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LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN (1945) (***)

This Technicolor noir begins with writer Dick Harland (Cornel Wilde, THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH) returning to his family cabin after serving two years in prison. His lawyer and friend Glen Robie (Ray Collins, THE BACHELOR AND THE BOBBY-SOXER) then tells the story of what happened to lead to this point.

On the way to Robie’s house in New Mexico, Dick meets Ellen Beret (Gene Tierney, THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR), who along with her cousin/ adopted sister Ruth (Jeanne Crain, 1950’s CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN) and mother (Mary Philips, 1932’s A FAREWELL TO ARMS), is also going to Robie’s house. There her family has gone to spread the ashes of their dead father. Ellen is engaged to DA Russell Quinton (Vincent Price, LAURA), but that doesn’t stop Ellen from falling in love with Dick and marrying him within days. Oh, did I mention that Dick looks like her father. Yep, this picture gets Freudian.

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THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS (1972) (***)

Jack Nicholson reteamed with his FIVE EASY PIECES director Bob Rafelson for this strange ode to brothers. David Staebler (Nicholson) is a depressed and skeptical late night radio DJ, who broadcasts his "true" tales of woe. One day he gets a call to come to Atlantic City from his big brother Jason (Bruce Dern, DIGGSTOWN).

When he arrives, David discovers that his brother is in jail and wrapped up with mobsters including Lewis (Scatman Crothers, THE SHINING). After Jason is bailed out, he tells David that he has a great deal for building their own casino/hotel on their own private island in Hawaii. David is of course skeptical right from the start. However, Jason has two devoted followers his girl Sally (Ellen Burstyn, ALICE DOESN'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE) and his younger girl Jessica (Julia Anne Robinson, only film performance), who dreams of being Miss America.

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KISS ME DEADLY (1955) (****)

This deceptive film-noir/crime yarn brings gumshoe Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker, PATHS OF GLORY) into a murder mystery that involves some pretty shady characters. The tale starts out as a fairly competent detective tale, but that is all just set up for the stellar ending that is totally unexpected and quite powerful. When most films of this nature have their hard-boiled detectives soften up by the end of the film, this flick does the exact opposite to startling and thrilling extents.

The events of the film begin when Mike picks up Christina Bailey (Cloris Leachman, THE LAST PICTURE SHOW) by the lonely roadside. Then when Christina gets murdered and Mike almost loses his life along with her, he is determined to discover what he can get out of the deal for himself. This is where he enlists the female skills of his long-suffering girl/partner Velda (Maxine Cooper, WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?).

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STAR WARS: EPISODE III: REVENGE OF THE SITH (2005) (****)

George Lucas has gone to the dark side of the STAR WARS franchise and made a great film. All the naysayers need to shut up. All the fans have something to rejoice about. It’s not only the best film in the prequel trilogy; it’s better than RETURN OF THE JEDI.

The story, as we know, is how Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen, SHATTERED GLASS) falls to the Dark Side of the Force and becomes Darth Vader. The film starts with Anakin and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor, TRAINSPOTTING) on a mission to rescue Supreme Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid, SLEEPY HOLLOW) from the Sith Lord General Grievous. Anakin later learns that his wife Padmé (Natalie Portman, CLOSER) is pregnant and he begins to have dreams of her death while giving birth. Plagued by the death of his mother, Anakin is tormented with his seeming powerlessness to stop his loved ones from dying.

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UNDERTOW (2004) (***1/2)

David Gordon Green is a young director whose work is subtle and surprisingly deep. I love his films GEORGE WASHINGTON and ALL THE REAL GIRLS. His new film UNDERTOW is a far more mainstream film for the underrated director whose work reminds me of Terence Malick (THE THIN RED LINE), who actually produced this film.

Due to setting and story, UNDERTOW reminded me a lot of Charles Laughton’s brilliant cult classic NIGHT OF THE HUNTER. Chris Munn (Jamie Bell, BILLY ELLIOT) is a teen who is confused about the world like most teens are. However, he is being isolated from a good portion of the world by his father John (Dermot Mulroney, ABOUT SCHMIDT), who is greatly depressed over the death of his wife. Also a part of this small family unit is 10-year-old Tim (Devon Alan, SIMON BIRCH), who is a strange child who eats paint and mud and then throws up. He’s a smart kid who reads a lot, but is not emotionally mature enough to handle the hardships of life.

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DARKNESS (2004) (*1/2)

This film falls into the tried and true warning — filmgoers beware of films released in the theaters in January, because they are often crud. Dimension tried to trick people and release this film last Christmas, but it smells like its right from the January dumping ground. Considering the film was made in 2002 and stat around for two years doesn’t build confidence as well.

Now I’ll admit that the film started out promising, especially with some great cinematography and production design. Teen Regina (Anna Paquin, FINDING FORRESTER) and her family have moved from the States to a European country where even electricians speak perfect English. Her father Mark (Iain Glen, LARA CROFT: TOMB RAIDER) has had another episode and is becoming more and more angry. Regina’s little brother Paul (Stephan Enquist, film debut) begins to have bruises on his neck and starts drawing those cliché kids’ horror film drawings that creep people out. Well, they creep Regina out — her mother Maria (Lena Olin, MYSTERY MEN) is one of those movie moms who can’t see the bruises or unhinged husband before her eyes until it suits the plot. But we know something is up when the shadows under Paul’s bed keep stealing his colored pencils. I hate it when that happens.

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CRIMINAL (2004) (***)

It seems to me this is the quickest remake of all time. The original Argentinean film NINE QUEENS (unseen by me) was released in 2000. With the original barely off the new release shelves at Blockbuster, we get the U.S. remake by first time director Gregory Jacobs, who has worked with Steven Soderbergh on several films as second unit director and producer.

The story begins with con man Richard Gaddis (John C. Reilly, CHICAGO) scoping out a casino for a new con man to take as a partner. He discovers and ingeniously helps out newbie Rodrigo, aka Brian (Diego Luna, OPEN RANGE). The two end up involved in a currency scam for six figures.

As all con films go, the double crossing is rampant and no one can trust anyone. Even Richard’s hotel manager sister Valerie (Maggie Gyllenhaal, SECRETARY) gets wrapped up in the proceedings. The more we come to know Richard the less we like him, because he has no scruples. He’ll con anyone it seems. Rodrigo quickly becomes sympathetic and we hope so hard that he doesn’t loose his shirt in the deal.

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BLADE TRINITY (2004) (*)

BLADE TRINITY, or How I Killed This Franchise. That’s my title for it. Wesley Snipes got royally ticked off about how his role got diminished in this film to make room for the younger stars. He has every right to be ticked about this colossal disaster.

However, everyone else has the right to be ticked at Snipes for not even dialing in a performance, but faxing in something from the Ashton Krutcher School of Acting. The premise was so promising. The vampires want to get Blade off their backs so they start a PR campaign to get the cops to believe he's a psycho. Led by Danica Talos (Parker Posey, BEST IN SHOW), the vampires discover the hibernating Dracula, know called Drake (Dominic Purcell, EQUILIBRIUM), in of all places Iraq. They want to use his pure DNA to make them day-walkers like Blade.

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BIRTH (2004) (**1/2)

There were two films dealing with reincarnation in 2004 — this film and P.S. BIRTH is more dramatic while P.S. works more as a romantic comedy. Though BIRTH has a more artful approach, P.S. works better.

In BIRTH, Anna (Nicole Kidman, THE HOURS) is in a depressive state over the death of her husband, Sean. She has finally decided to remarry a wealthy businessman named Joseph (Danny Huston, SILVER CITY). Then during a birthday party for Anna’s mother Eleanor (Lauren Bacall, TO HAVE AND TO HOLD), a young boy named Sean (Cameron Bright, THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT) enters the apartment and declares that he is the reincarnation of Anna’s husband Sean.

At first Anna just kicks the boy out. Then he comes back and they quiz him like all people in these movie type positions do. In a great scene at the theater, Anna has an epiphany that young Sean is really Sean. The young Sean insists that Anna not marry Joseph and tries to tear them apart. Anna tries to find solace in friends Clifford (Peter Stormare, FARGO) and Clara (Anne Heche, SIX DAYS AND SEVEN NIGHTS).

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ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (2005) (***)

I really love the original John Carpenter film, ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13. So when I heard they were remaking it I wasn’t confident of its success. Then when it was given a January release date I was even less hopeful. However, director Jean-François Richet (ALL ABOUT LOVE) has made a more psychological version of the story, but with a lot less iconic cool.

Jake Roenick (Ethan Hawke, TRAINING DAY) is a cocky cop who struggles with decisions in his past that leads to the death of his partners. He has been assigned to the rundown precinct 13, which is set for closure. It’s New Year’s Eve and it’s just him, veteran cop Jasper O’Shea (Brian Dennehy, ROMEO + JULIET) and sexoholic secretary Iris Ferry (Drea de Matteo, TV’s SOPRANOS). A snowstorm is raging outside, which leads a prison transport to have to stop for the night at the station. On the bus is legendary drug dealer Marion Bishop (Laurence Fishburne, THE MATRIX), who has been recently arrested for killing a cop who works for Marcus Duvall (Gabriel Byrne, GHOST SHIP).

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THE ASSASSINATION OF RICHARD NIXON (2004) (***1/2)

This movie to me is everything Michael Douglas’ FALLING DOWN wanted to be, if it wasn’t jammed into a police thriller format, which indirectly justified and glorified the vigilante’s actions.

Based on true events, this film chronicles the not-so-bright Samuel Bicke (Sean Penn, MYSTIC RIVER), who ended up attempting to hijack a commuter plane and force the crew to fly it into the White House. Bicke has a hard-time holding down a job, because he has an almost juvenile sense of moral superiority to the injustices around him. He has been separated from his wife Marie (Naomi Watts, 21 GRAMS) for nearly two years and she wants to have little to do with him, despite his belief that they will get back together. His only friend is black mechanic Bonny Simmons (Don Cheadle, HOTEL RWANDA), who probably pities Sam more than likes him. Sam has taken a new job selling office furniture, but he has a problem with the system that demands the bending of the truth and complete obedience (he has to shave his moustache).

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ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER’S THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (2004) (**1/2)

Is this the best version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical that could have been brought to the screen? Pretty much. But I still cannot whole heartily recommend it, because the source material is weak. No matter how popular it is it’s still a one-note production.

The story is simple enough — The Phantom (Gerard Butler, DEAR FRANKIE) lurks in the opera house composing in seclusion. He becomes infatuated by the new young star Christine (Emmy Rossum, MYSTIC RIVER), who is in love with her childhood sweetheart Raoul (Patrick Wilson, ANGELS IN AMERICA).

First off Butler doesn’t really have the voice for the Phantom. He’s a great singer, but I think he needs extreme pipes to make the role work. Rossum is amazing and Wilson is good for what his role calls for. All their performances are good, but the material is still weak.

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THE UPSIDE OF ANGER (2005) (***1/2)

From actor/director Mike Binder (directed INDIAN SUMMER) comes this bittersweet comedy that has the same tone as a film like TERMS OF ENDEARMENT.

Terry Wolfmeyer (Joan Allen, THE ICE STORM) is at rock bottom. Her husband has up and left her. She has begun drinking excessively. Her four daughters can’t stand her. Her oldest Hadley (Alicia Witt, URBAN LEGEND) hates her and Terry has a habit of saying the absolute wrong thing at every moment with her. Her next child Andy (Erika Christensen, TRAFFIC) has graduated from high school and does not want to go to college much to the dismay of her mother. High school senior Emily (Keri Russell, TV’s FELICITY) wants to study dance, but Terry can’t let something so unpractical happen. Her youngest Lavender, nicknamed Popeye, is your typical confused teen who has a crush on a boy who doesn’t seem to notice her.

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KUNG FU HUSTLE (2005) (***1/2)

The feel of this film is like if Quentin Tarantino directed the Looney Tunes characters in a version of the kung fu flick, FIVE DEADLY VENOMS.

Sing (Stephen Chow, SHAOLIN SOCCER) is a low-rung hustler who dreams of becoming a member of the feared Axe Gang, which is run by Brother Sum (Kwok Kuen Chan). Sing and his sidekick (Chi Chung Lam) come to the poor neighborhood of Pig Sty Alley where they pretend to be members of the Axe Gang, but get run out of town by the unusually skilled kung fu fighters who have settled there.

But when the real Axe Gang shows up, a war between the Gang and the fighters of Pig Sty Alley begins. Once we see what happened to Sing when he tried to be the good guy as a kid we understand why he wants to join the bad guys. Before too long Brother Sum is sending the top assassins in the world to Pig Sty Alley much to the annoyance of the chain-smoking landlady (Qiu Yuen) and her meek-seeming husband (Wah Yuen).

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SUSPECT ZERO (2004) (***)

Here is a perfect example of a trailer ruining the surprises of this film. If you haven’t seen or don’t remember the trailer don’t watch it if you’re interested in seeing this flick.

Tom Mackelway (Aaron Eckhart, IN THE COMPANY OF MEN) is an FBI agent that has been assigned to a new post for reasons we are unclear about at first. Benjamin O’Ryan (Ben Kingsley, SEXY BEAST) is a disturbed killer who may have psychic abilities. When Tom starts receiving messages from Benjamin regarding missing people and a body appears, Tom is teamed with his old partner Fran Kulok (Carrie-Anne Moss, THE MATRIX), who also happens to be Tom’s ex. As the investigation plays out, we begin to learn more and more about the motivations of Benjamin and who he hunts. But how is the case affecting Tom mentally?

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PRIMER (2004) (***1/2)

After having watched this film once through and then rewatching parts again, I still can’t say for certain that I know exactly what, when and how things happened in this ingenious indie sci-fi film.

This film made waves at Sundance because it was filmed for $7,000, but it doesn’t look like it was made for $7,000. Shane Carruth wrote, directed, starred, produced, composed, shot and edited the film. He plays young engineer Aaron, who along with some friends work on patenting new inventions in his garage so they can get rich and dump their day jobs. Aaron and Abe (David Sullivan, also a production assistant on the film) are working on a device that ends up being a time machine.

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THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU (2004) (***1/2)

This film is much sadder than I thought it would be, but that’s not a bad thing. Director Wes Anderson has tackled wayward father figures in his films RUSHMORE and THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS and returns to the same area again in this movie.

Steve Zissou (Bill Murray, LOST IN TRANSLATION) is a legendary marine documentarian, who hasn’t been working in top form for quite some time. He’s depressed with his diminishing status and morose over the recent death of his longtime partner and best friend Esteban du Plantier (Seymour Cassel, DICK TRACY). Then Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson, BOTTLE ROCKET) comes into his life and claims to be his son. Steve takes to Ned quickly, because it brings back to his life some of the adoration that he misses.

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LEMONY SNICKET'S A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS (2004) (***1/2)

I loved the world in which this tale takes place so much that it whipped me up in the film, enjoying the ride immensely. Many children's tales are dark, but this one has a subversive streak running through it.

The film follows the travels of the Baudelaire children after their parents die in a mysterious fire. The oldest Violet (Emily Browning, GHOST SHIP) is a brilliant inventor. The next child, Klaus (Liam Aiken, ROAD TO PERDITION) is an incessant reader with a photographic memory. The youngest is baby Sunny (Kara and Shelby Hoffman, TV’s GENERAL HOSPITAL), who talks a special baby speak and has a talent for biting through almost anything.

The children are first given to a distant relative — the wanna-be actor Count Olaf (Jim Carrey, THE TRUMAN SHOW), who only wants them for their fortune. Through the kids’ smarts and a bit of luck, they get away from the Count and move in with reptile-loving Uncle Monty (Billy Connolly, MRS. BROWN) and then to their paranoid Aunt Josephine (Meryl Streep, ADAPTATION).

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WHEN A STRANGER CALLS (1979) (**)

As I go to the invaluable IMDB.com to get information on writing this review, the first thing I see is the User Comment — Great opening and ending — lousy middle. This gentleman has summed up my thoughts exactly.

The film begins with Jill Johnson (Carol Kane, TV’s TAXI) going to the house of Mr. and Mrs. Mandrakis (Carmen Argenziano, GONE IN 60 SECONDS, & Rutanya Alda, THE REF) to babysit their children. The terror of her night begins when she gets a phone call stating, “Why haven’t you checked the children?” It’s a classic set-up that has a great twist, which I will leave a mystery for those few who do not know it. There is a bit of a conceit that the film hangs on to make the opening work that may bother some, but the tension is so good it is forgivable.

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SINGLE WHITE FEMALE (1992) (**)

Oh this all-female twist on FATAL ATTRACTION is a paint-by-numbers thriller. Well, it’s a thriller in name only because it very rarely chills at all.

Allison Jones (Bridget Fonda, A SIMPLE PLAN) has recently broken up with her fiancée Sam Rawson (Steven Weber, TV’s WINGS). She puts an ad in the paper and receives a call from the mousy Hedy Carlson (Jennifer Jason Leigh, THE HUDSUCKER PROXY). Soon enough we see that Hedy isn’t as mousy and soft-spoken as she first appeared and it becomes “creepier and creepier” when she starts to take on the look and personality of Allison.

The film follows the formula for this kind of film to the T. There’s a cute pet, so you know what will happen to it. There’s a convenient gay neighbor so you know what will happen to him. Everyone shows up on cue and the contrivances crammed into the film for the plot to move forward are explained away with total lameness. Skilled writing isn’t this film’s strong point.

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THE RULES OF THE GAME (1939) (****)

On many best films of all time lists, this film inevitably makes an appearance. In the 2002 Sight & Sound poll (the definitive poll of critics and filmmakers every 10 years), the film was listed at #3, only behind Orson Welles’ CITIZEN KANE and Alfred Hitchcock’s VERTIGO. Is the film great? Yes. One of the best of all time? Well that can always be up for debate.

Part of the film’s power relies on the knowledge of the viewer going in. You need to know the film was made in 1939 just as the Nazis were knocking on France’s door. You also have to know a little bit about French society as well. Director Jean Renoir claims in a note at the beginning of the film that the production is not a social commentary, but that’s as much of a lie as any lie perpetrated by the characters in the film.

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THE NAVIGATOR (1924) (****)

In this silent classic, Buster Keaton plays spoiled millionaire’s son Rollo Treadway, who wants to marry snobby rich girl Betsy O’Brien (Kathryn McGuire, SHERLOCK, JR.) He plans the wedding and books a cruise for their honeymoon. All he has to do now is ask her. However, she denies him. So, saddened Rollo heads out on the cruise by himself. Through some mishaps Rollo and Betsy both end up on a steamship that is set adrift in the ocean.

Most of the humor of the film comes from the two rich kids being completely helpless on the ship. The gags are often character based and flow nicely. Besides Keaton’s impeccable comic timing, this film shows off McGuire’s skills as well.

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LOS OLVIDADOS (1952) (****)

Wow is this film good. I’m just discovering Luis Buñuel’s work and I’m quickly becoming a fan. This film, (also known as THE YOUNG AND THE DAMNED) made in 1950 and released in the U.S. in 1952, takes a look at young street gangs in Mexico City. This film came in a period of Buñuel’s career after he was kicked out of the European scene for making a film deemed sacrilegious and the beginning of his work in Mexico.

The gritty black and white photography and the 1950s setting made me think of those “educational” films of the period that warned kids off drugs or sex. The film’s theme of street gangs adds to the comparison. However, Buñuel is too good of a director to make a preachy piece of propaganda. He was never shy to court controversy in the name of brutal realism and this film doesn’t shy away from the real hardships of ghetto life.

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ICHI THE KILLER (2001) (***1/2)

Not since IRREVERSIBLE have I had such a hard time coming to a decision about what I really think about a film. This movie shocks with sex and violence, but unlike the gut-wrenching reality of the violence in IRREVERSIBLE this film is like Quentin Tarantino on acid.

A yakuza (gang) war breaks out after the boss of the Anjo gang goes missing (i.e. killed). His sadomasochistic second-in-command Kakihara (Tadanobu Asano, THE BLIND SWORDSMAN: ZATOICHI) sets out to find the truth no matter who he has to torture or kill. What we soon discover is that renegade yakuza Jijii (Shinya Tsukamoto, DEAD OR ALIVE 2) is controlling sociopath killer Ichi (Nao Omori, DOLLS), driving him to wipe out the yakuza. Other key characters include yakuza boss Suzuki (Susumu Terajima, CASSHERN), sadomasochistic opportunist Karen (Paulyn Sun, IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE), former cop/ current yakuza gunman Kaneko (Hiroyuki “Sabo” Tanaka) and Takeshi (Hiroshi Kobyashi), a young boy saved from bullies by Ichi.

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HUSBANDS AND WIVES (1992) (****)

Gabe (Woody Allen, ANNIE HALL) and Judy Roth (Mia Farrow, ROSEMARY’S BABY) are shocked when their best friends Sally (Judy Davis, THE REF) and Jack (Sydney Pollack, TOOTSIE) announce that they are separating. This news opens up doubts and old wounds in Gabe and Judy’s marriage.

Jack and Sally say they mutually want to see other people, but she doesn’t know that he has already been seeing aerobics teacher Sam (Lysette Anthony, KRULL). So, Judy sets up Sally with her co-worker Michael Gates (Liam Neeson, SCHINDLER’S LIST), who she is really infatuated with. Meanwhile, Gabe becomes intrigued by his 20-year-old writing student Rain (Juliette Lewis, WHAT’S EATING GILBERT GRAPE?).

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