6.30.2007

Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (Knopf, 2006)

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 have left a giant scar on the American psyche, and ramifications from it will likely extend far into the future. In his book The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, Lawrence Wright tries to explain why the event happened, both in terms of the history of Islamic fundamentalism and Osama bin Laden's role in it, and the failures on the part of the American intelligence system to prevent the attack. Wright exhaustively compiles information from interviews across the globe, from top American counterterrorism officials to Saudi princes to people who've had close contact with bin Laden and his closest ally, al-Jihad leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, in a largely successful attempt to tell the story of the most important American historical event in our lifetimes.

Most of the early chapters deal with the thinkers that initiated the Islamic fundamentalism that exerts such a strong influence over the politics of the Middle East today. Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian scholar who studied in the United States in the late 1940's, returned home to write diatribes against Western culture and the secular Egyptian government. Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian doctor, embraced Qutb's philosophy and turned it into violent political action, culminating originally with his role in the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat but leading ultimately to a collaboration with Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden is the son of Mohammed bin Laden, a legendary figure in Saudi Arabia who oversaw many great construction projects and made billions in the process. The combination of Osama bin Laden's increasingly radicalized religious beliefs and plentiful resources would lead him initially to start recruiting jihadists to help repel the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan. His reputation in the Arab world exceed his actual accomplishments in Afghanistan, though, but now that he had a core of followers willing to impose their version of Islamic law on the Arab world by any means necessary, he saw Afghanistan as a first step.

Eventually bin Laden wore out his welcome in Saudia Arabia, and he set up a training camp in the Sudan, where he had been invited as a guest of the government. (These are the same people responsible for the mess in Darfur, a fact which for some reason never gets acknowledged when Darfur is discussed.) Bin Laden's organization had by this time adopted the name al-Qaeda,and had started to raise a few eyebrows due to a suspected involvement in a number of terror strikes. The Saudi government cut off his assets, and pressure was put on the Sudanese government to make him leave. In 1996, the U. S. government saw bin Laden as more of a nuisance than a major threat, and bin Laden's return to Afghanistan was duly noted but not prevented.

A handful of people in American intelligence started to take bin Laden very seriously at this time. The most noteworthy of these was John O'Neill, the chief of the FBI's counterterrorism section. His abrasive personality made him too many enemies in the bureau, and his spent his private life juggling his estranged wife and two girlfriends, but he saw the need to stop bin Laden at a time when few others did. His team and his supporters met up with a lot of resistance from inside, and Wright spends a lot of time cataloging the times when the CIA withheld information on bin Laden that O'Neill and others requested. Eventually O'Neill got fed up with the FBI and left for a new job in late August 2001 -- as head of security at the World Trade Center.

Wright tries to tell the story as dispassionately as possible, and mostly succeeds. Certainly the development of Islamic fundamentalism and the rise of bin Laden as a political figure needs to be told objectively; otherwise, understanding our enemy becomes impossible. Wright loses his level-headedness at times as the events approach 9/11 though, and not for the betterment of the book. For example, he gets into some wild and unfounded speculation concerning the sexual preference of Mohammed Atta, one of the hijackers. While he stays clear of finger-pointing towards either Clinton or Bush, the anger he directs at the CIA is quite palpable. Then again, they do appear to deserve it. The one point where the writing appears muddled concerns Taliban leader Mullah Omar and his relationship with bin Laden. According to Wright, Omar went rather abruptly from being suspicious of bin Laden and willing to hand him over to Saudi intelligence, to being a defiantly loyal supporter of bin Laden in the face of international opposition, after one particular meeting. I can't help thinking there's more to Omar's fateful reversal that what Wright describes.

Otherwise, The Looming Tower is an essential recounting of some very important history, containing some information that every American should know. Unfortunately, Wright couldn't find a way to re-write the ending to the story. John O'Neill was last seen alive heading back into the south tower on 9/11 shortly before it collapsed. The FBI would receive a large amount of information regarding bin Laden and Al-Qaeda from the CIA on September 12.

Overall grade: A

Paul McCartney, Memory Almost Full (Hear Music, 2007)

While Paul McCartney's legacy and vital contributions to the music of the rock era are utterly indisputable, his recent musical offerings have mostly fallen through the cracks. In the case of his 1995 CD Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, this was particularly unfortunate. Paul didn't try to impress anybody but himself and just had fun with the music instead, and the result was one of his two or three strongest post-Beatles efforts. With his new CD Memory Almost Full, Paul is making much more of an effort to make another dent in the charts, aiming for more accessibility with the music and promoting the album more aggressively than he's promoted anything in quite some time. Regrettably, much of the new album lacks any genuine inspiration.

In many of the songs on Memory Almost Full, Paul reflects either on the distant past or on his shrinking future. In "Ever Present Past," Paul wonders where the time went. Paul continues to wax nostalgic in the three-song medley (yes, he's already been there and done that) of "Vintage Clothes," "That Was Me," and "Feet In The Clouds" but the psychedelia of the first part, the funk of the second part, and the synthesized orchestration and vocals in the third part just sound forced. He gets very sentimental in the penultimate song "The End of the End," reflecting on how he'd like his passing to be acknowledged when the time comes. I'm not sure the sentiments he expresses in this song are particularly profound, but mortality remains a subject few performers address, so he at least deserves some credit for trying.

Otherwise, nothing in Memory Almost Full really struck me as being noteworthy. It sounds like Paul is trying too hard to get people's attention, when he really has no need to.

Overall grade: C+

6.29.2007

The Good Shepherd (2006)


If you want as much star power as any of the Ocean's films, than The Good Shepherd should be on your list. This film features performances by William Hurt, Angelina Jolie, Matt Damon, Robert De Niro (who also directs it), and even a cameo by Joe Pesce.

The main protagonist played by Damon is a CIA agent. The crisis centers around a leak in the agency that allowed Cuba's Castro to squash the American backed rebels during the Bay of Pigs incident. To get to the source of the leak, we are taken on a multidecade journey. This starts from before World War II, and shows us how Damon got recruited for the OSS (Office of Strategic Services- the forerunner of the CIA during WWII). We also journey on through the end of the war, and into the Cold War, and the formation of the CIA.


The Good Shepherd tips the scales at a little under three hours, so it's definitely on the long side. It is also a little confusing at times as we start in the 60's, and then concurrently run the background story minced into the current crisis. Not helping either is that there are many characters, across many years, and many look similar. Seriously, couldn't at least one or two of them have something other than a buzzcut and brown hair? Still, this long film held my attention because it is the kind of epic filmmaking that Hollywood only rarely undertakes these days. The locations were very real, the costumes were excellent, and the props were all vintage. This type of film would make the Golden Age of Hollywood proud.

Matt Damon really turns in outstanding performance in The Good Shepherd. When you've got a spare three hours of undivided attention, grab some popcorn and enjoy a big budget film that only rarely gets made these days.

Overall Grade: A-

Deja Vu (2006)


I’m always up for an action suspense time travel film, and Deja Vu, starring Denzel Washington fits the genre. However, it is not the prototypical time travel flick like Back To the Future, The Time Machine or Timeline.

Set in New Orleans, Denzel plays an ATF agent. A ferry full of American sailors on leave gets exploded in a 9/11 type of disaster that definitely was made for the big screen. Denzel than struggles with other law enforcement agencies to get a handle on the cause of the disaster, and round up some suspects. The breakthrough of the case occurs when a secret unit that can look four and a half days into the past gives a glimpse into what happened.

I don’t think that this is like other time travel films because here we have a limited window into the past, and don’t travel into some long forgotten time like is the usual for that type of film. They also set it up that we can only see one area at a time, and cannot save anything else because it is too much data (I guess they never heard of video compression, or terabyte hard drives, but hey it’s a film). By following what occurred that led up to the ferry disaster, we follow Denzel as he does his best to try to prevent this great calamity from happening. Eventually he must send himself back in time, and take matters into his own hands working outside of law enforcement to get the job done.

While I often like Denzel Washington’s work, and he acted well in this, I don’t think this was his best film. The plot gets confusing at times as clues from four days age intermingle into the present. It is also paced a tad too slowly for an action adventure film in the middle, that seems to drag on at multiple points explaining the time travel theory in more detail than necessary to understand the movie. Still, it does have some big budget action, even if they skimped on the editing. Go ahead and enjoy Deja Vu, but if you want a really good Denzel Washington film, rent John Q Public which is a better story.

Overall Grade: B

Stranger Than Fiction (2006)


Stranger Than Fiction makes use of a most unusual plot line: the protagonist, Harold Crick, played by Will Ferrell, becomes a character in an author's novel. Yup, like I said it's kind of quirky, but at least it is unique.

By becoming part of a novel, we gain a unique insight into Crick, whose day job working for the IRS is rather mundane and boring. By hearing a voice, and believing death may be coming, he comes out of his shell, and a relationship ensues. He also gets to live out a fantasy of playing the guitar. Dustin Hoffman gives a good supporting performance as a literary professor who tries to assist after the psychiatrist gives up on him when he refuses to accept the diagnosis of schizophrenia. Queen Latifah also has a strong performance as the supporting actress playing Penny Escher, an assistant to the author.

If you're looking at an unconventional look at everyday modern living, than Stranger Than Fiction may be just the film to watch.

Overall Grade: B


Diary of a Mad Black Woman (2005)


Tyler Perry's Diary of a Mad Black Woman is the film that helped start the Tyler Perry sensation. Kind of like in Big Momma's House, or The Nutty Professor, Perry dons the fat suit, and plays three roles in the film, the most memorable being Madea, an Atlanta ghetto, gun toting grandmother whose overbearing personality functions as the matriarch of a troubled extended family.

While Perry as Madea steals the show, he has only limited face time throughout the film. Much of the plot focuses on a young woman, Helen, played by Kimberly Elise and the relationship with her husband. He is a powerful attorney, and instantly their seemingly idyllic life comes to a crashing end as he throws her out for another woman. As she hits rock bottom, she discovers who she is, and must start anew. Without giving the plot away, through an unusual turn of events, their “exes” paths cross again, and some interesting reversals occur as they journey down the grand pathway of life.

Set against this rather serious plotline, we have Madea playing the stereotypical Southern African American woman, complete with all fixin’s. It’s all in good fun, and nothing offensive as we poke fun at institutions such as Sunday family dinner after Church, summer block parties, and a trip through the court system. Despite not being front and center throughout the film, Perry’s performance as this character, even as he plays opposite himself in several scenes is what makes the film memorable.

While at first I thought the comedy in the middle of the drama was more of a distraction, as the film progresses, it does work successfully. If you’re looking for something that bridges drama and comedy (as life often does…), than Diary of a Mad Black Woman should fit the bill.

Overall Grade: B

6.22.2007

Mr. Fix It (2006)

David Boreanaz plays Lance Valenteen, who is better known as Mr. Fix It. No, he's not the guy you call to fix a leaking roof, or unclog a toilet. His area of expertise lies in fixing messed up relationships through an unorthodox approach. Mr. Fix It reminded of another film: Hitch.

When a guy loses the woman who is his one "true love," he turns to the fixer one to get her back. Valenteen, based on interviews and reconnaissance becomes the perfect guy to get this gal. Then, just when she is about to commit to this long term, he brilliantly becomes her worst nightmare, and the previous boyfriend swoops down to save the day.

I can tell you that this movie is rather simplistic, and goes way beyond romantic to end up on the sappy side of things. Who comes up with this stuff? The secondary theme of the usefulness of the elderly also gets the simple treatment, and the ages they were showing the older folks at weren't old by today's standards. finally, for a romantic comedy, it wasn't all that funny, aside from the go kart scene which was the highlight of the film. As they might say after an accident: "move on here folks, nothing to see here."


Overall Grade: C

Catch A Fire (2006)


While the obverse of the DVD box suggested this movie was a thriller, this wasn't exactly what it is. Rather, Catch A Fire is a film that tells the story of a South African folk hero who worked against apartheid. However this guy was no peaceful Nelson Mandela; he was a rebel that planned and helped destroy the oil refinery he worked in, albeit with minimal loss of life.

Unfortunately, us Americans don't really know much South African history. Catch A Fire is set in 1980, but we should have started more present day and worked backwards like in the film Ghandi to provide some context. Instead we have a meandering story that is not clear where we are going with things for the majority of it. Compound in several thick accents, and this is the formula for some serious confusion.

Catch A Fire is an unsatisfying glimpse into a far off place, a quarter century ago. While it tries to relate the rebels to our current day terrorists at Guatanamo Bay being wrongly imprisoned, this is too far of a leap, and it doesn't establish relevancy. This film is simply off the mark for American audiences.

Overall Grade: C-

The Time Machine (2002)


The Time Machine is a fresh look at the classic turn of the century H. G. Wells novel. I'm happy to report that with a little updating, it can maintain its relevancy with modern audiences.

Guy Pierce portrays an eccentric scientist that is a Professor at Columbia University. He is fascinated with all things mechanical. Tragedy strikes when his very recently engaged fiance is tragically and abruptly killed. Pierce then decides that he must build a time machine to chang the past. Unlike in the Back to the Future films, this time it's not so easy to remake reality. After an intriguing stop in the year 2030, followed by 2037 (I've never read the novel, but it's safe to assume these are added), the controls get stuck and we fast foward 80,000 years ahead. It's probably true when Einstein said that he couldn't predict the weapons of World War III, but he was sure that WW 4 would be fought with clubs. So far into the future, we get a fascinating glimpse into one visionary's portrayal of what mankind may become.

Supporting this film are the special effects. The Victorian era style time machine, with its spinning gears, and brass gauges becomes a focal point for several key scenes. Even for a film that is a few years old, it holds up quite well and is fascinating to watch as the parts whirl around.

Any dreamer that is a fan of the science fiction genre will really enjoy The Time Machine. I had passed this DVD on the rental shelf for years, and I'm glad it finally found its way home to my player.

Overall Grade: B

Still Life With Crows (2003)

In a word, wow! Rarely have I read a book that is plotted as well as this, and reads so fluidly as Still Life With Crows by Preston and Child.

This novel is the sequel to Cabinet of Curiosities, also by the same writing duo. The common character is Agent Pendergrast, who works for the FBI "out of the New Orleans office" who specializes in bizarre cases, but we have yet to learn what his real story is, which is part of the intrigue of this series.

While the authors often use Western US locales (with the exception of the Museum of Natural History), this time the setting is Medicine Creek, Kansas. Before all of us NY snobs think that nothing could possibly be interesting among the cornfields, I will say that they succeed in making this prototypical, yet fictional, small town America town as real as any a place to visit. They portray it in a hot summer, with all of the fixin's from the sheriff, to the meat processing plant, to the meatloaf and potatoes on the plate of the local diner. The descriptions of all of these elements are very well done, and paint the imagery in fine detailed strokes.

The plot was a little bizarre mixed with horror which is the usual for this crew of writers. There is a string of killings of the local townsfolk of this Kansas town. The only pattern is that there is none, and local law enforcement, despite a good effort, makes little progress on the case. As time goes on, it gets more bizarre, and there is a mental trip back in time, similar to the previous novel in the series.

What is also intriguing is that randomly thrown in, there are two chapters that relate to the cataloging of the cabinet of curiosities from the previous novel. While not at all the focus of Still Life With Crows, it indicates that we haven't heard the last about this, and I look forward to hearing more.

The final verdict on Still Life With Crows is that it is excellent. I really can't think of any way to improve it. In an era of it's all been done before, somehow these authors mange to break new ground. Also, I often figure out the plot at least halfway through, and while I had a few suspicions, I was guessing about most of it all the way to the very end, through many twists and turns. Authors Preston and Childs make a great team, and I enjoyed this novel very much.

Overall Grade: A+

You can read an excerpt here.


Happy Feet (2006)


While Happy Feet starts off like The March of the Penguins, it goes on to a more global view of the birds that live on the frozen continent. While it uses quite a few stars for the voices, Robin Williams was the only one that stood out.

The plot starts as a young penguin named Mumble can't "find his voice." While his singing is painful, he makes up for it in his dancing (hence the film's title). When he doesn't fit in with his flock, a series of adventures ensue. The rest of the film then revolves around two unrelated themes that I think were competing at times: it's ok to be different, and man destroying the environment. For a not so serious animal musical, one theme would have been plenty.

In Happy Feet, the real star is the computer animation. Traditionally, ice and water have been challenges to animators, with their complicated surfaces and shadows. This film does an excellent job with both. The scene with the killer whales was very realistically done, although it would have too much realism for very small children as the hungry mouths keep snapping at the penguins.

While several of the musical numbers dragged on way longer than needed to advance the plot, I still enjoyed Happy Feet. For those looking to "chill out," it showcases the state of the art in animation.

Overall Grade: B

6.21.2007

Jets Overhead, bridges (Microgroove, 2006) and Guster, Ganging Up on the Sun (Reprise, 2006)


I'd like to take a break from my usual approach to music writing to do a comparative review of new albums from two alternative rock bands. The first, Jets Overhead, is a new Canadian band whose 2006 album bridges is their debut. The second band, Guster, hails from Boston and has been playing together since the early nineties. Ganging Up on the Sun, also from last year, is their fifth studio album. Both bands essentially embrace a similar two-guitars, bass, and drums sound. Jets Overhead is a bit louder on the whole, but Guster can crank the amps up when they feel like it as well. The more experienced Guster come across as the more polished and consistent band, but Jets Overhead's album has an obvious standout track. While I'm not certain how either band is doing commercially, I can't help getting the feeling that current musical trends will hinder the prospects of the stronger of these two albums.

I suppose the first thing that sticks out about Jets Overhead is the presence of two women in the band without either being the lead vocalist. Jocelyn Greenwood plays bass while Antonia Freybe-Smith sings backup, filling a similar role in Jets Overhead that Flora Reed fills in Winterpills. (I reviewed Winterpills' debut here last year, and will be getting to their new album shortly.) Adam Kitteredge sings and plays guitar, with Piers Henwood also playing guitar and Lucas Renshaw drumming. The music of Jets Overhead tends to be a bit somber and edgy, but they do have some potent choruses. Most of the album is decent if unspectacular, but the second song "Killing Time" is a great rocker that should turn plenty of heads.

Most of the songs on Ganging Up on the Sun could be classified as mid-tempo alternative rock, although Guster are capable of rocking out and also throwing some banjo or a jazzy trumpet into the mix for good measure. This record has a refreshing amount of musical maturity, and vocalist/guitarist Ryan Miller and Adam Gardner, drummer Brian Rosenworcel, and multi-instrumentalist Joe Pisapia really do sound like they've been playing together for a while. The CD has produced three singles in "Satellite," "One Man Wrecking Machine," and "C'Mon," of which the Big Star-style power pop of "C'Mon" is my favorite. My other favorites are "Manifest Destiny" and the hard-rocking "The Beginning of the End." But the album is pretty deep, and I get the feeling that there would be no obvious consensus on which song is best.

Unfortunately, at a time when people are looking for one or two songs to download onto their iPods, the depth of an album like Ganging Up On The Sun might get overlooked. Jets Overhead, despite having the weaker album on the whole, at least has a song that will demand more attention if it gets some airplay. This isn't meant as a knock on the Canadian band, mind you; bridges is still an encouraging debut that will hopefully serve as a springboard to more solid efforts in the future. I'm just worried that people aren't paying enough attention to albums as a whole anymore, and that acts like Guster will fall through the cracks as a result.

Overall grades:

Jets Overhead B-
Guster B+
Jets Overhead

Guster

6.20.2007

The Aristocrats

How many ways are there to tell the same joke? Quite a few, as the documentary The Aristocrats features dozens of comedians giving their versions of a comics' standard of an inside joke.

The "Aristocrats" joke follows a certain formula. The setup is that a person goes to a talent agent with an exciting new act. The comic then makes up the most disgusting description of the act they can come up with; frequent topics include deviant sex, urine and feces (in massive quantities and put to numerous uses), vomit, incest, bestiality, and pedophilia. After that, the talent agent asks what the act is called, and the person proclaims, "The aristocrats!"


Okay, so it's not an inherently funny joke -- but it's also a concept for comedians. This joke has been circulating among comics for decades, with comics trying to top each other with disgusting details and how long then can tell it. (Some claim there have been comics who stretched this joke to over 90 minutes long.) The performers telling it in The Aristocrats vary wildly: Many seem happy just to be disgusting, some have their clever variations on the formula (the joke is done as mime, a card trick, a South Park sketch, and juggling), and some have their own unique interpretations of it: Steven Wright has a nice addition to the punchline, while Bob Sagat is very self-aware while giving the absolutely foulest rendition of this joke.

Unfortunately, the subjects of The Aristocrats seems a bit bathetic about this joke. A few people try to elevate it to social commentary or a reflection of how much they can get away with, but it's ultimately a big deal to comics and not to the rest of us. It's biggest "outside" moment was when Gilbert Gottfried used it at the Hugh Hefner Friar's Roast when his 9/11 joke bombed for being "too soon." It also doesn't help that every interview is done with two cameras and very frequent cuts, so you'll rarely see two minutes that aren't interrupted by several jumps. The Aristocrats is sometimes interesting and sometimes funny, but not consistently either.

(The dvd bonus materials are very good, ranging from extended interviews (including porn star Ron Jeremy, whose musical rendition of the joke was cut from the original) to people sharing their other favorite jokes.)


Overall Grade: B-

Reviewed by James Lynch

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

Who's have imagined that a surfing alien and transforming a classic comic book character into a big cloud would not be the biggest problems with the new superhero movie? Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer is the latest summer sequel -- and a pretty bad one.

The first half of this movie focuses on Reed Richards/Mister Fantastic (Ioan Gruffudd) and Susan Storm/the Invisible Woman (Jessica Alba) trying to get married after the past three weddings were interupted. Johnny Storm/the Human Torch (Chris Evans) and Ben Grimm /the Thing (Michael Chiklis) are also here, but they have nothing to do but small comedy scenes. The wedding plans are interruped by the Silver Surfer, a cgi character voiced by Laurence Fishburne who flies (surfs?) around making big holes in the planet. (I'm not making this up.) Then there are more attempts at comedy as the Human Torch switches powers with other FF members he touches, a humorless general (Andre Braugher) with a grudge against Richards but who has to work with him, and the return of Doctor Doom (Julian McMahon). And none of it works.

This movie is really, really bad. The acting is weak throughout -- and given how good Braugher and Chiklis are, this is quite a waste -- and there's not a single interesting line of dialogue. Apart from an early chase between the Human Torch and the Silver Surfer, there's no excitement here either. While the original Fantastic Four movie was silly and lighthearted fun, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer just falls flat.


Overall Grade: D

Reviewed by James Lynch

6.15.2007

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Baby 81 (RCA, 2007)

The first two Black Rebel Motorcycle Club albums combined layers of feedback-drenched guitar tracks with the sonic brazenness of The Jesus and Mary Chain, spawning a couple of solid hard rockers apiece. The band did an about-face for their 2005 CD Howl, going on a mostly acoustic bluesy kick. Despite the shift in direction, Howl was every bit as strong as its predecessors. I approached their fourth album Baby 81 confident that I'd hear some quality output, but not really sure sonically what to expect. What I got is an album that builds on the band's already strong foundation, returning to the hard rock base but with added depth and an exciting amount of vitality.

Baby 81 clearly sounds more like the first two BRMC albums than the third, but there are definitely some differences. The arrangements are a bit more scaled back, with Peter Hayes and Robert Levon Been focusing less on layering guitar tracks and more on producing a rawer, more live sound. In general the distortion is turned way up, but not to the point where things get messy. Hayes and Been do whip out the acoustic guitars on a couple of tracks, but even there they're setting up hard-edged songs, like the phenomenal blistering single "Weapon of Choice." They also expand the range of their vocals, using a John Lennon-inspired icy falsetto on a few songs. Drummer Nick Jago adds a few new tricks of his own, bringing in a more groove-oriented style reminiscent of some of Franz Ferdinand's music. The result is some furious, down-and-dirty rock and roll that still manages to be melodic and accessible. Besides "Weapon of Choice," other solid tracks are "Not What You Wanted" and "Lien on Your Dreams." But even the rest of the album maintains a great dark, aggressive feel to it.

I've been following Black Rebel Motorcycle Club since I heard "Love Burns" off of their debut CD, and I'm happy to say that they're a band that keeps getting better. Baby 81 is as essential a rock album as I've heard yet this year, and comes very highly recommended.

Overall grade: A

Porcupine Tree, Fear of a Blank Planet (Atlantic, 2007)

Porcupine Tree started out as a fictitious band, created by Steve Wilson as a joke between him and a friend. Wilson fabricated an elaborate history and discography, and recorded some songs in his basement that were attributed to the band. Ironically, the music developed enough of a following that Wilson started recording full-length albums under the Porcupine Tree name. Demand for concert dates followed, and by the end of 1993 Porcupine Tree had become a quite real quartet, of whom Wilson (guitars, keyboards, vocals), Richard Barbieri (keyboards), and Colin Edwin (bass) are still members. (Current drummer Gavin Harrison joined in 2002.) The band has devoted their career to taking the progressive "art rock" of the late sixties and early seventies and re-shaping it as something more aggressive and contemporary. They continue with this purpose on their ninth studio release, Fear of a Blank Planet.

The concept behind Fear of a Blank Planet focuses on a couple of themes that were common in the music of the nineties, namely teenage disillusionment leading to violence, and feeling empty in spite of/because of the plethora of cheap amusements that are readily available. On one hand, Wilson doesn't break any new ground here -- he basically takes Pearl Jam's "Jeremy" and puts him in a mall. However, while the problems discussed here have been overshadowed in recent years by 9/11 and the Iraq War, they have not gone away; the horrible events at Virginia Tech make that plain enough. The nineties may seem idyllic compared to now, but they really weren't, and the situation certainly hasn't changed for the better. So I certainly can't fault Wilson for drawing attention to issues that have been overlooked for too long.

Musically, Fear of a Blank Planet consists of seven extended pieces. Two clock in at just over five minutes, three run seven minutes, and the marathon piece "Anesthetize" runs seventeen minutes. Wilson and his band wear their prog influences on their sleeves, even bringing in Alex Lifeson of Rush and Robert Fripp of King Crimson for guest appearances. I found the music a bit less interesting here than on the previous Porcupine Tree albums In Absentia and Deadwing, largely because their formula hasn't really developed a whole lot. Other than a bit of orchestration, the album sounds and feels just like the other Porcupine Tree albums I have. Then again, if the worst thing you can say about a Porcupine Tree album is that it sounds like other Porcupine Tree albums, you're really not saying anything negative. Wilson writes well-structured songs, and the band is equally adept at playing carefully constructed, sophisticated pieces and at rocking very hard.

Fans of Porcupine Tree will certainly want to add Fear of a Blank Planet to their collection. While I'd more strongly recommend Deadwing than this album to people who don't know Porcupine Tree, fans of prog looking for something new or anybody interested in intelligent hard rock will find much to like in any of their CD's.

Overall grade: B

Rocky Balboa (2006)


After a run of four Rocky films (or was that five, I've lost count), is there any steam left in the Italian Stallion? Sylvester Stallone returns for a few more rounds in Rocky Balboa, this time an AARP carrying seasoned citizen (I guess nobody wanted to make Rambo: Defending the Texas Border).

This time Rocky is wandering around his ol' neighborhood in Philly. The city of brotherly love has not aged well as portrayed here, and we visit locations from the first couple of films that are less than prime real estate. His wife, Adrian has passed on. His son is somewhat estranged and distant. His trainer, Paulie, is more interested in working at the meat processing plant. In short, he's just waiting for space to open up at some Florida retirement home (okay, I made the last part up, but you get the idea). No mention is made as to what happened to the millions he made in his previous fights as his house is rather run down, and he's no man of wealth.

But hold on to that goofy hat that Rocky wears! ESPN runs a computer simulation between the current heavyweight and Rocky, that gets taken way too seriously. Rocky then decides to come out of retirement for one last exhibition fight, after he passes his cardiac stress test of course. Get ready to watch him swallow raw eggs, and cue the theme music as the ol' man steps into the ring!

While I have seen all the Rocky films, this one is the weakest of the franchise. While I was hoping for Rocky: Reloaded, this was more like Rocky: Memory Lane Nostalgia Edition. While the devout fans of Rocky who can't get enough of the Italian Stallion may get some satisfaction from concluding the journey, for the rest of us Rocky Balboa is a footnote to the other films. If you're nostalgic for Rocky, watch the original, it's still the best one by far.

Overall Grade: C+

The Watcher (2000)


Keanu Reeves and Marisa Tomei star in The Watcher, a psychological thriller. This movie reminds me of an Alfred Hichcock film in the high level of suspense created.

Reeves plays David Allen Griffin, a creepy serial killer, and has left a trail of dead women for the police to figure out. One former FBI agent, Joel Campbell, ably played by James Spader, worked the case before, but has retired on disability and now wants nothing to do with this. In case you haven't guessed it yet, he gets off the bench and back into the game of life to catch this killing machine.

While the killer leaves no clues which leaves the police without any trail, he decides to make this more interesting. He does this by sending a picture of his victim to the police before he kills them a day later.

In one way, The Watcher reminds me of any number of serial killer / psychological thriller films. However, the FBI agent functions as a kind of modern day Sherlock Holmes. The police may be inept, but he pieces together what others miss, and methodically hones in on the killer.

For those that enjoy a good thriller, than you'll find The Watcher quite satisfying. If you get creeped out easily, than this is not for you. As an aside, this film does feature a lot of great views of Chicago.

Overall Grade: B


The Queen (2006)


Helen Mirren gives a royal performance in The Queen, an inside look at Britain's first family. I willingly admit that to this critic, I have absolutely no interest in Britain's royalty. Still, for whatever reason, I watched this DVD.

The Queen takes a behind the scenes look at the royal response to Princess Diana's death. The crux of the matter was that the Princess, recently divorced from Prince Charles was no longer part of the royal family. The Queen decides that she will not do anything officially, or make a statement. In the middle of this is a newly elected Prime Minister, Tony Blair played by Michael Sheen, who has an uncanny pulse on the British people and some educational discussions with the Queen. This all culminates in a reluctant, and somewhat forced response of the royal family to Princess Diana's death.

I enjoyed The Queen very much. The first reason for this is that Helen Mirren's performance is outstanding. She has the mannerisms and speech of the Queen down that shows the serious study of her subject has paid off in her acting craft. The other reason is that the settings are recreated with an attention to fine detail. Interspersed within the movie are the actual news clips of the events that contribute to the realism as well.

I recommend The Queen to anyone who enjoys watching a well made movie drama. Even with no interest in the royal family, I know I would watch this film again, something I rarely do.

Overall Grade: A-

The Unit, Second Season, CBS Television

This has been the second season of CBS’s The Unit. This show focuses on the activities of the quite clandestine military unit known as Delta Force. While they are not well publicized, they draw the best of special forces to take on a variety of covert op missions. They have a special interest in hostage rescue situations and counterterrorism.

The Unit offers a glimpse into this military organization from two intertwined angles. On the one hand, we have the brave men (at least on the show there are no females) that risk their lives routinely under the harshest of circumstances, and in some of the least safe countries of the world, all for not much respect (their cover is that they are a logistical support company), and only enlisted pay. The other intriguing aspect is that they show their wives and families. Their loved ones think they know the danger that these soldiers face, but quite often don’t even know what continent their husbands are on, or when they will return. In the meantime, it falls upon them to raise the children, and keep the household running which can be a challenge on Army pay.

The plots have been quite relevant to today’s headlines. Whether they are in Latin America, Pakistan, or down the block in Virginia, they are often quite plausible circumstances. By following this unit, we can see first hand how these experts approach these problems, what tools they use to get the job done, and the inherit dangers of this type of work. Meanwhile, back on the home front the families face other challenges that at times are no less daunting.

For anyone that wants a view into Army life, both for the soldiers and their families, then The Unit is for you. I’ve enjoyed this second season as much as the first, and can’t wait for the third. Catch it after NCIS on Tuesdays at 9 PM, EST, or on their online video offerings.

Overall Grade: A-

6.14.2007

That Thing You Do (1996) - (Extended Cut -2007)

That Thing You Do is a very appealing film. Covering the rise and subsequent implosion of fictional 60's pop band, The Wonders (yes, in fact, One Hit Wonders), the movie is actually quite a bit better than it has any right to be. The screenplay, written by Tom Hanks, is a moderately formulaic love story, but gains depth from sub-plots about the music business, creativity and the elusive pursuit of art.

The central character is the drummer, late come to the band after the original drummer breaks his arm. The band wins a local talent show, cuts a demo, is picked up by a manager and then a major label, appears on TV and then breaks up over creative control issues. During their skyrocket to the top, the relationship between the main creative talent, the singer-songwriter-guitarist, and his girlfriend disintegrates. In a twist that should come as a surprise to no one, the drummer gets the girl and they live happily ever after.

Trite? Probably. But well executed. As I say, the sub-plots raise this movie above the quagmire of mediocrity in which the plot synopsis suggests it will wallow. The performances are also good, pretty much across the board - Jonathon Schaech as Jimmy the songwriter is a little weak in a fairly thankless role. The direction, also by Hanks, is solid if uninspired. The screenplay is workmanlike with a few moments of real brilliance. The scene where the band first hears their song played on the radio is excellent, capturing in a few moments a heady cocktail of youth, joy and exuberance.

The film is a little manipulative, pushing well-worn emotional buttons in its viewers, and at times it is heavy-handed; the scene where Liv Tyler as the girlfriend, Faye, gets dumped and expresses her angst rings false, for instance. Those are relatively minor failings in what is, overall, a charming film.

This edition is an "Extended Cut" DVD, with something like an extra 30 minutes of material. You have the option of watching the theatrical release or the extended version and I watched the latter. Although there were certainly places where the run-time could have been shaved (and clearly was for the original release), the extended cut didn't play as flabby. The added material didn't seem gratuitous. In fact, I couldn't tell for sure where it was since I'm not that familiar with the original; that's a good sign, since sometimes added material really should have been left on the cutting room floor (or in the bit-bucket, in this digital age). It would have been nice, however, to have had the ability to look at the extra scenes separately.

Which brings me to my only real gripe about this release. For a 2-DVD Extended Cut, Special Edition, the DVD packaging seems weak. There is no way that I could easily find to view only the additional scenes and on the first disk there were none of the usual extras which we have come to expect from DVD special editions. This is a quibble, though, since the point of a movie is, well, the movie, and here you have it twice - and pretty darn good either way.

Overall Grade: B+

6.13.2007

Travel in the Middle Ages - Jean Verdon (1998)

This book, the English language translation by George Holoch of Voyager au Moyen Age, is a fairly extensive survey of the means and reasons for travel in the middle ages. It is divided into three parts, "Methods," "Mentalities," and "The Imaginary."

"Methods" concerns the ways one could travel, both terrestrial and aquatic. Although there is a good use of source material, this section in particular felt a bit scanty. For instance, the section of "Means of Transportation - On Foot" is only a page long. For the means of transportation which is the most common for most of the middle ages, that seems a bit brief. The sections on ships are longer, but still left me feeling that there was more to be said.

"Mentalities" helped to fill in some of the gaps left in section one. For instance, sections on pilgrims and why they walked provided more information on how they walked as well. M. Verdon appears to find this topic of more interest than the first and the chapters are consequently more interesting. However, there are extended sections devoted to singular exceptional travelers (eg. Marco Polo), and these tend to break up the general flow.

"The Imaginary" provides a view of dreams and visions of the immaterial landscapes of Paradise, Hell and Purgatory. While interesting, this section does seem out of place with the others. Philosophically, one can understand that to the medieval mind this last journey was doubtless more important than the other, physical travels they had made, the point is a bit esoteric. The title of the book does not lead the reader to expect a discussion of Dante's Inferno however well written.

Overall, the book is not bad, merely ... unsatisfying. As a survey, one doesn't expect too much detail, but more than was given would be nice. It is a little difficult to trace the author's thesis or theme, which would not be a great drawback in a more thorough survey, but in a meandering survey such as this one, it did leave this reader feeling unfulfilled. Perhaps my expectations were too high, perhaps I had been mislead by the title or perhaps it was a combination of both factors that contributed to my ambivalence about the book. It is not without merit, by any means, but as a survey it is too specific and as a book of detail, it is too general.

Overall Grade: C-

6.12.2007

Story Of O by Pauline Reage

Can transcendence be found in degredation? Can bliss come through agony? How you answer these questions will largely determine your reaction to Story of O, a novel that remains as shocking and controversial today as on its publication in 1965.

The plot of Story of O revolves around the French photographer O and her increasing descent into willing slavery. Her lover Rene takes her to a place called Roissy to be fully trained in physical and psychological submissiveness. Later he passes her on to Sir Stephen, a more severe master, leading O to delight more in increased submission than in love.


Anyone expecting this book to be a prurient erotic romp will find something else entirely. Reage decribes actual sex very quickly and matter-of-fact, nor does she linger over the physical punishments. Instead, the joys and descriptions are reserved for O's increasing pleasure at being used and abused.


This abuse, physical and mental, is the virtue of the novel -- and its problem. Story of O is consistent in its view that absolute obedience and increasing pain are, for this character, bliss. (Towards the end of the book, O even looks down on someone who falls in love, seeing this as a sign of weakness relying on the affections of another.) However, the presentation is enough to send feminists into a seizure -- women exist solely for the whims of men -- and the training at Roissy is akin to brainwashing. And while O is frequently told she can leave if she wants, later a man says if a woman doesn't want to go to Roissy, they'll force her. Story of O also endorses the female submissive world of sexuality: no equal partnerships, dominant women, or submissive men in this world. And the physical discipline is extreme enough to put anyone not into hardcore BDSM off.



Story of O is an uncompromising view of one person's merging of sexuality and submission. If you're looking for a kinky time, this is not for you. (You'll do better with Anne Rice's The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty trilogy (written under the pseudonym A.N. Roquelaure), or the Black Lace novel White Rose Ensnared by Juliet Hastings (a personal favorite), or even the three filmed versions of Story of O.) If extreme pain is not your thing, this book will certainly put you off. But if you can handle that, Story of O is definitely a memorable read.


Overall Grade: B-

Reviewed by James Lynch

Pyramids - Terry Pratchett (1989)

Readers are directed to my review of Pratchett's Wyrd Sisters for all neccessary prefatory comments. In brief, this is a Discworld novel, and, as the saying goes, "For those of you that like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you like."

On to specifics. Pyramids is set in an Ancient Eygypt analog on the Discworld, an unusual setting for the series. This gives Pratchett full rein to poke fun at Pyramid Power, pay homage to mummy movies, slip in a few pointed remarks about the silliness of hidebound tradition-for-tradition's sake and generally lark about in his usual fashion.

While it is not the best of the Discworld books, it isn't the worst either. The setting however means that unless you are a fan either of Pratchett/Discworld or Egypt/mummies, it's probably only for completists.

Overall Grade: C+

Iain Pears - The Raphael Affair (1990)

Iain Pears has written some very interesting books over the years, interesting both structurally and thematically. It came as a bit of a surprise to me, therefore, to find The Raphael Affair to be such a conventional book. Conventionality is not automatically a bad thing, anymore than esoterica is automatically a good thing. In either case, it is the execution that matters, and whether the form suits the purpose and intent of the author. In this case, a fairly straightforward structure suits the fairly straightforward story, and the execution is certainly adequate, if not exceptional.

The plot concerns a recently discovered painting by, surprise-surprise, Raphael. Or is merely a very clever forgery? The twists and turns to find out the means by which the painting could be forged, who would benefit and the like are handled well by Pears. The intricacies of the international art world provide a fine and somewhat unusual backdrop for what is, essentially, a competant but uninspired mystery novel.

Lest I seem to be damning wth faint praise, let me hasten to add, that the book is eminently readable and quite enjoyable. Not all books can be masterpieces, not even all works by masters are of equal quality (if you have any doubt about that read Shakespeare's Hamlet and Pericles back to back.)

But just because a book is not an eternal masterpiece does not mean it is without merit. Such is the case here. The book is a pleasant diversion. Fans of mysteries or of Pears' writing will certainly find it a good read, even if it is unlikely to end up on their top ten list.

Overall Grade: C+

6.11.2007

Harsh Times (2005)


Christian Bale, Eva Longoria and Freddy Rodriguez star in Harsh Times. This film takes a look at life after being a soldier, and the corruption in law enforcement in Los Angeles.

Bale plays Jim Luther Davis, a recently discharged member of the Army Rangers, which are an elite special forces group. He served his country in Afghanistan. Now back in civilian life, he has a girlfriend "South of the Border" and needs gainful employment to bring her stateside. He first gets rejected from the LAPD, and then he gets a second chance from Homeland Security (which raises the question if they're getting the leftovers...). Anyway, along the way, he hangs out with his buddy, Mike Alonzo, played by Freddy Rodriguez, and they engage in all types of illegal behavior- gun dealing, DWI, assault, and drugs are all in a day's work as both are unemployed.

While Davis does not get officially labeled as having post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), he exhibits the classic symptoms of it. He is emotionally irritable and labile. He has poor, unrestful sleep with nightmares. he is aggressive with total strangers for no reason. It is a missed opportunity that he never gets the help that he so desperately needs.

Harsh Times tells the tale of what comes after military service for far too many soldiers. The military gets the problem off of their table by discharging them and recruiting someone else, but the issues persist. It is also a shocking look at the lawlessness among those that should be serving to uphold and enforce the law. If you want a gritty and violent look into these issues, then check out Harsh Times.

Overall Grade: B-

6.10.2007

Man of the Year (2006)

Robin Williams steals the show in Man of the Year, a comedic look at the Presidential election process. He plays a talk show host (along the lines of Colbert) that throws out to his audience one day jokingly that he should run for the Presidency. Overwhelming support floods in, and he not only gets on the ballot, but also a spot at the debate, giving his third party candidacy legitimacy. Then, by way of a computer programming glitch, he ends up winning the election. It then becomes a question of what to do for an encore.

While Man of the Year is definitely a comedy, there is clearly a serious side here. Many Americans, ahem, myself included, are, shall we say disenchanted with our political process? There are themes of special interests, political favors, election vote counts and congressional term limits as an undercurrent throughout the film. The scene portraying the Presidential Debate with Robin Williams going into one of his signature tirades is destined to be one of his classic Hollywood moments.

While fans of Williams' work will especially enjoy Man of the Year, anyone looking for an irreverent and humorous look at the current state of American politics will enjoy this film.

Overall Grade: B+

Off the Black (2006)


Nick Nolte returns to the screen in Off the Black, a drama about some wrong turns in life. Nolte plays Ray Cook, a washed up, alcoholic, high school baseball umpire who makes some controversial calls in a playoff game making him unpopular with the local town folk. Cut to a bunch of teens vandalizing his house in some sort of payback activity. When Nolte catches one of the teens, he cuts a deal to repair the property damage to avoid police involvement. This all culminates when he asks the teen to play his son at a high school reunion.

While the premise had potential, Off the Black failed to execute. What results is a slowly paced, meandering plot that chronicles two drunks- one over age, and one under. Neither can ever live up to their potential, and neither does this film.

Off the Black is "off the mark" as far as I'm concerned. No one in their right mind would read the screenplay and think it would be worth making into a film- and yet they did.

Overall Grade: C-

6.08.2007

Under Fire (2002)

After enjoying In Danger's Path, and things coming together nicely, I wasn't sure what else to expect out of this series. After all, Under Fire was moving on to the Korean Conflict from WW II, and the series had not previously taken such a big jump in time as it has taken eight books to cover WW II to only 1943.

Under Fire starts with a healthy dose of reminiscing by the Marines of their glory days of the Second World War. In fact, some of them had life after the war in civilian roles, and this book goes through some of that. When a certain Captain (McCoy) warns of an impending North Korean invasion, he is quickly swept under the rug. When in fact it turns out to be very true, the Marines are once again called upon to serve their country. General Pickering is pulled out of retirement to run the newly formed CIA that grew out of the OSS of WW II (this is reportedly the plotline in the film The Good Shepherd that I have and still need to watch). Part of the book concerns itself with the military infighting among the upped echelons in the Pacific theater. I truly would think that General MacArthur, a five star no less, really wouldn't have to put up with much at this point in his career. Griffin however paints a much different picture in Under Fire.

True to many of the other novels in The Corps series, we have some more fascinating, and obscure history. This time it's the preinvasion of the Flying Fish islands with their lighthouse, in preparation for MacArthur's amphibious invasion of Inchon. If the islands were not captured in advance, and covertly, the North Koreans would have had advance notice of the invasion. General Pickering rounds up the usual cast of characters to operate behind enemy lines and quietly take these islands in advance without the North Koreans even realizing it. While this has only come to the forefront recently, it is a quite engaging and intriguing part of the Korean Conflict.

Under Fire is a great read, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. It showcases what WEB Griffin is best at, and despite its hefty size, is hard to put down once started. My only disappointment is that there is only one novel more in the series to go.

Grade: A+

6.07.2007

Bug (2006)

What happens when desperation and mania collide? This is the central theme of Bug, a truly psychological horror film.

Agnes White (Ashley Judd) has a lousy life. She lives in a dingy motel room in Oklahoma; she smokes, drinks, and does cocaine; she makes a meager living as a waitress at a lesbian bar with her gay friend R.C. (Lynn Collins); and her abusive ex-husband Jerry Goss (played with casual menace by Harry Connick Jr.) just got out of prison and is pushing himself back into her life.

Enter Peter Evans (Michael Shannon), a quiet, slightly odd loner who quickly becomes an awkward friend, then lover, to Agnes. At first he seems like someone that's good for Agnes -- until the bugs. After Peter wakes up complaining of bug bites, he quickly becomes with the bugs that no one else can see -- and he soon brings Agnes into his obsession. The motel room is transformed into something alien, Peter and Agnes isolate themselves more and more, and the conspiracy theories behind the unseen insects become more and more elaborate.

Bug is based on a play, and the action (almost exclusively in the motel room) and small cast (only five main actors) reflect this. The pacing is very slow in the beginning, which is initially tough to sit through but leads to the basis for what comes at the end. Director William Friedkin (best known for The Exorcist) brings out the best in his actors, setting the groundwork of madness that makes the film's screaming finale very believable. Bug starts off slow, but it proves to be an engaging horror film.

Overall grade: B+

Reviewed by James Lynch

Ocean Odyssey


After my disappointment last year with Deep Blue, it was with hesitation that I tried another documentary about the ocean. I'm happy to report that Ocean Odyssey, put out by the BBC was a heck of a lot better.

In this "edutainment" documentary, we follow the eighty year old life of a bull sperm whale. Throughout his life span, we share in how mankind is "influencing" (ruining) his ocean habitat. While there is no light in the four kilometer deep part of the ocean that is known as the abyss, and also his hunting ground, through computer animation the story is told of the epic battle to catch a giant squid. Seriously, I love calamari, but 15 meters worth is too much for my plate!

By following a historical timeline, we share in such events as a whale hunt, transatlantic phone lines, an underwater volcanic eruption, and even an encounter with a nuclear powered sub and towed array sonar. There are also natural threats such as an encounter with a pack of hungry killer whales that live up to their name.

While the special effects are not quite up to ILM standards, they do a more than adequate job of telling this whale of a tale (sorry, I just couldn't resist...). For those of us that have always been fascinated by the great whales of the ocean, than Ocean Odyssey is a fascinating look at these rarely seen animals for us landlubbers. I think families would also enjoy this type of entertainment while painlessly learning some ocean knowledge as well, which is not a bad way to spend two hours to this reviewer.

Overall Grade: B+

Weird Al Yankovic at the North Fork Theatre at Westbury NY, June 2, 2007


Reviewed by Ian Mylott

Well "Weird Al" has his tour going on, and one of the stops on it was the former Westbury Music Fair in Westbury, NY that I had the pleasure to go to. If you get the chance to see him in concert it is a great show, because he not only sang songs from the
Straight Outta Lynwood album but he also sang some songs from his earlier albums. It is also a great concert because he dresses up in the costumes for almost every song like "Fat," "Amish Paradise," "WHITE & NERDY," and much more. I think that I was going to see him in concert no matter what, but it did help that he is just coming off of his best record so far I'd say. So if you ever get a chance to see "Weird Al" you should go, because you will have a good time. To find out his tour dates for the Straight Outta Lynwood tour go to Weirdal.com.

pictures from Al's website

The World of Tiers - Philip José Farmer (1965,1966,1968,1970,1977)

Farmer is one of the great names of sixties and seventies sci-fi. He is the archetype of that very specific type of writer, like Jack Chalker and Piers Anthony, who overflow with imagination. His settings are rich and varied, the worlds he creates are well-thought out and fantastic, in both senses of the word. Many times, this means that plot and character are secondary to the vivid backdrops against which they are placed.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the five World of Tiers novels: The Maker of Universes(1965), The Gates of Creation(1966), A Private Cosmos (1968), Behind the Walls of Terra (1970), and The Lavalite World(1977). Each of them, with the partial exception of Behind the Walls of Terra, is little more than a travelogue of a journey through an interesting and exciting new world.

And each is great fun.

The general idea is that an extremely advanced race has created a bunch of pocket universes that one can travel between via gates. These "Lords" are nearly immortal, and, to fight the ennui, spend a lot of time trying to kill each other in baroque and complicated ways. Usually they involve kidnapping their foe and putting them into some sort of deathtrap world through which they must adventure until they reach a trap-laden palace, at which point, if the victim has survived and can beat the traps, there's a big fight. The good guys win, of course, but not always without cost.

In the mix, Farmer does manage to add some interesting meditations on immortality, and some of the problems attendant upon it, as well as on racism (the Lords are the ultimate racists, looking down on any and all non-Lords) and love and its healing power.

Farmer is an excellent writer, his style is bold and compelling, and the characters are drawn in the same strokes. If this means that some subtlety and nuance is lost, it is in some measure compenstated for by the splendor and size of the picture.

Make no mistake, though, these are action novels, and action there is aplenty. Fights, flights and explosions abound. They are all short novels and quick reads, and a heckuva way to escape this world for a few hours.

Overall Grade: B

Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray (1848)

Some works of 19th Century literature endure, while others are forgotten. Sometimes, it's hard to see why one rises and one falls. Other times, it's clear why a work remains popular; such is the case with Vanity Fair. Some 160 years after it was written, it is still an enjoyable read.

The plot is a sprawling affair, as is often the case in these novels, concerning essentially the fortunes of two women: Rebecca Sharpe and Amelia Sedley. Opening with their departure from a school for young women, it concludes seventeen years or so later, after travel, marriages, wars, misfortunes and sundry such activities. Becky Sharpe, relying on her wits and amoral character has made some kind of a success of her life. Emmy Sedley has buried one husband, found another and found a sort of happiness. Whether Becky is happy and how much success Emmy has are questions left very much to the reader.

As the novel, some eight hundred pages in my edition, careens around the place, a plethora of other characters are introduced, play their part and then, in most cases, vanish, often with a quick paragraph to explain, as Thackeray might say, "how they conclude their trip to Vanity Fair."

Some of the wry social commentary makes little sense to a reader not steeped in 19th Century life, but a surprising amount of it still plays beautifully. Thackeray has managed to capture some essential humanity in most of his characters, and when that has been done, the clothes and the setting may change, but we recognize the traits which are eternal.

Despite it's length, the book gallops along at a good pace and it does not read as a daunting monument, but rather as a series of headlong events that draw one in. Whether or not one is a fan of the time and the genre, Vanity Fair is worth taking the time to attack. You may be pleasantly surprised at how quickly it goes.

Overall Grade: A-