Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2017
Scott Larson

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

The main reason for watching this movie in 1981 was the same one for watching the movie within this movie, i.e. to get a gawk at the exposed mammary glands of Mary Poppins herself. Director Blake Edwards’s gambit within a gambit of laying bare his wife, Julie Andrews, made this poison pen letter to Hollywood eminently commercial and, presumably, gave him the clout to bite the hand that was feeding him. (The success of his previous film, 10, probably didn’t hurt either.) There was obviously a lot of pent-up frustration waiting to get vented in this movie, and that’s often not a good portent for the film actually being watch-able. In this case, we non-insiders can get plenty of mileage out of admiring the cast: William Holden, Robert Vaughan and Larry Hagman as studio execs; Robert Preston as Malibu’s local Dr. Feelgood; Shelley Winters as the earth-mother agent; Loretta Swit as the relentless gossip columnist. Edwards even cast his daughter Jennifer and Rosanna Arquette, in one of her earliest big-screen roles, as two free-spirited hitchhikers. If you’re the kind of movie watcher who just wants to get to the next plot point, you probably find Edwards’s comedies frustrating. They tend to be long on character and pratfalls and leisurely about storytelling. They are best enjoyed by imagining you are at a party. In fact, many of Edwards’s comedies revolve around parties. Heck, he even once made a movie called The Party. And what a party this one is. At this distance, it is definitely bittersweet to watch Holden, Preston and Robert Webber downing highballs and pontificating on life and death. This was Holden’s last film. By the end of 1981, he was dead. Within six years, Preston would be dead, but not before triumphing in Edwards’s Victor/Victoria. Webber would be dead within eight years. And the subject of their well-lubricated discussion, Edwards’s stand-in, played by rubber-faced Richard Mulligan, has since left us as well. Thanks to the magic of celluloid and magnetic media, we have the good fortune to be able to re-visit them from time to time. (Seen 3 December 2004)

S.W.A.T. 2 out of 4 stars

Something we know from watching movies is that specially formed commando (and apparently S.W.A.T.) units are usually composed of extremely macho types with huge egos and no respect for authority and who know the right thing to do in every situation, even if the pencil pushers above them don’t. This is just as well, since the bureaucrat in charge is usually a craven political type who distrusts everyone working for him and whose instincts on virtually every question are dead wrong. Something new we learn from this movie (adapted from the 1970s TV series) is that, even though a $25 million reward persuaded no one to give up Saddam Hussein, an offer of $100 million uttered while passing a TV camera by an international crime boss, within hours, motivates every criminal, terrorist and the odd bad cop in Los Angeles to mount a sudden and well-coordinated campaign to free him. In other words, this is a turn-your-brain-off-and-go-with-it kind of flick. In the post-Iraqi-war environment in America, it is appropriate that the villain of the piece is a perfidious Frenchman who does most of his dirty work with his checkbook. Now that this movie has reached Europe, it will go a long way to explaining to people on this side of the Atlantic what life is like in a major U.S. city and why the Bush administration considers the security situation in Baghdad no big deal. (Seen 7 January 2004)

Sabrina 2 out of 4 stars

As with most superfluous remakes, this one is best appreciated if you don’t have any bothersome memories of the original. If you do know Billy Wilder’s original version, you won’t be able to watch Harrison Ford and Julia Ormond without being reminded of Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn. (Greg Kinnear, amazingly, seems to have created a brand new character to replace the old William Holden role.) Like The American President, this is pure fantasy, doing for the the super-rich what President did for politicans and lobbyists. At one point, Ford says, “It’s the 90s” and to underscore the point his character uses a laptop and a cell phone—while wearing a bow tie and bowler! But rather than try to update this fairy tale, it is content to merely recreate it as a strangely old-fashioned and sweetly romantic movie. Like Rob Reiner, Sydney Pollack has given us a great movie to which to take a date—assuming you’re not put off by a beautiful young woman being wooed by a man old enough to be her father. (Seen 17 December 1995)

Safe 2 out of 4 stars

When political conservatives began targetting the National Endowment for the Arts and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in earnest a few years ago, one of their prime examples of “misuse” of public funding was a film by Todd Haynes called Poison. (It contained a sex scene in an all-male prison.) Todd Haynes is now back with a new film (with more public funding!) called Safe. Like the earlier movie, this one has a theme of intractable illness running through it. Julianne Moore (Benny and Joon, Short Cuts) plays Carol White, one of the blandest movie characters you will ever encounter. Imagine a TV disease-of-the-week movie in which the victim and everyone around her are basically boring and shallow, and there is no cure for the disease, and the people who attempt to treat her are good-intentioned but powerless to do much. There’s no inspiring, feel-good ending to this story! The disease here is real one, called among other things “environmental illness.” (Remember when Anthony Edwards spent a season in a bubble house on Northern Exposure?) Not much happens for most of the film’s two hours, but to Haynes’s credit he makes it interesting to watch anyway. Without a lot of exaggeration, the movie makes us increasingly aware of all the car fumes, airplanes flying overhead, hairsprays, painting, and other everyday activities exposing us to chemicals. When Carol realizes that she has become hyper-sensitive to the world around her (“allergic to the 20th century”), she takes refuge in the only place that seems to have a handle on the problem, a New Age retreat in New Mexico. But even here we still hear the airplanes and trains and the occasional car. Haynes doesn’t exactly ridicule the New Agers who take Carol in (a few lines seem borrowed from Al Franken’s Stuart Smally character on Saturday Night Live), but there is just a hint of something sinister. But not really any more sinister than her previous upper middle class existence. In fact, the whole movie is permeated with the sense that something isn’t right, but the reason is always just below the surface. It might have just been my imagination, but there seemed to be a lot more coughing going on in the audience than usual during this film. (Seen 8 June 1995)

Safety Not Guaranteed 3 out of 4 stars

This movie did my heart good. It has gotten a limited release and has played mainly at various film festivals, including my beloved Seattle International Film Festival, which is appropriate since it was filmed in western Washington. It is your basic low-budget, independent quirky romcom, and God love it. It stars Aubrey Plaza, who is a favorite in our house for her consistently entertaining turn as sullen intern-turned-secretary April on TV’s Park and Recreation. She plays much the same character here with a similar story arc, as she finds herself drawn to one of life’s potentially marginal yet somehow compelling characters, played by Mark Duplass. The setup is irresistible. Plaza and two others (who likewise could be sitcom characters), working for a Seattle magazine, take off on a junket to the Washington coast under the pretext of investigating a classified ad seeking a partner for a time travel project. Much of the fun is trying to figure out which way this potential fantasy might be going. For my money, the ending is downright lovely. The director and writer are Colin Trevorrow and Derek Connolly, respectively. (Seen 11 January 2013)

Sala Samobójców (Suicide Room) 3 out of 4 stars

When we first meet Dominik, he seems to have everything going for him. Nearing the end of his last year of secondary school, he is good-looking and has wealthy and powerful parents. More than a little spoiled and bratty, behind his cool façade he is actually beset by a fair mount of insecurity and loneliness. After an unguarded moment during a karate sparring session leads to him becoming an object of ridicule at school, he retreats into an online community that is fixated on self-harm and snuff films. Tellingly, his self-absorbed and largely absent parents only realize this when the housekeeper finally calls the police ten days after he has locked himself in his room. Writer/director Jan Komasa’s feature debut is essentially a cautionary tale about the dangers of the internet, but it is elevated by Jakub Gierszal’s harrowing performance as Dominik. His transition from sophisticated jerk to emotional basket case is completely convincing. It’s the kind of performance that requires an actor to reveal much that is unflattering and uncomfortable, and Gierszal holds absolutely nothing back. The film also benefits from some stunning animation that represents the online interaction. Those sequences make the virtual fantasy world truly mesmerizing and seductive and enable us to understand why an alienated youth would be drawn to it. By the time the movie reaches its sucker punch of a conclusion, we honestly feel as though we have been to hell and back. Probably not to be recommended for the emotionally fragile. (Seen 30 January 2015)

Salmer fra kjøkkenet (Kitchen Stories) 2 out of 4 stars

What a strange time the years after World War II were. With the death and destruction finally ended, it was time to start improving people’s lives in new and inventive ways. This film, by Bent Hamer, is based on something that apparently really happened. Swedish scientists engaged in extensive field research studies to design the perfect kitchen. This film tells, in a dryly amusing and gentle way, of one researcher assigned to monitor the kitchen movements of a single Norwegian farmer over the course of a winter. The researcher and his subject are forbidden to communicate, and yet they are each other’s only human contact for much of the time. As time goes along, the rules get relaxed and then discarded. and a strong bond is gradually forged between the two men. Slow-paced by popular movie standards, the film does pay off in the end. Its humor belies a wry allegory of inter-personal relations as well as how Norwegians and Swedes regard each other. At one point the farmer remarks that the Swede is observing, just as the Swedes “observed” during the war (in which Norway was caught up). If there is a message here, it is that life is too short not to get involved. (Seen 14 October 2003)

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen 3 out of 4 stars

Another thing I never expected to happen is that, as he gets older, Ewan McGregor is starting to look strangely like Dennis Quaid. Even stranger is that he’s starting to take on roles that normally Hugh Grant would have been cast in. I can’t speak to how well Simon Beaufoy (Oscar winning screenwriter of Slumdog Millionaire) has captured Paul Torday’s novel, but I can say that for most of the movie’s running time, it is a very engaging comedy. In the hands of director Lasse Hallström, its wry take on human behavior and certain Scottish mannerisms at times feels like a Bill Forsyth film. Maybe it trades on some ethnic and/or movie stereotypes, particularly in the case of Amr Waked’s sheik, who seems to speak exclusively in pearls of mystical wisdom. But I found the whole enterprise quite entertaining, including the celebration of the metaphysical and spiritual aspects of fishing. Even more so the jabs at politicians and bureaucracy. The broadest comic role goes to none other than Kristin Scott Thomas, as the prime minister’s barracuda of a press adviser, who clearly seems to be having a great time. As with any romcom (which this essentially is), the main problem is how to avoid or embrace the inherent predictability of the genre. But Beaufoy’s script keeps us (well, me anyway) guessing because, despite the attraction between McGregor and Emily Blunt, they are both in relationships that we would like to see succeed. The whole thing goes awry toward the end, which is a shame, but I derived enough pleasure out of it anyway to still bestow the coveted third star. (Seen 18 February 2012)

Salt 2 out of 4 stars

Early on we notice that Angelina Jolie’s arachnologist husband keeps some creepy looking spiders in their apartment. We know immediately that these creatures will figure at some point in the ensuing action. It is a testament to the cleverness of this film that, for most of us anyway, they don’t figure at all in the way that we think they will. While the movie does its best to keep us guessing and to confuse us, there are a couple of things that are never in doubt. But at least we don’t become bored wondering how in the heck the story will manage to get to how we know it has to wind up. After all the action thrillers that have come and gone over the years, this is probably the best we can hope for. Some cynics wonder how a female the size of Jolie can possibly be convincing as she single-handedly outfights scores a fit and larger men, but you know what, in the magic of the cinema screen it works, so don’t get hung up on it. Jolie, to her credit, is one of the few women who play credibly in a movie genre that is still mostly the domain of males—and more power to her. Directed by Phillip Noyce (Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger) and written by Kurt Wimmer (the Thomas Crown Affair remake, Law Abiding Citizen), the film has the good sense to consistently move fast enough so there is little time to dwell on plot holes or illogic. But there are just enough elements borrowed from movies like the Bourne and Mission: Impossible films to make it feel that little bit derivative. But not so much that it gets in the way of enjoying yourself while you munch your popcorn. (Seen 8 September 2010)

Saltwater 2 out of 4 stars

A few years ago Irish playwright Conor McPherson wrote the screenplay for a movie called I Went Down and the writing was very clever indeed, as you would expect from a playwright. Well, he’s now written another film and he’s directed it to boot, and the writing once again is quite clever. But the comedy here is mixed with more serious subjects, not the least of which is brief but (deliberately) distasteful rape scene. But what you will most likely remember of the movie is one perfectly choreographed moment where an egotistical university professor attempts to take a venerable and esteemed scholar down a peg in a very public setting and things go spectacularly awry. Chief among the pleasures of the film is the reunion of the two stars of I Went Down, Peter McDonald (who can also be seen in When Brendan Met Trudy) and Brendan Gleeson. But this time we have an ensemble cast, not a two-man show, and this tale of a family coping with the ennui of the off-season in a coastal holiday village ventures in many directions, few of which are completely expected. (Seen 9 March 2001)

Un Samedi Sur la Terre (A Saturday on Earth) 2 out of 4 stars

Un Samedi Sur la Terre started out as an experimental short film and then grew to feature length. You can sort of tell that because the structure seems to be more important to first-time director Diane Bertrand than the story. The film is literally a puzzle with no coherent narrative. We jump back and forth in time and sometimes watch characters address the camera in documentary style, talking about a tragic event. The story (and there is one, more or less) involves Claire and Martin who are brother and sister but don’t know it and how their fates are ultimately intertwined. Claire in particular is rather opaque, and the narrative structure makes it hard to get involved with the characters in general. But there is something lyrical and poetic about the way Bertrand has put it all together. The film isn’t so much haunting as momentarily mesmerizing. (Seen 17 May 1997)

Sangue vivo (Life Blood) 2 out of 4 stars

Okay, here’s another one of those questions I wouldn’t even have to ask if I didn’t see so many darn movies. Say you just got shot in the stomach and your brother is standing over you, eager to help. Would you ask him to a) get you to the nearest emergency room a.s.a.p. or b) play the tambourine for you “one last time”? If you can get past sentimental bits like that, this is a fairly entertaining little melodrama set in a rustic coastal corner of Italy. We get intimations early on that things may not turn out well because the main character, Pino Zimba (played coincidentally by someone named Pino Zimba; the cast are non-professionals), talks a lot about getting out of the shady smuggling he’s involved in and says things like “This is the last time I’m doing this.” Even when things are going well, he can’t help but point out that life tends to drop another shoe. And things are going rather well since he and his band are on the verge of a record contract. The main pleasures of the movie are to watch Italian village life and scenery and hear a rustic dialect that rarely if ever makes it to cinemas on other shores. (Seen 23 May 2001)

Sant Ar Livet (Such Is Life) 2 out of 4 stars

Colin Nutley’s Such Is Life is much more agreeable than his 1993 offering, The Last Dance. This is a leisurely, romantic comedy that is as relaxing as the high-class piano bar (in Stockholm’s Grand Hotel) where much of the action takes place. The plot involves lounge pianist Tin-Tin who has just a couple of weeks left until her self-imposed deadline, her 30th birthday, to get married. She lives with Paul, who dispenses advice over the radio on other people’s relationships while he has no clue as to how to handle his own. The movie is at its best when Tin-Tin’s irrepressible Auntie Mame of a mother is on screen. As often happens, the movie tends to descend into silliness toward the end, but the beautiful photography of a Norwegian fjord makes up for it. (Seen 26 May 1997)

The Santa Clause 2 out of 4 stars

No, this isn’t the recently released sequel. I went back to the source and saw the 1994 original. I know that it was really popular and made a lot of money, but let’s face it. This movie epitomizes not only everything that has become wrong with Christmas but also why artistic snobs sneer at the name Disney. The film apes Miracle on 34th Street by recounting a tale of a man persecuted for believing that he is Santa Claus and the effect he has on a child who desperately wants and needs to believe in the jolly old elf. But, in a case of Hollywood at its worst, it drains the magic out of the Santa Claus legend by deconstructing it with literal, technical explanations for everything. On one hand, it has the sensibility of that song about the reindeer running over grandma, yet it still goes for the knee-jerk tear. Annoyingly, The Santa Clause pretends to uphold values that people in Hollywood themselves don’t believe, e.g. there is something wrong with people who eat small and healthy portions, and people who spout psycho-babble all the time are jerks. In Miracle on 34th Street, Kris Kringle only wanted to be nice to everyone. In The Santa Clause, Tim Allen just wants to get off one-liners at his ex-wife and her idiot husband. (Seen 8 December 2002)

Santa Fe 3 out of 4 stars

Part two of The Austrian Trilogy which, incidentally, is titled Where To and Back? Anyway, this flick has about as much to do with Sante Fe as Brazil had to do with Brazil and Paris, Texas had to do with Paris, Texas. First, I have good news and bad news about our friend Ferry. The good news is, he finally manages to get on a boat out of Marseille to Casablanca and then New York. The bad news is, he doesn’t have a visa to enter the U.S. and he and others in the same predicament can’t get off the boat. One woman is so desperate that she jumps off the boat, and Ferry goes in after her to save her and he drowns. Meanwhile, the story follows a friend of Ferry’s, Alfred Wolff (aka Freddy), who is able to disembark and whose dream is to head for Santa Fe, New Mexico, and become a Jewish cowboy. The film observes various Jewish emigrants in New York who are having varying degrees of luck in dealing with the trauma of what they have been through, a new country and language, and a scarcity of jobs even for the very skilled. Freddy thinks it’s a great country because they give free refills on coffee. But soon he is in a sweatshop where he gets fired because he does double stitching instead of single stitching. After walking the streets awhile, he is taken on by a European poet who is now running a delicatessen with his daughter. In the funniest and saddest scene, an emigrant actor gets a job in Hollywood playing Nazi villains. He gives a hilarious and ironic stereotyped sample of his acting to his friends in New York, but his performance sends a woman, who was in a concentration camp, into a screaming fit. By the end of this episode Freddy enlists in the U.S. Army and is waiting to be sent to Europe. Tune in tomorrow for the conclusion. (Seen 2 June 1987)

Satellites & Meteorites 2 out of 4 stars

We have seen films in this vein before, and they usually have the word “heaven” in the title. Specifically, Alan Rudolph’s Made in Heaven and Mark Waters’s Just Like Heaven. It’s a fantasy. And we know it’s a fantasy because it takes place in an Irish hospital that has only two patients and the entire staff are constantly devoting their time 24/7 to them. But there is nothing wrong with a nice fantasy, and this is one. Written and directed by Rick Larkin, it keeps things just quirky enough that we can’t be sure where things are heading or, for much of the time, exactly what is going on. Which is all to the good. The leads are likable enough, which is crucial. Adam Fergus has a sort of Aidan Quinn quality to him, and Amy Huberman will be familiar to Irish TV viewers as the disaster-prone receptionist Daisy for The Clinic. The ending suggests (but stops short of) something like An Affair to Remember, allowing space for the viewer to concoct his or her own fantasy. (Seen 10 July 2008)

Savage Grace 2 out of 4 stars

Before we noticed English actor Eddie Redmayne in My Week with Marilyn and, even more impressively, in Les Misérables, he turned in a haunting performance in this 2007 flick about the sordid life of socialite Barbara Baekeland and her son Antony. It is directed by Tom Kalin, who previously made another film about a true-life relationship that resulted in murder, 1992’s Swoon about Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold Jr. Based on a 1985 book by Natalie Robins and Steve M.L. Aronson, Savage Grace lays out the basic known facts of the story of Baekeland (played by the always capable Julianne Moore), her turbulent marriage to the grandson of the inventor of Bakelite plastic and her tricky relationship with her son. The facts of the story lend themselves to an ever-escalating series of set pieces of madness and rage, so it is surprising how restrained this movie is, as it moves from one episode to another. While it is clear that mental illness runs in the family, the movie never explicitly makes clear that Antony was schizophrenic. So the tragic conclusion nearly comes as a surprise, though by all accounts it wasn’t that surprising to distressed friends and acquaintances. Mostly, the movie leaves us with a disturbing feeling of voyeurism and a distasteful sense of how the idle rich live. (Seen 8 May 2013)

The Savages 2 out of 4 stars

Laura Linney got her first Oscar nomination for playing a sister with an unusually protective bond with her brother, rooted in the premature deaths of their parents, in You Can Count on Me. Here she again plays half of a problematic brother-sister duo, but there is no danger of this performance seeming like a reprise. For a change, she is playing a slightly insecure, potentially neurotic comedy heroine that eradicates the tense, controlled characters we have become accustomed to seeing her play. In fact, with this performance (plus the fact that she has dark hair), I didn’t even realize it was her until the movie was nearly over. Her brother this time is Philip Seymour Hoffman, and the two of them are recognizable types—creative writer types, lacking the self-confidence of a strong family background and inept at establishing committed relationships. Their lives in isolation are thrown into upheaval when they suddenly find themselves responsible for their estranged elderly father, whose mind is going. When a movie ends with a play based on the events of the movie, we get the feeling that the movie itself is similarly based on real events. That is the feeling we get here. Writer/director Tamara Jenkins previously did her semi-autobiographical turn a decade ago in Slums of Beverly Hills. She does quite a good job of finding humor in the universal experience of middle age and dying parents, particularly in her otherworldly view of an Arizona retirement community. At one point, Linney’s character asks someone who has just read her play if it is too middle-class whiny. In the case of the movie, the answer is yes, but that is okay if it also entertains us. And this one does. In the end, it is all a rather bittersweet portrait of that very American phenomenon of adults adrift without the moorings of family. But, as these movies inevitably point out, we make our own ad hoc families the best way we can. (Seen 16 October 2007)

Saved! 2 out of 4 stars

After staying up practically all Tuesday night watching the election returns and learning from the exit polls that the most important issue to most American voters was “moral values,” I decided that this was an excellent time to see this movie. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but after getting past the rather novel fact that the movie is set in a Christian high school, I found that it was a pretty standard teen comedy, with all the same stock characters. We have the bitchy snobs, the rebels and, of course, the somewhat shy, basically good girl trying to figure out where she fits in. Oh yeah, and the really nice potential boyfriend. The teens are played by a host of actors who have been around for quite a while and who are nearly (if not already) too old for their roles: Susan Sarandon’s daughter Eva Amurri, Patrick Fugit of Almost Famous, Heather Matarazzo of Welcome to the Dollhouse, and one Macaulay Culkin. The adults are particularly good, including Mary-Louis Parker as a mother not quite finished with her own adolescence and especially Martin Donovan as Pastor Skip, the “cool” adult figure who really knows how to “relate” to kids. The film is directed by German-born Brian Dannelly, who knows something about religious instruction, having attended a Catholic elementary school, a Jewish summer camp and a Baptist high school in the U.S. His movie is quite funny in its observations of the religiously devout, although in doing so it at times flirts with the sort of intolerance that the film ultimately decries. And that is the nice thing about the film. In the end, it rails against intolerance and hypocrisy and preaches love and inclusion. Amen. (Seen 3 November 2004)

Saving Mr. Banks 3 out of 4 stars

Never mind what P.L. Travers may have thought of Disney’s adaptation of her Mary Poppins books. I’m pretty sure she would have found this movie pretty dreadful. Indeed, if this flick is to be believed, she found pretty much everything pretty dreadful. As played by the always wonderful Emma Thompson, this P.L. Travers is a bundle of snooty OCD symptoms. As a story, the movie is wonderfully evocative of the place Disney held in the popular culture of the early 1960s. Tom Hanks’s version of Walt may not be that close to how we remember him, but thanks to everything and everyone around him we can pretend easily enough for a while that he really is the man behind the mouse. There is something exhilarating about Thompson’s jaundiced reaction to Southern Californian culture in general and Disney culture in particular (or for that matter humanity), and the conflict in cultures is highly entertaining. The movie definitely resonates with me personally since I have vivid memories of both reading the first Mary Poppins book and of subsequently seeing the movie. I always wondered why Disney inserted the redemption-of-the-father storyline where it hadn’t existed and, while it still doesn’t erase the irony of the vaunted Disney money-making machine preaching that saving and investing money is bad for you, this movie gives a possible—if not necessarily plausible—explanation for how that came about. The performances are all first-rate, particularly that of Paul Giamatti as Travers’s unfailingly friendly L.A. driver. Fair play to the Disney people for releasing a movie that, while celebrating the company’s own history, does not shy away from showing the great man smoking and drinking and exhibiting at least a bit of ruthlessness behind the charm. (Seen 16 March 2014)

Saving Private Ryan 3 out of 4 stars

Despite Bill Clinton’s vaunted popularity with the Hollywood glitterari, mega-director Steven Spielberg (not to mention a couple of professional athletes swatting homers all summer) has done him no favors by producing a major revisit to the old patriotic, mom-and-apple-pie mythology that makes us Americans believe in and crave old-fashioned heroes. Saving Private Ryan is crammed full of all the touches and themes that are guaranteed to give Yanks a lump in the throat (and make those all-too-worldly Europeans roll their eyes at us). Most of the press has focused on the Normandy landing sequence, and rightly so. It is classic cinema. Indeed, all the blood on the beach cannot help but remind us of an earlier Spielberg classic because, in the end, Saving Private Ryan is really a re-telling of Jaws. Except instead of The Shark, we have The War. This is dyed-in-the-wool Hollywood filmmaking at its best. Most of the war movie clichés, I mean, conventions are here (e.g., the squad has to have a guy from Brooklyn, the grunt who makes the emotional speech at night takes the bullet the next day). Tom Hanks’s decent and noble captain is an archetype, and the role establishes the actor even more firmly as our generation’s Jimmy Stewart, if not our Henry Fonda. He is the self-effacing, get-it-done-for-all-the-right-reasons paragon of virtue we would love to have as our President, but who never seems to be in the running. (Seen 11 September 1998)

Say You’ll Be Mine 2 out of 4 stars

This is one more modern urban comedy about relationships, so at the outset our expectations are not very high. But this one, set in New York City, is actually quite well written and directed (by Brad Kane, a very pleasant, fresh-faced young man who bears an unnerving physical resemblance to Jonathan Taylor Thomas) and holds our attention throughout. It’s a bit as though Whit Stillman and Woody Allen had collaborated on a script for an extended episode of Friends. Nicky Katt is a bit Ben Stiller-ish as the fellow who has been pining in secret for years over a friend, who has just become engaged to the guy who used to copy his book reports in school. Megan Ward plays the too-good-to-be-true friend of a friend who pursues him. And real-life spouses Gil Bellows and Rya Kihlstedt are very funny as Ward’s romantically over-active roommates. Best of all, however, is Justine Bateman in what is really a peripheral role as Katt’s hard-as-nails lawyer sister who is perpetually barking orders at the wait staff in every restaurant she visits and who appears not to waste one moment in regret when she accidentally shoots her husband. (Seen 6 June 1999)

Le Scaphandre et le papillon (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) 4 out of 4 stars

One could cynically dismiss Julian Schnabel’s achievement with this masterpiece by saying that, with inspirational and dramatic material like Jean-Dominique Bauby’s book to work with, how could he not make an amazing movie. The answer is, all too easily. An adaptation could have wound up being shallow, maudlin, melodramatic, kitschy or all of the above. Worse, it could have been tedious. After all, it is the story of a man who was paralyzed completely except for one eye—not exactly conducive to a visual medium. But the miracle is that Schnabel convincingly conveys the sense of what it would be like to be in this situation, while at the same time taking us on an exhilarating journey through Bauby’s mind, history and imagination. As with Schnabel’s previous movies (Basquiat, Before Night Falls), we are dealing directly with themes of life and death here, but the previous films got nowhere this close into the human spirit, what it means to be alive and what is the very nature of life itself. By all rights, this movie should be depressing. It is certainly sad, but at the same time it is uplifting in a way that most movies can only hope to be. The strongest scenes, in a movie full of strong scenes, are those between fathers and sons. These include those between Bauby (played by Mathieu Amalric) and his children but especially those between Bauby and his elderly father, played by Swedish screen legend Max von Sydow. An unexpected side effect of this wonderful movie is to obviate the need for Michael Moore’s last documentary. If this film is in any way an accurate reflection of the French health care, then it is definitely the best in the entire world. Even if it isn’t, the movie provides the ideal that all societies should be aiming for. (Seen 21 October 2007)

Scary Movie 2 out of 4 stars

If, like me, you were glued to your television set for four nights last week in rapt attention, watching the U.S. Republican party national convention (c’mon, there must have been one or two others), then you may have been left with the impression that there is absolutely nothing left that the new, inclusive GOP won’t accept, celebrate or at least prayerfully tolerate. Well, not if any of them get a glimpse of Scary Movie. This is a flick designed to appeal to the worst instincts of adolescents of all ages. And it’s pretty darned funny. The challenge facing director Keenen Ivory Wayans and his brothers was, of course, how to make a spoof of the recent crop of teen slasher flicks, which are essentially spoofs themselves. The answer was to exploit the baser possibilities of its ostensibly teenage characters. The Wayans get great mileage out of Jon Abrahams as the orally fixated boyfriend, Anna Faris (looking very Katie Holmes-like) as the orally hung-up girlfriend, and Shawn Wayans as a jock who is unbelievably out-of-touch with his own not-quite-latent sexuality. Particularly funny is Shannon Elizabeth as a beauty queen so jaded that she disdainfully mocks horror film clichés even as she is being skewered. But like Wes Craven’s Scream (a film it sometimes threatens to remake in scene-by-scene Gus Van Sant style), it actually has a real plot and a real, well, unreal resolution. Indeed, this is largely and specifically a Scream satire, although there are references to other examples of the genre, venturing as far afield as The Blair Witch Project, The Sixth Sense, The Matrix) and even Titanic and Amistad. By far the best of all, however, is the appropriately unexpected nod to The Usual Suspects. (Seen 4 August 2000)

The School of Rock 2 out of 4 stars

No matter how often I see it, I am always a sucker for the big performance at the end of a movie that seems to make everything okay. Whatever problems the characters have had throughout the movie are magically solved or made unimportant by either winning the big prize or gaining a moral victory by giving the performance of their lives. Somehow I never expected Richard Linklater, whose films (Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Waking Life) have dealt idiosyncratically with American youth culture. In The School of Rock, he has made what amounts to a family comedy that blends elements of several movie genres: the straight-on rock movie with the misunderstood rocker hero winning over the squares (which goes back at least as far as Bill Haley and Rock Around the Clock), the aforementioned working-toward-the-big-climactic-performance movie, and the inspirational teacher movie. And there is yet another movie influence: the blusterer and chancer who finds himself a fish out of a water to amusing results. In short, imagine John Belushi in the Robin Williams role in Dead Poets Society with the young Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney as his pupils. How you feel about this film will essentially be a reflection of how you feel about Jack Black. The movie is all his, and it gets harder to imagine him ever playing anything but this character. He has great support from Joan Cusack, as the principal of the prep school where Black improbably finds himself teaching. She is wound so tight, we cringe waiting for the uncoiling. The best things about the movie are its serious love of rock music—which is sincere and not a mere plot device—and a subtle, non-preachy message that we are all cooler than we think we are. (Seen 10 March 2004)

Science Fiction 2 out of 4 stars

Our old friend Pablo D’Stair is back with one of his talky monochrome flicks filmed, as he puts it, “in the Dogme 95 spirit.” He always reminds me of Jim Jarmusch but, when his characters get going with their idiosyncratic observations on life and meta-life, he also brings to mind the early work of Richard Linklater. The setup is reminiscent of D’Stair’s last movie Mississippy Missippi Tu-Polo in that it deals with the struggles, concerns, anxieties and obsessions of those who write for a living—or who at least would like to make a living at it. Five science fiction writers (“unknown, unread, and well-past-their-prime,” as D’Stair describes them) spend the film’s 65-minute running time talking to each other—in varying combinations—sometimes in person, sometimes on the phone. They are consumed with their imaginary worlds and the implications of their hypothetical scientific laws. One of them obsesses over comments made on a blog. The discussions and arguments can be quite arcane. Two of them consider whether time travel, once invented, would have to become a public utility. One fellow posits that, upon arriving on a whole new world, would the first order of business be to initiate an endangered species list? His interlocutor replies that she would begin by finding out which things taste good. Underlying it all is the writers’ clear but unspoken sense that none of it really matters and that none of them is Robert A. Heinlein. (One makes the amusing argument that science fiction writers had it a lot easier before the space shuttle existed because, now that it exists, it is no longer something to be imagined.) The actors provide us with characters who are all likeable, interesting and feel like people we might hang out with in real life. The conversations are demarcated by each of the authors reading (their own?) sci-fi excerpts aloud as we view his or her head from various angles. Bonaparte’s character finishes by reciting William Butler Yeats’s The Lake Isle of Innisfree. Whether published or not, the ideas of this quintet represent serious intellectual reflection and emotional investment. And that is true regardless of whether or not they are read or appreciated or trolled on the internet. (Seen 5 September 2016)

Scooby-Doo 2 out of 4 stars

At the risk of damning with faint praise, I have to say that the live-action version of Scooby-Doo is quite a bit better than the animated original. Of course, these big-screen migrations of old TV shows are usually best appreciated by devotees of the familiar series and their offspring who are too young to know better. Personally, I’ve seen only a couple of the Hanna-Barbera originals, and they are typical of that studio’s work, with perfunctory characters ripped off from yet older comedies (Scooby-Doo owes a lot to the Abbott & Costello movies, as well as one or two of Don Knotts’) and a sense of humor that thinks that a dog trying to talk and occasionally breaking into sniggers is endlessly hilarious. But, also like similar movie adaptations, this film has a playfully ironic self-awareness. Like actually noting that every cartoon always had the same exact plot. Sarah Michelle Gellar has fun playing off her Buffy persona, although here she looks oddly like Calista Flockhart. But that actually helps the numerous popular chick gags at her expense. One of the funniest lines is when she and Shaggy briefly trade bodies and the perpetually snacking Shagster is aghast to find her tummy is continually empty. With Rowan Atkinson on hand as a chief suspect, we are at least assured that the sniggers here will be genuinely earned. (Seen 18 January 2003)

Scorpion Spring 2 out of 4 stars

First off, Scorpion Spring is place, not a time of year. It is in a California desert somewhere north of the Mexican border. And several people find themselves headed there—either out of greed or out of fear or because they have no choice. The feature debut of Brian Cox, Scorpion Spring bears a passing resemblance to the first part of From Dusk Till Dawn and is also a bit reminiscent Blood Simple, although not so intricately plotted. It has neither the former’s grossness nor the latter’s suspense level, but it is still intriguing enough. Cox seems to be going more for believability than for thrills. The cast includes the ubiquitous Alfred Molina playing yet another nationality (French) and Esai Morales as a dude who’s handy with a screwdriver. (Seen 2 June 1996)

Scotland, Pa. 2 out of 4 stars

One of my favorite recurring TV and movie characters is the completely inept deputy. From Barney Fife in The Andy Griffith Show to Andy Brennan in Twin Peaks, these guys crack me up. I am pleased to report that law enforcement incompetence has reached yet a new height in Billy Morrissette’s Scotland, Pa. This film’s “Ed the cop” (played by John Cariani) makes Barney look like a Nobel prizewinner. When his superior (the dependably weird Christopher Walken) presses him as to whether he has made a certain phone call, Ed protests in a whiny voice, “I’ve dialed the number 95 times,” adding for emphasis, “I’ve practically got it memorized!” The large assortment of offbeat characters is the main delight of this comedy, which is best appreciated, first, as yet another spoof on the 1970s and, second, as a parody of films noirs and, third, as a wacky homage to old TV detective shows like McCloud and Columbo. The fact that it is also an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth is merely icing on the cake for viewers with a literary bent (although this film may not necessarily appeal to the same crowd that adored Shakespeare in Love). Given the theme of madness and the presence of characters who may or may not be real, I suppose we could even view this as the poor man’s A Beautiful Mind. In the end, it’s hard to say precisely what makes this film so funny, especially since the same story was also one of the world’s great tragedies. But that’s a good sign, since the best humor usually cannot be explained. (Seen 4 March 2002)

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World 2 out of 4 stars

This is a movie about baggage. Which is kind of amusing when you consider that it is deals with people who are barely in their 20s. I mean, how much baggage does someone actually have at that age anyway? The answer, of course, is: a lot. After all, the younger you are, the more your own history looms large, because there is so little of it. We have all had the experience of trying to date someone only to find that we are in metaphorical competition with every other person they have ever had a relationship with. This movie, drawn from the graphic novels by Bryan Lee O’Malley, uses a different language to portray this romantic/emotional competition. Appropriating the sensibility of video games, comic books and online social networking, our hero’s struggle to establish his own identity in the heart and mind of the female who has caught his fancy becomes a literal series of battles with various video game/pop culture creations/archetypes. Does it work? Sort of. But the jokes and witticisms (the film, adapted by Michael Bacall and director Edgar Wright is replete with sight gags, sound gags and textual gags) are so non-stop that its approach feels less like a different cinematic language than a series of relentless one-liners and spoofs à la Airplane! It’s very, very funny, but does it go any deeper than that? Not much, but it certainly doesn’t waste our time. The cast are uniformly very good, although I despair for Michael Cera, who always seems to (and can only?) play the same insecure geeky character in every movie he does. Kieran Culkin, on the other hand, knows how to throw away a line for all its worth. (Seen 1 September 2010)

Scream 2 out of 4 stars

Who among us has not watched a slasher horror film and wanted to yell at the screen, “You stupid slut babysitter! Why now, of all times, are you going down in the basement?!"? You will certainly pose such similar metaphysical quandaries watching Wes Craven’s Scream, but at least this time some of the characters are coherently aware of the rules (conventions? clichés?) of the slasher genre and even try to apply them to their own situation. In fact, like Craven’s New Nightmare, this film is one big “in” joke about horror films with lots of references, quotes, and an amusing cameo or two. Skeet Ulrich and Neve Campbell are quite good in the lead roles, even if they seem to have been cast mainly for their resemblance to Johnny Depp and Heather Langenkamp from Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street. What’s nice about Scream is that, while the self-referential-ness finally gets to the point where the characters are virtually commenting on the movie itself, the film is nicely plotted as an effective whodunit. Personally, I’d keep my eye on that high school janitor. (Seen 9 January 1997)

Scream 2 2 out of 4 stars

The idea of a sequel to Scream seemed a bit superfluous to me, but since it was the only movie playing within a 50-mile radius of my current southwest Ireland abode which I hadn’t already seen, I figured what the heck. Indeed, it is superfluous. Director Wes Craven and writer Kevin Williamson are back, so at least the quality is consistent. Inevitably set in a college that features a film school, this movie gets in some wry observations about sequels—pointing out most relevantly that they are rarely equal or superior to the original. The “in” jokes and cameos are still amusing, and there is a nice twist at the end in the best slasher movie tradition. Also, in a true inspiration, this type of sick adolescent entertainment is actually shown to have classical origins, as Neve (the Jamie Lee Curtis of the late 1990s) Campbell’s plucky heroine takes on the role of Cassandra in a school drama. And, by film’s end, we see quite literally how the theater can kill our demons. But this budding franchise has now established its formula so clearly that we have to wonder: can “Scream: The Series” be far behind? (Seen 8 May 1998)

Scrooged 2 out of 4 stars

The title, of course, is a joke—and not a particularly witty one at that. And, as would be expected, the movie itself is a joke, but it’s better than its title or its setup would give us any right to expect. It is Dickens’s A Christmas Carol updated and set at a major American television network. And, although released 20 years ago, it is not nearly dated as it should be. Indeed, the movie at times seems downright prophetic, particularly in one sequence where a censor goes into fits over a dancer (who even looks a bit like Janet Jackson) whose costume reveals a bit of nipple. A fresh look at this Richard Donner film reaffirms what we pretty much already knew, i.e. no one does jaded cynical like Bill Murray and no one has a sweeter smile in the movies than Karen Allen. Perhaps cameos from the likes of Lee Majors, John Houseman, Buddy Hackett, Robert Goulet, Jamie Farr and Mary Lou Retton would be lost on today’s youngsters, but they still work for me. Bill Murray is really miscast as a ruthless network executive (John Glover, on the other hand, has it down perfectly), but it doesn’t matter. He is perfect for mercilessly sending up all the plastic sentimentality of the holiday season. Of course, by the end, the movie trades in the same easy feel-good shtick that it has been mocking so successfully, but even that works. It’s the perfect post-modern holiday fable. (Seen 26 December 2008)

Se, jie (Lust, Caution) 2 out of 4 stars

At the very end of the lengthy credits for this lengthy movie, there is a disclaimer I cannot recall having seen before. Rather than telling us how the use of animals was monitored for their safety, it advises us that the participants in the sex scenes were over the age of 18 (as if there could be any doubt) and that the movie may not be suitable for viewers below that age. That is probably because they would be bored out of their minds. This epic by Ang Lee has a very old-fashioned feel to it. It tells its story leisurely (at 157 minutes in the uncut version). The story is about an assassination plot that takes four years to come to fruition, and it is some kind of achievement that, by the time we get to the climax, it actually does feel like we’ve been watching for four years. The genre-obsessed will have trouble knowing exactly where to place this flick. Its story is too straightforward and simple to be film noir. Its historical backdrop and exotic setting suggests that it might be meant to be a David Lean-style romantic historical epic, but the historical context (Japan-occupied China during World War II) seems mostly perfunctory to serve the plot. So then we are left with a Bernardo Bertolucci-style tale of an unhealthy but highly erotic relationship (cf. Last Tango in Paris). But the lovemaking scenes are brief enough to be nearly incidental. So we are left trying to figure out what the movie tells us in two-and-a-half-plus hours that it couldn’t have told us in one-and-three-quarters hours. Technically speaking, I cannot complain. The movie displays director Ang Lee’s customary craftsmanship. And the cast is certainly faultless. Hong Kong veteran Tony Leung (Infernal Affairs) has the delicate task of making the head of secret police and chief torturer somewhat sympathetic. Newcomer Wei Tang carries most of the weight of the film in a role that can be best described as physically demanding. If there is one message to this story it’s this. Sometimes that fancy diamond you buy for a woman can be worth every penny. (Seen 21 October 2007)

The Sea 2 out of 4 stars

But for the dark, roiling seascapes and the language people are speaking (English), this could be an Italian movie. A brooding man, who has recently lost his wife to cancer, returns to a locale brimming with significant childhood holiday memories and proceeds to experience near-constant flashbacks around every corner. The film, directed by Stephen Brown, is nearly as self-absorbed as Max, its protagonist. The script is by much-lauded Irish novelist John Banville and adapted from his own book. The locations, which evoke the remotest of holiday villages in the most off of off-seasons, are in Banville’s native County Wexford. Max is embodied by the force of nature that is Ciarán Hinds, a character actor in numerous international movies but now most recognizable for being Mance Rayder in Game of Thrones. Despite our sympathy for Max, he is not the easiest bloke to like, mainly because his grieving process seems to involve consuming a lot of alcohol. As for the film’s structure, the relentless back and forth between the dim present and the flashbacks of Max’s dying wife and his sunny childhood quickly wear out their welcome. On the positive side, however, there is an excellent cast, beginning with the immortal Charlotte Rampling—at her frozen-face, cigarette-holder-clenching best—as the proprietress of the seaside house brimming with so many of Max’s memories. Also very good are Sinéad Cusack, as Max’s wife, and Natascha McElhone and Rufus Sewell as a flamboyant well-to-do couple who fascinate the naïve young Max. The more the latter pair are on screen, the more this movie soars. The film is also strong in the way it captures so nicely the fragmentary and sometimes confusing nature of childhood memories. The young Max (played by Matthew Dillon) is tentative and passive but still manages to engage us emotionally. It’s just too bad he had to grow up. (Seen 25 August 2015)

Sechinku (Three Friends) 2 out of 4 stars

The film festival program notes describe this as a Korean slacker comedy. I don’t know about that. For example, there is much less dialogue here than in, say, a Richard Linklater film. But that is typical of most Korean films I have seen, as is the relatively slow pacing. What we have here is a portrait of three friends who graduate from secondary school with few prospects in front of them. One wants to be a comic book artist, but he gets shafted when he tries to get published. Another prefers to follow in his mother’s footsteps (rather than his constantly drunken father’s) as a hairdresser. The other one just wants to eat. There are many amusing moments in this tale, but mostly it is just poignant. (Seen 20 May 1997)

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel 2 out of 4 stars

If you liked the first movie, then you will like this one. Everyone is back (excepting the one character casualty from last time), including director John Madden and writer Ol Parker. It’s a cast you could happily watch reading out loud archived tax returns and feel that you got your money’s worth. Moreover the color and vitality of the Jaipur locations and the extended supporting cast make this feel like a proper holiday. As far as plot, we pick up where we left off and inch ahead a bit. Subplots include small dramas like Judi Dench somehow still worrying about whether she is ready to take the next step with Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith looking stoic as she comes out of the doctor’s surgery, Celia Imrie juggling two suitors, that sort of thing. Added to the proceedings is Richard Gere, whose character seems to be vaguely inspired by Peter Riegert’s turn in Local Hero. Through it all Dev Patel’s character becomes increasingly annoying as he ineptly but gamely pursues his business dreams and while continually succumbing to his insecurities over marrying the lovely Tina Desai. In the end it is all quite enjoyable as we spend a couple of hours with likeable people infused with the gentlest of humor and laced with intimations of mortality. To top it off there is an ending that is something of a reprise of the rousing finale to Slumdog Millionaire. (Seen 12 July 2016)

Second Coming 2 out of 4 stars

When you think about it, the Second Coming of Christ, as foretold in the New Testament, is essentially a sequel. And we all know what sequels really are. They pretend to continue the story, but they really tell the original story over again, but bigger and better. And this flick about Jesus appearing in Los Angeles in the year 2001 follows this rule to the letter. Of course, unless the filmmakers know something that the rest of us don’t, they have made this story up for one of two reasons: 1) they really think this is how it will be or 2) they want to make some points about the state of humanity and/or organized religion in this day and age. This portrayal of Jesus emphasizes His peaceful, loving side (no moralizing sermons here) and tantalizingly divulges that He was in love the first time around. (Chatting with the modern-day Judas who is, of course, a lawyer, He exclaims, “You were married! What was that like?”) The film starts slowly but gets very interesting in the second half. It is extremely amusing to see a cross-section of Christian “experts” grilling the Messiah and getting frustrated because He doesn’t endorse their specific doctrine. And the ending is particularly shocking, as Christ is once again done in by the “Romans” under the justification that “God’s work is more important than God.” But, as the last shot suggests, there’s always hope of another resurrection. [Related commentary] (Seen 14 June 2001)

Secret Admirer 3 out of 4 stars

I saw this teen comedy at the 1985 Seattle International Festival, i.e. back in the days when I saw everything at SIFF, and I was quite taken with it. I wondered if it would stand up three decades later. Yes, its flaws are more apparent to me now, particularly the opening stretch which—not trusting the target audience to appreciate its clever farcical structure—dwells on the usual trappings of raunchy teen entertainment, including a wild frat house party, a car chase and lots of sex-obssessed young males swearing and hurling homophobic epithets at their straight friends. Then, however, it reveals its true aim, which is to update classic French bedroom farce to southern California lovers’ lane parking farce. A couple of anonymous love letters are written, inadvertently passed around and misunderstood by the wrong readers to all kinds of ridiculous comic effect. The cast is impressive. Hunky but dim teenager Michael is played by C. Thomas Howell, recently Ponyboy in The Outsiders and a young freedom fighter in Red Dawn. His lifelong best friend and confidante is Lori Loughlin in one of her first big-screen outings. Michael’s vacuous love object is Kelly Preston, also in an early feature film role. His pals include Casey Siemaszko, J.J. Cohen and Courtney Gains, who would play similar roles the same year in Back to the Future. Parents caught up in the romantic mix-up shenanigans are Dee Wallace, Cliff De Young, Leigh Taylor-Young and Fred Ward as a hilariously wound-up vice cop. (The throbbing vein in his temple should have gotten its own special Academy Award.) Michael’s kleptomaniac little brother is a heartbreakingly young Corey Haim, in his second big screen role. The writers were Jim Kouf and the movie’s director, David Greenwalt, who has since worked mostly in television, notably Buffy the Vampire Slayer, its spinoff Angel and Grimm. Much of Secret Admirer’s appeal is owed to its soundtrack songs and an electronic score that is alternatively sentimental and pulse-pounding. It is the unmistakeable work of Jan Hammer, who was already putting the same talent to use on TV’s Miami Vice. (Seen 25 November 2016)

Secret Défense 1 out of 4 stars

The latest film by French New Wave veteran Jacques Rivette (Paris nous appartient, L’amour fou) leaves a rather fishy smell in the wake of its 170-minute running time. This is from all the red herrings that are thrown about. The first scene sets us up to expect a tense thriller. Likewise the way Rivette familiarizes us with Sandrine Bonnaire’s apartment, as if this information will be pertinent later on, as seen in numerous other films, like Wait Until Dark. (By the way, you know Bonnaire is making great money as a cancer researcher because she lives alone in a central Paris apartment roughly the size of Rhode Island.) Moreover, there are more than a few Hitchcockian touches, including an ordinary person thrust into an unusually risky situation, a few train rides, and a woman who resembles someone who recently died. But, as the title (which means “top secret”) all too helpfully suggests, the movie is more about the ways people (particularly families) do not communicate. By the 47th time that someone tells someone else that they can’t tell them the truth because it is just too horrible, you want to go for one of those guns that keep getting shoved into a drawer. (Seen 29 August 1998)

El secreto de sus ojos (The Secret in Their Eyes) 3 out of 4 stars

This is the movie that beat out Ajami, The White Ribbon and A Prophet for the most recent foreign language Oscar. Did it deserve to? Probably not. It’s basically a melodrama cum police procedural that’s a bit contrived in places and hangs on a love story that is not without problems. Having said all that, this movie is still a cut above most of what’s out there and much of it is very nicely done. Adapted by director Juan José Campanella and Eduardo Sacheri, who wrote the source novel, the film is about a retired investigator who cannot forget a rather nasty case from 20 years before, about which he is writing a novel. While the case (which unfolds in flashback) was apparently solved, Esposito—played by veteran Argentine actor Ricardo Darín (Son of the Bride, The Dancer and the Thief)—cannot shake the nagging suspicion that there is a loose end that was never tied up. Moreover, his own memories become suspect as he fictionalizes the events as well as his relationship with the younger woman who was his boss at the time. The movie creates a nice mood of melancholy and missed chances and features a rather stunning sequence filmed in a soccer stadium during a match with a massive crowd. (Seen 10 July 2010)

Secrets & Lies 3 out of 4 stars

Simply put, Secrets & Lies is about how secrets and lies are bad and how much better things can be if you just open up. As upbeat and sunny as that sounds, this is a Mike Leigh film so that means along the way we have to endure a lot of working class British people looking glum, staring vacantly, and generally treating each other rather awfully. You keep wanting to yell at these people to turn on a TV or play some music or just do something to lighten up! And when they finally manage to have a party, you can be sure that it will be a disaster of biblical proportions. Despite all this and the fact that in the end the message is rather simplistic, the movie is a gem. It is crammed so full of wonderful moments and touches (the way a photographer gets his subjects to smile, a woman describing her appetite by saying “I’m ravishing,” a self-conscious woman who keeps putting down toilet seats) that you can’t keep up with them all. This film may not be everyone’s cup of tea, and it certainly is of no use to the UK tourist board, but if you have a little patience it yields more than its share of rewards. (Seen 7 March 1997)

Sediu Yinghung Tsun Tsi Dung Sing Sai Tsau (Eagle Shooting Heroes) 1 out of 4 stars

As Hong Kong sword and sorcery action pictures get increasingly elaborate and outlandish, you have to ask: how much further can they go? Well, Eagle Shooting Heroes (by the time the movie starts, they seem to have become vulture shooting heroes) is so over the top that it is free floating in orbit. This is a satire of a whole film genre that is mostly parody to begin with. For the uninitiated, these films (e.g. A Chinese Ghost Story, Savior of the Soul) operate in a world where the laws of physics are more akin to Warner Bros. cartoons than to life as we know it. People leap huge distances with no effort, heroes and villains are as handy with their feet as they are with their hands, everyone has magical powers, and it is pretty darn impossible to actually kill anybody. Among many other things, this action comedy features a trio of monsters that look as though they wandered in from the company Halloween party, a love sick hero with a death wish, and a villain (lest there be any doubt, his name is Wicked) who desperately wants to oblige him but he has all the inventiveness and success of Wile E. Coyote. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Eagle Shooting Heroes is to other Hong Kong sword and sorcery flicks as Bob Hope and Bing Crosby’s Road to Zanzibar is to Lawrence of Arabia! It is probably best appreciated by people who have already seen lots of these films. (Seen 27 May 1995)

Seduced and Abandoned 3 out of 4 stars

Well, here’s a movie that seems to have been made just for me. This may well be the closest I will ever come to actually being in Cannes at the time of its famous May film festival and experiencing its buzz. A couple of years ago, highly respected (but commercially negligible) filmmaker James Toback came up with an ingenious project to not only make a documentary but also a possible feature film as well. He and actor Alec Baldwin decided to go to Cannes and film themselves pitching a movie in the festival’s high-powered movie marketplace. With its working title Last Tango in Tikrit, one cannot help but wonder if the pitch isn’t a bit of a put-on. The original story idea (our heroes prove to be extremely to changes in exchange for cash) is that Baldwin is a right-wing U.S. government operative in Iraq, who meets left-wing journalist Neve Campbell and they have hot sex. What Toback and Baldwin learn from people in the industry and from potential backers is that Baldwin and Campbell aren’t exactly bankable these days and that the biggest budget they can hope for is $4 or $5 million—far below the $50 million or so they are hoping for. They also learn they could get more money if the roles were taken by Ryan Gosling and Jessica Chastain. (Gosling, as it happens, turns out to be a great conversationalist and comes off as a really down-to-earth guy.) They also learn that no studio makes a movie simply because some executive likes it or has a gut feeling, as was once the case. Every single flick is now thoroughly vetted by marketers. In addition to studio types and rich people, we get to have drinks and chat with no less than people like Bernardo Bertolucci, Francis Ford Coppola, Roman Polanski, Martin Scorsese and several others. For film buffs, it’s the kind of fly-on-the-wall stuff that never seems to get old. The presentation is a bit distracting. Toback has opted for a busy screen with constantly shifting multiple frames, but when those frames illustrate some movie or personage being discussed in another frame, it has a pleasantly dizzing effect. The end result is a fascinating experience that makes you simultaneously love film more and hate the contemporary film industry even more still. (Seen 22 January 2015)

See You in Valhalla 2 out of 4 stars

A staple of low-budget North American indie films is the dysfunctional family reunion. All that is really required is actors ready to emote and show their stuff. Locations are free or cheap and not a lot of money is needed for set design, post production, etc. With a bit of pluck and luck you can even add to the marketability by finding a familiar face by an up and coming actor who is wanting to show what she can do beyond her popular sitcom role. The star here is Sarah Hyland, who is best known as airhead daughter Haley on ABC’s hit show Modern Family and who has a producer credit on this flick. While she is our point-of-view character, she is part of an ensemble cast that gives plenty of time to her lesser known colleagues. In a classic setup, the Burwood family is brought together after years of estrangement when one of the brothers takes his own life in a bizarre manner that attracts local media attention. The Burwoods are one of those movie families who constantly carry their heavy baggage around with them and throw it around freely whenever they meet. Dad was never a real father, one son’s gayness was never really accepted, another son is a judgmental jerk who looks down on the others, that sort of thing. Obviously, these situations are all too common in America and, one suspects, even more so among those work in the film industry. While there is the issue of all this feeling very familiar from other such films, the cast are likeable and competent enough to keep our attention. And the filmmakers (Jarret Tarnol directed, Brent Tarnol scripted) keep things interesting by setting up types but then having them occasionally defy our expectations. Hyland, in particular, accomplishes her mission by showing us that, despite her way-younger-than-her-actual-age looks, she can do quite a bit more than simply play a twentysomething airhead. (Seen 10 August 2015)

Segreti segreti (Secrets Secrets) 2 out of 4 stars

This Italian film by Giuseppe Bertolucci (less famous brother of Bernardo) barely has a plot, and it does tend to drag in spots. But what makes it interesting is the form. The story is this: A small group of terrorists murder a judge. One of the band kills another member of group because he goes to pieces and accidentally wounds himself during the attack. Within a few days, the mastermind is picked up by the police. That’s it. But the few events over these days are not presented in strict chronological order. And some events are presented more than once, from different characters’ point of view. We hear a radio station disc jockey introduce the same song three times. Each time we are in a different place with different characters. We see a woman in a hospital bed make a phone call to her daughter. About 30 minutes later in the film we see the same telephone conversation from the daughter’s point of view. The basic plot ties together a set of characters, who otherwise have nothing to do with each other. But the consistent thread seems to be child-parent relations. A challenging, haunting film. (Seen 28 May 1987)

$elfie Shootout 2 out of 4 stars

Two years ago Ron Jackson realized his longtime dream of becoming a filmmaker with 5 Hour Friends, a romantic dramedy about an inveterate womanizer with a golf addiction, played by Tom Sizemore. Now Jackson’s back with a sophomore feature, and it’s a different animal entirely. $elfie Shootout is a low-brow comedy featuring some of the same actors from his debut feature. Chub and Bone are pals with few prospects of ending their bachelor days or moving out of the homes they share with parents. Their days are filled with cashiering at the local liquor store and surfing the internet for babes. Then they hit on the idea they hope will lift their prospects both economically and romantically—a pay-to-enter competition for the hottest selfie. The pair have a definite dumb-and-dumber vibe about them, but the interesting thing is that, as the film progresses, it turns out to be something of a sly economic and political satire. In the course of their business venture our heroes learn some interesting lessons about the perils of competition, intellectual property, political corruption and the importance of having influential friends. Familiar faces from the earlier movie include Dan Hewitt Owens, in a dual role as Chub’s father and his congressman twin brother, and Musetta Vander, as an FBI agent with her own mysterious agenda. Rotund Bone is played Michael Barra, and befuddled Chub is played by Ryan Bollman. (Interesting cinematic footnote: Bollman has a strangely persistent fanbase of females who were turned on by his intense turn as the demonic youth Micah in the 1992 horror flick Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice.) With its sometimes leering view, the film will not be to everyone’s taste, but in the end it is harmless enough and does offer up some nice performances in supporting roles. Particularly appealing are Nerissa Tedesco, as a linguistically flexible Russian hooker, Judith Scarpone as Bone’s mom and Ian Watson as the woman who catches Bone’s eye—thereby leading to a nice final-reel nod to Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot. Georgio Daveed shared helming duties with Jackson. (Seen 6 November 2015)

Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi (Spirited Away) 3 out of 4 stars

In 2003, the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature went to this wonderful Japanese movie, beating out the likes of Ice Age and Lilo & Stitch. Its director is the masterful Hayao Miyazaki, who has shown with his traditional, hand-drawn-style animations (his other works include Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle and Ponyo) that imagination and creativity are much more important than technology when it comes to producing beautiful and compelling images. The story is about a young girl who finds herself trapped in a magical world from which she must free herself and her parents. I’m sure that this tale of witches, spirits and magical transformations has its own specific connections to Japanese lore, but it is safe to say that, for westerners, such a story will inevitably stir echoes of The Wizard of Oz. But it actually has more in common with Alice in Wonderland, in that it all follows the strange and sometimes inconsistent logic of a dream. And, while movies like this one regularly leave open the possibility that the whole thing is a dream, Miyazaki makes a point to establish that it is all really happening to surly but plucky Chihiro. Without that escape hatch, he leaves us with a wondrous world that is dark and scary but also magical and beautiful. As unreal as it is, it competently evokes the scariness of a child growing old enough to have to face the real world. (Seen 12 March 2010)

Sensation 2 out of 4 stars

What’s the deal with Irish men? I was once asked that question by a perplexed Canadian woman trying to date in Galway. Personally, I don’t have a clue, but this interesting little movie by Tom Hall is either asking the same question or maybe even trying to answer it. The set-up is that young Donal, who has been living on a farm in rural Limerick with his infirm father, suddenly finds himself on his own. He then sets out to find out what he wants out of life. It turns out that his main preoccupation is of a carnal nature. While this may sound like fodder for a teen-aimed gross-out comedy (and there is a bit of that), there is something actually sweet about the attempts of young Donal (who isn’t nearly as dim as he first appears) to explore the wider world. Donal is played by Domhnall Gleeson—son of Brendan and cast member of True Grit and the final Harry Potter movies—whose irregular features and impossible red hair mesmerize the eye. While going for the usual rural laugh, the flick has some well-observed takes on the Irish culture. While discussing their fantasies about shop girls, Donal and his friend Karl ponder, “what is it about shop girls?” “It’s because they have to talk to you” is the answer. Donal’s introduction to sophistication is courtesy of Kim (Luanne Gordon), a sex worker from New Zealand who, in her own way, is as naïve as Donal is. By the end, things wind down rather than finish up properly. But by then we’ve had more than a couple of laughs and seen a character actually develop. (Seen 8 November 2011)

Sense and Sensibility 3 out of 4 stars

For the rest of his life (post Divine Brown) will Hugh Grant have to forever shuffle through movies biting his lip, always looking contrite and ill at ease with a guilty, hang dog expression? That seems to be the trend so far, and there is no better example than Sense and Sensibility in which Grant’s “crime” is somewhat less serious (by contemporary standards anyway) than consorting with a prostitute in a public place. Fortunately, the eternally repentant Mr. Grant’s character has a relatively minor role in this handsome production which is more about such major world issues as whether young women without a family fortune can marry well and what will become of a woman as beautiful, charming and intelligent as Emma Thompson (who also wrote the screenplay) who somehow has gotten into her mid-twenties without finding a husband. This is escapist entertainment in the best sense of the word, and thanks to a bunch of Oscar nominations this film should deservedly break free of the pack of other Jane Austen movies that it keeps getting lumped with. (Seen 15 March 1996)

Senso Unico (One Way) 1 out of 4 stars

I have no idea why this film is called One Way, but I suppose I could come up with something, but I won’t. It was written and directed by an Indian (Aditya Basu Bhattacharya in his feature debut), takes place in Sicily, stars a Canadian (Lothaire Bluteau back in weird mode) playing a Sicilian, and features such characters as a jerk of an American film director and his beautiful Pakstani-born British star. Bluteau is an artist who squanders his talent on pornographic comic books. When a movie crew comes to town, he becomes smitten with the dark-haired ingenue. That’s about it. Oh yeah, and he has Walter Mitty-like fantasies about himself on a motorbike and about the red-haired star of his comic strip. More compelling is the story behind the movie. Bhattacharya is the son of independent Indian filmmaker Basu Bhattacharya, who died during the final stages of this movie. This film is lovingly dedicated to him. (Seen 6 June 1999)

Senza Pelle (No Skin) 2 out of 4 stars

Senza Pelle tells the story of a strange romantic triangle. Gina works in a bank and her all-but-legal husband Riccardo drives a bus. One day she begins to receive passionate love letters from someone she doesn’t know named Saverio. Not only do the letters come every day, but Saverio also sends flowers and gifts. And he calls so he can listen to her voice. As you can imagine, Gina finds this a bit unsettling, and the somewhat volatile Riccardo is none too happy about it either. Eventually, they track down the mysterious Saverio and he turns out to be a mentally disturbed son of a wealthy family. (The film’s title comes from a psychiatrist’s explanation that Saverio’s ultra-sensitivity is the emotional equivalent of having no skin.) Learning that her admirer (who looks a bit like Robby Benson with lots of stubble) is harmless, Gina begins spending time with him and actually finds herself strangely attracted to him. Riccardo is uncomfortable with their relationship, but he too eventually finds himself feeling compassion for the young man. The crisis comes when Saverio, feeling that Gina’s love has “cured” him, stops taking his medicine. While this unpredictable film offers no magic answers or solutions, it does have the grace to end on an optimistic note. (Seen 1 June 1995)

Seraphim Falls 2 out of 4 stars

If the title has a vaguely biblical sound to it, well, that’s just the beginning. The main hero of the piece is named Gideon and by the end, when we reach a literal and moral desert, we meet not one but two characters who might just be, well, you’ll have to decide for yourself. Let me just ask if it is entirely a coincidence that one of the actors who play them is named Anjelica (Huston). I think not. What we have on the surface is a rip-roarin’ western that is part mystery story, part revenge story and mostly a rugged and elemental drama of survival. It is marks the first time that the two current biggest international stars to have come out of Ireland have shared top billing in a feature film. Pierce Brosnan, weathered and graying, has definitely left the suave Remington Steele/James Bond image behind. He is the quarry in a frantic race across snowy mountains and down into the sagebrush-strew lowlands. His relentless pursuer is Liam Neeson, looking at times strangely like Kirk Douglas, and accompanied by an ever-dwindling gang of great character actors. Why is Colonel Carver so dead-set on revenge? By the time we get the answer and the two men are struggling across that desert (hmm, kind of makes one think of the Middle East), we feel that we are getting a lecture about cycles of violence and that the characters have become mere plot pawns rather than real people. After a strong start and middle, it’s a bit disappointing that we are getting one more movie (directed by David Von Ancken) that entertains and thrills us in violence—all in the name of telling us how futile and bad violence is. (Seen 15 July 2007)

Serenity 2 out of 4 stars

This 2005 space opera represents something that any Babylon 5 fan has to envy. Or not, since the sci-fi series B5 got tell its five-year story to the very end, something that the series Firefly (of which this feature film is a spinoff) did not get to do, by a long shot. But it does engender jealousy among those of us who were also fans of the B5 spinoff series Crusade, which was aborted similarly to Firefly. Ultimately, the question is: does this movie stand on its own as a piece of literature or can it only be enjoyed by fans of the TV series? It’s a hard question for any one person to answer, since you could fall in one category or the other but not both. I count myself as one of the fans since I went to the trouble of seeking out the series and watching it all before seeing the movie. But my sense is that the virgin viewer would find this movie entertaining on many levels although probably something less than extraordinary. Clearly, the story would have had more strength being revealed over time rather than compressed into a couple of hours. Still there are moments of thrills, chills, poignancy and wonder. It is the outer space equivalent of watching a good old western matinee with white hats fighting it out with the black hats. It’s a pity that a sequel has never materialized, resolving the last annoying dangling thread (although it can be fairly inferred from this movie): the backstory of the mysterious Shepherd Book, played by Ron Glass. [Related commentary] (Seen 14 January 2010)

7 Faces of Dr. Lao 2 out of 4 stars

Of all the movies that featured the late Tony Randall, none showed off his versatility like this 1964 film by Hungarian-born producer/director George Pal. In addition to playing six or seven different characters, Randall even made a blink-or-you’ll-miss-it appearance as an audience member of Dr. Lao’s circus. This was actually the last film personally directed by Pal, whose earlier film productions included such similarly fanciful flicks as When Worlds Collide, Houdini, War of the Worlds and The Time Machine. In the end, however, the movie is as much about William Tuttle’s makeup as it is about Randall’s acting. His characters aren’t exactly real people, and Dr. Lao in particular makes us cringe at first because he seems to be such an obvious stereotype. Only later, when he changes his accent and dialect in every scene, do we get more comfortable with him. When I was a kid, there was a lot of buzz about this movie because it was said to be seriously scary. Unfortunately, the art of visual effects has long since left it far behind, although the climactic scenes with the Loch Ness monster are still pretty clever. Even more interesting is the way the movie presents some classic Hollywood archetypes. These include the mysteriously magical stranger who comes into town and solves everybody’s problems (e.g. Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins, released the same year, and Cary Grant and Denzel Washington, respectively, in The Bishop’s Wife and its sequel), and the small western town full of cowardly and hypocritical residents who just need a principled man, backed by a supportive woman, to show them the way (cf. High Noon). (Seen 8 August 2004)

Seven Years in Tibet 3 out of 4 stars

I put off seeing this film because it stars Brad Pitt, and I figured it was a sequel. (You know, Seven: Years in Tibet.) Okay, seriously, since this film is directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud (Quest for Fire) and stars Pitt, we know that at the very least it will be nice to look at. And it is. Indeed, since the principal character, Heinrich Harrer, is for the most part a bleach-blond Aryan wise-ass, Pitt actually works quite well in the role. The front story of two westerners penetrating and living in isolated Tibet (essentially living a real-life version of the fantastical story told years before in Lost Horizon) during World War II is interesting enough, but the real reason to see the movie is to gain a better understanding of what happened in Tibet four to five decades ago. This film has undoubtedly embarrassed various political leaders, especially in China and the United States. And well it should. (Seen 27 November 1997)

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad 2 out of 4 stars

This 1958 adventure was the Galway Film Fleadh’s tribute to the late special effects master Ray Harryhausen. Youngsters today, raised on CGI, might laugh at the stop-motion animated monsters in this flick, but I can tell you that, when movies such as this first came out, they were pretty darn scary and realistic to us kids. Creatures such as the one-horned cyclops, the roc and the dragon now clearly look like they were made of clay, but I have to say that Sinbad’s fight with a skeleton still holds up pretty well. The story is pretty standard Hollywood adventure/fairytale stuff, but bald British actor Torin Thatcher makes a pretty good villain as a magician who is not so much evil as just very self-interested. And Kathryn Grant (who had recently wed Bing Crosby) was spunky and appealing as Sinbad’s fiancée, a princess made tiny by a magic spell. The busy director was Nathan Juran who in the same year also made Attack of the 50 Foot Woman and in the previous year directed Ronald and Nancy Reagan in Hellcats of the Navy. As Sinbad, strapping Seattle-born Kerwin Mathews cuts a dashing figure but makes no effort to pretend he is a native of the Middle East. That makes it all the more incongruous, especially in this day and age, when he begins sentences with phrases like, “May Allah grant…” (Seen 14 July 2013)

Sex and the City 2 2 out of 4 stars

Clearly this sequel, like its predecessor, exists purely for fans of the original TV show who want to see more of it. Those of us who have never actually watched a full episode can still get a sense of its demographics by the opening sequence: the gayest of gay weddings featuring no less than Liza Minnelli herself. I suppose for fans, the appeal is fantasy about living a fabulous urban life where little things like money never seem to be a problem. The rest of us can enjoy it as a satire of people who have such fantasies. Plot-wise, not much happens. To the extent that there is a story arc, the ladies find that they have to make some adjustments because of marriage and/or motherhood—except Samantha, whose lifestyle is unchanged and who only has to cope with menopause. As if the upper class haunts of the Big Apple somehow cannot provide enough decadence for a big screen motion picture, the girls are brought off to Abu Dhabi, where the excess is even more, well, excessive. A bit of tension is introduced when Samantha’s freewheeling personal life runs afoul of the emirate’s more conservative elements. But then how will they possibly get their kicks when there is finally no one left to outrage? (Seen 25 January 2013)

Sexo, pudor y lágrimas (Sex, Shame & Tears) 2 out of 4 stars

The somewhat hand-wringing title plus the fact that this film comes from Latin America (Mexico) might cause us to suspect that we are in for another Catholic repression/guilt-fest. But this is actually a rather sophisticated and bitter romantic comedy about mostly attractive yuppies—with a serious twist thrown in toward the end. The story centers on three women and three men. These include two married couples, and it could be argued that not only should none of these people be together, most of them shouldn’t be with anybody. It is easy to imagine the Hollywood casting for a North American remake. Demi Moore and Jeff Goldblum would be the passionate photographer and her passive, intellectual husband. Peter Gallagher and Winona Ryder would be the compulsive womanizer who has sold out his idealistic dreams and his vacuous trophy wife, etc. There are serious sparks in this new installment of the time-old war of the sexes, and once again we learn that men and women can’t live with or without each other. And also that men need buddies, and women need friends. (Seen 5 June 2001)

Sexy Beast 2 out of 4 stars

Filmed largely in Spain’s sun-drenched Almería, this tale of an English safecracker’s struggle to remain in lazy, idyllic, expatriate retirement endeavors to make you feel the Andalusian sun’s heat. In fact its sunny locale, criminal milieu, pastel visuals and pop soundtrack make this flick feel like a belated Eastender answer to Miami Vice. Ben Kingsley’s featured role as the man trying to bring Ray Winstone back to London for one more score earned him a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for 2001. And this is definitely one movie where, upon seeing Kingsley appear on screen, we do not automatically think to ourselves, “Oh, it’s Gandhi.” Far from it. His Don Logan is a character we have all, unfortunately, known at one time or another in our lives. Whether he was your boss, a relative, a friend’s husband or (God forbid) your husband, he is the man so tightly wound that everybody walks around him on eggshells, waiting for the inevitable and unpredictable explosion. But Ian McShane, as the London crime boss, shouldn’t be overlooked as a vessel packed full of menace either. Directed by Jonathan Glazer, the movie nicely provides quite a few sustained moments pregnant with suspense. It may be only when the final credits roll that you realize that you forgot to start breathing again. The film also provides a useful reminder that your last houseguests weren’t as nearly bad as they could have been. (Seen 16 December 2005)

Shadow Dancer 3 out of 4 stars

A well-made little thriller, this movie keeps you in a fair amount of suspense the old-fashioned way: by getting you to care about the characters and to become invested in their well-being. Andrea Riseborough (who played a not dissimilar character in the remake of Brighton Rock) belongs to a Republican family in Belfast around the time that a ceasefire was being negotiated in the 1990s. Picked up for being involved a bomb plot in London, she is pressured by MI5 agent Clive Owen into turning informer. That she will have close calls is predictable. What is less predictable are some of the twists that happen in the final stretch. It turns out that the Brits have a larger strategy that Owen’s character is not aware of and his growing concern for Riseborough’s safety puts him in the middle. The strong cast features a number of familiar faces, including Domhnall Gleeson (Harry Potter, True Grit), David Wilmot (even more menacing than he was in The Guard) and Gillian Anderson (who seems to be mainly based in the British Isles these days) as a somewhat less sympathetic government agent than the one she played on The X-Files. James Marsh directed, and Tom Bradby wrote the screenplay after his own novel. (Seen 15 July 2012)

Shadow of the Pepper Tree 1 out of 4 stars

I keep waiting for a really good film about Latin America in the vein of magic realism. Eréndira and Like Water for Chocolate come close, but I’m still hoping for something that does in a film what Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude did in a novel. After seeing Shadow of the Pepper Tree, I’m still waiting. Although the film comes from Mexico, it was written, directed and produced by a couple of gringos (Francesca Fisher and Taggart Siegel) who live in trendy San Miguel de Allende. They took advantage of the colorful atmosphere there and cast several of the American friends in bit parts in this story set in the 1960s when a drug culture was flourishing. The story concerns the daughter of a healer who inherits mysterious powers but is torn between using them for good or evil. An American painter who seduces her doesn’t have a positive influence on her struggle. Unfortunately, the whole thing plays more or less like a Mexican version of Carrie. In fairness, however, I didn’t see the whole thing. After it was over, Fischer informed us that the second reel was missing. Oddly, I hadn’t really missed it. (Seen 31 May 1996)

Shadow of the Vampire 2 out of 4 stars

It’s hard to know what to make of this re-telling of the making of the classic German silent horror film Nosferatu. At times the outsized and fatal obsessiveness of director F.W. Murnau (played by John Malkovich) is reminiscent of the title character in Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God. Or maybe that occurred to me because Herzog also directed Aguirre star Klaus Kinski in a 1979 remake of Nosferatu. But the coincidences don’t stop there! Willem Dafoe, in a Golden Globe-nominated performance as Max Schreck playing the vampire, looks strangely in his heavy make-up like Christopher Walken, who in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns played a villain named Max Shreck! It’s true! You can look it up! Anyway, in case you didn’t know, this movie will tell you (more than once) that a) Murnau’s was the first and “most realistic” vampire film (Bela Lugosi’s Dracula appeared nine years later), b) it was based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula but they couldn’t use the title because Stoker’s widow wouldn’t give permission, and c) a lot of weird things happened during the filming. Whether they were as weird as depicted in this film is very much open to debate, but that’s not the point. As usual (always?) this is really about filmmaking, and if there’s bloodsucking going on, well, draw your own conclusions. The film has a serious weirdness pedigree since the director is E. Elias Merhige, who has done a couple of really strange and odd things before, and one of the producers is Nicolas Cage, who apparently now gets his weirdness outlet this way since he is acting in mainstream movies. Also in the cast is Udo Kier, who himself played Dracula (and Frankenstein) for Andy Warhol back in the 1970s. (Seen 2 February 2001)

The Shaggy Dog 2 out of 4 stars

This one had the potential to load me with a fair amount of baggage. My earliest cinematic memory is of Disney’s 1959 version of The Shaggy Dog, with Tommy Kirk in the title role and Fred MacMurray and Jean Hagen as his parents, and it is quite likely that it was the very first movie I ever saw in a cinema. Well, not exactly in a cinema. I am pretty sure we saw it at a drive-in. The key question for me in seeing this update was: would it interfere retroactively with the genesis of my filmic psyche? Not to worry. Other than the presence of a sheep dog, the two movies share very little DNA. Basically, the old shaggy dog premise has been dropped into the standard Tim Allen movie template, wherein Tim is basically a decent guy who has all his parenting priorities screwed up and then something completely fantastical happens and then… well, I better stop before I go and ruin it for somebody. Mostly, the movie is, for the likes of me anyway, an opportunity for some random reflections. Like, why is it that, when baby boomers were kids, the fantastical stuff in movies happened to the kids, but once baby boomers became parents (and filmmakers), the fantastical stuff started happening to the parents? (Cf. Steven Spielberg’s taken on Peter Pan, Hook.) Also, we have to ask, with cartoons becoming more realistically computer animated and supposed “live action” films using more and more computer effects, when will the line between cartoons and “live action” become too blurry to discern? And who could have foreseen how the careers of all the various Saturday Night Live alumni would have turned out? Jane Curtin, playing an extremely not-amused judge, is like the only real person in this big cartoon of a movie. And Robert Downey Jr., playing a villain, is way more detached and outlandish than he ever was in late-night TV comedy sketches. (Seen 1 May 2006)

Shakespeare in Love 3 out of 4 stars

Every time I see Gwyneth Paltrow, only one thing goes through my mind: What on earth was Brad Pitt thinking when he let her get away?!! Never mind since at least, as the expression goes, the camera loves her. Shakespeare in Love is one of those all-too-rare movies that is actually a delight to listen to. Indeed, you can hardly wait for it to come out on video so that you catch all the wonderful throwaway lines and savor the innumerable historical, literary and theatrical references. Of course, one would expect no less from the pen of Tom Stoppard. (And is the play title Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter a thinly veiled reference to co-writer Marc Norman’s involvement in the disastrous Cutthroat Island?) The film’s delights derive largely from its clever weaving of known historical fact and Shakespeare’s own storylines into a tightly woven tapestry and also from the sly anachronisms of its wordplay which are light years away from something by, say, Mel Brooks. The excellent cast also features Joseph Fiennes (looking strangely Jerry Seinfeld-ish) and Colin Firth (seeming bizarrely Kelsey Grammer-ish) with a nice cameo by Rupert Everett (appearing oddly Roddy McDowall-ish). Director John Madden has got the imagined-romance-of-historical-figures thing down much better here than in his Mrs. Brown (with Judi Dench once again as queen!). (Seen 1 February 1999)

Shall We Dance 2 out of 4 stars

The snobby thing to say here would be that this 2004 movie was pointless and superfluous because it was a mostly faithful remake to a perfectly good and, in fact, superior (Japanese) movie that came out eight years earlier. Well, sometimes the snobs are right. But is it fair to criticize a movie just because it’s a remake of a foreign classic? What about the interests of people who have never seen, and never will, the non-American version? My answer: this web site is not called Americans Who Don’t Like to Read Subtitles’ Movie Comments. Anyway, this vehicle for Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez does in fact have the virtue of being much better than we would have reasonably feared owing to the fact that, well, it has Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez in it. More worrying, however, would have been the fact that it was directed by Peter Chelsom, who squandered vast comedic possibilities three years earlier in Town & Country. Fortunately, here he has a story that has a heart to it, as did his earliest films, Hear My Song and Funny Bones. And enough of the melancholy sweetness of the Japanese original comes through that we can almost get past the all-too-familiar faces of Gere and Susan Sarandon and the movie’s sitcom-like take on the story. In fact, I could almost have been won over (especially by Stanley Tucci’s manic turn as a closet ballroom dancer) but for an unforgivable sin in the final minutes. We are meant to swoon when Gere rises on the escalator in his tuxedo holding a rose. Not trusting us to do so, however, Chelsom gives us a couple of bit players in the background to do the swooning for us. Well, at least he didn’t use a laugh track to point out the funny bits. (Seen 16 August 2006)

Shall We Dansu? (Shall We Dance?) 3 out of 4 stars

Shall We Dance? more or less does for ballroom dancing what Tampopo did for noodles. It’s tempting to sum it up as a Japanese Strictly Ballroom, but its humor is more gentle, wry and wistful than campy. The first feature of Masayuki Suo, the film tells the story of a middle-aged husband and father who seems to have all his ducks in a row as far as having the requisite well-ordered Japanese life. But something is missing. When he spies from his commuter train a beautiful, melancholy woman staring out a window, everything changes. In addition to providing a few chuckles and more than one warm-hearted moment, the film very effectively conveys what there is about ballroom dancing that attracts and satisfies its adherents. Indeed, it may actually make a few converts of people who see it. Or at least send a few of them to the video store to rent The King and I. (Seen 16 May 1997)

Shallow Hal 2 out of 4 stars

This flick has one of the all-time best product placements in cinematic history. No, I’m not referring to the fact that everyone in the movie seems to be drinking Seattle’s Best Coffee (take that, Starbucks!) or even the fact that Microsoft (fresh from its anti-trust travails) is cited as still the best way to retire young (by having Bill buy your company). No, I’m referring to self-help guru Tony Robbins who could never buy enough infomercials for the kind of exposure he gets here. The premise (literally seeing people’s inner beauty rather than their outward imperfection) is as irresistible as it is illogical. The media have used physical beauty to sell us everything else; why not also the idea of not focusing on physical appearances? Of course, inner beauty still means being seen as pencil thin and “plain” mostly seems to mean overweight. But Gwyneth Paltrow does an amazing job of convincing us (mostly without prosthetics) that she weighs 300 pounds. Still the film has to resort to tricks (one of which may even bring a tear to your eye) to make its point rather than going for the real stuff. Its shorthand for “good” people are ones who hospital volunteers and members of the Peace Corps (which apparently has no physical standards for admission). Shorthand for shallowness is the presence of Jason Alexander, still essentially playing the patron saint of shallowness, George Costanza. Joe Vitrelli, who usually plays mafiosi, is on hand as Paltrow’s father and sports the worst Irish brogue we’ve heard in a long time. (He drives home the cliché by actually wielding a shillelagh.) The truly strange thing about this movie is that 1) it is mainly a sweet, romantic comedy and 2) in terms of maturity and sensitivity it is miles above anything else Bobby and Peter Farrelly have ever done. So, I guess this makes Shallow Hal the Farrellys’ Annie Hall. Can’t wait to see their Interiors. (Seen 12 November 2001)

Shanghai Knights 2 out of 4 stars

My regular date for movies over the past half-year has been my Irish brother-in-law Joseph. When I let him pick the movie, we see things like Shanghai Knights. This movie is good mindless fun that is apparently aimed at an audience younger than myself. It is to Hong Kong action movies what Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is to, well, to Frankenstein. Indeed, this is very much like one of the old Abbott and Costello or Three Stooges parodies. Or maybe it’s more like one of those old Bob Hope movies in which Bob shows up in the old west, spouting one-liners, anachronisms and ripping off bits from better known movies. But in places where Bob would break into song, star/producer Jackie Chan (reprising his role from Shanghai Noon as the Asian cowboy Chon Wang) breaks into one of his patented elaborate stunt bits cum pantomime comedy routines cum quasi-ballets. Chan has been called an heir to Charlie Chaplin, and he repays the compliment in one of numerous humorous but dubious historical references in this tale of American cowboys in 1887 London. The locale introduces an opportunity for a number of Austin Powers-style gags about English teeth, food, etc. (The film gets a fair amount of mileage out of a dessert called spotted dick.) As usual with these kinds of movies, however, the funniest bit involves a sheep. (Seen 9 April 2003)

Shaonu Xiao-Yu (Siao Yu) 2 out of 4 stars

Like The Wedding Banquet, Siao Yu is a Taiwanese film set in New York City and deals with a woman who seeks a marriage of convenience to get a green card. The title character in Sylvia Chang’s film lives with her boyfriend but he’s an illegal alien as well, so they give their savings to an elderly leftist writer (he once wrote an exposé of the poultry industry called A Frying Shame) for a marriage of convenience. And guess who he is! It’s Daniel J. Travanti (Hill Street Blues)! Things get sticky because the INS keeps snooping around, so Siao Yu and Mario actually have to live together. Also, there’s the little detail that Mario already has a wife who has been a singer on the road for 30 years but who pops in every so often and gets jealous of the new young bride. Siao Yu’s boyfriend isn’t thrilled either as the couple get past their distaste for each other and actually become close. Unlike other films on this topic, it’s not a slapstick comedy or a gushy romance. But it is quite touching. (Seen 24 May 1996)

Shattered Glass 3 out of 4 stars

It’s amazing how much tension director Billy Ray gets out of a story that is basically about a guy losing his job. But the circumstances were extraordinary, given the influence and prestige of The New Republic, which as the film reminds not once but twice, was considered the “in-flight magazine of Air Force One.” It turns out that TNR wasn’t any more reliable a source of information than, say, the CIA’s intelligence reports. Ray makes us feel not only Glass’s panic at having his stories dissected but also the sickening feeling in editor Chuck Lane’s stomach, as it all too gradually dawns on him what is going on. This uncovering-of-secrets-played-as-thriller trick has famously been done before in All the President’s Men, and this film, which highlights a less glorified story of journalism, is more than worthy to stand beside that classic. With the 20/20 vision of hindsight, we are incredulous at how Glass managed to bamboozle his editors and his colleagues for so long. And this scandal, as we know today, wasn’t even a one-off. The New York Times and USA Today have since been caught by the trend of flashy first-person accounts that are virtually impossible to fact-check. The lesson for editors is that maybe boring, old-fashioned reports with real facts (rather than colorful anecdotes) make for better journalism. The lesson for us consumers of news is to read and view all news with a healthy dose of skepticism, no matter how renowned the name of the publication or broadcast. (Seen 19 May 2004)

Shaun of the Dead 3 out of 4 stars

There have been a lot of horror comedies over the years but few, if any, have risen to the level of this instant 2004 classic from Edgar Wright. Traditionally, this sort of movie derived its laughs from the Abbott and Costello model: mine the comic reactions of comedians when confronted by stock horror monsters. The more common approach lately has been the Scary Movie tactic of parodying the stock conventions of popular horror movies. Wright’s movie works so well because it’s nearly not a zombie movie at all. It’s more of a contemporary comedy of manners that just happens to have zombies in it. Just as George Romero conceived his Dawn of the Dead in 1978 as a comment on mindless consumerism, Wright (who wrote the screenplay with his star Simon Pegg) presents from the beginning his young single Londoners as so numbed that, when the zombie apocalypse happens, it takes them an awful long time to even notice. Much of the humor derives from the way that certain lines get repeated, taking on a whole new meaning in the different context of the undead emergency—similar to way certain lines in John Carpenter’s Escape from New York reflected on American attitudes toward the city in the early 1980s. Much delight is also provided by Wright’s tricky camera play, which would be turned up several notches six years later in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. The cast is excellent. In the title role is Pegg, the Englishman who would go on to adopt a deliberately dodgy Scottish accent to play Scotty in the new Star Trek movies. Nick Frost is amply boorish as his unambitious best mate. And special mention must go to Dylan Moran, as the obnoxious friend of Shaun’s girlfriend Liz, who barely conceals his adoration of her and for some reason dresses like Harry Potter. (Seen 23 September 2015)

She’s So Lovely 2 out of 4 stars

If you need a reason to see She’s So Lovely, go just to see Harry Dean Stanton. We don’t get to see his wonderful face on the big screen nearly often enough. He’s easy to underestimate because he’s often the guy who just sits there smoking and drinking and making the occasional glum comment. But he’s so good at it! That’s what he is here, but he and Debi Mazar are sort of a Fred and Ethyl Mertz for the ‘90s. That quip (plus this flick’s TV ad campaign) might lead you to believe that this is a wacky romantic comedy, perhaps that one that Jennifer Aniston is in. Well, it isn’t. This is a dark comedy/drama penned by the late John Cassevetes, directed by his son Nick, and featuring a cameo by his widow Gena Rowlands. Robin Wright Penn is light years away from the Princess Bride or Forrest Gump’s love object in a role that seems to have been written for Jennifer Jason Leigh. Sean Penn is basically Sean Penn in a role that seems to have been written for Sean Penn. Also on hand is John Travolta, back in Vinnie Barbarino mode. The film is an interesting portrait of two twisted people in love, but somehow it feels unfinished. (Seen 29 August 1997)

She’s the One 2 out of 4 stars

Watching She’s the One is a little like sitting in front of the TV. We have John Mahoney playing the same role he plays on Frasier. We have Jennifer Aniston playing more or less the same role she plays on Friends (if she hadn’t left her jerk fiancé at the altar in the pilot episode). And writer/director/star Ed Burns’s anti-ambitious protagonist bears a bit of a resemblance to Chris in the Morning from Northern Exposure. On the other hand, we have Mike McGlone, Burns’s co-star from his low-budget debut film The Brothers McMullen, as the sharp-looking jerk in a suit usually played by Peter Gallagher—although Charlie Sheen wouldn’t be out of place in the role either. Overall, the film is an amusing little slice-of-life about an Irish-American family in New York with plenty of romantic complications. But any hopes of cinéma vérité are eliminated by the fact that the women in the brothers’ lives (Maxine Bahns, Cameron Diaz) look like fabulous fashion models. (Seen 23 August 1996)

Sherlock Holmes 3 out of 4 stars

A random thought that occurred to me while watching this very entertaining flick is that the Sherlock Holmes stories were the 19th century equivalent of Scooby Doo, Where Are You! and that Holmes was a strange combination of Velma and Shaggy, whereas his faithful companion Watson was more of a Fred/Daphne hybrid. Except, of course, Arthur Conan Doyle’s writing was vastly superior to that of the hacks at Hanna-Barbera. But if the comparison entered my mind, it undoubtedly had something to do with the fact that distinctive English director Guy Ritchie (and erstwhile husband of Madonna) brings a strangely (but not fatally) anachronistic quality to his adaptation. Robert Downey Jr. is a different kind of Holmes—a more hard-body, action-prone hero type than we are used to seeing in, say, the Basil Rathbone movies. He is also a drug user, which is actually consistent with the source material and perfect for Downey, who always gives Johnny Depp a good run for the position of most addled leading man presence in the movies. He and Jude Law are brilliant at their passive-aggressive banter, a bit reminiscent of the very funny overly smart roommates in TV’s The Big Bang Theory. The supporting cast are all very good, with the possible exception of Rachel McAdams, who seems to be miscast as Holmes’s female match. Mark Strong is particularly effective (and creepily Christopher Lee-like) as the villain. In the end, the real star of this thing is the screenplay by Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham and Simon Kinberg (story by Johnson and Lionel Wigram). (Seen 3 February 2010)

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows 2 out of 4 stars

Like its star, the first Sherlock Holmes movie was a manic delight and a continual source of amusement. Guy Ritchie’s follow-up to his own steampunk hit is similarly amusing, but it fails to heed the cardinal rule of sequels, that the second movie must do everything bigger and better than the first. While somewhat revisionist and anachronistic, Ritchie’s Holmes at least understood that Arthur Conan Doyle’s immortal detective (like many that followed him, including the Scooby-Doo gang) was all about facing the apparently supernatural or unexplainable and debunking it. There is no hint of the supernatural in A Game of Shadows. Instead, we have a plot that could have been lifted from a James Bond or Mission: Impossible movie. Or maybe it’s a bit like an X-Men movie, with Holmes and the evil Professor Moriarty battling each other with their mutant brains. The interplay between Robert Downey Jr. and Jared Harris is fun to watch, as well as the interactions among the other characters, including the welcome addition of Stephen Fry as Mycroft. Rachel McAdams and Eddie Marsan are back in what amount to cameos, which is too bad in McAdams’s case, as her character was much more interesting than what was written for Noomi Rapace, who is not nearly as compelling here as her work in the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo suggests she should be. The most misjudged bit is a slow-motion chase sequence through a forest that stops the movie dead. Still, I’d probably pay to see a third movie. (Seen 23 December 2011)

Shi mian mai fu (House of Flying Daggers) 3 out of 4 stars

For those who have not yet seen this latest beauty-and-action extravaganza from Chinese director Yimou Zhang, there is a very easy litmus test. If you enjoyed his previous film, Hero, or Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, then you will probably like this flick just fine. We get more poetic visual beauty on the screen, more impossibly frenetic yet dreamlike action, and more opera-like emotion and passion. The exquisite Ziyi Zhang of Hero is back as a mysterious young woman who may be the daughter of the assassinated leader of the insurgency group called House of Flying Daggers. (Title-wise, I think I prefer the the original, more descriptive Chinese one, which translates as “Ambush from ten sides.”) If Hero was a Chinese version of a spaghetti western, then this movie is a bloody, action-packed Asian translation of a film noir. What seems to be a simple story is twisted, turned and contorted until we don’t know who is exactly who or why they are doing what they are doing. Never mind double crosses and triple crosses. By the end of this thing, I think I counted quadruple cross and quintuple crosses. The drawn-out finale may try the patience of those who came for the swordplay and battling (i.e. guys), but just go with it. After all, by then, you have sat through (and enjoyed) a movie in which literally of thousands of spears can be hurled at the heroes, all missing them by mere inches, and a yet a single well-aimed dagger, thrown from hundreds of meters away, can nail a rider on a sprinting horse dead center in the heart. (Seen 13 April 2005)

Shine 2 out of 4 stars

There are two evil villains in Scott Hicks’s Shine. One is Armin Mueller-Stahl’s Father From Hell. Just to make sure we get the point, we get a couple of shots of him looking over his barbed wire fence so that we realize that this Holocaust survivor has now become the Nazi concentration camp guard. The other villain is the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3. The “Rach 3” is continually referred to in the same ominous tones that are used for the Death Star in Star Wars. This true story of Australian pianist David Helfgott is ultimately very touching and at its best in its latter half where it is less predictable. The actors who play David (Alex Rafalowicz, Noah Taylor, and Geoffrey Rush) succeed in creating a single, memorable character. Sure, at first it seems as though Rush is aping Mike Myers’s quasi-intelligible Saturday Night Live parody of Ron Wood, but the performance finally grows on you. One can’t avoid the feeling that the movie is one-sided and that the father has gotten a raw deal here, but in the end the film’s positive side outweighs the negative. (Seen 16 January 1997)

Shirley Valentine 2 out of 4 stars

Years before Bernard Hill was the unfortunate king of Rohan in two Lord of the Rings movies and before he was the unfortunate captain of the Titanic, he was the unfortunate husband of Shirley Valentine. He was unfortunate not because he got chips and eggs instead of steak for dinner on a particular Thursday evening but because he was married to an icon. Shirley was created by writer Willy Russell for the stage and then for the screen to be the patron saint of middle-aged housewives feeling trapped by their circumstances and longing for their lost youth. Following a long cinematic line of repressed English people, Shirley heads to a warmer climate where she can let loose. And, like a number of people in the movies, she has a life-affirming experience by committing adultery. And, when I say “people in the movies,” I of course mean “women,” since when men in the movies commit adultery they are portrayed as the scum of the earth and punished by whackos like Glenn Close terrorizing them. In fairness, lots of women have gotten punished for adultery in movies over the years (especially teenage tarts in slasher movies), but Shirley Valentine represents a branch of literature that is meant to liberate women from this. Anyway, Pauline Collins turn in the title role is engaging, although she wears out her welcome by the end. And there is something very real about the “type” she portrays, explaining the popularity of this 1989 film. (Seen 26 February 2004)

Shoemaker 2 out of 4 stars

Shoemaker is one of the oddest romantic stories you will see on film. The title character Carey, played quite convincingly by Toronto stage actor Randy Hughson, is a child trapped in a 34-year-old man’s body. But he’s not exactly Tom Hanks in Big. Alberta Watson (from The Sweet Hereafter and who played the mother in Spanking the Monkey) is his enigmatic love interest. The love triangle is completed by Carey’s friend and partner at Mr. Happy Shoe Repair, who becomes protective and jealous over Carey’s tentative romance. The performances are impeccable, the story perplexing. The payoff is a few laughs and a gently bittersweet ending. Colleen Murphy directed this Canadian production. (Seen 29 January 1998)

Short Order 3 out of 4 stars

I’m not sure exactly why I liked this movie so much, but I guess the reason boils down to this: because I wanted to. I was completely taken with director Anthony Byrne’s short film Meeting Che Guevara and the Man from Maybury Hill (the title alone is marvelous!) a couple of years ago. It had a dreamlike look and feel and was infused with an obvious love for all things cinematic, from Orson Welles to H.G. Wells to 1950s sci-fi movies. The icing on the cake was a surprise cameo by the wonderful John Hurt. If that wasn’t reason enough to anticipate Byrne’s first full-length feature, he even emailed me (having read my comments about his short film) alerting me to the film’s premiere on the closing night of the Galway Film Fleadh. And Hurt himself (he as a supporting role) was on stage with Byrne to introduce Short Order. If Che Guevara was an homage to the glory of back-and-white films, Short Order is paean to the wonder of Technicolor movies. It looks (deliberately) like an old MGM musical and even quotes a few. French actor Emma de Caunes does a pretty good take-off of Gene Kelly’s famous dance number from Singin’ in the Rain. There is also a fair amount of influence from French director Jacques Demy, and the film references don’t stop there. There are also an awful lot of references to Moby Dick, and I’m still trying work out why. The movie is set in a soundstage world where everyone lives, breathes and even becomes food. Most entertaining are the exchanges between mad chef Paulo (played by Croation actor Rade Serbedzija, whose other current movie gig is as the homeless man who takes Bruce Wayne’s coat in Batman Begins) and an incognito food writer played by English comedian Jack Dee, looking eerily like American comedian Dennis Miller. And, as in Che Guevara, the emotional highlight (for me anyway) is an unexpected and welcome and magical cameo by a major English actor. And, as with Che Guevara, I immediately wanted to see it all again. (Seen 10 July 2005)

Shortbus 2 out of 4 stars

In the unlikely event that you were thinking, well, since I can’t take granny to that shocking Borat movie, maybe I’ll bring the old girl out to see this thing called Shortbus… well, depending on granny’s health and level of open-mindedness, you might want to also bring along a defibrillator. Actually, if your granny is like me, she might just nod off during this movie. Especially if she sees it around midnight after having watched three other features earlier in the day. In fairness, I’m sure I wouldn’t have been fighting to stay awake if I had had more sleep the night before, but still it says something about the age we live in (or maybe just about me) that a healthy male like myself cannot be made more alert by watching every combination of hardcore coupling known to the world. There is actually something rather tender about this movie written (in collaboration with his very uninhibited cast) and directed by John Cameron Mitchell, who previously stretched our gender boundaries with Hedwig and the Angry Inch. The various New York denizens, who come and mingle at the hotbed of hedonism that is the movie’s titular underground salon, are all desperately seeking something. And it is not really as crude as it sounds that virtually all of these quests can each be resolved with one really good carnal act. (And to think that, for centuries, many people around the world had the idea that the real way to inner peace and fulfillment lay in isolation and self-denial.) In my comments on Hedwig, I linked that movie to The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Shortbus is an even closer cousin. It celebrates that same notion that true happiness lies in giving in to your every physical desire and impulse. But this movie also suggests that doing so can be the pathway to deeper love. So in the 31 years between Rocky and Shortbus, late night movies may have become much, much more explicit, but they may also have become that itsy little tiny bit more mature. (Seen 14 October 2006)

Shrek 3 out of 4 stars

For too long the animation arm of Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks has been seen as a “me too” competitor to the Disney empire—even coming into existence perhaps only because of disgruntled Disney defectors. The difficulty in competing creatively with a well-entrenched mega-corporation could be seen in the way Disney’s A Bug’s Life outshone DreamWork’s quite respectable Antz. But the new guys have really hit their stride with Shrek, and they’ve done it by boldly tweaking Mickey Mouse’s nose. The plot involves fairy tale characters being evicted from their homes, and this gives Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson and their team ample opportunity for parody since most of these public domain characters (e.g. Cinderella, Snow White, Peter Pan) have long been associated with Disney. There is a further chance for Disney mockery in the villain Lord Farquhart (voice of John Lithgow) who has a gigantic, amusement park-like palace, complete with capitalistic souvenir shops. In fact, the whole hip tone of this movie almost seems more suited to adults than kids, with some of the wittiest writing we have seen in a comedy in a long time. Eddie Murphy (after Mulan and this) is well on his way to a great career as the perennial wisecracking animal sidekick. Best of all, the moral of the movie refreshingly eschews the beauty-is-everything message we seem to get in most youth movies these days. The film’s theme of tolerance, however, may not extend to short people since there are several jokes at the expense of the diminutive Farquhart. More than one reference is made to the fact that his over-large palace must be “compensating for something.” (Seen 16 July 2001)

Shrek 2 3 out of 4 stars

I heard Jay Leno observe last week that sequels seem to be getting better. This movie is a case in point. (Spider-Man 2 is another.) In the first Shrek movie, the filmmakers got their hostilities toward Disney out of their system. Following the rule that sequels must be bigger and better, here they work out their issues with Los Angeles/Hollywood/Beverly Hills in general. But their poison pen letter, masked as a topsy-turvy fairy tale, is not over-consumed with bitterness. It’s all about the humor, and the gags come so fast and furious that you can’t wait to get the DVD and watch particular scenes over. There are two many laugh lines and sight gags to remember, although for some reason my personal favorite is the way the movie Pretty Woman slyly finds its way into a list of “happily ever after” fairy tales. I have to say that the Shrek movies have come along at just the right time in my life. Movie lore is still fresh in my mind, while at the same time (thanks to fatherhood) I am freshly acquainted with every fairy tale and nursery rhyme in existence. Knowledge of both (as well as of southern California culture) is indispensable for full appreciation of all the gags. The films avoid a major pitfall of animated movies with major stars as voice talent. The actors are actually playing characters and not thinly veiled versions of themselves—Eddie Murphy’s wise-cracking donkey and a cameo by Joan Rivers notwithstanding. It is interesting, for example, to know that Jennifer Saunders of Absolutely Fabulous fame plays the bitchy fairy godmother, but the character bears no physical resemblance to Saunders or her AbFab character, and that’s just fine. The movie stands on its own, as it successfully sets about having its cake and eating it too, i.e. puncturing the Disney-fied fairy tales we are all familiar with, but serving up its own fairy tale ending as well. (Seen 4 August 2004)

Shrek the Third2 out of 4 stars

You can’t not like Shrek. But, on the other hand, you can only go back to the well so many times and come up with the same level of delight and enthusiasm. After all, this now-well-established franchise was originally about, well, tweaking the noses of big, established franchises. Whereas the first sequel followed the unwritten sequel rule of more of the same but way more and way bigger and way more intensive, this second one feels a bit more perfunctory—kind of like, say, a special episode of a TV series based on the movie. By now, Shrek’s world is familiar enough that we can get more self-referential jokes, as well as more obscure pop culture and film references. (Did everybody get the Rosemary’s Baby and Midnight Cowboy jokes?) And I’m not exactly sure, but I think the first scenes with the titular ogre and his wife were some kind of tribute to Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. And were the baby shower scenes actually meant to as an homage to Desperate Housewives—or has our popular become so intricately entwined with cross-referencing that everything is an homage to everything else now? Anyway, the bottom line is that Shrek is still good fun, but it’s just not as new and interesting as it was in the beginning. Such is the (mild enough) curse of movies with 3’s and III’s (or Third) at the end of their titles. (Seen 30 June 2007)

Siam Sunset 2 out of 4 stars

This typically wacky Australian comedy was directed by actor John Polson, but its producer is Al Clark who was also behind the frequently hilarious Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. As in that film, this one features a transfiguring journey across the Outback in a mechanically problematic bus. But instead of transvestites and transsexuals, this time we get a group of doltish middle-class tourists who would be right at home with the family from The Castle. The exceptions are a young woman on the run from a violent boyfriend and an Englishman who had the good(?) fortune to win this holiday playing bingo with his father back in Britain. This fellow is played by Linus Roache, who shows that he can actually be quite funny after some rather heavy roles in Priest and The Wings of the Dove. Roache’s character has had some incredibly bad luck (which has to be seen to be believed), and with this ill-starred holiday things only get worse. But that is inevitably what this movie is all about: how to find love and happiness in a world full of risks. (Seen 5 June 1999)

Side Streets 2 out of 4 stars

This movie is so frustrating because you really want to like it so much. It is an ambling, sprawling mélange of stories over a 24-hour period featuring five ethnically diverse couples in each of New York City’s boroughs. Money, or the lack of it, is the common thread among these various members of different immigrant communities, and their various dreams and schemes fuel the action. A good-hearted Indian cabby is constantly getting stiffed by fares. A Romanian butcher’s apprentice makes one last, large, unwise bet on the Mets. And so on. The problem is that, because of the large cast of characters, several inevitably get short shrift and we hardly get to know them. Paradoxically, the film seems to go on forever and drags in spots. A brisker pace would definitely have helped. But still, you can’t help but get infected by the rich mix of heritages—from Caribbean rhythms to Latin passions to Italian high life, etc. Particularly well done is a scene involving Valeria Golino as an aspiring fashion designer when she visits a businesswoman friend of her mother’s who could, but won’t, help her. This debut film by Tony Gerber definitely shows promise. (Seen 16 May 1999)

Sideways 3 out of 4 stars

Well, of course this film was a darling of the critics. As one New York Times critic (sorry, can’t remember which one) noted a while back, they were all attracted by the allure of self-recognition. Paul Giamatti’s character is a film critic. Not literally (he’s actually a middle school teacher), but in every other way that matters, i.e. attitude, intellect, emotional state, etc., this man is a film critic. “Quaffable but not transcendent,” he says after tasting a glass of wine. (Note: For purposes of this discussion, I am not a film critic. I am a blogger.) There is something painfully real about the two main characters in this movie. They are just the kind of mismatched pair that have little in common but are friends anyway through the random accident of having been assigned as roommates in college. And their all-too-human weaknesses are also a bit agonizing to watch. Although, superficially a comedy, director Alexander Payne and his co-writer Jim Taylor bring the same under-the-skin voyeuristic touch that they did to their previous films (Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt). It’s no wonder they picked up an Oscar for the screenplay. In one amazing scene, Giamatti and a radiant Virginia Madsen ostensibly tell each other how they happened to become interested in wine, but in the process they actually tell each other everything there is to know about who they are as people. Anyway, never mind film critics. This flick is destined to be a classic for anyone who has really enjoyed a glass of red, white or rosé. Wine buffs in the audience will inevitably have the same frisson of familiarity that cowboys must get when they watch westerns. (Seen 2 March 2005)

Die Siebtelbauern (The Inheritors) (The One-Seventh Farmers) 2 out of 4 stars

The program notes don’t say whether this Austrian drama written and directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky is based on actual events, but it feels as though it could have been. Set in a farming village in the 1930s, as the Missus and I noted afterwards, it could have been just as easily English-occupied western Ireland or the American South during Reconstruction or any other number of rural situations throughout history. The story involves a group of peasants who, in an unlikely fashion, wind up inheriting the farm they have been working as virtual serfs for years. This upsets the other farmers in the area for a number of reasons, not the least of which is their hope to divide up the land for their own greedy selves. The peasants’ earnest efforts to adjust to their new land-owning status make for more than a few amusing moments, and there is something uplifting about their simple yearning to better their lot. But things inevitably turn dark as the entrenched social order reasserts itself. This well photographed film is satisfying from a story-telling point of view and not unreasonably insistent on its vaguely socialist viewpoint. (Seen 29 August 1998)

The Siege 2 out of 4 stars

Edward Zwick generally makes thoughtful TV shows, like Family and My So-Called Life, and thoughtful movies like Glory and Courage Under Fire). (He also made Legends of the Fall, but that doesn’t help my point.) So it should be no surprise that The Siege is, well, thoughtful. Actually, it starts and ends pretty much like a standard political action thriller. But the middle part explores some pretty interesting issues about what might happen if the U.S. were to suffer such a major terrorist attack that martial law had to be declared in New York City. Personally, I would have preferred the film to explore just how complex such a decision would be rather than to advocate so aggressively Zwick’s personal view. His position is not bolstered by his stacking of the deck with Denzel Washington’s too morally pure FBI agent or Bruce Willis’s out-and-out bad guy. Interestingly, the movie avoids the fact that it (unintentionally) makes the real villain Bill Clinton who, as he did in Contact, plays a supporting role—as the guy who actually declares martial law and puts a fascist in charge. (Seen 9 December 1998)

Signs 3 out of 4 stars

Remind me not to buy a house surrounded by cornfields. They’re pretty creepy. Of course, everything about this movie is creepy, including the way that Mel Gibson and everyone else in this Pennsylvania community seem to talk and act like they are all in some kind of trance. You would almost swear that this very talky film was adapted from a stage play—at least until you get to get the good stuff in the final third. As in M. Night Shyamalan’s previous hit The Sixth Sense, this movie pretends to be a suspense/horror film but is really about feelings, fears and coping with the unknown. Despite a generally dour tone, it has a lot of fun playing with our knowledge of numerous alien invasion movies, ranging from War of the Worlds to Close Encounters of the Third Kind to E.T. to Independence Day. (And its housebound scenes definitely echo Night of the Living Dead.) It is most brilliant when evoking a sense of foreboding and terror, particularly when combined with the burden of responsibility of being a parent or parent figure. (Gibson not only is a father but he is actually called “Father” by every single person in the movie.) But it is easier to enjoy the film if we don’t think too much about the logical extensions of its miracle/coincidence theme and just appreciate the way seemingly unrelated elements come together wonderfully at the end, similar to a clever episode of Seinfeld. (Seen 2 October 2002)

Silence 2 out of 4 stars

Here is another movie I swore was a documentary but was wrong. Or was I? Director Pat Collins filmed Donegal-born, Berlin-based sound engineer Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhríde as he returned to Ireland and worked his way up the western coast of the island on a quest to, as far as I understand it, make audio recordings of silence. In the best art film tradition, not much seems to happen, yet there is plenty to observe and contemplate. Mostly we watch Eoghan standing around and/or setting up his equipment in the most exquisitely picturesque and isolated locales. Mostly, he is completely on his own, but occasionally someone else wanders into the frame and there is a conversation. These meetings were staged and scripted, so this is technically not really a documentary, although it looks and feels like one. Gradually, we come to learn that Eoghan has no close family left and that he was born on Tory Island which, like many islands off the Irish coasts, has seen significant depopulation. His journey leads back to Tory and what remains of his old house. It’s the sort of movie that requires patience and attention, but it does reward the viewer who puts in the time. What is particularly amazing is the way the film gives the impression that Ireland is a place nearly devoid of people. If one didn’t know better, one would surmise from this film that all of Ireland had become depopulated. (Seen 14 July 2012)

Le Silence de Lorna (The Silence of Lorna) 2 out of 4 stars

I am still haunted by the seemingly endless images of Kosovar actor Arta Dobroshi on the red carpet at Cannes last May. She definitely has star quality and is reminiscent of (depending on your age and perspective) either Jean Seberg or Janine Turner. This entire film rests on her shoulders, and she carries it admirably. Written and directed by Belgium’s Dardenne brothers (La Promesse, L’Enfant), this is another of their excursions into the moral minefields of society’s periphery. As we get acquainted with Lorna, we gather that she is an immigrant (from Albania) about to get Belgian citizenship, and there seem to be three different men in her life. It takes a while to sort out what they all have to do with one another—all leading to some moral challenges. All Lorna really has to do is keep her silence, but for her that is easier said than done. If the ending is less than satisfying (it is neither happy nor tragic—poignant might be the right word), I suppose that is really the filmmakers’ point. (Seen 19 October 2008)

Silent Grace 2 out of 4 stars

This movie by Maeve Murphy is one of two features at this year’s Galway Film Fleadh dealing with the IRA prisoner hunger strike 20 years ago. (The other is Les Blair’s H3.) One might wonder why any other fictionalized film needs to be made on this topic since Terry George and Jim Sheridan did a pretty darn good job five years ago with Some Mother’s Son. In the case of Silent Grace, the effort is worthwhile because most of us will learn something we didn’t know about before: the involvement of women prisoners in the strike and how the planning and execution of the protest pointed up a vein of sexism in the nationalist movement. The film is based on an actual event and was adapted from a stage play called Now and at the Hour of Our Death. Orla Brady gives a commanding performance as the prisoner leader at Armagh Women’s Prison (actually filmed at Dublin’s historic Kilmainham prison), who has to negotiate simultaneously with the head of the prison and her male IRA counterparts for recognition as an equal. (Seen 13 July 2001)

Silver Linings Playbook 3 out of 4 stars

The world is rushing by so fast. It seems like just yesterday that a movie date with my daughter involved a Disney princess movie. Now she wants to see David O. Russell’s latest. That’s certainly progress as far as I’m concerned, although I suspect that her choice had more to do with the participation of the star of The Hunger Games than that of the director of Spanking the Monkey. Anyway, we were both happy with the result. This is the trickiest of film types to pull off satisfactorily: a feel-good, mental-illness, restraining-order romcom. But it works so successfully that I hear critics calling it a drama instead of a romcom. Adapted by Russell from Matthew Quick’s debut novel, it gives Bradley Cooper (who not coincidentally is an executive producer) the kind of role actors love: a man with serious mental health issues. It’s the sort of thing that could end in bad taste, but the movie just about gets away with it. That is because his prospective love interest is Jennifer Lawrence, whose quirky character requires her to channel Juliette Lewis. The fact is that Lawrence is so effortlessly natural that we buy her damaged young woman lock, stock and barrel and cannot help but root for her. And that makes all the difference. Things are further helped by a supporting cast that includes Jacki Weaver as Cooper’s mom, John Ortiz as his best friend and a surprisingly un-annoying Chris Tucker in a running gag as a mental patient who keeps escaping. Also on hand is Robert De Niro, as sort of kinder, gentler version of his character in This Boy’s Life. And, yes, by the end I truly felt good. (Seen 24 November 2012)

Silverado 2 out of 4 stars

In 1985, Lawrence Kasdan followed up his two very successful first films, Body Heat and The Big Chill, with this revival of the western genre. It’s hard to believe it was such a big deal at the time, but the mid-1980s audience was really ready for an old-fashioned, rip-roaring oater. What’s strange about seeing it 19 years later is how standard a western it is. Apart from better photography, better stunts and actors we know a bit better, because we are contemporary with them, this could have been any number of westerns, going back most of the 20th century. As with such recently reviewed examples as Cattle Queen of Montana and The Sons of Katie Elder, we have all the standard elements: heroes who aren’t always square with the law but who invariably do the right thing, a greedy land baron villain who blatantly steals the land of the most innocuous and defenseless neighbor, law enforcement officers who are useless at best and venal at worst, and the wild card character about whom (if we haven’t seen a bunch of these already) we can’t be sure if he’ll side with the good guys or the bad guys. It’s hard to believe how young and engaging Kevin Costner was back then, as crazy Jake. (The role was his reward from Kasdan for having his scenes as a corpse cut from The Big Chill.) As his brother, Scott Glenn was one of the rare actors of the time who had a rugged, manly face worthy of a western. The sprawling, well-known cast, the panoramic New Mexico locations and Bruce Broughton’s stirring score (like the film itself, evocative of earlier classics) not only made the film enjoyable in its own right but also a heartfelt tribute to the genre. (Seen 17 November 2004)

Simone 2 out of 4 stars

This is one of those movies that begs to be compared to other movies. After all, it is about the movies. Well, it’s about more than movies; it’s about art, fame, artifice, pop culture iconography, and the depersonalization of our modern culture. Is that enough of you? The film actually tips its metaphorical hat (appropriately enough, on a computer screen) to Pygmalion, which is an obvious inspiration. And we spend much of the movie wondering if the titular virtual Simone will actually come alive, like Pinocchio or Frankenstein’s monster. But this fable is closer in spirit (though much lighter in tone) to Richard Attenborough’s 1978 film Magic, which starred Anthony Hopkins as a demented ventriloquist who had a tempestuous relationship with his manipulative dummy. Since Simone is written and directed by New Zealander Andrew Niccol, who previously directed Gattaca and wrote the screenplay for The Truman Show, this flick is a slight cut above the rest of the glut of let’s-trash-Hollywood movies that so many people who work in Hollywood seem to have to make. The best part of the joke is the fact that the movies made by idealistic/artistic hero Victor Taransky (played by Al Pacino in classic bug-eyed, greasy, frantic mode) movies are really, really bad. Selling his soul (so I guess there is a Faust influence, too) doesn’t make them any better. Simone is at its best when (similar to another favorite satire of mine, Denise Calls Up) it points up how technology and marketing have made our relationships more virtual than real. The best running gag is the number of characters in the film who are convinced that they have a personal relationship with a woman who doesn’t really exist. (Seen 26 August 2002)

The Simpsons Movie 2 out of 4 stars

For some strange reason, my reaction to The Simpsons has always been the same as to something that is good for you. This is so even though The Simpsons is more fun than beneficial. I always enjoy the show (or, in this case, the movie) when I watch it. But I never have any particular inclination to see it again. To be sure, I laughed pretty much all the way through this movie. But in the end, it is a prime example of the post-modern, ironic, pop-culture-referring, self-referring kind of stuff that has taken over much of our films and TV shows for quite a few years now. In the interest of opening up or expanding or justifying the movie (Homer, quite self-referentially and ironically, kicks the movie off by telling the audience they are stupid for paying money to watch something they could see at home for free), there are pretensions of adding some depth to the series’ (literally) two-dimensional characters. But these attempts themselves are really yet more acts of irony and self-reference. Still, in a vast cinematic world of de rigueur movie in-jokes, you have to admire a flick that can send up not only Hollywood action movies (with a special nod to the Spider-Man movies), paranoid thrillers, Disney-style animation as well as films like Erin Brockovich and An Inconvenient Truth. But, clearly, I am taking all of this way too seriously. This is basically a very funny flick created with energy by very clever people and, depending on your sense of humor, it is hard not to enjoy. But it’s not a landmark in any cinematic sense of the word. (Seen 10 August 2007)

Sin Compasión (No Mercy) 2 out of 4 stars

Okay, here’s today’s pop quiz. A man and a woman are brutally murdered. Circumstantial evidence points to an intelligent, gifted man who insists he is innocent. What is the most likely outcome? A) The horror of what he has done ultimately overcomes him and he confesses, or B) the state spends millions of dollars prosecuting him but there’s a mistrial because they run out of alternate jurors? In a simpler time we might have believed that “A” was the correct answer, but I suppose we can still believe that only the sickest among us truly escape their own consciences. No Mercy is a Peruvian-Mexican production based on Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. It translates very well to the slums of Lima where the gap between rich and poor helps to confuse moral issues. Ramón is a poor but intelligent university student whose personal philosophy holds, in crude terms, that if a man is smart enough, there is no reason he can’t set his own moral code. Ramón commits a double murder which he sees as justified and which will provide him with the cash to do good deeds for others. What he hasn’t reckoned with is his own conscience and wily police inspector Major Portillo who is Lima’s answer to Lt. Columbo. Will Ramón hold true to his intellectual principles or will he crack under the horror of what he has done? There really isn’t much doubt as to the outcome, but the film keeps you involved anyway. Now, if we could only get Major Portillo assigned to the O.J. case… (Seen 7 June 1995)

Sin Remitente (No Sender) (No Return Address) 2 out of 4 stars

You could draw several lessons from the Mexican film No Sender. One might be that there’s no fool like an old fool. Another might be that practical jokes can have unforeseen consequences. But practically speaking, the main lesson would be to choose your neighbors carefully. Old don Andrés lives in a gloomy apartment with his cat. Mariana is the upstairs neighbor from hell. She throws lots of parties, she plays loud music, and she’s very noisy when she has sex. Andrés and Mariana get into a minor war over her inconsideration and his intolerance, and Mariana winds up sending Andrés anonymous love letters as a joke. (Ironically, Andrés works at the post office.) What Mariana doesn’t foresee, however, is that the old man will, shall we say, “go postal.” All in all, a solid rendering of a tragic tale. (Seen 21 May 1996)

Sing Street 3 out of 4 stars

After Once and Begin Again and now Sing Street, you might start thinking that John Carney is just making the same movie over and over. Boy meets girl. Much emotionally resonant music is made. Somebody leaves. But this movie is painted on a bigger canvas. There are more characters and a definite sense of time and place. And it feels a whole lot more personal than Carney’s previous works. His protagonist Conor is fairly close to the age Carney would have been in 1985. Of course, any flick about young people seeking escape by forming a band in late-20th-century Dublin is going to evoke memories of The Commitments, but Alan Parker’s classic was about soul music on the northside and this is about synthpop/post-punk on the southside. They might as well be on different planets. Part of the fun is watching the lads’ dress style and music change with each new emerging trend. The original songs, written by Carney and Gary Clark, are great but still sound like they could be written and performed by teenagers. Music aside, though, this flick is really about being 15 years old when your life at home and at school is crap and the only thing that keeps you going is the amazing older girl across the street and finding some mates who will join you in emulating the cool music videos from the telly. Intriguingly named newcomer Ferdia Walsh-Peelo is spot on as Conor, giving off lost adolescent vibes like a very young Bud Cort or even Dustin Hoffman. Jack Reynor (of What Richard Did and a Transformers movie) has a nice Chris Pratt vibe going as the older brother who is a bleeding genius with taste and insights but can barely leave his bedroom. Other young faces are brilliantly selected, particularly Mark McKenna, who is the perfect Lennon to Conor’s McCartney (or maybe The Edge to his Bono). And Lucy Boynton, as the self-described model of Conor’s dreams, is so the bad girl a guy cannot get out of his mind. The ending is more exhilirating than we usually get from Carney, and some may even find themselves reminded just a wee bit of The Graduate. (Seen 26 April 2016)

A Single Man 2 out of 4 stars

There are some things we simply will never know. For example, I will never be completely certain how I would have seen this movie if I hadn’t been well informed beforehand that its director, Tom Ford, is a premier fashion designer who has been the major creative power at Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent. But I am pretty sure my reaction to the film would pretty much have been the same. This is a gorgeous film to look at. (“Grief, by Gucci,” quipped at least one review.) The fact that it is so drop-dead beautiful to watch should not be a bad thing. One of the main pleasures of film-watching is to see beautiful images. And Ford’s visual style is perfectly congruous with a story about an immaculately groomed and coiffed and tasteful man. But it is hard to avoid the nagging feeling that the glossy, attractive look makes the movie just a tad superficial, which is a potential problem for a story dealing with such weighty topics as bereavement, despair, mortality and social and legal equality. The young actor Nicholas Hoult (who progressed quite nicely from the geeky kid in About a Boy to sex symbol status in the UK teen series Skins) in particular is photographed with such glowing beauty that it nearly makes our eyeballs ache. Colin Firth is perfect for the central role, and this may indeed be the best work he ever does as an actor. There is something distinctive about Firth’s mien and voice that makes it hard for us to forget who he is, but here he disappears seamlessly into the character. Adapted from Christopher Isherwood’s seminal novel, the movie skillfully evokes a very specific time and place (Los Angeles, 1962), complete with reigning mind-sets. And, while it effectively provides a gay man’s view of straight people’s attitudes, it also (unwittingly, I think) documents (and reflects) the insular thinking of the academic environment. (Seen 20 February 2010)

Sista dansen (The Last Dance)

After The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Dessert and Muriel’s Wedding, I get a little gun shy when a movie opens with an Abba song. But this Swedish film about two couples who are seriously into ballroom dancing competitions has less in common with Strictly Ballroom than it does with They Shoot Horses Don’t They? As a woman’s body is recovered underneath a pier in Blackpool, England and the police try to piece together what happened, we flash back on the history of the two couples and see what led up to this accident or murder. There are sporadic bits of humor in this study of two marriages, but the people and their problems really aren’t interesting enough to sustain us for nearly two hours. Even the element of suspense as to how the death occurred isn’t that strong. I’d say this one is of marginal interest. (Seen 28 May 1995)

Sista Kontraktet (The Last Contract) 2 out of 4 stars

One of the major unsolved European mysteries of the past decade or two is why Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme was murdered as he was leaving a Stockholm cinema with his wife one night in 1986. The idea behind this fairly slick thriller by Kjell Sundvall is to speculate on how and why it happened. This sounds as though the movie could be the Swedish equivalent of JFK, and it does have a bit of that sort of conspiratorial air of paranoia about it. But it is more accurately a Scandinavian cinematic cousin to The Day of the Jackal (the 1973 Edward Fox version as opposed to the more recent Bruce Willis version). What was surprising about Jackal was how much suspense it generated even though we knew full well that in real life the assassin’s target, Charles de Gaulle, was not killed. The Last Contract, on the other hand, has an air of inevitability about it since we know well the eventual outcome. Still, the story is fairly involving. It centers on a cop who alone seems to understand what is going to happen and valiantly tries to stop it. In this way, he is much like Clint Eastwood in In the Line of Fire. As for who actually ordered the killing, lots of tentative fingers are pointed at possible motives and at complicity within the Swedish government and police. Most tantalizing, however, is the suggested involvement of the Reagan Administration! (Seen 26 May 1999)

Sitcom 1 out of 4 stars

There is a classic French short called La mort du rat, which is about a chain of events involving the various members of a family culminating in the death of an unlucky rodent. It isn’t too hard to imagine the resident think tank at some movie studio years later coming up with the idea of, hey, what if we made a sequel where the rat comes back and gets revenge! That is what seems to be the premise of Sitcom, which is ostensibly about a sinister rat and its effect on a family but is really another one of those lamebrain French comedies where the humor is supposed to derive from shock at taboo-breaking sexual situations. Examples: a young man is rejected by his girlfriend and in an effort to comfort him the maid seduces him; a youth coach from Cameroon is asked to talk to a young man about his sexual confusion and instead seduces him; a mother wants to cure her son of his homosexuality and so she… I think you get the idea. I could be kind and say that incest-obsessed director François Ozon is making references to a classy film like Murmur of the Heart or that he is France’s Pedro Almodóvar. But in reality he is merely recycling bad jokes, like the one involving a domestic pet and a microwave oven. Not to mention just about every joke I’ve ever heard involving people from Arkansas. (Seen 26 January 1999)

Six Days, Seven Nights 2 out of 4 stars

When a movie has a title like Six Days, Seven Nights, one could be forgiven for suspecting that it might be some depressing, weird French film about a guy who handcuffs women to radiators. But no, it’s just your standard issue Hollywood action romantic comedy by Ivan Reitman. (The title actually refers to how long you can be missing in the South Pacific before you are declared dead.) Pity poor David Schwimmer. First his wife on Friends leaves him for another woman. Now he is getting engaged to Anne Heche. Actually, Schwimmer’s whiny voice and hangdog eyes make him an ideal (if somewhat annoying) yuppie scum Ralph Bellamy for the ‘90s. Harrison Ford departs refreshingly from his Boy Scout action hero persona to play a wisecracking Han Solo cum Jimmy Buffett dropout airplane pilot. Oddly, he reminded me of the late comedian Dick Shawn. As for Heche, while she provided a lot of much-needed spark in Volcano, here she seems strangely pert and perky in a Sandy Duncan sort of way. One can’t help but wonder what this flick might have been with a brassy female lead closer to Ford’s age, like Kathleen Turner or Faye Dunaway. Anyway, for my money the funniest line is the one about sex and funerals. (Seen 5 July 1998)

Six Semesters 2 out of 4 stars

Movies made with little or no money often try to mask that fact with creativity and ingenuity. This one actually wears its lack of funds like a badge of honor. Made by John McKeown over a two-year period while he was a student at Dublin City University, the film makes exclusive use of DCU locations. The result is a kind of cinéma vérité look that is less like a documentary and perhaps more like a compilation from a reality TV show. The plot premise would not be out of place in a Hollywood teen comedy. A first-year student, who is a bit cynical about relationships anyway, hits on the idea of hiring himself out anonymously (via the internet and mobile phone) to break up couples when one of the pair doesn’t have the guts to make the break him- or herself. As such, the movie is a bit of a descendent of Les liaisons dangereuses but without the soap opera heightening of Cruel Intentions. Instead, the three-year story is played out in a very natural and leisurely manner. McKeown is fortunate in his leads. Dallan McCormick is like a goofier version of Nicholas Hoult (Skins, A Single Man), and Marie Claire Hoey is like a young, dark-haired Sarah Jessica Parker. The two of them capture nicely that ambiguity of student life in which it is sometimes hard to delineate between being good buddies or perhaps something more. By embracing his student film limitations, McKeown has made it easy to underestimate what he has accomplished. You don’t see the amount of work that has gone into the production, with the exception of a few edits and other flourishes that call too much attention to themselves. The flick could do with some trimming for the benefit of the mainstream commercial audience but, for a generation weaned on blogs and reality TV, it is pretty darn solid entertainment as is. (Seen 15 April 2010)

Six Ways to Sunday 2 out of 4 stars

This is actually kind of a bad film, but about halfway through you realize that it is actually bad on purpose, so then it actually starts to be kind of a good film. Got that? The clincher for me was when the young hero (Norman Reedus, looking and sounding amusingly like Leonard DiCaprio) brings his lame Hungarian girlfriend home to meet Mother (Deborah Harry, looking strangely like Maureen Stapleton) and he assures her that Mother “wouldn’t hurt a fly.” I suppose another tip-off should have been the fact that this coming-of-age/Freudian/Oedipus/gangster flick is set in the notorious milieu of the Youngstown, Ohio Jewish Mafia. Reedus may resemble DiCaprio, but in this tongue-in-cheek thriller he is definitely following in the footsteps of Jimmy Cagney and Anthony Perkins. And Harry isn’t the only singer-turned-actor who contributes an entertaining turn. Isaac Hayes is quite droll as the Bad Cop during a couple of interrogation scenes. (Seen 9 July 1998)

The Sixth Sense 3 out of 4 stars

This movie begins with a woman (Olivia Williams of Rushmore) alone in a dark basement suddenly getting that prickly feeling on the back of the neck that we all have gotten, if not in a dark basement, then while watching movies about women in dark basements. The movie means to evoke that prickly feeling and it fairly succeeds. Indeed, for my money this flick is far creepier than such other disparate ghost stories of the summer as The Blair Witch Project and The Haunting. The film’s tricky premise seems to catch a lot of people by surprise, but this is presumably because they haven’t seen a zillion episodes of The Twilight Zone or certain movies by Herk Harvey and Adrian Lyne. In fact, one of the film’s pleasures is the realization that it has become a hit for star Bruce Willis using a plot rather similar to one that produced a big hit a few years ago for Willis’s estranged wife. The movie works mainly because of M. Night Shyamalan’s moody and atmospheric direction and the pivotally effective performance of young Haley Joel Osment, who previously played Forrest Gump Jr. and Murphy Brown’s scandalous love child. The film’s best line: “Grandma says hi.” (Seen 15 September 1999)

Sixty Six 4 out of 4 stars

Maybe I’ve been successfully manipulated. I tend to think that I’m not a big fan of sentimental, nostalgic tales of childhood, but here I’ve gone through a repeat of my experience at the Cork Film Festival two years ago with Danny Boyle’s Millions. But the techniques here are the antithesis of Boyle’s flashy, draw-attention-to-itself style. Director Paul Weiland presents a view of childhood on the cusp of puberty nearly as bleak as that of Todd Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse but without that movie’s mocking or over-the-top touches. And in some ways, it is like an English version of the American TV show The Wonder Years but (almost nearly) without that series’ rosy-colored hindsight glow. The setup is that young Bernie Reuben invests all his hopes and dreams for being, at long last, the center of attention (he’s the younger of two brothers) for at least one day in his upcoming bar mitzvah. But not only is his obsessive-compulsive father going through devastating business setbacks, it is also the summer that London is hosting the soccer World Cup, and the final is scheduled for the same day as Bernie’s all-important rite. He watches with horror as the English side struggle inexorably toward a championship berth. The acting talent here is formidable. Bernie’s father is played to perfection by the rodent-like Eddie Marsan, who has been doing lots of supporting work lately (V for Vendetta, Mission: Impossible III, Miami Vice) and was just seen (by me anyway) as a duplicitous German in The Rocket Post. Bernie’s mother is played by Helena Bonham Carter. (Say no more.) Aside from being hilariously funny and achingly sad, the appealing thing about this wonderful movie (especially at this particular point in time) is that, while it is mainly a story about growing up, it is also subtly a tale about assimilating, while still keeping one’s identity. (Seen 14 October 2006)

Den Skaldede Frisør (Love Is All You Need) 3 out of 4 stars

Years of watching movies about major family get-togethers have conditioned us to expect nothing short of disaster. Watching Danish movies about such occasions has primed us to expect nothing short of cataclysm. That feeling is heightened here by the film’s star, Trine Dyrholm, who was in the cast of Thomas Vinterberg’s 1998 flick about a familial breakdown of apocalyptic proportions, the ironically titled Festen (The Celebration). Of course, family meltdowns can be fodder for comedy as well as drama, and it is interesting to see a wedding disaster romcom as executed by Susanne Bier, who has previously made such serious fare as Brothers, After the Wedding and In a Better World. (The second was a Foreign Language Oscar winner, the third a nominee.) The result is the standard romcom formula (meet cute, misunderstandings, emotionally juiced resolution) but in a way that feels a lot more real than Hollywood versions. This doesn’t really feel like a Danish movie—mainly because it largely takes place in Italy and the main star is Pierce Brosnan, who barely utters a word of Danish, even though he is supposed to have lived in Denmark for decades. Underlying everything is a subplot about cancer, which resonates because of the way Brosnan lost his first wife in real life. But Bier can also be subtly playful, as when she has Dyrholm emerge from the sea in a shot that echoes both Botticelli’s Venus and Ursula Andress’s famous beach scene in Dr. No, which was in turn quoted by Halle Berry and Brosnan in Die Another Day. As a romcom pair, Brosnan and Dyrholm are no Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan—and that’s a good thing. Brosnan is an annoying twit who makes us root for him anyway. And Dyrholm has a deer-caught-in-the-headlights look that says it all. (Seen 11 October 2013)

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow 2 out of 4 stars

For a movie that was made with the latest and greatest special effects technology, why does it look so darned old-fashioned? Well, that’s largely by design. It self-consciously adopts an early 20th century expressionistic style. But there is more to it than that. It has an oddly two-dimensional look to it, mainly because the actors are doing everything, for its entire running time, in front of a special effects “blue screen.” It’s like old Hollywood movies, where the passing scenery in back of the actors seemed to be out of a different film. Or, to be more contemporary, it’s like one of those combination performances/thrill rides that amusement parks like Disneyland (Honey, I Shrunk the Audience) and Universal Studios (The Terminator) have, where actors interact with a movie projected on a screen behind them. Except that, in this case, we don’t have 3-D glasses to make things look more real. Part film noir, part B science fiction flick, part Indiana Jones-style escapist adventure, this directing debut by Kerry Conran is enjoyable enough, even though its look is so stylized that we never get close to suspending disbelief. Its evident love of cinematic history and technique makes it reminiscent of the ultimately superior Irish short film by Anthony Byrne, Meeting Che Guevara and the Man from Maybury Hill. As with Byrne’s film, this one includes a pleasingly (and even more) surprising cameo by a major English actor. (Seen 1 January 2005)

Skyfall 3 out of 4 stars

The title Skyfall has been out there for a long time now. Naively, I assumed it referred to some weapon of mass destruction or evil operation. It turns out that it is the name of the remote Scottish lodge where James Bond spent his childhood. As such, the title is a signal that, in this golden anniversary year for the official 007 franchise, this flick represents a return home for the world’s most famous secret agent. It was only two movies ago that the franchise was rebooted with Daniel Craig in the role with a new origin story in Casino Royale. Now, he is already being portrayed as long in the tooth and maybe on his last legs. In other words, a dinosaur, as Judi Dench called Pierce Brosnan’s Bond in her first appearance as M in Goldeneye 17 years ago. Casino Royale famously shed some of the familiar trappings of the 007 films in an effort to make the character seem fresh again. Skyfall carefully starts putting some of them back. Think of it as autocorrect for the Craig era. There are surprises, and for the first time in ages things happen in a Bond movie that can actually be considered spoilers. The bottom line is that this is one of the very best Bond movies ever. While Craig is no Sean Connery, he is fine in the role. Dench, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Wishaw and Naomie Harris are fine in their roles. Javier Bardem, while bordering on cliché, provides a disturbing villain that has absolutely no echoes of his much more frightening villain in No Country for Old Men. What is particularly interesting is that the film’s plot has M and Bond making a defense of a country’s need for espionage capability. In that sense, the movie is surprisingly conservative politically and unabashed in its evocation of British patriotism. (Seen 4 November 2012)

Sleepers 2 out of 4 stars

Barry Levinson’s Sleepers is significant mainly for two reasons: 1) Its large cast guarantees many more years of successful games of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, and 2) in a single movie we get to compare Hot Young Actors of yesterday (Robert DeNiro and Dustin Hoffmann), today (Jason Patric and Brad Pitt), and tomorrow (Brad Renfo and Joseph Perrino). Of all of these, Hoffmann gets the best (if not largest) role and gamely makes the most of his incompetent lawyer character. (In an apparent nod to Hoffmann, a minor character has the improbable name of Rizzo.) Sleepers’s New York setting, gangsterish plot, past-and-future linear structure, and (not particularly effective) use of period music bring to mind Once Upon a Time in America before Sergio Leone got to release his own cut. But while Sleepers is blessed with actors, it is burdened with more clichés than I’ve seen in a movie in a long time and is longer than it really needs to be. Particularly eerie are the facts that Bruno Kirby seems to have transformed into Joe Pesci and that the ending threatens to mirror The First Wives Club! (Seen 14 November 1996)

Sliding Doors 2 out of 4 stars

Attention parents of small children: The next time you fail to yank your little darling out of the way of someone in a really big hurry, it could mean the difference between that person starting their own PR firm or delivering sandwiches for a living. This is (sort of) the premise of Sliding Doors, which is one of those films about two people who are meant for each other, but for cosmic reasons they have to go through a lot of complicated stuff not only to get together but just to meet each other (and which usually have the word “heaven” in the title). You know, like Warren Beatty and Julie Chrisie in Heaven Can Wait. Or Timothy Hutton and Kelly McGillis in Made in Heaven. The gimmick here is that, when Gwyneth Paltrow rushes to catch her train in the London underground, we see what happens if she catches it and if she doesn’t. More or less simultaneously. It’s sometimes hard to keep track of which alternative reality we are watching at a given moment, but fortunately actor-turned-director Peter Howitt often has one of the Gwyneths wearing a bandage or changing her hair-do to help keep things straight. Like most films built around such a device, the story isn’t particularly compelling on its own, but the gimmick makes it more interesting than it otherwise would be. And John Hannah is very amusing as a daffy Scottish suitor. (Seen 18 June 1998)

Slumdog Millionaire 4 out of 4 stars

This movie had to overcome tremendous odds to become my favorite movie for 2008. No, I don’t mean competition from other films. I mean the conspiracy that seemed to be in place to keep me from being able to appreciate it properly. I knew I would like it when I heard director Danny Boyle talking about it on BBC radio last autumn. For ages, it seemed to be opening everywhere in the world but where I was and, in the end, this movie that nearly went straight to DVD was generating huge Oscar buzz and racking up awards before I could get to see it. If that’s not a way to unrealistically overinflate expectations, I don’t know what is. So, it’s a major testimony to the talent behind this movie that I loved it so much anyway. And why wouldn’t I? It has Boyle’s trademark visual flourishes, although not so much as other of his films—and with a locale as expansive and breathtaking as Mumbai, he didn’t really need to. And it has the provocative elements of life’s underside (what is it with Boyle and toilets?) as, say, Trainspotting. But, most importantly, it has the enduring heart of his other really great film (also about a pair of young brothers), Millions. In the end, I suppose this movie’s legacy will similar to that of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, i.e. to be a movie that is basically about one depressing turn after another but about which people only remember the feel-good ending. But it is more than that. Part Dickensian melodrama, part Indian travelogue, part Runyonesque fairy tale, it is a feast for audiences starved for beauty and hope. (Seen 1 February 2009)

Small Engine Repair 2 out of 4 stars

This is a movie about guys who drink a lot of beer, drive around in pickup trucks and constantly listen to country music. So, it takes place in, like, Montana or somewhere, right? No, it’s somewhere in Ireland. (Directed by Niall Heery, it was filmed in some mountainous logging area in Northern Ireland.) Scottish actor Iain Glenn plays Doug who, despite a major lack of confidence, aspires to be a country singer/songwriter. But he actually has it made because his life is basically a country/western song. He has a cheatin’ wife, a problem getting a job and all the rest. His best friend is Bill, who runs the titular small engine repair shop. Bill is played by English actor Steven Mackintosh, who is completely unrecognizable as the blond glam youth from The Buddha of Suburbia or the transsexual from Different for Girls. What seems like it should be a sentimental story of pluck and luck, however, also has a suspense component, as another “friend” happens to be psychopath. But, amazingly, things conclude much better than we have a right to expect. Glenn does his own singing, and he’s actually quite good. There is a fairly easy litmus test for judging whether this movie will be your cup of tea. As director Heery said to the audience after the film was screened, “If you don’t like country music, I’m sorry.” (Seen 14 July 2006)

Small Faces 3 out of 4 stars

A coming-of-age story set in working-class Glasgow in the 1960s, Small Faces makes an interesting companion piece to Trainspotting. It takes a while to figure out where the film is headed, as scenes come and go quickly without a lot of exposition, but in the end the story packs an emotional wallop. The focus of the story is a promising 13-year-old, Lex, who has two older brothers. Alan is an aspiring art student. Billy is not particularly bright but finds his niche in a gang. Lex gets drawn into Billy’s gang activities, and in the end a petty act of revenge on Lex’s part leads to tragedy, destroying his innocence forever. The semi-autobiographical screenplay was written by director Gillies MacKinnon (The Playboys) and his brother Billy who have family ties in the Pacific Northwest. Indeed, one of the film’s minor characters is an uncle from Seattle! (Seen 24 May 1996)

Smoke 3 out of 4 stars

What do you get when you make a film with an assortment of interesting characters, several curiously interweaving but separate plots, much wildly entertaining philosophical dialog, and a hip and eclectic musical score? Oh yeah, and add the always wonderful Harvey Keitel to the cast. No, Quentin Tarantino isn’t involved. In Smoke, the characters are actually decent and worth caring about, and violence is kept to a realistic minimum. The director is Wayne Wang (Chan Is Missing and The Joy Luck Club) and the writer is novelist Paul Auster (The Music of Chance). If there is any justice, this film will do as well commercially and critically as the somewhat overrated Pulp Fiction. For my money, I will take William Hurt’s anecdote of how Sir Walter Raleigh measured the weight of smoke over John Travolta’s ruminations on European fast food any day! (Seen 22 May 1995)

Smoke Signals 2 out of 4 stars

This endearing tale of two mismatched buddies on the road paints a portrait of Native Americans as quirky, mysterious and constantly obsessed by a sense of loss. The tone is familiar from the TV’s Northern Exposure, and indeed two cast members from that series (Elaine Miles and Cynthia Geary) show up in cameos. It’s also more than a bit reminiscent of 1989’s Powwow Highway, and one of that film’s stars, Gary Farmer (who also played Nobody in Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man), is on hand as well. The principal role goes to Adam Beach, who is quite appealing in a young Lou Diamond Phillips sort of way and who also starred in Dance Me Outside, which this movie also sort of resembles. What was odd for me was how eerily the sidekick (Evan Adams) seemed to have a Northern Ireland accent! In fact, the heartbreaking back-story of a frustrated father/son relationship and of historical oppression could well be an Irish play. In the end, the movie is less affecting for its portrayal of life on the reservation than it is for its poignant theme of missed connections with an absent parent. (Seen 11 October 1998)

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