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1987-2013
Scott Larson


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E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial 4 out of 4 stars

If Steven Spielberg hadn’t taken a mind to taking on the Holocaust (and doing it well, with Schindler’s List), this film would still be his masterpiece and, consequently, on my top ten list of English language films. Seven years after Jaws (and one year after Raiders of the Lost Ark), we already knew well that Spielberg was a master filmmaker. And five years after Close Encounters of the Third Kind, we were aware that the man had a vast vision of the worlds he was creating on screen. What was revelatory about E.T. was the way that Spielberg could design a film as an exquisite work of art without you noticing because he was also such a moviehouse crowd pleaser. E.T. starts out like a monster movie, then turns into a kids adventure flick and then winds up being a grand statement on the human condition. That statement may seem a bit sappy to cynical eyes, but it is definitely heartfelt and brimming with optimism. It is interesting to see it again at this distance (has it been a quarter-century already!) and view the paranoid vision of government surveillance and intrusion in light of the ongoing debate over the Patriot Act. But before anyone embraces or condemns the movie as so much liberal codswallop, consider that ultimately the government people turn out to be concerned and decent, if definitely overbearing and blundering. That is consistent with the movie’s theme of how things or people that we fear, because we don’t know much about them, can well turn out to be little different than ourselves. And further consider this: E.T. is a movie about a being who comes down to earth, teaches us about love, dies, comes back to life and then returns to heaven. This movie, which was as groundbreaking for its portrayal of 1980s children and suburban life as it was for its special effects, is firmly entrenched in at least 2,000 years of western culture. (Seen 12 January 2007)

Earthbound 3 out of 4 stars

Here is another comedy about a comic book/sci-fi nerd. But this one has a difference. As a child, Joe shared a love of comic books with his writer father, particularly a series by the dad about a father and son who escaped their occupied planet until it could be liberated by a rebellion. On his deathbed, Joe’s dad (David Morrissey) tells him that the story is actually true, and Joe grows up believing he is from the planet Zalaxon. Joe, as played by Rafe Spall (son of Timothy), whose other gig this year was in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, makes a perfect nerd and is downright heartbreaking, as events conspire to show that he has been living his entire life under a delusion. How long can and should we hold onto faith in things that cannot be proved? The movie wittily poses that fundamental question, but mostly it engages our emotions while thoroughly entertaining us. Jenn Murray, who had the sinister title role in Dorothy Mills, is the ideal nerd’s dream girl. Also standing out are Aoife Duffin as Murray’s daffy friend (who gets some of the best lines) and Carrie Crowley (didn’t she used to host a chat show on RTÉ?) as a mysterious woman from Joe’s dad’s past. (Seen 13 July 2012)

Easier with Practice 2 out of 4 stars

The first writing and directing effort from Kyle Patrick Alvarez, he adapted this film from a GQ article written by Davy Rothbart, a contributor to, among other things, NPR’s This American Life. It is assured and competent in the way of many American independent films. And the cast is quite good. The star, Brian Geraghty, is familiar if not famous, although that may be changing. He has appeared in movies like Jarhead and We Are Marshall and, currently, The Hurt Locker. If I seem to be avoiding talking about the plot, there is a reason. It’s one of those movies where the less you know going in, the better off you are. In a nutshell, Geraghty plays an office temp and minor writer, who finds himself involved in an anonymous but intense and long-lasting phone sex relationship. In telling the story, Alvarez paints an effective portrait of the tension between reality and fantasy. We all know that the most alluring lover is the one who isn’t actually there, even more so when our imagination also provides the face and the body. The problem, of course, is that reality can’t live up to fantasy, but fantasy can’t satisfy like reality. How will it all end? For such a low-key film, it manages to build quite a bit of suspense. (Seen 8 July 2009)

East Side Story 2 out of 4 stars

Who would have thought that Joseph Stalin, the murderous architect of the Soviet gulag, would turn out to have been a song-and-dance aficionado? But apparently it’s true. This thoroughly entertaining documentary on the history of film musicals in the old Soviet bloc informs us that in Lenin’s copious writings there was virtually nothing said about entertainment. Stalin, on the other hand, enjoyed Hollywood-style musical comedies and encouraged their production during his regime. The clips show that these are eerily similar to Hollywood fare of the time but with the appropriate socialist touches. It’s kind of like watching Hollywood musicals but in the Bizarro world. The Soviet films have wonderful names like Volga, Volga and Tractor Drivers. The 1960s musical Hot Summer looks like a cross between Bye Bye Birdie and West Side Story. Surprisingly, however, most of these types of films came from East Germany. One of the most popular was a comedy called My Wife Wants to Sing in which Doris Day would not have been out of place. The film illustrates one benefit of socialism. Despite public clamoring for a sequel, which the director was going to call My Wife Is a Star, the bureaucrats had no incentive to authorize one and so didn’t. The director of this delightful German production is Romanian Dana Ranga. (Seen 2 June 1997)

Eastern College 2 out of 4 stars

When young Ben Braddock confronted that scary crossroads between the end of student life and the beginning of true adulthood in Mike Nichols’s The Graduate, he went home and had an affair with one of his parents’ friends. The four young men in this film follow the more traditional route of partying hard all summer. Eastern College is one more movie that owes a debt to Fellini’s I Vitelloni. It has the trappings of a raunchy college comedy à la Animal House or even a Judd Apatow romcom but, despite the occasional gross-out touches, it aspires to say something about this particular time of life and about growing up. And, while many vignettes may seem outlandish, they ultimately have the feel of things that probably actually have happened or at least could have happened. Overall, the movie feels like what might have resulted if an indy filmmaker like Whit Stillman had taken on a slacker comedy. Particularly nice performances are turned in by Noah Applebaum, as the aspiring actor who chokes at taking the next step with the girl who fancies him, and Jonathan Dicks, as the most thoughtful and sensitive of the lot who becomes involved in a campaign to save the titular arts school from being turned into a business school. Writer/director James Frances Flynn turns up as a houseguest named Skydive. The film, which has traveled the festival circuit, is slated for a direct-to-DVD release in mid-September. Recent university grads will almost certainly relate. Best line: “You have a PhD, right?” (Seen 19 August 2009)

Easy Virtue 2 out of 4 stars

People, who were looking forward to a movie remake of Brideshead Revisited but didn’t think that Julian Jarrold’s recent attempt quite fit the bill, might want to give this flick a look. No, it’s not another Evelyn Waugh adaptation. It’s an update to a Noel Coward play. If that sounds intriguing, consider also that the director is Australian Stephan Elliott, who gave us the delightful The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert a decade and a half ago. But, if we are reasonably primed for a caustically witty good time, we are disappointed to find the proceedings are surprisingly subdued. Erstwhile boy band singer Ben Barnes (now best known as the titular Prince Caspian) is suitably callow as the young Englishman who surprises his stuffy mother by bringing home a sudden bride after an oat-sewing excursion to the south of France. And Jessica Biel really gets into her role as the flamboyant American adventuress. And Kristin Scott Thomas is more than up to the challenge of being the uptight lady to the manor born—although the movie causes her to suffer in comparison to Emma Thompson’s masterful turn in the aforementioned Brideshead. I suppose the problem comes down to Colin Firth, inexplicably cast as the bitter war survivor who is meant to keep shaking things up by speaking the uncomfortable truths that the proper English are meant to avoid. There are a lot of actors who could have carried this off, but the man who has become inseparable from Jane Austin’s verbally reticent Mr. Darcy is apparently not one of them. (Seen 11 April 2009)

Eating Out 2 out of 4 stars

A quick check with The Internet Movie Database confirms what I suspected. With the notable exception of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, most movies with the word “eating” in the title are not the sort you would be comfortable watching with your grandmother. Or with your grandchild. In many ways, this low-budget flick by Q. Allan Brocka is just an old-fashioned romantic screwball comedy. Okay, maybe not old-fashioned. Between the jokes, there is plenty of soft-core hot and heavy action. As with any good standard rom com, things center around a deception that would almost never occur in real life. Caleb, who is straight and is roommates with openly gay Kyle, is attracted to Kyle’s friend Gwen. But Gwen is a “fag hag” who finds herself attracted only to guys who turn out to be gay. Meanwhile, Kyle is secretly in love with Gwen’s ex-boyfriend Marc, who (and if you’ve been paying attention, you already know this) is gay. So, Caleb does what any straight man would do in that situation. He pretends to be gay and starts dating Marc. Most of the interest the film generates is over whether Caleb’s plan will actually work or if he will get “converted,” since after all Marc is much cuter and more interesting and generally nicer than Gwen. I’m afraid that one casualty of the increasing social acceptance of the gay community is the obligatory awkward dinner scene, in which the protagonist has to juggle multiple deceptions in front of the boss/parents/other authority figure. The joke here turns out to be that Caleb’s parents are absolutely delighted when (to his chagrin) he is “outed” between courses. The centerpiece of the film is an extended sex scene involving two men, a woman and telephone. But, at the screening I attended, the hottest homoerotic scene in the movie was seen by just one viewer, ironically the only straight guy in the audience. This is because (and let this be a lesson to everyone) it came after the final credits. (Seen 15 October 2004)

Edge of Seventeen 2 out of 4 stars

A couple of things that frequently amuse me about teenage coming-out movies: 1) the subtle implication that adolescence would just be a breeze if only one weren’t gay, and 2) the depiction of most straight characters as dull, slow, and uninteresting, while gay characters are exciting, vibrant, and lots of fun to be around. Of course, this can be forgiven since events are seen from the point of view of the protagonist (in this case, Eric played affectingly by Chris Stafford) and this is surely how the world seems to him. Or, more to the point, this is how it seemed to screenwriter Todd Stephens, who based the story on his own experiences as a teenager in Ohio midway through the Reagan Administration. Stephens and director David Moreton do a nice job of showing Eric’s awkward metamorphosis from a confused and frustrated youth to a blossoming charmer finding his own identity. The early dialog between Eric and his female best friend is so dead-on typical of the self-conscious way teens really talk that it’s almost painful to hear. By the time Eric has remade himself in the image of Boy George and is chatting up guys in the local gay bar (run by Lea DeLaria of Homo Heights), he’s made a convincing transformation. (Seen 4 May 1999)

EDtv 2 out of 4 stars

This is about a fun-loving good ol’ boy who, through a strange twist of events, finds every embarrassing detail of his private life exposed 24 hours a day to the prurient delight of an otherwise bored mass TV audience. Wait, no, sorry. That’s the Clinton Administration. This movie is about an “average Joe” who thinks it might be cool to be famous and then changes his mind. But since this is a Hollywood flick in 1999, it can’t ignore the Clinton thing entirely, and so we have an impassioned plea at the end for the media (and presumably special prosecutors) to just stay out of people’s private lives. Unless, course, you’re doing it to get back at someone really bad. (Larry Flynt, take note.) Appropriately, the film is populated by lots of faces that we know originally, if not primarily, from our own TV viewing, and it is directed by Ron Howard, who himself should know a thing or two about growing up in the glare of the TV cameras. EDtv is entertaining enough, but if I seem a bit cool toward it, it’s because 1) I can’t get worked up about Hollywood’s crocodile tears over the tribulations of fame and publicity and 2) it is actually a remake of a Canadian movie (Louis 19 le roi des ondes) that I dearly loved and which was much better. But Hollywood couldn’t just distribute that film because it had no big name stars and, worse, it was in French. Quel dommage! (Seen 30 March 1999)

Les Égarés (Strayed) 2 out of 4 stars

The difference between suspenseful American movies and suspenseful French movies is that with American movies you actually know what to expect; you just don’t know when to expect it. With suspenseful French movies you actually don’t know what to expect. A case in point is this possible thriller/possible love story by André Téchiné (Wild Reeds). Set in the midst of the fall of France in 1940, this story of a young widow, with two children, fleeing Paris is fraught with a low-level but palpable tension. The trio hook up with a mysterious young man who turns out to be very resourceful and more than a bit paranoid. Living in isolation in a country house they find abandoned, the new family dynamics become complicated, to say the least. This is the kind of movie that keeps you guessing about how things will turn out, and a bit surprised when you find out. As the mother, the beautiful Emmanuelle Béart is the school teacher every boy (and everyone who was ever a boy) wishes he had. As the young man, Gaspard Ulliel is tightly wound and strangely charismatic. By the end, he also turns out to be the luckiest young actor who ever lived. (Seen 13 October 2005)

Eight Days a Week 2 out of 4 stars

Yet another US independent writing/directing debut (by Michael Davis), this is a teen comedy with a heart. Having no apparent connection to the Beatles song of the same name, this is the tale of a nerdy adolescent who has lost his heart to the comely nymph across the street. She, of course, doesn’t know he exists and is too busy dating the biggest jock in school to really notice him. Inspired by a story from his grandfather, our hero decides to demonstrate his love by keeping a vigil on his love object’s front lawn and winds up spending the entire summer there. This gives him an opportunity to study his neighbors in-depth and allows the film to give more than a nod to Hitchcock’s Rear Window. This movie is more candid than most about male adolescent preoccupations, so there is a fair amount of discussion of erections and masturbation, but the overall tone is actually rather romantic. The voice-over narration and wry observations make this something like an R-rated The Wonder Years. (Seen 6 June 1997)

101 Reykjavík 2 out of 4 stars

This is essentially a coming-of-age story. The catch is that the person coming of age appears to be about 30 years old and is still living with his mother. Hlynur looks a bit like Dana Carvey, but he definitely has slacker written all over him. Most every Icelandic film I have seen has had a quirky, offbeat humor about it, and this is no exception, with most of the chuckles coming from the Hlynur’s lifestyle, which consists mainly of sleeping most of the day, cruising porn sites on the Internet and hanging out in pubs with his mates to all hours of the night. The film is helped immensely by the participation of Spanish star Victoria Abril, who plays a flamenco teacher named Lola Milagros. This moniker gives rise to all kinds of soundtrack renditions of the old Kinks song Lola, including a flamenco one. And the song’s gender-bending lyrics (not actually heard here) are completely compatible with the somewhat (excuse the expression) kinky plot line. This flick deserves one star just for having Abril in it, a second one for having Abril in a love scene with a man, and a third one for a love scene with a woman. (Seen 28 May 2001)

Election 3 out of 4 stars

Attention, parents: The good news is that this delightfully cynical high school comedy does not portray any teenagers slaughtering or getting slaughtered. On the other hand, it has virtually no role models worth emulating. But hey, that’s your job anyway! What this twisted fable about an escalating test of wills between an apparently model teacher (Matthew Broderick) and an evidently model student (Reese Witherspoon) does have is an unusually intelligent take on high school, human nature, and political, professional and personal foibles. Witherspoon is a revelation as Tracy Flick (a surname that appears to have been chosen for what happens when it is scrunched together in capital letters on a political poster). An obsessive overachiever, she is something of a cinematic cousin to Rushmore’s Max Fischer. But she’s really more of a junior version of Nicole Kidman’s character in To Die For with a bit of Lolita thrown in for good measure. Broderick is likewise perfect as a popular teacher who finds it easier to lecture on morals and ethics than to apply them personally. Chris Klein is affecting as an impossibly sweet-natured jock, although he seems to have prepared for the role by watching lots of old Keanu Reeves movies. Refreshingly, Election avoids simplistic stereotypes, and it makes its points in thoughtful ways rather than beating you over the head. Moreover, it’s just plain funny. (Seen 7 May 1999)

Elephant 2 out of 4 stars

Writer/director Gus Van Sant has said that the title of this movie comes from the expression about the elephant in the room that nobody talks about. The funny thing is that in this flick, a cinematic return to Van Sant’s intimate portraits of troubled kids of his earlier days, doesn’t really “talk” about the problem either. It’s basically a fictionalized docudrama (if one can use such a term) that recreates the Columbine massacre (transplanted here from Colorado to Oregon) as methodically and relentlessly as Van Sant reshot Hitchcock’s Psycho. In terms of understanding the tragedy, we really don’t get any more information than we did from newspaper and magazine articles published in the event’s aftermath. Still, for what it is, the film is a cinematic work of art. Long tracking shots and haunting classical melodies on the soundtrack provide eeriness and poignancy to scenes of extremely ordinary goings-on in an American high school. The young cast is particularly effective, mainly because they all seem to be playing themselves. The only familiar face is Timothy Bottoms, as a student’s father, who strangely seems to have aged into looking like George W. Bush. As much as we want the movie to “explain” things to us, it refuses and, in the end, gives us instead an ethereal meditation on the randomness of death and life. (Seen 18 February 2004)

The Elephant Man 4 out of 4 stars

Years before Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive, if David Lynch was known at all, he was “that guy who made Eraserhead.” He seemed a strange choice to direct a biopic about a man who had lately become well known to audiences because of a celebrated stage play. Even stranger was that Mel Brooks, whose filmmaking work up to that point was highlighted by Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein and a little thing called The Producers, would be executive producer of this most serious of dramas. The convergence of talents, it was immediately clear, was nothing short of inspired. As the haunting hallucinatory opening scenes demonstrate, Lynch was more than ready to expand on his idea from Eraserhead about a rather unusual baby. Shot in the style of a 1930s horror movie, black and white had never looked so glorious. Nothing Lynch has done since has matched this movie. Indeed, only one other of his movies, 1999’s The Straight Story, has approached it in terms of beauty and sweetness. In addition to being a visual masterpiece, The Elephant Man is also a showcase for great British actors, with Anthony Hopkins, John Gielgud and Wendy Hiller doing their usual fine work. Truly extraordinary, however, is John Hurt (the screening I saw was part of a Cork Film Fest tribute to him), who against all odds under a massive amount of makeup, makes his character heartachingly human. When we look in his we can actually see Hurt, and he and the character and his soul are all one. (Seen 13 October 2003)

The 11th hour 1 out of 4 stars

This is a prime example of the movie genre I call advocacy cinema. (Strangely, this extremely useful and descriptive term does not seem to have caught on with anyone else.) In simplest terms, advocacy cinema denotes films that are intended to make the viewer go out and vote a certain way and/or give money and time to certain organizations. It does not attempt to be, in the oft invoked tagline of Fox News, fair and balanced. There is no on-the-one-hand/on-the-other-hand discussion of issues. And, by this, I do not mean merely that the filmmakers brought in no global warming skeptics but that there is no hint that there might be varying viewpoints on the best ways to deal with climate change. The film, co-written by directors Nadia Conners and Leila Conners Petersen and producer/narrator Leonardo DiCaprio, follows a narrative arc similar to that of An Inconvenient Truth. It spends the first half painting the grimmest of pictures of the ecological and meteorological state of the world—with endless footage of crashing glacier ice, wildfires, strip mining, hurricanes, floods ad infinitum—and then winds up with rosy, if cursory, exultation of the new kinds of thinking and new kinds of technology that will save us. The film seems to want to preach beyond the already converted. While decrying the general shortsightedness of government, it avoids the hard shots at the Bush administration that one might have expected and its logical sympathetic audience would have longed for. But people not already on board will be less impressed by the bright we-can-do-it-if-we-all-just-work-together cheeriness of the final reel than by the early stages which argues that the Industrial Revolution was a mistake and that we should never have moved beyond agrarian societies. And smart alecks will wonder how much CO2 was dumped into the atmosphere during the spectacular aerial shots of nature’s beauty. If An Inconvenient Truth was really about Al Gore, then this movie, despite all his good intentions, is all about DiCaprio—about how serious he is, how concerned he is, how thoughtful he is. Moreover, despite all the ribbing he has taken over the years for being wooden or robotic, Gore was actually interesting to watch and listen to over the course of his film. The 11th Hour’s parade of talking heads, however personable and articulate, grow wearing in the course of 95 long minutes. (Seen 15 October 2007)

Elizabeth 2 out of 4 stars

When you divide your time between two continents, some movies just fall between the cracks. Elizabeth was one of those, but I finally caught up with it in Seattle. Given Elizabeth I’s long and illustrious life, I was expecting a sprawling historical epic, so I was surprised when the film turned out actually to cover a mere seven-year period early in her life—which, thanks to the magic of movie-making, seems more like a few weeks. This movie kept reminding me of other movies, and not just because we have Joseph Fiennes showing off his chest hair and seducing women just as he would in Shakespeare in Love. When Elizabeth wanders the dark halls of her castle with threats in every shadow and people constantly comparing her unfavorably to her predecessor, this movie is like Rebecca. And when our heroine comes through a baptism of fire to don a costume and take a nom de guerre (“The Virgin Queen”)—not to mention the incredibly dark lighting—it is like Batman. And when all of Elizabeth’s enemies are dispatched one night in simultaneous and bloody fashion, it is like The Godfather. Wait, no, it’s actually like The Godfather II with Cate Blanchett in the Al Pacino role! Now we know where Shakespeare really got his inspiration! (Seen 2 May 1999)

Elizabethtown 3 out of 4 stars

After taking a stab at doing an American remake of a European metaphysical thriller (Vanilla Sky), Cameron Crowe has wisely gone back to what he apparently does best: post-baby-boom romantic comedy. He’s done teenage romance (Say Anything…), Gen X romance (Singles) and young professional romance (Jerry Maguire). Now, he’s finally getting old enough to do an almost sort-of early-middle-age romance. Okay, no one looks at Orlando Bloom and/or Kirsten Dunst and thinks “middle-aged.” But the themes of this movie (major career crisis, death of a parent, coming to grips with precious time wasted) are ones that most of us typically encounter in our middle years. While consistently enjoyable, this film takes its sweet time to get to its quite fine emotional payoff. First, we have to get through the cute romance bits (does any sane guy come out of a cinema not wishing he were Kirsten Dunst’s boyfriend?), the crazy family bits (warning: Susan Sarandon ahead!) and small-town-middle-America-as-loony-bin bits. (Elizabethtown is one of those mythical places, where kids on bicycles and old folks on balconies wave you in the direction you need to go the very first time you drive into town.) But, in the end, the movie is really one of those movies, like David O. Russell’s Flirting with Disaster, about how crazy America is. It’s all here. Our family weirdnesses, our extended-relatives weirdnesses, how we have turned social rituals into show business, and how ultimately unconnected we all are. (Watching this in Europe, I can only wonder what the locals here make of it all.) And then, as Martin Scorsese did for his city at the end of Gangs of New York, Crowe delivers an extended and moving love letter to his country (and his dad). It’s a road trip worth taking. (Seen 11 October 2005)

Emma 3 out of 4 stars

A remake of Clueless already? Well, no, although this film is a straightforward literary adaptation of the same source that inspired the Alicia Silverstone movie. Hopefully, enough time has elapsed since last year’s spate of Jane Austen films so that this one won’t get heedlessly lumped with the others. If anything, it is actually a bit better than Sense and Sensibility in spite of (or more likely, because of) its lesser star power. Emma is richer in its number of characters and their depth. By the time Emma (Gwyneth Paltrow) thoughtlessly cuts down a friend (with a quip worthy of Dorothy Parker herself), we care enough about the two women to feel quite badly for both of them. Of course, we are dealing with a world in which nobody seems to have anything more important to do than write letters, go to parties, and have long chats indoors and outdoors. But movies are about nothing if not escapism. As usual, the big crises have to do with whether everyone will get matched up with the right mate. Also in the cast are Greta Scacchi, Jeremy Northam, Toni Collette (slightly less marriage-obsessed than she was in Muriel’s Wedding), and Ewan McGregor (looking quite a bit more presentable than he did in Trainspotting). The handsome direction and screenplay are by Douglas McGrath. (Seen 9 June 1996)

The Empire Strikes Back 3 out of 4 stars

Some random thoughts upon watching The Empire Strikes Back for the second time (17 years after the first time): I can’t believe this many people are paying to see a movie that doesn’t have a beginning or an end … Egad, those Luke and Yoda scenes were the reason we had to endure all those Karate Kid movies … When Han and Leia kiss, Luke looks so dejected. The first time around I thought it was Leia he was lusting after. This time I’m not so sure … C-3PO is apparently the love child of Data the android and Edward Everett Horton … If you think your boss is tough, just try falling short of Darth Vader’s expectations … If you think your father is tough, just count your hands … Well, at least this time we only have to wait a matter of weeks for the next installment—instead of a matter of years … Can’t wait until the new Star Wars prequels start coming out! (Seen 26 February 1997)

Enchanted 3 out of 4 stars

Memorably, the proverbial Disney mouse had its tail well tweaked six years ago by DreamWorks’s Shrek. In that movie, our ironic, post-modern world intruded on the animated fairytale universe. Now, Disney itself has returned the favor by reversing the concept. In Enchanted, the Disney-fied fairytale universe intrudes on our own cynical, post-romantic world. The movie’s considerable accomplishment is that it makes this seem like a fresh idea—when it has actually been a standard Hollywood formula for generations (although usually not as literally as in this case). Amy Adams, who looks unnervingly like a young Jane Fonda, pulls off the tricky job of sending up the standard issue Disney princess without apparent condescension Her opposite number is none other than our current pop culture’s equivalent of Prince Charming, Dr. McDreamy himself. James Marsden is about perfect as the quintessential pretty but two-dimensional Disney prince on a horse. And Timothy Spall actually looks like a cartoon sidekick come to life, making a nice change from his previous roles in Mike Leigh films (Secrets & Lies, All or Nothing) and the Harry Potter movies, in which he, as it happens, plays someone who transforms into a rat. To top it off, we have the voice of Julie Andrews, who not only connects this movie to the Shrek series but also to Disney’s own magical past (Mary Poppins). It’s all nearly enough to make concerned parents overlook the fact that this is yet another romantic movie telling our youth that it is okay to dump the one you have been with for years and go off with the pretty one you have just met. (Seen 21 December 2007)

Encounters at the End of the World 2 out of 4 stars

At the bottom of the world, on the harsh continent that is Antarctica, strange and exotic species survive and thrive, providing much potential curiosity to the outside. And that’s just the human beings. Legendary German director Werner Herzog is certainly no stranger to dragging his camera to remote and inhospitable places (cf. Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo). Ostensibly, it is the exquisite beauty of otherworldly creatures below and above the ice shelf that has brought him. And there is much stunning photography of those things. But he seems more interested in the collection of scientists and utility people that populate the McMurdo Station on Ross Island. Every one of them seems to have an unusual story. Sometimes the stories are very long and Herzog cuts them short (in the editing room) out of inpatience. One man says that their community is formed by a natural selection of the kind of people “who fall off the edge of the map.” Another suggests that the place collects people who are not bound and settle at the bottom of the planet. Werzog tells us pointedly up front that he is not making a movie about “fluffy penguins” (a swipe at the somewhat sentimentalized March of the Penguins), and when he does turn his attention to these birds, he focuses on the odd few who, out of some disorientation, head off alone into the interior and certain death. It is hard to escape the conclusion that he wonders whether these penguins too are falling off the map. (Seen 19 October 2008)

The End of the Affair 2 out of 4 stars

The fact that this tale of infidelity among the English upper crust does a bit of jumping around in time puts us in mind of the Harold Pinter-scripted film Betrayal. The fact that it stars Ralph Fiennes as a disheartened lover in the midst of World War II puts us in mind of The English Patient. But perhaps the best comparison is to the latter part of the Evelyn Waugh novel and 1982 TV mini-series Brideshead Revisited, in which the Catholic religion also strangely frustrates a love affair. But this isn’t Waugh; it’s Graham Greene, who has had many film adaptations of his work, including the classic The Third Man and a 1955 version of this same autobiographical novel starring Deborah Kerr and Van Johnson. Fiennes’s paramour in this version is Julianne Moore, the North Carolina-born actor who, as she showed in An Ideal Husband, is more than comfortable playing period English aristocrats. As handled by Irish director Neil Jordan (Michael Collins, The Butcher Boy), this version is at times a bit overwrought but it keeps you guessing just exactly where it’s headed right up until the end. The unexpected finale is surprisingly moving and thought-provoking. Best line: “If ashtrays could talk, sir.” (Seen 17 January 2000)

End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones 2 out of 4 stars

What is it about rock ‘n’ roll drummers? Why is it always the drummer that has to be replaced? Often multiple times? This is just one of the wry clichés of the cult mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap that turns out to be all too true in this real-life documentary about the seminal punk band, the Ramones. Indeed, you can make the case that the Ramones, in many ways, were the real-life Spinal Tap. Like their fictional counterparts, they endlessly searched for the big commercial breakthrough that never came. And, also echoing the parody, the group was conflicted by woman troubles between two of the main members. Yet the three main (non-drummer) members managed to stay together and perform for two decades. Indeed, as this film by Jim Fields and Michael Gramaglia makes clear, there is nothing else they could have done. They were simply born to be the Ramones. Especially lead singer Joey, whose unique brain would have been no good for anything else in ordinary life. For more than 20 years, they watched bands that they had inspired go on to the mainstream success that remained just out of their reach. On their tours outside America, they were mobbed as superstars. And then they returned home to play the same clubs that they always had. Just as they wore the same hair and clothes they always had. There is one grim twist, however, to the story that even the makers of Spinal Tap didn’t think of. All of the group’s various drummers are still alive, and it’s the three main members who are gone. The film begins and ends with the Ramones’ induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, and the surviving members note that Joey died (of lymphatic cancer) the previous year. The last shot is of a wigged-out Dee Dee meandering down a hallway after the ceremony, and we are informed that he subsequently died of a heroin overdose. What the film can’t tell us is that Johnny, the hard-headed political conservative who married the love of Joey’s life, died just last month of prostate cancer. (Seen 13 October 2004)

The End of Violence 2 out of 4 stars

It’s not Wim Wenders’s fault (actually, come to think of it, it is) that for the rest of his career we will always want him to do something else as wonderful as Wings of Desire. Heck, he probably knows it. He even did a sequel (Faraway, So Close!), but that didn’t quite measure up. Maybe that’s why he’s made a movie where the heavens present a threat rather than comfort. Maybe The End of Violence is the anti-Wings of Desire. As a rumination on how technology is affecting the quality of our lives or as a paranoid thriller, this movie is adequate and interesting but not transcending as we would want it to be. The Hollywood setting allows Wenders to give us his view of an American landscape different from Paris, Texas as well as get in a few “in” jokes. The technology theme lets him play with gadgets and moods as he did in Until the End of the World. And the cast (Bill Pullman, Andie MacDowell, Gabriel Byrne) seems chosen to emphasize the blankness of the 1990s. If nothing else, however, the movie serves to produce a really cool soundtrack album. (Seen 19 October 1997)

Ender’s Game 3 out of 4 stars

There is a cinematic history of filmmakers making their points about war by portraying children as playing at war. (The various versions of War of the Buttons come to mind.) Orson Scott Card’s popular 1985 novel (originally a 1977 short story) Ender’s Game took this conceit a step further by portraying children, in a future time of inter-galactic war, as playing games as a means of training for a real war. So, in the best tradition of science fiction, this movie is actually “about” something other than simple escapism. And, happily, the lesson it teaches, unlike clunkier sci-fi (certain 1960s episodes of Star Trek come to mind), does not hit you over the head like a cross teacher because its message, which is never less than ambiguous, does not fully become clear until the end—and its difficult issues are not presented as black and white. The issue of child soldiers is certainly topical, but even more prescient was Card’s insight into the way computer, i.e. drone, technology detaches soldiers from the consequences of their actions. As an entertainment, the film does not disappoint with its exhilarating rendition of weightlessness contrasting with the grim military discipline enforced on youngsters. Moreover, we get seriously satisfying resonance from the casting of two actors of two very generations. Septuagenarian Harrison Ford brings along memories of Star Wars and Blade Runner, while the callow Asa Butterfield already has such memorable turns as a charge of Nanny McPhee, the waif Hugo and the friend of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas under his belt. While not short on excitement, this is not exactly the same thrill ride as other sci-fi flicks, but the questions it raises stick with you well after you have left the cinema. (Seen 3 November 2013)

Enemy at the Gates 3 out of 4 stars

If you ever wanted evidence that war is truly hell (short of experiencing one yourself), you can find a pretty good cinematic creation of it in the early scenes of this epic film by Jean-Jacques Annaud (Quest for Fire, Seven Years in Tibet). Just as Spielberg did in Saving Private Ryan, Annaud opens his film by recreating a horrendously violent battle from World War II (Stalingrad) and then proceeds to tell a personal story of some of the survivors. The Russian setting, the anguished hero (Jude Law), the historical sweep, and the love triangle cannot help but put one in mind, at least a bit, of Dr. Zhivago. The theme, for the first two hours anyway, seems to be the senselessness of war, but in the last quarter-hour we get the impression that maybe sometimes there is something noble about self-sacrifice and killing people after all. More interesting is the theme of how propaganda and legend mold reality. Having played Shakespeare (in love), Joseph Fiennes is already associated in our minds with taking reality and turning it into literature. Here, he makes his career on weaving tales for propaganda purposes, and by the end he is so busy telling a different story to each person to suit the situation that you wonder if he even knows what is real is anymore. The irony, of course, is that this movie about a crack Russian sniper is essentially doing the same thing. (Seen 2 May 2001)

Enemy of the State 2 out of 4 stars

With its government-run-amuck plot and a title like Enemy of the State, this movie can’t help put one in mind of something the great Greek-born director Costa-Gavras might have done. But since it is produced by Jerry Bruckheimer (Top Gun, Crimson Tide, The Rock, Armageddon) and directed by Tony Scott (Top Gun, Crimson Tide), we know it’s really going to be about breathless chase scenes and high-tech equipment flying through the air. It is, nevertheless, quite witty and not just because of great scenes like the one where an Asian couple think that Will Smith, who has just barged into their hotel room, is a male stripper. It is fun because of the presence of Gene Hackman, whose character can be seen as a 1990s update to the one he played in Francis Ford Coppola’s classic 1974 film The Conversation. Also on hand is Gabriel Byrne in a blink-or-you’ll-miss-it cameo that seems to serve no purpose other than to remind us of Wim Wenders’s similarly themed The End of Violence. But this movie has yet another dimension to it. It appears to be Hollywood’s apology for embarrassing Bill Clinton last year with Wag the Dog and Primary Colors, as Will Smith plays a basically decent Washington D.C. lawyer who is targeted by A Vast Right-wing Conspiracy and has his career ruined by wanton revelations of personal details of his life. Of course, we are meant to understand that this is totally immoral—at least until our heroes gleefully pull the same trick on a Republican Congressman. (Seen 9 January 1999)

L’Enfer 0 out of 4 stars

The title of this film is the French word for hell and that pretty much describes what this married couple descends into by the end of the movie. The director is Claude Chabrol who, for lack of a better description, can be thought of as France’s Alfred Hitchcock. At the beginning of the story, Paul is your typical French guy who takes things in stride and shrugs a lot while dangling a cigarette on his lip. But by the end of the movie he has became insanely paranoid with jealousy. But then if your wife looked like Emmanuelle Beart (Manon of the Spring), you’d probably worry about other men putting the make on her too! Paul’s jealous fits become so outrageous that they’re actually funny. But by the time he has come to his senses and then goes loony tunes again for the umpteenth time, you’re ready to beg to be let out of this living enfer. (Seen 21 May 1995)

The English Patient 3 out of 4 stars

The opening scene of The English Patient shows a two-seater airplane floating over a landscape that strangely resembles a woman’s body. As with many other images and references throughout the film, this one will be echoed and turned on itself several times. Based on a novel considered by many to be unfilmable and directed by Anthony Minghella (Truly, Madly, Deeply), The English Patient has plenty of the elements that tend to make great movies—love, war, suspense, tragedy, and pathos. The film is dominated by the performance of Ralph Fiennes who gets the best role of his career to date. His many scenes on a death bed in scarring makeup and the flashback-heavy story structure (plus the use of period music) make the film just a bit reminiscent of The Singing Detective. Juliette Binoche has a role that makes good use of her usual wide-eyed innocent persona. And Kristin Scott Thomas makes a welcome and successful departure from the mousy roles she usually gets. This is one of those all-too-rare films that touch the mind as well as the heart. (Seen 13 November 1996)

An Englishman in New York 2 out of 4 stars

This is like one of those movies they used to make (Can’t Stop the Music with the Village People comes to mind) where a famous person plays himself in semi-fictionalized situations. Except, of course, Quentin Crisp cannot play himself, having passed away in 1999 at the age of 90. But we have the next best thing in John Hurt, who truly becomes Crisp and is the Crisp we know anyway since the two became famous together back in 1975 with the TV movie The Naked Civil Servant. This film begins at that moment and, to all intents and purposes, Hurt and Crisp are one. And rather than being semi-fictionalized, the movie faithfully follows Crisp’s final quarter-century, so much so that there is really no dramatic arc. It’s more like getting updates from someone you know, specifically an unabashedly flamboyant English queen living in the Big Apple. The movie, directed for UK TV by Richard Laxton, is fascinating for those of us who knew Crisp only casually. He was revered by a younger generation of the gay community as a pioneer but rejected that role. In fact, he was actually quite conservative and had little time for social activism—beyond refusing to live in a closet. As shown here, he angered many by insensitively calling AIDS a “fad” and stubbornly refusing to retract the comment. In a way, he wasn’t really wrong, although he was certainly impolitic. It was just one more case in which Crisp found himself at odds with a new culture that had developed in his wake. In the end, the irony is that, after breaking major new ground in terms of acceptance of self, he found, in the community he inspired, a different and equally rigid sort of intolerance. (Seen 7 July 2009)

L’ennemi public n°1 (Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1) 3 out of 4 stars

Forget that Michael Mann movie. This is the real deal. The second film I saw within a matter of days that employed some form of the term “public enemy” in its title, this is actually the second part of a two-part French movie epic. And, unfortunately for the American movie, this much more accomplished flick does it no favors by inviting comparisons. Vincent Cassel plays the notorious real-life gangster Jacques Mesrine, who carried on an off-and-on crime spree during the 1960s and 1970s, in a way that is not only much more compelling than Johnny Depp’s portrayal of John Dillinger but also fully unveils the very bad nature of a strangely charismatic figure. Director Jean-François Richet and his screenwriters are not interested in a psychoanalysis of Mesrine. They simply observe him as they would an unstoppable wild animal. The pace moves so quickly that we get little chance to catch our breath after this robbery or that car chase or this prison break. Like Dillinger, Mesrine (it’s pronounced may-REEN, but in a running gag various people keep mispronouncing it as mess-REEN) is preoccupied with his public image. He seems to regard the title Public Enemy No. 1 as a prize, like winning a sports championship. He styles himself as a revolutionary, but it is clear that his basic aim is to accumulate as many trappings of the good life for himself as he can. We are appalled by his wantonness but mesmerized by his pure audacity. When the inevitable end comes, it is even more of an assassination than Dillinger’s demise. It is something that should not happen in a free society, but in a strange way Mesrine brought it on himself by inspiring so much fear in the police. This is yet one more movie that teaches us that, when you are bringing a major criminal to the courthouse, it is always a bad idea to un-cuff him so he can go to the bathroom. (Seen 9 July 2009)

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room 2 out of 4 stars

This is a movie that is guaranteed to make you mad. And, if you happened to live in California in the 1990s, it will make you absolutely livid. Again. While the story of the astounding rise and fall of Enron is well known, this documentary by Alex Gibney brings all the facts together in a compelling narrative. Having said that, the film does take a rather moralizing tone that is all too facile, given that it is pronouncing its judgments with the clear advantage of hindsight. It also has the too-clever and vaguely annoying penchant of attaching songs to the soundtrack, apparently, for the sake of amusing the filmmakers. (Example, when it is mentioned that Ken Lay’s father was a preacher, we hear the song “Son of a Preacher Man.”) If there is another weakness, it is its display of simplistic partisanism. Of course, as a major business figure in Texas, it is not surprising that Lay would have relations with the Bush family, and those are certainly fair game for examination. But there is way more insinuation than fact as to exactly what that connection was. Indeed, all Republican politicians who appear are cast with a sinister light, even though most of the time this national scandal was going on, Democrats were running the executive branch. No Democratic politician is shown as anything but concerned and outraged, even the clueless California governor Gray Davis, who merely whined while his state’s residents were being victimized. Several times the film suggests that deregulation as the cause of the Enron debacle, and that obviously played a part. But a lack of regulation wasn’t necessarily the main problem. As the movie makes clear, people at Enron—from the top execs to the morally impaired twentysomething energy traders—were breaking laws left and right. Where was the enforcement? As the movie also makes devastatingly clear, not only did large numbers of Enron employees look the other way, so did a lot of supposedly independent analysts and the business media. What this story has to say about human nature is not only depressing but chilling. (Seen 9 July 2008)

Enskilda samtal (Private Confessions) 3 out of 4 stars

There is a reason that Swedes drink so much coffee. It’s so they can stay awake through Ingmar Bergman movies. I don’t mean that in a bad way. They are invariably worth staying awake for. But they move. Quite. Slowly. Technically speaking, Private Confessions isn’t actually a Bergman film. He wrote it and, like The Best Intentions, it is based on the lives of his parents. Pernilla August and Samuel Froler are even back playing the couple. Max von Sydow is back as well, in fine form and looking and sounding like nothing less than a Swedish Patrick Stewart. The fine cinematography is by Bergman’s longtime collaborator, the legendary Sven Nykvist. But the direction this time is by another longtime Bergman collaborator, Liv Ullmann. It is entirely to her credit that one could have thought that Bergman himself helmed the film. Even a woman vomiting becomes a beautifully composed frame. The story of adultery and the fact that the film’s five acts are out of chronological order make this movie feel a bit like a Nordic Betrayal. (Seen 27 January 1998)

Entrapment 2 out of 4 stars

If nothing else, this is the first feature film I’ve seen so far that makes the Y2K bug a plot device. As a big-screen entertainment, this suspense caper by Jon Amiel is strictly standard issue, but it definitely benefits from the presence of Catherine Zeta-Jones (The Mask of Zorro) and Sean Connery, who acquits himself much better than he did in The Avengers. (Talk about damning with faint praise!) But there is a fair amount of silliness here. Like the way Zeta-Jones’s insurance investigator simply decides to go find Connery’s master thief in London and seemingly within hours manages to bump into him and convince him to become partners in crime. Or for that matter, the way we get the all-too-familiar establishing shot of Big Ben and Parliament and the filmmakers still feel compelled to throw up a subtitle explaining “London, England.” Or the idea that a man Connery’s age (or any human being) could hold on while being whipped around on steel cable under the highest sky bridge in the world. But that’s getting too picky. This is, after all, a movie. And many will find the climactic action scenes exciting enough, especially if they’re acrophobics. (Seen 3 May 1999)

Entre las Piernas (Between Your Legs) 2 out of 4 stars

The film festival programmer who introduced this film by Spain’s Manuel Gomez Pereira described it tantalizingly as “Vertigo-esque but Jimmy Stewart goes all the way.” That’s sort of true, except as the title implies, things are a bit less circumspect than what Hitchcock was restricted to. For instance, the two lead characters get acquainted at (I swear I’m not making this up) a meeting of their sexual addiction therapy group. The chief pleasure in this film is the opening credit sequence that is an energetic homage to every movie made in the 1960s, particularly Hitchcock’s. The music and camera movements are constantly suggesting something dire is about to happen, but it only does a couple of times. We also get lots of inconsequential, throwaway references to Hitch (a shower, a stairway, a cross-dresser), but they almost seem inadvertent. As in Boca a Boca, the director seems obsessed with phone sex and sexual experimentation. And I suppose, as with any good sex, the film gives us more foreplay than actual thrill. In particular, it would have been nice if the climactic revelation wasn’t so easy to see coming—especially for those of us who have seen Brian De Palma’s movies. (Seen 14 May 1999)

Entre Marx y una Mujer Desnuda (Between Marx and a Naked Woman) 2 out of 4 stars

In case you are wondering, the title Between Marx and a Naked Woman can actually be taken more or less literally, as Karl Marx and a naked woman both make on-screen appearances. And, incidentally, this is one of no fewer than two Latin American movies in the current film festival that manage to work the words “between” and “naked woman” into their titles. Director Camilo Luzuriaga recaptures a period in Ecuador’s not overly distant past when Marxists struggled under military dictatorship. The point of view is that of an unnamed novelist (based on Jorge Enrique Adoum whose book is the source) who weaves a constantly intertwining tapestry of Communist political campaigning, childhood memories, a love triangle, and a drawing room melodrama of a novel that the writer is working on. It isn’t all easy to follow, but one does get a sense of what Ecuador must have been like at the time. The best part is the ending where the writer and Marx have a pleasant chat on a bench. (Seen 21 May 1997)

Eragon 2 out of 4 stars

This movie is a nice audience compromise in that it provides the action/adventure that the kid in all of us wants to see on a movie screen but without making its considerable violence so realistic or brutalizing that you want to cover the eyes of the kid you brought with you. Sure, there is the usual number of icky parts, but they are of the comic book variety. The movie fills the same niche as the Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies. And with that comparison, grownup interest in the story deflates a bit, since it cannot compete with those classic. The plot is derivative in the way that a novel by a teenage boy (on which this is actually based) might be. Crusty matinee veterans will find themselves nodding, okay, so Jeremy Irons is the Obi-Wan Kenobi character, okay, so that attractive, young woman with the high cheekbones (Sienna Guillory) is Princess Leia, etc. But cynical adults are compensated by trademark performances by the likes of John Malkovich, as an evil king, and the ever-reliable Robert Carlyle, looking like the tragic victim of a disastrous facelift. (Seen 6 January 2007)

Eraser 2 out of 4 stars

The rules for summer action movies apparently now include the following: In addition to being physically superhuman, the hero must also be a computer expert. At some point he must slip into an incredibly secure building to break into a supercomputer. At least once he must also escape by shattering a huge aquarium. Oh yeah, and Danny Nucci (Crimson Tide, The Rock, The Big Squeeze) must have a supporting role as a young, wide-eyed sailor/soldier/agent who takes it in the shorts. This Schwarzenegger vehicle is directed by Charles Russell, who also did A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors and The Mask, so you can figure that Arnold’s probably not going for a pseudo-documentary style here. The good news for guys is that Eraser has even more action than True Lies but without all the marriage/relationship crap. It also has an incredibly cynical twist ending and unfortunately ends with Arnold’s lamest quip yet. On the other hand, there is a great action sequence involving an airplane that should send air travelers scurrying back to ValuJet for piece of mind. (Seen 21 June 1996)

Erin Brockovich 2 out of 4 stars

Steven Soderbergh has had a very interesting film career. He caused a sensation in 1989 with his low-budget independent film Sex, Lies, and Videotape, which not only became a recognizable phrase to zillions of people who had not even seen the film and set a new standard of how to make a name for yourself as a budding new directing talent. He went on to make a few other well-regarded films and then appeared to go bonkers with something called Schizopolis. Since then he seems to have settled into making well-crafted but conventional and commercial feature films, including 1998’s caper flick Out of Sight. Now, here he is with a based-on-actual-events vehicle for Julia Roberts, of all people, about a crusading poverty-level single mother in the vein of Norma Rae and Silkwood—with a dash of lawyers fighting-the-big-evil-corporation theatrics à la The Rainmaker. Conveniently, Brockovich is a former beauty queen, so Roberts does not seem out of place in the role. In fact, she actually appears born to play this feisty fighter who makes up for what she lacks in sartorial discretion and job interviewing skills with pluck, spunk and a fierce sense of right and wrong. Despite (or because of) the usual touches of this sort of biography (the residents of Hinkley, California, are veritable saints; most everyone else that Brockovich encounters is either an idiot or pure evil), the film is a sure crowd-pleaser. And, hey, what’s wrong with feeling good? (Seen 21 April 2000)

Escape from L.A. 2 out of 4 stars

Hard as it is to believe, we are only a year away from when John Carpenter’s Escape from New York (released in 1981) was set. The fun in that movie, a Road Warrior-ish black comedy in which Kurt Russell shed his Disney child actor persona once and for all, was seeing familiar landmarks through a funhouse mirror and hearing common expressions (“You don’t want to go there. It’s a dangerous neighborhood.”) take on whole new meanings. Escape from L.A. is a virtual remake, except now Carpenter and star/co-writer Russell can also take potshots at the town where they work. That means the dangers encountered by Russell’s impossibly macho Snake Plissken don’t just include out-of-control gangs and out-of-control immigrants but also out-of-control slimeball agents and out-of-control cosmetic surgeons. The town’s worst nightmare has come true: a crusading television evangelist (the aptly surnamed Cliff Robertson) has become President for Life and is cleaning up America. Meanwhile, his daughter Utopia (A.J. Langer of TV’s My So-Called Life) turns out to be a cross between Patti Davis and Patty Hearst and has given dreadful third-world types in beyond-the-pale L.A. the means to destroy the country. The humor is fine. The special effects are strictly comic book. Be sure to watch for the shark during the early submarine sequence. (Seen 9 August 1996)

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind 2 out of 4 stars

Jim Carrey’s previous feature film, Bruce Almighty, was more or less a quasi-remake of It’s a Wonderful Life. This film, which is thankfully not a Jim Carrey vehicle, can also be described that way. Except that, instead of an angel or God, we have science and computers and psychology, so that it is sort of a post-Christian version of Frank Capra’s Christmas perennial. Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman brings the same witty psycho-philosophical mind games that he did to Being John Malkovich, but this time the satire serves a more serious theme. The director is French video filmmaker Michel Gondry, and he has taken a story idea that might have been dreamed up by Philip K. Dick and turned it into an art film disguised as a romantic comedy. The theme of resisting the erasure of painful memories of love (in reverse order) and meeting again without those memories of each other gives rise to a number of echoes of numerous other films, ranging from Here Comes Mr. Jordan to Betrayal to the extremely recent 50 First Dates. The good news is that, despite a deliberately slow start, the movie is thoughtful, clever and downright entertaining. Its computer nerd element may make this one of the few chick flicks, with lots of discussion about relationship issues, that geeky boyfriends won’t mind so much being dragged to. And Carrey, playing it straight, turns out to be just right for a role that starts out as if it was meant for someone like Jake Gyllenhaal or Tobey Maguire. (Seen 5 May 2004)

Etz Hadomin Tafus (Under the Domim Tree) 3 out of 4 stars

This Israeli film by Eli Cohen has to navigate an emotional minefield because of its subject matter. It is a fictional treatment (based on true incidents) of a boarding school in 1953 where the teenage charges are mostly survivors of the Holocaust. (It is also a sequel to his 1988 The Summer of Aviya.) At times it feels like an episode of Spin and Marty, and at other times it is quite harrowing as we seen these kids try to cope with what they have been through or, in some cases, what they haven’t been through. Not the least of the adjustments is the assimilation of European Jews into Israeli life. Throughout it all, the domim tree provides a place of comfort and refuge for many of the characters. While parts of Under the Domim Tree are heartbreaking, the resilient spirit of youth always comes through, and the film ends on a joyous note. (Seen 28 May 1996)

Evelyn 3 out of 4 stars

Now, here’s something we don’t see all that often—an unabashed, sentimental Irish feel-good movie. We are never in any danger of mistaking this based-on-a-true-story film for a documentary, and our heartstrings are tugged assertively from beginning to end. What starts out as a Dickensian melodrama winds up as good old shaggy dog story about how an ordinary man took on the Irish state and church in the 1950s. As director Bruce Beresford has previously shown in films like Breaker Morant and Last Dance, he can definitely get a lot of emotional mileage out of courtroom scenes. We do have some serious work to get past Pierce Brosnan’s Remington Steele/James Bond persona to accept him not only as a hard-drinking Dub but also as a man who has trouble finding work and whose wife leaves him for someone else. And that’s not the end of it. We have to get past the fact that the girl he has his eye on is Nurse Hathaway from ER and that his da is Father Jack from Father Ted. And his dream team of lawyers (Stephen Rea, Aidan Quinn and the show-stealing Alan Bates) aren’t exactly unknown faces either. But this isn’t the kind of movie where you really need to suspend disbelief. It’s enough to know these events actually happened more or less as depicted and then to sit back and enjoy a very capable cast giving us a show worth the price of admission. Booing the villains and cheering the heroes is optional. (Seen 26 March 2003)

The Evening Star 2 out of 4 stars

With a title like The Evening Star, you might think that this would be about a newspaper. But it’s an astronomical reference, sort of like the name Aurora Greenway. If nothing else, the studio deserves credit for trusting 1990s audiences to find this film despite the fact that it isn’t called Terms of Endearment II. As we know from other adaptations of Larry McMurtry’s novels (The Last Picture Show, Lonesome Dove, and their sequels), his stories aren’t so much about plots as about vivid Texas characters and how they verbally spar with one other. In cinematic terms, this means that not much goes on for the first two-thirds of the movie and our interest relies heavily on memories of the earlier film. (We see so many photographs of Debra Winger that she should have gotten paid for her screen time.) Shirley McLaine’s Aurora is older but still feisty and irrepressible. And people are still dying on her. So bring plenty of hankies. You’ll need them even before Jack Nicholson makes his welcome appearance. The late Ben Johnson caps his long career with a nice turn as Aurora’s neighbor. (Seen 4 December 1996)

Everybody’s Fine 2 out of 4 stars

We have seen dramas about detached fathers before. And even though we know that Robert De Niro has it within him to be a truly scary figure (cf. Raging Bull, etc.), in this movie he is no Great Santini. And that is the confusing thing about the movie. Like many traditional, non-yuppie fathers, De Niro’s Frank Goode has had a generally hands-off approach to parenting. His late wife had always handled all the communication with their now-grown children. But now that she’s gone, he is making the effort to have more of a direct relationship with them. All that’s missing is to have included Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle” on the soundtrack. A bare plot summary sounds like this should be a comical farce. (The kids try to keep up the pretense that their lives are as perfect as Frank has been led to believe.) But it’s all played with TV-movie-of-the-week seriousness. The cast (Kate Beckinsale, Sam Rockwell and Drew Barrymore are the far-flung offspring.) is very good. The kids see Frank as having been too demanding. The evidence is that he wasn’t demanding enough. If there is a message here, it seems to be that there is no substitute for relating directly to your parents and children, which is probably superfluous advice for the vast majority of families. Still, those who like a good dose of lump-your-throat sentimentality probably won’t be disappointed. The film is more interesting, though, for being an American road movie directed by a non-American, Englishman Kirk Jones, whose previous movies have been more fanciful (Waking Ned Devine, Nanny McPhee). In preparation, he made his own trans-America journey, similar to Frank’s, and ended up including some of the colorful characters he met along the way. The movie is a remake of the 1990 Italian film Stanno tutti bene, which was Giuseppe Tornatore’s follow-up to his much-beloved Cinema Paradiso. (Seen 20 February 2010)

Everyone Says I Love You 2 out of 4 stars

One of the pleasures of watching Woody Allen’s films over the years has been his artistic growth from farcical comedies to more serious themes and subject matter. With Everyone Says I Love You Allen is fully back in silly, neurotic, wise-cracking (but upscale, sophisticated) mode. As usual, Allen essentially plays himself and, knowing what we know about him, we have to squirm a bit as he has much-younger and beautiful Julia Roberts tell him what a wonderful lover he is. (Not to mention when he gives sentimental advice to his nubile on-screen daughter.) But on the whole the movie is a delightful escapist distraction with barely a story at all. As usual, Allen has assembled a large and talented cast that is fun to watch. The characters seem to have stepped out of a wry New Yorker cartoon, and the singing and dancing are quite charming. Alan Alda has the Tony Roberts role, and Goldie Hawn has the Diane Keaton role. (Seen 29 January 1997)

Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn 2 out of 4 stars

Earlier in the evening I wondered how I would ever manage to stay awake until 1:30 a.m. I needn’t have worried. Just imagine if George Romero had been the one to make Poltergeist. A real scream. A howler. This has everything. Dead people attacking live people. Live people attacking dead people. Chainsaws. A hand that bites the mouth that feeds it. Decapitations. A fruit cellar. Possessions. Repossessions. The plot: a young couple drive up to an isolated cabin in the middle of the night for a fun weekend. Mishaps occur. This one is already playing at your local theater. Run, don’t walk. Take the whole family. (Seen 16 May 1987)

Evita 3 out of 4 stars

It’s really a good thing that Andrew Lloyd Webber composed the rock opera Evita. Because, if he hadn’t, then inevitably one day he would have had to compose one called Madonna. As it is, Alan Parker’s film kills two birds with one stone by telling both stories at once. Madonna as Eva Duarte de Perón is the most canny casting of a pop music star since, well, since the Spielberg movie of Michael Jackson as Peter Pan never happened. (Especially since Nancy Reagan is too old for the role.) As in any Lloyd Webber musical, the real star here is the music. But Madonna actually does a nice job in the title role. And Antonio Banderas as one-man Greek chorus Ché is no slouch either. And, if you’re not a Madonna fan, well, look on the bright side. It could have been Barbra Streisand playing Evita. Now I can’t wait for the film treatment of Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard. I’ve always thought that story was a great idea for a movie. (Seen 8 January 1997)

Evolution 2 out of 4 stars

This is director Ivan Reitman at his best, which is to say Evolution is fanciful and funny in a way that everyone (but mostly adolescents) can appreciate. If it reminds you of another (very well known) Reitman film, well, that’s clearly not coincidental. This could easily have been called Space Creature Busters, and that gives you a good idea of the tone. And the imaginative, computer-generated creatures that the plot calls for, as well as the victimized small town, also gives it a bit of the feel of Joe Dante’s Gremlins. Not only that, but the extraterrestrial angle and evolution-gone-amok angle give David Duchovny and Julianne Moore a chance to have fun with their respective X-Files and Jurassic Park associations. And the monsters-in-the-desert story lets Reitman have fun with references to all kinds of old sci-fi movies like Them. Duchovny is just fine as the burned-out scientist slumming in a community college (all his students get automatic A’s unless they commit flagrant plagiarism, in which case they get C-‘s), and Orlando Jones is a grand foil as his colleague who’s extremely open to arranging extra credit for attractive coeds—although in some of his scenes he seems to evolve into Chris Tucker. My only question is: just how much did Head & Shoulders pay for its dream of a product placement? (Seen 13 June 2001)

Exit 2 out of 4 stars

This is a fairly nifty little Swedish thriller that will evoke memories of The Firm or The Fugitive. It stars Mads Mikkelsen, who is hot these days thanks to Danish movies like Open Hearts and After the Wedding and his turn as the arch villain in the latest James Bond movie, Casino Royale. Here he plays a partner in a venture capital firm that is about to sell its stake in a company, of which the original investment years before was marked by a couple of mysterious deaths. On the eve of the sale, there is a murder and our hero’s life is completely turned upside down, putting him in a desperate race to save himself and his family. He is the victim of one of those movie plots that is so elaborate and complex that it is entirely to the good if we do not get too much time to think much about it. (In particular, it seems to rely heavily on the ineffectualness of Swedish law enforcement.) The twist is, as things progress, that we learn that there is more to Mikkelsen’s character than we knew and he is not an altogether innocent party in all of this. The film, directed by Peter Lindmark, has several nicely tense moments and mostly keeps us involved just about to the end. It’s nothing that Hollywood hasn’t done bigger or with more stunts, but the more modest scale actually gives the movie a much needed dose of believability. (Seen 12 July 2007)

The Expendables 2 out of 4 stars

Half the Brazilian rainforest was destroyed making this movie, but it was worth it. And then, for good measure, the film crew headed to Louisiana and proceeded to undo all the reconstruction since Hurricane Katrina. Of course, what I just said isn’t literally true, but it is entirely in keeping with the spirit of the movie. Things blow up. Bullets are fired. Knives are hurled. Large quantities of bio-matter splatter. Yes, it’s a good time. If you’re a guy. Much of the pre-release attention was on the cameos by Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger, but that goes by very quickly and is the only smirky part of a movie that otherwise takes itself fairly seriously. There is a surprising amount of what passes, in a testosterone-laden flick like this, for character development. We hear quite a bit about Jason Statham’s romantic problems, Jet Li’s inadequacy issues and Dolph Lundgren’s substance abuse problem. But that is mostly padding until we get to the big action set pieces. And do they deliver? They do. Thanks to aggressive editing and overworked Foley artists, there’s still an adrenaline rush in watching sixtysomething Sylvester Stallone run through a chaotic battle scene. His body can still pass for younger, even while his face more and more passes for ceramic. WWF star “Stone Cold” Steve Austin features as slimy villain Eric Roberts’s henchman, and it’s great casting because this movie is to cinema screens as the WWF is to sports arenas. The best line comes after Austin has thrashed Stallone within an inch of his life to get information. “Who sent you?” demands the bald-pated Austin. Replies the bloodied but defiant Stallone, “Your hairdresser.” (Seen 26 August 2010)

Expiration Date 2 out of 4 stars

It’s not every movie that includes, in its list of cast members, actors playing “Rampaging Milkmen,” but this one does. This film came from my good friend Dayle with a note: “A good movie if you ever need a Seattle fix!” And right she is. Making liberal and loving use of Emerald City locations, particularly Fremont and Post Alley, this movie is nearly as much about Seattle as it is about, well, rampaging milkmen, and it manages to work in never-ending shots of the Space Needle the way some movies, set in Paris, suggest every window has a view of the Eiffel Tower. Directed by Rick Stevenson, the film’s viewings seem to have been limited to film festivals, DVD and, according to the IMDB anyway, Hungarian television(!), and that’s a shame. More than just its settings, Expiration Date captures a Pacific Northwest vibe familiar to viewers of, say, television shows like Twin Peaks and Northern Exposure. It’s basically a romantic (black-ish) comedy, with Robert A. Guthrie as a man about to turn 25, the exact age at which his father and grandfather died suddenly. His oddly calm and complete acceptance that the same fate awaits him makes this flick more than a bit like such similarly themed movies as Harold and Maude. A few familiar faces show up, including Dee Wallace-Stone as Guthrie’s mother, David Keith looking and acting strangely like Kurt Russell, and veteran TV actor Ned Romero, as the old man at a bus stop who tells the story to a kid on the verge of going off the reservation. (Seen 3 April 2009)

Explorers 2 out of 4 stars

I was quite taken by this exhilarating fantasy when it came out in 1985, but the passage of time reveals its weaknesses all too clearly. Joe Dante’s follow-up to The Howling and Gremlins, it is chock full of his love of sci-fi, pop culture, movies and all things weird. Rather Spielbergian in its tone, its stranger touches presage Dante’s quirky and underappreciated 1991-92 TV series Eerie, Indiana and gives endless nods to everything from cheesy 1950s flying saucer movies to Star Wars. It is also noteworthy for providing the big screen debuts of both Ethan Hawke and River Phoenix (both 14 when the movie came out). Hawke is the dreamer, Phoenix is the nerdy computer geek and Jason Presson is the practical mechanic, who together somehow manage to build a craft that can fly anywhere. The movie nicely captures the youthful thrill of exploring possibilities, of dreaming fantasies and the excitement of finding that sometimes we come closer to our dreams than we dare hope. The narrative moves agreeably from a boy’s own adventure to a rather tense sci-fi mode but then kind of falls apart with a jokey ending. It’s the kind of ending that would not be out of place in the original Star Trek series—a fact now further emphasized by the presence of James Cromwell who, a decade later in First Contact, would become Star Trek’s father of the warp drive, and Robert Picardo (in a schlocky movie within the movie) who, around the same time, would hang up his medical shingle on Star Trek: Voyager. (Seen 30 July 2010)

Éxtasis (Ecstasy) 2 out of 4 stars

This Spanish movie starts out like one of those amoral caper films that the French do. A trio of twenty-somethings plan to finance a business by committing robberies. Mostly, they seem to focus on their own relatives. Things get complicated when Rober impersonates his partner Max to ingratiate himself with Max’s theater director father, Daniel, who has not seen Max since he was a child. As it happens, Daniel is directing La vida es sueño, a play about an estranged father-and-son, and Rober winds up in the cast. So we find art and life imitating each other and multiple levels of acting going on and increasingly confused identities. The film, directed by Mariano Barroso, holds the interest throughout. The ending is surprising for all the things that don’t happen. (Seen 27 May 1997)

Extreme Measures 2 out of 4 stars

This movie was released in the States in the autumn, but it’s what’s being offered in the Irish provinces in the spring. It wants to a complex moral medical tale, perhaps doing for medicine what Primal Fear did for criminal justice. But in the end it’s just a middling thriller in the tradition of Coma and with a bare hint of the wicked wit of The Hospital. Hugh Grant is a strange choice for the lead, as he presides over a New York City ER with the aplomb and witty banter of a social director at a posh British hotel. By the end of the film, he has gone through all manner of sufferings, perhaps because the flick’s producer is Elizabeth Hurley. Gene Hackman plays a more subdued version of his Lex Luthor character. In one way, this movie is extremely prescient. To set up Hackman’s character as a big-shot doctor, he gets a congratulatory telegram from the White House. It ends with a pitch for a campaign contribution! (Seen 26 March 1997)

Eye of God 3 out of 4 stars

Eye of God is Tim Blake Nelson’s film directing debut, and it is an auspicious one. He adapted the screenplay from his own stage play, which was performed by the Seattle Repertory Theatre in 1993. It is a credit to Nelson that the film barely betrays its theatrical origins. The time-hopping structure works well in a movie, and it helps immensely that the dialogue is intelligent but natural. Set in Nelson’s native Oklahoma, the theme is nothing less than the existence of God and the evil’s effect on innocence. Fine performances are turned in by Martha Plimpton and Kevin Anderson as a newly married couple, Nick Stahl as a traumatized youth, and Hal Holbrook as a kindly sheriff. The story itself is depressingly familiar, and halfway through the whole proceedings have an air of inevitability about them. But Nelson is more interested in spiritual questions rather than in melodrama, and fortunately Nelson has the grace to end the story in exactly the right place and on the right point. (Seen 31 May 1997)

Eyes Wide Shut 2 out of 4 stars

Since this is Stanley Kubrick’s final film, we can’t help but scan it desperately for reminders of the master’s style. And we are not disappointed. (Those scanning it for Nicole Kidman’s body won’t be disappointed either.) There are the familiar tracking shots and the effective use of music, particularly classical pieces. As for themes, we have a husband descending into some kind of madness (à la The Shining) and even a brief appearance by an underage nymphet (à la Lolita. Sadly, Kubrick didn’t have Peter Sellers to call on for yet another great comic turn (as in Lolita and Dr. Strangelove), but he’s found a more-than-adequate substitute in Alan Cumming (looking strangely like Paul Reubens) appearing briefly as an overly insinuating hotel clerk. The thing about Kubrick’s movies is that they usually turn out to be ahead of their time, but there is something oddly old-fashioned and European about this one. Maybe it’s because it’s adapted from an Austrian novel. Or maybe it’s just the way people in Manhattan all seem to have foreign accents except for the cab drivers. Theme-wise, it’s actually a bit like an upscale but toned-down version of Blue Velvet. Tom Cruise, who was just fine in movies like Risky Business and Top Gun, doesn’t quite have that Kyle MacLachlan decent-guy-in-over-his-head quality that this role calls for. Anyway, as perverse a character as Kubrick was, he probably couldn’t have come up with a better final line of dialog for his final motion picture. (Seen 26 July 1999)

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