Friday, February 27, 2004


Movie: Twisted

A decent thriller with good performances, but it's too dependent upon the twist ending, which I saw coming a mile away. The story's cool: a female police officer's been promoted to homicide detective and her first case turns out to be a series of murders of her former lovers. Suspicion naturally falls on her, and soon she begins to suspect herself. Her father was a cop who killed her mother and then himself when she was five, so she's been haunted by that her whole life. Does she have the same evil gene as her dad? The murders always happen while she's blacked out, so perhaps she did do it. That's the mystery. When the answer's revealed it's good and makes sense, but it's not all that surprising. Above average but not outstanding.


Wednesday, February 25, 2004

The Passion of the Christ

Movie: The Passion of the Christ
Director(s): Mel Gibson

This is a brilliant film. But it's not perfect. It's extremely well-directed. Mel does an excellent job of telling the tale of the last 12 hours of Christ's life without the camera becoming too obvious and interferring with the story. I especially applaud his choice to do them in Aramaic and Latin with English subtitles. It adds to the authenticity. On many levels the story is very simple and plain. Mel adds touches of complexity with strange visions and an obviously evil Devil, but in general it's the basic Bible story you expect. It is brutal, however. It is unflinching in portraying the violence inflicted on Jesus. The flogging scene will leave your stomach churning. Jesus is literally scourged until there's hardly any skin left: it's hanging from his body in shreds. And that, of course, is just the beginning of a horrible night of torture. While I applaud Mel for showing us the Crucifixion as it really happened (I'm sure it really was that bad), it is difficult to watch -- which is probably half the point. Mel does give us moments of relief via brief flashbacks into moments of Christ's life: breaking bread, washing hands at the Last Supper, writing in the dirt, etc. But the moments are not enough to redeem the oppressive nature of the film. The violence and gore is so strong it overpowers all else. To our modern eyes, unaccustomed to such brutality, it seems like too much; we want to protest, to try and stop it, and it's infuriating watching Jesus' mother stand by calmly watching the whole event. The biggest flaw is that film presents little hope. There's a brief resurrection scene, but it's far too brief. What I wanted to see was some glimpses of the lives affected by Jesus' sacrifice. Show us Malchus, the servant who's ear Peter cut off and Jesus restored, at home with his family that evening, a changed man. Show us Pilot, the roman governor who gave Jesus up for death, praying for forgiveness and mercy. Show us Simon, the man who carried Jesus' cross when he couldn't, and how his brief encounter with Christ changed his life forever. That was what the movie should have been about: changed lives. Instead, it's a sad film about a man who's tortured and horribly executed. Christians will understand the signficance behind the story and be moved, but unfortunately the film doesn't reveal much beyond the literal. That's too bad. It's an excellent film. But it could have been a masterpiece. I still recommend it. But it's definitely not for kids. Adults will find it difficult. It's a powerful film from opening scene until the end. You will be left emotionally drained. But it needed a little spark, something extra beyond the literal story, a glimmer of hope. Still, it's an amazing achievement, and it's even more amazing that so many will watch it. That's good. Hopefully it will touch people and motivate them to learn more about Jesus. If even one life is changed because of the film, it was worth making it.


Tuesday, February 24, 2004

The Triplets of Belleville

Movie: The Triplets of Belleville

This is a hilarious, brilliant, bizarre, wonderful, magical animated French movie. It's almost impossible to describe without going over the whole story frame-by-frame. The story's about a young bicylist in the Tour de France who's kidnapped. His grandmother and his dog go after him and rescue him from the mob in Belleville with the help of a trio of old crones, the Triplets, former lounge singers. But the story's almost irrelevant. What makes this film so much fun is what happens between the plot points, and how information is conveyed. The animation is bizarre: wildly exaggerated, with distorted people and places. But everything's exaggerated to make a point, and because of that, it works. It's social commentary at the highest level. When the rich, obscenely fat woman emerges from her limousine with her husband missing... only to reveal the tiny mouse of a man stuck between her rear cheeks when she waddles by, is a witty mockery of high society. There's tons of that in this film. There's also plenty of heart, with a loyal, lovable dog who lives for scraps of food and barking at trains. There's hilariously French things, such as the train bridge that literally moves a house out of the way forcing it to lean to one side. There's jabs at Americans, the mafia, and everything in between. This is a rich stew of wonder, adventure, childish enthusiasm, determination, and magic. Amazingly, there's almost no dialog, so there's no subtitles: the story is conveyed entirely by action and facial expression. This is a charming tale, well worth your time. It's only 80 minutes and the time will fly by so fast you'll want to watch it again when it's over. Wonderful.


Monday, February 23, 2004

50 First Dates

Movie: 50 First Dates

Ocasionally sacchrine, sometimes childish, usually predictable romantic comedy. It's by-the-numbers for the most part, but decent. It tries to get a little too serious at times. The plot reveals everything: a guy falls for a girl who has no short-term memory, so he has to get her to fall in love with him anew each day. One thing they did do well is not give us a cheap "She's cured!" ending. Not excrutiating.


Sunday, February 22, 2004

The Davinci Code

Book: The Davinci Code
Writer(s): Dan Brown

All I knew about this book going in was that a) I found the previous Dan Brown book I'd read, Digital Fortress, horribly inaccurate, and b) it was a best-seller. Well, Dan continues the tradition. He makes his first mistake on the opening page where it states in bold letters "Fact:" and then lists several "facts" from the book. I put that in quotes because if you do any research at all on the topic you will find that at least half of what Dan claims are facts are not. Unfortunately, this "fact" page implies that much of you are about to read is true, and then the book begins to dispense a wild tale that takes direct aim at the Catholic Church, outlining a 2,000-year-old coverup by them hiding the "true" nature of Christ from the rest of the world. Now the book begins well with the intriguing murder of a Louvre curator in Paris. The man dies leaving clues to a deep secret, and it's up to his estranged grand-daughter and a visiting Harvard professor to solve the mystery. Generally Dan does well keeping the story moving and generating suspense; unfortunately, all too often he creates suspense by cheating, simply not revealing information to us. When we're not supposed to know the identity of someone the person is just mentioned as "the figure" or "the man" -- until Dan decides it's time to unveil the person. Lame. And it gets old very fast. Worse, in this book the story is interrupted by lectures and "science" lessons, where we are presented with more of the "facts" the book reveals. While interesting, up to a point, they are so outrageous -- that Jesus was really married to Mary Magdalene but the Church buried that fact and DaVinci left clues in his paintings to hint at that "truth" -- that it's just not even remotely believable. Combine that with Dan's amaturish writing, feeble plotting, and weak ending and we have a dreadful book. It's certainly not the worst book ever written, but it is a cheat. The "research" is awful and all one-sided; the characters limp and one-dimensional; and reality is twisted to force the plot Dan wants to use instead of the plot steming naturally from the characters. For example, the curator who is shot in the museum is shot in the belly and realizes it's a mortal wound: he will be dead in 15 minutes. But that's enough time for him to leave a coded message. But how did the murderer know that he would die? One bullet wound looks like another from a distance: if he's such a pro, shouldn't he make sure the man's dead before leaving? But no: the plot depends on the curator leaving his clues, so the killer takes off, leaving the curator to slowly bleed to dead. Lame. The whole thing is just weak and cheap. It's interesting, but hardly original (everything in the book has been written about elsewhere). Unfortunately, the way it's presented in the book it's designed to make it seem like this is new evidence and it's all factual. It's nonsense. One of the things that bugged me, for instance, is that a big part of the plot revolves around a secret society (I hate that gimmick). What's really dumb, though, is that the researchers and historians who are the heroes of the story seem to somehow know all about the secret society: they know the past member names, the rituals, the secret handshake, everything. Except who the current members are. That, of course, is a deep secret. Stoo-pid!

Okay, the book does have some interesting "codes" and little riddles, but it's nothing particularly challenging. They are interesting and occasionally clever. Dan even screws them up, though, by laughing at his own jokes, pointing out how clever and brilliant they are which is insufferably irritating. My favorite part of the book was the word etemology stuff, where word origins are used to supposedly "prove" assertions made in the book. I have no idea if any of that is accurate (I wouldn't trust anything Dan says -- in fact, if he says it, I'd bet it wasn't true -- the guy's a complete idiot), but it was interesting and fun. Sadly, the book fails in all regards. It's a quick and mildly interesting read, but certainly below average and a disappointment considering its best-selling status.


Sunday, February 15, 2004

The Takeover

Book: The Takeover
Writer(s): Stephen Frey

A fun book from Frey, with an outrageously ridiculous plot. Unfortunately the plot is revealed early on and we spend half the book wondering how things are going to be resolved, which they do at a slow pace. The plot's crazy: a secret society of seven powerful men engineer a scheme to take down a president. They set up the world's largest hostile takeover of a company and set up the president for insider trading on the stock. The main character's a young man who is setting up the takeover, not realizing he's a pawn in the larger scheme. When he finds out, he's got to stop them. Ludicrous, but I guess theoretically financially sound. Good fun.


Thursday, February 12, 2004

In America

Movie: In America
Director(s): Jim Sheridan

Fantastic film! I'd wanted to see this when I first heard about it last summer, but when it finally came out I was more hesitant because the things I'd heard recently made it sound like health food: good for you but not enjoyable. The film sounded like a story about immigrants, but it's not. It's simply about a family. The story's really about the two children (in fact, it's narrated by the oldest). The Irish immigrant family struggles to survive in Manhattan, but we see their struggles through the eyes of the ever-positive kids, so the story's never depressing. The two girls are awesome, cute and innocent, completely lost in their roles. They both deserve Oscars. Because of their innocence, the film reminded a lot of Life is Beautiful, where bad things are happening but the adults are trying to protect the children from that knowledge and preserve their innocence. Except here it isn't a Nazi concentration camp but a bad New York City apartment filled with druggies and transvestites. The adults see the situation as grim, but the girls accept everything as normal. Meanwhile, beneath the surface of the day-to-day struggles, we learn that the girls had a little brother who died. Then we begin to see the parents are still coping with his tragic death. Then the girls meet "the screaming man" -- a strange guy in a nearby room who screams all the time. When the girls meet him, he's a huge black man. It turns out he's gentle and kind, and he's a painter. He's overly emotional (a fantastic performance) and there's a reason for his rage and emotions. It's awesome.

When the film was an hour in I was thinking that I would have been completely happy if it ended there. Even though the story was unfinished, I was satisfied. I just didn't want the rest of the movie to ruin what I'd already experienced. To my suprise, the second half of the film was even better! All sorts of things link together to complete the story and the ending is fantastic. You will cry tears of joy or you're not human. Terrific, terrific film. I love seeing adult things from the perspective of kids and I loved the way this film made unhappy things seem okay. This story could have been told in much more obvious heart-wrenching way and been really depressing -- and not much more impactful than a typical TV disease-of-the-week movie. Instead, this film captures a slice of a real-life family; not a perfect family by any means, but a family struggling to keep together, to survive financially, and to heal deep emotional wounds. Fantastic. In my top ten of all time, I think. For sure the top twenty-five.


Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Something's Gotta Give

Movie: Something's Gotta Give

A suprisingly good film about adult relationships. Jack Nicholson's a 64-year-old who dates girls under 30 and never commits. While visiting his girlfriend's beach house, he has a mild heart attack and can't leave, and ends up being cared for by the girlfriend's mom, a famous playwright in her fifties. The two end up falling in love and she turns their relationship into a hit Broadway play. Full of good humor and fun, the film has a number of serious moments as the man struggles to come to terms with commitment and his "older" relationship. Unfortunately, it goes on too long (it's over two hours) and a few of the extra scenes don't add much to the story. Still, above average.


Saturday, February 7, 2004

The Insider

Book: The Insider
Writer(s): Stephen Frey

A by-the-numbers financial thriller from Frey. We've got a young guy who jumps at the job of a lifetime with a $1 million guaranteed bonus. Unfortunately, he soon uncovers a conspiracy and figures out he's fall guy in an insider trading scandal. He's to take the blame for his boss' crimes. The scary part is this is being done by the U.S. government. So he turns the tables and blows the whole scheme and everything ends happily ever after. Hooray.


Thursday, February 5, 2004

The Big Bounce

Movie: The Big Bounce
Writer(s): Elmore Leonard (novel)

Usually Leonard's stuff is pretty good plot-wise, but this one's weak. The most surprising thing for me was that despite the cast and fun premise (con artists in Hawaii) the film was rather boring! In between the interesting scenes the film dragged. Part of the problem was the lack of stakes: the guy and the girl are going to steal $200,000. What's that? Some kid's lunch money? They're supposed to split that? Come on. Make it at least a million. The film had a few good moments. The opening scene where Owen Wilson hits a guy with a baseball bat is good, but after that we really aren't sure about him. Is he an idiot or a genius? That mystery taints everything that happens afterward and makes everything confusing. The end, when it comes, is convoluted and doesn't exactly make that much sense. It's an awkward film period.


Tuesday, February 3, 2004

The Cooler

Movie: The Cooler

This is a film about luck, good and bad. William H. Macy is a "cooler" -- a loser with such bad luck he's brought in to the casino near whoever's on a hot streak to bring them down. The film's not as metaphysical as the Spanish indie Intacto Intacto (which also dealt with luck), but simply expects us to accept the whole good luck/bad luck premise. But when Macy meets a pretty cocktail waitress his fortunes change: suddenly his luck is good. She loves him and he loves her. Life is great. His contract is up and he can leave Las Vegas. But the casino boss doesn't want him to leave and will do anything to make him stay. That's where the film fell apart a little, for the clearly "bad guy" boss suddenly has a slight change of heart and does something good -- but it doesn't feel realistic. He was too evil before and we don't see what motivated his change (Macy did give him a nice speech, but it didn't seem to affect him). So the film dwindles a little and has a predictable (but good) ending. It's mostly about the concept, about Macy's awesome acting, and about how luck runs in both directions. Neat idea, decently done, and a lot of fun. But not enough depth for a serious film.


Monday, February 2, 2004

Girl With A Pearl Earring

Movie: Girl With A Pearl Earring

Excellent film. Unfortunately, I must compare it to the book, since I read it first, and I have a difficult time divorcing the two. Visually, this film is a feast: masterfully done. But storywise there were a few mistakes and one improvement. First, the film makes light of why Griet is forced to become a maid -- we briefly see her blind father, but we never see her giving her wages to her parents. That's a critical aspect of the novel because she's trapped, not for herself, but by the duty she feels to help her parents (she's their only income and they are starving). The film left out the stories of her sibblings (sister who dies and brother who's a tile apprentice), but that was for the best (they distract from the main story). The film also tones down the conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism. It's mentioned, but never focused. In general I agree with that decision (though it was a fascinating part of the book), but one aspect of that -- the way Griet reacts to the Catholic paintings in her cellar bedroom -- was poorly implemented and could have been done better so that we got a reaction from her (have her cover the picture with a cloth, show her not sleeping because of the bloody paintings, etc.). The second big mistake was not showing us why Griet was such a good maid: the way she could clean Vermeer's studio without moving stuff (a skill she learned from having a blind father who needed everything in the same place). In the book that was important (it's how she got the job) and it showed her intelligence. There's a brief reference -- a "Don't move anything" line -- but that's about it. We only see her cleaning one thing and not moving it, but the point needed to be better emphasized. The very ending was also a little muddled, making it unclear that she had chosen to marry Pieter. However, the film did a terrific job of realizing the character of Vermeer's wife. In the book she was a shadow, but in the film she dominates: it's a terrific performance full of glare and subtlty. She really is the most fleshed out of all characters. Griet is simple and very young; Vermeer is morose and quiet, lost in his own world; the grandmother only cares about money; complexity comes in the role of Vermeer's wife, who seems the spoiled brat on the surface, but underneath knows her station and rebells against it the only way she knows how, through her connection to her husband. She's jealous of Griet because Griet actually understands Vermeer's work and seeing the girl reminds her that she is incapable of understanding it (which drives her mad). Great stuff. Overall, this is an excellent adapation of the book. Scarlet Johansson is amazing: she will go far despite being overlooked by Oscar. The pace of the film is a little slow (it's only an hour thirty-five but feels like two), but that's because there are many "still" scenes of artist staring at model, model staring at painter, etc. Despite my nitpicks, this is three thumbs way up.