Thursday, January 30, 2014

Sochi Here We Come! (U-S-A, U-S-A, U-S-A)

The winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia are almost here and I can’t wait! Sure I could do without The Blacklist interruption, but in spite of that, I'm still excited. When it comes to the Olympics (and food), I’m not picky; I enjoy the winter and summer Olympics equally; give me figure skating or the 100 meter dash and I’m good. Every four years the world comes together as we gather around our television sets rooting for our team. For those umpteenth days, we are reminded that we are one nation under God, indivisible; we are not New Yorkers or Californians, we are not Republicans or Democrats, we are Americans. The national anthem sounds a little sweeter as we hear its chords and the sight of our stars and stripes raised overhead in triumphant victory can readily evoke a knot in our throats.

Every part and parcel of the Olympics inspires pride; pride as our athletes march into the stadium during the opening ceremony waving our flag, pride when they win their events and get to stand atop the medal stand, and pride even if they lose, because they undoubtedly fought a good battle and did it with grace and dignity. I find it moving to know that these young people have travelled so far and given so much, through hard work and sacrifice to get there. As I watch them compete, I think of all the movies, dates and fun they might have missed; the early morning wake-up calls and late night practices, all in an effort to reach their dreams. I think not only of the athletes but their moms, dads and family members that spent countless hours driving to and from practices, the hours spent no matter the weather (cold, rain, snow) standing on the sidelines during each game, and the financial sacrifices some made in order to make ends meet. Every dream has come with a price and that thought makes me cheer just a little louder.

I love it all; the opening ceremony with the parade of nations is a must; the roar of the crowd as each spectator hears their country announced and sees their flag and athletes marching in just gives me goose-bumps, the events themselves are great of course, but I’m an even bigger sap for the human interest pieces they do on athletes, especially those unlikeliest of Cinderella stories that leave me rooting for an athlete from some obscure never before heard nation that I couldn’t even place on the map. Love those! Figure skating (from the men, women, pairs, to ice dancing) is definitely my thing and therefore appointment television, while skiing and hockey are strictly based on availability. I’m not as familiar with the names and stories this go around, but I know that when all is said and done, we’ll have a new household name indelibly etched in our memory, having discovered the new Michelle Kwan or Michael Phelps.

NBC and the NBCUniversal family of networks (CNBC, MSNBC, NBC Sports, and USA) will once again be the sole source for all Olympic coverage which begins Thursday, February 6, the first time NBC will have primetime Olympic programming before the Opening Ceremony (Friday, February 7), and ends with the Closing Ceremony on Sunday, February 23.

There are so many Olympic moments ingrained in our collective memory; Mary Lou Retton’s perfect 10; Kerri Strug’s hopping one-legged vault landing; Phelps bazillionth medal. I breathlessly await the new round of heroes and memories to come out of Sochi.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Lee Daniels' The Butler

In Lee Daniels’ The Butler, an elderly Cecil Gaines sits on a lone chair in a White House hall, awaiting we don’t know who, and as he does his thoughts transport him and us to the distant past. It was 1926 in Macon, GA when young Cecil, working the cotton fields, witnesses the plantation master shoot and kill his father. The plantation’s elderly matriarch takes pity on the child and decides to take him out of the fields and make him a house boy, and so his lessons begin. Ms. Annabeth instructs him on the dos and don’ts of good help; telling him she’s not to hear him breathe and that the room should feel empty when he’s in it; lessons he’ll carry long into the future. When Cecil reaches adulthood he leaves the plantation behind in order to chart a new course for his life. Unable to find a job, food, or a place to sleep he has to resort to breaking into the storefront window of a small hotel to steal food but thanks to the kindness of Maynard, an elderly employee, he ends the night with a job. Maynard continues the lessons offered by Ms. Annabeth and when he’s offered a job as butler at an exclusive Washington DC hotel he suggests Cecil be hired in his stead.

It’s 1957 and Cecil (Whitaker) is now a happily married homeowner with two boys; living a life which he could never have imagined. Cecil is still working at the Excelsior Hotel in DC when his quality service and easy camaraderie with the white clientele draws the attention of a visiting White House aide. Having finished his shift, Cecil is at home with his wife, Gloria (Winfrey) and two boys – Louis and Charlie – when he’s contacted by the White House with a job offer for which he’s ultimately hired. The first administration we're witness to is the Eisenhower Administration where Cecil’s privy to some of the pivotal conversations of that time, including the issue of Brown v. Board of Education and Eisenhower’s issuance of an Executive Order (and the accompanying speech to the nation) sending troops to Little Rock, Arkansas to uphold the Constitution. As the years pass, Cecil serves eight American Presidents and in the process bears witness to key moments and events in our history including the civil rights movement, the assassinations of President Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Vietnam War.

Throughout his years of service, these conflicts are marked not through their impact on the White House administrations he’s serving but by the way they touch Cecil’s family. Cecil’s fervent dedication to his job causes friction in his home and marriage; Gloria dabbles in a little too much drink and extra-marital affairs; Louis rebels against his father’s seemingly complacent silence in regards to the civil rights battles of the time, and Charlie, torn between his father and brother’s views of the world, tries to become his own man and find his own place in this world and ends up enlisting to serve his nation during the Vietnam War. Through it all, Cecil remains stalwart in his dedication and service, even when that unyielding devotion threatens to tear his family apart.

I loved this movie! Inspired by the true story of Eugene Allen, the movie offers a front seat view of some of the most important events in our nation’s struggle for racial equality. There have been other great movies on this subject, but what makes this film great is not the rundown of facts or depiction of historical moments but the compelling father and son tale which is used as the vehicle to narrate the events of the time. Cecil and Louis offer a stark contrast between two generations and how the events that shaped each of them played a role in the man of action or inaction which they became, and how each in their own way helped to bring about change.

While Cecil plays a passive role in the historic events of the time, his son Louis is bold in his fight for the nation’s consciousness; becoming a freedom rider, marching with Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK), and after MLK’s assassination, taking a more militant stance and joining the Black Panthers. The two are constantly at odds with one another; Louis embarrassed not only by his father’s job but by his seemingly blithe acceptance of the oppression of African American’s of the time; and though Cecil is meek in his acceptance of the status quo, I think it's because he’s lived through so much more pain and sorrow than Louis could ever imagine and he appreciates how far he’s come, plus he has firsthand knowledge of what speaking up could lead to (his father was shot when he objected to the plantation master raping Cecil’s mother).

As you take in the contrast between father and son in the film, you ponder who the real hero in the film is, though in a wonderful scene in which Louis speaks with MLK we get a partial answer. During a conversation on the Vietnam War, MLK questions Louis on his parent’s stance on the war and then questions what his father does; when Louis ashamedly admits that his father is a butler, MLK wisely admonishes him by stating that black domestics have played an important role in history by defying racial stereotypes and while they are perceived subservient, their strong work ethic, trustworthiness and dignified character tears down racial hatred and in reality they are subversive without even trying; so the truth is that each is a hero in their own way. While Louis literally fought for equality, Cecil did so also by winning hearts and minds with kindness; both methods I think were equally important and effective.

The acting was spot on. Whitaker was brilliant in his restraint; he wore his passive silence and warm smile like a uniform, as important to the role as the tux and white gloves. I was totally blown away by Oprah. I really don’t understand why she doesn’t make more movies. She should forget the O magazine and the OWN network and be where she belongs – on the screen; she was that good. Granted her role wasn’t huge, the film was much more about Cecil and Louis, but her every scene whether portraying Gloria’s winsome smile and glowing pride in Cecil early in the film or the combination of sadness and anger as she struggled with her drinking problem during the worst of times with Cecil, there was a wonderful rawness, a realness to her acting that demanded your attention. In addition, to the supporting cast there are quite a few cameo-type appearances (passing portrayals) as the Presidents in the White House during Eugene Allen’s tenure, including Robin Williams as Eisenhower, John Cusack as Nixon, and Alan Rickman as Reagan.

As to the truth in the tale, the real butler as I said above was named Eugene Allen and his wife was named Helene, both of whom passed away prior to the movie’s release. The film was inspired by an article in The Washington Post entitled “A Butler Well Served by This Election” by Wil Haygood. The article ran on the front page of that newspaper three days after Obama made history in 2008. The director took considerable dramatic license in portraying Allen’s tale; for example, Allen’s father was not killed by a plantation owner and his son (Charles; they only had one not two), was not a political activist as depicted in the film. There were a number of smaller yet poignant details from the movie which were actually real; Allen did receive one of President Kennedy’s tie from Mrs. Kennedy as a gift and the Reagans did invite him and Helene to a state dinner, where it is said that Helene, worried about what to discuss with college-educated people was instructed by her son to talk about her high school experience, and that they’d probably be none the wiser.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler was a truly captivating and moving film that left me awed by the incredible bravery of so many in the fight for equality, proud of the incredible strides our nation has made, and hopeful for the future. Oh, and equally important, it’s a wonderful tribute to a life well-lived; I think Mr. Allen would've been proud.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Author Spotlight: Jennifer McMahon

Jennifer McMahon’s novels are distinct in that young girls usually play an integral role as heroines, victims or narrators. In an Amazon Author One-on-One interview, McMahon acknowledged that for some reason the voice of these quirky, misfit and imaginative girls comes naturally to her possibly because her own childhood was a bizarre, difficult, yet magical time. Her talent in conveying all of the insecurities, conceit and joy of youth is apparent in each of the below novels which I read during my blogging hiatus. I discovered McMahon through her last book, The One I Left Behind, and as with all authors that manage to capture both my imagination and heart, I quickly sought out her previous works and read Promise Not to Tell, her debut novel, described by Publishers Weekly as "part mystery-thriller and part ghost story" and Island of Lost Girls.

McMahon creates such compelling and vivid characters that make you want to learn their inner most secrets, their life struggles, and which ultimately make you want to root for their every happiness. She gives a voice to the outcast, like Potato Girl – Del Griswold – the school pariah in New Canaan and “the kid all the others loved to hate” from Promise Not to Tell; or the quirky misfit, like Reggie, “the weird one-eared kid without a dad who lived in the creepy stone house” from The One I Left Behind. In a guest column for Writer’s Digest in which she offered tips for writing a novel, McMahon’s advice included creating flawed and believable characters, giving that character a compelling problem, making things happen, and making it believable; McMahon seems to have followed her own advice in each one of these three novels. Each one of her characters comes fully alive on the page; each faces a past hurt or mistake, a personal demon that has shaped their life and colored the choices they made which now drive their story; and each story is filled with all of the tension and suspense you’d expect in a great mystery.

I loved all three of these novels; each for different reasons. I found The One I Left Behind the best as a pure mystery and thriller; it was taut, gripping and had me fully entranced in trying to guess the identity of the story’s villain as red herrings kept me on tenterhooks until the end. Promise Not to Tell was my second favorite and while it held a mystery of its own, what captured my heart in this novel was its bittersweet narrative surrounding the unforgettable Del Griswold; with a bold and fearless exterior that only masked her hurts, my heart went out to this incredible little girl that I would’ve given anything to save. Despite being my third choice, Island of Lost Girls was a truly wonderful read as well. Its layered story actually offered two mysteries in one and McMahon did a great job of slowly fitting in the pieces of the puzzle to reveal the extent of the tale’s darkness.

The One I Left Behind. The summer of 1985 changes Reggie’s life. An awkward thirteen-year-old, she finds herself mixed up with the school outcasts. That same summer, a serial killer called Neptune begins kidnapping women. He leaves their severed hands on the police department steps and, five days later, displays their bodies around town. Just when Reggie needs her mother, Vera, the most, Vera’s hand is found on the steps. But after five days, there’s no body and Neptune disappears. Now, twenty-five years later, Reggie is a successful architect who has left her hometown and the horrific memories of that summer behind. But when she gets a call revealing that her mother has been found alive, Reggie must confront the ghosts of her past and find Neptune before he kills again.

Promise Not to Tell. Forty-one-year-old school nurse Kate Cypher has returned home to rural Vermont to care for her mother who's afflicted with Alzheimer's. On the night she arrives, a young girl is murdered—a horrific crime that eerily mirrors another from Kate's childhood. Three decades earlier, her dirt-poor friend Del—shunned and derided by classmates as "Potato Girl"—was brutally slain. Del's killer was never found, while the victim has since achieved immortality in local legends and ghost stories. Now, as this new murder investigation draws Kate irresistibly in, her past and present collide in terrifying, unexpected ways. Because nothing is quite what it seems . . . and the grim specters of her youth are far from forgotten.

Island of Lost Girls. While parked at a gas station, Rhonda sees something so incongruously surreal that at first she hardly recognizes it as a crime in progress. She watches, unmoving, as someone dressed in a rabbit costume kidnaps a young girl. Devastated over having done nothing, Rhonda joins the investigation. But the closer she comes to identifying the abductor, the nearer she gets to the troubling truth about another missing child: her best friend, Lizzy, who vanished years before.

All three novels alternate between past and present and in doing so give us a glimpse as to each protagonist’s faced consequences from past choices and secrets. In The One I Left Behind the chapters seamlessly weave back and forth between then 13-year old Reggie and her friends and present day Reggie; Promise Not to Tell’s chapters alternate between the childhood friendship between Del and Kate, and now 41-year old Kate who is coping with a broken marriage, a sick mother, and a new murder which mirrors Del’s; and Island of Lost Girls alternates between Rhonda’s past and present, the sudden disappearance of Ernestine but also that many years ago of her best friend, Lizzy. Each revelation helps us to see not only how their pasts shaped who they are as a person but also how it charts a course for their future.

In addition to finding a great mystery in each, all three books offer moving coming of age tales that also offer real and insightful looks at such dark subjects as bullying and child abuse. Each novel is a gem all on its own with a hypnotic edge-of-your-seat tale that will touch your heart and have you quickly turning the pages. Jennifer McMahon has become one of my must-read authors and these three books are a testament as to why. McMahon’s latest novel, The Winter People, which I highlighted in my 2014 Book Preview is due for release on February 11, 2014; I have no doubt that this will be yet another bestseller for this brilliant author.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Blue Jasmine

I’ve had my fill of winter but I must admit that I was positively giddy driving home from work on Tuesday morning; I kinda felt like a kid playing hooky from class. I’m a big chicken when it comes to driving in the snow, so thanks to early forecasts I stayed a little late on Monday and was in the office by 7:00 am Tuesday so that I could get out of Dodge as soon as I saw the roads getting a little white. Getting home I felt a twinge of guilt (very slight) at having left so early but that passed as soon as I plopped down on my couch with blanket and Jasmin in hand to first read a book and later to catch this movie, which I missed last year.

Blue Jasmine is the latest film written and directed by the incomparable Woody Allen, starring Cate Blanchett, Alec Baldwin, Sally Hawkins, Peter Sarsgaard and love or hate him, old potty-mouth himself Andrew Dice Clay. Jasmine Francis (previously known as Jeannette) (Blanchett), a former Manhattan socialite now unemployed, homeless, and slightly delusional, is traveling to San Francisco to start her life anew after the prosecution, incarceration and subsequent suicide of her philandering husband, Hal (Baldwin), who’d been guilty of some shady business deals (think Madoff). Still recovering from a nervous breakdown that left her talking to herself in the middle of the New York City streets, Jasmine arrives flat broke (though she traveled first class with her Louis Vuitton luggage) at her adopted sister’s, Ginger (Hawkins), small and cramped apartment which she shares with her two boys from a prior marriage.

Struggling to settle in and accept not only her new home, but also Ginger’s current fiancée, Chili, whom she sees as yet another in a string of losers, Jasmine is constantly drawn back to the memories of her past life which we see as flashbacks. Each flashback offers a stark contrast between past and present; not just her previous riches (a house on Park Avenue, a beach house in the Hamptons, a stepson attending Harvard and extravagant cocktail parties with sketchy business deals taking place in the background) but these snippets of life also show us the dynamics of Jasmine’s previous relationships. We see her blind devotion to her husband; her obliviousness (by accident or by design) to his countless faults – financial and personal – including the fact that he was sleeping with anyone in a skirt; and also witness the contrast between Ginger’s generous welcome into her simple home compared to Jasmine’s pretentiousness and disdain when Ginger and her then husband Augie (Clay) come for a visit to New York – having them stay at a Marriott instead of her home and griping to Hal that now she’ll have to invite them to her birthday party.

Putting on airs which she really can no longer afford, Jasmine refuses Ginger’s job suggestions because they are supposedly too menial. Determined to reinvent herself she decides to take an online course to become an interior designer, though she can barely use a computer. School requires money which she doesn’t have so she finally concedes to work as a receptionist in a dentist’s office. Near the breaking point thanks to school (a computer skills class to start off), work and her over-attentive and handsy boss, Jasmine copes by popping Xanax and guzzling martini’s at every turn. Yet somehow Jasmine perseveres but after the dentist makes a heavy pass at her, she quits. Commiserating with a fellow student at her computer class, she finally sees her chance to meet a different kind of people when she’s invited to attend a cocktail party, and excited and hopeful Jasmine convinces Ginger to go with her.

Reality exceeds her expectations when she meets Dwight, a diplomat and rich widower enthralled by her beauty and elegance. Jasmine takes reinvention one step too far though when she lies and not only claims to be an interior designer but in speaking of Hal, claims that he was a surgeon who died of a heart attack instead of a crook who committed suicide. Despite her deception, life takes an upswing as her relationship with Dwight blossoms and it seems like she can slowly begin to heal and let go of the past, but will it last or will the truth and the past come back to haunt her once again.

I’d wanted to see this movie for the longest time since I missed it during its theatrical release, so I was beyond thrilled when I saw it available via OnDemand, especially given the film’s critical acclaim and Blanchett’s numerous award show wins for this role. I wish I could say that I loved it or even that I liked it, but honestly I didn’t. I found it such a departure from the type of movies I normally associate with Allen which is namely funny. I’ve seen this film described as a dramedy (drama and comedy), but I fail to see where anyone could find any humor in this story or its tragic main character.

The plot offers what, given the Madoff debacle and other stories like it, seems like an honest portrayal (fair or not) of those like Madoff (the rich or elite; the 1%) and their laissez faire attitude towards business and their general greed. It also offers an obvious contrast between the haves and have nots and seemingly posits through its character depictions (again fair or not) an image of us working stiffs (like Ginger, a grocery-store clerk; or Chili, her mechanic boyfriend) as the good guys in the tale's socio-economic comparison. It paints a picture using only blacks and whites without any shades of gray, and it seems to offer Jasmine as a scapegoat or sacrificial lamb (pick your animal) on which we can direct our dislike and/or disdain.

Jasmine is pretentious and self-absorbed; both in the past and present and is depicted in such a harsh light that I question whether Allen intended her to be a tragic sympathetic figure or just an object of our scorn. As you watch her struggle through life, you’re hit by the fact that much of her suffering has been self-inflicted; whether in turning a blind eye to her husband’s dirty finances and romantic peccadillos, lying at the start of a brand new relationship, and on an emotional level her lack of human connection and openness with her sister – the only person whose stuck by her side through her life’s upheavals. At the film’s conclusion, you fear that her self-deception will forever limit her chances of peace and happiness.

Blanchett does a wonderful job in portraying a woman on the brink; conveying both her vulnerabilities and hopes through a simple frantic glance or an alluring smile. It speaks to the caliber of her acting that she takes an utterly unlikable human being, and manages to extract more than a fair measure of sympathy from us. Nonetheless, I will add that having seen Cate in other films I’m at a loss for all of the recognition she’s getting for this role. Don’t get me wrong, she’s a great actress and her work merits some form of recognition, a nomination definitely, but a win at every award show? I’d say no.

Overall, Blue Jasmine was an interesting character study with a wonderful performance from a fine actress, but if you’re looking for classic Woody, then skip it.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

In the Blood

In Lisa Unger’s In the Blood, Lana Granger, a student at Sacred Heart College in The Hollows, NY, lives a life of lies and secrets, which she keeps locked inside herself and for which “there was very little I (she) wouldn’t have done to keep that way.” Lana is still haunted by the fateful night years ago that changed her life when her father (now on death row) murdered her mother; a fact of which no one other than her family and therapist is aware (or so she thinks). Lana’s just settling back on campus after an unbearable holiday spent with her Aunt Bridgette and cousins. She’s grateful that they took her in against all advice and good sense, yet she knows in her heart that she is “a cockroach in the batter of their sweet lives… a dark-haired, dark-eyed wraith in their sunny, golden-haired midst.” Facing graduation she’s giving serious thought to graduate school after all, “what was a psychology major fit for, if not more education? The human mind, with all its mystery, bears endless study…Doesn’t it?”

Lana’s aunt insists that “we are made and not born, that it is the power of choice that forms our lives.” Lana envied her belief and now she’s got no choice but to take control of her life. As a trust-fund baby there’d always been plenty of money for school, housing and extras but her mom had wanted her to chart her own path in life and earn her own way, so she’d stipulated that Lana would not receive her trust until the age of 30 which meant after graduation she’d only be receiving a small yearly sum until she reached that magical age. Taking the bull by the horns, Lana checks out the job boards at college and relying on her psychology professor and mentor's, Langdon Hewes, suggestion she replies to and interviews for a position with a single mom needing afternoon help with her 11-year old son.

Arriving at the address provided over the phone, Lana meets Rachel Kahn, who gives her fair warning that her son Luke is quite a handful; warning her about his rages and manipulations. Rachel moved the two of them to The Hollows so that Luke could attend Fieldcrest, a school for troubled and emotionally disturbed young people since Luke had multiple diagnoses including ADHD, bipolar disorder and clinical depression. Whether through the naiveté of youth or pure hubris, Lana had felt more than able to take on Luke, after all she’d done her internship at Fieldcrest and had even gotten an A in Professor Hewes’ class.

At their first meeting, Luke is all sweetness and charm though in the days to come Lana would think “as I look back now, it was really the first move in the game we’d already started playing. What was there between us in that very first moment that would have told, if observed everything that would follow? Nothing. I am sure of it. Not anything, not a twinge of instinct, not an internal shudder. He was that good.” His initial warmth proves a stark contrast to the icy stare and unmistakable menace he goes on to display on their first afternoon alone, and after that first confrontation, Lana notices a lock on the outside of his bedroom door and wonders if Rachel needs to lock him up at night. As the days progress Lana and Luke bond over chess and build an uneasy truce if not friendship.

Thrown into the stresses of school and her new job, comes the sudden disappearance of her best friend Rebecca (Beck) after a disagreement between the two of them that’s witnessed by others. Worry becomes fear as a couple years ago another friend had also disappeared under similar circumstances (after a disagreement with Lana), though that had culminated in tragic consequences when a week after the search began Elizabeth was found dead. It had been ruled an accident though the circumstances of her fall had been suspicious. When police begin questioning Lana about Beck and eyewitness accounts contradict her version of events, Lana is forced to lie – to police, friends and herself.

Amidst all this uncertainty and pressure, Luke decides to play a game; a scavenger hunt of sorts. Childishly she can’t pass up the dare in his eyes and that competitiveness just might be her downfall. For as she begins playing his macabre game, Lana realizes there are secrets and lies of hers that Luke seems to know and which he’s dying to reveal. Torn between real fear and/or paranoia, Lana is frantic to find each next clue and solve this riddle before all her secrets are exposed.

What a great book! This suspenseful psychological thriller is a no-holds barred winner that had me racing through its pages from its gripping first sentence to its perfect last word. It was so unputdownable, no exaggeration, that I read it in one sitting; read, read, read and before I know it, its five hours later and I find myself with a splitting headache, burning eyes and yet a big fat smile on my face from this enthralling read that made every minute of subsequent discomfort worth it. The opening narrative in the prologue which draws from Lana’s past truly reeled me in hook, line and sinker and then every page thereafter just ratcheted up the mystery and the tension with some deliciously unexpected twists.

Unger manages to offer readers not only a great tale but in doing so she’s also offered an insightful look at a troubled young mind. Unsettling and at times frightening in its honesty, it makes you ponder and empathize with the burdens carried not only by the sick individual but also by extension their family; the desperation and sense of loneliness and helplessness faced by a parent who feels like their facing their struggles alone. The book also offers a ray of hope in depicting the life-altering benefits and results attainable through love, hope and most importantly science and treatment.

The book is mostly in the first person narrative from Lana’s point of view except for anonymous diary entries which are interspersed throughout the book. The identity of the diary’s writer remains a mystery throughout the bulk of the book, until comments and descriptions provide the reader a clue as to the identity. The entries are written by a distraught mother and span years. The first entry is bleak as she describes her desperation at her newborn son’s endless inconsolable wailing. At first glance it appears like the problem lies with her and that her anxiety is fueled by frayed nerves, lack of sleep and maybe post-partum depression, but as the years pass the entries are marked by a sense of fear and later resignation. The infant now a toddler becomes unsmiling, watchful and unnatural; then at eight the apprehension mounts because now injured classmates are involved, as school after school washes their hands of the problem; yet through the years to come she clings to the hope that love will be enough.

Lana was quite an enigma; at times vulnerable, defiant, angry. I didn’t know whether to trust her or not, which made the story all the more compelling. I puzzled at her self-imposed secrecy and felt sorry for the fact that it brought her so much loneliness. In not letting go of her past demons and shame, she carried them with her almost as a form of punishment, while her isolation only managed to make the secrets seem larger than they were. Luke was intelligent and charming yet capable of turning on a dime; that random instability made him both scary and intriguing.

In the Blood is a great book; its fast-paced storyline, compelling characters, and mind-bending twists will captivate you from page one. Word of caution, don't start it if you have chores to do because once you start it, you just might not be able to put it down.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

American Hustle

David O. Russell’s American Hustle was my choice for this week’s Sunday matinee. This great film starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence is loosely based on the late 1970s Abscam scandal. The film’s opening title offers a tongue-in-cheek caveat emptor of sorts to moviegoers stating “Some of this actually happened.” The film focuses on Iriving Rosenfeld (Bale), a Bronx boy who made good and now owns a glass-installation business that used to belong to his dad and a chain of dry cleaners, in addition to running a couple of sketchy side businesses including selling forged artwork and a relatively lucrative loan scam. Life changes for Irving though when he meets the young and beautiful Sydney Prosser (Adams), a small town girl with big dreams.

Despite a wife, Rosalyn (Lawrence), and adoptive son at home, Irving falls in love with Sydney and does the craziest thing he’s ever done with a woman – he’s honest with her – asking her to join him in his get rich schemes. Initially heartbroken when he thinks she’s turned him down, Sydney not only joins him but also invents a British alter ego, Lady Edith, a supposed British royal with banking connections that helps to pull the wool over the eyes of countless desperate men that turn to Irving for a loan. It's bigger and better from there on as the money starts rolling in and Irving even creates a fake company named “London Investors” (based on Sydney’s bogus London connections). All plans go awry though when Lady Edith is arrested in a sting and held for three days by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Cooper) for her part in a loan scam. DiMaso coerces Irving’s help by promising his and Sydney’s freedom if Irving can bring in four additional busts.

While she's under detention, DiMaso’s taunts to Sydney that Irving doesn’t really care about her sting and cause her to distance herself personally from Irving, telling him that she’s going to play DiMaso and use him if she needs to. At first the planned marks are small, including a potential bust of the likable Camden, New Jersey Mayor Carmine Polito (Renner) who is looking to revitalize his state by rebuilding Atlantic City and gambling in order to create jobs; but using a fake Arab sheik offering millions in exchange for U.S. citizenship, they set a trap for Polito and manage to catch not only him in their nets but also a number of dirty politicians including Congressmen and Senators.

Irving is torn by his double-crossing role as his ties of friendship grow with Polito but he’s truly scared when DiMaso all of a sudden sets his sights on the Mafia. The stakes are high for all of them and as the danger builds the volatile and wacky Rosalyn just might do them all in. While the over-eager and frenetic DiMaso thinks he’s got the goods, it will be up to Irving to pull the biggest scam of his life if he wants to make it out of this mess alive.

I loved this movie! What an extravaganza of talent, storytelling, and fabulous 70s music. This wacky and hard to categorize film offers drama, action, and plenty of comedy (thanks in large part to Jennifer Lawrence’s zany performance), but surprisingly it also has tons of heart (and romance too!). The larger than life characters in this tale make it hard to put your finger on just who the bad guys are since sometimes the bad are good and the good are bad. At its heart, its a story about reinventing yourself and second chances; an American ideal that defines who we are as a nation. Despite the bad hair and even worst fashions it offers a nostalgic trip down memory lane that might remind you of the good old days.

This character-driven tale delivers thanks to its standout cast. Each one shines in their own right and help make what could just be an everyday grifter flick into a true American classic. Bale is out of this world! It goes far beyond his physical transformation, though that’s pretty incredible including big paunch and comb-over. Bale’s portrayal of Irving could’ve been a caricature of your typical con artist, but he’s given Irving so much pathos and heart; at times funny, sad and poignant. Irving is flawed (he’s definitely not the most moral guy) but while he’s got no problem scamming people out of good money, he’s still torn between his true love for Sydney and his duty to his crazy wife, as well as torn by his need to betray a new friend; each weighing heavily on his heart. It’s not all black or white with Irving; there’s tons of gray.

The rest of the cast was equal to the task. Amy Adams blew my mind. For the longest, I guess since Enchanted (duh), she’s been Giselle in my mind, and she’s sooo not that in this film. Adams made Sydney sexy, bold and irresistible, while somehow still conveying an innocent vulnerability; a simple need to be loved. Cooper as DiMaso was beyond intense as an ambitious man a little over his head. Jennifer Lawrence was once again spot on in her screwy performance as Rosalyn, who was at different times happy, sad, angry, scared and sexy – sometimes all in the span of a couple minutes; a ticking time bomb that you can’t control, just contain. Oh, and lest I forget, there’s a brief but nonetheless scene-stealing performance by none other than Robert DeNiro as a Mafia bigwig from Florida.

The brilliance of this film is that it makes us care; care about a pair of two bit shysters and their chance at a happily ever after. When Irving clutched at his chest from a heart scare, I gasped; when he was knocked down and kicked, I wanted to protect him; and when he heartbrokenly tears up pining for Sydney, I rooted for their reconciliation. Each became a real albeit fallible person (weak, greedy, selfish); but then aren’t we all one or more of those things at different times in our lives? Indefensible or not, you can’t help but be charmed by this madcap group of wannabes that show so much heart.

As I mentioned before, the music was amazing. Every song choice seemed perfect for the scene. The film features classic rock songs from such greats as Elton John, America and Chicago; some disco from The Bee Gees and Donna Summer; and even some jazz classics from Duke Ellington. Oh and my favorite from the movie, “10538 Overture” from ELO that you might have heard in some of the film’s marketing. The soundtrack and the songs are integral to the movie and its tone, and some are directly incorporated into the storyline; like a great scene with Jennifer Lawrence as Rosalyn singing “Live and Let Die” while she’s cleaning her house or a really sweet and friendship-making moment between Irving and Carmine as they sing “Delilah” by Tom Jones.

As for the fact vs. fiction in the film, there really was an Irving Rosenfeld though his real name was Mel Weinberg. He was a career swindler crucial to the FBI’s Abscam operation and was a star witness during the trials. Amy Adams character was based on Weinberg’s real mistress Evelyn Knight, whom unlike the film really was British and was not a full partner in all his scam. Jeremy Renner’s character of Mayor Carmine Polito was based on real-life Mayor Angelo Errichetti, who died earlier this year, and though he was a “man of the people” highly-regarded by his constituents, he supposedly wasn’t as clean-cut as the film portrays.

What else can I say, other than see this film! I have no doubt that whether it wins an Academy Award or not, American Hustle is destined to be an American classic that stands the test of time.

Monday, January 20, 2014

An Old New Favorite

“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” (Thanks to The Godfather for those oh too apropos words). I had made my Sophie’s choice a couple years ago and had opted for The Voice over American Idol, the granddaddy of all singing competitions which spawned a slew of copycats over the years including The X-Factor, Singing Bee, Nashville Star and The Voice to name a few. While Idol had lost a lot its luster these last few seasons and last year’s judges drama had been a real turn off and distraction to many viewers, no one can dispute that somehow the show has still managed to crank out successful recording artists; and though they might not be on the scale of Clarkson or Underwood, they are still more successful and with more name recognition than either The Voice or The X-Factor winners (such as Phillip Phillips).

I had wanted to hold strong and be a woman of my convictions but the Harry pull was too strong, so with an assist from OnDemand on Friday and Sunday I caught up with both episodes of American Idol’s two-night premiere. I must say that despite my time away everything felt so comfortable and familiar – from the catchy intro music, to Ryan’s dramatic “this is American Idol”, to the judges and the long line of good to great auditions all made wonderfully cooler and more fun thanks to three astutely cast judges that were refreshingly honest, smart and kind to everyone that stood before them (Harry Connick, Jr., Jennifer Lopez, and Keith Urban).

I loved the warm dynamic between Harry, J. Lo and Keith. There was an effortless camaraderie between the three, as they laughed, giggled and cracked jokes like they’d been friends forever. The best part was that it never became about them; they remained focused on the contestants and they seemingly took seriously the fact that they held someone’s hopes and dreams in their hands. I loved Harry; he was as brutally honest as Simon, but softened the blow with his Southern charm and music know-how; quickly reminding us that like the song says, “Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, in a most delightful way.”

I’ll be honest I’m not a fan of J. Lo, neither her music nor her acting, but yet as with her last go around as judge, I’m a fan of her as a person. I appreciated the kindness and compassion J. Lo, as well as the other two judges, showed all the hopefuls – young and not so young, who showed up with a dream; striving to build a better life for themselves and their family.

A significant improvement in the show is the negligible amount of bad auditions that we as viewers have to sit through. In truth the amount of talent was really staggering considering we’re only two episodes into the audition process; there were so many moving and memorable auditions that I just loved (including Sam Woolf, John Fox, Keith London, and Rachel Rolleri, to name a few). Of course, it’s still very early; a lot more auditions and talent to see so I won’t pick a favorite just yet, especially since if memory serves me well, the Hollywood round is usually one big blood bath as the judges narrow a field of 100s to a measly 20 for the top 10 boys and girls.

For what it’s worth, I think American Idol is back and I’ll definitely be tuning in to this old new favorite. Why don't you tune in too? Check it out on FOX, Wednesday at 8 PM ET.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Last Dead Girl

Harry Dolan’s latest novel, The Last Dead Girl, starts with our protagonist, 26-year old David Malone sitting alone in a room with white tile walls and a pair of long fluorescent lights overhead as he awaits the police detective questioning him on the murder of Jana Fletcher. An hour later Detective Frank Moretti ambles in wearing a gray suit and tired eyes as he sits across from David, kicking off the questioning with an off the cuff “Why’d you kill the girl?” uttered in a mild and bored tone. “Seriously?” David says, “Does that ever work for you?” The two men spar over the details of David and Jana’s ten day love affair and the circumstances that brought David under Moretti’s suspicion.

Having met the beautiful and enigmatic law student only ten days earlier on what David liked to think of as the Night of the Doe, his answers were few and far between but he nonetheless shares the details of their meeting and days together. The catalyst behind the fateful night which sent him to Quaker Hill Road was finding an open condom wrapper in his fiancée’s pocket, a fact which left him reeling and in desperate need to get out of his apartment. Driving on the rain slicked road he’d come across Jana and had been captivated by her exotic beauty from the moment he’d stepped out of his car on that lonely stretch of road to help her after an accident. Her dark hair had been falling in curl, damp with beads of rain, her brown eyes clear and intense, as she crouched by the deer lying on the ground. As she’d gently stroked the doe’s fur he’d noticed the bruise on her check and the buttons missing from her blouse which were obviously not the results of the accident.

David had given Jana a ride home which had culminated in him spending the night at her place and the onset of their brief relationship. Only three days after that night, David had stood looking through the screen door at Jana on her patio and thought that “even though I had known her for only three days, I thought I might be in love with her.” Startled by his presence at the door, she’d whirled around and they’d embraced as Jana confessed feeling like someone had been watching her.
Someone was watching. Call him K if you like. That’s how he thought of himself at times like this. There were things he wouldn’t normally do, like slinking through the woods at night and spying on young lovers. Not his style. But K was different; he had no such inhibitions. Truth be told, K liked that sort of thing…and he was thinking about the girl and about what he had to do to her.”
The next morning given the still unknown source of the bruise, the suspicious events leading up to her accident, and Jana's feelings of being watched, David had walked into the woods behind Jana’s apartment to investigate and had only found a lone popsicle stick. Now seven days later, Jana’s been murdered and David finds himself sitting in the police station. After sharing his tale with Moretti, David is released since there’s no evidence against him. Determined to find Jana’s killer David moves in to her apartment and plans to start asking questions, beginning with the list of names he’d put together from Jana’s address book starting with Roger Tolliver, one of Jana’s professors.

As he attempts to uncover the truth, David finds a number of startling revelations about Jana, including the fact that the last few weeks of her life she was obsessively working on a case for the Innocence Project. A case involving the brutal murder of a local schoolteacher, Cathy Pruett, and the man convicted of her murder, her husband. Was Jana’s death linked to that murder? One revelation leads to another and quickly David is in over his head, as everyone becomes a suspect; including Detective Moretti whom coincidentally was also the lead detective in the Pruett murder. In his need to find justice for Jana, David digs deeper into the past, putting himself in harm’s way as unbeknownst to him the killer is watching every move he makes.

I really enjoyed this novel. I won't say love, because you might think less of me for loving something so twisted, but it was gripping and suspenseful and offered one surprising revelation after another. The mystery is complex and its resolution one you don’t readily see coming; while the characters are well-developed and feel very real. The heart of the tale offers a scary look at the pain and suffering human beings are capable of inflicting on one another, as well as the unfathomable depths of the human spirit’s endurance in its will to survive. It’s dark and icky at times but once you start it, you won’t be able to put it down.

The book alternates narrators as we bear witness to David’s thoughts and actions solving Jana’s murder, but more importantly Jana’s experiences and the chain of events that ultimately led to the confrontation with her killer. Despite the fact that she’s murdered in the first few pages of the book, it is the chapters which reveal through flashbacks the truth of Jana’s story in her voice that drive the book; every word of her tale is nail-bitingly scary and heartbreaking. Parts of the book are chilling in their vivid descriptions, and your skin crawls and heart races at the mere thought that something like that could actually happen, especially when you realize that stuff like that does happen (all you have to do is turn on the TV and watch the news).

Each of the main characters in the book – David, Jana, and K. – is so believably real that they engender heartfelt emotion from the reader, whether love, compassion or hate. David is perfect as the main protagonist; funny, charming, and kind and relentless in his pursuit for the truth, you can readily see in him the traits that would’ve appealed to Jana and her need to feel safe. I made a point of referring to David as the book’s protagonist and not hero, because the true hero of this tale is Jana. It was her fearless drive for justice that propelled the chain of events in this story. Jana’s courage and implacable sense of hope in spite of experiences endured made me feel both inspired by and in awe of her. K.’s narrative always held just the right amount of sinister creepiness to never leave in doubt the evil of which he was capable. His character offered an insightful look at the mind of a psychopath and the scary realization of what ugliness can hide behind the most innocent of masks.

The mystery reveals itself slowly as the author goes back and forth in time; showing us just enough to continually keep us engaged and then slowly exposes each layer of this intriguing tale; so when you think you’ve got it all figured out, you’re wrong. Given the book’s dark tone, I felt the story’s wrap-up once the mystery is resolved was apropos. Not necessarily how I would’ve handled things, but you know what they say, payback's a bitch.

The Last Dead Girl is supposedly a prequel to Harry Dolan’s previous novel Bad Things Happen, a book which Stephen King called (pardon the language) a “great fucking book.” I haven’t read Bad Things Happen, but after reading this white-knuckled thriller I’ll be sure to correct that situation soon. The Last Dead Girl is an absolutely absorbing and unpredictable roller coaster ride that will undoubtedly leave you, like me, searching for another book by this brilliant author.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Enough Said

Volunteer night came and went relatively quietly last night (only 50 or so clients) so after getting home a little after 8:00 pm and wolfing down a bowl of Progresso soup for dinner and then sharing my vanilla pudding with my kitty, Jasmin (I can’t say no to those big round eyes, but just as an fyi, there were two spoons involved), I ended up checking out the OnDemand menu for the latest round of films released this past Tuesday. I found a great line up of early 2013 films on the menu this week, including Sundance Film Festival award-winner Fruitvale Station, The Butler with Forest Whitaker and Oprah, and Enough Said starring the late great James Gandolfini and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. I was in the mood for something fun and lighthearted so I opted for the romantic comedy Enough Said, and boy was that the right decision. Loved it!

Enough Said introduces us to Eva (Louis-Dreyfus), a masseuse and divorced mother of college-bound daughter Ellen. Attending a party along with best friend Sarah (Toni Colette) and her husband Will (Ben Falcone aka Melissa McCarthy’s real-life husband aka Air Marshal guy on Bridesmaids), Eva meets Marianne (Catherine Keener), who pretentiously introduces herself as a poet to which Eva funnily replies “I’m a dreamer” until Marianne explains she’s an actual published poet. At the same party, Eva meets Albert (Gandolfini), a sweetly funny lovable lug of a man, also divorced who is dreading the imminent departure to Parsons School of Design of his daughter Tess. Despite Eva’s initial thoughts that there were no men at the party that she was attracted to, and Albert’s quick rejoinder that “that's OK, there's no one here I'm attracted to either,” the viewer can see the instant sparkle in each of their eyes as something just clicks between these two wonderful people.

Albert ultimately asks Eva out on a first date where he readily confesses his quirks ("I’m a slob. I have ear hair…not like a dirty, hoarder slob - like a normal, disorganized one" he further clarifies), and after a few well-placed sarcastic zingers from either side, its official – they are perfect for one another. You see it in their easy camaraderie, the light banter and easy flow of conversation that seems to come with no effort. Of course, in addition to Albert’s call, Eva gets a call from Marianne the poet, as a potential new client. Eva is quickly impressed by the oh so cool Marianne, who seems obsessed with spending her time bad mouthing her supposedly horrendous ex-husband (an overweight slob without any friends whose guacamole eating habits would literally nauseate her), and whom unbeknownst to Eva at this point is none other than Albert.

As Eva and Albert’s relationship quickly heats up and becomes more serious, realization finally hits Eva and she’s finally all too aware of the identity of Marianne’s horror-ex. Too in-awe of her newfound friend and curious of her insights on Albert (describing her as a human TripAdvisor), Eva maintains their growing friendship unwittingly letting Marianne’s toxic words color her own perceptions of the man she’s growing to truly care about. Torn by her friendship and her feelings for Albert, Eva chooses not to speak out and in her silence betrays someone who cares about her, possibly losing her chance at true happiness.

Like I said above, I loved this movie. It’s a wonderful adult love story, that’s funny to boot. No fifty shades of grey billionaire here or young ingénue to be seduced, just two lonely and flawed people that have been unlucky in love in the past, but they’re perfect for each other and the fates have thankfully managed to bring them together. It’s a real-life love story where the characters are imperfect and quirky and funny and just downright lovable.

As you get to know these two people, you feel an instant connection with them and can’t help but root for their happiness. I wanted to shake Eva with each mean little dig she made at Albert (at one point offering to buy him a calorie book) as the corrosive effects of Marianne’s words took effect and she lets all of the little things that seemed inconsequential at first become an annoyance; losing sight of the value of the wonderful kind man she’d found that made her happy. When Albert poignantly says to Eva “I thought you liked me” I wanted to weep for him and kick her in the shin. I’m not in a relationship but I’d say there was probably a lot of truth in the movie’s depiction of the dynamics in relationships and how external influences sometimes color our views and our actions. How many times has a friend’s off-hand negative remark (he’s chunky, he’s too nice (is there such a thing?), he’s a slob) been a contributing factor in either not giving someone a chance or causing some undue tension in an existing relationship, as we let ourselves view that person through someone else’s eyes.

The film is perfectly cast with Gandolfini and Louis-Dreyfus. Louis-Dreyfus’ Eva is a hybrid of a grown-up version of Elaine from Seinfeld and Christine from The New Adventures of Old Christine but with a whole lot more dimension; she’s at times funny, sad, uncertain, scared and hopeful. Gandolfini is wonderful in this role that shows off a whole new range to his talent; Albert is as far as you can get from Tony Soprano, loving, open, sincere, tender and vulnerable. The chemistry between these two great actors is undeniable and the growing emotion they portray on film between the two main characters feels incredibly real; not a love at first sight, lightning bolt type of affair, just a slow and steady connection and an understanding that this person gets you – flaws and all. Ultimately, both actors deliver; Louis-Dreyfus the film's humor and Gandolfini its heart and soul.

Enough Said’s star-crossed lovers are all too real with all the foibles and vulnerabilities that real people encompass. The movie is fresh and original in its honest and sweet look at a relationship between two mature adults and offers tons of humor and witty dialogue between two talented stars. Enough Said’s touching and at times poignant tale truly says it all about love, trust and letting go.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Kept

James Scott’s debut novel The Kept tells a dark and gripping tale set in rural New York during the turn of the twentieth century. “Elspeth Howell was a sinner. The thought passed over her like a shadow as she washed her face or caught her reflection in a window or disembarked from a train after months away from home.” Those thoughts from Elspeth mark our introduction to this enigmatic woman. As a midwife returning from a nearby city where she plied her trade, Elspeth was making the arduous trek on foot from the train station during a snowstorm seemingly growing in intensity the closer she drew to home. She rushed her steps as “something nagged at the back of her head, threatening to push forward and topple her.” As she crossed the cornfields and trudged beside the creek which provided their water she was finally able to identify her fear – “it was nothing.” It was the absolute stillness – no smell of a winter fire, no lights in the windows.

Now running and tripping towards her home the sights before her sent her whimpering to her knees and then staggering from room to room as each image proved more gruesome than the next. Each one of them gone – brutally murdered; 6-year old Emma outside by the front steps, 15-year old Mary and 14-year old Amos in the kitchen, 10-year old Jesse right outside the door of his parents room, and Jorah in his bed. Twelve-year old Caleb, the solitary boy that “spent most of his time in the barn, sleeping among the animals, talking to them when he got lonely” was the only one missing. As she searched the house, Elspeth knew she “had her enemies, and her sins were tied with the Devil’s strings to those she’d wronged;” then all of a sudden a shot rings out, a flash and then she's flying through the air, her body torn asunder.

Hiding in the barn, Caleb had watched the three gunmen depart and later haunted by his guilt and the sight of those still bodies, he’d hid in the pantry for days fearing the gunmen would return for him. Cringing with every noise, unsure if they were just fabrications of his terror, Caleb heard the noise in the kitchen and this time he was brave like his father would’ve wanted, and unlike before this time he used his shotgun and fired a shot; only to be sickened by the sight of his injured mother when he opened the door. Numb but resolved Caleb cares for his mother (digging out each ball of shot with a knife, changing her bandages, nursing her fever); he didn’t fear killing her since he was certain she was going to die no matter what he did. Despite sounding like death for nearly a week “as if her life was being pulled from her body forcibly”, Elspeth survived and each day got a little stronger. Together with Caleb, they made plans for the future and how they’d kill the men responsible. “Instead of giving thanks for what she’d been spared, she grew angrier at what had been taken from her, and a hunger grew…to find the men responsible and snatch everything from them with equal cruelty.”

Finally, the two begin their journey unsure of where their search would lead them; unaware that the countless miles of hunger and exhaustion would culminate in Watersbridge, the town of Caleb’s birth. Elspeth knew her return there had been inevitable and that this had to be her reckoning; she had sins, secrets and apologies to share with Caleb and despite her unworthiness she prayed he could forgive.

I both loved and hated this incredible debut novel that grabs your heart and squeezes, makes your stomach plummet and your muscles tense with each surprising revelation; a compelling and unforgettable story that’s been compared to some of Cormac McCarthy’s classics. I loved the compelling revenge plot, the secrets, the complex characters, but I hated the tale's resolution; I felt after so much suffering the characters or better said Caleb, deserved better. Despite the fact that the best word to describe this book is “bleak” – from the landscape, to the characters, to the ending – it was still a jaw-clenching kind of page-turner that I couldn’t put down.

Right from the book’s intriguing first sentence, Scott captures the reader’s imagination, leaving you instantly hooked by the mystery behind Elspeth’s sins; what are they? Does she deserve retribution or redemption? Will she get either? We slowly learn the truth of Elspeth and by extension Caleb through her fevered dreams while she’s near death and later through her shared thoughts and memories. I’ve made a point of limiting my review to the events that set the course for the book without revealing Elspeth’s secrets because they drive the character development and the inevitable outcome of a tragedy that was years in the making.

I empathized with Elspeth for the sins which she carried as a burden on her soul for so many years, but seeing the repercussions of her actions landing squarely on Caleb’s too slim shoulders, I can’t say I forgive her. Caleb broke my heart. A child whose innocence is stolen from him by the sins of a distant mother that returns his love too late; forced to grow up and put aside childhood dreams and hopes. Even at the tender age of 12 Caleb is a better man than many of the adults around him; showing honor, loyalty, kindness, and forgiveness; and magnanimous enough to separate the sinner from the sin.

The Kept also touches lightly on issues of racism and sexual prejudice, though they are not pivotal to the tale. At its heart, The Kept is a tale about redemption, forgiveness, and lost innocence, as well as a cautionary tale about the sins of the father (in this case the mother). Its simple tale offers a heart-wrenching reminder that sometimes justice is best left to God.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Nominees Are...

From left to right: 12 Years a Slave, Gravity, Nebraska, American Hustle
Tomorrow is the big day when the big daddy of all award shows, the Academy Awards - better known as “The Oscars” - announce this year’s list of nominations. Sure we had the Golden Globes on Sunday and they’re always fun, but these are the Oscars! The bee’s knees of awards shows. All the other award shows that precede it are just a build-up to the real thing; they’re the appetizers to the main course, the plain vanilla ice cream to an apple pie ala mode, well, you get the idea – they’re better. Heck, I’d bet money that a lot of the stars sitting in that ballroom this past Sunday would happily trade in 10 Globes for just one shiny little gold man. If you win, you’re somebody (in the industry). You’re no longer just Joe Schmo, you are now Academy Award-winner Joe Schmo; those three little words will forever precede your name.

Producers, directors, actors and actresses, and of course screenwriters, because you need the words on the page, outdid themselves in 2013. It was a bumper crop of truly awe-inspiring performances and unforgettable movies that captured our imaginations and our hearts. Early and mid-2013 films delivered the usual lot of comedies, dramas and blow ‘em up action capers, but the latter half of the year offered a seemingly endless stream of Oscar-caliber films. Each one was better than the next and I honestly couldn’t keep up with all of them. One per weekend just didn’t make the cut; I’m still behind on some films which I think will be nominated. Circumstances might call for a movie marathon one of these weekends.

Since I consider myself a bit of a movie connoisseur (or at least a huge fan), I decided to take a stab at predicting tomorrow’s list of nominees. I was torn on whether to go with my heart or my head here and make my selections based on my own personal preferences of who I “want” to be there, as opposed to whom I “think” will be there; but alas, the heart wants, what the heart wants – so here are my list of both films and actors/actresses that I hope will be filling the seats at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood on March 2nd.

BEST PICTURE (this can range from 5 to 10)
“12 Years a Slave”
“American Hustle”
“Captain Phillips”
“All is Lost”
“Dallas Buyers Club”
“Saving Mr. Banks”
Other contenders: “Inside Llewyn Davis,” “The Wolf of Wall Street”

Alfonso Cuaron, “Gravity”
Steve McQueen, “12 Years a Slave”
David O. Russell, “American Hustle”
Paul Greengrass, “Captain Phillips”
Alexander Payne, “Nebraska”
Other contenders: Martin Scorsese, “The Wolf of Wall Street”; Spike Jonze, “Her”

Matthew McConaughey, “Dallas Buyers Club”
Chiwetel Ejiofor, “12 Years a Slave”
Bruce Dern, “Nebraska”
Tom Hanks, “Captain Phillips”
Robert Redford, “All Is Lost”
Other contenders: Leonardo DiCaprio, “The Wolf of Wall Street”; Joaquin Phoenix, “Her”; Christian Bale, “American Hustle”

Meryl Streep, “August: Osage County”
Sandra Bullock, “Gravity”
Judi Dench, “Philomena”
Emma Thompson, “Saving Mr. Banks”
Amy Adams, “American Hustle”
Other contenders: Cate Blanchett, “Blue Jasmine”

Jared Leto, “Dallas Buyers Club”
Barkhad Abdi, “Captain Phillips”
Michael Fassbender, “12 Years a Slave”
Will Forte, “Nebraska”
Bradley Cooper, “American Hustle”

Lupita Nyong’o, “12 Years a Slave”
Jennifer Lawrence, “American Hustle”
June Squibb, “Nebraska”
Julia Roberts, “August: Osage County”
Sarah Paulson, “12 Years a Slave”

Visit tomorrow at 8:30 am ET to watch the nominees announced live by Thor himself, Chris Hemsworth.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Wrath of Red

Red is back with a bang (or more like a bang-bang), as we saw him exact wrathful vengeance on all those who dared betray him in the Anslo Garrick debacle as he searched for the identity of the mole. Victims dropped like flies, including the apple-eating man’s underling, the EMT who removed his tracking chip in the ambulance, and the doctor who drugged him during Anslo’s torture. The side story surrounding this week’s Blacklist target, the Good Samaritan, was interesting but not compelling; it was all about bad Red last night and darn if he’s not just the scariest sight around when he’s bad. Coolly evil without even a flicker of remorse as he offed people left and right; so much for thinking he’s just a poor little ole victim in a much larger and intriguing web of deceit.

You always follow the money trail which is just what Red did, ultimately leading him to the banker behind the payoffs in the failed assassination attempt. For a split second when the finger pointed to poor Aram, I bought in hook, line and sinker to the banker’s set up and thought he really was the mole, until of course his beat the clock-like face off with Red. Yikes, who can work under that kind of pressure! Heading back to the duplicitous banker, I had a good chuckle at Red’s threats to the banker’s wife as he shoved her in the closet and his parting line about the stroganoff was classic Red. I was a bit disappointed at hearing the banker’s reluctantly uttered Newton Phillips as the name behind the money. A total red herring meant to temporarily appease fans because after all that, we still don’t know the identity of the FBI’s mole.

The Phillips fake out actually redirected my cross-hairs on Tom as the mole with enough information about the blacksite’s location to provide intel to Garrick. After all, Tom had been at the blacksite during the whole Angel Station investigation during the Gina Zanetakos episode; in his confrontation with Liz, he’s the first to suggest that she call her suspicious in, I think in hopes that she would bring him to where she worked. Plus, there's got to be something to the fact that Phillips was the guy Tom readily identified as the "job interviewer" in the Boston hotel. Though given last night’s Fitch-related reveal, I would guess he’d have access to any information he wanted on blacksite locations and he could be the mole. Ugh…I don’t know (throws hands up in the air)…I’m just throwing some mud around and hoping it sticks on someone.

One thing I know is that there's got to be more behind Tom's holier than thou facade; I don't buy the innocent school teacher schtick. I think Tom’s newfound determination to relocate to Nebraska is an attempt to get Liz out of the way. I think Fitch and his cohorts (Tom being one of them, maybe?) have determined that the FBI’s draw for Red lies in Liz. With Red’s homing beacon, Liz, safely tucked away in Nebraska, they can go about their normal course of business. Speaking of Fitch, I loved the perfectly timed whaaaat?! moment as he suddenly popped onto the screen during the meeting with Chief Fowler revealing that he’s some kind of government official about to testify in front of Congress.

Now on to some spoilers, according to, episode 13 entitled "The Katana #99," “will introduce us to our second female Blacklister, Madeline Pope – and this gorgeous and formidable businesswoman has a bit of a (ahem) “past” with Red. In fact, one of them might end up “tied up” by episode’s end.” In addition, according to a Wall Street Journal interview with executive producer Jon Bokenkamp, there’s also more to come on the FBI's enigmatic informant saying "I will tell you that there are answers that we will be giving about... how do I delicately state this... we will be answering things about both Red's family and about his background."

Overall, it was a great way to welcome back our old friend; exciting, if a little violent and dark. Personally, I like Red when he’s at his most winsome and lighthearted; me no likey scary Red. Nonetheless, scary Red is better than no Red which is what we’ll have again soon enough as NBC breaks for their Olympics coverage but I will not linger on the negative and just bask in the splendor of any and all upcoming new episodes. ‘Til we meet again.

One to Watch: Believe

NBC seems to be on the upswing this 2013/2014 TV season; with an epic homerun in September with freshman series The Blacklist and I think if not a homerun maybe a double or triple in this new midseason show Believe, which merits a watch if for no other reason than that it’s produced by the brilliant minds of J.J. Abrams and Alfonso Cuarón, the director of 2013’s blockbuster Gravity.

Believe follows Bo, a young girl with special powers and Tate, the ex-convict sent to protect her, as they run from sinister forces after Bo’s power. “Tate and Bo begin their journey, one in which trust must be earned. Traveling from city to city, every place they stop and everyone they meet will be changed forever.”

I know I’m dating myself but the preview trailer puts me in mind of the 1984 Drew Barrymore sci-fi movie Firestarter, in which she had pyrokinesis (the ability to start fires at will) and a secret government agency was after her in an effort to try and control her powers and use them as a weapon. (There’s always a sketchy government agency involved in these things.) The “traveling from city to city” bit from NBC’s show description reminds me of Bill Bixby’s The Incredible Hulk; I can almost hear that hauntingly sad theme song now.

By the way, another midseason show I was looking forward to and which I posted about, Resurrection, has a scheduled premiere date on ABC of Sunday, March 9 at 9/8c. I'll definitely be tuning in for Resurrection and based on the trailer will also give Believe a try; two shows is about the max of what I'm willing to add to my TV viewing schedule.

If you're interested in the balance of the new Winter TV show lineup, then visit's Winter Preview page; it provides descriptions of all new shows and even offers sneak peek trailers.

Monday, January 13, 2014


Nebraska is the latest film from Academy Award-winning director Alexander Payne, starring Bruce Dern and Will Forte. It's the road trip and father-son tale of Woody Grant (Dern), an alcoholic and slightly senile Korean War veteran who believes he's won a million dollar prize based on a sweepstakes letter he received in the mail. Woody determinedly plans on walking from his home in Billings, Montana to the prize collection office in Lincoln, Nebraska to cash in his prize in person, seeing as how you can't trust the mail these days (especially with one million dollars). With an unsteady gait that makes you fear he'll tip over at any moment, Woody shuffles down the highway on more than one occasion despite the boisterous haranguing of his wife, Kate (a hilarious June Quibb), and younger son David (Forte), who seems to be the go-to person whenever dad needs to be rescued; fielding calls from mom and police in an effort to both help and connect with his cantankerous and emotionally-distant father.

After a number of failed attempts by Woody, David takes pity on his feeble old man and seeing an opportunity to spend time and bond with him, calls in sick at his salesman job ("sick in the head" as his mom Kate says) and leaving his seemingly empty life temporarily behind, the two hit the road in his Subaru en route to Nebraska. Along the way they stop at Mount Rushmore with which Woody isn't very impressed saying it looks like they got tired of working on it (Washington's the only one with clothes and Lincoln doesn't even have an ear) and suffer a scrape or two before they waylay in Hawthorne, Nebraska, Woody's old stomping grounds. Reconnecting with old friends, Woody quickly becomes a minor hometown celebrity when word of his supposed windfall comes to light, helping David learn a thing or two about Woody and showing him how quickly pride in the local boy making good turns to greed when money is involved. An eye-opening journey that will bring father and son together in a way a previously shared lifetime hadn't.

I loved this film. In black and white, the film's stark images of empty landscapes as David's car hits the road and the local mom and pop shops and dive bars that line unassuming one-street towns offers an honest depiction of small-town America. An America were people still gather around the kitchen, sharing the latest gossip on their neighbors, including strengths and foibles going back generations. A glimpse at a wholesome (not necessarily pure) part of America where everyone knows everyone, people still take pride and joy in someone elses success, though greed and envy aren't a foreign state. Nevertheless, Nebraska, its towns and residents are just the backdrop for this heartwarming tale about family (the good and bad), forgiveness and love. An old man nearing the end of his story and the son willing to let go of childhood hurts to see a truer picture (sins and all) of the absent father he'd never known and is just now - when he might not be around much longer - beginning to understand and love.

The acting was wonderful. I've never seen Dern in another film, so I have nothing for comparison purposes but given the brilliance of this performance I'd have to assume that this is a role of a lifetime for him. From the physicality of the role (his lost gaze, stooped shoulders, and halting gait) to his grumpy one liners to the craggy yet expressive face that conveys emotions like an open book (anger, hurt, hope, joy), Dern does what few can and makes it look effortless. Forte was a happy surprise in this role. Despite carrying baggage like MacGruber on his resume, he more than holds his own next to Dern's standout performance. You feel his sense of frustration early in the film and slowly see the shift in the emotions for his dad, as he shows him limitless understanding and compassion. June Quibb as the foul-mouthed, long-suffering wife Kate was hilarious. Kate's nagging and complaints mask a deep and abiding love that is readily made apparent when with the ferociousness of a mama bear protecting her young and a clearly enunciated four-letter word she defends Woody from the greedy vultures that come circling; and movingly visible in the way she tenderly pats down his hair as he lies in a hospital bed, after only seconds earlier griping that he's going to be the death of her.

A couple of facts I found interesting about Nebraska and its director were that Alexander Payne grew up in Omaha and four of his six feature films were actually filmed in Nebraska. In addition to the stellar main cast, Payne cast a number of real Nebraskans in small supporting roles, including Ron Vosta, an 86-year old Nebraska farmer who submitted a self-audition tape that his daughter helped him put together; Rachel Lynn Liester, a real waitress that the crew met when she waited on them during production; and Noah Matteo, who had never acted and along with his brother auditioned for the cub photographer role, to name a few.

Nebraska is a beautiful film that grabs your heart and tickles your funny bone. It is sweet, poignant and funny and a touching depiction of old age and the ties that bind.

Do Good.

As most of you are aware, I haven't gotten off on the best foot with my New Year's weight loss resolution (my friend's cheesecake was the first in a number of stumbling blocks), so instead of obsessing over the slow start I decided to put that on the back burner for now and refocus my efforts on my resolution to help others instead. After a two week break from the food pantry volunteering (it was closed), it was nice to get back this past Thursday and see everyone again - happy and re-energized. This past year I focused strictly on the organized volunteering, both at the pantry and occassionally at Kid's Kloset, but as many regular readers might know in year's past I used to take on "do-good" projects all on my own. Past do-good projects included a diaper drive, care packages and letters for soldiers, Project Night Night (good night bags for children in shelters), New Eyes for the Needy (used glasses for the poor) and Soles4Souls (used shoes for the poor).

As part of my resolution I decided that (as in year's past) I'd take on some new do-good projects and I've decided 2014's first will be...drumroll please...We Care Kits. In doing online research to select a project I found Hope Ministries, a faith-based organization based in Iowa that has been serving the homeless since 1915. Part and parcel of the many programs and services that they offer those in need includes three shelters (Bethel Mission, Door of Faith, and Hope Family Center) which means they have year-round need for basic hygiene products for their guests. The We Care Kit serves as a welcome bag/gift for new homeless or displaced guests at their shelters; by helping provide these essentials those who donate are making a direct positive impact on those struggling in our communities - men, women and children. In addition to the supplies in each kit, Hope Ministries also asks each person making a kit to include a note offering a few words of encouragement. The website states "while the hygiene items are tangibly beneficial, your words of encourage and inspiration lift up the spirits of our residents - some even carry the notes with them for months to come."

I searched for a comparable local program without much success, but in all honesty I'm not really concerned about the location as most of my other do-good projects were also shipped near and far. Ultimately, we are all God's children and as such part of an extended family scattered throughout the world. Whether I'm helping a New Yorker, Iowan or Filipino (as with Typhoon Haiyan), the where doesn't matter, just the need. I've set a goal for myself of assembling 15 bags - five each for men, women and children. Once I have all my supplies, I'll take some pics of my assembled bags and let you know when they're on their way.

What better way to help someone wash away some of the sorrows of yesterday, than to literally help them clean away the dirt from the streets and have a fresh start. God willing, the added knowledge that someone cares, even if a thousand miles away helps in some small way to lighten their load and make them feel a little less alone.

"I expect to pass through life but once. If therefore, there be any kindness I can show, or any good thing I can do to any fellow being, let me do it now, and not defer or neglect it, as I shall not pass this way again." ~William Penn

Thursday, January 9, 2014

A Little Kinder Than Necessary

I recently came across an article in the New York Times that reprinted author George Saunders commencement speech at Syracuse University for the class of 2013. The speech’s simple yet insightful and profound message was too wonderful not to share with all of you. In the speech Saunders shares with students some words of wisdom on life and regret, stating “What do I regret? Being poor from time to time? Not really. Working terrible jobs…No. I don’t regret that…What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. Those moments when another human being was there in front of me, suffering, and I responded…sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.” He adds “It’s a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement, but I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than try to be kinder.”

Saunders poses the theory that we’re not kinder because we believe (erroneously so obviously) that we’re 1) the center of the universe, 2) separate from the universe, and 3) indestructible. While we intellectually know better we perceive it as such and therefore put ourselves and our needs over those of others – long story short – we’re selfish. Lucky for us, life has a way of sometimes knocking us down a peg or two over the years and reminding us that no man (or woman) is an island; that we need others and others need us.

Being kind or kinder than necessary seems such an easy feat but one which sometimes due to selfishness or even at times expediency (it’s easier not do anything) we sometimes neglect. Kindness isn’t exactly measurable or quantifiable – you can’t use a yardstick for it – especially since its impacts can have far reaching effects beyond our comprehension, but its impact on daily life is undeniable, as can be attested in our own lives. There are countless simple acts of kindness bestowed upon us throughout our lives which stay with us as a treasured memory forever. A seemingly insignificant act of kindness will touch our hearts and endear that person to us by the simple fact that they cared.

I have such an example in my own life. I’ve always been a loner and nerd, which is the worst thing to be in middle school but even more so if you face the unfortunate circumstance of making a very poor hairstyle decision that leads you to being the only white girl in your class with an afro. Ugh…it was like painting a bullseye on my back for all the bullies and mean girls. Of course, I knew it was only a matter of time before someone said something which they did, but Robert Smith defended me. Robert was an African-American boy in my class; he wasn’t my friend, we might have exchanged a handful of words prior to that day and an equal amount after that day, but when they came with their snickers and barbs he stood up for me. I couldn’t tell you exactly what he said, I think something to the effect that my hair was part of the way God made me (it was a Catholic school we went to) but I’ll never have the words to thank him for that simple act of kindness because it meant the world to me. I saw him in a movie theater (where else) many years ago; he looked relatively the same (other than a few extra pounds in weight and inches in height) and seeing him still brought a smile to my face.

It’s silly really to think that such a simple gesture could mean so much to one person, but it can, and if we all took the time to share a simple act of kindness – a shared umbrella on a rainy day, a warm meal with a homeless stranger, a held door or friendly hello on your way in to work – the world could be a better place. Sometimes the words are easier said than done, as we struggle with the pressures of our daily life – work, health, bills, family, love (or lack thereof). We keep our heads down as we trudge through life and like Saunders said we focus on our little world, our problems, our fears and worries, and we forget that those around us are fighting an equally hard battle; they’re carrying similar burdens.

Reading Saunders speech I was reminded of a passage which I highlighted in my Kindle from a book I read last year, Wonder by R.J. Palacio. In the book, a school director addressing an auditorium full of fifth and sixth graders at a middle school graduation tells his students about a book,
“In Under the Eye of the Clock by Christopher Nolan, the main character is a young man who is facing some extraordinary challenges. There’s this one part where someone helps him: a kid in his class. On the surface, it’s a small gesture. But to this young man, whose name is Joseph, it’s…Well, if you’ll permit me…He cleared his throat and read from the book:

‘It was at moments such as these that Joseph recognized the face of God in human form. It glimmered in their kindness to him, it glowed in their keenness, it hinted in their caring, indeed it caressed in their gaze.’”
I found those words incredibly moving when I read them and still today. So, let’s all of us reading this make a rule that:
“wherever you are, whenever you can, you will try to act a little kinder than is necessary – the world really would be a better place. And if you do this, if you act just a little kinder than is necessary, someone else, somewhere, someday, may recognize in you, in every single one of you, the face of God…”
And if you don’t believe in God, then “whatever politically correct spiritual representation of universal goodness you happen to believe in.”

Wednesday, January 8, 2014


After Sunday’s couple hours of back-breaking (I guess more like back-twinging) work drafting my 2014 book preview post I treated myself to an hour and a half of unadulterated nostalgic fun in this great 80’s classic. Legend is a fantasy film from Aliens’ director Ridley Scott starring Tom Cruise (pre-Top Gun), the beautiful Mia Sara (pre-Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), and Tim Curry. The film was one of a number of fantasy films that came out in the mid-80's, including two enduring favorites of mine, Labyrinth with David Bowie and The Neverending Story (“Artax! Fight against the sadness Artax!”; ugh, that darn horse gets me every single time). This film was way ahead of its time as far as genre given today’s hits like the Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit, and even with its 80’s special effects, I’d still take it over the Avatar’s of today any day.

Legend is at its heart a fairy tale; a story of good vs. evil, darkness vs. light, and innocence vs. sin. It tells of a time when light ruled the world, forcing the Lord of Darkness (Curry) to retreat into the shadows to plot for the day when he could banish light forever and roam the earth freely in his return to power. But goodness and light lives in the hearts and souls of the purest of creatures, unicorns, protected by Jack (Cruise) who is pure of heart and lives amongst the forest creatures. Jack’s only weakness is the beautiful Princess Lily (Sara), whom he loves as deeply as she loves him. Darkness knows that he can cast the land into darkness and rule for all of eternity if he can just find one of those pure unicorns and take its magical horn; with that goal in mind he sends out his trusty goblin Blix, whose heart is black and full of hate (“black as midnight, black as pitch, blacker than the foulest witch”) to track down and capture the creature.

In his love for Lily, Jack innocently but foolishly does the forbidden and brings her to see the last pair of unicorns in his care, unaware that Blix and his minions are also tracking their prey. Taking advantage of Lily’s sinful touch of one of the trusting creatures, Blix shoots a poisoned dart at the mare, trapping her and taking her horn, casting their magical world into darkness and eternal winter. Horrified that her sin has helped trap the mare, Lily follows the foul Blix and attempts to protect the second unicorn but is instead taken captive and brought to Darkness’ lair where he will take her as his bride. Redemption is in Jack’s hands though for he can save his true love and restore light by defeating Darkness and returning the unicorn’s horn and its power thereby restoring harmony to the universe once again. Relying on the help of Gump, the elf and a fairy or two, Jack sets out on a brave quest that will pit him against the vilest of beasts, bringing about a struggle between good and evil and heaven and hell.

I love this film. Is it perfect? No. There is hardly any memorable dialogue (other than one or two pithy quotes from Lord Darkness), great acting or action for that matter, but it somehow still manages to tell a memorable story and visually it’s stunningly beautiful. Each shot of the enchanted forest within Jack and Lily’s kingdom features soft hazy light and falling fairy dust or snow that gives off a dreamy, ethereal-look full of splendor. You can readily believe that a princess and unicorn could live amongst such beauty. The eternal struggle between good and evil is perfectly captured in the tale which will readily put viewers in mind of another beautiful setting (the Garden of Eden) and innocent man and woman (Adam and Eve) who fell under temptation’s spell and whose sin brings about dire consequences.

While the acting isn’t anything to write home about, the casting was nonetheless perfect in my estimation. Cruise did convey a wholesome bravado that you’d expect from a knight or fey being off to slay dragons, and while he didn’t have any soul-stirring romantic lines to bestow on his true love, he did stare very prettily into her eyes. Sara’s fragile beauty was the perfect foil to Lord Darkness’ grotesque countenance, and her winsome smiles for Jack effectively portrayed her as an innocent seductress not fully aware of the power in her hands. Curry was unrecognizable in his role as Darkness but as the more seasoned professional in the cast, he delivered his lines with such apparent relish and glee – savoring every naughty word and uttering them with such undisguised menace – that as a viewer you couldn’t help but enjoy his onscreen presence, big horns and all.

Despite the 80’s caliber special effects which are of course nowhere near those of today’s CGI laden fantasies, Curry’s make-up still stands out to this day as pretty unforgettable and frightening and don’t even get me started on the unicorns. They are breathtakingly perfect and if you were to tell me they were real, I would believe you; everything about them was magical. Check out the screen shot below to see what I mean.

Lest I forget, one of my favorite things about the film was the great soundtrack from Tangerine Dream, and in particular the final song in the film, "Loved by the Sun." It is, outdated term or not, the bomb.

Legend is a simple yet beautiful tale filled with wonder and magic. As the song says, “Legends can be now and forever. Teaching us to love for goodness sake.”