Stardust & Shipwrecks

I'm going to talk about something completely different in a moment but first, I had a really hard time concentrating on anything at all this week because I'm so excited about something happening this weekend. Finally, after what seems like a thousand years of waiting, the movie version of Neil Gaiman's lovely book Stardust is opening today, the tenth. Unfortunately it's opening after my deadline so I'm not yet able to review it but I can tell you that if you like adventure or romance or flying pirates or witches or magic or fairy tales or Michelle Pfeiffer or Robert De Niro or Clare Danes or Charlie Cox you have to go see it. In fact you should take everyone you know and go because it's definitely what my friend vorpal calls a must see on opening weekend film.

Tristan Thorne (Charlie Cox), a young man who is mad about a beautiful village girl promises to do anything to woo her, even fetch a falling star and bring it back to her. The star fell on the other side of the Wall that separates England from the magical land of Stormhold and, despite the fact that nobody's supposed to be able to get across the Wall, Tristan manages it and sets off to find the star. Much to his surprise the star is a lovely young lady called Yvaine (Claire Danes) who isn't exactly enthusiastic about being dragged all the way across the country and given away. All Yvaine wants is to go back home to the sky where she belongs.

Meanwhile Lamia, a very old witch played by Michelle Pfeiffer, wants Yvaine so she can cut her heart out and eat it, thereby regaining her long lost youth and beauty. But that's not all, the seven brothers of Stormhold are also chasing Yvaine, because she wears the prize that will determine who will be the next ruler of the kingdom. There's no love lost among the brothers and little they won't do to gain power, including fratricide. One little star and a country bumpkin won't be much of a match for them, or will they? Find out more about the film here but please keep in mind from what I hear the trailer does not do it justice.

Now to switch gears, from fifth to reverse I believe, several years ago I ran across the bare bones of an account of a shipwreck off the coast of New Jersey in the year 1934. Now in one sense shipwrecks are a dime a dozen, after all they say more than 2000 ships have sunk in the "Graveyard of the Atlantic," the area that runs along the coat of North Carolina and up Virginia to the opening of the Chesapeake Bay. But this particular shipwreck caught my attention because nearly seventy years later nobody was quite sure what had happened to this ship. It was called the Morro Castle and it didn't sink or get torpedoed or hit by an iceberg or pirates or even succumb to a hurricane. This particular disaster was brought about by fire amid rumors of arson.

The captain, Captain Willmott, appeared to be paranoid during the last run of the Morro Castle, complained of indigestion following his last meal and died of an apparent heart attack several hours before the ship was due into the New York City port. He hadn't been dead long before the ship caught fire and burned so ferociously that passengers could not get to the lifeboats, many of which could not be lowered because of the heat and other problems. The only hope many of the passengers had was to don lifejackets and leap from the ship into the water. But the lifejackets weren't the type we use today, they were made of cork and they had two serious problems. One they were so hard and stiff that they tended to hit the passenger in such a way that when they reached the water they would be unconscious, and perhaps most deadly, the way they were built made the unconscious wearer float face down in the water. If you survived the jump without breaking your neck you were at very high risk of drowning. In the end 137 passengers and crew died, mostly passengers.

In the wake of the disaster all sorts of rumors flew. The ship had been used for gunrunning, or perhaps smuggling alcohol or communists had burned it down. The captain wasn't sick - he was poisoned. Just about every story that could be told was told. The FBI stepped in and investigated and J. Edgar Hoover presided over some hearings but nothing was ever decided.

One man, a radio operator called George Rogers, was hailed a hero and at one point was giving lectures for the princely sum of 1500 dollars a week, a fortune in Depression dollars. But as time went on Rogers began to look less and less like a hero and more and more like a criminal, eventually standing trial for a double murder. Could Rogers have set the fire that killed so many onboard the luxury liner back in 1934? When I first heard about this tragedy the FBI had classified more than 3000 pages of documents and the public had no access to the information. But in the meantime the information has been declassified and author Brian Hicks has written a compelling narrative using this newly available information, as well as testimony from some of the last survivors, called When the Dancing Stopped. I think the title is a little silly but he does a fine job of laying out the details of the disaster, the aftermath and what it was like to take a trip on this beautiful ship before she met her doom.

One-Paragraph Review

This week's one-paragraph review is from Paul Muolo and is of 'Easy Tiger' by Ryan Adams. "Ryan has always been a confounding singer/songwriter. His albums contain just as many 'misses' as gems, but the new 'Easy Tiger' may be his most consistent. He's been dubbed an 'alt-Country' artist (not to be confused with alt-A lending) but like most artists slapped with the moniker he's really just a folk rocker at heart who happens to use pedal steel guitars. The first four songs on the LP are the strongest, especially the touching 'Two." Have you got a one-paragraph (or smaller) review you'd like to share? Send it in to me and I'll run the most interesting ones. You can reach me at