Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Jericho - 1:1

This is an interesting concept: a small town in middle America is going about its business until all their televisions and radios become fuzzy and they look outside to see a mushroom cloud in the distance. What happened? What is this? Why is their a nuclear explosion in America? Have we been attacked or was it a test or an accident? This shouldn’t happen. There is fear, panic, reassurance, questioning and probably everything that might really happen if we woke up one day and saw a mushroom cloud in the distance and didn't know why: That is Jericho.

I heard a radio interview with Skeet Ulrich, the star of the show, and he said that the show is ultimately about hope because the show couldn't be made or stay on the air if it were too much of a downer. I just hope Jericho can walk that fine line because the darkness is where this sort of a show can get really interesting. The residents react much like I think most people would react. Some are calm and others are very much not so. Tensions are high and nobody knows anything. There is a brief answer to what the situation outside the town of Jericho is like, but that is better left to be discovered and I hope the show goes deeper into what all is really going on.

The pilot episode was fairly good as I waited to see the nuclear explosion in the distance so we could get into the meat of the show. The meat of the first episode is well cooked (not well done, which would be too chewy and overcooked) and I'm hoping the rest of the show holds up.

Movies: September 18 - 24

Bamboozled (2000): This Spike Lee joint is the one film of his I have been the most apprehensive about watching. I heard very little that was positive about the movie and I knew it had something to do with actors in blackface and racism. It does, but it happens to be an excellent movie. Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans) is a writer for a television network and is the one black writer there. With the network behind in the ratings his white boss (Michael Rappaport), after telling the Harvard educated Pierre that he is blacker than Pierre is, tells Pierre to dig deep into his blackness and to come up with an urban show that will get people watching. Previously Pierre had been pitching high concept shows, but in frustration decides to push the envelope so far that his boss will see that the shows Pierre actually wants to write are worth making. Pierre comes up with the most racist, most offensive idea that would never in a million years be made in the twenty first century: an update of the minstrel show, except where the black actors will be in "blackface" make up, set back in a watermelon patch on a southern plantation, where the characters call themselves "coons". To Pierre's surprise and his assistant's (Jada Pinkett-Smith) horror, Michael Rappaport loves the idea and wants to make the show. The show, which we get to see segments of, is filmed in front of a studio audience and it becomes a popular and critical hit. The show was pitched as a satire, but it is clear that it is doing nothing more than revisiting and re-affirming the concept that black people (and perhaps people in general as there is a scene where other races and cultures identify themselves with the characters) are nothing but ignorant, dancing, singing buffoons. Thinking people know that this is absurd, and Jada Pinkett-Smith's character spends a good amount of time trying to get this across and to convince Pierre and the lead actors in the show that by being a part of this show that they are nothing more than exactly what the show is purportedly making fun of. Bamboozled is a tragedy in the theatrical sense of the flaws in certain characters causing their downfalls, and this film is a powerful, if a little heavy handed, exploration of what it means to be a black entertainer in an industry run by white men.

Take the Money and Run (1969): The early Woody Allen was an experimental Woody Allen. In this flick he employs a documentary style with action and zaniness mixed in. He plays an inept career criminal and hijinks really do ensue. Various characters discuss Allen's character's life as if they are being interviewed and tell us about him, all in the early comedic style that Allen had: meaning that jokes a-plenty abound. I do get tired of seeing Woody Allen in each of his films, but I will just have to get over that because he stars in most of his movies.

Sex, Lies, and Videotape
(1989): This movie felt empty. Andie MacDowell's husband is cheating on her with her sister. MacDowell and her husband are no longer intimate. A college friend of his comes to town to stay with them for a short period of time and it turns out that he has a fetish where he videotapes women talking about sex and everything they have done and want to do. MacDowell is repulsed, but is friendly with the friend. The sister is intrigued because she is of loose morals, and the husband is concerned because this may mess with his two relationships (wife and mistress). And, I do not care about these characters. They are all somewhat slimy, except for MacDowell who is just sad. There is no joy in Mudville. Even so, this was a well put together film by Steven Soderbergh and it flows well and does not drag. It is just a film filled with unlikeable characters.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

two teams down

I suppose by now it's a little late to post about the first episode of the new season of The Amazing Race, but it is interesting that the first two teams eliminated were the Muslim team and the Indian team.

Not that I think the Race is an inherently racist show (The Black Family notwithstanding) because I believe that the producers set up the challenges and let the race unfold as it will...and we have had several teams of color win the race in the past, and that's remarkable considering that most seasons have one (1) team of color. This tenth season is the most diverse: Muslim Team, Indian, Asian Heritage, Gay, and Black. There's even a Coal Miner and his Wife.

The diversity is notable because it is not the norm. Or, it doesn't feel like the norm. The Race is typically white and it would almost be news if Season 11 had a token white team rather than token "minority" teams.

This season is good, though. A good amount of diversity, even though the first ep had cut out two of the diverse teams.

Episode 2 airs tonight.

Book 84: Death in the Castle

The cover of my 1960's era paperback of Death in the Castle. described the novel as "chilling and thrilling". It isn't.

Sir Richard and Lady Mary need to sell the thousand year old castle which has been in the family for hundreds of years. Sir Richard has no heir to pass the castle on to, and if he doesn't sell the English government will turn it into a prison or a powerplant. John Blayne, an American, wishes to buy the castle, but he wants to take the castle apart piece by piece and bring it to America and make it into a museum. Sir Richard does not know this and this becomes a source of conflict.

The maid, Kate, is more than she seems to be and while the reader is given enough clues as to her identity, most of the other characters have no idea.

There is supposedly some sort of a mystery here regarding the sale and the mysterious "they" who also inhabit the castle, but to be perfectly honest the story is not very interesting, there is no mystery, there is nothing thrilling or chilling and the novel is little more than the barest thread of a story about a couple not really willing to sell and a buyer who wants to be honest and respectful.

This isn't very critical, but the whole book and uneventful storyline just bored me. It's a short novel, but there is no substance.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Book 83: The Grim Grotto

The Grim Grotto is the eleventh volume in A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket. After being washed down a mountain stream and becoming separated from the third Quagmire Triplet, the Baudelaire Orphans are rescued by a good guy member of VFD in his submarine and they explore underwater for the final VFD clue in the sugar bowl. Naturally Count Olaf shows up, as well as a little girl who calls everyone a "cakesniffer" (one of my new favorite insults I will never use), and trouble ensues.

Now that we are eleven volumes into a thirteen volume series, I am just about ready for things to wrap up. More revelations, some doublecrossing, joy and disappointments, and a nice touch at the end which is far different than the previous ten volumes makes this another quality effort by Snicket (Daniel Handler).

I am also running out of things to write about these books since I've read the last five or so volumes in a short period of time and the books still follow something of a formula, and still has the same issues of the Baudelaires and Count Olaf. Almost done with the set.

Movies: September 11 - 17

Yo Soy Boricua, Pa'Que Tu Lo Sepas! (2006): Rosie Perez makes her directorial debut with Yo Soy Boricua, a documentary look at Puerto Rico and the history of the island and how it relates to America. This is both a historical look at Puerto Rico as well as a personal one. Rosie is on camera for a portion of the film, talking with her family (sister, cousin, other assorted relatives) about being Puerto Rican in America and how they understand what being Puerto Rican means, but she also interviews other Puerto Ricans in America. The film is a mix of the personal and the historical. The historical side deals with the origins of Puerto Rico and how the United States became involved and what that involvement has meant for the small island, once a nation now a commonwealth. The film covers the mistreatment of its citizens and how Puerto Ricans have been able to fiercely maintain a sense of identity and pride in their culture. Yo So Boricua, Pa'Que Tu Los Sepas! (which means "I am Puerto Rico, Just So You Know!") is a very informative film, but also entertaining as Rosie and her family work well as talking heads walking through their neighborhoods and culture.

(1973): This early film of Woody Allen is, to put it simply and unscientifically, weird. Woody Allen plays a health food store owner who went to the hospital for a common procedure and woke up 200 years later in an unrecognizable America. Since he is the only person who isn't recorded and "in the system" a group called The Underground wish for Allen to do some work on their behalf against the government. There is quite a bit of slapstick humor in segments that look like they are from a silent film (quirky fast paced music, no vocals, and Chaplin-esque action) and the dialogue is quick one line jokes from Allen which are not understood by the other characters because he is from a time they don't understand. Sleeper is better than perhaps it should be, but it is so out there and there doesn't seem be a real storyline that I can recall, it is something of a mixed bag. Sleeper marks the first collaboration of Woody Allen and Diane Keaton.

Angels in the Outfield
(1994): This cute family baseball movie features a young boy in a small orphanage who prays that the hapless California Angels could somehow win the pennant because his father said they would be a family again when the Angels win the pennant. The father, the adults can tell though the boy could not, meant that they won't be a family and that becoming a family is so unlikely that the Angels would win the pennant first. God, or perhaps just some angels listened to the prayer and begin to help the baseball team make plays they never could have made and the team starts to win (This is a Disney movie, do you think I'm spoiling anything here?). The boy is the one person who can see the angels (Christopher Lloyd is "Al", the angel who speaks with the boy). Danny Glover plays the angry coach of the pitiful Major League ballclub (Matthew McConaughey, Tony Danza, and Adrien Brody have smaller roles in the movie). This is a very cute, fun, and family friendly movie.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Fun at McSweeney's

I don't go to McSweeney's nearly as often as I should (once a year), but there is always interesting fiction there. I think Dave Eggers does very well as an editor, and what he is able to collect is astounding.

On the front page of McSweeney's Online there is a little segment by Kate Hahn called American Girl Dolls Write to President Bush. Hahn has girl dolls (no really, dolls) from various times in American history writing to the current president about various topics, lampooning President Bush fairly harshly.

Here are two of my favorite lines:
It made me grateful that you are bringing back the economic divide that allows little girls like me to be so exceedingly happy! (Victorian Girl)

The Patriots say we must fight in order to have a democratically elected leader, privacy rights, and freedom of speech. Yet I understand that you, along with Messrs. Cheney and Rumsfeld, are dismantling these very things. This vexes me.(Colonial Girl)

Something about the doll saying "this vexes me" cracks me up.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Early Kubrick

Two of Stanley Kubrick's earliest films are available free for viewing online. I had no idea where to find actual DVDs of early Kubrick because there are simply not many options for the early short works of directors if they are not released as a special feature on another film.

Flying Padre (1951) - 8 minutes - and Day of the Fight(1951) - 16 mintues - are his first two films and worth checking out.

Now if I could just find Fear and Desire and The Seafarers, I'd be set.

Book 82: Showdown at Centerpoint

Thus concludes a fairly solid Star Wars Trilogy. Showdown at Centerpoint is the concluding volume in the Corellian Trilogy. The story we have so far is that Leia and Han, along with their children, a Wookiee, and a couple of droids went on a diplomatic mission to Han's homeworld of Corellia and became entangled in the civil unrest where the main faction is led by Thracken Sal-Solo, Han's cousin and a general bad guy. Thracken claims to have a Starbuster, a weapon which nobody has seen but that has already destroyed two planets. Yes, another Super Weapon. The civil unrest encompasses the entire Corellian system and through kidnapping and hiding, the Organa-Solo family, along with Luke Skywalker, Lando Calrissian, and Mara Jade, are working separately to stop the Starbuster from destroying the next planet on a list of targets and to restore stability to the region.

Joining together and splitting apart our heroes will travel to the strange Centerpoint Station, which may have everything to do the troubles. They will join with Selonians and the Drall, two non-human races in the Corellian system, and there is love and loss, lots of action, the rising importance of the Solo children, and the chance to save the Republic once again. The ending of Showdown at Centerpoint is a bit rushed, but taken as part of a trilogy this book and the trilogy is a satisfying Star Wars experience. While these books would not stand up with the best of Matthew Stover or Karen Traviss, this trilogy rises above the majority of Star Wars novels. It contains all of the action and fun of the movies and had George Lucas decided to use the stories of Roger MacBride Allen, this Star Wars trilogy would be just as successful as what was already filmed.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Book 81: Darknesses

L. E. Modesitt, Jr has created a world, or at least a continent, called Corus which bears striking similarities to that of his most famous series The Saga of Recluse. The first two books in The Corean Chronicles features a storyline which should be familiar to those who have read several Recluse novels in that a young man who is highly competent but does not know as much as he should is put into situations where he must succeed and excel or he will likely die. The young man becomes more than he thought he was while claiming he is nothing but a simple herder. The magic system here is not explained well, but it has to do with feel, intuition, seeing lines of power, shades of color and darkness being the color of decent humanity. A reader could make a case that this series picks up thousands of years after The Death of Chaos even though I suspect that Modesitt would not claim any connection between Recluse and Corus. Darknesses is the second volume of The Corean Chronicles and Alucius is now a Captain in the Iron Valley Militia. He is serving out his time so he can go home to his wife and family and live a quiet life as a herder, but he knows there is some evil out there because he has already confronted so much and is already legendary among those who have heard his exploits. Alucius himself remains humble and quiet, though he is death to any who stand in his way. Alucius, like many of Modesitt's heroes, will do whatever is necessary so that he and his men stay alive. It is called brutal efficiency and his skill at "Talent", the magic system of Corus is what makes him doubly so successful.

Darknesses moves Alucius up the ranks while others plot against him because of a level of Talent skill which he possesses but does not know about. Alucius has no ambition other than staying alive and returning home, but others view him as a threat. After the first fifty to perhaps a hundred pages Darknesses picks up as the reader becomes immersed in this world and story. Modesitt gives a wealth of detail about the mundane life, but it is all about building a sense of place and character that we know as much as Alucius does (though many thoughts and revelations are left unexplained, like saying "aha!" without explaining why) and that we can understand the character of Alucius. There is a very limited narrator in that much of the novel follows Alucius and we get many of his thoughts, but we also are put into the heads of various other important characters for very short chapters so that we have a hint of the other plots that are ongoing against Alucius.

Darknesses reads much like a Recluse novel, just without the Order versus Chaos magic dynamic, and this is a compliment. It is perhaps a backhanded compliment because there is not a very large distinction between Corus and Recluse and it feels like this story could just have easily have been told in Recluse as it was in Corus. There is a smooth and easy flow to Modesitt's writing and Darknesses was an enjoyable read.

Book 80: The Slippery Slope

The Slippery Slope is the tenth volume in A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket. Having disguised themselves as Carnival Freaks and pretending to join Count Olaf's gang in order to get to the VFD headquarters, the Baudelaire Orphans have been discovered by Count Olaf and while Sunny was kidnapped, Klaus and Violet or locked in a trailer and are rolling backwards down a mountain road with no control over the trailer. This is where we begin The Slippery Slope. The elder orphans struggle to find a way to save themselves and then make their way back up the mountain to the secret headquarters, and Sunny struggles to find an opportunity to escape to find her siblings or to learn more about the scheme of Count Olaf.

As always, one book in this series is quite similar to the others, but we learn much more about the mysterious VFD that has been hinted at for several books now and somewhat more about the Quagmire Triplets is also revealed. One gets the sense that Snicket truly is wrapping this series up and leading towards an end (not to mention that book 13 is called The End). The Slippery Slope is a satisfying book and one which should please longtime readers of the series. The fun, the despair, the words of warning, the riddles and rhymes, and the new mysterious about the old villains...all of this is included. If you like the first nine, you'll be happy with ten.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Book 79: Dragon's Fire

Anne McCaffrey and her son Todd McCaffrey have collaborated a second time to write a novel of Pern's earlier days. Dragon's Fire takes place during the same time period as their first collaboration Dragon's Kin, which would be the end of the Second Interval after Landing (the settlement of Pern) before the Fall of Thread. This novel has to do with discovering new sources for firestone, the material needed by the dragons to breathe fire. Pellar, a young mute boy is apprenticed to Masterharper Zist and they work together to search for Moran, another Harper who has gone missing trying to help The Shunned. The Shunned are a segment of Pernese society which have been outcast for various crimes but also at the whim of a Lord Holder. Pellar's story intertwines with Halla, a homeless girl, and Cristov, the son of a miner. There are references to the characters of Dragon's Kin, but this serves more to place the story in a time period rather than illuminate the story here.

While Dragon's Fire is, at its core, about finding a safe way to mine firestone, most of the novel focuses on the various adventures of Pellar as well as Tenim's (a villain) desire to gain power and money. Dragon's Fire does not seem to tell the story it claims to tell, and the issue with firestone is almost an afterthought except for discussions on the challenges of mining firestone because of how volatile the material is. Midway through the novel the story picks up and the McCaffreys start driving towards a conclusion, but the first half of the novel meanders around without accomplishing much. By the end Dragon's Fire is a better novel than Dragon's Kin, but it does not hold up nearly as well against Anne's classic Dragonriders of Pern novels. Interestingly enough, Todd McCaffrey's solo Pern novel, Dragonsblood, is also a stronger novel. The fact that the stakes do not feel very high or important has to do with the reasons why this novel is not as effective as other Pern stories. This is a problem in telling stories set early in a long chronology because we know that the dragons have firestone and no previous mention of the danger of firestone has been seen in prior novels, it is difficult to feel that there is a chance that the story will not end well for Pern.

Somehow I wish that Pern would start to go the way of Darkover (Marion Zimmer Bradley) in that the lost colony will eventually become re-discovered by Earth and the culture conflicts. Anne already set this up in All the Weyrs of Pern with the discovery of working technology and the old space ships. There are stories to tell in this direction, but I fear that Todd will continue to write in the older days of Pern and do little to expand our understanding of the world.

Movies: September 4 - 10

Stalag 17 (1953): This classic Billy Wilder film covers some World War II POWs in a Nazi prison camp. They scheme to escape but there seems to be a Nazi informant in the prison barracks. It should be unthinkable that an American would inform to the Nazis on his fellow soldiers, but that is the belief of the prisoners because any escape plan or contraband is discovered. There is more humor and joking around with the Nazi prison warden than I found believable, but this was an otherwise excellent film with a fine performance by William Holden as a prisoner viewed with suspicion. It is clear that this is a movie from the 1950's because of how the men joked and sang Christmas songs and the overall behavior of the prisoners. It felt somewhat idealized, that the prison experience was not horrible. Overall: Good movie.

Tsotsi (2005): This film, set in South Africa, is a film about violence and redemption. Tsotsi is a young hood, a violent young man who will stab, shoot, or simply beat a man or woman for little reason or provocation. When he shoots a woman in a carjacking and later discovers that her infant son is still in the car. This leads a long path to redemption for Tsotsi. This is a moving, powerful film.

Duel (1971): This early Spielberg film gives the viewer a chance to see the director's work before he became the big time director he is now. Duel is a made for television movie with a man (Dennis Weaver) out driving to some sort of a business meeting. He passes a rusted semi-truck and the movie truly begins. The truck passes him back and then slows down and this begins a game of cat and mouse where the man is being terrorized by this truck driver. We never see the driver, so the menace is really just the rusted truck. I was impressed by how well crafted Duel was. The rusted truck is a great menacing villain and because there is nothing the businessman did to antagonize the truck, it is truly frightening because we never know just who is out on the road. This is far more an effective movie than, say, Joy Ride.

The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001): This more recently Woody Allen movie is a comedic detective flick. Woody Allen plays a private detective who is hypnotized and is given instructions to steal valuable jewels, but at the same time he is investigating the crimes. The movie serves to allow Allen and Helen Hunt to trade barbs and wise cracks and like an early Woody Allen movie the cracks come fast and furious, at times overwhelming the story Allen is trying to tell. Not really worth it, but not a bad effort.

Ella Enchanted (2004): The opening of this movie describes it as a fairy tale and that is a perfect description for Ella Enchanted. Anne Hathaway stars as Ella, a young woman who was given the magical gift of obedience when she was an infant. This gift requires her to obey any command given her, no matter how ridiculous. She is a headstrong woman, but a decent person and when her father remarried and her step sisters learn that Ella will obey any command they make Ella's life miserable. Ella runs off to find her fairy godmother and joins with elves, the prince, ogres and giants and this being a fairy tale we know there will be a happily ever after. Ella Enchanted is a very cute and charming movie and Anne Hathaway does very well in family friendly roles like she does here and The Princess Diaries. Ella Enchanted co-stars Minnie Driver and Cary Elwes.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Book 78: The Carnivorous Carnival

Here is the ninth volume in Lemony Snicket's bestselling children's collection A Series of Unfortunate Events. The Baudelaire orphans had hidden in the trunk of Count Olaf's car at the end of The Hostile Hospital to escape from a fire that Olaf and his "associates" had set. With The Carnivorous Carnival They arrive at the Caligari Carnival out in the middle of the hinterlands and are able to get out of the trunk before Count Olaf discovers them. Klaus, Violet, and Sunny disguise themselves as Carnival Freaks so that they can stay at the Carnival and have the opportunity to discover some facts about the possibility of one of their parents still living and the rest of the "Snicket File". Klaus and Violet are disguised as a Two-Headed Freak Beverly / Eliot, Sunny is Chabo the Wolf Baby. They join with other freaks, like Kevin the Ambidextrous Man, Colette the Contortionist, and Hugo the Hunchback.

Laced with dark humor and Snicket's signature warnings about continuing to read the book because of the horrible things the Baudelaires will go through, The Carnivorous Carnival is another excellent entry by Lemony Snicket and with this book and the previous one Snicket has brought some fresh energy to a series that had a sense of a paint by numbers formula. No longer are the stories resolved neatly by book's end being led to a conclusion which may be a few books away but feels immediate and fraught with tension and danger.

Book 77: Love-Lies-Bleeding

Love-Lies-Bleeding is the third play written by novelist Don DeLillo. This drama has Alex, an old man who after several strokes is in a persistent vegetative state, being cared for by his current wife Lia, a previous wife Toinette and his son Sean. Except in flashbacks Alex is silent throughout the play, but the wives and the son discussing his life and arguing about him and themselves. This is a play about the end of a life and the decisions family has to make regarding it.

The blurb on the back cover of the book concludes with this description:

Luminous, spare, unnervingly comic and always deeply moving, Love-Lies Bleeding explores a number of perilous questions about the value of life and how we measure it.

This is a very fine description that gets to the heart of what this play is about, but the key word here is "spare". Spare writing is a trademark of Don DeLillo and he leaves a lot unsaid in the gaps between words. Another trademark of DeLillo's spare writing is this bit of dialogue: "The memory ends here. I draw a total blank. This is the subway. He's reading the sports pages." So many times in DeLillo's writing he will give the reader lines of dialogue which no person would say in life but the dialogue fits in the context of the story he is telling. In Love-Lies-Bleeding the characters are speaking, but they are saying less than usual. The format of a play does not allow DeLillo to truly focus his writing because all of the motion is from the words of the characters rather than description and described action and here DeLillo is less successful. There are questions about the value of life, but I am not sure Don DeLillo addresses those questions.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Book 76: Acts of Faith

Philip Caputo's novel Acts of Faith is an ambitious novel of Sudan and the relief work that is currently going on in Africa. In this nearly 700 page novel Caputo paints a bleak portrait of Sudan and with a sprawling cast of characters he attempts to illustrate the reality of the country's situation by telling the story of fictional aid workers. The first storyline that Caputo begins to weave into this tapestry is of Fitzhugh Martin, a multi-racial Kenyan soccer hero who was recently fired by the United Nations because his morality got in the way of doing his job and protecting the U.N.. Fitzhugh is put into contact with Douglas Braithwaite, the founder of Knight Air, a relief organization which will fly aid into the heart of Sudan. Knight Air isn't the typical U.N. Sanctioned relief organization, however. Knight Air operates under the radar and works with Non-Government Organizations (NGO's) to provide aid to Sudan for profit. Knight Air, and other organizations, are willing to do the things the U.N. either cannot or will not do to help those in need. Knight Air also hires Wesley Dare, a pilot, into the mix. In the process of illegally, but profitably flying aid into "The Nuba" (a region of Sudan that the U.N. is forbidden), Douglas, Fitzhugh, and Wesley make contacts with rebels who are sympathetic but have their own needs and we watch as the unspoken laws of Sudan start influencing the relief workers who began the company with the best of intentions. Despite that this is a for profit company, the founders are risking their lives to fly in the much needed humanitarian aid supplies. But the unwritten and unspoken laws of Sudan state that anything done for the right reasons will still turn out wrong. In other words: Sudan corrupts.

Rounding out the cast of characters is Quinette Hardin. Quinette is a missionary from small town Iowa who goes on a mission to Africa in part because she wants to serve the Lord, but also because she wants her life to be bigger than the ordinary life she so desperately wishes to escape in Iowa. The mission which the organization she belongs to is to purchase the freedom of slaves taken in tribal warfare, collect their stories, and return them to their homes. It is in this role that Quinette becomes passionate about the need of the people of Sudan and it is also how she comes into contact with the people from Knight Air.

Acts of Faith covers so much ground that the ambition Philip Caputo has for this novel could potentially overwhelm the storytelling: missionaries, love, the slave trade, corruption, jealousy, the United Nations, humanitarian aid, gun running, relief work as business, all the back-stories and emotional baggage of the characters, the civil war in Sudan, and so much more. Caputo has his hands full, and somehow he is able to weave together a coherent story that does not get bogged down in the wealth of detail which he provides. Acts of Faith is so successful at portraying the situation in Sudan and what the effects of the best intentions are in such a situation that the reader can almost taste and smell and sense the world in which these characters so passionately inhabit. This is not just words on a page, but it becomes a real place, more so than simply knowing that Sudan is an actual nation in turmoil. Philip Caputo creates a Sudan the reader can grab a hold of and be touched by. More than simply creating a sense of place, Acts of Faith is a novel which tells a story about the rise and fall of those best intentions in the form of Knight Air and the humanitarian aid that the organization is trying to accomplish.

Dead Like Me: Season 1

I finished the first season of Dead Like Me last night. Every Tuesday night the Sci-Fi Channel has been running the show from the pilot episode and this is My New Favorite Show (tm), which explains why Dead Like Me was cancelled after only two seasons and I didn't discover it until this was re-broadcast on cable.

Dead Like Me is about about an eighteen year old girl who on her first day of work after dropping out of college is killed by a falling toilet seat from the space station. Rather than moving on, George Lass (Ellen Muth) is tapped to be a Reaper. Reapers prepare the souls of those about to die so that they will be able to move on. They do not actually kill, but they know that someone is going to die and must touch the person before death so that the soul is prepared to move on. On this show, most people die in rather creative ways. Dead Like Me is less about Reaping than it is about George coping with her life after death as well as the characters of the other Reapers, with segments on her surviving family.

Watching this show on the Sci-Fi Channel has a draw back in that it is edited from the original Showtime broadcast in terms of language and possibly content. Even so, this is an outstanding show and I look forward to my two new episodes each Tuesday. Unfortunately I only have 14 more episodes before I finish the show's run.

Firefly Watch: On the Season 1 Finale Jewel Staite (Kaylee) had a guest starring role as a goth girl in a record store. I didn't realize it was her until the credits. When I went back to make sure it was easier to tell that it was, in fact, Jewel Staite, but it wasn't something I was able to catch the first time through.

In other news Harold Perrinau (Michael from Lost or Mercutio from William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet) also had a guest role that same episode as a yoga instructor.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Movies: August 28 - September 3

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005): This documentary covers, as much as possible, the behind the scenes reality of what was going on at Enron as they produced record profits in a very short period of time and nearly as quickly went bankrupt in an incredible corporate scandal and a cloud of corruption. Interviewed for this film are several former Enron executives and there are videos from Enron meetings and speeches, as well as news coverage to bring the film together. It is an unbelievable account of greed and arrogance and the actions of the leadership was entirely shameful. The film, unsurprisingly, takes an aggressively anti-Enron stance and has something of an anti-corporate bias, but overall this is a worthy film about something that is seldom explored in any sort of depth.

Syriana (2005): I wanted so much to love this movie and to hold this up as the best film of the year. This sprawling film is directed by the man who wrote Traffic and there are similarities in the multiple storylines, but unlike traffic there is less of a cohesive feel about the politics of oil and power that Syriana presents. There is much to admire here, including the performances and the bold effort at storytelling taken by the filmmakers in tackling a serious political topic, but it doesn't seem to come together as a film, as a cohesive whole. Syriana is still worth watching, but it isn't as powerful and impressive as it is intended to be.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Book 75: Lord Foul's Bane

Lord Foul's Bane is the first volume in Stephen R. Donaldson's The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever. In many ways Lord Foul's Bane is a fairly conventional fantasy in a fairly conventional fantasy setting. The world is called "The Land" and it is populated by humans of great character who great each other by saying "Hail!" and there are locations such as "Mithil Stonedown" and "Soaring Woodhelven". There is a Dark Lord and a contemptuous little creature in the shadows. There is a Ring and there is songs and poetry. Characters swear Oaths. All told, so far the novel sounds awfully reminiscent of Lord of the Rings. There is a similarity of style to Tolkien and this similarity is part of the way that Donaldson sets up his world.

So, take this truly "classic" style of Fantasy and a heroic quest and turn it completely on its head because the "hero" of the story is a man named Thomas Covenant and he is not a part of this world. Thomas Covenant is part of our world, at least he was when this novel was published in 1977. Covenant suffers from leprosy and he is an outcast in his society, unclean. Few speak with him at all, his bills have been mysteriously paid so that people don't have to deal with him leaving the house and interacting with anybody. He needs to do Visual Self Examinations to make sure he hasn't accidently been injured because he has no sensation of touch due to the leprosy. When Covenant is stuck by a police vehicle he finds himself transported to The Land and commanded by the Lord Foul (the aforementioned Dark Lord) to deliver a message to the Council of Lords. The men and women of The Land view him as a reincarnation of sorts of their legendary Berek Halfhand.

Taking a man like Thomas Covenant who is completely alien to this fantasy world is what sets Lord Foul's Bane apart from a conventional fantasy. When everyone else is being heroic, Covenant refuses to believe where he is and believes he still has leprosy despite being of sound body in The Land. This is a completely original look at fantasy viewed through the lens of a conventional setting.

While Donaldson has originality overflowing in his work, Lord Foul's Bane still feels conventional. It is the wrapping of the novel, the classic sense of the world and the heroic quest and the language and the feel of The Land that feels like everything else that is out there in the "High Fantasy" excpet that The Land isn't as well developed as others. Style over Substance. The insertion of Thomas Convenant in this world is groundbreaking in terms of doing something new with a conventional fantasy setting and everything with Covenant works very well, but the conventional setting of the novel sometimes overwhelms the parts of the book that works.

This is an interesting fantasy experiment and the next two volumes in the trilogy will show how well the experiment works, but it is a worthy effort.