Sat, Nov 30, 2002

: The Fellowship of the Ring (Extended Edition)

Director: Peter Jackson

What can I say? This version is far superior to the one that aired in theatres a year ago. It doesn’t really feel that much longer (it’s 3.5 hours) — instead of feeling rushed and cutting scenes off before they’re done, this version gives us the full epic story. There’s still missing stuff: no Bombadil or giant spiders, and there’s still the silly bit with the troll in the Mines of Moria, but it’s still a better movie.

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Fri, Nov 29, 2002

: The Outlaw Josey Wales

Director: Clint Eastwood

Interesting revenge flick set after the Civil War when Union soldiers were “mopping up” in the South, often killing civilians in the process. Clint plays Josey Wales, who’s family is slaughtered by Union soldiers and then goes on a revenge killing spree. He’s chased all over the South as he heads for Mexico. Along the way he picks up an interesting posse of friends: an old Indian, a elderly woman, a young woman, and more. He ends up in a dying boomtown and helps defend the people, becoming a hero. There’s some great action, hilarious humor, and thoughtful characterization. Good stuff.

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: Solaris

Author: Stanislaw Lem (novel)

Director: Steven Soderbergh

I wondered why anyone in Hollywood thought this big budget big star production would make money: after all, this is a Thinking Story, not an action sci-fi flick. The answer is that the screenwriter (Soderbergh) turned this into a Hollywood movie by changing much of what made the story so unusual. “Loosely adapted from the book” is what the film should have had in its credits. Soderbergh even gave it a happy ending! However, this only pisses off fans of the original Russian classic or the novel: people who know nothing about Solaris will find this movie pleasant and entertaining. To us others, beware: it’s not a bad film, just lighter and less important than it should be.

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Tue, Nov 26, 2002

: Eight-Legged Freaks

A B-movie tribute to B-movies. Cool special effects, typical silly story about radiation creating giant spiders. Harmless fun, little else.

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Fri, Nov 22, 2002

: Die Another Day

Very good James Bond film, but overlong at 2.5 hours. It starts out as a darker Bond, but doesn’t sustain that, which is probably for the best. Unfortunately, the film feels a little divided into two parts — sad and fun — as a result. Otherwise this Bond has everything you want in a Bond film: action, humor, gorgeous women, and cool gadgets. What surprised me the most was the shockingly poor use of green screen in a few scenes (the hovercraft scene at the beginning and some later scenes with Berry and Brosnan flying). The out-of-focus backdrops look like TV from the 1980’s! I can’t imagine this was cost-cutting — this is a big budget Bond movie. Besides, get rid of just one of those 5,000 cars they blow up and it would pay for better green screen. I assume it’s just incompetence, which is almost as bad. While many special effects were very well done, a few — especially the digital airplane at the end — were badly done. The airplane breaking up looked really fake. That’s too bad, because script-wise, this was a better film, but I was distracted by all the bad special effects.

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Thu, Nov 21, 2002

: Not Another Teen Movie

Above average parody of teen movies. Some genuinely original funny bits, but occasionally gets unnecessarily crude and disgusting (that exploding toilet was just dumb). The DVD’s got some cool extras.

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Sun, Nov 17, 2002

: Insomnia

Director: Christopher Nolan

Initially I liked this better than the original: this appeared to be a frame-by-frame remake, and there was a lot of subtly that I missed in the foreign version. However, there were some interesting differences. In the original, the cop shoots a dog dead in order to get a spent bullet he could use to frame the dead girl’s boyfriend. In this version, however, he finds the dog already dead and shoots the dead body. But most disappointing, this version changes the ending dramatically. In the original, everything is left ambiguous: did the cop kill his partner on purpose? Here it’s less convoluted and he dies at the end. It was good until that point.

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Sat, Nov 16, 2002

: Mr. Deeds

It’s fascinating the way Adam Sandler can play such an appealing ordinary guy. In this film he inherits $40 billion, but doesn’t change his personality. He’s just a guy from a small town and doesn’t care about the money. Some might perceive him to be an idiot, but he’s just a guy. Though the plot’s completely different, the spirit’s the same as in Happy Gilmore and other Sandler movies: poor schlub makes good. For a light comedy, it’s very good. For a great film, it’s okay.

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: Big Fat Liar

Surpisingly good kiddie flick. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the promos, but the plot sounded lame: a kid’s story is stolen and being made into a Hollywood movie and he goes to L.A. to convince the evil director to own up to the stolen story. The way it’s written, however, makes it believeable. On his way to turn in a story for his English class, Jason crashes his bike into a limo. In the limo is Marty Wolf, Hollywood director. He gives Jason a ride to school, but Jason accidently leaves his story in the limo. The story’s called “Big Fat Liar” and is about a boy who gets larger every time he tells a lie. Later in the summer, Jason is at the movie theatre and sees a promo for an upcoming movie called “Big Fat Liar.” Since his parents never believed that he wrote the story he couldn’t produce, Jason and his friend Kaylee head for Hollywood to get proof. Paul Giamatti steals the film as the evil director, perfectly playing the comic villain in such a way that you both hate and love him. The two kids torture him in various ways (such as putting blue dye in his pool so his whole body turns blue) to try to get him to admit he stole the story. He continually refuses, of course, until the climactic finale. Fun and silliness, but done with such a genuineness that it works. Good performances, lots of clever cameos, and just a fun flick.

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Fri, Nov 15, 2002

: Joe Somebody

I recently saw this promoted on another DVD and was puzzled that I’d never heard of it: you’d think a film with Tim Allen would have been promoted. I figured it was a dog but rented it anyway.

To my surprise, this was an excellent film. Don’t judge it by the trailer (which is misleading) or Tim’s reputation. This is NOT a slapstick comedy goof-off, but a mildly comedic serious story about an average Joe trying to figure out who he is.

Tim plays Joe, a longtime cubicle worker for a huge corporation who’s a decent but invisible guy. He’s struggling through a divorce, but loves his daughter. On “Take Your Daughter to Work Day” the last parking spot gets taken by a jerk who cuts him off. Worse, this parking lot is reserved for employees who’ve worked at the company for at least ten years and Joe knows the guy’s only been there for seven. He confronts the guy and the guy (who’s big), slaps him down. Twice. In front of his daughter. Humiliated, Joe begins to wonder what went wrong with his life.

Inspired by a co-worker (the stunning Julie Bowen), he decides that what he wants is to beat the jerk up. He publicly announces he’s going to fight the guy in three weeks, and then sets out on a rigorous training regime. Suddenly everyone at the office knows Joe, likes Joe, and is rooting for him to beat the jerk.

Gradually the popularity and overconfidence goes to Joe’s head as he’s alienated from his potential girlfriend (Bowen) and his daughter, who don’t like the new cocky Joe. In the end, Joe must decide if beating up a co-worker will make him a man, or if he’s already a man.

This is a film about character: the plot’s predictable but that’s not why you watch this kind of movie. Tim Allen does an excellent job, but this is not the laugh-out-loud comedy you’d expect from him. I think that’s why it failed. People didn’t get what they expected. Watch this as a drama and you’ll find the humor amusing and the love story attractive. It’s well-written with some remarkably good dialogue, especially in the romance, which in comedic films often comes across as silly.

For instance, one of my favorite scenes occurs after Tim witnesses Julie Bowen playing basketball with some girls and doing a silly and embarrassing victory dance. Later, while walking and talking, she asks how long he was standing there watching. When he admits he saw her dance, she embarrassed and says, “Oh no, no. Please, say something right now to make me feel less like throwing myself down these steps.” Tim pauses, then says, “I’ll be flat out amazed if I can think of anything else for a least a week.” Very simple, but honest and effective. She’s flattered and that’s the beginning of their falling in love. Cool scene.

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: Panic Room

Director: David Fincher

Surprisingly stale thriller. The plot’s simplistic: a woman and her daughter buy a new Manhattan home that comes with a “panic room” — a secure vault where you can lock yourself in case of an attack. (The former owner was a wealthy encentric.) Of course, in their first night, thieves break in. The mother and daughter manage to get into the panic room and close the steel door, but unfortunately these thieves are after money left by the dead previous owner and they happen to know the money’s in a secret safe in the panic room. Doesn’t sound like there’s much room for drama with such a claustrophobic concept, but some interesting stuff happens. For instance, in one scene the thieves pump gas into the room’s ventilation system to scare the two into coming out — but their plan backfires when the woman ignites the gas and nearly blows them up! Unfortunately, that’s about as exciting as it gets: after that the film goes downhill and just gets boring. Eventually it peters out in a predictable Hollywood ending.

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: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Director: Chris Columbus

I had to see this one on opening day, so I went to a matinee to beat the crowds (there were still a couple hundred people in the theatre). It’s not the event the first film was, but as a film, it’s excellent — better than the first (just like the book). With the setting established, this time we could concentrate on a more complex plot and other adventures of the main characters. It’s three hours long, but you won’t notice it: there’s always something happening and it’s never boring (the first one bogged in exposition in a few places, like where they explain the rules to Quiditch, etc.). For someone who hasn’t seen the first, the lack of explanation could be a problem, but who’d want to see this that hasn’t seen the first one? Just great. It’s been a while since I’ve read the book, but it appeared to be extremely faithful, though a few minor details might be been left out. I do love the attention to detail in these films — they are special effect heavy, but in the world of Harry Potter magic is so ordinary that they don’t bother making a big deal about it, so you’ll have a scene and notice that in the background, all the pictures are moving (the way they do in the magical world). Cool. I can’t wait for Harry Potter 3!

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Thu, Nov 14, 2002

: The Scorpion King

Surprisingly decent action film. Not a sequel to the The Mummy Returns, but staring The Rock who was in that film and made by the same people. The climax came sooner than I expected and thus seemed anticlimactic — but that impression might have been caused by the lame rental DVD I had that skipped 15 minutes in the middle. Fun.

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Wed, Nov 13, 2002

: Solaris

Author: Stanislaw Lem

Fascinating book. It reads like a scientific paper and I expected it to be difficult, but I just breezed through it. Somehow it keeps you interested. The plot is wild: a scientist (Kris Kelvin) arrives on a floating space station on planet Solaris, which has demonstrated many unexplained phenomena for nearly a century. The active theory is that the ocean is alive. However, no one has ever been able to communicate with it: it’s like its thinking process is so different from ours it can’t even recognize us as beings. Shortly after arriving on the station, Kelvin meets his wife who’s been dead for ten years. She’s not a ghost but a real physical person: apparently she’s been generated from his memories by the alien intelligence for unknown reasons. Unfortunately, she’s isn’t a perfect replica: the flaws in her creation are glaring to Kelvin. He can’t love her like she’s his wife, yet she reminds him so strongly of her he finds it difficult to hate her. That’s just creepy and weird, but it gets worse. The woman cannot be out of his sight or she goes insane — presumably she must stay near him or she ceases to exist. There are two other scientists on the station, but they keep to themselves: they each have their own ghosts to contend with. Everyone acts bizarre and the narrative and logic of these people was sometimes difficult to follow: you wonder if they’re sane. Still, this is a fascinating read about the nature of intelligence. Don’t expect easy answers (or answers at all — this book is mostly questions). Defintely a science fiction classic. I’ve never read any Stanislaw Lem before, but I’m definitely going to get some of his others. Great stuff. I’m looking forward to the new movie coming out.

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Tue, Nov 12, 2002

: Pollock

Director: Ed Harris

This is the film Ed Harris produced, directed, and stars in, about the life of the painter Jackson Pollock. I knew nothing of Pollock except that his paintings were abstract and worth a ton of money. This portrays him as a disturbed individual, extremely conflicted, agonizing over his craft, and a dangerous drunk. It’s a sad tale in many ways, but inspiring in others. Jackson seemed so desperately unhappy most of the time I wondered about the Catch-22 he seemed caught in: when he wasn’t painting he was frustrated and depressed, and when he was creating, he was still unhappy because no one understood his art. How many struggling artists (no just painters) are caught in that dilemma? Is it any wonder that most creatives are disturbed? Cool film, excellently done. A little slow.

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: Scooby Doo

Silly mess. I was never a fan of the TV series (I pretty much hated it), but was curious about the big screen rendition. It wasn’t as bad as I expected, but that’s not saying much. First rule Hollywood needs to learn: animated hijinks don’t translate well into live action. Seeing a Wylie Coyote stand in midair for a few seconds before realizing he’s run off a cliff and then falling is hilarious: do that in live action and it’s just dumb. This film works best when it concentrates on characterization, not the lame plot or silly cartoon-like special effects. The translation of the characters to live action is pretty good. Matthew Lillard’s Shaggy is fantastic: it’s like he’s channeling the original character. Velma is great. The others are so-so (of course Fred and Daphne are the blandest of the characters anyway, so no great loss there). Scooby Doo (the dog) is better in the film than in the promos. Here you can actually understand him (something I liked from the show), though his animated reality is less than realistic (too cartoony for live action yet too realistic for animation). Weak for the title character. The plot is typical of the series (which, unfortunately, is not good as the series’ plot were horrible): bad guy disguised as something else and scary strange things happening. Some mildly entertaining moments. My favorite, honestly, was cut from the film: on the DVD are deleted scenes and there’s a terrific one of shy Velma doing a drunken lounge act on a piano singing “You’re Too Good to Be True” — hilarious! Why they cut it who knows: about par for the judgement of people who create this kind of dribble. I can’t believe they’re making a sequel.

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Mon, Nov 11, 2002

: Changing Lanes

I’m astonished that this film came out of Hollywood. It’s all about morality and ethics. The plot is simple enough: two rushed strangers get into a car accident one morning and that event intertwines their lives. The characters are complex and gray: there are no black and white hat wearing people here. One’s a lawyer who must suddenly decide if money and power are worth compromising ethics. The other’s a decent guy who’s overcome alcohol addiction and has anger management issues, who must decide what’s most important in his life. Excellent tale, well told, with a surprising amount of action and excitement. Great performances.

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Sun, Nov 10, 2002

: Mean Machine

This is a remake of The Longest Yard (which I’ve never seen), except that instead of American football in an American prison, this is soccer (real football) in an English prison. Basically, the former English team captain gets drunk and assaults an officer and gets thrown in jail. There, he’s recruited by the warden to coach the guards’ football team. Instead, he proposes to coach a team of inmates against the guards’ team. Of course others don’t like this, and he must earn the respect of his fellow inmates before they’ll trust him. All this leads to a climatic soccer match. Decently done, but unfortunately the premise makes it predictable, and the whole “will he throw the match” suspense at the end was pointless, since we knew he wouldn’t (audiences would never have forgiven the filmmakers for doing that). I liked the soccer references, though I suppose some Americans wouldn’t get them (like one of the guards telling a group of prisoners they’d just gotten a “yellow card” — in soccer, that’s a caution, or warning). Though the DVD does include American and British versions on it (I watched the British). At least I understood this one: if The Longest Yard included a lot of American football strategy and jargon, I probably wouldn’t have understood it.

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Sat, Nov 09, 2002

: Enough

What I kept thinking as I watched this was of those paint-by-number kits I had as a child. This is a paint-by-numbers movie. It’s got all the elements: tough lower-class chick falls in love with rich dude, they get married and start a family, he cheats and beats her, she runs away with daughter, and he uses influence to track her. In the end, he’s got all the power, so the only thing she can do is learn to defend herself and kill him. Not a bad film at all: mildly fun, somewhat interesting, and quite predictable. But that’s exactly what makes it mediocre. It’s got some nice touches and interesting scenes, and it’s well-done, but ultimately nothing much happens that we don’t know before it starts.

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Fri, Nov 08, 2002

: 8 Mile

An impressively good movie. I like Eminem. I don’t think I’d really buy any of his albums, but he’s an interesting guy. I get the feeling he really is a musical genius, though it’s not the kind of music most of us would appreciate. I wanted to see this film to learn more about him and his world, and I did. As I expected, he did a good job in the lead role. I don’t know why people are so suprised: it’s not like he’s acting. He’s just playing a version of himself. Besides, almost all famous people are putting on a persona — that’s how they survive the media — and that’s acting. He comes across as likable, intelligent, and troubled — pretty much who he is in real life, I suspect. The plot of the film is simple: a young rapper struggles to survive, being pulled different directions by friends and family and responsibility. He’s got a lot of talent and everyone wants a piece of him, but he doesn’t know who he is. By the end of the film he’s figured that out. I liked the way the film explored deeper aspects of existence without hammering us on the head with it, I liked the portrayal of the various characters and the conflicts. It was realistic and interesting. The “rap battles” — where two rap artists compete against each other and the audience votes on who advances to the next round — was unusual and fascinating. I’m not a rap music fan — it all sounds the same to me — but I definitely could appreciate the skill and amazing wit of these guys to think of rhymes on the fly as they sing. Very cool. Well-done film, with humor, drama, tender moments, coolness, and a touch of depth. Forget that Eminem’s a big star: watch this because it’s a good film.

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Wed, Nov 06, 2002

: In Like Flint

I’d never seen any of the Flint films, but I understood they were Austin Powers-like spy spoofs from the sixties. This one was cool. It’s a comedy, very but light: there are only a few one liners and occasionally silliness. The plot is semi-serious and handled more realistically than some legitimate spy films. (The biggest flaws were when the sonic gun was used in outer space and the space capsule exploded into flames. With no air in space, neither is feasible.) Overall, I liked it. A little long and slow in places, but Derek Flint is an cool superspy: he knows about everything (he’s a chemist, detective, ballet dancer, fighter, etc. etc.). Worth seeing.

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: Lost Souls

Strange, pointless tale about a guy who on his 33rd birthday will become host to Satan (a.k.a. the Antichrist). A woman, previously possessed by a demon herself, learns of this but few will believe her, especially the man. Has a couple of interesting things — I liked that the guy couldn’t hear the devil sounds on the cassette tape while his neighbors were banging on his walls for him to turn down the noise. Supposedly that was proof he was the selected one (why isn’t explained). But mostly this is a boring movie with no thrills, little originality, and one of the lamest endings ever. Stay away, far away.

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Tue, Nov 05, 2002

: 21 Dog Days: Doing Time at Amazon.com

Author: Mike Daisey

Hilarious book about the horrors of working at a dot-com startup. Mike is refreshingly self-effacing, witty, and incredibly lazy. He’s not stupid, he just doesn’t like to apply himself. Out of this comedy we get some interesting insight into Amazon, the whole dot-com-gold-rush thing, and life. Excellent read.

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Mon, Nov 04, 2002

: The Others

Kinda cool old-fashioned ghost story. It’s rather claustrophobic: practically every scene’s inside the haunted house. The story is about an overprotective mother who begins to see and hear strange things. Her two children have a strange disease, an alergy to light, and thus they must be kept in darkness all the time. Sunlight will kill them. The mother berates the servants if the rules aren’t followed exactly. Creepy, weird, with a decent endings. I’m not sure how it will hold up to repeated viewings, but I lliked it the first time.

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Sat, Nov 02, 2002

: Billy Elliot

A predictable plot, this goes a little slow for my tastes. It’s about an 11-year-old boy in Northern England who decides to become a ballet dancer. His dad and older brother are miners on strike and of course can’t stand the thought of him being a sissy boy. The boy must learn to stand up and fight for his dream. Well done, with excellent acting (the boy is great in the lead), but way too much fighting and swearing for such a feel-good film (I certainly wouldn’t call this a family film). And while visually impressive, the pace is slow for such a predictable plot. It’s good at 2x on DVD, though (turn on subtitles and you won’t miss anything).

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: The Sum of All Fears

Author: Tom Clancy

Excellent film. I don’t remember hearing much about this in the theaters, but I wish I’d gone. It’s great on DVD, though, with surround sound to capture the awesome nuclear explosion. Ben Affleck as the young Jack Ryan is great, and the script really sets him up correctly as being both young and precocious. The plot involves a stolen nuclear bomb that ends up being detonated by terrorists in the U.S. in an effort to provoke war between the U.S. and Russia, and it almost works except for Jack Ryan’s interference. Intelligent and thoughtful writing, with good performances. I’ve never the book (though I want to now), and I gather this is different, but I still like it. I hated the last one (Clear and Present Danger) but this one definitely reinvents the franchise and I look forward to more.

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Fri, Nov 01, 2002

: The Santa Clause 2

Most sequels start off great and end weakly; this one was the opposite. The first fifteen or twenty minutes are totally boring: nothing happens. It’s all exposition for us learning that Santa’s got to get married by Christmas or he’ll cease being Santa. But once we get that out of the way, things start to happen and the film gets good. A machine is used to create a duplicate Santa to stay at the North Pole and keep the elves making toys while the real Santa goes to help his son (who’s been put on the “Naughty” list) and find a wife. The robot Santa ends up taking over the North Pole and forcing all the elves to make lumps of coal instead of toys (since boys and girls deserve coal). Meanwhile, Santa starts the process of “desantification” — losing weight, his beard, and his magic. I liked that. The first film got a lot mileage out of Tim Allen physically becoming Santa, and this one cleverly does the reverse. Of course this is happening while he’s attempting to find himself a wife, creating comic situations. What’s impressive about this film is the way it really creates a believable romance in an extremely short period of time. Elizabeth Mitchell, who plays his love interest, is terrific and brings a nice dose of reality to the over-the-top stuff happening elsewhere. Overall, no huge suprises, but a pleasant and appealing film like the first one.

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: Storytelling

Author: Todd Stolenz

Director: Todd Stolenz

Another well-done glimpse into the world of ordinary bizarreness from the director of

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: I Spy

I’ve heard criticism of this film which I can’t figure out. I liked it a lot. It’s nothing serious, just a good fun romp. It has action and humor and the “team” of Owen Wilson and Eddie Murphy is great. It never takes itself too seriously, but just seriously enough to not descend into camp. It’s fun, and much better than the lame trailers make it seem. My favorite scene was the ending, where spies are betraying each other right and left, and spy Owen gets completely confused and can’t tell who’s good or who’s bad. Hilarious.

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