Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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Scott R. Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France
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À bout de souffle (Breathless) 3 out of 4 stars

I first saw Breathless 23 years ago in Pau, France, without the benefit of subtitles. It was a part of a six-week language and culture immersion in preparation for a year of study at a French university. I was pretty much lost until Jean Serberg appeared on screen, hawking The New York Herald Tribune on the Champs Elysées. She spoke French like I did, and I finally found a character in the movie I could more or less understand! Such was my naïveté at the time that I thought that Film God Jean-Luc Godard’s deliberately erratic editing meant that we were seeing a print that had had the hell spliced out of it. And I saw Jean-Paul Belmondo as a second-rate Humphrey Bogart. I didn’t get that that was the point. Of course, I am much more sophisticated than that now. Godard’s 1959 directing debut was all about style over substance, and the story (to the extent that there was one) is almost incidental. Needless to say, that didn’t stop Hollywood from doing a slick remake starring Richard Gere 24 years later. (Seen 3 August 1996)

À la Folie (Six Days, Six Nights) 0 out of 4 stars

Six Days, Six Nights is the English title for this French film by Diane Kurys (Peppermint Soda, Entre Nous), but a more literal translation of the French title might be something like “Going Crazy.” My own personal choice, however, would be “Houseguest from Hell.” One morning Elsa (Beatrice Dalle of Betty Blue) goes out for milk in the middle of breakfast but, instead of coming back to her husband and kids, she hops on a bus to Paris and shows up on the doorstep of Alice (Anne Parillaud of La Femme Nikita). We and Franck (Alice’s boyfriend who has just moved in with her) learn that Alice and Elsa are sisters. Or maybe they aren’t. Or maybe they were once lovers. Or both. Whatever the true nature of their relationship, it definitely isn’t a healthy one. Things pretty much deteriorate, as Elsa comes up with more and more mental tortures for Alice. Someone here is obviously insane, and it’s probably me for sitting through this movie. This is one of several French movies lately that features a woman getting tied to a radiator. (Seen 4 June 1995)

À la folie… pas du tout (He Loves Me… He Loves Me Not) 2 out of 4 stars

This film plays a mean trick on us. In the opening scenes, we see an impish, radiant, beaming Audrey Tautou tripping and cycling happily through the streets of Bordeaux, and we are primed for her character to be a variation on the one she played in Amelie. And through a good part of this film, it seems (annoyingly) to be the case. But then, slowly at first and then more abruptly, things take an unforeseen turn, and we find that director Laetitia Colombani has played a clever trick on us. The film has a narrative structure reminiscent of About Adam, but used more darkly here. We also get unexpected echoes of other films as disparate as Run Lola Run and Fatal Attraction. This is one case where both the French and English titles suit the movie to a tee. In the end, its carefully constructed story illustrates perfectly the notion that things may not always be what they seem. (Seen 10 October 2002)

A la medianoche y media (At Midnight and a Half) 2 out of 4 stars

Sebastian, who looks like a young South American George Clooney, is trying to get out of a small coastal town. The television and radio broadcast constant reports of ominous tidal waves heading toward shore. But the only road out of town is jammed with cars that aren’t moving, which may be irrelevant because a mechanic tells our hero that his car won’t get far anyway. To make matters worse, for some reason his car’s radio/tape deck plays only one song over and over. This Venezuelan/Peruvian production written and directed by Mariana Rondon and Marite Ugaz seems like it may be a Latin American version of one of my personal favorite flicks, 1989’s Miracle Mile, where Anthony Edwards kept trying to get out of a nuke-targeted Los Angeles and wound up going nowhere. But there’s something deeper going on here. Why does Sebastian keep ignoring Ana, who is shooting photos all over town, even though he has affectionately signed photos of the two of them in his backseat? And why does the little girl he picks up insist that he call her Ana, even though she suggests that’s not her real name? Hey, this isn’t really about the Apocalypse. It’s about Relationships! There’s plenty of fodder here for psychology students and audiences who prefer their films to lean more toward art than entertainment. (Seen 27 May 2000)

À ma soeur! (Fat Girl) 2 out of 4 stars

Everything I read about this film warned that it was “disturbing,” but nothing I could get my hands on gave any hint as to why. Now that I’ve seen it, I of course find myself reduced to saying that this film is “disturbing” but I can’t say why. Following the screening, I was fortunate enough to sit in on a discussion led by Kathleen Murphy, who is a great film commentator and who presented a wonderful series of films and lectures years ago on the theme of l’amour fou. That taught me as much about film as any other experience I’ve ever had. Murphy is very familiar with Catherine Breillat, the writer/director of Fat Girl, and she pretty much convinced me that I haven’t a clue what this film is about. Breillat, who has made a series of films focused largely on sex (including the ironically titled 1999 film Romance), makes the kind of movies that serious articles on French cinema tend to refer to not as “films” but as “provocations.” Anyway, suffice it to say that this film deals with a love/hate relationship between two teenage sisters, one petite and attractive, the other not. While there are touches of wry humor, the tone basically goes from sullen to dark. Among other things, this voyeuristic study of a creepily ordinary upper middle class French family on holiday isn’t too far off from an Atom Egoyan film. So it is entirely appropriate that Egoyan’s wife and perennial cast member, Arsinée Khanjian, is on hand as the girls’ chain-smoking zombie of a mother. (Seen 20 November 2001)

Aaltra 2 out of 4 stars

This flick has the arty, grainy, black-and-white look of some Scandinavian or eastern European films, and not particularly recent ones at that. (I couldn’t tell for sure whether the graininess was exaggerated by ongoing focus problems at the Cork Opera House, but at times the images looked like nothing so much as bad terrestrial television reception.) A close American approximation of the style here would be Jim Jarmusch. A Belgian film mostly in French, it is directed by Benoît Delépine, who co-wrote with Gustave de Kervern, and the two of them have the lead roles. Delépine, who looks a bit like Sam Shepard, plays an office worker, who commutes and telecommutes from his home in the country and who is way more into motocross than he is into his work. De Kevern, who looks like a dark, shaggy Richard Karn, is a glum farm worker. In classic comic fashion, the two are endlessly getting on each other’s nerves, which is too bad since a machinery accident ensures that they will end up pretty much inseparable. What makes the film interesting is that the protagonists spend most of it in wheelchairs, and the so the movie explores what life is like from that point of view. The film straddles a fine line between sympathetically exploring the plight of two not-very-sympathetic characters and having a laugh at the expense of their disability. We keep waiting for a profound insight on it all, but in the end we just get a punch line. (Seen 11 October 2004)

Abel 2 out of 4 stars

A very black Dutch comedy about child-parent relationships. A 32-year-old child is finally kicked out of the nest and promptly moves in with his father’s mistress. On the whole, quite strange. (Seen 15 May 1987)

About a Boy 3 out of 4 stars

The first neat touch in this movie is when the titular boy, like so many 12-year-olds, bemoans his miserable existence, and he wishes he had a cool life like that kid actor, Haley Joel Osment. Then darned if he doesn’t turn out to have the very same mother that Haley Joel Osment did, in The Sixth Sense (Toni Collette)! The ads and the reviews give the impression that this is another go at the story of the self-absorbed, confirmed bachelor who finally has his heart softened by a tyke. And that’s right. But this time the fable is happily free of mawkishness since the film is adapted from a book by Nick Hornby, whose previous titles brought to the screen have included Fever Pitch and High Fidelity. Once again, the story is about a man whose leisure time obsessions get in the way of his interpersonal relationships, and who better to play him than the actor whose very face and demeanor have become virtual cinematic shorthand for glib shallowness, Hugh Grant? (One way to think of the film is as an British variation on Shallow Hal without the focus on weight.) Despite the tear-jerker potential of the material, directors Chris and Paul Weitz keep the mood light and witty, while still convincingly conveying the frustrations of adolescence as well as the insecurities of adulthood. In particular, the climactic scene will bring back every case of stage fright you ever had as a child. In the end, you have to like a movie that can, on one hand, mock the superficiality of rampant consumerism and, on the other, give gentle jabs at the earnestness of Amnesty International volunteers. (Seen 28 April 2002)

About Adam 3 out of 4 stars

Gerry Stembridge’s first feature film, Guiltrip, was a bit dreary in its subject matter but very clever in its structure. Consisting largely of flashbacks, we saw the same story from two points of view, and the two versions fit together into one heck of an amazing jigsaw puzzle. In his second directorial outing he uses a similar device, but the mood, tone and pure joie de vivre are from a completely different universe. This one would have to be called Guiltfreetrip. Unless it starred Hugh Grant (instead of Stuart Townsend) and was set in posh, trendy London. Then it would be called Four Affairs and a Wedding. The opening minutes threaten to be a bit too sugary, but that’s just part of Stembridge’s trap. What we get are four overlapping stories seen from completely different points of view, sort of like a cockeyed, sexy, romantic Rashomon. For a California girl, Kate Hudson makes a credible Dublin 4 girl in an effervescent Sarah Jessica Parker sort of way. Frances O’Connor (who, appropriately, played the heroine of a Victorian novel in Mansfield Park) is the vision of the young Geraldine Chaplin as the Brontë devotee searching for her Heathcliff. Charlotte Bradley is dandy as a dangerously bored upper-crust housewife in a Fanny Ardant sort of way. And, in the title role, Townsend carries off his chameleon-like role without being too obvious. (Apparently, Townsend the actor is as seductive as his character. He is reported to be playing Lestat in the upcoming Queen of the Damned and was rumored to be cast as Aragorn in Peter Jackson’s epic adaptation of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, until Viggo Mortensen was confirmed in the role.) But the biggest star of the film is a vivacious, radiant and happy Dublin that seems like something out of movie musical, a town where everyone seems to know each other and where customers flock to a Temple Bar eatery to hear a waitress croon old standards by Cole Porter and Sammy Cahn. (Seen 10 March 2001)

About Schmidt 3 out of 4 stars

This is a case where I would definitely have been better off not reading any reviews of this film before seeing it. The one or two I read were, predictably, about how the title character is the American Everyman, John Updike, yadda yadda yadda. One of the reviews went on to dissect the Middle West American male and how pitiful he is and how the reviewer thankfully escaped all that and became the hip, knowing person he is. Which all reinforces my opinion that movie reviews are usually more about the reviewer than about the movie. About Schmidt is better enjoyed if you don’t think about Schmidt as a “type” but just as an individual human being. Played by Jack Nicholson, he is a bit dim and walks around stiffly as if he has stick up some orifice. But he is clearly recognizable as someone we have all known and are perhaps related to. Obviously, director Alexander Payne knows him well, which is probably why, in adapting him from Louis Begley’s novel, he transplanted him to his own hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. Happily, the film is full of wry, truthful observations on Middle American life, just as Payne’s wonderful Election illuminated human foibles in a high school setting. By setting up Schmidt with three major life blows in quick succession (retirement, loss of a spouse and an only daughter’s wedding), he had the makings of a regular tragedy. But, as Nicholson said, on collecting his Golden Globe for the role, this is more a (bittersweet) comedy than a drama. Nicholson’s award is well earned, although on film he can’t quite conceal his devilish twinkle that lets us know that he is way more hip than the character he is playing. And when Kathy Bates (also turning in another fine performance) mercifully medicates him, we are brought back to the young actor we first noticed, getting stoned with Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider. What a strange long trip it’s been, Jack. (Seen 2 February 2003)

Abre los Ojos (Open Your Eyes) 2 out of 4 stars

The less said about the plot of this nifty little mystery/suspense piece by Spanish director Alejandro Amenábar, the better. Let’s just say that it’s an intriguing mixture of Beauty and the Beast and Jacob’s Ladder with elements of such movies as Dark City and The Truman Show thrown in for good measure. The two leads (Eduardo Noriega and Penélope Cruz) are quite attractive, which in this case actually happens to be a requirement of the plot. Indeed Cruz, who has been in virtually every cool Spanish movie made over the past few years (Jamón, Jamón, Belle Époque, Alegre Ma Non Troppo, Live Flesh) is actually referred to in The Seattle Times’s review of this movie as “the popcorn-shovel-stopping Penélope Cruz.” The “surprise” ending probably won’t be that much of surprise to people who see a lot of these kinds of flicks, but Open Your Eyes is still plenty interesting for its exploration of dreams, psychology, beauty, ugliness, and why you should never get into a sports car with a woman you have just dumped. (Seen 4 May 1999)

Absolute Giganten (Gigantic) 2 out of 4 stars

The plot is fairly simple. Young Floyd’s probation for a juvenile offense is up and he’s made up his mind to leave Hamburg in the morning on a cargo ship. So he and his two pals have one last night on the town. That’s basically it. Of course, when there’s that much pressure on having a good time, well, things never turn out quite like you plan. At one point the three lads, who are given to fast driving through dark city streets and teasing one another with epithets like “queer,” find themselves lying beaten in a smashed-up Ford Granada strewn with junk food packaging strewn about, asking themselves forlornly, “Why is the last night the sh***est?” One of the producers is Tom Tykwer, who directed Run Lola Run, so we can’t help but hope for something as great. Well, the energy (and soundtrack) certainly is there, although this freshman effort by Sebastian Schipper isn’t nearly as accomplished. Still, it has a lot more edge and feeling than most American films aimed at the youth market. Oh yeah, and there’s a foozball game you have to see to believe. (Seen 25 May 2000)

Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie 2 out of 4 stars

Even if UK voters had not recently voted to leave the European Union, Britain might well have been expelled anyway once this movie came out. In light of the referendum, Patsy and Edina’s antics on the French Riviera nearly look like a calculated two fingers in the face of continental Europe. In other words, this movie is better than I expected. Making feature films based on yesterday’s British sitcoms is always a dodgy proposition in the best of cases. While the premise of AbFab always seemed like a promising idea for a sketch or two, the idea of building a whole series around it seemed like a stretch. It is a testimony to the creativity of Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French (who did most of the writing) and the comic chops of Saunders and Joanna Lumley playing the two addled protagonists that the show went on for something like six seasons. The fact that they could get a halfway entertaining movie out of it as well is little short of miraculous. A string of cameos is always de rigueur in these cases, and AbFab’s total focus on the glittering and the shallow nearly makes the cast list auto-generate. After all, if you said no to an appearance, you could risk some serious slagging in your absence. (Is that what happened, Hugh Grant?) Is 90 minutes too long for an exercise in fan service and quasi-in jokes? I would have thought yes, but they actually managed to keep it going. The regular supply of laughs was nearly enough on its own to escape one-star status, but the film (helmed by Mandie Fletcher) nearly transcends its aura of vanity by the inspired inclusion of two pieces of music. When Patsy and Eddie arrive on the Côte d’Azur, they proceed to wallow in its grandeur to the strains of Peter Sarstedt’s pretentious 1969 pop song about pretentiousness, “Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)?” Suddenly, I had an epiphany that made that song and AbFab both become clear to me and revealed that the two were always meant for each other. I was certain that no other fusion of pop and comedy could be so perfect, but then the plot conspired to give us a scene where Eddie’s sensible, mousy, no-fun daughter Saffron (Julia Sawalha) is required to sing Janis Ian’s seminal social critique “At Seventeen” to a teary-eyed audience of drag queens. That bit made everything else in the universe clear. This is the second movie I have seen in a span of nine months which ends with a nice nod to Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot. (Seen 9 July 2016)

Accelerator 2 out of 4 stars

Some movies are just meant to be screened at midnight, and this is one of them. You don’t how seriously the filmmakers (Vinny Murphy directed and co-wrote) actually take this story of nihilistic young adults in modern-day Ireland, but to all appearances they take it seriously enough. We have seen a lot of this stuff before in youth dramas: the fast cars, the alienation, the drugs, the swearing, the macho posturing (among both the men and women). What makes this story of rivalry between two groups of youths different is the fact that one group is based in Belfast and the other in Dublin, so there is a bit of a political component to the story. But what the film really illustrates is how foreign the North and the Republic have become to each other over the years. The movie threatens to be a bit dull until the two groups decide (for some reason) to have a drag race from Belfast to Dublin in stolen cars. If this alone isn’t a recipe for disaster, well, then the fact that one main guy’s girl secretly likes the other main guy and the first main guy has a gun and death wish is just the icing on the cake. But angst aside, it can be said that the centerpiece drag race is late-night, low-budget fun at its best. (Seen 1 February 2001)

The Actors 2 out of 4 stars

The good thing about movies about actors is that they are written by screenwriters. This makes them more entertaining than movies about screenwriters (cf. The Majestic) in which there is usually way too much commiseration with the travails and injustices that screenwriters have to put up with. A movie about actors, on the other hand, feels entirely free to make fun of the pomposity and self-importance and self-delusion of thespians. Having the fun in this outing are producer and story originator Neil Jordan and director/writer Conor McPherson. This silly romp is way more conventional and way more outright funny than McPherson’s first two film outings, I Went Down and Saltwater. Not that The Actors is without its quirks, but lovers of standard comedy with be comforted by its bickering pair of principal characters as well as the precocious nine-year-old who is their mastermind and superior in terms of maturity. Of course, it takes really great actors to play really bad actors, and McPherson has the ideal pair. The legendary Michael Caine is the ham, who chews the scenery nightly on the stage of Dublin’s Olympia as Richard III, in Nazi regalia. Equally his match is Dylan Moran, who bears an eerie resemblance, both physically and talent-wise, to a young Kevin Kline. Also very good are Michael Gambon, as a credulous Dublin patriarch, and Lena Headey, as his cannier and more attractive daughter. Special treats for movie buffs include a few subtle references to major movies filmed in Ireland as well as a nod to Caine’s turn in Dress to Kill. (Seen 4 June 2003)

Adaptation 2 out of 4 stars

If you are perusing the video shelves for movies of the past few years that touch upon topics that are currently politically charged (e.g. devastating hurricanes, Charles Darwin), then you might give this 2002 Oscar winner a try. It was penned by the inventive screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, whose other similarly mind-bending movie work includes Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In fact, this might even qualify as some sort of sequel to the former movie, since it takes the meta-reality conceit of that film to one more level and even includes cast and crew of that film (including Kaufman himself) as characters. The ostensible plot is (very loosely, one assumes) based on the real-life situation Kaufman found himself in when assigned to adapt a New Yorker article by Susan Orlean into a movie. In what is practically a one-joke comedy, Kaufman creates fictional versions of the real people involved and then proceeds to do exactly what his on-screen alter ego resists: bend real life into a standard Hollywood movie. This is the sort of thing that tickles film buffs, but it definitely touches the mind more than the heart. Some of the best bits are actually in the closing credits, where a tribute is paid to the fictional Donald Kaufman. The Academy Awards even got into the act, nominating Charlie and Donald Kaufman jointly, in the category of adapted screenplay, even though it is debatable whether this (the title notwithstanding) actually qualifies as an adaptation. Deservedly, Chris Cooper got the Best Supporting Actor statuette. (Seen 20 September 2005)

Addicted to Love 2 out of 4 stars

No movie plot seems to be quite as irresistible as two people in New York City trying not to fall in love. This essentially sums up Addicted to Love. Its plot about two rejected lovers who team up to spy on their co-habitating exes through the use of sophisticated video and audio equipment, however, makes it feel a bit as though Atom Egoyan had made Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Matthew Broderick is wan as a lovesick astronomer who fails to see that his ex-fiancée has clearly moved on. Meg Ryan is the wacko one, a jilted lover on a kamikaze commando mission to get revenge on the Frenchman who dumped her. Since this is directed by Griffin Dunne (producer/star of Martin Scorsese’s twisted After Hours) the romance never gets too sappy. Even the finale (invoking, of all things, an old Lassie plot) turns a bit perverse. The movie’s title, like most taken from an old song for marketing-friendly familiarity, has little to do with the actual film. (Seen 15 September 1997)

Adore (Two Mothers) 1 out of 4 stars

Here’s your proof that, just because a movie passes the Bechdel test, it doesn’t mean it isn’t a load of rubbish. On the surface this flick has quality written all over it—lovely photography of the New South Wales coast, two fine lead actors in Naomi Watts and Robin Wright and an accomplished European writer/director in Anne Fontaine. And, rather promisingly, it has a titillating premise. Lil and Roz have been friends forever in their idyllic coastal village. Their friendship is so all-consuming that at times it feels as though they are alone on a desert island—kind of like the one in The Blue Lagoon. (Lil is a widow, Roz winds up in a long-distance marriage.) Each with short blonde hair, they even resemble each other. Are they soul mates? That could possibly explain why the relationship they can’t consummate with each other ends up getting consummated with the other’s hot young surfer son. (As Watts’s son, the photogenic Xavier Samuel only confuses things further by being hard to tell apart from the two women.) How will such a situation possibly resolve itself? That’s an extremely intriguing question, so it’s quite an accomplishment that Fontaine manages to make the drawn-out (sort of) resolution seem not very interesting—like a repetitive mix of bad soap opera and unintentional comedy. At one point, a potential suitor for Lil comes away convinced that the reason he’s getting nowhere is that the two are lesbians—leading the daydreaming viewer to wonder about the potential for a saucy romcom or maybe even a farcical sitcom. Four’s Company? More like My Mother the Coquette. (Seen 10 September 2014)

Adorenarin doraibu (Adrenaline Drive) 2 out of 4 stars

The title Adrenaline Drive is most definitely ironic. Not only are the two leads the most timid, shy, tentative, milquetoast pair you could imagine (at least to start out), but the pace of the first half of the movie seems totally glacial to audiences conditioned by short-attention-span-geared Hollywood action flicks. During the 1996 Seattle film festival, I discerned a virtual genre of Japanese cinema that I like to call “‘don’t f*** with the Yakuza’ films.” The hallmark of this genre is that the plot involves one or more persons who for some reason think that it would actually be a good idea to rip off or double cross Japan’s legendary gangsters—and they find out spectacularly that they were wrong. (The classic of the genre would be the wonderfully outlandish Gonin.) Well, Adrenaline Drive would be a sub-genre of this, which would have to be called the “gentle, romantic ‘don’t f*** with the Yakuza’ caper comedy.” By the time writer/director Shinobu Yaguchi’s film hits the home stretch, it’s actually a good bit of fun. In addition to the very passive yet somehow endearing leads, its charms include a ragtag band of young gang members, pursuing of our heroes, who are violent all right but also not above breaking out into an old bubble gum pop song while driving down the road. Also giving chase is a more serious older gangster who doesn’t let a few near-fatal injuries hold him back from going after the purloiners of his stolen money. He gives something of an adrenaline surge to what is otherwise a very amiable comedy. (Seen 9 May 2000)

Adventures in Babysitting 2 out of 4 stars

For what seemed like decades in the late 20th century, legal hassles kept Marvel superheroes off our movie screens. Until the logjam finally broke, the closest we came to seeing one of them in the cinema was this little adventure/comedy directed by Chris Columbus, in his directorial debut, three years before he made Home Alone. That is because the character played by young Maia Brewton is obsessed with the mighty Thor and, before the film’s end, she actually gets to meet him (sort of). And he turns out to be none other than Vincent D’Onofrio (here billed as Vincent Phillip D’Onofrio) in an early role. (D’Onofrio would have another Marvel connection nine years later, playing Conan the Barbarian creator Robert E. Howard in The Whole Wide World.) It is probably no coincidence that this movie followed Martin Scorsese’s After Hours by only two years, since this is basically the same movie but aimed at a younger market. Elisabeth Shue (between The Karate Kid and two Back to the Future movies) is appealing as the plucky babysitter who finds her supposedly boring evening spinning out of control from crisis to ever-escalating crisis. And so are Brewton, Keith Coogan and Anthony Rapp as her three up-for-anything charges. Other familiar (and young) faces in the cast include Penelope Ann Miller, as Shue’s neurotic friend, and Bradley Whitford, as her jerk boyfriend. The crowd-pleasing family-oriented antics, pushing the PG envelope, were ample signs of Columbus’s work to follow, including Mrs. Doubtfire and two Harry Potter movies. (Seen 2 October 2010)

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen 3 out of 4 stars

Fifteen years before Albert Finney spun his tall tales in Big Fish, John Neville told some real whoppers in this flick. This fantastical extravaganza was Terry Gilliam’s follow-up to what is still his best film, Brazil. This is perhaps the quintessential Gilliam film, with elaborate set pieces that seem to have been conceived as wacky bits of animation (like the ones Gilliam did for the Monty Python’s Flying Circus TV series) and with loads of visual jokes and frenetic touches of absurdist humor. Also present is the perennial Gilliam theme of tensions between fact and legend, dreams and reality, as would be expected from a man who is still on his own quixotic quest to make a film about Don Quixote. This was Neville’s most flamboyant starring role ever. (More often a supporting player, Neville would be best known to baby-boom-age PBS watchers as the star of the BBC series The First Churchills. Younger people would know him from a recurring role on The X-Files.) As he wove his elaborate tales to a credulous theater audience before taking flight in a balloon, we realized that he is really the Wizard of Oz and that the very young Sarah Polley was his Dorothy. (The real tip-off to the Oz connection is the fact that the actors playing the baron’s entourage all have dual roles.) By the end of the adventures, the baron has virtually become Don Quixote, perhaps as a dry run for the future movie Gilliam hoped (hopes?) to make. In the best line of the movie, as he climbs to the top of the crescent moon with the intention of lowering himself back to earth on a rope, the baron exclaims, “This is precisely the sort of thing that no one ever believes!” Many moviegoers apparently found this film too bizarre and disjointed to embrace, but it is a joy for those of us with an appetite for flights of fancy. It is also a handy way to win the odd bar wager by asking someone, were Oliver Reed, Uma Thurman and Robin Williams ever in a movie together? (Seen 7 February 2004)

The Adventures of Sebastian Cole 1 out of 4 stars

Conventional wisdom says that every budding novelist has one mediocre autobiographical first novel that he has to get out of his system before he can get down to serious writing. (I know. I’m still working on mine.) This movie is the cinematic equivalent of that novel. Writer/director Tod Williams has fashioned his feature debut around his own coming-of-age experiences in the early 1980s. We really want to like this mostly amiable movie and particularly its charismatic lead, Adrian Grenier, who looks a bit like Greg in The Brady Bunch. But the film has a largely “you had to be there” feel to it. Williams said he deliberately wanted to set up expectations and then knock them down, and unfortunately he has done that all too well. For instance, Clark Gregg has a role that seems incidental and included just for laughs, and it is way too late into the film before we realize that he is supposed to be pivotal. Still, the movie has a number of humorous moments, in fact enough to make you think that this is supposed to be just another teen comedy. Also in the cast are John Shea and Margaret Colin (looking strangely like Stockard Channing) as Sebastian’s parents. (Seen 28 May 1999)

The African Queen 3 out of 4 stars

This 1951 John Huston classic was screened at the Cork Film Festival as part of a tribute to legendary cinematographer Jack Cardiff. Now turns out to be a very good time to see this movie again, since a fresh look brings it home that this film was really the Signs of its time. Like M. Night Shyamalan’s current hit, this is really a story of faith in the face of adversity and apparent hopelessness. Just as Mel Gibson is an auto-defrocked reverend, here Katharine Hepburn is a missionary who has lost her mission. But unlike Gibson, who had to bear his burden for himself and his family, Hepburn shares hers with Humphrey Bogart, in one of his star turns as a hero lurking behind a calculated apathetic posture, who also gets a lesson in faith and how coincidence can turn out to be divine intervention. The African Queen is interesting in today’s context also because of its wartime setting (1914 German East Africa) and the current drumbeats of war. The film came soon enough after World War II for American and British audiences to cheer on its storyline about sinking a German battleship. But today the idea of a couple of people ramming a military ship with a small boat loaded with explosives has other overtones. So, were Charlie and Rosie heroes… or terrorists? (Seen 7 October 2002)

Ag Trasnú an Atlantaigh Dhuibh (Crossing the Black Atlantic) 2 out of 4 stars

One of the very few films I was not able to score a ticket for at July’s Galway Film Fleadh was this 47-minute documentary in the Irish language by Des Kilbane. It was also one of the few Fleadh flicks my kid specifically wanted to see. Either its subject matter (relating strongly to Galway) gave it incredible pre-screening word of mouth or else someone organized a very effective sociall media campaign. I have finally gotten my chance to see it, and it does indeed tell an interesting tale, although the details of its subject’s life are ultimately pretty sketchy. The doc fills its standard TV running time by beginning with several minutes of background about the 16th and 17th century slave trade in general and its connections to Galway in particular. Then we get down to the story of Virginia slave Tom Molineaux who, according to lore, won his freedom by saving his master’s plantation by winning a boxing match. What is better documented is his boxing match in July 1810, in which he defeated Jack Burrows after 65 minutes, and his boxing match the following December with Tom Cribb for the English title. Rated the underdog, Molineaux lost in the 35th round, but contemporary accounts make it clear that his loss was due to interference by spectators and an unfair referee’s call in the 19th round. Cribb was a hero in England for the rest of his life. Molineaux eked out a living by participating in exhibition matches. Unable or unwilling to take care of himself, he spent his last years in Galway where he drank himself to death in his mid-30s. He was buried in a pauper’s grave in Mervue’s St. James Cemetery, among the Lynch family (giving him an unlikely and tenuous connection to, of all people, Che Guevara). With a paucity of contemporaneous images for telling this story, the doc relies on various talking-head historians, a few drawings of Molineaux, clips from a reenactment of his match with Cribb and, most oddly, quite a bit of footage of a 114-year-old performance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin filmed by Edwin S. Porter for Thomas Edison. (Seen 27 October 2017)

Agnes Browne 2 out of 4 stars

Is it just me or are Anjelica Huston and Cher really the same person? Now that I’ve got that off my chest, if you are one of those people who think that Angela’s Ashes would make a swell situation comedy, you nearly get your wish with Agnes Browne. In fact, one of Agnes’s children is played by Ciaran Owens, who was one of three lads to play young Frank McCourt. We first meet our heroine (played by Huston, who also directed) as she attempts to apply for her widow’s pension mere minutes after her husband’s demise. Her technically correct but non sequiter answers to the bureaucrat’s questions would do Gracie Allen proud. After some family drama, personal tragedy, sentimental melodrama and a bit of romance, the film ends on another sitcom note at an unlikely night at the Gaiety Theatre. There are plenty of laugh lines in this tale of life among the street vendors on Dublin’s Moore Street, including the funniest one during a driving lesson that quickly turns to pathos, neatly summing up the contradiction of the movie’s tone (and, some might even say, the Irish character itself). The mind behind all this belongs to Brendan O’Carroll, who wrote the source novel (The Mammy), co-wrote the screenplay, and pops up intermittently as a local drunk, looking strangely like Professor Irwin Corey. As the love interest, Arno Chevrier does nothing to dispell the notion that all Frenchmen look like Gérard Depardieu. (Seen 5 March 2000)

Ahakista 2 out of 4 stars

If Air India Flight 182 had not been overshadowed in the international media by the destruction of Pan Am Flight 103 the following year, the name Ahakista might have become as well known as Lockerbie. (But probably not, because the passenger list of the Air India flight did not consist predominately of U.S. citizens.) The wreckage of 182 did not fall literally on the Cork coastal village of Ahakista, as happened with Lockerbie, but as this documentary by Hugh Farley shows, it made a huge impact on southwest Ireland just the same. In a strangely matter-of-fact and almost detached style, the film unsparingly gives us the details of the doomed flight and heart-rending interviews with those who dealt with the wreckage and the bodies and, most excruciatingly, with some of the families of the victims who, as fate would have it, were overwhelmingly women and children. As the bereaved Indian immigrant families in Canada discovered, the Irish are a people with a history of confronting mindless tragedy, and they know how to respond magnificently. It would be good to see the film amended to deal with one of the many agonizing facets of the tragedy: the arrest of those suspected of planting the bomb. (Seen 8 March 2001)

Aiqing Wansui (Vive l’Amour) 2 out of 4 stars

This movie ends with the camera locked on a woman who sits there and sobs for what seems like 10 minutes. The end. Why was she crying? Is it because her car didn’t start? Is it because she picks up strange men in fast food restaurants and has sex with them in the luxury apartment she’s supposed to be selling? (She’s a real estate agent.) Is it because she smokes 50 packs of cigarettes a day? We are left to ponder this one our own. Vive l’Amour by Tawainese director Tsai Ming-liang (Rebels of the Neon God) is reminiscent of those weird films that Chantal Akerman used to make. The ones where nothing much happens for a couple of hours. Just everyday, normal activities and not much dialog. It’s like a minimalist symphony because when something finally does happen, it has a lot more impact than it would in any other movie. There were a lot of sighs of exasperation from audience members during this film, but for some reason I couldn’t help but pay attention the whole way through. (Seen 31 May 1996)

Air Force One 2 out of 4 stars

If my cable TV service goes out and I’m really missing CNN, I can always just go to the local movie theater and see the latest action movie. It is now apparently de rigueur to include real or faux CNN reporters in most movies to give them (the movies, not the reporters) an air of realism—further blurring the increasingly faint line between entertainment and reality. Fortunately, Wolfgang Petersen (Das Boot, In the Line of Fire) declines to give us a digitally enhanced Bill Clinton, as we got in Contact, and instead gives us a truly presidential figure in Harrison Ford, this generation’s Gary Cooper. Ford beats out Michael Douglas and Bill Pullman as Hollywood’s idea of the dream President we really wish we had. Air Force One has inevitably been tagged Die Hard in an airplane, and that is correct. So it’s not just a terrorists-and-hostages movie. It’s also an airplane disaster movie. And it’s also a political thriller. It’s just fine as a roller-coaster ride, although Gary Oldman made a more entertaining villain in The Fifth Element. Strangely, the film goes to great lengths to set up an elaborate international political context for this improbable story but totally ignores the most intriguing question of all: What would lead a Secret Service agent to commit the highest form of treason? (Seen 25 July 1997)

Airplane! 3 out of 4 stars

This is one of those key movies that can legitimately claim to have changed everything. Sure, there were spoof and parody movies before Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker made Airplane!, but this movie represented a generational shift in the genre. The influence of baby boomer media like Mad magazine and Jay Ward and Warner Bros. cartoons can be seen in the myriad sight gags and plays on words. What was particularly new was the sheer awareness of the filmmakers—and the assumption that the audience was aware as well—of movie conventions and clichés. Scenes like those where Robert Stack whips off not one but two pairs of sunglasses or where he seems to step out of a mirror are funny because we recognize the visual grammar they are tweaking. Other bits (people diving out of windows, a nude woman coming out of nowhere during a crowd panic scene) remind us that the Three Stooges were a major boomer influence as well. The best part was seeing familiar faces (Stack, Lloyd Bridges, Peter Graves, Leslie Nielsen, Barbara Billingsley) sending up their own screen images. As I wrote on this web site a decade ago, I was lucky enough to see this movie before most other people did, so all of this came as a deliriously unexpected and convulsively funny surprise. To kids today, Airplane! may seem like nothing special because the formula is so well established and lots of these spoofs have followed. But you know what? None of the countless copycats (cf. Vampires Suck) are anywhere near as good. (Seen 5 August 1996)

Aithrí (Penance) 2 out of 4 stars

Depending on how you view it, this movie about Ireland’s violent struggles will either depress you or give you hope. I am pretty sure it means to do one or the other. I am just not sure which one. Written by Greg O’Braonáin and director Tom Collins, the scenario does something interesting. Opening in strife-torn Derry in 1969, the action alternates with flashbacks to Donegal in 1916. As a young priest, Father Eoin is all about encouraging rebellion against the British, and young Antaine falls under his hypnotic spell. When the Rising occurs, things go badly and Eoin has to face up to his part in the violence. A half-century later, elderly Eoin comes face-to-face with Antaine again and, seeing the continuing cycle of violence, must decide what he can or should do about it. What is interesting is that the film seems to be questioning the rationale for Ireland’s War of Independence—something you do not often see in popular entertainment here. Moreover, it draws more of a direct line between that war and the later Troubles in Northern Ireland than you usually see. It’s an ambitious idea, and it is not a bad story. It would be better, though, if it were more a thoughtful drama and less a melodrama. Believability is also undercut by the fact that the actors playing the younger Eoin and Antaine (Peter Coonan, Padhraig Parkinson) look nothing like the ones playing them as older men (Terry Byrne, Barry McGovern). Director Collins has had an interesting career. His work includes such varied fare as the music documentary Teenage Kicks: The Undertones, the drama Kings, the Northern Ireland documentary The Boys of St Columb’s and the Irish television series An Bronntanas. Aithrí is one more interesting addition to the mix. (Seen 15 July 2017)

Ajami 3 out of 4 stars

Quentin Tarantino in Israel/Palestine? Well, not quite. But this fairly well-made movie does feature the sprawling, inter-connected plot strands and multiple characters and shifts back and forth through time and varying perspectives that we have come to consider Tarantino-esque trademarks—and which have been used for some time now by all sorts of filmmakers. This storytelling technique actually catches us (well, me) unawares because it has the look and feel of a naturalistic documentary. It starts off with a bang, literally, as a young man is felled by senseless drive-by shooting. But as things move along, we get frustrated because things don’t always seem coherent. But patience is amply rewarded, as we come to realize that the story, or stories, are being told in a non-linear fashion and from shifting points of view. By the end, it all makes sense and a lot of things we think have happened turn out not to have happened at all. A German-Israeli co-production directed by Ajami native Scandar Copti and Israeli Yaron Shani, the film gives us a glimpse into life in the Palestinian border area much different from other movies or from news reports. We see a place where Moslems, Jews and Christians mix normally, if sometimes uncomfortably or even violently, and where couples sometimes include members of different communities. The dialog shifts regularly from Arabic to Hebrew and back again. Because this region has long been the hot center of rhetoric and politics, we are primed to expect a heavy-handed political message. But there really isn’t one. At least not one that can be summed up simply. If there is a moral, it is that misunderstandings can easily lead to tragedy, especially when the violent are allowed free reign and no effort is made to understand the other side. But the real message here is that Copti and Shani have made a cracking good thriller that delivers both as entertainment and as a bit of education. (Seen 21 February 2010)

Akumulator 1 2 out of 4 stars

I was barely awake for this midnight movie, but fortunately it was interesting enough to keep me from dozing completely most of the time. Olda, the hero of this movie from the Czech Republic, becomes virtually paralyzed with exhaustion. With the help of a natural healer, he learns that he is one of a group of people especially sensitive to a strange force that lives in television sets and sucks energy from people. (Hey, I can relate to that!) So he becomes a crusading action hero trying to destroy this force. He stealthily makes his way into electronics stores wielding remote controls like Chuck Norris carrying guns. This is entertaining enough stuff. One of the film’s interesting touches is to look at ordinary events from unique perspectives. For example, when Olda gets an injection, we not only see the needle enter his arm; we also get a view inside his vein as the needle bursts through. When he goes to the dentist, we are treated to an impossibly large close-up of the drill entering his tooth. And when he is driving down a road, we get a good look at the concerned snails he barely misses on the roadway. (Seen 4 June 1995)

Aladdin 3 out of 4 stars

This Disney treatment of yet another tale that had been in the public domain for ages was one of a string of Disney animated features that arrived in the late 1980s and 1990s on a wave a revitalized creativity in the Disney cartoon stable. Following The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast and preceding Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules and Mulan (leaving aside numerous and various direct-to-video sequels of many of these, as well as TV spinoffs), Aladdin is one of the two or three best of the bunch. A large part of the success of these new animations was not computer realism (a factor that was introduced in the mid-1990s with Toy Story) but, rather, from the old-fashioned tactic of better writing and, not incidentally, classic-Broadway-musical-caliber music, frequently composed by Alan Menken. In fact, this movie actually picked up Oscars for Best Original Score and Best Song. It also helped that the Disney powers-that-be loosened up a bit on their legendary creative control and let an established star like Robin Williams do his own famous flow-of-consciousness improvisational shtick as the character of the genie (and matched it with compatible animation by Eric Goldberg). For adults in the western world, watching this movie now may bring up some strange emotions. Fairy tale depictions of the ancient Moslem world may never have been completely politically correct, and recent world events have certainly not done much to enhance the fantasy. In particular, a few references to beheadings (with the benefit of hindsight) arrive with an involuntary jolt. (Seen 29 July 2005)

Alarm 2 out of 4 stars

Molly is still recovering from a violent incident in which her father and she were assaulted in their own home. Burned out on Dublin, she impulsively buys a house in a brand new development way out in the middle of nowhere. She is living on her own in an estate where the neighbors are all gone from early in the morning until late at night. And she doesn’t own a car. Well, what could possibly go wrong here? In introducing his latest movie, writer/director Gerry Stembridge said that he wanted to do a swan song for the Celtic Tiger (i.e. Ireland’s 1990s economic boom) as well as a good old-fashioned thriller. True to Stembridge’s intention, not only do we get a few good chills, but we also get a wry commentary on how economic prosperity has the effect of dissolving communities, as people increasingly live and work in isolation. The insidious thing about the movie is that we have no trouble recognizing ourselves in its characters. What is particularly clever about the film is that, as Molly becomes increasingly convinced that she is being targeted, we cannot be completely sure whether there really is a plot against her or if she is merely making herself hysterical. Even after the movie is over, we may not be entirely certain. (Seen 11 July 2008)

Alegre Ma Non Troppo 1 out of 4 stars

Even though the title is in Italian, this film is from Spain. The title (which could be translated as “happy but not too much”) is a musical direction which reflects the fact that the film’s story revolves around a national youth orchestra. This comedy has elements of farce, and like Pretty Baby it has central character who is forced to deal with his own sexual orientation. This time, however, the character is a young gay man who is convinced by a psychiatrist that he is really heterosexual. (Incidentally, unless you happen to be able to speed read in Spanish, you may miss the revelation near the end of the film that the psychiatrist is a total fraud.) In the end, the film is less interested in Pablo’s orientation than it is with his relationship with his parents (a distant father and a Mother From Hell who invariably shows up at the worst possible moment) and with the mutual attraction between Pablo’s father and Pablo’s off-and-on girlfriend Salome. The twist here is that Pablo’s mother is not only okay with him being gay, but she doesn’t want him to be straight! Alegre Ma Non Troppo has only a fraction of Pretty Baby’s zaniness, and it makes up the difference with Latin sentimentality. It is entertaining enough, but it feels as though it wants to shock us by depicting such open sexuality in a Catholic Spain long repressed by Francisco Franco. But I’m afraid that Pedro Almodovar and others milked that cow dry several years ago. (Seen 24 May 1995)

Alfred the Great 1 out of 4 stars

In introducing this movie, Redmond Morris conceded that it wasn’t great. But it was the first movie he worked on, as a third assistant director, which meant that his job was to get the star David Hemmings to the location on time each morning. A 1969 biopic of the man who saved England for the Anglo-Saxons, it was filmed in rural Galway. It was directed by Clive Donner, whose main claim to fame is the 1965 Woody Allen-penned comedy What’s New Pussycat. The thing is a mess. This Alfred is the most reluctant of kings, constantly trying to go into the priesthood but instead being dragged off to lead the Wessex men into battle against invading Danes. The writers have concocted some sort of love triangle between Alfred and his wife (Prunella Ransome, whose next role would be as a plague victim on an episode of Doctor Who) and a horribly miscast Michael York as the Viking leader. York has been given a bushy beard to make him seem more manly, but it doesn’t help that in the bed scenes he has the body of a 14-year-old boy. But he does serve the purpose of making the even prettier Hemmings look better as Alfred. The battle scenes aren’t very exciting. The history is hard to follow and doesn’t seem very accurate anyway. In a nutshell, this Alfred isn’t great. Of interest, however, is seeing a quite young Ian McKellen in the role of Roger the bandit chief. Why does that sound like the title of a Monty Python sketch? (Seen 12 July 2009)

Alice in Wonderland 2 out of 4 stars

This is the Disney flick we have to get through so that Tim Burton and Johnny Depp can move on to Dark Shadows. Do we really need one more version of Lewis Carroll’s immortal tale? Even one from the visual genius that is Tim Burton? Well, “need” is kind of a strong word. But we should be plenty glad to have it. This is not a straightforward retelling but a sequel of sorts, in the way that Steven Spielberg’s Hook followed the characters from Peter Pan several years hence. As is usual with Burton, there is also some psychological updating and even a bit of feminist orthodoxy in Linda Woolverton’s screenplay. (She has previously penned Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and Mulan.) Like Bruce Wayne and Willy Wonka before her, Alice has been given a fuller backstory and, inevitably, father issues. Moreover, she has been developed into some sort of sword & sorcery hero by the end of things. Question: Does it all work? Answer: It looks great! If I didn’t exactly answer the question posed, well, then Burton has done a little deflecting himself. He has brought his welcome trademark darkness to a classic that is too often viewed through (it must be said) a Disney-fied prism of bright colors. It has marvelous imagery and first-rate performances. (Harry Potter aficionados can amuse themselves by picking out some familiar voices and at least a couple of faces. And the too little seen Crispin Glover is on hand, looking oddly like Kurt Russell in Escape from New York.) But for all that, I have to say, it doesn’t quite carry the sober resonance of Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. (Seen 14 March 2010)

Alien Resurrection 2 out of 4 stars

Ridley Scott’s classic outer space horror movie Alien has officially joined those films (e.g. Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th) that have spawned a franchise of sequels mainly about monsters killing lots of people. James Cameron (The Terminator, Titanic) made a fine first sequel by taking the basic plot elements and spinning a fast-paced action flick. David Fincher (who went on to direct Seven) less successfully turned it into some kind eastern European style prison allegory art film. Now we have the visually inventive Jean-Pierre Jeunet (co-director of Delicatessen and City of Lost Children) sort of going back to Cameron’s approach but also turning it into kind of a Frankenstein morality tale. The exploration of genetic engineering is nothing if not timely, and at least Sigourney Weaver’s reconstituted Ripley character gets to actually enjoy the mayhem for once. Ron Perlman plays a somewhat less sensitive and romantic figure than he did on TV’s Beauty and the Beast. (Seen 1 December 1997)

Aliens in the Attic 2 out of 4 stars

You know you’re getting old when the cool young talented people you used to watch on TV are now playing the authority figures and parents of the cool young talented people your kid is watching on Nickelodeon and the Disney channels. The former would be Saturday Night Live alums Kevin Nealon and Tim Meadows and once and future Conan O’Brien announcer Andy Richter. But they are peripheral to the antics of the likes of young Carter Jenkins, Austin Butler and Ashley Tisdale. People I normally trust had convinced me that this movie would be a clunker and, for good or ill, there wouldn’t be that much of Ms. Tisdale. They were wrong on both counts. Tisdale (of High School Musical fame) has no mere cameo, although she is not the lead either. She is part of an ensemble. She is The Sister, in the same sort of way that Jennifer Grey was The Sister in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. The movie is silly, ridiculous fun, without a serious thought in its pretty little head. Even the obligatory lesson moment at the end between son Jenkins and dad Nealon is so perfunctory that it seems to be played for laughs. To the movie’s credit, it’s the first film I’ve seen in ages, aimed squarely at kids, that doesn’t feature a single fart joke. Instead, there are plenty of sight gags and physical comedy set pieces, the best of which feature Doris Roberts(!) as Nana and Robert Hoffman in a turn that might make Jim Carrey lick his chops. Non-kids can be amused at the copious sci-fi references, with E.T. being a major object of homage. Other references are more subtle, but particularly welcome was the nubile Ms. Tisdale’s wrestling match with a female alien, an apparent nod to Sigourney Weaver in Aliens. (Seen 5 September 2009)

Alive & Kicking (Indian Summer) 2 out of 4 stars

There have been enough movies now about gay relationships where one is HIV positive (Jeffrey, Heaven’s a Drag, Nervous Energy, etc.) that it’s almost a full-fledged cinematic sub-genre. This one isn’t the worst (thankfully, there are no gaudy song-and-dance numbers representing the afterlife), but it’s not the best either. On the up side, Nancy (Sister My Sister) Meckler’s Alive & Kicking features a central character who is no saint but who concentrates on life and his art rather than dwelling on his health or longevity. The twist is that AIDS is actually taking a heavier toll on his HIV negative lover whose job is to counsel patients with little (British) government support or encouragement. The film’s climax includes a ballet performance which is quite moving but unfortunately compromised by its total improbability. (Seen 23 May 1997)

All About Eve 3 out of 4 stars

This movie should be required viewing at the commencement of every awards season. And upon watching this 1950 classic, viewers should be given a final exam after the Academy Awards broadcast with the assignment of detecting which faces in the audience are sincere in their joy for the person giving the acceptance speech and which ones, in the best Bette Davis tradition, are lobbing virtual darts at the speech-giver in full false modesty mode. Even given all of the over-the-top send-ups we have seen during the subsequent half-century of what is apparently the viper pit of show business, this movie stands out in its venomous portrayal of oversize acting egos and back-stabbing career climbing. And it’s probably no coincidence that the ultimate villains of the piece are the ambitious rising star (Anne Baxter) and the manipulative critic (George Sanders). The writer/director was the very prolific Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who released this the same year as the racial drama No Way Out and after the melodrama A Letter to Three Wives and before the romantic comedy People Will Talk. It is tempting to think that Mankiewicz was exorcising some demons spawned by his many years in the entertainment world. But he seems to have been making this flick for the same reason that he made all of his movies: give his players a chance to really work their acting chops and to provide a serious amount of entertainment for his audience. Some things haven’t changed in 55 years. Despite advances like botox and personal trainers, in an age where 50 is supposedly the new 30, there is still probably no actor (especially female ones) that, upon hitting 40, does not look over his or her shoulder at the younger talent cropping up. Bette Davis herself was in her early 40s when this movie preoccupied with age came out. And it is one of the highlights of her career. She commands the screen like no one else. She is, effectively, ageless. (Seen 15 January 2006)

All Good Children 2 out of 4 stars

Yes, the title is ironic. Presumably, it comes from the nursery rhyme and would be completed by “go to heaven.” The film is freely adapted from (maybe “inspired by” would be more accurate) British author Sam Taylor’s novel The Republic of Trees, which was something of a variation on The Lord of the Flies. But Alicia Duffy’s film is less a societal allegory and critique than an adolescent entry into that good old movie subgenre l’amour fou. After their mother’s death, a pair of Irish lads are landed on their aunt in rural France. They soon befriend a nearby British family, and young Dara becomes drawn to their daughter Bella. She is played by Imogen Jones, who easily makes us believe that she could bewitch a boy with her sphinx-like eyes and smile. Dara is played Jack Gleeson, who already has a blockbuster under his belt with a brief role in Batman Begins. He too is well served by his distinctive eyes, which convey all kinds of need and vulnerability and, ultimately, dire confusion. Much of the action takes place in a forest and, inevitably, the camera lingers longingly on nature shots, alerting us that the most primeval of forces will be at play here. Auspiciously, the movie debuted at the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes. (Seen 9 July 2010)

All Is Lost 3 out of 4 stars

One thing’s for damn sure. Even if he’s on the far side of his mid-70s, you’d still be better off with Robert Redford in a crisis at sea than with three men a third of his age. So why Redford? Was it to make the movie more marketable? Or did writer/director J.C. Chandor (Margin Call) deliberately want a familiar, iconic face as his protagonist? Redford’s character (the only one in the whole movie) has no name (the credits list him as Our Man), but it’s easier to imagine that he’s a wealthy adventurer like Richard Branson. The story is as simple as something written by Jack London or Ernest Hemingway at their most elemental. Our Man’s sailing boat collides with an errant shipping container in the middle of the vast Indian Ocean. From that point on, he is in a constant fight for survival. It’s nearly a 24/7 job for eight days just for him to keep afloat and alive. It’s gripping, suspenseful and harrowing—and all occurs with dialog spoken only at the very beginning and during a frantic but brief attempted radio call plus one shouted expletive when things go truly pear shaped. It is all played very realistically. There are no overt Hollywood touches—at least until the very end, and by then it is fairly earned. By then, along with Our Man, we have looked unvarnished life and mortality straight in the face. And it has looked back at us. (Seen 11 July 2013)

All or Nothing 2 out of 4 stars

Cheerless people. Depressing, if not terribly exciting, situations. More than a fair amount of whining. That’s right. Mike Leigh has made another film. His formula is by now well known. Take a family of working class English people and go on for two hours with one disheartening scene after another. (Practically every conversation seems to end with someone screaming, “Oh, f**k off!”) Then, when things lighten up just a little bit at the end, it seems like rays of sunlight after a long, cold winter. This film isn’t as ambitious or as rewarding as his 1996 hit, Secrets & Lies, but it has its moments—if you can wait for them. As the father, Timothy Spall looks like he has been battered by life and is meekly waiting for the final blow. As the mother, Lesley Manville looks perpetually distraught and has that cloying whine that Leigh’s wives and mothers always seem to have. The only breath of fresh air is Ruth Sheen, as a neighbor and the only character in the whole film who has any kind of sense of humor or ability to relate to others forthrightly. Like Leigh’s other films, this one is very well made and bares some uncomfortable truths about modern society. But it sure isn’t exactly a fun date movie. (Seen 10 October 2002)

All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records 2 out of 4 stars

One of the perks of living in Ireland is that I can still go visit Tower Records. There are two locations in Dublin, but their connection to the late, lamented American chain of music stores has long since expired. In this wistful documentary by actor (and son of Tom) Colin Hanks we learn that scores of Tower Records stores are also still thriving in Japan. But the original chain founded by Russ Solomon in 1960 has been in the grave ten years now. Hanks’s doc is, in turns, straightforward history, exercise in nostalgia, behind-the-scenes glimpses and bitter economics lesson. We learn of the chain’s origins in a Sacramento drug store—with soda fountain and jukebox—owned by Solomon’s father and which expanded into selling records. We follow Solomon and his team’s progress as they set up a large store in the strategic location of Bay and Columbus in San Francisco, followed by their premier location on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood. Elton John was such a valued customer, the store opened an hour early just for him. Bruce Springsteen sings its praises, and Dave Grohl notes he worked there “because that’s the only place I could get a job with my f***in’ haircut.” The employee culture was just as you always imagined it: capitalistic hippies partying hard after hours in the back rooms. The doc does a particularly good job of portaying the camaradery and family-like feeling of the original team and of the staff. One particularly moving moment is when music industry veteran Jim Urie recounts emotionally how well Solomonn treated him during a down period in his career. So what doomed this musical/social/cultural icon? Obviously, the technological shift to streaming and downloading had a hand in it, but the film suggests Tower could have survived if it had not lost the one key employee who actually had a grip on money issues. Devastatingly, that left this joyful, buoyant company with only visionary/creative types—who soon ran out of cash. (Seen 21 August 2016)

Almost Famous 2 out of 4 stars

The problem with seeing a movie after it has received major accolades and awards is that expectations have been set high. This was the best-written movie of 2000 (not adapted from another source), according to the motion picture academy. Personally, I think it is well-written, but it’s no Wonder Boys. But, happily, it does share with that film the wonderful talent of Frances McDormand, as the young hero’s university professor mother, who is wildly conflicted between mentoring and protecting. The two films also share young prodigy characters with strangely blank stares. There are so many reaction shots of Patrick Fugit looking goofy (he reminded me strangely of Sissy Spacek) that this love letter to 1970s drugs, sex and rock ‘n’ roll comes off almost like The Wonder Years meets That 70s Show with a bit of This Is Spinal Tap thrown in for good measure. With all deference to writer/director Cameron Crowe, the best thing about the movie is the performances. In addition to McDormand’s funny and touching turn, we have Kate Hudson’s justly recognized role as the premier groupie, I mean, band aid and the duo of Billy Crudup and Jason Lee, who really do seem like rock musicians who are a bit too full of themselves. Interestingly, by the end, it is they, not the young, aspiring journalist, who seem wiser for the experience. (Seen 24 April 2001)

Almost Salinas 2 out of 4 stars

Whenever anybody asks me why I use my car’s headlights all the time, even in broad daylight, I reply matter-of-factly that, if James Dean had done the same, he would be alive today. On September 30, 1955, a Cal Poly student was driving east on what is now Highway 46 in central California, on his way home to Tulare from San Luis Obispo. As he prepared to make a left turn at the Y intersection with Highway 41, near Cholame, a Porsche Spyder headed toward him. The driver of the Porsche, 24-year-old actor James Dean, did not see him because the light of the setting sun was in his eyes. The student did not see the Porsche because its silver gray color camouflaged it in the dusky light. Dean was fatally injured when his car struck the student’s Ford. If you drive through Cholame today, you can see a memorial to Dean outside a small diner. Writer/director Terry Green has taken these basic facts and created a fictional modern-day Cholame that is even more remote and desolate and uninhabited than the real one. The diner and gas station are run by John Mahoney, who will forever be known as Frasier’s dad. The early scenes of him bantering with his employees reminds us of something that Larry McMurtry might have written, although Green needs to write a few more of these to achieve McMurtry’s caliber. The main story is familiar: the one about a film crew that comes to a small place and changes everything for a few days. There is also a theme of secrets, guilt and lost chances that keeps us interested, as well as a fairly good payoff at the end. As far as I can tell, this 2001 film has only played at a few film festivals, but if you get the chance to see it, it’s definitely a reasonable way to spend a couple of hours. (Seen 19 June 2004)

Alvin and the Chipmunks 2 out of 4 stars

In every standard musical biopic, there comes a moment (or two or three) where the protagonist gets inspired to write a bit of music that we know immediately will become a song we have heard millions of times—like when Kyle MacLachlan doodles out the immortal keyboard riff from “Light My Fire” in The Doors, or when Reese Withershpoon tells Joaquin Phoenix he needs to “walk the line” in the movie of the same title. We have such a moment in this pseudo-biopic when Jason Lee tries to fall asleep, his head brimming with chipmunk chatter about Christmas and hula hoops and starts coming up with “The Christmas Song” (aka “Christmas Don’t Be Late”), thereby juicing long-ago memories of American baby boomers everywhere. This raises the question why the filmmakers didn’t actually make a real pseudo-biopic of the fictional David Seville character (performing alter ego of Ross Bagasarian Sr.) set in the original time period of the late 1950s and beyond. That could have been a truly enchanting movie. But movie economics obviously dictated that this revision of long-ago established characters would go the Garfield route (director Tim Hill helmed the Garfield sequel.) So we have the standard story about a loveable (well, likeable, well, tolerable) loser who learns to bond with other species (and at least one female of his own species) thanks to the intervention of extroverted CGI creatures. And Alvin and company are tailor-made for this since they were always about mischief-makers tweaking the nose of an authority figure. Fortunately, there are enough nice touches to make the proceedings painless, although the whole thing seems to end rather abruptly, as if they ran out of money for the big CGI finale. But there are plenty clever sight gags and at least one really good sound gag: when Alvin breathes helium, his voice becomes deep and low. (Seen 27 January 2008)

Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel 1 out of 4 stars

The title says it all. The bit in front of the colon tells us that we are in for more of the movie version of Alvin and the Chipmunks. The law of sequels says it will be the same except bigger and better. This is true, except that it is smaller and worse. The bit after the colon tells us that no joke or gag will be too obvious or too lame to omit. As with the first movie, the conceit is that teenagers and adults of all ages will go mad for the singing of small furry animals that sound like they’ve swallowed helium—in a frenzied way not seen since the heyday of the Beatles. Inevitably, the script will mine every reference it can to other movies. Alvin, for example, is continually dispensing quips from everything from Apocalypse Now to Taxi Driver. But the biggest influences are clearly High School Musical and Dreamgirls, but riffs from those flicks are employed with such little wit that they feel less like an homage or send-up than easy, tired rip-offs. Actually, the movie opens with so many horrendous accidents, plus a plane journey, that it nearly feels like a parody of those Final Destination movies. If there is one good, heartfelt caricature in this mess, it is the evil record promoter character played by David Cross. One gets the distinct feeling that the creative people involved here based him on whatever studio honcho commissioned this cynical, money-making exercise. For what it’s worth, though, the two under-ten females who saw this with us liked it just fine. (Seen 17 January 2010)

L’Amant Magnifique 0 out of 4 stars

This movie commits the one cardinal sin of films, as far as I’m concerned. It makes sex boring! The title is French for “magnificent lover,” which gives you a clue what it’s going to be about. It’s about a young wife on a French stud farm (snicker), who has some serious problems, but apparently nothing that a virile, young stable boy can’t fix. Some movies show people starting to “do it” and then the camera swerves to look at some natural phenomenon. This movie watches them “do it” interminably and then swerves to focus on nothing in particular for a while. Maybe that’s art, but it looks to me like the cameraman fell asleep. The wife and the stable boy run away together, and apparently the director needed to break them up for a poignant ending, but she couldn’t think of a way to do it, but they go their separate ways anyway. The most fascinating, involving sex scene in the whole movie involves two horses. Warning to parents: This film contains brief frontal human male nudity and lingering frontal horse nudity. Scott Bob says, chuck it out. (Seen 18 May 1987)

Los Amantes del Círculo Polar (The Lovers of the Arctic Circle) 2 out of 4 stars

With an opening that features a wrecked plane in an exotic landscape (in this case the snowy arctic instead of the sandy dessert) and a pair of star-crossed lovers, this film seems intent on reminding us of The English Patient. But like that movie, this one isn’t just a romance. As a love story, it is a bit more conventional than director Julio Medem’s previous efforts (The Red Squirrel and the delightfully cryptic Earth), which really isn’t saying much. The Lovers of the Arctic Circle probably won’t be the international hit that The English Patient was because, as a love story, it just isn’t very satisfying. But as a meditation on chance, fate and coincidence it is at least intriguing. Mostly, this movie is about accidents. Not just accidents of chance but also accidents of all manner of vehicles—including cars, buses, airplanes, and sleds. The moral, it turns out, is to look before you cross the street. (Seen 16 May 1999)

Amargosa 2 out of 4 stars

This is a documentary about an old woman who lives out in the middle of the desert with her ten cats. No, wait, it’s more interesting than that. It’s really about the fine line between being an artist with a dream and being a kook. Marta Becket had a career as a dancer for years in New York City, but on an impulse (spurred possibly in whole or in part by a fortuneteller’s prediction) wound up taking over the virtual ghost town of Death Valley Junction near the California-Nevada state line. She restored the (reputedly haunted) motel and its adjoining theater and began giving her own unique ballet/mime performances there. She provided her own audience by painting an elaborate mural of one on the theater’s walls. And, in true Hollywood if-you-build-it-they-will-come fashion, real audiences actually started showing up, and the place has become a destination for vacationers from everywhere, including science fiction icon Ray Bradbury, who speaks at length of his admiration for Becket. Apparently, many of the people who stop do come away with the impression that Becket is indeed a kook, but this film by Todd Robinson (Wild Bill: Hollywood Maverick) takes us inside Becket’s mind, where her dreams and accomplishments make perfect sense. When we see this woman in her 70s dance on stage like a young girl, we can’t help but respect what she has done and the fact that there is really nothing “normal” about being an artist. (Seen 27 May 2000)

Amazing Grace and Chuck 3 out of 4 stars

The events portrayed in this movie could never actually happen, but it’s nice to sit in a movie theater for a couple of hours and pretend that they could. Frank Capra could have made this movie, and he would have called it Mr. Smith Stops the Arms Race. This is your basic watering eyes, lump in the throat, feel good movie. But you don’t feel like a jerk for liking it because it doesn’t get excessively cute or sticky sweet. And it has a very definite point of view and doesn’t flinch, something you don’t see in many Hollywood movies. It’s about a kid named Chuck who is a star Little League pitcher in a small Montana town and an NBA star named Amazing Grace Smith who plays for the Celtics. They each decide to stop playing their respective sports until there are no more nuclear weapons. Gregory Peck plays the President of the United States and he is much better in the role than any other actor who has had the part in at least six years. This movie got a really positive reaction. (The only negative reaction was to a cameo appearance by Red Auerbach.) In fact, this is the only film I can recall off-hand that has gotten a standing ovation. The film was directed by Mike Newell who did Dance with a Stranger, but that information gives you absolutely no idea what this film is like. The writer/producer of this film, a nice man by the name of David Field, was there to answer questions afterward. He said that the film wasn’t particularly popular with the critics when it was test marketed in Dallas and Denver. (One woman wrote on her comment card, “That little boy should be spanked.”) Amazing Grace and Chuck opens in Seattle Friday, and how it does there will help determine if and how it gets released nationally. Go see this film. Then tell all your friends to go see it. Tell your enemies to go see it. Then go see it again. Someone asked David Field if he thought this could actually happen. He said, “You have the answer to that as well as I do. Look at this way. Who would have thought this film could be made?” (Seen 19 May 1987)

The Amazing Spider-Man 3 out of 4 stars

The first question is, of course, are we ready to reboot the whole Spider-Man movie franchise already? I didn’t think I was, but maybe I was wrong. Sam Raimi did a brilliant job with the Tobey Maguire movies and they were certainly closer in the spirit of the original Stan Lee/Steve Ditko comic books than this one is. On the other hand, Andrew Garfield is really a better Peter Parker than Maguire and the special effects are better in 2012 than they were a decade ago. Director Marc Webb is mainly known for music videos and the romantic flick 500 Days of Summer, but it turns out he is quite adept in the superhero genre—in spite of or maybe because of devoting much of the screen time to his hero’s personal travails. Indeed, Spider-Man spends so much time not wearing his mask, it’s amazing that more people don’t know his secret identity. Raimi sort of painted himself in a corner narratively, which apparently resulted in his fourth movie—presumably about the Lizard, since Dr. Curt Connors (played by Dylan Baker) made an appearance in both Spider-Man 2 and Spider-Man 3—not being made. The writers on this movie seem determined to avoid that problem by laying the groundwork for a long-running meta-narrative involving the orphaned Peter’s mysterious parents. The supporting cast are all very good, including Emma Stone, Martin Sheen and Rhys Ifans. Sally Field is a younger and more anguished Aunt May than in the comic books or the other movies. (Note: nothing makes you feel older than seeing Gidget become Aunt May.) Perhaps the best stroke—cinematically if not in faithfulness to the comics—was omitting the Harry Osborn character. In Raimi’s flicks James Franco’s Harry got all the James Dean-esque teen angst. In this flick, Garfield gets it, and that makes a better movie story. (Seen 10 July 2012)

American Beauty 3 out of 4 stars

There is something mesmerizing about this movie. It is yet another poison pen letter to the American upper middle class and to the suburbs. Or is it? The film’s voyeuristic style is not unlike David Lynch’s number on small town life, but there’s something more heartfelt here than Lynch’s peurile staring. (Although there is definitely a Lynch-like preoccupation with a high school sex kitten.) As with Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm (set in the 1970s), the movie seems to lampoon the suburban family but then turns surprisingly and incongruously sentimental at the end. But American Beauty is set in the 1990s, so instead of open marriage and wife swapping, veteran stage director Sam Mendes’s impressive film is more preoccupied with things like career frustration, youthful obsession with appearance, homophobia and the country’s gun culture. Kevin Spacey lives up to his reputation by turning in another superb performance, as a man having a (very entertaining) midlife crisis. Annette Bening is bitchy yet strangely symphathetic as his driven wife who can’t drop her sarcastic quips. Thora Birch is Juliette Lewis-like as the alienated teenage daughter. Wes Bentley, as an intense and voyeuristic neighbor with a camcorder, seems to have stepped out of an Atom Egoyan movie. And Chris Cooper plays a definitely much tougher father than the one he played in October Sky. Despite the film’s very dark humor, it is actually imbued with a deep appreciation for life as we know it, largely through the words of our deceased narrator. The movie may thus strangely qualify as this twisted decade’s Our Town. (Seen 24 September 1999)

An American Carol (Big Fat Important Movie) 2 out of 4 stars

I never expected to get a chance to see this movie, but here it is. And what a curiosity it is. Directed and co-written by David Zucker, who forever changed movie comedy when he and his brother Jerry and Jim Abrahams wrote and directed the deliriously daffy Airplane! I wish I could say that this one was as funny, but lightning seldom strikes twice. What distinguishes this movie is its targeting of liberal Hollywood as not being sufficiently patriotic. To the extent that this works, the best gags come from insider digs (a relentless running gag keeps rubbishing documentary directors vs. feature directors) and the uncanny resemblance of some of the actors to the people they are sending up. In the central role, Kevin Farley (brother of Chris) is a dead ringer for Michael Moore, and Vicki Browne looked so much like Rosie O’Donnell that for a moment I thought it was really her. (No need for a look-alike for Bill O’Reilly. That was really him.) Anyway, the movie provided some work for some notable Hollywood conservatives as well as others that just needed or wanted the work. Robert Davi shows up, inevitably playing a terrorist. Jon Voight appears as the ghost of George Washington. As it happens, this movie marks the final (or near-final) big screen appearances of a surprising number of performers, including Leslie Nielsen, Gary Coleman, Fred Travalena (who plays Jimmy Carter) and (of all people) Dennis Hopper, who plays a whacked-out judge. While I wish the movie worked better (a couple of scenes involving the 9/11 ruins and some deliberately tasteless caricatures induce some cringing), its heart is definitely in the right place. For a better (if cruder) example of making belly laughs while skewering liberals, cf. Team America: World Police. (Seen 31 July 2011)

American Graffiti 3 out of 4 stars

In the early 1970s this was one of two movies (the other was The Exorcist) that had incredible buzz among the American expatriate student community in France (and probably other countries). In a sense, this movie became something of an urban legend for us which, in long hindsight, is totally fitting since this film is about nothing so much as the phenomenon of the urban legend. The plot, or rather plots, are a lovely hash of every wild story you (well, I) ever heard over four years in high school, rolled up into one night. During the 100-some-minutes running time, the characters pass legendary lore to each other. We hear the one about the killer who stalks lovers in the woods. An extremely young Richard Dreyfuss hears that the mysterious blonde in a T-bird who has become his obsession (a blink-or-you’ll-miss-her Suzanne Somers) is a businessman’s young wife or a high-price prostitute. And we hear several versions of where Wolfman Jack (whose voice and whose music saturates the soundtrack) broadcasts from. The ostensible plot involves smart student Dreyfuss and big-man-on-campus Ron Howard struggling with the Casablanca-like decision to get on an airplane in the morning. It is Dreyfuss who tracks down the radio station transmitting the Wolfman’s music. As he leaves, he spies the DJ, who denies being the Wolfman, rasping into the microphone and we have our Wizard of Oz moment. And this wizard delivers a message that was very well received by us expatriate students: there is no place like someplace far away from home. (Seen 28 December 2005)

American History X 3 out of 4 stars

The good news in this movie is that sending a twisted, embittered, racist neo-Nazi to prison for a few years will straighten him out just fine. This trite development along with a few other problems (a first half that is liable to send susceptible minds running out into the streets to commit atrocities and an over-dramatic finale that borders on opera) somehow doesn’t get in the way of this film having an incredible (and ultimately positive) emotional impact. In some ways, the movie makes the case of the skinheads all too well, but that’s what gives it its power. It doesn’t cheat by stacking the deck with a transparently liberal agenda. As distasteful as you may find it, you can’t help identifying with these racist characters and understanding to some extent their fears and frustrations with a world that is way more complex than they are able to deal with. Basically, this movie does for racism what Dead Man Walking did for capital punishment. Performances by two Edwards (Norton and Furlong) help avoid what could have otherwise been an overly melodramatic disaster. The director is Tony Kaye, whom I have never heard of before, but if he makes another movie, I’ll go see it. Star Trek fans, take note: the cast includes two, count ‘em two, ST veterans (Avery Brooks and Jennifer Lien). (Seen 4 November 1998)

The American President 2 out of 4 stars

At one point in The American President, the president (Michael Douglas) is offended when his chief advisor (Martin Sheen) suggests that they could “get him a girl” if he’s feeling a bit randy, being a widower and all. In case there had been any doubt, we definitely know by this point that this movie is a FANTASY. But that’s okay because it’s a nice one. It wants to be like one of those old Frank Capra movies (so much so that it actually has a White House guard explain who Capra was, perhaps for the benefit of younger viewers?), but how to pull that off in these cynical times? Well, you can’t really. So what we have is really more akin to more recent feel-good romantic movies like Sleepless in Seattle and While You Were Sleeping. Like Capra, however, Rob Reiner has assembled a great cast and has worn his political heart on his sleeve, although he isn’t as willing as Capra the explore the dark with the light. Anyway, the movie is a good time and an A-class date flick. (Seen 1 December 1995)

American Psycho 2 out of 4 stars

At first glance, this would seem to be one more film telling us what the 1980s were like (joining a set of flicks running the gamut from 1987’s Wall Street to 1998’s The Wedding Singer), but it’s really more of an indicator of what movies at the turn of the millenium are like. It has much in common with such recent fare as Fight Club and American Beauty in that we have a black comedy, satirizing modern American life, featuring a strangely emotionally detached and alienated central character immersed in a world of empty consumerism discovering some sort of fulfillment in pushing himself physically. And there’s also violence. A funny running gag in American Psycho is the fact that the stylishly dressed and coifed Wall Street types are all so physically similar and similarly blank and obsessed with the quality of their business cards that everyone keeps mistaking Christian Bale for someone else. Bale is fascinating as the yuppie sociopath who seems to have no duties at his prestigious job. He has all the ingratiating superficiality of a commercial radio personality, so it’s a bit as if the character of Frasier Crane was being played Jim Carrey or Steve Martin. The director is Mary Harron, who evoked a more three-dimensional time and place in recent American history in I Shot Andy Warhol. She co-wrote (after Bret Easton Ellis’s novel) with Guinevere Turner, who turns in one of the film’s better (but all-too-brief) performances. (Seen 27 April 2000)

American Wedding (American Pie: The Wedding) 1 out of 4 stars

I always say, if you can only see one flick in a series of mindless teen sex comedies, see the third one. Okay, I’ve never actually said that, or even thought that. What I actually say is, if you are going to a movie with my brother-in-law Joseph, for God’s sake, don’t let Joseph choose the movie. Normally, I dislike seeing sequels when I haven’t seen the prior movie(s), but somehow I suspect that starting the American Pie series with this installment isn’t quite like starting The Lord of the Rings with Return of the King. I deduce that the original comedy must have been a lighthearted update of Portnoy’s Complaint, but at this point it seems firmly locked into a formula whereby the young characters compulsively and continually get themselves into the weirdest and kinkiest situations imaginable, just in time for one or more adult authority figures to wander into the room and get the shock of their lives (again and again). I don’t know which scene best captures the spirit of this enterprise, but it would be a tossup (and I do mean toss up) between the bit where the wedding cake gets covered in pubic hair and the part where the wedding ring has to be retrieved from dog feces (which in turn are mistaken for chocolate candy). (Seen 19 August 2003)

Amerikan Passport 2 out of 4 stars

At the beginning of this decade, Reed Paget of Seattle set off on a three-year globe-hopping journey, ostensibly to film seven modern wonders of the world. But a funny thing happened on his way to the Great Wall of China, the Sphinx, the Roman Coliseum, etc. By chance or by choice he wound up in or near several political conflagrations, from Tiananmen Square during the government crackdown to the electoral defeat of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua to the death throes of apartheid in South Africa and the crumbling of Communism in Berlin and Moscow. Indeed, by the time Paget reaches Israel just before the Gulf War, he has shown himself to be a serious political conflict junkie. For eyewitness footage of these events, there is better to be had elsewhere, as much of the shooting was done on the sly or otherwise under serious limitations. So what is interesting about this documentary is the story it tells of Paget’s initial leftist take on things (deliberately contrasted with footage of his own grandfather’s conservative views) and how his beliefs are thrown into a spin by the time people on Moscow streets are telling him that Americans were right to invade Vietnam and to fight Communism wherever in the world they found it. Even more interesting is his insight about how all of the monumental wonders he films, all of the places he visits and, indeed, his own compulsion to visit them are all tied up in a common human attraction toward violence. (Seen 29 May 1999)

Der Amerikanische Freund (The American Friend) 4 out of 4 stars

Things have finally come full circle. The last time I saw this classic by Wim Wenders was 10 years after its release at the 1987 Seattle International Film Festival, as part of a tribute to Dennis Hopper. Now, 20 years later, I’ve seen it again at another film festival, this time in Dublin, the same day that Wenders was a festival guest. What a long strange trip it’s been. In between Wenders has made Lightning Over Water, Hammett, The State of Things, Paris, Texas, Wings of Desire (his masterpiece), Until the End of the World, Faraway, So Close!, The End of Violence and a few music documentaries (notably Buena Vista Social Club). The American Friend is fascinating to see again now for all sorts of reasons. For one thing, the title character (Tom Ripley, played by Hopper) has become a very familiar movie fixture—played previously by Alain Delon (Purple Noon) and subsequently by Matt Damon (The Talented Mr. Ripley) and John Malkovich (Ripley’s Game, based on the same novel as this movie). More significantly, it is early evidence of Wenders’s lifelong fascination with American culture. At this distance, it is easy to see The American Friend as a metaphor for the post-war American-European relationship. The American wears a cowboy hat around Hamburg and lives in an old house that actually looks a bit like the White House. (Cowboy diplomacy, anyone?) He is mixed up in shady dealings and tends to draw others into his machinations. The European (Bruno Ganz), on the other hand, is simultaneously repelled and attracted to the Yank, who has convinced him that his time is nearly over. Oh, yeah, and it also works as a low-key suspense thriller, although slower paced than we are used to these days. A special treat (that grows sweeter with the passage of time) is that Wenders caught several American directors (including Hopper) in on-screen in supporting roles—notably Nicholas Ray (Rebel Without a Cause), as a painter, and Sam Fuller (The Big Red One) as a mobster. (Seen 22 February 2007)

Le Amiche (The Girlfriends) 2 out of 4 stars

For those of us who think of Michelangelo Antonioni mainly as the trendy director of the seminal 1960s film Blow-Up, it is worth seeing his considerable work from the 1950s to put him in perspective. This one is pure soap opera, with a lot of dishing that would not be unfamiliar (but largely without the humor) to fans of Sex and the City. Our point of view character is Clelia, who has come from Rome to Turin to set up a fashion salon. Because of a suicide attempt in the adjoining hotel room, she becomes acquainted and friends with a group of women, who are busy juggling lovers and husbands—sometimes their own, sometimes not. Clelia herself has a dalliance with an architect’s assistant who is a bit too blue collar for her set. I suppose one way to look at this movie is as the social equivalent of anti-war movie. Criticism of the film’s bourgeois characters is implied in a way similar to how the inhumanity of war is demonstrated in an anti-war film. But just as we get a lot of vicarious thrills from the violence of war on the way to the ultimate message, we similarly get to do a fair amount of voyeurism of the lifestyle and fashion of this film’s attractive ladies. In any event, as sudsy as the storyline here is, you can’t fault Antonioni’s compositions. (Seen 20 February 2011)

Amistad 2 out of 4 stars

In America’s bicentennial year everyone (whites as well as blacks) stayed home for a week to watch a riveting miniseries about an African named Kunta Kinte and generations of his progeny born into slavery in the United States. For a few shining moments it seemed as though the country’s racial wounds were finally healing. Then two decades later we had the OJ trial. Anyway, what made Roots so powerful was the way we got to know Kunta before he became a captive and a slave. This made it easier for us white people to identify with his ordeal. The problem with Steven Spielberg’s Amistad is that we get to know the African Cinque and his companions as they proceed to hack a bunch of Spaniards to death. (During the first few minutes viewers could be forgiven if they feared they had wandered into Scream 2 by mistake.) Consequently, the Africans never really become much more than noble victims and exotic innocents. The story is really about (mostly white) Americans arguing over legal matters and the coming civil war. Matthew McConaughey plays yet another lawyer fighting the good fight, and Anthony Hopkins does a star turn as John Quincy Adams with a climactic and quirky speech before the Supreme Court. This movie is good, but it doesn’t approach the standard that Spielberg set with Schindler’s List. (Seen 18 December 1997)

L’Amore Molesto 2 out of 4 stars

L’Amore Molesto is a mystery story. But although there is a lot of sneaking around in alleyways and basements and stairways, the real search is in the mind and memories of the main character Delia. The film opens with her birthday and her mother is supposed to be coming from Naples to Bologna to see her. But Delia gets a couple of extremely strange phone calls from her mother in the middle of the night, and the next day her mother is found drowned at the beach. As Delia goes to Naples in an effort to piece together exactly what happened, she is forced to confront memories that she has repressed for years, as well as going through frustrating encounters with her father (who was estranged from her mother years ago), her uncle, and a man who may have been her mother’s lover. This film by Italian director Mario Martone could be tedious or riveting, depending on how you relate to its subject matter. (Seen 26 May 1996)

Amores perros (Love’s a Bitch) 2 out of 4 stars

If you are an animal lover, you probably won’t enjoy this movie. Never mind the three (count ‘em, three) disclaimers—one at the very beginning and two (one in Spanish and one in English) at the very end—assuring us that no dogs were mistreated during the production. You will still have trouble believing that pooches didn’t suffer in the making of this Mexican film by Alejandro González Iñárritu, which was an Oscar nominee for best foreign film. For the record, human beings don’t fare very well either. This two-and-half-hour film tells three separate stories that overlap slightly but intersect jarringly in one horrendous automobile collision. The stories have little in common except that, in each, the protagonist’s situation is more or less mirrored by that of his or her dog. Other common themes involve infidelity and brothers trying to do one another in. The most engaging tale of the three is by far the first one, which involves a young man who not only deliberately annoys a bad dude who makes a living with attack dogs but who also goes after his violent brother’s wife. If that’s not a recipe for an excitement, I don’t what is. (Seen 27 April 2001)

Un Amour de Jeunesse (Goodbye First Love) 2 out of 4 stars

Heads up, guys. This is not just a chick flick. It is a French, arty chick flick. Bottom line: great date movie, but be prepared to have a talk about people’s feelings afterward. When we first meet Camille (Lola Créton), she is a teenager madly in love with her boyfriend (Sebastian Urzendowsky), who has the interesting name Sullivan, and she is despondent over his impending departure on a ten-month South American jaunt with a couple of mates. While her clinginess is a downer, at least she and Sullivan are gorgeous and there is lots of nice photography. After Sullivan leaves, things seem to drag on just like they did before he left. But then an interesting thing happens. The pace of the story picks up and by quite a bit. After a brief scene or two, we may find that a year or more has passed. We can barely keep up as Camille grows up and becomes a professional. Happily, she is moving on and making a good life with another man. What could possibly ruin it? Is it too much to hope that we won’t see Sullivan again? (Spoiler alert!) It is. Créton, who would have been at the end of her teen years when she made this film, ages convincingly. Urzendowsky (and this may be the point) doesn’t seem to change a bit. Mia Hansen-Løve wrote and directed. (Seen 18 February 2012)

Les Amours Imaginaires (Heartbeats) 3 out of 4 stars

At one point in this very funny and endearing second feature from Quebecois wunderkind Xavier Dolan, three twentysomething friends prepare to crash for the night and realize that they will all have to share a bed. Marie and Franc immediately insist that they do not want to be in the middle. “No sweat,” says their gorgeous new BFF Nicolas, “I like the middle.” Boy, does he ever. A comedy of manners about hip young Montreal urbanites, the movie has a premise that could have been plucked from any of the numerous sitcoms that have been spawned since Seinfeld. This is the comedy of confusion and embarrassment and apparent and possible mixed signals. The well-established friendship of Franc and Marie is tested when Nicolas comes into their lives. Not only is he beautiful and charming but he is smart and continuously fun. The problem is that, while clearly comfortable and relaxed about his physicality, he gives no clear signal of having a sexual orientation. In fact, he gives every indication of being a perpetual tease. The longer this threesome go along together, the more Marie and Franc are driven crazy with lust and the more oblivious their Peter Pan-like friend with the beautifully golden curly locks seems to be. If you thought that more open and relaxed attitudes to love were going to make life simpler or easier, this movie seems to be saying, then you better think again. Monia Chokri plays Marie as a tightly wound bundle of tics waiting to explode. As Franc, director Dolan is like a lost puppy dog. And as Nicolas, Niels Schneider is truly beautiful enough to make us believe that no one could help but fall in love with him. (Seen 17 July 2014)

An uns glaubt Gott nicht mehr (God Does Not Believe in Us Anymore) 3 out of 4 stars

The title may sound kind of strange, but if you were a Jew living in Europe in the 1930s, it might have been a thought that crossed your mind. This film is the first installment of The Austrian Trilogy, which is a pretentious way of saying that it is the first episode of a three-part mini-series that was on Austrian TV. The film follows a Jewish youth in 1938 in Vienna whose father is beaten to death, leaving the young man with no family. He finds it impossible to get out of Austria legally, so he crosses the border illegally into Czechoslovakia and becomes a refugee in Prague with lots of other Jews who are trying to stay one step ahead of the Nazi army. Ferdinand (Ferry, for short) takes up with a gentile who has escaped from Dachau, where he was imprisoned for helping Jews escape. The gentile, who goes by the nickname Ghandi, falls in love with a Jewish woman. When the Germans arrive in Prague, Ferry and the couple have made their escape to Paris (not because they have “valid documents but because of other people’s sloppiness,” as one friend observes). Of course, the Germans make it to France too, and ironically Ferry and all other German-speaking aliens are interned (sort of like what the Yanks did to the Japanese) as “unreliable elements.” When the Germans come marching through, Ferry and his friends make their escape and manage to get to so-called Free France where they futilely attempt to get on a boat for somewhere else from Marseille. But the French police are cooperating closely with the Nazis in rounding up Jewish fugitives. Tune in tomorrow for part two. (Seen 1 June 1987)

Anatomy of Desire 1 out of 4 stars

This Canadian documentary purports to explore the science of sexology, inspired largely by recent scientific findings that may suggest a biological cause for homosexuality. But the film is less interested in questions such as “nature vs. nurture” and more interested in detailing how gays have historically been victimized by both schools of thought, i.e. those thinking it’s a psychological condition trying to “cure” gays and, in the exteme case, the Nazis trying to exterminate gays because they are “biologically inferior.” After posing the central question of whether gays are born or made, the film concludes by saying it doesn’t really matter and suggests that it may actually be counterproductive to ask! The documentary stacks its deck by interviewing experts many (if not most) of whom are gay. (Seen 17 May 1996)

And Now for Something Completely Different 2 out of 4 stars

My daughter recently purchased a box set of “all of the Monty Python movies,” and I was shocked to find that there are only four. Why does it seem like there should be more? Perhaps it is because some of us tend to lump some or all of Terry Gilliam’s movies, especially Jabberwocky and Time Bandits, in with the official Python flicks? Anyway, this first one of the four (followed by Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life) could reasonably be considered not a proper movie at all since it is essentially a collection of sketches that had appeared on the Monty Python’s Flying Circus TV show. But it is definitely a convenient way to catch up on some of the legendary troupe’s best bits. The ones you mostly remember are all here in their absurdist glory—the rampaging grannies, the Hungarian with the dodgy translation book, the double-vision organizer of a mountain expedition, the escalating obsequiousness of a posh restaurant’s staff and, of course, the classic parrot-pining-for-the-fjords sketch that morphs into Michael Palin’s hilarious lumberjack song. I’m not sure we always knew exactly why we were laughing at some it, but somehow the Pythons kept finding standard and/or normal situations that could be teased to the point of cosmos-shaking absurdity. And then many of the bits really worked on something no more groundbreaking than good old-fashioned vaudeville jokes and slapstick—made to seem new and fresh. Legions of fans around the world have since memorized entire bits and amused themselves by reciting them to their like-minded friends. That itself is a bit of absurdity that was later deliciously mocked in the lads’ send-up of religion, Life of Brian. (Seen 12 October 2015)

Angel Baby 3 out of 4 stars

This is an auspicious directorial debut by Australian born (but American trained) Michael Rymer. Angel Baby is about two mentally ill people who fall in love and try to make a life for themselves. That’s enough to let you know we’re headed for downer territory. But the film is so well executed and laced with gentle humor that it’s certainly worth the trip. The leads are played by Irish actor John Lynch (Cal, The Secret of Roan Inish) and Jacqueline McKenzie (Romper Stomper) who is looking here very Jennifer Jason Leigh-ish. If you see this movie, you will certainly be moved. And, what’s more, you will never look at Wheel of Fortune quite the same way again. (Seen 18 May 1996)

Angela’s Ashes 3 out of 4 stars

It’s amazing after all how little actually happens in Angela’s Ashes. The movie, even more than the book, emphasizes this with its repeated scenes of young Frank McCourt running past Limerick’s Georgian façades and then arriving home to splash his feet in the family’s waterlogged living room. But, of course, endless dreariness is largely the point. In a strange bit of reverse nostalgia, the memory of a miserably poor Irish Catholic childhood has now become something to savor. And this film version serves it up in grand style, making How Green Was My Valley look like a light-hearted romp. McCourt’s autobiography would be unrelenting in its gloom if it wasn’t for his dry matter-of-fact voice and wit in remembering the stories, and the movie wisely makes liberal use of that voice (spoken here by Andrew Bennett) by lifting numerous passages directly from the book. Three young actors play McCourt, and the best is the youngest, Joe Breen, whose eyes stare deep into your soul. Emily Watson plays Angela looking frequently as if she has just been hit with a 2x4 and her suffering comes across without a hint of saintliness. Robert Carlyle is both charming and repulsive as Malachy, the father who is great for a story or to have a pint with but not for much else. And in the minor role of Aunt Aggie, Pauline McLynn makes a strong impression as a bitter spinster who, in a strange way, is not all that far removed from her over-the-top housekeeper on Father Ted. For a less romanticized film version of the McCourt family’s story, seek out nephew Conor’s documentary The McCourts of Limerick. (Seen 21 January 2000)

Angels & Demons 2 out of 4 stars

Basically, this is your standard ticking-time-bomb suspense thriller. But it seems like a lot more because everything is so heightened. It’s not just a bomb that’s going to go off. It’s an anti-matter device. It’s not just a few people who are at stake. It’s the whole freakin’ Catholic religion. (The nefarious plot is byzantine and bizarre enough that it would do any Batman villain proud.) Tom Hanks doesn’t just stroll from one potential crime scene to the next. He sprints. (Indeed, when we first see Hanks, he is having a strenuous early morning workout just to establish that he is fit for all the running he will have to do.) And Hanks and company don’t just make chitchat. They spew volumes of Wikipedia pages of historical and cultural trivia. As a procedural, this flick delivers. But all the characters use only their work personalities. If you were needing or hoping for character interest, go dig out your old copy of Klute. Indeed, the emphasis on plot over character is so relentless that we get the least onscreen chemistry between Hanks and ostensible leading lady Vittoria Vetra since Batman Forever, in which Elle Macpherson played a Bruce Wayne girlfriend so perfunctory that no villain even bothered to take her hostage. This is, of course, a follow-up to The Da Vinci Code, but since neither movie makes any reference to the cataclysmic, earth-shattering, history-changing events of the other, I am seriously not sure whether this is meant to be a sequel or a prequel. (Seen 27 May 2009)

Angels & Insects 2 out of 4 stars

As the opening credits roll for Angels & Insects, we see an Englishman (Mark Rylance) going through some kind of exotic (and erotic) ritual with Amazonian natives, and we suspect this is going to be another of those “let’s watch those uptight, repressed Brits get their noses bent out of shape by confronting another culture” pics (cf. Room With a View, Where Angels Fear to Tread). But director Philip Haas has something a little stranger up his sleeve. Rylance’s character, a humbly born naturalist named Adamson, studies insects with the same interest and fascination that some filmgoers like to watch repressed but kinky English people. Adamson marries into a wealthy but decadent family, possibly because the object of his affection (Patsy Kensit) has the same name as his favorite butterfly. But there are odd things afoot in the home of the aptly named Alabasters, and it takes Adamson a while to realize that he has become part of something as intriguing as the society of red and black ants he loves to study with the children’s pre-feminist teacher (Kristin Scott Thomas). Serious students of biology will find the bedroom scenes involving Kensit particularly instructive. (Seen 16 February 1996)

Anger Management 3 out of 4 stars

This is proof that, if you live long enough, you will eventually do everything—like give three stars to an Adam Sandler movie. But how can you not reward a flick that calls itself Anger Management and then manages to include cameos (and really well-employed ones) by the likes of John McEnroe, Bobby Knight and Roger Clemens? Or a movie about New York that gets great comic mileage out of cameos by Rudy Giuliani and Robert Merrill? (An appearance by the late Lynne Thigpen, as a judge, is just a bonus.) With this broadside at modern American neuroses and the ways we go about trying to treat them, Sandler is in serious danger of becoming the new century’s Woody Allen. The story is more or less the flip side of the 1991 Bill Murray/Richard Dreyfuss comedy What About Bob?, this time with the shrink driving the patient crazy. That film was a touchstone in the sense that it managed to divide males and females in their reactions more profoundly than anything since the Three Stooges. I don’t know if Anger Management similarly divides the genders, but the humor is definitely tilted to the guy side, with male endowment (or lack of it) a consistently running theme. For myself, I couldn’t stop laughing at the Sandler’s character extreme case of what I like to call “David Banner syndrome.” David Banner was the character played by Bill Bixby in the old Hulk TV series. (He was not called Bruce, as in the comic book because, according to Hulk creator Stan Lee, the studio thought “‘Bruce’ sounded too gay.”) Anyway, two or three times an episode, events would conspire to make David really, really angry because that was the only way he would turn into the Hulk, which was a requirement of every week’s plot. The best part of Anger Management is the way the filmmakers turn “David Banner syndrome” into an art form. The other great thing about it is Jack Nicholson, as the shrink, who is the perfect antidote for anyone who has seen one too many (and for some of us, that would be one—period) episodes of Dr. Phil. [Related commentary] (Seen 18 June 2003)

Angustia (Anguish) 2 out of 4 stars

This movie stars Zelda Rubenstein, who was the diminutive excorcist in Poltergeist. Here she plays a weird mother in a weird house, and she has a weird son, John, who is a pleasingly plump orderly for an eye doctor (although mom and John like to think of John more as a… surgeon). To be brutally candid, John isn’t cooking on all four burners, if you know what I mean. When a rich bitch patient complains about him, he gets fired, and mom convinces him that he should go show that lady just what a good surgeon he really is. Mom controls John through hypnosis, and they show lots of lights moving back and forth and spirals turning around and if you’re not careful, you could be hypnotized. In fact, they warn you at the beginning that you might get hypnotized. Come to think of it, isn’t this exactly like a movie called The Mommy and didn’t somebody in Culver City see it so many times that they actually did get hypnotized and start killing people in the theater? But, no, that couldn’t really happen, could it? After all, it’s only a movie. (Seen 29 May 1987)

Anna Karenina 2 out of 4 stars

I had the interesting experience of seeing this 2012 film adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s novel approximately 24 hours before seeing a stage adaptation of it at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre. The result is that the two versions are forever linked, merged and interwoven in my mind. This is not entirely due to my continual shedding of brain cells. The film version, penned by Tom Stoppard and directed by Joe Wright, deliberately approaches the material as a filmed play. And, like Marina Carr’s stage version, it is heavily choreographed with actors and sets coming and going in an elaborate and exhilirating ballet of motion. In fact, there are enough similarities in creative choices that I have to wonder if Carr was not at least somewhat influenced by Wright’s version. This was his follow-up to the thriller Hanna, but it has more in common with his much lauded Atonement in terms of period and themes. The cast is quite good, starting with Keira Knightley in the title role and including Jude Law, Olivia Williams, Kelly Macdonald and Alicia Vikander. The set design and ironic distance makes it feel oddly like a Wes Anderson movie and, indeed, it is easy to imagine Domhnall Gleeson’s Levin as a variation on Rushmore’s Max Fischer. Unfortunately, the handling of this critical character does not serve the film or the actor well. Likewise Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Vronsky, who is played a bit too smarmy to take seriously. On the positive side, Stoppard’s scenario allows the story and characters to speak for themselves—in contrast to the forced anachronisms, employed to insert and highlight obvious feminist points, in Carr’s much longer stage version (Seen 22 December 2016)

L’Anno Prossimo… Vado a Letto alle Dieci (Next Year… We’ll Go to Bed by Ten) 3 out of 4 stars

New Year’s Eve is one of those occasions that often doesn’t live up our hopes and expectations. Fortunately, the total opposite is true about this movie. I was totally sucked in and taken for a ride which I enjoyed quite a bit. Next Year… We’ll Go to Bed by Ten starts off like an Italian version of a Seinfeld episode. Poldo has plans for a very romantic New Year’s Eve, but they are disrupted when his neurotic friend Rosario shows up, obsessing about the woman he just broke up with. Poldo winds up stuck with Rosario for the night and, after an unsuccessful attempt to enjoy a party, they eventually find themselves driving in the country to Rosario’s parents’. At this point, the movie takes a sudden turn, as the bickering pair get mixed up with a violent gang of kidnappers and the film becomes a blood-splattered Abbott and Costello Meet Quentin Tarantino. I can’t remember another movie that is so funny and yet so suspenseful at the same time. (Seen 2 June 1996)

Another Country 2 out of 4 stars

For many of us, this movie gave us our first look at both Colin Firth and Rupert Everett. (The two of them made a humorous in-joke reference to it when they were reunited more than two decades later in St. Trinian’s.) Directed by Marek Kanievska, the film was adapted by Julian Mitchell from his own play, which was based on real-life British spy/defector Guy Burgess. The movie is impeccable in its Masterpiece Theatre-style observation of a certain time and place in exclusive English education. The title is a reference to a British patriotic song, heard early in the movie, in which it is a poetic reference to heaven. In this movie, it takes on a bitter tinge as we watch Everett’s character become estranged from his own country—because it rejects him for being gay—which will lead him ultimately to betrayal and defection. Firth plays his radical Marxist friend who does his best to convince him of the rottenness of the country’s class structure. His love object is played Cary Elwes, who would star three years later in The Princess Bride. While the movie successfully makes us share Everett’s sense of oppression, there is no getting around the fact that his grievance is ultimately based on his sense of entitlement due to the class he was born into. And, curiously, the film presents a testament to the power of traditional values when both Firth and Everett, at different times, cite the hold that cricket holds over them. (Seen 28 February 2012)

Another Day in Paradise 2 out of 4 stars

Anyone who saw Larry Clark’s depressing first film, kids, can be forgiven for thinking that the title of his second film might just be slightly ironic. And it definitely is. In fact, Another Day in Paradise can be more or less thought of as kids with adult supervision. And James Wood’s central role as a Jewish thief mentoring youngsters in the ways of vice is clearly a gritty update to the Fagin character from Oliver Twist. It is by far a much more relevant one than the late William Hickey’s turn in the odd, low-budget Twisted. Woods is quite good as a seemingly fun, caring guy who provides a desperately wanted role model to a kid trying to survive on the streets after fleeing an abusive family background. Wood’s transition from a charismatic big brother figure with a humorous Billy Crystal-like patter (when lecturing, he punctuates his salient points with “badda bing”) to the dark and malevolent manipulator underneath is more than credible. Young Vincent Kartheiser (whose previous credits include Little Big League and The Indian in the Cupboard) is also quite convincing as a frightened but macho man-child eking out survival on the streets until he suddenly finds what he thinks is the family he never had. Note: watch for Lou Diamond Phillips as you’ve never seen him before in a small uncredited role. (Seen 19 August 1999)

Ant-Man 2 out of 4 stars

For those of us who were Marvel fans back at the beginning (the early 1960s), the chronology is getting pretty darn confusing. When the wave of blockbuster Marvel movies kicked off around the turn of the century, old favorites like Spider-Man, the X-Men and Iron Man simply had their birth years adjusted to make the characters contemporary. Thor, being immortal, was no problem, and Captain America simply waited more decades in that iceberg. Nick Fury was the tricky one. He was necessarily separated from his fellow World War II-era Howling Commandos and remade a baby boomer so he could be played by Samuel L. Jackson. Now we have Hank Pym, the original comic book Ant-Man (aka Giant-Man aka Goliath aka Yellowjacket), keeping more or less contemporaneous with the print version and thus too old for superhero movie action. A stunning amount of this movie (one of the least anticipated of Marvel comic adaptations, I suspect) is spent in the setup and exposition of Pym’s search for a successor as well as the personal early travails of (spoiler alert!) the eventual selectee, unlucky and basically honest cat burglar Scott Lang. Writing credits include Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish, two very interesting English filmmakers, and apparently Wright was originally designated to direct. One cannot help but wonder how different this would have been with the director of Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World at the helm. Instead, we have Peyton Reed, who has given us such comedies as The Break-Up and Yes Man. And that’s more or less what this is—a sitcom entry into the Marvel Universe. Most of the action/superhero/comedy tropes are ticked off. Bald villain? Yep. Divorced hero with heartbreakingly small child? Oh, yes. Bickering banter with female lead? Done. Colorful and amusing supporting group of pals? Uh huh. The flick is nearly so slavish to formula that it starts to feel like a running gag. It helps (but not always enough) that the movie itself knows how lame it, at times, is. Make no mistake, the movie is lots of fun. There are enough obscure references to the comic books—and less obscure tie-ins to the other Marvel movies—to keep fans happy. And you can’t not like Paul Rudd doing his standard decent-and-wry-but-overwhelmed-guy shtick. And, for that matter you can’t not like Evangeline Lilly and Michael Douglas and the rest of the cast. Also, the sight gags with shrinking and growing are nice throwbacks to Disney and/or sci-fi movies of the 1950s and 1960s. But we still can’t help but long for a bit of the inventiveness of Wright’s and Cornish’s more recent movies. (Seen 3 August 2015)

AntiTrust 2 out of 4 stars

I had wanted to see this software thriller ever since it came out two years ago. The premise is irresistible: build a paranoid company thriller à la The Firm around a thinly disguised version of Microsoft and, to top it off, bring aboard Tim Robbins to reprise his creepy nice-guy-on-the-surface turn from Arlington Road as the Bill Gates character. It makes for a very interesting movie, although not for the reasons the filmmakers intended. As a thriller, it doesn’t particularly get the blood racing, mainly because we don’t really care much about Ryan Phillippe and his earnest but dull friends as the idealistic programmers in their proverbial garage. But director Peter Howitt and writer Howard Franklin paint a portrait of the Microsoft-like business behemoth that exhibits a real passion for the relevant software issues, i.e. open-source vs. proprietary. Although the film’s title suggests this might be about browser wars, it is really about the rap Microsoft has always gotten about working from other people’s breakthrough ideas, here carried to a treacherous and violent extreme. The movie does a very good job of capturing the wonder of entering the MS work environment, while at the same time, making things like free soda pop seem ominous and unsettling. This, along with a couple of nice twists toward the end, keep the movie at least watchable. (Seen 28 November 2003)

Antz 2 out of 4 stars

The line between “animation” and “live action” is irrevocably blurred. Computers have made it possible to make animation so realistic and three-dimensional that you wonder if in the future we will actually need actors for anything but the voices. Indeed, much of what we consider live action (especially if it involves science fiction) is computer-generated anyway. But once we get used to these visual wonders, we still want good stories and interesting characters. Antz is basically an old Woody Allen movie in an ant colony. This is a great development for Allen because his animated selves can be perpetually young so that it doesn’t seem weird that he is romantically involved with females a fraction of his own age. Here we have Sharon Stone in the Diane Keaton role and, as a surprise in the Tony Roberts buddy role, we have Sylvester Stallone! It’s a tribute to the creators that we often know which voice will emanate from a character just by seeing the faces, particularly in the case of Christopher Walken. It’s interesting, however, that with the endless possibilities of computer animation the characters spend so much time just talking. The wittiest bits are left for when we get outside of the anthill. The best line involves excrement being passed around a campfire. (Seen 5 October 1998)

Apart from Hugh 0 out of 4 stars

This is another film of local interest because it was filmed in and around Bellingham. (A brief flashback was shot at Ocean Shores!) Apart from Hugh is an excruciatingly detailed look at a day in the life of three people. The key to the story is that these people are supposed extremely interesting, but the script has to keep reminding us of that fact because it certainly never demonstrates it on-screen. Example: Collin thinks his lover Hugh has had an incredibly fascinating life because he once jumped in the ocean naked! The dramatic tension is supposed to come from wondering if Collin will leave Hugh. By the time it was over, I was so disinterested that the “twist” ending was completely wasted on me. (Seen 20 May 1995)

The Apostle 2 out of 4 stars

The main reasons to see this movie are 1) to see Robert Duvall, one of the all-time great actors of our age, in a showcase role indulged by a director (Robert Duvall) who gives him full reign, 2) because you never get tired of hearing the phrases “Hallelujah!” and “Praise the Lord!” or 3) you want to see Robert Duvall some more. It is uncanny the way Duvall can inhabit a character, and he has never done so as completely as he does here in the role of an evangelical revivalist who is completely wrapped up in the Lord’s work but who at the same time is all too human. Since the story is fairly simple and the pace somewhat leisurely, it is good that Duvall is eminently watchable. And the film is opaque enough that it can be interpreted in more than one way, so what you take away will depend heavily on what you bring to it. Make no mistake, this is a fine film. But I have to say that it was even better when Bruce Beresford made it and called it Tender Mercies. (Seen 13 February 1998)

L’Appartement 3 out of 4 stars

Not a French remake of the old Jack Lemmon/Shirley McLaine classic, L’Appartement is more or less a clever and amusing modern Gallic reworking of Vertigo—with a dash of An Affair to Remember thrown in cynically. If the repeated scenes sans dialog of one person following another, frequently up and down stairways, are not evidence enough that this flick is Hitchcock-inspired, then we also have a shower scene at a pivotal point. Directed by Gilles Mimouni, this film serves up intricate plotting, masterful set pieces, and fitting homages to Sir Alfred that Brian De Palma can only envy. By the end of the film, the coincidences and near-misses become so frequent as to become a running gag, making Comrades: Almost a Love Story seem downright banal in its plausibility. This is one of the best times you can have at the movies in the French language. (Seen 16 October 1997)

April Flowers 3 out of 4 stars

The setup is pure romcom. On a commuter train, a personal journal falls from the backpack of a passing stranger and lands at the feet of young, single New Yorker April. Before she can react, the man has disappeared into the city, and she is left with a mystery on her hands. Since her only hope of returning the book is to read it for information, she does so—and begins to feel a growing connection. You might think you know where this is going, but you don’t. This is not a romcom in the usual sense. While there are bits that are funny, it is really a mystery story—both about that journal but also about the true nature of love and how to resolve romantic notions with real life. As played by Celina Jade, April is one of those totally identifiable urban denizens who can be spotted in cafés discussing the arts and life in general or wandering through various city locations taking photographs. While by no means a shrinking violet, she has a certain shyness and sensitivity about her that makes her very appealing. When she imagines the mystery writer’s voice, it is that of French-born Pascal Yen-Pfister, a prolific supporting player who has been in everything from the short film The Misogynist to Clint Eastwood’s Sully. If Jade looks familiar, it may mean that you are a DC superhero fan. On the CW’s Arrow she played the mysterious and heroic Shado in numerous flashback sequences where the Hong Kong-born actor exhibited her martial arts training. (Her father Roy Horan has co-starred with Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan.) Here, though, she is every bit a normal—and at times confused—woman navigating the shoals of single life. The charm of the film is that it feels very real and that the characters talk largely the way these people would really talk. April’s conversation with potential romantic interest Jared about the merits of the song “Midnight Train to Georgia” will strike a chord of recognition for anyone who has ever had one of those long exploratory conversations early in a new relationship. Voice-over narration in the proper British accent of Helen Stern gives the movie an arthouse feel in the vein of Woody Allen or François Truffaut. This is the debut feature of Christopher Tedrick, whose previous work has been in shorts and commercials, and he has assembled an impressively experienced cast. Jared is played by Jon Fletcher, who was in the cast of the CW’s fantasy series The Messengers. April’s best friend and confidante is played by Kate Middleton. No, not the duchess but an actor who has appeared on Law & Order, Mercy and Blue Bloods. A particular delight for film buffs is a featured role for Keir Dullea, who entered sci-fi and cinema immortality nearly a half-century ago in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Appropriately enough, his character helps put April on the path to figuring out all the big questions. In the end, this is a sweet and ultimately poignant mystery story and, as such, it succeeds as all good mystery stories are required to—by giving us a resolution that is simultaneously surprising, satisfying and, most importantly, believable. [Related interview] (Seen 10 January 2017)

Apt Pupil 2 out of 4 stars

Since Bryan Singer’s previous film, The Usual Suspects, was so good and the source for this movie is the quartet of Stephen King novellas that also produced Stand By Me and The Shawkshank Redemption, expectations were inevitably high for Apt Pupil. Not to mention a star turn by the wonderful Ian McKellen, who was so masterful as a Nazi type in Richard III (and who provided a totally different perspective on the Nazi era in Bent). But Apt Pupil isn’t so much a disappointment as a curiosity. It certainly is suspenseful and thought-provoking. It can have you on the edge of your seat one minute, but the next minute you are snickering at it. Like when David Schwimmer shows up in a moustache and appears to be making subtle come-on to young Brad Renfro. Most confusing is what the movie is saying about Evil. Are the filmmakers saying that sociopaths are made and not born? Or that they just manage to find one another? Or that Evil is actually contagious, so be careful what images you put in your head? (Certainly an odd message to come from Hollywood!) In any event, it’s a macabre coincidence that the film should be released shortly after the notorious murder of a gay student in Wyoming. In the end, however, the finale of this film just isn’t as chilling as it obviously was meant to have been. (Seen 23 October 1998)

Are You Here 2 out of 4 stars

This has all the trappings of a stoner buddy comedy or maybe even an Apatowesque romcom (which are sometimes kind of the same thing). Steve and Ben are childhood friends, originally from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, who as adults have settled into a mutually enabling dysfunctional relationship. Steve (Owen Wilson), a TV weatherman in Annapolis, avoids maturity through womanizing, while Ben (Zach Galifianakis) self-medicates with illegal substances instead of dealing forthrightly with his mental health issues. Will they ever truly grow up? The answer comes, as it oftens does in movies, when a death requires them to return home for a funeral. Each has to contend with a woman who challenges him to leave his comfort zone and confront real life. In Ben’s case, it is his sister Terry, played by Amy Poehler in full bitter/assertive mode. In Steve’s, it is Ben’s luminous young stepmother Angela who, as played by Laura Ramsey, is one part latter-day hippie and one part allwise earth mother. What is nice about this flick (written and directed by Sopranos and Mad Men scribe Matthew Weiner) is that we can never be certain exactly where it is headed and, despite its conventional aspects, it doesn’t insist on allowing all the usual romcom shoes to drop. In fact, the interesting thing about it is that, in the end, its point is less about whether, say, Steve and Angela will get together than whether Steve and Ben will ever start coping with the hard realities of life. Lots of interesting actors come and go in small roles, including director Peter Bogdanovich as a commonsensical judge, the late Edward Hermann as a kindly doctor and Dark Shadows veteran David Selby playing, as he did in The Social Network, an attorney. (Seen 16 September 2015)

Argo 3 out of 4 stars

This flick nearly begs to be breezy caper comedy. But, while it definitely has very funny moments, it’s mostly played dead serious—which is probably appropriate since it is a true story. Ben Affleck really distinguishes himself as both director and actor. He virtually disappears into the role of the main hero, Tony Mendez, on whose book this is based. Those of us of the right age will remember the story of how the Canadians helped sneak out six Americans who escaped the 1979 embassy takeover in Iran. What many may have missed is the full story of the role of the CIA—mainly Mendez—that only came out many years later. This flick arrives at an interesting time since questions about embassy security and questions about intelligence efficiency have been in the U.S. headlines. To its credit, the movie does its best to avoid jingoism by providing context for the Iranian revolution and even drawing parallels with American domestic reaction. But in the end, seeing this film will do nothing to allay concerns about Iran getting an A-bomb. If there is a flaw, it is the tendency to pile on too many nail-biting coincidences and close calls in the final stretch. The best bits by far are the ones featuring Alan Arkin and John Goodman as old Hollywood hands jumping into the project with classic Tinseltown wisecracking gusto. (Seen 8 November 2012)

The Aristocrats 2 out of 4 stars

The main reason to see this movie is to get a sense of what it is like to be a part of the unique demimonde of the comedian. It is somewhat analogous to turning over a rock on the ground to see what is underneath. It can be fascinating and repelling, all at the same time. The subject is an old vaudeville joke that has become, among the comic brethren, both a shibboleth and a parlor game. For 89 minutes, we feel as though we are part of that community. And, when it is over, we wonder if we should go have a shower. Judging by the work by Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette, we have to conclude that, to be a comedian, one has to get arrested at the point of adolescence and never stop being the naughty child. The joy of the film is to see many of our current favorites in the comedy world, as well as welcome faces that we may have not seen for a while (Shelley Berman, David Brenner, Gary Owens, the Smothers Brothers, David Steinberg), and to find that some old-timers are still (sort of) around (Phyllis Diller, Larry Storch). As fun as the movie is, it does tend to take itself a bit too seriously. We hear the central joke a tad too many times and, among other things, we get way too much analysis from George Carlin. Still, we do finally get a stab at the elusive idea of what actually makes something funny. For example, why is it so hilarious when the fragile-looking Sarah Silverman, in telling a variation of the joke, professes to have a recovered memory of being raped as a child? Another comic highlight is watching clean-cut Bob Saget’s apparent discomfort in telling the joke, interrupting himself to ask the filmmakers, “Can I get a copy of this? I’d like to send it to the kids from the show Full House.” The word “catharsis” comes up toward the end, as we see how Gilbert Gottfried used the joke to break the ice at a Friars Roast for Hugh Hefner in the uncertain days following 9/11. And this is something we have always known: laughter is the best medicine. But the professional pharmacists of comedy, we learn, like their own medicine strong and blue. (Seen 11 October 2005)

Armageddon 2 out of 4 stars

Here is an object lesson in the difference between guy flicks and chick flicks. Deep Impact and Armageddon are both about huge objects hurtling toward earth. In Deep Impact (directed by a woman) we mostly see people talking about how they feel about the world coming to an end. In Armageddon (directed by a man) a bunch of guys go up in outer space with a huge powerful tool and thrust it powerfully and repeatedly deeper and deeper into the resistant and yet somehow willing asteroid. Indeed, the most amusing part of this testosterone-laden epic by the producer-king of macho movie mayhem, Jerry Bruckheimer (Con Air), is the (excuse the expression) climatic scene in which the surviving heroes work themselves into an orgasmic frenzy forcing in the final thrusts of their giant drilling tool. You can’t say that Bruckheimer and director Michael Bay (who previously collaborated on The Rock) don’t know their audience! Wisely, the pace is kept so rapid-fire that one never has time to catch one’s breath, let alone consider the scientific, logical, or human absurdities of the story. Most importantly, Armageddon confirms three things that we would never know without Hollywood movies: 1) the higher up you go in the chain of command, the more likely they are not to have clue one, 2) when objects fall from space, they invariably strike large population centers (one sequence in particular should wipe away the smiles of the smug World Cup-winning French), and 3) when it comes time to defuse the bomb, nobody can remember if it’s the red wire or the blue wire that you’re supposed to cut. (Seen 7 August 1998)

Arrival 3 out of 4 stars

At a dozen sites around the world, myterious large vessels have appeared, all suspended just above the ground. Clearly their origin is extraterrestrial, but why have they come? Are they like the conquest-bound aliens in Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day? Or are they more like the benevolent Kaatu in Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still? Since the filmmaker here (working from Eric Heisserer’s adaption of Ted Chiang’s story) is Denis Villeneuve, punters familiar with his work will feel comfortable with their wager. Best known for Prisoners, Sicario and the long-awaited upcoming Blade Runner sequel, Villeneuve’s first feature, August 32nd on Earth nearly two decades ago, dealt with similar themes of perceptions of reality and the meaning of life. One of the joys of this flick is that it presents a fairly realistic portrayal of what an interplanetary first contact situation might really be like. Is it a spoiler to say that the aliens in this flick are, in the end, kind of a MacGuffin so that the filmmakers can explore how language cannot be extricated from how we perceive reality? And how a big part of the puzzle of existence is understanding and accepting your place in the universe? (Sorry. If that is a spoiler, just jump back to the beginning of this review and insert the words “spoiler alert.”) Yeah, the basic plot could have been lifted from a particularly inventive episode of Doctor Who, but there is way more going on here than just the sci-fi angle. The tone and philosophy of the movie have clearly been a great comfort to audiences at a time when the world seems to be going a bit more crazy than usual. It is also good to have a reminder that Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker can bring a whole lot more to characters than they get to do when they are playing the likes of Lois Lane, Hawkeye and Saw Gerrera. (Seen 4 February 2017)

Artemisia 2 out of 4 stars

Sure, France can give us dreck like Clubbed to Death, but it can also give us beautiful historical costume dramas like Agnes Merlet’s Artemisia. If you think it’s hard naming five women film directors who weren’t first successful actors, just try naming a woman Renaissance painter. This film tells the true story of one, Artemisia Gentileschi. The theme of painting provides much occasion for lovely photography of landscapes, seascapes and, not incidentally, naked bodies. The villains here are the Catholic church and the patriarchal legal system of the time, which made it illegal for women to paint male nudes or, more problematically, for a male artist to have a torrid love affair with his 17-year-old female student. Valentina Cervi is quite convincing and appealing in the title role. (Seen 25 January 1998)

Arthur 3 out of 4 stars

No, this isn’t the new version with Russell Brand in the title role and which everyone says was rubbish. While I find Brand very funny and it’s hard to imagine any movie with Helen Mirren in it being disappointing, I’m not surprised. Brand’s persona has always been a bit of a jerk. He’s funny because he’s annoying. The reason the original version of Arthur worked was that the only way it could was if we liked the irresponsible, infantile, self-absorbed man at the center of it. And Dudley Moore was nothing if not likeable, as well as being a masterful physical comedian—something else that was required for the role. The 1981 movie was written and directed by Steve Gordon who, sadly, died soon after it was released and never made any other feature film. Even at the time, I remember thinking, the movie was a throwback to a time when it was okay to laugh at drunks. By the end of the 1970s, we had had our consciousness raised to the fact that alcoholism is a disease and should not be treated lightly or as amusing. Arthur made it okay to laugh again. Indeed, for all its pretensions to saying something profound about life (thanks to John Gielgud’s hilarious but touching performance), the movie can be seen as a harbinger of what many people didn’t like about the 1980s. It basically says that greed and self-indulgence is okay—as long as you are doing it with the right person. The story contrives to have Arthur make a choice between love and easy abundant money and then cheats by saying he can have both. But those of us who love this movie don’t love it for its putative lessons. We love it for the copious laughs provided by Mr. Moore and Mr. Gielgud. The song by Christopher Cross (who sang it), Peter Allen and Burt Bacharach doesn’t hurt either. (Seen 20 May 2011)

The Artist 3 out of 4 stars

Critics keep wanting to link this Oscar favorite with Martin Scorsese’s Hugo because they are both in black and white and are both about the early days of movies. Personally, I think that connection is a bit forced. Hugo is about the medium and technology and invention of film, while The Artist is really about Hollywood. And the two are not entirely synonymous. Scorsese’s film is conceived as a visual and literary exploration of the very meaning of cinema. Comparing Michel Hazanavicius’s lovely film to Hugo is not really fair. The Artist is more of a novelty movie, not completely unlike Mel Brooks’s 1976 comedy Silent Movie. This is certainly a more exquisite work than Brooks’s, but it is similarly playful and affectionate toward Hollywood history. In fact, it is not difficult to imagine Woody Allen having made this movie, but Hazanavicius has given it much more heart and beauty than Allen would likely have done. The film is full of witty visual jokes about the silent era—from a sign that insists on silence behind a movie screen to a wife who leaves her husband because he never talks to her. (Sadly, Hazanavicius’s fellow Frenchman Marcel Marceau is no longer around to repeat the best joke from Brooks’s movie.) Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo are perfect as the Tinseltown heartthrobs who meet on opposite trajectories in their respective careers. (As at least one critic has noted, the plot is essentially the same as that of Singin’ in the Rain.) They both have the kind of charisma you can’t fake. Also affecting are James Cromwell as Dujardin’s devoted valet and, of course, Uggie the wonder dog. (Seen 28 January 2012)

As Good As It Gets 2 out of 4 stars

One thing that saved James L. Brooks’s Terms of Endearment from totally wallowing in sticky sentimentality was Jack Nicholson’s unvarnished featured role as Shirley McLaine’s middle-aged boyfriend who couldn’t quite grow up. In Brooks’s As Good As It Gets, Nicholson is the locus of the sentimentality as he plays one of those film curmudgeons who is really lovable in spite the politically incorrect epithets he bandies about. The deck here is stacked not only with a sick child but also with an expressively big-eyed little dog. But still the film is easy enough to take, in a Jerry Maguire-for-the-older-set sort of way. And despite its somewhat schematic characterizations, it makes some good points about real-world relationships. Greg Kinnear shows that his Sabrina performance was no fluke. The Oscar nominations that he and Helen Hunt have received for this film are by no means undeserved. (Seen 12 February 1998)

At Sachem Farm 2 out of 4 stars

More than midway through this movie, Minnie Driver says to Nigel Hawthorne (who happens to be sitting atop a white pillar in his garden), “You’re making this all up as you go along, aren’t you?” We viewers can be forgiven if, long before this, we suspect the film’s writer/director John Huddles of the same thing. The first half of this thing seems to meander all over the place without much apparent direction or purpose. But in the last couple of reels, things actually do manage to come to a satisfying conclusion. We are never told exactly where Sachem Farm is (this was filmed in California’s Simi Valley), although it is apparently in America, and we are never told why this eccentric family and their friends are mostly British (Ms. Driver said that British actors were the only ones who needed the work badly enough). But the geography is clearly not to be taken literally. Culturally, this is all firmly in southern California, where trying to make money is Bad and devoting yourself to Art is Good and where the gorgeous young woman who looks like a bimbo is actually an “old soul” who is exactly the right person for you. In other words, this is an exercise in wish fulfillment and, depending on your spiritual or philosophical bent, you will find the resolution of this tale quite pleasurable. Best line: “His karma was constipated, so I gave him an enema.” (Seen 5 June 1999)

Atlas Shrugged: Part I 2 out of 4 stars

So is this Paul Ryan’s favorite movie? For a film that is steeped in some serious political philosophy that still has relevance in our time, it really didn’t make much of a splash when it came out in 2011 in the midst of the long run-up to the 2012 American election. For those of us who have had an interest in Ayn Rand over the years, it is an object of fascination. Could a proper movie really be made from her rambling philosophy-heavy allegorical 1957 novel? Some people may think that making three movies from The Hobbit was stretching things, but making a film trilogy from Rand’s book may amount to cramming too much into too small a running time. But is it cinematic? Taylor Schilling (Ben Affleck’s wife in Argo) and Grant Bowler (Cooter on True Blood) do fine as entrepreneurial go-getters Dagny Taggert and Henry Reardon. But the pace and tone feels more like a primetime soap or mystery series than a movie. And maybe this would have worked better as a TV miniseries. Still there is an interesting story here. An interesting side effect of its origins is the fact that, given the fact that we have been brainwashed by Hollywood to expect business owners to be the bad guys, it takes a while to realize that they really are the good guys here. In this world Mitt Romney would be a hero. Set in 2016, the filmmakers have made an effort to make it relate to America’s current situation, and the movie supports those who say that Rand was prophetic. The second part of the trilogy came out last year with an entirely different cast. Not sure what’s up with the third and final part. (Seen 11 January 2013)

Atlas Shrugged II: The Strike 2 out of 4 stars

A year and a half after the first installment, this second piece of the movie trilogy is fairly consistent with the first—if you forget about the fact that every single role was recast! Actually, that’s not nearly as confusing or off-putting as you might think. I suppose it makes sense that Ayn Rand’s objectivist disciples would be more open to whatever profit motive was behind the total recast than probably would be, say, devotees of the Star Wars movies. I can’t say absolutely that Samantha Mathis and Jason Beghe are a major improvement—as Dagny Taggart and Henry Rearden—over Taylor Schilling and Grant Bowler, but they are perfectly fine. Some of the other interesting casting includes Esai Morales as the new Francisco d’Anconia, Star Trek: Voyager’s Robert Picardo taking over the role of Dr. Sadler and Twin Peaks’s Ray Wise, looking very sinister as the head of state who announces emergency measures that prevent companies from firing any employees or altering their production output. It all still feels like a primetime soap and there is still a lot of chatting about economic philosophy, but there is something refreshing about an entertainment with such a cogent and dense message to impart. There are a couple of action set pieces which liven things up but which also serve to highlight the production’s budget limitations. A train crash and an aerial chase require a lot of suspension of disbelief to get past the animation and model effects. But there is no getting around the interesting parallels between Rand’s vision and things that are actually coming to pass. It looks like the third installment is still, officially at least, on track for a year from this summer. Completion of the trio will be a testament to the perseverance of producer John Aglialoro, who seems to be defying Randian principles by forging ahead despite the fact that the movies haven’t been huge moneymakers. (Seen 16 March 2013)

Atlas Shrugged: Part III 2 out of 4 stars

As the opening scenes unfolded, the Missus—who actually saw the previous two installments of this trilogy but didn’t remember them—saw America’s infrastructure falling apart and said, “Oh, this is like Revolution.” Then when she saw Dagny Taggart’s plane crash, she said, “Oh, this is like Lost.” I soon realized that she was on to something. The right way to adopt Ayn Rand’s cult-object-of-fascination novel would have been for J.J. Abrams to make it into a television series. That would have been perfect. No one makes the absurd and illogical seem compelling like Abrams, and that’s the kind of touch this needed. Instead, producer John Aglialoro and crew give us something that feels like it was written by a high school civics class—with a few prime-time soap opera trappings added to sex it up a bit. This is definitely made by the converted for the converted. (The producers went to Kickstarter for some of their funding.) Some liberties have been taken to make it more relatable to the current political situation—including cameos by the likes of Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck and Ron Paul. As with the second installment, all the roles have been recast. This might be confusing, but that’s probably not the most confusing thing for people who haven’t read the novel recently and often. In fact, the revolving actors kind of help, since it gives the films a kind of David Lynch/Todd Solondz avant-garde feel. Laura Regan (Jennifer Crane on Mad Men) takes over from Samantha Mathis who took over from Taylor Schilling. Hunky Kristoffer Polaha (Henry Butler on Ringer) plays the now-revealed John Galt. And, as the now barely discernible Henry Reardon, we have Rob Morrow replacing Jason Beghe who replaced Grant Bowler. While this cannot really be recommended as quality filmmaking, I suppose for some it could be a diverting guilty pleasure. Usually, though, a guilty pleasure involves watching a bit of sex. Here it involves watching a bit of objectivist/libertarian wish fulfillment. Hey, we all have our kinks. (Seen 6 February 2015)

Atomic Blonde 2 out of 4 stars

I continue my serious scholarly research into realistic films set in Berlin during the Cold War. Thus, this tale of espionage stands with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold as a treatise on 20th century U.S.-Soviet intrigue. Okay, no it doesn’t. It as much as says so in a jokey little introduction that indicates this is no history lesson. It is, in fact, a comic book movie—as indicated by everything from the movie’s title to the over-the-top action scenes to the stock characters to the double-twist of an ending. Specifically, this is an adaptation (by Kurt Johnstad) of the graphic novel series The Coldest City written by Antony Johnston and illustrated by Sam Hart. If the fight scenes and other stunt work seem particularly diverting, it may be because this is the first official feature directed by veteran actor/stuntman David Leitch, who is said to have directed some of the scenes in Chad Stahelski’s John Wick. Indeed, the pre-release buzz on this flick was that it was John-Wick-with-a-chick. In addition to the stunts, what the film has going for it is a central performance by the extremely watchable Charlize Theron, who previously displayed her action-hero cred in Mad Max: Fury Road. She’s basically a type, as is most everyone she meets on her hornet’s-nest-of-an-assignment in 1989 Berlin—with the exception of James McAvoy, who appears to be under the impression he is in a much more interesting movie. He and the rest of the cast are class, including such reliable stalwarts as Eddie Marsan as The Package and Toby Jones and John Goodman as spook suits. The very busy Sofia Bouttella (Kingsman: The Secret Service, Tiger Raid, Star Trek Beyond, The Mummy) is quite fetching as the good Bond girl. The entertainment value is raised by a cool soundtrack of German and other pop songs from the time. One musical note is particularly nicely done. At a specific moment in an international watering hole full of disreputable characters, a bar-room piano suddenly begins tinkling “As Time Goes By.” It is a gag that could have very easily come off as cheap and cheesy. To Leitch’s credit, it comes off just right. (Seen 20 August 2017)

Atonement 3 out of 4 stars

This movie attracted so much attention two years ago, was so honored and so much discussed that finally seeing it nearly seemed an afterthought. And for the first reel or two, I was not surprised. What I was not prepared for, however, was a stunning sequence, somewhere past the middle of the film, that blew me away. In a single take that seemed to go on forever, the camera traveled for what seemed like miles all around scenes of chaos and delirium and insanity, as British soldiers wait to be evacuated from Dunkirk. It is a thrilling movie-making moment and seems nearly to be a film unto itself quite apart from the drawing room drama of the early reels. This is indeed three, or perhaps four, different movies rolled into one. It is a melodrama set among the privileged lives of pre-World War II England. It is a war movie. It is one of those movies about the guilt of childhood. (Carlos Saura’s Cría cuervos is, as always, my go-to example.) And it is a meta-narrative about making a new reality from one’s own invented narrative. Is that enough? Despite seeming to start out slowly, there is a heck of a lot going on here. Director Joe Turner and star Keira Knightley, who previously collaborated on another literary adaptation, Pride & Prejudice, both acquit themselves well here. And, of course, the movie did Ireland proud by earning Oscar nominations for cinematographer Seamus McGarvey and young Saoirse Ronan, in the pivotal role of Briony. A rather bittersweet touch is added in the final scenes, in which appears Anthony Minghella, who would die within months after the film’s release. (Seen 9 July 2009)

August Rush 3 out of 4 stars

It can be a tricky thing negotiating that sometimes fine line between sentimental and silly (on one side) and magical and whimsical (on the other). For a while, it isn’t clear which way this flick is going to go, and the ultimate judgment will be up to the individual viewer. But for me, it wound up coming down on the magical and whimsical side. This story of a foundling looking for his birth parents on the mean streets of New York City is an out-and-out fairy tale—and one without the degree of menace that real fairy tales have. The main threat is provided by Robin Williams and, if that made you snicker, then you see the problem. It also doesn’t help that Williams’s musical Manhattan Fagin character is dressed up like Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy. But the film survives that because, after all, any menace was going to be perfunctory anyway. In this movie, the worst that can happen to an 11-year-old completely on his own on the streets in the Big Apple is that he might be forced to be a busker. But, like I said, this is a fairy tale, and it is one that is infused through its heart and soul with music. It lifts the heart. It comforts the soul. It’s, it’s, oh, I don’t know, it’s Oliver! meets Once. The excellent cast includes the extraordinary Freddie Highmore in the title role, along with Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Keri Russell and Terence Howard. If director Kirsten Sheridan seems to know something about being a child adrift in New York, it’s probably because she was the real-life version of one of the little girls in her father Jim’s In America. (Seen 27 June 2009)

Austin Powers in Goldmember 2 out of 4 stars

You know a series of film spoofs is getting long in the tooth when you would much rather be watching the movie-within-the-movie than the movie itself. The Austin Powers series, while still providing more than a few laughs, is mainly interesting now because of what it may tell us about Mike Myers’s psyche. For instance, this installment dwells so much on frustrated father-son relationships that it starts to feel like it’s more than just having fun with a common dramatic convention. Otherwise, the gross-out jokes and silliest bits are definitely an acquired taste. (In terms of adolescent humor, the title Goldmember is just the, uh, tip of the iceberg.) The best parts are riffs on film conventions (particularly, a sequence involving subtitles) and the marvelous cameos, which are used up way too early. It’s great to see Michael Caine (the main role model for the Austin character in the first place) as the hero’s fun-loving father. Regrettably, Pam Grier isn’t on hand to play Foxy Cleopatra’s mother. When the film is funny, it is very, very funny. We just can’t help wishing that they could have managed to include the funniest bits of this movie in the first two films and then skipped this one and saved us all some time. (Seen 31 July 2002)

Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery 1 out of 4 stars

If the title (not to mention the participation of Mike Myers) sounds like a recurring skit on Saturday Night Live, well, that’s pretty much it. At least Myers, unlike some of his fellow SNL alumni, has the good sense not to inflict a character on us for 90 whole minutes that we were already tired of from the TV show. This is a spoof of James Bond movies, although the Austin Powers character actually seems to be based on Dudley Moore when he was 30. But the film is even more a spoof of the swinging, psychedelic 1960s. There are some funny bits here—including a couple of sequences that lampoon the way that human genitalia tend to get obscured in American movies—but many gags get milked desperately long after they’ve run dry and some stretches of the film are just dead. How can Myers possibly justify the boring scenes involving Dr. Evil (also played by Myers) trying to relate to his artificially produced son when the wonderful Mimi Rogers gets hardly any screen time in her appealing role as Powers’s Emma Peel-like assistant? If you want to really laugh a lot at 007 clichés, seek out the Honk Kong film Forbidden City Cop. (Seen 12 June 1997)

Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me 2 out of 4 stars

The corporate sponsors for the closing night screening of this film at the Seattle film festival were Starbucks and the Space Needle, and nothing could have been more appropriate, as both figure prominently in one of the movie’s best sight gags. This sequel is comparable to the original and is actually a bit better. Mike Myers still has that Saturday Night Live tendency to take one good, funny idea and then do it over and over to death. But fortunately, there are enough convulsively funny bits this time around to justify sitting through the tedious parts. Austin and Dr. Evil go back to 1969, so this film differs from the original in that, instead of them confusing people in the 1990s with 1960s references, they can confuse people in the 1960s with 1990s references. I still don’t “get” Dr. Evil. His voice and mannerisms seem like some unholy marriage of the late Ed Sullivan and the Church Lady. The best bits in the movie include a hilarious sequence with Jerry Springer, an endless gag that was written with a good thesaurus turned to the page on synonyms for the male sex organ, and a shamelessly funny scene involving (among other things) a tent, a flashlight and a gerbil. This flick makes the best use of cameos of any parody I have seen. Rob Lowe plays the role he was clearly born for, and Kristen Johnston (3rd Rock from the Sun) shows up as a Russian agent with a name only slightly too exaggerated for a James Bond film. Particularly welcome is Seth Green’s return gig as Scott Evil, since he regularly points out the absurdity in his father’s plans, i.e. saying out loud exactly what the audience is thinking. (Seen 6 June 1999)

Avalon 2 out of 4 stars

The third of Barry Levinson’s Baltimore films, Avalon (released in 1990 and set immediately after World War II) demonstrates that the further back Levinson reaches for story material, the more nostalgic and melancholy he becomes. Diner and Tin Men were bittersweet in their evocation of times past, but Avalon is just plain morose. Sure, like the others, it has its funny bits, but they feel almost forced just so that we can feel that much worse when we get to the rueful ending. On this third outing, the familiar Levinson elements are all there: the Jewish milieu, the preoccupation with financial survival and taking big gambles, senseless feuding, and the pervasive mood of time erasing a happier period. Even that famous diner is seen briefly through Elijah Wood’s very young and very large eyes from a car’s rear window. But this time, the story’s scope is much larger. Rather than a circle of friends, Levinson is now dealing with virtually three generations of the entire Jewish American immigrant experience. But, given the distance of time, Levinson’s memories are a bit too rose-colored in the early passages and a bit too dark afterwards. The villain this time is television. The happy community of extended family is, in the end, supplanted by the glowing idiot box that kills conversation and turns its suburban audience into zombies. (Seen 2 December 1999)

Avatar 3 out of 4 stars

It’s a testament to James Cameron’s talent that he has made (with the aid of tons of money, make no mistake) what could easily have been a mere video game movie into a true cinematic experience. His technical triumph is unquestioned. But lots of technically inventive and accomplished movies have found no love with audiences because they did not provide a compelling story. As he did with Titanic, he has shown that he can deliver plenty of emotion amid all the technical razzle dazzle. And an climactic extended mano a mano between the chief hero and (mechanized) villain that seems to go on and on reminds us that this is also the guy who gave us The Terminator. But the fact that Cameron has chosen to make this a political allegory becomes problematic because his historical metaphors are all over the map. The heroic and flawless Na’vi are clearly based on an idealized view of Native Americans. But their oppressors are not the U.S. cavalry but marines that seem to have poured out of an anti-Vietnam war movie using rhetoric borrowed from the Iraq war. (The felling of a giant tree that seems to evoke the World Trade Center on 9/11 only muddies the waters further.) Although ostensibly a work of science fiction, the fantastic qualities of Pandora and its inhabitants really make this a work of fantasy literature. (Forget the “Dancing with Smurfs” tag offered by South Park. The best quip was from director John Hillcoat, discussing CGI on BBC radio: “I was especially surprised with Avatar, the blue people, how they look like 1970s panel van art.”) The end result is similar to the incongruity of adapting The Lord of the Rings but substituting the U.S. military for Sauron and the Orcs. That genre mixing drags the movie back toward the video game side of things. How strange that a movie that portends the future in so many ways feels so dated in its attitude toward all things military. We expect the hypocrisy of a movie, which will pull in more cash than any other such enterprise in history, lambasting corporate greed. But the anti-military message comes at a strange moment for those of us who saw the movie at the same time that American soldiers were pulling survivors from earthquake rubble in Haiti. (Seen 27 January 2010)

The Avengers 1 out of 4 stars

At last a new movie opened here in Ireland at the same time it did in the US, so I had my chance to see it before being bombarded by word of mouth from the States. But I didn’t get to the cinema soon enough. Within seconds of its release, I was inundated by reviews telling me how bad The Avengers was. (The Sunday Independent called it, unkindly, Austin Powers without the comedy.) But I went to see it anyway because, hey, with Uma Thurman in a body-fitting leather number how bad could it be? Unfortunately, Thurman doesn’t even erase the memory of Mimi Rogers’s brief role in Austin Powers, let alone Diana Rigg’s iconic character in the TV original. What we have here is a campy parody of a TV series that itself was something of a parody of the James Bond films starring Sean Connery, who is on hand here as the least menacing villain in quite some time. The result, sadly, is only moderately amusing (wit consists of more than speaking in British accents, I’m afraid) and not particularly exciting. The director is Canadian Jeremiah Chechik, who previously made National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and Benny & Joon. Question: with the advent of the age of computer graphics, will we ever again see an action/adventure movie that doesn’t feature the damage or destruction of one or more major famous landmarks? (Seen 17 August 1998)

Avengers Assemble (Marvel Avengers Assemble) 3 out of 4 stars

Not only did the title of this blockbuster get changed from The Avengers to Avengers Assemble before its release, in English-speaking Europe they even stuck on the word “Marvel” just to make sure that no one would get the idea that they were going to see John Steed and Mrs. Peel. But in conversation (and even on the cinema schedule in Galway) it is referred to simply as The Avengers. The fact that people are ignoring the suits and just going with common sense is perfectly in keeping with the spirit of the movie. The question, of course, is whether this movie can possibly live up to literally years of build-up. The good news is that it does. The qualities we loved about Iron Man, Thor and even Captain America have all been preserved, and nobody really gets short shrift. Well, maybe Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye—whom we haven’t seen before and who has to spend the first few reels under mind control—does, but he more than makes up for it in the later battle scenes. Renner is one of those rare actors who can compellingly command the screen just by aiming an arrow. The wild card is the Hulk, whose character has been all over the place in earlier movies. Happily, Mark Ruffalo’s trademark bewildered sense of being overwhelmed suits the role of Bruce Banner very well. A good part of the anticipation in the movie is built around wondering (twice) when and how the jolly green giant will finally show up. For purist fans of the comics (going back to 1963), yes, the movie is revisionist because Nick Fury had nothing to do with the original assembling of the Avengers, but it is true that the Avengers’ first battle was against Loki. More importantly, as most of the Marvel movies have managed to do, this one captures nicely the spirit of the comics, including the knowing self-awareness of its own absurdities—something that writer/director Joss Whedon seems to excel at. Predictably, Robert Downey Jr. steals every scene he is a part of, but all the characters (even relatively minor ones) get their due, which is nearly a miracle given how many of them there are. Early on there is some chatter around Captain America about being old-fashioned, and that sums up the strength of this movie. It is not afraid to push all the buttons that made us love action/adventure matinees as kids. Watch out for a cameo from one of our favorite actors (no, not Stan Lee, you have to wait nearly to the end for him) as an amazingly non-plussed security guard. (Seen 2 May 2012)

Avengers: Age of Ultron 3 out of 4 stars

Joss Whedon was so successful with the first Avengers movie, it was probably inevitable that critics would probably be bound to find some pretext or other to hold back on praise for the second outing of the Marvel franchise’s flagship. But the reality is that this sequel gives us everything we liked about the first movie—and then more. In fact, if anything, it overwhelms us with the dialed-up mayhem and one cameo after another from the hugely populated cinema/comic book universe. And it begins to the run the risk of being a tad too self-referential. Like when Hawkeye points out, all too accurately that, in the mind-blowing battle of super-computer-controlled killer robots that are testing the powers of such superheroes such as Thor, Hulk and Iron Man, Hawkeye is just a guy with a bow and an arrow. Another strange moment: in an extended party scene Tony Stark and Thor get into a weird competition over who has the better girlfriend. But you have to love Whedon’s determination to pack in as much detail from the original comic books as possible. In addition to the previous all-star roster, this time around we also get Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch and the Vision too. And all the while Whedon manages to tie things to his Agents of SHIELD TV series. With all the action set pieces and the sprawling cast, you would think that there would not be much room (or need) for character development. But we get an impressive amount of it, ranging from a possibly budding romance between Hulk and the Black Widow to the desperate sibling bond of the Maximoffs to Stark’s own megalomania issues. And Jeremy Renner, who was badly overshadowed in the first flick, gets to be the perennial all-American soldier returning to home life oddly reminscent of the Kents of Smallville. But maybe, just maybe, the best character is the titular Ultron—voiced by James Spader, who is the perfect acting foil for Robert Downey Jr. The unnervingly reassuring tone in his voice is the perfect admonition to beware those who say they are here to help and that they will bring us peace in our time. (Seen 3 May 2015)

Les Aventures extraordinaires d’Adèle Blanc-Sec (The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec) 3 out of 4 stars

The rap on Luc Besson is that he is a little too crowd-pleasing, a tad too American-influenced to be considered a proper French auteur. But he is just so much fun. Especially with this dizzy, funny comic book of a movie. The title and its irrepressible heroine (an appealing Louise Bourgoin) evoke memories of Le Fabuleux destin d’Amelie Poulain and the work of Jean-Pierre Jeunet in general. At the risk of pouring too much praise on this whacky entertainment, it will also likely remind viewers of the work of Terry Gilliam and/or Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. Adapted from the comic books by Jacques Tardi, this movie is populated by all sorts of strange characters, including functionaries, villains, scientists, paranormalists and outright monsters. At the center is the titular Ms. Blanc-Sec (“like the wine,” she says helpfully to someone filling out paperwork on her), the most imperturbable character we have seen in quite some time. The word plucky doesn’t even begin to do justice to her spirit. And she’s way more attractive than the version on the printed page. Maybe this is pure kid’s stuff, but I sure enjoyed it. And I especially enjoyed the complete scene that showed up in the middle of the end credits, causing consternation to people who were filing out of the cinema. Stay in your seats, people. It ain’t over ‘til it’s over. (Seen 20 February 2011)

Away from Her 2 out of 4 stars

Hey, here’s a fun night out. Let’s go see a movie about someone with Alzheimer’s. Okay, there is a reason this movie comes from arts-supporting Canada and not from the Hollywood studio system. It is written (after a short story by Alice Munro) and directed by Sarah Polley, who has been in front of cameras practically her whole life (TV’s Ramona and Road to Avonlea, cinema’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter, My Life Without Me). Fortunately, this movie isn’t really “about” Alzheimer’s, i.e. most people are unlikely to learn more about the disease than they already knew. It is not a grim, gritty examination of life with or near the disease. It is a tasteful coffee table book of movie—with sumptuous photography, music, dialog and actors—that feels like an extended poem. Indeed, the idea of memory loss is really little more than a plot device, used to examine a relationship and tell a love story. (In that way, this movie is, strangely, a high-bred cousin to the Adam Sandler comedy 50 First Dates.) The disease angle is nearly undone by the simple fact that the star is Julie Christie who, frankly, glows and radiates beauty the whole time she is on the screen. Even towards the end, when she is meant to be seriously deteriorating, she is never less than mesmerizing and stunning. We might not quite believe that she has forgotten her husband, but we understand perfectly why he cannot forget about her. (Seen 22 February 2007)

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