Sarah Woods Mystery Series (Vol 4) – “Engaging”

 Sarah Woods Mystery Series (Vol 4)  by Jenifer Jennings

JOHN: I don’t know when I’ve enjoyed a series more. Perhaps, it was read after several books I didn’t care for. But finding this series of four novels just satisfied me right.

SPANKY: There is a rather intriguing subplot. Sarah Woods falls in love with her expoliceman, detective.

JOHN:The surface plots are suspenseful and fast moving.

SPANKY: And all deal with sex.

JOHN: A missing fiancé, under disguise taking care of a comatose father. A pregnant woman murdered by a family member. Men interested in pre-teen females.

SPANKY: But we wonder what is going to happen on all levels. Usually a series is successful then follows the winning formula too closely. Not this one

JOHN: Good reading that will have you thinking about the characters days later.


Blue Velvet – “Disturbed”

Blue Velvet


JOHN: This is what movies could be but choose not to—like a nightmare you wake up from and wonder if it were real.

SPANKY: There are three things that stay with you years after leaving it: 1) the protagonist walking along after his father’s stroke and finding a cut-off ear in the grass, 2) the songs “Blue Velvet” and “In Dreams“ performed with their weird context instead of blaring off of a portable radio, 3) Isabella Rosellini telling her young savior to hit her making love.

JOHN: And he does hit her. At the end, though the plot is resolved, the troubling subtext is free to go on and on and on.

SPANKY: Who would go to such a film? I’m sure that is why others never followed David Lynch. More than a romantic entertainment for date night, more than an action flick for pre-teens. A film that changes who you are and how you see life.

JOHN: Creepy, beyond what we want, beyond what we need. But we can’t look away.

SPANKY: 4 Barks out of 4

JOHN:  4 GOs out of 4


Apocalypse Now – “Still Unsettling”


SPANKY: I know you like to go back over movies you saw at a certain time in your life, but most seem labored, dated.

JOHN: Not this one. It parallels a confusion about Vietnam we still suffer from. When I first saw the movie I wanted it to stick closer to Heart of Darkness which I had read. To see Brando at the end. Be moved by his words.

SPARKY: But now we see many more references to Kurtz throughout the film. The visuals are spectacular and at the end we do need someone of Brando’s stature.

JOHN:  The fact that he doesn’t make any sense seems even more appropriate now than it did then.

SPARKY: We were looking for easy answers then.

JOHN: This is a masterpiece that goes beyond its time. The message: There is more to “the horror” than war. “The horror” is humanity.

SPARKY: Not something entertaining, but a film so important you have to watch it again. And again.

Spanky 2

See it, see it, see it!

Life Itself – “Two Thumbs Way Up”


SPANKY: This is a superbly balanced film. We see the young, over-confident Ebert, his relationships with Gene Siskel and famous movie directors and finally the love of his wife Chaz. The movie doesn’t drag out any of these stages, and is visually  stunning.

JOHN: You missed one aspect, Spanky, though I agree with what you  said. There was a time and a place when movie discussion was the star. Now, perhaps the costs are too high for anyone to be unclear or subtle. We are hit over the head with whatever is offered. But once upon a Felini, Bergman, Herzog time we could stay up all night and debate. It wasn’t that we believed the directors were wrong, just that it took our participation to figure out their message.

SPANKY: And Siskel and Ebert were our models.

JOHN: I enjoyed seeing the differences between the two and witnessing Ebert’s resultant courage in allowing the camera to follow him through to the end.

SPANKY: I can’t imagine a better tribute to a man, or a better conclusion to his life. Wow, I want to watch this over and over again.

Spanky gives this 4 Barks out of 4

John, 4 GOs out of 4

Boyhood – “Grow Up”

BoyhoodSPANKY: I have never seen a more realistic movie, and I don’t mean it was just the actors growing over 12 years of filming.

JOHN: Perhaps, but I thought it felt a little too much like real life, I mean not going anwhere.

SPANKY: But it was interesting to watch people growing older. They repeated mistakes (marriages) they (and we) had already gone through. Continue reading

Inside Llewyn Davis – “Out of Tune”

Devil's Lake 2013Inside Llewyn Davis 

JOHN: This is one of the worst movies I have seen in years.

SPANKY: And you’ve probably seen some bad ones, I know I have.

JOHN: It played at the Sundance in Madison for maybe a week. I wanted to go because, not only was it a Coen brother’s movie, but also it was about a folk singer in Greenwich Village at the start of the sixties. I went there in 1959 to be a folk singer myself. Continue reading

Dean Spanley – “After After-Life”

Peter O'TollDean Spanley 

Directed By: Toa Fraser, 2009

JOHN: This movie started out slow, incredibly slow, and then went places no one would expect to a Bravo climax. It is the kind of movie experience I haven’t had in years. And until it happened, I didn’t realize what I had been missing. Continue reading

Blue Jasmine – “Streetcar Not Named Desire”

Woody Allen_edited-1

Blue Jasmine 

Directed By: Woody Allen, 2013 

JOHN: I didn’t like Blue Jasmine, and I realize everyone else has. The acting is fine. Direction, excellent, even the flash back structure that contrasts past and present seems to work. 

Except there is a difference between a play and a movie—I am reacting to frequent comparisons of this to Streetcar Named Desire. With a play there are some out of town previews, revisions, attention to live audience response. A movie or novel is not known to the audience. That is until afterwards when the author or director finds out the work strikes a chord with them.

The emphasis on Streetcar may be Blanche, but it is her affect on Stanley and Stella that is the heart of the play. Jasmine focuses on the Cate Blanchett (Blanche like) character but that’s about it, and she is someone who just makes me feel uncomfortable. Continue reading

Now You See Me – “Movie Magic.”

Now You See Me 

Now You See Me

Directed by Louis Leterrier, 2013

John:  There are three types of movies. 1) Thought-provoking ones that often end in an unexpected way to throw the meaning and significance of the theme on the shoulders of the viewer. Think Ingmar Bergman…Felini.

Spanky: We wouldn’t waste our time on these, right John? Continue reading

RIVER ROAD by Carol Goodman-Not A Dead End

John: About half way through, I thought the plot–a woman whose daughter is killed by a car–was over. Then she is accused of killing another girl on the same road and is denied tenure.

Spanky: The author goes deeper and deeper into the theme. The woman is an alcoholic and the second girl her student, who is on drugs.

John: As the story drifts to the drug culture I wondered how it would all end. But it all makes sense and we get back to the death of her daughter.

The Lady Who Sang High “Not a Life Changer”


The Lady Who Sang High by Renee Pawlish

JOHN: This series has a lot going for it. It takes place in Denver and the process of growing weed is one not familiar to most readers. Also the undercover detective is a big film noir fan and we get a touch of that throughout (but not enough to put off non-noir people). Also there are his neighbors, The Goofball Brothers, who don’t have much of a role but are an entertaining contrast when they do. Then there is a computer “hacker” kept at a distance for technically challenged readers. And Reed Furguson’s disparigning parents who are coming for a visit and his live-in girl friend.


JOHN: The book keeps going but doesn’t change my life.

SPANKY: So your saying that despite everything, turn-offs and turn-ons that keep the plot going, when it is over and nothing has changed for you, therefore the book has not accomplished what you expected.

JOHN: Nothing has changed me.


The Fortress by Danielle Trussoni – “Over and Done”


JOHN: Most people don’t want to read, or think, about love being over. We have a Hollywood, TV view of “happily ever after.”

SPANKY: Not this book. We see love growing and dying.

JOHN: I have visited Bulgaria and the south of France, that’s what drew me to this book. But I will never see them the same way now, yet…

SPANKY: She loves her husband, they divorce, fight over kids, their home together in a fortress in Southern France.

JOHN: But at the end she comes back to what was, years ago, and the places they lived. Readers come back too. This is a difficult, even painful story, yet it is one we have lived.


MURDER IN NICE by Susan Kiernan-Lewis – “Not Nice”


JOHN: I love the south of France. And the details of it in this book are fantastic, even without a rather involved murder plot.

SPANKY: The crew travel France making a TV program in which three women are vying for a lead. Unfortunately one is murdered and her friend, now a new mother with a French hot-tempered vineyard owner husband. feels compelled to solve the case.

JOHN: But her brother and his wife come to visit the vineyard owner’s wife, who she has been estranged from for several years. He was on the tour, but has a hidden reason to visit and talk with the husband.

SPANKY: It all turns out in the end with, of course, the least suspicious character being the murderer.

JOHN: But the layers of plot make sense, and the background setting is perfect.


STAY by Allie Larkin – You’ll Want To


JOHN: The cover is misleading. Oh, there’s a dog in the story but mostly it’s about a woman who gets dumped by her boyfriend for the wealthy daughter of woman who the narrator’s own mother worked for. 

The narrator gets drunk and buys a 100 lb puppy of the internet for $5,000 from Slovackia. She falls in love with the dog’s American vet.

SPANKY: I like it that you choose a book with a dog on the cover.

JOHN: The vet eventually drops her and the non-English understanding dog is all she has.

SPANKY: The End.

JOHN: No, just when I’d about given up on the woman she has it out with the guy’s new wife and her mother (who was friends with her mother even though she worked for her).

There are stories festering under a rather formulaic plot and the last hundred pages deal with these in a very meaningful way.

SPANKY: So things turn out.

JOHN: Maybe even better than we ever imagined they would (though she also wants to make amends with the vet). 




PAGE TURNER – Browsings by Michael Dirda



JOHN: This is a remarkable group of magazine columns on older books.

SPANKY: So, what do you remember? What do you take away from reading this?

JOHN: No specifics. Maybe there is one classic in a thousand I actually read, but the author presents the wold of books, browsing and used book stores. I is past but he lets us remember and wish for it again.

SPANKY: Check out your own book shelves. How many of these volumes have you gone back to, why do you keep them decorating your walls?

JOHN: Maybe that’s it. We always want more. Believe the next novel will be like our past discoveries. And when its not, we remember that prior book, reading that prior book discussing that prior book. Our idealized self.


JOHN: And, for a moment, we have someone who shared this view, and we feel we’re in heaven.5-out-of-5_edited-1

“Heaven itself will resemble a vast used bookstore, with a really good cafe in one corner, serving Guinness and kielbasa to keep up one’s strength while browsing. And all my old friends will be there.” – Michael Dirda

SPANKY: Sorry, I just don’t relate.

The Nice Guys – “Finish First”


John and his dog, Spanky, review books, movies, DVDs, etc.

JOHN: My friend Bob, who invited me to lunch and this movie (lunch served to recliner seats inside the theater), says Russell Crowe put on 60 pounds for the role he plays to make him seem kind of a has been for noir audiences.

SPANKY: Sounds a little like you may have gained 60 pounds too.

JOHN: Ryan Gosling smokes and drinks incessantly for the same reason, except he has a disapproving daughter, Angourie Rice, who is like a young Jodi Foster. She adds real feelings to a genre that usually sidesteps them.

SPANKY: This is another alteration to the noir tradition. The Nice Guys is the classic California noir of Hammett and Chandler, which the movie simultaneously reveres and satirizes. It’s no coincidence, for instance, that moments after a reference to a violent crime in a diner, we meet a character played by Crowe’s L.A. Confidential co-star, Kim Basinger.

JOHN: I have to say that I thought Robert Altman’s The Long Goodby marked the end of the film noir…but this one with its inspired, confusing plot, two great partners, LA setting, and an extra layer of meaning…marks its rebirth. We can’t wait for the next one. But The Nice Guys is not a movie for everyone. It is for those attuned to its sleazy vibe and sudden alternations between violence and slapstick.