Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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Scott Larson





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C.R.A.Z.Y. 2 out of 4 stars

This film has the feel of “based actual events,” and maybe it is. Anyway, it’s certainly true to someone’s life, and probably more than a few someones. It takes us through the first 21 years of the life of its protagonist, Zac, beginning with his birth on Christmas Day in 1960. And you don’t have to be a French-speaking Canadian to get waves of nostalgia from the soundtrack or to have bittersweet memories evoked of growing up with parents and siblings. On the other hand, it probably does help to be Catholic to get the full resonance of the influence of religion on the family during those decades. With so much focus on Zac’s character (with a fair amount of Christ allegory going on, as he struggles with his sexual orientation), the other characters tend to fade a bit into the background. But there are some wonderful scenes in this movie (particularly a midnight mass accompanied by the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil”) and some emotionally powerful ones, like the one toward the end where four adult brothers come home and share a bedroom for the first time in ages. Perhaps a tad pretentious, Jean-Marc Vallée’s film is worthwhile and not without a fair amount of beauty. (Seen 11 July 2006)

C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America 2 out of 4 stars

I really don’t know what to think of this movie. And usually I know what to think about everything. It is another one of those mockumentaries, with a fair amount of humor in the vein of, say, This Is Spinal Tap and its imitators. Its subject is a “what if” scenario about what might have happened if the Confederacy had not only won the American Civil War but had annexed and dominated the rest of the U.S. So it is a bit like one of those Star Trek episodes where they go into a parallel universe or alternate timeline and the bad guys are in charge of everything. And, given the subject, a lot of offensive racial caricatures are trotted out to show how bad things would be (and were) in America. So it is like, well, those cartoons in that Danish newspaper. On one level, this is fascinating stuff, as an intellectual exercise to imagine what might have happened. But an opening quote by George Bernard Shaw alerts us that the filmmakers (University of Kansas film professor Kevin Willmott directed) have something very serious on their minds. By the film’s end, it is more or less suggested that it is only a fluke that kept this fantasy from becoming a reality. Indeed, there is a definite implication that racial subjugation is an integral part of America’s true nature. There’s no point in my getting into the whole thing of racism vs. reverse racism, but let’s just say that, compared to this flick, white southerners come off as paragons of culture and civilization in The Dukes of Hazzard. This movie was a major sell-out at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival and, given prevalent European attitudes toward the U.S., I’m not sure that the audience realized it wasn’t a real documentary. (Seen 20 February 2006)

Cabaret 4 out of 4 stars

Rarely has a movie been so exhilaratingly entertaining and so dark at the same time. By the end you find yourself compulsively humming or singing its many memorable songs, even though they have been punctuating decadence, fascism, abortion and the impending Holocaust. The story began as Christopher Isherwood’s own experiences in Weimar-era Berlin, which became the semi-autobiographical novel Goodbye to Berlin, which then became John Van Druten’s play I Am a Camera (later adapted as a film starring Laurence Harvey, Shelley Winters and Julie Harris), which then became the 1966 Broadway musical Cabaret by Joe Masteroff, John Kander and Fred Ebb. In the hands of director Bob Fosse and screenwriter Jay Presson Allen, the musical numbers at the Kit Kat Klub punctuate and comment on the action of the main characters. This movie made Liza Minnelli deservedly a star. Not only is Sally Bowles a rich character in her own right, but when we see Minnelli strutting and belting her heart out like the inveterate trooper she is, the desperate-to-be-loved ghost of Judy Garland is present as well. A literary cousin to Holly Golightly, Sally finds a pal (with a possibility of romance) in a writerly type who moves into her building. Unlike George Peppard’s character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, though, Michael York does not have to be completely heterosexualized for the sake of a happy Hollywood ending. York and Minnelli are perfect, as is Joel Grey as the devilish emcee who leads a sinister Greek chorus throughout the proceedings. In my youth, I related to Sally’s nihilistic philosophy, as enunciated in the title song (“Start by admitting from cradle to tomb isn’t that long a stay. Life is a cabaret, old chum, only a cabaret…”). Now I cannot help but see the movie as nothing but chilling, as the characters appear unable to do anything about (or are simply oblivious to) the direction in which history is headed. No musical number has ever been as disturbing as the fresh-faced Nazi youth—voiced by Mark Lambert for an uncredited Oliver Collignon onscreen—beautifully singing (and joined by an increasingly roused crowd) “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.” Though the film lost the Best Picture Oscar to The Godfather, Fosse, Minnelli and Grey all took home well earned statuettes. (Seen 21 June 2015)

The Cable Guy 2 out of 4 stars

The thought of spending two hours with Jim Carrey in a movie theater can be rather frightening. Just imagine if he were obsessed with the idea of becoming your best friend and he wanted to spend all his time with you! This is the nightmare scenario of The Cable Guy. But in addition to being a comedy about a stalker (huh?), this new movie by Ben Stiller (Reality Bites) is also yet another a satire about the media’s effect on our lives. You see, Carrey’s character was exposed to too much TV as a child. (A flashback revealingly shows him watching Play Misty for Me.) Consequently, his dialog is full of television (and other media) references—even more so than the other characters’. But make no mistake, however, this is still a Jim Carrey vehicle. The main emotional revelation comes when he performs an over-the-top karaoke version of Jefferson Airplane’s Somebody to Love. This is followed by a glimpse of a Ren and Stimpy cartoon that seems tame by comparison. (Seen 18 June 1996)

Café Society 2 out of 4 stars

So who did Woody Allen kill? Or have killed? I only ask because the idea of getting away with murder—and the resultant guilt or lack of guilt—is one of those themes (along with a few others) that keep recurring in his movies, e.g. Crimes and Misdemeanors, Match Point. It shows up here in a subplot that does not even really feel like it is part of the rest of the movie. Other well-established Allen themes are here as well, e.g. what it means to be Jewish in America, the New York/Los Angeles culture clash and the inevitable older man pursuing the younger woman. Having said all that, this flick certainly has its pleasures. The Woodman and crew have lovingly and nostalgically recreated the glamour and styishness of 1930s Hollywood and New York. In the California scenes the cinematography is downright lovely. The large cast is, as always, well chosen and feels like it stepped out of a vintage magazine spread. The only weak point is in the male lead. I don’t know if Jesse Eisenberg (certainly a viable Woody surrogate) is just too familiar by now or just miscast. There just isn’t enough change when he goes from naive nebbish to polished frontman for New York’s top nightclub. As for the story, it certainly holds our interest, but it doesn’t pay off as well as we would have hoped. And that would not even matter if we liked the characters better. At the beginning the film promises to be a journey back to an idealized era, not unlike Allen’s superior Midnight in Paris. In the end, though, the nice historical touches and wry humor give way to yet another story about a man hung up on a woman. (Seen 4 September 2016)

Calamity Jane 2 out of 4 stars

In 1950’s Annie Get Your Gun, Betty Hutton sang, “Anything you can do, I can do better.” In typical Hollywood fashion, Warner Bros. head Jack Warner was singing the same tune. After he failed to get the rights to the Irving Berlin musical as a vehicle for Doris Day, he had James O’Hanlon write this musical based (loosely) on another true-life American frontier woman and even hired Hutton’s co-star (Howard Keel) to play Wild Bill Hickok. The songs in this 1953 production are not as memorable as the great Berlin’s, but a viewing of Day’s performance reminds us that she had great energy and physicality (particularly in the opening stage coach number) when it came to performing. She is clearly having a great time with her larger-than-life character, and the screenplay amuses itself with a fair amount of gender and identity confusion, as Calamity keeps getting taken for a man—in addition to other mistaken identities. The one song that truly outlives the movie is Day’s climactic rendition of “My Secret Love.” Ironically, it may be the first and only time it was performed non-ironically and, in popular culture at least, used to celebrate a heterosexual relationship. (Seen 3 March 2012)

Calendar Girls 3 out of 4 stars

The first time I became acquainted with Helen Mirren, she took off her clothes. No, we weren’t on a date or anything. It was when she played the seductive Morgana in John Boorman’s Excalibur. And I am more than happy to report that, 22 years later, she still looks mighty fine in the nip. Calendar Girls is the best of all possible worlds for people on a date: a chick flick that is about chicks taking off their clothes. It is being marketed as a female Full Monty, and as far as the first half of the film goes, that’s more or less accurate. But instead of down-on-themselves out-of-work blue collar Yorkshire blokes taking off their clothes, we get somewhat bored, do-gooding, middle-aged, middle-class Yorkshire housewives taking off their clothes. Based on a true story about a group of Women’s Institute members who caused a sensation by posing nude for a charity calendar, this movie by Nigel Cole doesn’t merely confine its interest to how the gals get the courage to disrobe for the camera but also explores how the resulting fame and notoriety affect them. As with many English comedies, the pleasure isn’t so much with the plot as with the characters. Mirren is wonderful as the ringleader Chris, whose wisecracking rebelliousness belies an egotist-in-waiting, and Julie Walters is equally good in the less flashy role as the woman whose husband’s fatal illness sets things in motion. (Seen 27 September 2003)

The Callback Queen 2 out of 4 stars

I’m always a bit on edge when I’m about to see a movie by a young filmmaker that is about making movies. Sometimes they amount to a mere rant against the industry, and sometimes they are too in-jokey for us mere audience members to appreciate. Happily, Dublin-born Graham Cantwell—in his second feature, after the 2008 thriller Anton—manages to deliver a funny, feel-good romcom about the traumatic casting call process. Amy-Joyce Hastings is Kate, the titular Irish actor trying to make it in London but who is gaining the reputation of never getting past the first callback. Seán T. Ó‘Meallaigh is her film student friend who recruits her for his class project. And Mark Killeen is the big time director casting for a new fantasy film franchise. Kate is a bit too good to be true—resolutely sticking to her integrity while not giving up on her dreams. Will she stick with her self-involved jerk of a boyfriend? I did say this was a romcom, didn’t I? For me, the best bits were not actually the actor jokes (although there are some good ones), but rather the fun that is poked at the Irish living in England. Ger Ryan is even funnier than usual as an Irish mammy who refuses to stop living in Ireland even though she is living in London. And, I have to say, this is the first movie I have ever seen where sectarian role playing between Irish and English lovers is used for the purposes of hot foreplay. (Seen 10 July 2013)

Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff 3 out of 4 stars

Film buffs everywhere owe a debt of thanks to Scotsman Craig McCall. There was arguably no cinematographer more gifted than Jack Cardiff and surely none that was as charming, humble and fun to listen to. I feel privileged to have had the chance to see and hear the man in person some eight years ago, around six years before he passed on. For those who never had that opportunity (and even for those of us who did), McCall’s documentary simulates and amplifies the experience, as well as providing plenty of visual evidence of the man’s talent and testimonials from his most prominent fans and colleagues. The talking heads gathered here include some who have since passed on (actors Charlton Heston, Kim Hunter, John Mills, Moira Shearer and Kathleen Byron; director Richard Fleischer) as well as those who don’t give many interviews, like Kirk Douglas. While their reminiscences and tributes are fascinating, the best parts are the interviews with Cardiff himself, who is extremely good company. It comes as no surprise that Cardiff was an avid painter, and we see examples of his work, some in the style of or copies of masters of light, like Johannes Vermeer. Cardiff himself was a master of light, and we hear him explain how he went about lighting icons like Marilyn Monroe (in The Prince and the Showgirl) or how certain ones (Marlene Dietrich) exerted total control over their own lighting. Much of the commentary comes from Martin Scorsese who explains, among many other things, how he modeled the fight scenes in Raging Bull after the dance scenes in The Red Shoes. To see excerpts from his wide range of films together in one place is to see them all in a different way and even as if for the first time. And that even goes for Rambo: First Blood Part II. (Seen 19 February 2011)

Canone inverso – making love 2 out of 4 stars

We begin with a tony auction house beginning the bidding on a rare old violin. At least two people are very anxious to have the successful bid. This will lead to flashbacks covering epic, historical events. Did we wander into a screening of The Red Violin by mistake? Not exactly. But this is a similar kind of romantic costume drama, although it limits itself to one central story. The director is Ricky Tognazzi, whose father Ugo was one of the leads in the original French film version of La Cage aux Folles. He also takes one of the secondary acting roles as Baron Blau, who has a family secret. The best known face is that of Gabriel Byrne, who plays a mysterious violinist, who spins a complicated tale (as well as the titular melody) in a flashback-within-a-flashback. This is the kind of passionate, unadulterated romantic movie we don’t see much anymore. The kind where a young artist whips his tousled hair around like a tornado while giving all his heart to a musical performance. And where the same young man obsesses over a beautiful, young woman in a way that at one time was considered ardent but is now considered criminal in most states. But the movie is well done. We get caught up in it in a Dr. Zhivago sort of way, and one or two of its main plot twists are genuine surprises. (Seen 31 May 2001)

Capote 2 out of 4 stars

Allow me to tell you something you already knew a long time ago. Yes, Philip Seymour Hoffman definitely deserved his Oscar for this flick. His performance is uncanny, and we think we are seeing the real Truman Capote even if, at times, we are distracted by the camera tricks (not unlike the way Peter Jackson filmed Hobbits) used to make the non-diminutive Hoffman seem (most of the time) Capote-sized. But all the fuss over Hoffman’s performance overshadowed how effective Clifton Collins Jr. was as the convicted killer Perry Smith. In one brief jail scene moment (but only a moment), the sympathy-seeking murderer shows the malevolent viciousness underneath, and it is as chilling as anything Anthony Hopkins did as Hannibal Lecter. This is one of those wonderful movies that takes on hot-button themes (the death penalty, the culture clash between New York and rural fly-over country) but never condescends to anybody. A rarity in biopics about artists, we actually can see Capote’s talent as a writer and what drew people to him, as well as all his many and considerable warts. Although the film covers only four years of Capote’s life, it really tells us everything most of us need to know about his whole existence. If there is a “hero” in this story, it has to be Capote’s lifelong friend Harper Lee. If she was even half the self-effacing rock of support and loyalty as played by Catherine Keener, then she was a remarkable friend indeed, as well as a talent in her own right. (Seen 4 May 2006)

Captain America: Civil War 3 out of 4 stars

If your problem with superhero movies is that they never seem to have quite enough superheroes, here’s the good news. Problem sorted. We have no fewer than a dozen—even without the participation of a certain Norse god and the not-so-jolly green giant. Which raises the question: why is this a “Captain America” movie and not an “Avengers” movie? Because this is by the Russo brothers and they have a contract. Next question: can anyone seriously now argue that DC comics and movies are anywhere near as good as Marvel comics and movies? No, they can’t. End of discussion. Amazingly, this turns out to pretty much be the same exact story as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, but this is so much better. The characters here are so much more three-dimensional and the personal stakes seem so much more real. Moreover, there are way more superheroes, and that’s always better. Here’s the dirty little secret of superhero stories. Their job is supposed to be the superhero foiling crimes, but that gets very boring very fast. The next step is superheroes fighting supervillains, but even that can get a bit tedious. What we really want is superheroes fighting other superheroes, and that’s what Marvel always excelled in giving us. Who would win between Hulk and the Thing? Who would win between Spider-Man and the Human Torch? It’s Fantasy Football for nerds, and we’re all nerds now. It’s great to see Spidey finally merged with the real Marvel movie universe. Now maybe they can stop rebooting him. But, despite the Marvel movies’ impressive performance of sticking to the spirit (if not always the letter) of the original comic books, there is a serious breach of Marvel canon here. No one has ever referred to Aunt May as “aunt hottie.” Ever. But that’s what you get when you cast Marisa Tomei in the role. I can live with it. Is the premise for this flick every bit as arbitrary as it is for BvS:DoJ? Of course it is. No self-respecting superhero would ever submit to government—let alone international organization—control. By definition they are are vigilantes at heart. But the writers (Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, working from Mark Millar’s original comic book story) at least make a good stab at justifying it by playing the Tony Stark guilt card followed by the mindless loyalty card. Besides, we don’t care why the superheroes are fighting—just as long as they fight. If this movie has any problem at all, it is that there are too many great actors playing too many great characters. We barely even notice the marvelous Martin Freeman (deftly expanding his franchise cred) playing a character eerily resembling former Defense undersecretary Paul Wolfowitz. Chadwick Boseman as Prince T’Challa? Cool. Paul Rudd as (Gi)Ant-Man? Cool. Alfre Woodard as a character to inflict guilt on Tony Stark? Cool. Everyone else in this movie? Cool. This whole movie? Yeah, cool. Ten-year-old me is very happy. (Seen 25 May 2016)

Captain America: The First Avenger 2 out of 4 stars

The bonanza in big screen Marvel comic book adaptations continues with this fresh take on another popular superhero. Amid a stable of brand new superheroes created by Stan Lee and a number of collaborators, notably Jack Kirby, Captain America was the one hero that Marvel revived from the World War II era, establishing a continuity from the 1940s to the 1960s. (The character was originally created by Kirby and Joe Simon.) While some things have been altered (notably, Cap’s boy sidekick Bucky has become his contemporary and best friend), the story pretty much follows the storyline laid out during Cap’s revival in the 1960s. The tricky challenge for the filmmakers was how to handle the jingo-istic aspects the WWII era setting, in light of the current culture (let alone the lucrative overseas market for action movies), and they seem to have straddled it just about right by winking at the attitudes of the time without attempting to discredit them. It is no surprise that Hugo Weaving makes a dandy comic book villain, never mind that the Red Skull is the most one-dimensional character in any comic book. Fans of the Marvel movies get to have fun watching for crossover elements, like the inclusion of Tony Stark’s father and the inevitable appearance of Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury. Veteran Marvel comic fans are treated to an unexpected appearance of the Howling Commandos, although this does raise continuity questions, as we wonder how Nick Fury fits in with them now that the story is being told six decades after the war, instead of just a couple, as in the original comics. In the end, the movie is fine fun and well done. It might not be quite as good as Spider-Man and Iron Man, but it’s way, way better than Green Lantern. (Seen 29 July 2011)

Captain America: The Winter Soldier 3 out of 4 stars

This century’s parade of Marvel comic book movies just do not disappoint—especially the Avengers/SHIELD branch of the overall franchise. Somehow I actually managed to avoid all the spoilers that could have sucked a bit of the enjoyment and surprise out of this movie. How great that a big-budget franchise movie can manage to provide so many surprises. The inclusion of Robert Redford in particular is quite a coup. As has been mentioned endlessly elsewhere, his mere presence evokes the paranoid thrillers of the 1970s (All the President’s Men, Three Days of the Condor) that this movie harkens back to. Moreover, Redford would have been the first choice by far for many of us to have played Captain America if the character could have reached the big screen back in Marvel’s Silver Age. As it is, this movie is an exhilarating concoction that is part paranoid thriller, part James Bond flick (with Samuel L. Jackson as a really badass M) and—it doesn’t even need to be said—mostly action-packed Marvel comic book. The filmmakers (in this case, Anthony and Joe Russo) continue to translate the over-the-top, bigger-than-life action of the comic book page to the movie screen. But, in the time-honored Marvel tradition, they also give plenty of attention to the human stories, particularly Cap’s sometimes difficult adjustment to finding himself in the 21st century. This is the most SHIELD intensive flick we have gotten yet, and it certainly does shake things up. SHIELD was first dreamed up as a version of the CIA, but it has now become a civil libertarian’s worst nightmare about the NSA. We can’t help but wonder what it all portends for our SHIELD friends on the small screen. (Seen 6 April 2014)

Captain Conan 3 out of 4 stars

No, this isn’t a long-delayed Arnold Schwarzenegger sequel. It’s the latest film from veteran French film director Bertrand Tavernier. Captain Conan is a kinetic war movie that shows the influence of one of Tavernier’s idols, John Ford. Philippe Torreton (who played comedic roles on the French stage until Tavernier picked him to play a cop in L.627) is impressive in the title role as a born warrior more suited to killing the enemy than to coping with military procedures during an armistice. Based on actual events in the Balkans at the end of World War I, the film thrills with its battle scenes but makes a strong anti-war statement as it follows the war’s aftermath. The screening was part of a Seattle Film Festival tribute to Tavernier and was preceded by clips from Coup de Torchon, Round Midnight, Life and Nothing But, L.627, and Fresh Bait. A jovial Tavernier was alternately humble before the adulation and critical of the quality of the non-French releases of his films. Disavowing any desire to target his films for American audiences, he proclaimed adamantly, “I am not Luc Besson. I do not want to work with Bruce Willis. It is not a dream of mine.” (Seen 19 May 1997)

Captain Fantastic 3 out of 4 stars

To us Lord of the Rings fans, Viggo Mortensen will always be Aragorn. And, if he is trying to erase that memory, he is not helping things by playing a character so totally dominant in the forested wilds and accompanied by wee ones with names like Bodevan, Kielyr, Vespyr, Rellian, Zaja and Nai. Actually, he does get past his franchise past quite handily, even while slyly playing on it, in this moving and frequently amusing tale of a family trying to live off the grid. The film’s very title itself is a raspberry directed at superhero franchise movies, as explained by Mortensen and writer/director Matt Ross, best known for his acting roles in Big Love, American Horror Story and Silicon Valley. While there are many entertainingly comic touches to this story, it is essentially a family drama, and the family in this case might as well be America itself. Mortensen’s Ben is estranged from society and, when events conspire for him to bring his carefully cultivated brood back into that society, there is inevitably confusion, accommodation and conflict. Given the divisions in America these days, this is probably the perfect time for this flick. Ross wisely manages to make Ben at least partly sympathetic to just about everyone even though few will embrace his entire belief system. He is a Noam Chomsky-worshipping rebel who defies the corporate overlords but also kills and eats animals, uses firearms and is the ultimate home school parent. Our sympathies lie with him even while our brains tell us that his overbearing rich father-in-law (the always reliable Frank Langella) may not be entirely wrong in wanting to take his kids away from him. A fun way to pass two hours, Captain Fantastic is also a useful and thoughtful reminder that no one has a monopoly on the right things to believe, that America is a much more complex and less black-and-white place than journalists and pundits would lead us to believe, and that—no matter what—the basic unit, after the individual, is always the family. (Seen 28 January 2017)

Capturing the Friedmans 3 out of 4 stars

People who are addicted to Jerry Springer can get their year’s fix simply by watching this documentary by Andrew Jarecki. The title, we learn quickly, has at least two meanings. The Friedmans were a family in Great Neck, Long Island, who were seemingly remarkable only for their tendency to film and/or video themselves with great frequency. Their need to make a record of their lives extended to filming small and major family arguments as well as intimate periods of family crisis. On a few notable occasions, they were also filmed by the news media, when two members of the family were charged with horrific sex crimes against children. Jarecki has fashioned his documentary with a modern storytelling style that makes this as compelling as any movie fiction. Cannily (and manipulatively) he withholds certain pieces of information long enough to give them greater impact and forcing us to question our assumptions. By the end, we think we have a sense of what did and didn’t happen, but we can’t be sure of everything and probably never will be. Were one or more of the Friedmans monsters who did the unthinkable? Or were they victims of community hysteria and overzealous law enforcement? As with most such questions in life, the messy answer seems to lie somewhere in the middle. This film is disturbing on several levels, not the least of which is our own participation as voyeurs. (Seen 14 October 2003)

Career Girls 2 out of 4 stars

The Brit Chill? Mike Leigh’s Career Girls effectively evokes the emotions one experiences at around age 30 when looking back on one’s college years. And he manages to do this with a soundtrack that includes pop songs only by The Cure. Viewers who were unnerved by some of the neurotic personalities in Secrets & Lies may well be put off here as well. The two London college chums in this flick are, respectively, stridently hostile and twitchingly timid. And their friends aren’t much better. The numerous flashbacks to their college days can put one in mind of those old Monty Python sketches with the lads in drag. But caricature actually works here, as these exaggerations are a bit Dickensian. It’s worth hanging on for the end, which is both wistful and poignant. (Seen 19 September 1997)

Carne trémula (Live Flesh) 2 out of 4 stars

Pedro Almodóvar’s early films were wild and naughty—as if he was going crazy at no longer being under the strict censorship of Spain’s Franco regime. Once the novelty of the shock value wore off, he settled into making big-screen soap operas with strong female characters. The early scenes in Live Flesh give us hope that Almodóvar (who likes to be referred to just by his last name, sort like, uh, Hanson) might actually be entering a Hitchcockian phase. We feel as if we are being set up for an eventual, suspenseful grand finale involving a set of characters whose motives are never entirely clear. But it mostly turns out to be another soap opera. At least Liberto Rabal (Tramway to Malvarosa) and Francesca Neri manage to manage to evoke some real heat during a well-photographed love scene. One of the more (perhaps unintentionally) amusing elements is the inclusion of a prologue and an epilogue suggesting that Spain today is a less fearful place than it was in Franco’s time. This is ironic since, according to this movie, everyone in Spain now packs a pistol and is extremely quick to use it. (Seen 11 February 1998)

Carrington 2 out of 4 stars

Just as he did in Total Eclipse, Christopher Hampton has penned a script about two artists in an unusual and passionate relationship. (This time he gets to direct as well.) The protagonists here are more sympathetic than Verlaine and Rimbaud because they are, in their odd and highly unconventional way, truly devoted to each other. And neither shoots the other. (Also, Emma Thompson and Jonathan Pryce make stronger leads than David Thewlis and Leonardo DiCaprio.) Although the painter Carrington (she didn’t like to use her given name Dora) has the title to herself, the story is equally about the biographer Lytton Strachey. They were part of London’s Bloomsbury Group which also included Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, and John Maynard Keynes, but the movie has enough to do to keep track of this pair’s lovers, spouses, dalliances, etc. without dwelling on the rest of the circle. As in Eclipse, the art takes a back seat to the relationship, but Carrington’s paintings are used to good effect during the closing credits. (Seen 4 December 1995)

Cars 2 out of 4 stars

This movie has gotten an awfully chilly reception from critics in Europe and, for that matter, New York. Is this a case of them deciding that it is time to cut computer animation pioneer John Lasseter down to size? Or maybe they were just uncomfortable with the movie’s unabashed celebration of Kyoto-shunning America’s love affair with the internal combustion engine. With a Nascar ambience, idealization of small town life and a country twang on the soundtrack, maybe it was just a little too “red state” for them. They were not even won over by such nice touches as a prominent role for éminence grise actor/racer Paul Newman as an éminence grease race car or NPR’s Car Talk guys in a cameo. But, in fairness, this flick is a strange animated feature. The strength, if not the entire raison d’être of computer animation is the visuals. But this is a fairly densely plotted, multi-character romantic comedy that involves an awful lot of dialog. The cars do much more talking than racing. With minimum script changes, this could have been a good old-fashioned Preston Sturges or Frank Capra romcom with flesh-and-blood actors. Like the even-less-appreciated Elizabethtown, the movie is cockeyed celebration of the by-passed back roads of America’s golden age of driving. The Irish Times’s critic bemoaned “the audacity that allows a gang of Hollywood millionaires to make yet another film about the joys of small-town life,” but that’s not really the ultimate message here. The movie actually has a very Hollywood-relevant message: the world would be a better place if people (or here, cars) weren’t arrogant, over-confident jerks and would take others into account. Many of the best touches come during the closing credits, including a rather funny self-tribute by frequent Pixar voice actor John Ratzenberger, as well as a poignant memorial to co-director/co-writer/supporting voice actor Joe Ranft, who died last August, as it happens, in a car. (Seen 29 July 2006)

A Casa de Alice (Alice’s House) 2 out of 4 stars

My Portuguese is pretty pathetic, but I believe this film fits into a Brazilian film genre called a flick de chick. Okay, sorry, this film deserves to be taken more seriously than that. As an examination of Latin machismo, it isn’t as overbearing or lecturing as it might have been. And its soap opera aspects are kept on the right side of the line by the actor who plays the title role, Carla Ribas, who radiates like a South American Anne Bancroft. Alice’s mother does all the housework, while Alice is out working all day as a manicurist, so her three loutish sons can lounge around and act surly. And her busy life gives her taxi driver husband plenty of spare time for messing around with teenage girls. Things look like they might change, however, when an affluent old flame of Alice’s comes back into her life. Will she find happiness? Or are all men scum and the odds of happiness as slim as her mother’s chances of getting through to her favorite radio call-in program? This movie, written and directed by Chico Teixeira, is somewhat reminiscent of Pedro Almodóvar’s What Have I Done to Deserve This? but not quite so melodramatic. (Seen 13 July 2007)

Casablanca 4 out of 4 stars

When people press me to name my favorite movie (an impossible question to deal with fairly), this is the one I always fall back on. I fell in love with it as a university student and have watched it countless times since. No, it is not a blockbuster or a spectacle. It is not an epic. It is not anything like, say, The Lord of the Rings. All of which is to say that it has none of the trappings that might come to mind when we think of a Great Movie. In fact, it is little more than a sound-stage-confined melodrama with an unmistakable air of American jingoism about it. It was adapted from a play by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison called Everybody Comes to Rick’s, which is today largely forgotten other than being a trivia answer. The famous ending of the screenplay by Julius and Philip Epstein and Howard Koch was still being worked out after filming had begun. In other words, this masterpiece is less a work of art than a happy accident. And what a wonderful accident. Released a year after the U.S. entered World War II, it works as an allegory for America coming out of its isolationism in the face of the horrors in Europe. But it also works as a fairly simple adventure about a man who has lost his sense of idealism and then regains it. It is also one of the most romantic movies of all time. With time it becomes more difficult to appreciate how great the writing is. So many lines are so good that they have entered into cliché—the ultimate compliment for any writer. Would it have worked—or worked as well—if not for the perfect cast? Humphrey Bogart is never less than totally compelling. Ingrid Bergman is never less than alluring. Claude Rains arguably has the best lines and delivers them impeccably. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Each member of the large cast makes an impression and feels indispensable. Try to think of the movie being the same without any of them: Paul Henreid with his scar, Sydney Greenstreet with his flyswatter, Peter Lorre with his letters of transit, Dooley Wilson with his piano. Not to mention all the other actors whose names are less familiar. For me, the moment I inevitably choke up is when we get a close-up of Madeleine Lebeau, who has taken up with a German officer to spite the diffident Rick, with tears in her eyes as she joins everyone else in passionately singing La Marseillaise. (Seen 22 June 2013)

Casanova 2 out of 4 stars

I’m not sure, but I think this movie may have been filmed in Venice. If you have already seen this, then you probably laughed because there is no way that you can miss the fact that this movie was filmed in Venice. Every frame is like some renaissance painting, if not a tourist bureau photo, of the city. This seems to have divided European and American reaction to the movie. Yanks like me go, “Cool! It’s Venice!” Jaded Europeans go, “Oh, hell, it’s bloody Venice again.” The other dividing factor seems to be Sienna Miller. People like me go, “Mmmm, Sienna Miller.” Europeans go, “Sienna Miller as some sort of renaissance intellectual? Not bloody likely, mate!” This is an occasion when I like being a clueless American because I enjoyed this movie quite a bit. As a post-modern costume comedy, it falls somewhere between Shakespeare in Love and Blackadder. In the title role, the very attractive Heath Ledger demonstrates that he isn’t really gay by running around in flowing costumes. The actors all appear to be enjoying themselves immensely in this farce. Not the least of these is Jeremy Irons, as Casanova’s foil, who plays an Inquisitor who is more Col. Klink than Torquemada. The theme revisits that of director Lasse Hallström’s 2000 movie Chocolat, once again pitting those trying to enjoy themselves against those who go crazy trying to stop them. But how does a filmmaker provide the “happily ever after” ending required for a feel-good movie, when the story is about a serial seducer? Answer: rather inventively. (Seen 28 February 2006)

Casino Royale [1967] 1 out of 4 stars

Mostly what we learn from this movie is 1) what famous film directors come up with to amuse themselves (but few others) and 2) that you should be very careful before signing any contract. A cultural artifact of the 1960s, this movie exists more or less by accident. Casino Royale was Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel and, before the movie series began with Dr. No in 1962, it was adapted for U.S. television with Barry Nelson as 007. Its ownership remained out of the hands of the official movie franchise, a fact that was exploited by Columbia Pictures, which traded on the popularity of the Sean Connery movies with its own Bond movie. A complete spoof, this flick was basically made by committee. Scenes were directed by Val Guest (When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth), Ken Hughes (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), John Huston, Joseph McGrath (The Magic Christian), Robert Parish (A Town Called Bastard) and an un-credited Richard Talmadge (I Killed Wild Bill Hickok). Huston appears onscreen as M, but only for a few minutes until he is dispatched. Deborah Kerr plays his widow (and a double agent) with an exaggerated Scottish accent—apparently a nod to the fact that this actor best known for playing prim Englishwomen was Scottish born. David Niven is Bond, called from retirement to deal with Le Chiffre, played by Orson Welles. The real criminal mastermind turns out to be (spoiler alert!) Bond’s nephew Jimmy (Woody Allen!), who is really Dr. Noah (get it?). Ursula Andress (who actually was in Dr. No) has an extended sequence with Peter Sellers(!) that is just about watchable. Several other famous people (William Holden, Charles Boyer, George Raft, Jean-Paul Belmondo) are embarrassed in pointless cameos or walk-ons. This marks one of the very earliest screen appearances of Jacqueline Bisset (billed as Jacky) as a woman with the very Bond-ian name of Giovanna Goodthighs. It would be three decades before Eon Productions finally got the rights to Casino Royale and nearly another decade after that before things were completely put right with the Daniel Craig reboot. On the positive side, the movie featured a catchy theme tune by Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass and introduced us to Dusty Springfield’s rendition of “The Look of Love” (both melodies by Burt Bacharach). (Seen 2 February 2013)

Casino Royale [2006] 3 out of 4 stars

Okay, so I am like the last person on the planet to see this movie. But it’s a testament to its staying power that I was still able to find it in a reputable cinema all these months later, and it was still drawing a respectable crowd. (I still remember how, before I could get down to the cinema to see Miami Vice, it had already showed up in the DVD section of the local supermarket.) So, anyway, I cannot pretend that this reflection on the newest 007 outing has any has any topical relevance. But what it lacks in immediacy, hopefully it makes up with perspective. For ages before and after its release, I heard that Casino Royale was a departure from past Bond films because it was “gritty and realistic.” Now, if you are like me, when you think of “gritty” and “realistic,” you are more prone to think of, say, grainy documentaries about the Dust Bowl days and not about death-defying stunts and beautifully photographed, exotic locations. But what those commentators obviously meant by “gritty” and “realistic” was that this Bond flick has a darker tone and that the more over-the-top gags (no bald villains with pet cats) that have too frequently been a feature of 007 movies have been eschewed. Casino Royale is set in the present day and, yet, takes us back to the very beginning of the Bond story. So, is it a successful reboot à la Batman Begins or an unnecessary backstory in the vein of the most recent Star Wars trilogy? Obviously and clearly, the former. Unexpected for me was the sheer number of “in” jokes this movie has. Every fixture of the Bond legend (from the martinis to the propensity for porn star names for the women he meets) is alluded to—in addition to a bizarre, extended bout of instant, sarcastic cross-psychoanalyzing that goes on during the first meeting between our hero and his love interest, the exquisite Eva Green. In the end, James Bond is still the old, impossible male self-fantasy he always was, i.e. a guy who seems to get more competent no matter how much he drinks and who is actually right when, after losing all his money at poker, says that with a bit more money he can turn it all around. Most thankfully, however, this movie finally erases the memory of that old Tijuana Brass song that always popped into my head when I heard the words Casino Royale. [Related commentary] (Seen 9 February 2007)

The Castle 2 out of 4 stars

Think back to the last time you had to fly somewhere. Wouldn’t it have been a lot simpler if you could have just walked to the airport from your house? And you didn’t mind living in a house that is practically on the runway or having electrical towers overhead or lead in the adjacent landfill? That’s the premise of this oddball Australian family comedy. The Kerrigans would fit in just fine in much of Middle America. Dad is enthused with plastic add-ons to the house and yard, Mom whips up the most classic (and mundane) of dinners, and one of the sons is forever perusing the want ads for good buys on things they (or anyone else) could never possibly need. This is one of those families where, when Dad needs to take out the truck, several cars in the front yard have to be shuffled around like a game of Tetris. (I don’t want to say that these people are tacky, but in the closing credits the producers give a real big thank-you to K-Mart.) The story revolves around a David-vs.-Goliath struggle against the airport authority, which wants to condemn their beloved home for an expansion. By far the funniest bits in the film are provided by their incredibly inept lawyer, who can’t quite cope with constitutional law because he never managed to master roman numerals. This guy makes Dustin Hoffmann’s character in Sleepers look like Perry Mason. The Irish Times compared The Castle to You Can’t Take It With You, but it’s closer in spirit to Dumb and Dumber. Be warned: much of the humor derives from characters repeating verbatim what has just been stated in voice-over narration. (Seen 7 August 1998)

Catch Me If You Can 3 out of 4 stars

This is such a well-made movie that it just goes to show that Steven Spielberg (who was only supposed to produce this movie but took over as director after several other helmers couldn’t fit it into their schedule) is still the most underrated director who ever became fabulously rich and won a couple of Best Director Oscars. In summaries of his work, this film will inevitably be considered “minor” Spielberg, but it shows the same attention and thoughtfulness as his blockbusters. Like many of Spielberg’s films, this one is about relationships. Specifically, it’s about a young man trying to please his father—the same man who has taught him to confuse fantasy with reality—and how he finds an unlikely new father figure in the FBI agent who becomes obsessed with him and his amazing spree of frauds and impersonations. But the serious aspects of this true story go down very easily because of the sheer entertainment of watching the hero’s imaginative con games (totally audacious in an age before PCs, scanners and high-res personal printers), an inspired evocation of the 1960s, and the sheer male fantasy of beating the system and getting the girls. Even in his late 20s, Leonardo DiCaprio is still most successful at playing a teenager. He is much better here than in his supposedly more adult role in Gangs of New York, and Christopher Walken makes a much better father for him than Liam Neeson. And Tom Hanks subtly gives a human edge to a character that seems no more than a two-dimensional comic foil. Typical of the many nice touches in this film is a simple scene involving a single dollar bill floating past a befuddled Hanks—a nod to his role in Forrest Gump. (Seen 26 February 2003)

Cattle Queen of Montana 2 out of 4 stars

Sometimes the most interesting thing about watching really old “B” genre movies is trying to analyze how they reflect the era in which they were made. For example, this minor western was made in the mid-1950s, so it is tempting to imagine that the bad guy, a cattle baron played by Gene Evans, is a stand-in for Joseph McCarthy. But that gives this all-too-stock flick too much credit. None of the cast is very familiar to us today, except the two at the top of the billing. Barbara Stanwyck is her usual spunky, feisty self in the title role, a Texas woman with the memorable name of Sierra Nevada Jones. Harder to reckon is Ronald Reagan, who seems like he should be a good guy, but for some reason he is helping the bad guys. Figuring out his story is the most interesting thing about the movie, along with a plot thread that plays, but only plays, with the possibility of a romance between Stanwyck and a good-hearted Native American warrior. This standard issue flick was directed by Allan Dwan, who made literally hundreds of movies in his career, starting in 1911. Many of their titles will draw a blank in the minds of audiences today, although he did make Heidi and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm with Shirley Temple as well as Sands of Iwo Jima with John Wayne. A busy guy, Dwan made three other films the same year he made this one. The term “cookie cutter” comes to mind. (Seen 18 August 2004)

Calvary 2 out of 4 stars

Writer/director John Michael McDonagh and star Brendan Gleeson’s previous collaboration, The Guard, was a very funny comedy replete with all the flagrant political incorrectness in which many Irish filmmakers love to wallow. Moreover, it was a clever and knowing pastiche of spaghetti westerns set in the West of Ireland. Their new film is a different animal indeed. Whereas the earlier movie aimed its sights on Irish law enforcement, the second film ponders the contemporary state of religion in the republic. Is it a comedy? Well, let’s say a very dark tragicomedy. If you know anything about the flick, you know it begins with a parishioner in the local priest’s confession box promising to kill him for molestations committed years before by another priest who has since died. In other words, our priest will die for the sins of others. The movie then plays out, as telegraphed by the title, with Gleeson’s Father James figuratively walking the Stations of the Cross toward the time and place of his scheduled execution. This results in a series of vignettes that cast a jaundiced eye on modern Ireland (specifically, photogenic County Sligo) as represented by a colorful cast of characters played by such talents as the ubiquitous Chris O’Dowd and Aiden Gillan and such familiar faces as Killian Scott, Pat Short, David Wilmot and Gleeson’s own hardworking son Domhnall. Dylan Moran does a particularly nice job (as also do Kelly Reilly and Marie-Josée Croze) as a self-tormented latter-day aristocrat. And in a nice surprise M. Emmet Walsh shows up as a locally based American writer. It’s good to see all these talented people enjoying themselves, but is the film anywhere near as profound as the impression it strives to give? Or is it, like many of its characters, in the end just messing? (Seen 31 August 2014)

Celebrity 2 out of 4 stars

This movie may be Woody Allen’s literal cry for help. (The word appears in skywriting at the beginning and end of the film.) As the title suggests, it is ostensibly about celebrity, and it touches on numerous manifestations of fame, including actors, super-models, authors, journalists, talk show guests, religious figures, hostages, etc. But the movie is really about narcissism and (something Allen should know well) perpetual midlife crisis. Kenneth Branagh is Allen’s stand-in, and his uncanny mimicry of Allen’s speech inflections is at first amusing and ultimately annoying. At times Celebrity resembles nothing so much as one of those old Dean Martin comedies where the hero stares dumbly while seductive young women cavort around him. The flip side of Branagh’s character is provided by Judy Davis in what is essentially the Diane Keaton/Mia Farrow role. While Branagh is a serial woman dumper always seduced by the younger skirt, Davis has trouble coming to terms when she achieves a modest bit of fame and also finds true love. Allen gamely takes jabs at himself (including a reference to self-indulgent directors who make black-and-white films), but the humor is actually dulled a bit by the fact that they are so on-target. The best scene by far involves Davis, Bebe Neuwirth and a banana. (Seen 1 December 1998)

The Celluloid Closet 3 out of 4 stars

In an earlier incarnation The Celluloid Closet was a presentation, based on his book of the same name, that Vito Russo gave at the Seattle International Film Festival. Sadly, Mr. Russo didn’t live to see the wonderful documentary that was made from his research. Rich in clips that no movie buff could resist, the film covers gay themes in cinema from two men dancing in an experimental film by Thomas Edison to Philadelphia and The Wedding Banquet. Much time is devoted to homoerotic subtext in movies prior to the 1960s. Some of it was clearly intentional (as Gore Vidal testifies in the case of Ben Hur), and some of it, well, gay audiences were probably seeing what they wanted to see. Gay stereotypes are charted over the years, from the comic relief sissy to the tragic suicide to the pathological pervert, followed at last by the blossoming of queer cinema seen in the past several years. After seeing this, you definitely will look at some movie classics in a very different way. (Seen 9 May 1996)

Cemetery Junction 3 out of 4 stars

You can sympathize with Freddie, Bruce and Snork. They’re bored with the confines of their lives in their backwater English town in the 1950s. (That’s because everywhere else it’s the 1970s.) Maybe we wouldn’t have expected the first big screen collaboration from the creative team that gave us the original UK series The Office would be a sentimental, bittersweet coming-of-age tale. Jointly written and directed by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, they based it loosely on Gervais’s own youthful experiences in Reading. In recounting the misadventures of young men, coming to grips with the long years ahead of them and the fact that most of the fun ones are already behind them, this is a descendent of Fellini’s I Vitelloni and a Brit cousin to Barry Levinson’s Diner. It also has echoes of Mike Nichols’s The Graduate. But it’s not nearly as ambitious as any of those movies. Still, it’s a nicely done take on the old story of youth glimpsing a bigger universe beyond their provincial world. While not without its moments of drama, the flick mostly plays like a comedy—with Freddie’s home environment only a couple of steps removed from a Monty Python sketch. And the soundtrack puts us right in the place and time. (Cue Elton John’s “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting).”) What elevate the film are the performances. Tom Hughes is magnetic as the bad boy with mother abandonment issues. Steve Speirs contributes an especially nice turn as a kindly police sergeant. Ralph Fiennes and Matthew Goode demonstrate that they have completely mastered the knack of exuding soulless ambition. And feministic tracts will doubtless be written about Emily Watson’s quiet personification of subjugated womanhood. (Seen 28 April 2010)

Central do Brasil (Central Station) 3 out of 4 stars

Director Walter Salles explained that in Portuguese the title of this Brazilian road movie refers to the main train station in Rio de Janeiro, but it can also be interpreted as “the heart of Brazil.” That is perfectly right, as the journey in this film takes us deep into the country’s heart, both geographically and emotionally. It is frightening to contemplate a Hollywood remake of this gem, say by John Hughes, because it does involve a cantankerous older person saddled on a trip with a (really too) cute young kid. But the wonderfully world-weary face of Fernanda Montenegro, as the bitter spinster who ekes out a living writing letters for strangers, guarantees that no matter how sentimental things get, the lumps in the throat will be well earned. Her quest is for a man who, of course, would have to be named Jesus, so the allegories are not by any means subtle. But by the time you have spent two hours with this pair, you will indeed feel as though you have been to the heart of Brazil. (Seen 9 July 1998)

Chacun Sa Nuit (One Two Another) 2 out of 4 stars

This gives every indication of being a no-holds-barred exploration of what those free-thinking, uninhibited, comfortable-with-themselves teenagers/young adults are getting up to these days. Sort of like something from Gus Van Sant or Larry Clark or Harmony Korine. Except that this movie is French, so the shenanigans and couplings will be particularly guilt-free and the participants will be unusually attractive. The co-directors are Pascal Arnold and Jean-Marc Barr, whose previous flicks have had titles like Too Much Flesh and Sexual Chronicles of a French Family. The story concerns young Lucie (Lizzie Brocheré), who appears to be in a vaguely undefined ménage-à-cinq with her brother Pierre and the other members of his band. To say the least, all tend to be extremely fluid with their relationships and their sexuality. This would be little more than a leering exercise in voyeurism except for the fact that we learn (the narrative jumps around in time, to confusing effect) that the much-desired Pierre has been killed under mysterious circumstances and Lucie is obsessed with finding out why. This leads us into territory reminiscent of Tim Hunter’s unsettling 1986 flick River’s Edge which, like this film, was based on actual notorious events. Like its characters, this movie does not judge. Still, it is hard to escape the conclusion that a complete lack of inhibition and commitment must inevitably have its dark side. (Seen 29 June 2013)

Chain Reaction 2 out of 4 stars

In the old days a suspense thriller might start out with one of the minor characters being rubbed out just as he was going to meet a reporter from The Herald in a dark alley. These days, however, he gets his coup de grâce just as he is about to upload something really cool to the Internet. Chain Reaction is a middling paranoid thriller that might have come from the pen of Alfred Hitchcock but then went through a rewrite by Oliver Stone. It is reasonably diverting, although the plot twists become increasingly silly, as too often happens with these sorts of movies. Morgan Freeman, as he usually does, brings the flick a helpful dose of class and integrity. Keanu Reeves, as he sometimes does, brings long hair. (Seen 25 October 1996)

Changeling 3 out of 4 stars

This is quite a difficult movie to watch. It uncomfortably explores not one but two deep-rooted fears that most people have: the fear of losing a child and the fear of being locked away for being sane. While in recent times the word changeling has been co-opted by sci-fi scribes as a synonym for shape shifter, the title here invokes metaphorically an old legend of children who were replaced in their cribs by doppelgangers. Genre-wise, the movie runs the gambit from mystery to thriller to political drama and even takes a few steps into outright shocker territory. What makes the experience of seeing the movie all the more harrowing is the knowledge that it is based on actual events. We would like to think that today a woman in Christine Collins’s position would not be treated like a Kafka protagonist, but the lesson of not letting police power go unchecked still stands. The emotional wringing of the main character guaranteed this would be an actor’s field day for star Angelina Jolie, and it did result in a string of award nominations for her, including the Oscar and the BAFTA. The film, directed in his usual no-nonsense manner by Clint Eastwood, was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes three years ago. But it is the supporting roles surrounding Jolie (Jason Butler Harner as a sick criminal, Eddie Alderson as his victimized cousin, Michael Kelly as a responsible detective) which make the story work. The writer is J. Michael Straczynski, who subsequently contributed to the story for the new Thor movie but who, of course, is best known for creating, show-running and doing most of the writing for the superb TV sci-fi series Babylon 5. (Seen 28 April 2011)

Chansons d’amour (Love Songs) 2 out of 4 stars

As we watch attractive young people wandering the streets of Paris, singing their hearts out, we cannot help but think that we have met the French answer to Once. But there is way more story here, as well as plenty of consummation. The movie, by Christophe Honoré, is probably closer in style to Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You, although its authentic lineage goes straight back to the musicals of Jacques Demy (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg). But the themes are strictly 21st-century France. The central character of this near-opera in three parts is Ismaël, played by Louis Gamel. His life seems to be charmed, but then he suffers a tragic loss. Everyone deals with their grief in their own way, his girlfriend’s sister tells him at one point, but what she really means is that she doesn’t have a clue what he is at. Being a 21st-century Frenchman, Ismaël is nothing if not sexually flexible, so there are all kinds of possibilities for finding consolation. In fact, enough possibilities are explored to darn near make this a musical remake of La Ronde (already remade, at least once, as Chain of Desire). As already mentioned, the cast is young and attractive, and the songs are quite listenable—making this movie a fairly enjoyable guilty pleasure. (Seen 20 October 2007)

Chaos 1 out of 4 stars

The people who are plastering Ireland these days with posters urging voters to reject the Nice Treaty (again) will only be further galvanized if they see this flick by Gerladine Creed. In a few short years, we find, Europe will be run by a totalitarian government that plants identity chips in people’s fingers at birth, at which time their entire future education and career will be determined. (The worst gig seems to be the waste treatment plant on the Aran Islands.) No one speaks of “countries” anymore but of “sectors.” The film’s hero, a Dublin lad called Killer, escapes the system by joining a “metal circus” called Chaos. It seems to be some sort of traveling freak/stunt show with elements of Big Time Wrestling with chainsaws, run by a control freak of a boss whose face was severely scarred in a tragic accident in the makeup room. But mostly, Chaos seems to be the set for a Prodigy video. Sadly, the movie suffers the fate of more than a few promising midnight flicks. Its situations are too artificial to take it at face value, it is too slow and gloomy to be a successful escapist adventure flick, and it takes itself way too seriously to be campy fun. (Seen 7 October 2002)

Charade 3 out of 4 stars

I was a mere youngster when I saw this film the first time, and my main recollection was always of a sense of suspense and danger. At the time, I actually thought that Alfred Hitchcock had directed it. Now, when I see it, I realize that it is a comedy, and I wonder if Blake Edwards might have directed it. Its Paris setting, full of elegant Europeans, and its whodunit plot, punctuated with the odd painless murder (not to mention its Henry Mancini score), make this like a Pink Panther movie but without the Inspector Clouseau character. The actual director was Stanley Donen, who is best known for making musicals, some featuring stars like Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. The movie’s secondary cast (Walter Matthau, James Coburn, George Kennedy) is so familiar, that the plot’s mystery has all the urgency of an episode of Columbo or Murder She Wrote. But what makes the film shine is its unabashedness about being a star vehicle for two actors who really merit the term “star.” As the impeccably coifed and coutured damsel in distress, Audrey Hepburn was at her peak, poised between her triumph in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and her upcoming role in My Fair Lady (slyly referenced in the script). Meanwhile, Cary Grant was pushing 60 and would make only two more films after this one. But despite the fact that he was a quarter-century older than Hepburn, it wasn’t that implausible (as has been argued by some) that she should fall for him. Besides, this movie was not meant to be taken seriously anyway. It is full of “in” jokes and references to other movies and is clearly meant as nothing more than good escapist entertainment. At that, it succeeds brilliantly. (Seen 12 July 2004)

Chariots of Fire 3 out of 4 stars

So, whatever happened to Hugh Hudson? After making a big-screen splash with this multiple Oscar winner (best picture, screenplay, costume design, music) in 1981, he didn’t do much afterwards, unless you count the Christopher Lambert/Tarzan movie. Seen today, Chariots of Fire hasn’t aged much, except for the fact that 1924 seems even longer ago. (Probably because it is.) The famous opening and closing scene of the runners on the beach (to Vangelis’s emotive score) seems even more poignant now, when we consider not only Hudson’s career but also the untimely death in 1990 of Ian Charleson, strangely echoing the fate of his character, the religiously devout Scottish runner Eric Liddle. (Brad Davis, who played Jackson Scholz, died in 1991.) Or the fact that Ben Cross, who showed great talent as the driven Jewish runner Harold Abrahams, has never quite achieved the acting heights he seemed destined for. (His career low point may have been taking on the role of the vampire Barnabas Collins in the ill-fated 1991 TV remake of Dark Shadows.) Or that the captivating Alice Krige would wind up being best known as the Borg queen in Star Trek. And, of course, the movie now serves to remind us of older British acting and film masters, who have since passed on, like John Gielgud and Lindsay Anderson. In the end, Chariots of Fire is, and was, an exercise in nostalgia for a Britain that has long since faded with time. Even when the film is critical of its class structure and exclusion of minorities, there is something misty-eyed about it all. It all comes down to the famous running-on-the-beach scene. Like the very phrase “chariots of fire,” that scene is an idealized memory frozen in time forever. The whole movie is. (Seen 16 November 2002)

Charleen 2 out of 4 stars

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

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory 2 out of 4 stars

Silly me. When I saw that Tim Burton had gone back to Roald Dahl’s original title for this second adaptation of his classic book, I just assumed that it meant that there would be more emphasis on Charlie than in the 1971 version. But the opposite is true. Instead, we get a fairly detailed psychoanalysis and redemption of the Willy Wonka character. After Big Fish, problematic son-father relationships now seem to be Burton’s thing, as he manages to add not one but two fathers that didn’t figure at all in the Gene Wilder version. Anyway, the mere idea of Tim Burton adapting this story is so great that the movie itself is kind of an afterthought anyway. We get cynical theme park jibes (somewhat reminiscent of Shrek) as well as some great musical numbers thanks to Burton and perpetual music collaborator Danny Elfman. Although this and Burton’s visuals are clearly superior to the old movie, the characterizations were much better the first time around. Freddie Highmore is a superior actor to Peter Ostrum (who never appeared in any movie other than Willy Wonka), but Burton’s Charlie is just a bit too perfect and saintly. And Julie Dawn Cole’s Veruca Salt is not at all eclipsed by Julia Winter, who doesn’t seem all that unreasonable a child by comparison. Most critically, Gene Wilder’s deadpan turn as Willy really worked better than Depp’s over-the-top version. The natural comparison for his Wonka is to Michael Jackson but, as Depp himself pointed out, Jackson loves children and Wonka doesn’t. No, Depp, in terms of appearance and mannerisms anyway, is like Teri Hatcher in yet another remake of The Stepford Wives. Still, his portrayal is not nearly as alarming as the way that James Fox seems to have morphed into John Larroquette. (Seen 13 August 2005)

Charlie Wilson’s War 3 out of 4 stars

Few movies lay out their high concept so plainly and so early for the audience. “It’s like Dallas—but in Washington!” say various characters, all repeating a pitch for a possible primetime TV show. But they are, of course, really talking about this movie itself. Fortunately, this very enjoyable new offering by veteran director Mike Nichols, has more to offer than a good wallow in eightes-style soap trash. It should also appeal to those who enjoy a good political-name-dropping Uncle Duke story arc in the Doonesbury comic strip. Or to those who really liked the hugely entertaining 1993 TV movie Barbarians at the Gates. For a good night out at the movies, you couldn’t ask for better stars than Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts (clearly enjoying themselves and supported by a hilarious Philip Seymour Hoffman), but the real star turns out to be Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay (drawn from George Crile’s book). The maven of topical TV drama/comedy (as well as the films A Few Good Men, Malice and The American President) turns out to have a gift for fast movie banter, the like of which we haven’t really seen out of Hollywood for decades. There are so many good quotable lines, I don’t even know where to begin. (My favorite, as best as I can recall it: I’ve just been told I’m morally flawed by a man who had his predecessor executed!) The movie plays wonderfully with the fact that names of people and places, that were obscure at the beginning of the Reagan administration, are now quite familiar to us. Reviewers on my side of the pond have seemed totally put off by the fact that the movie doesn’t drive home more forcefully that the U.S. made a complete bollocks of Afghanistan. But it is to the movie’s credit that it shows a wider picture and thereby more accurately reflects the reality. The United States is portrayed as a great power that often does the right thing abroad—sometimes with amazing results, although often for the wrong reasons and with naive hubris and a complete lack of follow-through—sometimes with disastrous and unforeseen results. (Seen 20 January 2008)

Chasing Amy 3 out of 4 stars

Three’s the charm for Kevin Smith, as his third directing effort turns out to be his best to date. His first, Clerks, was quite entertaining and had the sort of charm that comes from a first-time movie with no budget—but a director only gets to play that card once. His second, Mallrats, had its moments but felt commercial in all the wrong ways. Chasing Amy, on the other hand, actually has a real story and characters you can care about. It’s at turns hugely amusing and strangely thoughtful. Smith steers a fine line between and around people and situations that are never quite stereotypes and never quite politically correct. The penultimate scene in particular will make a lot of guys examine male bonding somewhat differently. The leads (Ben Affleck, Joey Lauren Adams, and Jason Lee) were all in Mallrats playing different characters. But Jason Mewes and director Smith are back playing the cosmic duo of Jay and Silent Bob, just as they did in the previous two films and will in the fourth, Dogma. (Seen 1 August 1997)

Cherrybomb 2 out of 4 stars

Two best friends find their relationship complicated when an attractive but troubled young woman arrives on the scene. Now the only question is, will this turn out to be Rebel Without a Cause or Jules and Jim? Or maybe, just maybe, Y tu mamá también? Lisa Barros D’Sa, who co-directed with Glenn Leyburn, told us that they wanted to make a movie about Belfast that wasn’t the same one we have always seen. In this Belfast, the Troubles have been succeeded by pervasive materialism and fracturing families. Malachy is the basically serious, responsible lad, and he is played by none other than Rupert Grint, with nary a hint of his trademarked Ron Weasley panic look (although it wouldn’t have been entirely out of place). His best mate and worst influence is Luke, whose own family does not even rise to single-parent status. As played by Robert Sheehan (previously seen as a County Mayo lad in Summer of the Flying Saucer), he is the charming and charismatic one, although he is an emotional mess underneath it all. He is like James Dean and Sal Mineo rolled into one. As Michelle, the girl who upsets the boys’ equilibrium, Kimberley Nixon does not seem to be as much trouble as she is meant to be. But then maybe that’s what makes her trouble. That things will get out of hand and go badly is a given. A nice touch is the way that text messages, the mode of choice for communication among Irish youth these days, are incorporated visually into the frame. This won’t replace earlier, classic teen dramas, but it’s not the worst evening’s entertainment either. (Seen 10 July 2009)

Chicago 3 out of 4 stars

Back before there was Playboy magazine, 15-minute celebrities of the female persuasion had to cash in on their momentary fame by going on the vaudeville stage. At least in Chicago’s jazz era, that’s how it was, according to this extremely entertaining movie musical. In its heart and soul, this is a Bob Fosse film, even though it arrives 15 years after the master director/choreographer’s death. (The film is actually the work of veteran Broadway director Rob Marshall.) It has the same essential structure as Fosse’s Cabaret and Lenny, in which staged performances punctuate, amplify and comment on the action of the movie itself. It should be no wonder that Hollywood loves this movie (showering it with 13 Oscar nominations), since it is all about performing, fame, the love of both of these and, yes, trial lawyers. This trumps the fact that it makes light of such serious social issues as capital punishment and women-on-men violence. But while the film is a lark and a delight, it feels a bit lightweight when compared to Fosse’s Cabaret, which used the same technique to tackle a more momentous topic, the rise of Nazism in Germany. The casting of actors who are not known for their singing and dancing skills (the filmmakers even felt compelled to note in the end credits that they really did do their own singing) really pays off. Catherine Zeta-Jones is a revelation as the vampish Velma. Richard Gere just holds his own with the singing but definitely has the sleazy lawyer thing down. And Renée Zellweger, in losing her Bridget Jones weight, has prepared for her role so successfully that it puts Robert De Niro to shame. (Seen 12 February 2003)

Chicken Little 2 out of 4 stars

This is what is called a “re-working” of a familiar story. Not unlike the way the WB TV series Smallville has “reworked” the story of Superman, this Disney animation updates the old fable of Chicken Little (a.k.a. Chicken Licken), which used to teach children that losing your head and flying into an irrational panic could lead you and those dumb enough to follow you to be eaten by a fox. The new message seems to be: if parents will only believe (and believe in) their kids, thing will work out fine. That may sound heavy, but the film (directed by Mark Dindal, who previously helmed Disney’s The Emperor’s New Groove) doesn’t take itself or its putative message very seriously. As is often the case with these elaborate CGI cartoons, the main entertainment for those accompanying the kids is keeping a mental count of the readily identifiable film references. Here many are from various scifi/flying saucer movies, but what is most impressive is the decidedly Hitchcockian take on the titular hero. If this was live action, he would have to be played by Jimmy Stewart. His neuroses center around a bell tower that is a clear reference to Vertigo. Many recognizable voices are employed, although the filmmakers eschewed Ewan McGregor for this one in favor of Zach Braff. Best cameo is Patrick Stewart as a rather woolly school teacher. (Seen 5 February 2006)

Chicken Run 3 out of 4 stars

If you’ve ever watched British TV’s poison pen letter to the terminally trendy, Absolutely Fabulous, and you’ve thought that Edina’s long-suffering practical daughter Saffron would make a good love interest for Scotland’s national hero William Wallace of Braveheart, well, as improbable as it may seem, your fantasy has come true. Julia Sawalha provides the sensible voice for (excuse the expression) plucky heroine hen Ginger, while Mel Gibson lends his Americanized accent to the cocky yank cock Rocky. If you have seen Nick Park’s and Peter Lord’s other animated work (the Wallace and Gromit adventures, Creature Comforts, or even those U.S. Chevron petrol TV ads), you already know that you’re in for an amusing time. But their work is so darn good because their clay figures are just such good actors. I don’t mean the voice characterizations, although those are top-notch as well. I mean the clay figures’ soulful eyes, their expressions, their body language. And, in the best tradition of British comedy, these oddball characters are endearing because they take themselves so seriously. They are so three-dimensional, both literally and figuratively, that you can’t help but root for them. The writing is great as well. This take-off on prison escape movies (the escape plotting is pointedly carried out in coop No. 17) is true to the genre as well as the old spaghetti western convention of the resolute loner who wanders through town and becomes a hero in spite of himself—not unlike Gibson’s own Road Warrior. And then there are the puns. Some are so-so, like the Rocky Rhode(s) Island thing. And some are wonderfully understated like the simply scrawled (chicken scratching?) sign on the flying contraption’s pilot compartment denoting “cock pit.” This is definitely the perfect family entertainment before you drive the kids down for a bucket at KFC. (Seen 13 July 2000)

Childhood’s End 1 out of 4 stars

Note: When a first-time film director introduces his movie by mentioning that he is a longtime personal friend of the head of the film festival, this is not a good sign. Childhood’s End is an extremely talky movie about high school students (once again played by actors older than their roles) preparing to go out into the world. It aspires to be a suburban version of Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan, but Jeff Lipsky only wishes he could write or direct as well as Stillman. This is one of those scripts that probably read much better on the page than it sounds spoken aloud. You are constantly aware of the writing and rarely feel you are watching real people. The story starts out as some sort of update to The Graduate but, as if losing interest in the original main characters, switches to two other characters who are discovering their sexual orientation. For what it’s worth, the film has more full frontal nudity than most. (Seen 24 May 1997)

Children of the Revolution [1996] 2 out of 4 stars

Some people might think a comedy that plays for laughs a recent historical figure responsible for millions of deaths could be in, uh, bad taste. But the Australians have shown a definite knack for successfully mining dark humor from unlikely subjects, and that’s what happens here. And from what we learned about Joseph Stalin in East Side Story, this portrayal may not even be that far off! Presented in flashbacks in a pseudo-documentary style, this film written and directed by Peter Duncan gives us an ironic review of the history of radical socialism over the past half-century. It also manages to have fun with genetic determinism and the idea that all of our personal problems can be laid at the feet of our parents. What keeps the film from descending into complete farce is yet another masterful performance by Judy Davis, who creates a sympathetic portrait of a woman sincerely and completely devoted to social revolution. Richard Roxburgh also does a nice job as her adult son, making a convincing transition from unambitious youth to ruthless leader. Also in the cast are Geoffrey Rush (Shine), Sam Neill (who seems to be turning into James Mason), and F. Murray Abraham as a vain and libidinous Stalin. (Seen 9 June 1997)

Children of the Revolution [2010] 2 out of 4 stars

Definitely not to be confused with the humorous and imaginative 1996 Australian feature film (with Judy Davis and Sam Neill) of the same title, this is a documentary by Irishman Shane O’Sullivan. It treads familiar territory, as it looks back at two women who were at the center of violent revolutionary movements in the developed world during the 1960s and 1970s. One of them, Ulrike Meinhof of the German Red Army Faction, has been well covered in other films; less so Fusako Shigenobu of the Japanese Red Army. What sets O’Sullivan’s approach apart is looking at the women through the perspective of their daughters. Bettina Rohl approaches her mother with a fair amount of objectivity and has in fact written a book about her. She has no romantic notions about her mother’s activities and suggests there may be a physiological cause (a brain condition) that caused her to go too far in her cause. (Her twin sister declined to participate in the film.) Shigenobu’s daughter Mei, on the other hand is a staunch defender of her mother and visits her regularly in prison to this day. Her father was a Palestinian whose identity was always kept secret for her safety. What is most fascinating about getting to know these two women is how ordinary their extraordinary childhoods seem to them. Rohl mentions casually how she was almost shipped off to a camp in Palestine in which everyone later died. In a way, the filmmaker himself seems to be a child of the revolution. Speaking after the screening, he seemed wistful for the passion of that era if not ready to justify the revolutionaries’ violent means. (Seen 19 February 2011)

Chile, la memoria obstinada (Chile, Obstinate Memory) 3 out of 4 stars

Two decades after he documented the overthrow of Chile’s Popular Unity government in The Battle of Chile, Patricio Guzmán returned to his homeland to show his film there for the first time. The result is a poignant and touching experience that, surprisingly, also evokes a few smiles in addition to tears. As survivors of the events of the earlier film look back on footage and photographs, there is good-natured ribbing as if this were merely a twenty-year high school reunion. But the constant reminders of people who died or disappeared inevitably puncture the joviality. Guzmán’s own political agenda hasn’t wavered in the slightest, but still his sequel cannot help but show Chile to be a very different country today—one that is modern, stable, prosperous and, yes, democratic. One telling sequence shows a group of teenage schoolgirls vacantly criticizing the entire Popular Unity experiment, which to them is, like, so ancient history. But the images that stick with you are the ones of people mourning friends and comrades and, finally, a dream. (Seen 1 April 1999)

Chinatown 4 out of 4 stars

“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” A classic movie line, it may not have permeated the popular culture as relentlessly as, say, “Mine goes to eleven,” but it still has become generally understood movie-quote shorthand for those situations where we are in over our head or where bad things happen and there’s nothing we can do about it. Robert Towne deservedly got an Oscar for writing this screenplay. Introducing the movie at the Galway Film Fleadh, he said that he was inspired to write it during a walk by the sea where, a rare enough occurrence, he could actually smell the eucalyptus trees. It made him want to write something to bring back old Los Angeles, before all the sprawl and smog. What seemed to be a mere homage to the films noirs of old, however, fit in perfectly with the sensibility of the time. Weaving a tale of governmental corruption and the seamy underside of the powers that be, it came out in the same year that Richard Nixon resigned. Nor was it likely lost on audiences that the tale of violence and weirdness in L.A. resonated with the personal life of its director, Roman Polanski. (Famously, it was Polanski himself who cut Jack Nicholson’s nose in what is perhaps the most memorable scene.) But mostly, Towne succeeded (and is one of the few to have done so) of truly evoking Los Angeles, no matter the era. It’s all there. Everything from the tensions and fights over land and water and migrants to the look and the feel of the city. The performances are great, from top to bottom. The best bit of casting, however, has to be John Huston as the puppet master with the sickening secrets. (Seen 13 July 2006)

Chocolat 2 out of 4 stars

In this film, Juliette Binoche plays a woman who is blown into town by the north wind and then sets about meddling in everyone’s affairs, all to their benefit. That’s right, she’s a French, non-singing Mary Poppins. But she’s a fairly politically correct one. Still, this fable has morals that are hard to argue with: intolerance is bad, wife-beaters are bad, arson is bad, etc. If you find yourself put off by the fact that she encourages Catholics not to observe Lent or you feel that she is undermining traditional family values in general, well, then you are probably a dyed-in-the-wool conservative and haven’t enjoyed many recent movies anyway. Chocolat falls into the category of films, like Babette’s Feast and Big Night, in which a lot of the attraction is in watching the preparation, display and consumption of gorgeous delectables. (The title of the film is French for “chocolate.”) But even more appealing are some of the faces we see in this post-war Never-Never Land of a French village. Alfred Molina is suitably bug-eyed as the town’s mayor and self-appointed moral conscience. Lena Olin, as time goes by, seems to be turning into Faye Dunaway. Judi Dench is strangely reminiscent of the latter-day Simone Signoret. Hugh O’Conor has the best boyish scared-rabbit face of any priest we’ve seen on film before. And it’s good to see Leslie Caron. Period. [Related commentary] (Seen 3 April 2001)

Choke 2 out of 4 stars

One promise I can make is that you will not likely walk out of the cinema thinking you have seen this movie a hundred times before. Adapted from a novel by Chuck Palahniuk, it seems concocted expressly to confound a usesful plot synopsis, but here’s a go. Our hero Victor is meant to be in a support group for sex addicts (led by Joel Grey!) but can never get past a fellow addict, the comely Nico, to make it into the room. (Did I mention that this is not a family film?) His mother (Anjelica Huston) is in a mental hospital and, as we gleen from flashbacks, she was probably never right in the first place. Okay, I think that covers the first five minutes. The chief pleasure of the movie is having absolutely no idea where this flick is heading from one minute to the next and wondering if it can get any weirder. Victor is the sort of role that Sam Rockwell seems to live for. And Scottish actor Kelly Macdonald is on hand as a doctor who seems to go the extra mile for her patients and their families. In the end there is a nice King of Hearts-like crazy-is-only-relative buzz to the whole affair. The director is Clark Gregg, who has cast himself as Victor’s boss at a Williamstown-like park, who never breaks out of his colonial character, even when dressing down the staff. (Seen 18 October 2008)

Chongqing senlin (Chungking Express) 1 out of 4 stars

Silly me. I try not to bring pre-conceptions to movies, but since this film was produced in Hong Kong and has a title like Chungking Express and introduces two main characters who are a cop and a heroin smuggler, I thought it might actually turn out to be an action thriller. I’m so naive. The title is apparently the name of the shopping mall diner where a lot of the action takes place. At the very beginning of the film, the cop announces that (referring to the heroin smuggler) “in 57 hours I will fall in love with this woman.” And so he does. And not a moment too soon because it was really tiring watching him pine over the woman who had just dumped him. But this new romance doesn’t go anywhere either and then, as if the filmmakers had gotten bored with the original story, we start following another cop who comes to the diner who is also trying to get over a woman. (I’m afraid it took me a while to realize that it wasn’t the same cop as before.) There is a new young woman working in the diner, and she likes to play California Dreaming over and over again really loud. (Thanks to this movie, I won’t need to hear that song for a while now.) She apparently has a crush on the cop because she breaks into his apartment when he’s not there and cleans it up for him and rolls around in his sheets. The program notes liken the director/screenwriter (Wong Kar-Wai) to Jean-Luc Godard and that’s not a bad comparison. And Faye Wang, who plays the diner employee, does seem kind of like an Asian Jean Seberg (Breathless). Parts of the film are very interesting technically—like many music videos are interesting. I think this would definitely appeal to people who miss the French New Wave, but filmgoers looking for Jackie Chan or another Chinese Torture Chamber will be advised to look elsewhere. (Seen 11 June 1994)

Christmas Vacation 2 out of 4 stars

When this movie first came out, I did not see it becoming a hardy holiday perennial. But it has. Usually, we think of “Christmas movies” being based on sentiment, not subversive cynicism. But this movie reliably gets mentioned by lots of people as a flick they watch every December. My own parents watched it every year and found it hilarious every single time. Does it endure because it is basically It’s a Wonderful Life done up as sketch comedy? I’m guessing, no. I think it’s because lots of people find it a cathartic release of all the unrealistic expectations and pressures and hassles of the holiday season. And, I suppose, because it is actually pretty funny. Led by Chevy Chase in his cluelessly earnest mode, the cast is impressive. From mourned talents like E.G. Marshall, John Randolph and William Hickey to comedy stalwarts Doris Roberts, Nicholas Guest, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Brian Doyle-Murray, the comic timing is spot on all around. In Randy Quaid’s performance as the blight of a Kansas cousin, we can see the seeds of his later mental issues. Even the actors playing the kids are destined to be future stars. They are Natural Born Killers’s Juliette Lewis and The Big Bang Theory’s Johnny Galecki. (Seen 25 December 2012)

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe 3 out of 4 stars

Tilda Swinton must be the bravest actor in history. The hoary old show biz admonition says never work with children or animals. In this fantasy epic, Swinton works virtually exclusively with children and animals as well as with more than a few mythical creatures. And she gets the best of all of them. One of those actors who is completely unrecognizable from one role to the other (trying comparing her White Witch to her appearances in Adaptation, Thumbsucker and especially Broken Flowers), Swinton is never less than fascinating to watch. She makes us understand why a young boy (or anyone else for that matter) would fear her and at the same time want to please her. You may have heard that this movie is really thinly veiled Christian propaganda, but that’s not fair. It’s not thinly veiled at all. Actually, one could argue just as easily that is also a variation on The Wizard of Oz or even the Harry Potter stories. There is indeed one sequence, which can best be described as The Lion King meets The Passion of the Christ, that goes out of its way to explain the Christian idea of sacrifice and redemption, but you will only see it if you know to look for it. (As it happens, my Catholic wife completely missed it.) Non-Christian parents need not worry that their kids will be subliminally converted. The film is a wondrous as you would expect from the director of the Shrek movies (Andrew Adamson), but it has to be said at the same time that, in spite of its many pleasures, it does not have the scale or complexity or richness of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. (Seen 5 January 2006)

A Christmas Carol 2 out of 4 stars

There are so many film (and TV) versions of Charles Dickens’s classic that the question isn’t so much how this compares to other movies or even other Christmas movies but how does it compare to other versions of A Christmas Carol. For many of us, the definitive interpretation is the 1951 Brian Desmond Hurst version, starring Alastair Sim, which was titled Scrooge in the UK and called A Christmas Carol in the U.S. and other territories. But that version is probably not so popular with today’s kids because it is, like, really old and in black and white and is lacking in CGI action sequences. Robert Zemeckis’s 2009 adaptation for Disney, which uses the same sort of motion capture animation as his The Polar Express, ticks all those boxes. Jim Carrey plays the three ghosts, and his Scrooge seems based on his character from Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. I’m not sure why Zemeckis and other filmmakers keep working with this format because there is something very off-putting about it. It falls in that valley of being close enough to real but falling short of being real that it creeps us out. The deadness in the characters becomes a metaphor for the deadness of the movie as a whole. Sure, there are some spectacular scenes involving Scrooge’s nighttime supernatural journey, but the heart is missing. Others have made much better adaptations with hand-drawn animation, Muppets and (need it be said?) just plain human actors. (Seen 25 December 2011)

A Christmas Story 2 out of 4 stars

This funny little 1983 movie by Bob Clark seemed unlikely (to me anyway) to become a durable holiday perennial. But darned if I didn’t find my mother watching it (and re-watching it) on the TV every December and still enjoying it every time. I suppose it is the fact that the family depicted (drawn from the semi-autobiographical writings of humorist Jean Shepherd) was not picture perfect and had a lot of the same quirks and flaws as those of us in the audience. In a way, since it is set in Indiana, it can be seen as sort of a precursor to the sitcom The Middle or, more generally, the recent breed of family sitcoms that de-idealize the American family unit. In hindsight, Clark seems an unlikely director for such a warm slice-of-life holiday flick. He had previously made horror movies like Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, Dead of Night and (speaking of the holidays) Black Christmas, as well as a Sherlock Holmes movie (Murder by Decree) and the infamous teen comedy Porky’s and its sequel. The proof of Clark’s accomplishment is the fact that we can’t forget bits like the unfortunate Flick getting his tongue stuck on a frozen pole, the Old Man insisting on displaying a horribly gaudy lamp that he won in the front window and, of course, the refrain “You’ll shoot your eye out!” (Seen 25 December 2011)

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader 2 out of 4 stars

One of the interesting thing about sitting through seven (to date) Harry Potter movies is watching the cast and themes mature, presumably along with their audience. By contrast, the Narnia movies are going in the opposite direction, maturity-wise. At the end of this movie, it is explained why the two oldest Pevensie children are not participants in this adventure and why the other two won’t be next time either. Narnia is for kids only. Much of the appeal of the first two movies was that, despite all their fanciful trappings (talking animals and such), they seemed aimed at grown-ups as well as kids. But this one seems clearly and squarely aimed at the children’s market. Perhaps this is a by-product of Fox replacing Disney as Walden Media’s partner. Another by-product is the lower budget which makes the images much more dependent on CGI. On the more positive side, Ben Barnes, as Caspian, has largely lost his strange Mediterranean-sounding accent, and the relentlessly positive messaging is leavened by the inclusion of Will Poulter (memorable in Son of Rambow) as the deliberately annoying twit of a cousin, Eustace (sounds like “useless”). Sadly, we get only the briefest of glimpses of Tilda Swinton, who is the true source of whatever life these movies have. This is by no means the worst way to spend a couple of hours, but in the end this is less like a sequel than like the pilot of a spinoff TV series. (Seen 12 December 2010)

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian 3 out of 4 stars

Not once but twice in this movie, a certain talking lion pronounces that things never happen the same way twice. If he meant this to apply to movie sequels, then he was speaking only in the most literal technical terms. After all, the overriding principle of any movie sequel is to do the original over, while creating the illusion that the overall story is somehow being advanced. So, in the first Narnia movie, we have a group of children transported to a magical land where they have to help good triumph over evil, and in this movie we have, well, I don’t want to spoil it for anyone. If anything, this edition is a bit better than first one—if for no other reason that we don’t have to bother with as much of the establishing of Narnia and all the lead-up to the best part, which were the battle scenes. And the battle scenes here definitely do not disappoint. They are perhaps the best we have seen since Peter Jackson’s The Two Towers. There is plenty of spectacle to delight most fantasy fans, and somehow the movies’ strange mixture of medieval epic-ness, talking woodland creatures, 1940s era English schoolchildren and religious symbolism works. In the title role, brooding young English actor and erstwhile boy band member Ben Barnes (looking strangely French and sounding strangely Spanish) may hold the attention of adolescent girls, but if the film is missing anything from the first movie it is a certain commanding and compelling presence denoting evil. We aren’t totally denied in this, but it’s not nearly enough. (Seen 27 June 2008)

Chuck Solomon: Coming of Age 2 out of 4 stars

This documentary centers on a gala 40th birthday party for Chuck Solomon, a major talent in the San Francisco gay theater scene. Very touched, Solomon thanks everyone and invites them back for his 50th birthday party. There isn’t a dry eye in the house because, although there may well be a 50th birthday party for Chuck, he won’t be there. He is dying of AIDS as did his brother and his lover. If you don’t know and have ever wondered what it is like to be gay and/or to know that you are going to die, this film will make it all real for you. And if an unblinking look at the gay subculture isn’t a problem for you, then this movie will move you to tears. (Seen 23 May 1987)

Cidade de Deus (City of God) 3 out of 4 stars

It’s not to my credit that it is only now occurring to me that the evolving film styles of irony/chance-interested directors like Quentin Tarantino, Tom Tykwer and Paul Thomas Anderson are very well suited to the rambling, anecdotal, and fate-obsessed South American novel. This stunning Brazilian film is the result of such a creative marriage. Directors Kátia Lund and Fernando Meirelles have used new movie technology to make a fluid, fast-paced (and bloody) epic of gang warfare in a Rio de Janeiro slum that spans decades. Particularly striking are the ways digital technology is used to convey time shifts and historical recaps, resulting in great visuals as well as effective storytelling. If you were under the misimpression that this was yet another depressing naturalistic exercise in wallowing in the injustice of third world poverty, along the lines of Pixote and Salaam Bombay!, you were wrong. This is pure entertainment, with about the same social content as Gangs of New York but with way more energy and creativity. At turns, this movie is equal parts Dickensian melodrama, Shakespearean tragedy, Brian De Palma gangster flick, Sam Peckinpah western, and nihilistic black comedy. It’s so good, you can almost imagine that the late Sergio Leone made it—in which case it would have been called Once Upon a Time in Brazil. (Seen 19 February 2003)

The Cider House Rules 3 out of 4 stars

This is the film that sort of came out of nowhere to be one of the year’s top three Oscar nomination getters. Critics and moviegoers weren’t exactly making it a phenomenon, but something about it obviously touched all those Academy members who got the videocassettes mailed to them. Were they right? Yes, this is actually a pretty good movie. It’s shamelessly sentimental. A lot of it does deal, after all, with cute young orphans, some of whom have health problems. In fact, Disney could almost have released it under its own name (rather than its anything-goes Miramax label) except perhaps for the sex and the fact that it’s a virtual political tract for a woman’s right to choose. Having said that, the movie gets away with its sentimentality. This should not be surprising since director Lasse Hallström gave us the equally touching My Life as a Dog. Michael Caine and Kieran Culkin (Macauley’s brother) are quite moving as two of the people who hate to see the David Copperfield-like hero leave home. If this film and the trailers for the upcoming Wonder Boys are any guide, however, Tobey Maguire (The Ice Storm, Pleasantville) definitely needs to do something about his patented blank stare. He’s quickly becoming this generation’s Bud Cort. But on the whole, the film is worthwhile and its more convoluted plot points are easily forgiven. Watch for John Irving, who adapted the screenplay from his own novel, as the small Maine town’s stationmaster. (Seen 16 February 2000)

Cinemania 2 out of 4 stars

This one hits a little too close to home. Not to be confused with the Microsoft CD-ROM, Cinemania is a German documentary about a set of rabid film buffs in New York City. Okay, the phrase “film buffs” doesn’t quite do these people justice. They are film buffs in the same way that Bill Gates is just a guy in the software business. I used to think I was a film buff. But that was before I saw this movie, and now I know that I am not worthy. It is all so familiar. The meticulous planning of schedules to cram in as many movies as you can without missing something great. Rushing across town with only minutes to spare between films. Staking out your favorite seat in each cinema and arriving early to make sure you get it. Putting your life on hold so that you can see three or four or more movies a day. I’ve done this for periods up to three and a half weeks during film festivals. But these people live this way 365 days a year! When you live in the Big Apple, with all its cinemas, art houses, repertory houses, and museums, you have a never-ending film festival, and a small group of people are making the most of it. Mostly, they are male. The notable exception is Roberta, the sixty-something queen of the film buffs. She lives in a tiny flat crammed with movie memorabilia and mentions nonchalantly that she is being evicted. Mostly, these people get by on unemployment or disability or else they work the least demanding job they can so that work doesn’t interfere with their passion. (One fellow was living off an inheritance.) But the obsessive-compulsiveness doesn’t stop there. Some bring stopwatches to time each film and then inform the cinema if the published running time is off. One guy sticks to a “constipating diet” so that his film watching isn’t interrupted by bathroom breaks. The movie ends, appropriately enough, with the five subjects in a cinema watching a cut of this movie themselves. Finally, life is not just imitating art. These lives have become art. (Seen 12 October 2002)

Circulation 2 out of 4 stars

This flick, written and directed by Ryan Harper, is a bit like the 1950s curiosity Carnival of Souls done up as a highway chase movie. Now, if you’re worried that I have given away some surprise, I haven’t actually said anything that is not evident from the very first line of the film. Filmed along mostly desolate stretches of road in Baja California, the setting certainly feels and looks like some sort of netherworld. Our hero Gene, played by Sherman Koltz, is suitably deep-voiced and gaunt as he cruises the lonely highway in a camper/pickup heading for some reason toward Cabo San Lucas. He picks up young Ana, who can’t understand why the only people she meets are ones who have died. The sense of dislocation is only fueled by the fact that Gene and Ana speak virtually no words of each other’s language. There is a bit of magic realism going on here, and the unsettling sense of dreaming and the strange noises on the soundtrack remind us a bit of David Lynch. In the end, it’s hard to know how to care about things without knowing the rules of this world, which seems to be more of a purgatory than an afterlife. For example, how come dead people can get killed (again)? (Seen 13 October 2008)

City of Angels 2 out of 4 stars

An amusing game that my friends Michael and Darlene play at the Seattle International Film Festival (which, sadly, I’ve missed this year) is as follows: as you walk out of a thoughtful, artistically wrought gem of a European film, you try to pick the Hollywood actors who might be cast in a pointless American remake. You know, like Beyond Silence with Christina Ricci as the young Lara and Winona Ryder as the older Lara. Or Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire with Meg Ryan and, okay, I was going to say Tom Hanks, but let’s go with Nicolas Cage. For bonus points, let’s have it directed by the guy who made the live-action Casper movie (Brad Silberling). As we all know, this really happened, and it would be easy to take pot shots at someone who dared to take Wenders’s nearly flawless masterpiece and move it to southern California. But in its defense, I have to say that City of Angels is sincerely heartfelt and wants to make an important statement—in a trendy, glib, new-agey sort of way, of course. The problem for me is that, while some people may take comfort in the idea of hordes of invisible beings lurking about and listening to all our innermost thoughts, it plain gives me the creeps. (Did anybody else think that the angels in their dark trench coats looked more than a bit like the bad guys in Dark City?) Worse, the film propagates the destructive old Hollywood notion that true love is supernatural and perfect rather than something you have to work at. (Seen 19 June 1998)

City of Ember 2 out of 4 stars

Walden Media continues to provide quality entertainment you can take your kids to with this post-apocalyptic adventure. Probably too tame for cocky teenagers and cynical adults, it still has a fairly compelling little story that is unabashedly allegorical—something about people living in the dark and having lost their way because they weren’t reading the book that was handed down to them. The two young leads are engaging enough. They are Ireland’s Saoirse Ronan, who received an Oscar nomination for Atonement, and England’s Harry Treadaway, half of the titular Brothers of the Head. Tension is kept manageable by having Bill Murray as a villain who is more malign than sinister. Another welcome face is Martin Landau as a pipe-worker who excels at compartmentalizing his responsibility. In the end, the film is marred by a finale that not only looks like a theme park ride but one created with pretty cheesy CGI. (Seen 9 November 2008)

City of Ghosts 3 out of 4 stars

I had heard about City of Ghosts, Matt Dillon’s labor of love and feature directing debut, a while ago. I was skeptical because it sounded like a typical actor’s vanity production. I have to say that this movie has definitely benefited from lowered expectations. It is really very good. It has an intriguing story about an American on a quest in southeast Asia, simultaneously stirring echoes of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and the novels of Graham Greene. The cast is downright interesting, with the ever-reliable James Caan as a crooked wheeler and dealer, the incomparable Gérard Depardieu (looking as though he has just emerged from the Nick Nolte school of dress and grooming) as a hotelier, an unctuous Stellan Skarsgård and the lovely Natascha McElhone. As seen through Dillon’s lens, Phnom Penh is a city, cinematically speaking, not unlike Bogart’s Casablanca, full of intrigue and where you never know whom to trust or not trust. By the end, the plot gets a bit convoluted, but that is more than forgivable. Indeed, we can forgive quite a bit just to hear Caan do a karaoke number in the Cambodian language. (Seen 9 July 2005)

The Civilization of Maxwell Bright 2 out of 4 stars

This is one of those movies that you should ideally see without knowing anything about it in advance. Of course, realistically, unless a miracle happens, you are probably going to have to go out of your way to see it, since it only seems to be playing at film festivals so far. And, if you do see it at a film festival, there’s a good chance that the star, Patrick Warburton (a.k.a. The Tic in the live-action TV version and Puddy on Seinfeld), will be there too, since he seems to be following the film around on the festival circuit. It’s understandable because this is undoubtedly the best role that Warburton has ever played or may ever play. It was written and directed by his old acting coach, David Beaird, who based it on something that happened to his neighbor. And the well-connected Beaird managed to get several familiar faces to play supporting roles. (Eerily, when Simon Callow showed up, I could have sworn that they had made Patrick Stewart up to look like José Ferrer.) At first, Warburton’s character seems little different from the one he played in The Woman Chaser, but don’t worry (or maybe do worry, depending on where you want to go) because it is going to a whole different place. (Seen 21 February 2006)

Claire Dolan 2 out of 4 stars

This 1998 film by Lodge Kerrigan was shown at the Galway Film Fleadh as part of a tribute to Colm Meaney, who plays the villain in this piece. Filmgoers who know Meaney only as the resourceful Chief O’Brien on two Star Trek series or the apoplectic Dublin dad in The Commitments and two quasi-sequels will get a revelation upon seeing him here as a New York pimp who keeps an effective hold on a high-priced call girl. There is only a single, brief scene where Meaney actually resorts to violence, but a sense of dread and fear of punishment pervades the entire movie. Katrin Cartlidge, a bit reminiscent of Kate Jackson, plays the titular prostitute with a calculated reserve that suggests someone who has long since died inside. And no wonder since, in this movie, all men (with the exception of a soft-hearted cab driver from Jersey, played by Vincent D’Onofrio) seem to have a radar that lets them know that Claire is a whore even when she is trying to get out of the business. The whole film feels like a cage, an effect enforced by frequent shots of endless symmetrical patterns on Manhattan skyscrapers. The ending is a bit ambiguous, but not the chill we get as Meaney has a seemingly innocent chat on the street that, like his entire performance, feels full of barely perceptible menace. (Seen 13 July 2001)

Le Clan (3 Dancing Slaves) 2 out of 4 stars

Things do not go at all smoothly for the three brothers in this movie. Christophe, the oldest, is just out of jail and trying to get his life together. Olivier, the youngest, desperately misses their dead mother and, like all of them, has trouble coping with a very distant father. And Marc, the middle brother, well, where to begin? This is one of those low-budget films that is teeming with youthful angst, putting it in a long line of movies going all the way back to Rebel Without a Cause and beyond, but all the more edgy because 1) it is low-budget and 2) it is French. Themes raised seem to be of sincere concern to director Gaël Morel, i.e. being caught between cultures (the lads’ mother was Algerian; their father is French), child-parent estrangement, boredom cum limited prospects, and resolving one’s sexual orientation. The film has its moments, and there is a fairly breathtaking hang-gliding scene toward the end. (The movie was filmed in a beautiful spot, on the edge of the Alps?) But there is a wee bit too much melodrama for the gritty realism the filmmakers seem to be going for. (Seen 14 October 2005)

Clara Hakdosha (Saint Clara) 2 out of 4 stars

In a way, Saint Clara can be thought of as sort of an MTV variation on The Garden. This Israeli film is set at Golda Meir High School in the year 1999. But it really takes place in an imagined world that is over-developed and over-polluted and where a TV journalist with garishly colorful clothes and hats that look like oversize umbrellas is contantly reporting from scenes of ecological disaster. At the high school the students are in open rebellion, undermining authority however they can. Lately they have been getting some help from an intriguing Russian emigrée who seems to have psychic powers. Clara can divine test answers before the teacher has even thought of the questions. She can also do the same for lottery tickets. But despite all the promising ideas introduced early on, the film (by Ori Sivan and Ari Folman) is really about something as common and normal as first love which, as it turns out, can make the earth move. (Seen 5 June 1996)

Clash of the Titans 1 out of 4 stars

As was pointed out when this movie was released last year, the title and the tagline “Titans will clash” are both patently false. We see no titans and they do not clash. That is only the beginning of the twisted details of this flick that annoy and frustrate those of us who actually have an interest in Greek mythology. Never mind that the filmmakers integrate the kraken (more of a Norse creature, but more likely a blatant steal from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies) and the djinn (Arabic), but lots of other well-established details get mauled as well. That, of course, is because the credited source is not the original myths but the 1981 movie of the same name, which likewise took liberties with tradition. But as cheesy as that movie was (it featured the likes of Laurence Olivier, Claire Bloom and Maggie Smith at their least self-conscious), it did at least feature impeccable beefcake in the form of Harry Hamlin. Sam Worthington is certainly no slouch in that department but he’s a bit too earnest and his hair’s too closely shaven for him to be much fun or even to look like he belongs in the same movie as the rest of the actors. And, as written, his Perseus just a pill, continually refusing to use weapons that might help against his supernatural foes. In the end, this movie has committed the only sin that is unforgivable for this type of movie. It’s just not much fun. (Seen 25 February 2011)

La Classe de Neige (The Class Trip) 3 out of 4 stars

As I’ve said before, no one makes better movies about the traumas of early adolescence than francophone filmmakers, particularly the late great duo of Louis Malle and François Truffaut. La Classe de Neige is directed by Truffaut apprentice Claude Miller and is based on a novel by Emmanuel Carrère. The two of them also collaborated on the screenplay and quite satisfactorily continue the tradition of celluloid childhood angst. We know early on that something isn’t quite right in young Nicolas’s family from the way his father seems to desperately over-protect him. And what’s with the gruesome stories about organ thieves? No wonder the kid has such totally bizarre nightmares. With early references to a bus accident that echoes The Sweet Hereafter, we have a pretty good idea where things are headed, but we are never quite sure what twists and turns the tale will take. The particular joys of this movie include Nicolas’s Walter Mitty-like fantasies (with a heavy influence from Stephen King) and the film’s sensitive yet realistic portrayal of the (in this case literally) messy business of sexual awakening. (Seen 26 January 1999)

Clerks II 2 out of 4 stars

People who are a bit snobbish about movies (I’ll include myself here) tend to grant films more validity or authenticity because they are in black and white and/or appear to have been made with little or no budget, i.e. they are “independent.” Kevin Smith’s 1994 indie hit Clerks was such a film, although, in hindsight, it would appear to have been made largely to amuse Smith and his friends. But there were some pretensions of seriousness in it. After all, the wryly observing hero in convenience store hell was named Dante, for goodness sake. This sequel, made a dozen years and five feature films later, is ostensibly about two slackers coping with growing older and confronting their own lives (a conceit of the movie is that the aimless slacker lifestyle is something that could be “sold out”), but it is really about Smith confronting himself as a filmmaker. The movie is nothing if not a conventional (okay, the constant vulgarity and the bit with the donkey defy the idea of conventionality) romantic comedy. As with most introspective filmmakers, it’s a movie about movies, complete with (quite humorous) riffing on the Lord of the Rings and Star Wars franchises and even a song-and-dance number. And we have the inevitable cameos from Smith’s friends (including parts for himself and his wife) who have appeared in his other movies. There is even an opening for Clerks: The Next Generation with the introduction of the very funny (although playing a two-dimensional cariacture) Trevor Fehrman as the young Christian/Transformers/Lord of the Rings freak. The inclusion of the very talented Rosario Dawson actually makes this romp better than it ought to be. In the end, this is basically a grungier Judd Apatow movie. But the fact that its two leads remained unknown actually helps the sequel. But for the grace of God, the original Clerks could have starred Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. (Seen 14 January 2009)

Na Cloigne 3 out of 4 stars

An isolated community surrounded by creepy woods. First one, then two, young women’s bodies are found. A third is in a coma. The quirky investigator has strange methods that suggest that the solution to the crimes may lie in the metaphysical. If this sounds like David Lynch is back, well, he may well be an influence. But director Robert Quinn could just as well be nodding toward his fellow Irishman Neil Jordan, who dealt with some similar themes in 1999’s In Dreams. Working again in the Irish language, Quinn (Dead Bodies, Cré na Cille) creates a wonderfully creepy atmosphere that won’t be sending tourists flocking to the back roads of Connemara anytime soon. Made for Irish television, this really deserves to be a feature film—although you also could see it being drawn out à la Twin Peaks for maybe a half-dozen episodes. The cast is great, with Darach Ó Dúbháin and Siobhán O’Kelly providing plenty of sparks as the couple whose stormy relationship is at the heart of the mystery. (Early on, she complains they don’t communicate. By the end, they’re communicating all too well.) And Barry McGovern, as the wily inspector whose methods are more mysterious than the crimes, has an air of devilment that makes us want to tag along, no matter what horrible place he may lead us to. By the way, I am told that the title translates as “the heads.” The significance of that becomes pretty clear by the midpoint. (Seen 7 July 2010)

The Closer You Get 2 out of 4 stars

For some reason during my current visit to the Emerald Isle, the media have been preoccupied the social downside of the Celtic Tiger economy, featuring many thoughtful analyses on urban violence, racism toward immigrants and underage drinking. Well, if people in Dublin or the other population centers want to get away from these sorts of worries, they have only to head northwest for the Donegal coastal village of Kilvara. This quaint little town is so isolated that, if not for a wall calendar that clearly says May 1999 and a passing reference to satellite TV, you would swear that the time period was the 1960s or earlier. An unexpected screening of the movie 10 (instead of the expected Ten Commandments) causes a scandal. The local postmistress takes it upon herself to open suspicious parcels from Amsterdam and confiscate the magazines they contain. But the town’s real problem is that the men can’t find anyone to marry even though every woman in town is single except for one—and her marriage is barely on life support. Cinematically, Kilvara is just a stone’s throw from the neverneverland village in Waking Ned Devine, but producer Uberto Pasolini would rather have you thinking of his other lads-in-search-of-dignity-by-way-of-titillating-scheme flick, The Full Monty. The story hangs on a plan by the local guys (as with all great ideas, concocted late at night in the pub when everyone is completely pissed) to place an ad in The Miami Herald inviting voluptuous American women (“ideal age range: 20-21") to their town. If you can’t see the ending already, then there’s no hope for you. Still the film does have its moments, despite the fact that it essentially amounts to an argument for inbreeding. Among these most lad-ish of lads are Ian Hart, as a butcher with the itchiest crotch on either side of the Atlantic; the ubiquitous Sean McGinley, as a sheep farmer hoping to raise his sites; and Pat Shortt, as the most methodical of late bloomers. (Seen 16 September 2000)

Closet Monster 2 out of 4 stars

Toward the end of this 2015 feature film writing/directing debut of Newfoundland’s Stephen Dunn, Oscar Madly’s mother tells him that, when he was born, he was nearly strangled by her umbilical cord. He’s never had it easy, she says, and maybe he never will. It certainly seems that way, as Oscar has recently endured some of the biggest disappointments, frustrations and upset that a teenager can encounter. Yet his life is not unremittingly grim. In fact, in chronicling how Oscar comes to terms with the haunting memory of witnessing a horrific event as a child and now accepting himself for who he really is, this flick is frequently downright cheerful and amusing. It helps that Oscar is able to converse with his beloved pet hamster and that it can talk back to him—with the voice of Isabella Rossellini(!). This is just one of many judiciously surreal touches that give the film its own special quality. Another example is the way the word “unfortunately” appears everywhere in Oscar’s environment after he reads a rejection letter. Fortunately, we get to know and like Oscar before he heads into an angry, sullen phase that threatens to make him unlikeable. It also helps that, as played by Connor Jessup, he has such a sweet, baby-faced quality about him that we cannot help but warm to him. One of the main catalysts of Oscar’s building crisis is Wilder (Oscar and Wilder? Literary allusion much?), an impossibly cool Quebecois lad visiting for the summer who obsesses him. Winningly played by Aliocha Schneider, Wilder is more than a bit reminiscent of the character played by Schneider’s brother Niels in Xavier Dolan’s Heartbeats—an irresistible charmer and inveterate seducer of everyone he meets. No, life is not easy for Oscar but, thankfully, we get the feeling that things will turn out all right for him in the end. (Seen 3 February 2017)

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 out of 4 stars

Of course I had to see this movie. After all, Mark Kermode compared it to the work of Alejandro Jodorowsky and David Lynch. That’s pretty stiff stuff for what is ostensibly a family film. Actually, the comparison will absolutely not occur to any but the most die-hard cinephiles. What is more obvious is that this movie checks all the familiar boxes already well established for these computer-animated extravaganzas. Wild visuals? Check. Lots of film references for the grown-ups? Check. Perfunctory chaste romance? Check. Father-son issues? Check. Requisite lesson about following your dream/doing the right thing/etc.? Double check. There is a certain feel of déjà vu about all this but, having said that, this does as good a job or better than any of its ilk in terms in terms of dazzling the eye (basing its food-as-weather motif on the book by Judi and Ron Barrett) and bombarding the mind with non-stop sight gags and word play. The guffaws were frequent and hearty. (I particularly enjoyed rapid-fire sequences involving a giant fortune cookie and a news anchor’s observation that huge objects falling out of the sky seemed to be following a pattern of first bombarding only famous monuments.) Visually, the film is surreal in the original sense of the word. And, particularly strange for a family entertainment exhibited in multiplexes, there is a fair amount of implied social criticism of the developed world’s eating habits, wasting of resources and, yes, the dangers of our affect on the climate. These messages may well go right over the heads of most viewers, but they are definitely there for people who enjoy a heavy dose of guilt to munch on along with their jumbo popcorn and gallon of soda pop. (Seen 18 October 2009)

Clueless 2 out of 4 stars

There have been a lot of these movies about Beverly Hills (or Malibu) high school princesses and their rarefied world of vaunted popularity, mean girl machinations and generally superficial values. But this is the one that started all that, right? It’s so hard to remember, but that’s how I tend to recall it anyway. This has all the trappings of a mindless teen comedy, but paying a bit of attention reaps rewards. This was actually a cleverly updated adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma—coming out only the year before a straightforward version starring Gwyneth Paltrow as the titular heroine. The SoCal version was written and directed by Amy Heckerling, showing the same sort of astute observation of American teenagers that she had exhibited thirteen years earlier in her feature debut, Fast Times at Ridgemont High. The unexpected pleasure in the viewing comes from how well Heckerling finds late 20th century equivalents to the social mores of Austen’s era and literary world. Alicia Silverstone’s Cher might seem like a total airhead, but there’s a lot more going on there than first meets the eye. Moreover, Heckerling has a knack for oddball bits which seem to come out of nowhere to amuse, such as a truly frightening driving lesson that accidently veers onto the freeway. Or the nonchalant way she introduces as a given something as unlikely as the so-called “Pismo Beach disaster.” The film made a star of Silverstone and provided early prominent roles for Paul Rudd and the ill-fated Brittany Murphy. It not only also spawned a TV series that employed several of the film’s actors but has also inspired quite a few other TV shows aimed at the tween market ever since. (Seen 21 December 2014)

Coffee and Cigarettes 2 out of 4 stars

I came out of the screening of this film not only with caffeine jitters but also with smoker’s cough. A series of sequences that all have the same basic setup (people more or less playing themselves get together for chat over java and coffin nails), which were filmed over the past couple of decades and finally cobbled together for a feature-length film. Some sequences are better than others, and there is a certain amount of repetition from one to the other. This could be either deliberate poetic echoes, or it could just mean that Jim Jarmusch only had so many ideas for dialog. Some of the scenes come off like TV guest star sketches, as when two members of the Wu-Tang Clan recognize Bill Murray, who is inexplicably serving their coffee. In the most entertaining scene, the actors aren’t drinking coffee at all, but rather tea. Brits Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan are brilliant, as they send up show business politics and British attitudes toward America, among other things. The best realized sequence has Cate Blanchett having coffee with herself, playing her own cousin. The scene is so well done, it took me ages to even suspect that there wasn’t a second actor. There’s nothing particularly profound about all this, but it is certainly entertaining enough to spend time on. And, as with most Jarmusch films, it is indispensable for knowing which actors and musicians are hip. (Seen 16 October 2004)

Cold Comfort Farm 3 out of 4 stars

John Schlesinger (director of such classics as Midnight Cowboy, Sunday, Bloody Sunday, and Marathon Man) came to the 1995 Seattle film festival’s Closing Night Gala to present his newest film, Cold Comfort Farm. Schlesinger made this film in England after financing for a Hollywood movie fell through. As he explained, it was just the bit of fluff he needed to put Hollywood politics out of his mind for a while. This is one of those charming comedies that the Brits do so well. It is based on a book by Stella Gibbons whose novels have a cult following in England. It is a satire of the dark, brooding tales of rural life that sometimes show up in English (and other) literature. (The festival’s popular Irish film Korea is a good contemporary example.) In fact, Schlesinger said that he sees Cold Comfort Farm as tweaking the nose of his own Far from the Madding Crowd. The movie is good fun with lots of laughs. It is the story of Flora Poste of London’s smart set who has just lost her parents. She is the cheeriest orphan you could ever hope to meet and, needing a place to live since she has a meager inheritance, she accepts an invitation to stay with her cousins in Sussex. She wants to become a writer like Jane Austin and welcomes the chance to observe rural life first-hand. Cold Comfort is typical of the delightfully gloomy place names in the area. (The local pub is called The Condemned Man.) Her cousins don’t appear to have much opportunity for marriage outside the family, if you catch my drift, but Flora sets about changing everyone’s lot for the better, like a socialite Pollyanna. Ian McKellen is particularly funny as a farmer who is also a preacher in the Church of the Quivering Brethren. (When asked why he preaches, he responds, “They’re all goin’ to hell, and somebody’s gotta tell ‘em!”) It’s all very silly and can’t help but make you laugh. (Seen 11 June 1995)

Coldwater 2 out of 4 stars

At both the beginning and the end of this movie, Brad Lunders’s mother tells him she loves him. It rings hollow both times. After the death of his father, Brad fell into drug dealing, leading to tragic consequences. That seems to have perhaps straightened him out, but it’s too late. His mother has him forcibly committed to a remote private juvenile facility, and we suspect it has as much to do with her boyfriend who doesn’t get on with Brad as anything else. The facility is run by a tough-as-nails retired marine, and the only question is whether he will turn out to be a new father figure for Brad or a psycho. We sense fairly early that things will inevitably end in violence, but to the movie’s credit it does not play out exactly as we might have been conditioned to expect. While there are tense moments, the film plays more as a mostly realistic drama than a thriller. James C. Burns, a veteran of numerous authority figure roles, is convincing as the man in charge of Coldwater. Newcomer P.J. Boudousqué is very appealing as Brad and strikes the convincingly sullen tone that seems second nature to male actors of his age group. First-time director Vincent Grashaw, who co-wrote with Mark Penney, seems as much concerned with exploring a social issue as spinning an entertainment. (Seen 13 July 2013)

Colin Fitz 2 out of 4 stars

A Slacker-esque comedy, Robert Bella’s Colin Fitz provides a lot of laughs derived mainly from the dialogue. The plot involves the fifth anniversary of a dead American rock star (who, we hear several times, was “very big in Sweden”) and the two inept security guards assigned to guard his grave for the night. Paul (Matt McGrath) is a boyish—and just a touch neurotic—aesthete who frequently listens to poetry on his Walkman. Grady (Andy Fowle) is a frustrated blusterer with some interesting theories (e.g. Neil Young ended the Cold War) whose hobby is posting flyers for non-existent missing animals. Also making appearances are William H. Macy (Fargo), Martha Plimpton, a possible ghost, and Julianne Phillips as the amorous rock widow. This movie won’t change your life, but it will surely make you laugh. (Seen 22 May 1997)

Coma 2 out of 4 stars

Sixteen years before he created the hit television series ER, novelist/director Michael Crichton tried making us afraid of hospitals with this paranoid thriller based on a novel by Robin Cook. Seen today, Coma demonstrates that it was clearly ahead of its time, raising issues like the cost of healthcare and the morality of harvesting organs for transplant. Still, this movie seemed scarier in 1978 than it does now. It suffers from a lot of the typical shortcomings of paranoid thrillers, mainly in the way that the protagonist, plucky doctor Geneviève Bujold, keeps putting herself in danger by poking around in dark places late at night instead of doing the professional thing and going straight to the police or the AMA or even Ralph Nader. She caps off this illogical behavior after a harrowing escape at the end by going straight to the office of the most sinister person in the whole movie (Richard Widmark, who was always great in these roles) and letting him get her a scotch. It’s reassuring that these days the doctors in ER are much more concerned about their patients than the doctors in this flick who simply shrug as patients (including Tom Selleck, in an early role) go into comas left and right. (Seen 18 January 2003)

Come due coccodrilli (Like Two Crocodiles) 0 out of 4 stars

Like Cinema Paradiso, this is a movie about a middle-aged Italian guy who still looks really good and is successful at work (but not at romantic commitment) and who has flashbacks from his youth with such frequency and duration that he should definitely never be allowed to operate any heavy equipment. We know that Gabriele had a traumatic childhood because he can’t get close to his girlfriend Claire. We know of his emotional distance because at one point he is embarrassed to admit that he doesn’t even know if Claire’s apartment has a kitchen. (I don’t even know Claire myself, but I’m betting it does.) In the flashbacks, Gabriele’s parents are Giancarlo Giannini (Seven Beauties, Swept Away) and Valeria Golino (Rain Man, Hot Shots). Unfortunately, they aren’t married because the father already has a wife and children. When his mother dies in childbirth, Gabriele and his infant brother go to live with the legitimate family and this sets up the conflict that will haunt Gabriele into adulthood. Chance gives him an opportunity for revenge (à la the Count of Monte Cristo) and so he leaves Paris to go back to Italy. Unfortunately, the supposed traumas that Gabriele has gone through seem so trivial in the grand scheme of things, it’s hard to believe that he is still thinking about them constantly. And it’s hard to believe that he wouldn’t recognize his own brother, no matter how much time has gone by. On the more positive side, the closing shot of an Italian lake is really nice. (Seen 11 June 1995)

Comme une Image (Look at Me) 2 out of 4 stars

What we have here is a French comedy of manners, something that the French generally do pretty well. The screenplay was written by the director, Angès Jaoui, and Jean-Pierre Bacri, and the two of them have leading roles in the acting ensemble. Bacri plays the kind of jerk that Alan Rachins often plays, which is fitting because he actually looks a bit like Rachins He is a successful author who has been in a writing slump for some time. Jaoui, who looks an awful lot like Helen Shaver, plays the wife of an author whose career is about to take off. She also happens to be the voice coach for Etienne’s teenaged daughter Lolita, who looks a lot like Ricki Lake (back when she was in the movie Hairspray). Lolita is desperate for her father’s attention and approval, but he is way too busy with his writing career and his second wife (who looks like every thin, young blonde woman on TV) and their adorable young daughter. Despite her lack of supermodel looks, Lolita finds she is popular enough with the boys, but mainly because they want access to her celebrity father. The stage is thus set for many wry observations on families, relationships, image, self-image, fawning insincerity, and the effects of personal success on the social order. This isn’t a comedy of guffaws, but there are quite a few amusing moments, as well as some poignant ones. And, while the flavor is distinctly French, its take on image- and celebrity-of-the-moment-obsessed culture transcends most borders these days. (Seen 17 October 2004)

The Commitments 3 out of 4 stars

How can you not enjoy this movie? Everyone has always loved the Irish, but this movie (for me anyway) marks the point where the world’s enamored view of the island nation shifted from twee old fiddle players and leprechauns to the profane and plain-spoken denizens of Dublin’s urban landscapes. I was on the verge of my first-ever visit to the Emerald Isle when I first saw this classic in Seattle in 1991. I would have missed half of the best lines, but the humor and the quality of the people portrayed came through loud and clear. Seeing it again now—after countless episodes of Mrs. Brown’s Boys and Love/Hate, not to mention my own experiences on Dublin’s northside—make the flick even better. English filmmaker Alan Parker was clearly able for a musical like this (his c.v. included Fame and Pink Floyd The Wall), and his visuals were a great match for Roddy Doyle’s portrait of young men and women with limited prospects finding a way to rise above their bleak circumstances. The members of the titular band are, in a very real sense, a family—with all the diversity of personalities and egos and rowing and sticking together until they don’t. The standout is the late Johnny Murphy as spiritual-spouting musical éminence grise Joey “The Lips” Fagan. Other members of the brilliantly chosen cast include budding singers Glen Hansard (of Once fame) and Andrea Corr, as well as Colm Meaney, as the Elvis-worshipping dad, taking a break from his Star Trek: The Next Generation gig. Also on hand are Maria Doyle Kennedy (lately of Orphan Black) and Bronagh Gallagher (lately of You, Me and the Apocalypse). The number of quotable lines is endless. The humor is infectious. The spirit is indomitable The music makes you want to be Irish and black at the same time. The ending—a quasi-epilog narrated by Robert Arkins’s Jimmy Rabbitte, indulging his continuous penchant for self-interviewing—is perfect. The two subsequent novels in Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown trilogy (The Snapper and The Van) were adapted by Stephen Frears and had their charms, but they necessarily lacked the musical magic of this flick. (Seen 16 June 2016)

A Composer’s Notes: Philip Glass and the Making of an Opera 2 out of 4 stars

Minimalism. (Seen 22 May 1987)

Con Air 2 out of 4 stars

Even for a major action picture, Con Air drips with excess testosterone. There is so much swaggering and macho posturing going on that, if you’re a guy, you may need to leave the theater a couple of times just to go spit on the ground. But you won’t want to do that because, by the time you get back, you’ll have missed twenty or thirty fights, stunts, and explosions. This flick is non-stop action—once it’s gotten past a few prelimaries like 1) some scenes establishing Nicolas Cage as a virtual saint who is also a killing machine and 2) John Cusack’s baby-faced federal marshal describing himself as “Mr. Thesaurus” and then proceeding to exhaust every cliché in the book describing how evil the rest of the cast is. Comic relief is provided by the always lovely Steve Buscemi as an allegedly Hannibal Lecter-like killer. The participation of Cage and producer Jerry Bruckheimer eagerly invites comparison to last year’s The Rock, and indeed Con Air does deliver the goods as far as excitement and mayhem. But the stakes are much lower here (some prison guards and a diabetic prisoner vs. the whole Bay Area), and Cage was really much more entertaining as a nerd in over his head rather than as a Sylvester Stallone clone. (Seen 20 June 1997)

Le Confessional (The Confessional) 2 out of 4 stars

At the outset, The Confessional seems like it is going to be a serious homage to Alfred Hitchcock. The setting is Quebec City and there are regular flashbacks to 1952 when Hitchcock filmed I Confess there. Hitch is even portrayed by an actor in a couple of scenes. There are indeed several references to Hitchcock films, but the Hitchcock connection turns out to be a red herring in more ways than one. Director Robert Lepage has made his own movie, and it is not a quasi-remake of one of Sir Alfred’s films á la Brian De Palma. The “MacGuffin” here is the hero Pierre’s quest to find out who was the real father of his adopted brother Marc. Moody and intriguing, The Confessional stands on its own without the Hitchcock gimmick, although that adds a fun dimension for us film buffs. A nice touch is the fact that Pierre (Lothaire Bluteau of Jesus of Montreal), intentionally or not, looks a lot like the young Tony Perkins. (Seen 8 June 1996)

Confessions of a Pretty Lady 1 out of 4 stars

This is a British documentary about American comedian and actor Sandra Bernhard. Perhaps best known for a recurring role on TV’s Roseanne, she has also been in several movies beginning with her breakthrough in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy. But this film is mostly interested in her avant garde stand-up performances and her involvement in sexual politics. The film is somewhat frustrating because it doesn’t identify the various interviewees (although you can usually deduce who they are), and it refers constantly to Bernhard’s contributions to gender issues without stating clearly just what they are. It’s almost as though it assumes we are already quite familiar with Bernhard’s work and ideas. Also on the program were two shorts, Party Favor and Greetings from Africa. The former is a comedy about a Lesbian couple who conceive a child at a bridal shower (warning: lots of Jewish princess bashing), and the latter is a shorter and more bittersweet look at Lesbian relationships in the 1990s. (Seen 26 May 1995)

Conquest 2 out of 4 stars

Every time I see Lothaire Bluteau in a movie, he is playing a character that is, um, out of the ordinary. Like a concentration camp prisoner (Bent) or an actor playing Jesus who actually becomes Jesus (Jesus of Montreal) or a raging Southern gothic drunk (Other Voices, Other Rooms). So it is a bit of a shock to find him here playing a Jimmy Stewart-like small-town banker valiantly trying to keep the last remnants of his dying home town alive. This quirky fly-speck community lost in the endless prairies of Saskatchewan is full of overall-wearing eccentrics and farm women constantly making Jello salads. Think Northern Exposure meets The Last Picture Show. Any town this quaint needs an outsider to roll her eyes at it, and this job is ably executed by Tara FitzGerald (Hear My Song, Brassed Off) as a very mod Englishwoman who blows into town in a $40,000 Alfa Romeo that is probably cheap compared to her wardrobe. Events are somewhat predictable, but there are some unexpected touches along the way. The director is Piers Haggard, who has the distinction of having been the last person to direct Peter Sellers in a movie (The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu). (Seen 3 June 1999)

Conspiracy of Silence 2 out of 4 stars

It’s official. Apparently, a law has been passed that henceforth Brenda Fricker will play The Mother in every movie set in Ireland. (This one was actually filmed in the UK.) Here she has a thankless role as half of a set of ignorant, badgering parents of a young man, whose greatest desire in life is to be a priest. That alone makes this young man extremely unusual in modern Ireland. Indeed, he is too good to be true, in perfect opposition to the men in control of the Catholic Church, who are too evil to be believed. This movie, by first-time director John Deery, desperately wants to be Important and Provocative, taking on genuinely critical issue confronting Catholicism. The problem is that the film presents a story that is so one-sided that it lowers itself into the realm of propaganda. Deery may be on the right side (I’ll let the Catholics themselves sort that out), but he has made a condescending movie. Sadly, it thus squanders its fine cast, which in addition to Fricker includes other fine actors like Sean McGinley and John Lynch. Its main mistake is to use the format and trappings of a thriller, requiring us to accept that bishops and priests are plotting acts of revenge, like the thugs in Veronica Guerin. Its over-the-top tactics are not helped by some unfortunate coincidences, like the way that a priest who commits suicide looks a bit like Rowan Atkinson. Or, more devastatingly, casting as the ill-tempered and hypocritical bishop the same fellow (Jim Norton) who played the ill-tempered and hypocritical bishop in the Father Ted series. This film, in fact, is essentially an extended episode of Father Ted, but without the zany jokes. (Seen 8 July 2003)

Conspiracy Theory 2 out of 4 stars

Conspiracy Theory demonstrates what my old friend Chuck used to say: Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you! Mel Gibson is a weirdo cab driver who seems to have spent one too many nights listening to Art Bell on the radio. He spouts preposterous, subversive theories (like “love will give you wings and make you fly”), but darned if someone isn’t actually chasing him. Oddly, he seems to be more resourceful than his pursuers. Julia Roberts is one of those Justice Department lawyers who has plenty of time all day to work on cases she has been told to drop. This movie should have been made for under $100,000 with a cast of unknowns. Gibson’s quirky character and the trendy conspiracy humor (carried to a greater extreme in Men in Black) seem intended for an independent film. And, as appealing as Mel and Julia are, you don’t believe for a minute that he poses any danger to her. As a villain, Patrick Stewart picks up where Laurence Olivier left on in The Marathon Man. (Seen 14 August 1997)

Contact 4 out of 4 stars

Prior to seeing Contact, my main “word of mouth” came from listening to callers on a Bakersfield, California, radio station complain about the way the movie portrays Christians. Finally, one guy got it right and pointed out that Robert Zemeckis’s film is actually a powerful affirmation of faith. Apparently, he was the only one who actually stayed until the end. I have been waiting a long time for a movie that realistically depicts extraterrestrial contact (Spielberg got Close Encounters but no cigar), and during its first half Contact comes close. But in the end, it’s not really about space aliens after all. Indeed, this flick has less in common with Star Trek: First Contact and Independence Day than it does with Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ which, not coincidentally, also inspired outrage from certain religious circles because it was interested in deeper questions than someone’s literal dogma. Zemeckis and Carl Sagan (on whose novel this is based) eloquently show us that religious believers and scientists are all really just blind people feeling different parts of the same elephant. (Seen 23 July 1997)

Conte d’Automne (Autumn Tale) 2 out of 4 stars

This film completes legendary French filmmaker Eric Rohmer’s tetralogy based on the seasons of the year. And, while it may not exactly be the most anticipated fourth film in a series to appear this summer, it does bring its own special pleasures all the same. Rohmer’s films usually sound like not much of anything when they are described in a sentence. This is, after all, the same director who once made an entire movie just about a man wanting to touch a girl’s knee. As it happens, the young woman (Beatrice Romand) who made a great impression as a teenager in that film (Claire’s Knee) back in 1971 is still mesmerizing here in Autumn Tale as a fortysomething widow resisting opportunities for a new love. As is usually the case with Rohmer, there is a lot of talking, but there is more plot than we usually get and the characters and the beautiful Rhone Valley are quite easy to take. In fact, this is not unlike a latter-day Woody Allen romantic comedy, but without all of Allen’s trademark quips and wisecracks. There is even a middle-aged man lusting over much younger women. That, and the wistful theme of love in the second half of one’s life—as seen through the eyes of two friends, one married and one not—are what make this pleasant little film’s title appropriate. (Seen 26 May 1999)

The Contender 2 out of 4 stars

With all the post-election wrangling between two would-be presidents, each determined not to be the nice guy who finishes last, I had to escape to the movies. Maybe once again the silver screen would renew my sense of hope. So, of course, I went to see a movie about ugly political wrangling. But I wasn’t disappointed. The experience was uplifting if for no other reason than because of two pieces of dialog. One is a brief speech by star Joan Allen (definitely working to leave that Pat Nixon image behind her) saying that principles only matter when they are inconvenient. How refreshing. The other was a quote attributed by Jeff Bridges, playing the U.S. president, to Napoleon, saying that great leaders have to be petty enough to win power but great enough to lead afterwards. (Well, the pair currently vying for the White House definitely have the petty thing down. Let’s hope against hope that the eventual victor develops the greatness thing as well.) The basic plot of The Contender, about a Democratic senator subjected a merciless campaign of personal destruction because of her alleged past sex life, could have us thinking that this is some sort of roman à clé about the Clinton Administration. But it’s not, and the filmmakers neatly sidestep that possible interpretation by not only mentioning Clinton directly but by also establishing that Allen’s character voted to impeach him. In reality, this is a good old-fashioned, idealistic political drama in the vein of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Advise and Consent. At the same time it is a well-done allegory of the sort of double standards women have traditionally faced in all aspects of life. Story-wise, it provides a nice surprise or two. I could be mean and point out that its basically feminist message is somewhat undermined by its all-too-traditional woman-saved-by-a-man finale, but that would be, well, petty. (Seen 13 November 2000)

Contracorriente (Undertow) 2 out of 4 stars

My pet name for this one is Brokeback Beach. But whereas Ang Lee’s movie began at the beginning of his protagonists’ love affair, this movie begins with a man doting on his very pregnant and, as it turns out, very devoted wife. So it comes as a bit of a surprise when, in the end, the filmmaker’s sympathies actually seem to be with Miguel’s love affair with Santiago. Since we do not see the beginning of that love affair, which involves no more responsibility or devotion than frolicking on the beach, it is hard pressed to compete in our minds with a young woman tirelessly cooking, cleaning and bearing the child of a frequently absent fisherman husband. Quite promising, however, is the gambit of a plot turn reminiscent of Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands. But that only makes us wish this was more of a bittersweet comedy rather than something like the melodramatic soap operas that Miguel and Mariela like to watch. Writer/director Javier Fuentes-León’s film is technically quite accomplished and clearly heartfelt, and it makes the most of its Peruvian seaside village setting. While, in the end, the film left me a bit cold, Fuentes-León deserves a fair amount of credit for not tying up the plot too neatly or not stacking the deck in favor of hammering home A Message. (Seen 8 July 2010)

Control 2 out of 4 stars

Obviously, this movie will hold more interest and meaning for those who remember and appreciate the English post-punk band Joy Division than for those who don’t. As someone in the latter category, I can attest that the film, directed in black and white by Dutch-born Anton Corbijn (whose subsequent feature was The American with George Clooney), stands on its own as a portrait of a talented, troubled and ultimately doomed young man. As drawn by Corbijn, the singer/songwriter Ian Curtis, who died in 1980 at the age of 23, comes off as mixture of Jim Morrison and David Byrne, going off into trance-like states while on stage, leading to seemingly involuntary movements and dark, haunting vocals. As Curtis, Sam Riley exudes the sort of insouciant charisma that, critically, makes us believe that he really is a rock star. (The Manchester music scene depicted was also covered in Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People, in which Curtis was played by Sean Harris.) Corbijn’s straightforward, no-frills approach makes the movie nearly documentary-like as it chronicles Curtis’s moth-like attraction to rock music, his marriage at 18 and his affair with the Belgian Annik Honore. The film is particularly good at portraying the helplessness Curtis feels as he begins to suffer epileptic fits. Corbijn is clearly qualified to depict Curtis’s life, as he is not only a veteran music video director but he also knew and worked with Joy Division. The film is adapted from a book by Curtis’s wife (played in the movie by Samantha Morton), but seems to be even-handed and not at all self-serving. (Seen 8 July 2011)

Cookie’s Fortune 3 out of 4 stars

This isn’t quite like any other Robert Altman film. For one thing, there aren’t lots of characters talking at the same time, which means you can actually catch most of the dialog. But more importantly, there is a sweet and whimsical tone to this little fable of small-town southern life that is much warmer and gentler than, say, Nashville or Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. Written by Anne Rapp, this story rich with characters would seem to be pulled the pages of America’s best southern writers. At other times, it is not unlike Andy of Mayberry, and I mean that in a good way. Perhaps the biggest miracle is that its large, ensemble, all-star cast all seem perfectly and comfortably suited to their characters. Glenn Close, who has already played Cruella De Vil and (on stage) Norma Desmond, gets to sink her teeth into another great crazy woman role. (And, in what is perhaps a nod to her Sunset Boulevard turn, she is still obsessed with Salomé.) Particularly welcome is Patricia Neal, after a ten-year absence from the big screen, as the movie’s pipe-smoking heart and soul in the title role. There is much to enjoy here, including a wonderful visual pun involving a cookie jar. (Seen 29 March 1999)

Coraline 3 out of 4 stars

One good way to win a bar bet is to ask the trick question, who directed Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas? The answer, as all good animation aficionados know, is Henry Selick, whose fourth follow-up (after James and the Giant Peach, Monkeybone and Moongirl) is this delightful stop-action masterpiece, and it really is hard to tell where Burton (who had nothing to do with this movie) ends and Selick begins. I defy casual observers to pick out the differences between Selick’s spooky dark sense of wonder and fantasy and that displayed by Burton in movies like Corpse Bride. I even had to check the credits to see if the music was by Danny Elfman. (It wasn’t. It was by French composer Bruno Coulais, with a welcome contribution by They Might Be Giants.) If Selick has carved out his own area in the unique creative universe he shares with Burton, it is the particularly dark corners of adolescence. Like all good fantasy kid lit, the movie (after the book by Neil Gaiman) has the structure of a dream and can be seen, alternately, as a dream (or a series of dreams) or a fantastic reality. And, as usual, the dramatic tension is between the safety of home and the scary unknown. The images are nothing short of mesmerizing, and the voice work is first rate. Particularly having fun are Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French, as two old show girls who are more than past their prime—as demonstrated in what is perhaps the movie’s most horrifyingly indelible image. (Seen 21 June 2009)

Coronación (Coronation) 2 out of 4 stars

The crowning of the title refers to a spontaneous gag by a couple of drunken housekeepers as a woman in her 90s is supposed to be celebrating her saint’s day. These final scenes are shocking, poignant and funny all at the same time. The woman in question is Elisa de Abalos, whose mind is not in the best of shape, as she seems to live only for happier long ago memories. Her middle-aged bachelor grandson Andrés, who is charged with seeing that she is looked after, isn’t doing a whole lot better. He runs red traffic lights because he gets caught up in flashbacks to his strict Catholic childhood education. Oh yeah, and dreaming about the nubile young Estela who has been brought to his grandmother’s mouse to be her companion. This film by Silvio Caiozzi is adapted from the novel by José Donoso and has been updated to contemporary times so that some wry observations can be made about the excesses of Chile’s affluent class as well as the depravity of the lower class. While the film’s ending is the most moving part, the most exhilarating part is an interlude where Andrés and a doctor friend get stinking drunk at the doctor’s house and go crazy with all his high tech gadgets. (Seen 3 June 2001)

Corpse Bride 3 out of 4 stars

What must it be like to have Tim Burton’s brain? If The Nightmare Before Christmas is at all fresh in your mind, then you know what to expect. Part opera/musical, part horror movie, part romance, mostly comedy, this strangest of stories is infused both with Burton’s sweet sensibility and his extreme comfort with the macabre. The imagery is, of course, magical. The music of Danny Elfman is, as always, a perfect match for Burton with its coexisting whimsy and darkness. And Burton has assembled a great stable of voices for his characters: frequent collaborator Johhny Depp as the initially passive young hero, Burton’s main squeeze Helena Bonham Carter in the title role (the most sympathetic zombie we’ve met in a movie yet), Emily Watson as her flesh-and-blood rival, not to mention the immensely voice-talented Tracey Ullman and Jane Horrocks, solid standbys Albert Finney and Richard E. Grant, and horror genre veterans Michael Gough and, especially, the incomparable Christopher Lee as the officiate. In what year would this animated joy not be the automatic shoo-in for the best animated feature at the Oscars? Well, I guess the same year that saw the release of Howl’s Moving Castle and the new Wallace & Gromit movie (to which the Munchkin has given her thumbs up). For once, I am nearly glad that I don’t have a vote in the Motion Picture academy. (Seen 18 June 1996)

Country Life 2 out of 4 stars

The flyer for the 1995 Seattle film festival’s Sneak Preview No. 2 said that it would be “one of the most anticipated films of the upcoming season!” I don’t know about anyone else, but I hadn’t particularly been anticipating another adapation of Anton Chekov’s Uncle Vanya. It doesn’t seem that long ago that I saw Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn’s Vanya on 42nd Street. And while watching that film, I wasn’t particularly thinking to myself, “Gee, they should move this to the Australian outback.” But darned if it doesn’t work pretty well. Using Australian characters in the year 1919, the story becomes less dark and, in fact, it comes off as a bittersweet comedy of manners. Country Life follows the original story fairly closely. The characters still get drunk a lot, but instead of drinking vodka they are sipping the French wine that the overbearing intellectual Alexander (here a London drama critic) has brought as a gift. Greta Scacchi (Shattered, The Player) plays his attractive young wife. Sam Neill (Dead Calm, Jurassic Park) is the doctor who becomes smitten with her while blind to the affections of Alexander’s plain but good-hearted daughter. Vanya (here called Uncle Jack) still has a chip on his shoulder about having wasted his life on the farm, but at least as an Australian he’s more entertaining to watch than his Russian equivalent. Besides, we can’t feel too sorry for him when we see all the gorgeous scenery he gets to look at. All in all, this is a good evening’s entertainment and in some ways a throwback to such charming Australian films of decades past like My Brilliant Career. (Seen 10 June 1995)

Courage Under Fire 2 out of 4 stars

Events have conspired to make Courage Under Fire’s release seem almost prescient in its timing. This drama about truth and military honor follows by just days or weeks 1) a Supreme Court ruling on state-funded all-male military schools, 2) a terrorist bombing that killed 19 U.S. airmen, and 3) the suicide of the Chief Naval Officer. Director Edward Zwick made a marvelous movie about the American Civil War (also with Denzel Washington) called Glory (and also the Brad Pittfest Legends of the Fall), so it is interesting to see what he has come up with for a film about a war that we can actually remember. What he gives us is a mystery story about the final hours in the life of a captain (Meg Ryan) being considered for a posthumous Medal of Honor. We see these final events several times, sometimes with Rashomon-like variations in detail. As Washington’s army colonel digs deeper into the mystery of the captain’s fate, he wrestles with his own demons and his memories of a friendly fire incident. Unfortunately, Washington’s character internalizes so much it’s hard to maintain interest. And Ryan’s character, while an interesting one, is hampered by being shown only in flashbacks. What this film really needs is an actor with the presence of a Jack Nicholson barking, “You can’t handle the truth!” (Seen 29 June 1996)

Cowboys and Angels 3 out of 4 stars

Now here’s the right way to do a drama/comedy involving Ireland’s drug scene. (Makers of Headrush, take note!) Shane is so young and fresh-faced that we instinctively want to take him on our lap and give him a big hug—even though he’s 20. His mother gives him a religious medallion and frets as he moves into a flat in the middle of Limerick. And she’s right to. Shane is a lost soul looking for something and/or someone to belong to. His flatmate Vincent, on the other hand, is très cool and seems to have everything under control. We think we know where things are heading, but not everything happens quite exactly the way we expect. Being a movie, things move in a clear arc and do end very tidily, but still this film gets at some real truths about what life is like for young Irish men these days. What seems strange for an Irish movie is its sense of optimism and its celebration of people finding themselves. Shane is played by Michael Legge, whose previous experience playing a Limerick character was as one of three actors to play the young Frank McCourt in Angela’s Ashes. Here he makes a very convincing transformation from insecure youth to newly found self-confidence. Allen Leech is likewise convincing as Vincent, who does a queer-eye-for-the-straight-guy number on Shane. Also on hand are David Murray, playing a more menacing version of his character in Flick, and Frank Kelly, managing to erase his “Father Jack” image as Shane’s co-worker who symbolizes the dead end of a safe path through life. (Seen 17 October 2003)

Coyote Ugly 1 out of 4 stars

All the publicity we saw for this movie, which came out three years ago, with its heavy use of footage of comely females gyrating lustily on a barroom countertop, gave every indication that this would be at least a mildly raunchy entertainment. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Despite its plot thread involving women bartenders doubling as table dancers, the film is as wholesome as a Donny & Marie concert. The early scenes make New York City seem pretty rough and intimidating all right, but before long we learn that, despite its seedy exterior, the Big Apple is chock full of people who are just following their dreams. The final outcome is as predictable as any self-respecting guilty pleasure, which this flick is. As the young lovers, Piper Perabo and Adam Garcia are very attractive (which is the whole point), and Maria Bello brings a vaguely Frances McDormand-like quality to her stereotyped role of the titular bar’s hardy owner. All in all, this is a fine choice for home viewing when you’ve gotten tired of watching Flashdance. (Seen 3 September 2003)

Cradle Will Rock 2 out of 4 stars

Cradle Will Rock was a Depression-era politically radical musical that still lives in infamy because of the way it was shut down by the U.S. government. (The government could do that because the government was paying for it.) One of its masterminds was Orson Welles, and as Tim Robbins’s affectionate and imaginative telling of this story shows, this musical did for right-wing political jitters what his War of the Worlds did for flying saucer phobia. Much of the fun of this movie is recognizing people we know (mainly from when they were older), from Cary Elwe’s John Houseman (who became ubiquitous after his role in The Paper Chase) to John Cusack’s Nelson Rockefeller. Angus MacFadyen is spot on physically as Welles, but what we remember best about Welles (his voice) is starkly missing. Cherry Jones (a dead ringer for Nora Dunn) is effervescent as the head of the federal theater project and her testimony before a reactionary senator is a highlight of the film. Indeed, the political divisions portrayed in the film beg to be compared to the recent impeachment hearings. In that light, Joan Cusack basically has the Linda Tripp role (or, for people more familiar with Robert Altman’s film M*A*S*H, it’s the Hot Lips Houlihan part). To the movie’s credit, she is treated reasonably well even if she is essentially the villain. But like most of the characters she never quite becomes three-dimensional. Trivia note: two supporting players, Bob Balaban and acting veteran Barnard Hughes, are reunited for the first time since they were both serviced by Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy. (Seen 17 February 2000)

Cré na Cille 3 out of 4 stars

This movie will not be to everyone’s taste, particularly if you have no interest in Ireland (if there is such a person). It has the feeling of a play that has been adapted to film, although it was actually adapted from a novel, which like the film, is in Irish Gaelic. The movie’s dark lighting, supernatural touches and angst (not to mention it is in a northern European language most of us don’t speak) makes the film oddly reminiscent of early Bergman. It begins with the death of Caitríona Phaidín and follows her into the afterlife (neither heaven nor hell but under the graveyard clay of the film’s title), where she meets recently deceased neighbors, greets newcomers and tries to get, from each one, fresh information about her family and friends above. She is particularly anxious for bad things to befall her sister and her daughter-in-law. Through this narrative device, we get a window onto the life of a small rural Connemara village in the 1940s. It is a place where the people are as stark and hard as the windblown landscape that is their home. And one where rivalries are fierce, feuds are lifelong and hearts are bitter. And yet, it is all deliriously funny—in a dark way, of course. Are these characters and stories exaggerations? Countless stories I’ve heard from my wife and my own first-hand experiences in the west of Ireland suggest not. The director is Robert Quinn (son of Bob, who made the first Irish language feature Poitín), whose best known previous feature was titled, appropriately, Dead Bodies. (Seen 14 July 2007)

Crash 1 out of 4 stars

The problem with porn movies is that they tend to consist of just one tedious car crash after another. Wait, no, that’s just this movie. Taken from J.G. Ballard’s book and directed by Canada’s premier auteur of gross, weird, and kinky (David Cronenberg), Crash technically qualifies as a porn flick (an all-but-hard-core one in its uncut version) because 1) there is the barest of plots to string together a series of sex scenes, and 2) it dogmatically runs the gamut of possible couplings—from male-female to male-male to female-female to Porsche-Buick. This tale of a group of people who have become bored by casual sex with strangers in semi-public spaces and so start getting their sensual kicks from car crashes gives a whole new meaning to the term “auto eroticism.” Unlike conventional porn films, however, this flick features major actors (James Spader, Holly Hunter) after they have become famous. The film can best be enjoyed if you pretend that Spader’s character is Jerry Seinfeld and that Elias Koteas is Kramer coming up with one more crazy scheme. (Seen 30 May 1998)

El Crimen el padre Amaro (The Crime of Father Amaro) 2 out of 4 stars

One review of this movie that I read compared its star, Gael García Bernal, to Robby Benson. But that’s not really right. Sure, he has the same kind of pretty eyes, but Benson never played the sort of deeply troubled young men in such unusual situations as García Bernal has played in such films as Amores Perros and Y tu mamá también. He is more like Mexico’s Cillian Murphy. In this film, he is the youngest Catholic priest I have ever seen. The movie caused quite a stir in Mexico because of the way it portrayed the church. The titular Father Amaro is young and idealistic, but he winds up as corrupt as the older mentor priest in no time. In fact, he is worse, since the older priest at least beds a woman over the age of consent. Amaro enters into an affair with a starry-eyed, devout teenager. We know this is wrong, but we can’t wait for it to happen anyway, since García Bernal and his costar Ana Claudia Talancón are both so attractive that we are happy to see them take off their clothes and do the nasty. There is a suggestion that the church wouldn’t have all these problems if priests weren’t required to be celibate, but the absence of such a vow wouldn’t make Amaro’s behavior any less destructive. The movie reveals its hand when the one priest in the film who is actually doing anything positive gets excommunicated. This isn’t so much a serious indictment of the Catholic church as an outright attack. And a shamelessly titillating one at that. (Seen 10 December 2002)

The Crooked Mile 1 out of 4 stars

This is one of those movies you really want to like, but in the end you give up because it is just too familiar, too predictable and depressingly unsurprising. You know the drill. A precocious little girl befriends the young man in the apartment upstairs, fate throws them together for a road trip, she starts getting on his nerves as he has to start coping with responsibility, presumably for the first time, but in the end, well, you can figure out the rest. Kids might enjoy this, as well as adults who don’t want to be shocked or challenged. At least with road movies, even if the story isn’t particularly interesting, at least you get to see some scenery. But, if you’re hoping to see Irish scenery in this Ireland-set film, you’ll again be disappointed since it was shot mainly on the island of Jersey. Stephen Kane wrote and directed. (Seen 13 July 2001)

Cruel Intentions 2 out of 4 stars

Is it just me or do Sarah Michelle Gellar, Kellie Martin, and that girl on Boy Meets World all have the same exact voice? As important as that question is, though, the real question is: who would ever have thought that Choderlos De Laclos’s 1782 novel about intrigue, seduction, and devilish machinations among the French aristocracy, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, would translate so well to a tale about modern-day preppies in New York City and environs? Writer/director Roger Kumble has managed to turn a literary classic into a nearly socially irredeemable guilty pleasure. There are a couple of possibly intentional reminders of Stephen Frears’s 1988 version of this story. To wit, an amusing opening scene featuring Swoosie Kurtz, who also appeared in that movie, and the fact that Ryan Phillippe as Valmont seems to be doing a John Malkovich imitation. For those who can get past the marathon sexual situations and provocative dialog, there is something for both sides of the great American cultural divide. Clintonites will be amused at a story about rich WASPs presenting a proper face to society while trapping others for their sexual proclivities when they own hidden lives are just as or even more sordid. Conservatives, on the other hand, will have no trouble seeing Gellar’s scheming manipulator and Phillippe’s mendacious sex addict as stand-ins for the Clintons themselves. They can also take comfort in the fact that, in the end, virtue actually (sort of) comes out triumphant. (Seen 14 April 1999)

Crumb 2 out of 4 stars

When I was in college, it was de rigueur to read and laugh at Zap Comix. And lots of us had posters on our dorm room walls of “Keep on Trucking” and Mr. Natural. But I never really knew anything about the mysterious R. Crumb who created these things. After seeing the documentary Crumb, I can’t really say that filling this gap has particularly elevated my peace of mind. It is sort of the anthropological equivalent of lifting up a rock to see what’s underneath. Terry Zwigoff has made an amazing film. He is a personal friend of Robert Crumb and had extraordinary access to him, his family, and friends over a period of years. On one hand, we can’t help but cheer for Crumb because he is the quintessential high school nerd, and all of us can identify with that to some extent. We can’t help but connect with him as he recounts his high school days and then adds with an evil chuckle, “That was before I got famous!” In a way, he is to pen-and-ink drawing what Bill Gates is to software. But the film also tells us more than decent people should want to know about Crumb’s sexual proclivities; the size of his, uh, thing; and, most disturbingly, his family. His brother Charles seems to be his portrait of Dorian Gray. While Robert went on to fame and success, Charles (who was an artist in his own right and was the one who spurred Robert into drawing) stayed at home and became increasingly dysfunctional, reclusive, and ultimately suicidal. Most disturbing is the examination of Crumb’s work. Things that seemed naughtily subversive to me as a teenager (for example the incestous Joe Blow and his family: “You’re the best mom a guy ever had!”) seem more sick than clever after a couple of decades of learning about human behavior from newspapers and daytime talk shows. Moreover, we are left with a portrait of fairly negative, bitter man who, on one hand, refuses to “sell out” but then complains that he only got $600 for the album cover of Cheap Thrills. After seeing this disturbing film, I can’t help but wonder if Zwigoff and Crumb are still friends. (Seen 10 June 1995)

Crustacés & Coquillages (Côte d’Azur) (Cockles & Muscles) 2 out of 4 stars

The best title for this movie is actually the one that was applied for the UK market, which is a pun on the famous refrain from the song “In Dublin’s Fair City” (also called “Molly Malone” or “Cockles and Mussels”). The original French title is nearly a pun since the word for sea shells (coquillages) sounds sort of like the word for flirt (coquette). The title for the American audience (Côte d’Azur), on the other hand, does nothing but establish the location. This is your basic French sun holiday sex farce, so we know the drill. Misunderstandings and secrets revealed lead to bug-eyed stares and angry outbursts. The joke in these things—at least for me—is that the laid-back, sophisticated, never-shocked-by-sex French people turn out to have their various hang-ups after all. The setup is that a family of four are staying in a recently inherited holiday home on the sea, and the parents (mainly the dad) are dealing with the fact that their children are now old enough to have love lives. One of the running gags is that the mom Béatrix (a fetching Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi) has no hang-ups because she has a Dutch mother. The misunderstandings kick off when handsome teenage son Charly has a male friend come to stay and Béatrix, in her eagerness to be accepting, assumes they are a gay couple. It turns out she is only half-right and, as things progress, she and everyone else surprise and get surprised. In the process we get to enjoy watching some attractive people in a beautiful location. There are several twists and turns to negotiate before all the secrets come out, but in the end everyone is happy enough to stage an engaging song and dance number. Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau shared the writing and directing chores. (Seen 2 July 2016)

Cry, The Beloved Country 4 out of 4 stars

This is the first movie about racial relations in South Africa I personally have seen which trusts the viewer’s intelligence enough not to set up one or more characters as a straw man to represent everything evil about apartheid. (Technically, the time period of the movie predates the formal institutionalization of apartheid, but I still think the point’s valid.) Based on Alan Paton’s 1946 novel, this film gives us a loving but anguished look at a society headed toward increasing division and violence. James Earl Jones and Richard Harris give wonderful performances as fathers who are tested by the unhappy fates of their respective sons. When these two have their first major scene together, we can’t help but squirm over the emotion involved. And later, when they eye each other while taking refuge from a storm in a leaky church, they become an allegory for two different and wary tribes sharing a common home. This film delivers what White Man’s Burden was merely striving for. (Seen 6 December 1995)

Crying Freeman 2 out of 4 stars

This is one of those movies where the whole damn thing seems to have been shot in slow motion—kind of like the whole thing’s a dream or something. Based on a comic book, this Franco-Canadian production was filmed in British Columbia. The title character is an expert assassin who, according to legend, is reincarted from generation to generation—sort of like a lama with attitude. But he doesn’t want to really be killing all those yakuzi who are terrorizing his Chinese masters. That’s why he’s crying. When he falls in love with a woman whom he is obliged by his code to kill because she saw his face, he has even more reason to cry. There are some nice scenes and photography in this flick, but it’s mostly mood and atmosphere punctuated by major mayhem. Familiar faces include Rae Dawn Chong, as a Vancouver detective who gets dispatched pretty early on, and Julie Condra, who had teenage TV roles on The Wonder Years and Eerie, Indiana, as the love interest. (Seen 27 April 1996)

Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus and 2012 2 out of 4 stars

This little road movie is like a portal to the past. And I don’t just say that because I have my own memories of journeying through the Atacama Desert a few decades ago. No, I’m talking about the film’s sensibility that seems to have arrived intact straight from the late 1960s/early 1970s. Michael Cera plays Jamie, a young American who has come to Chile in search of his holy grail, which is to experience a truly transcendent mescaline high from the fabled San Pedro cactus. One might fear that this could be the sort of vanity project cum thinly veiled holiday that was Dennis Hopper’s infamous empanada western (my coinage) The Last Movie. Happily, it’s nothing of the sort. Although filmed from the visiting North American’s point of view and largely in English, this is a Chilean film. Writer/director is Sebastián Silva, whose other movies include Magic Magic, which also stars Cera, and The Maid. Not quite a comedy, not really a druggie romp, this is ultimately an interesting character study. Egocentric Jamie has a whole host of issues to deal with. These are brought into high relief by the American woman who winds up joining Jamie and his friends (the director’s quite amiable brothers) on their desert jaunt. The perfectly self-named Crystal Fairy falls somewhere between hippie and hipster, and the casting of Gaby Hoffmann (daughter of Viva of Andy Warhol fame) brings al kind of hip resonances. Story-wise not that much happens. But in the latter stretch, when our gang finally taste the hallowed mescaline, a completely unexpected 1960s song (from a very different type of road movie), brings a totally unexpected emotional transcendence that makes the trip feel worthwhile. (Seen 23 May 2014)

Cuban Fury 2 out of 4 stars

It’s hard not to like a movie that features three of our favorite actors from the UK, Ireland and the States and that has a soundtrack full of Tito Puente, Ray Barreto and lots of other hot Latin artists. It’s also hard not to wish that it was a bit funnier or a bit more manic or a bit more inventive. Instead, we have the standard romcom about the nebbish who becomes enthralled by a woman way out of his league and yet somehow… Nick Frost (who came up with the story) is the world’s most unlikely former salsa dance champion—and that of course is the joke. Even less likely is that the tentative and solicitous Rashida Jones would be a marketing manager. Or that genial Chris Dowd would be a world-class jerk and tormentor. Even the wonderful Olivia Colman is on hand in a role different than how we usually see her—as Frost’s breezy, brassy cocktail-serving sister. Ian McShane riffs on his tough-guy persona as Frost’s once and future taciturn dance coach, and Kayvan Novak more or less steals the show as Frost’s flamboyant dance class friend. Think Strictly Ballroom meets Shall We Dance with a comedic nod to Flashdance thrown in. When it comes to the climactic final stretch, a little too much editing/body doubles/reaction shots are required to pull off the feat of making Frost shine improbably as a salsa star, but by then there is enough good will from those of us who love the actors and the music to forgive all. UK telly vets James Griffiths and Jon Brown handled the directing and writing chores, respectively. (Seen 3 January 2016)

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