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Thursday, December 29, 2005

The Casual Critic — Richard Paul Evans' A Christmas Box

Though it comes close to being overly sentimental, A Christmas Box by Richard Paul Evans holds enough of a
story to be an entertaining holiday read. It deserves credit for avoiding the typical Christmas morning happy ending, perhaps even more than I’m willing to give it, but doesn’t offer anything that would be too surprising to a reader who sits down to read a book with a plot surrounding the holiday season.

Richard and Keri, along with their young daughter Jenna, move into the widow Parkin’s mansion as caretakers. They soon realize the elderly woman was looking for a family to share life with as much as to fill any needs she had around the house. Richard’s discovery of a box filled with letters to a lost love of Parkin, combined with her being diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, leads the driven-to-suceed Richard to learn lessons about the first gift of Christmas.

Before rolling your eyes too much, there’s some valuable elements here that won’t be completely predictable. Richard isn’t a perfect narrator — meaning the reader sees his flaws before he does — so his counterpart in Parkin, who could’ve been seen at least at first as an annoying old woman, offers a nice balance. Her story, too, though no shocker, won’t be completely apparent early on. And, again, the ending isn’t the all-is-wonderful type expected in such stories.

On the other hand, the mention of teared-stained pages of a Bible is just one example of too much sentimentality. There were also a few missed opportunities to create a bit of tension that this novel desperately needed. Afterall, Richard is a bit of a snoop, and Parkin is fairly free with her advice. Yet, the two never really irritate each other. And, though its learned without too typical of an ending, Richard’s lesson isn’t exactly a new one.

A Christmas Box isn’t quite worth making a yearly tradition or anything. But, if you like Christmas stories, this one’s more than just entertaining.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

The Casual Critic — The Vince Guaraldi Trio's A Charlie Brown Christmas

Living in the Philadelphia area, we have not one, but two, radio stations playing Christmas music 24 hours a day this time of year. One of them started before Thanksgiving. I like Christmas music just fine, but playing it 24 hours a day starting before Thanksgiving is a bit insane. By the time the holiday rolls around, one more “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” might set off a riot abused radio listeners.

Nonetheless, if you’ve managed to avoid being inundated with the holiday spirit, it does help to have some Christmas tunes handy. Besides, there’s a few songs I think we’re all legally obligated to hear at least once a year.

A few years ago, after learning how to convert CDs to mp3 files, I loaded a bunch of Christmas albums onto my hard drive. It’s the only type of music that allows you to admit you own a Barry Manilow album. His Because It's Christmas, which includes a fun duet with K.T. Oslin of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and a unique version of “Silent Night,” subtitled “I Guess There Ain’t No Santa Claus,” isn’t bad. The Time-Life Treasury of Christmas series has plenty of the stand-byes, as does something called Happy Holidays Volume 32 and The Ultimate Christmas Album.

But, so far, every year A Charlie Brown Christmas stands out as my favorite. One of the best things about the album is that it has a lot of the classics without any celebrities trying to make “Drummer Boy” or “Joy to the World” a top 40 hit for a month. Until I sat down to write this review I didn’t even know the album is credited to the Vince Guaraldi Trio, and that is a great part of the album. You can really just enjoy the songs. There’s even a few all-music versions of songs like “Oh, Holy Night” and “O Tannenbaum” that are perfect to have on in the background at a dinner or party. “Christmas Time Is Here” is on the album as both a musical and vocal.

Of course, listening to the album will bring back memories of watching the CBS special A Charlie Brown Christmas, which first aired 40 years ago this year. You may not recognize some of the titles — “Linus and Lucy,” “Skating,” and others — but they will certainly ring a bell, and are worth listening to as part of your Christmas collection.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

The Casual Critic — The Polar Express

Is it sacrilegious to suggest a film has too much Tom Hanks? I mean, did he really need to do the voice for every key character of The Polar Express? Of course, this wasn’t the biggest problem with the film, but giving ol’ St. Nick the same voice of a bunch of other characters was definetly disappointing.

I thought The Polar Express had a chance to be one of those Christmas movies worth checking out each holiday season. Despite the incredible animation, which is offering character movements that are almost too smooth if you ask me, the film just doesn’t reach those lofty heights.

A promising beginning suggested a decent twist on the exhausted Christmas theme. Kids on the edge of not believing in Santa Claus take a Christmas Eve train ride to witness the wonder of Santa leaving on his yearly trek around the globe. The problem was that the film continuously went for the “awe” effect, which never really materialized — at least on the small screen.

The story also travels its course through a series of “accidental adventures” on the train. While it may work well for kids, adults may find themselves wishing the kids would just sit still and learn how not to put small things in the pocket with a hole.

The film’s version of the fictional North Pole didn’t offer anything special. It wasn’t bad, but I expected more considering the hoopla that surrounded the movie. Possibly the big screen did the film more justice. But I think it’s worth repeating that Santa needed another big-time voice, instead of being another Hanks character.

There are some nice moments between the kids that take the train, and the film offers a cute ending. This one doesn’t cross the “good for adults too” line, and I’m guessing the kids will find it just entertaining.

Thursday, December 8, 2005

The Casual Critic — Mary Higgins Clark’s Silent Night

Mary Higgins Clark’s Silent Night has become a Christmas decoration in our house — it’s bright red cover with white lettering adds a little more ambience to the foyer. After all these years, I decided it was time to find out whether or not it was worth more than just a decoration. It was also a good excuse to read one of best-selling authors that the literary world scoffs at, and try to learn exactly why these little gold mines are seen as less than worthwile.

Catherine Dornan has brought her two young sons to New York to be with their father during the Christmas season after his surgery to remove his cancerous cells. A trip to Rockefeller Center for a break from the stress leads to her wallet — which holds a St. Christopher medal the boys have been assured will save their father — being stolen. The youngest boy follows the thief on his own, and eventually is caught in a race to the Canadian border as the hostage of the sympathetic thief’s ex-con brother who is on the run from the law.

While all of the expected problems are present in this novel, I can’t find any reason to completely trash Higgins based on Silent Night. The story has a nice pace to it, and if you temporarily suspend your desire for realism, there’s nothing that will cause you to roll your eyes enough to stop reading.

That said, the English major, serious writer wannabee in me can’t help but point out the flaws. Though most of the dialogue is easily passable, it dips into the hokey more than once. The combination of inner thought and occassional use of Christmas song lyrics makes the stomach almost start to churn. Character development is barely noticeable, and the ending is pretty clear about 10 pages in.

The inside cover suggests Silent Night is Clark’s Christmas gift for “readers of all seasons.” I think they were going for readers of all faiths, but you get the idea. And if that’s enough for you, read it for fun while looking for something better.

Thursday, December 1, 2005

The Casual Critic — A Christmas Carol

“Spellbinding special effects” was not what I wanted to see on the back of the new DVD of A Christmas Carol that I’d just been given by my mom last Christmas. Neither was the “TNT Original” logo.

I absolutely love A Christmas Carol. The 1951 version, A Christmas Carol (Original B&W Version), starring Alastair Sim airs around midnight every Christmas Eve on PBS, and you better believe I’m always watching. The pop of the old film, the at times terrible lighting, sound that most high school production teams would cringe at these days . . . it’s all part of the film, and I wouldn’t change a thing. Sim is Scrooge, his nearest rival a distant George C. Scott in the 1984 CBS made-for-TV version of A Christmas Carol.

So, I had to paste a smile on my face when I got the DVD. I mean, spellbinding special effects? TNT? C’mon.

Well, maybe mom really does know best. Patrick Stewart staked his own claim to the role of Scrooge with this performance. The special effects used mostly to get in and out of scenes only enhanced the film.

Joel Grey added to the film with a great Ghost of Christmas Past, though makeup deserves a lot of credit. There’s something freaky, almost oddly feminine about his portrayal that adds to the ghostly presence. Richard E. Grant’s slightly awkward Bob Cratchitt works well.

A Christmas Carol is quite possibly my favorite movie of all-time. (If Meg Ryan wasn’t so damn cute in You've Got Mail there’d be no debate.) I’ve seen almost every version available. So, it is only after plenty of consideration that I give TNT’s version my first can't ask for more to a movie. Make it a part of your holiday traditions.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

The Casual Critic — Sidney Sheldon's The Sky is Falling

Sidney Sheldon's The Sky is Falling was decent entertainment, filled with easy-to-read chapters that had frequent breaks — great for those of us that like to know a place to put our book marker is never far — and a thick plot that sends the protagonist on a romp around the globe.

Journalist Dana Evans doesn't quite buy that the sudden deaths of Taylor Winthrop, beloved government official, and his entire immediate family all within a year are tragic coincidences. Her celebrity wrought by her field work covering war-torn Sarajevo gives her the clout and rather hard to swallow access to investigate despite being the only one whose curious.

Sheldon's propensity to jump in and out of scenes is somewhat annoying, and made it difficult at first to understand why Evans seemed to be able to get just about any meeting she wanted. I just didn't buy that a war correspondent would gain that much celebrity. It is pushed to its limit when a crush of autograph seekers allows her to escape one dangerous scenario.

The dialogue between characters on a personal level was absolutely horrendous most of the time. Much of it surrounded the young boy who Evans "rescued" after he was orphaned by the war in Sarajevo, which eventually became a plot line we could have lived without. Inner thoughts also gave me that feeling in the pit of my stomach that told me I was happy not to have written a particular line. They simply rarely, if ever, added anything, and often gave an awe-shucks feeling, which is never a good thing.

Ultimately, plot carries the book as was no doubt intended. You must suspend believability, but its worth it. I read the last 100 pages in a rush to see what happens. Overall, I give this a middle-of-the-road-nodding-toward-good read it for fun while looking for something better.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

The Casual Critic — Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point

Reviewing Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point is a bit intimidating, I must admit. It was a rare foray into nonfiction reading for me, and, as Gladwell’s new Afterword makes clear, it is intended as an instructive how-to on "tipping" (essentially having something become wide spread) your own ideas.

This book is extremely interesting even if you’re not looking to "tip" anything. It offers insights into psychology, history, pop culture, and group dynamics, just to name a few subjects covered in absorbing, readable language. Gladwell takes the model of epidemics such as the flu or AIDS, and explains how it can be (and has been) used to create fashion trends, popularity for products, turn little known authors into best-sellers, and even reverse the crime rate.

Gladwell looks at how Hush Puppies became cool, the incredible success of Sesame Street and Blues Clues, the impact cleaner subways had on the New York City crime rate, and even the reasons Paul Revere went down in history while no one's ever heard of William Dawes. (Dawes covered the southern areas of Lexington as Revere headed north with the famous warning that "the British are coming.") The examples are meant to illustrate the book’s subtitle "How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference," and, to a point, they do.

The new Afterword does a good job of relieving the only real problem the book may have — the supposed usefulness to someone looking to tip their own idea, product, etc. Admittedly, this is where my intimidation factor kicks in. Gladwell seems to take examples of rather brilliant ideas or incredibly innovative individuals to illustrate how things tip. He even describes the special kind of people it takes to tip an idea — connectors, mavens, and salesmen. I’m still not sure the problem is solved — these people are considered extraordinary for a reason — but it’s a book I’ll almost certainly be thinking about for a long time whenever the entreprenuerial juices we all have kick in.

Gladwell does reach a little too far sometimes, and tends to inundate the reader with studies supporting his ideas. However, those minor flaws do little to hurt the book. If you’re into this type of subject matter at all, or just looking for something to stir your mind, The Tipping Point is worth reading.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

The Casual Critic — The Die Hard Trilogy

Killing a Saturday afternoon watching Die Hard 2 makes me wonder why we watch the Die Hard movies again and again . . . and again.

Ok, the first few times we can say we're looking for the intricacies we undoubtedly missed on our first viewing. Just how did John McClain finally get to fingerprint the first terrorist he knocked-off when he was barred from any official business? These are critical details you simply can't retain after just one viewing.

Then there are the times when it just sort of ended up on, and, after you got comfortable, you realized the clicker was out of reach. You don't really want to watch, but there's nothing specific that you do want to watch so you leave it on. These are the days that you watch it on regular T.V. despite the horrendous voice-overs that cover up the frequent F-bombs. It's bad enough Bruce Willis isn't actually doing McClain's voice-overs, but we all know that "Yippee-kayee, Mr. Falcon" just doesn't cut it.

Watching it between Thanksgiving and New Year's allows for the classic-holiday-movie excuse. Don't we all watch It's a Wonderful Life every year? We used to watch it three or four times before NBC bought exclusive rights and took that holiday joy away, but that's another column. This argument also holds up for the original Die Hard, as both take place just before Christmas. In fact, at least Die Hard 2 ends with "Let it Snow" as the credits roll. (If I wasn't the Casual Critic, I'd feel obligated to find out what serenades us at the end of the original.)

But, let's face it, we watch the Die Hard trilogy because they're guy movies. They're the ultimate cops and robbers. Some guy, a regular guy who happens to be a cop, goes from an ordinary day to single-handedly thwarting an elaborate terrorist/criminal plot. He throws bad guys through windows, climbs around in secret compartments of buildings, and blows up a plane-full of terrorists with his lighter.

What's not to love?

If you're in the mood for a guy movie, any of the Die Hard is worth watching . . . again.

Thursday, November 3, 2005

The Casual Critic — Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City

Jay McInerney continuously breaks one of the most basic rules that I ever learned about writing with Bright Lights, Big City. When my high school English teacher told the class she never again wanted to appear in any of our stories, we all held our breathe wondering who crossed what line, and how we could get to read that story. The anti-climactic realization that all she meant was that using “you” in narration was a bad idea didn’t make it any less true.

Surprisingly, McInerny’s constant use of second-person narration wasn’t all that distracting. But it also didn’t really add anything — the reader just adjusts to “you” instead of “I” and moves on. I’m guessing the point of “breaking the rule” was to emphasize the rebel that struggles to live within the main character. His pursuit of all the cliches of the night life — clubs, drugs, sex, and, well, more drugs — is finally getting old even to him. It seems to have been at the heart of a failed marriage to a model now thriving and still living the lifestyle, and finally costs him a mundane job at an artsy magazine that offered him some credibility with the trendy.

Ultimately the story reveals that our anti-hero is coping with the anniversary of his mother’s passing. While personal experience leaves me easily touched by death-bed scenes, and I must admit McInerny’s was no different, this whole aspect of the story seemed forced. For two-thirds of the story the guy is just a jerk throwing his life away, then with no warning an aspect of his story that makes him sympathetic is thrust on the reader.

Even worse, the family part of the story only seems to be an attempt to justify the protagonist’s current lifestyle. In fact, there’s no real indication that he was any different prior to his mother’s death, and a judgemental brother hardly needed any urging to take a walk on the “wild side.”

Solid writing almost overcomes a bad choice of a literary device that is merely a cry to be noticed. McInerney’s attempt to be edgy weakens what could have been a good novel. At best read it while looking for something better.

Friday, October 28, 2005

D'ya hear about . . . ?

On Friday, 10/28/05, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported Donald Trump was ticked when he saw an advanced copy of a biography about him by Timothy O’Brien. The paper reported, “The Donald gave the scribe considerable access to his boardroom, but it turns out O'Brien was more interested in the bedroom.” The paper said Trump was particularly annoyed about “a chapter claiming Trump had an affair with actress Robin Givens, the lantern-jawed ex-wife of heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson.”

Billy Crystal recently appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman to discuss his book 700 Sundays. Publishers Weekly reports, “Reading the book version of comedian Crystal’s Broadway solo show can be initially off-putting. The jokes he uses to warm up his audience (on why Jews eat Chinese food on Sunday nights, his complaints about his circumcision, the nasal pronunciation of Jewish names, etc.) are distinctly unfunny on the page. But once Crystal is finished with shtick and on to the story of his marvelous Long Island family, readers will be glad they can savor it at their own pace. There’s the story of Crystal’s uncle Milt Gabler, who started the Commodore music label and recorded Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit” when no one else would. Then there’s the Sunday afternoon when Holiday takes young Crystal to see his first movie at what later became the Fillmore East. There’s even Louis Armstrong at the Crystal family seder, with Crystal’s grandma telling the gravelly-voiced singer, “Louis, have you tried just coughing it up?” At the heart of these tales is Crystal’s father, the man who bought his little boy a tape recorder when he announced he wanted to be a comedian and didn’t scold when he recycled off-color borscht belt routines for family gatherings. Crystal’s dad worked two jobs and died young, so they had maybe 700 Sundays together — but how dear they were.”

President Jimmy Carter recently appeared on Larry King Live to discuss his latest book, Our Endangered Values. Publishers Weekly reports, “After several books on spirituality and homespun values (most recently Sharing Good Times), President Carter turns his attention to the political arena. He is gravely concerned by recent trends in conservatism, many of which, he argues, stem from the religious right’s openly political agenda. Criticizing Christian fundamentalists for their “rigidity, domination and exclusion,” he suggests that their open hostility toward a range of sinners (including homosexuals and the federal judiciary) runs counter to America’s legacy of democratic freedom. Carter speaks eloquently of how his own faith has shaped his moral vision and of how he has
struggled to reconcile his own values with the Southern Baptist church’s transformation under increasingly conservative leadership. He also makes resonant connections between religion and political activism, as when he points out that the Lord's Prayer is a call for ‘an end to political and economic injustice within
worldly regimes.’ Too much of the book, however, is a scattershot catalogue of standard liberal gripes against the current administration. Throwing in everything from human rights abuses at Abu Ghraib to global warming, Carter spreads himself too thin over talking points that have already been covered extensively.”

As King Kong once again hits movie theaters, the 1933 version of what the Philadelphia Inquirer calls a “landmark film” has finally come out on DVD. The Inquirer reports: “Offered in both a standard and a more lavish collectors’ edition with extra bonuses, King Kong comes in a handsome restoration that does justice to its resourceful black-and-white photography.

Even though we are jaded by dazzling special effects today, the 1933 RKO movie, codirected by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, is still mighty impressive. You can still feel what must have absolutely stunned the audience at the premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.

A remarkable retelling of the fable of Beauty and the Beast, King Kong works because it creates sympathy for the great ape even while he is on the rampage. The erotic frisson that culminates with Kong clutching Fay Wray as he bats away biplanes from his perch on the Empire State Building is one of the most iconic scenes in all of movies.

The documentaries that accompany the film recount the immense labor and ingenuity that went into its creation, from the dreamlike production design to the breakthrough use of stop-motion photography.”

Thursday, October 27, 2005

The Casual Critic — Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea

Writing a novel to espouse a literary line of theory or criticism doesn't seem like a very good idea to me. And while literary folks much more serious than I would no doubt scoff at my review of Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea, and probably rightly so, this book did little for me. That is with the possible exception of depressing me.

Antoine Roquentin is horrified by his own existence. The French writer keeps a diary of his life, depicting himself and those he encounters in such a way that literally makes him nauseous. He fails to find refuge in a lost love, and ultimately attempts to find a fresh start.

While Sartre plays with some interesting concepts, and the journal-style text has offered me pleasurable reads in other novels, this novel just never pulls the reader in. It can't. The first-person narrator is our eyes and ears through this world, and he pretty much hates everything and everyone — including himself.

There is an element of history that approaches interesting. Roquentin is attempting to write about Marquis de Rollebon, a French aristocrat who was involved in politics during and after the French Revolution. Like everything else, Roquentin begins to think working on the book is worthless, and begins to question whether or not Rollebon ceases to exist if everyone just forgets about him.

The problem is Sartre's attempt to offer up Existentialist thought presumably as worthwhile is far too prevalent in the story. I googled "existentialism," and I found the following at
Existentialism attempts to describe our desire to make rational decisions despite existing in an irrational universe. Unfortunately, life might be without inherent meaning (existential atheists) or it might be without a meaning we can understand (existential theists). Either way, the human desires for logic and immortality are futile. We are forced to define our own meanings, knowing they might be temporary.

I would imagine this theory lends itself to doomsayers more than upbeat, positive folks, eh? There, of course, is room for the latter, but Sartre rarely if ever glanced that way.

Then again, Nausea won the 1964 Noble Prize in Literature, so maybe I'm just an idiot. Read this one at your own peril. It may just broaden your horizons.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

The Casual Critic — Tillie Olsen’s Tell Me a Riddle

Tillie Olsen writes in a style that reminds me of the camera direction of shows like NYPD Blue — jumping in and out of scenes, grabbing the heart of the scene, and moving on. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it leaves the reader a bit behind, in her short-story collection Tell Me a Riddle.

The opening story, "I Stand Here Ironing," is the best of the collection. A mother mulls over the request of her daughter's teacher to discuss the troubles her daughter is having in school. Of course the mother knows her daughter's struggles. The prose floats through the pages the way a real person remembers, and, sadly in this case, regrets the past.

"O Yes" shows its readers how early the realities of race relations impact us. Two young girls, once best friends, see themselves losing each other as the black family and white family head in different directions. As she does throughout the collection, Olsen never wavers from what are often harsh realities in this story.

"Hey Sailor, What Ship" examines the toll of alcoholism on the addicted and those around him. I definitely could have used a bit more explanation to understand the relationships here. There was just too much put on the reader.

"Tell Me a Riddle" looks at the fate of aging we all face. Overwhelmingly sad, the story is very strong. The cruel realities of becoming an elderly person are never shied away from here. Occasionally, the prose left me a touch lost, but nothing that hurt the story too much.

Olsen is a voice I'm guessing few casual readers like myself have come across before. Tell Me a Riddle isn't a page-turner, but at the very least will broaden your horizons.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

The Casual Critic — Live 8

It had been years since I had turned on MTv intentionally, let alone left it on. But, this summer I was compelled to check out Live 8, the 20-years-later sequel to Live Aid going on in my own hometown. Disappointed by annoying commentary of MTv (are they still called VJs?) hosts trying desperately to strike a balance between being hip-hop and career oriented, I went online and finally caught a glimpse of what the internet can be.

Jumping from Philly, to London, Tokyo, Beirut, and the four other concerts to catch live performances was, not to sound like a rapidly-aging geek, very cool. It kept me online for a couple hours, only taking a break under the assumption that concerts would be going on all that day. Not only was I disappointed to see it wind down early, I was shocked not to be able to return days later to watch any performance I wanted.

Yes, of course, I knew they'd be selling a DVD. Why do you think I wrote a review? But, c'mon! Leave the performances up for a while. I must admit I didn't look real hard when I checked the site on which I had watched the live performances, but . . . should I have really had to?

Anyway, here's what I did see that was worth mentioning:

· Bob Geldoff offered up a decent, but predictable, opening speech. The most memorable moment came when he introduced a now thriving young African woman that Live Aid saved, by his account, minutes before she starved to death.
· Seeing Jon Bon Jovi back in front of a band wasn't as strange as I thought it would be. I'm already used to seeing the guy in the owner's box at Philadelphia Soul games with the Arena Football League. They weren't bad at all.
· Madonna proved she's still Madonna, dropping the F-bomb for no particular reason. Her gesture to keep the young African woman on stage as she sang, while well-intended, quickly became awkward.
· UB40 and Destiny's child were enjoyable acts I happened to catch.
· Brian Wilson caught my attention because a Beach Boys' album, the name of which I don't recall, was the first I ever owned. His age showed, but he was ok.
· Will Smith, the Philly concert host, was the best of the I acts I saw. He ''does'' Philly better than anyone, and I just like his music.

Of course, despite the great cause, whether or not you would want to watch the DVD depends on how many of the acts you liked. Based only on what I saw online, I'll skip it.

Thursday, October 6, 2005

The Casual Critic — Hockey 2006

The dumbest sport in the world, or at least the one with the dumbest players in the world, returned this week. That's right, after a year of "labor strife" the National Hockey League decided to lace up their skates, work hard, work hard, work hard, and put the puck in the back of the net once again.

OK, so mocking those idiotic clichés doesn't quite work without the special Canadian accent coming through a toothless hockey player's mouth.

The truth is, I'm not really a hockey hater. Hockey's a nice diversion on a cold winter night when the NBA is off and there's nothing good on TV. And playoff hockey can be great to watch even if West Wing's finally about to reveal Jed Bartlett's deep, dark secret. But that's all it is, and all it ever will be.

Die-hard hockey fans are the reason guys like me rip hockey every once in a while just to keep them in their place. They call up sports talk shows every spring when their team makes the playoffs, which is almost impossible not to do, and crow about how the rest of us are missing the best sport in the world.

This is still a sport in which every score seems to shock the hell out of the play-by-play guy. It just revamped their rule book, and most of us still don't get why 9 out of 10 penalties are called. I heard there's a tie-breaker shoot-out, but the loser still gets a point. Huh? A good fight still sends people home happy as much as a win.

But none of that is why hockey is the dumbest sport in the world. It garners that distinction for barely holding on to its less than lofty spot as the fourth major sport, and having players dumb enough to allow an entire season be cancelled because they didn't want a salary cap. Idiots like Jeremy Roenick actually got uppity about it!

He helped reduce the modicum of popularity his sport had, and went around babbling like he was going to educate fans on why we should like his sport. It was like WNBA players prattling on about what a great game they have. There's nothing more pathetic than an overpaid athlete whining because no one likes their sport, as if they have some God-given right to be popular.

Hopefully, NHL players have learned their lesson. Ironically, the hockey video game used to be the only thing on Sega to rival Madden football. It was a quick hit when you didn't have time for Madden, or good for three to four games in the time it took to play one game of Madden. Every once in a while it was worth making a point to play it even if you had time for football. Too bad watching hockey will never be as good.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

The Casual Critic — Adam Braver's Mr. Lincoln's Wars

I've had a difficult time figuring out what exactly I think of Adam Braver's debut novel, Mr. Lincoln's Wars. Described as historical fiction, which I don't recall ever reading before at least as an adult, the text subtitled "Novel in Thirteen Stories" offers interesting enough reading but struggles to solidify its value.

The strongest aspects of the stories, which I'm not convinced equate to a novel at all, are the presentation of various opinions offered from fictional characters on Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. Without having done much research on the book or Lincoln, I pretty much assume the stories are at least grounded in fact. (Otherwise, the book has zero value.) Reading about the frustration on both sides of a fairly protracted war was a side of the North that was a bit eye-opening for me.

Braver portrays Lincoln as somewhat tortured over the death of his son Willie. The human side of our 16th president, depicted as roaming the White House night after night and trying to help his wife cope at the same time, left me wondering about the power we give to one man.

The story behind John Wilkes Boothe's assisination stood out from the others. I never really thought about how convinced individuals in the South were that Lincoln was ruining our country by freeing the slaves. But, it obviously makes complete sense, and the portrait of Boothe drives the point home quite well. (For the record, I'm saying it makes sense that the southerners felt that way based on the fact that they tried to form their own country over the issue. I'm not agreeing with their stance on slavery.)

Braver also examines, in separate stories, the night of Lincoln's death from Mary Todd's perspective and the president's autopsy. Both, for reasons other than the obvious, were quite sad. Mary Todd is forced to essentially stand aside while official business is tended to, and you almost get the sense that she wished her husband hadn't risked it all to free the slaves. The irony of this is highlighted by the fact that she sought comfort from their black servant on the night Lincoln was killed. The story of his autopsy again reduced Lincoln to one of us, as do the stories focusing on his pain about Willie, in the end no more or less a man than anyone else despite his place in history.

Decent reading, Mr. Lincoln's Wars nonetheless kept begging the question of how much balance there was between "historical" and "fiction." It also walked an odd line between a children's tale and very adult language. Read it for fun while looking for something better.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

The Casual Critic — West Wing

There it was, right there in the Labor Day weekend version of the Inquirer's "Unconventional Wisdom." (My apologies to the author as I never wrote down her name, wrongly assuming I could get it in proceeding weeks. The column is apparently written by a different writer each week.) I could finally stop hiding. I wasn't the only one! I was free to admit it.

I, too, watch the West Wing marathons.

Holidays. Mondays. That week-long one they did, which was just freaky. Even just the daily reruns.

I admit it. I feel like I know more about how our government works because I watch the show. I followed the West Wing election more than Bush-Kerry. I'm fascinated by the prospect of seeing the show's entire cast change this season, though I'm guessing Jimmy Smits beats Allan Alda and retains most of the regulars. (They gave it away, if I'm right, by making "Leo" his V.P. candidate.)

Yeah, I know, it can't possibly really be what it's like . . . right? But watching the little things is the amazing part of the show, and the reason reruns are so popular. You pick up little things that must have some basis in reality. The bartering that gets bills, funding, and whatever else approved or not. The total, almost 24-hour a day commitment made by the staff. The lifestyle the President of the United States endures.

I thought the last couple seasons were a bit down by West Wing standards, and I don't get why they skipped a whole year of Bartlett's second term, but the show is still the best on T.V. The assassination attempt and kidnapping of Bartlett's daughter are two of the most intriguing sequences of episodes. The humor/wit of the first season is unmatched by later seasons or other shows.

The show's move to Sundays this season could signal the beginning of the end. After all, cast changes spell doom for most shows, and they're attempting at least a massive shuffle, if not overhaul, of the cast. If it survives post-Bartlett, it might be the most fascinating thing to see (if not watch) from television in years — an entire change of characters.

For the record, I'm guessing Santos wins, but is assassinated at the end of the season. It let's all the current main characters "move up," except Bartlett (and C.J. gets shuffled around), and stay on the show.

I haven't bought any T.V. show DVDs, but as far as television goes, you can't ask for more than the West Wing.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

The Casual Critic — Cold Play's X&Y

Having seen their album, X&Y, on the Billboard charts for a while, I figured it was time to test myself as a critic and give Cold Play — a band I'd never heard of before — a listen. A quick Google told me they are one of the hottest bands in the world, and this was their much-anticipated third album.

The first song I heard was a precursor of the biggest problem I had with the album — the lyrics were nice, but "unearned." It's filled with lines like "I never felt this way before," but we never know why he's just so damn emotional. Lines like this clutter the album, and singer Chris Martin has a dramatic quality that, given these lyrics, comes off like some kid immitating a grizzled rock star.

"A Message" offers words like: "Your heavy heart / is made of stone / and it's so hard to see clearly / you don't have to be on your own." I'm not sure what the hell this means, and the acoustic guitar and drama-ridden voice make me really not care. I was a senior in high school when the song that went ". . . what would you say / if I took those words a way . . . " was cool, and this felt like a weak, way too late version of it.

“White Shadows,” “Speed of Sound,” and “Square One,” are the best X&Y offers, along with “Fix You” as the one song with lyrics that make sense. The others don't reach that lofty standard, but they at least don't depress the hell out of you. “What If” is close to these, but the words just go no where.

Look, I'm not a snob about song lyrics, but gimme something! “The Hardest Part” never explains anything. Like the many of the others — including “Talk,” “Low,” and “X&Y” — it just mashes together a bunch of clichés. “Twisted Logic” and “Swallowed in the Sea” end up as loud songs with the same problems.

There is a U2 quality in the sound of a couple songs, but I probably shouldn't sully Bono and the boys by mentioning it. Even if you're looking for something new, leave this for the true fan of Cold Play.

Thursday, September 8, 2005

The Casual Critic — Fahrenheit 9/11

Michael Moore almost deserved credit for one thing — he essentially makes no suggestion that Fahrenheit 9/11 is an unbiased look at President Bush's reactions to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. But, he even screwed that up by calling his film a documentary.

“Documentary” is defined by as “[p]resenting facts objectively without editorializing or inserting fictional matter, as in a book or film.” Calling Fahrenheit 9/11 a documentary is like calling The Casual Critic scholarly work, and I got a better shot at making that stick than Moore does using his description.

Fahrenheit 9/11 is an attack on President Bush, plain and simple. I don't necessarily have a problem with that (and certainly the events in the Gulf Coast after Hurrican Katrina make it even easier to question Bush). While I support the war in Iraq, I have never voted for any Bush. In fact, my biggest problem with 2004 Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry was that he made the war a campaign issue. But, I digress.

I don't even dispute Moore's facts. He suggests Bush had business ties to Bin Laden, and that the family of Bin Laden has business interests that benefit from a U.S. defense build-up. He questions Bush by pointing to events that took place after September 11th, such as Bin Laden family members being allowed to leave the country, the area Bin Laden was thought to be in being ignored for two months, and a Taleban rep being allowed to visit our country.

The problem is Moore gives the film a smartass tone, offers zero context, draws some idiotic conclusions, and plays the same type of games he claims the Bush Administration is playing. He disgustingly put Iraq in the role of sympathetic figure, which is a joke. He also fills his film with plenty of facts that, while making Bush look bad, have little to do with 9/11.

Let's start with Moore's criticism of Bush's immediate reaction upon being told of the attacks. The President was told of the planes crashing into the World Trade Center while at an appearance with young children, and Moore rips him for a slow reaction. Being whisked out of that classroom would have done absolutely nothing but traumatize a bunch of kids and create dramatic video. Typically, Moore uses the slow reaction to mock Bush, and never even mentions a possible alternative reason for the calm reaction.

The list of nonsense “issues” Moore has with Bush is extensive. He points to Bush being on vacation too much, compares Bush's salary as president with his business interests, and compares the war to the non-war depicted in George Orwell's 1984. Moore flat-out says Bush was looking to roll back civil liberties, and compares examples of poor border patrol and holes in airport security with abuses of the Patriotic Act. He even blames Bush for poor behavior of troops, and mocks press coverage of the war. According to Moore, the Terror Alerts are merely propaganda to keep us all scared and supporting the war. Worst of all, Moore uses — in every sense of the word — a mother who lost her son in Iraq speaking out against the war to punctuate his film.

Farenheit 9/11 is filled with shots of members of the Administration about to go on camera looking odd or confused, shows “support” of Bush in the form of the airheaded Britanny Spears, and offers clips from the TV series Dragnet to mock things Moore doesn't like. Regardless of your opinion of the war in Iraq, Moore fails miserably at producing anything better than a latenight skit. I'd say skip it, but wouldn't want to add to Moore's paranoia. So, I'll just point out that this sucks.

Thursday, September 1, 2005

The Casual Critic — Rory O'Shea was Here

I will fully admit I am prejudiced regarding the worth of films like Rory O'Shea was Here (aka I'm Dancing Inside in the U.K.). As a disabled individual, I compare the lack of films, books, art, etc., devoted to people with disabilities to the same issues faced by African Americans years ago. Any film even attempting to portray disabled characters in a realistic, non-cutesy, way is worthwhile.

Rory O'Shea (James McAvoy) moves in at the Carrigmore Residential Home for the Disabled, and begins to bond with Michael Connolly (Steven Robertson), a young man with severe Cerebral Palsy whose speech is so impaired few can understand him. Rory has Muscular Dystrophy, and is a free spirit not about to conform to the docile life prescribed by the home. He understands Michael quite well, and lures him out of his shell into the world outside the home. The two ultimately strong-arm Michael's public figure father who abandoned him after his mother died (as well as a government agency) into providing them with their own place. Leaving the home behind, they face life on their own along with a personal aide (Siobhan, played by Romola Garai), whom they pull out of nowhere.

Though a bit predictable, O'Shea does a solid job of dealing with the fight almost anyone with a significant disability goes through to find the same respect automatically given those considered "normal." There are some truly funny moments in this story that remains refreshingly focused on the friendship between two young men. The film avoids sap, and never falls into cliché mode.

One of the most poignant moments of the film occurs at a party to which Rory and Michael accompanied their assistant. Michael attempts to make his affection for Siobhan known, only to be thwarted. After Michael departs what becomes an awkward scene, Rory positions himself behind a microphone to voice his friend's desire. Siobhan's response is to simply push the microphone away.

The following scene shows Siobhan telling Michael she only sees him as an employer, while Rory interprets for Michael from the other room. Powerful in many ways, the scene shows a bond between the two friends that I'd gamble few ever experience, and faces the issue that people with disabilities have the same sexual urges as the rest of the world.

My only problem with the film may be my own unfair desire to get more out of such films, simply because they are so rare. I'm not sure most viewers (assuming people not already familiar with people with disabilities would bother to watch) get Michael's seemingly awkward approach to showing Siobhan how he felt. He's never had any experience with women. I also think they could have made Michael a touch more understandable for the sake of the film. I have the same problem with my speech, so I'm certainly not questioning the reality they displayed. But, I’m usually able to eventually understand other people with speech impairments, and making this fictional character slightly more understandable may have helped viewers empathize with him even more.

I could go on and on with what I wanted more of, but I think that's more about the rarity of films like this one than any true flaws. It's worth mentioning that the acting of McAvoy and Robertson is incredible, never once giving a false moment to their characters.

Make a point to see this film. It offers up a reality not seen enough in entertainment, especially when the sap is left out.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

The Casual Critic — Pat Conroy's Beach Music

Expectation is an undervalued power of the human mind. Teachers who expect high standards from students often get quality work handed in; teachers who hate kids and think they're dumb usually get results suggesting their students are dumb.

Pat Conroy's Beach Music was recommended to me as a very funny story about brothers that are brutally sarcastic with each other. While it is, in fact, a story of five brothers to a large degree, there are so many other things going on that I often felt like I wished it would just get back to the brothers. That said, the story never really dragged, evidenced by the fact that I made it through the 767-page marathon.

Jack McCall returns home to say goodbye to his mother as she dies from cancer, and is forced to face a past he has willfully ignored since the suicide of his wife. His four rancorous brothers and their drunk of a father do everything they can to make his re-entry into the family difficult, while he copes with his former in-laws who challenged him for custody of his only daughter, a group of life-long friends destroyed by a tragic mistake, and the past that he blames for not allowing him to love his deceased wife enough and also led to her death.

Now you get why this novel is so damn long.

In all seriousness, I did feel Conroy dove into too many pasts in order to explain the death of Jack's wife, Shyla. The absolutely heartbreaking tales of the Holocaust that had been dumped on her as a child, however, were probably the most powerful things I've ever read on that part of history. The level of detail brought home the horror of it like nothing else in my experience.

The problem for me came when he offered McCall's mother's past, that of another Holocaust survivor, and his childhood friend, Jordan, as well as a subplot surrounding the group. All written very well, it just felt like a bit too much for one novel.

Jack McCall, the first-person narrator, eventually became a bit too sweet to bare. Possibly I was just tired of reading the same voice for such a long time, but he had a touch of the holier-than-thou in him, and his desire to keep his daughter in a cocoon got a bit grating.

Again, expectations may have hurt my reading of the novel. Exchanges between the brothers were hilarious at times, and their story seemed to deserve more of the focus – not that I wanted more pages! The ending of the subplot was brought about in unique fashion, but may have been wrapped up too neatly. The main ending was truly emotional, and added the value you wanted all along to get to.

Beach Music has some of the best writing I've read since starting The Casual Critic, yet a lack of focus hurts it a bit. Still, it's worth reading.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

The Casual Critic — Will Smith's Lost & Found

I first bought a Will Smith album years ago when his funny lyrics in songs like “Parents Just Don't Understand” caught my teenaged attention. Movie soundtrack songs like “Men in Black” and “Nod Ya Head” nudged me to take a chance a few years back on Born To Reign — an album I still keep in my shuffle rotation. Combining the humor many know him best for while getting a touch preachy now and then, Smith's latest, Lost and Found, is another very good outing by the Philly product.

“Switch” seems to be the first song making the rounds these days. A very smooth offering, it reminded me a touch of early (before he was a freak) Michael Jackson stuff. The lyrics are nothing special, but it's one of the better tracks. The remix is a harder version that moves even better, though as a white guy with Cerebral Palsy offering advice on what moves may not be wise.

“Could U Love Me” and “Lost and Found” are also very good, smooth tracks that would likely stay in the mix for a Top 40 fan with an open mind. The title track is unique with what my casual ear would call an interesting use of chello. It's a great reply to his critics who whine that he's not a true rapper.

“Pump Ya Brakes,” with Snoop Dogg, and “If U Can't Dance” bring out some of the best of Smith with a combination of very funny lyrics within songs that move. I also love the words in “Ms. Holy Roller,” which rolls its eyes at born-again christians (“You can't be dirt your whole life and say oops”), and “Mr. Nice Guy” is a funny retort regarding his image.

“Tell Me Why” is the first song I ever heard touch on 9/11, and offers some good lyrics. “Wave 'Em Off” is a bit preachy, a slight problem throughout the album, but other songs with that problem are good enough to overcome it. “I Wish I Made That” points out a similar problem — the song is ok, but there's just too many replies to his critics on the album.

The collection is rounded out by two seemingly autobiographical songs — “Lorretta” and “Scary Story” — along with “Party Starter” and “Here He Comes,” none of which do a lot for me.

If you like what you hear from Smith on the radio, or want to go a little beyond the Top 40, Lost and Found is definitely worth listening to.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

The Casual Critic — F.X. Toole's Rope Burns

More short stories centered around boxing wasn't really what I had in mind not far removed from reading some of Hemingway's work focused on the sport. But F.X. Toole’s Rope Burns was what I had lying around, and a very strong intro from the author that reminded me of some of the reasons I came to love boxing convinced me to forge ahead.

This collection was anchored by the title story, which probably fits more into the category of novella, and “Million $$$ Baby,” the basis of the movie starring Clint Eastwood. Both offer unexpected twists, and while each has varying degrees of violence, they offer stories that do more than praise the sweet science as a noble if flawed sport.

“Rope Burns” follows a group of individuals of various race who are tied together largely through boxing in the tumultuous days surrounding the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles. The story offers a look at racial tensions that isn't completely unique but reads well anyway. The characters are the best in the collection, and a violent end is memorable, though the writer over reaches here and there.

“Million Dollar Baby” takes a mid-story twist that is truly unexpected. I would have liked just a bit more of the relationship between the reluctant trainer and the female fighter he eventually views as the first with the chance to make a million dollars. The violence that leaves him with an impossible choice is a bit too understated for me. Regardless, the ending lets the reader truly feel for both characters.

“Fightin' in Philly” goes a little bit beyond the rest of the remaining stories. It focuses on the nuances of boxing like the others, but the bond between fighter, trainer, and the “cut man” brings it to a slightly higher level. An excursion by Con, the “cut man,” to catch an art exhibit in Philadelphia was a fun glimpse into the human side of a grizzled veteran boxing man.

Rope Burns is rounded out by “The Monkey Look,” “Black Jew,” and “Frozen Water.” All three are decent, fairly easy reading, and offer nuances of the sport and enough story around the less-than-glamorous side of boxing to keep fans plenty entertained. Though “Frozen Water” stands out among the three, their similarities make things a touch dull.

Overall, Rope Burns is probably for the true fan of boxing, but I'd suggest even non-boxing fans can read it for fun while looking for something better.

Thursday, August 4, 2005

The Casual Critic — White Noise

I'm a bit of a wuss when it comes to scarey movies. So, I made a point not to watch White Noise at night. I needn't have bothered.

Jonathan Rivers (Michael Keaton) gets pulled into the world of Electronic Voice Phenomenon as he grieves the death of his wife. He soon becomes obsessed with this hi-tech version of connecting with the dead, and even begins to essentially see the near future via EVP messages.

A film that starts with some solid character development, White Noise simply gets lost in an attempt to add a scary, mysterious ending that even the director (or someone involved with the final edit) admits in a DVD extra isn't exactly clear. Though it's considered a horror film, only a few cheap, make-you-jump scenes are as close as the film gets to being scarey.

Again, it starts out decent enough. The character reluctantly enters the world of EVP, and seems to miss signs of a hoax. (In fact, I still think that would have worked well as his wife had been famous, and her death was a well-publized mystery for a time.) There's even plenty of reason to buy into the obsession he develops.

But, then, Rivers starts to get messages about tragic events that haven't occurred yet. He starts to comply with requests to intercede, and the film flirts with the absurd. For a while I was expecting Keaton to jump in the Batmobile, and foil the Joker yet again.

The film came off as being produced by EVP enthusiasts. A few DVD extras were essentially a short documentary of a couple that apparently have devoted their lives to EVP. It's too easy to mock what they do, but the basic concept lends itself to folks who want to believe. They literally tape hours of white noise and play it back to hear voices of the dead. These folks were actually asking the voices questions, and thanking them for communicating!

Isn't there a joke about it being ok to talk to yourself, but when you start answering . . . ah, forget it. (Ok, so it's not too easy to mock what they do.)

The DVD extras at least let you hear what the EVP folks consider messages from the beyond. Personally, I didn't hear anything a typical Radio Shack recorder taping an empty room wouldn't produce.

White Noise just doesn't have much to offer. Skip it.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

The Casual Critic — Coach Carter

Samuel L. Jackson and a theme of basketball — an actor who has appeared in a few movies I like and my favorite sport — gave me hope that Coach Carter would help supress my building reluctance regarding sports movies and books. But with a story that seemed to miss the main reason this true story had ever hit the headlines and played up as many clichés as it could without becoming fiction, the film merely strengthened my growing desire to avoid such entertainment options.

Ken Carter (Jackson) returns to his old high school in the tough northern California city of Richmond to turn a squad of underachieving misfits into winners, both on and off the court. Success on the court comes must faster than it does in the court, leading the coach to shut down his team until his players all meet the academic standards they agreed to. Standards set by Carter are higher than those set by the school.

There is just nothing all that special about this film, except for the fact that it is based on a true story. It falls into the inevitable trap of almost every sport-themed film: basketball is basketball. We get the tough-guy coach drilling his team, and pushing them to extremes. A lot of it seemed like a modernized, hip-hop version of Hoosiers, even to the point of showing similar drills and endless running to be fresher at the end of games.

Strangely, Carter's "lockout" of his players until they reached certain standards, which is apparently what brought his story into the national eye, never really feels like the center of the story. This is what made the story different, fresh, and while it was certainly dealt with, the lockout didn't get the attention it should have.

According to the DVD documentary, the lockout became a political volleyball. The California governor, Rush Limbaugh, and the Today Show all got into act. I don't necessarily think the film needed a cameo by Katie Couric, but a more thorough look at, for instance, the lack of support Carter got from the school was in order. It was clear, but the question of why is merely grazed over.

DVD extras also revealed several scenes that I thought fleshed out the characters in a much-needed way. For instance, Carter's son went out of his way to play for his father, leaving a better school to transfer to Richmond. Yes, we see some of the difficulties it brings, but never truly feel the friction. Granted, this is a true story, and maybe it wasn't a big deal. But one of the deleted scenes between father and son at least let you understand it more. Another deleted scene helped explain why Carter pushed his team so hard to achieve more than the standard set by the school. Still another explained at least one question about how a player returned to the team at one point, which is at best brushed passed in the film.

Jackson is ok in the film, but holds par for the course in this one by not doing anything special. Coach Carter may tell the story of an inspiring man looking to do good, but it is just entertaining as a film.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

The Casual Critic — Pete Rose's My Prison Without Bars

I finally made it down to the new ballpark last week, Citizen's Bank Park for those more tolerant of corporate America's increasing grip on life. Though it was a great game and the Phillies' new home certainly did nothing to deter my rebirth, albeit gradual, as a fan of baseball over the last couple of years, another feeling stayed with me.

Circling the stadium was like walking the boards down the shore. Games, shops, and food stands, everything but rides, have come to baseball. In fact, the first pitch came and went seemingly unnoticed by most folks. Going to the game, it seems, is now a social event.

As a kid, I was a die-hard fan of Phillies, and 1980 will live in my heart forever. My devotion followed my favorite player, Lonnie Smith, to the St. Louis Cardinals leading to the joy of watching my adopted team win a couple more Series. Those were days of seeing every pitch I possibly could and devouring box scores. But Smith's ultimate trip to the American League and later the Atlanta Braves left my loyalties homeless and my love of the game withered.

Recent unemployment led to having plenty of time on my hands, and the romanticism of the timeless, day-in, day-out nature of baseball is again finding a place in my heart. The Phils have once again become the team I root for. Yet, as I struggle to get back to die-hard status, and with all due respect to my man Lonnie, I can't help but think baseball is missing something it seems determined to never retrieve.

Pete Rose.

Yeah, Lonnie was the young guy I latched-on to, learning the game as announcers and news reports chronicled his early education as a pro player. It was a habit of mine to latch on to the younger players as I grew in my fandom of the local teams. Randall Cunningham, for better or worse, was my guy in football. Hersey Hawkins, along with Jimmy Lynam in the coaching ranks, expanded my knowledge of hoops. And while I loved the style of manufacturing runs Lonnie Smith excelled at, Rose was the living legend I got to watch roaming the diamond as a kid.

Playing on my knees in our basement with my brothers, I still "crouched" to bat because Rose did. I wanted to slide head-first or bull somebody over because Rose did. I didn't mind my hair over my ears because Rose had his it that way.

And Pete brought us 1980. Pete was baseball.

Last year I finally read Rose's book. Somehow the kid in me didn't really believe he was the grumbly guy I’d heard would brush passed kids seeking autographs. And, somehow, his version of the betting-on-baseball stuff would be make it ok. He'd be the pure, nice baseball legend kids back then like me imagined him to be.

Unfortunately, Rose's My Prison Without Bars finally killed any naivety still living in the sports fan in me. There was just something seedy about his take, not just on the scandal that has him banned from baseball, but life in general. He's a bit too proud of his tough-guy image. Worse yet, I had a sense, at times, that he fell into the "nothing's my fault, I'm addicted" attitude of the '80s.

Despite Rose having bet on baseball, he should be in the Hall of Fame. Even though I hate the argument that says guys already in the Hall have done much worse — a logic that pervades society far too much in general — the fact is, we are talking about the Hall of Fame, not life. Rose epitomized everything we want our heroes to be, at least on the field. He hustled on every play, truly played to win, did all the little things, and, in fact, won. We’re not talking about some scrappy guy who struggled to make the squad. Pete was doing ''the little things'' long after folks started charting his successful bid to become the all-time hit leader.

I'm certainly not sold on his total reinstatement. He is clearly guilty of the betting charges, but he's served his time. He's not just a Hall of Famer, he's one of the best ever, and yet can't even participate in celebrations of his former championship teams. Don't forget his infractions, but let the man have his due and allow him into the Hall and baseball stadiums on official business.

I look forward to what I hope are many more trips to the ballpark. I'll live with yuppies and the carnival around the game. And I'll remember Pete Rose played the game better than any future Hall of Fame inductee I'll ever see.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

The Casual Critic — Reaction to Rick Santorum's It Takes a Family

The headline grabbed me better than any I've seen in years: "Senator's book puts blame on Liberalism." Damn straight, baby! While I haven't yet read Senator Rick Santorum's It Takes a Family, I think it's about time somebody in this country stood up and said what millions are feeling.

In the Inquirer story I read, Santorum is criticized by Robert P. Casey, Jr., and the Democratic Party for having the nerve to suggest that there are too many two-income families. The story said he questions why women find a career more gratifying than staying at home to raise the kids, and wrote, "Here, we can thank the influence of radical feminism." The PA state Democratic Party is quoted as saying "every woman in Pennsylvania should be offended." (I guess the Party all gathered to offer the reply in unison.) Casey is quoted as saying Santorum "is out of step with reality."

Why, exactly, should every woman in Pennsylvania be offended? Is it possible that the only real purpose of the statement was to start the campaign to win Santorum's seat in the next election? Skipping the fact that everything most politicians say is about advancing their careers, let's ask the real question. Why should any woman be offended? In fact, let's go even further. Why is it that whenever anyone dare not pussy-foot around an issue, every liberal-minded anything cries foul?

I don't care about Rick Santorum, but I do care about the seemingly endless stream of liberal garbage that floods the media on a daily basis. Everybody and their brother will tell you how the world's headed to hell in a handbag, but question one thing, try to even comment on one problem that might need fixing, and somebody somewhere is getting media coverage bitching about it. We've become so absurdly politically correct that we are now paralyzed to do, or even say, anything in this country for fear of offending someone.

Isn't it possible that Santorum's view on two-income families is a compliment to women? Most would agree that kids are more troubled today than ever. The suggestion that kids are too unsupervised after school hours, giving them plenty of opportunity to get into trouble, has been made plenty of times. After-school programs don't seem to be reversing this trend. Santorum, as I read it in the paper, merely seems to suggest that mothers might be more suited to the job of guiding their children down productive paths than a government program. Yet, the liberals howl.

I'm not suggesting that the liberal and/or minority view shouldn't be heard. I often share the minority view. My problem is that when the so-called conservative view is expressed, the "story" is always about the reaction to that view. It's as though the conservative, and often the majority, is forced to remain silent or be portrayed as the evil oppressor.

Take the issue of making English our national language. Instead of being a relatively small statement that affirms that we are, in fact, a united group of people in this country, it has become a political hot potato that no one wants to touch. Opponents come up with asinine arguments centered around our country being built upon ideals of freedom, and that our history is one of being "a melting pot." So, let's dispose with common sense, and spend more tax dollars creating Spanish-speaking (or any other language-based) classrooms in public schools to educate the children of immigrants who are too lazy to learn the language of the nation they immigrated to for a better life. In fact, let's require every sign, every public document, website, and whatever else to be printed in every freakin' language ever uttered so no one's ever left out.

School prayer is another hot-button issue these days. Encouraging kids to take a quiet moment of prayer is an affront to people who want a total separation of church and state. As always they pick apart the words of our Forefathers and claim there should never be any mention of God in public places. Maybe they should read the opening sentence of the Declaration of Independence:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

How can there be any doubt that at the very least we, in fact, have the right even in public places to pray, and to offer that right to children? We invoked the name of God in the first sentence of our declaration that we were an independent country.

The list goes on and on. Let's not do background checks on potential gun owners because our Constitution gives us the right to bear arms. Forget that semi-automatics couldn't have ever been dreamed of in colonial days, and that the Framers thought of the Constitution as a living document, allowing for adjustments to change with the times when necessary exactly like the one needed to control guns.

Then, of course, there’s the flag burning issue. Somehow our own principles of freedom allow people to burn the most recognized symbol of our country right here in our own country. Opponents of a law making such an act illegal crow about how it would actually be an affront to our freedoms to ban flag burning. Common sense and our sense of patriotism tell us it's wrong, and those performing the act do it to strike a blow against such feelings, yet liberals cry out that banning it will send us down some slippery slope.

And there we have it. The slippery slope. The rallying cry of every pansy liberal.

Yes, we've all used it. I thought about in the Shiavo case. But why do we have to live in fear of it on every stinkin' issue?

Why can't we say, hey, we can ban flag burning and it won’t lead to Big Brother 'cause we damn well won't let it? Or, just maybe, allowing school prayer won't lead to a state where we all must go to the same (or any) church. And, call me crazy, but maybe a waiting period to buy a gun won't . . . well, I’m not sure how that could possibly lead us down a path of doom, but you get my point.

No, I haven't taken account of every point, some no doubt even valid, involved in the issues I've mentioned. My point is not to offer a thorough look at English as the national language, owning guns, flag burning, separation of church and state, or even Santorum's book. It is, however, my reaction to some of the liberal views that go too far and those who continue to trample the right of others to oppose their views in the name of "freedom" or even "America." When a guy suggests that one solution to society's ills is for mothers with the financial wherewithal to stay home with their kids is called "out of step" and offensive to every woman, something is wrong with our step.

Thursday, July 7, 2005

The Casual Critic — Richard Ford's Independence Day

Richard Ford's Independence Day is filled the type of prose most of us who have ever actually sat down to write the great American novel had in mind. Waxing intelligent about everything and anything under the sun, the novel offers a profile of the average Joe after life has been permanently derailed from the original planned destination.

Frank Bascombe has returned to his life in New Jersey after escaping to Florida, and eventually Europe, in the midst of a mid-life crisis brought on by the death of his youngest son and divorce (which ended The Sportswriter, a novel I read years ago but isn't necessary to understand the sequel). Living in what he calls the Existence Period, Frank has settled into life as a realtor, a part-time father, with a not-all-that-attached girlfriend, and a couple small business interests. He is eventually pulled back into the concerns of daily life over a Fourth of July weekend excursion with his teenage son who is struggling to cope with his own problems.

There seem to be numerous ways of looking at Frank Bascombe, which is no doubt at least partly why Ford took home the Pulitzer Prize for this elaborate character profile. He is at various times incredibly self-aware, hyper-sensitive, caring, incredibly funny, smart, annoying, pampas, awkward, and a pain in the ass . . . just like the rest of us. At times the first-person narration (through Frank) makes it difficult for the reader to get a true feel of reality, or at least a balanced picture of what it may be, though this is part of the profile. The reader has to rely on Frank's ex-wife Ann, and their children, for a balanced picture of Frank.

Frank's relationship with the Markhams, an awkward couple that simply cannot decide on a house due to plenty of their own issues, also offers insight into his personality. He pats himself on the back for not jettisoning them, truly wants to help them find their place in life (literally and figuratively), but at times also just wants to make his commission and move on.

I'm slightly torn about the writing in this piece, but only slightly. At times seemingly adorned to be adorned, I keep coming back to the character. He thinks about everything, so when the writing goes on and on about some awkward moment that most of us would notice but quickly ignore, it's a statement about Frank. The true power of the writing, however, may be when he expands on the nuances of the way people relate to each other, the past, and their own circumstance. It makes you think, which I find as a sign of quality in any book, movie, or the like.

Reading this book is, at times, a chore. It's a bit long, and flirts with losing it's reader on a few occasions. But, overall, it is readable, and allows the reader to delve into a character and a story they will care about. That, coupled with powerful writing, makes Independence Day more than worth reading.

Thursday, June 30, 2005

The Casual Critic — Top 5 Memorable Lines in Film

Last week the American Film Institute put out its 100 Most Memorable Lines in film history. While “Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn” from Gone with the Wind predicably took the top spot, and guys just a touch older than me love saying how much they “. . . love the smell of napalm in the morning,” (Apocalypse Now) neither means much to those of us who still insist middle age is down the road even though our 20s are a memory. So, I came up with my own Most Memorable Lines list, which AFI no doubt intended every blog even partially related to movies to do. Of course, my generation is accused of starting the trend of smaller and smaller attention spans, so I (predictably, I guess) kept it to a Top 5 List.

“E.T. phone home” only reached number 15 for AFI, but I think it's worthy of my number 5. This is the turning point in E.T. - The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), one of the best movies ever. What kid didn't want to find E.T. in his back yard and keep him forever? But this simple line made us love the little guy even more. He had some fun, even kicked back a few, and now he was ready to head home. He really was one of us!

“I'll be back” was as quotable as it got in its day. You could even toss it out to a teacher in the right moment with just a hint of being flip and never get caught. Hell, you were being obedient if you did it right. The Terminator (1984) line came in at number 37 for AFI, but gets my fourth spot.

“Five minutes to Wapner” doesn't make AFI's list, but I just can't leave it off. Its quotability didn't last long, but it almost wraps up this great film in one line. Raymond's life is a routine, and absolutely nothing is going to change that. This line from Rain Man (1988) takes third on my list.

“You can't handle the truth!” This is the classic Jack line for our age from A Few Good Men (1992). “Here's Johnny” (from The Shining, 1980) is decent, but it's a second-hand line. “Truth” is original, has a very good build-up that sells it, and leads to possibly the only quotable modern-day soliloquy that acts as a climax of a movie. This reached number 29 for AFI, but hits second in my line-up.

“Yo, Adrian!” may be a bit of a homer pick from a Philly guy, but it's topping my list. In the midst of total chaos after the best fight of his career, this no-name Philadelphia boxer just wants to find his woman. It's one of the last lines in the 1976 film, Rocky. Number 80 for AFI, the line and movie are no doubt devalued by the predictable sequels that followed. Watch this movie again, and you'll be shocked at the depth of actual character development offered up.

Honorable mention goes to Meg Ryan's fake orgasm scene in When Harry Met Sally (1989). AFI wusses out by putting the proceeding “I'll have what she's having,” but that's not what anybody remembers about the scene. It may not be a line, but it's funny as hell, and Freudians would have a ball picking its meaning apart in terms of the couple's relationship.

In closing, I offer apologies to fans of “Go ahead, make my day” (Sudden Impact 1983), “May the Force be with you” (Star Wars, 1977), and “You talking to me?” (Taxi Driver, 1976). All great lines, but just a bit before my movie-going days and flics I've never caught on cable or DVD.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

The Casual Critic — George Orwell's 1984

So many references are made to "Big Brother" that finally reading George Orwell's 1984 felt like getting in on some inside joke. I expected to find a haunting text that still had relevance as a cautionary tale about a future that we may well still be approaching. Camera phones seemed like the first step to a society that allowed itself to be constantly monitored.

Before you rebels take a hammer to Verizon's latest model, relax. While I can certainly understand the fears it may have wrought in the early days of modern communication technology, and a time when Communism was alive and seemingly well, the story has lost at least some of its bite.

Winston Smith is a dying breed of man that questions a state that has literally invaded every aspect of life. Constant surveillance is a reality, and every waking moment is spent in service of the Party (the government headed by the one and only Big Bro). The last frontier of control is thought, which is slowly being conquered by the government, leading to a population that believes everything it's told even in the face of absurdly obvious contradictions.

The story gets a bit bogged down in the doctrine of what the Party is all about and what their goals appear to be. The biggest question as to why they want to basically strip people of their human instincts is eventually answered, yet how they ''got over the hump'' of having the majority of folks go along with the program is never satisfactorily explained. Talk of a revolution only tells the reader that something brought about dramatic change, presumably a war, but even the fact that this revolution occurred at all is left in doubt.

This doubt is actually ok in some ways within the context of the story because of the Party's manipulation of the past. The Party literally rewrites history — from books to old newspapers — to create the illusion that current conditions are always an improvement on the past and in-line with what the Party promised. In fact, the government is constantly re-writing the official version of Newspeak (the new word for English) with the intent to narrow thought.

Though a bit dry, the suggestion that reality is shaped by words is an intriguing one, and is explored rather thoroughly. As with their enemies, the Party looks to eliminate — not refute, not diminish, but eliminate — words, and, therefore, ideas, that might contradict Party thought. The thinking being that if the terminology for disputing the Party doesn't exist, loyalty is ensured.

The biggest problems I had with 1984 may not be problems at all. First, it is certainly a depressing look at the fate of mankind. Secondly, a decent story-line is essentially interrupted right in the middle of the novel for a lengthy dissertation on how the Party is managing to dehumanize people. In the form of a text meant to debunk what the Party is doing, the explanations answered many questions I had as I read. But, it killed the flow of a story that was allowing details to unfold just fine.

Orwell does a great job of presenting the familiar in a new, somewhat scary light. The detail with which he conceptualized how this type of future could be maintained is almost startling, and I can't say that a path to such a future is inconceivable even today. His vision of the ability of a government to monitor its citizenry and manipulate information would only be enhanced by modern technology. But today's reader may need more to buy the initial fall of the human spirit, possibly due to the ultimate failure of Communism.

While 1984 is not a page turner, it's definitely worth the read.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

The Casual Critic — Ernest Hemingway's Men Without Women

Short stories seem like the perfect hors d'oeuvre for a writer or a reader. A way to practice your craft or get that good feeling of reading something literary without too much pain. But as we all know, looks can be deceiving.

A while back I tried to enhance both my reading and writing habits by focusing on the short story. I'll spare you my writing struggles, but I actually believe reading short stories can be more difficult than reading novels, just as writing short stories is in some ways harder than writing novels. Of course, I've never had fiction of any kind professionally published, so maybe I should just shut up.

Anyway, I recently put my short story efforts on hold because I was having more success with novels. It's probably just me, but short stories come with too much pressure. I always feel like you're supposed to have all of the power, meaning, art, and whatever else a novel offers in 10 pages. But, I needed something short to read, and Ernest Hemingway's Men Without Women came highly recommended, so I gave it a shot.

Only after reading it did I realize I already owned Hemingway: The Short Stories, which included every story I'd just read. While research didn't return my wasted cash, it suggested that this, his second collection of short stories, helped solidify Hemingway's reputation as one of the major writers of the 1920s. It also offers some prime examples of what I love and loathe about short stories.

"The Killers" is what short stories should be all about in my humble opinion. It pulls you in to a simple environment and offers a self-contained story with an ending that leaves you thinking. Self-contained is the key phrase for me. It sounds like an obvious element of any text, especially short stories, but it's not. Just read "Hills Like White Elephants" — the story never reveals what it's about. You can't even say that it suggests what it's about unless you really delve into the symbolism of the story's surroundings. Only research confirmed that the couple is discussing abortion.

It may be argued that there just aren't many casual readers of short fiction, making strictly text-centered readings unimportant. I just think any writing needs to have its meaning at least directly alluded to in the text. Research, allusion, symbolism, and the like are wonderful parts of literature. But if the meaning of a story you wrote is only grasped by knowledge of something external, I think you're a practicing literary snob.

"Fifty Grand" and "The Undefeated" are interesting contrasts for me. Both are about sports figures grabbing the last bit of value — be it glory or cash — they can get from their sport. My familiarity with boxing made "Fifty Grand" a great read, yet the latter story did little for me as I know nothing about bullfighting. It made me wonder how much an author should pull a reader over the hurdle of such unfamiliarity. However, my enjoyment of "Fifty Grand," which offered no more explanation of boxing than was offered for bullfighting in "The Undefeated," suggests it's not really the author's concern.

Though not quite on the same level as "Hills Like White Elephants," the stories "An Alpine Idyll" and "A Simple Enquiry" also put too much on the reader. The reader certainly grasps the story easily enough, but there's just nothing special or overly interesting about them. Any meaning given each story seems to come from the reader's desire to put value on the events described. While unfamiliarity with the subject of each taint my view, I also felt "A Pursuit Race," "A Simple Enquiry," "Che Ti Dice La Patria," "In Another Country," and "Banal Story," lacked punch.

However, "Today Is Friday," "A Canary for One," "Ten Indians," and "Now I Lay Me," approach "The Killers" enough to make this collection at least worth reading. Each invites the reader in, offers a setting that is quickly discerned, and the story says something worthwhile about its characters.