Sunday, July 29, 2007

Unlikely Destinations...

I have used many Lonely Planet guides to places all over the world. While they are not appropriate for all travellers, they're pretty amazing for anyone going somewhere new. What I didn't know was that the people who started the company in the early '70s, Tony and Maureen Wheeler, were pretty amazing too. I heard Tony on the "Not my job" section of NPR's "Wait, wait, don't tell me" show and in addition to playing the game, they discussed his books about the company, including the one I just finished called Unlikely Destinations: The Lonely Planet Story. He also wrote one called BadLands but that was about scary countries I have no interest in visiting. Rather, Unlikely Destinations was about their story of traveling overland from Europe to Australia for a year in the '70s and how it led to travel guides for people on a budget - I think Asia on the Cheap was their first book. Their memoir tracks the growth of the both the business based in Australia and their family, a son and daughter. The book has photos and talks about some of the trips they took that led to books, and the enormous boom in their business with backpackers travelling to all kinds of places. I didn't know they actually drew their own maps to cities they travel to - rather than just taking a government issued map and sticking it in their book. It makes sure they are as accurate as needed and actually describe the locations of the places they discuss. There are all kinds of tidbits throughtout the book that if you've spent much time travelling will reasonate - such as the importance of carrying your own toilet paper in Africa, or that eating in restaurants with lots of people usually means good food. I highly recommend this book - it's actually pretty difficult to put down.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Not just Ron Weasley anymore...

Somewhere in the midst of filming all the Harry Potter movies, Rupert Grint found the time to film a really terrific independent film, Driving Lessons. It's a story about a late-teen learning to drive from lessons from his scary religious mother - played with eerie precision by Laura Linney. As part of a summer job (in order to give money to parishioners, wouldn't you kill your mom for making you do that?), he starts working for a retired actress - played by the incomparable Julie Walters (Mrs. Weasley from Harry Potter!). She convinces him that his artistic leanings have merit and in the words of Shakespeare, "When the shit hits the fan, get a tent", and so they go camping. He's been raised by a mom who would sell her soul to help someone else, but Walters really shows him what it means to be there for someone, with willingness and not piety. There are hysterical arguments between Grint as he tries to break out of the faux religious mold he was raised in, and Walters as she comes to grips with how her career will be remembered. There are a few great supporting roles, but the soundtrack really makes the whole thing come together, with funny Christian rock used a little mockingly to prove their point. It had a little of the Saved! vibe of questioning faith without destryoing it. Grint has some acting chops that stand up well to both Linney and Walters, pretty terrific company to show off your skills.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Something a little different....

Just an update on something random I saw this weekend. On Saturday there was a marathon on the Food Network, of "The Next Food Network Star". I'll admit that this was not high on my list of things to watch, but just like the marathon of "Grease: You're the One that I Want" sucked me in so that I really want to see Max Crumm on Broadway, I can't wait for Amy's new show this fall. There were challenges, just like on Project Runway, Top Chef, or even American Idol. There was even a scandal at the end where one of the finalists dropped out because they found out he'd misrepresented his military record and culinary training. Overall, the contestants were decent, about the same sort of crop that makes it through all reality shows, with some just ridiculous and some that were obvious winners from the beginning. However, the best thing this show had going for it were the judges. The judges on Top Design were dreadful and even though the contestants and challenges were interesting, the show was not. On "NFNS" the judges were the VP for programming and VP for marketing for the Food Network, and they had a lot of personality and did a good job of giving criticism without saying mean things, but explained very realistic things they were looking for. When the contestants heeded that advice, they usually did perform better. At the end, it was two women, Amy "The Gourmet Next Door" and Rory "Backyard Bistro" that competed for the chance for a new show on the Food Network. Amy won and will start her show this fall. She seems very approachable, knowledgable about food, techniques and cuisines, so I'm excited to see what kind of show she'll do.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Transformers...still fun 20 years later

Okay, I admit it, I loved Transformers. It was funny, fast-paced, and brought back so much nostalgia from my childhood misspent in front of the TV. They totally nailed the voice of "Optimus Prime" and really got the quick, precise movements of the transformation from car to robot soldier really well. There were a few updates to make things more fun with new voices and updated looks for some of the cars (like the fire on the sides of Optimus Prime and a camero instead of a VW Bug for Bumblebee). Overall, the story was really compelling - and kind of magical - and kept you interested. Shia LaBoeuf is terrific as a fast-talking geek trying to be cool with his first car. He starts out very shaky as the action star, but finds his way pretty well to saving the world. The best unexpected surprise was John Tuturro as a government agent trying to keep the Robot invasion a secret. He's hysterical in a very tight-laced way. There's a huge supporting cast that actually create fun side-stories like the super-hot blond code breaker who recruits a friend to help decode the robots signal, and the equally super-hot military guys who figure out how to defeat some of the evil Decepticons. The final battle goes on a little too long, but overall, there were many more moments of hilarity (like when Optimus Prime steps on the garden fountain and adds "oops, my bad") than distractions. Great for kids, and adults alike...

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Harry Potter - Keep 'em coming...

Since millions and millions of people have already seen this movie or read this book I will assume you already know most of the details and just give you my opinion. First, as a movie it's fantastic - telling the story with a quick, dramatic style that achieves it's goal of smushing 700+ pages into 2 hours without sacrificing the storytelling aspect. If you've missed the other 4 movies, I would skip this until you've watched the others because it doesn't explain much of the back story, as if they finally realized they don't need to. The new characters added in this movie - Dolores Umbridge and Luna Lovegood (played by Imelda Staunton and newcomer Evanna Lynch) are really terrific. Umbridge is played as a scary Martha Stewart/Jackie O' devotee with her perfect little pink suits and perfect decorating, but with a scary fascist dictator persona inside that uses torture and rules to try to enforce her ideas. They do good montage-type scenes to link the crimes with the new rules that she has added to a wall at Hogwarts, which of course comes crashing down eventually. They don't quite make all the links the book does with Umbridge really being a racist (she supports purebloods and gets thrashed by centaurs) who only wants control, but she's still scary and Staunton does a great job. Lovegood is perfect, as a flighty, airy, surprisingly deep character who Harry can relate to, while overlooking her oddities. Finally, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) has really grown up, and the actor has been working on his craft quite a bit. While the actors who play Ron and Hermione don't get as much screen time, so their weaker acting comes out more often, Harry is really good - his performance actually shows the depth going on within him. He's angry that his friends (and Dumbledore) seem to be keeping him in the dark, he's scared of all the nightmares about Voldemort, and really pissed off that people don't believe him that Voldemore has returned. Radcliffe does a good job of making this turmoil clear, which is difficult since it takes up pages and pages in the book, and no more than a few seconds of discussion in the movie, so Radcliffe has to portray these increasingly complex feelings with his acting. He's no longer the cute little boy, and while I disagree with critics that this is a "coming of age" story, he's definitely growing up and making it work. Go see this in the theatre - even the slower, more frightening opening musical lines make it obvious this is a movie to be seen on the big screen.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Good Summer Shows Return

Monk and Psych are both on Friday nights on USA. They both premiered for this season last Friday and are as good or better than ever. The best thing about shows on cable is that they play them several times a week, so there's always a chance to catch up. The premiere of Monk guest-starred Sarah Silverman as Monk's number 1 fan - and she played it with perfect scary intensity, from collecting his discarded cups to wearing his pants. Monk agrees to help her solve a pretty tame mystery (by Monk's standards), but the episode is really funny just watching Sarah Silverman be close to Monk. If you've only seen the early seasons, Monk's had a new assistant for a few seasons - Natalie (Traylor Howard) who is as good as Sharona (Bitty Schram) was at the beginning. She's often better because she comes with a daughter who has really dry humor when dealing with Monk, but they all get along. This show never disappoints, so if you're looking for something good in the summer that doesn't require much commitment, go with Monk. And, while you're already there, check out Psych. It's about two mid-20's best friends (Shawn, the fake psychic and Gus, his side-kick) who solve cases for the police by doing better detective work than they do. Shawn has amazing perception of little things when scanning a room and can pretend to be psychic by noticing enough things and piecing them together. However, that's just the reason these two awesome actors get to show up - it's really about the hilarious situations they get themselves into and the personality quirks that often get them out. The season premiere had them posing as contestants on a duo version of American idol, complete with a fake Simon Cowell, and a really strung out "Paula". Shawn and Gus manage to perform terribly every time - but seem to enjoy it so much, it's hysterical. In the past Gus has shown his addiction to online gambling (he's won $7million in fake money), spelling bees (he's watched them every year for decades), and driving his tiny little blue car. Shawn has never had a job and his hobbies seem to include mostly bothering Gus, or his ex-cop Dad (played really well by Corbin Bersen). Both Psych and Monk make for excellent armchair detective shows and in the summer, they're the best that's on TV.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Go green, but use polka dots

There's a great new website selling canvas bags - in response to the "paper or plastic never looked so bad" phenomenon. It's family owned, operated, and if you live near me, local. I have one of these bags and will likely be giving them as gifts for a long time to come...check them out.

PS - I finally did it and figured out how to upload photos successfully to my blog!

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Heebie Jeebies were worth it....

The new animated offering from Pixar, Ratatouille, has been notoriously hard to sell - it's about a rat and the title is a stew that most people have never heard of. You've heard me whine about movies that are poorly marketed because they pretend it's one thing and the real thing is just as good and would have been easier to sell. There are a hundred titles that would have made the movie easier to sell - "Underground in Paris", or "The Little Chef" (a phrase even used in the film). Basically, it's a terrific story about being true to yourself, but trying to realistically find yourself at the intersection of different worlds. It's everything the Disney/Pixar movies have always been about - with the addition of pretty exceptional animation. This is the first CGI-animated movie I've ever seen that creates people with realistic facial expressions and twitches. Unfortunately, that skill extends to creating too-realistic shots of a very nice family of rats swarming out of a man-hole, or across a floor. That's where the heebie jeebies come in - I actually had to look away twice. But the story is great, mixing the adult humor of a figment of your imagination arguing with you, with the child-like awe of watching a rat maneuver a man like a puppet. It doesn't cater too much to any one demographic, and is easy to enjoy by all - particually if rats don't give you the heebie jeebies.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Creepy old people....

On the surface, Keeping Mum and Venus would seem to have little in common besides the age of their leading actor. One is a comic romp with Maggie Smith and the other is a dramatic look at Peter O'Toole's pervy old man (Peter O'Toole is just 2 years older than Maggie Smith). However, in addition to age, at the end of both, some people are dead. Okay - that was a weak way to link two movies I saw on DVD recently. I really liked Keeping Mum - Maggie Smith stars as a woman with little or no moral compass that has just finished her sentence for murdering her husband and his mistress, and has arrived to meet the daughter she never got to know, and of course to make tea (She's British first and foremost). Kristen Scoot Thomas and Rowan Atkinson play her daughter and her son-in-law. Atkinson is terrific, letting go of his Mr. Bean persona, while still retaining the bumbling innocence that makes him worth watching as the local parson rediscoving his faith and his wife. Their marriage is falling apart and Smith uses her murderous ways to improve their lives, first by taking care of the energetic pooch next door who's been disrupting their sleep. It continues with macabre humor from there. Oh, and Patrick Swayze also stars in this as Thomas' golf coach. Very funny movie, told in a very dry, British, eyebrow raising, let's have a cup of tea and ignore the murderer way.

Venus is not such a great tale, though Peter O'Toole is brilliant,but it's not all that interesting watching him play a pervy impotent guy who is trying to hold on to life by befriending his best friend's niece. I vaguely remember it being sold as a story about new friendships, but basically his "friend" is a mean little girl just trying to get ahead. O'Toole hurts his loyal fellow actors in an effort to stay close to his "Venus". At first, it seemed like a movie about a young girl learning from an older, wiser friend, but she was just bitchy, and not really worth Peter O'Toole's time, though he failed to see it. So watch Keeping Mum, and skip Venus.

Random word puzzles

Okay, I learned the first from The West Wing and the second from "Car Talk" on NPR.

1. What are the three words in the English language that start with "dw"?
Answers: one, two, three

2. What common word in English has three consecutive sets of doubled letters (e.g. committee has 3 sets, but the i makes them non-consecutive).
Answer: here

If you can think of other answers to these questions - please add them.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Live Earth 2007

Bravo showed about 10 hours of Live Earth today - and so far it's been pretty terrific. I started watching on the Canadian Television station because when Live 8 was on in 2005 they had significantly better coverage, actually showing concerts in Other countries besides the U.S. - however, the additional information provided on the Bravo broadcast about all kinds of things 'green'. They have celebrities talking about what they do - like refitting their houses, and changing lightbulbs, etc. And the two hosts, neither of whom I recognize, are fairly innocuous. The best part so far has been this short movie "Harry and Bob: The Last Two Polar Bears". It's hysterical - Rip Torn as a polar bear searching for new housing after the polar bear caps have melted. The rest of Live Earth and highlights will be shown on NBC, and I'm sure you can get lots of highlights on since they're one of the sponsors. So far I've found 3 new artists I really liked - Danny K. from South Africa sang with the Soweto Choir, singing "Homeless" by Paul Simon, and Damian Rice and David Gray singing "Que sera sera". Oh, and go change your lightbulbs to florescent and use canvas bags at the grocery store!

Friday, July 6, 2007

Another DVD viewing...Matt Damon as a spy

There were pretty mixed reviews of The Good Shepherd, and I think it suffered with the similar name problem with The Good German (the one in black and white with Clooney). However, I really liked it. The story follows Matt Damon from college at Yale as a member of the less than secret Skull and Bones society through his recruitment to work as an intellegence officer overseas during WWII, and then as part of the original CIA and through the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs. He seems like a pretty decent guy who keeps things close and only talks when necessary - a perfect spy. He marries Angelina Jolie, who does have a few decent scenes with him, but it's mostly about Damon's attempt to maintain civility while being in a job that demands the edge of humanity while not trusting anyone.. Overall, I really liked it. It's a fairly long movie, but doesn't drag at any point, it's just steady throughout. Robert Deniro plays the other "good guy" in a bad guy's job, and gives Damon lots of advice about not trusting anyone. As a historical drama, it's really carefully played out, without revealing too much or pretending more than what really happened. The acting is also very precise, which is something I've heard about Deniro's directing - he does take after take until the actor's give him just what he's looking for. I really liked watching this - and recommend it to anyone with interest in the spy-world.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007


You know how new plays and probably movies get a reading first - they work out the kinks in rehearsals or in front of audiences to gage what works and what doesn't? Well, Bobby doesn't feel like it made it past that stage. They still had a lot of kinks to work out. There were lots of story lines that were supposed to mirror the complicated lives of Americans at the time RFK was shot the night of the California primary. However, not all Americans are equally interesting or worthy of being acknowledged as part of this story. There were probably seven major story lines -Emilio Estevez and Demi Moore, William H. Macy and Sharon Stone/Heather Graham, Lindsay Lohan and Elijah Wood, Shia LeBeouf and friends, Helen Hunt and Martin Sheen, Freddy Rodriguez (from Six Feet Under) and Jacob Vargas, and Nick Cannon and Joshua Jackson. Oh, and Anthony Hopkins, Harry Belafonte, Christian Slater, Laurence Fishburne, David Krumholtz and Ashton Kutcher were also in the movie. The 3 story lines I liked and wanted to keep coming back were the Helen Hunt/Martin Sheen story of a socialite wife who is trying to figure out who she is beyond the perfect dress/shoes/bag combo and actually has a husband who seems willing to encourage that discovery. They probably only had 2-3 short scenes, but they were really touching. However, they weren't really closely tied to Bobby Kennedy or his assassination - or any of the other characters. The second story I would have liked to hear more about was actually the Lindsay Lohan/Elijah Wood story - they're high school friends getting married so he can avoid going to serve in Vietnam. However, the story is again, very minimally explored, even in the context of RFK - little mention of whether they're against the war or just dying in general. They have excellent chemistry, and LiLo actually does a good job portraying a nervous bride getting married under less than ideal circumstances (her family won't give their support). The last story worth watching was between Freddy Rodriguez and Jacob Vargas working as busboys in the kitchens at the Ambassador Hotel. It actually still had some poignancy in today's world that the other stories lacked. They spent a lot of time talking about the lack of respect "mexicans" or latinos get for working hard. Rodriguez plays a man trying to assert some of the civil rights blacks are fighting for, but he does it in a quiet way that rings a little more persuasively that the black characters working in RFK's campaign fighting angrily for their own place in the world. He says he just wants the respect of being asked to work a double shift, rather than being told he's going to because otherwise he'll be fired. He and Laurence Fishburne have a moment only Fishburne can create talking about how Rodriguez's attitude will win out someday and he'll be "the once and future king" which is echoed when RFK is shot. So other than those three stories which probably totalled less than 45 minutes of a 2-hour movie, the movie was pretty slow, but had some hilarious moments of Shia LeBeouf and a friend dropping acid with hippy Ashton Kutcher. So, as a whole movie, Bobby doesn't work, but as a workshop piece for a few great scenes that really should be developed into full-blown stage or screen stories, the kinks could easily be removed.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Action movies that have more than action...

Okay, it's been a little while since I posted, but I've seen 2 very impressive action movies that I assumed would fail to be interesting, but was pleasantly surprised and enjoyed both. Deja Vu and Shooter. Both movies star extremely good looking men (Denzel and Mark Wahlberg, respectively) as men a little outside the rules of their professions (ATF and military sniper) trying to save the day and thwart really bad guys from killing lots and lots of people. Deja Vu has lots of fun sci-fi elements that are pretty loosely explained, but makes for excellent shouting at the screen demanding answers (and if you shout loudly enough, and wait 4 days and 6 hours, someone might answer your questions). Shooter has impressive conspiracy theories that are also loosely explained, making for quiet shouting (since they might hear you can come and get you), but fun arguing about who's killing who and why. Overall, both are entertaining, and interesting enough to keep you watching to see very hot guys figure out the big problems with which they are faced.