Saturday, February 25, 2006

layouts and Oscars

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I'm fairly pleased with my new blog layout. I've been meaning to move the All Consuming stuff to the right, add the links of the tv shows I'm watching at the moment, and move that stinkin title (and perhaps change it, but to what?). So, the layout works for me. I still need to mess around with the author links, alphabatize it and cut some of them out (I've heard really good things about Sean Wright's book but to be honest I haven't read it and my library doesn't have it). Should I also make two headers? One for genre fiction the other for "L"iterature? Should Alison McGhee be bookended by Neil Gaiman and Greg Keyes? Well...maybe.

You know, I'm not sure I will discriminate. I do need to organize, but I enjoy Ann Patchett's work as much as I do George Martin.


A while back when I posted the list of Oscar Nominations I mentioned that I intended on posting my thoughts about each of the major categories. And then I didn't. I was thinking about that recently and the trouble I have this year is that I've seen a very small handful of nominated films and until last week had only seen one Best Picture nominee.

I've now seen both Crash and Brokeback Mountain and if the race is between the two films (as it very well may be and Roger Ebert believes it is), then I wholeheartedly support Crash.

Ebert has something very interesting to say about quality films today and why they are mostly coming from small studios.
We are entering an era when the studios do not often attempt to make Best Pictures, and most of the nominees are generated by independent filmmakers and specialty distributors. This may say more about audiences than it does about studios, which would cheerfully make good movies if they thought they could sell them. - Roger Ebert

He may be right. Or, if major studios would push the small films, maybe the small films would make more money. And, I think, it is a matter of financial expectation. A film that costs $90 million to make but earns $135 million is a great success and because it has eclipses the hundred million mark reaches a certain status (though the two hundred million mark is now the real mark of status). But, if a studio spends $15 million and earns $35 million, plus DVD, video, and the overseas market...shouldn't this too be considered enough of a financial success to make a studio want to continue making these small movies? $20 million of US theatre profit (minus promotional) isn't to be sneezed at. And if some of the huge pictures aren't even making this, then what does it matter if the huge movie makes $125 million if it made $3 (dollars) of profit? Or, loss?

What was I talking about again?

Anyway, I dig that Roger Ebert is high on Amy Adams as the likely Best Supporting Actress winner. Gotta support the Minnesota girl whom my wife knew and saw perform at Chanhassen.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Brokeback Mountain

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"Brokeback Mountain" is the film that has the most Academy Award nominations out of all of the 2005 movies. It us up for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Supporting Actress (to name the major nominations). In short, this is a major prestige piece and is a "quality" film.

This is the story of Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jack Gyllenhaal), two cowboys and ranch hands back in 1960's Wyoming. They each get a job working up on Brokeback Mountain tending sheep for the season. Neither says much as they are prototypical cowboys. They do their work, offer up the occasional to the point comment, and go back about their work. The way the job is supposed to work one man stays at the tent and the other sleeps out with the sheep in the field to help keep predators away. On one cold night after too much alcohol Ennis doesn't make it out to the field and in the middle of the night Jack and Ennis warm each other up. This then goes on for the rest of the summer until the work is done. They tell each other that they are "not queer" and that this is a "one time thing", but the movie follows Jack and Ennis over the decades as Ennis and Jack each get married to women but every so often get together to go "fishing" together.

The movie is, at its core, a love story between Jack and Ennis. "Brokeback Mountain" shows their struggles to find time together but also their struggle with what it is that they are doing. These are two men engaged in a homosexual relationship in Wyoming during the 1960's through the present. This isn't as simple as it may be in other areas of the country.

But when my wife and I walked out of the theatre we looked at each other and kind of shrugged. My thought was "that's it?". Make no mistake, the movie is well made, well directed, well acted, and well written. There is just this feeling that "Brokeback Mountain" is nothing special. There are scenes in the film and there are individual performances that are greater than the film itself. The story here is well told and the struggle of Ennis is quite strong (even though Jack is on screen nearly as much the story seems to be mostly told through Ennis's perspective). But if this movie was not about gay cowboys it wouldn't get nearly the attention that it has.

Here's the thing: "Brokeback Mountain" has all of this attention because it is a mainstream film by a major director with hot young stars and it turns the stereotype of the macho cowboy western on its head because the cowboys are gay. The story behind the movie and of what the movie is about is bigger than the movie itself. And that's what this is all about. "Hey, did you see the gay cowboy movie?" That's the question folks are asking each other, at least those who are paying attention to this sort of thing. But asking the question is unfair, in a sense, because the movie isn't truly about "gay cowboys", it's about a love story that has no chance to really be successful, and many people can relate to that. But when you take the "gay cowboy" part away from the movie "Brokeback Mountain" becomes just another movie and one that deserves the attention given to the actors but not so much for the movie itself. The importance is placed on the subject and not the execution and the confusion that the film is important because the subject is important is probably why "Brokeback Mountain" has been vastly over-hyped by critics.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Flight of the Nighthawks

Sunday, February 19, 2006 0
Flight of the Nighthawks is the first volume in Raymond Feist's new trilogy the Darkwar Saga. Set two years after the conclusion of Exile's Return, the story here takes what we knew of this new threat to Midkemia in the form of the Talnoy and a race called the Dasati and expands upon it. Where the Conclave of Shadows series turned out to be nothing more than a long three book prologue for this series and featured almost exclusively all new characters, Flight of the Nighthawks opens with the now famous first line to Magician "the storm had broken..." and features Pug dreaming of that very event.

Finally after many books and decades in the world of Midkemia, the magician Pug is a major focus of the book because now there is a threat vast enough to warrant Pug's direct intervention. The Talnoy are like overgrown suits of armor but are immensely powerful and extremely hard to kill and the Dasati (beings not only from another world, but another dimension) employ these killers in a blitzkrieg fashion and all who stand before the Talnoy will be crushed...and the fear is that Midkemia will fall prey to the Talnoy as there are already dormant Talnoy on the planet. How and why is a matter to be discovered.

The way the story is told here deals with Pug and the magicians of the Conclave trying to discover exactly how the Talnoy will be brought into play and what the deal is with these new rifts that are appearing on Midkemia and Kelewan and their apparent connection with the Talnoy. Also, we are introduced to Tad and Zane, two boys raised in Stardock village and soon to be adopted by Pug's son Caleb. These two boys will also have a role to play.

In all honesty, Raymond Feist is giving us a lot of tell with not much show here (and from what I remember it is supposed to be the other way around). Feist is telling us a lot of what is or may be going on, but we don't really see it happening. He really did hit the high water mark with Magician (as fond as I am about Darkness at Sethanon) and everything else is only trying to measure up. With that said, the fact that Feist is letting Pug and Nakor telling us these details is a treat. Pug has long been my favorite character of the series and I have missed Pug being a major character in the Riftwar novels. Nakor, when he first was introduced, is arguably the most entertaining character Feist has created and he is also far more than has been revealed. So, the prominence of these characters excuses many flaws that might otherwise be obvious.

I was disappointed by Feist's Conclave of Shadows trilogy, but I thoroughly enjoyed Flight of the Nighthawks. It's not a perfect novel, but it is a lot of fun revisiting these characters and this world and see what else Feist can create and show me about Midkemia. When he is actually telling a grand story (such as with the Riftwar Trilogy and Serpentwar…and not the Krondor or Conclave books), Feist rips a good yarn.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Timer

Thursday, February 16, 2006 1
Almost!! We almost had it!! For just a moment I thought that Jack was holding Locke back long enough that the timer in the hatch would finally count down to zero and we'd find out what would happen! And it did hit zero and then alarm stopped and then the numbers started flipping again and up pops some red tiles with pictures...a penguin, a syringe, a rock? Something. It was creepy and it was ominous and I loved it. I wanted so badly to find out what happens when the button is not pushed every 108 minutes.

And then Locke finished entering the code and it reset to 108. We almost had it!

Sayid has to be one of my favorite characters with the best back story. Just seeing him as an Iraqi soldier and the change that his life went through when the Americans came during the first Gulf War...very interesting. And Naveen Andrews did a great job last night when he was speaking with the prisoner and screamed with emotion that the man would know the details if he buried the woman he loved. But the camera work with Sayid was interesting. Very often the camera was low looking up at Sayid, putting Sayid in a position of power. Just the angle set up how they were using Sayid here and what sort of man he was. Sayid had all the authority...

Until the very end when Jack pulls Sayid away and the prisoner looks out and the expression has changed from beaten and cowardly to...something else. I called it the "suspicious" look. Something more is going on.

As interesting is Sayid telling Charlie about what he did, why, and asking Charlie if he remembered what the Others have done to them. Is Sayid setting up his own faction?

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Feast

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After a certain number of years you almost forget what you were waiting for. You remember that you liked a book or a series of books and you remember that they were good, but you don't remember just how good they were. I'm thinking about George Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire. Five years ago he published the third volume of this series "A Storm of Swords" and it was fantastic. It was better than fantastic, it was everything good that fantasy should be. The interesting thing about this is that this is a "fantasy" series that does not hold so many of the trappings of fantasy. There are hints of dragons and hints of a dark magic and "old gods", but this is really a medieval society caught up in the trappings of politics and playing "the game of thrones" to better serve their own clan or family. There are swords. Occasionally there is sorcery, but very rarely. But this is a vision of fantastic proportions.

Five years pass and some don't believe that George Martin really will ever publish the fourth book, A Feast for Crows. He has been "working on it" all this time, but finally he does...but with the announcement that he had to split the novel in half. It was just too big and so Book 4 is now Books 4 and 5. He could have given us half of the story for all of the characters or all of the story for half of the characters. He chose the latter. A Feast for Crows focuses tightly on the story around King's Landing and Southern Westeros. We get full stories for Jaime the Kingslayer, Cersei the Queen Regent, Brienne the Beauty, Sansa Stark, Arya Stark, and a couple of other viewpoints. It is a very centralized story.

I was reading an interview yesterday with Brandon Sanderson (Elantris) where he claimed that George Martin is a master of storytelling without actually telling a story. He meant it as a compliment. I've sort of thought around these lines for a while. With a typical fantasy novel the reader has an idea of the storyline. There is a character or a set of characters and they are doing something concrete. It may not always be clear, but they are working towards a specific goal. This may be why so much fantasy is quest driven. There is a clear goal. George Martin (and others) write a different sort of a fantasy. He is building a world, building characters and setting them in action and letting them live in a dangerous world where what family one was born into can be very dangerous. Maybe other readers are far more astute, but I have no idea where this series is going. None. I mean, there are certain things that I expect to happen: Danaerys will likely invade Westeros with some sort of an army. There will be major problems north of the Wall because we've seen an evil brewing for a while now. The Lannisters will be pulled completely out of power in this game of thrones. The Starks may get their revenge, but they will probably not be a true power as they were in Winterfell. How any or all or none of these things play out is what is so interesting about Martin's books. He is setting up something so grand, so exquisite, but with so many twists that things never play out the way I expect. If I think that Danaerys was the Bad Guy of the series, she has turned out to be less of one than I expected. If she is to invade and take over, then perhaps Westeros will unite...or maybe Westeros will fall...or maybe part of Westeros will fall...or maybe Danaerys will invade at the same time the evil north of the Wall will invade. That's the thing about this series: anything can happen.

There was a challenge in reading "A Feast for Crows" because the entire time I knew that I was only getting half of the story. I don't get the viewpoint of Jon on the Wall or Tyrion the Imp or even Danaerys across the sea. I was setting myself up to be disappointed, but as much as I missed Tyrion's viewpoint chapters I found that it didn't matter. George Martin is one hell of a writer. As much as I initially hated the characters of Cersei and Jaime, they are fascinating characters and well written. Jaime Lannister, in particular, is becoming a favorite.

So what happens here? To quote Robert Jordan, "Read and Find Out". On one hand not a lot happens, but on the other hand it brings characters farther along in the story and does it well enough that even while we are figuring stuff out with how everything fits together the novel works. On the other hand, there is enough intrigue that when Book 6 rolls around I think that Martin will be pushing through the series quite well and making large advances in plot. Some characters get to do quite a lot here. Brienne has the most "action" while Cersei stays at King's Landing and tries to protect her son the king. So, it is all a matter of perspective because certain characters physically can't have large jumps in plot because it would change the entire makeup of the world and what is happening and Martin is not ready for those changes. But in the next book we'll be seeing the other half and I suspect there will be major events set in motion. But this book felt to be much the aftermath of A Storm of Swords.

To simply say that "it is good" does not do justice to the quality that George Martin gives us in a novel. Some may be disappointed because this is only half of a novel, but half of a George Martin novel is worth two of most other authors. I understand that disappointment, but I don't share it. I would have rather had a 2000 page full novel with all of the characters, but taken for what it is, this is a good feast.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Battlestar

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When did Battlestar Galactica become a good show? I had no interest when the miniseries came out in 2003 and no interest during Season 1. I didn't give it a chance based on the name alone. BG did not really have a good reputation for being quality science fiction because of the series from the 70's. And despite the fact that this new series stars Mary McDonnell (Stands With a Fist from Dances With Wolves) and Edward James Olmos, I got nothing. Then, as the second season started I started to wonder if I should give it a try. A co-worker then told me he really liked the show and it's been getting good buzz from what I can see. So, I started recording some episodes. I've now seen episodes 8, 9, 10 and 11 from Season Two (Final Cut, Flight of the Phoenix, Pegasus, Resurrection Ship Part 1). I have no idea what happened before this.

I'm hooked. I love this show. How did this become so good, so compelling? Even given that there is a season and a half before this, there is enough background given as common knowledge that I don't feel terribly lost. But I want to see everything that came before. Hopefully the Sci-Fi Channel keeps this one for a while. I have Season 1 on hold at the library, and Season 2.0 (the first half of the season) is available there, too. Hopefully Sci-Fi will rerun the miniseries.

And this brings me to a show that I'm going to give a shot to. Dark Kingdom, another sci-fi show starting on Monday 2/27. Something fantasy, something new. It means that I'm going to need to skip RAW on Mondays to try this show (unless they do replays), but I'd like to get in from the start on the show.

I just hope it doesn't suck.

Michelle Kwan is Out

Michelle Kwan has withdrawn from the Olympics. I wish the woman well. She is arguably one of the best figure skaters America has produced, except that she has never won Olympic gold. Multiple time world champion, multiple time US Champion. She has had longevity in a sport that doesn't seem to allow many of the best skaters to last for an extended period of time whether they go pro or just don't hold up from the pressure (Kristi Yamaguchi, Oskana Baiul, etc). So the fact that Kwan has been on top for so long is remarkable.

Like I said, I wish the woman well. I'm just glad she isn't skating in the Olympics. With all respect possible from someone who can barely stand up on a pair of ice skates, Michelle Kwan doesn't deserve to be in the Olympics this year. She doesn't. Past accomplishments do not matter because Kwan was unable to skate at the Trials (are the Trials the same as the US Championships? I think they are for figure skating). If the Trials are the only event that qualifies a skater, and Kwan did not place in the Top Three at the Trials then Kwan does not deserve to go. She did not earn a place on the Olympic Team. Sure, if healthy I'm sure Michelle Kwan would have made it. But she wasn't and she didn't.

She petitioned the Olympic Committee to get a spot on the team and Kwan's petition was granted, bumping Emily Hughes off the active roster. That's just not right. I come from the perspective of track where the rules are similar: you show up at the Trials and you earn your spot on the team on that day. You may be the World Champion and World Record Holder, but if you don't place high enough to make the team, you don't go. Michael Johnson wouldn't have earned a spot on the team despite having won double gold if he didn't place in the Trials. Past performance doesn't matter. Marion Jones only made the long jump in 2004. Past performance says she should go in multiple events but she wasn't good enough on that day.

I heard this morning that Nancy Kerrigan had bumped Kwan off of the team years back (was that the Tonya Harding attack?) because of a petition. I didn't know that, and I don't like that either. Kerrigan shouldn't have gone. She may have been a better skater, but if she doesn't place top 3, she shouldn't go.

Period.

I wish Michelle Kwan well, and I'm sorry she is injured and can't pursue her dream, but I'm glad she isn't on the team any more. Would have been classier if she never petitioned, though.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

War of the Altar Boys

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Why didn't anyone tell me that War of the Worlds was this bad? I'm sure I wouldn't have listened, but it would have given me lowered expectations. It's Spielberg, so I expected this grand spectacle and a decent level of quality (I expect even more from his drama). It's based on the 19th Century novel by H.G. Wells, so I wanted to see how that vision translated. The story is timeless enough that whether it is 1898, 1952, or 2005, the fear of an invading alien host with no warning can work in any era. It can certainly find resonance today, though not quite as exact as it did with the Imperialism of Britain when Wells first wrote the novel (that's right, science fiction as political criticism).

What is this movie? There are these massive alien tri-pods that come up from underground. They must have been there for thousands or millions of years, just waiting. These tri-pods start attacking, frying any human they come across, destroying cities and towns. There is no message of warning, no quarter given, just all out annihilation. The humans are all in fear, running and fleeing for their lives but anywhere they go they encounter more tri-pods. Tom Cruise plays a working class father of two who are given to him for the weekend. He barely knows his children but he needs to protect his kids. More running, more wanton destruction. I'm not sure what Spielberg's budget was, but I'm pretty sure he used it all with stuff being destroyed.

But the movie was just pretty much in general...awful. Tom Cruise is able to turn in a good performance and Dakota Fanning gets all these kid roles because she's one of the better child actresses out there, and the son plays sullen well, but I think there is only so good of a job you can do acting in front of nothing pretending to be scared of an alien attack. But other than watching the aliens make the humans go poof, it was just silly...and I like this sort of thing! The ending is faithful to the book, but it is just so anticlimactic that it doesn't work. It doesn't have the same resonance as that imperialistic empire thing from the 19th century. I don't know how you change it, stay faithful, and make a good ending, but...c'mon.


The other movie I watched this weekend was The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys. Pretty good movie. Features a couple of parochial school boys who do some destructive stuff for fun and draw comic books. I forget the names of the actors there, except that one is the brother of Macauley Culkin. I'm not sure they are bad kids, per se, but their pranks are awfully destructive and brazen. For instance, the movie opens with the two boys doing a math experiment in triangulation. They figure how far back they need to stand if they are to cut down a telephone pole and have it fall and crush a beer bottle and not hit them. They triangulate, place the bottle, use a chain saw, and then run to be a couple feet past the bottle. The pole falls, misses the kids but hits the bottle. Brilliant, I'll grant you, but it's hard to say these are good kids. But I don't want to say they are bad because they are seldom truly malicious. Just...bored. One of the boys is interested in a girl at the school played by Jena Malone (I remember her from "Saved" where she is also at a highly religious school). The boys feel that the nun in charge (Jodie Foster) is their nemesis and she is the main bad guy in their comic book, and part of the movie is animated with their comic book work. It gets across the inner mood of one of the boys better than his acting.

Honestly, the story itself isn't so grand that I could describe it and you'd say "Wow! I have to see this", but it is well made, well acted, and interesting enough. I enjoyed the movie and when taken in comparison to the Spielberg here, this one comes off even better.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Thank You HarperCollins!

Wednesday, February 01, 2006 0
Dear Joe,

You have been selected to review Flight of the Nighthawks by Raymond E. Feist. Your Advanced Readers Edition should arrive at your address within 14 days via U.S. Postal Service. If you need to contact us, please include your name, mailing address, and title of the book you are to review in your e-mail message.

Thank you for participating in the First Look program. We look forward to receiving your review.

HarperCollins Publishers
 
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