Wed, Dec 31, 2008

: Friday

Author: Robert Heinlein

I’ve read almost all of Heinlein’s stuff, this one had eluded me, I’m not sure why. It’s pretty cool. It’s written first person female, about an “enhanced” woman’s adventure’s in the future. She’s sort of a spy/assassin, very capable, and the story’s about her getting in the middle of a planet-wide coup attempt and an elaborate plot against her life. It’s a bit muddled, and the story’s not all that compelling (it’s more of a rambling tale than a structured plot), but what makes it work is hearing Friday’s voice: she’s a fascinating character with an interesting and unique personality, with a great sense of humor. It’s a blast to read and worth it just for that experience; the plot doesn’t really go anywhere and has some serious conceptual flaws. (For example, it was never made clear why she couldn’t have been killed on the planet where she escaped to — the explanation that the bad guys would just let her go at that point was not convincing.) But overall, this was fun and entertaining, if light.

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: Winter Storm 2008 Photos

We’ve had crazy winter weather here in Oregon lately; I’ve posted some dramatic photos here if you’d like to take a gander!

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: The Tale of Despereaux

I was looking forward to this and expected to like it, but I was crushingly disappointed. I think I could go so far as to say I hated it, which shocks me. How could one go wrong with the story of a funny little mouse who’s a hero? I don’t know, but somehow this film does it. First of all, the story is way overdone: it’s got too many things happening and jumps from plot to plot with no transition at all that it’s confusing and breaks your chain of thought. For example, the basic story seems to be that of a brave mouse who saves a princess. But mixed in with that is the story of a rat who’s somewhat similar and who helps the mouse. That is further complicated with the story a girl who’s a “princess” serving as a maid in the King’s castle. All of these stories sound generically familiar, but they purposely resolve differently than we expect; I suppose that’s to make things more interesting, but I just found it annoying, since the whole movie you are confused as what is happening. Is the Desperaux the mouse the main character? Then why is so much time spent on the rat’s story? And which princess are we to root for: both, neither? It’s all bewildering.

Another fatal flaw is the animation. At times it’s breathtakingly beautiful, with fantastic attention to detail. I loved the way Despereaux’s nose glistened with faint wetness, for instance. Amazing. But the animation is inconsistent, with humans looking awkward and dorky, and very often the movement of characters defying real-world physics. Like in one scene Despereaux is bouncing on the end of a rope and he bounces as though the rope is elastic — it just did not feel natural. In many scenes the editing is so choppy and the camera angles so poorly chosen it’s difficult to tell what is happening. You get a vague impression and you’re probably right, but it’s not clear. Another problem is that the film’s humor is odd: there are many scenes where the mice discuss Despereaux’s problem in that he’s not afraid and hasn’t “learned to cower like a proper mouse.” I guess that’s supposed to be funny and it is the first time, but it’s hammered over and over, with parent-teacher conferences with Despereaux’s parents, etc., and in the end it just starts to get repetitive and puzzling. There’s also bizarreness associated with the supernatural. While there’s an aspect of the film that feels like it should be “magical” (fantasy), we’re not really shown that anything is actually magic — except for a strange talking vegetable man. This being assembles itself from a collection of vegetables (i.e. different vegetables for the mouth, nose, eyes, etc.) and he talks. We’re given no history of him, no explanation of what he’s doing there, how he can talk, what he is, or what happens to him in the end. (Does he die when he fell down the stairs or was he just forgotten on the cutting room floor?) I wanted to see a world with a lot more magic, or key magic used at just the right moment to save the day, or none at all. This bit of random magic for no good reason was just bizarre and weird and pointless.

There are a few moments of brilliance: Despereaux himself is very good (though he’s not on screen enough), the narration has some good lines, and some of the scenes are interesting. But mostly this is just a mishmash of styles, stories, characters, and confusion. I really disliked it and found myself contemplating leaving the theatre on many occasions. Though it’s not long, it felt endless. I am extremely disappointed.

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Tue, Dec 30, 2008

: Valkyrie

Director: Bryan Singer

When I first heard of this I thought it was fiction; then I heard it was based on a true story. How could we not have heard about this German plot to kill Hitler? Then I watched a documentary on the History Channel and realized it’s not new — I read about the suitcase bomb plot many years ago when I was a kid. What I didn’t know, and what the movie reveals extremely well, is the extent of this particular plot (hundreds of conspirators), how close they came to success, and how brilliant it was to use Hitler’s own reserve army against him. The problem with any Hitler assassination, of course, is what happens after he’s dead? It does no good if his successors are equally powerful and ruthless; the regime continues. So what made this plot different was the idea of using Valkyrie — Hitler’s own contingency plan for his reserve army to keep him in power in case of a coup — to take over. The reserve army would think they were following Hitler’s orders and would shut down the SS and imprison Hitler’s real leaders, thus allowing the conspirators to take over. Once they were in power, the rest of Hitler’s command could be shut down and a truce negotiated with the Allies to end the war. It was a terrific plan, especially in notion that Hitler did not even necessarily have to die: in the chaos following the assassination attempt, the rebels might have been able to take over anyway. Unfortunately, and tragically, of course, the attempt failed by just hours. It is sad but heroic, and it is easy to see why Germans today are proud of these people who stood up against their own commander and rebelled.

In terms of a film, this is excellently done: the complicated plot is explained extremely well (much better than the confusing History Channel documentary); it’s dramatic and interesting, and not boring at all; the bewildering number of characters are kept to a minimum and we can follow what’s happening. It’s not the best movie ever by any means, but it is very good, emotional at times, and it’s an important film everyone should see. It is hard to fathom for us today when Hitler’s such a dirty word, but back then he was still considered a hero by most of Germany, who were fooled by his propaganda and did not even know 90% of the evil he was doing, and these military officers who betrayed and tried to kill him were considered traitors. In hindsight we know they were heros, but at the time they had difficult decisions to make. Would you or I make the right decision if we were in that situation today? The film provokes many interesting questions like that. Highly recommended.

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Sat, Dec 27, 2008

: Enemy at the Gates

I saw this on TV and I was baffled by the description. The title sounded familiar but the plot did not; later I figured out that I had this confused with the Will Smith vehicle Enemy of the State, which explains why I had never seen it. It’s an interesting idea: we follow the life of one Russian soldier during the WWII battle at Stalingrad, where he becomes celebrated nationwide as a hero for his efforts as a sniper against the invading Germans. The Germans, frustrated so many of their men keep getting snipped off, bring in their own sharpshooter (played by the brilliant Ed Harris), and the two have a cat-and-mouse game. Interesting and well done, with a happy ending. I liked it. I’m not sure it’s the greatest WWII movie ever (I fast forwarded through the dreary and gory battle scenes), but it’s different and I liked the one-versus-one aspect of the snipers.

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: The Last King of Scotland

I still don’t understand the title, but the film’s a terrific perspective of Uganda dictator Idi Amin (who loved things Scottish). We follow his rise and fall via a Scottish doctor who ends up serving as Amin’s personal doctor; he’s a wonderfully flawed man, and we’re shown all that, and he contrasts brilliantly with Amin’s initially personable man. Then as Amin starts to show his true colors, the doctor has fits of conscience, and eventually the doctor is heroic as he helps expose the real Amin to the world. Tremendous acting.

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Fri, Dec 26, 2008

: Searching for Bobby Fischer

This is about a seven-year-old boy with an affinity for chess. His dad encourages him, starts taking him on the competitive chess circuit, where the pressures of being perfect effect the boy. Eventually the mom and dad and the boy’s teacher have conflict over the boy’s future: how hard should adults push young geniuses to excel? The film raises some wonderful questions and doesn’t give us pat answers, but story-wise it’s sluggish, predictable, and not that unusual. The worst flaw for me is that the chess is presented at high speed with “dramatic” camera angles and quick cuts that make it impossible (at least for my slow brain) to keep up with the chess. I suppose this was done to make a “boring” game seem interesting, but because chess is such an important aspect of the story, I found it jarring and frustrating because the chess moves weren’t explained and some of the interesting genius moves weren’t demonstrated in a way that revealed their genius. They might have just as well eliminated the chess playing altogether and just cut to the trophy ceremony. Still, the film does have its moments.

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Thu, Dec 18, 2008

: The Big Lebowski

Director: Coen Brothers

Though I’m a giant Coen Brothers fan, I disliked this movie intensely when I first saw it. I hated it so much I didn’t even understand it: it was a bunch of crazy, lazy, horrible people doing incomprehensible things. This time I was able to follow the plot which is pretty good — about a loser hired to pay off a ransom of a kidnapping that might or might not be a real kidnapping — but I still didn’t like the characters who are angry, swear constantly, and just unpleasant. That meant I didn’t really care what happened to anyone in the film, which means I didn’t care much about the film. So my revised opinion is that I can now see some of what inspired the Coens to make this, but sadly it’s still their worst film. Not as bad as I remember, but still unpleasant.

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Mon, Dec 15, 2008

: The Age of Innocence

Author: Edith Wharton

Director: Martin Scorsese

I thought of this as one of those boring literary period pieces and I’d never seen it, but it showed up on one of my movie channels and I saw it was based on a book by Edith Wharton, who’s an author I admire. Yes, the movie is slow, and not that much happens in terms of story, but it is interesting. It does a great job of capturing New York in the pre-twentieth century era, particularly life in the upper class. The story is about a lawyer who’s engaged but falls in love with another woman who is estranged from her husband. Morals of the day prevent their having an affair, as much as they desire it, so the whole thing is much ado about nothing, and yet the emotions involved are just as powerful. The subduction of passion is clear and fascinating, but what I liked best were the smarmy jabs at the upper crust and the mockery of the fashionable.

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Fri, Dec 12, 2008

: The Day the Earth Stood Still

Nothing too new here; it’s a by-the-numbers film in most respects, with better special effects and more story flaws than the original. It’s not bad, but it’s not great. It’s interesting, and there are some fascinating moments. I thought the little boy was grating and nasty for most of the film and then suddenly he changes (he’s reformed). It made no sense and was ineptly handled, but it’s unfortunately a key aspect of the plot. The best thing, for me, was that the way the aliens planned to destroy the earth was scientifically plausible: they released nanobots (microscopic robots) that swarm as a huge cloud and literally eat away buildings, machines, human beings, etc. and simply use the broken-down raw materials to build new nanobots and grow the swarm. The end result is that everything man-made on earth could be consumed, leaving nothing but nature left. That’s pretty cool and effective; I can’t remember what was supposed to happen in the original, but in most films like this the alien technology is just like magic and never explained. I was worried this film would be preachy, as it has a pro-environment theme, but it’s minimally addressed and just hinted at, so that was good. But there really isn’t anything here you have to see other than a few scenes with interesting effects.

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Thu, Dec 11, 2008

: Bolt

What a delightful film! I went into this as a skeptic: the premise seemed fatally flawed. How could a dog not know he was just an actor on a TV show, especially a show where he has super powers? But the film does acknowledge this problem with an “eccentric” director who supposedly wants to get a real performance from his lead animal actor and everyone on the show cooperates to keep the truth from the dog. Still silly and absurd, but you suspend disbelief and go with it. Once you are past that quibble, though, the movie is wonderful. It’s not quite up to Pixar standards, but it’s darn close. Basically the dog ends up in the real world and is shocked to learn he doesn’t have super powers, but he’s still so brave and kind-hearted that he will do anything to be reunited with his little girl owner. In the end, of course, he is heroic, but the journey is fun, with some great supporting characters. I really enjoyed it.

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Fri, Dec 05, 2008

: Welcome to the Monkey House

Author: Kurt Vonnegut

This is a terrific collection of Vonnegut short stories. I liked that they reflect the wide variety of topics and styles. Some are more serious, almost dramatic, while others are merely quirky, and a few outrageous. But almost all are wonderful. My favorite is a surprisingly tender love story set in a small town about an anonymous man who comes to life each year as an actor in the community theatre. He literally becomes the character he’s playing and changes completely, and in the end a beautiful woman falls for him and it’s a delightful, magical romance because every week they read a new play together and he’s a new person. I just loved the way Kurt captures the magic of the theatre and performance and combines with a clever story.

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Tue, Nov 25, 2008

: Outliers

Author: Malcolm Gladwell

I loved Gladwell’s The Tipping Point and this is his latest. Though the title’s awkward, it’s about leaders — people outside the norm, who stand out. Gladwell’s goal is to change the way we think about such people. Our assumption is that they are extraordinarily gifted, geniuses, but he reveals that it’s much more about hard work than talent, and that luck, timing, and culture play huge roles in who we become. He destroys the myth of the “self-made” man, the idea that someone can rise from nothing to be extraordinarily successful, showing via statistics and stories and scientific studies that talent or genius alone is useless without the proper environment for that to grow. For example, he reveals that overwhelmingly kids in Canada’s hockey league are born in the early months of the year. That same trend follows through school and into the professional league as well: most are born in January, February, and March. Why is that? It’s not that talented hockey players aren’t born at other times, but that they never get a chance to develop. That’s because the enrollment cut-off for the league is January 1, so kids born in those early months tend to be the biggest and strongest, and stand out. Thus they are given more training and attention, are groomed to be stars by putting them into more competitions and special programs, and of course they use that extra experience and go pro and succeed. This effect is seen not just in hockey, but all sporting programs all over the world. Gladwell shows that similar things happen in education and even historic events: if you were unlucky enough to be born at the wrong time, for instance, you might have reached age 18 right as a major war was in progress and been drafted, or a tragedy like the Great Depression or an epidemic could have completely changed the world available to you. Gladwell shows how tech leaders like Bill Gates succeeded not because they were that much more brilliant than anyone else, but because they had the right set of skills at the right time, catching the computing revolution as it was being born.

What does all this mean to you and me? It means that we need to rethink our views of success. We need to change how we educate. In one study he shows that kids from lower income areas do just as well as those from higher income areas, but only if they work harder (for instance, going to school year around instead of taking the summer off). It turns out that kids with economic advantages are simply given more opportunities to learn year around, while those from disadvantaged homes tend to be stuck watching TV instead of having books and workshops and summer camps and such. Once you get both on the same playing field, their chances of success — of getting into good colleges and good careers — are about the same. Speaking of that, it also turns out that going to an Ivy League college is not necessarily a guarantee of success, nor is graduating from a lesser school. You just need “enough” schooling; the specifics aren’t as significant. All this means that everyone can succeed if they work hard, which is a far cry from the general assumption that some people are just “smart” or that some people just “get” math, etc. In truth, it’s all about how hard you work, and taking advantage of opportunities that come your way. If you’re not prepared when those doors open, you’ll miss them and miss out.

This is a fascinating book — highly recommended. I will point out one caution, however. I read this while flying to and from California and there’s a whole section about the causes of airplane crashes that might make for uncomfortable reading if you’re a nervous flyer. (It didn’t bother me — I actually found it comforting to know why planes crash — but I might have picked a different book for my trip if I’d known that was in there.)

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Sun, Nov 23, 2008

: MLS Cup 2008

I got to attend MLS Cup in person this year at the Home Depot Center in LA. It was great and I even got to meet some soccer players (see them here). The only bummer was that my team, the Houston Dynamo, got shockingly knocked out in the first round of the playoffs by New York, a team that only got in the playoffs via the back door. Houston were supposed to win their record third in a row, but my buying MLS Cup tickets early jinxed them. Still, we were seated near the New York fans who were rowdy and singing all game long, which was entertaining. The game itself was a little hard to follow in person: we were behind the one goal and action at the other end of the field was difficult to see, and with all the chaos around it, it was hard to focus on the game. But that’s okay: it was just fun to be at the party. The game was a good one, with both teams scoring and Columbus deservedly winning 3-1 (they’d been the best team all season).

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Mon, Nov 17, 2008

: Saturday Night Fever

Director: John Badham

Is it weird that I’ve never seen this? It’s a movie that supposedly everyone has seen and many people don’t like because disco has such a bad rep. But I was surprised and even a little astonished. I thought this was some dumb dance movie, but it’s really a character study about a young Brooklyn man trying to figure out his future. He enters a disco dance contest and dumps his sweet-hearted former partner for a hot new girl and eventually realizes he’s a jerk. The film’s surprisingly foul-mouthed and even violent, with fight scenes and pretty much a rape at one point, but it’s got such an authenticity that it didn’t bother me. I really felt like that’s the way it was in Brooklyn back in 1977. People talked like that, had families like that, and so on. It’s a very interesting film and probably underrated. The dancing’s not really my thing and I didn’t pay much attention during some of the longer scenes, but the music’s actually kind of cool (maybe because it’s new to me). How the heck did the Bee Gees sing so high? Were they on helium?

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Sun, Nov 16, 2008

: Seems Like Old Times

Author: Neil Simon

I’d never even heard of this movie but it’s based on a Neil Simon play and it’s pretty funny. It stars Chevy Chase back when he was young and at his best, and Goldie Hawn as his ex-wife, is cute and terrific and probably the best I’ve seen her. The plot’s chaotic: Chase is a recluse writer who is kidnapped at gunpoint and forced to rob a bank, so everyone thinks he’s guilty and is out to get him. He goes to his ex-wife for help, but she’s married to the district attorney who’s about to get the nod to run for attorney general and is worried his wife’s ex will ruin everything. Chase takes everything in stride with witty quips and hilarious casualness, while Hawn’s character is a defense attorney who is kind-hearted to a fault and takes in every stray dog and criminal she can find (all of her help at the house are criminals she’s defended). This results in chaos, of course, with Goldie trying to hide her wanted ex from her husband, manage her clueless staff, and so on. It’s too slapsticky to be a great movie, but the dialog is great and the chemistry between Goldie and Chevy is wonderful. Worth seeing if you like this kind of farce movie.

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Fri, Nov 14, 2008

: Quantum of Solace

Director: Marc Forster

I went into this preparing not to like it, which is unusual for me for a James Bond film. But I’d heard disturbing things: critics were disappointed, it omits the usual Bond gimmicks of Q and flashy tech gadgets, and the running time is well short of two hours (most Bond films are longer). But I actually did like this. It’s not the greatest Bond film ever, and it’s certainly missing humor — the entire picture is grim, grim, grim — but I still liked it. It basically picks up where the previous film ended with Bond looking for revenge on those who killed his girlfriend. This leads him to discover that the secret group behind her death is much larger and better connected than anyone believed, and he follows clues that lead him to Bolivia where a dictator is being put into power by the organization. It’s convoluted and doesn’t make much sense, but who cares: we’re just along for the ride, which is interesting, as Bond meets beautiful mysterious women, gets fired from Mi-6, and gets framed for the murder of his friend. There’s some good gritty action, but everything’s at a lower key, less over-the-top and ostentacious, and more realistic. I liked that. At the same time, like the previous one, this didn’t necessary feel like a James Bond film. Even the opening credits — normally my favorite part of a Bond film — were ho-hum. I’m happy they keep reinventing the series as I want it to go on forever, and it’s good to change things up and try different things, but I think for the next one I want some more traditional Bond elements back. Maybe not the entire movie, but at least a few scenes. I want to see Bond cool and triumphant, doing ridiculous things like skydiving without a parachute and landing in a pool at a party and coming up out of the water dressed in a tuxedo and taking a glass of champagne from the waiter as though he’s an invited guest. This new Bond, while cool, is slightly too gritty and realistic. I want a taste or hint of the fantastic.

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Sun, Nov 09, 2008

: Houston Out

The Houston Dynamo have won Major League Soccer for the last two years. After a slow start where they played well but had trouble scoring and therefore weren’t winning matches, they turned it on mid-season and ended up as the best team in the West and the second-best team in the whole league. Unfortunately, that cursed them, as for the past five years, the team that’s won the conference has been knocked out in the playoffs. Houston drew away in NY last week and it seemed a lock for them to win at home today: they’d only lost once all season and NY only won once away. NY also just squeaked into the playoffs, getting in on a wild card slot only because D.C United lost their final game. NY was missing some key players and Houston had their full line-up, and this was a home game with 30,000 fans dressed in Orange. But nothing went Houston’s way. After early pressure created tons of chances but no goals, a NY counter with speedster Dane Richards got through the back line and Dane beat Onstad for an early goal. A minor setback for the champs, right? Unfortunately, moments later NY was awarded a penalty kick. The call was questionable: the ref claimed a cross hit Richardo Clark’s hand in the box. But it wasn’t deliberate and the rule is that handballs are supposed to be intentional. Be that as it may, being two goals down in the first half was not good, and even worse, the Dynamo were cursed at the other end as they just could not score. They possessed the ball well, attacked as a team, created tons of chances, and sure have scored half a dozen goals. In any other match, they would have. But like at the beginning of the year when they couldn’t finish, they just couldn’t get the ball to cross the line. Rookie goalkeeper Ceparo for NY was brilliant, making a number of fine stops and showing no playoff nerves at all. His reclaim of the ball from Brian Ching after initially dropping it was amazing, and a couple other times he took hits but got right up and grabbed the ball showing no fear. Very impressive. Meanwhile, Dane Richards was awesome, using his speed to torment Houston, and he assisted on a third goal late as the Dynamo were pressing forward to score. Really, I can’t say that much critical about Houston: they did everything right except for finishing their chances. There’s always a bit of luck in that (in this case bad luck), but other than the first goal, Houston didn’t make that many mistakes. NY only had a few chances and capitalized. Houston had tons and didn’t. The end result: Houston is out of the playoffs and the chance to be the first team to ever win three championships in a row is gone. Sometimes it just happens like that. And lowly NY will now take on Real Salt Lake for the Western crown and the chance to be in MLS Cup on Nov. 23. I’m now a big RSL fan, as I love rooting for the underdog. This is their first playoff qualification ever, so good luck to them. Either way, though, we’ll have someone new in the final: neither NY nor RSL has made an appearance there, so this will be historic. On the East, it’s either Chicago or Columbus — Chicago won it in their first year in 1999, but Columbus has never won the Cup, so I’m hoping for a Columbus-RSL final (though Columbus-NY would be interesting, too).

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Thu, Nov 06, 2008

: Jury Duty

I spent the morning at the courthouse going through jury orientation. I’m on call for the rest of the month and may have to serve, but I’ll have to wait and see if I get picked for a trial. I almost served on a jury in Santa Cruz, once, but was the 15th and they settled just before me (12 jurors and two alternates). It turns out November’s a good month to serve — with the holidays in the middle, it’s more like a half-month!

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: RocknRolla

Director: Guy Ritchie

I like some of Ritchie’s other movies, but this one left me wanting more. It’s an interesting premise and sounds cool, but the conclusion is wimpy and the film doesn’t have the payout you’d expect. Basically we get into a typically convoluted plot about gangsters and druggies and schemers who all overlap and entangle, and usually the ending of such a film is quite brilliant. This one tries, and while the ending isn’t bad, it’s just missing a little something. After such a complicated setup, it ends abruptly, and there are gaps, pieces of the story left unfinished (at least it feels that way). It’s not bad, and quite fun in a lot of places, but ultimately you aren’t left with anything that special. I did find it interesting that the film ended with a clear indication of a sequel coming.

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Mon, Nov 03, 2008

: Changeling

Director: Clint Eastwood

This film is based on a true story about a woman in the 1920s fighting corruption in the L.A. police department. Her son is disappears and the police return a different boy to her and try to convince her that he’s really her son — to the point of throwing her in the looney bin to shut her up. But she does not keep quiet and eventually brings change to the department. It’s a good story, well-told, but the there’s something of a let-down about the way that it is presented. It’s bit too long, and while there’s seemingly a mystery about why the police would do such a bizarre thing, there really isn’t much of a mystery: it’s just a mistake and over-enthusiasm by the authorities to have a success and when they find a boy who claims to be the the woman’s son, they take him at his word and later are too proud to retract because that would be embarrassing. Unfortunately, the film’s also a bit of a downer, as the real boy’s fate is left ambiguous, with the mother never really finding out — for sure — what happened to him (though it seems likely he is dead). That’s real life, but it makes for a depressing movie. All-in-all, good but not great, and not nearly as intriguing as you might think. Horrible title, too.

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Fri, Oct 17, 2008

: Max Payne

This was a disappointing and strange movie. The film has an identity crisis. It’s filmed like a comic book adaptation, but the plot is strictly real-world: all the “otherworldly” stuff you see in the promos that made it look intriguing turn out to be drug-induced halucinations. The story is trite: a cop whose wife and child were killed three years earlier is still seeking justice, and his investigation eventually lead him to a dangerously addictive drug developed at the pharmaceutical company where his wife worked. The drug turns some people into super-soldiers; the rest it causes severe halucinations that cause suicide. Apparently his wife was killed to protect this secret. It’s all rather predictable, and though the movie is shot with some interesting flair and visuals, the weak story and average characters pretty much render the look moot. It’s all flash without content. Avoid.

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Wed, Oct 15, 2008

: Body of Lies

I wasn’t expecting to like this as it seemed like a serious drama with political overtones and crap about the war, but to my surprise it turned out to be an excellent movie. There’s a lot more action than I expected, and though it’s talky at times, it’s fascinating talk, and it moves at a good pace. What really impressed me is that the plot is convoluted and yet I had no trouble following the story — they do an excellent job at conveying exactly what being a spy in the Middle East is like. The plot follows an American spy as he attempts to locate a certain terrorist leader, but the way they go about it is tricky and complicated, creating a fake terrorist that will make him jealous and draw him out. There’s a subplot involving the leader of the Jordanian security force who may or may not be an ally, and my favorite subplot which had the American romancing an Iranian woman living in Jordan. The romance was nothing like American-style dating: in one scene the man offers to shake the woman’s hand after a dinner and she refuses, for her sister is watching, and such “intimate” contact would be inappropriate, of course. Great stuff, with a dramatic ending, and some excellent performances.

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Fri, Oct 10, 2008

: The City of Ember

This is an interesting and unusual film: it seems like a special-effects driven fantasty-type movie, but it’s not that at all. It’s very low-key, in fact, and though I rather liked that, I can imagine some people going away disappointed. The story is simple and almost elegant: Ember is an underground city apparently created when disaster destroyed the world above ground and after 200 years, the people are supposed to return to the surface (which should be safe by then). But those instructions were forgotten over time and now the people of Ember are barely aware an outside exists. They struggle for existence that has grown more and more difficult as their technology fails, in particular the generator that provides the city with light and power. Two teenagers, a boy and a girl, are our heros who discover the secret instructions on how to leave the city and they lead the people to a new world. Again, no magic or fantasy here — though the film has that sort of feel with giant insects, weird gadgets and machines, and strange people. I loved the look of the film. The attention to detail in creating Amber is incredible, with crazy-looking machines made from leftover parts and a falling apart city. It’s a cool mixture of low- and high-tech, similar to films like Brazil. The cast is great, the girl especially, though I found Bill Murray’s silly-yet-evil mayor character to be out of sync with the rest of the film (like finding slapstick in a drama). I really enjoyed the movie but I can see how it’s not for everyone’s taste. It reminded me a lot of Arthur and the Minimoys, except that it’s live action and not animated, in the sense that it has similar flaws. I relished the non-Hollywoodism of the film: I like it being less flashy and fancy, with a simpler more realistic story. Recommended.

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Thu, Oct 09, 2008

: Blindness

In some ways this film was exactly what I expected: the plot is a bare bones tale based on the premise that literally, every person in the world suddenly goes blind. In other ways this film was not what I expected: it is violent, gory, distasteful, and extremely grim. The film works hard to make its premise as realistic as possible and while it succeeds extremely well at that (both with script, sets, and acting) — at times it felt like a reality TV show, that dozens of blind people were quarantined and filmed to see how they would react — that realism is so unpleasant the film at times is almost not watchable. Some of the things that happen are outrageous — and even though they are totally realistic — they are not things we want to see. Basically picture a terrified government simply putting all the newly blind people into quarantine at gunpoint. There they have to fend entirely for themselves. Food is provided, but soon there are shortages, and the blind people fight over who gets the food. The place and the people soon become filthy — they cannot see the filth to clean it up — and we get to watch them stumble through garbage and feces. Yes, great fun. This is an intense film, not at all for the squeamish, and it definitely makes you think. But it is too long, too dark, and has such a one-note concept that can’t explore much depth. You feel exhausted and dirty when you emerge. Perhaps that was the intent; if so, that was a mistake. The film has some fantastic moments, awesome performances, and an incredible script. It’s a very good movie in terms of being well-made. But it is not pleasant. It reminded me a lot of films like 28 Days.

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Fri, Oct 03, 2008

: Flash of Genius

I read some critics dissing this because of the subject — the invention of the intermittent windshield wiper — but that’s exactly what made me want to watch it! First, I love inventions, and even something so inoccuous as the intermittent wiper still requires genius. Second, I remember hearing about this case on the news when the guy one the lawsuit against Ford. I didn’t remember the details, but I remember at the time thinking that it sounded like a cool story. The film overdramatizes things a bit, having the loving-but-exasperated wife leaving the husband because he’s so obsessed with winning his lawsuit against Ford, and of course the story’s somewhat predictable and tries too hard to make up for that with style and drama, which just weakens the content that is there. The film’s 30 minutes too long and tends to feel more like a TV movie than a big screen feature. All that said, however, it has some compelling characters, excellent acting, a good story, and a happy ending. I liked it, though I wouldn’t call it a classic.

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: Appaloosa

At the end of this movie as we were leaving the theatre, I heard another view say, “Well, it’s no Unforgiven.” I started laughing, for that was exactly what I’d been thinking. It sure feels a lot like Unforgiven, but it doesn’t live up to that classic. It’s still a good movie and an above average Western. It’s got some unusual characterizations that I found fascinating, especially the character of the woman (Renee Zellweger in a terrific performance) who is so confused even she isn’t sure what she is. Is she a whore, a lover, or a wife? Which does she want the most? She’s a tragic figure, extremely sympathetic, though we don’t like what she does (she doesn’t either but does it anyway). The other thing I found intriguing is that the film ends happily. I was totally expecting a grim “there will be blood” violent and tragic conclusion to everything, but instead the film unexpectedly has everything work out for the best. Yet the ending is not at all artificial or forced; it’s just clever and appropriate. Others will write about the mood of this film, the great acting, the slender storyline, the cool action, and maybe some other positives and negatives, and they’re probably right in whatever they say. I still liked the film, though it was overlong and had moments of dullness, but while it tries hard, this movie doesn’t quite measure up to Unforgiven.

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Mon, Sep 29, 2008

: King of Hearts

This is a classic French film I first saw in a film class back in the 1980s. It’s wonderful, one of my favorite films of all time. It’s set at the end of WWI (I, not II), in a small town where the Germans have left leaving behind a bomb that will destroy the entire town. But their plot has been leaked to the British and so they send in a soldier to disarm the bomb. He’s selected because he speaks French, not because he knows anything about explosives. But meanwhile the town has been evacuated, except for the residents of the looney bin, who escape and take over the town. Thus when the soldier arrives he thinks the crazies are the regular townspeople and when he uses obtuse code words the gibberish he gets back drives him batty. No one can understand anyone! That’s just the beginning of the chaos, of course, as the film mocks the “rationality” that brings people to shoot each other and in the end, insanity seems the much saner choice. Extremely witty, clever, and wonderful. A must see film.

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: Eagle Eye

I’ll begin by warning you that I am about to reveal spoilers from the plot, so if you don’t want to know the specifics, don’t read this post. I must reveal things because the most significant aspect of the movie for me involves that, and I can’t discuss it without revealing the details. The plot, in short, involves two regular people (a guy and a girl) getting strange phone calls with a woman’s voice ordering them to obey and threatening dire conseqences if she is not obeyed. For instance, the girl’s son will be killed if she doesn’t obey. The guy they have set up with money in his bank account and bomb equipment in his house, so he’s suddenly wanted by the FBI as a terrorist. Realizing that the two are being framed and set up by the mysterious voice, I went along with that: it made sense. However, there were two things that bothered me. One, the caller, who seems almost omniscient, is able to remotely control just about any kind of electronic or mechanical device in the area, from digital signage to robotic cranes. The action is so fast-paced and non-stop, I was sceptical that any group of hackers would have the ability to keep up with the spontaneous action. The second thing that bothered me was there was a ruthless impersonability from the caller: she does things like tell the boy he has ten seconds to obey her radical instructions and of course he does not, causing all hell to break loose and he almost getting killed. I was like, “Does she not care if he succeeds? Why not call him a minute earlier and give him more time to absorb the concept?” But later in the film the movie’s big “secret” is revealed: that the caller isn’t a woman but a machine, a new government supercomputer who plotting her own agenda. Now granted that’s an old saw and utterly unrealistic, a myth propogated by people who are afraid of technology, but I did like that now the woman’s unrealistic expectations of obedience made sense. As an artificial intelligence, she cannot understand that humans sometimes make the illogical choice. So in the end I actually liked this gimmick, which surprises me, as usually I would think of it as a cop-out. Part of the reason this works is that the plot to control all these various people is quite ingenious, as basically you have different people each doing an innocuous task that somehow contributes to the main scheme. That’s very cool and interesting. The action isn’t bad, and the film definitely moves non-stop, and overall I liked it. It’s nothing too profound and the AI gimmick is ridiculous, but at the same time, it’s done well enough that you can suspend your disbelief and go along with it for the ride. Fun.

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Sat, Sep 27, 2008

: From Noon to Three

Funny little western with Charles Bronson as an inept bank robber who takes a woman hostage, makes love to her, and then is caught and shot. Or so everyone thinks — in reality he switched clothes with another man and ended up in prison for something that guy did, but he must keep his real identity secret. Meanwhile, the woman writes an international best-seller about the three hours she spent with a notorious villain, turning him into a legendary outlaw. The hilarious part is that when the man gets out of prison no one believes he is who he says he is — everyone who once knew him has the dashing villain in the book in mind and thinks he’s an imposter! Even the woman! Fun stuff.

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Fri, Sep 26, 2008

: Cinema Paradiso

Terrific film. This is one of those films I’ve wanted to watch forever but never got around to it; I think I had the utterly wrong impression about what it was about. It’s about a little boy in Italy in a small town where the only entertainment is the local movie theatre. The boy becomes friends with the projectionist, who teaches him some valuable life lessons, and eventually the boy takes over for him. The film looks at the boy’s entire life in flashback, as a small boy, as a teenager falling in love the first time, and as a successful adult, coming back to the town to see how life has changed. Throughout the film we see clips of classic movies which establishes the time period and the mood, and shows the changing of morals over the years. Amazing.

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Sat, Sep 20, 2008

: Gambit

Amusing little Michael Caine/Shirly Maclaine vechicle from the 1970s, where he plays a thief trying to steal a stature from the richest guy in the world and brings her alone to help him with his scam. Some nice moments and some unexpected twists.

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Fri, Sep 19, 2008

: Heaven’s Gate

Interesting Western from 1982 that I had never seen. This was the four hour extended version in high definition and I’m glad I saw it. It apparently bankrupted the studio it was so overbudget as the director was such a perfectionist. It’s easy to see why: it’s epic in scale and lush photography with huge scenes with hundreds of extras. The story is set in the 1870s in Wyoming as several college buddies end up on different sides of a dispute. Some work for the cattle barons who are upset at the stolen cattle being eaten by local immigrants who are starving. A death list is producing with 125 people on it: they are to be shot on sight. The sherrif is against this and fights the barons, and we basically end up with a war: hundreds of immigrants against hundreds of hired guns. It’s chaos, bloody, and horrible. Another plot line deals with the sherrif and another man both involved with the same woman, a prostitute who can’t decide which man she loves more. The two are at odds initially, but end up on the same side when her name shows up on the death list (she has accepted stolen cattle meat as payment for her services). Overall, I found the plot not that profound, though it was fascinating and educational. What really impressed me was the direction and photography, which is amazing. My favorite scene is near the beginning when an immigrant is gutting a cow behind a sheet curtain. We see the silhouette of a cowboy loom up on the white sheet, then the barrel of a rifle. Then there’s an explosion and the immigrant is lying bloody next to his cow, and we see the cowboy ride off on his horse as we watch through the large hole in the sheet. Stunning.

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Thu, Sep 18, 2008

: Mr. Monk in Outer Space

Author: Lee Goldberg

Another excellent Monk book. In this one Monk has to find the killer of the creator of a 1970s sci-fi TV show with a cult following… basically a clone of Star Trek. Monk has a real hard time relating to these “freaks” who dress as aliens and have their ears surgically altered, but it gets worse when he discovers that his brother Ambrose — a shut-in who hasn’t left his house in 30 years — is a huge fan of the show and has written half-a-dozen books about it (including a language guide). To solve the mystery Adrian must use his brother’s expertise of the show. As usual, there is plenty of Monkism, and the TV show stuff is funny, but though extremely well-done, everything’s a bit milder than usual — I didn’t find myself laughing out loud the way I have with other Monk books. Perhaps I’m just getting used to the character or expecting too much? The murder mystery part of things is also well-done with clues and good Monk solutions, but it too felt a bit too basic. I also wasn’t crazy about the action-involved ending, which had Monk in jeopardy for his life as he insanely confronts a hit man. That doesn’t sound too Monkish to me — he’s terrified of pillows, so wouldn’t he call for backup? But still: this is classic Monk and it’s never bad and if you’re a fan of the series, you’ll want to read this.

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Fri, Sep 12, 2008

: Burn After Reading

Director: Coen Brothers

Hilarious Coen brothers’ romp about spies and amateurs colliding. The plot’s a bit too complicated to explain entirely, but basically we’ve got a drunken spy who retires/is fired and decides to write his memories. A CD of his book gets into the hands of two gym works who think the information is classified stuff and decide to blackmail him. In the middle of this we have married spies having affairs and other chaos, and basically the CIA can’t figure out what’s going on aren’t sure what info is where and must assume the amateurs actually know what they are doing and are real threats. The end result is a lot of nasty people fighting and dying, and it is quite hilarious. Unfortunately, the story peters out at the end and the finish is disappointing. The whole thing is a little uneven and tends to promise more than it delivers. I went away wanting more, but it’s still classic Coen brothers and is worth seeing.

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Thu, Sep 11, 2008

: Crater Lake

Today my cousin and I stopped by Crater Lake for a few hours on our way home from Ashland. It was a gorgeous day and we hike around the lake for a mile or two. I hadn’t been there since I was a small child — it is a breathtaking place. I recommend it for a visit! Here are some pictures I took.

[Click thumbnail for larger view]

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Wed, Sep 10, 2008

: Comedy of Errors

Author: Penny Metropulos

This is absolutely the worst production of any kind I’ve ever seen in over twenty years of attending the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. My frustration stems from the fact that I wasn’t warned this was a radical departure from the original script. If I’d come prepared for something different my reaction might have been different. As it was, I was devastated.

The most major flaw in this production is that it makes too many changes. Sometimes changes are good: they can refresh a tired play, modernize it, bring forth a new perspective, make you see it in a new light. But this version attempts far too many radical changes and utterly destroys anything worthwhile in the original play.

The first change is that this uses a Western setting, moving the characters from Europe to the American Wild West. If that had been the only change, this could have succeeded brilliantly. Unfortunately, the director (or directors, as this felt like several conflicting collaborators were involved) chose to all make this a musical. Yes, that’s correct: a musical. The production is filled with music that is not even in Western style, with modern lyrics that don’t use Shakespeare’s poetry, and songs that don’t make sense or add to the production at all.

Now I’m not anti-musical. I love musicals, if they are done well. This was not. While some of the songs were well sung, only one was even slightly memorable, and the rest were indistinguishable from each other. Worst of all, there was no point to these songs. Do cowboys spontaneously break into song? Yeah, that’s what I think about when I think of the Wild West… cowboys singing.

Another flaw was the bizarre introduction of multiple ethnicities into the play. For example, the play was narrated by a Mexican mariachi singer. He often spoke rapid Spanish and his English was so accented he was difficult to understand, ruining the whole point of adding a narrater character. Also included was a Chinese man with similar flaws of speech who strangely read modern-sounding fortune cookie fortunes. Another character was made into an Italian tonic-seller, an awkward combination of immigrant and classic Western quack who seemed utterly out of place and useless.

Through-out the piece modern language was mixed with Western terminology, so that along with with ethnic languages, the audience is expected to follow and understand a confusing variety of styles: Shakespearean poetry, Western drawl, modern singing, Mexican Spanish, Chinese English, Italian English, etc. The result is that it was a real challenge to understand anything: I had to concentrate hard to follow the play, which reduced the humor considerably as I couldn’t relax.

It didn’t help that about half the actors were obviously cast because of their singing abilities rather than their ability to perform Shakespeare. That doesn’t mean they’re bad actors, but performing Shakespeare does require a different kind of talent (making poetry sound like natural speech). This cast butchered what little Shakespeare was left after the changes and additions; I could hardly hear or understand them much of the time, and in an identity farce like “Comedy of Errors” that is not a good thing.

In short, this was a disaster. I laughed exactly four times during the first half, and once in the second. I had not thought it could get worse in the second act, but it did, dwindling into a horrible vaudeville act of slapstick and exaggerated “comic” reactions. It just was not funny. I kept wanting to laugh, but the play gave me nothing. The few times I did laugh were all due to Shakespeare’s witty dialog, not anything new to this production. The fact that the biggest laugh of the night came from someone in the audience sneezing in the silence before the second act shows how everyone was filled with pent-up laughter wanting to be released. (Some people liked the slapstick or the songs, but I was so depressed by the desecration of Shakespeare that I couldn’t enjoy anything. It was merely excruciating, like watching vandals destroy your most prized possession and being helpless to stop them.)

If I’d been warned that this play was so radically different from Shakespeare’s original I might have come prepared and been less critical. I’m sure I would not have liked it, but at least I would not have felt cheated. As it is, I feel betrayed by OSF — they sold me tickets to William Shakespeare’s “Comedy of Errors” and gave me no Shakespeare, no comedy, only errors.

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Tue, Sep 09, 2008

: Our Town

Author: Thorton Wilder

It’s has been a while since I’ve seen this and it’s one of my favorite plays, but for some reason this particular OSF (Oregon Shakespeare Festival) production left me a little flat. I’m not sure if they made some subtle changes that didn’t work me as well, or if the impact the play had on me the first time was so extraordinary that subsequent viewings would always pale in comparison. Overall, this was excellently done: the acting was superb (with several known stars such as the VP from Boston Public and even the “Log Lady” from Twin Peaks). Some of the pantomime was weak: one tall man leading a cow kept patting the cow’s head well above his own, making the cow something like nine feet tall! A few other places didn’t have too much emotional impact for me — I think the Emily character was weakly done — but overall the play itself is a fascinating look at small town life and the way life meanders. Recommended despite a few flaws.

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: A View from the Bridge

Author: Arthur Miller

Fascinating play by Miller that’s one of his best but least known. It’s set in working class New York City in the immigrant community in the 1950’s (I think that’s the timing) and deals with subtle interpersonal relationships between families and visitors. The main story is about an uncle who dislikes the immigrant boy his neice his seeing and reports him to the authorities so he’ll be deported, a shocking betrayal of the community. This was an excellent OSF (Oregon Shakespeare Festival) production.

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Mon, Sep 01, 2008

: Canadian Bacon

Director: Michael Moore

Another cult classic I had never seen; I didn’t realize until the opening credits this was written and directed by Michael Moore. I can’t stand him lately, but this is in his earlier period when he was at least somewhat balanced and much funnier. This is pretty good, too, though too uneven to be a great film. The premise is that the U.S. president is down in the polls and the economy is tanking, so he conjures up Canada as the new red threat (a little bit like Wag the Dog, though that’s a much better film). If this film had concentrated on that premise it would have been better; unfortunately it tries for broader comedy with slapstick and farce with a moron American sheriff trying to attack Canada himself and a bunch of other silly nonsense. The film is definitely biased, but not as much as you’d expect: there are humorous jabs in both directions (something Moore doesn’t do any more and his work suffers because of it). The bottom line: fun

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: The Ballad of Cable Hogue

Director: Sam Peckinpaw

This is a much better Peckinpaw film: it’s lighter with a comedic element that’s refreshing, and I really liked it until the very end, when it spoiled the fun by ending on a sour note that is out of line with the rest of the movie. The basic premise is about an old man who is left to die in the desert by two “partners” but he finds water and realizes that’s his chance to make it. He stakes a claim and sets up an oasis, charging travelers for water. Jason Robards is the title character and he’s fabulous, just absolutely wonderful. He’s cranky and stubborn, ornery, mean, and quick to smile when you least expect it. There are a few other interestig characters, like the prostitute girlfriend, but Cable stands alone and carries the movie. Very cool and fun and except for the downer of an ending that’s so unexpected and odd, it’s a great film.

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Sun, Aug 31, 2008

: Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid

Director: Sam Peckinpaw

An old western about former friends where one is now the sherrif and must hunt down the other. Has some dramatic moments and characteristic Peckinpaw violence (I’m not a fan of the ultra-red blood which looks too fake and takes me out of the scene), but the story meanders too much, the inevitable conclusion takes too long to arrive, and in the end I just wasn’t that moved by the “friendship” of the two gun slingers.

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Fri, Aug 29, 2008

: Vicky Christina Barcelona

Author: Woody Allen

Director: Woody Allen

Odd movie, which I sort of expected. It has wonderful dialog and performances, but the story is slight and the ending is too much like real life, which is either boring or depressing. Still, it was an interesting ride: I’m not sorry I saw it, though I do wish it had a conclusion that actually went somewhere. The basic plot is about two American girls in Spain who meet a radical painter and both fall in love with him, though of the girls is about to be married. Of course that leads to all sorts of love triangles and complications, and it gets even worse when the artist’s violent ex-wife returns and we have a threesome. It is an unusual character piece and I really liked some aspects of the main characters: we see Vicky’s inability to decide what she wants, Christina’s search for fulfillment, and the painter’s doomed love affair with his ex. But ultimately, despite this wonderful canvas and palette of colors, nothing comes of anything.

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Wed, Aug 27, 2008

: Notes from Underground

Author: Fyodor Dostoyevsky

This is a terrific understated Dostoyevsky novel about a strange man who overanalyzes everything in life and proceeds to tell us about it. He’s an absurdity, with certain instrospective insights and alienation taken to the extreme limit, and the result is a classic character whose thoughts will make you ponder life, the universe, and everything. Definitely the type of thing you can read multiple times and get more from each time.

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Tue, Aug 26, 2008

: I Shot Andy Warhol

I was curious about this because I don’t know much about Andy Warhol, but unfortunately this is really about a bizarre feminist who shoots him for no real reason (she’s pretty much angry at the world). The whole movie is about her, but though she has some interesting characteristics, she’s so nasty and mean and bizarre that I just don’t care about her and thus I don’t care about the movie. By the time I got to the end I was just terrifically glad the movie was over. I kept thinking that perhaps she was a genius or special or something, but eventually I just decided she was a nutso feminist who hated men (for no real reason) and I can’t figure out why anyone bothered to make a film about her.

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Mon, Aug 25, 2008

: Audrey Rose

I’d never heard of this film but it stars a 1970-era Anthony Hopkins, so I recorded it. It’s got an interesting idea: a man (Hopkins) whose daughter has died, claims another couple’s daughter is his reincarnated. The “evidence” to prove this is flimsy: a psychic’s information, the new daughter being born at the same time his daughter died, and the new daughter suffering from strange visions and physical manifestations of being burned. The latter doesn’t make any sense at all, but supposedly fits because the first daughter was burned to death in a car accident, so the new daughter is flashing back to that previous memory. It’s all a little hokey and overly dramatic, but it’s seriously approached and mostly low-key, and there are some fascinating moments (my favorite was when Hopkins’ character approaches the family to explain why he’s been stalking their daughter as the tension and drama in the scene was interesting). Unfortunately the little girl in question is one of the worst actresses I have ever witnessed — she varies from looking cute and innocent to screaming insanely as she’s “possessed” by the soul of the previous girl and she can’t really pull either off believably and her screaming is unbearably annoying (I had to mute the TV at times). In the end the plot gets odd as the whole thing ends up in court where the jury will decide who’s the daughter’s father. (How many horror films are set in a courtroom?) The bottom line: an interesting piece for its time and some of the actors, but extremely uneven, a bit too strange, and definitely gimmicky.

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Sun, Aug 24, 2008

: Red Dawn

This is one of those films I’ve heard about but never saw: it’s actually not that bad. It assumes that the Russians have invaded the USA (this was made back in the 80s) and they take over a small Colorado town were several teens escape into the mountains and survive as guerilla warriors and become national heroes as rebellion leaders. The most interesting thing is the cast of soon-to-be big stars, like Patrick Swayze and others, but the acting is hideously poor, the premise too outlandish, and the film alternates between slow and boring and fast and mildly interesting. The result is okay and has some good moments and neat ideas. I can see why it’s somewhat of a cult classic, but it’s also easy to see why it’s not more famous.

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Mon, Aug 18, 2008

: Eyes of Laura Mars

Author: Brian DePalma

Old 1970s horror flick with Faye Dunaway as “Laura Mars,” an edgy fashion photographer who starts seeing murders from the killer’s viewpoint as they are happening. Apparently she has some sort of psychic link with him, and her visions have been subconsciously effecting her work for years. Kind of a neat idea, but too gimmicky, and the “surprise” ending is more weird than creative. Okay. It might have been innovative 30 years ago, but feels dated now.

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Sat, Aug 16, 2008

: May

Strange black comedy about a bizarre afflicted girl named May who’s been damaged by her domineering mother and grows up to be weird and struggles to make friends so she kills them and stitches the body parts together to make a “perfect” doll to be her friend. It’s got some good moments, but it’s a little too realistic in the murders and serious tone to be a comedy and in the end it’s just depressing. My favorite moment was the very cool art movie the girl’s boyfriend directs and shows her: it’s black and white and starts out as a cute couple having a romantic date and then start getting physical, and suddenly the two are biting chunks of flesh out of each other and ripping off limbs — hilarious. (May’s reaction is to take the film literally, as though that’s actually how people make love, and she’s puzzled when her boyfriend rejects her.) Worth seeing if you like strange.

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Fri, Aug 15, 2008

: Tropic Thunder

This is not exactly a pleasant film — it’s raunchy, foul-mouthed, violent, gory, and has a lot of angry characters — but it is hilariously funny. The premise is brilliant: it’s about the making of a Vietnam war film called Tropic Thunder with an eclectic collection of big Hollywood stars who are each parodies of Hollywood stereotypes (action hero, brilliant method actor, rapper-turned-actor, fat comic/drug addict, etc.). Of course with that bunch, the film’s a mess, and with a multi-million dollar bomb on his hands, the desperate director dumps his actors in the Vietnamese jungle so they can get a dose of “reality.” Unfortunately, it turns out the remote location he picked is full of real-life millitant drug dealers, and so the actors, still thinking they are filming a movie, are suddenly in a real gun battle. What makes the film work and be so originally funny is a combination of the parodies of Hollywood actors, producers, agents, etc. and the hideously bad movie they are making, and the brilliant cameo roles by numerous A-list stars which lend a realistic feel to the film. Many stars play such opposite roles that you can hardly recognize them. Tom Cruise steals the show as a fat, balding, foul-mouthed, encentric billionaire who’s financing the film, but there are many others. It’s worth seeing just for that! But it’s a lot of fun plot-wise, too, as the actors learn to be real action heros. This film is sort of a cross between the innovative humor of the original Airplane! and more modern shock comedies like Something About Mary. It’s outrageous, but it’s also outrageously funny.

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Thu, Aug 14, 2008

: Point Blank

This is an old Lee Marvin flick from the 1970s. He’s a criminal who is betrayed by his wife and his best friend who shoots him and leaves him for dead and he comes back for revenge. It reminds me of the excellent Mel Gibson film, Payback, but it’s lower key and the violence is less violent. This one isn’t bad, but it’s not great either. It’s got some neat moments but overall it’s not a classic or anything.

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Sat, Aug 09, 2008

: Fallen

This is an older Denzel Washington picture I liked and hadn’t seen in years. It still holds up fairly well, though it’s too gimmicky to be a great film and the “trick” ending isn’t much of a trick. The basic premise is that an evil demon is responsible for a series of killings which get blamed on his host. A cop (Denzel) has put away the man, but after the man is executed, the demon takes a new host and begins killing again… and it’s the same M.O., which causes the cop to investigate as people are wondering if the original killer was wrongly convicted and executed. It’s a neat idea, because the demon can switch from host to host at will, so we have a cop seemingly going after random people and his bosses can’t figure out what he’s doing. Unfortunately, beyond that central gimmick, the film doesn’t offer much, and the ending, while it tries to be clever, isn’t — and it’s a bit too grim to be satisfying. Still, a fun psychological thriller.

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Wed, Aug 06, 2008

: Red

Author: Jack Ketchum (book)

This is a new film based on Jack Ketchum’s novel and it’s excellent. It tells the slow tale of an old man whose dog is pointlessly killed by a punk rich kid who thinks it’s nothing. But the old man won’t let it go and tries criminal and legal proceedings and eventually takes the law into his own hands. It’s a fascinating character study, a deep look at revenge and motivation, and is extremely well-acted and produced. It’s not a fast or flashy story, but that fits the old man perfectly. Recommended.

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Sun, Aug 03, 2008

: The Great Gatsby

I’ve never read the book but saw this film on my HD movie channel and it’s really good. I liked the way the story seems so simple but is really deep. The story, set in the 1920s, is told from the viewpoint of an outsider, a young man just out of school and starting life, and observing the life of the super-rich around him. Gatsby’s his millionaire neighbor and Daisy is his beautiful cousin. It turns out Gatsby has a thing for Daisy and so our narrator ends up in the middle. It is then the mysteries start to unveil as we learn that Gatsby’s money may come from criminal enterprises and that Daisy rejected him years ago when he was young because he was poor. Now he’s rich and a good candidate, but she’s married. The tragic ending is sad but feels right and inevitable. It’s a thoughtful film I thought would feel ponderous, but it moves surprisingly well, and there are some terrific performances from a young Sam Waterson (the prosecutor on Law and Order) and Robert Redford is the consumate Gatsby.

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Sat, Aug 02, 2008

: THX-1138

Director: George Lucas

I saw this years ago — it’s George Lucas’ debut film — but watched it again to see how it holds up. I don’t know if this was a re-edit or updated version, but the special effects were extremely impressive and modern-looking in places. Like in the car chase seen I swear the stuff looked digital — so either it’s been recently enhanced or Lucas was a genius back in the 1970s. As far as the story goes, this is still just as bleak and depressing as ever. It’s quite remarkable that this movie got made. It’s set in a future where humans all take government mandated drugs to keep them docile, and the story’s about one man who rebels. But it’s not an exciting rebellion, since he’s sluggish and half-drugged, so the story’s not really an action film (except for a couple sequences) and is slow moving. The sets are and performances are the most fascinating. On this viewing I was also really impressed with the background dialog and “cinema verite” style Lucas used (much of the film we see is security camera footage), so we have things like technicians chatting about computer glitches and stuff — fascinatingly advanced for the early 1970s and well done. The film holds up astonishingly well.

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Fri, Aug 01, 2008

: The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

The earlier Mummy movies were kind of fun and this one tries to fit in with the tradition, but its campy feel, lame jokes, and pointless plot feel flat and tired. It’s not the worst movie ever made by a long shot and is mildly entertaining, but it’s disappointing compared to the previous ones in the series and that right there should tell you something.

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Thu, Jul 24, 2008

: Golf Day

After my hike earlier in the week I was exhausted, but managed to put in nine holes of golf today. My cousin was in town from New York and he hadn’t golfed in years either. He still did much better than me, but then he was better before we got out of practice. I didn’t do that badly, hitting a handful of decent shots, though I was dreadfully inconsistent. I didn’t do enough to get into any kind of rhythm, so obviously I need more practice. It’s great weather now, so I need do that more often as it’s good exercise and a fun physical and mental challenge.

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Tue, Jul 22, 2008

: Ocean Hike

Today I went to the Oregon coast and hiked nearly six miles! It was an overcast day, but still gorgeous, and the weather was cool and ideal for hiking. I went to Oswald West State Park and hiked out to Cape Falcon where I got some fanastic photos. I had a picnic lunch at the Cape and discovered I actually had cell phone coverage in that area and was able to surf the web and email photos from my iPhone! Lots of fun. Check out the photos linked above (which also include a previous hike up to Multnomah Falls I did last month).

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: The X-Files: I Want To Believe

I had little interest in this; the promos didn’t intrigue me at all and I only went because I liked the TV show. It turned out to not be that bad, but it’s not great, either. There’s a lot of weirdness: Gillian Anderson, while not looking bad, looks surprisingly old. Apparently her character and Fox Mulder are living (and sleeping) together, and they each take advantage of this being a movie and not a TV show to swear a few times for no good reason (and it feels odd). The plot is also strange: Mulder’s a runaway and the FBI bring him back in to help find a missing agent. They have a psychic who’s given them leads, but is he real or fake? Fox is the supposed expert, but it seems a flimsy reason to bring him in. After all, if the psychic’s leads work, why do they need Fox? And if they don’t work, what good is Fox? But the psychic gimmick does provoke some interesting debate over truth and the existence of God and such things; we get the irrational Mulder conflicting with the rational Scully, who’s now working as a doctor and struggling to deal with a terminal child she cannot help. I liked the debate, but as usual it’s just word games and there are no answers or conclusions, just more questions and mysteries. The plot turns out to be some sort of weird internal organ thief thing, which feels awfully small for a big screen movie. But at least there isn’t the dreaded “conspiracy theory” mantra that plagued the show. The first half of the movie is a bit too mysterious and muddled, but the latter half is more action (though of a low-key variety), which feels equally strange in that it’s such a change from the rest of the film. The best part is the middle, when Scully confronts the child molester-priest/psychic and he challenges her beliefs. It’s definitely an interesting film for fans of the series, but it’s still not the movie fans want (there are no answers).

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Mon, Jul 21, 2008

: Journey to the Center of the Earth

I didn’t hold out much hope for this as I figured it was a silly remake of the classic book, but it turned out to be a fun, hip, and tongue-in-cheek hommage. Instead of remaking the book, this movie is all new, but takes place in a world where Jules Verne’s books were based in reality. A scientist lost his brother who sought the center of the earth, and now he and his nephew end up on traveling there. It’s definitely silly with a number of B-movie type action sequences that are so far-fetched they are entertaining, but there’s a goodness at heart that’s endearing, and the movie is aware of it’s absurdity and that makes it not only tolerable but fun. This is not the kind of movie to ever win awards or anything, but it is remarkably entertaining. Two thumbs up.

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: World Without End

Author: Ken Follett

This is a “sequel” to Follett’s classic Pillars of the Earth. That one is an epic that covers a century or so of the building of a cathedral in 14th century England. This one is set about a hundred years later in the same town and features new characters, so it’s not a traditional sequel, but it’s an amazing story. Like the first book, it’s hugely long. I bought it in audiobook format and I’ve been listening to it for months every time I drive. It’s like six eight-hour parts! But the story is so good I wanted to drive just to listen, and sometimes I just parked in my garage and listened for a while. Follett is a master novelist and it shows with this masterwork as he artfully crafts wonderful characters from childhood to death, and he tortures us with disasters and challenges that face our heros and heroines, and he often lets bad people “win” in ways that are just like real life. The plot is slightly rambling as it’s merely the extended happenings of several people throughout their lives, but there are a few core characters and events. Basically there’s a genius builder whose ambition is to build the tallest building in England, but politics and greed seem to hamper his every progress as he struggles to get morons to heed his wise advice. The love of his life is Carice, the daughter of the town’s most prominent businessman, and she’s seemingly perfect to follow in her father’s footsteps and lead the town to glory, but when her plans threaten the wrong people, they attempt to kill her, and she’s forced into a nunnery to escape. There she discovers a new calling: medicine, as she ends up running a hospital and writing an acclaimed book on cures that actually work instead of ridiculous traditions like bleeding that weaken patients. Of course she’s constantly set back in her work as she’s a woman in a man’s world and isn’t “trained” as a doctor.

Throughout this story we are inside a wonderful ancient world that’s both astonishingly primitive and yet similar to our own. I found this educational and revealing as in a book of this magnitude and detail, you get a real feel of what live in the 14th century must have been like. There are so many tiny things we forget out in our modern lives, things we take for granted, like how our cities operate, the ability to print books and distribute information, and common medical knowledge — today even a child knows about germs and how diseases are spread. Then there’s more expert knowledge such as medieval building techniques: how do you build a spire or a stone bridge across a flowing river? Such engineering challenges with only primitive tools to work with is amazing and makes the accomplishments of our ancient bretheren that much more impressive.

I loved this book.

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Sun, Jul 20, 2008

: Veronica Guerin

Was this Cate Blanchett weekend or something? I’m not sure how this happened but somehow I ended up recording this movie as well, and it’s another terrific performance by Cate. She’s amazing as a tough Irish journalist who’s almost stupid in how brazenly she attacks the mob. Despite numerous threats and physical attacks, she keeps writing and naming drug dealers, and in the end she’s murdered, but her death sparks riots and the people drum the drug dealers out of town. Pretty cool.

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Sat, Jul 19, 2008

: Elizabeth

Another serious drama of the kind that reminds me of “health food” — good for you but tastes horrible. But I’m currently almost finished with World Without End, a book set in England in the 1300s, and that’s why I recorded this film on my HD channel. To my surprise, this turned out to be a fascinating film of political intrigue. You learn how Elizabeth’s promotion to queen was unexpected and everyone thought she’d be dead in a week, but somehow she survived assasination attempts and political actions and became a great queen. Very cool.

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Fri, Jul 18, 2008

: The Dark Knight

Sequels rarely live up to expectations, but I am pleased to report that this film is actually superior to Batman Begins. Batman Begins was good; excellent, even. But this one is great. The first movie had to deal with all the set-up business: how Batman became Batman, etc. In this one he’s still dealing with some of that, but it’s much more about him as a “real” crime-fighter. In this one the Joker is the arch-villain and his goal is simply to bring chaos to the city. That randomness and illogic is confusing to Batman and makes the Joker hard to stop: he does not have the same goals as regular criminals. I really liked the gradual build-up: the Joker seemingly is almost harmless at the start, but only later are we shown how evil and vile he really is. Such subtle evil suits his character perfectly; it is masterfully done. The late Heath Leger seemed like a bizarre casting choice to me, but he is excellent (and he’ll probably win the Oscar just out of sympathy). He brings a shrill hysteria to the role that is superb, along with an eerie calmness, grinning manically through his caked on clown makeup, that convinces you that he is psychotic. This is definitely not the silly Joker from the TV series. This guy is deadly and wickedly cruel.

I don’t want to spoil the plot much by revealing too many details, but I will just say that the conclusion is fantastic. Essentially Batman takes on the sins of another in order to hide the truth and protect the city from self-destruction. He knows that doing this will make people hate him, and it will mean he’s now a true vigilante, with the police trying to hunt him down as well as the bad guys. But that’s a price he’s willing to pay: he understands that that is the purpose and advantage of a faceless Batman, that he can be whatever people need him to be (hero, villain, weirdo, etc.). This conclusion fits in perfectly with the rest of the movie in which Bruce Wayne wrestles with the idea of revealing his identity. What bigger hero is there than a man who’s willing to be hated in order to save lives?

I loved this film. I liked the first one, but this tops it by a wide margin, and that’s saying a lot.

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Wed, Jul 16, 2008

: Baadasssss!

This is a movie about a movie: Mario Van Peebles wrote, directed, and stars in this pseudo documentary about his father Melvin’s controversial 1971 movie, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassssss Song, which was not only one of the first films directed by a black man, but one of the first successful independent films. This movie shows the long, hard road he had to haul to get there: trying to get white people to finance a film they couldn’t understand about a revolutionary topic (a black guy beats up corrupt white policemen and goes on the lam), hiring staff from the porn business so he could avoid the unions, using his own money, borrowing and begging and stealing, etc. It’s a terrific look at that era, at independent movie-making, and it’s also a character study of Mario and his relationship with his dad (who is portrayed with many flaws as he was so driven to do the film he hurt many people in the process). Apparently the original film isn’t the greatest movie, but it had a huge impact on the movie industry and started trends in films that still exist today. This movie also isn’t the greatest — it focuses a bit too much on the lurid details at times and possibly overcelebrates Melvin’s “greatest” as a director — but it is extremely interesting, especially if you’re curious about the movie industry or racial relations in the 1970s.

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Tue, Jul 15, 2008

: A Cry in the Dark

This is one of those serious dramas with awesome acting you’re supposed to see but like medicine, isn’t supposed to actually taste good. Therefore, though the actor in me wanted to see Meryl Streep’s fine performance, another part of me wasn’t too excited about seeing this. I actually recorded it on my HD movie channel several times and deleted it, but this time I finally got around to watching it, and you know what? This is an awesome movie! It’s not boring at all. It’s fascinating story. It’s based on real-life events that happened in Australia back in the early 1980s: a pastor and his wife, while vacationing in a rural area, have their baby daughter stolen by a dingo (a wild dog). The tragedy upsets the nation and spotlights the couple with media attention, but then the baby’s clothes are found, supposedly “folded,” and the police lab reports that the clothes have no dingo saliva on them. Suddenly the couple go from sad victims to murder suspects. Another key aspect of the story is that since the couple are religious and a little bit fantatical about it (vegetarian, etc.), people start to use that against them, with the police finding highlighted passages of scripture in the couple’s Bible that might implicate them, etc. We watch as the media circus hurts the couple and tries to tear them apart, and eventually there’s a big trial with the wife accused of murder despite little concrete evidence. It comes down to her personality: does the jury like her or think she’s capable of murdering her own baby? Well, she comes across as unemotional and detached, capable of calmly discussing a wild dog eating her baby, and the jury thinks that makes her seem guilty. Like I said, it’s a fascinating movie. It’s very similar to the hype and media sensation of something like the O.J. Simpson trial here. Definitely worth your time and highly recommended. And Streep as the wife is amazing.

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Fri, Jul 11, 2008

: Hellboy 2: The Golden Army

I liked the first one mainly for its sense of humor and this one continues that trend. It’s still a comic book movie with lots of action and special effects, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously. The creatures/mutations (or whatever they are) are also humorously inventive, so that the whole thing is a fun crazy ride instead of being implausible. The plot’s okay, but nothing special; this one is just one, especially Hellboy’s sarcastic and blunt approach to everything.

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Wed, Jul 02, 2008

: Hancock

(Spoiler alert: in order to cover this, I must reveal some plot points. You’ve been warned.) This is a confusing film. I don’t believe it knows what it is either. It wants to be a superhero film, but wants to be both a traditional one and a new and different and edgy one. Hancock is the Superman-like superhero (excellently portrayed by Will Smith) who is nasty, mean, and drunk. In his heroics, he often damages more than he helps, and the people hate him. Then a PR guy befriends him and tries to reform his image and make him into a hero people will like. There’s supposed to be some comedy in this, but it’s done in such a nasty, negative manner, with a lot of foul language and dark humor, that it comes across as more uncomfortable than funny. If the film had stopped there, it might have worked. But it goes off the deep end with a bizarre plot twist: apparently the PR’s guys wife, sheer coincidence, just happens to be another superhero, and one who knows Hancock’s real identity and story (he’s suffering from amnesia and doesn’t know how he became super). The two fight and we aren’t sure why and we don’t know who to root for, and since this takes up ten or twenty minutes of the film, we’re confused and disinterested for quite a while. In the end, things are explained (sort of) and everyone lives happily ever thereafter, but the ride to get there is bumpy. The special effects are cool, though often too fancy and fast to be visible, and are the main reason to see this. That and Will Smith’s performance (and Charlize Theron as the wife). Unfortunately, the film just doesn’t quite work or live up to its billing. It’s not terrible, just a little disappointing. The jokes fall flat, the plot is weak, and the gimmick of a superhero as a mean drunk and a jerk grows old quickly. Still, it has some fun elements and scenes and is okay if you’re not too discriminating.

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: The Human Stain

Author: Philip Roth

Fascinating exploration of the llife of a college professor whose career is finshed when he’s accused of making a racist remark. Through flashbacks of his life we learn about his former lovers and discover his great secret: his parents were black. He has kept this from everyone, including his wife of many years, because of the prejudice he suffered in his youth, and it’s a fascinating exploration of the psychological aspects of race and culture. The film’s slow and at least 30 minutes too long, but has some nice words and is interesting. Recommended.

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Mon, Jun 30, 2008

: Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

Author: Hayao Miyazaki

This is the seven-book series of graphic novels the animated film was based on; however, it’s so much more elaborate, it’s really a different story all together. I liked the books far more than the film, which felt generic in terms of plot. But with the books, you really get to see the elaborate and complicate world Miyazaki has created. In this future world, humanity has so poluted things that nature has taken over with huge forests, giant insects, and poisonous miasma that humans can’t tolerate. Nausicaa is the young female leader of a small, insignificant clan of people, and through an elaborate series of adventures, she uses her talent of being able to communicate with animals and her instinctual love of all living things, to halt a war and stop the destruction of the world. It’s an amazing and wonderful story and is highly recommended. The graphic novels were originally Japanese, so they read backwards, from right to left, which is odd at first, but soon is not an issue. Unfortunately, the black-and-white artwork varies in quality: most of the time it is excellent, but occasionally things are supposed to be in color (like when Nausicaa wears a blue dress) and other places the art is so sketchy and the reality so complicated that it’s confusing figuring out what is going on (like some of the battle scenes, with explosions and chaos). But that’s a niggling negative: overall this is an incredible, creative and fun, and far more worth your time than the movie. My cousin gave me the books at Christmas and I’ve been reading them every since, a few pages a day (about a book a month). Very enjoyable.

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Fri, Jun 27, 2008

: Wanted

This is an over-the-top action movie that is a lot of fun if you don’t take it too seriously. The special stunt effects are just as often funny as they are cool and are the main reason to see the film. The story’s too far-fetched and mysterious to be much more than a frame for the spectacular action. The premise is that 1,000 years ago textile merchants put together a secret society of assassins (why is not explained) who still exist today. These assassins have almost supernatural power (like the ability to shoot a bullet in a curve or slow down reality so they can do impossible stunts). The main character’s a nobody working in a dead-end office job who suddenly gets recruited into this society and is told his father was an assassin who was just killed by one of their own rogue members and it’s time he be trained to use his hidden gifts. The training is absurdly difficult (like knife fighting with real cuts) but the boy is motivated because he wants to go after the rogue assassin who killed his father. Of course nothing is quite like it seems, but there are so many holes and questions in the plot that the whole thing is a bit silly, but if you’re in the right mindset, the thing’s so much fun you don’t mind. Just go with the flow and ignore the stupidity and you’ll have a good time.

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: Wall-E

Pixar does it again! Another terrific film. This one is very different from previous outings: it’s more similar to some of their dialogless shorts as there isn’t much dialog. That means the story must be told via visuals and subtle character expressions. That’s even more challenging when the characters are various kinds of robots, but the team at Pixar have done a great job conveying subtle emotions. The story is occasionally slow, but when it’s going, it’s going great, with tons of fascinating background visuals and gags that will mean you can watch this over and over again and see things you missed each time. There are hilariously quick bits like a shot robotic “mice” that look like Apple Macintosh computer mice, or the Macintosh start-up sound that plays when Wall-E reboots. The story is simple and elegant. After the earth is overrun with trash, the humans all leave to tour the universe on a luxury cruiseliner while robots clean up the earth, but 700 years later, the earth is still a mess and only one lonely “Wall-E” model robot is left, still compacting garage. When robot probe “Eve” shows up Wall-E ends up traveling back with her to the cruiseliner where he saves the humans and becomes a hero. The interaction between the robots is extremely well done: each have their own personality and yet there is minimal dialog (Wall-E can’t even speak). Great for both adults and kids. Highly recommended.

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Fri, Jun 20, 2008

: Get Smart

This is one of those films that could be great or mediocre, but fortunately this one is more the former. It’s very funny and fun and well-done, with the character of Maxwell Smart perfectly running the borderline between idiotic stupidity and idiotic genius. It’s also different enough from the TV series to be new and interesting, yet similar enough to be enjoyable by old fans. Two thumbs up.

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Sat, Jun 14, 2008

: Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired

Fascinating documentary on genius director Roman Polanski and his legal troubles stemming from a case in the 1970s acusing him of having sexual with a 13-year-old girl. In short, he and the judge agreed to a plea bargain, but when the media criticized it, the judge backtracked and was not going to honor his decision, so Roman fled the country and has never been back to the U.S. where he is still subject to arrest. It’s a sad and complicated tale that has some gray areas. While it seems Roman did commit a crime, there is evidence that the sex was consensual, and though that does not make it right, when you consider Roman’s foreign background, it is possible he didn’t even realize what he was doing was illegal here in the U.S.A. (he apparently was very open with police officials in the investigation as though he didn’t think he’d done anything wrong). What’s really bizarre in this case is the judge, who was a publicity hound, and went along with public opinion while hanging out with celebrities. The bottom line is that the trial was a real mess from beginning to end, with excessive media coverage, the little girl wishing she hadn’t come forward, Polanski’s career damaged, and no satisfactory resolution for anything or any one. Even stranger, it sounds like the judge’s plan was to deport Polanski anyway, so the current result is about the same either way. Very strange situation and it brings up all kinds of things about how celebrities are treated. In some ways, Polanski got off easy — but there’s also the possibility that if he hadn’t been famous and wealthy and already tainted (his wife, Sharon Tate, was murdered by Charles Manson), the case would have been forgotten in a week, in which case it was his celebrity that made him a scapegoat. This is a good documentary but still leaves a few questions unanswered and unexplored, most likely because there are no answers, unfortunately. But as a glimpse into controversial history and a look at a rare artist, it is enlightening. Recommended.

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Fri, Jun 13, 2008

: The Happening

Director: M. Night Shyamalan

Shyamalan has made his reputation making suspense movies with unexpected endings. These have not always worked as they often rely too much on the gimmicky ending. They also can be inscrutible during the watching as you have no idea where the film is going or what is happening. This one follows the latter formula, but fortunately or unfortunately, it has no twist ending. Instead, the mystery is never fully explained. In a way, that is good: it’s different and it fits with the film’s message, but it’s also exasperating if you’re expecting a resolution. Instead you leave the film just as bewildered as before you went in! That said, I still liked the film. The premise is interesting — a toxin of some kind is causing mass suicides and panic spreads as people flee to towns to rural areas to escape, and we follow a couple and their friend’s daughter as they run away. No one knows why this is happening or how to stop it, which is the mystery which is never solved. But some of the characters are interesting (the wife and little girl are particularly good, though Mark Wahlberg as the man is poorly cast) and there are some shocks and frightening scenes which keep you intrigued. One thing Shyamalan did that was smart is to keep the film short: if it was longer than 90 minutes it would have felt too long. As it is, it’s just long enough to feel creepy and fascinated, but not so long as to get annoying. I ended up liking the film, though it’s certainly nothing remarkable. It’s mildly interesting and has some good scenes and an idea or two, but in the end, like most of Shyamalan’s recent films, it depends too much on a single idea and there’s not enough depth or story. As entertainment, it’s not bad, but don’t expect much. Get out of it what you can. I did and liked it, but your mileage may vary.

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: The Incredible Hulk

I did not like the Ang Lee movie and hoped this one would be better. The good news is that it’s more fun and more like the comic book hero, but it’s not a great movie — not even a great comic book movie. The story is much more traditional and linear. The opening sequence tells the tale of David Banner’s exposure to gamma radiation and we meet him hiding out in Brazil, searching for a cure for his “problem.” Of course the government catch up with him, the Hulk makes his appearance, all hell breaks loose, and in the end, the Hulk saves everyone. Nothing too earth-shattering storywise, but decent enough and well-done. The special effects are pretty good (the Hulk transitions are excellent) and even the digital Hulk’s acting is better than the Hulk on the TV show (Lou makes a fun cameo as a security guard). But the main villain of the story is a soldier who injects some Hulk DNA to turn himself into a Super-Hulk, and the two creatures have a climatic battle. Unfortunately, that’s a lame idea, and battle feels anti-climatic because duh, we know who must win. In the end this is not a bad movie. It’s fun and has some interesting moments, and I definitely liked it better than the previous version or the silly TV show. But just don’t go in with high expectations.

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Tue, Jun 10, 2008

: Kung Fu Panda

I loved the concept of this, but it’s one of those easily messed up ones and I half-expected it to be disappointing. Instead, I loved it! It’s silly and goofy and clever, but never too much of any of them. For instance, the plot is pretty obvious — a unlikely Kung Fu warrior, a fat panda bear, saves the world — and most movies would try to complicate that with pointless sub-plots or feeble attempts at a surprise ending. This movie just accepts reality and gives you plenty of other entertainment besides the predictable plot, and thus it’s just enjoyable, not annoying. The jokes are a bit, um, heavy on the fatness of the main character, but he’s so lovable and doesn’t seem to mind and even uses his fatness as a weapon and thus such humor doesn’t come across as negative or in bad taste and we feel comfortable laughing when the panda struggles to get up the 1,000-step climb to the Kung Fu headquarters at the top of the mountain. The violence in the film is cartoony and harmless (no one dies or is even injured) so the film is appropriate for youngsters, but there’s enough here that adults will find it pleasant. The conclusive moral is terrific as well: what makes you great is belief, not destiny or some secret charm. The film doesn’t get much deeper than that, but that’s just fine for this kind of movie. Lots of fun and you don’t have to be a martial art fan to enjoy it.

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Fri, Jun 06, 2008

: You Don’t Mess with the Zohan

Warning: this is a very funny movie, but it’s also extremely crude with a lot of sexual material. It is not a family movie and the trailers don’t hint at that and I feel a lot of parents will be unpleasantly surprised, especially compared to Adam Sandler’s tamer films. There’s just a lot of raunchiness here that’s unnecessary and distracting, which is disappointing, as the core story is hilarious — the premise is a top Israeli secret agent who fakes his own death so he can move to New York and become a hairdresser — and makes an appropriate mockery of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The casting is great, the sight gags are outrageous to the point of utter absurdity, and the whole thing would be a terrific goof except for the adult nature and crude humor scattered randomly through the thing. Not as bad as Borat, but similarly flawed. Disappointing, but only because it could have been terrific; in the end I still liked it more than I hated it.

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Thu, Jun 05, 2008

: To Live and Die in L.A.

Interesting gritty 80’s crime drama I somehow missed; it’s a very good tale about a Secret Service agent who will do anything, even break the law, to nab a ruthless counterfiter who killed his partner and mentor. The ending is grim and not expected, but realistic.

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: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

This is one of those films I’ve seen snippets of, but never the whole thing (at least that I remember). It’s a pretty funny story about two con artists trying to out-do each other. A lot of classic scenes but a tad uneven and occasionally slow. Great fun overall, though.

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Wed, Jun 04, 2008

: Cheaper by the Dozen 2

Slapsticky, routine sequel. Not unpleasant, but not one moment of originality.

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Fri, May 23, 2008

: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Director: Steven Spielberg

Though I’m a fan of the original films, I went into this not expecting much. It’s a sequel and the trailers I’d seen looked dorky and silly, and the title’s lame. But you know what? This is a terrific film! From the opening scene where the Paramount mountain logo fades into a gopher hole where a funny gopher pops up and looks around, you know you’re in the hands of a master film-maker. Spielberg still has it, folks. So many nice subtle touches, from interesting camera angles to the editing and superb special effects (which don’t overwhelm the story) give the film life and humor and make this a movie a celebration of the classic action/adventure (which is almost a forgotten genre today). For example, our first view of Indy is classy: we see his hat on the floor and see his arm reaching for it and we’re expecting to see him place it on his head in typical Indy style. But instead of just showing that, Spielberg shows us Indy’s shadow on a car door: we see Indy’s classic profile in silhouette and it’s like we’re home again, twenty years later.

The plot of the film is chaotic and wild and over-the-top, just like the other Indy films, but it works perfectly. It’s set a decade or so after the last film, so Indy is older, and this time the bad guys are Russians who are seeking a crystal skull which is purported to hold psychic power. They kidnap an old archeologist friend of Indy’s and it’s up to Indy to rescue him. Along the voyage we meet a rebellious kid on a motorcycle who turns out (of course) to be the son Indy didn’t know he had, and we meet the boy’s mother, too. The action is wild to the point of being absurd — in one scene the boy swings on vines through the jungle like Tarzan — but the whole thing is done with fun and verve and sheer childish delight that you don’t mind such silliness at all. In fact, you root for it and cheer the ridiculousness. Only Harrison Ford as Indy remains gritty and real, with a touch of grumpy old man, to balance out the fun and keep us sober, and the experience is just wonderful. I haven’t had so much fun at a movie in a long time. So many movies that promise fun deliver tedium or a sitcom laugh track. This one takes us back to a simpler time when good and evil were more clearcut and shows us a good old fashioned adventure. Two thumbs way up!

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Fri, May 16, 2008

: Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian

Author: C.S. Lewis

First, I preamble my comments with an explanation that I tend to see movies adapted from classic novels in two ways: as an adaptation and as a stand-alone film. As such, this film is okay as a stand-alone, similar to the first one, but poor as an adaptation. The main flaw is that it has a totally different feel than the book. The book is a light-hearted fun fantasy, while this is a grimmer, darker, more serious “action-adventure” film. In the book, the battles are barely described and almost a minor part of the story; here they have been expanded to 50-60 percent of the film. That’s not necessarily bad — the action’s decent and somewhat fun and exciting, though perhaps a touch violent for younger children — but it’s not the C.S. Lewis book we know and love.

I rather expected this. I reread the book the evening before and had decided it did not suit a big-budget film very well: not much really happens. In the book there are basically three events: the children are transported to Narnia, a backstory of what’s been happening in Narnia the past few hundred years is explained, and then there’s a climatic battle the children are involved with to help save Narnia. The problem with that structure is that in a movie, the main characters of the children would only be in a few scenes. The book’s also quite brief. So the producers fleshed things out by mixing things around and putting the events in a different order. Sometimes this makes sense, but other times not: for instance, Susan’s Horn (which magically pulls the children into Narnia) is blown not during the battle as in the book, but when Prince Caspian is running away from his uncle’s soldier’s. The dwarf is kidnapped at that time, not sent on a mission to find the children, and so later, when he does find the children, his reference to Susan’s Horn makes no sense at all since he wasn’t there when it was blown, didn’t even know Prince Caspian had it, didn’t even know Prince Caspian, for that matter! So the writers’ changed things around and messed up some plot continuity.

I was most disappointed by the film’s beginning, which dives right in with Prince Caspian’s escape from his uncle. While I understand the desire to begin with action, this approach means all the exposition and setup of the situation is explained in a rush, and we don’t get all the info we need to properly understand the story. I would have started with the Nurse telling the child Prince Caspian Narnian stories: the visuals would have a terrific montage to kick things off and it would have set up the current situation perfectly (talking animals are extinct, Prince Caspian’s uncle’s evil and hates true Narnians, etc.). As it was none of that is explained well and it’s explained only in pieces throughout the film, which is much more awkward.

But despite these flaws, the film’s not that bad. True fans of the book will be somewhat disappointed, but won’t hate the film. I was impressed that many important scenes are actually in the movie, and a few are actually better than the book. For instance, the temptation to dark magic scene is fleshed out in the film with a visual of the White Witch from the first film and King Peter looking tempted; in the book we’re only told that the hag’s magic is like that of the White Witch and the temptation is not quite as clear.

Overall, this is a decent film. The special effects are occasionally over-the-top but generally well-done, the acting and casting is excellent, the scenery is stunning, the story faithful enough to the source, and whole thing a decent amusement park ride. It’s definitely worth seeing just for the experience, though the book is still better.

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Fri, May 09, 2008

: Speed Racer

I wanted to like this, but it is indubitably the worst film of the year. Its first problem is that it is an uneasy mix of cartoon and live action and it just doesn’t work as the live action feels cheap and campy and the cartoony stuff feels to realistic for fun. The next problem is the script which is equally all over the map: the story is sophisticated and not cartoon-like at all (it involves match-fixing and stock market manipulation and touches on grown-up topics and ideas) but the characters are mere stereotype sketches and the dialog is cheesy camp. The one thing you’d think a film like this would get right would be the visuals and action, but sadly that’s the third thing wrong with this film, and it’s deeply wrong: the action is a blurry, indescribable mess, with the whole racing thing confusing and bewildering about what the heck is going on. The cars are supra-realistic and whatever future world this film is set in has its own set of physics that don’t make sense as cars pretty much do whatever they want (driving upside down, flying, driving down a mountain cliff, etc.). When you should be intrigued by the plot or excited about the racing, instead you are just bored and eager for the film to end (which it doesn’t, being well over two excruciating hours long).

The bottom line is that the film tries to be everything and ends up being nothing. It’s got elements of campy cartoon, serious action, and futuristic coolness, but everything is so ineptly blended together nothing works. Just terrible. Not merely poor, as big budget films often are, but really bad.

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Sat, May 03, 2008

: The Contender

This is a movie about the nomination process of the first female vice-president in U.S. history after the current VP dies in office. Fortunately, it’s realistically done, so we get an inside glimpse of all the dirty back-room dealings, subtle manipulations of public perception, and more. Like sausage, you don’t want to know how politics gets done. Unfortunately, that realism is also the movie’s flaw, for it can be quite tedious — like watching an afternoon of C-SPAN. For the political afficianado, it’s great. For those like me that abhor politics, it has its moments, but should have been at least thirty minutes shorter. Still, I loved the subtle way the politicians manipulated each other, and the ending was predictable but extremely well-done. I’d give it a B.

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Fri, May 02, 2008

: Ironman

Wow. I wasn’t expecting much of this at all, considering the level of most superhero adaptations, but this is pretty good. Very good, in fact. The overall plot is limited, but that doesn’t matter. What shines here is Robert Downey, Jr. in the lead role. He plays a billionaire playboy-slash-wonderkid who has inherited his father’s weapons company and believes he’s protecting the world with his weapons. When he’s kidnapped by rebels in Afghanistan he discovers they have all his weapons as his company sells them to both sides in the war. The rebels force him to build them a supermissle (improbable) but he builds a robot rocket-suit instead and uses it to escape. Back home, he announces the company is getting out of the weapons business and faces a battle with his own board of directors and company president. Meanwhile, he refines the suit idea and perfects it. Of course from scene one we knew that the bad guy was his friend and mentor, the real power at the company, and it is obvious to everyone but the main character that it was him selling the weapons to the enemy to prolong the war and escalate profits. The climax is ridiculous as the bad guy creates his own even bigger and better robot suit (lame) and of course there’s the big fight scene at the end. But despite many stereotypes, the film works. It works mostly because of Downey, who is magnificent as the guy you hate/love/envy/cheer for all at the same time. He’s both super and pathetic, weak and strong, genius and stupid, which is just like real life. His character allows us to ignore the plot’s failings and occasionally silliness and just enjoy the entertainment. The bottom line: totally a popcorn movie but above average with perfect casting. Lots of fun.

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Fri, Apr 25, 2008

: Deception

This is a forty-minute concept fleshed out into a two hour movie. It’s kinda interesting: a staid accountant accidentally swaps cell phones with a hip guy. When he answers the other guy’s phone, he finds himself in a mysterious sexual network where people on the list call each other for anonymous sex. This is a new world for this quiet man, who opens up and starts having sexual encounters all over the city. Then he meets his dream girl via the list but she vanishes and it appears she’s been kidnapped. Then the owner of the cell phone calls and it’s revealed he’s not out of the country, but has grabbed the girl — and he demands that the accountant steal $20 million for him or he’ll kill the girl. It’s all a setup. Of course there’s more to it than that, as the accountant has to turn the tables of the bad guy, but it’s all too predictable and the ending is just weird and makes no sense. (He walks off and leaves the briefcases in the park? Huh?) Ultimately, this has potential, but there are huge flaws in the direction and script that bring it down. Ewan McGregor is miscast, too: I don’t buy him as a wallflower accountant. The rest of the cast is decent, but there are just too many problems with this for it to matter. Nice idea, though.

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Thu, Apr 24, 2008

: The Forbidden Kingdom

Fun little martial arts movie. Not up there with the level of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but not bad. It starts off with a geeky modern-day kid who’s a Kung Fu movie nut getting beat up by bullies and he gets magically transported to a fantasy land of ancient China where he has a Task. Along the way he meets some friends and there are elaborate fights and such, culminating, of course, with him learning to defend himself, save the kingdom, and return home to beat the bullies. Yeah, the plot’s predictable, but the events are not, and it’s totally fun.

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Fri, Apr 18, 2008

: 88 Minutes

Yawn. The “88 minute” deadline is supposed to create dramatic tension, but instead it just complicates an already complicated muddle into gibberish. There are some good cast members and a handful of good scenes, but the whole isn’t there. Weak. Don’t waste your time.

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: Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed

This is Ben Stein’s anti-Evolution documentary and I purposely have avoided hearing much about it or any controversy. I wanted to judge it for myself. My first surprise is how much screen time the opposition is given. Most documentaries give minimal screen time for the opponent, but this movie has plenty of scenes of evolutionists explaining their ideas. Granted, sometimes it’s just unflattering bathering, but he does give them a voice.

The film’s premise is that evolutionists control science in this country and are systematically blacklisting scientists who write anything even remotely positive about Intelligenet Design. While the film shows a handful of examples of this, there’s not a lot of evidence that shows how widespread this is or isn’t, so I can’t really judge on that. However, the movie does a great job of pointing out the dangers of evolutionary thinking: evolution is inherently mindless and if we as a society adopt that mindset, we run the risk of eliminating everything that makes us human, such as morality and compassion. The film demonstrates this dramatically with a comparison to Nazi Germany, interviewing people who point out that Darwinism was the source of Hitler’s eugenics program and other beliefs. That might be over-the-top for some people, and it is difficult to watch, but I would argue that it doesn’t go far enough: society without God or purpose is doomed.

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Tue, Apr 15, 2008

: Street Kings

The promos of this didn’t interest me at all: a gritty crime drama of some kind with mysterious goings-on and good cops and bad cops and no suggestion of a story. But I went anyway and it turned out to be an excellent movie. I really liked the way it plays with shades of gray instead of black and white. Our “hero,” for instance, is a bad cop. He’s loose with the rules, violent, and racist. But he is honest, and when he finds himself in the middle of a cop cover-up, he’s determined to uncover the truth no matter what the cost. The ultimate bad guy is totally predictable, but the adventure of getting there is interesting, and there are a few surprises on the way. There are times when the film’s too talky and the plot slows, and occasionally scenes come across as pretentious, but it general this is surprisingly well-done and definitely will have you thinking about the complex morality of police work. Ultimately the subject is given short shrift, but just the exploration of it is worth the ride.

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Fri, Apr 04, 2008

: The Ruins

I wasn’t too interested in this film, but there wasn’t much else out there. It turned out to be better than I expected. The premise is a group of American tourists go off the beaten path to a hidden Aztec ruin only to meet gruesome deaths due to Something Awful. Typical of these kinds of horror films, they are killed off one-by-one, and I guess we’re supposed to be in suspense as to who will survive. It is the monster in this story that is different and unusual, and that’s pretty cool (I won’t spoil it by revealing the creature), and the characters, though somewhat stereotypical and not fully developed, are compelling enough to carry the film. There are a few surprises, but it’s still too predictable, and it’s more gory than scary. Still kinda fun, though.

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Fri, Mar 28, 2008

: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Author: John Hughes

Director: John Hughes

This is an old movie from the 80s. I probably first watched it 20 years ago. It holds up surprisingly well. On the surface it’s just your typical slapstick road movie with all kinds of chaos and bad things happening, but deep down it’s got some heart. It is serious without being serious and fun without being too stupid. I actually was very impressed by John Candy’s performance. He plays a buffoon, but with sincerity. It’s really quite remarkable. Steve Martin is always good. A great classic flick.

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: 21

This is a movie about the true story of MIT students who formed in a card counting club to gamble at blackjack in Vegas. They were led by their professor and the movie is the story of one young man who is trying to pay for his Harvard Medical tuition. Of course he gets greedy and wants more than the money he actually needs, and that leads to all sorts of trouble. The story is somewhat predictable, but it works. We like the main character and root for him to succeed. There isn’t really a whole lot of story here — it’s mostly the thrill of the high lifestyle of Las Vegas. But it’s fun and interesting, the performances are good, and the ending is typical Hollywood. I liked it.

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Wed, Mar 26, 2008

: The Books Are Here!

Today the shipment of my new book, Eat Big While Eating Lean, arrived! That means I can start fulfilling early orders and new orders will be sent out quickly. Check out the book and let me know what you think!

Topic: [/writing]

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Mon, Mar 24, 2008

: Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who

I had never read the original story, so I didn’t know what to expect, but I think I like the original story better than the movie. There are places where the movie has obvious Hollywood-isms. When the movie sticks to the original story (the places where narration is used), the movie works very well. But often the movie add silly comic sidebars that don’t work. But overall it’s still a rather harmless, entertaining movie. Kids seem to like it, but I’m not sure adults will get much out of it. The story is surprisingly mature for kids, in the sense that it’s about tiny creatures that live on a speck on a flower that an elephant is trying to protect. But the story’s theme is that all people, no matter how small, are important — and that’s a good lesson for kids.

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Sat, Mar 22, 2008

: Heading Home

The conference is over — it was great. Lots of neat people (really, really smart people), some great sessions that will make me a better programmer, and some fantastic new products. I cannot tell you how excited I am about Yuma. It’s a PHP replacement built using REALbasic as the language: not only does that make it much easier to program than PHP, but I can reuse existing code to easily turn my RB projects into web apps! Wow.

In other news, the new Association of REALbasic Professonals was formed and I have the honor of being elected as one of the five board members. I guess someone thinks I’m capable of something!

It’s now Saturday morning and in an hour I leave for the airport and my flight home. I sure hope it’s uneventful. I’ve had enough travel adventures this time to last me for a long, long time.

Topic: [/travel]

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: I Am Legend

Author: Richard Matheson

This is the book the movie was based on; I listened to the audiobook edition while traveling. It’s very different: the people are vampires, not mutants, and the story is hardly even similar, though there are occasional overlaps. For instance, a dog does die in the book, but it’s not the man’s only friend like in the movie, and the woman he meets has a different role and no kid. In some ways I prefer the movie version as the vampire thing seems sort of cheesy and unrealistic. (A plague that causes vampirism? Please.) But the book’s interesting and less gimmicky in plot than the movie.

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Wed, Mar 19, 2008

: REAL World 2008

Yesterday I got up at 4 a.m. to get ready for my flight to Texas. The news showed a picture of the U.S. with Oregon/Washington and Texas covered with rain clouds. “Great,” I thought. “The two places where I’ll be today.” Well, not so fast. After 90 minutes on the airplane, they kicked us off saying they had canceled the flight: tornadoes in Texas had shut down the Dallas airport. I was now in a queue of hundreds of others trying to make alternative arrangements. American Airlines had no other flights, but after 90 minutes on the phone, I’d managed to get booked on an overnight Delta flight to Atlanta with a connection to Austin (my destination). The Delta flight was leaving San Francisco at 10 p.m. so I flew down there (having to go through Portland security a second time, this time getting a special “extended check”) and arrived at 8 p.m. After waiting in the Delta queue, I was told they had my reservation, but needed an actual ticket voucher from American — so I had to walk 10 minutes to the American queue (two terminals away). When I finally got to a rep there, they gave me a ticket and I went all the way back to Delta, only to have them tell that despite my confirmed reservation, the flight was overbooked my 18 people and there was no way I was getting on that flight. Delta blamed American, American blamed Delta. What a mess!

I had to go all the way back to the American desk, only to find it now swamped with people, where I had to wait in line for an hour to talk to someone. Nice. I’d only been waiting for American reps about four hours all day so far, why not longer? The American rep was nice but couldn’t do much: she couldn’t even comp me a hotel as supposedly my whole reason for the missed flight was “weather.” (I don’t agree: they flew me to San Francisco where I would need a hotel when I could have stayed at home for free.) I was booked on a 10 a.m. flight to Chicago today. I made reservations at a local hotel but the free shuttle never arrived. I’d also called a friend who lived nearby — he was going to meet me at my hotel but since the shuttle wasn’t there, he picked me up instead. After checking in to my room, we went out for a late dinner (it was eleven p.m. but he hadn’t eaten yet either). I went to bed at midnight quite exhausted.

I arrived in Chicago at five with the anticipation of a four+ hour wait for my 9:30 flight. But looking at the board I saw there was a 5:45 flight to Austin so I wondered if I couldn’t be bumped up. I hurried to the gate where the flight was just starting to board. Unfortunately, the standby list for the flight had 40 people on it! I gave up that dream. (There were still 35 on standby for my flight. I overheard someone say it was because so many people were still trying to make up for missed connections due to the original weather delays and cancelations.) So, to end a long adventure, I arrived in Austin at nearly 1 a.m. (our departure from Chicago was delayed by 30 minutes the flight crew was late).

I missed the whole first day of the conference, though it was kinda neat to be able to keep up with news from the conference via twitter and blog and forum posts with my iPhone.

Topic: [/travel]

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Sun, Mar 16, 2008

: Bounce

I don’t know why I’d never heard of or seen this film, but I liked it. It’s about a jaded advertising exec who (for not so nobel reasons) gives his free plane ticket (from his airline client) to a bumped passenger who then dies when the plane crashes. This event sparks a rethink for the ad exec who eventually meets up with the man’s widow and falls in love with her and her kids but doesn’t tell her he “killed” her husband. What’s going to happen when she finds out? It’s a little melodramatic, but mostly low-key and nice. Simple. I liked it.

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Wed, Mar 12, 2008

: The Book is (sort of) Here!

The first samples of my new book, Eating BIG While Eating Lean, have arrived! (I just ordered a couple test books to make sure everything is working correctly.)

The book looks fantastic — I am very impressed with the print-on-demand quality. I’ve gone ahead and ordered a bunch more and they should be here in a couple weeks (before the end of the month). You can go ahead and pre-order the book if you’d like: you’ll get the digital version immediately and I’ll ship the printed copy to you when I get them (end of March). As a reward for ordering early, you’ll get a free license to my upcoming nuTracker nutritional management software!

Topic: [/writing]

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Fri, Mar 07, 2008

: The Bank Job

I thought this was a standard bank caper/con job sort of film, but because it’s based on a real life story, it’s much different. Everything gets really convoluted, just like in real life. Let me see if I can explain the mess. Basically in 1971 the British government tried to prosecute a bad drunk dealer from Trinidad, but he apparently had taken compromising pictures of the royal princess — thus rendering him immune from prosecution as the govt. couldn’t afford to let him release the photos. But MI-6 learns the pictures are in a safety deposit box at a certain bank in London and since they can’t do anything official, they recruit a group of semi-criminal losers to rob the bank. The thieves think it’s just for the money and know nothing about the photos. Everything goes as planned, to an extent, but then the thieves discover that in the safe deposit boxes are a mobster’s account ledgers which incriminate a slew of cops on the take, as well as a madam’s compromising video and pictures of some of her high-profile government clients. Everyone wants their stuff back, of course, and suddenly the robbers are being chased by everyone: the cops, the mob, MI-6. It’s crazy!

Despite such complexities in plot, the film works — it’s easy to understand what is going on and the complications and problems are hilarious. Excellent film. Not particularly deep, but definitely fun and well-done.

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: 10,000 Years B.C.

Flashy special effects are at the heart of this film and though the story tries (too) hard to be “important” it’s way too generic and the “deep” aspects of the film just come across as silly. That said, it’s not that bad a film. The story is simple: a tribe is attacked and their people taken captive, including a girl who is the main character’s bride-to-be, so he sets out after them to rescue her. He has adventures along the way, there’s action and drama, bla bla bla, he makes friends who help him overthrow the evil emperor, horray for everyone. There’s a degree of “mystical” nonsense that plagues the film and that weakens the ending which goes a bit into weird territory with a death that makes no sense, but overall this is a fun film, the special effects are genuinely impressive and worth seeing just for them.

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Fri, Feb 29, 2008

: The Spiderwick Chronicles

I haven’t read the children’s book(s) this was based on, so I can’t compare, but this is a decent kid-friendly film, though it’s not earth-shatteringly original or particularly innovative. It reminded me a lot of Luc Besson’s Arthur and the Minimoys (which I actually liked better). In both cases the premise is that we live in a world where we are surrounded by invisible faires and it requires secret knowledge to learn to see them. Spiderwick the film doesn’t explain much about these secrets so it’s unclear exactly what the main character does, but basically he and his family move into an ancient house of an old aunt and he discovers an old book of secrets protected by a brownie and learns about the world of magical creatures. It turns out there’s an even shape-shifting orgre who wants the book so he can take over the world, but the house is protected by a charm. The little boy’s family doesn’t believe his stories until later, when he and his brother and sister all confront the bad creatures and try to save the book and the family. It’s all convoluted and confused; there’s no explanation of why the creatures weren’t trying to get the book earlier, why the boy can’t find help in the book (except when it’s convenient for the plot), how he expects to defeat the evil by hiding out in the house, or a million other loose ends, but this is a harmless adventure for kids, so I guess that means logic need not apply. It’s still mildly fun, there’s a hint of personal growth for the boy as he copes with his parents’ divorce, and the digital creatures are interesting, though perhaps too realisitic for really young kids. Overall this isn’t terrible nor great; it certainly is nowhere near the story-telling level of the Narnia series or Bridge to Terabithia.

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Wed, Feb 27, 2008

: Book Pre-Interest Strong

This week I began pre-sales of my forthcoming book, Eat BIG While Eating Lean and so far the interest has been amazing; much higher than I anticipated. In just a few days I’ve already sold several dozen books!

It really makes me hopeful that the book will be of help to people. It’s always difficult to judge these things, especially when you’re so personally involved. I mean, the techniques I discuss helped me lose 75 pounds, and I find the process of learning to eat healthy interesting and not difficult, but what will others think?

The book is in the final editing stages and will be shipping in March 2008. It’ll be available in print and PDF formats; there’s lots more information about it on the Eating Big blog link above. I’m also creating a companion software program for tracking nutritional information — pre-orders of the printed book will receive a free license to the software!

Topic: [/personal]

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Fri, Feb 22, 2008

: Vantage Point

This movie had an interesting premise of a presidential asassination seen from multiple perspectives, a number of prominent stars, and a relentless advertising campaign that all made it seem like it could be a decent movie. Unfortunately, they were all proven wrong. Yes, there are some good actors, but the screen time of each is brief and they aren’t given much character to work with. The film hinges on the gimmicky “perspective” idea, so we see the same events from several view points, which sounds neat but turns out to be repetative, tiresome, and new information trickles out so slowly that each time the story “restarts” you want to scream with frustration because you know it’ll be ten minutes before you get back to where you left off and get a new piece of the puzzle. But worst of all, the final “revelations” are decidedly lackluster. The promos have spoiled any real surprise (that the assasinated man was a double, not the real prez), and the ending is just a whimper. Lame.

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Tue, Feb 19, 2008

: Mistress of Justice

Author: Jeffery Deaver

A disappointing early Deaver book, this is about a female jazz pianist who works as a paralegal at a law firm and ends up becoming an amateur sleuth when a senior attorney brings her under his wing to find him a stolen legal document. Unfortunately, the web of complicated potential criminals is far too large and there are way too many sub-plots going on. The law firm is in political upheaval as half the board wants to merge with another firm while half oppose it, so there are all kinds of shenanigans going on as different powerful lawyers try to sabotage or encourage the merger. Meanwhile we’ve got mysterious suicides and potential murder attempts. This goes on for way too many pages while we haven’t a clue what’s going on. Finally, just in time, the stolen legal document is found, the bad guy caught, and everything seems concluded… but the book just keeps on going. After several dreary chapters when nothing happens, the girl finally figures out the obvious — that a suicide was really a murder, and we’re back to our huge suspect pool. The final conclusion, with the typical Deaver twist, is not outrageous or even unlikely, but it is disappointing and feels forced and artificial. It’s like Deaver’s trying too hard. I’d recommend the condensed version of the book if you feel you must.

Topic: [/book]

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Fri, Feb 15, 2008

: Jumper

This is a mildly amusing little sci-fi adventure about a kid who learns he has the ability to teleport. He uses this talent to escape his deadbeat dad, rob banks for a living, and travel the world, but of course he always longs for the girl he left back home. Then he finds out there’s a guy chasing him and the movie turns into a low-calorie version of the Underworld clash of species — in this case there are “jumpers” and “paladin” who’ve been at war for centuries under our unsuspecting noses. When the lead Paladin goes after the guy’s girl, it’s up to the jumper to step in and save her. There’s not much science here, with minimal explanation about how these teleportation powers work, and really little attempt at logic, realism, storytelling, or anything else intelligent. But then again, none of those are things you should be looking for in this kind of a film. As a dumb, silly, special-effects actioner, it’s kinda fun — though the special effects-driven action is too rapid to be interesting and the characters are too lightly sketched to actually concern us. Still, it’s harmless and fun, and there are worst ways to waste your time.

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Sun, Feb 03, 2008

: London

Now this is a terrible movie. First, the plot is so threadbare it’s ridiculous: a guy finds out his old girlfriend is moving away without telling him and he crashes her going-away party to say good-bye. That’s it. Nothing else happens except for angst and bitching and flashbacks of the same. The climax — yes, I will “spoil” it for you — is the guy finally having the “courage” to say the words, “I love you” to his ex-girl friend, words he couldn’t say while they were together (he wrote them on her shoulder but couldn’t say them). How lame is that?

Second, the creators are obviously pseduo-intellectuals who wanted so bad to make an “intelligent” movie that the script is filled with inane conversations and dribble about God and the universe and stuff that is supposed to sound smart yet comes across as either pretentious or dumb.

Third, the characters are all such losers — drug-sniffing alcoholics who swear and fight and wear their misery for all the world to see — that you can barely stand to watch them, let alone care about them or figure out how in the world they ended up together.

Finally, the cast, while gorgeous and young, are absolutely horrible actors, at least with this material. The fights and shouting feels staged, the anger comes across as random and pointless — even the love-making is awkward it makes you go “Huh?” Just a terrible, terrible movie. Stay away, very far away.

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Fri, Feb 01, 2008

: Over Her Dead Body

I didn’t hold out much hope for this, and for good reason, as it is as trite as it sounds. It’s mildly entertaining, however, with an excellent cast. The plot is pretty much what you know from the trailer — Eva Longoria’s character was killed on her wedding day and she comes back as a ghost to haunt her fiance’s new girlfriend. Unfortunately, the script mucks this up by having the new girlfriend be a psychic, which just confuses everything, and the film low-balls into some dangerously lame slapstick and crude humor (i.e. a fart scene). There are a handful of interesting moments in the film, and some of the romance between the new girlfriend and the boyfriend are nice, but moments clipped together do not make a film. Overall this is nothing original and though it’s mild and not horrible, it’s barely good either. Disappointing.

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Tue, Jan 29, 2008

: Rambo

I went to this unsure of what to expect. After all, Stallone is like over 60 and it’s been decades since the last Rambo movie. But I liked what they did with this. First, they were loyal to the original character: he’s a loner, a bit of a loser, doesn’t say much, is morally ambiguous, and is a real bad-ass killer. They did not try to “modernize” Rambo and make him politically correct or have him like trying to hunt down Bin Laden or Goldfinger or something else out of his character. Instead, they focused on a single country — war-torn Burma — and gave Rambo the seemingly modest quest of helping out a kidnapped missionary woman there to bring aid to the poor villagers. Of course this turns out to be nothing but trivial as Rambo ends up taking on an entire Burmese army.

Second, I must say I was really impressed by the action in this film and that surprised me. We’ve had some excellent action films in the last couple decades, things that have pushed boundaries like The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Bourne Identity, stuff that makes the original Rambo films seem quaint and tame. But Rambo’s back and he’s badder than ever. The violence in this film — and come on, let’s be honest, we don’t go to a Rambo movie for the acting — the violence in this film is astonishing. We see heads and limps lopped off, body parts flying when people step on mines, an arrow go through a guy’s head and come out his chin, more blood than a zombie movie, and lots of bullet-ridden bodies. It is extremely realistic, too. Not for the faint of heart. Personally, I found this refreshing. I’ve always been annoyed at action films that cut away right as the sword hits or whatever. This one shows the brains splattering, the tendons being severed as the leg comes off, limbs and chunks of flesh raining as debrie after an explosion. Speaking of explosions, this film has some of the best explosions I’ve ever seen. Really impressive and cool. Most film set us up for the “big bang” and we get a wimpy fireball. This one gives us earthquake-style world-shattering forest-flattening explosions that are just awesome.

Overall the story, as you might expect, is simple. Stallone’s acting hasn’t improved, he’s still just as wooden as ever, but he’s aged remarkably well and is in amazing shape. He’s still totally believable as Rambo. I bet he could still do another one or two of these films. The film’s a bit of a flashback to the 1980s, and maybe I’m just a fan of that era, but I thought this was refreshing, anti-PC, and a whole lot of fun.

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: First Blood

I liked the new Rambo so much that I decided to watch the DVD of the original this evening. It’s been many years since I’ve seen it and I had recently purchased the DVD on sale. This is a really cool film. Definitely a classic. It’s got horrible acting (Stallone seems to bring down even some of the good actors involved) and the script’s a bit over-the-top in trying to deliver zingers, but the story is excellent — a drifter, abused by a small-town sherrif for no reason, ends up being the target of a manhunt — and the action is superb (the drifter single-handedly, with only a knife, survives and hides from hundreds of attackers). It really is like a schoolyard fight with both boys crying out, “He started it!” but of course since the consequences this time are deadly, it really makes you think. Terrific and holds up surprisingly well.

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Fri, Jan 25, 2008

: Untraceable

I was expecting this to be dreadful, mostly because the premise is so technically ludicrous. But to my surprise it’s not that bad. The best thing is no doubt the presence of Diane Lane, who rises above the ordinary script and silly plot. Another good thing is that the film is set in Portland, Oregon, which was unexpected and rather cool. The plot is absurd — a murderer is killing victims live on an “untraceable” website and the more people who tune in, the faster the victim dies. But once you get past the illogic (20+ million people tuning in to see live streaming video — we’re talking Google-sized bandwidth that can’t be traced?) the film does have an interesting point or two about our voyeristic culture. Say it wasn’t a serial killer but a Middle Eastern terrorist killing Americans live on the web — would we tune in? Still, this is a gimmicky film that can’t escape that, but it’s decent enough and not nearly as unwatchable as I expected.

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Wed, Jan 23, 2008

: There Will Be Blood

I didn’t like this as much as I expected — perhaps the positive reviews got my expectations too high. (There’s no question in my mind that the amazing No Country for Old Men deserves the Best Picture Oscar.) My dissatisfaction comes from the fact that story doesn’t seem to have much of a point. The plot reminds me a lot of Citizen Kane except that there’s no frame around which to find depth and meaning. Instead we merely have the story of a poor gold-digger in the late 1800s who discovers oil and connives his way to into buying oil-filled land undervalue so he can be even wealthier. The richer he get, the less morality he has. A key conflict in the story is the awkward battle between him and a local religious leader, a character so over-the-top as to be obviously flawed (he’s a morally bankrupt mirror of the rich oil guy), but I found the conflict forced, trite, and wanting. Much more compelling for me was the relationship of the oil man with his adopted son who goes from beloved to pariah after an accident leaves him deaf, and the oil man’s frustration at not being able to control the boy. Overall we’ve got a mediocre story with some fantastic characters portrayed by some brilliant actors and some incredible direction and camera-work, yet the pieces don’t quite add up to the expected total. Don’t get me wrong: this is a great movie, well above the average, but it falls just a step short of the greatest I anticipated. It is still well worth seeing, however, and I highly recommend it. Just don’t expect it to cure cancer and change your life.

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Fri, Jan 18, 2008

: Cloverfield

Surprisingly decent Godzilla-type movie filmed from the viewpoint of a found video camera with amateur recording of the events on it. It’s a bit gimmicky, but fairly well done with an attempt at characterization and it’s mercifully short and the gimmick isn’t over-used. Fun.

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Thu, Jan 17, 2008

: Juno

The plot’s slim and predictable — a 16-year-old discovers she’s pregnant and decides to have the baby despite the hardship — yet what makes this film wonderful is the girl’s impressive wild-yet-wise character, the humorous and quirky presentation of events, and an excellent supporting cast. It’s a feel-good film about something that doesn’t feel good, which is an accomplishment. Remarkable.

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Wed, Jan 16, 2008

: Charlie Wilson’s War

I wasn’t super excited about this one since it’s so political, but it turns out to be a fascinating true story from the early 1980s about a clever yet unimportant congressman from a tiny county in rural Texas who ends up masterminding the greatest covert military operation in the history of the world. He’s on the committee that oversees covert spending and manages to up the U.S. budget for helping Afghanistan defeat the Soviet invasion from $5 million to $500 billion. In the process he gives the rebels the weapons and training they need to fight and eventually outlast the Soviet empire, and indirectly bankrupting the Soviet Union and bringing the fall of Communism. It’s a great story told well, with humor, charm, excellent pacing, and drama, and I really enjoyed it.

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Fri, Jan 11, 2008

: The Great Debaters

Now this is an excellent film. It tells the true story of a group of young black kids at a black college way back when who become the first black debaters to compete against Harvard. It’s a terrific tale about the lives of these amazing young people, their fabulous teacher, and the very different world they inhabited in those days. The film is a nice blend of plot, personal stories, history, and drama. It’s definitely hte best movie I’ve seen this year. Of course it is only January, but I’ll remember this one for a long time. The cast is unbelievable. If there’s any justice, this will be remembered for the Academy Awards.

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: The Bucket List

This is the kind of gimmicky movie that can be poorly implemented, but I’m pleased to report that this was handled excellently. It’s the story of two elderly men who meet in the hospital while they are dying and decide to do everything on their “Bucket List” — the list of things they wanted to do before they died. The two aren’t exactly friends but become close, and the film takes what could be a grim and depressing topic and makes it entertainment, touching, and humorous, but without cheapening it. It is a bit Hollywood — that is to say light — but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth enjoying.

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