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THE UNITED STATES OF LELAND (2004) (**)

First time writer/director Matthew Ryan Hoge has seen AMERICAN BEAUTY a few too many times. This film is like an entire movie following the weird neighbor Ricky from the Oscar winner. This is the film’s crucial mistake.

At the start, Leland P. Fitzgerald (Ryan Gosling, THE NOTEBOOK) stabs autistic boy Ryan Pollard (Michael Welch, STAR TREK: INSURRECTION) twenty times and laments about the sadness. Leland is an emotionally stunted young man who is consumed by emotion but cannot express it. His father -- famed writer Albert T. Fitzgerald (Kevin Spacey, AMERICAN BEAUTY) -- has no relationship with his son, except for his purchase of a trip every year for Leland. (Note: Do not name a famous writer character after a famous writer unless you are writing about the real famous writer.) Albert comes to town smelling a book, but doesn’t ever go to see his son.

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SPANGLISH (2004) (***1/2)

When James L. Brooks decides to direct a film, chances are you won’t be disappointed. Take his track record — TERMS OF ENDEARMENT, BROADCAST NEWS and AS GOOD AS IT GETS. However, when I heard mixed things about SPANGLISH, I was luke warm about seeing it. But now I know, if Brooks directs something you need to see it.

The film is narrated by Cristina Moreno (Shelbie Bruce, film debut), a Mexican immigrant whose mother Flor (Paz Vega, SEX AND LUCIA) moved them to L.A. to get a better life. Paz speaks no English, but still gets a job as the maid of the Clasky family.

John Clasky (Adam Sandler, PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE) is a world-renown chef. The best way to describe his personality is to state his philosophy on getting food reviews. A 4-star review is terrible because it brings way too pressure to the restaurant. A 3 1/2 makes you feel bad that you were just shy of perfection. But a 3 1/4 star review is great, because its respectable and allows you to keep working under the radar.

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THE RECKONING (2004) (***1/2)

THE RECKONING is an unusually layered mystery dealing with corrupt leaders in the 1300s. Nicholas (Paul Bettany, MASTER & COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD) is a priest on the run – for he has been caught sleeping with another man’s wife and maybe an even worse crime. He comes upon a troupe of actors led by Martin (Willem Dafoe, THE ENGLISH PATIENT), who takes him in to fill a hole in the cast after one of their member’s dies.

They arrive at a town, run by Lord De Guise (Vincent Cassel, IRREVERISIBLE) and discover that a young boy has been recently murdered for which a deaf and dumb woman named Martha (Elvira Minguez, THE DANCER UPSTAIRS) stands to hang for the crime. Martin’s Bible-inspired plays have been doing poorly so he decides to put on the story of the murdered boy. Troupe member Tobias (Brian Cox, THE 25TH HOUR) doesn’t like the idea, because the story was not given to them by God. However, he is outvoted by the other members, including Martin's sister Sarah (Gina McKee, ATONEMENT), who is fascinated by Nicholas' mysterious persona. When Nicholas and Martin go to visit the accused for research, they discover a thicker mystery than they thought. As a way to cleanse his soul, Nicholas takes it upon himself to find the truth, which leads to complications that he couldn’t have expected.

Blogs

I HEART HUCKABEES (2004) (**1/2)

David O. Russell is a smart filmmaker, having made FLIRTING WITH DISASTER and THREE KINGS. This time around he’s a little too smart for his own good.

Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman, RUSHMORE) is having an existential crisis, involving three coincidental run-ins with a tall African man named Stewart Nimieri (Ger Duany, film debut). So Albert hires existential detectives Bernard and Vivian Jaffe (Dustin Hoffman, RAIN MAN & Lily Tomlin, 9 TO 5). I’ve seen the movie and don’t really know how to explain what an existential detective really is. It’s kind of a cross between a private eye, a therapist and a New Age guru. But don’t call them therapists, because that ticks them off. They spout a philosophy that everything in the universe is connected and meaningful. They try to discover why it’s meaningful.

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OCEAN'S TWELVE (2004) (***)

Steven Soderbergh (SOLARIS) usually makes smart films, but here he returns to his cool mode for the sequel to his OCEAN’S ELEVEN heist flick. The first film was fun disposable entertainment filled with stars. The sequel has the same flare.

The film begins with Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia, MAN FROM ELYSIAN FIELDS) — the casino owner who gets robbed in the first film — tracking down the original heist gang and threatening to kill them if they do not return the cash they stole plus interest. So Danny Ocean (George Clooney, INTOLERABLE CRUELTY), now married to Benedict’s ex-wife and his former wife Tess (Julia Roberts, CLOSER), regroups the gang and goes to Europe for his next heist.

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I HAVE FOUND IT (2000) (***)

If you’ve never seen a Bollywood film before than your first one might be disconcerting. However, once you get into the mix of melodrama and song, you might find yourself having a great time. That’s exactly how I felt watching this Indian version of SENSE AND SENSIBILITY.

Due to my lack of understanding of Tamil, I will provide names and actors when I can. Sowmya (Tabu) is the practical daughter in her family, but falls for a young filmmaker. Meenakshi (Aishwarya Rai, BRIDE & PREJUDICE) is the poet of the family and dreams of grand love. She is certain that she has found it with a young businessman, but the crippled Capt. Bala (Mammootty) may be a better choice.

If you know the Jane Austin tale then you know that these women will experience hardship and poverty and will learn to love with all their hearts. The film is grand and peppered with music video-like interludes that take place all over the world.

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GENTLEMAN'S AGREEMENT (1947) (***1/2)

This Oscar-winning best picture was a landmark film in dealing with anti-Semitism and prejudice in general. Philip Schuyler Green (Gregory Peck, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD) and his family have been brought to New York by a large newspaper that wants Phil to do a series on anti-Semitism. At first Phil is reluctant because he doesn’t know what else to say that hasn’t been said before. One night, he has an epiphany — he will pretend to be a Jew and write the article from that perspective.

In New York, he meets wealthy socialite Kathy Lacey (Dorothy McGuire, THE GREATEST SOLD EVER TOLD) and soon the widower and the divorcee are engaged to be married. Phil sees first hand the prejudice toward Jews from doctors and rich snobs and from the perspective of his childhood friend Dave Goldman (John Garfield, THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE). He also sees it in Jews like his secretary Elaine Wells (June Havoc, 1945’s BREWSTER’S MILLIONS). But the most powerful example of casual bigotry comes from Kathy, which creates riffs in their relationship.

Blogs

FAIL-SAFE (1964) (****)

The fact that this movie and DR. STRANGELOVE came out in the same year is mind-boggling. The film is the dramatic flipside of Stanley Kubrick’s Cold War satirical masterpiece. With this film, Sidney Lumet just solidifies himself in my mind as one of my favorite directors.

A technical malfunction causes a group of fighter planes to attack Moscow. Because of the way procedure works the planes cannot be called back. The President (Henry Fonda, LADY EVE) struggles with what to do and is advised by dovish Brig. Gen. Warren A. Black (Dan O’Herlihy, ROBOCOP) and hawkish political science professor Groeteschele (Walter Matthau, CHARADE).

The direct line with the Russians is by-the-book Gen. Bogan (Frank Overton, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD) and the nervous Col. Jack Grady (Ed Binns, THE VERDICT). Flying the mission is dedicated soldier Col. Cascio (Fritz Weaver, CREEPSHOW). Helping the President with his crucial communications with the Russians is young translator Buck (Larry Hagman, TV’s DALLAS).

Blogs

HOTEL RWANDA (2004) (****)

Don Cheadle (OCEAN’S ELEVEN) was robbed of an Academy Award. I’m not knocking Jamie Foxx’s amazing performance in RAY, but Cheadle gave the best performance of last year. He plays hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina, who finds himself in an unlikely position of sheltering thousands of Tutsis from the Hutus during the genocide in Rwanda.

If you think that a new Hitler couldn’t rise to power again you are wrong — it’s happening all over Africa and no one is doing a damn thing about it. This powerful and important film brings a human touch to the atrocities that happened in Rwanda and one man’s place in history. Rusesabagina is a master player, he knows how to talk and bribe people so that he can get what he wants. He puts his motives first and then the hotel’s. This mutually helps both parties.

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THE DEAD ZONE (1983) (***1/2)

Director David Cronenberg (THE FLY) isn’t really known for doing things subtly, but here he constructs a low-key thriller based on a Stephen King novel, which is one of the best films about psychics that I’ve seen.

Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken, THE DEER HUNTER) is an average, conservative schoolteacher. He’s dating Sarah Bracknell (Brooke Adams, GAS, FOOD, LODGING), who he promises he will marry someday. But then, he’s involved in a car crash, which plunges him into a coma. When he awakes five years later, Sarah has married and has had a child. On top of it, Johnny is plagued with new psychic abilities.

The film deals with the effects of the coma and his new abilities with a natural approach, which makes the film thoroughly believable. Johnny at first wants to hold a press conference about his new powers, which turns into a circus and leads to his mother having a fatal stroke. Afterward, Johnny often hides from his second sight powers even when Sheriff George Bannerman (Tom Skeritt, M*A*S*H) wants him to help in a murder investigation. Later, when he sees the future of corrupt politician Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen, APOCALYPSE NOW), he must reconcile his feelings and find a way to act in the greater good.

Blogs

HEAD IN THE CLOUDS (2004) (***)

Especially in the Golden Age of Hollywood people went to the movies to see beautiful people in dramatic settings fall in love and end in tragedy. This film is a throwback to those days. And who better to fit the bill of beautiful people than Charlize Theron, Penelope Cruz and Theron’s current real-life boyfriend Stuart Townsend.

Theron (MONSTER) plays Gilda Besse, a half-American/ half-British elite who is notorious for her carefree attitude. She meets a student with a social conscience named Guy (Townsend, THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN) one night when she stumbles into his dorm room to stay out of the rain, ending up staying the night. Their lives intersect several times, as they grow older. Guy becomes a teacher and Gilda dabbles in anything she can.

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DATE WITH AN ANGEL (1987) (**)

Cute, but terminally silly – this film is pretty much a low-rent SPLASH with wings. Jim Sanders (Michael E. Knight, TV’s ALL MY CHILDREN) finds a gorgeous angel (Emmanuelle Beart, MANON OF THE SPRING) in his pool. She is hurt and he helps her heal her wing. However, this does not sit well with Jim’s fiancée Patty Winston (Phoebe Cates, FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH) or her mean father and cosmetics company owner Ed (David Dukes, GODS AND MONSTERS).

Jim’s friends George (Phil Brock, RIVER’S EDGE), Don (Albert Macklin, GRACE OF MY HEART) and Rex (Peter Kowanko, SOLARBABIES) see a fortune in exposing the angel. Jim’s stepmother and Patty’s real mother Grace (Bibi Besch, STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN) and Jim’s father Ben (Vinny Argiro, MARS ATTACKS!) try desperately to patch things up between their children.

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THE FINAL CUT (2004) (***)

This sci-fi thriller finds its strength in an original premise. Alan W. Hakman (Robin Williams, ONE HOUR PHOTO) is a cutter, which are people who edit the recorded memories of a recently deceased person who has had a Zoe chip implanted into their brain when they were children. Alan is the best at what he does and often takes the cases no other cutter will touch. The ones where he has to make disgusting people look like saints.

Hakman is quite obsessed with his work and with a childhood memory that has haunted him his whole life. His relationship with bookstore worker Delila (Mira Sorvino, MIGHTY APHRODITE) is rocky. Hakman is assigned to cut a “rememory” for Charles Bannister (Michael St. John Smith, BLADE: TRINITY), a lawyer for Eye Tech, the creators of the Zoe chip.

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BELLE DE JOUR (1967) (****)

Luis Buñuel was a director who liked to push buttons and flaunt conventions. Beside his famed surrealist short, UN CHIEN ANDALOU, this is the first film of his I have seen. Séverine Serizy (Catherine Deneuve, THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG) is a 23-year-old, frigid newlywed, whose husband, Pierre (Jean Sorel, A QUIET PLACE TO KILL), is a doctor. She loves her husband, but really isn’t turned on by his classic good looks and his devotion to her purity.

Through their sleazy family friend, Henri Husson (Michel Piccoli, ATLANTIC CITY), Séverine learns of a brothel where married woman go while their husbands are at work. Curious and driven by an inner compulsion, Séverine goes to the whorehouse and becomes an afternoon prostitute named Belle de Jour.

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EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING (2004) (*1/2)

There’s a great Hollywood yarn that goes along with the production of this film. It started with the legendary John Frankenheimer (1962’s THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE) directing and starring Liam Neeson (KINSEY). But when Frankenheimer died in 2002, Neeson stepped down from the project.

Production company Morgan Creek hired Paul Schrader (writer of TAXI DRIVER, director of AUTO FOCUS) to make the film on the quick with Stellan Skarsgard (BREAKING THE WAVES) as the lead. Schrader claims that Morgan Creek knew he was going to make a physiological horror film, but when he screened his first cut Morgan Creek decided they wanted a more modern scare-fest.

So they hired director Renny Harlin (DIE HARD 2) to spice it up, which lead to an almost complete reshoot of the movie. So now Morgan Creek had not made one $45 million movie, but two films costing $85 million. The Harlin version only grossed $41.8 million in the U.S. and just over $76 million worldwide. The lackluster performance of the film matches the content of the film perfectly.

Blogs

THE BANK DICK (1940) (****)

I love W.C. Fields. He is a sarcastic SOB and marvelous. Much like his character in the amazing IT’S A GIFT, Fields here plays smokin’ and drinkin’ deadbeat Egbert Sousé.

His wife Agatha (Cora Witherspoon, THE WOMEN) and her mother Hermisillo Brunch (Jessie Ralph, THE GOOD EARTH) think very little of Egbert, who they see as a total bum. Egbert’s little daughter Elsie Mae Adele Brunch Sousé is a little hellion who often bludgeons her father with whatever she can throw at him. His older daughter Myrtle (Una Merkel, 1961’s THE PARENT TRAP) is very conservative and is dating the bank manager Og Oggilby (Grady Sutton, WHITE CHRISTMAS).

Egbert often hangs out in the Black Pussy Cat Café, which is run by Joe Guelpe (Shemp Howard, famed Three Stooge). Egbert kind of stumbles through life like Forrest Gump and good things just come along. One day at the Black Pussy, he cons his way into directing a B-movie shooting in his town. But the end of that job ends in his typical slacker fashion.

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BABY DOLL (1956) (***)

Tennessee Williams sure made sudsy melodramas and this one’s like a giant bubble bath. Archie Lee Meighan (Karl Malden, PATTON) is a Southern good ol’ boy, who owns a rundown cotton gin. He lives in a rundown plantation house with his 19-year-old bride Baby Doll (Carroll Baker, GIANT), who has never had sex with her husband. She’s waiting until she’s ready. However, she did promise Archie that she’d be ready when she turned 20, which is two days away. Their relationship is tense and becomes more so when all their furniture is repossessed.

Spurred by sexual frustration, Archie lashes out and burns down the cotton gin of his rival, Silva Vacarro (Eli Wallach, THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY). As Archie works, Silva pays Baby Doll a visit in an effort to get her to admit to Archie’s crime. However, it turns into a game of seduction as well.

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CLOSER (2004) (****)

Not as emotional brutal as many made it out to be, but nonetheless brutally true in its observation of the troubles and hang-ups that surround love and relationships.

Obituary writer and wanna-be novelist Dan (Jude Law, SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW) helps stripper Alice (Natalie Portman, THE PROFESSIONAL) after she is struck by a car. After which, they start up a relationship. Then the film jumps forward, Dan is now taking photos for his book cover, which are being taken by freshly separated Anna (Julia Roberts, PRETTY WOMAN). Dan kisses Anna, who kisses him back, but she won’t see him because of Alice, who knows Dan is unfaithful. Later on, Anna meets dermatologist Larry (Clive Owen, I’LL SLEEP WHEN I’M DEAD) in an embarrassing episode, which brings a very funny moment to this somber film.

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THE SENTINEL (1977) (***)

Just read the cast for this film — Chris Sarandon (THE PRINCESS BRIDE), Martin Balsam (PSYCHO), John Carradine (THE HOWLING), Ava Gardner (THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA), Burgess Meredith (ROCKY), Eli Wallach (THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY), Christopher Walken (THE DEER HUNTER), Jerry Orbach (TV’s LAW & ORDER), Beverly D’Angelo (NATIONAL LAMPOON’S VACATION), Jeff Goldblum (THE FLY) and Tom Berenger (MAJOR LEAGUE). Now most of this cast serves in cameo roles, but it adds a pedigree to the film that makes it feel more lush.

The real star of the film is Cristina Raines (NASHVILLE) who plays rising model Alison Parker. She is dating defense lawyer Michael Lerman (Sarandon), whose wife committed suicide two years prior. Alison has attempted suicide twice in her life and is skittish about marrying Michael. So she sets out to rent an apartment of her own.

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BRIGHT YOUNG THINGS (2004) (***1/2)

Actor Stephen Fry, who has appeared in British TV’s JEEVES AND WOOSTER and the BLACKADDER series as well as film like A FISH CALLED WANDA and GOSFORD PARK, makes his directing debut with this satire of the idle rich during the early 1930s.

Based on Evelyn Waugh’s novel VILE BODIES, the story centers on young writer Adam Fenwick-Symes (Stephen Campbell Moore), who starts off his literary career by having his novel confiscated at customs. He is engaged to Nina Blount (Emily Mortimer, LOVELY & AMAZING), who parties day and night. Adam does not want to marry her until he has enough money. Surrounded by friends – gossip writer Simon Balcairn (James McAvoy, WIMBLEDON), cheeky homosexual Miles (Michael Sheen, UNDERWORLD) and ditzy Agatha (Fenella Woolgar, VERA DRAKE) – Adam stumbles into money and out.

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THE RUNDOWN (2004) (***)

I will go on record – The Rock is a good actor. Don’t disregard this review yet. For the kinds of films he has done so far — action with a splash of comedy at times — he is better than Arnold Schwarzenegger or even Sylvester Stallone have ever been. (Exceptions to this would be Stallone in ROCKY and ROCKY II). The Rock’s only current rival for this kind of action film would be Vin Diesel, who I think is a better character actor than a star. See BOILER ROOM for proof.

The Rock (SCORPION KING) plays retrieval expert (aka hired muscle) Beck, who at the beginning of the film must retrieve a gambling debt rung up by an NFL quarterback. Beck tries to go the non-violent route, but ends up demolishing the quarterback’s entire offensive line. It’s a stylish and well-choreographed action sequence that starts off the film well.

Blogs

RIVERS AND TIDES: ANDY GOLDSWORTHY WORKING WITH TIME (2003) (***1/2)

What makes this documentary on artist Andy Goldsworthy so good is we get to see him make art. By focusing on his creative process, filmmaker Thomas Riedelsheimer has also told a fascinating tale about the man behind the art.

Goldsworthy’s work is totally original. The only way of describing it is to call it -- Christo gone organic. Goldsworthy’s work ranges from egg shaped piles of stones, wood and ice to S-shaped stonewalls and various other nature-inspired works. Many of his creations only last for a short time and then are destroyed by nature from which they came.

We watch as he constructs his delicate works that can fall apart in an instant. He also talks a lot about what influences him, the images and themes that are constant in his work and his motivations. By looking into the mind and heart of this one artist, the film looks into the world of all people who have the uncontrollable desire to create.

Blogs

RE-ANIMATOR (1985) (***1/2)

Director Stuart Gordon has never been better than his work here in his theatrical film debut. He mixes many lurid influences from horror comics to B-movie thrillers to George Romero's zombie movies to classic Universal Studios monster movies to H.P. Lovecraft. This well-crafted horror film isn’t really scary as it is macabre. It’s a dry and dark comedy more than a thrill ride. It’s gory. And it’s totally entertaining.

Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott, BAD DREAMS) is a medical student, who is dating Megan Halsey (Barbara Crampton, BODY DOUBLE), the pretty daughter of the medical school’s dean Alan Halsey (Robert Sampson, TV’s FALCON CREST). Arriving from studying in Switzerland, young medical student Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs, TRANCERS II) becomes Dan's roommate. The creepy and peculiar young man quickly alienates himself by questioning his teacher Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale, THE GUYVER), an arrogant creep (always a great personality combination).

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BEING JULIA (2004) (***)

This isn’t the first and I’m sure it won’t be the last film about the trials of an aging actress. This isn’t ALL ABOUT EVE, but star Annette Bening makes it quite engaging.

Bening (AMERICAN BEAUTY) plays stage legend Julia Lambert, who is worn out from performing. She is feeling her age and is alienated from other people due to her star status. Her husband Michael Gosselyn (Jeremy Irons, REVERSAL OF FORTUNE) is a distant and vain man, who lives a separate life from Julia. One day a young American named Tom Fennel (Shaun Evans, THE BOYS & GIRL FROM COUNTY CLARE), who adores Julia and ends up seducing her, comes into their lives.

This affair sparks new life in Julia, however is becomes obvious that young Tom is an ambitious social climber and more interested in the young actress Avice Crichton (Lucy Punch, ELLA ENCHANTED). Julia is often counseled by her dead mentor Jimmie Langton (Michael Gambon, GOSFORD PARK), her assistant Evie (Juliet Stevenson, TRULY, MADLY, DEEPLY), her best friend and crush Lord Charles (Bruce Greenwood, I, ROBOT) and her son Roger (Tom Sturridge, VANITY FAIR).

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BAD EDUCATION (2004) (***1/2)

One thing can be said — Almodóvar (ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER, TAK TO HER) never makes a boring film. This neo-noir is like none other you have ever seen or will probably ever see.

Enrique Goded (Fele Martínez, TALK TO HER) is an indie filmmaker and one day an old friend from grade school pays him a visit. Ignacio (Gael García Bernal, Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN) and Enrique went to a Catholic school together and Ignacio has written a story based on their experiences as a child combined with a sort of revenge fantasy future. Ignacio is now an actor and wants to be called Ángel. At first Enrique brushes him off, but after reading his tale of a transvestite blackmailing the priest that sexually abused him the filmmaker is fascinated. When Enrique talks with Ángel, the young man is determined to play the cross-dressing Zahara, despite the uncertainty of Enrique.

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