Sun, Jan 30, 2000

: Waking Ned Devine

Author: Kirk Jones (III)

Director: Kirk Jones (III)

I knew very little about this film going in… what a delight! Go out and rent it right now! This is set in a tiny village in Ireland, where someone in the village has one the lottery, but whoever it was won’t admit it. Villagers go out of their way being nice to their neighbors, wondering if he or she’s the winner. It’s finally discovered that the winner is Ned Devine, a 66-year-old man, but the shock of winning has killed him! He’s found dead in front of his television, the winning ticket in his hand. Soon the whole village has entered into a conspiracy to pretend that Ned’s still alive and claim the 7 million pounds. Hilarious, and the characters are so real and wonderful, you wish your own town was so homey. Favorite moment? When the little boy asks the priest if he’s met Jesus. The priest says, “Not exactly,” then presses the boy to see if he’s possibly interested in joining the priesthood. The boy says, “I don’t think so. I couldn’t work for someone I’ve never met and for no pay!”

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: Escape From Alcatraz

Author: Campbell Bruce (I) (novel) and Richard Tuggle

Director: Don Siegel

I’d never seen this; it was pretty much like the title says: Clint Eastwood’s put in Alcatraz and escapes. Still, the specifics of the escape were interesting, and like most prison escapes, it’s amazing the amount of effort that goes into the attempt. (I remember visiting the dungeons of castles in Europe when I was little; one of the most amazing things I saw was a hole in a rock wall dug with part of a spoon by a convict. It had taken years and years, scraping and scraping, and yet the man had only gotten a few feet into the eight foot thick wall! Truly that’s got to be the most frightening thing about incarceration.)

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: Blast From the Past

Author: Bill Kelly (II)

Director: Hugh Wilson

In this movie a couple holes up in their fallout shelter in 1962 thinking nuclear war has happened, and their son grows up entirely underground only to emerge in 1997, completely cluelss as to modern life. I was expecting a silly, rather lame film, but this turned out to be quite charming. It was surprisingly accurate in terms of scientific detail (i.e. one scene shows the dad pulling a live fish from a tank, which makes sense, since you couldn’t live exclusively on canned goods for 35 years), and it was quite fun. It’s obviously light, and could have used a bit more satiric bite (e.g. making more fun of modern day life), but well done. A nice feel-good movie.

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Sat, Jan 29, 2000

: Simply Irresistible

Author: Judith Roberts (II) and Elisabeth Robinson

Director: Mark Tarlov

Film classes now have a new film to use as the ultimate example of bad filmmaking. Like all really bad movies, this is tragic: almost all the jokes fall flat, the editing is listless, and there’s a strange sitcom feel to the directing and sets. The plot is illogical and bizarrely paced — events jump around chaotically, and many mysteries are never explained. Even the special effects, usually a given in today’s film market, are feeble (even by TV standards). I wanted to like this: Sarah Michelle Geller is a favorite, and I liked the concept of magical foods that act as a love potion, but just about nothing in this film works. Truly a hideous mishmash. Worth watching only for the movie-making educational aspects.

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: 200 Cigarettes

Author: Shana Larsen

Director: Risa Bramon Garcia

One of the better episodic films I’ve seen, but still a bit choppy and non-linear. The “plot” is about a number of unrelated people all gathering for a New Year’s Eve party in 1981. Parts were quite funny, others tragic. Ultimately we don’t really care for most of the (unlikable) characters so the whole thing’s kind of a wash. Some of the irony was sweet, though, and there were a few legitimately classic moments.

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: Freeway

Author: Matthew Bright

Director: Matthew Bright

I saw this a few years ago, but wanted to see it again after seeing lead Reese Witherspoon so recently in Pleasantville. She’s really a terrific actress, and this role gives her plenty of opportunity to show off her range. She does a great job making us like her loser teen character. The film’s a loose (very loose) adaptation of “Little Red Riding Hood” going off to Grandma’s. In this story Reese’s parents are hauled off to jail, and rather than be put back into foster care, she runs off to find her Grandma. On the way she’s picked up by a serial killer (a wonderfully evil Kiefer Sutherland). This film is not a children’s tale: it’s ultra-realistic, with hardcore violence, prison fights, gunshots, and plenty of blood. (Don’t watch it if seeing Brooke Shields’ brains splattered on a bathroom wall squicks you). Still, it’s funny in a twisted fashion, and the characters are realistic and believable.

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Fri, Jan 28, 2000

: You’ve Got Mail

Author: Miklos Laszlo (play), Samson Raphaelson (original film), Nora Ephron, and Delia Ephron

Director: Nora Ephron

I didn’t want to like this; though I like Tom Hanks and I’m huge Meg Ryan fan, I figured this was nothing more than a rehash of Sleepless In Seattle except on AOL. The e-mail aspect of things didn’t excite me (though I’m into technology) because I figured the film (like 99.9% of movies) would get it all wrong. I was pleasantly surprised. Meg was incredible, Hanks impressive, and the technology angle was barely visible (though I did like the subtle [and never mentioned] touch that businessman Hanks used a boring Windows PC and Meg a cool Apple Macintosh PowerBook — the screen shots were real, not faked). The writing was deft, and though I knew I was being manipulated and resisted until almost the end, I finally caved in. I guess I’m just a sap for this kind of stuff. Ultimately, the movie was so well done I watched the director’s commentary track! (Which was surprisingly good, I might add. Very interesting, both from technical and writing viewpoints. It helped that director Nora co-wrote the script — I’ve listened to director-only commentary tracks and they aren’t always insightful into the soul of the project.)

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Thu, Jan 27, 2000

: Pleasantville

Author: Gary Ross

Director: Gary Ross

This is the film about two modern-day kids being transported into the black-and-white world a 1950’s sitcom and slowly infecting that world with modern free thinking, thereby colorizing it. I watched this for the first time on DVD; my impression of the film changed considerably when I watched the commentary tracks (the DVD has two, one by the director, and one by Randy Newman, composer of the movie’s score). My initial impression was that Gary Ross doesn’t know the difference between reality and television — he seems to think he’s being clever satirizing a 1950’s sitcom world (as if a 1950’s sitcome isn’t a satire in itself). Ross treats Pleasantville (the fiction TV series and town) as though it’s real, and by mocking the archaic values of that world he can emphasis the superiority of today’s open-minded world. Listening to the comentary, however, I realized there’s a generation gap at work: I didn’t live in the Fifties (or even the Sixties); what I know of the Fifties I know from television shows exactly like Pleasantville. The television of the Fifties is so hokey that I never dreamed that the world was ever really like that. Ross, however, makes it sound as though that world really did exist. If that’s the case (I’m not convinced), then that changes how I feel about the film, because that world does sound repressive, and I agree with the film’s “let’s overthrow Eden” conclusion (though Ross goes to the extreme of throwing out the baby with the bathwater). If the real-life Fifties weren’t like that, then the movie’s nothing more than a cheap gag trying to sound profound (since it’s illogical to draw conclusions while comparing apples and oranges).

That said, this is a film worth seeing. I was surprised at the depth of the film — and I wondered why I’d never heard anyone discuss that aspect. Reviews and comments from fans always talked about the impressive special effects and unusual premise. But the movie’s quite complex, with themes of sexual liberation, racism, feminism, existentialism, and anti-Communism. Draw your own conclusions as this is a movie that forces you to think. There were aspects I really liked — such as the “No Coloreds” signs popping up when half the town residents were black-and-white and the other half Technicolor — and aspects I profoundly didn’t like, such as the sitcom Mom discovering her independence via an extra-marital affair. Overall I liked the movie’s final moment, which basically said that we shouldn’t hold our lives up to the expectations of others (such as assuming that our dream should be the “American Dream” of a husband and wife, 2.1 kids, a dog, and a house with a white picket fence).

The theme of Pleasantville has been done before, and better, in films like David Lynch’s far more disturbing Blue Velvet. This is a gimmick film; well done, but ultimately it can’t escape the limitations of its premise.

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Wed, Jan 26, 2000

: Drop Dead Gorgeous

Author: Lona Williams

Director: Michael Patrick Jann

In what country do they show these movies? This was a cool movie, but I don’t remember ever seeing it on theatre marquees. I liked this a lot. It was a satire of beauty pageants, set in a tiny town in Minnesota (with everyone speaking with Fargo accents). It was clever, though not brilliant, with good performances. Like all satires, uneven, but occasionally hilarious. All-in-all a pleasant little comedy (dark in places, but I love black comedy).

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Mon, Jan 24, 2000

: Notify Service

Sorry updates have been so infrequent of late; I had a bout of the flu, and with the European winter break over, there’s been gobs of soccer to watch. (With several tournaments going on, like the African Nations Cup, there are one or two games on every night this week! After not watching soccer for a month, I’m going to O.D.!) Putting down my thoughts on each movie or book doesn’t take that much time, but adding all the Amazon.com links and comfirming movie director and author data with the Internet Movie Database takes some effort.

Because of my irregular updating, I’m adding a new service. You can now subscribe to a mailing list where I will send you an e-mail whenever the page changes. This shouldn’t be more than once per week (and possibly less often than that). To subscribe, simply send any message to notify-on@designwrite.com. To unsubscribe, send a message to notify-off@designwrite.com. That’s it!

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Sat, Jan 22, 2000

: The Gods Must Be Crazy

Author: Jamie Ulys

Director: Jamie Ulys

Accidentally started watching this and couldn’t stop. Definitely in my Top Ten of greatest movies of all time. I was surprised at how much I’d forgotten; I’ve seen the sequel several times in recent years, but apparently it’s been a long time since the original. Favorite moment? The part about how modern man has refused to adapt himself to his environment and instead adapted his environment to himself, and as a result we’ve got to spend half a lifetime going to school just to learn how to cope with that complex, self-created environment. The African Bushmen, on the other hand, have no concept of possessions, and no needs for anything: whatever they need is right around them. A classic; hilarious and thought-provoking.

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: Jack Frost

Author: Mkar Steven Johnson and Steven Bloom

Director: Troy Miller

Cute live action “Frosty the Snowman” fantasy, but a little too saccharine for my tastes. Had some actual touching moments between the Mom and the kid, but those tended to be drowned out by frequent crass and obvious humor. I watched it because I was curious about the special effects, and they weren’t bad, but once you’ve seen one snowsurfing snowman, you’ve seen them all.

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Fri, Jan 21, 2000

: Ghost in the Shell

Author: Kazunori Ito

Director: Mamoru Oshii

I’ve never seen any Japanese anime, but this caught my eye at the video store and I rented the DVD. Supposedly a classic, I discovered the critics were correct: I watched it again on Sunday! Stop thinking of Saturday morning cartoons — this is what I would call “live action animation.” It’s realistic in every category: wonderful artwork, dramatic camerawork, thoughtful characters, and an amazing story. It’s got action and violence (it’s definitely not a kid’s film) combined with a fascinating science fiction story. The term “ghost” is analogous to the soul — in this future world people are part computer (cyborgs), and your ghost refers to the part of yourself that is human. So the debate begins: what makes a human human? With enough electronic parts is a human a machine? With enough data could a computer be considered human? Fascinating.

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Thu, Jan 20, 2000

: The Thomas Crown Affair

Author: Alan Trustman (story) and Leslie Dixon

Director: John McTiernan

Fun romp with Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo as an wealthy art thief and an insurance investigator tracking him down. Starts out a little slow — Russo and Brosnan have some sort of instant link I found more mysterious than realistic, but later, once we really believe that Russo has fallen for the thief, it becomes fascinating: does Brosnan really love her or is he just stringing her along? Ultimately the movie, like Brosnan’s character, is too much in control for you to really care about these characters (or believe for a moment that something bad will happen to them), but it’s a nice ride. I haven’t seen the original, but now I’m going to watch for it.

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Wed, Jan 19, 2000

: Patch Adams

Author: Dr. Hunter Adams (book) and Maureen Mylander

Director: Tom Shadyac

I hadn’t heard good things about this, so I was prepared to be disappointed, but I loved it! It’s a somewhat predictable story (the summary of “doctor believes humor is the best medicine” summarizes it well) and the lead character does fall to easily into a Robin Williams caricature, but the fact that it’s based on a true story, and the way the doctor rails against the medical system and the arrogance of doctors struck home with me. My favorite moment? When student doctor Patch is doing rounds with one of his teachers who says, “Bed 6 needs blood work,” pauses to blush, then corrects himself with “Mrs. Edwards needs blood work.” Little things like the name of the patient, obviously trivial to busy a doctor with a head full of vital, life-saving information, do make a difference.

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Tue, Jan 18, 2000

: Celebrity

Author: Woody Allen

Director: Woody Allen

Amusing, lightweight comedy. It’s different, perhaps the most successful working of an episodic film I’ve seen. Nice use of real-life celebrities in various low-key roles. Kenneth Branagh does a good Woody Allen imitation, but I think I would have preferred Woody in the role — Branagh’s too good looking for his bad luck to be believable. Overall, not up Woody’s usual intellectual standard (it never really makes the statement I expect), but then that might make it more approachable for non-Woody fans.

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Sat, Jan 15, 2000

: The Witches

Author: Roald Dahl (book) and Allen Scott II

Director: Nicolas Roeg

I hadn’t seen this movie in years, but saw it was on the Disney channel the other night and recorded it. It’s a superior kids movie, about a plot by witches to change all the children in England into mice. The special effects are a bit theatrical (lots of colored smoke) but fun, and the talking mice are really cool. Somewhat similar in humor to the Harry Potter books (except in this case magic and witches are evil). Overall, fun for kids, though its realistic and serious (i.e. non-cartoon) portrayal of witches could be scary for youngsters.

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Fri, Jan 14, 2000

: Whirligigs

Author: O’Henry

It’s a sad truth that the short story market is suffering. Novels still sell, but few people read short stories any more. It’s been a while since I’ve read a collection, but I’m definitely putting some on my shopping list: reading these was a terrific experience. They are short enough you can read one in ten to thirty minutes, yet they manage to envelope you in a world of their own. O’Henry writes with such verve and wit you just cannot help but smile through the reading, and so his many characters are inspired. This books contains dozens of classics. There are tragicomedies, fateful romances, stories of ill-fated robberies, Westerns, pursuits, and hilarious parodies. So many of these tales have made permanent marks on my psyche it’s hard to know where to begin. A few things stand out: 1) O’Henry’s ability to stamp a character with just a few phrases of description, yet keep the character from being a stereotype; 2) the elegance of O’Henry’s prose, humorous almost without effort, and as ingenious as a riddle; and 3) the marvel of outrageous, clever plots that stem entirely from the characters and come across as natural and believable. An example of the latter? One story deals with star-crossed lovers. He’s on the run for murder, hiding out in an anonymous South American town. He thinks she’ll never marry him if she knows he killed a man in a bar fight. But when she confesses she’s on the run for poisoning her abusive husband, they declare they are made for each other and agree to marry. Immediately after, however, a ship from the States arrives with the man the lover had supposedly killed — he’s not a murderer after all! He rushes off to tell his fiance that the wedding’s off, only to discover she’s read a months-old newspaper account that her husband didn’t die from the poisoning, and she’s left for America!

Here’s an example of O’Henry style and wit:

“He wore his hat in such a position that people followed him about to see him take it off, convinced that it must be hung upon a peg driven into the back of his head.”

(Note: The Amazon.com link above doesn’t link to this book, but a similar one of O’Henry short stories; this book is apparently out of print. The version I read is in DOC format for the Palm PDA. The download is free!)

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Thu, Jan 13, 2000

: Inspector Gadget

Author: Andy Heyward (creator) and Jean Chalopin

Director: David Kellogg

If anyone would like this movie, it should be me, as I’m a huge fan of the cartoon. But while the movie felt like a cartoon, it didn’t feel like an Inspector Gadget cartoon. What made the original great was that Gadget never realized it when his gadgets saved him or injured the bad guys — he just kept going along in his own little world, accidentally setting off gadgets and saving the world. Like Inspector Cloussou, Gadget was always the irrepressible optimist and that made him likable, even if he was a terrible detective. The movie has some impressive special effects (though one aerial sequence has some horribly amateurish green screen work) and it’s ultimately harmless. I was also impressed that the movie didn’t include a lot of the vulgar, adult-oriented humor that seems to pervade most kid-oriented movies of recent days (Austin Powers and Wild Wild West come to mind).

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Wed, Jan 12, 2000

: Teaching Mrs. Tingle

Author: Kevin Williamson

Director: Kevin Williamson

From the creator of Scream and the TV show Dawson’s Creek comes this black comedy, which isn’t very dark or very funny. However, I still liked it, mostly because of the psychological manipulations of the evil Mrs. Tingle. She was a potentially fascinating character. Unfortunately, the contrived ending strips her of all realism, leaving us with another mindless movie villain. I don’t know much about the background of this film, but I suspect studio manipulation toned down what was once a much darker script (the original title was Killing Mrs. Tingle). It’s a shame, because it’s an interesting concept with a lot of potential.

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Tue, Jan 11, 2000

: Book signing

This evening I went to a local book store for a book signing for Tom Alibrandi’s just published Hate Is My Neighbor, his non-fiction account of his time battling white supremecy in Idaho. He gave a short talk, explaining that the heart of the neo-nazi movement is in Idaho, and that the first hate crime law in the United States was passed in Idaho as part of an effort to fight the white supremecy movement there. Some of the tales he told were chilling: since there aren’t enough minorities in Idaho, groups were actually kidnapping blacks from Los Angeles and bringing them to Idaho to hunt them down “like a turkey shoot,” commented Tom. But the story’s also one of hope: he told how ordinary people would rally in support of human rights, including one woman, who after every meeting, would receive a telephone call from someone saying, “We know where you were. We know what time you came home. We can kill you any time we like.” Yet this woman continued to faithfully attend the meetings! Tom’s book is receiving rave reviews, and I’m anxious to read my copy. As soon as I do, of course, I’ll post something here. Caveat: Tom and I are personal friends, as he heads the writing group I’m a part of (were currently on hiatus).

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Sun, Jan 09, 2000

: Good Omens

Author: Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

My favorite director, Terry Gilliam, just signed to make this book into a movie, so I had to read it. (I’m a Neil Gaiman fan, so I was already interested.) This book is described on the cover as a comedy about the apocalypse, which is apt. I was a bit nervous when I started reading about angels and religious issues, but then I discovered that the book makes fun of God and the Devil equally (always appropriate in my line of thinking). The “plot” runs along the lines of an angel and a demon who conspire together to sabotage the apocalypse (because they live living on earth and don’t want to see it destroyed). The writing is hilarious and witty, but begins to drag about halfway through. One can only take so much wit. The pace should have accelerated toward the end, but didn’t, leaving me struggling to finish the book. Still, it’s funny with no sacred cows, and it’s certainly innovative and interesting, if a bit of a one-joke premise. There’s some classic humor, like the running gag that (because of a demon’s work) cassette tapes left in an automobile for longer than two weeks automatically turn into a “Best of Queen” album. Another joke I liked was that one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, Famine, is the one responsible for nouvelle cousine and the “famished” trend for fashion models.

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: Les Diaboliques

Author: Pierre Boileau (novel) and Henri-Georges Clouzot

Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot

I’d seen the Sharon Stone remake, and though I liked it, I found it confusing. The original is much easier to understand (even in French!), and the leisurely pace more appropriate for the story. I’m interesting in seeing the remake again, just for comparison purposes, but this original is definitely a classic. It reminds me a lot of The Sixth Sense, in that you need to watch the movie again once you’ve seen the twist ending. This is the film Hitchcock wanted to do, but Clouzot got the rights to it first.

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: Unforgiven

Author: David Web Peoples

Director: Clint Eastwood

This film is the best western of all time. It’s got action, humor, and realistic characters, yet it’s one of the most profound movies I know. It raises so many questions about morality, life and death, killing and living. Unlike most westerns, all the characters are gray — there are no guys in black or white hats to make the decisions or do the thinking for you.

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Sat, Jan 08, 2000

: Clockwatchers

Author: Jill Sprecher and Karen Sprecher

Director: Jill Sprecher

TV Guide called this a comedy, which I find strange, as it’s not supposed to be funny. It’s amusing, but not laugh-out-loud. It was interesting. It’s about four young women who work one rung below the bottom one on the corporate ladder: they are temps. The film pokes fun at office politics and the corporate battle to get noticed. It’s a light movie, not a biting satire like you might expect. Enjoyable. What I liked best was the casting: the four workers have distinct but believable personalities — no glamor roles here.

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: Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes

Author: Edgar Rice Burroughs (novel) and Robert Towne

Director: Hugh Hudson

As a huge ERB fan, I’ve wanted to see this movie for years. Of course I was hesitant, as I’ve been disappointed at all Tarzan adoptations so far. This one’s supposed to be the truest, but I wasn’t that impressed. Yes, it was better from a technical perspective (but even there there were minor mistakes like Tarzan, learning to speak, muttering “razor” perfectly on the first try). Mostly this movie suffered from two faults: it was boring; there was essentially no “Tarzan action” like you’d expect, and it had a serious misinterpretation of Burroughs. In ERB’s books, Tarzan, a.k.a. Lord Greystoke, was as comfortable in a suit as in a loincloth — the whole point was he could live in either world (but chose to live in the wild). He simply was a superior man all around. In this movie, however, they made Tarzan out to be a wildman who could never be comfortable in society. Essentially that was the central conflict of the film, so I can see why they did that, but that was not ERB’s intent for the character. The key to Tarzan for me (and how I relate to him) is that he is not truly a part of either civilization or the wild. He is something of both worlds but does not belong to either. He is man, not ape, yet he lives with apes. He is man, and lives with men, yet he is not man. When he is with men he feels the calling of the wild. When he is in the wild, he feels the calling of civilization (not strongly, but it is there). That, for me, was the genius of ERB. Tarzan was ultimate alien. That’s how I relate to him. Growing up in West Africa and the United States, I never felt a part of either world: I was a tourist in either location. So you can see that I was disappointed by this adaptation, which took out what I consider the most important part of Tarzan’s character! (The elimination of this aspect of Tarzan also eliminated the reason for Tarzan to leave the wild and explore his history in the first place. The film gives no clear reason as to what motivates Tarzan to the jungle.)

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Fri, Jan 07, 2000

: Man on the Moon

Author: Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski

Director: Milos Forman

Recommendation: learn something about Andy Kaufmann before you see this movie; you’ll enjoy it more. I watched an Andy biography prior to seeing the movie and I’m really glad I did. Andy was a complex man — by the time the movie explains enough of him to make sense to you, the film’s nearly over. That said, this is an great film. Carrey’s performance is fantastic — he not only does Andy, but all of Andy’s alter-egos (Andy was a man of a thousand faces). I never watched Taxi or really even heard of Andy before this movie, but I can tell he was a performer I would have liked. He basically enjoyed fooling people by pretending to be things he wasn’t. He was the ultimate “boy who cried wolf.” The film plays up the ironies inherent with such a character, showing us how the tabloid newspapers refused to run stories of Andy having cancer, when he really did, because they didn’t want to be fooled by another Andy prank. This movie is a real mind-trip into the head of Andy Kaufmann. He’s such a fascinating man I’m going to keep an eye out for him; I’d like to see more.

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Sun, Jan 02, 2000

: Hard Target

Author: Chuck Pfarrer

Director: John Woo

Woo’s American movie debut. I’d never seen it before, but it’s a superior action flick despite staring Jean-Claude Van Damme (I like him, but his movies are usually routine). The plot’s a familiar variation of “The Most Dangerous Game” (hunters hunting humans, in this case homeless veterans), but the action’s cool and stylistic.

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Sat, Jan 01, 2000

: American History X

Author: David McKenna

Director: Tony Kaye

Was this movie ever in the theatres? I don’t remember hearing anything about it, but it certainly deserves more recognition. It’s a violent, sad, thoughtful look at the white supremacy movement in America. I especially liked the way it showed the grayness of evil, but toward the end the movie got a bit obvious and predictable. (I didn’t like the way the main character’s dad was suddenly revealed as a closet racist and that, of course, explained the son’s behavior. It was trite and poorly done.) Overall, awesome acting (Edward Norton got a well-deserved Oscar nomination) and excellent direction. Thought-provoking (without being preachy) on a subject you didn’t think you needed to know about.

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