Mon, Dec 31, 2007

: National Treasure: Book of Secrets

Like the first film, this is not unwatchable (though you must leave your skepticism at the door). It’s isn’t up to the original’s standards and the puzzles are both too convoluted and too simple and the ending is anti-climactic, but it’s still harmless fun with quirky history lessons and amusing jokes.

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Sun, Dec 30, 2007

: Cake

I liked this. I’d never heard of it, but it’s about Heather Graham as a wild travel writer with committment issues who, when her magazine publisher dad has a heart attack, has to take over one of his publications as editor. It turns out it’s a wedding magazine — exactly the opposite of her personality and beliefs (she’s anti-marriage). While occasionally uneven and some of the conflicts feel forced or ill-defined and of course the overall plot is obvious a mile away (yes, the anti-marriage girl falls in love and settles down), Graham’s bubbly performance carries the day and makes this an entertaining exploration of marriage and love.

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Sat, Dec 29, 2007

: Bound

Author: Wachowski Brothers

Director: Wachowski Brothers

This was the Wachowski brothers’ first film and one I’d heard about and been wanting to see for a long time. However, the “gimmick” factor is high (Lesbian lovers in some crimminal caper) and wasn’t sure if the reputation was deserved. It turns out to be a pretty good film (other than one brief sex scene, the sleeze factor is more implied than shown). Basically we have a girl just out of prison who meets a mobster’s mistress and they fall in love and contrive to steal $2 million of the mob’s money. They’ve got a clever idea on how to steal it in such a way that the blame won’t be attached to them — but of course things go wrong and everything gets messy. What intrigued me the most about the film is the aspect of trust between the two female lovers: the thief went to prison for trusting her old partner too much, yet she trusts the new one. Or does she? Is everyone telling the truth? How much do you really trust another person, especially with life and death and $2 million on the line? Interesting questions, and though not explored enough for my taste, still a pretty good film.

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Thu, Dec 27, 2007

: Kite Runner

I knew little about this going in — so little I thought the title was a metaphor. It turns about to be about kids flying kites in Afghanistan (apparently they do that there, though it seems an odd hobby for such a place). While overall this is an excellent movie, I found the beginning confusing: we open with a writer receiving a batch of his first book in the mail and the way it was shot you only caught a glimpse at the title and I must have been halucinating because I could have sworn in one shot it was a copy of The Kite Runner, which made me think the author’s character was the author of the movie and that the extended flashback was everything that had happened to that author when he was a kid. Instead, it turns out the story is utter fiction — but that confusing premise at the beginning weakened the film for me. Why not just show the book clearly so we can see what’s going on? Why purposely play coy with the book like that? It was an odd directing decision that hurt an otherwise excellent film. The story is a powerful one of redemption: two boys grow up together in Afghanistan, but apparently one is lower class, the son of the other’s family servant (this was also not clearly presented in the film until too late). When the rich boy doesn’t rescue the servant boy he resents him for he reminds him of his guilt and he contrives to have the servant boy — his former “best friend” — sent away. Later the rich boy and his father must flee the country when the Russians invade and they end up in America, where the boy becomes an author, but he’s still haunted by the way he treated his supposed best friend and returns to Afghanistan to make ammends. Some people I was with seemed shocked or horrified by the Afghanistan lifestyle (quite brutal under the Taliban), but I was much more intrigued by the bond of the two boys and felt that should have been explored more in the film as that was the core subject. Still, despite a few flaws, this is an excellent film and I highly recommend it.

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Wed, Dec 26, 2007

: Burning Bright

Author: Tracy Chevalier

I’m a huge Chevalier fan, but I was disappointed with this novel. I’m not sure where it was going or why it went there. It’s basically the story of a rural family in the late 1700s who move to London and their lives overlap with that of poet William Blake. This brings us some fascinating insight into the life of the writer — how he had his own printing press and the way that he produced his books — but the main story is about the family, and that story meanders for a while and finally drifts off into the nothing. While it’s realistic — little more than youngsters falling in love and becoming adults — I kept wating for something to happen and when nothing did, I was left disappointed. It’s still an excellently-written book, it’s just not up to Chevalier’s usual standards.

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Fri, Dec 21, 2007

: Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story

This is a funny parody of Walk the Line, the Johnny Cash bio, this time about a fictional singer named Dewey Cox. It’s an almost literal remake with the key momments of Cash’s life mocked and mixed up, with hilarious results. What’s interesting is the realism that’s preserved: the singing’s actually good, the story’s good (not just silly), and the acting’s excellent. Many parodies are so cheesy they demean themselves as well as the original work: here everything is celebrated. Only occasionally does the film lower itself into silliness, like the bit about Dewey accidentally cutting his beloved older brother in half with a machette — and even there it’s done in such a way that it’s not so realistic that it’s disturbing yet realistic enough that it doesn’t ruin the tone. All-in-all, other than a few moments of questionable humor, I liked this. It’s fun, silly, entertaining, and clever.

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: Sweeney Todd

Director: Tim Burton

I’d heard of the muscial Sweeney Todd and the premise of a murderous barber always intrigued me, but I’d never seen it, so I was looking forward to this presentation. Unfortunately, what disappointed me the most was the music: it’s definitely poor, with zero memorable songs and only one or two even singable. The rest are boring or tedious, with a few just downright awful. Everything else about the film — the story, the cast, the acting, the atmospheric sets, the direction — I loved. But music is key for a musical and this was disappointing. So see it for the black comedy story and great performances from Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter and wear earplugs.

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Fri, Dec 14, 2007

: I Am Legend

This is a surprisingly good film. Will Smith is solo most of the screen time and manages to evoke depth of character without dialog and an actor to react with. The story — about the last man on earth — is compelling beyond the gimmicky premise. I wasn’t crazy about the “monster” humans lurking about: they were unrealistic and inconsistent, but they were frightening (all the more so since they used to be human). The bottom line is that this is a film with a gimmick that proves deeper than its subject matter, and Will’s acting is a tour-de-force.

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Tue, Dec 11, 2007

: Slither

Cool little monster-from-space flick that blends a lot of horror-scifi films into something new. Basically we’ve got a small town where an alien being that arrives via a meteorite takes over the body of a rich guy and has him start eating the neighborhood’s dogs and cats while impregnating a woman with thousands of worm children who then invade other people, turning them into zombies. It’s meant to be wacky and funny more than scary, and it succeeds while still keeping things realistic enough to be creepy. Fun characters and cool action — a winner.

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Mon, Dec 10, 2007

: Crisis

Author: Robin Cook

I’m not usually this blunt, but this is a horrible, horrible, book. Absolutely nothing happens. The title and the book jacket implied this was an exciting tale about medical malpractice and knowing Cook’s books I figured this would be cutting edge legal-medical conflict and raise a lot of interesting issues. Wrong! Instead we have what appears to be a routine death and a subsequent lawsuit that blames the doctor’s personal problems which all get aired in court. The crux of the novel is about a potential autopsy of the victim — and we literally must wade through hundreds of pages of incredible tedium as the doctor (the brother-in-law of the sued doctor) tries to fight through bureaucratic paperwork to get the body exhumed and examined. It’s so boring! As if to make up for the lack of story, Cook suddenly throws in bizarre kidnapping and assaults… apparently instigated by the “evil” lawyer suing the doctor who doesn’t want an autopsy. The assaults are so outrageous — a gunfight on a freeway — that all plausibility of the novel is lost. We’re really supposed to believe an attorney would send goons to attack the defense? I mean, come on — he’s the obvious suspect. But of course nothing can be proven and the lawyer gets away with it. Preposterous. But the final insult was the book’s ending. I had kept reading because the way the book made it sound we could expect some dramatic resolution at the end and I had to find out what would be discovered in the autopsy. What was discovered was just ridiculous: that apparently the sued doctor had killed the patient on purpose? Huh? I don’t get it. It makes no sense and there’s no explanation given. Just bizarre and totally out of character. Very odd novel, if you can even call it that. The plot would fit into a short story and even then it would be boring. I normally like Cook’s books, but I feel this book stole years of my life. I want my brain back! Gag. Just horrible. One of the worst books I’ve ever read.

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Fri, Dec 07, 2007

: The Golden Compass

I read the trilogy over a year ago in anticipation of this film and I’ve been bummed that it took so long to be released. Initially I was irritated and unimpressed for the script seemed to be veering dangerously far from the book and eliminating many important scenes. For instance, the film debuts with narration explaining that this is set is an alternate universe, that in this world people wear their souls on the outside, etc. Narration like that’s a warning sign for trouble, especially with such a complicated story. Fortunately, the narration was brief and hardly needed, for the story explained most everything, and once things got moving, the film was very good. The young actress who plays the lead was terrific, especially her impressive interactions with the CGI bear: excellent casting. I also liked the way they ended the film, resolving the current crisis but setting us up for the sequel (book two of the trilogy), but not including one key scene that’s in the original book but would have complicated the ending by introducing too much fresh conflict at the very end. I believe they’ll open the second movie with that scene, which is excellent and much better than including it in this one: otherwise people would have been frustrated ending the movie right in the middle of the story. So the bottom line is the film has as weak start but gets better and better and the second half is just terrific.

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Wed, Dec 05, 2007

: Tin Man

This was a mini-series that aired on the Scifi Channel. It’s surprisingly good. They’ve taken the original Wizard of Oz story and updated it into a science fiction version. For instance, Dorothy isn’t taken to Oz but the “Outer Zone” a.k.a. the O.Z. The Scarecrow isn’t really a scarecrow, but the former Queen’s chief scientist and advisor, only he was tortured by the new evil queen and had half his brain removed (he’s now called Glitch because he’s only half there). The result is that we’ve got a story that’s familiar yet new. Pretty cool, and the luxurious scenery and decent special effects make this a keeper. The ending’s a bit too pat for my taste, but this is still a lot of fun with a charming cast.

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Tue, Dec 04, 2007

: Enchanted

This had gotten good reviews and though the premise seemed interesting, it also seemed like an easy movie to screw up, but it turns out it’s really well handled. The concept is that an animated princess in a fairytale world gets transported to modern day live action New York City by the Wicked Witch. The princess is completely clueless, as everything in her world happens in a perfect fairytale fashion without all the complexities of real life. She ends up being rescued by a hardened divorce attorney who’s about to get married without any romance in it at all — and the princess, of course, shows him that there’s magic in living and the world isn’t all evil. It’s fun the way the movie blends the animated and live action worlds, but that’s just a gimmick — far better is the way the film plays with all the fairytale stereotypes and mixes tales into a delightfully bizarre conconction. Great fun. Not too serious, and the finale’s way over the top (literally), but still enjoyable. My favorite scene was the scene in the park where the princess starts to sing an improv and strangers in the park start joining in while the down-to-earth lawyer follows scratching his head in bewilderment and going, “Hey, how do they all know this song?” Hilarious, and one of my pet peeves about musicals.

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Thu, Nov 22, 2007

: No Country for Old Men

Author: Coen Brothers

Director: Coen Brothers

The Coen brothers are back! While some have reported this “better than Fargo,” I wouldn’t go quite that far. Fargo is funnier; here the humor is blacker and bleaker. This is the grim tale of revenge and greed. A hunter finds $2 million in cash at a drug-deal gone bad in the middle of a Texas desert. All the drug dealers are dead, having shot each other, so he escapes with the dough. But soon they are on his trail, with a psychotic killer not far behind. Typical of the Coen brothers, all the characters are distinct and memorable; even the “throw-away” roles with only a line or two are shown to be human and personable (which makes their tragic demises more cutting). The story is complicated and is slowly reeled out, as the hunter tries to outwit the pyschotic. There are so many fascinating aspects of the characters — like the pyschotic’s use of a cylinder of compressed air to kill people and blow out door locks. This is the kind of film that isn’t about the plot, but about the people, the atmosphere, and the wonderful filmmaking that totally controls our perspective. Just sit back and enjoy the ride. You’re in the hands of masters of their craft.

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Wed, Nov 21, 2007

: Hitman

Kinda cool film about the “ultimate” hitman, a guy with no name (only a number) raised from birth to be a killer. When a hit turns out to be a fraud with himself as the target, the hitman must figure out who is trying to kill him, all while evading the cops and other hitmen. The film’s fun and the action’s good, but it’s pretentious, with dark moody atmosphere and suggestive dialogue and photography as though we’re supposed to think all this nonsense is important. It’s quite silly, really, and I prefer my action flicks a little lighter and more aware of their silliness (like the excellent Die Hard series). But still, it’s fun and entertaining and not the worse way to waste 90 minutes.

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Tue, Nov 20, 2007

: American Gangster

This is a terrific film. It’s long at over two-and-a-half hours, but I wasn’t bored for a second. It’s a complicated true story set in the late sixties/early seventies about a black man’s rise to power in Harlem. After 15 years as a sidekick, when the old druglord dies, Frank wants to take his place but discovers no one will let him. So Frank makes his own way, bypassing the middlemen and bringing his own heroin into Manhatten via a drug connection in Thailand. This results in a purer product that he sells cheaper than anyone else, and overnight he’s a multimillionaire. But he’s smart, keeping himself low-key and invisible, so few even know he’s the one behind the drugs. Meanwhile, we follow the career of a police officer who’s put in charge of a special drug-enforcement team designed to bring down the top drug leaders. These parallel stories culminate in the cop figuring out the black man’s the leader (unusual back when Italian gangs ruled) and trying to bring him down. Terrific writing, performances, and film-making. Great epic story, fascinating moral lessons, and entertaining as well.

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Sun, Nov 18, 2007

: MLS Cup 2007

Today the Houston Dynamo defeated the New England Revolution 2-1 at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. to win their second consecutive MLS Cup. It is only the second time in the history of the league that a champion has held on to their crown (DC United did it in 1997).

It was a cracker of a match, with Houston, ironically, having the fewer chances but capitalizing when it counted — the exact opposite of their season where they would have tons of chances in a game but few finishes.

Typical of Houston (and the San Jose incarnation), they do it best through adversity, giving up a headed goal to Taylor Twellman early in the first half. But Houston was calm. After all, just a few weeks ago they were two goals down to Dallas in the playoffs and won that series 4-2. And who can forget last year’s immediate comeback against this same New England team in the final?

Houston’s been a second half team all season and this game was no exception. They kicked things up a notch in the second half, coming out with more aggression and determination and fixed some of the defensive lapses they showed in the first half. New England, it must be said, looked like they thought they’d already won (shades of last year’s Cup), and failed to be as aggressive as they could and scorned a few gorgeous opportunities.

The comeback for Houston started with a fabulous sequence of pressure by the Dynamo, getting the ball deep into New England’s box and creating several dangerous chances. A Houston corner kick was rejected, but aggressive play from Dynamo Captain Wade Barrett kept the ball in play at the near sideline and he managed to toe-poke the ball to teammate Brian Mullan who fed a long ball into the box. It skittered across to Dwayne DeRosario on the far side and he managed to cross it hard into the box. It was too hard for Jaqua who was crashing in but it fell gloriously to Joseph Ngwenya. But he flubbed his left-footed shot as the ball went through his legs. But the Revolution defense didn’t clear the ball and Joseph didn’t quit, taking a second swipe at the ball with his right and sliding it underneath Revs’ keeper Matt Reis to level the score.

No game is complete without controversy and this came in the 64th minute when Cano Smith and Craig Waibel clashed in the box. Smith wanted a penalty kick (it was shoulder contact, not a foul) but the ref waved it off. Smith and Waibel had words, however, and then Cano — a mere yard from the referee — out-and-out head-butted Waibel in the jaw! Shockingly, this outrageous display of temper and unsportsmanship — little different from Ricardo Clark’s kick to Carlos Ruiz that earned him a league-record nine-game suspension — was dealt with merely a yellow card by referee Alex Pruis. I don’t like to see red cards in finals, but that was deliberate and regardless of the amount of contact (Waibel dodged most of the blow), it should have been a red. It was no different from Zidane’s head-butt in the World Cup final. (That said, a red would have tainted the result and I’m perfectly happy with the final score.)

Late in the game New England had a couple opportunities but couldn’t capitalize. One of the best was a cross through the box with Twellman waiting at the back post for a certain tap-in goal, but Dynamo goalkeeper Pat Onstad (my Man of the Match) flew in and got his fingertips to the ball to snare it with a fabulous saving play. Even better, the rebound was easily dealt with by the Dynamo defense and a counter-attack started.

Exactly forty seconds later, the Dynamo scored at the other end. Ngwenya’s good hold-up play on the right wing got the ball to Waibel who’d run up in support and he played it to a wide open Brad Davis just outside the box. Davis’ gifted left foot placed the ball perfectly in the box for De Rosario who snapped his head to the ball knocking it into the far corner past a helpless Reis. The defending champions were now leading with less than twenty minutes to go.

The final few minutes saw some tremendous pressure from New England and an unbelievable save from Onstad. In the 87th minute the Revs took a corner kick which eluded the Dynamo defense and reached Larentowicz who met it with a diving header just three yards out. It was bullet of a shot that should have been a goal — but Onstad was well-positioned and the ball ricocheted off his legs and was successfully cleared by Houston.

Amazing, and plays like that had to hit New England’s confidence where it hurts most. They never looked the same after that save, with Houston defending with authority and the Revs struggling. This was epitomized by play from DeRosario in the 91st minute when Jay Heaps twice tried to play a long cross to the box and both times DeRo leaped in front and blocked it with his back. If you can’t put in a simple cross from the half-field line with just one guy in front of you, what can you do? Disheartening, to say the least. The final play was a long feed from Reis that went right to his counter-part, Onstad, and the game ended without another chance for New England.

While I feel deep sympathy for the Revs — I’ve been a fan of theirs for years, since their underdog days (us long-term San Jose fans related to them), and I can’t imagine what it is like to lose three finals in a row — I have to give the Dynamo the win in this one. While they defended more than I preferred, their defense wobbled but didn’t break, and they pressured aggressively (even when the game was tied) and took two chances and converted. If you look at all the little things in the match — the way the forwards helped out on defense, the work rate, the relentless pressure, their calmness in the face of mistakes — Houston deserved this championship. Nowhere was this more evident than the reactions of each team when they gave up their first goal: the Houston players nodded, clapped each other on the back, and gritted their teeth, while the Revs cursed and moaned and looked at each other in bewilderment and frustration. And remember, Houston did this without two key players in Brian Ching and Ricardo Clark, which is the hallmark of a championship team.

Hat’s off to New England who fought hard, and played aggressive, attractive soccer. They have accomplished a lot: three straight finals and an Open Cup trophy is an amazing achievement. Their day will come.

Congratulations to the Houston Dynamo! You guys were wonderful all season. You battled through adversities, injuries, national team call-ups, trades, and the inevitable human error. In the end you’ve repeated as champions, which people who know sports say is always much harder than winning the first one.

Soccer’s a team sport, and Houston (going back to the San Jose days), is the embodiment of team spirit. I hope they never lose that. It’s what makes this group of rag-tag cast-offs from other teams greater than the sum of its parts.

Topic: [/soccer]

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Fri, Nov 16, 2007

: Beowulf

I was really impressed by this film. It sensationalizes certain aspects of the story but even those are part of historical accuracy since the whole point of the Beowulf story is about the legitimacy of our heroes and legends. The computer animation is generally phenomenal, though there are one or two shots where something feels a little artificial (like Angelina Jolie’s face from a couple angles). But most of the time the animation is stunning: the water droplets dripping off Beowulf’s chest when he climbs out of the water looks photographically real. Amazing. The key for me, however, is not mere realism but how well the characters act and provoke emotion from the audience, and in this regard, the acting and animation worked extremely well. The tormented monster Grendel is truly a hideous creation, but somehow still conveys human-like emotion and evokes sympathy.

The story is quite authentic. It tells of the hero Beowulf coming to the Danish king to rescue his kingdom from the dreaded monster Grendel. Beowulf boasts of his prowess but there are some questions as to his legitmacy. Is he a real hero or a fraud? But after he kills Grendel, all are convinced. But then Grendel’s mother, a demon-thing, attacks the town in revenge, and it’s up to Beowulf to deal with her. So far the story’s simple, but then it becomes complicated, as we learn there are secrets hiding: Grendel is the old king’s son, a hideous creation, the spawn of human and demon coupling. Grendel’s mother transforms herself into a beauty and seduces Beowulf, and he falls into the same trap as the old king. We then cut to many years later with Beowful now the old king and history repeating itself as his own son, a new monster, is attacking the village. This time Beowulf, after decades of hero worship and feeling guilty because he knows he is no hero, must save the kingdom again. This story is an incredible one, especially for such an ancient tale, and this version of it brings its lessons and message to a modern audience where hopefully people will see how vital and current those teachings are. Who are our heroes and why? What does being a hero feel like? How must today’s celebrities, today’s “legends” feel about their role? Are they frauds or merely playing their part? Lots of fascinating questions.

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Mon, Nov 12, 2007

: Breakfast of Champions

Author: Kurt Vonnegut

Hilariously inventive novel about a bizarre science fiction author and a crazy-but-rich used car dealer whose paths overlap. The plot is slim-to-nothing, but this is all about the journey and the humorous narrating style of Vonnegut, who includes himself in the story and writes about his characters escaping his control and doing things he didn’t anticipate. I haven’t read much Vonnegut and really need to read more because I love what little I’ve read. In this book my favorite technique of his is when he explains common everyday earth things as though the reader might be an alien and not understand such things. For instance, when he mentions people drinking alcohol, he explains this is a beverage that is a biproduct of sugar-eating yeasts (tiny organisms) and thereafter refers to people “drinking yeast execrement” whenever he wants to tell about people drinking alcohol. Hilarious! Overall this is a witty, fun, and entertaining book, and Kurt wisely keeps it short so the joke doesn’t overstay its welcome.

Topic: [/book]

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Sat, Nov 10, 2007

: MLS Playoffs: Kansas City at Houston

In a first for Major League Soccer, the same two teams that met last year in the final will meet again this year. New England won their game on Thursday against Chicago in a dreary 1-0 affair, and tonight the Houston Dynamo soundly defeated Kansas City 2-0 in a match where the Dynamo defense was so stout KC never got a single shot on goal! Oregonian Nate Jaqua scored in the first half and Dwayne De Rosario scored in the second, and KC never had a chance. This sets up a repeat of last year’s Cup, which Houston won on penalty kicks after a 1-1 draw. This is terrific, for both teams are excellent and both teams are motivated to win. Neither will be satisfied with another draw and penalty shootout: Houston wants to prove that last year was no fluke and that they deserve the title, and New England just wants to win a trophy (this will be their fourth final and they haven’t won one yet). So tune in Nov. 18th on ABC to see what should be a terrific battle.

Topic: [/soccer]

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Fri, Nov 09, 2007

: Fred Claus

This film has obvious comparisons to Elf, which is a much, much better film. The big problem with this? It takes itself way too seriously. The whole build-up and back story behind the “brother” of Santa Claus was authentically done and not the least bit comical. There really isn’t much funny here at all. Kids won’t be able to follow Vince Vaughn’s rapid-patter con-man chatter, and it’s only mildly amusing to adults anyway. There’s a scene or two of slapstick that kids might like but adults will find annoying. Kevin Spacey plays an over-the-top villain that seems totally out of place among the seriousness, but in reality he’s the only one playing his character correctly, as the whole thing should have celebrated its ridiculousness the way Elf did. Pretty lame overall. It has a tiny bit of heart in the resolution, but it comes about 40 minutes too late. Disappointing and not worth the bother.

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Sat, Nov 03, 2007

: MLS Playoffs: Dallas at Houston

This was the big second-leg playoff match between Dallas and Houston with Dallas coming in with a 1-0 lead from last week’s home result. This time it was Houston at home and with over 30,000 fans in orange cheering them on, Houston was determined to win. Strangely, I wasn’t too nervous about this one. Houston was playing well with huge chances right off the kickoff and I just felt they would win. Even when Dallas got the first goal and it was a 2-0 lead, I felt Houston would get it back. In second half, things started to go the Dynamo way as Arturo Alvarez got himself red-carded seconds into the half and it was 11 on 10 the rest of the way. Coach Dominic Kinnear promptly took off a defender and added an attacker (Stuart Holden). With 23 minutes to go and still needing two goals just to tie it, I still wasn’t worried (which surprised me). The team was playing so well it was just a matter of time. Now the pressure which had been intense, went up to the breaking point, and Stuart scored the first goal for Houston. The momentum built from there as soon Brian Ching tied it up. We went into 30 minutes of overtime and just a few minutes in Brian got his second and now Dallas were on the losing end. A moment later and it was all over as Brad Davis scored a freakin’ awesome freek kick. The overtime was played out but Dallas never had a chance. Houston win the game 4-1, 4-2 on aggregate, and advance to the Western Conference Final. Go Houston!

Topic: [/soccer]

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Fri, Nov 02, 2007

: American Pastoral

Author: Philip Roth

I listened to the unabridged audiobook version of this novel and I found it lacking. It’s the first audiobook I’ve heard that actually has technical problems (inconsistent sound quality and volume level) and the reading was poor. This made a remarkable book difficult to follow: from the beginning to the end I was confused and not sure who was who and what was going on. The actor’s voice was the same for all characters — I never could even figure out who the narrator was. I thought it was one person, but the viewpoint kept shifting, so I was forced to conclude that the book was narrated by different people at different times, but that was impossible to tell from the way it was read. Usually when there are technical issues like this it’s disappointing but doesn’t ruin the book; however, in this case, it did serious damage. I’m not quite sure I followed the story. The book itself is amazingly written and tells a character-based story of incredible depth. It’s basically an old man looking back on his life and his family. Initially when we see him he has it all: he’s the superstar high school athlete, he marries a beauty queen in college, takes over his father’s leather glove business and is extremely wealthy, but later, as we piece together the traumatic events in his life, we see that there is conflict and tragedy. His wife hates the stereotype of beauty queen. Their beautiful daughter suffers from stuttering when younger, and eventually she rebells against her parents and runs away from home and is wanted by the FBI for murder. The mom suffers a breakdown and ends up in the looney bin. The dad is haunted by his daughter’s bizarre behavior and his own guilt (which he isn’t even sure he has). It’s a fascinating look into a life. There’s conflicts over personalities, religion, politics, economics, race. Scores of topics are touched upon. Unfortunately, the audiobook was so confusing that perhaps I didn’t follow the novel properly enough to judge it right, but it felt like it peters out into nothing. It’s a long story and I was expecting some sort of pay-off, some dramatic event at the end that would explain or justify everything, and I was given nothing but a “that’s the end.” Disappointing. I still think it’s a remarkable book and I might actually try to read the print edition someday and give it a second chance and see if it was the reading that ruined it for me. I really liked most of what I heard; I just felt the story was confusing at times and the ending weak. Many scenes in the middle were powerful (though they might have been even better if I had a clearer understanding of what was going on). In the end, I recommend it with a “your mileage may vary.”

Topic: [/book]

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: Bee Movie

I knew zip about this except for the incessant ads on TV. It’s not that bad, but it’s definitely a little weird. The plot — losely — is about a young bee that wants to see the world, falls in love with a human woman, discovers that humans eat honey, and with the help of the girl sues humans in court for theft. The bee is voiced by Jerry Seinfeld and pretty much is Jerry. Unfortunately, his humor is not “ha ha” humor, but “hmmm” humor, and thus the film, while pleasant, is not a laugh a minute like it should be. There are the requisite jokes in the background (punny signs, bee/honey jokes, etc.), but the story is thin, and in the end the film isn’t quite funny enough for kids and not serious enough for adults. It’s not bad, and most adults wouldn’t find it too unbearable to endure, but I wouldn’t go out of your way to see it.

Topic: [/movie]

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Fri, Oct 26, 2007

: Dan in Real Life

I wasn’t super sold on this movie and I didn’t know anything about it other than it stars that guy from The Office who’s usually in funny comedies so I assumed that’s what this was and since that fit my mood, I went. It turns out it’s really a sweet love story. Yes, there’s humor, but it’s gentle family humor. Basically Dan is a widower struggling to raise three daughters who writes a newspaper advice column for a living. He thinks he’s got things under control but of course doesn’t. During a family reunion, he meets a beautiful, fascinating woman, only to later learn she’s his brother’s girlfriend. He has to spend the entire holiday seeing her constantly while knowing he can’t have her, and he learns he has trouble controlling himself. All sorts of sweet and funny little things happen and naturally, the two fall in love, but how can they tell the brother? It’s a really well-done film, perfectly written, with just the right touches of humor, romanticism, and realism. I really liked it. Highly recommended.

Topic: [/movie]

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Sun, Oct 21, 2007

: Love and Blood: At the World Cup with the Footballers, Fans, and Freaks

Author: Jamie Trecker

This book recalls the 2006 World Cup in Germany, telling a lot of the historical background of the event, the behind-the-scenes adventures, and summarizing the results. It’s detailed, fascinating, and an excellent read if you’re a soccer fan. I followed the Cup on TV and didn’t think the book would really add much, but I was suprised at how much I learned. It’s excellently written and highly recommended.

Topic: [/book]

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Sat, Oct 20, 2007

: The Girl Next Door

Author: Jack Ketchum

Talk about grim: this is an amazing horror book about genuine evil. Worse, it’s based on a true story. In a nutshell, a psycho aunt locks up her orphaned 15-year-old niece in the basement to punish her, and allows her cousins and the neighborhood kids to visit and torture, rape, and eventually kill her. This would be a worthless story if told that way, however: what redeems it is the narrarator, a twelve-year-old boy from next door who is in love with the girl, and his conflicted feelings over the situation. On the one hand he’s a pre-pubescent kid overwhelmed and confused by the pleasure he finds in seeing his object of lust naked and tormented. On the other, he knows hurting her is wrong, but he’s just a powerless kid, unable to help. The story is helped by being set in the idylic world of the early 1960s in an ordinary suburban neighborhood; you just don’t expect such things to happen in your backyard. The author has also brilliantly shielded us from most of the actual violence — much is implied and not shown, and this allows us to participate from a safe distance. It’s a quite remarkable book. Certainly not for all tastes, but genuinely frightening in a way that makes most horror books seem silly, because this is something that could happen anywhere to anyone because we are the evil.

Topic: [/book]

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Fri, Oct 19, 2007

: Gone, Baby, Gone

Rather glum film about a missing child and a private detective couple brought in to find the little girl. Things start to twist then as we learn that everything is not what it seemed, and then they twist again later, and again at the very end. All the twists are fairly believable, though the final one is one too many, and leaves you feeling manipulated and cheated. While I liked many aspects of where this was going and I loved some of the interesting characters, the ending is sad and uncomfortable. The story’s confusing at times, also. All in all it’s certainly not a bad film, but I can’t say that I really liked it. It just made me sad and didn’t provide much hope, though it asked some intriguing questions.

Topic: [/movie]

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Fri, Oct 12, 2007

: Michael Clayton

This is stylistic and interesting, but way too convoluted. You feel manipulated and confused from the start as we watch some dramatic things happen and suddenly go to a flashback that takes up almost the rest of the film. It is kinda neat the way you see the events of the beginning with a different eye later in the film once you know what’s happening, and that perspective does add power to those events, but unfortunately for much too much of the film you are just bewildered with no idea what is going on or where the film is going. Once everything’s stripped away the plot’s really simple: a New York legal firm is defending a pesticide company against a lawsuit that’s been dragging on for over a dozen years when the lead lawyer gets a crisis of conscience after uncovering dramatic evidence of the company’s guilt. Michael Clayton, the firm’s “fixer,” is brought in to contain the situation, but then he has a crisis of conscience as well, and when he becomes a threat to the law firm, someone tries to kill him. It’s all very dramatic and well acted, and it fortunately falls just short of pretentious, but unfortunately not all that much really happens, and because of the way information is withheld from the viewer until the very end, it’s confusing. Still, it’s turns out to be a good film, just not great. You just have to watch it on faith that things will eventually make sense and then it’s pretty good.

Topic: [/movie]

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Fri, Oct 05, 2007

: The Kingdom

I thought this was more of a political thriller and wasn’t too excited, but it had a lot more action than I expected and I liked it. (On the other hand, my mom didn’t like it for exactly that reason.) The action is extremely realistic, sudden and chaotic, and deadly. It’s a decent story about a terrorist attack on U.S. civilians in Saudia Arabia and in an unprecedented move, a team of U.S. investigators go in to find the killers. They are hampered by Saudi officials, red tape, and politics, which is realistic but frustrating to watch. In the end it’s the killers who attack again and give themselves away. The last thirty minutes or so are non-stop action and it’s excellent and the best part of the film for me — though the trailers don’t do a good job giving you the proper feel for the film. The ending is a bit depressing, implying that nothing has been accomplished. My reaction was, if that’s the case, why even make the movie?

Topic: [/movie]

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Fri, Sep 28, 2007

: Eastern Promises

Director: David Cronenberg

This is a simpler film than the trailers imply: basically a midwife in London finds a diary on a nameless Russian girl who dies while giving birth. The diary, when translated, tells about the girl’s horrific imprisonment and rape at the hands of Russian mobsters, and thus the midwife gets embroiled into the criminal world. The film is authentic all the way with brutal violence, plenty of Russian language with English subtitles, and superior acting. It’s extremely well done, but in the final analysis I wanted a touch more depth. It’s all plot and the story just ends without any profound life lessons or impact. But other than that, it’s a superior film.

Topic: [/movie]

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: Across the Universe

Director: Julie Taymor

I had seen the trailers which intrigued me, but I didn’t realize this was a musical. It’s basically a story set to the music of the Beatles. The story is a simple love story about a boy from Liverpool named Jude who meets a girl named Lucy in New York City in the anti-war Vietnam era. The music is well integrated into the story and beautifully done, and I really liked the majority of the visuals and dancing and performances. A few of the songs are weaker and didn’t interest me as much (some were too long), but most I liked, though I’m not familiar with many Beatles’ songs (some I knew but never realized were Beatles’ music). Some of the anti-war stuff is a bit too preachy with obvious pointers at today’s “war” in Iraq (though it probably does fit with the era), and much of the 1960’s hippy vibe is idealized. Still, it’s a fun film — good music, cool people celebrating life, clever camerawork and elaborate visuals, and a satisfying story — but I wouldn’t take it as seriously as it seems to take itself at times with its overly dramatic anti-war imagery and pro-free love idolatry. Just see it for the entertainment value.

Topic: [/movie]

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Wed, Sep 26, 2007

: Invisible Prey

Author: John Sandford

Strange, rather pointless novel. It’s got a one-shot premise about “invisible” robberies where someone is killing elderly people while robbing them of selected expensive antiques so subtly that no one notices the thefts. But our “hero” cop gets involved and figures things out and tracks the criminals down. What’s weird is the lack of characterization — I suspect these are characters the author has used in previous novels and that’s why they aren’t explained, but I found it jarring and odd. The novel also has a tasteless quality to it: ruthless murders happen almost at random and are described with such dispassion it feels dirty. The ending is equally strange: it’s a decent resolution, but bloody and violent in a way that feels unexpected and wrong. Basically, it’s just a poor novel all the way around.

Topic: [/book]

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Tue, Sep 25, 2007

: Resident Evil: Extinction

I liked the earlier two films, but this one falls short. It has a couple nice moments, but much of the film is routine zombie slashing and not particularly inventive. The film ends awkwardly, grinding to a halt versus soaring to a climax, leaving you with a “That’s it?” feeling. Not terrible, and it actually fit my fatigued mood perfectly as I enjoyed not having to think, but there’s not much here you haven’t seen better before.

Topic: [/movie]

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: Home Again

I made it back alive and in one piece. While I really wasn’t gone that long — just two weekends — with everything I did on my trip it feels like I’ve been gone a month. I traveled light and did not take a laptop with me, relying on my iPhone for Internet access, and it worked wonderfully. I had intermittent access in Missouri and my Uncle’s rural home, but other than there where the connection was sluggish, it worked great everywhere I went. Unable to do any work (without tools I couldn’t even feel guilty about not working), I really did end up relaxing. I now feel refreshed and revived, though I am tired and probably behind on my sleep.

Topic: [/movie]

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Mon, Sep 24, 2007

: Lost in New York

Our plans sounded fine when we made them: after Spamalot, Peter and I went to Brooklyn for supper and to his place for a film. The plan was I’d return to Philip’s at midnight (or later) when he’d be home to let me in. Time flew and it was suddenly 12:30 a.m. Sunday night and I departed from Peter’s a little apprehensive about riding the subway in the middle of the night out to East Harlem. The subway ride was fine, utterly uneventful. I got out near Phil’s and free from the underground, called his cell phone. Oddly, it went straight to voice mail. I left a message and walked on. But by the time I got there he hadn’t called back. I called again, and then again a few minutes later. The apartment door was locked, and other than some “ladies” on the street corner, the area was strangely quiet and deserted, completely different from the previous two noisy nights.

The buzzer on the door did nothing (I found out later it doesn’t work) and I racked my brains for a solution: I had absolutely no other way to get a hold of my cousin. If his mobile phone was turned off or out of power or broken or he was merely sleeping, I had no way to get in touch with him. I only knew the first name of his roommate, and I didn’t know anyone else in New York. I had my cousin Peter’s number in Brooklyn, but not only was that a 45 minute subway right in the opposite direction, Peter had told me he always leaves his phone on vibrate: he would be unlikely to hear me call. What was I to do? Here I was alone in East Harlem, with nothing but the clothes on my back, no way to get inside the apartment building, no way to wake Phil, and it was nearly two o’clock in the morning!

My first thought was that Phil had accidentally left his phone off and was sleeping: but surely he’d wake up a wonder where I was. He’d notice the voice mails I’d left him and call, right? But it might be a while before he happened to wake up, so I thought maybe there’d be a 24-hour restaurant I could hang out in. But this was East Harlem: even the McDonald’s was closed except for the walk-up window. Google Maps on my iPhone was useless for finding a hotel (the one it found nearby turned out to be homeless shelter). Finally I found some cops and asked them for help. They were brilliant, suggesting that I was nuts for being there in the middle of the night. “What are you doing here? This isn’t a safe place. You shouldn’t be out here!” I was like, “Duh! That’s why I’m asking for your help!”

Finally one of them suggested I find a taxi and have the driver find a hotel; that seemed as good as anything, though I dreaded the thought of what a hotel in Manhattan would cost me. The cost would be even more insulting since it would only be for half a night and I didn’t even have a change of clothes or anything else for a comfortable night’s sleep!

The taxi driver turned out to be a great guy: the first couple of places we stopped at were full, but then he found a place off Central Park that had a vacancy. The desk clerk said, “You know this is dormitory housing, right?” I was like, “Huh?” I soon learned this was a hostel, so most of the rooms were shared, with bunk beds. Under most circumstances that wouldn’t have been my travel accommodation of choice, but in this situation it sounded perfect: for about $35 I could get off the street and sleep in relative safety and comfort. Much better than crashing on a bench in Central Park and probably not waking up!

I was a little nervous about the room as I made my way down the hall. What if someone stole my wallet or iPhone while I slept? But I was soon comforted in an usual way. The room was dark but I saw an empty lower bunk and took it. I found an awkward brick in my back and thought at first it was a heated blanket control unit as it had a cord attached. But the cord ended in two small knobs and wasn’t connected to anything. Suddenly I realized I was holding an iPod with earbuds! Sure enough, when I touched the controls, the iPod lit up brightly in the dark room. For a moment I wondered why someone would leave a perfectly good iPod — then I realized that the bed I was in was occupied! Probably the person had gone to the restroom or something. So I hastened out of the bed and up to the unused top bunk. Sure enough, a few minutes later a figure came in and climbed into that lower bed and began playing with the iPod. I lay back thinking, “Well, this can’t be too unsafe if someone’s willing to leave his iPod in the room.”

I won’t say I had a great night’s sleep: I slept in my clothes with my shoes on and a hand on my wallet and iPhone. The place was quiet and I was tired, but I was also keyed up, uncomfortable, and my contacts were killing me since I had no way to take care of them. (I’m really not supposed to sleep in them but I had little choice.)

In the morning, I checked my iPhone but there was nothing from Phil, which I thought was odd. I knew he had to get up early to get his daughter, so surely he would have noticed my voice mails and called me. But nothing. I sent him a text message, and for good measure, an email as well.

At about 7:30 or so he called. He was shocked to discover I’d been trying to get a hold of him. “I have no messages, no voice mails, no missed calls, nothing,” he said. “This is terrible. I had no idea. I waited up but when you didn’t come or call, I figured you must have decided it was too late and crashed at Peter’s place.” Phil had seen my email and that’s why he’d called.

We eventually learned there was a problem with AT&T’s network that was effecting Phil’s phone. If he reset his phone the new voice mails would show up, but they weren’t showing up automatically when received. He’d also missed calls from other people. Emails went through fine, but not voice mails or text messages.

In the end, everything worked out fine. I had a bit of an adventure, and there was no real discomfort and nobody got hurt. It was a good lesson in over-reliance on technology: we should have had a backup plan. The same scenario could have happened if Phil had been hit by a bus or lost or broken his phone. It’s really not good to only have a single source of communication. Something to think about.

I have chalked the whole thing up to a wild New York adventure! Though I must say I’m glad it’s over.

Topic: [/travel]

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Sun, Sep 23, 2007

: Murderball

At Peter’s loft in Brooklyn we watched this cool documentary on “Wheelchair Rugby,” a violent sport for paraplegics. The documentary’s whole point is about how we misjudge people and make assumptions of capability based on what we see are handicaps: in reality these guys are superb athletes, incredibly competitive, and the film captures their drama well. It’s a touch manipulative, like all documentaries, but it’s well-meaning and though the subject matter is occasionally lurid as though trying to hype things, it’s an important topic everyone should explore.

Topic: [/movie]

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: Spamalot

All I knew about this musical is that it had something to do with the film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” It turns out it’s basically the film turned into a stage production: the same lines, songs, and classic jokes. This could have been disappointing, except the stage version is different with some new songs and some amazing production values and little inside jokes. One of my favorite things was the role of the “Lady of the Lake,” a minor character in the original that gives Arthur Excalibur and makes him King of Britain. In this version, the Lady’s a diva, and after not seeing her for a while, in the second act she comes out dressed like a lounge singer and sings “What Ever Happened to My Part?” with hilarious self-absorption and jabs at her agent for getting her such a sucky role. Awesome!

I really enjoyed this. It was simultaneously new and familiar, totally hilarious, informal, cool, and fun. It really fit my mood as with sensory overload from my travels I’m not sure I could have handled a serious play.

Topic: [/theatre]

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: More New York

Sunday morning I again had minimal plans. I was to meet Peter later for Spamalot, but my morning was open. Phil had to babysit his daughter, so he would be occupied. I headed off in search of breakfast and adventure. Phil had told me of a good soccer bar where I thought maybe I’d stop by to check out the Manchester United-Chelsea match. I noticed it was “near” the Apple Store on Fifth Avenue and I really wanted to see that famed glass cube, so that sounded like a good starting point. I actually got on the correct “downtown” subway train and got off at 59th and walked. I spotted a sit-down breakfast place where they made omelets to order and had a delicious breakfast (with potatoes grilled with peppers and onions and real fresh-squeezed orange juice). Refreshed, I head off toward the Apple Store, passing places like Bloomingdales and other landmarks. Just as I got to the Apple Store my phone rang it was Peter, wanting to meet for lunch at 12:15 on 8th and 42nd Street. Since I was on 5th and 59th, I’d have a bit of a walk, which was fine.

The Apple Store is amazing: I thought the glass cube was just sort of an advertisement, but it’s the actual entrance. You descend a spiral staircase of glass stairs and you’re in a huge open space filled with people and electronics. The place is vast and packed with customers — there must have been at least 200 people at 10:30 a.m. on Sunday morning. The store is open 24/7 and I’m told it’s nearly always busy. I wandered around and checked out the myriad accessories on display (a far better selection than at most stores). I wasn’t there to buy anything, though it was tempting: with so many people pulling out their credit cards you felt compelled to join in the fun. I overheard at least seven different languages. Most Apple Stores just have a “Genius Bar” — this one had an “iPod Bar” and a couple other help locations as well. One gal was giving a live demonstration of the iPhone: a camcorder was positioned above her hands and the video feed displayed on several huge Apple monitors around a table so customers could watch exactly what she did with the iPhone and learn how to operate it. Another guy stood in front of a huge stack of iPod Nanos and sold them: if that was all you were buying you could just go to him and he’d ring you up on his portable credit card scanner and off you’d go. I watched and he was pretty much constantly busy, selling a nano a minute.

After the Apple Store, I walked the width of Central Park (the “short” dimension), which takes like ten minutes. I passed the smelly horse carriages with tourists lining up to pay money to ride around the park. The park itself has always amazed me: it is so huge and beautiful with ponds and lakes and winding paths, all right in the middle of the city.

Then I walked down 7th Avenue. At one point I looked up and realized I was passing Carnegie Hall. Walking around New York is like that: you never know what you’ll find. I (eventually) hit Times Square, walked through the theatre district near Broadway, and found that 8th Ave. was blocked off for a street fair. It reminded me of the open markets in Dakar: throngs of people, vendors everywhere selling everything you could imagine. I’d eaten just a couple hours earlier but my high activity and all the food smelled so good I was soon hungry again. I met Peter at about twenty after and we found a nice Mediterranean place for lunch. My “shwarma” was not a sandwich like it usually is, but it was good (not the best I’ve had, though). There was plenty of food, however: Peter and I were both stuffed when we finished. At close to two we headed off to the theatre.

Topic: [/travel]

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Sat, Sep 22, 2007

: MLS: New York Red Bulls vs. New England Revolution

My cousin Phil has a season ticket package for the New York Red Bulls and gets a free membership to a sort of pre- and post-game club at the stadium. We arrived a the stadium an hour early and went to this pub for drinks and sandwiches (my grilled chicken was huge and delicious): much healthier eating than stadium fare. The game itself was excellent: New York and New England are big rivals and the atmosphere was great. Unfortunately, New York’s defense was occasionally amateurish, and mistakes cost them. Though the Red Bulls dominated and should have won, they created tons of chances by kept failing to score. Then they left Taylor Twellman unmarked on a corner kick for the Revolution’s first goal. But New York fought back with a goal of their own just before the half. In the second half it was a repeat: more NY pressure and attacking chances galore but no Red Bull goal, and then one half-chance for Twellman and he converted his second. Fortunately Angel got one for New York to tie it before the final whistle, but it was still a frustrating and disappointing day for Red Bull fans. Even worse, New York had a goal unfairly disallowed: the replay showed it was not offside and there was no foul and it should have counted, but the ref called it back, costing the Red Bulls two points in the standings. But it was still a fun game with plenty of goals and I was certainly not disappointed.

After the game we headed home, but got stuck in horrible traffic on the George Washington Bridge where repair crews had it down to one lane. It took us a full hour just to cross the bridge! Another late night but we consoled ourselves with Baskin Robins’ ice cream and rewatched the game’s key moments on TV.

Topic: [/soccer]

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: New York

I arrived at JFK just before midnight last night. The flight was uneventful, which is always best. My cousin Phil had borrowed a car and was able to pick me up, which made things easier, and we drove to his apartment in East Harlem. It was probably 2 a.m. before I actually got to bed and despite being tired, it took me a while fall asleep: it was hot so the window was open and the street noise was incredible. I’m used to the quiet of rural silence and on a Friday night in Manhattan it seemed everyone was out in the street partying. There were constant shouts and yells, music blaring from a half dozen boomboxes, people laughing and talking loudly, and the roar of bus engines as they revved past. I woke up a few times during the night and it seemed to me it wasn’t until nearly 5 a.m. before things quieted. I’m sure New Yorkers get used to the noise and don’t hear it after a while, but it sure kept me awake.

I was up shortly after eight, surprisingly not as groggy as I expected. There was bright sunlight coming through the window and it looked like a glorious day. At about 8:30 Phil and I walked around the corner to a little coffee shop and had breakfast (I had a decent omelet). Then we road the subway downtown to the Greenwich Village area where he was to work. From there I set off on my own. I had the whole day to kill and no set plans. This seemed odd but turned out to be fantastic: there really no better way to explore New York City than by walking it. Last time I was here I road the subway and took taxis and left with only a vague idea of the city’s layout. This time I walked. And walked and walked and walked. I think I started somewhere around 34th Street (just south of Central Park) and ended up in Battery Park (the northern tip of Manhattan, where the ferries take you out to Ellis Island). That’s a long walk. I did not take the direct route, either, wandering around, stopping at City Hall Park for a rest, swinging by Ground Zero (not much to see except construction and tourists), traipsing through the financial district and wondering why so many restaurants were closed and the place had few people and then realizing it was Saturday and Wall Street was closed. I had my iPhone with Google Maps so I was never lost — but without a particular destination in mind, I just wandered. It was around noon when I got to Battery Park and just as I arrived it started to rain. The blue sky had gone, replaced by gray, and the misty spray I initially ignored soon became a downpour. Everywhere in Central Park vendors were rushing to cover their displays with plastic tarps to protect their merchandise (postcards, pictures, sketches, etc.). I chatted with one and he told me the rain was totally unexpected and unpredicted. He naturally was annoyed. I hung out with several hundred others in the Ellis Island ferry ticket shelter, waiting for the rain to subside. I had contemplated going out to Ellis Island, but the crowds and weather dissuaded me. There was a long line just to buy tickets, and an even longer line to board the ferry. The ferry itself is open to the elements and the ride looked cold and wet and I had no jacket with me and was dressed in short sleeves. I also saw no indication of the length of the boat ride, but I figured that at minimum, it would probably take several hours to get to the Ellis Island and back, depending on how long you spent on the Island. Since I had to be back at Phil’s by five, I wasn’t sure I had the time. I also was getting hungry and needed lunch soon.

Earlier I’d called my other cousin, Peter, who live in Brooklyn. He doesn’t work on Saturdays and called me back and said he and his flat-mate were heading into town that afternoon, so we decided to reconnect later and meet. I got tired to waiting for the rain to stop — it had lessened and I decided to brave it and resumed my walk, this time looking for an eating place. I was a little picky: I didn’t want to go to a national chain and I stay away from fast food now. I also wanted a sit-down place. I headed off in a direction to see what I could find. Now a key attitude when in a foreign place is to at least pretend you know where you are going: walked with determination and confidence. It keeps away a lot of the riff-raff who target tourists. Unfortunately, this was a tourist-heavy area and I guess my attitude worked because I was accosted several times by people who wanted directions! One guy was hilarious. He wanted to know where to get on the Staten Island Ferry and I knew that, so I told him, but he wouldn’t believe me! I was like, “Why do you ask me if you aren’t going to believe me?”

I ended up passing the Wall Street bronze bull, which was surrounded by Japanese tourists taking photos of each other in front of it, and soon found myself in front of Trinity Cathedral. At this point the rain was really coming down again, and since I still hadn’t found a place to eat, I ducked into a Borders bookstore. I had no intention of buying anything, but as I passed a “New in Paperback” display a book on soccer cried out to me and I began scanning it. It was really good and I bought it. I sat and read for a while, but it was restless and getting really hungry (by now it was after two o’clock). I decided to pay for the book and brave the rain in search of food. Right as I was paying for the book my phone rang and it was Peter: he was on his way downtown. He told me where he was going, but the places he mentioned were unfamiliar and I was in the middle of a credit card transaction and distracted. All I really heard was “I’ll call you when we’re down there.”

Outside, it was really raining, but I couldn’t wait. I needed to eat. But it was really coming down and in just a couple blocks I was soaked. I began choosing my path based on scaffolding location, as walking under the scaffolding was almost dry. Then I passed an entrance to the Fulton Street subway station and something clicked: hadn’t Peter just mentioned that? I tried to call him but just got voicemail: he was probably already underground. Then I saw a little burger place with sit-down tables. That sounded as good as anything and I got a turkey burger which was delicious and didn’t have too much bread (the bun was grilled). It was good and hit the spot, though a bit pricey at $8 with no fries or drink. Right after I finished and was trying to decide what to do next as it had stopped raining, Peter called. I went outside trying to figure out where I was; one street sign was obscured. He said he and Jon were on William and had me head east (an adventure for me to figure out since I’m terrible at compass directions). As I walked, we were still talking, when two things happened at once: up ahead I saw William Street and Peter suddenly reported that he and Jon were at William and John. “I’m on John and I can see William!” I shouted, and then I saw Peter with a cell phone to his ear. I hurried forward and we connected. I couldn’t believe it. “I had lunch like two blocks up there,” I told him. “John and Nassau.” Peter and Jon had come out of Fulton Street Station and it was a terrific coincidence that we happened to be at the same place!

We then headed over to South Street Seaport where we found a TKTS booth with a ten minute line (instead of the three hour line at the Times Square location) and bought tickets for the Sunday matinee of Spamalot. I hadn’t even been thinking about the expense of the tickets and was a bit shocked that our “half off” tickets still cost $60 each — yikes! NYC is expensive.

After that we wandered the seaport (similar to San Francisco) and eventually walked up to City Hall Park (where I’d been earlier in the day) and over to Chinatown and Little Italy. Peter’s friend Jon has been in New York for eight years and really knows the city — it was handy having him as a guide. At about 4:45 p.m. it was time for me to head back to Phil’s place, so with Jon’s help, we found a subway station where I could catch the “6” train which took me to 116th Street, just two blocks from Phil’s apartment. Phil had given me his only set of keys, so I needed to be there or else he wouldn’t have been able to get in. He arrived just minutes after me — I’d just barely gotten into the apartment. He’d picked up a rented “Zip Car,” a cool New York system where you can reserve a car by the hour via the Internet and with pickup locations all over the city. We changed clothes and head off to Giants Stadium for the soccer game.

Topic: [/travel]

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Tue, Sep 18, 2007

: Springfield

Last night I arrived in Springfield, Missouri where I am visiting with my Great-uncle and great-aunt. I haven’t been here in a few years, so it is wonderful to see them and my old town (I lived in Springfield for a few years in elementary school). It is interesting to see the way the place has changed and the way it is different from places I’m familiar with today. This country is so huge with such diversity — it is fascinating. I love to travel and see the differences and unique aspects of difference cities and areas.

Topic: [/travel]

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Sun, Sep 16, 2007

: MLS: Houston vs LA

This was my first chance to watch the Houston Dynamo in person and it was an excellent performance. They got a bit lucky, facing an devastated LA team and gave up a poor goal off a corner kick, but totally dominated and controlled the game. It was tied after the half but seconds in to the second period Mullan’s great play caused him to be fouled in the box and earned Houston a penalty kick which Dewayne De Rossario converted easily. With the lead again, Houston crushed the Galaxy with pressure, winning every second ball and every 50-50. Other than a couple chances, LA could barely get the ball out of their half of the field. The pressure finally gave when two Galaxy defenders each stopped thinking the other had the ball and Houston’s Ricardo Clark stuck out of a foot to poke the loose ball past a helpless Joe Cannon. Joe again kept his team somewhat in the game as he made a number of fine saves. With the win Houston again are atop the Western Conference table and clinch a playoff spot, and LA’s chances of making the playoffs are nearly gone.

Topic: [/soccer]

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Sat, Sep 15, 2007

: Shoot ‘em Up

I got to see this while in LA. To describe this as “over the top” is gross understatement. This is so outrageous it’s really a hilarious parody of action films. The plot is basically about a guy who witnesses an attack on a pregnant woman: toughs want her dead. So he kills them all, delivers the baby (while shooting bad guys), uses his gun to shoot the umbilical cord in half, and when the mother is killed, escapes with the baby and attempts to preserve his life. It gets more absurd from there, absolutely gleeful in its ridiculousness. It really is fun, if you’re into this kind of a flick (and this is practically the definition of a “flick”). Two thumbs way up.

Topic: [/movie]

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Fri, Sep 14, 2007

: Soccer Trip

Tomorrow I head off for my trip across the country. This is the first purely vacation trip I’ve taken in a long time. I’m not even bringing my laptop — I’m going to attempt to keep up with everything via my iPhone. That will be an interesting experience in and of itself. The plan is to head to L.A. to watch my favorite MLS team, the Houston Dynamo, take on the LA Galaxy on Sunday. Then I’ll fly to Missouri to visit with relatives for a few days, and then I’m off to the Big Apple for another soccer game, the New York Red Bulls versus the New England Revolution. It should be a fun trip, book-ended with soccer games on each coast.

Topic: [/travel]

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Mon, Sep 10, 2007

: 3:10 to Yuma

I’ve never seen the original, but it feels like it would have a hard time matching up to this one. Christian Bale as the flawed rancher hero and Russell Crowe as the charming villain are amazing, and the story and script really bring out the moral ambiguities of the situation. The plot is bare bones: the leader of murderous pack of outlaws has been captured and must be taken to the town of Contention to meet the 3:10 train to Yuma (which will take him to prison and the gallows). But no one wants the job because everyone fears his gang will kill to set him free. A desperate rancher takes the job for cash, but is it worth his life? Fascinating story and the ending is not what you expect at all.

Topic: [/movie]

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Sat, Sep 08, 2007

: GTD

A couple weeks ago I bought the book Getting Things Done and I have been hard at work since putting its ideas into practice. A key concept of the book is you must get your entire life in order: you cannot leave “open loops” of things unfinished. So my first task has been a mammoth one: sort and process the hundreds of boxes of stuff I have in my garage and house that I never unpacked from my move to Oregon two years ago. Much of that stuff was in boxes in storage while I was in California and it’s stuff I haven’t gone through in decades. I never had the time (or took the time) to sort through everything in the past and just moved it, and of course that’s been a huge open loop for me, always feeling like “someday” I needed to get around to sorting through things and getting organized. So for the past two weeks I’ve been working. I moved my office (swapped it with the spare bedroom) which is a zillion times better and makes much more sense structurally. The new office is larger and can double as a spare bedroom if needed, which is awesome. It’s also organized from scratch to fit my work needs, with places for all my office supplies, storage, files, and more. Everything is organized and labeled. For instance, I used to have four 11x17 boxes of nothing but cables and cords all jumbled and tangled together. We’re talking A/V cables, computer cords, electric cables, phone wiring, you name it. So I literally wrapped up every single cable with zip ties and filed them each in their own labeled plastic box (over a dozen of them). Now I can actually find an extension cord or USB cable when I need it!

Among other tasks, I have installed new shelving, new ceiling light fixtures, and bought and installed new shelving units in the garage. It’s been a long two weeks. I’ve been physically exhausted and tired — I haven’t done so much manual labor in years. But it’s healthy: I feel my psyche relaxing and being healed from all the stress and chaos I’ve put it through for years being so disorganized and carrying such a huge burden. I’m still not done: a few more boxes in the garage to process, a garage sale to do, and a few rooms in the house that are not quite purged of clutter yet, but I’m getting very close. I am not kidding when I say that I’ve accomplished more in the past two weeks than I have in the past two years. It’s amazing and I feel good. Next I need to use the principles of GTD to establish some organization routines for my daily life and work, create a filing system, and then actually start getting some real work done. It’s been a sacrifice to get here, but I am confident it will pay off. I’ll be more organized and able to concentrate, keep up with my projects, keep all the projects moving, and I’ve no doubt I’ll be inspired and more creative. I’ll also live without guilt and be able to relax and enjoy life instead of my subconscious worrying and nagging me about things left undone.

Topic: [/technology]

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Mon, Sep 03, 2007

: Stuart Little 2

Somehow I missed the first one. I thought I had it on DVD but couldn’t find it. So I watched this one a bit in the dark about who Stuart Little was (other than the obvious fact that he’s a mouse). Apparently he can talk and he’s treated like a miniature human, with ridiculous things like him going in as a sub in a kid’s soccer game. (The ball is 10 times bigger than him — what’s he supposed to do? Squash himself? How does that help his team?) So that aspect I found odd and confusing, but the plot itself, while heavy-handed, was decent and the overall film pleasant and entertaining. Great for kids, certainly. Stuart befriends a hurt bird who it turns out is working with the evil Falcon to steal Mrs. Little’s wedding ring, but of course plucky little Stuart faces his fears and saves the day in the end. Hooray.

Topic: [/movie]

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Sun, Sep 02, 2007

: Croupier

This was not what I expected at all. It’s slow, odd, and rather boring. It’s about an aimless guy who gets a job at a London casino as a croupier, then gets himself involved in some sort of robbery scam. It didn’t make a lot of sense to me. I never could figure out who the guy was or why he did what he was doing (like cheating on his girlfriend, which made no sense). Weird.

Topic: [/movie]

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Fri, Aug 31, 2007

: American Gods

Author: Neil Gaiman

Wow. This is an amazing book, one of the most remarkable I’ve ever read. Gaiman is a genius, unquestionably. The variety of topics and ideas compressed into this novel is astonishing. I barely know where to begin plotwise, but I suppose the simplest way is to describe the novel’s intriguing premise. Basically, we live in a world where the “gods” (with a lowercase g) of myth and legend still exist, and they exist via the belief of people. These gods are flawed and human-like and mortal, but do have special powers. Most of these gods are weak today because few people believe in them any more, and there are new gods, modern gods, such as Media, a powerful woman-like creature that is the television worshipped by millions. The story is set in modern day America, where we follow the adventures of an easy-going guy named Shadow who’s just been released from prison and gets caught up in scams and cons by a god named Wednesday (Odin). Lots of things happen and the individual scenes are brilliant and incredible, but it takes long while before you can really see any plot or story forming: just stick with it as eventually everything will connect and make sense. The novel culminates in a huge battle between the old gods and the new gods, with Shadow right in the middle. It’s an amazing story, and Gaiman touches on all kinds of aspects of American and modern life, history, religion, belief, and reality, but ultimately I was slightly disappointed at the conclusions because the book doesn’t provide any answers or illumination, it merely stirs the pot and concludes life is a messy stew and then we die. There’s no moral or explanation or belief system advocated; I would have preferred that, even if it was a belief I disagreed with. Instead, it merely seems Gaiman was just finding all this humorous and interesting, with no practical connection to real life. So when I finished the novel I was like, “That’s it? There’s no purpose or explanation to anything?” Gaiman has intriguing ideas, but in the ends just throws out the ideas with nothing to hang them on. Perhaps he didn’t want to step on the beliefs of others, but as it is, I was left wondering what the point of the novel was. I guess you could just say it was mere entertainment, but it feels so much deeper than that and I wanted it to be deeper than that. But ultimately it seems that’s all that Neil’s given us, a good yarn, a tall tale and nothing more.

Topic: [/book]

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Wed, Aug 29, 2007

: Getting Things Done

Author: David Allen

For a while now I’ve been hearing about this book. A lot of computer programmers are into it and aspects of it — like the whole “Inbox Zero” concept — are catching on worldwide. I finally had to check it out. It is extremely impressive. The writing itself is fairly routine, and the book rambles and repeats more than I’d like, but the overall concept is brilliant. Basically Allen starts with the premise that keeping track of projects in your head is a terrible idea because while your conscious mind forgets things, your subconscious does not. Consciously you might forget that you promised to trim the roses or sort those tax receipts or schedule your annual eye doctor appointment, but your subconscious knows and worries and frets in the background. Ever have one of those days (or weeks or months) where you feel like you worked hard and were busy and got nothing done? Or have you ever found it difficult or impossible to relax and watch a movie or something because you felt guilty and depressed about all this vague “stuff” you needed to be doing? Well, that’s your subconscious at work, reminding you of all the things you have left unfinished. I’m extremely guilty of this and I’ve felt like crap about work for a few years now. There are just so many projects I start and want to do, but it’s hard to keep up with everything. It’s so easy to let things slip and get behind and then projects feel like mountains. Allen has some great tips on coping with these problems. There’s nothing earth-shattering about these ideas: most are simple things like filing papers away, having a systematic structure to your workflow and life, etc., but what’s different about Allen’s approach is he reveals the benefits of being organized. Instead of feeling overwhelmed and crappy because you’re so far behind on things, imagine feeling refreshed, revived, energized, creative, and inspired. That’s what happens when you’re organized.

Now most of us have tried to be organized, but we fail, and Allen covers the reasons for these failures. For instance, have you ever made the same “To Do” lists over and over, rewriting the list for a new day after you didn’t finish most of those things the previous day? Well that happens because we don’t know how to make proper To Do lists. First, To Do items (which Allen calls “Action” items) don’t go on a calendar (are not tied to day) unless they really are date/time dependent. Calendars are sacred for date/time related events. Regular To Do items (action items) need to go on your Action Lists, and here Allen has another simple but brilliant idea: you separate your Actions into categories based on the type of task. For instance, have a “Calls” list, an “Emails” list, a “At Home” list, an “At Work” list, an “At Computer” list, etc. This makes much more sense than grouping unrelated tasks together at random on a traditional “To Do” list. This way when you find you’re at the auto shop with 20 minutes to kill while your oil is changed or your colleague called and will be a few minutes late for a meeting, you can pull out your “Calls” list and make a few quick phone calls. You basically can match your environment and your energy level with your tasks. Haven’t you ever been exhausted and though you just wanted to crash, but felt guilty because you knew there was work to be done but the thought of the huge project was too much to tackle right then? With David’s system, if you looked at your list and saw you just needed to send a quick email or check a website for some information or make a phone call, you might decide you’ve got enough energy to do that, and thus the project moves forward a little.

Another great example of the practical nature of David’s system is by grouping tasks by type you are able to only look at the tasks that are physically possible right now. If you are at a restaurant waiting for a date to show, it’s not like you can be doing filing at the office. But you might be able to make some calls or send an email (if you have an email-capable phone). David suggests you create an “Errands” list, which I find incredibly helpful. Here you put every kind of errand you need to do at some point: stop at the bank, go to the post office, pick up light bulbs, groceries, refill the BBQ’s propane tank, get a prescription at the pharmacy, etc. By grouping the errands and checking the list before you go out, you’ll see efficiencies and make several stops in one trip instead of multiple trips. Haven’t you ever gone out and gotten home only to realize you didn’t pick up the dry cleaning right next door to where you just were?

All of David’s ideas are simple, but the benefits are dramatic. The key is that he’s very honest about how completely you must devote yourself to your system. If you rely on your brain to remember things, it will know it can’t be trusted and will do things to remind you, like leaving things out instead of putting them away. Don’t you do that? I have a paper on my coffee table right now that’s been sitting there for over a month. It’s there to remind me to make a phone call, but I have not done it. I only notice the paper at weird times, like at night, when I can’t make the call. And the paper adds clutter and chaos to my home. Wouldn’t it make more sense to file the paper away and add the call item to my action lists?

This is a terrific book and it has inspired me. I’m tackling my own home/life reorg of massive proportions. More on that in a future update!

Topic: [/book]

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Fri, Aug 24, 2007

: War

I wasn’t expecting much other than a simple action thriller, and while at times this was mediocre and we’re purposely left in the dark as to what’s going on, the “twist” ending is actually rather cool and works well. Decent if you’re into this genre.

Topic: [/movie]

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Mon, Aug 20, 2007

: Rush Hour 3

I barely remember the earlier films and this one definitely falls into the same category, but for mere escapism it’s not too bad. You get a little humor and action, but the adrenaline ran out of this franchise three movies ago.

Topic: [/movie]

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Sun, Aug 19, 2007

: A Scanner Darkly

Author: Philip K. Dick (novel)

I’m a huge fan of the book (it’s one of PKD’s best) and thus I was wary of the film. But the adaptation is excellent. It really captures the spirit and essence of the novel and makes it much more accessible (as the plot, about an undercover narcotics cop tripping on drugs, is [deliberately] confusing to say the least). The rotoscoping animation technique is incredible: you can still recognize the real actors but the animation is totally appropriate for such an otherworldly novel. Excellent!

Topic: [/movie]

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Fri, Aug 17, 2007

: Invasion

While the idea — alien infection taking over the population — is trite, this is fairly well done, and even occasionally chilling. But most of the time it’s predictable and the ending feels too War of Worldsish (in other words, a let down). It also can’t make up its mind if it’s a psychological thriller or an action film, dabbling in both ineffectively.

Topic: [/movie]

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Fri, Aug 10, 2007

: Stardust

Author: Neil Gaiman (novel)

This started off annoying me. This is such a wonderful book, short and simple and elegant, and written with such a visual style that I figured it would make a terrific film. You’d hardly have to change a thing. But right off the bat the screenwriters changed one of my favorite items. In the novel a certain character is enchanted by a witch and cannot be freed until “Two Mondays come together in a week” — and of course that impossibility happens at the end in a brilliantly clever way. But in the film, the enchanted woman instead reveals that she can’t be freed until the witch is dead. Huh? Why ruin such a wonderful part of the original story? I can see no reason. And the movie continued in that vein, changing little things here and there, for no discernible reason. In many ways that’s worse than changing major plot points because it’s just annoying for no reason. My rating of the film dropped to a 9, then an 8 as the little things became bigger. Toward the end the film got ridiculous, introducing a flamboyantly gay character that just felt wrong in tone for the film, and then the film had a utterly different ending. In the new ending things end up about the same, to an extent, but the tone is different, and it ends with a lot more dramatic action, and while I can understand why the producers wanted a more exciting finish, it just didn’t fit with the tone of the story. A few of the elements just felt wrong, like the witch manipulating a dorky Gumby-like doll to control a dead man.

But all these issues aside, the film, for the most part, contains the heart of the novel. The shortcuts and arbitrary changes will annoy the faithful, but those who have not read the book should enjoy the film. Judging the film alone is difficult for me since I read the book and can’t help making comparisons, but I bet most would give it 8 or more out of ten. My rating is closer to 7, but that’s mostly because I was disappointed it wasn’t a more faithful adaptation (like the Harry Potter movies). I’d encourage people to enjoy both the movie and the book. It’s a wonderful story about a young man who promises the most beautiful girl in the village he’ll fetch a fallen star to prove his love, but when he crosses into magical land to retrieve it, he’s shocked to learn the star is not a rock but a girl. Witches are out to kill the star to eat her heart to regain their youth, and the boy and the girl set off on a series of adventures where the boy, of course, falls in love with the star. It’s magical and brilliant and charming and marvelous. If you aren’t going to read the book, at least see the film.

Topic: [/movie]

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Thu, Aug 09, 2007

: The Wyrven Mystery

This is an older Naomi Watts movie. It’s a period piece about an orphan girl who is raised by a man, who, when she comes of age, is interested in her romantically. She is horrified and runs off with a younger mate, and they are married and have a child. But then tragedy: her husband becomes ill and dies, and the baby, left with neighbors to protect him from the disease, also dies. But then some things don’t fit and the woman starts to suspect that her baby was murdered, though she doesn’t know why. The truth is a fascinating twist, but it takes way, way, way too long to get there, and the film is muddled by silly “scary” things like dark moody music, strange characters, cryptic words, and curtains blowing in the night. Stripped to its bones the story has some merit, but all the fluff weakens the story instead of making it more dramatic or interesting.

Topic: [/movie]

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Sat, Aug 04, 2007

: A New Blog

I’ve started a new Houston Dynamo blog on The Offside website. Check it out!

Topic: [/soccer]

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Fri, Aug 03, 2007

: Becoming Jane

I knew little about this other than I saw that it was about the life of Jane Austen and how she became a writer, so I knew I needed to see it. It’s very good, though the period nature of the piece does make the story a little difficult to follow and the flowery language hard to understand. Early on I was confused as to who was who and how all the characters were related (too many characters introduced too quickly) and some aspects of the plot — concepts like doweries and social propriety — are unfamiliar to modern viewer and make understanding conflicts challenging. However, if you just relax and enjoy the story, understanding will come. Basically the is the story of Jane falling in love with a man who her family do not approve of and all the difficulties that creates. Jane’s experiences with love effect her writing as we see her begining to write Pride and Prejudice during the film, though I’d have preferred to see more emphasis on that storyline. Recommended.

Topic: [/movie]

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: The Bourne Ultimatum

Author: Robert Ludlum (novel)

The only thing this movie seems to have in common with the novel is the title. The story takes up right after the second movie as Jason Bourne tries to find out who set him up in that movie and figure out who created him. But who cares about the shadowy spy plot: what makes this work is the non-stop action, and in that regard, the film works well. There are many great scenes where Bourne gets to show off his superior intellect, outwitting hundreds of CIA agents on his trail, and he ruthlessly defends himself as needed. It’s great fun watching him turn the tables on evil people with power and that’s what makes it a satisfying watch. But it’s ultimately a popcorn flick (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

Topic: [/movie]

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Thu, Aug 02, 2007

: No Reservations

I really liked this. The story is simple enough: a chef who’s so focused on food she neglects her life inherits her young neice when her sister dies unexpectedly. Their relationship is awkward at first, but a new assistant chef at work charms the little girl and helps the two get along, and the two chefs fall in love. There’s nothing hugely innovative here, but it’s extremely well-done and the characters are all likeable (excellent casting). Enjoy it.

Topic: [/movie]

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Wed, Aug 01, 2007

: Mr. Monk and the Two Assistants

Author: Lee Goldberg

Another excellent Monk novel, this one classically tongue in cheek about the TV show’s history. On the show, the actress who played Monk’s assistant in the first couple seasons was replaced. In this book, his new assistant meets the former one, and sparks fly. Monk, of course, is so selfish he wants both assistants to cater to his eccentric whims (he’ll pay each only half a salary, of course). But of course there’s a murder involved — several, in fact, and Monk solves the crimes in his inimitable way. It’s well done, though the murderer is quite obvious (I knew the moment the character was introduced), but Monk isn’t about inscrutible mysteries but the fun of Monk using his OCD to figure it out.

Topic: [/book]

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Mon, Jul 30, 2007

: Must Love Dogs

Surprisingly good romantic comedy. By definition the plot is predictable — a divorced woman struggles with dating as an older woman and finds a nice divorced man — but there are a few twists to keep things interesting (though some feel artificial and forced). Overall it’s not great but not bad. Diane Lane carries the film.

Topic: [/movie]

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Fri, Jul 27, 2007

: Voyagers III

Author: Ben Bova

This is the third book of the trilogy and they just keep getting better. I liked the second one better than the first, and I liked this one even more than the second, perhaps. This one combines exciting plot and our hero’s superhuman abilities with thoughtful projection of what technology can mean to humanity. We learn the scientific secrets behind the hero’s superhuman abilities (which now make total sense), but our main characters from the other books now must fight new enemies who seek the alien technology in a quest for power. The plot’s gripping and interesting, though it still moves at the slow pace Bova’s committed to for this series which makes it come across a little more heavy-handed than it should. But overall this is an excellent book and a great conclusion to the original storyline.

Topic: [/book]

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: Sunshine

Director: Danny Boyle

Wow, this is some fantastic, dramatic science fiction film. It’s far, far better than 99% of the scifi films out there. Unfortunately, its predictability — at least as far as the inevitable ending is concerned — weakens it a little. But it’s still good. The plot is simple: the earth’s sun is dying so a small group of astronauts and scientists are in a unique vessel carrying a special bomb that needs to be detonated inside the sun to restart it and save the solar system. The space ship is amazing: it’s not all Star Trek polish and gleam, but industrial and fragile, like something humans would actually create. It consists of a sort of huge satellite-dish that points to the sun and shields the actual ship from the sun’s intense light. What liked is that when the problems start, they are genuine scientific problems, yet they are explained in such a way that we actually understand what is going on. Complicated tragectory calculations, limited oxygen, shields that must be rotated at just the precise angle to the sun, communications failure because of the sun’s magnetism, etc. This isn’t the first attempt by humans to restart the sun: this is the Icarus II, the second ship sent 7 years after the first failed, and when they discover that the first ship is near their flight path, they have a decision to make: change their course in the hopes that the original ship might have needed resources they could use? Unfortunately, all this great drama is dappered a little toward the end by a “crazy psycho” plotline that gets inserted, turning the ending into too much of a slasher movie for me. Until that point everything was awesome. The acting is fantastic, the drama palatable, and the scientific aspects of flying into the sun are fascinating. This really is an excellent film, harrowing and exciting, and I recommend you check it out.

Topic: [/movie]

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: The Simpsons Movie

This was great! I had no idea what to expect. The TV episodes are so scattered they hardly have a plot, a technique that I didn’t think would work well in a film. Fortunately the film does have a main plot to serve as a backbone, but it also skips around for lots of hilarious jokes and gags. The writers did a fantastic job of incorporating almost all our favorite characters from the decades the show has been on the air, and I adored the great self-deprecating humor. Right at the beginning there’s a great scene with the family at the theatre watching the “Itcy and Scratchy Movie” and Homer saying, “I can’t believe we’re payig to see something we can get on TV for free!” And then, just to make sure we get it, he turns and points right at us, the movie audience, and says, “That means YOU!” Great stuff. Like on the show, the plot’s almost irrelevant: something about Springfield being the most poluted town in the USA and so the EPA encloses the city in a giant dome so nobody can leave and Homer must save the city at the end. But the gags are great. If you like the TV show, you’ll like the movie.

Topic: [/movie]

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Mon, Jul 23, 2007

: Harry Potter and the Deadly Hallows

Author: J. K. Rowling

Wow. This book is the best since the first, and a terrific cap for the series. If you thought Rowling was making all this up as she went along, this proves she was not, for everything is revealed in this book. All the little storylines are wrapped up and questions answered. There are flashbacks to previous books and we suddenly see all sorts of hints and clues in those that we never noticed before. Rowling knew exactly what she was doing. It is brilliant. I can’t think of another multi-series of books that are so tightly plotted. As for the story in this one, it’s also brilliant. All the books so far have followed a similar plotline: Harry goes back to school, learns stuff, gets into mischief, and stops some evil Voldemort plot. But this one is different. This is a different Harry. In this one, he and Ron and Hermione skip school and set right out on the mission left them by Dumbledore in the last book, looking for additional devices containing portions of Voldemort’s soul. If even one of these is not destroyed, Voldemort can rebuild himself, so all of them must be destroyed before Voldemort can be battled. This all leads to a dramatic wizard war at Hogwarts (I can’t wait to see the battle on film) and the final controntation between Harry and Voldemort. (Come on, that was obvious — I’m not giving anything away by telling you that.) I won’t leak the ending, but I will say that it is exactly as it should be: appropriate, dramatic, and utterly satisfying. It’s the perfect conclusion to the perfect series. This book is one of the fastest reading, too: it’s just non-stop excitement and you can’t put it down. I didn’t start reading until late Saturday night and finished it Monday night. Highly recommended.

Topic: [/book]

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Sun, Jul 22, 2007

: Tiptoes

Odd little independent film about a woman involved with a normal-height man, who, it turns out, is from a family of dwarves. She finds this out as she discovers she’s pregnant, and worries about how genetics would effect her baby. However, it turns out she’s more tolerant than her fiance, who’s got hidden issues. Interesting but too dry and not as compelling as it sounds.

Topic: [/movie]

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Sat, Jul 21, 2007

: Dragonfly

Weird Kevin Costner movie where he plays a doctor whose doctor wife died in South America. Kevin’s character then gets messages from near-death patients who are telling him they are bringing back messages from his dead wife. The doctor becomes obssessed with this, convinced his wife isn’t dead, but of course no one believes him. The ending redeems things slightly — there actually is a point to all the silliness — but the film’s just bizarre and odd for much too long for any plot to redeem it.

Topic: [/movie]

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: Day of the Dead

Director: George Romero

This is the third in Romero’s Dead series. My favorite is still Dawn of the Dead, which is awesome. This one continues where that left off with a handful of survivors trying to figure out what to do next. They are holed up in an underground facility where scientists are trying to figure out what makes the living dead tick (so to speak) and a few psycho military guys. It’s a claustrophobic film with plenty of zombie gore, and while it’s interesting, much of the acting is obviously sub-par, and unfortunately the film doesn’t have the social relevance of the first two. In the end it’s just a zombie movie and not much more.

Topic: [/movie]

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Mon, Jul 16, 2007

: Captivity

This movie seemed so blatantly one-dimensional I wanted to find out if it really was. Besides, I’m an Elisha Cuthbert fan and this couldn’t be that bad, could it? Well, yeah. Sadly, it is just as one-dimensional as the trailer makes it out to be: a pretty model is captured and tormented by a psycho. The film tries to include a “twist” but it’s lame (extremely predictable) and not especially twisty; in the end there really is no point at all to this film. Fortunately, it was not as grisly as it could have been, other than a few gory shots early on. Weird. I can’t figure out why this was green lighted and why Elisha would have signed up for this. She must be desperate for a career or something.

Topic: [/movie]

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Sun, Jul 15, 2007

: Employee of the Month

Other than being a Costco addict, I had next to zero interest in seeing this, but got the DVD from Netflix and it wasn’t as bad as I thought. That’s not saying much, of course, but the promos made it sound like the plot was about two Costco cashiers competing for employee of the month because the winner would get to sleep with the girl and fortunately that sex part was deemphasized and not a signficant part of the plot. It’s really just about two idiots competing and we’re rooting for the underdog, of course. Surprisingly harmless.

Topic: [/movie]

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Fri, Jul 13, 2007

: You Kill Me

This is sort of a low key black comedy about an alcoholic hitman (brilliantly played by Ben Kingsley) who goes into AA and struggles to figure out his life. He meets a beautiful woman (Tea Leoni) who accepts his odd career choice, and together he learns to be a good hitman again. Not quite as brilliant as it sounds, but more interesting than most movies these days. Good performances and some moments of genius, but in the end, not much beyond the clever premise.

Topic: [/movie]

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Thu, Jul 12, 2007

: Hard News

Author: Jeffery Deaver

The idea sounds good: a young, quirky cameraperson at a TV network gets a lead on an “innocent man imprissoned” story she wants to cover. She must find evidence to free him, but people and circumstance conspire against her. Unfortunately, the book’s resolution is convoluted and doesn’t make that much sense, and there are distracting personal stories that confuse things even more. The whole thing feels unfocused and directionless, though in the end progress is made. This would be a good novel for condensation. It’s not that bad and it’s got some interesting situations, but the overall story is weak.

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Wed, Jul 11, 2007

: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

This is one of my least favorite of the books and I wasn’t expecting the movie to be very good. To my surprise, this is one of the best Harry Potter movies. The book is long and rambling and unfocused; it’s too dark and missing some of the clever Potter humor, and the grim ending is depressing. The movie trims all this down into an excellent action-filled storyline. The plot is basically about how the Ministry of Magic is trying to cover up all rumors that He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named has returned, smearing Harry Potter’s name in the process, and putting the marvelously acted Delores Umbridge in charge of Hogwarts School. She instigates a campaign of terror that rivals Hitler; all with a chillingly happy smile. Harry is worried because defensive magic skils are not being taught so he undertakes the task of training a group of student volunteers in secret. In the end, those students end up helping him to stop Voldemort, who’s out to steal a prophecy about Harry from the Ministry. The ending is just as grim as the book, but in the film it works as the whole film is on the serious side with plenty of ominous foreshadowing. The climax between Voldemort and Harry is excellently done, with some impressive performances. All and all this is a Harry Potter who’s growing up: he’s still young but is believable as an adult in this one. Some people may not like that Harry and the film’s are changing, but that is reality. I really liked this movie.

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Sat, Jul 07, 2007

: Welcome Home Party for Carol

Today we had a welcome home party for my mom. She’s been in Togo for three months and this was a nice get-together of friends and family to hear her stories and see the pictures she took of her adventure. People came and went but I guess there were about twenty. We grilled beef, chicken, shrimp, and tons of veggies (zucchini, mushrooms, onions, and peppers), and I served it with brown rice with herbs. I made crepes for dessert. Filled with fresh fruit (strawberries, blueberries, marionberries, and raspberries) and topped with Cool Whip they were yummy and not too bad in the nutrition department. It was a pretty good party!

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Fri, Jul 06, 2007

: Transformers

I was disappointed by this, though apparently most people are not. I wasn’t sure what to expect as I never watched the TV cartoon show or played with the toys, but there wasn’t much scientific accuracy in the film, which I found confusing and distracting. The plot sounds impressive on paper, but is overblown. It starts out well, with mysterious happenings such as a metal creature attacking an army base and a kid buying an old car that turns out to be intelligent and transforms into a robot. But there’s no explanation for the transforming technology and the magical cube thing at the end that somehow turns ordinary machines (like a soft drink vending machine) into evil robots is just bizzarre. Everything ends up rather convoluted and silly; think Independence Day with half the heart. This is an extremely shallow film that tries to make itself more complicated than it is. In the end, it’s a mild action flick with some to-quick-to-see transformation effects. Fun and mindless and thankfully harmless, but not what I was hoping to see.

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Wed, Jul 04, 2007

: July 4 iPhone Showoff

Today I went to my aunt and uncle’s for a July 4th party. It was a whirlwind, though I did manage to find some time to eat. With seconds of arriving my uncle had let the word get out that I possessed an iPhone and suddenly I was mobbed. I must have done a dozen demos of the thing. There were several Mac folks in the crowd (I only knew a few people at the party) and that was cool, though one guy had just renewed his Sprint contract and thus is locked out from an iPhone (his family gets a huge Sprint discount via work). It was interesting seeing the reactions of people to the iPhone. Amazement was pretty consistent, along with little joys and delights when people discovered things like automatic rotation detection or pinch photo-resizing. The virtual keyboard was somewhat problematic, but interestingly, it was mostly so for experienced phone users: newbies went slowly and cautiously, tapping with one finger, and had few problems. I didn’t really take a survey of who was rushing out to get one, but everyone was pleased to see it and impressed. My mom had hers and was showing off her pictures from her trip to Togo to anyone who asked. It was impressive to see how she got long with such a new device. She asked me for a help a couple times, but mostly she was able to figure out how to use it just fine. Quite an excellent way to sell the thing, if you ask me!

Topic: [/technology]

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Mon, Jul 02, 2007

: Ratatouille

This film is typical Pixar: brilliant, clever, thoughtful, beautiful, and entertaining. It’s a great story about a mouse who becomes a chef at a Paris restaurant. Unfortunately, we expect so much from Pixar these days and there’s a lot of competition at the theatres right now, so I fear this is one flick that is getting lost at the multiplex. It should have long legs as people get around to seeing it, but it’s not like computer animation by itself is innovative any more. Also, the topic (fine cuisine) is a little high brow for kids and comedy isn’t as broad as in Cars or Finding Nemo, which may mean some kids will be content waiting for the DVD. That’s a shame because it’s an excellent film and highly recommended.

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: Tenacious D: The Pick of Destiny

I thought this had a great premise — two rocker dudes seek “The Pick of Destiny,” a guitar pick with supernatureal rock powers that can turn anyone into a musical genius. But unfortunately the film isn’t very funny and is mostly distasteful, with crass jokes and tons of bad language that passes for humor. Disappointing.

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Sun, Jul 01, 2007

: U.S. Marshalls

I figured this would not be good but at least it was an action movie. Sadly, it’s bewildered and befuddled, and much too convoluted to function as anything. There’s not enough action for an action movie, nor intelligence to be a criminal drama, it bears no resemblance to the original, Pathetic.

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Sat, Jun 30, 2007

: iPhone First Impressions

Okay, I’ve had a chance to play with the iPhone a bit and let me tell you, this thing is astonishing. It feels like a third- or fourt-generation product. Apple has thought out so many tiny details it really does almost seem like magic. It blows away every existing product in ways to numerous to mention. People who argue it’s “just” a phone have no clue. Not only is this the best phone ever made, it’s the best handheld Internet device and best iPod. That is saying a lot. The thing is, Apple not only combined those three functions into a single device, they did in such a way as to make the thing easier to use, simpler instead of more complicated! That is revolutionary.

I had expected this thing to be a like diet food: it looks appetizing but is tasteless and leaves you feeling hungrier than when you started. That’s the way of most promising tech gadgets. Instead, the iPhone is even better than the demos would suggest. No, it’s not flawless. I can think of improvements. But the problems are minor and one of the best things about the device is that it really is a sort of miniature laptop, so it’s infinitely upgradeable. A new software update could be released tomorrow that would fix the flaws I noticed or add some new features. Who knows what the future will bring? This thing is the future. The real Internet in the palm of your hand, and so easy a caveman could use it. Jaw-dropping incredible.

Topic: [/technology]

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Fri, Jun 29, 2007

: iPhone Mania

Today was “iDay” — the launch of the iPhone. If you haven’t heard of the iPhone, you truly must have been living under a rock. The nifty handheld device uneveiled by Steve Jobs last January caught the imagination of the world. It literally seemed like some piece of future technology sent back through time. Today it was finally released. I took photos of the lines at my local Apple Store and AT&T outlet — quite entertaining, though I didn’t understand the point of waiting in the rain all day. I went back in the evening and there was no line and plenty in stock. I picked up two, one for myself and one for my mom. I figured out a loophole to save $20 on the AT&T monthly fees by signing up onto my mom’s account via a family plan. Less voice minutes, but I don’t need many minutes. I just want the Internet features. Some people had activation problems, but because I’d gone to the AT&T store earlier in the day and had them pre-transfer my old phone number to my mom’s account, I was already an AT&T customer and the activation process just took minutes and my iPhone was working.

Quickly: this thing is breathtaking. The user interface is so fluid you have to see it and try it to believe it. The high resolution is greatly responsible as photos and icons look stunning, but also all the animations and text are crystal clear and completely smooth.

Topic: [/technology]

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: Simple Genius

Author: David Baldacci

The strange thing about this book is that it takes a long time to get to the real plot. The first part of the book is about a woman struggling with some sort of psychological secrets; her boyfriend bails her out of trouble and gets her into a clinic. Then, to pay for her health care, the boyfriend has to get a freelance investigation job. Slowly I figured out that these two characters were supposed to be familiar to me from previous Balacci books. But since they weren’t, I found this part of the book confusing and pointless. The real plot is the investigation, which takes place at a government think tank where a scientist has been murdered. The murdered man’s daughter is the title character — a semi-autistic or “special” child who’s troubled but can do amazing math in her head. The investigator thinks she’s got a secret code in her head but can’t figure out how to access it. It’s all muddled and the action takes a long time to get going as nothing much happens until toward the end. The ending is even more convoluted and doesn’t really make much sense — stuff about rogue CIA agents running drugs, government conspiracies, and hidden treasure. Yeah, you read right: there’s hidden treasure through in the mix as well. Meanwhile the woman’s working through her psychological problems (and finds something to investigate at the psycho clinic while she’s there), and she ends up joining her partner for the final part of the book where things start to happen. Eventually we find out her psycological secrets, but the whole thing is bizarre and nothing really fits together: it’s like the plots of several books were put into a blender and this is what came out. There are some nice ideas and some aspects of the story were interesting, but the explanations are a letdown and the character development is too dependent upon you knowing them from previous books. Odd.

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Wed, Jun 27, 2007

: Live Free or Die Hard

Decent, though not great. It cannot live up to the original or even the sequels. It captures some of the flare and there are some good moments, but there’s just no way this can have the originality of the first film. The first stood out for so many reasons: claustraphobic action, reluctant hero, brilliant criminal mastermind with diabolical plan, etc. This film has some of that but it comes across as forced and awkward. It goes big where it should have gone small. John McClain takes on the world when he should mano a mano with the bad guy. Still, it’s an excellent action film. There are some good stunts, the plot’s not as ridiculous as most action movies, and it’s got some familiar characters. But it’s not a breakthrough or very memorable.

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Sun, Jun 24, 2007

: Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit

This started out much better than I expected, with interesting characters and a story that seemed original, but the ending turned into a chaotic action piece that felt trite and out of place with the animation. Weak.

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Sat, Jun 23, 2007

: Flags of Our Fathers

Extremely well-done tale about the raising of the American flag at the battle of Iwo Jima and the politics and manipulations surrounding the event, but despite all the technical excellence, this came across flat for me. I wasn’t too interested in the story to begin with and it didn’t succeed in engaging me and lost me toward the end. There’s nothing wrong with it — the topic just didn’t appeal to me and there wasn’t a lot going on. From a historical perspective I’m sure it’s fascinating, but if you’re not a history or WWII buff, you’ll find it dry.

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: Evan Almighty

I loved Bruce Almighty and was really curious how they’d duplicate that in a sequel. They did a surprisingly good job: while this feels overblown (it depends way too much on mediocre special effects), too much humor comes from silly slapstick stuff like a dog biting Evan in the crotch, and the plot’s so thin it’s obvious from a mile away (new congressman Evan’s told by God to build an Ark during a drought and endures mockery of the public), it isn’t unpleasant and there are moments of genuine heart and profundity. Not much, granted, as the film takes everything with the lightness of cotton candy (which tends to degrade religion and God), but there were two key moments I really liked. One, when God talks to Evan’s troubled wife and tells her “When someone prays for patience does God just give them patience or provide an opportunity for them to be patient?” The other was when a fully converted Evan is confronted by a reporter asking him why God chose him and he pauses for just a fraction and then says, “God chose each of us.” Very cool. Overall, I liked this a lot. It’s harmless fun. Sure, it’s silly, and there are too many groanable Bible puns, but Morgan Freeman as God is great and Steve Carell fills in pretty well for Jim Carey. I have no idea where the rumored $200 million budget went: the special effects are horribly amateurish. The ark itself looks find, but the scenes it floating in the flood look the digital equivilent of filming models in a bathtub. Somebody deserves a refund. (The poor effects were worse than Poseidon, which is saying a lot.) Critics aren’t being kind to the film but I think it’s harmless and has some good moments. It’s certainly nothing that will work you brain, but there are much worse ways to spend 90 minutes.

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: Voyagers II

Author: Ben Bova

I liked this much better than the first book. In that one not much happened, but this one takes place 18 years later when the human astronaut hero of the first book is awakened from being frozen. He wakes to find a new world enhanced by the alien technology discovered in the first book and also learns that he’s got an alien presence in his mind. This presence guides him and reveals new abilities that make him superhuman. He uses these abilities to put an end to war and death, which sickens him (and the alien inside him). He eventually tracks down the real leader and cause of all the trouble and confronts him in the climax. Very cool story, with some interesting observations on human behavior, politics, and society. Recommended.

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Fri, Jun 22, 2007

: 1408

Author: Stephen King (story)

While I liked this better than many of the newer ultra-gory horror films trendy right now, it unfortunately runs out of gas and doesn’t have anywhere to go. The premise is cool: a ghost hunter author finds real ghosts in room 1408 of a New York hotel. It’s a tour-de-force performance for John Cussack, who is practically the only actor in the thing, and the director does an excellent job keeping things interesting and surprisingly suspensive and alarming for much of the film. But a film like this only works when there’s a payoff at the end (think The Sixth Sense) and this one has nothing. Well, it tries a little, but it’s not satisfying and more than a little ambiguous. I liked Secret Window better, though this one is more of a horror film. In this end this is above average, but don’t go in with high expectations.

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Wed, Jun 20, 2007

: New York Minute

I was surprised that I didn’t hate this. It felt silly and contrived from the previews, but it actually isn’t that bad. The problem is that it was marketed (or perceived) as the Olsen Twins First Feature Film, which takes away from the actual story and movie. That said, this isn’t exactly strain-your-brain material. The plot’s wispy thin. Basically you’ve got twin sisters who are opposites who annoy each other. The neat freak’s set to give a speech that will earn her a scholarship to Oxford while the other wants to skip school to play in her band. Through a lot of silly slapstick scenes and ridiculous side plots about a piracy ring and a moron truant officer out to track the slacker, the two end up getting stranded in New York city, have wild adventures, and meet their new boyfriends. But the Olsen twins do have charisma and it shows, faintly, through the dim-bulb plot. In the end the film’s as harmless as it is mindless. Kinda fun if you’re in the right mood (which I was).

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Sun, Jun 17, 2007

: The Family Stone

This film seemed like a natural family hit and I was surprised it didn’t do better at the box office. After all, it’s got a great cast and a heart-warming premise (the oldest son coming home for Christmas with his new fiance) — what could go wrong? Unfortunately, the script has to force every family cliche upon us (a gay son with his partner, a mom with terminal cancer, and a few others) and there’s a mean-spiritedness to family’s resistance to the fiance that’s not pleasant to watch — even if you assume things will work out in the end. To top things off there’s a bizarre switch in the plot that’s almost incomprehensible [Spoiler alert!] when the son falls for his fiance’s sister and realizes he and the fiance are incompatible. Huh? Why were they together in the first place if they were so wrong for each other? We never see them, ever, have much of a relationship, so we can’t figure out why they were together at all, which, while it makes the ending more plausible, pretty much makes 80% of the film pointless. The final nail in the film’s coffin is the fact that most of the conflict in the film feels forced. Why is the daughter so angry and mean to the fiance? That is never explained and feels dirty and wrong. Why is the mother so set against the fiance? Again, never explained, and makes us dislike the mom. And of course the fiance herself isn’t exactly tarnish free, setting herself up as a target and making bizarre decisions — like coming out anti-gay at dinner with the family. (It’s believable she might have those opinions, but she’s supposed to be a brilliant businesswoman who would be intelligent enough to know not to say such things in front of others, especially potential family you’re trying to impress and who already don’t like you.) Very odd characterization and in the end, nothing quite works. There’s some real potential here, some of the basic concepts are fine, and the casting is terrific, but as a whole the thing flops miserably. Really disappointing.

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Fri, Jun 15, 2007

: Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

This is a very strange film. I think you can only enjoy it if you have inside knowledge. Apparently the “Silver Surfer” character is famous from the comics but the way the film is written and promoted assumes you know about this character and eagerly want to see it. I found the character absurd to the point of silliness and utterly uncompelling. The film gives us minimal information about the Surfer’s story and treats the whole thing like it’s an inside joke only the “in” people will understand. For someone like me, who has never heard of the Silver Surfer, the whole movie is confusing and pointless. There a giant logic holes in the plot that Surfer fans probably overlook or miss because they already understand the back story, but I found it impossible to get into the movie because of the way it was presented. It was being a stranger at a party where everyone is laughing at something and no one will explain the joke to you. When the “mystery” of the Silver Surfer is finally revealed in the film my reaction was like, “Huh? Is that it? All the fuss was over that???” Keep in mind I love superhero films and I didn’t hate the first Fantastic Four, though the series is decidedly low-brow entertainment, so my not liking this was a surprise to me. This movie takes “slight” to new levels and has such abrupt shifts between scenes and characters and quick resolutions to deep conflicts that it makes a sitcom feel profound. It feels as trite as a Saturday morning cartoon — except with a worse script. Other than a handful of mildly entertaining relationship humor between the Four, there’s just not enough depth here to sustain a movie, let alone a 30 minute cartoon. Sad. Very sad.

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Thu, Jun 14, 2007

: The Holiday

This is a predictable but really well-done romantic film about two single women on the rebound, one in L.A. and one in England, who swap houses over Christmas to get away from their lives. Predictably, they each find someone new and fall in love, but the story’s pitch perfect, with just the right lines and gestures, that we’re swept along anyway. I did appreciate the side-story of the old Hollywood writer getting his life revived by the English girl visiting L.A. — that was extremely cool. Overall, nothing revolutionary here, a paint-by-numbers romantic comedy, but so well done it’s pleasing. Above average.

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: Waitress

Author: Adrienne Shelly

Director: Adrienne Shelly

Impressive film — so sad this is the final one writer/director Shelly’s career (she was murdered in late 2006). She’s created some fascinating characters, so simple and elegant we see them with all their flaws and fall in love with them anyway. Warning: don’t see this film when you’re hungry. The title is puzzling since it’s more about pie-making than waitressing. The main character, played by a wonderfully adorable Keri Russell, is a waitress at a little pie diner, who almost creates unusual pie concoctions which serve as the film’s core. She’s married to an abusive, controlling husband and when she discovers she’s pregnant, she’s depressed because she now feels really trapped because with a baby she’ll never be able to leave her husband. Then she foolishly falls into an affair with her new male doctor, and though we’re shaking our head, knowing this is wrong (she would agree with us), we still sympathize with her and understand and are actually pleased she’s found at least a glimmer of happiness. The film tells a simple story beautifully and wraps everything nicely in a somewhat predictable but agreeable ending. Surprisingly profound at times, this is a film that doesn’t try to be more than it is, completely unlike most films today. Highly recommended.

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: Oregon Hike

I forgot to mention, last week I uploaded some pictures from my recent hike on the Oregon coast. Check them out here.

Topic: [/photography]

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Mon, Jun 11, 2007

: Surf’s Up

Weak. I didn’t even crack a smile until about 15 minutes in, and only laughed maybe twice in the whole movie. It’s too predictable — an arrogant surfer penguin kid faces the reality of real competition and has to learn humility and the meaning of competition and surfing for fun — and there just isn’t much of a story here. Worse, the premise of the film is fundamentally flawed. Almost all the characters are penguins… why? There is no reason. They are merely humans in penguin suits. The physics are ridiculous: penguin stubby arms are somehow able to hold on to things and climb and do tons of human stuff. It makes no sense and feels incorrect and weird. Most of the jokes are obvious and tired; to put them in perspective, realize that penguin puns are among the better jokes, as are feeble attempts to mock penguin pysiology (like that male penguins sit on the eggs). The bottom line: while essentially harmless, this is definitely a movie for very young kids. There’s nothing here for adults. Avoid at all costs.

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Sun, Jun 10, 2007

: Hustle and Flow

Really interesting and unusual film. It takes assumptions you have and turns them on their ear. We’ve got a dispicable character, a pimp and drug dealer, who’s suddenly reached mid-life and realized his life has not turned out the way he dreamed. As a kid he wanted to be a rapper but that never happened. When he hears a former neighborhood kid who’s now a big rap star is returning for a visit, he decides to create a record and get the guy to listen to it and help him with his big break. What follows is a series of struggles to write songs, figure out his style, come up with money, and record them. In the middle of all this we see a close-up of this guy’s tragic life and the life of his whores. I’m not a fan of rap but the way the music was done in this film I could appreciate it and see the genius in it. The ending is wild — realistic but unusual, and just a perfect way to wrap up this unique experience. Not always a pleasant film, but certainly one you’ll remember and learn from. Recommended.

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Sat, Jun 09, 2007

: Flicka

I don’t usually like horse stories, especially one as predictable as this (rebellious girl finds wild horse and wants to keep it against her father’s wishes), but this was extremely well done (except for occasional wooden acting by the dad) and I liked it. Go figure.

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Fri, Jun 08, 2007

: Ocean’s 13

While it has a completely ridiculous and unbelievable premise — Ocean’s team of con artists and thieves attempt to bankrupt a Las Vegas casino owner who’s cheated a friend of theirs by rigging every game in the casino and engineering a simultaneous diamond robbery and fake earthquake — the film’s still entertaining, a guilty pleasure. It’s so obvious but we still want to see the bad guy lose. Not nearly as clever as the first film, the series has definitely descended, but amusing and has its moments.

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Wed, Jun 06, 2007

: Mr. Brooks

This is an odd film. The main character is a cold-blooded serial killer — yet we like him. He’s struggling with his “addiction” to murder, which makes him sympathetic. There isn’t much of a plot, really, just a few lose tangles about his daughter who might have his same disease, an admirer who’s blackmailing him into taking him in as an apprentice killer, and a lady cop who’s tracking him but is distracted by her own divorce chaos. Still, the story works, and the visual gimmick of having the killer’s dark thoughts show up as a separate actor is intriguing. However, the ending’s a struggle and too convoluted for true satisfaction. I really liked parts of this but other aspects were poor, so overall I give it a slight thumbs up. Don’t expect genius, though at times it’s clever and interesting. And I suppose it doesn’t hurt that the film is set in Portland, Oregon, near where I live.

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: Knocked Up

Author: Judd Apatow

Director: Judd Apatow

The premise felt totally predictable and a retread of countless other “oh I’m pregnant” movies, but it’s surprisingly tender and well done, with a realistic and light-hearted approach to a complex and awkward situation. It does have the author’s taste for crudity which occasionally goes too far, but most of the time it serves as dramatic contrast for the film’s drama, enhancing the serious moments of the film. Nothing too profound, and not even that original, but decently handled with an appealing cast.

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Tue, Jun 05, 2007

: Voyagers

Author: Ben Bova

The premise of this trilogy is what happens to humankind when intelligent alien life is discovered? That’s a great premise but unfortunately the book is very dated: it was written nearly thirty years ago and a huge part of the plot is about conflict between the Soviet Communists and the USA, stuff that feels archaic today. A lot of the spy stuff is rather cheesy and overly dramatic and there isn’t nearly as much philosophical content about how alien life would impact humanity as I expected: but hopefully that stuff will come in future books. Still, I enjoyed the story, and there are some good characters.

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Mon, Jun 04, 2007

: The Chairman

Author: Stephen Frey

This book comes before The Protege, but I read it second. In this one the main character has just been elected chairman of the company and is struggling against conspiracies designed to destroy him and the company. The plot’s overdone (there are several plots going on) and there’s not enough interesting money stuff, but it’s still rather amusing and harmless entertainment.

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Sat, Jun 02, 2007

: International Friendly: USA vs China

Fun trip south to see the USA take on China. A bit disappointed that more U.S. star players weren’t on hand, but the game itself was a nice 4-1 victory and there was a great raccuous atmosphere. I got to meet a listener of my soccer podcast, which was cool, and after the game we went to a SSV party and got the news that it sounds like the Earthquakes will be back in the Bay Area as early as next year! An official announcement should be made within the month.

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Fri, Jun 01, 2007

: Stardust

Author: Neil Gaiman

Wow, what an excellent book! I listened to the unabridged audio book during my drive to California as the movie’s coming out this summer and I wanted to read the book first. It’s the story about a boy who, to impress the girl he thinks he loves, promises to bring her a star they watch fall. But the star has fallen into fairyland, where magical things happen, and the boy eventually discovers the star is a young lady. Their relationship is antagonistic at first, but eventually, as he protects her from harm and discovers his own special abilities, they (of course) fall in love. The magic and adventures are wonderfully done, very clever and interesting and charming, right in line with traditional fairy tales. Highly recommended! I sure hope the movie’s good.

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Thu, May 31, 2007

: The Cherry Orchard

I love Chekov but I was slightly disapointed by this play at Ashland, Oregon’s Shakespeare Festival. Nothing much happens in it. It’s about a rich Russian woman who’s squandered all her money and the family must sell their beloved (but neglected) cherry orchard to save the estate but she refuses to see it. It’s about how people react (or refuse to react) to change. There are a few side romance storylines and some good humor and the performances were good, but I wasn’t wowed.

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: Exile

Author: Richard North Patterson

The topic of this book did not interest me at all: I don’t remember how I ended up with it but I wouldn’t have chosen it if I’d known. It’s all about Israel-Arab conflict and that stuff is so confusing and depressing and overdone I can’t stand listening to any of it. It’s like listening to kids squabbling over who sits where in the back seat of the car on a five thousand year drive. Makes you want to leap out the window or crash the car. This book certainly made me feel that way at times, for it is excruciately detailed and proceeds at a snail’s pace. However, I endured it, and the payoff was decent. I learned a lot of fascinating things about the Israel-Arab conflict I didn’t know, some of it helpful in understanding the conflict. The story is intricate: an American of Jewish descent has everything: an Ivy league law degree, a successful San Francisco career, is about to be married to a weathly Jewish family, and will soon be a candidate for senator. But then the Israeli prime minister is blown up in San Francisco and the key suspect is Palastinian Anna Ariff, the lawyer’s former lover at Harvard. Prosecutors think she leaked the prime minister’s route to the bombers, but she claims it’s a frame-up. The lawyer still loves her and takes on her defense even though it costs him his engagement and his political career, for everyone wants to see the terrorists pay for their crimes and he’s defending an obviously guilty Arab. The defense takes months as the lawyer visits Israel and uncovers bits of information, but all the pieces of the plot aren’t put together until the very end. Unfortunately, I saw this ending on about page 100, so having to sit through the rest of the book for something so obvious was tedious and frustrating. The payoff is good, but overall I see this book as more educational than entertaining. I wish I’d gotten the abridged version.

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: The Rabbit Hole

Now this Ashland, Oregon’s Shakespeare Festival play really overwhelmed me. It was amazing. It’s a somber topic: a couple coping with the loss of their son eight months earlier, but done in such a way that there is tons of humor and entertainment. The drama sneaks up on you occasionally through the humor and it’s powerful. What impressed me the most was the realistic modern dialog which was flawless and natural, with every character hitting just the right notes. The play is about how we each cope with grief differently and the phenomenal acting conveyed that perfectly. We meet the younger free-spirited sister who is pregnant and unmarried and we see how that tortures the wife who lost her child. We see the father and husband who wants to move on but can’t because his wife won’t: she’s at a different grief point than him. Then there’s the wife’s mother who lost a child of her own twelve years earlier, but as her daughter tells her, “It’s not the same thing” because her son was only five years old when the car hit him. Most powerful of all is the teenage boy who ran over their son — purely an accident but tormenting none-the-less. All this sounds dreary and somber but it’s not: the play is funny and clever and hilarious, but at the core is the horrible thing always lurking that no one wants to talk about. Just brilliant. Winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize. I had a terrific front-row seat and was a hand-stretch from touching the actors at times. Chilling and amazing.

Topic: [/theatre]

Link

Sat, May 26, 2007

: Man of the Year

This is fine concept — a political comic gets elected president of the United States — but the film is too uneven and can’t even follow it’s own humor advice getting much too serious at times and even turning into a spy thriller at times. It’s got some great stuff — funny lines, Robin Williams, fake news segments, a SNL appearance — but then it has awkward scenes that don’t work and storylines that aren’t connected (What did the manager’s hospital stay have to do with anything?). in the end, while it’s got some political bite, it needs to go much further (like Wag the Dog did). Not as bad as I expected, but you won’t be laughing that much.

Topic: [/movie]

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Fri, May 25, 2007

: Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End

I enjoyed the first one but thought the second, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, was terrible because it didn’t end. This movie is the conclusion of that one and at nearly three hours, it’s some conclusion. Fortunately, it mostly lives up to the billing. It’s definitely far too complicated, with numerous characters each with their own secret motivations and each plotting against the other, but at least it’s more of a complete story than the second film. In this one the main characters head off to the end of the world to rescue Captain Jack Sparrow who was sent to Davy Jones’ locker in the last movie, and then everything’s set up for a big battle between the British armada and the nine pirate lords for who will rule the seas. It’s overlong and overdone but there’s enough going on to keep your interest. At least the film still has its irrascible sense of humor (which is much needed). Captain Jack is still the best character, though I was pleased to see that finally Kiera Knightly’s actually got a meatier role (she’s pretty much second to Johnny Depp in prominence). The special effects, even in this jaded day, are jaw-dropping impressive, and many are so subtly and effectively done you barely realize they are effects. Overall, I was entertained, though the film does feel long. There’s a bit too much convoluted “pirate lore” and I found myself confused on several occasions, but just roll with it — eventually everything works out. The ending is not exactly surprising or clever, but it works well enough, I suppose. I was a bit disappointed but the characters seemed happy enough with it. At least it’s not a bland “everyone lives happily ever after” kind of thing.

Topic: [/movie]

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: Bug

Author: Tracy Letts (play)

Wow, what a film! This is quite an amazing production. Except for a couple scenes and long distance two helicopter shots the entire story takes place inside a crappy hotel room in rural Oklahoma. While the trailers make it sound like this is a scifi flick it is absolutely not: it’s a psychological horror trip. Basically we meet a rundown struggling woman. She’s living in that crappy hotel room, waitressing at a honky tonk bar, and drinking a lot. Her abusive ex-husband just got out of jail and is harrassing her and we learn that years earlier she lost her son (literally he vanished one day at the supermarket). This woman obviously has a lot of baggage. Into the picture comes a strange mild-mannered man. He’s very quiet, polite, doesn’t drink, and seems thoughtful. A little odd, but harmless. He has no place to stay so the woman invites him to crash on her sofa. Soon the two develop a relationship, and then the man finds a bug in the bed. It’s so tiny she can’t even see it but he kills it. He talks intelligently about bugs and seems to know what he’s talking about. Later he finds more bugs, and he gets sprays and decorates their room with fly paper. Slowly the man’s story comes out: he was a soldier and the army did experiments on him and he escaped a hospital where they had him imprisoned. Gradually things get dark and scary: the man pulls out a tooth, insisting it was recently filled at the army base and the evil doctors put in an egg sac in the tooth and that’s the source of the bugs. Paranoia builds into hysteria and soon the woman is completely enveloped into the man’s crazy world, turning her back on her best friend, and absolutely convinced the disappearance of her son was part of the conspiracy. The ending — while predictable and inevitable — is still chillingly real and devasting. The performances by everyone, especially Ashley Judd as the woman, are amazing. The film is claustrophic and you feel your own mind going part-way through. All the crazy theories begin to sound plausible after a while. It’s a powerful demonstration of what can happen if you let yourself believe. Amazing. Definitely not for the weak of heart or squeamish. This film reminded me most of Roman Polanski’s incredible Repulsion, which is similarly constrained to a single room and about a woman going mad. Recommended. I will also add this film is based on a play by Tracy Letts who’s the son of my former college teacher in Oklahoma, Dennis Letts (Dennis’ wife is author Billie Letts).

Topic: [/movie]

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Fri, May 18, 2007

: 28 Weeks Later

It’s been a while since I saw the first movie and though I remembered I liked it, I couldn’t remember the details. That wasn’t a problem, though, as film stands on its own. It’s basically a zombie movie, except instead of dead people coming to life it’s regular people being turned into raging maniacs by a dangerous virus. In this film it is 28 weeks after the first and Britain, which had been evacuated, is being carefully repopulated as all the infected have died off and it is considered safe to return. Our focus is one particular family: the boy and daughter were overseas when the virus hit, but return to find out that their mother was infected and only their father is left. Of course you can’t watch this without the dreadful feeling that things are going to go bad, really bad, and of course they do, as the virus reinfects and sweeps through the surviving population in a devastating and terrifying manner. It’s pretty exciting and plenty horrifying. It’s grim and dark and doesn’t show much hope, but that’s in line with the first film. Recommended it you’re into this sort of thing.

Topic: [/movie]

Link

: Shrek the Third

I liked the first and the second was good, if a bit forced. This one is not as good as the first but better than the second. The story is slender — the King dies and Shrek’s off to find the heir while former foe Prince Charming is plotting to take over the throne. Most of the humor is familiar and there’s nothing particularly clever, but there are a handful of laugh-out-loud moments. It’s mostly just harmless fun, nicely entertaining without straining your brain.

Topic: [/movie]

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Tue, May 15, 2007

: Freedom Writers

Another in-flight movie, most likely edited for content, but since it was not a film I was too excited about seeing, that was okay. The trailer had made this seem too predictable, a retread of Stand and Deliver, about a teacher who helps poor and disadvantaged kids succeed. It is predictable (it’s based on a true story), but it’s still pretty decent. I really liked that the thing that helped the teacher connect with the gang kids was the Holocaust, so much that she organized a museum trip for the students and culminating in the kids reading Anne Frank’s diary and raising money to bring Miep Gies, Frank’s house-keeper and protector, to the U.S. to speak at their school. The script tries way too hard to be meaningful and dramatic with obvious setups and “deep” one-liners, but in the end there is some heart and it’s not terrible.

Topic: [/movie]

Link

: Home Again

I’m back home! I made it. I had a terrific trip. There were a few glitches — I didn’t have a cell phone (Tracfone deactivated my old one and couldn’t activate the new one in time), which made things more complicated than necessary, and my checked luggage missed the flight home (the airline will deliver it later) — but it was mostly uneventful, which is good. My eating went well. My blood sugars were a little higher than normal but not bad, and I think I only gained a pound or two. I mostly made smart choices whenever I could, and I had some granola bars with me which I ate at times to keep my carbs up. So overall, a fine trip with no medical issues.

Topic: [/travel]

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: The Protege

Author: Stephen Frey

Tame but easy to read story about a wealthy chairman of a private equity firm who’s in charge of billions of dollars as he tries to manage his personal life, threats against himself and his company, and deal with some sort of weird spy-novel plot that ultimately didn’t have much to do with anything. Entertaining, despite being over the top in certain plot elements and scenes. At least the financial stuff is interesting.

Topic: [/book]

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Tue, May 08, 2007

: Austin Trip

Today I headed off to Texas for the REAL World conference in Austin. This is going to be a whirlwind trip as I’ll also visit relatives in Houston, Alabama, and Tennessee before return home next week. I am a bit nervous about this trip as it’s my first major travel after being diagnosed with diabetes last fall — I’ve been carefully controlling my diet and I’m not sure how well that will work on the road. So we’ll see how it goes.

Topic: [/travel]

Link

: Miss Potter

I’d been wanting to see this and it was the airplane flight to Houston. I missed a little bit when I dozed off and the mono headphone connection was very pour, but I got the gist of it. It’s pretty good. It’s the simple, real-life tale of children’s author Beatrix Potter and how she got published and her tragic romance. Nothing too dramatic or exciting, but elegantly done.

Topic: [/movie]

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Fri, May 04, 2007

: Falling Angels

Author: Tracy Chevalier

Interesting historical novel set a hundred years ago in London around the death of Queen Victoria and involving the overlapping history of several families. The novel takes the unusual approach that each chapter is voiced by different characters. At first I found this off-putting and confusing, since it was hard to keep the characters straight, let alone follow the story, but I soon learned to like it. A lot of fascinating information is passed between the lines via this technique, as we see the same events from different perspectives. The story is primarily about two girls whose families have neighboring grave sites at the cemetary and the girls become best friends. Women’s sufferage is a big part of the story as the mother of one becomes highly political and active in the cause despite the harm to herself and her family. I found that interesting, since I recently saw another film that dealt with the topic, as well as a recent episode of Cold Case on TV that made me realize just how controversial and even dangerous the cause was. This book isn’t quite up to the class of Girl With A Pearl Earring, but it is well-written and interesting — in the end I think the various voices break things up too much and the resulting story feels too choppy for genuine drama.

Topic: [/book]

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: Spiderman 3

I loved the first one, tolerated the second, and I really liked this one. The trailers did not excite me at all: the multiple plots seemed overly complicated and I worried how the film would handle all the information. Fortunately, the script is excellent. Though a ton of stuff happens — Mary Jane’s Broadway sizzles and fizzles, Peter Parker plans to propose and goes through a dark period, we see the origins of “Sandman” and learn that he’s the one who actually killed Parker’s beloved Uncle Ben, a competing freelance photographer shows up a the Daily Bugle to steal Parker’s job, and then of course there’s Pete’s best friend, who’s trying to kill him — despite all the details they are interwoven well and build on each other to create a fairly compelling drama with some real emotion and drama. That said, this is still an action film, heavy on the special effects and hyper-speed fighting, which I found boring and predictable and totally unrealistic. Logic and realism are not common in superhero films. Still, this franchise is better than most: intelligent and built on people, not gimmicky plots, and that makes this one of the better sequels. Worth seeing if you’re into Spidey.

Topic: [/movie]

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Mon, Apr 30, 2007

: Disturbia

With obvious plot allusions to Hitchcock’s classic Rear Window, in this film we’ve got a troubled teen under home arrest (with an ankle bracelet to keep him on the property) watching the neighbors. He begins to suspect one neighbor of being a serial killer and sets out with the help of a couple friends to prove it. Not bad. It’s well-done technically, but it’s a bit long, the ending’s typical — the neighbor’s guilt or innocence isn’t confirmed until the end, of course. Basically, the premise just feels like something we’ve seen too many times before. Above average and the new characters and modern setting do bring a bit of freshness to the idea, but it’s not quite enough to make this anything other than a mild diversion.

Topic: [/movie]

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Fri, Apr 27, 2007

: Next

The trailer didn’t give me much hope for this, but it’s actually not that bad. The premise that a psychic can see the next two minutes of his future doesn’t sound like much of a superpower, but it turns out to be impressive. He’s always one step ahead of his pursuers, and there’s a funny scene where he hits on a girl multiple times until he figures out the approach that works. My favorite was an action bit where he throws a baton down an empty hallway and you’re thinking, “Why on earth did he do that?” and suddenly a guard comes around the corner right as the baton whacks him in the face! But then of course the plot has to get too convoluted as our psychic hero tries to save his girlfriend and L.A. from a stolen nuclear bomb terrorists plan to detonate. The ending’s supposed to be clever, though it’s really not — it’s obvious and too gimmicky — but despite all that I liked the ending which was simpler than I expected. Usually films like this have two or three red herrings and subplots and confusion. I actually like the film as a whole — it’s harmless fun and occasionally interesting — but it’s certainly not a work of art. Don’t expect too much and you might be amused for a while.

Topic: [/movie]

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Wed, Apr 25, 2007

: Vacancy

I still don’t see the point of this film: the premise isn’t exactly innovative (a couple at a seedy motel finds snuff videos filmed in the room they are in and realize they are being filmed for the next tape), and while it’s well-done, the trailer pretty much gives away the entire lukewarm plot and there’s just not much else to see. Sure, the cast and acting is decent, and there’s a moment or two of interesting drama, but overall who cares? Nothing original or special or worth bothering with.

Topic: [/movie]

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Sun, Apr 22, 2007

: What In the Bleep Do We Know?

Unusual film that’s a cross between a documentary and a fictional story as it attempts to explore spirituality through science (quantum physics). A story about a deaf photographer who learns a new perspective that changes her life is at the core of the film and it’s intercut with interviews from scientists who talk about quantum physics. Much of the science was familiar to me (though I did discover a few things), but I was disappointed that the film didn’t try to explain any science but simply presented it as knowledge (when it’s all theory and conjecture). The film does get you to think about complex and deep subjects, however, which is interesting and good, but does seem to have an agenda, which is not so good. I did like the presentation, which is visually interesting and the storyline keeps you involved with what could be a dense topic. Worth seeing, though I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.

Topic: [/movie]

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Sat, Apr 21, 2007

: Running with Scissors

This is one of those films that’s a puzzle: it’s a fantastic cast with great performances, a wild and unusual story, and wonderful visuals — yet it falls flat. Why? The problem is that the awkward topic — crazy people — while interesting, does not promote cohesiveness or consistency, and while there’s humor, the topic is depressing and grim. In the book this works because the humor comes from how things are presented. That is much more difficult to do in film and the humor’s lost, making for a depressing movie about bewildering crazy people. Thus it ends up a series of scenes instead of a movie. It’s not terrible, but it’s not successful either. Stick with the book.

Topic: [/movie]

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Fri, Apr 20, 2007

: Hot Fuzz

Fun parody-type film, but seriously done with plenty of unpredictable humor. For instance, you’d expect the main cop to be a violence-prone idiot, but it’s the opposite: he’s a super-cop, so good that his outstanding arrest record is making the rest of the force (sorry, service) look bad, so he’s shipped out to an isolated village as a “promotion.” There he uncovers a huge conspiracy and the film concludes with plenty of mindless violence and hilarious action. The plot’s purposely overly elaborate and convoluted since this is a parody and at times that slows things down a bit, but it’s still plenty of fun. My favorite bit of humor: when the cop goes to see his girlfriend, a crime tech, she and her fellow techs are dressed in identical coveralls and dust masks, and he starts confessing his feelings to her only for her to say she isn’t his girlfriend and point to a different identical-looking tech across the room!

Topic: [/movie]

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: Echo Park

Author: Michael Connelly

I can’t say I’m crazy about this style of writing: the pace is glacial, almost Dragnet style, with almost every donut eaten and cup of coffee drunk described in depressing detail. Of course it turns out this level of detail is somewhat important, since this is a crime drama, and those details come into play later, but the book takes forever to get going and then keeps on going long after things are resolved. Worse, though the plot is a conspiracy that is significant enough to justify a lot of this time, it doesn’t quite make up for it. Next time I’ll stick to the condensed version.

Topic: [/book]

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: Fracture

Nicely done. This is a twisty thriller about a seemingly clear-cut crime: a wealthy man shoots his affair-having wife in the head and admits to it when the police arrive. The prosecutor assigned to the case has just accepted a position at a prestigious law firm and isn’t focused on the case with a mountain of evidence including a signed confession. But in court things go awry: the gun found on the man had never been fired, the arresting officer was having an affair with the victim, and that man was present during the man’s confession. Suddenly the case is in jeopardy and the fiasco might be enough to derail the prosecutor’s new job. The resolution is a bit predictable — I figured it out in the first half — but it’s still a fun ride and the performances are excellent, especially the incomparable Anthony Hopkins as the murderer.

Topic: [/movie]

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Wed, Apr 18, 2007

: Zoom: Academy for Superheroes

If you want to study what makes a bad film, this would be an ideal candidate. I thought it was low-budget and targeted at kids when I saw the promos, but its technical quality is well above a made-for-DVD release and it’s got an impressive cast (Tim Allen, Courtney Cox, Chevy Chase, etc.). The basic concept of the film isn’t that bad — a school for kids with super-human abilities — and I was surprised to learn it was based on a comic book series. The script even has a little humor and isn’t the worst. But somehow nothing comes together. Every joke falls flat, the pacing is jerky and awkward, as though the editors were on speed with they put it together, logic and realism is thrown out the window, everything’s a stereotype, and it soon seems as though the film’s only reason for existence is to humiliate one-time stars (like Chevy) with dreadfully unfunny scenes like having a skunk spray right in his face. Literally this is probably the worst film I have seen in my entire life. It’s unspeakably bad. I’d give it a negative rating if I could.

Topic: [/movie]

Link

: The Woodsman

Nicely acted, slow-paced film about a criminal (Kevin Bacon) released on parole and trying to fit back into society. We aren’t told his crime initially but we get the dreadful feeling we have an idea and are conflicted. We have sympathy for him but his crime is reprehensible. But is he reformed? Occasionally he acts like it, but other times it’s hard to tell and we wonder. He seems to have remorse and worries he will fail again. This culminates in the movie’s most dramatic scene where the man is tempted to act and we wonder what he will choose. That’s when the predictable takes a twist — and it’s a really cool result. I won’t spoil it by explaining it, but trust that this is a serious look at a taboo subject. Well worth your time.

Topic: [/movie]

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Sun, Apr 15, 2007

: Samantha: an American Girl Holiday

I did not know anything about “American Girl” dolls prior to this film, but they sound like a neat idea: a line of young girl dolls from various points in history so that children can learn about history by exploring the lives of these doll characters. The “Samantha” doll/character in this movie is a girl from 1904 New York and in the story she befriends a working class girl and learns about the working conditions of child labor in that period. It’s well done with impressive acting for such young girls, and the story, while not being profoundly deep, isn’t totally smaltzy and has some emotional impact. Definitely the kind of thing you wouldn’t mind your daughter watching. The DVD has some interesting extras that explain the whole “American Girl” doll phenomenon.

Topic: [/movie]

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Sat, Apr 14, 2007

: This Film Is Not Yet Rated

Interesting documentary about the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America), the organization put together by the big movie studios to rate films. The ratings system is not supposed to be censorship, but it effectly acts like it, by condeming certain films with ratings that mean the film won’t get widespread distribution. Worse, the process is a bizarre cloak-and-dagger affair, happening in back rooms in the dark with no public involvement, and where independent filmmakers are given different treatment than big studio films. There’s also damning evidence of tremendous inconsistency by the MPAA, where something is allowed in one film but disallowed in another. The part I found most enlightning was that filmmakers, who appealing a ruling of a rating, are not permitted to quote precedent! Knowing what’s been allowed in previous films is the only guide filmmakers have to permissible content, so if they make a film that has similar content to another, it should receive the same rating as the older film, right? But when that fails, they are not permitted to use the other film as evidence! Crazy.

Now I do understand some aspects of the MPAA’s perspective: rating a film is extremely difficult. Two different edits of a sex scene, for instance, can use the exact same footage but convey a completely different tone depending on how the scene is put together. With that it mind, how do you say that merely showing a particular body part or act is allowed or not allowed? Sometimes the implication of something is more powerful than the graphic depiction. But that said, the MPAA is totally a political organization. They are a lobbyist group and the ratings system was created to keep the government out of film’s business.

I agree with the director of this film who said in a Q&A on the DVD that the solution is to get rid of the ratings and just use language description instead. That’s totally the answer, though a couple categories — Under-13 and Under-17 — should be used as well. That way families know that films in those categories won’t have too much of anything bad (the descriptive list would be included so parents could see just what is in those films), but films for adults would just be that. I just wish the director had included a solution like this as part of the documentary. Instead the doc just bashes the MPAA but never offers an answer to the problem.

Topic: [/movie]

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Fri, Apr 13, 2007

: The Hoax

Disappointing story about a failed writer who comes up with a crazy scheme: he claims he’s been authorized to write recluse Howard Hughes’ biography and wants a million dollar advance. It’s not badly done, but it’s not enlightening either. There’s never an explanation of why the writer would do this: it seems unplanned, inept, and a really, really, really stupid idea, but we’re just supposed to go along with it that a writer could be that dumb. For example, a big part of the advance money is supposed to go to Howard Hughes and the writer’s stumped at how to cash a check not made out to himself! It’s a real-life story so maybe it’s accurate, I don’t know, but I found myself distracted by such stupidity throughout the entire movie. Oh, the film has some mildly interesting scenes when you’re wondering when the scam will be uncovered, but it wasn’t like I cared about these characters.

Topic: [/movie]

Link

: Perfect Strangers

This is a film that doesn’t seem to know what it is. Unfortunately that’s key to its nature: there’s a twist at the end that can’t be revealed early, so the viewer’s in the dark for most of the film. Halle Berry plays an undercover reporter trying to find evidence that a rich ad exec (Bruce Willis) killed her children friend. If they’d left it at that it could have been a could film, but instead they must get overly complicated and throw in some red herrings and a doozy of a twist that comes way out of left field and really ruins anything good the film originally had. Sigh. Don’t waste your time.

Topic: [/movie]

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Thu, Apr 12, 2007

: Ultraviolet

I’d heard this was horrible but I actually found it visually interesting. The plot’s waaay over done — any time you need to start a film with five minutes of narration to establish the situation is a warning sign for trouble — but the action is fun and the visual effects of the futuristic world are cool. Could have been made into a decent film with a little bit more effort, but it’s a mild diversion now.

Topic: [/movie]

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Sun, Apr 08, 2007

: Nanny McPhee

Surprisingly decent children’s film about a magical nanny who reforms a family of seven rambunctious children. A bit obvious at times, but has heart and the lessons the children learn and the way they are taught are creative and interesting. For instance, when the children pretend to be sick, Nanny McPhee doesn’t expose their plot — she merely uses her magic to pin them to their beds so they cannot get out of bed and are forced to spend the day in bed eating foul-tasting medicine and chicken broth. By the end of the day, of course, the children are more than ready to admit they aren’t sick!

Topic: [/movie]

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Sat, Apr 07, 2007

: Wolf Creek

Grim and depressing serial-killer thriller about a group of people stranded in the Australian desert who get help from a seemingly well-meaning creepy, who then tortures and kills them. Well done with some twists that make the simple plot seem more elaborate than it is. Great villain.

Topic: [/movie]

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Fri, Apr 06, 2007

: Idiocracy

Two modern-day idiots are frozen as part of an experiment and wake up 500 years in the future to find that humanity has disintegrated into reality TV-watching morons and the two are the smartest people on the planet. It’s actually amusing and surprisingly funny — but it’s not exactly high-brow humor. I liked the way the future is portrayed as being run by fast food companies — sounds about right. Mildly amusing.

Topic: [/movie]

Link

: Grindhouse

I’ve been eager for this for months. Just the idea of a Tarantino-Rodriguez double feature had me sold, and then the previews looked amazing. And guess what? You get exactly what’s promoted: two full-length features (about 90 minutes each), plus some fake movie trailers in between that are hilarious and practically worth the price of admission alone. The first feature is Rodriguez’ Planet Terror, which takes the zombie flick to a new level. Even for a zombie movie this has got an unbelievable amount of gore and blood. The premise is simple — a military bio-weapon has been released and except for a handful of survivors, everyone’s turning into zombies. Lots of eclectic characters, inventive and gruesome deaths, and pure B-movie adrenaline. Everything climaxes when Cherry, our heroine, who’s lost a leg at the knee, is outfitted with a machine gun for a leg — hilarious! It’s so over the top it’s brilliant. Wonderful. If you like the premise you’ll love the movie. If you don’t like the premise, you won’t. It’s as simple as that. Tarantino’s contribution (other than cameos in both films) is called Death Proof and stars Kurt Russell as a stuntman with a “death-proof” car. Unlike the non-stop Terror, this feature has less action with delicate character building that’s like the lull before the storm. When the action hits, it’s violent and loud and fitting. The story’s elegantly simple: Russell stalks beautiful women and kills him with his car, knowing that he’ll be the only one to survive the crash and no one can prove it wasn’t accidental. But then he picks on the wrong girls — and the tables are turned. This feature had some of the most realistic dialog I’ve ever seen in any movie. The four movie girls’ conversation was amazingly natural and flawlessly acted — it’s really amost too good for the supposed B-nature thrills of Grindhouse.

I liked both movies a lot. I was a bit worried about the cheapo “bad movie print” effects I’d heard, like grainy and scratchy film and missing reels, but there’s just enough of it to be interesting and add dimension without it actually interferring with the film or getting annoying. The only negatives I have is that Death-Proof is a little slow, especially after the frantic chaos of Terror — perhaps the order of the two films should have been reversed? By the third hour you’re really eager for mindless action. The only other negative is that the previews are so detailed that the films have few surprises. Oh, you get what you pay for and expect, which is good, but it felt a little bit like “Yeah, that’s what I expected.” In other words, there was nothing wrong with it but I felt just the tiniest bit of a letdown — probably because all the key set pieces are telegraphed in the trailers. Still, this movie is a blast. It’s very retro, and the sensationalism of the presentation is just brilliant. Two thumbs up.

Topic: [/movie]

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Thu, Apr 05, 2007

: The Reaping

Going in I figured this would either be really good or really, really bad. Given the sensational premise — the Old Testament plagues happening again — I figured there was no way it could be just mediocre. Well, the producers figured out a way. Oddly, though I wanted to totally hate this, I didn’t. Most likely that’s just the optimist in me seeing some potential. For instance, the main character’s a former ordained missionary who, after the loss of her family, has turned her back on God and is now a scientist who travels the world disproving miracles. Lots of potential there. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t really develop the idea, except during character setup and toward the end, when the woman has the expected “revelation.” I also liked some aspects of the conclusion — things are wrapped up to sort of make sense. But throughout the film things make so little sense that by the time the “mystery” is revealed you are long past caring. The real problem with the film is that, like so many pseudo religious films, it just makes up its own mythology, and like most invented mythology, it just sucks. It makes no sense and just feels fake. Real mythology is invented gradually, over a long period of time, and thus has a sense of truth at its core. In this case, after assaulting us with lectures on the Old Testaments ten plagues, the film suddenly pulls out some ridiculous “pre-Christ” prophecy (no source given, but hey, the priest’s got some medieval-looking books to read from). Even stupider, the “rational” scientist woman, who can’t explain away the plagues she’s investigating, suddenly accepts this prophecy as truth and is going to act on it. Crazy! Of course the film has more depths to plumb, so it goes further into idiocy by never really explaining the plagues. I mean, their source is revealed, but there’s little logic as to why plagues, in particular. Any other kind of supernatural phenomena would have worked just as well — except that wouldn’t have been a movie-selling gimmick. Okay, though it’s not the worst movie of all time, it’s pretty terrible and I wouldn’t recommend it to a lobotomized yak. But like I said, for some reason, I didn’t totally hate it. Very odd.

Topic: [/movie]

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: Champions Cup Semifinal: Houston Dynamo at Pachuca

What a terrific game! I missed the first leg of this series as the schedule was changed at last minute, so I didn’t get to see Houston win their home match 2-0. Unfortunately, this second leg was at high-altitude in Mexico in front of a packed stadium of soccer-crazy home fans. Houston are still in pre-season (the new MLS season starts on Saturday) and rusty, while Pachuca is in mid-season and firing on all cylinders. Houston got off to a bad start, surrendering a goal just 3.5 minutes in; but the replay showed he goal was offside and shouldn’t have counted. That encouraged Pachuca who attacked even more, and by fifteen in Pachua were up 2-0 after Craig Waibel tripped a player in the box and the ref called a penalty kick. But Houston started playing better after that, holding off Pachuca until the second half, when Houston began to play much better and actually put together some attacking runs. When Ching and DeRossario combined to get the ball to an open Brian Mullan, he didn’t disappoint, scoring to give Houston the aggregate lead. But it was too much to hope for, as shortly thereafter, the ref gave Pachuca another penalty, this time on a phantom foul (there was no contact). But Houston came right back with a terrific headed goal from Ching, and as the clock wound down it really looked like Houston might advance to the finals. The Pachuca fans were crushed, but their team was resillient, keeping up the tremendous pressure and scoring with just a few minutes left in the game. Now it was 4-4 on aggregat (combined score between the two games). That led to 30 minutes of overtime and an exhausted Houston could hardly walk, let alone run. But somehow they kept in going and DeRo had probably the best chance of the entire game with a point-black header that was miraculously saved one-handed by the diving Pachuca keeper. Then more controversy as the ref didn’t blow the whistle at the overtime half-way mark, but allowed Pachuca one more opportunity on goal. As the Houston players dropped off, the player took a wild shot from long range. Everyone — even the Mexicans, I think — expected one of those “row Z” shots that miss the goal by a mile. Instead the rocket curled right into the top corner not even giving Houston keeper Zach Wells a chance. Wow. Nice game winner. Unfortunately Houston couldn’t score in the second half, though they had a couple chances and nearly tied it on a Ching header. In the end, I can’t say either team didn’t deserve to advance. This was a game worthy of the final.

Topic: [/soccer]

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Wed, Apr 04, 2007

: Meet the Robinsons

Not bad. At times I was worried this was drifting into typical recent-Disney crap where the story’s just a loose excuse for lame jokes, but fortunately this came back around with a solid story at the heart. The story’s about an orphan boy who is into inventing. Since he’s too geeky to get adopted, he decides to invent a memory machine that will help him find his mother who abandonned him as a baby. Then we’ve got an over-the-top villain (complete with melodramatic black cape, pencil mustache, and yellow-toothed evil grin) who’s traveled back in time to sabotage the memory machine, and a young boy time traveler who takes the inventor to the future where he meets the boy’s wacky family. Some of the characters, like the toothless Grandpa, seem like excuses for those lame jokes I was talking about, but in the end the inventor boy has to learn a lesson, save the future, and find a family. Not quite up to Pixar standards, but better than recent Disney animations.

Topic: [/movie]

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: Dreaming in Code

Author: Scott Rosenberg

This is a book about a “failed” software venture. It reads like a novel, telling about how Mitch Kapor (Lotus 1-2-3 inventor) formed an open source foundation with the vague goal of creating the ultimate information manager, discovered that was a lot more difficult than it seemed, and three years later they’re barely out with a 0.5 release. It’s a fascinating read about the difficulties of software creation, looking throughout history and comparing software development to fields like architecture, art, and engineering. Unfortunately, though an interesting read, the book fails to provide any conclusions, and the dramatic story of Kapor’s company doesn’t end, it just peters out, since Rosenberg didn’t want to wait several more years until Kapor’s software is actually released. A bit disappointing in that respect, but as long as you aren’t expecting a resolution to the story, it’s a wonderful intellectual read that will have you asking a lot of questions about how we develop software.

Topic: [/book]

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Tue, Apr 03, 2007

: The Science of Sleep

Normally I like this sort of weird stuff and I’d wanted to see this before it vanished from theatres, but for some reason I just couldn’t get into this at all. Utter disinterest. I’m not even sure what it was about. Something about a young Mexican artist moving to Paris after his father died, him struggling with a relationship with a woman, mixed in with lots of bizarre animation and weirdness and periodic television broadcasts from the dream center of his head. It’s got some interesting visuals — some of the funky hand-made animation is cool (like stop-motion cellophane used for flowing water) and I liked the multi-language approach, the way the film would randomly switch between English and French and Spanish — but everything’s so disjointed and illogical, like a dream, that the film cannot hold interest. It’s just like hearing someone else tell you, in vague terms, about their dream. Who cares?

Topic: [/movie]

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Mon, Apr 02, 2007

: Fast Food Nation

I didn’t know much about this except it was based on the non-fiction best-seller. I thought it might be a little like Super Size Me with some drama thrown in. It turned out the whole film is fiction, with overlapping tales of various characters involved in the fast food industry. We meet a corporate executive who’s trying to find the truth about the meat his restaurants serve. We follow several Mexicans as they cross the border and get jobs at the dangerous meat packing plant. There’s a girl working at the fast food place who gets involved with environmentalists protesting the company’s practices. It’s an interesting ride, and much of it is very well done. I liked the way many controversial topics were brought up in the course of the film without making it seem like preaching or point-raising. Most of the time it felt natural and just part of the stories. Unfortunately, there isn’t much balance in the film. There are occasional comments from characters who are pro-fast food, but the film portrays them as crazy nuts or paid whores of the industry. But mostly the film is simply depressing: it’s just scene after scene of horror. For instance, the sympathetic Mexican worker is injured on the job and the corporate bosses claim his blood tested positive for drugs so they won’t pay medical claims, his wife has to prostitute herself to the Mexican manager to get a better-paying job at the plant, etc. There’s just no hope shown, not an inkling of light anywhere, and that not only makes it a frustrating movie to watch, it makes the film’s points seem more like propaganda. Our minds basically just go, “It can’t really be this bad!” It could very well be that bad or worse — I have no idea. But by presenting only one radical perspective, the film invites doubt. In the end, while I found the story entertaining and a few of the points important, I didn’t appreciate the film’s overt political nature.

Topic: [/movie]

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Sun, Apr 01, 2007

: The Quiet

I wanted to like this: it’s directed and photographed with flare and it’s got some powerful, dramatic material to work with, but in the end it’s a little clumsily handled. The story is about a girl named Dot who’s deaf and doesn’t speak either. Her mother died when she was seven and her father just passed away, so she’s moved in with relatives. Her new “sister” (her cousin) is a popular cheerleader and is unusually cruel to the deaf girl. It was these scenes that bothered me the most: they just felt off, false, almost surreally exaggerated. Yes kids can be mean, but this was meanness of a baser kind, picking on a girl with a disability for no reason other than cruelty.

For instance, in one scene the cruel sister, Nina, encounters Dot in the bathroom. They are alone. Nina’s putting on makeup and she tells Dot that she ought to use some makeup to make her prettier. She then says some sweet things that seem genuine: stuff about how she was sorry they hadn’t kept in touch since they were kids, etc. What she says as real depth and insight, quite shocking come from the airhead cheerleader. We start to wonder if maybe Nina isn’t as bad as we thought. She puts some lipstick on Dot and leaves. Then Dot looks in the mirror and we see her whole mouth is covered in red lipstick like a clown in a nightmare. The reason that scene didn’t work for me is that if Nina was smart enough to come up with such insightful thoughts, she could not have been so cruel with her lipstick joke. The two actions contradicted each other and could not come from the same person. If Nina had been less insightful and more cloyingly fake, the scene would have worked. But the writers made her seem too genuine — more genuine than she could possibly be even for pretend.

The story continues as secrets are revealed: Dot discovers that Nina’s perfect life isn’t so perfect. She’s hiding a terrible secret: her father has been having sex with her. This part of the film I thought was extremely well done. Nina’s reactions here were flawless. She’s torn between loving her father and hating him. She seeks out his approval with a desperation that’s pathetic to see, yet she’s filled with rage and frustration at her lack of power in their relationship. The father is horrifying and disgusting yet we understand him: we watch his manipulation of his daughter with a sick dread. All of the characters have secrets: Nina’s mother, Nina’s best friend, Dot, and Dot’s new boyfriend. Interestingly, they all find an outlet with Dot. She can’t hear so they talk to her, confess their secrets, and she doesn’t say anything. She’s like the ultimate priest.

Everything culminates in the planned murder of Nina’s father, and the ending worked. Unfortunately, the film as a whole strikes a few wrong chords that make it feel awkward. Much is extremely well done, but there are occasional scenes that don’t work or leave a bad taste. Some just seem out of place, like the pig dissection scene in biology class. These are minor but they add up, and in the end you aren’t sure if the drama is artificial or real. If the whole film had been done right, with a realistic feel, this could have been a powerful film. As it is it has power, but the power is muted, and it just doesn’t quite work. It’s an interesting piece, fascinating in many ways, but as a whole it misses the mark. That’s unfortunate because it had great potential.

Topic: [/movie]

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Fri, Mar 30, 2007

: Blades of Glory

This really surprised me. I expected silliness along the lines of Will Ferrell’s Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby but not as good, but I actually liked this one better! It’s funnier, more absurd, and less crass. The pace is snappier, the humor both more biting and more subtle, as well as being on target (most of the humor is ice skating related, whereas in Talladega very little was racing related). I loved the cameos by famous ice skaters and the hilarious skating commentary during the competitions. Of course this isn’t earth-changing filmography here, but it is rather fun and totally entertaining.

Topic: [/movie]

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: The Lookout

I knew little of this but it was getting good reviews and it turned out to be more dramatic than I expected. It’s the story of a high school kid who’s in a bad car accident and suffers brain damage that makes him dysfunctional. He has trouble “sequencing,” that is, getting the order of things right. So he might put on his shoes first and then try to put on his socks, etc. This makes it hard to hold a job. He works as a night janitor at a bank and hopes to be a teller someday, but struggles with the money counting. He’s befriended by a guy at a bar who claims he used to know the kid when he was a high school hockey star, but soon we realize that he’s just using the kid to help him rob the bank. The climax is pretty good: we aren’t sure how the kid’s going to worm his way out of all the trouble he’s gotten himself into, but the resolution works. There’s a lot of neat stuff in the film: the kid’s roommate, a blind guy played by Jeff Daniels, is a brilliant character, full of insight; the pacing of the film is excellent, with a good balance of drama, humor, and thought-provoking; it’s well-directed, too, though there are occasions where it tries too hard and almost resorts to melodrama. I also liked the way the kid changes and grows throughout the film. Overall, an excellent, thinking film. It ultimately is a little lighter weight than it should be, perhaps because of the action-oriented ending, but the majority of the film is character-based, with interesting people and terrific performances.

Topic: [/movie]

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Tue, Mar 27, 2007

: Zodiac

Director: David Fincher

This is an extremely well done film: good direction, acting, writing, etc. The topic is also stirring: a mysterious killer haunts the Bay Area in the late sixties and throughout the 1970s, sending cryptic coded messages to the SF Chronicle. Unfortunately, real life tends to interfere with a good story: the film never ends because the mystery’s never been solved. The film does a great job creating atmosphere and helping us to understand the chaos and bureaucracy that made catching the killer so difficult, but in the end I was left with a sort of “Why did I just sit through three hours of that?” Yes, that’s right — the film is nearly three hours long. It actually didn’t feel that long during it as I was fascinated, but the lackluster ending — basically everyone in the story gets old and eventually dies and the mystery’s never solved — really made it disappointing. I was waiting for a payoff I never received. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad film, just that I think it could have been better shorter and tighter. As it is it just keeps and building and building and then… nothing. That’s a bit frustrating, especially when everything else about the film is so good. It’s not really the filmmaker’s fault — it’s a real life story and that’s what happened — but the film could have been done differently to make the ending less of a letdown. For instance, the film ends with several screens of text description of what happened to the various characters. Some of that would have been better dramatized, showing a scene of what happened. That would have been more satisfying than just reading about it.

Topic: [/movie]

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: The Long Good Friday

Good British gangster film. I’m not normally a big fan of the genre, but this one is good: the plot’s simple enough I could follow it. It’s basically the story of a ganster on Good Friday when his men start dying right and left, bombs going off, etc. Someone is trying to kill him and he has no idea who, so he sets out to find out and exact his rather grim justice. The ganster is played by the fabulous Bob Hoskins who is truly at his remarkable best in this film. The final scene of the film is a long closeup of Bob’s face as he goes through a series of expressions. It’s just amazing. You can practically see the cogs and wheels in his head turning as he’s trying to come to terms with the situation and various emotions flitter across his face like images on a TV screen. Just incredible. Worth watching just for his performance.

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Mon, Mar 26, 2007

: The Last Mimzy

Not bad at all. A bit convoluted and odd, and the mystery lasts a bit longer than it should, and though the resolution makes sense, it’s a bit mundane. It’s hard to reveal much without spoiling things, but the story’s about a brother and sister who find some “toys” on a beach and these toys basically give them superpowers. The boy’s suddenly smarter, the girl can float, etc. There’s a lot of odd things happening and the viewer has no idea what’s going on, but apparently the toys are there for a reason: the children need to use them to save the earth. Of course all the adults have no idea what’s going on and don’t believe the kids anyway, so it’s all up to the children. While the film does a great job setting atmosphere with mere odd sounds and strange lights and such, it leaves things a bit murky for the audience: it’s sometimes difficult to tell exactly what’s happening. For instance, at times I wasn’t sure if the sounds were sounds the characters were hearing or merely a spooky soundtrack for the film. But overall the film’s really good. Kids would definitely enjoy it (there were a lot at the theatre were I went and they seemed entertained) but adults will find it enjoyable as well (fortunately, the adult characters in the film are not idiots, but realistically draw parents and teachers).

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: Summer of the Monkeys

Author: Wilson Rawls (novel)

Terrific film! My favorite book of all time is Rawls’ Where the Red Fern Grows and the movie version was horribly butchered — it changed the ending which is the book’s title and entire premise — so I was nervous about this one. Fortunately, it’s remarkably faithful to the source material, acted with charm and dignity, and is just a beautiful movie about a boy becoming a man one summer. Wonderful, suitable for the whole family. I actually liked it better than the book!

Topic: [/movie]

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Fri, Mar 23, 2007

: Shooter

A bit silly and convoluted with a rather obvious approach to politically correct conspiracy theory 101, this is the story of a former sniper recruited by a shadowy government organization supposedly to help stop a presidential assasination, but then it turns out it’s all a setup and the sniper is the fall guy for the assasination. From that point it’s just a mild action-adventure film with a few nice set pieces and a predictable, so-so ending. Entertaining, but not much beyond that.

Topic: [/movie]

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Wed, Mar 21, 2007

: Casonova

This was apparently meant to be a farce about the famous lover. It doesn’t take itself very seriously and is basically in line with Shakespearean identity comedy. Unfortunately, it falls flat and doesn’t quite succeed as a love story or a comedy. There are some good moments, and it has its charm — it certainly was not as bad as I expected from the previews — and the cinematography and recreation of ancient Venice is stunning. But the plot was too convoluted to be taken seriously, and though that was intentional, it still demeaned the whole project as a nothing but a broad joke. It’s fun, but frivolous.

Topic: [/movie]

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Mon, Mar 19, 2007

: Carol leaves for Togo

This morning I took my mom to the airport. She’s flying to Togo, West Africa, for three months. She’ll be staying with a missionary friend and helping her. It’s been a ton of work getting everything she needed: passport and visa, innoculations, medicines for three months, setting up automatic bill paying for during her absense, packing, etc. She’s been working very hard. But today was culmination and she’s off. She hasn’t traveled internationally for years, and with her recent health issues, wasn’t sure if she’d be able to do so, but a short-term mission trip like this seemed an ideal way to try it.

Topic: [/event]

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Sun, Mar 18, 2007

: Because of Winn-Dixie

I guess the Winn-Dixie grocery story chain is an East coast phenomena, because I’d never heard of it and thus the title and premise of this film turned me off. The story sounded generically sachrine — a girl finds a stray dog at the local Winn-Dixie and he changes her life. Big deal, another dog film. The critics raved, but I wasn’t too excited. But it turns out to be not only a charming family film, but has some surprising depth and reality to it. The dog isn’t magical or anything. In fact, he has minimal personality and a lot of negatives (chews things up, barks and howls all the time, is terrified of thunderstorms). He’s like a real mutt. But the ten-year-old girl, of course, falls in love with him. Her mother left her and she’s alone in the world. Her dad’s kind but distant, and as he’s a preacher they move frequently, and she has no friends. But the dog opens the door to friends as he helps her meet all sorts of people throughout the tiny town and eventually, everyone is won over by the bubbly little girl and her mangy dog. The film isn’t as dark or tragic as others (like the fabulous Bridge to Terabithia, which stars the same amazing young actress) and it occasionally drifts into slapstick territory, but it has its serious moments. Overall it was much better than I expected. It’s not the best film ever made, but it’s fun, interesting, gets an excellent performance from the little girl (she’s going to be a huge star), and has heart without overdoing the schmaltz.

Topic: [/movie]

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Sat, Mar 17, 2007

: Strangers with Candy

Pretty funny parody-style movie. The humor’s a little odd and takes some getting used to — it’s not laugh-out-loud comedy, but more word and absurd situation comedy. The premise is a (rather moronic) middle-aged woman returns home after a failed life culminating with a stint in prison and finds her father’s remarried and is now in a coma. She decides to “restart” her life by going back to high school and getting the diploma she never got. This sets up all sorts of bizarre situations where the older woman mixes with teens and tries to pretend to be one. There is a rough plot — winning a science fair to be “special” to her father will come out of her coma — but mostly the story’s just an excuse for silliness. Some fun cameos and casting, and overall the film’s entertaining. Not brilliant, but I can see where this would get a cult following.

Topic: [/movie]

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Fri, Mar 16, 2007

: Premonition

The key problem with this film is that the setup — a woman alternately waking to find her husband dead and later alive and later dead again, leading her to realize that somehow she’s getting a glimpse of the future and he’s not really dead yet — takes way too much time to establish and the film has little to happen in the meantime. The filmmakers therefore added in red herrings which just confuse an already confusing mess. In the end things do make sense, but the journey takes too long. Too much of the film is bewildering, leaving the audience frustrated. Sometimes such a story can work, if the main character is just as confused as we are and is searching for answers too, but only in the hands of a masterful director, which is decidely not the case here. The film feels slipshod to the point of embarrassment. In several scenes the director resorts to cheap techniques such as handheld cameras to indictate tension, with the result being audience nausea from the awkward movement and a complete breakdown of the story (like the coffin scene, which was so ineptly handled it was difficult to figure out what was going on). This is all unfortunate, because the story had some potential. I liked the resolution, and some aspects of the characters was good. But it was poorly written and directed. For example (and I’ll spoil a few minor plot details here), in the opening scene we see the loving couple buying their first home. Then we see them with their children and realize that years have passed. But then they act odd: the woman’s reaction to hearing her husband’s dead is under-dramatic, and later, when her husband is alive again, she does not rush to embrace him, but simply stares at him in bewilderment. He leaves for work without any affection toward his wife: no kiss, no good-bye, not even a wave. This seems very odd. Of course the film by this point is deep into the whole “premonition” plot thing, and so we’re wondering if this behavior has something to do with that. No, it turns out their relationship is on the rocks and has been for some time. Once we understand that, of course, their behavior fits perfectly. It’s well-done, actually. The problem is that because we don’t know that in advance, those scenes feel off and don’t work for us. The film has several instances of this problem by nature of the gimmicky plot, which gradually reveals information from the future and the past. The producers obviously thought this revealing of new information would be shocking or interesting or dramatic, but because it’s all arriving out of context, it’s not: it’s just confusing or lame. A better director would have realized this and compensated by giving us subtle clues and signals. For instance, just add in an earlier scene that shows the tension between the couple — then the death announcement scene and her subdued reaction makes sense. Instead, we see it and are wondering all sorts of theories, connecting her reaction with the plot, which it’s not. It’s merely the director holding back information from us. Pretty lame and inept.

There are other problems, too. The whole “premonition” thing does not fit the definition of premonition. Instead, this is more like Groundhog Day, where every time the woman goes to bed, the next day is either the future or the present. In the future world her husband has already died. In the present, he’s still alive, but she knows he’ll die soon. Traditionally premonition is a vague feeling that something bad is going to happen, but in this film, it’s more like a vivid dream or alternate reality. That is confusing to the audience and should have been explained or foreshadowed.

The bottom line is that despite a handful of good scenes and a potentially good concept, the movie’s so incompetently written and directed that anything good is washed away to nothing. Sad.

Topic: [/movie]

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Thu, Mar 15, 2007

: The House of Mirth

Author: Edith Wharton

This is an incredible book. I think it will change my writing forever. Wharton has a blunt, clear style encased in poetic metaphors that is a joy to hear (I listened to the audiobook). Every line is full of insightful truths and perceptions. The pace of the story is glacier; a two minute conversation might be spread over dozens of pages as Wharton delves into important backstory of the characters, detailing each’s perceptions of the conversation, so that we are fully aware of the dramatic import each line provides. It’s an amazing way of writing and it’s a kind of writing I would like to do; I feel it’s a style near my own (I tend to be extremely detailed).

The story of the novel is about the clash between money and morals in the early 1900s. It is set in the extremely wealthy New York aristocracy, with a beautiful young lady, Lilly Bart, struggling to find her way. Her whole life she’s been trained to be an ornament, a pretty thing destined to be the trophy wife of a wealthy man, yet that conflicts with something deep inside her which she cannot name. Her suitors are many, yet she is reluctant to marry. Her parents are dead and she’s got expensive tastes and no money; she lives off rich friends, traveling on their yahts to Europe, going to fancy balls and operas and restaurants, and racking up debt to dressmakers for expensive gowns she cannot afford. She is a tragic figure, beautifully lonely, yet her prison is of her own making, for she is too self-centered and naive to see her way out. Wharton paints an amazing picture of old New York society. We get to see, in precise detail, what makes such people click, and how words don’t mean what they seem on the surface. The morals of the day are complex. Sexual standards for a young girl, of course, are strict, and Lilly finds herself in the middle of complicated circumstances. She’s faced with difficult problems: she’s inadvertantly offended wealthy friends who make life hard for her, she’s spurning suitors who could help her, and she’s got deep financial worries. But worse is that there are so many solutions to Lilly’s problems: Should she marry a man she dislikes just for his money? Should she use secret information she has to blackmail a former friend who is hurting her? Should she marry a man she loves though he is not wealthy? These are a few of the moral quandries Lilly struggles with. The story is beautiful, complex, tragic, and amazingly believable. Wharton is witty and wonderful, and this novel is one of the best I’ve ever read (heard). Highly recommended.

Topic: [/book]

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: Black Snake Moan

Author: Craig Brewer

Director: Craig Brewer

Wow, this is a really wild film. I’m still digesting it. There are just so many ways to interpret this. On the surface it’s a lurid gimmick: the story’s about a white trash slut who winds up at a religious black farmer’s house where he chains her up to keep her from running away and intends to “tame the wildness out of her.” The promos are graphic images of a nearly naked tiny white girl with a thirty foot long iron chain around her waist and a giant black man leering over her. But the film’s not exploitative at all. Instead it’s a serious study of relationships, religion, race, meaning and purpose, forgiveness, God, sin, life, sex. The cast is phenomenal: Christina Ricci is utterly convincing in her role, somehow both stunningly beautiful yet filthy and slutty and yet adorably appealing. It’s truly an amazing performance that I hope gets recognized, though I doubt that it will, considering the controversial nature and seemingly demeaning nature of the role. Samuel Jackson is also incredible as a flawed but genuine man, a simple farmer (and former bar singer), smoothly switching between furious vengeance and tenderness. It’s tough to come across as both gentle and violent, yet he does it convincingly. The supporting cast is also terrific, with a surprisingly good job by singer Justin Timberlake as Ricci’s troubled boyfriend.

This is not a pleasant film. It’s violent, blatantly sexual, and occasionally shocking, especially as the film’s tone morphs throughout. I was struck by the film’s verisimilitude: the actors and storyline are utterly convincing and that’s what makes the film work so well. For instance, one is shocked by Ricci’s overly sexual character as it seems excessive — we aren’t just shown a token scene of her slutty lifestyle, but scene after scene after scene. The shock and horror and disgust just builds and suddenly most films, which do try to establish radical character with a single scene, seem inadequate and unrealistic, and that makes this film feels intensely genuine, which exacerbates our horror.

In the hands of a less capable filmmaker this easily could have been turned into B-movie dreck; instead, this is an edgy film that takes huge risks and the payoffs are massive, with tremendous emotion and profundity revealed. I just loved the way the movie kept evolving, never quite going where you thought it would. It reminded me a lot of Crash in that respect. Except in Crash is was a key gimmick, done with manipulative editing; here it’s just part of the presentation and represents genuine aspects of the characters. For instance, in a pivotal scene, the town preacher stops by the black man’s home. Our minds immediately go to what’s going to happen if the girl reveals herself chained to the radiator. The scene culminates in the girl and preacher having one of the best conversations about God and forgiveness I have ever witnessed. It’s just amazing and brings tears to my eyes even now, the next day. That scene is the heart of the film but it doesn’t telegraph itself: there is no musical cue or grand widescreen shot announcing “big scene coming up.” It just happens, out of the blue, which is so much like real life. The scene is a perfect encapsulation of the film: it’s a heady mixture of surreal and real, an oxymoron brought to life. On the one hand you’ve got a half-naked girl, the town slut, chained to a radiator. On the other you’ve got a black preacher man, friendly and genuine, not particularly educated, but tremendously wise. The two sit at the kitchen table and talk as though this is normal. The girl’s bitter and angry, rebellious, curses constantly, and distains religion. The two seem like polar opposites, yet somehow they connect in a way that’s natural and believable. We see a vulnerable side to the girl, worldly understanding from the preacher. Each are true to their nature, yet each are deeper than we realized. The whole film’s like that, with several scenes that repeat such contradictory tones.

This is truly a breakthrough film, unlike anything you’ve seen. It’s harsh, it’s real, it’s tender, it’s emotional. It’s not flawless, but it’s damned impressive. Considering he had to handle such tricky material, the direction and writing of Craig Brewer is amazing. All that said, this is a difficult film to recommend. It’s violent and sexual, and not everyone is able to handle such material. If you can, however, I recommend you try. The payoff is worth it. Unfortunately, the film underrated and hard to find, which is a shame. This is a gem of a film. Ignore the lurid posters and trailer; this is a film of startling depth.

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: Ice Age 2: The Meltdown

I was disappointed by this sequel. It had a handful of good moments, but seems desperately stretched for material, and the 90 minute length felt like more than two hours. This time the ice age is melting and the characters from the first film have to figure out how to adapt and get along. The voice work is very good, there are some great new characters (such as the hilarious vulture), and the old ones are fairly reliable, but in the end, you sort of go, “Why bother?”

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Wed, Mar 14, 2007

: She’s the Man

While the idea of turning Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” into a modern story about a girl soccer player who pretends to be a boy to get on the boy’s soccer team isn’t terrible, this dreadfully unfunny and cheesily over-acted dreck just makes a mockery out of everything: love and relationships, soccer, life, reality. It has some neat ideas and a decent cast (though the lead can’t even kick a soccer ball convincingly) but everything is so ham-handled the result would bore 9-year-olds.

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: The Ant Bully

I heard horrible things about this animated movie when it came out and stayed away. It seemed too predictable: a picked-on wimp takes out his vengeance on an ant colony (the bullied becomes bully) and the ant colony retaliates by shrinking him to their size and forcing him to live like they do, whereby he learns life-changing lessons. While the film takes too many shortcuts for cheap humor (like butt jokes) and the story is lightweight, there’s enough interesting characters (I loved the glow worm and beetle) and unusual things going on and the heart of the story actually is pretty good, and in the end, I decided I liked the film. Not bad.

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Mon, Mar 12, 2007

: Sketches of Frank Gehry

Director: Sydney Pollack

Wow, this is what a documentary is supposed to be like! Pollack’s a personal friend of architect Gehry and we get amazing insight into what makes the man tick. My favorite parts were the scenes when we watch Gehry working on architectural models, playing with paper shapes and adjusting things to some unknown inner censor that tells him if it works or doesn’t. To see a sketch turn into a model and then come to life as a building is awe-inspiring. Gehry’s sketches are startling vague line scribbles that look nothing like a building… until you compare the sketch to the three-dimensional building and somehow it matches. Really weird! But what really makes this a great documentary is that there’s impressive perception in interviews with other architects, artists, and Gehry fans. This isn’t a puff piece or mere video recording of history, but an analysis of the creative spirit. We learn a lot about Frank Gehry, but also a lot about ourselves. Terrific film. Highly recommended.

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Sun, Mar 11, 2007

: Mr. Monk Goes to Hawaii

Author: Lee Goldberg

Another good Monk book. This one is okay. We don’t get to see enough mystery solving as it takes the whole book to solve the two main crimes. While spending time with Monk is interesting, it’s also tedious, as he is predictably neurotic (and compulsive). Fortunately, it reads quickly. In this story, Monk’s assistant Natalie goes to Hawaii for a wedding and Monk tags along (you’ll have to read it to find out the how and why). While there Monk causes amusing chaos with the hotel staff and solves the murder of a hotel guest. The most important thing in a mystery is the resolution and at least this one has a good payoff, but the build-up is a little long for me.

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: Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine

I wanted to like this as the “chess master loses to computer” topic fascinates, but it’s one of the worst documentary’s I’ve ever seen. Things go bad from the opening, when the narrator speaks in a horrible harsh whisper that’s so faint I had to pump up the volume to hear him and even then a lot of what he said was inaudible (and oh, the film has no subtitles or closed caption support). It just gets worse from there. Throughout the film time is confused: we aren’t sure if the scenes are history or current. Some of the recent footage is dreary: scenes of Kasparov standing in a hotel room where the big match took place years earlier and remembering mundane details like “There was a table over there.” are just pointless and boring. There is some good chess info, and interviews of the IBM programming team edge on perceptive, but unfortunately Kasparov himself, despite being heavily featured throughout, remains an enigma. Apparently he beat himself in the big loss (the machine didn’t win, Kasparov lost), but the why is never revealed though that’s the core question of the film. Very strange. I came away not knowing much more than I started with, which is not a good sign for a documentary. And there are lots of irrelevant stylistic techniques the film employs to gratuitous effect, such as the overly dramatic shots of the “Turk” (a famous manniquin chess-playing machine from centuries ago), which are confusing and never enlightening. The bottom line: the film’s a muddle. You’d do better to read a good article on the topic.

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Sat, Mar 10, 2007

: Little Miss Sunshine

This was actually better than I expected, but my expectations weren’t that high. It’s a decent movie, enjoyably harmless, about a dysfunctional family going a disasterous road trip. It’s somewhat predictable and the payoff at the ending isn’t quite worth the wait, but it is fun, and there are some excellent moments. Pretty good.

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: RV

Director: Barry Sonnenfeld

The promos for this film made it seem like just another comedy about idiots: idiotic dad shows up with a giant RV to take the family on a trip where everything goes wrong. But while there’s an annoying touch of that in a scene or two, the film is actually pretty tame overall, and it has a good-though-predictable storyline: dad has to work instead of taking the family to Hawaii so he rents an RV and drives to Colorado for his critical meeting, not telling them what he’s really doing. I actually really liked the movie: it’s harmless fun, has some wacky characters, and a bit of heart. Once again promotion distorts a good film.

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Fri, Mar 09, 2007

: 300

Author: Frank Miller (graphic novel)

Terrific! I have not read the graphic novel and the promos intrigued me a little but not that much as it seemed like just a film about a battle. Then I watched a TV show about the author and the project and found out the story is based on a real historical battle in ancient Greece, where 300 Spartans fought an army of a million. The story sounded a bit dreary to me — after all, I knew the Spartans died, though it seemed obvious they won in the long run. But the film, it turns out, is much more complicated than such a simple telling. There are fascinating political reasons of why a mere 300 Spartans tried to fight off the army of a million, and a big part of the story is the king’s wife, who faces a moral dilemma as she tries to save the life of her husband. The story’s got everything: action, a flashy visual style, intense emotion, betrayal, horror, and a touch of the fantastic (the Spartans are practically superhuman fighting machines and some of their enemies are nearly demonic). So though I only expected a good movie I got a great one. Highly recommended.

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Thu, Mar 08, 2007

: The Covenant

This is a movie about teenage male witches and though it got dreadful reviews, it wasn’t that bad. Granted, the plot’s idiotic and the climatic “battle” between two witches is just lame, but I found the premise intriguing. Rich New England teens, with the world at their feet, also have superpowers? Isn’t that the ultimate guy’s fantasy? The film also had a few striking visuals — unfortunately these are wasted early on and the film has nothing left for the climax. Certainly not recommended, but one of those Hollywood movies that irritates me due to its waste of a good idea.

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Tue, Mar 06, 2007

: Amazing Grace

I knew little about this going in; I thought it was about John Newton, the man who wrote the hymn Amazing Grace. Instead it turned to be the story of Wilbur Wilberforce, a contemporary of Newton, who struggles for years trying to get the British Parliment to abolish the slave trade. Very well done, with authentic performances and surprisingly clear and interesting political debates, but a bit slow at times, and in the end a bit too predictable for the length.

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: The Astronaut Farmer

This was surprisingly good. I didn’t know what to expect as the trailer didn’t explain if this was a comedy or serious drama. It’s about a farmer in Texas who builds his own rocket and plans to shoot himself into orbit. It turned out to be a serious story, with the guy completely legitimate (a former Air Force pilot, he dropped out of NASA and gave up his space dreams when his family needed him at home). A big part of the story — my favorite part — is his relationship with his loyal wife, who puts up with ridicule from people who think her husband’s a nut and endures financial hardship and the potential of losing her husband if his rocket were to explode or crash. It’s realistically done with wonderful husband-wife dialog and dynamic: even when fighting you can tell the two love each other. Unfortunately, the story’s a bit predictable — like any story of this nature, there are only so many ways it can end — and that gives it a more lightweight feel than it deserves. But overall I liked it quite a bit. It’s an excellent family film about good old-fashioned values and the value of hard work.

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Mon, Mar 05, 2007

: Wild Hogs

The best thing about this film is that you get exactly what the trailer tells you to expect: four guys having a middle-age crisis go on a motorcycle road trip. Preposterous, predictable at times, occasionally dumb, occasionally hilarious, with fun casting choices, it’s just a decent, feel-good comedy, completely harmless. There are a few crude scenes I found oddly out-of-place, and the ending’s too pat, but overall it’s just fun.

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: Scoop

Director: Woody Allen

I liked this. It’s typical Woody, with fast-paced humorous dialog, fantastic elements, and a moderately clever plot. In this case we’ve got a young girl journalist played by the stunning Scarlet Johanson who’s recruited by a recently deceased famous journalist who has a scoop for her: a certain millionaire playboy is the famous Tarot Card Killer. The only problem is the journalist has no proof, so the girl will have to find that. In trying to get close to the man she falls in love with him and then isn’t sure if her suspicions that he’s a serial killer are her imagination or reality. The girl’s partner in this adventure is Woody Allen playing a talky stage magician, who’s hilarious. Overall it’s a lightweight story, but there are some classic Allen lines. My favorite is when the girl’s debating over her boyfriend’s guilt and Allen says in classic deadpan style something like, “Your parents will have a problem with having a serial killer in the family?” Fun stuff.

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Sun, Mar 04, 2007

: Barnyard

I read something about this before it came out and it had me mildly intrigued, but I missed it in the theatres. Now I’m glad I did. This was horrible. We’re talking barnyard manure pile horrible. It’s just a bizarre mess of talking animals and weird humans, with male cows having udders (huh?), jokes that fall flatter than featherless chickens (A cow surfing off a mountain cliff?), and a touchy-feely obvious plot about a young bull learning to become an adult and take responsibility. An incomprehensible mess. I got distracted doing other things and realized I’d missed a portion of the film and I didn’t even care.

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Sat, Mar 03, 2007

: Wordplay

This is a documentary on crossword puzzles and I wanted to see this as I hoped it would explain crosswords to me. I’ve never understood crosswords and it annoys me terribly. I’m a very analytical person and crosswords just baffle me. The clues have no rhyme or reason behind them and I find them utterly frustrating (to me they often cheat, being purposely obscure to the point of unfairness). Unfortunately, this film did not help me there. No mysteries were explained. Crosswords are still just as opaque to me. However, I still found the documentary rivoting — the interviews were mostly interesting and I found the competition exciting — but my favorite was the guy who explained how he creates crosswords, as he proceeded to write one just for the film, and the insights gained into his process were fascinating. But in the end my bafflement wins out. What the heck’s the deal with crosswords? Why do people like them? How do they solve them? No answers.

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Fri, Mar 02, 2007

: The Queen

Despite the terrific reviews I wasn’t that interested in this; who wants to watch a 90-year-old queen for two hours? But it turns out the story is a fascinating look at Britain after Princess Diana’s death, and is much more about the politics and purpose of the monarchy and the Queen’s role. At the time Britain had just elected a new prime minister, Tony Blair, who was a young kid, essentially, and he’s really at the core of the film, the buffer between the people and the Queen. Really interesting and excellently done.

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Thu, Mar 01, 2007

: Hoot

I dreaded the left-wing agenda the movie seemed to have, but it actually was rather low-key as the whole “save the owls” thing wasn’t that big a deal. Actually it was a decent film. Definitely aimed a kids — the film doesn’t even try to be intelligent for adults — and I found the Tarzan boy to be a bizarre inclusion and not believable. But this is a kid’s film and in that regard it works and is harmless.

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Wed, Feb 28, 2007

: The 40-Year-Old Virgin

I missed this in theatres (can’t imagine why), but was curious about it when it was a huge hit. I expected silly dreck and I did get some of that, with a lot (a lot) of pointless bad language and crude jokes, but to my surprise the gimmicky premise is treated seriously as the main character finds romance later in life but is afraid to reveal his secret. I liked that aspect of the story; I could have done without a lot of the crude humor that served no purpose (like the one character who swore constantly).

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Sat, Feb 24, 2007

: The Interpreter

Nicole Kidman plays a U.N. interpreter who accidentally overhears a plot, in an African tongue she understands, to kill a controversial African leader, and then becomes a target herself. Nicely done by her and I was really impressed by Sean Penn as the Secret Service agent assigned to investigate/protect her. Things get a bit convoluted and probably go on too long, but it wraps up nicely and is a decent conclusion. Pretty good, overall. I liked it.

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Fri, Feb 23, 2007

: The Number 23

This film wants to be more clever and bizarre than it actually is. It’s not really bad, but it’s not great either. The story’s about a guy who becomes obsessed with the number 23 and thinks he’s going to kill his wife like a character in a novel he’s reading. The most interesting aspect is the whole obsession aspect, and the question of whether you notice coincidental connections because they are really there or because you are looking for them. Unfortunately, the film gets overly convoluted toward the end, with several false endings (it reminded me of The Black Dahlia in that regard). Though the final explanation is fine, with all the red herrings it doesn’t feel concrete. In the end, disappointing.

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: Reno 911: Miami

I was going to a different movie but traffic slowed and I missed it, so I went to this one, which looked mildly interesting. As I feared, it had more crudity than I appreciate, but it also had some really funny bits. I’ve never watched the comedy series on TV so I didn’t know what to expect; it’s basically incompetent cops doing really stupid stuff. The plot’s thinner than a Miami bikini, but that’s part of the joke. Overall, not as bad as I expected with a few hilarious scenes.

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Thu, Feb 22, 2007

: Cursed

Director: Wes Craven

This is apparently supposed to be a fun spoof of werewolf films but it’s just flat and terrible. Not a single joke works and the horror stuff is just weird — too realistic for comedy and too corny for horror. There are a handful of mildly interesting moments, but mostly this is just dreary.

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Wed, Feb 21, 2007

: Breach

This is a good movie, but it’s so by-the-numbers it ends with a whimper and felt flat. It’s the fascinating story of an American CIA agent who is really a double selling secrets to foreigners. A young kid is brought in to pretend to be the guy’s new assistant, but really he’s assigned to spy on him. The play between the two is the key aspect of the film and most of the scenes shine brightly. However the ending felt strange and lifeless, with the spy’s actions incomprehensible. Did he want to get caught? Why, after all those years? Worth seeing if you’re into acting; otherwise, wait for the DVD.

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Tue, Feb 20, 2007

: John Tucker Must Die

The story’s about a group of girls all dating the same superstar school athlete and when they find out, they try to destroy him in revenge. In some ways this wasn’t as bad as I expected: there were aspects to the story that were surprisingly well-done and some good humor that wasn’t revealed in the trailers. But the film’s flaw is that it’s much too predictable: within a few minutes of the opening I knew everything that would happen.

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Fri, Feb 16, 2007

: Ghost Rider

Strange film about a biker who sells his soul to the Devil and becomes the Devil’s Bounty Hunter, whatever that means. It’s visually different — at night the rider has a flaming skull — but the whole thing’s rather meaningless, with an incomprehensible and feeble “legend” supposedly explaining everything. There are some fun moments with the casting and the performances are decent enough, but the story is so flimsy as to be see-through, and we aren’t sure if the rider’s a good guy or not, since he gets his powers from the Devil and apparently must do his bidding. Though the ending kind of explains that and sets up sequels, it’s a bit too late. Overall it’s mildly entertaining but it only wants to be innovative (or thinks it is).

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: Bridge to Terabithia

Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful! Did I mention this is a wonderful film? It’s just beautifully simple and elegant. The lives of children are flawlessly portrayed, capturing that awkward time between childhood and adulthood. I knew nothing about this going in, but thought it was about a fantasy world like Narnia or something, and I didn’t expect it to be as good. It turns out the bulk of the story’s set in the real world, with the main characters two picked on kids who become best friends and use an imaginary place in the woods as their escape. It reminded me of a lighter version of Pan’s Labyrinth, without that movie’s grim undertone, though Bridge also has serious underpining’s. My absolutely favorite thing was the terrific ending, which, though somber, completely changes the meaning of the title. I love it when stories do that. Two thumbs up, a Must See. High recommended.

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Wed, Feb 14, 2007

: The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants

Definitely a girly film, and the concept — one summer as they are apart four girls trade a pair of magical jeans that fits each of them perfectly — occasionally comes across as forced and juvenile. But the heart of of the story isn’t the jeans but the lives of the teenage girls as they grow up, and that part is very interesting and well-done. Each of the girls is unique and their experiences are interesting. One girl visits her grandparents in Greece and learns to unwind and falls in love. Another struggles with her father’s remarriage. Another meets a 12-year-old brat and resents her, until she learns the girl’s dying of lukemia. The fourth struggles with handling her mother’s sucide. It’s at times overly dramatic but the cast is excellent, and the resolutions to the stories are very well done — no sitcom quick fix here. I liked that the girls are all real with flaws, but not evil or really bad (i.e. no descent into drugs or alcohol abuse). Their problems are not necessarily huge (except to them), which is realistic. Overall, I was surprised and impressed.

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Tue, Feb 13, 2007

: The Descent

Much better than I expected. I thought it was merely a gory horror film but it took its time developing the characters and had a lot of intelligence behind the scenes. The story’s simple on the surface (pun intended): a group of adrenaline junkies, female athletes who decide to go caving in a remote cave, get trapped underground, and suddenly find themselves beset by strange, humanoid cave creatures (who are really creepy). That sounds silly and it should be — but the relationships of the women (and even the fact that these are all women) reduces the importance of the “monsters” to inconsequence. The real story here is the relationship. Granted the film doesn’t get into real depth, but it does enough that you actually care about the characters and the events of the story are raised above mere horror shlock. Not bad at all. Visually interesting with some really shocking moments.

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Fri, Feb 09, 2007

: Hannibal Rising

I’d just finished the book when I heard the movie was coming out; unusual timing. Unfortunately, though I really wanted to like the film, I can’t recommend it. It has a lot of good things — the cast, though unknown, is decent, and it’s well-done from a technical perspective. Unfortunately all the book’s profundity is lost and all that’s left is a mere revenge story, a meaningless and extremely ugly story of violence and hate. In the book there were aspects of the story that revealed things about Hannibal’s character; in the movie those are forgotten as the story’s reduced to mere action plot points.

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: Cross

Author: James Patterson

This is supposed to be the story of detective-psychologist Alex Cross’s most dangerous opponent, the man who killed his wife. Unfortunately I found the antagonist to be weakly done; he wasn’t that scary (he’s merely an efficient mob hitman), and Patterson ineptly plays with the time-line of events making everything quite confusing (like one day his wife is killed and suddenly it’s ten years later). Patterson’s generally a poor writer (so much so that I’ve started avoiding his books), but in this one he has a few moments of decency. A couple times I was shocked to almost hear genuine insight. Unfortunately, all is ruined by the book’s dismal finale, which is competely anticlimatic, boring, and unsatisfying. The book should be cut in half as it’s way too long for the material, with lots of pointless meandering (like whole storylines of his counseling patients that are just dropped with no resolution). The whole thing felt like so much melodrama, overhyped and overdone. Note: I listened to the unabridged audiobook, so some of this could have been the presentation, which was definitely over-the-top, but then again, it’s probably just the poor writing.

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Tue, Feb 06, 2007

: Mr. Monk Goes to the Firehouse

Author: Lee Goldberg

Another good read, though not quite up to the level of the first one. It dragged a little in the middle as Monk early on identifies the killer but then has to figure out how to prove it. This gets a little tedious as there’s little suspense. But the resolution is excellent, and there’s plenty of entertaining Monk adventures in the process.

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Fri, Feb 02, 2007

: Pan’s Labyrinth

A fascinating, dark tale, nothing like what I expected. I thought it was about a young girl’s fantasy, but it turned out that’s only a small part of the story which is mostly about life in Spain after their Civil War and how she imagines a world to escape the horrors of real life. In that respect it reminded a lot of Life is Beautiful, though it’s a totally different story. It’s a difficult film to categorize. The child and fantasy elements imply it might be good for children, but it’s definitely not geared for children: it’s extremely violent and gory and dark, and deals with mature subject matter. But I still liked it: it’s not a pleasant film, not something you want to see every day, but profound, mysterious, and breath-taking. Recommended for those who can handle thinking about uncomfortable topics like death.

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Thu, Feb 01, 2007

: Dreamgirls

I really didn’t know what to expect of this; I had little interest even though it had a good reviews and I’m not anti-musical. But it turned out to be pretty good. I wasn’t that into the music — most of the songs were rather anonymous, though a couple were excellent — but I really liked the story, about a group of female singers and their rise to fame and manipulation by unscrupulous others. The character development was well-done. I also liked the way some of the same songs were presented in different styles by different characters. I’m not a musician and it was fascinating to see the way the same songs can be modified to sound so different.

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Sun, Jan 28, 2007

: Sherrybaby

Now this is an amazing film. Though the subject matter is unpleasant and many of the people are awful and the main character is thoroughly flawed, the story is reality and truth, with all the subtlties of real life. The story’s about a young woman (Sherry) released from prison on parole. She’s a drug addict who stole to support her habit. She has a five-year-old daughter she’s barely seen being raised by her brother and his wife. The plot’s about her trying to get her life back on track. Though her brother’s sacrified to raise her daughter she resents that, frustrated that her daughter doesn’t recognize her as mother. Through the film’s simple story we see all the horrors of drug addiction, life on parole, life as a convict, life in a dsyfunctional family. The level of detail is amazing, and Maggie Gyllenhal deserves an Oscar for her incredible performance. I really liked this film. It’s not pleasant, it’s definitely adult material, but it’s so honest and genuine, and the emotions all resonate as reality. Awesome.

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Sat, Jan 27, 2007

: Brick

Fascinating modern film noir about a high school boy acting like a hard-boiled detective, trying to find out who murdered his ex-girlfriend. The plot wriggles around like a live fish but eventually the muddle makes a little sense. (That aspect reminded me of some David Lynch films.) The dialog is the most unusual and amazing thing — rapid paced jargon unique to the film and the students. Also unusual is the lack of adults in the movie: we only see one or two in a couple scenes, otherwise it’s all teens. Very interesting, but in the final analysis, missing a little something to tie it all together. That makes it good but not great. But oh, it’s so very, very close.

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Fri, Jan 26, 2007

: Smokin’ Aces

More flash than substance, with a few interesting twists and a fun cast, but the story’s not much, and rather distasteful with an unsatisfying conclusion that thinks it’s cleverer than it is.

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Thu, Jan 25, 2007

: Hour of the Wolf

Author: Igmar Bergman

Really weird film about a couple on a remote island where the man slowly goes insane. At least that’s what it could be about. It’s purposefully left ambigous. The man sees strange visions and might have murdered a child — or did he only imagine it? Not a lot actually happens, but the

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Wed, Jan 24, 2007

: The Break-Up

I expected this to be much better considering the cast, but well, it stunk. There are two key problems. The first is that the film is about a couple breaking up which is unpleasant. We have to sit through weeks of their fighting, backstabbing, and mean-spirited, spiteful tricks on each other, which is just depressing. It’s not funny at all. It’s just sad. Of course all this would have been endurable because, of course, they get together in the end. But they don’t. That’s right. They stay broken-up. What was the point of that? I can see how some people might try to say that’s realistic or dramatic or profound or whatever, but I don’t really care. It’s just depressing. It ruined anything good about the rest of the film and there wasn’t much there to begin with. The film was marketed as a romantic comedy but there was nothing funny or romantic about it. It’s just sad and spiteful and depressing. It reminded me of the horrible The Perfect Storm.

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: Mr. Monk and the Blue Flu

Author: Lee Goldberg

I had no idea there were Monk books. I’m a giant fan of the TV show and quickly bought all three books. This was the first one I read and it’s terrific. The “Blue Flu” is the San Franciso police calling in sick (since they can’t legally strike) and Monk ends up being temporarily instated as Captain, during which he solves a number of baffling crimes with a team of other misfits detectives who’d been fired for being nutty (like him). The book captures the hilarious spirit of Monk just like the show, but there’s a lot more depth here, and I liked that he solves multiple mysteries instead of just one. Excellent!

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Sat, Jan 20, 2007

: Into the Blue

I assumed this was a silly bikini-fest treasuring hunting movie set in Jamaica or somewhere and I was right; but I was suprised it was as decent as it was. There actually is a slight plot, and even a couple faint efforts at characterization. Paul Walker is his usually wooden self, and Jessica Alba just has to look gorgeous but she brings a spunkiness to the role that really drives the film. Overall it is just drivel but I’ve definitely seen worse, much worse.

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: 16 Blocks

A surprisingly decent little thriller about a flawed cop who’s ordered to take a snitch to court (16 New York blocks), but soon learns it’s all a setup as the snitch is testifying against some bad cops and they want him dead. There are stereotypical aspects of some of the characters, but the tense builds and the dramatic ending is good, and I liked it overall. Not great, but above average.

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Wed, Jan 17, 2007

: Wal-Mart: the High Cost of Low Price

I tried to prepare myself for bias before watching this anti-Wal-Mart documentary. I have mixed feelings about the company and wanted to keep an open mind. Unfortunately, this film makes no attempt at all at balance: its message is purely “Wal-Mart is evil” and no other viewpoint is even given a hint of exposure. That makes me question many of the film’s conclusions. I really would like to know how pro-Wal-Mart people about some of the issues the film raises, but of course those views are not presented, so I’m left with a confusion of doubts and concerns. The real way to do a documentary like this is to show both sides and let the viewer make the decision about which is right. This one leans so blatantly in one direction it makes me want to lean the other way just out of spite! (I shopped at Wal-Mart immediately after seeing the film. It wasn’t intentional — I needed stuff at the pharmacy and they have the best prices for what I needed.) The film is also a bit shrill in some of its accusations. For instance, using emotional images of babies of single mothers who work at Wal-Mart but can’t afford health care, interviews with small business owners who lost their business when Wal-Mart moved in, the whole segment on Wal-Mart parking lots’ lack of security by showing emotional people who’d been mugged or raped, and the emphasis on “poor” Chinese Wal-Mart factory workers all felt manipulative to me. That isn’t to say that there isn’t truth in the film: some of the facts and statistics expressed in the film are enlightening and I’m sure Wal-Mart’s not perfect and certainly needs to make improvements, but the way the film presents these things they come across weaker than they should. Just not good film-making. It’s preaching to the choir — it’s not going to convince anyone to change their mind. People who already hate Wal-Mart will have new reasons for their hatred. Look at the genius of Super Size Me: it judged but only after the facts came in. Initially it was an experiment with no pre-drawn conclusion. That’s a much more convincing way to argue. I was not convinced or impressed by this weak film. Disappointing, as I’d hoped to be enlightened.

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Tue, Jan 16, 2007

: Basic Instinct 2

This was surprisingly good for a sequel. Unfortunately it has to live up to the salacious reputation of the original, which hurts it, since it’s really more about psychology. Sharon Stone plays her same character, and once again we aren’t sure if she’s really a murderer or incredibly unlucky, as people tend to die around her. Instead of a cop, her male counterpart this time is a court-assigned psychiatrist, whom she flirts and toys with, manipulating him in devilishly clever ways. It’s quite well done overall, and the London setting adds an interesting foreign element, but the film’s heavy burden of delivering a sexual promise weighs throughout and undermines what would have been an excellent film on it’s own. The producers even acknowledge this on the DVD extras, pointing out that the film could have been released under another name, and not as a sequel, which would have helped eliminate that burder, but of course they’d potentially lose some sales with that approach. At least as a sequel it’s guaranteed a larger opening. I don’t think the film was that successful at the box office, however, so that gamble didn’t pay off. This would have been much better with a different, less sequel-ish title, like Baser Instincts or Primary Instincts. It’s actually a good film and doesn’t deserve the unfair expectations sequelitis puts on it.

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: Arthur and the Minimoys

Director: Luc Besson

This is a movie of two parts: it’s both live action and computer animated. A young boy becomes animated as he gets shrunk to smaller than an ant and helps rescue the Minimoys, tiny elf-like creatures that live in the gardens in his backyard. Unfortunately, just like the film is two halves, I have mixed feelings about the movie. While I love French director Besson’s movies, this one is confusingly contradictory. One the one hand, it’s deep with incredible artwork. On the other, the story is surprisingly childish, with almost melodrama live action acting and dialogue. The pace is so quick and non-stop it’s difficult to keep up; it’s as though it’s targeted at kids with Attention Deficit Disorder. There are moments when the movie pauses as though for drama and you expect something profound, but it’s just a miscue — in seconds the movie’s shooting off in some other direction, and that moment is lost. The story’s too light and flimsy, the pace too thrilling, the characters too sketchy for this to be anything but a kid’s movie, yet the obvious hard work and amazing artwork is obviously designed to appeal to adults. The result is that adults will be not too impressed, while children will probably adore this. Unfortunately, since adults are the ones who pay for the ticket, this film is not going to see the success of Pixar’s animated masterpieces which deftly attract all ages. Still, this isn’t a bad movie. It just doesn’t meet adult expectations. Also, the concept, while nicely done, feels too familiar — haven’t we all seen minature worlds often enough?

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Fri, Jan 12, 2007

: Curse of the Golden Flower

This is a film about historic Chinese royalty. There are three princes, a convinving queen, and a stiff king. I certainly don’t pretend to understand all the confusing Chinese politics, but while basic, the story is interesting enough to hold your attention. The main attraction is the film’s incredible visuals. Every scene is filled with amazingly bright colors: the golds of the opulent palace, the finery of the period costumes, elaborate tapestries and intricate flooring, and the huge courtyard filled with miles of yellow flowers. Even if you’re not into the story, the visuals are remarkably entertaining. There is martial arts fighting, but instead of a single warrior hero dominating the story as in most martial arts films, here the fighting is mostly groups of anonymous warriors, mere soldiers dying for their cause. Some of these fight scenes are dramatic and wonderful (my favorite is when, in the dead of night, a hundred Ninjas drop into a village on long ropes from the mountains, gliding in as though flying), but none of the individual fighting is particularly remarkable. The story has to do with betrayal and the odd relationship between the king and the queen — I never did quite follow or understand all that, and the ending of the film seemed incomplete to me, but maybe I just missed some important plot point earlier. At any rate it didn’t make that much difference — I enjoyed the film anyway.

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Thu, Jan 11, 2007

: Hannibal Rising

Author: Thomas Harris

I bought Crichton’s Next as a printed book and listened to this one as an audiobook; I should have done them the other way around. Harris’ book is much better written, but confusing as an audiobook — it’s too easy to miss vital pieces of information if you aren’t paying attention. Harris himself reads it, which is cool: he does an impressive job, even doing character voices and speaking various languages. The story is simple enough: this is about the childhood of Hannibal, the serial killer from several of Harris’ other books. Here we meet Hannibal’s parents, his tutor, and see Hannibal’s keen intelligence. We also experience the horrors that turned him into a cold monster who eats human flesh. As you might expect, the book’s exceedinly grim at times, though Harris’ writing even makes that pleasurable (take, for instance, his description of a formerly bald man “who is now hirsute,” with “green tendrils” coming from his head… and we gradually realize the man’s head is severed and has been floating in a barrel for an extended period of time). The plot is not speedy, but the journey so delightful, filled with Hannibal’s key influences and experiences, that we are happy to let Harris’ pace things. We witness Hannibal’s first kill, and then it becomes obvious that the main plot is Hannibal’s quest for revenge. One by one he will kill the people who killed his family and abused him so cruelly as a child. Of course this is Hannibal Lector — these cannot be ordinary killings — and Harris makes them appropriately different and dramatic. The end result is surprisingly literate, considering the topic; Hannibal is without a doubt one of the most unusual and memorable characters in literature, and this book finally explains what created him, and why his character can be simultaneously sympathetic and horrific.

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Sun, Jan 07, 2007

: Next

Author: Michael Crichton

What is it with Crichton lately? He can be a good writer, but in his last few books he seems to have forgotten that new technology does not make a story, it’s only the vehicle. This is one of his most disappointing books yet: it’s almost incomprehensible. There’s no real overall plot: it’s more like a collection of short stories on vaguely similar topics, with each chapter introducing new people until we’re completely bewildered. Eventually some of these storylines are loosely tied together in what some might consider clever, but it’s way too late by that time — we’ve long since given up even pretending to care for any of the characters. The main technological problem the book explores — the dangers of genetic engineering — is a terrific topic with huge ramifications for society and there are a number of shocking revelations (with a few ridiculous bits of dramatic license), but the story is so light on plot I’d rather just read about these social problems as non-fiction than as a novel.

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Fri, Jan 05, 2007

: Children of Men

Author: P.D. James

I read the book years ago and liked it, though reading P.D. James requires significant effort. As a result I liked the movie even better: it’s dramatic, fast-paced, and fascinating where the book was interesting but plodding. I don’t remember the specifics of the book well enough to judge the adapation, but the film worked for me. The story’s a tale of the future, in a world where women all over the planet mysteriously stopped having babies — and the doom of the human race is a mere generation away. This is a bleak future and society’s gone downhill, of course: what point is there in living when there’s no tomorrow? Why marry when there are no kids to raise? But that’s just the setting: the story’s about a man who gets involved with rebel forces who are trying to smuggle a pregnant girl — the first in a generation — out of England. The woman represents the future of humanity and everyone wants to use her for their own cause. Sometimes the politics of this future world are not explained well enough and the film occasionally is confusing as key facts are only stated once, indirectly (such as newspaper headlines shown briefly as the camera sweeps past). But these are minor gripes; the main premise comes across and the story’s got emotion and energy.

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Thu, Jan 04, 2007

: Net 2.0

This was a straight-to-video release and it shows: while the lead lacks the charm of Sandra Bullock in the original film, she’s not bad, but the script doesn’t give her much to work with. She’s a computer tech who blindly accepts a job in Turkey (Why there?) but arrives to find her identity stolen and herself wanted for stealing millions from her client. So she’s on the run in a foreign country. Of course she’s plucky and smart and ultimately succeeds in clearing her name, but this should be called Net .5 — its a beta test, not a finished film.

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Wed, Jan 03, 2007

: Saw II

The first one was surprisingly intelligent for a horror film and this one continues that trend. It is on the grim side, but the devilish traps are horribly clever (i.e. the drug addict falling into a pit of used syringes — eek). Pretty cool if you like the genre.

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