Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Fearless Predictions 2009

Here's a baker's dozen of predictions for the upcoming year:

1) Evgeni Malkin will win the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL’s leading scorer. He and Sidney Crosby will lead the Penguins to another Stanley Cup berth vs Detroit.

2) San Jose will again be the second best team in the Western Conference, but will remain fruitless in playoff hockey.

3) Two of the three big money free agent signings by the New York Yankees will be complete busts. The other will have an average season.

4) The Boston Celtics will repeat as NBA Champions.

5) Brett Farve will retire only to return 5 months later. The media will generate thousands of stories about “will he or won’t he”, but the regular football fan just want him to make up his damn mind.

6) J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek will be a big hit, but will not manifest in a world-wide increase of Trekkies.

7) Legal trouble will continue around Watchmen delaying its release for several months. Fox and Warner Bros eventually come to an agreement, but only Watchmen fans go to see the movie. They clog the Internet with their reaction which range from “Worst. Movie. Ever.” to “Best. Movie. Ever.”, with the occasional “the comic was better” sprinkled in.

8) Despite being completely unsatisfied with the governor and state legislature’s performance, New Jersey voters will continue sending Democrats to Trenton as they have for the past 30+ years.

9) Caroline Kennedy will be appointed Senator from New York. Al Franken will narrowly win the recount over Norm Coleman prompting Franken to wander around the Senate halls saying, “I’m good enough. I’m smart enough. And, doggone it, I’m still relevant.”

10) There will be record crowds clogging the streets of Washington, D.C. for MLK/Inauguration weekend, but still less than half the 4 million projected.

11) Despite failing in the 1970's and being thoroughly discredited by the economic expansion of the 1980's and 1990's, Keynesian economic policies will be enacted by governments across the world in response to the current economic crisis.

12) U2’s No Line on the Horizon will be the top selling album of the year. Billy Joel will continue his string of 16 straight years not releasing a rock album.

13) The successes of Sean Chervover, Ray Banks, Dave White, and other young writers will prove the PI genre is not dead. Still, there will be great weeping and gnashing of teeth saying that it is.

Happy New Year!

Monday, December 29, 2008

Book Review: Brothers No More

It's been a while since I read this novel, so a lot of this is from my fuzzy memory. As I mentioned in my review of Saving the Queen, I approached this book with some trepidation because of William F. Buckley, Jr's penchant for long sentences and big words. Thankfully, this novel (his 11th) was extremely readable and very enjoyable.

Brothers No More starts out in World War II with best friends Danny O'Hara and Henry Chafee preparing for a nighttime assault on an enemy location. In a pulse-pounding opening chapter, Danny rises to the challenge of the occasion, but Henry suffers from a bout of cowardice. The following chapters detail their first meeting at Yale, the start of their friendship, and ultimately the fallout of their actions that fateful night. Instead of a long, drawn out narrative, each chapter is a snapshot in the lives of our characters - sometimes taking place decades apart. Instead of a gradual build, we get the broader picture of how one single act can define a man's life.

The book is mainly a character study of the two men. Buckley created two unique characters that the reader gets emotionally invested in throughout the course of the novel. It was a very quick read too (if I remember correctly).

Recommended for admirers of WFB and fans of character driven novels.

Andrew Ferguson's review here.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Meaning of Christmas

Merry Christmas to all. And happy middle of Hanukkah to all my Jewish friends.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Book Review: Saving the Queen

I finished Saving the Queen over the weekend. It is the first novel in William F. Buckley, Jr.’s Blackford Oakes series and also his first novel period. I’d previously read Buckley’s Brothers No More (which I may capsule review later), and heard many great things about his Oakes series. After his death, National Review has gone through Buckley’s private stash and made available some of the early Oakes novels for purchase via their website (as I mentioned here).

American Intelligence figures discovered a leak in their top secret hydrogen bomb program. They ascertain the Soviets have turned someone high up in the British government – possibly even from the Queen’s inner circle. Recent Yale graduate Blackford Oakes is recruited to infiltrate the upper echelons of British society and stop the leak.

Set in 1952, the novel is a good example of a Cold War thriller. There are long sections detailing Oakes’s training and even the spy craft employed by the double-agent and his NKVD handlers. There is also lots of commentary (as can be expected) on policy, society, and the American perspective on the British monarchy.

Stylistically, the novel can occasionally be hard to approach. I approached reading Brothers No More with some trepidation based on Buckley’s reputation as a stellar grammarian. However, I was shocked as to how readable it was. Brothers was Buckley’s 11th novel, and you could tell he learned a lot about writing fiction since the beginning. Saving the Queen was Buckley’s first and was full of things that were correct only because they were grammatical. There were long sentences with many commas separating sub-clauses. Lots of narrative summary with very little dialogue. And on a number of occasions a chapter would start from one character’s perspective and end with a completely different character.

I won’t fault Buckley or his editors on some of the aforementioned foibles. After all, I would have been extremely nervous myself if I had to suggest any edits to a Buckley manuscript.

After finishing Saving the Queen, I immediately started to read the second Oakes novel, Stained Glass. There are still some of the character shift issues, but the sentences flow a lot smoother and the pace is greatly improved. I think some of the pacing has to do with the chapters being significantly shorter. In about a day and a half, I’m already 100+ pages into Stained Glass.

Despite some of the style flaws, I’d still recommend Saving the Queen. Buckley created a compelling hero in Blackford Oakes and it is an engaging Cold War thriller.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Cinematic Titanic: Doomsday Machine

As a big MST3K fan, I’ve decided to check out Joel’s Cinematic Titanic. It’s basically the next iteration of MST3K. The original cast (Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, and J. Elvis Weinstein) plus Mary Jo Pehl and TV’s Frank mercilessly rip cheesy movies. Instead of puppet silhouettes, you get full body silhouettes of all six cast members. There are no host segments, but they stop the movie at least twice during each episode and do an updated version.

I saw the first offering (The Oozing Skull) when it was originally released and wasn’t overwhelmed. Maybe it was just the mood I was in, but it seemed like a mid-level MST3K episode. The second installment (Doomsday Machine), however, is much better.

From the CT website:

American spies discover the Chinese have built a weapon capable of destroying planet Earth, a “doomsday machine” if you will, and that they plan to use it within a matter of days. Immediately, Project Astra, a manned US space mission to Venus, is taken over by the military and half of its all-male crew is replaced by women just hours before launch. The reason for this becomes apparent when, shortly after Astra leaves Earth’s orbit, said planet is completely destroyed (in a cataclysm of stock footage).

Doomsday Machine itself is a much more riffable movie. The plot is murky (even the characters don’t know what’s going on), the special effects are nothing more than stock footage, and the sets are cheesy. The interior of their spaceship is huge and their control chairs are just recliners with seatbelts. The “filmmakers” obviously couldn’t decide what they wanted to have the ship look like and had at least 3 vastly different models for the exterior. And the last 15 minutes of the movie are shot with different actors…who didn’t even try to disguise their voices!

Not only was the movie an easier target, the riffs from the crew were a lot sharper. I can’t count the number of times I actually laughed out loud at this one (“You’re ruining the Apocalypse for everyone!”).

All MST-ies should check out Cinematic Titanic. Doomsday Machine is great and I can’t wait to watch the follow ups: The Wasp Woman and Legacy of Blood.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Life (2007)

I'm surprised I haven't mentioned the show Life on this blog yet. It - and Chuck - were my favorite new shows of last year's TV season.

For those of you unfamiliar with the premise, Charlie Crews (Damian Lewis) was a LAPD cop sentenced to life in prison for killing his business partner and his partner's wife. After 15 years behind bars, Crews gets exonerated, gets reinstated on the force, and gets a multimillion dollar settlement from the city. Armed with a new Zen attitude and a new partner, Crews splits his time between solving crimes and tracking down those who framed him for murder.

Charlie's Zen attitude provides a lot of humor to the show as well as a unique spin on the classic brilliant detective role. His partner Danni Reese (Sarah Shahi) is assigned to him as they are both outcasts (he's an ex-con and she's a recovering alcoholic). She eventually learns to trust him and accept his unique methods.

The show has changed a bit in the second season (more acceptance for the team, a new captain), but it remains one of the better shows on TV. There is an overarching mythology to the show (Crews's search for the conspirators), but it is not so overwhelming as to turn off new viewers.

Unfortunately, it is now on break until February, but I highly recommend you check it out.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Hidden Treasures: The Stein Brothers

A couple months ago, I was listening to WBGO on my way to work (as I normally do) and heard a great new tune. The song Gary Walker played was "Jammin' at the JCT" from The Stein Brothers Quintet's debut album Quixotic. When I got home that night, I listened to the track samples on iTunes and made the purchase right away. It's not very often that I do that.

The band is made up of brothers Alex and Asher Stein (both in their 20's) on tenor and alto sax (respectively), Mferghu on piano, Doug Largent on bass, and Joe Blaxx on drums. All five young men from New Jersey and the various Burroughs of New York.

The Stein Brothers have the sound you don't hear much in jazz these days. The whole album is reminiscent of the early bebop recordings of Diz and Bird. Just about every track on the album is great. "And So I Love You", "Jammin' at the JCT", "Mr. O.C.", and "This Time the Dreams on Me" are among my favorites. I also love Mferghu's solo in "Midlife Crisis" (since I'm a big piano guy).

That's not to say the album is without flaws. It's not a big deal, but sometimes they follow the bebop formula too closely. There were a couple tracks in the second half of the album where I knew exactly when the piano solo would end and the drum solo would immediately follow it. It's not a big deal, but just something I noticed. The other thing I didn't quite care for were the two ballads. They were technically proficient and had beautiful solos by both Steins, but just didn't grab me.

I'm definitely going to keep an ear out for their future recordings and try to catch them live. They still seem to be touring mostly in the New York area, so there’s a good chance I’ll get to see them soon.

Some Reviews:
All About Jazz
The Star (they also quibble about the arrangement of some tunes)
Jazz Review

I can’t find any YouTube clips of songs off the album, but here they are in action in February at The Bayview Room in St. Petersburg, FL.

And in Jersey City from August 9, 2007.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Brubeck's Birthday

Today is the 88th birthday of jazz legend Dave Brubeck. The first jazz record I bought was his Time Out, and I've been a huge fan ever since. I had the chance to see him live last year and he can still put on an amazing show. I was hoping to see him again when he was at Blue Note last weekend, but couldn't. He's still touring, still receiving awards, and still recording albums.

Here are a couple YouTube selections of my favorite Brubeck tunes.

Blue Rondo a la Turk:

(There's another version, but the author disabled embedding. Check it out here.)

Dziekuje (Thank You):

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Classic Christmas Commercials

One of the fun things about this time of year is the new Christmas/holiday commercials that pop up on TV. For every annoying one (who buys a Lexus for their significant other?), there are always a couple gems.

DMD has a list of his top 5 Holiday Commercials. It's hard to argue with his choices. I've seen the last 2 already this year on TV.

I'm still trying to find one from the Pennsylvania Lottery from a couple years back.

Monday, December 1, 2008

The Shield Wrap Up

After Tuesday's thrilling finale, there were a lot of Shawn Ryan interviews posted around the 'net. I've collected some of my favorites. A couple of these overlap topics, but that is to be expected. Probably the most in-depth of them is this one with The Star Ledger's Alan Sepinwall. I like the analogy Ryan brought up about Vic Mackey being a shark:

Do you view what happens to Vic as a fate worse than death?

As a shark and a survivor, no, I think as long as a shark's alive it can find some place to swim to, I think this is a bad situation for him, and I don't think he's gonna enjoy those three years. The tank's very tiny at the moment.

My second favorite is this one from TVGuide. He not only talks about the finale, but gives insight into some of the decision process, some other possible endings to The Shield, and what's next for him as a writer.

He also touches on the "Mackey as shark" theme in Ausiello's interview.

Yet another one.

As intrigued as I am by the idea of a Shield movie, I'm not eager for one. All the major storylines of the show have been wrapped up and the characters given proper send-offs. After digesting it for a couple days, I still think the ending was perfect. That's not to say I won't be in line if there ever is a theatrical installment of The Shield.