Friday, December 31, 2004

The Best Books of 2004

The only criteria for inclusion on this list is that I actually read the book in 2004. This explains why a book by Isaac Asimov is included. The only order that this list is in is the order in which I read the books.

1. The Middle of the Night - Daniel Stolar
2. Legends II - Robert Silverberg (editor)
3. A Short History of Nearly Everything - Bill Bryson
4. Absolutely American - David Lipsky
5. Martin Dressler - Steven Millhauser
6. The Fortress of Solitude - Jonathan Lethem
7. Four Souls - Louise Erdrich
8. Truth and Beauty - Ann Patchett
9. I, Robot - Isaac Asimov
10. Angels and Demons - Dan Brown
11. Fray - Joss Whedon
12. The Complete Peanuts: 1950 - 1952 - Charles Schulz
13. To Be the Man - Ric Flair
14. The Coma - Alex Garland
15. Shutter Island - Dennis Lehane
16. Created in Darkness by Troubled Americans - Dave Eggers (editor)
17. The Plot Against America - Philip Roth
18. Generation Kill - Evan Wright
19. The Partly Cloudy Patriot - Sarah Vowell
20. Alexander Hamilton - Ron Chernow
21. The Time Traveler's Wife - Audrey Niffenegger

Every one of these books are worth reading, though each for a very different reason than the other. The list can also be found here

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Movie Review: The Phantom of the Opera (2004)

A film by Joel Schumacher

This movie is an adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's long running Broadway musical "The Phantom of the Opera". I imagine that most people have at least heard of the musical and that it has something to do with a phantom, and an opera, and that there is singing. To be perfectly honest, that is the extent of my knowledge and experience of the stage musical. Because of this lack of experience with the stage version, I had no preconceived notions of what "Phantom" should look like, or sound like, but only that it is supposed to be good and it has been wildly successful. Andrew Lloyd Webber himself was involved in the casting of this project, especially in regards to Emmy Rossum as Christine.

"The Phantom of the Opera" begins with an auction in an old opera house where there is a chandelier which the auctioneer tells us featured prominently in the famous fracas with a "phantom of the opera" and that perhaps time will finally exorcise the phantom. When the enormous chandelier is revealed we are greeted with a powerful blast of music as the dust and cobwebs and decay of the opera house are blown back and we see the opera house return to its former glory of years past. The movie now takes us back to the time where the Phantom did, in fact, haunt the opera house. When the resident diva of the opera, Carlotta (Minne Driver) is nearly hurt in an accident, a young girl from the chorus, Christine (Emmy Rossum) takes the lead with little time to rehearse or prepare. She is a success and the new talk of the opera world and Raoul (Patrick Wilson), the patron of the new owners of the opera house is smitten with her. It also seems that Christine and Raoul knew each other as children.

Something strange happens next. Christine is reluctant to dine with Raoul because her mysterious teacher wouldn't be happy, but we don't know who the teacher is (though we can guess). When Raoul leaves her dressing room, the door locks, the candles blow out and we hear a voice sing out to Christine. It is her teacher. It is the Phantom (Gerard Butler). Christine finally meets the Phantom, her teacher, and they spend some time together as he admonishes her about being faithful to him and his music and sings about "the music of the night". Except for Christine, everybody else wants to be rid of the Phantom and thus begins the heart of the movie where Raoul and the Phantom both want Christine, Christine is initially unsure of her desires, and the Phantom continues to haunt and attack the opera if things do not go exactly the way he demands (and they don't).

It seems unfair to criticize a movie based on a Broadway musical/rock opera of being "too theatrical". Considering the origins of this movie, it only makes sense for it to be "theatrical". Still, Gerard Butler flaps his cape at the camera more than one too many times. It is as if he were trying out for the role of Count Dracula in some campy remake where he isn't supposed to be serious. Except that he is supposed to be serious. Which brings me to my next point: Butler as The Phantom isn't terribly menacing. He is too pretty. His mask seems more of a fashion accessory than something that is just covering up being disfigured. Only when he is in the shadows and attacking people in secrecy do we truly get menace from Butler. It is the unseen that brings the most tension to the character. Butler has a nice voice and on some songs he sounds impressive, but much of his work here is absolutely ordinary. Patrick Wilson, on the other hand, is no better. He doesn't seem the sort of man who would impress Christine and there is no scene, no chemistry that shows us why they are interested in each other except that they knew each other as children. The looming face off between Raoul and the Phantom just doesn't work for me. The movie seemed long, a bit dull, and repetitive.

There is much to praise in this movie, however. The first thing that must be pointed out is that this is a beautiful looking movie. It looks incredible. The sets are fantastic, the costume design, the use of colors, all of it is just perfect. Every scene change brings another fantastic image to the screen. This is a gorgeous movie to look at. The second praiseworthy part of this film is Emmy Rossum as Christine. I don't know what Christine is supposed to look like or act like on stage, but here she radiates such an innocence that it is easy to see why the Phantom wants Christine for himself and why Raoul would be physically attracted to her. Christine is pure. Rossum can also sing quite well. Her voice is what carries the movie as far as it can be carried. The final bit of praise goes to the rest of the cast (excluding Butler and Wilson). They are all excellent, including Minnie Driver as the diva Carlotta. Perfectly overplayed (which is an odd thing for me to say considering my problems with Butler).

"The Phantom of the Opera" has quite a few things going for it, and I am quite sure that fans of the stage musical will be equally happy with this movie. I wasn't quite so happy. I am giving "Phantom" a very generous B- for the performance of Emmy Rossum and the look of the movie.

Movie Review: Spanglish (2004)

A film by James L Brooks

When Flor's (Paz Vega) husband leaves her she is forced to emigrate from Mexico to America to find work so she can support herself and her daughter Cristina (Shelbie Bruce). After initially finding a lower paying job in a Mexican enclave within Las Angeles, Flor finds work as a housekeeper for Deborah (Tea Leoni). Deborah is a wealthy, self-absorbed society woman who doesn't really think of the feelings of other people. She is also absolutely crazy in a manic sort of a way. Her husband, John (Adam Sandler) is the normal one. He is a very successful chef and will soon be an even more successful chef when a top critic gives him a fantastic review. But, he is a committed family man who deeply loves his daughter Bernie (Sarah Steele) and while he must love his wife for some reason, he is very frustrated with her because her callous disregard for the feelings of Bernie even though Deborah thinks she is doing the right thing.

Into this strange, messed up family comes Flor. She is gentle, and kind, and she doesn't speak a lick of English. Translation and communication comes through Cristina, stuck between the excitement of a new way of life provided by Deborah (she treats Cristina better than she does her own daughter) and the steady tranquil traditions of her mother. The conflict of "Spanglish" comes in the form of Deborah. Deborah will whisk Cristina away for a day long excursion without asking permission from Flor. Her hurtful comments towards Bernie is upsetting John almost as much as Bernie. Deborah is paying little attention to her own husband or to her family except as they might relate towards her and her wishes. It is no wonder that we see a budding friendship (could it be more?) between John and Flor. John, like Flor, is gentle and kind and loving and is being hurt by his wife far more than he deserves.

There is no true narrative here in the sense that "Spanglish" does not directly follow a storyline. What we have is a movie about the relationships between these characters, most of whom are very likeable. The crazy thing is that we want John to leave his wife because we know that he would be very happy with Flor and that they would treat each other well. We want their children to get the love and attention they deserve. We know that Flor's presence has been nothing but a good thing to John's family and that she is a positive influence with how steady and responsible she is. If there is a villain here it is Deborah because she is just so unlikeable, yet at heart she must be a good person for John to have married her in the first place. We only barely see glimpses of her heart, though.

"Spanglish" has quite a bit going for it. The movie has a stellar cast which also includes Cloris Leachman has Deborah's alcoholic mother Evelyn. Leachman has all the best lines in the movie and I will be surprised if she doesn't pick up an Oscar nomination for her work here. She steals every scene she is in. The idea of an alcoholic mother could be a very harsh character, but in "Spanglish" Evelyn is so good natured that one could almost believe that it was Deborah that drove her mother towards the bottle. Another highlight in this movie is Cristina's translations of conversations between her mother and John. Not only does Cristina translate the words and the passion of Flor, but also the gestures and so we get a bit of perfect physical comedy with a younger girl saying very adult things.

The only real problem with "Spanglish" is that despite the strength of all of its parts, the film itself doesn't come together to make a whole that is nearly as good. We have a film about several wonderful characters working through their problems, but it doesn't amount to very much. I can't explain it. "Spanglish" is a nice movie, a decent movie and is filled with a certain amount of heartwarming material, but perhaps because of Deborah and the conclusion, it never really delivers the promise or the pedigree of the filmmakers. Grade: B-

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Movie Review: Sylvia (2003)

A film by Christine Jeffs

"Sylvia" is a film about the life of the American poet Sylvia Plath (Gwyneth Paltrow). The film begins with Plath in college and being all upset about the review of her poetry in a magazine (it might have been a university magazine, but that is never made clear). Soon after she is told about another young poet named Ted Hughes (Daniel Craig). They meet and fall in lust, and despite the title of the movie being "Sylvia" the movie quickly becomes about Sylvia and Ted. Perhaps this is my greatest problem with "Sylvia", that we don't see Sylvia Plath as her own woman. Instead we see Sylvia Plath only in relation to Ted Hughes. I do not know too much about the life of Plath, but since her journals were posthumously published, and she is the author of "The Bell Jar", "Ariel" and won the Pulitzer Prize (also posthumously) for her collected poetry, surely she was a strong enough personality to actually be the subject of a movie which is supposedly about her. But, perhaps I'm wrong about that.

This is a depressing movie. Sylvia Plath was fairly depressive in her own life, and "Sylvia" gets this right. She is manic and unstable and emotionally beat down by Ted Hughes. Her marriage of ups and downs is mostly downs and apparently she is never able to find her focus in writing, though she does manage to publish a couple of books of poetry. She is still overshadowed by her more successful husband. At this point, I think "I" want to stick my head in an oven. It feels like Plath gets yanked around from place to place and is her own emotional rollercoaster and gets no emotional support from her husband who ends up cheating on her anyway.

We never really get to see Sylvia writing her poetry, or speaking her poetry, or using any of her intellectual talents other than in one early scene which sets up the lust between Plath and Hughes. The reason for this is probably because Sylvia Plath's daughter would not permit the filmmakers to use any of her mother's poetry, which meant that only whatever could be legally used outside of that permission was used. This left us with only a couple of brief lines of poetry from a very famous poet. This unquestionably harms the movie because we have no sense in why Plath is famous and remembered. All we have is what we see and hear in the movie and that is a depressed poet who doesn't write is having an unhappy life. Let me see "that" movie!

The problem is not the casting. Gwyneth Paltrow does an excellent job in portraying Sylvia Plath and she even looks remarkably like the pictures I have seen of Sylvia Plath. Daniel Craig does a fine job of Ted Hughes, though I have no sense of comparison. The problem is that this is a very dreary movie and it gives us no reason to care for these characters, especially the heroine. "Sylvia" is dull, it is boring. This was a good role for Gwyneth Paltrow to play, but she would have been better served in a different movie about Sylvia Plath. Grade: C-

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Movie Review: King Arthur (2004)

A film by Antoine Fuqua

While the myth and legend of King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table have been around in one form or another for centuries, there is little solid historical evidence that there was an actual King named Arthur or what his exploits may or may not have been, or even what century he may or may not have lived in. The title cards at the start of the movie makes a new claim of accuracy with historical basis, but from watching documentaries on the History Channel before "King Arthur" was released theatrically, it seems that this movie offers one of many possible interpretations on the Arthur Legend. No retelling of the legend is going to be completely accurate, assuming there was an Arthur, so take this movie with a grain of salt and as entertainment.

Many of the other movies about Arthur deal with a magic sword being pulled out of a stone, and powerful magic being wielded by Merlin (John Boorman's "Exaclibur"), and there is even a musical "Camelot", not to mention the rather bad but strangely enjoyable "First Knight". Forget every other Arthurian movie that you have seen thus far because "King Arthur" is nothing like those movies. There is no magic, no knights bursting into song, and no Richard Gere. This is a darker, more realistic movie from the director of "Training Day".

"King Arthur" is set in the fifth century. Rome is the de facto ruler of Britain, though via proxy. Roman Knights hold sway in Britain, enforcing the law for Citizens and keeping the "barbarians" away. In this movie, the Knights that are in Britain were originally from Sarmatia, a tribe far to the East. These Sarmatians, having lost their battle against Rome have accepted as a term of their surrender that all of their male children will serve in the Roman Army. These men are serving under Lucius Artorius Castus, or Arthur (Clive Owen). Along with Arthur are the other "legendary" knights and Sarmatians Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd), Gawain (Joel Edgerton), Galahad (Hugh Dancy), and Bors (Ray Winstone). Together, with other unnamed knights, the Sarmatians protect their corner of Britain and their tour of duty will be over with the arrival of the Bishop Germanius (Ivano Marescotti). The Bishop has other ideas. He will only release the knights after they fulfill one more task. They must ride north, into territory occupied by the Woads (native Britons) where there is a Saxon Army on the brink of invasion, and rescue a young man whom the Pope in Rome is grooming as his successor. Only then with Arthur and his men be free to return to Sarmatia. They argue, the grumble, the get angry, and they submit.

On the way they encounter Merlin (Stephen Dillane), no longer a sorcerer, but a leader of a tribe of Woads. Upon rescuing the boy, Arthur also rescues a young woman named Guinevere (Keira Knightley). Guinevere is not the refined princess who's beauty ruined Camelot, but a Woad prisoner who is starving and abused. She is freed by Arthur, befriended even though she is a barbarian, and through their discussions Arthur begins to question his place as a Roman. Arthur is part Briton, part Sarmatian, so his world is not the same as that of Bors or Lancelot. Guinevere also is a warrior, able to shoot her bow with great skill and once, late in the movie, she charges into battle with sword drawn (her scenes with the swords are the least convincing when she tries to match power and strength with men. Keira Knightley is a small woman).

The battle scenes are done more in the style of "Braveheart", though with a surprisingly lack of blood and visible brutality. Clive Owen's Arthur is a solid leader, though one lacking in charisma. He seems the leader who has earned the trust of his men over a long period of time by being a strong warrior, brave, intelligent, and always faithful, but not with this force of his personality. That is good for a leader, bad for a leading man. Owen was fantastic in "Closer", but his powerful personality is pushed to the side here. Everybody else in the movie is acceptable and believable in their roles, and Keira Knightley was just fine as a different sort of Guinevere right up until the part where she parried a sword swung by a much larger man. She was best when using the bow and when using her agility in battle. She lost me when she used strength to win in battle.

This Director's Cut Edition restored scenes that needed to be cut from the theatrical release and reportedly adds a bit more brutality to the battles. This was evident near the end, but not so much early on in the movie. Not having seen the theatrical release, I am not able to comment on the differences between the two versions of "King Arthur".

This isn't a bad movie. It is "Braveheart" light with some of the actors from "Braveheart". After "Training Day" I honestly expected something more from Antoine Fuqua, but it was nice that he did not provide a conventional Arthur movie. If reports of his struggle with the studio to make "his" movie are to believed, "King Arthur" had the potential to be something better than it turned out to be, even with a Director's Cut. While not a bad movie, "King Arthur" should not get a grade of much above a C+. It is decent enough, but nothing special.

Movie Awards

Roger Ebert had a great idea. He is tracking the winners of all the major critical awards here. This way we can try to see which movies have been voted best picture and make Oscar predictions from the list. It's a really good idea, especially for the acting categories. We see that a movie like Sideways has been cleaning up, but Million Dollar Baby is making a strong showing. I'll be checking in on this one periodically.

Ebert on Million Dollar Baby

Roger Ebert has written a beautiful review of Million Dollar Baby. It is writing like this that reminds me why he is considered one of the top film reviewers in America and one of the most respected. It is an example why he won the Pulitzer Prize for his film criticism. Ebert's review only deepens my desire to see this movie, which was already the #1 movie I wanted to see (now that i've seen Closer).

If everything I have heard about Million Dollar Baby is right, and Ebert seems to agree, you are looking at the movie that is going to get an abundance of Oscar Nominations in every category it possibly can. And it may very well win a whole bunch, too.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Movie Review: Finding Neverland (2004)

A film by Marc Forster

J.M Barrie (Johnny Depp) is something of a failed playwright. His latest play has just flopped on opening night. The audience was bored and left the theatre saying how dreadful it was. His relationship with his wife, Mary (Radha Mitchell) is chilly and loveless. But James Barrie still has an incredibly fertile imagination, turning the mundane into something more spectacular and wondrous, if only in his mind. While writing in a park James encounters the Davies family with one of the boys lying under the bench Barrie is sitting on. This boy is pretending to have been imprisoned by the king, George (Nick Roud), who is really just his older brother. Barrie, unlike what most adults would do, plays right along with the scene and tries to bargain young Michael (Luke Spill) out of jail. Immediately Barrie seems to form a friendship with the family, performing a little play with his dog for the family, which includes the mother Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet) and her other two sons Peter (Freddie Highmore) and Jack (Joe Prospero). Barrie spends more and more time with the Davies, befriending Sylvia and playing make believe with the children. From this relationship we see instances of Barrie's imagination taking hold and the creation of aspects of "Peter Pan".

Three of the boys join in and play every game with James Barrie, but young Peter does not. Still grieving and resentful at the death of his father, Peter will not play. In talking with James, however, Peter starts to come out of his shell. It is clear that this friendship, which is entirely innocent of anything romantic (in the case of Sylvia) or otherwise is of great comfort both to the Davies family as well as to James Barrie. There is conflict, of course. Sylvia's mother, Mrs Emma Du Maurier (Julie Christie) disapproves because of Barrie's behavior but also because she feels that the friendship will only cause a scandal and ruin any chance of Sylvia's being able to remarry into "Society". Barrie, of course, is married. This is the other major conflict. Mary is resentful of the time Barrie spends away from her, but it is also clear that their relationship is not working even before he met Sylvia and her family. They were already sleeping in separate bedrooms (though that may have been a cultural thing, I am not sure).

While all of this is happening, the producer of Barrie's plays, Charles Frohman (Dustin Hoffman) is trying to get Barrie's new play financed and is very worried when he sees what it is. It is a play about fairies and children with an alligator and a grown man who must dress up in a dog costume. Since these plays are shown to the "High Society", it is a play destined to flop. Coming from the twenty first century, we also know it is destined to become a classic in "Peter Pan".

Rated PG, "Finding Neverland" is a wonderful family film. In fact, that is the exact word that came to mind as I walked out of the theatre: Wonderful. There is truly a sense of wonder about J.M. Barrie and his imagination which created Neverland. His friendship with the Davies comes off as genuine and heartfelt and entirely natural. Johnny Depp's performance carries the movie, though Winslet and the four children are also to be commended for how well "Finding Neverland" has turned out. Depp is much more restrained here than in most of his other movie, but he still is able to shine through with a quirkly personality that feels appropriate to Barrie. "Finding Neverland" is a very imaginative movie, beautifully shot, with enough scenes of Barrie's imagination to override what could have otherwise been a drab London. This is clearly one of the best movies of the year.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Movie Review: Ray (2004)

A film by Taylor Hackford

"Ray" is a biopic about the defining period in the life of musician Ray Charles. While there are flashbacks to Ray's childhood, "Ray" mostly deals with the time between when Ray Robinson (Jamie Foxx) was first starting out in the late 1940's through the 1960's when he became a huge success with "Georgia on my Mind" and was the first black artist to refuse to play a venue if it was segregated. With a ringing admonishment to never let the world treat him like a cripple, "Ray" begins with Ray Robinson getting onto a bus bound to Seattle from Florida and meeting up with a very young Quincy Jones (Larenz Tate). If it didn't happen, I wouldn't believe it. Ray Robinson gets himself an audition at a club and is immediately a hit. The club's owner becomes his manager for a time and begins to cheat him out of his money from the start. Time passes until Ray wises up to what is going on and leaves to strike out on his own where he can play and be more in control of his future.

"Ray" features a series of successes where Ray Charles (Charles is the middle name of Ray Robinson, he changed his stage name because there was already a "Sugar" Ray Robinson who was a boxer) becomes bigger and bigger and his songs become hits and makes the record company, Atlantic, a lot of money. Ray finds a home with his wife Della Bea (Kerry Washington) and they have a child, but Ray has demons of his own. He keeps flashing back to his childhood where he watched his younger brother drown. "Ray" does not sugarcoat the life of Ray Charles. It chronicles how Ray got deeper and deeper into drug dependency and addiction and how he was constantly cheating on his wife when he was on the road. "Ray" also gives the beautiful songs of Ray Charles a chance to shine. I never knew that Ray had recorded "The Mess Around" and hearing "Georgia on my Mind" is sublime. "Ray" follows Ray Charles through his addiction and through his rehab and we get to see him clean himself up.

To be perfectly honest, "Ray" runs a little long at 2 hours and 45 minutes. I don't know what could have been cut or what scene trimmed down, but it started to feel long sometime after 2 hours but before the end. Despite this, however, Jamie Foxx completely disappears in his role as Ray Charles. From the first scene to the last, with the exception of one dream sequence, we are not watching Jamie Foxx doing an impersonation. We are watching Ray Charles. He is that good. Everybody else in the film also does an excellent job, but Foxx is the standout and rightfully so. He carries "Ray" on his shoulders and he carries it well. What best serves this movie is the combination of Jamie Foxx's performance as well as the knowledge that the real Ray Charles had died before this film could be released in the theatres. It is that knowing the man has only recently died that adds to the appeal and the power of "Ray". Perhaps that is sad or unfair, but it is also reality. This is not to say that "Ray" is not an extremely powerful movie and very well acted and well made. It is. But when a film is made about real life, real life affects how the film is perceived.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Book Review: The Final Solution - Michael Chabon

Pulitzer Prize winning author Michael Chabon ("The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay") takes a shot at writing a classic Sherlock Holmes mystery. Holmes, never explicitly named, is nearing the end of his life. He has retired to Sussex, England, to keep bees. This is all that he wants to do for the remainder of his life, but the mystery of a mute boy and a stolen parrot comes into his life and calls on his skills of observation one last time.

A young boy walks into town. He is mute and he owns a parrot. The only thing the parrot seems to say is a list of numbers in German. When the parrot disappears there is suspicion of a darker motive. The police call Holmes to investigate, and though he is reluctant, he does agree to help. But Holmes' motivation is only to return the parrot to the child and not to solve the riddle of the German numbers.

There is a certain amount of wistfulness in "The Final Solution." It may be, as the title suggests, the last Sherlock Holmes mystery, and the specter of the aging Holmes does give rise to this air of sadness and remembering what has come before. So, in that manner it is a treat to get to see Sherlock one last time. But as a mystery story there isn't much to it. There is no true feeling that Chabon is giving all of the clues necessary to grasp the mystery (the twist at the end is nice and clever, though). Perhaps the problem is that the stakes here (a missing parrot) do not seem to be sufficiently large to have involved Sherlock Holmes, despite the mystery of the German numbers. "The Final Solution" is interesting for fans of Chabon, Sherlock Holmes, and as a little curio of a novella, but nothing deeper than that. It is well written, of course, being Chabon, but it feels too light. Too insubstantial.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Movie Review: Flight of the Navigator (1986)

A film by Randal Kleiser

"Flight of the Navigator" is a wonderful movie that is good for the entire family. It is the story of 12 year old David (Joey Cramer). David is sent by his parents to look for his younger brother who is late coming home. David searches in the woods, and after finding his brother, David falls off the edge of a small cliff into the valley below. When he comes to, shortly after, he returns home only to find that someone else is living there and has no idea who he is. David soon learns, from the police, that he was presumed dead 8 years prior. After being reunited with his family we see that while everyone else has aged during the missing time, David remains the same age he was when he fell. Meanwhile, NASA has located a spaceship which has crashed and they want to examine David to find out what he may know.

David manages to escape in the spaceship and with the help of the robot Max (Paul Reubens), evades being recaptured by NASA scientists. On the craft, David learns of what happened to him, why, and how he can rejoin his family. Along the way he meets Carolyn (a young Sarah Jessica Parker), an intern at NASA and various alien creatures that look like Muppets.

"Flight of the Navigator" is cute, funny, and an enjoyable movie. It is appropriate for children of all ages. Plus, it has muppet aliens. How can you beat that?

Monday, December 06, 2004

Movie Review: Closer (2004)

A film by Mike Nichols

"Closer" is a film about beginnings and endings. We are given a look into how relationships begin, and how they end. Very little of what happens in between is ever seen on screen. Because of this, there are time gaps in the story of up to a year, but after the first gap and you figure out just what the structure is, it is barely noticeable. "Closer" begins (appropriately enough) with the meeting of Alice (Natalie Portman) and Dan (Jude Law). Alice is walking down a London sidewalk. Dan is following her, observing. It isn't clear if he is stalking her, or just admiring her beauty. When Alice looks the wrong way when crossing the road, she is American, she is struck by a car. Dan is right there to get her help and this begins a flirtation and their relationship.

Dan meets Alice. Dan meets Anna. Anna meets Larry. Dan leaves Alice. Anna leaves Larry. Larry meets Alice. To call "Closer" a romantic triangle would be to do the film a disservice, not to mention that there are four people involved in this "triangle". The romantic pairings up and hooking up is the method these characters use to try to fulfill something that is lacking in their lives. But the real point here is the conversation that comes about because of it. The conversation that happens at the beginning and the ending of a relationship is the most interesting, and the most intense because the emotions are heightened and more focused, both with joy and with pain. The dialogue is sharp, incredibly intelligent (I've never come across conversation like this before in my life), it feels realistic, flirtatious, and very sexual. In particular, the dialogue at the endings of relationships is quite graphic.

"Closer" is all about character and humanity, and not so much about giving a traditional plot. The four main actors here do a fantastic job in "Closer" and collectively give the performance of the year. Natalie Portman is likely going to pick up a Best Supporting Actress Nomination (if not win) for her portrayal of Alice, the all grown up but still somewhat childish waif of a stripper. Clive Owen, however, steals the show (as does Portman) with every scene he is in. He is passionate, intense, and perfect. As is, I would suggest, this movie. It is not an upbeat movie, but it has such a warmth to it even as the characters are all treating each other really badly. This is a very impressive movie and one which I sincerely hope gets a Best Picture nomination come Oscar time.

Friday, December 03, 2004

Book Review - Republic Commando: Hard Contact - Karen Traviss

"Republic Commando: Hard Contact" is a video game tie-in novel which is set in the Star Wars Universe during the Clone Wars. While other Clone Wars novels have given us glimpses into the lives of the clone troopers, none have given us this level of detail, though "The Cestus Deception" comes close at times. This is a novel completely about clone troopers and even though there is a Jedi Padawan in the novel it is a reversal of the norm as she is dependent on the clones.

Four clone commandos, an elite fighting force, are sent to a planet controlled by the Separatists. The mission is to attack a chemical weapons facility which is making a virus which targets and kills only the Clones. If used, it would turn the tide of the Clone Wars against the Republic. "Republic Commando: Hard Contact" is a covert mission of the Clone Wars and one that features almost entirely clone commandos (the Jedi are secondary and far less important than the commandos). We are given the opportunity to see how the clones relate to each other and how they truly are individuals. They are just bred to fight and serve the Republic, but they have hopes and fears and distinct personalities despite the fact they are genetically identical.

Karen Traviss is an exciting new author. As a Star Wars author, one the strength of one book, she is already one of the best. There is a level of authenticity that runs through "Republic Commando: Hard Contact" that just feels right. Traviss gives us an intelligent, exciting story of one small squadron of elite clone commandos and she succeeds in humanizing them both to the reader as well as the Jedi apprentice in the story. Karen Traviss is one of the few Star Wars authors who did such a good job that I want to read her non-Star Wars work. This is a story which does not feature any of the main Star Wars characters, but it is easy to relate to Traviss's characters and fit them into our picture of the greater Star Wars universe.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Book Review: An Emperor for the Legion - Harry Turtledove

"An Emperor for the Legion" is the second of four volumes in the Videssos Cycle. At the end of "The Misplaced Legion", the Emperor had been killed by the Sorcerer of Yezda and the Videssan army had been routed due to the failure of Ortaias Sphrantzes to hold his section of the line. The army has been split into several parts, each with no contact with the others. Ortaias has one part, the Thorisin Gavras has another. Gavras is viewed by many as the rightful heir to Videssos. The rest of the army is under the command of Marcus Scaurus, the misplaced Roman Legionary. The plot of the first book in the series took a Roman Legion and through an accident of magic transported the legion to another world. They hired on with the Empire of Videssos as a mercenary company and with the murder of the emperor, Marcus is seeking the one man he is willing to follow: Thorisin Gavras.

Much of "An Emperor for the Legion" is one long march. Marcus and his Romans, plus the rest of the army, is on the march through lands controlled by the Yezda and have to deal with random attacks. After finally meeting up with Thorisin, they return to the capital city of Videssos only to find it occupied by Ortaias, claiming to be the new Emperor. Marcus and Thorisin need to decide if they can accept the rule of Ortaias, or if attempting to assault the nearly impenetrable fortress city is worth the cost.

This book is the logical extension of the story after "The Misplaced Legion". We do not see much character development of the Romans (or anyone else), but by spending more time with the Romans we get a better sense of who the men are. Call it "character explanation". The initial intrigue of sticking a Roman legion in a completely alien world in which magic is fairly commonplace has worn off by this point, but Turtledove is able to tell an interesting story with these characters. After this novel, the focus seems to be on the politics of Videssos seen through the filter of the Roman Legion. It's good, and very detail orientated. "An Emperor for the Legion" is a slower moving tale, but the series is an interesting one.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Book Review: Empire of Unreason - Greg Keyes

"Empire of Unreason" is the third book in the four book "Age of Unreason" series by Greg Keyes. It takes place approximately 10 years after the events of "A Calculus of Angels". Ben Franklin is living back in the American Colonies, in Charleston. He is a founding member of some sort of secret scientific organization called the Junto. The Junto are leaders in the community and they are working to continue to advance science as well as figure out exactly how to stop and kill the malakim, the "demons" that were discovered through Isaac Newton's alchemy and are the ultimate cause of all of the destruction of the past twelve years. The exiled pretender King James has come to the colonies (since London was utterly destroyed twelve years prior) to claim his throne, but Franklin sees the hand of the malakim behind King James.

Adrienne, the woman scientist who has been the driving force behind much of the innovation and destruction of the past decade, is in the court of the Tsar of Russia. She knows there are forces of the malakim aligned against humanity, but she owes so much to others of the malakim who claim obedience to her. She continues to search for her lost son, who would be twelve years old by the events of "Empire of Unreason". While she continues to search for her son, and evade her own enemies in Russia, there is a new force in America. A boy called the Sun King, who has come out of the West. He seems to be a prophet, and leads forces from China. But, he may also be Adrienne's son.

There is so much going on in "Empire of Unreason" that if one hasn't read the first two volumes of this series ("Newton's Cannon", and "A Calculus of Angels") the reader will be completely lost. This book suffers from the middle book syndrome in that it works to continue a story and set up a conclusion, but it cannot stand alone. The reader is thrust right into the story and has to play catch-up figuring out exactly how much time has passed since the second book in the series. While this is a "middle book", it is also a fast paced, exciting story. Greg Keyes no longer has to engage in world building, but can now give us an adventure story that drives to an ending. "Empire of Unreason" seemed to end in a hurry, and was a little confusing, but the "Age of Unreason" series is proving to be an excellent one in the fantasy genre, as well as being an alternate history. Keyes is a very good writer, and he is working with a very broad canvas here. Read the first two books, and then continue on with the series. It is worthwhile reading for the fantasy reader.

Monday, November 29, 2004

Movie Review: Alexander (2004)

A film by Oliver Stone

One of the most valuable lessons a young fiction writer must learn is "show, don't tell". What this means is that rather than handing the reader every point the author wants to get across, the writer should let the details come out naturally as a part of the story. To illustrate with examples what sort of a man the main character is, to show the reader and let the reader see for himself. With film being such a visual medium, this is not a problem that I expect to encounter very often when I go to the theatre. Unfortunately, this was a big problem with "Alexander".

"Alexander" is narrated by an aging Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins), a former warrior chief who was with Alexander (Colin Farrell) during his rise to glory. Ptolemy is teaching his students, explaining who Alexander was and the difference between myth and man and why even those who were there have a hard time telling the difference when they look back and remember. Ptolemy, with long stretches of narration, explains to the viewer what sort of upbringing Alexander had with his mother Olympius (Angelina Jolie) and King Philip (Val Kilmer), and what sort of man he grew up to be. We see how abusive Philip was to Olympius and how much she hated her husband. Olympius, from an early age was poisoning the mind of young Alexander against Philip and Philip knew it. That Olympius had a large influence on Alexander's life is stated in no uncertain terms. Then we are brought forward years later when Alexander is on campaign. We are told that he has become a bold warrior, and we see Alexander lead his men into battle. What we don't see his Alexander grow into a bold warrior. We don't see the events that shape Alexander into a man. We see Alexander as a youth talking about conquering to the East, which explains his campaigns against Persia and beyond.

"Alexander" lacks a strong thread of a narrative running through the film. Perhaps the story of Alexander the Great is too big to be told in a three hour movie, but what we are given is bits and pieces which flash forward and back in time and are introduced and narrated by Ptolemy. We are told the details of Alexander's life, and then we see the portion of the movie that follows up on that detail and that explanation. It is almost as if the theatre were a college classroom and every now and then Ptolemy pauses the movie to explain what has come before and what is about to come before letting the movie continue. Because of this what we see is really just episodes from the short life of Alexander the Great. We see Alexander's great love for his friend (and perhaps lover) Hephaistion (Jared Leto), and the trouble that his marriage to the barbarian Roxane (Rosario Dawson) caused amongst his men. But there is no narrative here. "Alexander" is a collection of scenes.

Another problem with "Alexander" is that Collin Farrell does not convey just how impressive a man Alexander must have been. To have done so much that was so unprecedented must have taken a force of will and a magnetic personality that Farrell just does not exude, not as Russell Crowe did in "Gladiator" and not as Mel Gibson did in "Braveheart." Farrell did well here, and he is a fine actor, but he doesn't exude the leadership that Alexander must have had and that Crowe and Gibson were able to in their movies.

By no means am I trying to suggest that "Alexander" is a waste of time. It isn't. It is a huge historical epic movie (and I like those) and it is beautiful to look at. Most of the actors give a fantastic, believable performance in their roles and Angelina Jolie is delightful in her over-the-top portrayal of Olympius. There is a campy feel to Olympius with her accent that honestly reminds me more of Natascha (from the Bullwinkle cartoon) than anything else, but the most fun "Alexander" has is when Jolie is onscreen. Honestly, "Alexander" is a bit of a mess with no actual story that it is trying to tell, but it is still an entertaining mess if the expectations are lowered appropriately. "Alexander" is not the Academy Award worthy movie that many had hoped, but there are worse ways to spend three hours.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Movie Review: Sideways (2004)

A film by Alexander Payne

"Sideways" is a road trip, a buddy movie, of sorts. Jack (Thomas Haden Church) is getting married in one week and his friend Miles (Paul Giamatti) is going to take Jack out for a week to have a good time. Miles is taking Jack on a wine tasting trip in California's wine country. It is one last "hurrah" before Jack gets hitched. They begin when Miles is late picking up Jack and they get an even later start when Miles decides they have to stop by and see his mother. They have dinner and spend the night, but the real reason is apparent when we see Miles steal nearly one thousand dollars from his mother's dresser. Apparently this will fund their trip. Finally, the next day they are on the road and ready to start tasting some wine.

Miles is somewhat of a depressed personality. He still broods somewhat over his divorce two years prior, and he was never a bubbly, upbeat personality. Jack is a good friend to Miles, and as a wedding present from the groom, Jack intends on making sure that Miles "gets some" on this trip. While Jack is earnestly trying to do what he views as being the best for Miles, he isn't entirely altruistic here. Jack wants one more fling with another woman (or two) before he gets married in a week.

Miles and Jack meet Maya (Virginia Madsen) and Stephanie (Sandra Oh). Jack and Stephanie hit it off right away and begin a very physical relationship. Miles and Maya discuss wine and some literature, and discuss more wine and Miles struggles to rise above his depression even though he is interested in Maya and Maya is clearly interested in him. All of these relationships and pairing up (perhaps even hooking up) is seen through the discussions of wine and the tasting of wine and the flat out drinking of wine. Wine works its way all through this movie and helps to explain so much of this movie. Too many obvious cliche and analogies comparing wine and "Sideways" easily come to mind, and while appropriate, they don't feel quite right to use (though the temptation to mention how this film will age like a fine wine is just too great).

There is a wonderful conversation between Miles and Maya where Miles is explaining why it is exactly that he is so obsessive about the pinot wine. He describes it to Maya, but it is obvious he is also talking about himself, and this is clear to Maya, as well. This is one of the best examples of how wine runs through this film and should there be Academy Award nominations for "Sideways" this scene may be one used on the telecast.

"Sideways" has this wonderful flow and pacing to it. Everything works so well and the wine analogy does not wear thin at all. Each of the four main actors work so well together that this movie could almost approach film perfect. The only problem is that the two male leads are not very sympathetic. They can be likeable at times, but Miles stole money from his mother like a punk kid, and Jack is looking to cheat on his fiance the week before his wedding and still intends on getting married. Alexander Payne does a great job telling this story and it is a very good movie, but these defining behaviors for Miles and Jack show them in a not very sympathetic light, that they may deserve whatever might happen to them. It almost becomes a moral quandary in praising the film and the story and the acting in what is essentially a "buddy" movie while at the same time not celebrating what it is that these men did and are. The reverse is true as well, in condemning what they do, I do not want to suggest that "Sideways" is of a lower quality in filmmaking. It isn't. "Sideways" is quite good. The characters aren't.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Movie Review: Police Academy 4 (1987)

A film by Jim Drake

The misfit police officers are back at it again. This time the officers are being asked to help with the new "Citizens on Patrol" program. This program allows regular citizens to help clean up the streets of the city and just like the first "Police Academy" movie, the new program attracts an assorted band of misfits which is characterized by a little old grandma (Billie Bird) who, like Tackleberry (David Graf) is obsessed with guns and weaponry. Hilarity is supposed to ensue as these new C.O.P.s (clever, huh?) try to bust real criminals and make citizens arrest while they bungle their way into real police work.

Hilarity does not really ensue, though it is better than "Police Academy 5: Project Miami Beach", but then the series is getting progressively worse. The style of comedy is much the same as the other "Police Academy" movies. It is slapstick, silly, bungling humor, and it works to an extent the first time you see the movie. It works especially well if the viewer is younger, around 10 years old or so. Any truly offensive scenes have been scrubbed out of this series (though the first movie was rated "R").

This fourth movie is notable for being the last of the "Police Academy" movies to feature Steve Guttenberg as Officer Carey Mahoney. Note the drop in quality when Guttenberg leaves only to replaced by the similar character Nick Lassard in P.A. 5. This movie also has a younger Sharon Stone and David Spade is supporting roles and a cameo appearance by a very young Tony Hawk. None of the "Police Academy" movies are all that good, except perhaps the first one, but by the time the fourth movie rolled around it was clearly time to stop. That's my recommendation: stop. If you have seen the first three, you have seen all the good parts and you are now just washing a less funny rehash of the earlier movies. It is nice to see Captain Harris (G.W. Bailey) back, but let's just let this series rest now.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Movie Review: Bad Boys II (2003)

A film by Michael Bay

I'm almost embarrassed to say that I was entertained by this movie. I did not like the original "Bad Boys" movie, and I have seldom enjoyed much of the work of director Michael Bay. Yet, "Bad Boys II" is full of such mindless action that the movie is more entertaining than it has any right to be.

Marcus (Martin Lawrence) and Mike (Will Smith) are undercover Miami cops who are once again going after a drug Kingpin. This time it is Johnny Tapia (Jordi Molla), a drug lord who has never been convicted despite having been brought to trial many times. "Bad Boys II" brings a change to the relationship between Marcus and Mike. They had been friends since high school and partners on the police force, but there is tension. Marcus seems frazzled, burnt out, and he blames Mike. Mike has a powerful, flashy personality and Marcus feels that Mike is always getting him into some sort of trouble. He plans on transferring to another department away from Mike, but doesn't know how to tell him. Mike, for his part, has been secretly dating Marcus's younger sister Syd (Gabrielle Union). They want to tell Marcus, but worry about his reaction.

The bulk of the movie deals with the investigation of Johnny Tapia and the attempts to finally bring him down. In the process there is a ridiculous amount of action, explosions, gunplay, chase sequences, and violence. It is all very stylish, fluid, and mindlessly fun. "Bad Boys II" is not a very good movie. It is dumb with a very implausible plot which only gets more and more implausible by the end of the movie, but "Bad Boys II" is fun. For a movie as implausible as this one is, it is still an enjoyable ride right up until the last twenty minutes or so when Michael Bay proves that even this movie can go too far in stretching the bounds of credibility. Up until that point I was into the ride the movie took me on, after that point "Bad Boys II" lost me.

This is a visually impressive and stylish action movie with no substance. If that sounds good for one Saturday night out with the guys, "Bad Boys II" is a good choice. It has its place and will certainly find fans among fans of the genre. It is often a funny movie, besides the action, and that helps.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Book Review: Generation Kill - Evan Wright

"Generation Kill" is the account of one particular platoon in the Marine's First Recon Battalion and their experience in the Second Gulf War. The First Recon Marines are among the first on the ground and typically are given reconnaissance missions (hence "Recon"). The invasion of Iraq was different. These soldiers are trained for a wide variety of missions except for the one they are being given: the first wave of an invasion. "Generation Kill" is exceptional war reporting, as good as anything else that has been published in decades.

Evan Wright is a reporter from Rolling Stone magazine. He was embedded with First Recon and was able to experience the war from the moment the Marines cross the border into Iraq from the fall of Saddam in Baghdad. Being with First Recon gives the reader a rare look at an elite fighting unit. A Marine has to be the best of the Marines to be able to make it into First Recon. Most who apply wash out. Evan Wright gives the reader the experience of combat and the invasion from the perspective of the Marines in First Recon. These are hard men, warriors. They are trained to fight, to engage the enemy, to kill. They are trained for a very different war than the one they are called to fight. First Recon is sent in to Iraq as an advance unit. They are sent to roll through ambushes so that the main force does not get ambushed. They are sent, at times, 20 miles or more away from any friendly force.

Through the eyes of the First Recon Marines we see what conditions they had to deal with. Their weapons jammed because they were not given enough lubricant to deal with the blowing sand. Squads were not able to communicate with each other because their radios were often set to different frequencies by the administration and support teams, with no warning. The missions were often not clear, and the Rules of Engagement (the rules which tell a soldier when he can and cannot fire his weapon) are constantly changing depending on the mission. There was often an unclear line between who was an enemy combatant and who was a civilian, which coupled with the fact that First Recon was sent so far in advance of the rest of the army that they were essentially isolated made for a very dangerous and edgy situation. As First Recon Marines, these young men in their early 20's were trained not to let the enemy get the first shot. The trouble here is that it is not clear who is the enemy until they take the first shot.

Wright shows us how the Marines live and how they talk and interact with each other. It is crude, vulgar, often funny, and eye opening to see the sacrifices these men are making to serve. In most cases they are not idealistic about the war they are fighting. They are soldiers and this is what they are trained to do. They have had "kill" drilled into them every day before deployment and combat is the opportunity to put their training into action.

The life of a soldier, not to mention a First Recon Marine, is one that is completely alien to any civilian. Nothing that we have or do even remotely compares to the lives they live and they work they do. "Generation Kill" shows us some of the best the Marines have to offer: Marines doing their job well and efficiently. "Generation Kill" also shows some of the worst of the war: poor commanders, civilians being killed, targeted, and degraded, and the wastefulness of war. One thing that this book shows about war is that there is no simple answer or description of what war is and how it is fought. There is good and bad. Morality and immorality. Heroism and cowardly acts. There is a sense of pride that comes out of "Generation Kill", but this is not even remotely any sort of military puff piece. "Generation Kill" is tough, but fair. It is one of the better first hand accounts of a military action that has come out in recent memory.

Movie Review: The Polar Express (2004)

A film by Robert Zemeckis

"The Polar Express" is based on a 29 page award winning children's book by Chris Van Allsburg. Robert Zemeckis obviously had to expand Van Allsburg's book, but he still begins with the first line of the book and ends with the last line. "The Polar Express" is animation like we have never seen before, using a movement capture technology which has advanced far beyond anything that has come before.

Hero Boy (Tom Hanks) has lost his faith in Christmas. He has told his sister that there is no Santa Claus, and while he still wants to believe that Santa Claus lives at the North Pole and delivers presents to all the good little boys and girls, he knows from his encyclopedia that the North Pole is barren with no life. He goes to sleep on Christmas Eve but is woken in the middle of the night by the sound of a train outside his window. He puts on his jacket and runs outside and sees a big train in the middle of the street with a Conductor (Tom Hanks) "all aboard!" The train, the Polar Express, is headed to the North Pole and Hero Boy is on the list of passengers. After a moment's hesitation, Hero Boy decides to take the trip.

All of the other kids on the train believe that they are truly going to the North Pole to see Santa Claus, but Hero Boy is not so sure. Despite the magic of a train pulling up to his house in the middle of the night taking him on a wonderous trip, he doesn't believe. He does befriend Hero Girl (Nona Gaye), however, and after losing her ticket by mistake, Hero Boy has a small adventure on the train trying to find the ticket and then trying to find Hero Girl.

Much of "The Polar Express" takes place on the train until it reaches the North Pole, so the scope of the adventure is small. But, this is a very visual movie and anytime the movie takes a peek outside the windows of the train it is absolutely stunning. The animation looks more than real. Everything is extra sharp and beautiful. The only trouble is with the human characters. While these are perhaps the best animated human characters (better than "Final Fantasy"), they still look a little bit creepy in the face. They move well, but their faces are not exceptionally expressive and look a bit dead at times. While the partial creepiness lasts throughout the movie, it takes a backseat to the physical beauty of the animation and the enjoyment of the movie.

The voice talent in "The Polar Express" all does a very good job. Tom Hanks, who performs as Hero Boy, The Conductor, The Hobo, Santa Claus, the Father, and Scrooge is excellent as always. Nona Gaye is perfect in her role as Hero Girl and I would suggest that she is really the backbone of the movie. We also get to see Peter Scolari (better known as the guy from "Bosom Buddies" who didn't become famous) as the Lonely Boy.

"The Polar Express" has the potential to be a perennial holiday favorite for years to come. There is a sweetness and a sadness in this story of a child that is sure to resonate with viewers. This story gets lost at times in the long, though fun, train voyage to the North Pole. This movie would, perhaps, be better suited to a shorter television special (though I can't imagine any television producer paying the money to make this movie for tv), but it works in the theatre.

By no means is this a perfect movie, and far too much attention will be paid to how much "The Polar Express" cost to make (though it will lead to further innovation and cheaper techniques for other movies to use), but this is a nice, sweet holiday movie. It is about the spirit of Christmas and holding onto that "magic" that is the belief of a child.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Book Review: Jedi Healer (Star Wars) - Michael Reaves and Steve Perry

"Jedi Healer" is the second and concluding volume in the "Medstar" duology. It continues the story of the surgeons we met in "Battle Surgeons". They remain on the planet Drongar working in the Star Wars version of a M.A.S.H. unit. One particular storyline continues from the first book, and that is the fact that there is a spy working on Drongar against the Republic. This spy is a double-agent in that he (or she) is working both for the Separatists (the group led by Count Dooku) and also for the Black Sun criminal organization. Since the goal is the same for both groups, at the moment, there is no conflict. There is, however, double the risk for the spy. It is never said who the spy is, or what gender, so there has been some guessing games going on since "Battle Surgeons". With the only true export from Drongar being the fragile miracle drug, "Bota", the spy is finding ways to divert bota from the Republic.

Along with the spy portion of the story is the main story of the surgeons. They live their lives, do their jobs, try to cope with life on the incredibly hot and muggy Drongar, and question why they are doing what they are doing. To go along with the cast of characters from the first book (Jos Vandar, Tolk, Jedi Apprentice Barriss Offee, I-Five) we are introduced to the young surgeon Uli Divini, who is taking the place of the killed surgeon Zan Yant. Uli is very confident, very skilled, and very untested. Jos questions whether Uli will be able to handle the work, though it is quickly evident that he can. There are two conflicts in this book. The first is in the new relationship of Jos and Tolk. It is a relationship which is forbidden by their culture. The second is figuring out who the spy is before the spy can cause any more damage.

As far as Star Wars stories go, I enjoyed the Medstar books more than most. Reaves and Perry have created a very interesting story here and a satisfying conclusion. Granted, I would have been slightly more satisfied if the spy was the other person, but we can't have it all. "Battle Surgeons" is a slightly better book because there was more of a M.A.S.H. feel to it, but there is much to like here. Anytime Barriss Offee is on the page is a good scene. She is one of the most interesting characters and the fact that she is a Jedi in training dealing with the potential for a drug addiction was a great idea, if underused. There was less M.A.S.H. stuff here, but the interactions with I-Five (the droid) more than make up for it. This book features, of all things, a quest to get I-Five drunk. Classic.

While this is a prequel novel featuring mostly on characters which were not in the movies, this Clone Wars novel helps to provide a feel (along with "Battle Surgeons") of just how the Clone Wars affected nearly everyone in the galaxy in some way. While there are no grand space battles, this, is like a battle to secure one meaningless hill in WWII. The battle must be fought because the other side wants the hill (though Bota is far more valuable than a hill), but in the larger picture, the hill doesn't really mean that much. The opportunity to see the surgeons again is more than worth the price of having a book set around that meaningless hill.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Movie Review: Girl with a Pearl Earring (2003)

A film by Peter Webber

Have you ever looked at a painting and wondered who sat for the portrait and what her story may be? Or what the inspiration behind a particular painting was? Tracy Chevalier apparently has because four of her novels have dealt with this very idea. Her most popular novel was "Girl with a Pearl Earring", which looks into one possible origin for the famous Vermeer painting of the same name. Peter Webber's 2003 film "Girl with a Pearl Earring" is an adaptation of Chevalier's bestselling novel.

Griet (Scarlet Johansson) is a young Dutch girl living in the 1600's. Her family is poor, so she is hired as a maid in the household of the painter, Johannes Vermeer (Colin Firth). This is a very big opportunity for her, though she is viewed with suspicion by Vermeer's wife because he has been indiscreet with the maids in the past. Griet is a quiet girl and is assigned the basic drudge work of cleaning. When she is cleaning Vermeer's studio, being careful not to move anything, Master Vermeer notices her, permits her to continue to work while he is around, and eventually permits Griet to help him. Helping Vermeer means, at various times, mixing paint and posing for portraits to be used as a guide to help Vermeer paint. From this develops a bond between Griet and Vermeer (or perhaps it happens because of the bond), and Griet ultimately becomes the subject of Vermeer's famous and somewhat mysterious painting.

"Girl with a Pearl Earring" can almost be described as a silent film. Griet has very little dialogue, but Scarlet Johansson is able to portray Griet so well that she is a compelling character even without dialogue. Johansson's acting is such that without speaking we are being told a story and being given characterization. Besides Johansson's work, the other main point of note is simply how beautiful this movie is. To make an overly obvious comparison, it is like a painting. This makes sense since the movie is about a particular painting as well as being partly inside the world of Vermeer and art. To be honest, little needs to be said during "Girl with a Pearl Earring" and the film does not suffer for it.

Given Vermeer's past history with the family's maids, and given Griet's beauty (she is pursued also by the butcher's son as well as Vermeer's patron); there is a suspicion of impropriety between Griet and Vermeer. The movie suggests that there might be more to the relationship, and the household believes it, but there is certainly a level of attraction between Griet and Vermeer. It is very understated, but with looks and visual suggestion and maybe even the lack of dialogue helps foster this impression.

Scarlet Johansson was nominated for two Golden Globes in 2003 for her work in "Lost in Translation" and "Girl with a Pearl Earring". Many feel that "Lost in Translation" was her stronger work and that she had deserved to be nominated for an Academy Award. I agree that she should have been nominated, but for "Girl with a Pearl Earring". Here she is being asked to carry the movie with very little dialogue. This film, outside of some critical attention, has been very overlooked. The quiet nature of "Girl with a Pearl Earring" may be off-putting to some, but this is a very good movie and one well worth the time for those with the patience (or interest) to give it a shot.

Movie Review: Fahrenhype 9/11 (2004)

A film by Alan Peterson

"Fahrenhype 9/11" is the Conservative Answer to Michael Moore's incredibly successful "Fahrenheit 9/11." Michael Moore's film heavily criticized the Bush administration for going to war in Iraq, and also linked ties between the Bush family, the Saudis, and even the Bin Laden family. Moore has been criticized in the past for playing a little bit loose with some of his facts, even though he has defended himself and claims to have worked with a team of lawyers to make sure that everything he states in his film is accurate. The makers of "Fahrenhype 9/11" question this accuracy and Moore's honesty. Referring to Moore's film, HYPE has a tagline of "You knew it was a you'll know why."

While not a line by line dissection of "Fahrenheit", HYPE does discuss some of the major points of Michael Moore's film. In particular, HYPE questions the validity of Moore's claims about the election recounts in Florida 2000, the ties between the Bush Family and the Bin Laden Family via the Carlyle Group, the supposed Afghan pipeline for oil, and the true reasons for going to war in Iraq. All of this is tied together in the shadow of the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01. The people who are interviewed for this film shows the slant/bias of HYPE: Ann Coulter (a very outspoken conservative commentator), Zell Miller (the firebrand Democratic Senator who spoke at the Republican National Convention), Dave Kopel (very anti-Michael Moore), the authors of "Michael Moore is a Big Fat Stupid White Man", actor Ron Silver, and Dick Morris. This is not to say that Michael Moore is without bias, because he clearly has one (or that any documentary is without bias, because they all are), but this is just to show the Conservative Bias of the HYPE. The arguments HYPE makes against "Fahrenheit" seem reasonable and well spoken, even from Coulter.

The problem with this film is the same problem Michael Moore faces. Each side claims to have backed up their work with facts and documents. Obviously, somebody is wrong. The problem is that being wrong can either be a flat out lie or being mistaken. But there can also be an honest interpretation of facts which go against what another side believes. HYPE is an important film to view as a counterpoint to "Fahrenheit". I can't say if it is any more or less factual than Michael Moore's film is, but it is less interesting and entertaining than "Fahrenheit 9/11". It may turn out that HYPE is more factual, and that it does, in fact, disprove much from "Fahrenheit", but HYPE is amuch less compelling FILM than "Fahrenheit."

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Book Review: Rebel Dawn (Star Wars) - A. C. Crispin

"Rebel Dawn" is the concluding volume in A.C. Crispin's Han Solo Trilogy. It begins not long after "The Hutt Gambit". This novel spans a period of several years (approximately 5, I believe) and leads right into Han Solo's first appearance in "Star Wars: A New Hope". Unlike the previous two Han Solo novels by Ann Crispin, "Rebel Dawn" spreads its focus between Han Solo, the Hutts, Lando Calrissian, and Han's former love and now rebel leader Bria. While this slows down the pace of the action, it also adds a level of depth and complexity not often found in a Star Wars novel.

There is a lot going on in "Rebel Dawn". Shortly after the novel begins we get to see the famous scene where Han Solo wins the Millenium Falcon from Lando Calrissian in a game of sabacc. From here we move on to Bria Tharen trying to convince the future leaders of the Rebel Alliance that they should all unify and fight the Empire together. At the time of this novel there were small pockets of resistance and many who disagreed with the Empire, but nothing was organized. In "Rebel Dawn" we can see the Alliance begin to take shape. From Bria's efforts we move to intrigue between the Hutts. Jabba and Jiliac are engaged in Hutt clan warfare against Durga the Hutt (and his clan). This section, which takes up a fairly large chunk of novel, is surprisingly interesting. There is much more depth to the Hutts than we get from the movies or even the other novels. Their culture is much deeper than throwaway lines calling Jabba a "gangster". Hutts are that, and more. Besides this, we also visit Kashyyyk, the Wookiee homeworld and see Chewbacca married. For the first time (that I am aware of) we get to experience the domestic life of the Wookiees. Fairly interesting. If all this wasn't enough, the book is about Han Solo after all. Han has much to do here, from traveling with Chewie, gambling, making the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs, reuniting with Bria, becoming involved in the actions of the Rebellion, and much more. "Rebel Dawn. is a very full book.

This is the conclusion to one of the strongest series in the Star Wars universe. The writing is top notch, entertaining, informative (for the Star Wars fan), and simply fun. It is everything that a Star Wars novel should be. This book even leaves room for the Han Solo Adventures which are written by Brian Daley by giving brief glimpses of Han's exploits in the Corporate Sector. This trilogy (and this book in particular) is far superior to Daley's trilogy, and is perhaps the definitive Han Solo story. We get nearly his entire life without getting too bogged down in every single smuggling run and adventure he has been on. Crispin spins a very good story here, and one which is worth reading for the Star Wars fan. This book (and trilogy) gives us everything we need to know about Han Solo and why he is the way he is in Episode Four.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Movie Review: The Incredibles (2004)

A film by Brad Bird

Pixar's sixth animated feature is something of a departure for the company. It marks the first time they have brought in outside talent to direct a feature (Brad Bird, director of "The Iron Giant"). It marks the first time a Pixar film has been rated PG instead of G. It also is the first time a Pixar film is completely about human characters. Previously the humans in Pixar movies have been kept in supporting roles with the most prominent one being Boo in "Monsters Inc". This time around, the humans are everywhere, so this was a new test of Pixar's talent. Time will tell, but "The Incredibles" may just be Pixar's best movie.

Imagine a world where there are superheroes battling to save the day. They fight because they have superpowers and this is their job. Mr. Incredible (Craig T Nelson) is the best, and most famous, of all the superheroes. But when he is sued for saving the life of a man who didn't want to be saved, the floodgates of lawsuits opened up and the country decided that there is no need to have any more superheroes. All superheroes are placed into the "Superhero Relocation Program", are granted amnesty for their past deeds, and now work regular, normal jobs. Mr. Incredible and his wife Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) are now simply Bob and Helen Parr. They have two children, Violet (NPR's Sarah Vowell) and Dash (Spencer Fox) who have superpowers but are not permitted to use them in public. Bob Parr works in insurance while Helen is a stay at home mother. Their lives are mundane, but Bob cannot quite let go of the past. He goes out on Wednesday nights for "bowling night". But bowling night consists of him and his former superhero friend Frozone (Samuel L Jackson), think "Iceman", sitting in a parked car listening to the police scanner talking about the old days and waiting for a chance to illegally help someone.

Bob Parr is contacted by Mirage (Elizabeth Pena), a superhero still doing superwork and she has a job for Mr. Incredible, if he is willing. Dissatisfied with his life, Mr. Incredible comes out of retirement, but he doesn't tell his wife. Suddenly he is making three times the money he was in insurance (before being fired from that job) and he has motivation to get back into shape. Elastigirl suspects an affair, but it isn't long before Mr Incredible has disappeared, captured by super villain Syndrome (Jason Lee) who has had a long standing grudge with Mr. Incredible ever since he was a child. Elastigirl, along with her children who secretly come along, have to rescue Mr. Incredible.

This is a Pixar movie, so all of this is animated and since it is a Pixar movie, "The Icredibles" pushes the boundaries of what was thought possible in animation. Simply put: this is a beautiful movie. There is an exaggerated level of realism, but everything flows and moves perfectly. This is, in part, a children's movie so "The Incredibles" is a lot of fun to watch. There is fast paced action which will thrill the kids. The movie is funny and flashy and bright. At times it looks just like a Saturday morning cartoon, but if so, it is the best Saturday morning cartoon you are likely to ever see. There is so much for adults in this movie to enjoy. From the clever dialogue and discussion of superheroes and super-villains to jokes that will go over the head of children, "The Incredibles" has something for everyone. There is action, comedy, adventure, fun, thrills, suspense, and danger. The Pixar name (not to mention Brad Bird) has long been one for quality and Pixar does not disappoint with "The Incredibles". This is easily one of the best movies of the year.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

The Update for George R. R. Martin and A Feast for Crows

My #1 Anticipated Book is George Martin's A Feast For Crows, book 4 in his incredible fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire. The first three books are some of the best fantasy novels ever written and the series as a whole is shaping up to be the absolute best (assuming quality holds up and Martin can finish it). The release date has been announced by Amazon (they made it up) and pushed back. The bottom line is that Martin is not finished with the book and until then, any release date is pure conjecture and probably wrong. I'd rather wait for Martin to be happy with the book and for it to be as good as it can be, but i'm impatient.

Periodically on his website, George Martin posts an update on his progress (as well as sample chapters, which is nice). There is a new update on his website, dated November 3, 2004. All of the following text is written by George Martin and is found on his website which is linked above. There is a banner in black which says "Mourning for America".

I write this the day after the presidential election.

A FEAST FOR CROWS is still not finished. Yes, I have written some more pages since the June update. No, the book is not yet done. My August and September schedule was full of conventions, travel, and speaking appearances, which cut deeply into my writing time during those months. Yes, I could have made more progress on the book if I had stayed at home chained to the desk, but I make these commitments years in advance and I take them very seriously.

Also, some of the writing that I have done since June has actually been rewriting. My goal, as I have said repeatedly in these updates, has always been to produce a book that is a good as it can be, so when I suddenly realize that one of my story threads can be made much more powerful and dramatic with some restructuring, I restructure... even if that means going back, tearing up finished chapters, and reworking them from start to finish.

That's done, anyway. A FEAST FOR CROWS will be much better for it, and now I am back at work on new chapters once again... although not today, and maybe not tomorrow, or next week. I am pretty good with words, usually, but no words can express how miserable, angry, and depressed I am feeling this morning over the results of yesterday's election. The exit polling makes it clear: this was a victory for bigotry and fear, a mandate bought with lies. I know from past experience that it is going to take me some time to shake off this depression.

Losing myself in the world of Westeros would probably be the best medicine for what ails me just now, I know full well. There is solace in work, and books -- my own books, and those of others -- have always been a refuge for me during dark times in my life. Today, however, the {fictional} travails of my {fictional} Seven Kingdoms seem pretty unimportant compared to the very real woes that the United States is facing, a future of war and isolation abroad, and division and repression at home.

Winter is coming to Westeros, but it has already come to America.

—George R.R. Martin, November 3, 2004

Source: George R. R. Martin at

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Book Review: Wedge's Gamble (Star Wars)- Michael Stackpole

"Wedge's Gamble" is the second novel in the nine part X-Wing series set as part of the Star Wars Expanded Universe. It is set just after the first book, "Rogue Squadron" which began approximately two years after the events of "Return of the Jedi". Michael Stackpole had a lot to live up to with "Rogue Squadron" and he does an admirable job here and continues the X-Wing story.

With the military successes of Rogue Squadron in the first book, the leadership of the Alliance feels that it is now time to make a strike on the heart of the Empire itself, Coruscant. To do so, the rebels need some intelligence on Coruscant so they will be able to strike and pass through the planet's defenses and still be able to defend the planet should they prove successful. Thus begins a different sort of mission for the Rogues. The Rogues are sent undercover on Coruscant to gather intelligence and also to set up for the invasion force. Meanwhile the ruler on Corsuscant, Ysanne Isard, is setting a nasty trap for the Alliance. She is having her scientists work on a very deadly, and very contagious virus that acts similar to what we know as Ebola. The trick here is that this virus will only be effective on non-humans, which is a major backbone of the Alliance. Isard knows she can't hold Coruscant, but she wants to leave a surprise that may very well destroy the Alliance's ability to function. Nasty, indeed.

As in "Rogue Squadron", we still get exciting space battles, and the comraderie of the Rogues. Corran Horn, still the lead character, is becoming torn between two women: one is a Rogue, the other is a pirate. The romance angle here is told extremely well and should not put off the core fanbase of the series (younger males). We are introduced to an additional angle of intrigue, both with Isard and the Empire as well as a potential traitor in the midst of the Rogues. Stackpole is continuing a Star Wars series that is shaping up to be one of the best things in the Star Wars Universe. A Star Wars fan should start with "Rogue Squadron", but there is no need to stop there. There is great action and an interesting storyline.

New Hannibal Lecter novel

Next year author Thomas Harris (Red Dragon, Silence of the Lambs)will publish Behind the Mask, a new novel featuing Hannibal Lecter. While I've only read the previous two novels I have listed (and not "Hannibal"), this sounds like good news. Those two books were very, very good. I can't speak for the quality of "Hannibal", but Harris is an author who interests me. He also wrote "Black Sunday".


Book Review: Shutter Island - Dennis Lehane

If you have never read any of his novels but have heard of Dennis Lehane, it is probably because he is the author of "Mystic River", which was made into an Oscar winning film by Clint Eastwood. Knowing that he wrote that novel, which was made into such a fine movie made me want to read something else that he has written. "Shutter Island" is his most recent novel, published in 2003. I must confess that "Shutter Island" blew me away. Lehane is immensely talented.

In the summer of 1954 U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels and his new partner Chuck Aule come to Ashecliffe Hospital on Shutter Island to investigate the escape of an inmate/patient. This hospital is for the criminally insane, and the two Marshals are searching for Rachel Solando, a convicted murderer guilty of killing her three children. When Aule and Daniels begin investigating the escape it is readily apparent that nothing is as it seems. Rachel Solando was barefoot when she escaped and yet made it out of a locked room, down a guarded hallway, and outside the compound on an island comprised of swampland and a rocky cliff. How could this have happened? Why is the hospital administration so secretive? Are there secret government experiments being performed on the patients?

"Shutter Island" is filled with questions and the story becomes more and more compelling as it moves along. The story is told with sharp, realistic dialogue and it is not long before the reader questions exactly what is happening, except that the confusion is so beautiful and engrossing that you have to keep reading to see how this will all play out. Lehane keeps throwing twists on the reader, but he does so in a realistic way that is very consistent with the story. It wasn't until I had reached the end and the reality of "Shutter Island" was revealed that I realized just how important the beginning of this novel is and just how well crafted a story "Shutter Island" is. Lehane connects all the pieces of the story together so that everything makes sense by the end. The ending, while a surprise, doesn't come out of left field. Lehane leads to it, builds up to it.

"Shutter Island" was one of the best novels that I have read this year, and was so good that I want to read everything else that he has written. Some novels are just that good, and this is one of them. Give it a try.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Book Review: The Lando Calrissian Adventures (Star Wars) - L. Neil Smith

"The Lando Calrissian Adventures" is a three-in-one novel. It contains three Star Wars novels featuring Lando Calrissian as a younger man, before the events of "Star Wars: A New Hope". These three novels are the only place (other than the early Han Solo novels) that we get a sense of who Lando Calrissian is, and how he came to be the man we see in "The Empire Strikes Back". We get his history here, and some very strange adventures. Lando's adventures in these novels are perhaps the strangest that I have read about in any Star Wars novel, so much so that if the book didn't have the Star Wars logo on the front cover, I wouldn't be sure that it is the same galaxy.

The first novel in this collection is "Lando Calrissian and the Mindharp of Sharu". Lando has only recently acquired the Millenium Falcon, and wins in yet another game of sabacc a droid. The only catch is that Lando has to acquire this droid from a nearby planet. Shortly after arriving Lando is arrested on false charges and is given the option by the governor and an evil sorcerer to either suffer death/lengthy imprisonment, or to locate a mysterious treasure of the lost race of the Sharu. Lando and his new droid, Vuffi Raa, begin their quest to find the mindharp of the lost Sharu, whatever that may be.

This novel is followed by "Lando Calrissian and the Flamewind of Oseon". Lando was very wealthy following the events of "Mindharp", but poor business dealings and paying bribes has left him with little more than his ship. Being the gambler that he is (it really is his occupation), Lando begins to win back his money on the sabacc table, but he also has to deal with the fact that someone is trying to assassinate him. Being forced to kill a man to defend himself, Lando finds himself back in jail and once again recruited for a crazy mission in exchange for freedom. This time he must navigate the Oseon system during the Flamewind season (think of really nasty solar flares that can seriously mess things up) to work with the police on a sting operation. Rokur Gepta, the Sorcerer from "Mindharp" makes another appearance, this time with a vendetta against Lando because of how things went during "Mindharp".

The final novel in this collection is "Lando Calrissian and the Starcave of ThonBoka". This time around Lando discovers a creature in distress called an Oswaft. The Oswaft is a creature that is able to live in the airless outer space, and physically able to make a hyperspace jump. When the Empire learns about these creatures, fearing what they don't know the Empire moves to destroy them. Rokur Geptra makes another appearance, still hunting Lando and working against the Oswaft with his sorcerer's magic. "Starcave" fully explains the origins of the strange robot Vuffi Raa, and of course features more of Lando playing sabacc.

To be honest, these novels are not very good. They might be somewhat better had they not been set in the Star Wars Universe because they don't seem to really fit in with what we know of Star Wars from the movies or from the other novels. They explain Lando fairly well, but L Neil Smith's stories are fairly weak. They are easy reading, and filled with humor, but the level of quality is fairly low. The one exception is Vuffi Raa. This is a fascinating droid and one which I hope appears in future Star Wars novels. Hopefully this isn't out of the question. I cannot recommend this collection, though i'm sure Star Wars completists will need to read this book. For a better look at a younger Lando, read A.C. Crispin's Han Solo books. Lando makes cameo appearances in Crispin's novels and she does a better job telling a good story.

Book Review: Rogue Squadron (Star Wars) - Michael Stackpole

"Rogue Squadron" is the first book (of 9) in the X-Wing series set in the Star Wars universe. The Rogue Squadron is legendary. Responsible for the destruction of both Death Stars, as well as being one of the primary defense forces on Hoth, the Rogue Squadron is given the toughest missions and has the highest death rate in the entire Rebel Alliance. Commander Wedge Antilles has been given a new mission for his Rogue Squadron, straight from Admiral Ackbar and the leadership of the Alliance: assemble the best of the best pilots and reform Rogue Squadron to tackle the highest profile, most difficult missions and try and end this war against the Empire.

Emperor Palpatine might be two years dead by the start of "Rogue Squadron", but the Empire is vast and top Empire officials have taken hold of the Empire (even as it splinters apart). Some planets may not even know of his death, yet. It was a major victory, but the war still rages on. Ysanne Isard, the head of Imperial Intelligence runs the Empire in everything but name. Nicknamed "Iceheart", she is exactly that. Isard is cold, ruthless, and subtle in her actions: a true intelligence officer. She continues to hunt the Alliance, and in particular, the symbol that is Rogue Squadron.

The primary protagonist of "Rogue Squadron" is the Correllian Corran Horn, a former member of the Correllian Security (CorSec). He is one of the best in Rogue Squadron, which makes him one of the elite pilots in the galaxy. Corran Horn, while a great pilot and an asset to the Alliance, is also a hunted man. Kirtan Loor, an underling of Isard and a man with a grudge against Horn, is put in charge of the mission to destroy Rogue Squadron and protect the Empire.

Being a novel about an X-Wing fighter squadron, "Rogue Squadron" is filled with space battles and dog fights and is action packed. This is a fast paced Star Wars novel and is one of the better ones that I have read. Being set after "Return of the Jedi" means that we don't know how the story is going to play out or what the future is for the Alliance (every prequel novel has to fit itself into the known events of the movies). This frees the story up a bit, and with a novel built around characters who were not even in the films (except for minor characters like Wedge), there is a sense of freedom here. It helps that Michael Stackpole is able to tell an entertaining story that also serves to build the overreaching plotline of the X-Wing series. For a reader looking to discover what happens after "Return of the Jedi", "Rogue Squadron" is the perfect place to begin.

Monday, November 01, 2004

Movie Review: Winged Migration (2001)

A film by Jacques Perrin

What we have here is a documentary about birds in flight. This is a simplistic description, but an accurate one. This documentary film follows the life of migratory birds from the beginning of their flight all the way through to the end, which is really just the return to where they started. What makes "Winged Migration" different, interesting, and beautiful is the level of video photography in the film. I have no idea how it was done (I didn't watch any of the bonus features on the DVD), but the camera was right next to the birds in flight, so the viewer has the closest approximation of being in flight as is possible while watching a movie. The close ups of the birds in flight are absolutely amazing.

Visually, "Winged Migration" is a stunning film. The narration, however, is very brief so we are left with mostly just the images of the birds. An example of the narration is these sentences, "For many birds in Europe the journey's end is Africa. But many will fall by the wayside." These two sentences comprised the entire narration for at least a ten to fifteen minute sequence. Narration is hardly needed for this film to be captivating. We see the hazards of migration: the weather, natural predators, hunters, farmers, and the environmental impact of man. We see incredibly beautiful landscapes from a bird's eye view (in this case, literally).

"Winged Migration" is a visual film. This is the appeal of it. It is really the best National Geographic film that has ever been made, except that it wasn't made by the good people at National Geographic. But, that is the style of "Winged Migration". Knowing what style of documentary this is should help you decide if this is a movie you want to see. It is visually stunning, but there is very little narration. You are watching birds in flight. I thought it was beautiful.

Friday, October 29, 2004

Book Review: Shadows of the Empire (Star Wars) - Steve Perry

"Shadows of the Empire" is a novel that bridges the gap between the events of "The Empire Strikes Back" and the opening of "Return of the Jedi". Han Solo has been frozen in carbonite and is being transported by the bounty hunter Boba Fett. Luke, Leia, and Lando Calrissian are following Fett in the Millenium Falcon with the hopes of rescuing their friend before he ends up in the hands of the gangster Jabba the Hutt. There is quite a bit more going on in "Shadows of the Empire" than just rescuing Han Solo (besides, we know from Jedi that Han will be delivered to Jabba's palace).

Prince Xizor is the head of the Black Sun criminal organization. Think of an extremely powerful and global mafia, expand it to a galactic scale, and that is Black Sun. Xizor is positioning himself as the top leader under Emperor Palpatine and directly in opposition to Darth Vader. This is something that cannot be done directly, because to openly oppose the favorite of Palpatine is a death sentence. Xizor discovers that Vader is instructed to bring Luke Skywalker to Palpatine, and after finding out that Skywalker is Vader's son, Xizor puts a death mark on Luke. If Vader fails to bring in Luke, and Xizor is not implicated, Xizor will rise in the favor of Emperor Palpatine. It is a fine line Xizor walks, but what else can be expected from the leader of Black Sun?

Leia becomes aware of the threat to Luke's life, and she works to save him (even without him knowing). She begins to contact Black Sun, always a risky venture, to learn what is happening and why. This brings Leia and the other Star Wars regulars (Chewie, Lando, the droids) to Coruscant and the heart of Black Sun.

Steve Perry has written a very good Star Wars novel. It ties in to the films, gives explanations for events in "Return of the Jedi" (ever wonder exactly why Leia is dressed as a bounty hunter?), and tells a compelling story in its own right. Xizor's plotting against Darth Vader is fascinating. This is old school Star Wars in the model (and era) of the Original Trilogy, and if that interests you this is the book to read.

Book Review: Mesmerized - Gayle Lynds

Beth Convey is a hard nosed, high powered Washington D.C. lawyer working on a divorce case for a multi-million dollar client. She is tough, and she is good. In the middle of the very stressful trial, just as she made a play that will win the divorce settlement she is aiming for, Beth Convey suffers a heart attack and collapses in the court room. To save her life, Beth Convey needs a heart transplant. She is fortunate enough to receive one, but this is the beginning of her troubles.

Upon receiving the heart transplant Beth begins to dream. She dreams she is a Russian and she dreams that she has been involved in some criminal activity. More than this, she is starting to crave Russian foods and Russian drinks, but is also starting to remember things that she never knew. She is suddenly familiar with weaponry and discovers a new affinity for martial arts. It is as if Beth Convey is remembering another life. Perhaps she is remembering the life of the original owner of her new heart. She is determined to find out.

Jeffrey Hammond is a former FBI Agent, but is now a reporter for the Washington Post. He is tracking and investigating former KGB spies in America. This may not be on the up and up, however. His former partner, Eli Kirkhart, believes that Hammond may be the mole (or have contact with the mole) in the FBI giving out state secrets. The lives of Convey, Hammond, and Kirkhart will all intertwine in "Mesmerized", the espionage thriller from Gayle Lynds.

Gayle Lynds writes a different kind of spy novel. In a traditionally male dominated field filled with authors and James Bond like male characters, Lynds gives a non-traditional look at the spy novel. To start with, Lynds gives us a strong female protagonist who is just as capable as any of her male counterparts. Having a female lead in a spy novel gives any story a completely different perspective. To top it off, Lynds tells a good story. There may be a cliche or two, but most genre novels have more than a couple. Gayle Lynds is a good story teller and works a fast paced thriller like a master. "Mesmerized" is just as good as her two Liz Sansborough novels, and is a welcome addition to the genre. This is one of her earlier works, so it is a little bit rougher around the edges than "The Coil", but if you are a fan of Robert Ludlum and spy novels, Gayle Lynds is a name to watch,