Not the Kind of Place to Raise Your Kids

I finished the first season of Fortitude this weekend. An impressive original series set in a remote Arctic island, population 700-something. Mostly miners and people who support the mining town (inn keepers, shopkeepers, cops). It’s in the permafrost, a place where it is illegal to die because there’s no place to bury anyone. It starts with a killing and a discovery, and things go very, very badly from there. A lot of people break the law by dying. The local governor (played by Sofie Gråbøl from the Danish original of The Killing) wants to build a hotel in the glacier, but she comes to realize that perhaps a bigger morgue is what’s called for. The story flirts with science fiction and it is definitely horrific at times, but all somewhat credible. A good cast, including Stanley Tucci as a DI in from London to supervise some investigations and Michael Gambon as an aging photographer battling cancer. Filming of Season 2 is underway in Iceland and I can’t wait to see where they take the story.

We saw The Martian yesterday. A very good science-driven space opera about a guy struggling to survive under the worst imaginable conditions: lots of potatoes but no ketchup. A strong ensemble cast, and an intriguing and captivating plot. No aliens or star wars, just the kinds of things a space program has to deal with: the unforgiving nature of space. Damon is the Jimmy Stewart of our time. Always pretty much the same character, but a calm, reassuring force within a film. The audience avatar. The guy we trust to get us home. If I have an issue with the movie at all, it’s that it downplayed the passage of time and the psychological stresses that must cause. The people on Earth were under enormous pressure to produce solutions in an insanely short period of time, but the people in space had to deal with a ton of tedium, and it would have been nice to see that acknowledged a bit more. Tedium and disco. What a combination. Actually, the choice of disco songs was so on the nose at times it was hilarious. Hot Stuff when he’s carting around the radioactive material, the obligatory David Bowie space song, Waterloo by Abba when defeat seems at hand and Donna Summer’s triumphant anthem over the closing parts. All in a all, a well conceived and executed adventure tale. But I expect Damon’s character never wants fries with that again.

There are probably weirder TV shows in current production than The Leftovers, but I’m hard pressed to think of one. For the first 10 minutes of last night’s season 2 premiere, I kept wondering if maybe I’d stumbled into the wrong show by accident. And then another show started, and it wasn’t until very late in the game that we see some familiar faces. Talk about a way to build suspense, though. Have a “psychic” character tell someone else that something bad is going to happen, then watch the second guy stick his hand in a garbage disposal. There’s definitely some weird stuff going on in Miracle, TX. Reminds me a bit of “The End of the Whole Mess” and the waters that prolong life. I get the impression that miracles aren’t all that welcome in Miracle. And what was the deal with the pie? And the cricket? So many questions.

My biggest question about The Affair is the timeline. When does the jail stuff happen with respect to everything else. Much later than the brunt of the episode? So I gather. I’m always intrigued by the way the show recreates certain scenes from different characters’ points of view. Even the clothing is different at times, but definitely the tone and specifics of, for example, the mediation meeting. Totally different. And that had to be one of the most awkward sex scenes I’ve ever seen. Lots of buzz on the ‘net today about the full frontal shot, brief and blurry though it was, but nary a whisper about all the nudity on The Leftovers.

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Alas poor Walter Blunt, I knew him, Patrick Stewart

I found it odd that I hadn’t heard there was a sitcom starring Patrick Stewart. Then, when I discovered it was on Starz, I began to have my doubts. But my wife’s coworker thought it was a scream, so we gave Blunt Talk a shot this weekend. We made it through three 30-minute episodes, but that’s it for us. It is regrettably unfunny. Blunt is despicable from the opening moments of the show, and he gets no better. There were a few funny moments over the ninety-minute span, but on the whole it’s a waste of talent.

CSI went out with a few bangs. Fifteen years is a pretty good run and they gave us the “riding off into the sunset” finale that put a nice ribbon on the series. I never cottoned to the spin-offs, not even the one remaining that will now benefit from Ted Danson’s migration, but I always had a soft spot for Gris and the gang.

Even though I’m from Canada, and I remember well when 2112 was released (I was in grade 9), and they’ve been a constant background presence during my life, I can’t say I’m a huge Rush fan. I like a handful of their songs, and I’m okay with a bunch more, but I’ve never had any desire to see them in concert, even though I had ample opportunity to do so over the years. I actually like Max Webster, their perennial opening band, better. However, Netflix is now streaming the 2010 documentary Behind the Lighted Stage, so we checked it out yesterday. Major props to the dudes from Ontario—they seem to be one of the healthiest (mentally) rock groups in existence. Granted, a 100-minute synopsis of a 40-year career can’t delve into everything, but if there was ever any acrimony or dissension within the group, you figure you’d see some hint of it. But they just did the job and continued to improve themselves and, despite a lack of respect from the critical establishment, kept on keeping on. There’s is an interesting trajectory—how they were pulled from obscurity in Cleveland because “Working Man” tapped into the city’s ethos at the time and how they stood up to the record company and pretty much everyone by refusing to kowtow to their demands and choosing to go out on their own terms, if 2112 had been a failure. How they tried out different things over the years and regrouped when some of the experimentation didn’t quite work out. How they managed to preserve long-term family relationships and how the other two members of the band refused to consider replacing Peart when he went off the grid for a few years following some personal tragedies. Good, solid blokes, all round. Quirky as hell, but they have my respect. And they finally made it onto the cover of Rolling Stone this year.

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So it goes like this: We see Yes. I start listening to old Yes albums. That leads me back to Buggles, who I loved in the 1980s. You know, “Video Killed the Radio Star.” Good keyboards. So I wonder what else Geoff Downes has done. Yes, I know he was in Asia, but what else? That leads me to New Dance Orchestra, which is electronica with a strong disco/dance influence. The new album features vocals by Anne-Marie Helder. Reminds me of Sarah Brightman. Research her a bit and discover she does lead vocals for a Welsh group called Panic Room. Find a couple of tracks on YouTube. I like. And thus is a new group discovered by me. I read that the band was formed out of a previous endeavor called Karnataka, which I’ve also never heard. So maybe there’s something else to check out. I like finding new music.

I haven’t said much about this, but since it seems to be moving right along, I guess it’s safe to say that I’ve finally started working on that novel I’ve been thinking about for lo these many months and years. I’m doing it longhand, as I did with the novella I wrote earlier this year, and since September 9 I’ve completed over fifty handwritten pages. I have no idea if all of it will make it into the book once it’s finished, because some of it involves feeling around for the right direction and figuring out for myself what it’s really all about, but I think I’m well on my way. I’m not going to make any promises, even to myself, as to when I hope to get the first draft finished, but it would be nice to think I could get a lot of it done before the leap year begins.

I finished the Netflix original Narcos last night. Open for a second season, which I’d watch. The first season manages to turn the narrating character into a bit of a jerk by the end, but at least he’s not Walter White. Just a guy tainted by the things he has to deal with and do to get his job done.

This morning, while exercising I decided to go back to House of Cards, Season 3, which we’d abandoned after a few episodes. I didn’t mind it, but my wife got bored with it. We’re going to try out a comedy series called Blunt Talk that stars Patrick Stewart this weekend. I’m also watching a series called Fortitude that has Michael Gambon, Sofie Gråbøl, Christopher Eccleston and Stanley Tucci. It’s set on a remote northern island (filmed in Iceland) where it is unlawful for anyone to die or be buried.

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Under the Influence

Skype is down all over the world. I guess we broke it during our hour-long videoconference with our daughter in Japan last night! It’s the first time we called since she moved to Okinawa. It was a little like that episode of The Big Bang Theory where Raj shows his family around. Technology is pretty cool, though, except when it breaks down.

I posted a couple of book reviews over the weekend: Dexter is Dead by Jeff Lindsay and Zer0es by Chuck Wendig.

We finished Season 4 of Longmire on Friday night. The switch to Netflix was a positive change, with longer episodes, a more natural structure (no commercial breaks), and a good mix between episode-specific plot and multi-episode arcs. I was glad they resolved the situation that launched the season within a few episodes rather than drag it out, even though its tentacles reached all the way to the end of the season. Episode 3 was intense. I also like that the relationship between Walt and Mathias, the tribal police chief, has evolved from purely antagonistic to at least a working kinship. And it was also an interesting development that Henry should go from stopping Walt from acting like a vigilante in the first episode to embracing that persona later in the season. The relation between Vic and Walt is much more credible than in the novels, I think. Complicated, but not cliched. Ally Walker is a good addition to the show, and I suppose the outcome of the cliff-hanger will depend upon her availability, should the show be renewed. All in all: well done, Netflix.

I’m not the world’s biggest Rolling Stones fan. I like some of their stuff and I loathe some of it (I’m looking at you, Emotional Rescue). I have a collection of their greatest hits, but I don’t think I’ve ever bought an album. Still, the new documentary about Keith Richards, Under the Influence, just out on Netflix, looked intriguing. There’s always been something about the way he plays, that kind of shruggy, counter-tempo thing he does, that has intrigued me. The documentary started out as a promo video for his new solo album and expanded into a 90-minute film. Given its genesis, it doesn’t delve into any of the conflicts or troubles from the past, other than a brief statement by Richards that he referred to his relationship with Jagger in the later 1980s as World War III. It’s all about the music that has influenced him over the years, from Muddy Waters to reggae, and how he got to meet and play with some of the musicians who influenced the Stones. It has some nice historical footage and Richards is in good form, laughing giddily half the time, between puffs on his cigarette.

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Death of a Salesman

It’s early days—there isn’t even a cover yet—but it’s never too early to pimp forthcoming projects. Amazon is now taking pre-orders for Volume 2 of The X-Files: The Truth is Out There anthology, which contains my short story “Phase Shift.” I don’t know the entire list of contributors, but these folks are mentioned on the order page: Kelley Armstrong, Jon McGoran, Hank Schwaeble, Kami Garcia, Hank Phillippi Ryan, David Sakmyster, Sarah Stegall, Glenn Grenberg, Tim Waggoner, David Farland. The anthology, edited by Jonathan Maberry, will be out in February 2016.

Event-filled days chez Vincent lately. Our daughter, who got married this summer, moved to Okinawa over the weekend, which meant a lot of organizing and re-organizing in advance of the Sunday morning flight. The biggest issue was the cat, which required a lot of special preparations and planning for the flight. My daughter and her husband hired a company to handle most of it, but there were still a lot of last-minute issues. The cat departed on Wednesday and arrived at her destination on Friday evening (local time).

It takes a long time to get to Okinawa. In general, about 24 real hours of travel time, plus the fourteen-hour time change. Our daughter left on Sunday morning and got to her new home on Monday evening, after three flights and a harrowing taxi ride. As a result of the big move, we inherited a lot of stuff, either for storage for the 4-5 years they’ll be overseas or to donate/sell.

One of the major items was her car. I decided that, since it was nearly a decade newer than the one I drive, I’d take it on and get rid of my 11-year-old Scion tC, which had less than 44,000 miles on it. I wasn’t looking forward to the process of selling it, though. Can be a hassle. If we took it to CarMax, I figured we wouldn’t get nearly what we could through a private sale, but I wasn’t relishing the though of having to deal with all that folderol. My daughter had sold a bunch of stuff through a community website, which I figured had less of a crazy quotient than Craigslist, so I decided to give it a shot. I took a few pictures of the car in the driveway and posted a 250-word classified on the website. Within a few hours I had no less than seven or eight inquiries about it. Apparently there’s a lot of interest in low-mileage cars, no matter the age. Made me think I should have asked for more!

Anyhow, I showed it to one family for their teenage son after work. They liked it but were going to look at another car. Then I heard from someone who really wanted it. They had cash in hand and wanted it right now! So I had them come over to look at it. I couldn’t believe it—just as I was about to start it up to demonstrate something, the battery chose that moment to kick the bucket. Fortunately, they were highly motivated buyers and we were able to swap out the battery and seal the deal. So, in just under 12 hours, I managed to sell my car. End of ordeal. They should all be so easy. (Well, it could have been easier if not for the stupid battery.) But my days as a huckster are over, I hope. I’m no salesman.

Now we just have to unload all the extra stuff stacked up in the garage and our house will be more or less back to normal.

I’ve been watching Narcos on Netflix during my morning exercise sessions. It’s a fictionalized account of a couple of DEA agents in Colombia during the time when Pablo Escobar rose to prominence. Interesting stuff. They dub in a lot of period news footage (Nancy Reagan and the “just say no” campaign, shots of the real people being portrayed). It’s quite good.

Then we started tearing through the fourth season of Longmire on the weekend. The move to Netflix means that the episodes jump from 42 minutes to pretty much an hour each, without the need to stage mini-crises around commercial breaks, and the show benefits from this. The third episode is especially harrowing. The camera angles are experimental at times, and the production values are quite good, giving the show a richer look. For some reason, though, I seem to have gotten a pretty good knack for identifying when a character is telling a big fat lie, even though the cops on the show don’t glom onto the fact until later. Still a decent show, worth a binge.

I also did a binge rewatch of Season 5A of Haven so I can prepare a recap essay for News from the Dead Zone and to refresh my memory of the show for the launch of 5B in a few weeks. I’m supposed to get a screener of the first two episodes this week, too, so I can help promote the final season. I’m glad to see that Kris Lemche will be back in his role as the Darkside Seeker. He was on the set when we visited last year and I had a lot of fun joking around with him. Unfortunately the nice long interview I did in the morgue that Lemche “crashed” has yet to surface, and I’m beginning to think it never will.

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Everywhere we looked…Sam Elliott

We saw a lot of movies this weekend. It seemed like Sam Elliott was in most of them, but it was only a couple.

First, we watched an oddball film called The Age of Adaline. It stars Blake Lively as a woman who has an accident in her late twenties that mysteriously causes her to stop aging. She has a daughter who catches up to her and surpasses her in apparent age, and she comes to the attention of some government agencies who want to study her, so she has to go off the radar, switching identities every decade or so. When she’s about 107, she meets and falls in love with a man (Treme’s Michael Huisman) but she knows that, like all the other times she’s gotten involved, it must end because, as with Doctor Who, the other person will grow old and die while she remains the same. Then she meets the man’s father (Harrison Ford) and all manner of mayhem breaks out. It’s a cute movie. The stentorian narrator is a bit of a buzz kill, but Lively (who I’ve never seen in a movie before) is good and Harrison Ford is great.

We went retro on Saturday night and watched a couple of films from the early 1980s: Heavy Metal and The Wall. Here’s the thing: I’d never seen either of them before. I couldn’t have told you what Heavy Metal was about to save my soul, and I was under the impression that The Wall was mostly animated, that’s how little I knew about them. Heavy Metal hasn’t aged well. It was clearly targeted at teenage boys, who probably don’t care that the film doesn’t make a lick of sense whatsoever. At least it was short. The Wall, however, was worthwhile seeing, even thirty years after its release. It was a lot different than I expected. I think Geldof says about 15 words in total in the film, other than what he sings. The film does a fine job of amplifying on the album’s story and themes, and it’s clear that losing his father in WWII had a lasting impact on Roger Waters. The animation, when it happens, looks decent for its era. The marching hammers (about the only impression I had of what the film was like) still look cool.

Then we watched Mystic River because we inherited a copy of the DVD. Still an impressive film, one that I saw on the big screen when it came out. It has Marcia Gay Harden in it—I got to spend some time with her on the set of The Mist. That wouldn’t be the last time we saw her this weekend, either.

On Sunday we saw A Walk in the Woods, starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte, based on the memoir by Bill Bryson, which I read many years ago. We didn’t even see the trailer. Redford and Nolte sold us on it, and we later discovered that it also has Emma Thompson and Mary Steenburgen. It’s about a guy (Redford is quite a bit older than Bryson was in the memoir, I believe) who decides to walk the Appalachian Trail, which spans a distance of over 2100 miles from Georgia to Maine. His wife (Thompson) thinks he’s crazy and forbids him to go unless he can find someone to go with him. His friends all think he’s nuts, too, until his old friend (Nolte) hears about the adventure from another friend and volunteers to go with him. Nolte’s character is a recovering alcoholic with two bad knees and incipient diabetes, but he’s better than nothing. In fact, the two men are polar opposites and haven’t spoken in years. The movie is a milder version of the Reese Witherspoon movie Wild. The two men get up to some hijinx and have some funny encounters (one with an annoying no-it-all hiker, another with a couple of grizzly bears, and the funniest of all with the husband of a woman Nolte tries to charm at a laundromat). They have some minor crises but for the most part it’s just fun to watch the two together, and Nolte hasn’t been this laugh-out-loud funny in a long time. He enters the movie looking not too different from that famous mug shot from a number of years ago and you’d think two months on the trail would slim him down a little more than it did, but we enjoyed the heck out of the film.

Then we saw I’ll See You In My Dreams, which stars Blythe Danner (apparently in her first starring role in a feature), Rhea Perlman, Max Gail (from Barney Miller) and Sam Elliott. Danner plays a woman who has been a widow for decades. She has a group of women friends her age that she spends time with. Her dog dies early in the film, which is sort of a catalyst for change. She meets Sam Elliott, a suave and debonair guy who has decided to spend all his money before he dies. She has an adult daughter who drops by for a visit. She goes karaoke singing with the pool guy. Dope is smoked. It’s just a nice film about growing older and deciding to entertain the possibility of one’s life having a second or third act.

Finally, last night we saw Grandma, starring Lily Tomlin, and it was the best of the bunch. Ellie’s (Tomlin) teenage granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner from The Americans) needs $650 by the end of the day for an abortion and Ellie has no money so she has to go around visiting people from her past to try to raise the dough. She’s just broken up with her recent lover (Judy Greer, cute as always). She’d had a 38-year relationship with a woman called Violet, who is only referenced but never seen, but she’d also knocked boots with Sam Elliott (hey, there he is again) a long time ago. He’s not nearly as nice a guy in this movie, but it’s still fun to watch and listen to him. Sage’s mother is Marcia Gay Harden (her again!) and eventually they have to go visit her and put up with her disapproval. Along the way we run into Elizabeth Pena (in her last role) and a hilarious John Cho and we piece together all the parts of Ellie’s life. The morality of abortion isn’t a big part of the film (the only person who actively tries to talk Sage out of it is a protester at a clinic) but Ellie knows the lasting impact the procedure will have on Sage, so it isn’t dismissed out of hand, either. Lily Tomlin has rarely been more charming, saltier, tougher or funnier, and she’s all these things and more. Garner keeps pace with her, too. This is a small movie, shot in 19 days for a $1 million budget, but it should be a big hit for Tomlin. Go see it: you won’t be sorry.

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…that keeps on giving

Looks like we’re going to be getting new next door neighbors fairly soon. The SOLD tab has gone up on the realtor’s sign. I can’t say we’ll miss the previous neighbors and their increasing pack of barky dogs. We never really got to know them. The neighbors, not the dogs, I mean. We got to know the dogs very well.

At least they didn’t bring as much baggage with them as the family that moves into the new house in the excellent thriller The Gift, which we saw yesterday morning. The husband and wife move from Chicago to L.A. for his job. She had to leave her job behind, though she’s doing some stuff online. There are hints of possible instability in her past. It’s a new start, perhaps time to add to their family, though that has been problematic in the past. Then he (Jason Bateman) runs into someone from high school while they’re out shopping. Dude is a little creepy. A little stalkerish. The guy is played by Joel Edgerton, who also wrote and directed the film. Bateman’s Simon (as in Simon Says) remembers him as Gordo, though in private he recalls him as Weirdo. He seems a little off kilter, and he keeps showing up, often bearing gifts. Is he obsessed with Simon’s wife, Robyn? Did he do something to the family dog, Jangles? And what really happened back in high school?

There are a few jump-scares, but mostly this is a taut thriller with a very well developed story and characters. Edgerton’s script leads you in all manner of directions and raises any number of suspicions, some of them legitimate, some of them red herrings. He also manages to shift the viewer’s allegiances throughout, until he punches everyone in the stomach with a wholly substantiated but unforeseen revelation. My wife, who generally doesn’t like scary movies, really enjoyed The Gift, because it was all about the characters. No guts or gore. Highly recommended.

We also watched a documentary called Iris, about Iris Apfel, though I’m hard pressed to explain what it is she’s famous for. She became renowned for her rather quirky fashion taste, I guess is the easiest way to say it. She likes gaudy bangles and intriguing textiles and somehow parlayed that into celebrity. She’s in her early 90s and still does all these interviews and talk shows about fashion. Her husband, who turns 100 at the end of the movie, just died this month, I see. It was an oddball film—were she less famous, she could have been featured on an episode of Hoarders, or perhaps even an entire season—but a look at something with which we have no direct exposure, so that’s always interesting.

Hannibal went out with a bang and a few stabs and lots of blood. It was a very strange, entrancing series. In this incarnation, it’s almost a love story between Hannibal and Will Graham, and the final moments were very Reichenbach Falls, although if you didn’t wait for it there was a post-credits scene not to be missed in which Gillian Anderson looked quite ravishing and delectable. Even if there is never a Season 4, which looks like less of a possibility with each passing day, it was a good way to end things.

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Not Kansas Any More

Last summer it was Styx and Foreigner. Last night it was Toto and Yes. Gradually I’m finally getting the chance to see in concert all the bands who I first discovered in high school or as a university undergrad, many of whom I still listen to this day or have recently rediscovered.

Styx fell off my radar for a long time until I stumbled upon their 2003 album Cyclorama, which is very good. That was when I learned that they’d brought on Lawrence Gowan as a singer-keyboardist, the guy I knew of as just Gowan, a well-known Canadian performer from the early 80s. I started filling in the gaps and then they came to the local concert pavilion last summer, along with Don Felder from the Eagles and Foreigner, who put on an impressive show, too. I’d seen Tommy Shaw before when he toured with the Damned Yankees back in the early 90s.

Similarly, I’d lost touch with Toto until something put them back on my radar again and I caught up. They have a new album out, Toto XIV, which is very good indeed. I’ve been looking forward to this concert for a few months, and I was surprised that they were the support act. Turns out it was almost a co-billing. Toto played from 7:30 until 9:00 and Yes played from 9:15 until 11:00 or so. Toto had the bigger stage presence, with two keyboard players (Paich and Porcaro), a percussionist in addition to a drummer, two backup singers, in addition to Steve Lukather, vocalist Joseph Williams and more. Lukather is amazing on the guitar, but I see he’s still “old-school”—plugged in. A roadie had to lurk behind him to make sure his guitar chord didn’t get tangled up. Yes was just five guys: drums, bass, keyboards, guitar and vocals.

I was surprised that the pavilion was in its small configuration for the concert: no lawn seats were sold. The Pavilion has 6500 reserved seats and can put another 10,000 people on the hill, and it routinely sells out the full capacity. For this show, it was all reserved seating. A rainstorm passed through in the mid-afternoon, so I was glad we wouldn’t be sitting on the hill, but as it turns out, no one was. They seemed to know in advance that this was a concert with somewhat limited appeal. It was certainly an enthusiastic audience, albeit a relatively small one.

I’m much less familiar with Yes’s music. I knew a few of their songs, but not most of them. I appreciate their musical talents (Steve Howe still has his guitar chops, Geoff Downes can still play his wall of keyboards with the best of them), but their songs don’t grab me the same way many other bands’ songs do. I have a hard time latching onto them. They meander and seem to be without structure in some cases. I guess that just comes from not having listened to them for decades, as I have with the other groups. The lead singer can reproduce Jon Anderson’s sound pretty well (I liked Anderson’s project with Vangelis from the 1980s), though he looked a little like a cross between a religious cult leader and Kid Rock. It was fun watching them (the bass player was impressive, though Chris Squire’s shadow hung over them literally and figuratively), but I just didn’t connect to the music in the same way. I was on my feet for much of Toto, but I sat back for Yes, mostly. I remember feeling much the same when I saw Emerson, Lake and Palmer many years ago: the musicians seemed to be offering a master class in music performance rather than putting on a show. But that’s just me. The English bloke sitting next to us was having the time of his life during Yes.

I think that leaves only Kansas as the one major band from my college years that I haven’t seen in concert.

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Working Class Dog

My review of The Shining: Studies in the Horror Film just went live at Cemetery Dance Online.

We watched a couple of documentaries and a couple of films this weekend. First, we saw An Honest Liar, a documentary about James (“The Amazing”) Randi, the magician and escape artist who has been one of the leading crusaders against fraud, especially from people who claim to have magical or mystical powers. Uri Geller has been one of his lifelong nemeses.

I’d forgotten that Randi was born in Canada. He became a magician and illusionist at an early age, joining the circus instead of graduating from high school. However, he reached a decision point when he realized that he could use his skills for ill or for good. He’s taken on faith healers and psychics, and has posted $1 million of his own money to anyone who can prove psychic abilities. He executed elaborate cons to show that PSI research at reputable institutions was fundamentally flawed, and he coached the producers at the Tonight Show on how to set up Uri Geller’s demonstrations so they were guaranteed to fail. He then started following Geller on the talk show circuit to reproduce everything Geller had done the previous day to show that there was nothing magical about it. His credo is that magicians are the most honest people around: they’ll tell you they’re going to lie to you and fool you, and then they lie to you and fool you.

On a more personal level, the documentary revealed some surprises about his long-term relationship and a deception that was either perpetrated upon him or with his full cooperation for a quarter of a century. We’ve always liked Randi and his JREF organization’s goals. We came away from the documentary liking him even more. But, man, those eyebrows. They’re a ZIP code all their own.

Then we watched A Year in Champagne, which is a companion film to A Year in Burgandy, which we watched a few months ago. It examines the production of champagne wine in northeastern France by showing what goes on during a typical year at a variety of vineyards and companies. The year chosen happened to be a particularly gloomy one and it looked like the crop would be a complete failure, but season-end conditions improved enough so that, although the crop was small, it was very good. A fascinating look at the way champagne emerged as something associated with celebrations, and the people who’ve made it for centuries.

Yesterday we saw Ricki and the Flash, starring Meryl Streep as a woman who abandoned her family to pursue her dream of being a musician. A crisis emerges when her daughter’s husband divorces her and her ex-husband (Kevin Kline) is ill-equipped to manage her volatile emotions. So he puts in a call to Ricki (who the family knew as Linda) and asks her to come back to Indiana. This opens up all sorts of old wounds and issues. Ricki’s partner, in the band and off, is played by the most excellent Rick Springfield, who still has his guitar chops (and looks much better than he did in True Detective, see above) and delivered a surprisingly emotional performance as a sensitive guy trying to break down the borders of a somewhat closed-off woman. The script was by Diablo Cody, and it makes some very interesting (and, from my perspective, good) choices about what threads to follow and how to wrap them up. There’s no tidy bow at the end, but there is the possibility of further healing of broken bonds. It gave us a lot to talk about at the pub after the matinee. Good music, too, all performed by the actors and musicians.

Then, in the afternoon we watched an Australian film called Strangerland starring Nicole Kidman, Joseph Fiennes and Hugo Weaving. It’s set in a small, remote Australian town prone to dust storms. Kidman and Fiennes have moved there to get away from some family problem that occurred in their previous domicile. They have a 12- or 13-year old son who likes to go walkabout at night and a 15-year-old hypersexual daughter. There’s unexplained tension in the marriage that is exacerbated when the two kids go missing one night. Everything from everyone’s past comes out in the subsequent investigation, led by Weaving’s town sheriff. Strong performances, but things sort of meander without much explanation and the film has one of those dreaded “French movie” endings where the credits start rolling and you slap your forehead and say, “Oh, no!” An intriguing movie, but ultimately less than satisfying, although it’s got Nicole Kidman, and that’s always good.

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Johnny B. Goode

I went to a book signing last night and came home smelling of smoke.

No, it didn’t turn into a book burning.

I first met Michael Koryta at Necon in 2014. We hit it off quickly and I found myself thinking that if he lived closer, he’d be the sort of guy I’d like to hang around with. A seriously smart guy, and very nice. He also happens to be a helluva writer.

I’d been introduced to his work by accident. I was using my computer-fu for my pals at Cemetery Dance, helping them extract the text from an obstinate pdf. All the running headers and footers and page numbers were giving them fits. So I took a crack at it and managed to come up with a solution to the problem. As it happened, the pdf was Koryta’s The Prophet. I figured, since I had the file, I’d load it onto my iPad and read it. I was majorly impressed.

Those Who Wish Me Dead was his 2014 novel, a full-out thriller set in Big Sky Country. Impressive. I managed to get an eGalley of his latest, Last Words, the beginning of a series, and was also impressed. I think I’d known he was coming to Houston on his book tour, but all of a sudden, on Monday, I realized it was going to be the following day, publication day for the new book. I sent him a DM on Twitter and said to give me a shout if he was bored yesterday afternoon. He had an interview to take care of, but in between that and his appearance at Murder By the Book, he had an hour or so, so I met up with him at the bar at his hotel, and then drove him over to the bookstore.

Following his own tradition with MBTB, he read from his next book instead of the current one. They’re parts of a series, and he originally decided to shift the second book from third person to first to indicate the growth and evolution of his character, Mark Novak. He was some 300 pages into the book when he realized it wasn’t working, so he went back to the beginning (oh, what a brave decision that was) and started over again in third person. However, before he made the choice, the decision had been made to include the first chapter as a teaser in the hardcover of Last Words, a fairly rare occurrence. Even rarer, now that the chapter is a lot different than it will be in Echoes, when it appears next year.

He asked me to stick around after the signing, so we went out to dinner. As a nod to being in Texas, I suggest barbecue. The original Goode Company Barbeque is only a few blocks from MBTB, and it was a good choice. By then it was nice enough that we could sit outdoors while we had our dinner and Texas beer (Lone Star for him, Shiner Bock for me). That’s where the smell of smoke came from—we were downwind from the kitchen, I guess. I could still smell it on my clothes this morning. A nice smell.

Anyhow, it was a pleasant evening. Had a great time chatting with Michael about everything under the sun. Took him back to his hotel, as he had to catch an early flight this morning for the next leg of his book tour.

We watched American Sniper on the weekend. It had been on my radar for a long time, just never got around to it before. I’m glad we saw it. I had a different impression about what happened to him after he came back after his last tour of duty. As good as the film was, I have to wonder how Eastwood and the producers and the studio executives and everyone else who sticks their collective noses into a movie allowed it to go out with that scene of the baby played by a plastic doll. Surely the scene could have been shot differently so it wasn’t so blatant. As long as it was breast feeding, it was hardly noticeable, but once Cooper’s character started waving it in front of the camera, it left no doubt that this was not a real baby, crying noises in the soundtrack notwithstanding.

We also watched a documentary on Netflix called The Search for General Tso. While nominally devoted to determining the origins of the ubiquitous dish, it also explored Chinese immigration into the US and the reasons why they scattered across the country after originally concentrating in San Francisco. It’s not a long film, a little over an hour, but it presented some interesting information about how American Chinese food evolved because the Chinese understood that they had to adapt the cuisine to the local palate, which gives rise to such weirdnesses as General Tso’s Alligator in Louisiana. They tracked down the originator of the dish, an aging Chinese man from Hunan Province who lived in Taiwan, who was flabbergasted and dismayed by the variations of his invention presented to him. A fun, light, entertaining program that will likely leave you with a sudden urge to head off to the local Chinese takeaway.

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