Cold Mountain

Americans are, as a society, quite fascinated by the Civil War. It is one of the pivotal moments in our history. It is the most studied American war. This movie brings you into that time, wraps you in its world. It's something of an American Odyssey, as we follow the journey of a deserter named Inman (played by Jude Law) as he makes his way home. The first thing that struck me about this film is the incredible landscape in which it takes place. The juxtaposition between the savage, dirty battlefields and the near-pristine forests of 1860's North Carolina is awesome. Add to that the lonely sound of a bluegrass fiddle and it makes for a haunting scenario. The performances quite lived up to the setting, as well. Of course, I always like Jude Law, and Nicole Kidman was alright, but the one who really surprised me was Natalie Portman. Portman is usually such a flat, boring actress to watch, but she managed to pull out quite an impressive performance as a young Southern widow in this film. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Renée Zellweger provided a great counterpoint to the generally solemn tone with some truly hilarious moments (although I found Zellweger to be a bit inappropriately spunky at times). I will be quite amazed if this film doesn't manage to garner several Academy Award nominations.

Viewed: 1/2/2004 | Released: 12/24/2003 | Score: A

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By Neil Gaiman

Before I picked up this book, I had liked everything I had ever read by Neil Gaiman. Now that I have finished it, I still do. Neverwhere held flavors of Dark City and The Wizard of Oz for me, and the fact that I've been to London (admittedly only for a very short time) only heightened the sense of magic about Gaiman's London Below.

Started: 12/29/2003 | Finished: 1/2/2004

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Big Fish

I wouldn't say that this movie was perfect, but I would say that I liked pretty much everything about it. We are given the life of Edward Bloom through the stories that he told his son, so the movie, like the stories, has to be bigger than life. And it is. Tim Burton was the perfect director for this story. Another director might have given us too much or too little, but Burton has this amazing sense of the fantastic (you can see it in all of his films) that was just right for this movie. He gives us the world as a child sees it: full of magic, color, and wonder, but also darkness and danger. And if the acting in the story sequences is a little over the top, it still fits in because that's how a young boy would have seen it in his head. Of course, I always like Ewan McGregor, but I really enjoyed Billy Crudup's portrayal of a man struggling to come to terms with his relationship with his father. I think for all of us there was a point when we realized that our parents (or grandparents or other real-life heroes) were not God, and Big Fish is about this revelation, and what comes after.

Viewed: 12/31/2003 | Released: 12/9/2003 | Score: A

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By Neal Stephenson

In the years between Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon, Stephenson seems to have matured quite a bit as an author. His style has become much more refined, and the story is much more complex. Still, many of the problems I had with his earlier work are still present here. The story ended very abruptly, and he insists on using the present tense for much of the book. Still, I did enjoy the book. Stephenson manages the right mix of action and nerd appeal, for me at least; your mileage may vary. Despite its flaws, I think this one has convinced me to read more of his work.

Started: 12/16/2003 | Finished: 12/29/2003

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Cheaper by the Dozen

What is it with Hollywood studios that they feel the need to take the title from a good book and mate it with a completely different story? I can't believe the producers of this film have the gall to claim that it's based on the novel of the same name. Aside from the size of the family, there is literally nothing else in common between the two works. No, really. Nothing. I'll give it one star, but only because there were a couple of funny moments and the kids were cute.

Viewed: 12/27/2003 | Released: 12/24/2003 | Score: D

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The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

This film has caused me to have a bit of a crisis about review-writing. More specifically, what the rating I give means. Should the number of stars be representative of how much I enjoyed the film or how much I think the average viewer will enjoy it? Or should I attempt to make it a more objective measure of the film's overall worth? I think the easiest and most honest way to use the ratings is to just give my own reaction to the film, and let you decide whether or not you are willing to trust me. Many of you may be surprised at my rating; in fact, I'm a little surprised myself. I always try to judge a movie on its own merits, without comparing it too heavily to another work from which it may be derived. But here the original is just too close to my heart, and I know it too well. I find myself unable to forgive Peter Jackson for changing the characters so drastically. You see, Jackson is a world-builder, not a storyteller. He sees the world of Middle-Earth and wants to give it to us, and as long as he can show us that world, it doesn't matter if he changes the story or the people in it. But I cannot accept that interpretation. I imagine that I am part of a tiny minority in my feelings on this film. Most people haven't read the books, so will find this movie awesome for its special effects, action, and acting. And many fans of the books will love Jackson for giving them Middle-Earth. But I just can't get past my own feelings of what's important in this story, and how absent it all is from this film.

Viewed: 12/25/2003 | Released: 12/16/2003 | Score: C

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Mona Lisa Smile

I expected that this film would be Dead Poets Society with a feminist slant, but it surprised me by managing to be its own movie. The film grapples with a question that seems to be on a lot of minds these days: what is the proper role of women in society? How does femininity fit into a modern world? And, remarkably, it acknowledges that it is a truly complex issue. At first it seems like we will be beaten over the head with women's lib, but, the film never really takes one of the "sides" we're used to. Rather, it takes what seems to be a partisan issue and individualizes it. I did have some problems with the story, but upon reflection, most of them were pretty trivial. The real bane of this movie was the acting. Kirsten Dunst gave a totally one-dimensional performance, and Julia Stiles and Julia Roberts were not far behind. The few particularly good moments seemed much more a product of the writing than any particular actor's choice. Still, Maggie Gyllenhaal was more than adequate, and Ginnifer Goodwin and Ebon Moss-Bachrach managed very good chemistry (sadly, they were more of a side-story).

Viewed: 12/20/2003 | Released: 12/18/2003 | Score: C

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Life of Pi

By Yann Martel

Quite a remarkable book. It's a story about a castaway (I found it slightly reminiscent, in tone at least, of Eco's The Island of the Day Before) so it is a tale of hope, despair, courage, wonder. Yet it is also deeply concerned with God and religion, and, even more, the faith that underlies all religions. I think this may become one of those books I'll keep coming back to. All in all, a great read.

Started: 12/15/2003 | Finished: 12/15/2003

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Snow Crash

By Neal Stephenson

I've heard so much about Neal Stephenson that I felt I had to check him out for myself. I find he's neither as good nor as bad as he's made out to be. On the one hand, I did find Snow Crash engaging and fun. It's no ground-breaking, Earth-shaking thing, but it was entertaining. On the other hand, I found Stephenson's constant puns (the main character's name is Hiro Protagonist?!) and use of the present tense to be jarring and pretentious. The book's premise is also one that I could easily see many people finding offensive, and I think his portrayal of memetics shows a sensationalist and ultimately flawed understanding. And, creatively speaking, he doesn't do much that people like William Gibson and Tad Williams haven't already done. Still, for all that, I did enjoy the book and found many of the characters intriguing.

Started: 12/14/2003 | Finished: 12/15/2003

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Undaunted Courage

By Stephen E. Ambrose

As you peruse the contents of this list, you may notice that this book has taken me considerably longer to finish than any of the rest. It was worth it. Meriwether Lewis was a fascinating man, and Ambrose's biography is a great read. Ambrose has little time for political correctness, so he doesn't hesitate to call Lewis a great and important man. At the same time, he's an honest historian and doesn't gloss over Lewis' faults and mistakes. As may be expeceted, Lewis and Clark's expedition takes up the majority of the book. What I would give to be able to see the America that Lewis saw, still wild and pristine, beautiful and new. But I also found, somewhat unexpectedly, that Ambrose's description of the American sociopolitical landscape both before and after the expedition was most intriguing. You might say that a great book should both interest and educate. This one certainly did both.

Started: 9/19/2003 | Finished: 12/14/2003

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