Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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Scott R. Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France
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Da 2 out of 4 stars

A year after he played Corey Haim and Jason Patric’s grandfather in The Lost Boys, Barnard Hughes committed what may be his greatest role to celluloid in this adaptation of Irish playwright Hugh Leonard’s semi-autobiographical play. A staple of American TV shows for decades (even a bit on Dark Shadows!), the role of Nick Tynan gave Hughes a chance to display to a wider audience that there was much more to him than twinkly grandfather parts. Leonard’s stand-in is Martin Sheen who, now seen 24 years later, looks eerily like his son Charlie Sheen. (The eeriness is only amplified by the fact that the character’s name is Charlie.) Given the film’s theme and origins, its course is fraught with the risk of staginess and/or treacly sentimentalism. It doesn’t completely evade these risks unscathed, but it does pretty good. It helps that director Matt Clark (best known as a character actor, this is the only feature film he has directed to date) has made good use of Leonard’s own home town of Dalkey, County Dublin, and environs. But its device of Sheen’s ghostly interactions with his late parents and others from his past does put one in mind of Thorton Wilder’s Our Town, and at one point there is even the stage device of Sheen reverting to his childhood self when talking his Da. (Two younger actors also play him a different ages.) But through it all, a vivid portrait of the father’s character comes through. Despite the story being “about” the father, the strongest emotional moment belongs to the mother (played by Doreen Hepburn). As she walks home, after sending off her only child as he heads abroad to be married, I don’t know how there can possibly be a dry eye in the house. (Seen 30 November 2012)

The Da Vinci Code 3 out of 4 stars

Wow, I am better than I thought. After finally seeing this movie, I cannot improve on what I wrote 18 days before seeing it: “In essence, if my impression of The Da Vinci Code is correct, it is merely doing for theology what The X-Files did for exobiology.” That’s really it. Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou are basically Mulder and Scully. Except that, instead of tracking down aliens and UFOs, they are hunting down info on age-old rival religious sects engaged in a bloody, timeless struggle. I find it extremely exciting that I could discern this before even seeing the movie. Do you understand what this means? It means that I do not need to actually see new movies before writing reviews of them. Without the bother of the logistics of leaving home and going to a cinema, I can post these write-ups much more promptly. Thank you, Hollywood. The real mystery here is why I liked this movie so much better than the majority of “expert” film critics. But what’s not to like? This is more or less a remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark done as a Hitchcock thriller—with the usual twists and turns and double crosses and triple crosses and (given the subject matter) bloody crosses, as well as the MacGuffin to end all MacGuffins. The complaints about this movie? Too dark, lighting-wise. (Didn’t notice.) Tom Hanks’s hair. (Didn’t notice.) Unfair to albinos. (Can’t argue that one; go rent Powder for balance.) Too much prattling/blathering/talking. Yes, there was constant chatter. But I found that entirely entertaining. It was a bit like the second and third Matrix movies, in that much of the fun was seeing how Byzantine and baroque the explanations and back history could get. And I will take endless blather from the likes of Sir Ian McKellen any day. I was just relieved that Paul Bettany’s maniacal monk didn’t turn out to be one of those standard Hollywood monsters that keep coming back after being killed multiple times. (Seen 5 June 2006)

A Damsel in Distress 2 out of 4 stars

In his eighth big screen outing, Fred Astaire had the benefit of a lot of talent. One of the screenwriters was P.G. Wodehouse of Jeeves & Wooster fame, and the music was provided by none less than George Gershwin. (Songs include “A Foggy Day (in London Town)” and “Nice Work If You Can Get It.”) Maybe we don’t recall this flick as readily as, say, Top Hat or Shall We Dance because Fred isn’t hoofing with Ginger Rogers or Jane Powell. (He has but one dance here with his love object, a young Joan Fontaine, three years before she became Laurence Olivier’s insecure bride in Hitchcock’s Rebecca.) What this movie has instead of Ginger is comedy gold, in the form of its Christmas panto plot about Fontaine’s aristocrat under pressure to marry and her castle’s staff attempting to influence her choice because of an active betting pool. Great character turns are contributed by English thesps snooty Reginald Gardiner, scandalized Constance Collier and amiable Montagu Love. But the real laughs come from the immortal George Burns and Gracie Allen, more or less playing the Morey Amsterdam and Rose Marie roles. They are indistinguishable from the couple we know from their mid-century television show, and that’s just fine. You can never get enough of bits like, when asked what the date is, Gracie tossing away the newspaper and saying, “Oh, this is no help, George. It’s yesterday’s paper.” (Seen 4 November 2013)

Damsels in Distress 3 out of 4 stars

Sophisticated people talk endlessly, mostly obsessing on the frustration of their love lives and whether they are being fulfilled. Is this a Woody Allen movie? Wait, the characters are students. That’s right, it’s a Whit Stillman movie—a mere 13 years after his last one, The Last Days of Disco. Stillman’s world is a particular one, where the main characters all seem to have gone to prep schools and naturally engage in long, thoughtful conversations about life, love and social niceties. After the screening, Jameson Dublin Film Festival director Gráinne Humphreys described the movie as “Animal House as written by Jane Austen,” and she was spot on. There are nods to Amy Heckerling’s Clueless, which was drawn from Austen’s Emma, and also to Michael Lehmann’s Heathers. Is it realistic? Who cares, but I am sure it is a fair portrayal of certain segments of society who do not get much attention in mainstream movies. And it is very refreshing to hear students sounding intelligent instead of like whiny valley girls. Greta Gerwig, Megalyn Echikunwoke and Carrie MacLemore are quite entertaining as a trio who can seem like future Stepford wives but gradually reveal more depth, and Analeigh Tipton is quite good as the outsider character who asks the questions we want to ask. And the ending may seem corny, but it is strangely uplifting. (Seen 17 February 2012)

Dan Dan, Dad & Me 2 out of 4 stars

Many of us know quite a bit now about Michael Collins, the Irish military strategist who succeeded in forcing the British to negotiate Ireland’s independence—thanks largely to a certain film by Neil Jordan, starring Liam Neeson. But what about the man who succeeded Collins after he was ambushed and killed in 1922? His name was Richard Mulcahy, and he went on to lead the Free State military, serve as a defense minister, and lead the Fine Gael party for many years. This film is by his granddaughter, Lisa Mulcahy, and it promises to be an informative biography of the elder Mulcahy (the “Dan Dan” of the title, as he was called by his grandchildren). But the film is much more than that. Like an epic novel or a primetime soap opera, it goes on to account for the generations that followed, with particular emphasis on the filmmaker’s father, Risteárd, who was quite an interesting fellow in his own right. A physician specializing in preventive medicine (unusual in Ireland at the time), he was a lone, early and much criticized voice speaking out about the danger of cigarettes. He was also one of the first men in the Irish Republic to obtain a legal divorce from his wife. The film looks unflinchingly at such details, giving us a bit of a voyeuristic thrill, as well involving us in the “plot.” The storytelling is aided by a fair amount of old family film footage and the choice to make this film essentially a story of the house the family lived in, right in the heart of Dublin’s Rathmines district. It will be hard for people who know the area today to picture it as the country retreat it was not that long ago. In the end, the film seems to have really been a form of personal therapy for Lisa, as the project brings her closer to her father. (Seen 22 January 2002)

Dancing at Lughnasa 3 out of 4 stars

This is the real thing. This isn’t The Quiet Man or even The Nephew. This film evokes all that makes the Irish and Irish-Americans get misty-eyed about Eire, but without resorting to shameless caricatures. Dancing at Lughnasa (the name refers to an ancient pagan Irish festival and sounds a bit like “lunacy”) is a childhood memoir, which thankfully does not dwell too much on the child himself or try to see everything from his limited point of view. Playwright Brian Friel based the stage version on his own early years, and his bittersweet portrait of five sisters in 1930s Donegal trying to keep things together in the face of adversity was a hit from Dublin to Broadway. The film version by Pat O’Connor (Cal, Circle of Friends) is a different animal from the play, and the tone is decidedly more melancholy. As the title promises, there is some dancing, but don’t be looking for Riverdance. The cast is uniformly fine, and Meryl Steep proves once again that she has a chameleon-like mastery of accents. No stage “Oirish” here! Her depiction of the oldest sister who has worked to hold the family together so long that she has become cross and bitter is on the mark and heartbreaking. It is ironic that the family is undone by the arrival of a textile factory, as today Donegal is dealing with the prospective withdrawal of Fruit of the Loom. (Seen 27 September 1998)

Dancing at the Blue Iguana 3 out of 4 stars

This may be the most intelligent movie about strippers/exotic dancers ever made. But, of course, that’s damning with faint praise since the field is littered with such previous efforts as Showgirls and Striptease. If anyone has a chance with this tricky subject matter, it might as well be director Michael Radford, whose previous work has included White Mischief, the 1984 version of 1984 and the arthouse hit Il Postino. The problem with films about strippers is that a lot of viewers won’t be able to get past the fact that women’s bodies are on display—and that is definitely true here. But it is not only the women’s bodies that are stripped bare but also their characters, and by the end we have come to know most of them more intimately than we could have thought possible. An extra bonus is that the dancers are played by some of our age’s most underexposed (no pun intended) and/or underrated actors—notably Darryl Hannah (Blade Runner, Splash), who looks like she hasn’t eaten for three years; Jennifer Tilly, whose voice has thankfully dropped two octaves since Bullets Over Broadway; and Sandra Oh (Last Night, The Red Violin). The film was partially improvised, which is a great thing for actors but usually not for audiences. Happily, though, no scene feels as though it is being made up on the spur of the moment and the movie hangs together quite well and provides some very perverse humor, particularly in Hannah’s and Tilly’s scenes. (Seen 15 August 2001)

Danny Deckchair 2 out of 4 stars

This typically offbeat 2003 Australian comedy raises the question: why don’t we see Rhys Ifans playing more lead roles in romantic comedies? As he ages and softens a bit, can we put behind us the images of him from his grungy roles in flicks like Twin Town and Notting Hill. (In the latter film, in which he played Hugh Grant’s utterly unkempt flatmate, a friend of mine swore she could actually smell him.) As the title character in Danny Deckchair, Ifans displays a goofy (dare I say) charm and puppy dog earnestness as a husband out of step with his suburban neighborhood and his increasingly ambitious wife. Although based on an actual incident involving a guy in America who really did take flight in a deckchair lifted by helium balloons, the film is really a throwback to the wacky kind of comedies that Preston Sturges used to do. Ifans’s aerial journey also deliberately echoes The Wizard of Oz. When he lands in a remote small town, where he fits in much better than he ever did in his Sydney suburb, people call him “Professor” and he meets a soul mate named Glenda, played by warrior princess Eowyn herself, Miranda Otto Despite its fanciful touches, it all gets a bit predictable by the end. (Seen 31 January 2005)

Dante’s Peak 2 out of 4 stars

There is really only one reason to see this movie. For a few breathtaking moments in the penultimate act, you get a real sense of what it would be like to be in the path of a volcanic eruption, which is, of course, something we all hope to experience someday. Beyond the special effects, however, this example of the new volcano disaster sub-genre is strictly by-the-numbers. Pierce Brosnan is haunted by the woman he lost cliffhanging, I mean, studying a volcano. The city council doesn’t want to scare off business by alerting people to the shark, I mean, the volcano. There is a ragtag team of wise-cracking scientist types who live only to chase tornadoes, I mean, volcanoes. And Brosnan bonds with two little kids as he saves them from the dinosaurs, I mean, the volcano. Heck, a dog even has to make a perilous jump to safety amid all the destruction wrought by the flying saucers, I mean, the volcano. This is all fun enough, but it’s only one small town that gets destroyed. Let’s move on to the next volcano blockbuster where all of Los Angeles gets blown away! (Seen 21 February 1997)

Darby O’Gill and the Little People 2 out of 4 stars

Why do Irish people have such a visceral negative reaction to this movie? Actually, I’m not sure they all do. My personal expert on everything Irish seemed to be enjoying herself quite well as she watched it but, rather than make an assumption about her opinion, I asked her point blank what she thought of the movie. Without hesitation, she gave me a one-word reply that, alas, I cannot repeat. In the end, it is not too hard to understand the reaction. If this movie were about African-Americans instead of Irish people, it would be minstrel show. It is strange to think that, having absolutely no Irish connection through my own family, this Disney entertainment more or less formed my original concept of what Ireland was like. It’s even stranger, upon seeing it again at this point of my life, to realize that in odd ways that no self-respecting Irish person would acknowledge, it’s really not that far off. Sure, it’s pure fantasy, and that’s the point. Walt Disney, an American proud of his own Irish connections, went to some effort for, if not exactly authenticity, then validity. Much of the cast are real Irish actors, including those who play the old codger Darby, the romantic rival Pony Sugrue and Brian, king of the leprechauns. The male romantic lead was at least a member of the extended Gaelic family, an impossibly young Sean Connery. His female opposite was the engaging but ill-fated English actor Janet Munro. Their temper-laden courtship was, in a typical Disney sugary way, clearly meant to evoke the fireworks between John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara seven years earlier in The Quiet Man. There is even a reference to the “castle in Cong,” which is the very first shot in that movie. And of course the movie cannot end without a good brawl. The special effects hold up surprisingly well, mainly because director Robert Stevenson (who directed a bunch of Disney classics, including Old Yeller, Mary Poppins and the original versions of The Absent Minded Professor and The Love Bug) relied on trick perspectives to have Darby interact with the leprechaun king, similar to what Peter Jackson would do with Hobbits four decades later in The Lord of the Rings. Should the Irish really be insulted by this movie? Ah, it’s good enough for them. The truth is, I know more than a few Darbys these days, and they are as cute as anything. (Seen 18 November 2005)

Dare 2 out of 4 stars

Here is another teen drama, but there are a couple of interesting things about it. For one thing, no one is dying of cancer. But more interestingly, it is directed by Adam Salky, whose current film is I Smile Back, which features a widely praised dramatic turn by comedian Sarah Silverman. This 2009 flick is based on his own 2005 short film of the same title (both versions written by David Brind), which had a different cast and was basically limited to a particular encounter between two of the three main characters. The feature film’s three acts alternate points of view, first following aspiring actor Alexa (Emmy Rossum), then her nerdy best friend Ben (Ashley Springer) and finally bad boy rich kid Johnny (Zach Gilford) who becomes an object of fascination for the two others. While the characters may seem to be types, in the course of the narrative each evolves and/or is revealed to be something different than how they initially appeared. The ones with the insecurities turn out to be surprisingly tough, and the one displaying the most self-confidence winds up being the most fragile. Generally, it has the feel of a true story—except perhaps when it comes to parents. (Saturday Night Live alumnus Ana Gasteyer is on hand as a mom who gathers the family around the TV to watch the latest Ken Burns documentary. Brea Bee is a trophy stepmother who seems to have stepped out of an episode of Dynasty.) A couple of well employed cameos are contributed by Alan Cumming as a professional actor, who challenges Alexa and thereby sets the whole string of events in motion, and Sandra Bernhard as a shrink. (Seen 23 October 2015)

Daredevil 2 out of 4 stars

For some reason it had never before occurred to me that, if a superhero were a practicing Catholic, his priest would know his secret identity. But then, the superhero in this movie seems to get his masked removed by someone every few minutes, and half the people in New York seem to figure out who really is. I don’t remember it being explicit in the comic book (I read the very earliest ones) that Daredevil was a Catholic, but in hindsight, with his crop of red hair (in the comic book, anyway) and a name like Matt Murdoch, it should have been obvious. The religious angle allows director Mark Steven Johnson to go even further with the angst-ridden neurotic superhero thing that Tim Burton did so well in Batman—as well as providing some of the most over-the-top action-in-a-church imagery we have seen since The Graduate or The Ruling Class. And speaking of Batman, Ben Affleck is the least likely movie superhero we have seen since Michael Keaton. But his early association with Kevin Smith’s comic-book-culture-steeped films gives him a strangely appropriate resonance. And his moral confusion (his daytime idealistic lawyer offing unconvicted criminals at night seems calculated to give the ACLU fits) is strange in its timeliness, as America keeps telling itself and the world, “I’m not the bad guy!” Rather than sequels, I recommend a series of prequels for this flick. The best scenes were really of the young Matt Murdoch, played by Scott Terra. Note: Don’t leave before the end credits start, or you’ll miss a nifty tribute to Hitchcock’s Psycho. (Seen 5 March 2003)

The Darjeeling Limited 2 out of 4 stars

The characters and situations are so familiar in this wry 2007 family dramedy that it feels as though it could somehow be an extension of The Royal Tenenbaums or even The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Filmmaker Wes Anderson’s particular cinematic world is as instantly recognizable as a photograph of Monument Valley. As usual his protagonists are consumed with their own individual persistent obsessions, often stemming from something critical missing in their relationships with parents. The brothers in this flick are still mourning their father and, despite all the intentions of bonding and healing, keep finding themselves in competition and conflict with one another. Owen Wilson’s Francis is a control freak, a quality he got from his mother—something that becomes crystal clear once we finally meet her. Adrien Brody’s Peter is facing the prospect of fatherhood himself and appears no better equipped for the responsibility than his own parents were. Jason Schwartzman’s Jack could nearly be the actor’s bumbling writer character from his HBO series Bored to Death. As the three of them jostle and argue and inevitably sabotage themselves, we want to throw up our hands, and yet we still have sympathy for them and wish they could find a bit of solace. Strangely, the quirkily comic mood barely darkens, even when something fairly tragic happens unexpectedly in the latter stretch. Does this sad turn actually provide them with some of the spiritual insight they were seeking? At the very least they get a glimpse into what real family bonds look like in a more traditional culture, demonstrated in part by an all-too-brief turn from Irrfan Khan (Slumdog Millionaire, Life of Pi, The Amazing Spider-Man). Also on hand is Anderson regular Bill Murray in an opening sequence that feels very symbolic. (Seen 19 August 2016)

Dark City 2 out of 4 stars

I am a bit embarrassed about it, but in 1994 I liked The Crow. It was your basic adolescent ultra-violent comic book fantasy movie. So now the director of that film, Alex Proyas, is back with a new film that is a different animal indeed. Dark City will appeal largely to people who, like myself, really appreciated The City of Lost Children. It is basically your German-style expressionistic film noir paranoid sci-fi alien special-effects fable. The movie is a bit disorienting because, if you’re not paying a lot of attention in the early part, it seems like some kind of stylized 1940s type detective story. But it’s all really about memories and identity and outer space. William Hurt is a gumshoe who, like everyone else in town, falls asleep every fifteen minutes around midnight. Rufus Sewell is a man who may or may not be a killer and who keeps having vague memories of a place called Shell Beach. This film won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but it keeps you guessing and provokes some thoughts, and that’s all I ask of a movie these days. (Seen 11 March 1998)

The Dark Crystal 2 out of 4 stars

I can’t tell whether this film hasn’t aged well or if it was actually pretty daft to begin with. I remember being pretty impressed by it when it came out in 1982, and technically it is still pretty impressive. In the days before CGI, the wizard-like animatronics of the Jim Henson (he is credited along with Frank Oz for directing) crew was perhaps the most effective way to create a fantasy world that seemed like live action. We spot mannerisms that remind us that this is from the people who gave us the Muppets, but this is a darker, more grown-up world. The characters are nothing short of remarkable. Strangely, though, in the manner of stop-motion animation there is something a bit dead about the puppets and, when action is called for, it is a bit clumsy. What works best are long shots where it is clearly an actor running or otherwise moving. And, unfortunately, some moments are just laugh-out-loud funny, and not in the right way. And, for a fantasy, the narration is downright ponderous. It is a valiant effort, but in the end it falls in between that strange place where it is too grown-up for kids but not really grown-up enough for grown-ups. (Seen 4 January 2012)

The Dark Knight 3 out of 4 stars

So is this movie really a neo-conservative roman à clé? I laughed when I read an op-ed, by an author named Andrew Klavan, arguing as much when this movie came out last month (even suggesting the bat silhouette on the bat signal was really a “W”). But, after finally seeing this flick myself, I can see that he really does have a point. The parallels to the War on Terror and/or the war in Iraq are hard to deny. Heath Ledger’s Joker is nothing if not a nihilistic terrorist bent on destroying Gotham City’s (if not all of America’s or the western world’s) way of life. The local crime bosses (played by Eric Roberts and others) are basically sectarian militia leaders fighting for turf in a city that resembles pre-surge Baghdad in its levels of violence and corruption. And the methods that the good guys use to battle the bad guys frequently violate the letter and the spirit of the law. If you’re still not convinced, consider that Bruce Wayne’s principled technology guru (Morgan Freeman) resigns because he is asked to do a warrantless search of private telecommunications in order to locate the villains. Is there a political motive behind this film or is director Christopher Nolan just riffing on contemporary themes to make the story seem more up-to-the-minute? Hard to know, but just because he is making a big-budget popcorn movie doesn’t mean that he isn’t going to give us his usual helpings of myriad perspectives, deceptive illusions (perfect for a character like The Joker) and hard moral dilemmas. The film is relentlessly bleak, but one of its rare bright spots springs from one of those moral dilemmas, one involving two ferry boats and a couple of detonators. Amid all the thrills and chills, we get a fair amount of thought-provoking ideas, notably the idea that sometimes fiction and myths are necessary for people to carry on in a dark world. (Take that, mainstream media!) Thus, in a strange way, this movie shares a theme with John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. A word needs to be said about the late Heath Ledger. His portrayal of The Joker is light years away from Jack Nicholson’s turn 19 years ago, and Cesar Romero’s mugging on the 1960s TV show shouldn’t even be mentioned in the same breath. Ledger achieved something fixed between Andrew Robinson’s memorable psycho 37 years ago in Dirty Harry and our nightmare memories of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s internet videos. His performance is a tour de force of unsettling dread, all the more haunting because it comes to us from beyond the grave. (Seen 23 August 2008)

The Dark Knight Rises 3 out of 4 stars

This movie’s opening mid-air action sequence is so thrilling and so well done that my immediate thought was that maybe Christopher Nolan should be the one to direct the James Bond movies. Then, when I saw the way he portrayed a creepy old house inhabited by people with strange, dark secrets, I thought maybe he should be the one to direct a new Dark Shadows movie. But latter-day Batman fans are clearly happy that, instead of those movies, he has taken on the bleak iconic incarnation of their favorite superhero. What is striking is how little screen time the Batman cape and cowl actually get in this 165-minute movie. Not only is Christian Bale off-screen for long sections but he spends an even smaller amount of time in costume. That is wise and not only because there is something a bit juvenile about the mask and it actually distracts from the overall dark and grim tone. In the end, the movie isn’t so much “about” Batman as about the idea of Batman—or, more accurately, about the idea of heroes and symbols in general. We don’t feel Bale’s off-and-on screen absence so much because there is such a large and talented cast, including the occasional surprise of a familiar face. One could actually make the argument that the trilogy has really been more about Gary Oldman’s Jim Gordon than about Bruce Wayne. In the end, the movie arrives at one of the most satisfying conclusions of any movie of its type. As for the movie’s main overall theme, it is fascinating how downright reactionary it is. I can’t remember a blockbuster entertainment before that has so forcefully made the point that people who buy into class warfare either have malign motives or are mere dupes for forces that want to obliterate freedom. (Seen 6 October 2012)

Dark Shadows 3 out of 4 stars

Even after 200 years, he hasn’t aged a day. But enough about Alice Cooper. I honestly don’t know what people unfamiliar with Dan Curtis’s cult TV series will make of this movie, and frankly I’m too far gone to care much about them. I suppose they will see it as another Tim Burton movie, and that it most definitely is—first, foremost and entirely. Written by horror/genre-mashing specialist Seth Grahame-Smith (born five years after ABC canceled the original TV series) who worked on the story with regular Burton collaborator John August, the film is quintessentially Burtonesque with its delight in all things macabre and weird but ultimately romantic at the end of it. The exquisite Australian actor Bella Heathcote is somehow even made to look like the female heroines of such animations as The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride. Will it please long-in-the-tooth DS fans? Well, it was never going to “recreate” the Dark Shadows we knew and loved. That is impossible. But it has caught the spirit and the memory of it with such emblematic images as the violently crashing waves, the haunting train journey of the governess Victoria Winters and the operatic drama of Widows Hill—made visually heart-stopping in the trademark Burton way. (Quibble: it’s an unnecessary bow to revisionism to allow a vampire to walk around during daylight hours.) But the movie doesn’t merely evoke a plot strand or two from an old gothic soap opera. It evokes the era and the childhood/youth of those of us who were wrapped up in it. Danny Elfman’s score captures exactly the right tone, with the appropriate nod to original composer Robert Cobert. (Quibble: Would it have killed them to include Josette’s music box, one of the most evocative elements of the original?) The use of songs of (roughly) the era take us back not only to our beloved series but to that time in our lives. (Collinwood even looks a bit like the creepy old house where my best friend Eric’s family lived in 1972.) The Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin” is an inspired choice to introduce Barnabas to the 20th century. I don’t think anyone expected total narrative fidelity to some 600 hours of episodic television, but the cool thing is that the writers cared enough to play with our expectations and provide a few surprises that make us smile rather than annoy us. And Grahame-Smith and August deserve credit for giving us a couple of things no other incarnation of Dark Shadows has ever given us: 1) a satisfying reveal of Victoria Winters’s mysterious origins (this was the main tease of the original series, which somehow got forgotten by the writers as time went on) and 2) a proper and happy (at least in the Burtonesque sense) resolution of the Barnabas/Josette story—while still respecting the DS tradition ending every episode on a cliffhanger. Thank you, Tim Burton, for bringing back so many great memories and also managing to include (all too briefly) the immortal Christopher Lee and the original Barnabas (the late Jonathan Frid in his final screen appearance), as well as Josette, Angelique and Quentin (Kathryn Leigh Scott, Lara Parker and David Selby). Sequels are welcome and encouraged. [Related commentary] (Seen 11 May 2012)

A Date for Mad Mary 3 out of 4 stars

Impending nuptials have long been fertile ground for romcoms (cf. My Best Friend’s Wedding), but this is something different. While there are many funny moments in this auspicious feature debut by Darren Thornton (co-written with Colin Thornton), there is quite a bit of poignancy and drama, so it is one of those genre-elusive kind of flicks. Call it a romdramcom. In her early 20s, Mary is all at sea. She has anger management issues, especially when she drinks, and that has led to a six-month jail stint for a barroom assault. She is no sooner released when she has to confront the upcoming wedding of her childhood best friend Charlene. While the film (adapted from the play Ten Dates with Mad Mary by Yasmine Akram) appears to follow the standard plotline of the desperate search for a wedding date, it is really a story about how close friends grow up and grow apart. It is also something of portrait of working class Ireland in the wake of the Celtic Tiger years. In the title role, Seána Kerslake has deep expressive eyes that burrow into your heart. Mary is superficially unlikeable (as I was watching her, I thought of a young Olive Kitteridge from Drogheda), but Kerslake pulls off the feat of making us care about her and root for her in spite of her bad impulses and lack of a filter. Charleigh Bailey contributes a nice turn as bride-to-be Charlene, who is so controlling that she insists on writing the maid of honor’s speech for her and barely conceals the fact that Mary would not be in the wedding at all but for old times’ sake. The most likeable character turns out to be Tara Lee’s wedding videographer Jess, who proves to be an unlikely friend and support for Mary. The beauty of the film is that the characters and events follow no obvious trajectory and reveal themselves in surprising ways, just like real life. (Seen 8 July 2016)

The Day After Tomorrow 2 out of 4 stars

The good news is that the computer effects are pretty cool. Otherwise, as is usually the case with this kind of movie, we pick up all kinds of handy information that is not available outside of movies, i.e. when major catastrophes occur, they mainly affect large cities, while no one much cares what is happening in fly-over country. Or that when a sudden, huge snap freeze occurs, it doesn’t hit everywhere at the same time, but rather it follows just behind people who are scurrying to safety. And there is more silliness. When the biggest natural calamity to hit the world in 10,000 years arrives, the man who is apparently the government’s greatest human asset and his (estranged, of course) doctor wife pretty much drop everything to have a serious chat about what they have or haven’t done right in raising their son. But then the doctor’s load is fairly light; she seems to have just one patient. This is a kinder, gentler disaster movie. Often in these things, the jerks in authority (who never listen to the knowledgeable scientists) wind up dying horrible deaths. But here they merely realize the error of their ways and become contrite. Still, all is not lost. There is a fair amount of humor (intentional or otherwise) along the way. Like Americans crossing a river to flee to Mexico. Or the way that Kenneth Welsh is cast as the arrogant vice-president, apparently because of his resemblance to Dick Cheney. But what are we to make of the dim president who, as played by Perry King, who bears something of a resemblance to Al Gore? The biggest laugh, however, was in the closing credits, where a debt was acknowledged not to Gore’s book on global warming but to The Coming Global Superstorm by Art Bell and Whitley Strieber. Bell has been entertaining late-night AM radio audiences for years with the inside dish on extraterrestrials and the paranormal. Strieber, on the other hand, is summed up succinctly on at least one web page as “Well-known UFO Abductee and Author.” One mystery left unresolved by the movie: the scientists in this flick keep blaming (mostly American) politicians for causing the ice age, but they never explain exactly what caused the last one. (Seen 2 June 2004)

De battre mon coeur s’est arrêté (The Beat That My Heart Skipped) 3 out of 4 stars

One thing we learn for sure in this movie is that the Paris real estate business is really tough. If I ever realize my longtime dream of living in Paris, I will definitely make sure to pay the rent promptly. Because, if I don’t, people like Thomas Seyr and his colleagues will come in the middle of the night and do terrible things to punish me. As played by Romain Duris, Tom is intense at everything he does. That includes the aforementioned renter enforcement actions as well as bedding other men’s women and arguing with his widowed father, who insists on keeping a hand in the business even though his grip on things seems to be slipping. Tom, it turns out, also has an intensity for music, as we find out when a chance encounter rekindles an old passion for the piano, setting in motion a stark conflict between two very different worlds. Director Jacques Audiard, who previously gave us See How They Fall and A Self Made Hero, adapted this very engaging flick from a 1978 one written and directed by James Toback, which was called Fingers and starred Harvey Keitel. Duris may have echoes of the young Keitel but, as he swaggers and bops down the street to the music blaring in his headphones, he is like nothing so much as Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless, fast-forwarded 45 years. As such, he is more than easy to watch for the film’s 108-minute running time. (Seen 12 October 2005)

De-Lovely 2 out of 4 stars

It would be hard to make a bad movie about Cole Porter. I mean, all you have to do is put as many of his songs on the soundtrack and it almost doesn’t matter what’s up on the screen. Sure, it would be nice if the rest of movie were interesting and entertaining, but it would have to be pretty awful to actually detract from the music. This flick by Irwin Winkler (whose lengthy list of producer credits includes the Rocky movies) isn’t the definitive biography of Porter, but at least it is interesting and (thanks in large part to musical cameos from the likes of Robbie Williams, Elivs Costello, Alanis Morisette and Sheryl Crowe) entertaining. The filmmakers have framed the story as a dialog between the aged Porter (seemingly played by the late John Randolph) and the angel Gabriel (himself the subject of a Porter song, here played by Jonathon Pryce). It’s a bit as though Porter is Evita and Pryce is playing Che Guevara. They treat the ensuing flashbacks as a stage musical, thereby justifying an apparently conscious decision to trot out every musical biopic cliché in the book. Kevin Kline does his usual fine job, although his casting brings echoes of the somewhat similarly sexually ambivalent character he played in In & Out. That raises the question: what would this movie have been like with Joan Cusack playing Porter’s wife Linda? That would have been an interesting way to go, but Ashley Judd does just fine. Since I am always looking for insight into hot current social issues from the movies that I watch, I wondered if this film could be seen as an argument for (or against) gay marriage. Nah. It’s just a story of something that happened. It’s not a great movie, but the story is interesting. And the music is, well, de-lovely. (Seen 22 January 2002)

The Dead 3 out of 4 stars

What a remarkable way for a major filmmaker to go out. After a career (and life) like John Huston had, what kind of spiritual satisfaction he must have gotten, at the age of 80, to film one of best loved stories of one of the best loved writers of his beloved Ireland. And to have the screenplay written by his own son (Tony). And to have it star his own daughter (Anjelica). And to have it turn out to be such a poetic and beautiful meditation on life and death. It was his parting gift, as he died four months before it was released. A synopsis sounds deadly dull. There is a holiday dinner with much conversation and a few people performing their party pieces. Then the Conroys go back to their hotel, and Gretta spills out a flood of haunting memories her husband Gabriel knew nothing about, evoked by a song someone sang at the party. The emotional payoff is major. The Guardian called it the greatest Irish cast ever assembled. Donal McCann (whose film c.v. includes Cal, December Bride, Stealing Beauty, The Serpent’s Kiss and The Nephew) is the leading man. Other faces that may be familiar to those not lucky enough to have seen them on stages in Dublin and elsewhere include Dan O’Herlihy (the magnate Andrew Packard in Twin Peaks and the mysterious old man in two RoboCop movies) and a young Colm Meaney, at the point where he was about to board the starship Enterprise. Another face very familiar to Galway Film Fleadh devotees is that of Kate O’Toole, daughter of Peter and current Fleadh chairperson. A final gift from the man who gave us everything from The Maltese Falcon to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre to The African Queen to The Man Who Would Be King. (Seen 12 July 2009)

Dead Letter Office 3 out of 4 stars

This delightful serio-comedy/romance by Australia’s John Ruane takes several emotionally charged elements and then deliberately understates them to powerful effect. We have a young woman who can barely remember the father she wrote plaintive letters to as a child. And we have a South American immigrant still wrestling with demons spawned by the violence that drove him abroad. And the drably magical setting is a nearly forgotten postal department that handles letters that can’t be delivered. Its charms include a homing pigeon that lives in the P.O. because it doesn’t know where home is anymore and a file of “special cases” that include letters to God, the Universe, Heaven and other ambiguous addresses. Miranda Otto, who was alluringly daffy in Love Serenade, has just the right amount of quirkiness and wistfulness as a young woman searching for a home she’s never had. And Uruguayan born American George DelHoyo makes a convincing Chilean who is haunted by the feeling that home is something he will never have again. (Seen 21 May 1999)

Dead Man 3 out of 4 stars

Any movie that has John Hurt, Crispin Glover, and Robert Mitchum in it just has to be seen! They (along with Gabriel Byrne, Alfred Molina and others) essentially have cameos in Dead Man, Jim (Stranger Than Paradise) Jarmusch’s latest effort. Another deadpan black-and-white comedy in the inimitable Jarmuschian style, this is essentially his remake of The Paleface with Johnny Depp in the Bob Hope role. Depp is a city slicker accountant who goes west for a job but winds up making a spiritual journey. Jarmusch’s vision of the Old West is NRA heaven. Every single person packs a gun and uses it at the merest provocation. Gary Farmer (Powwow Highway) is the Native American outcast who befriends Depp, and Lance Henriksen is a hired killer (and one bad hombre) hot on his trail. The soundtrack, provided by Neil Young, consists largely of a few well-placed guitar chords. (Seen 20 May 1996)

Dead Man Walking 3 out of 4 stars

Despite the title, this is not a horror flick about zombies. It’s about capital punishment. Once you know that (and the fact that the title song was written and performed by Bruce Springsteen) then you realize that this is going to be one heavy film. But despite the film’s sober subject (and the fact that the main character is a nun), this is for the most part a very watchable movie. Yes, there are parts that are hard to watch, but you won’t feel exploited in doing so. And, yes, it does have a definite opinion on the death penalty, but to its credit you can’t be sure what that is until the very end. Such is its confidence in its position that it does an admirable job of presenting both sides of the issue. Susan Sarandon (directed by sweetie Tim Robbins) gives a very moving performance. And Sean Penn, playing yet another sleazeball, is the best he has ever been as an actor. I defy you to see Dead Man Walking and not have a spirited discussion afterwards. (Seen 1 March 1996)

Dead Poets Society 2 out of 4 stars

This is one of those movies where your opinion—and more importantly, your emotional reaction to it—has everything to do with what age you were when you saw it. It deftly evokes many ideas and emotions that consume the young—discovering oneself, rebelling, insecurity, self-absorption and seething anger at injustice in the world. Australian director Peter Weir was coming off an very strong string of films (Gallipoli, The Year of Living Dangerously, Witness, The Mosquito Coast) when he took on this 1989 American boarding school drama penned by Tom Schulman. As with so many films set in private schools—everything from Lindsay Anderson’s If… to the Harry Potter movies—the school provides an allegory for society in general. By the end, when Robin Williams’s inspiring young teacher is made the scapegoat for the tragic results of a culture of repression, we half expect the headmaster to be named Joe McCarthy. The students include Ethan Hawke, Josh Charles and Robert Sean Leonard (future star of medical drama House), who ironically bridles at having no choice but to become a doctor. His dictatorial father is Kurtwood Smith, who would later play a slightly more benign version of the character in That ’70s Show. The movie leaves no doubt that having Robin Williams as a teacher would be an absolute gas. He is the ultimate cool teacher, who lets you have class outside once in a while. The film is less convincing, however, that he would actually be that good for one’s actual education. (Seen 4 May 2014)

Dead-End Drive In 2 out of 4 stars

I’ve got to be honest here. I was half-asleep through much of this movie, which was screened at midnight. This isn’t really the movie’s fault, although lack of sleep didn’t seem to be a problem for Evil Dead II or Street Trash. Anyway, this Australian flick takes us back into Mad Max/Road Warrior territory. It is sometime a few years from now and civilization is breaking down pretty badly. The latest big movie is Rambo Takes Russia. A teenager named Crabs (“I thought I had them once, but I didn’t”) takes his girlfriend to the drive-in. But while he is having his way with her, someone rips off the tires from his car. Turns out it was the police. In fact, everybody’s getting their tires ripped off. And the drive-in has a barbed-wire, electrified fence. In other words, the powers that be have turned the drive-in into a concentration camp to better manage the unruly teen population. But Crabs (love that name!) is a rebel. He thinks of nothing but getting out. Fortunately, I managed to wake up for the grand finale, where Crabs breaks out, in one of the best (but too short) car sequences since Road Warrior. (Seen 6 June 1987)

Dean Spanley 3 out of 4 stars

This 2008 Edwardian dramedy is tailor-made for fans of all things English (i.e. certain Americans), but the fact that it is adapted from a book by Lord Dunsany should be a major clue as to what to expect—at least for those familiar with his fantasy writings. In a strange way, this is the Masterpiece Theatre equivalent of movies like Just Like Heaven or Ghost Town—although that shouldn’t put people off who didn’t care for those flicks. Even though, in the end, Dean Spanley engages in the same sort of facile pop psychology that annoys me in other movies, you don’t really realize it until it’s too late to do any harm. The cast is exceptional. As the curmudgeon of a father, Peter O’Toole shows that, even at this frail stage of his life, he still commands the screen as much as he ever did. In the title role, Sam Neill disappears into his character, a man in turns oblivious and aware of strange memories. And Bryan Brown is a delight in a nice character turn, but he also brings resonance to the references to the Boer War because of his participation in what was arguably the best movie about that war, Breaker Morant. Top billing goes to Jeremy Northam, whose main job is to react to those around him. But those reactions are all important. It is possible to see this movie as being about the desire to connect with those we have lost forever. But what it is really about is a child’s desire—and this is where Northam’s fine performance comes in—to sort out a parent’s unfinished business for him before it is too late. (Seen 17 March 2011)

Dear Wendy 2 out of 4 stars

If we didn’t know better, we could imagine that this odd little film was based on a novel by a southern writer like Flannery O’Connor and perhaps directed by someone with a wry perspective, like John Huston. And we might even wonder why Brad Dourif wasn’t cast in the lead role of the confused and deluded young man in a small (apparently southern) American town. (Actually, there was a movie like that. It was 1979’s Wise Blood.) In fact, there are enough authentic touches in this movie that it comes as a surprise that it was made by Danes in Denmark. The writer is Lars von Trier, a famous director in his own right who has given us things like the weird miniseries The Kingdom as well as the feature films Breaking the Waves and Dogville. The director is Thomas Vinterberg, whose c.v. includes the Dogma film Festen and the totally perplexing It’s All About Love. The Brad Dourif role goes to an English lad, Jamie Bell, who was so memorable in Billy Elliot. Also on hand is Bill Pullman (an American!) as the local law enforcement. In some ways, the movie feels like a throwback to 1960s films (Bonnie and Clyde comes to mind) about rebels and misfits whose lives end badly because of the heavy and overly-armed hand of the U.S. government. The 1960s feeling is enhanced by a whiff of A Clockwork Orange (as Bell and his fellow young misfits form a strange club that combines the unlikely elements of dandyism, firearms and pacifism) and some old Zombies songs on the soundtrack. We can tell early on that things will go badly, although not in the way we might think. (Things unravel, improbably enough, when an errand to deliver coffee across the town square goes spectacularly wrong.) What is the message here? The no-brainer answer is an indictment of America’s fabled gun culture. In this movie, people don’t kill people. Guns do. (Seen 5 July 2005)

Death of a President 2 out of 4 stars

The main question I had going into to this somewhat controversial feature by Gabriel Range was: is this a work of “entertainment” or is it a “political film.” I’m still not exactly sure, but I would lean toward the designation of “thought-provoking entertainment.” Constructed as a documentary looking back at a presidential assassination in October 2007 and its aftermath, the movie plays out its conceit completely straight. This could well be any number of TV news documentaries we have seen over the years. The film generates a fair amount of tension in the first reel, as we know that the president will be killed but we don’t know exactly when or how. After that, however, it gets a bit slow, as we follow the hunt for the assassin and the ensuing (over-)reaction of the government. It’s a whodunnit, but one that is awfully drawn out, sort of like an episode of CSI on Valium. For those hoping for a zinger of a political message, I’m afraid that the film plays its documentary “objectivity” to a fault. Pro-Bush and anti-Bush voices are all presented. There are some intriguing, subtle hints toward the end that things could be heading into (pre-World Trade Center) Oliver Stone territory, but that is largely left up to the imagination of the viewer. As for the “wish fulfillment/snuff film” angle that some have decried, the film festival audience was clearly primed and roused for an anti-Bush political wallow. But, interestingly, as the film’s events unfolded, in apparently deliberate echoes of the JFK assassination, the crowd quieted down and, when fake TV news people came on to announce the death of the president, there was not a sound in the cinema. (Seen 8 October 2006)

The Death of Stalin 3 out of 4 stars

Yeah, I was thinking the same thing. Is this going to be like an episode of Veep but with a higher body count? Actually, yes, that’s exactly what it’s like. The director/co-writer is Scottish political-satire genius Armando Iannucci, who hilariously took on the slimy underside of politicians and their staffers in the TV series The Thick of It, starring an impossibly sweary-mouthed pre-Doctor Who Peter Capaldi. He then did the same for U.S. audiences with the scarily prescient cable series Veep. Before I saw The Death of Stalin, I wondered how he would apply his mocking touch to six-and-a-half-decades-old history. Now I am quivering in my Eccos over not only how plausible his version of the 1953 Soviet Union is but how resonant it is to contemporary politics. The source is a graphic novel by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, but Iannucci’s familiar touches are all there: operatives chasing their own tails in constant dread of making a fatal (in this case literally so) mistake, attempting to elbow out the competition for the prize of a bit more turf, the clueless leader oblivious to the chaos he causes just out of range of his vision when he asks for something on a whim. More emphasized than in the TV ventures is the effect that this insular political striving has outside the offices and out in the real world. The bits that stick with you are the ones detailing the fear in which ordinary people live of being caught up in some capricious round-up or being caught saying (or not saying) the right thing. The cast are all brilliant. The standout is Jason Isaacs as General Georgy Zhukov, who bursts in late in the proceedings, itching to exert some pent-up military muscle in the succession wrangling. Andrea Riseborough and Rupert Friend are, respectively, strangely moving and very amusing as Stalin’s daughter and son. As Georgy Malenkov, Jeffrey Tambor is the epitome of a politician actually wanting to do the right thing but without the spine or intellect to see it through. Steve Buscemi is probably no one’s idea of Nikita Khrushchev (Simon Russell Beale, who plays Lavrentiy Beria, looks more like the Nikita I remember), but it works—right down to his New York accent amid all the various Brit ones. The political arguments that get turned inside themselves and inevitably hit their own illogical extremes cannot help but remind us of some of the best scenes in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. So it is entirely fitting and welcome that we have Michael Palin himself on board playing Vyacheslav Molotov. Yes, that’s what this is. Part Monty Python movie, part history lesson, and part frighteningly hilarious mirror held up to the worst extremes of politics and politicians. In spite of all the entertainment trappings, we get a cogent lesson on how leadership exerts itself in a political vacuum. Laugh or cry, as you see fit. (Seen 21 October 2017)

The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened? 2 out of 4 stars

One of the weirdest stories to trouble the ears of movie and comic book fans over the past several years was the report that Tim Burton was going to make a Superman movie and that it was going to star Nicolas Cage. It wasn’t just a rumor. It was being mentioned by reliable sources. On one hand, who wouldn’t get excited about Burton taking on the Man of Steel? After all, Burton is the same guy who revitalized the whole idea of comic book adaptations with his updated atmospheric take on the Dark Knight in the 1989 blockbuster Batman. But Nicolas Cage? Is he really anyone’s idea of what the Son of Krypton looks like? The project never came to fruition, and instead we eventually got Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel in 2013 and this year’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. For many of us, the Burton/Cage story receded into dim memory like a half-remembered dream. But not for Jon Schnepp. After a huge amount of investigating and interviewing and crowd-sourced fund raising (the small-type credits at the end look like a print-out of a major metropolitan phone book) he directed and released this exhaustive—and at times exhausting—documentary on the whole Superman Lives saga. We get extensive screen time with fellow fanboy Kevin Smith, who wrote the original draft, which was based on the 1990s comic book series and publicity extravaganza that was the Death of Superman. Ditto footage of producer (and onetime hairdresser) Jon Peters, who managed to sneak the Superman rights out from under the nose of an otherwise occupied Warner Bros, and Tim Burton himself, who admits that he moved to England just to get away from Jon Peters. We also get screen test footage of Cage in a Superman suit and with long hair as well as much discussion by technical guys about the cool things they were doing to make a new Superman suit. In the end it is probably all a bit too much for all but the most devoted comic book nerds, but Schnepp has definitely performed a service for all of us who were more than a bit curious about this odd interlude in the flagship DC superhero’s progress. If you watch this movie and still have questions, it’s your own fault. (Seen 30 July 2016)

Deep Impact 1 out of 4 stars

I can’t believe that I’m giving a movie that has Robert Duvall, Morgan Freeman, and Vanessa Redgrave only one star. But Duvall, who more or less plays John Glenn, seems to be still refining his character from The Apostle. And Redgrave has little to do but watch TV (in an apparent nod to Bill Gates’s monopolistic dreams, the only channel on is MSNBC) and look worried. I actually thought this was a bad Ron Howard film because 1) in the opening scenes Charles Martin Smith’s unfortunate astronomer looks strangely like Ron’s brother Clint, who is always in his films, and 2) the film aspires to the special-effects-around-a-tear-jerker formula perfected by Howard long before James Cameron’s Titanic. But the director here is Mimi Leder, whose credits lie mainly in TV (including ER) and 1997’s The Peacemaker. There is way too much about how people feel in this movie (plus a fair amount of improbable nonsense) and not nearly enough special effects. If doom is hurtling toward earth, I’ll take my chances with Bruce Willis doing Die Hard in outer space, thank you very much. (Seen 26 May 1998)

Defying Gravity 2 out of 4 stars

Technically, this film falls into the growing sub-genre of films about the evils of gays being in the closet (cf. The Delta, A Queer Story). But this one has all the earnestness and wholesomeness of a TV after-school special. The story is set in a college fraternity where the hero, Griff, is deluding himself that he is a “normal” guy despite the fact that he regularly fools around with a former frat brother, Pete, who is in love with him. The plot revolves around the dubious proposition that Griff is somehow morally responsible for a violent attack on Pete, but on the whole the movie has a very welcome outlook that is upbeat and positive. Refreshingly, straight people in this movie (with the obvious exception of the gay bashers) are generally portrayed as sympathetic and understanding, a situation that writer/director John Keitel says reflected his own coming-out experience. (Seen 8 June 1997)

The Delta 0 out of 4 stars

Set in Memphis, this first-time writing/directing effort from Ira Sachs is apparently at least partly autobiographical. It is a frustrating film for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the sound quality which was frequently marginal. Sachs suggests this was not unintended since he wanted to create “a world in which the viewer wasn’t necessarily invited.” (Huh?) The comprehension challenge is all the stiffer since one of his leading characters (Minh, an Amerasian from Saigon) speaks English with an impenetrable accent. The story, concerning an extremely brief affair between Minh and a high school student, has a sudden and unexpected ending which left me shaking my head. Fortunately, Sachs was there to explain that the point was, if I understood him correctly, that if you are gay it is bad to be in the closet because you might cause somebody else to kill somebody. (Again, huh?) (Seen 26 May 1997)

Delusion 2 out of 4 stars

Christopher Di Nunzio’s follow-up to his excellent gangster omnibus A Life Not to Follow is a very different kind of movie. The title suggests perhaps a Hitchcock homage, and there are certainly echoes of that master in its elements of suspense and forboding. It also brings to mind the early work of Roman Polanski, in its psychological component. A more interesting—albeit less obvious—comparison might be to British director Ben Wheatley (Kill List), in the way that it blends kitchen sink realism and horror. But we don’t get Wheatley’s (or, for that matter, the entire modern horror genre’s) extremes here. The early scenes create an entirely realistic portrait and life for the main character, Frank Parrillo. He is still mourning his beloved wife Isabella years after her passing and relying on the emotional support of his nephew Tommy. The two men pass the time, shoot the breeze and go for a drink, and nothing could be more ordinary or down-to-earth. The only odd thing—something Frank and Tommy seem to accept at face value with little problem—is that Frank has recently received a letter from his late wife. Well into the narrative, things turn spooky when Frank notices a woman who keeps turning up mysteriously. The payoff in Di Nunzio’s ability to create living, breathing full-blooded characters is that we care about Frank and the danger he may be incurring precisely because he is so real to us—even when things take a decidedly weird and potentially gruesome turn. As Frank, David Graziano (who was also in A Life Not to Follow) is completely natural and likeable, and we accept him totally as a grieving husband. Likewise relatable is Justin Thibault as Tommy. Female characters, by the nature of their cipher-like roles in the story, are more opaque. A notable exception is Jessy Rowe, as a good-natured waitress at Frank’s local diner. Some lovely grace notes (literally) are present on the soundtrack, thanks to the music of French composer Frederic Mauerhofer. Delusion was screened recently at the Hudson Valley International Film Festival and, if you act quickly, you can see it on Friday of this week at the Action on Film International Film Festival in Monrovia, California. (Seen 1 September 2016)

Denise Calls Up 3 out of 4 stars

A while back Almost Live did a skit about a man and a woman who are fixed up by friends, develop a relationship, and eventually break up—all by leaving each other messages on their answering machines. At the time, I thought it was a clever idea for a skit but that it went on a bit too long. After seeing Denise Calls Up, I realize that Almost Live never even scratched the surface. During practically all of the 79 minutes of this movie, we see people meet, fall in love, have sex, go through child birth, die, and mourn—all without seeing each other in person! Virtually all communication in this movie is by telephone (desk, car, cellular) or fax. (Email is strangely absent even though the characters are almost always at their computers.) The amazing thing is that it all comes off as plausible! Only minimal exaggeration is needed to portray this group of New York singles as people so caught up on their work and their gadgets that their only social interaction is over phone lines. Just when you think the premise has been taken as far as it can go, the filmmakers throw in a new twist that has you roaring. This is simply one of the funniest (and most thought provoking) movies I have ever seen. Tim Daly (Wings) stars. (And, yes, I am aware of the irony that I am sending these words to people electronically and that some of you are people I haven’t seen in months or years and that some of you I have never even met!) (Seen 3 June 1995)

The Departed 3 out of 4 stars

Wai Keung Lau and Siu Fai Mak’s 2002 movie Infernal Affairs was to violent Hong Kong action flicks what Persona was to Swedish art films. It took a standard crime flick convention, the tenuous moral and psychological tether of a cop under deep cover, and created mirror images of it that twisted and intertwined with one another with unlikely symmetry. In hindsight, I clearly underestimated that movie, which has stuck with me ever since. Having seen it in Dublin, it is a strange sensation indeed to now see a faithful remake where almost all the characters are Irish. Well, Irish-American anyway. But Martin Scorsese’s decision to set the new version in Boston (instead of his usual setting of New York) is inspired. While wildly exaggerated, the movie draws on historical tensions not only in that city but, indirectly, also in Northern Ireland. The ever-escalating cycle of violence feels all too familiar. The remake faces obstacles that the original didn’t. A minor one, which affects only those of us who saw the original, is that its faithfulness to the original undercuts the story’s strongest element: the unrelenting suspense of how things will work out. The other obstacle is the fact that the actors are all not only extremely well known but—in the cases of Jack Nicholson (especially), Alec Baldwin and Mark Wahlberg—going over the top. But that trio give this movie something the original didn’t have: a hearty sense of humor. Recently, the excellent Ray Winstone, in answer to a question on one of the BBC radio channels, said there was absolutely no swearing in the movie. Let’s see, a Scorsese film set in south Boston with no curse words. Yeah, that sounds right. The truth is that there is so much swearing in the movie that it becomes a virtual running joke. The foul-mouthed banter between Wahlberg and Baldwin is so amusing that it, among other touches, gives this movie a spirit that helps set it apart from its Asian predecessor and helps to make it an original work in its own right. (Seen 11 October 2006)

Departure 3 out of 4 stars

As we have discussed before, there is a whole subgenre of films out there about emotionally repressed English people going on holiday in warmer Mediterranean climes and eventually and joyously learning to embrace their own submerged sensual nature. This is not one of those movies. The English people in this debut feature by Andrew Steggall bring their emotional repression with them to the south of France and cling to it relentlessly. In fairness, young Elliot does his best. After all he is seething with hormones and all kinds of longing, but he has to contend with his mother Beatrice who is talking about anything and everything but the ongoing breakup of her marriage. Their mission is to pack up their French holiday home for the last time, but their hearts are clearly not in it. Beatrice takes all the displayed plates off the fine wooden dresser and then puts them all back because it looks “so bare.” She does a better job unpacking bottles of fine wine from the cave and drinking them. Into this unpromising project Elliot brings Clément (played with understated Gallic diffidence by Phénix Brossard), a young visiting Parisian he spotted swimming against the rules in the local reservoir. Clément, who it emerges has his own fraught issues to deal with, is close enough to Elliot’s age to become an object of fascination for him but still old enough to also prove a viable distraction to Beatrice. She is played UK veteran of the big and small screen Juliet Stevenson, who does a masterful job of incarnating a woman at the end of her tether but still doing her best to maintain the old stiff upper lip. Elliot is played very convincingly by Alex Lawther, who previously convinced us he really was the young Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game. He gives one of those extraordinary performances that does not seem to be a performance. His adolescent anguish feels all too real. At the same time we can also see in him the quirky old man that Elliot will someday be. As for the visuals, the photography and compositions are nothing less than artful. (Seen 16 December 2016)

Le Dernier jour (The Last Day) 2 out of 4 stars

This movie belongs to a little known French subgenre. It is little known because I just made it up. It is called films français qui m’innervent (or, as the French themselves might term it, French films that make me nuts). Plot-wise, very little happens. I suppose that it can be considered a foreign cousin to that American standard, the movie where someone spends a holiday with their family and everything goes to hell, but that makes it sound more exciting than it really is. Sensitive art student Simon comes home to spend the Christmas break with his family. Marie, an attractive fellow student, follows him home on the train. Once there, his family have various issues that they mostly don’t deal with. Something of a triangle forms among Simon, Marie and a guy in a lighthouse. There is lots of cold weather, moodiness, elliptical conversations and circumspection. Then it’s over. Fortunately, the lead role of Simon is fairly watchable since he is played Gaspard Ulliel, whose performance could be underestimated if not compared to his completely 180-degree turn as the troubled, skin-headed youth in Strayed. According to the IMDB, Ulliel will also play the young Hannibal Lecter in some sort of prequel to Silence of the Lambs. (Seen 22 February 2006)

The Descendants 3 out of 4 stars

This is the kind of movie that could have been excruciating, since it is a mixture of medical drama, soap opera and a bit of environmental melodrama. But in the hands of Alexander Payne—whose jaded but ultimately sentimental sensibility has been on view in films like Election, About Schmidt and Sideways—it is mostly easy to take. It is always hard to believe that George Clooney is just a normal guy, but age is helping him to be a credible character player. In a scene where he makes a frantic run to his neighbors’ house, he nearly looks pathetic in a way that shows more devotion to craft than ego. Shailene Woodley (The O.C., The Secret Life of the American Teenager) has a tricky role as the insolent/rebellious/troubled daughter, but she manages the transition from sitcom-style put-downs to growing maturity okay. What the movie captures nicely is the way that family members adjust and compensate for a key member who is absent. Both Clooney’s character and Woodley’s, in different ways, have to take over things that their wife and mother would normally have done. Ultimately, this is a tribute to the family and how it is important not to lose that connection. That sounds a bit sappy, but to the film’s credit, it doesn’t feel that way. (Seen 17 February 2012)

Detektor (Detector) 2 out of 4 stars

A quick plot summary of Detektor sounds like the premise for a weekly sitcom. Daniel is a psychologist who spends his days dealing with an array of wacky clients. At night he goes home, where at the age of 28 he still lives with his mother who believes (correctly) that she’s running his life. His best friend (and fellow metal detector hobbyist) is a radio personality who uses Daniel’s life as material for his morning program. Things begin to change, however, when an attractive woman shows up to collect the necklace that Daniel has found on one of his metal detecting expeditions. At the same time Daniel finds himself getting personally involved with a couple of his clients—an older Swedish man who wants someone to go fishing with and a Satanist with adroit insight into Daniel’s own problems who also has the impressive ability to kill flies using only his forehead. By the time all of this is worked out—plus a search for a long-missing farmer and a brush with a violent flautist—this Norwegian comedy/drama by Pal Jackman ties up its loose ends as neatly as any sitcom could hope to. (Seen 12 July 2001)

Devdas 2 out of 4 stars

This was my first opportunity to see a production from India’s prolific Bollywood crew. It was their films—with their colorful and energetic Hollywood heyday musical style married to opera-like heights of emotion and tragedy—that inspired Baz Luhrmann in his making of Moulin Rouge!. It turns out, as is true in so many cases, that the original is preferable to the homage. Still, this sort of thing—which is very popular in India—is an acquired taste for those of us steeped in modern western filmmaking. At three hours length (plus intermission), this spectacle requires a significant investment in time. The story is simple. The young titular hero Devdas returns home to Bengal after being educated for years in London. He was sent there in the first place to separate him from his adored girl next door, whose family is below his class-wise. But the pair are still as attached as ever. The families muck things up totally, the girl is married off to a widower, and Devdas deals with this the best way he can, which is to move into a brothel and proceed to drink himself to death. It takes a huge cast, magnificent sets and lots of singing and dancing to tell this story. And they found incredibly attractive people to play the main parts. It is no surprise to learn that this is the most expensive Indian film ever made. If you see only one Bollywood picture, this is apparently the one to see. (Seen 13 October 2002)

Devil in a Blue Dress 2 out of 4 stars

Set in the African-American community of Los Angeles in the late 1940s, this tale of mystery, deception, and murder is more than a little reminiscent of China Town and the earlier films that inspired it (sort of a noir film noir). Denzel Washington plays Easy Rawlins, the ordinary Joe who gets caught up in a plot that reaches to the highest levels of power in LA. In typical film noir fashion, he gets handed ever increasing amounts of cash by increasingly sleazy characters, leading him to ever increasing numbers of dead bodies, the occasional beating, and ultimately the title character, played by Jennifer Beals. (Anybody still remember Flashdance?). He has the additional challenge of operating in a society where separate-but-unequal is still the rule. Devil in a Blue Dress is written and directed quite competently by Carl Franklin, although the ending is so untypical of the genre that it seems to have slipped in from another movie. (Seen 11 April 1996)

The Devil’s Own 2 out of 4 stars

This movie came out only four years ago, but watching it now brings home just how much the world has changed in a short time. Since 9/11 we are much more sympathetic to Harrison Ford’s NYPD sergeant, instead of smirking at the fact that he is so principled, forthright and uncompromising that he makes Frank Serpico look like a moral waffler. Our view of New York City is altered too, as is the perception of Northern Ireland. There is even a passing reference here to Afghanistan that now gives us a shiver. This was the last film directed by Alan J. Pakula (whose death on the Long Island Expressway is mentioned twice in L.I.E.), and like other (better) films of his (Klute, All the President’s Men, Sophie’s Choice), it is quite thoughtful. It means to compare the (liberal) American attitude toward ending cycles of violence and contrasting that with a worst-case example of cyclical violence: Northern Ireland. Ford is essentially Gary Cooper standing for What Is Right, clashing head on with Pitt’s IRA gunman as the overly romanticized outlaw. The film illustrates vividly the contradiction between the liberal American principle of rejecting violence while at the same time excusing almost anything done by oppressed minorities. This could have been quite compelling, but the movie is undone by too many Hollywood action movie touches and Pitt’s Northern Ireland accent that grows increasingly annoying in each reel. He did much better as the Irish Traveler in Snatch. (Seen 16 November 2001)

Diably, Diably (Devils, Devils) 2 out of 4 stars

This 1991 film by Polish director Dorota Kedzierzawska was the first of three she has made to date. It won a Special Jury Prize in Cannes and established her as a talent to be reckoned with. This is “pure” cinema, which means 1) there is very little dialog and 2) every frame is so perfectly composed that it could be plucked out and, uh, framed. A classic story of a young girl’s sexual awakening, it captures perfectly the fear, frustration and excitement of this particular passage of life. The young lead, a budding student of ballet (a pursuit since abandoned) is lovely and a bit frightening with an intense stare that seems in keeping for a girl stuck in small village where old crones on the street mutter loudly as you pass by that you’re a slut just like your mother was. In this austere environment, it is no wonder that the gypsy camp seems so much more alluring. (Seen 15 May 1999)

I Diakritiki goitia twn arsenikwn (Mating Game) 2 out of 4 stars

Olga Malea’s amusing first feature, provocatively titled The Cow’s Orgasm, was about young country girls doing their best to get some romantic experience. By contrast, Mating Game is about sophisticated city girls (three sisters) who have plenty of romantic experience and are looking (not very successfully) for something more fulfilling. Fast-paced and frequently laugh-out-loud funny, this movie gives the impression that Greece is a place where anybody jumps into bed with anybody at anytime and fidelity is more or less defined as not having been with anybody else during the past twelve hours. At the outset, these attractive and gifted women are all involved with jerks, but within minutes through a series of separate physical mishaps (the group frequently find themselves meeting in the local emergency room) they wind up thrown together with three more men who are somewhat better than jerks. The story’s interest revolves around who will wind up with whom and what kind of choices each woman will make—with a fair amount meddling of the sisters in each other’s lives. As always, they have much better sense when someone else’s life is involved rather than their own. Personally, I found the most moving relationship the one between Laura and her hairbrush. (Seen 22 May 1999)

Diamonds Are Forever 2 out of 4 stars

Remember when Judi Dench took over as M and promptly told 007 that he was a dinosaur? Well, it was because of movies like this. Throughout the film, James Bond treats the gamely eager-to-please Jill St. John like a second-class citizen—asking for her (non-existent) husband when he first meets her and treating her like bad rubbish when she risks her life trying to help him save the world in the final reel. This was Sean Connery’s final outing as the British super-agent—at least under the Albert Broccoli/Harry Saltzman auspices. He still made a fine Bond but, if you looked closely, you could see the effort it was taking to keep him looking young. Diamonds Are Forever is Exhibit A that the Bond self-parodying began before the Roger Moore era. Indeed much of the action and mugging is so broad, it isn’t impossible to see Don Adams (as Maxwell Smart) substituting for Connery. Viewers hung up on continuity were surely confused. In seven movies, CIA agent Felix Leiter (here played by Norman Burton) has made four appearances, each time played by an actor who bears no resemblance to the others. More oddly, the bloke who played the unfortunate British contact in Tokyo in You Only Live Twice (Charles Gray) is back, playing a cartoonish version of Blofield—who isn’t even bald. American audiences may have been amused to see the Howard Hughes-like character turn out to be none other than TV host/singer/sausage magnate Jimmy Dean. And Natalie Wood’s sister Lana is on hand, briefly, as a Bond girl whose name seems to have been co-created by Al Capp: Plenty O’Toole. (Seen 7 April 2012)

Diana 1 out of 4 stars

In my defense, seeing this was my duty as a good husband. It was the Missus’s birthday and this is what she chose. The kid and I were actually happy enough to go along because Naomi Watts’s leading man was Naveen Andrews and we are fans of him since we are still in the process of finally catching up with Lost. Actually, I’ve had my eye on him as far back as his youthful turn in The Buddha of Suburbia, continuing through his tense landmine detonating scenes in The English Patient. There are landmines in this movie as well, and I kept praying desperately that one would go off. Instead, I was left to swim in comparisons to better movies. It starts out kind of like Bridget Jones’s Diary except that Princess Di doesn’t have the weight issues. Then it’s kind of like Notting Hill if Hugh Grant were a Pakistani-born heart surgeon and Julia Roberts was an airhead princess. But then it turns into every bad chick flick where they get together, break up, get together, break up ad infinitum (or so it seemed). Scenes of mass adoration of the self-aspiring queen of hearts raise the ugly specter of an eventual rock musical. The filmmaker is German-born Oliver Hirschbiegel, whose previous work includes an Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake and another treatment of a world famous person’s final days, Downfall, which has spawned endless numbers of amusingly subtitled Hitler rants on YouTube. (Seen 29 September 2013)

Diary of a Wimpy Kid 2 out of 4 stars

As an account of the challenges faced by a pre-adolescent boy in negotiating school, family and friends, I suppose this is something of an update of Leave It to Beaver. Except that, instead of Ward and June, young Zachary Gordon has (the embodiment of irresponsibility) Steve Zahn and Rachael Harris. But they barely figure. Instead of firm but loving fatherly guidance, Gordon’s character Greg is left to navigate the treacherous shoals of middle school with the help of his goofy loyal best friend Rowley and an inner monolog chronicled in the titular diary, I mean, journal. Directed by Thor Freudenthal (Hotel for Dogs), the movie is quite funny in the same manner as the current best family TV sitcoms. If it has a weakness, it is that Gordon is so articulate and personable that it is hard to believe that he wouldn’t be the most popular kid in his class, instead of the desperate social loser that he is made out to be. Standing out (and it’s no surprise) is Chloë Grace Moretz as a character who wasn’t in Jeff Kinney’s books. More sophisticated than her peers, she comes off like a young Sally Kellerman periodically whispering advice or admonitions in Greg’s ear. As the dreaded Patty Farrell, the pigtailed Laine MacNeil could give Patty McCormack a run for her money in a new version of The Bad Seed. (Seen 28 December 2011)

Il Diavolo in corpo (Devil in the Flesh) 1 out of 4 stars

I will skip past the high-minded artsy-fartsy analysis of this movie and tell you right up front what you really want to know. In this movie, there is an extremely graphic oral sex scene. I’m talking X-rated. Okay, now that that’s out of the way: This movie (by Italian director Marco Bellochlo whose films usually have body parts in the title: Fists in the Pocket and The Eyes, The Mouth) is about a young woman, who is going crazy, and the male high school student, who comes along for the ride. She is engaged to a man on trial for terrorism. Her teenage lover is mostly just horny which, when you’re a teenager, is called Love. There are some funny moments, some intentionally. (Seen 30 May 1987)

Die Another Day 2 out of 4 stars

The punk spy movie xXx tried to make the point that James Bond’s time had come and gone. But the writers of the 007 series have been cleverly making the same point since Pierce Brosnan took over the lead role. I don’t think there has been a movie since Judi Dench took over as M in which she hasn’t called Bond a dinosaur or otherwise implied that he’s been around too long. Things get even worse this time, as Bond is all but accused of treason and is forced to take it on the lam. We thus have one of the strongest starts to a Bond movie in a long, long time. Never fear, however, by the end we are well re-entrenched in the tried-and-true 007 formula. So, the main interest is in the fact that the movie is well aware that it is marking the 40-year, 20-movie anniversary of the Bond franchise. There are numerous references to the earlier films, most notably Halle Berry recreating the famous Ursula Andress coming-out-of-the-water scene from Dr. No. Other than giving die-hard film buffs a charge, this isn’t a particularly good idea since it mainly serves to remind us that we aren’t watching Sean Connery watching the babe in the swimsuit. Still, in the early scenes we do see that Brosnan can rise above the cardboard cutout that the James Bond character has mostly been since Roger Moore took over the role. But that is long forgotten by the time we get to a special effects scene in Iceland that is embarrassing for its artificiality. (It’s really bad because the stunt work has always been the Bond films’ strong suit.) But then, it has always been Bond’s problem (rather distressingly, for such a renowned lady’s man) that he tends to start strong and perform early, but doesn’t always manage to last to the end. (Seen 20 November 2002)

Different for Girls 2 out of 4 stars

Richard Spence’s Different for Girls is very similar in spirit and tone to Christopher Monger’s 1994 film, Just Like a Woman. Spence’s film does for transsexuality what Monger’s did for cross-dressing, that is, seeking simultaneously to entertain and to educate. The story involves two British school chums who are reunited after many years. One (Rupert Graves) still hasn’t gotten his act together maturity-wise. The other (Steven Mackintosh in a sensitive portrayal) is a post-operative transsexual. The humor relies not at all on coincidences, mistaken identities, or other farcical devices. And interestingly, the story is less about whether Graves can accept his friend’s new identity than it is about Mackintosh’s need to stop living in fear. In the process, we learn many things about how a sex change is accomplished as well as the problems faced by transsexuals. All in all, it is an amusing, unusual and touching love story. (Seen 31 May 1997)

Diner 3 out of 4 stars

A free movie is a free movie (thank you, Warner Bros.) even if it is 17 years old, so I ventured into the heart of the war zone that is currently Seattle (thank you, World Trade Organization) to see the inaugural screening of a mini-festival of Barry Levinson’s Baltimore movies, offered as a lead-up to his latest, Liberty Heights. If, like me, you haven’t seen Diner in 17 years, then you find yourself exclaiming things like, “Hey! I didn’t remember that Paul Reiser [Kevin Bacon] [Timothy Daly] [Ellen Barkin] was in this movie!” which (take my word for it) is really annoying to the people in the row in front of you. Anyway, after I saw this flick in 1982, I mainly remembered the funny bits: Mickey Rourke’s date finds a big surprise in the popcorn, Daniel Stern lectures his wife on keeping his records in order, Steve Guttenberg makes his fiancée pass a complex football test before he’ll marry her. Now, 17 years older and (hopefully) wiser, I am much more struck by the undercurrent of sadness about this group of young male friends desperately trying to hold on to the fun times of their youth in the face impending adulthood. Most of all, there is an indelible sense of time and place that demonstrates why the Baltimore films are so personal to writer/director Levinson. (Seen 30 November 1999)

Dirty Dancing 2 out of 4 stars

Have you ever wondered how it came to be that people stopped dancing the fox trot and started dancing the way people do now (without touching each other)? Well, it all happened one night in 1963 at a resort in the Catskills (run by Jack Weston, who is really starting to look old). Of course, this was before we lost our innocence, which means before JFK was assassinated and (according to this movie) before the Beatles became popular. As a disclaimer, 1et me say I was not disposed to like this movie because it was a last-minute substitution for a movie I really wanted to see by one of my favorite directors, Ettore Scola. Anyway, Dirty Dancing suffers from Flashdance-itis. The music and dancing are fun, but it’s too bad they tried to weave some kind of story in between. They also have trouble keeping the music and dancing in 1963; the 1980s keep creeping in. The young lady coming of age here (everyone calls her Baby) is played by Jennifer Grey, who looked familiar to me. She can give one of those looks that can pierce several layers of the earth’s crust and kill someone in China. I was trying to remember where I had seen that look before and halfway through the movie it hit me: She was Matthew Broderick’s bitchy sister in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. She may be a pretty good actress if she ever gets a real role in a real movie. Anyway, this movie would have you believe that Baby and her low-life summer vacation boyfriend (whom Daddy doesn’t like), played by Patrick Swayzie of The Outsiders and Red Dawn, not only started modern rock dancing but they also may have inspired the Civil Rights movement. At one point, a disgusting little would-be stud says to Baby, “I’m sorry you had to see that, Baby.” He could have been talking about this flick. (Seen 5 June 1987)

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels 2 out of 4 stars

This wants to be a Blake Edwards movie—and one can’t help but wonder what it would have been like if Edwards himself had actually directed it. As it is, though, it is mainly a Steve Martin movie. It’s a bit like Planes, Trains & Automobiles, in which Martin had starred the year before, except with con men, and this time Martin didn’t have to be the straight man. That role is taken by Michael Caine, sporting his best David Niven impression. Indeed, Caine’s role was originally played by Niven in the 1964 movie Bedtime Story, on which this is based, while Martin’s was played by none other than Marlon Brando. The director of this version is Frank Oz, who has made a number of offbeat comedies (What About Bob?, In & Out) over the years when not making fantasy films (The Dark Crystal) or performing as such beloved characters as Miss Piggy and Yoda. As with Edwards’s oeuvre, there is a superficial sheen of sophistication (the French Riviera locations are a plus) but, when we get down to business, it is all about the physical comedy. Its humor is by no means politically correct, especially when it comes to laughing at physical handicaps, and at times we get the suggestion that Caine and Martin could have actually been the legitimate successors to Martin and Lewis. Not to be underestimated is the woman who comes between them. As the pair’s ultimate target, Glenne Headly arrives somewhat late in the proceedings, but in comic timing she is more than a match for them. (Seen 9 March 2014)

The Disappearance of Finbar 3 out of 4 stars

This film is a coin with two sides to it. One side is the greater Dublin working (or rather non-working) class community made familiar to us in other Irish films, particularly those written by Roddy Doyle. (This one was filmed in Tallaght.) The other side is a frozen, somewhat metaphysical Lapland landscape a bit reminiscent of last year’s Cold Fever. Finbar is a lad who has a lot of expectations placed on his shoulders and he finds the burden more than he can bear. One night he vanishes, as if into thin air. Ironically, in doing so he turns himself into a legend, which amusingly looms larger and larger, finally culminating in an international hit music video that sounds like an unholy marriage of Johnny Cash and Nick Cave. The hero of the story, however, is really Finbar’s lifelong friend Danny who eventually goes on a quest to find his vanished friend. In the journey Danny and we learn something about the nature of love and what it means to leave and to be left behind. Finbar is played by Jonathan Rhys-Myers, who was last seen offing Liam Neeson in Michael Collins. (Seen 1 June 1997)

Disco Pigs 2 out of 4 stars

Adapted for the screen by Enda Walsh from his play, this film is a “relationship movie” not quite like any other you’ve ever seen. The teenagers Pig and Runt have a bond that goes back so far that the telling of it has to begin literally in the womb. Like twins kept in isolation, these two best friends and next-door neighbors are almost telepathic and have developed their own peculiar language—something like baby talk but made even more impenetrable by their Cork accents. In a way, Pig and Runt are more than like twins. They are like Siamese twins, the kind where only one of them can survive and only if they are surgically separated and one of them sacrificed. First-time director Kirsten Sheridan (daughter of James) cast the two actors who originated the characters on stage. [Oops. She actually cast one of the actors, Murphy.] Elaine Cassidy is skilled in the role of Runt, but the movie totally belongs to Cillian Murphy, who plays the smoldering human powder keg Pig. Murphy’s big bright eyes and bee-stung lips give his face a child-like and androgynous quality that haunts. His character, a young man striving to stay a child, is remotely related to and at the same time leagues away from his turn as a Dublin lad running from responsibility on Long Island in Sunburn. (Seen 15 June 2001)

Distant Voices, Still Lives 2 out of 4 stars

This much admired 1988 British film by Terence Davies falls firmly into the category of film as art. Technically, it is faultless, and it certainly doesn’t lack a cumulative emotional punch. But it keeps us at a bit of a distance through its elliptical and non-linear narrative structure. It is as though a lifetime of memories of one English family were made of glass and that glass has been shattered and we are catching different bits in random order, shard by shard. The closest American equivalent of a movie doing something similar that I can think of is George Roy Hill’s 1972 film Slaughterhouse-Five. Interestingly, this structure has the effect of making the movie feel like a filmed play. To the extent that there is dramatic tension, it mainly comes in the form of boorish men being tentatively to overtly threatening to their wives. This finds its purest form in the dark figure of Pete Postlethwaite as the family’s tightly wound powder keg of a father. He is like a victim himself, unable to understand why he is so disconnected and angry. If the various vignettes are like memories bobbing to the surface of the filmmaker’s mind, what seems to dominate the reminisces is the singing. People seem to break into song at every family event and every get-together at the pub. Indeed, I think there is more singing by the actors on this movie’s soundtrack than in Mamma Mia!. (Seen 14 October 2008)

Diva 4 out of 4 stars

Three decades later, it is difficult to appreciate how much this masterful film by Jean-Jacques Beineix (his very auspicious feature debut) changed everything as far as movies were concerned. It looked different from anything we had seen before, although now, after years of music videos and purposely stylish films, it looks more or less normal. In fact, it looks so modern that is now jarring when it displays what was, in 1981, state of the art media technology: vinyl records, reel-to-reel tape recorders and a car phone with an antenna the size of an épée. The narrative is pure Hitchcockian, although Beineix’s stylish visuals were so original that it didn’t feel like a rip-off, like the thrillers of the also stylish Brian De Palma. Baby-faced Frédéric Andréi, as a classical-music-obsessed postman, would not be mistaken for Jimmy Stewart, but he has a fetishist obsession with a singer who refuses to record her voice. Among the impressive visuals is a striking shot of a phallic lighthouse that Hitch would have particularly admired. There are not one but two MacGuffins, separate tape recordings sought after by overly aggressive shady individuals. The characters are memorable, particularly the henchman Le Curé, who has a negative opinion on everything he encounters (played by Dominique Pinon, whose otherworldly countenance has graced many a fantasy film by Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet), and Gorodish (Richard Bohringer), whose devotion to Zen keeps him perpetually on a higher plane than everyone else. This movie is so wonderful, you can’t help want to be young and living in an artsy Paris loft and hooking up with young girls who steal records from shops. (Seen 11 January 2012)

Un divan à New-York (A couch in New York) 2 out of 4 stars

This French-German-Belgian production has all the earmarks of previous romantic comedies, from It Happened One Night to While You Were Sleeping. It includes the mistaken identities, the uptight man with the obsessively ordered life (William Hurt), the young woman whose life is total chaos (Juliette Binoche), the best friends giving bad advice, etc. etc. But something strange is going on here. The dialog (mostly in English with some French) has an oddness about it. At times the plot doesn’t even try to make sense. Indeed, this quirky comedy was directed and co-written by Chantal Akerman who divides her time between personally imagined comedies like this and hard-to-watch concept films like Jeanne Diehl and Toute une nuit. Akerman has said that she wanted to capture the tone of directors like Lubitsch, Cukor, Donen, and Capra and at the same time take a humorous look at the psychiatric profession. She definitely has more success with the latter. (Seen 29 April 1996)

Divergent 2 out of 4 stars

Yet another of last year’s entries in the YA/dystopian movie category, Divergent is actually pretty good. Not Hunger Games good, but still a fairly decent bit of escapist entertainment. We know the drill by now. Seemingly ordinary teen discovers that she is exceptional and even potentially the savior of her world. Interaction with other teens and authority figures in a training setting follows. Then action sequences ensue. Based on the first novel of a trilogy by Veronica Roth (as is now de rigueur, the three books will become four movies), Neil Burger’s film presents a future city that has divided itself rigorously into castes, or factions as they are called here. (What’s going on beyond the wall surrounding the city is a mystery.) Because the factions are based on virtues, the movie has the feel of a fable or allegory. Shailene Woodley (The Fault in Our Stars) plays Tris, who is of the Abnegation faction (think Quakers) but who, when the day comes for her to choose for herself, joins Dauntless (think Cirque de Soleil in dark costumes). But her secret is that, unlike most people, she cannot have her mind controlled—something the ascendant Erudite faction (think Bond villain convention) sees as a threat. Fortunately, she has the hunky Four (Briton Theo James) as a trainer/mentor/potential love interest. This would all get too silly if Woodley wasn’t so good at playing someone we can identify with in difficult situations and if the pace didn’t keep moving so that we don’t get too much time to think about things. Also on hand are Ashley Judd, as Tris’s more-to-her-than-meets-the-eye mom, and Kate Winslet, giving off a strange Hillary Clinton vibe as the uber-confidant head of the Erudites. (Seen 2 February 2015)

Le Divorce 2 out of 4 stars

There have been so many movies over the years by “Merchant-Ivory” that casual filmgoers could be forgiven for thinking that Merchant Ivory is the name of a single person (the way some Red Dwarf fans think that Grant Naylor is one guy). Le Divorce is one more “Merchant-Ivory” film (produced by Ismail Merchant, directed by James Ivory and, as always, written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala), but it is an atypical one in that it eschews a period setting. It is a modern-day comedy of manners that explores an interesting world, that of Americans living in France or, more specifically, Paris. Having spent a year of my own life in Gaul, I can attest that something strange happens to ex-pat Yanks in the City of Light. They become affected and a bit snobbish—in other words, the sort of people who flock to Merchant-Ivory movies. The movie is populated by a host of familiar faces (Kate Hudson, Naomi Watts, Glenn Close, Sam Waterston, Stockard Channing, Bebe Neuwirth, Matthew Modine) and even includes, in a nice cinematic tip-of-the-hat, Leslie Caron of An American in Paris fame. The cultural clashes between the Americans and the French are amusing to watch, but not quite as much as observing the effect that Paris itself has on the Americans. Hudson takes to the culture so quickly that in no time she not only has a sexy, young, lover but also becomes the mistress of an older married man. Some things just never change, which is why it’s probably inevitable that the story (which almost seems an afterthought) climaxes at the Eiffel Tower. But of course. (Seen 14 December 2003)

Djöflaeyjan (Devil’s Island) 2 out of 4 stars

In Devil’s Island, director Fridrick Thor Fridricksson returns to the territory he previously mapped out in Movie Days: life in Iceland in the years following World War II. This time he focuses more critically and ruefully on American influence on Icelandic society and culture, sometimes with amusing effect. The setting is a public housing slum that that consists of abandoned American barracks. The inhabitants seem like Nordic versions of characters from a South American magic realism novel. Grandma reads cards, has visions, and is a bit kooky. Grandpa still works six days a week and clings to the old ways. Tensions develop when the aptly named grandson Baddi returns from America seemingly possessed by Elvis Presley and James Dean. The film is at turns funny and suddenly tragic. While not as lyrically beautiful as Fridricksson’s Cold Fever, Devil’s Island is further evidence of the director’s strange and wonderful way of looking at his own country. (Seen 9 July 1998)

Doctor Strange 2 out of 4 stars

Only a couple months to go until Taika Waititi’s entry into the Marvel universe with Thor: Ragnarok, and fans have already been primed for a year because of the teaser inserted into last summer’s Doctor Strange. Much of the fun of the Marvel movies is they way they are all interconnected, but even more important is how the movies—despite being made “cinematic” and updated for the current generation of movie-goers—respect the spirit of the original comic books. The recent Spider-Man flick is a bit of an understandable exception, but the Doctor Strange movie is very faithful to its source. For a start, Benedict Cumberbatch is cast perfectly. Doc Strange was all about arrogance maturing into mysterious ethereality—and that’s all right in Cumberbatch’s wheelhouse (cf. Sherlock). Not exactly a superhero in the usual comic book sense, this hero’s world was more or less a melding of a Lovecraft-like mythos with 1960s psychedelia. That is all present here, but in the hands of horror director Scott Derrickson this becomes Inception-inspired mind-bending visuals melded with a Harry Potter-reminiscent tale of wizard school (but for grown-ups). Despite the updating, the old names and references—the Cloak of Levitation, the Eye of Agamotto, Dormammu, the Dark Dimension—are all there, and the elaborate set design has room for little references to the original distinctive artwork by Steve Ditko. The one serious departure is the re-imagining of the Ancient One. A wizened old Asian man who may or may not have been able even to stand up somehow became a pale British woman who moves like a ninja. It may have been radical and/or controversial but, frankly, casting Tilda Swinton to play anybody or anything is never a mistake. And there was at least a line to explain that she was “Celtic” in a nod to Swinton’s Scottish and Irish ancestors. Maybe that is one of the best parts of a big-budget superhero like this: seeing great, serious actors who have put in years of devotion for their craft—ones like Cumberbatch, Swinton, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Mads Mikkelsen—getting a big payday. (Seen 28 August 2017)

Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief 2 out of 4 stars

Having finished his first movie, A Public Ransom, earlier this year, the apparently prolific Pablo D’Stair has already completed a second one. The word auteur comes to mind since both works definitely share a distinct style and aesthetic. Shot in black and white with a penchant for camera angles and lighting reminiscent of the young Orson Welles, D’Stair’s films are long on mood and dialog. And like Welles, D’Stair has his own virtual repertory company, with Carlyle Edwards and Helen Bonaparte again taking lead roles. Even though cell phones and computers figure significantly in the plot, the movie feels very much like a throwback to the 1940s. Even the title evokes a popular song from that era composed by Hoagy Carmichael and popularized by Betty Hutton. (Judiciously used music on the soundtrack, however, is more eclectic, with nice selections from The Sad Little Stars and Bellflur.) And genre-wise the movie is firmly in the tradition of film noir. At the same time, at an hour in length and consisting entirely of extended shots of people talking to each other, is it really a movie—as opposed to a filmed play? It’s a movie all right, as the camerawork is as much a character in the film as any of the actors. But it’s a movie that requires much attention and patience from the audience in an era when viewers expect to be stimulated by quick edits and frenetic motion and the occasional shock. Much of the challenge of this flick is that all the key action seems to occur off-camera. But for those willing to put in the work, there is a reward in a chain of intriguing mysteries and the satisfaction of working out a tricky puzzle. (Seen 15 July 2014)

Dogma 2 out of 4 stars

Despite the fact that this theological satire by Kevin Smith plays more or less like an extended, in-joke-filled skit than a real, honest-to-gosh movie, I nearly gave it three stars anyway just for its wit and the fact that it has some serious ideas to explore and argue. Religious satire is always dangerous because you’re inevitably going to tread on some people’s sensibilities, but then that is the point: to shock and provoke. Personally, I was enthralled with the film’s command of scriptural and popular religious lore and the way it insisted on viewing it all through a different lens and following certain concepts to their logical (or illogical) conclusion. Plus I found myself laughing heartily most of the way through. Interestingly, most of the theological arguments seemed to whiz right past my two companions, who (coincidentally or not) are much more familiar with Catholicism than I am, so it’s probably fair to advise potential viewers that your own mileage may vary. Basically, this is an ideas movie disguised as a adolescent humor movie. Now that Smith is a well-known director, he can get great actors and darned if a lot of them aren’t the same ones he’s used all along. It’s good to see the likes of George Carlin and Bud Cort (in small roles), and Alan Rickman is very funny indeed as The Voice of God. Also, Linda Fiorentino does well as The Last Scion, essentially a Buffy the Angel Slayer. If you can only see one end-of-millenium apocalypse movie (by the way, realistically, is anyone ever really restricted to seeing just one movie?), then this is probably the one to see. (Seen 2 December 1999)

Dolls 2 out of 4 stars

After bringing two H.P. Lovecraft tales to the bloody screen (Re-Animator and From Beyond), director Stuart Gordon opts for a change of pace. A sweet little family movie with a timeless message that can be summed up very simply: Be nice to dolls. Or else. You could die a horrible, agonizing, bloody, terrifying, awful, gory death. Mr. Gordon was there in person to explain his unique cinematic vision. One insight: his wife says that people who like From Beyond are the same people who like to “look in their handkerchiefs after blowing their noses.” (Seen 25 May 1987)

Dom s Bashenkoy (House with a Turret) 3 out of 4 stars

A black-and-white film from Ukraine about World War II refugees, this movie should be numbingly depressing. But not only is the cinematography (by Lithuanian Rimmvydas Leipus) gloriously beautiful, but the insistent progress of its eight-year-old protagonist is as inspiring as it is sometimes heartbreaking. The child actor Dmitriy Kobetskoy is amazing. Directed by Eva Neymann, this is the kind of film that lingers on some of the most distinctive faces you will ever see. It begins with a boxcar full of refugees (we don’t know where they are coming from or where they are going) and one of them is removed because she is ill. Her young son cannot be stopped in his progress around the town as he looks after their baggage, finds the hospital on his own and even sends a telegram to his grandfather, whom they were trying to reach. Everyone around him is more concerned with their own problems than with helping him, but that doesn’t deter him. He is clearly a survivor. And during the first few reels, he keeps passing the titular house with a little girl playing on its snowy porch and an old woman in front selling fish. Perhaps it is this image of a home that keeps him going. Neymann adapted the story from an autographical work by Fridrikh Gorenshtein, who was a writer on Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Nikita Mikhalkov’s A Slave of Love. (Seen 14 July 2013)

Dominick Dunne: After the Party 2 out of 4 stars

This 2008 Australian-produced documentary is your basic talking heads affair. The main talking head is Dominick Dunne himself, nearing the end of his life but still energetically involved in his career of writing about sensational murder trials. The filming coincides with the first Phil Spector murder trial and nearly becomes as much a record of that event as of Dunne and his life. With the approach taken by filmmakers Kirsty de Garis and Timothy Jolley, the film is destined to be no more and no less interesting than its subject. If anything, the movie nearly underplays how interesting Dunne was and how many famous people crossed his path. But the details are all here: his star-struck early days in Hollywood and his rise as a a major party giver and party guest, his heartbreaking divorce, his fall from Hollywood grace and descent into alcoholism followed by a personal resurrection and re-invention as a writer. Most of the emphasis goes to the effect his daughter’s murder (22-year-old Dominique Dunne, best known for her role in Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist, was strangled by her ex-boyfriend) had on him and how he wound up being a crusader against acquittals and leniency for murderers. The portrait that emerges is one of a man still driven by demons but who has found a purpose in life. We see the various murder trials he has covered through his eyes, sympathizing with him even when someone like Robert Kennedy Jr. slanders him. But Dunne was not infallible, as we see with his getting taken in by a con artist during the investigation into the death of Washington D.C. intern Chandra Levy. The strength of the movie, in the end, is its compelling story that haunts afterward. (Seen 8 May 2011)

Don Juan DeMarco 3 out of 4 stars

My friend Dayle has been trying to get me to see this movie ever since it was first released in 1995. She even gave me the video a couple of years back. Well, I have finally watched it, and the good news is, even though it’s no Anger Management, I liked it fine. The bad news is, since it is the first film I have reviewed since I revised my ratings system, it gets “only” three stars. The film’s simple idea, about a burned-out, retirement-nearing shrink treating a young man who claims to be the legendary Don Juan, has a nice appeal. The young man is so convincing that we wonder if he is telling the truth, which means this movie does for romance what Miracle on 34th Street did for gift giving. But the fundamental appeal is the actors. We have never seen the legendary Marlon Brando so likeable before. And Johnny Depp is so hot that’s no wonder that he was become the requisite romantic male figure in such fluff as Chocolat. And when he tells Brando that he recognizes him as a romantic who has lost his way, we are instantly reminded of how sexy Brando was on 1950s movie screens and how Depp is like the ghost of Brando’s past. Best of all, this flick is a great date movie, not only for young adults but also for people in middle age and beyond. (Yes!) (Seen 3 August 2003)

Don’t Look Now 3 out of 4 stars

As we were filing out of the late-night screening of this 1973 classic, one discerning filmgoer (no, it wasn’t me this time) said, “This is the masterpiece that The Man Who Fell to Earth thought it was.” Fair enough. This is clearly Nicolas Roeg’s best film, although his two before this (Performance and Walkabout) would have their adherents as well. As a horror movie, Don’t Look Now may seem tame to today’s young gore-sated audiences. But it isn’t just a horror movie. It’s also an art film and a love story. It’s also a reminder of how good scary movies can be when they rely more on mood, suspense and creepiness, leading slowly to a shock ending, rather than providing a shock every five minutes. Few movies have utilized a location (in this case, Venice) to such effect, creating an atmosphere of disorientation and labyrinthine confusion, as well as the uncertainty that comes from dealing with another language and culture. It is the rare combination of shared fright and intellectual stimulation that makes this a truly great date movie. In fact, it is actually the perfect date movie. The extended love scene between Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie has been voted many times as the most erotic scene in any movie ever—especially by women. (Seen 14 July 2006)

Dong (The Hole) 1 out of 4 stars

This is probably what film director Tsai Ming-liang said to someone over dinner one night: “Okay, here’s the idea for my new movie. Of course, it will feature the same slow, tedious, interminable moping that has by now become my trademark. But this time the movie will be a virtual compilation of my best bits from earlier films. We’ll reprise the peeping tom thing and the crying thing from Vive l’Amour, not to mention the plague thing and the rain thing and the peeing thing from The River. It will be all about doom and gloom and depression at the end of the millenium, but for a change of pace we’ll throw in some superfluous song-and-dance numbers (with cast members lip synching to songs by Grace Chang), you know, just like that English guy, what’s his name, Dennis Potter. For the heck of it, I’ll even thrown in a bit of optimism at the end.” “But, Ming-liang, who will want to go to see such a film?” “Don’t worry. There’s at least one festival-attending film fanatic out there who hasn’t missed any of my movies yet!” (Seen 28 August 1998)

Donne-moi la main (Give Me Your Hand) 2 out of 4 stars

For a road movie, we actually see very little road. The twin brothers, who are on a journey to attend their mother’s funeral in Spain, spend the film’s running time traversing a France that seems strangely undeveloped and de-populated. When they hitch a ride in a car or on a freight train or, eventually, on a passenger train, the vehicles (like many of the structures they encounter) seem oddly dilapidated. This makes one suspect that the journey may be partly, if not mostly, metaphysical. Also a bit strange is the fact that, of the numerous people they encounter (all fleetingly) along the way, none interact with the two brothers but with only one or the other of them. When Antoine, having separated from Quentin, chats with a fellow train passenger, the woman says that she was an only child and tells of the imaginary sister she created for herself. This begs us to ask, are there two brothers at all or only two warring aspects to one personality? Because the brothers look so much alike, it is hard for us to tell one from the other—despite the fact that one conveniently has a scratch above one eye. Quentin is the more outgoing one and open to encounters with women. Shy Quentin prefers only to draw comic book-like portraits in his notebook and, when he finally has an intimate encounter of his own, well, let’s just say that it is very upsetting to his brother. As a psychological drama, the movie works fine whether you choose to see it as a battle within one soul or as a portrait of how difficult it is to live with or without those we are closest to. (Seen 6 July 2010)

Donnie Darko 2 out of 4 stars

So, is this a youth angst film? Or a science fiction film? Or a suburban satire? Or a love story? Or just a film destined for cult status? Or is it all of the above? This feature by Richard Kelly is reminiscent of David Lynch in the way that it introduces fantastic elements (like time travel) and hallucinatory/dream sequences and peripheral characters who seem like they will be important, but then doesn’t quite spell out what it all means. In the end, the movie doesn’t bear too much analysis. It is quirky and haunting and best enjoyed on its own terms. Its mood, soundtrack and visuals are generally captivating and involving. The cast is good and tends to remind us of other touchstone films. Katharine Ross is on hand (as Donnie’s psychological counselor) to remind us of The Graduate. And James Duval, as the sinister apparition Frank (a sort of twisted version of Jimmy Stewart’s Harvey), reminds us of Gregg Araki’s whacked-out teenage trilogy (Totally F***ked Up, The Doom Generation and Nowhere). And Patrick Swayze is on hand, mainly, I guess, to let us know that he is still around. [Related commentary] (Seen 12 October 2002)

The Doom Generation 0 out of 4 stars

One of the delightful surprises of last year’s film festival was Gregg Araki’s Totally F***ked Up which he described tongue-in-cheek as a gay John Hughes teenage comedy. (Araki’s previous film was The Living End which was described as a gay Thelma and Louise.) Under the pretext of a guy making an amateur video of himself and his friends, Totally F***ked Up followed several teenagers through various comedic and serious adventures. It ended suddenly when the budding filmmaker (played by James Duval) committed suicide. It was a shock because it was so unexpected, but we could believe it because these things happen in real life. In retrospect, we could even see the warning signs. (It only added to the poignancy that Duval bore something of a physical resemblance to River Phoenix.) Araki is now back with another tale about teenagers and the biggest budget he has ever had. Once again he has a tongue-in-cheek description for it. The opening credits call it a “heterosexual film” which is a perverse joke since throughout the The Doom Generation there is a sexual tension between the two main male characters which, although never consummated, leads to an incredibly ugly and brutal ending. Once again, Duval is the unexpected victim. This time around, he is made to look and act like the young Keanu Reeves. His girlfriend Amy seems to be emulating Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction. The film is meant to evoke nihilistic teenage angst, but mostly it just repeats lame jokes. Every time the trio stops somewhere, some guy threatens to kill Amy (invariably calling her by some other name) because she once jilted him. Every purchase rings up as $6.66. The surnames of the main characters are Red, White, and Blue. (Get it?) Sadly, Araki seems to be yet another promising filmmaker who has reached the point of having more money to work with than ideas. (Seen 10 June 1995)

Dorian Gray 2 out of 4 stars

The first time we saw Rachel Hurd-Wood, in P.J. Hogan’s 2003 version of Peter Pan, she was dealing with a boy who refused to grow up. Six years later she was at it again, although with far less happy consequences. She plays Sybil Vane, the romantic but ill-fated young woman who has the misfortune of falling in love with reigning hottie Dorian Gray. She wanted to be Cinderella, but she wound up being Shelley Winters in A Place in the Sun. There have numerous adaptations of Oscar Wilde’s classic tale (the IMDb lists no fewer than 33 actors who have played Dorian in various film and TV productions), and casting the title role is always a tricky thing. On one hand, the actor needs to be young and attractive enough that the viewer will buy the idea that women and men cannot help but fall in thrall to him. On the other hand, the role is demanding enough to require a fairly skilled actor. Former boy band member Ben Barnes, who jumped to leads as Prince Caspian in the Narnia movies, does a fairly credible job although, depending on your own personal tastes, your mileage may vary. Most of the thespian weight is carried, however, by good old reliable Colin Firth as the man who originally leads the naive younster astray morally, thereby figuratively and literally creating a monster. Director Oliver Parker is unusually well suited to the material, having not only acted in two Hellraiser flicks but also having previously directed two other Wilde adaptations (An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest). Even his experience helming the St. Trinian’s movies seems strangely apt. The supernatural is played up, and ultimately this version is a story of ghosts and possession. And like so many horror movies these days, the final scene nearly gives the appearance of setting up a sequel. (Seen 22 April 2009)

Dot the I 2 out of 4 stars

This is another one of those movies made by film buffs for film buffs. We know this early on because it seems as though everyone is going around with a camcorder, and when the heroine (who, despite fleeing a violent relationship in Madrid, has a penchant for walking alone in dark, secluded areas at night) is regularly seen through the lens of somebody’s hidden camera. Despite the sense of menace, we aren’t quite sure if this is a suspenseful drama or a comedy. But don’t worry, the movie knows exactly what it is. It just doesn’t let you in on it until the last several minutes. In the meantime, you can ponder all the clues that keep pointing to something fatal: a hen party in a restaurant called Aux Assassins, a gift of Gabriel García Márquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold, etc., etc. We can also just watch the attractive cast, led by Mexican Gael García Bernal (Amores Perros, Y tu mamá también, The Crime of Father Amaro) playing a Brazilian. Matthew Parkill, who directed this flick, leads you to think that it’s an update to Blow Up, but it’s really closer to Deathtrap. (Seen 13 October 2003)

Doubt 2 out of 4 stars

As befits the title, crucial information is withheld in this movie so that we cannot be sure of the truth of the tricky situation at the heart of the narrative. But one thing is pretty sure. We are clearly not meant to like Sister Aloysius, the principal of a parochial school, played by Oscar-nominated Meryl Streep. She is humorless, sharp, judgmental, petty and maybe even dangerous. But is she also, as she insists, necessary for things to work? On the other hand, we are clearly meant to find the sunny, affable and approachable Father Flynn, played by Oscar-nominated Philip Seymour Hoffman, likeable, which is not exactly the same thing as actually liking him. Being an American and primed to expect certain messages from Hollywood movies, I accepted the film, written and directed by John Patrick Shanley and drawn from his play, as some sort of allegory of my country’s culture wars. Streep’s character is obviously Torquemada, Joseph McCarthy and Ken Starr all rolled into one, while Hoffman’s is either a hapless victim of a witch hunt (led by a real witch) or, at worst, someone who crossed the line but has done no real harm and, in fact, whose good works far outweigh any lapse in judgment. This is the kind of movie that spurs conversation afterward between friends, perhaps even drawing in a nearby stranger. Irish viewers may well have a different take than mine because of recent history. The two women near me in a Galway cinema were having none of my nuanced analysis. Father Flynn, they judged, was a con artist and molester who not only avoided punishment but was actually rewarded by a corrupt system. Any film that can accommodate such varying views is certainly deserving of its nomination for a writing Oscar. (Seen 11 March 2009)

Douches Froides (Cold Showers) 2 out of 4 stars

Sometimes it seems as though every French movie is a remake of François Truffaut’s Jules et Jim. Even angstry teen soap opera-y ones like this one. You could actually argue that this is really a remake of Bertrand Blier’s Get Out Your Handkerchiefs (which was, of course, essentially a remake of Jules et Jim). Actually, not even. This is a fairly run-of-the-mill entry in the teen coming-of-age genre crossed with the very French amour fou strain. The first feature (released in France in 2005) of Antony Cordier, the film’s tone is familiar to francophile film-goers: understated and naturalistic without any Hollywood-style flourishes. Young Mickael is a fairly driven young man, determined to do better than his irresponsible parents. (Their inability to pay something as basic as the bill for hot water gives the film its name—on top of the title’s other connotation of rude awakenings.) But he is stressed by an upcoming judo competition and the requirement put on him to get his weight down to qualify for the desired category. But his real stress, it emerges, is over his relationship with Vanessa, his lifelong friend who is now his sort-of girlfriend. In the loose “whatever” spirit of the young, the two of them enter into a threesome with Clément, Mickael’s teammate whose affluent father is the team’s sponsor. While not much seems to be happening on the surface, class envy and sexual jealousy are simmering underneath. The movie poster, featuring the three nude teens hugging, promises a kinkier flick than this turns out to be. The action here is almost all below the surface and emotional. In the end, its melancholy commentary on how relaxed sexual attitudes don’t necessarily lead to fulfilment has more in common with Xavier Dolan’s much more diverting Heartbeats than with Truffaut and l’amour fou. (Seen 17 October 2014)

Down Came a Blackbird 1 out of 4 stars

There are two main reasons to see Down Came a Blackbird. One is that it is about a very important topic: political torture and how it affects its victims. The other reason is that it is Raul Julia’s last film. He died nine days after shooting was completed. It is hard to watch him in this film, looking drawn and gaunt. (He had had cancer, although it was a stroke that killed him.) It is particularly eerie when the script calls for him to read a poem about death. Having said all this, I have to report that this movie is not as good as it should have been. It was directed by Jonathan Sanger whose previous effort was a World War II action movie, Code Name: Emerald. Laura Dern stars as a reporter who is arrested and tortured in a Latin American country along with her photographer boyfriend. A year later, in order to get a story for her newspaper, she finds herself checking into a clinic that helps torture victims come to terms with their experience. Vanessa Redgrave plays the Holocaust survivor who runs the clinic. It’s no surprise when Dern’s character, which has been repressing her feelings, finally opens up and lets loose emotionally. There are actually clinics like this throughout the world, and the filmmakers used them as models. The problem cinematically, however, is that in portraying torture as something that requires something resembling a 12-step program to get over (“Hi, I’m Helen and I’m a torture victim”) they run the risk of inadvertently trivializing it. It is also hard to sustain a drama on this for 100 minutes which is probably why a subplot about an apparent death squad looking for Julia’s character was included. This film gets an A for good intentions, and it’s definitely a better way to remember Raul Julia than Addams Family Values or Street Fighter. But as far as learning about torture and its consequences, you’d do better to get in touch with Amnesty International. (Seen 10 June 1995)

Dr. No 2 out of 4 stars

This is where it began. This is the archetype for the 21 James Bond movies (to date) that followed. The iconic gunsight opening. The 007 theme written by, depending on whom you believe, Monty Norman or John Barry. The flashy visuals during the opening credits. The banter with Moneypenny. The dressing down by M. The vodka martini, shaken not stirred. The megalomaniac, bloc-independent villain. The dastardly plot to be thwarted. The bad Bond girl. The good Bond girl, with the double entendre name. And the first good Bond girl was very good indeed. Ursula Andress’s emergence from the sea like the goddess Aphrodite set the bar for all future Bond women, as did her character’s name, ahem, Honey Ryder. This one is pretty tame compared to the increasingly elaborate action set pieces that became the franchise’s trademark, but it was pretty exciting given the standards of adventure films of the time. Was it apparent in 1962 that audiences would want to see this formula done and redone every couple of years or so for the next several decades? Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman could see it and profited quite well. And young boys (and maybe young women as well) had their fantasy world expanded to include formal attire, high-end casinos, sophisticated cocktails, fast cars, instant comfort with new gadgetry, willing women turning up everywhere you go and generally knowing exactly what to do in every situation. And, yes, Sean Connery was and still is the best Bond ever. (Seen 7 January 2012)

Dr. Who and the Daleks 2 out of 4 stars

As all faithful Doctor Who fans know, this 1965 movie is the answer to the trivia question (and possible bar bet winner?): what is the only screen production to feature a character named Doctor Who? As the brethren know, the hero of the long-running British sci-fi TV series has never actually be referred to as “Doctor Who,” despite the fact that that is the name of the series. He has always been known simply as “the Doctor.” But three years after the series began, the powers that be decided to cash in on the popularity of the series or, more specifically, of its chief villains, the despicable Daleks with this feature film. But make no mistake, it makes no pretense of being “canon” or having any continuity with the series. This doctor (played by Peter Cushing of Hammer Films fame) is no Time Lord from Gallifrey but rather an ordinary human earthman, who just happens to build his own time and space machine, the TARDIS, and for some reason designs it to look like a police phone box. I can imagine the ambivalence of the fans of the time. On the one hand, there would have been frustration that it did not connect with the series. On the other hand, the set design probably seemed light years ahead of the telly version—although it now looks hopelessly cheesy compared to stuff on TV today. The adventuring ensemble, led by the grandfatherly Cushing, who is surrounded by an attractive young granddaughter, her comic relief beau and another granddaughter, who is a precocious tyke, give this the feel of what Disney was putting out at the time. And, plot-wise, it plays very much like a remake of George Pal’s adaptation of H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, with the Daleks standing in for the Morlocks. (Seen 16 March 2009)

Drácula 2 out of 4 stars

Thanks to my friend Dayle, I learned some years ago that, while Tod Browning was filming his horror classic Dracula with Bela Lugosi in 1931, a different cast and crew were filming the same movie on the same sets at Universal Studios (at night while Browning used them during day) for Spanish-speaking audiences. Some people think that the Spanish version, directed by non-Spanish-speaker George Melford with an uncredited Enrique Tovar Ávalos, is actually superior to Browning’s version. According to Lupita Tovar, the Mexican actor who played Eva (Mina in the English version), in an accompanying commentary, there was a bit of competition between the two teams to produce the better movie. Visually, they are so close that it is hard to rate one very differently from the other. In terms of performances, the Spanish one is, if anything, even more melodramatic. And the cast—led in the title role by Spain’s Carlos Villar who does look impressively like Lugosi—gives the proceedings more of a Latin flair. When peasants in the Carpathian Mountains cross themselves, they seem more authentically Catholic. At the end of the day, there is a reason why Browning’s version is the classic and Melford’s is a cinematic curiosity. (Seen 23 November 2012)

Dream Boy 2 out of 4 stars

This 2008 indy flick is not without moments of beauty, but it is also rather depressing in its sense of hopelessness. Directed by James Bolton, who adapted the screenplay from Jim Grimsley’s novel, the film tells the story of two teenage boys in rural Louisiana, who are inexorably drawn to one another. Shy and withdrawn Nathan is settling into the latest of many homes where his salesman father has relocated the family. His friendly, outgoing neighbor Roy is the student driver of the local school bus. As things progress, it becomes all too clear that Nathan is coping with a terrible, overwhelming secret, but his relationship with Roy at least brings a bit of escape for him. In the final stretch, though, the movie goes pretty Southern gothic as the pair and two other friends of Roy’s explore a reputedly haunted house at night. It turns out that Nathan has brought along enough of his own ghosts to attract the most malevolent of forces. The film’s casting is quite interesting. Nathan is played by Stephan Bender, whose one previous film role was as teenage Clark Kent in Superman Returns. Roy is played by Max Roeg, the son of English directing legend Nicolas Roeg and American actor Theresa Russell. Bender and Roeg are both natural and very convincing, although the screenplay makes you want to go searching for the book to fill in some gaps. Nathan’s mom is played by Diana Scarwid (Mommie Dearest, Psycho III), Roy’s mom is played by singer Rickie Lee Jones, and Roy’s frustrated girlfriend is played by none other than recent Oscar nominee Rooney Mara. (Seen 15 January 2016)

Dream for an Insomniac 2 out of 4 stars

Jennifer Aniston hanging out in a coffee shop trading quips with her friends? Not too worry, this isn’t a TV knock-off. Aniston is playing second banana here in your basic feel-good, starry-eyed, twentysomething romantic comedy. This self-described semi-autobiographical movie by Tiffanie DeBartolo trades in some clichés of the genre (a night out leads to jail, a gay man pretends to be straight), but thankfully nothing quite happens or turns out the way you would expect. Ione Skye and Mackenzie Astin are the people who are perfect for each other, but will they get together? Seymour Cassel, sporting an Italian accent, is on hand as the owner of the café, which is basically a shrine to Frank Sinatra. Overall, Dream for an Insomniac benefits from some nice visual touches and a simple story that clearly comes from the heart. (Seen 29 January 1998)

Dream with the Fishes 2 out of 4 stars

Dream with the Fishes is a mixed bag. Like Box of Moonlight, this is essentially the story of a strange friendship where one man has a profound effect on the other. This pair is strange indeed. When we first meet Terry (David Arquette of Scream), he is trying to commit suicide. When we first meet Nick (Brad Hunt), he is making an ineffective attempt to rob a liquor store. Before long, we find that one of them is terminally ill and off they go on an odd and wild road adventure. This is all very disjointed. But when we reach the end of the road, so to speak, the film suddenly turns quite powerful and moving and almost makes up for everything we have had to go through to get there. The always-watchable Cathy Moriarty has a small role as Nick’s aunt. Finn Taylor is the writer/director. (Seen 5 June 1997)

The Dreamers 2 out of 4 stars

With Kerry and Bush spending so much time lately reliving what they were doing 30 years ago, this is the perfect moment to see this film. Recent world events also make it timely as a re-examination of the cultural and political tensions and mutual fascination between American and French people. And, in a strange way, this flick may have the perfect metaphor for the Franco-American relationship: the yanks keep peeing in French people’s sinks. This is also one of several details that will bring back a load of memories for certain Americans who lived and studied in France anywhere around the time of this film, the pivotal year 1968. (And raise the question: were we really that pretentious?) Being a Bernardo Bertolucci film, there are his usual trademark themes, including social and political conflict, love of cinema and, of course, the sex. (It is interesting to think that the film-loving protagonists of this movie could well have seen and been discussing Bertolucci’s own Before the Revolution.) Like his Last Tango in Paris, this film has become somewhat notorious because of its sexual content. It certainly is more of a turn-on than Last Tango, if only because the antics are a bit more carefree than what a nearly-fifty-year-old and emotionally devastated Marlon Brando was up to. But somehow the explicit scenes seem designed to shock a 1968 audience. The American in this cinematic ménage à trois is Michael Pitt, who was previously seen getting a bath in Hedwig and the Angry Inch. He appears to have been cast as a James Dean “type” (his character is a Nicholas Ray fan), but he bears a bit of an unfortunate resemblance to Leonardo DiCaprio. (Seen 27 January 2004)

Dreamgirls 2 out of 4 stars

Normally, I have little patience with people who dismiss movie adaptations because “the stage version was so much better.” As I always say, movies should be judged mainly on their own merits, rather than by a slavish comparison to their source material. On the other hand, I never even saw Dreamgirls on stage, but it is obvious to me that the stage version would have been so much better. The heart of this thing is obviously its performances, and live performances of this material would clearly be more sizzling than watching filmed and heavily edited ones. Beyond that, the main reason to watch and enjoy this movie is the same reason everyone watched Dynasty and Dallas in the 1980s: the prospect of a really good cat fight. By the time we reach the movie’s climax, we realize that we have wallowed in a high-wattage soap opera. But, as is made clear in the early stages, the film also has serious pretensions. It aims (and to a large extent succeeds) to give us a sense of the history of how African-American music crossed over into the largely white mainstream and (as Tom Eyen’s libretto has it) its soul was sold in the process. What clearly would have worked well for Broadway (but less well on celluloid) is the array of broadly drawn characters which are, when not thinly veiled versions of real people, types. The only one who comes across as real flesh and blood, of course, is celebrated Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson, who throws her whole heart into the flick’s best role and makes everyone around her look like so many cardboard cutouts. (Seen 6 March 2007)

Dreaming the Quiet Man 2 out of 4 stars

I’m always amazed how much affection there is for John Ford’s The Quiet Man. Among people who self-identify as Irish-Americans, it is nearly a requirement to watch this 1952 classic on St. Patrick’s Day. People in Ireland, on the other hand, have tended to sneer at it as being a Yank’s overly fond and clichéd look at the country through emerald-colored glasses. But, as this Irish-made documentary’s existence attests, even the Irish themselves have been coming around to the movie’s charms. The film, by Sé Merry Doyle, fulfills at least three simultaneous functions. It provides background and biography on Ford, exploring his Irish roots and interviewing cousins still living in County Galway. It gives a fairly thorough accounting of the genesis of the movie—a longtime dream project of Ford’s—and its production. And it presents a good talking-heads analysis of the film’s themes and meanings. Indispensable is the contribution of Maureen O’Hara, the main creative participant still surviving, whose memories are sharp and vivid. We get looks at the film’s locations as they appear today, including a quick glimpse of the ruin that was the White o’ Morn cottage. And we also get a look at some of the colorful characters inhabiting Cong, County Mayo (the stand-in for the mythical Innisfree) today. Among the numerous fascinating tidbits served up: John Wayne actually took over direction of the beach horse racing scenes when Ford fell ill, and the boxing flashback was used as an inspiration by Martin Scorsese when he made Raging Bull. Definitely a must-see for Quiet Man and John Ford fans, and of plenty of interest for just about anybody else. (Seen 27 July 2012)

The Dressmaker 2 out of 4 stars

At the risk of generalizing—and where’s the fun in not making sweeping statements about the culture of an entire country?—there is a particular quality about Australian films. They often have a tongue-in-cheek tone that make them feel like parodies, or at least comedies, when they aren’t strictly. And yet the oddly cheery mood can quickly succumb to dark drama or even tragedy before nonchalantly returning to a more whimsical tone. This tale of a woman returning to her godforsaken childhood town with a mind to settle old scores is a prime example. The screenplay is adapted from Rosalie Ham’s novel by husband-and-wife team Jocelyn Moorehouse (director of Proof, How to Make an American Quilt, A Thousand Acres and this film) and P.J. Hogan (director of Muriel’s Wedding, My Best Friend’s Wedding and the 2003 Peter Pan movie). Its cast is populated by various of Australia’s many fine actors, including some who are well known internationally (Judy Davis, Hugo Weaving, Liam Hemsworth), and led by English actor Kate Winslet as Tilly, the prodigal designer/seamstress of the title. The arid outback setting (the town appears to be no more than a few about-to-be-blown away shacks) punctuated by a constantly spinning Kansas-style windmill. Add a train platform, a few guitar strums and a mysterious avenger out of the past and, yes, the echoes of a Sergio Leone western are unmissable. Add a latter-stretch plot twist that willfully subverts a potential romance novel ending into revenge fantasy and you get the feeling of watching an academic literary exercise being worked out. The arch style makes it hard for actors to give effective performances rather than just perform bits (exhibit A: Weaving’s cross-dressing lawman), but it’s no surprise that veteran thespians Davis and Winslet do manage to break through emotionally in spite of it all. (Seen 16 April 2017)

Driving Lessons 2 out of 4 stars

We have been here before. Gawky teenager, not quite mustering the courage to break out from a stilting home life. Eccentric old woman comes into his life and raises his consciousness. Julie Walters, of course, has been here before as well. After all, she helped expose young Billy Elliot to new horizons. Here, she is doing something similar for the lad who is her son in the Harry Potter movies, Rupert Grint. Many have noted that Grint is actually a better actor than the titular fellow he is a sidekick to, and he proves that here in a performance that evokes Gordon John Sinclair in Gregory’s Girl. Screenwriter and first-time director Jeremy Brock drew from his own experiences for this film, specifically his growing up as a vicar’s son and, more interestingly, living for a year in the basement of Dame Peggy Ashcroft around the age of 20. Walters clearly has a grand time playing the grande dame, if the role doesn’t always flatter her. Looking stooped and aged, she appears much older than we have ever seen her before and light years away from the spunky housewife she played in Educating Rita. Apparently to facilitate financing and distribution for the film, Laura Linney is on hand on Grint’s smothering mother, who spouts Christian platitudes through the frozen smile on her face. The movie is sweet enough and generally enjoyable, but it attempts to weave a bit too closely to the center line between wacky and sentimental. (Seen 12 July 2006)

Drôle de Félix (The Adventures of Felix) 2 out of 4 stars

The titular hero of this picaresque road movie is a gay French man whose father was North African. His mother has recently died, he has just been laid off from the ferry line, and he is HIV positive. Still, the film is a comedy. The directors Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau (Jeanne and the Perfect Guy) mine gentle humor from every situation, even one where people in a waiting room compare drug cocktails. Felix, finding time on his hands, decides to thumb from Dieppe to Marseilles and look up the father he has never met, giving rise to a series of vignettes along the way. Typical of the running gags is the television soap opera that Felix has become addicted to and by chance or by design manages to catch every single morning while he is on the road. The overall theme of the film is not particularly subtle or original, but it is mostly indisputable: sometimes the virtual family we acquire in day-to-day living is more meaningful than our biological one. On the whole, this is a journey that is well worth the time. (Seen 1 June 2001)

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon 2 out of 4 stars

Come to think of it, my familiarity with the actual National Lampoon magazine more or less parallels my acquaintance with marijuana, i.e. I was not actually a purchaser or user but, because of where I lived as a student, I did more than occasionally get a second-hand contact high off of it. For those of us who were university students during the first half of the 1970s, the mag was indeed virtually ubiquitous. And looking back it is easy to see how much it affected a whole generation’s culture—and that of subsequent cohorts. Nothing was sacred and, I suppose, for young people whose parents had considered a good many things sacred, that was a lot of the attraction. A lot of the humor was blatantly sexist, racist, profane and indecent—but it was okay because it was all meant to be hip and ironic and self-aware. This documentary by Douglas Tirola does a fine job of bringing it all back and explaining what went on behind the scenes. Interestingly, it appears that what went on behind the scenes was pretty much exactly what we imagined it to be. The flick functions as a virtual Rosetta stone of six-degrees-of-separation for late 20th century popular culture. The magazine and its offshoots tie together Second City, the original cast of Saturday Night Live, filmmakers like John Landis, Ivan Reitman and John Hughes and even future conservative pundit P.J. O’Rourke. And, yes, even Mr. Six Degrees himself, Kevin Bacon, whose first big screen role was as Chip in Animal House. It’s a bit of a shock to be reminded how crude it all was, but there’s no harm in that—in addition to just wallowing in the nostalgia. The human story that threads through it all, is that of the magazine’s ill-fated co-founder Doug Kenney. One wishes that his intriguing story could be fleshed out even more. But then maybe what we see here is all that is left of him. (Seen 13 October 2015)

Drunks 3 out of 4 stars

When you think about it, a movie about an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting is an actor’s wet dream. I mean, it’s just one extremely dramatic soliloquy after another. No wonder director Peter Cohn was able to get such major stars as Faye Dunaway, Diane Wiest, Amanda Plummer, and Howard Rollins for his first film. Through the course of the movie, they and many others get to emote to their heart’s content, all with their own tragic story. (I can already see this as a musical on Broadway!) Interestingly, the juiciest role doesn’t go to one of the acting heavyweights but instead to comedian/actor Richard Lewis as Jim, who leaves the meeting early so he can have a long evening of dramatically falling off the wagon. (Was he inspired by his cameo in Leaving Las Vegas?) But the scene-stealer in this movie crowded with scene sharks is Spalding Gray as the intellectual beer lover doing his best to convince everyone else that he’s there purely by accident. (Seen 19 May 1996)

The Dukes of Hazzard 1 out of 4 stars

Don’t you just hate it when Hollywood takes a beloved classic and then remakes it, cynically, with loads of gratuitous car chases, corny humor and shameless titillation? Of course, in this case, it’s not cynical because the studio is merely being faithful to the source material. I used to see snippets of the early 1980s TV series at my neighbors’ house but, as far as I could tell, it could have been the same episode on every week. And to that extent, the movie seems reverential enough, since it seems like every other movie aimed at its particular demographic. (Hmmm, endless car chases and women in skimpy clothing. I’m guessing the demographic is, um, young males?) The main stars seem not to have seen the TV series or were misinformed about what movie they were making. Burt Reynolds is amusing enough but is nothing like anyone who would have the name “Boss Hogg.” Johnny Knoxville looks dazed, as if still recovering from a Jackass stunt gone wrong. And Seann William Scott mugs desperately, as though he were making yet one more American Pie movie. Which is just as well since director Jay Chandrasekhar seems to be under a similar impression. There are some rewarding moments, however, particularly when the plot has Bo and Luke leave their backwoods paradise for Atlanta, where they experience such 21st century phenomena as taking their turbo-charged wonder car through crawling rush hour traffic and getting politically correct reactions to the Confederate flag on their car’s rooftop. They even discover that there are African-Americans in the American south! (Seen 22 January 2002)

Dunkirk 3 out of 4 stars

If nothing else, this heart-pounding summer blockbuster is a useful reminder that, in the past century, there have been British withdrawals from Europe much more dramatic than the recent Brexit referendum. This flick has everything you want from a war movie—action, excitement, personal drama and a history lesson. Because writer/director Christopher Nolan is of the filmmaker generation that he is, the movie has its thrill ride tendencies. And because he is Christopher Nolan (Memento, Inception, Interstellar and The Dark Knight trilogy), he is compelled to do something clever timewise with the narrative. In this case, he switches between three different narratives that span, respectively, a week, a day and an hour leading up to the story’s climax. This is a case, though, where Nolan would have been better off dispensing with the time-shifting conceit altogether and simply sticking to one overall chronological narrative. This is because the way he tells the story really requires the viewer to already be familiar with the whole 1940 Dunkirk episode. Those who are not are likely to just be confused. Having said that, it will do little or nothing to detract from an emotionally involving story that allows the viewer to feel what it is like to be under attack by a modern 20th century military. Our main point-of-view character is Fionn Whitehead who, like his fellow ground troops, spends the movie desperately focused on his survival. The two unmitigated heroes of the piece are Tom Hardy, as a selfless Spitfire pilot, and Mark Rylance, as a civilian boater, who modestly but admirably heeds the call of duty. (In what now appears to be a running joke, Nolan again hides Hardy’s face with a mask. In The Dark Knight Rises it was the villain Bane’s mask. Here it is a pilot’s mask.) In a more patriotic age, the movie might have ended with newsreel footage of Winston Churchill’s memorable “We shall fight on the beaches” speech. More effectively, though, he puts Churchill’s words in the mouth of a shaken young soldier—having just been through the kind of hell few people ever have to confront in their lives—reading aloud from a newspaper. The question of what makes a hero is central to the theme of this movie. Sometimes, it seems, doing your best and giving your all and just surviving is heroism enough. (Seen 4 August 2017)

The Dying Gaul 2 out of 4 stars

The title refers to a sculpture within a film within a film. The titular young Gaul has been immortalized and (literally) idolized as a statue by one of his enemies (the Romans), i.e. the very people that killed him. Hmmm. Could something similar being going to happen to one of the characters in this movie? The writer and (first-time) director is Craig Lucas, who adapted it from his own play. He previously adapted his own plays for the films Longtime Companion, Prelude to a Kiss and Reckless. One guesses that Lucas’s previous experiences with Hollywood studios did not always go pleasantly, given the rather bitter picture he paints here of the screenwriter’s lot. This is one of those Hollywood insider movies where the screenwriter takes it up the, um, derrière. Quite literally. It’s one of those movies that are hard to tell where it’s going, and that’s really the main thing it has going for it. Comparisons and descriptions (like the ones in the festival program) are more misleading than helpful. Suffice it to say that this is a fairly intense psychological drama. The cast is particularly good. Campbell Scott (who was also a producer) seems to have aged into an older Anthony Perksins, as he plays one of those bullying jerks one encounters in any large organization. Peter Sarsgaard is convincing and totally unrecognizable from the role he played in, say, Shattered Glass. And Patricia Clarkson is so appealing that we cannot decide whether to love her or fear her. (Seen 7 July 2005)

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