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rob crawford "Rob Crawford" (Balmette Talloires, France)
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Eromenos: A novel of ancient Rome
Eromenos: A novel of ancient Rome
by Melanie McDonald
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.32

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars leisurely memoires of an introspective catamite, 24 May 2012
This is a good read, sent to me as a review copy. It evokes the atmosphere of the times, portrays the landscape of the golden age of the Roman Empire, and gives life to an interesting and complex character - the most beautiful, male sexual plaything of the Emperor Hadrian. It is beautifully written, at times poetic, with words to savor. It is also spare, almost a novella that can be read in one sitting.

All that being said, even with the tension that exists with the foreknowledge that Roman history buffs would have, the narrative is lacking in the tension and events that make a really good novel. The boy has a voice and a fate, engaged in a kind of power struggle for the love of the most powerful man in the world, at once an object like a slave but also an intelligent youth fully aware of the temporary nature of his situation as a courtier sex toy. It is well done, but not exciting. I would give this 3.5 stars if I could. Recommended.


Scenes From A Marriage [DVD] [1973]
Scenes From A Marriage [DVD] [1973]
Dvd ~ Liv Ullmann
Offered by babsbargains *** WORLDWIDE SHIPPING ***
Price: £39.91

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A moving portrait of disaster, growth, and limits, 24 May 2012
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This is one of those great works of art that one should see at different stages of life. As a youth, this appeared as the most depressing failure and dependency, though I seem to recall that I was thrilled by my reaction, that once again Bergman "got to" me. Now, almost 30 years later, I see it in a completely different way: from a busy facade of marriage, splitting up was not necessarily a failure, but one gateway to becoming very different, in many ways more mature, people, yet with the same core - and they still knew that spark of love. Instead of depressing, I saw it as a beautiful kind of renewal, with all the negatives and suffering that comes from entering middle age. Either way, it is an amazing film journey, with many possible interpretations.

This is my current perception. Starting from a stiff and insipid interview, we see the 2 characters. Johan is something of a narcissist, an over-achiever but burdened with insecurity and need. Marianne is a maintainer of artifice, trying to keep them on track and refusing to see warning signs. They live in a web of obligation and busyness, so choreographed by their parents that they are under-developed as people. One of the most frightening scenes - the kind that make you remember childhood fears when your parents argued - is a horrible battle between married guests in their home, where their hatred for each other is scorching and irredeemably destructive. Their attempt to keep up appearances is as heroic as it is stifling. Of course, it can't last.

Once they separate, they begin to learn about who they are, to the extent that they can introspect. Both of them go through stages of pain, selfishness, anger, frustration, and realization, switching roles as to who is the more sympathetic or errant. All I can say is, it is a dazzling panorama of life, yet the production is extremely spare, only 2 people talking for the most part. I was once again astonished at the realism, the struggle, and the ambiguity of their redemption, if indeed there was one.

This is one of Bergman's greatest masterpieces, truly a must for all collectors. I will continue to watch this periodically for the rest of my life. The picture is a bit grainy. Recommended with the greatest enthusiasm.


Cambridge Spies [DVD] [2003]
Cambridge Spies [DVD] [2003]
Dvd ~ Tom Hollander
Price: £4.70

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars evocative and fun, if a bit thin on content, 24 May 2012
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This review is from: Cambridge Spies [DVD] [2003] (DVD)
My British friends relish spy stories and have initiated me into their intricacies. This led me to begin collecting the BBC productions, which include such outstanding titles as Smiley's People. With this, I think that the best is definitely in the past: the script has many holes, providing little solid information about what made these guys tick. It also takes a rather sympathetic view of them as ambitious, youthful idealists, attracted to communism mostly as a way to fight fascism. Oddly, it glosses over much of the real damage that they did, such as Philby's exposure of a counter-insurgency in Albania that cost hundreds of lives in an ambush. Overall, it is stimulating and well acted with evocations of history, a good if not prime addition to a film library.

The story begins with the 4 as students. They are rambunctious - the cold Blunt and flamboyant Burgess are overt homosexuals - while Philby is a womanizer; only McLean appears shy and introspective. After some hesitation, they band together and subordinate their lives to spying for the USSR. The personal conflicts and tragedies that this double life caused form the crux of the plot - lost love, stress leading to alcoholism, etc. Another theme is the old-boys British public school culture, whereby those of the right breeding and class can enter into the elite when they chose to do so: all you need is the "right tie". The elite also closes ranks on certain questions, such as the loyalty of the Cambridge grads, letting them escape.

As a result, what they actually did and even what motivated them at the deepest levels is largely left vague. I was disappointed because I wanted to learn much more. It also falls between genres, i.e. it isn't suspense, isn't history, and lacks the intrigue that makes spy stories such a fun puzzle. Recommended with these caveats.


El Cid (Two Disc Deluxe Edition) [Blu-ray]
El Cid (Two Disc Deluxe Edition) [Blu-ray]
Dvd ~ Charlton Heston

4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars an extravaganza potboiler of mythmaking, 24 May 2012
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There is no doubt that this is a good film: the acting, the plot, and the themes are strong, the sets and props are wonderful. You can imagine you are in medieval Spain, with its jousts, wars with the Moors, and wily courtiers. It is also a good place to spark an interest in history, not because it is factual but in order to understand the truth behind the myth. It is a good portrait of a reluctant leader, thrust into greatness and growing into the role. Finally, the values in it - tolerance of diversity, seeking the truth, and doing the right thing regardless of the personal price that must be paid - are laudable and worth discussing.

However, it lacks subtlety of character: the heros and those redeemed do not even seem all that human, when compared to, say, the personal struggle for faith by Ben Hur. Moreover, the dialogue is laden with platitudes - "honor", "God-given king", "glory", etc. - and is flat and utterly lacking in the poetry of language that it is the stuff of great writing. In short, instead of suspending my disbelief and becoming engrossed in the story, it seemed such a blatant product of "Hollywood", even though it was filmed in fascist Spain. When the glitz and highfalutin verbiage are brushed aside, this is a standard potboiler.

The film seeks to create a myth about the Cid, a medieval knight who shows mercy to moslem forces and gains their loyalty. Based as it is largely on Racine's play, he kills his future father in law in a matter of honor and thereby is estranged from his fiancee until his pure heart and loyalty to what is right win her back over. In the meantime, as an exile he engages in civil war against a sleazy king and then against invading North Africans. As a martyr in the end, he transforms his ancient adversaries into better men and enshrines himself in legend. This largely works, but expecting anything beyond what is basically a romantic melodrama is too big a stretch for me.

As a bluray, the images are spectacular. However, I found the sound too loud, particularly the blaring trumpets of the heavy musical score. The extras are also predominantly the publicist fluff one expects in these things, but there was an interesting documentary on the producer that is critical and honest; I learned that he was more or less a con man, unable to manage money or relationships, but capable of extraordinary networking, and indeed successful with this film, at least, which is rightly regarded as a classic epic. It does have one laughable extra feature, a kind of lecture by John Bevere, who is a fundamentalist spewing the crudest patriotism and twisting the values of the film to his "vision"; for example, he says he bars his kids from watching most PG films (I suppose like Home Alone) because they would teach them "to disrespect their parents", but thinks El Cid is his kinda film.

Recommended as good fun. Just don't expect it to be art and leave your worldly cynicism behind.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 23, 2012 9:45 PM GMT


A Perfect Spy: Complete BBC Series (3 Disc Box Set) [DVD]
A Perfect Spy: Complete BBC Series (3 Disc Box Set) [DVD]
Dvd ~ Peter Egan
Price: £6.30

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars good novelistic treatment of a mediocre traitor, 10 May 2012
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It took me a while to warm up to this series and get it. Up to nearly the end, I thought it was too slow and convoluted. It takes a deep look at the spy's psychology: his father was a charming con man, either in the money or broke, even in jail; yet he always resurfaces, even to run for parliament. The boy is ashamed of him, loves him, feels guilt and responsibility towards him and never free. It is pathetic, yet his recruiters for "the firm" think a little crime in the family is a fine thing.

The young man inherits the charm of his father and is apparently talented, at least if admission to Oxford means anything. He proves adept at gathering information discreetly, rarely regrets his betrayals, to the point that it is clear he is the same kind of sociopath his father is = he marries women he doesn't love for "cover" and eventually compromises himself because there is a need inside him that cannot be fulfilled. (I reveal nothing here, for his journey to this is what is important. It is subtle and complex, as we expect from Le Carre, and it is not spelled but must be interpreted, which is one thing I love about European film.) He is seduced and makes a career that makes a mockery of his colleagues and indeed the entire intelligence service. Of course, it works itself to a terrible crisis, not at all what one would expect. The spy, Pym, disappears, but the look of nervous exhaustion is unmistakeable and, I thought, believable.

Though I found it difficult to understand what exactly the spy was supposed to be doing and what he did, it is revealed slowly. Perhaps too slowly. It does work very well in the end as a drama, but it may lose many viewers before the climax. Recommended. This is not as good as Smiley's People.


Strategies of Containment
Strategies of Containment
by John Lewis Gaddis
Edition: Paperback
Price: £21.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars comprehensive survey of Cold War doctrines, 10 May 2012
This is a good, if extremely pedestrian academic study of the notion of containment. It is interesting in that it show how, from its conception by George Kennan, it get bent out of shape as it is put into practice by warring bureaucrats. Kennen, the famous "X" in the Foreign Affairs article that introduced the idea, had a very nuanced conception of how to help the USSR evolve: keep it from expanding into strategically important areas so that it could have the time to evolve internally, from its politics to its military. Once the idea was out, Paul Nitze - that most influential, independently wealthy bureaucrat - wrote a memo from within the Truman Administration, advocating a purely militarized policy of opposing the USSR wherever it sought to go. This led first to Dulles' "pactomainia", according to which the USA signed security treaties with a plethora of "allies", resulting in a dangerously hair-trigger over-commitment of obligations in the early nuclear age.

Then it resulted in the Vietnam War, which the USA tried to contain by conventional means, a horrible war that rightfully tarnished America's reputation. What was clear was that a militarized containment policy allowed the communist powers to choose the time and place of its forays, which the USA attempted to stop indiscriminately, regardless of local realities and political considerations. From the nuanced and multi-facetted position that Kennen outlined, the USA became a stupid policeman. On the other hand, the USA was vulnerable to the demands of anyone who portrayed their policies as "anti-communist" and hence, easy to manipulate.

Now, I think these are the basic learnings from this book, though others may disagree and see the policy as effective. It depends on your assumptions, e.g. whether the USSR imploded of its own internal contradictions or was led down that path by American policies. If you think the latter, I believe you over-estimate the intelligence and subtlety of US foreign policy and power. As such, I judge the former far far more likely an explanation, i.e. it had almost nothing to do with containment.

I must admit that, valuable as this book is, it is a slog to read. I would recommend it only to academics.


The Crusades: The War for the Holy Land
The Crusades: The War for the Holy Land
by Thomas Asbridge
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.74

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This is an absolutely first-rate intro to the Crusades, 10 May 2012
This is a popular introduction to the Crusades that strikes a perfect balance between academic rigor and the expectations of a lay audience. It offers solid narrative and some analysis, while avoiding excessive proofs and obscure controversies. Best of all, it is simply fun to read and never unacceptably heavy.

The Crusades began as a kind of idealistic call to arms. When you look at it, the entire enterprise looks insanely impossible: a bunch of aristocrats, knights and their support infantries decide to travel to nearly the end of the world, to dislodge the far more numerous Muslims from Christian holy sites (Jerusalem, etc.) Against all odds, the first Crusade essentially lives up to its ideals, conquering a huge swath of territories and establishing independent kingdoms and Duchies in the mid east (largely in the territories of modern Syria and Israel). It is simply amazing that, virtually without supply support and lacking coherent leadership, they charged into battle with little plans and won. Many said it was God's will.

In a way it was colonial, but the author is at pains to prove that it was their ideals that drove them. He demonstrates the changes in theology required, including "just war" by Christians, but also promises of salvation from sin to varying degrees and under more or less clarified obligations. The twists of logic and the hypocrisy of land-hungry princes, I was convinced, were outweighed by their religious purpose. After all, what they wanted to do was far too ambitious, though to be fair they lacked clear and practical knowledge about the areas they were attacking; besides, God and the talisman of the "true cross" supported them. Their faith offered them an inarguable rationale to plunge head first into hopeless battle for glory and to fulfill their vows. For a short time, they were triumphant. The second Crusade was a catastrophic bust: exhausted from the logistics of arriving in the mid east, it imploded upon arrival in spite of the presence of Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Of course, the muslim side had begun a decline that has proceeded more or less until the present day. They were not unified when the first crusade arrived and so were easy to divide and pick off kingdoms one by one. After being beaten, they did begin a long process of unification, eating away at Christian gains, but the process took more than a century. A series of great leaders did emerge, most notably Saladin, who strove to appear just and equitable, but had an instinct for amassing political power through military conquest. Nonetheless, the original dynamism of Islam was never regained. His duel with Richard Coeur de Lion is the centerpiece of the book: their portraits are wonderfully informative and psychologically deep. Both come off well, though Richard ultimately fails - Richard exerted extraordinary leadership, but it slipped from his grasp as over-zealous knights squandered the gains he had so painstakingly put together over a decade away from home and constantly worried about the machinations of his rivals back in Europe.

The fourth Crusade never gets beyond the shameful sack of Constantinople and the remaining ones blur together as desperate attempts to reclaim lost territories with the aid of enhanced theological clarity, i.e. what knightly vows consisted of and what precisely had to be done for salvation to be achieved. At this point, the Mamluks - Turkic slave warriors who took over Egypt and then the entire mid east - took over Saladin's empire and eventually triumphed over the Christian forces decisively. Europe then abandoned the enterprise without much thought and the Renaissance blossomed.

The entire process covered a span of approximately 200 years, a daunting tableau to paint. I often regret getting big fat history books because the degenerate into the driest of academic exercises. This one never does. Recommended with enthusiasm.


THE CRUSADES: THE AUTHORITATIVE HISTORY OF THE WAR FOR THE HOLY LAND BY Asbridge, Thomas(Author)PaperbackMar-01-2011
THE CRUSADES: THE AUTHORITATIVE HISTORY OF THE WAR FOR THE HOLY LAND BY Asbridge, Thomas(Author)PaperbackMar-01-2011
by Thomas Asbridge
Edition: Paperback

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars an absolutely first-rate intro to the Crusades, 10 May 2012
This is a popular introduction to the Crusades that strikes a perfect balance between academic rigor and the expectations of a lay audience. It offers solid narrative and some analysis, while avoiding excessive proofs and obscure controversies. Best of all, it is simply fun to read and never unacceptably heavy.

The Crusades began as a kind of idealistic call to arms. When you look at it, the entire enterprise looks insanely impossible: a bunch of aristocrats, knights and their support infantries decide to travel to nearly the end of the world, to dislodge the far more numerous Muslims from Christian holy sites (Jerusalem, etc.) Against all odds, the first Crusade essentially lives up to its ideals, conquering a huge swath of territories and establishing independent kingdoms and Duchies in the mid east (largely in the territories of modern Syria and Israel). It is simply amazing that, virtually without supply support and lacking coherent leadership, they charged into battle with little plans and won. Many said it was God's will.

In a way it was colonial, but the author is at pains to prove that it was their ideals that drove them. He demonstrates the changes in theology required, including "just war" by Christians, but also promises of salvation from sin to varying degrees and under more or less clarified obligations. The twists of logic and the hypocrisy of land-hungry princes, I was convinced, were outweighed by their religious purpose. After all, what they wanted to do was far too ambitious, though to be fair they lacked clear and practical knowledge about the areas they were attacking; besides, God and the talisman of the "true cross" supported them. Their faith offered them an inarguable rationale to plunge head first into hopeless battle for glory and to fulfill their vows. For a short time, they were triumphant. The second Crusade was a catastrophic bust: exhausted from the logistics of arriving in the mid east, it imploded upon arrival in spite of the presence of Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Of course, the muslim side had begun a decline that has proceeded more or less until the present day. They were not unified when the first crusade arrived and so were easy to divide and pick off kingdoms one by one. After being beaten, they did begin a long process of unification, eating away at Christian gains, but the process took more than a century. A series of great leaders did emerge, most notably Saladin, who strove to appear just and equitable, but had an instinct for amassing political power through military conquest. Nonetheless, the original dynamism of Islam was never regained. His duel with Richard Coeur de Lion is the centerpiece of the book: their portraits are wonderfully informative and psychologically deep. Both come off well, though Richard ultimately fails - Richard exerted extraordinary leadership, but it slipped from his grasp as over-zealous knights squandered the gains he had so painstakingly put together over a decade away from home and constantly worried about the machinations of his rivals back in Europe.

The fourth Crusade never gets beyond the shameful sack of Constantinople and the remaining ones blur together as desperate attempts to reclaim lost territories with the aid of enhanced theological clarity, i.e. what knightly vows consisted of and what precisely had to be done for salvation to be achieved. At this point, the Mamluks - Turkic slave warriors who took over Egypt and then the entire mid east - took over Saladin's empire and eventually triumphed over the Christian forces decisively. Europe then abandoned the enterprise without much thought and the Renaissance blossomed.

The entire process covered a span of approximately 200 years, a daunting tableau to paint. I often regret getting big fat history books because the degenerate into the driest of academic exercises. This one never does. Recommended with enthusiasm.


Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol - Triple Play (Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy)
Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol - Triple Play (Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy)
Dvd ~ Tom Cruise
Price: £8.55

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars mpossible, to be sure, but the most fun since #1, 10 May 2012
II loved the first MI, which warped the TV program with Jim Phelps' true character coming out as a total surprise that kept you guessing till the end and yet can be watched over and over. 2 and 3 essentially made Cruise into a superhero, creating a role he could plod through with as much interest as a clod. While he is still somewhat of a superhero for this one, there is no question that it is best since 1.

Released from prison by a lovely agent, Hunt is immediately entrapped in some kind of web he has to figure out. The entire MI force is disavowed, so he has no resources but those of his immediate team, which includes a new techie, a mysterious diplomat, and the tough chick. It is a rollicking good ride and I will definitely buy it once the price falls. The feats are just believable enough, things keep going wrong, and it is more complicated (yet ever so close) to disaster. I was not bored for a minute, never lapsed into "some guy is just making this up" mode, and wondered what was really going on for most of it. That is success.

Recommended.


The Hunger Games (2 Disc) [DVD]
The Hunger Games (2 Disc) [DVD]
Dvd ~ Jennifer Lawrence
Offered by best_value_entertainment
Price: £3.99

5 of 13 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars good, but not great, 10 May 2012
Warning: I will make no attempt to avoid spoilers here.

After all the hype about this new dystopia, I found it rather disappointing for the most part. This film is in 3 parts. The first is to show the condition of the fenced-in proletariat worlds, which house slave laborers to a distant city. It is realistic and well acted, a brutish existence with a great risk of chance, the games, which are designed to channel yet truncate hope. That they choose children to kill eachother off is almost believable.

Second, there is the new seemingly totalitarian aristocracy. This is the weakest part of the film. The collective baddies are walking caricatures, two-dimensional at best, but over-acted with an absurdity that isn't clever. It's just odd looking. Now a radically different future as parody, such as that in Fifth Element, can definitely work - what it takes is great imagination that weaves the details into a coherent vision, where questions have implied answers (think Dreyfus' bizarre behavior in Close Encounters). It fails to make sense on an intuitive level that the viewer can accept without question. Unfortunately, the "city" simply appeared insipid, like someone made it up without thinking. Perhaps I am asking too much, I had hoped for a masterpiece like, say, the heavily atmospheric Children of Men. Woody Harrelson's character, as a mentor to Katniss as she develops her gladiator skills, is the only redeeming feature that truly works in this section. It is a botched opportunity.

Third, there is the game. This is by far the strongest portion of the film, the core that brings out the strengths of character and body. Katniss here is absolutely wonderful, played by a gifted actress with psychological nuance and desperate intelligence. I was completely convinced by her plight and enjoyed her journey of self discovery. She keeps her human compassion, doesn't shed her emotion even when asked to kill, and is willing to risk everything for another. It is beautifully done. The surprise resolution was also excellent, with the boy from her district delivering a moving performance. This was worth the price of admission. The conclusion, which reveals some of the politics of the "city", is somewhat better than the earlier portion, but again, the characters are too weak to be truly interesting to the point that they would enter the viewers' imagination.

I would say this is a 3.5-star film. Recommended overall.
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 15, 2012 11:44 PM BST


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