IT WAS A LOVELY WAR — A WORLD WAR ONE CENTENNIAL

Happy Birthday, Great War. It’s 100 years since the day you officially started. World War I (WWI), also known as the First World War, was a nearly global war. It officially began on July 28, 1914, though its real beginnings were rooted in events beginning decades, even centuries earlier.

It was an ugly, devastating war. Four years of slaughter that — technically — ended on November 11, 1918.

The official number of military casualties is 22,477,500 killed, wounded, or missing in action. The combined number of military and civilian casualties is more than 37 million. If, as I do, you consider World War II as chapter two of the same conflict, the number of dead becomes even more incomprehensible.

For the past couple of weeks, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) has been “celebrating” the centennial of the first world war, inviting historians and military people to do the introductions and closing comments on the films. General Wesley Clark has been doing TCM’s intros and outros, the last of which was for Oh! What a Lovely War.

He referred to the movie as a musical comedy. While it has amusing moments, calling it a musical comedy doesn’t really cut it. If comedy can be dark, this is one dark comedy.

It’s also surprisingly informative. I can date my interest in World War I and modern American history to having seen this movie when it was released in 1969.

In his closing comments following the movie, General Clark said he hoped we had learned our lesson from this and all the other wars of the past century. I turned to Garry and said, “And what lesson, exactly, might that be?”

“Obviously,” said my husband, making a sour face, “We have learned nothing.”

I agree. Well, I guess we did learn a few things. We learned to build more efficient weapons, including weapons of mass destruction. We can kill more people faster — but no deader — than we did 100 years ago. Much of our military technology emerged during and post-WWI.

I don’t see this as progress. If you want to know why I’m so cynical, why I have trouble believing in a benign deity, look at the casualty figures from the collective wars of the past century.

I love this movie. Not only because of its historical veracity — it’s accurate — but because the music is wonderful. The cast includes everyone who was anyone in British cinema at the time — Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Maggie Smith, Vanessa Redgrave, Dirk Bogarde, Ralph Richardson and more, all having a great time.

I’ve seen this many times and I guess so has Garry since we can both know the words to all the songs. Catchy. Very catchy.


OH! WHAT A LOVELY WAR

Directed by Richard Attenborough (his directorial début)

OH WHAT A LOVELY WAR

I saw “Oh! What a Lovely War” when it was released in 1969 and never forgot it. Based on the long-running British stage production, it’s World War I — in song, dance and irony. Its catchy score sticks in your brain. The songs are those sung by the troop during that long war. The cast includes everyone who was anyone in British stage or screen during the 1960s. The credits were a veritable who’s-who of English actors.

World War I is hard to understand, even when you study it. No matter how many books I read, I’m not sure I do or will. Its causes are rooted in old world grudges that make no sense to Americans.

So many ancient hatreds — thousands of years of scores to be settled.

My mother summed it: “Everyone was armed to the teeth. They wanted war. They just needed an excuse. Europe was a giant bomb waiting for someone to light a match.”

Hers may be as good an answer as any other. When the war began, it was the old world. The crowned heads of Europe ruled. When it finally ground to a halt in 1918 (it didn’t really end — WWII was the second chapter of the same war), the world had changed beyond recognition. The European monarchies were gone. A generation of men had been slaughtered; the death toll was beyond belief. The callous indifference to loss of life by those in command remains incomprehensible.

More than 9 million men were killed in battle. This does not include collateral damage to non-combatants and death by disease or starvation. It paved the way for major political upheaval throughout the world.

Says the movie at the beginning: “The principal statements made by the historical characters in this film are based on documentary evidence, and the words of the songs are those sung by the troops during the First World War.”

The first World War could be called an orchestrated, organized international effort to murder a generation of men. They did a good job.

The statements of the historical characters — all lodged a safe distance from the fighting — are ludicrous. General Haig, looking at the staggering loss of life on both sides, really said: “in the end, the Germans will have 5,000 men and we will have 10,000, so we will have won.”? He said it. And meant it.

The arrival of the Americans and their takeover of the endless war — bringing it to a conclusion while there was still something left to save — is a great cinematic moment. I wonder how long it would have gone on without American involvement? Would Europe exist or would it all be a wasteland?

The war is told with music and dancing. Songs mixed with pithy comments from generals, kings, Kaisers and soldiers. It’s a long movie — 144 minutes — and I can promise you that you will have a far better and more visceral understanding of this war and what those little red poppies the Veterans organizations give out (do they still do that?) to commemorate the war to end all wars. Until the next war. And the one after that.

The music is ghastly, funny, catchy. The movie is out of print. It was only in print for a couple of months. I had been looking for it for a long time and was thrilled to snag a copy. A few copies are still available through Amazon. If you are a history buff and love great movies, grab one.

Great directing, biting sarcastic humor, terrific music and informative, this movie is in a category all by itself. It was unavailable for more than 20 years. You won’t be disappointed and you won’t forget it. In the 45 years since I first saw it, I haven’t forgotten it.


From Amazon.com:

Richard Attenborough’s directorial début was this musical satire that deftly skewers the events of World War I — including the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, a Christmastime encounter between German and British forces, and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles — by portraying them as absurd amusement park attractions. All-star cast includes Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Maggie Smith, Vanessa Redgrave, Dirk Bogarde, Ralph Richardson; look quickly for Jane Seymour in her screen début.

144 min. Widescreen (Enhanced); English Dolby Digital mono; Subtitles: English; audio commentary by Attenborough; “making of” documentary.

NOTE: As of a couple of days ago, there were 11 copies remaining.

THE OLYMPUS OM-D E-M10 — REVIEW

Marilyn Armstrong:

An excellent review of a camera I hope to buy. Superb technology at a fair price. Olympus. My favorite cameras.

Originally posted on atmtx photo blog:

Olympus OM-D E-M10 with 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 EZ lens

Olympus OM-D E-M10 with 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 EZ lens

Do you want a more detailed review? Please continue reading.

I like to start by thanking Charles from Olympus for letting me use the camera for an extended period. I shot this camera on many occasions and have even blogged about it couple of times (here and here), several months ago. If you read those early posts, you know that I often shot the E-M10 alongside my Fujifilm X100S that I purchased around the same time.

By almost every measure, the Olympus E-M10 is superior to the Fuji X100S. It focuses faster, the EVF works better, it’s more flexible and it has interchangeable lenses. I’ll give the Fuji the edge for high ISO quality and it’s probably a bit sharper. However, I’m splitting hairs here. For most people, you won’t notice a difference. Color wise, they both have their advantages…

View original 3,304 more words

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ANOTHER ONE JUST LIKE THE OTHER ONE: PANASONIC LUMIX DMC ZS-25

Panasonic Lumix DMC ZS -25

Panasonic Lumix DMC ZS -25

I had no intention of buying a camera. I wasn’t looking for myself. Someone else was looking for a camera and I was just doing a little research.When Adorama popped up with a refurbished Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS-25 16.1 MP for under $100, I said “wow.” (There were only two at that price and both have been sold.)

Lazy daisy

Lazy daisy

It came with a Sony 16GB SDHC card and a cute little case (original from Panasonic). It is not new, though it certainly looks and feels new. It’s refurbished by Panasonic and comes with a new camera warranty. Resistance was futile.

I have a legitimate excuse. No jury would convict me.

Day lily, back lit

Day lily, back-lit

My “go everywhere” camera has been the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS-19 and the ZS-25 is essentially the same camera, with a higher resolution. My old camera has a nasty dent on the lens where I gave it a whack about a month ago. So far, it has been okay, but hitting a lens hard enough to dent its case has inevitable repercussions. It doesn’t owe me anything.

The ZS-25 uses the batteries and charger I already own. It’s the same size as its predecessor. So, of course I bought it. Then I had to do a little test drive.

Japanese maple and sunlight

Japanese maple and sunlight

Although the specs make it seem they are the same camera, they are not.

The Leica lens has the same zoom (20X). Both old and new lens are F3.3-F6.4. But the depth of field is different. It’s noticeably shallower working close on the ZS-25 and it has a more attractive bokeh. The color is true — less green, more neutral. It focuses faster and recycles much faster. All useful improvements.

The menus have been simplified and it is noticeably easier to find the functions I use. I like the streamlined controls, too, though I miss the on/off switch. It’s now a button, like every other camera. The view screen has the same specs, but because you can adjust it for varying light conditions, it seems brighter and sharper.

My last red lily

My last red lily

The little ZS-19 has performed yeoman’s service for me. I’ve carried it with me everywhere for two years. It has shot more frames than the rest of my cameras combined.

I am pleased to be able to continue using essentially the same piece of equipment. It suits me well. Compact and light, good lens. Not the longest super-zoom available, but long enough — and wide enough — for most purposes.

My ZS-19 has been a very satisfactory camera and its granddaughter, the ZS-25, seems likely to be equally satisfying. I’m more than pleased.

Camera Effective Pixels 16.1 Megapixels
Sensor Size / Total Pixels / Filter 1/2.33-inch High Sensitivity MOS Sensor / 17.5 Total Megapixels / Primary Color Filter
Lens LEICA DC VARIO-ELMAR / 12 elements in 10 groups / (3 Aspherical Lenses / 6 Aspherical surfaces / 2 ED Lens)
Aperture F3.3 – 6.4 / Multistage Iris Diaphragm (F3.3 – 8.0(W), F6.4 – 8.0(T))
Optical Zoom 20x
Focal Length f=4.3 – 86.0mm (24 – 480mm in 35mm equiv.) / (28-560mm in 35mm equiv. in video recording)
Extra Optical Zoom (EZ) 25.3x (4:3 / 10M), 30.0x (4:3 / 7M), 36.0x (4:3 / 5M), 45.0x (under 3M)
Intelligent Zoom 40x

NOTHING SAYS INDEPENDENCE DAY LIKE ARTILLERY

Yankee Doodle Dandy

It’s the 4th of July. Happy Birthday America!

Hurricane Arthur (spirit of Arthur Fiedler?) changed the schedule. With the hurricane heading up the coast and thunder and lightning racing in from the west, the festivities were moved up by 24 hours. The fireworks went on early, barely ahead of the weather. WBZ didn’t have all their cameras ready and had to show the first half of the display from the helicopter cams. After a while, the rest of the cameras came on and it was even better than last year.

The live 1812 Overture was preempted by a massive lightning storm. Instead, WBZ broadcast a taped version (dress rehearsal?). Which was fine.

For the historically challenged, our Guv (Deval Patrick) offered up some history, what the music is about. NOT our War of 1812. The war going on across the pond. Napoleon. Russia. I think this was the first time I’ve seen them do that, so everyone got a bit of remedial European history.

No place does Independence Day like Boston. It’s our holiday. The rest of the country is a Johnny-Come-Lately. It happened here. The Declaration of Independence. The battles of Lexington and Concord.

Boston knows how to hold a party … and let’s not forget the howitzers, the most important instruments in the 1812 Overture. Nothing says independence day like artillery.

HatchShell2013

When we lived in Boston, we could see the fireworks and hear the concert from our balcony in Charles River Park. It was one of the perks of living in Boston. If we wanted to get closer, we could stroll a few hundred yards west enjoy the party from the Arthur Fiedler footbridge over the Charles.

It was the best view in town. Watching it on television is okay too, now that we live in the country and getting into town is out of the question. Still, being there was the best.

bostonfireworks2013-2

Boston has had a pretty good year. Nothing awful — other than the appalling collapse of our World Champion Red Sox — happened. Even more reason for us to get together and have a gigantic party to celebrate America’s birthday. The rain has put (ahem) a bit of a damper on it, but we’re adaptable.

1997 fireworks on the charles

Now it’s time to watch Yankee Doodle Dandy again. We always watch it. It’s part of our personal celebration of being American.

When Garry and I were growing up in New York, the old Channel 9 had Million Dollar Movie. It was on not only every day, but several times a day and it played the same movies for a full week. The theme for the show was “Tara’s Theme” from Gone With the Wind. I had never seen GWTW, so when I saw it for the first time, I said “Hey, that’s the theme for Million Dollar Movie.”

I wasn’t allowed to watch TV on school nights and even then, only for a couple of hours on Friday and Saturday night. But, if I was home sick, I got to watch all the television I wanted. Better yet, I got to watch upstairs in my parents bedroom. The television was black and white (as were all televisions then). I don’t know if color TVs had been invented, but if they had been, no one I knew had one.

Channel 9 with its Million Dollar Movie was the movie channel, so whatever they were playing, I saw it a lot. They didn’t have a large repertoire. Odds were good if you got sick twice, you’d see the same movie both weeks.

Thus “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” the great James Cagney docu-musical was engraved in my brain. I believe that during at least three sick weeks (tonsillitis was my nemesis), I watched it repeatedly until I knew every word, every move, every song — except for the pieces the station randomly removed to make room for commercials.

No one danced like Cagney. No one had that special energy! Believe it or not, I never saw any other Cagney movie until One, Two, Three came out many years later.

Tonight, we’ll watch James Cagney dance down the steps in the White House. We always replay it half a dozen times. Can’t get enough of it.

In case you feel the same way, I’ve included it so you can replay it as many times as you want. Cagney won his only Oscar for this performance. I never knew he played gangsters until many years later. Million Dollar Movie didn’t play gangster movies.

Only one questions remains unanswered through the years. How come they didn’t film it in color? Does anyone have a sensible answer to that?

FOREVER KNIGHT – A VAMPIRE COP IN TORONTO

I discovered Forever Knight when it was in reruns on the Sci Fi channel. It was showing around 2 in the morning. Garry was working the dawn patrol and had already left for work by the time the show came on. I was working from home, allowing me to sometimes see my husband before he was off to work … and indulge my taste for weird TV shows you can only see in the middle of the night.

forever_knight_2009

I became an addict. I needed my knightly fix. They were showing season two when I found the show. I didn’t see the first season until I bought the DVDs (used) on Amazon. We watched them last winter when the ice and snow locked us into the house. It proved a good antidote to cabin fever.

How cool can a cop show be? This one is extremely cool. A vampire, repenting of his formerly evil ways, joins the Toronto police department. How does he get around the whole “vampires can’t be in the sun” business? Not to mention they “only drink blood” thing?

He has this big old American car with a huge trunk in which he can hide in a “sun” emergency. Drinks cow’s blood. Works the night shift. Invents a massive allergy to the sun to explain his inability to work days.

Nick Knight is more than 800 years old. A vampire working homicide. He is trying (with the help of Natalie, a lovely young coroner) to regain his humanity. Knight is not his name, of course. He was an actual knight in the 13th century when he became a vampire.

forever-knight-season1-cast1

The show ran from 1992 to 1996, though the pilot ran in 1989. The DVDs divide into three seasons and no, I don’t understand how they count seasons. There are 22 shows in the first season, 26 in the second, 22 in the third for a total of 70 episodes.

The original broadcast channel in North America was CBS — May 5,1992 to May 17, 1996. The show also ran in Germany, England and Australia (I don’t know if it was ever shown in Canada). It has been rerun in several places since including the Sci Fi channel here. The DVD sets originated in the US and Germany. The sets are different in length, and how they were edited. The German versions are longer and sexier. Mine came in boxes that say made in USA, but the DVDs were pressed in Germany. This link (in Wikipedia) gives a full list of episodes.

A cop show with a vampire as the lead detective? It isn’t just a guilty pleasure. It’s a good show and ahead of its time. And last, but not least, it’s witty and clever.

Geraint Wyn Davies plays Detective Nick Knight. He also co-wrote and directed many of the shows. Nigel Bennett is Lucien LaCroix, Knight’s maker and the weirdest overnight DJ in radio history. Deborah Duchêne plays Janette DuCharme, Nick’s sexy vampire “sister” and sometimes lover. Catherine Disher is Natalie Lambert, the police coroner and Nick’s sort-of love interest.

foreverknight3_nick

The acting is good. The scripts are coherent, thematic, often with a moral twist and some interesting philosophical speculations. And who would have guessed Toronto was crawling with vampires? Fortunately most of the show’s undead are surprisingly circumspect showing far more restraint than they have shown in their pasts, which are seen in flashback.

During the show’s final season, when the producers, director and cast knew they were not being renewed, they methodically kill off the entire cast. That third season is memorable. Fascinating. Unavailable.

Forever Knight Season 1 and Forever Knight Season 2 can be purchased via Amazon Instant Video. Season 3 is not — for the moment — available anywhere I know of. Netflix has some part of it on DVD, but I don’t have a DVD plan and they won’t let me search to find out which seasons they’ve got. I’m betting they rent it DVD by DVD. There are 5 or 6 DVDs per season with 5 or 6 episodes on each disc. I suspect they don’t have all three seasons.

They may have to call me to get the final season because I own all three seasons, having bought the last known copy of season three. It was used and I’d been looking for it for years. I thought it was too expensive and was reluctant to pay the money but eventually realized it was now or never. When there’s only one of something, you don’t have a lot of bargaining power.

As Garry and I have been watching our way through the series, I think it may have been a bargain after all. It’s a lot of entertainment … a lot of bang for the bucks.

Forever_Knight__Nick_x_Janette_by_Lioncourt87

It’s fun. Well-written. Original, Unique. Sexy. Creative. It won’t gross you out with gallons of blood and gore but I love it when Nick’s eyes glow orange or green, depending on circumstance. I like the music and Toronto is a lovely city.

I recommend Forever Knight, though I’m not sure what you can do about season three. You might have to come to my house and watch it with us.

10 MOVIES OF WHICH I NEVER TIRE

These are my favorites. They aren’t all my favorites, but they represent a good chunk of the films I want to watch again. And again. The most obvious element they share are brilliant scripts.

For me, first and foremost, it’s always about the words. I give extra points for wit and humor, even more points for inside jokes, cleverness, and quotable dialogue. All of these movies have these qualities. I also give extra credit for a great score and amazing cinematography and all of these have those elements too.

I have watched each of these many times. I keep discovering new things to love about them. Of course, there are plenty of other movies I love and not enough space or time for me to write about them all.

I guarantee, you can’t go wrong with any of these ten great ones.


 

THE LION IN WINTER

The Lion in Winter (1968 film)

The Lion in Winter (1968 film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Awesome performances by everyone, from Hepburn and O’Toole, to Anthony Hopkins in his first screen role. Wonderful script and matchless screen chemistry. It’s not accurate history … but the interaction of the members of the family is surprisingly close if you want to examine only the emotional content. In the end, it’s all about the performances.

From top to bottom, every performance is extraordinary. Hepburn got an Oscar, one of three wins for the film. Many more nominations plus three Golden Globes. All well-deserved.

THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY

Cover of "The Americanization of Emily"

Paddy Chayevsky‘s script is among the best movie scripts of all time. Add superb performances by James Garner and Julie Andrews in her first dramatic role. The whole movie would be worth it just for Garner’s monologue on war. But there’s so much more. It’s funny, sharp, downright brilliant.

The cast knew they’d never have a better job. All of them list this movie as the favorite or as one of the top one or two of their professional lives. Roles like this don’t come along often in any actor’s career. The actors showed their appreciation by working their hearts out. Everyone is at the top of his or her game.

TOMBSTONE

This is one of those movies that I like better each time I watch it … and I watch it often. We can recite dialogue with it. It’s got everything you want a western to have: passion, revenge, violence, humor and brilliant cinematography. It’s Val Kilmer’s best performance and arguably Kurt Russell’s shining moment.

This is my go to movie if I need a revenge and violence fix. It manages to have a satisfying body count without the gore. I like that in a movie.

A MIGHTY WIND

Maybe it isn’t one of the all time greatest films, but reminds me of some of the best of times in my life as well as music I dearly love.

It’s funny, often laugh-out-loud hilarious, a loving parody. It’s a warm-hearted and nostalgic look at a time many of us look back on with great affection. The music manages to be humorous and good — a difficult act to pull off.

CASABLANCA

Not the most original choice, but it’s so good and it has worn well despite the years. We saw it on the big screen not long ago. Wonderful. It’s pure mythology, but it’s the way we wish it had been. I need heroes.

Three Oscar wins — Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay plus nominations for just about every member of the cast. Seeing it on the big screen was like seeing it for the first time and gave me an even better appreciation of the brilliant script.

BLAZING SADDLES

It’s hard to pick only one Mel Brooks movie, but if I have to choose, this is it.

It was a tough choice. “Young Frankenstein,” “High Anxiety,” and “History of the World, Part I” are right up there too. “Blazing Saddles” wins because it’s got some of the all-time great movie lines. That’s HEDLEY Lamar!

STARMAN

Science fiction movies usually disappoint me because they aren’t science fiction, but westerns in space using spacecraft for horses, featuring millions of dollars of special effects, but no script. This is all acting. A fine script, wonderful performances, romantic, touching and believable. A great performance by Jeff Bridges. And I almost forgot to mention the haunting score.

It’s the best kind of science fiction … concept and character based. Unforgettable. It’s by far the best movie John Carpenter ever made and ranks as one of the best science fiction movies ever made by anyone.

THE THREE AND FOUR MUSKETEERS (1973 – 1974)

I know they were issued as two movies, but they were filmed as one. The stars of the film(s) sued the studios since they had only been paid for one movie, and they won. Nonetheless, both movies play like a single film in two parts. You can’t watch one without the other. They keep remaking it, but none of the others come near this version. It’s fast, funny, and surprisingly true to the books.

Dumas would have been pleased. I love the sword fights. I used to fence in college, and this has some of the best choreographed fencing I’ve ever seen. It’s not the elegant fencing you usually see, but brawling — the way men really fought — not to get points for good form, but to win without getting sliced up.

THE SEVENTH SEAL

Ingmar-Bergman-The-Seventh-Seal-Criterion-Collection-Blu-Ray-Disc-1080p-Screencapture-1920x1080-001

Not everyone is quite as enthralled with the 14th century as I am. The Black Death, the split papacy, the brigands, the inflation, the complete depopulation of regions … and the crazed religious fervor that gripped the western world is not everyone’s idea of a fun movie.

And I’m not a big fan of Ingmar Bergman. I admire his work, but mostly find it too intense and depressing. This is the exception. Probably it’s the history buff in me, but better than any other movie I’ve ever seen (except for the obscure “A Walk With Love and Death”), it portrays the mood and feeling of this strange century that was the end of everything and the beginning of everything else.

The black and white photography is breathtaking, the performances (yes, the movie is in Swedish with subtitles — deal with it) are wonderful. The Knight is playing chess with death every night and as long as he keeps playing and doesn’t lose, his little band will survive.

If you haven’t seen it and aren’t completely allergic to foreign movies with subtitles … and especially if you have a taste for medieval history, you should see it.

It’s one of just a handful of movies about which Garry and I disagree. He doesn’t argue about its quality. It’s just too dark for his taste. Which considering some of the movies he loves, that seems a bit out of character. Every once in a while he will watch it with me. I keep hoping he’ll change his mind.

OH! WHAT A LOVELY WAR

OH WHAT A LOVELY WARI saw “Oh! What a Lovely War” in the theater when it was released in 1969 and never forgot it. Based on the long-running British stage production, it’s World War I – in song, dance and irony. Its catchy score sticks in your brain. The songs are those sung by the troop during that long war. The cast includes everyone who was anyone in British stage or screen during the 1960s. The credits are a who’s-who of English actors.

Says the movie at the beginning: “The principal statements made by the historical characters in this film are based on documentary evidence, and the words of the songs are those sung by the troops during the First World War.”

Did General Haig, when looking at the staggering loss of life on both sides, really say: “in the end, the Germans will have 5,000 men and we will have 10,000, so we will have won.”? Apparently he not only said it, he meant it.

The war is told with music and dancing. Songs are mixed with pithy comments by generals, kings, Kaisers and occasionally, soldiers. It’s a long movie — 144 minutes — and I can promise you that you will have a far better and more visceral understanding of World War I after watching it … even if you already know your history. It was the war to end all wars. Until the next war. And the one after that.

GARRY’S FAVORITE FILMS

Picking just a few movies as favorites is always tricky. There are so many others that could just as easily be on this list. But … sometimes one must choose, so here we go:


 The Searchers

I love westerns. This may be the best ever made and it’s Duke Wayne’s finest performance. My director idol, John Ford, said of his masterpiece, “It’ll do”.

Casablanca

Everyone’s go-to movie easily could be number one. I remember chatting with Julius Epstein, one of the co-screenwriters, who told me how crazy it was on the set with revised scripts rushed in every day as they set up shots.

Epstein said Bogie was never fazed and usually nailed his lines on the first take. Director Michael Curtiz, on the other hand, was very “upset”, according to Epstein.

The Best Years of our Lives

Wonderful film but, admittedly, a sentimental choice here. The very FIRST film I ever saw at a movie theatre.

It was 1946. My Dad had just returned from the war. He was dressed in his uniform. He seemed ten feet tall and very heroic. The theme of the movie, GI’s trying to cope with post-war life, is timeless. Little did I know that it would be an issue in my family.

The Magnificent Seven

Another great western. I saw it numerous times when it opened in 1960. I know all the lines.

Cover of "The Magnificent Seven (Special ...

Cover of The Magnificent Seven (Special Edition)

The cast of then relatively unknown actors was terrific. Steve McQueen was my movie hero — next to Duke Wayne. I even tried to dress like McQueen. Didn’t quite work out. Years later, I had a sit down chat with James Coburn who related how wild things were during the shooting of “Seven”. He told me how McQueen used to drive the nominal star, Yul Brynner, crazy with upstaging bits of business. Charles Bronson was described as “one very quiet and strange dude”. Coburn admitted everyone was sneaking in “bits” trying to outdo each other.

The Great Escape

Think “The Magnificent Seven” as a World War two prison escape war movie instead of a western. James Coburn said he marvelled at how director John Sturges kept control of the “boys”, including several of the “Magnificent Seven” cast members.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t single out Elmer Bernstein’s distinctive musical score in both films. Those scores or “themes” would achieve their own celebrity over the years.

All About Eve

I’ve always loved this one!! The cast, acting, dialogue, and script are superb. It’s about the theater world. But anyone who’s had a professional life in the public eye can relate to the characters and the plot. Bette Davis was at the top of her game (role was originally slated for Claudette Colbert who had to pass).

Cover of "All About Eve (Two-Disc Special...

Cover via Amazon

The wonderful supporting cast included Anne Baxter, Celeste Holm, Gary Merrill, Gregory Ratoff, Hugh Marlowe, Thelma Ritter, a young Marilyn Monroe and the estimable George Sanders in his career-defining role. I shared Bloody Mary’s with Gary Merrill when he was in Boston (that’s another story) and had me laughing about life on the set of “All About Eve”. He and Ms. Davis fell in love while making “Eve”. However, the  theatrics within the theatrics were something to behold, Merrill recalled. Everyone was trying to upstage everyone else but nobody upstaged Bette Davis. Gary Merrill grinned as he refilled my drink. And, George Sanders, Merrill said, was George Sanders on and off camera.

Yankee Doodle Dandy

Cover of "Yankee Doodle Dandy (Two-Disc S...

Cover via Amazon

Oh, how I adore this movie and WHY didn’t they make it in color?? Had the great fortune to meet James “Call me Jimmy” Cagney in the early 70’s on Martha’s Vineyard. I was awestruck. He was very kind. Seems he had caught my work as a TV news reporter and just wanted to say he liked what he saw. Over coffee, we talked about the joys of doing what we loved and the frustration of dealing with “suits” or executives. I mostly just listened. He talked about the making of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and how, clearly, that was his personal favorite “job” in his long career. He was glad to do the music biopic and show off his dancing chops which he’d always had but were rarely used in previous films. He credited his unusual dance movements to mannerisms of his old street pals in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen where he grew up.

My favorite scene in “Yankee Doodle Dandy” is near the end where Cagney/Cohan, dances down the stairs at the White House.

My wife Marilyn and I usually replay this scene three, four, five times whenever we watch the film.

Shane

Another classic western. Alan Ladd’s shining hour and another gem in director George Steven’s illustrious career. The photography and editing are wonderful. Victor Young’s music is evocative. Perhaps my favorite sequence is the burial of “Reb”. The dialogue is muted and the plaintive harmonica music,  “Dixie” and then “Taps” is contrasted with Reb’s dog softly wailing over the grave and two youngsters nearby — oblivious to the tragedy — playing with a horse. The continuous scene then pans down to a long shot of the nearby town ending with an ominous dirge. Powerful, poetic stuff!!

The final scene of Shane — slightly slumped in saddle — riding away to the mountains with the young boy calling after him is the stuff of movie legend.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Another John Ford-John Wayne classic. This is Ford near the end of his career. It’s his homage to the ending of the west as he’s depicted it for most of his professional life, dating back to silent films. Shot in black and white on a small budget, Ford is more concerned about characters than action.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Duke Wayne and Jimmy Stewart, teamed for the first time, are the perfect choices, albeit a little long in the teeth, to play the contrasting leads. Wayne is the rough tough cowman. Stewart is the sensitive lawyer who wants to see justice meted out by the court rather than Wayne’s six-shooter. Lee Marvin’s “Liberty Valance” borders on parody but that’s okay.

Great supporting cast including Edmond O’Brien, Vera Miles, Andy Devine, Lee van Cleef, Strother Martin and Woody Strode (why did they have to call him “Boy” in one scene). The “print the legend” theme is so ironic and haunting. Ford is trying to break his habit of printing the legend but the public doesn’t want the facts.

The haunting theme at the end of “Liberty Valance” is the same mournful theme Ford used 25 years earlier in “Young Mr. Lincoln”.

The Quiet Man

Ford and Wayne again — this time in Ireland. Ford’s tribute to his birth place. Wonderful photography!! The green hills and pastures of Ireland never looked lovelier. Just watch out for the sheep dung. The music is memorable. “Wild Colonial Boy” pub sequence is pure John Ford. The Wayne-McLagen epic fight is in Hollywood’s hall of Fame.

Marilyn and I visited Cong and the remnants of “The Quiet Man’s” cabin during our honeymoon in Ireland in 1990. That’s when we found out that — guess who — has Irish roots.

Will Penny

Another western and a relatively unheralded film. It’s Charlton Heston’s realistic take on the life of an aging cow puncher. Had the genuine pleasure to “hang out” with “Chuck” on several occasions and he was a very nice, down to earth guy (just ask Marilyn). This was the pre-NRA Heston. Anyway, during one of our sit-downs, he talked about making “Will Penny” as a personal project.

He had done several traditional westerns and wanted to do one that was authentic and free of Hollywood glamour and happy endings. “Will Penny” is perhaps Heston’s best acting work. It is understated with Heston showing a range of emotion not usually apparent in his more typical epic screen characters.

S.O.B.

Terrific Blake Edwards film that angered Hollywood insiders — with good reason. Again, if you’ve had a professional career in the public eye, you will absolutely love this movie. You know these people. You’ve worked with and for these people. William Holden’s talk to his depression-ridden pal was all too real and could easily have been Holden’s own eulogy.

Most of the ensemble star cast, plus Edwards, stopped in Boston to promote the movie. The behind the scenes arm-twisting coming out of Hollywood was trying to kill the film. On that memorable Saturday morning, I was with only one or two other reporters (who also left after 5 minutes or so to chase more meaningful stories), listening to William Holden (a few sheets to the wind), Robert Preston, Craig (Peter Gunn) Stevens, Loretta Swit, Blake Edwards and others chat about making “S.O.B.”. It sounded more like a “Bitch session” than a movie promotion. In fact, it sounded very familiar to me.


There are so many other films on my list. “To Kill A Mockingbird”. Atticus, I believe, was rated the most popular movie hero in a recent poll. Then and now, “Mockingbird” resonates on so many levels. The movie does Harper Lee’s wonderful book full justice. That, alone, is a miracle.

There are so many favorite films and stars about which I also have a few personal “war stories” or anecdotes. Musicals, romance, comedies. “So many movies, so little time” takes on new meaning. All great movies. Just not the only great movies.

ALL YOU ZOMBIES, ROBERT HEINLEIN

all you zombiesTime travel makes my brain go “eek.” This is a compliment. Not many things make my brain do back flips and somersaults. Time travel is an impossible concept I cannot understand because it is inherently incomprehensible. Therefore, I love it.

This review contains spoilers, so if you’ve never read this, you might want to stop now and be surprised by the story.

I first read this story by Robert Heinlein long ago as part of a compilation of his classic short stories. After all these years, it remains on the top of the heap of time travel tales. I couldn’t remember its title, so it took me a while to find it. It is called “All You Zombies.”

In a strange infinite loop, a baby girl is mysteriously dropped off at an orphanage in Cleveland in 1945. “Jane” grows up lonely and dejected, not knowing who her parents are, until one day in 1963 she is strangely attracted to a drifter. She has a brief passionate relationship with him and becomes pregnant.

RobertHeinleinThe stranger disappears.

During a weird and complicated birthing, Jane’s doctors discover she actually has two complete sets of sex organs. With her life on the line, the doctors change her from female to male. Jane is now a man. Then …. a mysterious stranger kidnaps her baby leaving Jane a man and childless.

Depressed, lost, he becomes a drunk and a drifter. He eventually, meets a young woman in a bar, who he impregnates during a brief affair. The story contains even more complexities, involving the Time Corps and a bartender. Throughout, everything continues moving forward and backward in time.

Read it, and get your own brain in a twist.

The story is a paradox, impossible yet structured with its own internal logic that you can neither reject nor accept. At which point, my brain goes “Eek!!” Jane is everyone. Everyone is Jane. She is her family: tree, trunk, branches and roots. I found this amazing diagram of the story. I do not know where it originated and I would love to credit whoever drew it in the first place. Tree of lives The circular logic combined with the impossibility of the sequence where the same person is mother, father and child forever in an infinite loop — the snake eating its tail — is deliciously mind-blowing. You can get it for your Kindle from Amazon for $1.25, or as part of an anthology of Heinlein short stories. There are several listed on Amazon, new and used.

Heinlein did much of his most creative writing in these early short stories. His later novels are better known today, especially Stranger In a Strange Land. The short stories have gotten a bit lost in time but are well worth your time. Most were written for the science fiction fanzines – newsprint magazines that were the primary outlets for sci fi until the genre broke into mainstream literature in the 1960s. Not only Heinlein, but all the classic great science fiction authors started their careers writing for the fanzines.

I’ve read many hundreds of time travel books and stories over more than 50 years of loving science fiction. But this one, this story, has stuck firmly in my brain as the most perfect paradox where the past, present and future come together in a perfect conundrum.

All You Zombies is my favorite for good reason. It’s unforgettable. I promise you will never forget it either.

Video

OH! WHAT A LOVELY WAR – REVIEW WITH VIDEO AND MUSIC

OH! WHAT A LOVELY WAR

Directed by Richard Attenborough (his directorial début)

OH WHAT A LOVELY WAR

I saw “Oh! What a Lovely War” when it was released in 1969 and never forgot it. Based on the long-running British stage production, it’s World War I — in song, dance and irony. Its catchy score sticks in your brain. The songs are those sung by the troop during that long war. The cast includes everyone who was anyone in British stage or screen during the 1960s. The credits were a veritable who’s-who of English actors.

World War I is hard to understand, even when you study it. No matter how many books I read, I’m not sure I do or will. Its causes are rooted in old world grudges that make no sense to Americans.

So many ancient hatreds — thousands of years of scores to be settled.

My mother summed it: “Everyone was armed to the teeth. They wanted war. They just needed an excuse. Europe was a giant bomb waiting for someone to light a match.”

Hers may be as good an answer as any other. When the war began, it was the old world. The crowned heads of Europe ruled. When it finally ground to a halt in 1918 (it didn’t really end — WWII was the second chapter of the same war), the world had changed beyond recognition. The European monarchies were gone. A generation of men had been slaughtered; the death toll was beyond belief. The callous indifference to loss of life by those in command remains incomprehensible.

More than 9 million men were killed in battle. This does not include collateral damage to non-combatants and death by disease and starvation. It remains one of the deadliest conflicts in human history, paving the way for major political upheaval and revolution in many of the nations who fought.

You can’t make this stuff up.

Says the movie at the beginning: “The principal statements made by the historical characters in this film are based on documentary evidence, and the words of the songs are those sung by the troops during the First World War.”

The first World War could well be categorized as an orchestrated, organized international effort to murder an entire generation and they did a damned good job of it. The absurd statements and dialogue of the historical characters, all safely lodged a safe distance from actual fighting, sound ludicrous.

Did General Haig, when looking at the staggering loss of life on both sides, really say: “in the end, the Germans will have 5,000 men and we will have 10,000, so we will have won.”? Apparently he said it. And meant it.

The arrival of the Americans and their takeover of the endless war — and bringing it to a conclusion while there was still something left to preserve — is a great moment. I wonder how long it would have gone on without American involvement? Would they still be fighting it today? Would Europe even exist or would it all be a wasteland?

The war is told with music and dancing. Songs are mixed with pithy comments by generals, kings, Kaisers and occasionally, soldiers. It’s a long movie — 144 minutes — and I can promise you that you will have a far better and more visceral understanding of this war and the meaning of those little red poppies the Veterans organizations give out (do they still do that?) to commemorate the war to end all wars. Until the next war. And the one after that.

The music is ghastly, funny and catchy. The movie is out of print. It was only in print for a couple of months. I had been looking for it for a long time and was thrilled to snag a copy. A few copies are still available through Amazon. If you are a history buff and also love great movies, grab one before they disappear. Over the Memorial Day weekend, one of the movie channels, usually it’s on Encore but sometimes TCM runs it.

Great directing, biting sarcastic humor, terrific music and surprisingly informative, this motion picture is in a category all by itself. It was unavailable for more than 20 years. You will not be disappointed and you will never forget it. In the 45 years since I first saw it, I never forgot it.


From Amazon.com:

Richard Attenborough’s directorial début was this musical satire that deftly skewers the events of World War I — including the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, a Christmastime encounter between German and British forces, and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles — by portraying them as absurd amusement park attractions. All-star cast includes Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Maggie Smith, Vanessa Redgrave, Dirk Bogarde, Ralph Richardson; look quickly for Jane Seymour in her screen début.

144 min. Widescreen (Enhanced); English Dolby Digital mono; Subtitles: English; audio commentary by Attenborough; “making of” documentary.

NOTE: This title is out of print. Limit ONE per customer.

TRUE GLORY: THE REAL WAR – FROM D-DAY TO V-E DAY

Cover of "The True Glory - From D-Day to ...

From the Imperial War Museum Official Collection

The True Glory: From D-Day to V-E Day (1945)

The movie’s title is taken from a letter of Sir Francis Drake “There must be a beginning of any great matter, but the continuing unto the end until it be thoroughly finished yields the True Glory.”

Question: Which President won an Oscar?

Answer: No, not Ronald Reagan. The 1945 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature went to its uncredited producer, General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Eisenhower didn’t merely produce the movie. He also directed the Allied forces of Word War II, a feat which deserved its own Oscar. So we gave him the presidency. It was the best America had to offer.


A co-production of the US Office of War Information and the British Ministry of Information, The True Glory documents the victory on the Western Front, from the invasion at Normandy to the collapse of the Third Reich.

The officially credited director was Garson Kanin. British director Carol Reed was not officially credited, but is listed as director on IMDB and other sources. Paddy Chayefsky is the officially listed writer.

Other writers not officially credited are Harry Brown, Frank Harvey, Gerald Kersh, Saul Levitt, Arthur Macrae, Eric Maschwitz, Jenny Nicholson, Guy Trosper and Peter Ustinov. So many people were involved in this remarkable documentary — which received the Oscar for best documentary in 1945 — it’s impossible to list them all.

General Eisenhower speaks with members of the ...

General Eisenhower speaks with members of the 101st Airborne Division on the evening of 5 June 1944 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The film was brilliantly edited down from more than 10 million feet of film taken by hundreds of war photographers, none of whom are credited.

The editing involved is extraordinary. During one long segment of film, there must have been thousands of cuts, each less than 2 seconds in length, most no more than one second long. That is a lot of splicing. It’s beautifully done, professional all the way.

You have likely seen many propaganda films from World War II. This isn’t one of them.

I’ve seen a lot of war movies. This is real war, not the Hollywood version.

English: Senior American military officials of...

Senior American military officials World War II.

The effects were not done with a computer. The bodies of the dead are the bodies of soldiers, not actors. The guns are firing ammunition, not special effects. The ships are on the seas. The aircraft, pilots, bombardiers are the real deal. The battles are life and death in real-time. It gave me the shivers.

As the movie progresses, there are maps so you can follow the progress of the various armies. It’s the first time I actually understood where the Battle of the Bulge took place and why it was called “the bulge.” It was like time travel for me, listening to Dwight D. Eisenhower. I grew up when Eisenhower was President. I remember his voice as the voice of the president of my childhood.

Perhaps it’s a good moment to ponder whether or not Eisenhower displayed his Oscar in the White House. My guess is, he didn’t. After you’ve been commander-in-chief of the Allied forces for a world war, the Oscar isn’t as big a deal as it might be for someone else.

English: Gen. of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower...

If you have not seen this movie and you have an interest in World War II, you should see it. It’s remarkable. It is now available on a 2-disc DVD. The set includes the European war, the Italian campaign and the battles in the Pacific.

There are many good movies about the war, but this set of documentaries has the most remarkable footage. Seeing it without any Hollywood manufactured footage is seeing it for the first time.

This is not a movie about the war. This movie is the war.

JIM BUTCHER: COLD DAYS

skin game jim butcherJim Butcher’s new Harry Dresden adventure will be out in a few days. It’s been a long wait, but it’s nearly over. Thought it might be a good time to remember the last book — which was one of my favorites and which I just reread to remind myself of what came before, the better to enjoy the new book: The Skin Game.


It was a long wait between books last time too. All I could do was wait, which I did with the proverbial bated breath. I love Harry Dresden’s world and with Harry, Chicago’s resident wizard. Look him up. He’s in the Yellow Pages. I read Cold Days on Kindle then listened to the audiobook.

James Marsters is a great narrator, the voice of Harry Dresden. One of the books used a different narrator and fans were seriously upset. I wasn’t as bothered as some others, but I prefer Marsters. Moving to this from Ghost Story where Harry was neither alive nor dead was rough for Harry fans. In Cold Days, Harry is back, in the flesh. Less careless of life having lost it … but as Winter Knight, he is powerful in new ways. Just as well because his foes are stronger than ever and aren’t going away

Cold Days is satisfying. Harry gets pulverized, attracting violence like iron shavings to a magnet. I am consoled knowing Harry will survive what would kill an ordinary mortal. He has already survived death itself. Earlier books ended with more resolution than these last few books. Now, each book is an episode in a continuing story line heading toward a Dresdenesque apocalypse.

Jim Butcher extracts Harry from impossible predicaments in which he faces overwhelming odds, then adroitly weaves these events into the storyline, taking Harry and the series into the next book. He wastes nothing. No phenomenon is accidental. Everything is part of a giant jigsaw puzzle, a piece of a picture to be finally revealed.

My world has more than enough evil to keep an army of wizards busy, but the evil in my reality consists largely of grey bureaucrats, corporate executives and smarmy politicians. Fighting them is like trying to punch a hole in jello. You can’t beat them; they have no substance. In Jim Butcher’s world, the bad guys are solid, big, and seriously bad-ass. Harry fights evil for me. He takes his lumps and then some, but he’s out there battling for justice and good, even when it seems he’s taken the wrong turn.

Despite appearances, Harry is never bad. He is stubborn, overly wedded to his own opinions. He does not heed advice which has cost him dearly. He persists in believing he knows best, not only for himself, but for friends and is taken aback when friends object. Sooner or later, he will get the point. He is changing. He is painfully aware of his mortality and fragility. He knows he’s made terrible mistakes he can never set right. He’s become more a planner, less inclined to charge headlong into danger unless it is the only possible course. Mindless violence is no longer his default setting.

This is good. There are six more books to come. Time to work out the unfinished relationships. Harry’s awesome world is my metaphysical escape from the life’s woes. Harry’s woes are much  more entertaining than mine. Maybe in my next incarnation I will have magic.

Including spine

Don’t miss this installment — and don’t  read the new book until you’ve read at least a few of the earlier episode (all of them is better!). It’s rich, complex and I promise it will grab you and take you for a ride you won’t forget.

The Dresden Files:

THE LAST STAND (2013) – BEST MOVIE EVER STARRING A FORMER GOVERNOR

See on Scoop.itMovies From Mavens

Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Forest Whitaker, Johnny Knoxville, Rodrigo Santoro. Jaimie Alexander and lots of other people, this is absolutely the best movie ever made by a former governor of California. Or any former governor.

I’m not a very intellectual movie reviewer. That’s just as well, since there is nothing intellectual about this movie.

It’s pretty good. Lots of shooting. Blood spurting. Vicious bad guys. It has the grace to not take itself too seriously, with enough humorous moments and entirely predictable but nonetheless funny lines to make it easy to watch.

“I’m The Sheriff!” growls Arnold and by golly, he is, though Garry and I simultaneously pointed out that he used to be The Governor.

There are a lot of car chases … or maybe not really chases. More accurately, it is exceptionally good stunt driving. They actually did some stunts I’ve never seen before and I really thought I’d seen them all.

Plot? Oh, right. Plot. Okay. Think “High Noon” with a strong whiff of “Terminator.” Or any western movie where the sheriff stands up to some incredibly evil guys and whups their collective asses with the help of his faithful deputies and one old lady with a shot-gun. You’ll be glad to know that Arnold Schwarzenegger, senior citizen, ex-governor gets shot, stabbed and beat up, but walks away proudly in the end. Not into the sunset, but into the local diner. Irv’s Diner. Killing people and catching malevolent drug lords gives him an appetite. I’m just sorry I forgot to buy popcorn. It’s a beautiful, deeply touching, moment.

If you need a violence fix, this is a pretty good choice. It’s well made. Moves right along. Some great artillery and the aforementioned stunt driving.

Getting There Is Not Always Enough … Marilyn Armstrong

We didn’t get to ride this one.

Yesterday, we went to Busch Gardens. We did nothing, got wet, walked too much, came back exhausted, soggy and poorer. We seem to have absolutely impeccable timing for getting places at exactly the wrong time!

We didn’t get to ride this either.

We planned carefully and sensibly. We figured that if we went late in the day, it would be cooler and probably less crowded too. Logical right? I mean, the park‘s open until 10 at night, so getting there at 3:30 should leave us more than ample time to whatever we wanted and ride whatever we wanted.

After we finally got through the long walk to the park from the very closest parking lot, we decided to take the train ride that loops around the park. It would give us something of an orientation, an overview.

After that we were nearly slavering with anticipation, we headed down the long road to Apollo’s Chariot, the first of the 6 big, bigger and biggest, baddest roller coasters we intended to ride.

We were at the front of the line on the platform, ready to board the ride. Which is when the announcement came that the ride was closing due to weather issues.

Not this one either.

Weather. Mainly, lightning. Not to mention wind and rain. So we stood around a bit, milled around in confusion, then eventually headed back the long road to the rest of the park.

With great anticipation, we waited for a weather update. We were in a code orange, which is bad, but the next announcement was “Code Red,” which was much worse and actually closed everything, except shops.

Shortly thereafter, the sky opened up and a sheet of water fell out. We stood under an awning speculating — along with everyone else — whether or not there was any chance the park would reopen.

Also, didn’t ride this one.

It did not reopen.

We hauled ass back to Guest Relations, where they were very gracious about the whole thing and seemed genuinely sorry that we come from so far away, didn’t get to do anything except eat a pretzel and get soaked. They refunded half the money because our friends had to leave today and we took rain checks and will make another stab at it tomorrow. We would have gone today, but the weather report doesn’t look promising and I couldn’t deal with the same scenario two days running.

The best experience of the day? The electric scooter that you can rent and drive around the park. I loved it! It was way zippier than I thought it would be and fun, too. Unfortunately, by the time I got it, I was already over-tired and when we finally got back to the hotel, having stopped at the grocery store in between and then cooking dinner … we had barely enough strength to climb into bed and pass out.

Today, the humidity is 99% and thunder storms are likely in the afternoon, so we  are going to go tomorrow morning when hopefully, it won’t be raining because that really IS our last chance.

Talk about disappointing! Nice that Garry and I get another shot at it, but I so wanted to go with my friend too … but … well … it didn’t happen and if there’s one thing you cannot count on, it’s usually the weather.

They’ve left now and it’s very quiet and feels kind of empty. I’m trying not to be a bit down-hearted, but it’s difficult.

Tomorrow is another day, I hope.

VISITING MOCKINGBIRD’S WORLD WHILE WAITING FOR A FEW GREAT BOOKS

Recently, we watched To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) on Blu-ray. I bought it months ago and planned to watch it, but hadn’t gotten to it. After we settled in, we remembered why we love it.

It’s a great movie, a wonderful story. Brilliant acting. Gregory Peck in the defining role he chose for himself. In many way, he was Atticus Finch.

A rare movie in which all pieces fit. It never hits a false note. It takes its time. It’s about justice and injustice, racism, the legal system. It’s also about family and love, relationships, coming of age and learning the world is a bigger, better and worse place than you imagined.

Front CoverCoincidentally, my granddaughter was assigned to read the book. She thinks it’s boring, and though I don’t agree with her, I understand her world is far removed from the world of Mockingbird … so far she can’t relate to it. She’s coming into adulthood in a world where the President is Black, where her white grandma is married to a brown man and no one finds anything odd about this.

She’s part of the generation in which everything has been instant. You don’t have to read books to do research. You just Google it. There’s no time for books that move slowly in an unhurried world. Harper Lee wrote about a world without cell phones or email. People walked more often than they drove. Food grew in gardens.

The world was segregated and separated by class, religion, ethnicity. Compared to the world in Mockingbird, our sleepy little town is a metropolitan hub. Kaity cannot relate to that other world and has no patience for it. I understand why she feels the way she does, but I wish it were different.

I’ve read dozens or books during the past year, probably three-quarters of them for review … and the majority were awful.

These books would be considered “serious literature.” Serious seems to have become synonymous with boring, which is totally wrong.These books don’t seem to contain special meaning or lessons. Nothing happens except everyone is unhappy and as the books go on, they become unhappier.

Most are written well, if by “well” you mean good grammar and properly constructed sentences. They offer slices of lives we are glad we don’t live. Missing are plots, action, or any reason I — or you — would want to read them. The authors appear to be trying to do what Harper Lee did … recreate a world, a time, a place. But Harper Lee also had a story to tell. Things happened, events occurred. There were bad people, but good people, too. The story includes ugliness, but also characters worthy of admiration. Atticus Finch is a great man, a fighter for truth and justice. The world is a better place because he is in it.to-kill-a-mockingbird2_9855

The new authors don’t get it. They have forgotten a book is more than description. It needs to tell a story, to involve readers, to draw them in. If my granddaughter is finding To Kill A Mockingbird dull, it’s hard to imagine her enjoying any of these new books. They may describe a world she recognizes, but they are unlikely to lure her into wanting to partake of them.

It’s no wonder that the fastest growing segments of fiction are fantasy, mysteries, thrillers and so on. We have lost touch with the entertainment function of serious literature. If a book makes us think, teaches us, provides moral guidance, delves into serious issues, it should also make us laugh and cry, take us out of our ordinary lives. The magic of any good book is that it lets us become part of other lives and see the world through their eyes.

Call me old-fashioned, but I have my standards. I don’t read books that don’t meet them.

First and foremost, I want a story. I want a plot and I want something to happen. I don’t want to just hear what people are thinking. I want them to also do something. I want to meet characters who develop and grow. I can cope with bad guys, but I need heroes too. I am glad to learn, I’m glad to be enlightened, but I want to be absorbed and entertained. Otherwise, it isn’t a novel: it’s a textbook or maybe a sermon.

I bet there are great authors out there writing terrific books who can’t get them published. For anyone who has tried to get a book published, you know what a battle it is. Manuscripts are submitted electronically and screened  by software looking for keywords. If you can’t write a proposal containing the right buzzwords, your manuscript will never be read by a human being. Using software to judge literature is probably why so many of these books are so dreadful. Human beings should judge literature, not computers. Computers don’t read. People read. More people should read than do.

75-BookStory HPCR-1

Faulkner, Wolfe, Hemingway … or for that matter, Harper Lee … none of them would get their books read much less published today. Unless we want all our literature to consist of science fiction, fantasy, thrillers, and mysteries — if we want any other kind of literature worth reading — it’s time to take a few chances and publish books that people will enjoy. I love science fiction and fantasy, but I grew up reading all kinds of books.

I miss books that take place on this planet, in this world, in my lifetime and don’t necessarily involve magic, time travel, cops, serial killers, courts, vampires, or terrorists. Surely there are stories about our world worth publishing.

Publish more interesting books and I bet there will be more interested readers.

BERT LAHR – NOTES ON A COWARDLY LION, GARRY ARMSTRONG

It’s been a while since I finished reading the Bert Lahr biography, “Notes on a Cowardly Lion“, written by his son, John. I am still emotionally involved. Why?

Why does a book written more than 40 years ago about a show business figure who peaked more than 70 years ago still sit front and center in my mind? I’m a retired TV and radio news reporter with more than 40 years in “the business”. The “news biz” is journalism, but it’s also performance, even for those of us who strive for objectivity.

Part of the job is celebrity too. When you appear on television five or six days a week for more than four decades, you become a household face. People ask for your autograph. You receive special treatment in stores and restaurants. Twelve years into retirement, folks still recognize me, tell how they grew up watching me on TV and ask for autographs. Mine is a regional celebrity although I’ve encountered fans almost everywhere I’ve travelled in the United States and overseas. I’ve always enjoyed and appreciated my celebrity. Yes, I miss it a bit when I’m not recognized but I don’t get depressed if I go unnoticed. I needed to share a little of my life because it puts my feelings about the story of Bert Lahr’s life into perspective. I really understood in a very personal way where the man was coming from.

Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion in Wizard of Oz...

I enjoyed the biographical side of the book. It speaks to history, the history of vaudeville and burlesque, show business venues that are frequently misrepresented. As a self-proclaimed trivia maven, I received a little education. Case in point: Clifton Webb, long perceived as a middle-aged effete, film actor actually was a well-received song and dance man in vaudeville. I learned the difference between vaudeville and burlesque. I came to appreciate the art form of what I used to perceive as Bert Lahr’s overly broad slapstick comedy. I understood how Lahr’s art form suffered at the hands of Hollywood film directors who tried to minimize his well honed craft and squeeze it into their movie concept of musical comedy.

Lahr’s comic genius never really had a chance  to shine in Hollywood. “The Wizard of Oz” was the exception. But that success also spelled disaster in Tinseltown because Lahr never again received a film role like the Cowardly Lion. Years later, he would find similar frustration with television which tried to restrict his comedic moves in variety shows. Lahr didn’t think much of TV comic legends like Milton Berle and Sid Caesar. Ironically, both Berle and Caesar spoke highly of Lahr in lengthy interviews with me — even as they lamented the fading of their celebrity. But that’s another story. Back to Bert Lahr.  Born into poverty, Lahr was always very conscious about being financially secure.

BertLahrEven when he returned to Broadway where he found his greatest success over the years, Lahr never felt financially secure even though he was earning top star salaries. In later years, as a TV pitchman for Potato Chips, Lahr earned more money for a thirty-second commercial than he ever did for starring in a play, movie or TV special. He still didn’t feel financially secure.

Bert Lahr did find some unexpected late professional success with surprising turns in work like “Waiting For Godot” co-starring with the likes of E.G. Marshall. Lahr savored critical acclaim, but was never satisfied even when he received it. For all of his professional and financial success, he was an unhappy man. He was insecure as an aspiring comedian/actor seeking stardom. He was insecure as a star thinking others were always trying to undermine him. He was insecure as an aging, respected legend believing people had forgotten him even though he was recognized everywhere he went. Lahr was miserable as a husband and father — demanding but not giving. Lahr desperately needed the audience — the laughter, the applause — throughout his life. Sadly,  he never appreciated the love and admiration he got from his family.

As the curtain closed on his life — with his loved ones gathered around him — Lahr still longed for his audience and their laughter and applause. He couldn’t let it go and move on, nor appreciate the good things life offered him. Lahr’s loneliness haunted me. The deeper I got into the book, the more painful I found reading his biography. I know first-hand how intoxicating and addictive celebrity is, especially when you fail to appreciate real life. Bert Lahr was never able to see the joys and sorrows of family and friends as “the real thing” that makes it all worthwhile. It’s the celebrity that is unreal and ephemeral.

It’s the people who love you who will sustain you after the curtain closes and the audience departs the theatre. That Lahr was never able to recognize what he had and accept the love that was there for him was his personal tragedy.

It’s a fine biography, but not a joyful reading experience. It is in many ways a cautionary tale, a reminder of how important it is to keep ones perspective and ones feet on the ground.

MEET FELIX CASTOR, EXORCIST BY MIKE CAREY

The Devil You Know | Mike CareyThere’s a rumor going around on Amazon that Mike Carey is going to publish another Felix Castor book. I hope it’s true. I’ll line up to be among the first to buy a copy. I love this series.

I discovered Mike Carey because I reviewed a Jim Butcher book and someone suggested I’d like the Felix Castor series by Mike Carey. I’d never heard of Mike Carey, but I was out of new authors to read at the time and I was ready to try anything that sounded good. I got what I hoped for plus a whole lot more.

Mike Carey is not merely a good writer. He is what I would term hyper-literate. He uses words like a rapier. His prose is beautifully crafted, often lyrical, yet never treacly or sappy. He is crisp.

He actually uses words I have to look up because I don’t recognize them. It has been decades since I learned a new word. Sometimes I don’t know the word because it’s British slang with which I’m just not familiar, but sometimes, it’s a word I’ve never seen before.

He does not repeat himself. He never uses the same descriptive passage more than once, nor does he — as many popular authors do — copy and paste sections from one book to another to (I presume) save writing time. Mike Carey doesn’t use short cuts.

The result is a style that is richly descriptive, a delicious combination of gritty street slang banging head-on into literary English. Guttersnipe meets Jane Austen in the streets of Liverpool. It gives the narrative a rare and rich texture.

What’s it all about? Felix (Fix) Castor is an exorcist. He sees the dead and the undead. They see him. He is no wizard who magics his problems away with the wave of a hand or wand. He can send the dead away when they linger and cast out demons who possess humans.

Where do the dead go after he sends them away?  He’s not sure, an issue that looms successively larger as the series progresses. His weapon is music in the form of a tin whistle, a thin armament in the face of some of the perils he faces. He has a few allies — human, formerly human plus one demon in recovery.

The series consists of five books, each building on the previous one to form what is essentially a single story in five parts. Best to read the series in order. All the books are now available on paperback, for Kindle and as an Audible download.

In order, the books are:

  1. The Devil You Know
  2. Vicious Circle 
  3. Dead Men’s Boots
  4. Thicker Than Water
  5. The Naming of Beasts.

None of the books are exactly a lightweight romp through a sunny meadow, but the first three books are much lighter in tone  … and funnier — Carey has a sharp, ironic sense of humor– than the final two, which are pretty intense.

Mike Carey (writer)

Mike Carey (author) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Fix Castor works hard for short money, is rarely appreciated by the people he helps, has more than enough of his personal demons, not to mention some very real, otherworldly demons who are seriously out to get him.

It’s a unique series, unlike any other I’ve read. I wish there had been more of them, though I suspect the author is done with this series.

There are so many surprises in this series. The characters constantly surprised me by growing and changing, developing in unexpected ways and not doing the obvious. Characters make unique choices and don’t take the obvious or easy way out.

Mike Carey can be very funny. His subtle and elegant humor contains no belly laughs, but irony pervades his prose. None of the books are traditionally funny nor are the situations humorous or light-hearted, but the author’s writing style is wonderfully cynical. The stories, pun intended, are dead serious. Darkness notwithstanding, you can count on Mike Carey’s plays on words and twists of phrase to keep the dread from becoming too heavy to handle.

The plots are gripping and creepy. Any or all of the books would make great horror movies. I’m surprised no one has grabbed them yet. Maybe they will. Sooner or later, someone is bound to notice, right?