Monthly Archives

January 2010

Nerdies for Best & Worst of 67th Annual Golden Globes

I usually love me some Globes but last night while they were on, I was deep in HTML hell so my wrap-up will be a bit more succinct than usual. If you’d like a complete list of winners, go here. I’m just going to run down the moments that stood out for me.

Best She-Cleans-Up-Well Award: Mo’Nique. I whooped with joy when my girl won for Precious, and then she moved me with her eloquent, heartfelt acceptance speech, a completely different kind from the terrifying one she makes in the movie to the social worker.

Least in Need of Airbrushing: Meryl Streep. Did you see her skin?! Whatever she’s using, I want several buckets of. She was so glowy, if the lights had gone out, she would have been the only person in the room you could still see clearly.

Best Sense of Humor about Himself: Mel Gibson. Ricky Gervais introduced him by saying, “I like a drink as much as the next man…unless that man’s Mel Gibson!” Then Gibson proceeded to play along by slurring his words as he presented the award for best director.

Most Disturbing Dresses That Were Actually Half Gorgeous: Drew Barrymore’s and Christina Aguilera. Barrymore looked radiant (she won her first Globe!) but I could not take my eyes off those lumps on her shoulder and hip. They looked like baby porcupines that had fallen into jars of glitter. Aguilera looked good, too, but her two-toned dress made it look as if she forgot to tuck her right boob back in after she breast-fed her child. And speaking of breasts…

B(r)e(a)st Smackdown: Halle Berry vs. Mariah Carey. These two ladies wore plunging necklines that showed most of their womanhood to the world. But while Berry managed to look sexy, Carey just looked cheap and porny. Put them away, Mariah. They’re not that precious.

Most Handsome Nerd: Dude, Zachary Levi was smokin’ in his tan and tux! If he keeps that up, who’s going to buy him as a nerd on Chuck anymore?

Biggest Failed Attempt at a Clever Speech: Robert Downey Jr. I’m not happy about that; I’m crazy about him as an actor. But when he won for Sherlock Holmes (what the…?) and pretended he wasn’t going to thank anyone, he sounded like an ass instead of charming and funny the way George Clooney and Hugh Grant did when they pulled the same stunt in the past.

Hottest Train Holder: Jon Hamm. During the red carpet arrivals, Jennifer Garner had a problem with her train. As she struggled with it, Hamm came along and gallantly held it up for her.

Best Dress: Zoe Saldana‘s gorgeous red ruffled gown. I’m not usually a girly girl but took one look at that and thought, “Oooh, pretttttty.” Louis Vutton knew how to do ruffles, unlike the designers of the Chloe Sevigny’s and Anna Kendrick’s dresses.

Best Put-Together: Jennifer Garner. Despite all the rain (even Heidi Klum had flat hair!), Garner was perfection from head to toe.

What did you like (or not) about the Globes? Who did you think was best dressed?


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Welcome!

Usually when people get a facelift, they don’t talk about it. But I’m proud to say I’ve spent the last several days giving my blog an overhaul even Joan Rivers would envy.

First, if you followed me over from my WordPress.com blog, thank you for making the switch. Please adjust your bookmarks and links accordingly if you had me in your blogroll. And don’t forget to re-subscribe (look to sidebar on right) because your subscription to the other blog is now defunct.

This site is a work in progress—it’s only about 25% finished—because I’m no tech wizard and too cheap and stubborn to pay someone to do it. The past few days I’ve felt like a chimp playing the roulette wheel, having just as much chance of clicking on the wrong thing as not.

Speaking of clicking, I hope you’ll do so all over the site and explore it (check out that carousel of featured articles on the home page!).

I added a “top commentator” widget which keeps track of people who leave the most comments. Jen Forbus is currently in the lead; are you just going to let her stay there? Occasionally, I’ll give prizes to the most vocal readers so now’s a good time to de-lurk yourself.

But I don’t want you only commenting on what I write about. I also added a forum so you all can hang out here and discuss anything you’d like. Share your pop culture recommendations, swap books, tell nerdy stories—click on the tab up top and have fun!

Enough yammering—I can hear the orchestra playing me off the stage. I’d like to say a special thank you to le0pard13, who provided superhuman support, and to my husband who allowed me to lock myself in the den for hours and slipped food under the door just when I needed it.

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AMERICAN IDOL & BETTER Television

I know I’m in full-on nerd mode when I say this but I’m happy season 9 of Idol has started! Yes, this show can be corny and full of deluded, scary folks, but every once in a while they get it right and find a real star among the wannabes (I loved Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood during their respective seasons). Also, while I covered season 8 last year, Poncho dropped by, became one of the most insightful and witty commenters about the show, and has since continued to hang out here and become my cyber buddy. American Idol brings people together!

It’s too early to call anything but here are quick takes about last night’s premiere:

  • My favorites include Benjamin Bright with his smooth Aaron Neville-esque delivery of the Beatles’s “All My Loving,” the stunning Ashley Rodriguez (push-down-the-stairs alert!) and her rendition of Alicia Keyes’s “If I Ain’t Got You,” Katie “I Love My Portuguese Grandma” Stevens doing “At Last” better than Beyoncé at the Inaugural Ball, and Justin Williams, who made ME feel good when he sang “I’m Feelin’ Good,” Michael Bublé-style.
  • I’ve said it before but I’ll repeat myself here: Having Victoria Beckham judge a singing contest is like having Stevie Wonder judge Project Runway. How would she know anything about good singing? Everything was “nice.” Sample critique: “You have a nice smile, nice look, nice voice, nice personality. I say yes.” Thanks for that.
  • Most supportive relatives go to Amadeo Diricco‘s Italian clan, Bosa Mora‘s Nigerian folks, and Katie Stevens’s huge family who made Ryan Seacrest cry.
  • Funniest critique—Simon’s dissection of Norberto‘s audition, saying how weird it was that he sounded like a three-year-old girl but looked like LaToya Jackson with a beard, made me laugh. How will we manage without our favorite judge next year? Who could possibly replace him?
  • Did you spark to any singers last night?

After Idol, I switched to Better Off Ted on my DVR list. Please, please, please watch this show so it won’t die. The laughs-per-minute ratio is higher than any other show currently on and yes, that includes Modern Family and Glee, two of my favorites.

Two fresh episodes were on last night—I fear ABC is burning them off while anticipating cancelation—and the first one was a riot. The company Ted works for, Veridian Dynamics, is a really inappropriate corporation known for sending out memos full of typos then refusing to own up to them out of pride. The latest memo says, “Employees must NOW use offensive or insulting language in the workplace.”

Because higher-ups won’t admit they meant “NOT” instead of “NOW,” employees, even meek ones, let fly an endless barrage of rude insults at each other. The putdowns get more creative as people become more empowered and start enjoying telling others how they really feel. I laughed so hard, I had to repeatedly rewind to catch all the dialogue.

Even if you don’t watch much TV, sample it on ABC.com or hulu.com (the episode I mentioned is number 208, titled “The Impertence of Communicationizing”). I guarantee you’ll laugh. If not, come back here and tell me off since you must NOW use offensive language in the comments!

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The LOVE Isn't Just BIG, It's Getting Epic

The following is by new contributing writer, Sarah Carbiener. She obsesses about TV as much as I do and will start providing regular coverage of it. I’m happy to have her extra pair of eyes since there are so many shows and I can’t watch them all.—PCN

During the first season of Big Love, I couldn’t help but be fascinated by the polygamous family, their world, the politics, and…be completely bored by the plots. It felt like the creators were too protective of their main characters, not wanting to put them in any real trouble and, gosh darn it, they really wanted us to love and root for the central family. Well, it was pretty hard to do that when they were in so little trouble for so long. This certainly wasn’t a problem in the third season, however, and it seems it won’t be in the fourth either. **Spoilers ahead!**

In the third season finale, Nicki (Chloe Sevigny) brings to the Henrickson household the daughter she abandoned when she left her first husband J.J.; Bill’s brother Joey (Shawn Doyle) kills Roman (Harry Dean Stanton), the prophet of Juniper Creek, to avenge the murder of his second wife-to-be; and after falling feet first through a barn loft and hitting his head, Bill (Bill Paxton) decides to follow Roman’s example and start his own church. (This is only a fifth of what happens in the finale. Like every episode last season, it was packed with plot developments.)

The fourth season picks up six weeks later with the FBI mysteriously still searching for the long-dead Roman. It isn’t until Nicki’s mother’s large walk-in freezer loses power that we discover where Roman’s been hiding.

Panicked, Adaleen (Mary Kay Place) calls Nicki, and because she is one of my favorite characters to hate, it was awesome to finally get to see her come apart at the seams. This is the woman who hired a man to approach her son Alby (Matt Ross) for sex in a truck stop and then murder him, and when he confronted her about it, she not only didn’t deny her actions, but she wasn’t at all remorseful. It doesn’t get much colder than that.

But in this opening episode, when she’s begging her daughter to go into the walk-in freezer and get some bacon because she doesn’t know how else to tell Nicki that her father’s dead, we finally get to see her as desperate and frantic and crazed as she makes everyone else.

After the discovery of the body, the episode becomes a much darker version of Weekend at Bernie’s as the Juniper Creek gang and the Henricksons keep trying to dump the body in the others’ backyard. Unfortunately for Bill, he forgot the one rule about revenge. (My father taught me this in the second grade, and it has served me well ever since.)

If someone picks on you, never get them back right away because you will always be the person who gets caught. Wait a few days and get them when they’re not expecting it. Bill drags Roman’s thawing corpse straight back to Juniper Creek when it shows up in the lot where he’s building the casino and, based on the end of this first episode, it looks like he’s getting caught.**End spoilers**

The rest of the episode includes some light conflict between Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn) and the Native Americans they’re running the casino with, and a hilarious storyline between Bill’s homicidal parents (Bruce Dern, Grace Zabriskie). The septuagenarians’ fighting, complete with exclamations like, “Ow, my hip,” had me laughing so hard I was crying. Overall, a very strong start for what’s sure to be another intense season of our favorite polygamists. With Bill basically naming himself the next prophet, this may be the most literally epic season yet.

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CHUCK's Back!

Did you catch the Chuck season three premiere last night? Talk about two satisfying hours of television. I’ve always enjoyed this show, but now that Chuck (Zachary Levi) has downloaded the Intersect v.2 into his head, giving him access to skills like kung fu and flamenco-guitar playing, the fun factor has ratcheted up a few notches.

This doesn’t mean our Buy More nerd is James Bond. He’s too emotional for the Intersect to work properly so his klutziness is alive and well. He’s also still in love with Sarah (Yvonne Strahovski), the tension between them as thick as ever, if not more so because of something we see in flashback. Though I feel for their predicament (“Spies don’t fall in love,” she tells him), I kinda hope they never get together because the show will be over.

It might end anyway after this season if ratings don’t pick up. It baffles me why a well-written romantic action comedy like this (what other show does all that?) can’t find a bigger audience. I hope recurring guest stars Brandon “Superman” Routh and Kristin “Lana Lang” Kreuk will be able to help.

If you missed the premiere last night, you can watch it at nbc.com and another fresh episode airs tonight at 8 p.m. Any other fans out there?

Nerd verdict: Chuck yourself

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Tell Me a Story About…

Watercolor by Victoria Beckert

While I didn’t love Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage (read my review here), I really liked this one activity she described doing with her lover Felipe. No, not that kind of activity; it’s more a storytelling exercise.

She’d ask him to tell her a personal memory built around a trigger word, a random one from the top of her head. When she asked for a story about fish, Felipe told a poignant tale about fishing trips with his father when he was six.

I wanted to try this out so I asked hubby to give me a random word. He said, “Socks.” I immediately went to a memory of when I fled Vietnam at the end of the war and my mother said I could bring only the bare essentials. I brought one change of clothes but forgot socks.

So I wore the pair I had on when we left—white bobby socks with a red flower embroidered on the cuff—for over two weeks, until they turned brown with dirt and stiff with sweat. They could stand upright by themselves. I eventually ditched them somewhere and went bare in my Mary Janes the rest of the way.

Hubby and I used several more trigger words and told each other stories, some about things we hadn’t thought about for a long time. It proved such an interesting exercise, I decided to try it out here.

Tell me the first thing that comes to mind when you hear “socks.” It doesn’t have to be a long or life-changing tale. Any random thought or memory qualifies. I just want us to flex our creative muscles and learn fun things about each other.

If I get a lot of comments, this might be a regular feature, maybe once a month or bi-monthly, with a different trigger word each time. But meanwhile, let’s talk about socks!

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Movie Review: LEAP YEAR

by Eric Edwards

You’d think a romantic comedy named after an event that occurs only once every four years would be something special. Well, Leap Year (opening today) isn’t.

Anna (Amy Adams) and Jeremy (Adam Scott) are a seemingly perfect, upwardly mobile couple. They are both attractive, great at their jobs and have bright futures. What they aren’t is married and Jeremy doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to propose.

Thus, when business takes Jeremy to Ireland, Anna decides to follow him and take advantage of a popular Irish custom in which women propose to men on February 29. Due to inclement weather, one of her connecting flights is canceled and everything goes awry as she tries to make it to Dublin before leap-year day is over. Severely strapped for cash, hot innkeeper Declan (Matthew Goode) agrees to drive her to Dublin for a fee. Though they encounter endless mishaps along the way, I think you can figure out what happens.

From L.: Goode, Scott, AdamsThis film suffers from severe formula-itis. Yes, we’ve seen it all before, but director Anand Tucker (2005’s fine Shopgirl) doesn’t even try to give a fresh spin to the screenplay by Harry Elfont (who is also responsible for the equally forgettable Made of Honor). It is so obvious Anna and Jeremy do not belong together that the whole initial setup of the story lacks credibility.

By the time Anna meets Declan, I was wondering if maybe I should have gone to see Up In The Air for a second time. That said, it isn’t the worst thing currently playing at the box office and Newton Thomas Sigel’s breathtaking cinematography of the Irish countryside had me checking flights for the Emerald Isle as soon as I got home.

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Nerd Chat with FACES OF THE GONE Author Brad Parks

If you’re a regular reader here, you know I don’t do interviews with stuffy people. If I’m gonna sit down to a lunch interview, have a phone conversation and exchange a bunch of e-mails with someone, that person had better be interesting, funny, smart and look good in a Speedo. Brad Parks is three out of four so I heartily welcome him to Pop Culture Nerd.

Brad is the debut author of Faces of the Gone, a mystery about Newark newspaper reporter Carter Ross investigating the case of four dead bodies found in an empty lot with execution-style bullet holes in their heads. The novel provides an unflinching look at life on inner-city streets and in the newsroom, leavened by a healthy dose of humor.

For intimate details about Brad and to see him in a turtleneck, visit his website. But first, read on for our nerd chat.

Pop Culture Nerd: You’ve been all over the blogosphere promoting your book and given shout-outs by everyone from the New York Times to the Sun-Sentinel. Since this is our first time together, I gotta ask: Have you been tested?

Brad Parks: You know what they say—when you blog, you’re not only blogging the blogger, you’re blogging every person they’ve ever blogged. So I might be a bit dodgy, yes. I mean, just blogging at Jen’s Book Thoughts alone probably made me filthy. That skanky ho Jen Forbus gets around.

The infamous Jen Forbus with her niece

PCN: Hose yourself down with Lysol, man! She’s been with everyone in the crime fic community, male and female. But I’ve got my hazmat suit on so we can continue. What was the biggest thrill for you on pub day? Did you go to stores, point to your book and yell at strangers, “That’s me!”?

BP: Honestly? While my pub month was a string of incredible, wonderful, I’ll-never-forget-them happenings, my actual pub day was a bit crushing. In my mind, December 8, 2009 was something I had been building up for years—behind perhaps only my wedding and my kids being born (but ahead of, say, college graduation) in terms of significant days in my life. But to everyone else it was just a Tuesday.

Nevertheless, I got dressed up in my best author outfit, stuffed a Sharpie in my pocket and charged out the door to meet my public. I first went to my local independent bookstore, where the owner (who is a friend) had been so busy with the holiday rush, she hadn’t had time to put my book on the shelves yet. Next, I started in on the chain stores.

Now, mind you, I wasn’t expecting to be anywhere near the front of these stores—that’s something you’ve got to earn. I wasn’t expecting to be face out on the New Mystery shelf, because that’s valuable real estate, too. But I’m with St. Martin’s Press, a reputable publisher, so I was thinking each store would have at least one copy. Even if it was stuffed in a musty corner somewhere, I would proudly sign each one, whereupon Cherubim and Seraphim would strike a heavenly chord, even if I was the only one who could hear them.

Instead, I got this succession of blank stares from store managers, and it quickly became clear to me that until I darkened their doorstep, they had no plans on stocking my book. After the fourth no-show, I gave up and bought myself a cheeseburger, which I ate alone. It tasted a lot like humble pie.

PCN: But then all the rave reviews and best-of year-end mentions started pouring in. Has your head blown up to melon size? How has your life changed since you became a published author?

BP: You may ask Brad Parks this question, which Brad Parks will be glad to answer, since you clearly acknowledge that He is a Better Person than you. No, seriously, the reviews have been lovely. And there have been some Sally Field you-like-me-you-really-like-me moments, when I’ve felt the warm glow of knowing my words were appreciated somewhere. Other than that, I don’t feel all that different. I mean, don’t get me wrong, my wife complains I talk about myself too much, but she did that before I was published, too.

PCN: Any interesting tour anecdotes you can share?

BP: Well, I wrote about this one for Shelf Awareness. To give you the Cliffs Notes version, it basically involves me white-knuckle-driving my way through an ice storm to a bookstore, where I figured I’d end up sitting in front of a large pile of my books in an empty store. But then…aw, heck, I won’t ruin it. Just click on the link if you’re curious. And promise you’ll come back to PCN when you’re done!

PCN: Thanks for sending both my readers over there. Now I’ll have to pay two other people to read this. You’ve said Carter is a lot like you, but if you could be like any character in crime fiction, who would it be?

BP: This answer probably changes on a daily basis. But today I feel like being Jack Reacher, who has spent all summer digging ditches and has puffed up to 250 heavily muscled pounds. And then I’d go play pick-up basketball. Having otherwise gone through life as a scrawny white guy, I’d like to be able to set a pick that means something for once.

PCN: Did you tell Lee Child about your Reacher daydreams when you fetched him a Coke at last year’s Bouchercon?

BP: I did tell Lee I daydream about being Reacher. Then he replied, “That’s funny, I dream of being Carter Ross.” Then we bro-hugged. Then I woke up.

PCN: Which other authors turn you into a gushing fanboy?

BP: I would say Harlan Coben. I’ll know I’ve really arrived when I can spend time with Harlan and not have this little voice in my head—it sounds like an 11-year-old girl—constantly going, Omagod, omagod, I’m hanging out with HARLAN COBEN, omagod! Hasn’t happened yet.

PCN: I like how you equated the process of writing to open-water distance swimming in one of your guest blogs. What do you do if you get a cramp? Or jump in then realize you’re not a distance swimmer? And are Speedos or trunks better for that kind of swimming?

BP: I’ll take the last part of this question first, because it’s important to state—before any bad images get planted in anyone’s head—that I am a trunks-only man. No one needs to see my upper thighs.

As to the rest of the question: Obviously, you ought to have some minimum level of swimming competency, built in the safety of shallow backyard pools and municipal swimming holes. (Or, to extend the metaphor back to writing, stories in school literary magazines, articles in local newspapers or entries in personal journals).

But once you have that, I believe you need to throw yourself in over your head and make yourself swim for your life, cramps and all. That’s the whole point of open water distance swimming. You can’t just stop and walk. You have no choice but to keep going. And I think writers with unfinished manuscripts—know anyone like that?— would be well-served to think of their work that way.

PCN: One of your characters, Tee, has a booming business making R.I.P. T-shirts for gangbangers who get gunned down. The idea is both horrible and savvy. Is it based on something you encountered for real?

BP: Yep, that one is, as they say on Law & Order, ripped from the headlines. As a journalist working in a depressed inner-city, I was constantly fascinated (and saddened and appalled) by the culture of death that surrounds young people in areas with high murder rates. One day, I saw a set of R.I.P T-shirts wrapped to a telephone pole at a housing project in Newark—three kids, all killed before their 21st birthdays. I started poking around and learned there was a whole cottage industry of creating and displaying these shirts. Kids would actually wear them on the anniversaries of the days their friends got killed. So I wrote a story about it.

PCN: And then you wrote two more, books 2 and 3 in the Carter Ross series. The second one is called Eyes of the Innocent. Are you branding this as the body parts series, a la Sue Grafton’s alphabet books? What happens when you travel south of the beltline?

BP: Yeah, the body parts thing is going to be my schtick. And as I’ve told my agent, when we reach Thumbs Up My Ass we’ll know it’s time to quit.

PCN: Okay, so let’s just stay north of the nipples for now. You mentioned in another interview, #817, that you might write a non-fiction book one day. Would it be true crime or something else?

BP: That was actually interview No. 788. Please try to keep count. And, sure, I might write non-fiction someday. Maybe true crime. Maybe ghost-writing for some famous person. Maybe history. Maybe something else entirely. My curiosity is fairly boundless, and I started writing for newspapers when I was 14, so non-fiction is still pretty comfortable for me. More than anything—having gone back and forth between fiction and non—I find they’re a lot more similar than most folks realize.

At the end of the day, it’s all about telling a story. The only difference is whether you have to find the pertinent facts or make them up. Which, I would argue, are roughly equal in difficulty.

PCN: Lying, er, making up stuff is so NOT difficult for me. If you had to choose between writing books that sell 50 million copies each but are critically lambasted (I’m not mentioning names), or those that win busloads of awards but have only modest sales numbers, which would you prefer?

BP: Oh, this one’s easy: Give me the 50 million copies. And then give me 50 million more. Go ahead and shake your head and say, “Brad! How whorish!” And I am. But as commercial as that sounds, there are real, artistic reasons behind it.

See, I’ve never really written for myself. For me, the joy in the creative process has always been in the sharing, and in the reaction it provokes. I write with the hope my words have an impact on people, whether it’s to inform, to entertain, or just to make them shake their heads at something. I want that impact to be as broad as possible.

And it’s not about money. I get just as much of a charge from the fan letter that starts “I bought your book at the store and…” as I do from one that begins, “I got your book at the library…” Do I want critics to like my books and to win awards? Of course. But ultimately it’s because I know those things will increase the size of my audience. And for me, that’s what it’s all about.

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Book Review: Elizabeth Gilbert's COMMITTED

After reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love three years ago, I became almost evangelistic about it, discussing it nonstop with others, buying copies for friends, etc. Wish I could do the same for her follow-up, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage (out today). Because I think Gilbert is such an engaging writer, it pains me to say I didn’t love this book. **Mild spoilers ahead if you haven’t read EPL.**

The events here follow what happened at the end of EPL, specifically her meeting her Brazilian lover Felipe in Bali and their pledging love to each other with promises to never get married. (Both are shell-shocked survivors of divorce.)

At the beginning of Committed, they’ve been living together in Philadelphia when the Department of Homeland Security throws a monkey wrench into their non-wedded bliss by denying Felipe re-entry into the U.S. after an overseas trip. A sympathetic officer says the fastest way for Felipe to get a permanent visa is for the couple to marry.

Filled with dread, they nevertheless apply for the necessary papers then spend almost a year traveling through Southeast Asia (where the dollar stretches farther) while awaiting approval. Gilbert also uses the time to obsessively research the history of marriage and its different customs throughout the world in order to better understand the institution and hopefully reduce her fear of it.

Gilbert’s conversational style is winning; she’s smart, funny and not afraid to reveal her deepest fears and flaws. She still comes across as someone I’d love to have lunch with. But while EPL is charming because it’s her personal story, the author spends much of Committed delving into the origins of marriage, drumming up everyone from Greek philosophers to early Christian leaders to feminists, causing entire chapters to read textbook-y. The conclusion she finally reaches about marriage is interesting, a perspective I hadn’t previously considered, but I wish the focus stayed more on her relationship with Felipe.

Nerd verdict: Not totally Committed to this

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Reviews of SHERLOCK HOLMES, INVICTUS & CRAZY HEART

While I was away on holiday, contributing writer Eric Edwards was busy taking in multiple screenings of Oscar-bait films. He was kind enough to submit the following reviews.

Did you see any of these? What did you think?—PCN

Photo by Alex Bailey/WARNER BROS.

Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey, Jr.) is bored and depressed. His genius sleuthing abilities keep him from helping the throngs of people who write him because he solves their cases before he even finishes reading their letters. Dr. Watson (Jude Law) wants to get married, leaving Holmes’s childish behavior and their shared lodgings behind. Thankfully, a challenge to Holmes’s intellect arrives in the form Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), a villain dealing in the black arts and one whom Holmes and Watson recently apprehended for Scotland Yard.

Screenwriter Anthony Peckham (who also penned Invictus; see review below) has taken the brilliant Holmes we’re all familiar with and attempts to make him more hip by adding martial arts to the detective’s arsenal. Holmes is even shown proving his prowess in the ring at an underground boxing arena. Oddly enough, in scene after scene in which he goes up against actual bad guys, Holmes doesn’t fare well.

In portraying the famous detective, the usually charming Downey, Jr. carries the burden of an English accent and it’s cumbersome. By contrast, Law’s put-upon Dr. Watson is much more interesting to watch because his accent is genuine and the actor uses a less-is-more approach. As Holmes’s former flame Irene Adler, the very talented Rachel McAdams is mired down by a script that doesn’t give her much to do. This movie is a mess that can be skipped by all but die-hard Holmes fans.

Photo by Keith Bernstein/WARNER BROS.

Invictus

The major problem with this “inspiring true story” of how newly elected President Nelson Mandela employs South Africa’s national rugby team to unite the apartheid-torn country is that it lacks a balance between earnestness and heart.

It’s supposed to be the end of apartheid in South Africa, but the hate between black and white still remains and Mandela (Morgan Freeman) needs to help his beloved country move forward. He looks to emulate the business plans of successful countries such as the United States and China. But how to appeal to the working-class citizen? Create a hero they can get behind.

Mandela summons South African rugby captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) to a meeting and they hit it off. While the president sets about memorizing the player’s names and stats and attending their matches, Pienaar visits Mandela’s former prison cell to better understand his new benefactor. A mutual respect blooms between the two.

Director Clint Eastwood sacrifices what could have been a heartfelt story and spends most of the film developing the relationship between Mandela and Pienaar. Damon and Freeman work well together and both deserve accolades for their performances, but as a whole the film is less than compelling. Each character, from Pienaar’s family maid to Mandela himself, speaks in clunky soundbites uncharacteristic of Eastwood’s usual subtle style. We never really get to know the rugby players, resulting in apathy on our part when we’re supposed to be rooting for the team. And if we don’t care about whether or not it wins the match and helps unite the country, the entire point of the film is lost.

Photo by Lorey Sebastian/FOX SEARCHLIGHT

Crazy Heart

Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges), once a famous country singer/songwriter, has seen better days. Five marriages and a hard-drinking, heavy-smoking lifestyle has left him broke, forced into playing rundown bowling alleys and small dives across the Midwest just to make ends meet. Bad can still put on a show, but his fans are fewer, much older and his brand of “real country” is no longer relevant to today’s country music fans. What he needs is the inspiration to write a hit song. Enter budding journalist and would-be muse Jean Craddock (a completely miscast Maggie Gyllenhaal) and her 5-year old son, Buddy (Jack Nation).

Bridges’s performance, which includes doing his own singing, is solid throughout. His frustration with the cards life has dealt him is subtle, but etched as deeply as the lines on his face. Any frame of this movie without Bridges is a stark reminder of how much the film needs him to stay alive. It wasn’t the age difference between him and Gyllenhaal I found myself wincing at, it was the complete lack of chemistry between the two. Bridges, channeling a younger, better-looking version of Kris Kristofferson in his heyday, so richly deserves a more engaging companion to be inspired by and fall in love with than Gyllenhaal, who displays no allure whatsoever.

Colin Farrell shows up as Bad’s former protégé and current country superstar Tommy Sweet, and surprises me with his strong singing skills. Who knew? Both Farrell and Bridges could easily have careers as singers.

Writer/composer T-Bone Burnett provides the very catchy songs in Bad’s repertoire, but I wish the inspiring song that leads to his salvation was more memorable and not so morose. What should have been uplifting instead strikes one of the wrong notes in the film.

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New Year Brings New Surprises

Got back to L.A. late last night after a wonderful time in D.C. with family, old friends and lots of amazing eats. Every day I had a balanced diet of cheese, pie, cake, candy and cappuccino. Is there a better way to ring in the new year?

Speaking of new year, everyone talks about resolutions at this time. I make the same one every year: Surprise myself. Do something I’ve never done or imagined doing. Even if I fail spectacularly, it counts, because I don’t sit around imagining spectacular failures.

My old college roommate already helped me accomplish this on New Year’s Eve. We had plans for lunch but she said she had to run a 5K to raise funds for diabetes first and then we could go eat. She invited me to come cheer her on. When I got there, I somehow got roped into running with her, even though running is as much fun to me as having monkeys poke sticks up my nose. Did I mention I was inadequately dressed and it was freezing, rainy, and muddy?

But run I did, which was the last thing I thought I’d be doing on New Year’s Eve. More surprises: my time wasn’t completely atrocious and I didn’t die in the process. Though my legs ached a little afterward, I was exhilarated my friend convinced me to run a 5K on the spur of the moment, helping me push the limits on what I think I can do. I also enjoyed replenishing my strength with a large plate of fries.

Happy New Year, everyone. How do you plan to push your limits?

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