Tue, Aug 31, 2004

: Hero

In the trail of

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Mon, Aug 30, 2004

: The Devil in the White City

Author: Erik Larson

I’ll begin by saying that I was mistaken when I purchased this book. I saw it in the paperback section at Costco. I glanced at the back and saw it was about the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago and told the twin stories of the architect behind the fair and a serial killer who used the fair as a source of victims. Only when I sat down to read the book did I discover that this wasn’t a fascinating fictional story but genuine history. I rarely non-fiction. It just doesn’t interest me. But this, I must say, is one of the best books I’ve ever read. I couldn’t put it down. It reads like a detective novel or thriller. On the one hand we have the story of the remarkable architect behind the fair, trying to do the impossible in an age when death was common and technology primitive. At the same time, we follow the life of one of the coldest, most evil killers in history. It’s a simultaneous celebration and exploration of the best and worst of humanity. As the one man puts together an artistic team never rivaled in the history of the world, the other ingeniusly murders and steals with no one the wiser. It’s truly an amazing story. This is a book all high school kids should have to read for history class: if this can’t get kids interested in history, nothing will. Larson does an incredible job of drawing us into 19th Century life, describing the conditions and daily experiences, and in doing so reminds us how much has changed and how priviledged we are to live in these times when we have such luxuries as good medical care.

I had minimal knowledge of the fair when I began the book, but it’s important to understand just how significant an event it was in the history of the United States. It’s not an understatement to say that except for the Revolution and the Civil War it was the single most important event in U.S. history. So much came out of the fair that it’s difficult for the modern mind to understand the significance. First, understand the scope of this fair. It was physically huge: over a square mile in area with over two hundred buildings. One single exhibit hall boasted the most interior space of any building in history. Inside it you could fit the U.S. Capital, Winchester Cathedral, the Great Pyramid, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and Madison Square Garden — all at the same time! Second, note that this was an event in which over 27 million people attended — at a time when there were only 65 million in the whole country. Finally, this fair launched an era of imagination: it made many believe in the impossible. A carpenter who worked at the fair was named Elias Disney. He told grand stories of the incredible fair to his son Walt. The creator of Oz, Frank K. Baum, was inspired by the fair. So was a young architect named Frank Lloyd Wright. The decision by the fair to use the new alternating current (AC) system of electrical delivery pretty much killed off Thomas Edison’s push for direct current (DC). For most of the fair goers, the fair was their first opportunity to see electricity in use (one demonstration was an “electric kitchen” with all-electric appliances including a dishwasher) — most had never even seen incandescent lights before! New products debuted at the fair: Shredded Wheat breakfast cereal, a snack called Cracker Jack, a new beer that won an award and has been known ever since as Pabst Blue Ribbon. The Columbus Day holiday was created in honor of the fair (ostensibly the fair was the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in America). And of course the fair was most famous for an engineering marvel that out did Paris’ new tower by Alexandre Eiffel: a giant 250’ wheel that held over two thousand passengers and rotated them through the air. The wheel was so massive (it used twice as much steel as the Brooklyn Bridge) few thought it would even support its own weight. Back then there was no technology to test it in advance: it simply had to be created and tried. But its creator, George Ferris, proved right in the end.

Is it any wonder that such a fair created huge impressions on the entire country? It influenced art, architecture, engineering, and much, much more. This book tells the story of the amazing fair and the amazing people who created it. At the same time, we have the darker story of the criminal who took advantage of the chaotic atmosphere the fair produced to murder. Both stories are compelling and revealing; alone each is incomplete. Together they give an astonishing view of a world gone by. Recommended more than I can say.

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Sun, Aug 29, 2004

: Athens 2004 Olympics

The Summer Olympics 2004 ended today and I thought I’d write a little about them. I actually watched a great deal of them. Between my two Tivos and the extensive coverage I was able to record all the prime time and much of the day time and late night events, then watch it later fast forwarding through the endless commercials and boring stuff. Sometimes a four-hour block would have only five or ten minutes of “real” coverage (I don’t need to watch an entire two hour marathon, for instance). With so many events races that are only decided in the final seconds, why watch all the build-up? Anyway, I managed to watch most of the Olympics and found that I enjoyed much of what I saw. I have an uncle who’s anti-competitive: he feels competition breeds contempt and superiority and we shouldn’t promote it as a nation. He’s also a pacifist and doesn’t like the nationalism events like the Olympics promotes. While I understand both of his points, I don’t completely agree. If competition is in the right spirit, one of comradeship and friendliness, such as two kids saying, “I’ll race you to that tree!” then it’s a good thing. It’s fun, it’s challenging, and it brings out the best in people. Unfortunately little of that spirit remains in the modern Olympics. Where it was once an event for amateur athletes, today an Olympic medal seems mostly something to brag about, an event of huge financial and career consequences. Endorsements and other rewards have made the Olympics bigger than they should be, and thus we have athletes and children who are obssessed with training to the point of sacrificing much of their lives for just a chance at Olympic glory. When winners are measured in microseconds, does that mean so much? Is a gold medal winner proud of having beaten a competitor by one hundredth of a second? On any given day, any of the top ten could beat any other. That the Olympics happen so rarely means that whoever happens to be in form on that day wins. Is that an accomplishment? I find the stories of the underdogs, the ones who compete not for fame or money but simply out of love for the sport or to honor their country to be much more pleasing. Stories like the Bronze medalist from Brazil in the men’s marathon, who, when tackled by a deranged fan during the race, got back up and finished, and never once complained that the incident might have cost him the gold. Or the Iraq men’s soccer team, who came in unranked but finished a remarkable fourth while powerful soccer countries like Portugal went home early.

Then there’s the whole judging controversy in the gymnastics competition. Why don’t they just give everyone gold medals and be done with it? The absurdity of judging something so subjective!

While I realize that medals mean a great deal to these athletes, the average person only thinks of the Olympics once every four years, then it’s forgotten. Oh, we remember a few names, a few events. But mostly it becomes a blur. Does it really matter who won what? Our country does put a lot of emphasis on winners, too much so, especially in athletics. Athletics ought to be fun, not fail-and-you-die events.

But overall these were a good Olympics. There was fine competition, some excellent examples of good sportsmanship, the occasional controversy, and no terrorist attacks. That’s all good. Greece also shined: what an amazing legacy, history, and country! The opening and closing ceremonies were interesting and different, and that’s one of the things I most love about the Olympics: that different nations and different people can get together and join hands be one for a while.

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Sat, Aug 28, 2004

: MLS: Colorado Rapids at San Jose Earthquakes

Not a lame game by any means, though a disappointing result. The Quakes dominated the whole game, but couldn’t score. Colorado keeper and former Earthquake Joe Cannon was a wall, controlling his box, catching and punching crosses, and stopping a number of point blank chances. It seemed like surely the Quakes would break the deadlock at some point, but the Quakes never really got angry enough to attack desperately. There was one sequence where they tried, but Colorado actually looked dangerous on the counter, and after that San Jose didn’t want to risk giving up a goal. The Rapids did have a chance to two, but our keeper only had to make a couple routine saves. I wonder if Coach Kinnear should have put in our subs earlier, tried to get a win. It was obvious the players were tired (they’ve played two games a week for several weeks now) and creativity was lacking. Subs wouldn’t have hurt and might have inspired something. The Quakes really deserved a win based on aggressive play, but they couldn’t finish and so we got yet another tie at home. That’s two points lost. With a win we would have jumped to third, but this tie and Dallas’ win over Chicago drops us back to the bottom. Fortunately, all the teams are tightly bunched now, and despite being in last place in the West, the Quakes are only four points from first! We do have a game in hand on everyone but K.C. and most of our final games are against Western Conference opponents, so the Quakes have it in their power to finish in the lead if we go on a good run. But with World Cup qualifying in full swing, it looks like we’ll be missing Landon Donovan and Brian Ching to the National Team, meaning we’ll have to win some of those key games with our B team. That’s asking a lot, but we’ll see. Final: 0-0 draw.

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Fri, Aug 27, 2004

: Ice Hunt

Author: James Rollins

I’ve never heard of Rollins, but this is an excellent old-fashioned adventure story a la Edgar Rice Burroughs and is surprisingly well-written. The detail is amazing, making everything feel very real, and though the story’s long and complicated with cliffhangers at the end of every chapter, they don’t feel forced like with many poor writers (such as Patterson). The story’s wild: a group of regular Alaskans find themselves immeshed in a covert superpower war for control over a secret polar ice station recently discovered. The ice station was lost before WWII, yet contains key technology. The Russians want to blow up the station so the U.S. don’t find the technology, while the U.S. wants to study the find. But both countries would potentially be embarrassed by the contents of the ice station, so everything is being done “off the map,” in secret. The public will never hear of what happens. That means anything goes: murder is okay. So the Alaskans find themselves in the middle of this covert war, with submarines and Delta Force troops. If that wasn’t bad enough, there’s an ancient secret hidden in the ice station: it’s a nest for some prehistoric monsters that still live. These vicious monsters are nicknamed Grendel, after the Beowulf story. Rollins actually uses a lot of science to justify the existence of these creatures, so they come across as quite believable (he’s a vetrinarian in real life and knows how to describe animals). Grendels are extremely dangerous, which puts our civilian heroes in even more jeopardy: now they are hiding from the Russians and the monsters! The result of all this is a nail-biter, can’t-put-down book. It gets a little annoying because every time you think the heroes are saved, the situation gets even worse. It’s “out of the frying pan into the fire” about twenty different times and after a while the tension becomes unbearable. It seems impossible that our heroes will emerge unscathed. But that also makes the ending a sweet relief and the book feverishly exciting. Terrific read. My only real criticism is that the title is extremely lame. Ice Station Grendel would have been a much more descriptive, interesting, and accurate moniker. Looking at the other books Rollins has written, I see similar titular problems (several are much worse than this one), so most likely either he’s not good at creating titles or he lets the publisher pick them. Anyway, you’re not supposed to judge a book by its title, so I’ll reserve judgement until I’ve actually read the books. But if they’re anything like this one, I’ll be happy.

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: Suspect Zero

I heard bad things about this going in, but the trailers made it seem cool: it stars the awesome Ben Kingsley as a serial killer killer. Unfortunately, the critics were correct. This film has many problems, mostly with the script. The film starts out well enough, with a series of murders getting the FBI involved. Soon we learn these are “messages” targeting a particular FBI agent who has a troubled background (revealed in flashback, of course). Eventually the FBI guy figures out that all the murder victims are serial killers and so he deduces that this guy is “helping” society — but his superiors don’t agree and want the guy taken out. It’s pretty much at this point that the film tanks. There are several reasons for this. One, the film has built so much around the gimmick of a “serial killing serial killer” that once that’s revealed there isn’t much left to the movie (and of course since that’s revealed in the film’s trailer, you know that going into the movie). Two, the pace of the film’s inconsistent. It starts out glacial, as we investigate murder step-by-step. Then it speeds up, jumping from murder scene to murder scene like a music video, which results in minimizing the significance of the latter murders. Three, the story falls apart and is very choppy and illogical when the FBI meets Ben Kingsley’s character, and in the “climax” of film when they meet up the final serial killer, “suspect zero.” The latter gets his name because he’s a killer under the radar, so good the FBI don’t even know he’s been killing, and yet he’s murdered thousands. Four, the ending is anti-climactic and badly filmed. Most of the time I liked the direction, but the ending consists of the FBI guy and the killer rolling around in dust “fighting” — yet all you can see is their legs entangled as they roll back and forth for like two minutes. Five, the film can be broken into two halves, the search for Kingsley’s character and the “climax” when the FBI finds him and they track down the final serial killer (suspect zero). Unfortunately, there’s no good transition between these halves. Even if the ending were decent, the film would still be awkward and incomplete because of that.

The whole film has a lot of puzzling logistical issues. For instance, I got very confused: I thought one location was supposed to be in Oklahoma City (the FBI guy is based in New Mexico), yet later in the film the FBI guy has a brain wave and rushes to that building to confirm something. He gets there, apparently, in minutes — so either it wasn’t so far away or he’s Flash in disguise. Who knows or cares? A similar problem is at the end, when he’s tracking “suspect zero.” He’s in the middle of nowhere and calls his partner who shows up within minutes, somehow knowing where he is from the phone call. There’s also some real stupidity. Like the FBI standing around in obvious fashion waiting for the serial killer to come home. When the guy drives up, he sees the FBI guy and takes off, provoking a road chase. How stupid is that? Wouldn’t even the dumbest cop know to hide? And even dumber is that the FBI guy’s in an SUV and the killer drives a huge semi… so the SUV, after calling for backup, keeps trying to pass the semi. What for I could never figure out. Backup is coming, the semi’s not getting away, so why risk your life trying to pass the semi? Basically the scriptwriter needed more action at the end and so forced a pointless high speed chase. Oh dear, there are so many problems with this film I could go on and on. It’s a fine concept and the direction’s actually pretty good, but unfortunately the foundation (the script) is unfinished. A waste of potential.

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Thu, Aug 26, 2004

: Walking and Talking

This is one of those modern independent films that tries to be like real life. That basically means it’s slow, talky, and nothing much happens plotwise. I guess some people think that’s profound. There’s some lovely dialog, good enough for a play in places, but unfortunately this just doesn’t work well as a film. It’s too slow, talky, and just plain boring. The “plot” is basically about two best friends who grow apart when one gets engaged, leaving the other feeling alone and even more desperate to get married. As she struggles with relationships, the engaged girl struggles with potential marriage. Basically, this is just real life filmed and it’s only slightly more interesting. It’s got some good moments, and some good acting. I didn’t not like it, but I wouldn’t really recommend it either. It’s certainly not a film you’d ever want to see more than once.

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Tue, Aug 24, 2004

: Open Water

Disappointing and depressing. It’s a good premise — a couple is accidentally abandonned at sea during a vacation diving session — and I liked the immediacy of the digital filmmaking, but it’s not particularly scary, and the ending is depressing (though probably realistic). The film spends a lot of time trying to establish the main characters, but they still come across as stereotypical yuppies, spoiled and irritating and incredibly stupid. I never did figure out why the couple didn’t at least try to figure out some way to survive. Swimming to shore may not have been a viable option, but wouldn’t you at least go down fighting? Seeing distant boats, wouldn’t you at least try to come up with a way to signal them? Strange film. I liked the concept and the technique, but the execution and story left a lot to be desired.

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: The Girl Next Door

Not nearly as raunchy or provocative as the advertising implied, this turned out to be a decent coming-of-age story about a conservative high school senior who falls for the “girl next door” who is a former porn star wanting to go straight. While the film glamorizes the porn industry too much, it does have a good heart and the twist ending is great. Elisha Cuthbert, from TV’s 24, is definitely the draw here as the lead, and she’s amazing, but everyone else is remarkably well-cast too. Certainly not a deep film, it’s far better than most in the teen genre. I don’t think it did too well at the box office, but that seems to be mostly due to poor marketing, since the ads implied sex and there really isn’t much in the film.

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Mon, Aug 23, 2004

: Northfork

Strange film set in the 1950’s where the town of Northfork is going to be flooded by a new dam being built and a group of black suited men are hired to evacuate the last few holdouts. One of these includes a priest with a sick boy, who’s too ill to travel. The boy has bizarre dreams of being an angel with weird visitors searching for him. Events in the boy’s dreams correspond in a timely fashion with other events, producing interesting coorelations. Unfortunately, the whole thing feels more like an avant garde film experiment instead of a movie. There isn’t much of a story, and while the whole thing reeks of pretentious intelligence, there isn’t much actual depth.

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Sun, Aug 22, 2004

: At the Stroke of Midnight

Author: Alex Kava

I picked this book up at Costco the other day as it sounded interesting, a track-the-serial-killer thriller. After reading it, I am most impressed with Alex. She writes with friendly, clean prose, creates some nice suspense and thrills, and most important, has a character-based storyline. This is a psychological thriller where we’re given insight into the mind of the murderer, seeing things from his eyes. Not constantly, as the novel does switch viewpoints, but enough that we think we understand him. That’s really interesting. I also liked that Alex didn’t enforce an artificial plot twist on the reader just for the sake of a twist. Too many authors make their endings overly complicated as they try to out-clever the reader. Just tell us an interesting story, that’s all we need. I’ll be seeking out more books my Alex Kava. She’s only written a few others, all in the same vein, but so far I’m impressed.

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Sat, Aug 21, 2004

: MLS: Dallas Burn at San Jose Earthquakes

Wow, fantastic night. The weekend began with a downer in that AEG, the owners of the Quakes, officially announced a deadline: if the Quakes are not bought by local investors or a local stadium deal isn’t figured by Sept. 27 — yes, a mere month away — the Quakes will be relocated next year, most likely to San Antonio, Texas. Friday a huge rally in San Jose was scheduled, and tonight was a tribute to the original Earthquakes, the 30th anniversary of the original 1974 NASL team. In honor of those players, the Earthquakes wore red retro uniforms, quite a switch from traditional Quake blue. There was a good-sized crowd on hand and even Krazy George was back, beating his drum and riling up the fans who were in excellent voice. Besides the relocation drama, this was a huge game for the Quakes. Last in the West, this was a must-win against a Conference opponent. The game started with Dallas getting a couple early chances, but within a couple minutes the Quakes were humming and got an early goal with a terrific Ramiro Corrales left-footed strike. Donovan broke through with the ball on goal, took a defender with him to the side and played a fluff ball to Ramiro who blasted it into the far post netting. San Jose controlled play well after that. The Burn had some possession and created a couple chances, but nothing truly threatening. San Jose really dominated with some fantastic combination play. A quick series of passes sent Ronnie Ekelund in alone on goal, but Burn keeper Jeff Cassar managed to block the shot with his face! Sadly, he paid for the fine save, having to come out of the game as his left eye was nearly swollen shut. The Quakes’ continued pressure paid off and soon we were on the board again with another Ramiro goal… sort of. Off on the left he came into the box and took a low-percentage shot. Unfortunately for the Burn, their defender’s feeble block only succeeded in wrong-footing the keeper and generating an own goal. In the second half the Burn came out wanting to be strong but San Jose wouldn’t have it, continuing the route with another combination goal. Several touches in the Burn half resulted in Ekelund feeding Mulrooney who passed forward to Ching who chested it down to Donovan. Landon immediately slid the ball into space and Ching turned and was on-on-one with Scott Garlick, the Burn’s replacement keeper. Ching scored to give us a 3-0 lead and himself a league-leading eleventh goal of the season. After that it was routine, with the fans screaming with joy, the Quakes making the Burn look pathetic, and the home team squandering several good chances to add to the score. In the end the Quakes get themselves out of the cellar (the Burn deservedly get that spot), hold on to a nice shutout, and snag a priceless three points. And hopefully it will be a performance that will inspire a local ownership group to keep the Quakes here. Final: 3-0 Earthquakes.

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Fri, Aug 20, 2004

: Lovely and Amazing

Interesting film about the interconnecting lives of a mother and her two daughters and her adopted black child. While the mother has complications from liposuction surgury and is hospitalized, the daughters struggle with their careers (or lack thereof) and love lives (or lack thereof). It’s slow and ponderous at times, and occasionally distasteful (sometimes you just want to slap an annoying, whiney character), but it has some unusual perspectives and is interesting. The storyline, if you can call it that, meanders. That leaves things a little unsatisfied and frustrating as we can’t tell where we are going. The abrupt ending doesn’t help matters, either. Not a great movie, but above average.

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Tue, Aug 17, 2004

: Garden State

Author: Zach Braff

Director: Zach Braff

Terrific, lovely film about a troubled slacker trying to figure out life. He seems like a typical loser at first, strangely distant when learning of his mother’s death early in the film, but we gradually learn that his psychiatrist father has had him medicated since he was a child. Returning home to New Jersey for his mother’s funeral, he rebells against his father and stops taking his medications, beginning to feel life the first time. He then meets an oddly charming girl, a compulsive liar fantastically portrayed by Natalie Portman in one of her best roles, with her own quirky family. The two form a bond that grows throughout the film, deepening to love. Astonishingly well-written, sensitive, funny, charming, and sweet, this is a great story — two hurt people find love in a painful world — beautifully and honestly told. The characters are well-defined and realistic, and the story retains enough grit and dirt to remain hip and modern and therefore be sincere without smaltzy saccharine romantic silliness. Fun, fascinating, and moving. A must-see.

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Mon, Aug 16, 2004

: Dead Aim

Author: Iris Johansen

Decent Johansen thriller, well-written as usual, but unfortunately her characters are becoming stereotypes of themselves. As always, she has the gruff, grim, superhero man, who’s an expert killer, in conflict with the independent, strong-minded, stubborn woman. The two are throw into an adventure together and fall in love while saving the world. This one isn’t bad, but has a paint-by-numbers feel to it, with nothing fleshed out. It’s still better than the average spy novel, but this one is weaker than Johansen’s usual. I also was annoyed by one personality trait of the female lead that forced much of the plot: the woman, Alex, is being hunted, but rather than accept help from friends or hide out at a safe house, she wants to continue her work (she’s a photo journalist). While that was supposed to demonstrate her independent mind and drive the plot, it felt forced and unnatural. Either Johansen didn’t develop that aspect of Alex’s character well enough, or it just wasn’t there, because I just didn’t believe it. If someone had just shot my friend and nearly killed me, and an expert offered me safety, I think I’d take it, at least for a little while, until things cooled down. Alex is such an idiot she’s prepared to walk right into gunfire! Oh, and the plot’s a little overdone on this one, involving a Congressman trying to take over the White House by creating a series of natural disasters to… oh never mind. It’s too ridiculous to even bother explaining. But it’s still a fun read, with some good scenes and situations, and Johansen’s prose is well-written.

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Sun, Aug 15, 2004

: Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen

Surprisingly good Lindsay Lohan vehicle about a New York City girl who moves to New Jersey and pines for a life she doesn’t have. She’s a “drama queen” and makes up stories about her family and life to improve her situation, especially to help her fit into her new high school. This turns into a “girl who shouted wolf” story when something exciting really does happen but no one will believe her. Thus the girl learns her lesson and her positive attitude carries the day. This certainly isn’t deep but it’s fun, with distinct surreal direction that shows no one takes this too seriously. It’s light and very Disney, but above average.

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: A Wrinkle in Time

Author: Madeline L’Engle

I recorded this off TV a while back but hadn’t watched it yet. It was surprisingly good. I first read the book when I was a kid and though I liked it, didn’t really understand it that well. Even with this version the “battle” is all mental and abstract, and while it’s compellingly done, it’s not as concrete as say, the plots of the Harry Potter books. It reminded me a lot of my own “Traveler” graphic novel. I wonder if I had some sort of subconscious memory of this when I wrote it?

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Wed, Aug 11, 2004

: The Lake House

Author: James Patterson

Heavens, Patterson is becoming an expert at being a bad writer. He used to create some decent thrillers, but his last few are just terrible. This one is sad. It’s a sequel to the mediocre functional). Top off the bad science, idiotic plot, and horrible story-telling with poor writing and you’ve really got a dog of a novel. Patterson uses his new favorite idiotic technique of making each chapter 2-3 pages long, made horrible because each chapter must begin and end on an “exciting” note (almost always artificial, of course). This gives the whole book a seesaw “oh that’s good,” “oh that’s bad,” “oh that’s good,” feeling and makes it impossible to get involved in the lives of any of the characters. And did I mention that Patterson can’t write children dialog at all? He even has the eight-year-old awkwardly using the F-word, for reasons I can’t fathom. This is just a sad, sad work, probably written in a single weekend by a moron who could do so much better. I don’t expect Shakespeare from former ad man Patterson, but this is way below even his shallow standards.

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Tue, Aug 10, 2004

: Catch That Kid

What is it with Hollywood producing kid movies with adults with negative IQs? This is actually a fun film, but several of the adults are just absurdly moronic (i.e. security guard shocks himself unconscious with electric cattle prod) and it really means that only kids age five could completely enjoy this. Overall it’s a decent concept for a film: a young girl teams with her friends to rob a bank to steal the $250,000 her dad needs to a critical operation. The bank robbery is overly elaborate to the point of being silly, but still fun. Unfortunately, everything is dumbed down. Why couldn’t this be done intelligently and realistically? It could have been really cool? As it is, it’s on about the level of a cheap sitcom, okay but not great.

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: The Door in the Floor

Strange film. I wanted to really like it. It’s directed with distinction and seems to have more depth than it does. Sadly, the film’s not that profound. It deals with a family bereft by tragedy: their two older sons were killed in a car accident. The husband and wife have drifted apart after that, with the wife cold and distant. The husband, who’s an author/artist of children books, likes to seduce women by getting them to pose for him. Meanwhile, the wife begins an affair with her husband’s new teenage assistant. There’s lots of conflict, emotional tension, strange humor, and some interesting scenes, but everything adds up to a mystery that’s never explained. At the end of the film we’re finally privileged to find out what happened to the woman and her sons, but that explanation, while dramatic, is not earthshattering. The bottom line is her sons are dead no matter how it happened — why is she still so dead? The couple have a young daughter that needs a mother, but the woman abandons her, for reasons that aren’t explained. Some of this abiguity is good and thought-provoking, but much of it just creates empty characters that we can’t relate to and don’t care about. Overall this is a well-acted, well-done film that falls short of the profundity needed for this kind of a deep drama. The director needs to learn that a dramatic pause does not add drama — it merely announces it and gives us time to appreciate the drama that’s already there. In this case, there wasn’t enough drama in the actual story.

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Mon, Aug 09, 2004

: Blue Crush

Routine surf film, about a female surfer who’s trying to compete in a big tournament while struggling with her love life and is haunted by a near-drowning incident a few years earlier. Silly drama, but earnestly done with an appealing cast, but mostly this movie is just an excuse for beautiful shots of beautiful surfers on beautiful waves.

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Sat, Aug 07, 2004

: MLS: DC United at San Jose Earthquakes

Hooray! The Quakes get a much needed shutout and an even more needed win. The pregame had some drama as yesterday the league suddenly announced that Landon Donovan wouldn’t play as he would be suspended for his anti-ref gesture in the Quakes’ home game two weeks ago. After billing this as a “Landon vs. Freddy” shootout (they gave away posters with that message), Landon wouldn’t play. Good to see the league backing up the refs even if it means benching their superstar, but the timing is awkward. Anyway, I was a little unsure how a Donovanless Quakes would play. It turns, very well. Partly that was because D.C. just wasn’t playing well, but mostly it was because the Quakes were excellent. They controlled the play, passed the ball around like they owned the field, created gobs of chances, and finished a couple of them. The Quakes totally dominated the first half, with Ching missing a sitter five minutes in, Waibel’s shot cleared off the line by a defender, and Ching hitting the post twice before the end of the half! Fortunately, they did at least get one in the goal. After DeRo was taken down near the corner, Goose’s free kick bounced inside the box and D.C. couldn’t clear, sending it right to a Quake who took the ball back into the box, where Mullan’s initial shot was blocked but cleared right back to him, and his second a low slider to the opposite post that a DC defender couldn’t keep out. Wild, but a great goal. In the second half, DC came back and had a few chances. Onstad had one great save in the first half and in the second he made another one, two key plays in the game for him. The Quakes relaxed a little too much for a while, but fortunately didn’t give up an equalizer. Then as they began to attack more, Mullan put in a great cross that DeRosario finished with an amazing volley right into the upper net, giving the keeper no chance to save it. Fantastic goal, certainly a goal of the year candidate. Final: 2-0 San Jose Earthquakes.

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: Just a Geek

Author: Wil Wheaton

Wil was once known as one of the excellent kid actors in the acclaimed film Stand By Me, and achieved even more fame as the teenage Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation. After a few years on the show Wil was frustrated at all the movie roles he kept having to turn down, so he left — and the movie roles disappeared. Recently Wil has turned to writing. This came about by accident, as he started his own weblog. Initially this was simply to get more exposure for his dwindling acting career, but soon it was a way to communicate with fans, and eventually a way to excise his demons and figure out what he really wants out of life. By pouring your heart out to strangers on the web, you learn quickly what’s cool, pathetic, or real. This book is Wil’s story, and it tells of his journey from actor to writer, and it’s written with surprising honesty. It pulls no punches — Wil has been insulted a lot in his life and by now he has learned not to care what others think (or at least to do a good job of pretending not to care). He writes with plenty of humor, self-depreciation, and surprising intelligence and insight. There’s some insider info of what it’s like to be a famous Star Trek actor, work on the show, or meet famous actors, but much of Wil’s story is personal stuff, like how he felt when his dad was in the hospital, childhood memories, or spending time with his kids and wife. It’s nothing earthshattering, but it feels genuine, and that makes it special. If you’re a Wil fan or know his work as an actor, you’ll find the book a good read. Even if you don’t know him, you’ll probably still find it entertaining. It reads fast, and Wil is sarcastic and very funny. Excellent.

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Fri, Aug 06, 2004

: Interstate 60

Author: Bob Gale

Director: Bob Gale

I don’t know what I expected with this film, but I certainly got more than I bargained for. It’s an amazing movie. It reminded me a lot of The Princess Bride — not for the setting or plot, but in tone. That’s a film with a seemingly straightforward story suddenly veers out of line and goes off on wild, surreal tangents, just like this one. The “plot” is about a young man trying to find himself. He’s 22 and his attorney father is pressuring him to go to law school, but he’s not sure what he wants to do with his life. When his birthday wish is granted, he ends up on Interstate 60 — a highway that doesn’t exist. Along this road he meets fascinating characters and visits strange towns. There’s a town where drugs are legal and another where everyone is a lawyer and lawsuits are as common as breathing (as a matter of fact, breathing will probably get you sued for using someone else’s air). This is bizarre, quirky, and magically brilliant. There’s humor, drama, and deep thought. It’s the kind of film you could watch multiple times and see new things each time. The cast is fantastic, with short pieces involving Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Kurt Russell, Ann-Margret, and more. The main characters of James Marsden and Gary Oldman are excellent. One of my favorite scenes involves the awesome Chris Cooper, who plays a terminally ill man determined to stop all dishonesty. When he sees a homeless guy with a “will work for food” sign, he tries to trade an apple for a windshield cleaning, but the bum doesn’t actually want food, of course. He just wants a handout. The resulting clash is hilarious! Another great scene is in a diner when a guy with a bottomless stomach appears. He eats enough for ten people and is still hungry. It turns out that he was also granted a wish many years earlier, a wish to be able to eat as much as he wanted, and now he has to eat unbelievable amounts of food but stays hungry. The moral, of course, being that you should be careful what you wish for. (Really that’s a theme of the whole film.) Now I don’t want to give the impression that this is like the greatest movie ever, but it’s charming, surprisingly deep and complex, has a lot of humor, great performances, and a number of classic plot twists that are just awesome. It’s a little long at two hours and it’s uneven in a few places, but once you get started, it will hook you in and you can’t stop watching (it gets better as it goes along). You just have to see what weirder thing is coming next. Excellent.

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: Collateral

Director: Michael Mann

This film came out of nowhere — I saw not a single preview and barely heard about it, so I wasn’t at all sure it was any good. To my surprise, it was great! Tom Cruise plays a cool bad guy, one of the most ruthless hit men ever portrayed on screen. Jamie Foxx, usually reduced to comical idiot roles, plays straight here, as a taxi driver Cruise uses to drive him around to various kill sites in one night. The performances of both are great, which is good, because they take up most of the screen time. The characterization of the taxi driver is deep, and while we don’t learn as much about Tom’s character, we do learn some background that explains a little of his career choice. The plot is excellent, as against his wishes the innocent taxi driver is given more and more responsibility to help the hit man. The climax is great when the shy, reserved taxi driver finally takes action and tries to stop the hit man, and the two square off in a gun battle. It’s an excellent film. Lots of cool action, a non-stop pace, deep characters, and a satisfying ending.

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: Bubba Ho-Tep

Very strange, badly promoted film. The terrible title turned me off when this was in the theatres, but the genre surprised me even more when it turned out to be a comedic horror flick! In that light, it’s actually pretty good, bizarre and funny. The concept is great: Elvis Presley is still alive and in a retirement home in Texas. He apparently exchanged lives with a top Elvis impersonator and it was that man who died. Of course no one believes this old guy is the “real” Elvis: they think he’s the impersonator who fell off a stage and broke his hip. Anyway, that’s just the setting of the story, which deals with a strange Eqyptian undead monster that comes into the old folks home at night and robs people of their souls. Elvis and his pal (who’s delusional) set out to stop the monster. It’s silly, funny, and terrific, but the title still sucks.

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: Alien vs. Predator

This movie gave me pretty much what I expected, a fun actioner pitting Alien against Predator with humans in the middle getting killed by whichever monster happens to be in their path. The beginning’s weak as the film struggles to concoct a “plausible” scenario for getting the two creatures into the same place at the same time. It’s ridiculous and irrelevent: just get the humans in a remote place with the creatures and watch the blood splatter. Once the killing starts, it doesn’t stop, and the film’s pretty good. I liked the ending a lot — it’s a clever way to kill the monster — and the human heroine is cool. I heard some reviewers don’t think this was as fun or as good as

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Thu, Aug 05, 2004

: The Art of Deception

Author: Ridley Pearson

Fascinating psychological profile of killers and the police who track them down. Perhaps too analytical and self-indulgent at times (self-anaylsis gets old quickly if you’re not the focus) and not enough focus on the plot, but the unusually close perspective makes for an interesting book. It begins awkwardly, as there’s obviously a lot of history between the characters that we don’t know about. Some of that is because apparently this is part of a series of books that involve the same characters (this is the first Pearson book I’ve read), but some of that is because the novel begins after some crimes have been committed and the investigation is underway. That means we’re given information in retrospect fashion, which is awkward, and leaves you the vague feeling that maybe you missed something along the way. It’s also a lot of information to absorb: all the characters, their private lives and relationships, the murder victims and investigation details, etc. With a similar murder mystery kind of book (like Agatha Christie) you’re just given the info you need, nothing more, nothing less. Here we’re right in the detectives’ heads, following along as they struggle with day-to-day life, follow the clues, and try to analyze and interogate suspects. The main character is Daphne Matthews, a psychologist and police lieutenant, which explains much of the novel’s introspective feel. She analyzes everyone she meets, from police to criminals. I liked her a lot, but I found her character incongruous in that she appears to be strong but in the novel she’s often frightened to immobility. There’s some logic behind that as she’s being stalked, the watching giving her a bad case of paranoia, but there were a few places where it felt overdone and out of character for her to be so frightened. Maybe it’s a woman thing. A regular woman would have certainly felt what she felt, but she’s a trained professional with years of experience — shouldn’t she have been able to keep her emotions at least a little in check? She also seems so logical most of the time, when she reacts out of pure emotion it felt incorrect. But other than that, the book is excellent. Good characterizations, fascinating pyschology, and an unusual plot that takes us into the Seattle Underground: literally a city beneath the city. Recommended.

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: Linuxworld San Francisco

Nice show. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Very different crowd than the Macworld Expo, but that’s to be expected. This was less individual users and more corporate, enterprise-level stuff. Lots of server-level software and the hardware tended to be high-end (terabyte drives, CPU clusters, etc.). I was impressed at how much stuff for Linux is available, though it’s obvious the desktop has a long way to go. Also impressed at some of the big companies involved: IBM, HP, Novell, etc. It was good to see that despite the corporate influence, there was still an emphasis on open source and cross platform technologies. In many cases companies making stuff for Windows and Linux also support the Mac, which is excellent. Oh, and the vendors seemed eager to hand out their giveaways, unlike Macworld where they are hoarded and given out only to a select few (or all out by the last day of the show). Good show. I think I’ll go again next year and see how it’s developed.

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Wed, Aug 04, 2004

: Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle

I figured this for a stupid stoner comedy and it is: but except for a few places where it tries to out-crude Dumb and Dumber, it’s hiliarious. I rarely laugh out loud at a movie, but this one had me in stitches in certain places. Perhaps I was just in the mood (Could it have been the medical marijuana they gave out at the theatre entrance? Just kidding!), but it’s just so outrageous, silly, and absurd I couldn’t help but giggle. It’s really cool. The plot is simple: two stoner dudes, one an Indian (Kumar) who keeps avoiding medical school and the other a straight-laced Korean (Harold) who’s stuck working in a boring financial firm, decide to go to White Castle for some yummy burgers and find all sorts of odd obstacles in their way. It’s a road trip film, with all sorts of detours and bizarre characters on the way. Of course the two stoners just blink and go right on, practically oblivious and single-minded in their determination to get to White Castle. Some of the scenes are classics. For instance, Kumar pulls the car over in the middle of nowhere and runs to pee in the woods. While he’s doing his business, suddenly a strange guy — I’m pretty sure it was Jamie Kennedy in a cameo — comes up next to him and starts peeing in the same bush! They have this surreal conversation about what the heck’s going on and it’s just so out-of-place, uncomfortable, and funny you can’t help but laugh. The whole film’s like that, with strange moments that just make you grin. I won’t spoil the details of all their adventures — just trust that if you like silly comedies like Dumb and Dumber, you’ll love this one. There’s even some not-too-subtle jabs at society, such as when the entire police force attack an unarmed black man harmlessly reading a book for “attempting to escape his jail cell.” The ending is awesome, with the two stoners growing from their experiences, but not too much: we certainly wouldn’t want them being too responsible as that wouldn’t be very funny.

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Tue, Aug 03, 2004

: Thunderbirds

I liked the original 1960s marionette series, though I only first saw it a couple years ago when TechTV was broadcasting the reruns. I wasn’t sure about a live action remake — wasn’t the point of the original that it was all done with minature sets and marionettes? But actually the film wasn’t that bad. It’s certainly not Shakespeare, but it’s fun, the plot was decent (youngest Tracey longs to be a full Thunderbird but is too young, until his family is trapped and he’s the only one left to save them), and the special effects and ships are cool. The biggest problem with the movie is that the TV series isn’t that well known here in the U.S. and while you can understand the movie without knowing the series, knowing the TV show certainly makes the film more interesting. It’s a good kid/family movie, completely harmless. Deserves a better rep and box office than it is getting.

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Mon, Aug 02, 2004

: Lost and Delirious

This was a surprisingly good film. I didn’t know anything about it. I guess I’d added it to my Netflix queue at some point, but when it arrived I couldn’t remember anything. It turned out to be a coming of age film set in a private girls school. Our narrator is the shy Mouse (real name Mary), arriving at the school for her first time away from home, still struggling to recover from her mother’s death three years earlier. Her two roommates, Victoria and Paulie, are wild and crazy, the opposite of her, and she finds them fascinating. But when romance goes awry, the lonely Paulie goes crazy: she’s lost the only love of her life. The film tries a little too hard to be shocking and wild, but it’s got a great intellectual core. It’s at its best in the simpler scenes between mouse and the gardener (the terrific Graham Greene), where they talk in riddles and jokes about Serious Things. Like when they first meet and Mouse asks if she can help him garden — she used to help her mother and enjoyed it — and when he asks her name she replies, “It’s in transition,” a brilliant way to express that she’s migrating away from her Mouse nickname to something better. That’s one of the best scenes I’ve ever seen on film. It’s astonishing. Simple words, simple facial expressions, loads of meaning. Great stuff. If the rest of the film was up to that standard, this would be a masterpiece. Granted the cast is fantastic. All relatively unknown, Canadian actresses (the film is Canadian), but beautiful and amazingly good. Mouse is played by Mischa Barton, who looks like a smaller version of Sarah Michelle Geller. Jessica Pare and Piper Perabo are her roommates. Excellent.

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: The Manchurian Candidate

Director: Jonathan Demme

I wasn’t that crazy about the original, but then by the time I saw it I’d seen the same plot about fifty times in various TV shows. This film is decently done — it’s not a frame-for-frame remake but modernized and made relevant — but there’s no heart. I didn’t really care about the characters: they were all stereotypes. There are some excellent performances and the direction is good, but at the end I was asking “Why?” Why did they bother to do that? Why did I bother to see it? Is the problem of mind-controlled politicians really something I need worry about? The bottom line: well done but not worth the bother.

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Sun, Aug 01, 2004

: Outside Providence

Not as dumb as you’d expect movie about a drugged-out loser who gets shipped off to boarding school, meets a girl who reforms him a little, and eventually he gets his head on straight. Decent, low-key, but not earthshattering.

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