Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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Scott Larson





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W.C. 2 out of 4 stars

If nothing else, writer/director/producer/star Liam O Mochain deserves credit for having the confidence to give his movie a title that dares smart alecks like me to make toilet jokes about it. But O Mochain is way ahead of people like me. We last saw him on the big screen in his rather inventive 1999 flick The Book That Wrote Itself, which was notable for the gimmick of including unwitting cameos from the likes of George Clooney, Catherine Denueve and Bruce Willis, as they attended the Venice Film Festival. O Mochain’s latest effort is more conventional, but in an indy cinema sort of way. The premise (young man is forced to be a toilet attendant in his family’s Dublin jazz bar) sounds like it is going to be a comedy—and at times it is. But there are elements of suspense/thriller and caper genres as well. It is a testament to the filmmaker’s ambition that he cites as the film’s influences both Joel Schumacher’s slick thriller Phone Booth and Lukas Moodysson’s naturalistic film about sexual exploitation Lilja 4-ever. Its indy sensibility is evident not only in its genre mashing but also in some of the low key acting styles on display. In a strange bit of praise, the Missus commented that whoever wrote it must have had a lot of experience with public toilets. The strongest aspects for me are the cool musical soundtrack and an unexpected ending that begs a second viewing. It features, as a mysterious homeless man camped in the back alley, Karl Sheils, who previously made an impact as the titular revolutionary in the short film Meeting Che Guevara and the Man from Maybury Hill. (Seen 4 March 2010)

Wag the Dog 2 out of 4 stars

Suddenly every news source from Matt Drudge to NPR was bombarding me with details about an alleged liaison between my President and a White House intern young enough to be his daughter. I figured this was the universe’s way of telling me that it was way past time to get out and finally see Wag the Dog, so I did. This delicious satire is frightening in the way that it requires only slight exaggeration to spin its absurd scenario. A dream cast is headed by Robert DeNiro and Dustin Hoffman, whose characters are so well drawn that you’re sure that they’re based on specific people even if you’re not sure exactly who they are. If there is anything Hollywood types (Barry Levinson directed, David Mamet co-wrote) love better than lampooning politicians, it’s skewering other Hollywood types. And here their aim is dead on. A cautionary tale about media handlers, spin doctors, the entertainment biz and jingoistic pop culture, Wag the Dog should be required viewing before anyone is allowed to buy a feel-good song for a popular cause or to tie a yellow ribbon around anything. (Seen 21 January 1998)

Waitress 2 out of 4 stars

Because of the tragic circumstances surrounding this film, we want it to take on deeper meanings and more weight than we would normally have a right to expect. For those in the know, there is a bit of a sad/creepy feeling in watching it—not unlike that which hovered around Peter Bogdanovich’s 1981 film They All Laughed, which came out after the death of one of its stars, Dorothy Strattan, who was murdered by her husband. Just as that movie eerily featured a character, played by Strattan, with a jealous husband, this movie has a thread in its plot that uncomfortably offers the potential for male-on-female violence, a sad echo of the fate that befell writer/director/co-star Adrienne Shelly. But the movie deserves to be seen for its own merits and not as a crime artifact. And that leads me to voice my conclusion that the film is diverting but slight—which may not be far off from the filmmaker’s intention. My cousin described it to me as Southern magic realism, and there is certainly that element to it, but mostly it has the trappings of a sitcom—an impression not deterred by a similar setup to that of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and its resultant TV series or by the (quite welcome) presence of good ol’ Andy Griffith. Its view of life offering unexpected delights in the face of limited small-town prospects is easy enough to take, but even more so is its parade of scrumptious-looking pies with amusing names and backstories. We can’t help but smile at its deliberately but pleasantly hokey ending. But we also can’t help but feel sad there won’t be more films or performances from the talented Ms. Shelly. (Seen 3 September 2007)

Waking Life 2 out of 4 stars

It’s interesting to compare the feature film careers of Richard Linklater and Kevin Smith. Both broke through with creatively impressive low-budget first films mostly about quirky characters expounding on life and other sundry topics (Linklater in 1991’s Slacker and Smith in 1994’s Clerks). Both have gone on to further exploration of the eccentrics in their personal universes, and both have been compelled to use this format to take on Life, the Universe and Everything. Smith did so in comic book fashion in Dogma, and now Linklater has artistically pondered the imponderable in Waking Life, a lifelike cartoon. In some ways, it is nearly a remake of Slacker except that there is a central character. He is played by Wiley Wiggins, who was more or less our point-of-view character in Linklater’s Dazed and Confused. The endless (but rarely boring) pontificating about dreams/reality and life/death may remind some of the gabfeast My Dinner with André, whose director (Louis Malle) coincidentally figures in an anecdote told here by another director, Steven Soderbergh. The story, to the extent that there is one, features a “plot twist” that has become quite popular lately, but it would be wrong to focus on that. Better to simply let your mind be prodded by the non-stop philosophizing and the mesmerizing animation. (Seen 5 November 2001)

Waking Ned Devine 2 out of 4 stars

The title, of course, plays on the double meaning of the word waking, as it is used in Ireland; to wit, 1) rousing someone from a deep sleep and 2) getting completely, totally rip-roaring drunk in a room with a corpse. There is a wake in this movie, but it is actually a fairly dignified affair—at least compared with some of the other things that go on the film. Written and directed by Kirk Jones, this is one of those gentle, quirky comedies about a small town (think Local Hero) on an isolated coast somewhere in the British Isles—in this case Ireland, although it was actually filmed on the Isle of Man, which makes a good substitute. Tullymore is the kind of Irish village that is so out-of-the-way that all the phones can be down for days at a time, where suitors still ask fathers for a daughter’s hand, and where a local can win the biggest national lottery prize in years and only a couple of people get wind of it. The movie is quite funny, with some of its best gags involving naked, elderly men riding a motorcycle. The ending in particular is quite the crowd pleaser, and listen carefully in the final moments, as one of the very best jokes can easily get lost in the background noise of the local pub. (Seen 11 November 1998)

A Walk in the Woods 2 out of 4 stars

So this is essentially Wild for silly old geezers. Whereas the adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s book was full of metaphoric substance about how the testing of oneself physically by undertaking a lengthy and arduous hike could change your life, this take on popular travel writer Bill Bryson’s book is more about how a trek up the Appalachian Trail is good way to get out of the house and maybe meet women. Bryson was in his 40s when he—joined by his pseudonymous friend Stephen Katz—made his hike and then wrote humorously about it. Robert Redford and Nick Nolte, who play Bryson and Katz, are in their 70s, so the story has been transformed into a late-in-life last grasp for lost youth instead of a middle-age-crisis grasp for lost youth. What is downright strange, though, is that Redford could easily pass for being in his 50s (and his screen wife, Emma Thompson is 23 years his junior) and he is, after all, Robert Redford, so we actually have trouble believing that hiking the entire 2,000-mile-plus length of the Appalachian Trail would even be daunting for him. Heck, didn’t we just see him single-handedly wrestle Mother Nature to a draw in the middle of the ocean in All Is Lost? As for Nolte, by contrast, he doesn’t even seem fit enough to be filming his scenes. All of this—plus the fact that the actors are all so familiar (except maybe Nolte, who seems to have aged into Edgar Buchanan)—means that we do not really take any of it seriously and just sit back and enjoy the shenanigans. It has been said that this has been a pet project of Redford’s for a long time now and that he originally wanted to make it with Paul Newman. What a reunion that would have been. As Redford and Nolte banter and bicker and help each other out, we cannot help but remember that the Sundance Kid was part of the original movie bromance, and there are echoes of that all along the high country trails. In particular there is one scene where the two look over a precipice and we nearly expect Redford to mutter that he can’t swim. While it’s easy to find fault with this film, that resonance of time and buddy movies past and the goodwill brought by the actors—not to mention some postcard perfect photography—make this an entertainment that I found very hard not to like. (Seen 19 September 2015)

A Walk on the Moon 2 out of 4 stars

The title refers to the year 1969 when Neil Armstrong took his one small step and Americans believed they could do anything. Everett Jones is a gung-ho Peace Corps volunteer in Colombia and he is out To Make A Difference. Lew, the guy he would be replacing if Lew would just leave, has flipped out and spends his time drinking beer and shooting the rats scampering around his cozy home. Everett (who prefers to be called Jones) falls in love with a local girl. The movie gives a good idea of what it’s like to be an North American in Latin America, but unfortunately it degenerates into a kind of soap opera cum melodrama that destroys the M*A*S*H-like absurd realistic style it starts out with. (Seen 22 May 1987)

Walk the Line 2 out of 4 stars

So Johnny Cash and June Carter met cute. Who knew? This is the most standard of musical biopics. Which is kind of surprising since it is directed by James Mangold, who showed no small amount of inventiveness with Identity (although he didn’t show much in the fairly standard Kate & Leopold). We get none of the fancy narrative tricks of De-Lovely or Beyond the Sea. (It is obviously a federal statute that titles of musical biopics be taken from one of the subject’s best known songs.) Instead, we get the usual series of episodes illustrating major turning points in Cash’s life and the real-life inspirations for various of his songs. Not being a rabid Johnny Cash fan myself, I was surprised, for instance, to find out that he didn’t actually get to Folsom Prison until years after he wrote the song or that he actually had to wait out not one, but two, of Carter’s marriages or that he started using drugs because he thought it was cool because Elvis was doing it. In the lead roles, Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon are more than adequate. In fact, as the movie makes clear, Carter may well have been the gospel/country-singing Reese Witherspoon of her time. As for Phoenix, his casting brings interesting resonance through his late brother, River, who provides strange echoes of Cash’s story. (Seen 13 October 2005)

Walking and Talking 2 out of 4 stars

Walking and Talking, the debut feature of writer/director Nicole Holofcener, is a likable comedy about two women in New York City who have been best friends forever. The friendship goes through a mild crisis, however, when one of them gets engaged. Like the best sitcoms, this film delivers a regular supply of laughs as well as few touching moments. (This would actually fit right into NBC’s Thursday night line-up.) Particularly amusing is a video store clerk who loves really gory movies “if they’re done well.” (Seen 2 June 1996)

WALL·E 2 out of 4 stars

Much, if not most, of the criticgentsia (I just invented a new word!) have described the titular robot of this flick as Chaplinesque. He (it?) certainly has clear roots in the Little Tramp and his melancholy but amusing travails dealing with an overwhelming world and hoping for love. But the movie’s real roots are right there in Pixar, which started out in the very beginning by telling stories of anthropomorphic appliances. This was originally a necessity because of the limitations of computer imaging at the time, but the tradition continues. Visually, this is a stunning film, making use of light that is all the more spectacular because it is not even natural. Storywise, there is much to appeal to science fiction buffs, including many sly references to classic films. Indeed, the movie could nearly be seen as a sort of sequel to A Silent Running. But the sci-fi crowd will divide between those with a tolerance for sentient robots and those without. And forget the ones who cannot bear to hear sound in the vacuum of space. But I’m taking this too seriously, right? This is made for kids, right? As with most Pixar fare, the filmmakers want to have it both ways, and that’s not usually a bad thing. What is a bit ironic, if not downright strange, is the film’s overt message about the evils of consumer capitalism. This is a message, after all, bankrolled ultimately by Disney which, if anybody needs to be informed, is the Holy Grail of consumer capitalism. Never has a movie so deliberately made the viewer feel so uncomfortable as he sits in his cushy cinema seat sipping on his giant cup of soda pop—after having collected a hefty share of the cash in his wallet on the way in. But maybe the filmmakers are sincere, so I suppose we will not be seeing any cute WALL·E toys in the shops between now and Christmas. [Related commentary] (Seen 2 August 2008)

The War at Home 2 out of 4 stars

An in-progress version of The War at Home was shown at the Seattle film festival by its director and star Emilio Estevez. Given that the film is unfinished, it’s not fair to be too critical of it. This is obviously meant to be Estevez’s “serious movie.” At this point it definitely needs more editing and a fair amount of cutting, but this will be a movie that will inevitably be called “powerful.” All the principal cast get to cut loose and emote to high heaven. There’s also a fair amount of tension when Estevez, as a recently returned Vietnam vet starts cracking up and threatening violence. Adding to the mix is the fact that Estevez has cast his own father, Martin Sheen, as his character’s father, giving their brutally emotional confrontrations that much more charge. Kathy Bates pulls off the difficult role of the mother. Based on a play, this film is more about the disintegration of an American family than it is about post-traumatic stress syndrome, although it tries hard to do both things. (Seen 7 June 1996)

War of the Buttons 2 out of 4 stars

The third film version of Louis Pergaud’s 1912 novel transposed the story from rural France to rural Ireland, specifically photogenic West Cork. In the hands of Yves Robert, who went on to make The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe, the 1962 version was a crowd-pleasing hit in France. This 1994 version, produced by David Puttnam, has its adherents but made less of a splash. The story is a parable about the silliness of war, as demonstrated by children imitating adults in their military games. It’s sort of like Lord of the Flies but not nearly so dark. The Irish setting changes everything, if for no other reason than the fact that Ireland has a whole different set of baggage than France does, when it comes to history and war. The fighting that goes on between the lads of Ballydowse and Carrickdowse is humorous and good-natured, kind of like the fight scenes in the last reel of The Quiet Man. Toward the end, there is a sense that things could go very badly but, despite a few tense moments, this story is played mainly for laughs. As one of the leaders, with a troubled family life, young Gregg Fitzgerald, does hint at what forces can drive a man to compete and excel on the military battleground. (Seen 9 April 2004)

War of the Worlds 3 out of 4 stars

In the 1996 movie Independence Day, there is a great scene where a sizeable group of people turn out in celebration to welcome the invading flying saucers—only to get obliterated by disintegrator rays. These people had obviously grown up on Steven Spielberg movies like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T., in which visiting extraterrestrials were not merely benign but actually downright friendly, helpful and generous. Well, Spielberg has belatedly decided to correct any damage his earlier films have done to the citizenry’s healthy skepticism of outer space visitors with this new update to H.G. Wells’s classic novel. Now this isn’t the Spielberg that has given us thoughtful treatments like The Color Purple, Schindler’s List and Amistad or even the Spielberg who gave us exhilaration and wonderment in the form of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jurassic Park. This is the Spielberg who has given us nail-biting tales of raw survival like Duel and Jaws. And, since it’s Spielberg, it’s really very well done. Much of the tension comes from inserting just enough realism into a fairly unlikely story. These realistic touches include having Tom Cruise play a real jerk, who occasionally shares parenting with an Australian ex-wife who can do a pretty good American accent in a movie. (We don’t learn why the couple split up, but I’m assuming that it had something to do with his lack of sensitivity and understanding after the birth of their children.) The movie eschews some disaster movie clichés (like the romance that suddenly blossoms as the world that falls apart) and embraces others, e.g. Cruise plays the same kind of blue-collar hero that Bruce Willis usually plays, who is smarter than everyone else in the world, even though he still hasn’t figured out where people buy groceries. And, as we know from countless previous movies, there is no better opportunity for family bonding than the apparent end of the world. It is tempting to look for allegories and metaphors in a flick like this (hmmm, could Tim Robbins really be Donald Rumsfeld…?), but in the end that is a pointless exercise. Turn off your brain, eat your popcorn, and enjoy. (Seen 5 July 2005)

Washington Square 3 out of 4 stars

Shown as part of a Galway Film Fleadh retrospective of the work of Polish director Agnieszka Holland, Washington Square was one of a clutch of Henry James film adaptations that sprouted in 1997. (Jane Campion’s The Portrait of a Lady was another.) As a drama, the film is entirely satisfying. While decidedly rooted in its place and time (early 20th century New York), the characters’ dilemmas are more or less timeless. And Holland deftly binds our hearts to the protagonist, “simple and plain” Catherine, by beginning with two very telling scenes of her young life. The acting is first-rate, although we have to wonder why Brits have three of the four principal roles in an American-set movie. (Answer: because two of them are great actors and the third is a very good actor.) Maggie Smith doesn’t exactly steal the movie, but she owns a good bit of it with her delivery of lines like, “You’ll have to excuse me, Mr. Townsend. I have a fortuitous headache.” Albert Finney also has a few good lines and gives a human side to Catherline’s father, a character who could have been a mere villain. Jennifer Jason Leigh seems a bit too intelligent to be the “simple” Catherine, but we definitely see growth in her character by the time the film reaches its end. By then, our emotional involvement is complete and inescapable. (Seen 9 July 2003)

Watchmen 2 out of 4 stars

Opinion on this flick by the “real” critics seems to fall into two categories: those who loved the comic books but hate the movie and those who never read the comic books and hate the movie. It’s not an easy movie to like, given some of its more provocative touches and its generally glum view of the world and human nature. Now, a lot of people like that sort of thing, and a dark view is a key part of the appeal of the Batman movies. But the Watchmen comics series/graphic novel was not about conventional established heroes but was a self-contained story in a self-contained world. And that story, set in an alternate 1985, has become very dated. This what-if world plays like the paranoid fantasies of people who attended university in the late 1960s and early 1970s, i.e. the U.S. has won in Vietnam and this has somehow allowed Richard Nixon to become president for life. In the end, we just have to wonder if the comics’ creator, Alan Moore who refused to have his name involved, was not right that it wasn’t really filmable. The fact is that some things that seem deep and profound in a comic book just seem silly in live action. Frankly, the use of costumed superhero vigilantes as metaphors for what is wrong with post-World War II America is just a bit sophomoric. But the film has bright spots. Director Zack Snyder’s visuals are first-rate, and I can’t wait to see him take on a more conventional superhero movie. And former child actor Jackie Earle Haley (The Bad News Bears, Little Children), as the relentless masked gumshoe Rorschach, dominates the screen and nearly redeems the whole movie. He has the mesmerizing intensity of pint-sized Clint Eastwood. (Seen 25 March 2009)

The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep 2 out of 4 stars

What’s not to like about this movie? Nothing, really. It has the likeable but not overly cute kid from Millions (Alex Etel), the one who conversed with saints. It has Scottish scenery that the tourist board would die for. It has a well-rendered creature from the people who do Peter Jackson’s creatures. It has Emily Watson. It has heart-tugging situations. It has nostalgia about childhood during WWII. It has Brian Cox, as the old fella beguiling the American tourists with fanciful tales. It has the British army. Okay, now we’re getting to the nub of the problem. This movie has everything. It’s like watching Lassie and E.T. and Hope and Glory and a few other movies all in one go. It’s beautiful to see, but it feels like bits of lots of other movies all cobbled together. If it held just one single surprise, that might have been enough to make one feel less guilt about not liking it more. Clearly, it was aimed at wee people, and in these matters I usually consult my own inner child. But my backup is the Munchkin and strangely, even though she is not as burdened by old movies baggage as I am, she came out of this less enthused than she did about Alvin and the Chipmunks. (Seen 14 February 2008)

Waveriders 2 out of 4 stars

One of the many things we learn from this film is that, a few days after there has been a hurricane in the west Atlantic, it makes for great swells off the Irish coast. We have seen surfing documentaries like this before. You know the ones. Movies with endless shots of tiny little surfers overshadowed by huge gigantic curling waves that look like they should swallow the surfer up and never spit him or her out again. In many ways, this movie covers the same territory as Stacy Peralta’s Riding Giants, except that this flick, directed by Joel Conroy and narrated by Cillian Murphy, has a deliberate Irish angle, more or less portraying the sport of surfing as something inextricably linked with this Gaelic nation. It spends a good amount of time on the brief life of George Feeth, the Hawaiian-born grandson of an Irish seafarer, who revived the traditional sport of surfing and exported it to California, where he also founded the modern profession of lifeguarding. The film then focuses on the discovery of Ireland in the 1990s by American surfers (generally and not coincidentally of Irish descent) like Kevin Naughton and the brothers Chris, Dan and Keith Malloy—as well as profiling home-grown Irish surfing talent. The first time I saw people surfing in Ireland, I shivered at the thought of how cold they must be. And the cold is something regularly mentioned by the Yanks in this flick. But, when we are shown the monster waves off counties Antrim, Donegal, Sligo and Clare, we can see why they are willing to endure it. (Seen 11 July 2008)

The Way Way Back 3 out of 4 stars

Canadian teenage actor Liam James has the perfect expression on his face. Staring out the back window of an old-fashioned station wagon in sequences that bookend this film—and in every other scene he’s in—he has that glum look familiar to anyone who spends any time around a male adolescent. The details and small touches of this tale of a lonely kid’s summer holiday are so perfect that we cannot help but believe that it is strongly autobiographical. Especially since it all feels so much like the 1980s, which is when co-writers and co-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash would have been about the same age as their protagonist Duncan. I heard Faxon and Rash, who are both actors (they show up here as Water Wizz workers) but are best known for their Oscar-winning screenplay for The Descendants, explain in a radio interview that they actually intended for the film to be set in the 1980s but they did not have the budget, so it is ostensibly set in the current day. But elements like the old-style water park and the video arcade and the adults-on-vacation behavior consequently give the Atlantic seaboard location the feel of a place where time has stalled. The filmmakers have a great cast, headed by Steve Carell as the jerk boyfriend of Duncan’s mother, who is played by Toni Collette, the go-to actor for moms of alienated kids ever since her turn in The Sixth Sense. Allison Janney does her usual great job as the neighbor, who likes her drink and laughs a bit too loud. AnnaSophia Robb is the older teen beauty who is way out of Duncan’s league but takes to him anyway. And, as is to be expected, the show is pretty much stolen by Sam Rockwell as the manchild who crucially gives the lad some seriously needed sympathetic male reinforcement at a time when he isn’t getting it at home. It is hard to remember another film that has so nicely caught the importance of male bonding at this tricky stage of life. (Seen 12 August 2015)

The Way We Were 1 out of 4 stars

What better way to observe Valentine’s Day than to watch a 30-year-old movie that has a reputation for being one of the most romantic ones ever made? There are lots of better ways, as it turns out. In a strange way, this movie is marginally more interesting now than it was when it came out in 1973. It is easy to imagine Barbra Streisand protesting the looming war against Iraq and Robert Redford telling her to lighten up and take into consideration all that anthrax and other bad stuff. In a twisted way, the film reflects America’s longtime cultural divide and love/hate relationship with itself. In retrospect, The Way We Were seems to have definitively defined Streisand as the quintessential Hollywood liberal as well as the proverbial “difficult” woman. And its probably no coincidence that director Sydney Pollack similarly directed Jane Fonda in such vehicles as They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and The Electric Horseman, which also featured Robert Redford. In the end, the political content here (ranging from 1930s anti-Franco rallies to the 1950s Hollywood blacklist to 1960s “ban the bomb” rallies) seems more of a device than heartfelt reflection. This movie is first and foremost a chick flick, and I mean that in the worst sense of the term. Women can watch this and imagine that, even if they look like Streisand, they can get a guy who looks life Redford—at least for a few years. On the other hand, for men this film holds only the hope that maybe they could get lucky, if only they can only sit through its 118-minute running time with their girlfriend or wife. (Seen 14 February 2003)

We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks 3 out of 4 stars

Since I’m a pretty avid news follower, I figured I already knew more about Julian Assange and Wikileaks than I really needed to. (And hadn’t we all moved on to Edward Snowden anyway?) And having not seen any of Alex Gibney’s numerous other documentaries (they include Taxi to the Dark Side and Freakonomics) [oops, I forgot about Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, which I did see], I was supposing that this would be, in the vein of Michael Moore, another two-hour op-ed piece masquerading as a movie. I could not have been more wrong. The film is really more “about” Assange than Wikileaks although, as the flick makes clear, you cannot really separate one from the other. It’s a fascinating story and character study. To Gibney’s credit, while he delivers plenty of outrage, he does it without really being particularly judgmental. The film is also very thorough. Those of us who imagined Wikileaks to be some sort of vast organization are surprised to learn that it was really no more than three for four people, at most. And, as the film makes clear, Assange is neither a leftist or a libertarian. The best label for him is “transparency radical,” although I thought the fellow who referred to him as “an aging student hobo” caught a pretty good insight as well. The chief irony is that, despite Assange’s credo of freeing all information, he was deep into his own secretiveness, misinformation and spinning. Perhaps the most mysterious aspect of the whole Wikileaks affair is what was really behind the sexual assault charges leveled at Assange in Sweden. While there is no way to know for sure what pressure was asserted by the US on Swedish authorities, the film makes it clear that the so-called “honey trap” was of Assange’s own making. If the filmmaker has a soft spot for anyone, it is for the troubled Bradley Manning (currently on trial for leaking) who was clearly shocked and disturbed by things he saw as a computer jockey in Iraq and whose only motive was to shed light. Despite this, Manning clearly broke laws and will face severe punishment. The egotistical gadfly Assange may be less sympathetic, on the other hand, but his persecution really is unjustifiable. He merely published information that fell into his lap—something that is a fundamental right in most legitimate democracies and, in principle, is supposed to apply even to a jerk like Julian Assange. (Seen 10 July 2013)

We Were Soldiers 2 out of 4 stars

On one hand, this film is fortunate in its timing since it arrives at a time of American post-cynical neo-patriotism. On the other hand, it follows too closely the excellent Black Hawk Down, which doesn’t make the most flattering comparison. Given that this is another collaboration of Randall Wallace and Mel Gibson, we might expect something like Braveheart updated for the 20th century. But the tone is more like a much earlier Gibson film, Peter Weir’s classic Gallipoli. In fact, it’s easy to think of Gibson’s lieutenant colonel and Sam Elliott’s sergeant major as grizzled, older versions of the hapless Frank and Archy from that film. But We Were Soldiers doesn’t fare well in that comparison either. The film’s main problems are 1) in its roots as an autobiography, which almost always means that the film goes way too easy on its main character and the people he likes and 2) its slavishness to hoary war movie conventions. Examples: the demographic variety of the men must be emphasized, colorful nicknames must be used, the one who will bite it in battle are telegraphed miles in advance, etc. Since this is about Vietnam, there are other conventions observed as well: 1) politicians are idiots, 2) top brass close to politicians are idiots, and 3) (most) journalists are idiots. The film is partially redeemed by its horrific battle scenes, its look at the home front, in which it brings home the cost of war, and its glimpses of the enemy, showing they are not all that different from the American warriors. It also provides a very worthwhile service by re-examining America’s early involvement in Vietnam. The film may glorify soldiers, but it is very hard on the architects of the US military role in Southeast Asia. The best thing in the movie is Elliott, whom I used to think of as a mere Tom Selleck clone. He has aged into a wonderful character actor, and his is the only character in the movie that doesn’t come off as either an application for canonization or a plot device. (Seen 28 March 2002)

We’ll Never Have Paris 1 out of 4 stars

The title, of course, is a reference to the famous Humphrey Bogart line from the classic Casablanca—although, given the level of this flick, it could just as well be a nod to the 1995 Billy Crystal romcom Forget Paris. We are told at the beginning that this is based on a true story, with an ominously added “(unfortunately),” which is to say that this is inspired by the co-directors’ own personal history. That would be Simon Helberg (who wrote the screenplay and stars) and Jocelyn Towne. This movie has an awful lot going for it, especially because of Helberg, who has a knack for being very likeable even while playing somewhat unsympathetic characters. (Case in point: his role as written in the early years of The Big Bang Theory.) Strange as it seems, even though (or maybe because) Helberg is doing the writing and directing here, his character is hard to tolerate. He’s like a young Woody Allen for the 2010s, with all the navel gazing angst and lack of loyalty to anyone or anything but his id. And, unfortunately, while the film is occasionally quite funny, Helberg doesn’t achieve Allen’s level of self-deprecating wit. The project is blessed with an incredible cast. Alfred Molina brings a Rob Reiner-like air to the role of Helberg’s father. Zachary Quinto is on hand as his Tony Roberts, contravening romcom standards by actually giving sensible advice. Maggie Grace plays the model-like friend and co-worker who, in the best Woodman tradition, is hot for his body. And as his longtime and long-suffering half half is Melanie Lynskey, who went over the edge with Kate Winslet two decades ago in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures. And who should turn up as her French grandparents but the venerable Fritz Weaver and Dana Ivey. Helberg deserves some credit for not being slavish to romcom conventions. But, on the other hand, it’s probably a bad sign that the putative feel-good ending makes us feel a bit sick with worry. (Seen 14 March 2015)

A Wedding 2 out of 4 stars

Weddings that go badly have been a staple of popular literature for ages—in everything from melodramas to romcoms to sitcoms to primetime soaps. But Robert Altman’s 1978 film was clearly more than just a good time laughing at two mis-functional families trying to celebrate a major social rite with dignity—and failing. As we noted upon Altman’s passing a year and half ago, many of his most popular movies were about de-mythologizing America. So, from the first time we saw A Wedding, we understood that he was doing to marriage in this movie what he had done to war in M*A*S*H and to the Old West in Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson. He did his level best to take all the romance out of it and make it seem empty and pointless. The trappings—from the lavish church ceremony to the reception in a massive mansion—are all out of proportion to the event itself, in which the bride and bridegroom seem barely to know one another and the extended families are preoccupied with everything but the couple’s happiness. In the final scenes, the bridegroom’s parents’ marriage is revealed to be less than even a sham. Indeed, marriage is presented as an institution that seems to have no meaning and provides no comfort for anybody. What the movie lacks in romance, it makes up in a huge, sprawling cast that includes everyone from Carol Burnett and Paul Dooley as the bride’s parents from Louisville, Mia Farrow as their vacuous elder daughter (who happens to be on intimate terms with an entire military academy), Howard Duff as the family doctor perpetually medicating himself, Altman stalwart Geraldine Chaplin as the control-freak wedding planner who squeezes the life out of every tradition by over-commenting on it, and Lillian Gish (well into her 80s but nowhere finished with her film career) as the granny controlling things from her deathbed. Perhaps the final nail in the coffin is the casting of Desi Arnaz Jr., the progeny of America’s beloved Lucy and Ricky, as the bridegroom. Symbolically, his casting seems meant to sound the death knell of the 1950s idealized view of family life. (Seen 9 May 2008)

Wedding Crashers 2 out of 4 stars

This was actually better than I expected. As a movie, it is of course a staple of mass Hollywood entertainment: the sentimental romantic comedy dressed up as a raunchy guy comedy. It is a buddy movie, and so much so that Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughan could nearly be Hope and Crosby in a flick called The Road to Matrimony. But since the heyday of Bob and Bing, we have passed through the era of Woody Allen, so we also get the kind of male self-reflection and agonizing that ol’ ski-nose and der Bingle could never have imagined. At the heart of all comedy is some element of truth, and here it is that nugget of wisdom almost all single men have picked up on at one time or another: weddings are a prime hunting ground for vulnerable and receptive females. Another truth, which for some reason is a favorite of many filmmakers, is that there is something funny and pathetic about that American male whose prolonged adolescence bumps right into his midlife crisis. But for the greatest entertainment value, this is a classic comedy about The Crazy Family. The brood in this flick are so twisted that, as the father, Christopher Walken actually comes off by default as the normal one. He and Jane Seymour have a great time (although inevitably underused) as a warped Washington power couple who have long since given up even the pretense of normalcy. Happily the female leads, while secondary, are at least more than perfunctory. As every one-night-stand master’s worst nightmare, Isla Fisher is quite good. Ditto for Rachel McAdams, who previously gamely shared the title role with Rob Schneider in The Hot Chick. She brings a Juliette Lewis kind of quality to yet another movie staple: the woman with the jerk boyfriend finding herself strangely attracted to a new male acquaintance. (Seen 3 August 2005)

The Wedding Singer 2 out of 4 stars

Junk bond dealers, hard-core Reagan aficionados and teenagers may already be nostalgic for the 1980s, but for the rest of us it seems a bit soon. But that’s actually part of the point of The Wedding Singer. Sure, this Adam Sandler vehicle is one more in a glut of movies that wouldn’t even exist if it weren’t for Saturday Night Live. But this one is actually funny! Its success is due to the fact that people who enjoy silly romantic comedies can easily enjoy it on that level. For the rest of us, it is a clever parody of silly romantic comedies as well as a parody of movies that celebrate nostalgia for earlier decades. On top of that, it’s also a parody of how our popular culture tends to view the 1980s. It’s all here: the greed, the famous couples that didn’t last and, inevitably, the music. (Hey, even a parody has to have a compilation soundtrack!) One of the amusing conceits of the film is that grown adults would think it’s cool to dress like pop icons. One guy dresses like Michael Jackson. A woman dresses like Madonna. Another guy dresses like Don Johnson in Miami Vice. And, most hilariously, Alexis Arquette has a blast as a Boy George wannabe who, disastrously, has only one song in his repertoire. (Seen 18 February 1998)

Welcome in Vienna 3 out of 4 stars

This is the final part of The Austrian Trilogy, and these three films are truly a monumental film achievement, even though they are filmed in black and white (better to blend in with documentary footage) and obviously didn’t cost a fortune to make. I hope these films will get more exposure in this country. In this installment, our friend Freddy is now a U.S. citizen and soldier, whose knowledge of German is exploited by the Allies, as they push through Germany. He winds up with the occupation army back in his hometown of Vienna. But things are drastically different, and I’m not just talking about half the buildings being blown up. Now Freddy is one of the conquerors. His U.S. Army uniform makes him privileged in this defeated country, a status he has never known before in his life as a “professional emigrant.” But Freddy’s expectations of what post-war Austria would be like are dashed one by one. His former persecutors are de-nazified because, after all, a full third of the population were members of the Nazi party and life must go on, nicht wahr? And a new ethic of scrambling to get by any way you can has taken hold. Who you know is more important than ever. Freddy falls in love with Claudia, an actress whose father was a Nazi officer and is now in the U.S. where our government is gratefully accepting his cooperation as he shares his knowledge of the Soviet military. Another acquaintance, a member of the SS, immediately goes back into successful private life, his Nazi past conveniently swept under the carpet. Who knows? Maybe some day he will be elected president of Austria. It turns out that Claudia is using Freddy because of his position, just as everybody is using everybody else. When Freddy is due to be transferred back to the U.S., he must decide whether to go back or to reclaim his Austrian citizenship. Although, when he takes off his uniform, he finds that people still see him as just Jewish trash, it looks like he is going to stay. But the festival program notes suggest that there may be more sequels to this saga. Let’s hope so. (Seen 3 June 1987)

Welcome to Sarajevo 2 out of 4 stars

Woody Harrelson has second billing in this 1997 British movie by Michael Winterbottom as a swaggering American news correspondent who gets great footage by taking risks. At one point an English colleague criticizes him for making a news report more about himself than about the victims of the Bosnian war they are all covering. He replies, quite accurately, that more Americans know who he is than know who the Bosnians are. In a way, that’s what this whole movie does. Based on the book, Natasha’s Story, it recounts the exploits of an ITN correspondent who loses his vaunted journalistic detachment and decides 1) to make an on-air crusade about orphans trapped in the war zone by international politicians and 2) to help escort the orphans out of the country at great risk while in the process personally saving one nine-year-old girl who has pricked his conscience. This makes for tense and compelling drama, and the free use of actual war footage gives a stark sense of life in the war zone. But make no mistake. This is not “about” the war in Bosnia nearly as much as it is about an Englishman’s feelings of guilt and helplessness. (Seen 22 May 1999)

Welcome to the Doll House 2 out of 4 stars

Children can be so cruel. So can movies. Welcome to the Doll House is basically a Mad Magazine version of adolescence. Writer/director/producer Todd Solondz has created a uniquely torturous puberty hell for his protagonist, Dawn Wiener. In an otherwise pristine junior high school hallway, her locker is covered with mean-spirited graffiti. She has no friends. When she complains about being tormented by her peers during class, she gets punished. Her parents ignore her while they dote endlessly on her sugar plum fairy of a younger sister. The film seems to designed to appeal to two potential audiences: people who suffered a terrible adolescence and need a carthartic experience and people with mindsets similar to Dawn’s classmates’. A third potential audience would be those who prefer their comedy jet black. Those people should not be disappointed. (Seen 1 June 1996)

Welt Spiegel Kino (World Mirror Cinema) 2 out of 4 stars

This is the sort of thing that film festivals were created for. Where else would you spend an hour and a half watching a black and white film with no dialog? In a strange way, this film (actually three half-hour segments, which are promised “to be continued”) is arguably the oldest and newest example of an odd genre that has been examined on these pages recently (c.f. Adaptation, Team America: World Police) in which fictional stories are created around real-life people. In this case, the subjects are not even famous or moderately well-known. In fact, no one probably knows who any of them are (or were). Director Gustav Deutsch fashioned his segments around found film footage shot on the street in three different cities: Vienna in 1912 and Surabaya, Indonesia, and Porto, Portugal, both in 1929. In each case the camera is made to focus on individuals in the crowd and then a sort of backstory is provided by transitioning to a segment fashioned from other archival footage, sometimes dramatized, sometimes documentary. This is interesting the first few times, but after a while it gets pretty darn tedious. Instead, the street scenes on their own, without the added artifice, are what stick in our mind. The slow-motion crowds that wave to the camera and jostle to get into the frame. There is something eerie in realizing that these faces are hailing us from beyond the grave. Is that why they are so anxious for their 15 nanoseconds of fame? Did they sense, even that long ago, that the camera would give them some sort of immortality? (Seen 10 October 2005)

Were the World Mine 2 out of 4 stars

This movie wants to be a full-blown musical. Every so often a situation or a musing turns into a musical number, but then it pulls back—as if the film is worried about becoming too camp. Writer/director Tom Gustafson, expanding his 2003 short Fairies, does a nice job trying to maintain a realistic tone for a story that is basically a wish-fulfillment fantasy that could easily lends itself to outright farce. The plot is built on a couple of premises we have seen before. One is about the play (Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream mounted in an all-boys school) where the actors find that reality is eerily imitating art. The other is the one about some supernatural device turning straight people gay. (Kelli Herd’s It’s in the Water comes to mind, as does Joey Sylvester’s more recent Walk a Mile in My Pradas.) Young Timothy (Cohen Tanner) is feeling fairly oppressed in his conservative small town when otherworldly drama teacher Ms. Tebbit (Twin Peaks veteran Wendy Robie at her most luminous) persuades him to take the role of Puck. In his preparations he manages to recreate the potion that makes people fall in love with the next person they see. Needless to say, there will be some dramatic changes in the behavior of the homophobic members of the rugby team—not to mention their neanderthal of a coach and, of course, the cute teammate Timothy has been crushing on. For a small indie film, the acting is of a particularly high calibre. The various young actors, particularly Ricky Goldman as Timothy’s friend, are very convincing in their transitions from straight to besotted by their own gender. In the end, the film is basically a plea for understanding and tolerance by having people see the world through the eyes of others. And in the final reel the all-wise Ms. Tebbit emphasizes the necessity of free will, implying that understanding is necessarily a two-way street. (Seen 1 May 2015)

West Is West 2 out of 4 stars

Following the original (East Is East) by about a decade, this sequel continues the story of the Khan family of Salford, England. The saga, penned by Ayub Khan-Din whose face has graced UK film and TV for years now, began as a play and now threatens to become a movie trilogy. Salford native Khan-Din clearly mines his own life for sitcom-style comedy laced with light drama. This installment brings much of the family to patriarch George’s native Pakistan, giving rise to plenty of culture-clash comedy, as well as poignancy, as George’s youngest son grudgingly comes to appreciate his heritage and George himself deals with the family he left behind decades earlier. It is hard not to like the wide array of characters, and the time setting (1970s) allows for dealing with the problem of intolerance while avoiding more current issues lately raised about immigrant communities. Rural life in Pakistan comes off as downright charming, and one suspects that this is the Punjab in more or less the same way that The Quiet Man brought us to the west of Ireland. Young Aqib Khan, as the sullen son, makes a believable transformation from cocky/alienated to genial/involved. And, by now, Om Puri (as George) is Britain’s go-to man for playing culturally-conflicted, confused Anglo-Pakistani fathers. (Seen 19 February 2011)

West Side Story 3 out of 4 stars

Depending on your age, you may remember this as the much-awarded movie version of the much-garlanded Broadway musical that formed the perfect talent storm of Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Jerome Robbins and Arthur Laurents. (Robert Wise directed the non-dancing bits of the film version.) Or you may remember it as the flick that minted Natalie Wood as a grown-up movie star. Or you may remembered it for its early roles for two of the denizens of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks (BFFs Tony and Riff, played by Richard Beymer and Russ Tamblyn). As much a ballet as a musical, the dancing is nearly as much a star of the show as the brilliant melodies and lyrics. And it holds up surprisingly well, since 1950s young hoodlum posing seems to never go out of style—and the difficult assimilation of immigrant communities is a theme that seems to be perennially topical. Yes, some of the portrayals of Puerto Rican characters seem a bit dodgy, so thank God for Humacao-born Rita Moreno who provides some much needed authenticity to offset the fine but slightly artificial performances of Natalie Wood and second-generation Greek-American George Chakiris. Despite the film’s romantic story, it does not shy away from prejudices and bigotry of the time, which did not conform with the standard immigrant American dream story. Nor does it wear its liberal heart one-sidedly on its sleeve. One of the most clever and insightful indictments of the social welfare system can be found in the brilliant number when the Jets sing, “Gee, Officer Krupke, we’re very upset; we never had the love that every child oughta get.” (Seen 5 July 2013)

What Dreams May Come 2 out of 4 stars

Hollywood, a place where most people are married an average of 14.7 times in the course of their lives, loves to propagate the idea of “soul mates,” as this movie does quite literally. (I once heard a psychiatrist on the radio explain that when someone says, “I’ve found my soul mate,” what they really mean is that the sex is really good.) In fairness, the director Vincent Ward (The Navigator, Map of the Human Heart) is actually from New Zealand, but the sensibility here is definitely California. (Disclaimer: I myself was born in California.) Any movie about the afterlife is necessarily an allegory since most people have long since given up the notion that heaven or hell is something that can be depicted literally on film, and in this movie heaven is basically a glorified therapy session. While the saccharine quotient here is extremely high, the movie is not without some wit—especially since the main character is played by Robin Williams. Among the amusing touches are a nod (in hell) to Titanic and the appearance as Williams’s afterlife shrink of none other than Max von Sydow, who not only played a game of chess with Death in The Seventh Seal and was Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told but also had the title role in The Exorcist. (Seen 6 October 1998)

What Richard Did 2 out of 4 stars

This third feature film by Lenny Abrahamson (after Adam & Paul and Garage) was the big winner in the movie categories at the recent Irish Film & Television Academy awards, and it’s easy to see why. It takes on a serious social issue and provides plenty of emotional scenes of the kind that critics generally refer to as awards bait. It also looks to be a career springboard for its attractive young lead, Jack Reynor, who has already been cast in the next Transformers movie. As a story, the flick carries a lot of baggage in Ireland. It is loosely adapted by Martin Campbell from Kevin Power’s novel Bad Day in Blackrock, which itself was loosely based on an actual incident, which was the focus of news reports for what seemed like a really long time. As it happens, a friend of ours is a relation of the real-life equivalent of Reynor’s character, so it’s a bit difficult to look at the film objectively as a work of literature—as it deserves to be. At once a critique of Irish society (or at least of one particular stratum of that society) and a harrowing exploration of what it is like to disastrously lose control and put a promising future at risk. The film offers no obvious prescriptions for or, for that matter, a clear diagnosis of the problem. But it certainly gives viewers what many of them would be looking for: a strong emotional experience. (Seen 17 February 2013)

What We Did on Our Holiday 3 out of 4 stars

Just before Rosamund Pike made a splash in David Fincher’s Gone Girl, she was in another somewhat problematic marriage in this UK dramedy about modern family life. Writers/directors Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin are in very familiar territory, since they are well known for the TV family comedy Outnumbered, which features partially improvised performances from its three child stars. In the end, it is the very natural and believably idiosyncratic performances of the three young performers here that make this movie something different than the usual madcap family film fare. Well, that and the unexpected and potentially dark turn the story takes somewhere around its midpoint. After that, we really don’t know exactly where we’re headed. In the end, it is yet another flick about how parents lose sight of everything important and lose the more sane perspective of the very young or the very old. Pike and David Tennant play a separated couple who pretend to still be together for the sake of his ailing father, who is having a big birthday celebration in Scotland. Grandpa is played by the wonderful Billy Connolly, and it is a delight to see his interaction with the tykes. Other family members with their own quirks and issues abound. But it is the kids who steal the show, especially Emilia Jones as the serious and concerned 10-year-old Lottie, who has to be the bridge between her younger siblings and the even more childish grown-ups. The message of the story isn’t particularly new, but it is rarely delivered in such a fresh and compelling package. A fair dose of gorgeous Scottish scenery and music certainly doesn’t hurt either. (Seen 1 February 2015)

What’s Cookin’ 3 out of 4 stars

This movie manages to combine no fewer than three venerable art house film genres: 1) the one where the extended family gathers for Thanksgiving and all kinds of emotional hell breaks loose (e.g. The Myth of Fingerprints, Home for the Holidays), 2) the one with a large cast and numerous intertwining stories about people in Los Angeles (e.g. Playing by Heart, Magnolia), and 3) the one where lots of delicious food is prepared on screen and afterwards you run starving from the theater to the nearest restaurant (e.g. Like Water for Chocolate, Big Night). The occasion is Thanksgiving, and no movie comes to mind that has done more to evoke the beauty and tastiness of the so-called American melting pot. While not without drama or a certain amount of tension, the mood of this film is mostly light and celebratory. And, while a certain amount of politics creeps in (there is a totally up-to-minute subplot involving a youth with a gun), the film is by no means heavy-handed or pedantic. Most delicious of all are performances by some great but too little seen actors like Joan Chen, Alfre Woodard, and Mercedes Ruehl. (And, if you’re still basking in the glow of the image of Julianna Margulies going off with George Clooney, you may not want to see her here swapping spit with Kyra Sedgwick, in the funniest of the four main stories.) Apparently, it took a British director (Gurinder Chadha) to tell this story with a deliberately ethnically diverse cast of characters and not make it look like arbitrary affirmative action. (Seen 29 May 2000)

When Brendan Met Trudy 2 out of 4 stars

If the title of this film brings to mind a certain 1989 Rob Reiner romantic comedy, then why is the opening a direct quote from Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard? Indeed, there are a ton of movie quotes in this antic comedy, and if you aren’t as much of a movie geek as the hero Brendan, the film helps you out by actually inserting many of the scenes from other films it is quoting. Who would take such an approach to an otherwise standard story of an uptight, repressed, hymn-singing schoolteacher falling in love with a chick with a very active nightlife? Turns out the writer is none other than Roddy Doyle, who is better known for working class north Dublin book and movie fare like The Commitments and the dreary BBC TV series Family. As it happens, though, Doyle himself was a teacher and is a film buff, not unlike the titular Brendan, and the author has a grand time letting loose in this cracked adventure that gets wackier in every reel. Some of the best bits involve sly shots at Ireland’s state RTÉ news broadcasts with actual reporters playing themselves. And among the numerous gags that go by so fast they’re easily missed is the creative mention of the Dublin suburb Stillorgan. Personally, I liked the way Brendan, who is supposedly such a goody-goody devoted teacher, can never remember any of his student’s names. (Seen 2 February 2001)

When You’re Strange 2 out of 4 stars

Since the only way to be sure that you lived through the Sixties is to infer it from the fact that you can’t remember them, it is good from time to time to get a documentary like this to refresh the memory. Strangely, the question becomes: if you are interested in getting a good perspective on that legendary musical sensation, The Doors, are you actually better off seeing this documentary or watching Oliver Stone’s 1991 dramatization, with the perfectly cast Val Kilmer and Kyle MacLachlan as Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek? The fact that it’s a close call probably doesn’t say great things about this flick, directed by Tom DiCillo, whose feature films have included Johnny Suede and Box of Moonlight. On the positive side, there is a fair amount of raw footage of Morrison and crew, edited in imaginative ways in several cases to attempt illustrating events that were not filmed. Particularly intriguing are segments of the 50-minute 1969 film by Paul Ferrara, HWY: An American Pastoral, in which Morrison is seen hitchhiking and driving through a desolate landscape, and which DiCillo uses to frame his narrative. This is definitely not a talking-heads documentary, i.e. we do not get endless shots of aging surviving band members reminiscing about what a wild and crazy guy Jim Morrison was. Instead, DiCillo treats the movie like a feature film, cobbled together with all the footage he could find, with pretty much constant and earnest narration by Johnny Depp. The result is something like an essay by DiCillo, telling us what The Doors were about. And, although he by no means sugar-coats Morrison’s legendary substance abuse, at times DeCillo veers toward that unfortunate tendency of these sorts of tributes to treat a famous victim of his own lifestyle as something of a martyr. (Seen 22 February 2010)

Where Is Stephanie? 1 out of 4 stars

This is a documentary about a family in Rutland, Vermont, who would not be very interesting at all if it were not for a horrific crime that befell them in 1994. The film, by Bess O’Brien and Mary Arbuckle, is divided in two parts. The first documents the circumstances of the crime. The second focuses on the family two years later, their lives, and how the crime has affected them. The film was actually initiated when the mother approached the filmmakers, and there is an unsettling sense of voyeurism and narcissism all wrapped together. The effect is basically Twin Peaks meets Jerry Springer. When O’Brien was asked about the intrusiveness of the film, she replied that families are generally videotaping themselves all the time anyway. True enough, we actually see one daughter give birth. A shudder went through the audience when it was revealed that the crime itself had been videotaped. Thankfully, we did not have to watch it. (Seen 26 January 1998)

Where the Money Is 3 out of 4 stars

If I ever have to spend time as a patient in a convalescent hospital, I want my nurse to be Linda Fiorentino! She has the warm, caring bedside manner that would have any man up and around in no time at all. Normally, I’d be wary of her because usually when I see her she is trying to double-cross her husband out of a bunch of money or pulling some other femme fatale noir trick. But here she’s just a bit fed up with her unexciting, small-town Oregon life. And what’s more, something I never picked up on before, she looks a bit like Katherine Ross, which is perfect because this flick is a pleasant throwback to various con man/outlaw/sting movies that Paul Newman made in his prime. And, you know what, he’s still in his prime. Don’t let the trailers for this movie fool you. He isn’t past the height of his movie-presence powers yet. He may be playing an alleged stroke victim, but this is no Kirk Douglas style comeback. Newman still has it and has never been without it. Ordinarily, I have little patience for people who contend that actors today aren’t as good as previous generations’, but there’s a pretty good case to be made here. In one scene Dermot Mulroney tries to burn his hand with a cigarette (à la E. Gordon Liddy) the way Newman has just done, but he hasn’t a hope of emulating Newman’s cool. Fortunately, that fact works well for the movie, but it also points up that stars like Newman have always had screen presence, while the main asset of many younger actors today is that they look great draped in a towel. When a romantic spark is struck between Newman and Fiorentino, it is completely convincing despite the age difference. This is the kind of chemistry that a big-budget action flick like Entrapment could only hope for. (Seen 22 April 2000)

While We’re Young 3 out of 4 stars

OMG! Can we already be having movies about gen-x’ers and their midlife crises? This latest (at least until Mistress America comes out in a few weeks) movie from Noah Baumbach begins and ends with a baby. But, while there are some funny and wry observations on new parents, this movie isn’t so much about parenthood as the never-ending clash of generations. Naomi Watts and the always amusing Ben Stiller are well cast as a couple in their 40s feeling left out while their friends are full bore into the baby thing. Cornelia and Josh are clinging, almost desperately, to their fleeting youth—nearly as a defense against the fact that their own procreation attempts have not borne fruit. When a couple in their 20s show interest in them, they latch on to them, not only as an escape from their baby-consumed best buds but because budding documentarian Jamie (Adam Driver) promises to make Josh’s languishing film efforts relevant again. How this all plays out is both funny and heartbreaking, with Josh coming out the worst. Despite his determined willingness to be more like the laid-back and comfortable-in-his-skin Jamie, Josh’s purist idealism about art not only puts him at odds with the younger man but also with his about-to-get-his-lifetime-achievement-award father-in-law, winningly played the now grandfatherly Charles Grodin. At times this plays like a latter-day Woody Allen comedy, but it’s better—and frankly more insightful—than much of Allen’s stuff. As a chronicler of his generation, beginning with Kicking and Screaming, Baumbach has a brilliant knack for spotting and exploiting that cohort’s quirks and foibles. An added bonus for music fans is spotting such casting as erstwhile Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz as a new dad and, as Josh’s documentary subject, Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary fame. (Seen 20 July 2015)

White Christmas 3 out of 4 stars

It’s hard not to feel good while watching this movie. In the end, there isn’t that much to it—at least plot-wise. Meddling Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen, for reasons that don’t bear much scrutiny, are determined to get confirmed bachelor Bing Crosby and way-too-serious Rosemary Clooney together. They all wind up in Vermont in the hotel of Crosby and Kaye’s old general from WWII, and they decide to give his lagging business (no snow, you see) a boost. That’s about it. There would be no dramatic tension at all if busybody par excellence Mary Wickes didn’t get her gossip mangled after listening in on the phone extension. Mostly, it is all an excuse for lots of song and dance numbers in the guise of the old we’ll-sort-out-all-the-problems-by-putting-on-a-show tradition. But the Irving Berlin songs are classics, and the leads are so likable that we really didn’t need dramatic tension anyway. Much of the pleasure for me is counting instances of der Bingle’s jazzy hipster patter. (Holding a letter at arm’s length: “I’m playing a little trombone myself.”) Not sure when to get choked up or shed a tear? Don’t worry. Just keep an eye on Wickes and she will cue you. Heck, if you need her help, you’re beyond help anyway. Unjustly, the war theme made this movie seem Paleolithic during the anti-military times of the 1960s and 1970s, but what goes around comes around. A decade of war for the current generation makes the veteran angle all that more poignant now. (Seen 11 December 2010)

White Hunter Black Heart 2 out of 4 stars

Film buffs, even those not familiar Peter Viertel’s source novel, will immediately recognize this as a thinly veiled telling of the behind-the-scenes shenanigans during the filming of the classic movie The African Queen. It turns out that Clint Eastwood (who directed as well as starred) was physically pretty much right for evoking the imposing figure of the legendary John Huston—although one suspects that Eastwood’s temperament was a tad too mellow for the part. Jeff Fahey plays Viertel’s stand-in, the young screenwriter who is the great director’s friend and protégé and who is called in to join the shoot (double entendre there) in Africa as a script doctor. There have been better movies about obsessive filmmakers (cf. Fellini’s , Bob Fosse’s All that Jazz and Richard Rush’s The Stunt Man), but this nearly falls into the category of British films about the decadence of colonialism (e.g. White Mischief). Much of the fun comes from trying to figure out who each of the characters was in real life. (Marisa Berenson, Richard Vanstone and Jamie Koss are obvious as Katharine Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall; others need a bit more research.) But mostly the interest comes from the portrait drawn of a complex man with strange compulsions. An amusing supporting bit is turned in by Timothy Spall (best known these days as Wormtail in the Harry Potter movies) as a bush pilot who, worryingly, doesn’t seem to know what he is doing. (Seen 6 January 2010)

White Man’s Burden 1 out of 4 stars

There is an intriguing idea behind this film, which stars John Travolta and Harry Belafonte. What if the historical political, social, and economic roles of Euro and Afro Americans were somehow reversed? Unfortunately, Desmond Nakano’s film merely tantalizes us with the possibilities (all advertising features exclusively black models; a white child flips through multiple TV channels seeing only black faces until he comes across a crime news report) and then squanders most of the movie on a standard Hollywood hostage drama that doesn’t even require his what-if scenario. (There are after all rich black people in the real world. And there are desperate poor white people.) How much more interesting this would have been if Nakano had explored more deeply what an Afro-centric America might be like and studied more in-depth the more insidious, subtle forms of racism that permeate our society. A more thought-provoking (but, as far as I know, unreleased) film on a similar topic is Gregory Hines’s Bleeding Hearts which, ironically, had the title White Man’s Burden originally but apparently had to change because of this movie. (Seen 21 November 1995)

White Squall 2 out of 4 stars

Among Ridley Scott’s numerous notable films is Thelma and Louise. Since that movie became a popular totem of sorts for female empowerment and solidarity, it’s only fair that Scott has now made a film celebrating the male rituals of bonding and Becoming A Man. But the characters are mostly young enough that the testosterone level is low by usual Hollywood standards. What Scott spins here is a great adventure yarn that just happens to be based on actual events. Jeff Bridges (starting to look uncannily like his father in those Hot Shots movies) is The Skipper who runs a school on a windjammer in the Caribbean. His character is larger than life and he becomes the kind of father figure to these kids that their real dads have no hope of ever being. He is Mr. Chips and the Lou Gosset character from An Officer and a Gentleman all rolled up into one. Most of the kids get a chance for a big emotional scene as they each confront a personal crisis during their training and voyage. The story climaxes (but doesn’t end) with one of the most harrowing disaster sequences in some time. This is a solid entertainment that I think will appeal to most guys or at least to people who like looking at guys. It may not be appreciated, however, by people prone to motion sickness. (Seen 7 February 1996)

Who Framed Roger Rabbit 3 out of 4 stars

Robert Zemeckis’s follow-up to his hit Back to the Future (but before the sequels) was this groundbreaking entertainment that showed off the director’s flair for creating fresh screen illusions by mixing media. (Six years later he would blend new and archive footage creatively in Forrest Gump.) Of course, live action and animation had been mixed before, in movies like Anchors Aweigh and Mary Poppins. But no one had mixed the two so extensively and convincingly and perpetually before. Part of the illusion was making use of shadow to make the drawn characters appear more three-dimensional, something that seemed to become standard in animation from that point onward. The conceit was that cartoons were not creations of artists but were actually filmed and that cartoon characters were actually real creatures. Indeed, these mostly invulnerable beings were portrayed as some sort of ethnic minority under the heel of and subject to exploitation by us flesh and blood people. Dropped into a deadpan film noir story, “Toon Town” takes on a connotation evocative of “Chinatown” in the famous Roman Polanski movie. Much of the humor derives from sight gags involving the laws of cartoon physics being translated to live action set pieces, e.g. a hole shaped like a rabbit is left in a window when the title character makes a panicky escape. This loving tribute to the golden age of cartoonery was well timed, since it managed to capture the last or near-last performances of actors like Stubby Kaye and Alan Tilvern, as Marvin Acme and R.K. Maroon, respectively, and voice legends Mel Blanc (Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, among many others) and Mae Questel (Betty Boop and Olive Oyl). The quite impressive Jessica Rabbit character had her speaking voice supplied by by Kathleen Turner and her singing voice by executive producer Steven Spielberg’s soon-to-be ex-wife Amy Irving. Perhaps even more impressive than the technical work was the legal work that allowed scenes to be shared by the likes of Donald Duck and Daffy Duck and by Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny—something, up until then, we never expected to see. (Seen 23 July 2010)

Who Killed Teddy Bear? 1 out of 4 stars

Who Killed Teddy Bear? (1965) is the best kind of camp classic. The kind that doesn’t actually seem to be in on the joke. (If it was, the filmmakers did a good job of hiding the fact.) It is also one of those hypocritical movies that pretends to be lecturing on the evils of pornography and sexual obsession, but then lingers over magazine covers and semi-nude actors so perpetually that the movie seems more obsessed than any of its characters. Juliet Prowse, who works in a discotheque, gets disturbing obscene phone calls from someone who clearly knows a lot about her. Jan Murray(!) is a cop who takes a particular interest in the case because he spends all his spare time studying sexual deviancy. Sal Mineo is Prowse’s seemingly nice co-worker who has a terrible secret in his past. The movie is a hoot the whole way through because it seems to take itself so seriously. At one point good girl Prowse invites Murray into her apartment, announces that she needs to change, and then parades around endlessly in her bedroom with the door open! Another nice touch is the close-up on a thrusting, phallic piece of exercise equipment as Mineo works out. Who Killed Teddy Bear is a perfect example of why the real thing is so much more entertaining to the lame send-ups they do on shows like Saturday Night Live. (Seen 1 June 1996)

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? 3 out of 4 stars

It’s a situation we have all been in at one time or another. You find yourself spending an evening with an interesting couple, but as the evening progresses and the drinks flow, things become increasingly uncomfortable. Unwillingly, we find ourselves drawn into the dynamics of the couple’s problematic relationship. This movie tells of such an evening, but Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a couples-spending-an-evening-together movie in the same way that Titanic is an ocean cruise movie. The mind games and psychological sparring that go on here are way beyond a normal person’s ability to tolerate. This was Mike Nichols’s film debut, a year before he made The Graduate. The stars were Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and much of the fascination of the movie is the idea that perhaps we are getting a glimpse into the dynamics of the legendary Taylor-Burton relationship. Taylor was in her mid-30s when she made this flick, but by design she looks and acts much older (eerily resembling Stockard Channing). Burton looks as though, if he had lived longer, might have aged into someone like Denholm Elliott, although in his last movie, 1984’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, he actually looked more like Christopher Lee. Edward Albee’s play, adapted to film, mesmerizes us. Although exaggerated to extremes, those of us who are married recognize the intimate games that go on in such a close relationship. And the titular question that is posed (Virginia Woolf, as we learn in The Hours, being a childless author who examined her characters’ lives in relentless detail and who suffered from mental illness) poses its own terrifying aspects for these characters who have made their own strange hell in a small university setting. (Seen 26 December 2003)

The Whole Wide World 3 out of 4 stars

The Whole Wide World is the directing debut of Seattle International Film Festival co-founder Dan Ireland. It is a well-made and heartfelt movie about an interesting (to me at least) subject. Vincent D’Onofrio (who also co-produced) plays Robert E. Howard, the Texas misfit who came to be considered one of the century’s best fantasy writers. (His best known creation was Conan the Barbarian.) The film is based on a memoir by Novalyne Price Ellis about her friendship cum quasi love affair with Howard while she was a teacher and aspiring writer in Cross Plains, Texas, during the 1930s. Not a huge amount actually happens in the film, and the most dramatic event occurs off-screen, but Ireland evokes a very complicated soul about whom we care enough to mourn when he is gone. D’Onofrio, who is even more of a chameleon than Alfred Molina, makes an impression as Howard, as does Renée Zellweger as Price. (Seen 8 June 1996)

Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself 3 out of 4 stars

The rather downbeat title of this movie may explain why it isn’t more widely known. The Galway Film Fleadh program shortened the title to simply Wilbur, apparently calculating that they would be better off confusing this film with an old horror movie about rats than bumming people out with thoughts of suicide. It turns out that this quirkily dark comedy is a co-production from Scotland and Denmark, which is a dangerous blend indeed. In the beginning, it looks as though this will be another bizarre experience like the over-the-top Scottish film Orphans. As we watch the titular Wilbur attempt repeatedly, if not particularly effectively, to do himself in, we are also reminded of Harold and Maude. But there’s no point trying to compare this to any other movie or to figure out exactly where it is going. Better to just let yourself be drawn along by director Lone Scherfig’s narrative. It turns out to be a surprisingly moving experience. Wilbur and his more responsible brother Harbour run a bookshop in Glasgow, following the recent death of their father. They both become taken with a quiet, intense woman named Alice, who frequents the shop. Rest assured, this description does not do justice to what goes on in the movie. By the time it is over, we have had an unusual meditation on the meaning of life and death and love and why we keep going on in spite of everything. By the final scene, our hearts have been touched every bit as deeply as our minds. (Seen 12 July 2003)

Wild 3 out of 4 stars

Is this a chick flick? No, not really, although its story and themes will certainly resonate with women in ways that will differ from guys. It’s kind of like the sort of yarn that Ernest Hemingway might have come up with if he were a feminist. Or another way of saying it is, it’s just a good story. Based on Cheryl Strayed’s raw, introspective memoir, it recounts how she spent the summer of 1995 hiking 1,100 miles along the Pacific Crest Trail from California’s Mojave Desert to the Oregon-Washington border (skipping over an unusually snow-packed stretch in the High Sierra). Like any literary travelog worth its salt, the real journey is of course spiritual, metaphysical and emotional. Interspersed between much photography of beautiful country are ample flashbacks that artfully chronicle the memories that haunt Strayed and the traumas that sent her on a downward spiral that required such a radical course to work through it all. While in no way a religious film, the parables write themselves—whether it is being tested alone in the desert or going to the mountain to find enlightment. As an activity, simply hiking is not particularly cinematic narrativewise, so tension is occasionally inserted by means of a rattlesnake or a potentially threatening human, but mostly this is a movie about a woman on a walk. You get a nice sense of the subculture of the sorts of people who hike long stretches of the PCT as well as some of the types that live or work near it. Thirty-eight at the time, Reese Witherspoon is completely convincing as the 26-year-old Strayed and is plausible as the daughter of then 47-year-old Laura Dern. Both actors totally earn the Oscar acting nominations they received. Interestingly, this quintessential woman’s story is rendered by two men. The director was Canadian Jean-Marc Vallée, who made quirky films like C.R.A.Z.Y. before hitting the big time with Dallas Buyers Club. The screenplay is by Englishman Nick Hornby, who has made a career entertaining us with stories of men struggling to grow up, as in the source novels for Fever Pitch, High Fidelity and About a Boy. (Seen 19 August 2015)

Wild America 2 out of 4 stars

Wild America is based on the real-life story of the Stouffer brothers who grew up to become successful filmmakers, known particularly for Marty Stouffer’s nature films. But don’t expect a documentary. As a biographical film, it tells the Stouffer boys’ story in much the way that Can’t Stop the Music purported to be a biography of the Village People. Wild America’s early scenes are quite good in catching a sense of childhood in a small-town family with rowdy brothers. (Dad is Jamey Sheridan who eerily seems to have turned into Robert Stack.) But then the scenes about the brothers’ travels in search of a rumored fantastical bear cave have an exaggerated adolescent sense of adventure—sort of like Disney’s old Spin & Marty shows on speed. But most of all, this film is yet another vehicle for teenybopper idol Jonathan Taylor Thomas. One can almost hear his agent in the background demanding that he get the best lines and scenes. (Seen 27 July 1997)

Wild Girl Waltz 2 out of 4 stars

The first minute of this movie—two young men barreling down a country road in a pickup with the radio blaring and engaging in a spur-of-the-moment mean prank—primes us to expect maybe a wild teen comedy. It takes a while to figure out what the movie is really about. It’s a lazy, sunny day in a rural area and not that much is happening. Out of boredom, Angie and her brother’s woman Tara each pop a pill, not actually knowing what they’re ingesting. Whatever it is, it makes them increasingly silly as the day goes on. And that’s pretty much the story. Much to our surprise, this slice-of-life visit with young adults turns out to be some kind of subtle art film. The three leads—particularly Christina Shipp and Samantha Steinmetz as Angie and Tara—give the kind of performances that get underestimated because they are so natural that they don’t really seem like acting. The dialog is nearly un-cinematic because it sounds so much like the way people really talk. Sensible Brian (Jared Stern) looks after the two women as they go about their day, and we gradually realize that, in the end, this movie is a deceptively profound love story. This is writer/director Mark Lewis’s second movie (his first was Baystate Blues), and its natural view of people still doing their best to adjust to adulthood is more than a little reminiscent of the early work of John Sayles. (Seen 6 March 2014)

Wild in the Streets 1 out of 4 stars

Does the nightly news broadcast have you feeling down? Why not escape into a movie? Here’s one. It’s about a wealthy egomaniacal celebrity who leverages his popularity into securing the Republican presidential nomination and, ultimately, the White House. No, really. And that’s not even the eeriest thing about this flick. The eeriest thing is that it was released nearly a half-century ago. While the film does consider the question of how celebrity and wealth might undermine democracy, it is much more interested in how the participation of a young, engaged, activist demographic might lead to fascism. No, really. Told mainly from the point of view of the middle-aged, the story gives full vent to 1960s America’s fascination with the generation gap and the strange new youth culture—or counter-culture—that had arisen. (Four years earlier Berkeley activist Jack Weinberg had famously exhorted fellow students not to trust anyone over 30.) Max Frost is a rock star of Beatles proportions and, as we see in a pre-title sequence, because of his warped upbringing (mainly due to his addle-headed mom) he is not the full shilling. Hal Holbrook is a California senatorial candidate in the charismatic Kennedy mode, who aims to harness Frost’s youth appeal but who inadvertently enables Frost’s own populist campaign to lower the voting age to 14 (it was 21 at the time) and, subsequently, his own White House run. This movie (along with Three in the Attic, also released in 1968) marked the apex of dreamy Christopher Jones’s acting career. He really looks and acts like a rock star. How cool is his band? It’s so cool that Richard Pryor is his dummer, a militant fellow named Stanley X. The tone of the movie is that of a comedy, although it does get in a few political jabs and may even be serious about some of its points. Top billing goes to Shelley Winters, most of whose scenes as Max’s mom seem spliced in from a different flick. The director was TV vet Barry Shear. The writer was Robert Thom, who seven years later would be one of the screenwriters on Paul Bartel’s Death Race 2000. Ironically, Shear and Thom would both die within a few weeks of each other eleven years after Wild in Streets—well before either got to be truly old. (Seen 22 April 2016)

Wilde 2 out of 4 stars

Every commentary about this movie must inevitably point out that Oscar Wilde is the role that Stephen Fry was born to play. (Born to be Wilde. Get it?) An English novelist and actor in films (Peter’s Friends) and TV (Jeeves & Wooster, Fry & Laurie, Blackadder), Fry is also a personality largely famous for being himself. Truly, we can’t tell where Fry leaves off and Wilde begins. The problem with biopics about monumental wits (cf. Dorothy Parker in Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle) is that we want the film to be as witty as the subject. Wilde does benefit from liberal use of Wilde’s own words as well as Fry’s performance, but Brian Gilbert’s direction, in the stately mode of Masterpiece Theatre or Merchant/Ivory, can best be described as perfunctory. Because this is the 1990s, it is not surprising that Wilde’s sexual exploits are portrayed more or less unflinchingly and that Wilde is made to be something of a gay martyr. The curious thing about the film, however, is how passive, innocent, and naive this Wilde is. Things really come to life only when Tom Wilkinson (The Full Monty), as Wilde’s cantankerous persecutor, is on screen. Vanessa Redgrave is, sadly, wasted in the role of Wilde’s mother. (Seen 16 October 1997)

Wilderness 2 out of 4 stars

Genre-wise, this one pretty much straddles the divide between survival adventures like, say, Deliverance, and your basic teenagers/young-adults-stalked-by-a-madman gorefest. Directed by Michael J. Bassett, this dark tale has a low-budget grittiness with no pretensions other than to give the audience a few good thrills. The protagonists are the inmates (and their guardians) of some sort of UK correctional facility. Two of the younger lads are bullied mercilessly, leading one to commit suicide. As a result, the whole lot are bundled off to a supposedly deserted island for a character-building exercise in the wilderness. But, once arrived, they find they are not alone and that things are not at all right. The suitably sullen and amazingly resourceful “hero” is played by Toby Kebbell, who is more misunderstood than criminal and who was not a party to the bullying. As the tension causes the lads to turn on each other, there is also a bit of a Lord of the Flies quality to the proceedings. Not the biggest gross-out you will ever see, but still quite a few good tense moments. (Seen 15 July 2006)

Will Full 2 out of 4 stars

The first thing we see here is a totally grown-up (C.) Thomas Howell (E.T., The Hitcher) doing what seems to be an impersonation of Tom Cruise from Magnolia. The central character of this Australian film is his colleague and girlfriend, Cat (Anna Lise Phillips), and her mother has just died. At first, the movie (by Rebel Penfold-Russell) seems to be mocking the whole motivational, self-improvement thing. But, by the end, it has actually embraced the philosophy of getting in touch (nearly literally) with one’s inner child, leaving us to assume that it’s just the American approach that’s being laughed at. Anyway, the movie is quite enjoyable, although we can’t help wishing that the humor was even more outrageous or that the banter were even wittier. If only Noel Coward were still alive, since the plot is fairly reminiscent of Blithe Spirit and Coward would have been totally at home with the characters and settings. You see, Cat’s mother (Anne Looby) keeps popping up (usually at the most inconvenient times) and she is meant to be a hoot. Unfortunately, the laughs are mined less from her character or the dialog than from the old double-takes-at-the-person-talking-to-a-ghost-that-no-one-else-can-s ee bit. Still, Cat’s mother is fun. Just imagine Joan Crawford taking on the role of Auntie Mame. (Seen 29 May 2001)

William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet 3 out of 4 stars

Shakespeare’s plays are clearly timeless. (Unless, of course, we’ve all been conned because he found an ingenous way to pay off all the movie studios hundreds of years in advance.) But the Bard’s language does pose a problem for mass audiences because, well, English has changed a bit since his time. There are a few ways around this, however. One is to use beautiful photography, photogenic young actors, and lovely music (à la Franco Zeffirelli) to make a popular date movie. Another is to adapt the story freely in a contemporary setting (à la West Side Story). You can also get a fresh take by changing the time period, as Ian McKellen did in the recent Richard III. Director Baz Luhrmann has taken this last idea a step further. He has made the play’s dialog virtually irrelevant. The actors could be speaking Minbari and—thanks to a multitude of cultural and media cues—we would still know exactly what was going on. Luhrmann has managed to give Romeo and Juliet the same campy touch (in much greater degree) as his unpredictably delightful Strictly Ballroom and, as in that movie, still make the story strangely touching. As for the actors, Clare Danes is radiant and Leonardo DiCaprio seems to be playing both the James Dean and Sal Mineo characters from Rebel Without a Cause. (Seen 11 November 1996)

Willow 3 out of 4 stars

In 1988, most of us still thought of Ron Howard as an actor, although we had come to appreciate him also as a director of fanciful comedies like Night Shift, Splash and Gung Ho. But he had also made Cocoon, which showed he could handle a Spielbergian adventure. While Willow got a lot of buzz at the time and further cemented Howard’s filmmaking reputation, it doesn’t get as much attention as it deserves for being a fantasy film classic. Penned by Bob Dolman from a story by George Lucas, the plot has more than a little in common with The Lord of the Rings. Meanwhile, Star Wars fans would have noticed some similarities with Lucas’s most famous story: the inexperienced hero (Warwick Davis), the rogue who becomes his ally (Val Kilmer) and becomes involved with a plucky princess (Joanne Whalley), an elderly mentor who needs to coaxed out of isolation (Patricia Hayes), a fearsome villain with supernatural powers (a frightening Jean Marsh) and a pair of comic relief characters (Kevin Pollack and Rick Overton as a pair of very funny brownies). This movie came just a few years before CGI revamped how we look at fantasy movies, so some of the special effects now look a bit clunky. But the characters, the thrills and the laughs hold up quite well. (Seen 26 December 2011)

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory 2 out of 4 stars

No, I haven’t got the title wrong. I’m just 34 years behind. This is, of course, the original film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s book Charlie & the Chocolate Factory, directed by Mel Stuart and starring Gene Wilder. Given the Hollywood musical treatment, the story ran the risk of getting lost among some of the sugary sweet children’s entertainments of the time. But this particular film had a refreshingly bitter touch to its candy-laden storyline. For one thing, its satire of media frenzy (decades before the advent of the 24/7 cable news cycle) still holds up perfectly fine today. And Wilder’s characterization of an object of children’s adoration, who barely bothers to conceal his disdain for the little tykes, presages numerous satires of children’s entertainers. Indeed, its overt censure of modern childhood vices, from general brattiness to what is now termed childhood obesity to too much TV watching (as well as, and particularly, parental complicity in these failings) is an example of social criticism as satire at its best. There is something cathartic about seeing horrid little children getting their just deserts as well as seeing virtue rewarded in the end. I wonder if that means that adults tend to like this movie better than kids. That was certainly the case with our family. (Seen 22 July 2005)

Wimbledon 2 out of 4 stars

This is a romantic comedy about a person in their 30s, who is seriously lacking confidence in their professional and personal life and who has amusingly eccentric parents. That’s right, Paul Bettany’s low-ranked professional tennis player is basically Bridget Jones. The main difference is that, where Renée Zellweger had to add pounds to play Bridget, Bettany had to get into fit shape to play his role. One of the trailers I saw for this flick, which is already on home video everywhere, hawked it as “from the people who brought you Bridget Jones’s Diary.” I’m not sure which specific people those are (Richard Curtis doesn’t seem to have been involved), but the movie is clearly aimed at the same audience, which by definition is probably the same audience as Notting Hill, with which is shares a sub-plot about trying to have a romance while being pursued by the paparazzi. It’s all harmless fun and definitely a feel-good bonus for guys over 30, who get some hope that maybe they’re not quite over the hill just yet. Still, be warned, it’s the kind of movie where a pep talk and amorous reunion can make all the difference in an uneven world champion match-up. (Seen 31 January 2005)

The Wind That Shakes the Barley 2 out of 4 stars

What better way to spend the Fourth of July than to watch a movie about people kicking the British out of their country? Actually, much of the buzz around this winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes was over whether the film (directed by an Englishman) was too provocatively “anti-British.” But what gobsmacked me was how anti-Irish Free State it was. In hindsight, I shouldn’t have been that surprised. The director is, after all, Ken Loach. With most historical epics like this one, the focus tends to be on the romance and any political content is largely perfunctory. With Loach, it is the reverse. Despite the emotional charge of the story—about an Irish Republican Army flying column in County Cork in the 1920s—there isn’t quite the thrill of adventure or the passion of romance that you would get with a more standard director. With Loach, the film mainly comes to life when there is victimization or when the characters engage each other politically. What’s really interesting with this movie is the way that it covers the same historical ground as Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins (substituting fictional characters for real ones) but takes a diametrically opposite view of things. In Jordan’s film, the anti-treaty faction are the unreasonable ones, who do not know when to stop fighting. In Loach’s movie, the Free State simply takes over where the British left off. In fairness, Loach is not heavy-handed about this. He lets every side make its case, even the British military, as when an officer barks a line—to explain, if not excuse, atrocities—about how the troops have been brutalized by World War I. But there is no doubt where the director’s sympathies lie, and they seem to stem from his belief that the anti-treaty forces (or at least a faction of them) would have instituted radical land reform. I guess this could qualify as a date movie—but mainly for political history junkies and die-hard socialists. [Related commentaries here and here and here] (Seen 4 July 2006)

The Wings of the Dove 3 out of 4 stars

This is one of those period pieces about Britain back in a time when everything was so cold and repressed that in order to have any meaningful plot developments the characters have to be bundled off to Italy so that they can actually take some action. It stars Helen Bonham Carter, who is to this kind of movie as Jamie Lee Curtis used to be to teenage slasher flicks. Bonham Carter has a notably erotic almost-love scene with Linus Roache, who was previously seen in the throes of passion with The Full Monty’s Robert Carlyle in Antonia Bird’s Priest. The third member of the triangle is Alison Elliott, who is quite appealing in a Nicole Kidman sort of way. Like The Portrait of a Lady, The Wings of the Dove is based on a Henry James novel, but this one is a better movie. Director Iain Softley (Backbeat, Hackers) keeps things interesting visually without the camera becoming obtrusive. Most importantly, we can well understand all of the principal characters, making the ending all the more poignant. (Seen 19 November 1997)

Winter’s End 1 out of 4 stars

To its credit, this movie looks like it cost a lot more than it did. Undeterred by the notion of “deals” or “financing,” writer/director Patrick Kenny had a hankering to make a movie, and he just went ahead and did it. The story is quite promising. A young Dublin man named Jack is kidnapped by a deranged farmer and his mentally challenged half-brother. The farmer’s innocent and sheltered half-sister, while living in fear of her psychotic sibling, has to wrestle with the right and wrong of the situation and decide what she is going to do. Unfortunately, the key to making this work as a movie is either 1) to suspend our disbelief by playing it all very realistically or 2) to keep things moving so quickly that we don’t have time to think about it. Kenny went with the first option, and that is very difficult to pull off. For example, this family is supposed to live in a place so remote that they never watch television or see a newspaper, yet their speech sounds as though they could be the hapless Jack’s neighbors in south Dublin, and their house (especially the bathroom) has a pretty modern feel to it. As the villain of the piece, Michael Crowley is not at all bad. A plumber from Cork in his first acting role, Crowley does exude a smoldering sense of menace, but we never quite believe he is as crazy as he has to be in order to have concocted such an insane scheme. Kenny might want to take a look at Richard Harris’s turn as Bull McCabe in Jim Sheridan’s adaptation of John B. Keane’s The Field, to get a more powerful idea of a farmer in a remote place driven to madness by trying to hold on to The Land. (Seen 10 July 2005)

The Witches 2 out of 4 stars

Morticia Addams meets Mr. Bean? If it seems a bit incongruous to see Anjelica Huston and Rowan Atkinson in the same movie, that is nothing compared to the idea of the director of the very creepy Don’t Look Now (Nicolas Roeg) joining up with executive producer Jim Henson for the adaptation of a children’s novel. But the novel, of course, is by Roald Dahl, who was a bit incongruous himself and who understood that children actually have an affinity for creepy and don’t particularly like their literature sugar-coated. His novels and stories have been the basis for such other movies as Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (and its Tim Burton remake), Danny the Champion of the World, James and the Giant Peach, Matilda and the upcoming Fantastic Mr. Fox, directed by Wes Anderson. But this story seems particularly autobiographical, as its hero is the bereaved son of Norwegian parents based in Britain. (Welsh-born Dahl’s sister and father died when he was three years old.) While the film adaptation was lightened up for the benefit of the proverbial family audience (including a “happier” ending) and shows off the imaginative Henson company’s makeup and special effects, there is still plenty of satisfying darkness here. Jasen Fisher (a good child actor who appeared in only two other movies) and Sweden’s Mai Zetterling make an engaging pair, but the movie is inevitably dominated by Huston’s over-the-top Nazi dominatrix of a Grand High Witch. Even more than all the other witches in this movie, she is the reason kids don’t always trust grown-ups. (Seen 11 September 2009)

Withnail & I 2 out of 4 stars

Let’s face it, this 1987 “cult favorite” is basically an English Cheech & Chong flick. It’s hard to get around the fact that being under the influence of something or at least having experienced being under the influence of something can only enhance the viewing experience. Still, there is a bit more going on here than your usual druggie flick. The titular characters would not be completely out of place in, say, a Samuel Beckett play. Although not that awful much actually happens in the course of its 107-minute running time, the film does manage to include quite a few classic comedy gambits. It is a mutually aggravating buddies movie, a bit of a road movie, a fish-out-of-water comedy (as the lads leave the city for the inhospitable countryside) and, of course, there is the classic straight-man-being-taken-for-gay plot device. Its drug-fueled, cynical brand of humor can be considered a direct comedic precursor to the 1990s series Absolutely Fabulous. While Richard E. Grant has gone on to appear in quite a few other films (including Gosford Park), somehow he will always be associated with this film. Ditto for Paul McGann, who has gone on to appear in various films and TV series, including several Horatio Hornblower TV movies. Director Bruce Robinson followed up Withnail & I with the ever odder How to Get Ahead in Advertising and the Hollywood serial killer thriller Jennifer Eight. (Seen 25 February 2005)

Without Limits 2 out of 4 stars

A theme that seems to fascinate Robert Towne is the compulsion of some people to push themselves to the limit, particularly in foot racing. A prolific and much-lauded screenwriter, Towne has directed four films (with a fifth expected this year), and two of them are on this subject. The first was 1982’s Personal Best, and this is the other, released in 1998. Towne plays the true-life story of extraordinary runner Steve Prefontaine mainly as mentor/student, father/son struggle of two opposing views of competition. As the coach, Donald Sutherland is all about strategy and winning. In a physically impressive performance, Billy Crudup’s Pre is all about giving his all every step of the way, regardless of the consequences. Given the constraints of the facts and sports biopic conventions, there is little Towne can do to surprise us. But his portrait of a life cut short is at least moving and, at moments, thrilling. (Seen 13 July 2006)

Witman Fiuk (The Witman Boys) 2 out of 4 stars

Just a tad reminiscent of The Young Poisoner’s Handbook, Hungarian director Janos Szasz’s The Witman Boys is a much more solemn film. Photographed darkly (it always seems to be nighttime) but with a warm glow, every frame of the movie looks like a Dutch Masters painting. The two young brothers of the title are quite creepy, particularly the older one who drives their interest in death and dissection. Mercifully, the gory stuff generally happens off-screen, but the lads have a tendency to discuss their deeds after the fact and the verbal pictures can be more unsettling than the possible visuals. There is also a morbid sense of suspense as we anticipate where the brothers’ predilections will lead them. As is so often the case in movies, the blame for all of this seems to lie squarely with Mom. (Seen 4 June 1997)

The Wizard of Oz 4 out of 4 stars

I can’t believe how many years have gone by since I last saw this movie. Of course, I have never been very far away from it, since it has been so ingrained in the popular culture for so long. And, of course, it was catechized into my head from repeated annual network television viewings during my childhood. Yet, to see this film again now, alongside my own child, is to see a whole new movie. It’s all familiar and yet like something I’m seeing for the very first time. This effect is only heightened by the fact that during all those childhood viewings, I never knew that the Oz scenes were in color! (My parents never bought a color TV set until after my brother and I had both left home.) The Little Munchkin hid her eyes during the scary parts, just as I did ages ago. Parts of the movie were genuinely terrifying to me as a child, and now I wonder why. At my age now, the movie, as a thriller, has all the potency of an Abbott & Costello comedy. Instead, the inevitable reaction today is, omigod this film is so gay! No wonder “friends of Dorothy” became a moniker for members of the gay community. From the campy production numbers to the lion singing of how hard it is going through life being labeled “a sissy,” it is near impossible to miss this aspect of the film’s sensibility. But did a gay sensibility always define this movie? Or did gay culture appropriate the movie for itself? In the end, it doesn’t matter. Like all great art, its themes apply to us all—gay, straight or otherwise, i.e. whatever it is you are looking for in life, you most likely may need not look any farther than simply inside yourself. (Seen 14 February 2005)

Wo hu zang long (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) 3 out of 4 stars

Many people who go to see this movie because of the “buzz” they have heard may well wonder at the beginning what they have gotten themselves into. The first few scenes give every indication of being a slow-paced melodrama that art house devotees are accustomed to seeing from mainland China and which most non-Asians never see. Only casual mentions of a brotherhood (siblinghood?) of warriors gives a hint of what is to come. Then, sometime later, without warning, a silent masked thief slips into a house to steal a venerated sword, and we are off. Fans of Hong Kong action movies will revel in the mesmerizing fight scenes. We have seen the impossible leaps and soaring before, but it has never been so magical or dreamlike. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, just pretend that this is some sort of strange prequel to The Matrix.) The ending, as all the best ones are, is beautiful, haunting and more than a little perplexing. The director is Taiwan-born American Ang Lee, and despite the new (for him) genre, this is truly an Ang Lee movie. As with all his films, including his western ones (Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm), this is really a visually luscious treatise on relationships and redemption. Especially welcome are two internationally known Hong Kong action veterans, Yun-Fat Chow (best known in the west for The Replacement Killers and Anna and the King) and Michelle Yeoh (Supercop and Tomorrow Never Dies). (Seen 22 January 2001)

The Wolverine 2 out of 4 stars

Yes, I’m a lifelong Marvel fan, but the X-Men comic books quickly became too complicated (and too angst-ridden) for me to keep up with. The same is more or less true of the movies. It stuns me that this is actually Hugh Jackman’s sixth outing as Wolverine (known to his friends as Logan)—counting the briefest of cameos in 2011’s X-Men: First Class. Yet this is the first movie actually called simply The Wolverine—not to be confused with 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine. That one was apparently the first—and to date only—installment in a series of origin stories. This new movie, directed by James Mangold (who previously worked with Jackman on the fantasy romcom Kate & Leopold), is essentially a bridge between 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand (in which Logan walked out on the Xers) and next year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past (in which he presumably comes back). I’m not sure how it’s worked out that Wolverine has gotten so much screen time these past several years, but if you like your superheroes morose and cranky, he’s definitely your man. One review I read said this was Logan’s You Only Live Twice movie and that’s accurate in the sense that the action is largely contained within an imagined action hero Japan. As a Marvel flick, it’s no Iron Man or Avengers, but it’s diverting enough in a standard mutant action adventure way. It’s interesting to contemplate that something as American as a Marvel superhero adventure can spawn a movie that features absolutely no American actors in any of the main roles—and that includes the surprise appearance of two very welcome Brits a minute or two after the end credits started rolling. I laughed at the fools who had already left the auditorium. (Seen 11 August 2013)

The Woman Chaser 2 out of 4 stars

It’s ironic that the best thing about this first writing/directing effort by Robinson Devor (after Charles Willeford’s novel) is the gorgeous black and white photography. Why ironic? Because the film was actually shot in color (and a monochrome version was produced in the lab) to enhance its salability internationally and for home video. So most people who get to see The Woman Chaser will end up seeing it in color. Otherwise, this is basically another debut film about Hollywood and making films. Aside from the photography (which is meticulous in catching all the angles and atmosphere of the late 1950s/early 1960s, in all their tie-wearing, cigarette-smoking, scotch-drinking, big-finned car glory) is star Patrick Warburton. A TV actor best known for the recurring role of Puddy on Seinfeld (and soon to be the live-action incarnation of The Tick), Warburton has all the acting range of, say, John Wayne, but that’s perfectly okay here. He is all we need to get caught up in his unique cinematic vision and his fight to get his very personal film (involving a rogue truck driver hurtling down U.S. 101) made on his own terms. Despite this film’s many amusing moments, however, we are ultimately sorry that we don’t get to see the hero’s 63-minute masterpiece instead. (Seen 30 May 2000)

Wonder Boys 3 out of 4 stars

Everywhere I went, I couldn’t escape it. I don’t know how many times I wound up sitting through the trailer for this movie. I almost had it all memorized. It seemed to be everywhere: on television, in art house cinemas, in suburban multiplexes, on large flat-screen displays on the walls of Bill Gates’s house. Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating about seeing it in suburban multiplexes. Anyway, I had to go to see the frigging movie just to neutralize the persistence of the trailer in my mind. It was well worth it. And I couldn’t have imagined how apt my recent Tobey Maguire-Bud Cort comparison (cf. The Cider House Rules) actually was. This guy seems to completely own the whole confused, strange but oddly brilliant and insightful yet innocent young man thing. And Michael Douglas is right on as the former wunderkind, now burnt-out, drugged-out, lacking-in-confidence professor with tenure. As with some other recent movies (like Rushmore), Wonder Boys seems like a quaint and pleasing throwback to a lot of films of the 1960s. This has to do with a jaundiced and subversive eye toward society in general and academia in particular (the potshots on writing pretensions are the best part of the movie) and a whole lot of dope smoking. But refreshingly, the ending is not only not cynical, but it actually has a gentle and not-overly-preachy moral that Nancy Reagan could endorse. Unlike the central character, L.A. Confidential director Curtis Hanson demonstrates in his sophomore effort that he really just might be a true wonder boy. Memorable line: “Professor Tripp, even if I wind up going to jail, you’re still the best teacher I ever had.” (Seen 3 March 2000)

Wonderland 2 out of 4 stars

John O’Hagan went to Levittown, New York, to do research for a fictional movie that he was planning to make about a place “like Levittown.” What he found was so intriguing that he wound up making a documentary about the place, just in time for the first large planned American community’s fiftieth anniversary. Specifically, O’Hagan explores a subset of this mother of all modern suburbs: original residents who have lived there for a half-century. These World War II golden-agers turn out to be a quirky lot indeed. With no shame or embarrassment, they reveal their strange habits, hobbies, and thoughts. They also gamely engage in O’Hagan’s playful set-ups. One gray-haired lady even accompanies herself with a zither as she sings “Little Boxes” (you know, made of ticky-tacky). Second-generation Levittowners Eddie Money and Bill Griffith (creator of Zippy the Pinhead) are also on hand to comment on their hometown. The final scenes in particular come off as an exaggeration of David Lynch’s view of small-town life. (Seen 23 May 1997)

Words Upon the Window Pane 3 out of 4 stars

First of all, for the literal minded among you, yes, there really are words on a window pane and we get to find out what they are and who wrote them. It takes a while to figure out where this movie is headed, but as it becomes clear you find yourself involved a beautiful, haunting experience. Words Upon the Window Pane is the first feature by Irish director Mary McGuckian and is based on a play by William Butler Yeats. It is at once a ghost story, a love story, and a history lesson. The plot involves a seance in the dark, rainy Dublin of 1928 and includes flashbacks 200 years earlier to the time of the great writer Jonathan Swift. It would be nice to have this movie on videotape if for no other reason than to be able to read the historical notes at the end which flash by so quickly that the audience was left gasping in collective frustration. (For the record, the business about Swift, Stella, and Vanessa is depicted with historical accuracy.) The movie stars Geraldine Chaplin who apparently can act in any language and with any accent. (She has played everyone from a BBC reporter and Annie Oakley for Robert Altman to her own grandmother in Chaplin—not to mention numerous French films and Spanish films for her companion Carlos Saura.) The cast also features John Lynch in a very different role from the small but stand-out one he had in The Secret of Roan Inish. I can give this film my supreme movie compliment: it is hard to forget. Its moody atmosphere is enhanced by a beautiful score by Niall Byrne whose music reminded me a great deal of Michael Nyman’s (The Piano, Prospero’s Books). (Seen 31 May 1995)

Work 1 out of 4 stars

Not much goes on in Work, the first feature film of director Rachel Reichman. This is despite the fact that the material is potentially explosive. Jenny and Will are a young, blue-collar couple in a small, economically depressed town. Jenny is having affair with a student who lives next door. But despite the fact that her liaison is both inter-racial and lesbian in small-town Middle America, there are no repercussions. No one finds out. There is no big confrontation. Oh, a couple of neanderthal hunters happen on the women as they are picnicking in the woods and make leering comments. But that’s as far as it goes. Work deserves credit for trying to be true to life and avoiding movie clichés. But there just aren’t enough insights or revelations to carry a 90-minute film where nothing much happens. (Seen 22 May 1996)

World and Time Enough 0 out of 4 stars

This is one of those movies where somebody is always looking at someone else intently and asking, “Hey, are you okay?” It is also one of those films that in future will probably have to be made without any type of public funding since it focuses on characters who have an “alternative lifestyle.” It starts off promisingly thanks to a couple of well-defined and interesting characters and a humorous on-screen narrator who keeps things light. Unfortunately, by the end of the film we have lost the narrator and the film has taken a strangely dark turn. This is not entirely a surprise since the story is about a young gay couple of whom one is HIV positive. But the change in the story is so sudden and hard to follow that it just makes the film seem schizophrenic. Early on, I thought World and Time Enough might duplicate the success of last year’s Grief which was also made on relatively little money and dealt with similar subject matter. But this movie reaches for a final cathartic moment and just comes up with a muddled mess. (Seen 30 May 1995)

The World Is Not Enough 2 out of 4 stars

Usually the best part of any James Bond movie is the tour de force opening action scenes. This time out the pre-credits sequence threatens to be disappointingly tame, but it finally gets going with a chase involving speedboats, a hot air balloon and London’s Millenium Dome. In fact, Bond totally ticks off Q by commandeering his new boat without even waiting for the customary condescending lecture, thereby demonstrating what we’ve known all along: Bond never actually listens to Q and doesn’t need the briefing anyway. Maybe that is why Q (venerable Bond film veteran Desmond Llewelyn) finally seems to be bowing out. That and the fact that he was as old as dirt even before Pierce Brosnan came on board. Anyway, his replacement is absolutely perfect and bodes well for the future entertainment value of the series, although the casting emphasizes the cartoonish nature of the franchise. There is something almost quaintly old-fashioned about this new Bond outing. A bit more attempt at character development for the villains (Robert Carlyle is virtually unrecognizable as a terrorist with time constraints) and for M. Not only does Judi Dench get lots more to do than she had in Goldeneye and Tomorrow Never Dies, but she gets way more screen time than she had in her Oscar-winning turn in Shakespeare in Love. Other highlights: great product placements for Visa and BMW and an unusually high number of double entendres (sexual and otherwise), including the final line of the movie, which elicited a group groan from the audience. (Seen 21 November 1999)

The Wrecking Crew 2 out of 4 stars

If you are old enough to remember when the Monkees had a TV show, then you also remember the sneering over the fact that this manufactured band did not actually play its own music. What most of us radio listeners and record buyers at the time did not realize is that practically no musical group did. And, in fact, most of the music played on every track recorded in Los Angeles during the 1960s featured the same group of musicians always playing the music. As this fascinating and nostalgic documentary by Denny Tedesco explains, studios hired session players for the recordings, and they pretty much hired the same collection of up to twenty professionals every time. The film’s title comes from a common nickname for the informal, but surprisingly consistent, group. They played behind everyone from Frank Sinatra and Nancy Sinatra to Sonny and Cher, Ricky Nelson, the Mamas and the Papas, the Byrds and every purveyor of the Southern California surf sound—yes, including the Beach Boys. Indeed, as one talking head explains, by the time of the Pet Sounds recordings, the “Beach Boys” were basically just Brian Wilson and the wrecking crew. They even played the music of the Tijuana Brass and all of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound recordings. Not only did they play practically everything heard on the radio but also many commercial jingles and television themes. For example, the guitar of Tedesco’s father Tommy was prominently heard at the beginning of shows like Green Acres and Batman. Much of the most striking bass guitar work was by the group’s lone female member, Carol Kaye. Hal Blaine’s drumming was so distinctive that he got his name on a Las Vegas marquee below Nancy Sinatra’s. But the group’s most famous member turned out to be guitarist Glen Campbell, who went on to a successful singing career. For years, the crew worked constantly around the clock—and with little time off for a home life—and the money was good. But then times changed, and bands started playing their own instruments in recording sessions. And, just like that, it all ended. (Seen 15 February 2014)

The Wrestler 3 out of 4 stars

One of the perks of being the youngest employee at my hometown’s weekly newspaper was occasionally getting a press pass to the professional wrestling matches at Bakersfield’s venerable Strelich Stadium. (Mainly because no one else wanted them.) The real entertainment there was not in the ring but in the audience, where many people became emotionally involved in the matches to alarming level. Now this movie, directed by Darren Aronofsky, (Pi, The Fountain), comes along and suggests that maybe the lifestyles and personal lives of those wrestlers wasn’t as glamorous as I might have imagined. At one point during the first half of this memorable portrait, Marisa Tomei quotes a passage from Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ to Mickey Rourke and tells him that that movie reminds her of him. With this, we are officially informed that not only can a professional wrestling match can be seen as something akin to a passion play but that this movie is more or less a passion play—with Tomei as Rourke’s own faithful Mary Magdalene. Much has been made of the overt parallel between the character of Randy “The Ram” Robinson and Rourke’s own personal and career travails. But the movie also makes a nice bookend to Barry Levinson’s Diner, the 1982 movie where many of us first sat up and took notice of Rourke. While the earlier movie was about a group of young men coming to terms (or not) with advancing adulthood, this movie is about a man coming to terms (or not) with advancing decline and mortality. With his flowing, tangled mane and numerous wounds, he is a Christ figure taking on the sins of all men who cannot find enough room in their lives for responsibilities beyond making it to the next gig of the job they love and having a warm regard for the die-hard fans. Physically, Rourke may have morphed inexplicably into some sort of botched clone of Nick Nolte, but he deserves whatever acting awards come his way for this. He has clearly earned them the hard way. (Seen 18 January 2009)

Wu jian dao (Infernal Affairs) 2 out of 4 stars

Hong Kong police movies seem to be getting less over-the-top with the passage of time. I don’t know if this is simply because of a maturing movie industry or even the effect of reunification with the mainland. Anyway, movies such as this, while still a bit melodramatic, aren’t too much different anymore from Hollywood fare. The New York Times compared this film (by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak) to Michael Mann’s work, and that’s about right—particularly its theme of how undercover police work could affect one’s sanity (cf. TV’s Miami Vice). The premise is intriguing. Two young men are in the same class at police academy. One is a mole planted by a criminal boss. The other is about to go into deep undercover with the criminals. Over the years they and their bosses become involved in a cat-and-mouse game to ferret out the traitors. At the same time, they become torn by divided loyalties and the stress of submerged identities. Things get more complicated when the few people who know their secret start dying. How will things play out? The movie keeps us guessing right up to its quasi-operatic ending. As the undercover cop, Tony Leung has a nicely morose Charles Bronson quality about him. As his opposite number, Andy Lau personifies every slick ladder-climbing careerist you ever worked with. (Seen 16 October 2003)

Wuthering Heights 2 out of 4 stars

When you think of Victorian age romantic tomes, one that may well spring to mind is Emily Brontë’s only novel. It is full of passion, has just a hint of the supernatural and is considered one of the classic love stories. It is a tale that has been adapted for movies and television many times, and the central figure Heathcliff has invariably been cast with actors adept at projecting intensity. In William Wyler’s 1939 version it was Laurence Olivier. In Robert Fuest’s 1970 version it was future 007 Timothy Dalton. In Peter Kosminsky’s 1992 version it was future Voldemort Ralph Fiennes. As for directors, if you were thinking of candidates to helm this story, you could be forgiven for not immediately thinking of Britain’s Andrea Arnold. Her two previous features, Red Road and Fish Tank, were set in the modern day and could be reasonably described as social realist. Ditto her current U.S.-set movie American Honey. So how did she approach a period romance like Wuthering Heights? Unsurprisingly, not unlike an Italian neorealist. There is a paucity of dialog and long silences. There is a lot of dirt and muck. The narrative tends to jump ahead suddenly. The narrow aspect ratio and tendency toward extreme close-ups create a claustrophobic, nearly suffocating feeling. Her most interesting choice is in how Heathcliff is portrayed. Described in the book as a dark-skinned gypsy, in this film he is ethnically African. Consequently his mistreatment takes on a racial dimension, with some scenes seeming to have been plucked from a movie about American slavery. He is played by two actors making their screen debuts. Young Solomon Glave commands the screen but seems strangely well-scrubbed for the setting. As the older Heathcliff, James Howson projects a certain intensity but not the level of passion we associate with the character. As young Cathy, Shannon Beer does seem like she could have lived in the time and place but does not suggest the total wildness of the book’s heroine. As the older Cathy, Kaya Scodelario actually does seem like someone who could obsess a foundling but she gets short-changed on screen time. This will probably not be the first film adaptation that die-hard fans of the book will reach for on the video shelf, but it certainly is interesting. (Seen 22 October 2016)

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