Tue, Feb 29, 2000

: Blazing Saddles

Author: Andrew Bergman and Mel Brooks

Director: Mel Brooks

I’m not the greatest Mel Brooks fan, though I’d like to be. His sense of humor is the kind I like, but his films tend to fall flat. I’d never seen Blazing Saddles before, but I can see why it’s considered one of his best. It’s definitely funnier than his other films I’ve seen, though much of the humor is either too subtle or too outrageous to be “comfortable” humor. I enjoyed the film, but didn’t laugh much just because it was too weird. Watching parts of it again, I can see that this is a film that gets funnier with every viewing: I found myself laughing out loud when Cleavon Little holds himself up at gunpoint (too difficult to explain — you have to see it). (The first time through I just couldn’t believe the townpeople were so dumb.) Cool flick. What impressed me the most was how current it was — it could have been released a few years ago. Amazing for a seventies’ film.

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Sun, Feb 27, 2000

: Notting Hill

Author: Richard Curtis

Director: Roger Michell

Sweet romantic comedy about the conflicts in a romance between a movie star and a nobody. Nicely done, and occasionally even heartwarming, but basically too light to be significant. Julie Roberts tried hard, but never got beyond being a pretty face, and one can’t help but be amazed that such a charming Hugh Grant could be single! The most interesting thing for me was the “coincidence” that Netflix just happened to deliver the DVD to me right after I finished reading the Natalie Wood biography (Netflix rentals are delivered by mail, so you must order several days in advance). Since that book is so revealing about the difference between the famous and not famous, I found the film more intriguing than I normally might have.

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: The Storm of the Summer

Author: Rod Serling

Director: Robert Wise

A remarkable little film (a Showtime original) with a brilliant performance by Peter Falk (“Columbo”) as a grumpy, Jewish delicatessen owner who’s stuck with a kid from Harlem visiting as part of a “fresh air” program for inner-city youths. It’s predictable: obviously the kid melts the old man’s bitter heart and the old man brings wisdom to the kid, but it’s extremely well-written. Set in 1969, it touches on issues of war, death, and racism. It’s occasionally bitter, often funny, and sometimes poignant. There are some great lines. In one, Falk says about his loser nephew, “He’s got the mouth of a whale and the brains of a sardine.” In another, Falk lectures the boy on racism, defending why he didn’t fight back when attacked: “That’s the worst thing about prejudice: it turns the hated into haters themselves. Line up the two sides and you can’t tell the difference.”

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: Concert: Weird Al Yankovic, “Touring with Scissors”

What a terrific concert! Weird Al is so often dismissed as nothing more than a parasitic comedian, living off the art of others, but he is really an incredibly talented musician and consummate entertainer. He pulled out all the stops in his live show, incorporating a light show, smoke, bubble, and snow effects, costumes, and video clips. The video stuff was hilarious, including clips from “Al TV,” mock celebrity interviews, music videos, parody commercials (my favorite was an ad for a nature-horror film called “60 Percent Chance of Rain”), and twisted 1950-style public service films educating us on things like personal hygiene (with practical advice like “Wash your hands every five minutes” and “Visit your dentist every day”). Between the one or two minute video segments Al would change costumes, wearing the same outfits used in his classic videos (i.e. dressed in hospital scrubs for “Like a Surgeon,” in black with a beard for “Amish Paradise,” and in his fat suit for “I’m Fat”). He did a ton of songs (over two hours worth), including recent stuff from Running With Scissors and classics like Dare to Be Stupid. There were classic moments, like when Al’s piano player interrupted his monologue to go off on a wild impromptu (and very cool) keyboard solo, and Al, waiting until the man finished, calmly pulls out a gun and shoots the man! The audience was having a blast: most knew all the lyrics, even little children. I don’t any performer than spans generations like Al: there were toddlers to grandparents! (It’s also a clean show the whole family can safely enjoy.) Al goes across all music genres, from rap to country, and he not only mimics singing styles to perfection, he mimics dance moves, costumes, and gestures. Absolutely amazing. He’s a genius. (Who else do you know who can sing and dance with one foot behind their head?)

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: Harmful Intent

Author: Robin Cook

Excellent medical/legal thriller, with an anesthesiologist, wrongly convicted of malpractice and second-degree murder, jumping bail to prove his innocence. Intelligent, well-drawn characters, believably paced (no superheroes here), with lots of medical detail, action, and suspense. I couldn’t put it down (I started it on Saturday). The ending was a little suspicious (lawyers were at the heart the conspiracy), but it’s such a feel-good conclusion you don’t care.

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Sat, Feb 26, 2000

: Natalie: A Memoir by Her Sister

Author: Lana Wood

Amazing book. I fell in love with Natalie Wood years ago when I first saw her in a film, and I remember being crushed when I learned she was dead (she drown in 1981). Other than her films, I knew little about her, and my searching for a biography went unanswered (they are all out of print). I ordered this one from Barnes and Noble’s website, which has a terrific out-of-print section. This book is as much about Lana as it is Natalie, and at first that bothered me (who cares about the sister!) but gradually I grew to love Lana too. The early section, about their childhood, is the most poignant, as despite the significant age differences, the two were remarkably close. As they grew older, however, rifts developed, often with years going by with them barely speaking. Tragic, especially as Lana seemed to exist solely as a reflection of her sister, and when Natalie wouldn’t acknowledge her, it struck me as horribly cruel. It’s a sad book, thought provoking and challenging. It makes me question my own desires for wealth and/or fame, and it raises many questions in regards to the meaning and purpose and use of talent. Though the book is obviously written from Lana’s point of view, it’s extremely well-done (I don’t know if she had help) and the perspective is so balanced it comes across as very truthful. Natalie is revealed a star practically from birth, who was both naive and remarkably adult. For instance, she never had any training as an actress, and while that shows in some of her films, in others her performances are nothing short of startling. In an event that reveals much about star life, Natalie, in her twenties, once flew to New York by herself (no manager) and called her sister to tell how she’d gone shopping and actually written a check (her first). She apparently never had much understanding of money (though her advisors invested it well and she was very wealthy when she died), and I got the impression that she didn’t help her sister financially more out of ignorance of what it was like to be poor than spite. The differences between the famous and the not famous are revealed in many striking details, and the stories of encounters with big stars (for instance, Lana’s tryst with Sean Connery) are fascinating, though gossipy. Natalie was a tragic figure: while successful, popular, and beautiful, she was obsessed with her appearance (i.e. worried about not looking good), frustrated in love (almost all her marriages ended in divorce), and spent most of her life in therapy (she even turned down the lead role in Bonnie and Clyde because it required location shooting in Texas and she’d be away from her therapist for two months). The wages of fame, I guess. I can see where being a star and having to be “on” constantly (always with the clever phrase, beautiful look, etc.) would be a huge burden.

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: The Corruptor

Author: Robert Pucci

Director: James Foley

Interesting, convoluted film. It tries to defy stereotypes by making almost all the characters gray, but only succeeds in creating a plot that’s nearly unintelligible. You’ve got corrupt cops and corrupt cops who are really Internal Affair agents, and villains who are snitches and villains who are playing the cops. There’s some good action, and Chow Yun-Fat is amazing as usual, but ultimately it’s just another action film.

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Fri, Feb 25, 2000

: Summer of Sam

Author: Victor Colicchio and Michael Imperioli

Director: Spike Lee

I wasn’t sure if this was a thriller or what, but it turned out to be a what. The “Son of Sam” killings in New York in the 1970’s are the backdrop for the lives of a number of distasteful and unlikable characters (some played by big stars). I found the mystery over the killer much more interesting than the lives of these pathetic characters. While there were attempts to make them human and likable, they didn’t completely succeed, leaving us uneasy no matter what happens to them (good or bad). The ending’s predictable, and the whole thing’s about an hour too long. Some of the relationships in the film are completely incomprehensible. This is a good rough draft a movie — a couple more rewrites and it might have had something.

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Wed, Feb 23, 2000

: Lake Placid

Author: David E. Kelley

Director: Steve Miner

Prior to viewing, I didn’t know what to make of this horror flick about a giant crocodile, written by the king of TV comedy, David Kelley. Was it supposed to be scary? Funny? An intentionally bad movie? It turns out it’s a quirky comedy with some action and a lot of cool special effects. It’s a horror film that mocks itself, while at the same time being a somewhat intelligent horror film. Unlike Scream, it’s not a spoof, and the humor is sly and devilish, and comes more from the odd characters than jazzy one-liners. The special effects rival Jurassic Park in quality, though there are less of them. Very cool flick.

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Tue, Feb 22, 2000

: The Burning Hills

Author: Louis L’Amour (novel) and Irving Wallace

Director: Stuart Heisler

This is a western about a Mexican girl helping a cowboy escape some bad dudes. Natalie Wood’s miscast as the girl, and though she’s not terrible, she looks like she’s in pain having to pretend to be something she’s physically not. The accent’s piled on as thickly as her dark make-up. Though there are a few scenes of romantic humor where Natalie shines, overall the movie is slow and rather boring compared to modern shoot-em-ups.

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Sun, Feb 20, 2000

: Ever After

Author: Susannah Grant and Andy Tennant

Director: Andy Tennant

I was pleasantly surprised by how well this movie was done. It’s the familiar Cinderella story, but told realistically, without the Fairy Godmother and magic, reducing it to a love story between a commoner and a prince. Decent performances (even from Drew Barrymore), and the dialogue was surprisingly intelligent and witty. Nothing too deep or complex, but above average.

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Sat, Feb 19, 2000

: October Sky

Author: Homer H. Hickam Jr. (book) and Lewis Colick

Director: Joe Johnston

This is one of those predictable but well-done films. A boy struggles to escape the drudgery of a coal-mining town by entering a science fair competition with his rocketry experiments. You know exactly what’s going to happen but the performances are so perfect (especially Chris Cooper as the father) that you fall for it away. Excellent.

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Fri, Feb 18, 2000

: Wing Commander

Author: Chris Roberts (II) (story) and Kevin Droney

Director: Chris Roberts

Being bored during action sequences doesn’t bode well for a film. Essentially Top Gun in outer space, this thing’s totally predictable. I love sci-fi and thought it looked interesting, but I got a lot of reading done during this movie.

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: The Pillow Book

Author: Peter Greenberg

Director: Peter Greenberg

From Soderbergh’s visually conservative approach to sex we jump to Greenberg’s almost pornographic visuals. But this film isn’t about cheap thrills. I’m honestly not sure exactly what it’s about — it jumps all around, touching on eroticism, literature, sexual identity, the meaning of life, death, calligraphy, beauty, ugliness. It’s the story of a Japanese girl whose writer father painted stories on her face when she was a child, and now as an adult she seeks out lovers to paint beautiful words on her body. Her problem is that the good artists are poor lovers and the good lovers are poor artists. Later, the woman begins to write on her lovers, and realizes her dream of becoming a published author. Oddly, she “submits” her work to the publisher on the body of her lovers. I found it puzzling that one could write a whole book on the flesh of a person, but I guess these are poetry-type books (and since each character is a word, oriental languages are more compact than Western ones). Even more bizarre, the publisher doesn’t seem to find this unusual presentation strange. The film’s title is what we would call a diary or a journal, though with an Eastern slant: most of the writings are Confuscious-like phrases or “lists” (i.e. “Things that make the heart pound.”). Interesting, but not exactly enlightening. (My favorite were the fun ones like “A hand cannot write on itself,” written, of course, on the fingers of one hand.) My knowledge of Eastern culture is minimal, so I’m sure I’m missing a great deal of the film’s message. It’s a complex movie: Greenberg frequently uses overlapping video sequences so several events or perspectives are happening simultaneously. It’s a powerful technique and beautifully done (in one scene he has everything in monotone except for the little girl’s face in the mirror is in full color). Another thing I liked: the multitude of languages. There’s English, French, Chinese, and Japanese mixed almost indiscriminately throughout the film. It’s delightful. (The music’s also similarly multi-cultural.) Overall, however, this is a bizarre, unsettling film: beautiful, exotic, and untouchable. (One other note: the DVD of this film is not widescreen and has zero extra features. Pretty much just VHS on a disc. Lame.)

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Thu, Feb 17, 2000

: Sex, Lies, and Videotape

Author: Steven Soderbergh

Director: Steven Soderbergh

I hadn’t seen this for years so it was cool to rent the DVD and see it again. What surprised me was how current the movie still is, and the amazing performance by James Spader. He’s incredible in this film — such subtle acting is extremely rare. The director’s commentary on the DVD is pretty cool — Soderbergh birdwalks all over the place, touching on his favorite films and scenes and occasionally commenting on “Sex, Lies.” Seeing his perspective ten years after his directorial debuts is educational. As to the film itself, it was more impressive now than ever: the story’s not especially unusual (an extramarital affair), but the perspective is different. Most impressive was how Soderbergh makes us feel like we’re watching the extremely sexual, and yet there’s no nudity or direct sexual activity — it really is just sex talk.

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Wed, Feb 16, 2000

: Homegrown

Author: Stephen Gyllenhaal (story) and Nicholas Kazan

Director: Stephen Gyllenhaal

Slow comedy about “America’s number one cash crop” (i.e. marijuana). Fun performances from notable stars, but the humor falls flat. Rather violent (almost an action picture in places), and main characters are too moronic for us to really care what happens to them.

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Tue, Feb 15, 2000

: Bottle Rocket

Author: Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson

Director: Wes Anderson

Strange little movie. Interesting and fun in places, though low-key and modest (like most independent films). It’s about some slacker friends trying to become successful thieves and figure out life in the process. What was strange was the complete lack of morality displayed — there never was the slightest hint of guilt or remorse for their crimes. It was like the director thought stealing was funny and not wrong. Other than that, an okay picture.

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Mon, Feb 14, 2000

: The Joy of Pi

Author: David Blatner

Essentially this is a little book of trivia about the most famous mathematical symbol. Unfortunately, unless you’re a mathematician (I’m decidedly not), the really interesting stuff’s incomprehensible. Blatner does nothing to explain basic math concepts (anyone remember what a factorial is?) and the result is complete gibberish. The history is mildly interesting, but the critical (the reason I read the book) question of what good is pi (i.e. “Why do we need it? What use does it serve?”) is never answered! (The closest he gets is one sidebar which explains how to compute your hat size using pi. Great, so thousands of people have spent decades of their lives trying to get a more accurate hat measurement!) Essentially this is a pointless book: there’s not enough real math to interest mathematicians and there’s too much for the layman. If you would like to read poems about pi and trivial things like that the sequence “123456789” first appears at the 523,551,502nd digit past the decimal point, go for it. Otherwise the most interesting thing is the book is that it prints (in microtype throughout the book) the first one million digits of pi.

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: Vector

Author: Robin Cook

Interesting, surprisingly well-written novel. I think I’m a Cook fan, unnerving as that may be. There’s nothing deep here, but the characters are well-defined and believable, and the action’s good. The novel runs a bit long (I was saying “Get on with it!” in a few places), but close attention isn’t required. (Excellent for reading during “Who Wants to be a Millionaire!”) The plot is bioterrorism: a Russian immigrant has created some weapons-grade anthrax and plans to release it in New York City. What I usually hate about books like this is that you know the good guys will catch the bad guys before the toxin’s released and save the world. Sure, you don’t know the how and the when, but the bad thing will never happen. Well, I won’t spoil the ending of this book, but that isn’t what happens here! Brilliant ending.

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Sun, Feb 13, 2000

: Crumb

Director: Terry Zwigoff

This is a documentary on the bizarre artist and cartoonist Robert Crumb. I rented it primarily because it was produced by David Lynch and I’m a huge Lynch fan. I thought I’d never heard of Crumb before the film, but seeing his artwork I realized I was somewhat familiar with his style and some of his more famous works. Crumb’s art is distinctive and unique, and above all, controversial. He mixes biting humor, social commentary, and pornography. His drawings of women are exaggerated to absurdity, essentially mocking the male obsession with sex while at the same time gratifying it. The film interviews Crumb and various members of his family, including his two brothers. The Crumb family is the ultimate in dysfunctionality, with Charles living at home with his mother and taking anti-depressants and Max begging on the streets of San Francisco and spending hours every day on a bed of nails. Their lives are so pathetic they will surely improve your perspective of your own. But the frightening thing is how intelligent and creative these two are: both are artists, like Robert, and both show tremendous talent. Also like Robert they are obviously misfits, but while he found a place in the world, they did not. Who was it who said the difference between genius and insanity is a hairline? This documentary showed it to be true. While this film is incredibly disturbing (to the point of nausea), it’s also an amazing, honest portrait of the link between insanity and creativity. If you are interested in creative endeavours or the creation process, I highly recommend seeing this film. It will open your eyes and make you ponder.

In closing, here’s an example of a cartoon that epitomizes Crumb: there’s a depressed man with an absurdly huge nose (we’re talking two feet here). Behind him is a naked woman on a bed. Her entire face is sunken in… in a similar bulbous shape to the man’s tremendous proboscis! (Yes, it is sick and twisted… and hilariously funny. And profound when you think about it.)

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Sat, Feb 12, 2000

: Mystery Men

Author: Bob Burden (comic book series by Dark Horse) and Neil Cuthbert (screenplay)

Director: Kinka Usher

I realized something while watching this: a humorous premise does not make a humorous movie. Too many gimmick films rely on their wacky premise to get laughs and don’t put in enough humor in script to make it funny. This thing sounded great but falls flat: there’s nothing funny beyond the initial concept of a some inept wannabe superheroes.

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: Very Bad Things

Author: Peter Berg

Director: Peter Berg

I love black comedies, but this one’s a little too raw (i.e. several characters are plainly evil) to completely work. I loved the poetic justice ending, however. The story’s somewhat predictable as one by one a group of five friends kill each other off, but the actual methods of everyone dying are well done. Semi-accidental deaths are difficult to pull off believably, but these worked.

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Thu, Feb 10, 2000

: Guarding Tess

Author: Hugh Wilson and Peter Torokvei

Director: Hugh Wilson

This film was incredibly disappointing. It wasn’t the least bit funny, nor were any of the characters sympathetic. Shirley Maclaine’s character was supposed to be annoying and she was, but even when she wasn’t supposed to be annoying she was. And Nicolas Cage was such a doormat I wanted to punch him myself! I frankly wished they’d all drop off a cliff and leave me in peace. The ending was muddled and confusing — I couldn’t even tell if the kidnapping was real or staged or what was going on. I’ve never heard the phrase “Yes, Ma’am” more times in my entire life — and I hope to never hear it again!

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: The Spanish Prisoner

Author: David Mamet

Director: David Mamet

This is a slow-moving, mesmerizing account of con artists pulling a scam. It’s intelligently done, though overly complicated, and the ending is contrived. Still, I was glad it ended happily, as this is one of those movies were tons of bad stuff happens to the innocent, sympathetic lead, and if it had ended badly it would have been a horrible movie. What most intrigued me was the pace — slow and intriguing. I never did understand the title line. It refers to a con of a sort, but I couldn’t figure out what it had to do with anything.

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Wed, Feb 09, 2000

: Tomorrow Never Dies

Author: Bruce Feirstein

Director: Roger Spottiswoode

Not quite as flat as I remember in the theatre, this Bond film nevertheless fails to deliver. It’s hard to point to any single flaw: the remote control car chase is weak, the motorcycle stunt goes on way too long, the villain isn’t particularly scary, the plot (a media baron tries to start a war between England and China to give his new 24/7 news network something to broadcast) is ridiculous (even for a Bond movie), the line gags are so obvious as to literally gag you, and the women aren’t really around (Teri Hatcher dies right away and Michelle Yeoh’s character made a great foil for Bond, but she’s too buff to be romantic). It’s a strange film where nothing works. I never thought I’d find a Bond film boring, but here’s the one.

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: Entrapment

Author: Ronald Bass (story) and Michael Hertzberg

Director: Jon Amiel

This was supposed to be a disappointing movie, but I got exactly what I expected: basically Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones looking gorgeous and committing cool high-tech robberies. Sure, it’s not deep, and plot was swiss cheese, but it was fun and completely harmless.

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Tue, Feb 08, 2000

: Run Lola Run

Author: Tom Tykwer

Director: Tom Tykwer

This is a fascinating film from Germany. It works on many levels, but because of its MTV-like style and pace, plus it’s unusual “plot,” it’s difficult to follow on the first viewing. At first I thought it simplistic, but it actually is quite deep — it’s just that the glossy style makes you think it’s a silly music video. Essentially the movie’s about a girl who must get 100,000 marks ($60,000) to her boyfriend in twenty minutes or he’ll be killed. The twenty minute race to find the money and get it to her boyfriend is repeated three times, each with a different outcome (generated by slight changes in initial decisions). It’s a fascinating premise, and as well done as it could be — but ultimately it seems gimmicky and of course it can’t escape that it feels like a movie, not real life. Still, there were many very cool effects. One of my favorites was the “fast forwards,” where Lola bumps into a character and with a series of photographic snapshots we see that character’s entire future in a few seconds: meeting a woman, falling in love, marriage, a baby, a whole family, etc. This only happens a few times in the film so it doesn’t get old; it’s very cool. The DVD is worth watching as it has a director’s commentary which is surprisingly good. One annoyance: the dubbed English and English subtitles use completely different translations. Why do films do this? Really dumb. I guess it was never an issue before DVDs as with video you either get the dubbed or the subtitled version, but I’ve seen it on several DVDs and it’s incredibly irritating. (I like subtitles as they make it easier to follow the story.)

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Sat, Feb 05, 2000

: Fahrenheit 451

Author: Ray Bradbury (novel), Jean-Louis Richard, and Francois Truffaut

Director: Francois Truffaut

Interesting, if a little odd, adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s classic novel. Odd because the lead speaks with a heavy foreign accent which bothered me throughout the film, yet there’s no inference that his character is supposed to be a foreigner. Good overall, though a touch overly dramatic in places, and slow in others. It felt dated, and the “futuristic” sets were incredibly corny.

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Fri, Feb 04, 2000

: American Pie

Author: Adam Herz

Director: Paul Weitz

All the reviews I’d heard of this comedy about teen life concentrated on how raunchy it was; I was pleasantly surprised that it actually has some depth, intelligence, and even a sweet love story. That said, it brings out all the extremes of high school life, mostly dealing with various forms of embarrassment, especially sexual. I suspect adults would find it shocking, but kids would just say it’s normal life. Certainly better than Animal House, often used as a comparison film. (I’ve never understood the attraction of that movie; I thought it was lame and pointless.)

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: I Still Know What You Did Last Summer

Author: Trey Callaway

Director: Danny Cannon

The plot: Every five minutes Jennifer Love Hewitt puts on a sexy new outfit and becomes terrified, seeing dead bodies or having a nightmare about a guy in a rain slicker with a hook for a hand. Most of the time these are lame fake scares (incredibly lame because it’s easy to tell the fake from the real because the real ones happen without warning while the fake ones include about three or four minutes of “tension” buildup). I don’t remember the original being this bad — it’s amazing what Hollywood can do to ruin a sequel.

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Thu, Feb 03, 2000

: Life is Beautiful

Author: Vincenzo Cerami and Roberto Benigni

Director: Roberto Benigni

All I can say is if you haven’t seen this film, go see it right now! This is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. It’s ten times better than Schindler’s List, mostly because it’s bearable, and not literal. Instead of showing us the horrors of the Holocaust directly, it uses comedy and misdirection to lighten the mood. The effect of this is to emphasize the horrors even more powerfully because we’re so emotionally open and involved with the characters. An example? The main character’s son, earlier in the film, is revealed to hate taking a bath, and hide in a cabinet to escape such a trial. Later, in the concentration camp, the boy doesn’t go with the other children into the gas showers because he thinks it’s a normal shower! What powerful irony; sweet yet heart-wrenching. The film is packed with dozens of wonderful examples of bittersweet humor like that. My favorite aspect of the film? Probably the brilliance of the writing, which I thought was superb. I especially like the way nothing was wasted: every event was reused a way which was imaginative and touching. An example? Benini’s waiter character befriending a visiting doctor, who later shows up as the concentration camp doctor (there are many better ones, like the classic scene with the key). Another cool thing: I discovered I can almost understand Italian!

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