The Crystal City

By Orson Scott Card

I sort of wonder if getting to know more about Orson Scott Card has affected my impression of his writing. I respect the man enormously, but I disagree with him on so many things that it seems like it would be impossible for that not to alter my judgment of his work. I did like this book. It was engaging and well-paced, and the inclusion of two real-life friends of mine as characters certainly didn't hurt. But it doesn't seem to hold up to the rest of his works for me. Books like Seventh Son, Ender's Game, Hart's Hope, and Treason have a sort of magical quality in my memory, while ones like Pastwatch, Speaker for the Dead and Lovelock stick out for having really interesting central ideas. This one really had neither of those for me. Still, I did enjoy it, and I don't think I could point to anything specific to criticize. I just can't find anything wonderful about it.

Started: 2/15/2004 | Finished: 3/4/2004

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With all the hype this movie had received, and with the assurance of Charlize Theron's Best Actress win (which she did), Juliette and I were very intrigued to see this film. It managed to fall short of expectations. We concluded that a lot of Theron's buzz must have been because of the way she changed her appearance for the role. Don't get me wrong, she did a very good job and was very convincing in her performance. I just didn't find it to be particularly amazing. Meanwhile, Christina Ricci was possibly as good as Theron, but she's been quite overlooked. But the biggest disappointment was the film itself. I just didn't get anything from it. It didn't take much of a stance on the subject of Aileen Wuornos or her crimes, and for the life of me I can't figure out why anyone would find this story compelling enough to want to make this movie.

Viewed: 2/26/2004 | Released: 11/15/2003 | Score: C

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Sakeriver Movie Awards for 2003

The Academy Awards are a mere two days away as I write this, and somehow I think that more people will notice them. But for the few of you who read this very infrequent column of mine, I give you the 1st Annual Sakeriver Movie Awards. In many categories--possibly all of them--I am recognizing different films and actors than the Academy will. This is in part because I have different tastes, but also because I haven't seen every movie that came out last year. So, rather than this being a list of the best films and actors of the year, it is a list of the best films and actors that I saw. Ready? Let's begin.

Best Drama: Whale Rider

There were a lot of good movies that came out in 2003, but Whale Rider really stands out in my mind. A well-written, deeply moving story, simply told and superbly acted, Whale Rider had everything I look for in a movie. It's the kind of movie that makes you forget that it's a movie. If you haven't seen it yet, you are really missing out.

Runners-up: Mystic River, Big Fish, Seabiscuit

Best Comedy: Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

OK, it's not really a comedy per se. But I think it fits better in this category than the other. Pirates was a really fun movie. Like several films I saw last year it surprised me by being much better than I expected. In many ways it's the opposite of a film like Whale Rider; it's big, it has action and special effects, it made lots of money, and it wasn't particularly deep. But the acting was good--some of it especially good--and the movie was exactly what it needed to be: fun.

Runners-up: School of Rock, Finding Nemo, A Mighty Wind

Best Actor: Johnny Depp (Pirates of the Caribbean)

In any given year there are plenty of good performances, and this year was no different. What separates Johnny Depp from the crowd is that I think he is more of an actor, in the truest sense of the word. You see, many actors go on screen or on stage and don't really separate themselves from their characters. That's not necessarily a bad thing, because often the roles they are chosen for fit the particular quality the actor brings. I have seen very few actors who so consistently immerse themselves in their characters the way Johnny Depp does, though. Many of his performances and characters are quirky, but none are the same.

Runners-up: Sean Penn (Mystic River), Bill Murray (Lost in Translation), Jeff Bridges (Seabiscuit)

Best Actress: Keisha Castle-Hughes (Whale Rider)

Normally I'm not much for awards being given to child actors, but Keisha Castle-Hughes' performance in Whale Rider was so amazing that I actually couldn't even think of a woman in a lead role that compared. She gave a performance that was heartbreaking yet uplifting, strong yet vulnerable, mature yet childlike. In short, it was so real that you forget that she's even acting.

Runner-up: Scarlett Johansson (Lost in Translation)

Best Supporting Actor: Ken Watanabe (The Last Samurai)

I had such mixed feelings about seeing The Last Samurai, because even though it looked interesting, I just can't stand Tom Cruise anymore. I'm glad I did, though, because it gave me a chance to get acquainted with Ken Watanabe. Watanabe brought a quiet dignity to the film that was a great match for his character. Perhaps real samurai weren't all that noble, but Watanabe's performance certainly was.

Runners-up: Philip Seymour Hoffman (Cold Mountain), Geoffrey Rush (Pirates of the Caribbean), Kevin Bacon (Mystic River), Tobey Maguire (Seabiscuit)

Best Supporting Actress: Koyuki (The Last Samurai)

Koyuki is another reason that I enjoyed The Last Samurai as much as I did. She played her character so subtly that even though she didn't show much on the surface, you could still see all of the emotion underneath. Having grown up in a Japanese family, that aspect of her performance really resonated with me.

Runners-up: Natalie Portman (Cold Mountain), Alison Lohman (Matchstick Men)

The Years of Rice and Salt

By Kim Stanley Robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson has been sort of hit or miss with me before. Some of his books keep me up reading into the wee hours of the morning. Some are a struggle. This book was kind of both for me. The idea of the book--what the world might have been like if Europe had been completely wiped out by the Black Plague--fascinated me. Robinson has a real gift for alternate timelines, as evidenced by his Three Californias series. The problem is that the scope of the book is so sweeping that it's a little difficult to get involved with the characters. When the story arc covers multiple centuries, individual lives tend to become a little less important. So it was hard for me to really connect with the book. On top of that, much of the book involves long discussions of the nature of history, and while the ideas were interesting, it didn't make for an exciting read. Fortunately, something about the ending resonated with me, so I walked away from this book with a good feeling.

Started: 1/3/2004 | Finished: 2/14/2004

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Mystic River

I have been meaning to see Mystic River for months now. With the Oscars looming so close, I finally got around to it, and I'm glad I did. This film was described to me as a Boston Irish version of The Godfather, and I think it's an apt comparison. It's not really a mafia movie--in some ways the movie isn't really about crime at all, though the central action revolves around a crime--so there are lots of differences. But both films are deeply concerned with family. Clint Eastwood really brought the film to life, and he did so with a humility you rarely see in film drama today. Sean Penn gave a masterful performance, and even though I think he'll lose the Oscar to Bill Murray, I still think his nomination was richly deserved. Kevin Bacon was also very good, although his performance was subtle enough that it almost gets lost beside Penn. The weakest link was Tim Robbins. I really don't understand why he was nominated for Supporting Actor; his performance was too one-dimensional, and that one dimension was completely overdone. Even so, the film is good enough to overcome that one weakness, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested.

Viewed: 2/13/2004 | Released: 10/2/2003 | Score: A

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50 First Dates

People go to an Adam Sandler film expecting to laugh, and maybe to walk away feeling good at the end of the movie. I've always found that his movies have quite a lot of heart. This one, though, was surprisingly mature. I really expected it to be awful, but the love story at the core of this film was both tragic and heartwarming. Yes, there was a certain amount of the bathroom humor you expect from a Sandler film, but it almost seemed out of place here. The on-screen chemistry between Sandler and Drew Barrymore was wonderful, too. I think it's possible that they may become the new Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.

Viewed: 2/12/2004 | Released: 2/12/2004 | Score: a

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The Big Bounce

What an amazing disappointment. To begin with, Sara Foster, who played the female lead, was utterly lifeless on the screen. She really brought nothing apart from her looks, and, frankly, it wasn't enough. But that was hardly surprising. The sad thing was that the presence of people like Owen Wilson, Morgan Freeman, and Gary Sinise was not enough to save this film. Sure, they had some good moments, but the problem with this movie is the script; it's just boring. Hopefully Starsky and Hutch will be funnier.

Viewed: 1/30/2004 | Released: 1/28/2004 | Score: D

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Win A Date With Tad Hamilton!

I saw this one for the same reason most men will: my wife wanted to see it. I expected Bye Bye, Birdie warmed over for this decade, minus the music. Actually, the film quite exceeded expectations. Topher Grace is pretty typecast these days, but only because he does that geeky boy-next-door thing so well. Yes, the film is the same romantic comedy you've seen so many times before, but the makers were overtly conscious of the genre, poking fun at it in ways that I appreciated. For many of you it will be a date movie, and it serves it's purpose as such.

Viewed: 1/29/2004 | Released: 1/22/2004 | Score: C

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The Last Samurai

Despite its many flaws, this movie inexplicably kept a lump in my throat for a surprising amount of time. Tom Cruise gives a typically self-indulgent performance, and the film has little in the way of historical accuracy. But there's something about the tranquility of the Japanese landscape and culture combined with the inexorable approach of the future that really resonates with me. The critics have all been raving about Ken Watanabe, who played the role of Katsumoto, and he was good, but many of the other Japanese actors also really impressed me. Masato Harada played Katsumoto's nemesis, Omura, extremely well, and Shin Koyamada's portrayal of Katsumoto's samurai son was amazing. But the performance that really left me breathless was Koyuki, as Katsumoto's widowed sister-in-law, Taka. She pulled off an amazingly subtle and rich performance as a young mother as well as the love interest, and, surprisingly, the script never cheapens her relationship with Cruise's Algren.

Viewed: 1/10/2004 | Released: 11/30/2003 | Score: B

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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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