Monthly Archives

November 2010

Movie Review: BLACK SWAN

When awards season rolls around, and even for months beforehand, we’re subjected to a lot of hyperbole, where every picture is breathtakingly touted as “best of the year!” and every performance is called Oscar-worthy. More often than not, this is a lot of hogwash but sometimes it turns out a particular piece of work has warranted the buzz.

One such example is Natalie Portman’s portrayal of a ballerina whose sanity slowly unravels in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (opening Friday, Dec. 3). Nina (Portman) gets the coveted lead role in a NYC ballet company’s production of Swan Lake, but pressure from a director (Vincent Cassel) who expresses doubts about her ability to play both the white and black swans, plus the presence of a young passionate dancer (Mila Kunis) who seems to know a little if not All About Eve—causes Nina to become paranoid about being replaced. She goes to extremes to keep the part, to make herself perfect, though she’s really descending into madness.

Portman has done edgy and dark before but has never been this effective. When she shaved her head for V for Vendetta, it seemed like a stunt, a too-jarring attempt to break away from her nice-girl image, and the result was unconvincing. But it’s completely believable for the actress to inhabit Nina, with her natural grace, lithe (though much thinner-than-usual) body and swan-like neck. Her pro-level dancing—Portman did much of it herself—seals the deal.

But then, just as the swan splits into two selves, Portman shows us that the sweet pretty exterior is just a cover-up for Nina’s disturbing inner core. Sure, staying on top in the cutthroat world of professional ballet must be stressful, but Nina goes over the edge and Portman makes her mental deterioration terrifying. Nina’s instability makes the movie quite suspenseful at times, for we never know what she’ll do or how far she’ll go. She can have wild sex one minute and fly into a rage the next. She can be joyful and fall apart at the same time. Much has been said about Annette Bening’s performance in The Kids Are All Right and how it’s her time to finally win an Oscar, but I think Portman’s work is much more complex. I haven’t seen Michelle Williams in Blue Valentine yet (will do so tonight) but I’ve seen all the other contenders and think Portman deserves the best actress gold this year.

Kunis, who seems to only get more captivating the older she gets, keeps us guessing as Lily, Nina’s competitor. Her friendliness and steady gaze give nothing away about her true motives. Sometimes it’s harder (and more interesting) to hide something in a performance than to show too much and Kunis does the former, keeping the conflict in play throughout the film. Barbara Hershey, playing Nina’s mother who is a former ballerina, manages to make Mom sympathetic. As Hershey said in the Q&A session I attended (more on that below), she’s not “a mother from hell but a mother in hell,” one mentally ill person taking care of another mentally ill person.

Aronofsky can get a little carried away with imagery in his movies but here the weirdness works because Nina sees things that aren’t rooted in reality. And the way he shoots the ballet is thrilling and visceral, capturing the pain and sweat and blood of it all along with the beauty.

After the Variety screening, Aronofsky, Portman, Kunis, Cassel and Hershey came out to discuss the movie and answer questions. A few highlights:

  • Portman hadn’t danced since she was 12 so she started training a year in advance, using her own money to hire a trainer, without even knowing the movie would get financed. She didn’t just do ballet; she cross-trained rigorously. Then the financing came together and fell apart a couple times but she kept training based on her faith in Aronofsky. She even kept it up while shooting another movie [Your Highness, out next year]. She lost about 20 pounds for the role.
  • Kunis lost about the same amount of weight, which was the hardest thing for her. She trained seven days a week for two months before shooting [her character doesn’t dance as much as Portman’s in the movie].
  • Because the movie only had a $13 million budget, there was apparently no medic on set at one point. Portman was horrified when she found out because the actors and dancers “were losing a toenail a day” so she told the money people to take away her trailer. “Sure enough,” she said, “the next day, the trailer was gone and the nurse was back.”
  • Aronofsky made a point to take his camera backstage and onstage with the dancers. He wanted the audience to hear the heavy breathing, see the pain in their feet and experience the effort it takes to create this beauty we usually watch from afar.
  • No studio wanted to do this movie despite Aronofsky’s success with The Wrestler. He’s made five films and every time, he’s been the only person in the room who wanted to make it. He’s looking forward to his next project, The Wolverine, because everyone in the room wants it made.

Nerd verdict: Dark, beautiful Swan

Photos: Niko Tavernise


Leslie Nielsen 1926-2010

I was sitting in my living room, laughing about something, when I looked over at my computer and saw the news that Leslie Nielsen had died Sunday at 84 of complications from pneumonia. My laughter got stuck in my throat and turned into a lump. This was confusing to me because if this man ever made me cry before, it was from laughing too hard.

I’ll admit I didn’t know him from his earlier dramatic work, such as guest starring on TV shows like Barnaby Jones, S.W.A.T., Hawaii Five-0, Columbo, and The Streets of San Francisco, all of which I watched as a child. But I clearly remember the afternoon I went to see Airplane! at the movie theater. Nielsen’s stern-faced, clueless Dr. Rumack helped me understand the term “crack me up” because I thought my bladder would split from all the laughter. And I have very strong, camel-strength bladders, mind you.

My fandom followed Nielsen to his Police Squad! series, in which the actor delighted me by making his Lieutenant Frank Drebin even more of a dunce than Dr. Rumack. I threw a tantrum when the show was criminally canceled after only six episodes and then rejoiced when it was brought back on the big screen as The Naked Gun movies.

I know Nielsen’s career spanned six decades and encompassed much more than these comic highlights. He never stopped working; his last credit is voicing an untitled animated movie with a 2011 release date. But I appreciate him most for all the hilarity he brought into my life. I don’t think Dr. Rumack managed to help many patients with his ineptitude, but if laughter truly is the best medicine, then Leslie Nielsen kept legions of fans in very good health.


Giveaway Winners + Another Giveaway: Pat Conroy’s MY READING LIFE

I hope you all had a wonderful weekend whether or not you celebrated Thanksgiving. I think we should treat every weekend as a holiday, and by that I mean we should sleep in, never change out of our pajamas, do movie marathons and behave in a general lazy manner.

But it’s Monday so let’s get down to business.

First, let’s get the winners of The Harry Bosch Novels: Volume 3 out of the way. The three randomly selected names are:

  1. Laura Benedict
  2. jenn
  3. Jann

Congrats! Please hit the “contact” button at top of page or red envelope icon in sidebar on right and let me know where you’d like your books sent. If I don’t hear from you by Wednesday midnight PST, alternate winner(s) will be selected.

If you entered but didn’t win, don’t despair. I thought I’d go ahead and post my next giveaway now since the holidays are approaching fast and it might be nice for you to win a gift for someone or yourself.

I have up for grabs two copies of Pat Conroy’s My Reading Life, a recent release from Doubleday. From the dust jacket:

Starting as a childhood passion that bloomed into a life-long companion, reading has been Conroy’s portal to the world, both to the furthest corners of the globe and to the deepest chambers of the human soul. His interests range widely, from Milton to Tolkien, Philip Roth to Thucydides, encompassing poetry, history, philosophy, and any mesmerizing tale of his native South. He has for years kept notebooks in which he records words and expressions, over time creating a vast reservoir of playful turns of phrase, dazzling flashes of description, and snippets of delightful sound, all just for his love of language. But reading for Conroy is not simply a pleasure to be enjoyed in off-hours or a source of inspiration for his own writing. It would hardly be an exaggeration to claim that reading has saved his life, and if not his life then surely his sanity.

I haven’t had a chance to read this yet but intend to soon. I always love hearing about how people’s reading life began.

To enter, leave a comment telling me what/who first got you interested in books. You also have to:

  • be a subscriber or Twitter follower (tell me which if you’ve never left a comment or entered a giveaway before)
  • have U.S./Canada address (no P.O. boxes)

Giveaway ends next Monday, Dec. 6, 5 p.m. PST. Winners will be randomly selected then announced here and on Twitter. I won’t be e-mailing you so please check back to see if you win. Alternate winner(s) will be chosen for any prize(s) not claimed within 48 hours.

Now, tell me about your beautiful reading life!


Harry Potter Thanksgiving

I’m still enjoying the slothfulness of this weekend so will keep this brief. Just wanted to post some pictures of the cool Harry Potter-themed Thanksgiving dinner I attended.

My amazingly gifted friend Mari hosts a themed dinner every year and this time she transformed her home into Hogwarts. She made the flying Harry herself.

Guests had to come as a character from the series. Can you tell who I am? (The hair is a huge clue, though Poncho won’t need it.) My breadstick wand was spicy delicious and I ate at least five. Hey, Harry had to try out a few, too, before he found the right wand.

Mari also had a scavenger hunt for us to find HP artifacts, including Hermione’s Time-Turner, Neville’s Remeberall, the locket Horcrux, Ravenclaw’s Diadem, Tom Riddle’s diary, etc. Of course I showed no mercy to the kids participating—I think it’s condescending just to let them win—and came in first for most objects found. (I didn’t keep them.)

The centerpiece of the evening, though, was this gorgeous table, set to look like the Great Hall. If you look carefully, you can see a miniature Dumbledore to the left and Hagrid’s motorcycle in front of a Harry Potter Undesirable No. 1 poster in the center, shown in close up below.

Check out the pensieve and the flying keys from Sorcerer’s Stone.

Here’s a group photo. How many characters can you identify?

We all had an amazing time and owe a big thanks to Mari, who is as kind and generous as her character is evil.

If you celebrate it, how was your Thanksgiving? Hope you experienced some magic, too.


THE KING’S SPEECH: Movie Review with Production Notes

When I first heard a while back that Colin Firth had picked this as his next project, I thought, “Ugh.” I’m not a big fan of historical drama and the description sounded so humorless and Oscar-baity. Does a story about a former king of England struggling with a stuttering problem seem exciting to anyone besides members of associations of speech pathologists?

Surprise—The King’s Speech (which I saw at the tribute gala at the AFI Fest presented by Audi) turns out to be witty, moving, entertaining and extremely well-acted. Well, that last part is no surprise and I’d be cheesed-off if this doesn’t get some Oscar love, especially for Firth, who turns in yet another pitch-perfect performance after last year’s A Single Man and for whom I’m rooting to take home the gold.

Right before England goes to war with Germany in WWII, the frail King George V (Michael Gambon) is preparing his second son, Albert (Queen Elizabeth II’s father), for the possibility of taking over the throne since he has little faith in his eldest, David, who’s been gallivanting about with a twice-married American woman named Wallis Simpson. Albert has no interest in being king, however, since he has suffered from a stammering problem most of his life and public speaking terrifies him. His wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), refers him to a speech therapist, Lionel Logue, who has unconventional methods and isn’t intimidated by royalty, as evidenced by his nickname for the prince: Bertie.

Though skeptical at first, because no other therapist has been able to cure him, Bertie nevertheless subjects himself to Lionel’s unique exercises, including a rant consisting mostly of curse words since Lionel notices that the prince is almost stammer-free when he’s impassioned. Meanwhile, King George V dies and David becomes King Edward VIII, only to abdicate so he can marry Simpson. Bertie is thrust onto the throne and takes the name King George VI to honor his father.

One of his first duties is to deliver a radio address to reassure his people, who are disheartened by news of England declaring war. Thinking the speech will be impossible, Bertie almost gives up his lessons until Lionel makes him see that he must believe in himself as much as the public needs to have faith in their new king.

Hollywood wisdom (oxymoron, I know) goes that if an actor plays a character with a handicap, he/she’s a shoe-in for award nominations. But it would cheapen Firth’s work to say that’s the reason for his nod, which is a sure thing at this point. While some actors think the trick is to play up the affliction, Firth goes the opposite way—he underplays it. It’s not his realistic simulation of stuttering that’s most impressive, it’s what he does when he’s not speaking. Every time King George stares down his enemy the microphone, Firth makes it look as if the king has a gun to his head, so great is his anguish. On the outside, he looks every bit the royal with his perfect posture and sharp jackets, but his eyes give him away as a man terrified he’ll let down his people. As he touchingly says at one point, “They look to me to speak for them but I can’t. I can’t speak.”

Rush matches Firth in every scene as the eccentric Lionel. Instead of playing it all Annie Sullivan-ish, Rush’s Lionel is irreverent and witty yet stern when he needs to be. He sneaks up on the king, and us, in showing how effective a therapist Lionel is.

As Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother), Bonham Carter turns in a warm performance that’s refreshingly low-key for her. You can see the real Queen Mum’s gait and posture in how Bonham Carter carries herself. There’s absolutely no trace of the off-the-charts crazy Bellatrix Lestrange here. (Speaking of Harry Potter characters, it’s also fun to see Dumbledore/Gambon and Timothy “Wormtail” Spall, though he mugs so much as Winston Churchill I feared he’d pull a face muscle.) Jennifer Ehle shows up as Lionel’s wife so for fangirls of BBC’s Pride and Prejudice like me, it’s thrilling to see a brief reunion of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, Firth’s breakout role.

Firth at AFI Fest presented by Audi

The AFI Fest gala for it was attended by Firth (that man can fill out a suit!), Rush, director Tom Hooper and screenwriter David Seidler. The men introduced the film and shared some interesting tidbits:

  • Seidler was a little stammering boy in England when he heard the real king’s speech back in 1939. His mom pointed out that if the king could overcome his problem, so could Seidler.
  • After deciding to write a story about his lifelong inspiration, Seidler’s research unearthed incredible materials including the king’s journals. When he sought permission to make the film, however, the Queen Mother asked him not to make it in her lifetime since her memories of that time were still too painful. No one had any idea the queen would live so long.
  • Some of the funniest lines from the movie were written by King George VI himself because they were taken straight from his journals.
  • Rush got involved with the project first when the script was dropped off on his doorstep by the sister of a friend of the producer or something (he couldn’t remember). They bypassed his agent, which Rush liked.
  • Firth was intimidated by playing the king. One of his biggest concerns was that he’d overdo the stammering since he wasn’t sure what the right amount was. He was interested in portraying a man who just did not want the power given to him.

Nerd verdict: A princely King’s Speech

Movie stills: The Weinstein Company/Firth at AFI: Getty Images


Movie Review: BURLESQUE

After I saw Burlesque (opening Nov. 24) last week, a bunch of my friends asked, “So, was it a train wreck?” I think it’s telling that’s their first question but the answer is: It’s not Showgirls but it’s no Chicago, either.

Christina Aguilera makes her acting debut as Ali, a girl from Iowa whose life is so bleak she has nothing to lose by heading to Los Angeles to pursue her dreams of being a singer. But she can’t even land a gig as a backup vocalist (?!) and, after stumbling upon a burlesque club one night, decides she wants to work there. She starts out as a waitress but her talent cannot be denied as she slowly convinces the club owner, Tess (Cher), that she’s worthy of not only performing in the shows but perhaps even starring in them.

As her star rises at the club, two men vie for Ali’s attention—Jack (Cam Gigandet), the cute bartender/aspiring musician/Ali’s engaged roommate, and Marcus (Eric Dane), a rich real estate developer who has the means and connections to help Ali get ahead. Marcus is also putting pressure on Tess, who faces losing the club due to money problems, to sell it to him so he can demolish it and build a high-rise with a view. Ali finally comes up with a clever way to help Tess and get both women what they want.

Now that you’ve read the synopsis, you can just forget about it because it doesn’t matter much. This is a pretty standard Cinderella story and the movie’s highlights are the musical numbers, not what happens in between them. Director Steven Antin stages them with energy and style and the numbers are fun and sexy without being smutty. Ali seems to lose her clothes altogether during one song but her bits are coyly hidden behind giant feathered fans and the microphone.

Aguilera’s acting is neither atrocious nor great; she has a few unconvincing line readings—to be fair, some of the dialogue is super corny—but she’s perky and pretty to look at. The wig she wears for most of the movie is a bit distracting because it’s obviously fake and I’m not sure why she needs it. Doesn’t she have nice real hair? I also find it unnecessary for her to do that overwrought throat-clearing kind of singing and run every note through twenty-seven octaves. There’s no doubt she has an impressive voice; it’s sometimes much more effective when she uses it softly, letting the emotion behind the words do the heavy lifting.

As for Cher, her presence and spunk are intact but it’s disconcerting when her face remains exactly the same whether Tess is defiant or frustrated or wistful. I’ve liked her acting work in the past but all the plastic surgery is now getting in her way. Stanley Tucci is charming as Tess’s gay confidante and the club’s jack of all trades; he has a way of making even throwaway lines funny. But if you get the feeling you’ve seen his performance before, you have, in The Devil Wears Prada. Gigandet is serviceable as the love interest and Dane doesn’t stray far from his Grey’s Anatomy gig as the suave playboy.

Chances are you’ve already decided whether or not you’ll see this movie but in case you’re still undecided, here’s the final breakdown: If you love Cher, Xtina, musicals and Gigandet (he has a nude scene, showing everything except his, ah, instrument), you’ll have a good time. Not so hot for any of the above? You can probably wait for cable.

Nerd verdict: Fans of Cher & Xtina will want to Burlesque

Photos by Steven Vaughan © Screen Gems



Among my favorite stories of all time are the ones about Winnie the Pooh, Christopher Robin and the rest of Pooh’s friends in the 100 Acre Wood. It never fails to make me cry when we get to the end and Christopher Robin tells Pooh he has to leave to go to another place where he won’t be allowed to “do nothing” anymore.

And so I thought of them as I watched Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 because Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) are definitely leaving behind their 100 Acre Wood—Hogwarts—as they go on the run from Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) and his Death Eaters. They’re also required to do much more than nothing to survive, being thrown from one dangerous situation to the next as suddenly as they’re being thrust into adulthood.

*Spoilers Ahead*

An early scene sets the dark tone of the movie as Voldemort meets with Death Eaters to discuss grabbing Harry when he’s moved from the Dursleys’ home. There’s something literally hanging over them that’s awful to behold. Then Harry sets off with all the polyjuiced Harry doppelgangers as decoys but somehow Voldemort knows their plan and the gang is immediately under attack.

The aerial fight is quite spectacularly shot, with Hagrid’s motorbike and sidecar being one of the coolest movie vehicles ever. It has a hyperdrive button! It spits flames! It gets Harry to safety but alas, can’t help prevent the first fatalities of this installment.

And there’s more heartbreak—I challenge you to be unmoved by Dobby—and danger as Harry, Hermione and Ron struggle to stay ahead of the Death Eaters while tracking down and destroying the rest of the Horcruxes. The movie is mostly filmed in bleak, low-contrast tones, with nary a sunny day for the trio to enjoy, whether literally or metaphorically.

But it isn’t without levity, as flashes of humor make their way into some of the most intense scenes. Screenwriter Steve Kloves also created a very sweet moment of Harry and Hermione wordlessly dancing in their tent to a song on their small radio after Ron has abandoned them. Harry is trying to cheer up Hermione, seeing how despondent she is. It’s not in the book but is a lovely addition to the movie, reminding me of the scene in Witness in which Harrison Ford dances with Kelly McGillis to Sam Cooke’s “(What a) Wonderful World” in the barn. Its resonance comes from our knowledge they won’t get to experience lightness again in the near future.

The dancing scene also makes clear something I felt about the books as well: Hermione has wayyy more chemistry with Harry than with Ron. Not that I want H and H to end up together (I don’t; I like how their friendship remains pure) but I never sensed love bloom between Hermione and Ron either in the novels or this movie. Watson has zero chemistry with Grint, despite his making moony eyes at her. During a scene that’s surprisingly, ah, adult for this PG-13 movie, Ron’s greatest fears are presented before him and he sees H and H naked and making out like mad (it’s not real). He’s mortified, of course, but I thought if I had to, I’d rather watch that than Watson canoodling with Grint.

*End spoilers*

I didn’t love the last movie, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, so I’m glad director David Yates has returned with a more assured hand, something he showed in Order of the Phoenix, his first outing with the series. I’m happy he’ll be on board to take us home with the final installment next July. After this exciting first part, I don’t know how I’ll be able to wait until then.

Nerd verdict: Darkly exciting Hallows

What did you think? Do you want to see the final part in 3D?


Boring Prequels Challenge

Against my better judgment, I sometimes spend time on Twitter when I should be doing something else. But it can be fun and every once in a while, someone posts a funny game that I have to participate in.

On Friday, the trending topic was boring prequels. People would post titles of prequels so boring, there’s good reason they were never written or made.

A few I came up with:

11 P.M. Cowboy

One Being Delayed at Chicago’s O’Hare on the Way to the Cuckoo’s Nest

Dr. Yes

Miss Daisy Can Still Drive Herself

The Girl Whose Mama Wouldn’t Let Her Get a Tattoo But Maybe Pierced Ears

Wow, Those Lambs Sure Are Loud

Think you can come up with even more boring titles? Leave ’em in the comments! (They can be prequels to books or movies.)



A movie that’s opening against Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 had better have the muscle and legs to stand up to it. It probably wouldn’t hurt to also have some magic dust thrown in to help its chances at the box office. The Next Three Days (opening Nov. 19) doesn’t have all those ingredients, but it is a smart if overly long crime drama and it has Russell Crowe.

Adapted from the French film Pour Elle (Anything for Her), Days tells the story of John (Crowe) and Lara Brennan (Elizabeth Banks), an idyllic couple with a cute young son and a nice house in the suburbs. One day, the cops burst in and arrest Lara for the murder of her boss, something she maintains she didn’t do despite damning evidence. For the next three years, every legal channel is explored and every appeal denied. John then decides without Lara’s knowledge that the only solution is to break her out.

He consults with an ex-con who’s escaped from prison several times (Liam Neeson), he searches for security weaknesses, and does shady things to raise cash for fake IDs for them to start over afterward. There are dozens of ways the plan can go wrong, making us wonder if the mild-mannered teacher has what it takes to pull off the great escape.

As with writer/director Paul Haggis’s other movies (Crash, In the Valley of Elah), the script is intelligent but almost indulgently so. Haggis has a lot to say and says it well, but then he keeps saying it instead of moving on. It’s interesting to watch John’s thought process as he plans the prison break but the movie starts to drag as Haggis spends time on every little detail of John’s strategy. I get that he needs to proceed carefully and not rush into a suicide mission, but I also didn’t want the planning phase of the movie to last three days in real time. Once the main event does arrive, Days kicks into hyperdrive and becomes a thrilling ride which includes a gasp-inducing stunt between an SUV and a semi truck.

Crowe’s performance is sturdy but isn’t that stating the obvious? When does this man ever do crappy work? He makes a believable transition from Average Joe to a hard man pushed to desperate measures. Banks continues to show she can move effortlessly between comedy and drama. She gives Lara a convincing steeliness as she spends more time in prison, her future looking bleaker every day. And her hair may be drab and her face devoid of makeup but the actress still looks beautiful.

Lots of strong actors make up the supporting cast but they get to do very little. Olivia Wilde shows up as a mom who kinda digs John after meeting him on the playground with their respective kids. Brian Dennehy plays John’s dad but spoke only five times. Neeson has only one scene, though his character helps John get the whole ball rolling. Haggis seems to want to stuff every good thing he can find into his movies when a stricter editing hand might have been the better plan to follow.

Nerd verdict: Days sags in middle but finishes strong

Photos: Phil Caruso


Book Giveaway: Michael Connelly’s THE HARRY BOSCH NOVELS, VOLUME 3

Thanks to Hachette Book Group, I’m giving away three copies of this new omnibus which includes three complete Harry Bosch novels: A Darkness More than Night, City of Bones, and Lost Light. Perhaps you already have individual copies of the books but they’re in paperback and are getting tattered. Or you know someone who only recently discovered Connelly’s work and doesn’t have these titles yet. Either way, this is a handsome hardcover edition to add to your or some lucky person’s collection.

Speaking of giving, I’d like to try something this season which was inspired by what the folks over at Concord Free Press are doing, which is giving away the books they publish and only asking that you consider making a charitable donation in return. I don’t publish anything but would like you to think about giving a small amount to your favorite charity if you win one of these books. When I say small, I mean $5 or $10 or some canned goods for your local food drive. (Lest you think five bucks don’t amount to much, my local soup kitchen says $2 will feed 3 people for Thanksgiving.) How about donating some of your used books to the library? That won’t cost anything at all. You’d come out on top since the omnibus retails for $21.99.

I want to be clear this is completely optional. If you win and make no donation, it’s perfectly fine and I won’t know about it anyway. No proof of good deed will be required before you get your prize (I’d love to hear, though, if you do donate something). This is simply my way to hopefully stimulate a little giving for the holidays.

So, back to the giveaway. To enter, leave a comment telling me what you’re relentless about since Connelly has used that word often to describe Harry Bosch. It could be something big or small. I was once in New York City freezing my tail off during its coldest day in 85 years. I got this craving for chicken noodle soup and was relentless about finding it. For whatever reason, no restaurant was serving it that day, just split pea or lentil or cream of one thing or another. I jumped on and off the subway, ducking into different places until I found the perfect chicken noodle and it was worth it.

To be eligible, you also have to:

  • be a subscriber or Twitter follower (tell me which)
  • have U.S./Canada address (no P.O. boxes)

Giveaway ends next Monday, Nov. 22, 5 p.m. PST. Winners will be randomly selected then announced here and on Twitter. I won’t be e-mailing you so please check back to see if you win. Alternate winner(s) will be chosen for any prize(s) not claimed within 48 hours.

Now, let’s see how relentless you are!


Book Review: Walter Mosley’s THE LAST DAYS OF PTOLEMY GREY

Ptolemy Grey is a 91-year-old man living in a cluttered, squalid Los Angeles apartment, mostly forgotten by the world while forgetting his own past due to dementia. One day, Robyn, a 17-year-old orphan and family friend, comes over and starts cleaning up, sorting through the detritus and restoring order.  She also takes him to a doctor who’s looking for test subjects for an experimental drug treating dementia. The “Devil’s medicine” might kill Ptolemy but it might also recover his memory before he dies. Figuring he has lived long enough, Ptolemy trades whatever days he has left for the chance to remember what’s important to him and get his affairs in order. Once his memory returns, he realizes that includes seeking retribution for the murder of a family member.

Though it takes place in a brutal environment where people get gunned down and Ptolemy rarely leaves his apartment for fear of getting mugged, the novel is more a poignant examination of mortality and how one man is determined to face his end with dignity. Mosley is masterful in getting readers inside Ptolemy’s head, as jumbled as it is at first. Then, as his mind reawakens, we take a journey both painful and sweet through the landmarks of Ptolemy’s life, watching as he decides to take action to right some wrongs, to finally rid himself of regret about things he never did long ago.

Mosley also manages to slip in subtle statements about our current war, how news coverage confuses Ptolemy because he can’t figure out who the enemy is when he at least knew he was fighting Hitler as a soldier during WWII. Sometimes the outside world makes less sense than what’s going on in the old man’s head.

But the novel isn’t political. It’s a meditation on different kinds of love and how it can be found in unexpected places. Through Robyn, Ptolemy is able to find his way back to himself just as he’s ready to let go.

Nerd verdict: Bittersweet Days

Buy The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey from Amazon| B&N| Powell’s| IndieBound



I’ve been busy attending the AFI Festival this past week, where I got to see several Oscar-bait movies like The King’s Speech, Rabbit Hole and The Fighter. Quick reactions? Colin Firth, Christian Bale and Melissa Leo will most likely get nominations. Full reviews will come closer to the film’s respective release dates. For now, I’ll discuss Tony Scott’s Unstoppable, opening Friday, November 12.

This seems to be the season of movies based on true stories. The Fighter is about boxer “Irish” Micky Ward while King’s Speech details King George VI’s stuttering problem, 127 Hours is Aron Ralston’s story, Conviction is about Betty Anne Waters, The Social Network looks at Mark Zuckerberg, and Fair Game retells how Valerie Plame Wilson was outed as a CIA agent by the Bush administration. Unstoppable now joins the ranks, being inspired by the 2001 incident of a runaway train that traveled unmanned for 66 miles through Ohio before it was stopped by a lone trainmaster. (Read a detailed account here.)

In the movie, the crewless train is speeding towards Stanton, PA with toxic chemicals on board and no air brakes. Various dangerous attempts are made—and fail—to stop it so it’s up to Frank Barnes, a veteran railroad engineer (Denzel Washington), and Will Colson (Chris Pine), a rookie conductor on his first day at the job, to pull off one last desperate maneuver or die trying. And that’s pretty much the whole plot.

The movie has a few tense moments, solid acting and some good stunts but the loud unrelenting action eventually becomes redundant. Scott’s motivation seems to be, “Let’s see from how many different angles I can show you this train.” Shots of it coming straight at you are stunning at first but after a while I thought, “I get it—it’s a train.” If only Scott had invested as much time in the human characters’ backstories as he did on his camera techniques. The director’s reunion with Washington following last year’s The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 adds to this movie’s sense of, ahem, deja vu. If you’ve seen any of the previous Scott-Washington collaborations (this is the fifth), you won’t find any surprises here.

Nerd verdict: Not a train wreck but does run out of steam

Photo: Robert Zuckerman