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Andrew McCaffrey (Satellite of Love, Maryland)

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Sherlock Holmes:Voice of Terro
Sherlock Holmes:Voice of Terro
DVD ~ Basil Rathbone
Price: CDN$ 19.99
21 used & new from CDN$ 10.98

3.0 out of 5 stars Sherlock Holmes vs. the Nazis, July 18 2004
The story begins with a printed disclaimer explaining why the famous Victorian-era detective is living and working in London of the 1940s. Sherlock Holmes' appeal is timeless, they claim, and he is quite capable of living in the then-present day. They are, of course, correct, although the real reason for updating him was that it allowed the filmmakers to produce a series of propaganda films wherein the greatest British detective of all time goes head to head with German spies and emerges victorious. The format works. I love these films, as far removed as they are from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's original stories.
The beginning film in this Sherlock Holmes series as produced by Universal jumps right into its Sherlock Holmes vs. the Nazis motif. The British government is stumped. At regular intervals, a radio signal is beamed in from Germany. A voice (of terror) gloats about terrible acts of sabotage that occur just as the signal begins. The British Intelligence agency, unable to locate the source of the broadcasts or prevent the acts of terrorism is forced to call for Sherlock Holmes.
Many of the films in this series were less mysteries, and more straightforward thrillers. This is no exception. In fact, this is one of the weaker entries in the series as far as its plot is concerned. The storyline relies a bit too strongly on leaps of logic and sheer coincidences, and the climax is just a bit too silly. If you're looking for a mystery in the style of the original Doyle stories, you'll be disappointed. There's too much that is held away from the audience, meaning that there's not much left for the viewer to figure out before the detective does.
But where this film succeeds is in its style, regardless of its actual substance. A lot of the story takes place in dark rooms, smoky bars and other sinister locales. The direction, lighting and cinematography are great. The scene in the saloon where Holmes (via a widow) turns a den of criminal elements into a force fighting for the Allies is particularly strong. The director plays the visuals for all they're worth; the craggy faces of the outlaws peering out of the dark, raising drinks to their lips, while Sherlock Holmes' sharp features gaze out into the light. It's scenes like this that raise the film above the limitations of its plot.
The acting also serves to this film's advantage. Honestly, I could watch Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce reading the phone book. Yes, I realize that Bruce's interpretation of Dr. Watson is quite at odds with the original (in Doyle's stories, Watson, while not the equal of Holmes, is an intelligent and insightful character, capable of logic and independent thought; on the other hand, one wonders how Nigel Bruce's Watson manages to feed himself every day). But I don't care; I think the two of them are great fun and play off each other well. Henry Daniell makes the first of several appearances in the Sherlock Holmes movies here, playing a member of the intelligence council.
The DVD features are rather light (there aren't any), but the restoration that's been done to the print is astounding. The picture couldn't be any sharper and the sound is very crisp.
As the film reaches its conclusion, the plot holes become harder to ignore. It's a pity because the movie has so much going for it. It is worth watching though, just because it is so successfully stylish. The propaganda elements aren't at all distracting and in fact have become rather endearing as time has passed. This probably isn't the place for a newcomer to the series, as there are better films to choose from. But fans of these Sherlock Holmes films will almost certainly enjoy it as I did.

Doctor Who: Reckless Engineering
Doctor Who: Reckless Engineering
by Nick Walters
Edition: Paperback
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3.0 out of 5 stars Plot Engineering, June 26 2004
I've read the argument stating science fiction stories have fewer interesting people in them because the author must spend so much extra time setting up their alien and/or futuristic worlds, they have less time to spend developing believable characters. I'm not sure I agree that this is a necessary or inherent failing in science fiction, although I must admit it does successfully describe a phenomena that occurs with some regularity. And I think the heuristic it expresses goes double for alternative universe stories. The author must not only evoke the real-world historical and physical setting, but he or she must also spend time meticulously explaining how, why and in what way it differs from our own Earth, leaving even less time for the story's characters. This may explain how Nick Walters could present us with a very detailed look at an alternative Bristol, 2003, yet populate it entirely with cardboard.
I found much to enjoy in RECKLESS ENGINEERING, but character development was not one of those pleasures. I wouldn't have minded so much (I'm perfectly capable of appreciating a plot-intensive story which exists at the expense of character), except that the book kept making half-assed efforts at injecting life into these people. There's a bizarre love-triangle subplot handled so clumsily that I wondered why the author bothered including it. The supporting characters are uniformly bland, with the sole exception of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. IKB is, of course, a historical figure, although one which I don't know a lot about, so I'm unsure how faithful this portrayal is. However, he works well here; the grumpy engineer is exactly what the story needed.
Despite not caring much for the characters, I found myself racing through the book's second half much faster than I expected. The reason for this was that I was completely engrossed in the plot and shot through it intent on finding out what was coming next. The TARDIS crew has landed in an alternative, post-apocalyptic 21st century, where the last remains of humanity have been slowly rebuilding their world for the past hundred and sixty years. There's a lone mansion that seems to hold the key to the mystery of how history became corrupted, and there's apparent alien influence in that situation. There's a hell of a lot going on, and while it's generally presented very well, I felt the ending was a bit short. Careful reading and going back to reread earlier passages suggested to me that everything necessary was actually there, it was just a bit rushed. It could have benefited from an extra ten or so pages, hopefully without unduly disturbing the pacing.
Another thing I enjoyed was the fact that we are not shying away from the consequences of the Doctor's actions. Putting the timeline (or space-time continuum or whatever it is) back to its proper state means having to wipe out these alternatives that are springing up. Remember how this was hand-waved in the final few pages of BLOOD HEAT, way back in the New Adventure days? Thankfully, we are getting a little more discussion concerning these side effects of the alternative universe arc than we did the last time. Walters puts the argument in favor of fixing the universe in the mouth of the Doctor (as it should be), while leaving the "what about...?" and "doesn't that mean...?" questions for Fitz to ask. This arrangement seems to work quite well. The audience realizes that the Doctor may be ultimately correct in his assessment, but that doesn't stop us from thinking the same questions that occur to Fitz, and it's only right that the book should address them in this way. I quite like how Walters handled this.
There are some wonderful descriptive passages detailing how Bristol has changed in this alternative timeline. Walters wipes out a huge percentage of the world's population in the 19th Century, and then flashes forward to the 21st to see what the world would look like after that amount of time had passed. He spends a lot of time mapping out this universe, describing what the population has become and how the physical world has decayed. And he balances out these lovingly written pieces of very effective prose with violent scenes that are almost cartoonish in their banality. I think this strange counterpoint sums up my opinion of the book as a whole: stunningly great in some places, but truly painful in others.
I liked Nick Walter's prose style, something I don't remember being particularly tickled by in his previous books. I was taken by his ability to create a genuinely oppressive and depressive atmosphere, and then to momentarily break the mood with a clever joke. Not to give away any punch lines, but I loved the bit near the end about the poet who isn't famous.
Despite some fairly serious problems, I did ultimately enjoy RECKLESS ENGINEERING. The pacing is just right. We leave events just before they can become tedious. For example, the storyline concerning the settlements is relegated to the sidelines in the book's second half (prior to it become stale) and the plot then becomes a series of time-travel hops. Since so much of the book's successes revolve around its plot, I wonder if I'll care for it as much the second time I read it when I'll already know how things unfold. Perhaps it won't be a book with much longevity, but it's a bit too soon for me to make that judgment. On my first reading though, I thought it was a pretty decent book.

Casino Royale (James Bond Novels)
Casino Royale (James Bond Novels)
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0 of 4 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A Royale With Cheese, June 25 2004
I'm not the world's biggest fan of the James Bond movies, although I do enjoy them a bit. I've seen a handful of them in the cinema, and will gladly watch one on TV on a Sunday afternoon if there's no football on. But I'd heard good things about the novel series that the movies were based on and I was curious to see how James Bond worked in print. I'll probably read more books in the series, because I liked the style, but my overall impression of CASINO ROYALE, the first James Bond novel, was negative.
The plot revolves around the need for government agent James Bond to beat a Russian spy decisively at the Baccarat table in a ritzy casino/vacation resort. It doesn't get much more complicated than that, although the sections of the book involving the initial stakeout and the game itself are satisfying and competent. They seem to be very influenced by the pulp thrillers that had come in years past, though they bring little new to the table. They're fun though. My main problem came once the initial conflict has been resolved, all the way at the two-thirds point. The final third of the book involves a bizarre romance and an even stranger set of ruminations on good vs. evil. This section is, to be frank, childishly inept, and ruins any good will I had stored up from the casino plot. Yes, deliberations on what separates agents working for the "good" guys and spies working for "evil" governments is an interesting idea and one which has sparked numerous thought-provoking debates and discussions. But this isn't one of them.
James Bond himself isn't terribly developed yet; I assume his persona would become better established in subsequent novels. He's humorless, moody and drab. I never really felt there was enough to get a grip on the character. The rest of the cast are sketchy as well. Of course, since most of them are lesser agents who only show up when they have a plot point to fill, that's to be expected. Bond's love interest receives more characterization from her slinky portrait on the cover than from anything that appears in the pages.
To be honest, I'm faintly surprised to hear rumors of Hollywood producers wishing to film this (on the premise that it's the last James Bond novel that hasn't been faithfully adapted to the screen). It seems to me it would be rather dull after the excesses recently displayed in the movies. There's only one explosion, a relatively tame car chase sequence, no helicopters, jet-planes, or space vehicles. In short, it's comparatively tame. Hopefully they'll adapt the better parts of the book (the gambling and casino intrigue) and cut out the bad (the last sixty or so pages). Merging the book's successes with the better-established characters may result in an entertaining film, but it has its work cut out for it if it wants to be great.

The Marx Brothers Collection (A Night at The Opera/A Day at The Races/A Night in Casablanca/Room Service/At the Circus/Go West/The Big Store) (5DVD)
The Marx Brothers Collection (A Night at The Opera/A Day at The Races/A Night in Casablanca/Room Service/At the Circus/Go West/The Big Store) (5DVD)
DVD ~ Groucho Marx
Offered by DealsAreUs
Price: CDN$ 56.85
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4.0 out of 5 stars A Day and a Night at the movies, June 24 2004
Let's be perfectly honest. The films in this collection are not exactly the highest regarded films of the Marx Brothers' illustrious career. Oh sure, A NIGHT AT THE OPERA and A DAY AT THE RACES are almost universally praised, but the rest fail to completely satisfy the masses. I had some doubts when I initially thought about pre-ordering this set. Since some of the discs were being released individually, I wondered if it would make more sense to just purchase NIGHT and DAY, forgetting about the rest. In the end, I decided to take the plunge and buy the whole thing.
Thankfully, I found a lot here to like. While overall this is a far inferior set of films to their previous work at Paramount, it isn't without some merit. There's a lot of funny stuff here, and only one film that I would classify as an out and out failure (the awful ROOM SERVICE featuring the criminally underused Lucille Ball). NIGHT and DAY are rightfully regarded as classics (12th and 59th respectively on the American Film Institute's list of the hundred funniest films), and the rest of the films are at least amusing and entertaining.
The three constants in this collection are, of course, the Brothers themselves. Groucho with his quick one-liners, Chico with his sly crafty schemes, and Harpo with his utterly bonkers and hilarious silent persona. These films are at their finest when the Brothers are on screen and at their nadir when vainly trying to develop the supporting romantic subplots.
One sad thing I noticed while watching the film was not just seeing the Brothers age, but noticing how progressively cheaper the movies themselves looked as the years progressed. The earliest films in this collection, NIGHT and DAY, were produced under the careful eye of Irving Thalberg who had the entire resources of MGM at his disposal. Big musical numbers, high production values, sharp scripts, and lots of rehearsal time were the order of the day. But after his sudden death (while only in his late 30s) during the production of A DAY AT THE RACES, the Brothers found themselves bounced around different producers and managed by studios suits who just didn't know what to do with the talent that they had. The result is significantly less care given to each subsequent picture. The huge opera house set seen in NIGHT is wonderful and the cheap sets in, say, GO WEST just look woeful in comparison.
This set comes with a multitude of DVD extras, many of which have nothing to do with the Marx Brothers. Someone thought it would be a good idea to place some contemporaneous cartoons and short films on the DVDs, with the idea (one assumes) of giving the viewer the ability to recreate a night out at the movies in the 1930s in the comfort of their own home. All this taught me was that if I were a cinemagoer in the 1930s, I'd stay in the lobby through the cartoons and shorts until the main feature began. To be fair, though, I should mention that I did enjoy one or two of them; Robert Benchley's HOW TO SLEEP won an Oscar, deservedly so. There are also some trailers included, which are welcome. In the spot for THE BIG STORE, they address the camera in character and announce this as their first farewell picture, and as one can see from a quick perusal of the black print on the box, it would not be their last.
For Marx Brothers fans, there are two DVD commentary tracks: Leonard Maltin for DAY, Glenn Mitchell for NIGHT. Maltin's comments are informative and fun; I was amused by his shouting at one of the movie's bad guys. Mitchell is a little more reserved, and unfortunately allows a lot of dead air. According to the box, he is a "Marx Brothers Authority", which leads one to wonder if there exists an academy somewhere, churning out these experts. "Respect mah Marx Brothers Authority!" he never shouts, alas.
There are also two mini-documentaries featuring interviews. The two female romantic leads from NIGHT and DAY are, in fact, still alive and remarkably coherent; while it's nice to hear from contemporary "comedians" about what a great influence the Brothers were and are, it's more satisfying to hear from the co-stars themselves about how the Brothers were to work with.
One word of caution, however. Since Zeppo had left the act after DUCK SOUP, he doesn't appear in this set. Some of his replacements (and their songs and love-interests) are truly painful. Consider yourself warned.
This collection should truthfully be called a mixed bag, yet I enjoyed the films so much that I can't help but recommend this. The worst film here at least has some good jokes sprinkled in it, and the best films are priceless. Yes, taken as a whole, the Marx Brothers' MGM years were poorer than their Paramount years, but so are most other films by any great comedians. Take these movies on their own merits and hopefully you don't be disappointed. I wasn't.

A Night in Casablanca
A Night in Casablanca
DVD ~ Groucho Marx
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "You schweinhund!", June 24 2004
This review is from: A Night in Casablanca (DVD)
A NIGHT IN CASABLANCA is a film more famous for the correspondence it allegedly provoked (there's a possibility that the entire thing was a publicity stunt) between Groucho Marx and the Warner Brothers' legal department (WB stated they had a claim on 'Casablanca'; Groucho countered with a claim on 'Brothers') than for any of the gags it contained. I think this is a pity as, while it certainly can't compare to the Marx Brothers at their height, it isn't an awful film. In fact, taken on its own merits, it's quite good.
The first thing that struck me when I put on this DVD (this was the first time I'd seen the film) was how much older the Marx Brothers themselves looked, particularly Harpo. His character was always a sort of ageless clown and seeing wrinkles sort of spoilt the illusion for me. On the other hand, Groucho actually looks more in character at this age. It gives him easier access to his "dirty old man" routine, which he played perfectly.
Despite the title (and apparently the original intentions of the filmmakers), the movie doesn't have much to do with the more famous film with a similar name. The action centers in and around a hotel rather than a nightclub (Groucho is now the manager after the last few died under mysterious circumstances). The search is for treasure instead of travel papers. And, of course, instead of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman as the romantic couple, we have bland Zeppo-replacement and bland Zeppo-replacement's bland girlfriend. Well, we can't have everything.
While most of the secondary cast is uninspired, it is nice to see Sig Ruman and his eye-popping indignation back again after his stints in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA and A DAY AT THE RACES. His over-the-top, sputtering reactions almost make up for the lack of Margaret Dumont. In the sequence where he's trying to pack his suitcases and trunks while the Marx Brothers invisibly impede his progress, he helps turn a great scene into a classic one.
The joke writing in this movie is quite strong compared to some of the other MGM Marx features. In particular, Groucho's one-liners are at full strength; I have this movie on in the background while I type up this review, and I'm catching hilarious little jokes and double entendres that I missed the first time around. And while some of the gags have the hint of unoriginality about them, there's enough that's fresh. Sure, the scene of Harpo pantomiming that Groucho was about to be blackmailed by a femme fatale had already been done in A DAY AT THE RACES, but they wisely don't use the same lines to fuel the jokes (although strangely they do use the same music: both Groucho seduction scenes feature Johann Strauss' "The Blue Danube"). The same is true for the crowded dance-floor sequence that mimics the crowded stateroom scene from A NIGHT AT THE OPERA. Same premise, but different funny jokes.
The DVD extras are nothing special. I suppose someone must be enjoying the vintage cartoons that they're putting on these Marx Brothers DVDs, but that person isn't me. The extras aren't important anyway; unfortunately, they don't add anything to the experience. Picture and sound quality are both excellent for a film of this age.
This movie may come from the less celebrated portion of the Brothers' career, but to my surprise I really enjoyed it. No film can go wrong that features a scene of Harpo Marx grinning madly at the controls of an airplane. If you go in expecting DUCK SOUP, then you might be disappointed. But if you take it for what it is rather than what it isn't, you'll find a film that's funnier than most.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
by Philip K. Dick
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 13.00
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4.0 out of 5 stars Apocalyptic dreaming towards a futuristic day, June 21 2004
DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP? is another classic science fiction novel that I only just got around to reading. And once again, I find myself wishing that I'd gotten around to reading it earlier. It was also my introduction to the writings of Philip K. Dick, and I also wish I had started exploring his output before now. This novel demonstrates what science fiction can do at its best. It tells an absorbing, thrilling story, but it also works on other levels.
The book's protagonist is named Rick Deckard, and he's a police officer in a post-apocalyptic future whose job is to track down and destroy rouge androids. Although this is clearly a science fiction work, I felt a strong flavor of noir creeping throughout the sections dealing with Deckard's career. The trappings of the fantastic are present, but they're presented in a clearly thriller-type way. Deckard may be a cop from the future, yet he owes a lot of his characterization to the hardboiled, fictional detectives who came before him. This makes him an extremely entertaining character, as well as an immediately sympathetic one.
As has been noted, this novel is doing a little more than just telling another adventure story (although it does a great job at that). While the themes of alienation and isolation and what it means to be a conscious, reasoning entity are well-developed and much discussed by readers, several other metaphors are also lurking beneath the surface. This is a book very much influenced by its time (it was published 1968), but pieces of it seem almost timeless (the war which nearly destroys the world is caused by a right-wing policy group wielding too much influence at the Pentagon; boy, does that sound familiar). The psychological testing done on the subjects to determine their identity (either human or robot) reminded me strongly of the infamous McCarthy hearings.
I was very impressed by the actual writing itself in this novel. Dick's prose is very strong. Science fiction writers often enjoy building up a new world/universe at the expense of characterization or plot, but that isn't the case here. He excels at painting a bleak future, taking the attitudes of today and projecting them into a world with few people and fewer animals. But he doesn't let this overwhelm the book. It's a hard balance to maintain, yet he manages it well. His satire is exactly what it should be: both hilarious and cuttingly accurate.
Philip K. Dick is a writer that I've heard a lot of good things about, and I'm looking forward to diving deeper into his back catalog. DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP? impressed me in both its straightforward narrative and in the deeper topics that it touches on. The "social commentary" aspect of the novel, which can be painful in books by lesser authors, is actually one of the book's best features. There are a few sloppy points (the mechanical capabilities of the androids are a bit vaguely defined, and once or twice characters talk to themselves for no reason other than to convey plot-points to the audience), but overall I was a very happy reader.

Rendezvous With Rama
Rendezvous With Rama
by Arthur C. Clarke
Edition: Hardcover
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Same ingredients as CHILDHOOD'S END, but better result, June 13 2004
This review is from: Rendezvous With Rama (Hardcover)
RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA showcases a lot of things that must fascinate Arthur C. Clarke, or at least a lot of concepts that he likes revisiting in his fiction. Once again, we have mankind's first contact with extraterrestrials, human colonies on the moon and on other solar planets, academic and political in-fighting, and, of course, a healthy dose of science. But the ingredients do well together here. This is, as you surely already know, one of the so-called classic science fiction novels, yet I only just got around to reading it recently. I'm happy to say that it matched my expectations, both compared to other Clarke novels and to its own lofty reputation.
An unknown object has entered Earth's solar system in the year 2130, and a rocket ship is dispatched to study this alien artifact (dubbed Rama) and report back on its findings. That sentence is a summary of almost the entire plot. But RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA is not a story that is wholly concerned with plot. It's more a series of set pieces: the decision to explore, the examination of the immediate inside, the voyage across the interior's sea, etc. Each one is interesting on its own, but not all of them contribute much to the overall story.
The purpose these set pieces serve is to invoke a sense of wonder at this unknowable alien object. I'm reminded of Jules Verne's voyage-type stories, where his protagonist(s) would become engaged in a multitude of individual adventures. But instead of exploring (and inventing) Earth's wonders, Clarke is showing us a completely fictional environment. It's quite fun. Clarke put most of his effort into creating this landscape, and it becomes the focus and centerpiece of the whole novel. This entire endeavor would flop completely if Clarke had been unable to sustain the suspense for the full length of the novel. But he does it.
Character development is not one of this book's priorities. Too much time is spent developing the setting to provide us with people of any great depth. Clarke gets away with it here (while other science fiction novels have crashed and burned on this point) because he has set the book up as a mystery, with the setting as its question. Squandering time on the human characters would merely be a distraction, when all the reader is really interested in is Rama itself.
RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA is now over thirty years old, but this science fiction novel isn't showing its age (although some of the aside mentions of polygamous relationships are attempting to sound modern and forward-thinking, yet instead end up seeming rather quaint). I've heard mixed things about the sequels which follow on from the end of this book. Given how much I enjoyed the first in the series, I think I'll probably at least try one or two of them. Maybe I won't like them as much as I did RENDEZVOUS, but that's a high standard to reach.

Big Store
Big Store
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3.0 out of 5 stars Are you being served?, June 12 2004
This review is from: Big Store (VHS Tape)
As is typical with the Marx Brothers films during this period of their MGM career, THE BIG STORE has its good and its bad points. Overall, I enjoyed it, although I can't deny that there were some truly painful moments along the way. The department store setting is a good one, but I think that they didn't quite get all the potential out of it that they could have. I imagine if this film had been done earlier in the Brothers' career (and while they were still at Paramount), it would have been one of their all-time classics. As it exists, it is merely good, not great.
First of all, it's great to see Margaret Dumont back after missing out on the previous GO WEST and having a diminished role in AT THE CIRCUS. She's always a delight in these films, and the scene of her initial hire of Groucho as a private detective is a joy. Unfortunately, the rest of the guest cast is totally unmemorable. The romantic leads in this film are perhaps the blandest ever seen in a Marx Brothers film, and that's saying something! Douglass Dumbrille returns to play the same sort of bad guy character he did the last time (the casino-owning Morgan in the far superior A DAY AT THE RACES) and does a pretty decent job, although his henchmen and co-conspirators aren't up to much.
I mentioned the blandness of the romantic leads, but their lackluster appeal is matched only by their insipid songs. I listen to this tedious, boring stuff and can only think to myself that rock'n'roll was still over a decade away -- hang in there, guys! On the other hand, Harpo and Chico get possibly the best musical scenes in their movie careers. Their piano duet is wonderful, and makes me wish they had done this sort of musical and comedy collaboration in earlier films. And Harpo also gets a great scene playing the harp while his various mirrored reflections play other instruments along with him. Fun stuff.
Of course, discussion of the singing and music can't ignore a mention of Virginia O'Brien. In the past six months I've watched the entirety of the "ART OF BUSTER KEATON" DVD box set (recommended), so I thought I knew all about The Great Stone Face. I was wrong. Singing a version of "Rock-a-bye Baby", O'Brien's eyes are staring straight in front of her, while her face is absolutely, completely and utterly expressionless. It's eerie but hilarious. A quick Internet search reveals that she actually made something of a career out of her bizarre (yet strangely appealing) delivery. Watch it and wonder. As odd as it is, it did get one of the biggest laughs out of me.
I think the director must have received a monetary bonus from the developers of the fast motion technique, which brings us to one of the film's bigger problems. There's a great reliance on gimmicky special effects jokes, usually involving stunt men dressed as the Brothers dangling from wires, while the director speeds up the film. The big chase sequence near the end is a full demonstration of this. We see the stuntmen in long shot (balanced by several close-ups of the Marx Brothers themselves in front of a unconvincing backdrop) going through their wacky antics, but knowing that it isn't really the Brothers detracts from the overall experience. It's amusing, but it isn't uproarious. The Brothers themselves were capable of doing much more funny stuff, even when they were going through pure slapstick.
THE BIG STORE has some good gags, some entertaining set pieces and some strong one-liners. On the other hand, there's too much fluff and inferior material for me to really recommend this as the Marx Brothers at their best. But if you've seen DUCK SOUP or A DAY AT THE RACES enough times that you can recite all the lines before Groucho does, then you might want to turn your attention here. It's nowhere near the greatest of The Marx Brothers films, but it's entertaining enough.

Go West
Go West
VHS
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4.0 out of 5 stars "It's just like a movie!", June 11 2004
This review is from: Go West (VHS Tape)
The Marx Brothers' GO WEST (1940) shares its title with a Buster Keaton film from 1925. And both films start with a caption card containing Horace Greeley's famous quotation: "Go west, young man, go west." This wouldn't be the only moment in the film when I was reminded of Buster Keaton. The goofy train sequence at the movie's conclusion seems to be at least inspired by some of The Great Stone Face's exploits. Of course, one major positive in Keaton's favor was that his movie didn't have any singing in it. But the most important similarity between the two films is that I liked them both.
GO WEST is a definite improvement on their previous two films, the average AT THE CIRCUS and the unfortunate ROOM SERVICE. The writing (in particular the one-liners) seems much sharper and wittier. The sequence of Chico and Harpo fleecing Groucho at the train station seems reminiscent of the more famous "Tootsie Frootsie ice cream" scene in A DAY AT THE RACES, but manages to draw laughs without simply recycling the same gags. Somewhat surprisingly (given that this is set in the Wild West), there isn't too much parodying of Western standard set pieces (apart from one or two gags). This is a Marx Brothers film that just happens to be set in the Wild West, rather than one specifically making fun of Westerns.
As for the plot that all these jokes are existing in... Well, I don't think of myself as particularly slow, but this is the first time I've ever had trouble following the storyline of a Marx Brothers film. The overall story is fairly simple (a railroad company wants to buy a piece of real estate for a stupid amount of money), yet the particulars eluded me. I just couldn't keep track of the specifics of the bad guys' plan.
Now, the reason I had trouble keeping track of the plot is actually a good one for a Marx Brothers film. There isn't enough time devoted to the storyline for it to actually make much sense. This, of course, isn't a bad thing, because the worst part of the Brothers' films (apart from many of the musical interludes that didn't feature Groucho, Harpo or Chico) was the endless romantic subplots. Fortunately, there's a relatively small amount of screen time that goes into non-Marx scenes, which is bad for figuring out what's going on, but great for anyone who is looking for entertainment and jokes (which, really, should be everyone).
I found GO WEST to be a very pleasant and welcome surprise. The reputation of their later MGM pictures is shaky to say the least, but this is a lot of fun. The gags are clever and funny, while the songs from the fake-Zeppo and the female romantic lead aren't intrusive (indeed Groucho's backing vocals on one of them is surprisingly good). This is definitely a highlight from the Marx Brothers' later movie career.

Asimov on Science Fiction
Asimov on Science Fiction
by Isaac Asimov
Edition: Hardcover
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4.0 out of 5 stars Asimov IS Science Fiction, June 10 2004
Isaac Asimov is arguably the most famous science fiction author. He was certainly the most prolific. He also wrote numerous non-fiction tomes, the subjects ranging over everything from an annotated guide to the Holy Bible to introductory chemistry and physics texts. But, so the introduction claims, this is the only book that is a combination of the two -- a series of essays wherein Asimov discusses science fiction itself: its authors, its history and its flavor. Asimov is rather strict in his definitions and rigid in his opinions, but I didn't find this a hindrance. On the contrary, even the passages I disagreed with made me think further about my own positions and opinions. The mark of a good persuasive essay is not that it necessarily persuades, but that it provokes thought.
ASIMOV ON SCIENCE FICTION is three hundred eighteen pages long, made up of fifty-five essays which are categorized into eight sections. These subjects are: science fiction in general, the writing of science fiction, the predictions of science fiction, the history of science fiction, science fiction writers, science fiction fans, science fiction reviews, and science fiction and I (Asimov). These essays are primarily reprints from previously published material. The majority of them are editorials from his eponymously titled science fiction magazine, while the rest are taken from introductions to various collections or magazine articles or previously unpublished essays. There's a slight bit of repetition at times since there's a fair amount of overlap in the scope of these individual essays. But for the most part this is a nicely broad look at different aspects of science fiction.
The book is as intelligent as one would expect from this author. Asimov doesn't limit himself to speaking only on science fiction. Rather, he compares the genre and its history to changes in society and mainstream literature. In lighter moments, he also has some good-humored fun at the expense of both himself and his fellow writers. Virtually everything he says about the genre itself is reflected in his actual fiction. Not surprisingly to anyone familiar with his work, he is very much in favor of emphasizing the 'science' in 'science fiction'. While I may find this approach occasionally limiting as a reader, his argument does make for interesting reading.
The best thing I can say about this book is that it gave me a huge list of classic science fiction novels and authors that I need to check out soon. (I weep at the thought of the free time I will have to acquire if I'm going to get all this new reading done.) Asimov has an obvious love for the genre and he's familiar with virtually everything about it. And there are a few genuine surprises within these pages -- to whit, his critical drubbing of George Orwell's 1984 or his analysis of the science fiction that was coming out of the Soviet Union.
Asimov always had interesting things to say. I remember seeing him in a documentary made by a New Jersey PBS station about the television series "Doctor Who". Asimov, at a local convention, is discussing science fiction in general and angrily decrying those who would dismiss the genre as mere child's stuff. "Anything can be just kid's stuff if it's read by people with the mentality of children." His finger is dramatically stabbing the air. "I invite those people to actually read it themselves. Assuming, of course, that they know how to read." At this point the trajectory of his finger reaches its apex. "Which is not always a foregone conclusion!" That clip basically sums up this book. Opinionated, forceful, amusing and deeply loyal to his genre of choice.

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