Garden State

It's obvious when you watch Garden State that it's Zach Braff's first film--and by that I mean the first film that he's written and directed. There are a lot of things wrong with it, from sloppy cuts to dialogue that becomes a little pedantic at times. But behind these beginner mistakes is a story that is incredibly personal and honest. Garden State is a movie about growing up, about the lost feelings that people get in their mid-twenties after their childhoods have ended but their adult lives have not yet begun. Braff wrote this movie straight from the heart, and so even though it wasn't perfect, there was a lot that really resonated with me. Braff, himself was only so-so for me as the main character--although my wife thought he was very good. The really interesting performances for me were Peter Sarsgaard and Natalie Portman. Sarsgaard has this sort of Malkovichian quality to his voice that has been hit-or-miss for me in previous roles, but he was so natural in this role that it makes you forget that he's even acting. His character, an old friend of Braff's, is wonderfully complex, at once a complete scoundrel and a caring friend. As for Portman, I think that at some point between Attack of the Clones and Cold Mountain she must have taken acting lessons. Gone are the one-dimensional, wooden performances that have haunted every film she did after Beautiful Girls. In their place is an actress who I intend to keep my eye on.

Viewed: 8/10/2004 | Released: 1/15/2004 | Score: B

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Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle

The more I think about this movie, the more I like it. Now, if all you're looking for is another stupid comedy, you've got it. I may be alone on this one, but there wasn't a single part of this movie that was too stupid for me to laugh at. John Cho and Kal Penn as the title characters made one of the best comedy duos I've seen in a while. Yes, the movie was crude. Yes, it was stupid. But I still laughed my butt off. On a completely different level, though, Harold and Kumar was actually a good movie. Underneath the typical dumb comedy was an interesting, somewhat progressive movie. You see, this sort of comedy would normally go to a pair of white teens or twenty-somethings. Ashton Kutcher and Seann William Scott, for example. But the writers of this film decided to put two "ethnic" guys in the lead roles, which becomes an integral part of the story. Harold and Kumar deal with issues that were remarkably familiar to me, things like finding one's identity as a minority citizen who is fully a part of the majority culture, or the shift in culture between immigrant parents and assimilated children. The movie takes on these issues in such a subtle way that you are hardly even aware they are present. In fact, you just see these two characters as regular American guys. And that in itself is kind of remarkable; you don't see ethnic characters often portrayed as normal, everyday, average joe types. Don't get me wrong, this movie isn't some grand statement on race in America; it won't change your life or anything. But there's more to it than meets the eye. Thumbs up from me.

Viewed: 8/8/2004 | Released: 5/19/2004 | Score: B

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Napoleon Dynamite

Napoleon Dynamite seems like the kind of movie that happens when a couple of college students put together a film based on a comic strip character they invented when they were in high school. The end result is a movie that seems to have no point about a character who has no apparent redeeming qualities (he's socially inept, rude, arrogant, not very bright, dishonest, and unattractive, to boot). The movie was obviously meant to be a comedy, and it succeeded in being just as quirky as I'm sure it set out to be. But I just didn't get it. There was really nothing compelling about the story or characters for me. Still, I'm sure that it will become a sort of cult classic, and that years from now (or perhaps just weeks from now) there will be hordes of college undergrads playing Napoleon Dynamite drinking games.

Viewed: 7/31/2004 | Released: 1/16/2004 | Score: D

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The Village

I think M. Night Shyamalan is slipping. The problem is that his signature "twist endings" become harder and harder to pull off the more movies he makes. With The Village, Shyamalan seems to have forgotten about making a good movie and just focused on trying to make a surprising ending. What we're left with is a script that presents a number of interesting characters with interesting characteristics about which much is said and never resolved. The central idea is cool, but not cool enough to make it a great--or even particularly good--movie. The acting was pretty hit or miss for me. Joaquin Phoenix was alright and Adrien Brody was pretty good (although several of my theater-type friends found his performance too "actorish"), but William Hurt and Sigourney Weaver were, as usual, terribly flat. Bryce Dallas Howard was probably the best of the cast, but even she was hindered by the incredibly wooden dialogue. Which brings it all back around to the script. By the end of the film, you understand why things are they way they are, but the fact that you don't know for the first three-quarters of the movie makes it just annoying. I kind of hope that Shyamalan can break out of his format and prove that he's not just a one-trick pony, because I'm starting to get bored.

Viewed: 7/30/2004 | Released: 7/25/2004 | Score: C

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Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgandy

I actually found quite a lot of this script to be funny. Unfortunately, I didn't find Will Ferrell very funny. I know there are plenty of people out there who think he's hilarious, but about the best Ferrell ever gets for me is "not annoying." Christina Applegate, who I normally think of as having good comic timing, was also a little flat in this movie. No, the real reason to see this movie is Steve Carell. There may have been one or two lines that Carell delivered at which I didn't laugh uproariously. Maybe. The rest of the time I was laughing so hard that it brought tears to my eyes. So even though I can't give this movie a great score, I still recommend it. And don't forget to stick around during the credits for the outtakes.

Viewed: 7/17/2004 | Released: 7/8/2004 | Score: C

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The Door in the Floor

John Irving is a fantastic writer--one of my favorites, in fact--but the film adaptations of his books always seem to lack something. The movie version of The Hotel New Hampshire captured some of the ridiculous quality of Irving's writing, but was pretty lacking apart from that. The Cider House Rules was pretty good, but it didn't seem to have the right feel. The Door in the Floor is another story entirely. Irving calls it the most faithful film translation of any of his books, and watching it, it's easy to see why. The movie perfectly represents the somewhat silly, somewhat magical feeling that Irving always puts in his novels. Jeff Bridges is one of my favorite actors, and his performance as Ted Cole balanced all of the facets of a character who is at once egotistical and self-loathing, a selfish man but a caring father. Jon Foster was also good, managing a subtle teenage performance that seems to totally lack pretention. And this may be Kim Basinger's best work ever. One of the best movies I've seen this year, it also leaves room for me to discover more, because it only covers the first third of the book it's based on (A Widow for One Year). I can't wait to read it.

Viewed: 7/15/2004 | Released: 6/17/2004 | Score: A

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Spider-Man 2

As much as I liked the previous film, Spider-Man 2 may be even better. One of the central themes of this movie--and one of the things that makes it such a compelling story for me--is the ways in which responsibility impacts the rest of a person's life. Other superheroes didn't seem to have this problem. Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark were both independently wealthy. The X-Men solved the prolem by not really having secret identities; they were heroes all the time. And Clark Kent, well, I guess Kryptonians are organized enough to save the world and still hold down a job at the same time. But Peter Parker struggles with life away from the costume, which makes him all the more real and interesting. As before, Tobey Maguire was excellent in this film. Alfred Molina was the perfect Dr. Octopus as well. The end of the film sets up another installment in what looks to be the next big movie franchise, and unlike some other comic book movie series, I'm actually really looking forward to it.

Viewed: 7/6/2004 | Released: 6/29/2004 | Score: A

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I sort of expected this film to beat me over the head with an anti-religious message, but it surprised me by being more complex than I thought it would be. I imagine that there are any number of people out there who would find Saved! very offensive, but I don't see it as a condemnation of all religion, not even of all Christianity. There were too many sympathetic Christian characters for me to take the film in that way. Even so, it was rather heavy-handed in the delivery of its message, which turned me off. Macaulay Culkin was the only actor that I found memorable, and he seems to have matured well. I'm interested to see more from him.

Viewed: 6/25/2004 | Released: 1/20/2004 | Score: C

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The Stepford Wives

I've never seen the original film, nor have I read the book, but I have to believe that both were better than this latest version. To begin with, casting Nicole Kidman--who has all the personality and acting talent of a wet blanket--in the lead role was just ridiculous. This is a role that should be--in my opinion, anyway--played by a woman with great charisma and a normal-looking physique. Kidman just didn't cut it for me. Unfortunately, Kidman seemed to fit right into the campy tone of the film. Granted, some of the scenes and characters are meant to be cheesy, but there were also parts that were probably supposed to be edgy or suspenseful or thought-provoking, and they failed miserably. The sympathy star is awarded to Bette Midler and Roger Bart for managing reasonably good chemistry.

Viewed: 6/23/2004 | Released: 6/5/2004 | Score: D

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The Terminal

Tom Hanks is probably Hollywood's most likeable leading man. He's so well-liked and so popular that I think it can be easy to overlook the fact that he is also an exceptionally talented actor with a good eye for picking winning scripts. And, in my opinion anyway, The Terminal is a winner. The supporting cast was great. Diego Luna, Chi McBride, and Kumar Pallana made a great team, and Catherine Zeta-Jones even managed not to irritate me. Stanley Tucci was, as usual, great; he has such a natural style that you forget he's even acting. But, really, this movie was all about Tom Hanks. His performance was incredibly nuanced. I mean, how many other actors can you think of that can be both funny and heartbreaking at the same time? I'm not sure that Hanks will get an Oscar nod for this film because the tone of the movie was a little lighter than I expect the Academy to like. Even so, I expect this one will be on the list for the next Sakeriver Movie Awards.

Viewed: 6/19/2004 | Released: 6/8/2004 | Score: A

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