Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson





Building façade in Cannes, France
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The Boat That Rocked (Pirate Radio) 3 out of 4 stars

In a nutshell, this movie chronicles the very moment at which western civilization began to crumble and makes us wish we could relive it just one more time. Yeah, yeah, I know what you’re thinking. Do we really need one more exercise in nostalgia and another 1960s compilation soundtrack? I didn’t think so either, but this movie not only makes some great musical choices but it presents the music in such a way that we have the sensation of hearing it for the very first time. It helps that, with a couple of exceptions, the songs are all studiously contemporaneous. The film’s setting is a pirate radio ship in the North Sea in 1966. (The closest equivalent for us yanks were the Mexican border stations that gave us kids the likes of Wolfman Jack.) As the movie notes, today there are literally hundreds of ways to hear rock music in the UK via terrestrial, digital and internet radio but, in the time of the film, the only way to hear it was during a 45-minute slot on the BBC. Some of the best scenes in the movie are the sequences showing English youth huddled around the wireless, the way we imagine people behind the Iron Curtain once listened covertly to Radio Free Europe. Make no mistake, this is a serious history of pirate radio only in the same way that Animal House was a sober documentary about college fraternities. The characters and shenanigans are bigger than life, and instead of an apoplectic dean we have a fascist government minister (played in John Cleese mode by Kenneth Branagh sporting a Fuehrer mustache) who is bound and determined to shut the pirates down because he cannot abide the thought of people enjoying something. Our point of view character is callow teen Carl, who has been placed on the ship for no better reason than to initiate him in the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. Carl is played by Tom Sturridge, who was previously seen as a wee lad as the son of Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen in his father’s TV miniseries version of Gulliver’s Travels. And watch for Carl’s mother, played by an unrecognizable Emma Thompson as the doyenne of rock groupies. The writer/director is Richard Curtis and, structurally and cast-wise, this has much in common with his Love Actually but with more of the manic humor typical of his Blackadder and Mr. Bean writing days. Bill Nighy is wonderful, as always, as the urbane chief presiding over the shipboard chaos. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Rhys Ifans have some great scenes as rival star DJs. And Chris O’Dowd, as the aptly named Simple Simon, nearly breaks our hearts with his naiveté and whirlwind wedding. Early on, Nighy declares that governments abhor their citizens having too much freedom. All our current media and musical choices aside, it is still something very much worth thinking about. (Seen 1 April 2009)

Bob’s Weekend 3 out of 4 stars

Someday I really have to visit Blackpool, England. I feel as though I already know the place after having seen it represent nostalgic dreams and faded elegance in so many movies (cf. Funny Bones, The Last Dance, Shall We Dance?, etc.). Bob’s Weekend uses Blackpool as a location so relentlessly that it almost qualifies as a travelogue. As for the movie itself, well, my friend Michael came up with the best high-concept shorthand for it: After Hours meets It’s a Wonderful Life. Actually, the less you know about this movie beforehand, the more you will probably enjoy it. Suffice it to say that it is quite odd and frequently funny. (Seen 20 May 1997)

Boca a Boca (Mouth to Mouth) 2 out of 4 stars

The title of Spain’s Mouth to Mouth has a double meaning. The film begins and ends with a woman receiving artificial respiration. But it also refers to the fact that our hero, an aspiring actor named Victor (Javier Bardem of Jamón, Jamón), is making ends meet as a telephone sex operator. If this had been a suspense thriller instead of a wacky screwball comedy, it almost could have been a Brian De Palma film (from his Dressed to Kill days). The plot involves double crossing, triple crossing, strange coincidences, titillation, gender bending, and a murder conspiracy. Not the least of the joys of this romp is a subplot about Victor playing up the stereotyped image of Spanish men as he auditions for a Tarantino-esque Hollywood director. (Seen 23 May 1996)

Boiler Room 2 out of 4 stars

As something of a dot.com entrepreneur myself (There’s still time to get in on the IPO! Just make those checks out to “cash” and mail them in TODAY!), I’m sometimes curious about what my broker actually does between those monthly phone calls when he tries to get me to churn my account. So when I had a couple of hours to spare, I went to see Boiler Room to find out. Imagine my shock when I learned that, when he’s not on the phone, he’s running around the office acting macho, casting ethnic slurs at his co-workers, and getting into barroom brawls after work. Okay, so it’s not my broker or yours doing this. It’s a bunch of young kids working in an illegally run “chop shop,” although I’m not sure that a lot of viewers will know the difference since their stated goal is the same as everyone else’s at that age: to get rich young like the secretaries and gardeners at Microsoft. Rookie writer/director Ben Younger does provide several nice touches, including the way Giovanni Ribisi evolves (fairly quickly) from a not overly self-assured youth to a shark of a telephone seller. And Whit Stillman regular Taylor Nichols is very believable as a hapless client who seems bright enough but is easily manipulated over the phone. Running this operation is Tom Everett Scott, who is looking strangely like Rob Lowe, which is perfect for the amoral empty suit he represents. Also on board is Ben Affleck, whose job is mainly to update Michael Douglas’s speeches from Wall Street. And just to be sure that we don’t miss the point, the characters actually lip synch dialog from that film as well as using Glengarry Glen Ross as a training aid. All in all, lots of fun for anyone who has ever hung up on an unsolicited phone call. (Seen 24 February 2000)

Bolt 2 out of 4 stars

You have to admit that there is something almost cathartic about the Disney monolith releasing a major production that details the evils of an entertainment corporation exploiting child actors and animals for profit and robbing them of a normal life. Indeed, as is so often the case with these things, the movie is much more interesting in the early going. It starts out as a sort of canine version of The Truman Show, playing with the idea of the hero’s manipulated perception of reality. After he escapes from his virtual reality, things go into a kind of Don Quixote vibe, with Bolt figuratively tilting at windmills in Times Square as he is dumped into the real world—before the flick finally settles into its tried-and-true can-a-pretend-hero-become-a-real-hero narrative. Parents who feel they do not get enough of Miley Cyrus’s voice otherwise may not mind watching this with their kids. For them the highlight is some great voice work by the second banana characters, a jaded alley cat and a corpulent hamster in a plastic globe, played by Susie Essman and Mark Walton, respectively. And Greg Germann is perhaps a bit too on-target as the slimiest of all Hollywood agents. (Seen 15 February 2009)

Bonneville 2 out of 4 stars

We have become so accustomed to movies trying to push the envelope on edginess and intensity that it is hard to know what to make of a movie like this that is populated by mostly nice and decent people doing things that you or someone you know may have done as well. Yet in small, subtle ways the movie manages to defy our expectations. For example, it is one of the few movies I can recall in which the characters belong to a specific church and that fact is not presented in order to make some point about religion. For another, I can’t think of another movie in which Kathy Bates would have a flirtation and romance with the likes of Tom Skerritt. Less surprising is the fact that, of a group of three women, Bates would be the feisty, outspoken one and Joan Allen would be the uptight one. Directed by Christopher N. Rowley, this movie has played at several film festivals and had a limited release in the U.S. earlier this year. It tells the story of a woman, played by Jessica Lange, and her two friends who make a journey from Pocatello, Idaho, to Santa Barbara, California, to deliver the ashes of her late husband to his daughter for a memorial service. Nothing overly extraordinary happens on the way, at least in terms of how most movies go, but extraordinary things happen as seen through the eyes of these women. In the end, the best description of this film is that most damning word: nice. (Seen 13 July 2008)

Boogie Nights 2 out of 4 stars

Boogie Nights demands comparison to numerous other movies, but not for particularly obvious reasons. Like TV’s Tales of the City, it richly evokes the sexual freedom/innocence/naïveté of the 1970s. Like Ed Wood, we have a group of characters who are infectiously gung-ho about making really bad movies. Like most Robert Altman films, it follows a sprawling cast of characters all over the cinematic map. Like many movies released these days, it features a constant and comprehensive soundtrack of old pop songs. And it even has the obligatory post-Tarantino “weird characters caught up in a strange and tense situation involving guns” scene. While I did my best to miss the late 1970s and early 1980s the first time around, I have to admit that this revisit is oddly endearing—to the extent that a film about the porn movie industry can be endearing. “Marky” Mark Wahlberg is appealing as the film’s well-endowed ingenue, and the former New Kid on the Block proves that he can sing really badly when the role calls for it. The father figure for this post-Manson Southern California extended family is Burt Reynolds, which is appropriate because he is looking strangely like Lorne Greene. (Seen 7 November 1997)

The Book That Wrote Itself 2 out of 4 stars

Hardcore “film buffs” (as opposed to “hardcore film” buffs) will probably enjoy The Book That Wrote Itself just fine, but other folks out for an evening’s entertainment may find it, well, film-school-ish since it is yet another low-budget film about making a film. It is thereby somewhat similar to another Irish low-budget effort, How to Cheat in the Leaving Certificate. But it must be said that this one (in addition to being in color) has more than a few manic touches along the way of its caper/road movie plot. And, if nothing else, it is a nice mini-travelogue of Ireland as it wends its way from Dublin to Wexford, Cork, Ennis and winds up at, of all places, the Galway Film Fleadh. It is there that the film within a film (also called The Book That Wrote Itself) has its premiere, just as the real film actually did. (Got that?) There is also a side trip to the Venice Film Festival where, in a strange life-imitates-art-to-make-art riff on the moviemaking satire Bowfinger, the likes of George Clooney, Melanie Griffith, Catherine Deneuve and Bruce Willis become (if only briefly) unwitting costars. The concept and script are clever enough, but by the time we reach the somewhat anti-climatic ending, we can’t help but wish that the ostensibly romantic plot had a bit more feeling to it. The film’s writer/director/producer/star is the very promising Liam Ó Móchain. (Seen 30 January 2000)

Boon sang yuen (Eighteen Springs) 2 out of 4 stars

This Hong Kong/Chinese tearjerker is about a romance between the world’s shyest man and the universe’s most hesitant woman. It’s sort of like Comrades: Almost a Love Story on Valium. Leon Lai and Wu Chien-Lien are young co-workers who have the most glacial courtship ever recorded on film. When he finally gets around to popping the question, she puts him off because of family obligations. Everyone in their lives is against the match, but it takes years before anyone actually gets around to hatching a dastardly plot to separate them. The sweetness and discretion of the couple (this is Shanghai in the 1930s) may seem mighty odd to us modern westerners, but by the end of the story everyone will be able to identify with the bittersweet longing for the one true love of one’s youth. Ann Hui directed. (Seen 26 January 1998)

Booty Call 1 out of 4 stars

I am extremely unqualified to critique this movie. I mean, I watched the whole thing and I still don’t know what the term “booty call” means! Anyway, this flick is partly a comedy of manners, partly a sex farce, and partly a primer on how to have safe sex! In fact, were the movie not so offensive on so many different levels (there are some ethnic stereotypes that make The Pest look like a treatise on cultural tolerance), it could almost be an afternoon school special on sexual responsibility! Except that in the end it makes safe sex seem like more hassle than it’s worth. (Tip: if using Glad Wrap for protection, do not wrap it tightly around your whole head.) By far the best part of the movie is the final stretch which takes place in a hospital and involves an accidental near-castration. Booty Call is a showcase for Jamie Foxx (of In Living Color and his own TV show on the WB) and features the lovely Viveca A. Fox (the stripper in Independence Day) as a kinky lady named Lysterine. (Seen 27 February 1997)

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan 2 out of 4 stars

Oh dear. Where to begin. For a start, this flick will not be everyone’s cup of tea. But if your sense of humor runs from appreciation of the outrageous to loving a shock every minute, then this is your movie. It is the first movie I have seen that actually includes a joke about the 9/11 attacks, but it barely registers because there is so much other provocation going on. If you are familiar with Sacha Baron Cohen’s Da Ali G Show from Channel 4 and HBO, then you know his modus operandi. Go among unsuspecting real people in character and say and do the most inappropriate/outrageous things and then watch the results, which are frequently hilarious, or at least jaw-dropping. The reason it is so funny is Cohen himself, who is a masterful comedian, who thrives on improvisation. Having said that, as a character, Borat has all the depth of, say, Steve Martin’s “wild and crazy guy” eastern European from the early days of Saturday Night Live. We occasionally feel sorry for Cohen’s dupes, but we laugh, partly because it really is funny and partly out of self-consciousness because we know that it could have been us, or at least someone we know. To the extent that this mockumentary (emphasis on the “mock”) has a story arc, it concerns Kazakhstani TV presenter Borat’s obsession with Pamela Anderson, as he crosses America (under the guise of making a documentary) from New York to California in order to meet her. Is there some point to all of this besides mindless, nasty fun? Well, I suppose it has something to say about First World perceptions of Third World countries. Or is it actually mocking Third World ignorance? Heck, I don’t know. In this case, the movie also provides an alien point of view for a fresh look at America, although it doesn’t really feel all that fresh. (Europeans’ most negative images of the U.S. will not be altered by anything here.) And his over-the-top anti-Semitism may conceivably (and worryingly) have some laughing at him as well as with him. But in situations like the one in a private home in the South, where Borat is being tutored in American etiquette, when Borat hands his hostess his bag of excrement after using the toilet, he and we are really just indulging the naughty child inside us. (Seen 13 October 2006)

Bordello of Blood 2 out of 4 stars

At one point in Bordello of Blood, Dennis Miller compares his and Chris Sarandon’s characters to those of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in their numerous Road pictures. Actually, a series of comedies with Miller and somebody else (probably not Sarandon, though) doesn’t seem like such a bad idea. It definitely sounds better than those movies that Chris Farley and David Spade do. Anyway, Bordello of Blood (based on a cable TV series based on the old EC Tales from the Crypt comic book) is mindless adolescent fun that has far more giggles than, say, From Dusk Till Dawn. To get the idea, imagine the graphic images that go with such one-liners from madame/vampire queen Lilith as “I like a man who gives me head—and lets me keep it” and “I find the way to a man’s heart is through his rib cage.” But as good as these are, the best lines go to Miller who quips his way through the movie with the same insouciant cynicism that he did on those “Weekend Update” segments on Saturday Night Live. (Seen 3 September 1996)

Born Romantic 2 out of 4 stars

Seeing this soon after the Mexican film Sex, Shame & Tears gave me a bit of déjà vu since it is also about three men and three women working out romantic issues. But in this case the three men are pursuing the three women—and not always for transparently clear reasons. Since Born Romantic is something of a case study of laddish behavior on the English singles scene, it is reminiscent of segments of The Missus’s and my favorite British dramedy Cold Feet (currently shown in the US on Bravo)—an impression reinforced by the participation of two actors (John Thomson and Hermione Norris) from that series. Writer/director David Kane has plod this field before in This Year’s Love, which also dealt with six people in search of love, but this time out he is definitely going the feel-good route. He has assembled a great cast. Craig Ferguson (The Big Tease) is the square chasing after Olivia Williams (The Sixth Sense), who is such an ice queen that she dismisses his first come-on by saying she doesn’t have time to waste on men whose faces aren’t perfectly symmetrical. Also on hand are Jane Horrocks (Little Voice) and Catherine McCormack (Shadow of the Vampire) and, best of all, Adrian Lester (Primary Colors) as the dreadlocked cabby who seems to always pick up the same six people and who gets emotionally involved in their lives. (Seen 6 June 2001)

Borstal Boy 2 out of 4 stars

I have occasionally gotten email from strangers thanking me for recommending a certain movie on my web site, but it was a first when someone sitting behind me at the cinema in County Mayo thanked me for choosing to see Borstal Boy. The fellow had apparently arrived at the multiplex without a clue as to what film he wanted to see and on an impulse followed me to see what I was seeing. He could have done worse since his other choices consisted of such American imports as Charlie’s Angels. Borstal Boy is based on the quasi-autobiographical novel of the colorful Brendan Behan, who entertained a generation of Irish readers and TV viewers before drinking himself to death at the age of 41 in 1964. The film depicts young Behan in 1939 as a zealous IRA gofer with a scowl and a stammer. By the time he leaves England’s Borstal reform school, his attitudes towards the British, life in general and a few other matters have been shaken considerably. The film is the first feature by Jim Sheridan’s brother Peter, who has mainly worked in theater and who also turned out the short film (also about young boys in an institution) The Breakfast. Intentionally or not, Borstal Boy echoes practically every prison, reform school or other young-men-living-under-pressure-in-close-proximity film from Boys Town to Midnight Express to Streamers. As film conventions dictate, the inmates are diverse, including a German Jew, a Canadian, a Scot, a psycho, and a gay sailor who—along with the warden’s artistic daughter and a librarian who introduces our hero to Oscar Wilde—raises Brendan’s consciousness. The warden, by the way, as played by Michael York, is the most gentile and fatherly jailer you will ever meet. Despite some predictability, as the fellow sitting behind me discovered, the film is well worth watching. (Seen 23 December 2001)

Botched 2 out of 4 stars

This movie opens with a professional, well-rehearsed jewel heist on the French Riviera, and we think we are in for one of those suave and sophisticated caper flicks. Nope. Not even close. First-time director Kit Ryan is determined to mix his genres and to not even worry about making them jibe. His target audience is that which, like the one I was part of, sits down in a cinema to watch a movie at or around midnight. (People who go to the cinema earlier in the evening likely won’t be interested.) And, since the main thing this flick has going for it is the element of surprise, that is all that I will say about that. Introducing the film, producer Terence Ryan (the director’s father), emphasized that it was a comedy, thereby giving us permission to laugh. He needn’t have bothered. There is no way that anyone will get through the first reel thinking it is a straight drama. There is plenty to laugh at and, for those with delicate sensibilities, to avert their eyes from. Stephen Dorff gamely essays the hero role, while Doctor Who offspring Sean Pertwee is on hand briefly as his criminal patron. Apart from that red herring of an opening sequence, the movie is set in Moscow, but it was actually filmed in Ireland, with mostly Irish and English actors hamming it up as cartoon-ish Russians. (Seen 19 October 2007)

Bottle Rocket 2 out of 4 stars

Bottle Rocket is an appropriate enough title for this film that makes a flash, amuses for a moment, and then fades away. We’ve seen this before. A no-budget film by a young first-time director gets picked up by a studio and we have another of the film world’s Horatio Alger stories. Inevitably, these films feature a series of vignettes rather than a conventionally coherent plot, and the characters are all quirky and eccentric. Screenwriters Wes Anderson (who directed) and Owen C. Wilson have acting roles, but with studio support they also attracted James Caan and Lumi Cavazos (Like Water for Chocolate) to the cast. This comedy is best enjoyed if you don’t worry too much about verisimilitude or consistency, and if it is remembered by posterity it will be for what maybe be the most hilariously inept robbery caper to be recorded on celluloid. Now the question is: when Anderson and Wilson get their inevitable huge budget for their next film, will they make another Desperado or another Mallrats? (Seen 4 March 1996)

Bound 3 out of 4 stars

Bound is a good title for this kinky film noirish thriller. The two principal characters (Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon) are emotionally bound to each other. At various points in the story they each become literally bound. And the plot bounds along at a pretty good pace. The camera work is the most striking thing about the film. Not a shot is wasted, although there are times when the camera becomes a little too playful for its own good. Also standing out is Joe Pantoliano as a not-always-predictable gangster who specializes in money laundering—in more than one sense of the word. He seems to have watched Jack Nicholson’s work in The Shining a few times. Tilly, who seems doomed to play mobsters’ women, is suitably inscrutable, while Gershon swaggers convincingly and flaunts lips the size that Goldie Hawn was shooting for in The First Wives Club. The film overall is lots of fun (in a suspenseful, bloody sort of way) and close to flawless, although its dark comedy unfortunately spills over into camp at at times. (Seen 1 October 1996)

The Bourne Identity 2 out of 4 stars

If you’re wondering why the intelligence services of the US government still haven’t captured Osama bin Laden, this movie explains the problem. As The Bourne Identity illustrates, the CIA is a crack outfit that can locate anybody anywhere in the world and track them down relentlessly and dispatch them with assassins who are bred to be unstoppable killing machines. Unfortunately, these fabulous resources seem to be used exclusively for tracking down the agency’s own wayward employees. This kind of international spy suspense/thriller seems strangely quaint, given today’s politics and today’s movies. It is adequately entertaining and delivers the requisite occasional adrenaline rush as well as some nice photography of European locales. Matt Damon is really too boyish to pass as one of the aforementioned killing machines (he still strikes us more as a fraternity partying machine), but he and Franka Potente (Run Lola Run, Blow) do have some nice scenes together. As the villain, Chris Cooper has notched up the hostility he displayed as the father in October Sky quite a few degrees. Seeing this standard-issue movie throwback is especially strange since the director is Doug Liman, who previously made the deliberately cool flicks, Swingers and Go. (Seen 17 June 2002)

The Bourne Supremacy 3 out of 4 stars

It’s true, sequels are getting better. Or maybe I’m just getting easier. This one not only matched the first film, but it even achieved the feat of making me reevaluate my own impression of the earlier movie. I know now that I was definitely too hard on it. What seemed old-fashioned in terms of plot and action, it is now clear in hindsight, was actually the movie’s strength. Despite a few clichés and predictable moments, both films’ insistence on taking themselves completely seriously is refreshing. There is no winking or “in” jokes to let us know that the filmmakers don’t believe any of it either. We can care about the characters because they clearly care about themselves. And Matt Damon has somehow grown (or matured) into the Jason Bourne role. There is something cold and more hardened about him. I’m still not convinced he was the best choice for the role, but it doesn’t matter anymore. Paul Greengrass, who has made films about real-life tragedies in Northern Ireland (Bloody Sunday, Omagh), is definitely an interesting choice to direct in this series. Still, we have to reconcile the fairly efficient CIA we see in these movies with the one we have come to know in real life, which so easily got bamboozled about WMD stockpiles. And the climactic Moscow car chase, while pulse-pounding, does kind of put the film into more standard Hollywood action territory. But hey, it’s just a movie anyway, and this one delivers the goods for summer entertainment. Note to self: next time I come upon an important clue that could break a big case, make sure there are plenty of other people around when I tell the boss. (Seen 22 August 2004)

The Bourne Ultimatum 3 out of 4 stars

One more useful tip we learn in this series of movies is that, when the secret agent tells you to stay put, do not (absolutely do not) bolt and run in panic. I agonized a bit (but just a bit) over giving this one three stars. It absolutely earns them in terms of entertainment and execution, but on plot points it comes perilously close to jumping the shark. The strength of these movies has been, despite all of their improbabilities, the pulse-pounding sense of reality that this is all really happening. This is exemplified by this flick’s central action sequence, an extended chase-upon-chase-upon-chase-upon-chase through the lanes, rooftops, balconies and apartments of Tangiers. But toward the end of the movie, there is an over-the-top car crash/chase that would not be completely out of place in the latest Die Hard movie. This, plus the fact that we have had three movies now where the CIA has absolutely nothing to do except spend all its resources and time 24/7 on trying to rub out a single rogue agent. In fact, in terms of basic plot, Die Hard 4.0 (as it’s called outside the U.S.) and The Bourne Ultimatum are virtually the same movie, i.e. a lone hero taking on a threat ultimately spawned by the U.S. government. It’s just that each flick is spun politically for a different target audience. If the Die Hard movie was a neo-con dream fantasy about taking on the bad guys, the Bourne movie is a MoveOn.org paranoid nightmare about what the U.S. government is up to. While the latest Die Hard villain could be seen as based on, at least partly, Ambassador Joe Wilson, then the good guy CIA operative in this movie, played by Joan Allen, seems to be a thinly disguised version of his wife, Valerie Plame. (Seen 10 September 2007)

Bowfinger 2 out of 4 stars

I swear that Hollywood types long to make movies about people making movies more than any other subject—except perhaps about people in therapy. (This film sort of does both.) Bowfinger may have been some sort of self-therapy for Steve Martin, who wrote it and who stars in it, since he gets to release some venom about everything from ego-maniac action stars (Eddie Murphy, who really gets to cut loose here) to cold-blooded studio executive types (Robert Downey Jr., looking like he’s, uh, in withdrawal from drugs) to ingenues who learn quickly which bed to hop into to advance their careers (Heather Graham, in a sly performance). But because Martin is in the end really a sentimentalist (and his director is Muppet guy Frank Oz), the satire is not nearly as dark as, say, The Player. In fact, the film’s spirit is closer to something like Ed Wood or Boogie Nights and, by the final reel, it is positively wallowing in the glory of Hollywood and of making movies, as if to say that the rewards fully justify all the b.s. one has to endure. Miscellaneous observations: By my count Murphy has a mere two roles here. After two Scream movies and this, Jamie Kennedy is quickly becoming typecast as an overly intense movie buff. (Seen 17 September 1999)

Box of Moonlight 2 out of 4 stars

Tom DiCillo’s first movie, Johnny Suede, starred Brad Pitt. DiCillo probably can’t afford Pitt’s acting services anymore, but he’s found a close enough look-alike in Sam Rockwell, who’s had minor roles in Last Exit to Brooklyn and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. Rockwell and John Turturro make a team in this oddball comedy reminiscent of many duos through the years. (Steve Martin and John Candy in Planes, Trains & Automobiles come to mind.) Turturro is the uptight, anal-retentive control freak who is feeling helpless in the face of middle age. He has a chance encounter with Rockwell, who turns out to be Huck Finn, Peter Pan, and Jim Carrey all rolled in one. The ensuing bickering friendship and transformation are somewhat formulaic and predictable, but the execution is well done, and the result is quite entertaining. It was filmed on location in Tennessee. (Seen 25 May 1997)

The Boxer 2 out of 4 stars

Things have changed in Northern Ireland. In director Jim Sheridan and star Daniel Day-Lewis’s 1993 collaboration In the Name of the Father (which was set in the 1970s and 1980s), the clear villains were the despicable Brits. In The Boxer (set during today’s environment of IRA/Loyalist cease-fires) the Brits are still despicable, but mainly because they dress up in fancy clothes and drink champagne at boxing matches. The real villains are now the IRA “hard men” (as distinct from their more pragmatic leaders) who can’t seem to get out of the habit of blowing up things and shooting people. And, as we see, their targets are as likely to be fellow republicans as the hated Orangemen. In cowboy parlance, Day-Lewis is the gunfighter who is tired of killing and wants to hang up his gun and Emily Watson (Breaking the Waves) is the gal who hankers after him. Although a bit melodramatic, the film does a good job of showing the very real difficulties of building peace in a community where tit-for-tat revenge has long been a way of life. (Seen 15 January 1998)

Boy A 3 out of 4 stars

What a complete change from Corkman John Crowley’s previous feature, the irreverent, amusing and sprawling Intermission. This movie comes pre-loaded with a load of baggage since it is clearly based on one of the most notorious and horrific events of recent British history. (It’s adapted from a novel by John Trigell, which was inspired by the murder of a toddler by two older boys.) It cheats just a bit by changing the circumstances of the crime to provide some mitigation. Beyond that, the film wears its socially liberal heart on its sleeve by making it clear that the young criminals are victims too, products of bad circumstances. But the British juvenile justice system has worked wonders, with the surviving boy having become nearly saintly under the guidance of his case worker (played by Peter Mullan), who provides the fatherly guidance the boy never got from his own father and which, ironically, Mullan’s character was apparently unable to give to his own son. These manipulations aside, the film is a beautiful piece of work. Andrew Garfield is great in the title role, as a young offender who can no longer be legally held but must hide behind a new identity because of the strong public passions still swirling around his case. The filmmakers do a good job of imagining what this must be like, bringing in the sort of press hysteria and incidents that have actually accompanied the real-life case (except for the part about a movie being made about it). There is something hopeful about the movie, but ultimately despairing at the same time. If anything, it is an impassioned plea to let redemption happen. Like much of latter-day British film and television, it does nothing to dispel the notion that British society is in crisis and that the English drink way too much for their own good. (Seen 20 October 2007)

The Boy from Mercury 3 out of 4 stars

The Boy from Mercury is a lovely film by Ireland’s Martin Duffy that is more than a little reminiscent of My Life as a Dog. While the young protagonist of that film escaped by thinking he was a dog, eight-year-old Harry’s escape is the belief that he must be from the planet Mercury. The point of this fantasy is that it allows Harry to believe that the Mercurians are watching over him and protecting him. This need for security stems from the fact that his family has largely disintegrated. His father died when he was tot, and most of his brothers have left Dublin for England to find work. (He also has an extremely scary priest for a teacher.) By the end of the story, the film reaps amazing emotional dividends from something as simple as thwarting a school bully. James Hickey is perfectly cast as Harry, while Hugh O’Conor gets to show more range than he does in The Young Poisoner’s Handbook as the brother still at home. Tom Courtenay has fun in the role of loopy Uncle Tony. (Seen 4 June 1996)

Boys Don’t Cry 3 out of 4 stars

In a way, Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry is the dark, American, adult flip side to Alain Berliner’s French-language film of gender-confused childhood, Ma Vie en Rose. Interestingly, despite its subject matter, the film actually tells us less about what it is like to be a man living in a woman’s body than it does about what it is like to live a hopelessly boring and aimless life in the small towns of America’s heartland (in this case, Nebraska). We spend little time wondering why Teena Brandon would want to be a man and much time wondering why Brandon Teena feels so attracted to the small town and group of friends among which he finds himself. And that is the strength of the movie. The filmmakers resist the temptation to make Brandon a saint or a martyr for transgender politics. He is a loser, like so many of the other denizens of this movie, and ultimately he’s an unlucky person in the wrong place at the wrong time. The injustice he suffers at the hands of the local authorities is clearly shown but not overstated. Only in the Romeo-and-Juliette quality of his love affair with a local girl does the film tend to romanticize. Hilary Swank (who previously had the title role in The Next Karate Kid) is convincing and haunting as Brandon. As usual, dramatic license has been taken with some details, so for more information on these events check the web or seek out the documentary The Brandon Teena Story. (Seen 10 November 1999)

The Boys & Girl from County Clare 2 out of 4 stars

This little gem seems to have slipped in and out without much fanfare a few years ago. I remember seeing it advertised at one of the Galway multiplexes but it disappeared before I got a chance to see it. Directed by a Brit (John Irvin, whose oeuvre has ranged from the art house oddity Turtle Diary to the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Raw Deal) and filmed largely on the Isle of Man, the movie has an authentic Irish feel (albeit somewhat of the shaggy dog variety) about it. This is undoubtedly due to Nicholas Adams’s screenplay and the Irish cast. This extends to Englishman Bernard Hill (forever famous as the captain of the Titanic and King Theoden in the Lord of the Rings movies) in the key role of John Joe, a man from a family obsessed with Ceili music the way other families are obsessed with football. His band have walked away with the national music championship at least two previous years, but this year his long estranged brother has arrived with his own band from Liverpool. The prodigal brother Jimmy is played by Colm Meaney and is basically a comic variation on the guilty-Irishman-abroad character he would play in Tom Collins’s Kings. Set in the 1960s, the movie portrays the two feuding brothers as one in standing fast for traditional music in the face of the Beatles and rock’n’roll. Some romance is provided by sweetly naïve Liverpudlian Shaun Evans (looking a bit like Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits) and Andrea Corr, lead singer of The Corrs and who previously played Meaney’s daughter in The Commitments. The movie is sweet and it makes you laugh. What more could you want? (Seen 17 July 2009)

Brassed Off 3 out of 4 stars

Probably the best way to describe this sentimental comedy about an amateur brass band in a Yorkshire mining town is Capra-esque. When the film isn’t tickling us with its gentle humor, it is shamelessly assaulting our tear ducts. But it does this all quite well, so it’s okay. Coursing throughout the entire film is a righteously angry tone that makes a surprising contrast with writer/director Mark Herman’s previous effort, the Bronson Pinchot farce Blame It on the Bellboy. Pete Postlethwaite (In the Name of the Father) is the single-minded band conductor, and Ewan McGregor (Trainspotting) and Tara Fitzgerald (Sirens) provide the romantic interest. By the film’s end, you will be made to feel very happy that Britain’s Tories recently got defeated so resoundingly at the polls. (Seen 20 May 1997)

Braveheart 3 out of 4 stars

Nine months after it premiered at the Seattle International Film Festival and five months after it opened in Ireland (where parts of it were filmed) and a couple of weeks after it received a slew of Academy Award nominations, I finally got around to seeing Braveheart! This is a passionately made film full of visual beauty, the kind of historical epic we don’t see very often anymore. It is also quite violent, with unfliching battle and torture scenes. (Quart for quart, more blood gets spilled in this flick than in the whole Nightmare on Elm Street series!) As played and directed by Mel Gibson, Scottish rebel William Wallace seems a shoo-in candidate for sainthood. This despite a nasty penchant for revenge and an eye for a comely lass or two, including the French-born Princess of Wales who tires of playing Lisa Marie to her bridegroom’s Michael Jackson. Patrick McGoohan is quite good as the wretchedly evil King Edward Longshanks. If nothing else, Braveheart is a useful illustration for us Americans (with our notoriously short historical memory) as to why there are people angry enough to this day to explode bombs in London. (Seen 26 February 1996)

Break Point 2 out of 4 stars

Most of the talent in this little indie comedy will be known from episodic television, and that gives you an idea of what to expect. It’s a tennis movie masquerading as a relationship movie, and we know that because we don’t really learn a lot about tennis in the course of the flick. And, as our underdogs unexpectedly overperform in their big tournament, there is really little suspense over whether these guys will ultimately prevail on the court. What matters is that brothers Jimmy and Darren Price have barely spoken for seven years, ever since the former dumped the latter as a doubles partner when he got the chance to join up with a more prominent player. That this happened soon after the death of their mother only made the estrangement worse. Jimmy, as played by Jeremy Sisto (who was involved in the writing and has a producer credit) is boorish and abrasive and more than a little reminiscent of the character played by T.J. Miller on Silicon Valley. And now that he’s old (in tennis terms), he’s getting a bit desperate. Sadly aimless Darren, as played by David Walton, is recently single and has been working as a substitute middle school teacher for the better part of a decade. Unsurprisingly, the humor derives from their wary reconciliation and the working out of Darren’s trust issues. The film is helped a great deal by the pair’s evolving relationship with 11-year-old Barry, the lonely odd kid who has stubbornly attached himself to Darren as his only friend in the world. The older lads don’t exactly become father figures, but they do step up to being irreponsible substitute uncles. Barry’s story could have done with some development, and potential romances for the Price brothers are very underplayed. Other than a climactic scene were Walton gets to vent his abandonment issues, the movie is pretty just played for laughs and occasional bits of tender humor. The always welcome J.K. Simmons is on hand as the boys’ wearily observant veterinarian father. (Seen 28 August 2015)

Breakfast at Tiffany’s 4 out of 4 stars

Upon the recent death of Blake Edwards, this movie was generally (thought not always) mentioned as his best known, along with the Pink Panther series. My own subjective opinion is that Breakfast at Tiffany’s is clearly his best film, hands down. It also provided Audrey Hepburn with her best role, playing a variation of Pygmalion, in which the lower caste girl remakes herself into a sophisticate. (We don’t believe for a minute that Hepburn was really Lula Mae from Tulip, Texas, but it doesn’t matter because there are echoes of Hepburn’s own biography in the transformation.) Her performance almost certainly helped propel Hepburn to the stature where she wound up getting the film role of Eliza Doolittle, the definitive movie Pygmalion, a couple of years later in My Fair Lady, which is a bit ironic since she edged out Broadway’s definitive Eliza Doolittle, Julie Andrews, who would later marry Blake Edwards. But Edwards was a bit of a Pygmalion character himself, so it all kind of makes sense. Breakfast at Tiffany’s is clearly an Edwards film, featuring his trademark slapstick and wild party scene—as well as his customary jabs at the entertainment business. But it has so much more heart than, say, the Pink Panther movies or his other comedies. Edwards clearly identified with his version of Holly Golightly, just as her originator, Truman Capote, had identified with his. Maybe the ending is hokum (Hepburn and George Peppard both turn out to be whores with hearts of gold), but you cannot deny its emotion or power. It is one of those fairy tales, where no one in New York worries about burglaries or muggings and everyone seems to know each other and life is one big party. The one discordant note that persists after all these years is Mickey Rooney’s strange turn as apoplectic Mr. Yunioshi. The character is best viewed as a Caucasian performance artist who has, for some reason, chosen to live as a stereotyped Japanese man. (Seen 17 December 2010)

The Breakfast Club 2 out of 4 stars

Since I wasn’t doing a web site in 1985 (hey, nobody was) when I first saw this flick, it didn’t occur to me to write a review at the time. Now that I’ve seen it again, it might be tempting, with the benefit of hindsight, to rate it more highly than I would have back then. After all, it has become a virtual classic. Not only did it strike a chord with teenagers at the time, succeeding generations continue to relate to it. And, while I was certainly more appreciative of it this time around—after all many of its bits have become oft-quoted clips that have entered into the culture—my overall impression has not really changed. The writing is schematic. How can these kids complain about being pigeonholed when writer/director John Hughes has emphatically pigeonholed them in his script? Moreover, they come off as annoyingly whiny and self-indulgent and hypocritical to boot. In fairness, we were all a bit—or more than a bit—like that at that age. And that’s probably why teenagers and former teenagers relate to the movie. But Hughes, who sadly left us five years ago, stacked the deck, with Paul Gleason in the thankless role of the craven authority figure with self-esteem issues. And Hughes has his cake and eats it too by having his characters admit that they won’t talk to each other on Monday with their regular friends around—but then they pair up and have passionate kisses at the end. I concede that my coldness to this flick is basically generational. When it comes to teen angst, Judd Nelson is just not going to cut it when you’ve grown up on James Dean. And there’s another reason. The year before this flick came out, I had seen virtually the same movie at the Seattle International Film Festival. It was a German film called Class Enemy and was adapted by Jürgen Klose and director Peter Stein from a British play by Nigel Williams. It was coarse and gritty and naturalistic and powerful. After that, The Breakfast Club seemed, well, just a bit lightweight. (Seen 19 July 2014)

Breakfast of Champions 1 out of 4 stars

Well, here’s yet another sentence I never expected to write: y’know, Nick Nolte doesn’t look half-bad in a dress. Actually, in this movie Nolte looks like he is still shell-shocked from his battlefield experiences in The Thin Red Line, which maybe is why he keeps telling Bruce Willis they are “war buddies” even though they never served in the military together. Strangely, Willis is actually pretty good in this movie, and once and for all he proves that he has more range than just fighting terrorists in a sweaty undershirt. But I’m afraid that this adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel has arrived a few decades too late. As a serious wallow in American mass merchandising and shallowness, it definitely feels dated. Which is too bad because it has a great cast, particularly Albert Finney (looking strangely like the late Kenneth McMillan) as the perpetually muttering crank novelist Kilgore Trout. This romp by Alan Rudolph (Afterglow, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle) has its moments, but it’s really one of those movies you need to watch at midnight while ingesting hallucinogens. (Seen 17 May 1999)

Breakfast on Pluto 3 out of 4 stars

One of the pleasures of following a filmmaker’s work for years is seeing signature themes, actors and visuals recur and turn on themselves over the years. Like seeing Stephen Rea back in London, becoming obsessed with a man who makes a pretty good-looking woman (cf. The Crying Game). Or the way director Neil Jordan gives us a slightly(?) warped take on rural Ireland, as he did in his previous adaptation of a Pat McCabe novel, The Butcher Boy. And it’s always good to see Jordan regulars Rea, Liam Neeson (very effective in the tricky role of a not-completely-celibate priest) and Brendan Gleeson, no matter how busy they get with their international movie careers. There are two stars here. The main one, of course, is Cillian Murphy, who I always knew would make a really fine woman, but I wasn’t prepared for how he’d turn out to look so eerily like Minnie Driver on a really bad hair day. The other star is the soundtrack that brings us back to the late 1960s/early 1970s, as most of us didn’t get to experience them. Morris Albert’s grating “Feelings” is used to sinisterly ironic effect in a mesmerizing scene with Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry. Also creepy is Murphy’s character’s adoption of Bobby Goldboro’s maudlin “Honey” as his personal anthem. But these necessary, if annoying choices, are more than compensated by songs by the Rubettes, Joe Dolan, Harry Nilsson and Dusty Springfield. What is perhaps most pleasurable is the way Jordan’s take on the politics of the era is informed by the hindsight of history, and our strangely innocent Candide finds a world that is not quite so black and white as Irish movies have often painted them in the past. Oh yeah, and young Conor McEvoy does fine in the brief role of the hero/heroine as a child and is already working on his second film, thereby embarking on the movie career my nephew Josh should have had. (Seen 24 January 2006)

Breaking the Rules 2 out of 4 stars

This is another one of those German documentaries that makes you wonder why it wasn’t made by Americans. It takes a fairly systematic look at a number of American artistic/social/political movements, during the past half-century, that can generally be lumped together as “counter-culture.” The journey takes us from the jazz clubs of Harlem to the Beats’ coffee houses and bookstores of Greenwich Village and San Francisco’s North Beach to the Hippie movement in Haight Ashbury and northern California to hip-hop and graffiti artists in New York City. There is enough here to wish that each sub-topic had gotten its own entire documentary. For old farts, it is a strange trip indeed to once again see the footage and hear the music and to see the talking heads (especially the survivors of the 1960s) looking back at their time. Some of these include poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, peace activist Wavy Gravy, Ray Manzarek of The Doors, Peter Fonda (discussing Easy Rider), DJ Afrika Bambaataa and rapper Kurtis Blow. Maddeningly, the film at no point identifies any of its talking heads (maybe there is a German version with subtitles that does so?), so if you’re not old enough or well-studied enough to recognize them (and even if you are old enough to remember them, that still doesn’t mean you’ll be able to recognize them), you are out of luck. This is the second year that this film has played at the Cork Film Festival, and it has handily sold out both times. And the audience was, for the most part, quite young. It must be very strange, for a lot of them, to see the parallels between the present and the 1960s. It must be stranger still to see how much more of a broader revolution was associated with the anti-war movement back then than there is now. (Seen 12 October 2006)

Breaking Up 1 out of 4 stars

In the question-and-answer session following the world premiere of this movie, the stars—Australia’s Russell Crowe (Rough Magic) and Mexico’s Salma Hayek (Fools Rush In)—demonstrated that they can be charming, amusing, and entertaining. Unfortunately, they don’t get much chance to be any of those things in Breaking Up. An extremely claustrophobic film by Robert Greenwald, there are just the two characters and their bad relationship to occupy us for 90 long minutes. They seem to have no friends, no family, no acquaintances. She is a school teacher. He has some sort of job that requires him to photograph fruit. We watch them fight, break up, get back together, and then do it all again—all with the regularity of CNN Headline News. On the bright side, there is a cool fantasy sequence, in which Crowe imagines Hayek’s new boyfriend, and an epilogue, where the couple meet again years later, that actually feels real and three-dimensional. (Seen 6 June 1997)

Brian Friel 2 out of 4 stars

This made-for-television documentary would not be out of place on A&E’s Biography series. While not particularly daring or imaginative, it is very competent and polished in telling us what we need (and want) to know about the man who is arguably Ireland’s greatest living playwright. As a subject, Friel is especially compelling since, as the film points out, he is a very shy man who doesn’t give interviews frequently and so has, deliberately or not, encouraged a “Greta Garbo-like” fascination about himself. We don’t actually get a lot of detail on his personal life, but his prolific body of plays (the best known of which is probably Dancing at Lughnasa), which have kept his name on theater marquees in Dublin, London and New York for years, is enough to hold our interest. Mostly, we get repeated, gauzy shots of him walking the beach, thinking profound thoughts, looking strangely like a wispy-haired John Gielgud. We learn that he was very much influenced by his upbringing in Derry (he was one of those marching on the streets when the Bloody Sunday massacre occurred) as well as half-remembered visits to his mother’s home place in Donegal, the county where he has made his home for years. And, as his work shows, he has been very preoccupied with the fact that the Irish had their original language forcibly removed and how English in Ireland differs from English in other places. At one point, Friel jokes that at his age (the film centers around his 70th birthday) interviews start to seem like memorials, and we definitely get that feeling from this film. (Seen 15 February 2002)

Brick 2 out of 4 stars

One of the strangest (but successful) ideas anybody ever had was to take Superman and do a WB teen soap opera series about his early years. This movie is like doing the same thing for the character Jack Nicholson played in Chinatown. Those of us forced to watch the Disney Channel at length already know this conceit. It’s called Fillmore, and it’s basically a police series in the style of those old Quinn Martin productions, but set in a high school, with hall monitors for cops and a principal as the responsible politician. If you can get past the gimmick (and the fact that our hero’s high school has precious few students and apparently no classes), the classically film noir plot and execution aren’t half bad. My favorite touch was the fact that the twentysomething drug lord, played by Lukas Haas, sported a cape and cane just like Barnabas Collins did in Babylon 5! Can this really be a nod to the fact that this movie’s star, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, several years before he played an extraterrestrial in a human teenager’s body on 3rd Rock from the Sun, had a regular role in the short-lived Babylon 5 primetime revival? Anyway, this flick really drives home something that, I think, we knew all along. At the end of the day, in films noirs, there was always something pretty adolescent about all the impossible macho posturing and self-conscious cool. (Seen 20 June 2006)

The Bride of Frankenstein 3 out of 4 stars

If James Whale’s 1931 horror classic, Frankenstein, contains a surprising amount of humor, this 1935 sequel has even more. Frankenstein’s cantankerous father is no longer around to provide comic relief, but that is made up for in spades by Una O’Connor’s daffy servant who acts as a hysterical Greek chorus in what seems to be nearly every scene. Even more memorable is English thespian Ernest Thesiger’s campy turn as the unhinged Dr. Pretorius, the true father of the titular bride. The movie picks up exactly where the previous one left off, but some of the actors have changed—including Valerie Hobson replacing Mae Clarke in what is the true title role, Colin Clive’s new wife Elizabeth. This is deftly accounted for by a prologue featuring Frankenstein’s author herself, Mary Shelley played by Elsa Lanchester, explaining to Lord Byron and Percy Shelley that what follows is the right story. Not only has the monster survived but his next two victims are the grieving parents (the father having not only been recast but also renamed) of poor little Maria. These deaths are particularly eerie to see for those who know something of Whale’s bio. Like their ill-fated daughter, they die by drowning—just as Whale would in his own swimming pool 22 years later. But the most enduring image comes at the end. The monster’s bride is revealed, and she is played by Lancaster with a hairdo that looks like an electric shock. She sees her intended mate and gives one of the most memorable screams in all of cinematic history. (Seen 31 October 2012)

Brideshead Revisited 2 out of 4 stars

Like Charles Ryder, I always long to return to Brideshead. And, like Charles, I find it hard to see it it all emptied out and commandeered for a campaign. One of my self-imposed rules is to judge a film on its own merits and not by comparison to its literary source and or any previous adaptations. But it is awfully difficult in this case. The 1981 miniseries was such a magnificent achievement that, in a world of superfluous remakes, if any remake was beyond being beside the point, it would be this one. But let’s be fair. As a literary adaptation, it’s really not that bad a movie. It’s reasonably faithful to Evelyn Waugh’s novel, apart from the usual trimming and condensing and a bit of plot tinkering to make it more “cinematic.” But that tinkering simply makes it less interesting. The first half of the original involved a triangle that included Charles, his privileged, dissolute friend Sebastian and Sebastian’s mother. The makers of this version have also shoehorned in Sebastian’s sister Julia, who really wasn’t meant to figure until the second half. This means the movie is more about Charles’s sexual confusion (he didn’t seem particularly confused in the original) than about Sebastian’s battle with his demons. Which is too bad because Sebastian is rightly the heart and soul of this story. William F. Buckley, who wonderfully explicated the 1981 version for the American TV audience, summed up the character of Charles as “dim.” But Jeremy Irons transcended that dimness to make Charles somehow intense and appealing. Played by Matthew Goode, Charles is simply dim. We cannot understand how or why Sebastian and Julia would be drawn to him. Indeed, the only actors who really compare favorably with the originals are Lord and Lady Marchmain, the estimable Michael Gambon and the brilliant Emma Thompson. (Seen 17 October 2008)

Bridesmaids 2 out of 4 stars

When this hit comedy came out a year ago, it was hailed as the female Hangover. This was based purely on the fact that the plot involved an impending wedding and that the movie had a couple of moments that would make people with weaker constitutions turn away from the screen. But this really is a female version of a mostly male movie prototype, i.e. the one about the “lovable” loser. Usually, it is somebody like Seth Rogen who is showing bad judgment in inter-personal relationships at every step of the way and still somehow maintaining our (or at least some of our) sympathy. Here it is Kristen Wiig managing to make every wrong move with her best friend, her best friend’s newer friends, the nearly-too-good-to-be-true Wisconsin state patrolman (endearingly and daffily played by Ireland’s own Chris O’Dowd) who woos her, and every customer who walks into the jewelry shop where she works. While there are things going on in her life that explain her over-the-top behavior, things go so far that she still comes perilously close to losing our sympathy. Luckily for her, convention requires that Wiig be pretty much vindicated in the end. But what matters most is that this romp (written by Wiig and Annie Mumolo and directed by Paul Feig) is laugh-out-loud funny. It mercilessly skewers the excesses of modern American weddings and the specific viciousness of female rivalries to great comedic effect. Among the movie’s pleasures is the mixing of some great comic talents drawn from US, UK and Australian television. Poignantly, a lovely contribution is made by Jill Clayburgh in her final role, as Wiig’s scatter-brained mother. (Seen 7 May 2012)

Bridge of Spies 3 out of 4 stars

It is interesting to see the political commentary on this new Spielberg flick, which is drawn from one of the most interesting yet little known episodes of the Cold War. The fact that partisans on both left and right have found things to criticize suggests that the director probably got it about right. Some people thought he was too critical of 1950s America, and others thought he was too mean to the Soviets and the East Germans. For people who just like good movies, it’s hard not to admire this one. It is superbly crafted and tells a really good story. Tom Hanks is basically Atticus Finch, except that instead of being the conscience of a small southern town, he is the conscience of the whole friggin’ United States. He insists on a fair trial and due process when most others want a lynching. His client (the impeccable Mark Rylance) is nearly the most sympathetic character in the story—despite the fact that he is clearly guilty of espionage as charged. Like Atticus, Hanks’s James B. Donovan seems nearly too good to be true—which is why President Kennedy called on him more than once for under-the-radar negotiations with communist adversaries. Everyone involved here does a great job, and the standard media portrayal of the late 1950s/early 1960s is now becoming very familiar after mid-century-set TV shows like Mad Men and Agent Carter. Hollywood liberals need not fear. Spielberg totally sustains their world view of everything working out just fine if belligerent governments can just find a way to talk to each other. (Those on the far left, however, may be less impressed when the film acknowledges that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were indeed traitors.) There is a lovely bit at the end where Donovan sees a happy backyard scene through the window of his commuter train, ironically echoing a similar but terrible scene he saw from a train in Berlin. The contrast says everything about the difference between Soviet-style communism and western values. But the look of alarm that comes over Donovan’s face also lets us know that his (and Spielberg’s) constant concern is that America, in the end, might not be so different after all. (Seen 29 December 2015)

The Bridge on the River Kwai 4 out of 4 stars

My earliest memories of this masterpiece consisted mainly of marching soldiers whistling a tune that I couldn’t get out of my head. When I saw it again years later, I was totally on board with its message about the madness of war, and it has long led my list of Six Great War Movies. Not that director David Lean put too fine a point on it, but I believe the final lines spoken in the movie are actually “Madness! Madness!” But before we get to that, there is plenty of adventure and spectacle to satisfy any movie fan. I have to say that, on this viewing, the film’s 161-minute running time (without the traditional intermission customary during the era of its 1957 release) flew by. The cast is perfect. As the stubborn and legalistic Colonel Nicholson, Alec Guinness is totally convincing as the single-minded military man who is undeterred, regardless of whether he is undergoing torture to make legal point or building the best bridge in the world to boost the morale of his men. Also very good is William Holden as his opposite number, the American who is only interested in survival, escape and enjoying his freedom once he has it. We keep rooting for him to get through all the challenges the war keeps throwing at him and eventually get the discharge he so desperately wants. As is usually the case with the films of David Lean, the real star is the spectacle of the gorgeous and expansive on-location shooting (in this case, on the Indian Ocean island of Ceylon, now known as Sri Lanka). How we react to the movie necessarily alters over time and with the course of history. Nicholson’s (successful) insistence on the Geneva Convention is particularly interesting. The Southeast Asia setting became more resonant in the 1960s and made the film’s anti-war message seem prescient. Personally, though, the madness of war theme only really works if you see the two sides, as this film seems to, as morally equivalent. Over time, some of us come to see that it actually does matter which side comes out on top. (Seen 20 February 2011)

Bridge to Terabithia 3 out of 4 stars

The Munchkin had this one sussed. “It’s like Narnia,” she said, “It’s made by the same people.” The TV ads had done their job. It is indeed by the same people, i.e. Walden Media, the production company whose unabashed purpose is to make family entertainment that is actually good for kids, and Disney, the original family-friendly movie-maker. But, as the Munchkin discovered, Bridge to Terabithia is a very different movie than The Chronicles of Narnia—despite a similar kids-entering-a-fantasy-world angle. Although set in contemporary time, it has a very old-fashioned feel, as it earnestly deals with heavy issues like childhood fears and pressures, financial stress on a family and (the big one) death. In its exploration of youthful trauma and guilt it is not completely unlike the movies of Carlos Saura (Cría Cuervos), and the child/fantasy/reality angle would be somewhat reminiscent of Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. But admirers of those films may find this one, directed by Gabor Csupo after Katherine Paterson’s book, overly wholesome and sentimental. That may be. But this film does have one advantage over those Spanish ones. You can actually reasonably bring a child to this one, and the child will quite possibly enjoy it. And it will give parents and children plenty to talk about afterwards. The young leads are engaging, especially AnnaSophia Robb, who was previously seen in Walden’s Because of Winn-Dixie and as spoiled Violet Beauregard in Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Also on hand is Robert Patrick, who seems to have settled into playing tough rural fathers (cf. Walk the Line). (Seen 5 May 2007)

Bridget Jones’s Baby 2 out of 4 stars

Eleven years ago I called the sequel to Bridget Jones’s Diary (which I had liked) “the worst kind of sequel” which “actually makes us question whether the original movie was as good as we thought it was.” Apparently, I am not the only Yank in whose mouth it left a bad taste because this long-delayed third installment pretty much sank like a stone in the U.S. On the other side of the Atlantic, however, it has been doing quite good business, and I give the credit to Miranda Hart. No, she’s not in the movie and does not have anything to do with it, but her very funny sitcom, which wound up a year and a half ago, made the pitiful travails of somewhat older single women safe for mockery again. Some of the bits in this latest Bridget Jones—and it really comes down to a collection of bits—have been lifted directly from la Hart’s uproarious oeuvre. We basically have a marriage of the my-life-is-crap single woman’s lament and the everything-that-can-possiby-go-wrong-does woman having a baby story. Safely back in the hands of original director Sharon Maguire (and co-written by source novelist Helen Fielding), this movie has two big things going for it: a knowing skewering of the current news media (Bridget works for a cable news channel) and the wonderful Emma Thompson. Thompson is so good that I will publicly commit right now to watching every episode of Dr. Rawlings, Gynecologist if the powers that be would put such a series on the air and get Thompson to star in it. The cast is sprawling and wonderful, including Sarah Solemani as Bridget’s hard partying news reader pal, Kate O’Flynn as the new ball-busting corporation shaker-upper, and many great actors from the earlier films (Gemma Jones, Jim Broadbent, Shirley Henderson, James Callis, Celia Imrie, Miranda veteran Sally Phillips) turning up if only for a few moments. And, yes, Colin Firth is at his stick-up-one’s-arse best, Patrick Dempsey (replacing Hugh Grant) is still McDreamy, and American Renée Zellweger fits seamlessly into this all-so-British farce. (Seen 15 October 2016)

Bridget Jones’s Diary 3 out of 4 stars

A few years ago I went to an authors’ reading at Eason’s bookstore in Dublin. I mainly wanted to see novelist/filmmaker Neil Jordan, but he didn’t show because he was busy filming Michael Collins. To everyone’s surprise, his replacement was Salman Rushdie. I was so excited that I ran up to him after his reading and asked him to autograph his latest book. I wanted to say something profound, but I just mumbled some inanity, and he gave me a heavy-lidded look that bespoke total perplexity. I tell this story, so that you will understand how it did my heart good to see something very similar happen to Bridget Jones in this movie. And, in fact, there is a bit of a running gag about people walking up to Rushdie and asking him where the loo is. This is just one of many very funny bits in this very funny movie. Bridget is a desperate single woman in her 30s, so she is akin to Rhoda of sitcom fame and Cathy of the comic strips. But unlike those media, movies need to have endings, so this winds up as a fairly conventional romantic comedy. Renée Zellweger (who does a Gwyneth Paltrow-like conversion to a very convincing English accent) gained weight for the role, which only makes her look healthy, but she and everyone else seems to see her as fat. The main message in the end, although it’s rather underplayed, is that the person who seems like a jerk to you may actually be more like you than you think. Which probably means that the other (pencil thin) women in the movie probably think they are fat too. (Seen 18 April 2001)

Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason 1 out of 4 stars

This is really the worst kind of sequel. Like more than a few sequels, it is not really very good. But it goes a step farther and actually makes us question whether the original movie was as good as we thought it was. It is as though the filmmakers (Beeban Kidron, who directed To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, took over from Bridget Jones’s Diary director Sharon Maguire) took the weakest bits from the first movie and decided to redo them over and over in the new movie. But then a sequel was kind of a superfluous idea anyway and illustrates the pitfalls of making a follow-up to a story that ends “happily ever after.” Watching the all-too-human Bridget go through the trials and tribulations of modern adult single life the first time and arriving at some enlightenment about life and relationships was endearing. Watching her slide back to square one and do it all over again is just annoying. And, where Maguire’s movie was affectionate in highlighting Bridget’s foibles and imperfections, Kidron’s movie merely delights in them, in a mean adolescent sort of way. It says everything that the best part of the movie (really) is when the main character gets thrown into a prison in Thailand. (Seen 3 December 2005)

A Bright Shining Lie 2 out of 4 stars

Irish director Terry George crafted a respectable treatment of the Troubles in Northern Ireland a couple of years ago in Some Mother’s Son. Now he’s moved on to a different intractable conflict, one which is now thankfully in the past. Based on Neil Sheehan’s novel which, in turn, was based on the real-life experiences of John Paul Vann, A Bright Shining Lie does just fine as a quickie history lesson on U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Vann (well played by Bill Paxton) is a larger-than-life figure, whose involvement in the war over a decade personified how “Vietnam” became synonymous with “quagmire.” A gung-ho military man, Vann was undone by his own personal (shall we say Clinton-esque?) compulsions and the fact that he had a clarity about the situation that was a quarter-century ahead of his time. George said that John Milius used Vann as the model for the Marlon Brando character in his script for Apocalypse Now, but this film suggests that Vann was an extremely complex man who deserves better. The movie has gone directly to HBO in the States, but it is being released theatrically in Europe, where the big screen suits the subject matter and the powerful war scenes quite well. (Seen 11 July 1998)

Bright Young Things 2 out of 4 stars

What could more delicious? A scathing social satire from the poison pen of English author Evelyn Waugh, adapted and directed by one of England’s funniest present-day wits, Stephen Fry. Given the film’s trajectory from devil-may-care excesses by the privileged class to the grim world-changing gloom of war, it is tempting to think of this 2003 adaptation of the 1930 novel Vile Bodies as basically an alternate version of Waugh’s best known work, Brideshead Revisited, but shorter and without all the Catholic stuff. Given the director and the new title, we suspect that perhaps this is meant to say something about our own age, but any intended parallels aren’t blazingly obvious—beyond the timeless theme of the vacuous-ness of people who become famous for being famous and the cynicism of the popular press. Mostly, we seem to be expected to sit back enjoy watching people partying mindlessly and utter things like, “I’m so frantically bored,” followed by an ending that suggests that maybe commitment and seriousness might not be such bad things after all. The real pleasures in the movie are seeing a new young crop of British acting talent, including the next Doctor Who, David Tennant, as well as supporting roles by some great veterans, including Dan Aykroyd as a Canadian press lord; Stockard Channing, as an American evangelist; Peter O’Toole and Jim Broadbent, as batty old military men; and, most touchingly, the late John Mills, in one of his last screen appearances. (Seen 19 November 2005)

Brighton Rock 2 out of 4 stars

This is the second adaptation of Graham Greene’s 1938 novel. The 1947 version was directed by John Boulting and starred Richard Attenborough as Pinkie Brown. (It was called Young Scarface in the U.S. release.) This one is directed by Rowan Joffee and stars Sam Riley (Control). The time period has been shifted to the early 1960s, for no apparent reason other than to insert some scenes of Mods-vs.-Rockers riots that seem lifted from The Who’s rock opera Quadrophenia. Ultimately, this tale of ruthless gangsters and film noir dead ends seems a quaint throwback in this era of comic book action movies and over-the-top romcoms. Star power is provided in the form of Helen Mirren and John Hurt in what are really secondary roles. As the young sociopath Pinkie, Sam Riley can be suitably unnerving, although he is undercut by a script or direction (can’t tell which exactly) that makes his plan of silencing a potential murder witness, by marrying her, seem confused. More interesting than Pinkie really is the naïve Rose, played by Andrea Riseborough, who is so desperate for an escape from her dead-end life that she latches onto the dodgy Pinkie without a second thought. Greene had issues to settle with his Catholic religion, and that makes for an unusually strong ending, which is devastating in its indictment of the human need to believe something in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. (Seen 8 July 2011)

Brokeback Mountain 2 out of 4 stars

At the risk of sounding glib, I will give you the honest, unvarnished reaction I had upon watching this movie: Sure is pretty, but it ain’t Evelyn Waugh. As for the pretty part, the film is so well made that it will deserve the multiple Academy Award nominations that it will receive. The photography is stunning, the acting is first-rate all around, and there is some very good music on the soundtrack. Before I saw the movie, I thought I would be comparing/contrasting it with Ang Lee’s wonderful 1993 film (the first time most of us saw his work) The Wedding Banquet, which also dealt with complications arising from two men loving each other. But Brokeback Mountain really makes more sense as the flip side to another great Lee film, 1997’s The Ice Storm. That one dealt with the consequences of perhaps too much sexual liberation. This one deals with the consequences of too much sexual repression. And Lee’s view of 20th century Wyoming is not only repressive but downright bleak, which should be no surprise considering that Larry McMurtry, who wrote The Last Picture Show, was a co-screenwriter. But McMurtry, over the years, has given us many memorable, sympathetic and life-affirming characters, and this is where Brokeback falls short for me. The two forlorn cowpokes are, frankly, a bit dim. (That’s what brought Waugh, longingly, to my mind.) We certainly pity them, but no more or less than their wives or their children. Obviously, the story will speak to others’ experiences better than to mine and they will connect better. But I longed for at least some small hint of grace and/or enlightenment, as we saw at the end of The Ice Storm. [Related commentaries here and here and here] (Seen 18 January 2006)

Broken Arrow 2 out of 4 stars

When John Travolta spends the first ten minutes of Broken Arrow telling Christian Slater why he’ll always be a loser, you know pretty much that the conversation will continue throughout the mounting violence right through the final reel. Along with a few well-executed special effects and action sequences, Travolta (who makes a much better villain than he does a gangster, disco dancer, or high school student) is actually the best thing about this rollercoaster of a movie. Hong Kong actionmeister John Woo has clearly upped the stakes in his second American feature (after the Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle Hard Target). Slater and Samantha Mathis are okay, respectively, in the earnest and resourceful Keanu Reeves role and the pert and plucky Sandra Bullock role. (Seen 17 April 1996)

Broken Flowers 2 out of 4 stars

In his latter-days movie career, Bill Murray is specializing in playing over-the-hill everymen, more or less bemused, and bit melancholy, about where the shifting sands of time have deposited them. Director Jim Jarmusch’s quirky movies tend to be laid-back, wry and dawdling. The combination of these two talents produces a central character who is nearly catatonic. It stretches our credulity to believe that the passive Murray not only made a fortune in the computer business but has also led a life of serial romantic conquests. In theory, Murray’s character is a close match to the one Hugh Grant played in About a Boy: a man with too much time and money on his hands and an emotional detachment that doesn’t allow him to really share any of it with anyone. A movie device sends Murray on a cross-country trip to look up some of his old flames and, as we know, when a film sends its hero across the U.S. in search of birth parents, memories of a dead parent or, in this case, a putative love child, we are really getting the filmmaker’s portrait of America. Jarmusch’s America (which looks pretty much the same, no matter where the plane lands) includes exploding Nascar dads, antiseptic suburbs, New Age professionals and backwoods ruffians. Jarmusch seems to be suggesting that each of us is living in our book or movie. For example, if Murray’s Don Johnston is really Don Juan, then Sharon Stone has the Shelley Winters role in Lolita. At the end, we are left with a vision of a man numb and haunted by more than half a lifetime of what-ifs. (Seen 8 November 2005)

Brooklyn 3 out of 4 stars

Like so many geographical locations that wind up as film titles (cf. Brazil, Chinatown), the name is not so much a literal place as a state of mind. For the Irish making the long voyage in the 1950s it is the beginning and end of America. By the end of this lovely film by John Crowley, the name Brooklyn has come to symbolize for its protagonist a way of life and way of thinking completely different from what she had known before. It is no coincidence that the director and the source novel’s author (Colm Tóibín) are both Irishmen who have spent years living outside their own country. Impressively, English writer Nick Hornby has managed to catch both the universal experience of leaving one’s own country behind and the specific Irish trauma of being wrenched from that country’s tightly-knit social and familial fabric. I have seen various flicks before about immigrant life in America from the Irish point of view, but this one really won me over by how it conveyed with empathy the chronic Irish nostalgia for home without wholeheartedly enabling it. What is also amazing, especially after many revisionist takes lately, is how rosy this movie makes 1950s USA (actually filmed in Canada) look and feel. The American melting pot has never looked better. But I would remiss to let my own focus on the Irish/American immigration theme overshadow the fact that this is just a really good, involving story with a really good cast. Saoirse Ronan’s character is not exactly the most electrifying livewire, but that is the point and, most importantly, she is utterly believable. Other standouts include Brid Brennan as an imperious Enniscorthy shopkeeper, Julie Walters as the landlady who reigns over her young female boarders and Emory Cohen as the loveliest young man any young woman should hope to meet in Brooklyn or anywhere else. As the film demonstrates so well, while it may be hard to adjust to life in another country, what you do not expect is how hard it is to adjust to coming home again. Geeky cast notes: this flick includes not only two Weasleys from the Harry Potter movies (Walters, Domhnall Gleeson) but also the very cool Felicity Smoak (Emily Bett Rickards) from TV’s The Flash. (Seen 5 December 2015)

Brother Sun, Sister Moon 2 out of 4 stars

When this movie came out in 1972, the publicity made it seem like a great date movie. After all, it was made by Franco Zeffirelli, whose previous flick had been the gorgeously photographed and lushly romantic Romeo and Juliet, which had singlehandedly made Shakespeare cool again. This flick likewise had gorgeous photography and two beautiful young English leads (Graham Faulkner and Judi Bowker). And it was indeed another love story—but not the sort we were expecting. It was a biopic of St. Francis of Assisi. Zeffirelli’s unabashed celebration of the young saint’s religious transformation was not the least bit ironic in its rendering. But it was definitely a creature of its era. Franceso is so traumatized by war and materialism that he gives up his comfortable life to found what is essentially a hippie commune. This cannot help but upset the evil capitalists, I mean, the church establishment and merchant class of his native Umbria. Told at a leisurely pace and with no shortage of beautiful Italian vistas and people enjoying nature (even beggars and lepers have a picturesque quality), there is something familiar about the way fey young men keep getting inspired to drop out and turn on with Franceso. At times one half-expects them to break out into a number from Godspell or Jesus Christ Superstar. They don’t, but the soundtrack vocals by Donovan are the next best thing. The climax involves an audience with Pope Innocent III, which today results in two visceral shocks. One is realizing that the Pope is (five years before he first played Obi-Wan Kenobi) none other than Alec Guinness. The other is realizing that, eight centuries later, this Pope’s successor would take Francis’s name as his own. (Seen 9 February 2014)

The Brothers Grimm 2 out of 4 stars

Why is everyone so down on this movie? I suspect maybe the critics were really using it for target practice, taking their final shots at the Weinstein regime at Miramax. But I was particularly concerned about the opinion of English movie critic Mark Kermode, who engages in lively film discussion on BBC’s Five Live radio channel (available to the entire universe via podcast). He professes to be as big a Terry Gilliam fan as, well, as me. But he went so far as to claim that The Brothers Grimm did not qualify as a true Terry Gilliam film, despite meeting the only criterion that I personally consider essential for earning that designation: it was directed by Terry Gilliam. (Gilliam got him back but good, though, by suggesting that he was taking his lead from American critics.) I think I understand the problem, however. When Time Bandits came out in 1981, those of us who were Monty Python fans expected and wanted it to be a Monty Python movie, mainly because it was directed by Gilliam and included John Cleese and Michael Palin in the sprawling cast. It wasn’t a Monty Python movie, though, and it took a little getting used to that Gilliam had an artistic life that was influenced by but independent of his work with the Pythons. By the time Gilliam had made films like Brazil, The Fisher King and Twelve Monkeys, we had come to expect something more from Gilliam than mind-blowing imagery, antic action and subversive, anarchic humor. We had come to see his films as profound and meaningful as well. The Brothers Grimm (set in a world where fantasy is reality, meaning that curses and monsters are real and France is a dominant military power) is a bit of a throwback to Time Bandits, which in the end was just a twisted take on old fairy tales. Matt Damon and Heath Ledger are more or less Hope and Crosby bumbling through an improbable adventure, while competing for the attention of Lena Headey, in the Dorothy Lamour role. Profound? Not particularly. Entertaining? Very. Indeed, this is the most Pythonesque film Gilliam has made since, well, since he co-directed (with Terry Jones) Monty Python and the Holy Grail. (Seen 15 November 2005)

The Brothers Warner 3 out of 4 stars

Knowing that we are going to see a documentary about the history of Warner Bros. studios, we figure we will get lots of nostalgic old photos and footage and memorable clips of some classic old movies. And we do get all that. But what we also get is a very personal family story, as told by the granddaughter of Harry Warner, the film’s writer/director Cass Warner Sperling. Moreover, we get a riveting account of how Warner Bros.’s story is inextricably bound up with that of not only movies in general but also of America itself. We meet the four brothers, members of a large Jewish Polish immigrant family, and how their love of the new nickelodeon fad prompted them to get into exhibition and then, by necessity, distribution and then, by more necessity, filmmaking. We learn how the Warners revolutionized the art by popularizing sound with The Jazz Singer and how this breakthrough was overshadowed by the untimely death of Sam Warner, who may well have died from the stress of the production. We learn of the brothers’ commitment to socially relevant movies and how during the 1930s they were stymied by the State Department and the Hays Code in making a movie about Germany’s concentration camps. The studio’s consistent anti-Fascist crusade effectively culminatd with the classic Casablanca. We get a fair number of clips of legendary Warner stars like Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart and James Dean. And we get reminisces from former Warner stars like Efrem Zimbalist Jr., Debbie Reynolds and Dennis Hopper. The villain of the piece is Jack Warner, who comes off as fairly despicable—although by the end of the movie the filmmaker manages to make her peace with him. (Seen 13 October 2008)

Bruce Almighty 2 out of 4 stars

Morgan Freeman acquits himself very well playing God. It’s a tricky role, but Freeman can hold his head high next to the likes of actors ranging from George Burns (Oh, God! plus sequels) to Alanis Morissette (Dogma). The only problem is, he’s not really playing God. He’s playing Clarence the angel. This is really yet another remake of It’s a Wonderful Life. We know this for sure because director Tom Shadyac has Jim Carrey lasso the moon, just like Jimmy Stewart pretended to do in IaWL (here with more tidal consequences). Just to make sure we “get” this, Shadyac actually shows us the relevant clip from IaWL, leaving us to wonder if he will also show us Charlton Heston parting the Red Sea so that we will “get” the scene where Carrey parts his bowl of tomato soup. That’s the kind of movie this is. It’s also the kind of movie that, instead of actually writing a character for Jennifer Aniston, it makes her a pre-school teacher who donates blood so that we will “get” that she is A Really Good Person. If you enjoy this movie, it will be because you enjoy Carrey’s considerable comedic antics. But as a movie, it’s a pale shadow of the one it attempts to imitate. Where Capra’s original showed us a man’s entire life so that we really understood how a decent man became overwhelmed and lost hope and then found his way back, this movie tracks a man’s journey from being a vengeful jerk to being a do-gooding jerk. But what else would you expect from the man who gave us (in addition to previous Carrey vehicles, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and Liar Liar) the shameless Patch Adams? (Seen 2 July 2003)

The Brylcreem Boys 2 out of 4 stars

“It’s a strange story, but it’s all true.” With that assurance, co-scriptwriter Susan Morrall introduced this quirky tale (co-scripted and directed by Terence Ryan) about prisoners of war in neutral Ireland in 1941. The result is yet another high concept that we weren’t expecting to see: The Bridge Over the River Kwai meets Local Hero. The “Brylcreem boys” are the RAF pilots shot down over Ireland and forced to sit out the war to satisfy the republic’s tricky stance between the Allies and Germany. In the same loosely run internment camp (more than a little reminiscent of the old Hogan’s Heroes TV show), however, are also German prisoners. The enmity between the two groups becomes personal when a Canadian and a German vie over a local beauty played by Riverdance star Jean Butler. When Butler and some of the lads at the local pub spontaneously break into a Riverdance routine, we know for sure that this is yet another cinematic Irish shaggy dog story in the vein of The Quiet Man. Commanding the camp is the inevitable Gabriel Byrne enjoying himself immensely playing a right Paddy. (Seen 8 July 1998)

The Buddha of Suburbia 2 out of 4 stars

This isn’t really a movie but rather a four-part mini-series made for British television. I suppose you could compare it to PBS’s Tales of the City in that it is an indulgent look back on the 1970s and a time that has gone forever. Beyond that, however, there isn’t much similarity. And, in the Age of Newt, I don’t think we are likely to see anything like the sexual escapades of our young hero Karim on U.S. public television. The Buddha of Suburbia is based on the novel (and co-scripted) by Hanif Kureishi who also penned My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammie and Rosie Get Laid. As you would expect, this is about being from a southwest Asian background in modern Britain. Early on in the story, Karim’s future stepmother gives him some books to read. They are Stendhal’s The Red and the Black and Voltaire’s Candide. This alerts us that Karim is at once the passionate Julien Sorel and the innocent Candide finding his way through a strange world. Even though the program notes say that Karim’s father (who cashes in on his Indian-ness to be a teacher to spiritually starved white people) is the Buddha of the title, I submit that it actually refers to Karim who is a modern Siddhartha seeking enlightenment. Over a leisurely four hours (which actually pass very quickly) we follow Karim as he experiences family life, sex, politics, and art in 1970s England. He finds that he is admired on one hand for his being exotic (even though he was born in England and his mother is not Indian) and resents him on the other hand for being racially different. At the end of the story, Margaret Thatcher appears on a television screen to let us know that things are going to hell in a handbasket, much the same way footage of Richard Nixon’s 1968 election was used at the end of Shampoo. (Seen 29 May 1995)

Buffalo Soldiers 3 out of 4 stars

This is a kind of movie we haven’t seen for a while, certainly not in the post-9/11 neo-patriotic era. It’s a good old-fashioned “war is insanity” flick in the tradition of Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H and Mike Nichols’s Catch-22. Except technically this isn’t a “war” movie, since it is set in the final days of the Cold War, but its message is that, when you’re in the military, peacetime can be hell too. If we go with the M*A*S*H comparison, then star Joaquin Phoenix has a combination role of the manipulatively efficient Radar O’Reilly and the wheeling-dealing Hawkeye Pierce. Meanwhile, Ed Harris, who has played a host of military men in his career, this time has the fumbling Colonel Blake role. I guess that would make the by-the-book Scott Glenn (who co-starred with Harris in the more gung-ho The Right Stuff) the Major Burns character. Or a better comparison might be with the Willem Dafoe and Tom Berenger light and dark figures from Oliver Stone’s Platoon. Indeed, this movie (by Australian Gregor Jordan) is very much like an Oliver Stone film, exploring a topic not really highlighted much before: the effects of peacetime stationing American military long-term in other countries, in this case West Germany. Anyway, we know something is pretty screwy in the world when Dean Stockwell outranks Ed Harris. Things are just outrageous enough that we believe it could really have happened. Elizabeth McGovern is surprisingly effective as Harris’s Lady Macbeth of a wife. (Seen 3 September 2003)

A Bug’s Life 2 out of 4 stars

If you care at all who makes the best computer-animated ant movie—the legendary Disney studios or the offshoot upstart DreamWorks—then you surely know by now that the answer is definitely Disney. And not just because of coincident over-marketing. While DreamWorks’s Antz is impressive enough technically, it just doesn’t have the masterful wizardry or joy of comedy that Disney’s A Bug’s Life has. At heart, Antz is basically a typically angst-ridden Woody Allen movie with Allen’s voice but little else of his creativity. Sort of a cartoon version of Love and Death. A Bug’s Life, on the other hand, while having an extremely similar plot, is a brighter and cheerier tale that manages to be reminiscent of both To Be or Not to Be and The Magnificent Seven. And in lieu of Allen’s trademarked neurotic readings, we have a joyful cast consisting largely of NBC sitcom stars like Dave Foley, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, David Hyde Pierce, etc. etc. (Particularly welcome is the voice of Dr. Smith from TV’s Lost in Space, Jonathan Harris, as a self-important thespian.) A Bug’s Life really excels at the “acting,” that is, the animated character renditions, which are much more natural and entertaining than those of Antz, as well as the writing. There are many wonderful turns and lines in A Bug’s Life, such as the one involving the word “slapstick.” (Seen 17 December 1998)

El Bulto (Excess Baggage) 1 out of 4 stars

Imagine that you are 20 years old and you go to sleep and then you wake up and find you are now 40 years old. (This actually happened to me except that I was apparently awake most of the time.) You find that your wife has been living with another man for years. Your baby daughter is now a young woman. And you have a son who wasn’t even born the last time you were awake. You also have a lot of world history and a lot of computer games to catch up on. This is the premise of El Bulto, a 1991 Mexican film. Lauro is a radical who is injured by police during a demonstration in 1971 and goes into a 20-year coma. His family, which loyally cares for him, has taken to calling him el bulto (the lump). The film handles this all realistically, and the resurrected Lauro (“or should we call you Lazarus” jokes an old friend) is a gaunt figure with long scraggly hair and beard who haunts his old home like a ghost. At first, it appears that this is going to be a pretext for political commentary as Lauro looks disdainfully on his former radical friends who have since joined the establishment. But this is at heart a family drama, as Lauro has a tough time adjusting to all the changes he encounters and alienates everyone around him. The film ends all too tidily as Lauro and his family (and his new twentysomething girl friend!) all reconcile and sing rap music together. (Seen 6 June 1995)

Buna! Ce faci? (Hello! How Are You?) 2 out of 4 stars

The plot here is basically a variation on Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner and its 1998 quasi-remake You’ve Got Mail. But since it’s a Romanian movie, don’t expect the conventional romcom ending. It’s way more wistful than feel-good. Director Alexandru Maftei actually based this on an actual incident that received coverage in the Romanian media. In the end, this is the story of a middle-aged couple that have grown apart and more or less lead separate lives. That could be depressing, but the narrator is their about-to-turn-18 son who has decided that his future lies in being a rich and famous porn star. (Hey, we’ve all been there, kid.) That subplot gives this somewhat forlorn comedy sort of an Almodóvar kick as well as a bit of hope, since the son is on the ascending side of finding out what real romance is all about. As the husband Gabriel, Ionel Mihailescu looks strangely like a cross between Colin Firth and Robert De Niro. As the wife Gabriela, Dana Voicu (the director’s wife) is somewhat reminiscent of a younger Julie Walters. The filmmaker’s accomplishment is that we really come to care for these people and how things will turn out for them. (Seen 20 February 2011)

Bure Baruta (Powder Keg) (Cabaret Balkan) 2 out of 4 stars

This very dark film opens with a heavily made-up emcee welcoming us to the Cabaret Balkan. This deliberately makes us think of the movie Cabaret, but if we think we’re in for a pleasant evening of singing and dancing, we’d better think again. The film weaves several interconnected stories during the course of one long night in Belgrade, coming off like some violently nightmarish mishmash of After Hours and Taxi Driver with a bit of Pulp Fiction thrown in for good measure. Director Goran Paskaljevic paints the Yugoslav capital as a city seething with tension and violent tempers, waiting for the slightest provocation to erupt. A fender-bender becomes an obsessive manhunt. Lifelong friends bloody each other while each spews his own catalog of past grievances. A bus driver’s over-long coffee break leads to disaster. And on and on. While this may reflect life in one city since the Yugoslav breakup (can’t even begin to wonder what a sequel featuring NATO bombing would look like), it is clear that this black portrait is also clearly meant to represent the Balkan region in general. As the searing final scenes demonstrate in very literal fashion, the cliché about the Balkans being a tinderbox or a powder keg is all too true. This, plus a few passing references to refugee situations in Kosovo and Bosnia, helps explain why, despite the film’s popularity at home, the Milosevic government was not exactly thrilled about it. (Seen 29 May 1999)

Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell 2 out of 4 stars

If you sat through Mamma Mia! and found yourself thinking, hey, this would be so much better without all the ABBA songs, well, then I have the movie for you. Released nearly two years before the Swedish pop group’s first-ever live performance, this saucy comedy, directed by Melvin Frank, has many passing similarities with the recent movie hit. There’s a sunny Mediterranean location (in this case, Tuscany), a single woman with a blossoming daughter, and three men heading to her small town for an awkward reunion. In the Meryl Streep role is the exquisitely turned out and named Gina Lollobrigida who, in the best sitcom tradition, has concocted a fictitious dead American war hero father for her kid. And for a couple of decades she has been collecting support payments from no fewer than three former G.I.s. Adding to the chaos is the fact that each of the returning lovers has his wife (and in one case, kids) in tow. Much of the flick plays like a Feydeau farce, but the themes of soldier shenanigans and contemporary marriage add a bit of Preston Sturges-style social satire as well. Providing the Pierce Brosnan-like dapper-and-suave quotient is Peter Lawford. Telly Savalas is more quintessentially American—and in the end, the most likeable of the three. And Phil Silvers mugs shamelessly, as he negotiates with spouse Shelley Winters, who always excelled at being the wife and mother capable of making us squirm with discomfort in our seats. And special mention must be made of Philippe Leroy, who plays the most understanding boyfriend ever. (Seen 15 November 2008

Burke and Hare 3 out of 4 stars

And you thought the healthcare system in your country was screwed up! Among the many charms of this Grand Guignol comedy is that one can choose to see it as a parody of our modern medical system. But mainly it is a mélange of laughs and horror, something that the director, John Landis, would be well familiar with, since he is the auteur of such hits as Animal House, The Blues Brothers, An American Werewolf in London, Trading Places and Into the Night. In this case, Landis’s stated intention was to hark back to the classic Ealing comedies of the mid-20th century (in fact this is an Ealing co-production), and if this had been made in the 1950s it probably would have starred Alec Guinness and Dennis Price. (If it had been made in the 1980s, it probably would have been a HandMade Films production and starred Michael Palin.) The story is drawn from historical events. The crimes of the titular pair were essentially a by-product of the flourishing of medical sciences and the fact that Edinburgh was the center of it. The difficulty in acquiring enough cadavers for teaching and research led to B&H’s entrepreneurial killing spree. The title roles are filled by Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and, of course, Scotty in the new Star Trek movies) and Andy Serkis, the versatile character best known as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies. But the whimsical and witty screenplay surrounds them with cameos by historical figures who shouldn’t even be in the story and familiar faces we weren’t expecting. Particularly amusing are Tom Wilkinson and Tim Curry, as rival doctors in need of fresh stiffs, and Ronnie Corbett as the dogged police captain. (Seen 3 November 2010

Burn After Reading 2 out of 4 stars

For the second consecutive year, the Cork Film Festival has opened with an Irish premiere of a new Coen Brothers movie. But whereas last year’s film, No Country for Old Men, was a taut thriller and arguably their best work to date, Burn After Reading is a Coen Brothers comedy which, experience will have told us, is an acquired taste. The fact that No Country was based on a novel, which it followed pretty faithfully, had a lot to do with why the movie turned out so well. Here the Coens are writing their own material, as usual, pretty much to amuse themselves. And, if some people were confounded by No Country’s offbeat ending, it still made perfect sense in terms of the story. In Burn After Reading, after many complicated goings-on, things just simply stop. Make no mistake, the movie has many amusing moments, but unfortunately they mostly tend to come early on. And, being a comedy, the film suffers from the lack of any really likeable characters. Okay, there’s one the one played by Richard Jenkins—and he’s not treated very well. George Clooney and Frances McDormand acquit themselves okay, but the consistent scene-stealer is John Malkovich, looking errily like James Carville. Also on hand is Brad Pitt, looking strangely like Wally Cleaver. (Seen 12 October 2008)

A Business Affair 0 out of 4 stars

In a nutshell, A Business Affair is a comedy-drama about a talented woman who goes through two bad marriages before she realizes that it is okay to just be on her own. There’s not much fresh or new in this Anglo-French production, but a couple of fine performances are turned in by the actors who play the jerk husbands. Husband No. 1 is Jonathan Pryce (looking much tweedier than in his urbane Infiniti car commercials), an English intellectual novelist on the verge of breaking through to a mass market audience. Ironically, he is going through extended writer’s block, and it annoys him that his French wife Kate (Carole Bouquet) is gushing out words at a fantastic clip in her first writing effort. (Maybe it’s because she’s using an IBM ThinkPad and he’s writing in longhand?) He was happier before she quit her job as a department store fashion model. Husband No. 2 is Christopher Walken, an obnoxious New Yorker who is running a London publishing house. He is obsessed with Kate until they finally get married. Then he is threatened by her talent as well. I suppose there are worse ways to kill 101 minutes than with this film, but it’s definitely not something that’s going to stick in the memory for long. (Seen 25 May 1995)

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid 3 out of 4 stars

This movie defined the concept of bromance—if not the actual term—for generations. All of us guys wanted to have a friendship like Butch and Sundance’s. And we all wanted to be Etta Place’s boyfriend—or at least her boyfriend’s best friend. The movie promises that “most of what follows is true,” and that is correct to a surprising degree. But George Roy Hill’s wonderful film does take its liberties with the history. But he got the gist right. Butch and Sundance were the last of the outlaws of the Old West who could make a living of robbing banks and/or trains with a certain amount of support by locals and not too much interference from the law. But they stayed around too long and then ended up being hunted relentlessly and then heading to South America to a an unfortunate end. Playing Butch, Paul Newman is at his most charming. Pretty boy Robert Redford is charming as well in the way he plays the ostensibly taciturn Sundance. The cast is beautiful and the scenery is beautiful. And the gags are beautiful, like when Newman surprises Ted Cassidy with a kick to the crotch. Or our heroes make a desperate dive off a cliff after Sundance confesses he doesn’t know how to swim. This movie is a classic, which has since been quoted endlessly—and has even been referenced in male-bonding-themed novels like (to pick one at random) Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead. The whole thing plays mostly like a comedy—even when events suggest it should really be a tragedy. It even has a score by Burt Bacharach of all people. In the end, this is a love story, with Butch and Sundance bickering like an old married couple right up to the bitter end. And then they go out in a burst of glory that involves a massive cast of Bolivian soldiers. We don’t actually see their bloody death. We just see that famous freeze frame that keeps them immortal forever. (Seen 17 January 2015)

The Butcher Boy 3 out of 4 stars

Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins was an fine introduction to modern Irish history. His latest, The Butcher Boy, is an incisive but twisted tour of the Irish Catholic psyche. Indeed, this may be the quintessential Irish movie. We have a drunkard father (Stephen Rea), a sainted mother, a peculiar priest with bizarre predilections (the wonderful Milo O’Shea), and the Virgin Mary herself (Sinéad O’Connor!). This last bit of casting is especially amusing since O’Connor looks and sounds strangely like Roma Downey in that Touched by an Angel TV show. Ostensibly a look in the mind of a budding young psychopath, the film can be seen as an allegory of Catholic Ireland. Look no farther than the beatings rendered on our hero by the thug brothers of the anglified neighbor who consistently looks down her nose at our lad. Eventually and inevitably, he reacts with sickening violence. Jordan and Patrick McCabe, who adapted the screenplay from McCabe’s novel, have served up something to offend everyone—in a deliciously entertaining fashion. (Seen 12 May 1998)

Bye Bye Birdie 3 out of 4 stars

It’s official. The original 1963 big screen version is definitely much better than the 1995 made-for-TV remake. But that’s just my opinion. My 10-year-old co-reviewer prefers the more recent one. But she’s wrong. To my eye, George Sidney’s version benefits not only from its era’s proficiency with movie musicals but also its use of the main talent from the successful Broadway version. And it has Ann-Margret. She may not have been taken seriously because of her sex kitten (what is that anyway?) image but, as this movie shows, she really has talent. And it’s just not fair to compare Jason Alexander, who is a very funny man, with the great Dick Van Dyke in his prime. When it comes to physical clowning in his song-and-dance numbers, there is just no touching him. And the wonderfully woeful Paul Lynde is so much better than grumpy, bored-looking George Wendt as the father. I could go on and on. And I will. The great performance set pieces (“Put On a Happy Face,” “Kids”) are staged much better in this version. And I contend that the energetic singing and dancing of the young cast have much more in common with that of the contemporary crop of musical fare put out by Disney and others. And the ending is so much better in this one. Moreover, this movie is a veritable time capsule of the era, with cameos from John Daly and Ed Sullivan himself, a featured role for teen idol Bobby Rydell and a wry take on the whole Elvis phenomenon. It is a bittersweet snapshot of America, in that references to JFK remind us of the assassinations that were to follow, and the title character’s conscription augurs the country’s growing involvement in Vietnam. That foreknowledge makes this crazy bit of frivolous fun even more precious. (Seen 15 October 2010)

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