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Joseph Haschka (Glendale, CA USA)

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When the Sky Falls (Sous-titres français) [Import]
When the Sky Falls (Sous-titres français) [Import]
DVD ~ Joan Allen
Price: CDN$ 16.53
22 used & new from CDN$ 3.96

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Veronica Guerin by another name, March 5 2004
2003 saw the extraordinary Cate Blanchett star in VERONICA GUERIN in the title role of the Irish investigative reporter for "The Sunday Independent" who ran afoul of Dublin's criminal underworld and was murdered on June 26, 1996. WHEN THE SKY FALLS, starring Joan Allen and released three years earlier, is a fictionalized version of the same story.
It would be difficult to choose between the two films. Allen and Blanchett are two of the best actresses in the business. The latter brought more effervescence - perhaps too much - to the role. The former ratchets the glamour of the Guerin persona down a notch to a more credible level. Indeed, for the purpose of the story, Allen takes on a fictional identity - Sinead Hamilton.
Key events in the efforts by Guerin/Hamilton to expose those behind Dublin's illegal drug traffic are common to both productions: the invasion of Guerin's home by a pistol wielding thug who shot her in the leg as a warning, her beating by the mobster John Gilligan - here named "Dave Hackett" (Gerard Flynn), and her fatal shooting by a couple of motorcycle riders while her cherry red sports car was stationary at a stoplight. WHEN THE SKY FALLS places greater emphasis on the emotional support provided by her husband, here played by Kevin McNally, while VERONICA GUERIN is a bit grittier in its depiction of heroin's effects on young addicts. Both movies provide an unsparing look at the violence employed by those controlling the drug trade, both show the importance of criminal informants to Guerin's/Hamilton's information gathering, and both portray the uneasy but ultimately symbiotic relationship the reporter had with local law enforcement.
If I was forced to pick my favorite of the two films, I guess I'd have to go with VERONICA GUERIN simply because I'm so smitten with Cate Blanchett. But both are eminently watchable, and both are a tribute to the quixotic bravery of the woman who paid the ultimate price.

Diabolique (The Criterion Collection)
Diabolique (The Criterion Collection)
DVD ~ Simone Signoret
Offered by thebookcommunity_ca
Price: CDN$ 62.56
8 used & new from CDN$ 15.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars What the poolboy found, March 4 2004
DIABOLIQUE is a cautionary tale about the need to keep your swimming pool clean, or not, depending on the state of your marriage.
Christina Delasalle (Vera Clouzot) owns a French boarding school for boys, which she runs with her husband Michel (Paul Meurisse). Also in residence is Michel's mistress, Nicole (Simone Signoret). The two women have become uneasy allies against Michel, who physically and emotionally abuses Christina. The two plot his murder.
Over a holiday weekend, during which the school will be deserted except for the caretaker, Nicole and Christina motor off to Nicole's primary residence in a town some miles away, the latter without Michel's permission. Once the women are at Nicole's place, Michel is called knowing he'll immediately come to retrieve his wayward wife without telling the caretaker. He does what's predicted. Some whiskey is drugged; Michel drinks it and falls asleep. The plotters subsequently drown the brute in the bathtub, placing a heavy bronze statue on his chest to keep him underwater overnight. The next day, the body is schlepped back to the school in a trunk-sized basket, and subsequently dumped into a swimming pool so filthy that the bottom is invisible. The working hypothesis is that once Michel floats to the surface, he'll be thought to have drowned there. But the corpse never appears and isn't part of the sludge at the bottom when the pool is drained, ostensibly to recover some lost keys. Uh-oh. And he looked mighty dead to me.
DIABOLIQUE probably worked better when it was originally released (1955). It was a simpler time. I really didn't become engaged with the plot until the water was drained from the pool and ... voila! The last third of the film provided an opportunity for mild intellectual curiosity, and the last ten minutes or so a modicum of suspense. Virtually useless was Alfred Fichet (Charles Vanel), the ex-police official turned detective, who leisurely investigates and makes Peter Falk's Columbo seem positively animated in comparison.
As a child of the latter half of the twentieth century, I can't but believe that special effects and color cinematography, combined with edgier sound, could produce a more knuckle-biting experience. (Ok, ok. I know that Sharon Stone did a panned remake of DIABOLIQUE in 1996. But I'm thinking of actresses of the caliber of, say, Nicole Kidman and Cate Blanchett in the Christina and Nicole roles respectively.) Perhaps it's just because I resent the fact that the original version has been decribed as a "grisly, horror classic" when, to my mind, it's just dated and neither grisly nor horrific.

Three To Get Deadly: A Stephanie Plum Novel
Three To Get Deadly: A Stephanie Plum Novel
by Janet Evanovich
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: CDN$ 9.89
129 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

5.0 out of 5 stars Where's Mo?, March 3 2004
I'm now three books into the Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich. I've yet to be bored - even a little bit - and that's worth a five-star rating by itself. I get bored easily.
By now, klutzy Stephanie is settled into her career as a bounty hunter employed by her sleaze-ball cousin Vinnie, a bail bondsman in beautiful Trenton, NJ, a job she took in desperation after being fired from her previous gig as a lingerie buyer. Her latest quarry is the affectionately-named Uncle Mo, the elderly, unmarried owner of the neighborhood ice cream and candy emporium, who skipped bail after being charged for carrying a concealed weapon - everyone in Trenton carries, it seems - by an overzealous cop on a traffic stop. In trying to track Mo down, Plum discovers that little is known about him by neighbors and relatives. But, Stephanie is considered Pond Scum by all for hounding a man akin to the Pope and Santa Claus all rolled into one. Then, local drug dealers start disappearing. And what's that putrid smell coming from the basement of Mo's store? As Stephanie delicately puts it, "Is it dookey?"
For me, the series hasn't become stale because Evanovich either brings to the forefront a tangential character from a previous novel, or inserts a brand new one into the plot. In THREE TO GET DEADLY, Lula, a reformed ho beaten and left for dead on Stephanie's fire escape month's before, now does filing for Vinnie and insists on "assisting" Plum on her takedowns. And we're initially introduced to Stephanie's former first husband, the shyster lawyer Dickie Orr. In the meantime, the sexual tension remains high between Stephanie and Joe Morelli, the exasperating Trenton plain-clothes cop whom the teenaged former once ran down with the family Buick after the teenaged latter despoiled Stephanie's maidenhood on the floor behind the eclair case of the local donut shop where she was working at the time.
The images conjured by Janet's prose are hilarious, as when Stephanie and her pet hamster Rex are beset by two thugs in her apartment and shots are fired. Her elderly neighbors pour forth to lend help with enough armament to have rescued Custer. Or when Stephanie struggles to apprehend a fugitive costumed as a chicken in a fast food joint.
I normally like to vary my reading, but I'm immediately jumping to Plum's next escapade, FOUR TO SCORE. Albeit frivolous, this is good stuff.

The Last Goodbye
The Last Goodbye
by Reed Arvin
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 22.02
34 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

3.0 out of 5 stars Disappointingly ordinary, Feb. 29 2004
This review is from: The Last Goodbye (Hardcover)
Isn't the pleasure a reader derives from a novel supposed to increase as the plot unfolds? THE LAST GOODBYE is unusual in that my interest steadily waned as I turned the pages. By the end, I was pretty much indifferent to the hero and the outcome.
Jack Hammond is a disgraced Atlanta lawyer reduced to acting as public defender for the urban scum hauled into court on drug and petty theft charges. (Hammond, who's a closet romantic with a weakness for damsels in distress, was summarily dropped from the roster of a high-powered law firm two years before after sleeping with a client's girlfriend.) When Jack learns that Doug, a down-and-almost-out friend with a substance abuse problem, apparently overdosed on an injectable drug, he realizes that something is wrong with the picture. Doug had a paranoid fear of needles. Was it foul play? Hammond subsequently discovers that his old pal was a computer hacker extraordinaire, and that he had an obsession with the gorgeous Michele Sonnier, a troubled young woman from the Atlanta ghetto turned brilliant and wildly successful opera singer married to Charles Ralston, the philanthropic and much revered head of Horizn Pharmaceuticals. Once Horizn debuts in the plot, and considering activist hand-wringing over the greed of the evil drug companies, the reader suspects where the storyline is going - and so it does.
It's not that THE LAST GOODBYE is awful. Why, even as recently as yesterday, it provided welcome distraction during the boring bits of a professional seminar I had to attend. But, for me, the characters never became real or garnered much sympathy. Hammond is supposed to be a lawyer, but he acts throughout like a private-eye wannabe; he never becomes sufficiently convincing as either. Minor characters that should have added zest to the story - Jack's Dumb Blonde secretary Blu and the antisocial computer outlaw Nightmare - don't really. Hammond's own preoccupation with the vulnerable Michele is torpid, and the affair slows the action down. Indeed, the final reckoning for the Bad Guys has all the knuckle-biting tension of a computer-enabled stock purchase. Worst of all for my overall opinion of the book, there are no twists clever and/or unsuspected enough to make me pause in admiration.
THE LAST GOODBYE is one of a multitude of similarly average potboilers that'll crowd the shelves of the brick-and-mortar booksellers, and which will ultimately end up on the discount tables of the clearance stores found in the outlet malls. Wait for its appearance at the latter and you'll only need to spend a couple bucks.

An Englishman in Paris: L'Education Continentale
An Englishman in Paris: L'Education Continentale
by Michael Sadler
Edition: Hardcover
10 used & new from CDN$ 12.51

4.0 out of 5 stars Bachelor living in the City of Light, Feb. 25 2004
Expat Brit Peter Mayle has written several delightfully witty books (A YEAR IN PROVENCE, TOUJOURS PROVENCE, ENCORE PROVENCE) describing his long residence in Provence in an old farm house that he and his wife fixed up. Peter contributes the preface to AN ENGLISHMAN IN PARIS written by lunch-buddy and fellow countryman Michael Sadler.
According to the book's back flap, Sadler now lives in Paris and Touraine with his French wife and their daughter. There's no time frame to AN ENGLISHMAN IN PARIS, but I gather that it recalls Michael's experience as a younger and still-single man during his first extended trip to Paris from his home in England.
Sadler's narrative contains some decidedly humorous moments, as when he transports a large wheel of odiferous cheese from point A to B. Or when he makes his first tremulous journey through that chaotic maelstrom of traffic known as the Place de l'Etoile. And when he must transfer his belongings from temporary hotel lodgings to a new apartment, and there's nowhere to park in front of the latter. Or his culinary introduction to such delicacies as beef testicles and pigs ears. Then there's his giddy affair with a married French woman.
Compared to Peter's volumes, however, Sadler isn't quite so relaxed. Perhaps it's the abundant energy and hormones of a younger man. At times, Michael's activities seem positively frenetic. Moreover, he introduces into the text many French phrases and sentences, the translations of which aren't always readily apparent as you read them, if at all. To be fair, there is a 5-page glossary of terms and colloquial expressions at the end. Language aside, chapter 28 is entirely incoherent (by design, I assume) - as if he was writing under the influence of some cooking sauce made with hallucinogenic mushrooms.
AN ENGLISHMAN IN PARIS is short - only 193 pages in a small hardcover format. Reading the book doesn't require a large investment of time. But, if you want something more satisfying about life as a foreigner in France, go first with Mayle.

Big Night [Import]
Big Night [Import]
DVD ~ Tony Shalhoub
Offered by M and N Media Canada
Price: CDN$ 123.61
10 used & new from CDN$ 59.60

2.0 out of 5 stars A bland meal, Feb. 24 2004
This review is from: Big Night [Import] (DVD)
I've seen BIG NIGHT described as "one of the great food movies". Let me clarify something here. The adjective "great" modifies "food", but not "movies".
Primo (Tony Shalhoub) and Secondo (Stanley Tucci) are Italian immigrant brothers who've opened the Paradise restaurant in an unidentified surfside town on the Eastern seaboard sometime in the 1950s. The elder Primo is a superlative chef, and both he and Secondo know it. But, Primo cooks to his desires and not the customers'. So, two years into the venture, the brothers are almost broke, the bank is about to repossess, and Secondo, the one with the business sense, is driven to despairing distraction.
Down the street is the competing Italian restaurant owned by Pascal (Ian Holm). While he admires Primo's talent, Pascal gives his patrons what they want, so his eatery is enormously successful. To help the boys out, Pascal arranges to have his friend, the Italian-American singer Louis Prima, come to the Paradise with his band for dinner. Secondo spends virtually the last of their savings preparing for the BIG NIGHT with the expectation that the event and its attendant publicity will yank them back from the brink of insolvency. In the meantime, he avoids emotional commitment to his girlfriend Phyllis (Minnie Driver) while having an affair with Gabriella (Isabella Rossellini), Pascal's mistress. After all, what are pals for?
The best bits of this film are the too infrequent cooking sequences. But the best ends there. BIG NIGHT doesn't know whether to be a drama or comedy, and succeeds at neither. The dialogue is flat and uninspired throughout, and the plot goes nowhere of interest. My wife, perhaps a dollop more impressed than I was, called the film a "character study". But no persona in this otherwise dull movie is engaging, and, indeed, I found Pascal's ebullient crassness positively annoying. About the only other good thing I can say about BIG NIGHT is that it uses as props some well-preserved, large tail-finned, period Cadillacs that will perhaps stimulate vintage car buffs.
Better films to rent that revolve around food preparation are MOSTLY MARTHA (2001) and EAT DRINK MAN WOMAN (1994). These, at least, portray characters to care about.

Sandbaggers: Season 1
Sandbaggers: Season 1
DVD ~ Roy Marsden
2 used & new from CDN$ 49.32

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Battles of wits with the Whitehall wallahs, Feb. 21 2004
This review is from: Sandbaggers: Season 1 (DVD)
The excellence of the BBC's THE SANDBAGGERS overcomes any quaintness of plotting that pits Her Majesty's Secret Intelligence Service against the machinations of the Evil Empire's KGB and its minions. Considering the menace of today's shadowy terrorist groups unaligned with any particular nation state, a return to the Cold War seems almost like the Good Old Days.
The "hero" of this television miniseries that aired in 1978 and 1980 is Neil Burnside (Roy Marsden), the wily, lonely, ruthless, testy, and driven Director of Operations, who works out of MI6's London headquarters in Century House. More specifically, Burnside oversees the "Sandbaggers", a trio of special agents available for covert operations against foreign enemies in the world's hotspots.
If you're expecting to see feats of derring-do reminiscent of 007, or even the Avengers, look elsewhere. Indeed, it's when the camera occasionally follows Neil's agents on their oversees exploits that the action gets clunky and amateurish. The essence of each episode's script lies back in London as we watch Burnside match wits with his immediate boss, SIS Deputy Chief Peele (Jerome Willis), and the agency's Director General (Richard Vernon), otherwise known as "C", both of whom Neil scornfully regards as bumbling incompetents, as well as with the meddling political wallahs in the Ministry of Defense and the Foreign Office. Who needs enemies with friends like these? And there's Neil's awkward relationship with Sir Geoffrey Wellingham (Alan MacNaughton), the urbane Permanent Undersecretary of State and the father of Burnside's estranged wife.
Perhaps the best episode in Set 1 is number 7, "Special Relationship", in which Neil dispatches Sandbagger Laura Dickens (Diane Keen) to East Berlin to retrieve some photographic intelligence from an agent-in-place. The mission turns into a personal disaster for Burnside in which the viewer first sees a human side to the Director.
THE SANDBAGGERS series nowhere approaches the superb BBC's productions of John Le Carre's TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY and SMILEY'S PEOPLE, both starring Alec Guinness. But, THE SANBAGGERS is an intriguing and intelligent depiction of the politics and backstage maneuvering of spycraft.

Scorched Earth
Scorched Earth
by David L. Robbins
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 15.16
34 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

5.0 out of 5 stars Twist leaves egg on my face, Feb. 18 2004
This review is from: Scorched Earth (Paperback)
The venue for SCORCHED EARTH is Good Hope, Virginia, where blue-collar mill workers Elijah and Clara Waddell endure the anguish of parenting a deformed baby girl, Nora, an infant so handicapped that she dies in her mother's arms in the hospital delivery suite. The child is quickly put to rest in the cemetery of the Victory Baptist Church in the plot of Clara's maternal family line. But, there's a problem. For over two-hundred years, the congregation has been exclusively white. Nora is of mixed race, Elijah being Black and Clara Caucasian. Victory Baptist's thirteen deacon's subsequently vote, over the objections of the young pastor, the spiritually tortured Thomas Derby, to have the child exhumed and re-buried in the cemetery of the town's Baptist church for Blacks. The night after the exhumation, Victory Baptist is burned to the ground, and Elijah is arrested on-site for arson. Nat Deeds, a former county prosecutor who quit his job and fled Good Hope after his wife admitted to sleeping with another man, and who's now struggling to set up a private law practice in nearby Richmond, is pressured by the presiding judge to return to his birthplace and defend Elijah, who adamantly insists on his innocence. Deeds must now go up against his old boss, the posturing Ed Fentress, who's prosecuting for the commonwealth with the next election in mind. Nat hasn't a shred of a case, and it gets worse when the body of Amanda Talley, the teenage daughter of the county sheriff, is found in the burned rubble of the church. Amanda had apparently been raped, then burned in the fire.
I believed Elijah when he claimed to be innocent. Indeed, I immediately knew who did it. And, for a few pages near the end, it appeared I was right. Pretty darn smug I was, too. At that point, I would've extolled SCORCHED EARTH not as a mystery, but as story of three childhood acquaintances - Deeds, Derby, and Talley - grappling with personal demons. But a final plot twist at the end caught me completely broadside and made me feel the fool. I guess I should read more.
Robbin's has a flair for descriptive writing and an understanding of humanity. As an example:
"Mayhem is the by-product of civilization ... It's the effluent of good intentions, loyalties, contracts, desires, and love ... The quietest of us, the simplest of us ... is a keg. A fuse burns inside everyone. What is different in each man and woman is only the length of the fuse."
Robbins has previously written two superb novels of World War Two: WAR OF THE RATS and THE END OF WAR. Focusing on a vastly different milieu, SCORCHED EARTH is as good, or better, as anything John Grisham has written about local politics, race, and justice in the Old South. I can't recommend this book too highly.

Biggest Secrets
Biggest Secrets
by William Poundstone
Edition: Paperback
22 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

3.0 out of 5 stars Like shelling bar peanuts, Feb. 17 2004
This review is from: Biggest Secrets (Paperback)
Appearing in 1993, ten years after BIG SECRETS and seven after BIGGER SECRETS, William Poundstone's BIGGEST SECRETS is evidence that the author needs to get on with life. Perhaps he too realizes that fact, since "biggest" is the superlative form of the adjective. Poundstone has nowhere to go from here.
Unshelled peanuts aren't the most convenient bar snack, but it's hard to shell and eat only several. Likewise, BIGGEST SECRETS doesn't represent fine literature, but it's difficult to put down. Poundstone has several (favorite) recurring topics in his books: the secret ingredients of famous junk foods, secret initiation rites, magicians' secrets revealed, reverse messages on popular music tracks, and subliminal pictures in movies. The last two seem almost obsessions. But, he also throws in others. For example, in BIGGEST, there are exposed: the formula for Play-Doh, security coding of lottery tickets, the meaning of gang graffiti, how to get that ship in a bottle, and celebs' real ages.
As with BIG, so many varied subjects are covered that the individual reader is certain to find some that intrigue, and some that bore to tears. So, I enjoyed learning about the Mrs. Field's chocolate chip cookie recipe, the method behind the rabbit-out-of-the-hat illusion, fake towns on maps, the ingredients of Spam and head cheese, Christmas gift return codes, the evolution of Kelloggs Frosted Flakes, and the location of Century House in London (MI-6 HQ). On the other hand, I couldn't care less about a stylometry evaluation of the Beale Cipher, a 19th-century treasure map in code, or the real ages of the likes of Joan Collins, the Gabor sisters, Don Rickles, Imogene Coca, Charo and Joan Rivers, or fire-lighting tricks of the Boy Scouts. Indeed, I skipped entirely the sections on hidden messages and pictures in music and films respectively. Thus, as with BIG, BIGGEST is an erratic entertainment vehicle. (I haven't read BIGGER SECRETS, nor do I intend to. Even unshelled peanuts lose their charm.)
Perhaps my favorite revelation was the means for creating a chocolate-covered cherry. Specifically, how do they get the liquid surrounding the fruit? Well, the manufacturer coats the cherry with a paste of sugar and the enzyme invertase, the latter a natural digestive enzyme, then dips it in chocolate. During storage, the invertase breaks down the sugar into a syrup. The author leaves us with a pleasing image:
"It's almost as if the candy makers were thoughtful enough to spit in the candy to give you a head start on digestion."

Basic (Bilingual)
Basic (Bilingual)
DVD ~ John Travolta
Offered by M and N Media Canada
Price: CDN$ 34.02
51 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

2.0 out of 5 stars Soggy mayhem in the tropics, Feb. 16 2004
This review is from: Basic (Bilingual) (DVD)
The principal thought that came to mind as I watched BASIC was how desperately Southern California needs rain.
John Travolta is Tom Hardy, and ex-Army Ranger turned DEA agent cooling his heels in Panama while under investigation for taking a bribe. An old Army pal, the commanding officer of the local Ranger training unit, conscripts Hardy to interrogate a trainee that returned carrying a wounded comrade from a jungle exercise, during which the other four participants were killed, presumably by each other. Among the dead is Sgt. Nathan West (Samuel L. Jackson), a kick-butt and much hated instructor, who ostensibly arranges "training accidents" for chronic losers who don't make the Ranger grade and are too stupid to realize it. Hardy, a trained interrogator, is needed on the case because the local provost officer, Lt. Julia Osborne (Connie Nielsen), isn't up to the task, especially as pressure is expected from Washington since the wounded man is the son of a government big shot.
Much of the run time is devoted to flashbacks, in which the audience sees various versions of the story, as told to Hardy by the survivors, as to what happened out in the jungle. In the aggregate, all versions only muddy the issue. The confusion of it all is heightened by the fact that the apparent murders, starting with Sgt. West's, happen at night in a driving rain storm, and all the participants are decked out in camouflage uniforms and grease paint. The audience, or at least this viewer, never achieved certainty as to who was who and what was what. None of the supporting players outside of Hardy and Osborne established much in the way of screen identity.
And speaking of driving rain, Hardy and Osborne occasionally wander out into it, but they never seem to be even damp once they get back indoors. Even carrying a big umbrella and wearing rain gear, I'd come out of such a storm looking like a drowned dog. The water must have been the Hollywood, fast-drying type.
Travolta's Hardy character is appealing, and it's a shame there wasn't more chemistry between him and Nielsen's Osborne. I spent too much time trying to decide whether or not I should take the latter seriously and what sort of accent she was hoping to achieve. I settled on "not" to the first question, and remained stumped on the second.

There's a major twist at the conclusion which makes things clear - well, only just, perhaps. But, by that time, I was so frustrated trying to cope with the wildly careening perspectives on reality that I didn't care much. I didn't even have the energy to wonder about the cause of wounded soldier Levi Kendall's (Giovanni Ribisi) sudden and dramatic death in his hospital bed, which went completely unexplained.
BASIC struck me as production where the scriptwriters tried to be too clever and, ultimately, couldn't get out of their own way.

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