Wednesday, April 27, 2005

The Interpreter

Wednesday, April 27, 2005 0
“The Interpreter”, directed by Sydney Pollack, is a very smart political thriller. Critics have called it an “old fashioned” movie and that it is an “old school” political thriller in the vein of a “Manchurian Candidate”. This is meant as a compliment and high praise. Being called old fashioned may not seem like a positive thing these days, but when talking about “The Interpreter” the critics are saying that this is a well crafted, well written, well acted film which pays attention to building a believable story where the tension builds and builds. It all means something and has a point, rather than the flashy style without substance that many of today’s films seem to be using.

Sylvia Broone (Nicole Kidman) is an interpreter for the United Nations. She is a white African from the fictional nation of Motobo. Having to return to the UN late one night to retrieve a bag she left in her booth, she overhears a conversation in the language of Motobo. Before she believes she is spotted, she hears a whispered discussion talking about an assassination. She doesn’t at first know who the plot is against, but later realizes that the plotters are talking about assassinating the leader of her native Motobo. When she reports the threat to her superiors, the United States Secret Service is brought in to protect the leader of Motobo when he arrives at the UN. The agent in charge of this investigation is Tobin Keller (Sean Penn), a man dealing with his own pain even as Sylvia seeks to hide her past for reasons she won’t reveal.

It builds. Little by little Sydney Pollack gives the viewer a deeper glimpse into the world of Sylvia Broone and who she is. Keller is suspicious of anything he doesn’t understand and Broone does appear to be hiding something. Little by little we find out more of what is going on in this movie and the tension grows and grows. Younger filmmakers can learn something from Sydney Pollack. He doesn’t play all of his cards right away but gives enough that the audience remains engaged. Nothing in this movie is clear cut, and nothing is the way we initially perceive it to be. Pollack keeps us guessing long enough through the movie, but without insulting our intelligence by throwing swerve after swerve. Sure, there is a twist or two, but that much has to be expected.

It must be noted that this is the first film which was given permission to actually film within the United Nations Headquarters, and the UN itself feels like a character. Even Alfred Hitchcock was denied permission to film there. Pollack is respectful of the mission and the work of the UN while still expressing reservations about the shortcomings and shortsightedness of the organization.

“The Interpreter” is a very good movie, and a very smart movie. In a week where the other big movie is the remake of “The Amityville Horror”, “The Interpreter” is a welcome breath of fresh air in what has otherwise been a fairly dull season for movies.

Grade: A-

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Ilium

Tuesday, April 26, 2005 0
Dan Simmons' "Ilium" is an impressive, complicated epic of a science fiction novel. I didn't know what to think when I first heard about "Ilium". The way it was described to me was that "Ilium" is a science fiction telling of Homer's "The Iliad" and it had something to do with Mars. That was really all I knew and to be honest, that description still doesn't do much for me. That description is true, but it doesn't quite convey what "Ilium" is. More than just giving the read "The Iliad" in space, Dan Simmons has created the first part of an epic masterpiece which is nothing like what I expected. I don't use the word "masterpiece" lightly.

"Ilium" tells three different stories that are at first completely unrelated. The first is that of the Iliad. The ancient Greeks are waging their epic war against the Trojans and this war was all started when Helen of Sparta left her husband Menelaus to join with Paris of Troy. That was the face which launched a thousand ships. Since we are talking about a Greek epic here, there are gods a plenty showing up and getting involved the war. But "Ilium" isn't a simple retelling of Homer. "Ilium" is something completely different. Thomas Hockenberry is a late 20th Century/Early 21st Century scholar (here called a scholic) who has been revived thousands of years after his death to observe this Trojan War and see how closely the events match with Homer's "Iliad".

I have to admit, that is quite an idea for a book. But that is only a third of the story here. Next we have a setting which is definitely on the planet Earth, our Earth, but is thousands and thousands and perhaps even thousands of years in the future. Taking a cue from H.G. Wells' "The Time Machine" the remaining humans have such advanced technology and society that there is no work, no manual or physical labor. Instead humans live only for their own personal pleasure. Think of these humans as the Eloi from the mind of Wells. But if there are eloi, there must also be morlocks. Here the analogy breaks down a bit as the servants of these humans are robots. Into the lives of Daeman, a human male, and Ada, a human woman comes Harman. Harman is a man who is in the final year of his Final Twenty. What this means is that he only has one year left to live before he is allowed to spent an eternity with the "Post Humans", a race of superhumans who created all of this technology and luxury but who have since left the planet. Harman is eager to learn about the past and what the truth might be since nobody living has any idea of the past or can even read.

The third part of the story of "Ilium" is completely different. Still in some distant future and seemingly unconnected to the other two storylines (which are also seemingly unconnected), this storyline concerns a quartet (initially) of mechanical creatures called moravecs which are set on a mission to explore Mars and see why exactly the planet has been Terraformed to have an atmosphere and possibly some sort of life and dare I say civilization. I call the moravecs a mechanical creature rather than robot because even though they are robotic, they seem to also require some sort of oxygen to function. I can't explain it. Have I mentioned that two of these moravecs also have a running conversation about the sonnets and Shakespeare and end up discussion Proust?

Somehow, and I couldn't quite imagine how at first, Dan Simmons manages to tie all three storylines together in a way that feels far more natural than it possibly should. Even more amazing, Simmons manages to make all of this interesting and intelligent. In the hands of a lesser writer, this book would have been a big mess. Then again, a lesser author might not have attempted this. As Simmons reveals more and more of each storyline, it becomes more and more gripping. This epic story is only the first part of a two book series. The second book, "Olympos", will be published in the summer of 2005.

Describing "Ilium" is difficult because to go too far in depth with the various plot threads would likely take thousands of words. Suffice it to say that after Simmons gives the reader an adequate introduction to each storyline, he takes it in a direction the reader will likely not expect. That this sprawling, nearly 600 pages novel is very readable and accessible to even somebody who doesn't know a thing about the Iliad (me), "The Time Machine", or science fiction, is remarkable. But "Ilium" succeeds at all of this and by the end of the book I was disappointed that "Olympos" wasn't already in stores or in my local library.

Revenge of the Sith: The Book

Matthew Stover is the latest author (after Terry Brooks and R.A. Salvatore) to be given a chance to adapt one of the Star Wars films to a novel. Stover is no novice to the Star Wars universe, having written the excellent prequel novel "Shatterpoint" and the New Jedi Order volume "Traitor". Considering how dark and gritty "Shatterpoint" was, Stover appeared to be the perfect author to give the novelization for Episode Three to. Episode Three was said to be the darkest of all 6 films, and Stover is good at going dark. This was one of the few Star Wars novels which I was actually looking forward to reading.

The basic outline of "Revenge of the Sith" has been known for years, even before "The Phantom Menace" was a glimmer in the eye of George Lucas. This is the one fans have been waiting for. This is the fall of Anakin Skywalker. This is the film, the book where Anakin Skywalker is seduced by the Dark Side of the Force, turns his back on the Jedi, helps destroy the Jedi and becomes Darth Vader. We know the history. We know what the end result is, that Luke and Leia will end up being separated with no knowledge of each other or their father. What we don't know is exactly how this all goes down. When the first two prequel movies were not what the audience had expected, "Revenge of the Sith" had to contain all the fans had wanted for the prequel trilogy. Since the release date for the movie is still a month away, I can't say if the movie will deliver the goods. I can say that the book does.

The Anakin Skywalker that we know from "Attack of the Clones" is more than a little brash and angry at times, but he is dedicated to the Jedi. The other prequel novels give little foreshadowing hints to the fall, as does the scene in Episode Two where he slaughters the Tusken Raiders who kidnapped his mother. But how does he fall from the Jedi to the Sith? Matthew Stover does an excellent job at showing the reader the inner workings of Anakin's mind regarding the Jedi and how much of a friend Palpatine is to him, how important Palpatine is and how little Palpatine judges Anakin. He is exceptionally close to Obi-Wan, but Anakin still feels judgment from the Jedi. Through tightly described scenes of conversation and battle, we see Anakin slipping closer and closer to being able to accept the Dark Side. We see Palpatine continue to manipulate Anakin so that when he finally does reveal himself Anakin doesn't see the monster, but his friend who also happens to be a Sith Lord and might the Sith really not be as evil as the Jedi have taught?

I can only hope that George Lucas proves to be half as good of a director for this final Star Wars film that Matthew Stover is a writer. If so, we can be looking at one very, very good movie. I'm skeptical, of course. Stover set the bar pretty high with this book. Including this book I have read forty of the Star Wars novels and this is easily one of the best. The story is gripping and one which I wanted to keep reading to find out exactly what happened next. Stover is very good at describing the lightsaber battles as well as making the dialogue feel natural (something that we don't often get in Star Wars). The only thing that felt off was the use of the trademark "I have a bad feeling about this" that must be contractually required of every Star Wars author. If Stover is this good playing in somebody else's world, I can imagine how good his original work must be. Not all Star Wars authors seem capable of writing this good of a Star Wars book. One could even skip all of the other prequel novels that fill in the story and having seen the first two films just jump right into this book and read arguably the best Star Wars novel out there (Stover's "Shatterpoint" and Karen Traviss's "Republic Commando" must also be considered). If you are looking to read a Star Wars novel, this might be the place to begin.

One of the best things that I can say about this is that this book is one of the most satisfying stories that I have read in the Star Wars universe.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

The Patron Saint of Liars

Tuesday, April 19, 2005 0
“The Patron Saint of Liars” is the debut novel of author Ann Patchett. Patchett has also written the extraordinary “Bel Canto.” This novel, originally published in 1992 was the announcement of a major new talent in literature. The story she tells is a simple one, but filled with grace and written with skill. In the 1960’s, pregnant, Rose Clinton leaves her husband in California with nothing but a note saying that she is unhappy and that he should not try to find her. She has no intention of coming home. Her destination is in Kentucky: St. Elizabeth’s home for unwed mothers. It is where women from all over go to give birth and give up their children. It is a Catholic home in a Baptist town. Rose does not believe that she can be a good mother to her child and that she shouldn’t be a mother. Not now. Perhaps not ever.

The novel is told in three sections. The first section is told from the perspective of Rose. Through her eyes and with her words we learn about why she left California, how she ended up at St. Elizabeth’s and what that experience was like. Patchett writes Rose so well that when her section ended I couldn’t imagine that the next section of the novel could possibly be as good as what it was that I just read. Section two is told by Rose’s husband. The final section of the novel is given to Rose’s daughter. “The Patron Saint of Liars” is a remarkable novel. It is filled with insight into the characters and it seems at times also into our own lives. This isn’t a story of faith, but it is also filled with a sense of grace and healing at all turns, even when the characters are facing personal difficulties.

With “Bel Canto” I knew that Ann Patchett was a talented author and I wanted to experience her other novels. After “The Patron Saint of Liars” it is clear that Patchett ranks among my favorite authors. She doesn’t slam the reader with hard hitting slamming dialogue, but rather allows that sense of grace and healing which is so much a theme of the novel come out in nearly every sentence. As a first novel this is even more remarkable as accomplished authors would be fortunate to write a novel as beautiful as this. I would give “The Patron Saint of Liars” my highest recommendation.

Monday, April 18, 2005

The Upside of Anger

Monday, April 18, 2005 2
"The Upside of Anger" is a very good movie that is unfortunately going to be missed in the theatres by the larger audiences. Directed by Mike Binder on a budget of a mere twelve million dollars (which is meager by the standard of today), "The Upside of Anger" is a film focusing on the character of Terry Wolfmeyer (Joan Allen) and her four daughters played by Alicia Witt, Evan Rachel Wood, Keri Russell, and Erika Christenson. At the start of the movie Terry is left by her husband (we never see him on screen) and is left quite bitter towards him. She is also clearly something of an alcoholic. Into her life walks Denny Davies (Kevin Costner), a former ballplayer who also hosts a local radio show but refuses to talk about baseball. Denny and Terry have known each other for years, probably through her husband, but it seems like something changes when he finds out that Terry's husband left. Denny starts coming around more often, but it isn't romantic. Denny drinks too much, too, and they start out as drinking buddies washing their lives away.

Terry's anger (and drinking) is driving her daughters away from her. She says in the movie that she has one daughter that hates her and two or three who are on their way. If Terry is driving the family apart, it is Denny that is holding them together. At first he sort of imposed his way into staying for dinners, but midway through the movie it seems completely natural and the daughters are starting to really like Denny. There is no easy path through the lives of this family, with the illness of one daughter and the anger of the mother, but Denny's good humor somehow keeps this movie from being too dark and gloomy.

The role of Denny has to be one of Kevin Costner's best roles and best performances in years, possibly since 1996's "Tin Cup". He has done some good work since then with "Thirteen Days" and "Open Range", but Denny feels like a signature Costner character with his easy charm and his easy laugh. This is one of his more natural feeling performances and it is one of the reasons why, for a time, people really enjoyed going to a Kevin Costner movie. But this isn't a Kevin Costner movie. It's a great ensemble piece and if anything, it is a Joan Allen movie. If this movie came out in October or November rather than April, there would likely be serious talk about Allen picking up a Best Actress nomination. It would be warranted. She plays the role here very well and doesn't take Terry too far past the line we would lose any sympathy for her. Besides the two leads, all four women who play the daughters also do as good of a job as possible in their limited roles.

In fact, the only negative that I can find is Mike Binder himself. Not as a director, but as an actor. Binder plays the role of Denny's radio producer Shep and Shep is an overly irritating, disgusting, piggish character. Perhaps it is just about right because it gives more conflict to the family, but it just felt a little out of place and a little over the top. But even that doesn't detract too much from the movie and I really loved this movie. If I hadn't heard about this movie for several weeks I would call it one of those nice little discoveries a person finds at the movie theatre (or on DVD) from time to time. It's quite good and I wouldn't be surprised if it holds up to be one of the better movies of the year.

Grade: A-

Friday, April 15, 2005

Sin City (2005)

Friday, April 15, 2005 0
The short form is that I loved, LOVED the look of this movie, the feel of this movie. Some shots look like they are just ripped from Frank Miller's comic, which makes sense as he was a co-director.

The Mickey Rourke section was fantastic, he was great. Surprisingly so, but I don't know much about Rourke. But, overall, I didn't really care about the characters or what was going on. It looked good, and was fun to watch, but I didn't care.

At times the language felt clunky, but that's the neo noir style Miller worked with. It's going to throw a lot of people who might be expecting the Tarantino style slick dialogue.

For a movie I expected to be completely polarizing (some would love, others would hate), I was in the middle.

Grade: a very generous B

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows (1968)

Tuesday, April 12, 2005 0
"Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows" is a sequel, of sorts, to 1966's charming "The Trouble With Angels". This sequel stays with the nuns of St. Francis and their school for girls. This time there is a spirited young nun named Sister George (Stella Stevens) who manages to talk the bishop into allowing a trip across the country to California to join into a big protest rally. This is the 1960's, you see, and the church is taking a more activist role and trying to get involved in society. Mother Superior (Rosalind Russell) disapproves, of course, but when the bishop speaks she has to obey. "Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows" is a movie dealing with this trip across the country.

There are several returning characters from "The Trouble With Angels" in this movie, but "Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows" is less a sequel than an entirely different movie with a couple of common characters. Mother Superior and several of the nuns have returned, as have Mary Clancy's incredibly annoying cousin Marvel Ann (Barbara Hunter). This time Marvel Ann is a much more sympathetic character and something of a trouble maker with her friend Rosabelle (Susan St. James). This is a huge change for the character.

The point of this movie seems to be less about the students, or even the nuns, but the assorted misadventures they get into travelling by bus across the country. The rally is even beside the point. Unfortunately "Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows" is missing so much of the charm that made "The Trouble With Angels" such a wonderful movie. This one isn't really bad, but it suffers greatly in comparison to a vastly superior movie about a spoiled kid and the lessons of faith that can be found even when one isn't looking for it. In this movie faith is almost besides the point and the characters didn't have to be nuns or students in a religious school. They could have been anyone on a cross country trip. That's a shame.

"Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows" did not drag at all, but it just didn't live up to "The Trouble With Angels". It does stand well enough on its own, and Rosalind Russell is always a treat, but this isn't something that I can recommend, especially to fans of "The Trouble With Angels." This movie really feels the lack of Hayley Mills.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Books about running

Monday, April 11, 2005 0
I have recently read a couple of books about runners. The first is Sub 4:00: Alab Webb and the Quest for the Fastest Mile, by Chris Lear. Lear is also the author of the excellent Running With the Buffaloes. Sub 4:00 focuses on Alan Webb's freshman year at Michigan. It turned out to be Webb's only collegiate year as he turned pro after the frustrations of that first year. Alan Webb is one of America's top milers and is an exciting runner to watch (if you like to watch running).

The other book I just finished is Staying the Course: A Runner's Toughest Race, by Dick Beardsley. Beardsley is one of America's greatest marathon runners (who, I believe, still has the fourth fastest time by an American in the marathon). He also is a Minnesotan. This autobiography starts with an incredible rise of Beardsley as a runner and all of his successes and his passion and includes a gripping description of his famous Boston Marathon finish (2nd place by 2 seconds after 26.2 miles). But then it also deals with his addiction to painkillers after multiple accidents.

I didn't realize how many ties he had to Rush City (where I graduated high school), which was interesting reading about. That first mention of his college roommate was surprising. His high school roommate was my high school assistant cross country coach.

Both are very good books and were very interesting.

I'm still waiting for Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All Night Runner to come from the library.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Moneyball

Thursday, April 07, 2005 0
I'm halfway through reading Michael Lewis's Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. This book is about how the Oakland Atheltics have been able to consistently field a quality baseball team despite having one of the lowest payrolls in Major League Baseball as well as losing some of their top talent each year because they can't afford to pay the big salaries these guys are demanding as they develop. It's a fascinating look at General Manager Billy Beane's mindset and how he has worked a method of following the truly important stats for hitters (On Base Percentage, Walks, Slugging Percentage) rather than just looking at the Batting Average or Home Run totals or simply following the gut feeling of the scouts. It's breaking all the traditions of how to draft ballplayers, but it seems to be working out rather well for Beane and the A's. This should be a fascinating book for baseball fans.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

The Pulitzer Prize

Tuesday, April 05, 2005 0
The 2005 Pulitzer Prizes were announced today. The winner of the prize for Fiction is Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson. The book is Robinson's second, and her first in a couple of decades. I haven't read it, nor had I heard of Robinson until Gilead was published earlier last year. Supposedly she is quite a writer and that this book had been anticipated for quite a long time. I suppose I shall have to read it (along with the other Pulitzer Prize winning novels I still have to read).

Friday, April 01, 2005

David Duchovny's blog

Friday, April 01, 2005 0
David Duchovny has a blog. Somehow I just find that to be crazy and cool. Sure, the blog is there pretty much to promote his directoral debut, House of D, but it's nice to see the filmmakers using this medium.

Which brings me to another Duchovny related item: The X-Files Mythology: Volume 1. This DVD set collects, in order, all of the mythology episodes from the first three seasons of the series. No more monster of the week episode, here we have the first collection of the episodes focusing on the aliens, the conspiracy, and all that craziness. Even better: it comes at about half the price as a single season set.

Of course, I own the first three seasons and I sometimes like the monster of the week episodes and the character interactions, but this is a great idea for a DVD set.
 
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