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The Adventures of Pluto Nash (2002)
Time will tell on this minor classic ...
28 December 2003
The Adventures of Pluto Nash is a science-fiction movie for fans of 1950's and 1960's written science fiction -- the stuff you find on library bookshelves, written by Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Ron Goulart. That's both this movie's appeal and its marketing problem.

It doesn't rely on cutting-edge special effects for its appeal, although enough money has been spent on the production values that the film is visually well-realized. There are no slow-mo aerial martial arts battles, no stargates, no time-travel.

"Pluto Nash" just tells a good, solid, well-plotted near-future science-fiction adventure story with a light touch -- the sort of story that fans of Heinlein's short stories "It's Great to Be Back" and "The Menace from Earth" would appreciate.

Good cast led by Eddie Murphy with nice turns by Rosario Dawson, Pam Grier, Luis Guzmán, John Cleese, Randy Quaid, and Peter Boyle-- and a little extra brought to bear by Jay Mohr as a future saloon singer updating Sinatra.

This isn't Star Wars or 2001: A Space Odyssey. It's just a fun movie-movie. But it's a shame that Eddie Murphy had to take a hit for delivering solid science fiction -- and good fun.

Bowling for Columbine (2002 documentary)
Michael Moore is his own best critic
10 December 2002
During the production of "Bowling for Columbine," on September 22, 2001 -- which you'll notice is 11 days after 9/11 -- Michael Moore wrote on his website:

"This started out as a documentary on gun violence in America, but the largest mass murder in our history was just committed -- without the use of a single gun! Not a single bullet fired! No bomb was set off, no missile was fired, no weapon (i.e., a device that was solely and specifically manufactured to kill humans) was used. A boxcutter! -- I can't stop thinking about this. A thousand gun control laws would not have prevented this massacre. What am I doing?"

Camp Stories (1997)
A surprisingly good independent film
1 July 2002
I found out about this movie in a fairly unusual way: the summer camp used as a location for filming was owned by close relatives and I watched the video while visiting my relatives at the actual location where as a 10-year-old I'd been a camper myself, only a few years after the era portrayed in this film.

The actual camp, Camp Mohawk, was nothing like the Orthodox Jewish camp portrayed in the film. It was not a religious camp and discipline was merely the bare minimum necessary to keep campers from drowning each other in the lake. It was pretty casual.

The summer camp shown in Camp Stories, on the other hand -- if writer/director Biegel is to be believed -- was more akin to eight weeks spent at a Young Communist camp in the Soviet Union: a maniacal head counsellor on a power trip, an Orthodox Jewish camp owner who thinks rock and roll is obscene, religious rules that kept boys and girls on opposite sides on the camp, the slightest infraction punished by dangerous physical torture -- and a sign posted near the mail room promising campers that any mail complaining to their parents would be censored.

As I said, the actual summer camp this movie was filmed at was nothing like that.

But as a small independent film, this picture wasn't bad. I thought the acting was good throughout, the writing and directing more than competent, and good use was made of the locations.

The story is a not-untypical story of minor teenage rebellion against the artificially repressive sexual code of the 1950's -- or at least how the Baby Boom campers remember it. It's a boy-meets-girl-on-the-other-side-of-the-tracks story, a sexy-wife-cheats-on-her-anal-retentive husband story, and a religious-culture-meets-the-outside-world story. The Orthodox Jews portrayed in this movie are only one step less out-of-touch than the Amish portrayed in Witness -- in other words, clueless. And, of course, any healthy teenager without salt peter in the food is not going to take to this sort of religious repression without a fight.

Technically -- for writing, acting, directing, cinematography, editing, and musical score -- I gave this movie an 8 out of 10. It definitely should find, even at this late date, distribution on video and DVD, and deserves to be seen on the premium cable networks and late-night TV. It's a natural for the Independent Film Channel and the Sundance Channel. With a cast including Jerry Stiller, Elliot Gould, Talia Shire, Paul Sand, and Jason Biggs, it's surprising to me that this picture hasn't found a home.

Louis L'Amour's 'Crossfire Trail' (2001 TV movie)
Worthy of the golden age westerns
22 January 2003
I don't like modern Westerns. Even as meticulously accurate a history as 1993's Tombstone, with all the contributing artists turning in splendid job performances, left me cold because at the end of the movie all that stayed with me was the mind-numbing brutality of ceaseless violence.

Spoiler warning.

Crossfire Trail has its share of violence, including a climactic firefight, but there is a gentleness and intelligence to Charles Robert Carner's screenwriting that overcame the cliches of Louis Lamour's original story. Come on. Is there a more hoary melodrama than the one about the evil banker using a mortgage to blackmail a beautiful widow? All that's missing from this choice of villain is mustache twirling and maniacal laughing. But given that genre prescription, Carner instead gives us an epistemological mystery: the widow has to use her powers of deductive reasoning to figure out whether the handsome banker is trying to protect her from a con man trying to take advantage of her grief, or whether the handsome stranger claiming to be fulfilling a promise to her dead husband is there to protect her interests from the banker.

The cast, led off by Tom Selleck and Virginia Madsen, is ably assisted by Wilford Brimley and Mark Harmon, among others. The directing is good, the photography suitably expansive. But this production deserves special kudos for getting the details of the old West dead-on accurate, with every firearm being portrayed historically accurately, and even details of costuming showing loving care. Moreover, I haven't seen that many westerns with dialogue discussing Beethoven, and poetry quoted from Milton. It's nice to see, for once, that just because a cowboy could get physical he wasn't necessarily an ignorant moron.

This is a Western that could have been made in the golden age of Westerns. It overcame my skepticism and I give it a rating of 8 out of 10.

Flight of the Navigator (1986)
Reminiscent of the best of the Heinlein young adult novels...
27 May 2002
Flight of the Navigator is a far better movie than we'd have a right to suspect.

Plot spoiler if you read further:

A few minutes into this film, 12-year-old David Freeman (Joey Cramer) is on an errand to retrieve his 8-year-old brother, Jeff, when he falls into a gulley and is knocked out. Regaining consciousness, David returns to his house, thinking only a few minutes have passed, and instead of his parents and brother finds a locked door and an elderly couple living there.

Taken to the police station, David is identified by computer records as a boy reported missing eight years before. Despite the fact that he hasn't aged, he's taken to the Freeman's at a different house nearby, and when he sees his parents obviously older, he faints. He returns to consciousness again on a gurney on his way to a hospital bed. A few minutes later, while his parents are called out of the room by a somber-faced doctor, David is left alone with his brother Jeff -- who is now 16.

This is ostensibly a Disney movie for kids -- and later on there is a lot of comedic Disney hijinks -- but the first half hour of the movie, as David and his family deal with the trauma of his time relocation, are some of the most heart-rending and chilling sequences I've seen in any film.

Spoiler over.

This movie reminded me of some of the time-relativity sequences in Robert A. Heinlein's novel, Time for the Stars. The characters are well written and the actors do an excellent job, particularly in the scenes between Joey Cramer and Matt Adler, as 16-year-old Jeff. The distraught parents, Cliff de Young and Veronica Cartwright, are also excellent -- and Howard Hesseman and Sarah Jessica Parker round out a great supporting cast.

Special kudos are due to Paul Reubens (best known for his character Pee Wee Herman) who was originally credited under his own name for lending his voice to a major character in this film, but had his name removed from the credits, replaced by the pseudonym "Pall Mall," after Reubens was arrested for alleged indecent exposure committed in a movie theater seat. (I've never understood how Reubens was convinced to plead "no contest" to the charge, after theater security cameras showed him in the lobby buying popcorn at the time of the alleged offense.) Considering that Disney's Hollywood Pictures division released Powder, directed by a convicted and confessed child molester, Disney should show some backbone and restore Reubens real name to the credits.

If you can get ahold of this movie, see it -- and maybe Disney will see fit to release it again -- on DVD, I hope.
The Majestic (2001)
Good directing and acting, bad storytelling.
29 December 2001
Spoiler Warning.

I might not have been anywhere near as ticked off about The Majestic if the advertising had been honest. I went into the theater based on TV commercials showing a movie about a guy who'd lost his memory and may or may not have been an MIA World War II hero. Instead, I was subjected to still another Hollywood wet dream about a blacklisted screenwriter who ends up telling off the House UnAmerican Activities Committee investigation into communists in Hollywood -- excuse me, the movie didn't even get that right since it portrayed a 1950's U.S. Senate investigation which never existed.

I'm a fan of Jim Carrey. I especially thought he should have got the Oscar for The Truman Show. Frank Darabont did a terrific job directing The Green Mile and episodes of the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. They did good jobs on The Majestic, too, as did the supporting cast.

I haven't seen the original script but either Michael Sloane's screenplay got rewritten or edited somewhere along the way or it should have been. The storyline deliberately creates suspense then cheats the audience out of it. Forget the coincidence that Peter Appleton is washed up on shore near Luke Trimble's town right when Appleton loses his memory after being blacklisted, though that's a lame set up (and a ripoff of 1965's Mirage, written and directed by blacklistees). But it makes no sense for Peter Appleton to be mistaken for Luke Trimble by Trimble's father and lifelong girlfriend if it isn't going to turn out that Trimble had suffered a previous war-related bout of amnesia and really was Trimble. The ultimate cheat is the piano scene where amnesiac Appleton plays boogie-woogie piano only to have a character who said he taught that piece to Trimble later reverse himself and say he was lying. Plot writing like this just stinks.

It's also bad character writing for the amoral, no-conviction Appleton to be mistaken for the courageous Trimble merely on the basis of a physical resemblance. Even through amnesia, good writing would have had character tell.

But, you see, these plot contrivances are merely for the purpose of setting up Appleton's telling off the Congressional investigating committee with First Amendment rhetoric. It's been a Hollywood catachism for decades that HUAC's investigation (always confused with McCarthy's senate investigation of communists in the U.S. State Department) was a witch hunt. Never mind that HUAC uncovered not only communist but also Nazi and fascist subversive terror cells in the United States, and post 9/11 subversive terror cells hiding behind the Bill of Rights doesn't seem as righteous as it once might have.

But I guess you can't blame screenwriter Michael Sloane for having the real world bite him in the ass.
Minority Report (2002)
Steven Spielberg back on his game ....
22 June 2002
The best baseball hitter ever swung at a ball and missed occasionally; you judge them by their batting averages. Steven Spielberg has a particularly high batting average, both commercially and artistically. I was very unhappy with his last film, AI: Artificial Intelligence -- not for anything wrong with Spielberg as a director, which he's always good at, but with the writing -- but Minority Report is Spielberg back on his game as one of our best.

Plot spoiler? You have got to be kidding. This is from a Philip K. Dick story and the plot is so complex and twisted that I couldn't spoil it for you if I tried. Previous films made from Dick stories include two of my favorites: Blade Runner and Total Recall. Dick was simply one of the best science-fiction writers ever and Minority Report reflects his genius.

Great writing, great casting, great acting, great directing, great visuals and special effects, and a great John Williams score. I feel like I'm at the Oscars thanking everyone and the orchestra is about to start playing me off.

Enough. If you like great science-fiction film-making, go see this. But take a No-Doze first: you're going to need to be awake to follow the plot and you don't want to get the caffeine from coffee or Diet Coke because it's 2-1/2 hours long.
What Women Want (2000)
A feminist attack on men that backfires
16 December 2000
Spoiler warning!

I went to see What Women Want with good feelings. Mel Gibson and Helen Hunt are always a joy to watch and the commercials made the film look funny. For the first half of the movie I "bought the premise," as Johnny Carson used to say all the time, and the "bit" was as funny as the commercials promised. I was unexpectedly delighted by a Mel Gibson solo dance routine to a Frank Sinatra recording that shows he has all the grace and panache of Gene Kelly in Singing in the Rain. Mel, who knew?

The problem for me arose when the scriptwriter (or whatever script doctor was hired by the fifth's assistant producer's daughter-in-law) traded in comedy for just one more hackneyed, politically-correct attempt by Hollywood to raise the plight of women by dumping on men. Mel Gibson does his best to remain cute and lovable according to whatever feminist standard these people apply; but the fact is, the script doesn't play fair with us. It's a loaded gun aimed at the male gender. Mel Gibson's character is supposed to be a top creative force at a top ad agency -- not the sort of job you keep by failing to be creative-- but all we are shown is that he is so creatively challenged that he has to stoop to stealing the creative ad ideas right out of Helen Hunt's character's head. I suppose the balance the movie gives us is that Helen Hunt's character is the only woman shown demonstrating any creativity or intelligence. But the simple historical fact is that Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Michelangelo, DaVinci, Picasso, Newton, Einstein, and Hawking, have no female counterparts; and I'm just getting a little sick of female-slanted bigotry trying to establish females as morally or intellectually superior to men when there's so damned little reason to conclude it. Equality of the sexes isn't enhanced by replacing oneupmanship with oneupwomenship.

Just so it doesn't look like I have something against women directors, I thought What Women Want's director, Nancy Meyers, did a terrific job on her previous film, the superior-to-the-original remake of The Parent Trap. And Helen Hunt and Mel Gibson, contrary to a previous reviewer's comment, do indeed have heat.
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