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Taut detective thriller
Director Christopher Nolan made a sensational splash with the indie hit "Memento", earning him this shot at the big time. For the most part, he proved himself up to the task. "Insomnia" provides a multilayered psychological thriller where two distinct storylines are interwoven in the character of Will Dormer (Al Pacino). The workup is a bit contrived, with Dormer coming to Alaska from LA to help out an old buddy with a murder investigation as he is himself being investigated by internal affairs. This serves as a foundation for the two storylines. The first is the animosity that develops between Dormer and his partner, who wants to cut a deal with internal affairs. The second, of course, is the murder investigation. After Dormer accidentally (?) shoots his partner while chasing the suspect in dense fog, the psychological games begin. Local detective Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank), who is fawning all over Dormer and has read all his books on detective work, begins to suspect that her hero may have feet of clay.

The psychodrama becomes intense as Dormer is confronted with communications from his killer nemesis Walter Finch (Robin Williams), while suspicions swirl around the death of his partner. Add to this his inability to get any sleep in Alaska's perpetual daylight and you have a man driven to the absolute brink.

Nolan does an excellent job of shooting this film and the editing intensifies the psychological tension. The cinematography is also superb, aided by the majestic Alaskan and British Columbian locations. While the interaction between Dormer and Finch is unlikely, the symbiotic relationship that develops is fascinating and Nolan squeezes every psychological tingle that can be wrung from it.

Pacino is masterful as the insomniac cop who has made certain ethical compromises in his career in the name of justice. He looks so terrible that he must have been purposely depriving himself of sleep to increase the realism of the character. Pacino gives Dormer (an interesting play on the latin dormire, "to sleep", a dormer is the window of a sleeping room) a hard edge that gradually erodes as he becomes more sleep deprived, blurring the distinction between good and evil.

Robin Williams seems to be trying to shed his nice guy image with back to back wackos. He follows up his sociopathic performance in "One Hour Photo" with this character who is a sort of sinister pragmatist. Williams is at his best when he is pushing sanity's limits, whether that be in zany comedy or maniacal mayhem, which is precisely why he was wrong for this part. This character is far too calculating and controlled for Williams talents and the part is also much too physical for him. He is just not convincing as a cold blooded killer and tough guy. That is not to say it was a bad performance, just the wrong actor. Hilary Swank unfortunately doesn't have much to do in a film that is dominated by Pacino and Williams.

This is an excellent big budget debut for Nolan and another terrific performance by Pacino. The suspense and pace are first rate and despite the contrivances, it delivers. I rated it an 8/10. Definitely not a snoozer.

Murder by Numbers

Implausible but engaging murder mystery
This is an interesting detective flick that could have been much better. The story is a contemporary twist on the standard crime drama where the diabolical murderers try to outsmart the wily detective. The contemporary twist is that the murderers are two high school students who are brilliant but bored, so they decide to plan the perfect murder and play a cat and mouse game with the police.

Therein lies the flaw. It is plausible that high school students could go on a killing spree because they are angry, frustrated or alienated (we have unfortunately seen too much of this phenomenon), but boredom doesn't produce this level of methodical evil. Also, when teens like this snap, the result is messy, not cold and calculated as depicted here.

Director Barbet Schroeder (Single White Female) presents these kids as normal high school students who simply decided that their brand of mischief would be murder. It might have been more believable if they showed some sociopathic tendencies, but other than the murder, they seem like regular kids. The union of two kids who are so different, the intropsective loner Justin (Michael Pitt) and the popular rich kid Richard (Ryan Gosling), also fails to resonate. They supposedly met when Justin was tutoring Richard, which is utterly implausible given the fact that Richard is portrayed as being extremely bright himself. Also, these types of kids generally have a natural disdain for one another in real life.

The script also bogs down with unnecessary plot elements like Cassie's (Sandra Bullock) mysterious past and a relationship with her partner. This is an attempt to develop Cassie in a way that has little bearing on the main storyline, and the subplot klunks annoyingly away like a square wheel.

The gathering of forensic evidence and the deductive reasoning that follows is fascinating along with the boys manipulation of the evidence to point the detectives in the wrong direction. Cassie's intuitive approach to the evidence is also well scripted.

The acting by the boys is well done, with both creating believable characters. Pitt is moody, sensitive and introspective and renders a tortured character that tries to appear far more confident than he really is. Gosling gives Richard a cocky bravado that reminded me of James Caan. He creates a character that is manipulative and cunning.

Sandra Bullock is a terrific actress, but she seems out of place in this role. Part of the problem is that her character is given too much excess baggage with which to to deal. She plays Cassie far too tentatively considering this is a female characters that other cops call "the hyena". She seems intimidated by confrontations. She is completely dominated in the confrontation with the teenage Richard, but she is also weak in scenes with her boss and her partner. She is much better in the subplot regarding her anguish over her past and the uneasy relationship she has with her partner. Unfortunately, this is the most irrelevant component of the script.

This film has some interesting elements, but the pieces fail to come together. Bullock's middling performance along with an unbelievable story reduce this film to mediocrity. I rated it a 6/10.

What's the Worst That Could Happen?

A dud
This lackluster comedy simply fails to deliver sufficient laughs per hour to justify spending the time to watch it. Martin Lawrence, who is normally a funny guy, just isn't on his game in this flick. Danny DeVito is better, but the material doesn't give him much with which to work.

There is a lot of talent wasted on stereotype bits that are more insulting than comical. William Fichtner's flamingly effeminate detective would only be funny to homophobes. John Leguizamo's Arab imitation is less humorous now than it might have been before September 11.

The only really funny bit in the film is a strictly visual gag by Stephanie Clayman as the sign language interpreter. Without virtue of a solitary line of dialogue, she single handedly produces all the most hilarious moments in the film.

This film is a dud. I rated it 3/10. Martin Lawrence fans are likely to be disappointed.

The Rookie

Inspirational human interest story
As someone who loves films and baseball, this film was a mixed bag for me. As a human interest story it is excellent, but as a baseball story it is somewhat of a disappointment. It is a very upbeat tale of Jim Morris (Dennis Quaid), a high school science teacher who rediscovers his fastball at the age of 35 and tries out for the major leagues. The story mixes together his personal quest and that of the high school baseball team he coaches, both of which overcome incredible odds to achieve near impossible feats.

As a baseball story, Jim Morris is really nothing more than an interesting footnote in baseball history. There are far more compelling baseball stories to be told, like Tommy John who came back from reconstructive surgery to pitch another 14 seasons (that were some of his best), or Jim Abbott who was born without a right hand and pitched in the major leagues for ten years, pitching a no hitter against Cleveland in 1993. Morris only played for Tampa Bay for parts of two seasons, pitching a total of 15 innings with a 4.80 ERA and almost as many walks as strikeouts. Still, it is pretty inspirational that he made it to the majors at all given his age.

This film plays well on Main Street, where regular folks are reminded of the faded fantasies of their youth. It strikes a chord because to root for Morris is to root for their long abandoned dreams. Director John Lee Hancock does a fine job of bringing out the best in the human story, although the sports components are marginal.

There are just too many instances of unrealistic baseball in this film. For instance, Morris is repeatedly shown throwing as hard as he can with absolutely no warm-up. Any little leaguer can tell you that you will blow out your arm if you do that. This is especially unrealistic given the fact that Morris had surgery on that shoulder when he was younger. Unless he was plain stupid, he would warm up before he attempted to throw flat out.

As an athlete, Quaid is not terribly convincing, with pitching mechanics that are far short of professional caliber. Kevin Costner was much more credible in `For Love of the Game', though that film lacked the story of this one.

From an acting perspective Dennis Quaid is marvelous in the lead. This is one of the best performances of his career. He is convincing as the high school coach pushing his kids to reach for their dreams and maximize their potential. His chemistry with the young cast is terrific. However, in the pursuit of his own dream, he is even better. This is a complex and nuanced performance showing Morris as filled with desire and self doubt. Quaid's portrayal of his determination in the face of his own insecurity is phenomenally insightful and compelling. Rachel Griffiths and Brian Cox give splendid performances and Morris' wife and father.

This is a wonderful feel-good film that is great for the whole family. I've been a little hard on it because I'm a long time baseball fanatic, but the human interest story is so well done and Quaid's performance so compelling that I have to give it at least an 8/10. This is a film that everyone can enjoy, regardless of whether you love sports.


A correction to my previous post. I confused Imelda Staunton (petite) with Anna Chancellor (tall and blunt spoken). Chancellor was the doctor and Staunton was the police chief. I had it the other way around.

My apologies to the actors and their fans.

40 Days and 40 Nights

Immature twenty-something comedy
It was bound to happen. Josh Hartnett became a very hot property after `Pearl Harbor' so it was inevitable that he would get the lead in a romantic comedy. Unfortunately, it isn't a very good one. The screenplay is a typically sex-obsessed teen flick with twenty-something characters.

Matt (Hartnett) is trying to get over his ex-girlfriend Nicole (Vinessa Shaw) by having sex with every woman he meets. When it dawns on him that this is superficial and fraught with anxiety, he decides to give up sex for lent. Of course, as soon as he makes "The Vow", he meets his dream girl Erica (Shannyn Sossamon) and he spends much of the ensuing time trying to come up with reasons not to have sex with her. Meanwhile, his co-workers and half the internet have a pool on what day he will give in. The comedy is mostly puerile, though there are a few funny lines sprinkled here and there.

Director Michael Lehmann has plenty of experience with vacuous comedy, having directed `Heathers' and `Airheads'. He has done better on TV with `The Larry Sanders Show' and `The West Wing'. Lehmann keeps it light, but the material is just too jejune for him to do much. To his credit, the cast seemed to be having fun with it.

Josh Hartnett is an excellent dramatic actor. However, as a buffoon he is just not that funny. His true skills emerge in the romantic scenes with Shannyn Sossamon where his sincerity shines through. Hartnett and Sossamon have terrific chemistry. There is a very sensitive and endearing quality about their scenes together. Sossamon is a bright young talent who might do well with the right scripts. She is lovely and engaging with good acting ability. Paul Costanzo provides much of the best comedy as Matt's sexually fixated roommate.

This isn't a terrible comedy, but it is rather immature considering the age of the characters and the target audience. I rated it a 6/10.

We Were Soldiers

Among the best war films in recent memory
`Saving Private Ryan' redefined the war genre and opened the floodgates to a new generation of war movies. It pushed the boundaries of acceptability by frankly showing war in all its grisly glory. As such it gave us a better understanding of how terrible and frightening war is. `Black Hawk Down' took the graphic violence to a new level, with an intensity that matched the beach landing of SPR, but of a duration that was almost unbearable.

`We Were Soldiers' is the latest big budget war offering from Hollywood. In many ways, I consider this to be the most complete of the three. Writer/Director Randall Wallace (who wrote "Braveheart", "Pearl Harbor" and the screenplay for this film), takes the understanding of war to the next level, by offering more than one perspective to the events. Of the three films, this film has the best workup, the best character development, and the most nuanced look at the battle. He brings all the sustained intensity of BHD in the action sequences, but introduces the NVA perspective, the wives' perspective and a far more charismatic and heroic central figure in Lt. Col. Hal Moore.

Based on real events, this film shows war as being horrendous and heartless to both sides. It expands outside the combat zone to visit the ramifications on the families as well. The scenes with the wives getting the telegrams are poignant reminders of how war reaches beyond the battlefield. Wallace's treatment grabs us on an emotional level and shocks the senses. Unlike BHD, which presented the characters in a very anonymous way, we come to know these characters and their families and identify with them.

Of course, the film lacks the hard edge that would make it starkly believable. It is after all a Hollywood production and not a documentary. However, Wallace pours enough realism into the depictions to assure that this doesn't turn into another sappy melodrama like `Pearl Harbor', which was really nothing more than a romance with a long battle scene in the middle. Wallace finds the optimal balance between engaging storytelling and the brutality of combat.

The acting is excellent. Mel Gibson offers the right combination of hard nosed officer and father figure (both to his children and his men). Gibson is steadfast and courageous without being harsh. His portrayal of Moore is so well played, so charismatic and heroic, that it is impossible to believe that such a person could actually exist.

Sam Elliot follows an outstanding performance in `The Contender' with this gem as Sergeant Major Plumley, the tough as nails warhorse who serves as Moore's non commissioned adjutant. Elliot plays the intransigent career soldier to the hilt, where nothing including life itself is more important than honor and discipline. Barry Pepper also turns in a fine performance as Joe Galloway, the photo journalist who hops on a helicopter to take pictures in the center of the battle and finds himself with a rifle in his hands fighting for his life.

This is among the best war films in recent memory and probably the best film on the Vietnam War film since `Full Metal Jacket'. I rated it a 10/10. This film is not for everyone. It contains graphic violence and disturbingly realistic battle scenes. It is a gripping and distressing film that should be required viewing for statesmen and generals alike.

A Gentleman's Game

Unfulfilled potential
This is not really a film about golf, but a film about life with golf as the backdrop. Therein lies the problem. First time director J. Mills Goodloe can't seem to choose where he wants to go with the story and it meanders aimlessly from storyline to storyline in an attempt to give it a coming-of-age flavor.

He would have been better to concentrate on Timmy (Mason Gamble) and his relationship with Foster (Gary Sinise) in his quest to improve his golf game. This is clearly the best and most interesting element of the story. Instead he flits about following Timmy's relationship with the other loopers, his infatuation with the beverage girl and the happenings at various club events. The relationship between Timmy and Foster, never really gets much traction until the final scene and even then the validation is delivered via a letter rather than a face to face encounter, which would have made it poignant and satisfying.

The acting by Mason Gamble and Gary Sinise is excellent. They have good chemistry and it is clear they connect. Gamble gives a very steady performance throughout and gives the character a naive charm and steely resolve that are extremely engaging. Sinise plays a stolid and standoffish character harboring a terrible secret and bitter disappointment. His understated performance is a perfect fit for this complex character whose cavalier nature hides deeper turmoil. The rest of the cast is simply terrible. Dylan Baker is horrible as Timmy's dad. Phillip Baker Hall is awful as the two faced Charlie Logan.

This film had great potential that was never realized. I rated it 5/10. It should have stayed with the golf story rather than dissipate itself on the other less interesting elements.


De Niro wastes his talent on another mediocre comedy
Robert De Niro must be going through mid life crisis. Arguably one of the best dramatic actors of his generation, De Niro continues to try to prove himself as a comic actor in a parade of mediocre scripts (The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, Meet the Parents, Analyze This, Showtime). De Niro isn't a terrible comedian; he is just such a great dramatic actor that his comic ambitions seem pointless. It is like Michael Jordan trying to play baseball.

This script is a weak satire of reality cop shows and buddy cop flicks. It is no coincidence that the director of this film is Tom Dey, whose only other directorial effort was `Shanghai Noon', a Jackie Chan vehicle where Jackie does a comic duet with Owen Wilson in a lampoon of westerns. The hope was that Dey would be able to weave the same kind of satirical magic here, but this film comes up way short. To his credit, he did manage to give the film some good action footage.

De Niro tries to play the straight man in an absurd situation and it seems like his is the only character that realizes the lunacy of it. Everyone else seems to take their absurdity seriously. The tongue in cheek comedy is way over the top. Rene Russo, William Shattner and Eddie Murphy overact so terribly that it is more sad than funny. As a footnote, Drena De Niro (Robert De Niro's adopted daughter), appears for the fifth time in a film with her dad as Annie, the assistant producer and Rene Russo's sidekick.

The star power in this film was costly with a hefty budget over $85 Million and a box office of half that amount. I rated it a 4/10. This one needs to gather dust on the rental shelves and De Niro needs to get back to serious acting.

The Sweetest Thing

Mindless and predictable romantic comedy
The sweetest thing about this film is Cameron Diaz. Unfortunately, the script is so mindless and predictable that all the pizzazz that Diaz can muster hasn't a hope of rescuing this film.

This is yet another tired romantic comedy about meeting that one true love on the eve of his/her wedding. The cast is energetic but the screenplay is lifeless. Christina (Diaz) is the consummate party girl. She never commits to a relationship. When she runs into Peter (Thomas Jane) in a club they argue, he leaves and of course she falls madly in love with him and tracks him down on his wedding day, aided and abetted by her loyal friends Courtney (Christina Applegate) and Jane (Selma Blair). There are a few funny scenes, but mostly it is just a parade of visual blonde jokes.

Diaz is vivacious, energetic, cute, pouty and cold all at the same time. This performance is a no brainer for her (literally and figuratively) and doesn't really test her acting ability. Christina Applegate plays an uncharacteristically smart character and probably delivers the most dynamic performance of the cast. Selma Blair is the least well known of the three, but steals just about every scene she is in. Thomas Jane is soggy in the romantic lead with all the magnetism of overcooked pasta.

This film laid an egg at the box office and rightfully so. It had a good first week and then tanked as is often the case when a popular star like Diaz opens a mediocre film and word of mouth overcomes the initial hype. I rated it a 5/10. The cast tries hard to have fun with it, but the material is just too dopey.

The Majestic

A good direction for Jim Carrey
This is a pleasant film that is more important for what it isn't than what it is. There have been many comparisons between this film and the work of legendary director Frank Capra. That is easy to do because it is a very human story set in the 1940's and it ends with a senate hearing that is reminiscent of `Mr. Smith Goes to Washington'. However, Capra was always very black and white when it came to good and evil, with his heroes almost saintly and his villains dastardly and despicable. This film has more gray overtones and flawed characters. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does take it out of the realm of being truly Capraesque.

Even more importantly, this film isn't another lowbrow gross out flick by Jim Carrey. Carrey gives a likeable performance reminiscent of `The Truman Show', with not a hint of the repugnant and boorish behavior that made him famous. I can only pray that despite the poor box office of this film, Carrey will attempt to build on this and move in the direction that Robin Williams went, toward more substantial screenplays and real acting. His next project, `The Children of the Dust Bowl' is a true story of a professor who set up a school for kids in the Oklahoma dust bowl in the 1930's, so he seems to have changed his script selection criteria. That would be a blessing as he is far too talented to be wasting his life on body fluid humor.

The film itself is schmaltzy and nostalgic, and it gets a little strident at the end as it tries too hard to repudiate the blacklisting and red paranoia of the 1940's and 1950's. It is an easy story to enjoy, although it is hard for the viewer to believe that anyone in this town could possibly have thought Peter Appleton (Carrey) was really Luke Trimble. It is as if everyone really knew the truth, but they wanted to deceive themselves.

Director Frank Darabont (`The Green Mile', `The Shawshank Redemption') does a nice job on the period renderings (except not enough men in hats; hats were the rule for men during that period) with costumes and props that bring the times to life.

The acting is very good. I like Jim Carrey much better as a dramatic actor or a bittersweet comic than as a fatuous chuff. Carrey is extremely affable as Peter, and plays the romantic parts with Laurie Holden well. However, he is tentative in the Washington scenes, unable to summon up the resolute defiance necessary for the situation. Martin Landau is terrific as Luke's father, bringing the character an almost delusional enthusiasm that is simultaneously charming and pathetic. Laurie Holden also does a nice job of portraying Adele, taking a grounded character and slowly melting her emotionally as she falls in love with Luke/Peter.

This is not a great film, but other than the political drum beating it is an agreeable (though improbable) feel good flick. I rated it a 7/10. Let's hope this portends a trend in Jim Carrey's career away from the disgusting schlock for which he has made millions.

Body Shots

Superficial treatment of a serious subject
This film flounders by taking the serious subject of date rape and trying to mix it with the twenty-something licentious overdrive of `Sex in the City'. Written by David McKenna (`American History X') and directed by Michael Cristofer (`Original Sin'), this screenplay has potential that is dissipated by trying to make it too sexy and hip.

The story starts with Sara (Tara Reid) coming to a friend's house in the middle of the night in her nightgown with face bloodied, claiming to have been raped by her date. We then shift to the events that preceded the alleged attack, as we meet our eight yuppies whose raging hormones are searching desperately for release by means of drunken stupefaction. Interspersed, we receive asides from each of the characters giving their honest and somewhat immature views on sex and relationships. This part of the film is utterly vapid and self indulgent, full of gratuitous sex and nudity, seemingly just to impress us with how shallow and hedonistic these young people are.

After a night of wild and lascivious dancing, everyone gets blotto and hooks up with someone for meaningless flesh pounding. Sara, who has been involved all night in dancing that can only be described as coital pantomime with pro football player Mike Penorisi (Jerry O'Connell), decides to take him home in a taxi after he finishes beating up a guy who bumped into him in the bar.

Fast forward to the present and each participant gives a flashback description of the events, Sara describing being forcibly raped despite her protestations, and Mike describing an nymphomaniac using him to get revenge on her ex-boyfriend and who became infuriated when he called her by the wrong name. The evidence supports both views, with Sara's behavior before the incident clearly provocative and slutty, and her emotional and physical state afterward extremely sincere and convincing. The picture is further clouded by the fact that both were extremely drunk and the reliability of their statements is questionable.

The rape storyline is fertile ground for an excellent drama, but Cristofer draws away abruptly just when the story gets interesting and returns to soliloquies of the various characters giving their reflections on the events that just occurred. The film thus leaves the viewer extremely unsatisfied with the outcome.

Ultimately, the film seems to be trying to make the point that this event was inevitable given the dangerous and irresponsible behavior of the characters. Cristofer tries to infuse the story with the moral that loving relationships are better than promiscuous drunken encounters, but his final scenes are too abstruse to make the argument with any power.

This is a good showcase for some young talent. Most impressive is Tara Reid, best known as Vicki in `American Pie'. Reid gives a gut wrenching performance, sexy when she needs to be and utterly devastated after the incident. Sean Patrick Flannery is also good as the nice guy who feels that he has to act like a sex obsessed jerk to fit in with his friends. He has a couple scenes with Amanda Peet that are heartfelt and touching. Peet gives a surprisingly good dramatic performance that is a far cry from the ditzy parts for which she is getting known lately. Jerry O'Connell does well as the jock with the untamed libido. Ron Livingston is outrageously abrasive and droll as Trent, the obnoxious dweeb with an overblown sense of self importance.

This could have been a good film, but it takes the wrong approach to a serious contemporary subject. I rated it a 6/10. While the moral of the story is constructive, the presentation overemphasizes the very behavior it is criticizing, and neglects the true human interest story by skirting the serious issue. Some respectable acting performances, especially by Tara Reid, are reduced by the film's superficiality.

Collateral Damage

Decent but formulaic action flick
Anyone who goes to an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie expecting stimulating dialogue and insightful human drama is only kidding himself. Like all of Schwarzenegger's films, this is formulaic and unoriginal with great action footage. This is an unabashed Joe-Six-Pack guy flick. On that level it succeeds nicely.

Of course, this film can't be compared strictly with mindless action flicks, because it pretends to be an international thriller, and here it fails spectacularly. It attempts to become philosophical, perfunctorily tossing in the idea that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter, but the script doesn't dwell very long on this question and quickly proceeds to the next firework show.

The incursion of fireman Gordy Brewer into the terrorist camp is so far past implausible that it is comical. The G-men border on goofy. And the idea that terrorists would detonate a bomb with a cell phone is just silly. One wrong number (or telemarketing auto-dialer) and `wham', mission over.

The twist ending is decent and at least it is not totally predictable, unlike the rest of the film. Director Andrew Jackson, best known for his direction of `The Fugitive', keeps the film moving briskly and alternates effectively between action and suspense, without letting the improbability of the script act as an impediment.

Arnold is still in great shape and athletic as ever despite his heart valve replacement. I have to give him a lot of credit. After that surgery a lot of actors would have been happy to take less demanding roles. Arnold simply shrugs it off and continues where he left off. This is a meld of his two favorite characters, action hero and tough guy with a big heart. He gives his standard performance, which is not so much a matter of acting, but rather Arnold playing Arnold with someone else's name. Cliff Curtis is sinister as the terrorist and Francesca Neri is lovely and believable as his duplicitous wife.

By Arnold standards, this is not among his best. By international thriller standards, it is brainless and inadequate. As an action flick it is entertaining. Overall, however, I can't give it much more than a 6/10. Action and Arnold junkies will want to see it. Others will probably want to pass.

High Crimes

Formulaic story saved by strong performances
Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd (`Kiss the Girls') team up again in this courtroom thriller, which is entertaining despite its worn plot and obvious ending. The reason it doesn't descend to a level consistent with the screenplay's unoriginality is the superior acting by the three principal performers.

Claire (Ashley Judd) and Tom (James Caviezel) are living an idyllic and romantic married life, trying hard to have a baby. Everything is going swimmingly until one day Tom is arrested and charged with murder and war crimes dating back to his military service and raid in El Salvatore years earlier. It seems Tom's entire identity is a lie and his name is really Ron Chapman, a former Special Forces commando.

Claire, who is conveniently a prominent defense lawyer, takes up his case determined to prove he is innocent, choosing to believe his denials despite the fact that everything she knows about him is a fabrication. She hires Charlie Grimes (Morgan Freeman) to assist her because until he became a broken down alcoholic, he was once one of the top lawyers in the military.

The film is paced well and balanced between courtroom drama and other related storylines like constant death threats, a dirty general and a mystery man. It is fairly standard fare, but the presentation is engaging.

Morgan Freeman is such a terrific actor, that even a trite script can't keep him down. He is wily and insolent as the washed up lawyer with a few tricks left up his sleeve. Freeman projects an unassuming power in his work, full of dynamism yet highly amiable. His interaction with Judd is wonderful, treating her with avuncular kindness and intellectual respect.

Ashley Judd is a fine dramatic actor, who returns to serious drama after an ill advised detour into romantic comedy (`Someone Like You'). Judd is razor sharp in this film, coming across as bright, energetic and passionate. She is tough as nails and doesn't back down to pompous military officers or thugs trying to intimidate her.

Jim Caviezel rounds out the cast with a strong performance as the accused. This is a tough character because he is so mysterious and duplicitous. Caviezel delivered a strong portrayal of an enigmatic character in `Angel Eyes', so he had some experience with this type of role. He handles the part well, appearing utterly sincere whether his character is telling the truth or not.

Amanda Peet gives her standard performance as Claire's hair brained and sex obsessed sister. Peet is no serious dramatic talent, but she has this character down and comes across as believably ditzy and concerned about her sister despite their obvious sibling rivalry.

This film doesn't fool anyone with its surprise ending, but it does deliver good suspense, a tried and true formula and some excellent performances. I rated it a 7/10. It's worth a look for viewers who like mysteries.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

A gargantuan filmmaking achievement
Prior to this film, Director Peter Jackson was obscure even among the anonymous wannabes of the film industry. His resume consisted of a half a dozen indy films in the horror and comedy genres. If you took the budgets of all his prior films together, they wouldn't equal his salary for this franchise. He now owns the second highest grossing film in history. Talk about a Cinderella story!

This film was somewhat of a personal obsession for Jackson. It took eight years from inception to completion. He originally pitched the idea to Miramax who agreed to take it on and then balked at the cost of a two movie deal and backed out. Desperate to save the project, he presented it to New Line Cinema and convinced them that if he filmed in New Zealand, used his own effects company and filmed all three movies back to back, he could make three films for less than the cost of two. They bought the project and gave him a record $270 Million budget for the three. He completed the filming for all three films in 16 months of continual shooting, a record.

Jackson's task was daunting. He wanted to create a film with mass appeal that was true to the classic books. Considering the devoted following of Tolkien's trilogy, their preoccupation with the smallest trivia and the sheer volume of the works, this was an almost impossible task. Jackson decided to lean toward the action/adventure elements, while paying homage to aficionados with scenes that compressed the intricacies of the various cultures and contained allusions to various pieces of trivia that only devotees of the books would understand. The result is a terrific film that doesn't leave the books out of the screenplay.

The transformation of the real world into the fantasy world is nothing short of fantastic. The combination of makeup, set decoration, costumes, New Zealand locations and special effects sets a new standard for this or any genre. The attention to detail is astounding from the elf ears to the hobbit toes.

The ensemble cast does a fine job without any need for a superstar. Elijah Wood is lovable and believable as the dauntless Frodo. Wood has the perfect combination of childlike exuberance and steely resolve to play the ring bearer. Ian McClellan, who is a big ring fan himself, is perfectly cast as Gandalf. With almost 40 years in TV and films, McKellen is one of the veterans of the cast. He is a powerful dramatic actor and he renders Gandalf with great range. He is formidable and commanding in some scenes, and tender and paternal in the scenes with Frodo. Along with Christopher Lee (55 years in film) the battle of the elders is given enormous dramatic power.

Viggo Mortensen is awesome as Aragon. Mortensen demanded to do all his own stunts and trained exhaustively at swordsmanship and other combat skills to make his fight scenes as realistic as possible. In one scene he had a tooth knocked out and after a quick trip to the dentist he was back on the set later that day. Ian Holm is wonderful as Bilbo Baggins. Holm captures the ageless hobbit with a youthful enthusiasm that belies his advanced age.

This film is really more the first episode of a miniseries than a film that stands alone. By the end it is clear that we haven't yet reached the middle, even if you never read the books. Still, at three hours, it never drags.

It is a tremendous filmmaking achievement that redefines the fantasy genre and sets production standards that will be difficult to equal. It is fabulously entertaining for audiences of all ages. One cannot see this film and not be eager for the next episode to be released. I rated it a 10/10. It is motion picture history in the making.

Vanilla Sky

A mind warping experience
Cameron Crowe's dark remake of Alejandro Amenabar's 1997 Spanish film, `Abre los ojos' (also starring Penelope Cruz) is a mind warping experience. Welcome to a world where dreams and reality are seamlessly interwoven, so it is impossible for the characters, the viewers and maybe even Crowe to tell where one ends and the other begins. This will be a frustrating film for anyone who hopes to make sense of it. To enjoy it one must relax and allow oneself to be mentally flagellated for two plus hours.

Like all lady or tiger stories, the film will generate great debates among the intelligentsia about which parts of the story are real and which are the dreams. However, for the majority the response will be, `Huh?' Crowe keeps us guessing until the very last frame at which point he throws us the final curve and abruptly ends the film. In the featurette that comes with the DVD, it is clear the Crowe is relishing his role as tantalizer, taking great pains to make each scene as ambiguous as possible to keep it open to multiple interpretations. That's what makes the film fun, if you like that sort of thing. Personally, I like closure, but I can appreciate Crowe's deliciously evil intentions.

As is always the case with Cameron Crowe, the presentation is innovative and visually interesting. Crowe has a terrific and unique way of crafting his films that is very engaging. In this film, he purposely avoids defining his characters, preferring to keep their motivations abstruse. For him to maintain the vagueness, it is important that we remain confused about the characters' personalities. In this regard, he succeeds spectacularly. The film is a bit too long and bogs down slightly in the middle, but just when we are about to get bored, Crowe throws us another brain bender to keep it interesting.

Kudos go to the makeup department in the creation of Tom Cruise's facial disfigurement, which is realistically hideous and effective.

The acting ranges from good to great. This is a particularly difficult film for actors since the characters are meant to remain indistinct. It is hard to render a character when the director demands that his/her motivations and personality keep changing, but the cast adapts beautifully. Tom Cruise is powerful and tortured as Aames, the convoluted protagonist. Since the entire film is essentially shot from his perspective, it is important that we share his bewilderment and consternation, which means he must project those emotions onto us. This he does with extraordinary effect, delivering a gut wrenching performance that takes him (and us) to the brink of insanity.

Penelope Cruz is excellent as his sexy and supportive love interest. But Cruz is eclipsed by Cameron Diaz, who steals the show with minimal screen time. Diaz swings from sweet and adorable to vicious and maniacal with such ease that it is frightening. Jason Lee is also good as Aames' fickle best friend and rival. Lee naturally projects a trustworthy persona, so when he turns on Aames it creates the startling effect that Crowe wants. Kurt Russell is okay as the psychologist, but this is a more cerebral role than his skills can handle. Russell is a naturally visceral performer, great in roles as the tough guy with a big heart. Here he seems a bit out of place.

This film is deviously crafted and expertly presented with deft performances by the cast. It will drive most viewers a little nuts, which is its intention. This will also mean that some people will really dislike it. I rated it 9/10. If you think you can figure it out, you're dreaming.

John Q

Shameless emotional manipulation and political pap
There is a scene in this film where John Q. Archibald (Denzel Washington) is applying for a job where the interviewer says, `Your qualifications are very impressive, as a matter of fact you may be overqualified.' That should have been a quote from his casting interview.

This is a horrible script with vapid dialogue and a bleeding heart so big that it is this film that needs a transplant; a brain transplant. Films trying to make a political point (in this case an emotional appeal for National Health Care) are usually deft enough to bury the message in the subtext. This one oversimplifies the issue, preaches unabashedly and even sends a parade of lefties to bang the drum and spew liberal pap all over the screen. Films like this never seem to have trouble finding backers, but at least give us some semi-intelligent interchanges and believable scenes.

Director Nick Cassavetes seems oblivious to the fact that the film is cartoonish, as he lets inane drivel attempt to pass as serious dialogue. With the exception of John Q, most of the other characters are cardboard cutouts of you favorite stereotype action figures. We have the cold heartless hospital administrator (Anne Heche), the arrogant doctor (James Wood), the good hearted but dopey factory worker (David Thornton), the grandstanding police chief (Ray Liotta) and the street wise career cop (Robert Duvall).

The story is totally predictable, telegraphing the outcome in the first three minutes. Cassavetes seems content with TV level production values and milks the screenplay for every ounce of sympathy it can muster. This is the most shameless emotional manipulation that one could imagine.

There is a considerable amount of talent that flounders attempting to prop this film up. Denzel Washington gives a good performance with one of the few characters in the film that is close to believable. He makes John a very noble and respectable character with a warm heart and an iron will. Kimberly Elise is also credible as his wife, and Daniel E. Smith is lovable as his son.

The rest of the cast should hide in shame. James Wood is a terrific actor, but overplayed the pompous doctor routine to the point of being ridiculous. Anne Heche, who always comes across as a bit cold, takes this character to the arctic, only to become a weepy basket case at the end in a stunning reversal. Ray Liotta and Robert Duvall are more like a Keystone Kops than serious cops. Shawn Hatosy brings new meaning to the word obnoxious as the rich kid who brings the hooker he just beat up to the ER (sure, that's realistic; it happens all the time).

This film isn't terrible, but it's close. I really enjoy watching Denzel work, but this script is a total hack job, and as good as he is he can't save it. I rated it a 3/10. Do yourself a favor and don't insult your own intelligence by seeing it.

In the Bedroom

Human drama par excellence
Once again an independent film shows that a good story, insightful directing and inspired acting can outperform the Hollywood giants with their $50 Million budgets. This film was produced for a scant $1.7 million and garnered five Oscar nominations including best picture. Writer/Director/Producer Todd Field, who has spent most of his career almost invisibly as an actor, explodes onto the scene on the other side of the camera and serves notice that he is a force to be reckoned with.

The story is powerful and poignant. It is the story of a family that is shattered by a horrible tragedy and it examines their ordeal as they come to terms with it. Field's workup is wonderfully done, giving care to assure that we understand and involve ourselves with these characters. It is a very likeable family, with down to earth people that come across like our closest friends. This makes their tragedy into our tragedy, so we easily identify with the shearing forces that shred their lives.

Field shows an extreme talent for bringing a stark realism to the screen. The characters are consistent with their development and exceedingly believable. The way he frames the shots and his choice of close-ups of inanimate objects is superb, heightening the feeling of being there. Having spent a good bit of time in New England myself, I noticed that the locations capture much of the feeling of the place. Even the sounds are more realistic than most films.

After the tragedy occurs, Field casts a suffocating pall over the film as he allows the humanness of his characters to dominate. Shock and denial are followed by seething resentment and blame. The characters are seen going robotically through the motions of their daily lives as they attempt to cope with the reality of the heartbreak that has befallen them. If there is one area where Field errs slightly, it may be here. He purposely dwells on these scenes to bring the audience to the same level of frustration and anguish as the characters, in an attempt to make us see that the final resolution is inevitable. However, his pace is overly torturous. The film bogs down and becomes repetitive during the second act, making the entire film seem much too long. However, this is more than compensated by the tense and evocative final act.

The acting is riveting. Tom Wilkinson, Sissy Spacek and Marisa Tomei were all nominated for Oscars. December seems to be a lucky month for birthdays in this film, since all four of the leads were born in that month (Wilkinson, 12/12, Spacek, 12/25, Tomei, 12/4 and Stahl, 12/5).

Wilkinson (`The Full Monty', `Shakespeare in Love', `The Patriot') emerges from the shadow of supporting roles with a compelling performance in the lead. His sincerity and believability endow his character with an amiable nature. His anger and grief is contained, yet while he appears impassive, it is clear that the emotional vortex runs deep. This is a breakout performance for Wilkinson and hopefully will portend larger roles in the future.

For Sissy Spacek, this is her sixth Oscar nomination. Throughout her career, Spacek has dependably belted out one commanding dramatic performance after another and this is no exception. This is a somewhat more emotionally repressed character than she usually plays, but she does it beautifully. When the dam finally breaks and she goes to pieces, it is one of the most intense scenes in the film.

Marisa Tomei may be one of the most underappreciated actors in film today. After her best supporting Oscar for `My Cousin Vinny', one would have expected more leading roles. They never came and she continued to deliver a parade of terrific supporting roles. Tomei is a very visceral actor, with great emotional range and the ability to make any character seem lovable. Here, as Natalie, she pours herself into a confused and broken girl trying desperately to put her life together after her breakup with an abusive husband. Her romantic scenes are touching and she has numerous heartrending scenes that punctuate the feelings that the other characters are suppressing. This is a richly textured performance that helps give the film its soul. Perhaps now, after 20 years in the business Tomei will finally be discovered.

Nick Stahl rounds out the main cast as son Frank Fowler. Stahl effectively captures the struggle of young adulthood, trying to manage complex adult situations with the inexperience and naiveté of youth. William Mapother does a fine job as Natalie's abusive husband. Mapother's resume is mostly comprised of bit parts in the films of his famous cousin Thomas Mapother (aka Tom Cruise) having appeared in five of them. However Mapother shows talent of his own in some intense scenes with Tomei and Stahl. I was impressed how he was able to switch from arrogant intimidation to meek pusillanimity in the final scene with Wilkinson. It is the perfect portrayal of the bully who is only strong in the face of those weaker than he.

This is a disturbing and powerful film that cuts your heart out and serves it up cold. There is a thunderhead of new and unheralded talent that converges to create an extraordinary independent film. Though Field is a bit heavy handed in the second act, everything else is near perfect. I rated it a 9/10. For lovers of drama and great acting this film is a must see.


Mothman Lite
Here we have Mothman Lite, right down to the insect in the title. `The Mothman Prophecies' is a chilling supernatural thriller where a man obsessed with the drawings of his dead wife finds his way to a town where people are getting messages from the unknown. `Dragonfly' is a syrupy tale about a despondent man obsessed with the drawings of children claiming to be in contact with his dead wife that lead him to the unknown. A coincidence? I doubt it.

The films are different as night and day. Mothman is a true supernatural thriller, replete with suspense, fright and eerie messages from the other side. Dragonfly attempts to be a transcendent romance with love so strong that death cannot contain it. There is nothing remotely spooky about it. Most of the film concentrates on Joe's (Kevin Costner) inability to cope with the death of his wife.

The film drags, with Joe traversing the same emotional ground again and again. We keep having scenes repeated over and over between Joe and the children who contacted his wife, and Joe puling to Mrs. Belmont (Kathy Bates) who keeps trying to talk some sense into him. The final scenes in Venezuela border on goofy, but to the writers' credit at least the ending wasn't totally predictable.

Kevin Costner gives us his standard depressed nice-guy rendition only a bit whinier than usual. Kathy Bates is feisty as always as his stalwart friend. Linda Hunt is intense in her role as the nun who believes in near death experiences.

This film is far too sappy to be a thriller and misses the romantic interaction of films like `Ghost' and `Always' in its attempt to be transcendent. It fails to distinguish itself in any meaningful way and slides aimlessly into mediocrity. I rated it 5/10. If you want a thriller, see Mothman.

A Beautiful Mind

Brilliant filmmaking, superb acting
Ron Howard (Splash, Cocoon, Backdraft, Apollo 13) has done excellent work as a director for which he has gotten little credit over the years. With this film comes a best director Oscar and a best picture Oscar and finally the recognition he deserves. Howard has always been good at presenting human stories, be they comedy or drama. He has a intuitive understanding of character motivation and is excellent at making his characters elicit strong emotions in the viewer. This is particularly true in this film.

The story is based on the life of John Forbes Nash, Jr., a mathematician and Nobel laureate who suffered from schizophrenia. The film gives us a unique first person perspective of the disease, drawing us into his world and allowing us to see what Nash sees. Howard's presentation is brilliant. At first Nash is presented as a bit eccentric, but lucid. As we experience his world, reality and illusion are so perfectly intertwined that we are not sure where the world ends and the mind begins. By fooling the audience Howard makes the subtle point that to the schizophrenic it all seems real. In attempting to evaluate Nash's world we get a distant understanding of the confusion that results when a rational person attempts to cope with a world that is part real and part hallucination.

While this is a biopic, it is more fiction than fact. A great deal of dramatic license is taken since Nash freely admits that he has little recollection of the years when he suffered from the disease. The powerful speech at the end of the film where he thanks his wife after receiving his Nobel Prize is pure Hollywood. Included in the DVD is footage of the actual Nobel ceremony and no speeches were given. Yet, we can forgive the latitude taken because the story is so inspirational.

From a production standpoint, special note must be given to the makeup department, which ages Russell Crowe so magnificently. As the movie progresses through four decades, Nash is realistically depicted and aged appropriately. Likewise, the art department does a fine job rendering four different periods, matching costumes, props and sets to the times.

Yet, with all the fine production values, this film excels most in the acting. Russell Crowe turns in a career performance in a career abundant in great performances. This character is the antithesis of the Russell Crowe we've come to expect. Instead of strong, tough and balanced, with a sharp worldly intelligence, he plays an eccentric and convoluted man with quirks, nervous habits and a psyche obviously out of balance. Crowe completely immerses himself in the enormous volume of the role, effortlessly moving between its elements from audacity to paranoia to tenderness to genius. This is an accomplishment that is light years beyond his Academy Award performance in `Gladiator', good as it was.

Jennifer Connelly puts herself on the map with an Oscar for best supporting actress. It is always difficult to avoid getting lost in the presence of an actor as powerful as Crowe, but Connelly stays right with him, delivering a moving performance as Nash's steadfast wife.

Ed Harris was my favorite to nose out Crowe for best actor in last year's Academy Awards. Harris gave a brilliant performance playing Jackson Pollock in `Pollock' (also featuring Jennifer Connelly in a small role) that was trampled under by the `Gladiator' Oscar juggernaut. As if to say, `If you can't beat him, join him', Harris goes toe to toe with Crowe in some of the most intense scenes in the film. Harris lends significant energy and intrigue to the movie with an urgent performance as the operative who recruits Nash to break codes for the government.

This film is nothing short of fantastic. It is expertly directed, superbly acted and meticulously crafted. It presents great drama while also bringing insight into a stigmatizing disease to a wide audience. I rated it a 10/10. It rightfully ran away with the Best Picture Oscar. If you see only one motion picture this year, make sure it is this one.

Black Hawk Down

Realistic depiction of modern warfare
For producer Jerry Bruckheimer (`Beverly Hills Cop', `Flashdance', `Top Gun', `The Rock', `Armageddon', `Remember the Titans', `Pearl Harbor'), this is a departure from the crowd pleasers he usually produces. Bruckheimer is one of the most successful producers in Hollywood because he knows that crowd pleasers make a buck. Even `Pearl Harbor', wasn't really about Pearl Harbor, but about a love story with Pearl Harbor as the backdrop. Here, Bruckheimer produces a straight, no nonsense action film with controversial subject matter and none of his standard crowd pleasing elements. Oh, and by the way, he still made money.

This is not a film for the squeamish. War is hell and this film turns up the fire. It is a frank and realistic representation of war, much the same as the beach scene of `Saving Private Ryan', only once the action starts, it never lets up. Ridley Scott gives us a raw depiction of modern warfare, based on actual events from the US military action in Somalia. Despite a lot of criticism of Scott for not delving deeper into the political issues, I believe he made the right decision in staying focused on this as a combat film.

What is so unlike a Bruckheimer film is that there is no workup of any single character. There is no attempt to get us to love someone and have us pulling for him. He just gives us a bunch of ordinary grunts that get thrown into a fire fight and try desperately to fight their way out to survive. No one is a hero, and everyone is.

Scott's direction of the action scenes is superb. This film maintains a dizzying pace and Scott never lets us catch our breath with stunt work and pyrotechnics that defy description. There is no safety net in this film where we know that certain characters won't die. Everyone in the cast is a potential casualty. While this is extremely realistic, it is also one of the shortcomings of the film. By the end, the viewer suffers from battle fatigue and there is no emotional consolation that at least one character we liked came out okay.

The ensemble cast does a fine job of creating realistic battle scenes, though there isn't a lot of meaningful dialogue. The actors had to go through real military basic training in preparation for the film and it hardened them for the exhausting rigors of their roles. Josh Hartnett and Tom Sizemore stood out slightly from the rest, but only because they each had slightly meatier roles.

This is an intense and credible war film that doesn't so much engage viewers as it does overwhelm us. From an action perspective it is a 12/10, but in the area of storytelling and character development it falls short. I rated it an 8/10. See it, but brace yourself.

Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain

Delicious, like a glass of sparkling burgundy
I don't often view foreign language films. I find it maddening to try to read the subtitles and watch the film at the same time. Also, I had heard such glowing reviews about this film that I was prepared to be disappointed as well as frazzled. I could not have been more wrong.

This is a wonderful, wonderful film. Amelie (Audrey Tautou) is a mousey girl living in Paris whose life is so ordinary that it borders on pathetic. One day she discovers a tin box in her apartment with little toys and keepsakes of a young child that was hidden behind a wall decades ago. She sets out on a mission to find the boy and return the treasures to him. If the mission has a positive effect, she vows to devote herself to doing good deeds for others. This leads to numerous touching and droll adventures, where Amelie doles out her own personal brand of justice to various characters, both good and evil. Along the way she discovers love and turns it into a cat and mouse game of mystery and fascination, making her lover fall for her and pursue her without ever knowing who she is.

The story is brilliantly written, with a wry sense of humor. Only the French could make mundane situations so funny, ironic, charming and philosophical at the same time. It is a marvelous mix of intrigue, misdirection and offbeat humor. Director Jean Pierre Jeunet squeezes the maximum amount of wit, sentimentality and humanness from every frame. The Parisian street scenes are wonderfully done showing us more of an insider's look at Paris than a tourist's guidebook.

Audrey Tautou is captivating in the lead role. She reminds me of Audrey Hepburn, full of breathy enthusiasm with a twinkle in her eye and mischief on her mind. When she is good she's wonderful, and when she's bad she's even better.

This is an enthralling delight of a film, like a glass of sparkling French burgundy. It will make you chuckle and tug your heart strings. I rated it a 10/10. Even if you hate subtitles, see this film. You won't regret it.

La leggenda del pianista sull'oceano

Richly rewarding character study
Director Giuseppe Tornatore (Cinema Paradiso) has lovingly crafted a bittersweet story about life, music and the intricate weave of one upon the other. Tornatore caresses the heart with characters steeped in emotion and sentimentality without descending into sappiness (okay, maybe just a little at the end).

The setting is turn of the 20th century. On New Year's Day, a baby is abandoned on an ocean liner and adopted by one of the crew members who names him `1900'. The boy never leaves the vessel and crosses back and forth for his whole life. As a child he learns to play piano and proves himself to be a genius at the instrument.

The story is interesting by itself, but Tornatore brings incredible feeling to the tale. 1900 has an amazing gift of being able to put not only his emotions to music, but characterizations of others he sees around the room. All his pieces are impromptu and as original as the people surrounding him.

Tim Roth is fantastic in the lead role, displaying extraordinary range. He renders a believable pianist, but more importantly, he simultaneously brings the character dynamism and depth. When he is playing the crowd he is the flamboyant showman, yet when he is alone or with Max (Pruitt Taylor Vince) he is reflective and moody.

Pruitt Taylor Vince also comes through with a strong performance as 1900's close friend and fellow musician. Vince plays the part with great empathy and the interactions between him and Roth are often moving. Clarence Williams III (yes, that's Linc from the Mod Squad TV series in the 60's) is electrifying as Jelly Roll Morton, the self proclaimed inventor of jazz. Williams steals the show for at least 15 minutes as he and Roth duel it out on the piano.

The music is exquisite. Ennio Morricone is a prolific composer whose career spans 40 years. He has scored over 400 films including "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly", "The Untouchables", "Disclosure", and "Twister". His ability to find the right music for the multiple moods in this film is astounding.

For viewers who enjoy complex character studies replete with unabashed sentimentality, this film is worth hunting down at the movie store. I rated it a 9/10. It is a richly rewarding experience.

Orange County

A coming out party for kids of stars
There is nothing remotely original about this `escape from my home town' teen flick. It has been done numerous times in both dramatic and comedic forms. However, given the state of the market currently, where the industry attempts to draw teenage audiences with disgusting body fluid humor, liberal profanity and gratuitous sex, this film is a breath of fresh air. Amazingly, without any of these `required' elements, this film (which was produced for next to nothing), did fairly well at the box office.

Shaun (Colin Hanks) is a kid from Orange County, CA, who loves to surf and hang out with his friends. He has secretly been achieving high grades between waves and after discovering a book on the beach, he decides he wants to be a writer and go to the elite Stanford University. When his guidance counselor (Lily Tomlin) sends in the wrong transcript, he is rejected. So, he takes a road trip with his brother (Jack Black) and his girlfriend (Schuyler Fisk) to set the admissions department straight.

The comedy is mostly good clean fun, harmless and goofy. The film is more notable as a coming out vehicle for kids of stars. Colin Hanks is the son of Tom Hanks and Schuyler Fisk is Sissy Spacek's daughter. The cast abounds with cameos of comics and other notables from the last four decades with appearances by John Lithgow, Harold Ramis, Chevy Chase, Lily Tomlin, Kevin Kline, Ben Stiller and renowned director Garry Marshall (`Happy Days', `Laverne and Shirley', `Mork and Mindy', `Murphy Brown', `Pretty Woman').

Colin Hanks plays the role of the serious kid in an absurd world. He spends much of the film being Jack Black's straight man. He proves himself to be a solid actor, though time will tell if he can transcend the incredulous teen roles. Black provides the film with most of its comic horsepower, stealing every scene in which he appears with his sheer outrageousness. Fisk is fairly bland as Shaun's animal rights activist girlfriend. All the veterans lend a comic hand to deliver a chuckle or two from the sidelines.

This is not a memorable film, but at least it is inoffensive. It has some silly situations and Black provides a guffaw or two. I rated it a 7/10. Not bad for a teen date flick.

Monster's Ball

Halle Berry's shining moment
Independent filmmaking is alive and well and evident in Monster's Ball. This film had a minuscule $4 million budget, a terrific script and a director not afraid to take some risks. Billy Bob Thornton and Halle Berry practically donated their time they were paid so little. The result is a powerful and disturbing film that walked off with a boatload of awards, not the least of which was a best actress Oscar for Berry.

Director Marc Forster conjures a forceful presentation with stark sets, next to nothing in the way of props and other set decoration, and a non existent soundtrack. Forster does it with innovative use of the camera, sharp editing and most importantly excellent actor direction. Forster could have done better at character development and the ending is nebulous and unsatisfying, but these shortcomings can be partially forgiven for the films many assets.

This is an actors' showcase, with outstanding performances all around. Heath Ledger makes a short but intense appearance as the son that Hank (Billy Bob Thornton) despises. Ledger pumps the character full of repressed anger and disappointment, simultaneously resenting him and seeking his father's approval. Peter Boyle is despicable as Hank's bigoted and self centered father. Billy Bob Thornton delivers his best performance since `Sling Blade' with a complex character torn between his prejudices and his attraction to Leticia (Halle Berry).

Of course the big story here is Halle Berry. Berry shows once again that she is not just another pretty face. I first took serious notice of her after seeing her performance in `Introducing Dorothy Dandridge', a little seen TV movie in which she won both a Golden Globe and an Emmy. After that marvelous dramatic performance, I was surprised that she couldn't land roles any better than `Swordfish' and `X-Men', which tapped nothing more substantial than her looks.

In this film, Berry is sexy and alluring, but these are only incidental attributes. She displays a full range of emotions from vibrant elation and unbridled passion, to utter despondency. She practically rips her heart out and throws it at the camera. She can convey volumes with a single look, or come completely unglued with equal impact. Her Oscar for this performance was richly deserved and had nothing to do with her race as so many have rationalized. She just flat out won it going away. As good as Nicole Kidman was in `Moulin Rouge', it wasn't even close.

This is an excellent film that is worth seeing for the acting alone. I rated it a 9/10. It is a compelling and deeply disturbing drama that serious film lovers will surely enjoy.

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