Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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Scott R. Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France
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L.A. Confidential 2 out of 4 stars

An entertaining cross between Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables and Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, L.A. Confidential evokes the good old days when cops in Los Angeles didn’t need search warrants, could accept payoffs, and didn’t have to worry about being videotaped when they beat up a member of a minority community. Director Curtis Hanson (The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and The River Wild) uses post-war Los Angeles as a setting more effectively than most modern movies, and actually develops some characters before letting all hell break loose bullets- and blood-wise. His all-American cops include non-Americans Guy Pearce (who looked great in a dress in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) as the anal-retentive eagle scout and Russell Crowe (Romper Stomper) as the dumb sucker trying to wise up. American-born Kevin Spacey (The Usual Suspects) and James Cromwell (Babe) are, respectively, the star-struck cop and the not-exactly-by-the-book chief. (Seen 18 October 1997)

L.I.E. 2 out of 4 stars

Being 15 years old is tricky enough, but poor Howie has more to contend with than most other boys. His mother was killed in a car crash (on the titular Long Island Expressway). His father’s bereavement has dovetailed with his kinky midlife crisis—when the feds aren’t after him for criminal negligence. Howie’s new best friend is a parent’s worst nightmare of bad influence. Oh yeah, and Howie has attracted the attention of a pederast. This film by Michael Cuesta is a stark and largely realistic view of adolescent alienation, in the tradition of Jonathan Kaplan’s Over the Edge and Larry Clark’s Kids. The good news is that this is ultimately a movie about survival. But you are never quite sure exactly where it is heading along the way. It gives every indication of being about sexual initiation, but isn’t—which makes its NC-17 rating in America kind of strange. (It is, however, clearly about sexual awakening.) The pedophile (played by veteran Scottish-born actor Brian Cox) is the most provocative thing about the movie. On one hand, the film may be performing a service by showing that such people can’t be spotted easily by the horns on their head. On the other hand, it risks giving the impression that chicken hawks are actually pretty nice guys. [Related commentary] (Seen 1 November 2001)

La La Land 3 out of 4 stars

When a movie has been honored with so many glowing reviews, award nominations and actual awards before most of us have even had an opportunity to see it, the question becomes less how good it really is and more why so many people connected to the industry—and of course actual general audiences—like it so darned much. Is it really LA-insider navel gazing? Maybe a bit, but it is clearly mostly the fact that the themes and aesthetic are truly and honestly in writer/director Damien Chazelle’s heart. The movie may be mostly surface and gloss and sheen, but that would not make up for a lack of heart, and this flick has heart in spades. The story is standard-issue Hollywood musical. The main characters have names, but they may as well just be called “the guy” and “the girl.” They are more archetypes than fully fleshed-out human beings, but this does not matter because they are not only real enough to work but, by the end, they have become stand-ins for us. By the way, the archetype comment refers strictly to the writing and not the performances. Emma Stone in particular conveys magnificently the frustration and anguish of repeatedly putting oneself out there and getting knocked down. The movie begins with such a knock-out production number on a glorious LA sunshine-baked freeway that we wonder how it can possibly be topped for the necessary strong ending. It turns out that the ending is a knock-out in its own different way—an emotional wallop for anybody who has ever dreamed about rewinding the tape and playing our life and love over. (And I think that includes pretty much all of us over the age of, say, maybe fifteen.) The overall candy-colored, neon, retro vision is pretty hard to resist thanks to Linus Sandgren’s cinematography, but the ending is what seals the deal. Woody Allen would never go near this film’s sublime celebration (in a love-hate way) of Southern California, but it is hard for me not to think that La La Land is not only the movie Allen wishes he made when he made Café Society but also the movie he wishes he made when he made Everyone Says I Love You. (Seen 19 February 2017)

Lady and the Tramp 3 out of 4 stars

By the end of the 1960s it was fashionable to dismiss Disney’s output as family friendly to the point of blandness. So it is a little surprising to see how much innuendo was actually woven into this 1955 animated feature, the studio’s first in CinemaScope. Of course, it goes right over the heads of kids, but it’s there, in this tale of childbirth, courtship and then puppy birth. Even the very title is a jokey reworking of a popular song about a woman of questionable reputed virtue. The suggestiveness peaks in a dog pound scene wherein a worldly woman of a dog named Peg sings a sultry tribute to the titular Tramp. Peg is voiced by the immortal Peggy Lee, who also wrote the lyrics for the movie’s songs. She also voiced the roles of Lady’s female owner and the two Siamese cats who torment the cocker spaniel. In this more politically correct age, that twin portrayal of cats, with Hollywood Asian accents, feels a little uncomfortable, and it definitely made an impression on me as a youngster. (“We are Siamese, if you please…”) Indeed, the movie is replete with stereotyped ethnic portrayals, mostly as anthropomorphic canines. And did a Disney cartoon ever feature a cop who did not have a stage Irish accent? It’s not so much mean-spirited as a bit provincial. Still, this story of the travails of two mismatched pooches is charming, if a bit simple by today’s standards. But it’s all the more satisfying for it. In fact, it was such a good story that Disney has continued to tell the same story over and over (cf. The Aristocats, One Hundred and One Dalmatians plus remake plus sequels, etc.). (Seen 25 February 2006)

Lady Bird 3 out of 4 stars

In her solo directing debut (she co-helmed Nights and Weekends with Joe Swanberg nine years ago), Greta Gerwig draws heavily on her own biography. The setting is her own home town of Sacramento, the main character attends a Catholic high school, as Gerwig did, and the parents have the same jobs as her own parents. Make what you will of the fact that her teen protagonist has the same name as Gerwig’s mother (Christine). Most notably, though, Golden Globe winner Saoirse Ronan’s performance evokes uncannily the screen persona we have come to associate with Gerwig so spot-on. One wonders if Gerwig’s directing career will consist of personal films in which the lead is always a thinly veiled version of herself à la Woody Allen. It is certainly possible to see 2012’s Frances Ha, which Gerwig co-wrote with Noah Baumbach, as a continuation of Christine’s story. As for Ronan, it is eerie for me personally to see this young actor with the down-to-earth classic Dublin accent, whom I have watched grow up on screen, so convincingly play a teen denizen of my own Central Valley. The themes are all very familiar—the youthful desire for a bigger better world, the testing of boundaries, inexperienced romantic crushes and, most prominently, the friction between mother and daughter that inevitably turns into a test of wills. The cast is uniformly well chosen and impressive, particularly Laurie Metcalf and Tracy Letts as the well-meaning but struggling parents. Also very good are Beanie Feldstein, as the best friend Christine thoughtlessly thinks she is outgrowing, and Timothée Chalamet, as the cool kid who seems to have it all together but really has no more clue than anyone else. The plot arc may be somewhat predictable, but that does not make it feel any less real or cause it to carry any less of an emotional punch by the end. Mostly, this movie makes us glad we are not teenagers anymore and, even more, eager to see additional movies written and/or directed by Greta Gerwig. (Seen 15 January 2018)

The Lair of the White Worm 3 out of 4 stars

Even back in 1988 when this movie came out, it was delightfully old-fashioned. It carried us back to the good old days when a horror movie was about a mysterious house in the English countryside where all sorts of nefarious things were waiting to be discovered by some unfortunate interloper. Too much fun and, frankly, too funny to be truly scary, the movie soundly entertained back then, and it still does. And today it has the added benefit of being a virtual time capsule of early performances by actors who have since become very well known to us. A very young Hugh Grant starred here a year after being noticed in both White Mischief and Maurice. And as the young archaeologist whose discovery sets the story in motion we have our current Doctor Who, Peter Capaldi, five years after his turn in Local Hero. As one of the two B&B proprietress sisters hosting Capaldi, Catherine Oxenberg was already familiar to U.S. audiences for her role on Dynasty. And as the rather limber and uninhibited noblewoman who seduces victims in a most serpertine way, Amando Donohoe would soon be seen stateside as a regular on L.A. Law. The best part of the movie is the banter, especially between Grant at his most youthfully patrician and the supremely aristocratic Donohoe. The words were written by the film’s director, the late lamented Ken Russell, ostensibly adapting a story by Bram Stoker, during a very busy period in the filmmaker’s career. (In addition to this, he also made Gothic, Salome’s Last Dance and The Rainbow within a four-year period.) While this can be seen as a bit of fun fluff in Russell’s oeuvre, it is clearly his work. Witness the hallucination scenes involving disturbing religious and sexual imagery (more than a bitreminiscent of The Devils) and the way Russell milks the phallic implications of the running snake theme in every way possible short of actually disinterring Sigmund Freud himself. (Seen 5 December 2014)

Laissez-passer (Safe Conduct) 2 out of 4 stars

The title of this film refers specifically to a document that allows the bearer to be out on the streets during curfew under the German occupation of Paris in 1942. This is a very handy thing for a Frenchman to have, especially is he is doing his best to help the underground resistance. But the song over the closing credits with the refrain laissez passer le temps signals other senses of the phrase, which evoke a sense of resignation. The director is the renowned Bertrand Tavernier, and as with another war film he made, also based on actual events, Captain Conan, the movie refuses to follow what Hollywood has trained us to expect from a World War II movie. In a rambling three-hour story, we follow two Frenchmen involved in filmmaking under the German occupation. Jean Devaivre decides reluctantly to work for a German-owned film company and takes the opportunity to engage in espionage whenever he can. Jean Aurenche refuses to work for the Germans and instead does his best to get words encouraging resistance past the censors and into his movies—while at the same time, in the best French tradition, doing his best to stay faithful to all three of his three mistresses. Although the movie displays potential for being a thriller, it is mainly suspenseful in the way that the film Julia was. There is an amusing/absurd episode where Devaivre is drafted spontaneously into an overnight train and plane journey to be interrogated by the British, but mostly we get a view of Paris life under the occupation and the ingenuity filmmakers needed in order to make movies under wartime conditions. And we also get a thoughtful examination of the internal conflicts that the French dealt with in terms of how much to cooperate with their occupiers. (Seen 13 October 2002)

The Lake House 2 out of 4 stars

Most of us have had that experience of a relationship that didn’t work out and, if we are being philosophical, we might shrug and say that the timing just wasn’t right. Sometimes we get a second chance, and a relationship that didn’t work out in one period of our lives does work out in a later period. Again, we explain it by saying that the timing just wasn’t right the first time. This fantasy/romance, directed by Argentine filmmaker Alejandro Agresti and based on a South Korean movie, makes a fair attempt at capturing that sense of disjointed time between two people by imagining the stars of Speed being literally out of sync time-wise. I suppose the studio backers were going for a teary chick flick in the vein of Somewhere in Time, but the pace here is disastrously slow—not because there is something wrong with a languid pace in telling a romantic story but because it gives us way too much time to think about all the illogical aspects of the story. Maybe it’s just my analytical mind, but I’m personally less inclined to get caught up in the “timing was just wrong” thing and more interested in the “if I knew then what I know now” thing. The Lake House is pretty much designed people like me crazy. (Seen 25 November 2006)

Lamerica 3 out of 4 stars

Back when I was involved in broadcasting the International News on KRAB radio, we had a running joke about Enver Hoxha. He was the xenophobic dictator of Albania who sealed his country off from the rest of the world for decades. Hardly anybody got in or out. Well, now with the Fall of Communism, Albania was opened up a couple of years ago, and as you can imagine the victorious capitalists can’t wait to get in and develop a new market. In Lamerica, the West is represented by a couple of Italians who go in to set up a shoe factory scam. Since the law requires that the enterprise’s titular head be Albanian, they dig up an old codger who has been in a political prison for half a century and who has no family. Through a strange chain of events, the yuppie younger Italian winds up on a journey with the old man who turns out to have more in common with him than he could have imagined. By the end of the film, their odyssey becomes confused in the mind of the old man (an 80-year-old former fisherman in his acting debut) with a long ago dream of sailing to America. Meanwhile, the formerly confident younger man learns just how close we all are to refugee status. (Seen 5 June 1996)

Land and Freedom 2 out of 4 stars

This film by Ken Loach sort of pretends to be the story of a war-time romance set against the background of the idealistic struggle of left and right in 1930s Spain. But it’s really Loach’s own take on the Spanish Civil War and the real reason the good guys lost, using an English character as the viewer’s surrogate observer. David (Ian Hart, for once playing someone other than John Lennon; he was in both The Hours and the Times and Backbeat) is a gung-ho Communist Party member from Liverpool who decides to head to Barcelona to help the Loyalists defend the Spanish republic against Franco’s rebels. Matching the rightists as villains, however, is the Stalinist Communist Party which controls the International Brigades and seemingly spends more time liquidating leftist rivals than in fighting the common enemy. The film is played largely in a pseudo-documentary style that peaks near the middle with an extended discussion of the pros and cons of land collectivization that almost seems improvised. (Seen 8 May 1996)

Land of Plenty 3 out of 4 stars

Wim Wenders made this flick quickly and cheaply in 2004 when his financing for Don’t Come Knocking fell apart. At the risk of sounding all New Age, it must have been For A Reason. What could be better than seeing the German director of Paris, Texas take on America in the aftermath of 9/11? And it gets better for me because the film’s metaphysical journey actually leads to a part of the country that I know—the California desert. Wenders views the post-9/11 U.S. through the eyes of two characters. Michelle Williams (Dawson’s Creek, Brokeback Mountain) plays the 20-year-old daughter of missionaries, who returns to the States after living most of her life abroad, most recently as a peace activist in Palestine. John Diehl (Zito on Miami Vice), looking strangely like Steven Seagal, is her uncle, who drives around L.A. in a beat-up van, on a one-man crusade to prevent the next terrorist attack, while listening to AM talk radio. Clearly, Diehl’s character was conceived more or less as a cartoon, but something interesting happened while Wenders worked on the story with collaborators Scott Derrickson and Michael Meredith. He came to have sympathy for Diehl’s right-wing character, so in the end this is a story about reconciliation rather than a blue-state-vs.-red-state diatribe. The plot has Diehl and Williams make a journey out to (of all places) the desert town of Trona, where Diehl expects to find some sort of stockpiling of dangerous substances by a terrorist cell. (Anybody see a metaphor here?) The result is a portrait of America that emphasizes its blighted urban landscapes and desolate stretches. But it ends with an idealized conversation across political divides that too rarely seems to happen in actual public discourse. This isn’t the classic that Wings of Desire or Paris, Texas is, but there are enough touches of both to make this a movie well worth experiencing. (Seen 22 February 2007)

Lantana 3 out of 4 stars

The title is the name of a plant that is lovely on the surface but dense and thorny underneath. Kind of like the marriages portrayed in this Australian movie. In the opening, we peer through the thick vegetation to see a woman’s body, and from that point on we wait to find out who she is and what happened to her. It’s a bit like the Swedish film The Last Dance. The movie, directed by Ray Lawrence and adapted by Andrew Bovell from his play Speaking in Tongues, pretends to be a police mystery, but don’t be fooled, guys. This is A Relationship Movie. Be warned: more than one grown male character breaks into a huge sobbing fit. Anthony LaPaglia has the biggest role, and he reminds us that he can do way more than play a comically loutish Brit, as he has done a few times on Frasier. Most of the film is depressing, as we watch married couples fail to connect, numb themselves with affairs and glasses of whiskey, and basically confirm one character’s observation that “women want men to share everything and men have to hold something back.” But by the end, something unforeseen happens. A senseless tragedy brings people to their senses, kind of like The Ice Storm, and we think that maybe there is hope after all. Single viewers may come away relieved that they are not married. But married viewers will run home and hug their spouses. In a strange way, this is like the Harold Pinter version of It’s a Wonderful Life. (Seen 4 February 2002)

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider 2 out of 4 stars

Somewhere near the middle of this movie, Lara Croft makes a quick dash from England to Cambodia just in time to catch her nemesis in the process of violating an ancient temple in search of an artifact that will help give him the powers more or less of God. As she surveys the scene, Lady Lara purrs, to no one in particular, “Mr. Powell. How predictable.” Exactly. This cookie-cutter version of an action/adventure movie is as devoid of surprises as, well, as a video game that has been played over and over. Everything seems borrowed not just from better action/adventure movies but from better action/adventure franchises. Lara’s work life is reminiscent of Indiana Jones. Her home life smacks of Bruce Wayne. Her lithe and aristocratic figure seems calculated to remind us of The Avengers’s Emma Peel. Which leads me to the kindest thing I can say about the film: it is still a definite cut above the disastrous 1998 Avengers film adaptation. But so many of the conventions and plot devices the film lifts are by now so old and musty, it gives the title Tomb Raider a whole new resonance. On the positive side, Angelina Jolie looks better than any other action hero I can think of in hot pants. And it is fun to see Chris Barrie, who has played the obnoxious Rimmer for several seasons on BBC’s Red Dwarf series, here more or less playing the Kryten role as Lara’s loyal Alfred-like butler. (Seen 7 July 2001)

Larga Distancia 1 out of 4 stars

Roy is the kind of guy who doesn’t talk much, believes it’s important to return home from vacation on time and, when the girl tells him it’s a good deal to “super size” his fast food meal, he says sure. In other words, he’s boring. Unfortunately, he’s the main focus of this first-time directing effort by Greg Smith who, as it happens, also plays Roy. A sort of noirish road movie set in Baja California, Larga Distancia tends to be as tedious as, say, the drive from Tijuana to La Paz. In the course of his journey through Baja, Roy hooks up with Crystal, a sort of Parker Posey clone, and the verbal sparring between them is supposed to carry the movie. Unfortunately, the weak script and long dead patches make the film way too unwieldy for any of the cast to carry. The biggest surprise is a near-amusing cameo by Scott Glenn. (Seen 11 July 1998)

Last Chance Harvey 2 out of 4 stars

If any major American actor cannot appear in a wedding scene without bringing a lot of resonance with him, it’s Dustin Hoffman. The climactic scene of The Graduate has made sure of that. But four decades have gone by since then, and Hoffman is a whole different presence. But he still has that hangdog stare and look of bewilderment on his face, but now his gaze is looking back (instead of uncertainly looking forward) and wondering how his life got to where it is. There is not a lot of suspense, even in the very first scenes, as to where this movie is headed, so it depends crucially on the performances of its two stars—and they deliver. We believe that Hoffman perpetually feels awkward and out of place. The wonderful Emma Thompson has a harder time making us think that she is not immediately the center of attention in any room she enters. While it may not sound like much of a recommendation, the film really captures that feeling of being in a room where everybody seems to be enjoying each other’s company except you. The high point is a poignant and ultimately uplifting scene played at Hoffman’s daughter’s wedding reception. The bride’s stepfather is played by James Brolin, and that has to be some kind of in joke, since Hoffman played Barbra Streisand’s husband in Meet the Fockers. Nice work is turned in by all involved, including Kathy Baker (who seems to have aged into Olympia Dukakis) as Hoffman’s ex and Eileen Atkins as Thompson’s needy mum, who has a strange Rear Window thing going on—as well as writer/director Joel Hopkins. (Seen 10 June 2009)

The Last Days of Disco 2 out of 4 stars

This fills a longtime hole in my completionist goals when it comes to Whit Stillman movies. Admittedly, seeing all of this writer/director’s films was never a particularly daunting challenge; after all, there are only four. But somehow I missed this one when it came out in 1998. It says something about Stillman’s niche that this is the first of his films that I didn’t see at a film festival (Metropolitan and Barcelona at Seattle’s and Damsels in Distress at Dublin’s) and, hence, the first time I’ve seen a film of his without him in person to introduce it. In other words, Stillman isn’t pitching to the multiplex crowd. I always enjoy visiting this director’s world. It’s a place where everyone is young, thoughtful, articulate and genuinely searching for meaning in their lives. (Did I mention this wasn’t pitched to the multiplex crowd?) One also gets the feeling that his stories (not that his movies are particularly plot driven) have a healthy autobiographical element. It turns out that Stillman was big into disco in the Studio 54 days, and he performs a minor miracle in that he makes those of us who never warmed up to disco music or the whole disco scene actually understand the attraction of the phenomenon to young single adults of the 1980s. Maybe think of it as a white collar variation on Saturday Night Fever without the big production numbers. Stillman always goes for the brain more than the heart, so there is no big emotional gush. Still there is a nicely bittersweet elegiac tone as the passing of an era is observed. The cast is top-notch (and more than a little attractive), led by Chloë Sevigny (just before her breakthrough in Boys Don’t Cry) and Kate Beckinsale (three years before Pearl Harbor and five years before her first Underworld movie). (Seen 25 June 2012)

The Last Detail 2 out of 4 stars

A blast from the early 1970s, this is a somewhat depressing movie featuring characters that we either pity or just plain don’t like. Part of a Galway Film Fleadh tribute to screenwriter Robert Towne, the movie earned Oscar nominations for him and actors Jack Nicholson and Randy Quaid. The director was Hal Ashby. It is a well-observed portrait of lifers in the Navy and how a particular job (escorting a prisoner to serve his sentence) touches their hearts and fuels their cynicism. The joys of viewing it today are in seeing Nicholson at his prime, displaying his genius for characters with short fuses, and for seeing familiar faces in early roles. It is hard to believe that Quaid was once so young on screen he could pass for an 18-year-old. Also looking impossibly fresh-faced are Carol Kane, in a stand-out role as a young whore, and Michael Moriarty. And the heart breaks to get a glimpse of a very young Gilda Radner in one brief scene. The film is very much of its time, and yet it still stands up today. In fact, given that we seem to be reliving the 1970s these days anyway, it just might be newly relevant. One fun mind game to play: imagine that Nicholson is a younger version of the same character he played in Rob Reiner’s A Few Good Men. (Seen 12 July 2006)

The Last King of Scotland 3 out of 4 stars

Frankly, there is something distasteful about a movie that takes the relatively recent real-life tragedy of Uganda under Idi Amin’s regime and turns it into a backdrop for a movie thriller about a fictional white Westerner. But, if you can get past that (and the critics generally seem to have), then this movie by Kevin Macdonald, who previously weaved true life and dramatic reenactment to marvelous effect in Touching the Void, does provide not only an effective entertainment but also an important history lesson of sorts. Very convincing in their respective roles are the deservedly lauded Forest Whitaker, in the title role, and James McAvoy (last seen as a faun in The Chronicles of Narnia) as the adventurous young Scotsman, practicing his medical skills in Africa as a bit of a politically correct lark. The unlikely relationship that develops between the two is not unlike that between Jack Nicholson and Leonard DiCaprio in The Departed. As a suspense thriller and, ultimately, horror piece, the movie delivers all too well. If, in addition, it serves a worthwhile purpose, beyond reminding or informing movie audiences of what went on in Uganda in the 1970s, it is also to spotlight Western arrogance in dealing with Africa. There is a suggestion that Amin was essentially a creation of British post-colonial policies (in the form of an English spook, who looks unsettlingly like Paul Wolfowitz), but what is really devastating is the portrayal of McAvoy’s glibly liberal character who, early on, is all too willing to overlook Amin’s ruthless and anti-democratic actions because he is charismatic and pushes all the right rhetorical buttons—including bashing the English. (Seen 1 February 2007)

The Last Movie 1 out of 4 stars

This almost was the last movie for Dennis Hopper. It is a very Sixties movie and looks like Hopper was probably doing a lot of substances while making it. Hopper made it right after Easy Rider, but Universal Studios killed it, so no one ever saw it. Now Hopper owns the rights to it, so he made us watch it before his tribute. It is about a Hollywood crew shooting a cowboy movie in Peru (sort of an empanada western) and the effect it has on the locals. They begin imitating the Americans, except when they do it, the cameras and mikes are fake and the violence is real. Lots of cameos by Hopper’s friends, like Peter Fonda and Kris Kristofferson. Director Hopper did his best to blur the line between reality and film. I can see why it didn’t get a real release, but I’m glad I saw it. (Seen 31 May 1987)

Last Night 3 out of 4 stars

An On the Beach for the 1990s, Last Night is a darkly funny and strangely touching tale of planet earth’s final hours. It is written and directed by the multi-talented Don McKellar, who has had supporting roles in many Canadian films, including The Red Violin, which he also co-wrote. McKellar gives himself the lead role here as a somewhat cynical thirtysomething more or less determined to spend his last hours alone. If you have ever thought about what that final day would be like—assuming that the exact day and time of the world’s demise was known well in advance—this vision of a relentlessly sunny, partying Toronto may not be exactly what you had in mind. Not only do people not seem particularly panicked, but the Big Day seems to have become some sort of communal holiday, kind of like the Super Bowl. Just about every Canadian you care about is here, from Sarah Polley to David Cronenberg to Geneviève Bujold as the high school French teacher you always had a crush on and, hey, since this is the last day anyway, maybe just maybe… Of course, in the end, what this movie is about is life as we know it right now since, for all we know, any night could be The Last Night. (Seen 25 May 1999)

The Last Picture Show 3 out of 4 stars

Thanks to the writing of Larry McMurtry, we have gotten to know quite a few Texas characters on the big and small screens, as diverse as the ones in Hud, Terms of Endearment and Lonesome Dove. Some of the most indelible are the ones in The Last Picture Show, which he adapted from his own novel. It also happens to be the movie that put Peter Bogdanovich on the map back in 1971. In hindsight, Bogdanovich filmed this somewhat bleak story of young people in a windy, dusty Texas town dying on the vine with such artistic detachment that it nearly could have been made by one of any number of European directors, who ironically have a keener eye for true Americana than the natives do. This is probably because Bogdanovich hailed from New York state and not Texas. But despite the visual style, there is something authentic about its characters and story. At the time, people like me were impressed by the way Cybill Shepherd took off her clothes in the swimming pool scene. Now we are impressed by how good she was in an unsympathetic role. Also standing out were Ellen Burstyn, as Shepherd’s totally bored mother, and Eileen Brennan as the tough-talking waitress/cook with a soft spot for everyone. The film’s two Oscars for supporting actors were particularly well deserved. Cloris Leachman, as the coach’s wife who finds happiness with student Tim Bottoms, is great, essentially playing the dark flip side of her character on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. She made us jump out of our seats when she threw that coffee pot against the wall. And Ben Johnson is the heart and soul of this film. As Sam the Lion, he is the father to every kid in town needing a father figure. Seemingly, the only businessman in town, the place can’t long survive without him, and it’s easy to see why. (Seen 26 February 2004)

The Last September 1 out of 4 stars

Yet another movie about hyphenated English aristocracy getting kicked out of a foreign land that doesn’t want them (this time Ireland) and one featuring the wonderfully imperious Maggie Smith, The Last September causes us to wonder whether this won’t turn out to be something that could be called Tea with de Valera. The subject of how the Anglo-Irish coped with the last days of direct British rule in Ireland’s 26 southern counties could make a fascinating film. Unfortunately, the operative word here is could. Director Deborah Warner’s adaptation of Elizabeth Bowen’s novel reduces the situation to an ambiguous love triangle involving a young woman, a soldier and a terrorist/freedom fighter in County Cork in 1920. We get a sketchy portrait of a people who are at once comfortable and uncomfortable with the true Irish and the true English, but we never get to feel like we truly know anyone in this movie. Fine actors like Smith, Michael Gambon and Fiona Shaw are easy enough to watch, but we never know what the point of watching is. The direction attempts to be artful in places, but it only serves to draw attention to itself rather than serve the story. If the English and the Anglo-Irish were really this annoying, then it’s no wonder they weren’t welcome on the Emerald Isle. (Seen 6 May 2000)

The Last Song 2 out of 4 stars

This is about the special love and bond between a father and daughter. And that’s how I got dragged to a Miley Cyrus movie. In fairness, however, this is a perfectly decent little movie, aimed as it is at the teen and young adult market. I suspect that Cyrus has the chops to be a fine actor, but here she is required to do little more than give the sort of sullen looks that come as second nature to many females her age. Greg Kinnear, as her father, gives a fine and understated performance in the role that has to make you go for your hanky. And Bobby Coleman, carrying a huge burden for a child his age, breaks your heart. In the end, however, Liam Hemsworth has the hardest job, making a hunky, volleyball-playing, mechanic, aquarium-working, turtle-egg-saving, Tolstoy-quoting-in-the-original-Russian potential love interest seem like he’s not too good to be true. While never seeming too busy or rushed, this movie has enough plot strands to keep one of those CW network teen soaps going for more than half a season. Cynics might feel a little manipulated or pandered to, but it’s not the worst way to spend a couple of hours with your daughter or your father or (probably more likely) your boyfriend or girlfriend. (Seen 21 May 2010)

Late Bloomers 1 out of 4 stars

Late Bloomers has many funny moments and even some touching ones. But it’s ultimately undone by all its inconsistencies, particularly the pull-out-all-the-stops feel-good ending that requires too many characters to have a sudden change in attitude. The story takes place in a suburban high school where Dinah, a geometry teacher and basketball coach, and Carly, the school secretary, fall in love. Unfortunately, we are asked to see Carly’s husband as a jerk because he gets upset that his wife of many years and the mother of his two children suddenly decides she wants to leave him. (The fact that he’s boring seems to the justification for the desertion.) Then we’re asked to believe that he suddenly comes around and happily blesses the couple when they decide to have a wedding. If the filmmakers (sisters Julia and Gretchen Dyer) are hoping to reach out to a straight audience with this demonstration of true love, I’m afraid that the lesbian wedding episode of Friends actually did a better job. That aside, the observations on high school life are quite amusing. Nice touches include the school’s reader board (which displays a series corny homilies that seem to comment on the film’s action) and the fact that the couple look as Mary Richards and Rhoda might in middle age. (Seen 30 May 1996)

Lautrec 2 out of 4 stars

The word that this lively and colorful French biography brings to mind is: rollicking. From the beginning scenes of the birth of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec to his death and funeral at age 37, we are swept along at a breakneck pace by colors, light, music, dancing, and laughter. Writer/director Roger Planchon’s film is essentially a two-hour party, celebrating the carefree, bohemian life of the post-Impressionists in Paris’s notorious Montmarte during the Gay Nineties. Deformed and stunted by two broken legs in adolescence combined with a congenital calcium deficiency (his parents were first cousins; someone describes him as the “last dribble” of a very old, aristocratic family), Toulouse-Lautrec overcompensated with an outsize joy of life and prodigious artistic creation. Looking at Henri and his wild artist friends on the eve of the year 1900, one old coot remarks that things don’t look good for the twentieth century. That should give us hope today for the twenty-first. This movie will inevitably make a fascinating double bill with John Huston’s 1952 Moulin Rouge. (Seen 19 May 1999)

Laws of Attraction 2 out of 4 stars

This is the kind of movie where I keep finding my attention wandering because I keep thinking about who should have been cast in the lead roles. Julianne Moore is simply too good at playing the tough-exterior/insecure-inside divorce lawyer who protests too much that she isn’t interested in dating and marriage. She is so convincing that we really don’t care how things turn out for her. This is more of a Meg Ryan role, but that wouldn’t work either because Tom Hanks would have been all wrong for the male lead. Pierce Brosnan is actually pretty good as her adversary/suitor, although even when he is supposed to be unkempt he still looks stylish. Frances Fisher is more than game as Moore’s mother, whose social and cosmetic surgery schedule are way too busy for her to get around to her long-overdue midlife crisis. In the end, this flick’s story is just plain silly. After a few reels of predictable rom com developments, things suddenly move to Ireland, where filming was being done anyway, to take advantage of tax breaks. It’s as though the filmmakers had used up all the romantic comedy clichés faster than expected and so decided to pad with major Ireland clichés as well. Director Peter Howitt did much better with Sliding Doors and at least had more fun with questionable material in AntiTrust. Laws of Attraction is clearly meant to evoke Hepburn and Tracy, but its job would be easier if similar material hadn’t been recently done a whole lot better by the Coen brothers in Intolerable Cruelty. (Seen 12 May 2004)

A Leap of Faith 3 out of 4 stars

Please do not confuse this documentary with the Steve Martin film of a few years ago about evangelists. This Leap of Faith was a five-year project by two Americans (with Irish roots) in which they documented the formation and first year of an integrated primary school in Belfast. The film, with narration by Liam Neeson, is extremely clear and even-handed in providing background on the “troubles” in Northern Ireland, noting the extent to which the Protestant and Catholic communities have become segregated. A major factor/result of this is near-total segregation of the educational system. In the hope of furthering peace, some parents have taken the initiative to form primary schools that strive for a mix of religious backgrounds. Once established, these schools are subsidized by the government, but getting to that point can be quite daunting. Consequently, to date only a very small percentage of Northern Ireland children attend integrated schools. As we see in Jenifer McShane and Tricia Regan’s film, however, the results are inspiring. This is underscored by the fact that the film spans a period including some of the worst violence of the conflict to the declaration of a ceasefire by para-military groups. (Seen 4 June 1996)

Leap Year 1 out of 4 stars

I should have liked this movie better. (Everyone should have.) It is, after all, nearly my own personal story in reverse. For the record, the Missus actually did propose to me on Leap Day—for all the good it did her at the time. Anyway, the setup here is that Amy Adams is a Boston woman who, tired of waiting for her longtime boyfriend to propose and, upon hearing a quaint family story from her father (a don’t-blink-or-you’ll miss-him John Lithgow), decides spontaneously to follow her man to Dublin to propose to him on February 29. Tragically, her plans go awry when the airplane passes through a time-space portal into a parallel universe where St. Patrick’s Day greeting cards are reality. Never mind that she winds up trying to get to Dublin from Cardiff by boat going through Cork but is re-directed to Dingle (look at a map and try to figure it out yourself), but it adds insult to injury that there is no sign of any of the many fine roads the Irish government has built while it was in the process of going broke. Normally, I have a high tolerance for Irish caricatures. In fact, I enjoy them because they annoy so many Irish people so much. But leading man Matthew Goode fails at the critical task of being more appealing than the man we know Adams is going to dump. Goode is normally quite fine at playing English twits (cf. Match Point, Brideshead Revisited, Cemetery Junction), but here he is simply like someone posh trying to affect the rough, laid-back charm exhibited by so many young Irishmen. I kept rooting for that nice American cardiologist, even though I kept thinking he could probably do better. (Seen 27 February 2011)

Leave It to Beaver 2 out of 4 stars

The main problem with the new Leave It to Beaver movie is this: When I watched the original TV series Wally, Eddie and Lumpy were all several years older than me. But in this flick they are mere children! That aside, this latest recycled-from-an-old-TV-show big-screen movie at least goes a bit easier on the ironic, camp, self-referential humor of the tiresome Brady Bunch movies. Beaver plays more like a John Hughes kiddie comedy and at first seems to be more based on Dennis the Menace. The actors playing Ward, Wally and the Beav turn in eerily accurate impersonations. Janine Turner is no Barbara Billingsley, but we can understand why Ward would be turned on by the sight of her vacuuming in pearls. Ironically Eddie Haskell, the one character who in the original series was way ahead of his time, here seems the most anachronistic. His self-conscious bad-boy posturing actually makes him endearing—especially when compared to the story’s real villains, two older delinquents who seem to have come from a totally different movie. Appropriately, the director of this mishmash of classic old sitcom plots is Home Improvement director Andy Cadiff. Is it any wonder that Tim Allen’s TV show seems to be Ward and June’s favorite? (Seen 22 August 1997)

Leaving Las Vegas 2 out of 4 stars

Someday Hollywood might remake this movie as a light comedy with Bill Pullman and call it While You Were Drinking. But in the meantime, we have this depressing but strangely affecting film by Mike Figgis about an alcoholic screenwriter (Nicolas Cage) who decides to drink himself to death. It is based on a novel by John O’Brien who, as it happens, drank himself to death. The film gives Cage the opportunity for a tour de force acting turn, and he makes the most of it—winning himself a Golden Globe in the process. Anyone who has been close to an alcoholic will see the truth in his performance. More problematic is Elisabeth Shue’s role (lightyears away from her work in Adventures in Babysitting and Back to the Future) which progresses from a too-good-to-be-true hooker with a heart of gold to playing Mary Magdalene to Cage’s alcoholic Christ figure. Don’t know if I would choose this flick for a first date, but it is fun to watch for familiar faces and names in the smaller roles. (Seen 26 January 1996)

The Lemon Drop Kid 2 out of 4 stars

If you have maxed out on the usual Christmas movies like It’s a Wonderful Life and White Christmas, you could do worse than to drag out this 1951 Bob Hope comedy. Drawn from the stories of Damon Runyon, it features all of his standard touches, including big dumb lugs with colorful nicknames and hearts of gold. Mostly, this is a vehicle for Hope, with all of his trademark wisecracks and double-takes and his finger tugging on his collar. And, frankly, this story was done better twice or more by Frank Capra, who told more or less the same story in 1933’s Lady for a Day and then again in 1961’s A Pocketful of Miracles. This time it is Jane Darwell, as beloved street vendor Nellie Thursday, who needs to be saved. Will the Lemon Drop Kid sell her out to save his own skin? Or will he come through on Christmas Day? Do you even have to ask? The movie is mainly worth remembering for Hope and Marilyn Maxwell strolling through a snowy Big Apple singing the now-standard “Silver Bells,” joined by a cast of Ruyonesque street types, including William Frawley, as Gloomy Willie, who also had a part in the 1934 movie of the same name. (Seen 26 December 2005)

Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events 2 out of 4 stars

As fans of the books by Daniel Handler apparently already knew, this 2004 movie is another one of those “children’s” stories (or series of them) that grabs attention by pretending not to sugarcoat anything and to seek entertainment in personal misfortune (proving that you’re never too young to appreciate a good weepy or soap opera), but in its heart it is still as sentimental as a Lassie movie. The hard part about bringing this kind of children’s literature to the big screen is that you wind up with a lot of scenes with kids looking at and reacting to things—here more so than usual. Having said that, there are some truly stunning visuals in the film—notably a house precariously perched impossibly high on a sea cliff. The morbid storyline also gets a bit of a frisson from the fact that it is directed by Brad Silberling, who seems to have been obsessed with death and loss since his first kids movie, Casper and, especially, his quasi-autobiographical Moonlight Mile. Random thought: if you put enough makeup on either Jim Carrey or Robin Williams, it really doesn’t matter which one is underneath it. The young actors acquit themselves well, especially Liam Aiken, who has been coping with parental onscreen loss since he played the tyke of Susan Sarandon’s cancer-stricken character in Stepmom. (Seen 10 November 2006)

Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man 2 out of 4 stars

With musical/concert documentaries, 90 percent of greatness is simply selecting the right subject. So this film by Lian Lunson (whose previous directing effort was a Willie Nelson TV documentary) is definitely 90 percent of the way there. I can actually remember the exact moment when I first heard Leonard Cohen’s work. It was on a Bakersfield rock station more years ago than I care to remember. The DJ made a big fuss about a song he was about to play. It was called Suzanne and was sung by Noel Harrison. I don’t know if it was the song’s mention of Jesus that excited the DJ or simply the sheer poetry of the lyrics, but I, and probably every other teenager listening, knew that we were hearing something in a completely different category from our usual rock fare. Over the years, many people in the music business have been affected and influenced by Cohen’s work. Lunson’s film preserves a series of 2005 tribute concerts, in which some of Cohen’s most ardent admirers sing his songs. Many are from his native Montreal, with the notable inclusion of Australian Nick Cave. While the performances range from good to very good (especially Rufus Wainwright), we can’t help but wish that the movie focused even more on the life and performances of Cohen. When he finally takes to the stage himself at film’s end, joining U2 in a performance of Tower of Song at New York’s Slipper Room, we wish even more that we had a film of purely Cohen performing. The non-musical segments are nearly undone by endless stretches of Bono and, to a lesser degree, The Edge going on and on in a way that, at best, annoys and, at worst, actually distracts us from the business at hand. But they more or less make up for it with their climactic Slipper Room performance. (Seen 9 October 2006)

Leonard Cohen: Live at the Isle of Wight 1970 3 out of 4 stars

The title says it all. If there are still any repertory cinemas out there that do double features, this would be a great first half of a double bill with Lian Lunson’s Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man, which gives us a good look at the older Cohen. Murray Lerner’s more recent documentary puts us firmly back in the early days, when Cohen was a charismatic troubadour with an acoustic guitar and his now classic songs were still brand new. There is something Dylan-esque about the man we see on screen, as he chats simply and unpretentiously with a massive crowd of more than half a million as if he were performing in modest coffee bar. As the film tells us, things had been ugly at the five-day festival off England’s southern coast. Frustration over admission fees, fences and patrol dogs had caused anarchy to break out and moods to sour. Many of the acts were getting heckled and booed. Context is provided by recent interviews with Kris Kristofferson and Joan Baez, who performed there, as well as his manager and keyboarder Bob Johnston and Judy Collins, who helped Cohen get his start. When Cohen finally performed in the middle the night/early morning, he had the kind of effect on the crowd that births legends. It is an amazing experience to see captured on film. But it is no less impressive to see and hear the young Cohen perform so many of his songs, making us feel as though we are hearing them for the first time. (Seen 7 July 2010)

The Leopard Son 3 out of 4 stars

Real life is often more compelling than art. And sometimes they’re even the same thing. That’s the case with The Leopard Son, a documentary for Discovery Channel Pictures by famed naturalist Hugo van Lawick (who also happens to be married to Jane Goodall). Van Lawick followed and filmed a leopard and her cub for three years in Africa’s Serengeti. He got some amazing footage of the cub’s life nearly from the beginning to its coming of age as an adult. In some ways, the leopard’s story parallels the plot of Disney’s The Lion King, and the tale does not suffer in the least from a lack of song and dance numbers or an evil Uncle Scar. The ending is at once traumatic, touching, and beautiful in a way a Hollywood script writer could only envy. The film is further enhanced by the grandfatherly voice of John Gielgud reading van Lawick’s words and a score by Stewart Copeland (formerly of The Police). This film makes good family fare, although we do see several cute animals become somebody’s lunch. (Seen 5 June 1996)

Lepa Sela Lepo Gore (Pretty Village, Pretty Flame) 3 out of 4 stars

This movie’s title is really more solemn than the film itself. As with movies about the Spanish civil war (cf. Libertarias), you can reasonably figure that films about recent events in the former Yugoslavia will be somewhat depressing. The surprise here is that this war movie is eminently watchable and even entertaining. It is infused with a dark humor (not too mention eastern European absurdity) not unlike Catch-22 or M*A*S*H. And the narrative jumps back and forth through time, not unlike Slaughterhouse-Five. The story focuses on a group of Bosnian Serb soldiers trapped by Moslem forces in an abandoned tunnel. The main protagonist is Milan whom we also see later in a hospital and earlier in his childhood. Before the war, Milan has no enmity toward his Moslem neighbors but fatalistically accepts war as inevitable (as does his Moslem friend Halil). But when his mother is killed by Moslems during the war, he develops a raging hatred. What’s really intriguing about Srdjan Dragojevic’s film, however, is the way that it brings the reality of the war to us in a way that news reports can’t. On seeing this movie that it hits home that the recent Balkan conflict was the first European war fought to rock music and where soldiers drank Coca-Cola from plastic bottles. (Seen 24 May 1997)

Less Than Zero 2 out of 4 stars

In 1985, 21-year-old Bret Easton Ellis (whose future books would include American Psycho) burst on the literary scene with his debut novel, about aimless, amoral, decadent wealthy youth in Los Angeles. They all seemed to be involved in—or children of people involved in—the entertainment business. They were the kind of vacuous minds that would, well, take a searing novel like Ellis’s and make a movie like this. Actually, this is not at all a bad movie (directed by Britain’s Marek Kanievska three years after Another Country), but all that survives from the source book (which, in fairness, was probably un-filmable as written) are a few character names and a dead coyote. Essentially, a story (to the extent that there was a story) about not taking any responsibility becomes a Hollywood flick about learning to step up. Andrew McCarthy (a few months after he ran around with Kim Cattrall in Mannequin) and Jami Gertz (a few months after she fought vampires in The Lost Boys) are fine, and James Spader (three years before Sex, Lies, and Videotape) is surprisingly dark as the evil drug dealer. But it’s no surprise that the standout (a year after he left Saturday Night Live) is Robert Downey Jr. as the dissolute Julian on a downward spiral. A patchwork of charm and sarcasm, the role is tailor-made for the future Tony Stark and Sherlock Holmes. What we have since learned about Downey only adds, in hindsight, an additional layer of authenticity and poignancy. The film is made even more memorable by a great soundtrack that includes The Bangles’ cover of “A Hazy Shade of Winter,” Poison’s “Rock and Roll All Nite” and Roy Orbison’s “Life Fades Away” but, interestingly, not the Elvis Costello song that gave the source novel its title. (Seen 22 October 2012)

Let Me In 3 out of 4 stars

This is where I trash a movie for being one more clueless Hollywood remake of a fine European film. Unfortunately, that plan has two big obstacles: 1) somehow I never managed to see the highly lauded Swedish original (Låt den Rätte Komma in, or Let the Right One In), and 2) writer/director Matt Reeves (best known for Cloverfield) has made a very good movie in his own right. Okay, so maybe I can trash it for being one more vampire movie in a popular culture already overpopulated with bloodsuckers. Well, that plan doesn’t work either because this movie completely eradicated the residual distress I was suffering from having recently sat through both a Twilight movie and an uninspired Twilight parody. This is a vampire flick as art film, and I mean that in the very best sense. The movie is so well made and written and acted that it could have been about anything and still succeeded. If the old system of movie marquees were still in business, the poor fellow with the ladder and the letters, would have had his hands full trying to fit the names Kodi Smit-McPhee and Chloë Grace Moretz up there, but the two young leads turn in powerful performances. Smit-McPhee (best known for The Road) is reminiscent of the young Nicholas Hoult, and Moretz (unforgettable in Kick-Ass) makes you believe that a monster can be irresistibly seductive, especially to a boy entering adolescence. In the end, this movie isn’t really about vampires at all. It’s about how, without realizing it, our paths are molded by our parents. Owen’s mother is barely there. She is always gone or asleep after a few glasses of wine. In other words, she has a liquid addiction. Connect your own dots as to why Owen might feel protective of a female vampire. (Seen 10 November 2010)

Let’s Get Lost 2 out of 4 stars

Three aimless guys and a romantically frustrated woman in a movie more or less about nothing? I guess that makes this the Danish Seinfeld. Actually, that comparison is more apt than you might think. This low-key black-and-white character study derives its humor largely from this crew’s sometime wacky schemes and fetishes and general lack of ambition in the career and romance departments. This is the feature debut of Jonas Elmer and grew out of a short film, which was apparently inspired by the (now ancient) French New Wave. In case you’re wondering, I don’t know if the film’s title was inspired by the song of the same name. That tune doesn’t come up, but an ultra-cool/hip Mark Murphy rendition of the old Steve Allen Standard “This Could Be the Start of Something Big” is used to surprising effect in a sequence involving the lads in a lackadaisical soccer drill that seems choreographed by an understudy of the June Taylor Dancers—a dramatic contrast to the rest of the movie. But it’s not really the start of something big. It’s just the near beginning of something mildly amusing. (Seen 22 May 1999)

Letetet s Rossinant (Fly By Roscinante) 3 out of 4 stars

This Bulgarian film by Georgi Stoev is an homage to an artist of another age. Unfortunately, I did not catch his name or enough details to say who he is and searches on the internet have not turned anything up for me. So what I can tell you is that this is a movie brimming with comedy, music and opera and circus all mixed together. The plot is ostensibly about a Bulgarian opera company journeying to Vienna by bus. The bus is called Rossinant, an apparent reference to Rocinante, whom literary types will immediately recognize as the steed of the quite mad don Quijote de la Mancha. And the movie glories in its own unique brand of madness. As I have since described it to more than one person, it is like some weird combination of Federico Fellini and Benny Hill. It is one burlesque sketch after another. Because the driver has become incapacitated upon learning that he has become a father, the old maestro takes over the driving. He is accompanied by his current, much younger mistress, as well as his somewhat older former mistress and his quite ancient former former mistress. By the time we get to Vienna, flashbacks have pretty much given every performer a chance to do their comedy shtick. Some of shenanigans are corny, and some are quite funny. But the film is never less than compelling. The word mirthful comes to mind. (Seen 10 July 2009)

Liam 2 out of 4 stars

Director Stephen Frears, who most recently transplanted the novel High Fidelity to the States, returns to his native England for this period piece. The opening scenes depicting New Year’s Eve in Depression-era Liverpool drip with nostalgia, and we think we are getting a dewy-eyed childhood reminiscence à la How Green Was My Valley or Hope and Glory. But then things turn grim as the Sullivan family slips into poverty, and we think we are getting a tale of childhood hardship and Catholic repression in the vein of Angela’s Ashes. (The screenwriter Jimmy McGovern did even more of a job on the church in 1994’s Priest.) By the end, however, we realize that what we have actually gotten is a none-too-subtle tract on the evils of fascism and anti-Semitism with an ending that, intentionally or not, emulates the kind of hell and brimfire moralizing that most of the movie is all too eager to mock. Young Anthony Borrows is downright heartbreaking in the title role, as a boy with a stammer so bad you’re sure he’s going to suffocate every time he opens his mouth. Ian Hart has the thankless part of the father, whose motives are hard to follow. (Seen 21 May 2001)

Liberation 3 out of 4 stars

Many of us may have gotten our fill over the past year of commemorating the end of World War II. But Liberation is a documentary of the war in Europe that deserves to be seen by a large audience, and this is not at all a bad time to look back and learn some lessons from history. It is produced by the Simon Wiesenthal Center and it takes a more even-handed approach to the war than we often see from other sources. Other than to effectively re-tell history, its only agenda is to make sure the facts of the Holocaust are known. And, while it does that quite well, most of the film’s 100 minutes focus on the Allied invasion that would liberate Europe from the Nazis. We cheer the Allies as they storm the Normandy beaches, but we are also told of how the world (including U.S. Jewish leaders) largely ignored what Hitler was doing to the Jews during the war and that the Pope quietly cheered Hitler on because he was fighting Communism. We are also reminded that US troops were racially segregated and Japanese-Americans were interned. (The film is strangely silent on Stalin’s atrocities, however.) A wealth of film clips, radio recordings, and popular songs of the day give us a strong feeling of time and place. The end of the film is particularly moving as we see the Allies discover what was going on in the concentration camps. Liberation demonstrates that the real thing is much more powerful than even a well-done dramatization like Schindler’s List. Incidentally, Ben Kingsley who was seen in that film is one of the narrators of Liberation. Among the others are Patrick Stewart and Whoopi Goldberg. (Seen 5 June 1995)

Libertarias 2 out of 4 stars

The problem with any movie about the Spanish civil war is that we know up front that the good guys are going to lose. Indeed, the climax to Libertarias is more than a bit harrowing. Director Vicente Aranda (The Lover, Turkish Passion) covers similar territory to that of Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom except that, instead of dealing with the International Brigades, this film focuses on the Free Women’s Red Brigade. As in Loach’s film, we see that the leftists who defended the Spanish republic had their own agenda for Spain’s future but wound up fighting among themselves almost as much as against the fascist rebels. At least in this film, we actually see that Franco’s forces are even more atrocious than the republic’s. In the best war movie tradition, we have a heterogeneous band of ragtag soldiers, with the point of view provided by an innocent young nun (Ariadna Gil of Belle Epoque, Celestial Clockwork) who undergoes a definitely non-religious conversion. (Seen 22 May 1997)

Liberty Heights 3 out of 4 stars

In Barry Levinson’s canon of life in Baltimore, his latest Liberty Heights falls time-wise between Avalon and Diner, i.e. the early 1950s, and that’s also where it falls mood-wise. On one hand, there is the ruefully nostalgic sense of times gone by, but our point-of-view character (the British Ben Foster making a convincing enough Jewish American high school senior) is old enough to provide some welcome youthful antics and humor. This time out, Levinson’s narrative reaches further beyond the Jewish world to include other communities as well (not unlike John Sayles or Spike Lee). Indeed, the writer/director seems determined to chronicle the entire era, complete with school integration and the birth of rock and roll. To drive his points home, the story features not one but two inter-ethnic quasi-romances—and, given the similarities between Adrien Brody’s character and Mickey Rourke’s in Diner, we have to assume that our author has a fixation with blondes on horses. In the end, this story is definitely (as always) about being Jewish in 20th century America, and in that regard that film is adept at making its points without hitting us over the head. Just as Frasier’s dad appeared in Tin Men, another member of the family (Bebe Neuwirth) is present here, but her part is not nearly as good. (Typical of her mother role is to exclaim, “Please kill me now!” when her son expresses an interest in an African-American classmate.) As usual, the ending brings a tear to the eye, but it is definitely and honestly earned. (Seen 3 December 1999)

Licence to Kill 2 out of 4 stars

James Bond goes rogue. Again. This time he has pretty good reason, although his grimness of purpose turns rather lighthearted pretty quickly. This is the last time we see CIA agent Felix Leiter before the Daniel Craig reboot 17 years later. Strangely, he is played by David Hedison, who played the character 16 years earlier in Live and Let Die opposite Roger Moore. Just two years earlier, the character was played by John Terry in The Living Daylights, opposite Timothy Dalton (as he does in this movie). Anyway, it’s the unfortunate aftermath to Leiter’s otherwise happy wedding that sends Bond on his quest for revenge against the drug lord Sanchez, who is played almost sympathetically by Robert Davi. The closest he comes to Ernst Blofeld is his penchant for stroking his pet iguana. The main Bond girl is Carey Lowell, whose short haircut is meant to convey (along with her bridling at having to pretend to be Bond’s assistant and being called Miss) that she is some sort of feminist. But although Dalton does his best to cement 007’s dinosaur credentials (for which Judi Dench would upbraid him in the subsequent movie), Lowell pouts and runs away (twice) when she sees him swapping spit with the comely Talisa Soto. We barely see M and Moneypenny this time, but good old Desmond Llewelyn’s Q gets so much screen time that he nearly qualifies as a sidekick. Also among the interesting supporting cast are Wayne Newton as some sort of New Age evangelist and a very young Benicio Del Toro as a grinning henchman. (Seen 6 October 2012)

Lie huo zhan che (Full Throttle) 0 out of 4 stars

The first midnight movie of the 1996 Seattle International Film Festival was Full Throttle from Hong Kong. On the positive side, there are maybe 15 or 20 minutes of exciting motorbike racing through the streets of Hong Kong. (Conveniently, the streets of Hong Kong generally seem to be deserted at night, except of course for the inevitable truck or bus just around a really bad curve.) The bad news is that the rest of the film’s 114-minute running time is filled with every imaginable cliché you could think of. The girlfriend who doesn’t want the hero to race? It’s there. The best friend who bites it tragically? You got it. The estranged father and son? You bet. Fighting back from a near-fatal crash? Well, you’ve got the idea. (Seen 18 May 1996)

The Life and Death of Peter Sellers 2 out of 4 stars

If Peter Sellers starred in a movie about his own life, would he have to play all the characters himself? This somewhat grim biopic seems to suggest that he would. At regular intervals, Geoffrey Rush, who plays Sellers, delivers a monologue as each of the film’s key characters. (Notably absent was the one soliloquy I was really looking forward to, Rush becoming Britt Ekland, otherwise luminously brought to life here by Charlize Theron.) It seems strange that the story of one of the funniest men who ever lived should turn out to be so depressing. According to this film, the comic genius Sellers was an empty vessel of a man, who could masterfully play any character in the world but who had no character of his own. Indeed, he comes off as having the moral compass of an infant, and the way he treats his wives and children suggests an alternate title, Daddy Dearest. The pop psychology portrait (weak father, overly attached to mother) is the weakness of this sort of film and, even more so in this case, the fact that poor Rush has to (very gamely, it must said) recreate Sellers’s most brilliant roles (The Pink Panther, Dr. Stangelove, Being There), inevitably reminding us how much better Sellers was (or, worse, making him seem less the genius he was). Somehow, I think Sellers’s life was actually a bit more fun than this film makes it out to be, but that’s not to deny the man’s clear flaws. The director is Stephen Hopkins, whose body of work also includes a Nightmare on Elm Street movie and a Predator movie, The Ghost and the Darkness and the film version of Lost in Space. Also in the cast are Stanley Tucci as Stanley Kubrick, who directed Sellers in Lolita and Strangelove, and John Lithgow (looking eerily like Roy Orbison) as Blake Edwards, who directed him in The Party and endless The Pink Panther movies. (Seen 21 November 2004)

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou 2 out of 4 stars

After making a pair of clear winners, Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, director Wes Anderson comes perilously close in his fourth film (the low-budget Bottle Rocket was his first) to making one of those on-location, self-indulgent vanity productions that usually turn out to be more amusing for those making the film than those watching it. Still, despite a few slow stretches (that are actually part of the movie’s point), Anderson manages to give us a film with a sustainable, if quirky, artistic vision. The deal-closer is the finale that (and I hope no one thinks this is a spoiler) has Bill Murray walking along with a young boy on his shoulders. This echoes that young boy that shadowed Murray in a swimming pool in Rushmore and is the main link in the chain tying this movie to the rest of Anderson’s oeuvre. Is this lad meant to evoke Murray’s own (lost) childhood? Or is he meant to evoke the son that he (perhaps) never had? Or both? Like all of Anderson’s films, this one is ultimately about family, and this time Murray also takes on the Gene Hackman role from The Royal Tenenbaums. He even has Anjelica Huston playing his wife, and Gwyneth Paltrow is back too. Okay, it’s not actually Paltrow; it’s Cate Blanchett doing a strange Gwyneth Paltrow-doing-an-English-accent imitation. The story involves a team of naturalist/explorers who do documentaries about their own exploits, so the film is a wry observation of not only the state of the documentary genre but also of reality television. At the same time, it tells us something about filmmaking in general. The wonder of Bill Murray’s inner child in the face of the strikingly animated creatures he encounters speaks volumes about directors like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. A special treat is the presence of Seu Jorge (City of God), whose job on the crew seems to consist entirely of playing the guitar and singing. His Brazilian renditions of David Bowie songs alone are worth the price of admission. (Seen 9 March 2005)

Life During Wartime 2 out of 4 stars

If you have seen Todd Solondz’s Happiness, among the many thoughts (and there would have been many) that went through your brain, probably none of them was this one: I can’t wait for the sequel! But here it is: Happiness 2: Life During Wartime. Okay, that’s not the exact title, but I think it would have been cool if it were. It nearly would have been in keeping with Solondz’s off-kilter sensibility. What is surprising about this sequel—aside from the fact that it actually exists—is how unsurprising it is. None of the characters have moved too far off the mark where we might have expected. What is surprising—or maybe not—is the fact that Solondz has recast all the parts, giving another bunch of actors a chance to see how uncomfortable they can make us. That’s actually a very interesting thing to do, as well as including characters from Solondz’s 1998 breakthrough film Welcome to the Dollhouse, who had their own sort-of sequel in Palindromes and now appear here, also recast. Got all that? To say that Solondz seems to be in the process of creating an extended imagined world full of recurring characters à la Honoré de Balzac might be giving him too much credit, but what he is doing is not without precedent. Solondz’s trademark is definitely the ick factor and, as with Happiness, much of the proceedings deal with the uncomfortable theme of child molestation, although arguably slightly more sensitively than before. And what better way to evoke an ambiance of perversion than to cast Pee-wee Herman himself (Paul Reubens) in the role Jon Lovitz originally played? There’s something oddly detached about Solondz’s filmmaking, but there are a couple of scenes in this movie that electrify. They are between Ciarán Hinds (reprising Dylan Baker’s pedophile) and Charlotte Rampling. These few minutes convince us that Solondz has a much wider range than we have seen to date. (Seen 20 February 2010)

A Life Not to Follow 3 out of 4 stars

The temptation is to compare this accomplished independent film out of Boston to early Martin Scorsese and the intensity of one of its stars, Fiore Leo, to young Al Pacino. To do so, though, would not be so much to oversell as to mislead. This sophomore feature film by Christopher Di Nunzio very much has its own style and sensibility. Structurally, it is a triptych of totally self-contained and independent stories set in a seedy gangland milieu and which interweave and ultimately come together in the final segment. Leo’s segment, the first one, is about revenge, settling scores and atonement. The second, featuring Michael Capozzi as a rising mob lieutenant, is about duplicity and betrayal. And the climactic section, with grizzled David Graziano as a world-weary private investigator, is about the desire to set things right in an immoral world. The cinematography is beautiful. It appears to be color but shot in such a way that it feels like gorgeous black and white at its best. The shots are generally straightforward and no-nonsense but still artful. The film’s best feature, however, is its sizeable and talented cast. Di Nunzio has assembled some great faces that seem absolutely purpose made for the movie screen. And there is not a weak performer in the bunch. The dialog, which veers in and out of melodrama, is the sort that can turn into a disaster without a competent delivery, but Di Nunzio’s actors never let him down. It is hard to pick stand-outs in a cast like this, but here are a few random ones: Johnny Cammarata, as a mob boss whose gentle demeanor masks a ruthless nature; Nick Apostolides, as young hotshot cop with a whole lot left to learn; Steve Panetta in a brief role as an even younger, green-behind-the-ears cop; and Molly Kay, whose radiant smile graces the home-movie-style footage that acts a bridge between the segments. Eros Cartechini’s music adds the right touch of atmosphere without being intrusive. The film is currently making the film festival rounds and, not surprisingly, has picked up some awards and nominations. It is definitely worth seeking out for fans of neo-noir in particular and film buffs in general. (Seen 5 January 2016)

Life of Brian 3 out of 4 stars

As someone who has never been a member of any church, I wasn’t offended by this movie when it came out in 1979, but I was blown away by its numerous “I can’t believe they did that or said that!” moments. I wondered how I would react to it three decades later in an age marked by crazy reactions to movies that deliberately disparage certain religions. Is this irreverent Monty Python project to Christianity what The Innocence of Muslims is to Islam? Hardly. For one thing, Life of Brian doesn’t actually deal with Jesus but with a hapless man (Graham Chapman) whose life more or less parallels Jesus’s historically. The tenets of Christianity are never directly challenged. Mostly, the movie is a chain of trademark Python sketches, displaying the troupe’s wonderfully absurdist, mocking humor—getting more mileage than is decent from people’s handicaps and, particularly, speech impediments. To the extent that the film has targets, they are mainly the mindless followers of religions in general. One of the classic bits has a huge crowd robotically repeating in unison Brian’s exhortations for them to all be individuals. But the religion that gets hit hardest (in my humble opinion anyway) is one that tends to be atheist, i.e. those leftist activists so consumed with their causes that they spend more time fighting rival factions than fighting the declared enemy. The bits where John Cleese, Michael Palin, Eric Idle and Sue Jones-Davies, as members of the People’s Front of Judea, bicker and debate and accomplish nothing are truly classic. A particularly memorable scene has Cleese ask rhetorically, what have the Romans ever done for us? And then he gets dragged more and more off track as an endless list of Roman accomplishments come to people’s minds. This movie isn’t anti-religion. It’s anti-nonsense—even while it gloriously celebrates nonsense. (Seen 3 March 2013)

Life of Pi 3 out of 4 stars

I am always on the lookout for a filmmaker who looks like he or she might be able to adapt one of my favorite all-time (and perhaps un-filmable) novels: Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. I think my new frontrunner may be Ang Lee. Not only has he successfully tackled an allegedly un-filmable source in Yann Martel’s novel, but he has made it look easy as he infuses his movie with a Canadian-Indian brand of magic realism. If his extensive use of CGI doesn’t exactly escape leaving fingerprints, it’s okay because the feel of the tale is fantastical anyway. From transitions to special-effect set pieces, the images are delights. Lee’s work on the much-maligned Hulk has paid off (and my appreciation of that movie has been vindicated) as the Bengal tiger is extraordinarily convincing. Even more convincing than Gérard Depardieu, who puts in a brief appearance on his way to tax exile. The crucial part is played by Suraj Sharma in the title role for the bulk of the movie. It is his first and, to date, only feature film role, and it all succeeds or fails on his shoulders. He carries it off just fine. But does the story, as promised, make us believe in God? I don’t think it actually intends to do so. But it’s fair to say that it probably helps us understand God a bit better. (Seen 27 December 2013)

Life Tastes Good 2 out of 4 stars

If Tampopo was a Japanese noodle western, then Life Tastes Good is a Japanese-American film noodle noir. Written and directed by San Francisco-based stage director Philip Kan Gotanda, this film was shot on the proverbial shoestring but doesn’t look it. The plot involves a badly disfigured body found in an abandoned car, a small-time hood hiding out from the boss he doublecrossed (played with malicious glee by the director), a mysterious woman who haunts a warehouse apartment like some strange, silent ghost, a reconciliation of sorts with an estranged son and daughter, and several very interesting food dishes. Some parts seem (deliberately) slow, and some are quite funny. But by the end, the whole thing comes together in a touching and satisfying way. A particular standout is Julia Nickson as the mysterious woman, a role originally intended for Joan Chen, who was too pregnant to play it. Nickson gives her inscrutable character a depth that was never so evident when she played Commander Sinclair’s love interest during the first season of Babylon 5. (Seen 24 May 2000)

Life’s a Breeze 2 out of 4 stars

The plot synopsis, the movie poster and a prominent role for funnyman Pat Shortt all prime us to expect a zany comedy. It’s a comedy all right, but not the kind that makes us laugh out loud. It’s more the humor of quiet recognition of human nature and the potential for desperation below the surface of modern life. The writer/director is Lance Daly, who has given us previous tours of the Irish capital in the films Last Days in Dublin, The Halo Effect and Kisses. The structure here is definitely that of a screwball comedy: after a surprise tidy-up of her house, an elderly mother tells her children that the mattress they threw out was full of cash. But interspersed within the wild goose chase is a canny observation of different generations and how they approach money and security. There is a wonderfully funny scene in the middle of the film, involving a lottery ticket, that is a clear homage to Kirk Jones’s Waking Ned Devine. It is all the sweeter because it features Fionnula Flanagan, who also appeared in the referenced scene 15 years earlier. In a way, the two movies make apt bookends for Ireland’s Celtic Tiger boom. At the dawn of the Tiger Ned was a light-hearted romp about good-natured fraud and financial shenanigans. After the demise of the Tiger, this movie is about being in debt and grasping for money anywhere you can find it. If Flanagan’s generation scrimped and saved and then looked askance at its children and their profligate ways, the following generation is represented by young Kelly Thornton. At the movie’s end, her face—which has glimpsed the dark side of Dublin’s underclass and of her own family—says it all. (Seen 25 January 2014)

Lift 3 out of 4 stars

This flick starts off with a high-energy burglary and police chase. So, is it a guy flick? But then it deals largely with a young woman and her unresolved family issues. So, is it a chick flick? Actually, it’s a people flick and one that exhilarates by letting us into a world that, despite all the thieving we have seen in movies before, feels so real that it becomes totally new. And it somehow manages to meet and defy our expectations all at the same time. Niecy is an extremely well-coifed and well-dressed woman who seems to have it all: friends, looks, talent, a good job, and top label dresses. The problematical thing is that she actually steals it all. And, in the world she lives, that is perfectly normal. She thinks that, because she doesn’t use a gun, she is somehow safer and more moral than thieves who do. But this wise film eventually disabuses her of that notion. One of the most brilliant things in this film by DeMane Davis and Khari Streeter is a totally pivotal and shocking event that comes so suddenly and unexpectedly that, for once in a movie, it feels like life itself. The attractive cast includes Lonette McKee, who seems to be doing an African-American turn on the character Mary Tyler Moore played in Ordinary People. (Seen 17 May 2001)

Like Crazy 1 out of 4 stars

This movie gives every indication of wanting to do for open borders what Brokeback Mountain did for gay liberation. But it’s a sign of the murkiness of the filmmaker’s intentions that we aren’t quite sure whether this is an “issues” movie or simply a human love story. I’ve read that director/co-writer Drake Doremus intended to make an update to Claude Lelouch’s 1966 arthouse hit Un Homme et une femme. But that movie had visuals that made a major impact on worldwide popular culture and a theme song that you couldn’t get out of your head. Like Crazy is just annoying. And maybe that’s the point. Maybe it’s really meant to be an anti-romance. Certainly we become as irritated with the two lovers (who can’t seem to spend a week apart without falling into bed with someone else) as they do with each other. Things start out promising with a realistic depiction of incipient student romance, and Felicity Jones (Brideshead Revisited, Cemetery Junction) and Anton Yelchin (Star Trek, Terminator Salvation) are likeable enough—at least at the start. But after that, it’s a long, tough, whiny slog. (While watching all the whinging, I couldn’t help but think about my own parents, who met and married around the same age as these two and were immediately separated for two years by World War II.) Doctor Who fans, take note: not only did Jones have a title role in the episode “The Unicorn and the Wasp” but her mother is played by none other than River Song herself, Alex Kingston. (Seen 6 November 2011)

Lila dit ça (Lila Says) 2 out of 4 stars

This is the only film I can remember off-hand in which a sex act is consummated while two people are riding a bicycle. But more impressive, at least cinematically, was the phallic image of some kind of derrick or crane on the Marseille docks immediately before, signaling our hero Chimo’s arousal—a vision that Hitchcock himself might have been impressed with. The director is Ziad Doueiri, working from a novel purported to be a real-life Chimo’s autobiography. Doueiri paints a fairly bleak, if not hopeless, picture of France’s Arab sub-milieu. In the early scenes, there are hints that something Hitchcock-ian may indeed be going on. The very blonde titular Lila (played by Vahina Giocante, seeming like a pubescent Laura Dern) seems to be nothing but trouble, kind of like Kim Novak in Vertigo. Indeed, it is hard to know what to make of Lila, except that she is extremely provocative, not unlike her literary cousin, Lolita. But, in the end, as we are informed at the very beginning of the film, this is the old story by and about a young man, in a bad environment, who is destined to become A Writer. Like Lila herself, this movie talks dirty, but deep down it is almost naively sentimental. (Seen 9 October 2006)

Lilies 2 out of 4 stars

This is the kind of movie that you will likely either love or hate. At the very least you can’t help finding it intriguing. The Catholic church is put on trial in fairly literal fashion in the screenplay adapted by Michel Marc Bouchard from his own play. A bishop comes to a Quebec prison to hear a dying murderer’s confession. Instead, the bishop is held prisoner by a group of convicts and their chaplain and is forced to watch an elaborate play they have produced. The minimalist stage production weaves magically in and out of flashbacks but always with the same actors. This means that the female roles are taken by men (you know, like in Shakespeare’s day) which is strange at first but then comes to feel normal, thanks largely to the talent of the actors. The play within the movie (and there’s also a play within the play) centers around a tragic romance involving two young Adonises. The director is John Greyson, but in some ways Lilies is reminiscent of the work of the late Derek Jarman. (Seen 30 May 1997)

Lilja 4-ever 3 out of 4 stars

The title of this film by Swedish director Lukas Moodysson is a phrase that is carved into a wooden bench by the movie’s title character, an engaging and appealing 16-year-old Russian girl. As played by Oksana Akinshina, Lilja looks like a fresh-faced teenage mixture of Renée Zellweger and Shirley MacLaine. The brief scene where she carves “Lilja 4-ever” is especially poignant, not only for its aspiration to survival, but because that scene also expresses Lilja’s stubborn insistence on living life on her own terms and in her own time. But things are grim for Lilja from the film’s beginning, when her mother abandons her to emigrate to America with her boyfriend. The movie’s portrait of the former USSR is not a pretty one. Tellingly, when things finally start looking up for Lilja, she is taken to McDonald’s, but this is only a prelude for worse things. This film would be an incredible downer if not for its wistful spiritual twist in the final scenes. To its credit, it’s only when the film is over that we realize that we have been watching a “message movie” that is highlighting a serious social problem. In many ways, this movie is Sweden’s El Norte. (Seen 9 July 2003)

Limbo 3 out of 4 stars

In the course of an on-stage interview prior to the U.S. premiere of this film, writer/director/editor John Sayles said that his movies never quite fit into a genre. For example, he said, Matewan was “not quite” a western and Lone Star was “not quite” a detective story. Well, Limbo actually is quite an adventure story, and one that is in keeping with its rugged Alaska setting. But the adventure isn’t just about surviving the wilds of nature. It’s also about the challenge of personal and family relationships. Sayles’s films are sometimes disconcerting because we are so conditioned by formula movies that it is hard to adjust to a story where, as in real life, we are never quite sure just where things are headed. And the point, as the film’s sudden ending underscores, is that where you’re headed isn’t nearly as important as the journey itself. Limbo is one journey definitely worth taking. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio gets one of her best roles ever and demonstrates that she is quite a singer. And David Strathairn’s character has echoes of (but is light years beyond) the one he played opposite Meryl Streep in The River Wild. (Seen 18 October 1997)

Lincoln 3 out of 4 stars

This is, of course, the high-profile Steven Spielberg movie that cleaned up with the Oscar nominations but then largely got stiffed when the awards were actually handed out. The major award that it did get was for Daniel Day-Lewis’s extraordinary turn in the title role. And he deserved it. As we watch him, we do not see the actor. He is, to all intents and purposes, Lincoln. It’s the closest you can come to a ghostly visitation. The movie itself, on the other hand, is not like real life. Tony Kushner’s screenplay is like those old Masterpiece Theatre miniseries, like The First Churchills, I used to watch and love on PBS, i.e. every single conversation—between friends, colleagues, family members—is bald historical exposition. It may be a very illuminating history lesson, but it remains first and foremost a history lesson. Visually, the film is a series of one painterly frame after another. Its glowing lights illuminating shadows remind one of old Renaissance paintings of the lives of saints. If Day-Lewis inhabits the heart and soul of Lincoln, it only highlights the familiarity of most of the other faces. We are left to ponder how Gidget came to be the mother of Tommy from 3rd Rock from the Sun and young David from the Dark Shadows movie. This provides an interesting insight into the film medium in general. Flawlessly inhabiting a character is impressive, but it’s not determinative to our appreciation of the film. Despite Day-Lewis’s uncanny performance, the transcendent speech does not actually come from him, as we might expect, at the end of the movie. It comes from good ol’ Tommy Lee Jones (basically playing no one else but good ol’ Tommy Lee Jones) somewhere in the middle. Just as The King’s Speech paradoxically made us want to stand up and cheer over a speech urging people on to war, Jones gives us the movie’s greatest emotional impact with a speech which (due to the byzantine politics involved) declares that the races are not equal. (Seen 10 March 2013)

Little Buddha 2 out of 4 stars

It was at this movie’s debut Seattle screening back in 1993 that I became really serious about sitting through all of a movie’s end credits. That is because a good friend of mine happened to have worked as a production assistant on director Bernardo Bertolucci’s Seattle crew. She had some very interesting experiences as a result of that particular gig, not the least of which was having the cheek to travel down to Los Angeles and crash at Keanu Reeves’s house. But I digress. Little Buddha was an unusual entry in the c.v. of the auteur of such memorable works as The Conformist, Last Tango in Paris and 1900. Chronologically coming between The Sheltering Sky and Stealing Beauty, it is a westerner’s heartfelt paean to the beauty and metaphysical attraction of Buddhism. Having said that, it is also a pretty strange film. Its clear purpose is to teach and educate. The Seattle more-or-less-framing story sets up a pretext for Ruocheng Ying’s Lama Norbu to not only explain the beliefs and values of Buddhism to tow-headed nine-year-old Jesse and his befuddled parents but also to relate the story of Siddhartha, which is herein dramatized in a contrasting cinematography and color style. As characters, Jesse’s parents—played by Bridget Fonda (simultaneous with her action turn in the American remake of La Femme Nikita) and singer Chris Isaak—come off as oddly flat. The life in the film is mostly all provided by the engaging and likeable monks. The strangest casting was far and away Keanu Reeves (as Siddhartha), who at that point—despite Point Break, My Own Private Idaho and Bram Stoker’s Dracula—was still best known for Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. He actually acquits himself quite respectably, even if he cannot quite make us forget completely that he is Keanu Reeves. The film ends not with a bang or a climactic breakthrough but with quietly and unexpectedly moving reflection. The plot about a search for a deceased lama’s reincarnation was based on some actual incidents and, in one of those cosmic coincidences, three years after the movie’s release a Seattle child actually was chosen as a lama’s reincarnation and taken to Nepal to be groomed as a spiritual teacher. (Seen 13 February 2017)

Little Miss Sunshine 2 out of 4 stars

What is there about this 2006 Oscar-winning (Michael Arndt for Screenplay, Alan Arkin for Supporting Actor) movie that makes people like it so much? Everyone I know who has ever seen it has really liked it. This movie has become something of an archetype. For the past year or so, any discussion of an independent film that might break out to become a mainstream and critical hit is invariably referred to as “the next Little Miss Sunshine.” But that raises its own question. Did popular taste eventually catch up with independent film sensibilities? Or are independent films becoming more reflective of popular tastes? After all, the jaundiced view of American family dynamics in this flick is not very far away from your average episode of The Simpsons. And some of its dark humor wouldn’t be out of place on ironic post-modern primetime shows like Desperate Housewives. While not exactly remarkable as a cinematic event, this movie does earn the love of its audiences through its optimistic (but never sweet or sentimental) take of families. This is neatly summed up by its simple but elegant metaphor of the Hoover family, when it is time to hit the road again, dropping their various self-absorptions long enough to pull (or rather push) together to get their VW van going and then help one another climb on board. (Seen 14 June 2008)

Little Voice 2 out of 4 stars

The most striking prop in this drama/comedy is the big red shiny American car that Michael Caine proudly motors all over the North Yorkshire coastal town of Scarborough. This is appropriate because this film is first and foremost a vehicle, largely for Jane Horrocks (Bubbles in TV’s Absolutely Fabulous) who recreates the (title) stage role from a play built around her own considerable singing/mimicking abilities. It is also something of a vehicle for Caine and Brenda Blethyn, whose chew-the-scenery, over-the-top, dare-to-dream-in-spite-of-miserable-boozy-life-circumstances roles seem expressly written to gain them supporting Oscar nominations. (In Blethyn’s case, it worked.) The film is directed by Mark Herman, and it gives all the appearances of executing the same triumph-over-one’s-dreary-lot-through-one-great-musical-performance plot that his Brassed Off did. (Not to mention The Full Monty, The Commitments, etc.) But in reality, the story is much closer to the old Warner Bros. cartoon about a guy whose life is ruined because he finds a singing frog. Once again, Herman casts Ewan McGregor as a sweet romantic lead, which in untypical fashion doesn’t even require him to shave his head, get buck-naked or do hard drugs. Oddly, in a normal role McGregor looks like a young Sam Neill. The talented Horrocks, on the other hand, looks like nothing so much as a young, anorexic Carol Channing. But she sings like, well, like anybody she wants. (Seen 28 February 1999)

Live and Let Die 1 out of 4 stars

One way movie watchers with a severe masochistic streak can drive themselves seriously crazy is to watch the James Bond films with an eye to continuity. Consider that this 1973 entry in the series marked the third consecutive movie with a change in the actor playing Bond. (Sean Connery sat out On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, wanting more money, then came back for Diamonds Are Forever and then was replaced, definitively, in this one by Roger Moore.) CIA agent Felix Leiter is back for the fifth time, played by a fifth actor. This time it is David Hedison (Capt. Crane on TV’s Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea). Hedison would become the first actor to play the role twice when he returned in Licence to Kill 16 years later. So, did Moore deserve his rap for being an inferior replacement for Connery? On the basis of this movie, yes. By this point, Moore’s debonair elitist adventurer persona was well established by his TV roles in The Saint and The Persuaders! But part of Connery’s charm was the perceptible wink and chuckle at himself. In this movie, Moore gives no indication that he is in on the joke. And the cardboard effect is only accentuated by the fact that he finds himself in middle of what amounts to a blaxploitation movie. A few entertaining stunts aside, it is not a good combination. On the bright side, the reliable Yaphet Kotto makes a good, if ill-used, villain, and the movie gives us a couple of quite attractive Bond girls, notably Jane Seymour, in one of her earliest roles. (Seen 21 April 2012)

Live Bait 2 out of 4 stars

The Graduate meets Harold and Maude? Well, sort of. This low-budget Canadian film (shot in black and white to save money) deals with 23-year-old Trevor who is having trouble figuring out where to go with his life. As the story opens, he is living with his parents and working part-time in a library. His father keeps pestering him to come work in his company, his mother can’t stop mothering him, and his brother’s sexual exploits are a sore reminder of his own late-blooming sexuality. Then he meets 60-year-old Charlotte. Live Bait is quite amiable and easy to take. (Seen 19 May 1996)

Live Free or Die Hard (Die Hard 4.0) 3 out of 4 stars

Like any good action movie series, this one keeps upping the ante. The original flick was merely about some high-rise building that was being held hostage. Now, with the fourth one, it’s the whole darn country. If you’ve seen any of the earlier ones, then you know the drill. Bruce Willis is unapologetically macho and blue collar, the villains are suave, urban, totally without a moral center and frequently foreign. And the stunts are not hindered by logic or physical laws. Indeed, Willis’s Detective McClane has the same instinctive gift for projecting the trajectory of hurtling cars that David Beckham has with a soccer ball. And it’s just as well that McClane keeps wandering into these elaborate criminal plots, since it seems to be the only way he resolves his own family relationship issues. Despite the numerous topical touches, it is safe to say that this action extravaganza doesn’t actually have a sincere political bone in its pretty little head. But it’s still fun to see where the politics seem to fall. Without doubt, McClane is the ultimate neocon hero. He takes on the bad guys while highly paid men in suits dither and is pretty much an unqualified patriot. He also seems to enjoy knocking about French-speaking henchmen. And, if the main villain of the piece has a real-life counterpart, it is some combination of former security adviser Richard Clarke and former ambassador Joseph Wilson. On the other hand, the movie provides plenty of fodder for people who worry about warrantless wiretapping and other intrusions in personal lives. Bottom line for this movie: as the critics here like to say, it does exactly what it says on the tin. (Seen 10 July 2007)

Live Nude Girls 2 out of 4 stars

With a title like Live Nude Girls, you might expect this to be a film aimed at men, but the opposite is true. If comments made to the director after the screening are any indication, then this movie has succeeded in faithfully recreating what a lot of women talk about (and how they act) when there are no men around. The pretext is a bridal shower/slumber party attended by five women who have been friends since childhood. At some points it seems kind of like a 1990s female version of The Boys in the Band. At other times it reminds me of that episode of Taxi where they did flashbacks of everyone’s lives before they became cab drivers. Fortunately, what could have been simply an extended sitcom is strengthened by a fine cast which includes Dana Delany (China Beach) as a woman who enjoys tormenting her sister, Kim Cattrall (Police Academy, Mannequin, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country) essentially playing herself, and Cynthia Stevenson (The Player, TV’s Bob and Hope and Gloria) playing her usual goody-two-shoes character. Singer/teen idol Jeremy Jordan makes a brief appearance as an incredibly lucky Greenpeace volunteer. Overall, the movie is very entertaining, with the best bit being when Stevenson describes how she imagined she would grow up to be like her Barbie doll. Moreover, this movie is a perfect example of why you should always stay in a movie theater until all the credits have been shown. (There might be one last shot of a bunch of naked women!) (Seen 9 June 1995)

The Lives of the Saints 2 out of 4 stars

The problem with being a very well-known actor like Jack Nicholson is that, when you are playing a borderline psychopath in a movie like The Departed, familiarity makes it hard for audiences to really feel the sense of menace. That’s less of a problem for Scottish actor James Cosmo who, early on in this flick, exudes the kind of unpredictable simmering rage that could explode at any minute, nearly as effectively as Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast. But his magnificent malevolence peaks with an unspeakable act perpetrated on a kitten, after which the strange turns of this odd movie undo whatever spell Cosmo had woven. This movie was written by Tony Grisoni, who also penned such recent films as Brothers of the Head and Terry Gilliam’s Tideland. It gives every indication of being a gritty drama of life on the mean streets of north London. But it quickly takes a vaguely supernatural/spiritual turn that keeps us guessing as to where it is really heading. Is the urchin with the haunting eyes really an angel or perhaps the devil or maybe just a pint-sized genie, teaching people to be careful what they wish for? Is this yet another re-hashing of the Christ story? Or is it just a bleak fable? Heck if I know. (Seen 12 October 2006)

The Living Daylights 2 out of 4 stars

Two years after A View to a Kill, James Bond was back, but something was different. The familiar faces of M, Q, the Minister of Defense and even Soviet General Gogol are all back, but Miss Moneypenny has been rejuventated into the form of pert, young Caroline Bliss (who had previously played Princess Diana in a TV movie). And 007 himself has wound the clock back 17 years and become dark, dashing Timothy Dalton. After Scotland’s Sean Connery, Australia’s George Lazenby and England’s Roger Moore, Wales got its Bond. An interesting and attractive actor whom I first noticed as Heathcliff in the 1970 version of Wuthering Heights and who achieved true historical significance a couple of years ago as the head Time Lord in a two-part Doctor Who special, Dalton made a pretty darn good Bond. He looked the part and, even if he didn’t exactly have Connery’s jovial charm, he had charisma. A propos of recasting, CIA agent Felix Leiter makes his first appearance (in an Eon Productions Bond film anyway) in 14 years and, as was customary, is played by a new actor (John Terry). This film marked one of the series’s periodic back-to-basics shifts. This was more like a standard espionage action film rather than a quasi-comedy/romcom of the Moore era. Bond’s trademark quips (when his car’s laser disables a police car, he jokes that it was “salt corrosion”) are somewhat fewer and nearly out of character with the rest of the flick. Maryam d’Abo makes an attractive Bond girl and gets more screen time than they usually do. The villains, Jeroen Krabbé and Joe Don Baker, are definitely sub-Blofeld level and we have nearly forgotten about them by the time 007 goes after them as an afterthought at the end. In the end, the flick is entertaining and satisfying though not particularly memorable. (Seen 15 August 2012)

The Lobster 2 out of 4 stars

Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos is one of those filmmakers who use the medium for what it is arguably best suited—making us see reality in a completely different way. His international breakthrough was 2009’s Dogtooth, which demonstrated the way our perception of reality can be controlled by those who control our language. This 2015 English-language movie not only won the Jury Prize at Cannes but also the unofficial “Palm Dog” for the performance of “Bob the Dog” as Colin Farrell’s brother. If you know anything at all about the film, then you know the set-up. In a dystopian world, people who find themselves single are required to live in The Hotel where they are meant to find a partner. If they do not find one within 45 days, they are transformed into an animal of their choice. Yes, this is a fairly obvious allegory of the pressure society—presumably underpinned by biology—puts on us to live in pairs. It would be easy to see this as a portrayal of a socially conservative political regime—except for a couple of things. “Guests” are given the choice of declaring themselves gay or straight—a strict black-and-white either/or choice Farrell’s character David actually ponders at length. (This one brief scene was apparently sufficient for the film to also get a Special Mention for Cannes’s “Queer Palm.”) The other thing is that, when John escapes The Hotel and finds a band of rebels, they are just as doctrinaire and authoritarian about single-ness as the other crowd were about being paired up. While viewers will have emotional reactions to what happens, we are mostly kept at arm’s length by the blank, matter-of-fact (i.e. unnatural) tone of the dialog (Lanthimos wrote the screenplay with his regular collaborator Efthymis Filippou) and perhaps by unanswerable questions about how this society came to be in the first place. But the film does succeed in getting us to see our own reality in a somewhat different way. Farrell—essaying a vulnerability we usually do not see from him—is touching as the hapless David. Ben Wishaw and John C. Reilly are similarly empathetic as men in the same plight. The wonderful Olivia Colman almost has trouble making us disliker her strict hotel manager character. Rachel Weisz is compelling and somewhat enigmatic as the strangely detached narrator who is also a key character. And as the dogmatic loner leader (an oxymoron if ever there was one), Léa Seydoux would make one willingly follow her alone anywhere. Personal unsolicited testimonial: the Parknasilla Hotel, where this was filmed, is just as beautiful as it appears on screen, and the staff are so much nicer than this movie might make you fear. (Seen 17 March 2018)

Local Hero 4 out of 4 stars

When I first saw this wonderful movie back in 1983, I marveled out how well it caught that longing young adults often have for magic in their lives. Little did I know that I was seeing my own future. Well, sort of. This was Scottish writer/director Bill Forsyth’s follow-up to his international hit Gregory’s Girl, which charmed art house audiences with its quirky take on teen travails. Many of the same touches are in evidence here, including a cameo from Gregory’s Girl star John Gordon Sinclair as a band member, and Forsyth’s trademark shots where characters suddenly emerge from behind things where we don’t expect them. But this movie seems clearly and directly aimed at the Americans who took the earlier film to their heart. The star here is Peter Riegert, a mainstay of American independent romantic comedies of the time, and the star power (in more ways than one) is provided by seventyish Hollywood veteran Burt Lancaster, as the astronomy-obsessed head of a Texas oil company. The setup seems standard enough: in the best Frank Capra tradition, Mac (Riegert) is sent to a small village to negotiate the purchase of breathtaking scenery on the northernmost tip of Scotland for a refinery. But things don’t pan out exactly as we expect. The villagers are dying to sell their property for quick cash. Mac’s in-country contact Ben (a wonderfully awkward and gangly Fulton Mackay) becomes distracted by an enigmatic marine biologist who seems to be at least part mermaid. Every crowd scene (the village is predominately male, with apparently only two female residents in the place) includes a baby in a pram, and the men all go quiet when asked whose child it is. For no apparent reason, Mac falls in love with Stella, the wife of the accountant/innkeeper/waiter with whom he is negotiating and who is strangely unperturbed by this infatuation. Really, though, it is the whole place he is falling in love with. It is one of those enchanted locales (cf. everything from the village in Waking Ned Devine to the town of Cicely in Northern Exposure) that populate movies and sometimes TV shows and make us feel like going on holiday. (Seen 13 December 2008)

Lola Rennt (Run Lola Run) 3 out of 4 stars

Whew! I’m still catching my breath after seeing this one. The best advice I can give you is what director Tom Tykwer said in his introduction. Visit the lavatory before it starts. The film may be only 81 minutes long, but you won’t want to miss a minute of it. And it will definitely get your adrenaline pumping. As a heavily stylized, American-influenced European tale of a small-time criminal and his stunning girlfriend, this film can legitimately claim to be the millenium-end heir of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless. And, not to put too fine a point on it, breathless is what it will leave you. But this is the MTV-age, hyper-kinetic, video-game, oops-game-over-put-in-another-quarter version of the old story. Watching Franka Potenta in the title role as she races through the city streets like some sort of android on steroids, you can’t help but be mesmerized by her and by the catalog of cinematic techniques and camera shots that record her movements. As if all of this weren’t enough, we also find that this is actually the German take on chance, fate and coincidence—apparently Europe’s big movie motif trend for 1998—making a nice triumvirate with the French (Chance or Coincidence) and Spanish (The Lovers of the Arctic Circle) variations on the same theme. (Seen 4 June 1999)

Lolita [1962]3 out of 4 stars

Given all the sordid things we hear and read on a daily basis, Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 film Lolita seems today almost strangely innocent. (Whether the same will be true of Adrian Lyne’s new version starring Jeremy Irons is doubtful.) We have to laugh at Vladimir Nabakov’s dark humor not only because of the continuous sly double entendres but also because his strange tale of Humbert Humbert tells us more than we really want to know about the nature of our own sexuality and desire. In defiance of common sense, we find ourselves feeling sympathetic toward James Mason’s Humbert as he contemplates statutory rape and murder. This all works as well as it does entirely because of the uniformly wonderful cast (Mason, Shelley Winters, Sue Lyon) and in particular the amazing genius of Peter Sellers as a paranoiac’s worst nightmare. (Seen 7 January 1997)

Lolita [1997] 2 out of 4 stars

There are exactly two reasons to do a new version of Lolita: 1) to make the sexuality more frank than was possible in the 1962 version and 2) because you are a complete idiot because why would anyone in his or her right mind want to try to improve on the work of a master director like Stanley Kubrick who was working with author Vladimir Nabakov’s own script! Having gotten that off my chest, I have to say that the new version by Adrian Lyne (Fatal Attraction, Nine 1/2 Weeks) isn’t really all that bad. Humbert Humbert is just the sort of damaged, sick-of-himself eurotrash character that Jeremy Irons has been working toward for years. But, go figure, here Irons looks strangely boyish, tan and fit. Unlike Shelley Winters who made her absurd character sympathetic enough that we felt bad when she met her fate, Melanie Griffith is so annoying that we feel nothing but relief at her demise. As for the title role, young Dominique Swain seems to have been cast more for the tan and muscle tone of her legs than for the allure of a youthful Sue Lyons. Frank Langella has a thankless task reprising the role of Clare Quilty, so superbly played by Peter Sellers. Wisely, Lyne keeps the Quilty character mostly in the shadows as a lurking presence. On the positive side, the film is nicely photographed, and it makes good use of its North Carolina and Texas locations. And, as Lyne showed in Jacob’s Ladder, he can definitely portray descent into paranoid madness. In the end, the new film follows the old one fairly closely. Indeed, most of its wit comes from inadvertent reminders of touches from the 1962 version. An interesting addition is a phosphorescent prolog about Humbert’s own adolescence that attempts to explain his lifelong obsession with pubescent nymphs. (Seen 19 June 1998)

Lón sa Spéir (Men at Lunch) 3 out of 4 stars

You have probably seen the photo. If you have ever visited the tourist locales in New York City, you have certainly seen it. It shows eleven workmen casually having their lunch while sitting in a row on a girder high above Manhattan. At some point I came to assume that the photo was posed, perhaps in a studio. That was probably around the time I started seeing different versions, with schoolchildren or yuppies sitting on the girder. But it turns out that the famous photo is exactly what it seems to be. If there was anything you ever wanted to know about it, this film will tell you all that is knowable about it. In this documentary by Séan Ó Cualáin and narrated in the Irish language by the actor Fionnula Flanagan, we learn the exact circumstances of the taking of the photo in 1932 high atop the under-construction Rockefeller Center. It turns out that a lot of photos were taken there around the same time, and many of them are equally breathtaking. Indeed, the film’s editing tricks with the photos at times will make viewers like me dizzy with vertigo. There is much background information on the times: the rash of skyscraper building during the Roaring 20s, the scarcity of jobs during the Great Depression, the state of immigrant communities. We don’t know who exactly took the photo, but we get the likely suspects. As for the men themselves, they surprisingly remain mostly anonymous—although we learn that lots of people frequently claim various ones as relatives. Two are pretty well identified by matching with other contemporaneous photos. And, by the end of the film, two others appear to be pretty much definitively identified, as two brothers-in-law from the County Galway village of Shanaglish. (Seen 13 July 2012)

Lone Star 3 out of 4 stars

John Sayles’s movies don’t particularly excel in unusual plots, special effects, or bravura starring performances. His movies are not Events. He just crafts films very skillfully, and he writes intelligent scripts. Lone Star is as good as anything he has ever done. It is a sprawling story of a small Texas town on the Mexican border, appropriately called Frontera. The large cast includes scores of speaking parts. And refreshingly, the film gives equal time to numerous characters who are Anglo, Hispanic, and African-American. The title may be the ultimate product placement since there is much imbibing of Lone Star beer. But the title also refers to the state of Texas as well as to an old sheriff’s badge that is found with a skeleton on an old rifle range as the story opens. The mystery of the victim’s identity as well as that of the killer is the spine of the plot, but the movie is more interested in exploring the various characters in the community as well as the friction between sub-groups within the community. A recurring theme is the conflict between parents and children, both living and dead. Chris Cooper (also in Sayles’s Matewan) is fine as the sheriff investigating the uncovered murder. Kris Kristofferson is chilling in well-executed flashbacks as a corrupt former sheriff who held much of Frontera in fear. (Seen 6 June 1996)

The Long Day Closes 2 out of 4 stars

Terence Davies’s 1992 follow-up to Distant Voices, Still Lives, this is in some ways the same movie. Again, we have a 1950s Liverpool family in what seems to be the same humble semi-detached home. And again we have the kind, hard=working mother and the young lad who is mad for the pictures. And instead of a conventional story, we have a languidly flowing set of vignettes that have the feel of old memories. Some people might go so far as to suggest that Davies always makes the same movie and it is always about himself. What is missing this time is the angry father, who dominated, emotionally if not in terms of screen time, Distant Voices. There is more focus on the lad: his loneliness, his being somehow different than other boys. Audiences more comfortable with mainstream movies may feel that this long day does not close soon enough. But lovers of film art will admire its careful attention to movement and composition and music. The film ends movingly with the title song, published in 1868. The lyrics by Henry Fothergill Chorley (music is by Arthur Sullivan of “Gilbert &” fame) meditate on death, but here they seem to be mourning a lost time. (Seen 15 October 2008)

A Long Way Down 2 out of 4 stars

The setup is nothing short of fanciful. On New Year’s Eve four very different people show up within minutes of each other at London’s prime jumping-off point for suicides. Apparently, none of them really has his or her heart in it because they all give up on the idea—at least until Valentine’s Day. After that, it looks as though this dramedy is aiming to be a variation on Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe, but it’s not. It’s mainly a story about how four strangers become something of a family. The standout character is crazy Jess (Imogen Poots), whose need to shock is the bane of her stuffy politician father’s existence. (He’s nicely played by Sam Neill.) Pierce Brosnan is nothing if not convincing as a BBC breakfast show presenter who (in an up-to-the-minute reference) has been sacked for an affair with an under-age girl. Idaho’s own Aaron Paul has the most mysterious role as the one member of the group who may be truly suicidal. In terms of acting chops, the always amazing Toni Collette walks away with the most convincing performance in the least flashy role. French director Pascal Chaumeil worked from a screenplay by Jack Thorne after a Nick Hornby (Fever Pitch, High Fidelity, About a Boy) novel. If there’s any one thing we learn definitively from this movie, it is that journalists are scum. (Seen 16 February 2014)

A Long Way from Home 3 out of 4 stars

For Joseph and Brenda every day seems to be Groundhog Day. Living out their retirement in a simple apartment in the warm French climate of Nîmes, one day seems pretty much like another. They silently go about their routine, and Joseph goes out faithfully each morning for two copies of The Times so that they can each do the crossword. They often go to the same restaurant for dinner, invariably having the same conversation with the owner and ordering the same meals. But something is eating at Joseph. On his walks, despite the sameness of the days, he sees time inexorably slipping by. Then the two of them make the acquaintance of a young English couple on holidays and, well, Joseph gets just a touch of l’amour fou. Director Virginia Gilbert adapted the film from her own short story, and she has gotten flawless performances, as you would expect, from James Fox and Brenda Fricker as the older couple and Natalie Dormer and Paul Nicholls as the younger one. The plot may be slight, but there is a mountain of story in simple interactions and gradually revealed backstory and psychology. Much of the dramatic tension derives from something as simple as our coming to regard the characters as real people, investing in them and having genuine concern for Joseph that he might wind up crossing a line and making a fool of himself. This is the kind of film that is as profound as human mortality and as light as a chilled glass of white wine. It also shows us with complete confidence what true love really looks like. (Seen 13 July 2014)

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring 4 out of 4 stars

Either you have seen this movie or else you have talked to someone who has seen it and/or you have read one or more reviews of it. So, you just need me to confirm what you already know or have heard. All I can say is… Thank you, Peter Jackson. Thank you for making a film that is faithful to a great work of literature in every possible way except, perhaps, in a literal way. Thank you for a movie that is epic in a way that movies have only tried to be in recent years. Thank you for the kind spectacle that computers were invented for but too often dehumanize. Thank you for a fantasy movie that doesn’t nudge or wink or put its tongue in its cheek—like so many movies in recent decades have had to do because filmmakers had to show that they were, after all, way too hip to take fantasy seriously. Thank you for a movie that genuinely frightens us and touches us and makes us laugh and cry, even though most of the characters are not even of the race of men. I’ve always had little patience for people who condemn movies because they aren’t just like the books that they happen to be based on. This movie puts my philosophy to the test since The Lord of the Rings is one of my favorite works of literature of all time. And you know what? I didn’t even miss Tom Bombadil or the Ents. [Oops, see Reader Feedback.] Now, I have just one request. Peter Jackson, once you’ve wrapped up this trilogy, can you please start work on adapting Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude? Please! (Seen 26 December 2001)

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King 4 out of 4 stars

Wow. It’s finally over. After two years (December 2001 to December 2003), it seems so sudden to have this epic story finished. A couple of reviews I have read assertions that The Two Towers was the weakest of the three movies, but it may have been my favorite. My memories of the books are strongest with the beginning of the end of the story. The middle part was more vague, and that is where Peter Jackson’s movies had the least competition. Also, the third movie in any trilogy has a lot of obstacles to overcome. First, there is the fatigue factor. We have followed this story and these characters for literally years, and after a while we get too familiar with the male bonding between… fill in the blanks (Frodo and Sam, Legolas and Gimli, etc.), or the way the cavalry keeps showing up with a new army just in time to save the day whenever a battle is going badly. Some books get overshadowed by movie versions. Some movie versions are incidental to the great books they are based on. And some stories are big enough to support a classic book and a classic movie. (Gone with the Wind comes to mind.) This is one of those cases. Even at 9+ hours, the movies don’t allow the time for all the subtlety and subplots of the books, so people should definitely read the books. But for people who just don’t read books, these three movies (really one very long movie, originally distributed in three sections) by Peter Jackson provide a major epic that stands on its own. For those of us who both read the books and watch the movies, we have an experience so rich in ideas and themes and visuals and sensory experiences that we can’t imagine what is left for us to discover and enjoy. The beauty of life is that, somewhere out there, there will be something out there to match or exceed the enjoyment of the Tolkien/Jackson epic. At least that’s the hope. (Seen 27 December 2003)

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers 4 out of 4 stars

What can I say? I’m in heaven. Thank God I lived to see this and the previous one, and please let me live long enough to see the next one. The great thing is that this isn’t a sequel. It’s just more of the same (great) movie. That’s a concept that is so simple and obvious and yet almost never actually happens in real life. Another great thing about these movies is that they are both book movies and movie movies. They satisfy the wants and desires of fans of the books but also those of film buffs. Without ripping anything off, The Two Towers echoes so many epics, from swashbuckling classics like The Seven Samurai and their western counterparts, i.e., The Magnificent Seven. Or war epics, like Lawrence of Arabia. But there is so much more, like when Gollum begins talking to himself and we find a character as weird and complex as Psycho’s Norman Bates. Or unexpected glints of recognition, like when we see King Théoden is, quite appropriately, played by the same mournful actor (Bernard Hill) who was the captain of the Titanic! (It’s also strange seeing New Zealand actor Karl Urban as the dashing Éomér, when I mainly think of him as the offbeat male lead in the quirky comedy The Price of Milk.) Okay, I could have done without Legolas doing the skateboard thing, but aside from that everything was perfect. Sam’s speech at the end may have come off a bit corny, but you know what, that’s not a problem with the speech. It’s a problem with the world, that we’ve become too jaded to deal with innocent movie characters. Thanks again, Peter Jackson! [Related commentary] (Seen 27 December 2002)

Losing Chase 2 out of 4 stars

Any movie that gives Helen Mirren a chance to strut her acting stuff is always worth a look. As the title character in Losing Chase, she gets to run the gamut from clinical depression to newfound serenity. The directing debut of actor Kevin Bacon, this Showtime production also serves as an acting vehicle for his wife Kyra Sedgwick (Singles), the executive producer. Mirren’s character is recovering from a nervous breakdown and, in stark contrast to Angel Baby, mental illness here is defined as being extremely rude to other people. So Mirren is constantly berating her husband (Beau Bridges) and their children and especially the new “mother’s helper” (Sedgwick) that her husband has hired. Thankfully, the course of the plot isn’t always predictable, and Mirren does her usual fine work. She seems like the only one of the main cast who actually belongs on Martha’s Vineyard, where the story is set. (Seen 22 May 1996)

The Loss of Sexual Innocence 2 out of 4 stars

In a way, this newest and most personal film by Mike Figgis (Leaving Las Vegas, One Night Stand) is a bit like that great film Slaughterhouse-Five in that it is about a man who seems to be unstuck in time. We keep bouncing between Nic’s boyhood in Kenya, his traumatic adolescence and young adulthood in north England, and marital tensions and a disastrous filmmaking excursion in middle age. Oh yeah, and Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Figgis’s stated intention was to provide the viewer with the same satisfaction that Figgis gets after reading a collection of short stories. Long stretches with little or no dialog, however, don’t really make this feel like a literary experience. It is one of those movies that is best summed up with that most damning of words: “interesting.” Anyway, we get to find out what it would have been like if Adam and Eve had had to face the paparazzi upon being cast of out Eden. Perhaps the most entertaining part of the evening was Figgis’ lavish praise for Seattle’s newly restored Cinerama theater, a gift to the city from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen which, like most of Allen’s “gifts,” stands to make him a lot of money. (Seen 14 May 1999)

Lost and Delirious 3 out of 4 stars

This Canadian film by Léa Pool, who usually works in French but here is working in English, is a powerful story of love, passion and relationships. So it will appeal to a good many women. Will their husbands and boyfriends want to come along? Well, it also features love scenes between teenage schoolgirls in uniforms so, guys, you’ll have to make the call. This tale about a girl totally driven over the edge by obsessive love is the sort of stuff that is probably most appreciated by teenagers with their own raging hormones fueling their passions. But it has an appeal as well to those of us who can still sort of remember what those raging hormones felt like. Our minds may tell us that lovesick Paulie (played convincingly by Piper Perabo) is simply nuts, but after it is all over, we are haunted by the force of her passion and the indomitability of her spirit. The rest of the cast is uniformly good, particularly Mischa Barton, as the narrator “Mouse,” and Jackie Burroughs, as the most compassionate and empathetic headmistress any girls school could want. (Seen 25 May 2001)

Lost & Found 2 out of 4 stars

More than a decade and a half ago, Liam Ó Mochain made a clever and inventive film called The Book That Wrote Itself. A road movie, it not only had life imitating art but had real life interwoven with art. Ó Mochain’s latest is somewhat similar in that it weaves a number of real-life stories that the filmmaker witnessed or heard about. Structure-wise, it is really an omnibus, basically a collection of short films with a group of actors playing the same characters from segment to segment. Ó Mochain takes what is more or less the principal role of amiable if unambitious Daniel. We follow the travails of his first day working in the lost-and-found department in a train station (filmed in Portarlington, County Laois) which is more than a little reminiscent of Kevin Smith’s Clerks in its observations of miscellaneous humanity. As various people come and go, we meet the characters who will populate the other segments. An elderly man pesters strangers for money to replace a lost train ticket. A planned wedding proposal goes awry as a couple pass through Dublin Airport. Acting on a deathbed story from his granny, Daniel goes to Poland on a treasure hunt. A cantankerous publican’s repeated efforts to draw customers fail miserably until an unfortunate twist attracts a crowd he did not want. A young woman is determined to hold onto her up her prime wedding booking despite being jilted by her fiancé. The stories are, in turn, touching, funny and thoughtful. By the end we feel we have become part of a small tight-knit quirky community. (Seen 15 July 2017)

The Lost Boys 2 out of 4 stars

A couple decades before all this Twilight hoopla, this 1987 sort-of horror movie, sort-of comedy proved very popular without making vampires romantic heroes or, worse, sparkly. Executive-produced by Richard Donner and taking a child’s point of view, it can be thought of as The Goonies with vampires. It provided an early breakout role for Kiefer Sutherland as the main young vampire thug. It also marks the first pairing of the two Coreys (Haim and Feldman). Moreover, it gave most of us our first look at Jason Patric, son of playwright and Exorcist star Jason Miller and grandson of comedy legend Jackie Gleason. Director Joel Schumacher infused this film with the popular youth culture of the time, and the ghost of Jim Morrison (among others) is regularly invoked. As Haim’s older brother, who falls in with a bad crowd, i.e. the vampires, Patric is like Morrison’s reincarnation, as he exudes a raw animal energy. A scene where he first feels the lust for blood and proceeds to stalk Haim in a bathtub is truly creepy—for all kinds of reasons. From there, it goes on to a crowd-pleasing finish which, unfortunately, is more evocative of Home Alone than it is of all the darker possibilities that were raised by the provocative beginning. (Seen 24 November 2012)

Lost Highway 2 out of 4 stars

If you know anything at all about David Lynch, then you probably already have an idea as to whether or not you want to see Lost Highway. Lynch has always created his own strange world where everything is a bit (or a lot) off. You feel that it would all make sense if you could just get a hold of the cheat sheet, but it never shows up. In Lost Highway characters can change names, identities, or even bodies as they go about their business to the oh-so-hip soundtrack. And time doesn’t seem to flow quite as linearly as we would expect. Like Twin Peaks, the story revolves around a murder mystery, but once again Lynch seems more interested in tossing out more and more strange twists than he is in actually solving it. This is like one of those weird eastern European flicks that really just wants to play with your head. The movie tries our patience early on with a lethargic pace, elliptic dialog, and lots of dark rooms. Then suddenly it kicks into gear and becomes more entertaining. Robert “Baretta” Blake is memorable as a Mephistophelean Mystery Man. (Think of the dwarf in Twin Peaks with Dennis Hopper’s bad attitude in Blue Velvet.) Poignantly, there are brief appearances by Richard Pryor and the late Jack “Eraserhead” Nance. (Seen 3 March 1997)

Lost in La Mancha 2 out of 4 stars

Now here is a case of life imitating art. Or rather, life turning out more than a bit like art which is trying to be made but doesn’t succeed at being made. Apparently planned as one of those “making of” documentaries, this movie turned into a fascinating cautionary tale. Filmmakers Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe were clearly given pretty much unfettered access as Terry Gilliam set out to make his long cherished dream project, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. As things fall apart before our eyes, it’s as though Gilliam realized that, even if his own movie couldn’t be made, a mirror documentary version of it might emerge by having Fulton and Pepe around with their cameras. The film is particularly interesting for showing us the day-to-day work that goes into pre-production and production when making a moderately budgeted movie on location (in Spain). Someone describes the project as trying to make “a Hollywood movie without Hollywood” and that the budget and time constraints leave no room for error. What’s amazing is how unglamorous and how much like actual work it all seems. Only when the on-screen talent begins showing up (veteran French actor Jean Rochefort, the perfect Quixote, and an incredibly young-looking Johnny Depp, with whom Gilliam had recently made Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) does it start to seem like show business—but only a bit. Then the calamities befall. A freak storm halts filming and changes the landscape and light. NATO planes keep roaring by overhead. Most crucially, Rochefort disappears back to Paris to consult doctors over pains that make it impossible for him to sit on a horse, triggering intervention by insurers. In the end, it makes Gilliam and crew look incredibly hapless and worthy of a dictionary entry for the word quixotic. Is this documentary to be the sole fruit of Gilliam’s sad quest? Hope springs eternal a decade later, as rumors continue to be heard about another go, with Robert Duvall in the title role. (Seen 13 March 2012)

Lost in Space 2 out of 4 stars

In the 1960s the TV series Lost in Space and Star Trek came to be the main standard bearers of the two main types of sci-fi TV and movie franchises: those with cute kids and robots and those without. And if you really liked one, you probably didn’t care much for the other. The new movie version of Lost in Space is directly aimed at the same audience as the TV series, i.e. pre-adolescents, and taken as such it is a fair amount of fun. The cast is mostly fine. Matt LeBlanc is apparently cursed forever by his Friends role, but Gary Oldman comes up with one more inventive variation of an evil genius. Of course, this is about a family, but then aren’t most sci-fi shows and flicks? (Think about it.) The family dynamics here have been clearly updated for the 1990s and, in fact, the family theme is harped on so much that movie eventually turns into a strange combination of The Wizard of Oz meets It’s a Wonderful Life. By the end it feels as though we have seen one of those Mormon public service announcements, but with much better special effects. (Seen 6 April 1998)

Lost in Translation 3 out of 4 stars

This is the kind of movie that people will like or not, based entirely on the experience they bring to it. Personally, I was getting jetlag flashbacks throughout the film’s entire running time. I can’t think of another movie that has caught so deliberately the sense of disorientation that one feels making a major time zone shift as well as a major cultural shift. An added element is the strange experience, that may be quintessentially American, of seeing one’s own culture refracted and reflected back on oneself in a totally foreign setting. There is something so real about this simple story of two people adrift during a week in Tokyo that it feels as though it must have really happened. Writer/director Sofia Coppola, who was sneered at for daring to take over a role from Winona Ryder in her father’s final Godfather movie, is definitely getting the last laugh after her respectable enough adaptation of The Virgin Suicides and now this much acclaimed film. The big surprise is Bill Murray, whose well-known comic persona has always been the wry, sneering commentator on everything around him. Somehow, those jaded eyes have matured into showing something sad and vulnerable, as he demonstrated so well in Rushmore. As a man wondering how he got where is and connecting with a young woman wondering where she is going, he gives this film its world-weary soul. (Seen 28 January 2004)

The Lost World: Jurassic Park 3 out of 4 stars

A lot of critics have been saying that this sequel to Jurassic Park is disappointing compared with the original. Well, to anybody who thinks The Lost World is a letdown follow-up to a Steven Spielberg mega-hit, I have only the following to say: Jaws II! The fact is, this film does exactly what a sequel is supposed to do: it basically recreates the original movie, only everything is bigger—more dinosaurs, better dinosaurs, better vehicle-over-the-cliff episode, more extras (listed in the credits with names like “Screamers” and “Unlucky Bastard”) to get eaten, etc. As a bonus, we get a King Kong remake tagged onto the end. The problem is that a remake can never recreate the wonder of a true original, so you just have to sit back and enjoy the ride and not worry about it. One of the best things about this movie is Jeff Goldblum, who continually says out loud the exact things that we are thinking. Early on he predicts humorously and accurately what is going to happen. And, of course, it happens anyway. At the film’s end, a cold-hearted, profits-obsessed executive gets eaten and we’re supposed to cheer. There is a bit of hypocrisy here because you know Spielberg has to have a whole bunch of guys like this working for him. (Seen 16 June 1997)

Lou Reed: Rock and Roll Heart 2 out of 4 stars

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’s documentary on the career of musician/poet Lou Reed is basically the rock equivalent of one of those TV tributes to someone like Bob Hope. The film is never less than 100 percent admiring of Reed and his oeuvre. His personal life is barely mentioned at all, and celebrities from David Bowie to Laurie Anderson to Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore (who seems to have a whole new career showing up in films like this to praise his musical antecedents) are trotted out to shower (justifiable) praise on Reed. For those who are not devoted fans, Lou Reed: Rock and Roll Heart is an ideal way to put together all the pieces of Reed’s long and diverse career. From the Andy Warhol days with the Velvet Underground through the glam rock phase to the machine noise stuff, it’s all covered here. For admirers this is a must-see. For everyone else it’s a chance to say, “Oh yeah, that’s the guy who did that ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ song!” (Seen 9 July 1998)

Louis 19 le roi des ondes (Louis 19 King of the Airwaves) 3 out of 4 stars

This Canadian movie (in French) is the film festival winner so far in the belly laugh competition. It is yet one more critique of the mass media, but it is so clever and well executed that the whole idea of trashing commercial television seems fresh and new. (And this film couldn’t appear at a better time, as a whole nation sits spellbound watching court proceedings on TV.) As a satire of TV’s effect on our lives, it is closer to Being There than to Network, but it is mostly the cinematic heir to such Frank Capra classics as Meet John Doe. Louis is a young nebbish who is fascinated with the idea of being on TV. His dream comes true when he wins a contest to have his life televised round-the-clock for three months by a cable channel. Improbably, he becomes a hit and he’s all anybody in Montreal is talking about. (And, no, he isn’t televised every single minute. There is a sign on his bathroom door that says “Louis will return in five minutes” and, when he is in a private meeting with the network brass, they run a retrospective The Best of Louis.) As time goes on, Louis learns that being a media star has a dark side. His life becomes cluttered with product placements from advertisers. People want to hang out with him, so they can be on TV too. And how would you like your mother or boss to be able to see what you are doing all the time? Just when you think the filmmakers have milked this idea dry, they come up with yet another twist that makes you howl. I haven’t had this good a time at a movie in a long time. (Seen 27 May 1995)

Love & Friendship 3 out of 4 stars

Call me a Whit Stillman completist, but I take no small amount of satisfaction in having once again brought myself up to date in having viewed the entirety of Stillman’s cinematic oeuvre. This is not as impressive an accomplishment as it may sound, despite the fact the man has been making movies for a quarter-century. This is only his fifth big screen feature. To the extent that his previous work has concentrated exclusively on his own world of preppies and debutantes and Eastern Seaboard society that is largely foreign to many Americans, he could be arguably thought of as a latter-day American Jane Austen. So it is entirely appropriate that his first literary adaptation should be a work of the queen of Georgian English social mores lit. Another treat for Stillman devotees: this flick reunites the stars of his paean to the 1980s New York social scene The Last Days of Disco, Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny. The former is a widow reputed to be England’s most notorious flirt and social manipulator; the latter her American confidante. Based on Austen’s early epistolary novela Lady Susan, the film recounts how Beckinsale’s character invites herself to an extended stay with her in-laws and proceeds to seduce her sister-in-law’s naive good-looking brother (Australian Xavier Samuel) while simultaneously arranging a good, albeit older and dafter, catch for her daughter. Tom Bennett steals the show as Sir James Martin. He more or less channels Ricky Gervais (with whom he appears in the upcoming David Brent: Life on the Road) as a good-natured but completely clueless suitor of Beckinsale’s daughter. Indeed, the running theme of this often hilarious comedy is that men are little more than hapless pawns of intellectually superior women. The writing is sparkling, and can be read as both a tribute to Austen and an affectionate parody. The large cast, which is uniformly fine, includes the always welcome Stephen Fry as Sevigny’s husband—a man who occasionally feels the need to threaten to send his wife back to Connecticut. For Morfydd Clark, who plays Beckinsale’s daughter Frederica, this is one of two Austen adaptations (of sorts) for her this year. She also appears in Burr Steers’s film version of Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. (Seen 16 July 2016)

Love Actually 3 out of 4 stars

I wish everybody could see this movie at a film festival. So much of the fun in the film is in the element of surprise. And, unfortunately, thanks to things like movie reviews and word of mouth, some of the best surprises won’t be surprises for many people who see this movie. But they’ll probably like it anyway. It is the directing debut of Richard Curtis, who previously penned Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill. So, already you have a good idea what sort of stuff to expect (especially with that title). As if to remind us who’s the creative force behind things, the movie even begins with a wedding and a funeral. And a whole lot of other stuff. Yes, this is one of those large-cast, sprawling narratives of multiple stories that weave and intersect and collide. But usually it’s not done so magically. There’s a bit of inspired casting, as well as a couple of really fun cameos, that just make this thing soar, even when it’s shamelessly manipulating us. Not all the threads wind up satisfactorily, but we needed something to make this celebration of all kinds of love seem something like real life. If all this is just confusing you, then just focus on the cast: Liam Neeson, Keira Knightley (Pirates of the Caribbean), Alan Rickman, Laura Linney, Colin Firth (Bridget Jones’s Diary), Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson (yes!), just enough of the hilarious Rowan Atkinson, and more! Especially entertaining (in addition to Atkinson) are Bill Nighy, as a burned-out rocker whose penchant for saying exactly what he’s thinking threatens his Christmas comeback, and Kris Marshall (The Most Fertile Man in Ireland) whose adventures in Wisconsin made me want to jump right on a plane back to America. (Seen 18 October 2003)

Love and Death on Long Island 3 out of 4 stars

If you’ve ever watched Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice, you probably said something to yourself like, “Hey, they should update this flick for the 90s. And make it a comedy!” Well, now somebody (first-time director Richard Kwietniowski) has, and the result is actually more entertaining and more intriguing than you might think. A better film comparison would really be to Blake Edwards’ 10, with the wonderful John Hurt (last seen aboard the space station Mir in Contact) in the Dudley Moore role and Jason Priestly (gamely playing on his teen idol image) in the Bo Derek part. Hurt plays a stodgy, reclusive English writer (a BBC radio note sums him up as “erstwhile fogey, now cult”) who one day wanders into a cinema and, instead of E.M. Forster’s Eternal Moment, inadvertently finds himself viewing Hotpants College II. As he rises to leave, he catches sight of Priestly and instantly and obsessively falls in love. Hurt gives a delightfully improbable performance as a curmudgeon getting in touch with his inner 12-year-old female child. Chief among the joys of this film is watching him dragged bemusedly into the 20th century by way of the teen idol sub-culture. The wit here is truly inspired. [Related commentary] (Seen 18 October 1997)

Love at First Bite 2 out of 4 stars

In a strange way, this movie is really a precursor of the Twilight films. That is to say, it is all about romance with no horror, the vampire is sympathetic and the object of his affections is not really averse to joining his lifestyle. This flick was a surprise hit in 1979 and the only real unqualified box office triumph of actor George Hamilton’s career. (He was also executive producer.) The title wasn’t great, but not as bad as the original working title, Dracula Sucks. It primed us to expect a silly parody along the lines of the movie spoofs Mel Brooks had started turning out since Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein five years earlier. (Brooks finally got around to doing his vampire spoof in 1995 with Dracula: Dead and Loving It.) This movie, rather, was a New York romantic comedy that nearly didn’t need its vampire gimmick to work. Hamilton could just as well been playing a flesh-and-blood European with old-fashioned ideas about love—although the Dracula shtick does provide for plenty of gags and an entertaining turn by Arte Johnson as the insect-devouring manservant Renfield. Hamilton’s recent memoir Don’t Mind if I Do makes it clear that, aside from the accent, Hamilton was essentially playing himself. A thoroughly traditional—if perpetually romantically ardent—southerner by birth, Hamilton has always been the quintessential courtly seducer. His screen alter ego turned out to be a welcome tonic to the end of a decade of self-gratification and rejection of traditional mores. It was also the prototype for a kind of romcom we have seen ever since (e.g. Kate & Leopold, Enchanted) in which putative feminists end up deciding they really want a big strong man to treat them like princesses after all. As the love interest, Susan Saint James is funny and beautiful but looks way too healthy, by today’s standards anyway, to be a top model. Richard Benjamin is very funny as the over-analytical sort-of boyfriend with major commitment issues. (Seen 20 August 2010)

Love God 0 out of 4 stars

Director Frank Grow made this film more or less as something to accompany his favorite heavy metal music. He says his main inspirations were underground comic books and Fox TV’s Cops. The target seems to be (aside from well-meaning film festival devotees fighting jet lag to stay awake for a midnight movie) 12-year-old males. There is some sort of story about mental patients being released from a hospital and having to contend with a phallic prehistoric worm cum [heh! heh! he said “cum”!] destructive love deity. One of the monsters looks like Marlon Brando in the role of Gumby. Also among the movie’s charms is a blob of a head that appears on the screen periodically to yell “Love God!” for no particular reason. We also get to learn what sort of people make a living cleaning up crime scenes. (Seen 18 May 1997)

Love Happens 2 out of 4 stars

Innocuous enough, this romantic comedy is occasionally amusing. It is mostly like watching an extended TV sitcom. Set in modern-day Los Angeles, where everyone drives sparkling sports utility vehicles while talking on their cell phones, this is the story of Lisa who is constantly dating but is incapable of committing. She has one of those cubicle jobs that always seems to provide plenty of time for flirting, plotting with her best friend/roommate/co-worker and chatting on the phone with her mother. Lisa looks like a bit of a cross between Jennifer Aniston and Helen Hunt, but she really reminds me of Deborah Walley (anyone else remember her?). Her main love interest looks like a young Christopher Reeve. Her best friend looks like Julia Sweeney. The love interest’s obnoxious best friend is a bit like Rob Schneider. And her insufferably chipper secondary love interest is a lot like (I’m not making this up) Tony Blair. If you don’t like shocks or surprises at the cinema, this is the perfect film for you. Tony Cookson wrote and directed. Best line: “Three and a half weeks with one man! What was I thinking?” (Seen 4 June 1999)

Love in the Time of Cholera 2 out of 4 stars

Everything seemed very promising. The director was Mike Newell, whose eclectic c.v. (Enchanted April, Into the West, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) has dealt with such grand themes as love, romance, fantasy and far-flung cultures. The screenwriter was Ronald Harwood, who penned two of the best movies of the past couple of decades (Cry, The Beloved Country, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly). And the source material is from one of the best authors of all time (and one of my personal favorites), Gabriel García Márquez. They even did filming in the actual setting, in Cartagena, Colombia. So what could possibly go wrong? Is it the international cast? Maybe. Despite his clear talent and star appeal, Spain’s Javier Bardem doesn’t seem to be right for the central role of Florentino Ariza, although the most miscast is Colombian-born John Leguizamo as Fermina Urbino’s domineering father. Maybe the filmmakers were hoping that the mere fact of being in the country that produced the story would lend it some of the book’s magic. Instead, though, the screenplay just seems to be ticking off plot points instead of sweeping us up. Maybe it was an impossible task. But I still have hope that there is a filmmaker out there whose visual style can do what García Márquez’s prose can do, i.e. through some sort of magic make a story more than the sum of its mere parts. (Seen 17 May 2013)

Love Is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon 2 out of 4 stars

The problem with movie biographies of famous artists (especially gay ones, for some reason) is that they so often give little sense of why the person should be famous in the first place. This is definitely the case with this study of the destructive relationship between Francis Bacon, considered one of this century’s greatest painters, and his lover and sometimes subject, George Dyer. It doesn’t help that for legal reasons director John Maybury wasn’t actually able to use any of Bacon’s paintings in the film. (So much for exploiting the most visual of mediums.) The idea instead is that Maybury evokes Bacon’s paintings through visual cinematic style, using strange angles, perspectives, lighting, and distortion, e.g. shooting a scene in a bar entirely through empty glasses. Sometimes this stuff is clever and sometimes it’s just plain distracting. We learn that Bacon was a sharp-tongued, upper-class twit and that Dyer was from the wrong side of the tracks, so they basically had an (excuse the expression) upstairs/downstairs sort of relationship. We hear several times how great an artist Bacon is, but we don’t really get a sense of why he should be held in such high regard. He comes off as petty, self-involved, and not particularly deep. The film does include one of the most harrowing suicide scenes I have seen in a movie; afterwards, you will feel like getting your own stomach pumped. Maybury is a disciple of the late director Derek Jarman, and at this point I’d have to say that Jarman was better. (Seen 28 September 1998)

Love Punch 3 out of 4 stars

This movie is to screwball comedies as The Expendables is to action movies. Like clockwork, in the midst of the characters’ improbable exploits in the service of an international caper, they periodically stop to complain about this or that sore body part and/or the vagaries of aging. Yes, it’s by the numbers and it’s beyond predictable, but I rationalize all the stars I give this movie because it has all of the four things I look for in any film: 1) Emma Thompson, 2) Paris and Cannes location work, 3) martinis and 4) Emma Thompson. It’s as though a sophisticated computer algorithm generated this flick for the express purpose of pleasing me. Speaking of martinis, the opening shot is of one being shaken—not stirred—to alert us that Pierce Brosnan will be spoofing his 007 work. But the filmmakers could just as easily be signaling that they are going to take us back to the days of William Powell and Myrna Loy and the Thin Man movies. Is that intentional? Well, why not? It’s every bit as likely as the notion that the revelation that Brosnan has a fear of heights is an homage to Vertigo. I’ve decided that Brosnan and Thompson are definitely the 2010s’ heirs to Nick and Nora Charles for the English suburbs. And it gets even better. They are joined in their shenanigans by no less than Timothy Spall and Celia Imrie. So why did this fun flick sink without a trace last December? Beats me. But I’d happily join a Kickstarter campaign to fund a sequel or a TV series. Come to think of it, this movie does have the feel of a pilot… Did I mention that it has Emma Thompson? And martinis? (Seen 14 September 2014)

Love Serenade 2 out of 4 stars

This dark Australian comedy threatens to do for Barry White what Muriel’s Wedding (and The Adventures of Priscella, Queen of the Desert) did for Abba. The movie, by first-time director Shirley Barrett, demonstrates what David Lynch taught us years ago: people in small towns can be mighty odd. The story revolves around two single sisters, who live in a decaying backwater town, and the slimy lounge lizard of a disc jockey who moves next door and comes between them. Dimiti, the younger sister, is an innocent whose actions aren’t always predictable. Vicki-Ann is the type who will show up on a man’s doorstep in a wedding gown the morning after a first date. You’re never quite sure exactly where this story is headed, and that’s just as well since it relies a lot on strange touches and a few surprises. You’re better off just sitting back and enjoying the ride. (Seen 2 June 1997)

Loved 1 out of 4 stars

After Breaking Up, the last thing I needed was another bad-relationship movie. But next on the schedule was the world premiere of writer/director Erin Dignam’s Loved. This one is a bit better, and it certainly is thought-provoking. But it is ultimately frustrating and disappointing. Its non-judgmental near-analysis of a violent relationship is liable to be controversial and probably isn’t very politically correct. Robin Wright-Penn (The Princess Bride, Forrest Gump), in short dark hair, gets to strut her acting stuff as a woman forced to testify against an abusive ex-boyfriend. Although he battered her and is responsible for the deaths of two other women, she feels she deserved everything he did to her. William Hurt is the thoughtful prosecutor who rambles into esoteric conversations with her on the stand during a pre-trial hearing. Unfortunately, Dignam’s self-avowed approach to filmmaking is not to give out too much information about characters, motives, or back stories, thus much of the film is needlessly confusing. Sean Penn has a bizarre cameo which seems to exist mainly because he is a producer and the star’s husband. (Seen 6 June 1997)

Lovely & Amazing 2 out of 4 stars

My friend Jim says that, whenever he sees a movie in which Brenda Blethyn plays the mother of a black girl, he wants to slap everyone in the movie. There are only two such films, as far as I know (this movie and Secrets & Lies), but the pattern is clear. The women of the Marks family sound great on paper. Mother Jane has adopted an African-American child from a disadvantaged background. Daughter Michelle is an artist. Other daughter Elizabeth is an actor whose first movie is being released. But the film deliberately and cynically (but not unsympathetically) shows how screwed up these women are, despite their best efforts. If this sounds like a chick flick, well, it is—with a capital C and a capital F. That means that the male characters are mainly jerks and the female characters are mostly neurotic. And I mean really neurotic. We haven’t seen so many women doing so much obsessing over their physical appearance and how unfulfilled their lives are and how the men in their lives aren’t meeting their needs since, well, I guess the last episode of Sex and the City. Director Nicole Holofcener seems to have a penchant for project titles featuring the conjunction “and.” In addition to directing for the aforementioned Sex and the City, she directed a Gilmore Girls episode called “Secrets and Loans” and a feature film called Walking and Talking. This movie is a bit more interesting than the average chick flick, however, because of its subtly subversive view. It’s sort of a kinder, gentler Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness) film. In a supporting role Dermot Mulroney, who usually comes off as wooden and self-absorbed, is perfect here playing an actor who is wooden and self-absorbed. (Seen 22 July 2002)

Loverboy 2 out of 4 stars

A decade and a half before he became Grey’s Anatomy’s Dr. McDreamy, Patrick Dempsey had a nice little thing going as a nerdy clown in teen comedies. This one, in which Dempsey plays a college student trying to earn tuition so he can get back with his girlfriend and patch up their quarrel, has all the trappings of a French farce. It is directed by Joan Micklin Silver, who had previously given us more serious films like Hester Street, Head Over Heels (which began with a much more apropos title, Chilly Scenes of Winter, before the studio ruined it by changing the ending) and Crossing Delancey. The setup is that Dempsey’s summer stint as a pizza delivery boy evolves into a very successful gigolo sideline when he susses out that the women ordering the “extra anchovies” (code for tossing the sheets) really mostly need a sympathetic ear and a bit of romance. His clients are certainly first class. They include Barbara Carrera, Kirstie Alley, Princess Leia herself (Carrie Fisher) and even Kate Jackson as (paging Dr. Freud!) Dempsey’s own clueless mother. Their husbands include the likes of Vic Tayback and Robert Picardo. (In a Star Trek match-up, future Voyager cast member Picardo is paired with former Vulcan Alley.) What is surprising is seeing how utterly ballet-like young Dempsey handles the considerable physical comedy. His movements are poetry in motion. (Seen 1 September 2012)

Loving 3 out of 4 stars

A native of Arkansas, Jeff Nichols clearly has an understanding and feel for the American South that those of us who are not of the region could only hope to fake if we wanted to write about it. (Previous movies include Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, Mud and Midnight Special.) This is undoubtedly why he made the wise decision to focus this dramatic treatment of a landmark Supreme Court case squarely on the plaintiffs rather than, as many movies would (cf. The Hurricane), on the lawyers. Indeed, the scenes involving the ACLU attorneys are actually kind of jarring and feel as though they belong in a different movie entirely. For the most part, the legal proceedings are happening off-screen and we learn of them the same way that Mildred and Richard Loving do—by the occasional phone call. Instead, we spend most of the moving watching the couple—who were instrumental in altering the U.S. Constitution—go about their rather ordinary, simple and unremarkable lives. The performances of Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton are so naturalistic and dialed-back that there was a real risk of this turning out to be a two-hour bore. Paradoxically, though, it is that extreme ordinariness against the backdrop of looming societal change that makes the whole thing riveting. Like all the best movie heroes, the Lovings did not deliberately set out to be heroes or to make a grand statement. They only did what they had to in order to live their own private lives the way they wanted to, without bothering anyone else. While Nichols’s screenplay (drawing from a documentary by Nancy Buiski, one of this film’s producers) does not shy away from the racism of the place and time, the emphasis is clearly and rightfully on the humanity of most people. There are, of course, scenes of tension, but things are not juiced up in the way that a number of other filmmakers have done in the past when working with such material. The message and the artistry of the movie are all the stronger for it. (Seen 5 February 2017)

Lucía y el sexo (Sex and Lucia) 2 out of 4 stars

Shown at the Dublin International Film Festival as part of a tribute to Spanish filmmaker Julio Medem, this is the filmmaker’s second most recent movie. (His newest, also shown at the festival, is Basque Ball, a documentary about the Medem’s native Basque country.) Medem was there to introduce the film and amusingly confounded his translator as he tried to explain to the audience what it is about. Like Medem’s previous films (especially Earth), this one is maddeningly strange and full of less-than-obvious meanings. It is essentially one part art film, one part melodrama, and one part skin flick. So, in theory, it should have all movie audiences covered. The most satisfied viewers will probably be the ones wanting to see very attractive people making love. The overall plot is the weakest part. The most intriguing aspect is figuring out the meanings underneath the narrative, what we Spanish language literature students would call the código literario. Any time the hero of a story is a writer and there is book within a book (or, here, within a movie), you can figure that your brain is going to get twisted. In this flick, it gets more than just twisted. It gets knotted in kinks. (Seen 19 February 2004)

Lucky Break (Paperback Romance) 2 out of 4 stars

Each year a running trend emerges over the course of viewing scores of movies at the Seattle International Film Festival. Two years ago it was a surge of updates to the film noir genre. Last year there was a slew of low-budget independent films about people making low-budget independent films. So far this year it seems to be a resurgence of the screwball romantic comedy. The Heartbreak Kid, Pretty Baby, Alegre Ma Non Troppo, and A Business Affair all fit into this category to some extent. (But definitely not L’Enfer!) Now we have Lucky Break, an Australian comedy about a romance between an author of trashy novels (the kind with Fabio sans shirt on the cover) and a shady jewelry dealer. The lucky break of the title is a literal one. Sophie (Gia Carides) breaks her leg in an elaborate slapstick scene, and this means that Eddy (Anthony LaPPaglia), who has just met her, goes several weeks before learning that she has had polio since childhood. How will he react when he finds out? And what about the little matter of his (predictably obnoxious) financée? In addition to the resulting misunderstandings and close calls, we are treated to Sophie’s Walter Mitty-like escapes into her writing (every passage seems to end with the couple in the “Trojan horse position”) which she has the bad habit of reading out loud while working at the public library. I’ve seen this stuff done as well or better elsewhere, but the movie gets extra points for recognizing that there are “differently abled” people among us and that humor can be derived from their situations without making fun of them. (Seen 26 May 1995)

Luke 3 out of 4 stars

In a lot of ways, this biography of legendary Irish musician Luke Kelly is fairly standard stuff, but by the end it manages to pack quite an emotional wallop—as well as bringing to life an era that seems a million years away and yet as recent as yesterday. The film essentially makes the case that Kelly was Ireland’s Pete Seeger, i.e. a politically aware and progressive folk singer who somehow became the conscience of his time. But as a subject, Kelly is even more interesting than that because of his notorious bad boy ways and early death. Although Kelly died in 1984, this documentary has an urgent and modern feel about it, largely through the testimonies of people in the news today like Gerry Adams and John Hume. Indeed, there seems to be no lack of personalities to step forward and speak of Kelly’s talents and exploits. Footage of Kelly is scarce in the early parts (causing the filmmakers to rely heavily on a lot of standard archival shots), but there is more than enough to make up for that later on during Kelly’s many years with The Dubliners, the seminal folk group whose name he suggested after the James Joyce book. Films like this always run the risk of beatifying their subject, but this one manages to be candid enough even while it appreciates quite warmly the man that it examines. (Seen 23 January 2000)

Lust Och Fagring Stor (All Things Fair) 2 out of 4 stars

Sweden’s All Things Fair was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film this past year (losing to Antonia’s Line). It is an epic coming-of-age story by Bo Widerberg (Elvira Madigan) and stars his son Johan as a high school student who gets more education than he bargained for. It is 1943 in Malmö and, while Sweden is not involved in the war, it still feels its effects. Stig and his friends talk a lot about sex and penis sizes, but talk turns to action for Stig when his teacher (who looks a lot like Linda Hamilton) decides to take advantage of the crush Stig has on her. Ironically, Stig winds up becoming good friends with her husband and, in some ways, becomes closer to him than to his own father. Overall, the film is nostalgic and provocative in a manner reminiscent of the late Louis Malle. (Seen 18 May 1996)

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