Thursday, October 30, 2003

Body of Lies

Book: Body of Lies
Writer(s): Iris Johansen

Not a bad book, but once again, Johansen is stretching to find her plots. This one is overly elaborate and ludicrous. Worse, we're not given the explanation until the very end, when things make a little bit of sense: instead we have to wait through many pages of confusion and the unknown to get that explanation. The plot is revealed in reverse, and it's very strange. We're once again dealing with Eve Duncan, forensic sculpture. Johansen makes a brave attempt to develop the characters deeper with Eve's lover, Joe, betraying her, forcing her to run off to do a scuplting assignment for a shady Senator, but the argument, while it could be legitimate, feels forced from the reader's perspective. The two obviously love each other deeply, so why are they running away? At lot of the decisions made don't make much sense and it feels like Johansen is manipulating the characters to fit into her planned plot instead of the other way around. That sounds worse than it is, because she does an excellent job at force-fitting, but there are subtle flaws that made reading it awkward for me. I suspect most wouldn't notice, though. The actual plot, when revealed, turns out to involve a world cartel, one of those "secret society" things that run the world. Very strange, her going off into looney-land like that. Her novels are usually a bit more grounded in reality, but I think she's trying to hard to come up with plots. Still, it's an entertaining read, and the mystery's intriguing, even if the payoff takes too long to deliver. Johansen does dot all the i's and cross the t's at the end, though everything is rather predictable by that point. A fun read that wants to be more than it is.


Friday, October 24, 2003

Scary Movie 3

Movie: Scary Movie 3

Pretty much what you'd expect from this spoof franchise, though a little less raunchy than usual (though not by much) since this one is rated PG-13. The key films mocked are Signs (which needs mocking) and The Ring (which is also easy to mock). There are a number of laugh-out-loud moments, a lot of grins, a few gasps ("I can't believe they did that!"), a few jokes that fall flat. Overall it's harmless good fun.


Thursday, October 23, 2003

Bissap Baobab

A few weeks ago my aunt read an article in the San Francisco Chronicle about Marco Senghor, the nephew of Leopold Senghor, the president of Senegal for many years. Marco has his own Senegalese restaurant in San Francisco and it's getting rave reviews. My mother is in town visiting this week, so she and my aunt and my cousin and his girlfriend and I all went downtown to check out the restaurant. It was really neat! A year ago I went to a Senegalese restaurant while I was in New York; that was a more authentic experience. There my cousin and I were the only white people in the whole "Little Dakar" area. At Bissap Baobab the clientele was almost all white, for a very different atmosphere. Still, the food was excellent (the Yassa I had was spicy for me but not as spicy as it is often made in Senegal) and the desserts fantastic. We got to speak to Marco and tell him about our experiences in Senegal. He's a really neat guy, very friendly and unassuming. We had a nice long chat before we left. We didn't get home until midnight, so it was a long day, but well worth it for the experience. If I'm ever in the City around a meal-time, I think I'll stop by again and try some of the other dishes.


Monday, October 20, 2003

Mystic River

Movie: Mystic River
Director(s): Clint Eastwood

Intense film about perception, violence, love, friendship, and fate. The plot's simple: a group of childhood friends are now older, married, and have lives, but still live in the same New Jersey neighborhood. One's life has been forever scarred by an incident of child abuse. Another fell into crime but managed to get out of it... or did he? The other became a cop. The three are brought back together when the daughter of the former thief is found murdered, and the sex victim is the prime suspect. As tensions and suspicions mount, we're not sure who wears the white hat and who wears the black hat. This ambiguousness is at the heart of the film as it forces the viewer to think about the nature of violence, justice, and fate. The ending is disturbing and left agonizingly unresolved, exactly like violence in real life (which isn't neatly wrapped up like cinema violence). Excellent film, but slow-paced, and unlike the awesome Unforgiven, the pace doesn't build to a frantic conclusion that makes the waiting pay off. Some might find it depressing; others would just call it sadly realistic. Definitely worth seeing, however. Excellent, near-fantastic performances from a number of excellent actors (Marcia Gay Harden, Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Laura Linney). Should win some awards.


Monday, October 20, 2003

Long After Midnight

Book: Long After Midnight
Writer(s): Iris Johansen

I have no idea what the title means. The book's about a female research scientist in Oklahoma who's developed a process that a world famous needs to perfect his new "RU2" drug that cures cancer. But powerful drug companies don't want RU2 to hit the market, so they hire an assassin to kill the scientist. When his lab is blown up he's presumed dead, and then the assassin goes after the woman and her son. So the top scientist -- who's not dead -- shows up at the woman's place and helps her and her son escape into hiding, where they can perfect the drug. It's all rather forced and far-fetched, with Johansen really stretching for material. But she does paint interesting characters, though they're ones we've seen before from her. A decent read, if you just enjoy it for recreation and don't try to use logic or common sense regarding the plot. Not as profound as her better work.


Sunday, October 19, 2003

Real Women Have Curves

Movie: Real Women Have Curves

Excellent independent film I'd heard about but missed in the theatres. I thought it was a foreign film, but it's not: it's mostly in English, though the Hispanic characters have a few scenes in Spanish. The story is actually similar to Bend It Like Beckham except not at all comic. Here we have an overweight Hispanic girl who's graduating from high school and wants to go to college, but her traditional parents, particularly her old-fashioned mother, are against it. Her mother wants her daughter to work in the sewing factory where she works for very little money. I found that a little strange, since the daughter could make a lot more money with a good education, but apparently the mother values control over the family over a higher income and her daughter's well-being. She's a nasty woman, constantly telling her daughter how fat she is, and how no man would want her. The ironic thing about that is the mother's not exactly swelte herself! (But then, as she points out, she's already married.) The heart of the movie's about the daughter's rebellion, but what makes the film work is that it's balanced by the daughter learning how hard her mother works and learning to appreciate that. In the end, they both grow and change (the daughter more than the mother). Not as profound as it could be, but has a lot of good scenes, and tackles a number of complicated issues.


Friday, October 17, 2003

Runaway Jury

Movie: Runaway Jury
Writer(s): John Grisham (novel)
Director(s): Gary Fleder

This kind of film is awkward as I've read the book (though not recently) and I find that distracts me as I'm constantly comparing the two as much as I try not to do so. The most significant change I noticed is that in the film the trial's against the gun industry -- in the book it was tobacco, if I remember correctly. Of course both the book and the film are blatantly anti-smoking/guns which is rather annoying: the other point of view isn't even given the slightest voice (except that of irrationality). The trial itself is rather a joke, with neither side having much of a case (at least from what we see in the film). The characters are mildly interesting, especially Cusack and Weisz, but Gene Hackman's jury consultant is too obviously evil to be human and Dustin Hoffman's white hat lawyer is too inept to be heroic. What makes the film work is the whole con by Cusack and Weisz and our curiousity as to what will happen to their scheme. If you've read the book, this is an okay film -- it's on par with the novel. If you haven't read the book I think you'd like it better as many aspects of jury duty will be surprising and interesting.


Friday, October 17, 2003

8 Women

Movie: 8 Women
Writer(s): Franciois Ozon
Director(s): Franciois Ozon

Delightfully bizarre mix of old fashioned English murder mystery and musical farce. Yes, musical! This is the story of several generations of a family (grandmother, mother, aunts, and daughters) and a couple female servants trapped by snow in a large house who discover one morning that the only man in the house has been murdered -- stabbed in the back. The phone line has been cut, the automobiles sabotaged, and the snow is blocking the gate so the eight women are trapped. Then the fun begins as the women begin to bicker and accuse, and slowly all sorts of unexpected truths emerge and we learn that every woman has secrets. It's completely soap opera absurd, and thus hilarious, and the director brilliantly plays this up with overly dramatic music and camera zooms. And each of the eight women has their own song they get to sing, breaking out with a tune in an (often) absurd moment, the room going dark with them in a spotlight, creating a hilariously campy feel. Fortunately, most of the tunes are pretty good (the first, in particular, is wonderful), and the camp feel is appropriate and gives the film an unexpected dose of fun. The murder mystery is a bit of joke (literally) but has a somber touch to it by the twist ending. Pretty good film. A bit long -- it'd be better trimmed by 10 or 15 minutes -- as it doesn't quite live up to its promises and gets slow in places. But overall a lot of fun and silliness, witty and entertaining.


Monday, October 13, 2003

Kill Bill: Volume One

Movie: Kill Bill: Volume One
Writer(s): Quentin Tarantino
Director(s): Quentin Tarantino

Wow, what a film! While I can see that some people wouldn't like this -- it's violent, loud, and wild -- I loved it. I didn't go in thinking I would, either. While I'm a Tarantino fan, I don't worship him or anything. This film, split into two movies because it was too long, had me dreading it would feel incomplete. Far from it. The action is amazing and the finale makes Matrix Reloaded feel like an amateur production. No silly 100 Mr. Smith's here: this is real multi-fighting with Uma taking on a zillion samuri solo. I appreciated that unlike many multi-fight scenes that look staged because the fighters stand in line and wait their turn to be masacred, in this they attack in large batches (much more realistic) and she still dispatches them with terrific ease.

The plot is a simple one, brilliantly executed: Uma plays a member of an assasination team who was betrayed and left for dead. After four years in a coma she wakes up seeking revenge, and goes after her former teammates one by one. (That, essentially, is the plots for part two, as she doesn't get to all on her list in this movie.) The revenge plot has been done before (see Payback for instance), but what makes this so awesome is the way Tarantino directs it. He's totally aware that this is a film and shoves it in your face. It's all about style and every frame drips it. I heard him comment he's a Sergio Leone fan (he loves The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly) and this film could be an homage to Sergio. It's got the great close-up zooms of faces and the startling in-your-face music. Everything's over the top, from the colorful sets and costumes to the B-movie dialog and action. It's just a wonderful blend of camp, blood, and cartoon. In fact, there's an anime sequence in the middle that's bloody fantastic (literally).

If you're the least bit squeamish, don't see this film. There is a lot of blood. Literally. Only Peter Jackson's Dead Alive tops it in that category. Limbs and heads fly. But it's done in such a way that the violence is so artistic as to be beyond reality, mocking extreme violence. Besides, there's something satisfying and cathartic about the revenge fantasy. This is a live-action cartoon full of frenetic action, ultra-


Sunday, October 12, 2003


Book: Joshua

I'd wanted to see this when it was in theatres but missed it. I'd heard about the book years ago from my cousin. It's about a stranger named Joshua who shows up in a town and bears a striking resemblance to Jesus. He's a carpenter and begins building a fallen-down church, and soon the whole town's helping him. He helps people all over town, but everyone's wondering who he is. Great idea, excellently done, especially in how Joshua "preaches" (he uses common sense and demonstrates love). I found it interesting there are no bad guys in the movie: the ones we think are bad turn out to be simply misled and Joshua heals them. The ending is weak as Joshua visits the Pope -- I couldn't really figure out what that was all about -- but it's still an interesting film. Perhaps filled with more potential than actual import, but it's got some decent scenes and is worth seeing just for the concept.


Sunday, October 12, 2003

The Search

Book: The Search
Writer(s): Iris Johansen

Not a sequel to The Killing Game, but it does involve many of the same characters, particularly Sarah Patrick and her dog Monty. A romance is in store for John Dugan, who was shut out in first one, so that's rather nice. But the two are so obvious in their dislike of each other it takes forever for them to get together and yet we saw it coming from page one (rather annoying). The plot of the story is a bit weird: a guy from John's past wants to kill him and so is bombing John's research facilities, killing his workers. He won't stop until John's dead, so John must kill him. There's some good mystery and action, but it feels a heavy-handed and forced. Still, the characters are likable, but the real stars are the animals in Monty and Maggie, a wild wolf. I'd like a book just about them!


Friday, October 10, 2003

Intolerable Cruelty

Movie: Intolerable Cruelty

Easily one of the wittiest films of the year, with several scenes of high-speed dialog that's just hilarious. The plot and characters are great as well. George Clooney's finally in a decent film, and Catherine Zeta-Jones is just amazing. He's a divorce lawyer and she's a man-hunter out to scam millions in a settlement, but when he falls in love with her, is she going to scam him? Terrific fun with tons of wicked barbs at divorce, and a happy resolution. Excellent.


Wednesday, October 8, 2003

School of Rock

Movie: School of Rock

Undoubtedly the feel good movie of the year. While not the least bit complicated and totally predictable in plot, this film just hits all the right notes and is great fun. Jack Black is over-the-top magic and he carries the film, but the way they focus on the kids is great as well. I was worried Jack Black's more adult-oriented rebel side would put a sour note on the mood, but the producers kept this at an above-crude level for wholesome entertainment the whole family can enjoy. Cool.


Monday, October 6, 2003

Under the Tuscan Sun

Movie: Under the Tuscan Sun

In some ways I liked this better than I expected, and in others ways I liked it less. One of the one hand it is cute and funny and Diane Lane is perfectly awesome as always, but on the other the story is a bit of a downer and the ending drags on too long. This is one of those films that must fight that delicate balance between being too predictable so it's boring or so unpredictable it's unsatisfying. The story sets us up for idealistic romance -- a freshly divorced woman, shattered, buys a villa while visiting Tuscany, and meets her true love... except that's not exactly what happens. Sure, what does happen is more realistic, but it's not exactly satisfying. The ending implies everything will be okay, but I still found it an annoyingly pat solution (particularly the way she ends up with a guy at the end after all the work to show us that she doesn't need a guy to be happy). See this for the fun, the humor, and Diane Lane, not for the romance or anything remotely profound.


Sunday, October 5, 2003

MLS: New York Metrostars at San Jose Earthquakes

Soccer: MLS: New York Metrostars at San Jose Earthquakes

Not much of a birthday present here. The Quakes came out and laid a goose egg. The Metrostars were without superstar Clint Mathis (red card last weekend) so I figured the Quakes had the definite edge, especially considering they scored nine goals in their last two games. But nope: this one was all New York. They scored early and held on. A big part of the problem was the referee, who was terrible. Of course home crowds tend to be biased, but players on both teams were obviously confused by his arbitrary calls. One time a foul is called one way and minutes later an identical foul isn't called. Later on the same foul goes the other direction. Bizarre. That didn't leave the Quakes with much confidence in the ref. When the Quakes tied the score with a great goal late in the first half, the ref disallowed the goal, apparently saying Dewayne DeRosario fouled an opponent while scoring. Late in the game the side ref blew an offside call to allow the Metrostars a chance. The Quakes were forced to give up a corner, and on that corner kick New York scored. That's an excellent example of how poor refereeing trickles down and has direct effect on the play. In the final minutes of play the Quakes scored a second goal -- and again the ref disallowed it! Supposedly this time it was a Quake handball. Both plays happened so quickly it's hard for me to truly judge (though I was in the perfect position for the offside call that wasn't made while the side ref was ten yards out of position), but I find it incredible that two goals could be discounted. There are some conspiracy-minded Quake fans who feel MLS wants New York to do well as they're such a prime media market and think the league actually distorts the results -- this sure feels like it. It doesn't really mean anything to us as the Quakes still lead the league and are well into the playoffs, but the win was huge for New York who've been struggling as this puts them into the playoffs. Just a disappointing, frustrating day for Earthquake fans. Final: 2-0 Metrostars.


Sunday, October 5, 2003

MLS: Shake with the Quakes

Soccer: MLS: Shake with the Quakes

Unfortunately the "Shake with the Quakes" event after the game -- an exclusive party for season ticket holders -- had a bit of a cloud over it due to the loss to New York. It wasn't so much the loss as the manner of the loss. I even talked with a player or two about it, and got a kind of mysterious shrug as in "What else could we do?" or "How could that referee be so bad?" I suggested we just pretend the game never happened and he agreed. It was cool meeting the Quakes. I got my Landon Donovan T-shirt signed by a dozen players (okay, eleven players and one assistant coach). The guys were awesomely nice and in good moods despite being pestered for autographs and coming off a harsh loss. I joked with DeRosario that it was a good thing he plays with his feet after seeing him sign so many autographs. He laughed and massaged his hand which was no doubt sore. There were a number of soccer-related activities around at the party (mini-games, goal shooting, giant air slide, etc.), but they seemed all geared toward very young kids (kinda lame). This year the event was held in a back parking area in a much smaller area than last year's event, making it extremely crowded, which was disappointing. But they did serve burgers: it was a nice catered spread with several side dishes including yummy fruit salad. Once again the "autograph alley" thing was lame as different players were scheduled to be there at different times, but the wait in line was probably an hour, meaning it was tough to get your target player's signature. Most players wandered the event after their turn in the booth, though, and were willing to sign if you asked. Overall a good event, though it'd be nice if they fixed a few of the problems (like the long entrance line) for next year.


Saturday, October 4, 2003


Today's my birthday. Happy birthday to me! Most of my family is out of town (the nerve) so we'll be celebrating in the future (which is fine with me).


Friday, October 3, 2003

Out of Time

Movie: Out of Time

Modest but effective thriller. Denzel Washington is the police chief of a small Florida town. His police detective wife is divorcing him and he's having an affair with a local married woman. Her husband abuses her, making Denzel feel protective. Then he learns her cancer's come back and she's got no money for expensive treatments. When she names him the beneficiary in her million dollar life insurance policy, he stupidly gives her a half million in cash from a drug bust which he thinks won't be needed as evidence until the trial a year away (by which time he'll have the insurance money and he can pay back what he borrowed). When the woman's house burns down and two bodies are found inside (and no money anywhere), a murder investigation is started with the wife assigned to the case. The first thing she does is look for any extra-marital activity and suddenly Denzel is rushing to cover up evidence before she can find it, desperately trying to keep one step ahead of her. It looks bad for him: he's the insurance beneficiary, a neighbor saw him at the house the night of the fire, and the drug bust money is missing. It's a great idea and fairly well implemented, at least as far as tension and drama are concerned. There are truck-sized plot holes (Why does the accomplice end up with the money? Why is this intelligent police chief stupid enough to borrow drug bust money?) but overall it's fun. The ending's convoluted, confused, and doesn't make much sense, but by that time you just want a resolution, so to works. There's some good humor and excitement and overall it's a good film. But it's too lightweight to be great or perfect.


Thursday, October 2, 2003

The Teeth of the Tiger

Book: The Teeth of the Tiger
Writer(s): Tom Clancy

I haven't read much Clancy as I haven't been a fan of his fragmented writing style, but this was a good book. It's one scenario of what clandestine operation the U.S. might do in response to 9-11 (the "teeth" of the "tiger"). There's a super-secret government organization that's actually privately funded so there's no connection to the government at all. But this organization has penetrated all levels of the government and thus has full access to all intelligence from all other agencies. Using this info, this organization will, essentially, kill terrorists before they can strike. Brutal and cold, but realistic. How else do you stop sucide bombers? The book devotes too much time to "debate" over the morality of this as though Clancy were defending the idea himself through his characters instead of getting on with the story, and in the end the story's thin as everything happens the way we'd expect (and desire, i.e. the terrorists are stopped). One interesting thing is that this book is set in Clancy's world and many of the characters are descendants of familiar Clancy characters (such as Jack Ryan's son). I haven't read enough Clancy to know if he always does this, but I found it interesting. A good read.


Wednesday, October 1, 2003

Secondhand Lions

Movie: Secondhand Lions

Another one of those films I wasn't terribly interested in seeing, but timing meant I saw it, and it turned out to be a pleasant surprise. I was worried it'd be a bit smarmy and pretentious and too saccharine for my tastes, but it turned out to be an enjoyable film. The "plot" is about a little boy who goes to live with his two grumpy uncles for the summer in the early 1960s. The old men are rumored to have millions hidden away and thus are pestered by every distant relative and saleperson in the state. Their main activity is sitting on their porch with shotguns to scare away people. The boy's arrival disturbs their lifestyle and gradually the boy learns to love his uncles and vice versa. Predictable overall, but there are many humorous little sidesteps in the plot -- such as when the old men, who used to be in the Foreign Legion in Africa, buy a used lion which they plan to hunt, only to discover it's so old it won't even get out of the shipping crate. In the end the lion becomes the boy's pet (his first). The title refers to the movie's thought-line of how you don't throw away a life, implying that the old men (who don't act their age) are also secondhand lions.

There's a lot about the story that's unbelievable (intentionally: we hear fabulous stories about the old men's past and we're supposed to wonder how much of it is true), but the genuine performances help ground the film. The direction has some nice touches as well. My favorite was this: when the boy arrives at the uncles' home, there are "no tresspassing" and other forbidding signs on the long dirt driveway leading to the home. The final sign says "Turn back now!" But at the end, when the boy is being driven away and he doesn't want to leave, he's looking longingly out the rear window of the car and we see the signs in the reverse, including the one that screams "Turn back now!" in huge letters -- and this time the meaning is completely different. Really cool. Brilliant, in fact.