Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2018
Scott R. Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France
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M.r Pickpocket 2 out of 4 stars

If one were to describe the typical Pablo D’Stair movie, it might go something like this. Two people have an extended conversation—or perhaps a series of conversations—on a topic that veers into all kinds of interesting and unexpected and frequently humorous offshoots. And then it stops. By this definition, M.r Pickpocket is a typical D’Stair film—and not. The key difference here is the age of the protagonists, eight and six. Now a feature film that is essentially all talking/discussion/banter is always a risk to begin with, but to have all the chat carried on by tykes is, well, either the work of a madman or a genius. (I am treating this flick as feature length, although at 55 minutes it could also be reasonably considered a longish short film.) While perhaps not for those with the shortest of attention spans, the movie is anything but tedious, thanks to frequent cuts and endlessly inventive camera perspectives. Talky scenes are given breathers with interludes in which one of the characters watches or listens attentively to various bits of media, including an episode of the original Prisoner series. Music is provided by Left by Snakes, with whom the filmmaker collaborated on Honey Halo: The Left by Snakes Video Series. Most important for watchability, though, is the fact that the two actors (Lucian D’Stair and Sebastien D’Stair) are natural and do not wear out their welcome, as can too often happen with actors at their ages. The story follows the young brothers as they decide to write, draw, print, market and sell their very own comic book. (The lads’ own artwork features in transition shots.) The gag or conceit of the film is that these two primary school pupils speak with the assurance and conviction of nerds in their teens or twenties—not unlike the various characters in D’Stair’s previous film, Science Fiction. It’s a bit like the world of Peanuts where the kids are more or less stand-ins for adults and the adults themselves are absent. This leads to jarring and outright funny bits, as when the duo casually toss out well-worn Anglo-Saxon expletives or (one of my favorites) in a debate they argue over whose side Andy Warhol would have been on. The film is a particular treat for those of us who have undergone an extended comic book-reading phase in our checkered past and who (guilty!) actually did attempt making our own comic books in our misspent youth. (Seen 5 April 2017)

Ma Vie en Rose (My Life in Pink) 2 out of 4 stars

Pity poor Ludovic. At seven years of age, he is convinced that he was really meant to be a girl. With his hair long, as he insists on wearing it, he really does look like one. And he does look good in a dress, even though he usually shows up in one at precisely the worst moment, to the continual dismay of his emotionally overwrought parents. Lud’s understanding and young-thinking grandmother advises him that the best way to deal with unhappy fate is to escape into a fantasy world, and this he does quite regularly, flying through a magical kingdom with the Barbie-like character who fascinates him. French language cinema has a long history of dealing with tricky childhood subject matter (Malle’s Murmur of the Heart, Truffaut’s The 400 Blows), and first-time director Alain Berliner of Belgium is firmly in that tradition. He treats the subject sympathetically and poignantly, although he doesn’t seem particularly interested in providing an in-depth scientific lesson in transsexualism. Also, with many themes and plot points repeated more than once, the film seems longer than its 93 minutes. (Seen 17 October 1997)

Macario 2 out of 4 stars

This is a 1960 black-and-white Mexican movie about a peasant named Macario, who gets fed up with his lot in life in colonial Mexico. (His lot in life is a bunch of screaming kids, who can’t seem to get enough to eat.) He goes on a hunger strike until he can get a whole turkey for himself. So his concerned wife steals a turkey from a rich family and cooks it for him so he can have it just for himself. So he goes off into the woods to indulge himself, probably for the first time in his life, with no kids or anybody else around. But then, who should show up wanting some? The Devil. But Macario says, bug off, Devil. And then who shows up? God. And God wants some. But Macario’s got huevos, and he says no to God too. Then Death shows up. (Whoops.) So Macario sees the writing on the wall and shares. In exchange, Death gives him some magic water that can cure anybody. This stuff makes Macario a wealthy man until the Inquisition gets wind of it. This is one of those great ironically humorous, magical stories that Latin America excels in. Based on a story by the mysterious B. Traven, who wrote Treasure of the Sierra Madre. (Seen 29 May 1987)

Machuca 2 out of 4 stars

The 1973 military coup against the government of Salvador Allende was such a polarizing event—not only for people in Chile but for politically engaged people all over the world—that its depiction on film has inevitably been invested with a raging emotionalism. Chilean director Helvio Soto’s 1976 movie (a French-Bulgarian production) It Is Raining on Santiago caricatured Popular Unity’s opposition to such a point that the film bordered on black comedy. Greek director Costa-Gavras’s 1982 movie Missing (with Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek) worked much better, although the trade-off was concentrating mainly on the plight of an North American family caught up in the events of the coup. Now, enough time has passed that a talented young Chilean filmmaker can take a more direct, clear-headed view. The plot set-up is tried and true. Two boys from opposite sides of a bitter political divide become friends, then have their friendship tested as their communities become more and more bitter against each other. There is also a bit of a Jules and Jim vibe going on, with the two lads forming a tentative romantic threesome with the fiery, rebellious Silvana, who joins them in selling flags to both demonstrators and counter-demonstrators on the streets. Director Andrés Wood, who would have been a few years younger than the boys in the story at the time of the events depicted, has made a film that has to be both nostalgic and difficult for Chileans to watch. Its regretful tone reflects a generation that is still trying to come to terms with a bloody, violent golpe, about which half the population was, after all, supportive—or at least ambivalent. (Seen 8 June 2005)

Mad Max: Fury Road 3 out of 4 stars

Who would have expected that this revisit to the insanely high octane dystopian world of Australian filmmaker George Miller’s imagination would (tally-wise, anyway) sweep the most recent Academy Awards? Ten nominations—including Best Picture and Best Director—of which six converted into statuettes, all in technical categories. How did this happen? Yes, it is incredibly well made and and it excites and moves the viewer in a way that most flicks don’t. But those qualities have rarely spurred recognition in the action and science fiction genres before. I suppose we shouldn’t overthink it and just be glad that a worthy crowd pleaser got rewarded—in addition to a lot of other movies that most people didn’t even see. There are so many things here to confound the detail-oriented. Is this a sequel or a reboot? Is Tom Hardy actually playing the same character as Mel Gibson? Why, in a world where civilization has broken down, do they never run out of gasoline or bullets or, for that matter, straight smooth road? If these questions bother you, then you’re just not doing it right. You just go with the action, the emotion and the spectacle. Think about the themes or the messages if you want, but don’t get too caught up in all that. Continuity has never been a strong point in the Mad Max movies, so just accept that, in this outing, monosyllabic loner Max is just a supporting player in Imperator Furiosa’s story. In fact, as played by Tom Hardy, Max is even more dim than usual. Focus instead on Nicholas Hoult’s wild turn as a War Boy with flexible loyalties and, most emphatically, on Charlize Theron’s bravura performance as the gunslinger rescuing the villagers from the Mexican bandits, I mean, Immortan Joe’s War Boys. Joe, by the way, is played by Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played the villain called Toecutter in the very original Mad Max. And just delight in the fact that you are watching a movie with characters who have names like Rictus Erectus, Toast the Knowing and The Bullet Farmer. (Seen 30 March 2016)

Madagascar 2 out of 4 stars

The main difference between this DreamWorks computer animation flick and, say, certain previous ones like the two Shrek movies is that Shrek was aimed at adults but kids could enjoy it too and Madagascar is aimed at kids but adults can enjoy it too. Despite all the three-dimensional imaging and realistic textures, this is basically an old-fashioned cartoon with cartoon-like characters. And, as such and in terms of writing and execution, it is right up there with the best of the old Warner Bros. animations. You could almost imagine substituting the characters in this flick for the likes of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, except of course for the fact that rabbits and ducks usually aren’t zoo animals. The story gives every indication of wanting to deliver A Big Message, but I’m not sure what that would be. Theme-wise, things don’t veer too far in the Darwinian direction or the PETA direction, so I guess the basic moral is simply: friends don’t eat friends. There are lots of New Yorkers-as-fish-out-of-water gags, and English comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, better known by the name of his comic persona Ali G, is particularly amusing as the king of the lemurs. One thing the old Warner Bros. cartoons have in common with these sorts of animated movies is the non-stop Airplane!-style movie/TV gags. My personal favorite came when the lemurs panic hysterically over the prospect of being eaten by predatory invaders. In one brief sequence, aping (so to speak) a famous Twilight Zone episode, one lemur holds up a book entitled To Serve Lemur and screams, “It’s a cookbook!” (Seen 16 July 2005)

Made in Dagenham 3 out of 4 stars

Seven years ago, British director Nigel Cole made an uplifting, humorous, feel-good movie, laced with a bit dollop of sadness, about women banding together to Make Things Better. Now he’s done it again. Made in Dagenham is inspired by actual events that occurred at the Ford assembly plant in the titular London suburb in 1968. The plant’s female employees, who sewed car seat covers, walked off the job over the principle of equal pay for work equivalent to that done by male workers. If this sounds like the English version of Norma Rae, the tone of the movie is actually a lot more like, well, Calendar Girls, the afore-referenced Nigel Cole movie, which had Helen Mirren, Julie Walters and others baring all to raise money for leukemia research. In fact, this movie’s working class milieu and triumphing-in-the-face-bitter-economic-conditions theme put it in the same general category as such other British crowd pleasers as Brassed Off and The Full Monty. Much attention is lavished on period detail, with all the expected evocative dresses and hair-dos and music of the time. The tone is light enough and the characters are winning enough to make this lesson in social justice go down quite sweetly. If anything, there is a bit too much 20/20-hindsight tut-tutting (à la TV’s Mad Men) about the era’s sexual inequalities, but that’s okay. As the reluctant strike ringleader, Sally Hawkins is nothing short of appealing, as she finds that she must stand up not only to company management but also to the male-dominated union leadership and Harold Wilson’s Labour government. The latter comes through in the person of Barbara Castle, Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity. As played by Miranda Richardson, Castle comes off like a fiery-tempered Maureen O’Hara, ready to let the John Waynes in her life know just what’s what. (Seen 6 October 2010)

Maggie’s Plan 2 out of 4 stars

The world inhabited by the titular Maggie is a very familiar one by now. It is that version of Manhattan where everyone seems to work in academia or the arts and lives just a short walk from a campus and hip restaurants and coffee shops. It is a world familiar to viewers of films by Noah Baumbach and, somewhat relatedly, by Woody Allen. Maggie is played by Greta Gerwig, so there is more than a bit of cross-over with Baumbach world and, interestingly, those worlds—here by way of Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph—also intersect with the Judd Apatow sphere and its cross-fertilization with the Saturday Night Live demimonde. The director is novelist/filmmaker Rebecca Miller (progeny of playwright Arthur), who has adapted a story by her friend Karen Rinaldi based somewhat on Rinaldi’s own experience in achieving parenthood. Simply put, Gerwig’s Maggie recognizes that she is not cut out for a long-term relationship and so begins executing a plan to become a single parent. Not surprisingly, since this is after all a comedy, things do not go to plan. Ethan Hawke is the aspiring novelist who interrupts her as she is in the process of inseminating herself. A wonderfully droll Julianne Moore is his manipulatively passive-aggressive Danish wife. Hader and Rudolph are Gerwig’s requisite sounding-board best friends, and Travis Fimmel is a bit of quirky comic relief as an old college friend cum sperm donor. Mina Sundwall does a lovely job as the older of Hawke’s and Moore’s two children and a plain-spoken voice of common sense in the midst of the self-absorbed adults. The story stubbornly refuses to the follow the traditional romcom plot arc and yet ends with a completely romcom-ending-style smile. (Seen 2 November 2017)

The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart 2 out of 4 stars

If there was an actor who personified the pop culture in mid-1980s television, it was probably Don Johnson, in his guise as the impossibly trendy undercover cop in Miami Vice. But a decade and a half earlier, he pretty much personified the 1960s in his debut film role, as a university dropout who discovers the sex and drug revolution going on all around him in New York City. Helmed by TV director Leonard Horn and adapted by Robert T. Westbrook from his own semi-autobiographical novel, this episodic—and at times incoherent—movie seems like it could have been made by its aspiring young filmmaker protagonist. Not much happens and everything happens. Barely in his 20s, the baby-faced Johnson is a gorgeous Adonis who veers from one escapade to another. He begins by two-timing his shy girlfriend with a more free spirit (folksinger/activist Holly Near!) before settling into a ménage à trois with two even freer spirits. A real standout is Michael Greer, as a compelling older friend who is (depending on your point of view) a real font of enlightenment or a really bad influence. (Johnson and Greer had previously worked together in Sal Mineo’s stage production of the prison drama Fortune and Men’s Eyes.) Johnson would go on to play a similar character, also named Stanley, three years later in another movie about freewheeling 1960s sexual mores: Ted Post’s The Harrad Experiment. (Seen 1 February 2013)

The Magic Roundabout 1 out of 4 stars

Having not grown up anywhere that children watched this British/French-produced children’s show, I had one strike against me going in: whatever nostalgia value it may have for adults is completely lost on me. In fact, I was so clueless that I had assumed that the titular magic roundabout referred to a traffic circle and was worried about what kind of children’s entertainment would encourage kids to play in traffic. But here “roundabout” actually refers to a merry-go-round. I’m guessing that this show was popular in the 1960s because that decade permeates the computer-animated proceedings, specifically the music and a rabbit named Dylan, who is clearly in a perpetual drug-induced stupor. He is voiced by Bill Nighy, more or less reprising his burned-out rocker turn in Love Actually. Also present voice-wise is Ian McKellen as the magical Zebedee who, in an obvious nod to McKellen’s Gandalf role in The Lord of the Rings, gets thrown off a cliff. Former Dr. Who Tom Baker gets to chew the most scenery, vocally that is, as Zebedee’s evil twin. Other amusing casting includes singer Robbie Williams as a cowardly dog. Nostalgia aside, the movie suffers from the worst of two worlds. It is a bit infantile for older kids and a bit scary for younger ones. Anyway, it had the Little Munchkin hiding her eyes a few times, although in fairness, she really is a bit of a wimp. (Seen 10 April 2005)

The Magnificent Seven 4 out of 4 stars

You can tell a real classic because the story and the characters don’t get dated, no matter how many years go by. Indeed, a fresh viewing will certainly have peace activists arguing how the Mexican villagers would have been better off just giving Calvera most of the damn harvest. Neo-cons, on the other hand, will delightedly observe how a well-intentioned American incursion brought liberty to an oppressed part of the world. And die-hard foes of NAFTA can point out how seven highly-paid gunfighters wind up working under dangerous, in fact lethal, conditions for a measly 20 dollars apiece when forced to seek employment in Mexico. But seriously, folks… Like the classic that inspired it (as acknowledged prominently in the opening credits), Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, this film grips us for the same reason that Casablanca does. It is about men discovering that there are causes more important than themselves. And, as with many classic westerns, it is about violent men who do not know quite what to do in a world that seems to be getting increasingly civilized. Directed by John Sturges, this movie was an instant member of America’s pop culture mythic pantheon. In fact, there is something so darned American about the film that, on first viewing, we didn’t even care if a couple of the cowboy heroes (Russian-born Yul Brynner and the German Horst Buchholz) had strangely European accents. And what a line-up of adventure movie icons that joined them: Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn. Sadly, they are all gone, save Robert Vaughn, who played the gunslinger who lost his nerve but then found it in the end. But nearly as important as any of the actors was Elmer Bernstein’s immortal score that has survived endless recycling, including as a trademark for Marlboro cigarettes. Just hum it to yourself and try not to feel stirred. (Seen 19 August 2006)

Magnolia 2 out of 4 stars

Do you remember when you were a kid and you were trying to write a story and it all got so complicated and you got bored and impatient with the whole thing and so you just finished it off with “And then they all got hit by a truck. The End.” and then you went out to play? Well, that’s very nearly what writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights) does with Magnolia. The movie goes along quite well as one of those many-individual-intersecting-stories-in-Southern-California films like Robert Altman’s Short Cuts or Willard Carroll’s Playing by Heart. Then, suddenly out of the blue, well, let’s just say that the guy in the studio audience with the “Exodus 8:2” sign definitely seems to be clued in to something. The tip-off should have been the opening scenes which are allegedly true events but which Anderson, like the rest of us, probably got off the Internet, and we all know you should never pay attention to anything you read on the Internet. But the movie’s main problem is its length. (Anderson even has the chutzpah after it’s gone on for hours to have the entire cast start singing a refrain from the Aimee Mann song Wise Up, “It’s not going to stop.”) But, apart from all that, the film has a mesmerizing visual style that goes a long way toward keeping us involved for much of the three hours. And the writing seems geared to earning multiple acting awards, and the actors all make the most of it. Even Tom Cruise is pretty darn good, although he has the bad luck to play his big scene against Jason Robards, who can outclass any other actor even when he is merely lying unconscious on a deathbed. The film’s real highlight, though, is one of the best movie soundtracks in some time, featuring several songs by Mann and a dash of Supertramp. (Seen 3 February 2000)

The Majestic 2 out of 4 stars

Imagine what it would be like to wake up and find yourself in a friendly little California town, where everyone seems to know you but you can’t put a name to any of the faces that you see. (Personally, I don’t have to imagine this; it actually happens to me at least once or twice a year.) This story of an amnesia victim being adopted by the coastal town, where he washes up after an accident, begs to be stuffed into a dictionary, right next to the definition of “Capra-esque.” In addition to the influence of a few different Frank Capra films (Meet John Doe, Mr. Smith Goes to Washingon), we also get a nod to Preston Sturges’s Hail the Conquering Hero. In the end, The Majestic is further proof of my old maxim: don’t let a screenwriter (in this case, Michael Sloane) make a screenwriter the hero of a movie. It’s just inviting the writer to go off the deep end with tales of martyrdom, heroism and victimization by the cruel studio bosses and hacks (here voiced in an amusing opening scene by some real, big-time directors). The main problems with this flick by Frank Darabont (The Green Mile) are 1) a lovingly created 1950s small town that is essentially Pleasantville without the dark side and 2) a story that builds up to a climactic speech in the best Capra tradition but which has to reach an extreme emotional peak. While the speech, as written, is fine, it doesn’t really justify the buildup or the aftermath. Moreover, it really requires Jimmy Stewart, and while star Jim Carrey is clearly very talented, he is no Jimmy Stewart. He is more of a Dick York. But the film has some nice touches, including the aforementioned voice cameos (as well as an even better one toward the end) plus an onscreen cameo by Bruce Campbell as a movie swashbuckler dueling with an actor named Ramón Jamon. (Seen 11 January 2002)

Majiang (Mahjong) 2 out of 4 stars

Edward Yang’s Mahjong takes a very dark and cynical look at modern Taipei. In this world, everyone is a hustler, either literally or figuratively. Everything and everyone is for sale, and greed rules. Several of the characters are Westerners who have come to cash in on the boom times. There are several intertwining plot threads that involve a young gang that has an ongoing scheme with a fake psychic, a young French woman who has come looking for her jerk English lover, and a couple of gangsters looking for a businessman who owes a lot of money. Much of the action takes place at the local Hard Rock Cafe which seems to epitomize the plastic, glamour-seeking society that has taken root. Despite all this, the film actually manages to end on a sweet, romantic note. Can’t imagine why mainland China would want to put an end to all of this. (Seen 25 May 1996)

La mala educación (Bad Education) 2 out of 4 stars

The opening credits give us every reason to expect something Hitchcockian, perhaps some mixture of Vertigo and Psycho. And, since Pedro Almodóvar is writing and directing, that would include at least one young man dressed as a woman. The story does echo Vertigo, in that we have a point-of-view character who becomes obsessed with someone else who turns out to be not exactly what (in this case) he seems, and he has a need to resolve the issue of identity. Mexican actor Gael García Bernal stars in what is more or less the Kim Novak role, gamely throwing himself into scenes that make his turn in Y tu mamá también seem coy and reserved by comparison. The story includes nefarious goings-on at an all-boys religious school, and it turns out to be a mistake to wait and see this movie after Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin, which covers similar ground. Araki’s film makes you feel the horror of molestation, while Almodóvar’s seems to assume you have already experienced it yourself, so he can tastefully (not an adverb that features frequently in discussions of Almodóvar’s movies) keep it all off screen. Not that we particularly want to see child abuse onscreen but, as it is, we have to do an awful lot of inferring to imagine that it has even occurred. That leaves us with the impression that the filmmaker isn’t so much concerned with the issue as he merely needed it as a plot point for another one of his melodramas. Another strange twist is that, when we finally meet the priest who has apparently committed terrible deeds, he is actually kind of sympathetic. Moreover, he looks eerily like Dr. Frasier Crane, with a touch of Fred Thompson thrown in for good measure. (Seen 9 October 2005)

Mala Noche 2 out of 4 stars

If you want to feel old, then consider this. It has been thirty years since Gus Van Sant made his first feature film. It was a low-budget black-and-white (with surprising bits of color showing up unexpectedly) indie project filmed on the streets of Portland, Oregon, making use of some of those streets’ denizens. Its Portland location and focus on young people adrift presaged Van Sant’s next two features with much better known actors, Drugstore Cowboy (Matt Dillon, Kelly Lynch) and My Own Private Idaho (River Phoenix, Keanu Reeves). Some black-and-white movies are all gradients of shades of gray. This movie has a high-contrast feel that makes it look almost all black—to mesmerizing effect. In terms of storytelling it was a revelation. The narrator Walt tells us at the outset that he is madly in love with a Mexican teenage street kid, as if it was the most normal thing in the world. Walt is by no means the first gay character in the movies, but he was the first one many of us ever saw who was not only completely devoid of cliché but also the main protagonist. As the object of his amour fou, Doug Cooeyate plays Johnny as a charismatic young male full of energy and mischief but mostly disdain for the strange gringo smitten with him. As Johnny’s ill-starred friend Roberto (nicknamed Papas, which Walt mishears as Pepper), Ray Monge is a more serious counterpart to Johnny’s wild id. As Walt, Tim Streeter is plain-spoken and likeable—and more than a wee bit naive—as a character who could have easily come off as just creepy. Situations depicted are a reminder that undocumented immigrants and urban social problems are still with us three decades later. Walt Curtis, who wrote the semi-autobiographical story upon which Van Sant’s screenplay is based, shows up in a small role, as do quite a few colorful locals. Who knew back then that the skillful maker of this impressive debut would go on to make so many notable—and some not so notable—movies, including Good Will Hunting, Milk and a mostly pointless shot-by-shot remake of Psycho? (Seen 21 October 2016)

Malabrigo 2 out of 4 stars

A very pleasant surprise. This movie was filmed on location in a little fishing village on the central coast of Peru. They went all out on the budget. You even get to see a car. It turns out to be a mystery thriller and a very watchable one at that. But wait. Something’s funny here. Why does this murdered photographer who died 50 years ago keep popping up? Why is this woman having a dream inside a dream? A Raymond Chandler-type plot. A woman comes to Malabrigo looking for her husband. There’s a mysterious explosion at the fish processing plant. The hotel owner’s wife is messing around with the police chief. The insurance inspector talks to himself a lot. Something’s rotten in the local power structure. A fun movie that prompted vigorous discussion among complete strangers afterward. (Seen 18 May 1987)

Mallrats 1 out of 4 stars

I had high hopes for this flick because it was directed by Kevin Smith who made the hilarious no-budget independent film Clerks. (Two characters from Clerks, Jay and Silent Bob, played by Smith himself, even show up here and will apparently be in a sequel.) Now that Smith has more money to work with, the proceedings have moved from a convenience store to a shopping mall. As is too often the case, however, giving a new directing talent more money and real stars doesn’t necessarily yield better results—or even as-good results. This flick seems aimed squarely at the teen-age Porky’s crowd. It stars Jeremy (“I’ll Fly Away”) London and Shannen (“I’m not a ballistic crazed bitch”) Doherty. The film does have some redeeming qualities, however. It has great opening titles as well as some great thank-you credits at the very end. And, most positively, one of the protagonists is a die-hard comic book fan who winds up getting advice on his love life from Stan Lee (of Marvel Comics fame) himself! (Seen 30 October 1995)

Mamma Mia! 2 out of 4 stars

Some of the best times of our lives are those occasions when we get together with people we are very familiar with and just let down our hair and go wild, not caring that we are all making fools of ourselves. Now, someone has captured that feeling in a movie. What fun to see such familiar faces as quality, award-winning actor Meryl Streep and suave, dashing Pierce Brosnan cut loose and cast off any appearance of dignity. The singing ranges from fine to embarrassing (you know who you are, Brosnan), but it’s okay because we have been brought into some sort of celebrity inner circle where we are all friends. It’s no accident that, as far as I can tell, nobody was required to affect a speaking accent other than his or her own. And nobody is cast against type. Is Brosnan smooth? Check. Is Julie Walters spunky? Check. Is Colin Firth uptight? Check. Does Christine Baranski look like she was born with a drink in her hand? Double check. The spirit of the goings-on is as old as Shakespeare (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) or as universal as Bergman (Smiles of a Summer Night) But the movie is specifically about growing older but (with any luck) not growing much wiser. Under the direction of Phyllida Lloyd, who directed the Broadway version, the movie is like the music of ABBA: innocuously bland but infectiously fun. Are the late night comics right that it is a chick flick? We have noticed an interesting phenomenon among friends and friends of friends. Women go to see it with the gal pals and then go back to see it with their young daughters. The movie can certainly be enjoyed by anyone but it is probably best savored by women with their girl friends and men with their boyfriends. (Seen 14 August 2008)

Man About Dog 2 out of 4 stars

My main concern about this movie is that people who see it might get the wrong idea about Ireland. Based on this, they might think it is a nation full of chancers, looking for that one big score against all the odds. They might think the Irish are mad into greyhound racing and wagering. They might get the idea that there is a lot of crookedness in Irish sport, that everything is fixed, and everyone is on the take. And they might even wind up thinking that some members of the Traveller community are a bit rough and sometimes violent. Okay, whatever merits this madcap little caper comedy might have, adhering to political correctness isn’t among them. For one thing, animal lovers might be put off by the fact that at least three dogs (by my count anyway) meet unfortunate ends. Other tasteful highlights include one character sitting in a van seat recently defecated on by another character and a lads’ night out taking advantage of the extremely solid benefits of an experimental Viagra-like drug. In other words, director Paddy Breathnach has taken the lowlife buddy formula of his rather clever I Went Down and lowered the tone a notch or two to appeal squarely to the male Irish adolescent in us all. Chief among our trio of losers hoping against hope to make one big score in this shaggy greyhound story is Alan Leech, who played the gay roommate in the more serious-minded Cowboys and Angels. Also on hand are Fionnula Flanagan, enjoying herself as an aristocratic widow with a score to settle; the always-amusing Pat Shortt, as an itinerant who refuses to draw the short stick; and the ubiquitous Sean McGinley. McGinley has played unsavory types in the past (notably in Family), but never before has he been quite so convincingly pathological, as the villain who takes vertical integration to new heights by acting as both greyhound owner and bookmaker. (Seen 10 November 2004)

The Man in the Iron Mask 2 out of 4 stars

This was one of no fewer than two adaptations released in 1998 of the classic Alexandre Dumas adventure novel. The other one starred Edward Albert as Athos. Previous memorable versions include James Whale’s 1939 version starring Louis Hayward and Joan Bennett and Mike Newell’s 1977 take starring Richard Chamberlain and Patrick McGoohan. This version, directed by Braveheart scribe Randall Wallace, stars Leonard DiCaprio, fresh off his big splash in Titanic, in the titular dual role. The part suited him for the age he was, since his baby face worked perfectly for playing a spoiled and callow Louis XIV. The cast is a veritable babel of speaking accents, ranging from American (DiCaprio, John Malkovich) to English (Jeremy Irons) to even thick French (Gérard Depardieu, seemingly prepping for his upcoming role as the comic book character Obélix). Dubliner Gabriel Byrne is particularly fine as the conflicted D’Artagnan. As an old-fashioned swashbuckler, the film is good fun, although the plot requires an awful lot of intrigue and plotting to the detriment of action. Despite a well-worn plot, the flick manages a surprisingly moving finale in which the old Musketeers change French history, not only by employing swordplay but also through pure honor and loyalty to one another. (Seen 10 November 2012)

Man of La Mancha 2 out of 4 stars

I had been wanting to see this movie for forty years. And why wouldn’t I? It has both Peter O’Toole and Sophia Loren at around fortyish. And it’s drawn from the first modern novel, a book I spent much time studying as a student. And it has that great song “The Impossible Dream.” On the stage with Richard Kiley in the title role, this musical was a hit, but the movie version (helmed by Love Story director Arthur Hiller) was not as well reviewed. In the end, I suppose it is another case of the imagination inspired by actors on a stage not living up to the literal illusion that filmgoers expect. As I watched, I could not stop thinking to myself, what this movie needed was… Terry Gilliam! That’s not a joke, aimed at the fact that Gilliam has been famously trying to make The Man Who Killed Don Quixote for years. The fact is that Man of La Mancha (book by Dale Wasserman based on his play) is just the sort of fantastical story-within-a-story (O’Toole plays Miguel de Cervantes playing Quixote) celebrating the power of storytelling that has been a trademark of Gilliam’s movies. His imagination and visual flair is just what this movie needed to soar instead of looking like a play performed on a movie set or on location. Still, O’Toole and Loren in their prime… (Seen 4 March 2012)

Man of Steel 2 out of 4 stars

I really, really, really wanted to love this movie. And I certainly did enjoy it while I was watching it. But in the end it left me a bit numb. This flick was always going to be interesting. With a story dreamed up by producer Christopher Nolan and screenwriter David S. Goyer and directed by preeminent graphic novel adapter Zak Snyder, it was predestined to be epic and violent. Originally in the comic books Superman (a name that’s really only said once in the screenplay) was a normal guy who also happened to be a superhero. More recently, his alien origins have been emphasized—perhaps a result of society’s growing sensitivity to cultural diversity over assimilation. So the arc of the story pretty much centers on whether the Krypton-born Kal-El will be accepted by his new planet. The flashbacks dealing with him coming to terms with his powers will be familiar to viewers of the TV series Smallville. His wandering-young-man-trying-to-find-himself phase will be familiar to readers of J. Michael Straczynski’s Superman: Earth One comics. Jersey-born Brit Henry Cavill makes a surprisingly good Supes. He is a bit more rugged in his handsomeness than Christopher Reeve or that other guy in Superman Returns and yet has a bit of boyishness, reminiscent of Smallville’s baby-faced Tom Welling. Kevin Costner is an inspired choice to play Pa Kent, since the whole Field of Dreams thing is burned into his DNA. Also, I for one was very happy to have no Lex Luthor or (the usually way over-used) kryptonite. And the causes of Krypton’s destruction and the hero’s agonized climactic decision certainly provide fodder for thought and discussion. But the level of devastation that unspools in the course of the film (I’m sure somebody’s done an estimate of the probable casualties and they must be massive) leaves one, as I said, numb. It’s hard to imagine sequels that have this Superman chasing bank robbers. (Seen 24 June 2013)

Man on the Moon 2 out of 4 stars

Near the end of this biopic directed by Milos Forman (whose previous subjects have ranged from Mozart to Larry Flynt), Andy Kaufman tells his live-in girlfriend (played deftly by Courtney Love), “You don’t know the real me!” To which she replies, “There is no real you!” The movie would have us believe this is true. Jim Carrey’s performance/impersonation/channeling of Kaufman, an oddball comic who turned his life into a strange kind of performance art, is downright eerie. You know it’s Carrey but you also see Kaufman and pretty soon you can’t remember which is which. This is just one example of how this movie loves to mess with your mind, just the way Andy did. For example, Danny DeVito (also a producer) is on hand as Kaufman’s agent, George Shapiro. But the real Shapiro is on hand in a small role as a club owner. And, when Kaufman lands his role on Taxi and most of the old cast is there playing themselves, we have to wonder if DeVito will also play himself and really confuse things. And doesn’t everyone notice that Shapiro looks like DeVito? Another bit of weirdness is seeing all these people (as well as the likes of David Letterman) playing themselves looking 20 years older than they were at the time. Apparently, Merv Griffin was too rich to play himself, but he is still portrayed by an actor who looks more like Merv does now than he looked then. One central question is never addressed by this movie: why did so many people put up with Kaufman’s shenanigans when they apparently didn’t find them very funny? Anyway, the movie’s one shining moment is near the end when Kaufman goes to the Philippines seeking a miracle cancer cure and the great con artist has a laughing fit when he realizes that he himself has been taken in by a great con. (Seen 10 January 2000)

Man on Wire 3 out of 4 stars

During this year’s Galway Film Fleadh, I have seen some pretty difficult stuff to watch on the screen. But this is the only movie that actually made my stomach knot up. If you have any tendency at all to acrophobia, you might feel the same. This spellbinding documentary by James Marsh chronicles one of the most audacious and spectacular acts of artistic civil disobedience ever. For several months, leading up to August 1974, French tightrope walker Philippe Petit and a small group of co-conspirators plotted to organize a walk on a wire strung between the twin towers of the recently built World Trade Center in New York. (The film’s title comes from a detail scribbled on Petit’s arrest report.) From a young age, Petit had literally waited for the towers to built, following their progress since he first read about the project in a magazine in a dentist’s office. In the meantime, he undertook tightrope walks between the twin towers of Notre Dame in Paris and of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia. The story, on its own merits, is enthralling enough, but it takes on a much deeper resonance, not only because we know what would happen to the WTC three decades later but because the plotting to breach the buildings’ security puts us in the mindset not only of Petit and company but also of the world’s major terrorists. Especially haunting is seeing footage of the construction and seeing pieces of the tower’s skeleton, which would become an iconic image after the towers fell. The footage and photos from the past are riveting, as well as the participants’ onscreen reminisces and retelling. Michael Nyman’s music does for this what Philip Glass’s did for The Thin Blue Line. What is particularly intriguing (and unexpected) is how the experience immediately and radically changed Petit and apparently altered his relationships with his wife and his friends forever. (Seen 12 July 2008)

Man qing shi da ku xing (Chinese Torture Chamber) 0 out of 4 stars

The sixth midnight movie at the 1995 Seattle film festival was Chinese Torture Chamber, and I really don’t know how to describe it. Apparently some guys in Hong Kong got together and asked themselves, “Okay, how do we go about making the biggest gross-out movie in the history of the universe?” And darned if they didn’t come up with the right answer! In addition to lots of imaginatively executed torture scenes, this film also has some amazing special effects. Remember when I said that A Shadow You Soon Will Be had the funniest love-making scene I had seen? Well, the scene in this movie where the guy spins 360 degrees like a pinwheel while having intercourse has it beat hands down! I don’t know this for a fact, but I suspect that this movie may have had funding from Sen. Phil Gramm. (Seen 3 June 1995)

Män som hatar kvinnor (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) 3 out of 4 stars

Don’t get excited. This is the original Swedish film, not the upcoming David Fincher remake starring Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara. The question with movies like this always is, why does Hollywood bother remaking a blockbuster like this when the original was perfectly fine as an entertainment? (Another, unrelated, question is, why does Hollywood think that a flick with stomach-churning violence is a great holiday treat to spring just a few days before Christmas?) But, as I have argued elsewhere (cf. my discussion of Let Me In), just because an original film is great doesn’t meant that a remake cannot be great as well. Having asserted that, I have to admit that it’s hard to imagine that even a talent such as Fincher can deliver an entertainment as gritty and intense and compelling as what Niels Arden Oplev managed two years ago. That it works so well is surprising given that it is, in the end, largely a formulaic whodunit in the something-is-rotten-in-the-halls-of-power tradition of film noir. What gives it juice also makes it a bit distasteful: its underlying theme of violence against women. Even though the mesmerizing Noomi Rapace’s title character is, in the end, a paragon of strength (and something of an avenging angel), the scenes of violence still seem a bit prurient. For better or worse, however, it is by no means out of bounds when compared to what passes for entertainment in other movies or even on cable TV. In fact, the movie is so good, it is easy to see why so many people felt that the two sequels couldn’t live up to it. (Seen 31 October 1997)

Man Up 2 out of 4 stars

If you’re going to make a standard romcom but want it to feel fresh and new, there are a few ways you can go. You can latch onto a current social trend or phrase. (Friends with Benefits, anyone?) Or you can just see how outrageous you can get. Writer Tess Morris and director Ben Palmer (both known mainly for UK television work) deserve credit for bravely sticking to the traditional romcom narrative trajectory and entertaining us with a farce that mostly sticks within the realm of believability—in movie terms, that is. Lake Bell (fitting in seamlessly with an otherwise British cast) is that single woman in her 30s who has lost her self-confidence in the scary London dating world. By accident she gets mistaken by Simon Pegg for the blind date with whom he has been set up to meet at Victoria Station. It’s the sort of unlikely scenario that usually becomes increasingly unbelievable the longer it goes on, but the filmmakers make it work because of 1) the fact that Bell and Pegg are engaging and likeable, 2) a fast pace that doesn’t give Bell’s character—or the audience—too much time to think and 3) a switcheroo in the middle that reveals that Pegg’s character has his own sort-of deception going on. The supporting cast really contribute as well, especially the wonderful Olivia Williams as Pegg’s ball-busting soon-to-be ex and Rory Kinnear as one the creepiest former childhood friends you can imagine. In a nice touch, Ophelia Lovibond (Sherlock’s erstwhile protégée on Elementary) plays Pegg’s actual intended bind date as a younger version of his actual wife. By the time we get to the end, we feel we have been properly manipulated, but it’s hard to really mind all that much. (Seen 4 October 2015)

The Man Who Would Be King 3 out of 4 stars

You know that this is a classic because it’s just as good today—maybe even better—as it was when we first saw it in 1975. This is old-fashioned filmmaking, in the very best way. Director John Huston went to Morocco (and the French Alps for high mountain scenes) with a few great actors and simply filmed the story. At the end of the movie, the Missus and our kid were amazed at how rapidly the end credits went by. No endless lists of CGI and special effects people. What you see is largely what they filmed. Evoking Huston’s own earlier classic The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, the story (after Rudyard Kipling) follows two adventurers bent on striking it rich in an exotic locale. That locale is Afghanistan, and the past few decades have only added more resonance to this tale of international adventurism. And what better dream cast than Sean Connery and Michael Caine (“Hey, that’s Batman’s butler!” one of us exclaimed), who spent the 1960s defending queen and country as secret agents. You can choose to enjoy this as a straight adventure or as a cautionary tale of human greed or an allegory of imperialism in general. But mostly, the joy comes from watching two great characters (Christopher Plummer is also very good in the smaller role of Kipling) traveling across an epic landscape and making us root for them even when we know they should just turn around and go home. Trivia note: Connery’s comely bride Roxanne in the movie was Caine’s own wife, Shakira. (Seen 26 May 2013)

The Man with the Golden Gun 2 out of 4 stars

This Bond movie followed pretty closely after its predecessor, Live and Let Die, and Roger Moore was on firmer ground in his sophomore outing as the world’s favorite superspy. The darker tones of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service are definitely in the past and the movies built around Moore’s 007 are largely played for laughs. For those who are into their eye candy, there are not one but two beautiful Swedish women: Maud Adams, who would return to the franchise nine years later as a different character in Octopussy, and Britt Ekland, who was fresh from her turn in The Wicker Man. (Ekland’s character, in true Bond tradition, has the titillating name Miss Goodnight.) As for the villain, it was none other than Ekland’s Wicker Man castmate (and Hammer horror legend and future Dark Shadows cast member) Christopher Lee as super-assassin Francisco Scaramanga. That is dream casting, but Lee is strangely non-threatening in this movie. It may not help that his sidekick is future Fantasy Island icon Hervé Villechaize, as a character called Nick Nack. Adding to the lack of seriousness is the return (for no apparent plausible reason, since we are in Bangkok) of Clifton James’s redneck Louisiana sheriff. It would be decades before we would be asked to get emotionally involved with a James Bond movie again. In the interim, all we would really need from these flicks is to follow the formula at least somewhat reliably. This one does. (Seen 28 April 2012)

Manchester by the Sea 3 out of 4 stars

One wonders if somewhere in some hungover accountant’s tuxedo pocket there is an envelope saying that this is the movie that rightfully won the Best Picture Oscar. Probably not, but there have been many years when this movie, absent stronger competition, could have taken the top prize. It was never going to be a crowd pleaser, but it was guaranteed to appeal to those who admire the craft of cinema as an exploration of human experience and emotion. Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan, who did justifiably get the Oscar for Original Screenplay, is a playwright, and it shows here—but not in a bad, non-cinematic way. (He similarly explored the effects of tragic loss on a family in his very moving first film 16 years ago, You Can Count on Me.) He follows that writer’s admonition that all the talking should almost all be about everything but the thing the story is actually about. The result is that we are asked to spend more than two hours with Casey Affleck’s tortured and haunted shell of man consumed with grief and rage. That is not an easy ask. We are not inclined to like to Lee Chandler, but the more we know about him the more we have to sympathize with him. The movie is saved by by Lucas Hedges as Lee’s nephew. He is such a typical and believable teenager in all the alternatively annoying and likeable ways possible. He is also the character who will say what others will not or cannot. If a story like this is meant to be about a character’s arc, this one takes some studying to perceive much of a shift. At the end, Lee’s situation does not seem markedly different from when we first meet him, but in less obvious ways mountains have been moved. The movie is grim—or often just depressing—stuff, but the rays of hope are in there if you are looking for them. It is somewhat of a miracle that Affleck got his Oscar for this—not because he did not deserve it but because his performance is the kind that sometimes gets unfairly overlooked. He is so believable as Lee that it is easy to think he is not acting at all. (Seen 3 March 2017)

The Manchurian Candidate 2 out of 4 stars

Like Hitchcock’s Psycho, John Frankenheimer’s 1962 film The Manchurian Candidate was a one-of-a-kind film that didn’t really need to be remade. Both movies relied heavily on suspense and surprise. Even when we re-watch them, we can at least remember the surprise we felt when we first saw them. When Gus Van Sant remade Psycho, there was at least a bit of a new surprise: the fact that there was no new surprise. Jonathan Demme’s remake of The Manchurian Candidate has its own new surprise too, by putting an extra twist in the ending. But, as with Van Sant’s remake, it’s not enough to justify a whole new movie. One possible justification might have been to make a fresh comment on our current times, as Frankenheimer’s film did about that era. But, somehow, I don’t think that telling the story of a robotic political candidate running for high office on his record as a war hero (and who is a great television debater) conveys exactly the political message that Demme intended. Now, Demme has made some very good movies in his career—notably Melvin and Howard, The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia—but here is he is pretty much painting by the numbers. In the end, this is a pretty standard paranoid thriller, the like of which we have seen plenty of times before. And it’s not even one of the better ones. When, for example, will characters in movies learn that it is not good to go off somewhere secluded by themselves just after they’ve threatened to reveal a ruinous secret. (Seen 15 October 2004)

Manhattan 3 out of 4 stars

Has it really been 30 years since Woody Allen made this wonderful movie (one of the two very best of his considerable oeuvre) at the peak of his filmmaking prowess? With the benefit of hindsight, let’s get one thing straight. This seminal flick is a direct inspiration for the equally seminal sitcom Friends, right down to the neurotic guy whose wife (an impressively humorless Meryl Streep) has left him for a woman to the disastrous love affairs to the constant yapping in public premises and, of course, the celebration of vibrant urban life in Manhattan. As in his more recent, foreign-set films (Match Point in London, Vicky Cristina Barcelona), Allen chose locations and shots that would meet the total approval of the local tourist bureau. But, in this case, the locations resonant because Allen is so clearly and passionately in love with them. Gordon Willis’s cinematography makes black and white beautiful in a way that it has rarely looked before or since. And the soundtrack music is so evocative that George Gershwin is nearly a character in the movie. The benefit of hindsight also allows us to analyze what was going on in Allen’s personal life, from the unsympathetic treatment of Diane Keaton’s character to Allen’s character’s affair with a teenager. In her second big screen role, Mariel Hemingway gave this movie the heart that has been lacking in so many of Allen’s later films. The final scenes, between her and Allen, reach an emotional crescendo that is all too rare in the Woodman’s work. (Seen 5 March 2009)

Manneken Pis 2 out of 4 stars

Most of the Belgian film Manneken Pis plays like a quirky romantic comedy. Harry is a 30-year-old man who hasn’t a hair on his head and who seems somewhat traumatized. (With good reason, as it turns out.) He has a knack, however, for cooking and for being in the right place at the right time. He arrives at an apartment building just as one of the tenants has committed suicide thus freeing up a room. As he is eating in a restaurant, one of the dishwashers quits, making an opening for him. We root for things to work out for him and the tram driver Jeanne who lives in his building. But, as we learn, when it comes to sentimental matters Harry’s timing tends to be rather tragic. (Seen 18 May 1996)

March of the Penguins 3 out of 4 stars

Finally, I get my chance to see what the fuss is all about. It is easy to see why this stunningly photographed documentary by Luc Jacquet was able to edge out such summer competition as Fantastic Four in the States for multiple weeks on a per-theater basis. Judging from the reaction at the Cork Film Festival, it should do well in the British Isles as well. I haven’t read extensive commentary on the movie, but from what I have seen, everyone seems to have ceded the movie to the social conservatives, which seems strange to me. After all, what is this movie if not an extended free commercial for PETA? Also, the cohesiveness of the emperor penguin community could easily be construed as an endorsement of some form of socialism. But that’s the problem with trying to bring politics into most movies. We enjoy this movie on two levels. Our brains are fascinated by the zoology lesson. Our hearts are touched because we see ourselves in these creatures. What feeling person (and especially a parent) cannot go through emotional highs and lows watching the months-long struggle of these birds to bond with a mate, bring a child into the world, nurture it and, ultimately, have it and themselves simply survive? The fact that the penguins are quite photogenic (and overdue for a public relations facelift after the various Wallace & Gromit features and movies like Madagascar), as well as entertaining, only adds to the watchability. Question for discussion: Does the penguins’ overall method for reproduction seem like something that could be called “intelligent design”? (Seen 15 October 2005)

Maria Full of Grace 3 out of 4 stars

Seventeen-year-old Maria lives in a small Colombian town. She is bright and intelligent, but she doesn’t always make good choices. But then good choices are in short supply where she lives. She winds up taking the risk of becoming a drug mule, a job that brings her to New York City. Now, this sounds like it could be a sad, depressing, “oh those poor people” kind of movie. But it isn’t. Maria, as played by Catalina Sandino Moreno, is never less than independent-minded and determined to live life on her own terms. She does not inspire pity, as the characters in El Norte did. Given the criminal angle of the plot, this film is potentially a thriller, and I suppose, technically, it is one. But it is suspenseful and sometimes frightening in the same way that real life is. The movie is particularly interesting because, despite the prevalence of movies that purport to deal with illegal drugs and the drug trade, I can’t think of one that attempts to give such a clinical explanation of how it all happens as this one does. In an NPR interview, I heard writer/director Joshua Marston say that, after seeing the film, lots people come up to him and say they would like to see a sequel. I’ll add my voice to that chorus. (Seen 14 October 2004)

Marian 2 out of 4 stars

Relentlessly grim, Marian is a Czech film that chronicles the sad, brief life of a young Gypsy. The first half of the film has all the cheeriness of other such childhood fare as Pixote and Salaam Bombay!—with a bit of The Four Hundred Blows thrown in for good measure. Marian is taken from his mother by the state because of neglect, and from then on virtually his entire life is lived in one institution or another. Only a few rays of hope for this child appear in the course of the film, but they are quickly dashed. First-time director Petr Vaclav seems to be of the school that criminals are made not born, but he offers no suggestions as to how Marian’s tragic fate could have been avoided. Heartfelt and well-made, Marian is solid film but one you may want to avoid if you’ve been feeling despondent. (Seen 3 June 1997)

Marie Antoinette 1 out of 4 stars

In her last movie, Lost in Translation, Sofia Coppola told the story of a somewhat unmotivated young woman finding herself in a strange country and married to a self-absorbed man, who was not paying her a lot of attention. Now, after that, what would make Coppola interested in the story of the last pre-republic queen of France? Oh, wait, I think I’m getting it now… Unfortunately, Coppola’s somewhat languid and “whatever” style of storytelling may have been perfect for a tale of two Americans suffering from jetlag in Tokyo, but it doesn’t really make for a compelling historical period piece. In fairness, the movie does approach a real sense of what the unfortunate queen’s life must have been like. But it is not promising for the audience that her life would have included a fair amount of boredom. It further doesn’t help that, after a mostly tedious two hours, the movie suddenly stops just as it gets to the beginning of the four most interesting years of its subject’s life. The movie is actually helped by its eclectic casting (Marianne Faithfull as the Austrian empress, Steve Coogan as the queen’s main adviser, Rip Torn as Louis XV) and its anachronistic touches, although not everyone may agree. (I actually overheard a young woman laughing with a friend afterwards that only “the Americans” would be so clueless as to think that people were wearing Converse high-tops in the 18th century.) Perhaps the main reason that Coppola’s third film falls so far short of the promise of her second film can be summed up this way. In Lost in Translation, the heroine is lifted out of her torpor by the wonderful Bill Murray. In Marie Antoinette, that job goes to the Irish male model Jamie Dornan. (Seen 15 October 2006)

Margot at the Wedding 1 out of 4 stars

A movie about two sisters coming together, after a long estrangement, on the occasion of the marriage of one of them, would be pretty boring if the two women found that they could now get on famously and finally be supportive of one another. But it takes real effort to have all emotional hell break loose and uncomfortable semi-secrets spew forth and still have it all be fairly tedious. Writer/director Noah Baumbach showed that he was a keen and wry observer of a certain East Coast social milieu with his entertaining 1995 movie about reluctant university graduates, Kicking and Screaming, and his quasi-autobiographical The Squid and the Whale. But this 2007 follow-up is basically a mirthless comedy mining entertainment from the sort of voyeuristic embarrassment that has become fashionable in the wake of sitcoms like Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm. But the work of Larry David probably isn’t even an influence here. After all, the American theatrical tradition of making audiences squirm as family members chew each other down to the emotional bone (particularly among the intellectual elites) goes back at least as far as Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? If there is a silver lining to this relentless carbonizing of the American family—apart from watching Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Jason Leigh chew the scenery—it is that your own family and childhood will seen like a Disney Technicolor fairy tale by comparison. (Seen 23 May 2009)

Mars Attacks! 2 out of 4 stars

Lasers flash! The earth trembles! Huge buildings crumble into dust! Of course, this is just another day in Las Vegas, but for the rest of the world it’s pretty serious stuff. Tim Burton is back and, having made his affectionate hommage to Ed Wood, he apparently feels compelled to remake Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space with state-of-the-art effects and an all-star cast that Wood could never have dreamed of. These Martians, from the Topps trading cards, seem equally inspired by the old Warner Brothers cartoons. The star turns are amusing but totally overshadowed by Burton’s continual sight gags. While Mars Attacks! seems to follow the plot of Independence Day point by point, in spirit it is much closer to Joe Dante’s Gremlins. The cast seems to be having a ripping good time, including Glenn Close as Nancy Reagan and Martin Short as Dick Morris. (Seen 13 January 1997)

The Martian 3 out of 4 stars

If we did not know well that human beings have never traveled to the red planet, we could nearly be forgiven for thinking that this was a dramatization of a true story in the style of Ron Howard’s Apollo 13. In fact, I have to think that the strange inclusion of old television footage from Happy Days was director Ridley Scott’s hat tip to Howard. But how to explain the disco music? Jessica Chastain’s character does not particularly seem the type to favor that kind of music, but it makes a nice diversion and gives the filmmakers a pretext for playing “I Will Survive” at the end. More of a survival story than a sci-fi or thriller entry, The Martian is a crowd pleaser because it presents us with a daunting—indeed overwhelming—problem, then allows us to watch a resourceful and intelligent person go about solving it. There is also plenty of science to satisfy any nerd in the audience and, as we know by now, these days everyone is a nerd. Really, this movie is all about the triumph of the nerds, not only because of Matt Damon’s uber-botanist but also because of Donald Glover’s socially challenged but gifted astrodynamicist. It is a pleasure, for once, to have a major movie entertainment where there are no outright villains but rather just people with different priorities and opinions. And, as with real life, things work out because of just the right amount of teamwork and displine interspersed at critical moments by rebelliousness and refusal to conform. And, as in another movie that featured Damon, Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, we are reminded that humanity is often at its best when it goes to extremes, takes illogical risks and accepts difficult trade-offs with the goal to save a single life. (Seen 25 December 2016)

Mary Poppins 3 out of 4 stars

One of the pleasures of parenthood is having an excuse to watch (again) movies that you loved as a kid. This was one of my very favorites. After all, it was the first movie I ever saw, where I had actually read the book on which it was based. Seen through an adult’s (well, my) eyes nearly four decades later, the movie seems improbable. Like a Disney theme park, it creates a completely artificial world, where there is no rubbish on the streets and even the birds are mechanical. It may not be real, but it sure is magical. Its special effects, which were state of the art for the time, still impress. The scenes, where the queue of applicants for the nanny job are (literally) blown away or where our heroes climb a stairway made from chimney smoke high into the London sky, still amaze. The film succeeds purely as a tour de force of singing, dancing and technical wizardry. The songs are so catchy that it took years to get them out of my head (and now they’re back!). And did Dick Van Dyke ever get a chance to show off so much of his talent (barring his approximation of a Cockney accent) before or since? On the story level, the plot is an unlikely mating of The Forsyte Saga and It’s a Wonderful Life. Disney was safe enough with a fable that exhorted parents to spend more time with their children (and by extension, one presumes, more money). Still, it is ironic to see a film from the profit-rich Disney corporation lampooning greedy bankers. It’s even more ironic that, in this movie by capitalist-friendly Disney, bankers inadvertently cause a run on their own bank through greed-motivated speech. Compare that to the bank run in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, in which the honest, self-sacrificing banker (okay, it’s a savings and loan) stops the run with a populist speech. (Seen 27 June 2003)

The Mask of Zorro 2 out of 4 stars

Say, wasn’t this movie released a couple of years ago? And hasn’t it been out on video forever? Yeah, but as attentive readers will have already guessed, I am back in Ireland catching up on flicks that I missed due to trans-Atlantic commuting last year and which are still playing in cinemas here. Anyway, this strangely old-fashioned (because it relies on stunt work rather than computers) adventure flick provides some mindless escapism, and the leads are definitely attractive—although Antonio Banderas has to be the most difficult Hollywood star to listen to since Arnold Schwarzenegger. It’s amusing that Brits Anthony Hopkins and Catherine Zeta-Jones make much better movie Spaniards than the Málaga-born Banderas (who, in fairness, plays a Mexican masquerading as a Spaniard). Aside from its Saturday matinee-style thrills (and its unabashed stealing from everything from Batman to The Count of Monte Cristo to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), the movie is most interesting for its take on California history. Zorro fights for “the people,” but in typical liberal Hollywood fashion, we barely see “the people” except for quick shots to show how pitiful they are. Let’s give lip service to their plight, but goodness knows, we wouldn’t want to actually spend time with them. The evil rich men and the flamboyant do-gooders are much more interesting company. (Seen 6 January 1999)

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World 2 out of 4 stars

Another thing that we know from watching movies is that, when you board an enemy ship—just after bombarding the heck out of it—to see if there are any survivors, you definitely don’t want to be the guy who announces that everything looks okay. This is a number of elements that lets us know that this is a good, old-fashioned, rip-roaring, adventure movie of a kind that Hollywood has done for ages. While the special effects are impressive enough, this flick relies on real characters and a real plot to get you involved. On top of it all, there is the intimately friendly and sometimes contentious relationship between the captain (Russell Crowe, with the stiffest of upper lips) and the ship’s surgeon (Paul Bettany, who was also a sort of confidant for Crowe in A Beautiful Mind). Think Kirk and Bones at the dawn of the 19th century. The tension between the doctor’s desire to indulge naturalist pursuits on the Galápagos Islands and the captain’s near-Ahab-like obsession with a French privateer make this yarn seem to be about Something Important, like the nature of war. But, as it happens, director Peter Weir has already made one of the best war movies of all time (Gallipoli), more than two decades ago. By comparison, this flick is a feel-good romp about fighting and male bonding, with a nod to the glory of serving King and Country. (Seen 3 March 2004)

Match Point 3 out of 4 stars

Last October Premiere stated what many people had long been thinking: “Spending time in a recent Woody Allen film is like taking tea with a slightly addled great aunt who continually offers, from the depths of an enormous handbag, peppermints that fossilized during the Ford administration: it’s tedious, obligatory and stale…” Ouch. Allen’s latest flick has divided critics between those who see it as more of the same (just moved from New York to London) and those that think that the geographical transplant has reenergized the Woodster. Well, they’re both right. There is something antiseptic about the characters in a “serious” Allen film. Like characters in a Bergman film (Allen’s idol), they are not quite like people we often meet in real life. They are more like pieces on a chess board than real, live, breathing, sweating human beings. (They read and discuss Dostoevsky, for gawd sake.) And the world they inhabit, be it Manhattan or the West End, seems that bit removed from the reality of most of us, who don’t experience the world through postcards. Still, this time around, while recycling a theme with which he has dealt before, Allen has actually crafted a fairly taut (but metaphysical) suspense thriller that rivets us in the last reel. And the ending is the sort of thing to spawn endless après cinéma discussions in trendy cafés. Leave it to the strangely conflicted Allen to make a statement of despair over good fortune and lucky coincidences. (Seen 31 January 2006)

The Matchmaker 2 out of 4 stars

This is another one about the fish-out-of-water Yank being bemused by the overwhelming quaintness of rural Irish people. It’s all played pretty much for laughs, although there is an effort to tug at the heartstrings with a cross-cultural romance and the death of a beloved figure. It helps that the Yank is played by Janeane Garafalo, who wanders through this Brigadoon (as she refers to it at one point) for the most part with a totally unamused, big-city attitude. In the title role, the delightful Milo O’Shea mugs with an appropriate lack of shame. Particularly amusing are a put-on scene in which the locals lampoon their own image; a buffoonish Massachusetts Senator who cynically seeks his Irish roots purely for political advantage; and the Senator’s jerk of an aide, all-too-convincingly played by Denis Leary. The number of laughs shouldn’t be surprising since one of the scriptwriters is Graham Linehan who contributed to a somewhat similar kind of humor in the TV series Father Ted. Directed by Australian Mark Joffe, The Matchmaker features much lovely scenery from County Galway, including the Aran Islands. (Seen 12 July 1998)

Matchstick Men 3 out of 4 stars

This movie demonstrates better than any flick since Boiler Room exactly why Americans wanted a national “do not call” list. The characters played by Nicolas Cage and Sam Rockwell are the worst nightmare of anyone who owns a telephone. They are con artists and very good ones to boot. I had to keep reminding myself that this was not a Barry Levinson film (it was directed by Ridley Scott), since there were several echoes of Levinson’s classic Tin Men. There is also a bit of Glengarry Glen Ross and ultimately The Sting, as well. Cage’s character is a neurotic obsessive-compulsive, and if there is anything we can expect Cage to play to perfection, this is it. On top of that, he is also a really nice guy underneath, even though his victims don’t deserve what he does to them. At one point, Cage says so himself, explaining a bit confusedly that they are “old people, fat people. . .” The person he explains this to is Alison Lohman, who is a bit Jennifer Jason Leigh-ish and who has a tricky role indeed. But she pulls it off just fine. Early on it is clear that she is destined to change Cage’s life. But it is only at the end of the movie that we understand exactly how true and profound this is. (Seen 8 October 2003)

Matinee 2 out of 4 stars

When I was remembering the late actor Kevin McCarthy, more than a week ago, I noted that he was in a few Joe Dante movies. But I neglected to mention this one. In Matinee, McCarthy appears briefly as a general. His appearance in this flick is totally appropriate since this is Dante’s ultimate tribute to the inventive, if not always polished, science fiction movies of the 1950s and early 1960s. In a way, virtually all of Dante’s movies are a tribute to this era, but this one is explicitly so. John Goodman sinks his teeth into a role that is a thinly veiled version of big screen horrormeister William Castle. Ostensibly a screwball tween comedy, Matinee has pretensions to profundity in that its small-town-upset-by-a-visiting-flamboyant-showman plot is set against the backdrop of the Cuban missile crisis. Horror movies give us release by encouraging us to face our deepest fears, Dante is essentially saying. And the 1950s-60s era flicks, in particular, helped us cope with the looming perceived threat of nuclear annihilation. But it’s the hijinks that make this nostalgia-laden entertainment worth watching. Cathy Moriarty is spot on as Goodman’s jaded, sarcastic leading lady/main squeeze. A number of the Dante regulars are on board, including Robert Picardo, who is suitably apoplectic as the high-strung theater manager. And the wonderful Dick Martin is on hand (with Dante’s screenwriter from the original Piranha, John Sayles) as an agitator against the new movie’s destruction of public morals. Also, watch for a un-credited appearance in the movie-within-the-movie (Mant! He’s part man and part ant!) by TV veteran William Schallert and a brief, very early big screen appearance in a trailer-within-the-movie by Naomi Watts. Among other distinctions, this movie marks the final big screen appearance by Jesse White. (Seen 24 September 2010)

The Matrix 2 out of 4 stars

The cool thing about seeing a movie like this in Redmond, Washington, is that you know the theater will be chock full of computer geeks who will get all of the cyber references and jokes. They will also be exceedingly appreciative of the film’s visual wizardry and will maybe even twitch their arms in Pavlovian response to the film’s video-game-inspired action sequences. Writer/director/brothers Andy and Larry Wachowski’s previous effort was Bound, a nifty little kinky suspense thriller that definitely delivered the goods. That they’ve followed it up with visually flashy, cyber-centered sci-fi fantasy is, well, it’s as if the Coen brothers had followed up Blood Simple with Dark City. While the film feels as though it could have been inspired by an actual video game and its look is heavily stylized in a Tim Burton sort of way, the good news is that it also works as sci-fi, although there is a bit of dark fantasy in it too à la The City of Lost Children. One funny thing, though, is how the movie goes to great lengths to explain how Keanu Reeves (whose blankness actually suits this role) can learn to perform the same gravity-defying stunts that are simply taken for granted in most Hong Kong movies. (Seen 3 April 1999)

The Matrix Reloaded 3 out of 4 stars

The best thing about seeing this movie in the west of Ireland was that the auditorium was mostly empty. Heck, when I suggested The Matrix Reloaded to my brother-in-law Joseph, he hadn’t even heard of it! This, Bill O’Reilly, is the true spin-free zone! Anyway, there is no way to talk about this flick without dwelling on the stunning visual effects. All those gadgets the Wachowski brothers spent all the money on have the cumulative effect of giving the filmmakers complete control of time and perspective. It’s not the thrill of forgetting you are watching a movie. It’s the thrill of watching cool, gee-whiz technology. Which is to say, like its predecessor, this is a geek movie par excellence. But it will make a ton of money because we are all geeks now and because, like all the hapless humans plugged into the matrix, moviegoers have been programmed by the powers of the mass media to go to this movie. Still, it’s hard not to like a movie that alternates between bursts of impossible action and extended bits of dialog invoking the most self-consciously pretentious philosophical mumbo-jumbo. As a work of science fiction, this trilogy borrows the best from everybody. It’s got the machines-enslaving-the-humans thing from the Terminator movies. It’s got the virtual reality thing from Tron. It’s got the quasi-religious thing from the Star Wars movies. And, of course, it’s got the messianic hero, which seems to be in much, if not most, science fiction. Best line (from Monica Bellucci): “She wasn’t kissing your face.” (Seen 28 May 2003)

The Matrix Revolutions 3 out of 4 stars

Has ever a sequel been less comprehensible without having seen the previous two installments? Come to think of it, has a sequel ever been less comprehensible even if you have seen the previous two installments? This final(?) episode in the Matrix series has a tall order to fill. It must fulfill the huge expectations raised by the first two films and provide a satisfying conclusion. And it would be nice if it made an effort to explain some of the weirdness of the middle film. It flirts with disaster by including a heavy dose of dialog like this: “What is truth?” “Truth is a word.” At times the philosophical mumbo-jumbo starts to sound like a bad episode of Kung Fu or even a Karate Kid movie. More strangely, given the studied dark-sunglass cool of the earlier films, there is a huge amount of unbridled emotionalism, particularly in the battle scenes where the heroic humans set new standards for bravery and self-sacrifice, not to mention professions of love and devotion. What makes the movie a classic in its genre is the amazing series of incredible visuals. During much of the film, the action is so intense we not only don’t have time to think about what does and doesn’t make sense, it makes us forget silly stuff that happened in the slow parts. The film also gets some free help from J.R.R. Tolkien and Peter Jackson, since by the end, we realize that Neo is really just Frodo in another guise. Question for future discussion: why does Hollywood, which is supposed to be so left-wing, keep making films that evoke so strongly gritty valor in fighting an evil enemy and the divine inspiration of religious saviors? (Seen 12 November 2003)

Maximum Risk 2 out of 4 stars

You definitely do not want to be a bystander or passerby in this movie! I don’t think I have ever seen so many cast extras get run down, get nearly run down, get fender-bendered, have their produce carts overturned, have their sidewalk café tables rammed, get their space invaded, have their balconies demolished, etc. etc. Of course, for all the out-of-control mayhem the actual casualties are few. This is Hong Kong director Ringo Lam’s U.S. film debut and it is actually better than John Woo’s American bow Hard Target which, like Maximum Risk, was a vehicle for Jean-Claude Van Damme. The title, by the way, has nothing to do with the plot unless perhaps it refers to Van Damme’s French cop’s official policy for conducting investigations. And the plot—which involves a twin brother, the Russian mob and corrupt FBI agents—is of course an excuse for the action sequences. But the settings (Nice and New York City) are gritty and film noirish rather than comic book. Natasha Henstridge is the love interest, and she is every bit as alluring as she was in Species, and this time she doesn’t have the bothersome habit of turning into a scaly alien and killing people. (Seen 19 September 1996)

The McCourts of Limerick 2 out of 4 stars

In a way, the McCourts are the quintessential Irish-American family. To all appearances, they are quick to laugh and quick to cry. And they are preoccupied with their roots in the Emerald Isle. They even have a cop in the family. His name is Conor and his second job is as a movie production assistant. He is now also a documentary filmmaker. He began making a film about his own family’s history in Limerick a few years ago before anyone knew that his uncle Frank’s memoir, Angela’s Ashes, would be a bestseller. The McCourts of Limerick features old family photographs, a few brief film clips, and an audio interview that Conor taped with his grandfather (an alcoholic who had deserted his family many years before) when Conor was 17. But mostly the film consists of on-camera reminiscences by Conor’s father, Malachy, and his three surviving brothers. Through jokes, bitter memories, and a few tall tales, we get a portrait of what life was like for the poor in Ireland in the 1940s but even more indelibly of what it is like to be Irish-American. This hour-long film had its world premiere at the 42nd Cork Film Festival. A follow-up, to be called The McCourts of Manhattan, is planned. (Seen 19 October 1997)

McFarland, USA 3 out of 4 stars

We know the story well. A washed-up, has-been (or maybe never-was) coach finds redemption by inspiring a ragtag hopeless group of youngsters to push themselves more than they ever thought they could and shoot for sporting glory. So what makes this one different? Well, for one thing, this movie (by Niki Caro, the New Zealand filmmaker who made Whale Rider) tackles some themes we do not see too often in American movies, specifically the culture clash between Anglos and Latinos in California’s Central Valley in the 1980s. Caro does a very good job of conveying the intimidating and disorienting feeling of arriving in a place that is foreign to you—and how over time the place can become familiar and comfortable. The name of the White family would be too obvious a device if this were not based on a true story and that were not really the family’s name. “Are we in Mexico?” asks the younger daughter, not unreasonably when the Whites first drive into McFarland. What follows is entirely predictable and, in fact, a matter of public record. And despite some inevitable trappings and conventions of this sort of movie (this is after all a Disney flick), it feels mostly authentic. And I say that as someone who grew up in a town only about some 15 miles from McFarland. The photography of real California landscapes is artful and beautiful. And no one plays the stalwart American in need of redemption better than latter-day Kevin Costner. Some lovely moments stick in the mind—a dad’s speech at his daughter’s quinceañera, the excitement of teenagers at seeing the ocean for the very first time. I don’t know if you have to be from Kern County for this movie to make you go all teary, but I’m guessing, probably not. (Seen 31 May 2015)

McLintock! 2 out of 4 stars

The second of three westerns that John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara made together (the first was Rio Grande, a prerequisite for the pair and director John Ford being able to do The Quiet Man two years later; the third was 1971’s Big Jake), this was a clear attempt to outdo the humor of their Irish classic. O’Hara’s character is called Kate, not only to evoke her Quiet Man character but also a certain Shakespearean shrew. Directed by English-born Andrew V. McLaglen, who helmed no fewer than 96 episodes of Gunsmoke, this is a character-driven comedy except when it’s a slapstick-driven comedy. The supporting cast leaves out few great Hollywood faces of day. For old coots and odd types, we have Chill Wills, Edgar Buchanan, Hank Worden and Strother Martin. For a bit of glamor, we have Yvonne De Carlo as a comely widow. For young romance, we have Wayne’s son Patrick and a very nubile Stefanie Powers, a couple of years before she became The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. And for real comedy, we have Jerry Van Dyke as local boy turned fancy dancing university city dude, who actually pulls out a pair of glasses when a fight breaks out. If what we mainly remember about The Quiet Man is the brawling and O’Hara being dragged through the mud, then this movie attempts to obliterate that—especially with a prolonged sequence involving a slimy mud hole that seems to have been designed for the express purpose of having people fall and slide into it. But the best drawn-out comedy bit involves several attempts of a drunken Wayne trying to get up the staircase in his own home. (Seen 24 July 2009)

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl 3 out of 4 stars

Let’s count the reasons why I should not have liked this film as much as I did. For one thing, it’s adapted from a YA novel about a teenager with cancer. For another, it’s a case of yet another filmmaker making a movie about, sigh, a budding filmmaker—with all kinds of knowing film references included in it. Okay, that’s enough counting. The fact is that I did like this film and, in fact, if I were not as guarded in my feelings as the protagonist Greg, I might even confess that I loved it. I suppose I should focus on the fact that this movie provides a very moving experience, but the fact is that I love it because it is so darn funny. It is the wittiest and most insightful flick I have seen in some time. It helps that the wondrous Nick Offerman is Greg’s eclectic soc prof dad and that Molly Shannon is the tad-bit-too-touchy-feely-after-a-glass-of-wine mom of the titular girl, Rachel. But the movie is carried by Thomas Mann, whose rubbery face is cutely endearing but not inconsistent of his self-image of rodentlike, and RJ Cyler, who is arguably the most interesting character in the flick but is continuously sidelined by narrator Greg’s persistent self-absortion. Oliva Cooke has the trickiest job, as Rachel, since her eyes and voice must work overtime to convince us that her clearly healthy body is failing. What is great about the film is how it takes on the ironic post-modern pose that has become so prevalent—particularly among teens—and demonstrates how it can alienate us from our own authentic feelings. In the end, to the extent that this is a love story, it is really about Greg and Earl and how hard it is for Greg to acknowledge how much Earl means to him. But that relationship is played (quite nicely) so far beneath the surface that an inattentive viewer could well miss it. The beautiful screenplay by Jesse Andrews (from his own novel) nearly seems calculated to obliterate all memory of The Fault in Our Stars. The director is Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, who has mainly worked in TV and commercials. It is his second feature after The Town That Dreaded Sundown. And for the record, the film parodies by Greg and Earl are all top-notch and well worth the price of admission all by themselves. (Seen 5 September 2015)

Me and Orson Welles 2 out of 4 stars

This 2008 flick directed by Richard Linklater bears a passing resemblance to Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris in that it is a nostalgic and affectionate evocation of a mythic moment in the history of 20th century arts. It doesn’t have the fantasy/time travel gimmick, but it’s not hard to see Zac Efron’s wide-eyed ingénue as a younger version of Owen Wilson’s character in the Woodman’s film. Unlike the figures of the Lost Generation, the denizens of the Mercury Theatre went on to be familiar faces on the big and small screens, so the actors have a higher bar for their impersonations. And they are flawless. We only have to look at James Tupper to know that he is Joseph Cotton. Ditto Eddie Marsan as John Houseman. And Christian McKay (who is quoted on the IMDb as joking that he is the only actor who ever had to lose weight to play Orson Welles) has the great man down perfect. At the same time, he is strangely reminiscent of Carl Reiner playing the Alan Brady on The Dick Van Dyke Show, which kind of works since the movie has some of the same vibe as that sitcom. The framing plot about Efron’s teenager’s relationship with nice but ambitious Clare Danes is a bit of a distraction from the really interesting stuff, but they are both good actors and are easy to take. The film has some really nice touches, including a shadowy shot of Tupper that evokes Cotton in The Third Man and a cut-away from Efron and Danes that echoes an earlier conversation about how “quadruple spacing” in books skips over the really good stuff. (Seen 15 October 2012)

Mean Girls 2 out of 4 stars

Can it really be ten years since this movie came out? Didn’t it get released, like, ten minutes ago? Maybe it still seems recent because it cemented the term “mean girls” into the popular vocabulary. This nearly counts as a Saturday Night Live spinoff since it was produced by Lorne Michaels and features the likes of Tina Fey (who wrote the screenplay after Rosalind Wiseman’s book) and Tim Meadows as teachers and Amy Poehler and Ana Gasteyer as parents. But we actually realize how old the movie is when we look at who’s playing the teens. Still wholesome Lindsay Lohan was again collaborating with director Mark Waters after the previous year’s Freaky Friday remake. And the titular mean girls include Amanda Seyfried in her big screen debut and Rachel McAdams, who would be seen again a week later in The Notebook. This film may well constitute the best cinematic argument ever made in favor of home schooling since it starts out promisingly by having untainted outsider Lohan observe the high school hijinks like some kind of detached anthropologist. But like Talulah Riley in St. Trinian’s, she soon becomes seduced by the alluring shallowness. In the British movie that was seen as a good thing. The American version is more hypocritical since it ostensibly teaches the mean girls a lesson while still admiring how incredibly hot they are. Nicest touch in the whole movie? The sulky outsider character played by Lizzy Caplan is named Janis Ian. (Seen 4 October 2014)

Mean Streets 3 out of 4 stars

One of many personal embarrassments is the fact that, until now, I had never seen this seminal 1973 film by Martin Scorsese. Of course, seeing it now can never be the same as seeing it for the first time during the Nixon administration. Seeing it now, we get distracted by how young Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro are. Were they actually once so youthful and callow? In reading up on the movie, I was surprised to learn that it was actually sequel to a 1968 movie called Who’s That Knocking at My Door?, also starring Keitel. Suddenly, I feel as if I don’t have enough information to completely understand the movie. Anyway, it has often been said that this is the quintessential a) New York movie or b) Italian-American movie or c) both of the above. There is certainly an impressive sense of time and place in this film, and it came as a shock to me to learn that most of it was filmed in Los Angeles. I suppose it is not too much to say that this movie presaged the rock video, in that there is a seemingly constant stream of doo-wap and Italian music on the soundtrack that is inextricably woven with the on-screen action. Like a low-budget, urban Sergio Leone, Scorsese choreographs the music and the action into something like an opera. There is an intense energy that flows through its frames and occasionally overflows in outbursts of violence that erupt and subside with their own unique rhythm. Even across all these decades, it is clear why film critics at the time (especially New York ones) got excited. (Seen 9 July 2005)

Mécaniques Célestes (Celestial Clockwork) 2 out of 4 stars

Like An Almost Perfect Affair, this film begins with a woman leaving her fiancé at the altar in mid-ceremony and flying to another country. But Fina Torres’s Celestial Clockwork has the good sense to dispense with that plot point in a few seconds, rather than dragging it out like that Austrian comedy. In a matter of moments, Ana (Ariadna Gil) has jumped on a plane from Caracas to Paris to pursue her dream of becoming an opera singer. She adores in particular Rossini’s Cinderella, which is appropriate since this film is but a reworking of that tale (with a subplot borrowed from The Wedding Banquet). The evil step-mother in this case is Celeste (Arielle Dombasle camping it up), one of Ana’s roommates in Paris. Prince Charming is an Italian opera director (who looks a bit like Frasier’s Kelsey Grammer) seeking the perfect Cinderella for his latest production. Will he discover Ana despite Celeste’s treachery? Will there be beautiful music on the soundtrack? All in all, an enjoyable bit of fluff. (Seen 25 May 1996)

Die Mediocren 2 out of 4 stars

Cool. A German Generation X slacker comedy. This is about a group of twenty-somethings who hang out together all the time, but it’s not exactly a German version of Friends. Anna has had lots of abortions but kept one baby because she thought the father was a black man. (The child is 100% blond and seems quietly disturbed.) Robin hates to be called German and is brutally honest with her lovers. Leo is obsessed with his computer and virtual reality. And Jost is the philosopher child of the group. The film is called Die Mediocren because at one point that is what the four friends start calling themselves because they decide that they are boring and mediocre. What’s interesting is to see their attitudes when they learn that one of their circle may be from East Germany. While mainly providing some light entertainment, the film also gives a bit of insight into how young Germany is coping with reunification. (Seen 21 May 1996)

Meet Joe Black 2 out of 4 stars

The main differnece between this movie (directed by Martin Brest) and 1978’s Heaven Can Wait (directed by Warren Beatty and Buck Henry) is that in the latter Julie Christie falls in love with Beatty regardless of what body he happens to be inside whereas in Meet Joe Black Claire Forlani falls in love with Brad Pitt’s body regardless of who actually happens to be inhabiting it. As Death in human form, Pitt more or less plays him as a child in a man’s, well, in Pitt’s body. Actors love this sort of thing because a role like this can really make a career—like Peter Sellers in Being There or Tom Hanks in Big and Forrest Gump. The problem is that Pitt actually plays him as a child in a man’s body that has severe mental problems and is under heavy medication. The other problem is that Jeffrey Tambor, as Anthony Hopkins’s affable son-in-law, plays a much better child in a man’s body. Frankly, Brest was more successful at examining the facing mortality thing in Going in Style and Scent of a Woman. Despite the film’s problems, however, it still gets two stars because Hopkins is a great actor, it features the best pedestrian/auto mishap I’ve seen in a movie yet, and I can be a shameless sucker for a sentimental ending. All in all, this is a nice 90-minute movie. It’s just too bad that its running time turned out to be three hours. (Seen 20 January 1999)

Meet Me in St. Louis 4 out of 4 stars

It’s interesting how, over the years, this classic Vincente Minnelli musical has become identified as a Christmas movie. Indeed, it has long held a prestigious spot on my own list of Five Christmas Classics. Structurally, the movie actually covers an entire year in the life of a family and, if it is “about” anything it is about the World’s Fair that opened in St. Louis at the end of April 1904. But it has become a Christmas standard on the strength of its emotional Christmas segment and, mostly, a song sung by Judy Garland to young Margaret O’Brien. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is beautiful, Garland’s performance is one of her best, and O’Brien could have made the whole thing unbearably mawkish but instead gave a heartbreaking portrayal as she listens to a song that, contrary to its lyrics, is laced with nostalgic sadness. There is not much story here. Just a few vignettes about ordinary (well, privileged for the time) family life. At times it plays like an extended episode of Father Knows Best. It trades shamelessly on nostalgia, but that’s okay. It cannot help but make you feel good, and that’s not bad. (Seen 24 December 2011)

Meet the Parents 2 out of 4 stars

This isn’t so much a movie as a catalog of young adult male insecurity anxieties. And it’s a pretty extensive catalog. In addition to the titular meeting-the-girlfriend’s-parents anxiety, we have career inadequacy anxiety, religious inadequacy anxiety, athletic competition inadequacy anxiety, skimpy bathing suit inadequacy anxiety, girlfriend’s all-too-perfect ex-boyfriend inadequacy anxiety, having-a-name-that-is-extremely-easy-to-make-fun-of inadequacy anxiety, and general big-time screw-up inadequacy anxiety. Given star Ben Stiller’s association with There’s Something About Mary and the fact that director Jay Roach gave us the Austin Powers movie and its sequel, we could reasonably expect that the list of inadequacy anxieties would get into a heavily sexual area, but they don’t. As a family dynamics comedy, the movie’s zaniness is a notch or two below the comic-book-ish-ness of the Chevy Chase/National Lampoon flicks about the Griswold family. Meet the Parents is actually more reminiscent of the relatively low-key comedy of films like the 1972 Andrew Bergman-penned The In-Laws, in which Peter Falk drove Alan Arkin mental much like Robert De Niro does here to Stiller. Bottom line: if you have ever had to meet your significant other’s parents (or have had the frustration of traveling by commercial airline in the recent past), you will doubtless relate. (Seen 10 November 2000)

Meet the Robinsons 3 out of 4 stars

There have already been more than a couple of memorable movie clans named Robinson. There was the shipwrecked Swiss family of an earlier Disney flick. There was the adventuring wilderness family of the 1975 film and its sequels. And let us not forget young Dustin Hoffman’s suburban neighbors, in The Graduate, the mother of which inspired a classic Simon & Garfunkel song. Now we have yet another one, and its moniker seems to be a conscious nod to yet another clan, one that was updated from the Swiss one, to be marooned on a distant planet. If there is any question about this, consider that here we have a boy named Will (well, Wilbur) Robinson who goes around with a robot. The knowing references and jokes (an amusement park in the future is called Todayland) are a large part of the fun, but the most satisfying part is getting an intricately plotted time travel story even better configured than James Cameron’s Terminator trilogy. Beyond that, those forced to watch a lot of TV cartoons (specifically George Shrinks and, especially, Rolie Polie Olie) will immediately recognize in this Robinson bunch the quirky and exuberant extended family dynamics that are a trademark of writer William Joyce. Some critics I’ve heard have suggested that this post-Pixar Disney effort falls short somehow, but they don’t know what they’re talking about. I give it some of the highest praise I can: it’s as good as an episode of the new Doctor Who series. (Seen 20 May 2007)

Meier 2 out of 4 stars

This is an ironic caper comedy that could only take place in Berlin. Ede Meier is a young paperhanger in East Berlin who comes into an inheritance. He buys a fake West German passport, leaves East Germany, and takes a fabulous trip around the world. (Everyone thinks he’s vacationing in Bulgaria.) But when he comes back to West Berlin, he goes back to his old life using a visitor’s visa to cross into East Berlin. He lives a double life as an East Berliner by day and a West Berliner by night. He comes up with a scheme to smuggle plain white rough-textured wallpaper into the East and claim that he invented it on his own home printing press. You see, in East Germany they only make wallpaper with ugly patterns that everybody hates and that takes twice as long to hang because you have to match up that pattern. Ede’s life is complicated as he tries keeping his secret from everyone including his straight arrow, party member girl friend. Everything goes okay until the night he is awarded a medal as a “worker hero” for his invention. After a night of partying he realizes that he is about to miss the deadline for getting back to West Berlin and makes a mad dash for the border crossing. Panicky and half drunk, he pulls out the wrong passport and.. (Seen 20 May 1987)

Melinda and Melinda 2 out of 4 stars

For a change of pace, in what is by my count anyway his 37th film, Woody Allen has set a story in Manhattan and taken on the theme of angst-ridden yuppies obsessing about lots of things, notably infidelity. Now this is territory that can use further exploring! Okay, so Allen’s films have a particular consistency about them, including a look and feel that is readily identifiable, right down to the typeface used for the credits and the jazz music on the soundtrack. He also assembles pretty darn good casts. This film’s gimmick is that it features two stories that are told more or less simultaneously, both about a woman in emotional crisis named Melinda (played by Radha Mitchell) who interrupts a dinner party and consequently becomes involved in the lives of the host couple. As is usually the case with this sort of device, it is the premise that makes the two stories seem more interesting than they are rather than the other way around. Especially since we are regularly reminded that both stories are merely the inventions of a group of friends sitting around a table having drinks. The point is meant to be that there is a fine line between tragedy and comedy, and this is demonstrated by two contrasting endings á la The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Otherwise, the main difference between tragedy and comedy seems to be that the latter has Will Ferrell standing in for Allen (who doesn’t appear on screen himself), doing the Woodman’s usual neurotic shtick and one-liners. (Seen 12 October 2004)

Memento 3 out of 4 stars

Anyway, that’s why I really liked this movie. It’s the sort of stuff that gets you thinking and thinking some more (and waiting anxiously for this movie to come out on DVD so you can play the chapters in reverse order). It’s all about perceptions of reality, our ability (or inability) to know anything for sure, how we all go through life with mere pieces of the whole picture, trying to function with an incomplete view of the world. The plot, while shrewd enough, isn’t really the point. But, since the hero (who can’t make new memories) has to re-establish a lot of facts in each scene, it’s also a bit like the comedy Groundhog Day (and also some comedy starring David Spade which, appropriately enough, I can’t remember, that more or less had the same premise). The fact that we begin each scene not knowing what came before puts us (cleverly) in the same position as our brain-damaged hero (Guy Pearce). But it’s not just a familiar story told backwards for irony. This movie tells its story in reverse, like the film Betrayal. (Seen 9 April 2001)

Macario 2 out of 4 stars

This is a 1960 black-and-white Mexican movie about a peasant named Macario, who gets fed up with his lot in life in colonial Mexico. (His lot in life is a bunch of screaming kids, who can’t seem to get enough to eat.) He goes on a hunger strike until he can get a whole turkey for himself. So his concerned wife steals a turkey from a rich family and cooks it for him so he can have it just for himself. So he goes off into the woods to indulge himself, probably for the first time in his life, with no kids or anybody else around. But then, who should show up wanting some? The Devil. But Macario says, bug off, Devil. And then who shows up? God. And God wants some. But Macario’s got huevos, and he says no to God too. Then Death shows up. (Whoops.) So Macario sees the writing on the wall and shares. In exchange, Death gives him some magic water that can cure anybody. This stuff makes Macario a wealthy man until the Inquisition gets wind of it. This is one of those great ironically humorous, magical stories that Latin America excels in. Based on a story by the mysterious B. Traven, who wrote Treasure of the Sierra Madre. (Seen 29 May 1987)

Mémoires affectives 3 out of 4 stars

The title has a double meaning and is our best clue for what is going on in this rather mysterious film. Inadvertently pouring more oil on the embers of the Terri Schiavo controversy, a man is declared brain dead, his plug is pulled, and then he wakes up to a full recovery. Well, not completely full. He is a total amnesiac, so he has to go about learning everything about himself and those close to him. But strange things are happening. Talks with family and friends do bring back flashes of memory, but in these flashes, Alex sees himself as if he was someone else. And, in mid-conversation, everyone’s story suddenly changes to some other version of events. And who is that man who calls him from a telephone booth? Part melodrama, part psychological study and part supernatural thriller, this movie keeps you involved and trying to guess exactly where it is headed. As Alex, Roy Dupuis has the soulful eyes and traumatized demeanor to make the premise feel convincing and haunting. And the frozen landscapes of Quebec in winter are as much a character in the story as the people and two unfortunate deer. With its themes of memory, perception, reality and traumatic secrets, this compelling film Francis Leclerc is like a heady blend of David Lynch and Leclerc’s fellow Canadian, Atom Egoyan. (Seen 20 February 2006)

Men in Black 2 out of 4 stars

Things are definitely out of hand. As luck would have it, when The Big Summer Movies come out, this is exactly when I find myself most exposed to American TV, which means that I inevitably have to sit through the warm-weather blockbusters with a constant sense of déjà vu. Movie ads and theater trailers are getting increasingly worse about playing key moments of a movie over and over before we get a chance to see the whole movie for ourselves. Men in Black is one of the latest to suffer from this strange phenomenon, where Hollywood marketers (who know that the really big movies rely to a large extent on repeat viewings anyway) figure the best way to sell a film is to make it as familiar as possible in advance. This is a sorry situation, especially for a film like this which, in a better world, would rely largely on the element of surprise. Anyway, the movie is a lot of fun, as might be expected from the imaginative director of the Addams Family movies (not to mention Get Shorty). And the Roswell anniversary, the Mars photos, and several seasons of The X-Files all conspire to make the timing of this flick—which supposes that all tabloid headlines are true—to be auspicious indeed. (Seen 12 July 1997)

Men in Black II 3 out of 4 stars

Hey, remember when that big battle with the space aliens was going on over New York City and we could all see it for miles around? Of course, you don’t. I don’t either. That’s because we all got de-neuralized. Luckily, we have this very funny sequel to tell us what happened, and like Spider-Man, it’s another post-9/11 Hollywood-style tribute to the Big Apple. Improbably, the film begins (seemingly) with a cockeyed cinematic tribute to (simultaneously) the late celebrated hack sci-fi filmmaker Ed Wood and, of all things, the History Channel. This serves (slyly) to remind just how far the state of art in science fiction movie technical effects have come in the past half-century, which is appropriate since the effects are what make this movie (and so many others). But happily, it’s not just the special effects. This is one of the cleverest and funniest action comedies we have seen in some time. Director Barry Sonnenfield and his stars have returned to give us that all-too-rare beast, the sequel that is actually better than the original. Best of all are the riffs on themes of buddy cop movies from time immemorial, including incompatible partners (early on, Will Smith gets the most obnoxious cop cohort imaginable, who at the same time lampoons movies about heroes with dogs), locker room heart-to-hearts, and romances that don’t work out. The film also confirms something about postal employees that we always suspected. Some of the best laughs involve celebrity cameos that are unexpectedly topical right now and which are more hilarious than the filmmakers could ever have expected or intended. (Seen 12 July 2002)

Men in Black 3 2 out of 4 stars

Happily, this was better than I had been led to expect. The Men in Black movies have never been anything other than silly fun, and the question was always going to be whether there was enough juice to squeeze out one more without embarrassing everybody. Turns out there was. It helps that the original creative team (Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones, director Barry Sonnenfeld) is pretty much intact and still interested. Well, except maybe for Jones, who looks strangely embalmed and not the least bit bothered that the story requires (enables?) him to miss most of the movie. Jones looks pretty bored with the whole thing, but since that fits exactly with his character, it doesn’t matter. The wonderful Emma Thompson (replacing Rip Torn) is a welcome addition, but sadly she gets little to do and then disappears along with Jones. The time travel story may seem a little predictable, but they get in a lot of good gags about the late 1960s. What really helps the movie is Michael Stuhlbarg’s very entertaining alien, Griffin, whose befuddling ability (more of a curse, really) to see alternate futures simultaneously evokes the spirit of such classic BBC scifi series as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Red Dwarf and Doctor Who. Such inventiveness ensures this isn’t merely about the special effects. (Seen 16 June 2012)

Men Who Swim 2 out of 4 stars

After this film had been screened and the filmmakers did a Q&A, the Film Fleadh presenter thanked them “for brightening up a rainy Galway day.” Indeed. He could have actually thanking them for brightening up a film festival full of the usual sort of grim and tough movies. Not to disparage people who make those kind of movies (some, of course, are very good), but what a breath of fresh air to see a simple (and true) story devoid of trauma, drama and bad feelings about the world. This movie won’t change the planet (few, if any, do), but it is a pleasant and interesting enough way to spend 70 minutes. The director is Welshman Dylan Williams who (here’s something I can identify with) left his own country to live in his wife’s native Sweden. The film takes the form of a (slickly made) video journal recounting his difficulty in integrating in his new world and making friends—and how he made a breakthrough by becoming part of a male synchronized swimming team. The film is as much about male middle age as it is about culture shock. As Williams puts it, when a guy hits 40 he may finally have to put away his rock band dreams, but at that age a synchronized swimming team may be the closest thing to a rock band there is. The narrative arc focuses on how these amateurs train and prepare for a world championship in Italy, building up to a surprisingly moving finale. Not the least of the movie’s assets is the fact that it gives us a rare enough glimpse into what living in modern Sweden is really like. (Seen 10 July 2010)

The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc 2 out of 4 stars

At one point more or less midway through this movie, one of the French noblemen who has been bewilderedly following a teenage girl into bloody battle after bloody battle and has just watched her pull an arrow out of her shoulder turns to no one in particular and observes, “She’s nuts!” And that pretty much sums up French action director Luc Besson’s take on one of his country’s greatest historical, religious and cultural icons. As played by Besson’s young Ukraine-born wife, Milla Jovovich, Joan is a charismatic schizophrenic overwhelmed with “visions from God” and a sense of holy mission no matter what the body count (sort of like Ken Starr on a really bad day). There is something about Jovovich’s wild animal eyes when she is injured or restrained that puts us in mind of Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange. The battle scenes are suitably bloody for a Middle Ages war epic, and some scenes where giant balls come out of a chute and crush guys are really cool. On the other hand, some of the abrupt decapitations and amputations tend to put one in mind of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The battles are sometimes confusing, probably because no one wears uniforms and everyone on both sides speaks English in a large variety of accents. (Tip: the English are the ones with the really bad teeth.) Adding to the quasi-campy feel of the flick is the presence of a few big name Hollywood actors among the international cast. As the dauphin, John Malkovich fusses over his coronation like a Beverly Hills interior decorator. And Dustin Hoffman shows up in the final scenes in a capacity similar to Che Guevara’s role in Evita: to allow our over-achieving heroine to have conversations with herself. (Seen 7 December 1999)

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) 3 out of 4 stars

J.J. Abrams (and directors like him) have ruined location street shots for me. Because it became a trend for any movie with a shot in a car or in a crosswalk to be interrupted by a sudden collision, these shots immediately put me on edge. This movie opens with Adam Sandler trying to park a car, and it had me in a state of tension the whole time, waiting for a sudden fender bender. In the end there was no (literal) crash in this scene or any other, but the tension was not misplaced entirely. It just turned out to be family-related instead of traffic-related. Half-brothers Danny (Sandler) and Matthew (Ben Stiller) and Danny’s sister Jean (a wonderful Elizabeth Marvel) have unresolved issues to work out with their father Harold, a sculptor stubbornly wallowing in his less-than-deserved-at-least-in-his-mind lack of artistic prestige. The family portrait is so real and immediate—and so New York—that we just know that writer/director Noah Baumbach is again milking his own biography and relations. As Harold, Dustin Hoffman looks like a cross between an Old Testament prophet and a 19th-century radical philosopher. The character’s wilfull obstinance about his craft plays nicely with our own memories of stories about Hoffman the actor. Sandler reminds us he can be quite a good actor when not making lowest-common-denominator comedies. Stiller’s piercing eyes and comic chops make him a great on-screen New York jerk. A plot synopsis would make this sound like a shameless tear-jerker, but it is actually one of the most laugh-out-loud comedies I have seen in a while. It is so full of nice touches, it is hard to pick favorites. Let’s go with a beautiful duet at the piano which speaks volumes about a close father-daughter relationship. Also, a running gag about a nurse named Pam that will be recognizable to anyone who has spent days in a hospital agonizing over a parent. The cast is frequently recognizable and perfect, including Grace Van Patten as Sandler’s just-beginning-college daughter and the always-welcome Emma Thompson as the dipsomaniac stepmother. Also on hand are Judd Hirsch as a fellow sculptor who is the toast of the town, Candice Bergen as Stiller’s ready-to-make-amends mother, and Sigourney Weaver, who does a very convincing job of playing herself. (Seen 8 November 2017)

Miami Vice 2 out of 4 stars

It’s been more than six years, but I finally got around to it. This is Michael Mann’s own big screen treatment of his seminal 1980s TV series, which has been on my to-do list since it first got released. The fact that Mann directed this movie himself and did so completely seriously makes it different from so many other big screen adaptations of old TV series that were being released at the time (Starsky & Hutch, The Dukes of Hazzard) and which tended to be self-mocking. Aside from the not insignificant fact that the whole thing has been recast, this could be nearly be an actual episode of the original series elongated to a bit more than double length. Sure the color scheme has changed, but otherwise the mood and sense of place are almost exactly the same. And it is uncanny how well Jamie Foxx and Colin Farrell manage to sound exactly like the original Tubbs and Crockett. It is no shock that Foxx is a vast improvement over Philip Michael (has anyone seen him lately?) Thomas. On the other hand, Farrell, with his droopy mustache and morose manner seems to be paying the Edward James Olmos character—which may be just as well since Lt. Castillo is played by Barry Shabaka Henley who, to say the least, exhibits none of Olmos’s taut dancer’s form that helped make the lieutenant such a compelling character. The other characters are here too, although they barely register except for Naomie Harris (who went on to be 007’s new Moneypenny) as Trudy, who has finally lassoed the wayward Tubbs. The flick works as a nice little—if not extraordinary—crime thriller. But in bringing back a much-remembered series, the movie’s lack of humor eliminates one of the best things about the original: Don Johnson’s laugh and the twinkle in his eye. Wait, the movie isn’t completely without humor. After a particularly aggressive gunfight, die-hard fans will have chuckled when someone assures us that “Zito’s okay!” (Seen 30 June 2013)

Michael Collins 3 out of 4 stars

At the end of Michael Collins, director Neil Jordan quotes long-time Irish leader Eamon de Valera as saying that one day Collins would be glorified at de Valera’s expense. By the time we read this, the prophecy has come true. Make no mistake. Michael Collins is not a documentary. It is a fast-paced, Hollywood-style entertainment. And it’s a damn fine one. Sort of as if The Godfather had been about major 20th century American historical figures. At the same time, this flick comes with a lot of baggage given the wounds it reopens from recent Irish history. The Irish and British press have spewed reams about Jordan’s alleged biases, invented scenes, and the choice of actors for key roles. Not the least of the controversy is the portrayal of modern Ireland founder and beloved politician de Valera as a really bad (or at least very neurotic) dude. People will argue over this flick for some time, but if any lesson for today’s Ireland cam be drawn from the story of martyred IRA founder Collins, it is this: He was a hero not because of the number of people he killed but because he knew when to stop fighting. (Seen 6 November 1996)

Mickey Blue Eyes 2 out of 4 stars

This is another in a series of movies that Elizabeth Hurley is forcing Hugh Grant to make wherein he tries to deceive his girlfriend and suffers all kinds of consequences for it. The plot is reminiscent of The Freshman, in which a naive Matthew Broderick falls in with a shady character who just happens to be played by someone (Marlon Brando) virtually reprising his mobster role from The Godfather. Here it is Grant being driven loony by James Caan, in much the same way that Alan Arkin was harassed by Peter Falk in The In-Laws. Also on hand is an improbably cheery James Fox, who serves the same function as the Larry Tate character on the old Bewitched TV series, i.e. constantly shepherding around an important client and talking up the propriety and uprightness of the firm while leading him into Grant’s office at the worse possible moment. While very silly, the film does have its moments. The most surreal is the one where Grant, posing as the fictitious gangster of the title, tries to affect a New York accent and winds up sounding like Elmer Fudd. Director Kelly Makin’s Kids in the Hall collaborator Scott Thompson steals all his scenes as a Chevy Chase-like FBI agent. (Seen 25 August 1999)

Middletown 2 out of 4 stars

The scariest preacher ever to have appeared in a movie was most certainly the one played by Robert Mitchum in Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter. And the messenger of God in Judaism, Christianity and Islam is the angel Gabriel. So it may not be entirely a coincidence that the scary preacher in this movie is named Gabriel Hunter. He is played by Matthew Macfadyen, who was last seen playing Mr. Darcy to Keira Kightley’s Lizzie Bennet in Pride & Prejudice. His Gabriel has returned to his titular hometown in Northern Ireland to take the reins of the local Church of God. Gabriel has undergone years of vaguely described religious training and missionary work, and he has now come home, without the slightest ounce of doubt in his mind, to do God’s work without compromise. Middletown, perpetually cloaked in darkness and/or fog, is apparently very remote, as there is never a sign of a police officer, doctor or fire brigade—no matter how urgent the need. (Dark Shadows aficionados may be reminded of Collinwood and the diabolical Reverend Trask.) As a melodrama, with thriller elements, the movie (by Brian Kirk, whose short films include Do Armed Robbers Have Love Affairs) is fairly effective. But, since this is Northern Ireland, we can’t help but feel that there is some underlying point here. After all, the dominant political figure in the province these days is, well, a scary preacher. And religion is certainly a factor these days in the politics of the world in general. The film festival program asserts that the film demonstrates “the destructive power of fundamental belief.” It doesn’t really. Gabriel’s problem isn’t that he’s devout. It’s that he’s crazy. (Seen 12 October 2006)

Midnight Cabaret 2 out of 4 stars

Adam is a South Carolina college senior who decides to reinvent himself. This comes after a chance encounter with a guy from his high school who used to taunt him. He is also inspired by a performer named Eve at the night spot that gives the film its title. (To give you an idea of the transformation, he goes from looking like Harry Potter to looking like Dante in the video game Devil May Cry.) What follows is essentially a cautionary tale about falling in with the wrong crowd. This is no shiny Hollywood entertainment. In the best indy tradition, director Donna R. Clark (who co-wrote the screenplay with Peter C. Foster) goes for naturalistic performances, and the characters generally come off as real. Early on, we get indications that this may be a “message movie,” so it is a relief to find that Clark gives the viewer enough credit to get any messages without being beaten over the head. Snappy editing, a cool soundtrack and moments of genuine tension keep us interested and entertained. Adam is played by talented singer/songwriter/model/actor Brandon Hilton (he also contributes to the soundtrack), and he is a compelling physical screen presence. As the saying goes, the camera loves him. It is only in the most fraught scenes that we might wish that his acting range went just a wee bit further. But the important thing is that, by the end, we feel that we have come to know a specific place and actual people. If you get a chance (Clark is currently working on getting it into theaters and festivals), definitely check this one out. (Seen 29 August 2012)

Midnight in Paris 2 out of 4 stars

Although it probably wasn’t writer/director Woody Allen’s express intention, this movie confronts head-on the question of which type of American tourists is more annoying: the ones who don’t like France or the ones who idolize France. By now we have to consider the Woodman a fairly self-indulgent filmmaker and this movie is one more example of how this results in (generally privileged) characters who are mostly self-indulgent. Having said that, this movie is pretty much irresistible to people like me who, like Owen Wilson’s character Gil, have a nostalgic fascination with the Lost Generation. Gil is a self-described hack Hollywood screenwriter who has been nursing a first novel forever. We get the impression that the novel probably isn’t very good, so it’s a tip-off that when Gil finds himself in the 1920s, it is not literal time travel but rather a journey to his own rose-colored version of the era because both Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald both find him very interesting and Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway think his novel is good. Another tip-off is that, in one of the best jokes of the film, Hemingway talks the same way he writes. Gil is escaping, and the film aspires to no more than being a clever and witty escape for us. And Gil has plenty to escape from since he is engaged to Rachel McAdams, who plays one of those romcom fiancées whose sole motivation seems to be to belittle her betrothed. But, as usual with Allen, the movie gets to have its cake and eat it too. We are told quite explicitly that nostalgia for a bygone epoch is just an illusion but that following your heart (which is always the right thing to do) is finding that the impossibly gorgeous young French girl will be charmed by you because you like Cole Porter. (Seen 13 October 2011)

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil 2 out of 4 stars

You may not like this film if 1) you’re a fan of John Berendt’s book and can’t bear seeing a movie that doesn’t recreate it (or your personal vision of it) exactly, 2) you have a vested interest in Savannah, Georgia, receiving a Wholesome All-American City award, or 3) you’re a film critic who lavished a lot of praise on Clint Eastwood’s directing of movies like Unforgiven and The Bridges of Madison County and now you figure it’s payback time. Otherwise, you can probably enjoy this leisurely (perhaps a tad long) portrait of a Southern city and its scandalous murder case. John Cusack gapes a bit much as our point-of-view character, a fish out of water not completely unlike Dr. Fleischman in TV’s Northern Exposure, who also had to deal with quirky characters and exotic mysticism. Kevin Spacey is the host whose parties you’d love to attend. Clint’s daughter Alison is charming in a Kyra Sedgwick sort of way. Jude Law, Oscar’s Bosie in Wilde, changes accents here but is still a petulant boy toy. And Jack Thompson (the Breaker Morant star who seems to have metamorphosed into Pat Hingle) could almost be replaced by Andy Griffith as Matlock. Indeed, as several of the characters walk off together at film’s end into the figurative sunset, we almost feel as though we have seen the pilot of a new TV series. (Seen 17 October 1997)

Mies vailla menneisyyttä (The Man Without a Past) 2 out of 4 stars

This is the second installment of director Aki Kaurismäki’s “Finland” trilogy, and it won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival. A very low-key comedy, it has a very old-fashioned feel to it. It’s a bit like a Jim Jarmusch remake of a Preston Sturges movie. A man arrives in Helsinki by train and is immediately beaten, robbed and left for dead. He miraculously recovers but cannot remember a thing. With no identity, he begins building a life on the fringes of society. His Jean Arthur is an inhibited Salvation Army worker. We meet several odd and amusing other characters along the way, and we get a bit of social commentary on life in Finland. In the title role, Markku Peltola has a classic leading man quality that is, by turns, reminiscent of Gary Cooper and Kirk Douglas. (Seen 11 October 2002)

Mighty Aphrodite 2 out of 4 stars

This is the film that Billy Crystal wishes he could make. Like Forget Paris, it is about a wise-cracking guy involved in professional sports who is trying to deal with marriage and family. But it is a lot more entertaining than Crystal’s film because the writer/director/star is Woody Allen who is just so good at this stuff (regardless of what you think about his personal life) and who always assembles great casts for his films. One of the movie’s clever devices is an actual Greek chorus that narrates and comments on the action—but with a distinctly New York attitude. (Seen 25 October 1995)

The Mighty Celt 2 out of 4 stars

Pearse Elliott wrote the screenplay for the somewhat raunchy comedy Man About Dog. He’s back with another story (and directing as well this time), and once again it involves the apparently seedy world of greyhound racing. But this time things get a bit more sentimental. This is the one about the boy and the dog, and for much of the film’s running time, we believe we are watching juvenile tearjerker in the mold of Lassie or Old Yeller. But there’s more going on. This is one of those movies “about” Northern Ireland. That used to mean showing how oppressed the Nationalist community was by the Unionists and/or the British. These days, it seems to mean showing how pro-peace Nationalists are oppressed by the hard men. Somewhat reminiscent of Daniel Day-Lewis’s character in The Boxer, Robert Carlyle is a released IRA prisoner who no longer sees any point in fighting and would like to pick up the pieces of his interrupted life. That would seem to involve the mother of the boy with the dog, played by Gillian Anderson. Yes, the one from X-Files! And she seems to have the accent and is really quite convincing as one of those women who smokes and tarts up for a date. As things progress, it all looks too predictable, so it’s a welcome surprise when things don’t wind up exactly as we expect, and the ending is, if not completely happy, at least refreshingly hopeful. (Seen 6 July 2005)

A Mighty Heart 2 out of 4 stars

The prospect of seeing Angelina Jolie play Mariane Pearl was a bit frightening. So I was pleasantly surprised to see that she actually did disappear into the role and really did seem to be French. Sure, her accent waxed and waned a bit, but, crucially, it didn’t call attention to itself. So, we don’t exactly see Jolie, but when we get to the inevitable emotional breakdown scene, we do see every actor who ever lusted after an Oscar. The film is a must-see, but more for political and historical reasons rather than artistic ones. A certain lack of suspense in what normally would be a riveting suspense thriller is neutralized by our foreknowledge of the real events depicted. This situation did not stop United 93 from being a riveting movie, but A Mighty Heart, which is more of a tribute to a lost husband than a criminal procedural, doesn’t have the same success. It’s fascinating for the detail it gives us about well-known events, but it keeps us at arm’s length. If it has a close cousin in the existing oeuvre of director Michael Winterbottom’s wildly varied movie temperaments, it would probably be 1997’s Welcome to Sarajevo. In a strange way, it is the opposite number to his last year’s film about allegedly innocent victims of U.S. rendition, Road to Guantanamo. When, at the end of A Mighty Heart, we learn that the man behind Daniel Pearl’s kidnapping is being held at Guantánamo, it is hard to imagine that anyone with a heart is exactly brimming with sympathy for him. (Seen 11 July 2007)

A Mighty Wind 2 out of 4 stars

This 2003 parody of a bunch of old folk singers coming together for a big reunion show is so gentle and affectionate that the inescapable question raised is, why bother? Why not just dig up one of those Peter, Paul & Mary specials that inevitably airs during PBS pledge drives, since that was the sort of thing that clearly inspired this film. Summaries of this flick invariably describe it as something like “the Spinal Tap guys take on folk music,” and that’s essentially it. I don’t know about you, but I find it extremely difficult to believe that it has been 21 years since This Is Spinal Tap (directed by Rob Reiner, who was not involved with this movie) came out. Back in 1984 Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer (with the aid of wigs) made a credible (over-the-hill) rock band. In this film, 19 years later, they are completely convincing as really over-the-hill folk singers. In the end, the movie doesn’t dig deep enough into character to tell a real story, and yet rarely gets funny enough to be a great comedy/satire. Still, it has its bright spots. Bob Balaban is very amusing as the overly-detail-obsessed concert organizer, as is Ed Begley Jr. as a Swedish-born public TV exec who inexplicably sprinkles his conversation with obscure Yiddish expressions. And Fred Willard continues to demonstrate that he was born to play funnymen who haven’t a clue just how unfunny they are. The other bright spot is the songs, which are invariably sly subversions of the folk music ethos. Incredibly, reality got into the parody when this flick became the most unlikely Academy Award nominee ever, for the deliberately cloying song sung by Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara. (Seen 10 September 2005)

Miguel/Michelle 2 out of 4 stars

One of the last things his family tells Miguel before he leaves the Philippines in order to strike his fortune in America is to marry a blonde for the improvement of the family’s genetics. Miguel does find love in the States, but we never learn whether or not his lover is blond. But it’s a sure bet that the liaison will provide no genetic benefit. This becomes painfully clear when Miguel returns seven years later as Michelle. Most of this movie by Gil M. Portes is played for broad laughs, kind of like a sitcom on the Fox network. When the family gets a load of Michelle, Mom faints, Dad dramatically pulls on his glasses, and other everyone else’s jaw drops to the floor. Of course, the film tries to have things both ways. The first half milks guffaws from the weirdness of the situation but then tries to teach a lesson in tolerance in the second half. Fortunately, Mom comes around fairly quickly and Dad eventually does too when he realizes that just because his son is a daughter doesn’t mean that the two of them can’t beat up intolerant toughs together in the ladies room. Part of the message gets muddled, however, with the movie’s tendency to equate transsexuality with homosexuality and a strange scene where Michelle convinces her best friend that he is gay by subjecting him to a female then to a male lap dance. (Seen 21 May 1999)

Million Dollar Baby 3 out of 4 stars

All the reviews and TV chat show discussion I have seen to date about this major Oscar contender has carefully avoided saying too much about its plot. That is fair enough, although it tends to leave viewers (like me) a bit too extra watchful for unexpected turns. In a case like this, the best one can do for potential viewers is to tell them what other movies this film is not like. For a start, this is definitely not Rocky, although it shares a few elements with that admirable early Stallone film, which unfortunately has since been overshadowed by its wretched sequels. The best positive comparison I can make to this film is Todd Field’s In the Bedroom, which obviously was not even a boxing movie. But the two films share a way of defying the expectations we have for conventional Hollywood movies and winding up by dealing with controversial issues that are seamlessly woven into the storytelling without judgment or preaching. In the end, the movie is only superficially “about” boxing. It is really about relationships and life in general. The heart of the film is not only the surrogate father-daughter bond between director/star Clint Eastwood and Hilary Swank but also about the relationship between Eastwood and story narrator Morgan Freeman. The characters played by Eastwood and Swank both have a relationship gap in their lives that needs filling, but they also share a common trait of asking a lot of questions and not paying much attention to the answers they get. Just as Swank tortures her reluctant trainer by questioning his every edict, Eastwood afflicts his priest (whose masses he attends virtually every day of the week) by questioning every word the exasperated man relays from God. These are clearly two people determined to live life (and take whatever they can manage to get from it) on their own terms. [Related commentary] (Seen 9 February 2005)

Millions 4 out of 4 stars

This is another movie about a boy who sees dead people. But it’s okay. They’re mostly holy saints. Among the miracles of this miraculous movie is the fact that it contains so many elements that normally put me off in films. Most of its screen time is devoted to cute children, there is a healthy dose of feel-good pop psychology, and it shamelessly sentimentalizes do-gooder-ism. I guess I don’t really mind those things after all. I just rarely see them done very well, and when they’re not done very well, it’s a disaster, at least as far as I’m concerned. The screenwriter is Frank Cottrell Boyce, who previously penned Welcome to Sarajevo, Hilary and Jackie, 24 Hour Party People and Revengers Tragedy. The director is Danny Boyle, who has given us Trainspotting and 28 Days Later. Boyle uses the same kind of transitions and quirky, fantastical touches that made Trainspotting so visually fascinating. (Aside from the appearance of the saints, the most fantastical touch of all here is the notion that Britain would be adopting the euro as its currency.) The basic story seems simple and innocuous enough. A large bag of pound sterling notes lands (almost literally) in the lap of a young lad in the Liverpool area. He and his brother have differing ideas about what to do with it, and the situation is further complicated by the imminent switchover to the new currency. Oh yeah, and they have a widowed father, played by James Nesbitt of TV’s Cold Feet and Murphy’s Law and the films Waking Ned Devine and Bloody Sunday. His presence alone guarantees that things won’t get unacceptably sticky-sweet. But there are many moving moments, as well as exhilarating ones. Even a few tense ones. This has to be one of the best movies about childhood I’ve seen in a very long time. Probably because, despite its flights of fancy (or maybe because of them), it is totally true in the way it makes us feel as though we are really seeing the world through the eyes of a child. (Seen 16 October 2004)

Mimic 2 out of 4 stars

Mimic is a good title for this movie because it successfully mimics most every convention of most horror/monster movies. Happily, it does this quite well. Moreover, the film has a delightfully moody and creepy atmosphere that is richer than in most Hollywood flicks—probably because the director is Guillermo del Toro, who made the unconventional 1992 Mexican vampire movie, Cronos. Del Toro sets up the film’s logic early on and then remains consistent with it, so we rarely feel that our intelligence is insulted. As in most horror films, we want to scream at the actors that they’re doing something incredibly stupid. But we can’t really fault them because through most of the movie they think they are just looking for bugs. The creatures in particular are pretty nifty. Their design plays on two of our deepest fears: strangers and insects. The only weak element here is the ending, which is a little too pat, even by Hollywood standards. (Seen 26 August 1997)

Mindhorn 2 out of 4 stars

This movie is just plain silly, but is it silly fun? It starts promisingly with a dead-on spoof of one of those 1970s/1980s detective shows with sci-fi pretensions. Think Knight Rider or maybe The Six Million Dollar Man with a hammy star who is sort of an un-self-aware David Hasselhoff type. Julian Barratt plays the washed-up TV actor with the same sort of heedless broadness as the character himself. Everyone involved seems to be having a wonderful time, which can be a bad sign for a comedy, and some gags do wear out their welcome. On the whole, though, the nonsense is carried on so gamely that it is hard not to indulge in the mirth. Barratt’s character is obnoxious and shallow, but underneath it all we sense he really would like to be a hero—if he only had a clue. Jokes are made at the expense of the Isle of Man (even while its charms are observed) when our hero is called back there for what he considers an acting job that could resuscitate his career. He is actually only needed to trick an alleged criminal who suffers under a mental delusion that the fictional Mindhorn is real. Essie Davis is sympathetic and actually believable as the co-star and old flame he treated shabbily. Simon Farnaby (Barratt’s collaborator on the screenplay) mugs shamelessly as the duplicitous former stunt double who always aspired to replace him. Russell Tovey is downright poignant as the criminal (or is he?) who calls himself The Kestrel. The always-funny Steve Coogan turns up as an arrogant former co-star, around whom a successful, long-running spinoff was built. Kenneth Branagh and Simon Callow appear as themselves in very funny cameos. This is the feature film directing debut of British comedian and actor Sean Foley, who has previously directed stage shows for fellow comedians, including Joan Rivers. (Seen 8 September 2017)

Minority Report 3 out of 4 stars

Strangely, this movie turns out to be the creative marriage of Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick that A.I. was supposed to be but which a lot of people found disappointing. The echoes are everywhere. This stars Tom Cruise, who also starred in Kubrick’s last film. There is one (literally) eye-opening scene that seems to have been lifted directly from A Clockwork Orange. This apparent homage works well for Spielberg, since this is definitely one of his more intelligent films. Still, he also demonstrates that more than a quarter-century after Jaws, he can still make us jump by having something pop out of the water. Like all good films, this one works on many levels. It will be a hit for its impeccably imagined future with all the attendant gadgetry and technology. It also has a better futuristic chase scene and a way better trapped-in-an-assembly-line scene than Attack of the Clones. It is also a clever cautionary tale, that is particularly relevant in these days, about personal liberty at a time when the ultimate profiling system has been invented. In the end, however, the film is simply a whodunit, and that is its weakest aspect, since the ending is a bit too pat and not exactly unpredictable. (It smacks of one of those endings that gets tacked onto a movie after a few bad test screenings.) Fortunately, it’s not the ending that sticks in our mind. It’s not even the superb special effects. It’s the cast of quirky and memorable characters, including Lois Smith’s dotty genetic scientist, Peter Stomare’s illicit eye surgeon, and Samantha Morton’s modern-day Cassandra. [Related commentary] (Seen 21 June 2002)

Mio fratello è figlio unico (My Brother Is an Only Child) 2 out of 4 stars

The title sounds as if this should be some kind of kooky comedy, but it is actually one of those somewhat sentimental Italian flicks about families and, specifically, about the relationship between two brothers over a period of years. As a teenager in the 1960s, Accio (a fairly well deserved nickname meaning “bull”) is a fanatic looking for the right belief system to be fanatical about. He goes off to seminary but quickly becomes frustrated because no one else takes the Catholic thing as dead serious as he does. So he returns home and starts checking out the local Fascists. His older brother Manrico, on the other hand, is pretty consistently a Communist because, one suspects, it works as a great way for him to meet women. While terms like Fascist and Communist come pretty heavily charged for us Yanks, in the film’s Italian setting the two groups come off like rowdy versions of the Sharks and the Jets or perhaps rabid supporters of respective soccer clubs. There is a certain predictability about the inevitable estrangements, the reconciliation, the love triangle and the looming tragedy. It’s the kind of film we don’t see much of anymore, and it has an ending that not only takes place four decades ago but also feels as though it was written four decades ago. (Seen 11 July 2008)

Miracle on 34th Street 4 out of 4 stars

Is it strange that a classic Hollywood movie all about the “true meaning of Christmas” does not ever reference anything to do with the New Testament? Actually, it does—just once by my count—but it is enough to give the whole game away. A recently hired department store Santa (the wonderful Edmund Gwenn) has a committal hearing, which he brought on himself by deliberately failing a psychological competency test. The judge (Gene Lockhart), who is up for re-election, is warned by his hard-boiled political advisor (William Frawley, best known to babyboomers as Fred Mertz) not to be Pontius Pilate. So, yes, this ostensibly and completely secular holiday movie is really a thinly veiled comic allegory of the trial of Christ—except this time the Messiah does not get crucified. The message is basically, what is the harm in having delusions and fantasies if they don’t hurt anybody and they make people feel good? But it is not just that. Cannily, the film (written by Valentine Davis and director George Seaton) leaves open the possibility that Gwenn, despite living in an old folks home on Long Island, may just be the real Santa Claus. Who’s to know the real truth? The drama is set in motion by a malicious personnel employee played by Porter Hall, in one of his classic pompous villain roles. Maureen O’Hara is the no-nonsense single mother, determined not to give life a chance to disappoint her again. John Payne is the idealistic young lawyer, determined to break through her shell with his own child-like dreams. Along with Gwenn, though, the movie belongs to young Natalie Wood, as the little girl who has heeded her mother’s admonitions about fairy tales all too well. As sentimental as it all is, the screenplay gets in quite a few gently witty jabs at society, commerce and politics. The ending—with its family-in-the-suburbs dream-come-true emotional punch—may smack of schmaltz and post-war social conformity, but for most of us it is impossible to watch without a welling of tears. Didn’t we all love or want a swing in the backyard? [Related commentary] (Seen 23 December 2017)

Les Misérables [1995] 3 out of 4 stars

Just to be clear, this is not a screen adaptation of the Broadway musical. Nor is it even a straight adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic novel—although several passages from Hugo’s story, as well as clips from previous film versions, are seen during this movie’s three-hour running time. More than once the observation is made that there are only a few stories which keep recurring throughout human history. The protagonist Henri Fortin (played in his later years by Jean-Paul Belmondo) has reason to agree with this. Born in 1895 (the same year as the movies, notes his father), Henri has a lifelong obsession with the story of Les Misérables. And darned if his own life doesn’t turn out to mirror that of Jean Valjean. His Javert is a collaborator with the Nazis during the German occupation, and his Cosette is a young Jewish girl named Salome. Director Claude Lelouch (A Man and a Woman) has created a sumptuous and epic version of Les Miz as Hugo himself might have written it if he had been born a century later. (Seen 2 November 1995)

Les Misérables [2012] 4 out of 4 stars

Now this is what movies are meant to be about. So many fine and successful stage musicals have been turned into dire films that we have to ask why this one succeeds. I really don’t have a clue, but here’s a stab. Stage productions succeed largely on their intimacy and immediacy—something that film, as a medium, lacks. But what makes both work is pure passion. All too often, movies are done in by the filmmaker’s fascination with the close-ups and long shots and editing, which are the property of movies but which can be distancing. But with this adaptation, director Tom Hooper has found a way to convey the full, overwhelming passion of the story without being limited by his frame or his lens. It’s the kind of movie that makes you want to sing loudly while getting shot defending a barricade and then to go do it all over again. Part of it is due to his brave decision to have the actors sing live rather than dub themselves later. Much of it has to do with his canny choice of casting. It has been a long time since I’ve felt washed by wave after wave of emotion while watching a movie. Is it manipulative? Yes, because it’s supposed to be. Russell Crowe has come in for some ribbing for his vocals and (at least by my friends on BBC Five Live) for his wandering accent. But I found his accent to be consistent and one of the least distracting. And his singing was fine for the role. What takes us out of the illusion is the preponderance of north London accents populating Paris—but using various English accents to denote class and social roles has long been a standard tool in movies set in non-English-speaking locales. But what really confused me was Sacha Baron Cohen’s accent, which seemed to move from English to French to something eastern European. But then he’s so entertaining (especially with the selfless support of Helena Bonham Carter) that we really don’t care. Special mention must be made of Eddie Redmayne. When it comes to passion, no one dishes it up more generously than he. (Seen 18 March 2013)

Misfits 2 out of 4 stars

More than once during this fly-on-the-wall documentary we are told that Tulsa, Oklahoma, is the buckle on America’s Bible Belt. To emphasize the point, every so often we get a clip of a fired-up evangelical preacher on his pulpit or a random citizen shouting at people on a sidewalk. But if the point of this Scandinavia-produced flick is to show how repressive Middle America is, it has succeeded only very partially. Other than a couple of introductory bits of onscreen text to establish the location and the fact that Tulsa has but a single LGBT youth center (the Open Arms Youth Project), the film simply observes three teens as they go about their lives. The result is something like reality TV where not too much happens and we are left feeling a bit like voyeurs conspiring with young people who are more than happy to play to the camera. Benny and his family tell of how difficult it was for all of them when he came out, but everybody gets along fine now and Benny hates his job in a bagel shop and wishes a rich doctor would come in and take him away. Larissa had to move out of her home and now lives with her girlfriend. D, the most engaging of the three, has also left home and lives on his own. He keeps finding obstacles to getting a job, but by the end of the film he has at least acquired a bicycle so that he can commute. He describes himself as pansexual but plans to marry his single-mother girlfriend. In the end, we feel that we have gotten to know a few people and what their lives are like, but we haven’t learned much more than that—least of all much at all about the history or more general work of the Open Arms Youth Project. (Seen 10 July 2015)

Miss Mary 2 out of 4 stars

A tale of repression (sexual and otherwise) in the Anglo-fied Argentina of the 1930s. Nicely photographed romantic epic by Maria Luisa Bemberg, who made the film Camila. Stars Julie Christy, who is now playing frustrated middle-age maiden nannies. (Seen 15 May 1987)

Miss Stevens 2 out of 4 stars

There is something off about the title character. She seems a bit distracted throughout the movie. Fortunately, this turns out not to be an indie film tic but rather an actual plot point. Her distraction is explained satisfactorily by the end. Things do make sense. This is not to say that the movie does not indulge in its share of indie quirks, but at least they come to feel organic rather than forced. Miss Stevens is a 29-year-old high school English teacher, who has volunteered to chaperone three students to a weekend drama competition. Lili Reinhart (seen lately on TV’s Riverdale) is a driven control freak, not unlike Reese Witherspoon’s character in Election. Anthony Quintal seems to be along on the hope of hooking up. Timothée Chalamet (TV’s Homeland as well as Interstellar and the upcoming Call Me by Your Name) plays Billy, the most problematic of the trio. His intelligence beyond his years, combined with an intense emotional longing that he cannot always express, make him a particular challenge to Miss Stevens. This is because she is determined to maintain a firm distance from her charges. (It may or may not be coincidence that the three students more or less parallel demographically the teenage characters in Rebel Without a Cause.) To the extent that the film centers on a dramatic conflict it is whether Miss Stevens can prevail in her determination to avoid personal emotional involvement with her students—and whether she is right or wrong to do so. By the end it resolves itself nicely, which is not to say overly neatly. The director is Julia Hart, who co-wrote the screenplay with Jordan Horowitz. They are currently working on the sci-fi flick Fast Color. (Seen 24 June 2017)

The Missing 2 out of 4 stars

The tone of this western is so stark and grim, that it is only the presence of Ron Howard’s brother and father in bit parts that reminds us who the director is. Cate Blanchett makes a dandy frontier woman (in New Mexico), who is tough as nails and stops at nothing to get back her kidnapped daughter, played by Evan Rachel Wood, who is rebellious but not nearly as much a parental handful as she was in Thirteen. Tommy Lee Jones is entertaining as always, although we have his every mannerism and tic just about memorized by now. The movie portrays a wild west that is beautiful but harsh, doing everything to give us a sense of “this is how it was.” So, it is a bit surprising when things take a decidedly supernatural turn in the last couple of reels. In the end, a ripping adventure yarn is somewhat undermined by a villain who seems so powerful and unstoppable that he could nearly have stepped out of a teen slasher movie, as well as an ending that is calculated more for thrills than for realism. (Seen 18 February 2004)

Mississippy Missippi Tu-Polo 2 out of 4 stars

Is my friend Pablo D’Stair (A Public Ransom; Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief) selling out? His newest film (coming out ten or so minutes after his last one) actually uses multiple cameras and is in color! Has he gone completely and totally commercial? The title of the movie is also the title of a novel to be written by the protagonist Victor. (It’s a Bob Dylan reference.) But if you are expecting the movie’s arc to feature the traditional three acts and maybe end with a book launch, then, well, you don’t know Pablo. As is his trademark, the film’s hour-and-twenty-six-minute running time consists pretty much entirely of one conservation after another. Color aside (don’t expect vibrant Technicolor, by the way), the look and feel are entirely of a piece with D’Stair’s other work. (There’s enough of it now that I think we can actually call it an oeurvre.) The tones are artfully washed out, the soundtrack (featuring the music of NO, the Sad Little Stars and Left By Snakes) includes interesting noises, and the aspect ratio is quite wide. The gist of the story is that Victor, having come up with his ideal title, is totally at a loss about what to put in the book proper. So he goes visiting a series of friends, hoping to spur his imagination. The conversations all have a similar cadence typical of the jaded hipster, and they all sound as if they could have been improvised. The best comparison that keeps coming to my mind is Jim Jarmusch. So is it any fun to watch? It is, after all, a comedy. I’m happy to report that for those who are in sync with its idiosyncratic brand of humor, yes, it is very funny. The conversations are entertaining for their strange insights and randomness, and D’Stair has a brilliant knack for find the best place to cut a scene—invariably making it feel like an interruption. The cast, quite large this time, is led by D’Stair regulars Carlyle Edwards as Victor and Helen Bonaparte as his higher-achieving spouse. Anyone who has ever aspiring to writing and been terrorized by the sight of a blank sheet of paper (hey, did I mention that I managed to finish my novel?), will savor this. Especially entertaining are Victor’s daydreams, which have the book being praised to the heavens by major literary authorities and publications. Yeah, we’ve all definitely been there. (Seen 15 May 2015)

Mistaken for Strangers 2 out of 4 stars

The question that immediately arises with a shirttail documentary like this is how much of what we are seeing is real and is any of it a setup or put-on? The flick begins with an introduction to the highly regarded indie band The National and how, after a decade of critical favor, it is now beginning to become commercially successful. Lead singer Matt Berninger (as it happens, the only member who does not have a brother in the band) asks his nine-years-younger brother Tom to join them on tour as part of the crew. Tom, a gifted and unusual illustrator and aspiring horror filmmaker, wants to make a documentary of the experience. From there, the tour through the U.S. and Europe plays out like a comedy road movie, with Tom in the zany, irresponsible John Candy role and Matt as the uptight Steve Martin character. There are some genuinely funny moments, often consisting of the band members’ stunned reactions to Tom’s often bizarre questions (e.g. do they have their wallets on them when they play on stage?) or when Tom’s incompetence results in celebrities, including “the entire cast of Lost,” being kept waiting outside the concert venue for 45 minutes. The heartwarming ending may not quite rise to, say, David and Nigel’s reconciliation at the end of This Is Spinal Tap, but we do get an entertaining insight into a pretty interesting fraternal relationship. (Seen 13 July 2013)

Mission: Impossible 2 out of 4 stars

Okay, another old TV show becomes a big-budget movie. But when you think about it, Mission: Impossible lends itself quite well to movies in the 1990s. The show was always more about cold, calculating planning and execution and less about character development. Another feature was that you were never quite sure what was going on because, even when things seemed to go wrong, that usually turned out to be part of the plan all along. Brian De Palma (whose previous foray into TV revision was The Untouchables with Kevin Costner) wisely keeps things moving so quickly that you don’t have time to ask questions like: how do a bunch of disavowed agents who are out in the cold get hold of a fire truck? The grand finale involving a good guy and a bad guy crawling on top of train, of course, has been done before. But this time it is the TGV (186 mph) heading into the Chunnel! Sneakily, a major revelation near the end is something that never could have happened on the TV series. (Seen 12 June 1996)

Mission: Impossible 2 3 out of 4 stars

From the outset, this sequel makes clear what its intention is. We have the initial acrophobia-inducing stunt sequence, the cocky secret agent bantering with his older, more sanguine superior, and the agent’s romance with a beauty of international proportions. That’s right, this franchise seeks nothing less than to be the new James Bond series, with Tom Cruise as a less well-groomed version of 007 and Anthony Hopkins as M. (Hmmm. Is it mere coincidence that the villain happens to be a Scotsman named Sean?) But a strange thing happens as the story progresses. It turns into an overblown, operatic ballet of violence and mayhem and impossible, over-the-top stunts. (There’s a climactic hand-to-hand-to-foot-to-jaw-etc. fight scene that alone seems to go on for three hours.) It’s like one of those Hong Kong action movies, like something that, say, John Woo would have done. Wait, it is John Woo directing this. Of course. Now it all makes sense. He’s a natural fit. He is after all already familiar with plots that require characters to impersonate each other seamlessly (cf. Face/Off), a device that has become the trademark of this series. Dougray Scott (Deep Impact, This Year’s Love) makes suitably menacing, sleazy villain. (In a modern twist, he and his cohorts aren’t after suitcases of cash in unmarked bills; they want stock options.) And Thandie Newton, who was mesmerizing in the title role of Beloved, demonstrates that she is equally mesmerizing when she has coherent dialog. (Seen 26 May 2000)

Mister John 2 out of 4 stars

Gerry silently and sadly watches his sleeping daughter. The very next thing he is landing in Singapore. But it’s not really Singapore. It is a kind of metaphysical, dream world Singapore—where every woman seems to be a prostitute or former prostitute. In the best European art house tradition, the first reel has very little dialog. We gradually learn that Gerry’s brother has recently drowned, leaving behind a local wife and daughter and titular Irish bar. And, also in the best European art house tradition, we get the feeling that somehow Gerry is starting to take over his late brother’s old life. Despite the deliberate pacing, the flick does have its startling and humorous bits, especially a turn by Austrian actor Michael Thomas as someone who owes Gerry’s sister-in-law a lot of money. But mostly this movie is about mood, disorientation and troubled thoughts, and it rewards those who can get it into it. It comes from the writing/directing team of Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy. Gerry is played by the increasingly familiar Irish actor Aiden Gillen, who has graced TV series such as Queer as Folk (in the UK) and The Wire (in the US) but who is probably best known these days as the perpetually scheming Lord Baelish (aka Littlefinger) on Game of Thrones. (Seen 11 July 2013)

Mistress America 3 out of 4 stars

For me Noah Baumbach and Whit Stillman have been joined at the cinematic hip for two decades. That goes back to the time I saw Baumbach’s first film Kicking and Screaming without knowing anything about it and was immediately convinced it was Stillman’s movie. Both of these writer/directors have a knack for observing a certain articulate/literate segment of young people that doesn’t show up that much in our popular culture. While Baumbach’s movies can be very funny, sometimes the humor is compromised by his attention to his particularly favorite themes and apparent autobiographical issues. He co-wrote this movie with Greta Gerwig, the star of his Frances Ha (who has also worked with Stillman, in Damsels in Distress). This collaboration makes for a very happy literary marriage. It’s as though these two took Frances Ha (about a quirky young woman refusing to let go of her unrealistic dreams) and smooshed it together with a dry hipster college comedy. I take no pride in announcing that my 18-year-old self has a huge crush on the character of Tracy, played winningly by Lola Kirke. She comes under the wing of Gerwig’s Frances—except here she is called Brooke—her soon-to-be new stepsister and purveyor of everything life has to offer in trendy Manhattan. Tracy is an aspiring writer who needs inspiration. Brooke is all inspiration but, as gets mentioned more than once, she has no follow-through. Is this movie profound? Kind of, but the main thing is that it is really, really entertaining. I laughed a lot and felt very good about it. It’s the sort of screenplay that has you trying memorize the whole thing because every line is so good and so funny. (Seen 28 July 2016)

Mitt liv som hund (My Life as a Dog) 3 out of 4 stars

This was the big winner of the Golden Space Needle Awards for Outstanding Picture and Outstanding Direction (by Lasse Hallström) at the Twelfth Annual Seattle International Film Festival. Scott Bob gives this flick two thumbs up just for being Swedish and another thumb up because I liked it. It is currently playing in regular theaters, and I urge everyone to go see it. Was it really the best film? I don’t know. It’s not about a Big Issue like The Unknown Soldier or Where To and Back? or even Amazing Grace and Chuck (another film about a little kid). But on its own level, it is as good a film as any of them. You might compare it to Fanny and Alexander except that it’s not as long, it takes place in the 1950s, the kid doesn’t have a sister, and there’s no evil minister or big rescue. Actually, this film is more moving and affecting than any film I have seen by Ingmar Bergman. The protagonist, a little kid named Ingemar, is getting some hard knocks in his early life. His mother is seriously ill, and he ends up getting sent to live with his uncle and aunt in Smaland. Ingemar keeps his troubles in perspective by comparing his situation to that of other creatures less fortunate than he, particularly people who have died really absurd deaths (like the guy who tried to set a record by jumping over 31 cars on a motorcycle and only made it over 30). His mind keeps going back to Laika, the dog the Russians sent up in a satellite and which starved to death in space. Ingemar is kind of a dopey-looking kid, he has trouble sometimes drinking from a glass, and in moments of crisis he is wont to get down on all fours and start barking. But he has incredible luck with women. He has two girlfriends in his uncle’s town (who fight over him) as well as one back in his mother’s town. And those are just the ones who are his own age. His uncle is a real kick. He is constantly working on his “summer house” while listening to the Swedish version of My, What a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts, which drives his wife crazy. When Ingemar isn’t hanging out with his uncle, he is visiting old and decrepit Mr. Arvidsson downstairs, who gets his kicks out of having Ingemar read him ladies’ lingerie ads. As the cliché goes, you will laugh and you will cry. Scott Bob says, check it out. (Seen 9 June 1987)

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