Wednesday, December 31, 2003


Movie: Paycheck
Writer(s): Philip K. Dick (story)
Director(s): John Woo

I was looking forward to this film when I first heard about it. Based on a PKD story and directed by Woo? Wow! But unfortunately, Woo was not the right director for this film. The best aspect of Dick's work is psychological complexity. Woo's an excellent action director. The two compete against each other in this: it's not a great action film, and it's not deep enough to qualify as psychologically interesting. The story's a great concept: an engineer does work of questionable legality for corporation and has his memories erased afterward so there's no record. After his biggest job -- three years of work erased -- he discovers his big payday is nil. As he investigates, he discovers the FBI wants him, and his former employer is now trying to kill him. He has no idea why since his memories were erased. But a package he sent himself that contains twenty ordinary items (cigarettes, hairspray, matches, etc.) turns out to be exactly the items he needs to get himself out of troublesome situations. It's like he knew what was going to happen and planned for it, sending himself exactly what he needed. It's pretty cool and well done, but Woo throws in over-the-top action sequences that aren't the least bit believable (two scientists outrun a dozen gunmen and the FBI on a motorbike, the engineer beats up fifty trained bad guys, etc.). The film suffers in other ways as well, including a weak beginning (it doesn't get going until the big job presentation). The film's best moments are the science fiction and psychological impact of the invention, but those are glossed over. Woo himself said he doesn't like sci-fi and changed the script to be more action-oriented: a sad mistake. None of this makes for a terrible movie, but just not a great one. The middle of the film is the best part. The ending's predictable Hollywood. Still, when it's good, it's excellent, and overall I liked it. Just don't expect a great film and it's enjoyable.


Wednesday, December 31, 2003

Peter Pan

Movie: Peter Pan
Writer(s): J.M. Barrie
Director(s): P.J. Hogan

Fantastic film! When I first heard of this I thought it was crazy and pointless: why remake Peter Pan? But this film is everything Hook was not: imaginative, fantastic, child-like, and meaningful. The Disney animated version never intrigued me: it was too happy, too light, and too innocent. There was no depth. This version is a marvel. The sets are literally fantastic, with pink clouds, supersaturated colors, and exotic textures. Even the "real world" of 19th Century London is unrealistic -- it's a pretty London of fantasy, not grim reality. The result emphasizes the movie's point about fantasy and adventure. The casting of unknowns in the children roles is brilliant: not only are they physically perfect but there's a touch of rawness to their performances that is delightful and endearing. They seem like real children, not polished actors. Equally important, the adults, while accomplished actors, don't make the mistake of overacting and turning their roles into camp (like Hook did). The story's true J.M. Barrie, much darker than the animated movie (for instance, Hook gets eaten instead of chased off into the sunset by the giant croc), and filled with philosophical insight into the whole problem of "growing up." There were some really brilliant lines of dialog between Peter and Wendy (both characters are well fleshed out). With the theme repeated throughout, it's obvious this is an important story and not mere entertainment. This is an excellent movie for the whole family. There's humor and adventure, silliness and fun, and a genuineness to everything that all will enjoy. Within the world of Peter Pan this is a great movie: it's the best Peter Pan ever. But if I had to come up with a negative, I'd say that it's still Peter Pan. The film is trapped in a fantasy world within a fantasy world, and the story's never going to go beyond those borders. For example, the story's about young children -- it's never going to be about adults. That's a minor nitpick, however. I generally liked everthing about the movie, even stuff I expected not to like (the amateur actors, the familiar story, etc.). This is a real gem. I hear it's been a disapointment at the box office so far (duh, it's competing with Return of the King), but it should have long legs as people who've seen it give it positive reviews. It's really charming and wonderful, and if you're not a kid, it will remind you of what being a kid was like.


Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Oregon Trip

I flew back from Oregon today. Had a few adventures. First there was a huge snowstorm in the area and I almost got stuck on the coast. The small highways that lead to Portland were potentially going to be snow-covered or iced over. I considered postponing my return, but the weather sounded like it was just going to get worse. Fortunately, the road was clear this morning and we made it fine. But at the airport security asked to do an extra test on my laptop. To my astonishment they picked up traces of nitro! I have no idea how it got there, but they claimed it's surprisingly common: hand creams, medicines, fertilizer, fireworks, guns, etc. can all leave traces on your hands which can offset onto items you handle. It can stay there for weeks or months, too. Anyway, they had to test every item in my laptop bag, and a couple other things also set off the alarm. The guard was really nice and explained that the machine is sensitive to 60 billionths of a particle -- amazing. He had to go through a specific procedure of tests, but in the end they cleared me and let me through. I was worried they'd want to confiscate my equipment. But there was nothing wrong with it -- just that somehow I or my stuff came in contact with nitro somehow, which I suppose doesn't mean much if there are so many ordinary uses of the stuff. Weird experience, though. The trip itself was pretty uneventful. Had an excellent time.


Friday, December 26, 2003

The Music Man

Movie: The Music Man

This musical is proof that you only need one or two good songs to have a musical. Other than "Seventy-Six Trombones" and a couple others, most of the songs are forgettable, but the story -- about a con artist trying to sell band equipment to a small Iowa town who falls in love and comes clean in the end -- is excellent. The film's too long, and much of the dialog is extremely dated. Like the girl whose favorite expression is "Ye Gods!" Huh? What's up with that? Some of the choreography feels dated as well, and looks rather silly. But then most musicals suffer from that as few people in real life burst into coordinated song and dance -- it feels artificial. The film actually benefits from that with some nice theatre-style lighting effects, dropping out the background and highlighting the characters, which works well to emphasis the people. Several of the dance sequences are well-shot as well, particularly "Shipoopi" with its overhead camera. Overall I was pleased I saw this (though I didn't watch the entire thing -- I missed a few songs in the middle), but it violates too many of my musical no-nos to be considered decent, but though uneven, it has a few nice moments.


Thursday, December 25, 2003

Door to Door

Movie: Door to Door

This is a terrific made-for-TV movie I just happened to notice was airing while with family for Christmas in Oregon. My mother quickly figured out it was a movie she'd heard that was filmed in Portland, and indeed, it turned out the story's about a physically disabled Portland man who becomes a door-to-door salesman in the 1950's. At first people are off-put by his disabilities, or try to buy stuff out of charity, but soon his winning personality and perseverance win people over. He eventually becomes a fixture in the neighborhood, mending marriages and making everyone feel important. Throughout this time he struggles with his personal life: a failed romance, his mother's Alzheimer’s, and eventually, progress, as the company he works for replaces door-to-door sales with telemarketers. The best part of the film was when a middle-aged newspaper reporter knocks on his door and it turns out the guy was the kid the salesman talked to with a puppet when he first started out. The guy remembered the salesman all those years and decided to write a feature on him (that's how the story got told and eventually made into a film). William H. Macy is amazing as the salesman -- he really is one of the best actors of all time. I believe he won an Emmy for this role: if not, he sure deserved it. Terrific film, way way above average for television.


Wednesday, December 24, 2003

Girl with a Pearl Earring

Book: Girl with a Pearl Earring
Writer(s): Tracy Chevalier

Fantastic book. The story is a fiction about the life of a 17th Century maid in Delft, Holland, who posed for Vermeer's famous painting, "Girl with a Pearl Earring." What I liked about the book -- besides the amazing detail of a maid's life in Delft, the clash of classes and religions, the wonderful character of Griet, the young maid, the glimpse into the mind of a genius painter -- is the simplicity of the story. Chevalier wisely allows the character to be story and doesn't overcomplicate it with irrelevant subplots or flashy distractions. She's a simple maid and has a simple life. That gives her story strength and makes it all the more remarkable. We relate to her: she's not some ephemeral angel or distant, unknowable beauty. She's human, an ordinary person, with an extraordinary spirit. She's intelligent, kind, and a hard worker who struggles through life just the way we do. It's a remarkable story and told in such an authentic way you have trouble believing it's not factual. Amazing writing. The movie's coming out next month and I can't wait to see it. It sounds like it's awesome and does the book justice.


Monday, December 22, 2003

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Movie: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Director(s): Peter Jackson

Many times the second and third installments of a trilogy are not as good as the first, but in the case of Lord of the Rings, the series just keeps getting better and better. This one brings the trilogy to a close in grand fashion. The battles are even bigger, the story epic, the special effects amazing. The conclusion is satisfying. Oddly, of the three films, this is the most emotional; while there are huge battle scenes, those are interplayed with tight personal scenes of genuine emotion. Should be an Oscar winner for Best Picture just as a tribute to the series as a whole, but deserves it on many other levels as well.


Friday, December 12, 2003

Stuck on You

Movie: Stuck on You
Director(s): The Farrelly Brothers

The trailers made this look awful, a sick, twisted joke about conjoined twins. But it's suprisingly not. It's about two brothers who share a liver and can't be separated. They do everything together and are happy. But one's got a dream of becoming an actor, so they move to Hollywood. There they run into Cher, who's trying to get out a TV show contract, so she hires them to be in her show, thinking it's so absurd the network will cancel the contract. Instead, they go ahead with the show and it turns out to be a huge hit. The conjoined twins are big stars, and that's when they start to go different directions, and realize it's time to move apart. They have the operation and are separated, and only later do they realize how much they miss each other and can't live apart. It's a suprisingly sweet drama from the usually crude Farrelly Brothers. Unfortunately, it's not a laugh-a-minute as some of their other movies. Most of the jokes are either subtle or of the smile, not laugh-out-loud variety. Still, I liked it. It's a bit long, as some of the story takes too long to tell, and a few of the jokes are too obvious, but in general it's a decent tale of two brothers who figure out their lives.


Thursday, December 11, 2003

Bad Santa

Movie: Bad Santa

This is one of the most outrageous, disgusting films of all time. And it's also one of the funniest. The story is simple: we have a crook who gets a job as a mall Santa every Christmas season to case a joint, and at the end of the year, robs the mall safe and loots the stores. That gives him enough money to get drunk until next Christmas. This Santa's a hard luck case all right. He's a Loser with a capital L. He's mean, vicious, and a real jerk. He complains about how his life is hell and contemplates suicide. At first, the main joke seems to be watching "Santa" use the f-word, get drunk, and screw. But then Santa meets a fat little boy who's developmentally challenged and appears to think Santa's real. Nothing Santa does fazes the kid, who still seems to think Santa's God. When Santa discovers the boy lives alone with his senile Grandmother, he moves into the kid's nice house. The kid's dad is off "mountaineering" for several years (he's really in prison for an accounting discrepency) so Santa, in effect, becomes the kid's dad. Gradually, though Santa's still rude, crude, and socially unexceptable, he begins to be a little nicer to the kid, eventually helping him. The Santa never becomes an angel or anything, but at least he's started on the path to redeeming himself. This film's a lot like the cult classic, Shakes the Clown, Bobcat Goldthwait's hilarious movie about a drunken birthday party clown. Both are uneven, with the key humor coming from normally positive characters (Santa or a clown) acting crude. This one's a bit more of a story, however. They did an amazing job of keeping the Santa semi-likeable (somehow) despite his jerk behavior, so that we actually root for him in the end. But neither movie is for all tastes, that's for sure. If you like your humor dark and mean, you'll probably like this. If you're looking for a typical Christmas feel-good movie, go see Elf instead.


Wednesday, December 10, 2003

The Missing

Movie: The Missing
Director(s): Ron Howard

Some critics don't like this film, though I'm not sure why. I found it riveting. The story's simple, the characters more complex. Set in the Western era in New Mexico, a tough single woman with two children makes a living working hard on the land and doubling as a Healer. We meet her father, a white man who abandoned her as a child to take on Indian ways. One day a band of renegade Indians led by a savage Indian witch doctor kills her lover and kidnaps her oldest daughter. The army's supposed to hunt them down, but are going in the wrong direction, so she reluctantly accepts help from her estranged father to track the band. Together, the woman, her father, and her youngest daughter, head off after the renegades. They must catch them before they get to Mexico where they'll sell all the girls they've captured. But what will happen once they actually catch up with the Indians? How will they get her daughter back? Ah, that's the adventure part of the film, and I won't spoil it for you. The film's exciting, interesting, and gruesomely shows how tough life was back in those days. It also tries hard to be a character drama, with strong acting and dramatic conflict. Unfortunately, it fails to an extent in that regard, for much of the conflict feels artificial. The woman reacts so violently to her father when he initially shows up that it's surprising how much she relents later. Her hatred of him for abandoning her comes across as extreme: I'm not sure I buy it. The circumstances aren't explained well enough for me to understand (for instance, there's no mention of how old she was when he left). There are mysterious hints of what was possibly a rape (the first child the result), which would explain part of the woman's rage, but this also isn't clearly explained (I guess we're supposed to infer that a 30-year-old mother with a 15-year-old child was young when she had the baby, but even there no specific ages of the characters are given, so the woman could have been 25 or 35). The father's motives for leaving are left mysterious leaving us unsure of him (his explanation is to tell an Indian story about a brave who followed a hawk and kept going because the hawk kept going). Generally such vagueness just muddles the story; fortunately the action-driven plot (find and rescue the girl) keeps the story moving. The action's good, and realistic, considering we're talking about a woman and a bunch of girls against seasoned, desperate Indian warriors. I did find the whole "shaman" (witch doctor) aspect of the story disturbing, in particular the scene where the guy uses her hair to make her sick though she's miles away. While I don't have a problem with other aspects of the witch's capabilities (for instance, blowing a powder into a man's face making him go blind), that one strains credibility. And since the woman doesn't die or anything, I'm not sure what that added to the film. Sure, it convinces her to accept the "magic" protective necklace her father gives her, but since we never come back to that in the rest of the film, why bother with the scene? The film was long -- they should have just edited out that entire sequence and sped things along. Overall, though, I liked the film. With it's simple plot, however, I'm not sure how it will hold up to repeated viewings, but it's worth seeing once.


Tuesday, December 9, 2003

Knockaround Guys

Movie: Knockaround Guys

Better than I expected. I'm not big on mob flicks, but this had a different premise as it's about young guys looking to make their mark and move up in the mobster world. They're led by the son of the head dude, who doesn't think his son has what it takes to be in the business. Given his chance with a simple task of retrieving some money, everything goes wrong. The money is accidently lost in a small town, and the guy brings in his friends to track it down. The small town's corrupt sheriff ends up with the money and won't give it back, leading to a climatic gunfight. What I liked about the film was the money trail: that was humorous and reminding me of Elroy Leonard capers like Get Shorty or Quentin Tarantino films. Unfortunately, the money trail was too brief a part of the plot. Once the sheriff gets the money it's down to a mere gunfight. I also thought it was rather absurd that the amount of money we're talking about was a mere $500,000. Supposedly that was going to float the mobster's business and if he didn't get it, he'd be dead. Come on, a half mil? Wouldn't it be like $5 million or something significant? You're gonna bring an army of mobsters to a small town in the middle of nowhere over a half million? I don't know. Not a bad film, but not a great one either. Extremely average, though it has a few nice moments. Generally a waste of a good cast.


Monday, December 8, 2003

Bringing Down the House

Movie: Bringing Down the House

The previews made this look terrible so I didn't bother with it in the theatres (even though it was a hit). Turns out it's not so bad, though it was predictable. The story's about an older, white, button-down tax lawyer who corresponds with LawyerGirl on the 'net. When she shows up at his house, she's a big black girl who's an ex-con with plenty of attitude, and she turns the man's life upside-down and shows him what life's all about. There's a lot of obvious jokes struggling to be funny, some silly slapstick stuff when the writers couldn't write anything funny, and the obligatory touching moment when everything works out happily in the end. Fun most of the time, hilarious on a couple occasions, okay the rest.


Sunday, December 7, 2003

Human Nature

Movie: Human Nature
Writer(s): Charlie Kaufman

I'm a huge Kaufman fan and was shocked to discover that he'd written this film which sounded bad in the previews. Guess what? The previews are brilliant compared to the movie, which fails miserably. The movie's supposed to be a comedy, but the jokes fall flat. It's about a woman who's got a rare genetic disorder that causes hair to grow all over her body like an ape. She leaves human society and lives like an ape and is happy. She becomes a nature writer and is very successful. But she has no man until she meets a weird scientist who's trying to teach table manners to mice. Together they discover a savage ape-man living in the wilderness and civilize him. She's against this as she thinks nature is beautiful, but her husband thinks civilization is superior. You can see the conflict here. Unfortunately, that conflict is buried within a mess of plotting such as extra-marital affairs, the fact that the whole movie is a flashback as the woman tells the story to the cops after she's been arrested for shooting her husband, and worse. We end up with a jumbled mess that's not funny, that does not enlighten us at all about nature or human behavior (the key joke seems to be that humans act like animals and animals are the more human -- not only is that not profound or accurate, it's not even funny), and degrades into a series of pointless sex jokes involving the ape-man who cannot restrain his natural urges. There are some attempts at humor -- the scientist's bizarre parents who send him to bed without supper when he uses the wrong fork at dinner -- but most of these are of the "smile" variety of humor, not the laugh out loud kind, and this film desperately needs the latter. Whatever intellectual innovations Kaufman had planned for the story are either too subtle or aren't there at all, and in the end we just get a unpleasant muck that's not worth even the effort of pushing "play" on the DVD player. Skip it.


Friday, December 5, 2003

The Last Samuri

Movie: The Last Samuri

Different from what I was expecting. In many ways it's deeper, but it wasn't the cool action flick I was craving. Unfortunately, it's a serious movie, and while at times that's nice, it's a darn depressing film. The story is about Japan in the 1800s when it was attempting to transition from the Samuri culture to a Western-style culture. The young emperor and his advisors want alliances with the West, but the Samuri want to preserve the old. The emperor brings in Western soldiers to train his troups in Western-style fighting, including Tom Cruise's character, a drunk who's fresh from the nightmare of the Civil War and Indian fighting. Tom's obviously got a deathwish, but when he's captured by the Samuri they don't kill him, but keep him prisoner in order to study him. Slowly he learns the ways of the Samuri and eventually becomes one. This is the best part of the film as we see Tom's character changing and developing, and the interaction and conflicts with traditional Japanese is fascinating. At some point, though, the film becomes an action flick, with Tom and his Samuri pals wielding sticks and swords. This is rather predictable and boring, routine stuff. Finally, we get a huge battle scene a la Braveheart, and this a really special and awesome part of the film. But in the end, the Samuri are all defeated (or are they?) and everyone dies. Like I said, it's depressing. The film tries to make the ending upbeat by spinning hope into things, but it doesn't really work. Instead, watching the beautiful Japanese culture die, we feel like we just watched a thousand baby seals being clubbed to death. It's not a happy thing. The film is long, and there are a few weak scenes, but overall it's excellently written and performed. The only real flaw is that the film can't be catagorized easily. It's not an action flick, though there are scenes which qualify. It's got points of real characterization that are legitimate drama, but those are dropped when it's time for action. The battle scene feels epic and would make a great movie by itself -- but it's alone in the middle of the rest of the film. In short, this feels like it was shot by three different directors, each focusing on their specialty (drama, action, battle) and then the three parts were woven together by an excellent editor. That's not to say this is a bad film by any means: it's very good, one of the best of the year definitely, and top notch if you consider a good movie one that moves you emotionally. But it's just a little awkward at times, a little schizophrenic, and that takes some of the shine off its luster. I left feeling disappointed like this could have been a masterpiece but someone didn't finish polishing it. It's a fascinating film from a historical viewpoint, similar to Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World in that respect and worth seeing just for that, and the middle part, where Tom learns the ways of the Samuri, is spectacular, and a must see. But the whole is lacking; the parts don't add up to the whole.


Thursday, December 4, 2003


Movie: Timeline
Writer(s): Michael Crichton (book)

This film took a mediocre book and destroyed it. The first mistake is the pacing: the begining of the film where the whole time travel thing is established happens in like two minutes, and suddenly we're in 17th Century France, running from the British and French who are in the middle of a war. Huh? Come on, at least treat the setup with a little respect and give us a realistic foundation for the film. That pacing problem continues throughout the rest of the film as it's an action flick slash adventure movie. There's no science fiction (or science) in sight. There's no cool time travel dilemma, "should I change the past" sort of thing, or anything deeper than a pathetic romance. This film ought to end Paul Walker's career: the guy proves he can't act beyond his appearance. While it has a few interesting moments in the middle, overall this is just worthless sludge that will waste your time. If you're really interested in it, read the book, which is marginally better.


Wednesday, December 3, 2003

The Mothman Prophecies

Movie: The Mothman Prophecies

Bizarre piece of dump about people who see a strange moth-like figure just before they die. Apparently it's a myth that goes back thousands of years and a reporter tries to figure it out. Is the mothman extraterrestrial? Is it trying to warn us or did it cause the deaths? Mildly intriguing at times, but generally incomprehensible with an ending that's unfortunately anti-climatic because we really don't care any more by that point. Stay far away from this film if you value your intelligence.