Angels & Demons

Angels & Demons
Dan Brown is often, and incorrectly, described as a "beach read" author the kind of writer who pumps out high-concept, low-brow adventures that can easily pass the six-hour flight between JFK and LAX. James Patterson, for example, is the king of this kind of storytelling, spinning tales of suspense with a dash of character and a pinch of mystery, fast enough and smart enough to be engaging without necessarily being challenging. And so, operating under the guise of your Dean Koontz's and Susan Kay's, Brown gets something of a pass in the world of housewives, Hollywood, and East Coast/West Coast commuters. Except that, when you look closer when you look at the history and themes and ideas behind his populist yarns a question emerges:

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Le scaphandre et le papillon

Le scaphandre et le papillon
By Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune Movie Critic

Even an excellent year in film yields a limited number of efforts strong and idiosyncratic enough to be called masterworks, and to appear effortless. We have one in "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly." It is wonderful: a rhapsodic adaptation of a memoir, a visual marvel that wraps its subject in screen romanticism without romanticizing his affliction. It left me feeling euphoric. And without making conventional movie-ish pleas for our sympathy, director Julian Schnabel has met his subject, French fashion-magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby - egotistical hedonist, allow me to introduce you to egotistical hedonist - on his own terms.

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Great Debaters

Great Debaters
It's one thing to tell people about the wounds in the fabric of this country that the Civil Rights movement attempted to repair; it's another thing to show them. Unfortunately, too many films made about racism during the first two-thirds of the 20th Century in America lose power on two grounds: a tendency to sermonize and an unwillingness to show the true ugliness of what went on. Neither of those faults plagues The Great Debaters, Denzel Washington's chronicle of the rise of a debating team from a small black Texas college during the 1930s. By highlighting themes of individual achievement against a daunting backdrop, Washington provides heroes who can be admired irrespective of their race, even though skin color is a huge part of the story. More significantly, he does not shy from showing the darkest aspects of human nature. A scene in The Great Debaters is designed to shock and horrify, and it succeeds in doing so. But it is in no way exploitative; it is necessary to the understanding of the characters and their motivations, and to coming to grips with elements of the social fabric that are too often softened for mass consumption. Washington makes it evident that racism can be more ghastly than calling someone degrading names.

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First Sunday

First Sunday
Based purely on the misleading trailers that herald First Sunday's arrival in theaters, one might be forgiven thinking this is another dumb comedy about individuals characterized by a shortage of brain cells. However, while the film occasionally falls into sit-com traps, it aspires to be more than the marketing clips lead us to believe. This is the directorial debut of noted playwright David E. Talbert, and it mixes comedy with drama to generally good effect. There are awkward moments and the ending feels excessively contrived, but there are things to like about First Sunday, most of which are not hinted at in the trailers and TV commercials.

In a way, it's surprising that the movie was cast adrift into the January wasteland rather than being released before Christmas. The themes of redemption and family that highlight First Sunday are perfect December fare. (One assumes the presence of two African American-centered holiday movies created fears of flooding the marketplace.) At any rate, while First Sunday isn't a home run, it makes more solid contact than what one normally expects from this time of the year.

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Hollow Man

Hollow Man
It is my fondest dream that some day filmmakers will realize that great visual effects do not by themselves equate to a worthwhile motion picture experience. However, until that state of cinematic utopia arrives, audiences will be forced to endure movies like Hollow Man - masterpieces of visual ingenuity that are sadly lacking in many other creative categories. And, while the special effects in Hollow Man are eye-popping, the film is hamstrung by two major flaws - bad acting and an initially smart script that inexplicably devolves into derivative action and pointless violence.

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Look at Me (Comme une image)

Look at Me (Comme une image)
At first glance, Look at Me appears to be a standard French drama about a dysfunctional family. All the elements are in place: the domineering father whose celebrity status has made him indifferent to the needs of his family, the meek trophy wife, the overweight daughter who craves her father's unavailable affection, and several outsiders who find themselves drawn into an unstable orbit around these people. Yet first glances can be deceiving. Yes, this is a dysfunctional family drama, but it's also something more profound. Look at Me takes aim at the common human character flaw of self-absorption and examines how we no longer seem to communicate with one another. And, as is typical of her work, director Agnès Jaoui (she co-wrote Un Air de Famille for director Cedric Kapisch) gives us plenty of smart dialogue and accents her drama with black humor.

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Your Friends and Neighbors

Your Friends and Neighbors
For his second feature, director Neil LaBute ventures across a domestic landscape that is no less dark than the world of corporate backstabbing he visited with In the Company of Men. Those looking for something lightweight or feel-good need not bother with Your Friends and Neighbors, a slow-moving, often disturbing look at miscommunication between the sexes, dysfunctional personalities, and the disintegration of relationships. The film contains enough humor to qualify it as a black comedy, but, underneath all the dialogue, Your Friends and Neighbors offers a bleak message about life and love in an era of growing emotional isolation.

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Alice and Martin

Alice and Martin
When it comes to movies about dysfunctional family relationships and emotionally damaged individuals, few active filmmakers do a better job than veteran French director André Techiné (whose films, especially Wild Reeds, have been modest art-house successes in this country). As in his 1993 masterpiece, Ma Saison Preferee, Techiné uses the canvas of his latest picture, Alice and Martin, to explore the delicate and uncertain balance of the relationships between lovers, siblings, and parents and children in an unstable family environment. The film is also about the price of obsessive love and the way in which secrets and their associated guilt have the capacity to poison everything they touch.

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Halloween 6: The Curse of Michael Myers

Halloween 6: The Curse of Michael Myers
Before Jason and Freddy, there was Michael Myers, wearing his white-painted Captain Kirk mask and stalking Jamie Lee Curtis. Michael made his debut in John Carpenter's 1978 horror classic, Halloween, possibly the best scare movie to come along in the last twenty-five years. It set a standard that nothing since has come close to equaling -- not five Halloween sequels or numerous rip-offs. Now, with the release of the sixth (and hopefully final) movie to bear the Halloween moniker, we see how far the mighty have fallen.

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Flight of the Phoenix

Flight of the Phoenix
The 1965 version of Flight of the Phoenix is not a great movie, but it has a lot more going for it than the second-rate 2004 re-imagination. Despite using the same premise and numerous identical plot points, this remake replaces suspense with boredom and witty dialogue with lame lines any self-respecting actor should be embarrassed to utter. The only thing better about the 2004 Flight of the Phoenix are the special effects, and there are times when the computer-generated imagery isn't convincing.

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Deadliest Warrior - Season One

Deadliest Warrior - Season One
Your average episode takes us into the top secret warehouse of history's fight club, where Deadliest Warrior's experts take a sampling of weaponry and skills and test them on fun things like wooden targets, dead animals, and ballistics dummies full of red ooze and accurate recreations of human insides. Your average episode consists of colourful 'real life experts' testing nasty looking blades, bows, guns and explosives while the show's crew looks on in awe. All of the numbers are crunched and boiled into a computer program which then decides who of our historical pugilists is the champ. Blood soaked re-enactments fill the time between talking heads. These affairs are typically cheesy and heavy handed, with tons of CG blood and stage-play level costuming. Each episode ends with a knock-down, drag-out battle between the subjects, where each shows off the respective tools and talents demoed to the bloodthirsty audience at home for the previous 40 minutes. There's definitely some crazy stuff on display, and for the most part, the show really goes a long way towards showing just HOW capable of making human soup some of these nasty implements of war really were.

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Private Benjamin

Private Benjamin
When her husband dies in the wedding night Judy decides to join the army. What looks like a bad decision at first, turns out not so bad at all. That is, until her superior makes sexual advances. She is transferred to NATO headquarters in Europe and (re)meets the Frenchman Henri. Judy and Henri decide to marry, but will they ?

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Fortress

Fortress
Fortress explores a shocking concept which shows how easily a borderline between a victim and an attacker can be crossed. The children and the teacher, calm and peaceful by nature, when driven beyond their limits by the kidnappers, eventually respond with a cruelty and fury extending that of their oppressors.

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Adventures of Johnny Tao

Adventures of Johnny Tao
Johnny Dow struggles to make a living at his small town gas station by charging motorists to see the electric guitar used by his late father a one-hit, rock and roll wonder. Legend has it the guitar was carved in the shape of a dragons head and made in part from an ancient spear his father found in the crater of a shooting star. When Johnnys friend Eddie stumbles upon the other half of the spear he releases an ancient demon hungry for power and destruction. Mika a beautiful Chinese warrior who holds the secret to fighting Eddie and his army of kung fu, sugar-craving warriors reveals to Johnny that the only way to stop the evil spirit is to use the first half of the spear - the dragon on Johnnys guitar! Together Johnny and Mika set out to fight Eddie and his army, reunite the two halves of the spear, restore peace to the town and - of course - save the world!

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Flash Point

Flash Point
Ma Jun, a cop known for dispensing justice during arrests, teams with Hua Sheng, whos undercover, to try to bring down three merciless Vietnamese brothers running a smuggling ring in the months before the mainlands takeover of Hong Kong. The eldest, Xian Wei Cha (called Zah), is arrested in an operation that exposes Sheng and almost gets him killed. His girlfriend, Qiu Di, whos been unaware of Shengs profession, wants to see him quit. Jun pursues the gang tirelessly, sometimes ignoring police protocols. Zahs trial approaches, witnesses are in danger, and a showdown is inevitable.

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Moonlight Serenade

Moonlight Serenade
Nate (Alec Newman) is a successful financial manager by day and a closet musician by night. One evening he hears a beautiful voice outside his apartment window accompanying his piano playing. The mysterious voice turns out to be the coat check girl, Chloe (Amy Adams), from the local jazz club. Chloe strikes a deal with Nate to perform with her at the club. Their chemistry is undeniable and with every song they play, the closer they become.

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