Fri, Jan 31, 2003

: Frailty

Director: Bill Paxton

Was this ever in the theatres? I’d never heard of it until I saw it at the video store. It’s a really good thriller. Matthew McConaughey is excellent in an understated but powerful performance. And the two kids (especially Fenton) are outstanding. The story opens with Matthew (Fenton) visiting an FBI agent and telling him that the notorious “Hand of God” killer was his brother. What unfolds is a bizarre and horrifying story: young Fenton and his little brother Adam live with their father in a small town in Texas. Their mother has died. One night their kindly father suddenly reveals that angels have told him his family has a new mission in life: to kill demons. Because their family is special, only they can see these demons. Everyone else sees them as regular people. The older brother Fenton slowly realizes his father means to murder people, but finds himself unable to stop him. He watches in horror as his father brings home strangers and chops them up with an axe. The poor kid is terrified, yet what can he do? The FBI agent listens to this story and slow begins to believe it. But he wants proof, so Fenton agrees to take him to the rose garden where the bodies are buried. What follows is a great twist (I saw it coming but it’s still very well done) and the ending is truly chilling.

I usually don’t like films that portray religious fanatics as killers. After all, who decides what’s fanatical? If I go to a church and raise my hands when I pray, does that make me a fanatic? If I decide Gods wants me to become a missionary to India does that make me a fanatic? God told Abraham to sacrifice his only son and Abraham was going to do it. Was that fanatical? The line between faith and madness is narrow — frail — and this film raises lots of provocative questions. Fascinating. In many ways it’s a simple thriller like so many Hitchcock films: McConaughey and the FBI agent (awesomely done by Powers Boothe) spend their time in just a handful of scenes talking, but every line of dialogue is loaded. The flashbacks are more dramatic, but even there there’s not a lot of special effects. It’s a very raw, realistic, and morbidly believable tale of murder and mayhem. Well done; an impressive directing debut by Paxton (who also plays the creepy-but-friendly murdering dad).

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: The Baby

This is a low budget thriller about a bizarre family: a woman and her two grown daughters who are raising “Baby,” a fully grown man in diapers. Supposedly heÕs mentally retarded, but a social worker who visits has her doubts. She starts to investigate the family. The film delivers some surprisingly good performances: the looks exchanged between the mom and her daughters and the social worker are terrific, and reveal a lot of creepy subtext. You begin to wonder about the motivations of everyone involved. The ending is a nice little twist that’s unexpected and worth the wait. This not high caliber art, but it is fun, and delightfully twisted.

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Thu, Jan 30, 2003

: Intacto

Strange but fascinating film about the “gift” of luck. Apparently some people have it, and others want it. If you have the gift you can “steal” luck from others by touching them. This is the story of the intertwined lives of several lucky people who gamble. There’s the casino owner and concentration camp survivor who’s the luckiest of them all; a policewoman who survived a deadly car crash that killed her husband and child; and a thief who is the only survivor of an airplane crash. The film is strange: for a long time you aren’t sure what’s going on, but stay with it: everything is explained. For example, I didn’t know what the pictures of people meant until I later I realized they represented the luck of that person. The picture was a symbol of that person’s luck (somewhat analogous to the concept of a photo capturing your soul). The bizarre bets the characters make to trade photos are trading the cumulative luck of groups of people. Of course those whose luck has been stolen are in for bad luck: they are jinxed. The film’s climax is terrific with an excellent ending. The performances are excellent (the policewoman is amazing), and some of the images created are startling. If you like quirky films, check this one out.

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Wed, Jan 29, 2003

: State and Main

Author: David Mamet

Director: David Mamet

The first half of this is wonderful: clever dialogue, lots of intriguing build-up. Then it goes downhill and ends with a barely audible whimper. The story’s about a Hollywood film crew making a movie set in small-town America. Unquestionably there’s irony there. Of course they run into countless problems: their female lead is having second thoughts, the male star gets into a car accident while driving with an underage girl, the writer is having writer’s block, etc. Of course in the end everything works out. Unfortunately it’s too pat and ending, and the small town aspect of the film is lost in the ending. For example, right from the beginning we see that the dinner date with Mayor has been placed on the wrong evening on the schedule board. We’re expecting that to have big implications, especially when the Mayor’s wife redecorates her house just for the dinner! But in the end, nothing much comes of that, I have no idea why. Disappointing.

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Tue, Jan 28, 2003

: The Pianist

Director: Roman Polanski

Is it possible to make a bad Holocaust film? With such drama and history, it seems difficult. This one is certainly moving, and even shocking: you’d think we’d have seen everything by now, but some of what the Nazi’s did is beyond comprehension. The story is the true story of Szpilman, Poland’s greatest pianist. The Germans take over Poland, put him and his family into the newly established “Jewish Sector,” and eventually kill his family. It’s a miracle he survived.

What I liked about this film is the way it’s so understated. Our protagonist isn’t a hero: he just a guy. I compare him to a rat. I don’t mean that in a negative sense, just that he’s a rat scrounging for survival, and every time you think he’s down, up he pops again. But it’s not really a survival story either: mostly the guy survives via luck and friends. He doesn’t particularly want to survive in some ways, he just does. It’s like he’s so overwhelmed by his circumstance he doesn’t know how to do anything else. Adrian Brody gives a terrific performance as Szpilman, especially toward the end when things get desperate.

Polanski is smart in his handling of the film: he just gets out of the way and lets the story tell itself. I didn’t notice one superfluous camera movement or transition: you just forget you’re watching a film and get wrapped up in the time period. It is a long film (over 2.5 hours) but every frame is important. One intriguing aspect that I felt was brilliant in retrospect (a bit of spoiler here) is that we don’t get to really see Szpilman play the piano until late in the film. Sure there’s a brief scene at the beginning, and a couple in the middle, but he’s not really playing. That’s wonderful, because part of Szpilman’s pain is that throughout the war he has no piano to play, and we, the audience, glimpse that pain through the subtle absence of his playing during most of the film. When he does play at the end, it’s a catharsis for both of us — we’ve both been aching for that moment. We’re overjoyed at his joy at being able to play again. Superb.

All that said, where does this film rank in cinema history? That’s difficult to say: it’s tough to criticize a Holocaust film without coming across as a brute. This is an excellent film, and I liked that it tells a different story of the war and shows us new images and a new perspective, but ultimately it can’t escape what it is: a Holocaust film. That tag carries a lot of baggage, and frankly, once you’ve seen once Holocaust film you’ve seen a portion of all others. There’s some new material here but it’s definitely not as original as The Pianist. I’m very glad I saw it, and I might watch it again on DVD, but like Schindler’s List, this is not a movie you want to watch over and over again. That diminishes it slightly in my book (for instance, it wouldn’t be in my top ten favorite films).

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Mon, Jan 27, 2003

: Blackmail

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Hitch’s first sound picture, and it’s pretty good, though the dialog in places gets a little expositional. It’s about a Scotland Yard detective who’s girlfriend is cheating on him with an artist. The girl goes to the artist’s studio and when he puts the moves on her, she resists. He insists, and she stabs him with a bread knife. Hitch did a great job with that scene: the guy pulls her onto his bed behind a curtain and when she stabs him, we just see movement of the curtain. When the girl finally emerges, we can tell from her face what happened. Very cool. Later, the boyfriend detective is at the scene and finds his girlfriend’s glove, which he hides. A blackmailer tries to extort the two of them, but the detective ends up turning the tables on him. Some great scenes, with classic Hitch camera work and detail (and let’s not forget the hilarious cameo by Hitch on the train). Certainly not his greatest work, but it shows a lot of potential and there are masterful moments.

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: Cat o’ Nine Tails

Author: Dario Argento

Director: Dario Argento

Supposedly the “Italian Hitchcock,” this is Argento’s second film and his most popular. It is a lot like Hitchcock in terms of camera angles, but certainly not in terms of depth of story and symbolism. The plot deals with a series of mysterious murders, including anyone who is investigating them. A blind man and a journalist team up to track down the killer, but there are too many leads (the “nine tails” of the title). Well done, especially for its time, but not that shocking or original today. The climactic unmasking of the murderer was a letdown, but I did like the poetic justice ending. Definitely a director to check out: I’m going to see more of his stuff.

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Sun, Jan 26, 2003

: The Count of Monte Cristo

Author: Alexander Dumas

Really good film. I’ve never read the book so I’m not sure how faithful this adaptation is, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. A man (Edmund) is betrayed by his best friend in order to steal his fiance. He’s falsely imprisoned at Chateau D’If, an island castle of stone. He lives there in misery for 14 years. During this time, he loses faith in God and desires nothing but revenge. Then he meets a fellow prisoner who spent 7 years digging a tunnel which led him not outside, but to Edmund’s cell! The old man, who’s a priest, teaches Edmund how to read and write, about the arts and sciences, languages, sword-fighting, and more. Eventually he tells him the location of a secret treasure on the island of Monte Cristo, and after he dies, Edmund escapes, finds the treasure, and sets himself up as Count of Monte Cristo. Wealthy beyond imagining, he uses his new power to take revenge on his enemies. Terrific tale, well-balanced by thoughtful commentary on God and morality. My favorite line: “But I don’t believe in God.” “That’s okay, He believes in you.”

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: 40 Days and 40 Nights

What should have been (and in places certainly is) a silly tale about a young man who decides to abstain from sex for the 40 days of Lent, turns out to be a fairly decent love story as the guy figures out that once sex isn’t in the equation, he can see a woman for who she really is. Predictable, and in places crass, but it doesn’t degenerate like most wild premise stories. Not bad.

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Sat, Jan 25, 2003

: Enigma

Author: Tom Stoppard

Impressive WWII film about code-breaking (Enigma was the famous cipher machine the Germans used and the Allies broke). The plot splits into two stories: the Germans have suddenly changed their code and the Allies have less than four days to break the new code before a huge convoy of critical supplies is destroyed (it took 10 months the first time) and it’s up to a genius mathematician to do it; the second plot deals with the mathematician’s ex-girlfriend who’s disappeared and might have been a traitor (he discovers secret codes hidden in her room). Unfortunately, while all this is interesting, the split plots complicates things too much, and in the end, the second plot (which is really the main plot) gets totally convoluted and confusing (I didn’t understand what the stuff about Russia had to do with anything else). In the end, it seems a lot of the mystery had to do with silly politics. Rather a whimper of a ending. My advice: watch the first half which is great, and once they break the new German code, fast forward through the rest.

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Fri, Jan 24, 2003

: Rabbit-Proof Fence

Director: Philip Noyce

This is an amazing film. Run, don’t walk, to the nearest theatre and see it. If you’re not into “arty” films and think this might be depressing, let me assure you it’s anything but. It is emotionally moving, but not the least bit slow or boring. Impressively, Noyce tells a wonderful story in a mere 95 minutes — unlike say, Spielberg and his overlong

The performance of the girls is incredible; they are all darling and completely convincing. The Aborigine tracker is also amazing. But what really shines is the incredible story of human will and the horribly inhuman treatment by the government bureaucrats. The ending is both joyous and sad, and will leave you thinking for a long time. Highly recommended.

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: The French Connection

Director: William Friedkin

One problem with older classic films is that your expectations are too high. I’d never seen this before, but of course heard it’s supposed to be good. It was good, but the actual plot seems rather wimpy today. It’s basically about a big drug deal with the drugs coming from France. Unfortunately, the deal is for a “whopping” half million dollars, which even in 1970 dollars seems like a small amount for all this fuss. It’s well done, with interesting cop characters, but not all that much happens. Basically the cops figure out the drug deal is upcoming, track down the perps, and try to stop it from going down. A lot of the battle seems to be cop versus administration, cop versus cop, cop versus FBI, etc., which I found annoying (though it’s probably realistic). Good flick, but not quite as good as I expected.

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: Confessions of a Dangerous Mind

Author: Charlie Kaufman

Hilarious film about the life of “Gong Show” creator Chuck Barris. Supposedly he was a TV producer by day and a CIA operative by night. Of course there’s no way to prove the latter, so the film has a lot of fun with it. Witty, well-acted and directed, fun yet with some serious moments. Excellent.

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Thu, Jan 23, 2003

: The Gingerbread Man

I had hoped for better with a story by John Grisham, but this was strangely uncompelling. For one, it begins much too slowly, and what it develops into is different from how it starts. The story is actually intriguing: a hotshot lawyer finds himself embroiled in conspiracy and intrigue after he meets a girl who’s being stalked by her mentally ill father. The lawyer has the man committed, but he escapes and kidnaps the lawyer’s kids for revenge… or so the lawyer thinks. Things aren’t quite what they seem, and soon he’s set up for murder. Great idea, but done too dispassionately — we’re not sure who to root for or what’s going on for far too long and in the end we really don’t care about anything.

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Tue, Jan 21, 2003

: Adaptation

Author: Charlie and Donald Kaufman

Awesome, amazing film. I’m sure I feel more strongly about this since I’m a writer (a struggling screenwriter at that) and therefore related to everything in the film, but this is truly one of the most innovative scripts ever to hit the screen. While Kaufman’s former effort, quite work. This film, however, works beautifully.

Assigned to write a screenplay of Susan Orlean’s book The Orchid Thief, Kaufman discovers the book has no plot, just unusual characters, and the journey of those characters is mostly mental. How do you translate that to the screen? Even more important, since it’s such an important part of this book, how to you convey the writing style of the author to the screen? Kaufman’s answer is both brilliant and diabolical: he writes a film about writing the film!

But it gets even better. Not only is he a character in the movie, but he creates for himself a twin brother (the film credits both as the screenplay author). Then he includes the author herself in the film (a wonderful Meryl Streep). The result is a wild, bizare, painful, hilarious tale about the trials and tribulations of writing a screenplay, dealing with life, and oh yeah, the Orchid Thief book.

That last part is the kicker. As we watch the process of writing the screenplay, we learn all about the book, and we learn about it in a much more intimate, in-depth manner than we would if the book had just been filmed as a “normal” adaptation. In fact, much of the book is read to us in voice-over narration as the character reads the book on the screen! The book itself is about a strange man Orlean interviewed for a piece in the New Yorker (where she works). The man has no front teeth, is obsessed with orchids, and has a mysterious past. He tries to steal orchids from a state park (cleverly using Seminole Indians to do the dirty work, as they aren’t likely to be prosecuted, being an oppressed minority) and is arrested. Orlean’s article is so successful she expanded it into a book about orchids, obsession, and this strange man. What makes the book work is her writing style, the bizarre main character, and her interpretations and observations on life and obsession. What’s amazing is that all that comes through in the film. Even though the film is a film about the book, not a film of the book itself, it teaches us a great deal about the book. It’s a brilliant workaround for an impossible task. It’s definitely one of the best book-to-screen adapations of all time because it is it’s own unique thing, yet it is inspired by the book and captures some of the book’s magic, and yet it doesn’t replace the book. (Some literal translations, like the Harry Potter series of films, are so faithful they might make some people think they don’t need to read the books. The movies are fun but the books are better.) This is definitely one of the best films of the year and if Charlie Kaufman doesnÕt win the screenwriting Oscar, Hollywood should be embarrassed.

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Sun, Jan 19, 2003

: Reign of Fire

Oddly uninteresting special effect action flick about an earth dominated by fire-breathing dragons who’ve destroyed 99% of the world’s population. What bothered me the most is that with this kind of special effect vehicle what we want to see are the dragons, and we don’t. Well, we catch glimpses, but there’s little except for fire that shows us how powerful they are. But it’s not convincing — we don’t really believe that even nuclear weapons couldn’t even stop them. Ridiculous. At the film’s climax we’re finally face-to-face with a dragon, but that’s way too late. Lame. It’s actually not that badly written or acted, it’s just not compelling. The dragons just aren’t enough of the film. Since they’re supposed to be the main villains, it’s dumb not to show them.

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: Unfaithful

Director: Adrian Lyne

Terrific, fascinating film. I love films that take a very simple plot and spin a lot story out of it. That’s what Hitchcock did so well. It’s so much interesting than these modern films that have a super plot and four or five subplots and two or three twist endings. Here we’ve got a happily married suburban housewife with an eight-year-old child. Suddenly she meets a guy, he’s French, exotic, young, charming, and she’s having an affair with him. Diane Lane is amazing: not only is she beautiful, but she’s beautiful while being older, and she’s an incredible actress. Somehow, despite what she’s doing, despite lying to her husband and son and friends, she still comes across as sympathetic. That’s because we can see the guilt on her face even as she succumbs to temptation again and again. She knows what she’s doing is wrong, and hates herself for it, but she keeps on doing it. That’s very powerful to watch. While the first half of the film focuses on the woman and her affair, the second half focuses on the husband and his reaction. I liked that a great deal because we got to see both sides. Richard Gere is cast somewhat against type as a regular family man (he usually would be playing the guy having the affair) and he’s surprisingly good. In the end, the film turns dark as a murder is committed, and suddenly the fate of this couple is out of their hands. A beautiful, complex film. The sequence with Diane Lane on the train, remembering her affair, is worth the price of admission alone.

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Sat, Jan 18, 2003

: Monster’s Ball

Incredible film. It’s fascinating that I just happened to watch another great film dealing with racism (

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Thu, Jan 16, 2003

: Gangs of New York

Director: Martin Scorsese

Finally, a Scorsese film I can really like! (I’ve never been a big Scorsese fan. Shocking, I know.) This is an incredible film. And I say that as someone who doesn’t like ganster, gang, or Civil War films. Yes, it is violent and difficult to watch at times, but the violence is all to make a point and paint a picture of how society was at that time. The story is “simple:” in the mid-1800s, a young man in New York seeks revenge against the gang boss who murdered his father. But the backdrop is a complex mess of racism, immigration policies, politics, religion, slavery, and a Civil War that divides not just the country, but New York as well. When you reflect that all this is happening in a brand new country less than a century old, you really feel the future of the U.S. hanging in the balance. Scorsese (and the script) do an amazing job of making all that complicated history understandable (much better than other “historical” films which assume you know the history) without lecturing or oversimplifying. Scorsese cleverly hints at the complexity, giving us glimpses, without trying to actually explain everything in detail (which would no doubt require several documentaries). This gives us entertainment mixed with a little education instead of the other way around. An excellent example is the intercut prayer scene: we watch as the main character, main bad guy, and a rich family each pray. All are sincere, all believe God is on their side, and yet we sense that disaster is about to befall them. This series of images is powerful, complicated, and thought-provoking. Very cool. Scorsese does a lot of simple imagery, camera movement, and very effectively tells a powerful story. (I liked the way he filmed the horrific battle scenes, not really showing that much gore, but implying it with quick flashes of alarmed faces. I will nitpick one detail, however: at least one battling couple in the opening fight appeared to be dancing than fighting. They were just tapping each other the shoulder with their clubs!)

In terms of performances, I must again put forth my vote for Daniel Day-Lewis as the greatest actor ever in the history of cinema. The guy is just amazing (he was my primary motivation to see this film). He never misses. Just flawless. The way he becomes a character is frightening. While I like Leonardo and Cameron Diaz, they’re lightweights compared to Daniel. In the trailers I was cringing at some of their scenes, but that was just because they were out of context: in the film they’re both fine. Their charisma does come through and their fight-slash-love scene is some terrific cinema (surely they had to hurt each other filming that). In general everything felt so authentic that I really fell for all the characters, sympathizing and hating, which is exactly what a good film is supposed to do.

This was just a great film. It was frightening, humorous, passionate, educational, historical, dramatic, and profound without being artsy or pretentious. It is long, but it doesn’t feel like there’s much that could be cut out. The final scenes showing old New York become modern-day New York were amazing: I’d love to study those images. I especially liked that Scorsese included the Twin Towers in the modern shot, rather than removing it the way so many recent films have done. To me that added a powerful message that history is real, and just like the Twin Towers not being part of the NY skyline any more, we can’t see the blood on the streets left by the millions of people that built the city. Wow.

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Wed, Jan 15, 2003

: Get Carter

This film is like a fuse being lit and slowing burning toward a grand explosion. It’s a revenge flick of a ganster (Michael Caine) who’s brother has died. He goes to the town to poke around and find out what happened and slowly uncovers a complex series of backstabbing gangsters, whores, and murderers, and then he instigates his revenge. Unlike a lot of modern action films which supply massive quantities of constant violence, this one doses it out only as needed, and thus it provides the appropriate shock value. Similar to Payback and

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Tue, Jan 14, 2003

: Pumpkin

This could have been the

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Mon, Jan 13, 2003

: Catch Me If You Can

Director: Steven Spielberg

Good film, though somewhat average. It’s well done, but nothing extraordinary. The performances by Hanks and Leonardo are very good, though. The true story is remarkable, especially the feel-good ending: in the 60’s, a teenage boy impersonates a Pan Am pilot and goes around the country cashing forged checks while an FBI agent tracks him. Eventually he’s stolen more than $4 million, worked as a doctor at a hospital, and passed the bar to become a lawyer! Very cool, but not a classic or anything. It was much too long: at over 2 hours, it really only had enough solid material for an hour forty-five. I also hated the animated opening credits, which were full of themselves, like some sort of cheap rip-off of a Pink Panther movie.

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Sat, Jan 11, 2003

: Brotherhood of the Wolf

Interesting French action film. It’s a period piece set in old France, where a strange “beast” is killing women and girls (apparently based on a true story). A scientist from Paris arrives with his companion, a Iroquis from America. The two make their presence known, but though there are several more beastly murders, the scientist doesn’t kill the beast, whom he believes is controlled by a man. Later, he uncovers a vast conspiracy against the King. Some excellent action, and an interesting story, but somewhat uneven. A little confusing for us Americans unfamiliar with ancient French politics.

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Fri, Jan 10, 2003

: Macworld Expo San Francisco

This week was the big Expo, and I went every day to promote my magazine. I got to go to the Steve Jobs’ keynote address, which was amazing, as usual. Apple introduced a lot of new software and some new PowerBooks. Plus, everyone at the keynote got a free copy of Apple’s new Keynote presentation software (which is excellent). I had quite an adventure driving in San Francisco in the dark in the rain, including getting stuck on a steep hill. I think I’ll take cabs from now on. Overall, though, it was a good show and a good week.

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Sun, Jan 05, 2003

: Serendipity

I really liked this romantic comedy. It stars Kate Beckinsale as a woman who’s convinced that Fate rules us, so she refuses to tell the wonderful man she just met her name. If they are meant to be together, they’ll find each other. He writes his name and phone number on a five dollar bill which she then spends, and she puts her name and phone in a book which she sells to a used bookstore. If they’re meant to be together, they’ll find each other. Crazy, but charming, and I loved the way the film is absolutely jammed with fascinating little hints and clues and coincidences. For instance, in one scene the two are in New York at the same time but don’t know it. We see Jonathan (John Cusack) getting tangled with a Dalmation being walked by it’s owner. Later there’s a scene with Sara (the girl) and the same dog is passing by! Of course the two get together in the end, which is exactly what we want to happen. Because of the predictable story the pace of the film is fast (it’s only 90 minutes long) which is just perfect: any longer and we’d start getting antsy. Cool flick.

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Sat, Jan 04, 2003

: Beautiful

Director: Sally Field

This was the directorial debut for Field and it’s a predictable but still entertaining story. Minnie Driver stars as an odd woman who’s spent her entire life trying to win beauty pageants. She does so to the point of ignoring everyone else in her life (except for her best friend) including her daughter, who she cannot reveal is her daughter as that would make her ineligible from entering beauty pageants. The daughter is raised by her best friend and thinks Driver is her aunt. Of course all this culminates in the national competition, where Driver goes as Miss Illinois. But will the evil newswoman spoil the party by revealing her secret? Yeah, you can see it coming. Still, it’s fun, Driver’s great, and the little girl is really good most of the time (in a few scenes she goes over the top).

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Wed, Jan 01, 2003

: Chronicles of Narnia: The Silver Chair

Author: C.S. Lewis

One of the series’ best novels. The film starts off well, with Aslan lecturing Jill in a scene that’s just wonderful. “Are you a tame lion?” she asks tentatively. “I am not a tame lion,” he says. And despite his non-assurance that he won’t eat her, she must try him not to do so. Awesome. But then the film slides a bit. The owls are weak (the flying sequences laughably bad), and Puddleglum, one of the main characters, looks far too human (though the actor does a good job). Other subtle aspects of the story are somewhat confused (the business of Aslan’s four signs is muddled on film). But once the trio go underground, things pick up a bit, though the pace is slow. The final confrontation with the witch has an odd change: in the book Puddleglum puts out the fire with one of his large webbed feet, yet in the film he uses his hand. Why? Don’t know. I always thought he was only able to put out fire because his feet were big enough to do it, and the way it’s done in the film with the hand is crazy, since it’s like a huge bonfire and his hand only touches a small part of it (and doesn’t even extinguish that). But overall the story’s great and that comes through in the film. Pretty good.

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