Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Book 74: The Hostile Hospital

The first seven books of A Series of Unfortunate Events followed the same formula. The Baudelaire Orphans are with the banker Mr. Poe until he can find a new relative willing to care for the siblings. Things go badly and the evil Count Olaf shows up with another nefarious plan to kidnap the children and somehow steal their inheritance. In the end they get away and Olaf is on the run from the authorities. The ending of The Vile Village changes this. The Baudelaires are on the run, suspected of the murder of Count Olaf despite the fact that he isn't dead and that there is no way they could have committed the non-existent crime. The Hostile Hospital opens with the orphans trying to find a place where they can learn about VFD, the Quagmire triplets, and some clue that will help keep them safe and stop Count Olaf from coming after them ever again. This time there is no Mr. Poe and no new distant relative to live with. Count Olaf is in much less of this book than we have come to expect, though he and his cronies play major roles in instigating the action.

Author Lemony Snicket (an assumed name as the author is as much a character in the story as the Baudelaires are) does an excellent job in presenting the story of the Baudelaires experiences at a hospital trying to research in the records room what the truth behind the events of the past several novels and once more running afoul of the minions of Count Olaf and being placed into mortal danger once again. Snicket sets up the next volume very well and tells the story in such a way that the novel flows into the next book while telling an independent story at the same time. The breaking of the formula of the series is a refreshing change and spices up the action quite a bit. The Hostile Hospital is one of the best of the first eight volumes in this series.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Book 73: Sharra's Exile

This Darkover novel written by Marion Zimmer Bradley begins a couple of years after the events of The Heritage of Hastur. Lew Alton, now somewhat disfigured because of his use of the Sharra Matrix, is recovering offworld with his father and is a bitter young man. Everything that he cared about was taken from him, including his wife and unborn child, and he is partially responsible for the destruction of a city by the Sharra Matrix. The Sharra Matrix is a focus for incredible and ancient power and has been used as a nearly uncontrollable weapon in the past. Lew is one of the handful of men and women who rediscovered the matrix and through betrayals sought to use it, though with one final betrayal he helped to stop the destruction. Sharra's Exile covers several years that Lew spent off world in possession of the Matrix (he is so strongly linked to the Matrix that if he gets too far from it he may die), and then covers the events that follows his return to Darkover carrying the forbidden Matrix.

Sharra's Exile is told in alternating chapters between the first person perspective of Lew Alton and the third person perspective dealing with other characters, mostly Regis Hastur. This is a novel rife with conflict. Lew is emotionally a wreck and has a very difficult time controlling his emotions after the Sharra incident and because he is a telepath in a caste of telepaths, he is unintentionally broadcasting his pain to anyone nearby. Lew is also half Terran, so there are some in the Comyn ruling class who look down on Lew and his family even though he is the heir to his family's Domain. This is another conflict. Yet another has to do with the Sharra Matrix. In the Regis chapters there are conflicts regarding his views about Terran Culture and that Regis is far more progressive than his grandfather as well as most of the Comyn.

Sharra's Exile is a complete rewrite of one of Bradley's earliest novels The Sword of Aldones and while I haven't read that first book I thought this was a very solid entry into the Darkover Chronology. Bradley has multiple conflicts and plot points going and there is plenty of intrigue and even some action. The novel flows well and because of all of the conflict, Darkover is a conflicted society, there was plenty to hold my interest as she moved the primary story along of the re-emergence and fear of the Sharra Matrix. There is a bit of absurdity (The Sword of Aldones, the Terran woman) and Bradley has recycled a couple of story techniques she has used in the past but this time it is more dues ex machina than necessary plotting, but overall Sharra's Exile is a good Darkover story and an entertaining read. That's all I really ask for out of a book.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Book 72: Marley and Me

On the very excited recommendation of my lovely wife, I started to read Marley and Me: Life and Love with the World's Worst Dog by John Grogan. She read the book over the course of two or three days and was moved by the book and could not wait for me to read it. With that recommendation I could not wait, either. Marley and Me is more a story about John Grogan's life through Marley as it is simply the life of a dog. Grogan takes the reader on a journey starting not long after he married his wife, Jenny, and their desire to start their family with a dog and how they answered a newspaper ad and picked out this Labrador Retriever puppy. Marley was a puppy so a certain amount of wildness was expected, but Marley was wild even for a puppy and he did not grow out of it. He was a dog that many people would probably drop off at the Humane Society because he destroyed so much property and when there was a storm he would destroy the walls. But Marley was a loving and loyal dog, always sleeping next to the bed and always needing to be near his owners. It is weird, but Marley was a "bad" dog in so many ways, but he was also a good boy as well.

John Grogan writes very lovingly about his dog and how Marley impacted his life and that of his family, but he does not hide any of Marley's many flaws. Marley got old and this is where the book became very sad as we know it is only a matter of time. It is very moving reading about Grogan's entirely unsentimental love for his dog and while I don't think I yet have that relationship with my dog, I know that it will be very difficult when my dog reaches the end of his life. I think it is thinking about my dog while reading about Marley at the end, but I'll admit that I cried at the end.

Marley and Me is an excellent book that is more about the relationship between family and dog and there are little lessons that the author learns from having Marley in his life. The lessons are the kind that one can only learn by having and caring for a dog, especially if the dog has a little bit too much personality. This book will appeal to dog owners and dog lovers and comes highly recommended.

The 4400: Season Three

Man, what a disappointment this season of The 4400 has been. This is a show that is nothing but unrealized potential. From the first episode where the concept of all of the "alien abductees" over the past fifty years being returned at once and with strange abilities the show had the potential to be something special. The distrust the United States government has and the rise of a charismatic leader organizing the 4400 returnees had the makings of a great conflict and the end of the short first season gave me hope. My hope was never realized. Is it possible that in three seasons nothing really happened? Jordan Collier had this great vision for the 4400 and he was assassinated midway through season two. Up until this point the show was starting to build and improve and right after it happened The 4400 fell apart. It was followed by several one-off episodes that did not advance a storyline and the murder of Collier was never truly built upon. Sure, Shawn (the healer) took over but it never amounted to much. Richard and Lily's daughter Isabel, the one with the mysterious powers as an infant...well she grew up in a flash of light for the start of the third season and she has these amazing powers but also has the intellectual development of a child so she knows all these concepts but doesn't really grasp them and is very petulant. Season Three promised this big war, the Us versus Them mentality of the 4400 vs the Government. It never materialized. There were hints of the conflict to come and Shawn was having visions of a future war with Isabel at the center and Jordan was somehow alive and later preaching about the war and knowing how to save the future, and the show did nothing with it.

Obviously, if I truly knew better and could write I would be working on the show rather than sitting in front of a computer complaining about it, but as a viewer and the target audience, I suppose it is my right to feel let down when a program doesn't deliver the promised goods. The 4400 could go in any direction, but we knew from the final episode of season two, nay the final shot of the final episode, that Jordan was still alive. We don't see him again until at least three quarters of the way through the third season. The entire ending was rushed and the hint of the "war" or conflict didn't even come through until the very last episode. Really, Jordan could have returned at the halfway point and there could have been a solid build towards the war and then the final three episodes could have been the real conflict, the Big Finish that has been promised and hinted at but never delivered.

Instead, nothing. There is enough for a fourth season as the show sets up the expansion of Jordan's plan but this time the producers do not even bothering promising something special or amazing, just more of the same. More one-off episodes with the hint of an ongoing storyline that will not reward the viewer for sticking around.

On the plus side the show has given a job to Summer Glau (River from Firefly) with a recurring role as one of the 4400 with a mind control ability, so there is one positive to the program.

Will I watch Season Four if it is broadcast? Probably. There is little original programming during the summer and I keep hoping like a mindless drone that the show will deliver on the potential it still has but is losing rapidly.

Movies: August 21 - 27

Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children (2005): Advent Children is a sequel to the immensely popular Playstation video game Final Fantasy VII. This time, rather than make a game, the good people at Square-Enix have made a movie telling the story of what occurred two years after the events of that game. Final Fantasy VII is arguably the most popular and beloved game in the long running series and the ending to the game was one which caused a good deal of discussion and interpretation. The fact that this movie was made completely discredits my firmly held interpretation of what the ending really meant. Of course.

Two years later the world is recovering from Meteor and Cloud Strife (the hero) runs a delivery business but is emotionally isolated from his friends. There is a disease or a plague affecting many citizens called Geo-Stigma. Cloud is attacked on the road back home by some men who look suspiciously like the villain Sephiroth from the video game, except that Sephiroth is dead. They keep asking about "mother", who we know to be the cells of the alien Jenova. Shortly after, these men kidnap several of the children who are living with Cloud as part of an orphanage of sorts. As Cloud is the hero of the game and a legendary character, we know that he will seek to rescue the children as well as fight against whatever plot is brewing.

The movie is fairly good and it feels like the cinema scenes from the video games, but the animation is so far beyond what has been seen in any of the games. Visually, Advent Children is stunning. In terms of telling a story, the presentation is a little disjointed and feels like the drips and drabs we get during the game, but the movie has quite a few action sequences, references to the game (both in terms of music as well as characters) and we get to see all of the characters from Final Fantasy VII get involved. For fans of the game, this movie is a dream come true. I do not think Advent Children will work nearly as well for those who are not familiar with the game even though there are enough references to back story for the casual viewer to pick up some of the previous storylines. There is also a special feature on the first disc which is a 20 minute retrospective of the main storypoints of FFVII. All the same, this is a visual treat and as a fan of the Final Fantasy series, this is worth watching. Advent Children is the movie that Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within could have been.

Inside Man (2006): This Spike Lee joint has to be ranked as one of Lee's best movies. Inside Man is a tight heist caper. The movie stars Clive Owen as the leader of the thieves who have broken into the Manhattan Trust Bank with the "perfect" plan. He creates a hostage situation and seals off the bank. Denzel Washington is the police detective and hostage negotiator who has been called in to try to end the situation. Denzel is smooth and confident, but he is also on the bad side of the police administration because of some indiscretion in the past. Jodie Foster has a small role as somebody brought in by the owner of the bank to ensure that he is not embarrassed by some of the contents of the bank. The film has very little fluff and tightly plots its way forward to a resolution, though the viewer is unsure of what will be the result. I was riveted to the screen. Foster, Washington, and Owen are all on the top of their game and it is with this sort of small role that Foster really shines. Inside Man will be forgotten come awards time, but it is worth a rental and a second look.

Book 71: The Fall of Hyperion

Hyperion is one of the finest science fiction novels published and it is also a literary treat. Dan Simmons built a science fiction story around the format of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Men and women are on a pilgrimage to some sort of a shrine and they are telling their stories and in turn it tells the story of the pilgrimage. The novel is perfectly executed and gives a vision of a future where humanity has expanded to the stars and is reliant on AI for much of its transportation and they are unaware of just how reliant they are. There is also a potential invading force of the "Ousters", humans who do not live the way the "Web" does. There is a cult of the Shrike on the planet of Hyperion which worships this super-powerful being which does little more than kill and brutalize. But this only hints at the straws of the story of Hyperion. The Fall of Hyperion is the sequel and it picks up with each of the pilgrim stories told. Now we do not have the literary format of Chaucer to fall back on but Simmons instead advances the storylines of his assorted and vast cast of characters at a rapid pace.

Things change fast in this book and the reader has to keep up. The Shrike begins picking off the pilgrims one by one, leaving them wondering who is next and how they can reach the Shrike considering they are on a pilgrimage to the Shrike. There is an Artificial Intelligence creation which puts in the body of a man the complete personality of the poet John Keats, only he knows both the life of Keats as well as his own responsibilities and this AI can dream of the events of the pilgrimage as well as interact with the leaders of humanity dealing with the invasion of the Ousters at Hyperion. There is also something deeper and more ominous going on with the AI Core.

The Fall of Hyperion is such a vast novel of epic scope that giving a decent description of the plot is difficult without laying out entire plotlines which would then ruin some of the enjoyment of actually reading the novel. Suffice it to say that The Fall of Hyperion is like nothing I have read before and it is outstanding. It is not quite the science fiction genius of Hyperion which gets some of its kudos because of how Simmons ties The Canterbury Tales in with his novel, but Fall is outstanding in its own right. Simmons has a masterful command of the English language and his imagination is second to none. This sequence of novels (which will be continued with Endymion) proves that science fiction can be a genre story as well as be Literature with a capital L. There is an excellence of language and craft here that rises above the genre and would be Literary (meaning that Simmons both tells a story as well as reaches into deeper command of craft and character development, it is a particular style).

Well done, Mr. Simmons. Well done.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

what happens to netflix dvds when you return them

There is an article in the New Yorker regarding what happens when the movies are returned to a Netflix distribution center and what sort of work goes into getting the returns processed so quickly and the new movies shipped out. I'm impressed. I don't know why, but I thought that with the volume Netflix receives per day that there was more automation. I didn't take into account the human hands that touch the discs, file, sort, and prepare the next load of discs to come out.

When I sign up for Netflix in October after a six month (or longer) period of time without the service to save some money, I will have a greater level of respect for the work that goes into getting the rentals in my grubby little hands two days after I put the first disc back in the mailbox to return.

The starting wage of the employees is stated to be $9 per hour when hired as a temp, but it doesn't say how much the employees make when they are hired on full time after three months if they are fast enough. Hopefully they get a raise.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Northwestern College Recommended Summer Reading 2006

I e-mailed a former professor a few weeks ago not realizing that it was in the middle of the summer to see if he had the summer recommendations for the English Department. As an English Major I had always enjoyed getting the yearly list of books that the various professors recommend as summer reading. I've discovered some good books this way. Professor Fynaardt replied after a couple of weeks and sent the newsletter out in the mail.

Here are the 2006 Summer Recommendations:

Fledgling - Octavia E. Butler (Trapp)

Collected Works - Flannery O'Connor (Trapp)

Brother to a Dragonfly - William D. Campbell (Turnwall)

The Lighthouse
- P. D. James (Westerholm)

I Heard the Owl Call My Name
- Margaret Craven (Van Es)

A Farewell to Arms - Ernest Hemingway (Van Es)

The Sun Also Rises - Ernest Hemingway (Van Es)

Timothy; or Notes of an Abject Reptile - Verlyn Klinkenborg (Fynaardt)

Everything is Illuminated
- Jonathan Safran Foer (Fynaardt)

A River Runs Through It and Other Stories
- Norman Maclean (Lundberg)

The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini (Menning)

I did include in parenthesis the professor who recommended each book. The only book I've read from this list is The Kite Runner, which is excellent. We all know about Hemingway and Flannery O'Connor has been recommended for years as a short story writer. I've been enjoying Octavia Butler's work this summer, and I've been interested in Fledgling for a couple of months now. The most interesting part of the list is Dr. Westerholm recommended a mystery/detective novel. The man teaches the most difficult and academic courses in the department (though Van Es wasn't part of the department when I was at NWC, and Dr Kensak is on sabbatical and he's a tough prof as well), and his Seminar in Interpretation is the single most difficult class I had taken. It's a class all about the theory of criticism of literature. So, we learned about the theories that various critics and thinkers use behind their criticism. It's not the criticism we read, it's the theory. The true positive from that class was that Dr. Westerholm is an excellent baker, so he always had treats for the break in the middle of the night class.

I probably do not "need" another reading list, but I don't think I have can have too many. I will start work on this list during the winter this year.

Book 70: The Rapture

The Rapture is the third Left Behind Prequel novel written by the team of Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye. Thus far, it is the fifteenth Left Behind novel written for adults. The main sequence was twelve novels and now the prequel trilogy has concluded. This trilogy has been giving the reader stories about what was going on with the major characters of Left Behind before the Rapture. To give a brief background, the Rapture is a concept of some Christians which states that at some point in the future Christ will return and claim those who truly believe in Him. There are two schools of thought on the Rapture, a Pre-Tribulation Rapture and a Post-Tribulation Rapture. In the Pre-Trib theology it is the Rapture that will start a seven year tribulation of the planet which is signally the End of the World as has been known. So, all of the Believers will have ascended into heaven before stuff gets really bad. In Post-Trib theology, the Rapture happens at the end of this seven year period. Left Behind (the first book in the sequence) began moments after the Rapture and works on the basis of a Pre-Tribulation Rapture. The Rapture is the last of the prequels and moves up and through the event that began this entire series.

There are several storylines moving through this novel. First there is the story of Nicolae Carpathia and his rise to power. Nicolae is the man who will become the Antichrist. Second, the story of Rayford Steele, an airline pilot. Rayford is one of the heroes of the main sequence, but here he was not a believer and resented his wife and son trying to push "religion" into his life. Steele is on the verge of an affair with one of the hostesses on his flights. This leads into the story of his wife Irene, a good Christian woman who prays for her husband to believe. There is a brief chapter or two with their daughter, Chloe, also a non-believer. There are sections with Cameron "Buck" Williams, an acclaimed reporter who is central to the main sequence as well. The Rapture serves to bring all of these characters to the beginning of Left Behind. What will interest readers most is that this novel actually moves past the rapture and we get to see the vision of heaven and meeting Christ and God and judgment and reward as imagined by Jerry Jenkins. I have been skeptical of the previous two trilogies as they were disappointing in terms of telling a story and expected more of the same, and since I found the end of Glorious Appearing disappointing as well I expected the vision of the Rapture to be as disappointing as the vision of the true Return of Christ. As a Christian, that is an odd thing to have to write.

A valid criticism about the prequel trilogy would be that there is no real conflict in these three novels because we know exactly where Jerry Jenkins is bringing the story: the Rapture. Jenkins is simply bringing the characters along, showing glimpses of their lives and prior motivations before the Rapture changed everything. This much is true, but my personal criticism is that this is a book (and trilogy) that cannot stand on its own without the main sequence of Left Behind novels. All of the interest in the characters and reasons to care about the characters is entirely based on who they later become after the Rapture. What comes before is background and backstory and these events were covered in the main sequence, but now we have novels further exploring the backstory...except Jenkins is attempting to cover too much ground. There are too many characters which do not interact with the other primary characters until some time after the Rapture. Another criticism is that if the prequels are read before the main sequence then the sense of discovery of who Nicolae is completely eliminated because now the reader is simply waiting for Nicolae to declare his true allegiance rather than finding out along with the rest of the world the true nature of Nicolae Carpathia.

Now, with that criticism stated, The Rapture is the strongest of the three prequel novels. Jerry Jenkins has done an excellent job in describing the Rapture and the subsequent judgments of the "saints" and what the first moments of heaven may be like. This surprised me because I thought the return of Christ in Glorious Appearing to not live up to the hype. The description of those first moments in heaven and the how the resurrection of the soul changes a person is remarkable, and the joy of the saved in hearing the stories of the other saints and feeling/experiencing their lives of faith are very well written and well described. Jerry Jenkins often is criticized for his simplistic style, but in some instances it works very well. He may spend a bit too much time in heaven, and not enough telling a story, but Jenkins is very effective in communicating the story he is trying to tell.

The Rapture should be very popular with its intended audience: Christians and fans of the Left Behind series. Those readers will be pleased with this novel and for the intended audience this novel has to be considered a success. As a novel, it must be taken in consideration with the rest of the series because it is incapable of standing on its own. The prequel trilogy should be read after the main sequence because of the spoiler effect it would have for several of the early Left Behind novels. Overall, The Rapture does not truly tell a story in sense of having a plotline, but instead moves characters from point A to point B so they can be in the places they need to be. It is a weaker novel than it necessarily needs to be, but I believe it will reach the intended audience.

Book 69: The Robots of Dawn

Isaac Asimov, the Grand Master of Science Fiction, brings us another detective story set in the Robot series: The Robots of Dawn. Some two years after the events of The Naked Sun, police detective Elijah Baley is called upon to investigate a crime on the Spacer planet of Aurora. He is accompanied again by the humanlike robot Daneel Olivaw. After the events on Solaria which have been turned into what amounts to a "movie" in this setting, Baley is famous which has caused his superiors on the police force to be resentful. This new case is one which will have deeper consequences than discovering truth and justice: if he does not succeed in clearing Dr Falstofe of roboticide then Baley's career will be destroyed and the opportunity for Earth to ever reach for the Stars again and colonize the Universe will be eliminated as a powerful group of Spacers (those humans who have already colonized several planets and now will not permit Earth to take to space again). In short, it is imperative that Baley succeeds. Dr. Falstofe has been accused of causing one of his own robots, the humanform Jander, to "mind freeze" and render the robot useless. The accusation is given on the presumption that the Doctor did this so that the Spacers who are against Earth would be discredited. By his own admission Dr. Falstofe is the only human alive with the intellectual capacity and knowledge to be able to force a robot into "mind freeze". He also maintains that he is innocent. While there is no "crime" in the sense of breaking a law, it is a "crime" in the sense that being guilty would discredit Dr Falstofe and Earth would suffer the consequences.

The Robots of Dawn gives the reader a further sense of the culture shock of being in a place where everybody is just like you, except that they are nothing like you culturally. Things that Elijah Baley fears are commonplace on Aurora, and they fear or have distaste for the things of Earth. The main thrust of the story, however, is a mystery. If the good doctor is the only person who could have committed the crime and the good doctor did not commit the crime, then who did? And why? The reader is led through the story by Baley's investigations and we are certainly invited to make our own guesses based on the information at hand. Asimov does an excellent job of having Baley ask all the questions that provide us with all the information and we, as well as he, are left to figure out the solution. The formal inquisitive nature of Baley does force the language and writing to be somewhat stilted and, well, formal. The novel has an unemotional feel to it, and not just when the robots are speaking or on the page. There is a certain formality to everybody and while it may fit the narrative, it can make for reading that is a bit dry.

As a standalone science fiction novel, The Robots of Dawn has not aged especially well. The characters are not very well developed and there is little to distinguish the characters from each other besides their names. The story itself does not have sufficiently high stakes to be truly compelling, or at least the stakes do not feel as if they are truly important. For Earth, the stakes are quite high as well as for Baley, but somehow this does not come across on the page. With all of this said, The Robots of Dawn is worth reading for those reading through Asimov as the Robot series flows into the Empire series which flows into the Foundation series. All of these novels bridge together to give a vision of the future as imagined by Isaac Asimov. I do feel, however, that Asimov works better as a short story writer than a novelist, but there are many novels of Asimov that I haven't read.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Book 68: Quarantine

What happened during Christ's 40 days out in the desert when he was tempted by Satan? What exactly compelled him to fast in the desert? Jim Crace's Quarantine answers these questions as well as tells a very different story of those forty days than one might expect. The idea of Jim Crace (Arcadia, Being Dead) writing a novel about Christ's forty days in the desert was an appealing one to me. Crace is a talented, creative writer. His perspective would be worth reading. It is. He does something with Quarantine that I didn't expect: Jesus is not the point of the story. Instead we have a woman named Miri out in the barren wilderness waiting for her husband Musa to die. Musa is a merchant and he has beaten her and mistreated her for years and now he is on death's doorstep. She is six months pregnant and she will soon be free. She sees five people walking towards the series of caves which she has taken shelter. One woman and four men. The fourth man is a gaunt young man: Jesus from Nazareth. He is young and pious and thoughtful. He feels called to take his quarantine in the desert, the others do it for personal reasons. But he takes quarantine one step farther: no food or water at all, not just after darkness. With Miri hiding Jesus stops at her cave looking for a dab of water before he begins the forty day quarantine. He blesses Musa and tells him to "be well", a common phrase. The next day it is clear that Musa will live and Miri will not be free.

Most of Quarantine deals with Musa and Miri's encounters with the other four pilgrims (as this is something of a pilgrimage) and Musa's mercantile behavior. There are periodic chapters told from the viewpoint of Jesus, but Jesus is only in a third of the novel. The treatment of Jesus is interesting in that it becomes clear that he isn't just a man (as evidenced by his unforeseen healing of Musa) and what the form of his temptations and belief is. He dreams of being a Messiah, a healer. He thinks he is just a man. When the quarantine is over everyone is changed, the pilgrims and Miri no less than Jesus.

Readers looking for a focused novel form treatment of Jesus's forty days of temptation and exile in the desert should probably look elsewhere because Christ is not the point of this book. Jesus seems to be more a framing device than anything else. Jim Crace has an impressive imagination and this is a fine story about how the quarantine might change a man and about humane nature in extreme situations, and the time spent on the pre-Messianic Christ is worth the price of admission.

Book 67: Archangel

Sharon Shinn has an interesting entry in the fantasy genre with Archangel. The book jacket gives away a little bit more than the novel does (though there are hints at something else going on behind the scenes), but some six hundred years ago God/Jovah brought humans to Samaria along with the angels which can pray to God for intercession. Since then the Archangel rules over all the angels and over all of Samaria. This year Gabriel will sing the Gloria, a yearly event which must take place or Jovah will smite the world, but he must sing it with his wife, the angelica. There are perhaps six months until the Gloria and Gabriel has not taken the time to learn the identity of who Jovah selected for his wife and when he finally locates her he learns that she has been a slave for the past five years and before that was part of a tribe which isn't known for orthodox beliefs regarding God and the angels. Her name is Rachel. She wants nothing of Gabriel, the angels, or Jovah. She is an angry woman, and understandably so.

Readers of Archangel who are familiar with the Bible will see plenty of names which have Old Testament meaning and importance. Nearly all of the important angels during the past six hundred years and the humans who worked with the angels are biblically based and some of their actions reflect those of their Old Testament counterparts, but this is not a biblical retelling in a fantasy setting. How Sharon Shinn mixes the biblical into a believable fantasy setting is impressive. She builds a real story for Gabriel and Rachel and their relationship. It is something of a love story, but it is completely dysfunctional and it is very well written. Shinn's descriptions of the angels and their lives and how they pray for intercession from Jovah is more than overt Christianity. It fits into the context of the world and is more storytelling than preaching. This isn't a Christian novel and I do not believe it is intended to be. It's a well told story. Period.

Since this is the first volume in a series of five books, it does an excellent job at setting up the nature of the world as well as hinting at other aspects of the world which are yet to be officially revealed. This is a self contained story and I do not know which characters future volumes focus on and so it may not be the continuation of this story. Then again, it may. Regardless, this is a world and an author I will revisit next with Jovah's Angel.

Movies: August 14 - 20

Match Point (2005): As near as I can tell this is Woody Allen's best film since at least 1999, possibly since the early 90's. Match Point is Allen's first film set and shot in London and somehow it has revitalized him. This film features a washed up tennis pro taking a job as a club pro offering lessons to the rich when he befriends one of his trainees. The rich kid takes the pro under his wing, introduces him to the rich kid's sister (Emily Mortimer) and to his fiancee (Scarlet Johansson). The sister falls for the tennis pro and the tennis pro falls for the sister, but the tennis pro also falls for the fiancee and she may have interest in him. Somehow this all seems typical Woody Allen and it works. The characters feel real and they do not talk and joke like the typical Woody Allen intellectual. So, the movie is mostly good and mostly solid, though I think it loses a bit in the last act as we move towards a resolution. The most dramatic decision made during the film is shockingly out of place for the character as well as the film...nothing really set it up or gave us reason to believe the character was capable of it. Bah. The movie was a step in the right direction for Allen, though I hear Scoop is something of an egg.

Why We Fight (2005): Eugene Jarecki directs this documentary which focuses on some of the reasons we, as a nation, go to war and what sort of reasons we give to the American people. It starts with the warning of departing President Eisenhower about keeping a check on the Military Industrial Complex, meaning the business of war (corporations, lobbying, congress, government contracts) and that if left unchecked then unwarranted power will accumulate in the hands of men who are not accountable to the voters. The next 40 years has shown Eisenhower's warnings to be prescient and also unheeded because this is exactly what has happened. At first glance it would seem that Why We Fight is yet another Anti-Bush film, and there are elements of that, but Jarecki is holding all of the American Presidents and all of the Administrations since Eisenhower accountable for what has gone on. There is a scene in the film where there is a map of the world and countries that we have attacked or been militarily involved in over the last 40 years were highlighted with what year, and every president has had multiple armed conflicts and supported others in their conflicts. There are a couple of talking heads in the film supporting America's actions, and they are persuasive because it is difficult to argue with the buzz word of "freedom" and "security", but the anti American Military Empire speakers are more persuasive to me about how so much of this isn't necessary and is built upon the relationships between these government contractors and the leaders in the administrations, and it is all legal but it may not always be ethical and it is certainly not necessarily in the best interests of American foreign policy. And yes, the current Bush Administration is held accountable but I believe this is more because President Bush is the sitting president and this film could have been made during any administration. Why We Fight is an excellent, necessary documentary. One of the year's best.

Final Destination 3 (2005): Sure this series of movies has followed the formula laid out in the first movie: a girl has a vision of a horrific accident unfolding just moments before it would actually happen. She, her friends, and some random strangers are spared because of her refusal to do get on the plane/highway/roller coaster and then the accident occurs. The rest of the movie is spent by the saved people getting killed in an ever more creative manner. This is so that the people who were supposed to die actually do die and Death's plan is intact. This movie features an accident on a roller coaster during the senior year of high school for a group of kids. This is a highly entertaining movie and it's all about the creativity of the killing. A couple of deaths are cringe inducing, but overall this is a fun ride. It's a teen horror movie and it isn't as gory or intense as some of today's other teen horror movies. The fun factor is high.

(1970): George C. Scott start as General George Patton in this Best Picture winning biopic from 1970. The film follows Patton's arrival on the scene in World War II in the African campaign against Rommel and follows through to the end of the war against Germany. The film shows Patton as a very talented field general, but one without a bit of tact. He admits that he is a bit of a primadonna but his success in war generally outweighs his personality...but his personality does hurt Patton's career as a general who should have potentially been the #2 man in the war behind Eisenhower. This is a long movie and is close to three hours, but the battle sequences are well done as battle scenes and when George C Scott is on screen and speaking as Patton it is compelling film. Excellent movie.

Mr. 3000 (2004): Bernie Mac stars as Stan Ross, one heck of a ballplayer back in his day, but an incredibly selfish and self-centered man who retired the day he hit his 3000th major league hit. He assumed this would be his ticket to the Hall of Fame, but nine years later he still has not been voted in. Then, when statisticians discover that three of his hits were counted twice, Ross tries to make a comeback with the Brewers so he can collect his three hits and still be Mr. 3000. There are hurdles, like he has hasn't swung a bat in almost a decade and he is not longer a young man, not to mention all the bridges he burnt during his playing days. Since this is a comedy and a family friendly movie (though there is a bit of PG-13 language) we can guess how this will end and what sort of emotional redemption there will be for Stan Ross, but the journey is what matters and this is a very pleasant, fun, entertaining movie. Bernie Mac is believable as Stan Ross and there is something about a fun baseball movie that adds to the entertainment value of this movie. It's worth the time spent watching it for light entertainment.

Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973): This fifth and final entry to the Planet of the Apes series could not end soon enough. The movie begins with a framing device 600 years in the future talking about the great leader Cesar the Ape, then we flash back to sometime after the end of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes where Cesar began the revolution to remove the apes from under the control of humanity. War has wrecked the globe the rise of apes to power is nearly complete. Cesar journeys back to the "forbidden" city where there is a record of his parents (Cornelius and Zira, the future apes who traveled back in time) warning of the destruction of the world which is to come nearly two thousand years in the future. There is also a conflict with a gorilla General Aldo in the best way to rule the apes as the gorillas seem naturally more aggressive. What I didn't understand here is how only 20 years after the events of Conquest (maybe less than 20 years, the timeline is unclear) nearly all the apes can speak and think and communicate in clear English and while they are still learning to write, there is a definite intellectual culture here. It just seems awfully quick to go from animals which can not speak (except for Cesar, the child of two apes from the future who can speak and communicate) to having discussions on parallel futures and timelines and philosophy. With all this said, the movie just is not as entertaining and does not seem to tell a coherent story. My recommendation would be to watch the original Planet of the Apes with Charlton Heston and then stop and pretend the next four movies do not exist.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Book 66: Fevre Dream

I suspect that most fantasy readers who are familiar with the work of George R. R. Martin know him because of the superb A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series. It is less well known that Martin was already an accomplished author with several books to his credit. One of his early novels, Fevre Dream, is a 1800's vampire story set in the steamboat days of the Mississippi River. Martin tells a very different story than one might expect from the "vampire fiction" genre. Captain Abner Marsh is a steamboat captain who has seen better days. He was once a great success but misfortune has destroyed his fleet and left him with one run down steamboat and a tarnished reputation. When Marsh accepts a meeting with a man named Joshua York, he has no idea that it will change his fortunes and the rest of his life. York wishes to become Marsh's partner in a business venture and is willing to front Captain Marsh a rather large sum of money with the caveat that Marsh must not ask questions of York's business and that any of York's commands must be obeyed without question no matter how odd they may seem. York's proposal is so much larger than the value of the Fevre River Packet Company that Marsh, being honest, tries to discourage York and express the reality of the worth of his company. In the end Marsh accepts on the condition that the money will go to building of his dream steamboat and his fate is sealed.

There is a second part of the story that will eventually become intertwined with that of Marsh and York. That story is of Damon Julian, a powerful and old vampire on a New Orleans plantation. Damon is the Bloodmaster of a cadre of vampires. He provides them with the human victims they desire and in turn they serve him. Damon seems content to be where he is, though his cadre and one human servant warn Damon that it is time to move to a new city because the danger of rumors and speculation is too strong and that will eventually bring the townspeople down upon them. Damon begins to send away some of his cadre and bring new vampires into his fold, and it is with this action that the opportunity for the stories to mix begins.

The common image of the vampire today is one of three possibilities: 1: The vampires from Buffy the Vampire Slayer where the vamp walks by night and can act otherwise human until he or she puts on his or her vamp face and kills the victim. Certainly evil. 2: The classic Dracula image of the lone vamp. 3: Interview with the Vampire where there are long lived vampires who are evil and very involved in society and some form relationships. In a sense Fevre Dream is closer to the Anne Rice sense of the vampire, but not nearly so romanticized and there are aspects of the nature of vampires that are quite a bit different than we've come to expect. Many concepts of the vampire are shown here to be untrue or misunderstood: in particular, death by sunlight, garlic, stakes, crosses, and making new vampires. It is as if George Martin is re-inventing the concept of the vampire. Of course, Fevre Dream was never and will never be as popular as either Buffy or the pre-Christ Anne Rice and I do not see George Martin writing a series of vampire novels, so what we are left with is a great vampire story told in a completely different yet authentic way.

George Martin is a heck of a writer. He gets the period details of the slave holding south and life on a river but doesn't let the authentic feeling detail get in the way of telling the story. He gives the reader a strong sense of place and setting and sets some of the dialogue in period dress, but not in such a way that the flow of reading is interrupted. That Martin takes the reader to a different place and time and does not do what one might expect with the story is all the more reason that this early George Martin novel should not be missed.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Unconsumed: The Thackery T Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases

There are not many books which I do not finish. As do most people, I typically only read books which I think I might like. Even those books which turn out to be a disappointment I generally finish because I've already spent a good deal of time reading the book and maybe the book will get better. I did not finish The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases. There have been a great many good things said about this book and the creativity and the talent involved. It's all true. This book is written as if it were a guide to some strange and funky fictional (we can hope) diseases. So, each "Chapter" is a new disease with a case history, first known outbreak, symptoms, cures, and some thoughts on it. Each entry is written in as medical and technical sense as possible. Editor Jeff Vandermeer has gathered a very impressive collection of authors to submit entries. Some of the authors in this collection include Michael Moorcock, Neil Gaiman, China Mieville, Alan Moore, Liz Williams, and many others. In short, this is a very talented field, including 8 (according to the book jacket) World Fantasy Award winners. Great talent. The nature of some of these diseases is sickeningly creative.

So far so good, right? Wrong. The fault lies in my reading preference. I prefer novels or at least stories. This is a literary game. It was a challenge for the authors to put together a collection of fantastic diseases complete with case histories. This is a fascinating exercise of literary invention. The readability factor here is much lower because each entry is independent of the rest and there is no continuing narrative to tie the book together. It is difficult to sit down and just read the book because every four pages is something new and in a very formal style of presentation.

With that said, this is a quality collection of fiction. It is simply not something that I had any desire to finish. I suspect others will love this book and make room for it in their bookcase. The book is not for me.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Movies: August 7 - 13

Ani Difranco: Trust (2004): After my disappointment with Render, I am happy to write that Trust is simply a concert film. We have a good 90 minutes of Ani Difranco performing on stage in Washington D.C. in early 2004 and we get more of the concert experience of Ani. More importantly we get the music. This is good stuff.

The Island
(2005): There is the core of a really good, really fascinating movie here. Director Michael Bay just paints over much of that core. Lincoln Six Echo (Ewan McGregor) and Jordan Two Delta (Scarlet Johansson) are clones kept in a controlled environment with hints that they can win the "lottery" to go to "The Island". This is all a cover, of course, because the clones here are grown to be used as spare parts for the medical needs of the clients or "patrons". This itself is a pretty exciting science fiction idea to build a story around, and there is enough story here to keep my interest, but it becomes a lot of chase and action and not really getting to the heart of the clone/patron/ethics issue, though this is danced around and touched upon. It's not a bad movie, per se, but it's nothing special and not nearly as good as it could have been.

Magnum Force(1973): This second Dirty Harry movie is quite a bit different from the first film. Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) is brought back into Homicide because he has certain skills that would be of use in an investigation into a series of murders of criminals. The movie has Callahan working his investigation while having the police administration trying to tie his hands and not use the "Dirty Harry" methods that is at the core of Callahan the cop. We also see the murders of the criminals by someone posing as a traffic cop. Still a gritty movie, Magnum Force is another quality Eastwood flick and it holds up fairly well more than twenty years later. It is easy to see why the studio wanted to make more Dirty Harry movies. They are good movies and, of course, they made money.

Flightplan (2005): Jodie Foster and her daughter are flying home from Germany after the death of Foster's husband. When Foster wakes up mid flight she is unable to find her daughter. She tries to search the plane and is getting more and more frantic. This is a very large, double decker plane and Foster was one of the designers, so she knows there are plenty of places for a 6 year old to get lost. Nobody on the plane, however, remembers ever seeing her and there is no record of her daughter boarding the plane. Flightplan is a well crafted thriller of a parent's worst nightmare. There is a good deal of tension in this movie and Foster plays the frantic parent very well. The last third of the picture takes a different, perhaps more conventional turn, which may turn off some viewers and not bother others. Place me the category of the not bothered. This is a fairly good movie and worth a rental.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Book 65: Phantom

Phantom is the tenth novel in Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth sequence and the second in the Chainfire Trilogy. The previous volume, Chainfire, set up the trilogy to end the series or at least to set up a conclusion that Goodkind has been slowly building to for the previous eight volumes. In Chainfire Richard Rahl was the only person still able to remember his wife Kahlan. Kahlan was the Mother Confessor, everyone knew Kahlan and Richard's friends and family certainly should have. But Kahlan was magically erased from memory by the application of a "Chainfire" spell that was set up for four Sisters of the Dark to steal the Boxes of Orden. By the end of Chainfire Richard and his comrades all remember Kahlan and have an idea of what happened to her. Now he needs to find a way to rescue her even if the rest of the population can't see her, let alone remember her.

While Chainfire was more from Richard's point of view, Phantom is told from the perspectives of both Richard and a Kahlan who doesn't remember who she is or her past (another effect of the Chainfire spell). This is Richard's desire to find his wife before she gets hurt and Kahlan wishes to escape and remember. But we are still in the middle of the war with Jagang's army and the Old World and Richard is the only one who could stop Jagang.

The major complaint with Terry Goodkind's work that I have seen from readers is that he spends too much time moralizing and not nearly enough time telling a story. I could see what critics were saying, but I thought that Goodkind had enough of a story going that the moralizing and philosophy was never overwhelming.

Until now. Hundreds of pages are spent, not in conversation, but in lecture between characters on the rightness and goodness of their point of view, of the right of the individual to exist and create over the wishes of an oppressive group. It's all fairly obvious stuff because Jagang's Army has been raping and pillaging and brutalizing their way up the Old World and into the New and is overwhelmingly an Evil, Twisted, and Sick Army and a Evil way of Life. Well, of course Richard's point of view and philosphy is the Right and Moral one, look at the alternative.

There is some interesting story points here and Goodkind does bring the story to points where events that happened much earlier in the series have a deeper signficance than we might have imagined at the time. There is much more going on, but for the first time in the Sword of Truth I felt like the moralizing was too much. It seems like we've heard all of this before.

I thought Chainfire was an excellent set up for the trilogy to end the series, but Phantom takes a step back. It is still a quick read, as is all of Goodkind's work, but there is less actual meat here than I've seen in some time.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Book 64: Assault at Selonia

Ambush at Corellia was a surprisingly good Star Wars novel. It was set in the timeline at a place where quite a few of the surrounding novels were sub-par. The set up has Han, Leia, their children, Chewbacca, and the droids on a diplomatic mission to Corellia, Han's homeworld. Corella is a star system and planet which is coming apart at the seams and rife with factions sowing the seeds of rebellion and revolution and uprising. The novel did something fairly remarkable for a part of a trilogy: It told a complete story while broadening the overall story of the trilogy. I was impressed and I enjoyed reading the novel. I anticipated reading the second volume, Assault at Selonia, and hoped for the same level of quality and storytelling.

I was let down and satisfied at the same time. Roger MacBride Allen is a capable writer and he has an easy to read style that moves forward at a good pace. I had hopes that he would be able to avoid Middle Book Syndrome, a condition where an otherwise good novel does very little to tell an independent story and serves only as a link between Books One and Three. Unfortunately, Assault at Selonia caught a nasty case of M.B.S. There is quite a bit going on, but very little narrative advancement. I will give a brief overview: Han has been captured by his cousin Thracken Sal-Solo, the presumed leader of the Human League. Sal-Solo is threatening the peace of Corellia and has something that can cause a planet to explode. Another superweapon, sure, but this one is less the point of the story than in previous novels. Leia is also held captive, though in a different location. Luke is with Lando trying to decide how to get information to the Republic to help the situation as Sal-Solo has caused Hyperspace flight into the system to be impossible. Throughout the novel we learn more of what is going on behind the scenes and the characters are moved around the board so that every character is in a different place at the end than he/she was in the beginning, but there was no story thread here.

This novel would be completely lost if it wasn't tying itself to Book Three. There is no resolution, no real narrative advancement. Pad a few chapters into the first and third novels and this book could be completely absorbed with nobody being the wiser. That's what I mean by Middle Book Syndrome. It is a bridge between two books, but doesn't advance much and doesn't add essential story points that couldn't be covered elsewhere. This is a common problem with trilogies.

Though I may be coming off as being negative, I did like the book. When I finish the trilogy I expect that it will be one of the better Star Wars stories that have been written. MacBride Allen is doing a very good job here and taken as a three book cycle I think the work will be strong. Taking the second book alone, it doesn't hold up as a single novel. Other second volumes may have the same story flaws, but in this instance there was a certain obviousness about it, that Assault at Selonia could have been more and failed to live up to its promise. Still, it is worth reading the trilogy even if volume two is mostly filler.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Book 63: The Vile Village

Thus begins the seventh book in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Baudelaire orphans have escaped the evil Count Olaf once again and are back with Mr. Poe who is looking to find a new guardian and home for the three children. Where six previous guardians have failed the children in a variety of ways it is decided that a village will be able to do a better job raising the children than an individual. Following the clue "V.F.D" the children select the village of V.F.D. to make their home and hopefully rescue the two Quagmire Triplets. The Village of Fowl Devotees is, of course, nothing like what they had hoped and does not obviously hold the clue they need to find their friends. The village immediately puts the three children to work and Violet, Sunny, and Klaus struggle under the restrictions of the village.

Those familiar with the series (and anyone reading the seventh volume should be) will be immediately familiar with the language and formula of The Vile Village. Snicket has a good thing going and he sticks to what this series is: A report from a fictional author named Lemony Snicket on the series of unfortunate events which befall the Baudelaires. It is written in a very kid friendly voice, though one which repeatedly warns the reader from reading on about the horrible events which are to come. It is a perfect formula which serves the series well. If, at times, the books sound and feel like every other book in the series, it is only to be expected. But the younger readers will certainly love the Lemony Snicket books and the adult reader can enjoy them just as much.

Book 62: The Neutronium Alchemist: Consolidation

Peter F. Hamilton's hard science fiction trilogy has taken a turn towards the fantastic. Don't get me wrong, there is still plenty of interstellar travel, amazing scientific advancement that has permitted technology that a 21st Century reader might very well consider magic, but so much is based on science and genetics and technology. Except for one little thing that has come to dominate the series: Possession. On the planet of Lalonde we were first introduced to the concept that some men and women were being "possessed" by some other intelligence, some other human intelligence. Now that we are beginning The Nuetronium Alchemist we have learned who exactly the Possessors are and some of what they want. The entities doing the possessing were human once upon a time. These are the souls of the dead. All of the souls of every human who has lived and died are in some sort of a void, as it has been explained so far, and something has happened that they can take over the bodies of living humans and there are far more dead than there are living people...even in a vastly expanded universe of trillions (or more). The Possessed have taken over two planets, have footholds on several more, and there is currently no known way to stop a group of them.

This is what we know when we begin The Neutronium Alchemist: Consolidation. Consolidation is the paperback first half of The Neutronium Alchemist with Conflict being the second half of the original hardcover publication. The primary focus of this novel (or half-novel as it truly is) is on the Possessed as they consolidate their hold on several planets and the danger they pose to the Universe. Of special note is a Possessed leader taking control on the planet of New California: Al Capone. That's right, the 1920's Crime Lord is one of the returned souls and he wastes no time in setting up a new Empire. His is a special charisma and leadership that is rare and powerful. We also are given perspectives on Louise Kavanagh, the young woman whom Joshua Calvert had a liason with on Norfolk and we see her planet being lost to the Possessed. We also see the responses of the Living and how they hope to combat the Possessed and how they can understand just what is truly happening. In a thick novel with an ever expanding scope of story we are given references back to events that happened a thousand pages ago and some things begin to make more sense. Reasons behind events and behind the scenes events come clear.

A negative to bring up is that the story is so large that some characters and viewpoints do not show up for hundreds of pages at a time. So, readers expecting Joshua Calvert or some of the voidhawks from the first book to jump off the page will have to wait several hundred pages before they show up here. Now, I fully expect they will have more to do in Conflict but it is worth noting. A major plus is that Hamilton has set up a story that is very broad and very interesting. I have no idea where Hamilton is taking this story, but I have fully signed up to go on the ride. He does heavily lace the novel with the "hard" science fiction technologies and terminology, but it does not overwhelm the story. Consolidation is still not as exciting and eye opening as The Reality Dysfunction: Emergence, but this is a story I want to read.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Book 61: Parable of the Talents

At the end of Parable of the Sower Lauren Olamina had founded her first Earthseed community: Acorn. She founded the community with those she found on the highways of California as she tried to find safety somewhere among the violence of the United States. A man who came to travel with Olamina, Bankole, allowed her to use land that he owned. Bankole and Olamina eventually married and she had been teaching the community Earthseed and raising the children in it, her alternate religion that she believes is truth. Now that she has founded Acorn Olamina needs for her community to grow. She needs to spread Earthseed to others, to teach, to preach, to help others to know the truth as she knows it. She also needs Acorn to remain safe and protected as any could be killed, captured into slavery, robbed, or raped. Or all of this could occur.

As in the first volume, Parable of the Talents is a novel told primarily in the voice of Lauren Oya Olamina through her journals. So, we are looking at what she wrote of herself and her surroundings from some point in the future. She may have neglected to write about certain events and everything is always from her perspective. This is the part of the format that is the same as Parable of the Sower. What is different is that the chapters include discussion and writing by her daughter, and her daughter has a completely different point of view than Olamina. Shortly after the novel begins we learn that Olamina is pregnant. For her daughter to be writing and writing this well, this has to be coming from at least twenty years in the novel's future if not longer. The daughter offers commentary on Olamina's writing and perspective and gives her own. She also includes brief passages by her father and the occasional passage by Olamina's brother. Together we get a much different view of Olamina as we did in Parable of the Sower. She is still the leader, but her family is resentful and angry. Her daughter comes off as very angry, so we are left to wonder why and we begin to discovery why.

The format change was a bit surprising but it was very well done. It is enough to say that Octavia Butler was one of the masters of speculative fiction and she is in complete control here. This harsh vision of our future and even harsher vision of what Olamina and Acorn undergoes is exceptionally moving and powerful and it is part of a brutal world that I didn't want to leave. Wherever I thought Octavia Butler might go with this novel, she went in a completely different direction but one that felt entirely authentic.

Movies: July 31 - Aug 6

Walk the Line (2005): "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash". Walk the Line is the life story of country legend Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix). We are given a little bit of his childhood with a brother who died in a horrible accident, an emotionally abusive father, and a musical mother. Then we are brought forward to Cash as a young man in the Air Force and marrying his sweetheart Viv. After he left the service he tries to pursue his music career while his wife just wants her husband to work and take care of his family. After some struggle, Cash begins to strike it big and spends his time on the road where he meets June Carter (Reese Witherspoon). This begins what is one of the great romances of country music, but Cash is still married at the time.

I loved this movie. I thought it was so well done and knowing that Phoenix and Witherspoon did their own singing as well as portraying Cash and Carter is beyond impressive. Phoenix did a fantastic job sounding like a young Johnny Cash and showing us Cash struggling with his personal demons. Walk the Line only covers a small portion of Cash's life (approximately a decade of Cash as a grown man), but it does an excellent job showing the core of the man and why he would want to be a better man. It can be said that Walk the Line is nothing more than a movie of the week and based on simple content alone, it is. But then so is Ray and so are many other movies. The difference is that this is well acted, well directed, well produced, and has a killer soundtrack of vintage Johnny Cash.

Render: Spanning Time with Ani Difranco (2002): This music documentary follows folk singer Ani Difranco on tour and gives a glimpse of her life backstage, on the road, and at home. We are given some concert footage and complete songs (Tis of Thee, among others), some footage of Ani talking about her hometown of Buffalo, and some of her beliefs. This should have been a fascinating documentary but when the footage was off stage the sound was very quiet and difficult to pick up all of what was being said I just wanted to get back on stage with Ani anyway. As a concert film, Render is not nearly enough, as a documentary of a favorite singer, I can't recommend it.

Jarhead (2005): I read Anthony Swofford's Gulf War I memoir a couple years back. It was a compelling account of his time as a Marine and the potential disappointment and disillusionment of the modern day soldier because there is less of a ground war than in previous wars. These men are being trained to a very hard edge but not given the opportunity to exercise that training. The film, directed by Sam Mendes (American Beauty), gets at this disillusionment. It's a different type of war movie because it is a different type of war. The soldiers around Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) spent too much time sitting around, then moving, then sitting around, but not actually seeing combat. I had heard enough negatives about the film when it was in theatres that the need to see this movie was much lower than when I heard Mendes was directing it. The critics were overly harsh because Jarhead is a decent movie. The trouble with this film is the very nature of the movie: It's a movie about soldiers training for and going to a war they don't get to fight. It's a war movie without the war. Accepting that pretty basic concept and moving past it allowed me to take note of the movie I was watching. There is no deep analysis here and Mendes doesn't seem to be trying to teach the viewer anything about the nature of war except to show us a reality for some soldiers who do not get the chance to fight a war they trained for. It's worth watching, but some viewers will be put off because of the lack of combat in the film.

The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005): I don't know about this being the funniest movie of last year or anything about the inherent comedic genius of Steve Carrell, but this is actually a "good movie". I started out waiting for the laughs and there were some, but the longer I watched the more I got into the story of the guy who was just too nice and decent and unsure of himself around women to really get anywhere with them and now he's forty years old, has never been with a woman, and has an apartment filled with collectable action figures. His co-workers try to get him some "action" and he ends up meeting and falling for Catherine Keener. What forty year old man wouldn't? It is funny, but in a fairly sly way that doesn't go over the top very often (except for the chest waxing scene, but even that is more restrained than one would think). Good movie.

V for Vendetta (2006): V (Hugo Weaving) is either a revolutionary or a terrorist, depending on what side of the line you are standing on. The film is set in the England of the future where the world is not a nice place and England is not under a dictatorship. The nation is safe, more or less, but rights are few. V references the Guy Fawkes rebellion of hundreds of years ago where he tried to blow up the Parliament building. On the eve of Guy Fawkes Day he blows up a statue, then later takes over a television station wearing his trademark Guy Fawkes mask and laid out what he wants to do and that in one year on Guy Fawkes Day he invites all who are dissatisfied with the current regime join him as he makes a larger impression. V rescued Evie (Natalie Portman) earlier in the movie and while she isn't quite on his side she is sympathetic as he saved her life. But, from a perspective, he is a terrorist. But can a man truly be a terrorist if the government is oppressing its people?

There are echoes of Revolution in this movie and it is one that Americans should be able to resonate with considering that our nation was founded from acts which could be considered terrorist...we rebelled against our "rightful" government. To say that V for Vendetta is thought provoking, though, would be inaccurate because the British government is so evil and corrupt that it is nearly impossible to see things from their point of view. They are too demonized in the movie. But with that said, this movie works very well on DVD. Weaving does an excellent job here as he has to act completely under the cover of a mask and it is with body language and tone of voice that he gets everything across, never with his face. Portman also fits well into the movie as she is the heart, it is through her eyes that we learn about the world and it is Portman that has to portray the emotion. She does.

Walk the Line is the best movie I saw this week, but V for Vendetta comes in at a solid #2.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Clerks II (2006)

More than ten years later after we first met Dante (Brian O'Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson) in Clerks we find the dynamic duo still clerking.  Jay and Silent Bob Strikes Back gave us a glimpse of Dante and Randal still at the Quick Stop and RF Video just getting by.  Clerks II opens in black and white with Dante arriving to open the Quick Stop.  As he unlocks the window he sees that there is a big fire raging inside.  He quickly rolls the metal barrier over the window in shock, but opens it up again and sees that the convenience store really is burning.  As he calls for the fire department the movie switches to color.  We move forward a couple of years on Dante's last day working at Mooby's, a restaurant that could be described as if the Disney Corporation got into fast food.  Fans of Dogma will know all about Mooby's.  Dante is getting married to Emma (Jennifer Schwalbach, aka Mrs Kevin Smith) and moving down to Florida with her.


What follows is a film that is all heart.  It is just a heard that is wrapped in a filthy, brown colored, somewhat smelly wrapper.  I mean this with complete affection.  Kevin Smith is known for making movies that are very "talky" and laced heavily with foul language and crude humor.  Clerks II has this in spades.  The MPAA has Clerks II "Rated R for pervasive sexual and crude content including aberrant sexuality, strong language and some drug material".  Exactly.  I think Clerks II goes farther and with more flair and creativity with the vulgarity than Smith has previously done in any of his movies.  With that in mind, this is a movie that has perhaps more heart than it knows what to do with.  The story Kevin Smith is telling here has to do with two guys now in their early 30's who have done little with their lives and are working the same dead end jobs as they were in their early 20's.  They don't have direction to their lives and they are somewhat disappointed with how their lives have gone.  In a more serious moment midway through the movie Randal mentions that he thinks that all of his best times are behind him and that he thinks that life may have passed him by.  But Randal is also losing his friend.  Dante is getting married, yes, but he is also moving from New Jersey to Florida and Randal will be without his best friend, perhaps his only real friend.  It's a movie about growing up, even if the growing up is a decade late.  It's a movie about figuring out what you really want in life and realizing that what you want may be what is in front of you and it's different than what you dream about.  But this very touching story is wrapped in a hard candy shell of hilarious vulgarity.  Exactly how Kevin Smith gets away with putting a "Live Donkey Show" into the movie is beyond me, but it works.  How he then comes up with the term "Interspecies Erotica" to describe said Donkey Show…now that's something else.  Naturally there geek discussions on Star Wars vs Lord of the Rings with some Transformers thrown in for good measure.

Like all Kevin Smith films, this is a talky movie.  Characters stand around talking, sit talking, walk and play talking, and it's all funny and sweet, and filthy and nasty.  The core of the movie is, of course, Dante and Randal, but Kevin Smith brings in his regulars for cameo roles: Ben Affleck (he has been in all but one of Smith's movies), Jason Lee, Joey Lauren Adams, and Ethan Suplee all make appearances.  Joining the cameo cast is Kevin Weisman (Marshall on Alias) and Wanda Sykes in memorable roles.  Kevin Smith has said that Rosario Dawson deserves and Oscar for her role as Becky, the manager at Mooby's, because she makes the viewer believe that she might actually sleep with someone like Brian O'Halloran.  Dawson is a great addition to the Smith cast and hopefully she will do more movies with him in the future.

Clerks II is not for everybody and one can make a case that Kevin Smith hasn't grown up, and that since I have a very strong fondness for his work, that I haven't either.  Perhaps that is true.  I like Kevin Smith.  Obviously, I have never met the man, but he comes across well in interviews and commentary tracks on DVDs and he can tell a great story (not just on film).  His friends are very loyal to him as he is to them, which tells me that there is something there.  I loved this movie.  I had a great time watching this in the theatre, I expect to have a great time watching it on DVD.  I find it funny and touching, and a little revolting.  While I won't list it as an Oscar contender and the year is early, I am completely confident that this will be one of my favorite movies of 2006. 

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Book 59: The Scar

Bellis Coldwine is fleeing New Crobuzon.  She has taken passage on a ship to the colony of Nova Esperium and hopes to find refuge among the criminals and Remade and other dregs of society unfit for New Crobuzon.  The events of Perdido Street Station were only the beginning of more horror for the city and Bellis is escaping something that we are left in the dark about, some punishment.  Before the ship can arrive at Nova Esperium it is attacked by pirates, the ship’s officers slain.  The captives are brought to a floating city called Armada.  Armada is made up of hundreds and perhaps thousands of other captured ships that have been connected by bridges and chains and welded together in places to form a great city.  Armada is more than a graveyard of ships, it has a society and culture and a flow to it just as much as any other city.  Only, in Armada humans live next to Remade and vampire and kheperi and cactus men and all manner of creatures.  While in other cities there may be intermixing, nowhere it is it more pronounced than Armada.  Many prisoners adapt to life in Armada fairly quickly as it is often a better chance at life than what they had been offered in the past.  It is through the eyes of Bellis Coldwine that we learn of the plans to raise a mythical sea creature of massive proportions, and this only hints at what is really going on in The Scar.  The story is much, much deeper and with levels of imagination that I can only hint at.  Whatever the reader thinks is going on in this novel only scratches the surface as Mieville continues to change our expectations and understanding as he reveals more and more of the plot. 


Reading Perdido Street Station I was impressed by China Mieville’s imagination in creating a world that felt very real and very alien and also by how dark and creative he was in telling the story.  PSS goes to some very dark places that I could never have imagined if Mieville didn’t get there first.  I was impressed and I admired his craft.  I didn’t “like” it, though.  It’s a nebulous term, I know, but what I’m saying is that Perdido Street Station failed to connect with me on an emotional level or a storytelling level.  I was unable to truly engage with the characters or the story.  A year or two passes and I decide to pick up The Scar knowing this was likely the last chance I would give Mieville.  There was no instant connection like I find with other novels, but slowly the story grows on me.  The exploration of what Armada is up to and who some of these characters are is engrossing.  From the scarred freakishness of The Lovers (not the title Scar), to the otherworldly deadly calm of Uther Doeul, to the Remade Tanner, to the New Crobuzon spy to plots within plots within secrets, I wanted to know what happened next and what is going on.  Once again Mieville’s imagination is on in full force with The Scar and this time there was a connection and engagement.  The Scar does not go to such dark places as Perdido Street Station, but it is still dark and grimy and dirty and violent.  It is also shockingly creative and original and fascinating.  This is more of a showpiece for China Mieville and one which has given me reason to read more of his work. 


Still, this does not count as one of the best (or favorite) books which I have read this year in terms of my holding the book up and saying “Yes!  This is what reading and writing is all about!”, but Mieville does a damn fine job here.