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The Cloud Pavilion: A Novel (Sano Ichiro Novels)
The Cloud Pavilion: A Novel (Sano Ichiro Novels)
by Laura Joh Rowland
Edition: Hardcover
63 used & new from $0.01

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Cloudy with a Chance of Beheadings, May 27, 2010
3.5 stars. This is the 14th adventure starring our favorite samurai detective, Sano Ichiro, and I have often mused how many more of these Laura Joh Rowland has in her. Will we still be going back to Edo when Sano is gray and arthritic and Reiko is busy arranging the 'omiai' (meetings with prospective spouses) for her children, Masahiro and Akiko? Possibly. There seems to be an inexhaustible supply of evocative titles and Hokusai-inspired cover art for dozens more of these installments, but I worry at times that Rowland comes dangerously close to running out of story. She's skirted the precipice several times (most notably in the abysmal "Red Chrysanthemum" and the nearly-as-bad "Snow Empress") only to pull back and redeem herself. The last book, "The Fire Kimono" restored some of the charm and effectiveness of this series, and while I don't rate this newest one as Rowland's absolute best (that would probably be the first two, "Shinju" and "Bushido"), it's a solid entry into the canon that manages to move our story along, albeit more turgidly than we might hope for.

After a bloody civil conflict ended up with Sano and Yanagisawa's joint enemy, Lord Matsudaira, dead, relative peace has settled over the court. The two former archrivals are uncomfortably sharing the post of Chamberlain, taking turns being in the doghouse with their supremely erratic boss, the Shogun. Things are quiet--too quiet and Yanigisawa is being on his greasy best behavior. Sano knows that Yanigisawa is plotting something, but he doesn't know what. Three completely disparate women are brutally raped and left for dead after being abducted from area temples: an elderly nun, a gang lord's teenage daughter, and a young wife and mother from an aristocratic family. The third victim happens to be Sano's cousin, and as he investigates her case, he runs into various dead ends and roadblocks that he fears are being engineered by his old frenemy, Yanigisawa. Sano's old friend Hirata, now occupying Sano's former post of Sosokan-sama, meanwhile, is being stalked by a menace that will require all of his martial arts skill to defeat. By book's end, Rowland seems to have manuevered Sano out of the logjam he was in and found a way to restore his former verve for detective work. But as always, the ever-present threat of capital punishment: hara-kiri for him and execution for the rest of his family, remains the penalty should he fail at any time in his duty. This is a very tiring way to live and one wonders whether a comfortable retirement is even possible in Sano's future, be it near or far away.

If you are a new or casual reader of this series, it's really crucial to read these in order, as the books build consecutively on one another. I'm sure the reliable Rowland will have a 15th installment for Sano sometime next year; she turns these out like clockwork, good, bad or middling. A warning: this is probably the most sexually graphic of all the stories to date, notwithstanding that many 16th-century Japanese euphemisms are used for the sexual acts. Kinda makes me wish for the kinder, gentler days when Sano investigated a murder in a brothel.

The Big Tease
The Big Tease
DVD ~ Isabella Aitken
Price: $5.79
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Please Please Tease Me, May 20, 2010
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This review is from: The Big Tease (DVD)
3.5 stars. This "mockumentary" in the style of "This is Spinal Tap" and "Waiting for Guffman" follows the travails of Crawford Mackenzie, aspiring hairdresser to the stars, as he leaves his home in Glasgow accompanied by a BBC film crew to represent Scotland in the Platinum Scissors competition in L.A. Only after his arrival (and running up a gigantic hotel tab) does Crawford discover that he misunderstood and has only been invited (at his own expense) to sit in the audience. Crawford is both hurt and outraged at this lapse in hospitality, because as the reigning hair diva in Glasgow and all the surrounding bouroughs, he obviously deserves a berth in the competition. What follows is a small picaresque gem of absurdity as Crawford pulls out all his Scottish ingenuity to get into the contest, even if it means reminding Sir Sean Connery (unofficial ambassador/patron saint to fellow Scotsmen everywhere) of an unfortunate toupee incident where Crawford was on hand to save the day. When that tack fails, he stalks Sir Sean's American agent, Candy (an hilariously effective Frances Fisher) until she agrees to do some string-pulling, and takes this big, gentle naif under her overprocessed wing. Craig Ferguson is alternately goofy, gangly, dignified and tender as our intrepid hairstylist, and wastes no opportunity to pull out his patented Sean Connery impression in support of Crawford's cause. The scene of Craig gamboling in his underwear in his swanky hotel suite to the strains of "California Dreamin'" is worth the price of admission alone. Other supporting players create memorable turns, most notably David Rasche as "Stig", Crawford's idol/nemesis who somehow manages to upstage Ferguson for flamboyance in every scene in which he appears. In a nod to the similarly-"fish out of water" themed "Pretty Woman", Larry Miller reprises his unctuous store manager's role as the unctuous hotel manager who evicts Crawford after his credit card is maxed out. Mary McCormack has a substantial role as the unbending event chairperson who ultimately relents and lets Crawford unsheathe his scissors. (McCormack would later immortalize her bond with Craig by gifting him the infamous "Snake Mug" that he drinks out of every night in his current gig on CBS.) This little movie is quite slight, its charms mostly carried on the tartan-covered shoulders of Ferguson, but it's a must-see for Craig fans. All others are guaranteed not to "get it". This movie appears to be currently unavailable for purchase new; perhaps they are planning a deluxe re-release set of all of Craig's movies, now that he is an American, a Peabody Award winner and hot stuff as "David Letterman's Conan." This film may not be the most representative of Craig's inexhaustible talents, but it does demonstrate that he can do more than just host a talk show with a skeleton robot. Like Craig himself, this project is "shear" fun not taking itself too seriously.

Lost: Season 3
Lost: Season 3
DVD ~ Matthew Fox
Offered by amazingwildcat
Price: $16.14
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1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Hopelessly "Lost" But I Don't Mind, May 16, 2010
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This review is from: Lost: Season 3 (DVD)
3.5 stars. I never followed this series in broadcast and finally, with the final few episodes left to air, I finally broke down and started watching it on DVD. This show more than deserves its addictive yet similtaneously frustrating reputation. Featuring some of the best acting ever on television by a remarkable and constantly rotating ensemble cast, it also has its share of moments that inspire sheer incredulity. Frankly, if this were just a tale of castaways on a normal tropical island without the mystical/scientific overtones, I'd probably like it even better, since paranormal has never been my bag. But I hang on for the moments that are anchored in something resembling reality and our stellar cast does not disappoint. Hands down my favorite season to date, I have a feeling that the subsequent three seasons might find it hard to match this level. And I have settled on my favorite castaways out of our overstuffed cast: sexy conman/cowboy with an unexpected bookworm side, Sawyer (Josh Holloway, he of the roguish dimples) and tortured Cassandra, Desmond, (Henry Ian Cusick, yet another sexy Scottish export). The always excellent Michael Emerson as the diabolical (or is he?) Ben Linus has given the show a much-needed shot in the arm since his introduction last season and provides a counterpoint energy to our original castaways, some of whom have become rather tedious through familiarity. We also get to meet beguiling Other, Juliet (Elizabeth Mitchell) who is playing both sides now--which side will finally come down on? Particularly strong episodes this go-round are "The Man From Tallahassee", in which we find out how Locke came to be in that wheelchair; "The Brig", in which Sawyer comes face-to-face with his nemesis, the original "Sawyer", and discovers a bond with Locke that neither knew existed; and "The Man Behind the Curtain", which explores the origin and backstory of Ben Linus, and how he came to be the leader of the Others. During the two-part finale, "Through the Looking Glass" we say goodbye permanently to one of our castaways and I'm equally sad to say goodbye to Season Three because I don't know how they are going to top it. All indications are that they can't, and they don't succeed. However, because this series is video crack and I can't stop watching, I have duly started Season Four. Once you get "Lost" you have no choice but to keep going. One thing's for sure: we ain't seen nothin' yet--it's only going to get weirder and weirder from here on out.

The Dresser
The Dresser
DVD ~ Albert Finney
Offered by cds_dvds_guaranteed
Price: $55.82
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4.0 out of 5 stars Impeccably Dressed, May 15, 2010
This review is from: The Dresser (DVD)
Director Peter Yates assembled a pitch-perfect cast for this look behind the scenes at a touring British theatre troupe in WWII England. Albert Finney is the imperiously named 'Sir', the star-manager of his motley crew of struggling thespians. Since all the able-bodied youth are off fighting Hitler's war, Sir's troops consist of 'old men, cripples and nancy boys'. One is given the impression that the 'Coronet Players' are distinctly third-rate, but top-notch acting goes on backstage between Sir and his fastidiously devoted dresser, Norman (Courtenay, who originated the role in the stage production). Finney chews scenery lustily, by turns bombastic and maudlin, but the show really belongs to Courtenay, who anchors the film as the steady center of Sir's (and the company's) universe. By turns cajoling, buffoonish or castigating as called for, Norman spurs his narcissistic yet pathetically unbalanced boss through his 227th performance of King Lear. The choice of the play-within-a-play is no accident; the events on stage mirror what's going on backstage, with Sir as Lear, the increasingly deranged 'king' and Norman as his faithful Fool, the clown paid to keep the monarch's spirits up, and the only one who is privy to the king's true state of mind. Apart from his ritual Guinness after the show, Sir is not shown to drink alcohol, while Norman is constantly tippling brandy out of a flask in his back pocket, so to attribute Sir's breakdown to alcoholism alone is too glib. "Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown", to quote the Bard--Sir has literally cracked under the strain of keeping the many bodies and souls in his care together during the extreme deprivation of war. Yet despite everything, people are so hungry for Art that they sit unfazed through an air bombing. That is why for Sir and Norman, the show has to go on. A bravura performance all around.

The Dirt Detective with Craig Ferguson
The Dirt Detective with Craig Ferguson
DVD ~ Craig Ferguson
Price: $22.83
13 used & new from $15.93

13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The Comic as a Young Man, May 4, 2010
3.5 stars. OK, I confess that it wasn't a burning interest in Pictish culture that prompted me to check this out. As a recent convert to the Tribe of Ferguson, I was just trying to get my hands on anything he appears in. In this 1993 low-budget (and I really do mean it) documentary offering from Scottish television, we are treated to young-turk Craig as a shaggy-haired, ear-studded 30-year-old looking like a cross between a Flock of Seagulls concert attendee and an escapee from the Renaissance Faire. His rangy kinetic energy, craggy Celtic looks (far less craggy) and manic comic persona are all here, though the comic mania has been admirably tamped down due to the seriousness of the subject at hand. The tone is a bit all over the place; turns out that the Craig persona does not blend easily with scholarly sound bites by professorial types, but who cares? Craig is such a unique screen presence, especially with a long black coat flapping behind him as he strides all over the rain-soaked Scottish countryside, it's a feast of images the Ferguson fan won't want to miss. Craig's gifts extend even to finding phone boxes in the most unlikely areas.

Depending on your enthusiasm for looking at moss-covered stones, carvings, old pots and the like, you may find the subject matter enthalling, but I was more interested in this as a study of the Comic as a Young Man. Craig wrote all this material in addition to performing on-camera duties, an early indication that this professional clown who never graduated from high school posesses an intellectual curiosity and heft that runs surprisingly broad and deep. This series is only recently available on DVD, no doubt due to Craig's raised stature as Scotland's greatest export to America since shortbread. Serious Pictish scholars will want to look elsewhere as this is only the "Cliffs Notes History of Scotland", but it's a must-see for Ferguson scholars, if only to poke fun at Craig's wardrobe.

The Twilight Saga: New Moon (Two-Disc Special Edition)
The Twilight Saga: New Moon (Two-Disc Special Edition)
DVD ~ Kristen Stewart
Offered by Mercury Media Partners
Price: $6.78
245 used & new from $0.01

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Moon Shine, April 30, 2010
After watching the first movie and trying (unsucessfully) to finish the book, I see that any perceived weaknesses in the script writing for the movies based on Stephanie Meyer's novels can be directly linked to the woodeness and superficiality of the source material itself. Bella Swan and Edward Cullen might be marginally more likeable on the page than they are on the screen, but only just. Now, all that being said, I enjoyed this second installment light-years more than the first. Not because Robert Pattison & Kristen Stewart more successfully embody their literary counterparts or show any sort of acting development (they don't), or because the special effects are so much better than the first time around (they aren't). What the franchise does successfully do is capture the moody, rainy atmosphere of Forks, Washington, highlighting it with an equally moody and oddly compelling soundtrack. The score by Alexandre Desplat is fantastic; the cinematography is excellent. Ms, Stewart in particular seems to have a face the camera loves--she is a visually lovely Bella, a suitably Gothic heroine with a look that is both contemporary and ethereal. What a shame she ever has to open her mouth and ruin the illusion. Robert Pattison's Edward is notably absent for most of this film, which is just as well because his pained and pasty stylings as Edward make me laugh aloud, ruining the mood somewhat. All the other vampires in the Cullen family are great-looking and about as deep as the paper cut Bella gives herself in an early scene. The guest turns by Michael Sheen and Dakota Fanning in particular are so brief as to be little more than cameos. In a cast full of bigger names, there is one true breakout star here and his name is Taylor Lautner, playing tortured best friend/wolf boy Jacob. His magnificent abs aside, Lautner displays actual acting potential and personality, both notably lacking in his co-stars who get most of the press for this series. I am looking forward to seeing much more of Mr. Lautner, and I mean that in every sense possible. Here's hoping that he, like Daniel Radcliffe, can find success in adult roles once it's time to put his shirt back on.

Before Sunset
Before Sunset
DVD ~ Ethan Hawke
Offered by Angels Loft Sales Group
Price: $14.99
140 used & new from $0.01

5 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Remembrance of Things Past, March 29, 2010
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This review is from: Before Sunset (DVD)
3.5 stars. If "Before Sunrise" is as much a valentine to Vienna as it is a story about a youthful romance that only lasts one night, then its sucessor is a valentine to Paris, and what a wonderful Parisian evening it is to reconnect with an old lover. Jesse and Celine, two young 20-somethings that met on a train 9 years ago and spent one magical night in Mozart's favorite city never kept that appointment to reunite on that train platform in six months. Jesse, now in his 30s and a successful novelist on the last leg of his first European book tour, has never quite gotten over that fact, nor over the beautiful French girl who captivated him over all those hours all those years ago. In a cinematic reunion tailormade for Paris, he spots Celine on the periphery of the crowd in Shakespeare & Co. bookstore and instantly is transported back nearly a decade. Not that he's ever forgotten Celine--she is the heroine, "fictionalized", he claims, of his novel. Time once again is a cruel mistress, as the two former lovers have just over an hour to get reacquainted before Jesse's flight departs for the States.

Paris couldn't look better, but it doesn't take more than a few minutes to realize something uncomfortable: our two young lovers, no longer so young, aren't very likeable anymore. Age and their share of mutual disappointments have honed the less appealing aspects of their more youthful selves into sharp edges. Jesse has aged worse; Hawke's cheeks look positively gaunt under an unflattering beard, making his teeth look enormous, and his formerly luxurious head of hair is shorn into a trendy, but aging buzz cut. It is nearly impossible to detect remnants of the exuberant American boy Celine met 10 years before. Delpy is still beautiful, but she looks tired and is noticably thinner, giving her a brittle aura. This Celine has become the shrill and neurotic harpy that Jesse circa 1994 joked that she might. Increasing age has not diluted our two protagonists' self-absorption any, but rather has only increased it to near-toxic levels. It is a very awkward reunion, indeed, with both halves of our truncated couple nursing their private grievances against the other and dealing with adult lives that have largely failed to realize the promise of that night in Vienna. The stiff and careful way Jesse and Celine metaphorically circle one another as they edge tentatively toward bridging the gap of 9 years' worth of time and separate histories in an hour feels real--this project deserves kudos for staying far away from the temptation to make this reunion conform to Hollywood standards of a 'romantic ending'. Indeed, our two former lovers feel as ambivilent about each other as we do. Should they, can they, even attempt to reconnect when they still have the problem of continents and an ocean between them? And, of course, there is the small matter of Jesse's wife and son back home.

After a coffee, a stroll, a ride on the Seine & a tense conversation in a town car, our boy and girl arrive at Celine's door. She invites him in, gives him tea, and a song and dances to Nina Simone on the CD player. Her last line is "Baby, you're gonna miss that plane." Do they stick together for good this time, or will it be "Before Sunrise, Part Deux"? It is left for the viewer to decide. Jesse and Celine's rocky romance just may be the last one of its kind put to screen; after all, in this electronic age, with the Internet, Facebook, ubiquitous cell phones, texting and GPS, would it be possible to remain undiscovered by an earnest lover even if you didn't want to be found? Had Jesse and Celine met just a few years later, it seems inconceivable that they wouldn't have kept in touch by text and Skype for all that time, their electronic connection no doubt becoming as commonplace and dull as they feared it would. In the end, the lesson our two lovers leave us with is this: if you love someone, don't hold back. Communicate. Tell them exactly what is on your mind (and how they can reach you). The regrets to keeping things to yourself could be too heavy to carry around for a lifetime otherwise.

Prime Suspect 4
Prime Suspect 4
DVD ~ Helen Mirren
Offered by mirmedia_movies_and_music
Price: $6.98
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4.0 out of 5 stars Falling Up, February 4, 2010
This review is from: Prime Suspect 4 (DVD)
I'm on my second go-round with this series, having enjoyed all the seasons several years ago. Watching them again is like revisiting old friends. Season 4 may offer arguably the best episode of the entire project ("The Lost Child"). The other two episodes, while not as compelling as the first, still showcase considerably more polished production values than previously. Both the show and its heroine look a little more expensive than in earlier days. I peg Season 4 as the turning point for Tennison, when her laser-focus on her career to the detriment of her personal relationships begins to really exert a toll. Newly promoted to Detective Superintendent, Jane has sacrificed everything to get this new post, including her lover and a chance at motherhood. She's drinking and smoking heavily again as she does daily battle with criminal scum and the male-dominated Met culture.

There is no criminal scum quite like George Marlowe, Jane's nemesis from Season 1. Every great detective mastermind needs a criminal counterpart, and Marlowe is Jane's Professor Moriarty. Jane put Marlowe away 5 years previously, but his influence resurfaces as London is confronted with a string of what look to be copycat murders of women. Jane's maverick ways over the handling of the reopened Marlowe investigation will once again get her in hot water with her bosses, putting her precious career in jeopardy. Mirren displays what a great actress she is because she manages to show Jane's vulnerability under the tough-as-nails facade and makes us care about her even as we flinch at some of her actions. Crime drama and character acting do not get any better than this.

The Holly & The Ivy
The Holly & The Ivy
Price: $15.44
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Very Connie Christmas, December 24, 2009
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This review is from: The Holly & The Ivy (Audio CD)
I have been a Celtic music buff for nearly 20 years and own albums by most of the Celtic artists performing today. Many female Celtic artists are ethereal and lovely, but Connie Dover's voice soars above them all. Her soprano is clear and true, but behind its pure tone is a hint of the muscular Midwest where she makes her home. Hers is no airy-fairy voice; she needs no such self-conscious vocal adornments, possessing as she does, the most naturally pure and most listenable soprano I know.

With a perfect voice and the looks to match, it's a puzzlement why Connie chooses to make so few albums, or not tour far outside of her Kansas City hometown. She could easily have a global following like Loreena McKennitt or Enya, but she seems very content to remain a homegrown Midwestern product. I call that a waste of a national treasure, a performer who successfully melds Celtic tradition with the most American of songs. This latest offering, recorded in 2008 with the Kansas City Chamber Orchestra represents her first recording in 8 years, since 2000's "Border of Heaven." The most burning question begging to be asked is why Connie waited so long to record a Christmas album; these ancient carols, many with Celtic roots, are a perfect match to her voice. If you are looking for a "pure" Christmas CD, untainted by New Age-y 'experimental' winter numbers or by any secular songs, this is a perfect choice. Connie has actually done the impossible here and introduced me to a new carol ("The Huron Carol")--and here I thought I knew them all. My only beef with this album, and the reason I give it four stars rather than five is its brevity: its 9 songs are a scant 43 minutes long. More please, Connie! She could record a new Christmas project every year for decades to come and not exhaust all her potential material.

It's too late to have this for this Christmas season, but I guarantee that you will love this year round and for many many Christmases to come. I'd call this a must-buy if you're a Connie fan; if you aren't already, this will win you over after one song.

If On A Winter's Night...
If On A Winter's Night...
Price: $10.72
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars In the Bleak Midwinter, December 12, 2009
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3.5 stars. Sting has always been our moodiest and most intellectual of pop stars, with the darkness of his lyrics often at odds with his bouncy melodies and that distinctive light and raspy tenor. This latest project is firmly in the Sting aesthetic, so his hardcore fans are unlikely to be disappointed with this offering. I think, however, that this is not the album to win one over to the Sting camp if one is not already in it.

As Sting himself has copiously pointed out, this was not intended to be a holly jolly romp down Christmas lane; the oft-forced and tinny joviality rife in other commercial songs of the season is something which Sting (and this reviewer) find repugnant during what is a sad, lonely and isolated time for many. If you are of the same mind, you will find many of Sting's minor-key, introspective musings here a refreshing antidote to too many sugarplum warblings on offer in December. Of the 15 songs here, I would call half stellar; a few (mostly the original Sting compositions) are OK but are derivitive of stuff we've heard before, and a couple are just flat-out bizarre. "The Hurdy-Gurdy Man"'s haunting, classically-inspired tune belies the grim story of a poor street musician who freezes to death and then is eaten by dogs. Sting's own "The Hounds of Winter" (previously on his "Mercury Falling" CD) gets a new treatment here and it does contain seasonally-approciate lyrics, but this recycled number takes up a spot that could have been occupied by a fresher and better song. A Sting rendition of "In the Bleak Midwinter" (something that would be perfect for his voice), for example, is notable in its absence. Or how about "Good King Wenceslas" or a cover of Joni Mitchell's "River" or Loreena McKennitt's "Snow", none of which are particularly Christmas-y? Sting makes use of some Bach melodies as background for his own lyrics; lovely to listen to but ultimately forgettable, with nothing particularly wintery to recommend them for this collection. As some other reviewers have pointed out, Sting does some odd vocal stylings with some of the more medieval-sounding numbers, producing a forced and ponderous tone that is out of his natural range. It's as though he believed he could become a basso profundo by sheer act of will, but his voice is not up to the task, and he only succeeds in quashing what is unique and attractive about his sound.

As one would expect from Sting, this is a musical journey that is both personal and experimental; some parts of the experiment succeed better than others. In crafting a partially lovely, partially unsettling aural experience, he has remained true to his own unique vision, and in the end, this makes him an artist with integrity. The fact that he's also wildly commercially successful is just icing on the cake. Sting has reached the point in his life and career where he can make music solely to please himself, and if it finds an audience, too, well, that is just a nice bonus. If you own all of Sting's other albums, it would be an oversight to skip this one. If Christmas music is solely what you are after, you might consider just purchasing individual songs--"Gabriel's Message", "Soul Cake", "Lo, how a Rose ere Blooming" and "There is No Rose of such Virtue" are true Christmas songs, and my favorites.

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