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Moon: 2001 brought to 2009

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I am finally catching up on the last of my backlog of movie reviews, which means you shouldn't have any further reviews of something I watched weeks, or like this one, months ago.  From the dim pages of history, here's what I remember about Moon.

Moon is a great film, and hearkens back to the time when science fiction films asked questions and used extensive social commentary.  Moon is also a wonderful experiment in film techniques.  Sam Rockwell is the only person on the space station, and he has to carry the movie over for the entire film.  Kevin Spacey voices the computer helper, and you see a few other actors through a video panel, but mostly the movie is Rockwell's.  No crutches for him here.

It's pretty clear that Moon is meant to reference 2001: A Space Oddyssey.  I don't like 2001 much, as I found it mostly ponderous and boring, as well as fundamentally implausible.  The concept of an AI spinning out of our control is pretty hackneyed, and shows a lack of real understanding of what AIs are fundamentally like.  Moon uses many of the techniques of 2001, such as the claustrophobic shots, the heavy use of white, an emphasis on the emptiness and loneliness of space, as well as the somewhat unnatural interaction with an AI.  However, where 2001 paints a story that I find difficult to believe, Moon spins a much more realistic, and thus very very creepy vision of what really could happen in the future.  Again, I don't want to give away everything, but the twists in this movie are much more believable than a rogue AI in the manner of HAL.

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Sunshine: Sans lollipops and rainbows

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Sunshine is intensely frustrating.  There's so much going for it.  It's got a great director (Danny Boyle) and it's high science fiction.  But, oh man is it disappointing.  It's that particular brand of disappointing that means that I have to rail against it with all kinds of spoilers.  So, follow the break if you want to read the full review.

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Wall Street: Charlie Sheen's not the crazy one here

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Charlie Sheen is crazy, which I'm sure most people are well familiar with by now.  In honor of one of the greatest men of our generation (well, really the last generation, not so much mine), a couple friends and I decided to look up on Netflix just what we could stream that would refamiliarize us with this pillar of Western Civilization.  The choices were Hot Shots Part Deux or Wall Street.  This is how careers get made, people.

Wall Street is a movie that's gotten a lot of reinvigorated interest recently, as Hollywood recently exhumed Michael Douglas to make a sequel to one of the movies that was a pillar of 1980s materialism.  I haven't seen the sequel yet, although word on the street seems to be that it's passable to good.

This movie is about the source material, the real thing, bona-fide first-string movie that follows Charlie Sheen as Bud Fox, a Wall Street trader who is not doing so well, and comes upon a stock tip that he decides to parley into a contact with Gordon Gekko (Douglas) who teaches Sheen the basic principles of Wall Street.

  • Money is good.
  • No seriously, it's better than people.
  • Like, way better.

Good thing that Wall Street's not like that anymore, huh?  It sure is a good thing that Reaganomics pulled us into this trickle-down economy which has seen so much of the wealth in this country spreading out from the richest few to the poorer many.  And that our continuing to follow those principles through the last 30 years has put us in a better place.

I should get back to the film, though.  I can write another entry about the soul-crushing plutocracy in which our country is mired another time.  Oliver Stone doesn't usually bother me.  I understand that he's often somewhat reviled, and sometimes he makes me roll my eyes, but for the most part, I find his style to be pretty crisp, but several shots in this movie are clumsy and heavy-handed.  Stone uses the same lighting effect to throw his characters into darkness several times, as if the Shakespearean-style plot was not obvious enough for anybody to follow.  It's like he's saying "Look at how dark their souls are, people!"  And you can instantly tell the deportment of Charlie Sheen based on how his hair is slicked into place.  His hair is a direct analog for just how in control Sheen is right now.  Slicked back and perfect = Sheen is at the top of his game, and this scene is about him controlling the action.  A few loose strands here and there = some small amount of conflict, look for Sheen being taught the ropes or otherwise being slightly out of his element.  Wildly dissheveled = shit, you better pay attention because this scene is going to have majorly bad implications for Sheen.

I should take a moment to talk about Douglas, whom I normally don't care for, but who does a good job as Gordon Gekko in this movie.  Sure, he plays a flat Shylock character, out to screw anybody for a buck, but he does a good job at it.  He has most of the best lines in the movie, and the movie is about Douglas playing the Lucifer on Sheen's shoulder, a role which suits him.  Better than most movies, Douglas manages to get some genuine emotion into the character. 

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Never Say Never: Why I Cried During the Justin Bieber Movie

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So, Tara is a big Justin Bieber fan.  I've had a lot of people ask me for more information, and I can't really explain why.  Tara has a conspicuous history of adoring pop stars of many varieties.  All I can offer in the way of an explanation is that Tara read a New Yorker article on Justin Bieber sometime last year, and her view started shifting.  The article (which is excellent, by the way) transforms the idol into a real teenager, complete with social anxiety, sometimes disaffected behavior, and enormous pressures on him to succeed.  It's a great look into the Bieber machine, and it humanized the little squirt enough for Tara to really start looking up videos.

Flash forward six months, and Tara has hardcore Bieber fever.  What started out as a few videos has ballooned into an obsession that teenage fans would be proud of.  I... well, I still don't really understand it, but I humor it occasionally.  And the humoring part happened to take the form of me going with Tara and a few other friends to the Bieber's new movie, the one directed by John Chu, a.k.a. the guy who made the first dance movie that didn't mostly make me want to throw up .  Most of the other people we went had a relationship to Bieber that was similar to mine, sort of a bemused wonder at the popularity, but not really a strong feeling one way or the other towards him.

We ended up having the theater to ourselves.  I guess there aren't too many Bieber fans out there to see the second (third?) cut of his movie in theaters on something like week 5 on the Sunday late show.  Or maybe it was past all their bedtimes.

The movie is surprisingly fascinating, more for what it says implicitly than for what it says explicitly.  There's a ridiculous machine behind this kid.  He has his style consultant, his voice coach, his agent, his backup dancers and band, and hordes of other staffers than make up his retinue.  There's a lot of money and effort going into the Bieber machine.  Of course, his job as the talent is to stay out of it as much as possible, sort of coast along the crest of his popularity and hope not to get too rudely thrown onto land when his popularity wanes.  And the kid makes it look effortless.  Bieber is the classic right-kid-right-time property that makes agents look good.  He's plugged into his audience directly through Twitter, and can effortlessly tweet what he's thinking without saying too much.  He's somehow able to buck the enormous machine, and humanize himself despite efforts to sanitize him.  Of course, the very machine he's subverting still wants him to appear genuine, and a certain amount of bucking against that very same machine can still accomplish just what the machine wants.  We may get this more authentic Bieber out of the first layer of the machine, but who's to say if this is really just a Russian-doll-style puzzle that sees us pull smaller publicity machines out of larger ones?  Is there really a substantial core there, and do we have any real chance of seeing it, or is Bieber so sanitized and filtered at this point that we'll never get a glimpse?  

Anyway, I told you that I cried during the Justin movie, and this is where I tell you why, and you get upset at me for making you read a whole blog entry only to mislead you at the end.  I don't usually have an issue with 3D movies, but for whatever reason, this one was driving my poor little eyes crazy.  I was wiping away eyestrain-tears consistently through the movie.  I think this was mostly due to being fatigued at the end of a long weekend and not blinking enough, but I certainly don't think the movie's quick cutting, unsteady camera, and over-the-top stage effects helped the matter.  I'll have to keep an eye out to see if this stuff happens to me during the next 3D movie I see, and if it is, I'm sure you'll be just as frustrated when I mislead you about crying at that one too.

So, um, probably you don't need to see this movie.  It's not bad, but it's probably not of enough interest to you to see.  If you're interested, give it a shot, otherwise, save your money and find something else that interests you.

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Traitor: I'll watch anything with Don Cheadle in it

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I love Don Cheadle.  Please don't let the following poor-quality of this dinosaur-era, pre-YouTube spot fool you.  Watch and be amazed.

 

Didn't that feel good?  That's Cheadle magic, baby.  And, I knew Traitor wasn't supposed to be that good, but I also knew that Don Cheadle.  You may have thought that there needed to be an end to that sentence, but really any sentence can Don Cheadle.

Traitor is a terrorism movie that has Don Cheadle playing a terrorist, only he's not, only he is, only he's not.  It's an interesting enough script, and Guy Pearce playing the cop who's job it is to track him down.  Really, the movie can't quite make up its mind what it is.  It starts out as a classic cop vs. bad guy drama, then morphs into a mystery thriller, and finishes as a morality drama.  It's certainly ambitious, I'll give it that.  But I think it should have picked one, and stuck with it.  The failure of the movie is certainly not due to Don Cheadle.  It's really not a bad movie, it's just not all that great.  If you Don Cheadle, then you should see this movie, but if you wish I would have gotten over that joke in the last paragraph, than you can afford to give this one a miss.

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Cool Hand Luke: An Icon's Icon

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From the overdue review shelf comes a summary of Cool Hand Luke, the old Paul Newman film.  My resolution, since starting this blog, is to review every single thing I watch, and there was a point at which I was watching too many movies and not getting a chance to write about all of them.  So, now that I'm caught up on my current stuff, I have a couple of backlogged entries to take care of.  Some of my opinions of the film, then, are going to be a bit more mellowed, a bit less emphatic than they were immediately after watching the movie.

This was my second time watching Cool Hand Luke.  Tara had never seen anything with Paul Newman in it, which I thought was a real shame.  I'm not the biggest Paul Newman fan, but I do find his movies approachable, and I think he's never better than when he plays Luke, the tortured free-spirit prison inmate.  It's an excellent examination of what happens when a free spirit encounters a society from which there is no escape.  This is a classic prison movie, and movies like The Shawshank Redemption owe an awful lot to this one.  There's so many references in pop culture to this movie, that it's one of those movies that makes you go "Oh, so THAT'S what that's from."  It's a great blend of classic influential movie, entertainment, and commentary.  I would recommend this movie to anyone.  It's got something for everybody.

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Cannibal! The Musical: The Review

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So, after hearing some scuttlebutt about Cannibal! The Musical, including that it had been made into a stage production, I thought I would give it a try.  Black comedy appeals to me, and Trey Parker does have some absolutely hilarious moments, after all.

Unfortunately, the musical has a very sophomoric quality to it.  Sure, Trey Parker does get sophomoric frequently, but that's mostly with his humor, as opposed to his production quality.  The whole film is a send-up of the musical genre, particularly frontier musicals like Oklahoma!, but it veers often from winkingly humorous mocking to simply amateurish shooting and acting. 

Before you get up in arms, I understand that's not completely fair.  This was filmed on what is was clearly an extremely limited budget, and was a project for Parker at film school.  Such situations rarely spawn masterpieces.  But the film is very obviously a first film, a project that was completed while the director was still finding his voice.  Who knows, maybe the addition of Matt Stone made all the difference for Parker.  Maybe he just got better as he practiced.  Probably he learned a lot from this movie, and applied it to his other work.  It just smacks of amateurish material, exactly the kind of thing when you're making an assignment.  You know, the "I made this because I had to, and isn't this kind of silly" type of project.

There's promise here, but really, you can afford to give this a miss.

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The fucking last season of Deadwood

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After months of plowing through the very dense TV show Deadwood, Tara and I finally finished it.  I am not sad I watched it, even if it did end abruptly after being cancelled at the end of the third season.  Really, it is a TV show that I can respect fully, a category which very few TV shows manage.   Even TV shows that I like usually have a "Yeah, but..."  For example:

  • The Simpsons is great but they didn't know when to cancel it.
  • The Office is great but they shouldn't have had Jim and Pam get married.
  • The first season of Heroes is great, but by the third season it was absolutely awful.
  • Monty Python's Flying Circus is great, but some of the sketches are just not funny, even for Python fans.

Almost every television show I can think of that's not a miniseries runs into a problem like this at some point.  It's the nature of television shows to continue up until even the most diehard fans have given up on it.  After all, why cancel when the show is still profitable?

Deadwood is the rare exception to this rule, and it really puzzles me why this was canceled.  I guess, if pressed, Season 3 probably was my least favorite of the three seasons.  The overwhelming shadow that Hearst throws over the town is not very convincing, as I kept wondering why the entrenched powers (like Swearingen) were so unwilling to resort to violence when they had done so before.  Since so much of the plot revolves around the invulnerability of Hearst, I had some issues with the season, but I would still have gladly kept watching.  Really, this was a minor quibble, and I had no real difficulty suspending disbelief for this one small quirk.  I would gladly have watched a fourth season.  Perhaps the show was too expensive to make?  Or they wanted the people to work on different projects?  A few hastily browsed Google search intimates that it's a little of both.  The only people who wanted the show to end were HBO, and they only wanted to kill it because they were going to have to keep paying the actors not to work, while creator David Milch went off and created a different, terrible show that nobody watched called *yawn* John From Cincinnati.

If you're wondering whether you should see this show, the answer is yes.  Don't let the ending stop you.  It's still worth it.

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What Dreams May Come - A Nightmare

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What Dreams May Come is clearly a labor of love, but unfortunately it is a labor of love for a guy who shouldn't be producing movies, ever.  The visuals are amazing, but the plot is stultifyingly cliched, and the writing is godawful.  The plot is basically an excuse to revisit Dante's Divine Comedy.  Unfortunately, if you've ever actually read any of the Divine Comedy, you have realized that the vision of heaven and hell is charmingly outdated, and that no serious religion, not even Catholicism, holds similar beliefs today.  So, What Dreams May Come's heaven and hell seem quaint, and very dated.  They don't inspire fear, they don't really inspire any emotion at all.  Of course, the movie could possibly be saved by good acting and screenwriting, but the writing is horrible, and the actors seem to be laboring under a director who keeps saying "Again, but with less subtlety!"  Cuba Gooding Jr. and Robin Williams are not given to particularly great acting, but the earnestness that they bring to this already saccharine script is very, very painful.

To top it off, the music is dreadfully overblown, sort of like a combination of the worst of James Horner and John Williams, and it seems to want to pretend that the whole movie is the climax.  Sure, a musical swell now and then isn't a problem, and I don't even mind a melodic crescendo of strings when the tears are supposed to come out or the hero is taking his victory lap, or whatever is going to happen in the moment of triumph in the movie.  But I don't want music like that in the first five minutes of the movie.  The whole movie, and I do mean the whole movie, the score is coming out to blast you in the face, as if the composer was like "Oooh, look at me, I write pretty music!"  By a half an hour into the movie, I was exhausted from the dynamic rollercoaster that the music was putting me through.

The movie was Tara's idea, and she didn't even want to finish it after the first five minutes.  Don't say I didn't warn you.

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The Best of 2010 New-to-me Movies

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I know it's a little bit late in the year to do this, but I swore I'd do this.  Took a while to write this post, but here it is, finally.  I've done books, I've done board games.  The last big thing is for movies.  I watched a lot of movies this year, probably the most I've ever seen in one year in my life.  I needed an excuse to work on my Tecmo Super Bowl cross-stitch (yeah, I'll post about that sometime), and movies gave me a great excuse to sit in one place for a long time.

 

Best Drama
Ben X (2007)

Proving that, once again, it knows me better than I know myself, Netflix suggested this to me.  A movie about video games that actually makes a point?  Sign me up.  The lead character, played fantastically by Greg Timmermans, is an autistic teenager who uses video games to cope with the world.  Though the world can be difficult, the game can always be used as a reliable escape.

This movie has layers, and makes a lot of great points.  It examines video game culture without being either out-of-touch or overly laudatory.  It's easy to get hung up on where video games should exist in our culture, and how much we should embrace them; indeed, there's a large amount of debate surrounding them at all times.  This movie doesn't come down firmly on one side or the other, instead preferring to show the impact of video games and let the viewer make their own choice.

Of course, what really sets this movie apart is that it manages not only to say something, but also to be extremely captivating, extremely well-shot and well-acted, and a real pleasure to watch.  This is not a dry commentary, this is a cutting-edge work that blends a compelling story with a compelling point.

 

Honorable Mention

Black Swan - I hate horror movies.  I mean, I loathe them.  But I have to respect movies that are as good as this one, no matter what genre they're in.

Léon: The Professional - One of my favorite scenes ever is found in this movie, with a very young Natalie Portman and Jean Reno playing a game of charades.  The rare action movie that goes beyond revenge fantasy, this movie's not just for action fans.

North Dallas Forty - Really, this isn't of the same caliber as the rest of the movies in this list, but it is the best sports movie of all time.  It's genre-defying, progressive, and fun to watch.

The Visitor - Tells a story that too frequently gets swept under the carpet, the story of immigrants and how badly they are treated.  A classic think-y interpersonal drama.

 

Best Movie That Involved War as a Major Plot Point
The Last Emperor (1987)

I can't call it best war movie, because that will just invite discussion of what is and isn't a war movie, and you'll have a bunch of war freaks up in arms.  See what I did there? 

This movie feels so much newer than it is.  The color is beautiful, the plot doesn't meander, and none of the filming techniques used feel outdated.  The plot is also supremely unique.  It's amazing to find a politician who has fallen from so high, and then has to scrabble for the rest of his life.

Of course, what really makes his story stand out is that it really isn't about him.  Instead, it is the story of the end of an era that saw China ruled over by an emperor for several thousand years. It also emphasizes the fragility of the system.  It's a unique overlay between a personal story, and a political story, and the parallel fortunes of both.  Fantastic movie, and one that still feels very fresh almost 25 years later.

 

Honorable mention

Breaker Morant - Who the hell cares about the Boer war, right?  This is a great drama on following orders, in a similar vein as A Few Good Men.  Made me care about a topic I was not familiar with before.

Jarhead - Probably the best war movie there is based around a post-Vietnam conflict.

The Reader - The first American film I know of that finally gets to the heart of exactly what Germany has been going through for the past 65 years, in all of its regret and cultural guilt.

 

Best TV
This American Life: Season 1 (2007)

Probably you already know about This American Life, either by listening to the radio series, or else by reputation.  Yes, I know that I am pretty much required to like it as a white, urban, liberal, college graduate, but damn it, I like it anyway.  The television show is just as good as the radio series.  It's poignant without being overblown, moralistic without being preachy, and wide in scope without being superficial.

There are some particularly fantastic stories, including the story of the cloned bull in the first episode.  In fact, if you don't like the show after the first episode (and not everybody will), you don't need to bother still going, as the rest of the series won't change your mind.  But if you do enjoy it, the whole series will please you.  Make sure you check out Season 2 as well.  It's just as good.

 

Honorable Mention

Heroes: Season 1 - One of those shows I was expecting to find hopelessly overrated, this turned out to be some of my favorite light-drama TV of all time.  Sure, it was still kind of hokey sometimes, with characters that vaccillated between believable and 2-dimensional, but the story was compelling and original.

Ken Burns' Civil War- This is halfway cheating, as I watched this once a long time ago, but going back to it, I was so captivated by it this time that it was like seeing it completely anew.  There is a reason that this made Ken Burns' career, and that reason is that it takes a complex and often dry topic and makes it eminently accessible.

The Office: Season 1 - This is the American edition.  I watched a lot more than season 1 this year, but season 1 was probably the best.  The closer Pam and Jim have gotten to each other, the less I have liked their storyline, as they get more and more bland.  Characters like Andy and Dwight have mostly picked up the slack, but probably on balance, the first season is still the best.

7 Up series - Truly fascinating documentary of an extremely long-term study of several real people.  This is what reality TV can and should be, instead of the mindless staged tripe that it is.  Proof that TV doesn't have to have 'splosions or stupid jokes to be worth watching.

 

Worst/Most Overrated Movies I Saw this Year

Because I like talking about stuff I hated at least as much as talking about stuff I like, here's a quick list

Grown Ups - Claimed the shameful title of being the first movie I walked out of in theaters, ever.  All of these actors can be funny sometimes, but this terribly edited collection of lame setups followed by poorly-delivered one-liners is more tragic than funny.

Encino Man - Lived down to my expectations.  Just because you go into a movie thinking it's going to be awful doesn't excuse it for being awful.

Miracle - Please, Disney, never make a sports movie ever again, okay?  So formulaic as to be insulting.


Reign of Fire - I watched this notoriously bad movie, hoping for camp.  Instead, it was just a bad horror/action movie.

This Sporting Life - I tried really, really hard to get into this 1963 movie about a down-on-his-luck rugby player.  I couldn't do it.  This "classic" moved way too slowly for me, and I gave up before I finished it.

There Will Be Blood - Less of a bad movie than waaay overrated.  Oil barons are evil. Does this really surprise anybody?  Will America please stop fawning over Daniel Day Lewis? 

Lost: Season 1 (4 episodes) - To all of you who hated the series finale, how did you not see that coming?  It only took me a few episodes to figure out that they were just going to keep asking questions without resolving most of them.

Zulu - Reeked of colonialism.  "Stupid black savages, coming en masse against our entrenched position!  We are so noble to shoot them with our guns."  I don't get why so many people put this in the discussion when talking of the best war movies.

 

Here's a list of everything else I watched this year, to the best of my recollection.

Arrested Development: Season 1 (2 episodes)
Beavis and Butt-head: Vol. 2
Beavis and Butt-head: Vol. 3
Becket
Before the Flying Circus
The Bicycle Thief
Black Hawk Down
Brian's Song
Californication Season 1 (2 episodes)
Caligula
The Candidate
Cleopatra
Clockers
Cocaine Cowboys
The Color of Money
Coupling: Season 1 (2 episodes)
Crips and Bloods: Made in America
Crumb
Danton
Deadwood Season 1
Deadwood Season 2 (6 episodes)
Death to Smoochy
Dirty Harry
Doctor Who: The City of Death
Donnie Brasco
Doubt
Eddie Izzard: Definite Article
Ed Wood
The End of America
Enemy of the State
Everybody's All-American (new-to-me, as long as you don't count the time I saw it when I was 8)
Face/Off
Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children
Galipolli
Gods and Monsters
Gorillas in the Mist
Gran Torino
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner
Hearts in Atlantis
Heaven & Earth
Heroes: Season 2
Heroes: Season 3 (incomplete)
The Hurt Locker
The Hustler
I, Claudius (first two episodes only)
Inception
Inglourious Basterds
Inside Deep Throat
Iron Man
The Kids Are Alright
The King of Kong (not new to me)
A League of Their Own (not new to me)
The League of Extraordinary Dancers

Lean on Me
The Man Who Fell to Earth
Mitch Hedberg: Mitch All Together
Milo and Otis (not new to me)

Monsoon Wedding
Monster Camp
Moon
Never Let Me Go
No Country for Old Men
The Office (American): Season 2
The Office (American): Season 3
The Office (American): Season 4
The Office (American): Season 5
The Office (American): Season 6 (15 episodes)
The Office (British): Season 1 (1 episode)

Pearl Harbor
The People vs. Larry Flynt
Please Vote For Me
Picnic at Hanging Rock
Primer
Pump Up the Volume
Rachel Getting Married
Rain Man
Raising Arizona
Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip
Rollins: Live in the Conversation Pit
Saints and Soldiers
A Scanner Darkly
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
Secret Things
Seven Pounds
Shopgirl
A Single Man
The Social Network
Sonicsgate
Step Up 3D
Sunshine Cleaning
The Talented Mr. Ripley
Taxi Driver
This American Life: Season 2
This Film Is Not Yet Rated
The Tillman Story
Tron: Legacy (twice!)
True Grit
Tyson
Unforgivable Blackness
Up in the Air
Waco: The Rules of Engagement
The War
Valkyrie
War and Peace
Waterworld
When We Were Kings
With All Deliberate Speed
Word Wars
The X-Files: Season 1
 

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