Cypher is a technothriller starring Jeremy Northam and Lucy Liu. The plot focuses on a man with an otherwise boring and merely subsisting life. Faster than you can say "Walter Mitty," he is whisked into the world of corporate espionage and counter spying. Against the objections of his otherwise sedate wife, he is criss crossing the country and racking up the frequent flier miles.

Somewhat akin to the fizzled ABC drama, "Alias," layer upon layer of complexity and deception gets added. There is enough mystery and intrigue to keep the viewer involved and curious as to if anyone can even be trusted.

What mars an otherwise well conceived story is the pacing. At several points the breakneck speeds hit rush hour traffic, and we come to a complete halt. These drawn out scenes were nothing that judicious use of the remote control couldn't handle. Somewhere in the editing, a tighter, an improved film should have emerged.

I did guess at the ultimate ending about 2/3rd's of the way through Cypher, but I didn't know how we were going to arrive there. If you're looking for a technothriller, give it a whirl. Just keep your remote handy; you're gonna need it.

Overall Grade: B-


The Thing About My Folks

The Thing About My Folks stars Peter Falk, Paul Reiser, and Olympia Dukakis. This is a touching relationship movie that focuses on the father son relationship between Falk and Reiser. Falk is a retired carpet salesman, and Reiser plays a NYC writer. Of note, Reiser wrote the script as well.

The two end up on a road trip, and end up catching up on father and son activites: fishing, taking in a ball game, and going to the bar.

For some reason, the movie insists on using older technology like a cordless phone the size of a brick, and a pay phone instead of a cell phone. These make the film feel dated, and older, although the rest of the film is taking place in present day.

What really shines, and almost saves the film, is the constant father-son banter between Falk and Reiser. They avoid the cliches, and slowly move towards the heart of their relationship, which is complicated by the mother, played by Olympia Dukakis.

What results is a drama clearly targeted to the AARP card carrying demographic. If you thing the drive is more important than the destination, then you will enjoy this trip.

Overall Grade: B-


Sufjan Stevens, Illinois (Asthmatic Kitty Records, 2005)

Eccentrics have long held a respected place in rock music. A giant list of performers have been labeled eccentric, deservedly or not, but few have been as deserving of this label as Detroit native and current New York City resident Sufjan Stevens. Stevens' previous effort was a concept album dedicated to his home state, and it generated enough of a response that he set a goal for himself to make an album for each of the fifty states. Now comes Illinois -- or, to use its full-length tittle, Sufjan Stevens Invites You To: Come On Feel The Illinoise! On this bizarrely compelling CD, Stevens brings together famous and infamous characters in the history of Illinois (the poet Carl Sandburg, serial killer John Wayne Gacy, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln and his Wife, Jane Addams, Benny Goodman, Shoeless Joe Jackson); throws in aliens, zombies, Superman, Santa Claus, and a predatory wasp for good measure; and spices up the mix with instrumental interludes bearing titles like "A Short Reprise for Mary Todd, Who Went Insane, but for Very Good Reasons." Stevens plays most of the many, many instruments himself, but receives some help from a drummer, a trumpet player, a string quartet, some backing vocalists and the five-piece Illinoisemaker Choir.

So how does an album like this get chosen Album of the Year by both the critics and fans at Paste Magazine? Well, as much as Illinois can come across at points like the soundtrack to a play worthy of Waiting for Guffman, there is a definite method to Sufjan Stevens' madness. For one thing, Stevens manages to make the generally silly tone of most of the album sound more charming than annoying. But more seriously, he can write a catchy chorus as well as anybody in the new generation of artists out right now. It would take a more stubborn person than myself to resist the urge to sing along with songs like "Chicago" and "The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts." There are hidden trinkets of depth in the lyrics as well, including several political and Christian (but not far-right Christian) metaphors. In the final song "The Tallest Man, the Broadest Shoulders," Stevens has the choir sing, "What have we become America? Soldiers on the great frontier! Carpenter and Soldier, one on one, it's the battle, volunteer!"

Is Illinois completely whacky? Well, yes actually. Is it completely whacky but brilliant? Often enough to justify giving it a listen.

Overall Grade: B+



Jodie Foster stars in Flightplan, a thriller. Foster plays a propulsion engineer, who conveniently for the plot, happens to be the designer of the jet engines on a new double decker airplane. Foster and her daughter are flying back on the jet after her husband dies with his casket in the hold. Before you can say "takeoff," the plot whirlwinds as Foster desperately searches for her lost daughter on the behemooth of a jet airplane. As an engineer, Foster knows the plane from top to bottom, and the action takes place in every conceivable nook and cranny.

Flightplan plays off the very human emotion of fear, and what a mother will do to get her lost child back. In that regard, it reminded me of another Foster thriller, Panic Room.

Unfortunately, the trailers for this film revealed a little too much of this somewhat predictable film. I enjoyed the twists and turns, but they were somewhat familiar most of the time. It felt more like the evening commute home, than a scenic vacation drive.

Aficionados of thriller movies will enjoy Flightplan, but there is nothing new or revolutionary here. Get on board at your own risk.

Overall Grade: B


Coach Carter

Coach Carter, starring Samuel Jackson, combines the excitement of basketball, somewhat like Hoosiers, with the hard knocks of an inner city school, like in Stand By Me. What results is a look into one man’s contribution to a team of high school boy’s lives that goes far beyond the foul line of any basketball court. Coach Carter is based on a true story.

Coach Carter is a former all star basketball player, bored in his current job, and wants to give “something back.” He decides to take over the losing high school basketball team of his high school alma mater. As fast as you can say “pick and roll,” he realizes that these boys need a whole lot more than some assistance with their free throws.

Coach Carter is punctuated by many touching and humorous moments. The Coach ramps up his authority off the court, enforcing his rules. It become clear that while the players dislike their coach, they realize he has their best interest at heart and a vision for them that goes beyond what they would seek for themselves.

The relationship with Coach Carter’s son provides additional drama to the movie.

In conclusion, I recommend this to anyone who wants a sports themed, “stand up and cheer” movie event. Even with over a two hour running time, the movie is paced well.

Overall Grade: A-


Hong Kong

I’ve enjoyed Stephen Coonts' series of Jake Grafton novels. The first book in the series, Flight of the Intruder, still stands as a great novel of men, naval aviation, and their mission in Vietnam. Along the way, we have had several touching moments showing the softer side of our hero with his wife, daughter, and friends. This is the eigth book in this series, and I have read them all up to this point.

Unfortunately, Hong Kong does very little to advance the series. Those fans looking for a novel of the navy will be sorely disappointed. The plot focuses on Rear Admiral Grafton, and his wife Callie, on a “working vacation” to the Far East.

The first half of the novel has extended descriptions of the current plight of Hong Kong. OK, I get it. How many times do I need to hear the same thing that China took over the former British colony? Unlike others that weave in fascinating historical tidbits, I found none of that here.

Hong Kong is further complicated by an extended cast of characters. There were so many characters, many barely developed, that I practically needed notes to keep track of them all. Perhaps the authentic Chinese names contributed to the overall confusion, or perhaps there were just too many.

In the second half of the novel the pace of the action quickens. The plot starts to develop, and I finally felt like we were back on track. Unfortunately, for the last 75 pages, the novel reminds me of a bad 80’s action flick. They had to resort to a group of robots to finish out the novel! I was cringing on every page to the end to see how low we would sink.

This 350 page novel feels like a tome twice as long. Quite honestly, on several occasions, I almost stopped and moved on to another book, something I almost never do. I recommend you skip Hong Kong, and look elsewhere. This is by far, the weakest book in Coonts' Jake Grafton novels.

Overall Grade: C-


The Pink Panther (Sony Pictures, 2006)

The head coach of the French national soccer team is murdered after a big win, with his prized ring The Pink Panther removed from his finger in the process, and Chief Inspector Dreyfus (Kevin Kline) needs to find the killer. Hoping to boost his own image in the process, Dreyfus concocts a strange scheme. He works covertly with a crack team of France's top investigators, and will "step in" when a suitably incompetent investigator chosen by him bungles the job and publicly embarrasses himself. Naturally, the right man for this job is the dimwitted, clumsy Jacques Clouseau (Steve Martin), and the stage is set for Shawn Levy's new version of The Pink Panther, based on the classic series of comedies from the sixties and seventies created by Blake Edwards and starring the legendary Peter Sellers.

As I've said before, I'm suspicious of re-makes, but I had enough confidence in the comedic abilities of Martin and Kilne to give this movie a chance. While some of the comedy is a little too predictable -- it's never hard to tell when something is about to get broken or catch fire -- the movie does for the most part deliver on the laughs. Beyoncé Knowles does fine as Xania, the murdered coach's girlfriend, and Jean Reno and Emily Mortimer also provide good support as Clouseau's sidekick Ponton and assistant Nicole. Ultimately though, I think liking The Pink Panther depends on what expectations you go in with. If you think Martin's Inspector Clouseau will make you roll on the floor the way Peter Sellers did, you will probably be disappointed. If you go in hoping for some good laughs and silly but entertaining physical comedy, you'll feel you got your money's worth.

Overall Grade: B-


Into The Blue

I readily admit that I wasn't expecting a whole lot out of this Into The Blue. In the end, it is only a little less shallow than the water in the kiddie pool. However, for two hours, I was transported to the sun, surf and sand of the Bahamas. In the middle of winter, this was quite a good thing.

Into The Blue has a storyline that focuses on the relationships between the four main characters. Paul Walker plays Jared, a stereotypical "down on his luck" American living down in the Bahamas. His steamy girlfriend is Sam, played by Jessica Alba. Scott Caan and Ashley Scott round out the other couple who come down to the islands to visit.

The plot is centered around a sunken treasure find off of a coral reef. What follows is a tale as old as time where the individuals have to choose their own path through the temptations of greed. While this has all been done before many times, the story is almost believable, and the dialogue is reasonably well done; at least it is not insulting. The second half of the movie was quite tense. Not in a suspenseful sort of way, but more of a waiting for the elevator to fall after the cable is cut. Trust me, you'll at least be near the edge of your seat.

The notable part of Into The Blue is the underwater cinematography. There are extended scenes with minimal to no dialogue featuring the creatures of the deep and the characters. The music is supportive, and not distracting from the experience. While not quite "shark week" worthy, there are several scenes with sharks that I enjoyed quite a bit. The underwater portions were a notch better than the usual for a Hollywood flick of this genre.

In my opinion, Into The Blue was enjoyable entertainment. It will be forgotten in a few months to be sure. It won't win any Academy Awards either. If you just want a two hour escape to the Bahamas, some beautiful scenery, and a simple plot, this may be just the ticket. With snow on the way, this may be just what we all need.

Overall Grade: B


Amadou & Mariam -- Dimanche Á Bamako (Nonesuch, 2004) and Je Pense Á Toi (Universal Music, 2005)

Amadou Bagayoko and Mariam Doumbia met as students at the Mali Institute for the Young and Blind. Not only did they fall in love and get married -- against the wishes of their parents, who didn't think two blind people marrying was such a good idea -- but they forged a successful musical partnership that carried them from Mali throughout Western Africa and up into France, which they have used as a springboard to healthy CD sales in Europe. Now Amadou and Mariam have set their sights on the American world music market with the release of Dimanche Á Bamako, a collection of new songs, and Je Pense Á Toi, a compilation of the best songs off their three previous French-produced CD's.

Both discs combine lively West African musical traditions with rock influences. Amadou and Mariam take turns singing, while Amadou also plays an excellent lead guitar. Not surprisingly, given that it pulls songs from three albums, Je Pense Á Toi is the more consistently strong of the two. Dimanche Á Bamako also suffers a bit from producer Manu Chao inserting himself too much into the proceedings, instead of just letting Amadou and Mariam do their thing. Still, the song "Coulibaly" is great, groove-oriented African rock, and Dimanche Á Bamako boasts a couple of other worthy tracks as well. These two discs will appeal to anybody interested in African music or good guitar music in general.

Overall grades:
Dimanche Á Bamako B
Je Pense Á Toi A-


I-CON 25

Ah, what a joy to have science fiction, fantasy, gaming, stars, lecturers, medieval battles, fascinating panels, a massive dealer’s room, and more all in one location! This comes to Long Island, New York with the I-CON convention. This year is I-CON 25 (and the eight consecutive one for me), being held March 24-26, 2006 at SUNY Stony Brook.

I-CON covers several genres, providing numerous guest stars for them. If you like movies, you can meet George Takei (Sulu), Kevin Sorbo (from Hercules and Andromeda), Marc Singer (star of Beastmaster), Cassandra Peterson (better known as Elvira), Ron Glass (Shepherd Book, from Firefly and Serenity), and more celebrities. I-CON 25’s celebrity author is Terry Brooks, webcomic creators Randy Milholland (Something Positive) and Jonathan Rosenberg (Goats) will be there, anime fans can meet Vic Mignogna (voice of Edward Elric on the show Full Metal Alchemist). More guests are added closer to the convention, from real-world scientists to gaming executives.

The panels are quite diverse. While the full schedule isn’t up until a few weeks before the convention, past panels have included everything from how to made medieval wooden utensils to the state of the gaming industry; from how good science fiction books get made into bad movies, to the benefits and perils of storing information on the Internet.

There is always something to do at I-CON. The dealers’ room is massive, offering old toys, new DVDs, handmade medieval garb and armor, and original artwork. Movies and TV shows are usually airing on large screens, games (of the board, card, roleplaying, and LARP varieties) are played all three days. You’re likely to see demonstrations of medieval combat or martial arts on the great lawn, and you’ll always see someone walking around in costume.

Is I-CON perfect? Alas, no. While this convention some of everything, that means if you want to spend all your time focused on one area (like horror movies or gaming) you’ll find more at a convention aimed only at a specific area. The various events are spread over numerous buildings over the SUNY Stony Brook campus, so be prepared to do a lot of walking. Due to campus security rules, you’ll find neither bladed weapons (for sale or in use) nor Nerf projectile weapons (obviating bringing my Nerf gatling gun). The final schedule isn't posted until a week or two before the convention. And the convention has really cracked down on bootlegs, so you can find plenty of rarities but nothing copied from elsewhere.

I-CON is my annual vacation, my pilgrimage out to eastern Long Island. If you enjoy science fiction, fantasy, horror movies, gaming, shopping, history, science, or any number of items, head over to I-CON 25. (And I’ll be running a B-Movie Night of Z-Man Games on Friday night, followed by a live Knights of the Dinner Table Reading on Saturday. Check it out!)

I Con 25


Trojan Odyssey

Clive Cussler has given us a whole series of novels that follow a certain formula: Mix one part nautical lore, add one part action hero, combine with another part of marine technology, then toss in a despicable evil person looking to take over the world. When combined in just the right proportions, the result is a great novel rewhich I have trouble putting down before completion. This has been the tried and true formula of the Dirk Pitt novels, which are Cussler’s main literary works and form an extensive body of literature over the last thirty years.

Now, ol’ Clive is not getting any younger. It appears that he is preparing to pass the literary mantle to his son, Dirk Cussler: In their latest novel, which follows Trojan Odyssey, Dirk is coauthor with Clive. Like an allegory, Cussler’s Trojan Odyssey has his trusty action heroes Dirk Pitt and Al Giordano share the spotlight with Pitt’s newly reunited children Dirk and Summer. Therefore, the usual formula is at least partially broken as Pitt and Giordano share the spotlight with Pitt’s children.

The background nautical lore of Trojan Odyssey focuses around the tale of Homer’s Odyssey. While it was long thought that The Odyssey was very loosely based around the ancient Greeks in an epic journey around the Mediterranean, a newer alternate view believes it was the Celts sailing in the Caribbean. Cussler masterfully interweaves the history into the plot in an unobtrusive and flowing manner.

The early action in the novel focuses around the hurricane of the millennium. Cussler’s descriptions are as well honed as a newly-minted, five-bladed razor. We feel the salt on our windblown face and the desperation of a floating hotel caught in its path.

Our action heroes Pitt and Giordano are presented not as eternally young but as approaching the sunset of their life. There are references to how “we still got it,” and their muscles are hurting and sore after severe physical exertion. While they clearly perform, they are working quite hard to get the job done.

There are the requisite appearances from recurrent characters that Cussler’s fans have come to expect, including Rudi Gunn, Admiral Sandecker, and Julian Perlmutter. They provide a consistency between the novels and are like old friends when they make their appearances. I’m always impressed that Cussler is able to come up with a new description each time they make an appearance, but he always manages to.

I wholeheartedly recommend this novel, with one caveat: If you have never read the Cussler series of Dirk Pitt novels before, I recommend starting with one not so far along in Pitt’s life. My recommendation is to start with Pacific Vortex (the first in the sequence chronologically) or The Mediterranean Caper (the first published). While the novels don’t need to be read strictly in order -- I still have a few early ones to read -- this is one journey you don’t want to rush to the end to.

Overall Grade: A+