Mon, Dec 31, 2001

: The Pledge

Director: Sean Penn

This film has two key flaws: one, it’s a murder story without a resolution (extremely unsatisfying — the murderer isn’t caught), and two, the fairly ordinary plot is told at a snail’s pace. While Penn’s technically excellent (I liked a number of things he did, including an interesting camera move through the open skylight of a car), he seems to confuse a slow pace with depth: a glacier pan across a lake does not make a scene profound. Thus the film feels ponderous and heavy and several hours too long. That wouldn’t be horrible if the payoff was worth it, but it’s not: the tale is simply that of a retiring police detective who becomes involved in a case of the rape/murder of a little girl on his last day and can’t let go, continuing to investigate even after his retirement. Basically, this is a film that wants desperately to be deep, but ultimately isn’t as profound as an episode of Law and Order. Perhaps I’m just bitter because I put this in wanting an action film, but this isn’t worth your time. It’s a lot of potential wasted. Cut 50 minutes out of it and it might be a pretty good film.

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Sun, Dec 30, 2001

: Memento

Director: Christopher Nolan

Wow, what a fantastic film! This, by far, is the best movie of 2001. It really pushes the film-making envelope. I was hesitant seeing it. I’d heard it was good, and also heard it was a little weird. Sometimes that’s a good thing, but sometimes it makes for an “arty” film that’s pretentious and boring. This was neither. It’s a fascinating film noir where how the story is told is just as important as the story.

The concept is simple: the main character’s a former insurance investigator who’s searching for the man who raped and killed his wife. He wants to kill the murderer. There’s one key problem, however: the man’s brain injury has left him no short term memory. It’s not amnesia: he knows who he is and where he came from, but he can’t make new memories. So if he meets you, in five minutes he’s forgotten it and he’s introducing himself again. This makes criminal investigation a challenge, to say the least.

The guy has a solution to his problem: he takes instant pictures and writes notes to himself. The “my car” picture tells him which car in the parking lot is his. A photograph of a motel reminds him where he’s staying. He can’t use the telephone because he’ll forget who he’s talking to without a face in front of him. It’s a bizarre life.

Director Nolan gets us into this life with an unusual gimmick: we experience the film in reverse. I mean the entire film is backwards! We see the end, where he kills the man who murdered his wife, first. Then we go backwards through his investigation, step by step. The film is entirely made up of flashbacks!

This no doubt sounds confusing. But astonishingly, it isn’t. Everything is extremely clear (more than in many films). Normally we know the past and the future is unknown. In this case, we know the future — he kills the murderer — but we don’t know the past. Just like him. But unlike him, we’ve seen the future and can remember it, so when we’re seeing something from his past, we can put the two together.

The result is incredible: as we put the pieces together, we’re constantly reevaluating our assumptions. For at each event, we assume that what we are seeing is reality. And it is, to an extent. The problem is that it’s reality based on the guy’s notes: he makes decisions based on what his previous self told him. This is the ultimate “blind-leading-the-blind” scenario! So a friend in one scene is an enemy, or maybe-enemy, in the next (previous). But since the guy can’t remember what happened earlier, he can’t tell when he’s being played. A good example of this is how the motel clerk rents him a second room, just to see if he’d notice. He doesn’t, and is paying for two rooms. And the scummy clerk openly admits this, knowing he’ll have forgotten by the next time they meet!

I won’t give away all the twists and turns of the plot: just go rent this film and watch it. It’s amazing. You’ll never think of reality in the same way again. It reminds me a great deal of the mind-bending stories of Philip K. Dick (especially

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Fri, Dec 28, 2001

: Guys and Dolls

Good musical: I liked the story, though it was predictable (like most musicals). This particular version was extremely choreographed, making everything artificial (my usual pet peeve about musicals is how unnatural they are), but in this case it set a particular tone and style that after I while I accepted and kind of liked. There was a grace to the choreographed movements and blocking. Overall, there was too much exposition and setup (the film’s 30 minutes too long), and only a few of the songs are memorable, but the characters were well done and well acted. Marlon Brando was a particular surprise: he was excellent. Jean Simmons was terrific. Right off, however, I remarked at how the guy who played Nathan Detroit couldn’t sing. I cringed every time he tried. Later, while studying the DVD box, I discovered that that was Frank Sinatra! Well, I listened to him sing again, and I’ll stick with my original assessment: the guy was weak (can’t act, can’t sing — but hey, he’s famous, so give him a role). The guy who played Nicely Nicely was the best singer of them all (especially in his “testimony” song, “Sit Down, Don’t Rock the Boat” which was one of the best songs in the film).

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: The Blue Nowhere

Author: Jeffery Deaver

Why is it that non-computer people always try to write hacker novels? This one is particularly far-fetched and ridiculous (A hacker’s virus causes a computer to catch on fire!), topped with gobs of extremely inaccurate computer mumbo jumbo. (For example, supposedly the evil hacker’s “trapdoor” virus can be embedded within a picture and just viewing it would cause your computer to be infected. That’s obviously technically impossible since the virus would have to be decoded [separated] from the picture before it could do anything.) Technical errors aside, the plot would be excellent for a normal serial murderer hunt, but in this case the killer’s a hacker using his computing skills for evil, so everything’s got to be computer-related. Towards the end the novel just gets more and more ridiculous as red herring after red herring is exposed, and the “climax” that one of hackers sending emails is really a computer is just absurd. Basically, for non-computer people this novel would seem to be a chore as you wade through gobs of computer jargon (dutifully and tediously explained after each use), while computer-people will find it digustingly inaccurate. It’s a no-win situation. However, if you can keep the computer falacies from bothering you, the novel is decent in terms of drama and it’s fast-paced (I read it in half a day). Just please, don’t take it seriously — real hacking is nothing like this Hollywoodized depiction.

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Thu, Dec 27, 2001

: Jackdaws

Author: Ken Follett

Excellent, fast-paced WWII spy novel, Follett’s best arena. This story takes place in the week before D-Day, the Allied invasion of France that ended the war. An all-female group of British spies is required for a critical mission: blowing up a German telephone exchange which will disrupt the Nazi’s communications during the invasion making them unable to respond properly to the attack. Unfortunately, there are few professional agents available, so Flick (a.k.a. Felicity), the leader, is forced to assemble a rag-tag team of criminals and rejects. The narrative switches between the progress of Flick’s mission and the efforts of Dieter Franck, the German major who’s trying to track her down. Dieter’s an expert interogator: his brilliant schemes and horrible tortures to get Resistance members to talk result in numerous coups for the enemy. As the mission begins, it seems that Dieter already knows too much and everything’s going to fail, but Flick’s quick-thinking and calm under fire manages to foil Dieter, at least temporarily, and the battle of wits is on. Will she manage to control her rambunctious and untrained team? Will they succeed in their mission before the Monday deadline?

As usual, Follett’s writing is smooth and unremarkable, the novel a quick, satisfying read. It’s slightly predictable in a few places, but overall interesting and different, intelligent, and great entertainment (exactly what a spy novel is supposed to be).

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Wed, Dec 26, 2001

: Three Kings

Comic Gulf War film about a group of soldiers who go off to steal gold Saddam stole from Kuwaiti, but end up helping homeless Iraqi rebels escape to Iran. It’s like a remake of Kelly’s Heroes. Some of the political issues were a little heavy-handed (preachy), and the constant military swearing (every other word) became tiresome after oh, thirty seconds, but overall it’s a decent film, with some humor, action, and morally acceptable ending.

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: You Can Count On Me

Not at all what I’d expected. This is a story about a single mother whose troubled brother comes to stay for a while, leads her eight-year-old son in trouble, and then she has to kick him out. However, her own life isn’t much better than his, as she’s having an affair with her boss. Extremely realistic and well-acted, with no easy answers or pat solutions to complex problems. I really liked the way the woman was so frustrated and angry at herself for continuing the affair, even as she was driving to the motel for another clandestine meeting. She’s a woman torn and uncertain, like most of us. However, the film’s best feature (no answers) is also its worst, in that nothing is resolved or fixed by the end, and though we’re left with an odd sense of hope, it was still unsatisfying. I felt the film had a message but in the end that message had yet to be delivered. I was also conscious that a fair amount of the dialogue included unnecessary swearing (I don’t mind it when it establishes character or sets a mood, but swearing for no reason gets to be a drag). End result: okay film, but falls a little short of the mark.

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Tue, Dec 25, 2001

: Shadow of the Vampire

Terrific look at the making of a classic silent film, Nosferatu, the first vampire movie ever made, and one of the most realistic. The premise of this film is that the obssessed German director used a real vampire for his lead actor! Throughout the shoot, the vampire keeps killing various crew members, upsetting the director who can barely control his star with the promise of being given the neck of the beautiful movie actress as his prize. Funny yet poignant, with a lot of inside jokes, this is a terrific film for anyone who loves movies.

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: The Straight Story

Director: David Lynch

I was expecting this story to be a little slow, but while the film was paced as leisurely as a riding mower’s speed, it wasn’t at all boring. Lynch’s use of camera angles, editing, and occasionally unusual methods of storytelling kept things interesting. For instance, in one sequence, a car crashes into a deer, but instead of showing us the accident, we only hear it and the camera focuses on the face of main actor Richard Farnsworth as he reacts to the tragedy. It was far more emotionally effective than showing a realistic accident. Slowly, throughout the film, we learn about the main character, understanding more and more about it. Unlike most films which try to dump a lot of exposition within a scant few seconds and then move on to action, this film reserves details and releases them gradually, when appropriate, and for maximum impact. I really liked that. For example, in an early scene we watch Farnsworth’s daughter watch a ball roll down the street and eventually be retrieved by a small boy, and we see her sad face, but it’s only later that it’s revealed that her own children were taken from her by the state and she pines for them. It’s much more powerful to have the two pieces of info given to us separately than all at once: I wish more filmmakers had the instincts to do stuff like that.

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Mon, Dec 24, 2001

: Moulin Rouge

Intriguing, unusual musical. Set in the infamous Mouline Rouge nightclub in Paris in 1899, the story is a romance between the club’s leading singer and a fresh-faced writer. The plot’s somewhat of a farce, with mistaken identifies and hilarious set pieces, but the love story is real and very well done. Nicole Kidman is excellent as the ill-fated courtesan, but while Ewan McGreggor’s singing isn’t bad, his singing performance is artificial. I was impressed at the way Nicole was able to sing and act at the same time (Ewan couldn’t do that, though his acting, when he wasn’t singing, was very good). The gimmick of the film — that the songs are variations and adaptations of modern rock songs — is hokey at first, but grows on you, and in the end added just the right touch of humor and cleverness to a great old-fashioned love story. Excellent; I was very impressed and enjoyed it thoroughly.

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Sun, Dec 23, 2001

: Fellowship of the Ring

Author: J.R.R. Tolkien

This is the first book in the Lord of the Rings series, a classic tale of an epic journey set in a fictional period of ancient history in a place called Middle-Earth. This book involves a lot of journeying, as various characters begin a quest to take the Ring of power to Mount Doom, where it can be destroyed. I’ve read the series a number of times — I believe this is my fourth — but this time I was most conscious of what an excellent writer Tolkien was. His turns of phrase, vivid descriptions, careful pacing, and dramatic story-telling are all unmatched. He isn’t a legend by accident. I agree with Tolkien that LOTR isn’t really a trilogy but a long book — the story doesn’t end at a particularly convenient spot (there’s obviously plenty to come) — so it’s difficult to judge just this one book on it’s own.

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Sat, Dec 22, 2001

: Lord of the Rings: the Fellowship of the Ring

Director: Peter Jackson

First, let me start by saying this is definitely the best film adaptation of the novel. Peter’s an excellent director and what his team has accomplished here is impressive. Visually the film is amazing, everything you’d expect in a modern epic. However, that’s also the problem: expectations on a technical level are so high these days that one loses a sense of wonder and astonishment at the achievement. You gaze at a real Hobbit village and go, “Yeah. Looks real. Neat.” What that means is that the story must captivate you; unfortunately, even with three hours to tell it, the story gets short shrift. Jackson wants to explain everything, including a great deal of backstory that isn’t openly explained in the trilogy but told in Tolkien’s notes and other works, and the result is multiple movies within a movie. It’s not confusing, per se — he does an excellent job — but it is distracting from the main film. Part of the problem isn’t the director’s fault: LOTR isn’t a true trilogy (where each book stands on it’s own) but one epic story: the films, like the books, are best viewed sequentially. I’m sure I will like this much better when I can sit down (for nine hours) and watch all three films in a row. Meanwhile, this film on its own, while excellent, feels both overwhelming (too much info) and too brief (it ends as the adventure’s beginning).

Finally, I must protest at the script. Why the arbitrary changes? The writers and producers took years to write the three films and I’m sure there were rational reasons for the choices they made and if we were in a room together debating the issues, they might be able to convince me that they made the right decisions, but as a viewer and reader of the novel, I found their choices odd, puzzling, and occasionally distasteful. Why leave out the first adventures of the Hobbits in the Barrow-Downs and the characters of Bombadil and Goldberry? I always found those adventures critical in forming the partnership of the four Hobbits and establishing their ability to survive hardship: it preps them for the future, much more challenging difficulties. Now it’s not a huge thing, but it’s significant, and I don’t understand why, if the movie’s a rendering of the book, it can’t be done faithfully. Why do it all if you’re just going to change it? There are many other variations, along with some obvious mistakes. For instance, we’re treated with a battle with a troll in the Mines of Moria sequence: a troll is mentioned, but never fought in the novel. Why include that elaborate battle scene? And they left out the attack of the wolves before that, something I found exciting and terrifying in the book and looked forward to in the fillm. Perhaps, you say, they just didn’t have time to include everything, and I might agree except that the film often took time to include other scenes of less critical nature that wasted a great deal of time. For instance, the bit where Gandalf faces the three doorways and must decide which to take. They actually show him brooding for an extended period just like in the book: to me that’s exposition and has little place in the film.

Which brings up the whole issue of time, something I felt the film struggled with. In the novels, it’s never very clear when things happened throughout the history of Middle-Earth: events are refered to as being “long ago” or in the “Elder Days” and compared with other historical events that happened at a similar time, but you have to go to Tolkien’s notes to really understand the entire history of Middle-Earth, in sequence. Jackson does a good job of explaining this in the film’s prologue, which details the history of Ring, but then he plays fast and loose with time when it comes to the story itself: years pass between Biblo Baggin’s birthday party and Gandalf’s return to test the Ring by fire, yet in the film it’s just minutes. In the book, it takes Frodo a year to prepare and leave the Shire, but in the film he leaves on the spur of the moment as the Black Riders approach. I’m not sure what the point of that change was: perhaps the idea was to make everything more exciting and time critical, but showing that time has passed wouldn’t change that. To me that’s an extremely important part of Middle-Earth: the concept that travel takes months of hard toil. After all, LOTR is all about travel — the story’s essentially a quest, and 70% of the text is about the difficulties of the journey. In the film, those difficulties are tossed aside. Jackson initially shows a sequence of the Hobbits traveling out of the Shire in a near series of shots of them in various locals giving the impression that they’ve walked a long distance — but then he destroys that by having Sam pause and say that if he takes “one more step” he’ll be the furthest away from home he’s ever been! Obviously, they haven’t gone very far. And then they run into Pippen and Merry, who were at the birthday party, so they haven’t gone far at all! The key problem with this is that when the travel does take a long time — such as the journey from Bree to Rivendell — Jackson doesn’t even bother to show us such a montage of walking, but just has the characters there. For me, that destroys a core element of the novels, and throws out one of the main difficulties with life in Middle-Earth (travel without modern transportation). Just think about what home-bodies most of us would be if it took months of hard work to travel the next state! Since a montage of three or four or five scenes of walking just takes a few seconds, why not include it? It would enhance the epicness of the tale, be more accurate to the book, and reveal to the audience the difficulties of the journeys. Yet Jackson rarely does this, especially compared to the trilogy, where Tolkien is extremely careful to be consistent with the lengths of journies (from a writer’s perspective, it would be so much easier to just put down, “And after a fortnight’s walk, they arrived at…” but Tolkien does it the hard way, detailing everything that happens along the way).

While in general, I felt the characters were extremely well done and faithful, and I really liked many things Jackson and the actors did, there were a few ocasions where the characters were substantially changed and for no good reason that I could see. For instance, Mr. Butterbur, the innkeeper in Bree, was a good friend of Gandalf’s in the book he feigns difficulty remembering him: “Oh, tall fellow in grey with a beard? I remember him!” Now why do that? Why not just have him shrug and say, “I haven’t seen Gandalf in months.” Even if you don’t include the other scenes of Butterbur that are in the novel (where he absent-mindedly neglected to send Gandalf’s letter to Frodo and thus Frodo didn’t set out on his journey as early as he should have), why completely distort his character? Pippen and Merry are also made to look like complete fools: in the books they are foolish, but not dolts. The same goes for Gimli, the Dwarf, who bellows and blusters for comic relief, but we rarely get to see his intelligence. Perhaps some of those omissions will be corrected in the future films (with respect to characters that continue on in the series), but at least within this film, I found a few things odd.

There are also a host of silly mistakes in the film, from continuity errors to strange things that don’t correspond with the books. For instance, Frodo always calls Aragorn by the name of Strider, which is the name he first learned for the man. Yet in the film, when attacked, he calls out in desperation for Aragon to help him: odd considering that would be the time he’d likely use the name most familiar to him, Strider. I also found the “race to the ford” sequence confusing: the distance shots of Frodo on the horse show him ten to twenty feet in front of the Black Riders, but the intercut close-ups, the iron-clad hands of the Riders are grasping at his cloak! Very bizarre and childish error if you ask me.

Overall, however, this is an excellent film. I’m being nitpicky, of course, but readers of Tolkien know that he was the nitpickiest of us all. (In one rewrite he went through his novels and changed all references to tobacco to “pipe-weed” because he belatedly realized that the word “tobacco” hadn’t been invented at the time the story took place! That’s a stickler for detail.) Anyway, people who haven’t read the book recently will probably find it excellent and not miss a single thing, but of course since I’m almost finished reading Fellowship of the Ring, I was painfully aware of all the omissions and changes. That was my decision: I’d debated for the past year of whether or not I should read the book before I saw the movie or afterward, and I knew that if I waited I’d probably like the movie more, but in the end I decided I wanted to refresh Tolkien’s vision first, then see what Jackson had in mind. Overall I’m pleased, but a little disappointed, especially because there’s no explanation for why he changed so much (90% of my gripes could have been solved without adding any length to the film because I’d trim scenes he didn’t, and I wouldn’t include silly made-up scenes like battles with trolls that didn’t exist). Oh well. It’s a shame, because after this epic movie-making adventure, no one will ever attempt to do another version of LOTR (though I hold out hope that someone might do The Hobbit). This was the one shot to do it accurately and Jackson failed. He did produce a good movie, and I guess that’s good, but hardcore fans of the series will have mixed emotions because Jackson tampered with a masterpiece. Why he couldn’t do it right I guess we’ll never know, but it’s a bit sad to put in all that effort and still fall short.

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Wed, Dec 19, 2001

: Josie and the Pussycats

I never read the original Archie comics or knew anything about the group, but I was mildly impressed. My favorite aspect of the movie was the satirical nature of it, poking fun at pop music and pop culture. It wasn’t anything super intellectual — the story dealt with a plot by record company execs implanting subliminal messages in music to control teens (exactly like a certain Simpsons TV episode) — but it was fun to see the parody boy group “Dujour” which sounded better than their obvious model, the Backstreet Boys. By the end of the movie, however, the story had run out of steam and was nigh on ridiculous, yet everyone was playing their part with a seriousness I found depressing. Are we really so brain dead a society we find amusement in such vapor? Oh well, it’s obviously just mindless fun and eye candy, and in that regard it’s not a horrible movie, but it seems like a lot of wasted potential to me. It could have been much better, like (which should tell you something ;-).

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Tue, Dec 18, 2001

: Dinosaur

Nice little Disney computer-animated film about a dinosaur that becomes the head of his tribe. The animation is very impressive. The story isn’t terribly complicated (it’s predictable) and it tends to be a little heavy on the preachiness (hammering home the “never give up” message), but it’s harmless.

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Sun, Dec 02, 2001

: The Castle

Terrific Ausie film about a hilariously dimwitted family that lives near the airport and receives an eviction notice as the airport wants to expand (their home is being bought under eminent domain). They refuse to move out, however, fighting the action (with ineptitude) in court. Extremely well-written with sharp dialogue that’s full of irony. It gets a little outrageous at times, but mostly stays grounded to its premise and is ultimately a feel-good story about a David-versus-Goliath battle. Funny and well-worth your time, and it just might make you think a little about what you’ve got in your own life.

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