Fri, Jan 30, 2004

: The Perfect Score

I wasn’t expecting much, but I rather liked this. It was charming, in an idiotic way. It’s about high school seniors who feel the SAT is ruining their lives, so they plot to steal the answers. It’s a motley group of non-friends who form the team — the brain, the pot-head, the poor rich girl, the jock, etc. — and thus it feels like an 80’s John Hughs movie. Fortunately the filmmakers see fit to recognize and mock that: The Breakfast Club references abound. Perhaps that’s why I liked it (that was my high school time). It’s predictable, fun, and certainly no brain stretch. The direction’s got some panache (I liked the SAT opening credits and the way filled in answer circles spelled things), though he’s obviously trying hard. I mostly wanted to see it because I was curious about my new screen favorite Scarlet Johansson; she’s cute and funny and actually has one of the better roles. A good rental.

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Thu, Jan 29, 2004

: Along Came Polly

This film tried harder than I expected. If you’ve seen the previews, you pretty much know the entire story: neurotic guy’s jilted during his honeymoon, goes after childhood sweetheart who’s a hippie who turns his ordered life upside down, and he falls in love. It’s rather slap-sticky with a number of crude Something About Mary-style jokes in it, but they fall flat. Instead of just being satisfied at being a dumb comedy the movie tries to add depth and characterization, but it just comes out as an awkward mess of cartoon and seriousness. It’s still mildly fun and enertaining and there are some good moments, but you’re probably better off sticking with the trailer, which has all the best parts.

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Fri, Jan 23, 2004

: The Butterfly Effect

Not a bad film. I liked the concept: a boy suffers from memory blackouts, moments of time where he can’t remember what he was doing. Since his father was insane, the boy’s mother is worried. The doctors suggest the boy keep a daily journal of every activity to help stimulate his memory. Eventually the blackouts stop and boy grows up. While he’s in college (majoring in psychology) he studies his old journals and discovers he can go back in time and relive those experiences and even change what happened. When a friend commits suicide, he goes back in time seeing answers and tries to change things so she won’t have been sexually abused by her father and commit suicide. It works, at least on the surface, but he soon learns that other things have changed as well, especially in his own life. So he’s forced to go back in time again and again, trying to fix things, but each time screwing up it worse. The idea, of course, is that the smallest change in the past brings forth a completely new future. What I really liked about the film was the way they did that, and the fact that the childhood blackouts corresponded to the times he goes back to change things — that’s why he couldn’t remember. Very cool, though it is a circular plot (because the blackouts “cause” him to write the journal and later use it go back in time, etc. yet the blackouts are caused by his going back in time). I love time paradoxes, though. The ending’s okay, though abrupt. I’d have liked to see the ending show a few more differences in his life (i.e. a different girlfriend, etc.) just to show that that one change also changed other things. The film’s not as dramatic as the promos make it sound (the supporting cast is better than Ashton Kutcher, though he’s surprisingly not as bad as you might expect). I really liked the way the supporting cast each had to play multiple characters, showing how Ashton’s changes changed their characters. Overall, while there’s some decent acting and a good story, the film relies on its gimmick too much. It tries too hard (Ashton especially). Still, it’s not bad and it’s good fun. Recommended.

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Mon, Jan 19, 2004

: Dragonfly

Author: John Farris

A very strange and haunting novel. It’s about a con artist who seduces women, promises to marry them, then skips out with their money before the wedding. After one of these “projects” goes wrong and he’s nearly killed, the man begins to develop a conscience. So he sets out for another big score to prove to himself he’s still got it. He goes after Pamela Abelard, a beautiful wealthy romance novelist. Despite being so beautiful, she’s reclusive, and after he meets her, he discovers why: she’s paralyzed from the waist down. Then begins a complex game of seduction and intrigue, for the more Joe finds out about her, the more mysteries crop up. Soon we suspect that Joe is truly in love with her but someone else is conning her. But Joe’s a con himself: he can’t blow the whistle without blowing his own cover. And that’s where things get interesting.

First, let me say that this is a remarkably well-written book. In fact, that’s the problem with it: it’s too well-written. The diction, the descriptions, the metaphors, the scenes, the pychologically complex characters are all first class; unfortunately, this is a romantic thriller. That’s the genre. And as such it must move at a certain pace and deliver a certain amount of tension and excitement. The good writing, however, bogs things down. It distracts when we don’t want to be distracted. The book is way overlong — over 500 pages — when it has a 300 page story. Farris writes with tremendous detail, and while this increases verisimilitude and is fascinating, it slows down the plot and is really unnecessary for this kind of novel. I really liked many aspects of the novel, and I enjoyed Farris’ excellent writing ability, but ultimately the story left me flat. The quality of the writing made me expect more, made me expect significance — but of course this kind of novel isn’t that deep, and the predictable, expected ending reveals that. It’s still worth reading, but just don’t expect as much as the writing implies.

I had one other interesting reaction to the novel. Generally when I read a book I’m not much bothered, influenced, or even aware of an author’s religious or political leanings. Usually if such a thing is present, it’s a necessary part of the story, and as such the views expressed are obviously those of the characters, not the author. Often other characters will offer a contrary perspective, and even if the view is distorted or weighed toward one side or the other, it’s still done in a way that doesn’t offend. In this book, however, I was surprised to find several seemingly superfluous anti-religious comments inserted into various characters perceptions. Now one character wouldn’t have bothered me, but finding several characters, all with the same bias, all expressed in odd moments of self-revelation (not, for instance, one character talking to another), got me annoyed. Once I’d detected this, I noticed it throughout the novel, like bad smell you can’t pretend to ignore. It was the author expressing his own bias, not the characters speaking. This annoyed me. Part of what made it annoying was the way it was done: the comments were snide, arrogant, and did things like imply religion = irrationality. I get the same perspective when I read Ayn Rand. However, that’s part of her philosophy, and her books are complete propoganda for her philosophy (nothing wrong with that as long as you’re aware of it). In the case of Dragonfly, however, this kind of thing was out of place and inappropriate, and struck me as odd. I’m actually more interested in my reaction to the viewpoint than the viewpoint itself (I don’t really care about Farris’ religious views one way or the other). There were only a handful of these points in the book, so I can’t say if others would pick up on them, but I thought it was an interesting catch.

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Sun, Jan 18, 2004

: The Last Seduction

Fun thriller about a sexy con artist (deliciously played by Linda Fiorentina) who manipulates everyone around her. She convinces her husband to steal $1 million in drug money, then escapes with the cash. But now she needs a divorce before she can legally keep the money (the moment she spends it on anything, it becomes an asset he can argue is half his). So she seduces a young man and makes up a story to convince him to kill for her. It’s stylishly done, but there isn’t much substance. Still fun, though.

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Tue, Jan 13, 2004

: The Fifth Angel

Author: Tim Green

I’ve never read a Tim Green book before (what’s up with all the color-oriented authors I’ve been reading lately?) but I’m impressed. I think he’s a lawyer or had lawyer training or something, since that seems to be thematic to his writing, but this book is from an unusual perspective. Our “hero” is a tragic one: Jack’s a successful attorney but his daughter’s in a mental institution after being raped and tortured by a sex fiend for 10 days. The rapist gets off with 8 months on a technicallity. The lawyer vows revenge and sets off on a murderous spree across the country, killing freed sex perverts who prey on children. As a lawyer he knows about evidence so he makes sure he leaves none. Meanwhile, we also follow the story of Amanda, a beautiful FBI agent. She’s on Jack’s trail. Slowly the two stories lead toward each other as we wait for Jack to make a mistake and Amanda to catch him. Who do we root for? It’s pretty cool stuff and the ending is both plausible and pleasing, a difficult combination. An excellent read.

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: Monster

This is a disturbing film about the life of real-life prostitute/serial killer Aileen Wuornos, who was executed in 2002. She’s played by the usually glamous Charlize Theron, who’s unrecognizable (using make-up to physically transform herself the way Nicole Kidman did in really crappy lives.

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Sun, Jan 11, 2004

: Tuck Everlasting

Surprisingly poor movie. All I knew about this film was that it was about a girl who befriends a boy who cannot die — and that’s pretty much all I knew when it finished. Nothing much else happens. We meet the girl in early 20th century where she’s frustrated by her restricted life (corsets, piano lessons, dignified behavior, etc.). After an argument with her parents, she runs into the woods and meets Tuck — well, the youngest of the Tuck boys. The whole family cannot die. There’s a secret spring and if you drink from it, you don’t die. They kidnap the girl to prevent her secret from getting out, but in the end let her go, and she falls in love with the son. Eventually, of course, she grows old and the Tucks don’t. The film ends in modern day with the Tuck boy the same as ever. That’s pretty much the movie. It’s rather boring. I guess it works as a one-dimensional children’s story, but I need something with more depth. It’s not terrible; it just sort of makes you ask why they bothered.

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Sat, Jan 10, 2004

: Bowling for Columbine

Director: Michael Moore

A surprisingly excellent film. It’s very entertaining, and not all doom and gloom, and though Moore’s idiotic display at the Oscars last year made me dislike him, he’s still an excellent filmmaker and humorist. I didn’t find much to disagree with in the film, which is of course how Moore works, but then I’m a centrist on the gun issue anyway. I thought his main point was that gun violence is unique to the USA because of the fear our news media instills in us — something I agree with completely. The scenes in the film in which Moore and a friend go to South Central L.A., infamous for shootings, and discover an ordinary neighborhood, reminded me of my recent first visit to L.A. where I was suprised at how not a war zone everything was, and my visit a couple years ago to New York City where I found the city to be friendly and helpful, not the horrible crime-ridden mess one hears about on TV. Unfortunately the bigger question — why the media insists on selling fear isn’t answered. Obviously it’s for ratings, but why don’t other countries exploit that? Moore also never really attempts to explain the Columbine shooting, something I’d like to see explored. There is a brief segment with South Park creator Matt Stone who grew up in Littleton which is enlightning, but after that the issue’s dropped and the focus is more on guns. Moore also weighs heavily on the whole war issue, emphasizing things like Littleton’s biggest employer is the world’s largest defense contractor, etc. Of course there’s no direct correlation but Moore tries to include one by implying that it’s obvious (parents make big weapons at the plant so it’s “natural” the kids feel it’s okay to have guns). At lot of the stuff is just emotional resonance and has no logic value, but that’s typical of Moore’s documentaries. This is entertainment, not education. He does span a wide area in this film, tackling everything from racial issues to cultural differences between the U.S. and Canada. I’m not sure I learned anything per se, but it did make me think, which isn’t a bad thing. A fun film, but treat it as entertainment propaganda and don’t take it too seriously. Remember, it’s only one side of the issue. That said, I again don’t have much to disagree with, especially his comments about the news media.

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Fri, Jan 09, 2004

: Big Fish

Director: Tim Burton

I love Tim Burton’s weird movies and this is no exception. However, it’s not his best. It’s too light and not quite weird enough. There isn’t the magic of Edward Scissorhands or the wonderful imagination found in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The story’s about an old man dying and his son, who’s starting a family of his own, troubled by the man’s ridiculous tall tales of the adventures of his life. The boy thinks his old man’s a liar, but soon learns there are glimmers of truth in the tales. How much is left ambiguous: that’s for us to decide. The tales themselves range from mildly outrageous (when the old man was born he shoots out of his mom and slides across the hospital corridor threw the legs of doctors and nurses who fail to catch him) to the wild (he meets a circus director who turns into a wolf at night), and while they are uneven, they are mostly interesting. We learn how the man fell in love and pursued his girl, eventually married her, and more. The tales try to do a nice blend between legend and modern life, which is neat, but I felt The Neverending Story and you’ll be fine. But don’t expect the genius of Roald Dahl.

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: Digital Fortress

Author: Dan Brown

From a story perspective, this was actually very good. The plot moves very fast, it’s exciting, there are nice twists and turns, and while it’s somewhat predictable in places, in general the author does a good job. The quality of the words themselves is mediocre to poor. But the biggest sin is that the book is technically flawed. The story’s supposed to be about codes and code-breaking. A rebel hacker has created an “unbreakable” code and is blackmailing the NSA with it. This interested me a great deal, but it’s painfully obvious the author is neither a code expert and knows nothing about technology. Horribly amateurish mistakes are rampant. For instance, he actually says that a 64-bit key has 64 letters! (Remember, every letter in a key is 8 bits, so a 64 letter key would be 512 bits.) I don’t know if mistakes like that are just editing slipups, but I doubt it, since there are so many. These mistakes really make the whole novel an absurd joke and destroys any claim to realism, but I suppose only the more technically inclined would notice. Unfortunately, a number of plot points hinge on these mistakes, which makes for painful reading. For instance, the NSA has secretly created a $2 billion supercomputer with three million parallel processors that can break any encryption in minutes… yet they are worried about the computer being infected by a virus off the Internet! That’s so absurd it’s not even funny. Any computer person will tell you that a virus must be written specifically for the hardware: a Windows virus cannot infect a Linux machine and a Linux virus for Intel hardware won’t run on Linux running on a PowerPC chip. The idea that somehow someone would write a virus for a proprietary computer that no one even knows exists is complete fantasy, and we’re not even getting into the difficulties of programming parallel processing machines, which is a whole different problem. The bottom line is that a virus infecting a supercomputer is about as likely as lightning striking you the same moment you win the lottery. Our author, like so many other technoidiots out there, seems to think viruses are some sort of magical creature capable of doing whatever he needs to move his plot forward.

In the end this isn’t that bad a book. The story’s actually pretty good, if you can ignore all the technical flaws that make it impossible. Dan works too hard trying to establish “deep” characters (he tells instead of shows, a fatal flaw of amature writing), but the characters aren’t really that important anyway, since this is a plot-driven book, not a character study. There’s no depth here! But if you’re wanting a fast and entertaining read (I read this mostly in one night and it’s over 400 pages) and you like codes and government conspiracies, this should do the job.

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Tue, Jan 06, 2004

: Cold Mountain

I wasn’t expecting to like this very much. I hate war movies and Civil War movies most of all. But like medicine, this was supposed to be good for you, so I went. It turned out to be a lovely love story, and I enjoyed it very much. In reviews I thought I’d read the story was about a soldier returning from war to his wife, but no: it’s the story about a young man returning to his girlfriend; they are not married. In fact, they have scarcely talked! She is the conservative daughter of a reverend, raised in high society, while he is an ordinary farmer. He isn’t much of a talker and their encounters are brief but there’s hidden passion there. Then the Civil War begins and he goes off to fight, and she promises to wait for him. The war is awful, of course. One thing the movie does well is show us the brutality of both sides: neither is painted as completely evil or completely good. After being badly wounded the soldier ends up a hospital where he decides to leave and go home. It’s dangerous. The South is losing and need every man: if he’s caught he’ll be shot as a deserter. So he begins a long and arduous trek home to Cold Mountain. Meanwhile, the girl is struggling. Her father has died and she doesn’t know how to run a farm. Fortunately a more rugged girl (awesomely played against type by Renee Zellweger) ends up helping her, teaching her practical advice about how to build fences, care for animals, and raise crops. Somehow the two survive the winter. Throughout the film we are given close-up glimpses of 19th Century life in North Carolina during the war. It’s not always pretty (though the pristine landscapes are incredible), and there are a number of scenes of horrible violence and cruelty, but there are also many powerfully human moments, where the simplest things like giving a freezing man a coat is miraculous. In the end the story’s bittersweet, sadness blending with a wonderful love story, but unlike the weak House of Sand and Fog this movie ends on a positive note, leaving us with hope. Excellent. A bit long, but this is an epic tale and deserves it.

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Sun, Jan 04, 2004

: Iris

This is a surprising film on several levels. The story’s about famous British writer Iris Murdoch, who was a brilliant novelist and intellectual, as she succumbs to Alzheimer’s disease. I expected this to be arty, pretentious, and tedious. Instead the movie’s entertaining, moves quickly, and is only 90 minutes long. The film switches back and forth between the young Iris, brilliant and daring and non-conventional, and the old Iris, bewildered by life as her brain erodes. The film’s not sad, for as we see one Iris die, we see the other living life to the fullest. There is some drama and emotion, of course, but it’s not overdone like a “disease of the week” TV movie. However, the one flaw I found is that the film’s surprisingly light on profundity. For instance, while we see glimpses of the young Iris’ brilliance, I never understood much about her politics or writing: she’s still a mystery to me. There are a few scenes where she lectures but they are too brief and don’t really explain her philosophies. In the end, the film’s too light and brief: there’s not much here that isn’t predictable (the woman inevitably dies), and because we don’t really learn much about the author, we don’t really learn much from the film. It’s a good but not great film. The performances by all are excellent, but I wanted more depth, more revealing. The movie ended without me knowing much more about Iris than I did before the movie started. I now know she existed and died of Alzheimer’s, but that’s about it.

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Fri, Jan 02, 2004

: 21 Grams

This is a remarkable film. It is similar to Memento’s reverse technique making for a remarkable film. Granted, for the first half hour you won’t understand much: the intersecting stories have not intersected though there are scenes that show unrelated characters relating, so you realize that there is some kind of connection between these people, you just aren’t sure what it is. What’s well-done, however, is that every scene is interesting, and each scene gives us more and more info about the people. By presenting us with the scenes out of order, the director forces us to make assumptions about the characters, and those assumptions are often proven wrong later, which is incredibly interesting. As far as the story goes, it’s much too complicated to explain everything here, and of course I wouldn’t want to ruin the film for you, but let’s just say that one character loses her husband and his heart ends up inside Penn, and that connection eventually draws Penn and her together. Throw in the story of the man who killed her husband and you’ve got three separate lives intertwining. By presenting their connections out of order the power of the story is magnified. It’s an unusual film, very well done. The only flaw I found is that the movie feels extremely long. It’s only two hours but feels like three. (I wasn’t the only one that felt this: others were complaining as we exited the theatre.) That’s because the short unrelated scenes each seem like a new movie and the story seems to progress at a glacier pace (only a little new info is gleaned from each new scene). The director would have been better to speed things up by taking out 20-30 minutes of footage and having things happen faster. That would have made this a great film. As it is it’s an excellent film, but more of an experiment than a great movie.

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: House of Sand and Fog

I usually admire films that go against Hollywood cliches and try to be different, but every now and then there’s a film that rubs me the wrong way. This was one. Many of you will disagree with me on this movie and that is fine; I change how I feel.

This was a great film: fantastic acting, with wonderful, fascinating characters, and an intriguing story. Basically a recovering alcoholic (Jennifer Connolly) wakes up to discover her house is being auctioned off by the county because of an unpaid tax. It’s a total mistake, but because she was out of it and didn’t respond to letters, the ball is rolling and now must be stopped in court. She gets a lawyer but it’s too late: the house has been sold to a former Iranian Colonel (Ben Kingsley). He refuses to sell it back for the amount he paid, wanting to make a profit, which the county won’t pay without a lawsuit to force them (which will take months). So what we’ve got is a conflict in which both parties are victims: the Iranian immigrants, who are strange but wonderful people, who’ve saved every penny for years to afford to buy this house and are desperate to make their investment pay, and the lonely, troubled girl who foolishly lost the house her late father left to her. We like both groups. Both are sympathic yet have their flaws. In fact, every character in this movie is gray: I have never seen a movie with such a beautiful balance of characters. The people are all flawed yet have positive aspects as well. In most films it’s obvious who the hero is and who the bad guy is: in this movie it’s impossible to tell and that’s the whole point. We’re supposed to be torn by these people and how their lives play out tragically.

However, that’s where the movie goes downhill. The ending is terrible; it’s unbearably sad. The first three quarters of this film made me fall in love with the people, then the ending ruined everything the movie had built. I won’t reveal the specifics of the ending, but it’s incredibly depressing. I walked out of the theatre wanting to blow my brains out. That feeling lingered for hours. It was horrible. Honestly, while I understand why the writer(s) wrote it this way, and perhaps it was realistic and appropriate, it was not a good ending to the movie. The film ends with no hope, no explanation, no redemption, just cold, hard, depressing reality. I’m not saying the events needed to change: the director could have had the same things happen but ended on a different, more positive note. Give us some inkling that things are not so bleak, that there is purpose to life, that the world is not over. But no. My heart sank when I saw the credits begin to roll: the film was over and there was no hope. Honestly, unless you’re a masochist and enjoy being depressed, I cannot recommend this film. It’s too heartless and cruel. The fantastic benefits of the first half, where you love the characters, and is what makes the film so powerful, is all destroyed by the cruel and horrible ending. Though my heart tells me the film’s sad ending just made me sad, because I loved everything else so much, the ending actually makes me angry: I now hate this movie and feel the director ought to be shot. My emotions take new extremes because of how much potential this film had. But it’s ruined by the horrible ending (or perhaps I should say non-ending since it stops where most films continue). There are some who’d argue that this film breaks the Hollywood cliche of the happy ending and that’s good, but I’d have to disagree. Normally I’m not opposed to an unhappy ending, if it’s done in a way that works. For instance, the bad guys are seemingly punished, and even if bad things happen to good people, there’s a hint of hope implied. But in this film none of that happened: it’s just horrible and that’s it. It doesn’t work. I can’t imagine anyone going out of the theatre after this heart-wrenching experience and recommending the film to their friends. Why would you want to force that experience on someone else? Isn’t there enough hard reality on the news? We hear about horrible tragedies all the time — whole families destroyed in a car wreck, for instance — but because we aren’t intimately connected with them, we are able to bear it. In this film we make an amazingly strong connection with everyone and when it ends tragically we are given no way to handle it. I’m sorry, but that’s just bad filmmaking. Go and watch the first 3/4 if you want, but leave before the ending. This is just too depressing.

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