The Great New Wonderful

The second feature we saw at the film festival also turned out to be an ensemble piece. This one was quite different from Jam, though. For one thing, the storylines were only very loosely connected--I believe the only intersection is one very brief scene where several of the characters happen to be in an elevator at the same time. And where Jam was kind of lighthearted and sweet, The Great New Wonderful was more profound. The performances, too, were much more profound and moving. They were all really outstanding. Of course, I've come to expect good acting from people like Maggie Gyllenhaal, Edie Falco, and Olympia Dukakis. (Gyllenhaal had, arguably, the emotional climax of this film.) Judy Greer has been steadily rising in my estimation, and this performance certainly follows that trend. And Tony Shalhoub was, as usual, delightfully quirky. The two surprises for me were Jim Gaffigan and Steven Colbert, both of whom I've appreciated for their comedy work in the past. As it turns out, they also both have a talent for dramatic acting. Given the recent success of smaller films and ensemble casts, I wouldn't be at all surprised to see this movie garner some nominations when the awards seasons comes around. In my opinion, The Great New Wonderful is the best drama so far for 2006.

Viewed: 4/21/2006 | Released: 4/21/2006 | Score: A

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This was the first of the two features we saw at this year's Newport Beach Film Festival. We had just sat through two sets of really bad student shorts, so I was feeling a little discouraged. Jam really turned the day around, though. The film follows the interactions of a bunch of very different people who get stuck out on a country road for an afternoon due to a car crash. There's a cellist on her way to a concert, a father and son out on a road trip, a yuppie couple, a single dad with his kids, a pregnant lesbian couple, a bride on her way to her wedding with her two bridesmaids, a retired couple, and two bumbling criminals (who turn out to be the major comic relief). I think this movie really exemplified what I like about ensemble movies. None of the performances were truly outstanding but they combined (like Voltron) to produce something that surpassed its constituent parts. I think it's unlikely that Jam will make it to theaters, but if you happen upon it at the video store I'd say it's definitely worth renting.

Viewed: 4/21/2006 | Released: 3/31/2006 | Score: B

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Thank You For Smoking

Thank You For Smoking is probably the smartest comedy I've seen in the past year. It's also one of the funniest. Aaron Eckhart gave a brilliantly slick performance as Nick Naylor, a tobacco lobbyist. Here's a character who is utterly sleazy and yet you still find yourself rooting for him. The supporting cast was also quite good. David Koechner and J.K. Simmons both made me laugh out loud, as did Rob Lowe. William H. Macy and Robert Duvall were also quite capable in their roles. The low points were probably Adam Brody, who seemed a little forced, and Maria Bello, who was kind of boring. Neither of them was actually bad, though, just not as good as some of the others. It's rare that you find an effective satire these days--too often they're too heavy-handed and not funny enough. This one, though, is well worth seeing.

Viewed: 4/20/2006 | Released: 1/19/2006 | Score: A

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Neil Young: Heart of Gold

I've never really considered myself a fan of Neil Young, although I do like several of his songs. I think, perhaps, that this movie may lead me to investigate his music a bit more. The movie is pretty much just a concert, but with a bit of backstory added on the front. Just a few months before the show, Young had had a couple of unfortunate events: the death of his father and the diagnosis of a brain aneurism. It seems that those events did something to make him more conscious of things like the passing of time and his own mortality; the whole concert has this very personal, introspective, sentimental feeling. On top of that, the music was great, very heartfelt and passionate. He also introduces many of the songs with a story about its creation, which I understand is quite unusual for him. Sadly, I think that this movie is out of most theaters--the big screen adds a lot to the experience. It's still worth seeing as a rental, but if you get the chance to see it on the big screen it will add a lot to the experience.

Viewed: 4/12/2006 | Released: 2/9/2006 | Score: A

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Lord Hornblower

By C. S. Forester

This has got to be the most consistently good series I've ever read. Ten books in and I've enjoyed every one. I'm even a little sad that there's only one left. Anyway, I'd mostly add all of the same praise to this book as I did with the rest. The one thing that sticks out in my mind about Lord Hornblower is that the tragic moments moved me quite a bit more than the previous books. Whether that's because the writing was more effective or just because I've had more time to become invested in the characters, I'm not sure.

Started: 4/7/2006 | Finished: 4/11/2006

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Lucky Number Slevin

I'm kind of surprised that this movie hasn't been advertised more. I haven't seen any trailers on TV, and the only one I saw in the theaters was only a week before it opened. It's a little strange, because it's actually quite good--the dialogue, in particular, was clever and drily funny. What's more, it had a very bankable cast: Josh Hartnett as the lead along with Bruce Willis, Lucy Liu, Stanley Tucci, Morgan Freeman, and Ben Kingsley. I mean, come on, how could a movie with Morgan Freeman and Ben Kingsley fail to be good? Well, whatever the reason for the lack of promotion, I hope that the word-of-mouth spreads fast enough to keep this film in theaters for a few more weeks, because it's one of the better films I've seen in the past year. If you're into gangster movies at all, check this one out.

Viewed: 4/10/2006 | Released: 4/6/2005 | Score: B

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My mom and stepdad have a habit of taking in stray cats. The older one of the two they have I found as a kitten in our back yard about fifteen years ago. The younger wandered away from his owner, who didn't feed him enough--I think he's eight or nine now. A third cat, in between the other two, died this morning. Her name was Sweetie.

I must have been in about the eighth grade when we got Sweetie. My stepdad was working at a local restaurant and noticed that a family of feral cats was living underneath the building. He liked the black and grey bullseye pattern that one of them had on its sides, so he caught it and brought it home.

It became apparent pretty rapidly that our new cat had some problems. She was runty and cross-eyed and extremely stupid. It was kind of exasperating at first, because she kept forgetting who we were. Every time you wanted to pet her you'd have to ease up to her very gently or she would run away. My mom was always best at that. "It's OK, sweetie," she'd say, using the same words and reassuring tone that she would with a frightened child. The name stuck, although it took her several years to adjust to being around people.

My mom related the story of her last moments in an email this morning:


I have some sad news to relate. This morning around 4:45 we were awakened by loud cat meowing, which isn't that unusual...often Bill will wake us early to be fed, and in fact we usually keep our door closed to avoid that morning surprise. We are greeted with waiting cats when we open the door every morning. Anyway, last night we left the door open because we kept the attic fan on all night, and I guess it was a good thing because otherwise we might have missed her last minutes.


When we finally turned the light on and checked, it turned out to be Sweetie, and she was on her side, crying loudly and panting. We got down on the floor with her and could tell that she was really frightened, which I guess is why she came into the room with us. She always came to us when she was scared.

A couple of times she managed to get to her feet and stumbled toward the kitchen...we think she was trying to get downstairs so she could get under the couch, which is where she spent most of her time. She made it as far as the doorway of the kitchen where she laid down and never got up again. Her breathing became shallower and shallower until she gave one last stretch and then passed away.


It hit me harder than I would have expected. I think that part of it is that, while I've been expecting them to lose one of their pets pretty soon, I thought it would be the older one, Leon, that would go first. I just got back from a visit to my parents' place and Leon was looking pretty old and crotchety. He's had a fair number of health problems over the past couple of years, and he's gotten all bony and arthritic. I even took a little time to say goodbye to him on this trip. Sweetie, though, was her normal self: dumb as a brick, but fat and happy. I guess I figured I'd have a few more chances to see her.

Maybe another part of it is how descriptive my mom was. I keep seeing the scene in my mind and thinking about how scared Sweetie must have been--even more so because she was so dumb. Maybe that's anthropomorphizing a bit too much. I'm sad about it anyway.

It's a little strange, when I stop to think about it, to be so emotionally involved with an animal. I wouldn't have thought I'd ever have to hold back tears thinking about that cat, but I do. I am. I can hear the strange little chirping noises she'd make and see the sort of vacant, sometimes loving, sometimes wary look in her eyes. I'm going to miss her.

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

By Dee Brown

I decided to continue my reading on American history with Dee Brown's classic about the plight of the American Indian. It was an amazing read, informative and engaging. At times, though, it was almost too effective--the entire book is written from the Indian perspective and the stories Brown tells are heartbreakingly tragic. Despite the fact that I already had some knowledge of the ways in which the Indians were mistreated I still found myself surprised and outraged at some of the episodes Brown related. I'd recommend this book to anyone with an interest in the American West, but be prepared for some heavy subject matter.

Started: 2/23/2006 | Finished: 4/7/2006

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Inside Man

If you're the type that likes to organize and analyze, you can pretty easily split the caper genre into two groups: the ones where the audience is told about the plan beforehand and the ones where they aren't. The former type can get by on action sequences and gadgets, but the latter has to be a little smarter--it's crucial that the misdirection works well. A good caper movie can give you all of the pieces of the puzzle and still surprise you in the end. I'd say this was a pretty good one. It was well-written with an interesting premise and the performances were all pretty solid. Christopher Plummer was particularly good (which is no surprise, really), as was Denzel Washington. Apart from my normal pet peeve about accents (Clive, man, I love your work, really, but you should really stick to English roles) my only real complaint is that the movie made me overthink things. Really, the plot was a pretty straightforward caper, but there were lots of little details--a large poster in the background of one scene, the music under the opening credits, several lines of dialogue pertaining to race and religion--that had me expecting a plot twist involving terrorism or something. I guess I was paying just a bit too much attention, but that's alright since it didn't really diminish my enjoyment of the film.

Viewed: 3/31/2006 | Released: 3/23/2006 | Score: B

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