12 Years a Slave (2013 - Theater)

I don't have my little winking thumbs-up smiley on this entry, not because I don't recommend seeing this movie, but because it wouldn't be appropriate. This is not a movie you see for fun and good times. This is a movie you watch because you can read about slavery, you can hear about slavery, and you can watch other movies about slavery, but there's a good chance that you will still have no idea just how awful and dehumanizing it was until you see something like 12 Years a Slave. My recommendation doesn't come without caveats - this movie might not be for the faint of heart. It's a very harrowing film, and I've seen numerous comments around the internet from viewers who could not get through to the end of it.

Based on a true story and the book of the same title, Solomon Northup, a free black man living in New York in the 1840s, is kidnapped, brutally beaten, and sold into slavery on a plantation in the south. There, he experiences firsthand all the evils and torment of being a slave: a woman being separated from her children; slaves being paraded naked in front of potential buyers like cattle; hangings (and nearly being hanged himself); rape; abuse both physical and mental; a slave who is literally worked to death; and in what is quite possibly the single most gut-wrenching scene in recent movie history, the whipping of a young woman until the skin is flayed off her back, an event that he is forced to participate in.

It's like being in a nightmare that never ends. The visuals are tauntingly beautiful (I've actually seen some reviewers complain that the visuals look too pretty for a movie with such a dark premise - I think it only adds to the tragedy - that the world around the slaves is so gorgeous, but its beauty is not for them.) The performances by Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northup and newcomer Lupita Nyong'o as Patsey are powerful and heartwrenching.

If you do see this movie, I implore you to stick it out till the end. This was the only movie I can recall seeing in a theater in which a significant amount of people in the audience were crying at the ending, and I won't spoil it, but I can say that they weren't tears of sorrow.
Rating: 4/5


Bag It (2010 - Streaming Video)

Modern documentaries seem like they go to much greater lengths to be entertaining than those boring old snoozers they'd show us in high school. According to Bag It's Jeb Berrier, what started out as an attempt to trace the life cycle of a plastic bag from the grocery store to where it ultimately ends up, turned into a much bigger exposť of the problems with plastic garbage in general and how it affects the environment (although he is not the movie's writer or director, so I'm not sure how that works). Fun, witty dialogue and observations, as well as relevant clips from popular TV shows and movies (such as one of Larry David from Curb Your Enthusiasm attacking a stubborn plastic package with a knife) underline what is a very startling and eye-opening study that will make you want to reduce the amount of disposable plastic in your life as soon as you possibly can. But while that certainly helps, it seems to me that it's a band-aid on a gunshot wound, and perhaps better recycling methods need to be developed as a more reasonable response.

I'm not trying to downplay the problem, but I was left with a few questions. One is that the documentary claims that most recycled plastics only get used one more time, and then become permanent garbage. Really? But if a plastic object with a recylcing code of 1 is recycled into another 1, why can't it then be recycled again? And what if it's recycled into something more permanent, like a DVD case that's made from recycled plastic, for instance? It also mentioned how bottles are recyclable, but not the caps. But I could've sworn I just saw some science DVD at work that was specifically about bottle cap recycling. Maybe that's become more common since 2010?

Um, word of advice: Please don't ever have a live childbirth in a movie that isn't about parenting or childbirth. When you're showing us the corpses of birds that died from ingesting too many small plastic objects, you kind of what that to be the most disturbing image we're left with for an environmental movie. Like it or not, not everyone is perfectly comfortable with seeing childbirth, regardless of how "natural" it is. It'd be like having an open heart surgery scene in the middle of a cooking show.
Rating: 3/5


The Desert Trail (1935 - Streaming Video)

I guess it didn't take much to make a western back in the 30s...Just a very simple plot, some settings and horses, John Wayne, and a gunfight or two. In a story that's one part western, one part comedy, and one part romance, but has surprisingly little to do with any desert trail, John Wayne and his partner, Kansas Charlie, are framed for robbing and shooting the guy who handles the money at a rodeo, so they have to find the real thieves to clear their names.

I'm not exactly sure how John Wayne and friend kept escaping capture. When Kansas Charlie is led away on horseback with his hands tied behind his back by the sheriff's men, he shows up later, hands still tied, all alone. How did he get away? And how did they escape the jail cell? Maybe there was a key inside Jim's letter, but where did he get it?

The most I got out of this film was a stronger appreciation for how far the genre evolved with epics like The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly, A Fistful of Dollars, and The Magnificent Seven.
Rating: 2.5/5


The Draughtsman's Contract (1982 - Streaming Video)

And now to fill my weird foreign movie quotient of the month, this time from Britain. The great thing is, director Peter Greenaway is known for making weird films, and many claim this is his least weird. Dude must have a strange definition of "normal".

Set in late 1600's England, where everyone wears period costumes supposedly exaggerated for effect (though I swear some people were dressed just like this in Rob Roy, though maybe not with the wig hair piled up like cat ears), an artist is hired to make twelve sketches of rich lady Mrs. Herbert's estate while her estranged husband is away, as some kind of attempt to save her marriage. The artist (Anthony Higgins) is arrogant and demands more than just money in return for his services - he wants sexual favors from Mrs. Herbert, as well. Seems not to be the best thing to agree to if you're trying to save your marriage, but she does anyway.

The artist wants different areas of the estate to be free from any activity during the parts of the day when he's actually sketching them, but none of the family or workers living there like him or take him seriously, so they keep getting in the way. He returns their obnoxious behavior by poking his nose into their business where they don't think it belongs. Just when the situation begins falling apart at the seams, strange objects start appearing in the artist's drawings that may indicate a murder has taken place. So, is it coincidental, or is he being framed?

Anyone who wants the mystery to be neatly solved by the end may be disappointed. Murder mysteries often hinge on the moment of the "big reveal", but this is the first I've ever seen one take the approach that if everyone had motivation to commit the crime, then heck if it matters who really did it. In fact, the murder practically takes a back seat to an even more head-turning plot twist. Not content to leave it there, it hits you with a few more, before ending on a really bizarre note. Thirteen really is an unlucky number here.

The cinematography is beautiful and the baroque score, which makes liberal use of Henry Purcell, is very effective. Oh, and I feel compelled to mention the naked guy covered in bronze paint who runs around the estate, stopping here and there to pretend to be a statue or tree. Apparently, a longer cut of the film (which has never been released as far as I know) would've explained this, but the way I see it... why not have a living statue person? After all, these people have everything else.
Rating: 3.5/5


How To Frame a Figg (1971 - Streaming Video)

The most notable thing about this Don Knotts comedy is that it has veteran voice actor Frank Welker in a non-animated role. Imagine the Real Ghostbusters version of Ray Stantz or the What's New Scooby-Doo? version of Fred Jones as a janitor instead of a ghost hunter, and you have the basic idea of what his character is like.

Accountant Hollis Figg (Knotts) is framed by the mayor and other members of City Hall for embezzling. In order to clear his name, he has the custodian, Pren (Welker), bring all the garbage to him. They sift through it and find plenty of paper evidence that Figg is innocent and it's the mayor and his cronies who are guilty of stealing the money. (I guess this movie was made before paper shredders were invented.) But here comes the really dumb part...

City Hall just got a new computer, a big ENIAC-like thing, and for some reason, Figg and Pren get it into their heads that they have to feed the evidence into the computer. I have no idea why. They sneak in after hours to put the evidence in the computer, but a security guard arrives, so they leave it there. Then they start fussing about how they're going to retrieve the evidence, but if they had just dropped the idea of putting it into the computer, Pren could've gotten the box of paper evidence back when he did his daily garbage run through the building.

Many miscellaneous hijinks later, they finally feed the paperwork into the computer. This involves a lengthy scenario where they use an impossibly complex method to get electric power to a graveyard (don't ask), which leads to Welker's, and possibly the entire movie's, most hilarious punchline. The computer explodes and shoots out cards with the evidence printed on them. Why is having the evidence printed on computer cards more legitimate than the actual paperwork it came from?

But this is a silly comedy, and we watch those more for laughs than the plot, right? I think Welker and Knotts attempted some kind of dumb guy/straight guy dynamic here, but rather than being sympathetic, Knotts comes across as agitated and pissed off all the time. There are some parts that made me laugh, but sometimes either the timing of the jokes is off, or there aren't enough jokes, or the movie falls back on running gags. Take, for example, a part where Figg gets a bowling ball stuck to his hand. Seems like this could lead to some potentially funny situations, but the way everyone acts about it, it just ends up being awkward. The moment it falls off could've been comedy gold, like when Stan threw away that rock still attached to Ollie in The Flying Deuces, but instead, I was just relieved it was over with.
Rating: 2.5/5


The Land Before Time V: The Mysterious Island (1997 - Streaming Video)

Yeah, what was I thinking, or expecting, when I decided to watch this? I actually have some fondness for the original Land Before Time, which wasn't bad as far as children's movies go, but this has some of the most extraordinarily painful songs I've ever heard in a cartoon (the original movie wisely did not have any singing), and no I'm not forgetting Orson's musical aptitude on Garfield and Friends or the rapping dog from that animated Titanic movie. And the plot is a huge, confusing and convoluted mess.

This is what (supposedly) happens: The dinosaurs have to leave the Great Valley after a locust plague destroys all the food. The kids get separated from the adults and cross a land bridge to a mysterious island that's full of all new kinds of food. A storm destroys the bridge, and they attempt to leave on a floating log to inform their parents of the island. But a shark attack forces them to turn around, and they become stranded on the island, where they eventually end up meeting Chomper, the baby T-Rex from the second movie, who is now older and can talk.

This is what it looked to me (and to some others I've talked to) like what actually happened: The dinosaurs reach the island, leave on the log, and end up on the shore of the mainland where they came from. The log never turned back around during the shark attack and the beach looked identical to the one on the mainland where they spotted the island. Plus, the island had no beach - its edges were sheer rocky cliffs that were grassy on top. They wake up the next morning, find Chomper, and have an adventure in a completely different area, forgetting all about "the mysterious island" the subtitle promises to explore. But then near the end, it does appear that they are on the island again with no explanation... the island with the sheer cliff walls and no beach, and some other questionable geographic anomalies for an island. This confusion is the result of the floating log scene, which is superfluous anyway, being incompetently sequenced.

The girl dinosaur, Cera, is made out to be "wrong" because she's nervous about being on an island with T-Rexes. Look, people, teaching tolerance is one thing, but these aren't different races of the same species, they're fucking T-Rexes! I don't blame her!

And if that really was the island the T-Rexes were on...wouldn't they be doomed to starvation? The land bridge was destroyed, offering no way for them to get back to the mainland and no way for any prey to get to them.
Rating: 2/5


Puss in Boots: A Furry Tail (2011 - Streaming Video)

The marketing material and IMDB all call this movie "Puss in Boots: A Furry Tail", while the actual title shown in the movie itself is "Puss in Boots: After the Fairy Tale", which makes more sense since it's literally a story about what happens to the characters in the classic Charles Perrault story after it's over. That, plus the fact that the DVD cover depicts CG artwork while the actual movie is hand drawn (though I'll bet dollars to donuts it was made with Flash or something similar), and that it seems so intended for an internet audience, make me wonder if what happened is that the movie's publisher scoured the internet for any cheap-to-license videos related to Puss in Boots so that it could ride the coattails of the Dreamworks version, found this on someone's website, and slapped it onto DVD and streaming video services with a generic new title.

What we have here is an extremely low-budget cartoon with limited animation and a story that is almost entirely joke-based. The only action scene, where Puss swordfights with a bunch of castle guards, is completely unnecessary and makes no sense since he only has reason to fight one of them, not all of them. The jokes are very hit-or-miss. Sometimes, they did make me laugh out loud (as often as the conspirator knight kept saying he hated being called "Donnie", I still didn't see his final punchline coming), but some of the pop culture references and attempts at modern slang I could've done without, especially when one of the three blind mice says, "Epic fail".

The voice acting is incredibly over-the-top, with just about everyone shouting their lines in ridiculous accents. I know Katie Leigh, who voiced the queen, from other things, but I don't think any of the others are known actors or VA's, perhaps lending further credibility to my theory that this was an amateur flash movie before the publisher picked it up.
Rating: 2.5/5


Surviving the Game (1994 - Streaming Video)

Ice-T stars in a modern day remake of The Most Dangerous Game in which he is conned into becoming the prey for a sadistic group of "big game" hunters - there's the twist; this version has a gang of hunters instead of just one. But, you know, if they're going to do something like this, they could, at the very least, be sportsmanlike about it. Instead, they give Ice-T a slight headstart, and then catch up to him immediately on ATVs. They complain their previous hunts hadn't been challenging enough. Well, duh. What chance does one unarmed man on foot have against six armed men on ATVs?

The biggest problem here is the story's inability to explore its themes. It starts off, actually not bad at all, showing Ice-T's life on the streets with a question of "will he or won't he eventually turn his life around?" - a question that is not answered by the film's (ridiculously nonsensical) ending. (How the heck did Ice-T get to where Rutger Hauer was?? And on foot, no less??) There's an underlying theme of how poor people are just as human and worthful as rich people that we're reminded of constantly, but only in the most cartoonish of dialogue possible. Eventually any philosophy is abandoned in favor of a bloodbath.

The movie has a (mostly) all-star cast, and yet some of the acting is so bad, it's cringe-inducing. Gary Busey's character is a psychiatrist. And here I thought Nexis Fried was the worst psychiatrist ever.

One of the better scenes occurs when Ice-T discovers the hunters' "trophy room" - the heads of their previous victims are preserved inside jars of liquid, and there's an empty one with his character's name engraved on it. Soon after, he sets the house on fire, and when it reaches that room, the jars start exploding. I guess that's just what jars full of human heads do in Hollywood when they get hot enough.

Other great moments include one where Ice-T knocks a tree down across a chasm (don't ask) and not one of the three hunters tailing him stops to think that he couldn't have possibly crossed it that quickly and might just be waiting for them to all get on it before he pops out behind them to knock it down. Then, when one of the hunter's legs get blown off in an explosion... well, if you had no idea how this type of special effect is done before seeing this, with the actor's real legs in a hole below the stage, you would instantly figure it out.

I can easily see ways in which this movie could have been a lot better, but it's like the budget was blown on all the famous actors and not enough thought went into the script. More of an explanation for Ice-T's resourcefulness (what if he had been a homeless war vet? Sure, it's a cliche, but at least it's something and relevant to the theme), more even terms between the hunters and the hunted, and a rewrite to clean up the terrible dialogue would've been a few steps in the right direction.
Rating: 2/5


Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines (2012 - Streaming Video)

I felt like what I had just watched when I was done with this documentary was a 53-minute appeal to movie executives to make a Wonder Woman movie. Alternately, I can sum this up in one sentence: There aren't enough female superheroes besides Wonder Woman.

Okay, I'm probably stripping this down to its bare thesis too much. I am comic book illiterate. I would hope the world of comic books is not as sexist as the movie makes it out to be, but if it is, I just hope the filmmakers are not using selective techniques to prove their point. One thing it shows, for instance, is how women are often depicted injured and vulnerable, often in the arms of a man, on comic book covers, and it claims you would never see a male superhero in that same position. Yet, I happened upon one completely by accident. It's not a bad thing to want more and better superheroines, but I hope that if other good examples do exist, they aren't being short-changed here, in much the same way the Jill Valentines, Samus Arans, Joanna Darks, Chun Lis, and Esuna Busys are ignored when it's time for someone to make an "all video games are sexist!!" argument.

For what it's worth, it is an interesting history of Wonder Woman (but don't expect too much about anyone else). Mad props are given to Ellen Ripley (Aliens) and Sarah Connor (Terminator 2), as well as the Bionic Woman, Thelma & Louise, and Charlie's Angels, but sometimes it shows clips from movies with female action heroes, like Kill Bill and Kick-Ass without saying a word about what they thought of them. Towards the end, it seemed to run low on content and began relying too much on interviewing kids, people I'm guessing were involved with the production and/or their friends, and Wonder Woman cosplayers, which was sometimes painful to watch.
Rating: 2.5/5


Paddington's Birthday Bonanza (1986 - Streaming Video)

If it weren't for the fact that I have a few things I wanted to say about this show, I would probably feel it's not worth reviewing, because it's only a 24-minute long TV special. It'd be like reviewing just one episode of a cartoon series, but I do want to mention a few things.

The first is that I had no previous familiarity with Paddington Bear. I didn't have the books when I was a kid, and I'd never seen any TV shows with him before, although this is from the United Kingdom, so it likely didn't air where I live. So, I didn't know what to expect, and was surprised to find the dialogue and jokes were actually quite witty at times for a children's story. For the first half, many of the jokes were puns and moldy oldies ("What's this fly doing in my soup?" "The backstroke!"), but some of the later jokes that were based on Paddington's unique personality quirks actually got a laugh out of me, particularly when he refuses to remove his coat because he has the number 10 (his lucky number) taped to the back of it, and then the punchline that later results from that.

Most impressive, though, was the animation which is entirely stop-motion, except that the humans are 2D hand-drawn characters, and it took me until almost 3/4 in to figure out how this was done. I didn't think it was likely they were inserted digitally, but it looked like they could've been. Eventually I began to wonder if they were drawn and painted on cardboard cutouts and then very carefully animated via stop-motion as well, and yes, that's exactly it. This special was the finale of a TV series that started in 1975, and when I looked at clips and screenshots of the older episodes, it was much more obvious that's how they were done. They were way more roughly cut out. Either the show's "technology" improved over time, or this special had a much higher budget...maybe a little of both.
Rating: 3/5


The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Author: Mark Twain; Reader: William Dufris
(Audiobook - 2008; Original Book - 1876)

This was the first audiobook I listened to in which the reader attempting to do voices for characters other than adult men was a little distracting. This is typically why women do voices for children in cartoons (like Bart Simpson), because men's voices are often too deep to sound convincing as a kid, even when in falsetto. So, I had to get used to some of the kids sounding like parrots before I was able to settle in. That, and his Muff Potter was a little over-the-top.

The first thing anyone will tell you about reading Tom Sawyer is that you have to be understanding of the era in which it was written and where it takes place when it comes to the racial issues (though it seems like The Adventures of Huck Finn gets it worse when it comes to controversy). The book only sparingly deals with the slaves that are kept by the southerners, and focuses much more on Tom Sawyer and his friends and their many adventures along the Mississippi River. The biggest problem for me is Injun Joe, whom the narrator actually played quite superbly - if I was still a kid, I can imagine he might've scared the crap outta me, especially considering how vivid some of the scenes with him were in my mind. I want to say he's a great villain, but on the other hand, I'm constantly being reminded that the "reason" he's "evil" is because he has "Injun blood". Though, strangely, the novel seems to have some sympathy for him at the end.

I believe the reason Tom Sawyer has remained an enduring classic despite its awkward racial issues is because of Mark Twain's knack for humor and satire and the many memorable episodes that happen largely in part to Tom's clever and miscreant antics. His thinking is so outside the box, that it leads to some really bizarre situations. The story begins with him conning almost every kid in town into doing his fence painting chores for him, but taking it a step farther, he actually tricks them into paying him to do it. After running away to become a pirate, he realizes the townspeople think he has drowned in the river. Mark Twain famously denied a newspaper report that he was dead with the line, "The report of my death was an exaggeration". Tom, however, seizes the opportunity to show up at his own funeral. He manipulates a ticket-collecting system for obtaining a free Bible, seemingly not out of love for scripture, but just to see if he can pull it off - and he does, with hilariously disastrous results.

As a person who knows what it's like to have a persistent cat that thinks you have something good to eat that you aren't sharing with it, I laughed out loud at the part where Tom gave his aunt's cat some medicine that made it freak out and tear around the room.

His adventures are like the ultimate escapist fantasies for kids, and for adults...well, they might make you wish you were bolder in your childhood.
Rating: 4/5


Beyond the Gap: A Novel of the Opening of the World
Author: Harry Turtledove; Reader: William Dufris
(Audiobook & Original Book - 2007)

Some fantasy novels try too hard to be like The Lord of the Rings in the sense of having them start out with a very slow-moving, long journey across a landscape. Beyond the Gap has this issue while also seeming like a softcore porn novel for much of the first half.

Some Nordic-type warriors living in a harsh tundra environment travel north to a massive glacier that has always separated their countries from the rest of the world. But recently a gap has appeared in the glacier and they want to find out what's on the other side. They are specifically looking for a Golden Shrine believed to have a connection to God.

Much of the story is spent traveling from nomadic tribe camp to nomadic tribe camp, while the characters get it on with the locals at every stop. The only major differences between these tribes are the animals they hunt. So, it feels like this goes on forever. When the characters finally make it to the glacier, you might remain optimistic that the wait was well worth it. What will they find on the other side? The Golden Shrine, maybe? Oh, another tribe. One that wants to start a war with them. So, what do they do? They turn around and go back!!

If the trip there wasn't painful enough, it's arguably even slower on the way back as we're treated to scenes of a woman who's never been to a city before asking what different things are, while we sit through explanations of everyday objects. Occasionally, there's an action scene, like a bear attack or "invaders from the north!", but these scenes are either too brief, or too little too late.

To make matters worse, the main character is bitter about the breakup of his marriage and despises his ex-wife, who comes along on the mission. He constantly laments about how he can never trust another woman again, even though she is like the Worst Woman Ever. She's entirely one-dimensional (but so are most of the other charactes) and although she is supposed to be an archer, I don't think she ever actually uses that skill. So, you're trapped with this horrible character for most of the book and a main hero you want to slap for not having the brains to get over her.
Rating: 2/5


The Girls of Slender Means
Author: Muriel Spark; Reader: Nadia May
(Audiobook - 2008; Original Book - 1963)

Muriel Spark's tale of a group of young women living in a hostel at the end of World War II often seems like it was intentionally written to be confusing. It jumps forward and backward between two different time periods (1963 and 1945) and there's absolutely no indication when it has transitioned from one to the other. Sometimes it seemed like it jumped around a bit within a single time period, too. This meant I had to listen to it twice before I felt like I got much out of it, and I'm still not real sure I totally understand the moral. You see, Spark was a devout Catholic, which I find odd because the two most religious characters in the story meet with horrific fates, and one wouldn't have happened had he not converted. It seemed the lesson was that you may as well be an anarchist and/or materialistic because even if you convert or are the most morally upstanding person around, bad things can and will still happen to you. But if that isn't the message, then what is? I'm reminded of a quote from The Simpsons:

Lisa: Maybe there is no moral, Mom.
Homer: Exactly! It's just a bunch of stuff that happened.
Marge: But it certainly was a memorable few days.
Homer: Amen to that.

One suggestion to me was, "...Catholics get their treasure in heaven, not on Earth. Everyone dies, so it's better to prepare for that than to expect your religion to prevent it." That would make sense and explain why the one guy converted (since he saw that bad things can happen to good people, he wanted to help others by obtaining a better afterlife). It also would explain why the priest seemed so unaffected by his daughter's tragedy, but it also makes him come across as uncaring. Maybe a little more explanation of this would've made everything seem less existential.

Other ways in which the book is confusing is that the two main female characters are named Jane and Joanna, and with names so similar I had a hard time keeping straight who was who. Since it's more like a short story than a full novel (the audiobook is only 3 hours and 20 minutes long), it feels like there are too many characters with only one or two defining traits. Joanna quotes poetry all the time. Selena is selfish (although the main selfish thing she does is a WTF moment near the end). There's one girl who tries to convince everyone she's dating a famous actor by leaving the hostel and driving around aimlessly for several hours whom I think has literally no other role in the plot. Maybe it's a dark comedy, and I could see an argument for that (especially when you have women stripping naked to slip through a tiny window and one gets stuck in it, Winnie the Pooh-style), but I can't imagine anyone thinking the harrowing third act and the ending were funny.

My favorite part of the book might have actually been the very beginning where the author describes what London looked like after several bombings. The comparison of the buildings to giant, decaying teeth and the way the rooms looked like stages set up for a play when only one wall of the building was missing was all very evocative.
Rating: 3/5


The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood
Author: Howard Pyle; Reader: David Case
(Audiobook - 2004; Original Book - 1883)

It's funny that this version of the tales of Robin Hood was originally, and maybe even still, considered a "children's" story, because it is not particularly "kiddie". There's actually more blood and violence here than in the other versions I'm most familiar with (one is the Errol Flynn movie, which couldn't have blood because of movie censorship at the time, and the other is the Disney version, which, well, duh...) But even the language, with its "old English" jargon, is not the most kid-friendly.

A lot of the episodes are similar to each other: Robin Hood meets someone, like Friar Tuck, Little John, Will Scarlet, etc., and they get into a fight. When the fight is over, Robin will ask him to join the Merry Men, and he does. It doesn't matter if Robin wins the fight or the other guy does, he always joins just the same.

Eventually, I started to get the feeling that the "villains" have very broken facial recognition because Robin escapes capture constantly by changing his clothes. He tricks someone into swapping clothes with him, and then that person gets arrested by mistake. It's especially ridiculous when he disguises himself in Sir Guy of Gisbourne's clothes and the Sheriff of Nottingham doesn't realize this is not the same person he hired to go after Robin Hood just because he's wearing the same clothes.

Some surprising details about this version:

No Maid Marian. She may have been mentioned at one point, but Robin Hood never gets to know her, let alone fall in love with her.

No Prince John for most of the book. In many versions, Prince John usurps the throne while King Richard is away, but in this version Robin Hood goes on the crusades with Richard, and John only appears and becomes ruler (as King John) after Richard is killed and Robin returns.

Some events are similar to those in other versions of Robin Hood, but the characters and settings change slightly. For example, in the Disney version, it was Friar Tuck who was supposed to be hanged, and the Merry Men stage a rescue of him. In the Errol Flynn version, it was Robin Hood himself. In this book, it's Will Stutely, and then again in a later chapter, Little John.

Despite having a fair amount of violence, most of the book is humorous and lighthearted (even including an implausible scene where a miller disables Robin Hood and two of his men by tossing flour at them). But it takes a very dark and serious turn towards the end, after Robin Hood returns from the war, and the ending is a real downer. It was then I realized that the whole thing is likely a metaphor for childhood and growing up, and how you can never go back again. Versions in which Robin ends up with Maid Marian instead of what happens here may be more "feelgood" for audiences, but it eschews the symbolism.

Also, since this is an audiobook, I didn't get the benefit of Howard Pyle's illustrations that accompanied the original print versions. But they aren't necessary to understand the story, so I didn't really mind too much.
Rating: 4/5


True Grey: A Dulcie Schwartz Feline Mystery
Author: Clea Simon; Reader: Tavia Gilbert
(Audiobook - 2013; Original Book - 2012)

From now on I'm going to research audiobooks before checking them out to make sure that if they're part of a series, I start with the first one. True Grey is the third Dulcie Schwartz mystery novel, a fact I didn't know before borrowing it, and while the mystery itself is completely self-contained to this book, there are no doubt things I'm not getting because I didn't read the first two.

Grad student Dulcie Schwartz is just about to make a breakthrough in her research for her thesis, which has something to do with identifying an unknown author of an unfinished gothic novel. She is shocked and dismayed to learn that a student from another university, Melanie Sloane Harquist, is researching the same author and has been given exclusive rights to use the library. What's worse is that the rival scholar's research bears such a strong resemblance to Dulcie's that Dulcie finds herself accused of plagiarism. When Harquist turns up dead, of course Dulcie is the prime suspect, and she must find out who really did it to clear her name.

There is an inordinate amount of mystery novels that involve cats in some capacity. In Dulcie's case, she can communicate with them, living or dead. It doesn't seem like they ever say anything that her own conscience or subconscious couldn't have told her, so it's possible that it could all be in her head. But she also has clairvoyant dreams, which have no earthly explanation, so I suppose she really is psychic.

I might have to read the first two books in this series to get more out of this one. I'm guessing my lack of familiarity with the characters is what made it feel like the details were confusing, and instead of trying to solve the mystery on my own, I just went along with the ride and waited for it to be spelled out (though I did figure out the significance of Dulcie's computer crash - things like that don't happen in novels for no reason).

I realize this is out of necessity so that mystery novels don't turn into courtroom dramas, but I still get annoyed sometimes when people who are accused of murder and other crimes don't hire an attorney. Dulcie at least goes to a law student friend for advice, but the culprit gives up faster than an unmasked Scooby-Doo villain.
Rating: 3/5


The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion (1967 - Digital Album)
Artist: The Incredible String Band

A trippy album from the Incredible String Band that is largely comprised of British/Scottish psychedelic folk music, but tends to lean way more heavily to the folk end of that equation.

Many of the songs have a lighthearted and whimsical feel (there's even one about a hedgehog!), but have much sadder lyrics than the tunes would have you realize. A few of them delve into even darker territory - "My Name is Death" is so heavy, I had a slightly hard time getting through it, it was hitting my emotional nerve so hard.

While the band has a large fanbase with undying love for their work, I concede that I don't think they're for everyone. As far as 60s British music goes, I liked this a lot more than that Best of Bee Gees album that left me scratching my head a few months back. But anyone wanting psychedelic rock, or even folk-rock, might find this too laid back for their tastes.
Rating: 3.5/5


Hummin' To Myself (2004 - Digital Album)
Artist: Linda Ronstadt

Linda Ronstadt's voice sounds as good as ever on this 2004 recording, but I'm just not real fond of listening to an entire album of nothing but covers of slow jazz standards. I wasn't fond of her albums with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra, either, and while I liked this somewhat more than those, I still didn't feel compelled to buy it or even give it a second listen. I guess I'm too used to her having more variety, versatility, and...energy in her older music. I know that it gets harder to "rock out" when you get older, but I feel like this entire album is just that - a continuous reminder that Linda Ronstadt and her fans have gotten old.
Rating: 2.5/5


Nitro Burnin' Funny Daddy (2003 - Digital Album)
Artist: Brian Setzer

The eleventh solo album from Brian Setzer of the Stray Cats and the Brian Setzer Orchestra utilizes much of the same great retro-style rockabilly that he's known for, while venturing a bit into some other territory. My impression of it was that the first half of the album was better than the second, and looking over some other reviews, I'm noticing that a lot of people seem to agree with me. The first track, "Sixty Years", was so incredible, I would've probably bought the album had the rest been at least half that good. I actually listened to that song several more times before the album was returned. And the rest... I don't know, it wasn't terrible, just not as good past the fifth track or so. There's also a bonus track cover of the jazz standard, "Luck Be a Lady", which may not be on all versions of this album, but if it's not on yours, don't worry too much. His cover isn't bad or anything, but it felt out of place.
Rating: 3/5

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