Tuesday, January 27, 2009

More about the best movies of 2008

Concluding my mini-reviews of some recent releases, several of which are in the running for an Oscar or two.

Gran Torino: Yes it was quite watchable and extremely funny but borderline corny. The writing could really have been better. If this is what happened to Dirty Harry in his old age, I wish he would have used fewer racial slurs - it becomes really grating after a while. Funny yes but in an uncomfortable way. Very good storytelling though, and it is great to see how Eastwood (does he look good at 78 or what!) imbues this movie with valuable life lessons and personal experience & observations, in a very entertaining manner.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: Like (practically) everybody else on the planet, I am also a Brad Pitt fan, but even his most ardent supporter might agree that this is just a little too much of a good thing. Brad Pitt as an old baby, a not so old baby, a young man, a slightly less than young man, an adult, a mature man, a senior baby, wait... I might have gotten the order wrong. I can't say that I was positively bored at any stage, but the movie seems to go on and on and the last 20 minutes or so are really redundant. We get it already. Best movie of the year? No. However with all the Brad Pitt fans out there, the Academy might give it the nod. I hope not.

Revolutionary Road: Very intense movie - if this doesn't provoke some conversation in the car on the way home, turn down the radio. Kate Winslet (for several years running my favorite actress) strips the paint of the walls with her superb acting in this role. I was surprised to see her being nominated for The Reader instead of this one. Probably something to do with the theme (of The Reader). Revolutionary Road is rather dark but fascinating. It's Winslet's movie but Leonardo DiCaprio is no acting slouch either. He keeps getting better as the years go by. I thought he was at his best in The Aviator, until The Departed came along. And now Revolutionary Road. Pity the Academy doesn't seem to agree. Oh and Winslet and Dicaprio still look very good together.

The Reader: I have to admit that one of the reasons why I like and admire Kate Winslet is because she does not have any qualms about taking off her clothes for the camera. When the role calls for it, and sometimes even when it doesn't, there's Kate in the altogether. Not to mention that she is one of the best actresses around nowadays. The Reader is no exception. Her acting is consistently superb. The Reader starts out well but takes a grim turn and on the whole I can't say that I really liked it, and neither would I recommend it very highly. Even so, if you are a Kate Winslet fan, by all means go and see it. She definitely earned the Golden Globe and Oscar nomination for this role.

Australia: While many critics slammed this movie I thought it was one of the most enjoyable films in a very long time. Fabulous production values, amazing cinematography, simply very well made and highly entertaining from beginning to end. I guess you could call it an old-fashioned epic. Sure it is too long and probably should have ended about two thirds through, but I really didn't mind. After a silly start (cliched 'fish out of water' scenario) Nicole Kidman - aka Mrs. Boss - takes control and performs more than admirably. Hugh Jackman does an equally great job as the 'driver', and Brandon Walters (young Nullah) pretty much steals the entire movie. Despite its length, there's never a dull moment, no emotion is left untapped, no color of the rainbow unused, and no story line discarded.

Monday, January 26, 2009

A few Oscar predictions

How depressing is it that 'Paul Blart: Mall Cop' is the box office winner for the second week running. Paul Blart: Mall Cop. Just the name is enough to give any serious movie buff the fits. A 27% on the Rotten Tomato meter is not exactly awe-inspring. Claudia Puig of USA Today clearly didn't like it: "The last name Blart may be the funniest thing in the movie, so that's a hint as to just how bad this shopping-center saga can be." But what can one expect from a January release...

Enough about dreck - there were some excellent movies released in 2008 and amongst the Oscar contenders (for either best movie, actor or actress) here is my brief take:

The Wrestler: One of the best movies of the year; astonishingly good acting by Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei. They could very well both win Oscars for this one.

Slumdog Millionaire: Hands down the best movie of the year in my opinion. Absorbing, hilarious romp of a movie that takes you on an improbable but tremendously enjoyable journey out of the slums of Mumbai, told by way of flashbacks. If it doesn't win the Oscar for movie of the year, the Academy got it wrong.

Milk: Sean Penn is simply brilliant in this fabulous movie which succeeds on every level: highly entertaining and totally believable (based on true events, duh) without being preachy or politically correct. Truly a movie about people and not ' just' about gay politics in San Francisco. Sean Penn should win the Oscar for this.

I've Loved You so Long: Worth seeing just for Kristin Scott-Thomas' award-worthy performance. Definitely a mistake on the part of the Academy to overlook her for a nomination as best actress.

Frost/Nixon: Delivers much much more than the title may suggest. A tense, exceedingly well made movie with Frank Langella putting in a superb turn as Nixon. Anybody even remotely interested in history or politics should see this movie. You won't be disappointed. And by all means wear a pair of Italian loafers.

Rachel Getting Married: At first, the almost ridiculous camera movement is extremely off-putting but as soon as Anne Hathaway starts doing her thing, it turns into an absorbing and very satisfying - if somewhat depressing - tale of intra-familial woes. Stellar acting all round but Hathaway is brilliant.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona: no self-respecting Woodie Allen fan can miss this movie, and pretty much anybody with an interest in what attracts people to each other, will enjoy it. Javier Bardem is one cool customer, with lots of wattage supplied by Scarlett Johannson and Penelope Cruz. Their darkroom scene alone is worth the price of admission.

Next time: my take on Gran Torino, the Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Revolutionary Road, The Reader and Australia. A hint: the one I liked least was CC of BB - it was too long and I really thought the ending was weak. It is not without merit though.

And on the running front? I'm back....! Almost 20 miles over the last three days (Saturday, Sunday and today, Monday). Practically no sign of the knee injury: I am doing a bunch of exercises and stretches at home, and still going for physical therapy sessions. Something is working - I'm thrilled. Will definitely take it easy this week. Of course on Friday we leave for Africa, and I won't get a whole lot of running done over there. It ought to be a bit better than the previous trip though; we will spend several days in Zanzibar and on the Indian Ocean coast, where there will be opportunities to run. So maybe a 'slow' couple of weeks over there will be just what the doctor ordered. Daisy (our young Boxer) has been running with me the last few days and she loves it! Getting to meet lots of other dogs and people, and she definitely needs the socializing.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Boston or bust

My running plate is still empty but hopefully that will change soon. After another rehab session this afternoon, I should be able to handle a few miles tomorrow without fear of causing any further damage to the knee. I found a company located just a few miles from here who makes custom orthotics. They take an impression of both feet, prepare a mold & then manufacture a set of layered inserts. The guy tells me that these are much better than any off-the-shelf insert. We shall see. Unfortunately I won't get them until next Wednesday. Hopefully the inserts will give additional support with better cushioning. It is costing me a few bucks but when it comes down to a choice of running or not running, you just have to close your eyes and sign the credit card slip.

I have minimal discomfort in the knee today and I would say I am about 90% ready to run again. A week or so with no running is not fun under any circumstances, but coming as this has right at the start of what should be a very heavy training period for Boston, it is tough to deal with. Already, I am seeing my chances to do really well in Boston, slip away. But there is no 2nd chance on the medical waiver: either I run in April this year or I have to re-qualify...

Kathleen and I attended a formal dinner last night - In Rice's Honor - at the River Oaks country club. Kathleen looked quite stunning I thought! The tuxedo is a hand-me-down from my brother-in-law; it sure beats shelling out a C-note or more to some formalwear outfit. We don't get to do this kind of thing a lot.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Houston Marathon

Yes you're done! Half marathon finishers running under the finish-line banner at the Houston Marathon on Sunday 18 January.

Last Sunday I found myself in unfamiliar territory as a spectator at the Houston Marathon. Other than on a couple of occasions, I have been a participant in either the full or the half marathon pretty much every year since the early 90's. But not this year. A balky knee (tendinitis) had me sidelined, but I was there early to drop off Kathleen for her half marathon race. She did well, finishing in just slightly over 2 hours with not a whole lot of training. With a little work, I have no doubt that she will be able to qualify for Boston one of these days. Kath was happy to score two finishers t-shirts as well!

It felt rather strange to see everybody rush off to the starting line, with just a handful of people remaining behind in the massive pre & post race area inside George R. Brown Convention Center. Just before the start, once everyone was in place in their various corrals, I made my way up there to get a few pics. It was quite something to actually see the start, although it was too dark early on to get any useful pics. Since the time when I ran my first one in 1991, Houston has matured into a real big city marathon with all the excitement and drama of the better known large marathons. Sometimes I'm not so sure if bigger is better in this instance, but this race is extremely well organized and slickly executed. It can definitely lodge a legitimate claim as the premier winter marathon in the USA. Once again this year, the weather cooperated. The start was a little on the warm side but the temperature actually dropped by a few degrees after 0900A. I would have loved to have been out there!

My own running is on hold right now, will hopefully start to do some easy short distances by the weekend. I have been getting some treatment (ultrasound and laser) as well as instruction on a series of strengthening exercises and stretches, at a nearby orthopedic and knee center. Hopefully that will take care of the problem, otherwise I will definitely feel Boston-jinxed, having had to miss last year's race due to achilles tendinitis. Same left leg. Yesterday I took Daisy out on a light jog around the neighborhood, wearing my brand new knee strap for the first time. It felt awkward but there was no pain. You won't hear any more comments from me about people running around with knee straps, braces and other supporting devices. I'm one of them now. By the time I'm obliged to start wearing a strap on both knees, I might have to re-consider my future as a runner...

An early morning scene just before the start of the Houston Marathon

And they're off...

Another view near the start line, with Minute Maid (baseball stadium) in the background.

Yet another shot at the start line of the Houston Marathon

Once the runners were underway, I trudged back to the George R. Brown for a cup of tea. Here is the view over Tranquillity Park just as the sun was coming up.

At around the 2 hr mark, a steady stream of half marathoners were coming down the home stretch on the edge of downtown, toward the finish.

This pic was taken from behind the finishing line; from here the runners turn to their right and walk into the George R. Brown Convention Center, for a hot breakfast (scrambled eggs, sausage, buttermilk biscuits, coffee, etc). Or not. They can opt for bananas, oranges, bagels, muffins, cookies, ice-cream, yoghurt, bottled water, iced tea and various other post-race food items.

Another view from behind the finishing line.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


It sounds ominous but actually it is just a cookbook and a pretty good one at that. Without making any 'resolutions' about it, I decided to up the ante a little bit this year with the vegan cooking. Having seen some interesting-looking recipes from this book elsewhere on the 'net, I had to try a few myself. About 9 recipes later, it definitely gets the early stamp of approval. Nothing too tricky so far, quite easy but good stuff!

Last night we had the chickpeas romesco - just spicy enough & excellent with brown rice & plain fresh green beans. The snobby joes on kaiser rolls (they feel superior to the sloppy joes because they don't have any meat in them...) were a family hit - will definitely have to put that in the permanent rotation. The broccoli polenta was pretty good too but I prefer my polenta plain, or just with a big handful of chopped fresh herbs (marjoram, parsley & chives) mixed in right at the end. However Veganomicon's plain and simple marinara sauce is terrific. I would use that with my polenta any day.

Probably the single best recipe I have prepared from the book so far was the lemony roasted potatoes. Everybody liked that one - a lot! Just like those potatoes you get with Greek food, but not nearly as greasy. The rustic white beans with mushrooms were delicious, almost had a cassoulet-like feel to them. Comfort food all the way. The smoky red peppers & beans gumbo - complete with roux - took a little time to prepare but it was more than worth it. We had to have some white rice for that! The penne vodka (with almonds blended into the sauce) had a delicious creamy taste - and there's plenty of vodka and half a pound of penne left so we'll have a do-over soon. I take back what I said about the lemony roasted potatoes; I had forgotten about the pasta della california. This linguine with avocado & broccoli was out of this world. Maybe a little high on the calories (2 avocados in a dish meant for 4) but who's counting anyway...

Next on my Veganomicon 'to cook' list is chile-cornmeal-crusted tofu... I might just decide to work my way through most (all?) of the recipes in this book. The sugary ones will have to wait until after Boston or until I find my long-lost abs, whichever comes first.

Last week was a much better one on the running front than the week before. A total of 43 miles including a very good (if slow) 14-miler on Saturday morning along Buffalo Bayou. Most importantly my left knee (which is still not 100%) held out fine. Tuesday's mile repeats clocked in at 7:13, 7:10, 7:11 and 7:09. I will try to get them a little closer to 7:00 as we get closer to Boston. On Wednesdays I now have a standing appointment at 5:30 with a neuromuscular massage therapist, followed by a longish run at Memorial Park. I managed 10 miles there last week, always a fun place with tons of people around.

This Sunday is the Houston Marathon. Kath and I will be doing the half. I will be jogging it, taking a camera and for once will try to really enjoy the day, as opposed to subjecting myself to the usual relentless push for a PR or a qualifying time for this or that. Should be a novel experience! Although I am starting in the red corral, I'm thinking Kathleen might catch me - perhaps we can finish together like we did in the marathon in 2003.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

2009 is here!

It is 2009 - wouldn't you know it. I think it is going to be an exciting year: Kathleen and I will be off to Tanzania soon (on January 30), Boston is coming up in April and then there is the New York Marathon in November. Hopefully the New York Road Running Club won't change their 'guaranteed entry' requirements. The actual entry requirements for the 2009 race won't be posted on their site until mid-February. So we'll just have to wait and see if my half marathon qualifying time holds up. In June or July Kathleen and I will be traveling to Southern Africa to go and take a look at some of Wilderness Safaris' Zambia properties and we hope to spend quite a few days in the Cape. It has been too long since we've been in the mother city. Hopefully we will see our very good friends Abe and Rosanna.

I experienced a rough beginning to the year on the running front, having to cancel four workouts last week due to some tightness in my left knee. What is it with the knee suddenly? I've been running for more than 30 years and have never had any knee issues... So as a result I ended up with the grand total of 14 miles for the week of Dec 28 through Jan 3 (16 weeks to Boston). Not good. Laying off had the desired effect though; on a 7-mile run on Saturday the knee was fine. I had planned a long 18-mile run but the temperature was near 80F. Anything beyond 10 miles or so would have been counter-productive. I hope the weather is not like this for the Houston Marathon on 18 January. On Monday (Jan 5) I had a really nice 7 mile run at 9:10 pace - conditions were ideal. Today's track workout went very well too: 7 miles total with 4 mile repeats at 7:13, 7:09, 7:10 and 7:11.

I've decided to run the Houston Half Marathon as a training run at around 9:15 to 9:20 pace; it would be too risky to push hard for a meaningless PR - I would just be courting disaster. So what I will try to do is to run with the 4:00 full marathon pace group for the first half of the race. I might even take a camera and try to get a few pics. It would be nice to meet up with Billy, a West Coast blogger - I believe he will be pacing a buddy to hopefully break 4:30.

Kathleen and I have attended quite a few Rice University athletic events lately; last week the men's basketball team played (and lost to) the highly ranked Texas Aggies. It was exciting to see so many people at the new Tudor Field House; too bad most of them were Aggies. They can be loud and annoying... A couple of nights before that the football team soundly defeated Western Michigan in the Texas Bowl at Reliant Stadium. What an evening that was. Lots of people at the pre-race reception and even some vegetarian chili! Rice Football has been resuscitated from near death over the last few years and the team is looking great. They just signed a superb running back (McGuffie, no less) and from what I hear the incoming freshman group is very talented. It will be nice to see bigger crowds at Rice Stadium.

The new Tudor Field House at Rice. This was formerly Autry Court.

Another view of the front entrance to Tudor Field House

Rice vs. Texas A & M at Tudor Field House.

Another view of Tudor Field House. Nice scoreboard!