Book Review: Theo Has A Painting

The Goldfinch: A Novel (Pulitzer Prize for Fiction)

“The Goldfinch” is a Pulitzer prize winning novel by Donna Tartt.  It is told in first person from the perspective of a kid named Theo Decker.  The novel starts off when Theo is about thirteen years old.  A trip to a New York art museum is shattered when a bomb is detonated, killing the mother.  In the confusion, Theo has managed to grab a painting of a pretty bird and hold on to it over the years.  He was first taken in by a family of a school friend before his ne’er-do-well father turns up and whisks him off to Las Vegas.  He meets a Russian immigrant named Boris who has a big impact on his life.  Theo gets hooked on drugs and returns to New York where he lives with a friendly art and antique dealer. He is in love with a tragically unattainable pretty girl who was in the museum with him at the time it was blown apart.  Theo is quite the mess, understandably.  The novel delves pretty heavily into the underground art scene, which isn’t without interest.

Here’s the main problem I have with this thing.  It is well over 950 pages long. and I’m not that sure that it needed to be.  Tartt is actually a talented enough wordsmith, but detail she puts into scenes and reflections really makes reading this thing like slogging through wet cement sometimes.  I appreciate the complex characters she has and the complicated dynamics in some of the relationships.  The plot itself is interesting, but I am not sure it needed to be such an opus.

There is a lot I am leaving out in describing this novel, but it’s over 950 pages so I will just have to forgive myself for any perceived oversight and ask for some grace from any readers.  It actually has some merits to it, but I had a hard time with staying in a state of enthrallment.  The experience felt more like a chore than a diversion at times, but I am too stubborn to give up on something once I have started reading.  Plus, I think sticking through it and enduring something like that gives me more credibility when commenting in this blog.

Now on to something considerably less weighty!  One of the joys I had as a youngster was collecting the Target novelizations of the classic Doctor Who episodes.  A few years ago, the experience was recreated with a selection of episodes from the revived series. The next step on my literary journey will be with a novelization of the final adventure of the Twelfth Doctor, played by Peter Capaldi, “Twice Upon a Time” by Paul Cornell.

Doctor Who Audio Review: When Romans And Time Lords Collide

Doctor Who The Monthly Adventures 256 Tartarus (Doctor Who The Monthly Adventures) [Audio]

“Tartarus” is a Doctor Who audio play presented by Big Finish Productions and was written by David Llewellyn with Scott Handcock serving as director.  Peter Davison is back on deck as the Fifth Doctor with Sarah Sutton and Janet Fielding pitching again as Nyssa and Tegan, respectively.  This episode is rather a special one for Big Finish since it is a crossover into one of the newer original series about a rather important writer and orator in Ancient Rome.  Samuel Barnett joins the Doctor and his crew as Cicero.  George Watkins also lends his talents as a slave known as Marc, whose significance expands as the story unfolds.  Laura Riseborough, Joe Shire, Tracy-Anne Oberman rounds out the guest cast as well.

Even a Time Lord can be a fan of someone.  The Doctor brings his companions to meet Cicero, who has retired by the year 63 BC to the village of Cumae. During a small gathering, strange lights in the sky are a precursor to the Time Lord, Cicero, and company being whisked to a place where the ancient Roman legends and myths are coming to life, risking the lives and sanity of more than just the Doctor and his friends.

This was a pretty interesting and enjoyable installment.  I am not familiar with Cicero or Big Finish’s interpretation of him from their other series, but Barnett seems to be a wonderful foil for Davison and other main cast members.  Yes, there are elements that seem to be more for the sake of a good gimmick, but it works.  There was an effort to not have one lead character overshadow the other much, since both the Doctor and Cicero would have such strong and imposing personalities.  Indeed, Cicero’s gift of oration and debate does become important in this particular adventure.  It was revealed in the cast interviews that Watkins is actually a nephew of Peter Davison, so that was a pretty neat revelation.  Of course, Tegan has a rather overly bombastic disdain for the practice of slavery, which once again the writer sometimes makes her sound a little bit of an overwrought dunce.  Yes, we know that slavery is a very inhumane practice, however Tegan thinks that the practice should be overthrown before history runs its course.  Yet again, the audience has to endure another reminder of the devastating effects of such an endeavor.  I think at this point, Tegan can be toned down a little when it comes to her outrage and impulsiveness.  I think the writers can find ways to stay true to her character but still smarten her up a bit where the Doctor doesn’t have to give her the same repetitive chastisements.  Saying that, I like having Janet Fielding participating in these recordings, and she herself is an effective performer, but Tegan could stand a little more depth on a consistent basis and a little less yelling and bossiness at times.  Sarah Sutton was fine, as she usually is.

The relationship between the Doctor and Cicero was written quite well with what turns into just the right amount of rivalry once Cicero adjusts to his bizarre and threatening surroundings.  Llewellyn gets most things right in this script.  Maybe….just maybe, I will try out the Cicero series from Big Finish.

Classic Movie Review: There’s No Keeping A Good Warlock Down

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“The Haunted Palace” is a horror film released in 1963 and stars Vincent Price, Debra Paget, and Lon Chaney.  The screenplay was written by Charles Beaumont, and the film was directed by Roger Corman.  The story seems to have a strange mixture of influences from a poem by Edgar Allen Poe and a novella by H.P. Lovecraft.

The audience is first introduced to a little town known as Arkham, Massachusetts. As Batman has shown us over the years, nothing good ever happens at anywhere named Arkham.  The story starts off in 1765 when the town becomes suspicious of the not so friendly neighborhood warlock named Joseph Curwen and decide to interrupt whatever troubling ritual he is performing.  Curwen is burned at the stake, however has one last trick up his sleeve and curses the town.

Life goes on until 1875, when Curwen’s descendant, Charles Dexter Ward and his wife arrive in Arkham to inspect the mansion that he has inherited.  Ward bears an uncanny resemblance to his great-great-grandfather, and both of these guys bear an uncanny resemblance to Vincent Price.  Paget plays the lovely wife, and while Chaney is the creepy groundskeeper.

The town is also afflicted with several of their residents burdened with troubling deformities.  The make-up isn’t all that convincing, but it’s a Roger Corman film and it’s 1963, so that’s not so unforgivable.

Anyway, Charles starts having strange turns in his personality while at the mansion, and we soon see that Curwen’s spirit is still lingering around and has the ability to take over the bodies of family members or something.

The set designs are pretty cool, and Vincent Price is almost always fun to watch, but I am starting to suspect he is not an actor with the broadest of range.  His performance slips into the realm of silliness at times.  I need to see more of his films to really get his appeal to fans.  He isn’t terrible, but I am starting to be a bit concerned that he could be a little overrated.  On the other hand, it’s a Roger Corman film, whose work I have often found to be quite campy.

Lovecraft was probably one of the most disturbing and controversial writers of the early twentieth century, and the special effects did a fair job of bringing his twisted imaginings to life for this piece.

“The Haunted Palace” is an interesting film to see once, I suppose just because of the pedigree of those involved, however I did not find it to be very remarkable in any substantial way.

Movie Review: Start Your Engines

“Ford V Ferrari” is a sports drama film that chronicles the rivalry between Ford Motor Company and Ferrari leading up to 24 Hours of Le Mans of 1966.  James Mangold is the director with Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, and Jason Keller as scriptwriters.  Matt Damon stars as former race car diver and later designer, Shelby Carroll while Christian Bale is cast as the fiery British racer, Ken Miles. Tracy Letts has the role of Henry Ford II with Josh Lucas as the traditional snide Ford executive whose ambition puts him at odds with the two protagonist.  Miles and Carroll are enlisted to design a racing car for Ford which can beat the Ferrari engines.  Caitriona Balfe plays Miles’ wife.

The two leads work very well together, which really isn’t all that surprising.  Miles is depicted as a seemingly loose cannon with a short fuse while on the track and has a doting family man during the moments with his wife and son.  Bale plays both sides convincingly, as he usually does.  It was interesting to note that Shelby Carroll’s family life wasn’t explored at all, but a bit of research reveals that he didn’t have a very encouraging track record when it came to marriage.  It does sort of make the film seem a little unbalanced through, but a lot of other aspects in this piece do make up for it.

The film is pretty long and occasionally feels like it, however the performances and the final race does make it worth the time.  I had some trouble following the jargon at times as well.

Although there are times where my attention wandered a little, I ended up enjoying the movie.  The performances were engaging for the most part.  Although I don’t think he really steals the film, I found myself intrigued by one of characters by one of the head team members of the Ford crew working with Carroll and Miles.  Ray McKinnon plays a guy named Phil Remington, who I am not sure is a real person but could be.  Anyway, Remington was a pretty intriguing presence and had some poignant moments.  McKinnon is one of those actors I have seen over the years in supporting roles but something about his presence here made him a bit more noticeable to me.

I think avid racing fans will enjoy this, and I bet most people who know very little about this sport such as myself will still find plenty of moments to enjoy.  If it emerges victorious on the weekend box office numbers, I would consider it well deserved.

Movie Review: Be Free Or Die

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“Harriet” is the biographical film about the most prominent abolitionist in American history.  Kasi Lemmons is the director of this film, which she co-wrote with Gregory Allen Howard.  Cynthia Erivo dons the title role of Harriet Tubman.  Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, and Janelle Monae are included in the cast as well.

First of all, Erivo is an inspired casting choice, although I was pretty amused to read she is actually British.  Well, she fooled me because her performance with an American accent was quite convincing.  I will have to keep an eye on some of her future projects.

I am not sure where the artistic license came  into play, but the movie was quite riveting.  There are some truly amazing and at times heart-wrenching moments as expected in a movie that centers on the brutal practice of slavery.  The film also touches on the sometimes complex relationships between the slave owners and their perceived property.  The film does make anyone with a conscience glad that this practice is long gone in the United States.  Tubman and other abolitionists are already easy for me to applaud, but Erivo’s depiction solidifies that sentiment.

I will also note that the costuming was quite well done.  Tubman’s coat and hat during the escape scenes looked pretty slick.  The set designs were also well realized.  The movie just looked good.

The other aspect that I appreciated is that there was an acknowledgement of the white people involved in the Underground Railroad.  In today’s political climate, it is easy for some movie producers to sell the idea that all or most white people approved or celebrated the idea of slavery when that was not the case at all.  What Lemmons also did well is just basically sticking to Tubman’s story without a political and social commentary hidden in the film beyond the obvious position that the practice of slavery need to end.  The movie just demonstrated the inherent evil of slavery and celebrated Tubman’s relentlessness when it came to freeing as many slaves as she could.  She apparently was also quite germane to the Union efforts during the Civil War, although this film centers on the years leading up to that conflict.

Joe Alwyn plays a fellow named Gideon Brodess, the son of the slave owner who inherited his father’s plantation and the slaves.  He also was the main antagonist, who manages to be quite nasty without slipping into a cliche character.  There are times when characters in this sort of film come off as a bit over the top.  Alwyn did well on avoiding that pitfall, in my opinion.  I think that specific character was fictional as well as the reasons for his obsession with recapturing Harriet, but the whole thing was handled and performed well.

The film just works on so many levels.  I think whatever lapses others may find in this particular telling of this extraordinary woman’s life should be forgiven since Tubman was very much involved in various forms of activism even after slavery was finally abolished, and it would be hard to properly display all of her accomplishments in a standard movie running time.  “Harriet” is probably one of the best films I have seen all year.




And Now For the Doctor’s Next Trick…

Doctor Who: Harry Houdini's War

“Harry Houdini’s War” is a Doctor Who audio play released by Big Finish Productions. Ken Bentley is the director of this latest contribution by Steve Lyons.  Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant return again to their roles of the Doctor and Peri, respectively.  John Schwab plays the famous escape artist with Fiona Bruce, Mark Elstob, and Glen McCready rounding out the guest cast.

Harry Houdini is enlisted by the Doctor to help infiltrate a spy ring during the First World War which may be in possession of some alien technology.  The Doctor also has to play some cards close to the chest, giving Houdini some reason to not entirely trust the Time Lord.

 I usually am interested in what Lyons comes up with for the Doctor and his meanderings, however I don’t think this is one of his better efforts.  Once again, it is Colin Baker’s energy and talent which keeps this afloat.  This may be one of those releases that I will appreciate more on the second run.  The performances were fine, but I had some trouble following the plot.  I did find the second half a bit more interesting.  Schwab’s take on Houdini was rather engaging, and I wouldn’t object to see a return of this iteration of the iconic illusionist in the series. It was also rather interesting to see a more Machiavellian streak in this version of the Doctor.  That particular trait becomes more evident in his seventh incarnation.

Lyons is still a talented and imaginative author, and I have enjoyed plenty of his previous contributions, but this particular episode just didn’t grab my attention and keep it as much as I hoped.

A Dark Fate Does Seem To Be In Store For Terminator Franchise

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“Terminator: Dark Fate” is science fiction action film that continues the franchise started by “The Terminator” which was released in 1984.  Original cast members Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton are reunited and joined by newer actors Gabriel Luna, Mackenzie Davis, and Natalia Reyes.  The screen play was written by David Goyer, Justin Rhodes, and Billy Ray.  James Cameron returns as a story contributor and producer.  Tim Miller is the director.

Well, much of the continuity from the first two films is blown all to hell.  Davis plays an enhanced human who makes a formidable opponent to the newer Rev-9 model Terminator who has traveled back through time to kill young Daniella Ramos, a resident of Mexico City.  An embittered Sarah Conner returns to the franchise after her son is murdered by a more familiar Terminator at the beginning of the film.  Schwarzenegger is back in the fold as well.  The cast did the best they could with some of the clunky dialogue they were given.  It was kind of cool to see Hamilton and Arnold back on screen together.

Mackenzie Davis really has the role of lead protagonist and does fine.  Luna was appropriately menacing as the Rev-9 Terminator.

Overall, it’s better than I anticipated.  Not much better, but James Cameron;s contribution was likely of some help here.

The fight scenes were pretty spectacular in their choreography for the most part.  There were some moments that seemed a little cartoon at times.

I ended up having some mixed impressions when it was all said and done.  The movie did fairly well in some areas but struggled in others.  I wasn’t a big fan of how Arnold’s Terminator was reintroduced.  It’s still fun to see him though.  I also appreciated how much Hamilton worked on her physique to make her action sequences seem reasonably plausible for a woman her age.  She’s fine for the most part, but the cynicism and sarcasm the writers saddled her with was just a little too cliche.  Saying that, I found that I didn’t really mind her presence.  Most of my misgivings about this film have to do with the plotting and dialogue.  And I also think this franchise has gone a little too long and has gotten a little too repetitive in some ways.  Although I found much of it underwhelming, it really wasn’t that bad.


Danny Torrance Shines Again

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“Doctor Sleep” is the latest big screen adaptation of a Stephen King novel.  Mike Flanagan is the scriptwriter and director of this sequel to another horror classic, “The Shining”. Ewan McGregor leads a cast that includes Rebecca Ferguson, Kyliegh Curran, Cliff Curtis, and Bruce Greenwood.

Danny Torrance has grown up to be a bit of a wreck with a foul temper and more than a touch of alcoholism.  What he doesn’t know is that a wandering cult of hunters is out in the countryside feeding on the gifts that Danny tries to bury within himself.  Danny tries very hard at first to dull the Shining, however a young girl lets her’s loose attracting the attention of this group known as the True Know.  Ferguson plays the spooky and slinky leader, Rose the Hat.  The True Knot members kind of resemble gypsies and live out of their caravan of RVs.  Some years go by, and Danny ends up in a small town where he regains his sobriety and starts to use his Shining as a source of comfort for the elderly patients at the hospice where he has been working as an orderly.  As the True Knot closes in on the young girl known as Abra, her power connects with Danny’s, leading to a powerful alliance forming to resist the evil brought on by the True Knot and the dark spirits of Danny’s past.

First of all, this is a fairly long movie that drags a little.  The pacing for the most part isn’t terrible.  There are some moments that could have used a little more background in spite of this already being a pretty lengthy cinematic journey.  The cast was well chosen.  McGregor is generally a pretty compelling and convincing actor, and he does well here.  Curran as Abra is very good as well and seems to play off well with her older and more experienced cast mates.  The psychic duels  between Rose and Abra are quite compelling.  Overall, the cast just seemed to work quite well.

The visual effects were quite good.  There are some flashbacks moments to “The Shining” that are done with some recasting.  In the original film, the Overlook Hotel did not have the same fate as in the novel, the audience gets to revisit some old spectral friends in this piece.  I thought Flanagan made a bold choice in recasting some of the familiar characters seen in Stanley Kubrick’s film, and I think it is a choice that plays well.  Some of those moments seem a little self-indulgent, especially since King himself avoided revisiting most of what went on in his original novel.  In spite of that sense of retreading a too familiar road, I thought Flanagan handled it pretty well.  There are some very notable differences between this movie and the novel, however the divergence isn’t too annoying.  Plus, Kubrick’s version “The Shining” doesn’t entirely remain tied to that source material either.

Time will tell if this will be some kind of horror classic, however I think it was a pretty solid bit of entertainment.  There are a few disagreements I have with some of the choices made when it came to scenes that could stand a bit more drawing out and those that maybe could have been shortened, however the movie gets a lot of important elements right.  I think most Stephen King fans will find this at least a satisfying cinematic effort.

Lionel Essrog Is On The Case

“Motherless Brooklyn” is a crime film reminiscent of the old private eye flicks that starred the likes of Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum several decades ago.  Edward Norton not only stars in this as Lionel Essrog, the private eye with the rather distracting affliction known as Tourette syndrome, he also is the screenwriter and director.  This has been a passion project for the talented and compelling Norton for about twenty decades.  The film is based on a novel written by Jonathan Lethem.  Alex Baldwin, Bruce Willis, and Willem Dafoe are included in the cast.  The love interest for the awkward, hapless Lionel is played by an English actress named Gugu Mbatha-Raw.

Lionel is part of a team of investigators who work for a gumshoe named Frank Minna,  played by Willis,  Minna is murdered, and Lionel’s loyalty and obsessive nature doesn’t allow him to not balance the books on that.  He finds that Minna was working on something that led from the streets of Harlem to ivory towers of New York City’s considerable political power players.  Of course, the story is adapted to the 1950’s, so there are plenty of fedoras and trench coats.  The calmer side of Lionel’s troubled brain is able to help out with fairly interesting narration.

There is some exploration of racial and class unrest at the center of the mystery surrounding the death of Lionel’s mentor.

So, the movie is pretty good, but it isn’t without some missteps.  Norton is pretty compelling as the Tourette ridden private eye, but even his efforts doesn’t keep me from noticing that the film drags a little and gets a little too convoluted in its storytelling. Baldwin also is a pretty commanding force as a menacing city commissioner with more than his share of secrets.

I couldn’t really find fault with anyone’s performance, so that was helpful during some of the lulls in the plot.  The movie is longer than most, and it shows at times, however Lionel turns out to be quite a likable underdog even if the random outbursts and twitches takes some mental adjustment to watch.

I confess that I have a weakness for this genre of film, and I admire Norton’s talent in general as well, so it is fairly easy  for me to still enjoy this particular piece.  Even if “Motherless Brooklyn” doesn’t quite hit the mark as being a masterpiece, it ended up still being very much worth the time.

There Are Haunted Apps Now

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“Countdown” is a horror film written and directed by Justin Dec.  The cast includes Elizabeth Lail, Jordan Colloway, Peter Facinelli, and Tom Segura.  A young nurse is told about an app that can predict one’s death with frightening accuracy.  Evil forces will make sure that the death occurs on schedule.

It’s not a terrible premise considering the state of our cell phone culture.  There were some moments that were kind of effective in invoking some chills.  The visual effects were pretty good.  The performances were not terrible.  There was some effort for originality in the story.  P.J. Byrne almost worked as a somewhat eccentric, irreverent priest who tries to aid the youngsters bedeviled by the demonic app.

It’s one of those films that likely deserves the criticism aimed by the professionals, however I found it to be somewhat entertaining.  Of course, I have had plenty practice of keeping my level of expectation low when it comes to the horror genre.  It turned out to be a fairly interesting film in some ways, but I would recommend angling for a serious discount on the ticket price or just waiting for it to hit whatever streaming services it lands on.