"In cooking, as in all the arts, simplicity is a sign of perfection." - Curnonsky

Thursday, July 30, 2009

In Plain Sight: Rubble with a Cause

The idea of Mary having to protect a high-profile, high-risk witness trapped in the middle of a building collapse was an interesting one, and the production team knocked themselves out creating that setting for it. But once the David Zayas character showed up to confront the witness, things fell apart. It seemed to be missing a scene between when the explosion went off and when Mary and the bad guy had their guns on each other, and I have no idea what Zayas' plan was, exactly. Even if he hadn't been dumb enough to deliver a confession in the presence of a US Marshal (with or without her walkie-talkie turned on), how did he expect to get out of there? And all the talk of loyalty to partners above all else came out of left field. It's not that Mary isn't incredibly tight with Marshall, or that they'd risk their lives for each other (see him running into the building right before the explosion blocked the stairwells); it's that this wasn't the theme of the episode, or of Mary's interaction with her witness, until that moment.

I did like seeing Marshall and Stan working so hard in support of Mary, and I particularly liked Raph's reaction (or, rather, lack of one, as it's a cliche on these shows for the significant other to give the hero a hard time after a brutal day at work) to Mary being gone all day at the accident site. I just felt like the set-up didn't go anywhere that interesting.

Also, I fast-forwarded through the scene where Brandi interrupted the AA meeting. Do. Not. Care. Brandi's less irritating than Jinx is, but she really only works in a context directly tied to Mary; giving her a self-contained storyline is a waste of everybody's time.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Ghosts of Saint-Michel by Jake Lamar

There’s a lot of good stuff in Jake Lamar’s Ghosts of Saint-Michel. The plot’s twists and turns are aided by Lamar’s ability to tell the story out of sequence, allowing you to know both more and less than you should at any given time. The biggest potential weakness—amateurs engaged in a life and death struggle with professionals—works itself out as believably as possible. On balance, it’s a well-told tale of intrigue and murky allegiances.

The soul food restaurant of American expatriate Marva Dobbs is the talk of Paris. Returning home early from her August vacation, Marva intends to break off her affair with Hassan, an Algerian in his late twenties. Instead she finds him on the run, accused of being a terrorist. When Marva signs herself out of the hospital after a serious car accident and leaves with Hassan, no one (including the reader) knows whether she is a hostage or an accomplice.

Marva’s daughter, Naima, hears of the accident and rushes to Paris from her home in New York, becoming unintentionally embroiled in the intrigue surrounding the disappearances. What she learns about her parents strains her loyalties and teaches her things about herself she might have preferred not to know.

Lamar wields his cosmopolitan cast with aplomb. Hassan lives in the gray area between guilty and framed until near the end. “Retired” American spy Harvey Oldcorn could be the stereotypical spook; Lamar provides Oldcorn with enough background to keep him believable. Naima’s father, Loïc, has both more and less to him than you’re led to believe. Cleavon Semple is still trying to play both ends against the middle at nearly eighty years old.

It’s neck and neck for a while, but Naima eventually wins the lead role in the story, if only because more is seen through her eyes. She and Marva are both strong women, capable of carrying the story on her own. Lamar is careful not to give them abilities civilians wouldn’t possess. They adapt to the situation as it evolves without fully understanding what is going on.

Paris is the perfect location, as the story relies on the city’s convoluted Cold War past: Communists who may or may not be supporting colonial independence fighters, struggling against Gaullists, who may (or may not) be with the Americans. This is history when out story takes place, but the contacts, allegiances, and techniques developed forty years earlier are resurrected as what is essentially a cast of over-the-hill conspirators have their last hurrah.

With all that going for it, Ghosts of Saint-Michel doesn’t equal the sum of its parts. Much of the fault is in the characters. As much as Lamar wants you to like Marva and Naima, they’ll do whatever they have to do to get what they want. True, it’s all done for the greater good, righting injustice, yadda yadda yadda, but some minor characters are used badly. It’s not obvious at the time whether Lamar introduces them only as props for the bigger plan, but in retrospect it’s hard to see what else they do.

As well-written as the climactic scene is, coincidence plays a bigger part than it should. Saying too much would spoil it; suffice to say some serious aligning of planets takes place to get everyone where they need to be for the climax to work itself out. Lamar’s half-hearted attempt at an explanation only draws attention to it.

Another problem is that most American readers will be unaware of the Parisian Cold War intrigues that drive many of the characters’ motivations. Not an insurmountable obstacle, and Lamar brings everyone up to speed. Unfortunately, he does it is through dialog worthy of a tour guide at the Spy Museum; at times the characters might as well turn away from each other and speak directly to the audience.

Ghosts of Saint-Michel has much to recommend it. Anyone interested in a taste of the black American community in France should get a charge out of it. Lamar’s fifteen years in France show between each line; his familiarity with his adopted city is shown by the ease with which he describes it. Paris is the most likable character in Ghosts of Saint-Michel, which may ultimately be its biggest flaw, though not enough to be a deal breaker.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Prison Break: Cowboys and Indians

"What kind of loser gets set up for two high profile assassinations within five years?" - Lincoln

That's a question I've been asking myself for some time now, except that my query was a bit more broad - what kind of loser gets messed up in this many conspiracies period? Lincoln Burrows and Michael Scofield (Quick sidebar: different last names. Obviously they weren't brothers.) haven't exactly had it easy, but it's finally starting to look like there might be a light at the end of the tunnel ... at least for Michael anyway.

Of course, his happiness hinges on who he wants to give Scylla to - Cristina or Krantz. Give it to the general and Sara lives. Give it to his mother and Lincoln lives. However, if I know one thing about Michael, it's that he's smarter than Cristina and Krantz combined.

The rest of the episode didn't provide too much in the way of explosive revelations - it was more set up for the finale. Hell, more than half of it was just waiting for Lincoln and Michael to escape from the hotel. That mini-fridge bomb was pretty cool, though.

Anyway, I did get a lot more info on Cristina's game plan - start a world war and sell Scylla to everyone, starting with India and China. Krantz made the best point about her. She's so prideful, that at this point she doesn't even realize what she's doing. It's all about the money which ironically enough will probably be worth nothing once the international economy crumbles as a result of the war she started.

With that in mind, the Cristina character has lost some of the allure she had when she first appeared. Initially, the prospect of Lincoln and Michael's mother appearing was intriguing and created all sorts of questions. Instead, she's just devolved into this one dimensional clichéd villain with extremely loose justifications for all of her actions.

I'm still having a hard time buying into her complete dismissal of Lincoln as family. She may have only adopted him, but she still helped raise him. It's just not believable and even though this show is the definition of exaggeration, for the most part, the characters have been pretty well fleshed out and Cristina just isn't. Granted, that's a direct result of her only being introduced a few episodes ago, but that's the problem - there wasn't time to give her more back story, and the overall plot is suffering as a result. I don't see how this all ties together. As things stand right now, the connection between season one's events and what's happening now is near non-existent and that kinda sucks.

The only other thing worth mentioning is Self. I finally found out his motivations for trying to steal Scylla. Years ago, he got drunk, and he and his wife were in a car accident, crippling her. His government benefits only covered a crappy facility and in an attempt to atone for his sin, stealing Scylla and selling it would have allowed him to put his estranged wife in a much better facility. Touching isn't it? I'm glad I found out, but it is a bit crazy to think that's what started season four off - Don Self's guilt.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Breaking Bad: 4 Days Out

When a cancer patient awaits the results of a PET-CT scan, the anxiety can be overwhelming. Walt deals with that anxiety by preparing for the worst, which in his case means cooking. And cooking in mass quantities, though even he wasn't prepared for just how massive it turned out to be. As for poor dumb Jesse, I'm just waiting for his whole life to fall apart again.

Jesse is a nice guy, but he's not that smart and he has the absolute worst luck of almost anyone on television. So now that he's getting into this semi-serious relationship with the landlord/neighbor, I'm just waiting for something horrible to happen to him or her or both. It's inevitable. Nobody suffers like Jesse suffers. Well, except for tonight. There was a whole lot of suffering going on from everybody. I'm sure Skinny Pete was suffering too, wherever he wound up.

It was nice to slow everything down and get an episode of just Walter and Jesse. Their relationship is so complicated, co-dependent and destructive at the same time. With his imminent death on his mind, because he was prepared for the worst out of that PET-CT, Walt essentially forced Jesse to take off into the desert and get some mad cooking going on. He had to lie to get him there, but Jesse wouldn't have appreciated Georgia O'Keefe anyway; though he would have seen a lot of vaginas in her work.

As soon as Walt told Jesse to put the keys someplace safe, I knew they were in trouble. As many times as Jesse screws things up, you'd think Walt would have learned by now. As it turns out, the keys might have been better sitting in their work area. What followed was a bizarre near-death experience in the desert that actually brought the two of them closer together, in a bizarre way. It also brought them more than a million dollars street value of meth, and they weren't even done.

I loved how when Walt was building the battery to save their asses, he was quizzing Jesse like he was a student, and then was ultimately disappointed when Jesse proved himself again to be kind of an idiot. It's those moments that really make these characters live and breathe on the screen. There was some amazing performances by both Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul in this episode.

Surprising to me was the results of Walt's PET-CT. With his tumor reduced by 80% and his cancer in remission, the ticking clock on this show's life expectancy just got extended. Hell, theoretically it could be extended indefinitely. I'm ashamed to admit I never even considered remission as a way to extend the show. And considering AMC is already on board a third season, it makes sense to slow down Walt's decline, though I don't think they can stop it altogether. That would just change the tone of the whole show.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Rescue Me: Jimmy

"Not something you really wanna be lookin' at." - Lou

Just like Dr. Psychodramaturge telling Sheila that half of Damien's desire to be a firefighter is based on her objection, you knew that when Lou told Tommy not to look at the 9/11 footage he would anyway. Forbidden = fun. Of course, having Genevieve whisper lord knows what into Tommy's ear didn't hurt either. Whatever she muttered was probably fun too.

As shocking as the news footage is, the fact of the matter is nothing has changed. Jimmy Keefe is still dead. However, how and when he died are now the issue. Why wasn't he in Tower 1 when it collapsed on 9/11? Why did he leave and head to Tower 2? The events of that day are indescribable, and "hectic" doesn't even touch upon how unmanageable ground zero was. Jimmy was just doing his job.

As for Tommy, it obviously puts him in a situation where any blame he already carries is only intensified - could Jimmy have lived had Tommy been with him the whole time? Sure, it's definitely possible. On the flip side, Tommy could be dead right next to him.

What's more important is how this is going to affect Sheila. As she tries to purge herself of all thing and thoughts Tommy Gavin, finding out that her husband didn't die when she thought he did, eight years after the fact, isn't going to help. It's either going to bring the two of them closer or push them apart even farther. Which is it going to be?

Consider Damien. Sheila isn't going to lose her son the same way she lost her husband. Pushing away Tommy won't be the answer. Mick was right - that footage, seeing Jimmy, is only going to send Tommy down an all too familiar path, and Sheila has always been a part of that journey.

A few more thoughts on "Jimmy" --

It doesn't happen frequently, but seeing Lou flip out always makes for a good scene. I always think of Lou as comedic relief, but John Scurti has had a handful of seriously poignant speeches in this show over the past four seasons and they often get overlooked.

I'm not sure who's stupider - Tommy for getting Derrick a job as a barback or Derrick actually taking it.

As the episode ended, I couldn't help but laugh at Mike's bar, not because of all the headaches he went through to open it ("Lumberjacks," un-blacking the place, bribing the liquor authority rep), but because of how easy it's making Tommy's freefall. It's like Tommy asked, "what's the one thing my friends could do to screw up my life more" and they did that exact thing - open a bar. After Tommy's last meeting with the psychic when she told him that Jimmy wants him to know the truth, if I were Mick, I don't think it's Derrick I'd be so worried about with a bar full of whiskey under his nose.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

In Plain Sight: In My Humboldt Opinion

Consistency,this is exactly the type of material I appreciate in a series and it is most often rarely seen.In Plain Sight manages to pull off a consistent 'Wow' of a Season 2! Giving me two consecutive installments, In My Humboldt Opinion, included.

Mary is now finding her way around her old job and she has 'The Newbie' Eleanor to deal with. As Mary tried to adapt to her surroundings and deal with her past struggles, Eleanor's new furniture arrangement wasn't cutting it. Good Mary was gone and Bitchy Mary was back, giving Eleanor competition for the 'bossy' title she wanted to claim. I smiled when Eleanor confronted Mary about her bossiness, saying that Mary cannot intimidate her, which is funny because by her saying that, Mary probably does intimidate her... as she did everyone. Everyone loves Mary, despite her ways and Eleanor had to earn her stripes, being the 'Newbie' and all!

In this case, Mary had to deal with a typical hypochondriac (Jerry); an owner of a marijuana plant testifying against his buyers. I found it surprising that he had a family; a wife and two children.I didn't really understand how his family put up with his drug-use; taking marijuana to stay sane, especially around the children. Was he always high on marijuana when he met his wife, how far did his condition date back? Was it his personality on or off marijuana she fell in love with?None-the-less, Jerry is afraid to speak on the witness stand... off the marijuana , and decides to take his life to prevent himself from testifying. So how much did he love his family if he was willing to take his own life and fake Amnesia?

Mary, Mary, Mary, she sure brought out the real Jerry. Giving him petty threats and then babying him in the end; attaching what appeared to be a smiley face on his microphone in court. At least she got him in court.While he was on the stand, Jerry took a little while to give his name on introduction, he also looked like a child.

On a real note, given "Boston Legal" Knowledge of a typical case in court, wouldn't the opposing party be aware of his marijuana usage. Prosecution could prosecute Jerry, someone with his mental state would say anything anyone told him to say... like Mary perhaps."Psst Jerry make sure and point out the guys that look the most guilty *wink*"Anyway, I didn't really get to see the prosecuting side and it was cool watching a frailly Jerry in court. I give credit to the scene where Mary placed the smiley sticker on his microphone and the point where he didn't need the smiley anymore.

The scenes with Mary and her analyst were well played; another intrusion into Mary's lifestyle which Mary took on surprisingly better than Eleanor.It was fun watching her analyst always writing in her note pad.

Mary - "What could you possibly be writing"

They actually formed a brief friendship-I guess; in the end. Then again if you look at the other side of the coin, Mary had to be nice to her, she held Mary's continuation at work in the palm of her hands, which encouraged Mary to behave a bit better to everyone. I loved how Mary fancied up her words when she was talking to Jerry.

Mary - "Just giving you something to write" :D

As for Mary's family, Jinx was back to her old crazy self- well alcoholic that is and Brandi was well changing her life, trying to go to school again, trying to become more civilized like Mary - a bit.

Eleanor sort of earned her stripes as well, breaking up the argument in the office, McQueen actually acted like a boss and who saw that Eleanor and McQueen thing coming?

Finally I got to see Ralph and their relationship has picked up heat again. Hmm, asking Mary to pass him a towel!

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Castle: Ghosts

When a soccer mom turns up dead in a transient hotel, a secret life of crime unravels, leading Castle and Beckett on a wild goose chase through the past.

Castle and Beckett investigate the murder of a woman found drowned in a bathtub of motor oil at a transient hotel. But when they uncover a dark secret about the woman’s past, they must unravel a 20-year-old mystery with the help of a true crime journalist who may have been stalking the victim. Meanwhile, Beckett puts her poker face to the test as she squares off against Castle, with her money and pride at stake.

My Favorite Moments
1. During an interrogation of the ship captain’s son, Castle can be heard in the observation room shouting “Lee Wax! Lee Wax!”
2. Castle telling off Lee Wax for orchestrating a “better story” about the bombing. “It’s not illegal… it’s just slimy.”

My Favorite Quotes
1. “Yes, please… beat my pants of if you dare.” –Castle to Becket at the Gotham City Crew poker game.
2. “What are we playing for?” “Pride… or clothing.” -Beckett and Castle on the wages of their winner-takes-all poker hand.

Friday, July 3, 2009

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson

Any Baby Boomer who thinks fondly on a childhood in the 1950s will enjoy this book immensely. Born in 1951 and raised in Des Moines, Iowa, Bill Bryson had what I might consider the average middle-class life in the geographic center of America. As such, it's easy for me to nod in agreement at many of the details he recalls: spider-web-like strands of airplane glue that stuck to everything except small plastic model pieces; the confusion of having two different actors play the Lone Ranger on TV; the stilted and unrealistic conversations I read in our Dick and Jane textbooks; and the fact that I spent my free time outside, making up our my games.

Bryson additionally got into a few unusual scrapes with some of his neighborhood buddies, and the distance of time makes each one of their escapades a real hoot. Those post-war days were indeed the best of times and the worst of times. The nation grew wealthy and happier and stronger, and technological advances like television made us feel more powerful. Simultaneously the Cold War intensified, and we grew ever more fearful of a nuclear attack from Russia. It was a unique and great time to be a kid.

"Happily," Bryson writes, "we were indestructible. We didn't need seat belts, air bags, smoke detectors, bottled water, or the Heimlich maneuver. We didn't require child-safety caps on our medicines. We didn't need helmets when we rode our bikes or pads for our knees and elbows when we went skating. We knew without a written reminder that bleach was not a refreshing drink and that gasoline when exposed to a match had a tendency to combust. We didn't have to worry about what we ate because nearly all foods were good for us: sugar gave us energy, red meat made us strong, ice cream gave us healthy bones, coffee kept us alert and purring productively."

To his own experiences, Bryson adds historical tidbits that now seem unbelievable, except that I suddenly remember when they were true. Everyone smoked. TV dinners were invented and enjoyed, even though each of the food components had an aluminum taste. The civil rights movement hadn't yet taken full form. No one knew or cared about the dangers of DDT or witnessing a nuclear test from a ridge a hundred miles away. And yet, most of us survived the decade.

Reading this memoir will make you wistful for those days of atomic toilets, comic book Kiddie Corrals, unrated movies, and grape Nehi bubbles up your nose. It'll also have you laughing right out of your chaise longue and Capri pants.