Capsule Reviews
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Perhaps the most uninteresting and overlong historical blockbuster of our time. John Lee Hancock's retelling of the famous events that took place at the Alamo in Texas during the 1830s lacks all sense of motivation; his take has no grasp on substance or character development, and instead concentrates solely on the impending notion of weapons being drawn and blood being spilled in the dirt. Like "Master & Commander," the testosterone level in this vehicle is incessant enough to literally bore you into a coma.

Oliver Stone's ambitious retelling of Alexander the Great is one of the most inconsistent and miscalculated Hollywood blockbusters in recent memory. Lacking a clear position, it wanders through familiar historical material -- most of it in a submissive manner -- as if it doesn't know exactly what for. Colin Farrell, a likable actor, is also never able to embody the essence of the title persona, and his surrounding co-stars are so restrictive that you get the feeling that they want to be upstaged. On a technical level, the film is beautiful, with battle sequences that are skillfully shot... but the screenplay doesn't care about penetrating all of the beautiful sights. For a director as talented as Stone, this is not just a mere fluke to be dismissed; it is literally a great tragedy in itself.

Imagine the most watered down combination of two great science fiction/horror franchises. Now imagine a premise so unamusing and amateurish in its conviction that you are left staring at the screen in disbelief. Combine these things and you get "Alien vs. Predator," a sloppy, stupid, ugly and pointless excuse to try and revive two seemingly-dead movie franchises for 20th Century Fox. If we're lucky, however, next time they'll just make individual series films instead of doing another one of these big mergers.

Big digital snakes terrorize a group of scientists in the jungles of Borneo (never mind the fact that the snakes are not native to that region to begin with). According to the premise, this "Blood Orchid" which the scientists are searching for may be a medical "fountain of youth" (although as luck would have it, the snakes have figured that out as well). The plot, suffice it to say, is a big fat tool to try and drive special effects and lots of elaborate death scenes, but the problem is that none of what the movie does is that noteworthy or interesting. At least the first "Anaconda" feature was fun on a purely illogical scale; this film is basically a rehash of that one minus all the thrills (and laughs).

Martin Scorsese's Howard Hughes biopic is easily one of the most stylish and detailed period endeavors we have seen in the recent years. Starring Leonardy DiCaprio in the title role, the film chronicles the golden element of the life of the famed billionaire -- specifically, his descent into Hollywood, his love affairs with countless celebrities, his love of aviation and, ultimately, his endless tug-of-war with an obsessive-compulsive disorder. Still, though the hero fell great distances historically, neither the movie nor the director forget the most important aspect of his story -- he held onto his humanity for as long as he could. The film is also priveleged to have Cate Blanchett, whose supporting performance as actress Katharine Hepburn is so on-the-mark and cunning that it seems less like a reinactment and more like a full-fledged embodiment.

Kevin Spacey is ambitious in his retelling (or rather, individual interpretation) of the life of singer/songwriter Bobby Darin. Bouncing back and forth between drama and ambitious musical numbers, the film's focus is a bit awkward -- one, because it follows that absurd "This is Your Life" technique similar to "De Lovely" from earlier in the year, and two, because the tone between straight acting and glitsy nightclub performances seems to shift too radically, and you never know how you are supposed to feel in the end.

The second screen adaptation of the famed Patrick Leonard novel is as dead as they come, an 89-minute failure that warrants little emotion other than yawns and cringes. Stars include Owen Wilson, Morgan Freemen, Gary Sinise and Charlie Sheen, but you get the impression that they only showed up to work because they either owed a favor to the studio or just for the free Hawaiian vacation.

The third (and probably final) installment into the stylish "Blade" franchise is easily the weakest of the chapters, a shallow and underwhelming experience that cares about nothing other than the way it looks on the glossy surface. The character of Blade, as always, is one of the more appealing anti-heroes of the Marvel Comics cannon, but the movie often forgets about him entirely; instead, its focus shifts to both a group of misfit vampire hunters as well as an establishment of bloodsuckers who emerge as if they're reaching for pure comic relief. The self-parody, intentional or not, simply doesn't work in a series that has so effectively amused (and challenged) audiences on both a visual and cerebral level. This is synthetic moviemaking at its most disheartening.

This second major feature from the writing and directing team that collectively refer to themselves as Broken Lizard is a watchable but ultimately vapid effort in which the enthusiastic push simply clouds the fact that none of the material is particularly funny or amusing. The actors are likable and the characters infectious, but the movie doesn't wrap them in substance that is worthy of our time. There have been better movies out there that combine elements of horror and character comedy; it is suggested you find those instead.

A kid with a troubled childhood grows up and discovers that he can jump through time and alter the past in order to reshape certain outcomes in the present day. His primary goal: make a life with his childhood sweetheart. The movie excuses the absurd premise by placing physical and mental illness on the main character (and his journals are used as a launching point), but the movie isn't so ridiculous that it insults intellect; in fact, the result is quite the opposite. Observant, quirky, intriguing and generally well-paced, it works even when you don't expect it to.

Documentary filmmakers invite us into the lives of a seemingly-ordinary family and then reveal secrets that will inevitably tear holes open in relationships and subsequently destroy the family's very foundation. This revealing look into how a father and son were both accused of molesting and raping several young boys in their neighborhood in the mid-1980s is unlike any documentary you will ever see: revealing and introspective without having to fabricate footage to support its evidence (the sons in the same family provide us a plethora of genuine video footage that puts us right into their crippling situations).

A woman who is kidnapped by an angry gang of thugs gets ahold of a damaged telephone and makes outside connection with a complete stranger, whom she must convince that she is in trouble if there is any hope for her (or the members of her family) to survive. Sending this premise into hyper-gear, the movie spirals into an ambitious frenzy of adrenaline, tension, comedy and drama and emerges as one of the most effective blockbusters of the year. Finally, a movie that delivers on multiple cylinders!

Director David Twohy returns to the world of Riddick, a rebellious hero played by Vin Diesel, in this ambitious and enthusiastic successor to "Pitch Black." The movie's look is easily the most visionary in science fiction we have seen since "Minority Report," but Twohy's restraint as a writer prevents the film from rising beyond its post-apocalyptic formula. Still, the look is solid and distinctive enough to make the vehicle amusing enough to recommend.

A film that has one unanimous praise from so many over the course of the last several months, "City of God" is a powerful and relentless weapon of a movie that puts its viewers into the heart of a dying South American society and the people whose crime sprees help inch it closer to the end every day. Shocking, bitter, gritty and yet as realistic as they come; the movie also refuses to drown its sorrows in the terrible reality that power is taken (not given) at a very early age, and at one point the film allows one of the likable characters to find a safe path out of the mayhem.

Anthony Minghella's third major motion picture effort is basically just a romance movie set against a war backdrop, and it works, more or less, because it has colorful characters and lots of zealous interaction on its side. Still, you can't help but wonder why there have been so many people singing its praises as if it were one of the best films ever made about the Civil War. Is the Miramax Oscar machine simply trying to create the impression that this is a modern day "Gone With the Wind?" Maybe. But someone should have told them that every other civil war movie is already a "Gone With the Wind" retread anyway.

The "Cooler" in the title refers to the guy who is so unlucky in life that he is hired to go and stand by big winners at casinos in hope of shifting their karma into a negative direction. For the cooler in this case, however, bad luck isn't always going to be around. Why? Because this particular guy, played by William H. Macy, is falling in love, is having fun, and for the first time ever has an outlook on life. Not so good news for his boss, played by Alec Baldwin, who would do just about anything to keep the finances of his casino in tip-top shape. Erase the faces and a few side details, though, then this is basically just another run-of-the-mill Las Vegas film that tries to emphasize the fact that it's not all glitz and glamour behind the showgirls or the gold curtains (even though we could have told you that without even seeing the movie in the first place).

Not so much a remake of a 1970s cult following as it is a studio version of the recent "28 Days Later," "Dawn of the Dead" sees a town get overturn with the outbreak of a virus that turns everyone into flesh-eating zombies. A group of the uninfected, as a result, are required to isolate themselves in a mall in order to stay alive long enough so help can arrive (which, of course, is only a vague possibility given their situation). Funny, savage, loud and ambitious, this is a movie in the spirit of genuine summer blockbusters: movies that are exciting simply because they are dedicated to the tension rather than trying to be too flashy in the process.

Following a string of bid-budgeted crap, director/writer Roland Emmerich plays it safe in his new movie by tackling a cinematic subject where there is little room for going wrong: natural disasters. Amazingly enough, alas, Emmerich doesn't try to have much fun with the concept; instead, he seems to use it as fuel against impending social concerns that global warming is a real threat to our future as human beings. Preachy, sub-standard and overly-concerned with its subject matter, this is a movie you attend only for the extensive disaster scenes and then leave before you get exposed to the insulting mess that is the conclusion.

A team of misfits enlist in a national dodgeball championship in order to prevent their gym from being taken over by a high-profile competitor, not counting on the fact that the same competitors have joined the same competition in order to prevent them from winning and saving their gym. Starring Ben Stiller in a villainous role that his among his funniest in recent years, the movie is lightweight comic fluff that, shockingly enough, manages to be both amusing and charismatic for all 92 minutes it is on-screen. How nice to see a comedy out that lives for the moment and has a lot of fun doing so without insulting audiences in the process.

The latest incarnation from screenwriting genius Charlie Kaufman is actually just a charming and effective little love story that, minus the obvious eccentric devices, echoes some of the best romantic comedies of the past. Jim Carrey is award-worthy as a sympathetic average guy who meets, falls for, and then ultimately loses, a quirky girl named Clementine (Kate Winslet). The catch? These two people are living in a reality that now allows people to erase memories of loved ones via medical technology, and both of them opt for those tasks in hopes that it might erase the pain. Comical, witty, observant and infectious to a fault. One of the year's best.

If comedies were meant to be torture devices, then the makers of "Eurotrip" have come up with something that puts everything before it to rest. This is one of the absolute worst movies of our time, tone-deaf, repugnant, obscene and offensive on every cylinder... and worst of all, never once funny! The plot deals with a recent high school graduate on his way to Germany to meet up with his pen pal, but the movie could care less about that goal. No, this is simply a labored excercise in extremely bad taste, and a complete waste of one at that. Makes last year's "Boat Trip" seem almost sympathetic.

A one-dimensional account ofthe early years of Father Merrin before he went on to face the demon in "The Exorcist" is uninspired by stylish and amusing in the way it thrusts the substance at an audience. Considering that no press were allowed to screen the film (not to mention the fact that this is the infamous SECOND cut to an unreleased version filmed last year by Paul Schrader), the result is amusing enough to be worth the price of a weekend matinee. Bonus points warranted simply for the fact that the movie doesn't insult intellect in the way that the franchise's two sequels did.

Filmmaker James Ronald Whitney's attempt to outdo the growing zaniness of reality television results in a sub-standard genre piece with great ideas but no conviction. The premise, involving six sexually attractive and uninhibited individuals as they compete for a $10,000 payoff, challenges the very nature of the reality shell, but the results are not as stellar because the material feels rehearsed and almost too convenient for its own good (even though a surprise twist at the end tries to justify all of this).

Probably the most cheerfully-absurd horror film ever made. Starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, the film loosely chronicles the fate of a various group of people who wander into a cursed house and get marked by death. Impossible to explain, hard to comprehend, the film nonetheless houses a series of eerie sequences that are effective in the way they create a sense of hopelessness. The climax is appalling and inconclusive, but anyone who has the patience to sit through the movie that long is obviously not concerned with specifics.

Two guys doped up on pot decide to go into town and satisfy their immense hunger at White Castle, a burger joint that gives people large amounts of food for a small price. Along the way, however, the guys find themselves trapped in predicaments that may or may not interfere with them achieving their ultimate goal. Simple, off-the-wall and sometimes funny, the movie gives its characters great intellect but falls short by only reaching for an audience that can identify with the pot-heads.

Hogwarts Academy gets a darker, more brooding look thanks to director Alfonso Cuaron ("Y Tu Mama Tambien"), but like it's two predecessors, the third "Harry Potter" film suffer from the same fate that has continued to make this franchise absent of genuine thrills: it lacks a plot that is engaging to both the viewers as well as the on-screen characters. Cuaron takes special notice to all sorts of small visual touches, but here the three heroes of the story seem more disconnected than before, and the manner in which the narrative plods along through detail after detail makes one wonder if this series will ever be able to find a director who can match the visual splendor with an equally-appealing script.

The embellished historical account of Frank Hopkins and his mixed breed Mustang horse is an ambitious but misguided vehicle that loses sight of what is most important very early on: character dillemma. There are lots of chase sequences and several shootouts in the film (many of them very well staged and photographed), but they don't actually have an air of excitement to them because the screenplay seems uninterested in everything it is doing. This is the kind of film that feels like it was shot using nothing more than a skeleton version of a screenplay, minus all the meat that could have been added in after the idea was intact.

I, ROBOT / (PG-13)
Director Alex Proyas, a seeming master of the science fiction genre, takes a sever misstep here with this in-name-only adaptation of the famous Isaas Asimov story. Will Smith stars as a federal agent who is suspicious about his society's dependance on machines, and when he uncovers a crime that may or may not have directly resulted from one of them, it sends him into an investigation that will inevitably spiral out of control as his challengers begin to fight back -- in a dirty and sinister way. The look of the film is ambitious, but the writing is half-hearted, and you never have the feeling at the end that you've reached the best possible payoff.

A 10-year-old boy ventures into the Italian countryside and discoveres a kidnapped boy imprisoned in a pit, not yet aware of the fact that several adults around him may be conspirators in this abduction seeking a steep ransom from the boy's parents. Like "Life is Beautiful," this is a film in which unlikely heroes become heroes simply because they are themselves, and the movie is brilliant in the way it allows childhood innocence to become a pure and sweeping force of bravery during seemingly bleak moments. One of the best films of the year.

Just as its name implies, Pixar's latest CGI-animated endeavor is an ambitious and exhilarating experience, easily the best of the animated features in the Disney canon in years. Involving a family of misfit superheroes trying to live life in suburbia, the film reaches for social context as well as sequences of pure action and adventure, and as a result is resonating on various levels for more than just the kids. Supporting characters, including Frozone, a superhero who freezes things, populate the movie but don't detract from the plot's primary focuses, and many viewers will appreciate the maturity of certain things, like the subtle references to the James Bond franchise. One of the year's finest achievements.

Perhaps one of the most ambitiously successful action pictures ever made, Quentin Tarrantino's return to the big screen yields a product that is as perfect as one could hope. Uma Thurman stars as a woman who is betrayed by assassins and left for dead, only to wake up years later from a coma to seek revenge on all those who involved. The offbeat and slick vehicle has little in the way of essential story, but there's delicious side details along the way, and the action interludes are so brilliantly choreographed that they literally reinvent every genre they are referencing. Brave and bold and one of the most exciting films you will ever see.

Just as brilliant as its predecessor, the second volume of Quentin Tarantino's revenge caper thrives at the notion of quirkiness. This time, however, the action is played drastically down in favor of hard back story and character exposition, which results in an endeavor that has a much different tone than the first film. Nonetheless, the movie is seeped in skill, and the subtext provides great insight into what was overlooked before. Together, these films are forever anchored in the psyches of avid moviegoers.

Antoine Fuqua takes a big risk with this retelling of the famous Camelot legend: he completely retools the concept until it seems more like genuine history instead of fable or legend. Sorcery, wizards and witches are erased here; in their place is a complex premise about morals and faiths as three opposing factions do battle for the land of Britain in a merciless relgious war. Not only fun and exciting, but also thought-provoking and admirable in the way it creats grand chaos concerning famous material. At least now we know why this was called the "Dark Ages!"

One of the most liberating experiences of the year, Bill Condon's probing study of the life and times of sexologist Alfred Kinsey savors the concept of human behavior almost as much as it pays attention to historical details. Liam Neeson plays the title role in a manner that anchors a larger-than-life persona to the average human mindset, and his characters' constant need to challenge and reshape society's consensus on the sexual behaviors of Americans provides him with a lot of good material. Lots of solid supporting performances also dot the film, and it is overall well shot, conceived, directed and finalized. One of 2004's best.

Two American strangers in Tokyo (one an aging actor) meet and start up a friendship while they are isolated by their surroundings, taking them to places (both physically and mentally) that they have seldom been. Too bad the movie itself doesn't reach such heights--tedious and mundane, the pacing of the movie is so sluggish that it never has the chance to show us anything other than a collection of interaction scenes between stars Bill Murray and Scarlett Johanson (several of which are fairly bland). This is not the great film you have been hearing about; it is a sub-par effort with very little going for it other than the fact that its actors are likable.

Charlize Theron gives a tour-de-force performance as serial killer Aileen Wurnos in this rather uneven biopic about her descent into madness. In the film, Wurnos, a hooker, tries hard to create a normal life for herself and her partner (Christina Ricci), but soon learns that the world is not so quick to jump in and help someone like her (even though she truly needs it). The result? She goes on a murder spree and kills several of her clients, stealing their cars and money in order to keep moving herself around in the Florida area. Theron is really the saving grace of this average effort; she disappears so effortlessly into the role that she is virtually unrecognizable in a film that is ultimately familiar.

One of the most deliberately silly and convoluted films of the year is also one of the most entertaining. Nicholas Cage stars as a fortune hunter whom, since childhood, has believed in a legend about an ancient treasure hidden by the country's founding fathers, and now trots the globe uncovering clues to its whereabouts. The central conflict: the Declaration of Independence has a treasure map hidden on the back, and they need to steel it before a competitor does. The adventurous cat-and-mouse game that ensues is so amusing that you lose track of the fact that the details are totally implausible.

Robert Zemeckis' motion-capture CGI animation holiday vehicle is one of the biggest curiosities of 2004 cinema, a film so ambitious on a technical scale that it seems a stark contrast compared to the childlike simplicity of the narrative. Unfortunately, the result creates too unpleasant a contrast; the animation is burdened by the essence that the director is just showing off his check book (the movie's budget is reportedly $170 million), and the story is so routine that you've seen it done hundreds of times already in film. Tots will find it amusing, but adults, once they see past the facade, will find something very uneven.

Director Jonathan Hensleigh strips back the fundamental rules of comic book screen adaptations and instead puts his focus on what he is given: a basic story about a man who becomes a ruthless vigilante after his family is executed out of revenge by a major crime lord. The result is as raw and hard-hitting as few movies in this genre have ever been. Thomas Jane's performance as Frank Castle is thoughtful and concentrated, driven by his mere gaze which reveals all the rage and the sadness of his situation without the standard emotional breakdown, and the script he is enraptured in cares about its characters and thinks logically about its situations without overburdening them with high-octane action scenes. The best this genre has offered since the original "X-Men" film.

No better or worse than its predecessor, "Resident Evil: Apocalypse" is a zombie movie in which the flesh-eaters seem like they have more brain power than those who wrote the script. Milla Jovovich is back as Alice, the survivor of the first movie, and much like her new companions, her primary goal here is to wade through a horde of the undead so she and a select few survivors can stay alive. Basically the same movie as the first, except with different locations and louder explosions. Dumb and pointless.

SAW / (R)
An aptly-titled, hardcore horror film with snuff-like undertones that has a lot of skill on a technical level but tries to match it with an overabundance of plot detail. The Jigsaw killer, a murderer who specializes in creating elaborate death scenarios for his victims to unwittingly fall into, has struck again, imprisoning a doctor and a total stranger in a public toilet but providing them some very sadistic means of an escape route. The movie succeeds in creating the sense of dread that is required of any skillfull scare-fest, but some of the narrative is so over-reaching that it doesn't leave much of a lasting impression. Good for jumps and shocks, frustrating for those who want to think as much as they want to be scared.

The latest adaptation of a Stephen King narrative is one of the best in recent memory, a film that has urgency and drama without trying to overdo things a la "Dreamcatcher." Johnny Depp steals the screen in a performance that is among his best, and the movie does a respectable job of creating a villain that is neither too random or too calculating. The movie lacks substantial supporting players, but what did you expect? Any time you have Depp on screen, everyone else pretty much becomes a blur.

Dreamworks takes the in-joke sensibility of "Shrek" and matches it with the production value of "Finding Nemo," but the result is not exactly as suitable a marriage as it should be. It tells the story of a fish named Oscar (Will Smith), who has visions of wealth and then accidentally attains that goal when he takes credit for the death of a shark. The urban thrust of the film is amusing (especially on a visual scale), but the jokes aren't really that funny. In the end, you sense that the people who made the picture were more interested in killing time between big projects instead of creating something memorable in the meantime.

Inspired by the zombie craze set off by "28 Days Later," here is a movie that takes a more humorous approach at the concept -- by making its brainless villains slow-moving flesh eaters while at the same time giving its core characters comic values. Several of the situations are witty and amusing, and before its over you find yourself admiring several of the misfit characters. On the minus side, however, the movie is short, too brief and perhaps a little more bloody than it needs to be.

SHREK 2 / (PG)
The most lovable ogre in all of animation returns home from his honeymoon with Princess Fiona, only to find out that her parents, kind and queen in a kingdom dubbed "Far Far Away," have invited them to their lands. The result is as chaotic as it is uncomfortable for all parties involved, as Fiona's parents struggly to cope with the fact that their daughter has embraced her cursed transformation, and both ogres feeling out-of-place in a world meant for human beings. The movie is so delightful and rich in the way it plays adventure that you smile throughout the whole experience. Is it as good as the first "Shrek" film? Of course not. But who cares? This is a series that isn't going anywhere anytime soon, and the fact that the first of several inevitable sequels is this zealous is a promising (and admirable) prospect.

Richard Eyre's savage and revealing romp through the times of Charles II's England is one of the best films of the year. Billy Crudup stars as a stage actor who has mastered the art of imitating women in the theater, and Claire Daines plays his costum mistress, who sits off to the side and absorbs his nightly trickery as if she envies the opportunity to perform material in front of a crowd. When the laws change, of course, she inherits the female lead in "Othello" and he is ousted -- a factor that puts severe strain on their relationship as each struggle with the personal dillemma as well as try to find a common ground. The screenplay by Jeffrey Hatcher balances all this feats with comedy, drama, and provides it all with a deep social relevance. Absolutely hilarious at certain intervals and tense at others, we don't see movies like this very often anymore.

The fifth acting collaboration between unlikely comedy partners Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson is actually a decent undertaking. Based on the hit 1970s television drama of the same name, the movie is basically just a bunch of cop show cliches strung out to fill two hours of screen time, but one that has decent characterization and some genuinely funny moments. Some parts feel too forced and the story doesn't really go anywhere, but if you're a fan of either Stiller or Wilson (or the two), then this shouldn't matter that much.

A mystery writer, seeking a change, decides to vacation in the French countryside to seek new inspiration, and while there she meets her publisher's rebellious French daughter and becomes very infatuated by her sense of lifestyle (which mostly consists of boozing and having sex with every man she picks up). The scenario essentially gives her a new outlook on both life and work, and the resulting effect on the audience is that they feel just as renewed as she does after all is said and done. A beautiful, honest and impactful movie, especially for those in the writing profession.

Angelina Jolie is an FBI investigator trying to uncover the identity of a killer who assumes his victims' identies, and Ethan Hawke plays an art dealer in town whose association with the eccentric but charming agent makes him an inevitable target for the killer in question. Unfortunately for the movie, the presentation of these facts is so murky and detached that no one cares about anything that's going on. Points are rewarded for the fact that the ending is a pleasant surprise, but other than that? Skip this like a meal at Hannibal Lecter's house.

The latest bastard child of the Trey Parker/Matt Stone working partnership is just as messy as it is inventive. Built entirely around the use of puppets, the movie takes a stab at nearly every one involved in the global concept of the war on terrorism -- as one critic so put it, the movie is "an equal opportunity offender." Unfortunately, both Parker and Stone seem more interested here in provoking people instead of being genuinely funny in their sentiment. The movie might have worked better if it had just been two hours of the men standing in front of a camera flipping off every person that they hated.

TROY / (R)
Generally mediocre actors are demanded to play dominant roles in this routine and chaotic retelling of Homer's "The Iliad," in which the Greeks declare war on the nearly-unbeatable realm of the Trojans. Once you take away specifics, however, then this is basically the same movie that we dealt with in "Master & Commander" and "The Alamo"--men fighting men for the sake of stroking their own egos. The big difference, at least, is that "Troy" looks good and has some genuine human moments. It's just too bad it doesn't have anything beyond that.

M. Night Shyamalan's fourth film is a drastic step down from the brilliance of his third, a faux thriller that is so fueled by camouflage and manipulation, it has no resonance whatsoever once the big secrets are revealed. As always, the director thrives at the opportunity to pull the wool over the eyes of his audience, but this time when he tries to pull it away, he yanks the skin off with it as well. This isn't the kind of movie you can admire knowing full well what is involved in the resolution; to realize the goal is to destroy any and all possibility of thrill the story hopes to have on you.

2004, David Keyes,

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