Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

Custom Search


© 1987-2017
Scott R. Larson





ScottLarsonBooks.com




Building façade in Cannes, France
Previous Page Home Next Page

P.S. I Love You 2 out of 4 stars

Chick flick par excellence, maybe this movie moves some to tears. But mostly I just found its characters annoying. Anyway, the whole dead-lover-who-won’t-go-away thing was sealed for me when Jeffrey Dean Morgan showed up, since that was his trademark turn on Grey’s Anatomy a couple of seasons ago. Still, for my money, the Seattle-born Morgan makes a more amiable Irishman than Scotsman Gerard Butler. The narrative structure is kind of interesting, as the device of the dead husband arranging a year’s worth of letters to be delivered to his widow (kind of creepy, no?) has the effect of telling the story of their romance in reverse. Unfortunately, the beginning, when we finally get to it, wasn’t much more endearing than the ending. Anyway, the book on which this is based had quite a high profile in Ireland since it was authored by Cecelia Aherne, whose dad was the country’s Taoiseach (prime minister) when it came out. Sure sign that the filmmakers knew they were dealing with a weak hand: inclusion of lots of clips of much better tear-jerkers (Bette Davis, Judy Garland). (Seen 26 December 2010)

Pacific Rim 3 out of 4 stars

If Michael Mann decides to make another Miami Vice movie, he could not do better than to recast the role of Lt. Castillo with Idris Elba (of the US’s The Wire and the UK’s Luther). As played by Elba in this flick, the wonderfully named Stacker Pentecost is basically Lt. Castillo on steroids (although I think Castillo would actually be more likely to prefer valium). He is stoic, quietly authoritative, mysterious and a wound-up weapon ready to be released. Critics have been praising this summer popcorn movie from Guillermo del Toro for showing how a giant robots-vs.-lizards movie can still make you care about the characters. That’s not the same as the characters seeming like real people. They are better than real people. They are like super-heroes in a really good comic book or, say, a really good summer action movie. I can’t say there are any major surprises in this flick in terms of plot twists or character arcs, but it never feels like it’s going through the motions. In tone, it’s reminiscent of Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers (without being bogged down by that film’s anti-war pretensions), and it captures that feel-good we’re-all-in-this-fight-against-the-aliens-together vibe from Independence Day. But mostly, it’s a heartfelt homage to a former kid’s love of Japanese robot and giant monster movies. The movie actually benefits from not being built around a Willis or a Schwarzenegger or other big star, who would just get in the way of identifying with the characters. Instead the story stands on its own and the characters, as played by familiar faces from television, serve the story—instead of the other way around. Is it War and Peace? Nope. But it’s a heck of a lot more fun. (Seen 28 July 2013)

Le Pacte des loups (Brotherhood of the Wolf) 2 out of 4 stars

I’ll say one thing about Christophe Gans’s movies: they are fun to watch. The action is frequently slowed down or sometimes sped up, so that the sensation you get alternates between a dark, eerie dream to a sudden dip in a roller coaster. It’s probably no coincidence that the opening scene (just the first of many with whip-lashing, bone-crunching violence) looks very much like the first scene in Jaws—except that there are rocks instead of water. If you have seen Gans’s Crying Freeman, then you have a pretty good idea what to expect. American actor Mark Dascascos (who had the title role in Crying Freeman as well as the Brandon Lee role in a TV series based on The Crow) is on hand, but this time he is the sidekick. He is a Native American in 18th century France, but he really has more in common with the David Carradine character in Kung Fu. He and Samuel Le Bihan as the hero, Vincent Cassel as a petulant aristocrat, Monica Bellucci as a prostitute with a mysterious day job, Jérémie Rénier (who made an impression in the grittily realistic La Promesse) and others make up one of the most physically attractive casts we have seen in some time. There are basically two types of characters in this movie: those that are “drop dead” and those that do drop dead. (Several fall into both categories.) This being a French film, I kept expecting some kind of Big Statement about the historical period. Like, the beast represents the savagery of the aristocracy. Or, the beast represents the savagery of the coming revolution. But, in the end, this film has as much to say about the French Revolution as the James Bond movies have to say about 20th century geopolitics. Still, it is a lot of fun and definitely one heck of a wild ride. (Seen 25 January 2002)

Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros (The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros) 2 out of 4 stars

It is hard to know what to make of this little melodrama from the Philippines, directed by Auraeus Solito. If the titular 12-year-old protagonist were an orphan, it could nearly be seen as a gender-crossing version of Oliver Twist, and it nearly works that way anyway. Maxi, played engagingly by Nathan Lopez, sashays and sways his way through his Manila neighborhood with the utmost of self-confidence and without the slightest bit of self-consciousness. “You look pretty today, Maxi” sneers a street tough, just before he and his friend are about to attack him. “I’m always pretty,” shoots back Maxi, without the slightest hesitation. The film’s dramatic conflict arises when Maxi’s loyalties are torn between his petty criminal father and brothers and the new handsome cop, who idealistically wants to enforce the law—and upon whom Maxi has a mad crush. We never know what to expect next (although we frequently expect the worst), and that is all to the good. In the final reel, we have all the makings of tragedy, but instead we get an ending that shifts gears in a slightly confusing manner. In any event, it is hard not to be mostly enthralled with the portrait of Manila street life and quite taken by its shining young lead performer. (Seen 10 July 2007)

The Painted Veil 2 out of 4 stars

In the old days of Hollywood, they brought over lots of English actors, but when they made a movie set in a far-off, exotic locale, it was often shot on a Los Angeles back lot. Nowadays, however, in a movie like this, the exotic locales are real, but the English people are fake. The highlight of this film by John Curran is the striking scenery of rural China. Of course, there were films shot on location in the old days, and this movie is like nothing so much as one of those great classic location movies by filmmakers like David Lean—although not quite on the same scale as his better known epics. This is really quite a nice movie, with a serious message and a very grown-up love story. Naomi Watts makes a convincing headstrong young Englishwoman, but Edward Norton seems to be trying to look like Ralph Fiennes—which only serves to make us think about how much better this movie would be if Ralph Fiennes had been the star. And just imagine if Jude Law had played the “other man” instead of Liev Schrieber. Normally, I am a defender of any actor being able to play any role. But, in this case, this very English story by a very English author (W. Somerset Magham) probably would have been better served by more actual Brits in the cast. Not much chance of that, though, since it was clearly the star power of Norton and Watts (credited among the producers) that got the movie made in the first place. Still, it is a fine movie and well worth the investment of two hours. And there are still the pleasures of supporting roles played by Toby Jones (who will now forever always remind us of Truman Capote) and Diana Rigg(!), as a French mother superior. (Seen 21 February 2007)

The Pallbearer 2 out of 4 stars

This gloomy comedy is called by some The Graduate for the 90s. At least this time the Anne Bancroft character (a very blonde, except for the roots, Barbara Hershey) and the Katherine Ross character (Gwyneth Paltrow) are not mother and daughter. And, since it’s the 90s, the Dustin Hoffman character (David Schwimmer) doesn’t have to have his parents’ friends tell him about “plastic.” He’s got his ambitious, aspiring yuppie friends for that kind of advice. Schwimmer mopes his way through the film with his heart-tugging patented little-boy-lost look, but it’s hard to worry about him too much since we know he’s making a ton of money on Friends. (Somehow I suspect that this is a much more true-to-life look at twentysomething life in New York than Schwimmer’s TV gig.) A comic highlight of the film is one of the briefest and most pointless eulogies in history. Paltrow gets to spend some screen time with her Emma co-star Toni Colette. (Seen 19 June 1996)

Palookaville 2 out of 4 stars

For pure ineptness, the criminal “gang” in Palookaville gives the guys in Bottle Rocket a serious run for their money. Sid, Russ and Jerry are three losers who live in Jersey City. They are way too smart to have jobs, so Jerry (Adam Trese) lets his wife support him and their infant; Russ (Vincent Gallo) lives with his mother, sister and brother-in-law; and I don’t know what Sid (William Forsythe) and his two smelly dogs live on. Part of the problem seems to be that, underneath all the tough talk and macho banter, these guys are just too nice to be criminals. And it probably isn’t a good sign that they are always discussing their next big haul more or less publicly in a coffee shop or at Russ’s place. (His brother-in-law is a cop.) There is just enough sadness about these dead-end lives to give a touch of substance to the humor of this story. This is the directorial debut of Alan Taylor. (Seen 4 June 1996)

Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills 3 out of 4 stars

Forget O.J.! The most intriguing real-life trial you’re likely to see on film is Paradise Lost by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, who previously made Brother’s Keeper. It is no coincidence that it takes its title from John Milton’s epic about God and Satan. There are few things, if any, more evil than the crime committed a few years ago in West Memphis, Arkansas. Three eight-year-old boys were savagely murdered, the crime involving sexual assault and mutilation. One of the resulting trials took on the trappings of a witchcraft trial since the prosecution’s argument for motive was that the murderers were Satanists. (In an eerie twist of fate, the crime’s case number even ends in “-0666"!) Unlike Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line, this documentary—which has extraordinary access behind the scenes to the defense, prosecution, and the families involved—does not attempt to “solve” the case for us. We are left to wonder if the three teenage suspects are guilty or if they were persecuted because they were eccentric, liked to wear black and listened to Metallica. We see that the community was ripe for a witchcraft trial as we hear the victims’ families and others speak vehemently in the best southern evangelical tradition. In addition to being a tragedy and an impenetrable mystery, this film is a slice of American life that people in other regions aren’t always comfortable with. (Seen 1 June 1996)

Paradise Now 3 out of 4 stars

Imagine that, one evening, you suddenly learn that you have less than 24 hours to live. And you can’t say a word about it to any of your friends and family. What would you do (and not do) during the time you had left? This is just one of the themes raised by this quite amazing film by Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad, and one we don’t think about too much when reading about suicide bombers in the newspaper. The film also adds the interesting but totally cinematic touch of further asking: and what if you met a girl during those last few hours? The movie is so full of provocative questions and issues that it came as quite a surprise when, after the screening, the filmmaker said that he had only wanted to make a good suspense thriller and that all the political stuff got included as an inevitable afterthought. Interestingly, the movie, which is nothing less than gripping, is at its weakest in the later stretches, where it most follows standard thriller conventions. It is at its best when the two young West Bank men, who have volunteered for a dual suicide bomb mission in Tel Aviv, debate the morality and efficacy of the campaign between themselves and also with the young Europeanized daughter of a celebrated martyr. Its story is told squarely from the Palestinian view, giving us a glimpse into what generations of refugee life is like, as well as how it contrasts starkly with the standard of living in urban Israel. The danger with this subject matter is that it could easily turn to rank propaganda, but this movie doesn’t. Based on the reported reaction from Palestinian and Israeli viewers, Abu-Assad got it just right. Most reaction on both sides was positive, he said, and a minority on either side criticized it for making the suicide bombers either too human or not heroic enough. Indeed, the human touches are the most amazing. In a grimly hilarious scene, one of the men has to repeat his speech for his martyr’s video more than once because the camera malfunctions. On the second go, he inserts an aside to his mother, mentioning that he has found a better place to buy water filters. (Seen 7 July 2005)

Paraísos Artificiais (Artificial Paradises) 2 out of 4 stars

I think this film by Marcos Prado has an anti-drug message, but it’s hard to be sure. That’s because the extended, delirious scenes of attractive young people getting ecstatically high in raves and clubs amid the colorful beauty of Brazil and the kinetic night scene in Amsterdam are so intoxicating that we want to climb up into the screen and join them. The film begins with Nando getting out of a Rio de Janeiro prison after four years. From flashbacks and flashbacks within flashbacks we learn how he got there and also about his two encounters with the beautiful aspiring club DJ Erika. In the end, this is a love story where the main obstacle to the young couple is rampant irresponsibility. To drive home the point, Prado and his co-writers lay on a thick helping of guilt along the way and, for good measure, give Nando a younger brother at risk. But what lingers in the mind afterward is not so much the love story or the cautionary drug tale but those deliriously beautiful images of an outdoor festival on an azure sea near Recife. (Seen 13 July 2013)

The Parent Trap 2 out of 4 stars

When I first saw this movie as a child, I thought: how cool would it be to find out I had a twin somewhere! When I watch it now (with my own child), I think: how cool would it be to have a fabulous ranch house in Carmel, California! Otherwise, this Disney original mainly makes us aware of how tame movies about impish, trouble-causing scamps used to be. In the pre-Macauley Culkin world, merely tipping over a boat or cutting away the back of a girl’s dress was the height of juvenile hilarity. What’s also notable, with the perspective of time, is how much Disney’s square, squeaky-clean image was not entirely deserved. The details of this little tale of divorce, twins separated without their knowledge and spousal abuse would later become fodder for trash TV shows like Jerry Springer. And yet there is still something wholesome about this flick. Maybe it’s the way that nobody seems to notice or care that the twins both have English accents for no logical reason. Or the fact that Maureen O’Hara’s fiery Irish redhead is the daughter of Boston bluebloods. Her character is an inevitable carryover from her immortal role in The Quiet Man, just as the lanky Brian Keith’s is a foreshadowing of his definitive television role as the single dad in Family Affair. Most interesting is the subtext of bitchy cat fighting among the female characters, particularly the gold digger played by Joanna Barnes, who would play her character’s mother in the remake 37 years later. (Seen 28 August 2002)

The Parent Trap 2 out of 4 stars

Probably the major question on most film critics’ minds these days is, why would hip director Gus Van Sant undertake a virtual shot-by-shot remake of that classic cinematic masterpiece, The Parent Trap? Oops, wrong movie. Okay, so actual director Nancy Meyers (writer/producer of Private Benjamin, Baby Boom and the Steve Martin Father of the Bride movies) didn’t use David Swift’s script from the 1961 original—which would two and a half decades later spawn three made-for-cable sequels. (And before all that it was actually a 1953 British film called Twice Upon a Time.) But this Disney remake follows the Disney original pretty closely. But that’s okay because this is after all a movie for kids and everyone knows that kids want new stuff instead of hand-me-downs. I don’t know if young Lindsay Lohan has the same exotic appeal that England’s Hayley Mills had for us young boys in the early 1960s, but it is for someone far younger than I to deal with that question. I can say, however, that Natasha Richardson is just swell in the old Maureen O’Hara role. Always ravishing, she seems to have now matured into Emma Thompson. (And that’s a very good thing.) The film’s unlikely story is still good fun because it plays on so many childhood fantasies: having a twin, finding out your real father has a cool ranch in northern California, finding out your real mother is a glamorous woman in a big city, and (most poignantly) having your divorced parents get back together. In a nice touch, Polly Holliday’s camp counselor is called Marva Kulp, after the late wonderful Nancy Kulp in the original. (Seen 21 December 1998)

Paris Brûle-t-il? (Is Paris Burning?) 3 out of 4 stars

When Americans think of the 1944 liberation of Paris, the images that come to mind are of Yanks rolling into the city to the cheers of residents and copious kisses from French women. This sprawling extravaganza by René Clément (Les Maudits, Jeux Interdits, Plein Soleil) has that all right, but it also recounts that the Americans and the Resistance had some real fighting to do in taking the city and that France’s timeless capital very nearly was razed as an act of spite by Hitler. Released two decades after the events, the nearly-three-hour black-and-white movie has the feel of a docudrama. Filmed on the actual locations, all of Paris seems to be one giant soundstage. Seemingly every big French star of the day has a role. Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo are busy organizing the Resistance. Jean-Louis Trintignant crosses the German lines to convince the Yanks not to bypass Paris on their way to the Rhine. Simone Signoret shows up running a café and letting everyone use her phone. And I haven’t even mentioned Yves Montand, Leslie Caron, Claude Dauphin and Jean-Pierre Cassel. It gets more surreal. Orson Welles is the Swedish consul Nordling. Kirk Douglas is General Patton. Robert Stack is General Sibert. Glenn Ford is Omar Bradley. Hey look, there’re Anthony Perkins and George Chakiris as soldiers. Oh yeah, and the head German in the city is Gert Fröbe, who two years earlier was the titular villain in Goldfinger. Yes, in the end, it is one long string of star turns and a bit of mythmaking. But it is also quite a powerful and moving lesson about traumatic events that happened not that long ago. The emotional impact is heightened by Maurice Jarre’s deceptively simple and hauntingly Parisian musical theme. The impact for me personally was all the greater upon realizing that I actually met the real-life character played by Alain Delon. After Jacques Chaban-Delmas was a young general for the Resistance, he served as prime minister and, while I was a student in France, was a candidate for president. He was also mayor of Bordeaux for 48 years, in which capacity he hosted a vin d’honneur for foreign students which I attended. And, no, there was no indication at the time that he was ever as young or as pretty as Alain Delon. This would definitely make a very good day-long double bill with Les Misérables. (Seen 1 June 2013)

Paris Was a Woman 3 out of 4 stars

If you’re interested at all in early 20th century arts and literature and, in particular, the Lost Generation, you should find this documentary fascinating. Using extensive archival film and audio clips, as well as interviews with historians, it traces the path of a community of women who came together in Paris between the two world wars. The group included the Americans Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas as well as the publishers and booksellers Adriene Monnier and Sylvia Beach, the journalist Janet Flanner (who wrote for The New Yorker for decades under the name of Genet), and the novelist Djuna Barnes. Less time is devoted to the writer Colette and the singer Josephine Baker. The film is alternately enlightening, inspiring, gossipy, and entertaining. (Seen 17 May 1996)

Paris When It Sizzles 2 out of 4 stars

What is the act of writing if not an attempt at seduction? The writer’s words are intended to seduce the reader (on the page) or the audience (on the movie screen). This 1964 flick attempts to take that seduction concept fairly literally, as middle-aged disenchanted Hollywood hack William Holden attempts one more seduction of both his self-indulgent producer (plummy Noël Coward) and the game young woman assigned to do his typing—the immortal Audrey Hepburn at her most comely. The idea is that Holden’s cynical scribe, holed up in a flat with a balcony view of the Eiffel Tower, has writer’s block and is relying on the assistant assigned to him to work out improbable scenarios—as depicted in fantasy sequences that traverse the spy, vampire and even western genres. Inside jokes abound, including references to Hepburn’s other movie of the same year, My Fair Lady, and her hit of a few years earlier, Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The biggest in joke, though, is the extended cameo appearances by an uncredited Tony Curtis, clearly enjoying jokes at his own expense in the fantasy bits. Unfortunately, the banter is not nearly as witty or diverting as it is meant to be, and the cast are having way more fun than the audience. This is more or less a remake of the 1952 French film La Fête à Henriette, which is renowned for its meta-narrative tricks, a feat attempted here somewhat less felicitously by adapter George Axelrod. His other Hollywood adaptations include the aforementioned Breakfast at Tiffany’s as well as The Seven Year Itch and The Manchurian Candidate. For stateside audiences the chief pleasures of the flick were probably the scenic photography of Cannes and Paris locations—not to mention the glorious Ms. Hepburn. (Seen 24 March 2017)

The Parting (The Farewell) 2 out of 4 stars

A Soviet film about a 300-year-old island village that has to be abandoned because it is going to be flooded for a hydroelectric project. Some of the older people take it kind of hard. Just imagine My Sweet Little Village with screenplay by William Shakespeare and directed by Ingmar Bergman. (Seen 16 May 1987)

The Party 3 out of 4 stars

Something I don’t like to talk about much is the fact that, for too many years of my young life, I was madly in love with Claudine Longet. I know she always had a really annoying singing voice, but what can I say? I was even willing to wait out her marriage to the singer Andy Williams. I think it was when she shot her lover dead that I finally was able to move on emotionally. Anyway, this movie gave her the absolute best role of her non-stellar film career, but that’s a mere footnote. This is the movie that Blake Edwards and Peter Sellers made instead of the third Pink Panther movie—which was directed the same year (1968) unsuccessfully by Bud Yorkin, with Alan Arkin as Inspector Clouseau. On the surface, The Party appears to be more of the same, with Sellers playing an Indian bumbler instead of a French one. But it is much more than that. Sellers’s Hrundi V. Bakshi is an everyman/clown in the grand tradition that goes all the way back to Charlie Chaplin. The situations he gets himself into are just close enough to embarrassing incidents in our own lives that we identify and sympathize with him entirely—even though events tend to escalate to impossibly dramatic levels. But, as a non-American, he is a detached observer of 1960s Los Angeles, and in this way The Party is a direct precursor to Edwards’s 1981 poison pen letter to the entertainment industry, S.O.B.. There is much skewering here of movie business foibles, notably in the person of a sleazy jerk producer played by Gavin MacLeod. While Sellers clearly dominates the comedy (a friend who grew up in India tells me that his portrayal is flawless), it is worth noting that he is not the primary, or even secondary, agent of chaos that makes the titular party the disaster of the social season. There is, after all, the little matter of the hosts’ college student daughter and her friends with the elephant. And, most delightfully, there is the disaster-spawning waiter, who surreptitiously imbibes most of the drinks he is supposed to be serving the guests. He is played by Steve Franken, who will be best remembered as the snobby Chatsworth Osborne Jr. on the classic TV series The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. Movies like this can be frustrating for people with short attention spans. But everyone else should more than content to watch a wonderful ensemble of masters of satire and slapstick at work. (Seen 12 May 2006)

Party Girl 1 out of 4 stars

The program notes describe Mary (played by Parker Posey) as a Holly Golightly for the ‘90s. That well may be, although this film is not exactly Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Mary doesn’t need George Peppard to come along and straighten her out. She decides on her own that what she really wants to be is a librarian. Along the way on this journey of self-discovery we get to go to a lot of parties and meet a lot of strange and/or interesting people—some of whom are concerned by Mary’s frivolous ways. But not to worry. The whole cast comes together at the end (at a party, where else?) and everything works out. Like a lot of parties, this movie is a pleasurable enough place to be for a couple of hours, but it may not stand out in your memory from a lot of others you’ve been to. (Seen 3 June 1995)

La Pasión Turca (Turkish Passion) 0 out of 4 stars

When we first meet Desi, she seems like a nice, sensible, virginal young woman who is about to get married. By the end of the film, she has, uh, changed. She and her nice but boring husband make the mistake of going off on a holiday to Istanbul. Desi has no sooner stepped on Turkish soil when she swoons and is overtaken by strange new feelings. Minutes later she is going at it with the guide in the tour bus while everyone else is in a café having coffee. Things go down hill from there. Turkish Passion, directed by Vincente Aranda (The Lovers), resembles nothing so much as one of those old Emmannuelle movies. It also begs the question: What kind of married person finds out they are sterile and decides to keep it a secret just so they can use it in an argument someday? (Seen 1 June 1996)

Pas în doi (Paso Doble) 2 out of 4 stars

This is sort of a Romanian Heartbreak Kid. The film is framed by shots through a long corridor of a back lit young man in fencing gear. By the last shot, be has gone through hell (albeit a hell of his own making). Mihai is a young factory worker who is pretty darn cute. His hobbies include fencing, playing the flute, and making love to his girlfriend while listening to Haydn. He shares a room with Ghita in the workers hostel. Ghita, who looks like a slimmed down version of Avery Schreiber, is anything but smooth. When he tries to speak in public, he gets totally tongue-tied and then winds up giving the speech he meant to give later, standing in the shower with all his clothes on. Ghita is hopelessly smitten with an unwed mother/co-worker named Maria. But when she meets Mihai, she falls for him and he for her. Not that he lets this interfere with his stumbling into a vague betrothal with his other girlfriend. This film is unmistakably Eastern European. Workers committees and organizations provide the context for the action. But there are some surprisingly Western-looking aspects. In the park, a jogger wearing earphones passes. The workers all go to a disco, where Mihai and Ghita do a pretty wild rap while manning the turntables. The camera angles, editing, and use of music reminded me of nothing so much as Miami Vice (at least during its first couple of seasons). The cumulative effect of this film was strangely potent, and somehow it managed to do the best job I have seen of capturing what it is like to be male and single. (Seen 20 May 1987)

Pasolini: un Delitto Italiano (Who Killed Pasolini?) 2 out of 4 stars

One of my festival-going buddies described this film as “Italian Oliver Stone” and that pretty much sums it up. Director Marco Tullio Giordana doesn’t quite have Stone’s stylish flair, but it’s the same general idea as JFK and Nixon. Recreate history and throw out lots of major hints of a mysterious conspiracy. When Pier Paolo Pasolini was bludgeoned to death 20 years ago, the conventional wisdom was that his penchant for picking up teenage boys finally did him in. This film suggests the controversial fim director was set up, probably at the behest of neo-fascists. One has to ask, however: if there is indeed convincing proof of this, why not do a documentary instead of a dramatic recreation? On the other hand, given recent revelations of what was going on in Italy at the time, anything is possible. Fittingly, the film ends with all the evidence being locked away in a basement in a scene that could have been lifted directly from The X-Files! (Seen 18 May 1996)

The Passion of Ayn Rand 2 out of 4 stars

As with any good title, The Passion of Ayn Rand can be taken more than one way. There is, of course, Rand’s intellectual passion, which made her a cult figure for her objectivist philosophy, which basically said that selfishness is a good thing. And there is also her romantic passion, as this made-for-Showtime-cable-channel biopic recounts her longtime affair with a devoted disciple. The best thing about the film is Helen Mirren’s chameleon-like performance in the title role and Peter Fonda’s understated turn as Rand’s constant and supportive husband. Fonda has the best line, in the movie’s final reel, when he stirs from a drunken stupor to utter, “I don’t understand any of it. I never have,” thereby producing laughter and a bit of relief from the audience, which largely feels the same way. Director Christopher Menaul, who worked with Mirren on the Prime Suspect TV series, creates a wonderfully moody atmosphere for this intriguing tale of fanaticism and snobism among intellectuals. There is something fascinating about watching people speak so passionately about “honesty” and “corruption” when all they’re really doing is manipulating others. (Seen 18 May 1999)

The Passion of the Christ 3 out of 4 stars

I have always thought it would be interesting if someone would make a docudrama about the last hours of Jesus’s life, i.e. a Missiles of October-style rigorously realistic re-creation, based on all that is known historically about the events and time and place. When I read months ago that Mel Gibson was making The Passion of the Christ in Aramaic and Latin, I thought perhaps this is what he was doing. It turns out that he wasn’t, but Gibson has made a stunning film in any event. Gibson does conscientiously follow the texts of the New Testament, but visually he has chosen to evoke the look of the 17th-century Italian painter Caravaggio, who was a very gifted painter but not exactly a contemporary eye-witness to Jesus’s execution. Jesus is played by an American, Jim Caviezel, who is made to look like most paintings we have seen of Jesus for hundreds of years. All the other roles are played by Europeans. There is, of course, no way for us to know what Jesus actually looked like, but as a native of Palestine, he probably didn’t look exactly like the European versions that have been handed down for centuries. So, what we have here is one more feature film interpretation, with Gibson following in the footsteps of such filmmakers as Cecil B. DeMille, George Stevens, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Martin Scorsese, who previously tackled the story on film. What is interesting is how much a Hollywood film this is. The greatest impact on the viewer comes from the sheer violence of Jesus’s flogging, carrying of the cross and the crucifixion. But it’s not a “realistic” violence that creates the sensation of witnessing the punishment. Rather, it uses all the standard Hollywood techniques (gory make-up, close-ups, slow motion, exaggerated sound effects, etc.) to make the viewer feel the punishment. It’s safe to say that for Christians who take communion, after seeing this film, the phrase “blood of Christ” will never be quite the same. But, while the violence has gotten most of the attention, it’s not the whole movie. Jesus’s message of forgiveness comes through. And, if the film makes us feel the violence, it also makes us feel the love, particularly of Jesus’s mother Mary, through the powerfully effective use of brief flashbacks. In the end, Gibson has succeeded at what all good filmmakers, indeed all good storytellers, do. He has taken a very old and familiar tale and made it seem brand new. [Related commentary] (Seen 7 March 2004)

Patch Adams 2 out of 4 stars

This is a strangely old-fashioned movie and not just because its rare and stark moments of sex and violence occur completely off-screen. Patch Adams belongs to a film genre we don’t see much anymore except in some made-for-television fare: an admiring, uncritical biography of a living person, in this case a virtual hagiography of a practitioner of unorthodox medical theories. Adams’s antics would seem to be ideal fodder for Robin Williams’s manic improvisational style of humor, but there is something distasteful about a movie that goes for emotional impact by focusing on sick and dying children and adults as a grateful audience for Williams’s essentially self-indulgent gags. Still, the film is a chance to get welcome but brief glimpses of such seasoned actors as Harold Gould and the late Richard Kiley. But mostly, watching Patch Adams is like seeing familiar film classics in a parallel universe. It’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with the McMurphy character coming out triumphant. It’s Animal House with God on the side of the frat boys. It’s Miracle on 34th Street with Kris Kringle self-righteously campaigning for the right to do shtick. (Seen 13 March 1999)

4 luni, 3 saptamani si 2 zile (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) 3 out of 4 stars

It took a night’s sleep for me to appreciate how good this film really is. It is a disturbing movie that will push a lot of hot buttons because of its straight-ahead treatment of the subject of abortion. Moreover, after a deceptively slow start, it is harrowing and anxiety-inducing. It was a critics’ favorite at Cannes this year and ended up taking the Palme d’Or. The lead actor, Anamaria Marinca, gives one of those understated performances, typical of European cinema, as we watch her go from plucky to exploited and violated to emotionally overwhelmed. Written and directed by Cristian Mungiu, the movie is set in 1987 Romania, a place and time when abortion was outlawed. A Hollywood movie could never address this subject matter so directly and, even if it could, it’s hard to imagine that it would take such an emotionally involved yet politically detached view. It is to Mungiu’s credit that he does not sanitize or whitewash the story. Nor does he make any overt political case that I can see. It is easy to see partisans on both sides of the abortion debate using this film to make their case. And maybe that is the point. Both sides have their merits, and the answer isn’t necessarily clear-cut as either side would like to believe. I notice that this film has also received the Cinema Prize of the French National Education System, which makes a fair amount of sense. It is hard to imagine anyone seeing this movie and not being henceforth extremely careful about their birth control options. (Seen 17 October 2007)

Paul Monette: The Brink of Summer’s End 3 out of 4 stars

This is easily the most touching documentary I have seen about a gay activist since 1984’s The Times of Harvey Milk. The film is a labor of love by Monte Bramer who worked on it over a period of two and a half years in addition to his regular film editing job. It is an amazingly intimate portrait of National Book Award winner Paul Monette and a unsparing chronicle of his last years. Monette’s dream was always to be a writer, but ironically he didn’t find his artistic voice until he was confronted personally with the AIDS crisis. Then he became a poet and spokesman for an entire community. But it’s the human story in this film that is compelling. By the end, you feel as though you have known this man and his intimates and you thereby feel a loss. (Seen 17 May 1997)

Pavee Lackeen 2 out of 4 stars

This is the sort of movie that film festival programmers live for. It is socially important, is somewhat provocative politically and pushes all the right emotional buttons. Director Perry Ogden planned to make a fictional film about a homeless boy who is befriended by Travellers, Ireland’s gypsy community. Odgen cast real Travellers, and as things progressed, he wound up chucking the main character and plotline and found it more compelling to make a barely fictionalized film about the Travellers themselves. The star is 10-year-old Winnie Maughan, along with her mother Rose and various other family and community members. The movie is interesting but, strangely, it is not nearly as interesting as I thought it would be. Ogden seems to be striving for the modern Irish equivalent of The Grapes of Wrath, as we watch Winnie’s family slip a bit in the course of the film further to the margins of society. I think Irish and Europeans are meant to watch Winnie and Rose’s various interactions with social workers, activists and council functionaries and pity them for their plight. As an American, I watched and was impressed with how much help and support was actually available to this community—particularly compared to comparable people in the U.S. In an early scene, Rose is offered public housing in one of several locations, but she rejects all of them because they aren’t in the location she prefers. Meanwhile, Winnie visits a number of shops operated by non-Irish immigrants. One wonders why someone recently arrived from eastern Europe or Africa seems to be getting a foothold on the Irish economic ladder and the Travellers, who have been in Ireland for ages, do not. The film not only offers no possible answer but doesn’t even seem to be interested in the question. (Seen 8 July 2005)

Peaches 2 out of 4 stars

It’s strange to see an Irish film that isn’t about Ireland or the Irish. (It’s is set in England.) But then we’ve seen enough movies about Ireland that were made by Brits or Yanks, so I suppose turnabout is fair play. Nick Grasso’s film is adapted from a play, so it’s no surprise that it consists essentially of a series of conversations. Frank, Johnny and Pete are out of school but aren’t quite ready for things like jobs or long-term commitments. They are more comfortable with going to pubs and discos and discussing “peaches,” a slang term for chicks. This theme makes Peaches something of a cousin to the low-budget American film Freak Talks About Sex. As with that film, you either enjoy the running conversations of these not-quite-mature young men or you don’t. You certainly don’t watch a film like this to see major character growth. The star is Welsh actor Matthew Rhys, who ended up as a meal in Titus. (Seen 14 June 2001)

Pearl Harbor 2 out of 4 stars

So, what happens when the action/violence/testosterone team of Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay meets the Disney company? Well, basically you get Titanic with massive explosions. After The Perfect Storm, this movie now makes it official. The formula for blockbusters is now to take a well-known historical catastrophe, spending a couple of hours building suspense for this well-known disaster by telling a love story, let all hell break loose and sink a ship (or two or twenty), and have an emotional ending about all the people that were lost. Make no mistake. The recreated attack on Pearl Harbor is as powerful and exciting as anything you will ever see in a movie. But the creators of The Rock and Armageddon giving us a tender love story? Puh-leeze. It seems to take forever to get to the attack. And, according to this movie, the entire U.S. military spent 100% of their time during the months leading up to it agonizing over what the Japanese were “up to” and still couldn’t figure it out. The reason Titanic worked in spite of its sappy love story is that James Cameron obviously had a deep emotional involvement in the ship’s story and that came through loud and clear. Bruckheimer and Bay may have similar feelings about Pearl Harbor, but aside from impressive special effects what we mainly get are random facts thrown in for the sake of authenticity. Oh yeah, and that sappy love story. Geez, guys. We were primed to expect a macho war film, and you went all weepy and limp-wristed on us. (Seen 25 May 2001)

Pédale Douce (What a Drag!) 2 out of 4 stars

Pédale Douce, directed by Gabriel Aghion, is more or less an update to La Cage aux Folles. Actually, it wouldn’t even qualify as update except that there is a brief scene, included as if an afterthought, involving an HIV test. Otherwise, we have every limp-wristed gay cliché trotted out (along with the occasional unfortunate line like, “Straights are just guys we haven’t met yet”) for another comedy about gays pretending to be straight, straights being taken for gay, etc. In the end, this is just another one of those silly French sex comedies that lurches from one situation to another, sometimes with a comic payoff and sometimes without. The best thing about the movie is Fanny Ardant, who usually seems consigned to overwrought and/or costume drama roles. Here she radiates and hams it up as Eva, the flamboyant proprietress of one of those impossibly outrageous, hip and happening gay-oriented restaurant/discos that seem fairly commonplace in the movies. (Seen 18 May 1997)

Penelope 2 out of 4 stars

What could be a better icky family? We have the weird little girl from The Addams Family, Christina Ricci. As her mother we have the very funny Catherine O’Hara, who was creepy Macauley Culkin’s mother in Home Alone. And for a dad we have the insane Richard E. Grant from Withnail & I. But the writing was on the wall when O’Hara was a guest on Jay Leno’s show before the movie opened in the US. It’s a great movie for teenage girls, Leno kept saying, in his kindest, and therefore most damning, way. In fairness, Penelope is in no way as bad as a lot of critics have made out. But it feels strangely less than heartfelt, even though this is for once a case where the ultimately trite message (it is important to love yourself) is one that Hollywood can actually sincerely embrace. Maybe it’s because the real, unstated message is that it’s so hard to be an object of public scrutiny and constantly be measured against physical perfection. Reese Witherspoon is one of the producers and has a secondary role. The acting standout is James McAvoy who, like most of the Brits in the cast, inexplicably speaks with a (in his case, very good) North American accent, even though the film was clearly shot in London. (Seen 3 March 2008)

Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief 2 out of 4 stars

Unfortunately, this movie fell into a difficult spot marketing-wise. It had a ready-made fan base of the series of books by Rick Riordan—but not one large enough to motivate the studios to fund the slavish fidelity in the adaption as in the cases of the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter movies. So the most rabid fans were put off by the changes and omissions, while newbies may well have had trouble following the many details and plot strands that did survive. Anyway the movie, while good fun, clearly lacks the careful attention that the first Harry Potter movies got—even though this has the same director, Chris Columbus. The classy supporting cast (the likes of Sean Bean, Pierce Brosnan, Kevin McKidd, Catherine Keener) generally seem bored but presumably happy with their paychecks. The young leads (Logan Lerman, Alexandra Daddario and the well cast Brandon T. Jackson), on the other hand, make up for it with their enthusiasm. But if anything highlights the problem with the movie, it is the casting of Steve Coogan as Hades. Coogan is extremely entertaining, but his participation guarantees that the movie can’t be taken seriously. My kid lamented the absence of the war god Ares (truly a major omission and change to the thrust of the story), but it’s probably just as well. Columbus might have cast Robin Williams in the role. (Seen 5 February 2011)

The Perfect Match 2 out of 4 stars

What the heck is this? A contemporary comedy about single people in the 1980s trying to have a relationship… with no sex in it? Yes, it’s true! Tim and Nancy are two single people in L.A. who are at that scary age of 29. Tim (Mark McClure, Jimmy Olsen in the Superman movies) works in a large corporation and isn’t sure what he’s supposed to be doing there. His active life mainly includes watching basketball games on TV. Nancy (Jennifer Edwards, Blake’s daughter) is a bookworm and perpetual student (she has 503 units out of the 180 required for graduation) with a nothing job in a video store. The plot is familiar. They each have the requisite best friend giving them lots of bad advice. Through an improbable series of events, Tim places a personal ad that describes the perfect single male, and Nancy answers it. They both pretend to be what they are not: rich, interesting, cultured, athletic. They go on a hilarious weekend trip into the mountains to do things neither has ever done before, hoping the other doesn’t notice: skiing, horseback riding, tennis, backpacking. It’s all predictable but very well done and there are a lot of very funny moments. This is another one of those low-budget, independent Hollywood films which are often such pleasant surprises. Unfortunately, I fear they may have to dub a few dirty words into the soundtrack so they can at least get a PG rating if they hope to get a distributor. (Seen 3 June 1987)

The Perfect Storm 3 out of 4 stars

German director Wolfgang Petersen enthralled us with his classic undersea thriller Das Boot in 1981 (and also provided a few choice moments in the more standard 1997 flick Air Force One). Now he gives us another thriller, this time on the surface of the ocean, and it is a real doozy. I suppose that it is inevitable, after the mega-success of Titanic, that we would get an effects-laden, true-life sea disaster epic full of romance and poignancy. The early scenes in Gloucester, Massachusetts, are so full of emotional pathos and foreboding that we keep looking for Leonard DiCaprio to win a place on the Andrea Gail in a poker game. While the scenes with the loved ones waiting anxiously for news are the weakest, the film sinks or swims based on the excitement of its storm scenes, and in this regard it delivers, comparing well with the memorable tempest in Ridley Scott’s White Squall. The Perfect Storm is at its best and its most exciting when it is (closely) following such actual events as the rescue of the passengers of the sailing boat Mistral and the ditching of a rescue helicopter. There is something morbid, on the other hand, about the final scenes of the Andrea Gail‘s crew, since it is pure speculation about real people. But George Clooney and crew give it all they’ve got as a group of men who refuse to give up hope no matter how desperate things get. (Seen 30 June 2000)

The Perks of Being a Wallflower 2 out of 4 stars

Any mainstream movie about teenagers automatically gets extra points when it treats them more or less as real people instead of hormone-crazed caricatures. On the other hand, serious movies about teens—as this one is—tend to emphasize adolescent self-absorption by giving their protagonists really tough issues to deal with (cf. The Fault in Our Stars in which the main characters have cancer). Like TFiOS this flick is adapted from a popular YA novel, and it is in fact written for the screen and directed by the book’s author, Stephen Chbosky. The cast is high-wattage with Logan Lerman convincingly playing awkward freshman Charlie and Ezra Miller and Emma Watson as the hip seniors who befriend him. Familiar actors like Paul Rudd and Joan Cusack have supporting roles. It seems as though movies like this must have a list of boxes to tick (friend who commits suicide, friend who is gay, introduction to drugs), and this one at least makes it all feel as though it is happening naturally. The emotional impact is largely invested in a final-reel reveal that ends up seeming strangely beside the point. Instead the film’s main attraction is investment in characters we care about. In the end, the strongest part of the story is an amusing and bittersweet sequence in which Charlie gets drawn into a relationship with a girl whom he’s not really that into. That is when the film is at its most real. (Seen 2 July 2014)

Permanent 2 out of 4 stars

With a sizeable and diverse cast and enough plot threads to fill several episodes of a TV miniseries, Permanent comfortably packs a lot into its 99-minute running time. Written and directed by John Mosetich (Benjamin Jones is credited with concept planning), this flick picked up an Indie Spirit Special Recognition Award at the recent Boston International Film Festival, and it’s easy to see why. Made with a budget of under $15,000, it looks absolutely great—not least because the cinematographer is Ken Willinger, whose c.v. includes a fair amount of documentary and TV work, including Nova and The Daily Show. Every frame draws in the eye and makes good use of the well-chosen cast. A near-constant musical soundtrack complements the images and maintains a compelling mood throughout. Especially impressive, given its limited budget, are the occasional stunt scenes and makeup effects. They never look cheap, as often happens with scarce resources. Rather, they come off as natural and realistic. The story involves a mob boss played, alternatively with malevolence and pathos, by Jim Powers. Those in his orbit—or trying to get into his orbit—meet and interact in often unexpected ways. The heart and soul of the story, though, are the two junkies played by standouts Marie Blaise and Erica Derrickson. Also very good are Anna Rizzo, as Harry’s main squeeze who knows how to manipulate him even as she’s two-timing him, and Benjamin Jones as the young guy who doesn’t liked to be called “kid.” The screenplay keeps viewers on their toes with its twists and turns and well-played red herrings. While the tone is generally melodramatic, the film has a subtle sense of humor that becomes more pronounced toward the end. There are also some moments of effectively genuine tension. The denouement is almost Shakespearean (at one point there’s a nice throwaway nod to Hamlet) but then changes tone again for a end-credits sequence that appears to pay homage to 1970s cop shows. After it has had its run on the film festival circuit, let’s hope that it can get a release that puts it in front of more audiences. [Related commentary] (Seen 4 May 2016)

Personal Foul 2 out of 4 stars

Like so many films at the film festival, this is a nice, low-budget U.S. movie looking for a distributor. It stars David Morse (St. Elsewhere) as a guy living out of his pick-up truck and Alan Arkin’s son Adam as a grade school teacher who befriends him when they meet on a basketball court in a park. Jeremy (Arkin) can’t Show His Feelings, which is driving his quasi-girlfriend up the wall, so she makes a play for Ben (Morse) to make him jealous. The comedy is low-key, and the people are all nice and decent. And the kids in Jeremy’s class act like real kids (gulp). The director was there to discuss it afterwards, and he said that so far no distributor has wanted to pick up the film because it didn’t have a “hook,” meaning it’s not like some other movie that’s made a lot of money. Too bad. (Seen 25 May 1987)

Personal Services 2 out of 4 stars

This is a very British comedy by Terry Jones, of Monty Python fame. But this is definitely not a Monty Python movie. There are Python-esque bits of humor in it all right. Julie Waters (Educating Rita) is a feisty waitress, who winds up becoming the madame of very successful brothel (despite some amazing sexual naïveté). This is not a slapstick farce. There are serious moments. But the last part is devoted to a lot of kinkily funny moments. Sex in this movie is mostly portrayed by having elderly men dress up like little girls or schoolboys. The point seems to be: these people aren’t hurting anybody, so why hassle them? The tag line is one old geezer’s proclamation: “The future is kinky people.” (Seen 30 May 1987)

The Pest 1 out of 4 stars

This flick has a title that sounds like a Jerry Lewis movie and a star (John Leguizamo) who makes himself look strangely like Jim Carrey. But this is yet another live-action cartoon, this time with Leguizamo in the Bugs Bunny/Daffy Duck role and Jeffrey “Does anyone even remember he was once in a classy movie like Amadeus?” Jones in the Elmer Fudd/Yosemite Sam role. In addition to lots of silly action aimed at an adolescent mentality, there is something here to offend everyone. In fact, the ethnic lampooning is so rampant that it almost becomes a positive statement on society’s increasing sensitivity to stereotypes. A nice touch along these lines is the kilted Scottish mobsters that pursue Leguizamo. Also, on the positive side, is the fact that one scene features the little-known lyrics to the Bonanza theme song. Of course, in keeping with the spirit of the movie, they are sung with a really bad Japanese accent using a karaoke machine. (Seen 19 February 1997)

Peter Pan [1953] 3 out of 4 stars

It’s hard to believe that it’s been a half-century since Disney released this animated classic. The question now is whether it will be eclipsed by the new live-action version by P.J. Hogan, promised at year’s end. The trailer for that one definitely looks promising. Meanwhile, the Disney adaptation of the ageless play still holds up, apart from some embarrassing racial stereotyping of injuns, I mean, Native Americans. I suppose we could cut the film some slack since Neverland was always meant to be an Enlishman’s idea of a young (white) boy’s fantasy, complete with pirates and mermaids. In hindsight, it is interesting to see how some of the movie’s themes were echoed in later Disney films, such as the whole pirate adventure thing in the current Pirates of the Caribbean or the magical-visitor-visiting-a-London-family-whose-stodgy-father-is-out-of-to uch-with-his-children thing in Mary Poppins. Peter Pan has been especially poignant to watch for the past 35 years because the title character’s voice and mannerisms belong to Bobby Driscoll, the gifted child actor who also starred (onscreen) in Disney’s Song of the South and Treasure Island. What a bitter twist that the quintessential boy who didn’t want to grow up was played by a boy whose life was a misery once he outgrew child roles and who died alone and anonymous 27 days after his 31st birthday. (Seen 16 August 2003)

Peter Pan [2003] 3 out of 4 stars

I have decided that, whenever a filmmaker declares that his remake is going to be truer to the roots of the book or play he is adapting than previous versions, it really means that he is going to drag the material by force into whatever century or decade the filmmaker is currently residing. P.J. Hogan’s version of the classic Peter Pan story has all the trappings of how we like to remember Victorian England (in movies anyway), but the film’s fantastic illusions are jarred from time to time with science-fiction-like special effects. Still, there are wondrous images to behold, and we really do believe (most of the time) that Peter can truly fly. For children (old enough not be terrified of the pirates and a very large crocodile), the story is simply a fantasy adventure. We adults bring more baggage, since the story is essentially a psychodrama about the difficulty of leaving childhood behind—not to mention the fact that nasty Capt. Hook and repressed papa are, er, the same person. Indeed, the years have piled even more baggage on poor Pan. Our attitudes and sensitivities toward children and other cultures (i.e. Native Americans) have changed, and Pan’s very name has been appropriated for the syndrome of men not wanting to take on adult responsibilities. (And let’s not even get started on what has happened to the name Neverland.) Hogan actually attempts to subtly incorporate these new resonances, and in the end, makes a movie that may be more fulfilling and challenging for adults than for their kids. Jason Isaacs (who is already known to kids as a fantastical villain in the Harry Potter movies, as the elder Malfoy) makes a fine Capt. Hook and Mr. Darling. In the end, Hogan’s version of Peter Pan really owes more to the Disney version that he (or his lawyers) would probably care to admit. Not the least of these touches is the decision to make the boy who lures three Victorian English children out their bedroom window decidedly American. (Seen 14 January 2004)

La Petite Lola (Clubbed to Death) 1 out of 4 stars

It would be an easy shot to say that the title of this film describes what it does to the viewer. As it happens, the title Clubbed to Death is a play on words where the verb “to club” can mean either “to beat viciously” or “to hang out in dance clubs in slum areas of urban France and get involved with drug addicted Arabs who lead futile lives, have lousy relationships and fight the odd brutal boxing match for cash.” Clubbed to Death is also the name of one of the numerous techno-pop songs that throb on the soundtrack. Director Yolande Zauberman has created a dark, depressing vision of a particular French milieu. In its opening scenes, the film looks as though it might be a French After Hours, but in the end it is as aimless and pointless as its characters’ lives. (Seen 24 January 1998)

Peyote 2 out of 4 stars

When we meet Pablo, he is at loose ends. A spoiled and pampered student, he has been left at home alone by his parents, who have gone off to the beach. The fact that he is poised between childhood and adulthood is signaled by the way he goes from enthusiastic play with his toy robots to innuendo in online chatting with his girlfriend. Later, hanging around the park near his school, he meets Marco, who is a few years older and clearly doesn’t have much going on either. On an impulse the pair decide to take off in Marco’s car on a road trip to Real de Catorce, a sort-of ghost town in north central Mexico that has become something of a religious and New Age destination. As the ostensible purpose is to locate the titular hallucinogenic cactus, the film puts us in mind of Sebastián Silva’s Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus. But the social, class and sexual tensions that are spurred by the journey remind us a bit of Alfonso Cuarón’s Y Tu Mamá También. It should come as no surprise that emotions, insecurities and unfinished business are laid bare or that the two make profound discoveries about themselves in the abandon and relentlessness of the desert heat. While the actors (Joe Diazzi and Carlos Luque) do not benefit from the burgeoning star power of the young Diego Luna and Gael García Bernal, they do have more than enough wattage and credibility for this small production, which was reportedly shot over five weekends. One scene in particular, where the two do nothing more than stare at length into each other’s eyes, is particularly impressive. The director, Omar Flores Sarabia, co-wrote with Sabdyel Almazán. [Shameless plug! If are into stories about young men on a life-altering road trip in Mexico, have I got a book for you!] (Seen 11 March 2016)

The Phantom of the Opera 2 out of 4 stars

The history of Hollywood is littered with big successful musicals that did not duplicate their success on the big screen. Perhaps this is because the film director has the difficult, if not impossible, task of finding the sweet spot between the crowd who want the movie to look and/or sound just like the stage production and/or soundtrack recording and the crowd who do not. In fairness, this 2004 adaptation of the celebrated Andrew Lloyd Webber musical looks pretty good. One wonders if Joel Schumacher, a director not normally associated with musicals, was using the opportunity to make good on his promise to give Batman fans the movie they had wanted and which he didn’t deliver with Batman & Robin. This is a case where the problems are really with the material itself and not with the mounting. The real star of Phantom is the music and, as for the story, not that much really happens and there is quite a bit of repetition. And that is much more of a problem for a movie than for a stage performance. Still, this flick is by no means a waste of time and some scenes, notably the monochrome epilog moments, are quite lovely. The cast gives us a chance to see a number of actors not usually known for singing, led by Gerard Butler (a couple of years before 300) and including Emmy Rossum, Patrick Wilson, Miranda Richardson, Minnie Driver and as the two opera impresarios Ciarán Hinds and Simon Callow. (Seen 28 March 2015)

Phenomenon 2 out of 4 stars

For my money, the villain in Broken Arrow is still John Travolta’s best role. Phenomenon is a thankfully gentle movie that is somewhat similar to last year’s Powder except that the hero is older and has hair and the film wasn’t directed by a child molester. It is also reminiscent of the old Cliff Robertson starrer Charly. It is not particularly similar to Forrest Gump to which its ad campaign wants to compare it. On the positive side, the movie benefits from the capable presences of Robert Duvall and Forest Whitaker. It is also admirably restrained in terms of not resorting to a violent climax, which it easily could have. The syrup content of this tear-jerker, however, is high (particularly toward the end) with the sweetness level enhanced by a couple of adorable moppets playing Kyra Sedgwick’s kids. (Seen 7 July 1996)

Philomena 3 out of 4 stars

There are times when this touching true-life drama seems to be commenting on itself. When Steve Coogan confers with his editor in London (Game of Thrones’s Michelle Fairley) about whether the story he is writing would sell more copies with a happy or a sad ending, the movie has a definite meta-literary feel about it. Stephen Frears’s film gives us a choice of point-of-view characters. Coogan (best known for his vapid Alan Partridge character) is perfect for the cynical and snobbish (at least in the movie) journalist-turned-spin-doctor-turned-freelancer Martin Sixsmith. We can feel his barely contained condescension as Judi Dench’s Philomena Lee chatters on about how surprised she is by the final twist of her mass market paperback. The film makes her seem rather dim, quite a bit dimmer than she comes off on the Irish chat shows she has frequented since the movie’s release. But in the end she is the one who turns out to be triumphant and much more grounded (spiritually and every other way) than anyone Martin has ever met at any of his A list cocktail parties. Philomena’s story is an extraordinary one. It makes us aware of how much Ireland has changed in a relatively brief amount of time and, while it by no means lets the Catholic Church off the hook, it does a graceful job of putting those changes into some kind of perspective. In the end, Sixsmith did not have to choose between a happy or sad ending. Thanks to Philomena he got both. (Seen 16 March 2014)

Photos to Send: People to Go Back To 2 out of 4 stars

There is a voyeuristic appeal in having a gawk at people at two or more distant points in their lives and being able to do a side-by-side comparison. Michael Apted has exploited this sort of fascination with his every-seven-years documentary visits to a group of people in England in his 7 Up series (most recently in 42 Up). American filmmaker Dierdre Lynch pulls off a similar feat in her 1997 visit to Ireland’s County Clare. Her film’s title is taken from a scribbled note on a folder of black-and-white photos taken by the renowned photographer Dorothea Lange around Ennis in 1954. She tracks down the people in Lange’s photographs, and it is a testament to the attachment people in the west of Ireland feel for their land that a good many of them are still in the same place 43 years later. It would be nice to know a bit more about Lynch and how she decided to follow in Lange’s footsteps, but instead we can content ourselves with sharing her visits with these friendly Clare people of a certain age. In the interviews, she manages to elicit virtually all the major themes that characterize Ireland’s west: the trauma of a history marked by extreme poverty and mass emigration, the strange sensation of recently found affluence, reliance on and bitterness toward the Catholic Church, and above all that tenacious love and attachment to the land. We can easily see why Lange loved these people so much and desired to (but never did) go back to them. And why Lynch was so happy to complete the journey for her. (Seen 20 January 2002)

p 2 out of 4 stars

With its mathematics mumbo-jumbo and several scenes in the New York subway, this movie put me in mind of the wonderful Argentine student film Moebius. But the tone here is quite different and less satisfying. Its stark high-contrast black-and-white look and retro technology props suggest a vintage mad scientist movie. (Despite its frontier-of-science theme, math genius Max uses mid-century style keyboards and CRTs and even 5.25-inch floppy disks. Remember them?). p plays with some interesting ideas, like the possible relation between numeric patterns and God, and when does artificial intelligence become sentient? (There’s also some stuff about predicting the stock market; Max doesn’t seem to have heard about technical analysts.) But in the end it’s really another descent-into-paranoia story that suggests sometimes it’s best not to understand too much. (Apparently, a power drill in the temple can solve this nicely.) What really has Max alarmed, though, is the corporate executive who keeps chasing him, probably because she looks so much like the woman on the packages of Mavis Beacon typing software. Or maybe it’s the wide-eyed cult-leading orthodox rabbi who seems to be Burt Lancaster risen from the grave. Anyway, this is a more than respectable directing debut by Darren Aronofsky. (Seen 26 January 1999)

The Pianist 3 out of 4 stars

Every serious filmmaker with roots in Holocaust-era Europe seems to have an innate compulsion to make a film about history’s worst crime. Just as Steven Spielberg had to make Schindler’s List, French-born Polish director Roman Polanski (Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown) had to make this powerful film about German-occupied Warsaw. But where the American Spielberg recounts the Holocaust story by telling of a hero who saved many people, the European Polanski’s story is that of one man’s mere survival against overwhelming odds. Indeed, The Pianist (which garnered Oscars for Polanski’s direction, Ronald Harwood’s adaptation of Wladyslaw Szpilman’s memoir and Adrien Brody’s portrayal of Szpilman) is a harrowing chronicle of one man’s journey through an unimaginable hell. That he survived at all seems a miracle, if not a result of totally capricious chance—which got a boost from the fact that Szpilman was a gifted artist whose talent touched a variety of people at critical moments. The ultimate message of any Holocaust movie is: don’t let it happen ever again. The problem is that not everyone can agree on what “it” is. Is “it” the invasion of one country by another? Or is “it” the world standing by while a government machine terrorizes and kills civilians? Frankly, Holocaust movies are real downers, but we need to revisit these events from time to time to learn the lessons and to see the roots of the world we live in today. (Seen 30 April 2003)

The Picture of Dorian Gray 1 out of 4 stars

How time flies. It seems like just yesterday we were watching blond-haired moppet David Gallagher play child roles in movies like Look Who’s Talking Now and Phenomenon and on television series like 7th Heaven. Now he is old enough to convincingly play the privileged and beautiful man of this movie’s title, who leaves no hedonistic or bloodlusting stone unturned. Critically for the film, Gallagher is symmetrically pretty enough, in a not-yet-completely-wasted boyband sort of way, to pull off the role. The idea of the movie, directed by Duncan Roy, seems obvious in hindsight. Take Oscar Wilde’s classic tale and update it for the media-saturated and beauty-and-celebrity-obsessed 21st century. (Dorian’s picture is now a video installation.) And, while we’re at it, definitively remove the “sub” from the story’s gay subtext. The frantic edits, music soundtrack and visual-art approach make us think that this is how Baz Luhrmann might have approached the material. Which is unfortunate, because it makes us wish desperately that Luhrmann, instead of Roy, had approached the material. Because of the style, the narrative is a mess, offering incoherence under the guise of artiness. (On top of that, I’m pretty sure that, at the screening I saw, the projectionist was using the wrong lens.) That could be forgiven if it were at least interesting to watch most of the time. In the end, the film seems to be yet another indictment of what might henceforth be referred to as Larry Craig Syndrome. Dorian’s vanity and all his problems seem to ultimately stem from his refusal to come to terms with his own sexuality. (Seen 20 October 2007)

La Piel que habito (The Skin I Live In) 2 out of 4 stars

This is pure Almodóvar. Ostensibly, it is a thriller, but it is not that thrilling, at least in terms of the standard genre. Like all of Almodóvar’s movies, it is really a melodrama. Long-time Almodóvar collaborator-turned-international-star Antonio Banderas plays a brilliant surgeon, who has been applying an artificial skin he has invented to a mysterious woman. We learn that she is a dead ringer for his dead wife, which raises the question: could she actually be his wife, somehow reanimated? Or perhaps their daughter who, we are told, took her own life? Or is her identity even stranger? While not keeping us exactly on the edge of our seat, the filmmaker does pique our curiosity and comes up with a scenario that actually gets at some interesting questions about gender, identity and sexual orientation. It is also calculated to creep us out. By rights, it is the enigmatic Vera (the beautiful Elena Anaya) who should be the focus of the story, but the filmmaker can’t help but shift the point of view to the housekeeper Marilia (yet another Almodóvar veteran, Marisa Paredes). Even when he has a compelling and unusual idea for a movie that could be quite the thrill ride as well as a major thought-provoker, ol’ Pedro still can’t help but turn it into a chick flick. (Seen 19 January 2012)

Piglet’s Big Movie 2 out of 4 stars

One thing that confuses me about Disney’s cartoon version of Winnie-the-Pooh is Christopher Robin. In some cartoons, he has an English accent. In other cartoons, he has an American accent. I think I prefer the English accent (as he has here), since the stories do come from England. But then how to explain Pooh and his various animal friends, who always have American accents? Okay, I’m taking this way too seriously. It is for kids after all, and my three-year-old loved this. It is perfectly harmless, and no one can argue with this movie’s message, which is basically that just because you are small doesn’t mean you aren’t important. This is certainly a good message to give to people when they are very small (and very important). And it is more useful in life than the Pooh cartoons’ general overriding theme, which seems basically to be that it’s great to have friends, no matter how dim they may be. A special treat for parents (or grandparents) who tag along to the flick is seeing Carly Simon (who wrote the film’s songs) rocking out as the end credits roll, singing a song about a house at Pooh Corner. Hmmm. I wonder if they thought about asking Kenny Loggins to do that sometime? (Seen 23 July 2003)

Pilgrim Hill 2 out of 4 stars

For nearly half this film’s running time, I was convinced that it was a documentary. Joe Mullins, who is on screen for pretty much the whole hour and a half, gives every indication that he is merely being himself. Kerry filmmaker Gerard Barrett has clearly crafted the film based on people he knows well. Mullins plays Jimmy Walsh, a fortyish bachelor farmer. An only child, Jimmy’s mother took her own life when he was a child. He has been minding his depressed father ever since while single-handedly keeping the farm going. Filmed in the most naturalistic of styles, not much happens until the final stretch. We mostly watch Jimmy do his chores, drink his solitary cups of tea and chat glumly with the occasional visitor. It is not only a bit tedious but it is ultimately depressing. But it does result in a culmination of emotion when two unfortunate events occur, one after the other. The film ends at a point where we don’t know whether to be hopeful for Jimmy or despair for him. One thing we can say, though, is that, if Mullins wasn’t playing himself, then he is one hell of an actor. (Seen 13 July 2012)

Pilgrimage 2 out of 4 stars

Tom Holland’s other action movie this summer is this interesting tale that has some echoes of Game of Thrones. Since this is about monks, we do not get that series’s sex or coarse language, but we do get a fair amount of violence. Holland plays a callow novice in an order of monks on the west coast of Ireland in the year 1209. They are isolated from the ongoing warfare among various Irish tribes and Norman invaders, that is, until Brother Geraldus (French actor Stanley Weber of Borgia and Outlander) shows up with a mission for four of them (including Irish actors John Lynch and Hugh O’Conor). They must carry to Waterford an extremely holy relic dating from earliest Christian times for its symbolic political value. They would appear to be lambs to the slaughter if not for their accompanying mute lay worker with a mysterious—and apparently violent—past (American actor Jon Bernthal of The Walking Dead and the upcoming The Punisher) who goes into action hero mode when trouble arrives. Holland’s Brother Diarmuid is our point-of-view character, and the story is really about his journey from unquestioning follower to leader to critical thinker. I particularly liked the way the dialog switched from Irish to French to English (standing in for Latin?) to represent the different languages the characters would have been speaking. Making the most of its modest budget, Brendan Muldowney’s flick builds some nice tension and keeps us guessing in the early reels exactly where this thing is headed. Is the relic going to turn out to be Indiana Jones’s Ark of the Covenant? Or will it be more like the treasure of the Sierra Madre? Unfortunately, the movie nearly does too good a job of raising expectations so that, when we get to the movie’s ultimate message, it not only underwhelms some but also feels a tad anachronistic. (Seen 13 July 2017)

The Pillow Book 2 out of 4 stars

If you enjoyed Ewan McGregor’s performances in Trainspotting, Emma, and Brassed Off and you’ve been wanting to see, ah, a lot more of him (and quite a few other actors), then this is the film for you! (In a grotesquely strange way, McGregor actually has the title role.) No director seems quite as adept at combining exquisite form and structure with shocking material as Peter Greenaway. Basically, his heavy use of split screens, insets, and other visual flourishes makes this flick look like a graphic designer’s multimedia project rather than a movie. As for the subject matter, well, let’s just say that The Pillow Book does for calligraphy what Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover did for fine dining. Set in the inscrutable Far East, this bizarre tale covers it all: love, lust, obsession, art, death, and getting back at your publisher. (Seen 28 July 1997)

The Pink Panther 3 out of 4 stars

The numerous sequels (not to mention the Steve Martin remakes) have devalued the very name Pink Panther. The fact is that the original movie was quite a good film. Peter Sellers’s Inspector Clouseau was only one of an ensemble of a large and sparkling cast, collaborating in a sophisticated update to a Feydeau-style romantic farce. Clouseau was clearly meant to be a secondary character, but Sellers’s genius as a physical clown made him the most memorable thing in the film. So it happened that the sequels did not focus on David Niven’s aristocratic jewel thief but on Clouseau. This creates a bit of a problem at the end in that Niven was meant to come out more sympathetically than the self-important inspector, but Sellers made his buffoon just too darned likeable. While Cary Grant could have pulled off the romantic lead in his early 50s, Niven was simply too old, and his wooing of the gorgeous Claudia Cardinale (less than half his age) just seems creepy. Made only a couple of years after Breakfast at Tiffany’s, director Blake Edwards was clearly going for some of the same tone of life among beautiful sophisticates. Indeed, a scene in which Cardinale’s teetotaler princess gets dizzily drunk seems tailor written for Audrey Hepburn. But she, along with Capucine and Robert Wagner, adds plenty of eye candy along with the beautiful locations in the Italian Alps. You don’t have to be a jewel thief to enjoy this marvelous escape. (Seen 7 August 2011)

The Pink Panther 2 2 out of 4 stars

Rarely is a target audience for a movie as clearly defined as for this one. And that target audience is obviously people under the age of 12 and amnesiacs. The amnesiac demographic is key because anyone who can remember seeing the genius who was Peter Sellers play the impossibly daffy Inspector Clouseau will be put off this flick from the get-go. This is unfortunate because the pleasures the movie does offer also rely on a good memory. Specifically, it helps immensely to be able to remember that John Cleese was once very funny. It also helps to be able to remember the 1984 movie All of Me to delight in seeing Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin working together again. Perhaps the best laugh of the proceedings comes during the closing credits when we learn that Jean Reno, the only actual Frenchman among the main cast in this Paris-set spoof, had his own dialogue coach. Another notable French actor also appears. Singing icon Johnny Hallyday stiffly plays a brief scene opposite Jeremy Irons, who appears visibly annoyed about being in the movie. I would be lying if I said I didn’t laugh and several times. But then I’m easy. The very notion of Clouseau going to the grand re-opening of a posh restaurant he destroyed in flashback is enough to put me in stitches. In the end, it’s hard to see Martin approximating (but at least not copying) Sellers’s shtick. And the fact that his moustache and white hair sometimes evoke memories of latter-day Charlie Chaplin doesn’t help things a bit. (Seen 25 February 2009)

The Pirates of Penzance 2 out of 4 stars

If modern entertainment does your head in because the dialog and information come at you way too fast, then it is worth remembering Gilbert & Sullivan. It’s almost as if that duo of English Victorian comic opera spinners actually anticipated the pause and rewind buttons. The rapid fire patter of lyrics comes at you so fast, you’re lucky if you can catch half of them. And they’re worth catching, since W.S. Gilbert was a master of parody and satire of his society. Their work enjoyed something of a latter 20th century resurgence, as exemplified by the successful run of this work (directed by Wilford Leach) on the stage. It was adapted for TV (and a DVD release) in 1980 and then this big screen version three years later. Much of its attraction for new audiences was the casting of famous pop stars as the young lovers Frederic and Mabel. Curly-haired Rex Smith had graduated from recent teen idol pinup status, and Linda Ronstadt was a proper singing star. To date this is her only feature film acting role. But the real talent is in the gleefully exuberant Kevin Kline as the Pirate King and George Rose in his best known role as Major General Stanley singing the most memorable song of this musical or, for that matter, of any Gilbert & Sullivan musical. Angela Lansbury is on hand as Frederic’s nurse, although one cannot help but think that it would have been even better with the original actor, Patricia Rutledge of Keeping Up Appearances fame. (Seen 22 August 2013)

Pirates of Silicon Valley 2 out of 4 stars

A made-for-cable movie about outlandish corporate intrigue, the very title Pirates of Silicon Valley is clearly meant to remind us of the extremely entertaining Barbarians at the Gate. But the subject matter here should be even more compelling—the rise and rivalries of Apple Computer and Microsoft. Writer/director Martyn Burke has his facts mostly in order, but for a history lesson you are still better off watching the documentary Revenge of the Nerds. (Strangely, this film could easily give the casual viewer the impression that Windows was a full-blown success in its first release and immediately superior to the Macintosh.) This is really Steve Jobs’s story. He more or less has the brilliant-but-twisted-and-flawed Anakin Starwalker role in this mini-epic. Which I guess makes Bill Gates the comic-relief Jar Jar Binks. You couldn’t ask for anyone geekier than Anthony Michael Hall to play Bill, but for some reason he seems to be playing Andy Warhol instead. Still, the film has some inspired moments, like the initial juxtaposition of Apple’s famous 1984 commercial with Jobs’s later announcement that Microsoft was investing in Apple—with Gates’s gigantic televised head standing in for Big Brother. Or when an eerily affable Steve Ballmer steps out of frame to describe in detail how IBM made a monumental business miscalculation. The good news is that you won’t even have to get up off the couch to see this one. It premieres on TNT on June 20. (Seen 15 May 1999)

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl 3 out of 4 stars

Long before people started throwing around the word “synergy,” the Disney company had mastered the art. One thing they did was fill their theme parks with rides based on some of their most popular screen entertainments, e.g. Peter Pan, The Wind in the Willows (Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride), Dumbo (flying elephants), etc. One of the Disney parks’ most popular attractions for years now has been the Pirates of the Caribbean. But it was only recently, after several decades, that someone in one of Disney offices noticed that they had forgotten to make the movie. So, now we have it, and it even has a subtitle (The Curse of the Black Pearl), which means, yes that’s right, Disney has made up for lost time and gone straight to the sequel. If most big-budget summer movies seem like thrill rides, at least this one comes by it honestly. Part of the fun (aside from eyeing an extremely attractive cast) is watching for set pieces lifted directly from the theme park ride. The film has particular fun with the scene in which jailed pirates try to get the cell keys from a dog holding them in its mouth. Disney’s partnership with Jerry Bruckheimer, which has also given us Pearl Harbor and Veronica Guerin, had already shown that it knows how to portray heroism, not to mention boats and explosions. Director Gore Verbinski (Mouse Hunt, The Mexican, The Ring), for his part, brings a light-hearted touch that makes this expensive spectacle a bit reminiscent of Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride. Indeed, romantic lead Orlando Bloom (who is nearly as gorgeous as his name) is rather reminiscent of Cary Elwes in that pic. In the Inigo Montoya role is Johnny Depp, who shows an unexpectedly expansive flair for comedy, in a role that seems written for someone older (or who at least looks older). His bizarre jumble of mannerisms comes off as some sort of cross between Foster Brooks and RuPaul, but somehow it works. Tip: I know the closing credits go on for ten minutes and your bladder is probably full of fizzy drinks, but it is still worth staying in your seat until the very end. (Seen 13 August 2003)

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest 3 out of 4 stars

As I sat watching this rollicking sequel, I could perceive one supernatural special effect that was not, strictly speaking, up on the movie screen. It was the smiling ghost of Georges Méliès. Cinema’s father, who delighted in amusing, entertaining and mystifying audiences with the illusions made possible by film, would surely appreciate this elaborate and energetic successor to his own body of work. One of my personal weekly pleasures is listening to Dr. Mark Kermode’s discussions of current movies with BBC Five Life host Simon Mayo (available worldwide via podcast), and all summer long I listened to Dr. Kermode eviscerate this movie as rubbish. And the reason that I, and everyone else, got to hear him trash this movie for endless weeks is because the good doctor was obliged to discuss it week after week because the movie was constantly in the UK’s top ten. Is the movie Citizen Kane? No, and thank goodness. It is simply pure entertainment. Dr. Kermode complained that there was no coherent story. Well, I could see one easily enough, but just as Hitchcock’s movies usually involved a MacGuffin that existed only to provide Hitch with opportunities for set pieces and screen banter, so do a certain key and Davy Jones’s chest here. And what set pieces! Particularly a pair of sequences involving large, round, run-away, rolling structures with men inside them and/or on top of them. And, while the dialog may not be up to Hitchcockian standards, it is agreeably amusing throughout and there are more than a few double entendres that even Hitch might admire. And director Gore Verbinski continues to get mileage out of the theme park ride that inspired the whole thing, particularly with the infamous dog with the keys in its mouth, right up to the film’s final frame. (Oh? You didn’t stay and sit through all the closing credits? Too bad.) Of course, we have seen this movie before. And I don’t just mean the first one in this series. This is the Pirates’s equivalent of The Empire Strikes Back. It follows a movie that stood perfectly well on its own and itself ends incomplete, anticipating a second sequel. And leaving us wondering which of our male heroes will wind up with Princess Leia, I mean, Elizabeth Swann. Lots of us deride the theme park sensibility of a lot of movies these days, but it is worth remembering that, from the time of Méliès, cinema was perceived as a kind of thrill ride in its own right. (Seen 8 September 2006)

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides 2 out of 4 stars

Anyone who listens at all regularly to Mark Kermode’s reviews on BBC radio cannot approach this movie without a fair bit of baggage. Kermode’s rants on this franchise are by now legendary and impossible to get out of the head. But one needs to bear in mind that, to invoke the title of Kermode’s own book, it’s only a movie. In this particular case, it is the kind of movie that is made for people who did not get enough of the first movie—even after two sequels. The purpose is to give viewers the approximate experience they had seeing the original movie but differently enough so that it does not seem as repetitive as merely watching the original over again. Much of the charm of the original was the convoluted plot and array of characters, but most of that has been jettisoned in favor of what may have been the biggest appeal for summer audiences: the over-the-top set pieces and the buccaneer banter, notably Johnny Depp’s dodgy double entendres. The weakness this time is that Depp must do double duty as both the colorful featured character and as the romantic lead. Sure, there is the obligatory attractive young romantic couple (with Sam Claflin and Astrid Berges-Frisbey taking over from Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley) but their story seems more like an afterthought or filler. We are meant to be focused squarely on Depp and his Blow co-star Penélope Cruz. But their characters are so cartoonish that the romantic tension doesn’t even rise to the level of Popeye and Olive Oyl. Still, as a distraction the movie is perfectly okay. It just doesn’t leave you panting for another one—even if Jerry Bruckheimer is threatening one anyway. (Seen 11 June 2011)

Pizza Shop: The Movie 1 out of 4 stars

Okay, I’m not giving this movie a huge number of stars, but that doesn’t mean I wish it any ill will. The film’s own promotional info tells you exactly where it is aimed (not even suitable for grownups, proclaims the trailer), and it certainly hits the target. Even the tagline tells you exactly what you are getting into: “That’s not just tomato sauce on that pizza!” This is one of those movies where the double entendre is definitely king. Filmed in Phoenix, Arizona, and set in a small pizza delivery business, the movie follows the fortunes of a group of delivery drivers. The dramatic arc involves a brewing confrontation between goody-goody trainer driver Pete and a personification of bad attitude named Jason. It all has the feel of sketch comedy crossed with cinéma vérité. The cast is game, and the filmmaking is no-nonsense and even occasionally inventive. The end result is something best avoided by those put off by bodily fluids and excretions, but which could conceivably be quite welcome at midnight cinema screenings or on a DVD player at a raucous beer drinking party. And it must be noted that, despite its raunchy trappings, the movie sneaks in a surprising bit of characterization and, in the final reel, even a bit of suspense. My favorite running gag? One customer continually has his pizzas contaminated by unsanitary pranks, continually complains and berates the delivery guys, but it never seems to occur to him to order his pizza from somewhere else. It’s to the film’s credit that this feels like a sly gag rather than a plot hole. The writer/director’s name just may be worth remembering. The auteur is George O’Barts. He could turn out to be the Southwest’s belated answer to Mel Brooks. (Seen 10 July 2014)

Le Placard (The Closet) 2 out of 4 stars

Here we go again with the one about the straight guy who, because of a strange chain of events, has to pretend that he is gay. But something is different this time. Usually, this story gets its laughs by watching the straight guy try to camp things up. This time around, however, the straight guy (dramatic stalwart Daniel Auteuil), upon the advice of someone who should know, executes his impersonation by not changing his behavior one iota. Instead, the focus is on how everyone else reacts to the new “information” about him. And the reactions are interesting indeed. His female co-workers, after years of studied indifference, now find him fascinating. His male colleagues are uncomfortable to downright hostile. His estranged teenage son takes a sudden new interest in him. And, most importantly, his company reverses its decision to fire him—apparently not because of any rigid French discrimination laws but because one of its chief products is condoms. This film is the work of Francis Veber, who had a writing hand in such classically hilarious fare as The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe and La Cage aux folles and who directed the funny and sentimental The Toy, La Chèvre and Les Compères, most of which have been remade by Hollywood. There is something of a message here, but mostly this film is just for laughs, particularly one memorable scene involving a condom assembly line and a touring group of Japanese businessmen. Also very entertaining is Gérard Depardieu as the office homophobe, who undergoes a strange and unlikely growth of character. (Seen 6 June 2001)

A Place in the Sun 3 out of 4 stars

Fans of Woody Allen’s 2005 film Match Point might want to check out this mid-20th-century classic if they haven’t already seen it. Directed by George Stevens and adapted from a play based on a Theodore Dreiser novel, it is in many ways the same movie. Instead of hunky Jonathon Rhys Meyers, we have hunky Montgomery Clift at the full dawn of his Hollywood stardom. In the Emily Mortimer role we have Elizabeth Taylor in her glamorous beautiful phase. And in the Scarlett Johansson part, we have a commanding turn by Shelley Winters, who goes from a likeable but dull young woman to every ambitious young man’s worst nightmare. A Place in the Sun seems a bit quaint now with its fastidious discretion about pregnancy and abortion but, in a strange way, this actually makes it all the more powerful. The main difference between Stevens’s film and Allen’s is in the endings. Allen’s presents a world where justice and morality are subject to the randomness of life. In Stevens’s, justice seems inexorable and inevitable. (Seen 10 October 2008)

Planet of the Apes 3 out of 4 stars

It’s a tricky thing to remake a very well-known movie, especially when much of that film’s impact came from its surprise ending. Gus Van Sant dealt with this challenge in his remake of Psycho by not changing anything at all. Thus, the new surprise was the fact that there was no surprise. In remaking Planet of the Apes, Tim Burton and his writers came up with a new ending that differs from the first film and is also different—but more in spirit with—Pierre Boulle’s novel. And it is probably as good an ending as was possible, since it has something for everyone: a perverse Rod Serlingesque twist that will please most filmgoers, a secret for Matt Drudge to spill so he can feel like he still matters and, most importantly, a perplexing quality that will keep sci-fi geeks debating for months the best way to explain the logic of it. I remember when the original flick came out how we all oohed and aahed at the state of the art of the ape make-up. Thanks to Rick Baker, we can do that again. Surprisingly, much of the movie seems like standard movie sci-fi, but when we get to the apes’ home city, we see the well-known stylistic touches of the director of Batman and The Nightmare Before Christmas—not to mention some great, um, aping of mankind’s tics and foibles. After this film and Town & Country, I just have to say that Charlton Heston (star of the original Planet of the Apes and the nation’s No. 1 self-avowed gun nut) is one heck of a good sport. (Seen 17 August 2001)

Plata quemada (Burnt Money) 2 out of 4 stars

Some of the best novels come out of Latin America. But adapting them to the silver screen can be a bit of a challenge because their strength is generally in their narrative prose, and how do you transfer that to a mainly visual medium? This film’s solution, in the first couple of the reels anyway, is to use extensive voice-over narration. So much that we start wondering if the film is going to read the whole darn book to us. But by the latter half, this turns out to be a movie movie and one as exciting as any heist yarn we have seen in a long time. The story is actually a true one, and this fact gives it a feel that is reminiscent of both Bonnie and Clyde and Dog Day Afternoon. When we finally get to the heart-pounding final siege scenes, however, we might be more likely to think of The Alamo. Except that I don’t think that we could imagine John Wayne and Richard Widmark having the heatedly passionate and tempestuous romance that the two central gangsters in this film have! (Seen 13 June 2001)

Play 1 out of 4 stars

Should I be kinder to this film because it so effectively echoes its own theme, i.e. not quite connecting? I suppose you can admire a film for deliberately not quite connecting, the same way its characters do not quite connect. But admiring is not the same as liking. Still, it is a well-made film, written and directed by Chilean Alicia Scherson and set firmly in her home city of Santiago. It tells the story of two people who gain an unlikely link when Cristina, a home health care worker, happens to find a shoulder bag that contains various artifacts and personal data of the life of Tristan, a young professional man seriously in need of antidepressants. Cristina becomes somewhat obsessed with this unexpected glimpse into a life completely different from her own and turns into something of a voyeur of Tristan’s life and also of that of the woman who has recently dumped him for someone else. The title is an apparent reference to Cristina’s penchant for arcade video games, something that may be a symptom, if not the actual cause, of her odd combination of curiosity and detachment. For a movie that feels at several points like it is about to end, when the ending finally does come, the story feels strangely unfinished. (Seen 13 October 2006)

Play It Again, Sam 3 out of 4 stars

This is a definite contender for the best Woody Allen movie of all time. So it is a bit strange, in retrospect, to realize that he did not actually direct it. The helming of Allen’s screen adaptation of his own play was actually done by Herbert Ross. The other strange thing is that it is set in San Francisco and not Manhattan (or, as in more recent Woodman flicks, Europe). Allen’s brand of neurotic romantic humor is at its peak here as well as his unqualified love and knowledge of film. Many of his best lines are in this flick (“I don’t tan, I stroke”; “I’ll get broads up here like you wouldn’t believe: swingers, freaks, nymphomaniacs, dental hygienists”). More than just giving us laughs, though, Allen really makes the definitive statement on the dilemma of men who came of age after the end of World War II. The previous generation of men cast such a long shadow in terms of accomplishment and confidence and, well, manliness that it was hard for their children and grandchildren to live up to—especially with all the social changes that came in the post-war period. Exactly three decades after Casablanca—which this movie so lovingly evokes—Allen draws the comparison brilliantly. Special mention must be made of Jerry Lacy, whose impersonation of Humphrey Bogart is uncanny. He is, of course, well known to fans of Dark Shadows for his portrayal of the relentless and malign witch hunter Reverend Trask. (Seen 23 June 2013)

Play Misty for Me 2 out of 4 stars

During the decade and a half before Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction, the best way for monogamy-challenged men to get a good fright was to view Clint Eastwood’s 1971 feature film directorial debut. Audiences at the time could have been forgiven for seeing this flick mainly as a successful actor’s vanity project, since there was no particular hint that Clint would go on to make such solid (and frequently award-winning) films as Bird, Unforgiven, Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Changeling and Gran Torino. And the vanity aspect was enhanced by the fact that it was set and filmed in Eastwood’s personal stomping ground around Monterey, California, and that Eastwood starred as a radio DJ for a jazz station, allowing him to indulge his passion for that musical genre. Indeed, about two-thirds of the way through, the whole movie grinds to a halt to include several minutes of footage from the Monterey Jazz Festival for no particular reason. Having said that, the movie does provide a reasonable amount of creepiness and suspense (though tame by today’s standards) and had a bit of freshness in the fact that the whacko killer was a woman (and not even a man dressed as a woman). Further turning the set-up on its head was Eastwood, the quintessential manly movie hero, casting himself in the traditionally female role of potential stalker victim. However novel, though, the casting wasn’t quite ideal. Eastwood is unnaturally unflappable throughout—even when he wakes to see an effectively unnerving Jessica Walter plunging a knife into his bed. While Eastwood clearly always had directorial talent, his maiden effort lifted too many references from Hitchcock’s Psycho to not feel, in the end, derivative. (Seen 5 June 2010)

Playing by Heart 2 out of 4 stars

If the couple passionately making out next to me in the cinema while I insisted on my usual ritual of reading the closing credits all the way to the end was any indication, this is a great date movie. It is definitely very romantic, and it may indeed be the ultimate chick flick, since it is mostly about desperate women getting involved with guys who seem too good to be true but aren’t. Writer/director Willard Carroll is aiming for something more profound, however, as the script strains to explore the themes of love and death. (Three of the characters face serious mortality issues.) An interesting and talented cast of familiar faces holds our attention, but the movie mostly sets up situations and, as is often the case with movies of this type, none of the interweaving stories would really be interesting enough to carry a film on its own. Dennis Quaid’s character is by far the most intriguing—at least until we learn what he is about. X-Files star Gillian Anderson seems doomed to play cold fish characters, Jon Stewart is entertaining but in a smarmy TV host sort of way, Ryan Phillippe’s character is annoying but nice to look at, and veterans Sean Connery, Gena Rowlands and Ellen Burstyn lend a lot of class. The best part of the movie is the ending, which pays off way better than we might have expected. (Seen 18 August 1999)

Pleasantville 2 out of 4 stars

People like to sneer at 1950s family sitcoms, but those shows were generally better than most TV and movie parodies (including this one) give them credit for. Actually, this movie does a much better job of lampooning cable TV nostalgia channels than it does the old sitcoms, but then that isn’t what Pleasantville is really about. It is, rather, an allegory about the continual struggle between conservatism/traditional values and liberty/artistic freedom. The directing debut of Gary Ross (who wrote the screenplays for Big and Dave), this movie is clever in how it portrays rebellious youth and oppressed minorities clashing with the forces of tradition. But since the rebels here are part of a total fantasy world, their struggle doesn’t have a real resonance. The closest it comes is the use of the term “coloreds” to describe characters who are no longer black and white. It’s ironic (maybe intentionally) that the rebels’ provocative literature (Catcher in the Rye) and music (Dave Brubeck) are now considered classics by just about everyone. In the end, this film is propagating a set of values for the 1990s just as those old sitcoms did for the 1950s. The main difference is that the sitcoms resolved everyone’s problems in the span of 30 minutes and this movie takes 124 minutes to do it. (Seen 24 October 1998)

Please Give 2 out of 4 stars

Writer/director Nicole Holofcener (Walking and Talking, Lovely & Amazing, Friends with Money) may get higher-profile actors than she used to, but she goes on making pretty much the same kind of movies. I suppose you could label them the thinking person’s chick flicks, but it’s probably fairer to say that her movies are gentle comedy/dramas about people and relationships, from a definite female point of view. Because of its New York setting, her latest has something of a feel of a Woody Allen flick, perhaps abetted by the presence of Rebecca Hall, who previously essayed her entirely convincing American accent in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Also on hand is the inevitable Catherine Keener (a Holofcener stalwart long before she was famous enough to play Percy Jackson’s mother), as well as Amanda Peet and Oliver Platt, reunited after their big-budget turns in 2012. To the extent that there is a story (plot points exist but are not necessarily the main attract in a Holofcener film), it involves the relationship between Keener and Platt, as a couple who essentially make their living buying stuff off the recently deceased, and Hall and Peet as granddaughters of a neighbor on her last legs. The granny is played by 81-year-old Ann Guilbert, familiar to TV audiences from sitcoms like The Fanelli Boys and The Nanny, but who will forever be remembered as the neighbor Millie on The Dick Van Dyke Show. At the risk of unintentionally damning this movie, I can say that it is an entirely pleasant way of passing an hour and a half. It has warm moments and a few genuine laughs. (Seen 21 February 2010)

Plein Soleil (Purple Noon) 3 out of 4 stars

This is a 1960 classic by French director René Clement (Jeux Interdits) who died not too long ago. It is a suspense drama reminiscent of Hitchcock, with much of the action taking place in picturesque locales on the coast of Italy. Several scenes on board a sailing boat seem to presage Dead Calm. A very young Alain Delon (who back then was like Rob Lowe but with a screen presence) plays Tom Ripley, a crafty sort who has always envied the life and fortune of his well-bred acquaintance Philippe. What’s Tom got in mind and will his plan succeed? You can’t stop watching until the very final scene. (Seen 19 May 1996)

+1 2 out of 4 stars

The cleverest thing about this movie is the title. Since the action takes place largely at a wild house party, the “plus one” evokes the common term for an unspecified optional party guest. It can also be a reference to duplicate cable/satellite channels that are delayed by an hour. Is this a time travel movie? Technically, not really—although it threatens to be. Directed by Greek-born Dennis Iliadis, who made the 2009 Last House on the Left remake, this flick is quite the genre mashup. The setup seems like it should be a supernatural romcom, but the opening scene is played like a drama. The tone quickly alternates between a raunchy teen sex comedy and a thriller or possibly even a horror flick. The premise is that a meteor or a power surge or a rift in the space/time continuum or something has caused people in the local area—specifically, at the aforementioned wild party—to coexist with their past selves. People react differently to the situation. David (Australian Rhys Wakefield, a bit reminiscent of Chad Lowe) longs for a Groundhog Day-style do-over with his estranged girlfriend. His geeky friend Teddy (nicely essayed by Logan Miller), who has just had the luckiest evening of his young life, freaks out. Lonely Allison (winsomely played by Suzanne McCloskey) takes the opportunity to, um, get closer to herself. There is genuine suspense in not knowing how this will play out or how dark things will get. And the movie gets surprisingly interesting as it ponders ideas of what makes us us and why we might fear the other. Unfortunately, the ending, while not without its appeal, winds up as something of a whimper when we were primed for a bang. (Seen 21 July 2014)

Pocketful of Miracles 3 out of 4 stars

Why is this movie not on my list of Five Christmas Classics? I guess because five wasn’t enough for a list like that. Still, this is a classic that should bring a smile to the face (and the requisite tear to the eye) of anyone trying to get (or is already) in the Christmas spirit—even though the Christmas angle is hardly played up in the story. Frank Capra’s final directing effort, it is a remake of a movie he made nearly three decades earlier (Lady for a Day). Pocketful of Miracles is slicker and more star-studded than the original, but one can reasonably argue that the 1933 version was actually better in a number of ways. Still, the 1961 edition is an excellent example of why most people used to go to the movies. They didn’t go for the special effects but for the faces and personalities on parade. And Capra assembled a fine large cast for his swan song. In her early 50s, Bette Davis chews the scenery as the dipsomaniac Apple Annie, who is not so secretly financing a proper upbringing abroad for her daughter. Glenn Ford and Hope Lange mug it up as the prototypical Damon Runyon guy and doll, bantering as if for their lives. Capra regular Thomas Mitchell, in his final role, is the erudite pool shark judge who takes to a new con job like a fish to water. A young Peter Falk is the apoplectic henchman driven crazy by all the distractions from turf negotiations with a mob boss played by Sheldon Leonard. The young lovers are played by Ann-Margret and Peter Mann, both in their first roles. Ann-Margret had a long film career ahead of her, Mann a brief one. The icing on the cake is the marvelous Edward Everett Horton, as the anxious butler who loves happy endings. If the emblematic literary figure of the season is Ebenezer Scrooge, then what better holiday entertainment than one that brings us to a world where every criminal and politician and bum on the street turns out to have a heart of gold? (Seen 19 December 2009)

Poison Pen 2 out of 4 stars

On the surface, this romcom seems as though it could have been a vehicle for Hugh Grant or, more likely, Colin Firth. Literary snob P.C. Molloy has been coasting for a decade and a half on the fact that his debut novel won the Booker Prize. Unable to finish a second book for which he is under contract, he finds that said contract has been acquired by a company that now requires him to write for a trashy gossip magazine run by the attractive April Devereaux. There are few, if any, surprises as to how this all plays out, so the pleasures are derived more from the characterizations and situations than from high energy or frequent belly laughs. Although set in London, this is a production of Ireland’s Filmbase which is increasingly becoming a great launching pad for new Irish film talent. The script was begun by best-selling author Eoin Colfer (of Artemis Fowl fame) and finished by Graham Cantwell. Directing chores were shared by Steven Benedict, Lorna Fitzsimons and Jennifer Shortall. In the lead Lochlainn O’Mearain is a more-than-adequate Firth substitute, and it is a revelation for those of us who know Aoibhinn McGinnity and Susan Loughnane from their Love/Hate and other TV roles to seem their range in very different kinds of roles. The sly scene-stealer though is Aaron Heffernan (another Love/Hate veteran) as the laid-back photographer-with-attitude Kurt. (Seen 11 July 2014)

Poitín 2 out of 4 stars

The first feature film of its length to have been filmed in the Irish language, this 1979 movie by Bob Quinn provided a picture of life in windswept Connemara that was closer to reality than some of the more fanciful previous treatments of Ireland’s west. The simple story has the ring of truth, like some incident that got told and retold in the pub on rainy evenings. (There is actually no sign of rain in this film, but that can be overlooked. There are occasionally dry days in the region.) The title refers to an illegal Irish beverage, what we Yanks would call moonshine, and that is the life’s blood that flows through the film’s narrative. There is barely a scene where somebody is not drinking poitín or at least talking about it. The fun of looking back at this film is seeing the renowned actor Cyril Cusack in the lead, playing a more naturalistic role than his better-known film and stage roles, as well as other well-known Irish actors in early roles. The odd couple of louts who sell Cusack’s hooch are Donal McCann and Niall Toibín. And the less-than-effective garda sergeant is Mick Lally, familiar to TV viewers from the soap opera Glenroe. Mildly interesting coincidence: two years later Toibín would play a priest in the miniseries Brideshead Revisited giving the last rites to Laurence Olivier, who played the prospective father-in-law of Jeremy Irons, who was the real-life son-in-law of Cyril Cusack. (Seen 6 July 2005)

The Polar Express 2 out of 4 stars

When this computer-animation extravaganza by Robert Zemeckis (of Back to the Future and Forrest Gump fame) came out two Christmases ago, a number of critics remarked with no little astonishment that its North Pole sequences seemed to have been lifted directly from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. And it’s true! Rather than the quaint, sugary and pastoral visions we usually get of Santa’s abode, this film shows St. Nick lording over a fairly grim urbanized complex that seems part slave factory and part sinister shopping mall. The fact that our children protagonists arrive on a train, upon which they have been hurried with little explanation or welcome, only adds to the sense of a Nazi scheme. And the fact that our hero is a boy, starting to question what he has been told all his life, makes the whole exercise feel like a forced march to a reeducation camp. There is something to be said for children’s literature that doesn’t sugarcoat or pander to what adults think children want or should consume. And I suppose the film’s tone does capture something of the confusion and uncertainty that goes on in the adolescent mind. But I can only go by how my own heart and mind reacted to the movie. It just made Christmas feel creepy. (Seen 22 December 2006)

Pooh’s Heffalump Movie 2 out of 4 stars

I’m not at all comfortable with how much context I find myself bringing to this new Disney movie. In our home, we have seen quite a bit of the Disney-fied version of Winnie-the-Pooh the past few years, so I am more knowledgeable on the topic than I ever meant to be. I was curious, for one thing, to test the assertion by the Irish Times critic that the strangely (in this film) bellicose Rabbit character was seemingly based on Donald Rumsfeld, making the movie a virtual allegory on the war in Iraq. Undeniable similarities aside, I choose not to go there. Better to stick with the obvious theme that just because others are different from you doesn’t mean they’re not the same as you. This is definitely more profound than the usual Pooh theme (cf. Piglet’s Big Movie) that it’s good to have friends, no matter how dim they may be. In fact, there is a whole new tone and emotional range displayed in this film. One of the limiting things about Pooh has been the fact that there are only so many stories written by A.A. Milne, so most of the movies have tended to recycle the same plots. This one breaks new territory by fleshing out characters previously only referred to and presumed by some (me, anyway) to be mythical figments. We are actually witnessing new Pooh canon. I suppose this is good, but I still worry about Rabbit going off the deep end. For such a gentle cast of characters, he nearly turns this into an animated version of The Ox-Bow Incident. (Seen 14 May 2005)

Popiól i diament (Ashes and Diamonds) 4 out of 4 stars

From the very first frame, it is clear why this 1958 movie by Polish director Andrzej Wajda (who went on to make such other well-regarded films as Man of Marble and Man of Iron) is considered a classic. We see two men, sitting on a hill, waiting. The younger one, Maciek is lounging on the grass, looking for all the world as if he doesn’t have a care or any responsibilities. Then, very quickly, we see that the pair are assassins, in place for an ambush. It is the final day of the Second World War, and everything is about to change. Maciek is played by Zbigniew Cybulski, who is often called the Polish James Dean. Not only does he look more than a bit like the American actor, but he has the same cool/hip juvenile delinquent swagger. And, like Dean, he died too young (at 39) in a traffic accident (struck by a train). He is probably most recognizable to Americans as the star of the wonderfully baroque Saragossa Manuscript. In this movie, he is what today we would call an insurgent. He is part of the underground that has been fighting the German occupation and is now fighting the Soviets. He has one more job to do and then he has to decide if he is going to continue fighting or try to transition to peace. You see, he has met a girl… Most of the action takes place in a hotel, where multiple characters come and go with their various political and personal agendas. This atmosphere plus its theme of duty versus security makes the movie more than a bit reminiscent of the classic Casablanca. It also presages Lina Wertmuller’s Love and Anarchy. Suspenseful and thought-provoking and eminently watch-able, the film does not offer any easy answers to the questions it raises. With such important matters at stake as life, death, war, peace and love, how could it? (Seen 13 July 2007)

The Portrait of a Lady 2 out of 4 stars

An otherwise tasteful and thoughtful film about sentimental relationships in the Victorian age is marred by a totally superfluous and over-the-top car chase at the end. (Fortunately, this doesn’t happen with The Portrait of a Lady, but maybe I’ve tricked some guy who only skims movie summaries into seeing this flick!) If the sunny Jane Austen movies are all about getting married, then this moody and somber Henry James film is about being totally trapped after the wedding. As she did in The Piano, director Jane Campion creates a visually impressive world that moves with the off-kilterness and languorous pacing of dark dream, replete with barely repressed eroticism. But this time, instead of lush and damp New Zealand, we have settings in England and Italy that feel like prisons. (And we don’t have Michael Nyman’s wonderful music.) Nicole Kidman is quite okay in the lead, although her pale skin, piercing eyes, and Mary Queen of Scots hairdo did at times remind me of Gary Oldman in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. As for John Malkovich, whatever you thought of him in Dangerous Liaisons, you’ll probably think the same here. (Seen 2 February 1997)

Possession 2 out of 4 stars

A.S. Byatt’s novel Possession has a lot of fans, and they probably have not been disappointed by Neil LaBute’s film adaptation. As a movie, Possession is bound to remind a lot of people of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, which also contrasted a period romance with a modern one. I, on the other hand, was reminded of John Sayles’s Lone Star (because of its clever transitions between present and past) and the TV series The X-Files. Aaron Eckhart (converted from British to American for the movie) is essentially Mulder, on a search for the truth that is Out There, and Gwyneth Paltrow is the doubting Scully, who comes along for the ride anyway. And, just as M&S always seemed to find aliens and other weirdness under every rock, England and France turn out to be completely littered with previously unknown letters and papers documenting a torrid, years-long romance between two famous Victorian poets, who were not previously known to have been acquainted. The fact is, that it is hard to dramatize a literary research quest such as this, so we get a lot of shots of turning pages and the actors reading the letters. In the end, it mostly pays off emotionally, but the greatest satisfaction will be with those who have read the book. (Seen 8 October 2002)

Postcards from America 2 out of 4 stars

Postcards from America was filmed in the U.S. but directed by a Brit (Steve McLean) who was inspired by the poems and essays of David Wojnarowicz who died of AIDS in 1993. This is essentially a non-chronological life story of a very unhappy gay man. Apparently, it is based much more on McLean’s own life than on Wojnarowicz’s. The story keeps jumping between a child abused by his father, a teenage hustler on the streets of New York, and a grown man wandering the Southwest desert. Obviously filmed with a negligible budget, the movie is inventive but comes off largely as a filmed play with characters often talking directly to the camera. It doesn’t exactly leave you whistling a tune as you leave the theater, but you do feel like you’ve gotten some insight into another person’s life—even if it is largely fictionalized. (Seen 19 May 1995)

Il Postino (The Postman) 3 out of 4 stars

Pablo Nerudo was one of the greatest poets of the 20th century and one of two Chileans who have won the Nobel Prize for Literature. In a darkly cosmic coincidence, he died (of natural causes) in 1973 just days after the Chilean military extinguished democracy in his beloved homeland. At some point a novel was written that told about a friendship that grew between Neruda and the postman who brought him mail every day. I have no idea how much truth there is to this story, but two films have been based on it. The first was an obscure production made several years ago, and it played like a romantic comedy (with Neruda acting as cupid for the lovestruck, inarticulate postman) but turned dark at the end with an angry comment on the political situation in Chile. This new version is even more bittersweet and ends with an angry comment on Italian politics. Neruda (played this time around by the great French actor Phillippe Noiret dubbed, sadly, by another actor who speaks Italian and Spanish) is in exile on a remote Italian island in the early 1950s. He teaches the young postman not only about love but also about poetry and politics. The ending is deeply felt and moving. It was made even more so after the house lights came up. The director of this Italian production (England’s Michael Radford who made the 1984 version of 1984 and White Mischief) had introduced it by telling how Italian comic Massimo Troisi (who plays the postman) lured him to Italy to work on the film and how hard it was for Radford to work in a foreign language. Only after the film, and in answer to an off-hand question, did Radford explain that Troisi had been suffering from heart disease while making the film and died a few days after it was completed. I understand that this film will be getting a commercial run, and I would definitely recommend seeing it, although not as a literal history lesson. (Seen 25 May 1995)

Pousse Café 2 out of 4 stars

This film attempts to do for cocktails what Like Water for Chocolate did for Mexican food. Feeling very much like a filmed stage play, the various acts are introduced by recipes for mixed drinks. (One of the two main characters is authoring a mixology tome.) The film consists almost entirely of conversations during cocktail hour between a British-American game show magnate (think mixture of Richard Dawson and Merv Griffin) and his avant-garde son. The constant chat (My Highball with André?) is easy enough to take, although one occasionally wishes that Noel Coward were still around to have collaborated. The script was written by the two principal actors, Anthony F. Hamilton and Dominic Hamilton-Little, and the director, Susan Winter. The story revolves around the father’s attempts to deal with the fact that his wife has left him. One of the highlights is the making of an elaborate drink called the Pousse Café which is impressive to watch indeed. (Seen 5 June 1997)

Poussières de vie (Dust of Life) 2 out of 4 stars

A title like Dust of Life is a pretty good clue that this probably isn’t going to be a comedy. Indeed, Schindler’s List had more yuks than this flick. An Algerian production filmed in Malaysia, this film is based on actual events involving Vietnamese children with American fathers after the fall of Saigon. The story follows Son who is picked up with other children in a roundup and sent to a re-education camp to be purged of his bourgeois beliefs and Christian religion. In the camp he makes friends with some other boys and they begin plotting an escape, knowing full well that capture will mean a stint in the dreaded “tiger cage.” This isn’t a particularly easy movie to watch, but in the end it does reaffirm the power of the human spirit. (Seen 22 May 1995)

Powder 0 out of 4 stars

This is another one of those movies about a being who is so superior and so much nicer than us that he really can’t bear to be here on earth. In this case, it’s a teenager whose mother was struck by lightning when she was pregnant. Powder is albino white and, when he puts on sunglasses and a fedora, well, he looks like Michael Jackson. In fact the movie is so infused with bitterness about the misunderstanding and treatment received by its title character that it could have been written by (and starred) Jacko himself. (He probaby would have discreetly omitted, however, the scene where the hero gets assaulted by a group of teenage boys for gawking at one of them in the locker room.) This film has received some notoriety because its writer/director went to prison for molesting a young actor in a previous movie. Aside from the familiar Christ-like story and quasi-religious mumbo-jumbo, it does contain a very moving scene where Powder allows the sheriff to communicate with his dying wife. (Seen 31 October 1995)

Practical Magic 2 out of 4 stars

Practical Magic wanders all over the place, and for much of its running time it is hard to tell where it is going. By the time we find out, the participation of Sandra Bullock suggests that it could have been called While You Were Hexing. This is about witches, but they aren’t witches like on Bewitched or Sabrina where they have the power to solve a problem in a split second. These witches are fairly limited in what they can do, compared to what we’re used to in other films and on TV. And that’s just as well. Indeed, this could almost just be the story of the lives and loves of an eccentric but non-supernatural family. Think Hannah and Her Sisters with a dash of The Addams Family. There is some creepy stuff along the way, as might be expected from director Griffin Dunne, who has starred in such fare as An American Werewolf in London and After Hours and who tackled romance in Addicted to Love, which also had its perverse side. In the end, this may be mainly a chick movie, but with stars like Bullock and Nicole Kidman, the men who get dragged along shouldn’t mind too much. (Seen 28 October 1998)

Praise 2 out of 4 stars

The Australian feature film debut of John Curran, Praise has something uncomfortably real about it. It is not a fun movie to watch, but its unrelenting gaze at the human condition makes it noteworthy as some kind of work of art if not entertainment. (Several people in the audience got up and left before it was over.) Gordon looks like a tall, young, lanky Harry Dean Stanton and his prospects aren’t great. He lives in a depressing rooming house, drinks lots of beer and chain smokes in between sucking on his inhaler to relieve his asthma. He takes up with Cynthia, a nymphomaniac with a (literal) rash of skin problems, and they proceed to have a lot of sex. By the end of this affair, there is just the faintest hint of optimism lurking underneath it all. The film festival notes have it about right when it describes the film as “Charles Bukowski meets Franz Kafka” and the source novel as “Last Tango in Brisbane.” (Seen 19 May 1999)

The Preacher’s Wife 2 out of 4 stars

About midway through The Preacher’s Wife, a character lies sniffling on the couch in front of the TV and explains that she always cries every year at “these movies.” The Preacher’s Wife aspires to be one of “these movies” which are the ones that we watch year after year at Christmas time on TV or on video. They include It’s a Wonderful Life, White Christmas, and maybe even The Bishop’s Wife, the Cary Grant/Loretta Young film of which this is a remake. There are enough lovable characters and winsome kids to pull your heartstrings slack for a month, not to mention a church on the verge of loss and a good man who has lost his faith. But what cuts the sugar is the chemistry between Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston who make such a good couple that you kind of wish she would leave her overwhelmed screen husband (or even her real-life one). Because of that (and against its own intentions), Penny Marshall’s film is really more of an heir to Just a Guy Named Joe than it is to It’s a Wonderful Life. (Seen 29 December 1996)

Prête-moi ta main (I Do: How to Get Married and Stay Single) 2 out of 4 stars

This is another one of those French comedies that draws its humor from a universal experience that all of us have lived through at one time or another. After all, who among us has not paid someone to pose as our fiancée to get our overbearing mother and sisters off our back? Wait, I’m sorry. Did I say “universal experience”? I meant “like a failed sitcom pilot.” But this bit of farcical nonsense is easy enough to take, as it signals early on that it has not the slightest intention of being taken seriously when, in a flashback, its leading man, a mature Alain Chabat, who is in his late 40s, dons a wig and plays the least convincing 21-year-old ever to grace a movie screen. Will our hero’s scheme work? Will he and the feisty but gorgeous Emma complete their arrangement and then go their separate ways, as agreed? Will our guy finally learn to stand up to the women who mother and smother him? Oh, s’il vous plaît! Things are helped by a fast pace, some good comic timing and the casting of extremely watchable Charlotte Gainsbourg in what, in another age and country, would have been called the Kate Hepburn role. She is more than a match and dandy foil for Chabat’s Doris Day-era-style confirmed bachelor. (Seen 18 October 2007)

The Price of Milk 2 out of 4 stars

Lucinda and Rob seem to have an idyllic life in the gorgeous New Zealand countryside. After a day of looking after his 117 beloved dairy cows, they settle into an outdoor bathtub where they can eat dinner, bathe and wash the dishes all at once. But if this is the Garden of Eden, then Lucinda is its Eve, with a touch of Pandora. An encounter with a mysterious old woman crossing a road (not to mention some self-interested advice from her best friend Drosophila) seems to lead to all kinds of problems. This is the kind of magic realism-type fable where a group of mysterious men can steal silently into a tiny bedroom in the middle of the night and make off with a couple’s quilt while they are sleeping under it. Or where a woman can nearly drown from a kitchen full of milk that has leaked from the fridge. You never know what wondrous image or plot twist will happen next, and that is the charm of this film by Harry Sinclair. The stars are Danielle Cormack and Karl Urban, who have had recurring roles on the Hercules/Xena series. (Seen 11 July 2001)

Prick Up Your Ears 2 out of 4 stars

The title of this movie is never really explained in the movie, but I have been given to understand that, if you think about it in such a way as to come up with something nasty, you will get the idea. That’s the sort of guy Joe Orton was. He also was constantly making things up that weren’t true just to mess up people’s minds. The facts here are well known. Orton wrote a few plays, dark comedies, and was very successful. In 1967 his lover and roommate Kenneth Halliwell killed him with a hammer and then committed suicide. This sounds like it could be a real downer of a movie, but it is actually quite funny and entertaining. Even the occasion of the murder provides a blackly funny line as does the cremation afterwards. The movie portrays the two main characters’ relationship as a marriage and suggests the jealousies that doomed the couple afflict all marriages to some extent. Halliwell’s envy at his former protégé surpassing him is echoed by the wife of the biographer, who is gathering Joe’s life story, as she shares in the work with no credit or glory. This film makes three winners in a row for director Stephen Frears, who also did The Hit with John Hurt and last year’s My Beautiful Launderette. (Seen 6 June 1987)

Pride 3 out of 4 stars

In British films, there is a whole virtual sub-genre about the trials and tribulations of idled workers struggling to regain their self-respect and some sort of redemption. In 1996’s Brassed Off, coalminers in northern England threw themselves into a national brass band competition. In 1997’s The Full Monty, redundant Sheffield steelworkers took up strip tease. In 2000’s Billy Elliot, the son of County Durham coalminers goes mad for ballet. Matthew Warchus’s Pride, set during the summer 1984 miners’ strike, could be considered another entry, and it is indeed similar in that more than a few laughs are provided on the way to a heart-warming finale. The premise has all the makings of a standard issue culture clash comedy. Hip urban party animal gay activists descend on a socially conservative rural Welsh mining community, offering solidarity with their struggle—whether they want it or not. It’s the type of set-up that risks trading in stereotypes but, happily, Stephen Beresford’s scenario goes for human rather than broad humor. In fact, it goes the other direction and skirts the other risk to such a (factually based) story. It embraces its characters’ aims and goals to the extent that it becomes a (mostly benign) form of propaganda. Indeed, there is one didactic scene in a community hall that makes one think of Ken Loach trying his hand at crowd-pleasing comedy. In the end, the pure heart in the story triumphs over its willingness to manipulate and tick the usual boxes. Also very helpful to this end are the charm and considerable talents of such great actors as Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton and Paddy Considine as Welsh villagers and Andrew Scott, Dominic West, Ben Schnetzer and George MacKay as gay activists. All in all, a feel-good history lesson and a bit of myth-making in a very entertaining package. (Seen 27 May 2015)

Pride and Joy 2 out of 4 stars

“Never get sentimental about property.” If that (I think quite sensible) advice could suddenly be enforced magically and retroactively, then a full half or more of all Irish literature would vanish in that instant. But it is telling that not only does this movie itself not follow that advice but that the character who utters it is ultimately shown to be a cold-hearted bitch. This is a generally well-done “kitchen sink” story about a modern Dublin family that face a crisis when the granny dies. It turns out that granny owned the house they are living in and she has left it to both her children—the married daughter who has lived with and minded her for years and the errant son who has piled up debts pursuing a “career” as a professional gambler. The film is produced by its two acting leads, Michèle Forbes (not to be confused with American actor Michelle Forbes) and Owen Roe. Probably best known to international audiences as the publican during the last two seasons of Ballykissangel, Roe bears a fair resemblance to the late Carroll O’Connor and, indeed, he seems to have prepped for the role by studying old episodes of All in the Family. A subtle critique of Ireland’s Celtic Tiger economy with a surprisingly sugary ending, the film is in the end a well-observed portrait of a couple, neither of whom is perfect, who manage to muddle through life one way or another. (Seen 14 July 2006)

Primal Fear 2 out of 4 stars

The title Primal Fear is unfortunate because it sets us up to expect a suspense/slasher kind of movie. (The title cleverly plays on the fact that the movie deals with a heinous crime involving an archbishop.) The movie is actually a somewhat thoughtful courtroom drama in which Richard Gere and Laura Linney play younger, sexier versions of F. Lee Bailey and Marsha Clark. To that extent, it is fairly well done. The film clearly trades on the general American cynicism vis-à-vis the legal system which crystalized with the O.J. circus. By the time we get to the twist ending, however, we learn that—despite celebrity, riches, media-grabbing, and general consorting with well-heeled scum—the Johnnie Cochrans and F. Lee Baileys of the world ultimately do what they do largely for altruistic reasons and, in fact, they may just be a little too innocent. Chicago politicans and the Catholic clergy in this film do not come off nearly so well. (Seen 6 August 1996)

Primary Colors 2 out of 4 stars

How appropriate that the director of the seminal film 30 years ago about baby-boomers coming of age (The Graduate) should now undertake a film fable about that generation’s rise to ultimate political power. But Primary Colors won’t be the classic that Mike Nichols’s earlier movie is because it centers too much on John Travolta’s cartoonish buffoon of a “Clinton-like” presidential candidate, an image that will become increasingly irrelevant as time marches on. The movie also just misses catching the current moment (in stark contrast to Barry Levinson’s Wag the Dog) because its most provocative episodes have already been eclipsed by mainstream media coverage of supposed and/or real Clinton scandals. The main reasons to see Primary Colors are two ostensibly supporting performances. Adrian Lester, as our point-of-view character, was born to play the wide-eyed innocent losing his political virginity. And Kathy Bates’s larger-than-life conscience-of-a-generation role is classic scene-chewing Oscar material. (Seen 1 April 1998)

Prime 2 out of 4 stars

I was spellbound by this movie. It was sharper and brighter than any film I have ever seen before in a cinema. In fact, I was so taken up with its clarity, I nearly forgot to pay attention to the story. You see, Ben Younger’s Prime is the first movie to be distributed and displayed digitally in Ireland, and I saw it in one of the 11 cinemas showing it in that format. I know, as an aspiring film buff, that I am supposed to be sentimentally attached to celluloid. But this is better. In a way, the antiseptically clean quality of the images matches the rather perfect world of New York portrayed in the narrative. It’s a world where people enjoy a very high quality of life (great food, great wine, great art, great sex) and the men look a bit like the late John Kennedy Jr. and the women look like Uma Thurman. And where everyone pretty much has the wisdom to put things into perspective in the long run. This is basically a romantic chick flick, but with a considerable and welcome distraction into hilarious farce—set up by the usual sort of movie coincidence regarding identities. The burden of providing the comedy falls mainly on the shoulders of, of all people, Meryl Streep, who plays a Jewish mother more or less as a somewhat toned-down version of Mike Myers’s old Linda Richman character. (Remember “Cawffee Tawk”?) As with Younger’s earlier writing/directing effort, Boiler Room, he aims just a bit higher than the usual movie entertainment. And, like the earlier film, it has the heartfelt quality of quasi-autobiography. But its dead serious final stretch feels like a dead weight after the hilarity of the earlier scenes. But it sure looks great at the Eye Cinema! (Seen 16 May 2006)

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie 2 out of 4 stars

More than three decades before she first taught at Hogwarts, Maggie Smith was the flamboyant prima donna on the faculty of an otherwise conservative girls’ school in Edinburgh. The role that really put Smith on the international map (it won her the first of her two Oscars), Jean Brodie is one of those larger-than-life movie teachers who serve, dramatically, to turn their school into a microcosm of the larger world. (Peter Weir’s Dead Poets Society makes a nice counterpart.) An overly romantic spinster, her life, as she says, is her girls who, once they come into her sphere of influence, are forever known as “Brody girls.” If this seems like a cult of personality, it is not a coincidence that Brody is an open admirer of Mussolini and Franco. (This is the 1930s.) The dramatic tension comes when one of her young circle (the magnetic Pamela Franklin, who started out as one of the kids in Jack Clayton’s The Innocents) refuses to play the role that the manipulative Miss Brodie has chosen for her. The director was Ronald Neame, who would go on to make The Poseidon Adventure and The Odessa File. The screenplay was by Jay Presson Allen, after her own stage adaptation of Muriel Spark’s novel. As always, Smith is riveting to watch—so much so that it is easy to forget that this is really more of a coming-of-age story than a portrait of a charismatic teacher. Coincidentally, Herbert Ross’s remake of Goodbye Mr. Chips came out the same year. (Seen 22 January 2010)

Primer 2 out of 4 stars

By now this 2004 low-budget indie flick has achieved clear cult status. It is a prime example of a do-your-head-in movie. At 77 minutes in length and made for around $7,000, this movie makes Inception look like a Dogme 95 one-act two-hander. Written and directed by and starring Shane Carruth, it’s film that starts out deceptively realistic and straightforward. We begin with four guys who work for some sort of technical company. They are spending their spare time on a project in somebody’s garage. It is hard to follow what they are talking about all the time, but as things progress it emerges that one or two of them realize that they have stumbled onto a breakthrough of literally cosmic proportions. It’s an intriguing premise: what would really happen if someone figured out a way to peek into the future or tweak the recent past. And would the people involved be able to trust each other? The film’s latter stretch, through an elliptical narrative style and a minimum of exposition, quickly becomes very confusing. This is a film that nearly cannot exist without the possibility of multiple viewings, the use of pause and rewind buttons and, perhaps most importantly, consulting the internet. It is a mind-bending puzzle par excellence. The main mystery here is why Carruth, eight years later, is not well on his way to a Christopher Nolan-like filmmaking career. According to the IMDb, his prospective sophomore project is something called Upstream Color, but there’s not even a tentative release date. (Seen 16 November 2012)

Prince of Egypt 2 out of 4 stars

It is a very brave thing to take one of the most revered figures in three, count ‘em three, major religions and turn his story into a major animated entertainment, complete with songs, comic relief and an action-packed chariot race. I’ll leave it to others to decide whether DreamWorks’s latest full-length cartoon makes the Book of Exodus more “accessible” or is merely blasphemy. I will say, however, that it is a horrible waste to take one of the greatest voices of our time (Patrick Stewart’s) and squander it in the relatively minor role of “Pharaoh” (father of Rameses and adoptive father of Moses) when it would have been so much better suited to the even more minor role (in terms of number of lines here anyway) of “God.” (On the other hand, The Irish Independent observed wonderfully that it was too bad that George Burns wasn’t still around to voice the role.) Purely as an entertainment, Prince of Egypt holds the attention and dazzles with images. The animation is well done and quite life-like, particularly the crowd scenes. And Steve Martin and Martin Short are very amusing as a pair of sycophantic priests. The young’uns (ages 6 to 11) who accompanied the Missus and myself seemed to enjoy the spectacle just fine, although conceivably the antics of the Old Testament God—which include plagues, infanticide and drowning armies—could be a tad upsetting to some. (Seen 27 December 1998)

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time 2 out of 4 stars

There are moments when this fantasy action/adventure flick raises hopes that it twill transcend its video game origins and flesh out some fully fledged characters who can make this a Hollywood swashbuckling yarn in the mode of Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn. The nicely buffed-up and hirsute Jake Gyllenhaal and heavily-made-up Gemma Arterton may not spark major chemistry, but each is appealing in his and her own right. But little time goes by before we get another CGI set piece and, while these are not without entertainment value, their artificiality totally drains the life out of the story. And the fact that the secret weapon everyone is scrambling over (I think the words “deus ex machina” are embossed on the handle) looks like a remote control and serves to rewind only further reminds us just where the story came from. What saves the movie is the arrival of the reliable Alfred Molina, the rogue who turns out (surprise!) to have a heart of gold. Molina essentially has the Eli Wallach role, which in Bruckheimer/Disney terms amounts to the Johnny Depp role. But he is better than Depp because his performance is natural and unforced and completely entertaining for every second he is on screen. Also not to be underestimated is Steve Toussaint as his sidekick. Mainly known to UK TV audiences, Toussaint creates the most sympathetic and heroic character of the movie while getting precious few words of dialog. Director Mike Newell, on the other hand, seems in it for the paycheck, using some of the tricks he picked up on his Harry Potter movie, as does Sir Ben Kingsley, who has pretty much phoned in his turn as the king’s supposedly devoted brother. (Seen 9 June 2010)

Princesas Rojas (Red Princesses) 2 out of 4 stars

This very involving film from Central America employs the classic storytelling device of viewing war through the eyes of children. The war, in this case, seems to be the Contras rebellion against Nicaragua’s Sandinista government in the 1980s. I say “seems” because we do not know or learn anything about what is going on beyond what the two child protagonists perceive. As the film begins, Claudia and Antonia and their parents are fleeing by car across the border into Costa Rica where the parents will continue to provide cloak-and-dagger support to the Sandinistas. We get glimpses of secretive meetings and communications and forged documents. But Claudia is mainly interested in fitting into her new school and performing in an upcoming concert. The young actor who plays Claudia is quite impressive and subtly breaks our hearts. The film builds to an ending that is unexpected and filled with understated devastation. From what I understand, the story is inspired by writer/director Laura Astorga’s own childhood. (Seen 12 July 2013)

The Princess and the Frog 2 out of 4 stars

The trouble, for those of us who are old and cynical, in seeing a new traditionally animated Disney princess film is that, not only do we see echoes of so many such earlier movies (not necessarily a bad thing), but we also see the potential product knock-offs and theme park rides. In the very first scene, we see a spoiled rich girl with endless numbers of princess dresses, and it just reminds us of all the high-priced costumes we will inevitably encounter at all the strategically placed gift shops during the next visit to Disneyland. The filmmakers seem to be having a bit of fun with the inevitable commercialization of their work. It is hard not to like a movie that features new Randy Newman songs celebrating his native New Orleans or, for that matter, a movie that itself celebrates New Orleans at the height of the jazz age. And it is hard not to like Tiana, the hard-working, spunky heroine, firmly in the vein of Disney princesses since 1989’s The Little Mermaid. As with other Disney feature-length cartoons since then, this production is part Broadway musical, part romantic comedy and a bit spooky and scary. Even more than most of its predecessors, however, this one is very respectful of the formula. Do we get amusing and/or endearing woodland creatures? Do we get lump-in-your-throat moments signaled by big dewy female eyes? Do we get a happy ending? Well, actually there’s a bit of surprising, if momentary, sadness in the finale. Best roles go to Keith David as the villain, Jennifer Cody and John Goodman as a funhouse mirror version of a Tennessee Williams daughter and father, and Bruno Campos as a refreshingly fun-loving, strangely Latin sounding prince. (Seen 14 February 2010)

The Princess Bride 3 out of 4 stars

As far as I can remember (which isn’t always very far) this is where it all began. I think this was the beginning of the ironic, post-modern re-telling or re-invention of fairy tales that has become ubiquitous with movies like Shrek and Enchanted and whole lot of others. Part fantasy, part Christmas pantomime, part Borsht Belt dinner show, this rehashing of fairy tales and Errol Flynn movies was an unexpected mixture of romance and belly laughs in 1987. Still thinking of Rob Reiner as “Meathead” from All in the Family, we started to cop on that he was actually a pretty darn good filmmaker. (He had previously helmed the mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap, the romcom The Sure Thing and the Steven King adaptation Stand By Me.) The wit in this film derives from the writing by William Goldman, after his own book. In her film debut in the title role, the future Mrs. Sean Penn (Robin Wright) was nearly as beautiful as Cary Elwes, her love interest and near twin. As the vain scheming prince, Chris Sarandon not only gets away with but provokes guffaws with lines like “I’ve got my country’s 500th anniversary to plan, my wedding to arrange, my wife to murder and Guilder to frame for it. I’m swamped.” Christopher Guest makes a dandy Basil Rathbone-like villain, and you cannot help but be amused by characters like André the Giant, Wallace Shawn and Billy Crystal as the wisecracking Miracle Max. A standout is Mandy Patinkin, whose revenge-seeking Spaniard caused legions of young male filmgoers to continually recite the lines “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” Let us not overlook the nice turns by Peter Falk and Fred Savage in the framing story of a old man reading to his grandson. (Seen 2 January 2012)

The Princess Diaries 2 out of 4 stars

Disney has made something of an industry the past several years out of movies and TV shows about teenage girls being bitchy to one another. Between musical numbers or special effects, the banter largely consists of our heroine getting dissed by some Malibu or Beverly Hills princess and then giving it back better. The gold standard for this clique/class conscious entertainment may be this 2001 movie, adapted from Meg Cabot’s novel and directed by Garry Marshall. In a way, it is a junior version of Marshall’s Cinderella opus Pretty Woman. But, in another way, it is the girly version of the Harry Potter movies, i.e. a seemingly ordinary adolescent discovers that she is actually the chosen one but finds that her problems get worse instead of magically disappearing. The movie succeeds because of its reasonably realistic approach to the unlikely situation but mainly because of the talent involved. After Brokeback Mountain and The Devil Wears Prada, it is hard to believe that Anne Hathaway so recently could convincingly play a 15-year-old. As her socially conscious best friend, Heather Matarazzo still has that air of emotional desperation from Welcome to the Dollhouse. The amiable Hector Elizondo is the most unlikely of chauffeurs. And no one radiates class and royalty more than the world’s favorite former music hall chorine turned movie nanny and nun, Julie Andrews herself. Needless to say, the sequel was a given. (Seen 9 August 2009)

The Producers [1967] 3 out of 4 stars

You only get one chance, according to the old aphorism, to make a first impression. And what a first impression this was! It was the first movie directed by Mel Brooks and it could be argued that it was his best. (Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles give it a run for its money though.) And it was the first big screen role for Gene Wilder, if you don’t count his bit in Bonnie and Clyde that you probably forgot about. But more importantly, this is a movie that can never really have the same effect on you as it did the first time—especially if you’re so young that you actually saw the musical version first. Even those of us too young to remember World War II had to be shocked by its casual treatment of Hitler and Nazis. Or its frank and over-the-top portrayal of flamboyant queens. Or even just the spectacle of Zero Mostel’s serial seducing of elderly women. These things still seem shocking today, although for somewhat different reasons, i.e. early 21st century political correctness. In hindsight, what made the film so jarring was the fact that it was essentially making light of the Holocaust and that the writer/director and stars were Jewish. Yes, it was disrespectful, but it was also a huge Bronx cheer at the forces of evil with the unstoppable power of laughter. Despite the insolent yuks, this movie was “about” something—unlike many of Brooks’s subsequent spoofing sketches of movies. The cast is golden: Kenneth Mars as the deranged playwright, Dick Shawn as the hippie-ish Hitler, Christopher Hewett (TV’s future Mr. Belvedere) as the foppish director and even William Hickey as a drunk in a bar. Particularly amazing is 83-year-old Estelle Winwood (who was currently recurring as Aunt Hilda on TV’s Batman) as Mostel’s “Hold Me Touch Me” conquest. Her acting career would continue for another 13 amazing years. (Seen 8 August 2013)

The Producers [2005] 2 out of 4 stars

There are so many ironies attached to this Broadway musical within a movie based on a Broadway musical based on a movie that I don’t even know where to begin, and others have probably commented on them at length already anyway. Still, one can’t help but bask in the chief irony of Mel Brooks living out the reality lampooned by his 1968 comedy classic, i.e. satirizing the sort of people who produce Broadway shows. I never saw the stage version of The Producers, but I can say that the new movie version lacks something that the original film had and no new version can ever get again, and that is the element of surprise. When Bialystock and Bloom settled on a musical called Springtime in Hitler in the 1960s, it had shock value. For today’s moviegoers (or their parents anyway), Springtime for Hitler is a fond celluloid memory. Still, Brooks’s manic and irreverent brand of humor still shines through, and there is something reassuring about his something-to-offend-everyone approach to comedy. Neo-Nazis are, if anything, more scary today than they were in 1968, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t fun to see ridiculed. And I’m not even sure who was meant to be most offended (the gay community or the religious right or both) by the trotting out of every gay stereotype known to mankind. As a Swedish-American, even I got to feel somewhat included in the offend-everyone spirit of things with Uma Thurman’s simplistic Scandinavian bombshell. And the audience around me was fun to watch when the most clichéd pair of Irish cops ever appeared. Perhaps the biggest surprise was seeing how Brooks has aged into looking like Jimmy Durante. What? You saw the movie and don’t remember seeing Mel Brooks? Well, you must have left the cinema without watching all of the credits. (Seen 10 January 2006)

Profundo Carmesí (Deep Crimson) 1 out of 4 stars

When shown as a “surprise film” at the 42nd Cork Film Festival, this little gem from Mexico had many in the audience fleeing for the exits by the time it reached its bullet-riddled conclusion. What starts as a tale of mismatched losers who become lovers turns into a serial murder spree and finally a distasteful on-screen of bloodletting. I suppose the idea was to endear us to this pair early on and then make their first victim or two somewhat ridiculous so that we would become somewhat complicit in their acts. Well, it didn’t work. I didn’t like either of them from the beginning. (Seen 19 October 1997)

La Promesse 3 out of 4 stars

I’ve been chided by more than one person for not including La Promesse on my top ten list for 1997, but I couldn’t for the simple reason that I didn’t see it in 1997. Oh, I had the chance all right. It played at the 1997 Seattle Film Festival, but I didn’t see it there. (I don’t remember what I saw instead, but I’m sure it had lots of nudity in it.) Anyway, I finally got another chance to see this film, and it is indeed a fine one. But it’s hard to watch. Just like adolescence is hard to get through, which is what this film is about. The directors, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, made documentaries before this and it shows in the movie’s jerky, it-could-really-be-happening verité style. A gritty tale set in urban Belgium, once again we see that nobody deals with childhood and youth more unblinkingly or truthfully than francophone filmmakers. The movie’s success is due largely to the casting of young Jérémie Renier, who is in practically every scene. More to the point is the timing of Renier’s casting, as the film catches him poised exactly at that agonizing crossroads between childhood and adulthood, which for a guy means old enough to want to posture and swagger but young enough to still sort of look like a girl. (Seen 22 February 1998)

Un prophète (A Prophet) 3 out of 4 stars

Not only did this movie sweep the Césars (the “French Oscars”), it picked up the Grand Prix at Cannes and was a runner-up for Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards (the “American Oscars”). So, it must be good, right? Well, actually, it is. It’s very good. Part prison drama, part rising crime boss saga, part spiritual and social meditation, the flick is just plain compelling and a darn good story. That shouldn’t be a surprise, given director Jacques Audiard’s track record (See How They Fall, A Self Made Hero, The Beat That My Heart Skipped). When we first meet Malik (Tahar Rahim, in a star-making performance), we have little hope for his future. We don’t know exactly why he is going into prison, but we know he is only now old enough to be there. His answers to routine questions, as he is processed, reveal that he is completely adrift—from family, from religion, from society. But this victim-in-waiting surprises us and shows an unusual ability to adapt and keep in with all sides—when not playing one off against the other. Through luck, chance and a bit of kindly guidance (some of which seems to come from beyond the grave), he actually flourishes. Indeed, his instincts and luck are so extraordinary that, at one point, someone asks him if he is “a prophet or something,” thereby giving us the title. The impressive Rahim makes Malik’s maturation and growth from callow loser to wily entrepreneur seem entirely believable. And, with explicit intention or not, the movie also tells us something about the importance of demographics in a changing society. (Seen 8 July 2010)

The Proposal 2 out of 4 stars

One of the running gags/indicators of those amusing guys on UK BBC radio Five Live, Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo, is that romcoms that have a movie poster with the male star leaning against something (usually Matthew McConaughey, usually against a woman) is a bad sign. This is such a movie because its poster featured Ryan Reynolds, if not exactly leaning, then being pushed up hard against a wall or something. He is pushed by Sandra Bullock, who is his evil queen of a boss who needs a quick fix for her immigration situation. The Virginia-born Bullock plays a Canadian, and her quick fix is a sham marriage to the British Columbia-born Reynolds, playing an American. But this is not just a green card romcom, but it is also a fish-out-of-water rom as events conspire to have Bullock’s prissy character accompany her newly betrothed to his rugged family home in Sitka, Alaska. What makes this a kind of strange romcom is that, despite the fact that convention dictates that the bickering couple really belong together, it is never completely clear if they do. Fairly late in the proceedings, we are still wondering if Reynolds actually belongs with Malin Åkerman, the hometown girl he left behind. Despite some nice supporting performances from Mary Steenburgen, Craig T. Nelson and Betty White as Reynolds’s parents and grandmother, there is really nothing about Reynolds’s ambitious corporate flunky and Bullock’s imperious manager to make us root for them to get together. (Seen 29 October 2012)

The Proposition 2 out of 4 stars

You only need to know that Nick Cave penned this Australian western, as well as providing music for it, with his collaborator Warren Ellis, to know that it is going to be dark. Well, forget dark. Shakespeare’s Macbeth was dark. This movie is the emotional equivalent of a black hole. Directed by John Hillcoat, this movie gives us an 1880s Queensland blighted by one act of gut-churning violence followed by another. There is a hero of sorts. He is Irishman Charlie Burns, played by Guy Pearce, whose brothers are prone to go off on the occasional rampage. An English captain, played with exhausted determination by Ray Winstone, offers him a bargain: bring in his outlaw brother Arthur who, along with another brother, has just committed an atrocity at a farmhouse and the youngest brother, who is in custody, will avoid hanging. Meanwhile, as the captain’s prim and proper wife (Emily Watson) goes about readying her best china for Christmas dinner, we know somehow that the holidays will probably not come off without mishap. Danny Huston, son of legendary director John, is very reminiscent of the late Oliver Reed as the leader of the Burns gang. When the wildest brother learns the existence of the word “misanthrope,” he asks him, “Is that we are? Misanthropes?” “No,” replies Arthur firmly, “we are a family.” Choking on the dusty scenery he has been asked to chew, John Hurt goes crazy with the heat as an English bounty hunter, who further complicates things. The movie’s message seems to be that violence merely begets more violence. Until someone finally decides to break the cycle of violence. Which, in movies like this, usually means at least one more act of violence. (Seen 16 October 2005)

Psy-Warriors 2 out of 4 stars

Just when bomb blasts in Omagh and missile attacks in Sudan and Afghanistan make you think that the world has become a very different and dangerous place, you get a chance to look back at a film like Psy-Warriors and realize that nothing much has changed at all. Part of a retrospective of the oeuvre of late British filmmaker Alan Clark shown at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, Psy-Warriors is a filmed play that was originally shown on BBC television in 1981 (in a macabre coincidence on the same night that Bobby Sands died). To see it now is to evoke a time when idealistic and violent terrorist gangs were active in Germany, Italy and the UK and state terrorism was on the rise in both East and West. The film is as maddening and disorientating as a session of military torture, which is basically the sum of the plot. It turns out that the subjects of this abuse are military volunteers, who get much more than they bargained for. Although hard to watch, the film powerfully shows the dehumanizing process that makes a terrorist, either for or against the state. This is light years away from Clark’s best known film, the comedy Rita, Sue and Bob Too. (Seen 25 August 1998)

Psycho 2 out of 4 stars

You can wonder why Gus Van Sant would make a shot-by-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal slasher flick, but the point is, he has. And, hey, what’s the big deal? I mean, Brian De Palma has done it lots of times, mainly in 1980’s Dressed to Kill. And this remake really is shot-by-shot. I thought maybe it was a trick and they would pull a surprise at the end, like maybe Norman jumps the guard in the final scene and escapes and kills a lot more people. But no. The only truly Van Sant moment I spotted was briefly where William H. Macy (in the Martin Balsam role) bites it-- which is probably some kind of karmic payback for all those awful things he did in Fargo. If you haven’t seen the original, I don’t know what your reaction will be to this version, except maybe that the pace seems kind of slow and the actors kind of old compared to the Scream and Last Summer movies. (By the way, Vince Vaughan is plenty creepy as Norman, but he’s no Tony Perkins.) As for the rest of us, seeing this film is akin to reading the script of a classic movie. It brings back lots of memories of how good the actual movie was. (Note: sit patiently through all of the closing credits if you want to know whose kitchen knife was used.) (Seen 8 December 1998)

Public Enemies 2 out of 4 stars

When you make a movie about the gangster era of 1930s Chicago, there are two ways to go. You can make the law enforcement guys the heroes, as Brian De Palma did in his 1987 adaptation of the TV series The Untouchables. Or you can focus on the criminal, making him some sort of flawed Shakespearean figure or even a modern-day Robin Hood. Clearly, Michael Mann (whose seminal TV series Miami Vice actually did a very good job of focusing on the good guys) has gone the latter route. You cannot cast Johnny Depp and not have him be sympathetic or, for that matter, be Johnny Depp. And it doesn’t help that, in this movie, his pals have to emphasize his Johnny Depp-ness by constantly calling him “Johnny.” And, this being a Hollywood film in 2009, there also have to be echoes of recent current events. John Dillinger and J. Edgar Hoover are both consciously conducting a media war as well as a shooting war. And when Hoover keeps talking about a “war on crime,” we cannot help but think “war on terror.” The humorless, robotic good guys (led by, who else, Christian Bale) sell out their values by wiretapping and what might be called enhanced interrogation. (Interestingly, the one instance of what could be called outright torture is shown to be pretty darn effective.) In the end, Dillinger is like one of those old cowboys in an elegiac western, having outlived his time. All he wants to do is pull one last bank job (he never accepts the money bank employees offer him out of their own pockets) and then have a nice peaceful retirement. Poor guy. Instead, he finds out the hard way that there is a down side to being a movie buff. (Seen 7 July 2009)

A Public Ransom 2 out of 4 stars

We get a clue as to what the filmmaker is at when we spot posters on his protagonist’s walls. They are for films by the likes of François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and Jim Jarmusch. As clues, though, they are nearly redundant since we can pretty much deduce his influences from the moody and rather gorgeous black-and-white cinematography and the eschewing of standard commercial movie conventions. Like Truffaut, writer/director Pablo d’Stair was first a film essayist (in addition to being a rather prolific writer of crime fiction) and his cinema erudition shows throughout. Based on his own story, the movie follows the fortunes of a somewhat sleazy writer who gets drawn into another writer’s mind games by a child’s crayon-drawn poster. It’s a nifty idea that is elaborated compellingly. As the writer, Carlyle Edwards is non-stop motion, a tightly wound bundle of nervous energy perpetually puffing a coffin nail and jabbering into a cell phone as he prowls the streets of Gaithersburg, Maryland. There is a natural feel to the acting, although the amount of dialog makes it feel at times like a filmed play. It’s a throwback (a welcome one, some of us would say) to the days of longer attention spans and patience for delving into complex literary ideas. Having said that, it could probably stand to lose about ten minutes of its 100-minute running time. It’s not entirely unusual to see a technically proficient movie from a first-time filmmaker, but this one has a maturity that is indeed rare. Hopefully, it will get a chance to find its audience. D’Stair says that it will be submitted to film festivals. I’m betting that more than one snaps it up. (Seen 28 March 2014)

Puffball 3 out of 4 stars

What wonderful symmetry! Last year at the Film Fleadh I got a welcome chance to see Nicolas Roeg’s masterpiece Don’t Look Now on the big screen. Now, this year, I got the pleasure of seeing his latest film, which seems, in many ways, like a bookend to the 1973 one—and introduced by the man himself. In Don’t Look Now, Roeg took Venice and made it damp and decaying and full of menace for outsiders who don’t belong. If he could do that to Venice, just imagine what he could do with water-logged and remote rural Ireland—which is what he does in this movie. Once again, we have outsiders working on an architectural project, a weird pair of sisters who may or may not have some supernatural powers, and a pervading sense that the place itself does not want these interlopers. And, in case there is any doubt, even Donald Sutherland is back, although this time in role that doesn’t serve any obvious purpose other than to have Donald Sutherland in the movie—which, in this case, is reason enough. The couple this time are played by Kelly Reilly (in her way, nearly as charismatic as Julie Christie) and Oscar Pearce. In a situation familiar to anyone who watches Irish home improvement programs on the telly, she is doing up an old cottage—and on the soggiest, muddiest site on the entire island. (The result, by the way, is one of the best jokes in the film, especially given her de rigueur insistence that she is “respecting” its traditional character.) The obligatory strange neighbors are played by Miranda Richardson, desperate to conceive a male child before the change of life kicks in, and Rita Tushingham, as her mother, in one of the all-time great weird old lady roles. Now, I realize that I’ve made this sound like it’s a horror movie, and it certainly has all the trappings of one. But Roeg made clear that he didn’t intend the movie to belong to any genre, and it’s fair to say that that is more true of Puffball than of Don’t Look Now. Part suspense thriller, part fairy tale, part fable—this movie, in the end, is the kinder, gentler (but still disturbing) Don’t Look Now. (Seen 14 July 2007)

The Pursuit of Happyness 3 out of 4 stars

The first few frames of this movie threaten that it may be just a bit too inspirational. And the cutesy title and poster featuring Will Smith and his moppet of a kid do not particularly discourage this impression. But, in the end, the film (directed by the Italian auteur of such romantic fare as The Last Kiss and Remember Me, Gabriele Muccino) succeeds brilliantly by virtue of what it does not do. It does not make Gardner a saint—an all-too-common problem with biopics of living people. It does not go sugary sweet—although young Jaden Smith is dangerously adorable. And it does not give in to the temptation to make an overt political statement in this true tale of a family slipping off the economic ladder into homelessness, set against the dawn of the Reagan administration. This is not the first movie to deal with the victims at the bottom of society’s economic framework, and certainly not the first to treat its downtrodden hero as noble. But it is one of the few that I can think of where the noble hero refuses to give up and works within the system to succeed in spite of everything. Will Smith is a revelation as Chris Gardner, and this is clearly a story that he identifies with. No one, who has ever wondered where their next paycheck was coming from or who has spent much time minding their own child, will remain unaffected. Nor, I am guessing, will anyone else. (Seen 17 January 2007)

Pusher 2 out of 4 stars

This movie can be thought of as the Danish Spider-Man. After all, it subsequently spawned two sequels and a reboot. Okay, that’s a rubbish comparison. Made several years before Doug Liman made The Bourne Identity, this cult favorite had the gritty feel and breathless action associated with post-Bourne thrillers. It actually feels like an edgy TV show, starting with shots and name labels for the main characters and ending with what seems like a cliffhanger but is really just somewhat open-ended. As a portrait of a mid-level drug dealer during a particularly bad week, it feels fairly realistic—despite sudden bursts of action set to pulsating music. In the beginning, Frank and Tonny are living the good life in Copenhagen, and we see indications that Frank is even trying to become more refined in his lifestyle. But as the days go by, we realize that not only does he not make great decisions but he’s also a bit soft about accepting excuses from his clients. Predictably, it all goes wrong and we become totally wrapped up in Frank’s stress over his potentially fatal situation. Tonny (who would be the focus of a sequel eight years later) is played by future Bond villain Mads Mikkelsen in his film debut. The director is Nicolas Winding Refn, who scored last year with Drive. The aforementioned reboot is actually a London-set British remake directed by Luis Prieto. (Seen 12 July 2012)

Pushing Tin 2 out of 4 stars

If you were charmed by the comedic take on modern social mores in Four Weddings and a Funeral and have enjoyed such U.S. sitcoms as Taxi and Cheers, then you may find yourself liking this wry tale of air traffic controllers in the very busy air hub of New York City. That’s because it’s directed by Mike Newell (4W&aF, Into the West, Donnie Brasco) and written by Glen and Les Charles, who have provided the laughs for some of America’s finest sitcoms. Many of the best wisecracks may remind you of Frasier. The movie presents a flawless portrait of ego-driven male competition in the workplace spilling over into every aspect of one’s personal life. John Cusack is the hotshot in his prime who is extremely good and knows it, but we know there’s trouble ahead when he drives to his home and has to think several minutes about which driveway is his. Billy Bob Thornton is his stoic, mystical nemesis, who seems to do everything better, including having the youngest and sexiest wife (Angelina Jolie, who made quite an impression as “Legs” in the grrrl power flick, Foxfire). Also on hand is Australian Cate Blanchett (Oscar and Lucinda, Elizabeth) doing a fine New York accent as Cusack’s better half. Note: Seeing this film may not be particularly reassuring to people who fly a lot. (Seen 29 April 1999)

Pusinky (Dolls) 2 out of 4 stars

It used to be that films from Eastern Europe were arty and hard to follow and slow and weird. But this 2007 Czech flick by Karin Babinská is like nothing so much as an extended episode of an edgy UK teen TV series like Skins. Another way to look at it is as an Eastern European version of Where the Boys Are. Iska, Vendula and Karolina are three teens who have apparently been friends forever. They keep mentioning that this will be their last summer together, apparently because with school behind them they know they will go their separate ways, but it’s more as if they sense that the things that bound them as children will not be enough to sustain friendship because of the different kinds of adults they will become. Iska and her younger brother Vojta are dragged off, against their better judgment, on a summer lark, a hitchhiking journey to the Netherlands. But, as with most road movies that double as coming-of-age stories, the destination is virtually irrelevant in comparison to the journey. There is much bad behavior. Mistakes are made. Regrets pile up. Hormones rage. And three young women get a clearer picture of who each of them is. It’s the kind of movie that is liable to keep the father of a young girl awake at night. (Seen 8 July 2009)

Puteshestviye molodogo kompozitora (The Young Composer’s Journey) 2 out of 4 stars

Another Soviet film. It’s 1908 and a shy, earnest, gangly young composer sets out for Georgia (theirs, not ours) to record folk songs. A rebellion against the Czar has just been crushed and people are restive and paranoid at the same time. Everybody seems convinced that the young composer has come to lead the people in battle. And it doesn’t help that his self-appointed guide, a hard drinking, hearty laughing lout by the name of Leko keeps spreading this story around. I can’t help but think that, if these Russians would spend less time casting meaningful glances about and more time talking things out, these kind of misunderstandings could be avoided. Even though this movie was made only three years ago, the acting is the exaggerated kind we tend to associate more with silent movies. I guess one of the points here is that you really can’t separate politics from art—unless you’re in Hollywood, but that’s another story. (Seen 19 May 1987)

Previous Page Home Next Page