Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2018
Scott R. Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France
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F*@k the Disabled (Keeping It Real: The Adventures of Greg Walloch) 2 out of 4 stars

This film isn’t quite as provocative as its title, but it does its best. While the phrase is heard at one point in a comedy sketch about a waiter with cerebral palsy who provides New York diners with a lower standard of service than they expect, its main usage in this quasi-documentary is in another sketch inspired by the notion that a disabled man who is gay might have become that way because he can’t attract women. The film, by Eli Kabillio, is a portrait of performer Greg Walloch, who opens his comedy monologue by announcing, “I’m gay, I’m disabled, and I live in Harlem.” The film basically takes us through Walloch’s club routine, punctuating it with interviews with Walloch, his parents and others, as well as sketches dramatizing some of his comedy gags. A few well-known actors participate in the sketches, notably Stephen Baldwin as an illiterate gym queen. While Walloch can be described as a comedian, he is really more of a monologist, not unlike an urban Garrison Keillor. His stories are funny and touching and refreshingly puncture politically correct notions about being gay and/or disabled—like when he tells about being in a hurry to make a date and getting angry because the bus has to wait for a woman in wheelchair. This film goes to show that the easiest way to make an entertaining film is to find a great subject and then just turn on the cameras. This is the case here, since with his toothy, boyish grin and big soft brown eyes, you can’t help but like Walloch and not want to give him a big hug. (Seen 11 July 2001)

Le Fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain (Amélie de Montmartre) (Amélie) 2 out of 4 stars

On one hand, this visually impressive fable seems to be another European meditation on chance, coincidence and fate, in the vein of such films as Julio Medem’s Earth and The Lovers of the Arctic Circle, Tom Tykwer’sRun Lola Run and The Warrior and the Princess and Claude Lelouche’s Chance or Coincidence. (An American cousin to this genre might be Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia.) On the other hand, the film has a sugariness about it and its do-gooding meddling heroine (not to mention a stylized/romanticized vision of France) that is reminiscent of Chocolat. In fact, the title role almost seems tailor-made for Juliette Binoche, even though the role has actually gone to Audrey Tautou. Her apparently foreordained soul mate is played by actor (A Self Made Hero)/director (The Crimson Rivers) Mathieu Kassovitz. The movie is frequently mesmerizing to watch, but that is no surprise since the director is Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who previously collaborated on such visual treats as Delicatessen, The City of Lost Children and (less memorably) Alien Resurrection. Still, given Jeunet’s track record, this movie should be even better. For what is essentially a romantic love story, the emotional payoff at the end feels rather small. Maybe it’s because we’re asked to root for two people who don’t actually know each other. (Seen 27 September 2001)

A Face in the Crowd 3 out of 4 stars

When it became clear that Donald Trump was actually a serious political contender, many began invoking this flick, which was released sixty years ago this year. The parallels are striking. A man with an abrasive personality becomes a media sensation and eventually a major star. Before we know it, his ability to win over a mass audience by talking about common people allows him to enter the highest reaches of political power. Is this movie prophetic? Not really. Stories like this one and Wild in the Streets (a decade later) regularly vent media people’s fretting over the power of (the wrong sort of) media people. Still, this gem is worth seeing, not only for the Trump comparison but mainly to appreciate Andy Griffith. If you know him only as Opie’s dad and/or Matlock, you will be amazed to see the power and intensity he could bring to the big screen. Griffith is still the southern codger as always (he was never going to play Hamlet or James Tyrone), but here he brings a whole new sinister edge to it. Patricia Neal is great as the ambitious Sarah Lawrence graduate who discovers him. Walter Matthau is the nice guy TV writer who is smitten with Neal and can see the danger posed by Griffith. Anthony Franciosa is the guy on the make who tethers his wagon to the rising star. A very young and agile Lee Remick shows up as a very energetic high school twirler. The story gains a certain authenticity but including a number of the era’s journalists (John Cameron Swayze, Walter Winchell, Mike Wallace et al.) playing themselves. The movie is a product of the same team that three years earlier had made On the Waterfront, director Elia Kazan and writer Budd Schulberg, and it reflects Schulberg’s reflexive distrust of media that disseminate ideas that he does not personally agree with. In the end this movie is extremely cynical, not so much in the portrayal of Griffith’s character but in the way it views the mass of American people in what is now known as fly-over country. They are invariably seen as simple hicks who are easily led by pictures coming out of a box. Some things in Hollywood never seem to change. (Seen 3 January 2017)

Face/Off 3 out of 4 stars

There have plenty of movies where the line between the cop and the criminal get blurred or where two people’s identities get confused and seem to merge. But no movie (or at least no ultra-violent action movie) takes the premise so far or as literally as Face/Off. The title is a sly play on words indicative of the film’s ironic sense of humor. Directed by John Woo, this is the best marriage yet of Hong Kong-style over-the-top melodrama and impossibly choreographed violence with slick, technically rich Hollywood production values. As in Broken Arrow, Woo again works with John Travolta, who this time plays the good guy, that is, when he isn’t playing the bad guy. For a bonus, we also get Nicolas Cage. What’s really fun is watching the two of them impersonate each other and then impersonate each other impersonating each other. The result is something like Brian De Palma might have done in his Scarface days—if he was on some really weird drug. For all the mayhem, the movie is surprisingly satisfying. But be advised that, as is the case with many Hong Kong directors, the body count is ludicrously high. If the FBI really did all this stuff, Janet Reno would be in congressional hearings for the next 40 years! (Seen 10 July 1997)

Factotum 2 out of 4 stars

Film is “a medium that relentlessly and consistently failed, time after time after time, to produce anything at all. People became so used to seeing sh** on film that they no longer realized is WAS sh**.” Given that opinion about movies by the late writer Charles Bukowski (describing his experience writing the 1987 Barbet Schroeder film Barfly), one cannot help but wonder what he would think about another big screen adaptation of his work. He may have had a point, at least when it comes to his own stories on film. Bukowski was always admired much more in Europe than in his home country, and it is again a European who has brought his work to the screen. In a way, the Norwegian Bent Hamer, who previously gave us the oddly touching Kitchen Stories, may actually be too gentle for Bukowski, whose work tends to be on the rough side. Then there is the casting of Matt Dillon, who is way better looking than Bukowski, whose face had been disfigured by acne vulgaris, ever was. But still, the middle-aged Dillon may actually be physically closer to the young Bukowski than was Mickey Rourke in Barfly, who infected Bukowski’s alter ego Henry Henry Chinaski with his own trademark slyness. In the end, the problem with movies taken from Bukowski’s writings may be this. His boozing, aimless exploits may come off as somewhat romantic on the printed page. Seeing them portrayed visually inevitably shows them to be depressing and pointless. Perhaps the best advice for filmmakers pondering future adaptations is the single line that appears on Bukowski’s headstone in Green Hills in Los Angeles: “Don’t Try.” (Seen 11 October 2005)

Fade to Black 2 out of 4 stars

We’ve seen this basic idea before. Take a well-known real-life figure from the past (Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, Jane Austen) and put them in the sort of story that they themselves might have created (Agatha, Hammett, Becoming Jane). In this case, it is Orson Welles, and writer/director Oliver Parker has adapted Davide Ferrario’s novel which puts the legendary actor/director smack dab in the middle of film noir-like mystery when, fresh from his divorce from Rita Hayworth and ready for self-exile, he goes to Italy in 1948 to star in the movie Black Magic. The funny thing is that, of any classic movie, this one seems to evoke not one that Welles himself directed but rather The Third Man (released a year after Black Magic), which featured Welles’s famous turn as Harry Lime, but which was written by Graham Greene and directed by Carroll Reed. Needless to say, there are multiple murders and something rotten reaching up into the highest levels of power. Most of the fun (for film aficionados anyway) is in watching for references to what we know about Welles’s film work as well as his personal progression. For example, our hero (played by a quite trim Danny Huston) makes regular references to concerns about gaining weight. But the best bit comes late in the movie, when a possible murderer is unmasked by Welles, through close examination of the day’s rushes, causing the culprit to rue Welles’s penchant for low camera angles. Huston is amazingly effective playing such a well-known figure. The voice is darn near perfect, and he has great eyes and a screen presence that is like a cross between Darren McGavin and Billy Zane. There is also that relaxed air of confidence and authority that bespeaks Welles, but also Huston’s own father, legendary director John. Also on hand are the always attractive Paz Vega and Diego Luna, as well as Christopher Walken, who is darn near unrecognizable because, well, because he is wearing a nice suit and has his hair neat and tidy. (Seen 19 October 2007)

Fahrenheit 9/11 2 out of 4 stars

It’s official. It’s 1972 again. Michael Moore’s latest film presents us with an America ruled by a buffoon, who begins his term on perpetual vacation but then jumps into action after 9/11 to plot invading the (seemingly) only country in the world that had absolutely nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks, out of pure, unadulterated greed. Or maybe it’s 1984, since Moore closes by drawing a comparison between the government in the George Orwell book and the current administration. The title, of course, evokes the Ray Bradbury novel about yet another future repressive society. It has to be said that Moore does a couple of things really well in this movie. He reminds us of the horror and consequences of war. We already get a lot of this on TV’s evening news, but Moore shows us rawer pictures that primetime TV won’t. He also makes a very good point about the fact that the all-volunteer military inevitably draws most of its recruits from the lower economic classes. In a typical ruse, he badgers congressmen about sending their own children to Iraq, and he might well be asking, what happened to the days when war was important enough that a country’s best and brightest (including children of political leaders) signed up for the cause? But most of the rest of the movie is typical Moore. He sets up vignettes aimed at the emotional heart of his core audience but which confound people with analytical minds. Like the way he won’t just let the eerie footage of Bush reading to schoolchildren after the twin tower attacks speak for itself; he has to put his own words into Bush’s mouth/mind. Or the way he intones ominously about the chilling effects of the Patriot Act and then gives us two cases over overzealous law enforcement that have nothing to do with the actual provisions of the Patriot Act. Or, most damningly for Moore’s credibility, the way he portrays pre-invasion Iraq as an idyllic paradise and says (off-camera, presumably with a straight face) that Iraq had never harmed or tried to harm any American. As this stuff went on and on, it occurred to me that much of what Moore does is what Jay Leno does in his filmed parodies on The Tonight Show: take the most embarrassing clips you can find and edit them together skillfully and add evocative music—like the way Leno recently did a montage of Kerry and Edwards to make them look like gay lovers. (Moore specializes in using clips of his targets while they are getting ready to go on air or have just gone off air.) The difference is that Leno’s bits are better in at least three ways: 1) they are shorter, 2) they are funnier, and 3) Leno is fair enough to lampoon everyone equally. [I have also discussed this film in not one, not two, but three commentaries, with at least one more to follow.] (Seen 14 July 2004)

FairyTale: A True Story 3 out of 4 stars

At last! A Harvey Keitel film you could actually take your grandmother to! And a film set in Yorkshire that isn’t about depressed miners or male strippers. A couple of years ago Charles Sturridge directed the TV mini-series Gulliver’s Travels starring Ted Danson, in which the story was told from the point of view of Gulliver’s young son. The whole story turned on the boy’s faith in his father’s fantastic tales and everyone else’s refusal to believe them. Sturridge explores this theme more deeply in this beautifully photographed film, which is “inspired by actual events.” In the grim world of working class Britain during World War I, two girls produce apparently genuine photographs of fairies, and a public sensation is created. People as famous as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Peter O’Toole) and Harry Houdini (Keitel) are drawn into the debate over their authenticity. Few films capture as sweetly (but not too the point of sugar coating) the magic of childhood and the importance of being willing to believe in the unseen. (Seen 2 December 1997)

Fall 0 out of 4 stars

Ninety-five percent of this movie is like that obnoxious couple that is always smooching and cooing and talking cutesy to each other to the point where you want to throw up. The other five percent is like your morose friend who can’t be consoled but insists on hanging around with you and unloading all his anguish on you ad nauseum. Three years ago director Eric Schaeffer made his first movie, My Life’s in Turnaround, which was a goofily amusing film about making a film. He followed that up last year with the poorly received If Lucy Fell in which he wrote himself a make-out scene with Elle MacPherson. In Fall he has himself romantically involved with a fictional supermodel (didn’t they used to be called just models?) played by Amanda DeCadenet. Schaeffer is a cab driver who apparently charms DeCadenet with his Woody Allen-like wit. But the tender soundtrack music and adolescent poetry he reads constantly in voice-over makes it clear that this is all to be taken very seriously. When they go back to her fabulous penthouse to make love, I found myself rousing from my tedium just long enough to pray that her husband would waiting there with a gun. Sadly, he wasn’t. (Seen 2 June 1997)

Family 2 out of 4 stars

If Emile Zola were alive today and making films, he would probably turn out something like Family. (Except, of course, it would probably be about a French family instead of an Irish one.) This is a gritty, naturalistic study of a working class Dublin family that is relentless in its observance of human behavior and which refuses to lighten the proceedings with even a single moment’s mirth. It was originally a four-part BBC television series, but we saw a version that had been edited down to two hours specifically for festival viewing. The introductory screen text notes drily that the series spurred some “discussion” when it aired in Ireland. I bet! The Irish tourist bureau definitely won’t be picking this one up anytime soon to show off Dublin’s scenery or the charm of Irish life. The screenplay is by Roddy Doyle who knows this territory well, but the tone here has about as much in common with his The Commitments and The Snapper as The Grapes of Wrath has with Oklahoma! Dad is a thieving, womanizing lout who gets abusive when he drinks which is all the time. Mom is an alcoholic and, given how much everyone else around her is drinking, that’s really saying something. John Paul, the 13-year-old son, is traumatized by the fighting going on his home. He is always in trouble at school and nearly kills himself in a drinking binge with his mates. Nicola, the 16-year-old daughter, seems the least afflicted but she shows signs of (at the very least) mental abuse by her father. If you haven’t gotten the idea yet, this film is incredibly depressing. But it does end on a slight note of hope and you feel that things might just be getting a little better. (Seen 30 May 1995)

Family Band: The Cowsills Story 2 out of 4 stars

Depending on your age, the name Cowsills raises one of two questions: 1) whatever happened to the Cowsills anyway or 2) who the hell were the Cowsills? This documentary, by Bill Filipiak and Louise Palanker and narrated by Bob Cowsill (second oldest brother of the band), tells you pretty much everything you would want to know about this pop band of the late 1960s and early 1970s—and a few things you didn’t want to know. It recounts the meteoric rise of the band, which started with only three of the brothers and which, under the strict control of their career navy father, kept adding more members of the family. (Poignantly amusing is the recounting of how these young men, who aimed to follow the Beatles as rock gods, were told they had to include their mother and little sister in the group.) Like a lot of such documentaries, it often has the feel of a self-therapy project. We also learn how they hated the song “Indian Lake” (which they were forced to record) and how their performance of “Hair” finally gave their squeaky clean image a bit of edge. With no small amount of bitterness, there is also much dwelling on the fact that the TV show The Partridge Family was unambiguously based on them (a gracious Shirley Jones is one hand to attest) but they were not allowed to participate and got nothing out of it. Indeed, after the group fell apart, they started their adult lives under a mountain of debt. Most of the bitterness, however, is reserved for their father Bud, whose decisions and tactics arguably short-circuited the band’s career. The worst revelations about him, though, are left until nearly the end, and we learn that he was indeed a monster. (Seen 16 February 2014)

The Family Stone 3 out of 4 stars

More than two decades before he lent his voice to the dad in The Incredibles, Craig T. Nelson played the father of a family beset by all kinds of spooky, supernatural, otherworldly forces. Well, they’re ba-a-ack… in a manner of speaking. Here he is the patriarch of a classically Northeast liberal family, in which the mother jokingly declares (but one suspects also with a bit of sincerity) that she wishes that all her sons had been gay. Many commentators have been touting Brokeback Mountain as the social watershed movie of this Christmas season, but I think it may actually be this holiday comedy/drama by writer/director Thomas Bezucha. In the final reel, Sarah Jessica Parker’s wound-up conservative gets to deliver the kind of take-me-seriously speech that, in earlier ages, used to be given to minority characters. Frankly, watching yet another movie about a disastrous family holiday gathering can feel a bit redundant (especially at a time when everyone is going through their own sometimes disastrous family holiday gatherings), and plot developments toward the end tend to feel a little too pat. Yet, this film does capture something about not only the current state of families in America but also about the current state of America itself, in the way certain characters simply cannot get past mental barriers to connect with other characters. It also cheats by blatantly borrowing some emotion from a grand old movie like Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis. But in doing so, it does us a service by reminding us that the standard “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” was not originally the cheery carol we so often hear in the background these days but rather a desperately sad song about triumphing over life’s all-too-frequent adversities. (Seen 26 December 2005)

The Fan 1 out of 4 stars

It’s sad to see one of the great actors of our age (Robert DeNiro) squandering his talents on an average (but at least restrained) slasher movie like The Fan. His sporting knife salesman is really just a pale shadow of his title role in Taxi Driver. To be sure, the film’s premise has promise. The increasing glorification and merchandising of sports stars and the obsession of their most die-hard fans have ample potential for exploration. But what we get is Death of a Salesman meets Fatal Attraction meets Damn Yankees. In the end this Tony Scott film merely wants to do for baseball fans what Psycho did for motel operators. Unfortunately, it is nowhere near as entertaining. (Seen 2 September 1996)

O Fantasma (Phantom) 1 out of 4 stars

When asked what this movie was about, one of the festival staff helpfully replied, “It’s about a guy who puts on a rubber suit and does stuff.” That’s probably the kindest description possible, although it may cause you to confuse it with Batman. The phantom of the title is a night shift sanitation worker named Sergio, who is a ghost not only because he winds up putting on a rubber suit and stealing through the night but because he is an emotional phantom as well. He seems to connect with no one and prefers to get off on things like voyeurism, stalking, auto-eroticism and the odd anonymous sexual encounter. The plot is as inconsistent and incoherent as a half-remembered dream. As it happens, Sergio is quite attractive, so we find ourselves watching and objectifying him, just as he does the same to a man he meets in the course of his work. (Guys note: the sanitation night shift seems to be where all the hot action is in Portugal.) But this makes the movie sound better than it is. Basically, what director João Pedro Rodrigues has done is to make a date movie for people who are exclusively dating themselves. (Seen 31 May 2001)

Fantastic Four 2 out of 4 stars

One disconcerting effect of seeing long-awaited and long-delayed film adaptations of classic comic books, for those of us who actually followed the characters from the very first issue, is seeing them updated to the modern world. When the first issue of The Fantastic Four appeared in late 1961, only recently had the first American left the earth’s atmosphere, and Reed Richards and Ben Grimm’s backstory included service in World War II. It is even more disconcerting to realize that neither the film’s director, Tim Story, nor any of the actors playing the superhero quartet were even born when Fantastic Four #1 hit the newsstands. So, things have been updated a bit. For one thing, the origin of the FF’s main nemesis, Dr. Doom, has been closely intertwined with the superheroes à la the Green Goblin in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and the Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman. Julian McMahon makes a good slimy villain in the Billy Zane mold, but once he adopts the Dr. Doom persona, he’s all wrong. The transformation makes no sense. They should have had Dr. Doom come straight from Latveria, complete with heavy accent. Otherwise, the casting and execution are amazingly faithful to the comic books. The FF themselves are perfect, except that I would have gone younger with the Johnny Storm character. A major part of his appeal was the logical extension of his adolescent, i.e. teenage, raging hormones to the Human Torch persona. Anyway, just being faithful to the source really isn’t enough. There is something perfunctory about the action in this movie. Compare it to Raimi’s Spider-Man and, frankly, there’s no comparison. These heroes don’t become real like Peter Parker was real. And we never get the sense of exhilaration of having superpowers, as in that film. Even Ang Lee’s Hulk (and I know I am a minority voice in liking that movie) brought a certain amount of believability to completely preposterous incidents and situations. So, as a movie, Fantastic Four isn’t great, but for us die-hard fans, well, it’s good enough. (Seen 21 July 2005)

Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer 2 out of 4 stars

Fantastic Four was the first proper regular superhero title from Marvel Comics at the dawn of its so-called Silver Age in 1961. While the Marvel lineup quickly mushroomed and each of the new comic books developed its own devoted fanbase, FF was always the flagship title and the first among equals. It always felt—whether it was actually true or not—that FF was the personal favorite of creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. So it doesn’t quite seem fitting that FF keeps turning out as the weakest property—with the possible arguable exception of The Incredible Hulk—among the mostly stellar wave of Marvel movie adaptations that began with X-Men in 2000. Maybe that is because X-Men and Spider-Man got really good directors like Bryan Singer and Sam Raimi, respectively, and the Avengers family of blockbusters got the likes of Jon Favreau, Kenneth Branagh, Joe Johnston, the Russo brothers and Joss Whedon, while the 2005 and 2007 FF movies got Tim Story and last year’s even less well received reboot got Josh Trank. Moreover, for some reason Fox aimed FF at a younger audience than the other Marvel movies, and it didn’t suit. This 2007 sequel had the advantage of including one of the most popular Marvel characters of all time, the Silver Surfer, at a time when the imaging technology could do him justice. On top of that, his introduction as the herald of Galactus was one of the all-time classic comic book series, but sadly that solid comic book lineage is squandered by this movie since it barely deals with Galactus at all and, by focusing on Reed Richards’s and Sue Storm’s wedding, turns the story into a romcom. Also, Jessica Alba gets really annoying as Sue in this movie. As the Human Torch, Chris Evans initiates the rare feat of playing two completely different Marvel superheroes. Four years later he would be Captain America. (Seen 27 June 2016)

Far and Away 2 out of 4 stars

Perhaps what is most surprising upon looking back 20 years at this second of three cinematic pairings of Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman (married less than two years at the time) is how little screen chemistry the two stars actually have between them. This film by Ron Howard has the sweep of a historical epic but the structure of a romcom. (Cruise and Kidman meet cute when she stabs him with pitchfork.) As a tale of 19th century Irish emigration, it nearly too conscientiously ticks all the boxes. Cruise not only attempts to kill his landlord and goes to Boston, but he also becomes a boxer and works on the railroad. The easy part about movies “about” Ireland is photographing beautiful scenery, which this flick does. It makes good use of the Kerry coast and Georgian Dublin. The hard part is a screenplay and performances that ring true. This screenplay feels like it is, well, ticking boxes. Also, after ten years living in Eire, I finally understand the annoyance the Irish have toward actors with dodgy accents. Cruise’s regularly makes the list of the most laughable. As usual, Yanks (Robert Prosky, Barbara Babcock, Thomas Gibson) have most of the main roles, but look carefully and you do see featured turns by the likes of Niall Toibin (as Cruise’s da), Cyril Cusack and Colm Meaney, as well as glimpses of such other Irish actors as Brendan Gleeson, Jared Harris, Pauline McLynn (Father Ted) and several others. Aw sure, well, at least the filum made lots of work for all of them. (Seen 2 August 2012)

Fargo 2 out of 4 stars

This time the Coen brothers have returned to a story that is not completely unlike their first film, Blood Simple. Except this time instead of every character merely being tragically unaware of what every other character is doing (and consequently making disastrous miscalculations), most of the key players are just plain dumb. Despite the title (which is perhaps a jokey word play on how far some people will go), most of the action takes place in Minnesota where a desperate car salesman ineptly hatches a scheme to bilk his rich father-in-law out of a ton of money. But in this film, Minnesota is a snowbound version of Twin Peaks where everyone is blandly pleasant and speaks with an exaggerated Scandinavian-American accent. (Seen 14 May 1996)

The Farthest 3 out of 4 stars

Because their story has unfolded over so many years, the Voyager space probes risk being under-appreciated or forgotten. Yet theirs is an amazing story that, when recounted all in one go, as in this inspiring and mesmerizing documentary by Irish filmmaker Emer Reynolds, gobsmacks us with the collective ingenuity, creativity, talent and luck that made it all happen. With a collection of talking heads, archive footage, space photography and simulations, we follow the concept, design, launch and progress of the two probes. While the scientific challenge of taking into account every possible contingency within the limits of 1970s technology is impressive enough, the doc keeps returning to what it knows we are really interested in: the golden record of sounds, music, images and data, which was meant to be humanity’s calling card in the event of eventual interception by extraterrestrials. Carl Sagan’s son Nick recalls speaking the words into a microphone “Hello from the children of planet Earth” as six-year-old. Limited by space constraints to a single rock-and-roll song, Chuck Berry’s Johnny B. Goode was chosen as one of the widely representative musical pieces. In light of Berry’s recent passing, it is touching to see him perform the song live at a celebration of the successful conclusion of the probes’ four-planet flyby mission in 1989. Through enhanced photographs and reminiscences of Voyager team member, we relive the excitement and discoveries of each planetary and satellite flyby. We are touched to see how emotional these men and women become in reflecting on the challenges, successes and meaningfulness of what the mission represents in the grand scheme of things. We mourn when the elation over the successful flyby of Uranus’s moon Miranda coincides with the Challenger shuttle disaster. For years the probes have been too far away to send back images, but they continue to send data as they continue their journey. Nearly five years ago Voyager 1 became the first human-made object to pass the outer boundary of the heliosphere, i.e. leave the solar system and travel in interstellar space. The two probes will continue to do so long after our sun has gone nova. Will they ever be found by our galactic neighbors? As a Saturday Night Live skit once imagined, the answer to come back may well be “Send more Chuck Berry.” (Seen 14 July 2017)

Ein Fast Perfekter Seitensprung (An Almost Perfect Affair) 1 out of 4 stars

Apparently, this goofy comedy has been very popular in its native Austria. Unfortunately, that tells me more about the Austrian psyche than I cared to know. The plot of An Almost Perfect Affair deals with Henny, an uninhibited woman in her 30s who leaves her fiancé at the altar in her small German town and flees to Vienna where she expects to live by her wits. Sadly, they are in short supply. She meets up with Sigi, and the two take to each other, but we then have to go through the usual misunderstandings and mistaken identities, including the one where Sigi borrows a friend’s apartment to pass off as his own even though he’s never been there before. The movie makes light of some sad situations, including the break-up of a marriage with a young child involved. In the end, the message seems to be that low-brow people are nice and rich, snobby people are awful. (Seen 23 May 1996)

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! 1 out of 4 stars

Say what you want about Russ Meyer, he has his own unique cinematic vision. Of course, to the casual observer that vision consists mainly of women with extremely (and I do mean extremely) large breasts. But there seems to be something more going on—at least judging by the smattering of self-proclaimed feminists in the audience for the first midnight screening of the 1995 Seattle film festival. They applauded Meyer for his films because they tend to depict women as strong, independent and superior to men in just about every way. Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! was originally released in the 1960s and differs from most of Meyer’s films in that the sex is mostly via innuendo rather than on-screen nudity. I have to say, this campy picture is a hoot. Meyer was on hand to answer lots of questions. For example, just how did he manage to find all those big-chested female actors? (Answer: If you can find one woman like that, they can usually get you more.) We also learned about some interesting proclivities of Roger Ebert who used to work for Meyer. We all owe Russ Meyer a debt for his pioneering work. After all, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! broke ground that made it possible for younger filmmakers to make movies like Chopper Chicks in Zombietown. (Seen 20 May 1995)

Father of the Bride Part 2 2 out of 4 stars

This movie is not only a sequel to a remake but also a remake of a sequel (Father’s Little Dividend). It features the quota of slapstick that you would expect from a film featuring Steve Martin and Martin Short, but don’t be misled. This flick, which deals with mother and daughter pregnancies, is a virtual multimedia Hallmark card dripping with sentimentality that wrings every tear and lump in the throat that it can. Even the obligatory madcap drive to the hospital is eclipsed by Martin’s heart-tugging scenes in the maternity ward. Well before that point, when Martin tries to cheer up his family who are bemoaning the sale of their Leave It to Beaver house, he asks rhetorically, “What are we? The Schmaltz family?” The answer is emphatically yes. (Seen 26 December 1995)

The Fault in Our Stars 2 out of 4 stars

Thank God for Willem Dafoe. Until he makes his appearance, this movie has been populated exclusively by decent, nice, sympathetic people doing their best under horribly unfair conditions. The story has been long on gripping emotion but bereft of dramatic tension. Dafoe’s character finally breaks through the niceness and makes us sit up in our seats. Some have called this flick the current generation’s Love Story, but that’s only partially apt. In Arthur Hiller’s 1970 tearjerker, Ali MacGraw’s disease was a plot device to serve the love story. (Was a movie title ever more generic than that one—and without being ironic?) In this movie, the disease is virtually one of the main characters. John Green’s source novel was about young people living with a fatal disease, and the love story was a device for exploring that. The problem with a movie version—and I had two fans of the book with me to confirm that the movie didn’t do, and probably could never have done, it justice—is that the very medium itself tends to negate the message. The voiceover of Shailene Woodley (who is now to YA lit what Jamie Lee Curtis once was to slasher flicks) ostensibly punctures the clichés about cancer, but visually she and co-star Ansel Egort look every bit as beautiful as MacGraw did drawing her last gasps more than four decades ago. It is impossible not to like this movie or not to be moved by it. But, as my two advisers would suggest, you’re probably even better off reading the book. (Seen 26 June 2014)

Fei Xia Ah Da (The Red Lotus Society) 1 out of 4 stars

Every so often a movie comes along that makes you sit up, take notice, and say out loud… “Huh?” The Red Lotus Society from Taiwan is just one of those movies. Maybe it’s a cultural thing, but I don’t think so. I mean, just because I’m not French doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy a movies about women tied to radiators, does it? (Actually, it does, but that’s besides the point.) Anyway, you know how in those Hong Kong sword and sorcery movies the heroes are always flying through the air? Well, apparently there is some basis in fact or at least in legend for this. This film is about a group of people who still practice this art, called vaulting. The catch is: once you learn how to do it, you can’t do it in front of anybody. This explains why you hardly ever see human beings fly under their own power. There’s lots of other stuff going on in the movie as well, including plots involving healing jade, gangsters, big business, major financial transactions, and flashbacks to the 1950s. But darned if I know what any of it means! (Seen 4 June 1995)

Feiseung Datyin (Expect the Unexpected) 2 out of 4 stars

Expect the Unexpected is a good (English) title for this police action thriller because a lot of unexpected things happen. For instance, this Hong Kong flick has an incredible number of violent shoot-outs with blood and bullets everywhere and wrenching death scenes. Okay, that wasn’t unexpected. But the ending is unexpected, but of course it would be wrong to tell you why. The title also works as a motto that our police heroes should always keep in mind, but unfortunately they don’t. For a Hong Kong movie of this genre, we actually get to know a lot more about and to care about the characters than is usually the case. The movie also has a fair number of humorous touches, including a hospital sequence where one young woman after another shows up when a cute cop is wounded—each clearly under the impression that she is the special person in his life. Another scene where Sam (the chronically rule-breaking cop who openly trades in contraband cigarettes in the police station) attempts to break down the door of the woman with whom he is smitten. All of these sequences contribute increasing poignancy when the story reaches its (did I happen to mention, unexpected?) finale. (Seen 24 May 1999)

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off 3 out of 4 stars

Matthew Broderick has done such a good job of clearing the patent on hand-wringing movie milquetoasts (cf. The Producers Tower Heist) that it’s sometimes hard to remember that his standout role, way back in 1986, was as the consummate confidence man and trickster. To get all literary about it, you can think of Ferris as Peter Pan, the boy determined not to grow up and to lead his friends off on improbable adventures, while Jeffrey Jones’s obsessive dean of students is the jealous Capt. Hook, trying to quash the spirit of youth wherever he finds it. But you can also look at the two of them as Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd. Take your pick. I’ll confess to not entirely appreciating Ferris’s charms when I first saw this flick, but there is no denying that writer/director John Hughes had a knack for connecting with Ferris’s generation—whether it was in manic comedies like this or in more angsty fare like The Breakfast Club. To youth in the 1980s anyway, this is what rebellion looked like. As slight a film as it may have seemed to the likes of me at the time, its many deft touches have become hallmarks for the ages, and its cast has remained largely recognizable. Jennifer Grey went straight to Dirty Dancing. Ben Stein was so perfect as a drone of high school teacher (although students would do well to heed his lessons) that he played virtually the same role for ages on The Wonder Years. And the passage of time only enriches the impact of Charlie Sheen’s cameo near the end of the film. The very same year he burst out big time with his role in Oliver Stone’s Platoon. (Seen 8 March 2014)

Festen (The Celebration) 2 out of 4 stars

This is the flick that started it all. This was the first film made under the auspices of the Dogme 95 movement. Started by Lars von Trier and this movie’s director, Thomas Vinterberg, the goal was to eschew such technical innovations as artificial light, lens filters, sound dubbing, stationary cameras and post-production special effects. (Did I mention that the founders and members are Danish?) In other words, the film has to look pretty much like The Blair Witch Project. You would think that, with those limitations (did I mention that fantastical elements are forbidden?), it could turn out to be kind of boring visually, but you would only wish you were wrong. The handheld camerawork on this flick is so kinetic, you might think it was shot by a child with ADHD who badly needs the toilet. Story-wise, the movie concerns a large gathering of family and friends for a man’s 60th birthday. I don’t want to say that the party looks like a looming disaster, but in the first few minutes there are more portents of doom than a major wedding on a primetime soap during sweeps. Sure enough, there is one outrageously uncomfortable moment after another. At times we think we have wandered into a Luis Buñuel satire. For an exercise that is supposed to be grounded in ordinary reality, this movie is actually a delirious over-the-top set pieces. Despite the bad lighting, it is impossible to look away. Kind of like watching a train wreck. (Seen 14 July 2012)

Fever Pitch 2 out of 4 stars

When we last saw Colin Firth, he had gone a bit loony and was trying to crash his airplane into his wife and her lover in The English Patient. In Fever Pitch, he is still fairly loony, and once again he is caught up in a monumental love triangle. Scripted by Nick Hornby after his best-selling novel, this is basically the story of a man’s 18-year love affair with the sport of European football (specifically, a club called Arsenal) and the woman who tries to come between them. The film goes a long ways toward explaining the fascination that soccer has for its most rabid fans and how, in certain circumstances, even non-fans can get caught up in the excitement. Its quirky love story set against a sports background makes it more than just a tad reminiscent of Jerry Maguire. Watch for Stephen Rea in a humorous cameo. (Seen 23 April 1997)

Fiddler on the Roof 3 out of 4 stars

There are two ways to judge a film version—or for that matter even a stage version—of a major Broadway musical. You can focus mainly on the quality of the book and music or you can focus mainly on how good this particular version is, as compared to other mountings of the work. Since I don’t get that many chances to see musicals on Broadway, I tend to take the former approach. Some people were disappointed in this 1971 adaptation by Canadian Norman Jewison for various reasons, notably because for the central role of Tevye he cast Topol instead of Zero Mostel, who was most identified with the character. Although I never saw Mostel perform the role, I suspect that Jewison was right. The film camera has a way of visually making everything more literal. A broad stage performance can fire the audience’s imagination. A performance captured on film, on the other hand, begs to be scrutinized for imperfections in the illusion. The movie, with its mixture of character-driven comedy and air of impending tragedy, was always going to be tricky. The Tel Aviv-born Topol properly has the look of a man being tested by God. (Interestingly, Topol would go on to play a Greek drug kingpin in the James Bond flick For Your Eyes Only.) In the end, of course, what makes the movie a classic are the songs by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick. No matter how flush you are, you can’t help but be moved by Tevye’s lament about poverty in “If I Were a Rich Man.” And you don’t even have to be a parent to shed a tear over the elegy for the passing of time in “Sunrise, Sunset.” Jewison—whose impressive list of films includes the original Thomas Crown Affair, Moonstruck and The Hurricane—made one other major musical adaptation. It came two years after Fiddler and, while it also observed a community of Jews, it had a completely different tone. It was Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar. (Seen 28 October 2014)

The Field 3 out of 4 stars

This is one grim movie. Jim Sheridan’s sophomore film directing effort (after the much lauded My Left Foot), this film had a lower profile than his striking debut or his third film, In the Name of the Father. Adapted from a play by Kerry playwright John B. Keane, it resounds with Keane’s usual themes of hard, brutish rural life and the Irish attachment to the land. The setting is that dark period sometime after the British have been thrown out but long before anyone could have conceived of the pervasive poverty someday giving way to the Celtic Tiger. (The play was inspired by an actual incident in Kerry in 1958.) Richard Harris is a revelation in the main role—unrecognizable from any other parts he played and very different from his own persona. A peasant farmer, his “Bull” McCabe is like a king out of Shakespeare. He constantly rails about his own bit of land, but his real problem is his lack of a viable succession. One son died young, and the other (played by a young Sean Bean) will clearly not be much of a farmer. In the end, he becomes King Canute, vainly trying to force back the sea with his commands. The village scenes were filmed in picturesque Leenane, on Killary Harbour near the Galway-Mayo border. (If you go there, don’t bother looking for the village’s stone bridge. It washed away a couple of years ago.) John Hurt is untouchable as the hanger-on who carries tales and is always looking for a handout. And Brenda Fricker is on hand, in a strangely drawn part, as Harris’s wife. Tom Berenger (four years after Platoon and 20 years before Inception) is the Yank who heedlessly upsets the local balance. Don’t blink or you’ll miss Brendan Gleeson, as a quarryman, in his first credited big screen appearance. (Seen 13 August 2010)

Fierce Creatures 2 out of 4 stars

I suppose with farcical comedies, it’s all a matter of taste. Fortunately, there is a reliable litmus test for Fierce Creatures since, as we all know, it reprises the cast and spirit of 1988’s A Fish Called Wanda. If you somehow missed that one and can’t decide whether to see Fierce Creatures, then just go. You will likely laugh a lot. Or you might possibly be offended, in which case you deserve to have your twit nose bent out of shape anyway. This flick has got everything you want in a comedy: John Cleese sputtering, sheep-in-a-bed gags, Michael Palin driving everyone else crazy, lemur-in-a-bed gags, Jamie Lee Curtis in mini-skirts, and tarantula-in-a-closet gags. Part of the genius of this film is that, in satirizing the rampant commercialization of our culture, it gets to have it both ways and rack up what has to be a record number of product placements! (Seen 10 February 1997)

The Fifth Element 2 out of 4 stars

Luc Besson has finally cut out the middleman. He has essentially skipped the original French version of this movie and gone straight to the Hollywood remake himself. I guess this will avoid inferior US versions like Point of No Return (starring Bridget Fonda), based on his La Femme Nikita. This imaginative science-fiction special-effects-laden action comedy adventure has a look somewhere between Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam. With plot elements that seem borrowed from Stargate, Species, and Blade Runner, the film consistently entertains and amuses, although its numerous cartoonish stretches make it hard to get emotionally invested in the story, which actually has a pretense of profundity. Bruce Willis is on hand playing the same character he has played repeatedly since the first Die Hard movie, but the niftiest fight moves belong to Milla Jovovich, who is basically a futuristic alien version of Besson’s earlier heroine Nikita. Gary Oldman makes quite a comical villain who isn’t particularly threatening. (Seen 11 June 1997)

The Fifth Province 2 out of 4 stars

At one point in this film directed by Frank Stapleton, a woman giving a seminar on screenwriting admonishes her Irish pupils to avoid “Irish mothers, priests, sexual repression and the misery of the rural life.” Except for the bit about the priest, this goofy film cheerfully refuses to follow its own advice. Other self-referential film bits include an extended homage to Hitchcock’s Psycho, which suggests (cf. mother and sexual repression, above) that Norman Bates was really an Irishman at heart. The somewhat innocent hero of this tale is Timmy (Brian O’Byrne), who is reminiscent of some of the childlike protagonists we have seen in various quirky, oddball Australian comedies. And the whole movie has an absurd quality with heavy religious and Freudian overtones, not unlike some Eastern European comedies. The real story seems to be about the tensions between traditional Ireland and the very foreign European continent with which it has cast its fate. In a brief but telling scene, Timmy navigates through a road works area where one of the old highways from Tara is being paved over with money from Brussels. If you’re a film buff, it is hard not to like this film, particularly the performances by Ian Richardson (forever known as the man in the ad asking for Grey Poupon) and Anthony Higgins, both strangely reminiscent of the late Peter Sellers and both of which Sellers easily could have played in one of his frequent multi-character turns. (Seen 28 January 2001)

50 First Dates 3 out of 4 stars

As frequently happens to me in rural Ireland, my personal life seemed to be a mere extension of this movie. For one thing, I came within inches of colliding with a cow on a dark country road on the way home from the cinema (true story). For another, I saw this with my usual movie date, my brother-in-law Joseph who was struck by a car as a child and still suffers from short-term memory loss. (Five years ago I made the mistake of bringing Joseph to two movies on the same night—the quirky Australian comedy The Castle and the macho space adventure Armageddon—and he was convinced that it was all one single movie.) The film itself turned out to be a pleasant surprise. At the outset, we are primed to expect one more rom com about a serial one-night stand artist coping with the idea of commitment. Then, when we start getting gags about head injuries, we feel ourselves entering the tasteless humor realm of the Farrelly brothers. In the end, however, we get something fairly unexpected: the romantic comedy version of Christopher Nolan’s Memento with the comic sweetness of Groundhog Day. Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore reprise their unlikely chemistry from The Wedding Singer, but without that movie’s artificial 1980s conceit. In the end, despite the movie’s frequent low-brow gags (a scene with a vomiting walrus comes to mind), the movie is a cockeyed testament to real love in the face of overwhelming obstacles and something of an allegory of living with a partner suffering from Alzheimer’s. The film’s lovely ending, as well as a very good soundtrack, is actually worth putting up with Rob Scheider’s inevitable trademark obnoxious turn. (Seen 12 April 2004)

54 2 out of 4 stars

One of my top priorities upon returning to the States was to catch up as best I could with the recent cinematic mini-revival of the Disco Era. By autumn, however, all that was left for viewing was 54, a borderline guilty pleasure about New York City’s all-too-hip and glamorous nightspot. Actors obviously got into the cast of this movie the same way patrons used to get into Studio 54—by looking really good. As an exercise in nostalgia, it is entertaining enough with a certain amount (but not enough) namedropping. As a history lesson, well, the most major of facts are here—plus a lot of fictionalized stuff. I suspect that this would have been even more entertaining if writer/director Mark Christopher hadn’t been making this for a subsidiary of Disney. Christopher, whose previous work was in the genre of “gay cinema,” here seems limited to playing it mostly straight (so to speak). This exuberant tale constantly promises to turn dark. There is a blossoming romantic triangle, rampant drug use, and constant sex on the eve of the age of AIDS. But nothing much really happens and the film is ultimately as star-struck as its young hero. Mike Myers (he can act; who knew?) plays club owner Steve Rubell as something of a cross between Jon Lovitz and Woody Allen. (Seen 25 October 1998)

Fight Club 2 out of 4 stars

I made the mistake of ignoring a spoiler warning in a Sunday New York Times article and learned the “surprise” twist to David Fincher’s Fight Club before I saw it (I hate when I do that!), so I’ll never know if I would have figured it out on my own or not. But it doesn’t really matter because having that knowledge going in didn’t really help me to follow what point this movie was trying to make. It starts off extremely promising, threatening to do for white-collar American male yuppies what Trainspotting did for nihilistic Scottish drug users. But then it seems to aspire to being a study of a twisted mind and blurring identities along the lines of such classics as Bergman’s Persona or Altman’s Three Women. Finally, it seems to want to be a hallucinogenic tour de farce about society going to hell à la Terry Gilliam (cf. Twelve Monkeys, which also starred Brad Pitt, and Brazil), but with only about a tenth of his wit. Anyway, the movie does provide some very strange sensations, notably 1) Edward Norton playing an exaggerated variation on the same role he played in Primal Fear, 2) a reprise of Kevin Spacey’s blackmailing-the-boss scene from American Beauty, and 3) hearing Pitt, the epitome of the young and glamorous superstar, making speeches about how such dreams don’t come true. (Seen 2 November 1999)

Film d’Amore e d’Anarchia (Love and Anarchy) 3 out of 4 stars

This film was a major cause of my longtime love affair with European films. When I saw it soon after its original release in 1973, I instantly became a die-hard Lina Wertmuller fan and religiously sought out each of her subsequent movies. At least until I realized that she was pretty much making the same movie over and over, usually with the same stars who were in this one: Giancarlo Giannini and Mariangela Melato. It took me 25 years to see Love and Anarchy a second time, but I’m happy to report that it holds up. Sure there’s a fair amount of overacting, but this is an Italian film after all. As often as Wertmuller has tackled the theme of sex and politics in other films, she has never handled them before or since with such energy, passion, or respect for their complexity. Giannini’s performance (his innocent’s stare stays with you indefinitely) was such that I have never seen him since without thinking of this movie. Well, at least until I saw him in A Walk in the Clouds and Mimic anyway. (Seen 26 January 1998)

A Film with Me in It 3 out of 4 stars

If the title makes you think we are in for yet another of those movies that is self-referential and full of in-jokes about the film business, well, you are not wrong. In the first scene, Neil Jordan himself (not the last cameo in this flick) is interviewing our hero Mark for the role of “concerned neighbour” in an upcoming movie. Mark, as played by Mark Doherty, barely looks up to the challenge. His perpetually befuddled gaze suggests one of life’s hapless bystanders. Which he will turn out be, in spades. Mark’s friend, aspiring director Pierce, as played by Dylan Moran, on the other hand, exudes a mountain of unearned self-confidence. He is the ultimate poseur, the comfortable center of his own universe. Moran plays him with the entertaining verve of a young Kevin Kline. As a black comedy, the flavor of this flick can probably be best summed up as Abbott & Costello meet Withnail & I. Written by Doherty, it is directed by Ian Fitzgibbon, who previously made the even more in-jokey Dublin adventure, Spin the Bottle. (Seen 12 July 2008)

Fin Août, Début Septembre (Late August, Early September) 2 out of 4 stars

Olivier Assayas’s last film was Irma Vep, which was all about movie-making and was a lot of fun. This one is completely different. It is like an Eric Rohmer film. Actually, it is like six Eric Rohmer films. Which is good because, where each Eric Rohmer film deals with one season, this one deals with six episodes covering a whole year in one movie, so it is much more efficient. Like a lot of French films, it is largely about people talking—and inevitably, having some nice meals with some good wines—although there is one quite dramatic development that dominates the last part of the movie and gives it some much needed intensity. For the American remake, I vote for Paul Reiser to play Gabriel, the editor fears committing to a serious job or a serious woman; Spalding Gray to play Adrien, the self-involved writer confronting his own mortality; Amanda Plummer as Jenny, Gabriel’s somewhat neurotic ex; and Catherine Zeta-Jones as Gabriel’s new love interest, who has a hidden kinky streak. (Seen 23 May 1999)

Finding Nemo 3 out of 4 stars

What is so darned funny about short-term memory loss? Maybe it’s just me. What’s just me? I don’t remember. (Okay, it’s not particularly funny when I do it.) Years ago, Saturday Night Live had me in stitches with a recurring skit called “Mr. Short-Term Memory.” To this day, my friend Jim and I can still crack each other up by repeatedly quoting a single line from one of the skits, which was simply the name “Tony Randall!” Even the movie Memento, which definitely had its grim side, had a perversely comic appeal because the hero (and the audience, through the narrative device of telling the story backwards) was in a constant state of not knowing what had already happened. The best running gag in the very successful Finding Nemo is the character Dory, voiced brilliantly by Ellen DeGeneres, who has a short-term memory problem. She, along with the titular Nemo, display handicaps that make this tale all the more endearing and, I submit, very emotional for parents of small children. Disney has a long history of portraying traumatic parent-child events in their animation (cf. Bambi, The Lion King), and strangely these scenes seem harder to take as an adult (an adult with a child anyway) than as a kid. Like a lot of classy kid video lit, this instant classic by the Pixar guys aims straight over (or at least through) the heads of its ostensible juvenile audience and straight at the parents, with its Gary Larson sensibility of animal world irony. The movie speaks volumes about child-parent relationships and fears, but at heart it is also about an epic quest, reluctantly undertaken, that causes growth and enlightenment for its heroes. In that sense, this film is yet another legend in a long line of literature exemplified by the likes of The Lord of the Rings. (Seen 8 November 2003)

Finding Neverland 2 out of 4 stars

This is German-born director Marc Foster’s follow-up to the much-hailed Monster’s Ball and is based on a play by Allan Knee. It’s unfortunate that I saw it immediately after the wonderful Millions, another England-set film that did so much better at evoking childhood and fantasy. To be sure, there are some nice bits in this recounting of how the Scottish playwright J.M. Barrie came to write the play Peter Pan. Such as when Johnny Depp, who plays Barrie, gets transformed into a pirate, instantly reminding us of his turn in Pirates of the Caribbean. Mostly, though, as these movies generally go, it is largely an exercise in spotting people and events that will turn up in the Peter Pan story. One that I wasn’t expecting was Julie Christie (who seems to have aged into looking eerily like Eve Arden) as the prototype for Captain Hook. The film is already being touted as the one that will finally get Depp an Oscar. I won’t begrudge him at all if he gets one, but personally I wasn’t electrified by this particular performance. In most of his scenes, he is glum and reserved (obviously meant to be Victorian), but then, when he breaks out with jokes or playfulness with Kate Winslet’s kids, it comes out a bit weird. I found myself siding with the fuddy duddy adults who kept telling him to stop. But it could have been worse. They could have cast Robin Williams. (Seen 16 October 2004)

Fire 2 out of 4 stars

This movie seems kinkier than it really is, probably because it takes place in India and everything seems kinkier there. Also, its brief and tasteful (read barely soft core) love scenes between two beautiful women seem specifically calculated to provoke scandal and outrage on the Asian subcontinent. Canadian writer/director Deepa Mehta (who made a point of mentioning that she is straight) tells the story of two women (Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das) who are married to two loser brothers who amazingly aren’t interested in having sex with them. So the wives turn to each other. Comic relief is provided by their decrepit, speechless mother-in-law who disapproves of everything she sees by frantically ringing a bell. After the screening, Mehta explained that the men in this movie are just as much victims as the women. (Yeah, right.) (Seen 16 May 1997)

The First Wives Club 2 out of 4 stars

It’s easy to watch The First Wives Club because it is all so comfortable and familiar. (The sense of familiarity is only enhanced by the fact that many key moments have been shown continually in TV ads and movie house trailers.) Of the main stars, Bette Midler and Diane Keaton essentially play variations on their own public personas (wisecracking and neurotic, respectively) and Goldie Hawn is more or less the same character she played in Death Becomes Her. (There’s even a sly reference to erstwhile co-star Meryl Streep.) In smaller roles, we have actors like Bronson Pinchot and Dan Hedaya also reprising characters they have often played before. Not only that, but the film is also littered with so many celebrity cameos and walk-ons that it threatens to turn into The Player. Ostensibly, this is a middle-aged white woman’s answer to Waiting to Exhale with an Important Message about how we view and treat older women. But the movie really exists to give Hawn, Keaton, and Midler a chance to chew the scenery, exercise their comic muscles, and have fun lampooning their own public images. The director is Hugh Wilson who, among other things, wrote and directed the original Police Academy movie. (Seen 14 September 1996)

Fish Tank 3 out of 4 stars

Although this is only Andrea Arnold’s second feature film as a director, she has already won an Oscar (in 2005 for the short film Wasp). And this film, as did her other feature Red Road, won the Jury Prize at Cannes. Okay, fine, fine. But is the movie any good? Well, we are in familiar territory, an English housing estate where family units barely exist and the youth are alienated. In the beginning anyway, this could be a Ken Loach movie. As played by the rather remarkable Katie Jarvis, Mia is all adolescent anger and frustration. Her relationship with her young single mum more or less amounts to intense and loud sibling rivalry. And then her mother brings home a boyfriend. Movies and reality prime us to expect bad things from single moms’ boyfriends, but Connor (played by Michael Fassbender, apparently as a North American) actually appears to be a positive influence in the lives of Mia and her younger sister, perhaps the sort of father figure they have been lacking. But, of course, things can’t go too smoothly. In fact, a couple of times the movie takes us places I would really have preferred not to go. While not for everyone, the film deserves its awards. (Jarvis got one for acting at the recent Edinburgh International Film Festival.) It never feels less than real, even when it brushes up against the limits of being exploitive. And, most importantly, it doesn’t leave us without hope. But it doesn’t exactly brighten our day either. (Seen 12 July 2009)

5 Hour Friends 2 out of 4 stars

When you have spent your summer, like many of us have, watching blockbusters like Man of Steel and Pacific Rim, what are you supposed to make of a movie like 5 Hour Friends? Well, you savor it, like a nice scotch you enjoy with grownups—after you’ve been spending weeks downing sugary soft drinks with the kids. This feature debut helmed by Theo Davies is a throwback to the days when movies were about characters and situations that were rooted in reality. A gentle drama with humorous touches, it relies entirely on our recognizing and liking its various characters. Chief among these is divorced 50something adman Timothy whose only true priority in life seems to be the golf course. (The title refers to the length of time it takes him to play a round of golf.) He is played by Tom Sizemore, best known for military and tough guy roles in movies like Heat, Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down. The movie only works if we buy into Sizemore’s character and sympathize with his irresponsible womanizer—and he scores a hole in one. Like Candy, the woman he picks up in a bar (played by Musetta Vander, a charmer with a Catherine Zeta-Jones-like exoticness), we can see the innate decency in Timothy and are pretty sure of his ultimate redemption. Soap opera veteran Kimberlin Brown has the tricky role of his new girlfriend, requiring her to veer between confidence, insecurity and even borderline psychosis. The very appealing cast of supporting players includes Judith Scarpone, Ellen Lawson and William Stone Mahoney—all friends trying to steer Tim in the right direction. An additional (virtual) character on screen is beautiful San Diego, and the movie only increases my desire to someday live there. Clearly, this film was not born in the mind of some callow film school prodigy. It is, in fact, the labor of love of writer/co-producer Ron Jackson, who has nurtured his filmmaking dream for decades. It has played several film festivals (picking up some awards) and even nabbed deals for international and online releases. But Jackson has his heart set on a domestic distribution deal and is currently aiming for a crowd-funded test screening. With all the heart and soul he has poured into this project so far, we can only wish him lots and lots of luck. I have no doubt that the audience for this movie is out there. (Seen 6 August 2013)

The Flag 2 out of 4 stars

This is a case of a movie trying to tick so many boxes that, during the slow bits, we are all too aware that we are watching a checklist. Still, in the good bits there is quite a bit of harmless and, at times, affecting fun. Much of the box-ticking is aimed at its intended domestic Irish audience: emigration, funerals, economic hardship and the icing on the cake, the 1916 Easter Rising. Our hero is the always reliable Pat Shortt, whose comedic chops are beyond reproach and whose talent for pathos was well established in Lenny Abrahamson’s Garage. Here he plays Harry, a down-on-his-luck (or just incompetent?) Irish builder in London. His life is going downhill fast when he heads home for his father’s funeral and is reunited with childhood pal Mouse, a former jockey saddled with an equine phobia since a fall from a horse. Probably best known for the TV series Vikings, Moe Dunford plays Mouse with an amiable cluelessness reminiscent of Ardal O’Hanlon at his innocent best. Egged on after the discovery of an uncovered letter from Harry’s late grandfather, the pair resolve to return to London and retrieve an Irish tricolor siezed from the General Post Office in 1916 and never returned by the Brits. Thus the caper is afoot and there is fair amount of lampooning of cultural (and linguistic) differences between the Irish and English. Co-conspirators include Brian Gleeson, Peter Campion and Ruth Bradley as their gung-ho driver. Simone Kirby is the lady Harry loved and lost, and Craig Parkinson is the insufferable generation-removed Irish-Brit more into rebellion than his cousins across the Irish Sea. A rousing conclusion at the GPO centennary vouchsafes a feel-good finale. Writer and director are Eugene O’Brien and Declan Recks, whose work has mostly been on Irish television. (Seen 7 January 2017)

Flick 2 out of 4 stars

As played by David Murray, Jack Flinter (whose schoolboy nickname gives the film its title) is not what you expect a hash dealer to be. He seems more like the lead singer of an ultra-hip rock band. Or maybe a presenter on one of those late evening chat shows on Network 2. But that’s the idea. For his non-documentary film debut, writer/director Fintan Connolly wanted to portray Dublin’s underbelly as he understood it to be and, not incidentally, in a way that didn’t require much of a budget. In the end, most of the drug dealer film clichés are still here: the score, the double-cross, the set-up, the police shakedown. What’s new and interesting is the vision of Temple Bar club culture nightlife that is only now making its way into Irish films. Also making this trip worthwhile is an evocative film score by Niall Byrne that, at times, single-handedly makes the movie border on operatic. (Seen 9 March 2001)

Flirting with Disaster 3 out of 4 stars

In his debut film Spanking the Monkey, David O. Russell explored some twisted family relationships. In Flirting with Disaster, he’s still exploring the weird family thing, but now he’s got a lot more money to work with and a much better-known cast. And the film, in my humble opinion anyway, is very funny. If Woody Allen had made this, it almost could have been called Mighty Aphrodite: The Next Generation. Ben Stiller is a neurotic New York entomologist obsessed with his finding his birth parents, Patricia Arquette is his increasingly impatient wife, and Tea Leoni is all-too-tempting counselor who ill-advisedly accompanies the couple on their quest. But it’s the string of minor characters encountered along the way that makes the trip worth taking. By the time we have bounced from east coast to west coast to midwest to the desert, we begin to feel that the dysfunctional family that Russell is chronicling is America itself. (Seen 20 June 1996)

Flodder 2 out of 4 stars

One of my very favorite movies at the 1984 Seattle film festival was a nifty little thriller from Holland called The Lift, about a malevolent elevator that didn’t like human beings. (“Take the stairs! For God’s sake! Take the stairs!”) Well, the director of that movie (Dick Maas) has written, directed, co-produced, and even composed the music for another movie which has now become the biggest money-making film in The Netherlands. The premise is somewhat reminiscent of The Beverly Hillbillies. The Flodder family is a real estate agent’s nightmare. They’re the lewdest, crudest, rudest bunch of white trash on either side of the Atlantic. Mother is a bedraggled hulk of a woman, always dressed in a housecoat, and perpetually dangling a cigar from her mouth. Her brood of several kids (each one apparently by a different father) include Johnny, a James Dean for the eighties; Tracy, a pervert of a son; and Tracy (I guess it’s hard for a mother to think up names all the time), a comely daughter who wears hot pants that almost aren’t there. When it’s discovered that the Flodders’ tenement of a hovel is located on top of an old chemical dump, the city is obliged to find them a new home. It turns out the only neighborhood where the family isn’t already infamous is a posh development called Sunnydale, which is populated by lawyers, doctors, their snooty wives, and their cute little pets. The stage is set for a clash of class and trash. This movie is reminiscent of Blake Edwards’ better films, with one slapstick set-up after another, car chases down quiet suburban streets and cul-de-sacs, and a climactic party where anything can and does happen. It’s easy to see why this was a big moneymaker. If it catches on in the States, it could be Holland’s Crocodile Dundee. (Seen 26 May 1987)

Florence Foster Jenkins 3 out of 4 stars

Maybe this is an honest-to-goodness trend—or else it just says something about my film picking—but the best 2016 movies I have seen so far have all been brilliant at evoking specific 20th century eras and at celebrating the passion and madness of popular art. So far we have had the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar! about 1950s Hollywood and John Carney’s Sing Street about 1980s Dublin. And now we have this giddily funny and touching movie by Stephen Frears about 1940s New York. This is no big-budget extravaganza, but still the vistas and establishing shots of post-war Manhattan are breathtaking and convincing. This is particularly impressive since the movie was filmed in Glasgow and Liverpool. The interiors are the lavish rooms of the wealthy, familiar from Hollywood flicks of the 1930s. The actors, all chosen impeccably, are playing the great sorts of character roles we remember as well from that era. Its story of sweetness triumphing over meanness is like Frank Capra adapting a Damon Runyon tale—if Runyon had written about wealth and privilege instead of colorful lowlifes. So many wonderful characters come and go and light up the screen and redeem themselves (nor not) that you wish they could all form a repertory company and keep making movies together. As fanciful as the story seems, it is drawn from real life. It may be my imagination, but there seem to be times when screenwriter Nicholas Martin tweaks the stars by playfully putting words into the mouths of Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant similar to things they have actually said in real life. As usual Streep disappears into her role and this time not in a way that overshadows everyone else. Her two co-stars are revelations. Grant has never been better. As the title character’s doting husband cum impresario/enabler/user, he’s both the logical extention of all those Hugh Grant roles he has played through the years and also, for once, someone we have never seen him inhabit before. And he is very good company. There is a party scene where he breaks into a dance that is transporting. As the ambitious but mild-mannered accompanist Cosme McMoon, Simon Helberg (who really is a pianist) performs the miracle of making us forget his Big Bang Theory character and completely embrace him as our wide-eyed point-of-view stand-in. In the end, the story is more odd than inspiring, but the ending is no less moving for that. It made me think of The Music Man. (Seen 18 May 2016)

Flushed Away 3 out of 4 stars

I worry that, since no one else liked A Good Year, people may not like this either. After all, we have another Australian (this time, Hugh Jackman) playing (well, voicing) another uptight English twit, who gets his horizons expanded by finding himself unexpectedly in a foreign place. There’s even more of that lampooning of the genetic enmity between the English and the French. And it is strange that I seemed to be laughing much oftener and louder than both the Missus and the Munchkin. Still, I have to think that the geniuses at Aardman (David Bowers and Sam Fell directed) cannot fail—even if Ridley Scott occasionally does. The best thing this madcap entertainment has going for it is a non-stop pace that gives you no chance to catch your breath and makes you long for the DVD release so that you can go back and hear all the gags. There are numerous meta-cinema moments in the grand tradition of Airplane! and subsequent parodies. My personal favorite was the echo-y voice that is usually meant to be heard in the hero’s memory but here turns out to be someone talking into an empty bottle. Another joy is the deliberately hammy banter between the wonderful Ian McKellen as the villainous Toad and a good-natured Jean Reno, indulging in every French stereotype as his cousin Le Frog. (Seen 28 November 2006)

The Fog of War 3 out of 4 stars

This fascinating film by legendary documentarian Errol Morris is subtitled “Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara,” and if we can’t learn something from McNamara’s life, then we can’t learn anything. This man was present at some of the pivotal moments of 20th century history. He was a key adviser to the military man who bombed the hell out of Japan before the A-bombs were even dropped. He revived Ford Motor Company in the 1950s. He was at President Kennedy’s side during the Cuban missile crisis. He picked the site of Kennedy’s grave. And he was the civilian head of the U.S. military during the first several years of the Vietnam war. After decades of public silence, McNamara opens up amazingly for Morris, apparently wanting to record his observations and judgments for posterity while his mind is still sharp as a tack. Morris obviously approached his subject with an agenda, but to his credit he doesn’t ambush McNamara the way, say, Michael Moore would have. In the end, the portrait of McNamara that emerges is that of a brainy whiz kid who approaches every job as a problem-solving opportunity. He is pressed about feelings of guilt for the deaths caused by his roles in World War II and Vietnam, but he seems reconciled to the fact the sometimes one has to commit a lesser evil in order to head off a greater evil. The portrait of Lyndon Johnson that emerges, on the other hand, is devastating. As described by McNamara, LBJ was a man who knew full well that his Vietnam strategy couldn’t work but was too stubborn and prideful to change course. (McNamara resigned as secretary of defense when LBJ declined to respond to his memo recommending a pullout.) Years later, we learn, McNamara met with his opposite number in Vietnam and was surprised to learn that the Vietnamese did not regard the war as a senseless tragedy that should have been avoided (the prevailing view in America) but as a worthwhile war of liberation. That is why one of McNamara’s key rules is that you need to be able to “empathize” with your enemy. (Seen 18 February 2004)

Fools Rush In 2 out of 4 stars

Yet another flick that takes its title from an old pop song (thereby leveraging unearned name recognition), this one turns out to be a mostly sweet heart-warmer reminiscent of the 1939 Jimmy Stewart/Carole Lombard comedy-drama Made For Each Other. It is also another Friends movie, with Matthew Perry more or less playing his TV character except that here he’s on an actual career path. And, instead of Joey, he has one of those movie/TV best friends who can’t seem to have an evening out or close a business deal unless his pal has casual sex with a stranger. Mexican soap star Salma Hayek is charming in the female lead. Much of the film is silly, but it makes some nice observations on differences between genders and cultural backgrounds. Mexican-Americans get a bit stereotyped, but then so do Anglo-Americans. Trivia note: in this film Jill Clayburgh plays Matthew Perry’s mother; in the 1979 film Luna Jill Clayburgh played Matthew Barry’s mother. (Seen 3 November 1997)

For Your Consideration 2 out of 4 stars

The idea that Christopher Guest & company would turn their satirical eye toward the movie business (after rock bands, dog shows, hometown productions and folk music) sounded irresistible. In fact, it is a case of art imitating life imitating art, since this story of an earnest low-profile Hollywood production unexpectedly generating some sort of “Oscar buzz” follows by three years A Mighty Wind, which got an Oscar nomination for a song that was essentially a parody. But it is more directly inspired by just the sort of situation portrayed here that the creative team had witnessed in real life. After some of the many numerous scathing takes on Hollywood we have seen in the past (cf. The Player, Swimming with Sharks, Star Maps), this is gentle stuff indeed. The attraction (or problem, depending on your point of view) of Guest’s satires is that the writers/performers really like the people they are sending up. If there are any villains here, they are Ricky Gervais’s studio suit and Fred Willard’s smarmy, sadistic TV tabloid entertainment show host. If anyone gets treated too easily, it is the pair of sensitive writers, played by Bob Balaban and Michael McKean. Standing out, however, is Catherine O’Hara, who is given the chance to let her character, who could easily have been left nothing but an object of ridicule, become someone who seems real and about whom we can actually care. This time around, Guest has dropped the conceit that this is a documentary. Is he, like Woody Allen before him, edging in the direction of more “serious” films? (Seen 21 February 2007)

For Your Eyes Only 2 out of 4 stars

After the cartoonish divergence ever more into science fiction in Moonraker, the James Bond series made one of its periodic swings back to basics with For Your Eyes Only. The main story is a reasonably plausible Cold War thriller that does not involve SPECTRE (for specific legal reasons) or any Blofeld-like arch-villain. And it is actually one of the best of the 007 films. The stunts continue getting better and ticking all the boxes (car chase, ski chase, underwater stuff). The guest stars are strong, led by professional English villain portrayer Julian Glover (these days seen on Game of Thrones), striking French actor Carole Bouquet (just a few years after her debut in Luis Buñuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire) and Topol (a decade after he starred in the film version of Fiddler on the Roof) as a lovable rogue. Trivia note: Topol’s lady friend whom Bond beds is played by Cassandra Harris, who had recently wed Pierce Brosnan, whom she introduced to producer Albert Broccoli while working on this movie. Brosnan would take over the role of Bond a few years after Harris’s untimely death in 1991. More trivia: This is the only Bond feature film to date not to feature the character M. He was written out as a mark of respect for the recently deceased Bernard Lee. This movie also tidies up some business left over from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in an exciting but largely comic pre-title sequence wherein 007 dispatches his wife’s murderer Blofeld (who, for the complicated legal reasons mentioned above, is not named) once and for all. The movie is bookended by another comic turn at the end, involving then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher not acting much like an Iron Lady. (Seen 12 May 2012)

Forgotten Silver 3 out of 4 stars

At each year’s Seattle film festival, a particular genre seems to stand out for one reason or another. One year it was screwball romantic comedies. Another year it was films noirs starring Linda Fiorentino. This year it seems to be the “mockumentary.” Thirteen years after This Is Spinal Tap, everyone seems to be out making documentaries about people or things that never existed. Forgotten Silver by New Zealander Peter Jackson (Heavenly Creatures, The Frighteners) is not only very funny but also a welcome antidote to the many reverent documentaries we’ve seen recently upon the cinema’s centennial. (The film is particularly reminiscent of last year’s The Lost Garden.) Doing an on-camera narrator’s turn à la Rob Reiner (and even looking a bit like him), Jackson takes us through the amazing life of his late countryman Colin McKenzie who, it turns out, was actually first but uncredited with virtually every cinematic breakthrough. It’s great fun and, happily, the joke wears thin only occasionally. (Seen 17 May 1997)

Forgetting Sarah Marshall 2 out of 4 stars

If this movie had been made 70 years ago, it might have been directed by someone like Leo McCary and starred people like Cary Grant and Irene Dunne. And it would have been brimming with bright, sparking, witty dialog. If it had been made 30 years ago, it might have been directed by someone like Blake Edwards and starred people like Dudley Moore and Julie Andrews. The dialog might not have been as crackling as the Cary Grant version, but Dudley Moore would have been a more entertaining drunk than Jason Segel. Segel isn’t as charming as Grant or as amusing as Moore, but he is what passes for a comedic romantic lead in the age of the man who currently holds the license on man-child romcoms, producer Judd Apatow. The director is first-timer Nicholas Stoller, and the screenplay is by Segel, reportedly drawing on his own relationship experiences. His Peter Bretter is a familiar cinematic descendent of every insecure male persona, from Woody Allen to, well, every main character in a Judd Apatow movie. It doesn’t have the emotional payoff of Knocked Up or even Superbad, but it’s not the worst way to kill 112 minutes either. The bright spots are Russell Brand’s turn as a vacuous, self-involved rock star and dead-on outtakes of the TV police procedural that the title character stars in. (Don’t be too quick to get up and leave when you think the movie’s over or you will miss the best one.) And Mila Kunis (of That ’70s Show) is also quite pleasant as the best hotel receptionist ever. Beyond that, one might feel one is watching a very padded version of the trailer, which covered all the major plot points quite concisely. (Seen 1 May 2008)

Fortune’s Wheel 2 out of 4 stars

This intriguing documentary does a fine job of fleshing out a story that will be familiar to most Irish people of a certain age but not necessarily understood in its entirety by any of them. In fact, this is really three interconnected stories. After an extended lead-in by one of the producers, Bill Whelan, we get down to the first story, about a lioness that escaped and roamed the north Dublin suburban neighborhood of Marino in 1951, causing excitement and news coverage that reached around the world. This leads to the amazing story of the animal’s owner, Bill Stephens, and his dream of becoming a world renowned lion tamer. By the end, the film has become a story of two related families who did not previously know each other but who, through research for this film, meet each other and connect. At the center of everything is the mysterious and alluring figure of Stephens’s wife, Mai, whose image gives the story a haunting quality. This doc has been a labor of love for Whelan and fellow producer Lorraine Kennedy (a niece of Stephens) and director Joe Lee who, in the process, have documented and preserved a particular era in Dublin life that is fading into history. (Some of the people interviewed for the film have since passed away.) I was surprised to learn that this was not something commissioned by RTÉ for Irish television, but just sort of happened organically. But I would be even more surprised if it did not wind up on Irish television screens. In fact, the story is interesting enough, it may even have a life internationally on the arthouse circuit. (Seen 10 July 2015)

40 Days and 40 Nights 1 out of 4 stars

There is something kinky and perverse about many of Michael Lehmann’s movies. His Heathers in 1989 was a delightfully black comedy that gladdened the heart of any teenager (or former teenager) who wasn’t part of the “in” crowd. His Truth About Cats & Dogs in 1996 was a less venomous reworking of the same idea (criticizing the valuing of looks over substance) in an adult setting. His 40 Days and 40 Nights, released in 2002, seems to have given up the battle of substance over style in judging other people. But the same perversity is certainly still there. Being a sex comedy, the movie faces the same challenge that every modern sex comedy faces, which is how to do the comedy in an era where there are few, if any, restrictions on sexual behavior, since the comedy in a sex comedy, by convention, almost always follows from the lead(s)’s inability to have sex. Here, the obstruction to sex is straightforward enough: the hero (Josh Hartnett) simply gives it up for Lent. As required by the rules of sex comedies, Hartnett has the requisite best friend/roommate who, for reasons I’ve never been able to nail down, has a vested interest in the hero being sexual active. A point of side interest in the movie, is the apparent explanation it gives for the failure of so many dot-coms. Apparently, no work was being done while employees focused all their time and energy on following the sex life of a single co-worker. (Seen 17 January 2004)

The 40 Year Old Virgin 3 out of 4 stars

One thing we know for sure from watching movies is that bachelors would have a much easier time initiating meaningful romantic relationships if they didn’t listen to their male friends. The “best friend” is a cinematic staple in romantic comedies. He (and sometimes she, for the female lead) is always on hand to push exactly the wrong, shallow values on the hapless hero, whose own instincts would invariably serve him better. Poor Andy Stitzer is triple-cursed because he has three brand new best friends, his younger co-workers who have taken a passionate personal interest in his situation, which is succinctly summed up the film’s title. No, actually the title doesn’t quite sum it up. Andy is not merely a virgin. He is that most unlikely of specimens, a four-decades-old male who is completely celibate in every possible connotation of the word (and is not even a priest). Like the other surprise hit comedy of the summer, Wedding Crashers, this is a movie about ostensibly adult men doing some long-delayed growing up, disguised as a raunchy sex comedy. Humor, of course, is in the eye of the beholder, and milking laughs at the expense of someone’s sexual awkwardness may seem all too easy, but I have to say that the characters and gags in this flick, by Freaks and Geeks man Judd Apatow, had me in convulsions. And that doesn’t happen too often. In the end, we have quite an oddity of a movie. If one can get past all the gross, offensive, kinky and provocative bits, it actually has a message that the Christian right could be perfectly comfortable with! (Seen 14 September 2005)

45 Years 3 out of 4 stars

You can tell Kate was a school teacher. It’s not just her no-nonsense, authoritative manner. It’s also the way she slips in the odd informational detail in conversation and the way she calls to the dog on their walks. As played by the rail-thin but imposing Charlotte Rampling she is in control of her world. Her current project is planning the party for her 45th wedding anniversary. She is making up for the fact that the 40th do was cancelled due to her husband Geoff’s bad health. As played by Tom Courtenay, Geoff is a bit slow on the uptake and seemingly bewildered that he finds himself old. Not a lot happens in terms of action, and the word Bergmanesque has been used to described this adaptation by Andrew Haigh (his previous film was Weekend) of a short story by David Constantine. The dramatic tension arises from a letter to Geoff that arrives like the visitation of a ghost. The body of the woman he would have married had she not died in an accident has suddenly appeared after a half-century in a Swiss glacier. Consequently, Geoff is dragged back to his past and lost youth and Kate is dealing with a situation that threatens her and in which she has no control. As rendered by two veteran masters of the craft, the acting is superb. It is especially good to see Rampling, whom we tend to remember for her weirder or more unusual roles, take charge with a “normal” character who is so compellingly real. When we get to the climax, it is surprisingly moving. In fact, you would have to have a pretty stiff upper lip not to get a little weepy. (Seen 8 July 2015)

42 Up 3 out of 4 stars

The closest we have come so far to a real-life Truman Show, at least in terms of longevity, has to be the series of documentaries that Michael Apted (the English director of everything from the 1980 Loretta Lynn biopic Coal Miner’s Daughter to the latest James Bond flick) has made about a group of British people whose main link is that they were all seven years old in the year 1964. What began as a somewhat pretentious sociological look at British society for UK television has evolved into something extraordinary: a long-term look at the lives of several random individuals, all captured on film at seven-year intervals. For filmgoers like myself who have compulsive personalities, this is the ultimate addiction. (And I’m so glad to see that Neil is doing so much better than he was in the 1985 and 1991 movies.) This update is particularly momentous in that the original documentary (Seven Up) promised a glimpse through its child subjects into British society in the year 2000 and, guess what, it’s here! It would have been cool if one kid had actually turned out to be a manager and another a shop steward, as originally posed, but a cabby and a lawyer (not to mention a couple of emigrants, a ward of the welfare state, etc.) provide more than enough variety. Beyond the standard concerns of 42-year-olds (children, aging or dying parents, failed marriages, career disillusionment), what is particularly fascinating is how this lifelong study has affected its subjects and the bond that has formed over the years with the filmmaker. And the fact that, rather than emphasizing class differences as originally intended, Apted’s work has underlined how similar most people really are. (Seen 16 January 2000)

Four Days in September 3 out of 4 stars

When I lived in Chile in the 1970s, I would hear wildly varying accounts of what life had been like during the tumultuous government of the late Socialist president Salvador Allende. Depending on one’s political orientation, life was either heaven or hell during the Allende years. The stories were not just inconsistent but downright contradictory. Finally, I met a fellow North American who had lived there through the whole thing. I asked him which versions were true and which weren’t. To my frustration, all he would ever say was: “Everything you’ve heard is true.” It took me a while to realize that South American reality doesn’t always conform conveniently to Anglo-Saxon logic. The Brazilian film Four Days in September (an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Film) deals with this paradox rather nicely. Everyone is treated more or less sympathetically in this re-enactment of the 1969 kidnapping of a U.S. ambassador (Alan Arkin) by a group of idealistic middle-class young people resisting a repressive military government. Even a secret service cop who routinely tortures suspects is made somewhat human. Thankfully, Bruno Barreto’s film is devoid of the action movie jolts and clichés that a Hollywood version would have had. The excitement here comes from the realistic portrayal of actual events and the suspense that is inspired honestly by ambiguous reality. (Seen 17 February 1998)

4 for Texas 1 out of 4 stars

In the made-for-HBO movie The Rat Pack, there is a great scene where Joe Mategna, playing Dean Martin, observes to someone at a party that public adulation of the Rat Packers had reached absurd proportions. To make his point, he suavely utters some complete gibberish at a passing pair of young women, who then proceed to laugh as if they have just been entertained with the combined wit of Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward. Dino shakes his head and mutters, someday they will wonder what it was all about. For some of us, that day has long since arrived. This 1963 western, directed by Robert Aldrich, is a case in point. It starts promisingly with a rip-roaring stagecoach chase. It even has Charles Bronson shooting Jack Elam in the first few minutes, thereby presaging Sergio Leone’s seminal Once Upon a Time in the West. But if Leone’s oaters were “spaghetti westerns,” then this vanity project for Martin and Frank Sinatra could be best described as a gin martini western. Like so many Rat Pack projects, it is full of mugging, in jokes and winking at the camera. And precious little plot or action during the long middle section. Toward the end, Martin completely breaks through the “fourth wall” to make sure we don’t miss a cameo by Arthur Godfrey, the most popular radio personality of the day. No such signals are needed, however, when the Three Stooges appear. This flick is mainly interesting for what it tells us about Sinatra and Martin, who seem to be determinedly playing themselves, or at least who they think they are. While Martin deals with every situation with a quip, ol’ Blue Eyes is nothing but the tough guy ordering people around, surrounding himself with beautiful women, and looking for an audacious way to make few bucks. (Seen 30 April 2004)

Foxfire 2 out of 4 stars

If you took one of Clint Eastwood’s old spaghetti westerns and tried to turn it into an episode of My So-Called Life (with a little bit of Risky Business thrown in for good measure), it might not turn out too differently from this first feature by Annette Haywood-Carter. Based on the novel by Joyce Carol Oates, Foxfire follows the exploits of five very different teenagers as they become aware of themselves as women and also have a lot of crazy adventures. The principal actors are unknown to me, but they are all engaging in their various roles as adolescents in rebellion. It is also nice to see the wonderful Cathy Moriarty, although she is essentially wasted in a brief role as someone’s mom. Twin Peaks veterans Richard Beymer and Chris Mulkey also turn up in supporting roles. Foxfire was featured at the Seattle International Film Festival’s Women in Cinema series, but it is slick enough to have a commercial future. (There’s even a car chase!) It also makes very good use of its Portland, Oregon location. (Seen 30 January 1996)

Frances Ha 2 out of 4 stars

When I saw Noah Baumbach’s first movie Kicking and Screaming in the mid-1990s, I thought he caught the sense of not wanting to move out of one’s student years very deftly and humorously. He has returned to that general theme with this showcase for Greta Gerwig, who makes the most of the title role. Part exploration of New York single culture, part black-and-white Woody Allen-style chatty comedy, the film seems like nothing more than a series of episodes in the life of 27-year-old Frances, punctuated by titles announcing each time she changes her address. But at its heart, it is about that sickening feeling when you notice that everyone around you—the people you have heart-to-hearts and silly, goofy fun with—are growing up, and you aren’t. Frances’s best friend (“we’re the same person,” Frances says more than once) Sophie is getting more committed to her boyfriend. Everyone seems to be getting serious jobs and can make the rent every month. Frances, meanwhile, holds on to her dream of being a dancer, even though it should be clear that she will never be invited into the troupe for which she apprentices. We want to slap Frances and tell her to get her life together. But no need. The chronically irrepressible Fran (a Mary Tyler Moore for the 2010s?) will manage just fine. (Seen 10 July 2013)

Franchesca Page 1 out of 4 stars

It must be midnight at the Seattle International Film Festival because here is another campy, drag queen musical parody. The musical numbers in this one are actually quite entertaining. It’s just unfortunate that the time between them, well, drags. The plot is that of a backstage musical as old as Busby Berkeley—something about an evil producer sabotaging her own show through murder and the hiring of talentless Franchesa as the star’s understudy. The twist here is that the show is saved not by the understudy but by Rita, her tank-sized, big-haired, don’t-stop-me-I-gotta-dance diva of a mother who looks as though she stuffs her bra with footballs. About the only suspense is wondering if they will actually address why Franchesca and her mother have different skin colors (à la Secrets & Lies). Sure enough, we eventually learn that Franchesca is the love child that Rita had with Sammy Davis Jr.! (Seen 1 June 1997)

Frank and Ollie 2 out of 4 stars

By examining the careers and lives of Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, this documentary not only tracks the history of animation at Walt Disney’s studios but it also acquaints us with a remarkable friendship. Someone notes that a lot of people don’t even realize that “Frank and Ollie” aren’t one person, and it’s easy to see why. They finish each other’s sentences. As one tells a story, the other acts it out. They begin phone calls with “This is Frank and Ollie calling.” Frank and Ollie went to Stanford together in the 1930s, both went to work for Disney, both married at about the same time, both built houses on adjoining lots in Flintridge, California (where they still live), and both had children within a week of each other. This film is lovingly made, which should be no surprise since it was produced by Disney and directed by Frank’s son Ted. It gives us some interesting insights into what it was like to work at Disney over the years, and we learn that the animators really are like actors, since in a movie each animator is totally responsible for a character and how that character behaves. Some of the documentary’s most charming bits are when Frank and Ollie act out for the camera well-known scenes they animated. This is a totally delightful film, although I do have to offer a warning. I defy anyone to sit through clips of some of the most moving scenes from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Bambi, Lady and the Tramp, The Jungle Book, etc. and not get a little weepy. (Seen 31 May 1995)

Frankenstein 3 out of 4 stars

What more appropriate flick to watch on Halloween than this one? But times have clearly changed in the last eight decades. It is hard to believe that this once was considered very scary, but I am here to tell you that it indeed was. Better special effects and an ever increasing tolerance among audiences for graphic imagery make the early horror movies look pretty tame today. But for ages Boris Karloff’s lumbering giant with the misshapen head was the stuff of nightmares. But, by now, the images have become so ingrained in our popular mythology that familiarity has made them safe—perhaps mostly because it is hard to watch the flick anymore without flashing back to Mel Brooks’s brilliant 1974 parody Young Frankenstein. What those of us who were genuinely frightened by this flick as children may forget is how much humor there actually was in it. Once the title character’s father, played by a mugging Frederick Kerr, enters the scene, it nearly becomes a drawing room comedy. The final reel is the real stuff of nightmares—and a favorite gambit of many horror flicks to come—when the monster keeps refusing to die. Unfortunately, the effect is somewhat undone by a tacked-on incongruously happy ending that features a partially seen stand-in for Colin Clive, who had already moved on to his next project. But it’s still a classic, to which all the sequels and parodies and imitations attest. (Seen 31 October 2012)

Frankie Starlight 2 out of 4 stars

This is an Irish film about the life of little man and his French mother who comes to Dublin after World War II. In some ways it is sort of a Gaelic Forrest Gump. It is a bit of tear jerker but in the end upbeat. The cast features Gabriel Byrne, Anne Parillaud, and Matt Dillon. (Seen 15 September 1995)

Freak Talks About Sex 2 out of 4 stars

This is another one of those movies that focus in on that awkward little phase of your life that falls in between high school graduation and death. More specifically, that phase you find yourself in when you’ve had all the schooling you can stand but you don’t know what to do next. If you’re like David (Josh Hamilton) you can move back to Syracuse—after failing to write your novel out in the desert and still nursing a broken heart because the great romance of your life went nowhere. You can regress to a more comfortable time by hanging out with your best buddy from high school (Steve Zahn who, as he showed in Out of Sight, is the master of creating completely spacey, zoned-out characters), smoking a lot of dope and going to bars. But mostly you talk. Shoot the breeze. Converse. Philosophize. BS. Not much happens in this movie (directing debut of Paul Todisco), so its appeal lies largely in how entertaining you find the discourse between David and Freak. Much of the action is in the shopping mall where David has a nowhere job, and the patent symbolism of emptiness that it represents will put you in mind of directors like Kevin Smith (Clerks) and Richard Linklater (Slacker). Best line: “I can’t think of a single movie that couldn’t be improved with a lesbian sex scene.” (Seen 4 June 1999)

Freaky Friday [1976] 2 out of 4 stars

No, this isn’t the one released a half-decade ago, starring Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan. And it’s not the 1995 made-for-TV version starring Shelley Long and Gaby Hoffmann. No, it’s the original 1976 version, with Barbara Harris and the teen-aged Jodie Foster. Clearly, this parent-child-body-switch fantasy was a popular concept, as evidenced by the two remakes and other flicks using the same theme, like Like Father Like Son (with Dudley Moore and Kirk Cameron), Vice Versa (with Judge Reinhold and Fred Savage) and Big (with Tom Hanks), all within a couple of years during the late 1980s. Perhaps because there is such a recent remake, we forget how long ago the original was actually made. But we get a quick reminder when we see everyone smoking and laughs derived from a dipsomaniac housecleaner, the reliable clown Patsy Kelly. Other broad turns are provided by Kay Ballard and Ruth Buzzi as rival hockey coaches, which nicely offset Foster’s rather convincing performance as a sullen adolescent. And Harris is surprisingly adept at physical comedy and does really seem to be a teenage girl, although not always the same one that Foster plays. Things get a bit creepy when Harris moons over a teen-aged Marc McClure and when John Astin gets a randy look while eying a woman we know to be his teenage daughter. The movie, of course, climaxes with the trademark Disney car chase, but this one is particularly good, loaded with inventive sight gags. (Seen 23 January 2009)

Freaky Friday [2003] 2 out of 4 stars

Codgers like myself don’t see a need to remake a perfectly good entertainment like Disney’s original Freaky Friday. It really holds up quite well. But when you’re marketing to kids, the fashions and music and teen celebrity of the moment are paramount, so Disney issued a remake for the new century. (There was also a made-for-TV remake for the 1990s.) This popular story thus joined The Parent Trap (which also featured Lindsay Lohan in a remake) as a property destined to be retooled and released at regular intervals. All in all, it’s not a bad movie, when judged by its own ambitions. The wish fulfillment aspect of wanting to jump ahead or back in time seems universal. Not to mention the wish fulfillment of definitively coming to terms with one’s parent or child. But when compared with the original, it is somewhat disappointing. We tend to expect remakes to be, if anything, too over the top. But this flick has no big set piece that even attempts to compete with the marvelously hilarious car chase that energized the 1976 version. What it has instead is the prod to our collective memory of Jamie Lee Curtis in teenage parts, now in the role of the mom. And, in the inevitable update touches, she is an overworked professional instead of a housewife, on the eve of remarriage. And, in the spirit of the new, she gets to go that bit much farther with lanky young Chad Michael Murray than Barbara Harris ever could have with young Marc McClure. (Seen 6 March 2009)

Freedom Highway: Songs of Resistance and Liberation 2 out of 4 stars

This Irish documentary by Philip King is based on a really great idea for a film: songs that have played an important role in political struggles and liberation movements. In the end, however, there is so much potential material to explore that a 90-minute film on the topic can’t help but leave us feeling short-changed. The film uses some archive footage (e.g. part of a moving performance by Chile’s Victor Jarra and an all-too-brief snippet of America’s Woody Guthrie), but it consists in large part of filmed interviews and performances by contemporary artists, including some not known particularly for protest music, like Willie Nelson. Interestingly, there’s relatively little focus on Ireland, the first song related to that country being “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” the inclusion of which is useful for Americans my age and younger who are doomed to always associate it with the final episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. The film later discusses how the American civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome” was transferred successfully to Northern Ireland. There is a wealth of talent captured here, including Tom Waits, South Africa’s Hugh Masekela, Elvis Costello, Tibet’s Yungchen Lhamo, Pete Seeger, Ruben Blades, U2 and a very engaging Ani diFranco. (Seen 15 July 2001)

The French Lieutenant’s Woman 2 out of 4 stars

What most people generally remember about romantic historical dramas are things like the passion of the story or the attractiveness of the leads or, if all else fails, the costumes and the scenery. What we tend to remember about this 1981 film is the way it dealt with a tricky literary gambit in the source novel. Author John Fowles wrote his book as some sort of elaborate history lesson about 19th century English society and then gave the reader not one but two different endings. Playwright Harold Pinter, who wrote the screenplay found an ingenious way to deal with this. He made the novel’s story a movie within a movie, about making a movie adaptation of the novel. Thus he could have leads Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons also play contemporary actors, whose extramarital on-location romance paralleled the one in the book. The historical plot got one ending, and the contemporary one got another. This also allowed Pinter to work in extra historical exposition from the book, as the actors researched and discussed their parts. And it also, improbably, allowed Pinter to do what he does best: write about modern infidelity. Now, all of this was and is very interesting, but it also explains why this movie, directed by Karel Reisz, does not touch the heart or soul the way that an adaptation of, say, Emily Brontë or Jane Austen might. Where screenwriters of those movies would tend to go along with the conventions and values of the time setting (letting the viewers make their own value judgments), Knowles’s book and this movie analyze and judge the 19th century with 20th century values on behalf of the viewer, thus sticking the film with that most damning of words: interesting. What’s really interesting, however, is this question: If we were really so much more enlightened in the 20th century than in the Victorian age, then how come the 19th century story got the happy ending? (Seen 15 July 2007)

French Postcards 1 out of 4 stars

It’s hard to believe that I had been waiting to see this movie for practically a quarter-century! I heard about it, even before its release in 1980 and was anxious to see it because of its plot about American students in France during the 1978-79 school year, a mere five years after my own experience. Somehow I never got the chance to see it (until now), probably because it simply wasn’t a very good movie. It was written by Willard Huyck (who also directed) and Gloria Katz, who had already established their ability to handle a multi-thread teenage movie by writing American Graffiti for George Lucas, who coincidentally comes from California’s San Joaquin Valley, another place I am very familiar with. (Is this guy following me or what?) The writing duo are less successful here, and it is worth noting that Huyck directed only two subsequent movies, the final one being the legendarily disastrous Howard the Duck. Anyway, this movie is interesting to see now, as a contrast to Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, set in 1968. The two films accurately reflect the fact that in the decade between their settings, being an American university student in France went from being a solitary experience to a group one. French Postcards gets several details right, in a superficial sort of way, i.e. the homesickness, the bonding with people you probably wouldn’t even hang out with at home, the desire and opportunity to try new experiences, the boyfriend back home, and the inevitable surreptitious visit to McDonald’s. But it misses a key point that Bertolucci’s film caught: the tendency of American boys to pee in French sinks. In the end, the film feels like it’s based on notes from people who actually were students in Paris, but which were then handed to the people who produced the old Love, American Style TV show. This makes it a potential c.v. embarrassment for the (now) better known members of its cast. This came out the same year that Debra Winger starred with John Travolta in Urban Cowboy, and fortunately for her she’s practically unnoticeable here. Jean Rochefort’s wonderful face is put to occasional good use but mostly wasted. Marie-France Pisier is a good sport or, depending on your view, showed very bad judgment. Mandy Patinkin is downright embarrassing as an Iranian with big romantic plans but who can’t hold his champagne. And, poignantly, a young Valérie Quennessen is present as someone’s French girlfriend and is very appealing indeed. Sadly, she died in a road accident nine years later. (Seen 21 February 2004)

Fried Green Tomatoes (Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe) 3 out of 4 stars

This movie is actually better than I remembered. That is probably because it is a stark reminder of what a treasure we lost when Jessica Tandy died. She is perfect as the old lady in the rest home who eagerly chats up a stranger on visiting day and plies her with tales of the old days. It is also a reminder of what a great screen presence Mary Stuart Masterson was in teenage and young adult roles. And, while somewhat overshadowed by Masterson, Mary-Louise Parker is also quite good in her role as a more repressed character. The film, directed by Jon Avnet and adapted from Fannie Flagg’s novel, is overly ambitious. It wants to cram at least two completely different movies into one, as well as tell us a few very personal stories as well as tell us something profound about the American South and America itself. But somehow it works. Probably because so much of it sounds like things that actually could have happened. As a movie, it is probably a tad too long, and some of the stretches with Kathy Bates, blossoming as a new woman, are a bit weak. (When she takes a sledgehammer to a wall of her house, is it actually a nod to her role the previous year’s Misery?) Ultimately, this is technically a chick flick. The male characters are all passive, evil or they die young. But the storytelling is so good that most men watching may not even notice. (Seen 16 July 2006)

Friends with Money 2 out of 4 stars

People, who turn up their noses at teen comedies like Superbad because of the graphic way the characters talk and objectify the opposite sex, can do a reality check by seeing if they have the same reaction to woman/friend movies like this one, which feature lots of brutally frank chick chat. But writer/director Nicole Holofcener is no trendy latecomer to this field, which was popularized by TV’s Sex and the City (of which she directed some episodes). She has been making films about female friendships (usually with “and” in the title) for a decade. And she was casting Catherine Keener before most of us even knew who she was (i.e. before Being John Malkovich, Capote). Here, as she did in 1996’s Walking and Talking, she explores what happens to close friends when, with the passage of time, their personal circumstances diverge. Specifically, she zeroes in on the way affluence, or the lack of it, has a huge effect on our self-image, self-worth and how we see others. In her low-key way, Holofcener casts a compassionately caustic gaze at white liberal guilt, white liberal non-guilt and what affluence does to our value system. But despite the keen insights, the film isn’t really quite as profound as it sounds, and feels a lot like one of those hour-long comedy/drama TV series that abound these days. That sense is not the least bit dispelled by the title or by the presence of Jennifer Aniston, whose role as aimless Olivia, who can’t quite get her life together, seems to be a deliberate in-joke. Still, time spent watching this flick is agreeable enough and (here’s seriousx praise) when it ends, it seems a bit too soon. (Seen 6 October 2007)

From Dusk Till Dawn 1 out of 4 stars

From Dusk Till [sic] Dawn is more or less the cinematic equivalent of those EC Comics of the 1950s that almost got comic books banned entirely. It’s gross and adolescent but not particularly scary. And it is infused with a snide, mocking humor. (One of the funniest bits seems to be a brief nod to Gus Van Sant’s To Die For.) Directed by Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi, Desperado) and penned by (and co-starring) the oh-so-hip Quentin Tarantino, it’s about what you would expect such a collaboration to produce. The movie does seem to make an interesting point about how the media change our perception of violence. The bulk of the film is framed by similar scenes wherein two characters walk away from a public establishment in flames where mayhem has just occurred. The first one could come from today’s headlines, while the second is typical movie over-the-top exaggeration. And, despite their similarities, we see them both very differently. The problem, of course, is that a movie can’t really make a comment like this without becoming part of what it is commenting on. (Seen 5 February 1996)

From Russia with Love 2 out of 4 stars

Of all the James Bond movies, this one (the second in the Broccoli-Saltzman series) was the one that was properly an espionage thriller rather than an action adventure. While no one would confuse this with the work of John le Carré, we actually feel that we get some insight into U.S.-Soviet interplay in the early 1960s. There is no fantastic to plot to start World War III, merely a plan to trick 007 into stealing an encryption device from the Russians so that it can, in turn, by stolen by the evil SPECTRE. In exploring the motivations of the various players, there is actually something like character development. This is the first time we meet the arch-villain Ernst Blofeld, although we never actually see his face. (Credited as “?” in the cast list, the hand patting the cat belonged to Anthony Dawson, who was the nefarious geologist in Dr. No, and the voice came from Austrian actor Eric Pohlmann.) Of course, M and Moneypenny are back, and so is Eunice Grayson, the woman 007 picked up at the beginning of the previous film, in an abortive picnic at the beginning of this one. We also get our first look at gadget guru Q (who here has a proper name, Boothroyd). He is played by Desmond Llewelyn, who would play the role through 1999’s The World Is Not Enough. The villains are memorable. In an early role, Robert Shaw is fit and menacing, looking bizarrely like a really buff Spencer Tracy. The dread Rosa Klebb is played by a woman whose name was on the building in which I took music appreciation at UC Santa Barbara. The wife of composer Kurt Weill, Lotte Lenya was a foremost interpreter of the songs and plays by Wiell and his collaborator Bertolt Brecht and was the inspiration for the song “Mack the Knife.” That’s why it’s amusing when, near the end of the film, that blade pops out of the toe of her boot. (Seen 14 January 2012)

From the Journals of Jean Seberg 2 out of 4 stars

Mark Rappaport’s From the Journals of Jean Seberg is not exactly a biography. It is more of a free-flowing meditation on one woman’s film career as well as anything else that happens to relate to it in any way. It makes constant detours to tell us about people who crossed Serberg’s path (from Otto Preminger to Clint Eastwood) and about people whose lives had any kind of parallel to hers (Audrey Hepburn, Jane Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave). It loves to come up with patterns and coincidences, kind of like those lists you sometimes read about Abraham Lincoln and John Kennedy. Narration is provided by Mary Beth Hurt who portrays Seberg speaking to us from beyond the grave. (But just because she’s been dead for 18 years doesn’t mean that she can’t make references to George Bush and Entertainment Tonight.) While this approach is not unheard of, it is a bit of a cheat because it basically puts Rappaport’s ideas in Serberg’s mouth. Nevertheless, the film makes some interesting points about the way women are portrayed in movies (particularly when their husbands are the directors) and about political activism in Hollywood—not to mention providing interesting details of Serberg’s life. Her career careened from European adulation in films like Breathless to such standard Hollywood fare as Paint Your Wagon and Airport. Oddly, the potentially hottest topic of Serberg’s life—her harrassment by the FBI over her involvement with the Black Panthers, which may have led to her suicide at age 40—is dealt with by just a few lines read by Hurt. (Seen 3 August 1996)

Full Frontal 2 out of 4 stars

Director Steven Soderbergh, a person in the movie business, has come up with the most fascinating, most interesting, most compelling, most important theme for a movie ever conceived. It is, of course, the lives of people involved in the movie business. He is not the first, nor will he be the last, person in the movie business to mine this topic. People who know Soderbergh only for his commercially successful films (Erin Brockovich, Traffic, Ocean’s Eleven) may be taken aback. Those of us who remember the kinkily humorous Sex, Lies, and Videotape and/or the perplexing Schizopolis, on the other hand, will recognize the “real” Soderbergh. Actors love doing movies like Full Frontal because it allows them to do the most stretching their acting muscles anywhere outside of an acting workshop. Filmmakers love making this kind of movie because it’s a way to get paid for performing therapy on themselves. It’s no accident that these sorts of movies are generously laced with confessional, introspective and deeply personal soliloquies. Since there is no actual nudity in the film (although David Duchovny does a, uh, standup job in a brief role that can only be described as, um, pivotal), we are free to assume that the title refers to a spiritual/psychological baring of the characters. In one set of wickedly funny scenes (featuring Catherine Keener as a human resources executive from hell) the film actually seems be mocking itself for the way it emotionally tortures its characters. For those of us who are merely watching the film, as opposed to participating in it, the main pleasure is in the dark humor typical of these L.A. “insider” films and watching a cast (Brad Pitt is now officially the standard cinematic short-hand for the Hollywood A-list) that makes the move far more interesting than it would have been with a cast of unknowns. (Seen 2 August 2002)

The Full Monty 3 out of 4 stars

Okay, how’s this for a cinematic marriage? Brassed Off meets Striptease with a dash of The Commitments thrown in for good measure. As in Brassed Off, we have unemployed Yorkshire laborers banding together for, uh, the sake of art. But where Mark Herman’s movie was sentimental and poignant, Peter Cattaneo’s The Fully Monty goes mainly for sniggers, snickers, and belly laughs. Redundant steelworker Gaz (Trainspotting’s Robert Carlyle) is desperate because, if he doesn’t come up with some money quick, he’ll lose joint custody of his young son (who, by the way, is ten times more mature than Gaz is). So he decides to form a group of male strippers. His recruits could be (but aren’t) played by the likes of John Cleese and Robbie Coltrane, so you can see where things are headed. There’s a lot of silly fun along the way, and the ending in particular is quite the crowd pleaser. (Seen 23 May 1997)

Funny Girl 3 out of 4 stars

This movie is about a young, talented Jewish woman who becomes a major star. It is also about Fanny Brice. Seven decades into the twentieth century, the American movie musical went through one of its periodic reinventions. Younger audiences were less receptive to the artificiality of characters singing their way through their lives, but they could just about accept it if the story was about show business. Even more so if the central figure was an ambitious young woman bursting with emotion and talent and a problematic personal life to feed her soaring arias. The two prime purveyors of the form were Liza Minelli, who starred in Bob Fosse’s Cabaret in 1972 and Barbra Streisand, who became a mega-star when she brought her Broadway turn as Brice to the big screen in 1968. Directed by Hollywood veteran William Wyler, the film is essentially a tribute by producer Ray Stark to his famous mother-in-law, who was ultimately best known for playing Baby Snooks on the radio and who died in 1951. Working from Brice’s taped recollections, he brought in a series of collaborators to produce, in turns, a book (eventually written by Isobel Lennart), a screenplay, a stage musical and finally a movie. Mary Martin, Eydie Gormé and Carol Burnett were interested or approached at various points but in the end Burnett’s admonishment “what you need is a Jewish girl” won out and Streisand was cast in the role she was born to play. Lennart wrote the screenplay. The songs (“People,” “Don’t Rain on My Parade” plus many others) were by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill. The movie is wonderful in evoking an admittedly idealized sense of family and community in an ethnic New York neighborhood. Omar Sharif is a suave dreamboat even if we do not believe for a moment he is a New Yorker. The movie makes him nobly flawed, though in real life Arnstein was mostly just flawed. Brice’s first marriage is ignored. Her third marriage is saved for a less popular sequel. Walter Pidgeon (as Florenz Ziegfeld) and Anne Francis, who played father and daughter twelve years earlier in Forbidden Planet, are reunited. The plot point of Brice being madly desperate to get a ring on her finger now seems a bit dated. Her belting out an anthem in the New York harbor about not raining on her parade, on the other hand, is timeless. (Seen 6 August 2017)

Funny People 2 out of 4 stars

I have it on good authority that Judd Apatow has authentically captured the way comedians behave and speak around each other—right down to the compulsive references to one’s own, and everyone else’s, genitalia. And this explains why Apatow’s comedy background has qualified him to produce, write and/or direct movies about adolescent boys (Superbad) or grown men in arrested adolescence (Knocked Up). And, this being an Apatow movie, we know that, beyond the raunchy banter, good old traditional family values will ultimately prevail. But there is something a bit more ambitious going on here as well. By having his main character face a likely terminal illness, he is going for the veritable meaning of life itself, on top of it all. This is one of Adam Sandler’s “serious” performances, but it is easy to underestimate because he seems to be playing himself. But there are scenes where his eyes nicely capture the quiet terror and nihilism of facing one’s own mortality. Although larger, it is a performance that is reminiscent of the work Sandler’s comedic forefather Jerry Lewis did in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy. How much you enjoy the movie depends a lot on how you react to the humor. Personally, I laughed a lot and enjoyed the jaundiced, inside view of how Hollywood works for the celebrated and successful as well as the young and struggling. In the end, this overlong flick is really two movies meshed together. One, a dramedy that is more brocom than romcom, delivers the familiar Apatow message of love, family and friendship. The other, potentially contradictorily, suggests that the best way to be happy, as you get older, is to not lose that spirit you had when you were young and hungry. (Seen 8 September 2009)

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