Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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Scott Larson





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Building façade in Cannes, France

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I Could Read the Sky 2 out of 4 stars

In a number of movies, there is a sequence where one of the characters starts remembering things and all kinds of images float around his head, representing his memories. (This is especially true at the end of movies where it turns out it was all dream, like Invaders from Mars.) First-time director Nichola Bruce’s interesting idea was to take a sequence like this and make it the whole movie. A British-Irish co-production, I Could Read the Sky takes place entirely in the small London flat and in the head of an old Irishman reliving a lifetime of memories. Images float in and out without much linear narrative (Bruce made serious use of digital editing) and we are left to put the pieces together—from happy childhood days in Ireland to sailing across the Irish Sea in search of work to meeting and losing the love of his life. The Missus (whose own father did an immigration stint in England) found herself rather moved, and she paid the film one of her unique compliments: “You have to be Irish to understand it.” One of Bruce’s main accomplishments is the sense of realism that her images and sounds evoke. Of course, this illusion is immediately shattered at the moment when Stephen Rea (who seems to show up in practically every Irish movie) thrusts his mug on screen. On the whole, the film is demanding but worth the effort if you have an interest in the subject matter. (Seen 13 November 1999)

I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times 2 out of 4 stars

This black-and-white documentary is music producer Don Was’s first film directing effort. His aim was to concentrate on the musical talent of Brian Wilson rather than to do a straight biography or to make a movie about the Beach Boys. But in the course of numerous interviews with Wilson, his family, friends, colleagues, and admirers (including Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth), we can’t help but learn a lot about the man himself. Sometimes more than we want to know. At times Wilson can be painful to watch as he slurs his speech, grasps for a word or talks about how he spent years without getting out of bed. Some of the occasionally incoherent ramblings of other musicians (such as David Crosby and Graham Nash) almost seem like a Saturday Night Live send-up of burned-out 60s and 70s rockers. But we do come away with a sense that Wilson’s music wasn’t just teenage fluff, that something more was going on there, and that Wilson has musical technical abilities way beyond most people. Particularly touching are interviews with his daughters (of Wilson Phillips fame who, let’s face it, grew up with a really weird father) and a session where they sing backup with him. (Seen 2 June 1995)

I Played It for You 1 out of 4 stars

You know Ronee Blakely. She is a country/western singer who used to be on Hee Haw before she became an actress and played the Loretta Lynn-like character in Nashville. More recently, she played the mother in the original A Nightmare on Elm Street, in which she kept telling her daughter she needed to get some sleep. For a while she was married to German director Wim Wenders. She made this weird movie, I guess, to show him that she could do it too. Very personal. Ronee was there in person to answer questions and explain why the sound quality wasn’t better. (Seen 17 May 1987)

I Shot Andy Warhol 3 out of 4 stars

Valerie Solanas was, let’s see, what would be the precise clinical term, nuts. She passionately believed in the genetic superiority of women and advocated major changes to society that involved the elimination of men. She founded a group, of which she was the only member, called the Society for Cutting Up Men (SCUM). (Her SCUM manifesto, by the way, is considered a feminist classic.) Eventually, she wound up in a hospital for the criminally insane because (I hope I’m not giving too much away here) she shot Andy Warhol. Despite her contempt for the system in general, Solanas was desperate for fame and celebrity which is what led her into Warhol’s glitzy coterie. Lili Taylor does an admirable job of bringing to life a intelligent, talented but desperately flawed character who is a bit like Carla, the waitress for Cheers, on steroids. Director/co-writer Mary Harron has made an impressive feature debut with I Shot Andy Warhol which effectively evokes a legendary time and place in our pop culture. A real standout is Stephen Dorff (Backbeat) who does a fine job (and looks damn good in a dress) as Candy Darling. Preceding the feature was Francine McDougall’s short Pig! which has to be the briefest and funniest film since Bambi vs. Godzilla. (Seen 31 May 1996)

I Wanna Hold Your Hand 3 out of 4 stars

Sixteen years before he mixed actors with historical footage in Forrest Gump, director Robert Zemeckis mixed actors with Beatles footage and Beatles stand-ins in his first feature film. It was an auspicious debut. I had forgotten how good this 1978 screwball comedy actually was. Set on February 9, 1964, four Jersey girls decide to drive to New York City to sneak into the Beatles’ hotel in the hours before their American TV debut. Its teenagers-having-crazy-experiences-at-the-end-of-their-childhood-in-multiple-plot-strands vibe makes it a bit reminiscent of American Graffiti, which had come out five years earlier. And we even have famous DJ Murray the K to follow in the footsteps of the earlier movie’s Wolfman Jack. But, in the end, its mass teen music hysteria story climaxing with a broadcast of The Ed Sullivan Show really makes it an update to Bye Bye Birdie—a fact acknowledged with a brief musical interlude. The then-young cast is very good. Nancy Allen is the one weighing an impending marriage. Theresa Saldana is the one angling for a shot that will launch her photography career. Susan Kendall Newman (daughter of Paul) is the socially conscious one protesting the crass commercialization of the Fab Four. And Wendie Jo Sperber (who left us too soon) is the one whose only goal in life is to marry Paul. But the movie is stolen by Eddie Deezen as the nerdy Beatle fan who seems to be channeling Jerry Lewis. (Seen 31 August 2012)

I Went Down 2 out of 4 stars

Depending on the context, the phrase “I went down” can have all kinds of meanings, covering every area from transportation to bedroom gymnastics. This Irish film manages to include all of them in one way or another. And that’s just the beginning of its clever way with dialog. This is essentially a gangster caper comedy centering on an ill-matched pair of not-quite-gangsters. Brendan Gleeson is the ironically named Bunny who aspires to swagger but merely blusters. His aptly named partner, Git, is a stoic youth with the face of a victim. Git is played by Peter McDonald, a David Arquette type who also has traces of a young Robert DeNiro or Stephen Rea. They make a winning pair, and the film is frequently amusing. Director Paddy Breathnach picked up an award at the San Sebastian film festival for his efforts. Robert Walpole (The Commitments) produced. (Seen 11 October 1997)

I’ll Take Sweden 2 out of 4 stars

Three years after Bob Hope made his last Road movie and three minutes after Frankie Avalon made his last 1960s Beach Party movie, the two of them appeared together in this generation/culture gap comedy directed by longtime Jack Benny and Johnny Carson producer Freddie De Cordova. Hope is teenager Tuesday Weld’s uptight single dad, and Avalon is the dreamily irresponsible motorcycle-riding, guitar-playing hunk who wants to marry her. Desperate to break them up, oil executive Hope volunteers for a transfer to Scandinavia. And that’s when we realize that this is essentially a Doris Day movie in every way other than it doesn’t actually have Doris Day in it. There is much teasing and titillation over those crazy Swedes with their strange ideas about not having sexual hang-ups, and pretty soon Hope’s hypocrisy is highlighted when he falls head over heels for Dina Merrill. Meanwhile, serial womanizer Jeremy Slate (sporting the worst of a number of dodgy Swedish accents) sets his sights on poor vulnerable Weld. As ever, Hope doesn’t so much act as stand around and deliver quips. In the end, it’s all about the perpetually imminent threat that someone might actually have sex before they get married. But, as Ms. Day herself could tell you, in 1960s comedies like this one, the threat is invariably an empty one. (Seen 30 March 2014)

I’m Not Rappaport 2 out of 4 stars

The next time the government is surveying the massive craggy landscapes of our great nation, looking for some vista to declare a new national monument, it might want to consider Walter Matthau’s face. This is a visage that speaks volumes. In the heartwarming 1971 family film Kotch, Matthau put on aging makeup to play an irascible elderly man. Now, a quarter-century later, when he is probably older than the Kotch character was supposed to be, he’s putting on make-up again to play even older. This time he’s not doing it to be yet a grumpier old man (although he is pretty grumpy) but to do a star turn opposite Ossie Davis in Herb Gardner’s film version of his Broadway play. As in A Thousand Clowns (which Gardner also wrote for the stage and screen), we have an idiosyncratic New Yorker railing against the world. And, as is the case with many stage adaptations, I’m Not Rappaport is very talky, and the reason to see it is for the performances. Matthau and Davis deliver the goods, which include more than a few laughs and a fair dose of poignancy. (Seen 14 January 1997)

I, Daniel Blake 2 out of 4 stars

A Ken Loach film that illustrates the work of Ken Loach at his most Ken Loach-like, this much admired flick picked up not only the Palme d’Or at the most recent Cannes film festival but also the Palm Dog prize for its brief glimpse of a three-logged canine. This makes him one of just a handful of filmmakers to have won the Palme d’Or twice. (His other win was for 2006’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley about the Irish War of Independence.) Chronicling the frustrating tale of a widower carpenter and his travails with Britain’s healthcare bureaucracy after a heart attack has left him unable to work, the film is very well made, and it tugs on the heartstrings even as it meanders along in Loach’s matter-of-fact trademark social realist style. The very likeable Dave Johns plays the titular Daniel as he goes through a metaphorical maze of state programs and departments in search of the cheese that is some sort of benefits to tide him over until he is able to work again. The nub of his problem is that his doctor has forbidden him from working but the national insurance has deemed him fit to work and therefore ineligible for disability payments. The catch-22 is that he must then apply for unemployment which requires him to actively seek work which he cannot actually accept if offered. His dilemma is only exacerbated by rigid unhelpful bureaucrats (the nice ones are never in a position of authority) and a requirement to fill out forms online, a major obstacle for the computer-illiterate Dan. His story is joined with that of Katie, a single mother recently moved from London to Newcastle and in much the same predicament. The film is effective where it focuses on the human hardships and relationships, but being a Loach film it tends to veer into occasional dialog clearly meant to Make A Political Point. Of interest to American viewers will be the fact that the UK has a single-payer healthcare system which, some in the U.S. tell us, is meant to solve the sorts of problems Daniel encounters. To clarify things, Loach includes a brief mention early on about services being contracted to “am American company” and a late appearance by a street rabble-rouser shouting about how “the Tories” are to blame. (Seen 29 October 2016)

Ice Age: The Meltdown 2 out of 4 stars

Sequels, by their nature, are exploitive. So while they’re at it, the studio guys might as well cash in on all the free buzz about global warming while they are at it. But cynical movie rules don’t apply as much to animated features, since the creative minds behind them seem to be motivated more by their own manic imaginations than by anything else. This flick, by the Brazilian Carlos Saldanha, who co-directed the original Ice Age as well as Robots, exists for its endless set pieces of slapstick mayhem, many of which involve a squirrel-like creature trying to acquire a nut. There is a plot—all about important things like overcoming fears and forming families and not being the last of your species—but mostly the movie is about the action and the zany comedy. At the same time, the movie has a surprising amount of tension—owing largely to a number of suspenseful sequences, a couple of rather scary creatures and even a demise or two. The bar just seems to be higher for this generation of tykes when it comes to the intensity of their entertainment. For my money, the best bit was a song-and-dance number involving vultures and a song from Oliver! (Seen 22 April 2006)

The Ice Storm 3 out of 4 stars

Taiwan-born director Ang Lee (The Wedding Banquet, Sense and Sensibility) has made another film about families, and this time he has picked a setting about as unfriendly to families as you can get—suburban America in the early 1970s. And since we are in the 1970s, you can count on two things: 1) we will see numerous TV clips of a sinister-looking Richard Nixon and 2) we will see fashions and hairstyles that have not stood the test of time. Lee’s portrait of two Connecticut families is at turns amusing and sad. And the titular storm mirrors emotional events so that background TV forecasts become virtual comments on the unfolding action. And speaking of ice, Joan Allen (who played Pat in Nixon) seems to be bucking for the reigning ice queen title in movies today. Kevin Kline makes his character more likeable than he should be. And Sigourney Weaver looks strangely like Sue Ellen on the old Dallas TV series. Despite a lot of silliness and overwrought events, the film in the end more than redeems itself by putting the whole works in tragically etched perspective. (Seen 19 October 1997)

An Ideal Husband 3 out of 4 stars

Near the end of the century, a rising politician has no doubt that resignation is the honorable course for his lack of integrity. His devoted wife is crushed to learn that he would lie to her. Yes, this is a complete fantasy. More specifically, it is an English Victorian drawing room comedy disguised as a melodrama. It is a delight from beginning to end entirely because it came from the imagination of Oscar Wilde himself. This latter-day mounting of Wilde’s play as a movie, directed and adapted by Oliver Parker, is faithful to the era it depicts. But it is also laced with a number of sly jokes, including an appearance by Wilde himself and another by the famous Lady Windermere’s fan. Perhaps the best joke is the casting of the openly gay Rupert Everett in what might be considered the title role as the character who most seems to be Wilde’s mouthpiece. This gives a whole extra dimension to the Everett character’s chronic fear of matrimony. Jeremy Northam and Cate Blanchett are quite good as the seemingly perfect couple, and Julianne Moore (The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Boogie Nights) is surprisingly effective as the villain of the piece. (Seen 29 May 1999)

Identity 2 out of 4 stars

It’s hard not to like a movie that is made with such high regard for past horror/whodunit masterpieces. And make no mistake, I do like this movie. But there are limits to my admiration for it. It is largely a loving homage to classics like Psycho and the various adaptations of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. (I was surprised to learn that there have no fewer than four official adaptations: one with Christie’s original title, in 1945, and three called Ten Little Indians, in 1966, 1975 and 1989.) The problem is that these are some of the most over-homaged movies ever made and remade, so we want to see something really new and interesting as a reward for wading through such familiar material. Writer Michael Cooney (Jack Frost and Jack Frost 2: Revenge of the Mutant Killer Snowman) and director James Mangold (Cop Land, Girl, Interrupted, Kate & Leopold) do their darnedest to stimulate our intellects. But while a shorter version of this flick would have been fine in a Twilight Zone anthology, as a standalone movie it feels a bit like a cheat as a slasher/whodunit. In this genre, we want to feel 1) like it could be happening to us and 2) that we have a fighting chance of guessing who the killer is (and that it actually matters who the killer is). By the time we get to the final stretch of Identity, the point where our emotions should be whipped into high gear, the film’s conceit works against us caring about the fates of our stranded travelers. That’s okay if the trade-off is surprise payoff as in The Usual Suspects or Jacob’s Ladder. We do sort of get that, but it also feels a bit like the episode of Dallas, where Pam found Bobby in the shower and it turned out the whole previous season had just been a dream. Note to repertory cinema programmers: this would make a great double-feature with The Green Mile. (Seen 25 June 2003)

Identity Thief 2 out of 4 stars

The formula is pretty well established. Take something current that has become A Thing (in this case, identity theft) and build the usual rude, gross-out action comedy around it. Just to be sure, hire the queen of this type of flick, Melissa McCarthy. The director of this 2013 multiplex mind-number is Seth Gordon (The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, Four Christmases and some sitcoms), and McCarthy’s straight man is another durable sitcom veteran, Jason Bateman. You can’t really blame the cast; they’re doing what they can. The problem is that the premise is just pretty flimsy—even by Hollywood comedy standards. Finding that his identity has been stolen by someone in Florida, family man and accountant Bateman decides to travel there and bring her back himself so she can be arrested by Denver police. The other problem is that Bateman’s character is a bit too bland and credulous in the beginning and then goes on to make a series of escalating bad choices. McCarthy’s character is meant to make up in outrageousness what she lacks in morals, but the result is that we end up with two people about whom it is really hard to care that much. It always clear where this is inevitably going wind up, but the movie does nothing along the way to earn the payoff. What is there about this movie that makes it different from so many other similar movies? It’s as though, I don’t know, like maybe at some point in the creative process it might have had some kind of an identity but then it, well, got stolen. (Seen 25 September 2016)

Idle Hands 2 out of 4 stars

Parents who are convinced that movies are warping the minds of impressionable teenagers and inspiring them to commit all manner of violence will not be reassured by Idle Hands. But it doesn’t matter because they won’t be seeing it anyway. Teenagers will, and lots of them will be happy to lap up this gross-out horror/comedy because that’s just what teenagers (and sometimes former teenagers) do. The plot ostensibly revives the premise of such mediocre horror flicks as The Beast with Five Fingers, The Crawling Hand and Oliver Stone’s embarrassment The Hand and then gives it the American Werewolf in London teen comedy/rock’n’roll treatment. But it really draws inspiration from more recent laugh-and-jump flicks as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Scream. To get an idea of the comic possibilities, just think about the fact that it’s about a teenage boy who can’t control his right hand. But where the teens in Scream actually seemed aware they were in a horror movie, the perpetually zoned-out kids in this flick are barely aware there is blood all over the floor. Canadian actor Devon Sawa is more than game in a lead role reminiscent of Keanu Reeves’s early ones and which requires much physical comedy. Elden Ratliff and Seth Green (Scott Evil in the Austin Powers movies) are quite droll as Devon’s barely-alive-before-they-become-undead sidekicks. In addition to numerous TV shows, director Rodman Flender previously helmed Leprechaun 2, a.k.a. One Wedding and a Lot of Funerals. (Seen 30 April 1999)

Idö van (Time) 2 out of 4 stars

You’re watching a movie and there’s a gunfight on screen. As you leave the theater, you notice that someone in the audience has been hit by a stray bullet. When you get home, you open a closet and a train is rushing at you. You stop by work to pick up something, and the guard (who is your uncle) demands your name, birth date, mother’s maiden name, etc. When you refuse, the argument degenerates into a Dodge City-style shoot-out. Your wife has a big black hair growing out of her cheek. And when you cut, it grows back instantaneously. What the hell is going on here? It can only be one thing. Yes, folks, its… surrealism! The director of this Hungarian movie made a semi-comedy that played at the Seattle film festival a few years ago called Time Stands Still, about a group of teenagers, sort of a Hungarian Graffiti. In this flick, time does not stand still. If you like Luis Buñuel’s stuff (especially Le Phantôme de la Liberté), you’ll probably like this. Quite amusing in places. And when I woke up this morning, the world did look a little different to me. And some would argue that that’s what movies are all about. (Seen 26 May 1987)

Iedereen beroemd! (Everybody’s Famous!) 3 out of 4 stars

There aren’t many movies out there that can simultaneously evoke the feelings we got watching both the 1976 Paddy Chayefsky drama Network and the 1994 Australian comedy Muriel’s Wedding, but this Flemish-language film by Belgian writer/director Dominique Deruddere manages to do such a thing. And you can throw in a plot somewhat reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s 1983 flick The King of Comedy for good measure. In the end, this is yet another movie parody of the mass media, but this is a particularly entertaining one. In its own simple and gentle way, it manages to touch all the bases from pre-packaged-and-marketed pop music à la Britney Spears to the slippery convergence of Top 40 radio, television entertainment and network news coverage. What’s amazing is that the film can make its cynical points and still build up to an ending that is as corny and as satisfying as 42nd Street. This is the film that the makers of EDtv could only dream of making. One note of caution, however: you may find yourself involuntarily humming the intentionally insipid ballad Lucky Manuelo for days afterward. (Seen 26 May 2001)

If I Should Fall from Grace: The Shane MacGowan Story 2 out of 4 stars

If I had somehow never heard of the Pogues or any of the other musical groups fronted by Shane MacGowan over the years and all I knew about him was what I had seen the past few years in interviews on Irish television, then I would probably have figured that he was Ireland’s equivalent of Foster Brooks. The wiry and energetic young singer/songwriter who somehow managed to marry punk and traditional Irish music is now a bloated self-caricature whose slurred speech is nearly unintelligible. But he goes on. While former musical colleagues have declared themselves alcoholics and cleaned up their act (fellow pop star Nick Cave is particularly interesting on this point), MacGowan just keeps on keeping on. At one point in this documentary, someone says tolerantly, “Shane just has to be Shane,” and we immediately get a shot of him, head back, chugging a bottle of gin while standing in his family’s Tipperary farmyard. The film traces the MacGowan family’s emigration from Tipperary to London (and eventually back again), where young Shane revitalized Irish music almost single-handedly. We are treated to many of his best and most memorable performances, as well as two versions of how he and the Pogues parted company. (Depending on who’s talking, he was either sacked or he quit.) MacGown was scheduled to appear on the Galway Town Hall stage before this film screened, and as at two other film festivals, he didn’t quite make it in time. Director Sarah Share emotionally choked out the words: “If you see Shane in the bar, tell him I love him.” Presumably, she got to tell him herself, since MacGowan finally did manage to arrive before the screening ended and wobbled up onto the stage (without spilling his drink) to a standing ovation. I heard he was in the bar until the small, wee hours. (Seen 13 July 2001)

If I Stay 2 out of 4 stars

Let me be honest. I probably would never have seen this movie if I wasn’t a father. (Just like there are a fair few Disney movies I probably wouldn’t have seen in the last decade.) In the end it was a bit like a hygienist appointment. Didn’t particularly look forward to it, wasn’t always entirely comfortable during it, but felt like I was probably better off afterwards. A tragic teenage romance, this demands to be compared to The Fault in Our Stars. The earlier film has the edge on more likeable/believable characters. Chloë Grace Moretz is an appealing and talented actor and she doesn’t put a foot wrong. But her cello prodigy character, along with her cool rocker parents and tow-headed little brother, are just a little bit too good to be true. Plus she has a rock star for a boyfriend. And the story would be pretty ordinary without the gimmick of Moretz seeing everything out-of-body, making this a bit like It’s a Wonderful Life or, perhaps more aptly, Thorton Wilder’s Our Town. Despite the occasional teen romance clichés, the film (directed by R.J. Cutler after Gayle Forman’s novel) does get at some serious insights about life, death and family. And veteran actor Stacy Keach does a lovely job in his role as “Gramps.” But it’s hard to get away from the fact that the movie magnificently—and relentlessly—pushes all the emotional buttons again and again. The sobbing around us never stopped during the final reel. The teen and tween females and their mothers who otherwise populated our screening must have gone through a shipping crate’s worth of tissues. (Seen 6 September 2014)

If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium 2 out of 4 stars

The title of this of 1969 comedy took on a life of its own, outliving the popularity of the movie itself. The first surprise for those of us who never saw it before is that it actually has a title song. The second surprise it that the song is actually quite good and is sung quite melodically by none other than Donovan, who is one of many famous faces of the time who contribute brief cameos. In addition to the singer’s appearance strumming a guitar in a youth hostel, we catch even more fleeting glances at Joan Collins, Vittorio de Sica, Anita Ekberg, Ben Gazzara, Virna Lisi and Robert Vaughn. The biggest surprise is that this amounts to somewhat more than a mere forerunner to National Lampoon’s European Vacation. The tour bus, hitting nine countries in 18 days, is loaded with middling popular comedians of the time (Marty Ingels, Norman Fell, Sandy Baron, Peggy Cass), and there are certainly many wry observations on the culture clashes between Americans and Europeans. But at the heart of the movie is the very watchable flirtation cum possible romance between the tour guide, a very young Ian McShane (of recent note for the series Deadwood), looking very Jude Law-ish, and Suzanne Pleshette at her most fetching. The director is Mel Stuart, who would make Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory a couple of years later. Among the other surprises are appearances by a very youthful Patricia Routledge (best known as Hyacinth Bucket of the britcom Keeping Up Appearances and equally in super-posh mode here) and by Luke Halpin, a couple years past his gig with Flipper, as a politically engaged American student romancing a younger member of the tour. If this flick doesn’t make you want to go to Europe, it does kind of make you miss the Sixties. (Seen 7 December 2008)

Igby Goes down 2 out of 4 stars

You could fill an Olympic-sized pool with all the venom that gets spewed in this coming-of-age tale among New York’s vacuous affluent. It means to be a darkly humorous story of survival but comes close to being someone’s cathartic attack on their own family and their set of friends. In a strange way, it’s a Cinderella story with the villain being the biological mother rather than the stepmother. The movie’s saving grace is the young hero’s poignant flashbacks to his mentally ill father and the sense of reconciliation with his mother he sort of achieves by film’s end. How much you like this movie (written and directed by Burr Steers) will likely depend on much you identify with its protagonist. It isn’t quite as profound as it means to be, but it does provide some surprisingly moving performances. Susan Sarandon and Jeff Goldblum do great work with essentially two-dimensional characters. We already knew that Kieran Culkin was way more talented than his older brother Macauley, but he is especially accomplished here, and we can’t help but wonder how much inspiration he was able to draw from his own family. And Bill Pullman is unexpectedly heartbreaking in the small but pivotal role of his father. (Seen 9 March 2003)

Ik omhels je met 1000 armen (A Thousand Kisses) 2 out of 4 stars

This film suffers from what I am coming to call The Curse Of The Framing Love Story. There is actually a fresh, provocative and thoughtful movie here, but unfortunately it is undermined by the device of having its story told in flashback, as a young Dutchman prepares to break up with his girlfriend during a sun-drink-and-drugs holiday in La Palma. Twentysomething Giph is apparently a brilliant writer, but he is absolutely useless when it comes to communicating to those closest to him—particularly his flamboyant, force-of-nature mother Lotti, who has multiple sclerosis, and his girlfriend Samarinde, who is working her way through medical school by working as a highly sought-after fashion model. As her medical condition, deteriorates, Lotti makes clear that she will avail of an option that is legal in The Netherlands: to be euthanized. This story is very compelling and not quite like anything we are used to seeing in most movies. It doesn’t help the film that Giph isn’t very likeable, but we can certainly deal with that. What is harder to escape, however, is the feeling that fashion model girlfriend and the wild party scenes were included purely to make the film more palatable to an audience that might be put off by the mother-son story. And even that could be forgiven except that the love story (which eventually reaches a fairly inauthentic conclusion) pushes the more important story into a secondary space. I feel a bit of cad for being so critical, given the grim coincidence surrounding this film. Its director, Willem van de Sande Bakhuyzen, died of colon cancer at the age of 47 the day before the opening of his previous film, Leef!, in 2005. (Seen 12 July 2007)

Im Toten Winkel: Hitlers Sekretärin (Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary) 3 out of 4 stars

Wouldn’t it be fascinating and useful to be able to sit down and talk to someone who actually knew Adolf Hitler personally and was with him almost constantly during his last days? What a historical gold mine that would be. As it happens, there was such a person, but no one had shown any interest in what she had to say since the years immediately after World War II. Fortunately, André Heller and Othmar Schmiderer found her and interviewed her in front of a camera, just a short time before she died. Filmwise, this documentary is no frills. We have one talking head to watch uninterrupted for 95 minutes. And it’s some of the most riveting cinema you will ever see. Before our eyes, 81-year-old Traudi Junge recalls how she became Hitler’s secretary, when she was 22, and gives a detailed eyewitness account of his last days in an underground concrete bunker. She pleads ignorance of the methodical Jewish genocide, saying that it never came up in dealings with her boss. As she relives the last days of the war, we come to identify with her fear as well as her loyalty to her country’s leader. The Hitler she knew was not the ranting madman of old newsreel clips that we usually see. She describes a man who was kind, considerate, fatherly and charismatic—something worth remembering as we keep our eyes open for future Hitlers. Madmen don’t always fit the stereotype. She reminds us that Hitler did not smoke or drink and that he was a vegetarian. The film ends with Junge, who was never a member of the Nazi party and came into her job by pure happenstance, telling how she had excused her role because of her youth and ignorance. Then one day, she says, she passed a memorial to a young woman who had died resisting the Nazis and she noticed that the woman was her own age. Youth and ignorance aren’t excuses, she concludes. Unfortunately, what she can’t tell us is, in a world full of slick propaganda from both the left and the right, is which sources of information can we trust to tell us which world leaders to oppose. (Seen 10 March 2003)

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus 3 out of 4 stars

So who had it right? The BBC’s Mark Kermode, who said that the changes made to work around the untimely death of Heath Ledger seem like they could have been intended all along? Or The Irish Times’s Donald Clarke, who said the flick looked like a movie where the star had died halfway through? Basically, Kermode has it right although, practically speaking, the seamlessness of the end result is compromised by the fact that we go into the cinema knowing what happened during production and it colors everything we see. The illusion (and if any filmmaker’s work is all about illusion, it’s Terry Gilliam’s) of the narrative is undone because we cannot help but be aware that scenes with Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell were filmed quite a bit later than the scenes with Ledger. Still, it’s amazing how well it all fits together. It never feels as though Ledger is being worked around. But his passing hangs heavily over everything that we see, which was inevitable but also accentuated by the film’s ongoing motif of death. If any scene feels as though it was added later, it was the one where a character pays heartbroken tribute to celebrities who died too young, specifically Rudolph Valentino, James Dean and Princess Diana. But I am given to understand these references were in the script from the very beginning. In the end, the movie deserves to be judged on its own merits, not on the sad event that happened during its production. The good news is that all of the familiar Gilliam trademarks are here: the elaborate visual set pieces that we have seen all the way back to when Gilliam’s absurd animations were sprinkled through the Monty Python TV show (invariably involving a gigantic head popping up somewhere), the theme of storytelling and imagination, the metaphysical quest, some social satire, etc. Will this movie supplant Brazil or even The Adventures of Baron Munchausen in our heads and hearts? No. But it’s still more compelling to watch than most other things that come across the cinema screen. Christopher Plummer does yeoman’s work in the title role, and Tom Waits is particularly wonderful as a strangely amiable and sympathetic devil. If there is any regret with this film, it gets back to that sad event. Frustratingly, the final and emotionally climactic scenes for Ledger’s character are played by Farrell instead of him. While the film is a lovely send-off for Ledger, we still don’t get to properly say good-bye to him. [Related commentary] (Seen 21 October 2009)

Imagining Argentina 3 out of 4 stars

Turning recent historical horrors into art or (more dicey) entertainment is always a tricky business. Californian author Lawrence Thornton took a page from Latin America’s literary tradition of Magic Realism to deal with Argentina’s savage “dirty war” of the 1970s. His novel, Imagining Argentina, worked as a commentary on itself by putting forth the theme of how imagining horrors can be a way of fighting them. Transferring this idea from the page to the movie screen, however, was fraught with risks. Images that can feel respectful in print can seem exploitative as visuals. Indeed, in the early going of this film (directed and adapted by Britain’s Christopher Hampton), it threatens to come off like a variation of TV shows like Medium, where the focus is on the hero’s unusual power. And the presence of several well-known European actors (Antonio Banderas, Emma Thompson, John Wood, Claire Bloom) tends to emphasize the fact that this is, ultimately, the outsiders’ view of Argentine history. (An additional jolt these days is seeing in a key role the American actor Maria Canales, whose current gig is playing the mom on the Disney Channel’s The Wizards of Waverly Place.) But despite all this, the film has a serious power. Despite the gimmicks, we do get a real sense of what the horror must have been like for those on the wrong political side during those terrible days. This, plus the presence of Ms. Thompson who graces any movie she appears in, earns this movie a third star. Hampton, better known as a screenwriter of movies like Dangerous Liaisons, Total Eclipse, Atonement and Chéri, has directed only two other films: 1995’s Carrington and 1996’s The Secret Agent. (Seen 8 July 2009)

The Imitation Game 3 out of 4 stars

In hindsight, the most memorable thing about this movie may be the passionate and heartfelt speech given by Graham Moore, when he accepted the film’s only Oscar, for adapted screenplay. (It was nominated for six others, including Best Picture.) In a way, this wonderful, involving movie can be appreciated as at least three different kinds of film, which have become familiar. On one level it is the gay martyr movie, in which a based-on-real-life character becomes an archetype demonstrating the persecution of gay people. But it is also the movie about a hero with the overdeveloped intellect but who struggles (or doesn’t bother) to relate to ordinary people. This seems to be a character that is increasingly popular and, of course, a prime example is the titular one from the BBC’s Sherlock, who is also played by Benedict Cumberbatch. It is a testimony to the magificent Cumberbatch’s craft that his Alan Turing is never overshadowed by the celebrated fictional detective for which he is better known. But given the natural tendency to focus on those two aspects of The Imitation Game, it is kind of surprising that it really works best (at least for me) as a third kind of movie—the old-fashioned wartime espionage thriller. In the end it is the narrative of how the British approached the problem of breaking German’s secret communiction code and then how they actually proceeded once they had solved it. Charles Dance brings his trademark icy sense of authority (as widely seen on Game of Thrones) to the naval commander whose previous wartime experience leaves him behind the curve when dealing with mathemticians and a new technical age. As usual, Mark Strong is absolutely brilliant, as the intelligence chief who is exactly on the same page with Alan Turing strategically if not necessarily morally. In fact, what is fascinating is how Turing’s computer-like logic inevitably always seems to bring him to the same place as Strong’s machiavellian spy boss. Also, for my money, Strong gets all the best lines in a movie that is filled with many good lines. It is also impressive that a movie written by the American Moore and directed by the Norwegian Morten Tyldum succeeds in feeling so authentically British. (Seen 11 August 2015)

Impure Thoughts 2 out of 4 stars

What if you were Catholic and you died and it turned out all those things the Church had told you were true? This is sort of the premise of this U.S. film. Four men at different stages of their lives find themselves dead and in purgatory. The group includes a marine killed in Vietnam, a gay writer who took too many painkillers, an unscrupulous businessman who chokes on a fishbone at a banquet in his honor, and a dogmatic sort who has a heart attack while playing football with his friends. Turns out they all were friends at St. Jude’s Catholic High School in the 1960s. There are lots of flashbacks as they try to figure out why they all wound up together in purgatory. Refreshingly, the actors who play them as teenagers are all really teenagers (as opposed to being in their 20s, as is usually the case in movies). There are plenty of good jabs at the church and at nuns and many other funny moments. At a school dance a stern nun walks around the floor placing a ruler between dancing couples, admonishing, “Six inches! Six inches! Leave room between you for the Holy Ghost!” In another scene, a guy, parked in a convertible with his girlfriend, argues that touching her breast is only a mortal sin if he puts his hand under her sweater. But this movie doesn’t exist merely to ridicule the Catholic Church. It gives an idea of what it is like to be Catholic in America and touches on the prejudice that Catholics have been subject to in a mainly Protestant country. When the four men finally hit on the one event they shared that put them in purgatory (they sneaked a sip from the communion wine when the priest wasn’t around), it turns out that their sin coincides exactly with the assassination of President Kennedy. When they achieve awareness of the moment when innocence was lost, they disappear one by one from purgatory. What is not clear is whether they have gone to heaven, to hell, or if they simply woke up. (Seen 2 June 1987)

In & Out 2 out of 4 stars

Playing a gay character, which was once considered career suicide for a mainstream actor, now seems to be quite the trend in Hollywood. In & Out is actually more entertaining for its clever and numerous potshots at tinseltown (at the Oscars Steven Seagal is nominated for best actor in a film called Snowball in Hell) than for its sexual orientation jokes. The film is easy to take because the laughs are gentle and good-natured (the small town setting is mostly impossibly tolerant and supportive) and the cast (Kevin Kline, Joan Cusack, et al) is top-drawer. Bob Newhart was born to play a high school principal, and Matt Dillon approaches self-parody as the Brad Pitt-ish actor who, as Tom Hanks did in real life, outs his former teacher on national TV. Question: When did Broadway musicals, refinement, fashion sense, and Barbra Streisand become the exclusive domain of the gay community? (Okay, they can have Barbra Streisand.) (Seen 5 November 1997)

In a World… 2 out of 4 stars

Just the other night on The Graham Norton Show they showed a clip of the new romcom Man Up with Simon Pegg and Lake Bell. Graham and the couch were impressed how utterly convincing Bell’s English accent was, given that she is American. That was not a fluke. Bell has a knack for accents, and with In a World… (which she wrote, directed and stars in) she got to display that talent, as well as the world of dialect coaches and voice-over artists. She plays Carol, whose dad is one of the small (and very male) fraternity of artists who narrate movie trailers. The setup is that a new fantasy blockbuster is coming out, and the trailer is going to revive the classic introduction from this film’s title. It was made famous by Don LaFontaine, the veteran of more than 5,000 trailers who passed away in 2008. As a result, this movie is, among other things, a nice tribute to LaFontaine. When Carol gets the chance to record the big trailer, it puts her at odds with her father’s protégé and, ultimately, the pompous old man himself. Did I mention this was a romcom? Dad is played by Fred Melamed, an actor with his own voice-over credentials. His chosen successor is Ken Marino, and Demetri Martin is the shy sound studio guy who has a crush on Carol. There are also amusing cameos, particularly Eva Longoria, whom Carol is coaching to speak with a cockney accent. With a cast of interesting and appealing characters and glimpses behind the scenes of a lesser heralded part of the entertainment biz, the flick is quite a fun watch. (Seen 16 May 2015)

In America 2 out of 4 stars

The paddies-struggling-in-America film is a fairly prominent sub-genre in Irish cinema, and now Jim Sheridan, whose films (My Left Foot, The Field, In the Name of the Father) have thoughtfully explored various aspects of Irish-ness, has tackled this theme, basing it loosely on his own experiences. The surprise is that the America theme is nearly a red herring. This is really a tale of coming to terms with grief and guilt. Told from the point of view of an 11-year-old girl, this really makes the movie more akin to Spanish films like Cría Cuervos than to, say, Gold in the Streets. While the drug den Manhattan tenement where the family lives may be many Irish people’s view of America, it is of course as foreign to most Americans as it is to this young family. The father is played by Paddy Considine, who bears a bit of a resemblance to Lothaire Bluteau, and the mother is played by Samantha Morton (Sweet and Lowdown, Minority Report, Morvern Callar), who has a lot more lines than we’re used to hearing her speak. An unexpected influence in this tale is none other than Steven Spielberg (reinforced by the participation of Djimon Hounsou, who first came to prominence in Spielberg’s Amistad). Spielberg’s E.T. has a collective emotional effect on the family and in the end even helps them to reach closure over a devastating loss—something, the film may be suggesting, is more possible in America than in Ireland. (Seen 19 November 2003)

In Bruges 3 out of 4 stars

What is there about hit men that makes filmmakers want to do movies about them? It seems to be that movies like Grosse Pointe Blank, You Kill Me and this one find intriguing opportunities in the assassin’s profession for morbid humor, putting moral dilemmas in some kind of absurdist relief and generally satirizing modern mores by making casual murder part of the equation. It also raises the general tension of a piece by the mere fact that we are dealing with characters for whom killing is an acceptable way to sort out problems. The good news is that, while Martin McDonagh’s feature debut (he’s already won an Oscar for his short film Six Shooter) exults in his own weird sensibility, it avoids the pitfalls of a playwright’s first movie. Neither is it too stagey nor does it overcompensate by too many visual flourishes. As a typical auteur film, it consciously defies genre classification. It’s not quite an odd couple comedy. It’s sort of a thriller, but certainly not a conventional one. Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell are good craic as a couple of Irish blokes hiding out in Belgium after a tragic misstep in Farrell’s first hit job. Much of the entertainment is provided by Farrell’s relentlessly politically incorrect Dub. When he gets around to thrashing an American (who actually turns out to be Canadian) while yelling, “That’s for John Lennon, you Yankee [expletives deleted]!", one cannot help but be impressed, not only by the brilliant audacity of invoking a guilt by association most of us hadn’t really thought of, but having it mouthed by a violence-prone killer who is the antithesis of everything Lennon stood for. Also on hand is Ralph Fiennes as a gangster boss, who seems to have admired Ben Kingsley’s tightly-wound turn in Sexy Beast. (In case there was any doubt, he even makes a throw-away reference to Gandhi.) In Bruges marks a mini-Hogwarts reunion of sorts. Gleeson, Fiennes and the lovely Clémence Poésy have all appeared in one or more of the Harry Potter films. (Seen 10 April 2008)

In Dreams 2 out of 4 stars

The first shot is a clear nod to Kubrick’s The Shining. Then it starts to feel a bit like Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. Before the end, we will think we feel the influence of Wes Craven and, in a bit of gender confusion, perhaps the more horrific side of Hitchcock. Or is it a nod to director Neil Jordan’s own The Crying Game? Whereas, Jordan did a dark psycho-deconstruction of the Red Riding Hood story in The Company of Wolves, this time it is the Snow White tale he is plumbing the dark recesses of. And dark they are. Indeed, the places he goes are so dark that not even the legions of fans of horror seem to have taken this movie to its heart. Annette Bening is a woman bothered by dreams that seem to come true. Is she crazy or psychic or is there something else going on? Whatever it is, it seems to be tied to a town that was submerged in the creation of a reservoir. The scenes involving the underwater town are mesmerizing and help give the whole thing the feel of one long nightmare, which it basically is. Crucially, Bening goes to ever more desperate lengths without losing us. And Robert Downey Jr. has a similar balancing act, on the other side of sanity. As usual in movies like this, the police and psychiatrists are pure useless. (Seen 9 July 2010)

In Search of a Midnight Kiss 2 out of 4 stars

The notion of single people desperate to find someone to ring in the New Year with has been a feature of several romantic comedies, notably When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, Bridget Jones’s Diary and the Australian romcom Strange Planet. In this movie, as the somewhat poetic-sounding title suggests, that idea is the whole point of the film. A Texas transplant to L.A. trying to make it in the movie business, Wilson is pushing 30 and at an emotional low point. An old idea (a friend pushing him into a blind date) becomes modernized yet again when he is persuaded to post a personal ad on Craigslist. Wilson’s New Year’s Eve adventures (beginning with a humiliating incident involving a computer and Photoshop) are the stuff of years of independent slackeresque films, but it is all amusing enough and the characters are just likeable enough that we don’t mind too much going through it one more time. And the black and white photography shows off the real character of over-photographed Los Angeles better than any movie in a long time. Alex Holdridge wrote and directed. (Seen 12 July 2008)

In the Bedroom 3 out of 4 stars

The longer I put off seeing this movie, the more I dreaded it. I knew just enough about it to realize that sitting through it would be an ordeal. So I tried to ignore it—even though I knew the day of reckoning would inevitably arrive. Sort of like being booked on a long-haul flight. I felt as though I already knew too much about the film, and that seeing it would be like watching one of those awful Lifetime movies about a tawdry, overly publicized crime. But I also knew that the acting and direction would be way beyond one of those made-for-TV atrocities. And it definitely is. There is not a wasted moment in the whole film. And the performances merit every one of the awards they will receive. For that alone (not to mention the fact that I have been unable to get this flick out of my head), In the Bedroom gets its three stars. I was also prepared for a wrenching exploration of family dynamics under the weight of tragedy and grief, as in Ordinary People or the more recent Lantana. And the film definitely delivers in that department as well. But somehow all the critical gushing had also primed me for some sort of ending that brimmed with grace and hope à la Places in the Heart. What I didn’t expect was a conclusion that dwells not on people’s souls but on their natures, and does it in a way that is nearly as non-judgmental as it is non-sensational. Director Todd Field (whose acting roles have included the sinister pianist Nick Nightingale in Eyes Wide Shut) has accomplished the seemingly impossible. He has made a thinking man’s Charles Bronson movie. [Related commentary] (Seen 8 February 2002)

In the Shadow of the Moon 3 out of 4 stars

The mind boggles when thinking of all the archival film footage sitting around in vaults and which we have never seen or haven’t seen in a very long time. And we forget, or maybe never knew, exactly how much film footage was accumulated during that amazingly brief five-year period, ending in 1972, when human beings made 10 journeys to the moon, six of them actually landing on it. As this fabulous documentary notes, we have not been back since. Seeing all the old footage now is like seeing it for the first time, at least partly because back in 1969, the year of the first human lunar footsteps, when most people would have been glued to their TV sets, many of us were still watching in black and white. This movie gives it all to us in glorious color (although you wouldn’t necessarily notice it in the lunar landscape shots). But what really makes us relive the experience of journeying to the moon and back is the talking-heads reminisces of nine surviving Apollo astronauts. Director David Sington skillfully juxtposes the contemporary images of gray-haired and/or balding men with footage of their youthful selves, darn near making time miraculously dissolve. For being bona fide heroes, these men all have that uncomplicated, dry, plainspoken, matter-of-fact manner (and requisite test pilot drawl) that makes them seem comfortably ordinary, even when speaking of their participation in some of the most extraordinary events in human history. Mike Collins, who stayed in the capsule while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin went down to the lunar surface, comes off as particularly forthcoming, speaking for example of what it is was like to be the first man so isolated from the earth. (He says he wasn’t particularly lonely and actually rather enjoyed it.) In addition to the lunar journeys themselves (concentrating mainly on Apollo 11), we get such fascinating footnotes as the speech Nixon had pre-recorded in case Armstrong and Aldrin couldn’t get off the lunar surface and the fact that, on the day Armstrong was accepted in the program, his parents went on I’ve Got a Secret and Gary Moore asked his mother how she’d feel if her son turned out to be the first man to walk on the moon. There is a strange emptiness in the heart of this wonderful film, and that is the spectre of Neil Armstrong, who is seen only in snatches of archival footage. While his contributions could have been fascinating, one senses that, as his colleagues suggest, he was uniquely suited for the role history thrust on him—not only in the moment but for all those years since. (Seen 16 October 2007)

Inception 3 out of 4 stars

When you go into a cinema to see a movie that has been advertised as being about people invading other people’s dreams, there are a couple of things you might expect. One is that the dream sequences will be highly stylized, to convey the idea of dream logic and time which are different from being awake—such as Wes Craven did rather skillfully in the original A Nightmare on Elm Street. But writer/director Christopher Nolan largely negates this notion early on with exposition explaining that, for the purposes of the protagonists’ plot, they must maintain the illusion of reality in the dream world. So, with a few quite spectacular and eye-catching exceptions, the dream sequences in this movie conform much more to movie reality, i.e. lots of car chases, shooting and explosions. The other thing you might expect is that, at one or more key points, things you thought were real will be revealed to be a dream. This does explicitly happen but early on and as a matter of more exposition. But, while reviewers keep pointing out how confusing the movie is, as a narrative it always seems to be very clear just where we are in terms of dreams and dreams within dreams. So what is the celebrated auteur of the much more mind-bending Memento really at here? It comes as a surprise (to me anyway) that the movie actually has more in common with Citizen Kane than it does with the Elm Street movies. When, at the end, you-know-who opens the you-know-what and finds the whatchamacallit (trying to avoid spoilers here), all that is missing is for him to whisper, “Rosebud.” A joke I have used more than once is to say that some high-minded art movie could be improved with a good car chase. Against all reason, Nolan has turned my joke on its head. As others have said, this really is as though Jorge Luis Borges had penned a Hollywood blockbuster. Interestingly, the ending will satisfy some on its most superficial terms and cause others to engage in endless debate about what it really meant. Best of all, through it all Nolan keeps a figurative straight face—even when handing us outrageously funny in-jokes. Like the first shot of Leonardo DiCaprio looking like a direct follow-on to his famous role in Titanic. (Maybe that whole movie was just another dream!) Or the repeated use of Edith Piaf’s “La vie en rose,” title song of the movie that won Marion Cotillard an Oscar. (Seen 28 July 2010)

An Inconvenient Truth 2 out of 4 stars

I never cease to be surprised by how often I am surprised by films, about which I have heard and read so much beforehand that I am sure they will hold few, if any, surprises. As it happens, I wasn’t too much surprised by most of this documentary, but I was surprised by the ending. For more than 90 minutes, film subject Al Gore presents charts, graphs and computer models, all leading up to a nearly hopeless sense of doom about climate change. Then in the final few minutes, he cheerfully announces that it can all be solved with a few legislative measures, which all turn out to be quite reasonable and achievable. The film then goes on to provide a list of equally reasonable things that individuals can do, although ironically most people in the screening I saw didn’t get these because the tips were interspersed with the closing credits and, as we know, most people spontaneously stand up and walk out when the credits begin. The most important tip, from the filmmakers’ point of view, clearly is the one that exhorts people to support politicians who favor the environment. This film, directed by Davis Guggenheim and produced by Laurie David, is essentially a big, slick political ad. And I don’t mean that in a negative way. Political ads are, technically, some of the best filmmaking there is. In the end climate change is, in Hitchcockian terms, the film’s MacGuffin, i.e. the thing that is constantly being talked about but which is not what the movie is really “about.” The real subject is Gore. The film flatters him no end and fawns, even as he tells corny stories about growing up on the family farm in Tennessee. Before this movie came out, the only thing most people would consider more boring than Al Gore would have been Al Gore doing a slideshow. Magically, that is no longer true. (Seen 15 July 2006)

The Incredibles 2 out of 4 stars

Before Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby caused a bit of a stir with its depiction of a hot-button social issue, this clever and entertaining animated feature from writer/director Brad Bird (Iron Giant) sparked a minor debate about whether it was pushing a “conservative” message with its refrain of “if everybody is special, then nobody is special.” Some commentators on the right wanted to latch onto the idea that Hollywood had actually produced a celebration of individualism in the face of liberal/social forced equalization. Certainly, trial lawyers (as well as insurance companies) don’t come off very well in the movie, but let’s get real. First, Hollywood regularly pushes all kinds of “conservative” messages (from vigilantism in practically every cop film to getting rich in lots of comedies) because they lend themselves to mass entertainment. This film is really no different, although it is wittier than a lot of other Hollywood fare. But, let’s face it, the movie is about a demographic segment that doesn’t actually exist: people in costumes with superpowers. Anyway, by the end of the story, the theme has shifted from keeping superior people down to what dopes men become when they hit a middle-age crisis. In addition to some very well-executed computer animation, the chief pleasure of this movie is for old comic book fans, as it skillfully plays with time-honored superhero conventions. Still, it isn’t quite as clever or well-realized as Shrek 2, which it beat out for the animated feature Oscar. Particularly haunting for me personally in The Incredibles is the character of diminutive designer Edna Mole. She is a dead ringer for the dentist I had in Seattle. (Seen 26 February 2005)

The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love 3 out of 4 stars

If the volume of applause is any indicator, The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love would seem to be the most popular film of the 1995 Seattle film festival so far. The movie itself is an amazing success story. It is a first feature film (by Maria Maggenti), was made in a short amount of time, and will have a commercial release at the end of the month. If any movie about lesbians can cross over and find success in a mostly straight world, this one is it. This is because the film is not so much “about” lesbians as it is about being a teenager and about really being in love for the first time. Like most gay-themed films I have seen, there are few straight characters and none of them are very sympathetic. But this really isn’t off-putting because the two main characters are so guileless and easy to like and their concerns are so universal that nobody should have trouble identifying with them. Also, the film is refreshingly free of any overt political agenda. On the surface, Randy and Evie are total opposites. Randy is white, poor, failing in school, has few friends, and is involved with a married woman. Evie is black, well-to-do, popular at school, has a boyfriend, and is smothered by her mother. Randy’s crush on Evie and their growing friendship is so well played that we can’t help but root for them. But what makes the movie fun is that it is really an old-fashioned zany, screwball comedy. When Evie’s mother leaves town for the weekend, it becomes hilariously reminiscent of Risky Business. The pace doesn’t let up until a wild finish that involves virtually the entire cast, and the ending is just right. No wonder the audience cheered. (Seen 6 June 1995)

Independence Day 3 out of 4 stars

Odds are you have already seen this movie, and you know that it is a real good-time kick-ass summer flick. It is one part 1970s disaster movie (with a slew of medium-grade stars thrown together by incredible coincidences as the world falls apart), one part 1950s style flying saucer movie (with computerized effects Ed Wood couldn’t even dream of), one part rousing, patriotic war movie, and one part cinematic video game à la Star Wars. Bill Pullman has the Michael Douglas role from The American President, Will Smith has the Tom Cruise role from Top Gun, and Vivica Fox has the Demi Moore role from Striptease. Margaret Colin and Jeff Goldblum (as a Good Cable Guy) are the obligatory estranged spouses thrown together by disaster. This movie is corny as hell, but it’s a good corny. You actually come away feeling that a hostile extra-terrestial invasion is just what we need to get the country turned around! (Seen 12 July 1996)

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull 3 out of 4 stars

One of the heart-stopping thrills of this summer blockbuster is the realization that Harrison Ford’s face and voice seem to have aged eerily into those of Paul Newman. Even more of a shock is that young Shia LaBeouf has darn near matured into Edward Norton. Happily, Karen Allen, in contrast, turns out to be immutable and ageless. After all these years, we are well acquainted with the archaeologist/adventurer Indiana Jones. He is the fellow that spends a few minutes teaching in some ivy-covered university before invariably wandering off into a series of elaborate, quasi-realistic theme park rides. Let’s face it, Indy and his friends and (especially) his enemies are as two-dimensional as a comic book or the old two-reeler serials that inspired Spielberg and Lucas to create him in the first place. And that’s fine. This is the cinema of spectacle, and the only audiences that will be disappointed are those who were looking for philosophical profundity, emotional depth or historical insight. And why did those killjoys come to see this movie anyway? If you are sitting next to one of them, just tell them to hush and occupy themselves by counting how many times each character should have been killed or at least hospitalized for months but instead kept on going. Nice touches include bringing Allen back, as well as at least one snake, and also remembering Denholm Eliott, who was in the first three movies. On the other hand, it was kind of creepy the way they memorialized Sean Connery so much when, the last time I checked, he was still with us. If there is any message this movie brings us, it’s that no hero, no actor, no movie franchise, no audience member ever has to be too old. (Seen 15 June 2008)

Indigènes (Days of Glory) 3 out of 4 stars

Not the least of the several ironies—given recent history—of this stirring war movie is that the battle scenes are between, on one side, soldiers whose faith is Islam, and, on the other side, soldiers, who are, at least nominally, Christian—and there is no question that we want to and should root for the Moslem guys. That is because our North African band of brothers is fighting to liberate France from occupation by Nazi Germany. In many ways, this is the conventional World War II we are accustomed to seeing. The battle scenes feel terrifyingly real, but there is an element of melodrama in the scenes between them. And, as in an American war movie where we expect to see the squad represent geographical and ethnic diversity, so the North African recruits present a sampling of ethnic Arabs, Berbers, etc. Running throughout the story is Corporal Abdelkader’s constant expectation and hope that the African recruits will have the same opportunities and recognition as their French comrades in arms. But, as we go up the chain of command, each officer is thicker on this point than the one below him. In the end, we have a riveting tale of bravery and loyalty by men who give their all—and get precious little thanks for it. While, in our own days, it is unusual enough to see Moslems in a movie so devoted to defending the western values of France, we also see the cultural and ethnic frictions that are so very apparent today. The director and co-writer is Rachid Bouchareb, whose previous films include Dust of Life, which cast a similar gaze on the aftermath of the Vietnam war. (Seen 15 October 2007)

Inkheart 3 out of 4 stars

On my side of the Atlantic we got this man-bringing-books-to-life fantasy a couple of weeks before Adam Shankman’s Bedtime Stories. While my brother-in-law was quite fond of the Adam Sandler flick, it’s hard to imagine that it could be better than this adaption of Cornelia Funke’s book. This British film is directed by Iain Softley, whom Funke wanted because she liked his direction on The Wings of the Dove. That would seem to be a strange reason until you realize that they both employ Italian locations. (Softley’s other films include Backbeat, Hackers and K-PAX) And the scenery in this movie is spectacular and much more thrilling than any special effect. The hero of this flick is a North American, Brendan Fraser, whom Funke says she actually had in mind when she created the character, and he is surrounded by great English actors like Paul Bettany as a juggler trying to get back home, Helen Mirren as the cranky aunt, Jim Broadbent as the author surprised to meet his own characters in the flesh, and Andy Serkis (the human actor behind Gollum in The Lord of the Rings) as a very menacing villain. Eliza Hope Bennett, as Fraser’s daughter, is the young book lover who is the perfect stand-in for readers and viewers who also love their books as well as their big screen fantasy adventures. (Seen 29 December 2008)

Innocence 3 out of 4 stars

The best way I can think of to convey what this French film is like is to ask you to imagine that Picnic at Hanging Rock had been made by M. Night Shyamalan. If that makes you think this movie must be creepy, then you’d be right. The setting is some sort of private girls school, and there is something a bit weird about it. Maybe it’s the fact that the new students arrive in coffins. Maybe it’s the fact that there are only two teachers for 35 students of varying ages and no other visible daily adult supervision. Maybe it’s the way the oldest girls disappear into the night an hour before bedtime. Maybe it’s the fact that we find ourselves spending so much time essentially being voyeurs as we watch every daily detail of very young girls’ lives. This haunting film by Lucile Hadzihalilovic is basically an elaborate metaphor for female childhood, leading up to adolescence, disguised as a suspense thriller. It’s unsettling and compelling, all at the same time. And it’s a nicely done piece of work, especially given the fact that the director had to work with a huge cast of children. (Seen 6 June 2005)

The Innocent Sleep 1 out of 4 stars

The Innocent Sleep from Britain starts out promisingly. It appears somewhat similar to Mute Witness in that a young innocent accidentally witnesses a brutal execution and is consequently spotted and hunted by the killers. But The Innocent Sleep is not nearly the thrill ride as Anthony Waller’s movie. Still, it has a couple of things going for it. In a nice change of pace, the innocent in this case is a man (Rupert Graves) who is a homeless alcoholic, and the person who saves him is a woman reporter (Annabella Sciorra). Also, Michael Gambon makes a dandy villain. Unfortunately, the film just isn’t very suspenseful even though it apparently wants to be. The ending is especially a let-down and suggests that first-time director Scott Mitchell had something else in mind all along. (Seen 29 May 1996)

Les Innocents 2 out of 4 stars

Even though this flick came out almost thirty years ago, its themes—dealing with cultural tensions in France, disintegration of family, sexual fluidity—feel very up-to-the-minute. It opens with the classic line “Il était une fois…” (“Once upon a time…”) and then sets about dispelling any notion of being a fairy tale. Set in an unnamed Meditarrean city (it was filmed in Toulon), the film follows Sandrine Bonnaire as naïve Jeanne, a young woman from the north who arrives unexpectedly at her sister’s wedding with the intention of returning home with her adolescent brother, who is deaf. It emerges, though, that he has fallen under the influence—more like the thrall—of petty criminal Saïd. Jeanne gets some help in her search for her brother from Stéphane, a young man recovering from a near-fatal assault and son of a musical conductor (the legendary Jean-Claude Brialy, who won a César for the role) who is romantically obsessed with Saïd. The director is André Téchiné, who has explored similar subject matter before and whose Quand On a 17 Ans (Being 17) was recently released in the U.S. This flick is rather less satisfying than his other work (Wild Reeds, Strayed), mainly because the melodramatic characters quickly become irritating, in the worst French-style navel-gazing way. Stéphane pouts and rides a motorcycle, while Jeanne is a nice girl who works too hard at trying to be tough. In other words, they have a James-and-Donna vibe from Twin Peaks, which would not hit our TV screens until three years later. (Stéphane is played by Simon de la Brosse, an attractive and vulnerable screen presence, who also worked with Eric Rohmer. Sadly, he took his own life eleven years later at the age of 32.) Téchiné’s inspiration was definitely not David Lynch but most certainly Jean-Luc Godard since there is a fatalistic arc that pretty closely mirrors Breathless. Lest there would be any doubt, by the end of the movie Bonnaire has shed her long blonde locks in favor of a classic Jean Serberg cut. (Seen 18 November 2016)

Inside Llewyn Davis 3 out of 4 stars

We sure had to wait a long time for this movie since first hearing the buzz about it during last year’s Cannes festival—especially those of us in the European backwaters. Early descriptions suggested it might be the Coen brothers’ subtler variation on A Mighty Wind, i.e. an affectionate revisiting of the early 1960s American folk scene. But oddly enough, the flick put me more in mind of Woody Allen’s Zelig in the sense that there was something so real and familiar about the title character that I kept wondering if Llewyn Davis wasn’t a real person I should remember. (He is loosely modeled on the late longtime Greenwich Village fixture Dave Van Ronk.) In Coenian terms, it may be fair to say that this movie more or less does for folk singers what Barton Fink did for screenwriters. But whereas that flick veered into surreality, this one—despite the customary Coenian weird touches—feels very real, especially to those who can remember the era. Llewyn really isn’t a very nice person, mainly because of his utter lack of responsibility. But we do care about him because of the one instance where he does show responsibility—to the cat of the academic couple who seem delighted to let him crash on their couch. The eventual reveal of the cat’s name is one of the best moments in the whole movie. In the end, Llewyn will never make the “big time” because of his stubborn devotion to his art as he himself defines it. I suppose something similar can be said of the Coens. And for that we can be thankful. (Seen 2 February 2014)

Inside Man 3 out of 4 stars

Virtually everyone who has written a review of this movie has had to mention that, even though it is a genre movie, director Spike Lee has not abandoned his distinct political and social sensibility. Who cares? No one passed a law saying that Lee is the only filmmaker whose movies have to have some higher social significance. What he has done here is to make a thoroughly conventional suspense flick, and a very good one at that. Sure, he portrays the rich and powerful as arrogant and morally corrupt and contemptuous of the masses. But so do most film noir-like detective flicks (cf. Chinatown and every other movie in the genre), from which this movie borrows. The best thing about the movie is how it plays with our expectations of what is supposed to happen in a mainstream Hollywood movie. The way in which it lets us see things one way, and then shows us that we didn’t really understand what was going on, makes it a cousin of Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects. And, yes, that game of expectations-vs.-reality is echoed on a personal level, particularly in a series of debriefings of hostages, which does mean that Lee has indeed managed to make a subtle comment about racism. The other great thing about the movie is Denzel Washington, whose perpetually perplexed but wisecracking hostage negotiator plays like a younger, hipper variation on Peter Falk’s Columbo. (Seen 26 April 2006)

The Insider 2 out of 4 stars

The Insider is essentially the late 1990s equivalent of All the President’s Men. Which is to say, it is all about the heroic work of (in this case) one journalist in the face of overwhelming odds. And, like the 1976 hit that sent idealistic young students flooding in journalism schools, this movie (which won’t inspire anyone to a career in newsgathering) has all the trappings of a suspense thriller that threatens violence at every point—but never delivers. While Alan J. Pakula’s film was about the fall of a president, Michael Mann’s is about the fall of a television network and its once prestigious news division. Russell Crowe is nearly unrecognizable as the tobacco industry insider hoarding the shocking information that smoking is actually bad for you. You can truly feel his paranoia, probably because he’s married to a Stepford wife and one of his daughters is that creepy little girl from Pepsi commercials. Christopher Plummer does a reasonable impersonation of Mike Wallace, although he looks about 30 years too young. Reportedly, Wallace didn’t care for his characterization, and it’s easy to see why. He comes off like a doddering, old Ted Baxter: a bit pompous and more than a little out of touch (and apparently no great admirer of National Public Radio). Indeed, the film may come as a revelation for those TV viewers who actually still think that the 60 Minutes guys research and prepare their own stories. As with his seminal 1980s TV series Miami Vice, Mann shows that he can ably portray burned-out heroes fighting the bad guys as well as the System. And he doesn’t completely overstate the irony that Al Pacino’s character, who prides himself on cultivating whistleblowers, winds up becoming one himself. (Seen 11 November 1999)

Intacto (Intact) 2 out of 4 stars

Some people have all the luck. That’s not only a cliché but also the literal premise of this movie by Spanish director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo. You see, it turns out that some people have “the gift,” which not only means they are extremely lucky, but they can steal other people’s luck away from them. Now this may sound like an interesting idea for a zany comedy, perhaps starring Dana Carvey, but this film treats its idea with dead seriousness, using all the trappings of the thriller genre. The story involves a man who has had his “gift” taken away and his efforts to get back at the man (a casino owner, of course) who stole it from him. Through its unusual concept, the movie does raise some interesting philosophical questions as to why one person can be the lone survivor of a plane crash, while another is in the wrong place at the wrong time as someone in the next room is cleaning a gun. There are also some macabre sequences (notably, a blindfolded sprinting race through a dense forest) as luck junkies compete at high stakes to see who is the luckiest. The film’s strongest asset is legendary actor Max von Sydow as the king of lucksters: he was the sole survivor of a Nazi concentration camp. Von Sydow’s mere presence invokes an entire catalog of classic metaphysical explorations by Ingmar Bergman, not to mention a turn at playing Jesus Christ in The Greatest Story Ever Told. (Seen 9 March 2003)

Intermission 2 out of 4 stars

This is a rambling, large-cast romantic caper comedy of the sort we have seen in low-budget American comedies but which is fairly new for Ireland. Some of Ireland’s best actors are in the ensemble, notably Colin Farrell, who seems to be everywhere both sides of the Atlantic these days. Also on hand is Colm Meaney, who in Irish films always seems to play the same character he played in The Commitments. The other big name is Cillian Murphy (28 Days Later) as what can best be described as the main male romantic lead. The plot is ostensibly about a few of the male characters getting together to kidnap Murphy’s ex-girlfriend (the break in their relationship is the titular intermission) and holding her for a ransom from her new banker boyfriend. But the movie is really about its quirky assortment of Dublin characters, their frustrations, and how they ineffectually go about trying to get what they think they want. Farrell demonstrates why he has been embraced by Hollywood. As the villain of the piece, he exudes a sense of malevolence and menace, alternating with a deceptive charm that takes in his potential victims. His opening scene with a waitress in a café is one of the film’s best. The director is John Crowley, whose previous work has been for the stage. (Seen 11 July 2003)

Interstellar 3 out of 4 stars

For the record, I nearly gave this my maximum of four stars—and maybe I should have. But I may be biased because this is a movie guaranteed to make any man with a daughter more than a bit verklempt. Even more so if his daughter happens to be a brilliant redhead. Much has already been said about this beautiful film, including the fact that this is clearly Christopher Nolan’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. But there are a couple of other ways to see it. One is as what might have happened if Terrence Malick had been assigned the job of making an outer space adventure. A somewhat more serious way of looking at it is as 2001 redone as a family drama and with a definitely less ambiguous final section. But probably the most useful way to see Interstellar is as a variation of the same story Nolan told in Inception, i.e. a man goes on a mind-bending journey somewhere outside normal reality, where the familiar laws of space and (especially) time do not apply, with the ultimate goal of getting back together with his family. We have seen plenty of “space westerns” before, but it is not every filmmaker who would attempt to marry a naturalistic evocation of a 1930s-like Depression/Dust Bowl world with an intergalactic adventure—and succeed. But Nolan and his co-screenwriting brother Jonathan get away with it. While the plot of the movie sounds a bit silly when described in a conversation, on the screen it pretty much works. The tricky part was always going to be the ending. Kubrick’s 2001 became a classic in large part due to its finale which left a lot to audience interpretation. Nolan, on the other hand, dazzles plenty but leaves little mystery. Moreover, there is the whiff of deus ex machina about it, although in fairness the resolution is completely part of the story’s organic weave and does not wipe out the main character’s sacrifices. This is no Doctor Who-style rebooting of the universe. The result is totally satisfying. Much of the pleasure in watching the movie is the adherence to what is actually known about physics and what is, at this point, still considered possible. Typical of this faithfulness to current working knowledge is the way objects in space are shot to demonstrate the relativity of motion, as well as the exterior space shots which are completely silent—just as they would actually be in the void of space. (Seen 3 December 2014)

Interview 2 out of 4 stars

If I ever wanted to love a movie, it was this one. This is a remake of a Dutch movie by the late Theo van Gogh. As I noted two and a half years ago, van Gogh was murdered specifically because of a movie he had made, and some sort of tribute is entirely appropriate—although I am not entirely sure that the project (by producers Bruce Weiss and Gijs van de Westelaken) to remake this film and two others of van Gogh’s is exactly commensurate with what happened to him. What it is, is Steve Buscemi getting the chance to direct himself and Sienna Miller in an actor’s dream project—since the movie consists mainly of the two of them talking, I mean acting, for most of 83 minutes. But putting all that aside, I really wanted to like this film because it sets out to skewer one of my favorite skewering subjects—the media and their symbiotic relationship with celebrity. The movie starts out promisingly. Buscemi (as a journalist) meets Miller (the blonde star of a TV soap and various horror movies) in a trendy New York restaurant, where Miller is clearly used to being catered to and fawned over. Buscemi clearly sees himself above this assignment, and immediately the sparring and fireworks begin. Like the husband and hitchhiker in Polanski’s Knife in the Water, neither can disengage from the battle of wills and egos, and they retire back to her apartment to continue. Secrets come out. Or do they? Maybe she is actually a better actor than she’s purported to be. As a story told through conversation, this isn’t exactly My Dinner with André. As a couple playing mind games, it isn’t exactly Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Despite numerous sly reference to van Gogh through the movie, it ends up feeling not so much like a tribute as a vanity project. (Seen 13 July 2007)

The Interview 3 out of 4 stars

What are the odds? Three years ago one of my very favorite films of the Seattle International Film Festival was called The Interview—in English anyway. (A Brazilian film, its Portuguese title was Jenipapo.) Now, this year one of my favorites is also called The Interview, except this time it is from Australia. This remarkably assured feature debut by Craig Monahan continually puts us off balance. The set-up is simple enough. Police burst into a man’s house and take him to headquarters for questioning. Beyond that, we get little precious information about what is going on. What is fairly astonishing is the way our perceptions evolve and change as we acquire more information throughout the movie. As much as I would love to elaborate, to say anything more than that would be just plain wrong. At the film’s center is a masterful performance by the exquisitely-named Hugo Weaving, who is now probably best known for his turn as a Dan-Aykroyd-doing-Jack-Webb type evil agent relentlessly pursuing Keanu Reeves in The Matrix. Once you get to the end of the The Interview, as my friend Dave reminded me, you get a jolt of exhilaration that I personally haven’t felt since I first saw The Usual Suspects. (Seen 24 May 1999)

Into the West 3 out of 4 stars

This 1992 adventure shouldn’t be as watchable for adults as it is. The story is the fodder of endless Disney/Spielberg wannabes: two cute children attempt to rescue their beloved horse from bad guys. This film by Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral, etc. etc.) gets some much needed edge from the fact that it deals squarely with Ireland’s Traveller community and its tensions with the “settled people.” It also gets a boost from its numerous mythic Celtic references and images. It was written by Jim Sheridan (after a story by Michael Pearce), and in retrospect we can see this as a precursor to Sheridan’s latest, In America. Both films deal with young siblings who confront a new urban environment (here Dublin, New York in the new film) and who help their father lay old ghosts to rest. In addition, there is a resonant Irish theme (which, as the movie cleverly exploits, has a parallel in America) that there is something more “real” or “authentic” about the rural west (as opposed to the urban east). When I first saw this film at the 1993 Seattle International Film Festival, I had no idea that I myself would one day be going into the west of Ireland. Or that the friend whom I ran into at the screening would be having his last conversation with me, telling me how his own family came from the west of Ireland. Another reason to revisit this film is its cast of well-known Irish actors, including Gabriel Byrne as Papa (along with his then-wife Ellen Barkin), David Kelly as the grandfather, Colm Meaney as a sidekick, Brendan Gleeson as a corrupt garda, and Jim Norton in one of his patented withering-gaze authority figure roles. (Seen 30 November 2003)

Into the Woods 3 out of 4 stars

You have to kind of enjoy the irony. Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s 1986 stage musical Into the Woods led the pack in taking the piss out of the way Disney sugar-coated the old Brothers Grimm fairy tales. And now here is Disney (through the services of director Rob Marshall) adapting that very same musical for the big screen, and it is (suprise!) sugar-coating it. At least the conceit here is essentially the same. Combine a few well-known fairy tales into an entertaining mélange that leads up to the usual happily-ever-after ending and then keep going—to show there is really no happily-ever-after. But the movie version has been softened a bit for the family-friendly holiday market. The good news, though, is that we wind up with the best of both worlds. As an entertainment, the movie is first-rate. We have la Streep chewing up the scenery with her central turn as the witch and a lovely performance by Anna Kendrick as an indecisive Cinderella. Moreover, we get a host of wonderful English actors like James Cordon, Emily Blunt and young Daniel Huttlestone (Gavroche from Les Misérables) and even good old Tracey Ullman. The plethora of familiar faces (Steep’s Mamma Mia! co-star Christine Baranski is on hand, as is Frances de la Tour, once again playing a giant) gives the whole thing the feel of a very fun Christmas panto. Then, when things turn dark in the latter stretch, it has the feel of an after-school special—complete with the moral lessons all spelled out for us. In the end, we are laughing at another age’s pat tales and morals and replacing them with those of, well, the 1980s. The majority opinion in our group was that the movie should have stopped when it got to the happily-ever-after. But even Disney knows these days you need a need a good dose of bitter to cut the taste of all the sugar. (Seen 18 January 2015)

Intolerable Cruelty 2 out of 4 stars

Humor is in the eye of the beholder, but I found this very funny. It probably helps to be old enough to remember Simon & Garfunkel (the first time they were together), since the tone of this cynical romantic screwball comedy is set perfectly by the use of S&G’s music. (I still remember vividly the first time I heard a Muzak version of “Sounds of Silence” in a supermarket and was totally blown away by the complete irony of the situation.) The mood is set impeccably in the opening scene, where Geoffrey Rush, as a pony-tailed TV producer driving a sporty convertible, sings along with “The Boxer.” This sums up the wonderful cynicism that inhabits nearly every scene of this tale of greedy materialistic divorce lawyers and devious gold-digging women in the capital of faux spiritual shallowness, the tonier precincts of Los Angeles. Some fans of Joel and Ethan Coen have seen this flick as unacceptably commercial, selling their souls to hit-making producer Brian Glazer. But really it’s just another arrow in their quiver of diverse filmmaking styles. Just relax and enjoy looking at George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones and laughing at silly lines like, “Are you Wheezy Joe?” The film does highlight one minor dilemma for the current crop of movies (that pales next to the what-to-do-about-New-York-shots-that-included-the-twin-towers issue of a couple of years ago): is it okay to leave in all those Siegfried & Roy neon billboards in location shots of Las Vegas? (Seen 29 October 2003)

Les Invasions Barbares (The Barbarian Invasions) 3 out of 4 stars

No, this isn’t another Arnold Schwarzenegger movie rushed to release to capitalize on his recent election. It’s not even another one of those docudramas about a corporate takeover. It’s Quebecois filmmaker Denys Arcand’s sequel to his 1986 success The Decline of the American Empire. That film painted a portrait of modern Canada by observing a dinner party hosted by four men in academe, in which they discussed endlessly all sorts of social and sexual topics. Seventeen years later, the friends are reunited when one them is hospitalized with terminal cancer. This may sound like a bummer or a tearjerker, but it is actually one of the most entertaining ways you’ll find to spend 99 minutes anywhere these days. The cast is large and sprawling, but the central story is about the relationship between the dying Rémy, an old-time left-of-center professor, and his son Sébastien, who is thoroughly and successfully immersed in the capitalist world. Not unlike the dutiful son in Good bye, Lenin!, Sébastien goes to great lengths and inventiveness to look after his dad during his last days, even while arguing with him over politics and everything else. In the course of the movie, we get a fascinating tour of Canada’s health care system (American proponents of copying it will want to take note) as well the country’s attitudes on everything from religion to its giant neighbor to the south. Moreover, we get to spend time with a group of people who, despite their occasional fights, really enjoy being around each other and who (especially Rémy) have an insatiable lust for life and all it has to offer. Arcand, whose other work includes Jesus of Montreal and Love & Human Remains, again demonstrates that he is one of Canada’s and the world’s best filmmakers. (Seen 15 October 2003)

Invictus 3 out of 4 stars

If you were going to set out, as a purely academic exercise, to create the ultimate feel-good, lump-in-your-throat movie, then you would, by default, start with the idea of an underdog sports team going all the way to the world championship. And then, if you were determined to pull out all the stops, you might find a way to work one of the world’s most beloved figures, say, Nelson Mandela, into the story. Of course, this scenario actually happened in real life, so director Clint Eastwood’s main challenge was simply to not overplay the perfect narrative hand that was dealt him by historical reality. That is harder than it may sound, but Eastwood, who has shown himself to be a deft master of the manly “guy cry” movie, is more than up to the task. He is aided immensely by his two stars. Morgan Freeman is so beloved as an actor, a lot of people probably think he and Nelson Mandela are actually the same person. (The BBC’s Mark Kermode jokingly suggested that, after playing the U.S. president and God multiple times, the only place for Freeman to go was to play Mandela.) It is no surprise that Freeman disappears into the role of such a well-known man, but the real revelation is Matt Damon. When you think of Damon as an actor, “chameleon” may not be the first word that comes to mind, but he truly does vanish into the person of the rugby captain who was able to “get” Mandela and become an extension of the new president’s desire to unite the country. Eastwood employs some shameless cinema shorthand to show South Africans of all colors coming together over a rugby match, but he gets away with it, mainly because we know the story is essentially true. South Africa may have continued to have considerable problems over the past two decades (I write this on the 20-year anniversary of Mandela’s release from prison), but it’s good to have a reminder of what an extraordinary man Mandela was to come out of a cell, after 27 years, and show nothing but magnanimity and generosity to everyone—for the good of his country. (Seen 10 February 2010)

Io sono l’amore (I Am Love) 3 out of 4 stars

In this movie, Tilda Swinton plays a woman named Emma. As in Emma Bovary, perhaps? Well, other than being a tale centered on an adulterous affair, there is not that much similarity between this story and Flaubert’s. Director Luca Guadagnino, who came up with the story and co-wrote the screenplay, presents us with the fabulously wealthy and powerful Recchi family in Milan. Their mansion looks like it has stood there forever, but times are changing. Soon the patriarch has died, and the upcoming generation has a different value system. Russian-born Emma, the deceased man’s daughter-in-law, is frequently on her own, now that her children are grown, so she has some time on her hands. She meets young chef Antonio, who is planning a restaurant in partnership with her son, and before long her life has meaning again. In the early scenes, everything is formal and a bit sterile. But as the story progresses, the emotional level heightens. The photography is overall gorgeous. But never mind the love scenes, it’s the lovely visuals of Italian gourmet cooking that get our juices flowing. The soundtrack music is also beautiful, and the crescendo to an emotional, and fairly unexpected and abrupt, climax makes this feel operatic and surprisingly thrilling. (Seen 8 July 2010)

Iris 2 out of 4 stars

A few years ago, before I become a mature, responsible adult, I was in love with Monique van de Ven, the gorgeous Dutch actress who starred in Kathy Tippel and Turkish Delight. Call me sentimental, but I still get together with Monique once a year. She always comes to the film festival with her latest movie. One year I even got up the nerve to shout a question from the audience, and she answered it! (She didn’t come down into the audience and slap my face or anything!) Anyway, this year her movie is Iris, and she plays a big city veterinarian who opens a practice in a remote Dutch village where inbreeding among humans seems to be the norm. Her main clients are a weird family: Father is disgusting old man in a wheelchair; Son is good looking and randy; daughter is shy and zombie-like. There is also a Neanderthal handy man, who perpetually has three days growth of beard, and a clairvoyant alcoholic lady living in a trailer. Monique’s, I mean Iris’s, yuppie architect husband is against the whole thing. The village people don’t take to Iris. Weird things keep happening to her. There is a threatening feeling in the air. And every man makes vague allusions to the fact that he “sure could use a woman.” But if any of them are thinking about putting on a ski mask and raping her (and Lord knows there would be plenty of suspects), he better think twice because she is the type to fight back and she still has the knife that she uses for castrating pigs. This movie is sort of an odd mixture of All Creatures Great and Small and Wait Until Dark. If you’ve always wanted to see a pig castrated (no special effects here) and see a calf be birthed in full detail and then get mouth-to-mouth from A beautiful actress because it’s not breathing, then this is definitely your movie. (Seen 21 May 1987)

Irish Destiny 2 out of 4 stars

This 1926 silent Irish film was thought for a long time to be lost, but a print was found in the U.S. Library of Congress and it was digitally restored with a musical soundtrack added. Lucky audience members got to see and hear the film at the Irish Film Institute in Dublin with the composer, Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin, alternating the recorded orchestral accompaniment with his live piano performance. Directed by English filmmaker George Dewhurst, the movie tells the melodramatic story of young Denis O’Hara who, seemingly all in the one day, falls in love with local school teacher Moira Barry, sees his village besieged by the British “black and tans” and joins the Irish war of independence. A villain who all but swirls his moustache immediately sets his designs on poor Moira when valiant Denis must make a desperate ride to Dublin to warn the leaders of the IRA about a planned British raid. Think Michael Collins meets The Perils of Pauline. All the while, Denis’s poor mother is perpetually wringing her hands and falling into faints and even goes blind as she worries about him—while her concerned husband and the local priest look on worriedly. (So prominent is Daisy Campbell’s turn as the distraught mammy that, when the film finally got past British censors, it was re-titled An Irish Mother.) Set just a few brief years before the film was made, this movie is a fascinating glimpse into how such major events of a century ago were seen in their immediate aftermath, but the emphasis is clearly more on the romance and action than on historical detail. Still, the inclusion of significant bits of actual documentary footage make this more than just popular entertainment. Tellingly, the film ends with Ireland joyously celebrating the end of fighting and the beginning of treaty negotiations—with no hint of the bloody to civil war to come. (Seen 5 March 2016)

The Irish Pub 3 out of 4 stars

It’s one of the oldest and deceptively easiest-looking approaches to documentary filmmaking. Point the camera at someone interesting and just let them talk. That’s what Alex Fegan did for this celebration of Ireland’s much loved tradition of public houses, and it works beautifully. We bounce around the nation from pub to pub and watch as the owners—and the occasional customer or child—talk away about their pub’s (and inevitably, their family’s) history, about the interesting characters who have come and gone or won’t leave, and about the institution’s place in their community. It’s about a regular customer whose seat must always be yielded to him. It’s about a longtime customer who wrangles an “arrangement” that he never has to pay for his drink. Some of the pubs are very well known, like Currans in Dingle and John B. Keane’s in Listowel—both in Kerry and the only two I have personally visited. Others are less well known but no less colorful and range from Fleet Street in Dublin to Youghal in County Cork to Maam in Connemara (Keane’s, one I’ve passed many times) to Hilltown in County Down. The Dublin publicans may be able to drop names like James Joyce and Brendan Behan, but the breakout star of the movie is bluff Cavan man Paul Gartlan in Kingscourt. His dry, deadpan delivery and the sly humor contained therein make it clear why locals would keep filing in for their evening’s entertainment. While the collective story involves community, music and camaraderie, it is mostly about family and following in someone’s footsteps. Whether it is James Curran remembering his father or Mary Margaret in Hilltown recounting how she took over after her husband died four decades earlier or Billy Keane telling how his playwright father simply wrote down the stories he kept hearing in the pub, the heart of this film is the familial connections of devotion and tradition and something we all long for at the end of the day—being part of something that goes on and on. (Seen 14 July 2015)

Irma Vep 3 out of 4 stars

In 1973 François Truffaut made an amusing film about making a film called Day for Night. Sadly, Truffaut is no longer with us, but his frequent on-screen alter ego Jean-Pierre Léaud (who was in Day for Night) is on hand in Irma Vep playing (what else?) a film director, who has a slim grip on the tether of rationality. He is remaking Louis Feuillade’s 1915 melodrama Les Vampires, about a criminal gang led by Irma Vep. Apparently not wanting to tamper too much with a classic, his remake is both silent and in black and white. His main artistic contribution is modeling Irma’s costume on that of Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman costume from Batman Returns. As Jacqueline Bisset was brought in for the movie-within-a-movie in Day for Night, luminous Hong Kong action star Maggie Cheung (Supercop, Comrades: Almost a Love Story) is brought in to play Irma. She soon discovers she has walked into a chaotic disaster. Olivier Assayas’s film is a delightfully wicked and funny poison pen letter to French cinema and to movie-making in general. (Seen 24 May 1997)

Iron Man 3 out of 4 stars

There is an inevitable predictability about comic book superhero movies, and this one is no exception. After all, most people interested in seeing these movies are going to know the story very well before going in. Will the hero have a major, traumatic life-changing experience that will cause him to devote himself to righting wrongs? Will he pine for the woman right in front of him but not be able to consummate the relationship? Will bald people be evil? Duh. Still, the really good superhero movies, like Spider-Man and this one, will find ways to surprise us not with plot detail but with the clever ways they find to tell familiar stories. The Tony Stark in this movie is not the Tony Stark from the comics book, at least not the original ones that I read. He is better. He is Robert Downey Jr. with too much money, and what could be more compelling to watch than that? The most important ingredient of the character is here—the vicarious fun of living the life of a really rich guy. And this movie delivers the fantasy in spades. If the super-wealthy really live like this, then they deserve every tax cut they get. The special effects scenes are also good, allowing us to relive the thrill when we first saw Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop. And the movie gets an extra charge from appearing to be topical, while actually saying little or nothing about anything going on in the world today. As the villain, Jeff Bridges is surprisingly menacing, generating a serious amount of tension in a scene with Gwyneth Paltrow, who trundles about appealingly in plucky mode. One review I read said Bridges looked strangely like Gene Hackman, but I saw him more as a sinister David Ogden Stiers. And that is scary enough. In a necessarily predictable genre, the movie manages to come up with two genuine surprises—one right before the credits roll and one right after. So, thank you so much, Jon Favreau and team, for giving one of our favorite old comic books new life and for rewarding those of us who stay seated until the last credit has rolled. [Related commentary] (Seen 14 May 2008)

Iron Man 2 3 out of 4 stars

The pattern seems well established now, at least for movies about Marvel superheroes. The first movie is the origin story: introduce our hero and show how he got his powers and his motivation. The second movie is the crisis-of-faith story (cf. Spider-Man 2), in which our hero becomes disillusioned and decides to chuck it all in, only to realize in the end that… well, you probably know where it goes after that. What you might not expect is that the CGI effects and lavish fight scenes would take such a decided back seat to the human drama. Actually, drama may not be the right word. Although our hero Tony Stark is wrestling with questions of mortality and the purpose of his life, this movie actually plays more like a romantic comedy—except there is precious little romance in it either. Okay, I’m not doing a very good job of selling this movie, but I’m curious how the popcorn movie crowd will react to it. The attraction for the likes of me is definitely the banter between Robert Downey Jr. and, well, everyone else, but especially Gwyneth Paltrow, Scarlett Johansson and Samuel L. Jackson. If the first movie skillfully blended the comic book’s Tony Stark with Downey’s real-life persona, this time around the character seems to have become almost all Downey—with all the character flaws, self-destructiveness and wit full front and center. Indeed, the best action in the movie doesn’t involve Iron Man at all but Johansson’s Black Widow and director Jon Favreau’s Happy Hogan breaking into a building. And I haven’t even mentioned Mickey Rourke’s idiosyncratic turn as Whiplash and Sam Rockwell’s preening captain of industry. In a giddy pastiche of our current pop technical culture, Downey and Rockwell are like a dueling Steve Jobs and Bill Gates and, appropriately, Tony Stark’s late father seems to be Walt Disney. And what gloriously appropriate timing for bringing out Garry Shandling, exuding intellectual dullness, as a senator hoping to score political points by dragging the two of them to Congress for a blue language tongue lashing on national TV. I still can’t figure out if life is imitating art or the other way around. And you must know by now to stay until the very end of the credits. (Seen 5 May 2010)

Iron Man 3 3 out of 4 stars

These summer blockbusters keep coming out earlier and earlier. This one came out really early, especially when you consider that it technically qualifies as a Christmas movie. Marvel has beaten the franchise odds by coming out with three consecutive flicks in a series that not only kill at the box office but also have managed not to flag or disappoint in terms of story and quality. Sure, you can find weaknesses in the plot or the inevitable predictable bits. But there is enough investment in the characters that we never write them off, and director/co-screenwriter Shane Black manages to throw in enough twists so that we don’t feel pandered to. Chief among these involves Ben Kingsley’s turn as the Mandarin. It’s a character that inspires a bit of discomfort (for racial reasons) for those of us old enough to remember the original comic book incarnation in the 1960s, so it’s a delightful surprise when we realize that the filmmakers are having a great time playing with that very fact. (Is it a spoiler to say that it involves a Daniel Day Lewis impression?) I think a lot of the appeal of the Iron Man movies—and which also explains how the filmmakers can get away with having the hero spend so much time out of his armored suit—is that the banter makes us feel kind of like we are really hanging out with Robert Downey Jr. and his cool friends. I know a lot of people have gotten tired of Gwyneth Paltrow but, whenever I see her on screen, I find her so comforting. Sure, she’s drop dead gorgeous, but she gives every indication that she’s just a normal person hanging out and having a good time while picking up a huge paycheck before she has to go fetch the kids from school. (The hilarious BBC radio interview she gave Five Live, in which she convincingly claimed to understand not one thing about this movie, backs up that notion.) In other words, the Iron Man series is the prime example of how the Marvel movies capture the original appeal of the comic books. They simultaneously take themselves very seriously, and they do not take themselves seriously at all. (Seen 12 May 2013)

The Island of Dr. Moreau 2 out of 4 stars

This latest film version of H.G. Wells’s tale of man trying to play God had a troubled production history, and it shows. It’s sort of how Planet of the Apes might have turned out if Francis Ford Coppola had directed it instead of Apocalypse Now. The story has been updated to the present day to no particular effect except that references can be made to DNA and animal rights activists and Val Kilmer can play Moreau’s assistant as a wise-cracking Dr. Feelgood. Needless to say, Marlon Brando’s presence dominates the film, and he plays Moreau somewhere between his over-the-top character from Apocalypse Now and an elderly Michael Jackson who has let hiimself go. David Thewlis (Total Eclipse) is suitably bug-eyed and distraught as the hapless hero, and Fairuza Balk is alluring as Moreau’s most successful creation. The other creatures (including Ron Perelman, a beast again) are cleverly realized indeed. (Seen 16 September 1996)

It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World 3 out of 4 stars

If you need a case study to explain why CGI effects will never have quite the visceral effect of good old-fashioned stunt work, here’s your movie. This comedic epic (nearly three hours and quarter in its original version, considerably shorter in versions available today) is one sight gag after another, punctuated by slap-your-thigh stunts. And that would be a good summary of the movie if we weren’t whipping our collective head around every few minutes upon recognizing a famous face. It’s nearly easier to list the major comedy names of the early 1960s who aren’t in the cast. (Lucille Ball, where were you?) And, as if that weren’t enough, there are the cameos. (Hey, that driver is Jerry Lewis! Hey, that driver is Jack Benny! Hey, I don’t know that guy’s name, but I’ve seen his face lots of times.) After a few years of making such heavy-duty and thought-provoking films as The Defiant Ones, On the Beach, Inherit the Wind and Judgment at Nuremberg, producer/director Stanley Kramer was clearly ready for something completely fun and mindless. I suppose this Borsht Belt take on The Treasure of the Sierra Madre makes some kind of statement on greed and human nature if you are looking for it, but its real message is made clear at the end when we are shown that, no matter how bad things get, we can still always find a laugh in Ethel Mermen slipping on a banana peel. A related theme running throughout is the lure of escape, of running away from all the hassles of daily life—whether it is Dorothy Provine’s sudden dream fleeing her husband, mother and brother, when she is the first to realize where the treasure is buried, or Spencer Tracy’s burnt-out police captain, who finds that he is not immune to temptation any more than the loonies he has been tracking across southern California. He and the comic titans that populate this cargo container of laughs remind us that much of comedy is guffawing at the misfortune of others. (Seen 3 December 2010)

It’s a Wonderful Life 4 out of 4 stars

This may be the first holiday season in memory in which you can mention a movie featuring a character named Potter and people won’t immediately think of this one. (For us Capra buffs, it is also a kick to see Lionel Barrymore playing the evil Mr. Potter 14 years after he essentially played the Jimmy Stewart role in American Madness.) I was fortunate enough to see this now-perennial Christmas classic for the first time (years ago) in a real, honest-to-gosh movie theater. I wish everyone could see it this way the first time, since the film really does need to be seen away from the distractions that afflict people when they are trying to watch television—especially around the holiday season. As I wrote last year when I did my summary of Christmas classics, this movie has had the misfortune to be over-exposed, especially in the last decade. But this time I was watching it for the first time in several years, and absence definitely makes the heart grow fonder. I got teary at the beginning of nearly every scene—including the very first one—and that, of course, came from knowing the film so well. But there are other factors as well. Since the last time I saw It’s a Wonderful Life, I myself have undergone marriage and fatherhood and have found that my life is now closer to George Bailey’s than I ever expected it to be (which is also like George Bailey). And that is what makes the movie so great. It speaks to what really goes on at Christmas time. Unlike so much dreck that passes as holiday entertainment, it doesn’t accentuate our feelings of inadequacy and frustration by showering us with visions of unrealistic or unattainable happiness. Instead, it is mostly bleak and dark (even those most people seem to remember only the giddy moments at the end) and then lets us see beyond that. Now that I have my very own little Zuzu, I appreciate this gift of a movie more than ever. [Related commentary] (Seen 14 December 2001)

It’s All About Love 1 out of 4 stars

You know the end of the world must be near when all sorts of weird biblical prophecies start coming true. Even ones that aren’t, strictly speaking, in the Bible. Like wild fluctuations in the world’s weather and temperature. Like childen flying in Africa. Like Sean Penn ranting a bunch of nonsense into a mobile phone on an airplane. Like Clare Danes talking in an accent that keeps changing from one minute to the next. This film by the director of the first Dogma 95 film (The Celebration), Denmark’s Thomas Vinterberg, is weird from beginning to end. But we can’t help but give it the benefit of the doubt for the first half or so. It feels very much like an M. Night Shyamalan movie, and we hope it will pay off as well as his movies do. We keep hoping right up until the final few minutes. You have to be suspicious of a flick that broadcasts its message blatantly in the title, as if we won’t possibly be able to Get It otherwise. Vinterberg is obviously going for something like Stanley Kramer’s On the Beach or even a quieter, artier version of Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element. But its main plot, which has overtones of The Stepford Wives, and its apocalyptic background story just don’t seem to belong in the same movie. Worse, because Danes and her estranged husband Joaquin Phoenix are supposed to be Polish, they are obliged to use stilted speech that wears us (those of us with American ears anyway) down. Vinterberg might want to go back to the shaky, handheld camera thing. (Seen 15 October 2003)

It’s Complicated 2 out of 4 stars

For my money, the best thing about this movie is John Krasinski, who plays Meryl Streep’s son-in-law-to-be and who, in the best tradition of farce, is the sole witness to the shenanigans going on between Streep and her married ex, Alec Baldwin. His reaction shots and bits of physical comedy in what otherwise is mainly a chick flick makes this film just about bearable for guys. Steve Martin is fine too in the nice guy role but doesn’t really break out until he gets to strut his trademark physical shtick during a dance scene when his character is stoned. Written and directed by Nancy Meyers (Something’s Gotta Give, The Holiday), It’s complicated is a movie that, I suppose, works as a fantasy for divorced women, in that they can vicariously gain control over or get back at their ex-husbands. This is all dressed up as working through issues or getting some kind of closure, but there is something off-putting about Streep’s carrying on (with a man with a wife and small child) being played for yuks. In another age, the stars would have been Cary Grant and Irene Dunne and we would have been routing for them to get back together. Now we are expected to be happy merely because Streep’s character gets a little action. In the end, the title says it all. It’s what children and grown-ups say when they know full well they are doing something wrong. (Seen 7 January 2011)

It’s in the Water 2 out of 4 stars

We know where we are in practically the first shot of It’s in the Water. We see just enough of a sports utility vehicle to spot the “Rush is Right” and “Gun Control Means Using Both Hands” bumper stickers. Azalea Springs is smack in the middle of America’s mythical heartland. There is a bit of a panic there when the rumor spreads that something in the water supply is turning “normal” people gay. There may actually be something to this because we find out that the third of the population that aren’t right-wing, homophobic clods are either openly gay (hairdressers and interior designers, of course), latently gay, or in the closet. The humor, which is a lot of fun, derives from the timing and situations around these revelations. The film trades in both straight and gay stereotypes, but that’s okay because the humor is more good-natured than vicious. Of course, this is all somebody’s (specifically, writer/director Kelli Herd’s) wishful fantasy. But isn’t that true of all romantic comedies? (Seen 30 May 1997)

The Italian Job 2 out of 4 stars

Last week I got an email from somebody claiming to be Napster, proclaiming that “we will be back.” If that’s true, they’ve already gotten one of the best movie product placements in the history of cinema in this remake of the 1969 Michael Caine film. One of several strange turns in this flick is the obsession that Seth Green’s computer nerd character (the gang are all pretty much standard issue Hollywood types) has with Napster and its (alleged?) creator Shawn Fanning. Director F. Gary Gray begins and ends this movie with a couple of really nice extended heist/chase sequences. Unfortunately, in between we have to endure some of the lamest banter we have heard in a long time. Another strange turn is the way this middle section begins with capsule summaries of the gang member’s pasts, complete with flashbacks to their childhoods. It’s almost as though this were the pilot for some groovy 1970s TV cop show. The plot is so well telegraphed that the movie doesn’t even bother developing romantic chemistry between Mark Wahlberg and Charlize Theron (who toward the end begins looking strangely like Angelina Jolie in Lara Croft mode), and we just accept that they will wind up together, just like we accept everything else about the way this well-worn story unfolds. (Seen 18 September 2003)

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