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December 30, 2004

Meet the Fockers
Jay Roach, USA, 2004
Rating: 2.8
What made Meet The Parents funny was watching Ben Stiller squirm under constant scrutiny from Robert De Niro. Meet the Fockers multiplies the players considerably, introducing Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand as Bernie and Roz Focker, parents to Stiller's overeager-to-please Greg. Blythe Danner returns from the original as Dina Byrnes, pillar of tolerance to De Niro's ex-CIA paranoiac Jack, as does Teri Polo as Greg's wife-to-be, Pamela. Basically, what we we have here is Meet The Parents Meeting the Other Parents. It's longer, the jokes from the first film are repeated on unsuspecting new characters, and the pratfall set pieces have been curbed in favor of allowing mega-bright star power to carry the day. But contrasting liberal Jewish free spirits (the Fockers) with reserved, conservative WASPs (the Byrnes) is too obvious to generate much heat and, quite frankly, there's no tension. Even having suspicious Jack inject future son-in-law Greg with truth serum lacks bite. Meet The Parents worked because of how hard Stiller's character worked to impress De Niro's scowling Jack, which could only lead to disaster. Here, Stiller is reduced to frantically acting as peacemaker between the two families, and that's simply not as fun. Stiller is best when harried, and Meet the Fockers has him stuck on cruise control.

::: Laurence Station

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December 30, 2004

BAADASSSSS!
Mario Van Peebles, USA, 2003 (2004 theatrical release)
Rating: 3.5
Mario Van Peebles tells the story of how his father Melvin made the independently financed, enormously profitable 1971 film Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. Writer-director Mario, who was 13 at the time of the film (and appeared in it), plays Melvin. But the younger Van Peebles doesn't attempt to sugarcoat the events surrounding the production. Melvin Van Peebles literally puts everything on the line (friendships, family ties, all that he owns) to make what he saw as a revolutionary statement against Hollywood's exploitation and mockery of African-Americans. It's quite a bumpy ride from desert vision to stunningly successful debut in a Detroit theater -- aided in no small part by the ability of the Black Panthers to mobilize neighborhoods to come out and support the feature. Visually, BAADASSSSS! is an odd, not wholly successful mix of slick camera tricks (Melvin walking through a mirror in his room out into a neighborhood) and the jarring jump cuts that defined the raw, unvarnished look of Sweet Sweetback. More than anything, however, BAADASSSSS! conveys just how hard it is to get a film made without compromising with the big studio system. The irony, of course, is that Hollywood co-opted Melvin's ideas, and an entire subgenre of gritty Blaxploitation films, from Shaft to Superfly, rapidly flooded the market. In the end, the ultimate lesson of "He who has the gold makes the rules" is emphatically hammered home.

::: Laurence Station

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December 29, 2004

Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events
Brad Silberling, USA, 2004
Rating: 2.7
Daniel Handler's popular series of children's books about the tragic lives of the three Baudelaire orphans gets the big screen treatment (well, select parts of the initial three of the projected thirteen volumes, anyway). Set in a quasi-Victorian/Dickensian universe and taking place in a Boston, Massachusetts that never was, Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, the film, never grounds itself to a consistent set of laws. What we do get are a series of beautifully decorated (in a musty, gothic, and windswept sort of way) set pieces that find the enterprising heirs to an enormous fortune -- inventive Violet (Emily Browning), polymath Klaus (Liam Aiken) and infant biter Sunny (played by adorable twins Kara and Shelby Hoffman) -- desperately trying to fend off the murderous intentions of legal guardian/bad actor Count Olaf (Jim Carrey). One of the film's major problems is a complete lack of tension. There's never any tangible feeling that the orphans will come to grievous harm; these kids are simply too quick-witted and, even though adults refuse to listen to them (the film's overriding theme), nonetheless manage to consistently thwart Olaf's fiendish plots. The real downer, however, is Carrey, who simply lets too much Jim Carrey wriggle through his unsightly Count Olaf makeup. Carrey's familiar facial and verbal histrionics only further undermines any inkling that the world of the Baudelaire orphans is a unique, fantastical place. If nothing else, it's a watered-down fantasy fix until the next Harry Potter installment arrives.

::: Laurence Station

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December 21, 2004

Spanglish
James L. Brooks, USA, 2004
Rating: 2.6
Adam Sandler has blue balls. In Spanglish, Sandler plays an enormously successful Los Angeles chef whose gratingly high-strung wife, played by Téa Leoni, pounces on him for congratulatory sex after his restaurant gets a 4-star review and then rappels away before Sandler equals her orgasmic peak. Later, his very sitcom-safe, intimate kisses with a Mexican émigré housekeeper, played by Paz Vega, end with her professing her love for him and then, inexplicably, dashing away. That he just found out his wife has been having an affair only exacerbates the man's unsatisfied frustrations. The universe of Spanglish, as envisioned by writer-director James L. Brooks, is a place where men are calm, understanding and terribly unappreciated, and the women are hyper-achieving/self-assertive types seeking that perfect balance between domestic bliss and career advancement. You'd think Brooks was pitching a series for the Lifetime network. But there's simply no heat here. The film is all PG-13 reserve, buffed to an awkward family-friendly sheen. Brooks' theme of Mexican-American relations falls flat as well, with Vega certainly enjoying the world's cushiest domestic servant routine and, naturally, helping to impart a fresh perspective on the family she occasionally dusts for. Spanglish is a half-baked, inarticulate mess.

::: Laurence Station

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December 21, 2004

The Flight of the Phoenix
John Moore, USA, 2004
Rating: 2.4
Retaining the same basic structure as the Jimmy Stewart-piloted 1965 original, The Flight of the Phoenix finds creative new ways to update the creaky old plot of air-crash survivors stranded in an unforgiving wasteland. OutKast's hit single "Hey Ya!" proves just as ubiquitous in Mongolia's Gobi Desert as it did in the rest of the world last year about this time. Watching Dennis Quaid's captain and his can-do strandees shimmy to the song as they build a new plane from the wreckage of the old one is undeniably silly, but the scene does successfully stamp a contemporary (and soon to be very badly dated) mark on the ensemble piece. What really keeps Flight grounded, though, is its lack of tension. It's not so much a question of whether the makeshift aircraft will fly, as it is an issue of when. The answer, it turns out, is after about two hours of screen time. Giovanni Ribisi's neurotic, controlling and secretive plane designer is the most appealing aspect of an otherwise bloated, non-suspenseful survival yarn that's predictable and plodding to a fault. If nothing else, OutKast should send the producers of the movie a bouquet for potentially reinvigorating a tune that seemed well past its sell-by date.

::: Laurence Station

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December 16, 2004

National Treasure
Jon Turteltaub, USA, 2004
Rating: 2.8
Putting a decidedly American spin on The Da Vinci Code's Knights Templar historical link and cross-pollinating it with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade's prickly father-son relationship makes National Treasure incredibly derivative. But that's not the point, is it? Mega-blockbuster producer Jerry Bruckheimer is in the business of entertaining people, and in that respect, Treasure delivers the goods. Nicolas Cage plays Benjamin Franklin Gates, son to Jon Voight's Patrick Henry Gates and grandson of (in a brief expository opening shot) Christopher Plummer's John Adams Gates. (We assume there are other similarly named Revolutionary period figures in the family tree as well.) Seems the Gates clan has been entrusted to maintain the secrecy of various plundered loot stretching back to the dawn of civilization. That no one in the Gates family knows the actual location of the fabulous booty (or if it even truly exists) helps ensure its safety. That is, until Sean Bean's wealthy adventurer Ian Howe finances Ben's hunt for the treasure. Naturally, Ian just wants the money, while Ben's driven to prove the riches actually exist. Thus, we get everything from Ben stealing the Declaration of Independence to trying on a pair of the original Ben Franklin's psychedelic spectacles -- all leading to a vigorous climax spelunking beneath an old church in downtown New York. Granted, National Treasure is wildly far-fetched, and Ben's "on-the-checklist" forced relationship with Diane Kruger's unfortunately named Abigail Chase is ridiculous, but at least it's never boring. In Bruckheimer's universe, boredom doesn't exist. Neither does plausibility.

::: Laurence Station

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December 01, 2004

Enduring Love
Roger Michell, UK, 2004
Rating: 2.8
Adapted from Ian McEwan's popular novel, Enduring Love follows its source's cue by having its most dramatic incident occur at the very beginning. (The incident in question is a hot air balloon tragedy that profoundly affects the lives of two men after a third perishes trying to help them bring the windblown inflatable to the ground.) Opening with a climax and then spending the remainder of the piece dwelling on the event works far better on the printed page, where interior thoughts and anxieties can be more artfully presented. Film-wise, Enduring Love rapidly devolves into a menacing stalker thriller with infatuated true believer Jed (Rhys Ifans) invading the space of detached intellectual Joe (Daniel Craig). Jed is convinced that the accident that brought them together has a higher purpose; Joe, by contrast, would love to just get on with his life. Talented Samantha Morton is stuck with the thankless, limited role of Joe's consternated girlfriend. That Joe comes across as a miserable academic who questions the validity of love (even though he was on the cusp of proposing to his sweetheart during an idyllic picnic when the balloon's sudden arrival shattered his romantic Hallmark moment) doesn't help matters. Rhys Ifans plays Jed as pathetic, needy and, well, utterly insane. The beginning sequence is startling, however. It's a shame director Roger Michell (Changing Lanes, Notting Hill) proves incapable of sustaining such towering dramatic heights throughout.

::: Laurence Station

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December 01, 2004

The Stepford Wives
Frank Oz, USA, 2004
Rating: 2.0
Where the original Stepford Wives fit with the typically downbeat, mid-1970s American malaise afflicting many Hollywood offerings, this glossy, 21st century remake promotes a Dr. Phil "we can work it out" positivism. The problem: Its satiric barbs are deadly dull and despite a big budget and powerhouse cast (Nicole Kidman, Matthew Broderick, Bette Midler, Christopher Walken), director Frank Oz never finds a rhythm to suit this dollhouse world of manicured lawns and robotic, doting spouses. Also, the notion of conditioning women who are aggressive go-getters into cookie-baking, bottle-blonde Barbie dolls is just plain offensive. Satire requires targets that need skewering, and such Man Show wish fulfillment scenarios hardly qualify; does anyone really think we still live in the world the town of Stepford represents?. The only thing saving this Stepford from total cinematic oblivion is Glenn Close's brilliant closing "I'm a lady!" speech -- it's only here that the film hits its stride. Unfortunately, it's way too late to save the utter tripe that has gone before.

::: Laurence Station

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December 01, 2004

The Terminal
Steven Spielberg, USA, 2004
Rating: 2.5
The schmaltz factor is cranked to 10 in Steven Spielberg's interminable The Terminal. Inspired by the surreal, real-life tale of a stateless English-Iranian named Merhan Karimi Nasseri, living at Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris since 1988, The Terminal (shifted to JFK airport in New York) spans a considerably shorter time frame. Tom Hanks plays Victor Navorski, an Eastern European caught in diplomatic limbo when a coup renders him a man without a country. Fortunately, Spielberg's contrived fantasy thinking cap is working overtime, and Viktor winds up prospering in his new environment. He plays matchmaker for a pair of employees, gets a well-paying, cash-only job doing construction work near his terminal, and strikes up a relationship with a flaky stewardess played by Catherine Zeta-Jones (because of course all women who look like Catherine Zeta-Jones end up becoming flight attendants). Stanley Tucci plays the requisite hard-ass bureaucrat who tries to make life miserable for Viktor. Why? Because there's not much tension involving a foreigner stuck waiting for things to work out in his homeland, that's why. The Terminal is silly and dull, with a sappy ending that helps cement it in the bottom third of Spielberg's filmography. Interestingly, The Terminal is the second film based on Nasseri's situation: The first was the 1993 French comedy Tombes du Ciel. Who knows? Perhaps by 2013, Nasseri's story will get the proper absurdist treatment it all but demands: A documentary about the real McCoy, trapped in a dilemma even Samuel Beckett would find tragically far-fetched.

::: Laurence Station

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November 11, 2004

Saved!
Brian Dannelly, USA, 2004
Rating: 2.8
Saved! -- writer-director Brian Dannelly's feature debut -- wants to be the Heathers of the Christian school set. It strives mightily to expose the hypocrisy of Christian leaders like American Eagle Christian High School's Pastor Skip (Martin Donovan), who uses squarely executed hip-hop lingo to connect with the kids -- and cheats on his wife. There's also a Heathers-style voiceover from Winona Ryder complement Jena Malone, who plays Mary, a good girl who gets pregnant when she sacrifices her virginity in an effort to stave off her boyfriend's budding homosexuality. Her effort fails, she's knocked up, and her belief in Jesus takes a major hit. There's even a Heathers-esque troika of sorts at the chipper, hip-to-be-saved school, led by the talented Mandy Moore, saddled with the unfortunate and obvious character name Hilary Faye. Moore's character is the super-popular girl who can only stay that way by out-saving everyone else. Thus, the school's lone Jewish girl, rebellious Cassandra (Eva Amurri), spends most of her time combating Hilary's attempts to de-Jew her. A wheelchair-bound Macaulay Culkin and Almost Famous' Patrick Fugit play the boy interests, but Saved! is all about the nastiness of girl cliques. In that respect, it's the parochial-minded counterpart to Mean Girls. Both are pleasant, mostly innocuous PG-13 efforts that pull up lame when they should go for the winning score. In the case of Saved!, we get the requisite feel-good ending via a trite, rainbow-coalition Hallmark moment. Heathers' savage teen-critique prom tiara remains firmly in place. Long may it reign.

::: Laurence Station

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November 11, 2004

Spartan
David Mamet, USA / Germany, 2004
Rating: 2.5
Swallow this: The President's daughter is kidnapped and sold as a sex slave to wealthy Middle Easterners with a penchant for blondes. If you can buy into that highly improbable plausibility, then Spartan just might make a halfway-decent film. Lone wolf Val Kilmer (a battery of sidekicks conveniently shoulder the burden of dying to ratchet up the "cost" factor) is a stoic Secret Service agent who doggedly pursues the First Daughter, even when it becomes apparent that her father's administration doesn't want her to be found. Mamet's trademark clipped, machismo-heavy style keeps us in comfortable waters, with highly trained killers plying their trade in the service of Washington beauracrats whose loyalty is to power rather than the flag. Fortunately, Kilmer's character puts aside his "ask no questions" moral compass and follows a grim code of honor that will either end in him liberating the girl abroad or die trying. Considering the clever House of Games puzzles Mamet has favored in the past, it's interesting how procedurally obvious Spartan ends up being. No real surprises, just testosterone-charged alpha males set loose in some alternate reality where the normal geopolitical rules don't apply -- and common sense is secondary to bleeding on cue and looking damn stout doing so. Neither a trenchant political commentary nor a good, old-fashioned continent-hopping thriller, Spartan is a film in search of an ethos -- something, anything worth saying that hasn't been said previously and with far more stylistic élan.

::: Laurence Station

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November 10, 2004

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring
Ki-duk Kim, South Korea / Germany, 2003
Rating: 3.5
Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring takes place at a secluded mountain lake, where a small Buddhist monastery floats on a raft. Writer/director Ki-duk Kim explores the course of a monk's life, from student of a wise master (Yeong-su Oh) to eventual successor and teacher to a new apprentice. The framing device of the seasons is smartly, if obviously, handled. Spring reflects childhood and innocence; summer reveals the warm temptations of the flesh, as a spiritually ailing young girl arrives at the monastery; fall symbolizes the disgrace of the now adult monk, as he returns to his master after having committed a crime; winter represents a period of reflection, as the now older monk reclaims the monastery, and ushers in... spring, a new beginning with an infant protégé -- and the cycle begins all over again. Dong-hyeon Baek's photography is gorgeous, the natural environment contrasting with the less-than-placid human emotions causing turmoil for the conflicted Buddhist. Kim's message -- that wisdom is rarely achieved without a little suffering and regret -- is clearly illustrated, making for a worthy lesson, if not the most dramatically rewarding film experience.

::: Laurence Station

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October 30, 2004

Shark Tale
Bibo Bergeron, Vicky Jenson, Rob Letterman, USA, 2004
Rating: 1.5
Car Wash meets The Godfather underwater. Sure, why not? Shark Tale is the ugly-animation, urban-blight counterpart to Finding Nemo's wondrous evocation of the deep seas. And while both utilize tried-and-true, formulaic plots, at least Nemo overcomes its "little boy lost" hook (sorry) with smart delivery and a gorgeous palette. The generically named Shark Tale clobbers us with stereotypical casting (Robert De Niro voicing Mafioso shark Don Lino; Will Smith playing, well, Will Smith as Oscar, a plucky fish with big time aspirations about getting out of the whale-washing business), blinding product-placement advertisements and negligible pacing, tension or narrative guile. What we get is Don Lino's son Lenny (voice of Jack Black), a peace-loving vegetarian(!) who hates the taste of fish. Lenny hooks up with Oscar and schemes to let Oscar "defeat him" so that Oscar can be a Somebody in the Big City and Lenny can lay low and pluck flowers or decorate or do something else that real He-Man sharks would never consider. Don Lino is furious -- but don't worry, it all works out in the end. Save for the audience, which is left wondering what other third-rate knockoffs Nemo has inspired, and dreading their imminent arrival at local multiplexes.

::: Laurence Station

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October 16, 2004

The Motorcycle Diaries
Walter Salles, 2004
Rating: 3.3
Making a film about a young Che Guevara on an 8,000 mile trip through South America in 1952 can't help but be influenced and colored by the revolutionary Che, gunned down in Bolivia in 1967. The Motorcycle Diaries draws on the writings of Che and the friend who accompanied him, Alberto Granado, detailing their adventurous trek to do volunteer work at an Amazonian leper colony. But knowing what Che would become, from symbol of freedom for the downtrodden and oppressed to famously imprinted T-shirt icon, hangs over this ostensibly footloose expedition by two men on the precipice of finally getting serious about what they want to do with their lives. The older Alberto (Rodrigo De la Serna) is randy and fun-loving, while 23-year-old Che (Gael Garcia Bernal) is reserved and contemplative. Such stark contrasts diminish the less-clearly delineated human element and reinforces the notion that The Motorcycle Diaries (which earns points for its gorgeous photography and solid acting) chooses to tread lightly when it comes to exploring anything remotely salacious or ignoble about the future symbol of Leftist armed resistance. Throughout, the camera lingers on Che as he observes mistreated miners and the plight of indigenous farmers forced off the land by the State, and it's all too apparent that the seeds of revolution are fomenting within his mind. Alberto certainly has a great time; Che swims across a river in the dark of night to spend his 24th birthday with the segregated lepers. Such ham-fisted earnestness undermines The Motorcycle Diaries, making it less an examination of self-discovery and more a muted, reverent re-imagining of a pampered Argentinean who sees real suffering and is compelled to act. That Che acted is indisputable. How he got to that point, however, is clearly not as baldly obvious as the film posits.

::: Laurence Station

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October 01, 2004

What the #$*! Do We Know?!
Betsy Chasse, Mark Vicente, William Arntz, USA, 2004
Rating: 2.0
Remember those Choose Your Own Adventure books? You know, the ones where you determined the path the character in the story would follow by selecting which page to jump to? What the #$*! Do We Know?! (a.k.a. What the Bleep Do We Know?!) is sort of like that -- only with quantum physics standing in for the book, and the teachings of the Ramtha School on Enlightenment (RSE) acting as a helpful page-turner. For those not hip to the program, Ramtha is a 35,000-year-old warrior whose spirit is channeled by a mystic named Judy "JZ" Knight. What the Bleep is a docudrama/self-help infomercial for RSE that essentially attempts to reconcile the diametrically opposed worlds of science and religion by arguing that there's really not much difference between the two. After all, both disciplines are seeking answers to really big questions, like: What happens when we die? Who created the universe? How much will it cost me to take a shortcut to enlightenment via Ramtha? In the film's fictional storyline, Marlee Matlin plays a Xanax-popping photographer named Amanda, who's miserable and unlucky in love. But then she gets clued in to the world of quantum physics (through obliging, new age-y intermediaries) and voilà! Everything becomes crystal clear. Throughout Amanda's quest, a Greek chorus of really smart scientists and mystics (including Ms. Knight) discuss how little we really know, but how wonderful life can be once you accept the fact that you can make a difference through the power of positive thinking. It's quirky and hardly applicable to real people who pay bills and have to get the kids ready for school during the week, but if you've got some disposable cash, then Ramtha will gladly lead you down the rabbit hole to... the center of your personal universe, perhaps, or at least the nearest ATM. Praise Ramtha! Please make all checks out to Cash.

::: Laurence Station

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August 30, 2004

Garden State
Zach Braff, USA, 2004
Rating: 2.9
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Self-exiled lead character reluctantly returns home after a death in the family, and while there has a cathartic breakthrough with friends and/or family members. Zach Braff’s Garden State takes this very well-worn premise and invests it with enough quirky elements to stave off hordes of spot-the-formulaic-plot-point touchstones. Writer/director/star Braff (of TV's Scrubs) plays Andrew Largeman, a struggling Los Angeles actor who returns to New Jersey for his mother’s funeral. Sans his medication (downers, from which he claims to be taking a vacation), he reconnects with high school buddy Mark (Peter Sarsgaard) and meets Sam (Natalie Portman), who has baggage of her own (though, aside from the fact that she has epilepsy, we never really learn much about her). Andrew’s father (Ian Holm) appears intermittently, but the inevitable emotional showdown between the two proves anticlimactic. Braff is more interested in Andrew's attaining clarity for the first time in his life. And in the key moment -- when he stands over a gaping chasm and screams -- we’re clued into the fact that he’s made a breakthrough: he’s gazed into the abyss and shouted down whatever it is that stared back at him. As a metaphor for man facing his fears (and the uncertainty of his future) it’s baldly obvious, but well staged. He realizes he no longer needs to be medicated, which is bad for the prescription pills industry but great for Largeman. Garden State is poorly paced, and the airport will-he-won’t-he-depart ending is on par with the finale of Friends. But there’s undeniable promise here, a tentative first step toward greater cinematic clarity for a young, budding filmmaker.

::: Laurence Station

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August 30, 2004

Dogville
Lars von Trier, Denmark, 2003
Rating: 3.4
Our Town meets I Spit on Your Grave? Not quite. Dogville, the first in Lars von Trier’s projected "USA -- Land of Opportunities" trilogy, may have superficial structural similarities to Thornton Wilder's acclaimed play (the barren stage and mostly prop-free environment) and the justifiably infamous ’70s gang-rape revenge flick (human abuse ad nauseum). But Dogville’s deeper source of inspiration is Pirate Jenny from Bertolt Brecht's Threepenny Opera, particularly "Pirate Jenny or Dreams of a Kitchenmaid," concerning the mistreated Jenny’s true identity and ultimate doom awaiting those who’ve wrong her. Nicole Kidman's Grace, a woman hiding from the mob, is Dogville’s Jenny, who wanders into an isolated Rocky Mountain town where the Great Depression is squeezing residents just as hard as those in the big city. Her champion is young, idealistic-to-a-fault Tom Edison (Paul Bettany), who introduces Grace to the residents of Dogville and persuades them to protect her in return for Grace’s services. Thus, Grace spends her days going from house to house, performing chores and getting to know the people and, eventually, suffering progressively vicious violations from each. Von Trier gets wonderful performances from his ensemble cast, and the bare stage/chalk-outline set is effectively utilized; despite its obvious artificiality, it never feels stagey. The bloody conclusion is easy to spot, the principal characters' names groan-worthy in their triteness, and, at nearly three hours, the editing could be tighter. But Dogville is nonetheless another intriguing work from one of the true auteurs currently working in cinema.

::: Laurence Station

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August 13, 2004

The Barbarian Invasions
Denys Arcand, Canada, 2003
Rating: 3.2
What better way for an aging intellectual --- a product of '60s counterculture and philandering husband and father -- to die than in a bucolic setting, surrounded by friends, family, and ex-lovers, gazing into infinity just beyond gently swaying treetops as a lethal dose of drugs course through his veins? The only catch is, such a contrived death doesn't come cheap. Denys Arcand's The Barbarian Invasions (an Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film) gets to have it both ways by criticizing the socialist system in Canada (hospitals are overcrowded, understaffed and stuck with outmoded equipment), while having its cynical, former Utopian socialist of a cancer patient (Rémy Girard, reprising the role he played in Arcand's 1986 film The Decline of the American Empire) benefit from his successful capitalist son's ability to pay his way to an elegant, "only-in-the-movies" final exit. What's missing is a chance for father and son to reconcile in a remotely believable manner, and for Arcand to fully develop his larger thesis about civilization slipping back into some Post-Roman Empire Dark Ages. He touches on apathetic law enforcement officers, the 9/11 attack on America's financial and military centers, and the fact that nobody seems to read anymore. With such an intimate story to tell, however, there's simply not enough effort spent exploring those deeper issues. Too bad Arcand didn't have a son of his own to buy him the time to develop and craft a better effort than this.

::: Laurence Station

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August 03, 2004

Secret Window
David Koepp, USA, 2004
Rating: 2.0
Stephen King's novel The Shining dealt with a discontented writer driven insane, who attacks his wife and son while staying at an abandoned hotel. King's novella Secret Window, Secret Garden also deals with a discontented writer and husband. And as in The Shining, one word proves key to the unfolding events: Here, instead of the chilling "redrum," it's "Shooter" -- yes, as in "Shoot her" -- and that clumsily obvious clue tells you all you need to know about David Koepp's film adaptation. Johnny Depp portrays successful writer Mort Rainey, who has hit rock bottom after discovering his wife's (an utterly wasted Maria Bello) marital infidelities. While holed up in a cabin retreat, brooding and unable to write, Mort is approached by John Shooter (John Turturro), who accuses him of stealing a story Shooter has written. At this point, King fans are probably growing increasingly concerned about the amount of familiar turf being retread here. But this isn't some crazed-fan situation straight out of Misery. No, it's far lamer than that. The revelation in Secret Window isn't too hard to guess (Depp's fractured voiceovers and interior conversations clearly give it away), and the resolution plays out like some pulp discard from Creepshow. Secret Window also lacks a fundamental element crucial to the horror genre: Scary scenes. The plot here proves too insular to illicit any sense of uncertainty or fear of the unknown. Koepp makes the most of his source material -- and that's not nearly enough to sustain a feature-length film.

::: Laurence Station

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July 07, 2004

Napoleon Dynamite
Jared Hess, USA, 2004
Rating: 2.3
The Preston, Idaho tourist board (presuming there is one) probably won't be including references to Jared Hess' directorial debut Napoleon Dynamite in its literature packets anytime soon. Dynamite presents the rural Preston as a place where the socially dysfunctional (embodied by curly-haired redhead Jon Heder as the titular lead) suffer the slings and arrows of mistreatment at the hands of the generically popular (bullying jocks and their vapid girlfriends). As an off-offbeat comedy, Dynamite is mildly amusing (Heder's funky dance at the end to garner votes for his buddy's class-president campaign is a genuine highlight), but dispenses with character development in favor of quirky mannerisms and goofy behavior. We never learn who Dynamite, his friends and foes are, or what, if anything, they believe in. There's a throw-anything-against-the-wall-and-hope-something-sticks randomness to Hess' narrative approach that makes for an uneven, choppily assembled work that is neither insightful into the lives and ambitions of small-town Americans, nor humorous enough to thoroughly engage for its hour-and-a-half running time. Napoleon proves more firecracker than dynamite.

::: Laurence Station

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June 25, 2004

Control Room
Jehane Noujaim, Egypt / USA, 2003
Rating: 3.5
In Control Room, Egyptian-American filmmaker Jehane Noujaim (co-director of Startup.com) examines the war in Iraq from the perspective of the controversial and widely watched Al-Jazeera network, branded by the Bush administration as being little more than a mouthpiece for Osama bin Laden. The goal is to present an Arab perspective on the war; unsurprisingly, most people in the region have a view of the conflict, that it's more about imposing an American agenda and controlling the area's natural resources than liberating the Iraqi people or preventing Saddam Hussein from unleashing weapons of mass destruction on the U.S. mainland. While Control Room contains some affecting footage (the reaction of the Al-Jazeera staff in Doha, Qatar to the bombing of the network's satellite office in Baghdad during the final push by Allied forces), Noujaim's lack of access to hotspots during the conflict (for obvious safety reasons) limits the film's scope. Watching the tight shots of reporters and military personnel, one can't help but wonder what's going on just beyond the periphery. On the upside, Noujaim avoids presenting a blatantly pro-Arab bias. Her lack of agenda is refreshing, and helps keep the focus on the war's more important and quite devastating human cost.

::: Laurence Station

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June 22, 2004

The Station Agent
Thomas McCarthy, USA, 2003
Rating: 3.5
Writer/director Tom McCarthy's feature film debut, The Station Agent, examines the ways in which people deal with grief and, ultimately, learn how to enjoy life's simple pleasures (like eating, drinking, and idle conversation with friends). Finbar McBride (Peter Dinklage) is a train-loving dwarf who inherits an abandoned train station after the death of a friend. Relocating from Hoboken to the isolated town of Newfoundland, Fin settles in to what he hopes will be a peaceful, hermetic existence. Shortly after moving in, however, a gregarious, stir-crazy hotdog vendor named Joe (Bobby Cannavale) involves himself in Fin's life, and soon strikes up a friendship with the reluctant train enthusiast. Olivia (Patricia Clarkson), an aggrieved woman who has lost her young son and is separated from her husband, soon joins the unlikely pair, and the trio bonds, whiling away the days and finding comfort in the company of others. The Station Agent works best as a plotless examination of the importance of human contact, no matter how disconnected or emotionally wounded a person feels. Unfortunately, McCarthy loses his nerve to stick with this strategy throughout, and contrived melodrama rears its ugly head during the final third, from a drunken Fin's outburst in a bar to Olivia's near-suicidal encounter with a pill bottle. Despite these flaws, The Station Agent is an entertaining, sincere look at damaged lives redeemed by mundane, blissfully noncommittal diversions.

::: Laurence Station

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June 14, 2004

The Weather Underground
Sam Green and Bill Siegel, USA, 2002
Rating: 3.4
The Weathermen, a radical offshoot of the left-wing Students for a Democratic Society, spent the end of the 1960s and early '70s violently opposing the Vietnam War. With slogans like "Bring the war home," the Weatherman enacted a policy of domestic terrorism (primarily bombings of public buildings or landmarks) that brought them to the attention of the FBI. Sam Green and Bill Siegel's The Weather Underground is at its best when key members of the organization reflect back on their actions, with the majority lamenting the choices they made. What the film fails to do, yet hints at via shocking archival footage from the war, is examine the larger context of a very turbulent period in American (and world) history. The Weathermen, despite garnering some notoriety for their anarchic actions, were relatively obscure and mostly ineffectual figures of the era. Unlike, say, the Black Panthers, the Weathermen lacked organization and existed on the margins with very little communication between the various cells tucked away in safe houses across the country. Had the film expanded its scope to include several other anti-war organizations at play during the time, The Weather Underground might have made for a more compelling viewing.

::: Laurence Station

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May 26, 2004

Mean Girls
Mark S. Waters, USA, 2004
Rating: 2.8
The teen-oriented black comedy Mean Girls has a direct kinship with 1989's brilliant Heathers: Both deal with cliques and the underlying viciousness of hormonally charged high school teens. Also, director Mark S. Waters is the younger brother of Heathers screenwriter Daniel. Whereas Heathers manifested these issues in the form of murder and a spectacularly failed bombing attempt at its high school, Mean Girls sticks with the less visceral tactic of tit-for-tat nasty tricks and a surprisingly lame instance of a bus slamming into a student (Final Destination did a much better job with the same shock effect). Scripted by Saturday Night Live head writer Tina Fey (who also has a supporting role as a math teacher with substantial out-of-school baggage) -- and partly based on Rosalind Wiseman's Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends and Other Realities of Adolescence -- Mean Girls follows home-schooled, Africa-reared Cady Heron (likable Lindsay Lohan) as she attempts to adjust to the social demands of an American high school. Cady's naiveté is regrettably left under-explored, as she quickly joins the ultra-hip "Plastics" clique, while still in allegiance with the obligatory cool outsiders. Some of Fey's ex- and current SNL colleagues -- Amy Poehler, Ana Gasteyer and Tim Meadows -- do good work here, with Meadows making the most of his role as a high school principal with the hots for Fey's reticent teacher. Lacking teeth and any real sense of depth regarding its characters, Mean Girls fails to resonate on any kind of social-commentary level. But if it encourages viewers to revisit the unapologetically twisted and vicious world of Heathers, this teen-marketed comedy will still have achieved something worthwhile.

::: Laurence Station

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May 14, 2004

Elephant
Gus Van Sant, USA, 2003
Rating: 2.8
Terrence Malick's Badlands utilized a dreamlike, poetically grim narrative that ideally emphasized the delusional fantasyland inhabited by its two young lovers on the run. Gus Van Sant's Elephant possesses a similarly gauzy, hypnotic look and starkly foreboding feel. The difference is that Elephant isn't externalizing the interior, idealized worldview of its characters. Taking his cue from the rash of school shootings that have become an all too common occurrence in recent years, and the Columbine massacre in particular, Van Sant attempts to show how death-dealing teens can wear the most sedate, unassuming faces. Unfortunately, there's no focal point. Showing off his continuity management skills, Van Sant seamlessly cuts backwards and forwards through time, tracking his alienated killers and their ultimate victims through a blandly colored, ultra-clean, primarily white, upper middle class high school. We see the victims. We see the killers. But we never get to know any of them. Such a desensitized approach, almost luridly antiseptic in its detachment, undermines Van Sant's essential point about the disconnectedness between troubled youths and the clueless adults supervising or raising them. If the director can't be bothered to flesh out these people, how are we supposed to care when the inevitable slaughter begins? Elephant is more a technical art school exercise than an insightful examination into youth violence.

::: Laurence Station

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May 14, 2004

Casa de los Babys
John Sayles, USA, 2003
Rating: 2.9
John Sayles has dealt with Mexican-American relations before, from the revolutionary violence in Men With Guns to the nuanced murder mystery framing Lone Star. Casa de los Babys focuses on a group of American women attempting to adopt Mexican babies. The powerhouse ensemble cast, including Marcia Gay Harden, Mary Steenburgen and Lili Taylor, is certainly impressive, and, as always, Sayles has a way of giving each character the requisite amount of screen time. Unlike his usual ensemble-driven films (Sunshine State, City of Hope), however, the characters in Casa de los Babys have no personal or professional connections. If anything, these women don't want to interact, but rather pay money, procure an infant, and hightail it back across the border. Thus, they sit around, shopping, chatting, badgering local officials, and generally wondering if they've paid off the right people to ensure they get a child in a timely fashion. Sayles, naturally, attempts to paint the entire socio-economic picture of the adoption trade in Mexico, from kids who've outgrown any hope of adoption and now run wild in the streets to young mothers forced to give up their children for various reasons. Unfortunately, Sayles casts such a wide net that we never learn as much as we'd like about any of these feeder sources into the baby industry. Perhaps he should have put aside his fictional hat this time out and simply made a documentary about this complex subject instead.

::: Laurence Station

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May 04, 2004

Intolerable Cruelty
The Coen Brothers, USA, 2003
Rating: 2.8
Given the severity of its title and the daring pedigree of its filmmaking duo, you'd think Intolerable Cruelty would be a nastier bit of business than it is. But this surprisingly straightforward comedy lacks bite, and despite appealing leads, never quite engages viewer interest as thoroughly as it should. The ingredients are certainly in place: George Clooney's razor-sharp divorce attorney versus Catherine Zeta-Jones' professional gold-digger. The two will fall in love, of course, but it's the getting to that moment that should provide a more enjoyable ride than it does. Other than the hilarious antics of Cedric the Entertainer's sleazy, video camera-wielding private investigator, Intolerable Cruelty is a remarkably reserved and, regrettably, safe film. Jilted lovers and messy divorces are rife with savagely comedic possibilities, but the Coen bothers reign in their more indulgent and over-the-top tendencies in favor of banking the success of the entire exercise on the chemistry between Clooney and Jones -- which simply fails to catch fire. The back-and-forth, tit-for-tat crosses and double-crosses add up to very little, and while it's all well and good to have a happy ending, it would have been nice to have a little more insufferable malice on the way to that boringly preordained point.

::: Laurence Station

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April 30, 2004

School of Rock
Richard Linklater, USA, 2003
Rating: 3.3
Jack Black cons his way into an elite prep school and teaches the kids how to rock out. That, in a nutshell, is School of Rock. The clichés are baldly out-front, from Black's character being down on his luck (he's been kicked out of the band he started and his roommate wants him to get a real job or hit the curb) to the exchange of Black imparting a sense of rebellious wisdom on his high-strung, pre-teen charges (stick it to the man; rock is fun!) and the kids proving that Black isn't a hopeless dreamer who needs to grow up and surrender his dreams of rock and roll stardom. So, the formula is obvious (including the obligatory Battle of the Bands competition at the end), but Black is in top form (though at times he channels the intensity of Sam Kinison's professor from Back to School a little too closely) and Linklater strings together an engaging narrative that never lags. School of Rock is fun, and its heart is in the right place. Fans of Black, '70s hard rock, and feel-good tales involving prepubescent empowerment won't be disappointed.

::: Laurence Station

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March 28, 2004

The Magdalene Sisters
Peter Mullan, UK, 2002
Rating: 3.0
Scottish writer-director Peter Mullan (better known for his acting in such films as Trainspotting and Braveheart) tackles the grim subject matter of Ireland's Magdalene asylums, which held wayward women virtual prisoners and made a fortune off their unpaid laundry-washing labor. Set during the 1960s (though the nun-run institutions existed throughout the 20th century), Sisters follows three girls who embody the run-of-the-mill reasons young women were sent to the "charitable" shelters: one is an unwed mother, one a rape victim who refused to keep quiet about her experience, and one just a flirtatious girl in perceived danger of becoming a fallen woman. The hazard of exploring such depressing and controversial (the Catholic church officially condemned Sisters) subject matter is in allowing pathos to degenerate into bathos -- and that's exactly what happens here. Storylines are telegraphed far in advance (a runaway has her hair boyishly cut as punishment; a fate destined to befall the heroine with the most beautiful tresses), and the cruelty of the nuns and sexually abusive nature of one of the priests are never fleshed out beyond base action, with no consideration for deeper motivation. Yes, we are seeing the world from the eyes of these oppressed women, but such a myopic narrative conceit severely inhibits the larger context of Ireland's views on women during this dark era.

::: Laurence Station

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March 28, 2004

Demonlover
Olivier Assayas, France, 2002
Rating: 3.0
Critic-turned-director Olivier Assayas takes corporations who traffic in sex and violence to task in Demonlover, an art film masquerading as a high tech thriller. Connie Nielsen plays Diane, a ruthless executive who sets the woman in front of her up for a fall so she can take over her biggest deal: distribution rights to the work of a Japanese company that creates three-dimensional adult animation films. Diane is also a mole for a competing company, and quickly finds herself getting in too deep when she stumbles upon a website that grants users' torture fantasies. Assayas is less concerned with telling a traditional story than he is with making those who profit from S&M and other exploitative entertainment suffer for their sins. Thus, Diane ultimately finds herself an unwitting "actress" in other people's twisted desires. The only problem is, we never care about Diane -- or any of the characters. Assayas' critique on society's obsession with the dark side of human nature might have been more effective if he'd bothered to create a single remotely sympathetic character. But Demonlover has none, and its effectiveness is greatly diminished as a result. Many of David Lynch's film's suffer from the same problem. But at least Lynch makes up for it with memorable visuals and quotable dialogue. Assayas' arty, narrative deconstruction as the story unfolds (some might say unravels) proves far less inspiring.

::: Laurence Station

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March 22, 2004

Taking Lives
D.J. Caruso, USA, 2004
Rating: 3.5
Taking Lives is an intriguingly dark suspense thriller staring Angelina Jolie playing an edgier version of characters Ashley Judd has all but turned into an automatic reflex: an FBI agent dispatched from Washington to help the Canadian police track down a serial killer. Ethan Hawke is a witness to one of the killings, and quickly becomes a focal point of the case (not to mention Jolie's obligatory romantic foil). Veteran actress Gena Rowlands plays the concerned mother of the killer (who allegedly steals the identity of his victims) while Kiefer Sutherland's red herring of a character is never fully explained until the end of the film. Such deception on the part of director D.J. Caruso (The Salton Sea, episodes of Smallville) perhaps betrays a lack of trust in John Bokenkamp's script to completely engage the audience until the de rigueur surprise ending. Taking Lives has an amoral darkness akin to David Fincher's Seven -- especially evident during unnerving visits to the killer's various grisly crime scenes. But Caruso does do an excellent job of making us feel like we're there with Jolie as she progressively collects the pieces to the puzzle. If you enjoy thrillers that challenge you to figure out whodunit before the climactic showdown, this is your kind of film, although the ultimate revelation certainly manages to throw everyone, audience and cast members included, for one hell of a loop.

::: Jon J. Barrows

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March 15, 2004

Matchstick Men
Ridley Scott, USA, 2003
Rating: 2.8
The first two-thirds of Matchstick Men seems like a film that doesn't know what it wants to be. Is it a con film, with Nicolas Cage and Sam Rockwell playing two con artists preparing to make the proverbial big score? Or maybe it's a family drama, with Cage's character making contact with a now-teenage daughter -- believably played by non-teen Alison Lohman -- for the first time. Ultimately, Matchstick Men is a con film -- only the con is on the audience. What it actually is, as we discover during the Big Surprise that unfolds in the last fifteen minutes, is a film about getting a second chance at having a family and, if you're a career criminal, going straight and finding peace and contentment by doing so. Unfortunately, as interesting as this conclusion is, the entire premise is built upon tricking the audience until the plot's bait-and-switch can be revealed. Even worse, Matchstick Men tips its hand far too soon: it becomes painfully obvious that a set-up is taking place, thus negating the effectiveness of the existence-justifying Gotcha Ending. Cage, as always, is solid, though his neurotic guilt-trip mannerisms grow a bit tiresome. But we never get to know Sam Rockwell's shady character as well as we should. Ultimately, Ridley Scott seems more interested in clever camera angles and jittery editing techniques than in building a convincing narrative. Too bad David Mamet wasn't available.

::: Laurence Station

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March 01, 2004

Eurotrip
Jeff Schaffer, USA, 2004
Rating: 1.5
The Montecito Picture Company (makers of such accomplished fare as Old School and Road Trip) lowers the lowbrow comedy bar even further with Eurotrip. A student named Scott (Scott Mechlowicz) heads to Europe in hopes of meeting up with German hottie and email pen pal Mieke (Jessica Böhrs). Wisecracking sidekick Cooper (Jacob Pitts) tags along, and the pair eventually meet up with fraternal twins Jenny (Michelle Trachtenberg) and Jamie (Travis Wester) in Paris. As directed by first timer Jeff Schaffer (a contributing writer on the two recent Dr. Seuss adaptations, How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Cat in the Hat), the film delivers obvious European clichés (nude beaches, loose women, rampaging football hooligans) and cheap stabs at too easy-targets (the Pope, Adolf Hitler). What's lacking are likable characters, competent acting, and warmth. There are a pair of genuine laugh-out-loud moments: One, on a train, with Saturday Night Live regular Fred Armisen as an overly affectionate Italian traveler; the other involving Lucy Lawless (of Xena fame) playing a very aggressive dominatrix named Madame Vandersexxx. Only these too-brief performances (sorry, Matt Damon, your cameo was more energetic than inspired) save Eurotrip from being a total waste of time and effort.

::: Laurence Station

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March 01, 2004

In the Cut
Jane Campion, USA, 2003
Rating: 3.0
Jane Campion does her best to de-emphasize the by-the-numbers, noir-crime plot in her adaptation of Susanna Moore's novel In the Cut. That she's ultimately unsuccessful in transcending the trappings of the genre says less about her talent as a director and more about the cardboard-thin structure of Moore's plot. The film, for instance, offers too-obvious red herrings as might-be killers (Kevin Bacon as a disaffected ex-lover; a John Wayne Gacy-obsessed student played by newcomer Sharrieff Pugh) to play off of Meg Ryan's schoolteacher-in-peril heroine. But In the Cut shines brightest when it sticks to an examination of the tricky dynamics of dating life in the big bad city. Ryan's character's relationship with Mark Ruffalo's crudely direct police detective has an oddly externalized sexual energy that is both attractive and repellent to behold. Scenes between Ryan and Jennifer Jason Leigh (as her half-sister) work as well, revealing the inner characters of two women sired by a lothario father and dealing with the emotional baggage (a search for a knight in shining armor in a world of no-accounts). The ending is ultimately too cheap, and dilutes the power of the previously established personal relationships. But In the Cut still engages viewer interest, thanks to Campion's genre-be-damned concerns.

::: Laurence Station

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February 26, 2004

Pieces of April
Peter Hedges, USA, 2003
Rating: 2.7
Peter Hedges has written some solid scripts, from What's Eating Gilbert Grape to his adaptation of About a Boy. Pieces of April, his directorial debut (he also wrote the script), reveals just how big a leap it is from page to screen. Pieces examines a very chaotic Thanksgiving Day. Estranged twenty-one year old daughter April has invited her suburban family to dinner at her home in a rundown tenement on New York's Lower East Side. Her mother, the ironically named Joy (the great Patricia Clarkson), is dying of cancer. Father Jim (a very sturdy Oliver Platt) is desperately trying to hold the family together, while younger teenage siblings Beth (Alison Pill) and Timmy (John Gallagher Jr.) vie for their mother's affection. As the family drives into the city, April struggles to prepare the meal, while her live-in boyfriend Bobby (Derek Luke) ventures out to find a nice suit for the festivities. Hedges knows how to sketch deeply felt characters with subtlety and grace. The problem stems from the assorted variety of supporting characters inhabiting the tenement with April. Each is a broadly drawn caricature rather than a believable person, from the vegan who won't allow April to cook the turkey in her oven to Sean Hayes' turn as a lonely flake desperate for companionship. As such, the seriousness of the conflicted family situation is completely undermined by one-dimensional walking gags that wouldn't qualify for low-rent sitcom duty. There's a genuinely great family drama lurking within this film. Sadly, Hedges tries to invest too much cheap humor into an otherwise cheerless, but potentially emotionally resonant, situation.

::: Laurence Station

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February 22, 2004

Masked and Anonymous
Larry Charles, USA / UK, 2003
Rating: 2.8
Like some warped, pot-smoking cousin to The Blues Brothers, Larry Charles' Masked and Anonymous tells the story of a musician named Jack Fate (Bob Dylan), who's been recently let out of prison and is on his way to perform at a benefit concert. Charles' film is set in an alternate America, which is now a banana republic, rife with conflict and calls for revolution. Throughout, Dylan looks like a man who just wants to play music; indeed, the best moments come when we see Dylan and his touring band ripping through a small fraction of the artist's never-ending catalog. Another musical highlight comes by way of a young girl (Tinashe Kachingwe) turning in an a cappella rendition of "The Times They Are A-Changin'." The muddied plot -- mostly concerning a promoter's (John Goodman) desperate attempt to make money from the benefit (which appears primarily conceived to benefit him) so he can pay off debts to some shady characters threatening him with physical harm -- is little more than the frame for what seems an indulgent home movie (a feeling enhanced by the offhand cameos of a slew of Hollywood stars). Masked and Anonymous is a curious mess, lacking focus and, ultimately, purpose. On the upside, as far as Dylan films go, it's still miles better than Renaldo and Clara and Hearts of Fire.

::: Laurence Station

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February 20, 2004

The Good Thief
Neil Jordan, France / UK / Ireland, 2003
Rating: 3.8
The Good Thief finds Neil Jordan successfully channeling the lighthearted charm of Jean-Pierre Melville's '50s French film noir Bob le Flambeur. Nick Nolte plays Bob, a down-on-his-luck American (a drug addiction, gambling debts) living in Nice. Predictably enough, the film chronicles Bob's last shot at getting clean and making one final big score: assembling a team to heist some very expensive paintings hanging in a Monte Carlo casino. Though these elements are hardly fresh, Jordan approaches the material from a more human than technical angle; the lives of these shady characters are what's most fascinating, not the complexity of their robbery. Nick Nolte is the key, however. The Good Thief is his film, and to the actor's credit he brings a sturdy, been-there-done-that authenticity to his world-weary part. The film's primary drawback is that, despite its gritty setting, there's never any real sense of danger. Nolte's Bob moves through his world with a resigned, what-may-come attitude that's appealing in its understated candor, but it's hardly guaranteed to get one's blood boiling. Perhaps telling the tale of a Bad Thief might have proven a more intriguing choice.

::: Laurence Station

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February 16, 2004

Raising Victor Vargas
Peter Sollett, USA, 2003
Rating: 3.8
Raising Victor Vargas, the full-length debut from Peter Sollett, is an expansion of the writer/director's original short Five Feet High and Rising. Set in Manhattan's Lower East Side, the film follows teenage Victor (Victor Rasuk) and his impoverished family as they experience a series of minor triumphs and travails. The film's most refreshing aspect is Sollett's genuinely realistic window into the lives of these characters. Victor is a wannabe player who tries in vain to hook up with Judy (Judy Marte), while Judy's younger brother, Carlos (Wilfree Vasquez), pursues Victor's half-sister Vicki. (Krystal Rodriguez) with puppy-dog ardor. Meanwhile, Victor's younger brother Nino (Silvestre Rasuk) desperately wants his more experienced sibling to educate him in the ways of love, leaving beleaguered family head and grandmother (Altagracia Guzman) to fret over puberty's disruptive influence over her household. Sollett's capable, affect-free guidance keeps things from spiraling into cheap sitcom fare. Save for its conclusion, which proves a tad too neat, Raising Victor Vargas never wavers in its naturalistic approach, where silences are allowed ample room to breathe and the awkwardness of youth is played out, not just for laughs, but with raw insight and refreshing candor.

::: Laurence Station

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February 11, 2004

Radio
Mike Tollin, USA, 2003
Rating: 3.6
There may be an inspiring story in the true-life tale of Robert James "Radio" Kennedy, but Radio doesn't quite clue us in to what that story may be. Instead, it delivers a pat, heartwarming feel-good movie about a principled small-town high school football coach (Ed Harris in fine stoic form) who takes the mentally challenged Radio under his wing in the South in 1976. Harris's Ed Jones becomes a surrogate father to the shy, silent and disabled youth (played by Cuba Gooding, Jr.) after intervening when he finds the boys on his football team tormenting the troubled loner. Eventually the warm-hearted Radio wins over the school, and the whole town -- save for the banker (Chris Mulkey) who thinks he's a distraction getting in the way of Jones's important job -- taking the school's team to victory. And that, in a nutshell, is the whole movie. Radio lacks essential tension, unless the question of whether Radio will be able to keep hanging out around the school and the team strikes you as an issue of paramount importance. Jones asserts at one point that Radio has something to "teach" the town, presumably about acceptance and tolerance, although no specter of intolerance is ever even raised. Is the banker's attempt to remove Radio from the school rooted in racism, or even just heartlessness toward the developmentally retarded? Who knows? (The fact that he might be placed in an environment better suited for a person of his capabilities never seems to occur to anyone, even the stern-but-fair principal -- a largely wasted Alfre Woodard -- who folds to Jones's whims.) The slight, awkward and heavy-handed script is saved by a slew of capable performances, including Debra Winger as Jones's understanding wife and especially Gooding, whose welcome understatement helps atone for a long list of overacting sins.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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February 9, 2004

Thirteen
Catherine Hardwicke, USA, 2002
Rating: 3.0
Holly Hunter makes the most of her limited role as a too-generous single mother attempting to cope with her teenage daughter Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood), who has just entered teen-dom and is suddenly ready to become a poster child for Girls Gone Wild. Tracy hooks up with the been-there, done that Evie (Nikki Reed), and soon has a pieced tongue and bellybutton, and a serious oral fixation. Veteran production designer/first-time director Catherine Hardwicke succeeds in conveying Tracy's downward spiral via a subtly bright-to-monochromatic color scheme, but goes overboard with "you-are-there" herky-jerky camera movements as the two girls run through L.A. like extras in a jeans ad. Nikki Reed co-wrote the screenplay with Hardwicke, and there are some genuinely felt moments of emotional pain and frustration as the tricky threshold from puberty to young adulthood is crossed. But mostly Thirteen offers one-dimensional characters screaming and cursing at one another, with not enough underlying development to justify their actions.

::: Laurence Station

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February 9, 2004

Cabin Fever
Eli Roth, USA, 2002
Rating: 2.8
The surprise hit of the 2002 Toronto Film Festival, Eli Roth's Cabin Fever never settles on what kind of movie it wants to be. Is it an homage to the Evil Dead flicks, with college-aged kids venturing to a remote cabin in the woods? Perhaps the flesh-eating disease afflicting the characters represents some environmental commentary on man getting his comeuppance from nature? But what about the third-rate, Deliverance-style hicks tormenting the kids? How do they fit into Roth's patchwork tale? Rather than stick with a message film, or a send-up/love letter to '70s-'80s splatter-flicks, Roth gives us too much (including an inexplicable performance by a martial arts kid whose only line is "Pancakes!"). Audacious silliness in the name of art has already been cornered by David Lynch. Cabin Fever unspools as if Roth knows it's the only film he'll ever make, and he wants to make damn sure he puts everything he has into it. Hopefully, this isn't the last we'll hear from Roth: there's definite talent here, giving hope that perhaps his next work will include a little more focus.

::: Laurence Station

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February 9, 2004

Bruce Almighty
Tom Shadyac, USA, 2003
Rating: 1.9
Jim Carrey with God-like powers. Say no more; this one practically writes itself. Whoops -- so much for that theory. If you've seen the film's ads (with Carrey trying out all of his God-like powers), you don't have to waste time or money on the film itself. Those brief snippets bare not only the highlight reel, they're the only things saving this 90-minute train wreck from an even lower rating. Morgan Freeman plays the Almighty, and for some bizarre reason chooses to let Carrey's second-rate Buffalo newsman wield some divine power. Oh, wait, there is a reason: Carrey must be taught a lesson. Carrey, of course, selfishly uses his gifts to further his career, increase his girlfriend's cup size (a wasted Jennifer Aniston as Grace. Get it?), and cause general mayhem by granting the prayers of everyone in the world. Sure enough -- yawn -- Carrey learns his lesson and is a better man for it. The audience, however, is utterly damned.

::: Laurence Station

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February 9, 2004

The Secret Lives of Dentists
Alan Rudolph, USA, 2002
Rating: 3.7
In adapting Jane Smiley's novella The Age of Grief, veteran director Alan (Choose Me) Rudolph does a good job of examining a marriage on the brink of disaster. David and Dana Hurst (Campbell Scott and Hope Davis) are successful dentists who share a practice and are the parents of three young daughters. Life is good. Or at least that's what David thinks -- and this is undeniably David's movie -- until an irascible patient named Slater (Denis Leary) gets inside David's head, planting doubts about Dana's fidelity. Rather than have Leary voice David's dark, subconscious thoughts, we get Leary physically standing next to David, barking out the brutal truth about what Dana's up to when she goes on her two-hour errands. David is too passive, however, to confront her, simply hoping she'll return to him after this wild phase has passed. Leary is overkill, but Scott and Davis are pitch-perfect as a settled married couple too complacent in their affection and expectations of one another. As an examination of the "impossibility of marriage," Dentists succeeds in capturing the rhythms and nuances of daily life. It's this, rather than the obnoxious, one-note Leary, that makes the strongest impact.

::: Laurence Station

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February 2, 2004

Girl with a Pearl Earring
Peter Webber, Luxembourg / UK, 2003
Rating: 3.5
Peter Webber's Girl with a Pearl Earring is gorgeously filmed (take a bow, Eduardo Serra), possesses a strong sense of place and historical verisimilitude (it takes place in Delft, Holland, 1665), and deals with a famous, enigmatic work of art (the titular painting by Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer) just begging for a fictionalized back-story. Unfortunately, said story is limited to the subject of the painting, Griet (Scarlett Johansson), a maid in Vermeer's household. The entire film is told from her perspective, a decision that seriously occludes what can be known about the world Griet inhabits. Being a maid severely undermines Griet's access to essential information, such as the tricky dynamics in Vermeer's relationships with his wealthy patron Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson) and perpetually pregnant wife Catharina (Essie Davis). Because of Griet's lowly station, we never get to know these key players in the drama. Thus, by the end of the film, we're left with a handsomely mounted guess as to who the girl with a pearl earring was, but still know very little about the passions, motivations and intrigues that went on during the time she spent washing dishes and cleaning windows in the celebrated painter's household. Technically, Pearl Earring is worthy of the canvas it celebrates. Too bad it's just as flatly two-dimensional in its character studies.

::: Laurence Station

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February 2, 2004

Capturing the Friedmans
Andrew Jarecki, USA, 2003
Rating: 3.8
In the late 1980s, Arnold Friedman (a Great Neck, NY, schoolteacher) and his teen-aged son Jesse both plead guilty to child molestation charges, and were each sentenced to prison. What makes Capturing the Friedmans worthy of more than an American Justice episode is the manner in which the Friedman family recorded this difficult time via video footage. As Andrew Jarecki's documentary reveals, the Friedmans recorded key moments as a matter of course, from Arnold's courtship of wife Elaine decades earlier to the birth and raising of their three sons (of which Jesse is the youngest). Given the voluminous access to the family's personal video archives, it would seem that the truth would be readily evident somewhere within the thousands of hours of footage. But we never really get to know the Friedmans. What we do see is a family in denial, baffled as to how a father and son could be wrongly accused of crimes that couldn't possibly have happened in their own home. And we never truly learn what did or did not happen in the Friedman's basement, where Arnold taught computer classes to select students at night. We do get contradictory stories from those who were there, and a total lack of physical evidence. And yet, both Arnold and Jesse took plea deals, both claiming they would have been convicted otherwise. As a study of denial and the illusory nature of truth, Capturing the Friedmans is compelling. Just don't expect it to provide any concrete answers.

::: Laurence Station

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January 30, 2004

Whale Rider
Niki Caro, New Zealand, 2002
Rating: 3.0
Whale Rider is an utterly predictable, tediously paced feel-good drama that somehow manages to entertain despite the obviousness of its plot contrivances and too-easy resolutions. Spirited Keisha Castle-Hughes deserves most of the credit for keeping the film from wallowing in movie-of-the-weak torpor. Her preteen Pai is a girl whose bloodlines can be traced back to the Whangara Maoris' mythical ancestor Paikea. Unfortunately, the male-dominated tribe has no room in its traditions for a female leader. Making matters worse, Pai was a twin whose brother (and mother) died at birth. Her father, shirking his responsibilities to family and ancient custom, has fled New Zealand for Europe, where he wants to make it as an artist. Pai is thus forced to try and persuade her extremely set-in-his-ways grandfather Koro (Rawiri Paratene) that she has the right stuff to lead the tribe. You don't need to be blessed with Kreskin-like insight to see how this one's going to turn out. To director Caro's credit, Whale Rider never lets melodrama overwhelm its story, and the effortlessly natural performance from her lead certainly helps. But Whale Rider fails to generate any real tension as it lumbers to its obvious, by-the-numbers conclusion.

::: Laurence Station

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January 25, 2004

Seabiscuit
Gary Ross, USA, 2003
Rating: 3.5
Seabiscuit is a good old-fashioned, ultra-sappy Hollywood tale. It makes no bones about what it wants to be. From David McCullough's homespun narration to director/screenwriter Gary (Pleasantville) Ross' use of warm, autumnal colors and surface deep characterizations, Seabiscuit avoids any kind of a personal artistic statement in favor of populist fanfare at its most engaging. Based on actual events, Seabiscuit recounts the tale of its titular, too-small racehorse and his too-tall jockey (Tobey Maguire) during the downtrodden days of the Great Depression. Ross lays all of his cards on the table: Thus, through the avuncular McCullough, we learn how Seabiscuit is an underdog, sort of like, well, all those out-of-work Americans! And by golly, if Seabiscuit can triumph on the track over bigger, stronger horses, why can't the country rebound from its current plight? Ross does take his time getting to the actual star of the picture, spending the first 45 minutes setting up the backstory of the owner (Jeff Bridges) who's lost a son, the gentle trainer (Chris Cooper) who's lost the Old West due to encroaching modernization, and of course hard-knock life jockey Red Pollard, who's lost just about everything a man can lose. True, some of this material could have been condensed. But to Ross' credit, and thanks to a strong cast and truly thrilling race sequences, Seabiscuit is never dull. It's not a great film, but it certainly accomplishes what it sets out to do: Entertain its melting-pot demographic of an audience. F.D.R. would be proud.

::: Laurence Station

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January 25, 2004

Owning Mahowny
Richard Kwietniowski, USA / Canada / UK, 2003
Rating: 2.9
Brian Mahowny spent the early '80s taking advantage of his middle-management position with a large Canadian bank to bankroll a gambling habit that eventually spiraled insanely out of control. In telling Mahowny's cautionary tale, director Richard Kwietniowski makes a very smart move by casting Philip Seymour Hoffman as his lead. Hoffman brings the right amount of understated intensity and quiet desperation to a part that might have been badly overplayed by a less-accomplished actor. Owning Mahowny is a great showcase for Hoffman's brilliantly minimalist technique; he may do more with less than any screen actor working today. The film itself works best when Mahowny is gambling (and usually losing very badly). Details of his personal and work life prove far less engaging, primarily thanks to the massively underwritten part Minnie Driver gets saddled with as his teller girlfriend, and a general lack of dramatic momentum to be mined within staid banking boardrooms. As a study of addiction, however, Mahowny is uncomfortably effective, especially as we watch our subject dig himself, with excruciating inevitability, into a hole from which there can be no safe recovery.

::: Laurence Station

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January 23, 2004

The Cooler
Wayne Kramer, USA, 2003
Rating: 2.5
Writer/director Wayne Kramer's debut feature suffers from a schizophrenic lack of focus. On one hand we have a fable (complete with one-dimensional, rigidly drawn characters) that reveals how the old Las Vegas of Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack is going the way of, well, Frank Sinatra and the rest of the original Rat Pack, in favor of a new, Disney-esque, candy-colored, family fun approach. On the other hand we have a very realistic (not to mention sexually frank) love affair between perennial Vegas loser Bernie Lootz (William H. Macy) and cocktail waitress Natalie (Maria Bello). The collision between these two extremely disparate plot threads dooms The Cooler from the outset. Old school casino boss Shelly (Alec Baldwin) resists modernization attempts by ultra-modern B-school grad Larry (Ron Livingston). Bernie (who's paying off debts to Shelly by transferring his legendary bad luck to hot gamblers by brushing up against them, or simply lurking near their tables) falls for Natalie and suddenly sees his luck improve, which is, of course, bad for Shelly's business. Kramer offers no fresh insights into gambling addiction, or stunning revelations about the entertainment makeover sweeping Sin City. Instead, he spools out an obvious, by-the-numbers plot, with an ending bereft of any impact thanks to a too-convenient plot twist. The Cooler saddles a High Roller cast with a crappy hand, and the hapless audience is the left holding the bag.

::: Laurence Station

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January 23, 2004

Spellbound
Jeff Blitz, USA, 2002
Rating: 3.7
The annual Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., is the goal of any youngster vying to be known as the best speller in the United States. Jeff Blitz's documentary follows eight kids during the 1999 competition, from winning their regional contests to the big showdown in the nation's capital. One might presume there's not much drama to be mined from a group of bright kids struggling to spell words that no one ever uses (save for in spelling bee competitions like this one). But Spellbound is compelling, and it is entertaining to watch Blitz's eight hopefuls work through the extremely difficult elimination rounds. There are points where Blitz devotes a little too much attention to the quirkiness of his subjects (and especially their families), and one can't help but draw comparisons to the mockumentary comedies of Christopher Guest. But by the end, when it's down to the last two contestants (out of an initial 249), Spellbound more than delivers the dramatic goods.

::: Laurence Station

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January 20, 2004

Swimming Pool
François Ozon, France, 2003
Rating: 2.7
Yes, it seems inevitable that every film about a mystery writer must have a murder and/or mystery in it. But wouldn't it be refreshing to go in a different direction for a change? Refusing to buck the cliché, in Swimming Pool François Ozon has stereotypically stuffy, 50-ish English mystery writer Sarah Morton (the great Charlotte Rampling) butt heads with equally stereotypical Julie (Ludivine Sagnier), a young, very sexually liberated Frenchwoman. Sarah leaves congested London for some fresh air at a country home in France owned by her publisher. When the publisher's daughter, Julie, shows up unexpectedly, tensions arise. Sarah doesn't appreciate Julie's exhaustively promiscuous lifestyle, while Julie considers Sarah a stuck-up prude. Almost sounds like a sitcom pilot for the Playboy channel, doesn't it? Ah, but we have a crime fiction novelist as our lead, so, naturally, something nefarious must happen. Sinister things occur, the two women come to an understanding, and a book, indeed, does get written. And, yes, its plot mirrors the events at the country house. Swimming Pool would have proven far more engaging had Ozon trusted the tensions inherent in his characters' personal lives rather than follow the timeworn template and contrive an extraneously bloody drama for them. Of course, by film's end the entire veracity of the story is thrown into question (is it really just an exploration into the creative mind or something even more mind-bending and deep?) and that in itself is yet another cliché. Pass.

::: Laurence Station

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January 20, 2004

Northfork
Mark Polish, Michael Polish, USA, 2003
Rating: 2.9
Set in 1955, Northfork examines the last few days of a small town. A hydroelectric dam has been constructed and Northfork, Montana, is doomed to be flooded out of existence. Most of the citizens have left, save for a few eccentric stragglers, and it's up to a group of gray flannel-suited men from the power company to convince these people to move out. Co-directors the Polish brothers do a nice job of conveying the barrenness of the land, and artfully express the impending sense of doom hanging over the town. Unfortunately, the Biblical overtones -- from a dying boy's imaginary encounter with a group of wandering angels to a man who's built an ark in anticipation of the coming flood -- weigh so heavily over the proceedings as to cause a stumble into parody. Rather than make a straightforward tale of progress overwhelming tradition, the Brothers opt to pile on heavy meaning with a capital M. James Woods plays one of the power company's relocation agents with a conflicted mix of wry humor and grim obligation to the task at hand. That uneasy combination -- of quirky one-liners and a desire to examine such monumental issues of faith and death -- never quite gels, leaving Northfork in narrative limbo, neither overly entertaining nor particularly profound.

::: Laurence Station

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January 16, 2004

Holes
Andrew Davis, USA, 2003
Rating: 2.8
With Louis Sachar's adaptation of his Newberry Award-winning novel, faithfulness to the source material gets carried a little too far. Which is to say that Holes, the movie, falls into the same structural pitfalls as the book. Everything fits together too perfectly in this tale of a young man, Stanley Yelnats (Shia LaBeouf), falsely accused of theft and sentenced to Camp Green Lake, a juvenile correctional facility located in the middle of the desert. The punishment at Camp Green Lake consists of digging one hole each day. Though the exercise is supposed to build character, it's evident early on that the warden (Sigourney Weaver) and her pair of brain (Tim Blake Nelson) and brawn (Jon Voight) henchmen have a very specific reason for making their young charges dig pits in the hot sun. Whether buried treasure will be found proves less important than whether young Stanley will solve the riddle of a family curse (bad luck) and learn to be a little more proactive in his life. Despite solid direction from Andrew Davis and assured performances from the young and veteran cast members, what Holes ultimately lacks is tension. It's entertaining, but there's never any sense that something important is at stake, or that lives hang in the balance. Contrivances pile up and resolutions are apparent well before their intended arrival time. The biggest problem with Holes, then, is that its plot is simply too airtight.

::: Laurence Station

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January 16, 2004

Paycheck
John Woo, USA, 2003
Rating: 2.5
Philip K. Dick was an author driven more by ideas than plot or character development. Be it paranoia over government involvement in the lives of its citizens or the dark future awaiting humanity, Dick was always faithful to an idiosyncratic, dystopian vision. So it's a shame that director John Woo's take on Dick's examination of memory erasure is nothing more than a dumbed-down video game. Basically, we follow Michael Jennings (Ben Affleck), an engineer given to hiring himself out for top-secret projects and then allowing his mind to be erased, as he attempts to reconstruct the past three years of his life. Jennings does this using clues he mailed himself before having his memory wiped. Each item (coin, lighter, etc) plays like a piece in an adventure game where new levels are accessed only if you use the proper object at the proper time, and Jennings does just that with very little hardship or suspense. Paycheck is a competent, eminently watchable action thriller, but it renders Dick's original story and intellect completely unrecognizable.

::: Laurence Station

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