The Z/Web Archive
Postings for the Month of April 2004
Monday, April 26, 2004
Saturday, April 24, 2004
Capturing the Friedmans
Movie: Capturing the Friedmans
Terrific documentary about a strange sexual abuse case and how it tears a family apart. The Friedmans seem to be an ordinary upper-middle-class family until the father, a computer teacher, is caught by a postal inspector receiving child porn in the mail. That starts a police investigation and when it's learned he's a teacher, his students are interviewed. While students had been attending his computer courses several times a week for years without a complaint, suddenly under pressure from the police the boys claim sexual abuse. And not just from the father, but from his youngest son, who was 17/18 at the time. The abuse described is extreme: hundreds and hundreds of cases, many times violent, yet the students were in computer class (in the family's home) for only an hour or so at a time and never showed any signs of trauma. The truth appears to be that the children were coached or pressured by the police into lying. This is not as unusual as it might seem, for children by their nature want to please adults, and if they sense a certain answer is expected, that's what they say. The result is that the father, who did seem to be a closet pedophile, is sent to prison and eventually dies there (possibly by suicide); the son, who seems to be innocent, is also convicted and locked up for many years. The film ends in modern day when the son finally released.
While this is an unpleasant topic and it's obvious the emotions of parents and those in the community are extreme, the film raises many questions about such cases are investigated and prosecuted. If the Friedmans were innocent, as they claim, then why did they plead guilty? Because if they did not, they felt they'd have been convicted any way and go away for a much longer time. It's a strange, sobering tale, and while the story asks many questions, it leaves many unanswered and we'll probably never know the truth. Really interesting look at a troubled family via personal videos and interviews, however. Highly recommended.
Friday, April 23, 2004
Movie: Morvern Callar
This critically acclaimed film with a bizzare title sounded great: when a girl's boyfriend commits suicide, she publishes his novel under her own name. It turned out, however, that was only a minor part of the story. The movie's mostly just following this girl as she tries to figure her life out. I found it tedious and boring. Another annoying thing: the film alternates between long, extremely quiet scenes with no dialog to loud, noisy, dance club scenes where the music's deafening. That was jarring and unpleasant. Overall, while I was curious about this strange woman, I was not intrigued enough to endure her boring life and follow the rather plotless storyline. It's well done and some people might find it interesting, but I was just bored. A disappointment, but perhaps my expectations were too high considering what I'd heard.
Wednesday, April 21, 2004
Movie: The Recruit
Confusing and rather mindless story about a young guy recruited to join the CIA, only everything is not what it seems. Like Alias, the film is filled with cliches and back-stabbing, to the extent that it becomes predictable, because any time anyone says anything you can pretty much bet the opposite is true. Not terrible, not great, just average, and much too predictable. It ends with a whimper, too, which leaves you with a "So what?" kind of feeling. Mildly amusing.
Monday, April 19, 2004
The Battle of Shaker Heights
Movie: The Battle of Shaker Heights
Really cool understated verbal film, with dialog closer to a play than a movie. The main character, a teenage boy, is fascinated by war re-enactments. He's too smart for his own good and his intelligence gets him in trouble at home, at school, and with his friends. The plot's a sort of coming-of-age thing, but it's not really central to the movie. What drives the film is the boy's sly wit. For instance, in one scene, at the grocery story where he stocks shelves a night, he comments on how the store has more flavors of cat food than baby food. That's an interesting societal commentary. Overall low-key with lots of subtle humor, I really liked this. Definitely above average but doesn't try too hard. Excellent. I was, however, disappointed with the featureless DVD -- not a single extra. Since this was the "Project Greenlight" winner (an online screenplay contest) I expected at minimum a documentary on the making of the film and director commentary, but there was nothing. Thus this is a rental, not a purchase DVD. Lame.
Monday, April 19, 2004
Movie: The Punisher
This wasn't as bad as the reviews make it sound. I got exactly what I expected: a comic book revenge story. Retiring FBI agent's family is slaughtered so he becomes the "Punisher," out for revenge. Nothing hugely outstanding or disappointing here. The plot's predictable, the acting decent, and there are even a couple touching moments, though the whole "pity me my family's been killed" thing was done to death. There were a few nice scenes, but overall the film's just average. Also, the guy just doesn't seem very superhero-like: he's very much an average guy who just happens to be highly skilled at killing people (and he was before his revenge quest -- it wasn't like he bulked up for his task). The biggest problem is that the film is much two long: at a ponderous two hours it should have been condensed to an exciting 90.
Sunday, April 18, 2004
Interesting little sci-fi film that takes on 1984/Brave New World territory, with a futuristic society where human emotions have been purged in order to eliminate all conflict and war. Humans who experience emotion or who horde emotional content (such as books or paintings) are executed. The story's rather predictable, with the top police guy discovering emotions and having trouble doing his job. It's an interesting idea, and there are some neat scenes, but unfortunately the film doesn't know if it's sci-fi, action, or drama, and tends to wander between genres in an uncomfortable or predictable manner. Interesting but not remarkable.
Sunday, April 18, 2004
The Footprints of God
Book: The Footprints of God
Writer(s): Greg Iles
Greg's a much better author than Dan Brown (though that's not saying much), but he falls into some of the same traps. He's trying to do something difficult -- talk intelligently about some very complicated subjects in a popular novel -- and unfortunately it doesn't quite work. People who are intelligent will see the subject as dumbed-down and stripped of all rational thought, while people just wanting an entertaining read will find the topic ponderous. Greg tries to please both audiences and it just doesn't work.
The first half of the book is very exciting: our narrator is running for his life as his super-secret goverment colleagues in the NSA are out to kill him for the knowledge of the super-secret project he's been working on. The action doesn't let up until two-thirds of the book have elapsed, and it's compelling reading. Unfortunately, most of us readers are expecting a decent payoff: we want to know why he's being hunted and what this secret government project is all about. We're given clues in bits and pieces: we know it's the most advanced computer ever, so intelligent it rivals God. Even more unfortunately, that is not a metaphor: the author means it literally. So the last third of the book is a complex mess of philosophical and intellectual ponderings, which is interesting, but that's uncomfortably intermeshed with spy/action stuff from the main plot. The result is that the end of the book doesn't make much sense. We don't really buy the main character's delusions or bizarre explanations of who God is, and the whole computer thing just doesn't make much sense on any level. Worse of all, Iles makes the dreadful mistake of resorting to the typical cliche of "computer will blow up the earth" scenario for his central conflict. There are a lot of fascinating ideas here, but ineptly handled, and in an inappropriate forum. The bottom line: wasted potential.
Friday, April 16, 2004
Kill Bill Volume II
Movie: Kill Bill Volume II
Director(s): Quentin Tarantino
Wow! Even better than Kill Bill: Volume One! The first half (it really should have been one long movie) was long on action and short on depth; this half is the reverse (minimal blood this time). There is some cool action, but not the extended fight scenes of the original. In this movie we learn more about the backgrounds of the people involved, learn how Beatrice was trained, and discover why Bill tried to kill her in the first place. The ending is awesome: profound yet satisfying. The two together really make a long but terrific film. The visuals are incredible, and the music spans a dozen genres and styles, yet every song fits perfectly. The opening day matinee I went to received a huge applause when it ended, so I predict this is going to be a huge hit. It's deserved as well. You also don't need to see Volume One to enjoy this: the backstory is clear enough that this film works on its on, though a few jokes and references might be unclear without the first one.
Thursday, April 15, 2004
Movie: The Ladykillers
Director(s): Coen Brothers
I had little interest in this, even though it's a Coen Brothers film. It's a remake, and I usually don't know why films are remade. I also figured a remake was strange for the Coens, who usually use their own original material. I haven't seen the original film (and have no real desire to do so) so I don't know how this compares or if they changed stuff, but this turned out to be a total Coen movie. It's a definite black comedy, hilarious with those subtle Coen touches that make their films awesome. The plot is about a group of idiot thieves, led by the "Professor," hilariously portrayed by an over-the-top Tom Hanks, who plan to tunnel from the basement of an old house into the vault of a nearby casino. Unfortunately, there's a stubborn old black lady living in the house, so Hanks moves in as a room renter and asks to use the basement for his friends to use as rehearsal hall to practice renaissance music. It's a great scheme, but of course nothing quite goes as planned, with outrageous results. The old lady is amazing; actually, the entire cast is perfect. It's a just a great, fun, wonderful film. The ending is just killer and makes the whole thing worth watching. Really enjoyable. My only complaint was that there was an awful lot of unnecessary swearing; it felt out of sync with the rest of the film.
Tuesday, April 13, 2004
Book: Silent Partner
Writer(s): Stephen Frey
Strange book. It's both well-written and poorly written, as though the author's schizophrenic. At time's the writing's just bad, with trite phrases and cheesy scenes, then there'll be a portion of remarkable psychological insight. The problem is that the book isn't consistent, which makes for awkward reading. You're just not sure you trust the author. The plot's decent, at least in the sense of keeping you motivated to read, but unravels and bit at the end, with a pretentious and unrealistic resolution. The basic idea is that a reclusive billionaire -- worth an absurd $500 billion, ten times more than Bill Gates -- hires a pretty bank officer to handle a corporate merger. Why her? That's one of the mysteries. There's a whole lot of manipulation going on and we're not sure who is who and what is what. Unfortunately, indentities are at the core of the plot, and since everything isn't revealed until the end, it makes for a frustrating read since most of the time you don't really trust -- or like -- any of the shifty characters. Most of the characters are cardboard, anyway, typical for this genre, but Frey tries a little too hard to make them 3D and that shows. It's not that bad, but this must be one of Frey's earlier novels, because it comes across that way. Still, it's got a few good moments and isn't terrible.
Sunday, April 11, 2004
Movie: Rat Race
A surprisingly fun movie. Completely silly but aware of that, and just has fun with going over the edge. It's a lose remake of "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" (which I haven't seen yet) about a group of strangers who compete to see who can be first to a destination and win $2 million. Everyone tries to stomp out the competition while promoting themselves with boomerang results. Pointless, but fun.
Thursday, April 8, 2004
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Movie: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Writer(s): Andy Kaufman
Brilliant film. It's about a guy who has a doctor erase the memories of his ex-girlfriend. What's brilliant is the way this is portrayed, because the guy is semi-conscious during the process and changes his mind, trying to escape from the erasing process by hiding in various memories. It's like a dream-world where various memories are relived and overlap. For instance, in one scene he merges a childhood memory of a rainy day and it begins to rain in his living room. Such intriguing visuals make for a compelling story. There really are two stories, the "escape" story within memory-land, and what's happening with the doctor and his assistants as they perform the procedure. These stories merge into a terrific ending. The film's a little long and slow, especially at the beginning -- it could be have edited down a good ten or twenty minutes. But it's a brilliant concept from Kaufman and makes for a wild, entertaining ride. I've been studying and thinking about Philip K. Dick recently and I just know he would have loved this (all of his stuff deals with identity and the validity of memories).
Thursday, April 8, 2004
Movie: The Reckoning
Too predictable -- the trailer spoils all the secrets. It's a great concept, though the title's lame. (It's based on a novel called "Morality Play" and that would have been a better title.) Set in medieval Europe, we begin with a defrocked priest who's hiding a secret and seeking redemption. Escaping the authorities, he winds up with a band of actors, who end up in a town where a deaf-mute woman has just been sentenced to death for murdering a boy. The troup decides to perform a play of the murder, but soon learn that the woman is innocent. A new play, based on the truth the authorities don't want revealed, is then presented, with the priest sacrificing himself for the truth. It's a great concept, terrifically acted and photographed, but the story's slim considering topic, and while much of it is designed to show profoundness, nothing much profound is really revealed. Worth seeing just for the concepts, but too predictable to be a great film.
Wednesday, April 7, 2004
Movie: Taking Lives
This film gets a lot of comparisons to the recent Twisted (both have female cop leads) and usually comes out on top. I agree. It's a better film because Twisted wasn't very twisted (the twist ending was obvious a mile away) whereas this one is a little more subtle. Not much, but a little bit. They did a better job of keeping you guessing and the story after the story (the film keeps on going after you think it's over) is a nice touch. None of the characters are particularly original though the acting is decent. The film has an odd beginning as we focus on the serial killer's story; later that view is lost as we switch to the female FBI agent's viewpoint. I would have preferred sticking with the villain's perspective: that would have been something different. Still, a decent film, with a modicum of suspense.
Wednesday, April 7, 2004
Writer(s): David Mamet
Director(s): David Mamet
I couldn't remember anything about this going in except that it was a David Mamet deal. I was surprised at how much action there was. It's about the kidnapping of a president's daughter -- at least I think that's who she was. The film was unclear about her identity. Val Kilmer plays a military guy who's job is to rescue the girl using any means necessary, and that part was very interesting. Later in the film the thing got bogged down in complexity as the girl was dead, then not dead, then this, then that -- too many twists for its own good. It's a good film, though a little uneven, and a bit sad (all Kilmer's friends keep getting killed). The ending is definitely overwritten (or not written enough). It's overly complicated and confusing, and the whole bit with the "poor rich girl" daughter was underdeveloped and vague. The film also seems to suffer from genre-switching, as though it's not sure if it's a psychological thriller, an action adventure flick, or an emotional drama. The genres mix awkwardly and the film feels disjointed as a result. Still, the whole thing almost works, and there are some good performances and some great scenes and scams that make the film worth seeing on their own.
Tuesday, April 6, 2004
Dawn of the Dead
Movie: Dawn of the Dead (2004)
Unfortunately this film doesn't live up to the original's genius. Gone is the wonderful sociological humor of Romero's version (where zombies "shop" in a mall -- a hiliarous jab at consumer mentality). Instead this film takes the genre seriously and tries to generate true fear through vivid gore and tension. It suceeds to an extent, though it's not particularly scary. All the Hollywood horror standards apply (the main character survives, bad guys die, etc.). Still, it's a different script, which means it's fresh, and it's got some nice creepy visuals and style. It's certainly not a bad entry in the genre but I still prefer the intelligence of the original.
One unintentionally hilarious bit: the legal disclaimer at the end of the film, which appeared to be completely standard, cracked me up when I read, "Any similarity to any person living or dead is merely coincidental." Living or dead! Ha ha! I'm still laughing. (Yes, I am easily amused.)
Tuesday, April 6, 2004
What a Girl Wants
Monday, April 5, 2004
Surprisingly fun little comic-book adventure. The plot's rather pointless and obvious (evil guy wants to open portal to hell or some such nonsense and Hellboy must stop him), and most of the supporting characters are one-dimensional and stereotypical. One makes the film work is Ron Perlman has Hellboy. His sarcastic, self-depreciating attitude brings a rude humor to the proceedings that is delightfully subtle and grim. For example, in one scene while wrestling with a monster he mumbles something about "not on the first date" and it took me a second to realize he was talking about the monster's tongue wrapped around his body. That's great stuff. Too many films have fallen into the Shwartzenegger-style quip where the line mimics the situation too obviously (parodied so excellently on The Simpsons). While routine, this film was more fun than I expected.
Sunday, April 4, 2004
Whew! I'm back from my long trip! Here's what I did. I departed on March 17th for Arizona and stayed near Phoenix, then made it to Fort Stockton in Texas the next day. On Friday I arrived in Houston, where I stayed with my cousin, Tami, and her husband, Scott. Tami just had a baby, Rowan, in January. He's now over 14 lbs. and growing! He's just adorable. A very happy baby, laughing and smiling all the time. After a few days with them, I went to the REAL World Conference 2004 in Austin while my mother (who flew in from Oregon) stayed with my cousin. After the conference we drove to Missouri, and then to Illinois. I caught up with my 9th grade English teacher in southern Illinois, then in Chicago we visited with relatives. On Thursday I started the long drive home (my mother flew back to Portland on Friday). I stayed in Des Moines, Iowa; Rock Springs, Wyoming; and Winnemucca, Nevada. I arrived home this afternoon. I drove over 6,000 miles! I'll post some pictures soon; I'm too tired right now.
Overall, this was a great trip. While driving across deserted states like Nevada and Wyoming is boring, you get a better feel for the country driving. I really enjoyed seeing the differences in the various states; different foods, stores, accents, people, pace of life, etc. It was a terrific experience -- it's been a long time since I've done it.