Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Dead on Target - Franklin W Dixon: A Review

"Dead on Target" was the beginning of a new era for the Hardy Boys. This is the first volume of the new (in 1991) series "The Hardy Boys Casefiles", and it is a more adult and action packed series than the original series. This is never more evident than the first two pages of the book. Whereas the original series (started in 1927 and it is still running today) would have various plots by criminals, nobody ever seemed to get killed or nothing too serious would ever happen, but "Dead on Target" opens with the killing of Joe Hardy's girlfriend (and sister of good friend Chet) Iola Morton. For a series that has been known for its lack of actual murders of any on screen character, this was a shocking and explosive (no pun intended as it was by a bomb that killed Iola) moment. It marked the different direction that the Casefiles would take the reader, as well as the Hardys, on.

A car bomb was the cause of death for Iola Morton. Frank and Joe, as well as Iola and Frank's girlfriend Callie Shaw, were at the mall preparing for a political rally. Iola ends up returning to the Hardys' car to pick up more campaign materials when it explodes, killing her. Joe blames himself because his flirting with another girl made Iola mad and this is what led her to be at the car by herself. At the funeral, "Dead on Target" takes another twist by introducing the character of The Grey Man. The Grey Man is a member of a secret government organization called "The Network". "The Network" believes that an international group of terrorists, "The Assassins", were responsible for Iola's death and are planning something big for the political rally the following week.

The rest of the novel finds Frank and Joe traveling to London, fighting several members of the Assassins, being in the midst of gun battles and defusing a bomb. "Dead on Target" is fast paced with a tighter story than what is found through most of the original series. For fans of the Hardy Boys, "Dead on Target" is likely to be a favorite. It is not for the purists of the series, though. This book takes the brothers down a different timeline than we find in the main series. Since the main series continued to be published at the same time as the Casefiles, these books (Casefiles) are either set at a later date than the continuing series or is part of some alternative timeline since Iola is still alive in the main series.

"Dead on Target" has more violence than the "classic" Hardy Boys, but this is a very interesting story, even if it is a bit far fetched. For the first time, terrorism and murder have been introduced to Bayport and the Casefiles bring the reader a new style of story with the Hardys. As an introduction to the Casefiles as well as a new episode in the lives of the Hardys, this is a good place to start. Fifteen years after first reading this book it remains a fun read.

Monday, August 30, 2004

The Passion of the Clerks?

Seriously? It's not even listed in the IMDB, but writer/director is starting work on a sequel to Clerks. On one hand i think this is awesome as i loved that movie and loved the characters, but on the other...really? Is it necessary? Smith had long said that other than a planned animated Clerks movie (an idea which i love), he is done with the Jay and Silent Bob characters and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back was to be their swan song, the last time we got to see a 40 year old fat man in a trench coat (as Smith once said). Great characters, but it had seemed that their time had passed.

I love Kevin Smith's work, even the underrated Jersey Girl, but i don't know about this.

But i'll still see The Passion of the Clerks. It is written and directed by Kevin Smith, after all.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment (1985): A Review

A film by Jerry Paris

"Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment" is the first of six sequels to 1984's "Police Academy". The screwball recruits have graduated from the Academy and are now ready for their first assignment as full fledged police officers. With the city in the midst of a crime wave, the rookie officers are assigned to the city's worst police precinct. The Captain in charge of the precinct just happens to be Pete Lassard (Howard Hesseman), the brother of the Commandant of the Police Academy, Eric Lassard (George Gaynes). Pete asks his brother for a dozen good men. Eric gives him six, all of which are the screwball recruits from the first movie. Pete Lassard is given thirty days to turn his precinct around or he'll be out of a job.

In charge of the rookies is Lt Mauser (Art Metrano), an obvious replacement for the Harris (G.W. Bailey) character. Mauser sets himself up in opposition to both the rookies as well as Pete Lassard. Mauser is gunning for Lassard's job. Each of the rookies are given a partner to train with and learn the ropes. Strangely enough, each training partner seems to bungle their job as much as the rookies. Returning for this movie are Mahoney (Steve Guttenberg), Hightower (Bubba Smith), Tackleberry (David Graf), Hooks (Marion Ramsey), Fackler (Bruce Mahler), and Jones (Michael Winslow). This movie (and the series, really) is built around Mahoney and his confrontations with authority figures. He is the most likeable character, but a prankster. Of course Mauser takes a personal dislike to Mahoney from the start.

At this point there is nothing truly wrong with the "Police Academy" series. The movies are funny, though they are less funny with each subsequent movie. They are the typical screwball comedy, but the comedy gets more and more family friendly with each movie (the first movie had an "R" rating, this one has "PG-13", the rest have "PG") and it loses whatever edge it once had.

Nearly 20 years later (has it been so long?), is the movie still funny? Not as much as it was when I was twelve. "Police Academy 2" makes me smile at times, mostly because the situations are familiar and watching the movie is nostalgia now. The only thing about the movie that is really wrong is the character of Zed (Bobcat Goldthwait), a character that is simply annoying and not funny or interesting. Naturally he'll be back for two sequels.

The series is all downhill from here. The highpoint was the first movie, though this one isn't so bad. Still, if you are feeling nostalgic for the series, start from the beginning and quit when you are tired of it all. Most viewers should be able to make it past this one, but the series becomes very bad in a hurry. "Police Academy 2" is one of the better movies in the series, though that may not be saying very much.

The Village (2004): A Review

A film by M Night Shyamalan

The villagers were warned to stay out of the forest. So long as the villagers stayed out of the forest, "Those We Must Not Speak Of" will leave the village alone. It is an uneasy truce within the village. Anything colored red is immediately destroyed or buried because it might attract "them". The villagers live with a kind of Puritan morality, strict, but heartfelt. A date on a tombstone sets the year as 1897. They seem to be completely isolated from the rest of the world hint at how bad life was in "the towns". The elders have taught their children that the rest of the world is a nasty place, and that they are striving to live a moral life. And stay out of the woods.

A young man, Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix) seeks the permission of the elders to pass through the woods to "the towns" so he can get medicines for the townspeople, but the elders say that the danger of "Those We Must Not Speak Of" is too great, and it should not be risked. Ivy Walker (Bryce Dallas Howard) is a blind woman, but is very bold and speaks her mind, and appears to be interested in Lucius.

There would not be much of a movie if nothing actually happened (though there is a feeling of stasis through much of the movie), so in some way the "truce" will break. It has to. The question has been raised as to who or what these creatures are in the woods, and what danger they may pose to the village. Shyamalan is a master at raising the level of tension through what we don't see. The boogie man is only truly scary when we don't see him but can "feel" him coming. So it is with "The Village".

This being a Shyamalan movie, we know that there is going to be a twist. From the first frame of the movie, most viewers are going to analyze everything on screen to figure out what is going on and what is wrong with what we are seeing. After "The Sixth Sense" we are conditioned to know that color is very important and with this movie stressing color (the "safe" and "bad" colors", we are looking for any sort of clue. This is initially the strength of the picture, but is also its greatest failing. If Shyamalan is going to give such a promising setup, and builds the tension so that expectations are raised, he ought to deliver with the reveal. The reveal does not even need to be perfect or amazingly shocking, but it does have to be good. It's not.

Throughout the movie the characters are all speaking in a very stilted, formal tone and style and it grates. Worse, it is boring. Shyamalan is able to build tension about the woods and "Those We Must Not Speak Of", but by the ending the film is nothing but a disappointment. "The Village" does not Deliver. Certainly not on the first viewing, and there is nothing to warrant a second or third viewing. Watching "The Village" and piecing it together, i was left with the thought: "That's it? That's what the movie is about?"

There is a bright spot. Bryce Dallas Howard in her first starring role. She was fantastic and i would love to see her in something else, anything else. Everything else was drab and dreary: the acting, the dialogue, the ending, Oscar winning actor Adrien Brody in an inexplicable role. Still, Bryce Dallas Howard was a shining star in a movie best left unseen.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

The Cestus Deception (Star Wars): A Review

During the Clone Wars a new threat to the Jedi emerged. The Jedi Council learned that on the planet Ord Cestus, a new type of droid was being manufactured. This new droid was nicknamed the "Jedi Killer" and when given the opportunity to test their powers against a non-lethal version of the JK, the Jedi discover that this droid may actually be force sensitive and is able to "sense" what its opponent is going to do before the action is done. This is similar (if not the same) as what the Jedi are able to do. An example of this is the ability of Anakin Skywalker to be able to pod race in Episode One. A whole line of these droids in the hands of the Separatists could potentially mean the extinction of the Jedi and the destruction of the Republic.

Ord Cestus is still a Republic planet, but with the Jedi Killer droids, the question is: for how long? Obi-Wan Kenobi and Kit Fisto are sent to Ord Cestus to take care of this problem, diplomatically if possible, by other means if not. Obi-Wan works with the leaders of Ord Cestus to try to resolve the JK problem peacefully, but Kit Fisto starts sowing the seeds for a rebellion in case diplomacy fails. With Fisto are a squadron of Clone Troopers to help set up the rebellion.

One of these Clone Troopers, A-98 (or, Nate) was engineered to be one of the elite. Nate is in a leadership position and we see the training of the Clone Troopers through his eyes and "The Cestus Deception" gives us our first chance to really get to see the life of a Clone Trooper. Steven Barnes could have easily given us a story that barely touched upon the Troopers, but he didn't, and the Clones have now been humanized in the Star Wars Universe.

"The Cestus Deception" was a rather good prequel era Star Wars novel. It expanded upon the Clone Wars, giving the reader bits more detail about what is happening and how many smaller events are making up the whole of the Clone Wars. Something else that "The Cestus Deception" did was also touched on in "Shatterpoint". There is a change in the nature and role of the Jedi. The Jedi are not soldiers and they do not fight wars. It is against their nature. When thrust into the Clone Wars, which the Jedi have no choice but to fight as they can, they are forced to do things that would not be considered very Jedi-like. In doing so, the Jedi individually have to struggle to maintain their balance in their actions. Obi-Wan and Kit Fisto are put into such a situation in "The Cestus Deception" and while their actions seem to be out of character, they struggle with what they are required to do. For me, this helps put this novel into a greater context of the Clone Wars and the affect of the wars on the Jedi.

The political intrigue and the sections on the Clone Troopers made "The Cestus Deception" a fascinating entry into the Star Wars universe. Like the other Star Wars novels, this was a fast paced story and was easy to read. For fans of the Star Wars novels, this is worth the time to read. For newcomers to the series, i would recommend being at least familiar with the two prequel films (The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones) to give sufficient background.

Do NOT go to nbcolympics.com

Seriously. I went to the site the other day to find about about the previous night's results. What i got instead were spoiled results for today's (or whichever day it was i went to the site) broadcasat. I found out that Phelps lost to Thorpe, that Natalie Coughlin won, and that the men's gymnastics team lost to Japan.

Now, i realize that there is a significant time difference between Athens and Minneapolis, but if NBC is pushing their prime time Olympic programming, shouldn't they not reveal the winners in bold headlines on their website? Maybe have a spoilers section, or something?

Had i gone to the website yesterday, i would have lostall the drama and interest in seeing the US beat the Australians in the 4X200 meter freestyle by a tenth of a second when Kellar is able to hold off Thorpe. That was an exciting race and was more so because i didn't know who would win...but i'm quite sure that nbcolympics.com had the result as their big headline.

Not going to the site, i was able to see the women's saber finals (and two semi-final matches) not knowing in Sada Jacobson would win (she got bronze) or if the other US woman would take the silver (she got Gold).

And this isn't even Track, when i'll get really obsessive.

Monday, August 16, 2004

Collateral (2004): A Review

A film by Michael Mann

Max (Jamie Foxx) is a Las Angeles cab driver with dreams of something grander for his life. His dream, as he tells various fares, is to own his own luxury limo company: Island Limos. This job of driving a taxi is only temporary, but it is a temporary job that has lasted ten years. Max is a man who does not step out and take risks in his life. Into this mundane existence comes yet another fare, Vincent (Tom Cruise). Vincent offers Max $600 if Max would drive him to five different locations so Vincent can do some business and catch a flight out of town at the end of the day. While this is against his company's regulations, Max accepts. $600 is a lot of money for one night's worth of work.

When Max brings Vincent to his first stop and a few minutes later a dead body lands on top of Max's taxi, followed by Vincent looking not at all upset or surprised, we know that this evening is taking a turn that Max never anticipated. Max accuses Vincent of killing the dead guy, but Vincent coldly replies that "the bullets and the fall killed him." Vincent is a hit man, a paid assassin, and despite Max's protests that this isn't his job, Max will drive Vincent around the city as Vincent kills person after person. He doesn't have a choice, really. Vincent has a gun.

What is fascinating about this movie is how the relationship between Vincent and Max works. Despite his chosen profession, Vincent is civil and cultured. As a character, Vincent comes off as somewhat likeable even though we know he is a bad guy and we have seen him coldly murder. Yet, there is a certain charm to Vincent, and he treats Max well so long as Max goes along with what Vincent wants. Vincent suggests that Max will never improve his lot in life until Max himself takes responsibility and does something about it. There is not a friendship here, but throughout the movie a grudging respect between the two characters build.

This respect does not change the fact that Max is being held hostage while Vincent is committing murder. The viewer can guess in what direction the film is going by the way director Michael Mann ties things together early on in the movie. He makes a couple of connections (which would give away part of the ending if mentioned directly) which are obviously not coincidence. We even learn Vincent's unspoken intent by dialogue said by a detective (Mark Ruffalo) investigating that first murder. Nothing is truly random in this movie, and this goes double for the ending. "Collateral" is building to this ending, which I felt was fully appropriate, the entire movie and with the exception of a single scene where Vincent becomes the second coming of the T-1000 from "Terminator 2", everything in "Collateral" works for me. The city itself is a character, giving setting and tone and depth and a sense of place to the film. While the story could have taken place anywhere, the movie would have had a different feel to it.

"Collateral" can be dark and violent, but it is also intelligent and stylish. This sense of style is not to be confused with the typical Hollywood "slickness", but rather it is Michael Mann giving the film its own feel and look that simply "works". The whole film does (excluding that one scene I mentioned), and when put together it is better than its parts, and this includes the fantastic performances by Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx.

Monday, August 09, 2004

Silenced (Jerry Jenkins): A Review

"Silenced" continues the story of Paul Stepola and offers a continuing vision of the future after World War III. Religion is outlawed. Christians are persecuted for simply claiming to believe. Paul Stepola was one of the top guys in the National Peace Organization and was very good at his job at finding, and rooting out underground Christian groups. This was until he was blinded during a raid. Stepola had continued to research the New Testament to better understand what he was up against, but with the held of a new friend, he was moved by the Bible and became a believer, and had his sight restored. If this sounds familiar, it mirrors the story of Saul/Paul of Tarsus from the Biblical book "Acts of the Apostles".

"Silenced" begins with Paul continuing to work in the NPO as a double agent, giving intelligence to the underground believers while trying to maintain his cover. He is unable to tell his wife that he is a Christian for fear that she will turn him in or tell her father (an even higher ranking member of the NPO). This would lead to death, for professing faith in Christ is treason to the world government.

Paul's task is to find a "Christian terrorist" named Styr Magnor. Magnor has claimed responsibility for the incident which somehow instantly removed all water from Las Angeles. This is a blessing in disguise for Paul because while Paul knows that the L.A. incident was the result of prayer and the action of God, he does not believe that Magnor is a part of the Christian Underground. Rather, Magnor has been committing murderous acts throughout the world, bombing major landmarks and killing hundreds, and this is the antithesis of what the Christian Underground is about. Stopping Magnor will do two major things. First, the NPO is suspicious about Paul's true loyalty, and stopping Magnor will be a major proof of loyalty. Second, Styr Magnor's actions are making all Christians look bad, and they are already treasonous for believing in God.

Stepola is headed to Europe to discover who Styr Magnor really is, and to stop him. He is also there to make contact with the Christian Underground over there and do what he can to help the European believers.

Jerry Jenkins started this "Underground Zealot" trilogy with a surprisingly good volume in "Soon". With the strong start to the series, and no idea where exactly Jenkins is going with it (except, perhaps, the ultimate end of the story), I was looking forward to "Silenced". It is written in the typical Jenkins way. It is very easy to read, and fast paced, but it is also clunky and simplistic in the presentation of the narrative. Readers of the "Left Behind" books will know exactly what to expect in the style of writing. It is so easy to read, and fast paced, that many readers will not be put off by Jenkin's overly simplistic style. Judging by the sales numbers of "Left Behind", it may be a fair assessment.

My one true complaint is that "Silenced" took a while to get going with the story. Sure, the book was as much about Paul's wife Jae's spiritual journey as it was about Paul, but after reading "Soon", and with the starting premise of this book, I expected more…especially with the subtitle "The Wrath of God Descends". There was a lack of God's wrath in this book, which was disappointing.

Still, Jerry Jenkins knows how to end a book. The last third of "Silenced" was worth the price of admission, at least for someone who enjoys his work. Not to sound cliche, but the ending actually earns the term "explosive". Jenkins builds and builds and just when the reader is tired of the building, he lets it all out and the action truly begins. It's exciting, and it gets the reader interested in the next volume of the series. That's a good thing, but it also feels like Jenkins could have done a better job at making the first half to two thirds of the book more interesting and exciting.

After "Soon", it is a bit of a let down, but what an ending.

Friday, August 06, 2004

Tarantino on Bond?

Weeks ago, maybe even months ago i heard rumors that Quentin Tarantino is interested in directing the next Bond film. Immediately i loved the idea. All of the Bond movies in recent memory have been kind of boring and stale, especially the last two or three. Imagine what Tarantino could do with the Bond franchise! Since Bond has a built in audience, he can do no worse than the previous films and could potentially reinvent the franchise. I love it already.

Which is why it will probably never happen. The franchise will be "protected" and the movies will be the "safe" Bond films that we've been getting.

And the franchise will be the worse off for it.

But that got me thinking. How great would it be if we could turn the franchise over to some of the top and most creative directors today?

Quentin Tarantino's Bond
Martin Scorcese's Bond
James Camerson's Bond
Spielberg's Bond
Christopher Nolan's Bond (he did Memento)
Shoot, even Karyn Kusama's Bond (she did the excellent Girlfight)

Even if the movie isn't that good, it can't be worse than Die Another Day.

I love it!

And it'll never happen.

But it would be great if it did. I might get excited for John Woo's Bond and certainly would for Michael Mann's Bond. But probably not for Michael Bay's Bond.

Thursday, August 05, 2004

The 4400

The 4400 is a television program on the USA network, and i think it is one that deserves a look. It began several weeks ago with a pilot episode with a fantastic premise: Over the past decades people all over the world disappeared in what can only be called "abductions". The way the pilot episode showed some of the abduction scenes, it is one of those classic scenes where a beam of light from the sky covers a person on the ground and then the person is gone. A classic alien abduction. So, we see a series of abductions. One abductee is a 9 year old girl who was born in the 1930's, another is a black man who was serving in the army during the Korean war (we see him getting beat up by his fellow soldiers for daring to date a white woman), another was a teenager in 2001.

What makes this interesting to me is that the premise of the show is that one day all of these abductees are returned in a flash of light. The total: an even 4400 returnees. The media dubs them: The 4400. Who are these people and why have they been returned? Is there some sort of an agenda in returning the 4400? Why now?

As a fan of science fiction and stuff like the X-Files (am i identifying myself as too much of a geek?), this is a fantastic concept. But, the show does not go in the direction that i might have expected. The alien stuff is pushed to the back (though never truly ignored). What is pushed to the front is the stories of several of the 4400. We follow their lives as they try to recover whatever life they might have had...but one woman who was gone for 11 years has found that her husband has remarried and the daughter who was only an infant was never told about her. The Korean vet i mentioned has found that the grandchildren of his relatives are his age and they only know of him from pictures. The little girl has nobody. But, others are able to find a semblance of their lives.

Each episode of the show follows several different threads. One thread advances the storyline of the main returnees and how they are adapting to their new found lives. This is actually much more interesting than i expected. Another thread follows two agents in Homeland Security who are investigating the 4400 to try to find out why they may have been returned and also to look after them. These two agents also get to follow the next thread of the series, which is the "ability of the week", which is similar to the X-Files or even Buffy the Vampire Slayer's "Monster of the week". See, the 4400 did not return unchanged. They have been given various "gifts" that augment their ability. One man has a form of telekenesis, another has something of a superpower...but the point of the show never seems to be the power, but rather the relationships. Another thread (it all ties together rather well, by the way) is the American public's growing reaction against the 4400 in fear and hate. Not too surprising.

USA is airing a marathon of episodes on sunday, and it looks like they are airing a finale (must be a season finale to see if they are going to do another season...and there are plenty of stories left), so give it a shot.

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Police Academy (1984): A Review

A film by Hugh Wilson

Those who are disgusted with the entire "Police Academy" series have to look no further than this first movie to find the root cause of their misery. Grossing 81 million dollars in 1984, "Police Academy" set the template for the future movies. The style of the series was set with this first one, though the next six movies never quite hit the level of quality (such as it is) that this first film did.

The new Mayor has relaxed the standards for new recruits to enter the Police Academy. Now, anyone can sign up, and people who would have never considered joining the police force are now attempting to do just that. Included in this group is Carey Mahoney (Steve Guttenberg). Mahoney cannot seem to stay out of trouble with the law (petty stuff, really, nothing malicious), and he is given the choice to either join the Police Academy or go to jail. He is told that he cannot quit, but can be thrown out (little does he know that part of the deal is that the Academy cannot throw him out, either). Mahoney, the prankster that he is, does his best to get thrown out of the Academy.

Along with Mahoney, the Police Academy has several other zany new recruits, among them is the gun loving Tackleberry (David Graf), the soft voiced Hooks (Marion Ramsey), a man with a talent for imitating nearly any sound effect in Jones (Michael Winslow), and also Karen Thompson (Kim Cattrall) who appears as Mahoney's love interest. Calling the cadets "screwball recruits" would be perfectly appropriate, and Lt Harris (G.W. Bailey), an instructor at the Academy, wants them all out and sets them up to fail.

"Police Academy" has something of a slapstick comedy. It is very lighthearted, and the characters (the good guys, anyway) are very likeable. I don't think I would want these recruits in an Academy near me, but it was always fun watching this movie. And that is what "Police Academy" is all about: fun. It seems like everyone in the movie is having fun making it, and it works. Granted, the movie is not nearly as funny as I originally found it ten years ago when I was 15, but I can still manage smiles of nostalgia while watching "Police Academy". The characters which the movie focuses on are those, with a couple of exceptions, who will return for sequel after sequel and they are fun characters to get to spend an hour and a half with.

"Police Academy" is the only one in the series to get an "R" rating, which is for female nudity and language. After this one, the series starts to get sanitized, which also seemed to tame the comedy as well. This first film sets up many of the running jokes that continue throughout the series, and perhaps for this reason it is the best of the bunch because it is the most original of the bunch. Still, it is an enjoyable movie.