Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2017
Scott R. Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France
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Babe 2 out of 4 stars

Babe has become such a sentimental favorite to win some major Oscars that it would seem downright curmudgeonly not to love it. Indeed the filmmakers have created a quaint and picturesque rural world where animals talk and have low opinions of species other than their own. But it has its dark side as some animals know all too well that they risk becoming somebody’s meal. Best supporting actor nominee James Cromwell doesn’t utter a huge number of lines, but his presence as the main human figure is key in helping us suspend disbelief. And the state of the art in talking animals has definitely come a long way since Mr. Ed! The best character in the film is a duck who owes more than a little to his cousin Daffy. The worst are a trio of mice who burst into song with chipmunk voices a few times too often. (Seen 12 March 1996)

Babettes gæstebud (Babette’s Feast) 4 out of 4 stars

Personally, I find this movie speaks to the very core of who I am. Its Scandinavian setting and spare religious milieu echo my own heritage. And (what can I say) I love French food. But does this 1987 film, by the Dane Gabriel Axel, hold anything for those not descended from Swedes or Anabaptists or who prefer to eat Chinese? Yes. I am the first to scoff at films that bore in the name of art, but this movie is an art film in the very best and true sense of the word. In lovely but not overwhelming painterly compositions, it creates an allegorical world in which spirituality dominates and art is regarded with suspicion. Art, in this case, is French cuisine, and the simple story culminates in the preparation and consumption of a meal, served in the remotest corner of the back of beyond, that wealthy men would pay a good chunk of their fortune for. By the time it is over, it has become a transcendent experience and said something profound about the human spirit and maybe even God. Babette’s Feast tends to get lumped into a category some call food porn—along with flicks like Alfonso Arau’s Like Water for Chocolate, Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci’s Big Night and the more recent I Am Love. But the food in this movie bears the same relationship to what the film’s really about as does the big pile of mash potatoes in Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. (Seen 11 July 2010)

Baby Driver 3 out of 4 stars

If your main complaint about movies these days is that they just do not have enough car chases, well, Edgar Wright has your problem sorted. English filmmaker Wright is probably best known for his so-called Cornetto trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World’s End). This flick, his most “realistic” to date, bears more of a relation, however, to his Scott Pilgrim vs. the World in that it is a chronicle of a young man attempting to win the woman of his dreams by overcoming a series of ever-increasing obstacles. Something we know for sure about Wright is that he is a movie fan who enjoys tweaking and subverting while saluting and cherishing the classic bits from all kinds of genres. This is his celebration of the decent-guy-trying-to-get-out-of-his-life-of-crime/just-one-last-job/car-chase movie. It looks absolutely wonderful. The music, the action and set production are all designed and choreographed down to the last detail. Music fans will have a field day with all the pop references, up to and including the film’s title, borrowed from Simon and Garfunkle. As the titular get-away driver Baby, pubescent-faced YA heart-throb king Ansel Elgort (The Fault in Our Stars, the Divergent movies) has the role his face was custom-sculpted to play. He is never less than mesmerizing as he bops, struts, pouts and slams down the accelerator. As his waitress love object Surrey-born Lily James is eerily reminiscent of Mädchen Amick in her original Twin Peaks days. The various actors playing Baby’s fellow gang members, led by the always reliable Kevin Spacey, all get the chance to make serious impressions as characters with fully imagined and interesting backstories. The standout is Jon Hamm, who goes through an impressive and believable transformation into what might be called the Javier Bardem character. Sure, this is the kind of movie where a city like Atlanta seemingly has endless fleets of police cars at the ready to chase robbery suspects at a moment’s notice and yet a youth still manages to evade them all with his fancy driving skills, but it’s also the kind of movie where we happily just go along with it. In years to come this will make a great double bill with Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects. (Seen 20 August 2017)

Back in Time 2 out of 4 stars

You may have heard recently something about it being the day when Marty McFly lands in future Hill Valley. (And, yes, in our house on October 21 we put on our copy of Back to the Future Part II to compare notes on how 2015 actually turned out.) This documentary, released on that day, takes a very fond look at the making of the original Back to the Future and its sequels. Directed by Jason Aron, it does a nice job of reminding us (or informing us, if we happen to be young) just where director Robert Zemeckis, producer Steven Spielberg and star Michael J. Fox were in their careers when this hit movie landed in the cinemas. Quite a few of the cast and crew reminisce about their work on the project, and we really do get the impression that it was a genuine labor of love. We see brief clips of Eric Stoltz as Marty before the past was recast. We learn that Disney passed on the film because of the quasi-incest angle and that Fox was run ragged filming Family Ties and the movie at the same time. Alan Silvestri and Huey Lewis show up to discuss the score and the film’s hit song. Co-writer Bob Gale discusses the screenplays. We are reminded that no sequels were originally planned and that, if they had known they would be making another movie, they wouldn’t have ended the first movie with Claudia Wells’s character in the time machine, since they had to deal with that in the opening of the second film. We hear quite a bit from Wells, whose role as Marty’s girlfriend was recast in the sequels, but nothing from Crispin Glover, who likewise dropped out after the first flick. A whole section is devoted to the fan base and all the people who have bought DeLoreans and converted them into “time machines.” And, of course, no BttF doc would be complete without an update on the current state of hover boards. (Seen 25 October 2015)

Back to Back 1 out of 4 stars

I almost didn’t want to see this midnighter at the film festival because I noticed that Bobcat Goldthwait was in the cast. As it turned out, he was the best thing in the movie! He has a brief role as a bank robber whose voice is mostly drowned out, thankfully, by the roar of a car’s engine. When things go wrong for him, he takes a restaurant full of hostages since he happens to have tons of explosives wrapped around his body. Pity for him, however, that there happens to be a Yakuza in the restaurant who, uh, disarms him very ingeniously so that his finger doesn’t slip off the bomb’s release trigger. At least for a while. But that’s a minor incident in this poor man’s Die Hard, a deliberately cheesy, low-budget actioner by Roger Nygard. Back to Back is mostly harmless fun, and there are lots of familiar faces in the minor roles. (Seen 24 May 1996)

Back to the Future 3 out of 4 stars

A few years ago, someone emailed me and berated me for not posting reviews of the Back to the Future trilogy. Okay, here’s a start. When the movie came out in 1985, it caused moviegoers to, once again, plumb their brains to remember details about the 1950s so we could get the jokes. To watch the movie again now, one still has to do this but, in addition, try to remember what was going on in the 1980s so we can get the other half of the joke. (Does the soft drink Tab even exist anymore?) It is not surprising that this movie was the biggest moneymaker of its year. It’s cleverly constructed and it’s a hoot. Well-plotted time travel stories are always satisfying in a brain teaser sort of way, and the flick also plays on the fantasy we have all had at one or another time about what it would have been like to meet our parents when they were our age. I would go further and suggest, and not completely tongue in cheek either, that this movie and its two sequels amount to something like a comedy/adventure version of Thorton Wilder’s Our Town, with the time travel device used to deconstruct the cycle of life in an American small town. (Well, I guess that little observation takes all the fun out of it.) Not only did this movie change forever how we looked at Michael J. Fox and helped him break free from the character he played on Family Ties, but it was also a rare chance to see eclectic actor Crispin Glover in a blockbuster movie (playing Fox’s father, despite being three years his junior). The film is securely ensconced in the popular culture. Not only is there an English pop band named McFly, but upon seeing the movie the Munchkin immediately informed me that there is a song referencing the movie’s flux capacitor sung by her current faves, the Jonas Brothers. All the technical touches, both on and behind the screen, are a clear trademark of director Robert Zemeckis, but I notice that he does seem to have gone back and digitially replaced Claudia Wells’s face with that of Elisabeth Shue, who took over the role of Fox’s girlfriend in the sequels. (Seen 1 August 2008)

Back to the Future Part II 3 out of 4 stars

As with many blockbuster movie trilogies, the first installment of the Back to the Future series stood perfectly fine on its own. Technically, it did end with a cliffhanger, but it was a joke cliffhanger—one final gag in a series of romps. No viewer had any particular reason to expect the story to continue. But there was too much money at stake, and so not one but two sequels were produced. And that mock cliffhanger became a real springboard to further adventures. In a strange way, the plot device of Part II—wherein the craven Biff Tannen steals Marty McFly’s idea of using info from the future to make a monetary killing—parallels the filmmakers’ visit back in time to mine more money from their original box office goldmine. As faithful readers (and other intelligent people) know, sequels are meant to retell the original story while giving the illusion of advancing the original story. This sequel did something quite clever in literally revisiting the original movie and watching the action from a different perspective. (The mixing of old footage and new action presaged what director Robert Zemeckis would later do, more elaborately, in Forrest Gump.) It also paid homage to one of the most homage-paid movies of history, It’s a Wonderful Life, by having our hero Marty McFly witness the dire fate of his home town in an alternate reality. The film is rife with in jokes, like when Michael J. Fox is startled by a holographic ad for Jaws 19. Tweaking the films’ producer, Steven Spielberg, he mutters, “Shark still looks fake.” And, just as the first film ends with a mock cliffhanger, this one ends with a real one. As with the second Star Wars movie, audiences were put on notice that they would have to wait for another movie to be released to find out what happens next. (Seen 16 August 2008)

Back to the Future Part III 2 out of 4 stars

One of the fun things about watching Part II of this trilogy was to realize that we are now only seven years away from having flying cars. If Part II was some sort of riff on It’s a Wonderful Life, then Part III was a cockamamie tribute to Sergio Leone. The first surprise is learning that Marty McFly’s hometown of Hill Valley is actually located in Utah and Arizona’s Monument Valley. Of course, only a brief bit of footage was shot in that evocative location, just as Leone filmed a couple of scenes there for his supreme otherwise Spain-located spaghetti western Once Upon a Time in the West. Instead of Spain, however, director Robert Zemeckis shot the bulk of his western footage in northern California. Other Leone touches include an homage to the famous rising camera snot that reveals the new town and Michael J. Fox’s adopting the alias Clint Eastwood and even donning a similar getup as Eastwood wore. It would probably be only fair to give this movie the same number of stars as Part II, since they were conceived and filmed together and neither is complete without the other. But they were released as two separate movies, and by the time this final installment came out in 1990, the novelty of the conceit had pretty much worn away. The movie is still fun, but by its end it has become more like a TV series adaptation than an original movie. (Seen 29 August 2008)

Backyard 2 out of 4 stars

This film and Charleen are a couple of documentaries by Ross McElwee, the guy who did Sherman’s March, which played for a long time in Seattle. These are mainly about people that McElwee knows in his hometown in the South. Somehow he seems to make them as involving as if they were fiction. Which is high praise for reality. (Seen 15 May 1987)

Bad Santa 2 out of 4 stars

If you’re the type of person who spends the entire month of December drinking because you can’t cope with the holidays, then this is your movie. It also may be appropriate for people who have seen Miracle on 34th Street year after year and can’t bear to see it one more time. This movie is the anti-Miracle on 34th Street. This department store Santa not only doesn’t believe he is the real Santa Claus but barely believes he is a human being deserving of any love or respect. Depending on your sense of humor, you will either find this flick very funny or extremely depressing. A good litmus test may be how you feel about that song about grandma getting run over by a reindeer. This is a comedy but, at the same time, it’s a rather raw view of life in America today and how it contrasts with the sentimental ideals of the winter holidays. Adding to its bittersweet side is the presence of the late John Ritter in his last big screen appearance. Still, being a Christmas movie (such as it is), this is ultimately about redemption (in spite of its intention to be as jaundiced as possible) and the natural impulse of people to create families where none exist in spite of themselves. (Seen 10 December 2003)

Bad Words 2 out of 4 stars

I saw this flick just a couple of days before Theodore Melfi’s St. Vincent and so it is hard not to think of the two movies in comparison with each other. In each case we have an extremely misanthropic and unlike-able adult thrown together with a cute and precocious young boy—leading to more or less preordained results. This film, written by Andrew Dodge, is a vehicle for Jason Bateman, himself a one-time child actor, directing here for the first time for the big screen. Bateman clearly has a great time sinking his teeth into playing one of the most off-putting characters to be played by a beloved sitcom star in quite some time. The story is a bit of a whydunnit, in that we are left to wonder for much of the film’s running time why the anti-hero, a 40-year-old with a gift for words in general and orthography in particular, has so determinedly exploited a loophole in the rules of a prestigious national spelling bee to unfairly compete against a host of bright young children. Kathryn Hahn is on hand as a journalist and our point-of-view character, and we suspect that she may be the one to walk off into the sunset with the hopefully to-be-reformed Bateman. Or will that possible happy ending instead feature little Rohan Chand, the brightest, smiley-est and most chipper tyke to grace the silver screen since Shirley Temple herself. Happily, the story’s time-worn trajectory gets some freshness from all of the provocative offensiveness and the fact that the story veers, a bit unexpectedly, into con-men-double-crossing-each-other territory. It’s the kind of story that is inherently difficult to bring to a satisfying conclusion, but Bateman brings it in for about as smooth a landing as possible. (Seen 23 January 2015)

El baile de la Victoria (The Dancer and the Thief) 3 out of 4 stars

This movie is directed by the Spanish filmmaker Fernando Trueba, whose best-known work is probably Belle epoque, which starred a very young Penélope Cruz in one of her earliest roles. That may or may not be a good indication of whether you will like this movie, but a better indicator might be the fact that it is based on a novel by the Chilean author Antonio Skármeta, who also wrote the novel Ardiente paciencia, which inspired the 1994 Michael Radford film Il Postino. We know we are in the realm of Latin American literature because there is great beauty, horrible ugliness, moments of magic and an easy mixing of genres and tone. The time is during Chile’s transition from Pinochet autocracy to democracy, and two thieves are among many prisoners released in an amnesty. The young, evocatively named Ángel Santiago immediately meets a girl (the titular dancer) and begins planning a caper to finance an escape to a better life. Older, wiser Nicolás is a criminal legend, but he only wants to try to get back with his estranged wife and son. Will this be a romantic film, a crime film, a political film or a tragedy? Inevitably, a bit of all of the above. But also a bit of a fairy tale and fable. For whatever reason, it reminded me of one of my favorite films of all time, Marcel Carné’s classic Children of Paradise. And that is high praise indeed. Especially appealing is Argentine actor Abel Ayala as Ángel. His compatriot, the veteran actor Ricardo Darín (Son of the Bride) skillfully conveys the world-weariness, laced with hope, of his character. Also on hand are Ariadna Gil, who was also in Belle epoque, as Nicolás’s erstwhile spouse, and Marcia Haydée, the Brazilian ballet dancer and teacher, who played herself in the 1977 movie The Turning Point. (Seen 22 February 2010)

Bandit Queen 3 out of 4 stars

Bandit Queen was one of the most anticipated movies of the 1995 Seattle film festival, largely because of the scandal it caused in India. It is banned there because of its graphic violence and sex. (In this film the two are pretty much one and the same.) Apparently, in India they don’t even show kissing on screen, so yes I can see where this film might offend some sensibilities. In a way, Bandit Queen isn’t very different from a lot of U.S. movies starring Sylvester Stallone, Steven Seagal, and Bruce Willis where the hero is victimized and tortured and then winds up coming back for revenge. The difference here is that the hero is a woman and the story is basically true. Phoolan Devi was a low-caste woman who rebelled against the male dominated system which married her off as a young child and generally put her at the mercy of all men. She was exiled from her village and wound up becoming a bandit, eventually rising to leadership of her own gang. She became a folk hero to India’s lower castes before being forced to surrender (before a cheering crowd) in 1983. This can be a hard film to watch because of the violence and the interminable rape scenes. But it is also one of the most powerful movies I have ever seen. (Seen 3 June 1995)

The Banger Sisters 2 out of 4 stars

This 2002 movie asks the cinematic question: When people, who were fast friends in their wild and crazy youth, get together again decades later, which is the sadder case? The one who has changed completely? Or the one who hasn’t changed at all? The movie comes down firmly somewhere in between, although we think its heart is mostly with Goldie Hawn’s Suzette, whose many apparently consequence-free years of fast living seems to have a liberating effect on those around her. The director is Bob Dolman, whose life is entwined with SCTV alumni (his ex is Andrea Martin; his brother-in-law is Martin Short), but the movie isn’t nearly as zany as that information might suggest. It’s basically a feel-good movie that is meant to appeal to female baby boomers, nostalgic for the good old days and old friends. It coasts a bit on a few key cinematic echoes. Hawn could be an older version of the groupie her daughter, Kate Hudson, played two years earlier in Almost Famous. Geoffrey Rush is an artist (of sorts), who has been traumatized by his father and needs a free-spirited woman to save him, similar to his character in Shine. And Susan Sarandon, who is scarily convincing as a lawyer’s wife with a stick up her derrière, is like an older version of her Janet character from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, needing to be re-taught the lessons she learned in her youth from Dr. Frank-N-Furter. (Seen 22 October 2005)

Bangkok Dangerous 2 out of 4 stars

The title tells us everything we need to know about the movie. It takes place in Bangkok. And things are very dangerous. Casual observers could be forgiven for thinking that the locale is Hong Kong, since the movie fits in seamlessly with all the Hong Kong flicks we have seen for years. Indeed, just to drive the point home, the story takes a brief diversion to Hong Kong. The soundtrack is pounding and the violence is rampant and often slow-motion. The conclusion is explosive and tragic, like some kind of bullet-ridden opera. Movies, like this, about hit men do raise some nagging questions. When people become professional assassins, do they ever think about how they will get out of the business, especially given the fact that they work for an organization that is in the business of killing bothersome people? On the other hand, do these organizations ever think about the consequences of having a work force that is armed and has no qualms about killing? And you thought the post office had the most worries about disgruntled employees. (Seen 25 May 2001)

Baraboo 3 out of 4 stars

There is a very simple and easy litmus test for recommending this movie. If you liked The Straight Story, then you will likely love this. If The Straight Story was not your cup of tea, then you can safely give this one a miss. The connection between the two movies is not coincidental. The writer/director of Baraboo, Mary Sweeney, wrote, edited and produced The Straight Story, which was directed by David Lynch. Sweeney has worked on a lot of Lynch’s projects, going all the way back to Blue Velvet. She is also the mother of one of his children and was briefly married to him. The titular setting is a rural corner of Sweeney’s native Wisconsin, and this movie is so much like The Straight Story that we have to wonder if Lynch only put his name on the earlier movie. In hindsight, it seems as if it were pure Sweeney. Summarizing Baraboo’s plot does it no favors, as it makes it sound rather boring. It is populated by basically decent and good people doing basically decent and good things. But there are so many touches that are, I want to say Lynchian, but that’s not really fair, but it’s hard to avoid, anyway, that give the movie a strange mood for a film that is so benign. The odd noises on the soundtrack, the swirling views of the sky, the dark corners all put us on edge that something sinister may develop. And a few minor characters come and go who bring an unsettling feeling of anger, which our movie-trained senses warn may lead to bad things. But, in the end, this is a celebration, though not a glorification, of small town values, the general goodness of people and the wealth of experience and wisdom that comes from different generations mixing together. This is a lovely movie. (Seen 8 July 2009)

Barely Lethal 2 out of 4 stars

A silly mashup of spy movies and high school comedies, this flick by Kyle Newman, who has made videos of Lana Del Rey and Taylor Swift, has an oddball sense of humor all its own. It stars Hailee Steinfeld, who has been making interesting role choices ever since getting an Oscar nomination for the 2010 True Grit remake, as a teenage operative and government assassin. Her boss is Nick Fury himself, Samuel L. Jackson. Her rival at the so-called Prescott Academy is none other than Sansa Stark (and lately X-Men’s Jean Grey), Sophie Turner. When Agent 83 chucks the espionage life and pursues a normal life as a high school student (posing as an exchange student from Canada), she draws the attention of A/V geek Thomas Mann (of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl). The gag is that all 83 (now calling herself Megan) knows about teen life is what she has researched by watching movies like Mean Girls. (In a great scene she knowingly blows off the friendly entreaties of the cheerleaders who, as it turns out, are really nice.) Toward the end, the conceit becomes the notion that negotiating teen life and espionage are essentially the same. In another funny bit a conversation about how it feels to kill someone mirrors all the platitudes of sexual initiation. Another strange but amusing running gag is the creepy bromance that a chemistry teacher (Dan Fogler) keeps trying to pursue with cool kid Cash, played by Tony Sebastian (another Game of Thrones veteran). It’s hard to get too into a flick that doesn’t take itself at all seriously but, on the other hand, it’s hard not to like one that is just so darn silly. (Seen 8 August 2016)

Bartleby 2 out of 4 stars

It is pretty much automatic that I have to see any movie that features Crispin Glover. He hasn’t been in a huge number of movies and he doesn’t always have a large role, but he’s always eerily fascinating to watch. He was probably seen by the largest audience playing Michael J. Fox’s geeky dad in Back to the Future, although his strongest role to date was the hypnotically malevolent Layne in River’s Edge. He gets his best showcase in a long time as the title character of this modern-day adaptation of the Herman Melville story “Bartleby the Scrivener” by Jonathan Parker. The opening credits remind us of a situation comedy, perhaps from the 1960s, maybe even a skit comedy show like Laugh In, which is appropriate since one of the first faces we see is Dick Martin’s in a cameo as The Mayor. Indeed, the whole movie is played like a sitcom with a wonderful absurdist humor underneath the deliberately superficial one-liners and a color scheme that won’t do your headache any good. Anyone who has managed or who has been managed will feel bursts of recognition. The cast—which also includes David Paymer, Glenne Headly, Joe Piscopo, Maury Chaykin—is perfect for the material. (Seen 25 May 2001)

Baryton (The Baritone) 2 out of 4 stars

It’s 1933 and a world-famous (but aging) opera singer is making a triumphant return to his nowhere home city in Poland. Accompanying him are his retinue, his coterie, his entourage of hangers-on, backers, groupies, and staff. His secretary Art (who looks like a reed thin Robert Duvall) is a schemer and manipulator who would put J.R. Ewing to shame. During the course of this movie there are double crosses, triple crosses, quadruple crosses, blackmail, seduction, cuckolding, spying, gossip, and other standard business practices. The issue is: who will be director of the baritone’s new opera in Strasbourg? The plots are so byzantine that it’s hilariously funny. It is clearly an allegory of the politics of the time. (It’s no coincidence that Art is an ethnic German.) And the finale where the baritone (who has lost his voice) must lip sync his long-awaited concert to one of his own recordings (with Art pulling the strings in the background) can’t help but put one in mind of Hitler and Hindenburg at the end of the Weimar republic. This is the first film by a young but obviously promising Polish director. (Seen 21 May 1987)

La Batalla de Chile: Lucha de un pueblo sin armas (The Battle of Chile: Struggle of an Unarmed People) 3 out of 4 stars

At the height of the rhetoric excesses during the Clinton impeachment, some accused the American right of attempting a “coup.” People who carelessly bandied that word about should be required to watch the entirety of this remarkable historical document by Patricio Guzmán to learn what a real coup d’état is all about. The Battle of Chile was filmed during the thousand days of the Popular Unity government in Chile in the early 1970s, up to and including the bloody military intervention that brought an end to the world’s first freely elected Marxist government. While parts of the film may get tedious for people with little or no interest in Chile, those of us who know the country can’t help but find it a riveting visit back to a time and place that have been rarely matched in our times for drama and tragedy. It’s all here. The protests, the debates, the confrontations, the violence. An unabashed Marxist, Guzmán makes no pretense at objectivity. The story is told completely from the Popular Unity point of view by a narrator who is not the least bit self-conscious about using classic left-wing jargon. People opposed Salvador Allende’s regime are simply dismissed as “bourgeois.” If Augusto Pinochet is curious why so many people have wanted to see him extradited from Great Britain, a viewing of this film, along with its 1997 follow-up Chile, Obstinate Memory, should solve the mystery. (Seen 1 April 1999)

Batalla en el cielo (Battle in Heaven) 1 out of 4 stars

Ay! Ay! Ay! Many people, who usually know what they are talking about (or writing about), have said that this is a very good, if difficult, film. Well, they got the difficult part right anyway. Director Carlos Reygadas’s previous film, Japón, was similarly rough and minimalist. That is a polite way of saying that this is one of those movies where people spend an awful lot of time standing motionless and staring straight ahead and saying little. To make up for this (apparently), we also get a few scenes of very graphic sex and one unexpected and pretty brutal scene. On the bright side, we do get to see quite a bit of Mexico City. Since the film begins and ends with the ceremonial unfurling and furling of a humongous Mexican flag, I am going to guess that this movie is meant to be saying something Really Important about Mexico. And given its preoccupation with a religious procession, I am further going to guess that it is meant to be saying something Really Important about religion in general or perhaps Catholicism in particular or maybe even Mexican Catholicism in very particular. Beyond that, I really don’t want to think about it. (Seen 15 October 2005)

Batman 3 out of 4 stars

When this movie came out in 1989, we really had nothing to compare it to—in terms of dramatizing the venerable comic book hero—except the campy 1960s Adam West TV series. Given that, it seemed extremely dark and grownup. Now, looking back at it after Christopher Nolan’s superior Dark Knight trilogy, Tim Burton’s take seems broad and cartoonish. As strangely weird as Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of the Joker was, he seems surprisingly non-threatening when compared to Heath Ledger’s nihilistic psychopath. Michael Keaton seemed a strange choice at the time to play Bruce Wayne, and he still does. But the casting worked. Mainly known at that point for his manic comic turn in Burton’s Beetle Juice, Keaton actually gave a moving performance of a damaged soul—a lonely man in a big house full of everything. And, if some people thought The Dark Knight Rises’s take on class warfare was conservative, what are we to make of a villain who lures the duped public into his trap by giving away free money? Danny Elfman’s stirring score really contributes to the overall effect. The visuals are somewhere between film noir and a Dick Tracy comic strip, but they look pretty darn good in light of Burton’s inferior sequel plus the deteriorating follow-ups by Joel Schumacher. (Seen 26 January 2013)

Batman & Robin 2 out of 4 stars

If you look up the term “mind candy” in your CD-ROM dictionary, there should be an embedded video object containing this movie. To be sure, this flick gloriously captures all the comic book logic (a classic oxymoron) that we know and love where some people can fall from great heights and catch themselves with no problem, while other people can take a bath in chemicals and have a complete change of personality and get superpowers to boot. And the art design and special effects are just dandy. The problem is that the Batman flicks have become even more formulaic than the James Bond movies. Gotham City’s social elite still haven’t figured out that it’s a really bad idea to attend any gala charity event associated with Bruce Wayne. And we don’t even (excuse the expression) bat an eye anymore when someone easily stumbles into the Bat Cave, immediately unlocks all its secrets, and within minutes has trained themselves to be a superhero. The dialogue, in particular, is particularly pedestrian this time out. By the time Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze utters his 37th temperature cliché with no trace of irony, we are longing for something with the literary weight of “Hasta la vista, baby!” (Seen 24 June 1997)

Batman Begins 3 out of 4 stars

We have gotten used to comic book film adaptations (like Ang Lee’s Hulk and Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City) that try increasingly to look like the printed comic book. So it is a refreshing change of pace to see one that actually looks like a movie. Specifically, English-born director Christopher Nolan’s take on Bob Kane’s immortal hero looks like a film noir. I heard critic Kenneth Turan on NPR refer to this as a “post-9/11” action movie, and that is technically as well as psychologically correct. Where previous movies of this sort have explored the idea that there is actually a thin line between the hero and the villain, this one specifically raises the question that there is a thin line between terrorists and those that want to stop the terrorists. While worlds away from Nolan’s breakthrough film Memento, it definitely shares that film’s dark themes of a man lost in a corrupt and confusing world. The film soars because the filmmakers take the material absolutely seriously (that’s so simple, but so many studios don’t, when working with comic books; two words: Adam West) and Christian Bale turns out to be an inspired choice for the title role. He is simply the best Batman to date and, more importantly, the best Bruce Wayne. Once again we can see, as this movie shows, that immigrant filmmakers seem to understand American myths better than most native-born Americans. Another nice touch is a long string of cosmic casting correlations. We first meet Bale here in the same place we first saw him ever (in Empire of the Sun), an Asian prison camp. Liam Neeson seems (at first anyway) to be playing the same mentor role that he did in The Phantom Menace. Cillian Murphy plays a psychiatrist named Dr. Crane (Frasier fan?). And the ever-loyal Alfred is played by the original (un-loyal) Alfie, Michael Caine. All coincidences? I don’t think so. Personal favorite line: “Nice coat.” (Seen 16 June 2005)

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice 2 out of 4 stars

I have noticed that people reviewing and discussing this movie have been careful to avoid spoilers, but I think enough time has gone by that we can talk openly about the extraordinary development at the end of the movie. To wit, as soon as the end credits start rolling, don’t bother hanging around. Just stand up and leave. There is no reason to delay that rush to the restroom because there is nothing particularly entertaining or informative in the credits and, more extraordinarily, there is no humorous and/or portentous bonus scene at the very end à la the Marvel superhero movies. And as for that thing you thought I was going to mention, well, that was just one more in a whole list of disparate classic DC plotlines that were crammed into this one movie. And, if you are planning to wring your hands in anguish until the release of the next DC movie, worrying about the demise of one of the iconic pop culture figures of all time, well, either you need to get out more or you are somehow too young to know about all the hoopla back in 1992 over this exact same storyline. In fact, this whole movie—beginning with a rehash of Man of Steel and a replay of the oft-told Batman origin story—was just one bit after another that we have seen numerous times before. I call it DC déjà vu. To be fair, Zack Snyder has just the sort of visual flair that is ideal for translating comic book art to the big screen. It’s just a shame that he doesn’t have something a bit more fresh and original to work with. And to be frank, all of the ponderous thematic references to 9/11, terrorism, third world strife and religion get a bit wearying after a while. It all comes off like a movie trying to seem important rather than actually having anything important to say. On the other hand, though, Wonder Woman was extremely cool. Compare this movie to any of the Avengers movies and you can get a clear idea why a lot of us young kids defected from DC for Marvel back in the day. The Marvel superheroes feel and talk like real people. Their comic relief comes out of the characters. DC superheroes are like self-important chess pieces with no inner life and, when a gag line finally comes, it is so jarring in tone that it falls completely flat. One such line involves Ben Affleck’s Batman and Diane Lane as Superman’s mom. How times change. Just ten years ago those two actors played lovers in Hollywoodland with Affleck as George Reeves, the actor famous for playing you-know-who. Among the copious number of journalist and pundit cameos, be sure to watch for the obligatory appearance of Patrick Leahy, a U.S. senator for four decades who has been regularly showing up in Batman movies for two decades. (Seen 16 April 2016)

La battaglia di Algeri (The Battle of Algiers) 3 out of 4 stars

Part of the Programmers Strand, a sort of “best hits” of past Galway Film Fleadhs, this film was introduced by Lelia Doolan, who had arranged its original Fleadh screening along with a visit by its director, Gillo Pontecorvo, who died in 2006. She described him as an unassuming, soft-spoken man. This would be in contrast to the energy and passion on display in his most famous film. Released in 1966, The Battle of Algiers chronicles the rise and fall of Algeria’s National Liberation Front as well as the ultimate victory of Algerian independence from France. Pontocorvo was a journalist, but he was also a committed leftist, so it is a bit of a surprise that the film is so even-handed. Propaganda this is not. Made in a documentary/cinéma vérité style, the film follows events in Algiers by mainly tracking the progress of a petty criminal named Ali La Pointe, who becomes converted to the cause in prison and rises in the FLN structure. The French side of things is aired fairly completely by the character of Col. Mathieu, who is given the military job of ending the insurgency. The black and white photography is beautiful, and the action has an immediacy that feels all too real. Particularly remarkable is how relevant the film is to our own times. The FLN wants to establish an Islamic republic. They carry out terrorist attacks. The military resorts to torture to get information. And, for the record, the torture works, in that the information gained enables Col. Mathieu to eliminate the FLN’s leaders—although this only postpones the day that the French will withdraw. The complexity of the situation is not ignored, as Mathieu makes references to the French defeat at Dien Bien Pu (Vietnam syndrome anybody?) and the fact that his men were originally resistance fighters themselves, some having been tortured by the Germans. If you haven’t seen this movie before or you haven’t seen it recently, it is definitely worth a look. (Seen 11 July 2009)

Battlefield Earth 2 out of 4 stars

For some reason, this flick seems to be getting a raw deal. Maybe it’s payback time because of all of the good will John Travolta inexplicably got after his career revival in Pulp Fiction. Maybe too many people have been annoyed by strangers on the street hawking Dianetics. Maybe the title sounds too much like Battlestar Galactica. Who knows? Anyway, the movie is not that bad. Sure, if, like the young men who sat behind us when we watched it, you are the type of sci-fi aficionado who gets into endless arguments over the scientific implications of how imaginary elements power imaginary starships in Star Trek, then, yes, well, you might find it laughable that human beings whose society has been blasted back to the stone age could learn to master fighter jets and more in just a few days. But if you are the type of action movie fan who likes a fast pace and lots of explosions (as well as a fair dose of “let’s kick some alien butt” jingoism in the style of Independence Day plus a dash of Planet of the Apes-type irony), then this movie is just fine. As a bonus, it really has a wicked sense of humor. In Trek terms, the evil Psychlos have all the social and grooming skills of the Klingons but with the value system and situational ethics of the Ferengi. As a satire of commercial exploitation and amoral political ethics, it is at its best when Travolta, who played a thinly disguised Bill Clinton in Primary Colors, confounds his adversaries by parsing his words in lawyer-like fashion to say one thing and really mean another. (Seen 12 May 2000)

Beach Party 2 out of 4 stars

We all collectively “remember” the Beach Party movies starring Frankie and Annette, but how many of us know or remember that the original Beach Party movie actually gave top billing to two older actors: movie and sitcom veteran Robert Cummings (then in his early 50s) and soon-to-be-Peyton Place-star Dorothy Malone (then in her late 30s). They frame the nubile beach action as a bookish anthropologist and his helper who are observing the red-blooded American teens as if they were an exotic tribe of aborigines. If this were a Hitchcock movie, they would be Jimmy Stewart and either Grace Kelly or Barbara Bel Geddes and, in one of several eerie pop culture portents, their characters are the professor and Marianne. (Another is Jody McCrea’s comic relief best friend character who, two years before the Grateful Dead were formed, is called Deadhead.) Were these movies (as I tried to persuade the Munchkin in a bid to get her to watch with me) the High School Musical movies of their day and were Avalon and Funicello the baby boomers’ Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens? Well, that’s not really fair. The HSM flicks are really proper movie musicals. The Beach Party flicks are actually more comparable to the St. Trinian’s movies, in that they are basically a series of set pieces leavened with pop music to entertain a target demographic. Other familiar faces include Morey Amsterdam (concurrent with his Dick Van Dyke Show gig) as the beatnik proprietor of the local hangout and Vincent Price in a surprise cameo to plug his next (now forgotten) horror movie. Also on hand is Harvey Lembeck, aping Marlon Brando a decade before in The Wild One, as a mentally challenged biker named Eric Von Zipper. Most impressive visuals of the movie: Candy Johnson, whose dance moves could bore a hole in concrete while mixing a mean martini, and Annette’s hair-do, which refuses to budge, no matter how much surf, sand or wind it is exposed to. (Seen 3 July 1963)

Beastly 2 out of 4 stars

Guys, you know what a drag it is when you finally get up the courage to tell that special girl how you feel and she responds that you are a great “friend.” Well, it’s even worse when you have been disfigured by a supernatural spell and just being a good “friend” isn’t enough to undo it. That is more or less the gist of this tween-friendly update to the Beauty and the Beast story. Think Cruel Intentions lite with a sunnier ending. The movie is perfectly acceptable entertainment for its target audience, but it suffers from a fair amount of obviousness. (The prince from the fairy tale, in this modern incarnation, is named Kingson, get it?) Its other main problem is that it is essentially about a jerk who learns how to be a nice guy, but we don’t really get the feeling that the writers actually know how to become a nice guy. So instead we get shorthand in the form shots of our flawed hero looking longingly at Vanessa Hudgens from the shadows, sincerely writing letters and finally asking his ill-treated immigrant housekeeper (Lisa Gay Hamilton) about her children, whom she hasn’t been able to see in years. In her underwritten role, Hamilton at least gives the movie some heart, as does Neil Patrick Harris, as a wise-cracking tutor. In the end, the movie doesn’t convey growth of character so much as a transition from mean shallowness to a more pleasing shallowness. It’s a challenge that the attractive young English actor Alex Pettyfer is well up for. (Seen 18 April 2011)

The Beat 2 out of 4 stars

This was another last-minute substitution at the Seattle film festival. (There were so many last-minute schedule changes during the last week that the waggish deputy director was calling it the Seattle International Film Fiasco.) So what could a movie called The Beat be about? Disco music? Police? Punk rock? Try Jack Kerouac. This movie isn’t about Jack Kerouac, but that seems to be the kind of Beat they’re talking about. This is based on a play, and you can tell, although they’ve opened it up quite a bit. It plays sort of like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in an inner city high school. The lives of some street gang kids are changed when a new kid (Rex) moves into the neighborhood. It’s hard to tell whether Rex is crazy or a genius or both. Sometimes he sounds like a Kerouac for the Eighties. Sometimes he sounds like he’s read too many Marvel comic books. And sometimes he’s just really weird. But he becomes almost a mystical prophet for the other kids who, it turns out, are really poets deep in their souls when they’re not knifing each other in alleys. Very strange and very haunting film. No familiar faces except for John Savage as a dedicated English teacher, who is the only faculty member who does not want Rex locked up. (Seen 6 June 1987)

The Beat Beneath My Feat 2 out of 4 stars

This UK flick by John Williams has the look and feel of a lot of BBC family TV. Tom is a shy, gawky teenager living in an upstairs apartment with his single mom. He longs to be a rock musician but has to hide that fact from mum because not only is she a bit on the religious side but she’s still recovering from a bad marriage to, guess what, a rock musician. Fate takes a hand when a new neighbor called Steve moves in downstairs and proceeds to keep them awake at night with booming music. He turns out to be none other than Luke Perry (looking like a cross between Bono and The Edge), a former rock god who left behind a mountain of tax bills and is believed to be dead. He is well overdue for some redemption since he spends all his time doing little more than collecting dole checks, sulking and grieving a devastating personal loss. Soon Tom has figured out who he is and, well, you can take it from there. Nicholas Galitzine does a very good job of believably bridging the transition from geek to confident performer. The interplay between callow Tom and dissolute Steve and the story arc—complete with climatic battle of the bands finale—resemble nothing so much as an episode of the very funny and sometimes rude BBC3 sitcom Uncle. Like that show, the action is occasionally punctuated by some fairly entertaining virtual music videos. No big shocks or surprises but worth a decent smile or two. (Seen 24 October 2015)

Beatles Stories 2 out of 4 stars

This is one of those documentaries, based on a simple idea, that you feel like you could have made yourself if you only had come up with the idea and had the time and nerve to track down and talk to a lot of people, some of them pretty famous. That’s more or less what filmmaker Seth Swirsky did, although it probably helped that he had some connections and cred due to the fact that he is a songwriter of some note. (His songs have been crooned by the likes of Al Green, Tina Turner, Michael McDonald and Rita Coolidge, among numerous others.) What Swirsky has done is film a series of brief interviews with all sorts of people as they tell stories they have about the Beatles. But it’s not just talking heads. Swirsky seems to have somehow located photos and clips to illustrate virtually every story. The subjects range from those who worked with them to ordinary fans to ex-girlfriends to people who just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Some of the more notable participants include musicians Jackie DeShannon, Art Garfunkel, Justin Hayward, Denny Laine, Ray Manzarek, Graham Nash, Rick Nielsen, Peter Noone, Smokey Robinson, Brian Wilson and the late Davey Jones. Surprising contributions are made by LBJ’s daughter Luci Baines Johnson and the actors Henry Winkler and Jon Voight, who tells a very funny story of how, hot on his fame from Midnight Cowboy, tried to meet John Lennon and was rebuffed. Taken as a whole, the impressions that emerge of the Fab Four are that Paul McCartney is a genuinely nice bloke, John Lennon could be prickly and sarcastic (but still the most revered), George Harrison was a truly gentle soul and Ringo Starr was happy to go home, have beans on toast and watch a movie. Perhaps the most startling testimony comes from Fred Seaman, Lennon’s personal assistant during the last year of his life, who claims (and takes no joy in it) that Lennon had seriously soured on Jimmy Carter and would have voted for Ronald Reagan, whom he had met at a football game and liked. The meeting is confirmed and described (but not particularly elucidated) by sportscaster Frank Gifford. All in all, this is a doc that is irresistible to any Beatle fan or anyone who was born during or around the 1950s—which, I think, are pretty much the same group. (Seen 10 December 2012)

Beautiful Girls 2 out of 4 stars

I’m not sure why this movie is called Beautiful Girls, but it just may be a perverse joke. Perhaps by suggesting that there will be comely women to ogle, it will drawn the same type of immature blue-collar types that the movie purports to portray. The story centers on a ten-year high school reunion which is both funny and sad since most of the characters have done precious little maturing since their graduation. If this conjures up the phrase “big chill,” the concept is only enhanced by the fact that the reunion is held (for some reason in the dead of winter) in a little town where it snows so much that they have three men plowing the streets full-time. Of the large, talented ensemble cast, most of our attention is focused on Willy (Timothy Hutton) who got away from a depressing home to play piano in New York City. Like his buddies, he drinks a lot and longs for the unattainable. He also has an odd but innocent and strangely touching flirtation with a 13-year-old neighbor girl. This charmer gives him the wisest advice of all (as we see when his girl friend shows up): that what you’re searching for is usually right in your own back yard. (Seen 23 February 1996)

A Beautiful Mind 3 out of 4 stars

Those of you who were disappointed the Ocean’s Eleven remake didn’t really resurrect the old Rat Pack might want to check out A Beautiful Mind. Ed Harris does one of the best (non-singing) Rat Pack-era Frank Sinatra imitations I have ever seen. Speaking of imitations, the trailers (aided by the presence of Russell Crowe, Christopher Plummer, and some snippets of cloak-and-dagger stuff) suggest that this might be some sort of rehash of The Insider, but don’t believe it for a minute. For a biopic about a brilliant mathematician, this movie doesn’t really convey to most of us what was so brilliant about John Nash—except maybe at the very end. But it does two other things extremely well: 1) it lets us see a mental illness in a fresh and stark way, thanks mainly to one of the niftiest narrative sleight-of-hands we have witnessed since The Sixth Sense, and 2) it tells an honest-to-gosh, authentic love story instead of handing us the usual fairy tales that Hollywood is so fond of. Director Ron Howard, whose films have been hit or miss over the years, is definitely in the same fine form here that he showed in Apollo 13. (Seen 7 January 2002)

Beauty and the Beast 3 out of 4 stars

I give this 1991 animated Disney classic three stars—and not just because I got lucky when I took a date to see it 12 years ago. I am much more impressed with the reaction it provokes in my own Little Munchkin. Like many latter-day Disney animated spectaculars, it aims to be a Broadway-style musical as much as a childhood fantasy. And it works, thanks to Alan Menken’s catchy tunes and a sly sense of humor throughout the proceedings. It also features a supposedly more “liberated” heroine than such earlier classics as Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, although as a concerned father, I wonder if it is not simply switching one flawed role model (the passive female waiting for the handsome prince to find her and save her) for another (the female who meets a “beast” and thinks she can change him). But let’s be positive and focus on the admirable theme that says we shouldn’t judge others by their appearance. And, as with all Disney blockbusters, the experience doesn’t have to end with the film’s closing credits. In our case, we have already acquired much Beauty and the Beast paraphernalia and recently traveled to Dublin for the Disney on Ice live version. I suppose this is payback for all those years I harassed my parents about taking me to Disneyland. (Seen 27 March 2003)

Bedrooms and Hallways 2 out of 4 stars

If one of your major complaints about movies today is that there just aren’t enough really good homoerotic Jane Austin dream sequences, well, have I got great news for you! Bedrooms and Hallways has one, as well as several other things to amuse you—notably the daffy, kinky, trespass-intensive affair between the very funny Tom Hollander and Hugo Weaving (The Interview, The Matrix). Also amusing are Simon Callow and Harriet Walter as New Man/Feminist power couple. (At his 30th birthday party she hands our hero her latest book, The Obsolete Penis.) Generally, this flick is what Notting Hill could have been if it hadn’t had Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts and if most of the remaining characters had been gay. It is directed by Rose Troche, whose previous film Go Fish was a lesbian romantic comedy that didn’t seem much interested in the hetero world. Bedrooms and Hallways threatens to have a similar narrowness by seeming to go the old straight-men-are-really-gay-men-who-just-don’t-know-it route, but refreshingly it turns out to be a bit more complex and open-minded than that. (Seen 10 October 1999)

Bedtime Story 2 out of 4 stars

The first time I saw Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, my immediate reaction to seeing Southwark, London born Michael Caine affecting suaveness was to think, oh, he’s doing David Niven. I didn’t realize how on the mark I was. The 1988 Oz film was a remake of this 1964 comedy by TV sitcom director Ralph Levy, and Caine’s debonair lady killer con man was indeed originated by Niven. Steve Martin’s ambitious American con man, on the other hand, was originally played by none other than Marlon Brando. Shirley Jones had the Glenne Headly role. The 1964 casting works better, since there is a clearer generational and cultural clash between the two main characters. Brando is all about brashness and modern lingo and ready to treat Europe as his oyster. Niven is, well, Niven and exudes his patented old school charm and sophistication. Plot-wise, there is barely any difference between the two versions, including a misjudged and unfunny segment in the middle in which the Yank pretends to be the Brit’s demented brother. The remake had a different and better ending, adding one extra twist that updated this movie’s nod to American mid-century morality and the need to end comedies with a wedding. Not surprisingly, co-writer Stanley Shapiro specialized in Doris Day and Cary Grant comedies. His fellow writer Paul Henning went on to create The Beverly Hillbillies and Petticoat Junction. Helmer Levy directed episodes of those plus many for Jack Benny and the original I Love Lucy pilot. Watch for John Banner and Cynthia Lynn in small roles as Germans. The following year they would be seen on Hogan’s Heroes. (Seen 29 August 2014)

Beetle Juice 3 out of 4 stars

Back when all we knew Tim Burton for was the short films Vincent and Frankenweenie and the feature Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (and a year before he would make the watershed Batman), we got our first real taste of what he was about with this creepy/funny romp. While ostensibly live action, we saw visuals unlike quite anything we had seen before, thanks to sequences using Burton’s trademark puppetry and stop-motion animation. The story looks to be a re-hash of Topper, as the very young and attractive Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis find they have shuffled off their mortal coil and become ghosts. But the twist is that these ghosts are reassuringly normal and it’s the humans who are weird and scary. Especially the reliably zany Catherine O’Hara, as a New York sculptor whose works are more monstrous than anything supernatural. And the teenaged Winona Ryder, who is Goth long before Goth would be cool. The non-stop hijinks are only heightened by some interesting stunt casting, including the likes of Robert Goulet, Dick Cavett and, in her late 70s, Sylvia Sidney as a jaded afterlife case worker. Also quite good is Glenn Shadix, who has only recently left us, as the imperious interior designer Otho. The titular and most flamboyant, if not largest, role went to Michael Keaton, who notched up his manic persona from movies like Night Shift and Mr. Mom to play his supernatural spirit as pure unadulterated id. This would be the apex, if not the end, of Keaton’s perception as a funnyman. The same year he starred in the drama Clean and Sober, and the following year he would become a superhero, as Burton’s Batman. (Seen 1 October 2010)

Before and After 2 out of 4 stars

Strangely, this movie is more interesting now than it was when it was released in 1996. This is because it can’t help but remind us of last year’s (superior) In the Bedroom. In a way, Before and After (directed by Barbet Shroeder) is the exact flip side of Todd Field’s In the Bedroom. Both deal with ostensibly tight-knit New England families and how they cope with an unimaginable tragedy. In Field’s film, it is the murder of their son. In Shroeder’s, the son is accused of murder. It is probably no coincidence that movies like these take place in New England. There is something about the place (or maybe just our idea of the place) that seems to emphasize family links, stony fronts in the face of adversity and the rest of the community, and closeness to a sometimes cruel nature. The fact that the earlier film pales next to the more recent one has nothing to do with acting talent. Meryl Streep and Liam Neeson can hold their own against Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson any day. It’s the writing that makes all the difference here. Before and After wants to be a story about high moral issues and conflicting principles. But its resolution isn’t so profound as just confusing. It would help to have a clue about what the characters, let alone the filmmakers, actually think about the issues they have raised and the way they’re played out at the end of the story. (Seen 9 November 2002)

Before Midnight 3 out of 4 stars

If Star Wars fans think they have it bad with the long waits between new movies, they should consider the lot of people who have become addicted to the story of Jesse and Celine. They are, of course, the pair played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in the talky flicks turned out by Richard Linklater every nine years. I think we can now officially think of the three films released so far as Linklater’s Eric Rohmer trilogy. The first two were really more like My Dinner with André with sexual heat but, now that the characters are fortyish, they actually have friends and there are kids around, so it seems like it is going to be more of an ensemble than a duet. But, in the end, it still comes down to Jesse and Celina and Their Relationship and the two of them Talking It Out. In Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, they were still young enough that their intimate chats were romantic. I mean, escapist romantic. Now, well, it’s still romantic, but it’s a middle-age, life-full-of-responsibilities-and-regrets, relationships-are-hard-work kind of romantic. (The escapist part is that we are on holiday on a beautiful Greek island. And the host is legendary cinematographer Walter Lassally, whose c.v. includes Zorba the Greek!) This really is like an Eric Rohmer film. As good as conversation master Rohmer and maybe even a bit better. And that is high praise indeed. (Seen 9 July 2013)

Before Night Falls 2 out of 4 stars

For some reason when I went to see this film, I had a recent Jay Leno monolog in my head. The particular line had to do with a made-for-TV biopic of Judy Garland and the rimshot was that “Pottery Barn might as well close early that night.” And darn if the “friends of Dorothy” angle didn’t pop up in the strangest way in this Academy Award-nominated biopic of gay Cuban poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas. In the film’s one truly breathtaking sequence, a character attempts to escape from Cuba in a hot air balloon (with the aid of an actual munchkin) not unlike the way the Wizard of Oz escaped from the Emerald City. Aside from that one bizarre and wonderful episode (and maybe the one with an unexpected cameo by an oddly boyish but well-endowed Johnny Depp as a military type), the film seems strangely earthbound. It’s almost as if the director, Julian Schnabel who also did a biography of the painter Basquiat, had deliberately skipped over the interesting bits. When you make a movie about a poet, it is virtually a requirement that the film be, well, poetic. And there are lots of poetic touches to the film’s style, but they seem much more wedded to form than substance. The real question is whether the star, Javier Bardem of Jamón, Jamón and Live Flesh fame, can beat out the likes of Russell Crowe, Tom Hanks, Ed Harris and Geoffrey Rush for the Best Actor Oscar. He has the non-American thing going against him (although that didn’t stop Roberto Benigni a couple of years ago), but in his favor is the following: he gets to play a very serious artist, he gets to spend time in prison, and he gets to have a fatal disease. (Seen 26 February 2001)

Before Sunset 3 out of 4 stars

The 1995 film Before Sunrise was something of an anomaly for director Richard Linklater. Usually he specializes in slackeresque comedies like Slacker, Dazed and Confused and The School of Rock or mind-blowing animations like Waking Life and the current A Scanner Darkly. Before Sunrise was unabashedly and unapologetically romantic. Before Sunset is another departure for Linklater. It’s a sequel. Like the first movie, it’s is essentially an extended conversation. It is definitely not for those with short attention spans but, for those who don’t mind 77 minutes of yakking in real time, it amounts to an amazing conglomeration of An Affair to Remember, My Dinner with André and Michael Apted’s 7 Up documentaries. The reuniting of the two characters Jesse and Celine after nine years has a major impact because of our memories of the young Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in the roles. And, as with My Dinner with André, what starts out slowly as so much chatter gradually turns into an increasingly emotional experience, as layers of truth are revealed, and we learn that the night Jesse and Celine spent together all those years ago had a major effect on both of them and has obsessed them ever since. Anyone, who has ever made an instant connection with someone that they have met on the road or while abroad and then never saw again, will have all kinds of memories and feelings evoked. Indeed, it may instantly send men in their 30s or beyond searching frantically for their old address books, trying to find a phone number for that one who got away. (Seen 4 August 2006)

Befreite Zone (Liberated Zone) 2 out of 4 stars

As is often the case, the title here has a double meaning. On one hand it refers to the former East Germany, now reunited with the rest of the nation. On the other, the denizens of this film have become totally liberated in another sense. Practically everyone in this movie is cheating on someone. I think this more or less qualifies as a romantic comedy, but genre designations like that don’t always mean much when it comes to European or, indeed, American independent movies. At times, there is a lighthearted air about the whole thing, as if we are watching a feel-good comedy. But there are also moments of pain and downright ugliness that invokes Germany’s own particular history. The movie is the slightest bit reminiscent of the much superior Good bye, Lenin! in questioning the effect of western capitalism on the former East Germans. Instead of that movie’s devoted son, we have young Sylvia, trying to figure out whom she really loves and what she wants. What most people around her want is to win the national soccer championship. And, for a while, a gifted African player gives them the false and ephemeral self-esteem that sports fandom so often does. (Seen 21 February 2006)

Begin Again 3 out of 4 stars

When I first heard the premise for this movie, my immediate thought was that John Carney might giving us the old Once over. But then the reviews I read tried to convince me that this wasn’t anything much like his 2006 breakout hit. Had Carney done his own Hollywood remake? So when I sat down to watch it on the very same screen where I saw Once have its world premiere in Galway’s Town Hall Theatre, I didn’t know what to expect. My verdict: this really is the same story as Once but slicker and with more world-weariness from an artist who has seen and dealt with commercial success. And in my opinion it’s actually better than the earlier film. Once again it is a love story, but a love story about people’s love of and for music and how they can suffer for it but also how it makes their lives better. And just as Dublin was a distinct character in Once, so is New York in this movie. Mark Ruffalo succeeds with a role that could easily be—and sometimes is—unlikeable. Keira Knightley’s natural reserve is well suited to an aggrieved character not prone to compromise. Adam Levine is perfectly cast as a jerk. Catherine Keener once again shows what a pro she is by making a completely full-bodied character without the benefit of a lot of screen time. And no movie can help but be improved by the presence of the wonderful James Corden. In the end, the overriding joyous message of the movie is the transformative power of music. John Carney, you are hereby forgiven for having made Zonad. (Seen 8 July 2014)

Behind Enemy Lines 2 out of 4 stars

The best things about this movie are 1) its star Owen Wilson (Bottle Rocket, The Haunting, Zoolander), whose casually goofy style makes him the unlikeliest and most refreshing action hero since Nicolas Cage, and 2) some very exciting and suspenseful action sequences, particularly the plane crash in which you really feel as though you are personally being chased by a heat-seeking missile. Since war movies tend to follow war reality, I suppose it was only a matter of time until a whole movie was made about a jet pilot being shot down—an occurrence which was, for many Americans, the only emotional highlight of the entire war in Kosovo. (This film actually deals with the war in Bosnia.) But, as so often happens in modern war movies, the filmmakers up the emotional tension by portraying craven politicians and bureaucrats frustrating attempts to help a patriot in trouble (cf. the Rambo movies, Spy Game). Here, to make it worse, it is not even American politicians and bureaucrats causing the trouble; it’s those durned foreigner allies of ours in NATO. This is good for stirring the audience’s blood, all right, but for those of us who read the occasional newspaper it’s kind of funny since 1) the Europeans would be very surprised to find that they, and not the Americans, are calling the shots in NATO, and 2) it was pretty obvious that the overriding military priority in American involvement in the Balkans was to not have a single US casualty. Anyway, the film is good for some mindless fun, although the villainous Serbs are a bit too cartoonish, except for one particularly evil, unstoppable sharpshooter, who seems instead to have stepped out of a Terminator movie. (Seen 30 November 2001)

Bei Kao Bei, Lian Dui Lian (Back to Back, Face to Face) 2 out of 4 stars

As the Seattle International Film Festival gets larger, slicker, and more professionally run, I find myself longing for the good old days when things seemed a bit more chaotic and spontaneous. Like the time a three-hour Finnish war movie turned out to have French subtitles. We got a dose of that last night when it turned out that the last reel of this China-Hong Kong co-production never made it from Minneapolis. So after the house lights came up, a festival programmer came out and read a paragraph telling us how the movie ended. We had to trust that she was telling the truth. After two and a half hours of constant frustration and hard luck for the main character, it was hard to believe that everything turned around for him so fast in the last five minutes. (Maybe the programmer just wanted to make us feel better.) Anyway, Back to Back, Face to Face tells the story of Wang who has been the Acting Cultural Director in Xi’an, China, forever. When they do assign a permanent director, it’s first an old party member from the country and then a much younger mover and shaker from the city. But Wang has a cadre of people of people who are exremely loyal to him and he is experienced in political manipulation, so getting rid of new directors is only a matter of time. If nothing else, this movie shows that bureaucracy and politics are universal regardless of geography or political systems. (Seen 23 May 1995)

Being John Malkovich 2 out of 4 stars

The very title of Spike Jonze’s offbeat fantasy/comedy/cautionary tale gives you an idea of the idiosyncratic wit that produced this film. The second indication is an early scene featuring a street puppet show depicting Heloise and Abelard kinkily making verbal love through a wall à la Bent. This sort of thing goes on and on while a strange Twilight Zone-like plot unfolds, complete with ironic twist ending. Much of the fun is in the casting, which features an unkempt John Cusack as a frustrated puppeteer (gamely looking under P each day in the classified job listings) and an unrecognizable Cameron Diaz (in Roseanne Roseannadanna hair) as his wife. I was ready to swear that they had done a similar job on Jennifer Aniston as the third member of the love triangle, but it actually turned out to be Catherine Keener (Walking and Talking). Particularly good-natured are John Malkovich and a close(?) Hollywood friend self-deprecatingly playing themselves. And then there is the 105-year-old man played by Orson Bean, who has actually gotten old enough that he seems to have turned into Eddie Albert. I wish I could say that there was something profound about the nature of identity hidden in all the comedy (as Charlie Kaufman’s script keeps wanting to suggest there is), but the final shots of little girls in a swimming pool nails down exactly where the movie’s mind ultimately is. (Seen 16 January 2000)

Being Julia 3 out of 4 stars

At one point in the latter stretch of this delightfully droll 2004 costume comedy of manners, the title thespian character’s son tells her that he doesn’t know who she is because she is always giving a performance, on stage and off. Nor do we know if we, the audience, are ever seeing the real Julia or just one more performance. In the final shot, she has chosen to dine alone (and have a beer for a change) and then, we may assume, we are seeing the real her. But then the movie ends and we still don’t know what is behind that sphinx-like smile. But does it even matter? In the end, the world of artifice that actors live in tells us something about people in general. In the spirit of theatrical illusion, nothing about the movie itself is what it seems. Projecting unabashed English-ness, it was partly filmed in Hungry by its Hungarian director (István Szabó). It stars an American (Annette Bening, earning her third Oscar nomination) as the quintessential English leading lady, having an affair with a young American played by a Liverpool lad (Shaun Evans). This all may be happenstance, but it gives some nice texture that celebrates the world of actors and performance. Based on a novel by W. Somerset Maugham and adapted by Ronald Harwood, the story is slight enough, but that is not the reason for watching. The film is a treat for the performances and light comedy. Ever reliable Jeremy Irons and Michael Gambon turn in spot-on performances, but smaller parts provide nuggets as well. Especially good are Bruce Greenwood (the Canadian who became Capt. Pike in J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek), in one of the best scenes, and Juliet Stevenson, for a catalog of wonderful reaction shots. (Seen 7 July 2010)

Belly Talkers 2 out of 4 stars

This documentary was a labor of love for its director Sandra Luckow. She had practiced ventriloquism for years and she decided to explore the art in her first and only film. As we observe Luckow making her dummy Juanito come alive, we have to wonder exactly what is going on psychologically. At one point she actually talks to a psychologist (who uses a dummy to help children communicate their feelings) and it is suggested that Juanito expresses her Mexican heritage in a way that she (as a second-generation Mexican-American) cannot. Also, perhaps he is male because “in the Mexican culture, men can do whatever they want.” This is all interesting enough, but the best part of Belly Talkers is the assortment of clips of famous ventriloquists, from Edgar Bergen to Paul Winchell and Shari Lewis and many others. Over and over in interviews we learn how ventriloquism allowed them all to express some part of themselves that they couldn’t otherwise. But more than thought-provoking the film is nostalgic and touching. The title, by the way, comes from the ancient Egyptian term for ventriloquism, a skill all holy men were taught. As one interviewee notes, one of these would have been Moses which “puts a whole different spin on that burning bush thing.” (Seen 27 May 1996)

Beloved 2 out of 4 stars

I have long since given up hope for a definitive film version of Gabriel García Márquez’s classic One Hundred Years of Solitude (the best we will get, it seems, is the intriguing Mexican film Eréndira), but if someone should undertake it, Jonathan Demme just might be the man for the job. The director of movies as diverse as Married to the Mob, Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia, his handling of Toni Morrison’s tricky novel suggests that he could successfully bring South American Magic Realism to the screen. Casual viewers who are expecting Beloved to be another rehash of Roots are in for a rude shock. For one thing, it is not so much about slavery as it is about the emotional, cultural and psychological aftereffects of slavery. In this movie, when people are haunted by the past, the haunting is quite literal. You could be excused for wondering if you have mistakenly walked into a Spike Lee remake of The Exorcist. The movie is generally well made, and the performances are first-rate—although it is hard to forget that this woman living in poverty is Oprah Winfrey, one of the wealthiest people in the world. Unfortunately, the film is too slowly paced and goes on a bit too long after its emotional climax, weakening what is essentially the African-American Sophie’s Choice. (Seen 20 October 1998)

Beloved Enemy 2 out of 4 stars

It turns out that two different endings were filmed for this movie. The version I saw was a rare copy of the version with the unhappy ending. And I’m really curious to see what the happy ending is like. This is (very) loosely based on the real-life story of Irish liberation hero Michael Collins and an old rumor about a supposed secret affair with an English aristocrat, Lady Lavery. The rough American equivalent of having a happy ending to this story would be a feel-good finale to a movie called Abraham Lincoln: Theater Buff. English-born actor Brian Aherne plays the fictional rebel leader Dennis Riordan who meets cute with Merle Oberon in Dublin. Unlike Neil Jordan’s more recent historical version, Michael Collins, Riordan doesn’t negotiate the Free State with the British so much because he has arrived at the opinion himself that it is the best possible outcome for Ireland at that point in time but has to be convinced by the entreaties of his girlfriend. To which Donald Crisp, in what is more or less the Eamonn de Valera role, immediately takes corrective action. Directed in Hollywood by H.C. Potter (who would go on to make Mr. Lucky and The Farmer’s Daughter), this is a flick that is embarrassing to watch in 21st century Ireland. (Not the least because Cork man Collins has become a Galway man.) With minimal changes to the dialog and the accents, such as they are, this could be a Romeo-and-Juliet gangster flick set in Chicago. The love scenes, in particular, have not aged well. Still, the film holds a fascination. It is eerie to see long dead actors discussing many of the same issues that still bedevil politicians in Ireland 60 years after the film was made and 85 years after the events portrayed. Indeed, the Northern Ireland peace process frequently seems like nothing so much as a really bad movie. The crowd of extras’ exhortations of “Peace! Peace!” in the finale are like the cries of the dead to the living. (Seen 13 October 2005)

Bend It Like Beckham 2 out of 4 stars

It has been less than two years since this popular little romantic sports comedy came out, but so much has happened in the meantime. Its star Parminder Nagra is now on ER. Its other lead Keira Knightley has gone on to international stardom in Pirates of the Caribbean and Love Actually. And David Beckham has let his hair grow long again and got traded to Real Madrid. As she did with her earlier American-set film What’s Cookin’, director Gurinder Chadha has mixed well-trod genres, in this case the southwest-Asians-coping-with-adapting-to-life-in-England story that we have had quite a few times by now, and the venerable triumph-through-sports feel-good movie. While the merging is a new idea, the two genres that are merged are familiar enough so that much of the film feels by-the-numbers. The movie is at its best when it tries to be real (and the Kenyan-born Chadha would know something about interpersonal cultural conflict), but it makes periodic attempts to venture into screwball territory (a couple of minor plot points involve gender and sexual orientation confusion), which feel borrowed from another movie. Or maybe the movie should have been more madcap. Then it could have been called My Big Fat Sikh Soccer Match. (Seen 4 February 2004)

Bent 2 out of 4 stars

First, this is no Schindler’s List. Let’s face it, any film dealing with prisoners in a Nazi prison camp is going to risk allegations of trivializing the Holocaust. And, when a centerpiece of the film is two men standing motionless and talking dirty to each other, then it runs the risk of being an adaptation of successful London/Broadway play. Martin Sherman, who wrote both the stage and film versions of Bent, deserves much credit for illuminating the historical fact that homosexuals were among the Nazis’ many victims and for pointing out that there is a lesson to be drawn from this. Unfortunately, after a mesmerizing opening (which seems to pick up where Cabaret left off), the film becomes nearly impossible to watch. And not just because of the subject matter. In the prison scenes, there is too much dialog that sounds like, well, like a play. At times, one written by Dr. Seuss. Among the high points, however, are a minimalist score by Philip Glass and an appearance by Mick Jagger, as you’ve never seen him before—looking like the unholy love child of Tim Curry and Fanny Ardant. (Seen 27 November 1997)

Bent Familia 2 out of 4 stars

A feminist film from Tunisia? Why not? While the idea of a film about three women dealing with their place in Arab society might seem like a downer to western audiences, this film is refreshing in that it shows North Africa to be much more modern than many of us may think it is. And, while the central character’s husband is a something of a boor, he is not a total monster and it is not too much a stretch to sympathize at least a bit with his point of view too. In other words, this film by Nouri Bouzid (Man of Ashes) is definitely not a simplistic diatribe but rather a complex look at a woman’s place in modern Arab society. The friendship of the three women is touching, and we can easily identify with them. And the ending is just ambiguous enough that we can fill in our own blanks. In other words, it gives us credit for some intelligence. (Seen 21 May 1999)

Bergmans Röst (The Voice of Bergman) 2 out of 4 stars

This documentary on Swedish film giant Ingmar Bergman by Gunnar Bergdahl is not unlike one of Bergman’s own films. There is a lot of talking. In fact, there is but one camera shot of Bergman’s head as he speaks for nearly an hour and a half, punctuated only by the very occasional question from the off-screen interviewer. Then the film ends with a breathtaking filmography of Bergman’s oeuvre. Bergman was 78 at the time this was filmed; he turns 80 this month. The movie was worth the price of admission just to hear someone of Bergman’s venerated stature mention the titles Waterworld and Independence Day. This is strictly true film buff stuff, but Bergman admirers will find it indispensable. He expounds on everything from his fascination with the fact that cinema is possible only by a quirk in the optic nerve to his favorite filmmakers. (He admires Jan Troell who made The Emigrants.) We also learn that he has his own private film studio and cinema at his summer home on Fårö and that he has a personal collection of some 400 films, many of them pirated. We also hear what he thinks of film festivals (gulp); he calls them a form of gluttony. Ironically, the only place you will catch this rare glimpse into the life and mind of one of the century’s artistic geniuses is at (you guessed it) a film festival. (Seen 9 July 1998)

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel 2 out of 4 stars

The poster exclaims this is by the director of Shakespeare in Love (John Madden). What it doesn’t tell you is that it is written by some guy you haven’t heard of (Ol Parker, adapting Deborah Moggach’s novel). Frankly, the writing is cringe-worthy. It’s as though Parker collected well-worn punch lines for once popular jokes, focusing particularly on those about golden agers, and worked them all into the dialog. (And, if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve already heard most of them.) So it’s a minor miracle that the film is still as good as it is. That, of course, is due to the fabulous calibre of the cast. Maggie Smith looks like she’s going to be wasted in a one-note bigot role but turns out to have more to her than we are led to expect. Tom Wilkinson is the most likeable character but winds up being held hostage to cliché. Bill Nighy is his patented stiff-but-likeable character throughout. Penelope Wilton comes closest to what can be considered a villain in this piece but then has an amazing turn-around in the end. Judi Dench is nearly in her own movie as a woman who finally blossoms after the death of her husband. Celia Imrie makes the most of her character, which is more or less equivalent to Rue McClanahan’s in the sitcom The Golden Girls. They are all brilliant actors and all worth watching, even in a calculated entertainment like this. The main question is, does the success of Slumdog Millionaire mean that London-born Dev Patel will forever have to play ambitious but quirky Indian characters? (Seen 18 February 2012)

Betoniyö (Concrete Night) 2 out of 4 stars

This movie by Finnish director Pirjo Honkasalo begins so stunningly that we want it to end just as strongly. She makes a good try, but what begins as a beautifully rendered metaphysical cri de coeur ends up as something akin to over-dramatic opera. The black and white imagery—particularly the opening dream sequence—is gorgeous, and it is no surprise to learn that Honkasalo herself is a cinematographer. (Peter Flinckenberg is credited with photography here.) Adapted from a novel from Honkasalo’s partner Pirkko Saisio, the film tells the story of a fateful night in the life of budding teenager Simo. He lives in a bleak Helsinki apartment block with his mother and older brother Ilkka, who is about to start serving time for taking the fall for the drug gang he has gotten involved with. While the mother goes out for the night, the brothers decide to go out for drinks, apparently so Ilkka can load him up with bad advice. The two each have their own demons, which play out rather unpleasantly. It is hard to know what Honkasalo’s message is—if there is one. The film seems to want to be read as a social critique, by the end more or less painting the brothers as victims rather than judging them for their actions. The result is unsatisfying, yet the film has a bleakness that, along with its austere beauty, Bergman himself might have admired. (Seen 15 February 2014)

Der Bewegte Mann (Pretty Baby) (Maybe… Maybe Not) 2 out of 4 stars

There are apparently not enough movie titles to go around. Last week we had The Heartbreak Kid and now we have this German comedy which bears no relation to the 1978 Louis Malle film that thrust Brooke Shields upon an unsuspecting world. (And, while I’m at it, do we really need another movie called Bad Boys?) Actually, the real title for this movie is Der Wegte Man or something like that, but I digress. [More than a year after I saw this, it was finally released in the U.S. with the title Maybe… Maybe Not.] This is your basic bedroom farce with all the coincidences, misunderstandings, and laughs that usually go with that genre. Axel is a shameless womanizer who is thrown out by his girlfriend Doro after she finds him humping another woman in a bathroom stall at the club where they both work. (Caught literally in mid-thrust, his ingenious explanation is: “Wait! It’s not what you think!”) Needing a place to crash, Axel finds himself after a chain of events staying with the romantically luckless Norbert who is instantly smitten with him. Much of the humor derives from the ill-concealed lust of Norbert and his friends for Axel and Doro’s growing belief that Axel has become gay. This comedy has no socially redeeming value, but it is a lot of fun. My personal biggest laugh: three street toughs, intending to see a Sylvester Stallone film, mistakenly sit through a screening of Death in Venice! (Seen 24 May 1995)

Beyond the Sea 2 out of 4 stars

I think I’ve figured out what the deal is with movie biographies. Every maker of this type of film wants to be Bob Fosse. The late Fosse made a pretty darn good biopic of Lenny Bruce, structuring the film as a Bruce comedy routine. This approach also worked well for the musical Cabaret and for Fosse’s quasi-auto-biographical pic All That Jazz. Now, this tactic seems to be a prerequisite for all biopics, as we have seen this year in De-Lovely, The Life and Death of Peter Sellers and now this labor of love by Kevin Spacey. Given that the ostensible aim of most feature films is to make us suspend disbelief by creating the illusion of reality, it is remarkable how regularly this film, which Spacey directed, co-wrote and stars in, reminds us that it is only a movie. Characters beat us to the punch by pointing out “this is a fantasy sequence” or “this is an actor” or “he’s too old for the part” or, most helpfully, “this may not be how it really happened.” By the end, Spacey spends so much time talking to the young William Ullrich, who plays his character as a child, that we start to think we’re watching a remake of that Disney film with Bruce Willis, The Kid. Still, this is the best of the current crop of biopics. This has a lot to do with the fact that Spacey bears a fairly strong physical resemblance to Bobby Darin, without having to do much of anything. Ditto Kate Bosworth, who plays Darin’s wife Sandra Dee. This is a very good example of actors playing real people as characters, rather than trying to mimic them, a problem that saddled Geoffrey Rush in the Sellers movie. It also helps that Spacey does his own singing and that he’s pretty darn good at it. In addition to the music, this film reminds us that Darin’s life was actually pretty interesting. In his 37 years, Darin went from rock ‘n’ roll star to lounge crooner, as well as appearing in 16 movies and getting an Oscar nomination for Captain Newman, M.D., and becoming something of an anti-war activist in his latter years. Rounding out a good supporting cast are Bob Hoskins, Greta Scacchi as Dee’s stage mother, and John Goodman, who showed artistic courage by putting on extra weight so that he could play a character called “Boom Boom.” (Seen 30 November 2004)

Big 4 out of 4 stars

It was nothing short of a small miracle that this movie by Penny Marshall (her second, a half-decade after her stint on Laverne & Shirley) broke out of the pack of magic-age-change fantasies of the late 1980s. Those included Like Father Like Son (with Dudley Moore and Kirk Cameron), Vice Versa (with Judge Reinhold and Fred Savage), 18 Again! (with George Burns and Charlie Schlatter) and were presaged by 1976’s Freaky Friday (with Barbara Harris and Jodie Foster) and all involved children and parents (in one case a grandparent) swapping bodies and, despite the obligatory moral about understanding the other person’s point of view, were played as broad farces. Big, on the other hand, was about a young boy suddenly having his wish granted to be a grownup. (It was thus an opposite number to the recent 17 Again, with Matthew Perry and Zac Efron.) But Gary Ross and Anne Spielberg’s screenplay, while very funny, takes the situation seriously. There is an undercurrent of darkness as a mother (Mercedes Ruehl) faces the mysterious disappearance of her son and young Josh, now in a man’s body, heads to a New York flophouse to have a place to sleep. It is really a story about how hard it is to grow up and how much we lose when we lose our childhood. That means there are echoes of Peter Pan, but also of Being There in its theme of an innocent being taken as an oracle. What really makes the movie work, however, is the extraordinary performance of Tom Hanks. We had known he was a great clown, but this was the first time we realized that it was because he was a great actor. While at times playing Josh a bit more infantile than David Moscow, Hanks truly does make us believe he is a child in a grownup body. The scene where he and Robert Loggia, thoroughly taken by the pureness of his new employee, dance “Heart and Soul” on the giant floor piano at FAO Schwarz is a classic—one of many lovely moments in genuinely charming and touching film. (Seen 5 March 2010)

The Big Chill 2 out of 4 stars

I thought I should take another look at this seminal 1983 flick, since I recently had my own Big Chill-esque reunion-brought-about-tragedy and I thought it might give me some perspective. This flick clearly struck a chord with the vast baby boomer cohort and its conflicted feelings about its collective radical past and its guiltily affluent present—not to mention intimations of its own mortality. In fact, the phrase “big chill” pretty much entered the popular vocabularly. So much so that a couple of years later, when the Hollywood Brat Pack made St. Elmo’s Fire about the tribulations of recent university graduates, wags dubbed it The Little Chill. Unfortunately, for us film buffs, The Big Chill just seemed like an expensive, star-studded remake of John Sayles’s 1980 debut, The Return of the Secaucus Seven. But The Big Chill is instructive, and not just because we can now watch it knowing that the deceased member of the group was actually Kevin Costner. (His flashback scenes were cut, leaving only shots of him being dressed for burial.) Meg Tilly’s character is meant to represent how Generation X saw the baby boomers, but she really shows us how the baby boomers (specifically, co-writer/director Lawrence Kasdan) saw Gen X: vacuous and unmotivated. (Similarly, Don Galloway—about ten years older than the rest of the cast—as JoBeth Williams’s husband represents the conservative older generation.) At one point Tilly comments on how much the others talk about their past, and she is right. They agonize endlessly about themselves—up to and even during casual sex with each other. In terms of theme and sensibility, this is cinema that is millions of years away from Casablanca, where Bogie stoically told Bergman that “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” In Kasdan’s film, the world doesn’t amount to a hill of beans compared to the angst of one yuppie. (Seen 24 February 2002)

Big Fish 3 out of 4 stars

One thing we don’t particularly expect when we go to a Tim Burton movie is that it will be a tearjerker. But I guess he can’t keep doing comic book adaptations and fantasies forever. But neither can he leave his trademark fantasy touches behind just yet. Still, Burton has made a very moving film about life, death, father/son relationships and the tensions between truth and legend. With its alternation between drama and fantastic adventures (as well as a central dying character), it feels a bit like a Dennis Potter story, but in the end it is really more or less the North American equivalent of magic realism. This can be a tricky thing to pull off in a movie, but Burton succeeds fairly well, thanks in large part to the best overall cast he has worked with to date. He continues a long cinematic tradition of having Brits play American southerners, with Ewan McGregor turning out to be more convincing as a young Albert Finney than he was as a young Alec Guinness in the last Star Wars movie. And somehow Burton persuaded Helena Bonham Carter to subject herself to elaborate makeup again (after his remake of Planet of the Apes) to play a witch, as well as a piano teacher. In one scene Bonham Carter has to convince us that she is ten years younger than McGregor, who is actually five years her junior, and she succeeds effortlessly. Now that’s movie magic. (Seen 5 February 2004)

The Big Heat 2 out of 4 stars

Ya gotta love Hong Kong crime flicks. They are so over-the-top that you barely get the chance to catch your breath from one over-acted dramatic scene to the next impossibly violent chase or fight. The stunts are more exciting and satisfying than what Hollywood does because of their shocking realism in the face of exaggeration. (A lot of people don’t realize that when Hong Kong filmmakers do a big death scene, they actually kill the actor.) There’s a hint of Hitchcock here with a hero whose hand is freezing on him (not good when facing down an army of bad guys whose guns never run out of bullets) and who has a hang-up about going through with marrying his fiancée. But the psychological niceties are more or less buried in the end, as they should be, by a massive body count. (Seen 24 May 1997)

The Big Lebowski 3 out of 4 stars

True story. Back when I was a repeat full-season pass holder for the wonderful Seattle International Film Festival, I used to get invitations to see preview screenings of new movies. Of course, I always went—unless it was absolutely impossible to be there for some reason. One such time was in 1998 when I got invited to see a new film by the Coen brothers. Unfortunately, the date conflicted with one of my increasingly frequent trips to Ireland. And that is how I missed my chance to be one of the first people to see The Big Lebowski and instead became, quite possibly, the last of my generation to see it. Needless to say, this typically quirky Coen comedy went on to be a cult—and eventually mainstream—favorite. It begs to be viewed with a drink in the hand, presumably a white Russian. Jeff Bridge’s scruffily laid-back performance as The Dude became an archetype and a required comparison to nearly every character Bridges has played ever since. Most critics consider the Coen comedies—as opposed to their more serious films—hit or miss. Joel and Ethan unabashedly indulge their own love of movies with references and nods that are usually more wry than obvious. So it is with The Big Lebowski, of which the title could be a faint echo of The Big Sleep and by extension Raymond Chandler and the whole LA noir genre. Something of a period piece (it is set at the time of the first Gulf War, about seven years before the film was made), the movie’s hero is an update to Philip Marlowe in that he is a flawed character with a vice or two or three and a penchant for getting mixed up with rich families with dirty laundry and seductive women. The cast is choice. John Goodman and Steve Buscemi are the bowling pals. Julianne Moore is the tough-talking dame updated for the 90s. The lamented Philip Seymour Hoffman is the toady for the title character played by the late David Huddleston. John Turturro, David Thewlis and Ben Gazzara make appearances. And just to make sure we don’t take any of it too seriously (or feel too confined to the urban mystery genre) the wonderful pipes of Sam Elliott are on hand, serving as a cowboy narrator. In the end, how can you not love a movie in which one of the competing gangs in the convuluted plot consists of German nihilists? (Seen 28 August 2016)

Big Night 2 out of 4 stars

As computer-generated special effects become more polished and more common, you don’t hear movie audiences go “ooh” and “aah” so much anymore, even at spectaculars like Independence Day. So it seems a bit quaint when an audience gasps aloud, as it did during this film, over an elaborate pasta dish. But I defy you to see the timpano and not “ooh” or “aah” yourself! But, while food is a major component of this little film, it is not the whole movie. Big Night observes simply and methodically a brief period in which two Italian immigrant brothers in 1950s New Jersey try to save their restaurant from failure (due largely to the older brother’s insistence on culinary perfection over economic expediency). The creative force here is clearly Stanley Tucci (the bad guy during Murder One’s first season) who co-wrote, co-directed (with Campbell Scott), and stars. The mannerisms and thick accents sometimes border on those of an old Saturday Night Live sketch, but on the whole Big Night, not unlike a fine pasta dish, is lovingly prepared and executed. (Seen 6 December 1996)

The Big One 2 out of 4 stars

The title does not refer to an earthquake (The Big One is actually director Michael Moore’s proposed new name for the United States), but Moore himself is definitely a force of nature to be reckoned with. In some ways, this is like a concert film, with Moore (Roger and Me, TV Nation) delivering one-liners to extremely appreciative audiences on his book tour for Downsize This! Otherwise, it is a chronicle of Moore barging into corporate offices like a big, young, jovial Mike Wallace embarrassing receptionists and spokespersons with questions (on camera) that they don’t want to deal with. This makes for great entertainment because, after all, who couldn’t enjoy seeing people in suits (especially those who have just laid off a bunch of people) having to squirm? At other times, Moore is working crowds of workers who have just lost their jobs, feeling their pain just like Pat Buchanan did in the last presidential primary. Except that, instead of blaming NAFTA, Moore is blaming greedy corporations. The inventiveness and humor make The Big One a delight to watch, even if Moore’s unabashedly pro-labor, anti-greed views these days seem strangely quaint. (Seen 10 July 1998)

The Big Red One 3 out of 4 stars

People who keep wanting to compare the current conflict in Iraq with World War II might find some comfort in this 1980 film by legendary director Sam Fuller. Personally, I don’t remember this movie being as powerful when I saw it upon its release in 1980. Maybe my respective ages then and now have something do with it. Or maybe it has to do with seeing it during a time when my country is involved in an actual shooting war. Most likely, it is because of the 45 minutes that have been added for the new re-issue, subtitled “Reconstruction,” by film historian Richard Schickel. Make no mistake. This is still very much a Hollywood war movie, right down to the wisecracking soldiers, the dramatic battle scenes, the stereotyped Germans, and the long list of subordinate characters who land into the platoon, practically sporting the name Dead Meat on their dog tags. But despite all this, there is a sense of realism, due obviously to the fact that Fuller (who has a brief cameo as a war correspondent) based it on his own experiences in the infantry during WWII. The role of the hard-as-nails sergeant is as good as any that Lee Marvin had in all his career, and this certainly provided Mark Hamill (three years after we first saw him as Luke Skywalker) with the best movie role he has ever had, as the private conflicted by doubts over the morality of killing. Story-wise, the film gives us a fairly complete overview of the war in the European theater, following our grunts from North Africa to Omaha Beach, through France and Belgium and the Battle of the Bulge. The D-Day scenes are surprisingly powerful, even with Saving Private Ryan in our memories. There certainly isn’t the scope or bloody savagery of Spielberg’s version, but Fuller captures the horrific psychology of the battle, as we see Marvin send one man after another (in an order predetermined by lottery) ahead up the beach until one lives long enough to assemble a weapon. Particularly nostalgic for us now are scenes where civilians greet the Yanks as liberators, although not universally. An early battle winds up with French Vichy soldiers refusing to fight and even running to embrace and kiss the Americans! Most powerful, however, is a climactic scene in Czechoslovakia, where Hamill finally realizes once and for all that killing enemies doesn’t make the Allies and the Nazis morally equivalent. He has seen the horrors of a Nazi death camp. (Seen 17 October 2004)

The Big Sick 3 out of 4 stars

Judd Apatow is one of the producers of this movie, so it is no surprise that it is a romcom mainly about a guy trying—not always successfully—to grow up and behave responsibly. Except that it is not—exactly. You could argue that this is actually a drama that just happens to be very funny because the main character and his friends are comedians. In that sense, it is somewhat reminiscent of Apatow’s Funny People. Kumail Nanjiani will be best known as part of the ensemble in Silicon Valley, in which he is the equivalent of Kunal Nayyar in The Big Bang Theory, i.e. a nod to how important immigrants have become to America’s high tech industry. Penned by Nanjiani and his wife (spoiler alert!) Emily V. Gordon, this film tells the story of how the two of them met and of the serious obstacles, both cultural and medical, to their relationship. Nanjiani plays himself, and Zoe Kazan plays Emily. As usual within the Apatow talent stable (the director is Michael Showalter, who previously helmed Hello, My Name Is Doris), the film has an insightful eye toward modern courtship, relationships and family issues. What is especially fresh and welcome is its examination of the immigration and assimilation experience. Maybe the recent Independence Day holiday made me particularly susceptible to emotion, but this movie made me proud to be an American. On its own terms, this is a much better exposition of the tensions, pain and rewards of the melding of cultures than can be gleaned from any of the political debates over the past few years. You have to like a flick that can acknowlege the down side of Muslim culture, the reflexive bigotry in parts of American society and still make you laugh and feel that it will all work out—just as it always has. The large cast are all great, but unsurprisingly the real treat is when Holly Hunter and Ray Romano come on board as Emily’s parents. Hunter is always great, but it is particularly nice to see Romano, in what could have been a glorified sitcom role, largely play it straight. It is even nicer, though, in his scenes with with Nanjiani where we witness two generations comedians playing off one another like the pros they are. (Seen 12 July 2017)

The Big Sleep 2 out of 4 stars

What great brains people must have had in the 1940s. Can you imagine Hollywood making a detective movie like this nowadays with such a convoluted plot and so many characters coming and going—and expecting he audience to follow it? There would have to be a lot more violence and chase sequences to distract viewers from trying to remember all the characters’ names and how they all relate to one another. A half-century later the Coen brothers would have great fun playing with this hard-boiled movie genre in The Big Lebowski and the fact that the plot was so hard to follow was actually part of the joke. If audiences in the 1990s were entertained by Jeff Bridges’s constant drinking (white Russians) and spouting his laid-back unambitious philosophy of life, viewers just after World War II wanted to see their movie heroes do their drinking seriously (whiskey!), acting tough and not taking any lip from anybody. Of course there was no better tough guy—or, really, funnier one—than Humphrey Bogart at his wisecracking best. This flick reunited him with Howard Hawks, who had recently directed him in To Have and Have Not, and his leading lady from that flick (now wife) Lauren Bacall. The source material, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novel, was adapted by a team including William Faulkner. At times the pacing seems absurd. People get murdered and Marlowe barely slows his pace on the way to his next appointment and accompanying drink. And you do have to pay attention to keep the many characters straight. The main mystery throughout is, hired to fix a blackmail problem for a rich wheelchair-bound man, why is Marlowe so persistently concerned about the fate of a missing Irishman? And will he and Bacall spontaneously combust into flames from all the heat from all the innuendo in their brilliant banter. Some nice character turns are provided by Dorothy Malone, as a bookshop proprietor up for some serious customer satisfaction, and Elisha Cook Jr., as a little guy with more loyalty than brains. (Seen 1 November 2016)

The Big Squeeze 2 out of 4 stars

The plot of Marcus DeLeon’s The Big Squeeze (as described in the film festival program notes) plus the fact that it stars Lara Flynn Boyle (Twin Peaks) primed me to expect something along the lines of Red Rock West. But this is definitely not a John Dahl film. It is a caper comedy more or less along the same lines as The Sting, although it also owes a bit to some of Frank Capra’s films. The ingredients include a bar maid (Boyle) who wants to leave her husband who has just come into some money but won’t share it, a con man (Peter Dobson) passing through, a young gardener (Danny Nucci) who has a big crush on the bar maid, and a Catholic mission that needs to raise a lot of money or else be closed down. The fun is trying to figure out who is going to double-cross whom and how (inevitably) the church will wind up with the money it needs. This isn’t Academy Award material, but it’s definitely a painless way to spend 98 minutes. (Seen 7 June 1996)

The Big Tease 2 out of 4 stars

As a title, The Big Tease is a clever one that works on many, well, two levels. Come to think of it, the movie itself works on two levels. On one level, it is one of those “mockumentaries” that pretend to be a documentary where all kinds of embarrassing and unintended things happen in front of the camera and for some reason there is no way to edit them out. The granddaddy of this genre, of course, is Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap, and this film actually pays it an homage when the judges’ scoring in an Olympic-style hairdressing competition goes all the way to eleven. On its other level, the movie is a comedy that, unlike The Talented Mr. Ripley and a whole string of other films, features a gay character who is not a murderous sociopath. Our Scottish hairdresser protagonist is played amiably and energetically by Craig Ferguson of TV’s Drew Carey Show, who at one point describes himself as a cross between Braveheart and Liberace. Playing the documentary’s bookish director is Chris Langham, who looks strangely like a cross between Alan Rickman and Eric Clapton. It’s not high praise to say that one of the film’s highlights is a cameo by David Hasselhoff, but at least the flick has a few good chuckles along the way as it skewers the all-too-easy target of Los Angeles lifestyles. (The film’s real highlight is Larry Miller’ unctuous manager of a posh hotel.) While no comedy breakthrough, it is a definite improvement over director Kevin Allen’s obnoxious previous effort, Twin Town. (Seen 19 January 2000)

Billy Elliot 3 out of 4 stars

Add to your list of things you would never know if you didn’t go to the movies the fact that, in the depressing mining and industrial centers of Margaret Thatcher’s England, the only way to get some dignity and self-esteem was to take up an unlikely music-related preoccupation. The possibilities included playing in a brass band (cf. Brassed Off), becoming a male stripper (cf. The Full Monty), and (now) ballet. Billy Elliott fits squarely in this virtual miners-find-their-artistic-soul genre. (In trying to come up with a flip high-concept description for this film, the best I could do was How Green Was my Tutu.) Note: the American equivalent of this genre involves explosives rather than music (cf. October Sky). One comment I read in a Usenet newsgroup matter-of-factly stated that this movie took place in Ireland, and I can see how easily that mistake could be made. The atmosphere of tension and occasional violence between riot police and striking miners also makes this flick a cousin of numerous films we have seen about life in Belfast during The Troubles. But, in another way, this movie falls into yet another flourishing British genre: the confused-boy-coming-to-grips-with-being-Different, as seen in Beautiful Thing and Get Real. These films are invariably about being gay, which is to say, about the desire to have sex. Eleven-year-old Billy, on the other hand, is thankfully a sexual blank slate. All we know, and all we need to know, is that he loves to dance, has to dance (which, for a boy in his grim environment, is more or less regarded as the virtual equivalent of being gay). This movie could have been doomed by familiarity and mawkishness, but two things not only save it but elevate it: 1) the lead Jamie Bell is a marvel to behold as a child who cannot control the beautiful movements his body was born to make, and 2) the road to the inevitable uplifting ending takes some unexpected twists and Billy’s triumph is not treated so much as a feel-good celebration than as the scary passage it would be in real life. Stephen Daldry directed, and Julie Walters provides a nice turn as the chain-smoking dance teacher who first spots Billy’s gift. (Seen 3 October 2000)

Biodagar (Movie Days) 2 out of 4 stars

There isn’t much of a story to this film from Iceland. Rather it is a nostalgic evocation of a boy’s tenth summer. The time period looks and feels like the 1950s, but the music places it in the 1960s. The film consists of a series of vignettes divided into two parts. The first part takes place in Tomas’s town which is near a US air base. The place is inundated with American and English culture. The kids collectively go crazy over Roy Rogers at the movie theater and everyone is drinking Pepsi Cola. They crowd outside the window of the one house in the neighborhood which has a television set. Midway through the movie, Tomas’s father sends him to spend part of the summer at his uncle’s farm. Here he becomes exposed to more of his native lore and culture. When the uncle tells him a story about trolls, Tomas replies that it isn’t nearly as good as what’s on television, although it might be good enough for radio. The movie doesn’t seem to be judging which is better—the old ways or the new ways. It merely wants to look back fondly at the period in general. It ends on a sober note with an event that will change Tomas’s life forever. (Seen 5 June 1995)

The Birdcage 2 out of 4 stars

Edouard Molinaro’s La Cage aux Folles is one of my favorite all-time films, so, even after 18 years, I wasn’t convinced that a remake was absolutely necessary—even if directed by Mike Nichols (Catch-22, The Graduate). And I’m still not. This Hollywood version is extremely faithful to the original French one, but it’s just not as touching. On the positive side, the new version benefits from recent American political rhetoric on family values and the constant media fascination with the latest scandal du jour. But interestingly, Gene Hackman’s right-wing senator does not come off nearly so hateful as the two young lovers who are deathly ashamed that the young man’s father is not only gay but Jewish. Interestingly, Robin Williams plays Armand, the always-rolling-his-eyes straight man. (Straight purely in the comic sense, of course.) He plays him a little too effeminately, blurring the wonderful contrast that existed between Ugo Tagnazzi and Michel Serrault in the original. Nathan Lane has a field day as Albert, who is basically Norma Desmond trapped in a man’s body. While some may see him as an offensive caricature, the indignant politically correct can use their time more economically by focusing on Hank Azaria’s Guatemalan houseboy, who manages to stereotype both gays and Hispanics simultaneously. (Seen 30 July 1996)

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) 2 out of 4 stars

So was Birdman really the best movie of 2014? Silly question. Art’s not supposed to be a competition, right? In the real world, of course, it is—and, not without some irony, this big Oscar winner illustrates that fact quite well. It presents us with all the insecurities, emotional baggage and, yes, competitiveness of the artistic world. So, on one hand, it was a natural candidate to win the big gong because it can be seen as what Hollywood is most enthusiastic about—navel gazing. On the other hand, it is a bit of a departure for a major Oscar winner in that it is a comedy. But did the academy voters realize it was a comedy? Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu has a penchant for making movies as tapestries, as in the interweaving plots of Amores Perros and Babel, as well as movies that try to get at the very meaning of life, as in 21 Grams and Biutiful. There is some of both of those tendencies here, although the director (who co-wrote with Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr. and Armando Bo) mostly seems to be enjoying himself, particularly with his conceit of making the film look—as much as possible—as though it is one continuous take. It’s the sort of thing that both impresses and keeps reminding us that we’re watching a movie. The actors are clearly having a good time. Chief among the in-jokes is the fact that Michael Keaton (who seems eerily to have aged into Hector Elizondo) plays a washed-up actor who once starred in a superhero franchise. Not only do we get an erstwhile Batman, but we also get the Hulk (Edward Norton) and Spider-man’s girlfriend (Emma Stone). Coincidence? Consider this: Naomi Watts played Jet Girl in Tank Girl, Zach Galifianakis played a comic book artist in Bored to Death, and Andrea Riseborough played the Iron Lady—albeit in a TV movie about Margaret Thatcher. In the end, the flick is mesmerizing to watch, and the occasional special effects are quite beautiful. (AGI is definitely the man to bring Latin American Magic Realism to international screens.) And we really do feel immersed in an actor’s nightmare. But, like the titular phantasm, in terms of heft it mostly just defies gravity. (Seen 6 March 2015)

A Bit of Scarlet 2 out of 4 stars

If this British film clip fest had been produced by MGM, it would feature lots of on-camera celebrities doing the narration and it would have a title like That’s Homosexuality! Instead we get Ian McKellen’s wry off-camera comments as we ostensibly track the history of gay portrayals in Brit films. Not nearly as thoughtful or educational as The Celluloid Closet, this film is content to ironically enumerate gay film clichés and then show similar clips from multiple movies to illustrate. And, like The Celluloid Closet, it isn’t above using the odd clip out of context to make a point. Some of the clips are amusing, but that’s about the extent of the emotion that gets evoked. The director is Andrea Weiss who co-directed the superior documentary Paris Was a Woman. (Seen 4 June 1997)

Black Circle Boys 2 out of 4 stars

Scott Bairstow has mostly performed in such family fare as White Fang 2 and Wild America, but in Black Circle Boys he gets to explore alienated youth territory well-trod by the likes of James Dean and Keanu Reeves. (Writer/director Matthew Carnahan readily admitted his debt to Rebel Without a Cause, and in fact Rebel screenwriter Stewart Stern attended the film festival screening.) It turns out that Bairstow can look glum and curl his lip just fine as a displaced California teenager feeling awkward and out of place in the affluent Seattle suburb of Mercer Island. But the movie belongs to Eric Mabius who essentially plays the Crispin Glover role from River’s Edge. He doesn’t surpass Glover, but he does create a chilling portrait of a charismatic teen capable of leading others into insanity. There is plenty of suspense and some violence, but it all falls scarily within the realm of plausibility. The film is based on actual events on Long Island in the 1980s. (Seen 31 May 1997)

Black Gold 3 out of 4 stars

Here’s something we haven’t seen for quite a while: a good, old-fashioned Middle East adventure/war epic. Frankly, things don’t look that promising in the early going. There is a lot of chatter about politics and social issues, much of it involving Antonio Banderas as an emir who wants to modernize his society and seizes on newly discovered oil resources to finance it. Banderas is a charismatic actor, but he is simply not convincing in this particular role. When things shift to his rival, played by Mark Strong, things improve quite a bit. Strong is a chameleon-like British actor, who is frequently cast as villains. Despite his many previous film roles (Sherlock Holmes, Kick-Ass, Robin Hood, Green Lantern, The Guard), his performance here evokes none of them and we see only the character he is playing. If we are patient enough to wait out the tedious and mushy bits of this movie, we finally get to some exhilarating battle sequences that give us the same kind of thrills we used to get from classic cowboy or war movies. Clearly, no one is going to mistake this for the work of David Lean, but we sure have a good time anyway. Key to its success is French actor Tahar Rahim (A Prophet) in the main role, as he makes a convincing transition from bookish introvert to charismatic military strategist. Also great is British actor Riz Ahmed as Rahim’s amusingly sardonic half-brother. A joint production of France, Italy and Qatar and directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, the film is particularly intriguing because it is not clear whether it will come down on the side of modernizers working with westerners or conservative traditionalists. In the end, it kind of tries to have it both ways. But mostly it comes down as exciting and satisfying entertainment. (Seen 19 February 2012)

Black Hawk Down 3 out of 4 stars

Speaking of ill-fated missions, I wound up seeing the first hour of this powerful war movie twice—thanks to the incompetence of whoever was running the projectors at the multiplex I unhappily picked. So that makes this a “shoulda” film. It’s the film I shoulda seen Friday instead of Monday. It’s also the heroic war epic that Pearl Harbor shoulda been—a very ironic fact, given that it has the same producer (Jerry Bruckheimer) and star (Josh Hartnett). It is also the film Ridley Scott shoulda directed without bothering at all with Gladiator, since Black Hawk Down would be far more deserving of a Best Picture Oscar than Gladiator. Like Pearl Harbor, this film more or less follows the well-worn Titanic formula of taking a well-known historical disaster and building up to it gradually and then knocking us out with a tour de force screen catastrophe. Except that instead of 90 percent buildup and 10 percent disaster, Scott gives us 10 percent buildup and 90 percent disaster. And he skips the klunky love story entirely. No, that’s not right. There is a love story here, but it’s the same love story of most great war movies: the bond that forms among men who live, fight and die together. Was there any more unlikely idea for a great war movie than the 1993 U.S. military debacle in Somalia? And who could have imagined how differently we would view this flick now as opposed to a mere five months ago? Pre-9/11, this would have come off essentially as an anti-war statement. Now, it hits us as a stirring tribute to fighting men who put their lives and sanity at risk for ourselves and others. (Seen 21 January 2002)

Black Ice 2 out of 4 stars

This movie by Johnny Gogan (which he co-wrote with Brian Leyden) culminates in a terrible car accident. And no, that’s not a spoiler since, by the time the story gets properly started, we’ve already been to one of the funerals. Irish viewers may wonder whether they are in for an extended version of one of those so-called public service TV adverts about driving safety. Others may wonder if this flick, with its exploration of the country’s “boy racer” milieu on the border with Northern Ireland, will be the Irish equivalent of a Fast and Furious movie. Happily, it’s neither. Despite the fast cars and young men posing, it’s another Irish drama with more than its share of guilt and regret. As the filmmakers explained after the screening, the Celtic Tiger looms large in the background, as the racing segments in flashback reflect the exhilaration of the boom years and the later events echo the despair of the bust. In the main role, Jane McGrath does a fine job, alternately demonstrating the excitement of the racing scene and the later grimness of the aftermath. It’s hard to look at her and not think of Natalie Wood in Rebel Without a Cause, although that movie is a world away from this one. Familiar faces to Irish TV viewers Killian Scott (Love/Hate) and Dermot Murphy (Raw) are also appealing, although in very different ways. (Seen 13 July 2013)

Black Narcissus 2 out of 4 stars

Another tribute screening to award-winning cinematographer Jack Cardiff. As in John Huston’s The African Queen, an exotic geographical location is a virtual character in this film. This time we are in the Himalayas and the filmmakers are Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Invariably, this duo’s work is visually impressive, and this movie feels as though it was shot on location, even though it was filmed in a studio. Again like Huston’s film, we have a religious woman, actually a group of them, finding themselves isolated in an exotic locale and in the (frequent) company of a non-religious male, here played David Farrar, the day’s more rugged version of Hugh Grant. Given Farrar’s penchant for wearing shorts that barely cover his groin, it may not be surprising that the Anglican nuns start to get a little dizzy—and not just from the altitude. The great mystery is: whatever happened Kathleen Byron, who does a Glenn Close-like turn as the nun who flips her habit? The film’s heart-racing climax seems to presage Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Sabu, on the other hand, seems to presage the guy who plays Fez on That 70s Show. (Seen 8 October 2002)

Black Swan 3 out of 4 stars

I’ve heard a few people compare this movie to the work of David Lynch and, yes, there is one particular scene (destined to get a gazillion hits—and that’s just the ones from guys—when it winds up on YouTube) that is definitely Lynchian in its kind of adolescent leering. And the BBC’s Mark Kermode compares it to the work Italian horrormeister Dario Argento. But if this movie is going to be compared to any other filmmaker, the operative adjective has to be Cronenberg-ian. Indeed, as a study of someone suffering delusions, it is rather reminiscent of David Cronenberg’s Spider. But Darren Aronofsky’s film is first and foremost an homage to the work of film masters Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Not only did those two make the most lauded ballet movie of all time, which also happens to have a color in the title, but Black Swan’s theme of repression and madness also harks back to the duo’s Black Narcissus. Whereas The Red Shoes dealt with the irresolvable tension between striving for artistic perfection and having a personal life, Black Swan explores the tension between perfection in art and maintaining one’s sanity. And Aronofsky follows in many filmmakers’ footsteps (notably Bergman’s) in exploring the main character’s duality. All I can say is, if Hayden Christensen had been half as convincing in going over to the dark side as Natalie Portman is in this movie, Revenge of the Sith would have been a heck of a lot better movie. (Let her play Darth Vader next time.) Portman, of course, deserves her Oscar nomination, but I was really impressed by Mila Kunis. She is a revelation to those of us who mainly knew her for That ‘70s Show and romcoms like Forgetting Sarah Marshall. (Seen 9 February 2011)

Blade Runner 3 out of 4 stars

You may have heard something about a sequel to this influential (though initially slow at the box office) 1982 sci-fi classic directed by Ridley Scott as a follow-up to his hit Alien. Blade Runner was much different from its predecessor, which was basically a jump-and-go-boo haunted house movie set on a space ship. In turn, these two early films were very different from Scott’s latest foray into future-set adventure, The Martian. Blade Runner was a stunner. The basic story was simple enough, but the complete world Scott and his team created was very strange and very real and very hard to forget. His vision of Los Angeles 37 years in the future (that’s right, 2019) was unexpected but felt plausible. The perpetual raining night—plus the fact that so many people had fled the planet—clicked with our longtime assumption that man was destroying his environment. The impression that L.A. had become overrun by a teeming Asian population was not inconsistent with established demographic trends. The fact that everything seemed to be run by a corporation? Lots of us assumed that was already the case. Most importantly, the look of this world was so mesmerizing that the flick pretty much qualifies as an art film. The angles and long shadows suggest German expressionism. Vangelis’s score is haunting and otherwordly. Narratively, it is an L.A.-style gumshoe noir complete with the aimless hard-drinking investigator and the alluring woman imprisoned by her own dark secret. The characters touch us—not least William Sanderson’s innocent gadget-loving tinkerer, Daryl Hannah’s doll-like schemer, and Joanna Cassidy and Rutger Hauer as replicants desperate to keep living. Harrison Ford very nearly had a third major franchise to his credit, sandwiched between—and less comic-book-ish than—his Han Solo and Indiana Jones gigs. For many of us, this movie was our first introduction to the artificial-reality-infused imagination of Philip K. Dick, who achieved a degree of financial stability thanks this adaptation of his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep—only to die of a heart attack at 53 shortly before the movie’s premiere. Ridley Scott’s next feature film—after making the famous 1984 commercial for Apple Computer—would be the embarrassing Legend, starring Tom Cruise and Tim Curry. (Seen 14 October 2017)

The Blair Witch Project 2 out of 4 stars

It took a couple of attempts to get in to see this no-budget, no-special effects, 82-minute horror flick. In Seattle anyway, this movie is packing them in, and judging from the preponderance of teens and pre-teens in the queue, The Blair Witch Project has become the new cinematic baptism of fire for testing adolescent nerve. Kind of like how Psycho (the first one, kids) was for me and my pal Eric and how The Exorcist was for the following generation. Big-budget carnival rides like The Mummy and The Haunting just don’t cut it when it comes to facing up to your real innermost fears. But is Blair Witch really just a good campfire story? There’s something else going on here, as I realized when I caught the rest of the day’s “double feature”: cable news coverage of a lunatic day trader’s murder spree in Atlanta. We are now so used to being immediate participants in every major tragedy that happens in America that true horror films have to be shot with handheld cameras and feature traumatized people talking about how scared they were or are. Anyway, directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez get credit for an intriguing premise, but given the gimmicky improvisational style of this project, we’ll need another movie or two from them to judge their actual filmmaking skills. (Seen 29 July 1999)

Blame It on the Bellboy 2 out of 4 stars

One thing you can say about this suspense/comedy is that it gives you a complete visual view of Venice unlike any other flick we have seen. Unfortunately, the travelogue visuals and the wonderfully talented cast raise expectations that the screenplay (by director Mark Herman) cannot quite meet. The plot is pure farce, but the humor is undermined by some scenes of torture and a demeaning sex scene with Patsy Kensit and Richard Griffiths. It’s not the worst way to spend 78 minutes, but we are left feeling that it should have been better. Griffiths, of course, is now best known as Harry Potter’s boorish Muggle uncle, and he is not the only connection to our favorite fantasy series. Also on hand is Penelope Wilton, whose many roles have included Jeremy Irons’s wife in The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Harriet Jones (future, current and former prime minister) in the 21st century Doctor Who series. And a special treat is a featured role for the late, lamented Andreas Katsulas (as a sadistic Italian gangster), who a year later would don serious latex and makeup to play the Narn ambassador G’Kar on Babylon 5. The main draws in the cast were Dudley Moore, whose best work was behind him, and Bronson Pinchot, who was nearing the end of his star-making Perfect Strangers TV run, exploiting his talent for funny grins and accents in the title role. Writer/director Herman would go on to make more films that would be interesting and of varying quality: Brassed Off, Little Voice, Hope Springs and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. This movie also bears one particular distinction. It was the last time that the voice of veteran director Lindsay Anderson (If…., O Lucky Man!) would be heard in a feature film. He is Moore’s abusive boss, who is heard on the telephone. (Seen 21 November 2009)

Blazing Saddles 3 out of 4 stars

What a year 1974 was for lovers of madcap comedy who were also film buffs. It was bookended by two hilarious collaborations of Mel Brooks, Gene Wilder and Madeline Kahn. Blazing Saddles hit our screens in February, and Young Frankenstein followed just in time for the following Christmas. These days movie parodies of film genres or even of specific movies is nothing unusual, but Brooks’s goulash of knowing satire, Borscht Belt humor and in-your-face bad taste was a revelation to movie-goers back in the days when Hollywood still took itself very seriously. To a generation raised on classic movie genres and Warner Bros cartoons, this was trascendent. Despite the low-brow humor, the flick was also thrillingly subversive to those who had come of age in the Civil Rights era. The lead is classically trained actor Cleavon Little, who sheds his initial jive-shucking stereotype to reveal the character underneath as a hip urban sophisticate, who continually pulls the wool over the eyes of the corrupt politician, his thugs and the racist townsfolk who do not want a black man as their new sheriff. He is explicitly Bugs Bunny to Harvey Korman’s Elmer Fudd. (This was after all a Warner Bros production.) Wilder is the washed-up gunslinger who finds something to fight for. Kahn is Marlene Dietrich, with an Elmer Fudd speech impediment. There were so many great lines and sight gags, college students were quoting them to each other for years after. And then, when things seemingly could not get any crazier, this anarchic movie completely breaks down the fourth wall altogether and the madness takes over the whole movie studio. Also on hand are Slim Pickens, Alex Karras, John Hillerman (as Howard in a town where everyone’s last name is Johnson) and the recently departed David Huddleston. (Seen 6 September 2016)

Bleached 2 out of 4 stars

The title of this clearly low-budget movie refers most obviously to the fact that one of the main characters bleaches his hair partway through the film. Since it happens off-camera and there is no mention of it until the end of the film, it really confused me. But rather than dwell on this, I just gave myself over to the enthusiastic and energetic editing that reminded me of nothing so much as an old Monkees episode. The plot involves two college buddies who drive from Boston to LA to visit a third buddy who is in the hospital with leukemia. Not a whole lot happens, but this is just fine since the story is plausible and holds our interest, like something a friend might have told you over beers. It is refreshing, for instance, that our provocatively dressed and coifed boys go into a redneck bar and do not get into a fight or beat up. Writer/director Tom Danon is more interested in how exuberant youth confronts mortality, and in the end that is more interesting than a string of wacky adventures. (Seen 29 May 1997)

Bleeding Hearts 2 out of 4 stars

Bleeding Hearts defies all expectations. We might think that it’s going to be a musical because it is directed by Gregory Hines (his first effort). Or maybe even one of those buddy action movies he sometimes stars in. For the first few reels, however, it is a comedy. As a romance develops between a white, 30-year-old liberal protagonist and the black teenager he is tutoring, we think maybe it is going to be a variation on Romeo and Juliet. Wrong, wrong, and wrong. Moreover, when Lonny ventures into Denise’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn, we expect him to get mugged or at least beat up by the brothers who resent him dating Denise. This doesn’t happen either. Least expected of all is the sucker punch of an ending. After the movie, just in case there was any doubt, Hines said that his purpose was to show “the arrogance of liberalism.” He has certainly done that. While the movie has some good laughs early on, it is not particularly fun to watch because the central character is not very likable. But it is worth hanging on for the end just to get your thoughts provoked. In his directing debut, Hines has made an angry and powerful statement on race relations that Spike Lee might envy. [Related commentary] (Seen 7 June 1995)

The Blind Side 3 out of 4 stars

Toward the end of this movie there is an interesting moment that signals that this is something more than the standard inspirational sports biopic that it has been up to that point. In a lump-in-the-throat scene, Michael Oher receives a high school diploma and behind him is projected a picture of him as a baby. Except that it’s not actually his photo. It was clipped from a catalog by his guardian/mother figure because he never had any baby pictures. This reminds us in a meta-literary kind of way that this is not really Michael Oher we are watching but the rather impressive actor Quintan Aaron and that this is a dramatized version of the reality. This is not a fluke. The film then takes a plot turn that deliberately invites us to re-examine everything we have seen up to that point in a way that we usually don’t see in uplifting sports movies. It thus verges on being some sort of post-modern art house gridiron flick—inviting us, if not to choose our own ending à la The French Lieutenant’s Woman, to choose our own view of how and why things happened. (Having said that, the film hints at but doesn’t lay out the fact that Oher’s high school coach was in at least minor violation of some NCAA rules involving his recruitment.) Sandra Bullock deserves her Oscar for playing Leigh Anne Tuohy. Her performance is one that would not seem extraordinary except for the fact of having seen any of her other movies. She has disappeared into the role. The danger of this type of based-on-true-events inspiring movie is that the Leigh Anne character would tend to become saintly and always right about everything, making everyone else in the flick idiot jerks. But this movie is populated with people of good will, and our greatest respect is ultimately drawn to the character of Michael who, with precious few lines of dialog, is shown to be the most remarkable character of all. (Seen 26 May 2010)

Blindness 2 out of 4 stars

A decade ago the Canadian actor/writer/director Don McKellar wrote and directed an offbeat movie about the end of the world called Last Night. In that intriguing film, he focused on people’s reactions and feelings rather than the why or wherefore or even whether the apocalypse could have been averted. He has brought that sensibility to his adaptation of Portuguese author José Saramago’s allegorical novel. The director is Brazil’s Fernando Meirelles, who previously gave us the electrifying City of God and The Constant Gardener. Given McKellar’s adapter role, it may be a sly joke that he was also cast as “the thief.” Or that Sandra Oh, who also appeared in Last Night, has a cameo here (in a promotion from her Grey’s Anatomy gig) as “minister of health.” People who enjoy a good metaphor will have easy pickings with this flick. A quasi-apocalyptical fable of the world in microcosm, words like “blindness” and “vision” get a healthy workout. In another movie, the hero would have spent most of his time figuring out what caused the epidemic of sudden blindness and been working on a cure—when not facing the thrills and dangers of disintegrating civilization. But this is the kind of movie where people ruminate on What It All Means. I don’t know if it is a good or bad sign that I didn’t even realize until after the movie was over that we never learned a single character’s name. (Seen 15 October 2008)

Blood Diner 1 out of 4 stars

This movie is an out-and-out comedy. Mikey and Georgy are two airheads who dig up the brain of their long dead Uncle Anwar so they can fulfill his dream of reincarnating the ancient goddess Sheetar (who has a large toothy mouth where her appendix should be). The catch is, they have to build Sheetar a new body out of female body parts (no two of which can be from the same woman). That’s the easy part. The hard part is they have to find a virgin (in L.A.) to feed her for her first meal. Pretty mindless stuff. The second best scene is a send-up of the ubiquitous female in peril situation. A girl has just seen her best friend hacked to bits before her eyes, and she runs for the door. Just as she reaches safety, she stops and says, “Damn, I forgot my purse,” and she runs back inside. If you want to bear about the first best scene, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope. (Seen 30 May 1987)

Blood, Guts, Bullets & Octane 2 out of 4 stars

When you walk into a movie that has a title like Blood, Guts, Bullets & Octane, you can’t really complain afterwards that you didn’t know what you were getting into. The title is strangely apt, although it may lead one to expect some sort of spoof or parody. But the film, while not without wit or excess, takes itself fairly seriously. Its plot involving a pair of sleazy used-car salesmen at the end of their tether who cross paths with a mysterious red Pontiac leaving a messy trail of corpses in its wake suggests what might have resulted if Quentin Tarantino had been the one to make the film adaptation of Glengarry Glen Ross—with a dash of The Usual Suspects thrown in for good measure. The most impressive thing about the movie (which was made for a whopping $7,300!) is that, when it is over you feel you have seen a fair amount of action and violence. But it is all illusory and accomplished with rapid-fire dialog, skillfully frenetic editing and sound effects, and respectable performances from the actors. And, happily, the film ends even more strongly than it begins. There are plenty of million-dollar-plus movies around that don’t look this good. The writer/director/editor/star prodigy is Joe Carnahan, who will probably get $20 million from Hollywood for his next movie and make something awful. (Seen 28 August 1998)

Blow 2 out of 4 stars

First, the important information. Guys, if you’re going to see this flick mainly to watch Penélope Cruz, then you don’t need to break the speed limit getting to the cinema. She doesn’t show up until 50 minutes into the movie. But she is definitely worth waiting for, although you may not come away wishing that you were married to her. Ladies, if you’re going to the movie to get an eyeful of Johnny Depp, you need to be on time and don’t plan on any bathroom breaks, although you can leave early if you want because he doesn’t look that great by the end. This based-on-the-true story of mega-cocaine dealer George Jung is definitely interesting if typically self-serving. While the ultimate message is, hey, maybe major drug dealing isn’t the way to go, the movie strongly implies that Jung’s eventual hard luck is due mainly to the fact that he was loyal and trusting. Still, the film points out nicely the irony that Jung, whose motivation was to not be a loser like his honest, hard-working father, wound up having his father’s life anyway and, in the end, realized that insofar as the things that really matter, he didn’t do as nearly as well as the old man. This film is no Scarface (it’s strangely more reminiscent of Oliver Stone’s The Doors), although Cruz does her best to provide Al Pacino-like histrionics. The ever-reliable Rachel Griffiths is on hand as the biggest b**ch of wife and mother we have seen in a long time. [Related commentary] (Seen 6 April 2001)

Blow-Up 3 out of 4 stars

When I first saw this film critic favorite back in the 1970s, it left me a bit confused and I could have done with a professor of Italian film studies to explain it to me. Conveniently, the Jameson Dublin Film Festival provided just such a person when I viewed the film at the recently (and happily) resurrected Light House Cinema. Antonella Palmieri, who lectures in film and television studies at two English universities, spoke for about an hour after the screening about director Michaelangelo Antonioni and his first major English language movie. Upon its original release in 1966, it was a spotlight on the phenomenon of swinging London. Now it is a time capsule of that particular place and time. Just seeing the names come up on the screen (a very mod David Hemmings, a delectably sexy Vanessa Redgrave, a typically vacant Sarah Miles, a very young Jane Birkin, the model Verushka) is enough to send an aging baby boomer on a trip back in time. On the surface, it was a nifty thriller that would inspire other filmmakers, notably Brian De Palma. But the ending was frustrating and arty. The climax doesn’t lead to a life-and-death fight with the killer but to (spoiler alert!) mimes! Who were the couple Hemmings photographed in the park? Who committed the apparent murder? Was Redgrave complicit or an innocent bystander? The film evokes the era not only with the sex and drugs but also with the pervasive paranoia. But Antonioni wasn’t interested in tying up the loose ends. He was making a comment on perception and art and reality. If that sounds intelligent, don’t waste your admiration on me. Give the credit to Ms. Palmieri. (Seen 17 February 2012)

Blue Crush 2 out of 4 stars

This movie is based on a magazine article, so in a way it does for Hawaiian surfer girls what Urban Cowboy did for people who go to cowboy bars. The fact that this movie, directed by John Stockwell, has a B movie sensibility, heightened by the fact that its subjects are young women in swimwear, primes us for an exploitation flick. So the film achieves a minor triumph on the strength of low expectations. The movie’s positive qualities include some nice surfing photography, a somewhat serious examination of locals-versus-tourists dynamics on the Hawaiian island of Maui, and a deliberately inspirational message of going for your dream. The flick’s central problem, however, is that the main character (played by an engaging Kate Bosworth) doesn’t seem as nearly as tuned in to her own dream as her best friend (Michelle Rodriguez) and her slumming pro football boyfriend (Matthew Davis). This makes the Rocky-like ending feel less than believable and just a tad unearned. (Seen 8 December 2002)

Blue in the Face 2 out of 4 stars

Is there any reason to see this film if you haven’t already seen and enjoyed Smoke? This is the quickie movie that Wayne Wang, Paul Auster, and some of the cast of Smoke made in the week following the main film’s wrap. There is actually a bit of a plot. Will store owner Vinnie’s wife (the ever charming Roseanne) leave him? Will Vinnie sell the cigar store so it can be turned into a health food store? But mainly this is just an excuse for everyone to do some improvising and have some fun. Fortunately, the fun is infectious enough that we can enjoy it too, and you feel like you’re being let into some in jokes of such cool people as Lou Reed, Jim Jarmusch, and Lily Tomlin. But the movie goes beyond that by interviewing several actual residents of the neighborhood. It magically becomes a cinematic love letter to the burrough of Brooklyn. (In case there was any doubt, they still haven’t gotten past losing the Dodgers.) Does the film stand on its own? I think so. But the experience is much richer if you see them both. (Seen 23 May 1995)

Blue Jasmine 2 out of 4 stars

I heard Cate Blanchett say in an interview that she assumed Woody Allen cast her in this movie on the strength of her performance as Blanche DuBois on the stage. That would seem like a reasonable assumption since her character in this movie has a lot in common with Tennessee Williams’s immortal heroine from A Streetcar Named Desire. But after Blanchett arrived to start working on the film, she found out Allen supposedly wasn’t even familiar with that performance. Go figure. The problem with knowing as much about a filmmaker personally as we do about Allen is that we can’t help but scan his work for clues or insights into his own life. For example, would the character of Jasmine be inspired by anyone that Allen lived with? Is Alec Baldwin’s dumping of her for a much younger woman a reflection of anything? But maybe those possible roman à clef connections are less interesting than what the movie says about Allen’s perceptions of class and society. In his Manhattan-centric view of the world, are all rich investors criminals and are their wives all shallow social climbers? If those characters seem a little programmatic, his working class characters feel like they’re being patronized a bit as well. Having said that, as usual with Allen, his cast all turn in fine performances, including Blanchett’s Oscar-winning turn. But I’m not sure that Sally Hawkins, in the Kim Hunter role, didn’t actually deserve the statuette more. (Seen 4 April 2014)

Blues Brothers 2000 1 out of 4 stars

The original 1980 Blues Brothers movie was one of numerous big-screen Saturday Night Live skits over the years that on the whole have never been very good. But it clicked in spite of itself due to the many fine musical artists involved and to the film’s obvious, infectious affection for them. This sequel is, of course, essentially a remake, but we are supposed to believe that John Goodman isn’t really intended to be a replacement for the late John Belushi. (Yeah right, Goodman’s only in the flick because Steve Buscemi wasn’t available.) At times the movie’s let’s-get-all-the-guys-together-and-put-on-a-show-with-a-young-lad-in-tow storyline comes off as nothing so much as an ill-advised American remake of The Full Monty. (But without the stripping, thank God!) There are two major set pieces in the film. One is an incredibly over-the-top car pile-up that is more numbing than amusing. The finale is the musical equivalent of the pile-up, with an awesome array of incredible musical talent hurled at the screen until we can’t absorb it all. Oh yeah, and Paul Shaffer achieves the impossible and actually makes himself more obnoxious than Gilbert Gottfried. (Seen 9 February 1998)

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