Monthly Archives

June 2009

Wanna Take a Cheap Vacation?

Since we’re in a recession right now, most of us probably have to cut back on the big vacation this summer. But you don’t have to feel stuck wherever you are. I’ve compiled a list of movies available on DVD that will take you away to an exotic locale. How can you beat a $3 vacation? (I’m even cheaper—I get them for free from my public library.)

Oia coastline on Santorini, photo © Pop Culture Nerd

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants—Santorini, Greece. I immediately made plans to go to this Greek island after seeing this movie on video (it took me a year and a half to finally get there but still…). The sun-drenched beaches and white-washed buildings were too much for me to resist, and the reality was even more astounding.

Roman Holiday—Rome, Italy. One of my favorite movies starring my favorite actor and actress of all time—Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn—showcases the wonderful landmarks the city is famous for: the Spanish steps, Trevi fountain, Bocca della Verita (Mouth of Truth), Coliseum and more. It’s like getting a tour through the Eternal City from two charismatic, gorgeous tour guides.

If you want to see more of Italy and want to see it in color, check out The Talented Mr. Ripley. Besides Rome, the movie gives glimpses of Naples, Venice, Lazio and the Amalfi coast. And Jude Law almost counts as a tourist attraction in this movie.

Julie Delpy & Ethan Hawke in Paris

Before Sunset—Paris, France. This movie takes place in one day as Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke’s characters walk and talk around Paris, still trying to figure out if their characters should be together (they started this dance in Before Sunrise). They sit around in cafes, take a boat down the Seine, and do romantic stuff with Paris as their backdrop. We’re not sure if they’re actually in love with each other but I do know I fell in love with the City of Light.

To Catch a Thief—Monaco. Grace Kelly was blindingly glamorous in this movie but the city, as captured in this Alfred Hitchcock movie, is just as breathtaking. Watching her drive Cary Grant around in her blue convertible and set off fireworks at night over the city when she kissed him, I thought of that famous Tina Fey line: “I want to go to there.”

Bardem frolicking with Cruz and Johansson

Vicki Christina Barcelona—Barcelona. Seeing Javier Bardem, Scarlett Johansson and Penelope Cruz take bike rides and have picnics in the countryside, I asked myself why I don’t do that more often. Oh, yeah, I live in L.A. and would probably get hit by an over-sized SUV on my bike. But in Spain, that kind of languorous behavior would probably be enforced. Aren’t siestas mandatory? Sign me up.

The ladies sashaying through a bright and shiny NYC

Sex and the City—New York City. We all know there are parts of NYC that are so scary, you wouldn’t walk past them in daylight with beefy bodyguards by your side. But SATC makes it all look so shiny and romantic, stuffed with beautiful people wearing even more beautiful clothes. The walk-in closet Big builds for Carrie is a landmark in itself. I could never afford the way of life these people have but indulging in the movie makes me feel fancy and frivolous.

Australia—Australia. I don’t know much about Australian geography so I had to look up some things after being blown away by the stunning locales in this movie. Apparently, some of the featured areas are in Western Australia (the Kimberley region), the Northern Territory, and Queensland. I’m not an outback person so much but while watching this movie, I thought, “How nice would it be to unplug from everything, go there for a little while and ride some horses?” If Hugh Jackman shows up and wants to hang out, that would be fine, too.

Gleeson and Farrell gliding through canals

In Bruges—Bruges, Belgium. I apologize to some of you if you’ve heard me go on about this movie before but I love this little gem. Though Colin Farrell complains endlessly in the movie about being stuck in this medieval city, I found it quaint and lovely. I like the canals and the market square and the imposing Belfry, even though it served as backdrop to a bloody scene.

So have at ’em, readers. Check out these movies, put on your most comfy traveling clothes and recline that seatback on your La-Z Boy. Post comments and tell me which movies have inspired you to visit a certain place.

Speaking of traveling, I’ll be out of town for the next 10 days to see family. I might be posting less often but I’ve stockpiled some great stuff that will be published while I’m gone, including reviews of The Proposal, Funny People and an interview with thriller writer Gregg Hurwitz about his new novel, Trust No One.

I might also post book reviews from the road ’cause here’s what I’m taking with me:

stack o' books

There’s no way I can finish them all but I can’t decide which to leave behind. I sampled the first chapter of each (I’m halfway through Hothouse) and they’re good in different ways—funny, suspenseful, adventurous—so I’ll take them all and let my mood guide me.

Enjoy your DVD vacations. May each take you on a wonderful adventure.


Winner of Signed Galley of Kathryn Casey's BLOOD LINES

Instead of using, I chose this very scientific method for the giveaway drawing: I wrote names of interested parties on folded strips of paper, put them in a hat, mixed them up, walked over to my neighbors’ place and asked their adorable 3-year-old daughter Mia to draw one out (she was awarded a small bouquet of balloons for her assistance).

And the name she selected was…(yes, I got permission to post her picture here)

Congratulations, Shelley P! Please let me know how you’d like the galley inscribed and where you’d like it sent. I’ll pass along the info to Kathryn Casey, who will sign and ship the ARC to you directly.

Thanks to all who participated. If you didn’t win, Blood Lines will be available for purchase July 21. And there will be giveaways of other stuff so maybe next time!


THE ANGEL’S GAME Is a Dangerous One

Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s international phenomenon, The Shadow of the Wind, is a luscious epic about how the love of books can transform and even save lives. Zafon could’ve been writing about readers’ feelings towards Shadow itself. Therefore, it was with great elation that I began reading his follow-up, The Angel’s Game (out June 16 in the U.S.). Alas, it’s not as strong as Shadow but still an impressive accomplishment.

Set in Barcelona in the 1920s, the gothic tale revolves around David Martin, a sickly writer who makes a deal with an enigmatic publisher to write a book perhaps to rival the Bible. The publisher, Andreas Corelli, offers him an astronomical advance but the real incentive is the promise that Martin’s health would be restored. As Martin researches his project, he discovers similarities between his situation and the mystery surrounding the previous owner of the house he’s renting. Apparently, the man was also a writer who went mad while working on a book for an unknown publisher and ultimately killed himself. Or did he? As Martin investigates, more people start dying around him and Martin wonders what he’d really gotten himself into.

As with Shadow, Zafon’s prose (translated by Lucia Graves) is breathtaking. Here’s the opening paragraph:

A writer never forgets the first time he accepted a few coins or a word of praise in exchange for a story. He will never forget the sweet poison of vanity in his blood, and the belief that, if he succeeds in not letting anyone discover his lack of talent, the dream of literature will provide him with a roof over his head, a hot meal at the end of the day, and what he covets most: his name printed on a miserable piece of paper that surely will outlive him. A writer is condemned to remember that moment, because from then on he is doomed and his soul has a price.

Are you nodding your head, thinking, “I know exactly what he means?”

Zafon also has a winning sense of humor. He describes Martin’s newspaper editor thusly:

Don Basilio is a forbidding-looking man…who did not suffer fools and who subscribed to the theory that the liberal use of adverbs and adjectives was the mark of a pervert or someone with a vitamin deficiency.

And when Martin tells Don Basilio he writes crime fiction:

If I’d said I devoted my time to sculpting figures for Nativity scenes out of fresh dung I would have drawn three times as much enthusiasm from him.

Passages like these helped me get through the middle part, which was bogged down by didactic theological discussions. Zafon raises important questions about many topics—morality, the nature of faith, immortality, obsessive love, to name a few—but sometimes I wished the narrative would stay on one track instead of diverting to another.

Also, it’s ironic that Corelli wants Martin to write a fable to avoid preachiness, but Zafon sometimes uses a heavy hand to hammer home certain points. The ending felt a bit rushed but it reveals the connection between this and Shadow, though both are standalones and can be read in any order.

Despite these issues, I still think Zafon is a brilliant writer with a singular gift for lyrical language and evocative imagery. According to this Amazon interview, Zafon promises two more novels involving the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, which is fantastic news. I can say quite confidently his books won’t end up in that cemetery anytime soon.

Nerd verdict: Game remains in shadow of Shadow but is still winning



Cannes poster, from

Here’s another one to put on your must-see/must-read list (sorry, Shelley P and Julien, for making your stack so tall!). When Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island first came out in 2003, I wrote the review below for When I heard about Martin Scorsese directing a movie version with that cast (Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Max von Sydow, Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams, Patricia Clarkson, Jackie Earle Haley, Emily Mortimer—insane!), I was like a kid who couldn’t sleep on Christmas Eve.

Now the trailer’s here. How crazy, creepy is it? The movie opens October 2 in the U.S. and Canada (Oct. 1 for Shelley P, Oct. 9 for Poncho and Oct. 14 for Julien) but Santa can’t come soon enough!

My 2003 review of the book (no spoilers):

shutter islandA few years ago, Dennis Lehane decided to take a sabbatical from his Patrick Kenzie/Angie Gennaro series to write a different kind of thriller. Lehane has said he wanted to improve his prose instead of relying on his usual minimalist, dialogue-laden style. This change of direction led him to Mystic River, a languidly-paced, character-driven mystery that became a critical and commercial breakthrough for him (and an Oscar-winning Clint Eastwood movie). Now, with his follow-up, Shutter Island, Lehane continues his growth as a sophisticated and insightful writer.

Island takes place in 1954 and follows U.S. Marshals Teddy Daniels and Chuck Aule as they investigate the mysterious disappearance of a mental patient from a maximum security institution for the most violent and insane offenders. This hospital is located on the eponymous island and shelters almost as many secrets as residents. After the marshals’ arrivals, the island is hit by a deadly hurricane which temporarily neutralizes the electric-powered security systems. Daniels and Aule are trapped with escaped criminals, ambiguous doctors possibly dabbling in illegal experiments and a mysterious “67th patient” whose identity no one seems to know. Daniels struggles to uncover the truth about the island’s nefarious activities while struggling with grief from the recent death of his wife (aptly named Dolores, meaning “pains” in Spanish). Daniels may also have a secret agenda for being on the island but the question becomes: Will he and Aule ever get off the island?

First with Mystic River and now with Island, Lehane proves he is definitely moving in the right direction. There are many passages in Island which beautifully demonstrate his insight into the human condition. He can illustrate emotions such as love and sorrow as tangible entities, living things which can lift you off your feet or stab you in the heart. And while his prose has certainly become more eloquent, he has not abandoned his gift for dialogue. The marshals have an easy banter between them and there are touches of humor courtesy of Aule, who functions as the good cop of the duo.

As good as Mystic River was, Shutter Island is even more accomplished, with a plot that’s more complex. Just when the reader thinks he knows where the story is headed, it turns down a surprising path. As many plot twists as Island contains, however, they’re not there just for shock value and nothing else. Each revelation is duly supported by earlier events, making the ending—and the book—a tense and satisfyingly plausible read.


THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE Trailer and Poster Revealed (Video)

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you might know I’ve been keeping tabs on the movie version of Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife since it’s one of my absolutely favorite books ever. I wrote about it earlier here when a source saw it at a test screening (and about her next novel here).

I’ve since also seen a version that, if it’s not the final cut, must be very close to it. The film moved me deeply—it retains the spirit of the book while having to omit and change some things—but I’ll save a formal review for after seeing the finished product.

Meanwhile, the trailer is out and the one-sheet has been revealed. How gorgeous is that poster? I want to frame one and hang it in my den.

What do you think, TTTW fans? How excited are you? (UPDATE: Read my interview with Hailey & Tatum McCann, who play Alba at different ages in the film.)



Just got back from a screening of this, sponsored by Creative Screenwriting magazine. The movie, which borrows the title from the 1974 Walter Matthau-Robert Shaw-starrer (screenwriter Brian Helgeland claims in interviews it’s not really a remake), concerns a hostage situation where gunmen take over a subway train and demand $10 million from the city of New York or else they start shooting passengers. Denzel Washington plays Walter Garber, the Mass Transit Authority employee who takes the ransom call from Travolta’s character, called only Ryder. The entire movie takes place in a matter of (really tense) hours.

I didn’t like it but my movie partner Eric did, so we’re pulling out the Siskel & Ebert-style review again.

PCN: I didn’t like this movie.

Eric: Really? Nothing about it?

Columbia Pictures, photo by: Rico Torres

PCN: I liked Denzel’s work. He’s always solid. But Travolta’s character was not that interesting a bad guy. He had no right to be mad at the city. And Travolta didn’t just chew scenery. He devoured it, regurgitated, then chewed it some more.

Eric: I admit he did go for flash over substance. But it’s a rare occasion when I get to see a movie in which I could relate to the hero. Garber’s not a superhero like Wolverine; he’s just an average guy having a really bad day. His character arc held my interest and I stayed with him as he took me through the whole story. He kept the movie on track for me, pun intended.

PCN: I had no problem with Garber. But a hero is only as compelling as his foil and Ryder was too cartoonish. It was like the lead actors were in different movies. Denzel kept it real while Travolta was over the top. There were funny moments in the movie but sometimes I laughed when I wasn’t supposed to.

Eric: Ryder is never going to make my list of top villains ever. But his goal was simple: He wanted that money and he’s going to take it by any means necessary.

PCN: And we go back to his character being one-dimensional. The best villains have interesting reasons for their actions. Remember why Pacino held up that bank in Dog Day Afternoon? Ryder’s motivations were too simple, as you say.

Eric: Then focus on the bait and switch, how you thought his goal was one thing and it turned out he was doing something else.

PCN: By the time that was revealed, it was too late. I had stopped caring about why he was doing anything. And the ending—that scene on the bridge—didn’t make any sense to me. **SPOILER ALERT!**

I don’t know why the cops didn’t take Ryder out as soon as he reached for his gun. He would’ve been riddled with holes. Garber wouldn’t have been able to take that one shot.


PCN: The action sequences were uninspired. Nothing new or exciting here.

Eric: The only problem I had with the film was that New York could use a break from being terrorized on screen.

PCN: Well, then you’d have to change the title and mode of transportation. They don’t have subway trains in Omaha.

Eric: Good point. I’d still recommend this movie.

PCN: I’d say save your money or see Up again.

Nerd verdict: 1 2 3 is a rote, by-the-numbers action flick. Eric’s verdict: Worth buying a token for it.


Free Stuff: Giveaway of Autographed Galley of Kathryn Casey's BLOOD LINES

Kathryn Casey, true crime writer and novelist, is generously offering a signed, personalized galley of her upcoming mystery, Blood Lines, to one of my readers, even if you’re outside the U.S.! The book is the second (after last summer’s Singularity) to feature Texas Ranger Sarah Armstrong and here’s a synopsis from Kathryn’s website:

Cassidy Collins is living the dream. The latest teen singing sensation and the darling of the fan magazines, Collins has money and fame. After growing up poor, she’s escaped her trailer park beginnings to become a star. Everything is perfect. Everything except for one complication, a potentially fatal one: the stalker who threatens to take her life.

Meanwhile, Faith Roberts believes her dead sister, Billie Cox, is contacting her from beyond the grave. What does Billie want Faith to know? Is she trying to tell her who pulled the trigger?

A year after tackling the most dangerous case of her career, profiler Sarah Armstrong is back and charged with untangling two troubling cases, that take her from Houston oil mansions to behind the scenes at rock concerts and the world’s biggest rodeo.

In the end, Sarah’s forced into a battle of wits with a brilliant criminal intent on murder.

To be entered in the giveaway, you have to be a subscriber (see below or upper right corner of this blog) and leave me a comment expressing your interest. You’re not automatically entered if you’re already a subscriber; I’d like the ARC to go to someone who really wants it. As previously mentioned, international readers are eligible, too.

I’ll take names through next Monday, June 15, after which I’ll randomly select a winner. If you win, you can impress your friends when they ask you, “What are you reading?” by saying, “Oh, this new book that doesn’t come out until July 21.” You can further impress them by showing off Kathryn’s personalized inscription to you. Even if you don’t read the genre but know someone who might enjoy the book, enter anyway because Kathryn will sign it to whomever you’d like.

Good luck!

(Subscribe to Pop Culture Nerd by Email)


Javier Bardem Will LOVE Julia Roberts

I’m trying not to drool as I write this. Variety reports that Javier Bardem has been cast in the movie version of Elizabeth Gilbert’s monster bestselling memoir Eat, Pray, Love as “Felipe” (his real name is Jose), the irresistible man she meets in Bali. Julia Roberts had already been cast as Gilbert, with Richard Jenkins playing her friend Richard from Texas (who answered a few questions for me about that here).

Though Bardem is not old enough—he’s younger than Roberts when Felipe is significantly older than Gilbert—he would be a compelling reason for Gilbert to break her self-imposed celibacy. Viewers would nod their heads and say, “It’s okay, you tried but we understand.”

Any other EPL fans out there? What do you think of this casting? (UPDATE: Click here for my review of Gilbert’s follow-up, Committed.)


NURSE JACKIE is Remedy for Bad TV

The pilot episode of Edie Falco’s new Showtime series, Nurse Jackie (premiering June 8 at 10:30 p.m. ET/PT), has been available online for a couple weeks but I only got around to viewing it today. I’m glad I did. The show’s strong writing and acting are an antidote to all the trashy reality stuff on TV during the summer months. If I take one 30-minute dose of Jackie a week, maybe I won’t contract brain-rotting disease.

The titular character, her hair cropped no-nonsense short, is an ER nurse with a bad back and addiction to pain pills. We quickly get an idea of who she is when she tells an eager student nurse, “I don’t like chatty…Quiet and mean, those are my people.”

But Jackie’s not mean; she tells a colleague she became a nurse to help people. She’s just smarter than some doctors and weary of the system. In this episode, things go wrong with her patients but instead of accepting the situation, Jackie doles out her own brand of vigilante justice (maybe she learned a few things from Tony Soprano?). She’s flawed and some of her actions are unethical and outright illegal, but you’d want her at your bedside if you ever have to check into the hospital.

This is largely due to Falco’s grounded performance, for which she can expect Emmy and Golden Globe nominations next year. Falco makes every look, line and gesture count and is commanding even when she’s not speaking. Like another show about a rule-breaking, pill-popping medical professional, House, this show is titled the way it is because the most fascinating thing about it is the lead character, not the patients’ cases.

haaz sleimanThe supporting cast is also noteworthy. I was excited to see the magnetic Haaz Sleiman show up as Jackie’s co-worker and friend, Mohammed. Sleiman made a really strong impression as the foreigner who befriended Richard Jenkins in last year’s The Visitor so his presence is very welcome here. Eve Best is amusing as the droll Dr. O’ Hara but so far Anna Deavere Smith doesn’t have enough to do as the hospital’s administrator.

Will you watch Falco shed her Carmela persona? Tune in tonight on Showtime or just click here (sorry, it doesn’t work internationally) then tell me what you think. UPDATE: Entertainment Weekly reports that Showtime has already picked up the show for another season after the pilot debuted to record numbers.

Nerd verdict: Jackie shows strong vital signs


My Favorite Summer Movie-Going Experiences

A few movies have already had blockbuster openings this past month but for me, the official summer movie season starts when school’s out in a couple weeks. I’m a long way from my school years but there’s something about going to movies in the heart of summer, with long lines and huge crowds, that brings out some of my fondest movie-going memories.

As a kid on summer break, I used to plan whole days around going to the movies: twenty minutes to walk to the theater, fifteen minutes in line to buy tickets, then two hours sitting around with my friends and/or siblings, playing cards, eating sandwiches, sipping orange Shasta, reading Mad magazine, just waiting to get in to see the latest blockbuster. Then two hours to see the movie, one and a half afterwards to dissect it with everyone, twenty minutes to walk back home and another half hour to write in my journal about the cool movie I saw that day and all the things I loved about it.

Sometimes it wasn’t the movie itself that was the highlight; it was the things that happened because I went to see it. So, as I look forward to this summer’s offerings, I’d like to share some of my favorite summer movie-going experiences from the past.

1.  Close Encounters of the Third Kind, summer 1977. My family and I had only been in America for two years and none of us spoke much English. But that didn’t stop my dad from loading us all up in the rusty blue Chevy wagon and taking us to the movie theater. We all loved movies. Dad just bought us tickets to Close Encounters because that’s what was playing; we didn’t have any clue about what we were seeing. And Spielberg’s classic didn’t make it easy on us. We didn’t know why aliens were coming or understand the significance of that five-note score. But afterwards, we all made up our own stories based on what we saw and laughed all the way home. I still have no idea what mashed potatoes have to do with aliens but that was a fun day.

grease2. Grease, summer 1978. Growing up, I idolized Olivia Newton-John. She was everything I wasn’t: blonde, cute, popular and a talented singer. But in the movie, there was one thing we had in common: Sandy and I were both goody-two-shoes. I was disheartened when she decided she had to tart herself up in painted-on pants to get the guy, but I felt empowered when it turned out Danny was ready to accept her squareness. Whew. Not having to wear leather pants to school was a message I never forgot.

moonraker3. Moonraker, 1979. As I mentioned, we’re all movie lovers in my family but we rarely agreed on which movie to see. My sister had no interest in fantasy or sci-fi, my brother wouldn’t go to any girly films (translation: romantic comedies), my dad preferred dramas based on real events (i.e. All the President’s Men), my mother enjoyed sexy fare like Body Heat. But there was one kind of movie we could always agree on: James Bond flicks. Everybody loved 007.

So in June ’79, we all piled into the Ford LTD and the 8 of us took up a whole row in the theater, fighting over who got the aisle seats. Moonraker wasn’t anything spectacular and all the sexual innuendo went right over my head. Still, I hold this memory dear because it was one of maybe only three times the entire family went to the movies together. My oldest sister left for college the following summer and it got harder for us to do that again.

raiders_of_the_lost_ark_ver14. Raiders of the Lost Ark, summer of 1981. I was a die-hard Harrison Ford fan because of the Star Wars movies so I had to see this on opening day. Walked over to the mall after school that Friday, June 12, and got in line, still clutching my school books. I went by myself since I couldn’t get anyone to come with me. I sat there agape as the boulder chased Indy, screamed when he and Marion were dumped in the snake pit, screamed some more when the ark was opened and that guy’s face melted. Afterwards, I got right back in line to buy another ticket to see it again. To this day, no other movie has made me do that. It was like the best ride at Disneyland that you just want to go on over and over again.

e.t.5. E.T., summer of 1982. Wow, another Spielberg movie. He’s had a big part in shaping my childhood movie memories. My sisters, brothers and I walked to the theater inside the mall. We brought egg rolls, Snickers bars and playing cards, anticipating a long line. And boy, was it loooong. It stretched from Montgomery Ward at one end of the mall all the way down to Chess King at the other. My siblings and I ended up waiting about two hours but we had a blast sitting there, my brother teasing me about my new perm, me calling him stupid, my sister making up hilarious stories about other people in line. Oh, yeah, E.T. was great, too.

I don’t know if I’ll have similar experiences this summer with fare like G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, but I’ve learned that sometimes the movie itself is beside the point. It’s just an excuse for me to get out there and make happy memories.

What are some of yours?


Never-Before-Published Photos of Marilyn


In her short life, Marilyn Monroe managed to be one of the most photographed women of the 20th century and you probably think you’ve seen most of those photos. Nope, LIFE magazine has a bunch more of her that has never been published.

Coinciding with Marilyn’s 83rd birthday today, is running a batch of pictures taken by photographer Ed Clark in 1950 at L.A.’s Griffith Park (there’s an option for you to buy them as framed prints). The negatives were only recently found as part of LIFE’s attempt to digitize their photo archive. The site says: “Why LIFE never published this gold mine of photos after Marilyn became a superstar remains a mystery. The only clue: a brief note about the shoot we found in our archives, addressed to LIFE’s photo editor and saying that ‘this take was over-developed and poorly printed.'”

In the photos, Marilyn is already transformed from Norma Jeane and is undeniably beautiful but still unpolished and innocent, not quite the sex symbol she would soon become. It’s kinda cool for me to see her roaming around a familiar area where I’ve spent loads of time.

What do you think of the photos? After looking at them, raise a glass to Marilyn and sing “Happy Birthday” to her in your breathiest voice.