A Scanner Darkly

If you caught the previews for this one, the first thing you probably noticed was the fact that it's animated. More specifically, it's rotoscoped--live actors were filmed and then each frame was drawn over by a computer. And unlike other, older rotoscoped films, the animation in this one was highly stylized, using thick lines and very odd shading and colors. If you're anything like me, the idea would make you immediately skeptical. It works, though. The film, as well as the Philip K. Dick novel on which it's based, is set in a not-too-distant future in which a new narcotic called "Substance D" has escalated the war on drugs to truly dystopian proportions. The story is told from the perspective of an undercover narcotics officer--played by Keanu Reeves--who, in the course of his investigation, becomes addicted to Substance D. A good deal of the film is taken up with depictions of the drug culture, from the paranoia and inanity of the characters' conversations to the hallucinations brought on by the deterioration of the protagonist's brain. This is where the animation comes in so beautifully: the comic-book coloring and the constantly shifting lines produce a very unsettling feeling. Combined with the spot-on dialogue and performances--especially from Robert Downey Jr. and Woody Harrelson--makes the film feel quite authentic while still being intensely surreal. I might have wished that Reeves' and Winona Ryder's characters had been cast differently, but they didn't really do all that badly. I think I'm definitely going to have to check out the book.

Viewed: 7/22/2006 | Released: 7/6/2006 | Score: B

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By Steven Brust

I haven't thought about Steven Brust's work in a while, but a Penny Arcade strip last month reminded me and the ensuing wave of nostalgia prompted me to spend a few weeks rereading his entire Vlad Taltos series. Of course, since the last time I'd read one of these novels two more had been written and I had to go and get those as well. I was a little surprised to find that the series held up just as well upon rereading as it did in my memory--possibly even better. Brust created a world that is just as intriguing to me as Middle Earth or The Land, but where Tolkien and Donaldson went for the mythic and epic, Brust wrote more colloquially. His characters end up feeling more real to me and more well-rounded--they have senses of humor, for one thing. It makes for a really fun read.

Started: 7/23/2006 | Finished: 7/25/2006

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Lady in the Water

I'm a little torn on the score I'm giving this one. You see, on the strength of the writing alone I'd have to say this deserved two stars, possibly even one. The plot was pretty thin, and didn't mesh well with itself. That is, there were two major components to the story: a character-driven story about a man coming to terms with a past tragedy and a quest story about a fairy creature trying to get home. The second is what the film pays attention to, but the first is what the story is really about, and I didn't feel that was done skillfully enough. On top of that, there was a lot of jarringly goofy comic relief that didn't match up well at all with the more fable-like tone of the rest of the movie. On the other hand, the performances taken by themselves would have gotten four stars. Paul Giamatti, especially, did some really amazing work in this movie. I don't think I can give his performance in the climactic scene enough praise. And I always like Jeffrey Wright--he always manages to bring a quirky realism to even the smallest roles. Even M. Night Shyamalan did a pretty good job, stepping it up a few notches from his normally wooden self. So I guess I have to split the difference and give it three stars, which I find quite unsatisfying for not reflecting either part well.

Viewed: 7/20/2006 | Released: 7/20/2006 | Score: B

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Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest has a pretty funny review of this movie up. I can't say I entirely disagree with their assessment, actually. The crux of it all is that Dead Man's Chest is not a standalone story--it is the middle volume of a trilogy. In that light, the fact that nothing actually gets resolved during the entire two and a half hours is, perhaps, somewhat forgivable. What may not be forgivable, though, is that this episode really brought nothing new to the table. Nearly all of the comedy was just a rehash of stuff we already saw in The Curse of the Black Pearl. Even Johnny Depp's performance came off as pretty stale. I am going to see the next one, but it's more because I feel a need for closure than because I particularly liked this one.

Viewed: 7/13/2006 | Released: 6/23/2006 | Score: C

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The Forever War

By Joe Haldeman

The main downside, in my experience, to the military SF genre is that it doesn't really give you much to think about. The novels are fun, but for the most part they tend to focus on the action. That's not a bad thing if that's what you're looking for--indeed, I quite often find myself in the mood for that sort of story. Still, it's nice to find a member of the genre that isn't just a less-philosophical rehash of Starship Troopers. (By the way, I do quite like most of the Heinlein I've read, including Starship Troopers. I just like a little variety now and then.) This one is right up there with Armor and Ender's Game as one of the best examples of the genre. It might even be better. The writing style is just as good, but where those other two stories operate on a bit more of a fairy-tale-ish level, The Forever War has a much grittier realism to it--not surprising from an author who is also a Vietnam veteran. I guess whether or not that makes it "better" is open to interpretation--all I know is that I really liked it.

Started: 6/29/2006 | Finished: 7/3/2006

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Superman Returns

When D.C. Comics decided--back in '93--to kill off Superman, the response (among those who took notice of the event) seemed to fall into two general categories: those who found it tragic and moving, and those who thought it was just another ploy to get us to buy the comic. So, when I tell you that I was pretty solidly in the former camp, it should tell you something about the biases I have in approaching a movie like this. In any case, I loved it. In reading some other reviews, I've noticed that a lot of people are complaining that the movie wasn't fresh enough, that there wasn't enough of a new spin. But consider: Superman is quite possibly the single most iconic figure in the entire history of American pop culture. I have a hard time imagining a way in which a studio could "update" the story that wouldn't just be wrong. Director Bryan Singer seems to agree with me, since Superman Returns is so obviously reverent toward the source material. Not to say that it's exactly the same as the comic or the first two films (we can just pretend that the second two never happened)--there are some significant differences from D.C.'s established chronology. But in the important ways, especially with the characters and the overall tone, Singer stayed faithful to the film's roots. Lest you think I've let me fanboyism run away, I will say that the film was not without its faults. Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane was pretty flat, but even at that I noticed a lot of growth in her skills since Win a Date with Tad Hamilton. Brandon Routh drew very heavily on Christopher Reeve's work for the basis of his own performance, which had its ups and downs. On the one hand, he did a pretty good job of reincarnating Reeve's Superman, which appealed to my sense of nostalgia. On the other hand, Routh is not as good an actor as Reeve was, and it shows the most in the scenes where he plays Clark Kent. Reeve was so good that you could almost believe that Kent and Superman were different people. Not so much with Routh. He was also a little hurt by the fact that he looks so young. Reeve was the same age when he started working on the 1978 film--a mere 26--but somehow he still looked like a grown-up instead of a teenager. Finally, if my experience talking to some of my friends is any guide, people who aren't familiar with the genre may find it a little campy. I thought it had a good balance of comic relief and dramatic intensity, but your mileage may vary.

Viewed: 6/29/2006 | Released: 6/20/2006 | Score: A

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Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies

By C. S. Forester

The final Hornblower novel, alas. As you know, I've really enjoyed this series, so I'm a bit sad to come to its end. This last book sees Hornblower as the admiral in command of the West Indian fleet. Like many of the later-written books in the series--especially Mr. Midshipman Hornblower this one is highly episodic in structure. Each chapter presents a more or less unrelated scenario to the previous one, and a lot of time passes in between chapters. As with any episodic story, this made for a fair amount of action but not much in the way of a cohesive narrative arc. Admiral Hornblower certainly wasn't my favorite, but even at that I still enjoyed it enough that I'd say it made for a decent capstone to a great series.

Started: 6/18/2006 | Finished: 6/27/2006

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