Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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Scott R. Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France
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Nadja 2 out of 4 stars

Nadja is yet one more re-telling of the Dracula tale. But this time the vampire is a young Romanian woman in New York City. You know this movie is going to be weird because David Lynch is the executive producer (he is also on camera briefly as a cop) and the director is Michael Almereyda who has made this a story about (like his 1988 film Twister) dysfunctional families. The film is beautifully shot in black and white. Some scenes, however, are grainy and digitized as if they were being transmitted from another planet—the apparent purpose being to make it even harder to tell what is going on. The film is extremely stylized and full of quirky humor, and at times Nadja’s adventures are more than a little reminiscent of a similar culture clash in Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise. Martin Donovan has the Jonathan Harker role (here called Jim), and a long-haired Peter Fonda plays Van Helsing as if he were based at least partly on Hunter S. Thompson. He gets howls with lines like: “Face it, Jim! She’s a zombie!” This film is entertaining enough, but it will appeal mainly to people who appreciate its brand of strange comedy or who are really into film technique. (Seen 5 June 1995)

Nadzieja (Hope) 3 out of 4 stars

Young Franciszek Ratay (Francis, in English) has the name of a saint and the face and hair of an angel. He also has an eerie lack of fear, apparently stemming from emerging unscathed from a terrible accident when he was a small boy. (There are two scenes in this movie that are hard to watch because they put small children in harm’s way.) When we meet the grown Franciszek, he is involved in a caper involving a valuable painting in the church where he is a caretaker. The film, by Polish director Stanislaw Mucha, plays like a thriller, but it clearly has the metaphysical on its mind as well. Not only are we concerned by what exactly Franciszek is doing and why, there are the matters of his depressed father, his guilt-ridden brother and Klara, the girl who is smitten with him. It is no coincidence that Franciszek looks so angelic and that angels keep popping up in different contexts. Once again Europe shows us that a well-done caper film can not only please the eyes but also the heart and the soul as well. (Seen 9 July 2008)

Nagisa No Sindbad (Like Grains of Sand) 2 out of 4 stars

This teen drama/comedy by Ryosuke Hashiguchi (A Touch of Fever) is leisurely paced, but happily nowhere near so much so as Taiwan’s tedious The River. Concentrating on the frustrations and yearnings of teenagers, it is a bit like a Japanese version of TV’s My So-Called Life. The film follows a group of friends as they try to sort out their romantic feelings and deal with family baggage and, in one case, a rape at a previous school. The final scenes on a beach, while longer than I would have made them, are alternately funny, touching and thought-provoking and pretty much worth the wait. (Seen 1 June 1997)

A Nagy generáció (The Great Generation) 3 out of 4 stars

In another one of those hooks to draw in Americans, this film has been described as Hungary’s The Big Chill. It is, and it isn’t. It’s been a strange day for Makai, a Budapest disc jockey. One of his oldest friends Nikita (who is married) has borrowed Makai’s apartment for a tryst with a woman. Turns out the woman is Makai’s young wife. After throwing his wife out, Makai is then surprised by the arrival of a very old friend. Rèb left Hungary for the United States 18 years ago. Unfortunately, Rèb hadn’t been able to get a passport because of his wild ways, so he ripped off Makai’s passport and took off with his girlfriend Mari for fame and fortune in the New World, while Makai had to stay behind. Now Rèb is back with his totally Americanized teenage daughter Marylou (named for the Ricky Nelson song). Mari, meanwhile, left him long ago and returned to Hungary where she is married to Nikita (the one having the affair with Makai’s wife). Got all this? Anyway, the movie is kind of fun with some really good bits, including a wild party, of which we only get to see the aftermath, a quixotic quest for a farmer/inventor who leaves brimming harvests everywhere he goes, and lessons in neurosis for Makai’s teenage son so he can avoid the draft. The musical score is wistful and jazzy, and the story makes it clear that baby boomer middle-age shock is not strictly an American phenomenon. (Seen 1 June 1987)

An Náisiún (The Nation 1923) 3 out of 4 stars

Frankly, I did not know exactly what to expect from this movie about modern Ireland’s birthing pains. To be honest, I was under the impression that this was a very old movie that had been refurbished for re-release and likely to be a bit of early propaganda. As we filed into the Studio of Galway’s Town Hall Theatre, I heard one seasoned citizen ask another, not without a bit of enthusiasm in his voice, “Are you ready for a rebel film?” If they were hoping to be roused with some stirring nationalism and maybe even a bit of anti-Britishness, they may have been disappointed. By the time the lights came up, everyone was moved and reflective. This new Irish language documentary by Andrew Gallimore consists virtually entirely of impressive archival footage (some more modern shots establishing historical locations show up occasionally) and actors reading the contemporary words of participants in the events. The effect is a “you are there” immersion in the events. It begins with the end of the War of Independence and chronicles the civil war that ensued. Gallimore has performed a valuable service since this is period of Irish history that tends to get brushed over. After all, it is still recent enough that a few people can still actually remember it and all Irish people continue to be touched by it. Although fundamentally different from the United States’ civil war, it similarly left divisions that persist to this day. So it is welcome to get such a clear-eyed and objective chronicle of events. Among the many things we learn is that, as the British withdrew, the official army of the Free State and the irregulars of the Irish Republican Army jostled for control of the vacated facilities—with the Free State dominant in the capital and the Republicans pervasive in the provinces, especially Munster. Limerick was a focal point for contention, and things were so dicey that the Free State actually requested the British to stay on. Churchill, clearly relieved to be ridding himself of the Irish problem, refused—almost as if to say, one feels, it’s well enough for ye. The war between the Irish was much bloodier and more brutal than the war against the British had been, and tactics that had won independence were condemned by the Free State now that is was on the receiving end. The IRA was always outgunned and destined to lose, but it took the death of Republican commander Liam Lynch in the Tipperary mountains to effectively to end the war. Still, the killing, which had already claimed Free State commander Michael Collins among many others, would go on a while yet. Even as these events recede further into the past (next year is the centenary of the 1916 Rising), they still break the heart. (Seen 9 July 2015)

Naked Lunch 2 out of 4 stars

Strangely, I have something of a connection to the protagonist of this unsettling David Cronenberg movie. He writes a novel but can’t remember it, and I saw this movie in 1991 but couldn’t remember it. Unusually for me, I could not recall a single scene from the movie—even though every scene in this flick threatens never to let you forget it. I guess my mind just wasn’t ready for it. But then how many minds have ever been ready for beat writer William Burroughs and/or for the more far-out stuff by Canadian horrormeister Cronenberg? Let alone the two of them together? Peter Weller (four years after the original Robocop and seven years after The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension) plays a quasi-autobiographical version of Burroughs, and the story (to the extent that there is one) involves his awakening as a writer, among the most audacious set of drug-induced hallucinations, and his coming to grips (if that is what he is doing) with his accidental/negligent killing of his wife (played warts and all by Judy Davis). Obviously, the hallucinations are Cronenberg’s forte—featuring some amazing (and yucky) bug creatures—but, as he has shown in other movies, there is also something of a heart under it all. The stark photography and use of shadows (especially on faces), as well as the dissonant sax of Ornette Coleman place us squarely in its 1950s milieu. Of all the weird frissons that I got from seeing this movie again, however, none was more unnerving than this realization: this movie has the same score composer (Howard Shore) and one of the same stars (Ian Holm) as the Lord of the Rings trilogy. (Seen 21 February 2007)

The Namesake 2 out of 4 stars

The word that first comes to mind when describing this movie is a rather damning one: heartfelt. This is the kind of project that has the earnestness of autobiography, with a bit of soap opera thrown in. Still, it is a pleasing enough entertainment for filmgoers who don’t need every movie they see to be edgy. Based on a novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, it covers ground that the director, Mira Nair, knows well. It tells the story of a couple from Calcutta who re-locate to New York and have a family there. Interestingly, it is never really explained why the pair emigrate, aside from the fact that the husband feels that America is a land of opportunity and he originally decided to travel abroad after the life-changing event of surviving a train accident. Inevitably, it becomes a story about the tension between tradition and assimilation, and the film stubbornly (and, of course, wisely) offers no firm judgment on the right or wrong of any situation. Indian actor Tabu is fairly radiant as the wife, who charms us early on when she impulsively slips into the American shoes of the suitor waiting in the family sitting room. And New Jersey-born Kal Penn, as the couple’s son, gets to show dramatic range, which has to be a welcome change from earlier roles in movies like Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. And, as his very blonde girlfriend, the Australian Jacinda Barret effectively exudes the American directness and self-confidence that is often oblivious to the nuances of other cultures. Nair has given us several fine films over the years (Salaam Bombay!, Mississippi Masala, Monsoon Wedding), and while The Namesake may not be her strongest, it could well be many people’s favorite. (Seen 14 October 2006)

Nanny McPhee 3 out of 4 stars

American viewers of the Golden Globes, who were perhaps perplexed by the always ravishing Emma Thompson’s (faux?) rant, as she introduced a clip of Pride and Prejudice, essentially about her no longer being young enough to play Jane Austin heroines, may understand better what she was on about after Nanny McPhee makes it stateside. Sure, she is playing opposite Mr. Darcy himself, Colin Firth, but she’s not even the love interest. She’s the nanny! And she’s not exactly a comely nanny either. In fact, she has been made up to be, well, a word like hideous would be almost kind, under the circumstances. Not to dwell too much on this, but Thompson’s makeup job very nearly causes us to overlook the hatchet job done on Angela Lansbury. As for the plot, it is probably best described as Mary Poppins meets Lord of the Flies with a bit of Jane Eyre and just a smidge of My Fair Lady plus a dash of good old-fashioned British panto thrown in for good measure. If that doesn’t give you a clear idea what to expect, then nothing will. (Actually, nothing will.) Anyway, if Thompson doesn’t like being cast in this sort of role, she has only herself to blame. After all, she wrote the screenplay—just as she did for Sense and Sensibility. The director is Kirk Jones, who previously gave us the nearly-as-fanciful Waking Ned Devine. But (and here’s the high praise) the film is so crammed with whimsy and darkness (there are way more cadavers than we are used to seeing in a family entertainment) that we could reasonably wonder if this wasn’t a Tim Burton project. (Seen 21 January 2006)

Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang 2 out of 4 stars

This is a sequel to Kirk Jones’s refreshingly perverse children’s entertainment from 2005. So then, this is basically the same movie, right? Well, yes, in that the titular Nanny McPhee is back to sort out another family spiraling out of control. But whereas Jones’s film had a Burton-esque kind of weirdness to it, this movie (directed by Susanna White) seems to be half-inspired by a Thomas Hardy novel. In addition to being a sort-out-the-kids movie, it is also a save-the-farm movie and a country-mouse-city-mouse movie. The Green family (headed by the charismatic Maggie Gyllenhaal while her husband is off to war) live on a picturesque farm where muck seems to literally sprout out of the ground. All the better to gross out the posh and snooty cousins who arrive as refugees from the bombs over London. Similar to the first film, watching this is a bit like watching a Christmas panto, with overbroad performances and shameless gags. Still, the filmmakers manage to get a couple of genuinely touching moments that tug at the heartstrings, despite the transparency of the story. There is great support from the likes of Rhys Ifans (comically craven), Maggie Smith (gloriously dotty) and Ralph Fiennes (blankly stiff upper lip). This movie amplifies the mythos of Nanny McPhee (Emma Thompson, who again penned the script) as the greatest deus ex machina this side of the title character in Doctor Who. The children in the cast are all quite good, particularly Asa Butterfield (who looks like a pint-sized Cillian Murphy), who will have the title role in Martin Scorsese’s upcoming Hugo. (Seen 11 March 2011)

Naomi and Ely’s No Kiss List 2 out of 4 stars

We’ve all seen that movie where two people have been best friends forever and they are looking for that special relationship and they don’t realize that it’s been there right in front of them the whole time. Well, this isn’t that movie. City kids Naomi and Ely have lived in adjoining apartments in lower Manhattan their whole lives and have grown so close that they pretty much live in each other’s pocket. The city is their playground, they have their own rituals and language that others can never quite penetrate and, thanks to their parents’ complicated lives, they have plenty of drama to wallow in together. And now that they are in college, they are both wanting a romantic connection, and that’s where the problem is. Naomi would like to be in that movie I was talking about, but instead she is in this one where her best friend is irrevocably and comfortably gay. Kristin Hanggi directed this adaptation (by Amy Andelson and Emily Meyer) of Rachel Cohn and David Levithan’s YA novel. (That pair also wrote the source novel for Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist.) Despite its dramatic moments, this movie bops along lightly and pleasantly not unlike a catchy pop song—several of which adorn the soundtrack. The young cast is uniformly appealing, led by tween TV vet Victoria Justice (Zoey 101, Victorious, Eye Candy) and soap actor Pierson Fode (The Bold and the Beautiful). Matthew Daddario, Ryan Ward and Monique Coleman make strong impressions in supporting roles. Maybe in the end everything works out just a bit too tidily, but that’s not really a criticism. That’s just the kind of movie this is. (Seen 29 January 2016)

Napoleon Dynamite 2 out of 4 stars

I suppose that, technically, this is a “teen comedy,” but Napoleon Dynamite is a teen comedy in the same way that Bad Santa was a Christmas movie. It’s a bit as if Gus Van Sant had done the film adaptation of a Saturday Night Live skit. The SNL comparison is apt, to my mind, because the title character of this low-budget flick reminds me somewhat of the one played by Bill Murray (opposite Gilda Radner) in a series of vignettes about a couple of nerdy teenagers. Napoleon is a one-dimensional cartoon of a character, a high school student in rural Idaho, who doodles mythical creatures on notebook paper and, as the film opens, has no friends. Over the course of the movie’s 80-some minutes, a (very extremely) minor miracle occurs. Napoleon displays some growth as a person and makes a couple of friends. The movie displays the kind of humor that you will either like or not, and there won’t be much in between. The director is Jared Hess, who wrote the script with his wife Jerusha, and the film got a good enough reception at Sundance that Fox picked up for distribution. Jon Heder has the title role, and it will be fascinating to see if he ever shows up playing any other type of character. The only “big” name in the cast is Diedrich Bader, of the big screen version of The Beverly Hillbillies and TV’s The Drew Carey Show. (Seen 29 June 2004)

Nar alla Vet (Sebastian) 1 out of 4 stars

Sebastian has to be the gentlest and prettiest coming-out story I have ever seen. Most of this Swedish/Norwegian co-production is taken up with young Sebastian sulking and pouting and wandering about striking poses (punctuated by occasional outbursts of adolescent energy), as he comes to grips with the realization that he is gay. Sebastian is really quite fortunate, however. His parents and friends are all extraordinarily understanding and sympathetic. Even his straight hunky best friend Ulf (with whom Sebastian has fallen in love) barely seems fazed when Sebastian impulsively kisses him after an evening of silly, raucous fun. Adding to Sebastian’s good fortune is the fact that he lives in a beautiful house and that he and all his friends look like young models for Calvin Klein jeans. (Seen 22 May 1996)

Natural Grace 2 out of 4 stars

If you are into Irish music, you will find this heartfelt documentary by Art Ó Briain fascinating and probably even transcending. Even if you aren’t, you will probably still find its subject, Martin Hayes, good company. Hayes is a fiddler from east County Clare, who has spent most of the past quarter-century in America, in such places as Seattle, Albuquerque and New York. He has recently relocated back to Clare, having gotten married to a longtime friend. The first half of the film focuses on Hayes himself, as he talks and visits and reflects on his home place and his heritage. The latter part focuses on performances in places as far-flung as Tokyo, New York and Dublin. We even get to witness his wedding at Lough Cutra Castle in County Galway. Hayes, as a person, is a fascinating subject. He looks timeless (he’s fiftyish) and wise yet, with his long ringlets and round glasses, he is eternally childlike. He is a man consumed entirely by his music and yet is clearly nowhere near the ideal he strives for. But everywhere he goes, his performances are met with rapturous applause. Even the film festival audience watching the movie felt compelled to join in the extended applauses and standing ovations. (Seen 11 July 2012)

Nebraska 3 out of 4 stars

If ever there was a movie that was all about how life is about the journey and not about the destination, it is this one. We know from the beginning that cranky old not-quite-as-sharp-as-he-once-might-have-been Woody’s determination to travel to the offices of one of those magazine sweepstakes outfits is completely pointless. So the only reason to watch is to see what happens on the way there. An unplanned detour to Woody’s hometown leads to a spontaneous extended family reunion, finally giving his son David some previously missing insight into who Woody is (or was). The other—and even better—reason to watch is the beautiful cinematography. Shot in glorious black and white, this is a road comedy masquerading as an art film. No, that’s wrong. This is legitimately an art movie that is also a dry comedy, in the indy vein of auteurs like Jim Jarmusch. Director Alexander Payne’s stark compositions of empty heartland landscapes and bleak small towns with impossibly wide streets look like they want to somehow belong to an artist’s Depression-era portfolio. But if the visuals scream sombre and harsh, the action is all for laughs. As with his About Schmidt, there is a fair amount of having a laugh at the expense of “ordinary Americans,” but there is also a lot of truth about Woody’s generation and the places their children left behind. (Payne himself comes from Nebraska, and South Dakota native Bob Nelson wrote the screenplay.) The faces Payne has collected are almost Fellini calibre, and it’s a darn shame that Bruce Dern did not win the Oscar for his turn as Woody. The good news is that the acting veteran, who turns 80 this year, is still working away, so maybe he will get another shot. (Seen 31 January 2016)

The Nephew 3 out of 4 stars

Remington Steele/James Bond is now the strict father of a teenage girl in remotest Ireland? Sure, the famous face of Pierce Brosnan (a co-producer) sticks out like a sore thumb in this shamelessly sentimental family drama, but that is easy enough to overlook while we’re suspending our disbelief anyway over the quasi-soap opera elements of the story. In a way, The Nephew is like The Quiet Man. Except that instead of John Wayne, the Irish-American who shows up in this mythical Irish village is a dreadlocked New York teenager. The film is brilliant at capturing the way the Irish do stares and double takes at someone who looks a bit different, and the acting talent here is first-rate all around. Donal McCann (the subject of a Galway Film Fleadh tribute, of which this film was the climax) is masterful as the bitter old uncle who can hold a grudge for decades. Sinead Cusack is sympathetic as the woman who is everyone’s confidante. Niall Toibin, in the role of the mischievous postman, is amusing as always. And Hill Harper and Aslin McGuckin are suitably attractive as the Romeo-and-Juliet youngsters. While the usual Irish themes of bitter family conflict are all here, The Nephew (a first-time directing effort by Eugene Brady) is expert and satisfying in its lump-in-your-throat, ultimately feel-good attitude. (Seen 11 July 1998)

Nervous Energy 3 out of 4 stars

Okay, this is another movie about AIDS. But this one (a BBC production) has the grace to simply tell us a story about clearly defined characters and avoid preaching or Making A Point or, worse, turning the situation into an excuse for campy musical numbers. We learn from flashbacks that Tom (Cal Macaninch) has never been easy to live with or even to be around. He is one of those personalities who is always doing or saying something impulsive or outrageous. Now that he has AIDS and is taking experimental drugs, he has become even more manic and unpredictable. But his lover Ira (Alfred Molina playing a Yank) adores him and wants to take care of him. That makes it all the harder for him when Tom decides to leave London (and Ira) for a visit back home in Glasgow to try reconciling with his family and see old friends. The journey turns out to be one diaster after another and Ira is summoned for a rescue mission. Nervous Energy is touching—no mean feat given how obnoxious the main character is—and manages this without exploiting tons of pity from Tom’s disease. (Seen 25 May 1996)

Never Met Picasso 1 out of 4 stars

For several minutes toward the end, this film comes alive. A performance artist engages in a monologue about how his purse was searched at a museum. This simple incident becomes a hilarious commentary on the state of our society. But this scene has virtually nothing else to do with the rest of the movie. Never Met Picasso is about a group of bohemian artist types in the Boston area. The central character is Alexis Arquette (looking strangely like Tom Hulce), an aspiring painter who has no plans or commitments beyond entering a contest to win a six-month sojourn in Kenya. His mother is Margot Kidder who, despite her recent real-life difficulties, still looks a lot like Lois Lane. Her character is acting in (and maybe wrote; I couldn’t tell) a totally incomprehensible play financed by her ex-husband. The film has a few nice moments, but they don’t add up to much. These artists’ work is generally mediocre, but I’m not sure that the movie sees it that way. (Seen 4 June 1997)

Never Say Never Again 2 out of 4 stars

The title was apt in that this was Sean Connery’s third swan song as James Bond. He previously relinquished the 007 role to George Lazenby after 1967’s You Only Live Twice and to Roger Moore after 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever. Twelve years later he astounded everyone by appearing in this rogue production in the same year as Moore’s penultimate 007 outing in Octopussy. Connery had already moved on to character roles in movies like Cuba, Time Bandits, Wrong Is Right and Five Days One Summer, so it was a bit of a shock when we learned that he would be playing the quintessential leading man one more time. After all, he was only three years younger than Moore, who was looking pretty creaky as an action hero. But in this movie Connery reminded us how much we missed him and why he was the best Bond ever. In his early 50s, he was not only more charismatic than Moore but he looked fitter too. In this version, the 00 agents have been retired and Bond has been consigned to a classroom. Brought back by a nefarious SPECTRE plot that is strikingly similar to the one in Thunderball, the first section takes place in a health farm where Bond is sent for reconditioning by a new M (Edward Fox in full stick-up-his-arse mode). Actually, this film only got made because of a legal technicality that allowed an adaptation of the original Thunderball screenplay. As a result, this is the last flick to feature SPECTRE and the last actor to play Ernst Stavro Blofeld is, of all people, Max von Sydow. The good Bond girl is Kim Basinger and the bad Bond girl is a very two-dimensional Barbara Carrera as Fatima Blush. For once, she doesn’t get the best joke name. That honor goes to none other than Rowan Atkinson in his big screen debut as an annoying functionary called Nigel Small-Fawcett. This movie shares at least one thing in common with the other renegade 007 big screen flick, 1967’s Casino Royale. That film’s theme was performed by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. This movie’s title song (by Michel Legrand and Marilyn and Alan Bergman) features Alpert as producer and trumpeter accompanying vocals by his wife, Lani Hall, whose voice is familiar to those who remember Sérgio Mendes & Brasil ’66. (Seen 18 January 2014)

New York, I Love You 2 out of 4 stars

This is almost like a real movie. I mean, instead of a concept and a bit of a vanity project. Dreamed up by Tristan Carné and Emmanuel Benbihy first for the anthology Paris, je t’aime, the idea is to have different filmmakers direct brief stories set in different neighborhoods of the city. This is the follow-up, with editions for Shanghai, Jerusalem and Rio to follow. The impressive list of directors for this film include the likes of Mira Nair (Salaam Bombay!), Fatih Akin (The Edge of Heaven), Joshua Marston (Maria Full of Grace), Brett Ratner (the Rush Hour movies), Allen Hughes (of The Hughes Brothers, The Book of Eli) and the actor Natalie Portman. To its credit, the segments are weaved together in a way, with just enough overlap, that you nearly think you are watching one of those sprawling many-plot-strand movies like Short Cuts or Magnolia. But, in the end, it is more like a series of vignettes or skits—some paying off with a laugh, others meant to leave you wistful. Much of the entertainment comes from trying to recognize several well-known younger actors, who are clearly enjoying playing against type and getting into the kind of character roles that they don’t (yet) get to do in major films. These would include Hayden Christensen, Orlando Bloom, Ethan Hawke, Bradley Cooper and, in particular, Shia LaBeouf, who disappears into a poignant role in what turns out to be the loveliest segment. It has a radiant Julie Christie breaking our heart, although we’re not sure why, and features the always welcome John Hurt. Overall, the older thespians get the best of it, including James Caan as a bossy pharmacist, Chris Cooper as an inattentive husband and Eli Wallach and Cloris Leachman as a doddering and bickering couple. In the end, it all leaves us feeling better than it has a right to. (Seen 11 July 2010)

Newcastle 2 out of 4 stars

As a melodrama, this has familiar elements, i.e. a promising young man struggling in the shadow of his older brother’s and father’s failed dreams. What distinguishes it is some spectacular surfing footage and plenty of eye candy in the form of the well-sculpted, tanned, mostly blond young men doing the surfing. There are enough plot threads to fill an afternoon’s omnibus of one of those seaside teen soaps that Australia is famous for. Jesse has failed to qualify for a surfing contest and blames everyone but himself. He is simultaneously embarrassed by and defensive of his brother Fergus, who is neither blond nor tanned and is gay. The crux of the story involves the pair’s beach getaway with three of Jesse’s surfing buddies and a couple of girls. And they get up to pretty much all of the things that healthy young people get up to, with worse than usual results. Although bordering on guilty pleasure territory, the exhilaration and heedlessness of youth is nicely played, including the unexpectedly sweet relationship that develops between Fergus and one of the surfer dudes. Lachlan Buchanan and Xavier Samuel play the brothers. It’s the first feature film from Dan Castle, who also scripted. (Seen 27 February 2013)

Newsies 2 out of 4 stars

At the end of the 1980s Disney had a major renaissance going in animated musicals with melodies by Alan Menken. In the same year that the wonderful Aladdin came out, the studio also released a live action musical, a genre that had, to a large extent, disappeared from the big screen. Based on a New York news carriers strike in 1899, it had mass dance sequences of young actors reminiscent of musicals like Oliver! and Annie. One thing Disney has always excelled at has been the discovery and promotion of child talent, and this old-fashioned tale of bantering, wise-cracking street kids exhibiting male camaraderie is no exception. The lead role went to a maturing English child actor by the name of Christian Bale, who had starred in Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun five years earlier. His new best bro was David Moscow, the youngster who had magically morphed into Tom Hanks four years earlier in Big. Grown-up roles were filled by Bill Pullman, as the reporter who takes the kids’ crusade to heart; Ann-Margaret, as their showgirl friend; and Robert Duvall, as a particularly ruthless New York World publisher, Joseph Pulitzer. It’s the kind of movie you want to like better. For a musical, there is something like a paucity of music. As a rousing tale of triumph against the odds, it feels rather perfunctory. Still it is agreeable enough. It was not a big hit when first released but has accrued fans over the years and has enjoyed a continuing life in stage versions. The director was choreographer Kenny Ortega, who would have major sucess as the helmer of Disney’s High School Musical flicks. (Seen 31 July 2016)

Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist 2 out of 4 stars

Shortly after he made a splash in teen movies like Superbad and Juno and a few years before she got mixed up with the Norse god of thunder and became a Broke Girl, the individually and jointly likeable Michael Cera and Kat Dennings were paired in this 2008 YA romcom by Peter Sollett. As the names of the titular characters are a clear nod to the Thin Man movies, we are primed to expect a mystery to be solved but which is mostly an excuse for a lot of partying along the way. And that is what we get. Our McGuffins are the disappearance of Nora’s drunken and irresponsible friend Caroline (Ari Graynor, looking at times like a young Bette Middler) and the quest to discover the time and venue of a cult pop-up band called Where’s Fluffy. But these searches are akin to Richard Dreyfuss’s pursuit of Wolfman Jack in American Graffiti. In other words, the movie is really about high school seniors on the verge of graduation experiencing one long night of cruising, searching, living, having a blast and falling in love. New York is a fantasy of music, buzz, excitement and promise. It’s that movie New York that seems perfectly safe and where you keep bumping into people you know. But it’s all new and fresh because this is New York for yet another generation of youth. The cast is uniformly charismatic and attractive, the music is hip and cool, and the running gags amuse. Lorene Scafaria adapted the screenplay from the book by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan. Another joint venture by those two has recently been adapted by Kristin Hanggi and is called Naomi and Ely’s No Kiss List. I think I am detecting a pattern in their titles. (Seen 8 August 2015)

Night at the Museum 2 out of 4 stars

The inherent difference between a “family film” and a “children’s movie” is that grown-ups will be bored watching the latter but will actually enjoy viewing the former. This flick by Shawn Levy (Just Married and the recent updates of Cheaper by the Dozen and The Pink Panther) is firmly in the first category. Viewers of virtually any age will see a familiar face here and maybe even one that brings a smile to their own faces. Octogenarians Mickey Rooney and Dick Van Dyke show that they are still players when it comes to comedy, and Ricky Gervais puts his trademark jerk authority figure to good use here. Even Robin Williams is easy to take, eschewing both his mawkish serious technique and his out-of-control improvising streak. The reward for adults bringing their children to this special effects adventure is an apparent sincere love on the filmmakers’ part for the titular museum and the easy humor of star Ben Stiller, in the Tim Allen role as the dad who can’t get his act together until something supernatural happens. Also welcome is an un-credited performance by frequent Stiller co-star Owen Wilson. When Wilson and the always funny Steve Coogan (who appear in what can be best described as small roles) wind up together in a wild car ride, it’s a natural homage to Stiller and Wilson’s Starsky & Hutch movie. This may not be The Wizard of Oz, but it compares well with, say, Abbott & Costello. (Seen 10 March 2007)

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian 2 out of 4 stars

When CGI special effects first made their dramatic big screen appearances in movies like Jurassic Park, we thought we would be dazzled by the spectacle forever. But now we take all those illusions in stride and, in fact, a bit for granted. For instance, in this movie it is the comedy shtick that impresses—not the giant squid or animated T-rex skeleton. Not that the computer wizardry was a waste of time. Much of the entertainment comes from the inventive sight gags. Once again, the very funny Ben Stiller has mostly the straight man/leading man role, while everyone else gets to devote all their energy to mining laughs. If last time Stiller was Tim Allen, this time he is Bruce Willis, the indispensable everyman who is the only thing that stands between cartoonish villainy and the world as we know it. Of course, the comedy standout is Hank Azaria as the villain, doing a nifty Boris Karloff imitation by way of Michael Palin’s turn as Pontius Pilate in Life of Brian. Also deserving of a mention, among many, is Alain Chabat (The Science of Sleep, Prête-moi ta main), who gamely assays the inevitable gamut of height jokes, as Napoleon. As required, the familiar (or not) faces and gags come and go so fast that boredom never sets in for too long. One of the many nice touches: the inclusion of Clint Howard as a mission control tech, the same role he played in his brother Ron’s Apollo 13. As is de rigueur, we get an obligatory moral to the story that is invaluable for living our own lives. In the first movie, it was something (I think) about spending more time with your kid. This time it seems to be that you are better off not being too successful in your professional life. (Seen 12 June 2009)

Night Job 2 out of 4 stars

As acknowledged in the closing credits, this impressive feature debut by J. Antonio employs the same narrative structure—if not the tone or style—of Kevin Smith’s seminal indie Clerks. Set largely in the lobby of a New York apartment building, it observes the comings and goings of a wide array of interesting and sometimes strange characters in the course of a work shift. Jason Torres plays young, eager and amiable James as he experiences his first night as a temporary doorman. Like the writer/director, James is from Queens and his story has a definite autobiographical feel to it. Many of the apartment residents and other neighborhood denizens are so improbable that you know they just have to be based on totally real people. The action is non-stop. No sooner has one character left than the next actor in the sprawling cast wanders in. Lost keys, lovers’ quarrels, emergency repairs, con artists, lonely people and even an unusual emergency call by a priest are just a few of the issues James confronts as the early morning hours drag on. In the key linchpin role, Torres has an endearing quality that is authentic New York but also callow, sincere and more than a touch naive. Indeed, the sense of well defined location is a central charm of the movie, enhanced by the black-and-white photography and a jazzy score by TJ Wilkins. With such a large and diverse cast, it is a thankless task to attempt singling out performances, but good impressions are made by Greg Kritikos as the obstinate night porter Romeo, Lori Hamilton as an elderly woman delighting in a new young audience for her pearls of wisdom, and Monikha Reyes as a young woman who shows up ostensibly to use the bathroom. A sequence that diverts us to a nearby convenience store may well be a nod to the inspiration Antonio got from Kevin Smith. Film buffs will have fun looking for other subtle references (Sunset Boulevard? The Wizard of Oz?) In addition to Smith, the director acknowledges the breakthrough examples of Quentin Tarantino, Sylvester Stallone and the team of Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. Maybe years from now another freshman filmmaker will likewise pay tribute to J. Antonio. (Seen 9 January 2017)

Night People 2 out of 4 stars

You have to like a movie that, in turns, invokes (literally) the names of H.P. Lovecraft, Clive Barker and Stanley Kubrick. The filmmaker is Gerard Lough, and we first heard about Night People two years ago when we got the chance to see his short film Ninety Seconds. That flick established surveillance, shadowy night activities and paranoia as themes that fuel Lough’s imagination, and they are all very present in his debut feature—as well as a number of the previous film’s cast. And, as promised, it is a “a horror/science fiction anthology film.” (In a cosmic coincidence, it is one of two anthology films I have seen in as many days.) Despite the horror label, do not expect the excesses or jump scares of more commercial flicks. Lough is all about the atmosphere and creepiness. The first segment is about a man who has discovered a strange alien device and needs the help of a friend to try to figure it out. The straightforward and analytical approach to the story is reminiscent of Shane Carruth’s Primer, although the narrative does not get nearly so twisted in knots. The middle section tells of a very business-like woman offering a not particularly reputable line of services. Claire Blennerhassett is quite compelling as the aptly named Faustina, as she gets drawn deeper and deeper into something darker and more sinister than she might be expecting. The framing story, which develops into the final tale, involves two criminals passing a long night in a vacant house as part of an insurance scam. Michael Parle has a great presence as the older English bloke. Jack Dean-Shepherd (a near dead ringer for Haley Joel Osment) is the callow Irish lad whose self-confidence may not be entirely justified. Filming in Ireland’s northwest corner, Lough has created his own alternate mythical reality for Donegal—not unlike Lovecraft’s Arkham, Massachusetts, or Stephen King’s Maine towns of Derry, Castle Rock and Jerusalem’s Lot or David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, Washington. Night People is not without its challenges. The narrative is not always easy to follow, and that seems to be by design. You have to pay attention. Moreover, the vignettes do not have the highly visceral payoffs we have been primed to expect from Hollywood. But the film does reward the viewer willing to put in the effort and who enjoys a creepy and unsettling experience. It also features a nice electronic score by Cian Furlong. (Seen 6 January 2016)

Night of Dark Shadows 2 out of 4 stars

It just occurred to me that the title of this movie may actually be a nod from producer/director/story co-writer Dan Curtis to Grayson Hall, who has a prominent role in this follow-up to the previous year’s House of Dark Shadows. Seven years earlier Hall (who happened to be married to story co-writer and screenwriter Sam Hall) was nominated for an Oscar for her role in John Huston’s The Night of the Iguana. In the end, this flick is a strange animal. The second of two big-screen spinoffs of the beloved cult TV series by creator Curtis, this one told a story that wasn’t directly drawn from the TV version and featured mostly characters not seen on the small screen. The themes were certainly familiar, but the tone was creepier, darker and more realistic than the usual DS storyline. It was a strange coda that arrived after the TV series had lamentably gone off the air. The release version famously had some bad edits and apparent gaps, reportedly because of studio running time enforcement. Rumors of a posthumous director’s cut persist, but it has yet to materialize. (Maybe this Halloween?) Most of the cast of the first movie (including Jonathan Frid’s Barnabas, who got staked) are absent, but series stalwarts Hall, John Karlen, Nancy Barrett and Thayer David return as different characters. Series favorites David Selby (Quentin) and Lara Parker (Angelique), who were not in the first film, get showcased. NoDS is also notable for being the big screen debut of another series regular, who went on to a bright TV career in shows like The Rookies, Scarecrow and Mrs. King and Charlie’s Angels. That would be Kate Jackson. Selby would go on to several seasons on Falcon Crest and, more recently, playing a lawyer in The Social Network. (Seen 28 July 2012)

The Night of the Iguana 2 out of 4 stars

A decade and a half after he filmed The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in Mexico, director John Huston returned to film this adaptation of a Tennessee Williams play. The players are high wattage and are cast to type. Richard Burton is the mentally unstable and disgraced minister (he was not defrocked, he insists, merely locked out of his church) who finds himself leading a bunch of Texas Baptist college spinster faculty on a tour of Mexico. He chews the scenery and exults in his drunkenness while also parrying the advances of Lolita herself (Sue Lyon), who has somehow come traveling with the old biddies. Ava Gardner, as his old friend and innkeeper, ricochets like a pinball as she works overtime to make her earthy character bigger than life. And, in the same year that Mary Poppins was released, prim Deborah Kerr plays more or less the Julie Andrews role, as the woman who sorts out everyone’s problems in the course of one long harrowing night of the soul. Being a work of Williams, there is a lot, an awful lot, of talking and innuendo and talking. While the performances hold our attention, the movie can be a bit of a slog. But that did not stop it from garnering four Oscar nominations, although it only won one, for costume design. One of its nominations (its only one for acting) went to Dark Shadows icon Grayson Hall, in her career-topping turn as the harpy who is unaware that she wants the nubile Lyon just as much as Burton does. (Seen 27 March 2009)

A Night to Remember 3 out of 4 stars

People can argue about which Titanic movie is the superior cinematic experience—this one or the blockbuster James Cameron would make four decades later—but there can be no doubt which is the better movie to see if your main interest is to understand what happened on the fateful night of April 14/April 15 in 1912. Every significant character in this version is based on a real person, and great effort went into recreating the historical events as they were best understood to have happened. The movie—which was produced by William McQuitty, who actually witnessed the launching of the Titanic as a child in his native Belfast—took its title and facts from the book by Walter Lord, which is considered the last word on the history in question. People who see this movie (directed by Roy Ward Baker) after seeing Cameron’s will have a definite sense of déjà vu (après vu?). Many of Cameron’s scenes seem like direct quotes from this movie. Some of that has to do with working from the same historical sources, but that notwithstanding Cameron was no doubt very influenced by this film. While we do not here get a dewy-eyed romance featuring young Hollywood heartthrobs, we do get more focus on the other two ships that were in the vicinity and the reasons a rescue came so late. There are no real villains in this version, except maybe ship owner J. Bruce Ismay, who does come off a bit better (but not much) than in Cameron’s movie. While the tragedy is heart-breaking in both films, here at least the desperation is leavened a bit by some classic British (and American, in the persons of Benjamin Guggenheim and unsinkable Molly Brown) stiff upper lip. The movie provides early glimpses of future U.N.C.L.E. sidekick David McCallum (as an assistant wireless operator) and future Avenger and Bond girl Honor Blackman. (And speaking of Bond, the IMDb says that Sean Connery and Desmond Llewelyn have un-credited bit parts as crewmen.) But all that history stuff aside and given that this is basically a disaster movie, certainly Cameron’s special effects must trump the 1958 version, right? Well, no. The reality is that the old-fashioned tricks with large props and models are surprisingly compelling and realistic when compared with Cameron’s computer animation. Indeed, Baker’s movie has an air of gritty reality that Cameron’s eschews for romance and action. The 1958 movie may not have as many thrilling stunts, but it feels closer to the actual event because it reminds us that, at the time it was made, many people were still around who could actually remember that fateful night in 1912. (Seen 27 April 2012)

Night Train 2 out of 4 stars

As is so often the case, this Irish production features British stars. John Hurt plays an aging con man on the run from the gangsters he’s double-crossed. He finds refuge in a Dublin flat that he rents from a mother and daughter. The mother is somewhat overbearing, perhaps not unlike Norman Bates’s biological mother, if she had lived. Brenda Blethyn played quite an obnoxious mother in Little Voice, but here she gets to play the mousy and submissive daughter. And it’s a relief to find that after Little Voice and Secrets & Lies Blethyn’s voice can actually be easy on the ears when she speaks normally. The heart of this film is the developing relationship between Hurt and Blethyn, and they do manage to make us care and to keep us guessing as to how this affair will eventually turn out. This is the first feature film by television director John Lynch, who is definitely not to be confused with the actor of the same name. (Seen 3 June 1999)

The Nightmare Before Christmas 3 out of 4 stars

If you haven’t seen a movie for a whole month, you want to pick pretty carefully which one you are going to see. With so many new films out there, which do you choose? Of course, you go to see one that you’ve already seen. Almost exactly seven years ago (October 30, 1993) to be exact. With the same two people you saw it the first time. Okay, it was Dayle’s birthday, and she got to choose. And she really likes this movie. And why not? It is a visual and melodic masterpiece of animation and song. Tim Burton has his name above the title, but I had actually forgotten that he didn’t direct this animated tour de force. It was Henry Selick, who would go on to direct James and the Giant Peach. But it has Burton’s weird sense of the wondrous all over it. But the real star is frequent Burton collaborator Danny Elfman who wrote all the words and music and did the singing for the lead part of spindly pumpkin king Jack Skellington. The rock-opera-ish score is like some cockeyed Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. I don’t know how old a kid has to be to see this flick and not be freaked out by all the ghoulish, Christmas-turned-on-its-head imagery. But adults can certainly appreciate a film that captures so wonderfully the fact that Halloween/Thanksgiving/Christmas have merged into one long holiday and that somehow in our modern, materialistic culture, the sugar-and-spice sweetness of Yuletide has indeed evolved into something quite scary. (Seen 6 November 2000)

Nightwatching 2 out of 4 stars

If there is one word that begs to describe Peter Greenaway’s movies (The Draughtsman’s Contract, The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover, The Pillow Book), it is painterly. That is no accident, as Greenaway was trained as a painter, and every frame of his every film looks it. Now living in Amsterdam, Greenaway has taken on the historical figure whose very name means painting to most people: Rembrandt. And, not surprisingly, every frame is gorgeous and completely like, well, a Rembrandt. In introducing the film, the director suggested that cinema did not really begin with the Lumière brothers but with Rembrandt’s painting Company of Frans Banning Cocq and Willem van Ruytenburch (popularly called Night Watch) because of its breakthrough manipulation of light. Indeed, one of the film’s numerous anachronistic touches is the way it portrays Rembrandt, in setting up the poses and other prep work, as if he were directing a movie. (Come to think of it, I don’t think we ever actually see him pick up a paint brush. ) Martin Freeman (of the UK’s The Office and the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy movie) gamely portrays the artist for virtually all of the film’s 2-hour-14-minute running time. If we were expecting a standard biopic (and why would we? It’s Greenaway), then we would be very confounded. The stunning visuals decorate long stretches of dialog (in fairly colloquial contemporary English) that sound like a cross between Masterpiece Theatre and an experimental avant-garde play. Along the way we get numerous of the artist’s biographical details, but the film is mainly concerned with elucidating Greenaway’s own theory of the hidden meanings in the painting, which involve murder, lechery and conspiracy. This, then, makes it the perfect antidote for those who were sniffy about and put off by The Da Vinci Code. (Seen 16 October 2008)

Nim’s Island 2 out of 4 stars

For the past several weeks, as long as this movie has been in the UK top ten, I have had to listen to Mark Kermode go on and on about how the movie stops at the same place as the trailer. He seems to have been primed to expect Romancing the Stone lite—and indeed the trailer does suggest this—and is disappointed that this is not what he got. But Nim’s Island delivers something more interesting than a reworking of a movie we have already seen. A lot of critics cannot seem to get past the idea of adventure movies made by guys like Spielberg and Lucas, which are aimed at the inner child of grownups (mainly babyboomers). The idea of Walden Media, which makes adventure movies and dramas actually aimed at kids, seems to confuse them. All I know is that the next day the Munchkin was out in the back garden playing Nim’s Island and she has never played Indiana Jones since seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark. Nim’s Island is definitely not a Spielbergian adventure. Instead, it is three stories, told in parallel, about people facing their worst fears. A parent fights to get back to his child, a child copes with possible abandonment, and an obsessive-compulsive agoraphobic copes with leaving her home. The film captures nicely so many things about childhood—from discovering nature to the joy of reading. Maybe I liked this movie so much because I could identify with Jodie Foster’s character. After all, if anybody can relate to the idea of leaving one’s comfort zone and winding up on a strange and faraway island, it’s me. (Seen 31 May 2008)

Nine 2 out of 4 stars

Like The Producers, this is another case of a movie becoming a Broadway musical and then a movie musical. But this is trickier because, whereas Mel Brooks’s comedy was lampooning the movie-making process for broad laughs, Federico Fellini’s is cinematic holy ground. To enjoy this flick then, one has to bear in mind that seeing Nine instead of a Fellini film is like going to the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas instead of going to Venice. You’re going to get a garish homage rather than the authentic experience. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Certainly there are worse ways to pass two hours than to watch a parade of famously gorgeous and gorgeously famous women singing and dancing their way into our hearts. As he did with Chicago, Rob Marshall surprises us with a cast of well-known actors who are not known for their singing and dancing. Penélope Cruz in particular steams up the proceedings. And Marion Cotillard effectively evokes Fellini’s real-life wife, Giulietta Masina. And, not that it’s a competition, but I’ll take Judi Dench over Nicole Kidman or Kate Hudson any day. And there’s nothing to say about Sophia Loren except that she is immortal and has aged incredibly gracefully into being strangely Ingrid Bergman-like. As much as I enjoyed myself, it may or may not be a good sign that the movie made me immediately want to go see . Or La dolce vita. (Seen 23 January 2010)

The Nines 2 out of 4 stars

This is one of those movies where you are really better off going in not knowing anything at all about it. The End. Wait, no, I can’t help myself. I guess the best (and most generous) way to describe it is as the sort of story Jorge Luis Borges might have come up with, had he lived in the age of video games and reality television. And that’s all I’m going to say. Wait, not, I can’t leave it there. It’s written and directed by John August, who has previously lent his pen to various Tim Burton features and the Charlie’s Angels movies. Like so many such clearly personal projects, quite a bit of time is spent venting about the culture and politics and frustrations of life in the Los Angeles entertainment industry. Ryan Reynolds is not exactly the DeNiro of his generation, but here at least he gets a chance to show that he can do more than Van Wilder type roles. But the real spark of the movie is Melissa McCarthy, who has all the bubbly personality of a young Roseanne Barr but with none of the grating quality. Hope Davis still weirds me out because she looks so much like Hillary Clinton, but now we know she can sing. Generally, I have to recommend this film because, after all, for much of its running time, it does keep you wondering. (Seen 17 October 2007)

Nineteen Eighty-Four 2 out of 4 stars

As I sat watching this movie for the second time in 19 years, it occurred to me that there were a few years when John Hurt was really put through the ringer. There was the famous creature-coming-out-of-the-chest scene in Alien, and there was all the abuse he took as The Elephant Man. As if that wasn’t enough, the aptly named Hurt went through some major physical and mental torture in this Michael Radford film. This is not a pleasant movie to watch. Radford, whose other work has included White Mischief and Il Postino, filmed this adaptation of the famous George Orwell novel in the very time and place that the novel was set (London, April 1984). Its vision of a totalitarian state where government control extends to every facet of human life and thought still chills. And nearly two decades after 1984 became history instead of an ominous date in the future, people of all political persuasions can still see what they want in it. For some, Oceania will seem eerily like Saddam-era Iraq. For others, Big Brother’s strategy of continuous war will smack of the Bush administration’s war on terrorism. Those who rail against “political correctness” can focus on its theme of “thought crimes.” As badly as Hurt’s Winston Smith suffers in this movie (people who see it never think of rats quite the same way again), he doesn’t look much worse than poor Richard Burton, who looks like death warmed over (and eerily like Christopher Lee). Indeed, Burton didn’t even live long enough to see the film released. (Seen 14 October 2003)

The Ninth Gate 2 out of 4 stars

My single cinematic outing during a recent visit to Paris, the city where Roman Polanski was born 66 years ago, was Polanski’s latest flick. Based on Arturo Perez-Reverte’s suspense novel Club Dumas, the film is structurally like a film noir detective story, not unlike Polanski’s own Chinatown. Our investigator here is Johnny Depp, as an unscrupulous book expert hired by a powerful and ominous client, played malevolently by Frank Langella. Depp’s mysterious assignment takes him from New York to Toledo, Spain, and then to Paris—frequently crossing paths with kinky femme fatale Lena Olin. The plot’s McGuffin is an Inquisition-era tome that may have been co-authored by Lucifer himself, something that suggests that The Ninth Gate might actually fall into the millenium-end hot apocalypse movie genre—or at least echo another Polanski classic, Rosemary’s Baby. But the film’s frustratingly ambiguous ending makes it clear that Depp’s journey is primarily a metaphysical one. Because Polanski is the auteur here, the movie carries a fair amount of baggage—particularly a scene involving a woman’s murder in the midst of a cult gathering, an image that can’t help but evoke memories of the tragedy involving Sharon Tate. But the most personal element may be the presence of Polanski’s current wife, Emmanuelle Seigner, as a beautiful and enigmatic angel-like (or is she more devil-like?) figure who always shows up in time to get Depp out of a jam. (Seen 6 September 1999)

Nitrato d’Argento (Nitrate Base) 2 out of 4 stars

Nitrate Base is an imaginative and unusual re-telling of the history of cinema. It is a bit reminiscent of those fast-paced retrospective films that Chuck Workman puts together for the Academy Awards broadcasts, but it’s as if Workman were forced to collaborate with Federico Fellini. Actually, Marco Ferreri (La Grande Bouffe) is the director. Interspersed among clips of movies over the past century are brief vignettes about people in the audience which are filmed with the same techniques and style of the films of the era. The choices of clips are not the ones you’d normally expect. The result is a strangely unsentimental look back at movies, movie houses, and the effect that films have had on the masses, in both Europe and America, over the years. (Seen 31 May 1997)

Nixon 2 out of 4 stars

If The American President was a pure romantic fantasy based on the U.S. presidency, then Oliver Stone’s Nixon is a paranoid delusion. But those who condemn Stone for distorting history are barking up the wrong tree. No one is going to mistake this film for a documentary. First of all, the large cast of characters is well known to most Americans over the age of 35 and they are portrayed by a large group of actors who are also very well known to us. (And with a three-hour running time, most of them still don’t get enough air time!) Moreover, Stone uses much of the same visual techniques he used on Natural Born Killers, so we are often paying more attention to the editing and special effects than to the story. Finally, Anthony Hopkins’s Nixon jumps back and forth through time and interacts with real documentary footage like Forrest Gump on steroids. Pervading the proceedings is Stone’s insistence that the CIA and “the Cubans” were weaving nefarious plots that included, among other things, the murders of John and Robert Kennedy, so this is actually a sequel to JFK. Interestingly, Stone sees Nixon more as a dysfunctional dupe than a villain. Part Citizen Kane, part Shakespearean tragedy, part political thriller, part paranoid hallucination, Nixon is the most entertaining, over-the-top character assassination since Mommie Dearest. (Seen 13 January 1996)

No Country for Old Men 3 out of 4 stars

Twenty-three years ago, I sat riveted to my seat in the Egyptian Theater, at the Seattle International Film Festival, as the Coen Brothers’ first movie, Blood Simple, put me through the wringer with its complicated tale of suspense and violence. Things have come full circle, as they have done it to me again—with way more intensity than even their legendary debut. Make no mistake, this is no quirky lark with a wood chipper. Spanish leading man Javier Bardem shows a whole new side as one of the most frightening sociopaths ever to inhabit a film screen. Every scene he is in (as well as the ones where we fear he might show up) is fraught with unbearable tension. I think it is safe to say that this movie will do more to make people uneasy about motel rooms than any film since Hitchcock’s Psycho. The setup is fairly standard movie stuff. A high-stakes drug deal goes bad. An otherwise innocent interloper inexplicably decides to make off with the money. A not-always-peaceful sorting-out process ensues. But the movie is more ambitious than merely providing a thrill ride. Adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s novel, the proceedings are laced with philosophical and metaphysical discussions and musings. Tommy Lee Jones is on hand with his patented wry, laid-back Texas lawman shtick. Strangely peripheral to the central action, his role seems partly Andy Griffith and, by the end, mostly shell-shocked bystander. Our main clue that we are watching a literary adaptation and not a conventional thriller comes in the final stretch, where not only does nothing go as we would expect, we cannot even be exactly sure of what has and has not happened. While the final scene is unexpectedly calm, quiet and meditative, it leaves us with a generally bad feeling about the world. But with a fairly good feeling about the current state of cinema. [Related commentary] (Seen 14 October 2007)

No Man’s Land 2 out of 4 stars

This earnest Irish documentary is definitely not to be confused with the feature film from Bosnia-Herzegovina, which has the same title and is nominated for an Oscar for best foreign language film. This documentary, by David Rane and Neasa Ni Chianain, follows an assortment of asylum seekers over a period of one year from Cherbourg, France, to Rosselare and then onward to various other points within Ireland. The film is sincere and heartfelt, as it gives its various subjects a forum to explain why they left their home countries and to voice their frustrations over the excruciatingly slow bureaucracy, their constrained lives while waiting in government-provided hostels for their cases to be resolved, and the hostility they perceive many Irish feel for them, now that they are arriving in such large numbers. Like so many of these types of documentaries, we are left feeling very bad and not sure what the solution to the problem is. The filmmakers propose none. Is it to open all borders completely? Or to add lots more bureaucrats? Or would any solution that you or I could think of actually cause more problems than it would solve? Perhaps the filmmakers will offer some ideas in a future update. Meanwhile, at least the Irish (and others of us who live countries that receive asylum seekers) may have more awareness and sympathy for people in this plight. (Seen 9 March 2002)

No Se Lo Digas a Nadie (Don’t Tell Anyone) 2 out of 4 stars

This drama by Francisco J. Lombardi (No Mercy) is ostensibly about what it is like to be gay in Lima, Peru. But it really seems to be about being the scion of a really wealthy family and having serious substance abuse problems. I suppose you can’t blame young Joaquín for being a bit confused. His mother smothers him with femininity and his father is a real pig who loves visiting the local brothel and shooting animals and who doesn’t feel a whole lot of remorse when he accidentally runs over an Indian on the highway. Not the most sympathetic authority figure to have around when all you have on your mind is fondling your male friends. If this film were set in North America or in Scandinavia, we know how it would turn out. But what about macho Latin America? At one point we think Joaquín is going to be “cured.” At another point we think he has liberated himself by going to Miami. But the ending, somewhat reminiscent of the Italian film Ernesto, is ambiguous and leans toward resignation. The apparent moral: Latin society may be more tolerant of your “vices” than you might think, as long as you play the game. Most frequently heard line: “Take some more coke. That always makes things better.” (Seen 4 June 1999)

Noble 2 out of 4 stars

Not unlike the subject of this biopic, Deirdre O’Kane was taken with a vision and with the passing of years she has now made it a reality. O’Kane is a very funny comedian and actor who is probably now best known as the titular character’s mother on Chris O’Dowd’s brilliant sitcom Moone Boy. Her vision was to do something in support of Christina Noble, founder of the eponymous foundation dedicated to rescuing marginalized children in Vietnam and Mongolia. The result is this movie, which was written and directed by O’Kane’s husband Stephen Bradley, whose other films include Sweety Barrett and Boy Eats Girl. The obvious danger, of course, was that this would turn out to a hagiography. And it kind of is. We regularly see Noble talking to God—although we do not hear God responding. Three actors—including O’Kane—play Noble at different stages of her life, and they uncannily all seem to be the same person. The movie itself seems to be two different films. On one hand, Noble’s horrendous childhood plays like an old-fashioned Hollywood melodrama while, on the other hand, scenes in Vietnam are more like a docudrama. Both halves of the story are pretty grim, so it’s something of a miracle that the film turns out to have such a life-affirming spirit to it and so much unexpected humor. When young Christina is sent to the nuns in Connemara, for example, the sisters may seem to have stepped out Father Ted but that doesn’t lessen the dreadfulness of the situation. And, while the Vietnam scenes could easily be depressing—and occasionally are—the audience is never invited to wallow in misery porn. Normally, the criticism for the way Christina Noble is portrayed would be that she is simply too good to be true. Fortunately for the film, that actually seems to be the truth. It was nothing less than an unmitigated crowd-pleaser at the Galway Film Fleadh. (Seen 12 July 2014)

Noises Off… 2 out of 4 stars

This farce within a farce is not so much a movie as an intellectual exercise. English playwright Michael Frayn’s play, adapted here in 1992 by Peter Bogdanovich, has no higher purpose than to relentlessly tickle the audience at the same time as exhausting it. Strangely, the performances in the play within the movie are more natural (even if the English accents are deliberately laughable) than those meant to be “real.” Our mental challenge is keeping in mind the complicated farce we are presented in the first act, while watching another layer of farce backstage in the second act. Let alone the next level in the third act. Despite all the laughs, there is a bit of sadness in seeing this film a decade and a half later. Not only do we realize how much we miss lovable, old Denholm Elliott (especially with the release of a new Indiana Jones movie), but we are also affected on seeing Christopher Reeve and John Ritter so young and vibrant. Beyond that, there is also some interest in seeing old sitcom hands (Ritter, Marilu Henner, Mark Linn-Baker) put their talents to frantic good use, as well as seeing vamping and/or satirical skills (Nicollette Sheridan, Carol Burnett) that would eventually figure in Desperate Housewives. (Seen 29 May 2008)

Nora 2 out of 4 stars

There are basically two ways a movie biography of a famous literary figure can go: 1) his or her life can be presented as a series of important, pre-ordained events leading up to a climactic realization of the artist’s grand destiny, or 2) it can bring the artist’s life down to earth so that he or she really seems no different than any other person on your street, leaving you to wonder, what’s the big deal? This film, which purports to be about James Joyce’s lover and partner (and eventual wife), Nora Barnacle, falls in the second category. The conceit is that Barnacle’s life is interesting in its own right. But it’s not, at least not from what we learn from this film. So, our only real reason for watching is to learn something about Joyce, and we do learn a few interesting things, but none of them tell us why he is one of the most celebrated writers of the past century. Indeed, if all we knew about him was what we learned from this movie, we would think that the only thing he ever wrote was Dubliners. What we do learn about is his alternately tedious and kinky relationship with Barnacle. The film, which features the attractive leads Susan Lynch and Ewan McGregor, who have a few revealing sex scenes (sometimes with each other, sometimes alone), almost seems aimed at the same audience as Last Tango in Paris or Nine 1/2 Weeks. The most devastating moment for the film is when Barnacle tells Joyce something about her past that will later become the basis for the story “The Dead.” Having seen more or less the same scene played by Anjelica Huston and Donal McCann in John Huston’s lovely final film of the same name, we see exactly how short this film fallen. (Seen 31 March 2001)

Nos Que Aqui Estamos, Por Vos Esperamos (Here We Are, Waiting for You) 2 out of 4 stars

While the end of the century and millenium means that we are seeing a lot of retrospectives, none is quite like Brazilian Marcelo Masagão’s Here We Are, Waiting for You. This isn’t so much a historical document as an elegy for the millions of deaths that have occurred over the past 100 years. Its focal point is a cemetery, where the weather-worn inscription over an iron gate provides the film its somewhat morbid title. Some of the images are familiar (e.g. Fred Astaire dancing with a coat rack). Many are not. But inevitably, the focus is on people who have died—from an unfortunate Frenchman making an early attempt at flight to the Challenger explosion, not to mention many, many wars. (For people who thought Titanic was impressive, you should definitely see Masagão’s footage of a real, live battleship capsizing.) Wim Mertens’s lovely music, makes the parade of images especially haunting. And there is no narration or dialog to distract us. Just (sometimes cryptic) titles that float by like poetry (e.g. “Painting was already Picasso.”). What’s particularly moving are the numerous small stories of unknown people that are included in the collage. Too bad that we learn in the closing credits that they were mostly made up. (Seen 14 May 1999)

Notes from Underground 2 out of 4 stars

If Fyodor Dostoevsky were alive today, would he be writing novels about serial bombers? He certainly had a knack for portraits of strange, obsessed men who are marginalized from society, as evidenced by recent film adaptations of his work. Last year’s Seattle film festival had Crime and Punishment set in the slums of Lima, Peru (No Mercy), and it worked quite well. This year we have Notes from Underground which writer/director Gary has transplanted to southern California, and darned if that doesn’t work pretty well too. In this incarnation, the low-level bureaucrat narrator works at city hall where he approves or rejects building plans completely at whim (confirming our worst suspicions about government functionaries). His inferiority complex about lacking money and social status (particularly compared to his college buddies who are now lawyers), if anything, rings more true now than ever. This is a major opportunity for an acting tour de force for Henry Czerny (The Interview), and he gives it everything he’s got. Sheryl Lee (Twin Peaks) manages not to get wrapped in plastic as the prostitute he saves and torments in spite of himself. This is a dark look in one man’s psyche, but for much of the film it is also blackly funny. (Seen 30 May 1996)

Notes on a Scandal 3 out of 4 stars

This 2006 movie (nominated for three Oscars) is the type of thing that could easily have gone over the top. And it does, but not in a bad way. It’s the emotional quotient that goes off the scale, thankfully, and not the plot resolution. People going in could easily have expected something along the line of Single White Female or even Fatal Attraction. But this is a good old-fashioned drama with clearly drawn characters. Judi Dench really deserved some kind of award for being completely un-self-conscious and lacking in vanity in playing the role of a veteran, cynical and lonely teacher, who becomes intrigued by a new, younger colleague played by Cate Blanchett. Hers is the kind of attraction that has been a staple of movies down through the years but is rarely as explicit as portrayed here. You could write a slew of political and social op-eds about the issues and values brought up by the film, but in the end this is no more and no less than a compelling drama about people that seem more real than we are accustomed to spending time with in a cinema. Bill Nighy, in particular, reminds us that he can contribute much more to a movie than a comic figure or a supernatural menace. (Seen 14 December 2008)

Nothing Lasts Forever 3 out of 4 stars

To watch this movie is to undergo a severe time disruption. It gives every appearance of having been made in the 1930s or possibly the 1940s. And yet there are references to technology or events considerably later. I am sure the disruption would have been similar for people seeing it in the mid-1980s, when it was made, but today audiences would have the further confusion of seeing some familiar faces three decades younger. What this somewhat legendary film seems to be is an amazingly crafted homage to movie history, particularly to that golden age of Hollywood when the big screen was populated by amazing faces and colorful characters. Part drama, part comedy, part musical, part sci-fi adventure, part mystical tale, part dystopian fable and, in the end, more than the sum of its parts. The young hero is Zach Galligan (the same year he was the young hero in Joe Dante’s Gremlins). The villain is Bill Murray (the same year he was in Ghost Busters), and Dan Aykroyd has a role too. Along the way we encounter such great faces as Imogene Coca, Clarice Taylor (Cliff’s mother on The Cosby Show), Sam Jaffe (in a role reminiscent of his appearance in Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon), comedian Mort Sahl and others with less familiar names. And we are treated to musical numbers by singers Anita Ellis and Eddie Fisher as himself. Although mostly in black and white, some sequences are in color—like The Wizard of Oz. And we even get a journey to the moon that evokes Georges Méliès, which is to say the very beginning of cinema as we know it. The filmmaker is longtime Saturday Night Live writer Tom Schiller—known for, among other things, the Schiller’s Reel segments. For some reason MGM decided not to release this gem, and it has apparently been in some sort of legal limbo ever since. It’s almost as if, in some sort of strange meta-performance art, the studio was playing out the film’s story of a fascist-run New York in which one needs a license to be an artist after passing a state-administered test. What cool, hip, knowing fun. (Seen 16 January 2015)

Nothing Sacred 2 out of 4 stars

Just for the record, this has nothing to do with the 1937 Carole Lombard movie of the same name. Rather, it is a fairly amusing portrait of a group of self-involved yuppie friends. It’s sort as if thirtysomething had been written by Jerry Seinfeld. The story centers on the pre-midlife crisis of Darin (Paul Provenza, who replaced Rob Morrow in Northern Exposure’s final season) who is offered a transfer to Berlin but must turn it down because his wife’s job prevents her from moving. The gimmick here is that Darin envies his single friend Matt, who is constantly bedding women who look like supermodels, while Matt is searching (ineffectively) for what Darin has. There’s a third friend, but no one envies him because he is there mainly for comic relief. David Elliot and Mark Huppin are the first-time directors. (Seen 5 June 1997)

Nothing to Lose 2 out of 4 stars

Nothing to Lose, a first feature by Eric Boss, bears a passing resemblance to Diner. It’s about a group of friends who have grown up together in New Jersey where everyone’s parents seem to own an eating or drinking establishment. Mike doesn’t smoke and wants to graduate from college. Ray does smoke and he is one those slick young men who is so smart and so full of sure-fire schemes that he is forever borrowing money from everyone and never paying it back. There’s a third friend, but he mainly exists to go ballistic and yell at one of the other two when they do something stupid. Which happens a lot. Mike and Ray’s friendship is tested to the limit when Ray gets in trouble with a loan shark and Mike falls in love with Ray’s girlfriend. The nice thing about the film is that it rings true to life, as if it all could have really happened. On the other hand, there are a number of moments that elicit unintended laughter. All in all, a mixed bag. (Seen 21 May 1996)

Notte d’estate con profilo greco, occhi a mandorla e odore di basilico (Summer Night, with Greek Profile, Almond Eyes and Scent of Basil) 2 out of 4 stars

Lina Wertmüller is an Italian director with a penchant for very long titles that have virtually nothing to do with the movie. This is unquestionably her best film in days. Actually, in my opinion, the best one since Seven Beauties. A rich female capitalist decides to get revenge on the proletariat by kidnapping a terrorist kidnapper and ransoming him for all the ransoms her friends have had to pay over the years. Once she has him tied up in her Gucci chains, she finds she’s got the hots for him. This is probably her most accessible comedy ever. (Seen 17 May 1987)

Le Notte di Cabiria (Nights of Cabiria) 3 out of 4 stars

Federico Fellini is such a god in the film world that it is hard to know if his films are really eternal or if they just inspire blind devotion from his followers. Many critics consider this one, released in 1957 to be his best. And it does have that haunting quality of, say, Chaplin’s best work, celebrating the vibrant spirit, in spite of everything, among some of life’s losers. The star is Fellini’s muse and wife, Giulietta Masina. Resembling something like a young Rue McClanahan, but bursting with the shining energy of a combination of Barbara Stanwyck and Lucille Ball, she is the whole movie. If she is the proverbial prostitute with a heart of gold, she has an exterior that is all brass. Through the course of the film, we get a tour of Fellini’s beloved Rome, from top to bottom—from life on the street to the luxury of the well-to-do, from the glorious heights of hope to all the way down to the pits of deception and despair. (Seen 12 July 2006)

Notting Hill 2 out of 4 stars

This is definitely a Julia Roberts film because her big breakthrough movie Pretty Woman was about the ultimate female fantasy of meeting a rich guy who puts you up in a lavish hotel room and gives you a credit card to shop for expensive clothes and this is about the ultimate male fantasy of meeting a big star like Julia Roberts and having her find you charming and falling in love with you. Also, in Roberts’s last big hit My Best Friend’s Wedding she played an unsympathetic character whom we liked anyway because she was so human, and here she just plays an unsympathetic character. But this is also definitely a Hugh Grant film because it reunites him with screenwriter Richard Curtis, who scripted Grant’s big hit Four Weddings and a Funeral (as well as a few Rowan Atkinson vehicles). But Grant is apparently still living down the Divine Brown thing because he still mutters a lot and bites his lip and blinks his eyes constantly as if someone is shining a bright light at him, and he’s even made to confront a scandal-hungry press and actually utter a line linking acting with prostitution. But mostly he is the straight man for a bunch of endearingly eccentric Brits who would not be out of place in a film co-scripted by John Cleese. The director is Roger Michell, who has previously given us The Buddha of Suburbia and Titanic Town. (Seen 25 June 1999)

Nowhere 2 out of 4 stars

If the Southern Baptists aren’t happy with Disney, then they definitely won’t be thrilled with Gregg Araki’s latest movie, Nowhere. This is a “teen comedy” that deals with—among other things—angst, nihilism, drugs, valley girls, suicide, date rape, bulimia, masturbation, carjacking, and alien abductions. Compared to Araki’s previous two teen-themed flicks (the quirky but touching Totally F***ked Up and the tedious and assaulting Doom Generation), the humor here is quite goofy despite the frequently sordid subject matter. The tone is somewhere between John Waters and Richard Linklater. As in the other two movies, James Duval (who also played Randy Quaid’s son in Independence Day) is Araki’s on-screen alter ego, trying to find hope and love in a senseless and superficial world. The best parts are the very beginning and the very end which are mini-homages to Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill and Ridley Scott’s Alien (with a nod to Franz Kafka), respectively. There are also several “celebrity” cameos. Watch for John Ritter as a hypnotic televangelist and two of the original Brady Bunch as non-English-speaking parents. (Seen 18 June 1997)

Nóz w wodzie (Knife in the Water) 3 out of 4 stars

Before there was The Talented Mr. Ripley and before there was Dead Calm (but two years after the Ripley story was first told in Purple Noon), this Polish film set the standard for what could happen with personal dynamics when people are confined to a sailing boat. And, before he would rivet the world with European films like Repulsion and The Tenant and Hollywood movies like Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown, Roman Polanski demonstrated just what he could do with confined spaces and human weakness. A couple are heading to the marina to go out for an overnight sail. They pick up a young hitchhiker, and the husband and the stranger immediately begin a test of wits and wills. The husband impulsively asks the handsome teenager to join them on their outing, and the battle of emotions and egos escalates from there. If this movie were made in Hollywood today, the titular knife would have to become a weapon of death in the hands of a slasher. But what Polanski does is much more interesting. In his hands, the knife becomes a metaphor for something that is useful in one environment but which is of no use in another. Would the tale be more compelling if it had more blood in it? As every good movie fan knows, it’s not the carnage that matters but the level of suspense. As a study of human emotion, this movie delivers in spades. (Seen 11 July 2007)

The Nutty Professor 2 out of 4 stars

This remake is yet another example of a movie that has a good message (in fact, two: 1) we’re overly occupied with body weight and 2) it’s cruel to make fun of other people’s appearances), but then milks its biggest laughs by practicing what it is ostensibly criticizing. It’s ironic that it takes a figurative ton of makeup for Eddie Murphy to finally create a three-dimensional, sympathetic, and vulnerable character. The opposite is true with the various family members he also plays. The film would have been better served if they had just gotten other actors to play them or, better yet, dispensed with them entirely. They add nothing to the story—except extended bouts of adolescent humor—and cause an otherwise fine movie descend to the level of an extended comedy sketch. When the talented Jada Pinkett (under-utilized here) joins the family for dinner, she might as well as well be playing the Bob Hoskins role in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. If you are planning to see The Nutty Professor strictly for the special effects, you may want to reconsider since you have probably already seen them all in the trailers. (Seen 13 July 1996)

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