Sun, Oct 31, 1999

: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Author: J.K. Rowling

Almost as soon as I finished the first one, I started on the second. It’s just about as good, picking up right where the previous book left off, and continuing to delight and inspire. Harry’s a terrific hero: modest, imperfect, and with a heart of gold. He always wins, but not without help from his friends, and not by how you’d expect. Yet he’s perfectly believable as the hero. Too many stories create larger-than-life heroes that are just ridiculous, while others take a nobody and suddenly have them doing noble and heroic things that just don’t fit their mediocre character. Harry’s wonderful! Makes me wish I had children to read the books to!

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Sat, Oct 30, 1999

: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Author: J.K. Rowling

I first heard of Harry Potter on a TV news report describing the British phenomenon — kids lined up for blocks at bookstores in malls waiting for the next book in the series! My mother, as a teacher, had to find out what Potter was all about, and so this weekend when I visited, I read her copy (I started at 10 p.m. Friday and finished it before noon on Saturday). First, just forget the controversy that the Potter books are light or weird or demonic or whatever. This book is a delightful fantasy. Though geared toward children, it’s very well written and surprisingly literate (and long at over 300 pages). It’s witty and the silly adventures of the kid heroes are wonderful. I loved the charming characters and the plot was surprisingly complex — about one hundred times more intelligent than a typical children’s book (like a Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew mystery). There are clever twists and nothing’s quite as simple as you assumed. This book is good enough I wouldn’t mind reading it again the second I finished it (instead I rushed out and bought the sequels). If you like humor, fun, and adventure, you’ll like this book. While it’s not metaphorical like C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, it’s a good versus evil story using magic as the medium. If this is what it takes to get children today to read, I vote for hundreds of sequels!

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Wed, Oct 27, 1999

: The Mysterious Affair at Styles

Author: Agatha Christie

It’s been a long time since I’ve read this book, or any Agatha Christie for that matter. I forgot how literary she was — with mysteries one thinks primarily of plot, but this is a well written book. Compared to many Poirot novels this isn’t my favorite, but you keep reading to find out what and how Poirot solves the murder. Christie’s spoiled me for other mystery writers — I have yet to find any that even vaguely come close to her deft touch. She’s the best! There are a number of Christie books I bought but haven’t read; I really must dig them up and get reading. I love her mysteries, especially Poirot stories.

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Sun, Oct 24, 1999

: The Blair Witch Project

Author: Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez

Director: Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez

If you haven’t heard of Blair Witch, you must be living under a rock. This movie has turned Hollywood on its ear. An extremely low budget ($22,000) independent movie, it’s made over $100 million! Released in theatres in July, it’s now out on video. I got my copy on DVD and was very impressed. First, it’s not scary at all. But it is authentic. It’s presented as the video diary of a group of film-makers who go off to film a documentary on the Blair Witch and never come back. The "scary" stuff is nothing more than strange sounds and mysterious piles of rocks and sticks that appear during the night. There’s no blood, no "fake scares" that populate so many of today’s movies (where the killer turns out to be a neighbor visiting or a cat looking for food). It’s just a simple tale of a group of frightened, nervous college students going insane. The script is remarkable — I couldn’t detect a flaw in it, which is good, because this kind of "real video" would suffer tremendously if there’s any flaw in acting or dialog. Apparently a great deal of the movie was improvised, which explains why it feels so authentic. (My hairdresser complained that she thought it realistic until she noticed the girl’s hair, after a week in the woods, still looked groomed.) To summarize: not a great film, but a good one. Don’t expect too much or you’ll be disappointed. But it’s a remarkable achievement in this day where a typical Hollywood movie costs $30-$50 million!

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Sat, Oct 23, 1999

: Red Dragon

Author: Thomas Harris

As Silence of the Lambs is one of my favorite movies, and this summer I enjoyed the thrillride of Harris’ diabolical Hannibal, I figured it was a good time to read the novel that introduced the character of Hannibal Lector to the world. I purposely didn’t expect much; after all, Lector’s barely in the book, and Harris’s masterwork was Silence, right? Wrong. Though I’ve only seen Silence as a film, Red Dragon is far superior. Silence was about the hunt for a serial killer, with mind games from Lector thrown in to mystify and amuse. We only get glimpses into psyches. Hannibal is the same, as it exposes more of Lector’s past. But Lector’s not your average serial killer; he’s an extraordinary being. Despite what he does, it’s hard to not like Lector. Dragon is also about the hunt for a serial killer, but it allows us to see into his mind. It’s amazing. First you’re presented with his awful crimes, then, when you begin to understand him, you feel sympathy for him! And he’s not as sympathetic a character as Lector by any means. Obviously much of the psychology is simplistic and pat; but that’s why we read novels and watch movies, because they’re easier to understand than real life. I enjoyed this remarkable book very much. Like Silence its subject isn’t pleasant, but it’s presented in such a clinical fashion it isn’t sensationalized.

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Thu, Oct 21, 1999

: The Stainless Steel Rat Goes to Hell

Author: Harry Harrison

Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat series has been a favorite of mine for decades, but his last few disappointed, and Hell, unfortunately, falls into the same category. In the original series, Jim DiGriz is a crook — a rat — but when Harrison turned DiGriz into a cop, married him, and threw a couple kids into the picture, the series went downhill. There’s still some of the Rat’s classic humor in this book, but too little, and the inane plot that just goes around in circles doesn’t help matters. I had great hope upon reading this line on the opening page: "My morale plummeted as the name slithered across my eardrums. Of all the beautiful bores on Lussuoso, Rowena was possibly the most beautiful — and certainly the most boring. I had to flee — or commit suicide — before she came in." That’s classic Jim DiGriz — unfortunately, he rarely appeared in the balance of the book. I usually read a SSR book in a couple hours — this one required work.

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Mon, Oct 18, 1999

: Tom Brown’s School Days

Author: Thomas Hughes

This book has two technical problems: one, it’s old, and two, it’s not written in English. Or rather, it’s written in English and not American. It’s an interesting read simply because English school life 150 years ago is so different from life today, but it’s not an easy read. There was much I found incomprehensible. (For instance, what does being "floored" mean? It’s apparently something bad, perhaps a punishment, but I have no idea what. There’s lots of similar jargon that makes some scenes complete mysteries.) The book is written with exquisite detail, which, while it’s good and often important, makes for slow reading. For example, despite the title, it takes a few chapters before Tom even goes to school. I liked the story, however: it’s basically the characterization of Tom Brown and his growth and progress into a young man. I don’t know if I’d go so far as to call this a classic, but it’s interesting and I’m glad I read it.

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Sat, Oct 16, 1999

: Stardust

Author: Neil Gaiman

To demonstrate how good this book is, I’ll say this: I read it (238 pages) in one sitting (I started it this morning and finished it this afternoon). If there’s such a thing as an instant classic, this is it. Gaiman — most famous for his incredible Sandman graphic novels, is an amazing myth-making genius. This book is up there with Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia. The tale is simple and pure and beautiful: a boy sets out to retrieve a fallen star to impress his girlfriend. The journey is magical and delightful and the fairie world Gaiman takes us to is believable (and reminiscent of the fantasy of George MacDonald). Gaiman’s use of wit, language, and incredible imagination makes this book a delight. For instance, one of the characters is enslaved by a witch. Asked if she’s a prisoner forever, she replies, "Not forever. I gain my freedom on the day the moon loses her daughter, if that occurs in a week when two Mondays come together." Hilarious! This book reminds me a lot of Clive Barker’s neat The Thief of Always in that it’s a modern take on fantasy, but I liked Stardust better. I’d love to recommend it for young kids but it does include a bit of "modern" language and some to the sexual scenes are unexpectedly graphic (elegantly written, but detailed); these don’t necessarily harm the story (they in fact add to the charm), but they do change the target audience. For adults who believe fantasy isn’t just for children, this is highly recommended. I can’t wait to read it again!

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: Double Jeopardy

Author: David Weisberg & Douglas Cook

Director: Bruce Beresford

I’d seen a little about this, but while the concept intrigued me — a husband frames his wife for his murder and when she’s released double jeopardy means she can’t be tried for killing him a "second" time — and I’ve been a huge Ashely Judd fan since Ruby in Paradise, I was prepared for a typical Hollywood generic thriller. This one was definitely above average. Judd’s awesome in the lead role (which is good, as she’s in nearly every scene), and her relationship with parole officer Tommy Lee Jones is terrific. There’s some great action, some nice emotion, a few genuine scares. "Concept" movies like these are easy to do badly; this one is very well done, and while it doesn’t move much beyond the plot, it’s an enjoyable ride (and we get to watch Ashley Judd the whole time).

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Fri, Oct 15, 1999

: Ringworld

Author: Larry Niven

It won a Hugo award, but I’d never read this classic science fiction story until now. Frankly, it’s got a little too much science and not enough fiction, for my taste. Niven’s created an amazing world: Ringworld is an artificial structure three million times the size of Earth, a million-mile wide strip of land six hundred million miles long that spins around a sun. Centrifugal force gives it gravity, and 1000 mile high walls on the rims keep in the atmosphere. It’s got two oceans each several times bigger than the entire surface of Earth. Basically, it’s humongous, the ideal solution for over-crowding. The story centers on four bickering creatures (two alien species and two humans) who crashland on Ringworld and struggle to escape. The characters are well-done and believable, but the psychonalysis is overly complicated (though accurate); I really didn’t care if any of them lived or died. Read Ringworld for the fantastic world, not for the story. I’ll have to see if the sequel, The Ringworld Engineers is better.

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Thu, Oct 14, 1999

: H20: Halloween 20 Years Later

Author: Robert Zappia

Director: Steve Miner

Halloween is supposed to be some sort of horror classic, but frankly I found it boring and predictable (I watched a year or two ago). I was curious if the 20-years-in-the-waiting sequel would prove better. The results are mixed. This movie is more fun, about the same on the mildly scary level, and similar in its lack of plot. Basically Jamie Lee Curtis’ evil brother is back, this time out to kill her son and his high school friends. Eighty percent of the “chills” are fake (the scary noise turns out to be a cat or friend walking past — lame, lame, lame) and Michael Myers himself is boringly ordinary (though absurdly hard to kill). Doesn’t have the gritty documentary feel of the original, but that’s not saying much. The best bit is the casting of Curtis’ mother, Janet Leigh (of Pyscho fame) in a small part (the car she drives is the same one sunk in the lake in Pyscho).

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Wed, Oct 13, 1999

: Star Trek: Voyager

I haven’t mentioned any TV shows in my news yet, but this week’s Voyager is a classic. It’s hilarious. The holographic Doctor — my favorite character — suffers from bouts of daydreaming (in which he’s always the hero and all the Star Trek women hit on him), while a race of aliens spying on the ship for a sneak attack tap into his dreams and think they are real and the Doctor’s some sort of one-man army! You guessed it: the Doctor’s required to save the day for real in the end. Great fun for ST fans.

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: Bride of Chucky

Author: Don Mancini

Director: Ronny Yu

I’d heard this was a “good” Chucky movie, though considering the previous ones that wasn’t saying much. In total I’ve seen maybe 10 or 15 minutes of the whole series, and that’s all I needed to see. But this one is campy fun. It’s witty and self-mocking, in the tradition of the most recent Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream. My favorite bit of humor was the clever “homage” to the Cliver Barker Hellraiser “pinhead” character after Chucky kills John Ritter with a face full of nails and then says, “He looks familiar somehow.” Warning: if you don’t like spurting blood and violence, keep your finger near the fast forward button.

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Sat, Oct 09, 1999

: The Apostle

Author: Robert Duvall

Director: Robert Duvall

Don’t watch this movie if you believe in the Eleventh Commandment (“Thou shalt not shout!”). This is one of those movies that’s impossible to classify. I knew little about it other than it was a low budget independent film written, directed, produced, financed by, and staring Robert Duvall. I saw a few bits of an interview with Duvall when this movie was released and it sounded fascinating, but I didn’t know the story. I was leery of Hollywood’s portrayal of a Pentecostal preacher. I’d heard the movie being praised because the lead character was a flawed preacher, and Hollywood seemed to think this was revolutionary. Frankly, hearing that didn’t impress me: every preacher I’ve seen on film or TV has been flawed. Usually when there’s a flawed preacher Hollywood sets out to revile in the flaws, to delight in showing the blackness under the Christian mask. But this film isn’t like that at all. Duvall’s character is incredibly human, but there’s little fanfare. You have to work to see his flaws. The movie is about rebirth, about passion and commitment, about humanity, about frailty, about suffering and desire. There isn’t a wrong step anywhere: it’s amazingly realistic, eerily so. I grew up in Pentecostal churches and this movie was like a flashback to scenes from my childhood. I know that affects how I interpret the film: Duvall, for instance, said he made the movie because he was fascinated by Pentecostalism and so few Americans know about it (especially Hollywood). Indeed, the film has a documentary feel to it — it’s an inside look at the Pentecostal world. To me, Pentecostalism is as ordinary as a loaf of bread, but I can see from his outsider perspective, something like “tag team” preaching is bizarre and interesting. Because of my familiarity with the subject, certain parts of the film were slow and uninteresting. I also initially distrusted the movie’s portrayal of Christians as I’m used to that being a setup in Hollywood films: the Christian always turns out to be the insane serial killer. I also am personally turned off by characters like Sonny (Duvall’s role) who spew religious platitudes the way many men swear. But in this movie I slowly came to realize that this wasn’t an act, this was legitimate. Sonny really believes every word he says, as trite as it sometimes sounds. This is not an impression you can gain from five minutes with somebody — it requires you spend an incredible amount of time with the person, in all sorts of circumstances, and watch how they react. This movie allows you to do that. It’s an intimate portrait unlike any I’ve seen. Truly a tour-de-force for Duvall, and well-worthy his Oscar nomination. The story itself is seemingly slight: a preacher runs away to a small town and works to rebuild a church. In the process he rediscovers himself, God, and gives hope to people who need it. It’s fascinating: unexpectedly complex in this day of simplistic Hollywood plots where every detail is explained away. Instead of explanations, Duvall just shows things happening. It’s up to the viewer to interpret them. Incredible, and it shows a great deal of faith in the intelligence of the audience (something rare in major motion pictures). I can picture myself watching this again and again in the future, each time discovering subtle aspects I missed. I think I’ll like it better every time I see it. It’s not a movie everyone will like: it’s slow moving at times, low key, intensely passionate, shocking, disturbing, and ultimately satisfying. Whereas most Hollywood productions that involve religion deal with religious conflict (i.e. the clash between faith and science in Contact), this movie doesn’t do that: it’s a simple story about a human preacher. That’s it. And amazingly, it works.

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Thu, Oct 07, 1999

: Jawbreaker

Author: Darren Stein

Director: Darren Stein

As a huge fan of Michael Lehmann’s 1989 dark comedy Heathers, I really wanted to see this movie when it came out last spring. Like Heathers, this is about high school cliques and murder, but unfortunately Jawbreaker, while it has a few cool scenes and a bit of interesting dialog, is low on the profound scale. Heathers broke ground; Jawbreaker is a retread. It’s not bad, and interesting to Heathers fans, just don’t expect too much. The plot of the movie is simple: a practical joke kills the most popular girl in school (she chokes to death on a jawbreaker). While Heathers mines material from the death of popularity — ungodly funeral scenes, brainless teachers eulogizing brainless students, unqualified parents weeping over a child they saw every other Tuesday, cliques fighting over who takes over for the dead girl — Stein shows us few reactions to the death, other than the evil girl who plots to cover it up. This has the effect of minimizing the importance of the death, treating it so much like a joke that we aren’t particularly dismayed by callousness of the others. Worse, in this movie, we’re supposed to care about the dead girl (she apparently really was a sweetheart), but we don’t. The most thoughtful line in the movie comes from the evil girl (Rose McGowen), who tries to make it look like the popular girl was killed by a sexual deviant: “[Society] will believe it because it’s their worse nightmare.” My favorite scene in the movie was the makeover montage during which the geek was turned into a princess: it borrowed from the creature workshop of Edward Scissorhands, humorous because the creation was not a monster in the traditional sense, but took ugliness and made it beautiful (but only on the outside). Clever. The ending’s weak. When the Queen Bitch gets her comeuppance at the senior prom… Cruel Intentions did that in a more subtle manner that was far more powerful. I watched the director-commented DVD version and came away appreciating what Stein wanted to do; I just don’t think he entirely succeeded. For instance, he revealed that circles and round shapes were used everywhere (like in the girls’ ear-rings and pearl necklaces) to remind us of jawbreakers, but he forgets that most movie viewers can barely see past the end of their noses, let alone interpret something as subtle as that! A minor movie that promises more than it delivers, but Stein’s good: I’ll watch to see what he comes up with next.

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Tue, Oct 05, 1999

: Murder at the National Gallery

Author: Margaret Truman

I’ll be blunt by beginning by saying that this was a feeble book. I suppose part of my negative impression stems from expecting a traditional murder mystery, a la Agatha Christie. This is more like a political/spy thriller. Truman has written a slew of best-selling “Murder…” books, all centered around Washington, D.C. I dread the thought that they are all like this one. First, there are several murders, not one, the first occurring nearly halfway into the book, and the only one actually at at the National Gallery at about the four-fifths mark! The structure of the story is strange: important characters are introduced early but not sketched out until very late in the book, and the heroine — I guess she’s the heroine — is nothing more than a stick figure. She basically does absolutely nothing more than look pretty and receive a few phone calls, yet she’s treated by the author (and the others in the book) as the grand savior! The plot deals with stealing a $50 million painting, which ought to be exciting, but the plan is so full of holes there’s no question the perpetrator is going to fail. The only mystery in this book is why I read it.

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Mon, Oct 04, 1999

: Birthday 1999

Well, today was my birthday. My thirty-second. Unbelievable. I don’t know where they all went. I certainly don’t feel that old. I told my uncle that since the first ten or twelve years of life are basically non-sentient they don’t count, so really I’m twenty-two. That strikes me as more accurate. Of course I still feel like I should have done something with those twenty-two years. But then, half of those were in school, and what can one accomplish in school? So really I’ve had little more than a decade of independence — and I feel I’ve gained a few things during those years though I haven’t done many of the things I wanted to do. On the one hand I read stories about famous writers (like Oscar Wilde) who died young yet accomplished so much in the few years they had, and on the other I hear about people (like Colonel Sanders) who didn’t start their famous careers until their sixties! So there’s hope at either end of life, I suppose. I’ve decided to not worry about it. My writing career will take off when it is time and not before.

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Sun, Oct 03, 1999

: Cube

Author: Andre Bijelic, Vincenzo Natali, and Graeme Manson

Director: Vincenzo Natali

If you don’t like existential suffering, you may not appreciate this wonderful movie! It’s an independent science fiction film from Canada. The only “star” you might recognize is a very different-looking Nicole DeBoer (from the last season of TV’s Star Trek: Deep Space Nine — she’s Canadian, if you didn’t know). The plot is simple and claustrophobic: a motley group of individuals wake up to find themselves trapped inside a bizarre maze of square rooms. They are wearing prison uniforms and no one remembers how they got there. Each room has six exits — one door on each side (top, bottom, and four sides). But all lead only another, seemingly identical room. Some of the rooms are booby-trapped with fantastically horrible gadgets: slicing machines, acid-spraying devices, spikes, noise-activated knives, etc. During their explorations, they discover the Cube is 26 rooms wide by 26 rooms tall by 26 rooms deep: 17,576 rooms! With no food and water, it’s a race to get out of the maze before they’re too weak to move. It’s a high-pressure environment: we watch seemingly normal people become paranoid, angry, frustrated, and terrified as everything they try fails. The script is amazing, with some profound observations on the meaning of life as people theorize on the meaning of the Cube and who could have created it. The pre-ending is incredible (and subtle) — what happens seconds later is too Hollywood (but still fits the concept, though I would have preferred the earlier ending). All in all, a complex psychological drama with some impressive special effects, excellent acting, and a thought-provoking story. This is a movie you’ll want to watch several times.

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: Animal Farm

Author: Alan Janes & Martyn Burke (based on the book by George Orwell)

Director: John Stephenson

I’ve been anticipating this brand new adaptation of Orwell’s classic for months and couldn’t wait for Sunday’s premiere on TNT. Supposedly this movie cost $25 million to make — amazing for a cable channel like TNT, but well worth it. Using the same techniques as the Babe movies, this is a live action film with talking animals interacting with humans. Very, very well done. Certainly not for kids — this movie features graphic, realistic violence, and the animals are eerie they are so real. Probably traumatic for kids. It’s a sad story, really; your heart really goes out to the poor, suffering animals. It’s been a long time since I’ve read the book, but I saw little that seemed out of place. The ending’s rushed (it just suddenly ends on a hopeful note), and there were a couple places I thought the “cruelty to animals will come back to haunt you” message was heavy-handed, but overall, a treat and well worth your time. My favorite moment was when the narrator (the mama dog) is looking through the window of the house and seeing a pig and a human drinking whiskey. There was some water on the window glass and as the camera view shifted, the features of the human warped into pig and the features of the pig warped into human likeness. It was amazingly subtle — you had to blink, thinking you were seeing things — and one of the most effective uses of special effects I’ve seen since Forest Gump. TNT repeats the movie on Wednesday, Oct. 6, so catch it then if you missed it. They’ll probably repeat it more, too. (Why don’t the “big” networks repeat their shows? I’ve never understood that. I love having a choice of viewing times.)

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Fri, Oct 01, 1999

: The Efficiency Expert

Author: Edgar Rice Burroughs

What a cool little gem of a book! Difficult to find even years ago, I picked this up at a used bookstore. It’s not a huge tale by any means, but it’s a clever little adventure about a young college graduate growing up in gangster-ridden Chicago. Like so much of Burroughs, it’s witty with more subtlety than you might expect, and the plot twists and turns back on itself nicely. The main character, a clueless college grad, is hilarious in his naivety. (For instance, he doesn’t turn in a pickpocket who nicked his watch and later the pickpocket returns the favor by giving the watch back. Johnny finds out the pickpocket would have gotten $20 for the watch, so he gives him twenty dollars! Of course he’s assuming as a college grad he’ll find the job-getting easy — but no one answers his "I will run your company for you" job wanted ad.) Johnny falls in with the Chicago underworld, but won’t compromise his integrity, even when framed for a murder. The trial at the end is a little predictable and (almost) all the loose ends are tied together a bit too neatly. It’s a light, feel-good tale with some amusing pokes at society people.

Here’s a classic example of the Burroughs writing style I like so much. This is his tactful description of a couple making out on a sofa:

She was not alone, yet although there were many comfortable chairs in the large room, and the sofa was an exceptionally long one, she and her companion occupied but little more space than would have comfortably accommodated a single individual.

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