17 November 2003

Evil Aliens...and Britons

Alien - The Director's Cut: 4 Stars. Sure, I've got it at home on DVD, but I decided to see this bad boy at the Arclight Cinerama Dome . Dead center, perfect distance from the 91-foot screen (diagonal length), so my entire glasses-framed vision was filled with Ridley Scott's greatest film. I still jumped, more than once, when the acid-blooded beast tore through Tom Skeritt and his crew. This is a horror movie, pure, pristine, and terrifying. It's sequel, Aliens, was more of an action-adventure flick, and one of the best of all time, but it isn't one-tenth as scary, especially on the big screen.

Love Actually: 2.75 Stars. I've loved the work that this producer/director crew has put together before: Bridget Jones' Diary and Notting Hill to name two, but this one wasn't up to their standards. They've got great characters, a veritable who's who of British cinema, and great dialogue, but just too much was going on in this film. I read somewhere that there were 22 "main" characters in this film, all with love stories (every sort of love, really...husband-wife, father-son, friend-friend, etc), some of them interwoven. The problem was that the most interesting ones (Hugh Grant and Martine McCutcheon, Martin Freeman and Joanna Page) had to share time with the likes of Laura Linney and Andrew Lincoln. It was just too much, and the film suffered as a result. Still, though, when it was good, it was very good. I wish they'd make another movie just with Grant and McCutcheon, perhaps intersplicing all of the footage from this movie into it. It'd be a pretty cool gimmick, n'est-ce pas? Special kudos to showing boobs in this flick...it's not done enough anymore. Also, great cameos.

14 November 2003

Once more...making up for lost time

Lara Croft - Tomb Raider - The Cradle of Life: 2 Stars. This was better than the first, but not by much. They need to tone down the supernatural and Indiana Jonesize this series for it to have any chance of generating a decent film. Djimon Hounsou was as good, and underused, as always. I'm looking forward to seeing him in In America.

Shattered Glass: 3.5 Stars. Most of the buzz I'd heard regarding this tale of disgraced "journalist" Stephen Glass was pretty positive and, as it turns out, accurate. Pretty much beginning-to-end this was a compelling tale of a talented, but compulsive, liar. Hayden Christianson played the titular character spectacularly well, indicating that his wooden Anakin Skywalker is more the fault of the screenplay and direction than of any lack of talent. The movie pulled no punches. Glass was a charmer, a singularly good talespinner, and, for some reason, decided to start making up stories rather than actually go get 'em. His fall is both tragic and generates no sympathy, not that he deserves any. Special kudos for the bookends framing this tale....utter perfection.

The Singing Detective: 3.5 Stars. I wasn't sure quite what to expect when I sat down to see this film, but boy was I pleasantly surprised. Basically it's a detective story, but what's being sought here are the causes of Dan Dark's (Robert Downey, Jr.) shattered psyche. Pretty much everyone's good here, from Mel Gibson's psychiatrist to Robin Wright-Penn's (is it just me, or is she just getting more and more beautiful as she ages?) devoted wife. The story's a little weird, and takes a bit of getting used to, but when the final credits roll, it's been a wholly satisfying journey.

Runaway Jury: 3 Stars. I admit it, I'm a John Grisham fan. I've read all of his books, most in less than 4 hours. He's pure popcorn and candy for a devotee of deeper literature, but there's a place for junk food in everyone's life. I thought this was one of his better books, and with the cast lined up for this movie (Dustin Hoffman, John Cusack, Gene Hackman, and Rachel Weisz), I figured it may exceed my favorite Grisham movie, The Rainmaker. It didn't, but there's no shame there. In the book, it was the tobacco industry on trial; in the movie, it's the gun industry. The change had to be made for the story to fit in 2003, but I'd rather they just dated the story back to 1998 or so....it would've been more compelling. Regardless, it was a good time for all. Everyone of the stars got to show their chops, and even the lesser-known cast members (Bruce McGill, Jeremy Piven) were given chances to shine. My only real complaint is that there's no surprise ending. The book did a much better job of making Cusack's Nick Easter seem ambiguous in his goals. Nonesuch in this film, but I still liked it.

The Matrix Revolutions: 2.5 Stars. All the stars in this movie are for effects. This flick has the greatest punch I've ever seen on celluloid. It also has several awesome fight scenes. Unfortunately, the story not only stinks, it's confusing. From beginning to end, I had no idea what was going on, and why. There are long, deep-sounding soliloquies on life in the Matrix that make no sense. There's good guys and bad guys doing things in the silliest possible manner. In the words of Johnnie Cochrane: It just does not make sense. Fin.

14 October 2003

All sorts of senseless violence. Cool.

The Rundown: 2 Stars. Not too impressed with this The Rock/Seann William Scott action comedy. Frankly, both of them need to start picking better scripts or they'll end up on the straight-to-video scrapheap before long. Ewen Bremner's (of Trainspotting fame) role completely befuddled me. Rosario Dawson, however, was a lovely as ever.

Kill Bill, Vol. 1: ?.? Stars. Wow. From the opening quote (which got the biggest laughs of the entire film), I knew this wasn't going to be like any film I'd seen before, and it wasn't. Mostly a hyperviolent kung-fu flick, director Quentin Tarantino weaves his own version of the genre. I'm not going to give this film a rating until I've seen all of it, but it was certainly a promising opening. It was nice to see kung fu legend Sonny Chiba given a decently dramatic role (in which he performs admirably). Frankly, everyone else was great too. I've got nothing whatsoever negative to say about this flick, except that I wish I'd seen both parts.

07 October 2003

Man, I'm getting pretty lame at this

Out of Time: 2.5 Stars. Fairly unsuspenseful suspense film. Skip it and wait for the DVD with the 16 alternate endings.

American Splendor: 3.25 Stars. Really interesting character study of a truly unlikable fellow, yet a singular talent. Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis are both excellent, as is the gimmick-laden direction and cinematography. The only complaint I have is that the film doesn't really allow you to care for the protagonist, Harvey Pekar (Giamatti), till about 15 minutes before the end. It's a bit late by then.

Matchstick Men: 3.5 Stars. I enjoyed this one alot. Great performances, great story (if a bit of a stretch, and a whole lot of cigarettes. Ridley Scott can't live without smoke everywhere, can't he?

19 August 2003

A Few More

Bad Boys 2: 2 Stars. Great effects. That's it. Don't bother.

Seabiscuit: 3 Stars. I absolutely loved this book, and the movie doesn't really do it justice. That's not to say it's not a good film; it is. It just pales by comparison. Kudos to real-live jockey Gary Stevens who turns in a winning, charismatic performance as jockey George Wolff.

05 August 2003

A Few Quickies

Malibu's Most Wanted: 3 Stars. I haven't laughed like that in ages. Go see it at the dollar theater, you won't regret it.

Dirty Pretty Things: 3 Stars. Wonderfully acted drama. Not as thrilling as the thriller it's purported to be. Very slowly paced, but still excellent.

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl: 3 Stars. Johnny Depp is amazing in this entertaining swashbuckler. I can't say it really lived up to the hype, and it was overlong; however, I liked it overall. Keira Knightly almost spookily resembles Natalie Portman (clearly that's why she was Padme's double in Phantom Menace).

Bringing Down the House: 2.5 Stars. I expected this to really, really suck. I was pleasantly surprised at this competent comedy, which was actually consistently funny. Eugene Levy steals the show, which is always a good time.

10 July 2003

Physically Handicapped

The Core: 2.5 Stars. I'll give them credit. They didn't care one whit about physics, or geology, or thermodynamics, or electromagnetics when they made this film. It's like a high-budget 50s sci-fi film. They spout jargon like it's going out of style and have all the cliché characters (the hotshot pilot (Hilary Swank), the good professor (Aaron Eckhart), the evil scientist (Stanley Tucci), the technogeek (D.J. Qualls), the outcast genius (Delroy Lindo), and the token foreigner (Tchéky Karyo)) from any of the schlock epics. They almost make it work, too, but ultimately it fails by being (a) too long and (b) too silly. 135 minutes is just torturous for this kind of movie, unless Michael Bay is at the helm. Go rent Armageddon (not, I repeat, not Deep Impact)to see how it should be done.

09 July 2003

Whale good. Blonde bad.

Whale Rider: 4 Stars. All I knew about this film going in was that everyone loved it. Now I know why. Pretty much a textbook case of a movie with virtually no chance of commercial success, this New Zealand film focuses on the relationship between aging Maori chief Koro (Rawiri Paratene) and his 12-year-old granddaughter Pai (a luminous Keisha Castle-Hughes), set against the backdrop of Western influence and modernization as it affects the Maori tribe. Sounds like a real humdinger, eh? Well, surprise, it's awesome. Koro resents that he doesn't have a grandson to inherit the Chief mantle and is worried that the greatness of the Maori is in the past. Pai (named after Paikea, the male founder of the tribe who arrived in New Zealand on the back of a whale) is frustrated with the role of a woman in her society in the modern world. She also longs to be accepted by her grandfather. What results is ultimately a story about a family in crisis, but writer/director Niki Caro tells it with such skill and fantasy and beauty that it's like watching poetry. If it weren't for City of God, this would be the uncontested best film of the year.

Legally Blonde 2: Red, White, and Blonde: 1 Star. Ugh. When is Reese Witherspoon going to stop doing Julia Robertsesque dreck and give us another Pleasantville or Election? This movie is pure crap, especially when compared to the original, which was at least cute. Jennifer Coolidge needs to just go away, or at least just do Chris Guest/Eugene Levy films. Luke Wilson should know better. So should Sally Field and Bruce McGill. Bob Newhart, well, he was a lot of fun...he's the only reason to watch this turkey. I hear there's going to be a third film. I'd rather watch Freddy vs. Jason.

03 July 2003

Dude, you're joking, right?

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines: 3.5 Stars. Are you kidding me? T3, good?!? Better than good. Great. Frankly, the only drag in the film is the (seemingly) 30-minute car chase, which was just a little much. I may be rating this higher than it deserves because of low expectations, but I doubt it. Where to start? Jonathan Mostow (who directed the excellent Breakdown) does a worthy job stepping into James Cameron's shoes. You've got a few characters (Nick Stahl and Claire Danes) who are actually likeable (unlike Edward Furlong and Linda Hamilton in T2). Throw in some badass cyborgs (Governor Schwarzenegger and insanely-hot Kristanna Loken). Then finish by actually furthering the story given in the first two films. Basically what we've got here is the "middle chapter" of the Terminator saga, which could (but likely won't) go on for a few more movies. We've seen the Terminators come back through time to kill. We've seen glimpses of the future and know that, somehow, John Connor will lead a victorious resistance. T3 fills in the blanks. Basically what we've got here is the "middle chapter" of the Terminator saga, which could (but likely won't) go on for a few more movies, and I couldn't be more impressed with the result. Special kudos to Kristanna Loken's breasts, which make an extremely swift, but appreciated, cameo.

30 June 2003

It's Been Awhile

One month and a week, only 3 movies. Sorry folks, but I've been otherwise occupied with trips to Toronto and other such treats. BTW, should you visit the home of the CN Tower, be sure to stop at:

Yung Sing Pastry Shop, 22 Baldwin Street. Great chinese buns (meat and veggie) at insanely cheap prices.
Amato Pizza, 534 Queen St. West. There are several locations for this top-notch pizza.
Far Niente, 187 Bay St. Pricey, but tasty. Have the seafood linguini and the chocolate souffle.

Also, should the rate be right, stay at the Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel. Ask for an upgrade to a club-level room; should they be plentiful, you may get lucky. The pool and hot tub are top-notch.

Finally, if you're really lucky (like me and Barbie), you show up when there's a Barenaked Ladies concert scheduled. Go. They're especially good in front of their hometown crowd.

Ok, on to those three movies (admittedly, with briefer-than-usual treatment):

28 Days Later: 3.25 Stars. I expected this to be more like a Brit take on the modern horror flick, but it turned out to be more of a voyage into the horrors that man is capable of. Great acting; great suspense; fair story arc...it kind of loses its focus towards the end and gets a bit silly (yes, even for the genre). Still, a very good film.

Finding Nemo: 3.5 Stars. Nemo suffers from the bar set so astronomically high by Pixar. If I'd seen this without having seen the Toy Storys and Monsters Inc, it'd probably have been a four-star effort. That said, I can't rate it higher than either of those two films. It's Bug's Life-level, which is nothing to be ashamed of. Astonishing animation, great voice-acting, and a compelling story makes this one heck of a film. Go and see it.

The Italian Job: 3 stars. I'm penalizing this movie at least a quarter-point, possibly half, because the trailer showed me the finale. Regardless, this was a fine action-caper film with solid acting and good effects. We need more heist flicks.

20 May 2003

A Quintet of Love

Five, yes five movies from last Thursday to Saturday....let's just say it was a long week at work by Wednesday, and I needed to decompress....

The Matrix Reloaded: 3 Stars. I actually enjoyed this one a bit more than the original. That's not saying a ton, however, since I wasn't one of those huge Matrixphiles. I felt it was a good film, with a lousy performance by one of the most overrated and overpaid men in film today. Sadly, this film will only further Keanu's career as a bankable leading man. Basically, this movie continues where the first left off....the humans are battling the robots and their übermachine/brain/slaver, the Matrix, and ends with less of a cliffhanger than the trailer would have you believe. It's a good, stylish sci-fi film, full of philosophical ramblings on the relationships between man and machine (which aren't as tedious as they sound). Fortunately, Keanu plays the superhero role for most of the film, and we're spared his pontificating most of the time. Decent performances by all other characters, including Carrie-Anne Moss (who I hope appreciates how lucky she is) and Laurence Fishburne. The special effects are simply amazing, easily worth the price of admission alone. Kudos to Jada Pinkett-Smith for actually not being fingernails-on-chalkboard annoying.

Down With Love: 3 Stars. Another film heavy on style and light on all else, Down pits lothario journalist Catcher Block (Ewan MacGregor) against librarian-turned-author Barbara Novak (Renée Zellweger). Novak has written a bestselling tome telling women to forsake love and live by sex and chocolate alone. Block blows off a few interviews with her to shag some sexy stewardesses, and is forever placed on Novak's shit list. Then he decides to pretend to be a dumb, unsophisticated, hick astronaut to get Novak to fall for him. Fairly standard plot. Fairly unusual resolution. The last ten minutes or so turn the genre on its ear, and I'm not entirely sure that was a good move, although I didn't mind it so much (my librarian girlfriend, also Barbara, was less forgiving). MacGregor turns in a standard stellar performance, dripping with charisma. Zellweger is watchable, but I've never been a huge fan of hers except for Bridget Jones. David Hyde Pierce is clearly typecast, but I don't think anyone minds.

Bend it Like Beckham: 3 Stars. This cute indie about a Britishized Indian girl who just wants to play soccer is being talked about as the next Greek Wedding. No disrespect to anyone involved, but while it's a good film, it ain't gonna make $200M. I'm actually a bit disappointed that they played the romantic card so much in this film....the soccer angle was compelling enough without muddling the waters with a romantic duo lacking in chemistry. That said, I really enjoyed Beckham. The lead, Jess (Parminder K. Nagra), is like a bratpacker reborn....lovely, talented, and confused. She wants to play soccer. Her traditional and religious Sikh parents want her to find a man like her sister did. Chaos (comedic and otherwise) ensues. It wraps up like a John Hughes movie, but there's nothing wrong with that. Kudos to the lovely, talented, and smokin' hot Keira Knightley, who was clearly wasted as Padme's double in The Phantom Menace.

Identity: 3 Stars. It's not often I'm completely befuddled in a horror film, but this one managed it for about 85 of its 100 minutes. Folks were dying. I had no idea why, or who was doing it. All I knew was that Liotta wasn't a cop. Overall, this was a pretty clever film, and its smartest move was putting together such a talented cast to perform it. Liotta, John Cusack, Clea DuVall, John C. McGinley, Alfred Molina, Rebecca DeMornay (looking boobalicious) and (personal fave) Pruitt Taylor Vince all shine in their roles, and Amanda Peet is actually more than just eye candy, which is nice to see. Kudos to McGinley, for the best death scene since Daniel Stern got offed in Very Bad Things.

Yep, that's 4 3-star films in a row. Guess I got lucky. But I saved the best for last.

Holes: 3.25 Stars. If this film were a bit less predictable, it'd be 3.5 stars, but it got to where it was a bit hokey towards the end. Holes is marketed as a kids film, but if this story of kids stuck at a juvenile reform camp is rated PG, there's no reason at all for The Matrix Reloaded to be rated R. Clearly Disney has more pull with Jack Valenti than the Wachowski brothers. While this movie takes place during the wrongful imprisonment of Stanley Yelnats IV (Shia LaBeouf), the eras of his great-grandfather Stanley Yelnats and his great-great-grandfather Elya Yelnats are well-represented. The result is kind of a mixed-genre fantasy. Elya lives in the old country (Lithuania), a land steeped in mysticism. Stanley I inhabits the old west. Stanley IV is isolated in a world with only children, save the cruel Warden (Sigorney Weaver) and her henchmen (Jon Voight and Tim Blake Nelson). These stories interweave, along with a seemlingly unrelated story arc starring schoolteacher Kate Barlow (Patricia Arquette), to introduce the viewer to the Yelnats family curse and how it has affected the generations of men. It's a Disney film, though, so of course it will have a happy ending. It's the getting there that's all the fun. This is probably the best kids film I've seen in years, but I don't know if I'd want young kids to see it...it's pretty violent at times. Kudos to Henry Winkler (yes, the Fonz) for figuring out how to act outside of Adam Sandler films.

11 May 2003

Dude, Nightcrawler is soooooo cool!

X-Men 2: 3 Stars. By its very nature, the X-Men franchise will suffer the same problem that the Batman films have -- too many people, not enough screen time for any of 'em. That's especially true with this newest film by Bryan Singer. With such a bang-up cast of some of the best actors working today (Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Anna Paquin, Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry, Famke Janssen, Alan Cumming, Brian Cox, etc...), it was inevitable that everyone had to play in the same sandbox, and, when it's over, you wished they all had a little more to do. That said, this was a heck of a fun film. Alan Cumming stole the show with his portrayal of the teleporter, Nightcrawler. Both his acting and the effects they gave to his character were simply awesome. I'd like to see him get his own film out of this -- although with the 8 hours of makeup needed to suit him up, I doubt that'll happen. Anyway, not too much to say. Good story, good dialogue, good acting. Just a fun film. Go out and see it.
And Cheers!

Either the voters in Barstow, California are just doing a bang-up job with their elected officials, or the officials are doing a good job hiring their staffs, but the folks in the Barstow City Hall are just about the nicest bunch of civil servants I've ever had the pleasure of dealing with. About 2 days after I returned from France, I managed to lose my passport, and since I'm going to Toronto in June, I needed to get a new one. Since the office in Lancaster is open an oh-so-convenient 9:30am-1:30pm, I decided to use the Barstow office en route to my brother's bachelor party in Vegas. According to their website, they are closed from 12-2pm, but when I showed up at 1pm, everyone was home and just as pleasant as can be. The nice woman at the desk informed me that I needed to make an appointment to get a passport. Crestfallen, I explained that the website mentioned nothing about an appointment. She tells me to hang on, and rings up the City Clerk, JoAnne Cousino, who, while busy, agreed to let me file my passport paperwork (which I'd already brought and filled out, to her delight). So she swears me in, dots the i's and crosses the t's, and I'm on my way!

Thanks so much!

21 April 2003

A Quartet of Movie Goodness

Ghosts of the Abyss: 3 Stars. No one will ever argue that James Cameron doesn't push the limit of the state-of-the-art, and he delivers with this 3-D IMAX documentary of his descent to visit Titanic with his brother, actor Bill Paxton, and two swimming robots, among others. At first, I figured that the 3D thing would just be a gimmicky thing...showing water spraying and cranes coming out at you. And it was, at first. Then he goes down below, and there's little screens popping out of the big IMAX screen, showing multiple angles, various bits of data, lighting, all in glorous color. It was quite a show. Using clips from his Titanic, he put the rusty wreck into physical and temporal context. Using Bill Paxton, he put a human face on the mission, fears, concerns, and all. Nice work, Jim.

A Mighty Wind: 3.5 Stars. Some may argue that Christopher Guest just makes the same movie over and over. I say that's all anyone seems to do these days, but if it works, why complain? After Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show, Guest has shown that's he's put together the best ensemble troupe in the business (yes, better than Woody Allen's permanent stable. Props to Rob Reiner for getting them all together in the first place, with This is Spinal Tap, but Guest carries the flame with his third mockumentary. This time co-writers Guest and Eugene Levy turn to the world of Folk Music to get their giggles, and they succeed mightily. Levy steals the show with his burned-out, former folk star Mitch Cohen, formery of Mitch and Mickey (Catherine O'Hara, excellent as always). Filling out the cast are the Spinal Tap triumverate of Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer playing the one-hit wonders The Folksmen and John Michael Higgins' New Main Street Singers (featuring Parker Posey). What a great ride...I laughed constantly. Kudos to Ed Begley, Jr. for making every uttered line a laugh riot.

Bulletproof Monk: 2 Stars. From the billboards for this film, it's obvious that the studio had no idea how to market this action-comedy starring Chow Yun Fat and Seann William Scott. It doesn't help them that the movie sucked. Fun fight sequences and an always hot Jamie King (formerly James King) can't save a lousy, hole-riddled script. Frankly the only thing worth watching is Marcus Pirae's "Mr. Funktastic." Who is as ridiculous as he sounds.

Phone Booth: 2.5 Stars. So a self-proclaimed moral avenger (Kiefer Sutherland) wants to get slimy publicist Stu Shephard (Colin Farrell, trapped in a phone booth), to apologize for all of his sins, including trying to sleep with (but not actually screwing) a woman who's not his wife. Stu wants to sleep with Katie Holmes. Who can fault that?!? I want to sleep with Katie Holmes, for G-d's sake! Last I checked, lascivious thoughts don't warrant death sentences. And, in the process of teaching his lesson, Kiefer kills two people. So who's the bad guy here?

06 April 2003

France Trip Wrap Up

Well just got back from a marathon one-week conference and two-week vacation in the land of cheese-eating surrender monkeys. To make things extra interesting, less than a week into the trip, the US and Britain started bombing the shit out of Iraq (or Irak in local parlance). As it turns out, and not too surprisingly, while there were some pretty shrill voices in the media about the war, most folks in France really didn’t care about it. Or care enough to make themselves a public nuisance. There were two protests that I witnessed while I was there: one, a march supporting teachers in Toulouse and the other, a "general strike" for all the cashiers in Paris. As for Irak? A couple musicians at the Place de la Capitole playing godawful Iraqi music and some graffiti in the Paris Metro. C’est ça.

Here’s our trip in 16 lines:
March 15-21: Toulouse. Saw St. Sernin, Les Jacobins, Pont Neuf, and enjoyed my conference
March 22: Drove from Toulouse to Ambrussum to Aigues Mortes to Arles to Aix en Provence to Nice
March 23: Drove from Nice to Eze to Monte Carlo to Roquebrune Cap Martin to Nice
March 24: Drove from Nice to Biot to the Gorges du Loup to Grasse to the Massif d’Esterel to Nice
March 25: Drove from Nice to Cannes, ferried to Ile St. Marguerite, drove to Les Calanaques then to Marseilles
March 26: Drove from Marseilles to Nice* to the Fontaine de Vaucluse to Avignon
March 27: Drove from Avignon to Pont du Gard to Nîmes
March 28: Kicked back in Nîmes
March 29: Drove from Nîmes to Toulouse, Flew to Paris, Visited Eiffel Tower
March 30: Gorgeous Day – Went to Versailles
March 31: Toured the Marais, Musée Picasso, Museum of Jewish art and History, Centre Pompidou
April 1: Les Invalides, Napoleon’s Tomb, Musée Rodin, Musée Orsay, Café aux Deux Magots, Baccarat Museum
April 2: Chagall Exhibit at the Grand Palais, Saint Chappelle, Pont Neuf, Louvre
April 3: Notre Dame, Opera, Epic game of 10-card Gin (Stu wins 505-425 after Barbie blows a 278-79 lead)
April 4: Arc de Triomphe, Champs Elysees, Sacre Coeur, Montmartre, Aquaboulevard
April 5: Flew home
*Musée Marc Chagall was closed on the 25th… we also went to a Carrefour for snacks, which was cool

Quick Hotel Review:

Hotel Albert 1er, Toulouse: Great place. Recently renovated. Really nice front desk. Small rooms. Get a room with just a shower and a mini-balcony (#313). The rooms with baths have only partial curtains.

Hotel Albert 1er, Nice: No relation. Great location. A little run-down, but nice enough, with decent-sized rooms. The Brit running the front desk when we arrived was a pleasant surprise. Get a high room with a rounded balcony (#604); the view is amazing.

New Hotel Bompard, Marseilles: Nice place, beautiful garden. Way too far from the action of the Vieux Port. Wouldn’t go back for that reason alone.

Hotel de Mons, Avignon: Think of it as an experience rather than a hotel. Leave your luggage in your car and bring an overnight bag, if you can…no elevator. Great architecture is about the only reason to recommend this place, but it’s reason enough given its perfect location at the Place de l’Horologe and reasonable rates (at €52, the cheapest night of our trip).

New Hotel La Baume, Nîmes: Really nice front desk. Really awful rooms. First one was so ugly I asked for another one, which smelled like someone had died in there. Useless elevator, since there are still stairs to nearly every room. We decided to leave and stayed at the

Hotel Imperator Concorde, Nîmes: What a place. Classic glass-encased elevator. Great front desk. I walked in without a reservation, and they gave me two nights (Thurs. and Fri.) at €110 a night. Beautiful room – I’ll get a picture up soon – that had a list price on the door for €146. Great courtyard with a fountain and cisterns.

Sofitel Hotel Porte de Sevrès, Paris: At the end of the Balard Metro line in the 15th, this would not have been our first choice, but thanks to a PriceLine bid of $120 a night, we stayed at this marvelous hotel for seven great nights in Paris. Unfortunately oriented such that no rooms have a view of downtown, all you have to do is go up to the rooftop balcony to get a breathtaking view of Paris. My only complaint is that the room wasn’t really all that special looking…just a standard hotel room. Also, despite Priceline’s assertion, they only had a pool, not a jacuzzi. However, it was a $300 a night hotel room in a 23-floor, four-star hotel with a gorgeous lobby, 2 restaurants (one rooftop), and a fantastic library-themed bar with comfy couches surrounded by full bookcases. They also have one thing I didn’t even consider when getting a hotel in Paris: a concierge, which we visited more than once a day to help plan our trip.

A few superlatives:

Top 5 Meals in France:
1. "Cassoulet toulousian," Unknown, Toulouse: The signature dish for the city. Lamb, lamb sausage, white beans, and a rich brown sauce served baked in a casserole dish. Holy crap it’s good. My buddy Scott ordered the best version that I tasted in France, but I don’t recall where it was in Toulouse. The version at Julien in Paris is also excellent.
2. "Don Corleone Pizza," Le Danieli, Nîmes: Yes, a pizza. With bacon, sauteed onions, ham, multiple cheeses, and a cream sauce. Get the profiteroles for dessert. The tiramisu was to die for, also.
3. "Lapin dijonnaise," Le Bistrot de Papa, Paris: Rabbit in a thick mustard sauce. Mmmmm.
4. "Soufflé Prix Fixe Menu," Le Soufflé, Paris: Get the Fromage Soufflé as an appetizer, the Henry IV Soufflé (turkey and mushrooms in a cream sauce) as your entrée, and the Grand Marnier Soufflé for dessert. Trust me.
5. "Tarama l’aneth on a Pletzel," Sacha Finkelsztajn, Paris: We were touring the Jewish Quarter in the Marais hoping to get some sort of soul food breakfast when we came across Sacha’s place, which had been recommended in one of our books for her Yiddish cuisine. Tarama l’aneth is basically a dill cream cheese, although I think there’s some sort of fish buried in there. A pletzel at Sacha’s is a kickass onion roll. Yum.

Top 5 Old Places We Visited:
1. Palais de Papes, Avignon
2. Notre Dame and Saint Chapelle Cathedrals, Paris
3. Castle and Donjon, Roquebrune Cap Martin, Monaco
4. Ramparts, Aigues Mortes
5. Pont du Gard, Nîmes

Most Disappointing Museum: Musée Marc Chagall, Nice. Way too small.

Most Interesting Museum Exhibit: "Tim: Être de Son Temps," Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judiasme, Paris. Sadly, it’s temporary.

Least Impressive Ruins: Ambrussum

Biggest Surprise: Aquaboulevard, an indoor water park right next to our hotel (and half-priced admission of €10 through our concierge) has nine waterslides, three jacuzzis, fountains, a wave pool, and is open till midnight on Fridays. We spent our last night there.

Best Story from the Monte Carlo Casino: Admission is €10, which isn’t worth it unless you’re willing to gamble. Being ignorant in advance, we paid it and were greeted by 2 open roulette tables (minimum bet €10) and 1 open baccarat table. We got €100 in chips. Barbie bet €10 on the 3rd column. 33 came up, she won €20. I then bet the €10 on the 2nd column. 35 came up. I won €20. We walked away, admission paid for, she €10 richer, me with a €10 chip for dad.

Top 5 Recommendations for your Southern France Trip:
1. Rent a car in southeast France if you want to really enjoy it. Visit a Carrefour for the experience, the munchies, and cheap gas.
2. Use the Autoroutes. The time saved is worth the tolls.
3. EVERYTHING is closed from around Noon to 2pm, and most museums are closed either Mon. or Tues.
4. Roman Arenas are best seen from the outside. This is especially true of the ones in Nîmes and Arles.
5. It’s better to repeatedly circle a turnabout than to head off in the wrong direction.

Top 5 Recommendations for your Paris Trip
1. Stay away from the Chatelet Metro Stop in Paris. Barbie got her wallet pinched there from inside her purse. The police seemed unsurprised.
2. A four-star hotel is worth the money. Make standard reservations way in advance. Use Priceline at the 11th hour. As long as it’s on the metro (which it will be), you’ll be delighted. Use the concierge.
3. Get a Carte Orange subway pass and a Carte Musée museum pass.
4. If you hear about a "general strike," make no plans that aren’t walking distance from your hotel.
5. Plan your trip around the "open" days of each tourist site, and double-check the hours. For example, the Louvre, while closed Tuesdays, is open and fairly empty late Wednesday nights.

C’est ça.

18 March 2003

The Indie Scene

Spider: 3 Stars. I think this little character study of the titular schizophrenic wanted to be a bit of a murder mystery as well, in the vein of The Usual Suspects, or something of the sort. It doesn't succeed there, as the "plot twist" was fairly obvious. However, simply the delving into Ralph Fiennes' Spider is a fascinating journey into a disturbed mind. The direction by David Cronenberg is slow, but not plodding, and consequently it feels like one is taking a long, hard look at Spider to see what makes him tick. Miranda Richardson is, as always, wonderful, and John Neville, Gabriel Byrne, and Lynn Redgrave (clearly off the Weight Watchers plan) fill out the cast quite well.

The Quiet American: 3.5 Stars. It's pretty clear why the distributors of this film were worried that would be perceived as anti-American. This romance set against the backdrop of American manipulation of 1950s Vietnam clearly exposes the ethically-bankrupt operations of the CIA in its efforts to oppose the communist insurgence from the north. That said, this is a heck of a film. Michael Caine turns in yet another Oscar-nominated performance as a older, married British journalist in love with a beautiful local girl, and Brendan Fraser does his standard "sweet dork" character who falls for the same girl (he falls really, really quickly...like immediately...way too fast...you get the idea). Only Fraser's not a sweet dork, he's running the entire CIA operation to discredit the communists, by any means necessary. What this film lacked was more of Fraser as the CIA-dude. He only gets one scene to chew up as a badass, and he does such a good job, one wonders why we can't get more of the same. But, alas, the script doesn't allow it, so we're left to wonder whether or not there could've been two Oscar nominations, instead of one.

City of God: 4 Stars. Wow. Go South America. After last year's Argentinian masterpiece Nine Queens blew me away, I had high hopes for this Brazilian tale of mostly teenage gangsters in the impoverished outskirts of Rio. And it delivered. While watching this, I had the feeling that this was the directors' (Kátia Lund and Fernando Meirelles) first chance to make a movie with a decent budget...there's all sorts of gimmicky stuff reminiscent of Run Lola Run, Traffic, and even Amelie, but it works. Lund and Meirelles have put together a gripping, nonlinear story of vicious violence, love, drugs, murder, and redemption shown through the eyes of City of God resident and would-be photographer Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues). Special Kudos for everyone involved in this film...keep up the good work! And to the Americans: Don't remake this film.

12 March 2003

Hot, or not?

The Hot Chick: 2.25 Stars. I don't feel that my $1.50 was wasted, but I'm glad I didn't throw down a full Hamilton for this Rob Schneider vehicle. This little flick puts a gender-bending twist the body-switching theme popularized in the 1980s (Kirk Cameron/Dudley Moore (Like Father, Like Son) and Fred Savage/Judge Reinhold (Vice Versa) having starred in the most well-known of them...George Burns/Charlie Schlatter (18 Again) paired in one of the least). Now we have Rob Schneider and Rachel McAdams. The first problem this film has is that the titular star is, in fact, the third hottest chick in the film, behind über-sexy Anna Faris and MTV Undressed star Samia Doumit. For comparison, Anna and Samia vs. Rachel. One could argue that the gal playing Rachel's mom, Melora Hardin, is also hotter. But, that aside, this film is owned by Rob Schneider. It rises and falls with his performance, and, for the most part, he does a pretty good job playing a teenaged girl trapped inside a hairy Jewish guy. There are the usual trappings of Adam Sandler's Happy Madison production company: the shouting of "That's a big bitch!", the man exposing his penis for another man's inspection (this time it's Caddyshack star Michael O'Keefe, all growed up), and Sandler's required cameo (this time as a Rastafarian-type rehashing an old SNL skit). Overall, not a great film, but I laughed. Quick question, though. What was Robert Davi doing in this film???

11 March 2003

The Oscars are A-Coming!

Well, I'll be in France when the Oscars come to town, so I'll give you my picks now to fill out your office pools. I have to warn you, I'm almost always wrong. So here's the big awards, plus 1:

Best Actor in a Leading Role

About Schmidt - Jack Nicholson
Adaptation. - Nicolas Cage
Gangs of New York - Daniel Day-Lewis
Pianist, The - Adrien Brody: He's playing an artsy Holocaust survivor, and he's the only one of the 5 without an Oscar already.
Quiet American, The - Michael Caine: He's got 2 Best Supporting Actor trophies, so he may have a chance.

Best Actor in a Supporting Role

Adaptation. - Chris Cooper: This is my slam-dunk lock.
Catch Me If You Can - Christopher Walken
Chicago - John C. Reilly: He was amazing in Chicago, but lacks the screen time to win.
Hours, The - Ed Harris
Road to Perdition - Paul Newman

Best Actress in a Leading Role

Chicago - Renée Zellweger
Far from Heaven - Julianne Moore
Frida - Salma Hayek
Hours, The - Nicole Kidman: You can pretty much flip a coin in this category...but this would be a fine slap in Tom Cruise's face.
Unfaithful - Diane Lane

Best Actress in a Supporting Role

About Schmidt - Kathy Bates
Adaptation. - Meryl Streep
Chicago - Queen Latifah: She would be a fun choice, and not entirely undeserving, but I just can't see it.
Chicago - Catherine Zeta-Jones
Hours, The - Julianne Moore: She's due, and will get the Best Actress sometime soon at the pace she's setting.

Best Director

Chicago - Rob Marshall
Gangs of New York - Martin Scorsese: Whatever you say about this film, he's due.
Hable con ella - Pedro Almodóvar
Hours, The - Stephen Daldry
Pianist, The - Roman Polanski

Best Picture

Chicago: I'd prefer TTT, but Chicago has to win something, right?
Gangs of New York
Hours, The
Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, The
Pianist, The

Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen

Far from Heaven - Todd Haynes
Gangs of New York - Jay Cocks (screenplay/story); Steven Zaillian (screenplay); Kenneth Lonergan (screenplay)
Hable con ella - Pedro Almodóvar
My Big Fat Greek Wedding - Nia Vardalos: There are $250 Million reasons to give it to her.
Y tu mamá también - Carlos Cuarón; Alfonso Cuarón

Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published

About a Boy - Peter Hedges (II); Chris Weitz; Paul Weitz
Adaptation. - Charlie Kaufman; Donald Kaufman: How can you not award a writer that doesn't exist?
Chicago - Bill Condon
Hours, The - David Hare
Pianist, The - Ronald Harwood

Best Cinematography

Chicago - Dion Beebe
Far from Heaven - Edward Lachman
Gangs of New York - Michael Ballhaus: Where is Insomnia on this list???
Pianist, The - Pawel Edelman
Road to Perdition - Conrad L. Hall

Best Animated Feature

Ice Age - Chris Wedge
Lilo & Stitch - Chris Sanders (III): This is such a silly category, but I figured I'd chime in.
Spirited Away - Hayao Miyazaki
Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron - Jeffrey Katzenberg
Treasure Planet - Ron Clements

Ok, that's enough. Figure out the rest for yourselves.
The Good, and the Better

The Pianist: 3 Stars. I'm not sure what I expected to get out of this Holocaust film by Roman Polanski. It was nominated for a slew of Academy Awards, but I hadn't heard much by word-of-mouth. Turns out it's, and I hate to put it this way, just another Holocaust epic. The first half of the movie is like any of the others -- focus on one family, Germans invade, Jews are rounded up, senseless destruction and killings, railcars stuffed with people, pretty much the worst that humanity has to offer. The only thing new that this film brings to the table is some depiction of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. I'd've prefered a film that began in the Ghetto, taking it for granted we knew how all the Jews got there, and then really showed what happened, how they organized, how they fought, etc. Instead, it was just a loud accompaniment to the hidden isolation of the title character, played by Adrian Brody. Brody is unremarkable as the title character, and I suspect he got his Academy nod simply because he played a character who survived the Holocaust, not as a result of any spectacular acting. Liam Neeson was far better as Oskar Schindler (and also deserved the Oscar, which was instead given to Tom Hanks simply because he played an AIDS-afflicted gay man, not as a result of any spectacular acting). Kudos to Thomas Kretschmann, who turned in the best acting in the film portraying a sympathetic German officer.

The Guru: 3.5 Stars. Easily the best film I've seen since The Two Towers, this light, funny, and enormously entertaining romantic comedy was just was I needed last Friday night. British actor Jimi Mistry is a charismatic wonder as a recent immigrant from India to New York City who finds himself being billed as "The Guru of Sex" after he spouts some sex advice (gleaned from porn actress Heather Graham) at a party thrown by socialite Marisa Tomei. There's no surprises in the plot, but it's the getting there that makes this film so much fun. Graham and Mistry have a great chemistry, and the supporting cast of fellow Indian emigres can only be described as top-notch casting. I especially enjoyed the self-mocking dialogue referring to the stereotypical work opportunites for Indians in the US. Double Kudos for the always entertaining Ajay Naidu (you will recognize him from Office Space), who is hilarious in his brief scenes.

04 March 2003

Hard Core

Narc: 3 Stars. It's nice to see an old-school type of cop drama like this up on the silver screen. Ray Liotta and Jason Patric play flawed detectives investigating the murder of Liotta's former partner in the gritty, snowy urban sprawl of Detroit. There's all sorts of lies, deceptions, shady characters, and bodies that turn up in their twisted investigation, which stalls to plodding at times, but is well-paced in general. The end was a little neat, but I still liked how it was done. Kudos to the cinematographer...just an awe-inspiring job.

24 February 2003

Blast from the um...er...hmmm

Old School: 2.5 Stars. Not a good film. Full of plot holes. Seems like quite a bit of the story was left on the cutting room floor. Jeremy Piven, slacker star of PCU horribly miscast as the hard-nosed dean. Despite that, I laughed. A lot. Someone watch Animal House and remember how something like this is done, please.
How do you kill a man without fear?

Daredevil: 2.5 Stars. Just "Eh."

21 February 2003

Stu vs. The Fiendish Florists

Part 1

Okay, so all I wanted to do for Valentine's Day was get my girlfriend Barbara a couple dozen roses....To give you an idea how things turned out, read my 2/15/2003 letter to the folks at ProFlowers.com, who ship "the freshest flowers direct from the grower.":

Dear Sir or Madam,

I cannot express to you how disappointed I was with my entire experience with ProFlowers.com. I have issues with both the flowers which arrived and with your customer service.

Firstly, after hearing the glowing ads on Los Angeles KFI-640, I ordered 2 dozen assorted color roses for $59.98 before some apparantly phantom Jan 31 deadline. I even recommended the service to my father and brother, who thankfully ignored my advice. Going back to your site after 1/31 to show a co-worker, I saw, to my shock, that the same 2-dozen bouquet was being sold for only $49.98. I called up your customer service line to ask for a price adjustment, and was promised a return call. The next day, after no call was recieved, I went back to your website and saw that you'd repriced the bouquet to $59.98. You're welcome.

Secondly, and more importantly, the flowers which arrived at my girlfriend's apartment on Valentine's Day were shockingly disappointing. Hours after putting them in water and food to "refresh" them, nearly all of the flowers still looked shabby and half-dead, especially the whites and the pinks. Most had brown or black edges to their petals. Two of the 24 flowers were entirely broken just short of the bulb! They simply fell off of their stems when I put the flowers in water. Frankly only the yellow roses, 18 hours later, lived up to any of my expectations, which weren't particularly high.

To add insult to injury, the assorted-color bouquets being sold for $19.99 at my local supermarket were better looking and would've made a much lovelier gift. If anyone at your company has any pride in the product you sell, you'd refund my money and telephone my girlfriend to apologize.

Stewart Bushman

A bit harsh and melodramatic, perhaps, but i figured it'd get the point across. For good measure, I copied the email address of The John and Ken Show, which was hawking ProFlowers's goods on-air.

Part 2

The next day (Sunday), I got a very apologetic email. They gave me a full refund. "Very nice," I thought. I didn't really expect a phoned apology.

Two days later, I got a phone call from the customer service folks at ProFlowers.com. They were very apologetic and insisted that they send another bouquet to Barbara. Feeling savvy, I elected to forgo the roses and send a bouquet of tulips. They also made a request. They asked me repeatedly to send a letter to John (of the John and Ken Show), letting him know that the issue was resolved. Pretty neat, n'est-ce pas? Here's my letter:


Thanks so much for sending Proflowers.com an email on my behalf. I think you scared the bejezzus out of them. They refunded my money, sent an entirely new bouquet (I selected tulips this time), and repeatedly asked me to email you to make sure that you knew about their reparations.

Much appreciated,

I felt pretty vindicated now.


The flowers arrived on Wednesday. They sent 2 dozed tulips. With a glass vase. The vase was completely shattered, and the box was oriented in such a way that the glass shards were all over the flowers. Also 3 of the tulips were completely severed on the stem, just like the roses. I didn't bother with any letters this time, but the moral of the story is to go with a local florist, or at least one of those online sites like 1800Flowers.com or FTD.com that uses local florists to do their dirty work.

19 February 2003

It's Been Awhile...

Shanghai Knights: 2 Stars. I didn't much care for the first Wilson/Chan pairing, and this sequel is no exception. The Rush Hour films show that it's possible to make this sort of buddy chopsocky comedy work, but somehow the Shanghai series doesn't get the job done. The fault doesn't lie with the actors, who are likable and entertaining, but with the material, which is derivative, full of holes, and pretty damned lame. And don't get me started with the anachronisms, which exceed even normal suspension-of-belief. Owen Wilson has proven to be an exceptional writer, sharing credit with Wes Anderson in Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, but I'm starting to wonder who shoulders the load in that pairing. Maybe Wilson is so dazzled with his own stardom that he can't differentiate good from bad when the paycheck is above $10 million.

How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days: 2.75 Stars. This film is another example of material that's below the actors. What starts out as a fairly interesting idea gets lost in sketch comedy. Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson have shown that they've got considerable chops in 13 Conversations about One Thing and Almost Famous, respectively (among other films), but they both seem wasted in a romantic comedy that not even Meg Ryan would bother with. Go do some more serious stuff, folks, and leave the fluff to Freddie Prinze Jr. and Sandra Bullock.

06 January 2003

Top 5

My annual Top 5 list, also to be found here.

1. About A Boy
2. Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
3. Nueve Reinas (Nine Queens)
4. Y Tu Mamá También
5. Insomnia

It was really tough knocking out the two 4-Star Spielberg films this year, Catch Me If You Can and Minority Report, but I really felt these 5 films were the cream of the crop this year. Insomnia got the edge for the immersive, miasmic atmosphere it was able to maintain for 2 hours. Honorable mention should go to Enigma and Punch-Drunk Love for being excellent, if slightly flawed, films.
Just One?

Chicago: 3.5 Stars. A wonderful reproduction of the Broadway musical, brought to life by exceptional performances by Renée Zellweger (Roxie), Catherine Zeta-Jones (Velma), and Richard Gere (Billy Flynn). Also notable were Queen Latifah (Mama) and John C. Reilly (Amos), who steals the movie with a heartrending performance of "Cellophane Man." This movie doesn't really explore the film possiblities as fully as Moulin Rouge did and more feels like a shot version of the stage production, although all of the musical numbers are shown as quasi-dream sequences. I thought it slowed down a bit in the middle, but otherwise was a pretty damned solid effort. Kudos to Taye Diggs for managing to grip the audience with every spoken word of dialogue. He needs someone to write him a decent starring vehicle. Also, keep your eye out for original Broadway-Velma Chita Rivera in a bit part.

03 January 2003

Christmas Tradition for Jews

Catch Me If You Can: 4 Stars. Totally solid film from Señor Spielbergo. For the last 30 years, all this guy has done is crank out wonderful films (except The Lost World), and this one is no exception. Leonardo DiCaprio is perfectly cast as Frank Abignale, Jr., the chameleonesque teenager who poses as a Pan Am airline pilot, a Harvard-educated doctor, and a lawyer who cashed more than $4 million worth of counterfeit checks before his 19th birthday. Spielberg, resisting the urge to end this film on a truly dramatic moment, tells the full (albeit dramatized, with licence) story of Abignale. A fantastic effort that'll earn Spielberg a few more academy award nominations, and possibly the award itself, amidst a weak field, to DiCaprio. Kudos to Jennifer Garner for playing a teen beauty queen turned high-priced hooker in one of the most entertaining scenes in the film. It's worth noting that even this wonderful film couldn't beat out TTT.

Analyze That: 2 Stars. Ugh. How they could go from such an entertaining film to this dreck is almost astonishing. Director Harold Ramis should be ashamed. If it weren't for DeNiro's mugging to the camera, this movie wouldn't be worth the film it's projected on.

Star Trek 10: Nemesis: 3.5 Stars. Wow. The rule that even-numbered Star Trek films are the good ones is clearly being held to by the Trek producing machine. This one rivals ST8: First Contact as the best Next Generation film and may be as good as ST6: The Undiscovered Country, my second favorite of the series to ST2: The Wrath of Khan. As per usual, they gave Data (Brent Spiner) too much screen time and Worf (Michael Dorn) not enough, but since Spiner helped come up with the story, that's hardly a surprise. The story was great; the acting was great (even Troi (Marina Sirtis), Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden) and Riker (William Frakes) were watchable); and the end was superlative. Kudos to Dina Meyer (Starship Troopers' Diz) for playing the hottest Romulan on record.

Solaris: 2.5 Stars. There were a lot of good ideas in this Steven Soderburgh-penned adaptation of the Stanislaw Lem novel. Unfortunately good ideas do not a great film make. The story here was a bit too thin; some more exposition would have been nice, and the end was just confusing and unsatisfying. Nice to see Jeremy Davies getting work, even if in a bit part.