Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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Scott R. Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France
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O 3 out of 4 stars

Much of this film plays like a TV movie of the week based on actual sordid events, something ripped from today’s headlines. The ending in particular is all too familiar: a student being taken away by police after a bloody incident in an American high school. One twisted, young mind has somehow convinced others to join him in unspeakable acts. But this story is not ripped from today’s headlines. It is ripped from the reading list of high school and college lit courses. Yes, it is yet another contemporary adaptation of William Shakespeare, in this case Othello. Here the tragic hero is an extremely gifted African-American athlete, giving yet another modern layer to the story: it is probably no coincidence that his initials are O.J. Mekhi Phifer is fine in the title role, but the movie really belongs to Josh Hartnett (Town & Country, Pearl Harbor) as the Iago character. He takes us credibly from a kid feeling unjustly slighted by an emotionally distant father/coach to a plotter who has gone over the edge. Where the movie is weak (aside from patches of hard-to-hear dialog) is when it abandons a key tenet Shakespearean tragedy (the hero is undone by his own fatal flaw) to making this Othello more a victim of society. O was directed by actor Tim Blake Nelson (O Brother, Where Art Thou?), who previously made the excellent but likewise uncomfortable Eye of God. (Seen 15 May 2001)

The O’Briens 2 out of 4 stars

This is the one about the family who all come home—only to have tensions mount, secrets revealed and lives changed. And, no, it isn’t Thanksgiving. That’s because this is rural Ireland. Widower Pat O’Brien summons his three grown children home to make an announcement, immediately sparking anticipation and suspicion. Dublin-based Una arrives with husband and kids, New York-dwelling Fionn has his American girlfriend in tow and solitary Gareth flies in from London with all kinds of chips on his shoulder. The trajectories are pretty easy to spot, but the movie isn’t about surprising us. The debut feature effort of directors Richard Waters and Emma Gahan, the flick aims to give us a slice of modern Irish slice of family life laced with more than a bit of romance. The ensemble cast is populated with actors whose faces have graced Irish-based TV and film in supporting roles and now get to shine in bigger parts. Standouts include singer Kellie Blaise as Saoirse, slyly seductive young woman pulling pints at the local pub, and Paddy C. Courtney as the jack-of-all-trades who seems to be everywhere. Also impressive is the camera work of David Laird, who makes the Galway-Mayo border area look like a beautiful French arthouse flick. In the interest of full disclosure, let me confess that this movie was filmed almost literally in my own backyard and Saoirse’s pub is the closest one to my house. Furthermore, three of the actors in small parts are friends of mine. The movie has gone directly to DVD in Ireland, but it’s well worth seeking out. (Seen 12 January 2014)

The Object of My Affection 2 out of 4 stars

The ads and trailers for this film, emphasizing its plot about Jennifer Aniston falling for a gay man, make it seem like it might be an Americanized version of one of those tasteless French sex comedies. Or maybe a light-hearted knock-off of My Best Friend’s Wedding. But it’s a different animal entirely. Its roots are in the theater, with a script by Wendy Wasserstein (The Heidi Chronicles) and direction by Nicholas Hytner (The Madness of King George, The Crucible). It’s actually a fairly serious exploration of a complicated series of romantic relationships. At times it’s a bit reminiscent of Six Degrees of Separation, and at other times its not unlike a Woody Allen film except with a lesser-known (and, in fact, lesser) cast and without the zingy one-liners. While the ending is much too pat, at least it isn’t particularly unrealistic either. If this movie gives you a feeling of déjà vu, it’s probably because in 1981 Alan Alda played the husband of Carol Burnett in The Four Seasons and here he plays the husband of (much younger) Allison Janney, who looks like Carol Burnett. (Seen 24 July 1998)

Ocean Tribe 2 out of 4 stars

The theme of this film is similar to that of the more crudely made Bleached. This time the characters are older and the treatment is more Hollywood. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Four childhood surfing buddies, now in their mid-twenties, reunite to kidnap a fifth friend, who has terminal cancer, from the hospital and take him to Mexico on one last surfing expedition. If this sounds like it could turn into a tear-jerker, well, okay, but there is also a lot of great surfing footage and nice overall photography. As for the characters: if this were a war movie, these guys would have nicknames like Pretty Boy, Sawbones, Psycho, the Boss, and Dead Meat. In addition to mortality hitting them in the face, they all have the usual demons about belatedly facing adulthood. In the end, though, the clearly heart-felt story is quite moving and there are some nice comic touches, including an encounter with a mechanic/surf bum/priest in Baja. Director Will Geiger, who wrote the quasi-autobiographical screenplay, gives himself a walk-on as an irate golfer. (Seen 1 June 1997)

Ocean’s Eleven 3 out of 4 stars

You don’t have to worry. This isn’t a Gus Van Sant-style scene-by-scene remake. So, you’re not going to see George Clooney and Brad Pitt doing Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin imitations, and (thankfully) neither pauses to belt out a swingin’ tune. In fact, aside from the title, a general penchant for tuxedos, and a plot about ripping off Vegas casinos, this almost doesn’t qualify as a remake of the 1960 quintessential Rat Pack movie. If it’s a remake of anything, it’s the 1973 film, The Sting, with a bit of Mission: Impossible thrown in for good measure. Unlike The Sting, however, this flick doesn’t give us any real reason why we should hate casino owner Andy Garcia (the way we detested Robert Shaw), but it doesn’t matter. We hate him all the same. Any movie that has George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts all in the same cast isn’t really going to be about crime anyway. It’s about movie stars (just like the first Ocean’s Eleven was about Frank Sinatra’s pals). The generation of celebrities who populate this flick deliberately remind us that the big-shot torch has been passed. And the point is driven home in an early scene in which Pitt actually teaches a crop of even younger hot (mainly TV) stars how to gamble at cards. The scene is even funnier when we realize that not only are these actors playing themselves but also indulging in some severe self-parody. Cameo-wise, I caught no sign of the sole surviving Rat Packer, Joey Bishop, but Rat Pack chick pal Angie Dickinson (who more or less had the Julia Roberts role in the original) is spotted briefly in a crowd scene. The sentimental favorite in the cast of this very enjoyable flick, however, is the wonderful Carl Reiner, who gives by far the most human and least self-conscious performance. (Seen 10 December 2001)

Ocean’s Twelve 2 out of 4 stars

Steven Soderbergh’s 2001 remake of what was essentially the Rat Pack’s premier home movie, was a movie punctuated with a bunch of “in” jokes. His sequel, in contrast, is one big “in” joke, punctuated occasionally by a movie. In that sense, this second movie is more in spirit with the 1960 original. Because the cast is so familiar to us as celebrities, let alone as actors, there is no hope that we will forget for more than a few moments that this is a movie. The entertainment then derives from watching the banter among the stars and imagining that we are somehow voyeurs into their real lives. After all, the characters they play seem to be pretty well known and, after the last film’s heist, they are all wealthy. Why shouldn’t the lines between movie and reality seem blurred? Indeed, Soderbergh blurs the line deliberately, more and more as the story moves along, at times amazingly so. Other entertaining elements include playfulness with the conventions of the suspense thriller (never has a caper flick had more slickly mounted unlikelihoods, improbabilities and coincidences) and watching for the next surprise appearance by another major actor. While mainstream moviegoers will be happy watching Clooney, Pitt, Damon, et al, art house patrons get the bonus of Vincent Cassel, Jeroen Krabbé and others. It all amounts to a good time at the movies, but let’s face it, this is not a movie that has an identity apart from its cast. If you’re in doubt, just try to imagine Gus Van Sant making a scene-by-scene remake of it with other actors. (Seen 13 December 2004)

October Sky 3 out of 4 stars

Sadly, these days a movie about disaffected high school students forming their own little group and playing around with explosive materials can’t help but send a chill down the spine. But this film is set in the late 1950s when such things in retrospect seemed downright innocent. October Sky is one of those movies that just wouldn’t work at all if it didn’t happen to be a true story. As fiction, it would just be too corny, too calculated, too manipulative. Knowing it is true and seeing film clips at film’s end of the actual people involved (instead of those silly outtakes that everyone seems to be doing these days) transforms the film into something inspirational and downright mythic about the American character. Chris Cooper (Matewan, Lone Star) is outstanding as the stern father that no son can live up to but who demands that he try. Jake Gyllenhaal brings suitably wide-eyed wonder and enthusiasm to the role of young Homer Hickam on whose autobiography the film is based. And the small town and the coal mine that owns it give a true sense of claustrophobia and entrapment. Director Joe Johnston’s previous features (Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, The Rocketeer, Jumanji) barely hinted at the heart that fills this movie. (Seen 23 April 1999)

Octopussy 2 out of 4 stars

Roger Moore’s penultimate outing as James Bond was a standard, if unimaginative, affair. There are no science fiction excesses and, while there is plenty of humor, it doesn’t completely descend into comedy. All in all, there is little memorable about this episode beyond the fact that it marked Robert Brown’s debut in the role of M, replacing the late Bernard Lee. It was never clear if Brown—who previously worked with Moore in Ivanhoe, The Saint and The Spy Who Loved Me, in which he played an admiral—was playing the same character as Lee or was playing a new M. Also notable was the return of Maud Adams, one of the better Bond girls, in the title role. She had played a different character in The Man with the Golden Gun. Also on hand is France’s Louis Jordan as the villain, looking worse for the wear since his days as a leading man in movies like Gigi. The main problem at this point is that Moore, while admittedly fit, looks every bit like a man in his mid-50s, and this is a high-octane action movie. There is a serious disconnect between Moore in close-up and the man we see in the long shots. We don’t believe any of it for a minute. One wonders why the original Bond, Sean Connery (who in the same year as this movie made a mischievous return to the role in the renegade 007 film Never Say Never Again), was replaced by an actor three years older. Even as he aged, Connery always had that twinkle in his eye that let you know he enjoyed a dodgy joke. With Moore, we are not even sure he gets the quips he is required utter at every turn. The problem is highlighted in 007’s de rigueur bit of banter with Moneypenny. By this time, Lois Maxwell has become so matronly that a young, comely assistant (with the customarily cringe-inducing name Penelope Smallbone) has been brought in to give Bond something to pretend to ogle at. (Seen 26 June 2012)

Of Time and the City 2 out of 4 stars

Terence Davies’s latest film is ostensibly a documentary about Liverpool, which happens to be where he was born and grew up. But the argument can be made that Davies has basically made the same movie he always makes. What we learn about Liverpool is how Davies remembers it and thinks of it. In the end, this is more of a personal poetic essay than a city travelogue. Indeed, those of us who have known the city only in recent years will barely recognize it here. Most of the images are from archival footage, accompanied by Davies’s impressions and thoughts and opinions (it is his own voice on the soundtrack) on growing up there as well as on Britain in general. He has harsh words for the church and even harsher ones for the monarchy, which he dismisses caustically as “The Betty Windsor Show” and “Betty and Phil and a thousand flunkies.” Not faring any better in his critical sights are the Beatles. In the end, the reason to see the movie is less because we are interested in Liverpool and more because we are interested in Davies. He puts us in mind of the old joke cited by Woody Allen in Annie Hall. To paraphrase, Liverpool used to be miserable, and it’s a shame they’ve modernized it. (Seen 15 October 2008)

Oklahoma! 3 out of 4 stars

This is the kind of movie that used to drive me crazy. Its plot can be described in about ten seconds, but it takes the movie 145 minutes on the screen to get through it. It’s hard to rush plot development, when you have to pause for a big song and/or dance number every few minutes. Of course, I am older now and can enjoy the singing and the dancing more. And this is, after all, a classic Rodgers & Hammerstein musical. It is full of the kind of songs that drive you crazy because 1) you can’t get the melodies out of your head (Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’, Surrey with the Fringe on Top, the title tune), but the lyrics are just complicated enough that they defy quick and easy memorization. I tend to think of movie musicals from this period (this was a 1955 release, directed by veteran helmer Fred Zinnemann) as relentlessly wholesome, so the surprise is how suggestive and perverse this one turns out to be. Gloria Grahame, as Ado Annie, is quite the trollop, as she sings, “I’m jist a girl who cain’t say no.” And Gordon MacRae, as the lovesick cowpoke Curly, does quite a psycho mind job on Rod Steiger’s brooding Jud Fry when he imagines his funeral in a song. The most amazing thing is the accents. Never mind Eddie Albert(!) playing a Persian peddler; the native Oklahomans have a dialect that seems to owe more to Showboat than to the North American heartland. Still, you can’t deny the genius of the music (musicals of this vintage were truly America’s equivalent of opera) and the performances. The standout is Gene Nelson, who plays Ado Annie’s long-suffering (main) beau, as he hoofs his way into immortality. (Seen 6 March 2005)

The Old Dark House 2 out of 4 stars

A dark and stormy night. In some remote and isolated area, a couple’s car gets stuck in a storm. The only refuge is a forbidding old house. What could possibly go wrong? And what better to watch on Friday the 13th? This 1932 movie may not have started the old-dark-house genre of goosebump-inducing entertainment (that goes back at least as far as Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto in 1764), but it certainly did kick it off for the modern movie era. Every scary house movie since owes it a debt. Consider this. Its elements include a remote old house, a weird family and a potentially murdrous manservant named Morgan. Yes, Dark Shadows fans, the writers of our favorite 1960s daytime serial definitely cribbed notes from this. Ditto the scribes of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It was such ripe material for parody that it was actually remade by William Castle as a comedy in 1963 with Tom Poston and Robert Morley. If this took place in Louisiana, it would be called Southern Gothic but, since it is ostensibly in Wales, I guess it’s just Gothic. Adapted from J.B. Priestly’s novel Benighted, it was directed by James Whale of Frankenstein and The Invisible Man fame. The hapless couple are Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart. He would go on to famously play Abe Lincoln in four different productions and mentor TV’s young Dr. Kildare. Sixty-five years later she would recount her youthful love affair with Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic. Their companion is Melvyn Douglas, who would go on to win Oscars for Hud and Being There. Their posh fellow refugee is Charles Laughton who, two years hence, would win an Oscar for playing Henry VIII. And Morgan the scary butler? He is played by none other than Boris Karloff. Need I say more? (Seen 13 October 2017)

Oldboy 2 out of 4 stars

If you have an appetite for revenge tales laced with creative forms of violence and mental torture, then this winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes is for you. It is sort of a mixture of The Count of Monte Cristo, the cult TV series The Prisoner and Death Wish, all rolled into one. And that’s just the first 20 minutes. Later on, we get echoes of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation and Brian De Palma’s Obsession. The story begins with a somewhat tipsy man being spirited away from a dark, rainy street. For reasons unknown, he is imprisoned by persons unknown for 15 years. Other than the fact that Dae-su Oh has a wife and child, we know nothing about him. When he makes a list, however, of all the people who might have a grudge against him, it seems pretty darn long. After he is suddenly freed, his former captor taunts him into searching for him and discovering why he was imprisoned. Dae-su Oh is more than game for the chase, especially since he was mentally and physically training himself for this all those long years. (He has, in particular, come up with some pretty inventive uses for a claw hammer.) But his enemy has stacked the deck so well that it’s not even a game of cat and mouse. It’s more like a game of mouse and cheese. This flick by Chan-wook Park bears some pretty strong similarities to another Korean film, Public Enemy, which came out the previous year. The combined lesson of the two films, as far as I can discern anyway, is that rich metrosexuals are the epitome of evil. (Seen 12 October 2004)

Older Than Ireland 2 out of 4 stars

As he did with his documentary The Irish Pub, filmmaker Alex Fegan points the camera at some great characters and lets them talk. The story of Ireland’s pubs was one of families, their lives, their histories and, by extension, the history of the country. The same is true of this movie, which focuses on thirty Irish individuals who have surpassed the age of 100. Our first surprise is that there are so many of them. Our next surprise is how alert, engaging, quick and, in some cases, physically active they are. At least two men we meet are still driving. We follow a couple of different Dubliners as they make their way to the shop and bring home their messages. One them, the delightful Bessie Nolan who emerges as the movie’s clear star, brings home her cigarettes, one of which she lights up nonchalantly—giving evidence that longevity is more about genes and luck than about healthful habits. The title of this 2015 film is a reference to the fact that all the interviewees were alive when the Irish republic was proclaimed in 1916. One man had met both Éamon de Valera and Michael Collins, the main protagonists of the 1922-23 Civil War. While there is some reminiscing of the Black and Tan period and the early events of the Free State, most of the reflections are on the ordinary and universal aspects of life—the loves, the losses, the good times, the tears, the regrets and the pondering on what it all means. Some stories haunt long after the film has ended, like the woman who still has the shoes her father bought for her when she was a child. Her earliest memory was of him telling her he would bring her those shoes; they were found in his pocket after he collapsed and died on his way home. What is striking about this oldest surviving generation is how completely devoted they were to their partners and their families and how they accepted hardship as a given and without complaint. How strange the current world must look to them. (Seen 28 June 2016)

Oliver! 4 out of 4 stars

We have become so jaded by all the endless imaginative visual possibilities that technology has made possible that sometimes we lose sight of the thrill of seeing spectacles done the old-fashioned way. Take, for instance, great old classic movie musicals like this one. Just thinking of all the time and labor that went into building the elaborate sets and organizing the armies of singers and dancers and choreographing them boggles the mind. And if that isn’t enough, we can wonder how so many songs, each of which is a classic in its own right, keep tumbling out of the mouths of the singers. “Food, Glorious Food,” “Consider Yourself,” “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two,” “I’d Do Anything” and the emotional ballad “As Long as He Needs Me” do not even exhaust the list of songs. It is even more amazing when you consider that the musical genius behind it, Lionel Bart, never really had any comparable success with any of his other shows. Directed by Carol Reed, the movie version is blessed with a near-perfect cast. It is impossible to imagine any other Fagin than Ron Moody. Oliver Reed exudes terrifying menace as the villainous Bill Sikes yet has a brutish, wolfish charisma that convinces us that a woman would devote herself to him. As the Artful Dodger, Jack Wild performs like a veteran showman way beyond his years. And, in the title role, Mark Lester is a thing of physical beauty with a voice that, while not powerful, has a sweetness that demands attention. Four decades later, this movie is every bit as engaging as it was when it was first released. (Seen 26 December 2010)

On a Clear Day 2 out of 4 stars

Here’s another high concept that you probably never expected to encounter in a movie. How about Ordinary People meets The Full Monty? On the surface, this is yet one more entry in the persistent British working-class-men-reeling-from-blows-against-their-self-esteem-finding-fullfillment-in-an-unusual-hobby film genre. But whereas Brassed Off used this theme as background for a romantic comedy and The Full Monty used it for a lads-acting-up comedy, On a Clear Day uses it as metaphor and backdrop for a wrenching family drama. Director Gaby Dellal focuses relentlessly on the male psyche and ego and how both are battered by modern times. Peter Mullan (an excellent actor, as well as director of such movies as Orphans and The Magdalene Sisters) is the heart, strength and soul of this film, as Frank, whose identity is totally tied up with his job, from which he has been unceremoniously dumped. As his son, James Sives (unrecognizable from his titular turn in Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself) is a stay-at-home dad because his wife can earn more than he can. Both continue to be consumed by the accidental childhood death of Frank’s other son. With this much baggage, you can be sure that, when Frank decides to swim the English Channel, it is about more than just a day’s exercise. We can see every plot point coming from miles away, but it doesn’t matter. When you get to the final reel, just try not to get a lump in the throat or a tear in the eye.

On Broadway 3 out of 4 stars

This movie is actually something of a case of art imitating life imitating art imitating life. Writer/director Dave McLaughlin has not only made a movie based on a play he wrote but also on how the play came to be written and produced. The setting is a solidly Irish-American Boston neighborhood, and there are risks here. If the Irish can be somewhat sentimental, well, Irish-Americans can get downright maudlin. But McLaughlin, who knows this world well, manages to negotiate the fine line between delivering a slice of reality and entertaining his audience with what is basically a feel-good movie—not too far removed the hoary Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney/“let’s put on a show” movie tradition. The cast is very good, with Eliza Dushku as a standout as the dying-to-work actor who gives the project the energy boost it needs, while doing her best to complicate her romantic life at the same time. There is also a much welcome humor infusion in the form of Will Arnett (of TV’s Arrest Development) in a turn as a funeral director, who has no manner other than the one he uses for work. To be sure, this is the kind of movie that telegraphs its lump-in-the-throat moments more than an hour in advance. But that doesn’t really matter. What matters is whether, when they finally come, they are earned. In this case, they are. This is the first directing effort by McLaughlin, who previously wrote John Shea’s Southie. Let’s hope we’ll see more from him. (Seen 12 July 2007)

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service 2 out of 4 stars

The paradox with this movie is that, in the opinion of many, it features the weakest James Bond yet it is the best James Bond movie. The fact is that Australian-born George Lazenby was not that bad in the role, but he had the misfortune being the first actor besides the beloved Sean Connery to take the part. When compared to subsequent 007 actors, he really looks pretty fine. What is refreshing about this sixth official Bond movie is that it mostly takes itself seriously. Sure, there are lapses, like an extended sequence in which Bond, posing a nerdy academic, risks exposure by bed-hopping in his arch-enemy’s mountaintop lair. Or at the end of the pre-title sequence in which Lazenby gives a virtual wink to the camera and quips, “This never happened to the other fella.” But generally, the focus is on the action rather than on the comic relief. In fact, the latter half consists almost entirely of one prolonged chase scene, down a mountain and across miles of Swiss countryside. Maybe the fact that Bond and Blofeld (Telly Savalas) are played by completely new actors explains why one doesn’t seem to recognize the other when they first meet. (Or maybe because, in Ian Fleming’s source novel, which for once the movie follows pretty closely, this actually was the first time they met.) In addition to standing apart because Bond actually falls in love and gets married, neither does this flick end with Bond cavorting in a boat with his latest conquest, but it ends poignantly, if not tragically. And this movie boasts the all-time best Bond girl, The Avengers’s Mrs. Peel herself, the delectable Diana Rigg, following her predecessor Honor Blackman in transitioning from John Steed to James Bond. Connery would be back three years later for one last go as 007 (at least for Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman) in Diamonds Are Forever, but he would have been better off appearing in this movie rather than its successor. (Seen 14 April 2012)

On the Edge 3 out of 4 stars

Watching a movie about teenagers committed to a hospital because they are suicidal is a bit like watching a film about truck drivers carrying nitroglycerin in a race through the jungle. You know that sooner or later something will have to blow. And, when they all pledge not to kill themselves at least until New Year’s Day, you can pretty much start the countdown. And when there is a New Year’s Eve party planned for a house next to a cliff… Anyway, you get the idea that the story of this movie runs a predictability risk. But it has a few things in its favor that make up for this—mainly a central performance by Cillian Murphy not unlike the other troubled teen characters he’s played in Sunburn and Disco Pigs but, at the same time, goes in a completely different direction. Murphy has a tough/defiant yet sweet quality (not to mention haunting eyes and pouty lips) that could make him the new James Dean. John Carney’s film also gets a lot of momentum from a very strong beginning that involves a long, continuous shot beginning in a church that races through the streets of Dublin, soon followed by a bigger adrenaline rush on a windy road in the Wicklow Mountains. Also, the ending is moving without being manipulative. Murphy plays against two Yanks: Tricia Vessey (who played Josh Hartnett’s sister in Town & Country), whose accent is explained by an American mother, and former soap child star Jonathan Jackson, who affects his own brand of Irish accent. Also on hand is Stephen Rea as a counselor who is much more effective than his glum, hangdog stare and deadpan manner would suggest. (Seen 10 July 2001)

On the Nose 2 out of 4 stars

It’s hard not to like this Irish-Canadian-produced comedy. On one hand, it has a strangely old-fashioned, gentle feel to it, like some old English film comedy that might have starred a young Alec Guinness. Yet the humor is more than contemporary enough. One gag involves a lowly medical school employee getting his kicks from using the cadavers’ fingers to make an obscene gesture. The film is not only set in Dublin but also filmed in Dublin, where it makes good use of the city’s locations, and the movie mines its humor from a quintessentially Irish trait—the perpetual desire to hit it big with a lucky score, with a bit of superstition thrown in for good measure. If the Shane MacGowan documentary If I Should Fall from Grace is not the best film to take your alcoholic friend to, then this movie may not be the best one for your gambling addict acquaintance. Canadian-born Dan Aykroyd has top billing as a North American physician/lecturer, and Scottish-born Robbie Coltrane (whose size and demeanor make him seem like a Celtic John Goodman) and English-born Brenda Blethyn play a Dublin couple trying to recover from Coltrane’s predilection for games of chance. As with the good, old-fashioned comedies, it is actually the secondary characters (played by Irish actors) who make the movie, and like a hot tip on racehorse, the movie really pays off in the end. (Seen 14 July 2001)

Once 2 out of 4 stars

In a strange coincidence, this music-infused Irish film by John Carney makes a near-perfect companion to Niall Heery’s Small Engine Repair, which also had its world premiere at the same Galway Film Fleadh. Both movies are about aspiring singer/songwriters who finally get the courage to try for that big break. But whereas Heery’s film is pure country, Carney’s is definitely urban. And where Heery’s actually has a story, Carney’s film exists mostly to tie songs together. As Carney himself said, after the screening, the film was conceived as a sort of video album. The songs were written by Carney’s friend Glen Hansard (of The Frames) and Hansard’s friend, Czech singer/songwriter Marketa Irglova. Apparently, early on Cillian Murphy (who starred in Carney’s On the Edge) was lined up for the main role, but that is hard to imagine. Hansard and Irglova sing their own songs, and that certainly works better. Hansard plays a Dublin busker, and Irglova shines as the immigrant street vendor who strikes up a friendship with him and helps him fully unleash his musical passion. Although not that much actually happens storywise, that is often the case when movies are really about the music. [Related commentary] (Seen 15 July 2006)

Once Upon a Time in Mexico 2 out of 4 stars

I really, really wanted to love this movie. It has a great title, but like so many things in this flick it is borrowed from more original movies. The technique here is great, as would be expected from the prodigy who gave us the first installment of this trilogy, El Mariachi, for the legendary sum of $7,000. Robert Rodriguez is still doing the technical work almost single-handed, and there are lots of breathtaking action scenes with Antonio Banderos swirling in the air discharging crate-loads of bullets that make the bad guys fly backward for yards and yards. The violence is so well choreographed and over-the-top that the flick could almost be called Once Upon a Time in Hong Kong. But at heart it is really Spy Grown-ups 3: Game Over. We just can’t help wishing the film took itself a bit more seriously, like Sergio Leone’s (which it overtly evokes) did. In the final reel—which takes place appropriately, given the body count, on the Day of the Dead—there are so many scores settled that we can scarcely keep track of them all. But our main emotional reaction is one of exhaustion rather than elation. Once again Johnny Depp runs away with a flick, here playing an out-of-control CIA operative as if he is still perfecting the role of Hunter S. Thompson. (His performance can best be described as eye-popping.) Still, in a comic-book-exaggerated sort of way, this movie does portray multiple aspects of the Mexican psyche, and it certainly entertains for its 100 minutes. (Seen 1 October 2003)

Once Upon a Time in the West 4 out of 4 stars

How is it that this rather stylized movie still holds up so well 37 years after its release? It’s not that it has somehow kept up with cinema and popular culture. It’s that cinema and pop culture have done their best, over the decades, to catch up with this epic western. I stubbornly keep it on my list of top ten English language movies, and no one has ever questioned that, even though it was mainly an Italian production with an Italian director. Three of the four main actors were American and delivered their lines in English (although many of the other roles were filled by Italians). Even the Internet Movie Database gives its language as English, even while listing it under the title C’era una volta il West, which by my tally is at least 78 percent Italian. The Italian title is actually slightly better since, as I read it (in my virtually non-existent Italian), it comes off as more elegy than fairytale: There Was Once the West. Leone’s westerns were called, somewhat derisively in the beginning, “spaghetti westerns.” But his employment of majestic music and of epic drama and emotion suggest that another old term, ironically evocative of Italy’s cultural heritage, might have been more appropriate: horse opera. The cast is great, but the real stars here are Ennio Morricone’s reverberating musical themes and Leone’s stunning visuals. Many striking scenes have been quoted endlessly ever since: the camera swinging around to reveal that the chief bad guy is (gasp) Henry Fonda (about to gun down a defenseless child), the camera peering through the train station window and then rising to give us a sunrise’s view of a frontier town, Fonda and Claudia Cardinale face to face and rotating 90 degrees and revealed to be horizontal on a bed. It goes on and on. No one would ever mistake this for a documentary. The men are impossibly implacable and impossibly macho. Cardinale and the landscapes of southeast Spain and southwest U.S. are impossibly beautiful. Supposedly, Leone wanted to use the stars of his earlier westerns (Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach) as the trio of killers who wait to ambush Charles Bronson in the movie’s opening sequence (over what is claimed to be the longest set of opening credits ever). That would have been some opening but, of course, it didn’t come to pass. In their place old standbys Jack Elam, Woody Strode and the lesser known Al Mulock did just fine. It was merely the first of many unforgettable set pieces, mostly sans dialog, that make up this extraordinary piece of film work. (Seen 11 November 2005)

One Chance 2 out of 4 stars

This British biopic by American director David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada, Marley & Me, Hope Springs) is pretty much by the numbers, but you can’t help but like it anyway because it’s such a good story and it stars the very engaging James Corden. (He is a favorite in our house for his two outings as a likeable schlub named Craig on Doctor Who.) The story of Paul Potts, the Welsh Carphone Warehouse salesman who dreamed of being an opera singer, captured the hearts of UK TV audiences, but it is probably less well known elsewhere than that of subsequent fellow Britain’s Got Talent contestant Susan Boyle. Potts’s numerous mishaps and runs of bad luck are mainly played for comedy, and his courtship and marriage are like something out of a Frank Capra movie. Corden couldn’t possibly ask for better parents, since they are Julie Walters and Colm Meaney, who has hardly changed in the 22 years since he was the dad in The Commitments. If the movie feels a bit like a PR vehicle, it’s probably because one of the producers (along with the Weinsteins) is Simon Cowell, who can be seen playing himself along with Piers Morgan and Amanda Holden as the BGT judges. But never mind. As I said, it’s such a good story and Corden is so endearing that you can’t help but cheer for Paul Potts all over again. (Seen 29 March 2014)

One Man’s Hero 2 out of 4 stars

“…is another man’s traitor.” That’s the rest of the quote referred to in the title, and to its credit this historical-based tale by Hollywood action flick director/producer Lance Hool raises some uncomfortable questions about loyalty, honor and duty in a military setting. Long before contemporary U.S. Republican presidential candidates were throwing around accusations about anti-Catholic bigotry, this was a fact of life in America and in its military. Around the time of the Mexican-American War in the 1840s, a number of Catholic Europeans (including Irish deserters from the U.S. army) joined the Mexican side. Their story was given the documentary treatment a couple of years ago in Los San Patricios, and unfortunately Hool’s fictionalized version trades in a lot of Hollywood stereotypes about the Irish, the Mexicans and war in general. Most of the Irish characters are played by Irish actors with the notable exception of the lead, Tom Berenger, whose accent alone more than justifies what the Irish did to him in The Field. For whatever political/business reasons, One Man’s Hero fell between the cracks when Orion Pictures went under, and this is too bad because it’s a subject well worth exploring. But only in the final scenes does Hool’s movie actually hint at the power of the story and at the movie that it rightly should have been, i.e. the Irish/American Breaker Morant. (Seen 8 March 2000)

One Million Dubliners 2 out of 4 stars

You either are into documentaries or you’re not. And you are either into cemeteries or you’re not. In the latter case, I have always had something of a fascination with them. Maybe it’s because of them being our connection to history. Or maybe I just watched too much Dark Shadows as a kid. Whatever the reason, I have often found myself compelled to go tramping around in graveyards, like the one in a village on the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea, where my own people are interred, or in ones, like Paris’s Père Lachaise, where bunches of really famous people rest. Dublin’s equivalent of Père Lachaise is Glasnevin, where such important figures lie as Daniel O’Connell (who was instrumental in the cemetery’s establishment), Charles Parnell, Michael Collins, Éamon de Valera, Brendan Behan and Luke Kelly—among many, many others. This documentary by director Aoife Kelleher and writer James Mitchell does a fairly standard recounting of the cemetery’s history as well as the most interesting facts about it and the role it plays as a major feature within Dublin and Ireland. We meet, for example, and hear the story of the “mysterious” Frenchwoman who is a regular presence at Michael Collins’s grave. A segment on the area for stillborn and un-baptized babies is made more vivid as one of the tour guides tells the story of her own infant being brought there. Much of the information and flavor of the place is conveyed by popular cemetery historian Shane MacThomais, who is seen regaling children and American tourists alike with his compelling stories, liberally laced with his own jokes, about the history of the cemetery and, by extension, of Dublin and Ireland. What gives the film extra depth is the way the filmmakers get the various talking heads to muse on their own mortality and thoughts on the afterlife—or lack of same. And the film ends with a unexpected (for those not in the know anyway) emotional sucker punch that really drives home its theme of the importance of rituals and institutions in a city’s life—as well as the fact that death is ever present in the midst of life. (Seen 22 November 201I4)

One of the Hollywood Ten 1 out of 4 stars

This flick by Karl Francis is one of those cinematic oddities: a “must see” for film buffs that is not really very good. It earnestly recounts the true story of director Herbert Biberman who, as the title indicates, was one of the infamous Hollywood 10. Biberman and nine others refused to name names before Congress in 1947 and for their lack of cooperation were sent to prison and blacklisted in the film industry. The story is compelling and well worth telling. But Francis has chosen to make the film in the exaggerated, over-dramatic, tough-guy movie style of the time. Ironically, he opens the movie with a reference to Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (to establish the evil of fascism in the world), which actually demonstrated that a film made for propaganda purposes (even evil ones) can still be good art. Francis’s film, on the other hand is propaganda for a good cause but is bad art. The characters are two-dimensional, except for the government villains who would need two more sides to them to become one-dimensional. Still, it provides in its way a useful history lesson as well as an inadvertent insight to the Hollywood psyche. At one point, we see Biberman (Jeff Goldblum) tell his wife Gale Sondergaard (Greta Scacchi) that he has basically fired her from the idealistic independent film about New Mexico mine workers Salt of the Earth because he thinks it would be more authentic to have a Hispanic play the lead role—even though she has been desperate for the part and was responsible for his becoming the director. In this momentary clash of wills over art and politics we get a glimpse of two people on an ego trip where only one gets to drive. (Seen 12 July 2001)

One Night at McCool’s 2 out of 4 stars

Here are the reasons to see this movie: 1) seeing Michael Douglas have a ball with a real comic character, complete with bad toupee, 2) a rousing ending (after a so-so beginning and middle) that manages to be an homage to both Douglas’s 1993 movie Falling Down and to the Village People, 3) the single best car wash scene I have ever seen in any movie, and 4) seeing Eric Schaeffer (playing a licentious attorney) finally get what was coming to him for making the awful 1997 movie Fall. Hmmm… Falling Down and Fall… Could this be an intentionally obscure gag for devoted film buffs? Nah, the movie isn’t anywhere near that clever, although it does have its moments. Mainly, it is a film noir spoof with a hint of parody of American consumerism that makes darn sure that everyone in the audience feels a whole lot smarter than any of the characters. [Related commentary] (Seen 9 May 2001)

One Night Stand 2 out of 4 stars

Director Mike Figgis makes movies that are basically about men’s fantasies coming true. For instance, Leaving Las Vegas is about a guy who drinks constantly, goes to Las Vegas, and meets a beautiful prostitute who falls in love with him. One Night Stand is about a guy (Wesley Snipes) who goes on a business trip, misses his plane home, winds up having to spend an evening with Nastassja Kinski, saves her life, and then has to spend the night in her apartment. Of course, they wind up having the best sex ever, which must be a nice change of pace for him since we see that his own wife back home makes love like nothing so much as a New York cop directing traffic. Oh yeah, and there’s also a side plot about Robert Downey Jr. (looking like he’s, ah, on drugs or something) dying of AIDS. But this is mainly to make the film seem important and also to underline the idea that infidelity is okay because, hey man, life is short! In short, this a make-out movie for people in their 20s and their 30s. (Seen 29 May 1998)

One Tough Cop 1 out of 4 stars

One Tough Cop is based on an actual real-life person named Bo Dietl, which is amazing because the movie itself is so heavy into clichés from most every cop movie and TV show ever made that you would swear it was all dreamed up in Hollywood. We are asked to believe that there really are cops who have nothing better to do all day than to drive around looking for big cases to stumble onto and then to spend all their time working on that case when not only have they been told to stay off it but when fifty other cops are already working on it. The rub here is that Dietl (played by Stephen Baldwin, looking strangely like Alexis Arquette) is childhood best friends with a rising Mafioso (played by Mike McGlone, looking strangely like Charlie Sheen doing a Marlon Brando imitation). It’s obvious that these are New York City ethnic type guys because they kiss each other so frequently that even Quentin Crisp might find it in bad taste. Brazil’s Bruno Barreto (Doña Flor and Her Two Husbands) directed this potboiler. (Seen 8 July 1998)

Onegin 2 out of 4 stars

There is something perversely pleasing about the fact that this film would be chosen for the closing night of Seattle’s annual Women in Cinema festival. That is because, from a man’s point of view, it represents the ultimate female fantasy: a man rejects a woman and then suffers horribly because of it. As played by Ralph Fiennes, the jaded 19th century Russian aristocrat Evgeny Onegin (rhymes with O’Reagan) is the veritable poster child for romantic ennui. When called away from sophisticated St. Petersburg to the provinces on the death of his uncle, Onegin is adept enough at showing interest in what his country neighbors say to him, but his chronic boredom is all too barely concealed. Still, he seems quite taken with his new friend Vladimir, and his eye is drawn constantly to the lovely Tatyana (Liv Tyler). Could our hero actually find happiness in this isolated, picturesque locale? Don’t be ridiculous. This is, after all, Russian romanticism. The pacing can best be described as plodding and ponderous, but first-time director Martha Fiennes (Ralph’s sister) does present us with some striking and beautiful images. I think Alexander Pushkin, on whose classic work this is based, would be pleased. (Seen 18 November 1999)

Open Range 2 out of 4 stars

For some reason, after Waterworld and The Postman, they let Kevin Costner direct again. But it’s okay, because he definitely seems to be better dealing with the Old West (Dances with Wolves) than with apocalyptic future flicks. Open Range caused a bit of a stir when it was released earlier this year, for no other reason than just being an old-fashioned shoot-‘em-up good-guys-versus-bad-guys western. In the climate of the Iraq war, that was practically like taking sides on the morality of the war itself. There is indeed something strange about seeing the old justice-at-the-barrel-of-a-gun mindset of the classic westerns hauled out again after having gone through the second half of the 20th century. We get distracted, while watching, wondering if this really is a political statement or just entertainment? The pace is leisurely, and the film is more character-driven than plot-driven anyway. In fact, the movie gets a big boost from Robert Duvall, whose main purpose may be to remind us of his vaguely similar turn in the TV mini-series Lonesome Dove, thereby making this movie seem, by association, better than it actually is. Single-handedly, Duvall nearly makes up for the fact that Costner and Annette Bening’s hesitant, tongue-tied romance, which is meant to be touching, is excruciating to watch. (Seen 14 December 2003)

Open Season 2 out of 4 stars

I might as well just reconcile myself to the fact that every other movie I see at the Seattle film festival is going to be a satire about television and the media. This one is an independent film written and directed by actor Robert Wuhl who also has the lead acting role. This is the first movie Wuhl has directed. (As an actor he has starred with Tommy Lee Jones in Cobb and was Kim Basinger’s newspaper pal in Batman.) In introducing the movie, Wuhl said that his comedy director role models are Capra, Sturges, and Lubitsch (rather than aiming for, as he says, the Billy Madison audience). This of course sets a pretty high bar to measure against. He’s definitely not in those directors’ league yet, but he has done his best to emulate them with a New York setting (actually filmed in Toronto) and a snappy musical score by Marvin Hamlisch. The premise is a great one. What if the boxes that measure television ratings for the Nielsens (or their fictional equivalent) went on the fritz and reported incorrectly that PBS (or its fictional equivalent) was the number one network? Well, the commercial competition would have to try to follow suit, wouldn’t it? (In Wuhl’s universe there is only one commercial network, and it is owned by a crass used car dealer.) There are some hilarious bits here, including some pot shots at the political correctness and eclectic tastes of public television, as well as the outlandish premises of commercial television shows. And the viewing audience comes in for its share of lampooning as well. One of the best gags is the commercial network’s implementation of an “impress track” to let viewers know when they should be impressed by high culture. (You know, like a laugh track.) Rod Taylor plays a network programming wizard who claims to draw his guidance directly from God. When things get desperate for commercial television, however, God tells him to air Debby Does Dallas and a live Iranian execution as a ratings stunt. This is a fun film, but as a tale of moral redemption (which it tries to be), it’s not even close to Capra’s league. And, despite the great gags and some fun cameos from TV stars, Louis 19 King of the Airwaves was actually a better satire of television’s effect on our lives. Wuhl is showing Open Season at film festivals around the country, but so far it does not have a distributor. (Seen 1 June 1995)

An Open Secret 2 out of 4 stars

One of the enduring scenarios of old Hollywood lore is the casting couch. Many an account has been told of aspiring young actors, usually female, finding it necessary to submit to the advances of filmmaking management in order to get their big shot on screen. This outraged documentary suggests that the casting couch has evolved into the pool party initiation where adolescent boys find themselves pressured, threatened or drugged to provide favors in exchange for their shot at an entertainment career. The film is by Amy Berg, who dealt with pedophilia previously in Deliver Us from Evil and subsequently in Prophet’s Prey, as well as miscarried justice in West of Memphis and Janis Joplin in Janis: Little Girl Blue. The best known faces in this doc are actors Todd Bridges and Corey Feldman, who speak out (in archive footage) about abuse they and others suffered as children. Most of the film, however, is devoted to interviews with a number of lesser known aspring models and actors, who detail what went on with publicists and directors and managers of young talent. One of the most shocking aspects of the stories is how naively trusting (or overly eager for their children’s careers) parents were—to the point where they left their kids completely in the care of men in the industry whom they barely knew. We spend quite a bit of time with the Ohio parents of Mark, who returned home so traumatized by his experiences that he fell into a spiral of self-destructive behavior. We also spend time with former aspiring singer Evan, who not only details his experiences with his manager Marty Weiss but actually plays a tape he recorded in which Weiss confirms having sex with him when he was 12. Confronted by Evan as an adult, Weiss defends his actions by insisting that Evan had “shown interest” and that it is completely normal behavior in the natural animal world. “If we were any other animal,” he explains, “it wouldn’t matter.” We learn that Weiss is still managing young talent but that another subject of the film, Digital Entertainment Network (DEN) founder Marc Collins-Rector, was eventually convicted of child abuse. Once he got out of jail, he went completely off the radar. Berg’s film is compromised a bit by the inclusion of Michael, who sued four men (including X-Men director Bryan Singer) for sexual assault during his time at DEN—only to have the court case (after this film was made) fall apart. Still Berg’s documentary sheds some powerful light on troubling aspects of the entertainment industry that most people would prefer not to think about. (Seen 4 October 2016)

Orange County 2 out of 4 stars

I knew guys from Orange County when I went to university, and this movie explains a lot. Film-wise, the main interest here is as a look at a Hollywood celebrity second-generation: Lawrence Kasdan’s son directs Tom Hanks’s son and Sissy Spacek’s daughter. (Jack Black, meanwhile, seems to be channeling the spirit of John Belushi.) But the main pleasure of the movie is its non-socially-redeeming sense of humor. It’s an animal that is rare enough: a teen comedy that is not afraid to be a notch smarter than its target audience. Never mind the new crop of actors here; there are some fine comic turns by such veterans as Catherine O’Hara (here an even less attentive mother than she was to Macauley Culkin in Home Alone) who seems to be doing a Second City parody of a mother in a Mike Leigh film. Or Chevy Chase, briefly, as an ever so slyly lecherous school principle. Or Lily Tomlin as the most incompetent of guidance counselors. Or even Garry Marshall and Dana Ivey as a visiting couple whose very importance guarantees that the visit will be an utter disaster. And, refreshingly for a teen movie, the film’s central plot device is a quest, not to get laid or drunk, but simply to get into a good university. (Seen 13 November 2001)

Ordet (The Word) 3 out of 4 stars

This 1955 Danish film is considered a cinematic classic. Slowly paced and filmed in black and white, contemporary audiences may find it a bit challenging—assuming that they can get a chance to see it at all. Written and directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, it is based on a play by Kaj Munk, a pastor/poet who was killed by the Nazis in 1944. The tone and themes are reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman’s early films. The story centers on a rural family faced with a pair of crises. A son wants to marry a young woman of a different religious sect, and a daughter-in-law goes through childbirth complications. Adding to the tension is another son who has apparently lost his mind (blamed on reading too much Kierkegaard!) and who spouts endlessly about being the Christ. No one takes him seriously, of course, but maybe they should. The heavily spiritual ending suggests that most people, amidst their petty arguments over organized religion, wouldn’t recognize the Messiah if He was standing right in front of them. (Seen 6 June 1997)

O Orgasmo Tis Ageladas (The Cow’s Orgasm) 2 out of 4 stars

We know pretty well what to expect from this movie by the time the opening credits end. Director Olga Malea has a cow literally defecate on her own name. As the title suggests, this is a somewhat bawdy romantic comedy with more than a bit of barnyard humor. The story revolves around the amorous misadventures of a couple of young women on the verge of a graduation in a small, rural Greek town. Athanasia is attracted to a waiter in the local bar who dreams of being a rock star and who has adopted the name Murphy. Christina is involved with Murphy’s boss, a lecherous sleazeball so aggressive and insatiable when it comes to young women that Kenneth Starr might confuse him with Bill Clinton. There are several funny bits, memorably including a mobile phone and a feminine hygiene product up someone’s nose. Much of the humor generally derives from the hysterical attitudes and reactions of the parents and one particularly nosy neighbor. (Seen 27 January 1998)

Orgazmo 1 out of 4 stars

I can’t believe that I actually went to see a movie called Orgazmo, but I was dragged there against my will. That’s my story anyway, and I’m sticking with it! This is an early work of Trey Parker, who is best known for a TV show called South Park, which I understand is very popular. Orgazmo gives the impression of being a lot raunchier than it really is, and it’s strange that American film board gave it an NC-17 rating. The film’s hero (played by Parker) is a Mormon missionary and, while his innocence is played for laughs, the film isn’t particularly cruel or ridiculing toward the character. Indeed, I don’t think the LDS church would take much offense about the character—except for the small detail that he becomes an actor in a porn film. But the movie almost makes that plot development plausible! The story, wherein our hero takes on the (sort of) heroic attributes of the character he plays is almost (emphasis on “almost”) touching. It’s sort of Boogie Nights meets My Favorite Year. There are some dry patches here laugh-wise, but the funniest bits involve a German shepherd (which I won’t describe) and a scene where Parker tries to explain to his fiancée that he is making a sequel to his first movie, having forgotten that he told her that it was a film version of Death of a Salesman. (Seen 2 November 1998)

Órói (Jitters) 2 out of 4 stars

One of the blurbs for this 2010 movie from Iceland compared it to the UK teen soap opera Skins, and that’s fairly accurate. For most of its running time, Baldvin Zophoníasson’s film follows a group of teens who deal with all the issues that teens deal with in movies (and TV shows) like this: clueless self-absorbed parents, too much alcohol, painful breakups and unrequited love. What makes the movie easier to take than it deserves is its point-of-view character, the sensitive Gabríel, played by the very appealing Atli Oskar Fjalarsson, who is everybody’s loyal supportive friend and confidante and (in at least one case) desperately desired love object. His own story, which recedes into the background for most of the film, bookends the movie by providing the opening and closing sequences. We meet the serious and studious Gabríel as he begins a scholastic trip to Manchester, England, where he is roommate to fellow Icelander Markús, who is just the sort of gusto-grabbing free spirit custom ordered to help Gabríel to break out of his shell. The practical result, though, is that we spend most of the rest of the movie waiting out all of the less interesting travails of Gabríel’s friends back in Iceland until we can finally get a resolution to Gabríel’s story. This is probably mostly of interest to younger adults, but Fjalarsson’s turn at least make it watchable. (Seen 7 December 2012)

Orphans 2 out of 4 stars

We all react to bereavement and grief in different ways. For example, in Scotland some people go on murderous all-night quests for revenge over some real or imagined slight. Others may seek solace in religious ritual to the extent that they insist on carrying the coffin on their back all by themselves. But then, what else would you expect in a country so twisted that it would produce movies such as Trainspotting? Orphans is definitely in the same vein as that seminal film, and indeed it is the writing/directing debut of actor Peter Mullan, who had a role in Trainspotting. This movie has some truly outrageous scenes (it will definitely make you think twice about ever having fast food delivered to your home again) that frequently make no overt sense. (It doesn’t help that much of the dialog is unintelligible to anyone who has not lived his or her entire life in Glasgow.) But this bizarre tale about how three brothers and a sister spend the day and night before their mother’s funeral, in its own weird way, gets at some truths about how death affects us. But just when you think it’s gone over the top, you find that it’s just getting started. The humor here isn’t just dark; it’s a freaking black hole of jocularity. (Seen 12 July 1998)

Oscar and Lucinda 3 out of 4 stars

If you’ve happened to see the trailer for this film, forget about it. It gives you no idea what to expect. Moreover, the first half of this film gives you no idea what to expect in the second half. Australian director Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career, Little Women) has come up with a sprawling 19th century tale that, like its obsessive and compulsive wagering title characters, never reveals its hand. Cate Blanchett is agreeable in a young Judy Davis sort of way, but Ralph Fiennes is striking in a role far removed from Schindler’s List or The English Patient. As fumbling, neurotic, scarecrow-like Oscar, he gets beyond the mannerisms to create a complete character. (Strangely, he kept reminding me of Dick Cavett!) For much of its running time, this film plays like a comedy, but by the time it’s over you’ll be oddly and movingly reminded of films by Werner Herzog and even James Cameron. (Seen 24 January 1998)

Oscar Wilde: Spendthrift of Genius 2 out of 4 stars

A very well done PBS-style Irish documentary about the life of Oscar Wilde. The film deals frankly and sympathetically with Wilde’s long love affair with the young Lord Alfred Douglas, which landed him in prison for being a “sodomite.” The film is generously laced with Wilde’s witty mots. (When asked what his religion was, Wilde replied, “I don’t believe I have any. I’m an Irish Protestant.”). (Seen 23 May 1987)

Other Halves 2 out of 4 stars

This New Zealand story set in the big city of Auckland starts out like An Unmarried Woman and turns into something like West Side Story without the music. Thirty-some-year-old Liz has a nervous breakdown, and considering what a colossal jerk her husband is, it’s no wonder. She takes up with a Polynesian street gang kid named Tug who is 16 and things are rocky to say the least. The whole movie seems to be saying, “This will never work,” but then it cops out and tries to give you a happy ending anyway. (Seen 24 May 1987)

Other Voices, Other Rooms 1 out of 4 stars

The fact that this movie takes place in a creepy, isolated house and that its star, Lothaire Bluteau (Jesus of Montreal, Bent, The Confessional), bears an uncanny resemblance to Anthony Perkins—not to mention that dress in his closet—makes this flick more than a bit reminiscent of Psycho. But its basic premise is more Dickensian. A young boy (David Speck, who played Brad Renfro’s little brother in The Client) comes to live in a decaying Southern mansion under mysterious circumstances. As a pair of odd cousins, Bluteau and Anna Thomson seem to be in competition as to who can do the better Blanche DuBois imitation. The narrator (Speck’s character as an adult) sounds an awful lot like Truman Capote, which makes sense, as the film is based on a semi-autobiographical Capote story. The key to this film is the supposed affinity between the boy and the rueful, melodramatic, perpetually sloshed Bluteau. Unfortunately, this relationship never jells, and we are left with an interesting idea rather than the engaging film this could have been. (Seen 24 February 1998)

The Others 3 out of 4 stars

Nicole Kidman’s character in this film is called Grace, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence because here she is a dead ringer for Grace Kelly. And though Kidman usually has a rather smoldering screen presence, she is quite believable as a rigid ice queen. The director is Chilean-born Alejandro Amenábar who demonstrates that it is still possible to make a good old-fashioned, creepy haunted house movie that gets mileage out of things like noises coming through the ceiling, shadowy corners, and a door that won’t stay closed. The story, involving two children in a house that may be haunted, is calculated to remind us of The Turn of the Screw, and like Eloy de la Iglesia’s adaptation of that story, Amenábar adds a repressive brand of Catholicism to the disturbing mix. The religious dimension plus Grace’s problematic relationship with her husband provides an extra emotional layer, given what we know of Kidman’s own real-life marital problems and the fact that Tom Cruise was a producer on the film. The story itself is exquisite and inventively makes us look at a familiar story in a completely new way. The only downside is that it may not be particularly surprising to people who saw Amenábar’s Open Your Eyes or a certain 1999 sleeper hit. (Seen 17 October 2001)

Otra vuelta de tuerca (Turn of the Screw) 2 out of 4 stars

Yes, this is Spain’s version of the famous Henry James ghost story. The director is Eloy de la Iglesia, a gay filmmaker whose movies usually feature teenage boys who find excuses to take off their shirts (and sometimes more). This is no exception. The movie follows the original story pretty faithfully with one important change: the governess has been changed to a young male seminarian. James’ story was ambiguous in that you weren’t sure if the children were really possessed by ghosts or if the governess was just cracking up. There was also a hint of some sort of attraction between the governess and young Miles. The introduction of repressive Spanish Catholicism and a male protagonist adds a third level of ambiguity. The seminarian finds himself attracted to Miles (here called Mikel) and it drives him to flagellate himself (which he had a tendency to do anyway). The boy comes off less as a possessed little monster than as a victim of religious and moral repression. Creepy on several levels. (Seen 24 May 1987)

Our Brand Is Crisis 2 out of 4 stars

Not to be confused with the 2005 documentary of the same name (or maybe it is) by Rachel Boynton, this is a fictionalized permutation of Boynton’s original. The doc told the story of how a team of U.S. political consultants led by James Carville used their well-honed marketing skills to get Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada elected president of Bolivia in 2002—as well as the unfortunate events that unfolded in the country afterward. This 2015 feature film tells a passingly similar story but, unconstrained by the limitations of dealing with actual people or actual events, it is free to make its point more directly. The director is David Gordon Green (perhaps best known for Pineapple Express) and the screenwriter is Peter Straughan, working from Boynton’s film. The movie follows burnt-out consultant “Calamity” Jane Bodine, who is sought out for one more political campaign, this time in a fictional South American country, coincidentally called “Bolivia.” In the best romcom tradition (even though, as far as I can tell, this isn’t actually a romcom), her old nemesis Pat Candy is working for her guy’s opponent. It is surely no coincidence that Candy is played by Billy Bob Thornton, who looks an awful lot like Carville, and it may or may not be one that Bodine is played by Sandra Bullock, who bears something of a passing resemblance to Mary Matalin who, as far as I know, had nothing to do with the real Bolivian campaign but who is both Carville’s political opposite number and spouse. The film benefits strongly from location filming in Bolivia, but there is a strange lack of energy in the first half, nearly as though the cast and crew were suffering from Andean altitude sickness. Bullock’s character is so out of it in the early going that she brings to mind Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation. Things pick up in the latter stretch when Bodine finds her mojo and really throws herself into the campaign. And since this is a movie, this veteran political pro suddenly starts to actually care about the campaign and is then shattered when she winds up feeling it was betrayed. As in a lot of American-made political films set in foreign places, local characters tend to be reduced to types, leaving most of the dramatic focus on the American characters and their issues. In the end, this flick is just a strange animal. Not a romcom but a sort-of comedy with something of a political message in the final reel, it wants to enlighten us about how bad U.S.-style consultant politics are in general and about their deleterious consequences when exported abroad. No solutions are offered—beyond masses of people turning out in the street. (Seen 4 March 2016)

Out of Sight 3 out of 4 stars

George Clooney finally gets a decent movie role in Out of Sight, yet another successful adaptation of Elmore Leonard (author of the source novels for Get Shorty and Jackie Brown). Instead of playing yet another comic book character as he did in From Dusk Till Dawn and Batman & Robin (and let’s not forget the immortal Return of the Killer Tomatoes!), Clooney here plays one of those small-time criminals who is savvy enough to reach behind and grab the arm of someone with a gun while he is sitting in a bathtub with his eyes closed but is still incompetent enough to botch a bank robbery by flooding the engine of his car. The joys of this film include a wide array of mostly streetwise characters, refreshingly smart dialog, and a certain chemistry between Clooney and Jennifer Lopez, who discuss cinema and other topics while locked in the trunk of a car. Albert Brooks is amusing as a Michael Milken type who has to navigate his way through prison culture. The director is Steven Soderbergh, who cashes in on the promise he showed a decade ago with his legendary debut, Sex, Lies, and Videotape. (Seen 1 January 1999)

Outcasts by Choice 2 out of 4 stars

If you ever have an occasion to program a day or long evening of films about punk music in Northern Ireland, you have three obvious choices for screenings. You could start with Tom Collins’s documentary Teenage Kicks: The Undertones, follow with Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn’s biopic of Belfast punk godfather Terri Hooley Good Vibrations and, now, you can complete the set with this brand-new doc by father/daughter team Paul McCarroll and Kate McCarroll. An unabashed paean to and celebration of the groundbreaking band The Outcasts, this flick begins by paralleling and quoting the Good Vibrations feature, playing one of the most memorable scenes from that movie. At the height of the Troubles a British soldier stops a tour van and is astounded to learn that the traveling musicians are a mixture of Catholics and Protestants. That is one of the key messages of this doc: that the punk movement paid no attention to the sectarian divide and formed its own defiant community. We have Terri Hooley himself onscreen to tell us so and recount the movement’s early days, joined by the surviving band members (key member Colin Cowan died in a traffic accident in 1982) and others to reminisce and relive. This flick is not only about nostalgia, though. It documents the recent reforming of the band, with the members now well into their 50s but no less full of spit and fire. Not only do their old fans turn out to support them but so do a new generation of young acolytes from all over Europe. The comeback story culminates in a celebratory concert cum river cruise through another once-divided but now revitalized city, Berlin. (Seen 7 July 2016)

Over Her Dead Body 1 out of 4 stars

This flick has sitcom written all over it. It’s about Phoebe’s fiancé from Friends having trouble dating Sally Heep from The Practice and Boston Legal because she is being haunted by the slutty former fashion model from Desperate Housewives, who has died in a tragic, well absurd, accident on her wedding day. If this makes you think of Blithe Spirit or Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, then you have already stumbled over the movie’s first big problem: it makes you think of films that are much better. In fact, the premise is so sure-fire that we are left wondering why we get so little buzz from it. Did I mention it was directed by a guy who has done writing and producing for Spin City, Sports Night and Just Shoot Me!? The film provides one, no, actually two interesting twists. Usually it is the bereaved who is haunted, but here it is the woman trying to date him, so we have a bit of a supernatural cat fight. Except it is more of a kitten fight. But what is really strange is that there is a side plot involving Jason Biggs and a five-year misunderstanding that is much more interesting than the main plot. We are down to faint praise indeed when the kindest thing I can find to say is that the movie does not have an annoying laugh track and was not filmed in front of a live studio audience. (Seen 19 March 2009)

Over the Hedge 2 out of 4 stars

For moviegoers who cannot get enough of wittily rendered anthropomorphic computer-generated animals, this certainly must be the Golden Age of all times. It seems like every week or so, there is another new such entertainment in the cinemas. (A co-director of this flick, Tim Johnson, also helmed one of the earliest of the genre, Antz.) And, so far, most of them are pretty good, including this one. I have to wonder, however, if any of them could exist if not for the enduring influence of cartoonist Gary Larson, since they all generally avail of that same oddball sense of humor that is informed by nerdy familiarity with all things biological and zoological and sly social commentary. This one, in particular, is ripe for critiquing human mores and foibles, given its storyline about woodland creatures running up against encroaching suburbia. Seen through an animal’s eyes, the human penchant for fast food, SUVs and other trappings of modern life do seem strange indeed. Still, the satire is not as biting as it could have been, which is probably just as well, given that the ostensible target audience is, after all, children. For all the potential environmental messages, the moral that mainly sticks in the mind is that bears are evil, especially when voiced by Nick Nolte, apparently after a really rough night. Other great casting includes Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara as a creature couple that could have stepped out of Fargo and William Shatner as a hammy possum who relishes his death scenes. (Seen 25 June 2006)

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