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Sitting here this morning, as usual, drinking coffee and writing MNB ... but with some extra distractions.

During her time home from college, my daughter is "socializing" two puppies that are in a Guiding Eyes program, and that hopefully will end up with a blind person. We've done this before with puppies, and even raised a Guiding Eyes dog for almost two years. As you can see, they are unbelievably cute ... even if they keep cuddling up on my lap and tapping the keyboard.




A brief recap of some of my favorite things from the recent Christmas holidays...

• "The Black Box" is the latest Michael Connelly novel about his resolute Los Angeles detective, Harry Bosch. It has been 20 years since the first Bosch novel, "The Black Echo," and Connelly has decided to celebrate the moment with a mystery that goes back two decades to the riots that followed the Rodney King beating. A woman was found murdered in a back alley, and Bosch suspected that there was something involved other that urban discontent. Twenty years later, the mystery has not been solved, but Bosch continues to probe the cold case, pulling at various strings and hoping that he can unravel the mystery. 'The Black Box" is Connelly at his best - strongly plotted, with great characters and crisp writing that makes the City of Angeles come alive through a compelling noir prism.

• "The End of the Line: Romney vs. Obama: the 34 days that decided the election: Playbook 2012," may have a long and clumsy name, but it is one of those unique products of the e-reader age - a short, journalistic e-book about a recent event that is able to offer a second draft of history. "The End of the Line" goes farther than political reporters were able to go during the heat of the election, though not as far as more extensively researched books will be able to go when they are published in coming years. Still, this book from the publishers of Politico.com is a fast and interesting read ... though more than anything, it makes me hungry to read the inevitable "Game Change II."

Jack Reacher is the Tom Cruise movie based on "One Shot," by Lee Child, which is one of 17 Reacher novels. It actually is a pretty good movie, except for one thing. Reacher, in the books, is several inches over six feet tall, 250 pounds of muscle, blonde, not very good looking, and extremely relaxed except for those moments when he takes action, at which point he is fearsome.

Cruise is a lot shorter, lighter, prettier and he seems to use constant intensity to compensate for all the characteristics that he is lacking. What that means, for those of us who have enjoyed the books, is that he's not playing the character. So while the movie may work on a lot of levels, especially for people who have not read the books, for me, Jack Reacher is sorely lacking.

• I liked a lot about Les Miserables, but one thing kept occurring to me during the movie, which runs almost three hours. Why are almost all the songs in this "epic musical" shot in close-up, to the point that I'm looking up the singers' noses and down their throats? (My second question: How come almost everyone in 19th century France sings in such a high register? Are their costumes too tight?)

The one time it really works is when Anne Hathaway, as the victimized Fantine, sings "I Dreamed A Dream." After a series of scenes during which the camera has been moving frenetically, suddenly it stops and simply lets her sing the song. And she kills it.

Les Miserables is an interesting movie about misplaced obsession and redemption. It isn't perfect, and I'm not even sure it comes close to being great. But I enjoyed it for what it was.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is another almost three hour movie, the first of three Peter Jackson-directed prequels to his estimable Lord of the Rings trilogy. As expected, it is beautiful to watch with its mix of New Zealand scenery and CGI-produced effects. The acting is expert. And there are tons of "how the hell did he do that?"" moments.

But while I was caught up in it, I couldn't shake the feeling that I'd seen it all before, and that the new Hobbit trilogy could end up being a classic case of returning to the well once - or maybe three times - too often.

Hyde Park on Hudson has a lot going for it, mostly a lovely performance by Bill Murray as FDR. It is a fictionalized depiction of an actual trip taken by England's King George VI and his wife, Queen Consort Elizabeth, in June 1939 to the Roosevelt estate in Hyde Park, New York. It was the first time an English monarch had come to the US, and King George VI was hoping to rally US support for the coming war against Hitler's Germany.

When the film is looking at US-British tensions and relations as reflected in this visit, it is terrific. It is less so when exploring FDR's various infidelities, especially that with Margaret Suckley (Laura Linney), his sixth cousin - not because this pales next to the more serious global issues at stake. (I've always thought that the difference between the movies of yesteryear and those of today is simple. In Casablanca Humphrey Bogart's character says that his personal problems aren't worth a hill of beans, and he leaves the love of his life to help the war effort. Make that movie today, and Bogart's character would say that global problems aren't worth a hill of beans compared to his love life, and he'd go off with Ingrid Bergman.)

That said, Hyde Park on Hudson is probably the movie I enjoyed most over the holidays ... and if you want a business lesson in how to handle people, just watch the lovely scene in which FDR talks to a nervous and insecure King George, encouraging him, nurturing him, sensing that this is a man of great character but little confidence, and knowing precisely how to build him up. I just wanted to see more of that FDR ... I wanted to see how he showed leadership and purpose in the rest of his public life.

• For Christmas dinner, my son the wine merchant brought home a 2009 O'Shaughnessy Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon, which is one serious wine - elegant and balanced, smooth and powerful. It was wonderful.

Also over the week, we enjoyed a 2010 Pascual Toso Reserve Malbec ... which is spicy and lovely.

Not a bad way to spend 10 days off...

That's it for this week. Have a terrific weekend, and we'll see you Monday.

Slàinte!
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