A penny saved is ridiculous.

A penny saved is ridiculous.

Friday, December 30, 2016

2017


Just a quick post before I leave for the long weekend to wish everyone a Happy New Year.  I hope 2017 brings good things to all of you.

Oh, another quick entertainment tip before I go (to augment the batch of them in the previous post). We caught Woody Allen's latest, Cafe Society last night on Amazon Prime (where it's now streaming), and I found it to be charming and funny, and one of Woody's better recent efforts.  Starring Jesse Eisenberg and Kristin Stewart, this one is mainly about that one special love: how we chase it even when it's wrecking other aspects of our lives, and how we still miss it even when we find something equally good that's arguably better for us.

And while the story is ultimately a little melancholy, it's also very funny at times.  I especially liked the subplot about the Eisenberg character's gangster brother, who thought all problems, even if it was just a guy playing his radio too loudly, warrants a bullet to the head and a burial in a building foundation.

Set in Hollywood and New York in the 1930's, the movie is also beautifully shot and has lots of great classic American music.  Anyway, you could do worse with an hour and a half or so of your life than watching this.

Again, Happy New Year, and see you in 2017!


Thursday, December 29, 2016

Brief Asides #7


It's been a while since I've done a "Brief Asides" column (and no snarky comments about how it's been a while since I've done a post of any kind), but let's get back on the bike, shall we?  Here are some quick comments about a few things I've read or seen lately...

Rogue One takes a little while to get going, but by the second half turns into as good a Star Wars movie as you could want.  It's really interesting how it manages to be both grim and uplifting at the same time.

On the audiobook front. I've been listening to a bunch of John Sandford's Prey thrillers lately.  Try them out: they all have strong thriller plots, laced with cleverness and excitement, as well as lots of entertaining cop banter.  I'm glad I still have about nine or ten of these left before I'm all caught up.

If you're looking for a thoughtful movie this wintertime, try Manchester By The Sea.  Starring Casey Affleck, who plays a lonely janitor called back to his old hometown to take care of a family issue, this quiet introspective film nevertheless packs an emotional wallop in a handful of key scenes.

I've seen the first two episodes of The Crown on Netflix.  The show is about the early reign of Queen Elizabeth (the one who is actually still on the throne).  Excellent production values, sympathetic characters (yes, even though they're pampered royals) and fascinating biographical details of various famous figures make this a very entertaining show, at least so far.

Oh, in a previous post I noted that I was looking forward to the Netflix series Luke Cage, the Netflix documentary Amanda Knox, and the Amazon Prime series Crisis in Six Scenes.  I'm glad to report that I liked all three of these, which were all solid, entertaining efforts.

Warren Beatty's long-awaited film Rules Don't Apply was a pleasant romantic drama, but I have to say that it's probably fine to just wait to watch it at home.  Which you'll probably have to do anyway, because it's pretty much gone from theaters already.

I liked both the book and film versions of The Girl on the Train.  The former was simply a decent mystery story by Paula Hawkins, heavy on character moments, and the latter was a solid, skillful movie adaptation of that story.  Either or both are worth your time.

Doctor Strange was a terrific Marvel movie, sporting a different flavor than Marvel's other superhero films due to its mystical story.  But it's still fast, funny, and fun.

The film Arrival is worth seeing, too.  But I'm still trying to figure out exactly what I saw.  Lots to chew on afterward with this one!

I've been watching a bunch of original comedy specials, featuring various stand-up comedians, on Netflix lately.  A recent good one was Margaret Cho: Psycho.  While still her usual profane and outrageous self, I liked Cho a little more in this outing than previous ones because she was a little less angry and her humor a tiny bit gentler.  Of course, you may not like the show as much as me because of those facets, but to each his or her own.

Anyway, it was great banging out a post again after my little hiatus, and I hope to get back in the habit of regular posts as we enter the new year! Take care, all!

Friday, September 30, 2016

Must-see streaming


Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, etc. are getting to be quite the destinations for exciting, thoughtful, and offbeat entertainment these days.  On today alone (September 30) there are three diverse debuts on two of those services to capture the imagination, and I'm looking forward to all of them.

On Netflix, there's the latest Marvel superhero series, Luke Cage, with all episodes now streaming. Following on the heels of the smart and entertaining Daredevil and Jessica Jones (both also on Netflix), I'm betting this one will be a winner, too.

Over on Amazon Prime, there's Woody Allen's six-episode series, Crisis in Six Scenes, which looks to be fairly funny, and represents Woody's first foray into what is essentially TV in decades.  Kind of neat that Miley Cyrus is in it, too.  Will Woody actually attract some younger viewers because of that?

Finally, back on Netflix, there's Amanda Knox, which is not a series but a one-shot documentary about the infamous Knox murder case.  What's compelling is that Amanda Knox herself is in it, and not just via old news footage.  She seems to be a sort of host and narrator.  Interesting, huh?

Any of these catching your fancy, too?

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Undercover Bond


Now here's something that really looks interesting.  The terrific movie website BirthsMoviesDeath.com (check it out!) today reported that the late mystery/thriller writer Donald Westlake, in the mid-1990's, submitted story ideas to the producers of the James Bond movies.  The two treatments- apparently variations on the same basic story idea- were ultimately rejected, and Mr. Westlake moved on.

But that wasn't the end of it.  Apparently the prolific author decided (for fun?) to turn the ideas into a novel, which for some reason he then put in a drawer.  Well, that novel will finally see the light of day in June of next year.  No longer a James Bond story, the novel is called Forever and a Death.  Cool title, isn't it?  But the story will presumably feature the same basic scenario and plot Mr. Westlake envisioned for the second Pierce Brosnan Bond film.

Fun little thing to look forward to, eh?  The cover art, which publisher Hard Case Crime has kindly made available, is certainly very nice.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Sidewalk grins


On this fine day, here are a few signs I recently spotted in front of bars around town...

You can't drink all day... unless you start in the morning.

If you're drinking to forget, please pay in advance.

Alcohol!  Because no great story ever started with someone eating a salad.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Cute


This one is mildly politically incorrect, but if we all relax a little it's kinda funny...

A guy walks into a bar and says to the barman, "Give me six double vodkas."

The barman says, "Wow, you must have had one hell of a bad day."

"Yeah", the guy replies as he downs the first of his drinks.  "I just found out my oldest son is gay."

The very next day, the same guy comes into the bar and asks for six more double vodkas.  When the bartender asks what's wrong this time, the guy says, "I just found out that my youngest son is gay, too!"

On the third day, the guy comes into the bar and orders another six double vodkas.  The bartender says, "Geez, doesn't anybody in your family like women?"

The guy says, "Yeah, my wife!"

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Trips to the movies


I caught a couple of movies over the long Memorial Day weekend.  I may have more to say about them later, but for now here are some quick observations...

I thought X-Men: Apocalypse was a lot of fun, offering a good mix of drama with a generous amount of superhero action.  The movie is actually pretty rich and lavish, production-wise, which was nice to see, but fortunately it also never strays far from being fun and fast-moving.  The X-Men franchise is controlled by Fox, not Marvel Studios (home of Iron Man, The Avengers, etc.), so it was nice to see that someone else can make a decent film using the Marvel characters (though Fox had less success with the Fantastic Four).  But the X-men films (the main ones and their various individual-character spin-offs) have generally had more hits than misses.  I thought this was one of the better ones.

Alice Through the Looking Glass was okay, considering I really am not much for storybook characters (this movie was my wife's pick).  Keeping me interested was some imaginative time-travel stuff, as this time Alice utilizes a cool-looking flying time machine to sail through time (which is neatly envisioned as a churning ocean) to save the Mad Hatter's family from a tragedy.  This is another lavish, beautiful production, with tons of interesting details that entertain the eye but don't bog down the story.  You'll eat this one up if you have a stronger affinity for Alice, Humpty Dumpty, many talking animals, and similar characters than I do.  But, honestly, even I thought the movie was pretty good.  Thinking back now, I especially liked Sacha Baron Cohen's character; he plays some kind of Master-of-time type guy, and he's a lot of fun.

Oh, I saw both of these movies in 3D, and thought the third dimension served these fanciful stories quite well.  I'd recommend splurging on the 3D if you decide to see either or both of these films.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Paying for Shrek


So, cable giant Comcast announces that it's buying DreamWorks Animation SKG for $3.8 billion, just as my Comcast cable bill increased by $30.00, with no service changes.


Coincidence?  I think not.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

For geeks only


I'm not enough of a science prodigy to find the following bar joke very funny, but I won't speak for you...

A neutron walks into a bar and orders a drink.  When the neutron gets his drink, he asks, "Bartender, how much do I owe you?"

The bartender replies, "For you, neutron, no charge."

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

When titans clash


Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice isn't as bad as the many negative reviews suggest, but it isn't nearly as good as it could have been.  One of the biggest problems is that the first ninety minutes are a bit of a slog, which there really isn't an excuse for in a superhero movie, especially one featuring the first big-screen joint appearance of Batman and Superman.

I also felt bad for all the little kids in their Batman and Superman tee shirts, being dragged along by their parents to the movie.  Whether or not one thinks it's a movie of quality, it's pretty inarguable that there isn't much for the kids in Batman v Superman. And that's a shame. The movie is dark, grim, and talky, and laced with a fair amount of intense, disturbing violence.

I think the Marvel movies have shown that it's not all that hard to have both themes and plot lines adults can enjoy while including lots of elements to wow the kids.  It just seems strange that Warner Bros. thought that this two-and-a-half-hour, grimy-looking cauldron of violence, nightmarish dream sequences, and muddled plotting was the way to go to launch its DC Comics cinematic universe.

Positives?  The last hour of the movie has some good action (though the eventual Batman versus Superman fight is not a huge part of it, despite the film's title) and it was fun to see Wonder Woman eventually enter the fray.  And all the actors did a good job.

And, hey, to be fair, one person's muddled plotting is another person's complex, multi-layered plotting, and one person's long slog to get to the point is another person's immersive storytelling. And what I saw as relentlessly grim themes and visuals will be "refreshingly adult" to others. So some people won't be bothered by some of the things that I, as well as many critics, didn't like.

But for me, I think it's sort of a shame that Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice hit a solid double when a home run or even a grand slam (both commercially and creatively) were definitely within reach.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Taxes made exciting


The Patriot Threat was my first Steve Berry novel, and I enjoyed it. Reading about some of his other titles, apparently Mr. Berry's formula is to take mysteries, legends, controversies, and the like from America history and craft them into novels where his hero Cotton Malone and his allies try to prevent something catastrophic from happening if a particular secret from the past gets out. In The Patriot Threat the secrets involve- interestingly, for a fast-paced thriller- taxes and debt.

I enjoyed learning a little about the process that established a national income tax, and- going further back- how debts incurred during the U.S. revolution have gone- for many complicated reasons- unresolved for centuries. In fact, either of these topics- at least in the involving way Mr. Berry describes them- would have been enough for its own book.

To enjoy The Patriot Threat, you admittedly have to let things ride a little and not scrutinize things too closely. After all, using one of the book's mysteries as an example, could a foreign power really bring down the U.S. simply by discovering old hidden documents suggesting that the amendment to the Constitution establishing a federal income tax may not have been properly ratified, thus making the tax illegal (and promptly eliminating the government's main revenue stream)? Knowing our government and politicians, I think they'd figure a way around such a revelation to assure that the tax would go on.

But it's all fascinating nonetheless, and the variety of scenes and scenarios keep the reader engaged: we have action on a cruise ship; we jump back in time to FDR's administration where a puzzle and scavenger hunt is set in motion; back in the present day, we have a North Korean villain and plot that skillfully mixes James Bond-style larger-than-life characterizations and plot mechanics with all-too-real (and often sad) details about life in North Korea, etc. It also helps that Steve Berry seems to be (at least from his afterword), an engaging, curious, and entertaining guy, who doesn't necessarily believe in all the conspiracies in his books, only that he thinks they're... interesting. In other words, he's not a crazy guy writing crazy conspiracy theories. He just likes to write entertaining thrillers involving those elements.

I will say that Mr. Berry- indirectly, via his present-day characters discussing the past- is pretty hard on Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the book, but, well... people have their positions on things. And, to be fair, Mr. Berry never lets his particular biases get in the way of his story. He's mainly interested in keeping the pages turning, via action and plot developments, as well as his fascinating forays into the lesser known details of U.S. history. And, really, I think FDR's legacy can survive a little critical scrutiny.

In any event, I'm looking forward to trying another of the author's thrillers in the near future. So far, I think his work is pretty good stuff.

"The Patriot Threat", the most recent "Cotton Malone" thriller, is available on Kindle, in paperback, and on audio. At this writing, the Kindle edition is bargain-priced at $2.99.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Good dinosaur, good movie



It's been out a while, but I finally caught The Good Dinosaur recently, and really enjoyed it. Maybe it was because the lukewarm reviews and underwhelming box office numbers caused me to lower my expectations, but I thought it was a perfectly good movie about a dinosaur family and how its youngest member (the runt of the litter) repeatedly tried to distinguish himself.

Certainly the usual Pixar quality control was in place: the visuals were beautiful, the voice work and music were top-notch, and the story was decent, with many exciting and moving elements. Honestly, I thought it was as good as anything Pixar has put out.

Of course, it may have helped that I saw the movie in one of those theaters that serve food and adult beverages before and during the movie.  In addition to some snacks, I enjoyed the movie along with a beer and a chardonnay.  Maybe they helped push the whole experience up a notch or two.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Climb into the treehouse


I recently listened to the audiobook version of "The 13-Storey Treehouse" as part of an audiobook competition where I acted as a judge. Written by Andy Griffiths (with the print version illustrated by Terry Denton), I found it to be a polished and well-produced bit of work, running a little over an hour. 

I will say the humor is mainly for children, and doesn't worry about also being appealing to adults. But that's fine, as this is clearly being marketed as a children's book. I did appreciate the effort that went into the acting, music and sound effects, all of which are top-notch.

Many other online reviews (I mainly checked the ones on Amazon) have noted that the sea monster sequence seemed a little too scary for young children, but I didn't think anything along those lines when I was listening to the story. Like the other parts of the book, there was enough silliness in the sequence to make the scares go down easier.

I'm not sure if the audio version includes any read-along printed materials or many of the illustrations from the print version, as I experienced the story via a download. Anyway, young kids will probably enjoy listening to this cute story about two colorful characters who live in a treehouse and have adventures.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Targeting Bond


Last year I gave myself a little project: to read all of Isaac Asimov's Foundation novels.  There were seven to cover, and it was pretty easy because I read some and did a few others on audio. I enjoyed the project and will probably write a little more about the series before all is said and done (I wrote a handful of reviews already).

This year's project will be a little more about pure entertainment than the entertainment/educational vibe of last year's assignment.  That's because this year I'm going to read all the James Bond novels that were written by John Gardner in the 1980's and early 1990's.  There are fifteen or so of them, and the project will be do-able because the lion's share of them were recently released on audio by Audible.com.

I'm going to read my old copies of the first two books, License Renewed and For Special Services, as those are two of the titles not yet available on audio, then listen to the next several entries. Incidentally, I had read the first five or six of the Gardner Bonds back in the day, but for whatever reason drifted away from the series.  Remembering that I liked the ones I read, I'm now looking forward to shooting through the whole series this year.

Anyway, I'll shortly go into more detail about why I'm picking these books now to read or reread, probably in the forthcoming reviews of the individual titles as I post them. For now I'll just say that these were fun books that came along at a fun time in my life and I thought it would be, well, fun to revisit the good times I had with them.

And, what the heck, I think I'll also listen to a few of the original Ian Fleming Bonds this year, too, as I really enjoyed revisiting Fleming's first Bond novel, Casino Royale, near the end of last year, when Audible offered it at a special sale price. Might as well jump in with both feet, right?

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Marvelous


Ms. Marvel: No Normal is an entertaining, well-crafted audio adaptation of the first five issues of Marvel's new Ms. Marvel comic book, which features a Muslim-American teenager who gains superpowers after being exposed to a strange mist and- possibly- some strange alien beings.

This two-CD audio is done as a full-cast dramatization, and it's all very polished and involving, with top-notch acting and sound effects. It also helps that the friendly, perky Kamala Khan is an endearing, likable main character, making us care what happens to her in the wake of attaining her strange powers, which includes an ability to shape shift into practically anything.

The lack of a narrator, to quickly tell us what's happening, is a minor quibble here, as we have to rely solely on the dialogue and sound effects to picture exactly what's going on. But, while it may sometimes take a few extra seconds to piece together exactly what we're hearing, I wouldn't say things ever get outright confusing.

And while this entertaining, fun story is not political at all, I have to think that the likable, "normal American kid" vibe of young Muslim Kamala Khan, and the likable, non-threatening nature of her family, are entirely intentional. Good for Marvel for going against the grain of today's knee-jerk reactionaries.

I usually listen to audiobooks that simply feature a narrator reading a novel, but sometimes these full-cast productions with music and sound effects can be a nice change of pace. I enjoyed Ms Marvel: No Normal enough that I just might seek out the comic book series, written by G. Willow Wilson and drawn by Adrian Alphona, to experience the work in its original form.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

All aboard...


For those of you wondering when this blog is going to get back in gear and feature more regular posting, I present the following observation:

A train station is where the train stops.  A bus station is where the bus stops.  Next to my desk, I have a work station...

But seriously, folks, there will be a bunch of interesting, entertaining stuff going up shortly.  Really.