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.