Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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Scott R. Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France
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The J Wanderer: On the Road in America 2 out of 4 stars

One of the numerous surprises in this road trip documentary is the fact that a young Irish woman in the year 2000 could be so caught up in Jack Kerouac and the Beats of America’s 1950s. It is this fascination (as well as an interest in the hippies of the 1960s) that leads Anna Rodgers to undertake this film project during a summer student break in the States. The phenomenon of Irish students jetting off to America for a working summer holiday was portrayed in the feature film Sunburn, and Rodgers dutifully visits the Long Island setting of that film for a reality check. She even interviews the film’s director, Nelson Hume. But the heart of her own film is in her stops in San Francisco and Los Angeles to look for remnants of Kerouac and his would-be heir, Jim Morrison. There are also visits to Woodstock in New York and to the Burning Man festival in Nevada as well as a journey on the fabled Green Tortoise bus for good measure. Rodgers meets some interesting characters along the way, and one cannot help but wonder what a heavyweight documentarian like Errol Morris could have done with this material. In the end, as with most holidays taken by the Irish, the focus inevitably tends to be on the Irish themselves. Particularly amusing are intermittent snippets of an interview with an American student travel coordinator, who says (among other things) that he finds young Irish people “over parented.” (Seen 31 January 2001)

J’ai vu tuer Ben Barka (I Saw Ben Barka Get Killed) 1 out of 4 stars

At the very end of this movie by Serge Le Péron and Saïd Smihi (after all the technical credits), a message flashes by in French which, to the best of my memory (and my French) says something like this: This movie is a fiction, but the events really happened, although we can’t give you the real names of the people. Actually, many of the characters in this film (including the title one and the protagonist) were real people. Mehdi Ben Barka was a Moroccan opposition figure in the 1950s and 1960s who, along with Che Guevara, was prominent in the Third World revolutionary movement of the time. In 1965 he disappeared while in French police custody and was never seen again. Various theories of what exactly happened to him have been offered over the years, and interest in the case is revived periodically in France by the release of new government documents. Two French officers were convicted of his kidnapping in a 1967 trial, in which a shady character named Georges Figon testified that he saw Moroccan interior minister Mohamed Oufkir kill Ben Barka. Figon was soon dead, an apparent suicide. This film tells the story from the point of view of the deceased Figon. The movie goes for a 1950s style of a cynical crime case history, complete with dissonant jazz soundtrack, but it is mainly in the tradition of accusative political films that mostly flourished with various chronicles of the 1973 Chilean coup. Unfortunately, it isn’t coherent enough to be either a useful history lesson or an effective thriller. One nice touch, though, is the presence of Jean-Pierre Léaud, who played François Truffaut’s alter ego in numerous films over the years and who here plays another real-life director, Georges Franju (Eyes Without a Face). He has apparently not changed the way he wears his hair in 47 years. (Seen 13 October 2006)

Jack and Diane 2 out of 4 stars

Ugh. Only the quality of the naturalistic performances and a rather (unexpectedly) sweet ending kept this one from slipping below two stars in my opinion. My reaction was a visceral one, and that is what this flick is all about. This teenage love story is full of unpleasantness and unusual degree of focus on bodily functions. And it keeps us on edge by trying to make us think it’s a horror movie. It’s kind of as if young David Cronenberg attempted a Hannah Montana movie. Its characters are inarticulate in a way that is so natural and painfully realistic that we feel we are interlopers. Juno Temple, who turns 24 this month, somehow looks ten years old in the role of spacy Diane, who is prone to nosebleeds and tentative unfinished sentences. Elvis Presley’s model-turned-actor granddaughter Riley Keough has lost her long blonde tresses to play incredibly butch Jack as if she were James Dean. And then there is the business of those disturbing body horror images manufactured by the Brothers Quay. In the end, for my money, this is a movie that is much easier to admire than to like. (Seen 9 July 2013)

Jackie 2 out of 4 stars

This movie has great power, but it borrows that power from the events it portrays. It would be hard for any of us who can remember those terrible days in 1963—even if only in distant childhood memories—not to be moved and affected by this recreation. Much work has gone into getting the look and feel and the faces of the actors just right. The one crucial exception, in my opinion, is the casting of Peter Sarsgaard as Robert Kennedy, and that is unfortunate because his role is a key one. By contrast, Caspar Phillipson as John Kennedy (in brief glimpses only) is uncanny in his resemblance to JFK. Does it matter whether the actors in a film look exactly like the real people they are playing? Normally, no, but this movie places great weight on the near-documentary-like re-creation. And that brings us to Natalie Portman. Her work is faultless, but she has clearly been directed to persist in the impersonation rather than ease into playing the character. This is definitely an interesting choice of subject matter for the director, Chile’s Pablo Larraín, best known for No and Neruda. The film, written by Noah Oppenheim, is all about people who are aware of history, of their own place in history and of the way that history will or will not look back on them. Jackie herself comes across as someone obsessed with her husband’s—and by extension her own—legacy and place in history. Correspondingly, the movie never lets us forget for a moment that we are watching a movie. That is why the power of the film feels borrowed and not earned. Having said that, the performances are still impressive. It is great to see such favorite actors as Richard E. Grant and Greta Gerwig in roles where we barely recognize them. The real treat, though, is a lovely not-quite-swan-song (he still has no fewer than four films in the can, including a turn as Neville Chamberlain in Darkest Hour) by the late John Hurt. In a transparently theatrical plot device, Hurt’s priest and Portman’s Jackie talk about life and death and the meaning of it all as they stroll through the outdoors. It is just one more way that this movie touches our hearts more by its connection to the outside world than by the world it has created itself. (Seen 11 March 2017)

Jackie Brown 2 out of 4 stars

I know it’s heresy to say this, but Jackie Brown is a better movie than Pulp Fiction. Oh, sure, it doesn’t have anyone getting jabbed in the heart with a needle or a tense Mexican stand-off while someone spouts irrational dialog. It doesn’t even have John Travolta or Uma Thurman. And it probably won’t be winning any NAACP image awards. (Samuel Jackson alone uses the “N” word no fewer than 3,687 times.) But it’s a solid, involving caper flick with characters that are to one degree or another involving. (Director Quentin Tarantino adapted the story from Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch.) Pam Grier (who made a very convincing transsexual in Escape from L.A.) carries the title role quite nicely in what is essentially an homage to her and to the old “blaxploitation” flicks. Jackson becomes scarier and scarier throughout the film. Michael Keaton, as an ATF agent, seems to be off his medication. And Robert DeNiro appears to be doing a Harry Dean Stanton imitation. (Seen 14 January 1998)

Jalla! Jalla! 2 out of 4 stars

A hit in Sweden where it was made, this film was amazingly made by a 23-year-old film student, Josef Fares, who was born in Lebanon. (The title translates as “Come on, hurry up!”) Shot on video, it has the polish of any small studio film. Obviously drawing on what he knows, Fares’s film deals with the travails of a young man whose family has immigrated from Lebanon to Sweden, but it’s not exactly a hard-hitting look at the impact of immigration on homogenous Swedish society. Instead, the situation is a setup for a screwball romantic comedy. Roro (think of a Middle Eastern David Schwimmer) has a Swedish girlfriend but is afraid to tell his family. Unfortunately, they are busy arranging a marriage for him to a girl from Lebanon. Roro’s best friend Mans (who looks like a young Patrick Stewart) is having some performance problems when being intimate with his girlfriend, leading him to try all manner of comical remedies. How this all gets resolved—along with a few car chases, fist fights and a night in jail—make for a pretty entertaining 87 minutes. (Seen 11 July 2001)

James Joyce: The Trials of Ulysses 2 out of 4 stars

I know fictionalized feature films are easier to take than talking-heads documentaries, but if you’re interested in actually learning something, you just can’t beat the archival/interview-some-experts approach. A good case in point is this film, which was the second part of a double feature along with Nora at the recent Irish Reels Film & Video Festival. It is only when we see the documentary that we realize how much work the makers of Nora went to include real, honest-to-gosh details and facts in their biopic. But their thoroughness didn’t actually translate into more understanding. For example, when we see Joyce (in the person of Ewan McGregor) obsessively seeking out Nora’s old bedroom in the Dublin hotel where she used to work, it just feels like an odd touch added by a scriptwriter. When we hear a university professor describe the same thing and put it into a literary context, well, it’s still an odd quirk but one that we know better how to deal with. The two films overlap nicely, but this one definitely tells the more interesting story. The tale of how Joyce conceived, wrote and struggled to publish his masterpiece Ulysses is much more compelling than the sordid details of his love life. In fact, this film also overlaps nicely with another documentary, the wonderful Paris Was a Woman, which also told of Joyce’s problems with a scandalized America and the Paris book publishers who rescued his oeuvre. (Seen 4 April 2001)

Jamie Marks Is Dead 2 out of 4 stars

A teenage boy is found dead, presumably murdered. He had no friends at school, but he soon begins appearing to Grace and Adam, two fellow students. Is this yet another zombie movie? Or a ghost story? That is open to interpretation. While there are elements of a horror movie here, this is not a thriller or shocker. Director Carter Smith (The Ruins) has adapted this from a novel called One for Sorrow by Christopher Barzak, and it is generally faithful to the spirit of the book, which was much more interested in the psychology of its main character, Adam, than in ghosts. Much of the movie is definitely creepy and one sequence in particular is fairly scary, but largely this is the examination of the mind of a troubled teenager. One can choose to see it as a ghost story or as a story of mental illness or just a metaphorical look at letting go or coming to grips. (Another possibility is an unhealthy love triangle.) Noah Silver, a bit reminiscent of Daniel Radcliffe, brings a discomfiting intensity as the dead boy, who becomes increasingly possessive of Adam. Cameron Monaghan, as Adam, looks every bit the athlete he’s meant to be while subtly signaling the troubled soul underneath. As Gracie, Morgan Saylor is convincing as a girl who would collect rocks for a hobby. And Madisen Beaty is truly unnerving as a crazy dead girl. Liv Tyler and Judy Greer are on hand in supporting roles as grown-ups. (Seen 3 October 2014)

El Jardín de Edén (The Garden of Eden) 2 out of 4 stars

I have never particularly thought of Tijuana as a paradise. But several characters in this Mexican film refer to it as such. This takes on some irony when someone happens to notice in a dictionary that the root meaning of paradise is a walled garden—because Tijuana is a walled city of sorts. The fence along the US border dominates this film. We notice that someone has spray painted on it the words: If the Berlin Wall fell, why can’t this one? But the Tijuana in The Garden of Eden doesn’t resemble Berlin so much as Humphrey Bogart’s Casablancawhere desperate people come to wait, make deals, take risks, and try to escape. The film paints a striking portrait of this border town, but it is less successful in the individual stories it tells. Serena is a single mother who runs a photography studio while trying to deal with a rebellious teenage son. Liz is a Mexican-American who has moved there to find her roots but feels at home in no culture. Jane is an American on a visit who has a romanticized view of the whole place. As their various paths intersect, the movie never lets them become as three-dimensional as Tijuana itself. (Seen 3 June 1995)

Le Jardin oublié: La vie et l’oeuvre d’Alice Guy-Blaché (The Lost Garden) 2 out of 4 stars

It is amazing that the name of Alice Guy-Blaché is not better known to us film enthusiasts. She was present at the birth of the cinema and was one of the very first filmmakers. For 17 years she was the only woman filmmaker, and technically she was years ahead of her time. She might even be considered the inventor of the music video since she was making singing pictures with sound in France decades before The Jazz Singer debuted in America. The Canadian documentary The Lost Garden tells how Guy-Blaché was a secretary at Gaumont when the film camera was invented and how, in addition to her regular duties, began making movies, eventually becoming the head of production. After she married, she and her husband and daughter went to New Jersey where she founded and headed the successful studio Solax (the largest of its time) before going on to Hollywood. Her career was undone when her husband (into whose name the studio had gone) ran off with another woman. Sadly for her legacy, many of her films were credited to men who worked under her. As one family member says, Guy-Blaché was never bitter about how things turned out, although the same can’t be said of this film. (Seen 30 May 1996)

Jaws 3 out of 4 stars

Can it really be 37 summers since we all gave up swimming in the ocean forever? I’m not sure why the Powers That Be decided that this summer would be the one to bring back Steven Spielberg’s classic to cinemas, but a big screen is definitely the best way to see it. This is where it all began. Yes, Spielberg had done some TV work (notably the thriller Duel) and one previous feature, The Sugarland Express. But this is where his name became magic. Close Encounters, Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial all lay ahead. Without all the baggage of Spielberg’s reputation and lavish budgets, in this movie we saw his filmmaking for what it is: masterful, inspired and effectively manipulative. Jaws has the essential structure of a monster movie. Early on we see the monster’s handiwork and then spend the rest of the movie in suspense waiting for it to strike again and to have a proper look at it. But this is also a detailed portrait of a community, so that we care and agonize over victims, both actual and potential. The most wrenching scene in the movie involves Roy Scheider’s encounter with a young victim’s mother. The biggest jolt does not come from the shark but from the sudden appearance of unfortunate fisherman Ben Gardner’s head. Scheider is an ideal hero for the story. In the best Hitchcockian tradition, he has a fear of the water. The final act becomes a seagoing adventure with plenty of male bonding, making this the perfect guy movie. The story may get a bit silly, as the shark takes on a nearly supernatural malevolence (which seems completely believable when compared to the wretched sequels that followed), but Scheider’s fear and Richard Dreyfuss’s intellectual fascination and (primarily) Robert Shaw’s crazy and chronically colorful shark hunter, who goes all Capt. Ahab, keep us involved and invested right up until the final frame. Summer entertainments don’t get better than this. (Seen 28 June 2012)

Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back 2 out of 4 stars

Among other things, this movie reminded me why I stopped hitchhiking. The titular heroes are, of course, the stoner duo who have showed up in every film that Kevin Smith has made (Clerks, Mallrats, Chasing Amy, Dogma). Frankly, I thought Dogma was Jay and Silent Bob’s movie, as well as the in-joke-filled vanity flick that Smith needed to get out of his system. But in terms of inside-winking, this flick makes Dogma by comparison seem like a completely faithful literary adaptation. The humor here is adolescent. And by adolescent, I mean early adolescent. I mean, the very first day of male adolescence. This means liberal use of the F word, attractive women in leather outfits, lots of drug references, comic books references, cartoon references, teen TV and movie references, Internet message board references, a nun gag, and a strangely obsessive repulsion/fascination with gay sex. Virtually everyone Smith knows (including himself, his wife, his son and anyone who has ever been in one of his movies) is here—either playing themselves, a character from another of Smith’s movies, or both. Also on hand are a couple of great film directors lampooning themselves and a couple of the actors from Star Wars who didn’t go on to become superstars. But J&SBSB gets two stars anyway because the last reel or two are extremely funny, especially if you are a film buff. In its way, this completely disposable flick has the same guilty appeal as the old Bob Hope/Bing Crosby road movies and Bedtime for Bonzo. (Seen 25 September 2001)

Je veux voir (I Want to See) 2 out of 4 stars

The chief benefit of seeing this movie, shown as part of the Cork Film Festival’s New Arab Cinema series, is that it allows us to experience something that most of us will never do personally. We get a definite sense of what it is like to drive through the city of Beirut and from there southward to the Lebanon-Israel border. The film, written and directed by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, appears to be a documentary or a dramatic recreation of actual events. This is because it stars the celebrated French actor Catherine Deneuve, playing herself. But it is apparently a creative work in which Deneuve (not completely unlike what John Malkovich did in Being John Malkovich) has agreed to play herself. As the film has it, she is in Beirut for an elegant gala benefit for victims of the recent war in Lebanon and, as the title suggests, she wants to see for herself the destruction left behind in the south of the country. Her driver is a nice man named Rabih, and the two have an extended chat (and Deneuve has many cigarettes) during the drive up and down the country’s coast. (Not reassuringly, Deneuve’s personal bodyguard is shuffled off to a separate car and is rarely seen thereafter.) Deneuve’s and Rabih’s conversation plays nearly like a road trip variation of My Dinner with André. By the end of the movie, we have seen many bombed-out shells of buildings and had a few moving moments, notably a scene where Rabih searches in vain for the small village house where he grew up. Once again, the lesson is that war is terrible. Despite the many interesting aspects the movie brings, there is also the uncomfortable feeling that we have basically seen the holiday movie of a celebrity war tourist. (Seen 12 October 2008)

Jean de Florette 3 out of 4 stars

This is a French epic of the first order. Beautifully photographed in Provence, the setting is rural France of the 1920s. Jean de Florette (played by Gerard Depardieu, who is in virtually every French movie ever made) is a tax collector by trade. But when his uncle dies, he inherits a house and farm in the country. Jean, who happens to be a hunchback and has a lovely wife and daughter, decides to move to the farm and get away from city life. What he doesn’t know is that the neighbors covet the farm for a natural spring (which they have conveniently hidden from him). So, while they pretend to be his good friends, they are sabotaging his farming efforts every chance they get. It is heartbreaking to watch the innocent, ever optimistic Jean try and try again to make a go of his farm only to be wiped out for the lack of water, which he doesn’t suspect is under his very nose. Even ugly Ugolin, who is after the farm, is torn between greed and pity for the city people. The other neighbor is Ugolin’s uncle, crafty old César, played by Yves Montand who is old enough to do character roles now. A sequel to this movie was filmed at the same time and centers on Jean’s daughter. Shots from Part Two are shown at the end of the film. A very handsome production. (Seen 6 June 1987)

Jeffrey 2 out of 4 stars

On Friday evening I saw a film that finally deals forthrightly and directly with the one major question that has been on all our minds for some time now. And of course that question is: Are we ready to see Capt. Jean-Luc Picard of the Federation starship Enterprise become a flaming gay New York interior decorator? To no one’s surprise, Sneak Preview No. 1 at the 1995 Seattle film festival turned out to be Jeffrey which is based on the play of the same name. The film has apparently kept a lot of the play’s structure because the characters spend a lot of time talking to the camera. We were the first audience to see the film which will be released in a couple of months. It seems to be targeted directly at a gay audience, so it will be interesting to see how the film, which has major stars, is marketed. The movie takes on the seemingly impossible task of addressing in an amusing, entertaining way the question of how one faces life and love in a community where AIDS is running rampant. In addition to Patrick Stewart in a starring role, it features Sigourney Weaver, Olympia Dukakis, and Christine Baranski (the jaded best friend on Cybill Shepherd’s sitcom). While the film deals with a specific disease and a specific community, its message of living life in the here and now is applicable to all human beings. We can easily substitute the word death for AIDS when one character says near the end, “AIDS may be an unwelcome guest, but it’s still OUR party!” (Seen 2 June 1995)

Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell 2 out of 4 stars

Peter O’Toole’s last hurrah as a stage actor (his film and television work continues) was his tour de force performance at London’s Old Vic in this play that feels like a one-man show, even though he is ably supported by four other actors is constantly changing roles. Thankfully, the performance is preserved forever as a filmed version for BBC television. (There are apparently other film versions, including an earlier more complete one.) Keith Waterhouse wrote the play as a portrait of his friend, who was a legendary carouser and columnist for The New Statesman. The title is taken from the euphemistic phrase that was used as an explanation to readers when he was too drunk or hung over to write his column. As with his role in My Favorite Year, O’Toole’s presence adds resonance because of his own reputation as legendary drinker in the past. His performance is nothing short of mesmerizing. As soon as you are sure that there is no remaining witty remark in the English language for a drunk man to say, Waterhouse comes up with some more ones. In addition to his reflections on tattered relationships, congenital irresponsibility and monumental self-abuse, we also get a fair amount of name dropping. The extraordinarily un-ambitious Soho denizen Bernard was friends with the likes of Dylan Thomas, Francis Bacon and others. O’Toole’s age (he was in his late 60s when this was filmed for telecast in 1999) actually works well for portraying the dissolute journalist, who died in 1997 at 65, eight years after O’Toole had originated the role. This is a classic case of something that should not be funny at all actually providing more hilarity than a human being should be able to stand. (Seen 13 July 2008)

Jenipapo (The Interview) 3 out of 4 stars

The Interview is an impressive feature debut by Monique Gardenberg. A Brazilian production (but mostly in English), it tells the story of a charismatic priest (Patrick Bauchau) who champions the poor and landless and of the American reporter (Henry Czerny) determined to get an interview with him. It seems that Father Stephen has gone mysteriously silent just weeks before a critical land reform vote in the Brazilian congress, for which the oligarchy is relieved and everyone else is mystified. Czerny’s character is your worst journalistic nightmare. He is brash and relentless and not above sleeping with someone to get a story. (Imagine a cross between Sam Donaldson and John F. Kennedy Jr.) And he is totally obsessed with interviewing Father Stephen. The tension mounts effectively as the story progresses down a path that is not always easy to see, and then it stops just when we’d really like to see what happens next! But that’s just one of many questions the film raises and makes us think about. In the end, this is really a re-telling of the story of Jesus and Judas, but with a very different slant than you may have had before. (Seen 29 May 1996)

Jenseits der Stille (Beyond Silence) 3 out of 4 stars

The nice thing about watching a film that attracts a lot of deaf viewers is that the people next to you can chat all they want during the movie and it doesn’t bother you! Beyond Silence is an old-fashioned and emotionally involving kind of movie that is beautifully photographed. The opening scenes are particularly lovely. Lara, the daughter of deaf parents, struggles to establish her independence as her father fights not to “lose her.” As often happens with parents and children, the conflict mirrors his own childhood struggle, which in his case was to establish his identity in a hearing family. Tatjana Trieb, who plays Lara as a child, is so beguiling that we really miss her in the second half of the movie but Sylvie Testud, who plays her as a young adult, eventually wins us over as well. Amanuelle Laborit, as her mother, is also a charmer, and by the end of the story we have had our heartstrings thoroughly tugged. As a portrait of deaf and hearing people dealing with each other, I would rate this even above Children of a Lesser God. In German and sign language, this is Caroline Link’s first feature. (Seen 28 May 1997)

Jeremy 2 out of 4 stars

Four decades before If I Stay, this is what a romantic teen movie about a talented young cellist looked like. But this little movie, written and directed by Arthur Barron, has none of the fanciful touches or heart-wrenching extremes of the newer film. Still, the two movies are kindred spirits. To describe the plot of Jeremy would make it sound like the simplest and most non-consequential of stories. Much of the screen time is spent merely watching 15-year-old New York music student Jeremy go through his daily routine. But by the end it has the feel of something that was actually written by a 15-year-old at the peak of his most self-absorbed anguish. Or, more likely, like something written by someone who never quite got over being a 15-year-old boy. This was one of only two feature films made by Barron, who worked mainly in TV documentaries. (The other was 1977’s Brothers, a fictionalized examination of the relationship between Angela Davis and Soledad brother George Jackson.) Jeremy is winningly played by soon-to-be teen idol Robby Benson in one of his first two big-screen roles. His love interest Susan is played by Glynnis O’Connor, who would star with Benson again three years later in Max Baer Jr.’s Ode to Billy Joe, inspired by the ubiquitous Bobbie Gentry song. I sought out this movie because Mark Kermode keeps mentioning it on BBC radio as one of his sentimental favorites. My impression? It’s likeable enough, but for it to really have an effect on you, I think you have to see it for the first time when you are the right age for it. (Seen 24 October 2014)

Jerry Maguire 3 out of 4 stars

Say what you want about Tom Cruise as an actor, but he definitely has slick and shallow characters down pat. Early on in Jerry Maguire, he walks into a surprise party that he already knows about, but you wouldn’t know it because, as a high-powered sports agent, Jerry is a consummate actor. Throughout this romantic comedy we see him in a classic internal battle between cynicism and sentiment at least as old as Casablanca. As in Say Anything…, director Cameron Crowe takes material that could easily turn sappy, but with his wry take on things he keeps it from becoming totally sticky sweet (with the possible exception of a child with the most perpetually goofy smile you’ve ever seen). Crowe even manages to avoid excess in the emotional climactic scene that takes place in, of all places, a divorced women’s support group at Christmas time! The cast is uniformly fine, particularly Regina King, Bonnie Hunt and Renée Zellweger (The Whole Wide World). (Seen 15 December 1996)

Jesus Christ Superstar 3 out of 4 stars

What better way to observe Good Friday than by re-watching Norman Jewison’s 1973 film adaption of this Tim Rice/Andrew Lloyd Webber musical about the passion and crucifixion of Christ? Seeing it forty years after its initial release, we are struck by how much it is a product of the 1960s. The clothes, the hair, the irreverence are all peculiar to that decade. Like its contemporary Godspell and Monty Python’s Life of Brian, which would follow six years later, it gets a lot of mileage out of drawing parallels with modern political and social issues. And, not unlike the way John Milton’s Paradise Lost caused readers to see a familiar story differently by making Lucifer the “hero,” this musical does something similar by making Judas our point-of-view character. Sung with the impressive voice and passion of the late Carl Anderson, Judas also functions as a mouthpiece for the authors—more or less equivalent to the character of Che in Evita—asking practical questions like why didn’t God send Jesus in a time of better communication and what would be his opinion of prophets like Buddha and Mohammed. Despite the anachronistic and entertaining approach to re-telling this story, it actually makes it very relatable, by treating the characters as human beings rather than revered figures frozen in a painting or a text. And, despite all the theatrical artifice, in the end this version is extremely moving. As with everything in which Andrew Lloyd Webber is involved, what really stands out and sticks in our memories is the fantastic music. (Seen 29 March 2013)

Jesus’ Son 2 out of 4 stars

No, this movie isn’t trying to reopen the can of worms that Martin Scorsese created with The Last Temptation of Christ. The title is but one of several odd religious references in this tale of a total loser strung out most of the time on drugs. It’s a bit reminiscent of Gus van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy, and like that film and most others with a similar theme, it threatens to end depressingly. It definitely has its disheartening moments, but its ending is surprisingly upbeat and optimistic. In fact, the whole movie is disconcertingly offbeat. For instance, you never know when there will be an unexpected car crash or a naked woman floating through the air. But this quirkiness is not surprising when you realize that the director is Alison Maclean, who previously made the disconcertingly offbeat New Zealand flick Crush (which also featured a car accident). Playing the heartbreakingly pathetic lead role (called “FH” in the credits, an abbreviation of what he is repeatedly called in the film) is Billy Crudup (Sleepers, The Hi-Lo Country), demonstrating a vulnerable screen presence that is a touch reminiscent of that shown by Michael Sarrazin in several flicks in the late 1960s. The film firmly establishes its drugged-out credentials with an amiable cameo by Dennis Hopper and also features Holly Hunter as a woman whose back story sounds even more depressing than FH’s. (Seen 17 November 1999)

La Jetée 4 out of 4 stars

In honor of the legendary French filmmaker Chris Marker, who died a month ago at the age of 91, I am relaxing my definition of feature film to include his mini-masterpiece La Jetée in its proper place on this page. You could reasonably argue whether it is a feature film at all and not just because it runs for only 28 minutes. It consists entirely of still images in black and white—except for a brief moment when a woman opens her eyes. The only voice that is heard is that of Jean Négroni, the narrator. If you are somehow not familiar with this film, then you may be thinking, based on what I’ve said so far, that it is some kind of navel-gazing, self-indulgent art film. But what it is is one of the seminal science fiction movies of all time. Two years after George Pal’s The Time Machine and a year before the debut of Doctor Who, Marker made one of the best time travel adventures of, well, all timelines. In a dystopian future, a man is sent back in time in search of resources that no longer exist. At the titular jetty at Orly Airport, he meets a woman whose face has haunted him for years in a childhood memory. The twist ending (as well as the format of using still images) causes us to ponder all kinds of issues like life, death and the nature of time and memory. (Ha! It was an art film after all.) And at the same time it is totally challenging and satisfying as a story. It is a tribute to Marker—and, in a way, an unfortunate overshadowing—that no less a fellow filmmaker than Terry Gilliam expanded the story into a movie that was a masterpiece in its own right, Twelve Monkeys. While Gilliam added his own usual themes of sanity-vs.-insanity and the dehumanizing effects of institutions, he stuck extremely faithfully to Marker’s plot points. And that is what gave Gilliam’s movie its heart. That heart is purer and, arguably, more exquisite when we go back and see the original. (Seen 28 August 2012)

Jilao sishi (A Queer Story) 2 out of 4 stars

The English title of this Hong Kong film seems a bit flippant for a movie as touching and heartfelt as this one. This is really a fairly conventional love story, complete with a tug-at-your-heartstrings ending. As often seems to be the case in gay-themed films these days, the conflict revolves around a man who causes himself and others all kinds of grief because he refuses to come out of the closet. Law Kar-Sing is 46 years old and lives with a younger man, but he has never told his family he’s gay and even has a longtime girlfriend from his hometown. (Talk about a woman being patient!) Adding to the irony, he is a marriage counselor! Despite the soap suds, the movie is not without humor. Sing’s effeminate lover is played by Jordan Chan, who at one point gets into a fight and verbally evokes the Young and Dangerous film series—of which he is actually one of the stars! The director is Shu Kei, who seems to specialize in humorous and sentimental stories and about sex and sexual roles. (Seen 6 June 1997)

Jim Loves Jack: The James Egan Story 2 out of 4 stars

This Canadian documentary aims to work on two levels. It is a portrait of a man who was a gay activist for 15 years (late 1940s through early 1960s) before anyone else in Canada was. It is also holds Egan and his partner up as an example of a stable, devoted couple who have been together for nearly half a century. Egan (who reminds me for some reason of the singer Pete Seeger) “retired” from his activism for many years at the request of his partner Jack, but they have gotten into the thick of things again recently by pursuing spousal retirement benefits all the way to the Canadian Supreme Court. The film, which fawns over its subject, is not interested in anything other than a glowing tribute, but there are certainly worse people you could spend 53 minutes with. (Seen 17 May 1996)

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work 2 out of 4 stars

In a movie crammed full of jokes, the first one is the title. It, of course, refers to the film’s subject as having amassed a substantial life and career, but it is also a wink at a woman who has become known for being to facial structure what Dolly Parton is to bosoms. Directors Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg have performed a public service in that their documentary is a good corrective to the image of a woman who, over the years, has become for many people (me included) a punch line. She deserves more respect than that, and the fact that she never stops begging for it should not stop us from giving it to her. Shown in context, Rivers is seen as the pioneer that she was and as someone who considered herself a successor to Lenny Bruce—fixed in comedy history somewhere between Moms Mabley and Phyllis Diller, on one hand, and Sarah Silverman, on the other. What is truly surprising is how much energy Rivers, at 75, exudes. What is also surprising is her contention that she is first and foremost an actor and only does comedy because she needs the work. Bantering perpetually, always “on,” she gives every indication of truly believing in her neurotic fear that her career could be over at any second. But that’s not bloody likely since she is shown to be willing to go anywhere and to do anything—constantly selling herself, however she can, and always haggling over her price. Despite the wealth of footage (filmed over a year), though, we never quite know if we have yet seen the “real” Rivers—if there is one. Even when she talks poignantly about her husband Edgar’s suicide and the strange movie she and her daughter Melissa made about it, it still feels like part of the never-ending performance. (Seen 8 July 2010)

Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten 2 out of 4 stars

“I hope you like the film,” said director Julien Temple, as he introduced it. Then he added, with a bit of the same attitude of the documentary’s protagonist, “I don’t really care if you do. I made it for Joe.” Temple and Strummer worked together early on in the early days of The Clash, but became estranged for years when Temple was forced to choose the Sex Pistols, with whom he had had a longer relationship, over Strummer’s band. For the last years of Strummer’s all-too-short life (he died suddenly of a previously unknown heart defect at the age of 50), the two became neighbors and friends. Temple is a rock video director whose feature films have included Absolute Beginners and Earth Girls Are Easy. Given his friendship with Strummer, we wouldn’t expect anything too critical, but the film can be best described as a warts-and-all tribute. There is plenty of footage of Strummer during his adult years, supplemented with stock pop culture footage (heavily used during the childhood section) as well as reminisces by many friends, collaborators and fans sitting around campfires. These include a host of musicians (by law, every one of these movies has to feature extended pontifications by Bono), actors (Johnny Depp, John Cusack, Steve Buscemi, Matt Dillon), and film directors (Jim Jarmusch, who cast him in Mystery Train, and Martin Scorsese, who said that he channeled the energy of The Clash’s music into his direction of Raging Bull). The film follows Strummer’s upbringing (born John Graham Mellor), his musical career with the bands The 101‘ers, The Clash and The Mescaleros. After a decade of making music history with the The Clash, Strummer had something of an aimless period in which he worked on a few movies, acting in things like Straight to Hell and doing the soundtrack for Walker. At half-century, Strummer seemed to be mellowing and to have a whole new chapter ahead of him. If you’re a fan, this film is pretty much un-missable. If you’re not, well, you probably won’t be bored. One of the main shocks is seeing some of gaunt, manic punk rockers of the 1980s now looking like funny old pensioners from those old Ealing comedies. (Seen 11 July 2007)

Joheunnom nabbeunnom isanghannom (The Good, the Bad and the Weird) 3 out of 4 stars

A won ton western? The title isn’t great, mainly because it suggests a spoof. But this octane-fueled, no-holds-barred action romp is more homage and tribute than parody. A better title might have been Once Upon a Time in Manchuria. It opens with one of the most exhilarating extended action sequence involving a train robbery, crammed full of the first of plentiful references to Sergio Leone, especially Once Upon a Time in the West. It finishes with a wild chase sequence involving three or four (I couldn’t keep track) different bandit gangs and the whole freakin’ Japanese army—followed by a three-way standoff/showndown that would impress Leone himself. The landscapes, while not exactly Monument Valley, are beautifully barren and go on forever and ever. Directed and co-written by Korea’s Ji-woon Kim, the movie’s nearly superfluous plot (something about everyone competing to get hold of a map that may lead to a treasure) nearly has more in common with It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World than any spaghetti western. Woo-sung Jung is bland but adequate in the Clint Eastwood role, and Kang-ho Song is frequently amusing in the Eli Wallach part. But the screen is completely dominated by the mesmerizing Byung-hun Lee as the Lee Van Cleef character, essentially playing him like Johnny Depp. Not to be missed by Leone fans or anyone else who loves a rollickin’ good time at the pictures. (Seen 19 October 2008)

John Huston—War Stories 3 out of 4 stars

This documentary by Midge Mackenzie is notable for its inclusion of extended clips from John Huston’s long-suppressed documentary Let There Be Light. It was the last of the documentaries that Huston made for the U.S. military during and after World War II and, as the film demonstrates, Huston’s examinations of the truth of war and its consequences were often not appreciated by the brass. Let There Be Light is an amazing piece of work, and today it is hard to believe that we are actually seeing Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome patients (before the term existed) and not actors. Clips from Huston’s conventionally gung-ho Report from the Aleutians and his harrowing The Battle of San Pietro are also shown. The film is particularly moving because of extended interview footage showing Huston at the end of his life, growing thoughtful and misty-eyed as he reminisces over his war experiences and the making of these films. Mackenzie has done the movie world a big favor by recording it all. (Seen 8 July 1998)

Johnny Was 2 out of 4 stars

The first attention-getting aspect of this crime thriller, directed by Mark Hammond, is its eclectic casting. It stars a fixture of this type of British flick (Vinnie Jones, more visible these days as Juggernaut in X-Men: The Last Stand) and features a hoary rock star (Roger Daltrey), a young rock star (Samantha Mumba), an American TV star (Eriq La Salle) and a boxer (Lennox Lewis). The next thing that gets our (well, my) notice is how much attention it pays to the characters’ various ethnicities and how their accents and appearances do and do not jibe with expectations. This is actually refreshing, although several lines of dialog have to be dispensed to explain how unmistakable Londoner Jones is a Northern Irish terrorist on the run, but no explanation is offered to make sense of Daltrey’s leadership role in the same Ulster splinter group. The other main thing that is striking about the movie is how it tries to be both a B-movie crime caper and a thought-provoking meditation on the morality of violence in a political struggle. Does it work? Almost. For a while. But finally things get a bit too silly, and then we arrive at an ending that, while it gets points for being unexpected, in the end is just illogical and unsatisfying. Standing out in the cast is Patrick Bergin as the hate-filled hard man, who causes most of the trouble. (Seen 13 July 2006)

johns 1 out of 4 stars

When you were watching the movie Witness a decade ago, you probably weren’t thinking that the cute little Amish boy with the big haunting eyes protected by Harrison Ford would grow up to be a street hustler on Santa Monica Boulevard. Well, he has! (On the brighter side, Lukas Haas gets to save the whole planet in Mars Attacks!) And The Wacky Guy from the short-lived TV sitcom Double Rush (David Arquette) has wound up turning tricks there too! Director Scott Silver wanted to make a Midnight Cowboy for the ‘90s, but he’s actually come closer to making an Oliver Twist for the Fox network. Sure, johns echoes John Schlesinger’s 1969 classic by describing a relationship between guys on the street and ending with a poignant bus ride (this time to Branson, Missouri), but the cast of characters are a bit too stereotyped to be as involving as Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo. And you want poignancy? The story takes place on the day before Christmas which also happens to be Arquette’s birthday! That coincidence is just the beginning of the heavy-handed foreshadowing in a plot as relentless as a passion play. To be sure, Arquette and Haas are quite appealing, but in all the wrong ways for the type of movie this one is trying to be. (Seen 8 February 1997)

Joint Adventure 1 out of 4 stars

Joint Adventure will inevitably be compared to Richard Linklater’s Slacker which is too bad for Joint Adventure since it is not nearly so creative or inventive. The word play in the title gives a pretty good indication of the level of wit we’re dealing with here. Most of the humor derives from observations of the aimless (and somewhat gross) lifestyles of the two male leads and the odd assortment of characters they meet on their adventure. The plot, which almost seems an afterthought, deals with Pete and Zack’s search for dope so that they can take it to Pete’s uncle who is undergoing chemotherapy. They are accompanied by Claudia, who seems to be modeled on one of Andrea Martin’s old SCTV characters. To its credit, the film does broach a pertinent legal/medical topic, and it actually does look pretty good considering that the director, John Foran, and his cast (all but three of whom are from Knoxville, Tennessee, where it was filmed) were total film novices when they made it. (Seen 28 May 1996)

Jonás y la Bellena Rosada (Jonah and the Pink Whale) 3 out of 4 stars

Bolivian director Juan Carlos Valdivia says that the title for his first feature film (based on the novel of the same name) alludes to the fact that this is a “Jonah story.” But the monster that swallows our hero is the cocaine dominated economy and culture that took hold in Bolivia in the 1980s. Jonás (who looks like a young Edward James Olmos) was trained as a lawyer, but he prefers to be a school teacher and photographer—much to the dismay of his patrician in-laws. His wife’s family are old money and, as the jowly patriarch says emphatically at one point, they may be fascist and racist but they aren’t involved in drugs. That changes as nouveau riche drug lords move in and take over the economy and the society. At first Jonás is oblivious to this as he loses himself in a passionate affair with his wife’s rebellious younger sister Julia. (His totally spoiled wife rations sex rather strictly.) But inevitably Jonás and Julia are completely swallowed by the tide of events. Jonah and the Pink Whale is a rare and evocative look into Bolivia’s recent history. (Seen 23 May 1996)

Jongens (Boys) 2 out of 4 stars

Originally made for Dutch television, this film has the feel of one of those old after-school specials. That may be due to director Mischa Kamp’s prior work in children’s TV. Jongens follows the travails of sensitive teenager Sieger (well played by Gijs Blom) who understandably finds his home life difficult. His father does the best he can, but he is still deeply mourning his wife who died in a motorcycle accident and is constantly at odds with his rebellious older son Eddy who, of course, wants to do nothing but ride a motorcycle. Meanwhile Sieg finds his best friend Stef drifting away as he pursues a girlfriend, but he finds a new friend in Marc, a member of their four-man relay team training for a championship race. Poor Sieg finds himself torn in too many directions, as the tensions at home rise, Stef pressures him to go on double-dates with a girl who fancies him, and Marc expresses his romantic interest. On top of all that, there is that big race coming up in which Sieg and Marc have to be well synchronized for the baton hand-off. While we fear things could well turn out rather badly, in the end all of these people are reasonable and decent, and things do work out. As is often the case with movies like this, the lesson is to know and follow your own heart. (Seen 10 December 2016)

Journey to the Center of the Earth 2 out of 4 stars

Not the recent Brendan Fraser version, but the original 1959 film version. It seems as though this should be a Disney movie because it is a Jules Verne adaptation starring James Mason. It might have been a bit better had it come from the house of mouse, but still it is a flick that provided more than its share of fond memories for baby boomers. The director was Henry Levin, who was better known for light comedies—which this seems to be much of the time. There is nearly more dramatic heft to the bantering between Mason and Arlene Dahl (and the fate of Gertrude the duck) as there is to lurking denizens in the dark caverns. This is one of those movies to which time has not been overly kind, at least in terms of its special effects. And perhaps our knowledge of science. The nine-year-old I saw it with laughed at the notion of an ocean at the center of the earth instead of molten lava that would have instantly incinerated the cast. Perhaps a better way to look at the movie is as an early-days Terry Gilliam-style fantasy. (Three years later Levin would direct The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm.) Cast-wise, Levin was on (under?) solid ground with Mason and Dahl dominating things, while more than adequate eye candy was provided by teen idol Pat Boone and Icelandic track star Peter Ronson (in his first and last screen role) who, as the plot required, lost more and more of their garments the further underground they went. Special mention should be made of the piece’s villain, Thayer David. A great, too-little-seen character actor, his other notable movie role was as the shadowy spy chief Dragon in Clint Eastwood’s The Eiger Sanction. But he is best known to fans of the TV series Dark Shadows, for which he played multiple roles, including Barnabas Collins’s loyal servant Ben Stokes as well as Ben’s occult sleuthing descendent Professor Timothy Stokes. (Seen 27 February 2010)

Judas Kiss 2 out of 4 stars

Now here’s a movie that keeps you guessing for a good bit of its running time. Zachary is the boyfriend of a rising director, and being in his shadow is clearly not doing much for his self-esteem. Asked by his squeeze to substitute for him as a jury member for a film festival being held at his alma mater, Zachary is not at all comfortable revisiting his past. (The fictional university campus, shot at the University of Washington in Seattle, is effectively made to look like world unto itself.) Things take a strange turn when the frontrunner for the top festival prize turns out to be Danny, a promising student who has some sort of mysterious and irreconcilable connection to Zachary. The further we get into it, the more we are left wondering whether this is a psychological drama, a Twilight Zone episode or maybe even a sci-fi exercise. (The fact that Zachary and Danny fall into bed on their first meeting eventually turns out to have all kinds of weird psychological implications.) Directed by J.T. Tepnapa (who co-wrote with Carlos Pedraza), the film looks great and the cast is especially attractive. Inevitably, things fray toward the end as the conceit becomes clear and the mystery dissolves. There is also a bit of a let-down as the major build-up to the titular film-within-a-film proves impossible to live up to. But the cast has the strength to bring it over the finish line—especially Richard Harmon as Danny, who exudes amazing confidence as the gifted wunderkind with serious scores to settle and an icy intensity that doesn’t let up. (Seen 3 September 2012)

Julian Po (The Tears of Julian Po) 2 out of 4 stars

This movie is like an extended episode of the old Twilight Zone series. Or another way of looking at it is Barton Fink in Mayberry. Christian Slater has the title role as a nebbish, not unlike the roles that Roman Polanski used to give himself in those weird European films he made in the 1960s. The story involves a mysterious young man who walks into a town that seems to have been lost for several decades just south of Middle America. The residents include weird types like Michael Parks, who just gets creepier and creepier with every role until you forget he once played a cool dude in TV’s Then Came Bronson at the end of the 1960s. When Julian blurts out a tentative intention to kill himself, he becomes something of a cult hero to the strange town folk. From then on things just get increasingly out of hand. There are a few chuckles in this dark comedy, but its main interest (particularly in light of recent globally televised funerals) probably lies in its sidewise observations of death and celebrity. (Seen 10 September 1997)

Julie Walking Home 3 out of 4 stars

This was another entry in the Galway Film Fleadh’s retrospective of Agnieszka Holland’s oeuvre. Holland herself was there to introduce this film, which seems to have fallen between the cracks since it first saw the light of day two years ago. Holland said the screenplay was based on something that had actually happened to a couple she knew and which had “stayed with” her ever since. The story does indeed have the feel of something that is unlikely but really did happen. Unfortunately, for marketing purposes, it has the disadvantage of not lending itself to a one- or two-sentence summary. Its chief asset is its star, Australian actor Miranda Otto, who demands to be described as radiant. This woman has an incredible range, as we have observed over the years. Whether she is in quirky Australian comedies like Love Serenade and Dead Letter Office or in a fantasy epic like The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (as the warrior princess Éowyn) or in an emotional drama like Julie Walking Home, she is never less than believable and authentic. As her husband, William Fichtner gets a role to show what he can do as well. And once again we have Lothaire Bluteau in one of those strange and childlike roles that he seems to specialize in. It’s hard to know what to say about the story, except that some people may need a hanky before it’s over, and the ending is just ambiguous enough for each viewer to put his or her own interpretation or judgment on it. (Seen 10 July 2003)

Jumanji 2 out of 4 stars

This is another one of those movies that some people thought was too scary for little kids. That’s somewhat ironic since one of the running themes of the film is the importance of facing up to one’s fears. This isn’t really a “Robin Williams movie” in that he doesn’t cut loose with his usual schtick but rather stays in character throughout. (But it’s not exactly Dead Poets Society either.) At one point a group of malevolent computer-generated monkeys stop at a storefront to watch The Wizard of Oz on a television. This is apt because the film sees itself as a descendent of that classic. But in this case instead of Dorothy going to Oz, Oz descends on a small New England town. And where Dorothy only wanted to get home again, our heroes turn the experience into an extended therapy session. (Not to put too fine a point on it, but the evil, unstoppable hunter Van Pelt is played by the same actor who also plays Williams’s father.) Anyway, the film is fun, the special effects are nifty, and there is sly humor laced throughout. (Seen 22 February 1996)

Jump 3 out of 4 stars

The story may have started out as a play, but what filmmaker Kieron J. Walsh has put on the screen is pure cinema. This is one of those flicks—kind of like John Crowley’s Intermission—that weaves multiple storylines in a tangle of narratives that cross and intersect. To keep it interesting, it fiddles with the chronology so that we see some events from more than one perspective. Set in Derry on New Year’s Eve, the cast is populated with a great array of Northern Ireland actors. (The main exception to the regional casting is England’s Nichola Burley in the central role of the suicidal Greta.) As is usual with these sorts of intertwining-plot movies, there is a fair amount of clubbing going on and a little crime going on as well. Charlene McKenna and Valene Kane are amusing as couple of young women looking to party hard but stumbling into one contretemps after another. Richard Dormer seems light years away from his role of Terri Hooley in Good Vibrations but is equally as good as a henchman haunted by a recent act he has committed. And you will be relieved to know that someone shows up to try to talk Greta off that bridge, and it is none other than Martin McCann, who did an uncanny impersonation of the titular Irish rocker in Killing Bono. All in all, it’s a flick that is involving and engaging and a lot better than some other flicks about New Year’s Eve we could name. (Seen 12 July 2012)

Jungle 2 Jungle 2 out of 4 stars

Monumental events have really dated this Disney family comedy. At the end, a young man boards a flight at JFK with no problem, despite the fact that he is carrying a bow and arrow, a dart gun and a cigarette lighter. The reason for the casual security is clear because every wide shot of the city throughout the movie has included the World Trade Center, where the boy’s father works. The year is 1997, and this is the sort of Disney movie that usually starred Jonathan Taylor Thomas. But a more wiry adolescent was needed to play jungle boy Mimi-Siku, so instead we have the fresh face of Sam Huntington (who would go on to play eager-faced Jimmy Olsen in Superman Returns). This is actually a remake of the French movie Un Indien dans la ville (Little Indian, Big City), but it has been refashioned as a standard Tim Allen comedy, which means we are on the edge of our seats for 105 minutes, wondering (once again) if Tim will finally get his priorities straight and become a responsible father. (Answer: yes, but only after the writers have run out of jokes.) As family comedies go, this is pretty much cookie-cutter, although young Huntington and Leelee Sobieski, as his pubescent love interest, are at least quite engaging. And the ever-reliable Martin Short and Valerie Mahaffey, in supporting roles, help keep the chuckles coming. There’s even what approaches keen-edged social criticism, as the movie depicts its Manhattan denizens as being the kind of people who will throw soirées to save the rainforest but recoil at the thought of getting anywhere near it. But mostly, we get yuks from seeing people scared of big spiders. (Seen 2 July 2011)

The Jungle Book 3 out of 4 stars

The line between live action and animation is finally gone. The only question left is how long until human characters can be animated with enough versimiltude to avoid the uncanny valley effect. Although there is only a single live actor (with a speaking role anyway) in an otherwise computer-generated film, he never looks as though he was cut and pasted on top of the rest of the movie. He (along with the audience) is fully immersed in the tableaux and the action. Once again, Disney has done what it has always done best—using the latest technology to allow us to escape into the filmmakers’ (and our own) imagination. Young Neel Sethi is the perfect Mowgli, surrounded by an impeccable voice cast strangely dominated by American accents, excepting the very British felines. Bill Murray steals the show as the ursine conman Baloo, although Christopher Walken is impressive as a King Louie who eradicates all memories of Louis Prima with a characterization out of a Martin Scorsese movie amid an overt visual homage to Marlon Brando’s turn in Apocalypse Now. Still a rollicking adventure, the photo-realism and the darkness make this a deeper experience than the famous 1967 animated version. Since this is still Disney, however, some things have not changed. Animals are (mostly) benign and humans are (mostly) the source of trouble. Interestingly the 21st century version gets a different ending than the 20th century one. Director Jon Favreau and writer Justin Marks have eschewed the female who lures Mowgli back to his own kind. (Seen 19 June 2016)

Juno 2 out of 4 stars

This, of course, was the sleeper hit of 2007, which set fire to the careers of screenwriter Diablo Cody and director Ivan Reitman. They both got Oscar nominations (she won hers), as did Ellen Page for the title role. The flick also got a nomination for Best Picture (losing to No Country for Old Men). In future years, viewers may wonder what all the fuss was about, but this is one of those watershed movies that takes a constantly moving target (teen culture and mores) and zeroes in on it for a new time and place. The screenplay is the star here and, for good or ill, we are constantly aware of the writing that has gone into it. A bit like a Coen brothers movie, the characters speak with a distinct cadence, not unlike the Disney TV show Rolie Polie Olie. The best thing about the movie is the way it keeps defying our expectations. We are not surprised when Juno changes her mind about aborting her inconvenient pregnancy (informed by an activist as she enters the clinic that her baby already has fingernails, she sees and hears nothing but fingernails in the waiting room), but then we are primed to expect that she will wind up keeping her baby. And when we meet the prospective adoptive parents, we find ourselves liking yuppie-with-a-soul Jason Bateman more than his uptight wife, Jennifer Garner. But all of these impressions stubbornly refuse to conform to movie convention. That is all to the good. It is one of those rare films where nobody is perfect but everyone has his or her sympathetic side. (Seen 1 October 2009)

De Jurk (The Dress) 2 out of 4 stars

This Dutch film by Alex van Warmerdam (Abel) is alternately amusing and unsettlingly. And sometimes simultaneously. The narrative moves continually from one story to another in the manner of Max Ophüls’s 1950 film La Ronde or, more recently, Temistocles Lopez’s Chain of Desire. The thread, as it were, joining all these stories is a summer dress, which we follow from the field where the cotton was picked all the way to its last scrap being obliterated by a lawnmower—plus a brief afterlife in a painting. Nothing good happens to anyone whose life is touched by the dress, and the depressing thing is that most of these people have done nothing to deserve their bad luck. Central to the film is van Warmerdam’s creepy acting turn as a train ticket collector who becomes dangerously obsessed by any woman who wears the dress. This is provocative stuff since we are made to laugh at some definitely politically incorrect stuff. I’m not sure what van Warmerdam’s point is, but it may be a twisted refutation to the notion that women who are assaulted are “asking for it” because the clothing they wear. (Seen 29 May 1997)

Just Like Heaven 2 out of 4 stars

When this flick came out nearly five years ago, it caused a bit of a political stir because its central situation had echoes of the case of Terry Schiavo, the Florida woman in a persistent vegetative state who after much legal wrangling had her feeding tube removed. That probably wasn’t a coincidence. But while the filmmakers clearly weren’t above trading in a bit of free headline-induced publicity, they clearly didn’t set out to make a political tract either. (People who are interested in a serious big screen treatment of the medical dilemma of communicating with someone who seems to be in a coma should seek out Julian Schnabel’s magnificent The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.) Medical jargon here is used for nothing more than to update the old Sleeping Beauty fairy tale which, for good measure, has been married to stories like Blithe Spirit that involve someone who can only be seen by the protagonist. As a supernatural romance, this is by no means the worst of the lot. You only have to compare it to the dreadful Over Her Dead Body to see how badly this sort of thing can go. Mark Ruffalo convinces as a man who has pretty much given up after life deals him a cruel blow. And Reese Witherspoon was tailor made for a perky and over-achieving woman who needs to be saved not only from a premature afterlife but from bypassing her own life altogether. Their achievement is that, despite how mismatched these two are, we come to believe, sort of, that they really could actually work out as a couple. (Seen 13 March 2010)

Just My Luck 2 out of 4 stars

Watching this twentysomething ostensible romantic comedy is a bit like watching one of those Final Destination movies. We are constantly on edge, waiting for something bad to happen to Chris Pine or Lindsay Lohan. The difference is, in this movie we are supposed to laugh instead of be frightened. I know this is billed as Lohan’s first “grown-up” role, but the film has nothing so much as the feeling of a made-for-TV movie on the Disney Channel. It’s harmless enough, but Donald Petrie, who specializes in these kinds of comedies (although sometimes they include actors as old as Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon were in Grumpy Old Men), pretty much uploads a standard template from his blackberry and calls it direction. Still, there is something quaint about a movie old-fashioned enough to expect us believe things like a person’s luck being stolen or a Manhattan where you can find anyone you’re looking for by wandering down the street or that the barely-post-pubescent English rock band McFly would have a career that lasts more than a couple hours. (Seen 11 July 2006)

Justice League 2 out of 4 stars

Despite word of mouth that was not exactly the best, this movie still holds on in at least one Galway cinema a month and a half after its worldwide release. Happily, it was much better than I expected, and I speak as Marvel partisan in the DC/Marvel wars. Still, the phenomenon of DC déjà vu persists. As we saw in Dawn of Justice, Superman is dead, so sadly he will not be part of this re-telling of the Justice League origin story, right? (Snicker, snicker.) Will newly fast friends Batman and Wonder Woman be able to convince newcomers Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg to joint them against the new/ancient planet-conquering menace? The suspense is nerve-rattling. Will each new meeting between super-heroes require a fight before they become friends? Even my list of questions is predictable. What’s a bit surprisingly pleasing is the emphasis on the ancient/mythical nature of the threat and its history with Amazons and Atlanteans, giving the whole thing an unexpected Lord of the Rings feel. Definitely more Tolkien than George R.R. Martin, despite the presence of at least two Game of Thrones vets (Ciarán Hinds as the baddie Steppenwolf, with implicit apologies to Herman Hesse, and Jason Momoa as Aquaman) plus a blink-or-you’ll-miss-him Michael McElhatton as “Black Clad Alpha.” Once again, Wonder Woman is the best thing in the movie, although Ezra Miller, playing Flash as a millennial snowflake for comic relief, is quite entertaining. Momoa is also good, as is Ray Fisher as Cyborg in a more limiting role. The portrayal of Batman when doing his action-figure shtick is okay, but Ben Affleck is still not really my cup of tea as Bruce Wayne. On the other hand, it’s great to see veteran actors like J.K. Simmons, Joe Morton and Jeremy Irons getting a big paycheck after putting in years for their art. Irons, in particular, delivers every line impeccably, though he is clearly working mostly alone in a studio with probably no clue—or perhaps interest—how any of it fits into the larger movie. One thing you can say about director Zak Snyder, he knows how to compose visually impressive comic-book-style frames. Still, the heavy reliance on CGI—plus the find-the-three-boxes-plotline—make this very much a video game of a movie. Not exactly great literature, but still scoring higher than I had hoped. And this time there is actually a reason to stick around until the end of the credits. (Seen 3 January 2018)

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