and writing about a family secret that took me back to the beginning of the 20th century, I chased down many leads to ambiguous and not entirely satisfying conclusions. I joked with friends that I envied the novelist's license to invent what could not be learned or verified.

I'm not suggesting that there's a grand deception here. It's news to no one that movies change certain facts, sometimes for legal and privacy reasons. But film makers increasingly want to have it both ways. What began as a safeguard ("some facts have been changed to protect . . . ") has turned into a genre. Why not just come out and say it? "Some facts have been changed to protect the innocent, streamline the plot and increase dramatic tension. But the story is still (mostly) true."

Instead, the trend line is moving in the opposite direction. Recent case in point: The Changeling, starring Angelina Jolie as the mother fighting a corrupt Los Angeles police department that had declared a stranger to be her abducted nine-year-old son, begins with the words "a true story" appearing on a black screen, holding for a few seconds, and then fade out.

Not "based on" or "inspired by." Just that flat, unambiguous statement: "a true story." Then, in the fine print at the end the closing credits, the film makers fess up. "While this picture is based upon a true story," we're told, "some of the characters have been composited or invented, and a number of incidents fictionalized." In other words, (which I liked and admired for its storytelling as well as its artful re-creation of the 1920s) improved on the remarkable tale of Christine Collins and her young son Walter. The true story wasn't quite good enough.

Moviegoers seem to accept this hybrid genre, and the industry celebrates it (Oscars, etc.). Is it any wonder that it has crept into the world of nonfiction books, where memoir writers have claimed a license to "fill in the gaps" (based on truth and memory, of course)? Or that universities now offer courses in "creative nonfiction"?
Truman Capote gave us the "nonfiction novel," stealing a page from the film world. Tom Wolfe chose to take his new journalism into novels, which solved that problem. James Frey obviously crossed the line, however, in embellishing and inventing some of his 2003 memoir, A Million Little Pieces about his drug use and brushes with law. A screenplay version of Frey's work could have said "a true story," and no one would have batted an eye.

Subsequent editions of Frey's memoir have carried an apology from the author that is a model of muddle. "I didn't initially think of what I was writing as nonfiction or fiction, memoir or autobiography," he wrote. "I believe, and I understand others strongly disagree, that memoir allows the writer to work from memory instead of from a strict journalistic or historical standard. It is about impression and feeling, about individual recollection. This memoir is a combination of facts about my life and certain embellishments. It is a subjective truth, altered by the mind of a recovering drug addict and alcoholic. Ultimately, it's a story, and one that I could not have written without having lived the life I've lived."

Frey's right on one score: Others disagree, and there's a lively and continuing debate in the writing community about these issues. On a Facebook discussion the other day, for example, the question came up: How far should memoir writers go in reconstructing scenes and dialogue?

I draw a harder line than most. I favor the rough edges of memory over neat and pretty reconstructions. (More interesting, usually.) Invention? As I wrote in the Facebook discussion, that's why we have novels.

Readers, I think, are smart. They know that most writers don't have notes or documents to back up dialogue from long ago. So what's the problem? In a word: Credibility. As a writer, I want readers to grant me some license to tell my story. But if I present lengthy dialogue as fact, I risk losing their trust -- and their interest. Bad deal for me.

There's a scene in my new book, Annie's Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret, that illustrates the difficulty of reconstructing past events. I'm at a restaurant outside Detroit, interviewing a cousin about the secret that stands at the center of the book. The secret was my mother's. Throughout her life, my mom had hidden the existence of a disabled sister. I was trying to find out why. My search had led to my cousin, someone I had never known.

In the early 1950s, I learned, my cousin and my mother had argued about the secret, leading to a life-long rift between the two women. Just as my cousin is recounting a climatic moment in their dispute, we're interrupted by the waitress's offer of coffee. After the waitress leaves, my cousin resumes her account -- and offers a different (and more dramatic) version of the key moment she had described only seconds before.

I had no doubt about the crux of my cousin's story. My mother had, after all, kept the secret. But if I wanted an "accurate" version of their conversation, I was out of luck. My cousin was giving me the version that reflected years of thinking about that moment, that reflected her feelings as much as her memory.

"The nuances lie beyond my reach," I wrote in the book. "Fifty years later, this is the best my cousin can do."

I saw no reason to choose between the two versions. I would present both, and use the scene to point out the intricate patterns of trouble imposed by time and memory. That would be better than presenting a reconstruction of their argument.

That would be something closer to true.

©2009 Steve Luxenberg, author of Annie's Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret

Author Bio
Steve Luxenberg has been a senior editor with the Washington Post for twenty-two years, overseeing reporting that has won numerous awards, including two Pulitzer Prizes for explanatory journalism. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland.

For more information please visit www.steveluxenberg.com


Music Review: cradlesong

Rob Thomas
Atlantic, 2009


While I enjoyed perhaps 2/3 of the tracks on Thomas' first solo album Something to Be . . . (2005), I find that I like all the songs on cradlesong--rather in the same way I tend to like all the songs on matchbox twenty albums as well. Additionally, while I found some of the juxtapositions of songs on StB rather jarring, cradlesong flows and fits together well, rather like the musical equivalent of a Dove chocolate melting in your mouth.

Of course, the cover art for cradlesong is decidedly unattractive, but never judge an album by its cover, I suppose.

While the single "Her Diamonds" is now in heavy rotation on Mix-style radio stations everywhere, it's only the first of many strong compositions on the album--and, possibly not coincidentally--the first song on the album as well. The upbeat "Give Me the Meltdown" has garnered some attention as well and also sports an erratic music video (while the video for "Her Diamonds" features Alicia Silverstone encased in ice and slowly thawing). I have a decided preference for "Meltdown," as does my three-year-old son. Not sure what that says about me, my son, or the song really.

For the most part, cradlesong is full of songs dealing with relationships, and specifically difficulties in relationships; Thomas has admitted in interviews that he does most of his writing when he's having a bad time. Still and all, songs like the title track and "Mockingbird" have a sweetness to them that impart the bittersweet that comes with loving someone, even when there are problems and despite the imperfections in oneself or one's partner. If music, like any writing, is at its best when it can be appreciated in the absence of its author--by which I mean, one understands the meanings and feelings behind it without having the composer explain separately what he or she meant by something, and one can also relate on a personal level regardless of the original intention of the composer--then cradlesong meets this criteria, far better than anything on the rougher StB ever did. Thomas has long been lauded as a fine songwriter, and this reputation is deserved, but he does especially well here, having knit together both the powerful and the soothing in a way that is almost seamless and thus pleasing to the ear.


Book Review: Miss Julia Delivers the Goods

Ann B. Ross
Viking, 2009
352 pages


The latest in a long line of "Miss Julia" titles by Ross is one of the better ones. In Miss Julia Delivers the Goods, our Miss Julia handles both a personal crisis and a major mystery with her usual dynamic flair. First up: longtime companion Hazel Marie falls ill with sweeping consequences--and besides her being unwell, there is her breakup with Mr. Pickens to attend to, a break which Miss Julia is determined to patch. On top of which, Julia's husband Sam falls victim to a mysterious break-in that damages the research he's collected for the book he's writing. Not one to let her curiosity lie fallow, Miss Julia is on the case in no time, sniffing out the who and the why of things.

Anyone who has read other of Ross' books featuring the intrepid Julia Springer-now-Murdoch will find this one to be in the top tier of that series. Certainly there were a few places where Julia seemed to be making things harder than they needed to be--points at which I asked myself, Well why doesn't she just . . .?--but then again, it's typical of Miss Julia to complicate matters. In the end, it was a fun read, just as all Miss Julia books are expected to be.

Book Review: Birth Day

Mark Sloan, M.D.
Ballantine Books, 2009
370 pages


I don't know if the fact that I'm pregnant is what caused me to pick this one off the library's "new releases" shelf, but I'm glad I did. Sloan's straight-forward style of writing, infused with anecdotes and moderate (often wry) humor, takes what could otherwise be a dry subject and turns it into a fascinating read.

The subtitle to the book explains the core of the material: A Pediatrician Explores the Science, the History, and the Wonder of Childbirth. It may sound potential dull, or even gruesome, but Sloan understands the breadth of his potential audience and sticks mostly to really interesting facts. Topics include the growing trend in cesarean births, the history of anesthesia use in childbirth, as well as the history of the delivery room--as in, when did it become so vogue for dads to be present, and why? Additionally, Sloan discusses the differences between a fetus and a baby, and what happens in those key minutes at birth when one becomes the other. Reading about it, one can't help but have new found respect for the complexities of the human condition.

Would I have found Birth Day as interesting if I weren't expecting yet another wee one myself? I like to think so. In total, it's a quick, engrossing and fine read.


Television: Lost and Bones Finales

Let me preface this by saying that I started getting sick on Wednesday afternoon, and the way I was feeling may have colored my opinions. On the flip side, since I wasn't attending any big Lost party as so many others did, I'm also inclined to believe that mob mentality may have caused a concentrated amount of enthusiasm to build in Lost fans in general.

I was underwhelmed by the Lost finale. While I did find the Jacob aspect interesting, as far as the castaways went, I was unimpressed. At the beginning of the two-hour block, Jack Shepherd was planning to detonate a hydrogen bomb. At the end of the two-hour block, the bomb went off. Some other stuff happened in between, but as far as that story line went, it was a Point A to Point B situation. Sure, Jack and Sawyer had a big fight. And Sawyer suffered Juliet's . . . whatever it was. (As an aside, let me just say that I like Sawyer + Juliet WAY more than I like Sawyer + Kate.)

The character who interests me is Richard. I'm mostly enjoying the pseudo-mythological plot involving him and Jacob and the Locke-alike. Given the Egyptianish motif of the temples and statues and such, the finale made me wonder whether this was an Osiris/Set sort of thing (making Smokey a sort of Sobek). But my guess is that this is really some amalgam of several mythic ideas. Cain and Abel, Zoroastrianism, etc. Given that I have a minor in classics, with a focus on mythology, and that I teach mythology from time to time, it's little wonder that I like this part of the show the most.

But overall, eh. Many people are going on about what a big cliffhanger it was and how they'll have to wait, but I simply have no such anticipation built in me about it. Again, this may have been because I was literally sick and tired. My husband felt similarly about the whole thing, and he's suggested we try watching it all again after a week or so to see if we're somehow just missing the boat (or submarine) here.

Then again, I may just be becoming hard to please, because I wasn't wowed by the Bones finale, either. And Bones is my favorite show at the moment. It's generally very well written, and the actors have fabulous chemistry. However, last night's attempt at doing something different fell flat for me. Once Jack started narrating, I was pretty sure he was either (a) trying to write a hard-boiled detective novel, or (b) reading aloud to a comatose Booth as the latter recovered from surgery. As it turned out, it was Brennan who was writing--but apparently hearing Jack's voice as her internal narrator?

I suppose I could cast it as "sweet" and even an interesting character anomaly to look at it this way: Brennan was, in effect, fantasizing about being married to Booth and having his child (or expecting to, anyway). She was creating another life for them, in effect--and including all their friends, too. But as a story, even of the alternate-reality variety, it was a bit weak. No wonder she deleted it in the end. (Though, honestly, just hitting "Delete"? Puh-leeze. We all know she'd either need to close and choose "Don't Save" from the prompt or Select All and then delete. Just hitting "Delete" without having anything selected doesn't do anything. Okay, I'm done here.)

Well, I'll look forward to a new season of Bones come the fall, and Lost in the, er, winter? Early 2010 anyway. Hopefully they will spark something in me then.


Movie Review: Quantum of Solace

Starring: Daniel Craig, Olga Kurylenko, Mathieu Amalric, Judi Dench
Directed By: Marc Forster
Written By: Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis & Robert Wade
MGM, 2008
PG-13; 106 minutes
3.5 stars (out of 5)


Let me begin by saying that the first James Bond movie I ever saw was The Living Daylights. And I liked it, at the time, and the following License to Kill. I realize that these were not considered some of the better Bond films--and aren't even now--but these were my introduction to the genre as a whole. And I never could find it in me to enjoy the Sean Connery or Roger Moore movies. Blasphemy, I know. But I couldn't make it past the production values and the obvious age of those films.

And then Timmy Dalton gave way to Pierce Brosnan, whom I had known as Remington Steele. Which was perfect, to my way of thinking, at least until I saw the movies, most of which were awful (though I sort of liked the one with Michelle Yeoh).

So then Daniel Craig arrives on the scene. And he doesn't look at all like the suave James Bond everyone knows and loves; he's not slick, he's not glib in the face of danger. He's gritty and earthy and HE'S PERFECT AS BOND.

Or, at least, he's perfect as the early Bond, the one getting his start in Casino Royale. Here's a man who makes mistakes. And he has to live and deal with the fact that others often pay the ultimate price for those mistakes. And it's not something he just takes in stride; it's a real weight on him.

Quantum of Solace picks up not long after Casino Royale left off, and so we're watching Craig's Bond deal with the immediate aftermath of those events, and we're watching the character being shaped into what he's destined to become: that polished agent who will one day know that he wants his martini shaken, not stirred. But in the meantime, he's still just tasting his options.

My husband has an interesting theory that this new take on Bond wouldn't have been possible or attempted if the Jason Bourne movies (The Bourne Identity et al.) hadn't been so hugely successful. He may be right on that.

Now while I really loved Casino Royale, it meant that QoS had a lot to live up to . . . which it didn't. It simply wasn't as good, though I concede that would have been truly difficult to manage. But the character trajectory is headed in the right direction, and this Bond's relationship with M (Dench) is also a joy to watch--those tidbits of the movie melt in your mouth, they're written so well.

Overall, QoS appeared to be a means to an end, a way to put Bond on the path and continue to establish his character. It also came across as a series of action sequences, during which I could only think, And to think they have to set all that up again for another take after this one . . . That alone must take all day! Which is to say, while many of the actions sequences in Casino Royale were riveting, many of those in QoS were not so much, therefore my mind wandered. And yet QoS is far shorter in length than Casino Royale!

In the end, a recommended movie--but don't watch it too late or when you're too tired, because it's not SO great that you might not nod off from time to time.

Movie Review: The X-Files: I Want to Believe

Starring: David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson, Billy Connolly, Amanda Peet
Directed By: Chris Carter
Written By: Frank Spotnitz & Chris Carter
20th Century Fox, 2008
PG-13; 104 minutes
2.5 stars (out of 5)


I was as big an X-Files fan as any when the drama first began airing on FOX back in the early 1990s. And, oh, I had the biggest crush on David Duchovny.

Okay, so that was my disclaimer. Let's begin by looking at it this way: I Want to Believe is way better than that Fight the Future movie was. In that IWTB at least made sense from start to finish.

Still, the movie left me with that feeling of a class reunion. It was like, Awww, look, they're all grown up now. Duchovny's Fox Mulder and Anderson's Dana Scully are in a steady relationship--well, as steady as can be considering Mulder has become a kind of hermit while Scully works at a Catholic hospital . . . Which reminds me that I had a hermit crab named Mulder, but that's something else again.

So here is how the story plays out: Mulder is underground for fear of prosecution from the FBI for . . . something. Probably had to do with the television show, but I quit watching after about the fifth season because it had ceased to be coherent. And then Duchovny left, so it was like, what was the point? Anyway, the FBI come to Scully--who evidently is not in any trouble of the sort that requires her to hide--asking her to contact Mulder on their behalf because they need his help with something, er, spooky.

Turns out there's a convicted pedophile priest (Connolly) who has psychic visions that may or may not help the FBI locate an abducted agent. The FBI has promised to drop all charges against Mulder if he'll help. He's not interested, but he finally agrees after Scully encourages him to quit being so isolated already.

Well, like any addict, once Mulder's back in, he's in all the way. And Scully quickly begins to regret and resent it. Their relationship begins to crumble.

And here's where I had a small problem: because the movie had only just introduced me to this relationship between Mulder and Scully--that would be the grown-up, living-together relationship--it kind of didn't matter to me that it was now close to being pulled apart. After all, back when I knew them, they weren't "together" in that way anyway. Also, while the tension between Mulder and Scully back on the show used to be HOT, it didn't seem so now. The actors only seemed to be going through the familiar paces, without the investment required to make it all seem real and true. Maybe we were supposed to feel like they were just that comfortable with each other after being together so long, but they didn't even seem to be connecting in any meaningful way on that level.

The story itself, along with a subplot involving a patient of Scully's at the hospital where she works, is only moderately interesting. Connolly, however, does a fine job of commanding the scenes he is in, particularly when playing off Anderson's skeptical Scully. It's weird to think I used to know Connolly only as a comedian, and then as the guy who took over on Head of the Class when Johnny Fever--or Howard Hesseman if you prefer--left. In IWTB, he shows an ability to take on dramatic material.

In the end, the movie didn't show any quality that required a theatrical release; it came across as something that might have made a good episode, or maybe just a special two-hour television event.

Movie Review: Pineapple Express

Starring: Seth Rogan, James Franco, Gary Cole, Rosie Perez
Directed By: David Gordon Green
Written By: Seth Rogan & Evan Goldberg [story by Judd Apatow, Seth Rogan & Evan Goldberg]
R; 111 minutes
4 stars (out of 5)


I can't say I'm any fan of the kind of comedy that Rogan and Apatow are best known for; I liked Knocked Up but didn't see in it the kind of masterpiece so many others touted it as being. I didn't bother with Superbad, didn't find Walk Hard funny in the least, and turned off You Don't Mess with the Zohan after about 20 minutes of waiting for it to find some kind of direction.

So my expectations for Pineapple Express weren't particularly high. Which may be exactly why I liked it--simply because I didn't much expect to. But after the rather hilarious skit on Oscar night, I felt like I should see it.

The plot is rote and mundane, but that's not the important part of this movie. It's the characters and their interactions . . . And, yes, the fact that they're high while crazy things are happening does add a certain something. James Franco in particular is the bright spot here; his role as drug-dealer (and habitually high user) Saul steals every scene he's in. And he has good chemistry with Rogan's straight-man character Dale.

Here are the bare bones of the plot: Dale's job is to serve subpoenas, and in the meantime he enjoys getting high. Saul is his dealer. But while out to serve papers one night, Dale witnesses a murder (and a cop is involved with the killing), and with no one else to run to, he goes to Saul. The two of them then light out on a series of capers as they attempt to avoid being cornered by either murderous hitmen or the police. Hilarity ensues.

Secondary to all this is that Dale has a high school girlfriend whose parents he's supposed to meet for the first time at a dinner at her house, etc. This was weak at best, seemingly thrown in only because they felt the need for some love story and/or female role--aside from Rosie Perez, who plays the crooked cop.

Gary Cole (who will always be Satan to me) does an interesting turn as the kingpin behind the murder. I almost wish we'd seen more of his character, and maybe a bit more of Ed Begley, Jr., who plays Girlfriend's Dad to strong comic results.

I give Pineapple Express four stars NOT for originality--it plays out like something that could have come out in the late 80s or any time in the 90s maybe--but for the entertainment factor brought in by good interplay between actors.


Book Review: Courting Trouble

Deeanne Gist
Bethany House, 2007
330 pages
trade paperback


I failed to notice when I picked this up off the library shelf that it was a Bethany House book. I have no problem with that, but I do think it's interesting how the style of writing in "Christian" books is (to me, at least) very distinct. I started reading this one, and not more than a couple pages in I looked to see who the publisher was. Bingo! Courting Trouble is a Christian period romance.

It's not hard, mind you, to keep things chaste in period pieces, since the mores of those past eras were strict to begin with. In this case, Courting Trouble is set in Corsicana, Texas, in 1894. Being from that area of Texas myself, I enjoyed reading a fictional take on its past--though author Gist actually does use a great amount of factual information to shore up her story.

The story itself is of Essie Spreckelmeyer, farouche daughter of the town judge, who has turned 30 and has no marriage prospects. Therefore she takes it upon herself to find a husband. The makings of your typical fluff piece of romantic fiction, yes, but the tale becomes heavy-handed about halfway through. While early on there are the sort of name-dropping indicators that the book is Christian in nature--i.e., Essie wondering what denomination the new man in town is--later in the book there is more hit-you-over-the-head moments of people telling Essie to have faith in Jesus that He has the right plan for her life and so on. Again, I don't have a problem with this really, but I did feel it was all laid on a bit thick. Though, too, since this book is from a Christian publisher, I suppose at the core they desire the kinds of manuscripts that have some "teachable" material in them, whether they be fiction or no.

All in all, Courting Trouble is a well-written and nicely plotted story. I wouldn't say no to reading more such ones (and according to a note in the back of the book, Essie will be featured in another upcoming book this year), though I'd certainly put some other books between them. Otherwise I might feel suffocated by the underlying agenda.


Movie Review: Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist

Starring: Michael Cera, Kat Dennings, Aaron Yoo, Ari Graynor, Alexis Dziena
Directed By: Peter Sollett
Written By: Lorne Scafaria (from the novel by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan)
Sony/Columbia, 2008
PG-13; 90 minutes
5 stars (out of 5)


Those who miss those 80s teen life films by John Hughes, and those who enjoy Cameron Crowe--especially when he's dealing with music--will surely love Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, which is as endearing as any of the aforementioned sorts of movies without trying to be "retro" or nostalgic.

The story is simple: Cera plays Nick, a would-be musician, if only his gay bandmates would settle on a name for their band. Norah (Dennings) is the reluctant daughter of a recording studio exec. They meet while out searching for Where's Fluffy?--an elusive band rumored to be playing somewhere in the city that night. In the midst of all this is (a) Nick's ex-girlfriend for whom he's been pining and moping, (b) Norah's friend Caroline who is drunk and lost in the city, (c) a pseudo-boyfriend of Norah's who is evidently mostly enjoying her company for the perks her big wig father can extend, including free meals and a potential recording contract.

The movie is set and filmed in New York, and unlike in some movies in which NYC = generic city setting, here the city is a character in its own right, and people familiar with New York will admire its role as the group of teens maneuvers through the streets and in and out of clubs, diners and other sites. The actors, too, were pitch perfect in their portrayals; it would have been easy for several to go over the top, but clearly the direction was key and spot on. (As an aside, however, I would like to say that as much as I like Michael Cera, and as perfect as he was here, I'd like to see him stretch himself a bit in the future. I feel as if I've seen him do the same kind of thing many times over.)

One warning about this film: if you have a delicate gag reflex (which I do), you'll want to cover your eyes or leave the room when Caroline goes into the bus terminal bathroom. And you'll be fervently wishing someone would throw that gum away.


Music: "Her Diamonds"

Just heard a VERY short advance clip of Rob Thomas' first single from Cradlesong--the entire song and accompanying video is due out mid-April. Still, it sounds promising, very groovy. The entire album is slated to drop at the end of June.

And no, none of this is an April Fools joke.


Book Review: Secrets of the Hollywood Girls Club

Maggie Marr
Crown Publishers, 2008
260 pages


The fun in reading Maggie Marr's Hollywood Girls Club and now its sequel Secrets of the Hollywood Girls Club is that Marr brings the Hollywood system and lifestyle into vivid reality in a most entertaining way. And no wonder--Marr is herself a writer and producer in L.A. She uses her knowledge, then, to infuse her novels, and the result is an easy, breezy read with characters that are fun to read about.

The books have at their core four Hollywood friends: the big superstar actress, the agent-turned-producer, the producer-turned-studio exec, and the mousy scriptwriter. Also involved are various directors, insane starlets, shady publicists and the like. Having worked a bit in the biz myself, I have to admit I might be biased in my enjoyment of these books, as I find in them a way to live vicariously in the life I chose to leave behind.

The only drawback might be that anyone who reads mysteries on even a semi-regular basis will have things figured out pretty early on. But watching the characters get out of tight spots is the real fun here, and Marr certainly understands the principle of making things very dark indeed before the sunrise. One can really feel the tension building as the problems become more complicated . . . And there was one obvious piece of information left undeclared, which makes me wonder if Marr is planning to use that in yet another book. Hmm?

The ending feels a bit rushed and sudden, but that only marginally detracts from the whole. The bottom line is that it was a book I had a difficult time putting down because it moved so quickly, like a roller coaster, or really a bit like a good movie.


Book Review: The Last Queen

C.W. Gortner
Ballantine, 2006
368 pages


Disclosure: I read a lot of historical fiction. Love the stuff. From Regency romances to the based-in-real-life, it's one of my favorite genres. In particular I can recommend Judith Tarr's books set in ancient Egypt and Alison Weir's books set in Tudor England.

I can also recommend The Last Queen. This was my first foray into Spanish history; it's the fictionalized life story of Juana the Mad, one of the daughters of Isabel and Ferdinand. (Her younger sister, mind you, became Catherine of Aragon--Henry VIII's first wife.) Gortner tells the story in compelling form; the book was extremely difficult to put down. And at the same time, at those moments when Juana was truly trapped by the politics around her, I almost wanted to throw the book across the room. Her frustration was that real, her predicament that moving.

A little background for those who know even less than I do about Juana's life (I found this book highly educational): she was married off to Philip of Habsburg, who was archduke of Flanders. By rotten luck, she ended up as heiress of Spain when her brother, older sister and older sister's son all died. Most people would count that as great luck, but it worked against Juana. Philip was moved to extreme ambition and attempted to take Juana's throne, and their heretofore happy marriage became violent. Juana suffered severe anxiety, and with reason--her husband effectively imprisoned her in an attempt to control her and use her in his own quest for power. It didn't help that Juana's family had a history of "madness" (most scholars now suspect it was manic depression).

Makes for a great story, and Gortner, who is himself half Spanish and was raised in Malaga, takes the threads and weaves them to advantage via his fine prose. One hears Juana's singular voice echoing through the ages. Sure, it's only an author's best guess, since all anyone can go on are historical facts and primary source accounts. But Gortner's "best guess" is a fine one indeed, at least when it comes to entertainment value.


Book Review: The Blue Cotton Gown: A Midwife's Memoir

Patricia Harman
Beacon Press, 2008
290 pages


Perhaps not the best thing for a pregnant woman to read, although the stories are, for the most part, heartwarming--it's just that some are sad, too, and with all my hormones already in an uproar, this book moved me to tears two or three times.

Still and all, there's nothing graphic in this book, nothing to scare off the faint of heart when it comes to hospital stories and such. The author, a midwife, no longer delivers babies, so there were only a couple of mild flashbacks to deal with in that respect. Mostly Harman weaves a lovely narrative of a little more than a year's time spent at the women's clinic she runs with her OB/GYN husband. She focuses on a handful of patients who make repeat appearances, weaving in her own home life at that time, as well as some of the financial woes of running a business. The result is a full picture, well worth viewing.

Harman has a knack for descriptive writing; one easily sees what she imparts. (I only wish I could see some of her photographs; she takes pictures as a hobby.) The book is a quick read, too; I finished it in less than a week, which is no small feat when you've got a toddler and an infant at home and a bazillion things to do besides. Part of the quickness of the read, though, might've been that the stories were engaging enough that I didn't necessarily want to set the book down for very long. I actively looked for snatches of time in which to read it.

I can't say I love the way Harman wraps up the book; the moment she chose seems "off" somehow, though I couldn't tell you what would've worked better. Maybe it was simply that I felt she'd taken an incident and blown it up into something bigger--something that works to her advantage a few times in the narrative, but at the end became slightly too bloated. She tried to make the moment weightier than seemed fair to do, though maybe it was that weighty to her--but it was the one place where her writing failed to get across to me.

Overall, though, a fine read.


Movie Review: Watchmen

Starring: Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Patrick Wilson
Directed By: Zack Snyder
Written By: David Hayter & Alex Tse
Warner Brothers, 2009
R; 162 minutes
2 stars (out of 5)


Fans of the Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons graphic novel (or comic books, if you picked them up before they were collected) will pretty much recognize what they're seeing as an almost exact visual interpretation of what they've read, down to some shots being framed exactly as they appear in the comic. Even though large parts of the original material have been omitted or, in some cases (mostly the ending) changed entirely, in some ways watching Watchmen is like reading the graphic novel--only not as much fun and without a break, so that viewers are almost forced to ingest the entirety of it in one sitting, as if strapped to their chairs during a 12-course meal.

One can commend Snyder on his being faithful to the source, but there are some drawbacks as well. For one, if you're going to make a movie based on a book or comic, there should be a relevancy to the film that distinguishes it from its original material. That isn't evident in Watchmen, which as I've said is rather like reading the graphic novel, if a slightly abridged version. If that's the case, then one has to ask oneself, Why did I bother to watch this? I could have enjoyed the experience equally on the page (and saved ticket money besides). It's the same feeling I get when I go to a concert and the band plays all the songs the same way they sound on the album--why? I could have stayed home and listened to the CD. Give me a show.

Additionally, if anything is/was ripe for an update Watchmen is on that list. Now before the hardcore fans start spitting venom, let's be honest: a film can be visually faithful to its source (if the source is a comic or a Dr. Seuss story or anything illustrated, really) without being true to the essence of the original material. I felt like Watchmen lacked the spirit of the Moore/Gibbons work. Sort of like how some of the American Idol singers can be technically perfect but lack the soul and passion that music requires--Snyder's work, while clearly lovingly cinemagraphed, was missing the core needed to really make viewers invest themselves.

There were a couple cosmetic problems as well: the makeup on Robert Wisden, acting as Richard Nixon, was atrocious, and the effects used to turn Billy Crudup into Dr. Manhattan were sub-par in my estimation, about the quality of a video game maybe. It was his lips in particular, his mouth movements.

The acting was, overall, uneven. Haley as Rorschach was spot on, Jeffrey Dean Morgan did all right with his smaller part (though I still can't help but think "Denny!" every time I see him), Wilson's Dan Dreiburg had all the right facial expressions even if his delivery was somewhat stilted at moments. Meanwhile, Matthew Goode was difficult to digest, and Malin Akerman seemed to be coming from the Xena school of poses during her action scenes. Maybe that was just the hair, though.

Despite all the seeming ranting, I didn't hate the film. It simply didn't kindle any real emotion in me, and unlike the graphic novel, which I'd found difficult to put down when I first read it (and I've read it several times since that first), I could take or leave this movie. Characters that were interesting on the vividly colored pages of a comic paled in comparison here, in the chiaroscuro lighting of grainy celluloid.


Music: Rob Thomas' Cradle Song

drop date: June 30
atlantic records


Although Thomas' initial intention was to write an album full of Latinesque music à la Paul Simon's Rhythm of the Saints, he admits that what was coming out of him didn't all fit that bill. Various tracks have been labeled "Tom Pettyish" and "in the vein of INXS." While that second one gives me pause, the first doesn't at all; Thomas has shown those particular roots before--I recall a very good live cover of Petty's "American Girl" that I witnessed during the Mad Season tour. Thomas could do far worse than to produce this generation's Full Moon Fever, after all. (Aside: wasn't 1989 just the BEST year?)

Of course I'll buy the album. My three-year-old will surely insist upon hearing it multiple times, as he does all "Uncle Rob" music. Still, if I'm being entirely honest, I only enjoy about 2/3 of Something to Be . . . ; the rest I generally skip the tracks on, which is something I can't say of the matchbox twenty albums, of which I enjoy every cut. I realize it's only one solo effort, but I find StB uneven, and I'm hoping the sophomore outing will have a bit more confidence behind it, be more of a straight-shot arrow than a meandering smoke cloud.


Movies: Clue Remake?!

Or not necessarily a "remake" but a new movie based on Hasbro's boardgame. Why? The 1985 film was incredible; what need is there for anything more? Or different? The script was tight and perfect (particularly in its humor), the cast had all possible chemistry. And yet Gore Verbinski (of Pirates of the Caribbean distinction) has been asked to make another Clue. This is just an utter waste of time, money and energy. If you want to remake a movie, pick something that was just awful the first time and make it better. Otherwise you're setting yourself up for failure.


Television: Lost

You know, I took a class in college called Parageography--the geography of imaginary places. As in Narnia and Middle Earth and Oz, or even the places Odysseus (aka Ulysses) visited when trying to get home from the Trojan war. Part of the class required us to create our own imaginary places. Mine was an island called AElit. It was an island no one could find. The back story was that an Englishman named Jonathan Engleman had gone on a sailing holiday and disappeared for 11 years, only to turn up talking about this island he'd been on . . . Now AElit was inhabited, mind you, and had its own history and language, etc. I used to have a Web site devoted to it, but I let the domain name lapse a long while back. Now I'm not saying the Lost guys stole, in part, my ideas. At any rate, mysterious islands--ones that move or can't be found--are nothing special to literature or myth. Islands seem to lend themselves especially to being small enough to lose in the great expanses of water that house the world. It's all in the execution of said story or myth . . .

A few thoughts about last night's episode:
  • Is the "very clever" person Hawking mentioned her own son?
  • Did Ben go off to attempt to murder Penny? After all, once he saw Desmond, he must've assumed she was in the vicinity. And Ben did tell Charles that he (Ben) would kill Charles' daughter (Penny) as revenge for Ben's own daughter's death.
  • I'm guessing Kate probably left Aaron with Claire's mother. Giving up a child is difficult, even when one does it with the child's best interests at heart. But if anything more drastic than that had happened to Aaron, Kate would surely have been an even bigger emotional wreck than she was.
  • So the island has always been jumping? In space, if not in time? But turning the donkey wheel made it move in time as well? Am I understanding this right?
As we neared the point in the show where it was clear something would need to happen to the plane soon (Ajira 316--which conjures the biblical John [Locke?] 3:16), I turned to my husband and said, "Wouldn't it be funny if they just landed in Guam?" Think about it: that would have been pretty funny. "Great, now we're in f***ing Guam! Now what?" But of course that wasn't the case. Just as well, I suppose, since we don't need any more stretching of this part of the story.


Snippet Television Update: American Idol

Carly and Michael are dressed for a Goth wedding. And Ryan Seacrest shall officiate.

Snippet Television Update: Lost

Just one thing I want to say about last week's Lost: everyone is saying that Locke's turning the frozen donkey wheel will have stopped the time flashes. Oookay, then why exactly do they need the Oceanic 6 to return? I thought they were required to stop the skipping record. Did I miss something? Misunderstand something?


Why I Hate Cookie Magazine

I subscribed to Cookie a couple years ago, just out of curiosity. I got one of those cheap offers in the mail, and the colorful letters announcing the magazine's title made it look fun. As it turns out, however . . . Not so much. I let the subscription lapse, but then my husband got a free subscription with some other purchase, and now it is again turning up in my mailbox each month.

Oh, Cookie is probably great for people living the high life in Manhattan--ones who just happen to have kids. Not so much for bumpkin ol' me, though.

Cookie's tag line is: "All the Best for Your Family." Apparently I'm supposed to feel guilty, then, that I don't dress my kids in Guess and Burberry, nor do I plunk down hundreds and/or thousands of dollars on shoes, bags and clothes for myself, either. I mean, take the March issue's page 38, "Style: Smart Cookie." They ask a fashion designer about how she manages to be a stylish mom. Uh, well, my first guess is she's a f***ing fashion designer. Followed closely by, And she makes a f***ing ton of money. After all, Designer Mom actually promotes blouses that are just shy of $600 a pop, a trench dress that is $3,495, and $117 jeans for her 9-year-old daughter.

I will admit, there is a little bar at the bottom of the page that suggest slightly less exorbitant items, but the stuff that gets primo placement is all pricey.

And let me just point out that I buy all my kids' clothes on sale because I know they'll be ruined in a matter of hours, if not minutes, by spilled food, dirt, paint, or baby spit-up. I buy most of my stuff on the cheap, too, for that matter.

Cookie goes on to suggest--as I've noticed in various issues--family vacations in, oh, Italy. No DisneyWorld here, though Disney Adventures does advertise their wares, which would be family tours to places like Machu Picchu and safaris in Kenya. For someone like me, for whom a day trip to a quaint neighboring downtown district is as close as I'm likely to come to a vacation in the next few years, these ads and articles are merely taunts. I hate them.

In fact, I hate Cookie. I hate it for making me jealous of what I don't have, for making me feel inferior as a person, a mother, a family. I hate it for making me second-guess my whole life, for making me wonder what I would have had to do to get where these people seem to be, where I went wrong. I mostly hate that it pushes the buttons on all my insecurities. And while I at least know and can acknowledge these feelings--as G.I. Joe always told us, "Knowing is half the battle"--they're still there. Less and less with each issue, as I find myself more and more able to distance myself. But still . . . I really hate Cookie.


Television: Dollhouse

Starring: Eliza Dushku, Harry Lennix, Fran Kranz
FOX, Fridays at 9:00 PM


Like so many other television sci-fi cultists out there, I like Joss Whedon. I loved Buffy, Angel, and Firefly. So now I'm trying Dollhouse, despite my lack of love for Eliza Dushku. (And right now they're playing Lady GaGa's "Let's Dance," so points deducted for that, too.)

And why is Walid from Day 6 of 24 here?

Never minding that, the simple premise of the show is as follows: Dushku plays "Echo" a living "doll"--a person who can be programmed to become whomever clients of the Dollhouse require. This includes (apparently) escorts, kidnapping negotiators, and plain ol' kick-ass agents. Echo is wiped clean after each escapade, not able to remember what or who she was. From what I can determine, it's rather like restoring factory settings to a CPU.

There's also an X-Files kind of element in which a federal agent has been assigned to seek the Dollhouse, which many others in the Bureau believe is a fiction. But of course this one agent doggedly believes it's real.

The use of the name "Echo" is an interesting if obvious choice by Whedon. Echo is, of course, the mythological nymph who loved to talk. When she tricked Juno, the goddess cursed Echo to only repeat the words of others and never to be able to speak for herself. Then Echo fell in love with Narcissus. But of course she couldn't tell him, and meanwhile he was too wrapped up in himself to notice. So Echo pined away until all that was left of her was, well, her echoing voice.

Also, Echo has begun to remember little "echoes" from her past. Chalk it up to a flaw in her programming, triggered by coming into contact with something/someone from her history--she is becoming self-aware. Oh no! (Insert feminist rant here.) If they can do this with women, why not men? Where are the good looking guys? After all, when I was a little girl, I had boy dolls as well as girl ones. Any way you slice it, the answer isn't flattering. It's all girls in the Dollhouse because they're somehow "easier" to program (suggesting weaker minds), or because they're what clients want (pretty girls), or because it's what the people running the Dollhouse prefer (pretty girls). You could try and spin it that the women are, in fact, stronger, which is why they're the ones chosen, but physically that's simply not completely sound. Some women are strong--physically and mentally--but in most cases men are built more solidly, and you can't insist that women are always the better choice for any given "engagement" the Dollhouse might have on its roster.

My husband points out that Dollhouse takes a lot from The Pretender: someone special, capable of being anyone, all things to all people, something new and exciting every week. And meanwhile there's a shady organization behind it all. I can see this, but Jared's childlike wonder made The Pretender a wonderful chiaroscuro, whereas everything I've seen thus far in Dollhouse (yes, just one episode, and a reworked pilot at that) is decidedly dark--all dark. Just no humor at all, no levity. Like swallowing lead. But maybe that's just the first cast of the fishing line, sinking into the water, soon to reel viewers in.

I'll give it a couple more episodes anyway and see what kind of trajectory it takes. After all, there's nothing else on Friday nights, so if you're going to be home (and I always am), you might as well watch.


Snippet Television Updates: American Idol, Lost

First up, AI. I just want to say that Tatiana del Toro needs to go. People that annoying aren't entertaining. They're JUST annoying. I don't want to meet them in real life, and I certainly don't want to have to endure them when trying to unwind in front of the TV.

Meanwhile, Joanna Pacitti--just shown last night making it to the top 36--is now ousted after being deemed "ineligible." You think? It took them this long to decide that? The girl already had a recording contract and a single, AND she was BFFs with some execs at 19 Entertainment (yes, the people who produce AI). Sorry, honey, the biz is surely about who you know, but America won't stand for the semblance of unfair.

Not that I don't think AI is utterly rigged for ratings. Else Tatiana (who doesn't actually sing that well, especially not compared to many who were given their walking papers) wouldn't still be on the show. And Nick/Norman might not be either. I say "might" because despite his quirks, he can actually sing. He just needs to get serious. Or else find a different outlet.

Now on to Lost. Don't tell me! I haven't seen last night's episode yet because my husband had a work function/dinner and I decided to wait for him so we could watch together via DVR tonight. However, I do have a theory to float about Jacob and the cabin. Is it possible that they're caught in a sort of time vortex? Maybe Jacob was a Dharma worker who got sucked in or something . . . Maybe that's how he knows what will happen and what people should do--he's skipping around in time and can sort of see past, present and future? Might also explain why the cabin isn't always there. Yeah, the idea is wacky, but then so is the rest of the show.


Television: Superbowl XLIII Commercials, Part 2

I'm enjoying the dancing football players. Too bad Monsters vs. Aliens looks stupid. But I do like Sobe. I used to drink that white flavor; I don't remember what it was called, but it was yummy.

I've also really liked the Sprint "run the world" ads. The delivery guys at the school, the roadies at the airport = friggin' awesome.

Stop with the Heroes commercials, though. I really don't want to see your dumb show, no matter how clever your ads are. Okay, wait--if Gary Busey really was on that show, I'd totally watch it. Wait, my husband says that was Dan Morino. Or Joe Montana. Some old football guy, anyway. But he looked like Busey.

Bruce is looking good for his age, btw. I've never been some big fan of his music, but whatever. It's like, I won't change the station when he comes on, but I don't own any of his albums either.

My husband has since confirmed it was John Elway in the Heroes commercial. I don't know who that is, but I'm decidedly less impressed now that I know it wasn't Gary Busey.

Okay, next time I need to work on a burning oil rig, I'll think of the Toyota Tundra. Thanks for the heads up.

William Shatner! And a guy who does a really good imitation of him! Still, no matter what Cap'n Kirk tries to tell me (or sell me), I can't afford a vacation this year.

Inner hero? Universal Studios? Didn't I just say I couldn't afford a vacation? Quit rubbing my nose in it!

And if I laughed my ass off, I don't think I'd want it reattached. I could stand to lose the weight.

All those people are turning into avatars or something. Oh, I get it. Coke wants us to disconnect from cyberspace and reconnect with the real people around us. Cute.

Bridgestone. On the moon and rapping. Or something. Bring back the Potato Heads. Ooooh, what if they were on the moon?

I liked that the waitress gave that mob guy a smiley pancake.

And I've had jobs like that, sitting under the butt of a moose. (Not literally. Figuratively.) Really, though, I feel sorry for the moose having to stand there like that.

Scotland! I've always wanted to go there. Apparently the horses talk there, too, which would be really cool to hear. Oh, and the Clydesdale's name is Jake. Good to know. But wait. What happened to Daisy the Dancing Circus Horse?

Moose are strong, right? Maybe that moose could look on Monster.com and see if Budweiser is hiring. He could pull a wagon for sure. Oh, but then Jake might end up out of a job. And he needs to support Daisy. There's just no good answer, is there?

Race to Witch Mountain trailer. Cool.

Transformers 2 trailer. Cool.

The lady on the dolphin worries me. I don't know if I'm more concerned for the lady or the dolphin. (Hey, wasn't that a short story we had to read in school? No, that was a tiger, I think.) Anyway, I'm pretty sure punching koalas is illegal.

Bugs don't make me want soda. And my infant daughter has this weird, smiley sun that plays that music, so now when I hear it I just feel creeped out.

The Conan ad was . . . strange. It was like, "Oh, I know those people. They're on television." But I have yet to come to the point in my life in which I do what the people on TV tell me. Sorry, Conan.

Ah, Sout' Louisiana daddies. I have one of those. "Get me a snowcone." That's right, boy. You may be a sports star, but your daddy will always be your daddy. Remember that!

John Turturro has just confused me about beer. He was trying to make Heineken into something very serious, but I felt like he was threatening me.

"High life!" Indeed. I've had crazy bums yell that at me on the street.

I like that the Coke Zero ad tapped the classic Coke ad and then subverted it.

Cute Taco Bell ad. Gets across the idea of "fast" food. Still, if a guy brought me TB on a first date? Not that I don't like TB, but . . . I'm starting to worry that guys who frequent Taco Hell are stalkers or something. They just need John Turturro to put the sense of menace over the top.

Hey! Not nice to zap that bird for no good reason, you brainless wonder!

Alec Baldwin! I remember when you were thin! And yes, I have used hulu.com to watch 30 Rock. But I don't appreciate your taunting the fact that I do both watch television AND use a computer. After all, I'm paying your fat checks, right? So you can live high on the hog? (What I'm saying here, Alec, is that you're a FAT HOG. Deal with it.)

MacGruber! And Pepsi. I think this is a hold over from last night's SNL. Man, Richard Dean Anderson is looking puffy. Is he ill or something? I almost didn't recognize him except for his voice. That makes me sad; I so loved MacGyver. In fact, "Mac" was my nickname in high school (one of them, anyway). I carried a pocket knife in the interior pocket of my denim jacket. (Back then, you couldn't be arrested for that.)

They like saying "unneccesary roughness" a lot during this game. Anyone remember that movie? Actually, it was Necessary Roughness. Scott Bakula was in it, and it was filmed near where I lived at the time, and I saw Scott Bakula at the local movie theatre. But I can't remember what I was going to see. I just remember him saying "hi" to me in the ticket line and me looking at him like he was some crazy person before realizing (too late!) who he was. And me being such a big Quantum Leap fan, too. What a missed opportunity. He's the same age as my mother anyway, so whatever.

That Fitzgerald kid is fast. I'm so happy for him. I hope the Cardinals can hold the Steelers off for a couple minutes.

My computer is running out of juice. I shall sign off now. Sorry not to cover the last of what has turned out to be a rather exciting game . . .

Television: Superbowl XLIII Commercials, Part 1

Warning: Live blogging tonight. This means I'm going stream-of-consciousness. I cannot be held responsible for the odd turnings of my mind prior to my stopping to consider them. What I mean is, I'm typing before I really think here. Just whatever comes out. Forewarned is forearmed and all that.

I don't care about the game. I'm just interested n the ads. Thus far, we've seen a decent trailer for the G.I. Joe movie, a decidedly lame Bud Light ad, and a fantastic Audi featuring Jason Statham. Early theme of the night: breaking through windows.

Now Bob Dylan is singing "Forever Young." Another theme for the night seems to be nostalgia/progress. Thank the economic times for this one.

The Doritos ad with the snowglobe was, as my husband called it, "subversive." And just a little strange, though it still made us laugh. I have some Doritos upstairs, but that ad did not make me want to go get them.

Conan O'Brien? A better Bud Light ad than the first one. Celebrities are common in Superbowl ads in any given year, but they seem especially obvious this year. Is that an economic thing, too? None of us have money except for the celebs. BUT . . . If we all just drink Bud Light and drive an Audi, we can live like they do!

And what's this Year One thing? I can't decide if it's funny or stupid. That ad didn't sway me in either direction.

Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head in a car . . . They don't quite qualify as "celebrities." And could I care less about (a) Bridgestone tires or (b) yet another Fast and Furious movie? Vin Diesel has apparently had to go back to that in order to reboot his career. I guess the economy can hurt even B-List celebs. (Meanwhile it must be that much cheaper to hire the Potato Heads. They'd be awesome in a Fast and Furious movie, don't you think?)

Monkeys! Yay! My husband would love to be king of the monkeys!

Matt Lauer and Will Ferrell in a Land of the Lost trailer. So is Matt Lauer in the movie, or just in the ad? I'd totally be into seeing Matt in that movie.

Stupd sexist Doritos. The only that saved that ad was the guy getting hit by a bus. Meanwhile, I HATE the &*@#!%^ Go Daddy ads!

Pepsi Max is the diet cola for men? Really? Anyway, in my experience men are whiners, at least in the presence of their "womenfolk." They may try and be all that in front of their buds, but you can bet they went home and wimpered all night to their wives--assuming they have any, the losers.

Yay ostrich! How can David Duchovny expect me to believe a dog would be better than that? Meanwhile, first Clydesdale (aka Budweiser ad) of the night. And now, another one. Both cute. First: a Dalmatian playing fetch, and the Clydesdale decides to show off by bringing a huge tree limb. How is that supposed to make me want beer, exactly? I hate showoffs. But it's a cute ad, anyway. Second: true love wins the day as the Clydesdale crosses the country in search of Daisy the Dancing Circus Horse. I wish them all the best in their life together. I can only suppose Clydesdale still has his job as a drafthorse and can support Daisy and their future offspring.

Star Trek! Yes indeed, by golly. I am that excited about it. Never mind that the trailer itself is actually not so inspiring.

Is this a Nike ad or something? Reebok? Oh, nope, Gatorade, evidently now branded "G." As if it were some rapper instead of a sports drink.

David Abernathy is exactly the kind of person you'd openly admire and privately hate. I hope cars.com totally dupes him and he buys a lemon. Because come on, the guy has to fail sometime!

Hyundai is trying to position itself as an aspirational brand that is giving other such brands a run for their money. Hrm. Dunno if that will work, but they're giving it a decent shot.

Stupid E-Trade babies. Sorry, but babies don't sell me on anything. My own kids give me enough trouble without me wanting to see more knee biters on television, trying to convince me to what? I'm not even sure, and I don't care. (And hey, I like Mr. Mister, so I don't love that they're a punchline here.)

Yay for a new Pixar movie!

And now: more Bud Light stupidity. I'm supposed to find the guy "writing" to be clever and amusing? Now if they'd done that with football--like when the commentators use the writing on the screen--or with weathermen or something, then I might've found it slightly entertaining. Maybe.

Death and taxes. Har. And wicked flowers in a box. Wow. That was really striking. I mean, as a woman I took notice. I've had people send me flowers in a box, and they were lovely flowers. But now I'm thinking, "Were those people trying to tell me something? Besides 'we'll miss you' or whatever?" (Since the boxed flowers came when I left a job. Hmm. Maybe they were trying to kick me out the door . . .) Thanks, Teleflowers, for preying on my insecurities. I know that was the whole point, but man, seriously. You hit home.

Hateful bitch on a cell phone. Chester Cheetah does a public service by siccing pigeons on her.

Back after halftime.