Thu, May 31, 2007

: The Cherry Orchard

I love Chekov but I was slightly disapointed by this play at Ashland, Oregon’s Shakespeare Festival. Nothing much happens in it. It’s about a rich Russian woman who’s squandered all her money and the family must sell their beloved (but neglected) cherry orchard to save the estate but she refuses to see it. It’s about how people react (or refuse to react) to change. There are a few side romance storylines and some good humor and the performances were good, but I wasn’t wowed.

Topic: [/theatre]

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: Exile

Author: Richard North Patterson

The topic of this book did not interest me at all: I don’t remember how I ended up with it but I wouldn’t have chosen it if I’d known. It’s all about Israel-Arab conflict and that stuff is so confusing and depressing and overdone I can’t stand listening to any of it. It’s like listening to kids squabbling over who sits where in the back seat of the car on a five thousand year drive. Makes you want to leap out the window or crash the car. This book certainly made me feel that way at times, for it is excruciately detailed and proceeds at a snail’s pace. However, I endured it, and the payoff was decent. I learned a lot of fascinating things about the Israel-Arab conflict I didn’t know, some of it helpful in understanding the conflict. The story is intricate: an American of Jewish descent has everything: an Ivy league law degree, a successful San Francisco career, is about to be married to a weathly Jewish family, and will soon be a candidate for senator. But then the Israeli prime minister is blown up in San Francisco and the key suspect is Palastinian Anna Ariff, the lawyer’s former lover at Harvard. Prosecutors think she leaked the prime minister’s route to the bombers, but she claims it’s a frame-up. The lawyer still loves her and takes on her defense even though it costs him his engagement and his political career, for everyone wants to see the terrorists pay for their crimes and he’s defending an obviously guilty Arab. The defense takes months as the lawyer visits Israel and uncovers bits of information, but all the pieces of the plot aren’t put together until the very end. Unfortunately, I saw this ending on about page 100, so having to sit through the rest of the book for something so obvious was tedious and frustrating. The payoff is good, but overall I see this book as more educational than entertaining. I wish I’d gotten the abridged version.

Topic: [/book]

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: The Rabbit Hole

Now this Ashland, Oregon’s Shakespeare Festival play really overwhelmed me. It was amazing. It’s a somber topic: a couple coping with the loss of their son eight months earlier, but done in such a way that there is tons of humor and entertainment. The drama sneaks up on you occasionally through the humor and it’s powerful. What impressed me the most was the realistic modern dialog which was flawless and natural, with every character hitting just the right notes. The play is about how we each cope with grief differently and the phenomenal acting conveyed that perfectly. We meet the younger free-spirited sister who is pregnant and unmarried and we see how that tortures the wife who lost her child. We see the father and husband who wants to move on but can’t because his wife won’t: she’s at a different grief point than him. Then there’s the wife’s mother who lost a child of her own twelve years earlier, but as her daughter tells her, “It’s not the same thing” because her son was only five years old when the car hit him. Most powerful of all is the teenage boy who ran over their son — purely an accident but tormenting none-the-less. All this sounds dreary and somber but it’s not: the play is funny and clever and hilarious, but at the core is the horrible thing always lurking that no one wants to talk about. Just brilliant. Winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize. I had a terrific front-row seat and was a hand-stretch from touching the actors at times. Chilling and amazing.

Topic: [/theatre]

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Sat, May 26, 2007

: Man of the Year

This is fine concept — a political comic gets elected president of the United States — but the film is too uneven and can’t even follow it’s own humor advice getting much too serious at times and even turning into a spy thriller at times. It’s got some great stuff — funny lines, Robin Williams, fake news segments, a SNL appearance — but then it has awkward scenes that don’t work and storylines that aren’t connected (What did the manager’s hospital stay have to do with anything?). in the end, while it’s got some political bite, it needs to go much further (like Wag the Dog did). Not as bad as I expected, but you won’t be laughing that much.

Topic: [/movie]

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Fri, May 25, 2007

: Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End

I enjoyed the first one but thought the second, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, was terrible because it didn’t end. This movie is the conclusion of that one and at nearly three hours, it’s some conclusion. Fortunately, it mostly lives up to the billing. It’s definitely far too complicated, with numerous characters each with their own secret motivations and each plotting against the other, but at least it’s more of a complete story than the second film. In this one the main characters head off to the end of the world to rescue Captain Jack Sparrow who was sent to Davy Jones’ locker in the last movie, and then everything’s set up for a big battle between the British armada and the nine pirate lords for who will rule the seas. It’s overlong and overdone but there’s enough going on to keep your interest. At least the film still has its irrascible sense of humor (which is much needed). Captain Jack is still the best character, though I was pleased to see that finally Kiera Knightly’s actually got a meatier role (she’s pretty much second to Johnny Depp in prominence). The special effects, even in this jaded day, are jaw-dropping impressive, and many are so subtly and effectively done you barely realize they are effects. Overall, I was entertained, though the film does feel long. There’s a bit too much convoluted “pirate lore” and I found myself confused on several occasions, but just roll with it — eventually everything works out. The ending is not exactly surprising or clever, but it works well enough, I suppose. I was a bit disappointed but the characters seemed happy enough with it. At least it’s not a bland “everyone lives happily ever after” kind of thing.

Topic: [/movie]

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: Bug

Author: Tracy Letts (play)

Wow, what a film! This is quite an amazing production. Except for a couple scenes and long distance two helicopter shots the entire story takes place inside a crappy hotel room in rural Oklahoma. While the trailers make it sound like this is a scifi flick it is absolutely not: it’s a psychological horror trip. Basically we meet a rundown struggling woman. She’s living in that crappy hotel room, waitressing at a honky tonk bar, and drinking a lot. Her abusive ex-husband just got out of jail and is harrassing her and we learn that years earlier she lost her son (literally he vanished one day at the supermarket). This woman obviously has a lot of baggage. Into the picture comes a strange mild-mannered man. He’s very quiet, polite, doesn’t drink, and seems thoughtful. A little odd, but harmless. He has no place to stay so the woman invites him to crash on her sofa. Soon the two develop a relationship, and then the man finds a bug in the bed. It’s so tiny she can’t even see it but he kills it. He talks intelligently about bugs and seems to know what he’s talking about. Later he finds more bugs, and he gets sprays and decorates their room with fly paper. Slowly the man’s story comes out: he was a soldier and the army did experiments on him and he escaped a hospital where they had him imprisoned. Gradually things get dark and scary: the man pulls out a tooth, insisting it was recently filled at the army base and the evil doctors put in an egg sac in the tooth and that’s the source of the bugs. Paranoia builds into hysteria and soon the woman is completely enveloped into the man’s crazy world, turning her back on her best friend, and absolutely convinced the disappearance of her son was part of the conspiracy. The ending — while predictable and inevitable — is still chillingly real and devasting. The performances by everyone, especially Ashley Judd as the woman, are amazing. The film is claustrophic and you feel your own mind going part-way through. All the crazy theories begin to sound plausible after a while. It’s a powerful demonstration of what can happen if you let yourself believe. Amazing. Definitely not for the weak of heart or squeamish. This film reminded me most of Roman Polanski’s incredible Repulsion, which is similarly constrained to a single room and about a woman going mad. Recommended. I will also add this film is based on a play by Tracy Letts who’s the son of my former college teacher in Oklahoma, Dennis Letts (Dennis’ wife is author Billie Letts).

Topic: [/movie]

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Fri, May 18, 2007

: 28 Weeks Later

It’s been a while since I saw the first movie and though I remembered I liked it, I couldn’t remember the details. That wasn’t a problem, though, as film stands on its own. It’s basically a zombie movie, except instead of dead people coming to life it’s regular people being turned into raging maniacs by a dangerous virus. In this film it is 28 weeks after the first and Britain, which had been evacuated, is being carefully repopulated as all the infected have died off and it is considered safe to return. Our focus is one particular family: the boy and daughter were overseas when the virus hit, but return to find out that their mother was infected and only their father is left. Of course you can’t watch this without the dreadful feeling that things are going to go bad, really bad, and of course they do, as the virus reinfects and sweeps through the surviving population in a devastating and terrifying manner. It’s pretty exciting and plenty horrifying. It’s grim and dark and doesn’t show much hope, but that’s in line with the first film. Recommended it you’re into this sort of thing.

Topic: [/movie]

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: Shrek the Third

I liked the first and the second was good, if a bit forced. This one is not as good as the first but better than the second. The story is slender — the King dies and Shrek’s off to find the heir while former foe Prince Charming is plotting to take over the throne. Most of the humor is familiar and there’s nothing particularly clever, but there are a handful of laugh-out-loud moments. It’s mostly just harmless fun, nicely entertaining without straining your brain.

Topic: [/movie]

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Tue, May 15, 2007

: Freedom Writers

Another in-flight movie, most likely edited for content, but since it was not a film I was too excited about seeing, that was okay. The trailer had made this seem too predictable, a retread of Stand and Deliver, about a teacher who helps poor and disadvantaged kids succeed. It is predictable (it’s based on a true story), but it’s still pretty decent. I really liked that the thing that helped the teacher connect with the gang kids was the Holocaust, so much that she organized a museum trip for the students and culminating in the kids reading Anne Frank’s diary and raising money to bring Miep Gies, Frank’s house-keeper and protector, to the U.S. to speak at their school. The script tries way too hard to be meaningful and dramatic with obvious setups and “deep” one-liners, but in the end there is some heart and it’s not terrible.

Topic: [/movie]

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: Home Again

I’m back home! I made it. I had a terrific trip. There were a few glitches — I didn’t have a cell phone (Tracfone deactivated my old one and couldn’t activate the new one in time), which made things more complicated than necessary, and my checked luggage missed the flight home (the airline will deliver it later) — but it was mostly uneventful, which is good. My eating went well. My blood sugars were a little higher than normal but not bad, and I think I only gained a pound or two. I mostly made smart choices whenever I could, and I had some granola bars with me which I ate at times to keep my carbs up. So overall, a fine trip with no medical issues.

Topic: [/travel]

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: The Protege

Author: Stephen Frey

Tame but easy to read story about a wealthy chairman of a private equity firm who’s in charge of billions of dollars as he tries to manage his personal life, threats against himself and his company, and deal with some sort of weird spy-novel plot that ultimately didn’t have much to do with anything. Entertaining, despite being over the top in certain plot elements and scenes. At least the financial stuff is interesting.

Topic: [/book]

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Tue, May 08, 2007

: Austin Trip

Today I headed off to Texas for the REAL World conference in Austin. This is going to be a whirlwind trip as I’ll also visit relatives in Houston, Alabama, and Tennessee before return home next week. I am a bit nervous about this trip as it’s my first major travel after being diagnosed with diabetes last fall — I’ve been carefully controlling my diet and I’m not sure how well that will work on the road. So we’ll see how it goes.

Topic: [/travel]

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: Miss Potter

I’d been wanting to see this and it was the airplane flight to Houston. I missed a little bit when I dozed off and the mono headphone connection was very pour, but I got the gist of it. It’s pretty good. It’s the simple, real-life tale of children’s author Beatrix Potter and how she got published and her tragic romance. Nothing too dramatic or exciting, but elegantly done.

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Fri, May 04, 2007

: Falling Angels

Author: Tracy Chevalier

Interesting historical novel set a hundred years ago in London around the death of Queen Victoria and involving the overlapping history of several families. The novel takes the unusual approach that each chapter is voiced by different characters. At first I found this off-putting and confusing, since it was hard to keep the characters straight, let alone follow the story, but I soon learned to like it. A lot of fascinating information is passed between the lines via this technique, as we see the same events from different perspectives. The story is primarily about two girls whose families have neighboring grave sites at the cemetary and the girls become best friends. Women’s sufferage is a big part of the story as the mother of one becomes highly political and active in the cause despite the harm to herself and her family. I found that interesting, since I recently saw another film that dealt with the topic, as well as a recent episode of Cold Case on TV that made me realize just how controversial and even dangerous the cause was. This book isn’t quite up to the class of Girl With A Pearl Earring, but it is well-written and interesting — in the end I think the various voices break things up too much and the resulting story feels too choppy for genuine drama.

Topic: [/book]

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: Spiderman 3

I loved the first one, tolerated the second, and I really liked this one. The trailers did not excite me at all: the multiple plots seemed overly complicated and I worried how the film would handle all the information. Fortunately, the script is excellent. Though a ton of stuff happens — Mary Jane’s Broadway sizzles and fizzles, Peter Parker plans to propose and goes through a dark period, we see the origins of “Sandman” and learn that he’s the one who actually killed Parker’s beloved Uncle Ben, a competing freelance photographer shows up a the Daily Bugle to steal Parker’s job, and then of course there’s Pete’s best friend, who’s trying to kill him — despite all the details they are interwoven well and build on each other to create a fairly compelling drama with some real emotion and drama. That said, this is still an action film, heavy on the special effects and hyper-speed fighting, which I found boring and predictable and totally unrealistic. Logic and realism are not common in superhero films. Still, this franchise is better than most: intelligent and built on people, not gimmicky plots, and that makes this one of the better sequels. Worth seeing if you’re into Spidey.

Topic: [/movie]

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