Friday, March 28, 2014

The Last Days (Los últimos días)

I have not been to the movies in what seems like ages and last weekend was no exception since I was a little under the weather. I recouped enough by Sunday to make my usual weekend trek to Connecticut to visit my knuckleheads, but other than a few errands, I spent most of Saturday drinking orange juice, downing packets of Emergen-C (1000 mg of Vitamin C per packet; a sure-fire cold buster), sucking Cold Eeze (zinc lozenges; yes, I threw everything but the kitchen sink at my cold) and laying on my couch watching TV and movies. One of those movies was the above-mentioned The Last Days (Los últimos días), a 2013 Spanish import (with subtitles) I found on OnDemand that offers a post-apocalyptic look at Barcelona after a mysterious epidemic strikes all corners of the planet, leaving humanity trapped indoors as a result of a form of agoraphobia which actually causes death to those that in vain try venturing outside.

The film alternates between present and past (seen through flashbacks) and at its onset we’re introduced to a bearded and haggard young man, Marc, a hard working program manager trapped in one of Barcelona’s many high-rises. Marc and his co-workers, including Enrique, the HR bigwig that had been sent three months earlier to get rid of the department’s dead weight including quite possibly Marc, have been trapped there for those past three months since the epidemic took root. The lot have been rationing supplies and coordinating efforts to dig through the walls of the building's indoor parking garage in order to break into the subterranean metro line and thereby have free access to move about the city without going outside.

As their efforts are finally rewarded with sight of the train tracks, Marc decides it’s time to brave all possible uncertainty and try to find his girlfriend Julia, whom through flashbacks we learn is pregnant. Thanks to Enrique’s access to a stolen GPS, the two unlikely pair join efforts and head into the subway with nothing but a flashlight to light their way. The two brave countless dangers that undermine their fragile partnership, but through subways, sewers and lawless misfits alike, the two struggle for their humanity as each desperately strives to reach their loved one.

This was a pretty good thriller; enjoyable though nothing to write home about (though I am writing about it aren’t I, so I guess I’m proving myself wrong). Post-apocalyptic films are nothing new and a reliable go-to subject for thrillers as they offer a compelling scenario that plays on our fears of a society run amok with every man for himself; a theme brilliantly showcased in such films as I am Legend or the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. The Last Days (Los últimos días) easily delivers on the expected action and tension filled suspense of our heroes life-threatening journey, but also offers a moving and poignant connection between the two male leads and highlights the beauty and hope found in the bonds of friendship.

The filmmakers never posit an explanation for the epidemic so we’re left to merely accept the situation at face value, though we're witness to the build-up of events through Marc's scattered memories during his odyssey in search of Julia. The film does do a wonderful job of showing the breakdown of society and the general chaos and mayhem that ensues with no government, no police and no sense of order; as the situation reduces man, woman and child to their most primitive form as each fights for their own survival, where care is given only to the most basic of needs – food, safety and shelter.

The film’s scenes of eerily deserted Barcelona streets are stunning and the shots of crowded metro stations filled with refugees in makeshift tents now called home or shoppers barricaded in a mall’s supermarket protecting the few remaining supplies from being laid siege by violent scavengers are utterly gripping as they offer a scary and sad look at how quickly humanity can be lost in midst of desperation. Yet the film and by extension our hero’s bleak hopes are redeemed by love; a force powerful enough to sustain and prevail over all.

The Last Days (Los últimos días) is a gripping tale that makes you value the beauty and freedom found outside your front door and thanks to well-portrayed protagonists offers an important reminder that when all seems lost, hope and love remain.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Celebrating Our History

While this bit of news comes a little late in the month, I thought it was important enough to share; after all you know the saying, better late than never. March is Women’s History Month; a month dedicated to honoring all the incredible women throughout history that have played a part in making our nation great and shaping our world. A month to honor all the women that chartered a course for equal rights for all our citizens, those trailblazers who valiantly faced down critics and shattered glass ceilings, and to celebrate all the incredible contributions we women have made in government, the arts and sciences, and all aspects of daily life in our society; including the courage and commitment of those women both past and present that serve our nation in the battlefront, risking life and limb for our freedom. We women – as a collective whole – played a role; some small, some significant, but all contributed in helping give birth to our nation as it stands today and establishing the ideals which we proudly call our own.

Women have made incredible strides throughout history; they've gone from not being able to own property, vote, attend institutions of higher learning, or have a say in their own lives; to the women of today who hold the reins of their lives in their very resourceful, accomplished and capable hands. It was 94 years ago (only the length of a healthy lifetime) when the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was passed providing: "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex;” and today women are thriving in all walks of life; in the fields of business, government, medicine, and culture, to name but a few; and though not so long ago we couldn’t even vote for the leader of our nation, I have no doubt that, God willing, within my lifetime we will have a worthy woman President in the White House.

Marion Wright Edelman, attorney and civil rights advocate, said "If you don't like the way the world is, you change it. You have an obligation to change it. You just do it one step at a time." Through the years, great women have witnessed injustice and done just that, brought about change. These women too often overlooked in our history books include Susan B. Anthony, an American suffragist who championed women's equal rights but dedicated her life to the belief that all people are equal; Eleanor Roosevelt, a vocal supporter of the African-American civil rights movement, as well as women’s rights and those of the poor; and Rosa Parks, a cornerstone of the civil rights movement and later a strong advocate for human rights issues. I’d be remiss in not also adding that American women don’t necessarily corner the market on greatness; there's Marie Curie who won not one but two Nobel Prizes, Mother Theresa, Golda Meir or Indira Gandhi; through the ages women have (to borrow from the words of Theodore Roosevelt) tread softly, but carried a big stick in order to knock down doors otherwise closed to opportunity and to clear a path for those following in their footsteps.

Each day women have to break down new barriers and face new hurdles but we are equal to the task. New leaders and champions are created each day; both young and old alike, like Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani school girl who faced down the Taliban to fight for a girl's right to an education or Edith Windsor, who at the age of 84 faced down the U.S. Supreme Court and became an icon of the gay-rights movement.

In a speech at Women's Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio delivered in 1851, Sojourner Truth, an emancipated female slave uttered these unforgettable words in her speech, “Ain’t I A Woman?” Sojourner faced the crowd and said in part “If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again!” Sojourner had it right; women (from the activist, to the politician, to the soccer mom) have been working in countless ways to make things right and shape a better, kinder and fairer world for all; we have plenty to celebrate, but still a ways to go.

I’ll end this post with the beautiful words of Emily Green Balch, American feminist and peace activist, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1946.
"Let us be patient with one another,
And even patient with ourselves.
We have a long, long way to go.
So let us hasten along the road,
The road of human tenderness and generosity.
Groping, we may find one another's hands in the dark."

Monday, March 24, 2014

Author Spotlight: Blake Crouch

I was remiss in posting an “author spotlight” post during the month of February, but some recent bit of news (more on that below) nudged me in the direction of the next author that I wanted to share with you all, the great Blake Crouch. Crouch writes thrillers, touched with elements of horror and the paranormal that are jaw-clenching, stomach dropping roller coaster ride-like experiences that have you white knuckled from start to finish but like a great amusement ride when you reach the last page, you can’t wait to get back on again. In discussing his writing Crouch said, “The common thread running through my writing is that I explore characters who are at the end of their rope, because that’s where interesting things begin to happen.”

I found Blake Crouch by pure happenstance back in 2012. Looking for a great (and cheap) book on my Kindle I struck gold when I found Run, my first Crouch novel, which to quote my own words from 2012 was “a spine-tingling, edge of your seat, thrill ride from start to finish.” I loved (!!) Run and feel it's the epitome of a great thriller in every way, from its non-stop action, to compelling plot, to unexpected twists and turns, but what raised it to an even higher caliber in my estimation was its human story highlighting the bonds of love and family and the strength of the human spirit.

Run was followed by Pines which utterly blew my mind and in a roundabout way prompted me to right this post (more below); a trippy story reminiscent of Shutter Island, where you don’t know what and who to believe from page to page and at the end you’re left utterly agog that this little bit of brilliance came from someone’s imagination. Crouch acknowledged in the book’s afterword that the book was inspired by Twin Peaks and let me tell you he successfully (and resoundingly) pays homage to that classic by delivering a similarly creepy and enthralling story that retains its humanity through a great lead character in Ethan, who offers readers an emotional look at a brave man desperate to make his way back home to his family. (By the way, there is a second in the Wayward Pines series titled Wayward which unfortunately I can’t comment on because I haven’t read it yet – though I plan on correcting that very soon.)

The last Crouch novel I read was Snowbound, yet another suspenseful story filled with unexpected plot twists and a scare or two for good measure. Each novel is a quick read (or at least quick for me because I can never put them down) that captures your imagination. It is no surprise that David Morrell, the great author of First Blood and Murder as a Fine Art (my 2013 favorite), fittingly said “Blake Crouch is the most exciting new thriller writer I've read in years.”

Run. 5 D A Y S A G O...A rash of bizarre murders swept the country…Senseless. Brutal. Seemingly unconnected. A cop walked into a nursing home and unloaded his weapons on elderly and staff alike. A mass of school shootings. Prison riots of unprecedented brutality. Mind-boggling acts of violence in every state. 4 D A Y S A G O...The murders increased ten-fold…3 D A Y S A G O...The President addressed the nation and begged for calm and peace…2 D A Y S A G O...The killers began to mobilize…Y E S T E R D A Y...All the power went out…T O N I G H T...They’re reading the names of those to be killed on the Emergency Broadcast System. You are listening over the battery-powered radio on your kitchen table, and they’ve just read yours. Your name is Jack Colclough. You have a wife, a daughter, and a young son. You live in Albuquerque, New Mexico. People are coming to your house to kill you and your family. You don’t know why, but you don’t have time to think about that any more. You only have time to….R U N.

Pines. Secret service agent Ethan Burke arrives in Wayward Pines, Idaho, with a clear mission: locate and recover two federal agents who went missing in the bucolic town one month earlier. But within minutes of his arrival, Ethan is involved in a violent accident. He comes to in a hospital, with no ID, no cell phone, and no briefcase. The medical staff seems friendly enough, but something feels…off. As the days pass, Ethan’s investigation into the disappearance of his colleagues turns up more questions than answers. Why can’t he get any phone calls through to his wife and son in the outside world? Why doesn’t anyone believe he is who he says he is? And what is the purpose of the electrified fences surrounding the town? Are they meant to keep the residents in? Or something else out? Each step closer to the truth takes Ethan further from the world he thought he knew, from the man he thought he was, until he must face a horrifying fact—he may never get out of Wayward Pines alive.

Snowbound. For Will Innis and his daughter, Devlin, the loss was catastrophic. Every day for the past five years, they wonder where she is, if she is—Will’s wife, Devlin’s mother—because Rachael Innis vanished one night during an electrical storm on a lonely desert highway, and suspected of her death, Will took his daughter and fled. Now, Will and Devlin live under different names in another town, having carved out a new life for themselves as they struggle to maintain some semblance of a family. When one night, a beautiful, hard-edged FBI agent appears on their doorstep, they fear the worst, but she hasn’t come to arrest Will. “I know you’re innocent,” she tells him, “because Rachael wasn’t the first…or the last.” Desperate for answers, Will and Devlin embark on a terrifying journey that spans four thousand miles from the desert southwest to the wilds of Alaska, heading unaware into the heart of a nightmare, because the truth is infinitely worse than they ever imagined.

You can't go wrong with any one of these three great books from this brilliant author, but now without further ado, the why behind what prompted this post…well, it turns out that…drumroll please…Pines (actually the Wayward Pines series) is being made into a FOX TV miniseries (woo-hoo!) airing sometime this year; brought to life by none other than M. Night Shyamalan (“The Sixth Sense,” “Signs”); Wayward Pines will feature a stellar cast including Matt Dillon, Carla Gugino, Melissa Leo, Terrence Howard, Toby Jones, and Juliette Lewis. Stay tuned to FOX for a premiere date.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Winter People

Jennifer McMahon is one of my most reliable go-to authors when I want a suspenseful and at times eerie read, as you guys are surely aware from my previously published author spotlight post which covered three other novels of hers that I've read: The One I Left Behind, Promise Not to Tell and Island of Lost Girls. In McMahon's latest, The Winter People, she's relied on a trio of strong female voices to deliver her gripping and chilling tale.

Sara Harrison Shea was nine years old the first time she saw a sleeper. She'd been exploring in the woods near the Devil's Hand, a stone structure sitting on a hill whose five large stones jutting from the ground gave it its apropos name, eventhough her Papa had forbidden her to play there; all of a sudden, she'd seen Hester Jameson, who'd died two weeks earlier from typhoid fever. Hester's mother had been close behind and when she'd questioned the why, Cora Jameson had said "Someday Sara maybe you'll love someone enough to understand." Sara's Auntie had later shared the truth behind sleepers (dead arisen) and the powerful secret of how to bring a loved one back. It's 1908 when Sara having kept that secret for so long has cause to think back on Cora's cryptic words; now a married women and mother, a vengeful wraith has snatched her beloved angel, Gertie, from her loving arms. Tragically understanding Cora's pain all too well and loving her little girl too much to let her go, Sara turns to the dark knowledge gained years ago to change the course of fate.

In present day Vermont, nineteen year old Ruthie Washburne has lived in West "Freaking" Hall all her life; why even after graduating from high school last June she was still stuck in what she considered "the black hole in the center of the universe." On a cold snowy winter night, in order to avoid a scene with her mother, Ruthie sneaks into her room after arriviving passed her curfew at the isolated farm house they called home. After waking up the next morning to a warm and damp mattress thanks to her younger sister's, Fawn, bed wetting accident after she'd apparently snuck into Ruthie's bed, she's surprised and frightened to find that her mom, Alice, is missing. After a search of the house turns up no clues, Ruthie braves all her built up fears and treks out through the woods that encroach on their small home and makes her way to the Devil's Hand, a scary place that has generated talk of satanic cults, witches, murder and all sorts of local legend.

While the outside search garners no results, she's reluctant to call the police especially after all her doubts and fears increase upon finding under the floorboards of her mother's room a treasure trove of questions in the form of two wallets with I.D.'s belonging to two strangers (a man and woman), a gun and a worn hardcover entitled "Visitors from the Other Side: The Secret Diary of Sara Harrison Shea"; the same Sara whom legend said had been found dead in a field behind her home just months after the tragic death of her daughter Gertie, and which looking at the blurry black & white photo on the back cover of the book, Ruthie and Fawn quickly realize shared their same home. As Ruthie starts to dig into her mother's carefully concealed secrets, she'll uncover the truth behind the mystery that binds these two families, the reasons behind her mother's disappearance, and ultimately unlock the legend of the Devil's Hand.

Jennifer McMahon has once again delivered a page-turning thriller, though unlike her previous mystery novels which had a paranormal element to them, The Winter People is in all ways a true horror/ghost-story. McMahon has filled her creepy tale with suspense, drama, but also alot of heart. A tale of love and loss that transcends time and place and which movingly and frighteningly ponders the extent to which we'll go when grief has wrapped its tentacles around our heart after losing a beloved whom we can't let go.

The Winter People has all the elements of a great horror story; fear, suspense, and mystery. Alternating between past and present, McMahon manages to ratchet up the tension as we live through Sara's sorrow, horror and pain, and through Ruthie's tale see the ramifications of Sara's decisions. I found myself more deeply intrigued by Sara's story and the mystery of Gertie's death than Alice's disappearance, which might be due to the fact that the one event foreshadowed the other. In addition to a great plot, McMahon created the perfect setting for The Winter People's past and present tales ideally playing on our most basic fears by using an isolated farmhouse where every noise narrated became that much more frightening by the mere knowledge that all monsters faced would be done so alone and that no one could hear their screams for help.

In addition to Sara and Ruthie, the story relies on two other narrators from past and present to share its dark tale; Martin, Sara's loving husband, and Katherine, an artist who recently moved to West Hall after the death of her husband and child. Of the narrators, Sara's voice is by far the most compelling and real. As a reader, we're witness to both Sara's strength and sorrow and while many (or some) would question her actions, every reader will understand the incredible well-spring of love and pain that are their impetus; that heartbreaking need at all cost to share one more day, one more kiss, one more I love you with the one loved and lost.

The Winter People is at times fascinating, poignant and at others downright scary. A haunting tale about the unbreakable bond of love and the never easy task of letting go.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis

Inside Llewyn Davis is the latest film from the Coen brothers; the brilliant minds behind O Brother, Where Art Thou? The Grand Prix winner at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, Inside Llewyn Davis does for folk music what the previously mentioned O Brother did for bluegrass, which is make the music shine and leave you wanting to run out and buy the film’s soundtrack. The film focuses on a few days in the life of its titular character, Llewyn Davis, an aspiring folk singer in 1961 struggling to make it big in New York City’s Greenwich Village.

A solo act since the death by suicide of his singing partner, Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) is thoroughly and utterly lost. An all-around screw up whose only place to lay his head is a different friend's couch each night, he’s managed to even mess that up by sleeping with his friend Jim’s (Timberlake) girlfriend Jean (Mulligan). The bitter and foul-mouthed Jean says it best when she tells Llewyn, “Everything you touch turns to shit,” sneeringly adding that he’s “like King Midas’s idiot brother.” This comes after her revelation that she’s pregnant and fearful of the baby not being Jim's and thereby demanding that Llewyn pay for an abortion. This bit of news and another unexpected revelation prompts the beaten down Llewyn to take the reins on his life and take a road trip to Chicago with a mumbling beat poet and heroin-addicted jazz musician (Goodman). Hardships abound in Llewyn’s odyssey but hope and determination remain as the film and his life comes full circle.

Given the film’s critical acclaim and the general ground swell of outrage at the film’s overall shutout from the Oscars, I thought I’d be wowed by the film and its performances; unfortunately, while I was impressed by Isaac’s performance and thoroughly enamored of every note in the film’s soundtrack, I can’t say I loved the film as a whole. The mood is dark and somber and while Isaac’s performance is on the money as far as his delivery, the character itself of Llewyn is too much of an anti-hero for my taste. Llewyn is at times sarcastic, a jerk, and sometimes downright mean; he doesn’t own any of his mistakes in his life, personal (Jean wasn’t the first girl for which he had to pay for an abortion) or professional.

The film’s circular tale (it ends right where it started) makes you feel like you’ve gone nowhere; both in the story’s progression as well in the characters growth or development. Llewyn is the same sad sack at the film’s end that he was at its beginning; namely because the film's end is its beginning. Llewyn’s only redeeming grace comes from his utter determination in his hopeful (and seemingly hopeless) strive to make his dream of a successful music career come true. The tale offers a bleak window into a struggling musician’s life; the nomadic lifestyle travelling from city to city in hopes of finding a new gig, combined with an irrepresible never say die attitude in spite of countless doors slammed in their faces, all in search of that one big break.

As I said, Oscar Isaac truly shines in the film movingly conveying Llewyn’s reluctant optimism and overall contrariness, but his true genius lies in his voice. Each one of Isaac’s performances are masterful and soulful, from the film’s opening song of “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me”, to “The Death of Queen Jane” which he sings at an audition, to the utterly spellbinding and poignant performance of “The Shoals of Herring” which Llewyn sings for his father in a nursing home. I must say that while I understand the film not garnering a ton of Oscar nominations, I'm hopeful that the soundtrack will at least draw some well-deserved Grammy consideration. There is a magic to folk music which the Coen brothers have managed to capture on film; simple yet timeless songs that perfectly capture the essence of love, loss, joy and countless other human emotions.

Inside Llewyn Davis is an ode to the incredible music of a bygone era; a less than stellar tale with a nonetheless evocative and compelling performance by its lead star and an amazing soundtrack which paints a more beautiful picture than the film’s directors were able to through their script.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Boob Tube Update (TV Redux)

Well, it took longer than anticipated but despite all efforts to the contrary Fall and Winter managed to push me off the less TV viewing wagon and straight onto my couch, as evidenced by the dent in it where my butt has been sitting way too much of late. The situation isn’t improving any time soon either since I just added two new shows onto my viewing schedule; Resurrection on ABC and Believe on NBC. Did you guys catch those premieres on Sunday and Monday respectively? So worth the loss of an hour of sleep!

As of right now, I’m watching The Voice (though not religiously), The Blacklist, Once Upon A Time, Resurrection, Bob’s Burgers, and Believe. Thankfully American Idol flaked out and after some great audition rounds the judges ended up picking a ho-hum group of singers which made it sublimely easy to drop it from my viewing list. Dancing with the Stars premieres next week though, so depending on how things go, that one might be a last minute addition. All I can say is thank God for OnDemand.

Last week’s The Blacklist (“The Judge”) was pretty good overall; nothing monumental was revealed. Sure we got confirmation on Tom’s double-agent spy role, but it’s not like it came out of the blue. I’m sure most loyal fans of the show suspected as much after the box find and Red’s countless warnings to Liz. As for Tom’s employer, my guess would have to be Fitch. The most intriguing part of the episode for me though was the tidbits of information on Lucy Brooks/Jolene Parker; such as the fact that she’s been following Red all this time. This was a bit of a surprise since in the “Madeline Pratt” episode Red says “she already faked her death to elude me, now she’s back;” so here you thought he was the hunter and instead it turns out he’s the prey. The preview of next week’s episode “Mako Tanida” looks edge-of-your-seat good with Tom apparently beating the heck out of Jolene (not very gentlemanly).

I watched Once Upon A Time’s new episode (“New York City Serenade”) on Sunday and I must say it was pretty darn good. I feared the directors might stretch out the Emma’s lost memories bit but that was quickly resolved and hopefully we’ll be moving on to more important things. I’m looking forward to some movement on the Regina / Hood front, but at least they’ve met which isn’t bad for an hour’s worth of work. I had wondered how they’d deal with Goodwin’s real-life pregnancy and was very pleased that they simply incorporated it into Snow’s storyline.

Resurrection’s premiere on Sunday was on the money as far as performances though I was a little disappointed it didn’t stay truer to the book (The Returned; click on the link to read my review). As I’ve mentioned before I’ve been keeping my eye out for this one since the show’s trailer first surfaced last year and I must say the first episode did not disappoint. The casting was pretty spot on; loved Kurtwood Smith as Henry and Omar Epps as Bellamy and even with the initial changes to the story it was pretty compelling, though I was a little disconcerted that they have in front of them a dead boy miraculously resurrected and the main characters seemed more interested about the details of the day of his death and a murder mystery 32 years old than the mere fact that the kid was dead just days ago.

I actually skipped last week’s episodes of The Voice, I know what was I thinking, but I did watch last night’s 2-hour episode (ugh!, too long) and unlike prior seasons I am not wild about anyone yet. Of course, there is plenty of time to fall in love since we still have the Battle Rounds and Knockouts Rounds (with steals to boot) before we get to the live shows.

Bob’s Burgers 'S wonderful! 'S marvelous! Please imagine me singing that last bit because that’s how much I love this wildly ridiculous bunch. Anyone who watches this work of art regularly knows that the creators usually have a catchy little ditty at the end of most episodes to leave you humming a merry tune and this week’s episode “The Frond Files” featured the brilliant and unforgettable “Farts are Liberty” (yes, I will admit to loving fart humor). If you have never watched this show, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD WHY NOT?! Seriously, do yourself a favor and tune in at least once to see what you’ve been missing. Bob’s is the best of Fox’s animation domination with the possible exception of the all-time classic, The Simpsons.

Lastly, last night was the season premiere of Believe and...drumroll please...I loved it!!! Despite my built-up anticipation for the Resurrection premiere, I can honestly say I loved Believe so much more. Holy moly the opening car crash sequence and the subsequent assassinations were heart-poundingly scary and don’t even get me started about the last few minutes especially the big reveal. Wow; way to end it on a high note.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Sur le chemin de l'école

Every year I like to catch at least one of the films premiering at my local Focus on French Cinema Film Festival and this year is no exception. This year I’ve actually chosen (tickets already purchased!) two very different but equally inspiring films making their U.S. premiere.

The first is Sur le chemin de l'école (On the Way to School), the winner of the 2014 Cesar (equivalent of an Oscar) for Best Documentary, whose simple trailer so deeply touched me that I not only bought a ticket right away but also felt compelled to share it here with all of you. As I said, Sur le chemin de l'école is a documentary which follows four children from different parts of the world - the Kenyan wilderness, the hills of Patagonia, the Atlas Mountains and the Bay of Bengal – and shares the incredible lengths each must go to each day as they face long, arduous and sometimes life-threatening journeys to attend school.

Incredible, don’t you think? I can’t imagine my knuckleheads being willing to walk more than maybe two blocks to get to school. As it is they bum a ride from their grandmother most mornings so as to not have to stand on the corner waiting for the bus. They won’t just stand and wait so forget about trekking through a desert or wading through a river. Thank God they live in the good ole’ US of A because if not they’d probably be dumb as dirt.

The second film is Belle et Sébastien (Belle and Sebastien); based on a children’s novel, the story is set in the Alps and focuses on the indestructible friendship between a young boy and a wild dog and their attempts to subvert the efforts of the Nazis occupying their village. The cinematography looks breathtaking and the boy and dog are adorable too, so I couldn’t pass this one up either.

In years past the festival had been held at the Performing Arts Center at Purchase College but this year’s round of films have been moved to the Bow Tie Cinemas in Greenwich, CT (April 4-6) and New York FIAF – Florence Gould Hall (April 8). Check out the link above and see if there’s something that catches your fancy. Maybe I'll see you there.


Cell is the latest page-turning, edge-of-your-seat novel from best-selling author Robin Cook which focuses on George Wilson, M.D., a third-year radiology resident at L.A. University Medical Center whose fiancée, Kasey, tragically passes away while lying next to him in bed one evening. Three months later still dealing with the loss and guilt of not having been able to help her, George is invited by an ex-lover and college classmate, Dr. Paula Stonebrenner, to attend a conference by Amalgamated Healthcare, an insurance giant and his hospital’s new owner.

Amalgamated is announcing the end of beta tests for a groundbreaking new technology soon to be released, the iDoc, a smartphone app with all the capability of a primary care physician; not only able to diagnose symptoms but actually treat them as well. George is awed by its capabilities but also shocked by the announcement given that iDoc had truthfully been his brainchild; an idea innocently shared during an emotional discussion he’d had with Paula years ago after the death of his mother. Despite his initial feelings of disconcertment at his idea having been hijacked and concerns for the end of medical care as we’ve known it, George is increasingly more impressed by the incredible technical milestone and the endless possibilities at the number of people, like his own mother, which could be helped.

All excitement falls by the wayside though as dead bodies start to accumulate around him; five people in total just at his hospital, each a patient of his and also beta test participants of the iDoc app, including Kasey, as he later learns. As initial doubts become real fears, George wonders if the deaths are due to a software glitch, hackers, or a much more sinister U.S. government involved conspiracy. As George starts asking question, he will put his own life on the line in order to find the truth.

I really enjoyed this book. I chose it both for its compelling scenario but also because my mom used to love Robin Cook. Prior to losing her vision she was a loyal reader of all his novels, so in her honor I thought I’d give him a try and as always mom didn’t steer me wrong. Cell was a taut and suspenseful medical thriller dealing with captivating and current day medical science actually in the news, which is what made the premise all the scarier. Cook hooked me in the first couple of pages with a heart-pounding narrative that had my own lungs feeling slightly constricted (“her heart continued to pound as she struggled to suck air into her mouth. It was getting harder and harder to breathe; she was being progressively paralyzed and suffocating as a consequence.”)

While I loved the story’s premise and narrative, to be honest I didn’t exactly love George, our main protagonist. I found him too methodical and hesitant in his investigative role and to my annoyance and consternation at times downright clueless. I found myself quite literally yelling at the book, (c’mon, can’t you see she’s playing you?) on more than one occasion. My only other small (very small) gripe is the slightly open to interpretation ending to the book, though to be fair it didn't take anything away from the greater whole and I still left happy with the story's resolution.

The science and technology portion of the narrative was utterly engrossing. Despite knowing that today's smartphone technology isn’t quite at the level described in the book; whereas external gadgets could facilitate taking blood and saliva samples and reservoirs implanted in the body could distribute medication, I have no doubt that it’s nonetheless a believable glimpse into the future. Already (today) there are apps on the market that can take your pulse and even manage your stress levels by measuring your heart rate merely by covering your smartphone camera lens with the soft pad of your fingertip. There are apps that can help detect whether its user is depressed, and last year Cornell researchers won a prestigious $100,000 award for creating an app to assist people with bipolar disorder. Just think, if these are the health care-related smartphone capabilities of today, the possibilities for 5 to 10 years from now are limitless.

Cell was a tension-filled and thought-provoking thriller that offers both a hopeful yet potentially scary look at the future of medical care. Cell will capture your attention and leave you thinking about our future long after its last page.

Monday, March 10, 2014


Spring is just around the corner (woo-hoo!) and this time those words are more than just a delusional statement of denial. This weekend was beautiful and compared to the single digit temperatures of late it was downright balmy, so in spite of the nice weather (or maybe because of it), I skipped a movie theater outing and filled both days with a lot of running around (vet appointment, shopping, a volunteer session at Kid’s Korner) and lunch with a dear friend. Of course for me a movie is a pre-requisite to any good weekend so Saturday night I turned to OnDemand for some entertainment, including a second viewing of Once Upon A Time’s great winter finale in preparation for last night’s new episode and a screening of the romance Barefoot, a sappy love story as believable as the existence of the tooth fairy which hopeless romantic (loser) that I am, I totally loved.

Barefoot stars Scott Speedman and Rachel Evan Wood as Jay Wheeler and Daisy Kensington, respectively. Jay is a gorgeous ne'er-do-well who likes one night stands (as evident from the first scene in the movie), partying at a local strip club, and gambling money he doesn’t have; the latter which we learn about when he’s physically accosted by the goon working for someone to whom he owes $37,000. Working as a janitor at a psychiatric hospital as part of his parole, Jay is desperate for a way out of his predicament so with the excuse of his brother’s wedding he calls home with boasts of a hospital administration job and a nurse for a girlfriend, offering his excited mom and skeptical dad reassurance of his plans to be home (New Orleans) for his baby brothers nuptials; though the real goal is hitting up his rich dad for the money the previously mentioned goon will take out of his hide if he doesn’t deliver.

Jay meets the beautiful Daisy at the hospital; she’s a new patient, a possible schizophrenic, admitted after the death (maybe murder) of her mother. Daisy is ethereal, sweet and naïve with the coping mechanisms of a child, having spent the entirety of her life locked up at home with her mother, who homeschooled her, taught her driving would make her pregnant, and limited her TV viewing to TVLand and CMT. After Jay saves her from a pervy orderly, Daisy follows him off hospital grounds like a lost puppy and while Jay suffers some initial dismay at the circumstance, he quickly sees Daisy’s potential in filling the said “nurse” girlfriend role; sure that the angelic Daisy will convince his dubious father that he’s found the one to make him rethink his future.

Of course, Daisy easily charms Jay’s mom and dad (Treat Williams) with her beauty and wholesome innocence. Daisy is utterly guileless in the midst of Jay’s family’s wealth; such as when his mom tells her she’ll be sleeping in Marie Antoinette’s bed, to which Daisy says…”oh no, she can have it, I can just sleep on the floor” or when she compares the goose liver pate served at a formal dinner to Fancy Feast cat food. As you'd probably expect plans ultimately go awry and the two have to hightail it out of Dodge, leading to an eye-opening and soul-searching road trip filled with one escapade after another, though if they can make it past the cops, hospital administrator, and one vicious henchman they just might have a chance at true love.

Barefoot was an hour and a half of sweet fun; not heavy on plot or depth, it feels like one of those Lifetime movies for women as opposed to a feature film but I nonetheless loved it. The film featured the perfect romantic formula; the misunderstood ingénue (beautiful and vulnerable) and the dashing scoundrel (gorgeous and rich) who merely needs the love of a good woman to save him from himself. It was charming, romantic and engaging; as cloyingly sweet as honey but I lapped it up like a ravenous Winnie the Pooh.

Speedman was quite convincing in his portrayal and I easily bought into both Jay’s feelings for Daisy and his ultimate redemption. Of course great dialogue isn’t a hallmark of these types of movies, so his emotions were mostly conveyed through countless lovelorn gazes and cheeky grins, but with those beautiful baby blues being batted in my direction, I forgave almost anything. Wood’s performance as Daisy though is what drove the movie and gave it substance and heart. She radiated an inner beauty that was part and parcel of the character. Wood’s expressive face showed a child-like openness and vulnerability that made you root for her happiness and demand the world protect and nurture her.

Though predictable and at times implausible, Barefoot’s love conquers all message and (pardon the spoiler) happy ending, totally redeemed all its flaws; so skip the $7.99 purchase of your next paperback romance novel and instead spend $4.95 renting this winner.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

March is Reading Month

Late breaking news here, March is Reading Month; not sure if you guys were in on that tidbit of notable information, but I just happened across it the other day. I love to read as you guys are surely aware, so any opportunity to read for a good cause or promote reading is one I never pass up. I love sinking into a great book and getting lost in its pages for however long it takes me to plow through it. Reading offers a unique kind of magic that allows you to be transported to different worlds where you can live countless different lives, be it as villain or hero. A smarter person than me, George R.R. Martin, the best-selling author of Game of Thrones, said it best “a reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.”

The goal of the national March is Reading Month program is to promote reading, push literacy skills, and inform children and adults alike about the power and importance of reading, as well as the fun and adventure accessible to them if they just crack open a book and let its words work their magic. For parents, the power to help shape a reader and inspire a life-long love of books is in their hands. Entice your child to read by making it a warm and loving experience; snuggle in a warm cozy chair or camp out on a living room rug and read a story aloud to your little one. Help them to associate books and reading with the joy of time shared together and with feelings of safety and love. Each book will become a treasured memory for more reasons than one.

Why not let reading light a fire inside of you and awaken a new thirst for knowledge or adventure? Let a book open your eyes to injustice, educate you on love and deter you from hatred, and by letting you walk a mile in someone else’s shoes help you gain a new level of compassion and understanding. In short, let a book change your life so you can face each new chapter of it bravely.

I’ll close with the wise words of Dr. Seuss:
“You can find magic wherever you look. Sit back and relax all you need is a book.”

Friday, March 7, 2014

Twisted Sisters

Jen Lancaster’s Twisted Sisters focuses on Reagan Bishop, a thirty-something licensed psychologist starring in a self-help type reality show called “I Need A Push.” As a pusher Reagan is one of the show’s lead psychologist focused on helping her TV patients undergo a multi-layered transformation which includes helping them to address the problems in their lives and thereby overcoming those challenges followed by a fancy haircut, frosted tips and a snazzy new dress or suit to go with their new attitudes.

On a personal level Reagan is an overachiever, a pescatarian, a marathon runner, a snob and an overall uptight stick in the mud with a smug air of superiority over her immeasurably flawed sisters, Mary Mac and Geri. While Mary Mac (short for Mary Magdalene), a stay at home mom with more kids than Reagan can count (“she’s a hoarder, only for children”) is a thorn in Reagan’s side, her true nemesis is baby sister Geri, a certified cosmetologist. Geri is responsible for every wrong done against mankind (at least according to Reagan) and the bane of her childhood existence; from stealing her beloved Cabbage Patch doll, Lillian Lizabeth, to stealing her darn ham sandwich (Reagan has real doubts about her supposed peanut allergy).

Despite the struggles of trying to fit in with her oh so middle class family that all live in a blue-collar neighborhood a couple doors from one another, life is good for Reagan that is until her show is bought by a national network and the egotistical, albeit outdoorsy and gorgeous, head honcho starts ratcheting up the pressure for better ratings. Desperate to make the show a success especially after some early bumps in the road, Reagan turns to Deva, her friend and the show’s New Age healer for an unconventional (and slightly unethical) solution; one that might not only guarantee her success but might also help her teach her sisters (“the octomom and freeloader”) a well-deserved lesson, though when all is said and done, it just might be Reagan who gets schooled.

I went into this book very gung-ho, don’t ask me why because I’ve never read this author before, but I’d heard good things about her prior books, including plenty of kudos on her humor and wit. Unfortunately, while the book was relatively funny it was also a little slow paced, the premise farfetched, and the main character completely unlikeable. While the subject of sibling rivalry is a figurative minefield to navigate since it can drum up a plethora of sentiments by all involved, in a different author’s hands it could’ve also been a goldmine of humor and heart; sadly, Lancaster under delivers on both counts.

By far, I’d have to say the biggest negative of Twisted Sisters is its protagonist, Reagan. I can get over the pace (not every book is a page-turner) and the slightly out there twist in the book (I’ve read other books with paranormal-type narratives), but there’s no saving grace when you so dislike a character that you become indifferent to their ultimate success or failure in the story arc (a sure kiss of death). Don’t get me wrong, I’ve read plenty of books where the protagonist isn’t likable and some that were downright detestable, but normally there’s been enough depth to that main character (the whys or driving forces behind his/her actions) or great supporting characters to champion in the tale to still make the story compelling and keep me engaged as a reader.

Sure Reagan was funny, but every bit of humor came at someone’s expense, like calling her sister Geri the “Stay Puft Marshmallow Sis” (funny but mean). Reagan was pretentious and snarky and discounted anything her sisters or anyone else did; their efforts, their successes, their burdens held no value. It was all about her; 24/7. I’m sure I’m not surprising anyone in saying that she does finally learn her lesson, but when she does there’s very little reward as a reader because you’re just like, who cares. Also, since Lancaster covers the sisters so minimally in the narrative it’s not like we have another go-to source to give us a rooting interest.

I do realize though that how you feel about the book might in part depend on what you bring to it as an individual. You might have a horrible sibling relationship that leads you to commiserate with Reagan and instead of her character being a turn-off, you’d be like - yeah I get her, that is so my sister or brother. I know that the sibling dynamic is different in every family, but having a crappy sibling is no excuse to take your ire out on the world. As a sibling myself (I’m one of 3) I never forget that my brothers and I are part of one another; we share memories and experiences, both good and bad, that no one else does. Of course, it wasn't all kumbaya moments growing up; we fought, felt slighted or jealous, and threw around more than a few "i hate yous" at one another every once in a while, but I loved my brothers then and now and coming from a good place maybe that's why I just couldn't connect with Reagan.

Twisted Sisters humor is the only redeeming factor in this otherwise contrived dud, where the protagonist's own transformation is too little, too late; so overall I’d say skip it and instead look for another of Lancaster’s novels.

Thursday, March 6, 2014


There is nothing better than a simple film, unpretentious and without artifice that shares an uncomplicated yet rich, thought-provoking and inspiring tale simply through its depiction of an interesting subject conveyed through compelling characters. The foreign film Wadjda is such a film and it delivers on so many levels. Wadjda is both the name of the film and the tale’s titular character, a young girl living in a suburb of Saudi Arabia’s capital who is fighting against the strictures of her society and religion.

At first glance Wadjda is your typical tween; she lives with her mom and her mostly absent father, attends school, makes mixed tapes of Western music and for extra money sells friendship bracelets to her classmates. The difference lies in the fact that Wadjda must wear an ankle-length abaya (black robe worn by Muslim women) and cover her hair whenever she’s in public such as during her walk to school, and on her shoulders also lies the worries of her mother, who is dealing with the possibility of her beloved husband taking on a second wife.

Wadjda’s life centered around school and home until she saw "It"; "It" was a beautiful green bike which she instantly loved and dreamed of buying in order to race and beat her friend Abdullah. When Wadjda’s pleas to her mom fall on deaf ears she relies on her entrepreneurial skills and determination to try and raise enough money to buy the bike on her own, in spite of her mother’s horrified objections since she's told girls don’t ride bikes because of the risk to their purity and ability to have children (yup, that's the party line). In the face of adversity, including a horror of a principal, Wadjda fights for both her dream and her rightful place in the complicated world in which she lives.

Wadjda was such a wonderful film, doubly so because it was so groundbreaking. Wadjda is the first feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia and also the first made by a female Saudi filmmaker. Both of these facts made its undertaking no easy feat given Saudi Arabia is a country where movie theaters are banned and women can’t vote or drive. I just loved it because of the sweet and sincere story and its lovable and spunky main character.

Young Wadjda was sassy and funny and challenged conventions at every turn, from having a boy for a best friend to the fact that poking out from under her abaya were purple-laced Converse sneakers. While her coming-of-age journey wasn’t epic in its obstacles it was nonetheless life-altering because while the end goal is just a bike, in truth it is about so much more. In Wadjda’s determination to own that bike and to not only race but beat her friend is a statement as to what she sees as her worth. She might be a girl but she’s just as deserving of a bike and just as capable of riding and racing. Wadjda is telling the world at large that her life and its possibilities are limitless; the future is in her hands, no one elses.

The movie is eye-opening and at times chilling in its depiction of the rules and limitations faced by girls and women in Saudi Arabia. For example, the schoolgirls are censured by the principal when they are laughing out loud and told “Women’s voices shouldn’t be heard by the men outside. A woman’s voice is her nakedness.” At every turn you see how a woman is valued less than a man, evident in the fact that Wadjda’s mother is facing the pain of having her husband take a second wife because of the simple fact that she can no longer have children and society demands a boy child. This truth is yet again clear in the fact that only men's names appear in an illustration of the family tree that sits in Wadjda's home, which is why the ever cheeky Wadjda writes her name on a piece of paper and pins it next to where her father’s name appears. The most startling moment for me came in a scene of religion class where the girls are studying the Koran and they’re instructed by the teacher that if they have their period they can’t touch the Koran with their bare fingertips, they must use a tissue.

Wadjda is a great film that both inspires and educates. Its tale offers hope for a brighter future; one in which a young girl can ride a bike into the sunset or a talented woman as in the case of Haifaa al-Mansour, the film's writer and director, can offer the world a moving story that through its mere existence is breaking down barriers.

The Martian

I loved The Martian by Andy Weir! Described as Apollo 13 meets Castaway, it was a gripping novel filled with science, humor, and adventure. In The Martian astronaut Mark Watney, a botanist and engineer, is struggling for survival on the unforgiving landscape of Mars after having been accidentally left for dead by the rest of his crew during a mission. Just a few days prior to us meeting Mark, he’d celebrated being one of the first people to walk on Mars but now he might be the first person to die there. All alone and stranded, he is left to scramble for food, oxygen and shelter; and while his physical needs are his immediate concern, finding a way to communicate his existence to NASA falls close behind since it's pivotal to his long-term survival. Even with all the odds stacked against him, Mark isn’t ready to give up the fight. Relying on his knowledge and skills, including botany and engineering, he bravely and relentlessly confronts one obstacle after another in a fight to not only survive but ultimately make his way back home.

This was such a thrilling read. In an interview with industry newsletter Shelf Awareness, Weir said his goal was to offer the reader the same feeling of excitement he got watching the film “Apollo 13,” in which astronauts and NASA staff scramble to create unorthodox solutions to rescue the spacemen. “It's like MacGyver in space, with billions of dollars of equipment being misappropriated to barely stay alive, and everybody working together,” he said of the film. “And I just love that.” Boy oh boy did Weir ever deliver; not only giving us an epic struggle for survival but also a funny, irreverent and totally relatable hero that you can’t help but love. It’s Mark’s heart and steadfastness that gives the reader a rooting interest in the story.

Each chapter is written like a log book entry detailing the sol's (martian days) events, making the reader privy to Mark’s innermost thoughts and fears. As he documents successes and failures, we experience first-hand a true man vs nature tale, though one unlike any we’ve experienced before. The obstacles are common to this age-old struggle, like fighting the elements, though this time way outside the realm of our past experience; we’re not talking about snow and ice, instead Mark is facing Mars’ average daily temperature of -50C (-58F). Oh, and while “earth’s liquid core gives it a magnetic field that protects us from most of the nasty crap the sun pukes out at us, Mars has no such luxury. All kinds of solar radiation gets to the surface," so unless he wants to get cancer he needs access to shelter that is radiation-shielded.

The novel features tons of science and information about Mars, some of which was totally over my head, nonetheless there is so much depth to this survival tale that despite not grasping all of the technical and science jargon I was still thoroughly enthralled by every page and chapter. Given that the events are taking place in the not too distant future, I’m not really sure how much of it is real science, as I said a lot of the science was pure mumbo jumbo to me, but whether fact or fiction it reads like the truth and therefore very believable. In a lesser author’s hands The Martian could’ve delivered information overload and just a run of the mill science lesson, but thanks to Weir’s one-two punch of a tension-filled tale and a great protagonist that easily charms the reader with his snarcasm (snarky and sarcastic) and humor, we not only learn a thing or two but also enjoy tons of laughs.

Every page of The Martian speaks, no shouts, to the strength of the human spirit and our will no matter the odds to survive. An unforgettable story and captivating hero whose ingenuity, courage and determination highlight the pioneer spirit which started the space race, landed us on the moon, and which will undoubtedly one day catapult us to that oh so distant red planet.