Thursday, June 28, 2007

BURN NOTICE Heats Up The Summer Replacement Schedule!

The premiere of Burn Notice was a commercial-free hour-plus of great television. Partnered with DirecTV, NBC Universal has released its latest summer replacement series on the USA network on Thursdays at 9pm Central time. The season will run twelve episodes long, as of this writing.

Jeffrey Donovan stars as Michael Westen, a CIA spy who has been tossed out into the cold for mysterious reasons. The victim of a “burn notice” is left with nothing. Westen’s ID has been expunged from data systems and all his assets have been frozen, and FBI agents are following his every move. He’s penniless and without a true friend in the world. Not only that, he’s been dumped back in South Beach Miami, Florida where he grew up. That means he’s trapped there in the same dysfunctional family relationship that he fled from when he first became a spy. It’s an interesting and comedic situation, and Donovan and company appear to be making the best of it.

The episode starts out in Nigeria where Westen is negotiating a buy-off of a local terrorist. He’s supposed to pay the guy not to disrupt work at certain oilfields. In the middle of that high-pressure deal, Westen’s status is pulled. Suddenly he can’t pay this very bad man, and even worse things ensue. The situation is funny and dangerous at the same time, which seems to be the perfect mix for the series and one that will be followed through successive episodes.

Westen escapes with his life, and the next few minutes of film are quite exciting. Donovan demonstrates great acting abilities as well as physical talent during the fight scenes. I’m quite sure someone else rode the motorcycle he escaped on, but the action sequences were well done and his voiceover added to the excitement and the fun.

This would, of course, be the place where a commercial was inserted. Instead we cut to the scene where Westen is recovering in a bedroom. In short order, we’re introduced to his ex-girlfriend Fiona. She was a thief for the Irish Republican Army and they had a thing together for a while. Westen bailed on the relationship, but he still carries her phone number as an emergency contact. That’s why she sat with him for two days while he slept.

Of course even though Fiona did a good thing for him, Westen can’t even thank her properly without making her angry. She goes off in a tizzy. The onscreen chemistry between Jeffrey Donovan and Gabrielle Anwar is there and I expect it will grow as the series progresses. They both seem to approach the roles with the same tongue-in-cheek panache and have a lot to offer physically, beauty and lethal martial arts moves.

Westen calls in a favor from an old friend, a female friend, and we get the feeling that there are a lot of those scattered around. This is obviously a guy who has a lot of history and none of it is really pleasant. With his bank accounts frozen, Westen needs money. The only way he knows how to get money is through violently embracing danger. So he becomes an off-the-books private detective. More or less.

Bruce Campbell plays Sam Axe, another ex-government operative. He’s not exactly a proud kind of guy. He’s slumming around Miami and drinking booze provided by rich widows, rich divorcees, and rich wives (not his own). Still he doesn’t mind helping Westen with information. Campbell lives for roles like this, and he’s going to make the most of this one. He’s got a decent showing here, but he hasn’t really been set free at this point. I have a feeling it’s coming.

On top of that, Westen has to deal with his hypochondriac mother, Madeline. She tries to guilt him for not seeing his father during the final years of his life. Westen responds, telling her that he and his father hated each other. Nothing he could do would ever satisfy his father. And he didn’t feel guilty about not seeing his father because the last thing his father told him was that he would see him in Hell. Westen says he figures he and his father kind of had something “on the books” as a result.

Then there are the new living arrangements. Sam fixes him up with a guy that puts Westen in a loft next to a drug dealer named Sugar. That also becomes a source of conflict that runs throughout the episode and gets resolved in an entertaining fashion.

The primary case that drives the episode involves an innocent and honest man who is accused of stealing $22 million worth of art. The police suspect him and no one else really. He offers Westen $4,600 to find out who the real thief was. But it’s the man’s eight year old son that really captures Westen’s heart, which he is determined to keep protected.

While he is working on the case, while he is dealing with his mom, while he is being followed by the FBI, while he is dealing with his living arrangements, while he is dealing with his ex-lover and depending on her at the same time, Weston is also trying to find out who issued the burn notice on him. His friends at the Agency aren’t his friends anymore, and the one that will talk to him says he has no clue who issued it.

The story is chopped into bite-sized scenes that move along at a frantic pace. All the storylines are advanced constantly, and we learn more about Westen’s background and spy methods. And all of this is seeded with the sarcastic voiceovers that are going to become a trademark of the show.

In some ways, Burn Notice reminds me of another great semi-spy show. The Equalizer starred Edward Woodward as Robert McCall, a spy put out into the cold who couldn’t walk away from his adrenaline addiction and started picking up side work that dealt with violence and danger. But where McCall was a proper English gentleman in so many ways, Westen is totally of the here and now. He doesn’t like relationships, he doesn’t like his family, and he just wants to be able to get on with his life in a limited fashion that doesn’t leave him stressed out. Any more than having a gun shoved in his face would do. That kind of stress he can live with.

If you didn’t see tonight’s episode, it will be repeated. Check the USA network homepage for the dates and times. If you like spies, detectives, mysteries, or sarcasm laced with liberal physical action, Burn Notice will probably be to your liking. I think it’s going to be a great summer series.
Oklahoma Flood Report

Weather in Oklahoma lately has been totally weird. There’s no other description that aptly fits what we’ve been dealing with. Normally by this time, we're sweltering. Temperatures usually run in the 90s to the 100s. And everything is as dry as a bone.

Usually we’re having to water the lawn just to keep the ground from cracking. I’ve seen some areas at times that were so dry you could actually stick your hand into the cracks made in the earth. Small toys could be lost in those cracks and never seen again without some serious excavation.

But here lately, all we see is the rain. Baseball season ended early this year with several games not being made up due to rain-outs (affectionately being called the Moore Monsoon Season). None of the coaches I know really got upset. We put off vacations till after ball season, and this began to feel like a ball season that would never end.

It rained again today. And it appears that it’s going to rain all day. For a while it came down in heavy sheets.

I grabbed my nifty new camera and went out to preserve pictures for posterity. Those of you who haven’t seen Moore and the deep ditch that runs behind my house aren't going to truly appreciate what I’m about to show you. I’m going to have to take pictures during the dry season (if we ever have one again!) just to show you how spectacular this rain truly is.

The ditch behind my house is part of the drainage system throughout the city. And it’s beginning to look like the city may get swamped after all. I’ve been paying flood insurance, begrudgingly, for several years. I’ve never once thought I would have to use it. After today, I have to wonder. I also have to wonder if Evan Almighty isn’t precipitously being released to warn us all of impending disaster.

I only half-jest.

Anyway, on to the pictures. Here’s the first one and it shows the street bridge that crosses the ditch only a few feet from my house. As you can see, there may be a foot of clearance under the bridge and the overflow ports are working double-time just to try to clear the street.

Normally there’s about 10 or 12 feet of clearance under the bridge. Obviously that’s all gone. The water rushed by me as I took these pictures. I would’ve had to run in order to keep up with the current, and even then I don’t know if I would’ve been able to. Anyone who got out in this water would have been lucky to get back out alive.

The scary part as I stood there with my nine year old, Chandler, was that I realized we were both standing way too close. I blame me. He doesn’t know any better. He doesn’t know his father’s innate curiosity is extremely dangerous and darn near unmanageable.

But it wasn’t until I saw a child’s tricycle floating down the creek (which at this point looks more like a river) that I realized the danger we were both in while standing on the rain-slick hillside.

Needless to say, I backed us both away pretty quickly. As I wondered what the tricycle was doing there, and prayed that no child had been anywhere near it, I saw this bright yellow air mattress pass by.

I only hope neither the tricycle nor the air mattress were occupied. Perhaps they were just things left by kids in the neighborhood earlier in the week. That way only things were lost and not children. I can't remember how many kids have drowned here in Oklahoma since these floods have begun. But I can remember being that young and being that fascinated and wondering if I could handle water like this.

Chandler and I got back into my car and drove around the neighborhood. As you can see, the streets are all flooded.

We made a big circle very quickly and came out a few blocks farther down the creek where it goes under another street bridge. As luck would have it, I got another picture of the yellow air mattress. And you can see just how much water we’re seriously talking about in a matter of two and a half blocks.

Today has truly been an amazing experience. And I have to wonder how long it’s going to be before the rainy season ends. They're predicting four more inches of rain tonight.

Neil Gaiman and Michael Reaves's New Book Is Out Of This World--And Into Several Others!

Neil Gaiman and Michael Reaves are both award winning writers. They also both rose to prominence outside the novel arena. Gaiman scripted the Sandman comic series that lasted 75 issues plus specials. Since that time he’s gone on to script many other things, including novels, television shows, short stories, movie scripts, and continued working in the comics arena. His work for Marvel Comics to create the 1602 universe when heroes similar to the present-day Spiderman, Daredevil, Fantastic Four, etc rose at 300 years ago has rightfully garnered a lot of attention. He also helped flesh out the mythos of the comics industry’s best-selling title, Spawn.

Michael Reaves has written many television cartoon scripts, including Batman the Animated Series, Ghostbusters, and others. He’s also written short stories and novels.

According to the notes in the latest book they have out together, InterWorld, they got the idea for the book about ten years ago. Reaves joined Gaiman at his house and they sat down and wrote the book together. The idea had originally started out as a pitch for the television people. Since they had trouble explaining the concept to television executives, they came up with the idea of writing a short novel about it. Even after the novels written, television wasn’t prepared to make a series.

Last year, the manuscript was given fresh life when it was shown around to some prospective publishers. Almost immediately, the book was greenlit for publication.

I enjoy a lot of Neil Gaiman’s work. His comics are great, his short stories haunt, and his novels are generally burst out loud laughing or truly epic. Sometimes both.

I’ve read some of Reaves’s books, but I’m not as familiar with his work. He seems to create some interesting worlds and some interesting characters.

When I heard about InterWorld, the premise sounded truly exciting. Imagine a boy, Joey Harker, who could literally run into several of his alternate selves on parallel worlds. I figured immediately that the book had kind of a Sliders or Marvel Comics Exiles feel. I had a lot of hopes for the book.

After getting the book in the mail today, I sat down and read it. It’s an easy read. The prose just sails right along. And the story is simple. In fact, it’s a little too simple compared to what I was expecting. Granted that the book was written with a nine to twelve year old audience in mind, there was a lot of concentration on the architecture of the nothingness that stretched between the worlds. And not enough focus on real character development or even a plot. Both of those turn out simple as well.

I know the juvenile crowd will probably appreciate that, but this is the same market that has been reading Harry Potter books that were 1000 pages long with convoluted and heavily articulated plots.

Still, this is Gaiman and there are flashes of brilliance as well as true emotion throughout. When he talks about his teacher Dimas, he sounds so true I couldn’t help but wonder if Gaiman or Reaves really had a teacher like that. The “class assignments” were terrific, and found myself wishing for more of those.

The book moves at high speed once it gets up and going, which is really very quickly. However Joey tends to be left on his own through much of the book. He always seems to be leaving people behind and not making any true and lasting friendships for a long time. In fact, the story was depressing there for awhile because everybody he met seem to die. Including himself.

Overall, I was pretty happy with the book. I wish there had been more. But it felt like an interesting cross between a Heinlein juvenile, an early Andre Norton adventure, and Roger Zelazny’s Amber series. InterWorld is a quick read with plenty of zip and provides a host of ideas with lots of action.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Great For Youngsters And Dads Who Wannabe!

After seeing the movie recently, I took my son to the local Best Buy and picked up a copy of Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer. He was excited about getting to play the characters from the movie. We had purchased the first Fantastic 4 game and he had a good time with that. According to the reviews I read, this game was supposed to be even better.

The graphics in the game are really good. The colors are vibrant and pop from the screen. There’s plenty of action because there’s always something to do throughout the game. My son and I were kept busy solving simple puzzles to open doors to other rooms and hallways. In between all that, we were constantly under attack from the bad guys.

The game doesn’t progress as the movie did. Although there are many references to Sue and Reed’s wedding coming up, the Silver Surfer doesn’t come into the game still much later. When we first opened up the game and started playing, and found out the first bad guys we faced were the Skrulls, I was really surprised. There were no Skrulls in the movie.

The game evidently had to put more villains and more side treks into the play to boost the game time up. Even though I was expecting gameplay to be quite repetitive, it became even more repetitive than I would have believed. However, it proved into retaining to my nine year old. He had a blast listening to the barrage of insults between the Thing and the Human Torch. (He played the Thing and I played the Human Torch. Ben Grimm is his favorite character, but that’s fine because when I was his age the Thing was my favorite character too.) My son also added insult to injury by coming up with quips and barbs about me as we played, definitely getting into the role of our onscreen personas.

The gameplay not only lacks originality, but it also has some very frustrating viewing angles. Sometimes it’s hard to see what you need to see in a room. I missed doors and hallways, but my eagle-eyed kiddo spotted them every time and got us back on track. He also possesses a phenomenal memory because there were times I would have gotten us lost backtracking and he insisted he knew the way. He did. And, of course, that triggered even more insulting commentary.

The one thing I missed about this game was the ability to fight each other. I would’ve loved flying his butt occasionally just to show him who the boss was.

The gameplay the lot like the recent X-Men video games as well as Marvel Ultimate Alliance. At any time you can switch among the four characters, trading off to solve different puzzles as well as taking advantage of different powers. There are different unlockable features to the game. Collecting tokens on each level allows the player to open up different suits the Fantastic Four have worn over the years.

For mindless playability, though, the game is great. You can pick it up and lay it down at a time. Of course if your son wants to continue playing and see what’s going to happen next, you’ve got a problem. The good thing is that you can quit the game for a while, let him forage ahead on his own, and pick back up with him wherever he is. Then you have to deal with all the recap he wants to give you about what’s gone on before. Most of which you could have guessed on your own.

The dialogue, for the most part, was pretty good. It kept the story linear as much as is possible (especially in a game that was so decidedly linear that you could lose track of who was doing what when out of sheer mindless repetition) and provided a few laughs.

Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer probably won’t win any game awards for creative gameplay, but it sure is pretty to look at and it brings fathers and sons closer together everywhere. While we were off saving the world, exchanging insults and beating up bad guys, it also kept us out of my wife’s hair for hours, which I’m sure she appreciated during the summer months.

Monday, June 25, 2007

New Romance Line Launches In July: Shomi--Romance With An Anime Vibe!

Hailed as “the future of romance”, Dorchester’s new line of novels shows definite anime roots in the covers and the flavor of the world lying between the covers. I have to admit, it covers caught my attention first, as did the names of the women writing the books.

Liz Maverick is a recent writer but is already become an old hand at fashioning cutting-edge romance speculative fiction. She has a habit of combining science fiction elements, military background, and romance in her works. As a result, a lot of readers have started picking up her books.

Maverick designed the six book series Crimson City about a potential future where werewolves, vampires, and humans have to learn how to get along. The books reached critical and popular acclaim. She wrote two books in the series, Crimson City and Crimson Rogue.

Her first book in the Shomi line comes out this week as the July release. It’s called Wired.

Seconds aren’t like pennies. They can’t be saved in a jar and spent later. Fate seeps through cracks and shifts like fog. Pluck a second out of time or slip an extra one in, the consequences will change your life forever. Is the man you love really the man you think you know, or is there a version of your life in which he’s your enemy? If you didn’t know who or what you were before, would you take a chance on becoming that person again?

L. Roxanne Zaborovsky is about to discover fate is comprised of an infinite number of wires, filaments that can be manipulated, and that she’s not the one at the controls. From the roguishly charming Mason Merrick-a shadow from her increasingly tenebrous past-to the dangerously seductive Leonardo Kaysar, she’s barely holding on. This isn’t a game, and the pennies are rolling all over the floor. Roxy just has to figure out which are the ones worth picking up.

Marianne Mancusi is Maverick’s first partner-in-crime. She’s written A Connecticut Fashionista In King Arthur’s Court, Ska8er Boy, and other romance novels. Her contribution to Shomi is Moongazer.

An enthralling combination of The Matrix and Snow Crash with a bit of Blade Runner thrown into the mix, Moongazer immediately draws the reader into one woman's terrifying struggle to understand her identity--is she Skye Brown, a successful game designer living in Manhattan or is she really Mariah Quinn, a woman haunted by the post-apocalyptic dreamland she escapes to every night? But what is reality? And who can she trust to find out the truth? Imagine every night entering a nightmare world you can't escape and being told real life is a dream. Skye Brown has it all: the cool job, the hot boyfriend, the apartment on New York's Upper West Side. But lately she can't enjoy any of it. She's having dreams of a post-apocalyptic world. Of a bleak futuristic wasteland. Of a struggle against oppression. And she's been told she's a MOONGAZER.

But what is that? And what is reality? In her dreams, she's not Skye Brown at all, but Mariah Quinn. In her dreams there's Dawn, the beautiful yet haunted soldier, and Skye is but the empty shell of a girl he once loved. And there was a betrayal, a great betrayal. Ripped between Dark Siders and club kids, the mundane and the mystic, Skye must discover who she is, what she wants and who wants her. And why. But in the glow of the moon, it's not always easy to recognize the face in the mirror.

Eve Kenin (Eve Silver) has been the third book, Driven. As Silver, the author has written several books in several genres, including Dark Desires, Dark Prince, and His Dark Kiss.

ROAD WARRIOR Raina Bowen knows she can handle herself just fine against anything the harsh Northern Waste throws at her. Until it throws her an enigmatic stranger called Wizard. First, she has to haul him out of a brawl he can't hope to win. And next, her libido is shooting into overdrive at the feel of his hard body pressed against hers on the back of her snowscooter. But there's something not quite right about this guy. Before she can strip bare Wizard's secrets, they're lured into a race for their lives, battling rival truckers, ice pirates...and a merciless maniac with a very personal vendetta.

I know I’m picking up the first two books when they hit the stands next week. And I’ll be picking up Driven when it hits the stands in August. These books sound like a really good fun time. Reality was just the starting line, and wild imagination lies between it and the finish line.

I don’t know how many books Dorchester plans in this new line. I’m sure it depends on the success of these three books. This can be a blast to see where they take us.

The Closer Season 3 Episode 2 "Grave Doubts" Episode

Tonight’s episode, “Grave Doubts” offered a closer look into some of the chief characters in the series. Brenda’s father has discovered she’s “living in sin” with Fritz, her FBI boyfriend. She’s beside herself and doesn’t know quite what to do. In fact, halfway through this episode Brenda’s mother tells her that her father doesn’t want to talk to her, but he has written her a letter. Brenda’s reaction is totally Southern female no matter what the age.

Brenda has always been a daddy’s girl, and her current situation leaves her mortified. She doesn’t know what to do. The last time her daddy wrote her a letter, she had been a freshman in college and had received a B- in a history class. She had disappointed him. Living with a man she’s not married to is a really big deal in her father’s eyes.

The murder of this week revolves around the corpse of a young black male that disappeared back in 1992. He’s so mummified that he’s unrecognizable and potentially can’t be identified. He has a driver’s license on him, but they don’t know if that’s who he really is.

The real kicker is that the corpse has Lieutenant Provenza’s card on him. Provenza gave out a lot of cards fifteen years ago and doesn’t remember the name or the face on the driver’s license.

Before long, though, Brenda and her team start making headway. The forensics doctor lets them know that whoever the dead man is, he was murdered. They find a bullet lodged in his chest where his heart would have been. All indications are that he was shot while during a struggle.

After they get a tentative ID on the corpse, Brenda goes down to a local gang rehabilitation center to interview Father Jack, a legendary figure in the neighborhood who has worked for years to get gang members off the streets. This avenue of the investigation immediately grates on Sergeant Gabriel’s nerves. Father Jack is an iconic figure to him, a man who has done immense good in the neighborhoods.

Not only that, but the investigation draws fire from a political figure who happens to be the dead man’s younger brother and a huge supporter of Father Jack. Before Brenda knows it, nobody seems to like her. Her superior, Pope, warns her to handle the case with kid gloves. Brenda takes that suggestion into consideration for about five seconds (a long time for her), then handles the case the way she wants to handle it.

The usual deep background investigation takes place, and all the truths, lies, and half-truths spill out. While the action on this episode is more low-key then in many, the emotional stakes are pumped through the roof. Sergeant Gabriel and Brenda – for the first time ever – end up on opposite sides of the fence in what is almost a grudge match.

The ongoing anticipation of finding out what exactly Brenda’s father has said to her in the letter is well done and doesn’t deliver on that until the final few minutes of the episode.

Especially nice, because he’s one of my favorite characters on the show, are the gentle touches done with Lieutenant Provenza. You can see the way he’s hurting and confused over what he might have missed fifteen years ago. A cry for help went out and he failed to follow up on it. When they tell the mother that her son’s body has finally been found, Provenza’s sorrow and silent support of the woman is almost painful to watch. Brenda remains totally clued in as to what’s going on and the torturous path that the lieutenant is following.

All in all, tonight’s episode was emotionally gratifying. I didn’t learn as much about police work or other background stuff that I usually do during episodes, but I had a good time with this one. It yanked at the heartstrings and left me in a good place when it was finished.

However…we’re going to have to wait to see how fallout from this case affects Brenda’s relationship with Sergeant Gabriel.

New Spy/Adventure Series Set To Debut Thursday 9PM Central Time On USA Network!

Launching this Thursday night, June 28, at 9:00 PM Central Time on the USA network, Burn Notice becomes a contender for the top action adventure summer replacement series.

Jeffrey Donovan stars as Michael Westen, a former agent of the Central Intelligence Agency who has been issued a “burn notice”. In spy vernacular, a burn notice is a statement of disavowal by one agency that no longer trusts an agent. That burn notice doesn’t just affect the agency that individual works for, but also goes out to the intelligence community internationally. An agent who chooses to disregard the burn notice is putting his or her life on the line just by walking outside to get the paper.

No spy agency likes agents they can’t trust. Michael Westen is going to have a problem just remaining among the living and breathing. To make matters worse, the United States government has erased his identification and locked him off the grid as well as freezing all his assets and leaving him penniless.

Cut loose, Michael escapes and returns to his hometown in Miami. The city is a good base for him to work from and provides plenty of plot points and possibilities.

Michael wants to know why he got disavowed and who brought the order into play. In order to do that, though, he needs money. Lots of money. And, since he has no identification, he can’t make that money through legitimate jobs. He has to take work off the books and as dangerous as it comes to rake in the kind of cash he needs to connect with. Even more, he can’t be really picky about the work he’s taking on.

Fortunately, danger has been Westen’s business for some time. He’s trained in hand-to-hand combat, marksmanship, tactical analysis, and he’s a decent cook. Oh, and he’s totally cool under pressure.

Westen is aided and abetted by three friends linked to his previous business. Fiona Glenanne (Gabrielle Anwar) covers his back while he’s out in the streets. Madeline Westen (Sharon Gless) stars as his mother. And Sam Axe (Bruce Campbell) serves as – well, comic relief.

As yet, the series only appears to have five episodes lined up. It’s not a strong showing, but given that some of the recent new fall shows and spring replacement shows haven’t even lasted that long, Burn Notice will have a chance to build up an audience. Since the USA network has delivered a hit like Monk and a fan-favorite newbie like Psych, there’s a good chance the series will have another shot at a later date for more episodes. (And I just received notice from the publicity department for the series that it is going to be a twelve-episode run! Really looking forward to this one tonight.)

The series was created by Matt Nix, who is producing for the first time on this series. Jeffrey Donovan previously starred in Touching Evil.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Fantastic Four 2: Rise of the Silver Surfer Was GREAT!

I just got back a few hours ago from watching Fantastic Four 2: Rise of the Silver Surfer. My nine-year-old and I are still buzzing about the movie. Although purists will have problems with the presentation, I loved it as a longtime fan and my son loved it just because it was so darn cool. He laughed at all the one-liners at about the same time his dad did. Proving the boy is getting really quick-witted or I’m not as fast as I think I am. I actually think we’re meeting somewhere in the middle, probably at about age seven.

As everyone knows from the title, this movie introduces the Silver Surfer to the movie-going world for the first time. There have been previous incarnations of the character, including guest spots in cartoon series such as Spiderman and the Fantastic Four animated series. There was even a short-lived cartoon series about the Silver Surfer.

It’s going to be interesting to see if the movie crowd reacts any differently to the character than the comics fans. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the character back in the 1960s in pretty much the same context as he was used in the movie. When they wrote a comic book series just about the Silver Surfer, it only lasted eighteen issues the first time. Fans loved the character of tormented Norrin Radd when he was exiled by Galactus to be bound to the earth, but it was just too much of a good thing. They didn’t pick up the monthly series.

There have been a couple of comics series runs since then, but even though the character fascination is there, the longevity for the fan base isn’t. It’s almost like people love stories about people reacting to the Silver Surfer’s plight more than watching him deal with it himself.

Although the Silver Surfer’s backstory was touched on in the movie, there’s not a lot of detail. We know that he’s in servitude to Galactus to save his own world and he gave up his love to do that. That was one of the main conceits of the comic book version, that idea of noble self-sacrifice. And the fact that, despite all the power cosmic he had, he could never go home again.

It will be interesting to see, if there is a Fantastic Four 3, if the Silver Surfer is mentioned again.

As for the movie, I feel it could’ve been ripped from the pages of one of those early comics written by Stan and drawn by Jack. The feel of family was ingrained in every scene. They argued, bickered, misunderstood, hoped for, and loved each other all the way through the movie. In some ways the movie is very simple. There’s no real surprise about how things are going to turn out. There’s not supposed to be. This is the Fantastic Four. People who know the characters know what they’re gonna get in this film, and it’s delivered.

Ioan Gruffudd returns as Mr. Fantastic. Jessica Alba is the Invisible Woman. Chris Evans is the Human Torch. And Michael Chiklis is the Thing. Julian McMahon returns as Doctor Doom.

Maybe movie purists want deeper plots and characters, maybe the comics fans want an updated version of the team, but I love this version. These are the characters, more or less, that I grew up with. These are the characters, without the John Byrne dark side and without all the soap opera complications of splitting the team up and bringing in She-Hulk, etc., that I want my nine year old son to learn to love too. Comics scribe Mark Waid’s run on the comics series was one of the best to come along in years. Waid really had a handle on the characters.

The whole idea of Reed and Susan trying to get married while watched by the world, invaded by the media, and dealing with their own shifting pecking order is great. Throw in the threat of a planet-devouring entity and you’ve got all the ingredients of a successful Fantastic Four movie.

The action sequences were utterly impressive. I believed in each and every one of their superpowers. In the last movie, Johnny Storm’s Human Torch abilities blew me away. But in this movie watching Mr. Fantastic in action was a treat whether it was a serious situation or a comic one. The director (Tim Story) and the scriptwriters (Don Payne and Mark frost) took advantage of Reed’s super-stretching abilities for comic relief a lot as well. Watching Reed get loop-legged while thinking about getting married and smashed flat behind the Thing during a fight were absolutely hilarious.

The Silver Surfer, admittedly got short shrift regarding what his powers could truly do, but it was wild watching him sink through the surfboard and remain connected to it while upside down and flying at near full-speed. Movies and special effects have come a long way. Comic books used to be the only place you could go to see that kind of action, but now movies bring it all to the big screen. Of course, comic still beat them because of the monthly frequency they come out.

(Yes, it has a HEMI!)

The shifting loyalties within the story played a big part in keeping me satisfied. There was never a dull moment. Something was always happening to someone somewhere. And despite how tense everything got, there was always a laugh to be had somewhere.

One of the really cool things about the movie is the full-size lobby display that comes with it. I took a picture of my son in front of it, which he thought was totally cool. You’re not going to get that in the DVD box! But we’re anxiously awaiting the DVD release because we’re ready to see the movie again.

Definitely worth seeing on the big screen.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Marcia Muller's 25th Sharon McCone Mystery Coming In July!
Since 1977, mystery author Marsha Muller has steadily produced novels detailing the life of her series character, professional investigator Sharon McCone. Her current novel, The Ever-Running Man, is the 25th in the long-lived series that began with the first novel Edwin of the Iron Shoes.

I started reading the McCone books in the late 1970s, which dates me, I suppose. But it also speaks of the loyalties of Muller’s readers. We tend to stick around.

In the early years, McCone worked for All Souls Legal Cooperative and handled small cases with large results. As evidenced in her latest offering, McCone is now capable of handling the jet-set crowd. During the last 30 years, our intrepid lady private eye has discovered more about herself and her family than most people ever get the chance to do. Of course, her family has had a lot more secrets and turmoil than most families do.

In her last novel, Vanishing Point Muller married her heroine off to Hy Ripinsky, a high-powered executive working with Renshaw and Kessell International, a security firm capable of providing protection for heads of state and probably small countries. That relationship is only one of things that come under fire during the current novel.

The book opens with a bang. Ripinsky visits McCone’s office with an offer to hire her to search for an elusive attacker that has plagued the security corporation for over two years. RKI has kept the incidents primarily out of the news rather than take a black eye about not being able to protect their own people. However, the “Ever-Running Man” – as they’ve taken to calling him because witnesses always described him as someone running from the scene of an explosion – has upped the ante by making even more blatant and destructive attempts on RKI holdings.

McCone is reluctant to take on the assignment. As she explains to her husband, an investigation like that is going to require some deep research into the backgrounds of all the corporate executives. Including her husband.

Ripinsky already admitted to having several skeletons in his personal closet. He’s been something of a bad boy, which is one of the reasons that McCone is interested in him. However, before her journey through this novel is finished, she has to ask herself if he’s told her all the truth.

Before McCone can even officially start the case, the building she’s in gets bombed. She escapes injury, but two people aren’t so lucky. The Ever-Running Man’s body count has gone up.

Over the years, in addition to heading up her own agency with several operatives, McCone has also gone high tech. Readers get to see a lot of that in action in this novel, and Muller delivers it in a way that is not dry and boring.

The secret does lie in the past, and that’s where Muller finds the motivation that has ultimately set the killer in motion. The problem with secrets is that once they start tumbling out of closets, you don’t get the chance to choose which ones you see and which ones you keep hidden. Before long, one of Ripinsky’s secrets has tumbled free and causes a rift in his relationship with McCone.

The novel is very well written and keeps the reader on his or her toes as the pages flip. A lot of information emerges quickly and causes consternation and confusion. Much of what McCone thought she knew about Ripinsky’s secretive partners comes to light and is even worse then she believed. One of them was involved in illegal arms shipments into Asia after the Vietnam War.

But, since this is a McCone novel, family has to figure into the mix along the way. This book has got family in spades. Hardly a scene goes by that some family member longtime readers have gotten to know over the last 30 years doesn’t put in appearance. And some of them are still dealing with their own problems, which helps McCone deal with her own situation with Ripinsky as well as better put it into perspective. (For the really diehard fans, she even mentions Wolf, the series character called the Nameless Detective by Bill Pronzini. Pronzini is Muller's real-life husband. See? It's all about family.)

I had a great time with this book. Part of it was because of the puzzle, which is played pretty fairly. I had most of the twists and turns figured out before McCone unveiled them for me. But the other part of the enjoyment was correctly attributable to McCone’s character and her family problems. This mystery felt like sitting down to the table with an old friend and listening to her troubles as well as her success in dealing with them.

If you’re an old fan of the series, you’re going to love The Ever-Running Man. I will offer a caveat to a newcomer reader: this book will go down much better if you read some of the earlier books in the series. You don’t have to, but I do recommend it. And if you love mysteries but haven’t read the Sharon McCone series, you should really give one a try.

Great Art!

Just found this book and bought it. This is the kind of art that makes me buy every time.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

OCEAN'S THIRTEEN Back With A Vengeance!

Ocean’s Thirteen brings back a star-studded cast headed by George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Matt Damon. They are once more backed by Elliott Gould, Don Cheadle, Shabao Qin, Casey Affleck, Scott Caan, Bernie Mac, and Carl Reiner in great support roles.

As always, Danny Ocean (Clooney) co-leads with Rusty Ryan (Pitt) in a deadly, dangerous, and twisting con scheme. In the previous two movies, Ocean, Ryan, and the others have always been motivated by personal desires as well as financial ones. This time it’s more personal. Reuben (Gould) has been beaten out of his fortune by Willie Bank (Al Pacino), who is planning to open the most impressive casino in Las Vegas.

Willie Bank (And don’t you just love the subtle name? Will he bank?) has already been a successful casino owner/operator. All of his casinos before have earned the “Five Diamonds Award” of excellence. Bank expects no less this time. And he shut Ruben out of the deal so the glamour – not to mention the profit – can all be his.

Ocean and Rusty gather with the rest of the crew to pay their respects to Reuben and figure out what they are supposed to do to get their friend’s fortune back. Reuben appears to have lost the will to live. As an act of courtesy, Ocean offers Bank a Billy Martin: a chance to redeem himself on his own and give the money back to Reuben. Of course if Bank had accepted the proposition the movie would have been much shorter.

So Ocean and his team go to work. The con to get Reuben’s money back is complicated and involves a lot of details. Some of them are realistic, but many lie in the realm of fantasy. Still, these movies are a confection and are to be enjoyed just on their own.

And they are probably also an excuse for the high-powered stars to get together and play.

In Ocean’s Eleven the mix was exactly right. The stars matched the story, and each of those stars got the chance to be an absolute scene-stealer. The franchise stumbled badly in Ocean’s Twelve because the movie seemed to lack a central focus. Some viewers even stated that the film had no plot at all.

The plot in the latest film is apparent from the earliest scenes, but it seems like Clooney, Pitt, and the others are merely going through the paces, hitting their marks and delivering lines of dialogue that are often funny, but too often wide of the mark. The story isn’t as tight as the first one.

In order to explain the premise of the con to the audience, Ocean and Ryan have to describe what they’ve got in place to a new con man that specializes in computer technology. He supposedly is the best at figuring out cybernetic systems. Bank’s new casino is protected by an artificial intelligence. Which seems weird because the military evidently doesn’t have those yet. And the fact that it’s an artificial intelligence is never exploited in the film. It’s just one of those near science fiction explanations to make the job supposedly harder.

Part of the plan involves manufacturing dice made of a special polymer. One of the team (Affleck) goes undercover at the Mexican manufacturing plant where the dice are made to get the special polymer into the mix. While he’s there, he ends up taking part in a mini-revolution of blue collar workers against white collar administration. This is truly one of the funnier bits in the film, but it feels a little out of place. It’s a diversion that doesn’t fit in with the Las Vegas scene that’s going on. And even the special dice are not showcased that much later in the film.

Moving the franchise back to Las Vegas seems to be a good idea, though. There’s something about this city that just makes magic for these kind of shows.

However, even at 1:53 running time, the movie feels a little long and sags some in the middle. Clooney and Pitt break up those sections with glimpses into their personal lives that are fun, but even those become noticeable as props to keep the plot flowing.

I went to see the movie in the theater with my wife because that was where we’d seen the other two. We wanted to see this one there. It was a big improvement over the second movie, but it still didn’t match expectations fostered by the first movie. If you haven’t seen Ocean’s Thirteen yet, I’d suggest waiting for it on DVD and pick it up to complete your collection or to rent just to watch.

Nikon CoolPix L12 Sure To Please Amateur Photographers!

My wife is the camera aficionado in the family. I’ve bought her good cameras, film and digital, and for birthdays, anniversaries, and Christmas.

Of course, sometimes I get to borrow those. I love her Canon digital SLR, and I can borrow it whenever I need to.

She’s a schoolteacher and likes to take pictures on the fly. That’s the reason I bought her a Nikon CoolPix pocket camera a couple years ago. A pocket camera means not having to pack a bulky camera bag. At the time, the camera was fairly expensive. I like the idea of having one in the car, but I wasn’t going to pay for one for myself. I’m generous with others and stingy when it comes to me.

Lately, with camera prices getting more purchaser-friendly, I decided to buy one for myself. I write a blog and occasionally go to conventions and other events where I’ve wanted to have a camera with me but forgot it.

One of the best things I love about my new camera is that I can shove it into a pocket easily. It travels well in the protective case and it’s always immediately to hand when I want to take a picture.

Since it uses SDRAM memory cards to store the images, I can take quite a lot of pictures without having to change film, or carry film, or even worry about an extra memory card to carry along. I can also take a lot of pictures of one thing without worrying about running out of film or exhausting memory space.

The camera is simple point and shoot operation. What you see in the viewscreen is what you get. Even I can do it. The 2.5in. viewscreen is a dream to work with. I know immediately what’s going to be in my shot when I take the picture. And reviewing the pictures I’ve taken it is relatively simple. They show up in good detail on the viewscreen and even better on a PC.

Downloading to your desktop computer or to a notebook PC is simple. Just plug in the USB cord that comes with the camera and you’re all set. All you have to do is name the file you’re going to be saving your pictures to.

The camera takes really good pictures inside. It comes with a flash, but often doesn’t need the flash because there’s generally enough light inside the buildings I’ve shot pictures in. It seems to work well in the low-light environments I’ve shot in. One drawback, though, is the long time it takes for a flash to process. That has been a little disconcerting, but I don’t generally take action pictures so it doesn’t matter in what I’m using it for.

The 4x digital zoom optical lens works great. When you switch the camera on, the lens spins out automatically. The auto-focus feature comes on immediately. I also like the fact that this camera runs on AA batteries that I can pick up anywhere instead of some special hybrid batteries that I have to find a photography or specialty store.

It has fifteen scene modes, a Best Shot Selector that automatically picks the best shot of a series of ten that you’re taking, voice recording capability, video recording capability, macro shooting from as close as six inches, and image stabilization.

A professional photographer might want more out of a camera than this one provides, but the Nikon CoolPix L12 really fits the bill for someone who’s on the go and wants to take occasional shots just to remember an event or use on blogs.

The Closer Season 3 Episode 1: "Homewrecker"

Tonight’s episode, “Homewrecker”, starts out much differently than most of the other of episodes of The Closer. Normally an episode begins with the murder, or with Brenda struggling with some personal aspect of life in Los Angeles or sorting out her relationship with her boyfriend, FBI Special Agent Fritz Howard.

Instead, the episode opened up with choppy video interviews involving different detectives of the Priority Homicide Division. You can tell it’s filmed by a handheld camcorder. As it turns out, the murder scene is being recorded by forensics people for presentation in the upcoming court case. Once Brenda and her team of highly trained investigators figure out whodunit.

The beginning plays a little off and not as personal as many episodes do, but it quickly regains that feeling. The story was intriguing, and the mystery seemed like it was over almost as soon as it got started. Which would’ve been a disappointment. But I can always count on the writers to throw in a lot of twists when it comes to Brenda finding out who the murderer actually is.

A mother, a father, and a twelve year old daughter lie murdered in their home. Even as the PHD team is processing the scene and gathering information, a cell phone rings in the attic. When they break into the attic they find the couple’s seventeen year old son strung out on drugs. He claims have been in the house when his parents and sister were killed – but he didn’t hear anything.

It takes Brenda just seconds to totally rip his story to shreds. Then the truth begins to emerge. A very tangled and twisted truth that took me in a direction that I found surprising.

Watching Brenda work is magic as always. She puts together the incongruencies about the case and figures out her trap to bring the murder to justice and get the confession she needs to close the case.

In the meantime, financial cutbacks at the LAPD have forced the department to release new financial guidelines. According to these guidelines, one member of every team – including Brenda’s PHD team – is going to have to be transferred to a different department or face an early retirement. Detective Lieutenant Provenza’s neck is on the chopping block.

To add further stress to her life, which all the viewers of the show have come to love, Fritz – Brenda's live-in FBI special agent boyfriend – is putting pressure on her to go house-hunting. She protests and says she doesn’t have time, especially with the triple homicide she’s currently working. But longtime fans of the show know that the truth is Brenda hates any kind of change.

I have to admit, the show does play into a lot of fantasy element, but I love it. Case in point, Brenda moved the body at one of the crime scenes. No way, no how would a seasoned investigator do something like that. It corrupts the evidence and interrupts chain of custody. Another point is when Brenda confronts the murder and ends up dumping the victims’ clothing on the table between them to up the emotional stakes. That would not be done either. Again, the chain of custody would be interrupted as well as the evidence being subject to getting tossed out and of the courtroom and the case.

All and all, though, the episode was everything I’ve come to expect from the show. The laughs were there, the compassion was there, and – most of all – Brenda’s neurosis and personal problems marked everything she did.

In case you missed this one, I hope you DVRed this one because it was a classic episode of the series. Also, I hope you recorded the earlier broadcast. The second broadcast of the evening was not aired commercial-free.

And the season is just beginning! Will Brenda and Fritz find a house? Stay tuned.

Monday, June 18, 2007

THE CLOSER Season Three Begins Tonight!

It’s summer, and that means it’s time for a brand new slew of summer replacement programs while we wait for the returning fall programs to start up again.

Fortunately, that means the successful summer series are also returning. Chief among those is The Closer which is being touted as cable television’s #1 show ever. The series stars Kyra Sedgwick as Deputy Police Chief Brenda Johnson, an ex-CIA specialist who handled interviews and interrogations for the agency. When it comes to getting the truth out of someone, Brenda can each and every time in an original and unique way all her own.

As a Southern woman, Brenda acts differently than all of the television her ones out there. She’s bossy, yet polite. She chews you out, yet you feel special because she gave you her undivided attention. She can make eating chocolate seem like a sexual experience. She runs a homicide investigation unit, yet she’s still a daddy’s girl. She knows she’s supposed to play fair with others, but she doesn’t care. She says “please” and “thank you” and “thank you so much” even when she’s telling people how stupid they are, asking them to do something dreadful, or telling you – no – she’s not going to do something.

I love this character.

Brenda also comes with a lot of baggage. She isn’t exactly a people-pleaser, doesn’t really care what other people think when she’s doing her job, and looks at solving murders before she looks at balancing Los Angeles police department’s budget or department regulations. It doesn’t endear her to her boss, Will Pope. Of course, the fact that Brenda used to have an extramarital affair with him when she was working with him at an earlier juncture in their careers also means that she has extra ammunition along the way.

Driven by her career, Brenda expects the same effort she puts forth to come from the people who work for her. That causes lot of problems and aggressive friction between the characters. If you haven’t seen the first two seasons of The Closer I really recommend that you rush out and rent them or buy them before you see the new episodes that started airing tonight. That back history is important and shows the development of the character and the special murder investigation unit. The first season especially brings home Brenda’s character as well as the department and personal problems she has to contend with on a daily basis.

Placed in charge of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Priority Homicide Division, Brenda only handles the hard cases with high profile earmarks. She goes after the untouchable, and she tends to quickly solve cases that are hitting the news and media outlets in a fury.

When she first arrived in Los Angeles, Brenda had no friends. Except Will Pope. And ex-lovers don’t really count. Nor can they be counted on.

In this third season, though, if Brenda is friends with most of the detectives she’s working, has a live-in boyfriend (that she can’t exactly explain to her father because she came from Atlanta and even though other people do that, he doesn’t expect her to do that), a cat, and a house.

The boyfriend is Fritz Howard (Jon Tenney), who also happens to be a special agent for the FBI. Fritz can get information that the LAPD can’t. Brenda has been known, on several occasions, to take advantage of that fact. And Fritz knows she’s taking advantage of him and doesn’t always go along with her wishes. He understands her, but you can see that she drives him crazy at times. And not in a good way.

Over the last two years, the detectives who work for Brenda have really come along as characters. I care about them and want to see them in each and every episode. They are real to me, and they are real to the fans the love this show.

J. K. Simmons (who played absolutely the best J. Jonah Jameson I have ever seen in the new Spiderman franchise movies, and he missed playing Perry White in the new Superman Returns movie) stars as Assistant Police Chief Will Pope. The relationship he has with Brenda is absolutely amazing. I tune in every week just to watch her run him through the wringer over some issue, personal or professional. It never fails to crack me up.

Soft-spoken Corey Reynolds place Sergeant David Gabriel, Brenda’s major domo and liaison in the department. He’s only starred in television shows so far, but I really think he’s got a successful future ahead of him.

G. W. Bailey stars as Detective Lieutenant Provenza, the unit’s curmudgeon and Neanderthal throwback. He’s absolutely one of the reasons I watch this program. (You may remember him from the Police Academy movies.)

Anthony John Denison (whose face you’ll also remember from dozens of television shows) play sharp-dressed Detetective Andy Flynn.

Robert Gossett stars as Commander Taylor, a rival division head who was once Brenda’s most vicious enemy within the department.

Michael Paul Chan stars as Detective Mike Tao, the ballistics and physical evidence expert. He brings a lot of subtle humor to the show.

Raymond Cruz plays Detective Sanchez, a brooding and solid Hispanic investigator who rarely cracks a smile.

Philip P. Keene stars as Buzz, the computer expert. The Rowl is actually very small, if because most of the drama derives from the character interactions. But Keene has made himself known on several occasions and has actually been a scene-stealer from time to time.

Gina Ravera plays Detective Daniels, the unit’s other female detective.

There are a lot of reasons to tune in The Closer. Kyra Sedgwick – already an award-winning actress, including five Golden Globes – won a Saturn Award for her portrayal of Brenda Johnson in the series. Rumor has it that Sedgwick has been locked up in the series for a total commitment of seven seasons.

In addition all the actors are so well-seasoned that they function like a well oiled machine. The writing is exquisite, but the timing and delivery of the lines can make or break a script. These people make it every time.

For the puzzle and mystery crowd, The Closer presents a great puzzle and fairly placed clues throughout. They even manage to keep secret the true perpetrator of the murder(s) a lot of the time. My wife and I love making our guesses at every turn and twist of the plot. We’re armchair sleuths and enjoy a good mental workout. Even when we know who the killer is, we try to work out how Brenda is going to catch that person by the end of the episode. My 24 year old son is hooked on the show as well.

Adding to the flavor of the show, Brenda usually gets blindsided by the department rules and regulations, or trying to figure out Los Angeles, or being a small town Southern girl in a big West Coast city. This human frailty makes her a deeper and richer character that I care about a lot. Brenda is like a lot of women I grew up with and still know to this day. I wouldn’t want to face life without them.

And she usually has relationship issues. In the beginning it was trying to sort out all the feelings with Will Pope and where the lines were going to be drawn. With the addition of Fritz, those relationship issues a taken on a much more personal flavor as they attempt to sort out what they mean to each other and how they’re going to be in each other’s lives. Without driving each other crazy.

The Closer is must-see TV in my house. I couldn’t believe how excited my wife and I both were to see the episode tonight, which was aired without commercial interruption. The repeat airing later had commercial interruption.

This is my introduction to the series for those of you who haven’t seen it before. I’m going to try to keep up a weekly log to review the individual shows. If you haven’t seen it, and you like police shows or character-driven shows, please try an episode and decide for yourself.

Thank you so much.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Fantastic New Family Film!
Bridge to Terabithia is a haunting story that stays with the reader of the book by Katherine Paterson or the viewer of this movie for the rest of his life. Centered around two characters, a sixth grader boy and girl, who don’t fit in anywhere, the story unfolds gracefully and draws the audience in close. The novel, and the movie, feature themes about family, friendship, dreams, and loss that will resonate for everyone no matter where they grew up or in what situation.

I liked how the film set up the family, how they introduced Jess Aarons (played by Josh Hutcherson) and showed what his world was like before it got changed by Leslie. The Blu-ray edition has crisp clean pictures that show the rundown farmhouse and rural area where Jess lives. There are several good visual touches throughout the film, like the clutter in the family greenhouse. The high-def presentation is so sharp it looks like you can step into the picture.

In just a few moments of showing Jess running cross country and at the breakfast table with his siblings, the viewer gets the idea that Jess is totally lost within the family. Every scene is marked by his fear, pain, and anger. I could see that Jess was dwindling down, become smaller and smaller, till he was barely taking up any room in the world. You can’t help but feel for a kid like this. Hutcherson portrayed Jess to a T. My wife teaches elementary school and I coach little league baseball. We’ve both seen kids like Jess and it’s heartrending.

Jess has always been a dreamer. His family is blue collar and his father (Robert Patrick) and mother are hardworking parents with five children. The family barely gets by. Even buying a new pair of tennis shoes is beyond their financial means. Jess feels guilty for being a problem to them, and that shows on his face. (Hutcherson is a fantastic physical actor.) He’s stuck in a world that doesn’t work and he doesn’t know what to do about it.

All his life, Jess has wanted to be an artist. He works in pencil, color pencil, and crayon because that’s all he has. He has a notebook full of drawings that he’s obviously carried for some time. His father doesn’t understand him and wishes Jess would stop daydreaming and get his head out of the clouds.

These are things that every kid and every parent who’s ever been a kid has been through. Katherine Paterson’s novel was published in 1977, so has now been around for 30 years as of this year. These problems between parents and children still exist, and so do the misunderstandings. I like stories that hit on truths that are widespread. That’s why this story rings so true for me.

With four younger and older sisters at home, and his mother constantly tired from running the household, Jess doesn’t have anyone at home to talk to either. The closest one who comes to understanding him is his younger sister May Belle (played by Bailee Madison), but she gets into his stuff and draws in his book. She invades his privacy and he tries to keep her out. However, she looks up to him like he’s some kind of hero.

Things in school are just as bad for Jess. He has two enemies, Gary Fulcher and Scott Hoager, who make his life miserable in class and around the school campus. He’s even got “Monster Mouth” Myers as his teacher and she doesn’t appear to care for him. The highlight, though, is the music teacher, Miss Edmunds (Zooey Deschanel). The young teacher becomes Jess’s first crush and he doesn’t know what to do about that either.

I could empathize with all of these things. I’ve been through them. And that’s part of the magic of Katherine Paterson’s book and this new movie. You totally get where the characters are coming from and what they have to confront in order to become more whole.

When Leslie Burke (AnnaSophia Robb) steps on stage in the movie, you know that things are about to take a decidedly different change. The animosity between Jess and Leslie is real, and it’s based in the right emotional context. They don’t care for each other because they’re boys and girls, and boys and girls aren’t supposed to get along at that age. It’s embarrassing and icky.

Where Jess tends to be withdrawn, Leslie is positively a social butterfly. She excels at her work and quickly grabs the teacher’s attention. She also seems to be the only one who’s clued in to the fact that Jess is gaga over Miss Edmonds. She teases him about it in a good way, but of course Jess isn’t pleased. It’s the small quiet nuances between the characters – just little riffs of dialogue and looks they exchange – that really bring them to life for me. They’re real, and that makes the story more real.

Later, when Leslie outruns Jess after he’s finally able to beat his arch-nemesis, things really get off to a rocky start between them. We also get introduced to Janice, the eighth grade bully who charges smaller kids a dollar to use the bathroom during recess and lunch. Janice becomes an integral figure to the story and provides some pivotal scenes later. Again, this movie is absolutely wonderful in the way it handles character and the changes that happen within and to character.

Thrown together because no one else will have them, Jess and Leslie go exploring and find a rope swing over a stream. Every kid who’s ever lived out in the country knows exactly what it’s like to see something like that and not be able to walk away from it. You just have to swing across.

On the other side, Leslie declares this unexplored part of the forest to be a new land filled with magical creatures and terrifying monsters. But, she says, in Terabithia no one can crush them. They’re faster, smarter, and braver than they are in the real world.

The movie took some negative reaction when it debuted in theaters. The trailers (and the DVD covers) obviously show a mythical fantasyland much like Harry Potter and Narnia. Some families went to see the movie expecting to see a fantasy story. The trailer and the DVD covers are misleading, but the movie is a joy.

Make no mistake, Bridge to Terabithia is firmly grounded in the real world. The fantastic creatures that are shown in the trailers and on the DVD covers are a very small part of the movie. And they’re not even real. Except as allegory for things that are going on in Jess and Leslie’s lives.

I loved the movie. It hurt, but I loved it. All the relationships that you see in this movie are true. They all happen every day. Yet the way Katherine Paterson and the movie manage to bring those relationships to life on the page and on the screen is simply amazing. This is a good family movie, but I would offer a warning about showing it to be any of the kids who are really young. There’s some really strong emotion involved that you won’t know about unless you’ve read the book, and it’s hard to tell you what it is without giving away too much.

The Blu-ray disc features the movie in brilliant color and sharpness in 1080p high definition and widescreen (1.85:1). If you have a surround sound system, the movie sound is absolutely fantastic in uncompressed 5.1 surround sound.

Bridge to Terabithia belongs in the family entertainment shelves. It’s a great movie, with great actors, and a fantastic story to share.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Great New Headset For Writers Using Speech Recognition Software!

As a professional writer, I work at the keyboard all day. If I'm not working on novel, I write movie and book reviews for different online magazines. I'm very aware of how much damage repetitive motion can cause, and I've known a lot of my peers who've had serious problems: Excruciating pain followed by surgeries that didn't always fix everything.

About ten years ago, I had a cyst removed from my left wrist. At the time, it was causing a lot of pain and interfering with my writing. Since the surgery I've still had problems upon occasion when I worked long days.

During the recovery I used a program called Dragon Dictate to write by dictating the book verbally. That turned out to be an arduous undertaking and I wasn't really happy with the speed I was able to maintain or the accuracy of the software. The bottom line was that I've typed faster with my hands that I could verbally. With less mistakes.

So I gave up on the idea of using speech recognition software.

A few weeks ago, cornered by deadlines and plagued by some of the old pain returning because the long hours at the keyboard, I decided to try speech recognition software again. Dragon Dictate doesn't seem to work very well on the new XP operating system. In fact that even read where you weren't supposed to use Dragon Dictate with XP.

However, I found out that XP comes loaded with speech recognition software. I've tried it, that wasn't very happy with it. The accuracy wasn't very good and I got easily frustrated with the microphone, which was a good one.

A few more weeks went by and I happened to see the Logitech Notebook Headset on the shelf at the local Wal-Mart. The price tag wasn't exorbitant so I felt comfortable spending the money to try the system out.

Over the last few weeks I've been totally impressed with the headset. It hears everything very well and manages to negate extraneous ambient sound like the fan I keep in my office as well as television, radio, and kid noises throughout the rest of the house. That was something I hadn't been able to totally get away from all using the other software and headsets I've had.

After working with the Logitech headset system, I've gotten to where I use it for all my email correspondence and reviews (like this one). Not only is it accurate and dependable, but with the nifty case that comes with it it's extremely portable as well.

I often work between two different computers, my desktop and the notebook computer I use, so it's important to have something I can transport safely and easily. This system does exactly that.

As demanding as I am, as much as I depend on systems to function correctly, I'm not one to do cartwheels over product unless it's really good. The Logitech Notebook Headset is a great device.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Problems Overshadow Shadowrun Game!
Since I’ve been outted to a degree on Blogcritics, let’s talk serious RPG gaming versus on-line shoot-‘em-ups.

As a professional author, I wrote three of the Shadowrun novels (Preying for Keeps, Headhunters, and Run Hard, Die Fast). I know the Shadowrun universe from the pen-and-ink game and from pulling on the skins of characters for the novels I wrote. Shadowrun, the RPG, is all about running for your life through the shadows of the large that make up the world of 2050. Players sign on with a shadowy Mr. Johnson and agreed to achieve a certain assignment for a specified amount money. The players want the money to upgrade their personal weapons systems and/or magical abilities.

In the novels I wrote, the characters inevitably ran up against harsher circumstances than then they believed they would and had to run for their lives against superior forces what getting blackmailed by someone else who use their efforts as a smokescreen for more duplicitous undertakings. That’s the element I loved that’s missing from this computer/console game. There just aren’t any real stakes, no mysteries, no bad guys that you learn to hate and have to outsmart.

A lot of the game product designed by FASA included twists and turns, and surprises for the player. No one knew how a “run” was going to turn out until the last bullet was fired for the last spell was cast. That was one of the things that drew the players to the game. In all the game product, there was even a shadowy “bulletin board” then held rumors, half-truths, and outright lies for the players to consider, fear, or use against other players.

Microsoft’s version of the game is beautiful. Absolutely a stunning visual treat. From the opening sequences to the training sessions, the game is so well choreographed that I wanted to see the movie. If you watch those sequences and training sessions, it sounds like there is a solo campaign game. But those well-done pieces work against the finished product in its present incarnation. They really highlight what’s missing in this game.

The game environment provides well laid out an artfully executed levels of play. There are plenty of hiding places, ambush spots, and interesting sights to see – the first few times you see them. After you play them over and over again, everyone knows where those hiding places an ambush spots are. And the interesting sites become tedious and leave you wanting more.

The racial aspect of the game seems to be well done as well. You can play as human, dwarf, troll, or elf. They all have their strengths and weaknesses. However, there are some who are going to disagree with how the elves and trolls are depicted. In the RPG, trolls were often favorite street samurai and weren’t as bulky as they are in the MicroSoft game. And in the RPG, elves weren’t bald unless by choice.

Another sticking point between the RPG and the MicroSoft game is the use of magic and technology. In the RPG, the player character had to choose between magic and technology. Both could not coexist in the same player. Microsoft’s game offers both options to the players, probably to mollify players who wanted to use both sets of abilities. The same way that Wizards of the Coast re-wrote Dungeons and Dragons in the 3.5 versions to allow players to become half-dragons and player character vampires.

I really like the powers presented for use in the Microsoft Shadowrun game. Teleport, although not in the original RPG game the way it used in the MicroSoft version, is a blast to use. And in my house, the Glider ability is the bomb. My kids love to fly around and attack. I like to think of them as skeet and bang away quite happily.

Wired Reflexes, one of my favorite tech add-ons, is included in the game. I think the presentation of this ability is pretty well done and the downside of using it is fairly represented. In Shadowrun, you never got anything for free; it always cost you to have it.

The Katana is going to be a favorite of the sword-wielding crowd. Another benefit of using this weapon is the fact that you slip from first-person viewpoint to that of third-person viewpoint and get a chance to see around yourself better.

One of the drawbacks the game, although I understand why it functions that way, is the amazingly short time the player has to select or change weapons, magic, and tech. Although I did get faster making selections, I still felt pressured after each match to hurry and didn’t always get a chance to lock in the variables I wanted. I wish there was a way to slow that down so a team could be better equipped and prepared.

The drawbacks to the game aren’t limited to the gameplay. If you match up the offers made regarding the Microsoft Vista version versus the Xbox 360 version, you’re going to find a large discrepancy. I know that Microsoft is really pushing their new Vista operating system. You see it mentioned everywhere, and all the new machines are coming out with that already installed. But there’s no reason why, especially if the Microsoft XP version is supposed to smoothly upgrade to Vista, the PC version should run on XP.

So in order to play the PC version, which comes with a slightly different cover on the game case, you have to upgrade to MicroSoft Vista. The Vista players receive a 30-day free membership to Xbox Live while their Xbox 360 counterparts only receive 48 hours. I guess the message is upgrade to MicroSoft Vista to receive better treatment. In my opinion, not a very good message.

The disparate offers seem to express favoritism between Microsoft products instead of promoting the Shadowrun game. It’s almost like Microsoft is unwittingly splitting the hopefully large gaming audience it hopes to capture. To me, you want to create one large happy family. Not set them to squabbling.

All in all, I expect with all the heightened variables of tech and magic available to the first-person shooter crowd, MicroSoft Shadowrun game is going to take the gaming world by storm.

But only in the on-line combative mode.

Guys like me aren’t going to be totally happy with this product until something is done to rectify the lack of a solo campaign, a deeper immersion into the Shadowrun world that exists in the RPG, and a chance to run the shadows as we did when we lay their lives on the line for every mysterious Mr. Johnson we met.

A Cult Classic Comes To DVD July 24!
After twenty years, The Monster Squad is going to be released on DVD on July 24 of this year. Fans of the movie had been screaming for this release for years, especially since the DVD format has become available.

The movie was previously released on a VHS format. However, at the time of that release, it was easier to get access to the right to reproduce the movie soundtracks. As collectors know, several television series (including The Profiler, which lost a whole episode due to the music problems, and delayed production on the Miami Vice season sets) have been affected by the music rights problems.

There was a lot of speculation about when The Monster Squad would be released on DVD the two similar related problems. No one knew exactly who owns the rights to Dracula, the Wolfman, and Frankenstein’s monster. Evidently the legal of world is especially dangerous to monsters because of no one was gonna let those guys out of the box.

For those of you who remember when the movie was released in 1987, you may remember loving it but if you remember it accurately you’ll also recall that it wasn’t all that good. It was camp. Pure unadulterated camp. And it made no excuses for being so. These were your father’s monsters twisted into a 1980s reality where kids were take charge kind of heroes who took no prisoners.

Almost since the time film was invented, of audiences have thrilled to the classic monsters. Of course, it wasn’t long before Dracula, the Wolfman, and Frankenstein’s creature lost their horrific sway over those audiences and became the butt of jokes. Abbott and Costello took on those legendary monsters, as did Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin. Those movies were played primarily as slapstick and farce.

But, those comedians for your father’s comedians as well. In the nineteen eighties, we needed our own comedians who were closer to our age. So screenwriter/director Fred Dekker and Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang) teamed up to produce a kid movie that kidded their fearless young heroes of against these legendary evil villains.

Some of the young stars went on to have film crew careers, though none of them ever hit the big time.

Before The Monster Squad was released, Steven Spielberg hit box office gold with a simple kid-driven movie called The Goonies. Spielberg proved you didn’t have to have star power in a movie that would appeal across the board to kids and adults if you had a story that kids would learn to love and adults never the love of.

The Monster Squad is exactly the same kind of story. Every kid who has heard about Dracula, the Wolfman, and Frankenstein’s monster has secretly wondered how he or she would deal with those scary creatures if they ever confronted them. And adults have never forgotten wondering the same thing when they were that age.

The story is amazingly simple. A group of kids declaring themselves to be the Monster Squad encounter Dracula and his minions as the evil vampire puts his plans in motion to take over the town where the kids live. As luck would have it, and luck always figures into these kinds of stories, the leader of the Monster Squad discovers Abraham Van Helsing’s journal that describes how to banish the monsters. Even with directions though, the job isn’t easy. Thankfully watching the action takes place on the big screen was a real knee-slapper.

The kids in the film aren’t superheroes. They’re just kids in the wrong place at the wrong time, but who won’t give up when the going gets tough. This is Scooby-Doo live-action before that was done, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer before Joss Whedon got that series up and running.

It would be interesting to know if The Monster Squad had an effect on the formulation of Buffy. In the movie, the kids have to have the help of an older man who can read and interpret the journal so that they know what to do. The man doesn’t fit in with the rest of the town has always been thought of as “odd”. Hmmm, Rupert Giles, anyone?

The Monster Squad is releasing as a special two-disc collection that offers the trips, deleted scenes, audio commentaries, and an interview back-in-the-day with Tom Noonan, who played the Frankenstein’s monster in the movie. As a bit of trivia, Tom Noonan had just played one of the scariest monsters in celluloid history when he starred as Francis Dollarhyde, a protégé of Hannibal Lector, in Manhunter, the original Hannibal the Cannibal movie.

I’m looking forward to this movie, and I’m especially looking for it to watching it with my nine year olds. He’s the perfect age for this bit of nostalgia from my own younger years.