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.