Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France
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V toj strane… (In That Land) 2 out of 4 stars

The title of this Russian film by Lidia Bobrova comes from a song, which is sung near the movie’s end. The song—like the film—is sad, nostalgic and full of yearning. The setting is an isolated rural village in the frozen north. With the fall of Communism, whatever support was provided by the state has dissipated. The town manager does his best to keep things moving along, but he gets no help from Moscow or, more specifically, from a functionary referred to only as Boris. But the real managerial strength is in his wife, who has a keen instinct for human psychology and knowing how to manipulate the townsfolk. Otherwise, he sees his main task as trying to encourage the men not to drink themselves to death. The breakdown in society is spotlighted in a number of ways, from a housewife watching the American soap Santa Barbara to the arrival of a released prisoner (played by the late Ted Cassidy?) who settles in with his pen pal fiancée. The newcomer is a threatening, disruptive presence, but by the end we at least have some hope that perhaps he is learning to appreciate and adapt to the time-old traditions of the Russian countryside. (Seen 25 May 1999)

Valentine’s Day 2 out of 4 stars

What better way to observe Valentine’s Day than by spending an evening with your two best girls watching a star-studded Hollywood movie that was crafted just for this day with all the thought and care of a Hallmark card? Actually, there are lots of better ways—especially when the BAFTAs are on the same night, but anyway… Released six Valentine Days ago, this is an entertainment for people who do not want to be too challenged or even surprised very much. More or less following the formula exemplified by Richard Curtis’s Love Actually seven years earlier, the movie serves up a sprawling cast of familiar faces and puts them in various romantic dilemmas—most of which (but thankfully not quite all) have resolutions that are pretty easy to spot a few miles off. The cast size guarantees that no one will get much screen time (Kathy Bates had to wonder why she was there at all), but if there is a main story it is Ashton Kutcher and Jennifer Garner in the old chestnut about best friends who just don’t realize that, sorry, spoiler alert. A close second is Anne Hathaway and Topher Grace in a story about a phone sex worker who, for some reason, has to be on call 24/7. The filmmakers (old reliable Garry Marshall directed) consciously include the usual demographic diversity with two Taylors (Lautner and Swift), Emma Roberts and Carter Jenkins in the teenage roles, Bryce Robinson as a love-struck youngster and Shirley MacLaine and Hector Elizondo representing the golden agers. In one of the nicer touches the latter pair play a scene in front of a movie screen showing MacLaine in a scene with Anthony Quinn from 1958’s Hot Spell. Another good chuckle is a line from Swift about Lautner (then in the midst of Twilight movies) never taking off his shirt. That’s pretty much the kind of movie this is. Needless to stay, once the studio had milked this calendar date associated with extreme romantic anxiety, could New Year’s Eve possibly be far behind? (Answer: no.) (Seen 14 February 2016)

Valiant 2 out of 4 stars

The last thing one expects to see coming out of the creative minds of British cinema in this day and age is a gung-ho, stiff-upper-lip, old-fashioned war movie in which the virtues of heroism and valor in the heat of battle are celebrated and Germans demonized as pure evil incarnate. Of course, the point here isn’t actually to stir up patriotic fervor for queen and country, but rather to have some fun with hoary old movie clichés while giving the youngsters a few computer-generated thrills (kind of the same idea as Jerry Bruckheimer’s Pearl Harbor). Still, it is surprising that the animated portrayal of British military archetypes, superimposed on a cast of anthropomorphic birds, is affectionate rather than mocking, making the movie’s tone quaint indeed. The good news is that it gives acting work to some great English voices, like John Cleese, John Hurt, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Laurie and Tim Curry, as a Nazi falcon. As the titular hero, Ewan McGregor plays more or less the same character he did in Robots, except this time with an English accent instead of an American one. Ricky Gervais (creator/star of the original UK series The Office) does an even better job than Robin Williams of stealing the show as the cowardly, self-serving sidekick who somehow finds courage in spite of himself. Viewers who watch the closing credits all the way to the end will be relieved to learn that no animals were harmed in the making of the film, “including Dennis.” (Seen 24 April 2005)

Vampires Suck 1 out of 4 stars

The universe is punishing me. There’s no other explanation. My brother-in-law Joseph and I were meant to see Buried, but we got delayed and the only option left to us was to see this. On the bright side, Joseph liked it. Of course, Joseph likes everything he sees, so that was a gimme. As for my reaction, where do I begin? I would love to say that this is a hilarious spoof in the grand tradition of Airplane! or even Scary Movie. But, while spoofing specific memorable scenes from specific memorable movies, those films were sending up entire film genres. This movie is so zoned in on one specific target, and an easy one at that, that it nearly constitutes a Gus Van Sant remake with ironic asides and winking added. It gives the impression of something dashed out by high school students on scraps of paper in the movie theater while watching Twilight. Most of the one-liners probably already went through your head if you saw the Twilight movies. (The movie’s very title is the best indication of the obviousness of the humor.) And, needless to say, if you didn’t see any of the movies, this will be completely wasted on you. Which raises a question: why did it take two whole years after the release of the original movie to come up with this? Did they need the time to work in a Tiger Woods gag? Anyway, the female lead (Jenn Proske in her film debut) is actually quite appealing. She really has that teen soap heroine everything-sucks look down pat. In fact, she is so convincing that I found myself wondering if she actually realized that she wasn’t in a real Twilight movie. (Seen 20 October 2010)

The Van 2 out of 4 stars

The main reason to see The Van is because you enjoyed The Commitments and/or The Snapper. This final installment of Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown trilogy (directed by Stephen Frears) is not as strong as either of the first two films, but it is quite enjoyable in a sitcom sort of way. Contrary to his more politically correct husband/father role on Star Trek: Deep Space 9, Colm “Chief O’Brien” Meaney is well on his way to becoming Ireland’s Ralph Kramden. In this installment a shell-shocked Donal O’Kelly is along as the Ed Norton character, as our two hapless dreamers try to set up a business selling chips and other fast food from a van in the environs of Dublin. As with the earlier films, the humor is largely character driven. This movie may not change your life, but you will definitely think twice before ever eating fast food in Ireland. (Seen 17 May 1997)

Van Helsing 2 out of 4 stars

In all of the reviews of this first of the current summer’s big special-effects blockbusters, I don’t think anyone has noted that, underneath its surface, this film provides a surprisingly insightful look at complex religious and social issues. Okay, no it doesn’t. It’s just a silly summer movie meant to mindlessly entertain people in between mouthfuls of popcorn. Writer/director Stephen Sommers (The Mummy, The Mummy Returns) follows his usual formula of turning old Universal horror classics into Indiana Jones-style thrill rides. This flick in particular starts out as a conscious homage to the 1930s Universal pictures, particularly those later sequels that paired different monsters together. But the overall structure is basically lifted from a James Bond movie, with the Vatican substituting for the British government. Fortunately, the special effects aren’t the only eye candy, as the cast is particularly well chosen. Richard Roxburgh deliciously chews scenery, as well as necks, as Count Dracula, and David Wenham is very funny as one of those sidekicks who seems to be brought along mainly for his overreactions to bad situations. In the lead roles, Hugh Jackman and Kate Beckinsale are the most attractive couple since Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley in Pirates of the Caribbean. Toward the end of this flick, the last bride of Dracula suddenly drops down into frame and asks, “Did I scare you?” Even the chronically nervous sidekick has to reply in the negative. Unlike the Universal originals, this movie isn’t about being scared. It’s about being taken for a ride. (Seen 16 June 2004)

Velvet Goldmine 2 out of 4 stars

If you have read anything at all about this movie, then you already know that it is basically Citizen Kane except that, instead of being about a William Randolph Hearst-like character, it’s about a David Bowie-like character. Director Todd Haynes’s previous movie Safe was something of an elaboration on a segment of his earlier film Poison, which dealt with disease. Velvet Goldmine elaborates on the segment that was about sex. Specifically, Haynes recalls the era of glam rock as an exciting time when all the gender bending freed young people’s repressed sexuality. This is demonstrated amply by our point-of-view character, played by Christian Bale, who seems to be an alter ego for Haynes. The movie is curiously like an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical: there are lots and lots of songs and the action is more described than shown. As the Bowie-like figure, young Irish actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers (Michael Collins, The Disappearance of Finbar) is suitably androgynous and charismatic. As in Trainspotting, Ewan McGregor is still on drugs and, as in The Pillow Book, he is still not shy about his body. What’s surprising is how his character anachronistically turns out to be Kurt Cobain. Completing the romantic triangle is Toni Collette, the star of Muriel’s Wedding, who has shown that she is even more of a chameleon than Minnie Driver. (Seen 7 November 1998)

Vendredi soir (Friday Night) 1 out of 4 stars

Unlike certain other Americans, I have not gone off French products. I am still buying French wine and I am still seeing French films. And Claire Denis, whose work has ranged from Chocolat to Beau travail to Trouble Every Day, has made this a truly French film. In other words, it is the kind of film that eschews any more than a minimal amount of dialog because, hey, that would be boring. But it has no problem spending screen time on watching a woman washing her hair or sitting in her car in a traffic jam. But it’s worse than that, for a guy anyway. It’s a French chick flick. In an apparently uncharacteristic impulse, our heroine Laure offers a lift to pedestrian Jean, who is what passes for a hunk in French cinema. (Physically, he is sort of a cross between a middle-aged, half-shaven Yves Montand and the American comedian Richard Lewis.) Jean is to a traffic jam movie what Clint Eastwood is to a spaghetti western. The rest is so much female fantasy that this could well have been called Les ponts de Madison County. The film, which is set during a mass transit strike, has one nice touch: its claustrophobic vision of Paris as a traffic-choked metropolis full of lonely and isolated drivers in their individual automotive cocoons. (Seen 9 March 2003)

Venus 2 out of 4 stars

The awards-handicapping conundrum here is that The Last King of Scotland is really a much better movie than this one, but Peter O’Toole’s performance here really deserves the Oscar even more than Forest Whitaker’s. Go figure. (And no, I am not falling into the trap of supporting the Irishman, no matter what. If I was going that way, I would favor my fellow American Whitaker.) This film seems to exist to offer the plum roles that great old actors can seize on for that one last memorable performance. O’Toole and Vanessa Redgrave eschew all vanity for their parts. And there is something sad in that—especially when we see Redgrave, as radiant as we know she can be, in the last of her three scenes in this movie, and a photo of O’Toole, reminding us how beautiful (a character even says it) he was in his prime. In that way, the movie is a bit creepy—as if it was a eulogy to O’Toole and his career. Director and writer are Roger Michell and Hanif Kureishi, who previously collaborated on The Mother, which provided the flip of this story of age drawn to youth. (Producer Miles Ketley who attended the Dublin International Film Festival screening, along with co-star Leslie Phillips, summed up that film, which featured Daniel Craig, as “James Bond snogs granny.”) Frankly, I don’t understand filmmakers’ fascination with drying old men obsessing over young, beautiful people (cf. Death in Venice, Stealing Beauty), but maybe I will when I get a bit older. What is surprising is how the screenplay by Kureishi, who has given us so much insight over the years into Britain’s cultural diversity, is just so plain maudlin. If it wasn’t for the wonderful performances, the thing would be embarrassing. (Seen 20 February 2007)

Vergeßt Mozart (Forget Mozart) 2 out of 4 stars

This is a German movie made right after Amadeus, using the same sets in Prague and even the same costumes. Different actors though. These are speaking German, which makes it seem more authentic somehow. Imagine if, when Mozart died, someone said, “Nobody leaves ‘til we get this figured out.” Sort of like making Mozart’s death an episode of Murder She Wrote. Intriguing. Was it Salieri? Mozart’s doctor? His wife? Why did the mannequin maker die at almost the same instant? For 25 cents, I’ll give you the answers. Note: This film has more sex than Amadeus. (Seen 17 May 1987)

Veronica Guerin 3 out of 4 stars

It is so strange to me that Disney and Jerry Bruckheimer, whose previous collaboration was Pearl Harbor, would be producing this movie. But this time the director is Joel Schumacher, who is less known for action and violence than for movies with suspense and relationships (St. Elmo’s Fire, The Lost Boys, Falling Down, The Client, Phone Booth). I’m not sure how well Veronica Guerin’s story is known outside of Ireland, but here it is the stuff of modern legend. As far as I can tell, the film is scrupulous in following the facts, although it comes up with some interesting new “facts.” These include the assertion that Dublin crime lord Martin Cahill was snuffed by John Gilligan’s men and not the IRA, as generally believed. It is worth comparing this film to John Boorman’s treatment of Cahill in The General, where he was regarded as something of a Robin Hood figure. Here he is a brutal thug, which is certainly closer to the truth. But he is nothing compared to Gilligan, played impressively by Gerard McSorley, who is terrifying in his air of menace and sudden bursts of violence. Ciarán Hinds (Titanic Town, The Sum of All Fears) demonstrates again what a good actor he is, playing reporter Guerin’s gangland source and (according to this film) the one who ordered the first attempt on her life. Australian Cate Blanchett does an admirable job in making a real person out of someone who has become an icon in Ireland. It is impressive how much factual detail screenwriter Carol Doyle (Washington Square) has squeezed into the film. I particularly enjoyed her portrayal of the Irish journalist clique, which had no time for Guerin and suspected her of orchestrating an attempt on her own life to enhance her reputation. If there is a weak aspect to the movie, it is the ending, which implies that Ireland’s criminal and drug problems have largely been solved. Anyone following the news knows, all too sadly, that this is far from true. [Related commentary] (Seen 9 July 2003)

Das Versprechen (The Promise) 3 out of 4 stars

The very idea of the Berlin Wall is one of those improbably absurd things which actually happen in real life, so it was inevitable that someone would use it as a basis for a movie. The director is Margarethe von Trotta, who also made The Lost Honor of Katerina Blum and Rosa Luxemburg (to which there is a sly reference in this film). The story begins just after the wall has gone up in 1961 and Konrad and Sophie and some of their school friends are plotting an escape to West Berlin. Sophie makes it; Konrad doesn’t. For 28 years they live just a few miles apart but only manage to see each other a few times. (At one point they think they’ve reunited successfully in a third country, but it turns out to be Czechoslovakia in 1968. Oops.) The movie makes clear that the Berlin Wall was a psychological barrier as well as a physical one. While the story does veer into soap opera territory, it is hard not to be touched by this dilemma that afflicted the German people for three decades. (Seen 22 May 1995)

Vertigo 3 out of 4 stars

In time for its 40th anniversary, there is now a restored version of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Since Hitch isn’t around to include any computerized special effects that he didn’t have time or money for the first time around, it plays pretty much the same as the previous couple of times I saw it. This is an apropos time to watch it so that we can admire the work of the late Jimmy Stewart—not to mention that of the early Kim Novak. Much is made by critics of Stewart’s character’s quasi-necropheliac obsession, but the film can also be seen as an allegory for romantic relationships in general. Stewart goes through all the usual stages: mystery, fantasy, euphoria, and finally reality. Most of the fun, however, is in watching for Hitch’s sly Freudian sight gags, beginning with the opening shot of a horizontal rod—immediately gripped by two male hands. The best one by far is San Francisco’s exquisitely named (and shaped) Coit Tower, which is prominent in the background whenever Novak visits Stewart in his apartment. When Novak uses it as a landmark to find her way back to him, gray-haired bachelor Stewart comments cryptically that it’s the first time he is glad it exists. Hey, no wonder the guy’s dizzy! (Seen 25 September 1997)

A Very Brady Sequel 0 out of 4 stars

The reason for seeing this movie is the same as for watching reruns on TV: because there is nothing else on. I for one have never understood the periodic fascination with the mediocre 1970s sitcom The Brady Bunch. I guess I’m just from the Leave It to Beaver generation. This flick continues the conceit from the first movie that the Bradys have somehow timewarped from the 1970s into the 1990s. Fashions and slang aside, however, this film unwittingly highlights just how much the 1990s are like the 1970s with similar shallowness and materialism. (By the way, Gary Cole’s compulsively lecturing Mike Brady is much scarier than his evil sheriff on TV’s American Gothic.) The humor derives primarily from “normal” people’s reactions to the anachronistic Bradys and the family’s continual unwitting use of double entendres. I suppose for die-hard fans, however, this is a must-see because it finally (sort of) addresses such eternal questions as: Who were Mike and Carol originally married to? What ever happened to cousin Oliver and Tiger the dog? Can Alice cook anything besides meatloaf? Where does Alice sleep? And, most intriguingly, how can two healthy teenagers like Greg and Marcia (who are not biological brother and sister) live in such close proximity to each other without going crazy? (Seen 10 September 1996)

Vicky Cristina Barcelona 2 out of 4 stars

Is it just me or, when Javier Bardem switches on his smiley/charming mode, does he not more or less turn into Jeffrey Dean Morgan? This film, of course, represents Woody Allen’s 14th “return to form” in the past six years. At least that seems to be the consensus among the real critics. Now, any movie that makes liberal use of Barcelona and Asturias locations (not to mention Penélope Cruz) is not going to be hard to watch, and that is definitely true in this case. But, as is usually the case with Allen’s films, there is something antiseptic about the interactions between the characters, especially considering that, in this case, the narrative is ostensibly driven by emotion and passion. Cruz demonstrates that she was not undeserving of her Oscar, as her appearance, roughly midway through the proceedings, gives the flick a much needed surge of energy. Indeed, her character is so built up before her actual appearance, it’s a bit of a gag, kind of like the build-up to Wallace Shawn’s appearance in Manhattan. At first, the voice-over narration feels irritating and superfluous. But then we realize that the Woodman is making a François Truffaut-type film. And Cruz is his dangerous, unstable Jeanne Moreau character. The story is fairly inconsequential, and viewing the movie works best when we look on it as a Freudian dream. Every character represents one facet of the Allen personality. English actor Rebecca Hall, actually sounding at times like the famously neurotic Woody, is the boring responsible side. Scarlett Johansson is the artistic/airy-fairy side. Bardem is the compulsively amorous side. And Cruz is the pure animal energy. Like any good dream, it is best enjoyed in the moment, before it recedes in the morning light. (Seen 4 March 2009)

To Viemme tou Odyssea (Ulysses’ Gaze) 1 out of 4 stars

In Irma Vep a journalist who is ostensibly interviewing Maggie Cheung lectures her on how the problem with French cinema is that it consists of the government giving money to filmmakers to make films that no one wants to see. He might have had Ulysses’ Gaze, a Greek/French/Italian co-production directed by a Greek (Theo Angelopolous), in mind. You can figure that a film with the name Ulysses in the title will involve an odyssey, and indeed this one does. Harvey Keitel plays a Greek-born American film director on a quixotic quest for three missing reels of a legendary early film. Over three long hours he journeys through Greece, Albania, eastern Europe, and finally war-torn Sarajevo. To be sure, there are some striking images (particularly a huge statue of Lenin on a barge), but for the most part this film is the kind of self-indulgent stuff that gives European films a bad name. If you want some insight into the recent Balkan conflict, you’d be better off seeking out Pretty Village, Pretty Flame. Ironically, the last line of Ulysses’ Gaze is: “The story that never ends.” The audience’s reaction reflected agreement. (Seen 25 May 1997)

A View to a Kill 2 out of 4 stars

This movie actually looks better now than I remember from a first viewing in 1985. Mainly, I remember thinking how old Bond and Moneypenny seemed. Now I think they both look pretty darn good for being in their late 50s. This was the last outing for both Roger Moore and Lois Maxwell in the 007 flicks and, yes, the banter laced with innuendo between the two was getting a bit embarrassing by this point. In fairness, Moore was still trim and fit and had a good head of hair. He had evolved from the so-dry-he-was-wooden persona of Live and Let Die to a more perpetually amused, crinkly-eyed look. As Moneypenny, Maxwell never had much to do except for a few dry lines in film as Bond came and went out of the office, but in her send-off she’s off to the races (literally) and gets to provide an odd nod to, of all movies, My Fair Lady. In another strange connection, the title song is performed by Duran Duran, providing a link of sorts to Roger Vadim’s Barbarella (the band was named after a character played by Milo O’Shea), another flick that traded on high tech and titillation. Once again, this movie ticks all the boxes (underwater action, ski chase, seductions, etc.). The villain is a suitably sociopathic Christopher Walken, and Bond girls include the striking Grace Jones, future That ’70s Show cast member Tanya Roberts and Dublin’s own Alison Doody as Jenny Flex. Patrick Macnee joins his Avengers co-stars (Honor Blackman in Goldfinger, Diana Rigg in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) in meeting Bond. The reliably fine stunt work makes the most of viewers’ acrophobia with action sequences atop both the Eiffel Tower and the Golden Gate Bridge. (Seen 30 July 2012)

Villa Paranoia 3 out of 4 stars

Anna is one of those movie heroines, whose quirks and personality traits seem all too real. When we first see her, she is impulsively leaping from a bridge before proceeding on to an acting audition. This scene is echoed toward the end of the film in a sort-of flashback. Picky about acting roles, Anna, seemingly on a whim, decides to take a job providing home care to an old man who is supposedly “a vegetable.” But the job, unexpectedly, turns into the acting job she has somehow always wanted when she realizes her patient is merely withdrawn and emotionally scarred. Other characters include the patient’s son, a lonely chicken farmer looking for love, and a young offender doing community service, who is, briefly, Anna’s immediate predecessor. The writer/director is Danish filmmaker Erik Clausen, who also plays the chicken farmer. It’s material that could turn drippy or silly or, worse, predictable. But somehow it turns magical. Especially when we see the enchantment that can happen when a woman is willing to put on a nurse’s uniform. (Seen 15 July 2006)

The Village 2 out of 4 stars

This latest flick by M. Night Shyamalan seems to have disappointed some of the people who liked the hits The Sixth Sense and Signs. Perhaps that is because The Village shares too many attributes with Signs, i.e. 1) a similar creepy/claustrophobic atmosphere, 2) heavy religious allegorical elements, and 3) Joaquin Phoenix. Frankly, there is something refreshing about Shyamalan’s almost quaint continuity in theme and style from film to film—not to mention the trademark Twilight Zone-style twist endings—as well as the use of a near-virtual repertory of actors. Cherry Jones joins Phoenix from the Signs cast, not to mention Shyamalan himself in yet another Hitchock-like cameo. The film also includes the first reunion between William Hurt and Sigourney Weaver since 1981’s Eyewitness. Probably what really put people off this time was the constraint of a story that involved a community that seems to be Quaker or Amish or something and therefore not very edgy. That’s a lot to ask a 21st-century audience to sit through, despite an intriguing plot that seems borrowed from a Shirley Jackson story, and scary sequences that evoke The Blair Witch Project. I kept wondering if there was a political or social message in all this. A comment on utopian societies perhaps? Or maybe an indictment of religion? Nah. Anyway, Opie’s daughter Bryce Dallas Howard shines. Can’t wait to see her some more. (Seen 1 September 2004)

Violeta se Fue a los Cielos (Violeta Went to Heaven) 3 out of 4 stars

One cannot help but wonder, if artist/singer/ethnomusicologist Violeta Parra had not taken her own life three years before his election, what she would have made of Salvador Allende and his Popular Unity government. Or the coup that ended it three years after that? Would it have killed her (figuratively or literally) as it did her friend Pablo Neruda or the martyred folk singer Victor Jarra? This biopic by Andrés Wood is something of a psychological study. Written by Eliseo Altunaga (who worked with Wood on Machuca), it draws on a book by Parra’s son Ángel and to a large extent views her from his point of view. The narrative structure is fragmented, so we find ourselves jumping around to different periods in her life, sometimes confusingly. The portrait that emerges is of a complex and gifted woman who was by no means without her demons—perhaps best illustrated by her tempestuous artistic and romantic relationship with the Swiss musician Gilbert Favre. Whether trekking across a mountain to collect folk songs or demanding at the Louvre that her works be exhibited or storming out after a formal pre-dinner performance because she was asked to eat in the kitchen, she was clearly a force of nature. Francisca Gavilán gives a powerful performance as national figure that many Chileans would still remember. Most impressively, she does all her own singing, sounding eerily like Parra herself. Parra’s most beloved song, “Gracias a la Vida,” does not come until the very end (this is one movie where you really do need to stay through the end credits, just to hear it), and I was certain it was Parra’s own version—but the credits said otherwise. (Seen 14 July 2013)

Le Violon Rouge (The Red Violin) 2 out of 4 stars

The general premise behind this sprawling historical epic by Canadian director François Girard (Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould) has been used before. Unfortunately, I can’t think of any good examples besides 1964’s all-star The Yellow Rolls-Royce and Dutch director Alex van Warmerdam’s The Dress. But the idea is to follow an inanimate object as it passes from one person to another, thereby collecting a series of stories that form an anthology. In this case, we follow an “acoustically perfect” violin from its creation in Italy in 1681 to Austria, England, China, and finally to Canada where it is auctioned off. The final sequence, bits of which are seen multiple times from different points of view, is by far the most interesting—despite the beautiful and exotic locations of the earlier (mostly unhappy) segments. As a violin expert, Samuel L. Jackson manages to bring his Pulp Fiction style intensity to a completely different kind of role. And Jason Flemying and Greta Scacchi briefly inflame the screen as passionate Romantic artists who incorporate the violin in a strange kind of threesome. When Scacchi leaves town, however, Flemyng finds a whole new meaning for the phrase “fiddling around.” (Seen 24 May 1999)

La Virgen de los sicarios (Our Lady of the Assassins) 2 out of 4 stars

This film falls into a genre that is virtually non-existent in North American cinema but seems to pop up regularly in Spanish language cinema: the one wherein a noted writer returns home (usually at the end of his life) after many years in exile (self-imposed or otherwise) and spends the length of the film wallowing in his memories, contemplating his mortality and perhaps having a bittersweet but short-lived love affair in the process. The twist in this case is that the story of the writer, Fernando Vallejo who made himself the central character of his own novel on which the film is based, has returned to modern-day Medellín, Colombia, causing the movie nearly to become a black comedy. In this Medellín, violence is so rampant and life so cheap that shopkeepers chat about murders they have just witnessed on the street the way other people discuss the weather. In fact, there is so much casual gunplay by young gang members on motor scooters that the film makes the average U.S. western seem like a pacifist tract by comparison. In the end, the plot unwinds with a twist so reliant on amazing coincidence that you think that director Barbet Schroeder (Barfly, Reversal of Fortune, Single White Female) is actually cooking up an homage to Vertigo. In any event, it is interesting to see the flip side of North America’s drug traffic, as portrayed in such U.S. films as Blow. (Seen 24 May 2001)

The Virgin Suicides 2 out of 4 stars

This film by Sofia Coppola, daughter of Francis Ford, after Jeffrey Eugenides’s novel, gives hints of what could have been a great film. And, while some filmmakers make their career best movie the first time out, The Virgin Suicides is one debut effort that cries out for a more experienced hand. The title and subject matter promise something dark and subversive about adolescence, perhaps a turn-of-millenium update to 1989’s Heathers. Well, maybe, but the frequent voice-over narration to describe each plot point from the ironic perspective of adulthood makes this more like Heathers done as a TV episode of The Wonder Years. And, as in every American cinematic social critique from The Graduate to American Beauty, the usual suspects (the suburbs, the church, repressive American morality) are dutifully trotted out for reproach. Kathleen Turner (who actually seems to have studied Annette Bening’s American Beauty performance) gives some shading to what could easily have been a two-dimensional figure—one that is more than a touch reminiscent of her romp in Serial Mom. And it’s a real kick to see James Woods, after all the wacko characters he’s portrayed, here playing the hopelessly square math teacher. Out of all of this, however, the one bit that gives an indication of what this movie could have been is a funny documentary-style appearance by a clueless Michael Paré as an older version of one of the teenage characters. Now that’s ironic perspective. (Seen 19 May 2000)

La Vita è Bella (Life Is Beautiful) 4 out of 4 stars

There are all kinds of reasons why a comedy about the Holocaust is a bad idea. For one thing, the Holocaust wasn’t very funny. For another, if you find a way to make it funny, then you are showing incredible disrespect or very bad taste or trivializing something that shouldn’t be trivialized. But it turns out that Life Is Beautiful isn’t really “about” the Holocaust. It’s about the lengths that parents will go to protect their children, and when you’re making a point like that, what better way than to show a parent trying to protect his child from the scariest thing there is? The second half of the film treads the fine line between not brutalizing its audience and not sugarcoating the historical facts as we know them. In the end, the film is just what the narrator says it is: a fable. We aren’t meant to believe the literal truth of the story but to take away a lesson. Director/star Roberto Benigni will be hard put ever to top this movie. While the first half is as light and breezy as a Blake Edwards/Peter Sellers comedy, the second half evokes the best and most thoughtful work of Charlie Chaplin. This movie is very funny. The miracle is that, even when it is breaking your heart, it’s still funny—without compromising a very serious message. (Seen 8 November 1998)

I Vitelloni 3 out of 4 stars

The third film that Federico Fellini directed (1953), it is the prototype for a whole genre of movies about tightly-bound groups of young male friends, who are having trouble facing up to the idea of true adulthood. It is essentially the Diner of its place and time. No one usually bothers translating the title into English for the subtitled versions, but I understand that it means something like “the young calves,” which is an Italian expression referring to idle young men in the provinces. Other language versions of the film use titles that mean “the good livers” or “the useless ones.” Apparently, the movie was quasi-autobiographical for Fellini, taking the form of a melodrama. One of the group is the serious one, who knows he can’t stay in the small town. Another is the aspiring writer. Another, the de facto leader, is a serial seducer, who lately finds his amorous style cramped by his annoying shotgun marriage and baby. Since this is Fellini, the proceedings are woven with compelling visuals and motion and music, in a way that presages Martin Scorsese’s work two decades later in Mean Streets. (Seen 13 July 2006)

Volcano 2 out of 4 stars

If you are a take-charge hero type of guy who has one of those jobs where you are always having to bark orders into phones or radios or at dumbfounded bystanders, then major disasters are a double-edged sword. On the down side, they almost always happen when you are supposed to be on vacation, and everyone around you always thinks you are overreacting. On the up side, your snotty teenage daughter learns to grow up in a really big hurry; the bureaucrats who refused to listen to you generally die horrible, fiery deaths; and most importantly, it’s a great way to meet women. Volcano is more than reminiscent of that cheesy 1970s disaster flick, Earthquake. Since, as the first reel of this film demonstrates, earthquakes (or fires or mudslides or riots) don’t scare Angelenos anymore, the ante has to be raised to near biblical proportions. Unfortunately, this movie followed on the heels of Dante’s Peak which, while also preposterous, at least was more grounded in actual events that we could remember. Tommy Lee Jones is okay in an impossible lead role, but it is Anne Heche and Don Cheadle who give the film what life it has. (Seen 17 October 1997)

Vox Humana (notes for a small opera) 3 out of 4 stars

Veteran Irish director Bob Quinn introduced this lovely piece of work as “a home movie,” and the fact that it is on tape, rather than film, certainly makes it look that way. The entire thing looks like it cost less than an evening’s rounds at a Galway pub, but somehow Quinn has managed to get 10 million euro worth of movie on the screen. It stars the real-life Galway Baroque Singers, and their heavenly music fills nearly the entire running time of the movie. It co-stars the city of Galway, which is shown in all its glorious photogenic beauty. But the heart and soul of the picture is Luke Cauldwell (Quinn’s godson, as it happens) as a man living rough on the street. As the story unfolds, we learn the devastating reason that Luke’s life has come to this. And we become invested in Luke’s fate, as he becomes fascinated by the singers, in part because one of them bears a resemblance to his daughter. I don’t think I have ever seen a movie be quite so uplifting and despondent at the same time. At the risk of sounding trite, I will suggest that, if this movie could be seen at the right film festival, it could wind up doing for Galway and chorale music what Once did for Dublin and sentimental pop music. (Seen 10 July 2008)

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