Fri, Dec 31, 1999

: Back from Oregon Christmas 1999

I made it back from Oregon. Had a great time with family; watched movies, played International Monopoly, ate too much. Flight home was canceled due to lack of demand, so they put me on an earlier flight. Made it with two minutes to spare. Airports and planes were deserted. Crazy! Don’t know if it was Y2K related, but I did have a weird series of coincidences. My watch went dead (bad battery). Coming out of the coma of a vacation (where I found it hard to remember what day it was, let alone the time), this made it even worse. This is a data watch, which stores frequently needed phone numbers, so bye-bye data. I had a travel alarm I thought I’d use this morning, but its battery was also dead! So I resorted to my Palm III, only to discover that its batteries had also died and I’d lost all my Palm info! (Most of the data’s backed up, but not all.) Welcome to 2000, I guess.

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: Reservoir Dogs

Author: Quentin Tarantino

Director: Quentin Tarantino

I saw this a few years ago when Quentin hit the mainstream; my impression then was it was interesting, but violent and strangely structured. Perhaps I’ve changed, or I paid more attention this time, but the movie struck me as quite simple, though the perspective was unusual. It’s basically a very interesting look at a gang of thieves just before and after a heist that goes bad. There really isn’t much violence (we see lots of blood, but much of it happens off-screen). Amazing the way a good director can make something complex out of something simple.

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Wed, Dec 29, 1999

: Fitzcarraldo

Author: Werner Herzog

Director: Werner Herzog

An unusual movie about a man in the Amazon who tries to establish an opera house in the middle of the jungle. He goes through incredible feats to achieve this; you really have to see the film to understand. Lushly photographed; excellent acting. Fascinating look at a man’s pursuit of a dream and what it will take to achieve it.

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: The Red Shoes

Author: Hans Christian Anderson (story) and Michael Powell

Director: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

I’ll confess up front that I bought this movie knowing next to nothing about it. I’m glad I did; it’s a very cool film. It’s about ballet dancers. Sounds boring, right? Actually, it wasn’t. We follow the life of a ballerina and her composer boyfriend as they become world famous via their production of “The Red Shoes,” a ballet based on the Hans Christian Anderson story about a ballerina whose red shoes cause her to dance and dance until she dies. Ultimately this film is about the conflict between love of art and human love, as the lead is asked to choose between dancing and her boyfriend. Quite a complex and unusual movie. The pacing is very different; it seems like it shouldn’t work, but it does. I need to watch it again to figure out why.

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Tue, Dec 28, 1999

: Brazil

Author: Terry Gilliam, Charles McKeown, and Tom Stopard

Director: Terry Gilliam

Brazil is my pick for the best movie of all time. It gets that honor because it’s a fun movie, with action, humor, and drama, all packaged within an incredibly profound story. Brazil has many messages; you cannot watch it only once and expect to understand more a tenth of what it has to say. While there are more dramatic films, like Shindler’s List, who would want to watch Shindler’s List twice on the same day? Brazil is the kind of movie you can watch over and over, and each time you see more. Absolutely amazing. (I also watched a fascinating documentary included on the DVD on the battle over the release of Brazil. I’d heard of the controversy, where director Gilliam didn’t want to make the changes the studio wanted, but never realized the version of I’d previously seen was the one I was supposed to see because the studio lost the battle. The cut version with the different ending was apparently only used for American TV. Thank the Lord I never had to endure that one.)

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: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Author: Agenore Incrocci and Furio Scarpelli

Director: Sergio Leone

The ultimate Western, classic all the way. The memorable music is at least 50% of the movie. I watched part of The Mask of Zoro the other day and noted at least one instance of music stolen directly from GBU. There must be thousands of imitations, but none quite match up.

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Mon, Dec 27, 1999

: Galaxy Quest

Author: David Howard VI

Director: Dean Parisot

Silly movie that pokes fun at the Star Trek phenomena. The story’s basically that the cast of Star Trek-like TV show are taken by aliens to help fight against their enemy, not realizing the people are just actors. Well-done, with a few choice gags, but not especially memorable. Better than most one-joke premises.

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: The Man with Two Brains

Author: George Gipe and Steve Martin

Director: Carl Reiner

One of my favorite Steve Martin movies. I was surprised none of my cousins had seen it — I guess it’s an Eighties movie. We laughed throughout, so either it was funny, or it was just because it was one in the morning. (My other Martin favorites are Roxanne and L.A. Story.)

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Sun, Dec 26, 1999

: The Secret Agent

Author: W. Somerset Maugham (novel) and Campbell Dixon

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Interesting early Hitchcock film about secret agents trying to track down another secret agent. Great Peter Lore role. Quite sophisticated special effects for the train wreck at the end, considering the technology of the day. Hitchcock was famous for pushing movie-making technology; it’s scary to think what he could have done with today’s computer-generated stuff.

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: Walkabout

Author: Edward Bond

Director: Nicolas Roeg

This is one of my favorite movies, for many reasons. I love the wildlife photography, and the story, which purports to be about survival in the wild but is really about survival within civilization (there’s a lot to make you think about what exactly is the definition of civilization). It’s a movie you need to see more than once, as it opens your eyes to life from a different perspective (but without preaching). It’s a beautiful movie.

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Thu, Dec 23, 1999

: Too Busy

What a crazy time! Things have been very busy at work the last couple of weeks, and I’ve been spending every spare moment working on The Dilemma, my film short. This has been a major project for me — I’ve been working on it for months. Doing it with minimal equipment, zero budget, no staff, and myself as the lead actor (and camerman) was not a wise move. Still, it was tremendously educational, and I’m fully convinced that directing is somewhere in my future (though I obviously have gobs to learn). I finally got the movie completed this past weekend, but it was tight. Overall, it makes a fun Christmas present (ostensibly the purpose). On Monday, my car broke down, leaving me stranded in Santa Cruz. On Tuesday I discovered why: the car was out of gas. Turns out the “sending unit” was bad. Apparently this is the hardware that tells the fuel gauge how much gas is left. The dial was stuck at a quarter tank. Anyway, got the car fixed yesterday, and I drove to the airport and flew to Oregon this evening. (The plane flight was delayed by a similar situation: the altimeter went bad and they had to switch us to a different airplane. I didn’t arrive until early on Christmas Eve.)

Topic: [/personal]

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Tue, Dec 21, 1999

: Raging Bull

Author: Jake La Motta (book) and Joseph Carter

Director: Martin Scorsese

I was prepared to not like this movie. It’s about boxing (ugh), Italian mobsters (double ugh), and a charming lead who beats women (triple ugh). About half-way through, however, I found myself really entertained. I hadn’t planned to watch the whole thing last night, but I couldn’t not finish it. It’s a very good film. I can’t vouch for the realism of the boxing or anything — the fights were often confusing to me, being the opposite of a boxing fan — but it was interesting. What I liked most was that this wasn’t about a single fight but about a man’s entire career, his whole life. Boxing, ultimately, is a small part of his life. It’s not a pretty life, but it is a life. Strangely sympathetic despite my revulsion. DeNiro’s performance is definitely one of the classics of film. Absolutely amazing. He transforms so well into the character that you forget this is only a movie. He is boxer Jake La Motta. Definitely worth seeing, at least once.

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: Rushmore

Author: Wes Anderson and Owen Wilso

Director: Wes Anderson

I was expecting this to be more of a “laugh out loud” comedy. Instead it’s a humorous drama. Nicely done, though slow and puzzling in places. It’s a character piece about a bright, nerdy kid who’s an overachiever with an active fantasy life. On scholarship, he attends prestigious private school Rushmore, where he is president of all sorts of clubs. He falls for a teacher and tries to scheme to “get” her (even he doesn’t seem to know what that means), but then his rich adult friend (played straight by Bill Murray) begins dating the teacher, and the two go to war. It’s a funny look at a remarkable kid trying to figure out his life. Entertaining, a little on the odd side, but ultimately I’m not sure we exactly learn anything.

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Mon, Dec 20, 1999

: Deliverance

Author: James Dickey (novel and screenplay)

Director: John Boorman

I didn’t know anything about this movie other it has a reputation as a classic. I thought it was a war movie, actually. For some reason I thought Marlon Brando was in it. It kept bugging me throughout the movie how much Brando looked like Burt Reynolds! (It is Burt in the movie, for the clueless like me.) This is not a war film, it’s a survival story. Four guys go canoeing down a river and struggle for their lives. While I’ve seen more recent films that were similar (and less well done) and that took away some of the originality of this movie, it is excellent. The cinematography is awesome, the performances flawless. My favorite scene? The “dueling banjos” at the beginning. A classic. I also liked that the movie didn’t just end when the guys made it home — it kept going, showing us a bit of the aftermath. That’s unusual for Hollywood movies.

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Sat, Dec 18, 1999

: In Dreams

Author: Bari Wood (novel) and Bruce Robinson

Director: Neil Jordan

This movie was better than I expected as the critics had panned it badly when it came out. It actually is an interesting psychological thriller about a woman (Annette Bening) who’s haunted by an insane killer. Unfortunately, the killer, played by Robert Downey Jr., is weak and ineffectual in the role. Bening, on the other hand, is awesome. The direction is a bit heavy-handed, the editing so sharp it occasionally confuses things. Certain aspects of the plot didn’t make any sense, and, of course, the reason for the dream-link between the two main characters is never explained. This is one of those scripts with a lot of potential, but several flaws weaken it so badly it ends up being a so-so movie. Don’t pay more than a couple dollars to rent it, or better yet, watch it on a premium channel for free.

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Fri, Dec 17, 1999

: Thief

Author: Frank Hohimer (novel) and Michael Mann

Director: Michael Mann

This movie is similar to Heat, but I actually liked it better in some ways. It’s a simpler story, about a diamond thief who wants to have a normal life. James Caan was really good in the title role: he plays a smart but rather dumb guy. That’s realistic (most crooks are intelligent), but it’s a tricky task to pull off. In two or three scenes Tuesday Weld shines as his girlfriend. The movie is slow-paced at times, but it keeps building and grows more and more interesting as it goes along. It’s well-directed by Michael Mann (of “Miami Vice” fame). What I liked best was how realistic all the characters were: there’s good and bad within them all.

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Wed, Dec 15, 1999

: Mannheim Steamroller: The Christmas Angel (Music Special)

Author: Noah Zachary

Director: Andy Picheta

What a neat DVD! In Dolby surround sound, the music is incredible. I love Mannheim Steamroller’s Christmas music, and what’s better than their classic tunes set to motion on ice? Here we’ve got a simple children’s story, narrated by Olivia Newton-John, and the story acted by world-famous ice skaters like Dorothy Hamill, Elvis Stojko, and others. It’s great. Children and adults will both love it. (I got mine at Costco, but Amazon doesn’t appear to sell it yet.)

Topic: [/music]

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Tue, Dec 14, 1999

: Dick

Author: Andrew Fleming and Sheryl Longin

Director: Andrew Fleming

This spoof on the Watergate scandal has two dizzy teenage girls as “Deep Throat,” the source of the leaks that brought down a President. Nice, light movie. Fun, but more like an extended Saturday Nigh Live sketch than a comedy. Most of the “humor” is so mild and subtle you’ll never catch it. For one, you have to know a lot about Watergate to understand most of the in jokes. To give you an example of the type of humor: on the director’s commentary on the DVD, he points out how in one scene Woodward has a pad but no pen and Bernstein has a pen and no pad. The director seems to think this is hilarious, and yes, it does bring a smile to the face, but it’s not laugh out loud (which a comedy of this kind needs to be). On the other hand, a film like this could be profound by making powerful statements about society and politics… but this movie doesn’t. So you get mild smiles and no Deep Thought (sorry about that ;-) — basically you won’t miss much either way on this one. The most profound and interesting thing for me was something on the director’s commentary: he pointed out that a number of viewers expressed far more horror and outrage that the movie would dare make fun of Woodward and Bernstein than that it makes fun of Richard Nixon. “In a sense,” said Fleming, “that’s because the journalists are more revered figures than the President.” A bit scary, that.

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: DVD Player

Hey, my DVD player arrived today! I’ve been watching DVDs on my Powerbook. It’s great to have that feature, and the portability’s unmatched, but it’s awkward for connecting to the TV and the software’s sometimes glitchy and slow. So I bit the bullet and bought myself an early Christmas present: a home theatre system. If you haven’t tried DVD yet, do so. There’s no going back. The picture is unbelievably clear, even an on old TV like mine. DVDs have twice the resolution of VHS videotapes, plus there’s no rewinding! Most DVDs have extra content (director’s commentary, making of featurettes, delete scenes, music videos, etc.), too. I also like the fact that since they are the same size as CDs, they take up a lot less space! (Come see my tiny house, which is filled from floor to ceiling with videotapes and you’ll understand. One of these days I want to put my movie collection on my website. I suspect I’m approaching 1500 movies by now.) But DVDs are also about sound: they include Dolby Digital surround sound, just like you get in the movie theatre! Surround sound is amazing — it really puts you in the middle of the action. It changes the whole movie experience.

Topic: [/technology]

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Sun, Dec 12, 1999

: Cold Fall

Author: John Gardner

I love audiobooks. They’re especially good for thick classics that are too intimidating to read (like anything by Faulkner). I listen to them in my car and it’s amazing how they change the way you drive. Suddenly stoplights, instead of being an aggravation, are a delight, because they mean you get to hear more of the story! I normally make it a point to only buy unabridged audiobooks, but every now and then I’ll try a popular book, just for fun. This one was cheap, and it’s a James Bond thriller, and I love James Bond. The book, however, was forgetable. An airplane’s brought down by a bomb and Bond is sent to investigate — but it turns out that has nothing to do with the plot of the book! We’re vaguely told later who did the bombing, but it’s confusing and lame. There’s no real excitement to anything. Bond is rather feeble and human, unlike the Bond of the movies (whom I prefer) — he walks right into the lion’s den and gets attacked (and seems surprised). The worst aspect of the book for me was that this Bond is back to his old tricks, sleeping with every woman he meets, but the author, instead of just letting these one-night stands be one-night stands, describes the love scenes as though Bond is really falling in love each time. So we’re supposed to feel sympathy or something when the woman turns out to be a criminal, or gets killed by the bad guys. Lame, very lame. I’ve read some of the original Ian Fleming novels and liked them (though they are very different from the movies). This book has reminded me that no one does it better than Fleming. I shan’t bother with another non-Fleming Bond book.

Topic: [/book]

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: The X-Files (TV)

Wow, two weeks in a row of great episodes! This one, about a man “cursed” with being lucky (he falls 30 stories and walks away), is a classic. See, the man is lucky — he could win the lottery easily — but bad luck follows all those around him, so he’s forced to live a sheltered, isolated life. This episode is hilarious, witty, inteligent, and thought provoking. The ending is so cool you’ve just got to see it! Highly recommended, even for non X-Filers. The Rube Goldberg sets are pure genius.

Topic: [/television]

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Sat, Dec 11, 1999

: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Author: J. K. Rowling

Well, Rowling’s done it again! I thought the first two were amazingly well plotted, but Azkaban is even more complex. The plot deals with an escaped convict who’s out to kill Harry. He’s Harry’s godfather, the man who betrayed Harry’s parents to You-Know-Who and got them killed. Of course, nothing’s ever quite what it seems in a Harry Potter novel. This third book in the series wears a little, and many aspects of Harry’s school are familiar and rather boring. (The subplot to win the sporting match was routine and not the least bit exciting.) Still, we learn a lot more about Harry’s father, meet some interesting new characters, and there’s plenty of magical mayhem and mischief to keep us hooked. All-in-all? A little uneven. Certain aspects I liked better than previous books (I loved the concept of the Dementors, the horrible prison guards from Azkaban), but there were other parts that felt flat. I especially didn’t like the very end, which didn’t really resolve anything and left a huge opening for a sequel. Still, if you’re a Harry Potter fan, this book isn’t to be missed!

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Fri, Dec 10, 1999

: Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels

Author: Guy Ritchie

Director: Guy Ritchie

What an interesting movie! Set in Scotland, this starts off in a blur of incomprehensibility (a combination of fast pace, lots of slacker-type characters that all look alike, and thick accents), but soon it settles down into a neatly plotted criminal caper. The plot centers around four dudes who pool all their money so one can participate in a high stakes (100,000 pounds) poker game. He emerges ashen-faced, not only having lost the hundred grand, but owing a mobster 500,000! They have week before they start losing fingers, so they plan a robbery. That’s where the fun starts, for nothing goes quite as planned, and you have robbers robbing robbers, crooks shooting each other dead, botched drug deals, crazy hitmen, and much mayhem. It’s a quirky, fun, violent film, similar to Pulp Fiction. It can be confusing a times, but everything makes sense in the end. The continual plot twists are clever and fun. Neat movie from first-time director Ritchie.

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Tue, Dec 07, 1999

: Call of the Wild

Author: Jack London

What a book. I believe I read this when I was twelve or so; it’s even better now. In fact, it’s even better a century after it was written, as our society is less wild and (presumably) more civilized. Few of us know the rawness of the pure struggle for survival. It’s amazing to read this book, written from the intimate perspective of an animal, and relate it to the petty concerns of my own life. Modern society, gripped by the madness of political correctness, is mocked by London with brutal reality, for the wild knows no mercy. I found it a breath of fresh air. The book reads quickly, like a flowing brook; there’s not a false step anywhere. It’s truly one of the best books ever written, full of truth and reality. Here’s my favorite quote:

“There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as complete forgetfulness that one is alive. This ecstasy, this forgetfulness of living, comes to the artist, caught up and out of himself in a sheet of flame; it comes to the soldier, war-mad on a stricken field and refusing quarter; and it came to Buck, leading the pack, sounding the old wolf-cry, straining after the food that was alive and that fled swiftly before him through the moonlight.”

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Mon, Dec 06, 1999

: Back to School

Author: Rodney Dangerfield (story) and Greg Fields

Director: Alan Metter

I wasn’t really watching this silly Rodney Dangerfield vehicle — honestly — but I saw in the credits that Terry Farrell (Dax of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine fame, was in it and I just had to see it. She plays the hot girlfriend of Dangerfield’s son. Worth seeing for Trek fans.

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Sun, Dec 05, 1999

: The X-Files (TV episode)

Did you see tonight’s The X-Files? Wow, what a terrific episode! Definitely one of my favorites! The plot dealt with a teenager who’d discovered the ability to move at superhuman speeds — he could do things so fast the eye couldn’t see him. Unfortunately, he used this ability for evil, and the “high” he got from speed was adicting. It was destroying his body, which was developing micro-fractures due to the extreme pressure of moving so fast, but he didn’t want to listen to the doctors. The ending was classic poetic justice. Very good show.

Topic: [/television]

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Sat, Dec 04, 1999

: eXistenZ

Author: David Cronenberg

Director: David Cronenberg

A David Cronenberg film that’s weird. Quel surprise!. Actually, this one was better than I expected. I liked it. It was more action-oriented than I expected. It’s bizarre, but with a rather obvious point. The plot deals with a game designer who’s invented a new virtual reality game called “eXistenZ” (written just like that). Of course, reality gets all subverted and confused, and soon you can’t tell what’s real and what’s not. That’s the whole point. The two best parts of the movie were the organic game pods (similar to joy sticks) and the title thought where game designer Jennifer Jason Leigh is in conversation with a boy. She explains, “You must play the game to find out the purpose and goal,” and later he says something to the effect of “But there’s no point, no explanation, no rules. I don’t think people are going to like this game.” and she responds: “But everyone’s playing it already.” That was obvious but still cool. If you’re a Cronnenberg and/or VR fan, you’ll like this trip.

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: Apt Pupil

Author: Brandon Boyce (based on Stephen King’s novella)

Director: Bryan Singer

Interesting, though I’m not sure I quite figured out the point. This is basically a psychological chess game between a 16-year-old student and a Nazi war criminal he’s uncovered. However, instead of turning the Nazi in, he blackmails the old man into telling him gruesome stories of Nazi attrocities. In turn, the Nazi blackmails the boy, and the game escolates into murder and intrigue. Fascinating, with excellent performance by Ian McKellar as the Nazi (and the guy in the bed next to him in the hospital was awesome as a Jew whose family the Nazi killed). But overall we’re left with a feeling of voyerism and no clear explanation of why the boy’s so messed up. Watch this one for the performances and concept, but don’t expect to grow from it.

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Fri, Dec 03, 1999

: Star Trek: Insurrection

Author: Rick Berman (story) and Michael Piller

Director: Jonathan Frakes

A more light-hearted fare than the previous excellent Trek outing, this one deals with a small race of people about to be annihilated because their planet contains the fountain of youth. It’s a good movie, with good performances and some interesting plot points, but overall it doesn’t feel tremendously threatening or exciting. There are special effects galore, but they are so muted that you don’t even realize they are special effects. For most movies this is a good thing, but Trek films are about spectacle and the special effects should be eye-popping. While the many effects made this one of the most difficult and expensive Trek movies ever made, I’m suspect most fans would guess it to be among the least complex! Still, it’s a fun outing, and certainly not a waste of time for fans of the series. There are several other Trek films that are worse than this one, despite it being a bit underwhelming.

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Thu, Dec 02, 1999

: Along Came a Spider

Author: James Patterson

Hmmmm. I don’t know about Patterson. His books show great promise, but fail to deliver. This is the book where he introduces his arch-criminal, Gary Soneji. Frankly, I wasn’t impressed. The guy’s a nut, and I don’t mean that in an interesting manner. Basically, the moron lets himself be captured by the police. While there’s nothing wrong with that, since this is supposed to be a book about Detective Cross hunting down the insane killer, it’s quite a letdown when the criminal does all the work for him! There are some interesting developments, including a romance with Cross by a Secret Service woman, but the final third of the book leaves you wondering why you bothered. I read this because they’re supposed to be making this into a film. It might make an okay movie as movies tend to compress things — this book drags out the minimal action over far too many pages. For books like this, the more pages, the bigger the payoff. Unfortunately, Spider (the title’s never explained) goes out with a whimper instead of a bang.

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Tue, Nov 30, 1999

: Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm

Author: Kate Douglas Wiggin

I didn’t know anything about the book except I had a vague impression that it was a “girlie” book. Nothing could be further from the truth! This is a classic novel about alienation. Rebecca’s a girl who doesn’t fit in at home, where she’s just one of seven children, nor at the home of her two spinster aunts, where she lives for several years, nor at school, where she’s not pretty enough for the boys and has too much imagination for her teachers. She’s a delight! Modest and self-effacing, with a pure heart, she tries her best but always seems to be causing her conservative aunts trouble (like when she invites company over without telling them). The “plot” of the novel is all characterization: Rebecca, the wild child, is sent to live with her staid aunts in place of her more practical (i.e. useful) sister Hannah, and slowly, over a period of years, she humanizes the old crones into a semblance of life, while growing up herself. This book had many scenes that brought tears to my eyes. For instance, early on we learn about Rebecca’s most prized possession, her pink parasol, so precious she carries it under her dress to keep the sun from fading the color. Later, when she earns the outrage of her aunt by inadvertently getting paint on her clothes (she was too busy enjoying the scenery to notice the “wet paint” sign), she concludes her aunt’s scolding wasn’t nearly enough punishment, so she decides to sacrifice her cherished parasol by throwing it down the well. The parasol gets tangled in the pump, and then her aunts are upset with her for ruining a valuable possession! Poor Rebecca. Her life is full of such minor high drama, and it is a delight to read about such innocent problems (especially in this callous age). The book is surprisingly witty and very entertaining. The humor is of the sneak-up-behind-you kind; I found it delightful. Here’s an example. Rebecca has written a poem personalizing her family’s dreadful mortgage. When her friend protests that mortgages don’t have faces, she says, “Our mortgage has. I should know him if I met him in the dark. Wait and I’ll draw him for you. It will be good for you to know how he looks, and then when you have a husband and seven children, you won’t allow him to come anywhere within a mile of your farm.” The book is full of wonderful stuff like that! A terrific read, highly recommended. Barely dated despite its age. Author Jack London (I’m reading his awesome

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Sat, Nov 27, 1999

: 12 Monkeys

Author: Chris Marker (film La Jetee) and David and Janet Peoples

Director: Terry Gilliam

Some might think this movie should win the “Most Confusing Movie Ever” award, but it’s only confusing on your first viewing. It’s designed to be a puzzle you unravel, and watch over and over and over. I saw much in this viewing I had previously missed. I think there are some flaws, and things Gilliam could have done to make the movie a little more accessible, but it’s still a great film. It certainly does not dumb itself down for the audience, like so many Hollywood pictures. The plot is an incredibly complicated time travel riddle. It’s also a psychological adventure. Are we trapped in someone’s mind or is all this real? It’s similar to Gilliam’s classic Brazil (my pick for best movie of all time) in that regard. There are twists within twists within twists. Amazing, and well worth the thought-effort to puzzle it through. Rather than try to explain everything for those who haven’t seen the movie, let me just throw out this bone: Bruce Willis is sent back in time to save the world from a plague that wipes out five billion people. But he ends up in a mental institution, where for some odd reason, no one will believe he’s from the future and is there to save humanity. The beauty is that Willis sounds crazy to us, the audience. And we begin to doubt: is he really from the future or he really crazy? Classic!

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: Desperado

Author: Robert Rodriquez

Director: Robert Rodriquez

I wanted to see this again after seeing Rodriquez’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. It works because it fits its genre. If you took that same movie and made it bigger, with a huge budget and lots of explosions, it would be lifeless. It works because dumb people killing each other in tiny, insignificant towns in the middle of nowhere is meaningful within the context of their lives. It has no meaning to the big world. If you make an epic out of it, you are implying it has meaning to all of us, which it does not. Desperado is a shoot-em-up and nothing more, but it’s filmed like a grand drama. Enjoy it as a fun, silly action flick. Don’t expect depth and you’ll be fine. And afterward, watch the smaller, better El Mariachi.

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: Psycho

Author: Robert Bloch (novel) and Joseph Stefano

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

What more can be said about one of the most talked about movies of the century? I can only approach this movie from someone of my generation. Every horror movie or psychological thriller made since 1960 borrows from Psycho, which ought to make it seem derivative and trite. In some ways it does. The “plot” of Norman Bates being a schizophrenic killer who murders and then cleans up his own mess without realizing he did it is old by modern standards. There’s no way any of us can beam back to 1960 and see what a true shock that was in that day. But Psycho is much more than plot. It’s subtlety in acting, directing, and violence. Even by 1960 standards, Psycho had very little violence. The graphic aspects are all in your mind. You watch the infamous shower scene and think you saw more than you really did. In the remake they actually did show more, and it weakened the scene because your imagination had less work to do (imagination is one of those muscles that needs practice and stimulation to work). Psycho is a classic that you can watch over and over and see new things every time. Definitely one of history’s best films. Modern people often think it’s not “scary” but they are missing the point: none of Hitch’s movies are scary in the convention sense (movies in general aren’t scary, unless you have trouble deducing film from reality), but they hold us fascinated. When you watch a Hitchcock movie you might find you go long stretches where you forget to take a breath. In a modern “slasher” film you might cover your eyes, but that’s only because you’re afraid of seeing the excessive gore (which usually causes me to burst out laughing it’s so ludicrously done). With Hitch, you’re caught in a spell and can’t get out.

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: Cube (rewatch)

I watched

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Fri, Nov 26, 1999

: Toy Story II

Author: John Lasseter (story) and Peter Docter

Director: Ash Brannon and John Lasseter

Wow, was I impressed! I seriously doubted the guys at Pixar could top the original, but they did. What impressed me the most about the original was that it was grounded in such a good, old-fashioned story. Ninety-eight percent of Hollywood would have created an empty feast for the eyes with nothing for the brain. With Toy Story II, not only did Pixar improve on the amazing graphics of the first movie, they made sure they had a great story for the foundation! We’ve got humor, adventure, sentimentality, parody, everything. This time the scope of the film is much bigger: we take the same characters outside of the house and have them travel through the town! There’s a bit more focus on the humans, whose renderings are amazingly detailed. My very favorite scene was when the characters drive through the toy barn in a little car and stop to ask some Barbie dolls for help. “Tour Guide” Barbie jumps in to assist them, giving them a classic tour lecture as they weave their way through the aisles of toys! Priceless. Toy Story II has so much detail and moves so fast I need to see it again so I can drink it all in. Wonderful, and it will no doubt bear up to many, many repeated viewings.

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: Pi

Author: Darren Aronofsky (story) and Sean Gullette

Director: Darren Aronofsky

I original saw this in August, after renting it, and thought it was worth buying on DVD. It’s a fascinating experiment of a movie. It was made independently for an extremely low amount of money ($60K). It’s black-and-white and rather bizarre in places, but it’s weakest parts are when it tries to be too Hollywood and turn the movie into an action thriller (which it does toward the end). It’s basically the story about a mathematician who goes crazy while searching for the magic number that defines the pattern of the universe (represented by the stock market). It’s an intellectual movie, represented more by concept than anything concrete, and while it seems a bit incomplete, or falls short of its lofty goals, it’s a wonderful start for a budding filmmaker. It’s certainly like nothing you’ve ever seen. Excellent, if you’re in the right mood. (BTW, you don’t really need to know anything about math to understand it.)

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: Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me

Author: Mike Myers

Director: Jay Roach

I liked this one even better than the original. It’s not as innovative in scope, but it’s funnier, and way, way, way over the top. It’s totally crude, rude, and socially unacceptable, which just makes it all the funnier. Like Airplane did for the seventies/eighties, the Austin Powers movies are doing for the nineties. If you liked the first one, you’ll like this one.

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: Aliens

Author: James Cameron

Director: James Cameron

It’s been a while since I’ve seen this, but it doesn’t lose much over the years. While it’s not quite as nail-bitting as Cameron’s The Terminator, it’s a great, pressure-filled action film. It doesn’t let up until the final frame. It’s basically a monster movie and nothing more, but done with such class, it’s a definite top 100.

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Thu, Nov 25, 1999

: The Great Train Robbery (movie)

Author: Michael Crichton

Director: Michael Crichton

I was a little disappointed by this movie. It wasn’t as good as the book, and there were strange differences (like transporting a baboon instead of a tiger in one scene, Sean Connery’s girlfriend pretending to be a prostitute [in the book there a real prostitute was used], and apprehending Connery as he gets off the train [in the book he’s not caught until two years later]) that were never explained. These minor alterations bothered me a lot, as the author of the book wrote and directed the movie, and the novel’s based on fact, so I expected an accurate transition. Still, it’s not a bad movie. Very well done in places, though a bit obvious in others (Donald Sutherland is strangely flat in his performance). If you haven’t read the book you’ll find it fascinating. The biggest flaw was the lack of scope: the story has a bit of the epic about it, as this historical event was similar to the sinking of the Titanic in that it shocked the newly industrialized world that modern technology wasn’t impenetrable. Unfortunately, Crichton doesn’t shoot this as an epic — instead he goes for an action drama, spending too much time on Connery’s precarious run across the top of a moving train. Since that’s a stunt we’ve seen hundreds of times in movies and on TV, it just wasn’t memorable or exciting. I would have focused a bit more time on the trial and the aftermath, which puts the whole crime in scope (and gives Connery opportunity to deliver some of Pierce’s hilarious one-liners). The DVD edition has comentary by director Crichton.

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: Strangers on a Train

Author: Raymond Chandler and Whitfield Cook

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

I’d forgotten how funny this movie is! What a delight! It’s the kind of movie that gets better with each viewing. There’s so much depth and complexity within the characters that every time you watch it, you see things you missed before. I don’t know why scripts this good aren’t written any more. It’s sad, for nearly every line of dialogue has several shades of meaning. The plot, if you aren’t familiar with it, is simple: two guys meet on a train and agree to “swap” murders (they’d each do the other’s murder). Since they are strangers, there’s nothing to connect them. Of course, this is Hitchcock, so nothing’s as simple as you might expect. This movie has some of the most dramatic, classic scenes ever put on film. Absolutely amazing. It’s a bit slower than more action-filled Hitchcock movies — this one’s all psychology. Hitch’s daughter, Pat, is hilarious as one of the Senator’s daughters.

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Wed, Nov 24, 1999

: The Bone Collector

Author: Jeffery Deaver (book) and Jeremy Iacone

Director: Phillip Noyce

A decent thriller, though not in the class of Silence of the Lambs. The plot has a genius forensic detective (Denzel Washington), who’s paralyzed and bed-ridden, team up with a troubled beat cop (Angelina Jolie) to track down a serial killer. Denzel was good with what he had to work with, but Angelina was awesome. She played her character with just the right subtle touches to make her completely believable. However, the early connection between the two was awkwardly done and ham-handled. Basically, Denzel wants her to work for him and she doesn’t want to, so he forces her. Eventually she comes around, but not without a lot of fireworks. It seemed unrealistic to me that detectives would make so much effort to recruit an unwilling cop. I needed more motivation on their part. All in all, a good ride. Not especially scary (but what is), though some scenes are a touch graphic.

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: TG 1999

It’s the long Thanksgiving weekend, so I leave for my Aunt and Uncle’s place in Oakland. I’m bringing lots of DVDs for my cousins and I to watch!

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Mon, Nov 22, 1999

: Civil Action

Author: Jonathan Harr (book) and Steven Zaillian

Director: Steven Zaillian

Slow paced, empty drama. Narrated by star John Travolta, it sets itself up to be the Casino of personal injury lawyers, with John lecturing us on his skills and virtues. The movie has some decent performances (I liked Robert Duvall and William H. Macy was terrific), but overall it leaves you as void as a dud lottery ticket. The story sets itself up for drama, but nothing happens. It’s not really that predictable, but it feels like it is (which is some ways is worse). Supposedly in the end Travolta’s character is reformed, but he’s so one dimensional to begin with, it’s impossible to tell. Not worth a $3 rental. Watching my cat groom himself is much more entertaining.

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: Timeline

Author: Michael Crichton

As a Crichton fan, I pre-ordered this from Amazon so I’d get a copy as soon as it was published. Once again, Crichton pulls a Jurrasic Park: we’ve got a huge corporation run by a renegade billionaire genius with an insane plan, radical technology breakthroughs that strain credibility to the limit, and of course, everything goes horribly wrong. In retrospect the story is much simpler than it appears while you’re reading it. It’s basically time-travel, with adventurers getting stuck in the past. Unfortunately, that’s all it is. The mastermind’s plan isn’t revealed until the very end, and believe me, it’s even lamer than a dinosaur amusement park! (What is it with Crichton and entertainment? He seems to think all multi-billion dollar technology breakthroughs will simply lead to a new entertainment medium. Very bizarre. I think the guy needs to see a shrink!) Still, the adventure’s a good one: it’s exciting, dramatic, and interesting. I liked the characters, and I was relieved that none of them did anything superhuman or absurd to get out of a fix. Crichton’s writing style is quick and easy, but he has a horrible tendency to break his chapters into dozens of shorter subchapters, most of which are just a few paragraphs long. I guess he figures this increases tension, but it’s merely annoying. Reminds me of students who triple space their three-page essay to make it the required five. Lame and artificial. There are also some obvious flaws that gives the feeling this book was a bit rushed toward the end. For instance, in one spot, a character’s walking on a roof beam which is “six inches wide.” This is too wide and too easy for the brute chasing her, so she moves to a narrower one: “This horizontal rafter was only a foot wide; he would have trouble.” Huh? It’s been a while since I’ve been to measurement school, but in my day six inches was less than a foot! One other thing that bugged me: a key part of the plot is the battery-operated time machines only have enough power to last for thirty-seven hours. For that section of the book, Crichton uses the amount of time left (i.e. “11:01:59”) as chapter titles. Of course, the stranded adventurers can’t quite get everything together to escape and thus the countdown trickles down, not to minutes, but literally seconds, before they can escape. Frankly, that’s ridiculous. I understand the need to increase drama with the element of time, but what kind of scientist can predict, down the second, how much life is left in a battery? Batteries are probably the most unreliable, unpredictable technology we’ve got! Crazy, thoroughly dumb. Crichton’s an excellent researcher, and he’s got a decent grasp on technology, but his stories sound like, well, like a non-novelist doctor wrote them. If you’re a Crichton fan, go for it. Otherwise, wait for the movie (which won’t be as successful as Jurrasic Park, but it should be okay).

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Sun, Nov 21, 1999

: 10 Things I Hate About You

Author: William Shakespeare (loosely based on The Taming of the Shrew) and Karen McCullah Lutz

Director: Gil Junger

The writer of this movie must be schizophrenic — this movie is alternately a cheap, crass teen flick and occasionally a brilliant satire on American high school life. There are some really good moments and characterizations, but they are mixed in with unfortunate toilet humor. This inconsistency leaves you strangely uneasy. It’s not like Animal House, where you expect raunchy, but more like a crude version of Clueless. A good example of this crudeness is the recurring character of the guidance counselor who writes pornography between student visits. It’s funny at first, but her text is remarkably graphic and she shows no shame, leaving you more puzzled than amused. It’s like a half-joke played for a real one. Still, there are some really cool moments. My favorite was when the Dad, who most of the movie was a stereotypical pregnancy-obsessed parent, reveals he’s not as dumb as you thought. He’s got two daughters: the younger one’s pretty and perfect and popular, the older one an intelligent, independent-minded feminist-in-training. The older one’s looking to move far away to college and her father’s opposed to it. He tells her something along the lines of “Your sister at least lets me pretend to be a dad once in a while. You, you’ve had me on the bench for years.” I thought that was really profound, as we saw the father’s fear of losing his role as a parent as his children grow up and don’t need him any more. All and all, uneven: surprisingly intelligent in places, surprisingly juvenile in others. Rentable, if you’re curious for what passes for teen drama these days.

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Sat, Nov 20, 1999

: Go

Author: John August

Director: Doug Liman

I didn’t know what to expect from this movie. Turns out it’s a series of vingettes about the violent, crime-filled lives of a group of people one Christmas weekend. We get to see the same events from several perspectives, which is interesting, though repetetive. These people are not ones you’d want to hang around with, however. They are crude, desperate, and disgusting. Basically bad things happen to everyone, but since you don’t really care for anyone, it’s mildly entertaining. There are some interesting twists. In many ways this reminded me of 2 Days in the Valley except with teenagers. That was a better film, however. Go is a third-generation copy, though it has a good soundtrack. Like all vingette films, this one suffers from unevenness. I guess I don’t quite see the point of such a technique. It’s always an interesting concept, but it never quite works. Still, this wasn’t boring. Rentable. Two thumbs sideways.

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Fri, Nov 19, 1999

: The World is Not Enough

Author: Bruce Feirstein and Michael France

Director: Michael Apted

Unlike the lackluster last Bond outing (1997’s Tomorrow Never Dies), this James Bond is excellent. The opening action sequence — a speedboat chase the previews made seem routine — is actually exciting. Other action sequences aren’t as good (the skiing one is quite routine), but there are many of them, and most are mercifully quick (though a few drag on too long). What’s most unusual about this Bond is that the villan isn’t revealed until later in the movie. This is a good villian, too. As any Bond fanatic knows, a Bond film is only as good as its villan. The plot itself is so complicated is drags the story a bit. In fact, there were a number of key plot points that occurred before the movie started, meaning we’re told about them retroactively, a poor method for revealing critical details. But since this is a Bond film, plot is almost irrelevant — you know it’s a diabolical scheme to rule the world and Bond’s going to stop it, and in the end, that’s all that matters. The fun is in the journey, and watching the suave Bond wiggle his way out of impossible deathtraps with a martini in his hand and narry a spot on his tuxedo. Acting? Well, Bond films aren’t acting powerhouses, but Pierce Brosnan does an excellent job, bringing a bit of depth and complexity to his Bond. He’s better than the plot, in most cases. What I like about Brosnan is that he has a ruggedness about him that fits Bond exactly, he’s a decent actor, and he can deliver witty lines without turning the whole movie into cornball. This film brings back the Bond tradition of lots of innuendo and dreadful puns, but it doesn’t turn into a cartoon Bond like many of the 70’s films. As for the Bond women, Sophia Marceau was excellent, but I can’t say the same for poor Denise Richards as a nuclear scientist. Let’s just say she’d make an excellent store mannequin. She was fine eye candy… as long she didn’t speak. Overall, an excellent follow-up to Goldeneye.

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Thu, Nov 18, 1999

: The Picture of Dorian Gray

Author: Oscar Wilde

My Mom lent me a condensed, children’s version of this, which I read in about an hour, and it was so good I had to read the real thing. I’m glad I did, too, because the real version is awesome! It’s definitely in my favorite book category. First, you’ve got a fascinating premise: a handsome young man gets his wish: his portrait will grow old while he will stay young. Second, you’ve got a book absolutely filled with Wilde’s unparalleled epigrams and witty quotations. I literally at times wondered if I was reading a book of quotations or a novel! Almost every line is a gem. What surprised me was was how similar this book is to Dangerous Liaisons. One of the characters, Lord Henry, basically corrupts young Dorian Gray, seducing him with fine words and clever speeches. Henry leads Gray to the well of evil and the young man drinks deeply. His life becomes a moral wasteland, but while the cost of his crimes are revealed on his portrait, which grows gray and hideous with sin, Gray himself looks like a twenty-year-old. The ending is classic and appropriate. A hundred years after it was written, this book has profound modern relevance — perhaps even more than ever, considering the state of the world today, where people sell their soul for youth on a regular basis. This book is a must-read.

I could quote from this book all day, but here are a few classic lines, just to give you a taste of Wilde’s wit:

Lord Henry on pleasure: “Anything becomes a pleasure if one does it too often. That is one of the most important secrets of life.” Lord Henry on women: “How fond women are of doing dangerous things! It is one of the qualities in them I admire the most. A woman will flirt with anybody in the world as long as other people are looking on.” Lord Henry on boredom: “The only horrible thing in the world is ennui. That is the one sin for which there is no forgiveness.” Lord Henry on skeptics: “Skepticism is the beginning of faith.” Lord Henry on reason: “I can stand brute force, but brute reason is quite unbearable. There is something unfair about its use. It is hitting below the intellect.” Lord Henry on youth: “To get back one’s youth, one merely has to repeat one’s follies.” Mr. Erskine on America: “Perhaps, after all, America never has been discovered. I myself would say that it had merely been detected.”

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Wed, Nov 17, 1999

: New Links

Somehow I forgot to link to several items on my website! I’d fully intended to, but somehow missed adding my graphic novel, The Traveler, and my film short, Burgar Wars. I’ve put them in a special “Projects” category above. In that same category I’ve also added a link to my “Rules for International Monopoly”. It’s a variation on the traditional Monopoly® that’s a blast. You basically connect several Monopoly® boards together (each an different foreign version) and play across all the boards. There’s more money, more property, and because of subtle differences between foreign and U.S. boards, actual surprises! Great fun and a great twist on a tired, familiar game.

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Mon, Nov 15, 1999

: When the Wind Blows

Author: James Patterson

Fascinating concept: a group of renegade geneticists create a new species of human, children with wings and the ability to fly. One of their experiements escapes and they must hunt her down (and destroy all witnesses) to protect their research. Unfortunately, it sounds more exciting than it is. Patterson throws in an unconventional FBI agent that’s a cheap copy of Fox Mulder from TV’s The X-Files and a beautiful veterinarian who falls in love with the agent and just happens to know a lot about genetics and birds. Basically, the whole thing’s contrived, routine, and the ending makes you scratch your head and say “Why didn’t they do that in the first five minutes???” Still, the book has good pace, and it’s interesting, but like Chinese food, it leaves you hungry a few hours later.

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Sun, Nov 14, 1999

: Sara Groves Concert

Sara is my second cousin. I hadn’t seen her since we were both children so I was excited when I heard her tour was coming to a local church. A whole bunch of us relatives showed up. It was amazing to see how she’s grown up! She was even better live than on her album. It was an informal gathering, which suits her style precisely, and the "concert" was more like VH-1’s Storytellers. Sara sat at the piano and told wonderful stories introducing each song, revealing what inspired her to write it. The stories were funny and touching, and taught important life lessons. Her style is similar to Suzanne Vega — almost talking through music. She’s a great writer and a gifted musician. Her lyrics are simple and deceptively plain. I loved one phrase: "He didn’t recycle for our gain," (speaking of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross). What a neat way to put that! One other interesting occurrence: two or three times during the concert I’d been mentally comparing Sara with one of my favorite singers, Keith Green. At first this seemed like a strange comparision since she doesn’t sound anything like him, but she does have a similar intimate style; friendly, yet with a serious point behind her smile. At the end the pastor of the church got up to say a few closing words. I nearly fell out of my chair when he compared Sara with… Keith Green! Sara’s new album comes out soon — I can’t wait to get a copy!

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Sat, Nov 13, 1999

: A Better Tomorrow

Author: John Woo

Director: John Woo

An action movie with a brain. John Woo’s films are classics not only because the action is so stylish, but because he puts his characters into moral dilemmas. While I didn’t like Tomorrow quite as well as Woo’s incredible The Killer, this is a very good film. The plot has an idealistic young kid joining the police force not realizing his much older brother is a leader of a criminal syndicate. Because of his brother, the criminal decides to reform, but the young cop is devastated and decides to hate his brother. Then the cop’s career is hampered by his criminal "connections" while the criminal’s attempts to reform are met with resistance by the syndicate. It’s complex and intelligent, rare items in the U.S. action film genre. I recommend the subtitled version if you can find it. (I watched the dubbed and it really cheapens the acting — everything seems melodramatic and silly when the lips don’t match the dialogue.)

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: Pecker

Author: John Waters

Director: John Waters

I’m not sure if John Waters is losing his touch or if nothing shocks any more, but this movie isn’t as ground-breaking as past Waters’ classics like Polyester. Like most Waters’ films this is full of his trademark bizarre characters (except they don’t seem especially bizarre in this one; perhaps I’m jaded), it’s set in Baltimore, and it’s uneven. But there are some funny, witty moments. Oddly, the plot is almost sitcom in nature: a teenage photographer makes it big on the New York art scene, but overnight success ruins his family and he finds he can no longer take photos anonymously, but in the end everything works out happily. Certainly not for all tastes and not Waters’ best, but interesting. For Waters’ newbies I’d recommend the more tame but funnier Cry-Baby.

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Fri, Nov 12, 1999

: Psycho (remake)

Author: Joseph Stefano

Director: Gus Van Sant

If the question of "Why?" is what you think when you see this exact remake, that’s only because you’re a Hitchcock fan. Gus claims he did this for the under-20 crowd for whom black-and-white is an enemy. It’s an homage to Hitch, not an attempt to outdo. Frankly, I can understand Gus’ interest — as a love the chance to put myself in Hitchcock’s shoes. What I can’t see, however, is the point in me watching this. Basically, if you’ve seen the original, you’ve seen this one. Other than color, less capable actors (sorry, but Vince Vaughn just isn’t as scary as Anthony Perkins), and a better shower curtain, this one’s identical. If you haven’t seen the original and this one interests you, see it — it’s good. It’s just not Hitchcock.

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Thu, Nov 11, 1999

: Goldeneye

Author: Jeffrey Caine & Bruce Feirstein

Director: Martin Campbell

This was the first James Bond movie of the Pierce Brosnan era, and it’s terrific. I’ve seen it a few times of course, but it’d been years. On DVD this is one cool movie (especially watching it on a high-tech laptop ;-). This has everything you expect from a Bond film: amazing action, incredible locations and cinematography, sexy women, and high-tech gadgets. What more could a guy want? What I like best about Bond films — good Bond films — is that they are several films in one. You’ve got the intro sequence, which, when long, is like a mini-movie in itself. Then there’s the various stages of tracking down the Bad Guy — each sequence is like a separate movie, each bigger and badder than the previous. It’s totally cool and it’s what makes the Bond movies so over-the-top. I wasn’t that crazy about the last Bond, but I have high hopes for the latest (out next week, I believe). This just whetted my appetite.

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Tue, Nov 09, 1999

: Jack and Jill

Author: James Patterson

Interesting thriller about a plot to assassinate the president. Patterson lets us in on the killers’ perspectives early in the book, but doesn’t tell us their identity. This "tell, don’t tell" creates a sense of impatience that’s frustrating and artificial, but the book’s pacing is fast enough that it’s bearable. This book wasn’t as fast-paced as Cat and Mouse, the only other Patterson book I’ve read, but it got better as the book went along. I still think Patterson’s "great" detective, Alex Cross (who appears in many of his books), is boring; Patterson has made him so "everyman" that we see very little extraordinary. I prefer an outrageous character like Sherlock Holmes. We may not know every detail of his love life, but at least he’s brilliant. One thing Patterson does that I really like is that when he ends one chapter on a cliffhanger he picks up the action right where it left off in the next chapter. Most writers throw in chapters with alternate storylines in the middle which, besides being exasperating and confusing, often comes across as artificial. I haven’t read most of Patterson library, but I like quick-moving fiction — looks like I’ve got some reading to do.

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Sat, Nov 06, 1999

: El Mariachi

Author: Robert Rodriguez

Director: Robert Rodriguez

The DVD of this movie is totally cool — it’s a dual-edition, with Rodriguez’s Desperado on the second side. El Mariachi is essentially Rodriguez’s first film. It’s in Spanish, and amazingly, he filmed it for a paltry $7,000! This is for an action movie, folks! (The sequel, Desperado, cost $7 million!) The DVD has Rodriguez’s audio commentary and it’s terrific if you’re into learning about movie-making. Tons of explanation and hints and tips on making a movie cheaply. (There’s even a separate "10-Minute Film School" video on the DVD.) The commentary begins right at the Columbia Pictures logo, with Rodriguez, with biting wit saying, "This logo probably cost more than my whole movie!" As to the movie itself, it’s not perfect. There are dozens of little flaws, gaffs, and glitches (I think they’re cool). Rodriguez was fully aware of this, a side-effect of the non-existent budget (of the seven grand, he says only six hundred dollars actually shows up on the screen — the rest was used to buy and develop the film). He originally intended to sell the movie to the Spanish language direct-to-video market and basically just hoped to recoup his costs. He was just practicing. Unfortunately, his movie went on to win an award at the Sundance Film Festival and the movie was picked up for wide release by Columbia, so now the whole world gets to see this marvelous film. It’s worth it, too. To compensate for any flaws, Rodriguez edited the movie a frantic pace. There’s cut-cut-cut, zooms, slow- and fast-motion, and the whole movie has an incredible feeling of action though there’s not a single stuntman, crew, or explosion! A lot of this had to do with budget: for instance, Rodriguez couldn’t afford Hollywood prop guns, so he borrowed some real machine guns from the local cops (the movie was film in Mexico). Real guns aren’t designed for blanks, so they jam after one round. This meant no continuing shooting was possible. So Rodriguez would film the shot from multiple angles and zooms and then edit it all together to make it seem like continue action. Turns out the choppy effect is far more dramatic than a guy standing there firing for ten seconds. Basically this movie doesn’t seem low-budget from watching it. It’s a great action movie. The plot’s cool: a mariachi (guitar player) is mistaken for a killer who carries his guns in a guitar case. The mariachi is chased and "accidentally" kills many of the bad guys (like the way Inspect Clousou always does things). It’s funny, exciting, and if you weren’t told how little it cost, you’d never know. You won’t mistake it for a multi-million dollar blockbuster, but it looks better than 90% of the crap that’s shown on cable TV. If you check this out, I highly recommend the DVD version. Besides the invaluable commentary, there’s Rodriguez’s neato movie short, "Bedhead." It apparently won awards and was aired on PBS. It’s the tale of a little girl being tormented by her bratty brother and what she does for revenge. Hilarious! If you’re a Rodriguez fan, you can also check out his ultra-violent From Dusk Till Dawn.

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Fri, Nov 05, 1999

: The Thirteenth Floor

Author: Josef Rusnak & Ravel Centeno-Rodriguez (Based on the book Simulacron 3 by Daniel Galouye)

Director: Josef Rusnak

This was a cool movie. I was hesitant, as the previews I saw last spring didn’t explain much, and the critics didn’t like it (I don’t know why). I thought it was great. The liner describes the movie as a "sci-fi film noir" which is exactly what this is — it’s more of a murder mystery than science fiction, though of course, there are science fiction elements within it. The basic plot is that a scientist has created an artificial world within a computer — a simulation of 1937 (his childhood). When the inventor’s murdered, his assistant is suspect, and he’s forced to journey to 1937 to try and clear himself. What he discovers blows his mind — and possibly yours. The ending’s a bit predictable — but the lush photography, elaborate sets, and fascinating dual characters (all the actors play dual roles, one in modern day, one in 1937) make it so you don’t care. The movie starts off a bit slow and you’re not sure where it’s going, but all in all, I liked this much better than Dark City (which is visually interesting and has more special effects but I didn’t like quite as much as this). The DVD’s got a director’s commentary (which I haven’t listened to yet) so it’s got added value (I hate DVDs that just give you the movie and nothing else).

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Tue, Nov 02, 1999

: Unnatural Causes

Author: P.D. James

I wanted to like this book, I really did. Supposedly, mystery fans the world over love P.D. James’ mysteries, but if this is characteristic of them, I’m definitely the opposite of a fan. If anything, James has a gift for making an exciting subject like murder boring. The book is tedious, glacier-paced, and as each character is introduced, we’re given several pages of meaningless background material. The mystery itself is basically a "Who cares." The plot has a mystery writer discovered dead, floating in a dinghy, his hands chopped off at the wrist — exactly like the opening scene of the novel he’s writing. James seems to think this is a stunning opening, innovative as all get out — I found it boring and pointless. I didn’t like any of her characters, and thus didn’t care one way or another what happened in the book. The murder mystery itself (i.e. the plot), wasn’t bad, but I was so disinterested it’s hard to judge. James is a good writer. Her style and diction is concise and elegant, remarkable in some ways, but there’s something about her style that turns me off. It reminds me a lot of John LeCarre, who I can’t read to save my life. Two paragraphs and I’m zoning, my mind drifting off. Nothing captures my interest for some reason. Strange and sad, but I’ve learned to accept it. I’ve stopped even trying to read LeCarre, and while I might give James another chance in the future, she’s heading for that same inglorious position in my library. I liked her Children of Men and I’d had great hopes for one of her mysteries, but this one really let me down.

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Sun, Oct 31, 1999

: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Author: J.K. Rowling

Almost as soon as I finished the first one, I started on the second. It’s just about as good, picking up right where the previous book left off, and continuing to delight and inspire. Harry’s a terrific hero: modest, imperfect, and with a heart of gold. He always wins, but not without help from his friends, and not by how you’d expect. Yet he’s perfectly believable as the hero. Too many stories create larger-than-life heroes that are just ridiculous, while others take a nobody and suddenly have them doing noble and heroic things that just don’t fit their mediocre character. Harry’s wonderful! Makes me wish I had children to read the books to!

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Sat, Oct 30, 1999

: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Author: J.K. Rowling

I first heard of Harry Potter on a TV news report describing the British phenomenon — kids lined up for blocks at bookstores in malls waiting for the next book in the series! My mother, as a teacher, had to find out what Potter was all about, and so this weekend when I visited, I read her copy (I started at 10 p.m. Friday and finished it before noon on Saturday). First, just forget the controversy that the Potter books are light or weird or demonic or whatever. This book is a delightful fantasy. Though geared toward children, it’s very well written and surprisingly literate (and long at over 300 pages). It’s witty and the silly adventures of the kid heroes are wonderful. I loved the charming characters and the plot was surprisingly complex — about one hundred times more intelligent than a typical children’s book (like a Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew mystery). There are clever twists and nothing’s quite as simple as you assumed. This book is good enough I wouldn’t mind reading it again the second I finished it (instead I rushed out and bought the sequels). If you like humor, fun, and adventure, you’ll like this book. While it’s not metaphorical like C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, it’s a good versus evil story using magic as the medium. If this is what it takes to get children today to read, I vote for hundreds of sequels!

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Wed, Oct 27, 1999

: The Mysterious Affair at Styles

Author: Agatha Christie

It’s been a long time since I’ve read this book, or any Agatha Christie for that matter. I forgot how literary she was — with mysteries one thinks primarily of plot, but this is a well written book. Compared to many Poirot novels this isn’t my favorite, but you keep reading to find out what and how Poirot solves the murder. Christie’s spoiled me for other mystery writers — I have yet to find any that even vaguely come close to her deft touch. She’s the best! There are a number of Christie books I bought but haven’t read; I really must dig them up and get reading. I love her mysteries, especially Poirot stories.

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Sun, Oct 24, 1999

: The Blair Witch Project

Author: Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez

Director: Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez

If you haven’t heard of Blair Witch, you must be living under a rock. This movie has turned Hollywood on its ear. An extremely low budget ($22,000) independent movie, it’s made over $100 million! Released in theatres in July, it’s now out on video. I got my copy on DVD and was very impressed. First, it’s not scary at all. But it is authentic. It’s presented as the video diary of a group of film-makers who go off to film a documentary on the Blair Witch and never come back. The "scary" stuff is nothing more than strange sounds and mysterious piles of rocks and sticks that appear during the night. There’s no blood, no "fake scares" that populate so many of today’s movies (where the killer turns out to be a neighbor visiting or a cat looking for food). It’s just a simple tale of a group of frightened, nervous college students going insane. The script is remarkable — I couldn’t detect a flaw in it, which is good, because this kind of "real video" would suffer tremendously if there’s any flaw in acting or dialog. Apparently a great deal of the movie was improvised, which explains why it feels so authentic. (My hairdresser complained that she thought it realistic until she noticed the girl’s hair, after a week in the woods, still looked groomed.) To summarize: not a great film, but a good one. Don’t expect too much or you’ll be disappointed. But it’s a remarkable achievement in this day where a typical Hollywood movie costs $30-$50 million!

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Sat, Oct 23, 1999

: Red Dragon

Author: Thomas Harris

As Silence of the Lambs is one of my favorite movies, and this summer I enjoyed the thrillride of Harris’ diabolical Hannibal, I figured it was a good time to read the novel that introduced the character of Hannibal Lector to the world. I purposely didn’t expect much; after all, Lector’s barely in the book, and Harris’s masterwork was Silence, right? Wrong. Though I’ve only seen Silence as a film, Red Dragon is far superior. Silence was about the hunt for a serial killer, with mind games from Lector thrown in to mystify and amuse. We only get glimpses into psyches. Hannibal is the same, as it exposes more of Lector’s past. But Lector’s not your average serial killer; he’s an extraordinary being. Despite what he does, it’s hard to not like Lector. Dragon is also about the hunt for a serial killer, but it allows us to see into his mind. It’s amazing. First you’re presented with his awful crimes, then, when you begin to understand him, you feel sympathy for him! And he’s not as sympathetic a character as Lector by any means. Obviously much of the psychology is simplistic and pat; but that’s why we read novels and watch movies, because they’re easier to understand than real life. I enjoyed this remarkable book very much. Like Silence its subject isn’t pleasant, but it’s presented in such a clinical fashion it isn’t sensationalized.

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Thu, Oct 21, 1999

: The Stainless Steel Rat Goes to Hell

Author: Harry Harrison

Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat series has been a favorite of mine for decades, but his last few disappointed, and Hell, unfortunately, falls into the same category. In the original series, Jim DiGriz is a crook — a rat — but when Harrison turned DiGriz into a cop, married him, and threw a couple kids into the picture, the series went downhill. There’s still some of the Rat’s classic humor in this book, but too little, and the inane plot that just goes around in circles doesn’t help matters. I had great hope upon reading this line on the opening page: "My morale plummeted as the name slithered across my eardrums. Of all the beautiful bores on Lussuoso, Rowena was possibly the most beautiful — and certainly the most boring. I had to flee — or commit suicide — before she came in." That’s classic Jim DiGriz — unfortunately, he rarely appeared in the balance of the book. I usually read a SSR book in a couple hours — this one required work.

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Mon, Oct 18, 1999

: Tom Brown’s School Days

Author: Thomas Hughes

This book has two technical problems: one, it’s old, and two, it’s not written in English. Or rather, it’s written in English and not American. It’s an interesting read simply because English school life 150 years ago is so different from life today, but it’s not an easy read. There was much I found incomprehensible. (For instance, what does being "floored" mean? It’s apparently something bad, perhaps a punishment, but I have no idea what. There’s lots of similar jargon that makes some scenes complete mysteries.) The book is written with exquisite detail, which, while it’s good and often important, makes for slow reading. For example, despite the title, it takes a few chapters before Tom even goes to school. I liked the story, however: it’s basically the characterization of Tom Brown and his growth and progress into a young man. I don’t know if I’d go so far as to call this a classic, but it’s interesting and I’m glad I read it.

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Sat, Oct 16, 1999

: Double Jeopardy

Author: David Weisberg & Douglas Cook

Director: Bruce Beresford

I’d seen a little about this, but while the concept intrigued me — a husband frames his wife for his murder and when she’s released double jeopardy means she can’t be tried for killing him a "second" time — and I’ve been a huge Ashely Judd fan since Ruby in Paradise, I was prepared for a typical Hollywood generic thriller. This one was definitely above average. Judd’s awesome in the lead role (which is good, as she’s in nearly every scene), and her relationship with parole officer Tommy Lee Jones is terrific. There’s some great action, some nice emotion, a few genuine scares. "Concept" movies like these are easy to do badly; this one is very well done, and while it doesn’t move much beyond the plot, it’s an enjoyable ride (and we get to watch Ashley Judd the whole time).

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: Stardust

Author: Neil Gaiman

To demonstrate how good this book is, I’ll say this: I read it (238 pages) in one sitting (I started it this morning and finished it this afternoon). If there’s such a thing as an instant classic, this is it. Gaiman — most famous for his incredible Sandman graphic novels, is an amazing myth-making genius. This book is up there with Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia. The tale is simple and pure and beautiful: a boy sets out to retrieve a fallen star to impress his girlfriend. The journey is magical and delightful and the fairie world Gaiman takes us to is believable (and reminiscent of the fantasy of George MacDonald). Gaiman’s use of wit, language, and incredible imagination makes this book a delight. For instance, one of the characters is enslaved by a witch. Asked if she’s a prisoner forever, she replies, "Not forever. I gain my freedom on the day the moon loses her daughter, if that occurs in a week when two Mondays come together." Hilarious! This book reminds me a lot of Clive Barker’s neat The Thief of Always in that it’s a modern take on fantasy, but I liked Stardust better. I’d love to recommend it for young kids but it does include a bit of "modern" language and some to the sexual scenes are unexpectedly graphic (elegantly written, but detailed); these don’t necessarily harm the story (they in fact add to the charm), but they do change the target audience. For adults who believe fantasy isn’t just for children, this is highly recommended. I can’t wait to read it again!

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Fri, Oct 15, 1999

: Ringworld

Author: Larry Niven

It won a Hugo award, but I’d never read this classic science fiction story until now. Frankly, it’s got a little too much science and not enough fiction, for my taste. Niven’s created an amazing world: Ringworld is an artificial structure three million times the size of Earth, a million-mile wide strip of land six hundred million miles long that spins around a sun. Centrifugal force gives it gravity, and 1000 mile high walls on the rims keep in the atmosphere. It’s got two oceans each several times bigger than the entire surface of Earth. Basically, it’s humongous, the ideal solution for over-crowding. The story centers on four bickering creatures (two alien species and two humans) who crashland on Ringworld and struggle to escape. The characters are well-done and believable, but the psychonalysis is overly complicated (though accurate); I really didn’t care if any of them lived or died. Read Ringworld for the fantastic world, not for the story. I’ll have to see if the sequel, The Ringworld Engineers is better.

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Thu, Oct 14, 1999

: H20: Halloween 20 Years Later

Author: Robert Zappia

Director: Steve Miner

Halloween is supposed to be some sort of horror classic, but frankly I found it boring and predictable (I watched a year or two ago). I was curious if the 20-years-in-the-waiting sequel would prove better. The results are mixed. This movie is more fun, about the same on the mildly scary level, and similar in its lack of plot. Basically Jamie Lee Curtis’ evil brother is back, this time out to kill her son and his high school friends. Eighty percent of the “chills” are fake (the scary noise turns out to be a cat or friend walking past — lame, lame, lame) and Michael Myers himself is boringly ordinary (though absurdly hard to kill). Doesn’t have the gritty documentary feel of the original, but that’s not saying much. The best bit is the casting of Curtis’ mother, Janet Leigh (of Pyscho fame) in a small part (the car she drives is the same one sunk in the lake in Pyscho).

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Wed, Oct 13, 1999

: Bride of Chucky

Author: Don Mancini

Director: Ronny Yu

I’d heard this was a “good” Chucky movie, though considering the previous ones that wasn’t saying much. In total I’ve seen maybe 10 or 15 minutes of the whole series, and that’s all I needed to see. But this one is campy fun. It’s witty and self-mocking, in the tradition of the most recent Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream. My favorite bit of humor was the clever “homage” to the Cliver Barker Hellraiser “pinhead” character after Chucky kills John Ritter with a face full of nails and then says, “He looks familiar somehow.” Warning: if you don’t like spurting blood and violence, keep your finger near the fast forward button.

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: Star Trek: Voyager

I haven’t mentioned any TV shows in my news yet, but this week’s Voyager is a classic. It’s hilarious. The holographic Doctor — my favorite character — suffers from bouts of daydreaming (in which he’s always the hero and all the Star Trek women hit on him), while a race of aliens spying on the ship for a sneak attack tap into his dreams and think they are real and the Doctor’s some sort of one-man army! You guessed it: the Doctor’s required to save the day for real in the end. Great fun for ST fans.

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Sat, Oct 09, 1999

: The Apostle

Author: Robert Duvall

Director: Robert Duvall

Don’t watch this movie if you believe in the Eleventh Commandment (“Thou shalt not shout!”). This is one of those movies that’s impossible to classify. I knew little about it other than it was a low budget independent film written, directed, produced, financed by, and staring Robert Duvall. I saw a few bits of an interview with Duvall when this movie was released and it sounded fascinating, but I didn’t know the story. I was leery of Hollywood’s portrayal of a Pentecostal preacher. I’d heard the movie being praised because the lead character was a flawed preacher, and Hollywood seemed to think this was revolutionary. Frankly, hearing that didn’t impress me: every preacher I’ve seen on film or TV has been flawed. Usually when there’s a flawed preacher Hollywood sets out to revile in the flaws, to delight in showing the blackness under the Christian mask. But this film isn’t like that at all. Duvall’s character is incredibly human, but there’s little fanfare. You have to work to see his flaws. The movie is about rebirth, about passion and commitment, about humanity, about frailty, about suffering and desire. There isn’t a wrong step anywhere: it’s amazingly realistic, eerily so. I grew up in Pentecostal churches and this movie was like a flashback to scenes from my childhood. I know that affects how I interpret the film: Duvall, for instance, said he made the movie because he was fascinated by Pentecostalism and so few Americans know about it (especially Hollywood). Indeed, the film has a documentary feel to it — it’s an inside look at the Pentecostal world. To me, Pentecostalism is as ordinary as a loaf of bread, but I can see from his outsider perspective, something like “tag team” preaching is bizarre and interesting. Because of my familiarity with the subject, certain parts of the film were slow and uninteresting. I also initially distrusted the movie’s portrayal of Christians as I’m used to that being a setup in Hollywood films: the Christian always turns out to be the insane serial killer. I also am personally turned off by characters like Sonny (Duvall’s role) who spew religious platitudes the way many men swear. But in this movie I slowly came to realize that this wasn’t an act, this was legitimate. Sonny really believes every word he says, as trite as it sometimes sounds. This is not an impression you can gain from five minutes with somebody — it requires you spend an incredible amount of time with the person, in all sorts of circumstances, and watch how they react. This movie allows you to do that. It’s an intimate portrait unlike any I’ve seen. Truly a tour-de-force for Duvall, and well-worthy his Oscar nomination. The story itself is seemingly slight: a preacher runs away to a small town and works to rebuild a church. In the process he rediscovers himself, God, and gives hope to people who need it. It’s fascinating: unexpectedly complex in this day of simplistic Hollywood plots where every detail is explained away. Instead of explanations, Duvall just shows things happening. It’s up to the viewer to interpret them. Incredible, and it shows a great deal of faith in the intelligence of the audience (something rare in major motion pictures). I can picture myself watching this again and again in the future, each time discovering subtle aspects I missed. I think I’ll like it better every time I see it. It’s not a movie everyone will like: it’s slow moving at times, low key, intensely passionate, shocking, disturbing, and ultimately satisfying. Whereas most Hollywood productions that involve religion deal with religious conflict (i.e. the clash between faith and science in Contact), this movie doesn’t do that: it’s a simple story about a human preacher. That’s it. And amazingly, it works.

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Thu, Oct 07, 1999

: Jawbreaker

Author: Darren Stein

Director: Darren Stein

As a huge fan of Michael Lehmann’s 1989 dark comedy Heathers, I really wanted to see this movie when it came out last spring. Like Heathers, this is about high school cliques and murder, but unfortunately Jawbreaker, while it has a few cool scenes and a bit of interesting dialog, is low on the profound scale. Heathers broke ground; Jawbreaker is a retread. It’s not bad, and interesting to Heathers fans, just don’t expect too much. The plot of the movie is simple: a practical joke kills the most popular girl in school (she chokes to death on a jawbreaker). While Heathers mines material from the death of popularity — ungodly funeral scenes, brainless teachers eulogizing brainless students, unqualified parents weeping over a child they saw every other Tuesday, cliques fighting over who takes over for the dead girl — Stein shows us few reactions to the death, other than the evil girl who plots to cover it up. This has the effect of minimizing the importance of the death, treating it so much like a joke that we aren’t particularly dismayed by callousness of the others. Worse, in this movie, we’re supposed to care about the dead girl (she apparently really was a sweetheart), but we don’t. The most thoughtful line in the movie comes from the evil girl (Rose McGowen), who tries to make it look like the popular girl was killed by a sexual deviant: “[Society] will believe it because it’s their worse nightmare.” My favorite scene in the movie was the makeover montage during which the geek was turned into a princess: it borrowed from the creature workshop of Edward Scissorhands, humorous because the creation was not a monster in the traditional sense, but took ugliness and made it beautiful (but only on the outside). Clever. The ending’s weak. When the Queen Bitch gets her comeuppance at the senior prom… Cruel Intentions did that in a more subtle manner that was far more powerful. I watched the director-commented DVD version and came away appreciating what Stein wanted to do; I just don’t think he entirely succeeded. For instance, he revealed that circles and round shapes were used everywhere (like in the girls’ ear-rings and pearl necklaces) to remind us of jawbreakers, but he forgets that most movie viewers can barely see past the end of their noses, let alone interpret something as subtle as that! A minor movie that promises more than it delivers, but Stein’s good: I’ll watch to see what he comes up with next.

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Tue, Oct 05, 1999

: Murder at the National Gallery

Author: Margaret Truman

I’ll be blunt by beginning by saying that this was a feeble book. I suppose part of my negative impression stems from expecting a traditional murder mystery, a la Agatha Christie. This is more like a political/spy thriller. Truman has written a slew of best-selling “Murder…” books, all centered around Washington, D.C. I dread the thought that they are all like this one. First, there are several murders, not one, the first occurring nearly halfway into the book, and the only one actually at at the National Gallery at about the four-fifths mark! The structure of the story is strange: important characters are introduced early but not sketched out until very late in the book, and the heroine — I guess she’s the heroine — is nothing more than a stick figure. She basically does absolutely nothing more than look pretty and receive a few phone calls, yet she’s treated by the author (and the others in the book) as the grand savior! The plot deals with stealing a $50 million painting, which ought to be exciting, but the plan is so full of holes there’s no question the perpetrator is going to fail. The only mystery in this book is why I read it.

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Mon, Oct 04, 1999

: Birthday 1999

Well, today was my birthday. My thirty-second. Unbelievable. I don’t know where they all went. I certainly don’t feel that old. I told my uncle that since the first ten or twelve years of life are basically non-sentient they don’t count, so really I’m twenty-two. That strikes me as more accurate. Of course I still feel like I should have done something with those twenty-two years. But then, half of those were in school, and what can one accomplish in school? So really I’ve had little more than a decade of independence — and I feel I’ve gained a few things during those years though I haven’t done many of the things I wanted to do. On the one hand I read stories about famous writers (like Oscar Wilde) who died young yet accomplished so much in the few years they had, and on the other I hear about people (like Colonel Sanders) who didn’t start their famous careers until their sixties! So there’s hope at either end of life, I suppose. I’ve decided to not worry about it. My writing career will take off when it is time and not before.

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Sun, Oct 03, 1999

: Animal Farm

Author: Alan Janes & Martyn Burke (based on the book by George Orwell)

Director: John Stephenson

I’ve been anticipating this brand new adaptation of Orwell’s classic for months and couldn’t wait for Sunday’s premiere on TNT. Supposedly this movie cost $25 million to make — amazing for a cable channel like TNT, but well worth it. Using the same techniques as the Babe movies, this is a live action film with talking animals interacting with humans. Very, very well done. Certainly not for kids — this movie features graphic, realistic violence, and the animals are eerie they are so real. Probably traumatic for kids. It’s a sad story, really; your heart really goes out to the poor, suffering animals. It’s been a long time since I’ve read the book, but I saw little that seemed out of place. The ending’s rushed (it just suddenly ends on a hopeful note), and there were a couple places I thought the “cruelty to animals will come back to haunt you” message was heavy-handed, but overall, a treat and well worth your time. My favorite moment was when the narrator (the mama dog) is looking through the window of the house and seeing a pig and a human drinking whiskey. There was some water on the window glass and as the camera view shifted, the features of the human warped into pig and the features of the pig warped into human likeness. It was amazingly subtle — you had to blink, thinking you were seeing things — and one of the most effective uses of special effects I’ve seen since Forest Gump. TNT repeats the movie on Wednesday, Oct. 6, so catch it then if you missed it. They’ll probably repeat it more, too. (Why don’t the “big” networks repeat their shows? I’ve never understood that. I love having a choice of viewing times.)

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: Cube

Author: Andre Bijelic, Vincenzo Natali, and Graeme Manson

Director: Vincenzo Natali

If you don’t like existential suffering, you may not appreciate this wonderful movie! It’s an independent science fiction film from Canada. The only “star” you might recognize is a very different-looking Nicole DeBoer (from the last season of TV’s Star Trek: Deep Space Nine — she’s Canadian, if you didn’t know). The plot is simple and claustrophobic: a motley group of individuals wake up to find themselves trapped inside a bizarre maze of square rooms. They are wearing prison uniforms and no one remembers how they got there. Each room has six exits — one door on each side (top, bottom, and four sides). But all lead only another, seemingly identical room. Some of the rooms are booby-trapped with fantastically horrible gadgets: slicing machines, acid-spraying devices, spikes, noise-activated knives, etc. During their explorations, they discover the Cube is 26 rooms wide by 26 rooms tall by 26 rooms deep: 17,576 rooms! With no food and water, it’s a race to get out of the maze before they’re too weak to move. It’s a high-pressure environment: we watch seemingly normal people become paranoid, angry, frustrated, and terrified as everything they try fails. The script is amazing, with some profound observations on the meaning of life as people theorize on the meaning of the Cube and who could have created it. The pre-ending is incredible (and subtle) — what happens seconds later is too Hollywood (but still fits the concept, though I would have preferred the earlier ending). All in all, a complex psychological drama with some impressive special effects, excellent acting, and a thought-provoking story. This is a movie you’ll want to watch several times.

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Fri, Oct 01, 1999

: The Efficiency Expert

Author: Edgar Rice Burroughs

What a cool little gem of a book! Difficult to find even years ago, I picked this up at a used bookstore. It’s not a huge tale by any means, but it’s a clever little adventure about a young college graduate growing up in gangster-ridden Chicago. Like so much of Burroughs, it’s witty with more subtlety than you might expect, and the plot twists and turns back on itself nicely. The main character, a clueless college grad, is hilarious in his naivety. (For instance, he doesn’t turn in a pickpocket who nicked his watch and later the pickpocket returns the favor by giving the watch back. Johnny finds out the pickpocket would have gotten $20 for the watch, so he gives him twenty dollars! Of course he’s assuming as a college grad he’ll find the job-getting easy — but no one answers his "I will run your company for you" job wanted ad.) Johnny falls in with the Chicago underworld, but won’t compromise his integrity, even when framed for a murder. The trial at the end is a little predictable and (almost) all the loose ends are tied together a bit too neatly. It’s a light, feel-good tale with some amusing pokes at society people.

Here’s a classic example of the Burroughs writing style I like so much. This is his tactful description of a couple making out on a sofa:

She was not alone, yet although there were many comfortable chairs in the large room, and the sofa was an exceptionally long one, she and her companion occupied but little more space than would have comfortably accommodated a single individual.

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Sun, Sep 26, 1999

: The Hunt

Author: William Diehl

This is a WWII spy novel. Not a bad book, though you don’t really know what’s going on until about the halfway point. Good for a quick read. My recommendation is to skim until page 200 or so. It’s all pages and pages of setup and the payoff isn’t that great. Predictable toward the end, and the plot relies on some unbelievable coincidences. Some interesting characters, however, and the heartbreak of the dispassionate hero, as he learns his love is in a German concentration camp is truly moving. From that great emotion, however, the novel descends into a generic action thriller. I vote for more Dostoyevsky and less Clint Eastwood. Not quite up to Diehl’s Primal Fear, though meticulously researched.

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Fri, Sep 24, 1999

: The Chessmen of Mars

Author: Edgar Rice Burroughs

I read this a long time ago (back in high school) and I’d forgotten what a master storyteller Burroughs was. He remains one of my favorite writers; I’m going to find some more of his classics to read over the next few months. This story, part of Burroughs’ Mars series, deals with John Carter’s daughter, Lara, as a fierce storm sets her flier down in a remote part of Mars. As she attempts to return home, she is captured by various strange beings, including a bizarre parasitic species of large heads with crab-like feet who attach themselves to a species of genetically engineered headless humans. The heads are able to control the mindless bodies via a link to the spinal cord. Weird, yes. But Burroughs does more with this than most writers, for he gives the species characteristics appropriate for their kind. The brains, for instance, are intellectual thinkers who sneer at the organic and the practical. They think bodies are useless and strive to create the ultimate brain, a huge organ that can do nothing but think. Hilarious, when you think about it. (Burroughs had obviously met some people who fit that species perfectly.) The story is a delightful blend of adventure and romance, with a secret identity scam worthy of Shakespeare.

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Wed, Sep 22, 1999

: The Great Train Robbery

Author: Michael Crichton

Excellent, excellent book. It wasn’t anything like expected. It’s the true story of an 1856 train robbery in England. It’s not exactly non-fiction, yet it’s not a novelization of a real-life event either. It’s more like a documentary, with some parts dramatized and other parts pure explanation. What’s fascinating is the way Crichton reveals the mindset of the Victorian era, uncovering why this particular train robbery was so significant. I was enthralled at the sociological implications of technology, criminology, psychology, and other fields explored in this book. It’s a terrific book that hasn’t aged in the 25 years since it was written. I will definitely be keeping my eye out for an airing of the movie. (The robbery itself was an amazing feat considering the era.)

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Tue, Sep 21, 1999

: The Matrix

Author: Andy Wachowski & Larry Wachowski

Director: Andy Wachowski & Larry Wachowski

Frankly, I was disappointed by this movie. I’d heard lots of good things about it — mostly that the story was really good (as in, it wasn’t just a special effects movie). The story didn’t do much for me. It was completely predictable. This might just be because I’ve been working on my own (unfinished) virtual reality novel and I threw out this plot about five years ago as being too cliche. Basically, the plot has Keanu Reaves as a guy who finds out his whole life is an illusion and it’s up to him to save humanity from the machines that enslave them. (The whole bit about machines taking over the earth was ludicrous.) Still, the movie was well done, the special effects interesting (thought not great — the "fast" fights were strangely slow), and some of the characters were pretty cool (Laurence Fishburne was great as Morpheus). But it certainly was not the spiritually moving, thought-provoking movie I’d come to expect based on the reviews. I got it on DVD with lots of extras and I haven’t even bothered looking through them — who really wants to study this limp movie like a religion?

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Sun, Sep 19, 1999

: The Genesis Code

Author: John Case

I picked this up at a used bookstore; it seemed familiar. A while back I’d heard the author talk on KGO radio and his premise sounded intriguing — creating a clone of Jesus by using DNA from hair and other "genuine" artifacts of the Church. Okay, I’ve just ruined the book for you. This is a one-joke book, and it’s really annoying. You literally do not find out the key detail — what I just told you — until the last few pages of the book! It’s lame, because from page one there are hints and mysteries and shadows but the author "cleverly" refuses to divulge what is happening. He does this poorly, by giving us a selective narrator. Instead of having a character talk to another with dialog, revealing the secret to us, he basically writes, "The man told him the secret and he was horrified." So you spend the whole book trying to figure out this great secret as characters do mysterious things and others kill and run and search — but you don’t have the faintest idea why any of this is happening! (Or why you should care.) Of course, in my case, I knew (or had a vague idea), so all the cloak-and-dagger was doubly annoying. I was hoping for a book that explored the religious and ethic impact of such a cloning — what a fantastic idea — but instead all I got was a routine mystery/spy/action novel with nothing new until the last page, and then, after dropping the bombshell, it ended. As a routine thriller; its not bad, though not as good as say, Ken Follett. Just don’t set your expectations high, like I did.

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Sat, Sep 18, 1999

: Rounders

Author: David Levien & Brian Koppelman

Director: John Dahl

Interesting movie. It’s about a law student, played by Matt Damon, who’s into poker. Making a living at poker is called "rounding" (hence the title). He’s good at it — says that card-playing has nothing to do with luck, it’s mostly skill. Shades of his math genius character from Good Will Hunting, but not so smart. His dream is to play at the World Series Poker Championships in Las Vegas, but he loses his stake in a game with a Russian mobster (an excellent John Malkovich). Swearing to his girlfriend he’s done with poker for good, he of course falls back into it, encouraged by his hard-luck childhood friend (an awesome Edward Norton) just out of jail with debts to pay. Trying to help his friend, he gets deep in debt, and with his back against the wall he’s got to play his way out, challenging the Russian mobster again. The basic "moral" is that this is what he was born to do — he must live out his dream or be unhappy. Good, low key, a lot of bad language, and some terrific acting.

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Wed, Sep 15, 1999

: King Solomon’s Mines

Author: H. Rider Haggard

Similar in style to some of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ stuff, this book was okay, but the foreshadowing was so strong it made the story too predictable. It’s basically about a quest to find the lost diamond mines of King Solomon, and of course there are lots of trials and adventures along the way. Fun for a quick read, good for kids. I would have liked it more when I was younger, but somehow I missed it.

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Sun, Sep 12, 1999

: Snow Crash

Author: Neal Stephenson

The mammoth Snow Crash, what seems to be a "typical" virtual reality about a new software "drug" that kills computer programmers. The plot doesn’t know whether it wants to be an action story (swordfights and armed assaults and chases play roles) or a detective story (researching the who, what, when, why of the killing gets overly technical and wearisome), but the world Neal creates is fascinating. Not the virtual reality world: there’s little innovation there (at least to me), but the real world. It’s a futuristic mesh of Bladerunner, 1984, and Something Else. For instance, all governments have been privatized — so much so that one bandit rides around with a nuclear bomb on his motorcycle (in effect he’s his own country). This new world is divided by franchises — everything is a franchise (including religions and jails) — a hilarious extreme. The characters are wild and different: YT as the 15-year-old skateboarder is particularly entrancing. The plot? Well, it was interesting, but it takes so long to get there it really feels like the payoff isn’t worth it. (It basically takes the absurd assumption that Asherah, the pagan god of the Hebrews, created a mental virus that scrambles a person’s ability to comprehend language, and the release of that virus is what caused Babel. Snow Crash, as the drug in the novel is called, is a resurrection of this virus, spread in modern day via a Protestant minister as "speaking in tongues" and a computer virus which has the mind virus embedded into an image of computer screen "snow" — ones and zeros — which only computer programmers can understand. Neal takes a hundred pages to explain this in a much more believable manner, but it’s still stilly and a bit offensive if you’re a Protestant.) Overall, entertaining, but take it lightly — it isn’t as deep as it purports to be.

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Sat, Sep 11, 1999

: The Sixth Sense

Author: M. Night Shyamalan

Director: M. Night Shyamalan

Even better the second time around. Amazing performances, and this time I was really impressed with the direction. There were many places the suspense was heightened by excellent camera-placement decisions. This is a film that most dismiss as a mere gimmick, but the reason it works is because the film is excellently written with profound characters. My favorite is the way the little boy didn’t want to tell his secret to his mother — the person he was closest to in the whole world — because it would change the way she looked at him. Meanwhile the mother is in agony because her son won’t even tell her what’s wrong. What a fantastic dilemma! Profound and heart-wrenching.

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Mon, Aug 23, 1999

: Cryptonomicon

Author: Neal Stephenson

I first heard of this book in a review in Newsweek. The review was written by Steven Levy, an author I’ve read for years, and I respected his opinion. Based on his positive review, I bought the book and instantly became a Neal Stephenson fan. His books are not for all tastes — they deal heavily with computers and technology, sort of like sci-fi for computer geeks. He even includes programming code in his books, making them attractive to hard-core UNIX types. This particular book is broader in scope, and while the plot is entertaining, I found two things made this book a classic. The first is Neal’s unusual method of following two plots simultaneously in different time periods — we follow several people during World War II and also deal with their grandchildren today. Fascinating. The second is Neal’s style of writing, which, while it occasionally overachieves, is remarkable both for its varied diction and unusual yet precise metaphors, and its humor. This is a very funny book. There are passages where I had to stop reading I was laughing so hard. It’s not that funny things happen — it’s just the way he writes about them makes the slightly unusual outrageous. The plot is far too complicated to explain here, and learning about it is half the fun: it basically deals with secret codes in World War II and modern cryptography. It’s a huge read — nearly a 1,000 pages (and probably 250 pages too long) — but it’s terrific entertainment, dealing with history, computers, cryptography, finance, romance, language, travel, Eastern culture, and spies. Don’t read for the lukewarm plot; just sit back and enjoy the ride.

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