Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2017
Scott R. Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France
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H3 2 out of 4 stars

This being the second feature film on the IRA hunger strike seen in a 72-hour period, I have to ask again, why would anybody want to tackle the subject in a fictionalized film after Terry George and Jim Sheridan did such a good job in Some Mother’s Son? At least Silent Grace had a new angle on the topic, focusing on the little-known women prisoners. But H3 could fairly be described as Some Mother’s Son without the bits that took place outside of prison. That omission is critical since the earlier film put things into some sort of perspective by showing us how the young men got to be prisoners in the first place (like killing people). In H3 the prisoners are simply victims of an authoritarian and sometimes abusive British prison system. Full stop. At one point we get a flashback showing the arrest of Seamus, the main character, and we think we might get some explanation of why he was arrested. But no, we simply see the arrest, keeping Seamy firmly in the victim role. Director Les Blair has made a fairly powerful film, and it got an extremely enthusiastic reception at its screening at the Galway Film Fleadh (although this actually may be because most of the people in audience worked on the film or were friends and relatives of people who worked on the film). But because of the selective way it tells its story, the movie is more manipulative than inspiring. What was more thrilling was to see the actors who played the prisoners and the guards chumming it up on stage afterwards. When will someone make a movie about the heroes who took great risks to reach a peace agreement in Northern Ireland? (Seen 15 July 2001)

Hable con ella (Talk to Her) 2 out of 4 stars

As America agonizes and argues over the rights and wrongs of prolonging the life of a person in a vegetative state, let us not forget, as Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar reminds with this 2002 film, that there can also be entertainment value in the plight of people who are comatose or in a persistent vegetative state. Almodóvar picked up an Academy Award for his creepy original screenplay about two men and the unconscious women with whom they are emotionally involved. As we expect from an important European film, there is a fair amount of allegory and symmetry. The story concerns two couples. One pair is rather macho. The man is an Argentine reporter who does not flinch from killing a snake. Twice. (Hmmm. Killing snakes. Nothing Freudian there.) She is a bullfighter. The other couple is more… feminine. He is a nurse who has spent most of his adult life minding his bedridden mother. She is a dance enthusiast. Both relationships become more than a little one-sided due to devastating injuries sustained by the women. How will this all work itself out? Only one thing is sure. No serious movie about romantic obsession can be complete without a visit from the ghost of Alfred Hitchcock, and that is true here, as the nurse character (the one with the mother) invades his love object’s home while she takes a shower. As befits Sir Alfred, there is a wicked sense of humor underneath the surface of this ostensible melodrama. When Benigno and Marco discuss their respective romantic relationships in the hospital, they don’t seem the least bit concerned that the women under discussion don’t have a clue about any of it. Is this a metaphor for male-female relationships or what? (Seen 19 March 2005)

Hackers 2 out of 4 stars

When the internet took off in the mid-1990s in terms of the economy and popular culture, Hollywood had an interesting time figuring out how to dramatize it. Movies and TV shows had been made about people and personal computers before, but they always seemed to end up with images of people typing furiously and improbable screen graphics. A couple of attempts included The Net—a Sandra Bullock vehicle which was basically a standard thriller but with computers—and this movie, which is the more interesting one. It was directed by Englishman Iain Softley, whose previous film was the Stuart Sutcliffe biopic Backbeat and who went on to make such films as The Wings of the Dove, K-PAX and Inkheart. The main lead was Jonny Lee Miller, who would subsequently appear in Trainspotting but who will undoubtedly be remembered forever for playing Roger Collins in Tim Burton’s upcoming Dark Shadows movie. The movie doesn’t really get away from the people-typing-and-strange-graphics paradigm, but it does embrace movie tradition by having a character suggest that hackers are the new samurai and cowboys. This movie was the place where many people got their first look at Angelina Jolie, who dominates the screen with her Jean Seberg-like haircut—although it may actually have been meant to evoke a Vulcan. Of course, the movie—with 3.5-inch disks and people swooning over the name Pentium—was destined to age prematurely. But, to its credit, a decade and a half later it doesn’t look ridiculous. (Seen 21 October 2011)

Hail, Caesar! 3 out of 4 stars

The Coen brothers’ comedies often seem to divide people. Either you get them or you don’t. For example, I seemed to be one of the few who really enjoyed Intolerable Cruelty. The impression a lot of people have is that, every so often in between their critic-pleasing award-winning “serious” movies, Ethan and Joel make an offbeat comedy just to please themselves. The fact is, though, that they make all their movies to please themselves. They just love making movies. And there is no better proof than this meticulously crafted love letter to the glory days of Hollywood. Every frame of every scene is lovingly constructed in impeccable detail as homage to the production teams who churned out epic after musical after western on the backlots of southern California in the 1950s. The best thing is the faces. Employing many of their usual actors—some famous, most familiar, all top-notch—they are all made up and shot to a satisfying degree that even Fellini might envy. Only George Clooney (the big star playing the big star) is instantly recognizable. James Brolin is completely transformed from, say, his role in No Country for Old Men. Tilda Swinton looks eerily like Jayne and Audrey Meadows (whom I could never tell apart) in a dual role as twin gossip columnists. Scarlett Johansson literally seems to have stepped out of the 1950s. Ralph Fiennes seems to have stepped out of The Grand Budapest Hotel, but he’s perfect as the unflappable Brit director at his wit’s end. Frances McDormand’s brief bit as a tough-as-nails film editor is a joy to behold. Alden Ehrenreich is a stunner as the boyish hayseed cowboy star incoherently thrust into a sophisticated drawing room comedy. With running themes crossing back and forth between Marx and Jesus, one suspects there is a serious message hidden here somewhere. But the only clear message is that movie-making is a lunatic circus and some people have no choice but to run away with it. (Seen 2 April 2016)

Hairspray 2 out of 4 stars

On the eve of the inauguration of Barrack Obama, it may be worth pondering this question: are the civil rights struggles of mid-20th-century America now mainly fodder for nostalgic and light-hearted entertainment? Probably not for everyone and for a good many never, would be my guess. But here it is, a feel-good musical about the races coming together in common cause to integrate society not only in terms of skin color but also in body shape—all while celebrating a consumer product that destroys the ozone layer. This energetic entertainment has followed a familiar route: from cult film to Broadway musical to mainstream movie musical. The film world has managed to traverse the once seemingly un-bridgeable gap between John Waters (director of the original film) and Disney (of the current High School Musical phenomenon). Indeed, the crossover is made explicit with the presence of Zac Efron in the old Michael St. Gerard role. The new movie (directed by Adam Shankman) also harks deliberately to an earlier era of tongue-in-cheek musicals about the rock ‘n’ roll heyday with the presence of John Travolta (Grease) and Michelle Pfeiffer (Grease 2), as well as to the original Waters film with a cameo for Jerry Stiller, who originally had the Christopher Walken part. Have we really come that far since 1962 (when the film is set) and 1988 (year of the original film)? Well, when this movie came out in 2007, I don’t remember any politically correct types demanding to know why a real female actor of weight could not be found to play Edna Turnblad. (Seen 16 January 2009)

The Hallelujah Trail 2 out of 4 stars

Eight years after John Sturges directed Burt Lancaster in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and two years after he directed Donald Pleasance in The Great Escape, Sturges teamed up with both of them for this ambitiously wild comedy western. The words “western” and “madcap” don’t frequently go together, but they both describe this 1965 movie, which makes ample use of majestic New Mexico locations. I have fond childhood memories of enjoying this rousing entertainment in my hometown’s local cinema (when it still had one), but I am not sure it has stood the tests of time and personal maturity. Lancaster is the apoplectic cavalry colonel bedeviled by temperance crusaders, led by spunky Lee Remick. Jim Hutton and Pamela Tiffin are the perfunctory romantic interest. Brian Keith is the (again) apoplectic businessman delivering whiskey to Denver miners, led by Dub Taylor, ahead of the impending winter. And Pleasance plays one Oracle Jones, whose word, for reasons that are never really made clear, is considered unassailable on virtually every topic. My personal favorite ethnic caricature in this sprawling enterprise is Tom Stern’s perpetually aggrieved Irish labor leader, although most people’s attention will certainly be drawn to the turn by Martin Landau(!) as a comic relief injun called Chief Walks-Stooped-Over. (Seen 26 May 2006)

The Halo Effect 2 out of 4 stars

It sounds like it could be a sitcom. A dingy late-night Dublin chip shop is staffed by a wacky and varied crew, and a wide array of strange characters come and go, with faces that will be quite familiar to Irish audiences. Some of them actually order food. There is a Damon Runyon feel to this greasy slice of Dublin night life, chronicling a week in the lives of the city’s denizens. As an eatery, Fatso’s has little to recommend it. Fatso regularly flips the burgers onto the floor. Jean spends more time taking snaps with her camera than working. And a night doesn’t go by without an emergency visit from the fire brigades or the police or both. Fatso (a name he inherited along with the chip shop) is played by Stephen Rea, and I can’t think of another actor whose face can project world-weary, end-of-the-tether, had-it-up-to-here, can’t-take-any-more exasperation so effectively. Fatso is the author of his own frustration, however, because, despite his gruff exterior, he is a soft touch, not only to his staff but also to the neighborhood street people. And there is also the little matter of his gambling problem. As with so many movies these days, the tone of the film sways from one extreme to another. One moment we think we are watching a slapstick comedy. In the next, things get grim and violent. Ultimately, this flick will appeal to the same people who liked Intermission, although you probably couldn’t have paid for one day’s catering on that movie with the total budget of this one. Writer/director Lance Daly, who previously made Last Days of Dublin, was inspired by his own nighttime pizza delivering experience. (Seen 14 October 2004)

Hamlet [1996] 3 out of 4 stars

If you search the title Hamlet in The Internet Movie Database, you get no fewer than 39 links. And, in this latest version (adapted by, directed by, and starring career Shakespeare freak Kenneth Branagh), virtually every British actor—not to mention more than a few of their Hollywood friends—has scrambled aboard, even if for just a few seconds of screen time and no speaking part. Branagh’s Hamlet is the one for people who 1) like their Shakespeare on a grand and epic cinematic scale and 2) resent all those other versions that condense the original text down to a mere two or three hours. (An abridged Branagh version is scheduled to follow.) Why does this play yield such unequaled fascination for audiences and actors alike? Think about it. Prince Hamlet is a celebrity who is driven to violence by perceived betrayal, a grieving man searching for justice and, not least, a flamboyant showman. In other words, he is O.J., Fred Goldman, and Johnnie Cochran all rolled into one! (Seen 12 February 1997)

Hamlet [2000] 2 out of 4 stars

A few years ago Baz Luhrmann directed an exciting update of Romeo and Juliet, using all kinds of modern pop culture touches and music to give the story relevance to today’s audience. Michael Almereyda, who made the 1988 cult mis-functional family flick Twister (definitely not to be confused with the 1996 tornado extravaganza of the same name) and the goofily weird 1994 vampire movie Nadja, has attempted something similar with Shakespeare’s melancholy prince. The setting, appropriately enough, is Wall Street. The problem is that, while R&J is full of plot and action and so the dialog could withstand being overshadowed by imagery, Hamlet is mostly a bunch of speeches and so the text needs to be treated a bit more respectfully than it is here. Still, bits of this strange experiment are fascinating. The main character is something of a depressed sort, and if star Ethan Hawke excels at anything, it is definitely brooding and moping. When he yells, “Good night, mother!” to Diane Venora in the midst of his homicidal rage, we begin to see the character for what he really is: an early forerunner of Norman Bates. And a few clips of James Dean, whose brief career was all about angry young men with serious father issues, further puts a modern perspective on the character. Other nice touches include the eclectic casting, which includes the likes of Kyle MacLachlan, Sam Shepard, Bill Murray, Steve Zahn, the late Paul Bartel, and a respected former TV newscaster. (Seen 17 July 2000)

The Hamster Cage 2 out of 4 stars

A man and a woman are admiring British Columbia’s magnificent scenery. “B.C. is God’s country,” he exults. “Yeah,” his sister agrees, somewhat wistfully. “Too bad so much weird sh** happens here.” Indeed. These two are on their way to their parents’ house for a family dinner to celebrate their father’s being awarded a Nobel Prize. Unfortunately, Uncle Stan is coming as well, with his girlfriend Candy, who is 22 going on 12. The result is a black comedy about a family that is so screwed up that, if Sigmund Freud had lived to see this movie, it might have sent him running to seek therapy. Adultery, pedophilia, murder, incest, you name it and it’s here—all being played for nervous laughs. The cast is uniformly fine, particularly deep-voiced Alan Scarfe, as the condescending intellectual patriarch. Directed by Larry Kent, who has explored family dynamics in previous Canadian films, this movie is an outrageous comedy. But it is also a scathing indictment on the state of the family in North America. (Seen 10 October 2006)

Hancock 3 out of 4 stars

This is another one of those movies where it is really best to know as little as possible about it before going in. So I would wish for everyone who sees it to have as little foreknowledge as I did. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily make for a very enlightening review, so let’s just say that, in an era where we have had many reinventions of and new takes on the superhero genre, this is one more—but its view really is different and fresh. Much of this has to do with Will Smith’s investment in making the title character a real human being. As a friend once said of a character in another movie, you can practically smell him. Another big part is the special effects which manage to come off as much more real than the usual CGI/video-game-like look of superhero stunts we have become accustomed to. It is easy to see Hancock’s travails as a comment on the way society treats celebrities. But a more satisfying way of looking at the film, at least in the first half, is as some kind of allegory of the United States and its unbalanced role in the world. (That may explain the petulant young French youngster who gives our hero such a hard time.) This intriguing and entertaining fantasy flick was helmed by actor/writer/director Peter Berg, which may bode well since he is apparently slated to direct the new version of Dune. [Related commentary] (Seen 2 July 2008)

Handsome Devil 2 out of 4 stars

There have been enough boarding-school-as-microcosm-of-society movies over the years, that a scenarist really needs to come up with a fresh take to make a new entry halfway interesting. To his credit writer/director John Butler, who previously explored male bonding in The Stag (retitled The Bachelor Weekend for some international territories), comes up with enough twists in the story that I am at pain to discuss the plot at all—for fear of ruining any nice surprises. One of the best twists is that one crucial piece of information is never actually made known—even though many viewers may think that it was. (Sorry to be vague but hey, you know, spoilers.) The initial setup is familiar enough. Sixteen-year-old Ned dreads returning to his posh ruby-focused boarding school, as his artistic interests make him the odd man out and subject to routine bullying. It will further come as no surprise that there will be an inspiring teacher, a brute of a sports coach and a friendship that appears initially to be unlikely. Beyond that, however, things do not go exactly as you might expect in every instance. Despite a clear intention to be a feel-good entertainment, the themes here are more A Separate Peace than Dead Poets Society. Indeed, it is enough of a crowd-pleaser that in February it handily picked up the Dublin Film Critics Circle’s Best Irish Feature award at the Audi Dublin Film Festival. Ned is winningly played by amiably put-upon Fionn O’Shea. His unwelcome new roommate is Nicholas Galitzine, who has gone quite hunky since he charmed as an aspiring rocker in The Beat Beneath My Feet. The usual familiar Irish faces show up in supporting roles and cameos. (Ardal O’Hanlon and Amy Huberman are Ned’s dad and evil stepmother.) Moe Dunford is nearly too likeable to be the main villain of the piece. As the good teacher, Andrew Scott (a key collaborator of Butler’s in The Stag) has a hypnotic intensity not unlike his Moriarty from Sherlock. And Game of Thrones fans may be unnerved to see Roose Bolton himself (a nicely patrician Michael McElhatton) as the school’s no-nonsense headmaster. (Seen 21 April 2017)

Hanging Up 3 out of 4 stars

How can this possibly be?! A manly, macho guy like myself giving three stars to an out-and-out chick flick? Yeah, I know that the characters aren’t all that relate-able to most people (one’s a Helen Gurley Brown-type magazine publisher, another is a soap star). Yeah, I know that Diane Keaton is way too old for her character. (It’s probably no coincidence that she is also the director.) And, sure, I know that Meg Ryan is basically playing the same exact wacky/adorable character she’s played in a bunch of other movies, notably You’ve Got Mail. But despite all this, there is something very real and true in Delia and Nora Ephron’s story about relationships between sisters and the trauma of dealing with not only the loss of a parent but of a very problematic one. You’ve been warned: bring tissues. The movie deserves credit, also, for a title that sounds fluffy enough but which actually works well on three levels. 1) There’s the obvious telephone reference. Everyone is constantly on the phone in this flick, almost more than one of my all-time favorite satires, Denise Calls Up. Indeed, we know we have entered a flashback less because of fashion or hairstyles than because of the fact that the phones have cords. 2) There is the pop psychology angle, and there are definitely plenty of hang-ups in evidence. 3) And finally, there is the very real sense of ending a conversation that has been going on for a very long time. (Seen 27 February 2000)

The Hangover 2 out of 4 stars

You know the drill. Four guys are off for a wild bachelor party in Las Vegas, just before one of them is about to get married. What could possibly go wrong? I mean, it’s not as though they are driving the bride’s father’s cherished car that dare not get a scratch on it. Or that the most anal member of the crew is carrying a priceless heirloom that has survived (and I think we are breaking new comedy ground here) the Holocaust. It may sound like a retread, but there must be a reason that it has shot to No. 1. I like to think it’s because the filmmakers actually seem to know their movie heritage but they are not so obvious about it that they overplay it. For example, when a couple of different characters mutter darkly and knowingly about “Vegas,” it’s just enough to lightly evoke Chinatown and emphasize the vague film noir procedural vibe that holds our interest as the heroes try to solve a mystery. And the desert setting is just enough to give a hint of spaghetti western vibe. This knowingness—plus a few good surprises—help make us feel that maybe we haven’t totally wasted our time. The characters are stock but the actors are more than game. Bradley Cooper is our new Matthew McConaughey, Ed Helms is your standard issue nervous Nelly, and Zach Galifianakis has the Seth Rogen role as character who uniquely brings the term “arrested development” to mind. The director is Todd Phillips, whose oeuvre (Road Trip, Old School, Starsky & Hutch, School for Scoundrels) has foretold this. (Seen 17 June 2009)

Hanna 2 out of 4 stars

There are two things that have been widely said about this movie, and they are both true. One is that this is basically The Bourne Identity with a teenage girl. That description is so accurate that it nearly qualifies as a spoiler. The other thing that is said is that this is essentially a modern reworking of a Grimm fairy tale. The critics aren’t making that up. The name Grimm gets invoked every few minutes during the movie’s running time and, by the end, director Joe Wright gets just a little bit carried away with fairy tale visual imagery. Once again Wright, director of Atonement, works with young Saoirse Ronan, in a flick that could not be more diametrically opposed to their previous collaboration. I kept waiting for a take-your-breath-away set piece like the fabulous beach scene from Atonement, but that was probably too much to hope for. Instead, we get a perfectly fine and tense action thriller that hinges successfully on Ronan’s central performance and the audience not having too much time to think about logic. Also on hand is Cate Blanchett, in the type of icy evil queen role we have come to admire Tilda Swinton for. In case anyone is listening, I have a great title for a sequel (which I would go see): Hanna & Her Sisters! (Seen 15 May 2011)

Happiness 2 out of 4 stars

About midway through this disconcertingly black comedy, Lara Flynn Boyle explains that she lives “in a state of irony” and that state is New Jersey. A veteran of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, she should know something about irony. (And nothing, by the way, is more ironic than this film’s title.) Writer/director Todd Solondz’s follow-up to his deliciously bitter Welcome to the Dollhouse is firmly in ironic Lynch territory as it explores the perversions that lurk just below the surface of normal, wholesome middle American life. But the tone is more like a latter-day Woody Allen romantic comedy. It tells the story of three sisters: one has the perfect marriage, one has the perfect career, and one is perfectly miserable. (Ironically, her name is Joy.) To their surprise, however, the men in their lives are dealing with such issues as suicide, compulsively making obscene phone calls, and being a predatory pedophile. If Lolita made you uncomfortable, then a Ward Cleaver clone’s obsession with an 11-year-old boy will either send you running to the exit or at least make you feel indecently complicit for watching. It’s a twisted testimony to Solondz’s brazenness that the bit that seemed shocking in There’s Something About Mary seems ironically mundane when it shows up here (twice). The real irony, however, is how strange you will feel when you find yourself laughing at much of this stuff. (Seen 15 October 1998)

Happy Feet 2 out of 4 stars

When I wasn’t thrilling to the intermittent scenes of whooshing down ice slides or being pursued by marine predators or falling off sheer heights or being amused by much (if not all) of Robin Williams’s usual vocal shtick, my mind kept wondering what the first story meeting for this movie must have been like. “G’day, mates. Let me tell you what we’re going to do. We’re going to remake that documentary March of the Penguins. But we’re going to do it as a musical. And we’ll make it with CGI.” “Bloody brilliant, George! Hey, you know what, while we’re at it, why don’t we turn it into bloody Billy Elliot!” “That’s a smashing idea! Yes, Billy Elliot as a penguin. I love it!” “And, you know how all those conservative commentators thought that March of the Penguins was some sort of a testament to traditional religious values? In our movie, we’ll make it clear that that fundamental religious leaders are the real problem.” “I love it! Instead, we’ll show that artists have the solutions to the world’s problems. Because, like, through their art they, like, communicate, you know, through their art.” “Even better, we’ll show the world’s problems being saved by the United Nations!” “Yeah, yeah. And then we’ll have the world unite into a one-world government and solve every problem in the world forever!” Awkward silence. “Well, now you’re just going too bloody far. We’ll save that one for the sequel.” (Seen 23 December 2006)

Happy, Texas 2 out of 4 stars

This completely goofy movie clearly aims to be the Some Like It Hot of the 90s—with a bit of The Music Man thrown in for good measure. But, since this is still (for a while anyway) the 90s, our heroes don’t dress up as women but instead find themselves obliged to go along with a small Texas town’s presumption that they are a gay couple. In the Jack Lemmon role is Steve Zahn, an actor that inspires laughter by his mere appearance and demeanor. He has provided many humorous moments in such films as Out of Sight and Freak Talks About Sex, and here he shows a flair for physical comedy that makes him seem like some sort of drugged-out, redneck Jim Carrey. The unlikely choice for the Tony Curtis figure is Cambridge-born Englishman Jeremy Northam, who is more often seen in refined period pieces like Emma, The Winslow Boy and An Ideal Husband. As a scruffy American con man, he is magically transformed into something like the lost Baldwin brother or a finer-featured George Clooney. Ally Walker looks and sounds strangely like Brett Butler (but in a real babe sort of way) in what would be the Marilyn Monroe part. Illeana Douglas looks oddly like Shelley Duvall. And William H. Macy is surprisingly touching in the Joe E. Brown role. (Seen 16 September 1999)

Hard asfalt 2 out of 4 stars

The title is Norwegian for “hard asphalt” which suggests to me that Norwegian may not be that difficult a language after all. The film is basically a fun-filled travelogue of Oslo as seen through the eyes of two of its most upstanding citizens. Knut and Ida are your basic Norwegian fun couple. He’s an alcoholic, who goes crazy every once in a while and beats up Ida. She’s a junkie, who walks the street part-time to make ends meet. They’re young, they’re in love, and they’re depressing. They get by through scams, petty thievery, and whoring. They try to make a go of it by getting real jobs and going to school and all that stuff that never works in movies like this. In the end, you think that Ida has finally got her act together because she walks out on Knut. But at the final fadeout we see her listing her services and prices to some john in a car. This movie is even more depressing because it is based on someone’s actual autobiography. But at least it is well done. (Seen 5 June 1987)

Hard Core Logo 1 out of 4 stars

Bruce McDonald is a Canadian filmmaker who has made some enjoyable, offbeat movies like Highway 61 and Dance Me Outside. With Hard Core Logo he has turned out a “mockumentary” (there’s that word again) which seems calculated to be the anti-Spinal Tap. As in the Rob Reiner classic, we have a band that has lived well beyond its reason for existence and two main members who have a longtime Butch-and-Sundance friendship that may be coming to an end. But where Reiner’s send-up was mainly affectionate and ultimately sentimental, McDonald’s film is dark and scary and infused with the up-yours spirit of the titular fictional band. There are some darkly funny moments in this story of long-in-the-tooth punk rockers and the voyeuristic film team that relentlessly records their every move. But if the film is intended as critique of these sorts of docmentaries, most viewers will probably miss the point. And, as an entertainment, it is hard pressed to compete with the real thing. (Seen 19 May 1997)

A Hard Day’s Night 3 out of 4 stars

For a film aimed squarely at the teenage market, this seminal flick ran the risk of going over the heads of much of its audience. Shot in black and white at the height of Technicolor’s glory days and laced with sometimes impenetrable (at least to its American audience) Liverpudlian banter, this movie seemed a strange way to cash in on the breathtaking phenomenon that was pre-Sgt. Pepper’s Beatles. It was basically a European art film and, at the same time, a knowing precursor to latter-day 20th century pop culture. Though technically not pretending to be a documentary, its style presaged the mockumentary genre. In other words, its ironic and deconstructing take nearly foresees This Is Spinal Tap, while its anarchic and at times absurdist brand of English humor anticipates Monty Python. A sequence where George wanders into the office of a professional youth trendsetter is a brilliant bit of social satire. A scene where the MIA Ringo chats comfortably with a youngster is touchingly sweet. Basically, the boys are exceedingly well-behaved and sensible, although they do occasionally like to take the piss out of harumphing fuddy-duddies. Endless sight gags and sly asides provide no end of joy. The filmmaker was the very talented Richard Lester, who would go on to make the other Beatles film Help!, How I Won the War (with John Lennon), the two very extremely entertaining Three Musketeers of 1973-74, the elegiac Robin and Marian (with Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn) and (with Richard Donner) the Christopher Reeve Superman movies. While the four lads have faces and personalities perfect for the screen, the real star of the movie is Dublin-born Wilfrid Brambell as Paul’s errrant Irish grandfather. At the time he was a staple of Disney films like In Search of the Castaways and The Three Lives of Thomasina, but he would become best known in the UK as the elder title character in the sitcom Steptoe and Son. That show would be appropriated stateside by Norman Lear to become the Redd Fox vehicle Sanford and Son. (Seen 4 June 2016)

The Hardy Bucks Movie 1 out of 4 stars

This is another one of those movies that exist to serve a particular fanbase but probably will only confound others who happen across it. Personally, I confess to taking a more than a bit of guilty pleasure in it because it takes the piss out of people (well, specifically men) who live in the rural West of Ireland. Essentially a series of comedy sketches, this thing began life as a web series, progressed to the small screen and finally infected a few big screens before heading to the video shelves. As a comedy, this is what is usually called “character driven,” in that virtually all the humor comes from each actor doing his particular thing over and over and over. My Mayo-born wife did not seem particularly offended but she did comment that the accents were “rubbish.” The plot (yes, there actually is kind of one) parallels uncomfortably my very own novel, except that the protagonists are older and even more irresponsible. The titular bucks decide they will avoid another summer of tedium by driving to Poland to see Ireland play Italy in the European soccer playoffs. Their journey takes our naive but game country lads through the evil dens of Amsterdam. What could possibly go wrong? I mean, besides numerous opportunities for raunch so that we can see the boys react to it—and get caught up in a dodgy drug smuggling deal. Did I laugh? Quite a few more times than I am comfortable admitting. But I definitely do not feel good about myself. At all. (Seen 26 June 2015)

Hari Om 2 out of 4 stars

This is essentially an Indian version of It Happened One Night. In the Clark Gable role we have the titlular Hari Om (played by Vijay Raaz, who was the wedding planner in Monsoon Wedding), a taxi driver who has been suckered into piling up a huge gambling debt to the local street boss and needs to disappear fast. At that moment, an attractive young Parisian woman named Isa steps into his cab. (He calls it a rickshaw. It is more like a golf cart.) This latter-day Claudette Colbert is passionate about seeing everything she can in Rajasthan, so she has split for the day from her impeccably tailored boyfriend Benoît, who is spending all his time in long, tedious business meetings. As their jaunt extends into days, the film becomes a virtual travelogue of this part of India, and such is the beauty and charm of the land, buildings and people that we can’t help but get caught up in Isa’s passion for it all. Early on, a computerized weighing scale warns Isa against following the false love and missing the true love. A very wise and elderly man later tells her a poignant tale with a similar theme. Will Isa’s adventure with Hari Om turn out to be a similar story? Or is it all really just a holiday? (Seen 11 October 2005)

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets 2 out of 4 stars

As we’ve noted several times before, the point of any good sequel is to remake the original movie, but even bigger and better. Director Chris Columbus has at least got the first half of that right. He certainly showed that he understood the point of sequel making when he followed up his Home Alone with Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. But this movie follows the first one so closely, not only in narrative but in scale, that inattentive viewers might be forgiven for thinking that they are sitting through the same movie again. The only thing fresh and new is really a nicely done flying car—although that only serves to remind baby boomers of the original Nutty Professor. Otherwise, the film is getting by on good feelings generated by the first film and, of course, the source novels—which seem even more indispensable for understanding what is going on. Despite all the clever special effects (many of which seem borrowed from the haunted house at Disneyland), the movie gets a bit tedious with its constant sense of persecution and victimization and political allegory, involving Nazi wizards. (Seeing Harry’s adoptive Surrey family through his resentful eyes is a bit reminiscent of the creepy David Cronenberg film Spider.) Sadly, most of the heart we get from this movie is in having our last onscreen look at Richard Harris. For a few minutes, he takes the proceedings to a whole new level, as he muses over the ashes of his pet phoenix and the mystery of death and life. (Seen 14 November 2002)

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 2 out of 4 stars

Nine years ago, when the lights came up after we had watched Peter Jackson’s magnificent The Fellowship of the Ring, I turned to the Missus for her opinion, anticipating that she would find this epic tale as stirring as I always had. She shrugged and said, “They seem to be copying Harry Potter a lot.” The irony, of course is that J.R.R. Tolkien completed The Lord of the Rings decades before J.K. Rowling ever put pen to paper to author her first Harry Potter novel. But, strange now to think, Chris Columbus’s first Potter movie beat Jackson’s first of the definitive Tolkien adaptations into cinemas by 33 days. It’s strange because Jackson’s trilogy now seems like ancient history and Harry Potter, with one more movie to go, still seems very far from the finish line. For us non-Potter fanatics, the main interest is oddly akin to Michael Apted’s 7 Up documentaries, in that we get to watch a group of English children grow into adults. In this case, the three English children have blossomed into pretty good actors and it is fascinating to watch. The Missus’s Lord of the Rings comparison is interesting because, in this installment, the story has definitely become more LotR-like, with our plucky heroes on a quest while evading a seemingly all-powerful embodiment of evil, bearing a burden that seems to corrupt them the longer they possess it. And, with the maturing of the main characters, it is perhaps inevitable that the bouts of teenage/young adult angst evoke echoes of those dire Twilight movies. There are only so many heroic saga themes to go around, so I don’t want to lightly accuse the authors of this franchise of being derivative, but I will confess that I was wondering if Ralph Fiennes would be blindsiding Daniel Radcliffe by announcing, “Harry, I am your father.” But in fairness, it is a triumph that a movie so long and in which so little happens can be as interesting as this one is. For us unwashed, the previous few installments were seeming fairly formulaic, but in this one things actually seem to be happening and a conclusion is finally in sight. Could I possibly miss the eighth movie next summer? My kid, who was born a half-year before the first flick premiered, will see to it that I don’t. And I won’t mind a bit. (Seen 22 November 2010)

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 3 out of 4 stars

So, it’s finally over. It is, isn’t it? We can finally put to rest all the hype and hoopla and get on with the business of… watching all the movies to be adapted from all the fantasy book series that have sprouted over the past decade or so by authors trying to become the next J.K. Rowling. In the meantime, what to say about this grand finale? After Part 1, in which precious little seemed to happen over a very long running time, Part 2 bombards us with more detail than a normal human being can reasonably absorb. This puts the movie in the strange position of seeming almost cursory to die-hard devourers of the books, yet impossibly dense and hard to follow for everyone else. And all the while, you can nearly hear the studio suits yelling that yet more time needs to be spent on CGI sequences and magical battles. In form, HP7b, is like one of those fort-or-town-under-siege westerns in which everything leads up to a final climatic shootout. But, instead of, say, the Mexican village in The Magnificent Seven, here it is good ol’ Hogwarts, looking more battered and tattered than the starship Enterprise at the end of your typical Star Trek movie. It is a testimony to the completionist/throw-the-kitchen-sink-at-it approach to the filmmaking that people with blinking problems will miss entire appearances by the likes of David Thewlis, Gary Oldman and Emma (was that really even her?) Thompson. How do people not accompanied by an 11-year-old make any sense of this? For fun, just try to imagine what the dialog sounds like to someone who knows absolutely nothing about the books or the movies. It might as well be in Martian. Yet for all that, this movie represents some kind of monumental achievement. The eight movies collectively maintained an admiral consistency of quality that has to be owed in large part to Rowling herself. The veterans in the sprawling cast (losing only one major participant along the way, the lamented Richard Harris) acquitted themselves gamely from beginning to end, while the youngsters managed to pull off the tricky job of growing along with their roles while negotiating the shoals of adolescence and young adulthood. In the course of eleven years, the pre-teens playing the main leads grew up to appear to need precious little makeup in order to play mature parents. These movies have not made me love Harry Potter, but they have forced me into at least respecting him. (Seen 19 July 2011)

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire 2 out of 4 stars

Boy, and you thought your school was tough! At Hogwarts, it seems that not only are teachers allowed to strike the students but the school participates in a tournament, in which student deaths seem not only possible but quite likely. I guess wizard parents just aren’t as litigious as their muggle counterparts. Coming out of the cinema, I could not help thinking that those of us who have praised George Lucas in the past may yet come to rue his long-term influence on the movies. And I’m not just talking about the last three Star Wars movies. Or maybe I am. Lucas has set the gold standard (in terms of profit, if not literature) for blockbusters for the youth market. Dazzle us with amazing images, mix in what passes for drama for adolescents and then cut to the computer-generated scenes for ultra-videogame thrills. In fairness, the dragons do seem quite real, and it also seems real when Harry confesses that he would rather fight another dragon than deal with asking a girl to the dance. Make no mistake, this is movie youth literature of the highest order. But it still feels like we’re following a formula and glossing up an underlying story that doesn’t seem all that complex. At least we don’t have to have the opening sequence showing how awful Harry’s adoptive parents are anymore. But, just as James Bond always has to say, at some point, “Bond. James Bond,” someone always has to sneer the words, “The great Harry Potter!” Refreshingly, there is something even more authentically English about the characters and the proceedings this time than usual. (Maybe because the series finally has, in Mike Newell, its first English director?) Personally, the best scene to see in an Irish cinema was when deatheaters disrupted the quidditch world cup, and the English lads’ first reaction was to ask, “Is it the Irish?” As usual, there is so much English and Irish talent on display (Brendan Gleeson steals the show) in the teeming cast that it is difficult to keep track of everyone. But do not overlook David Tennant as Lord Valdemort’s weasely henchman, Barty Crouch Jr. He will be making his debut as the eleventh Doctor Who on BBC television on Christmas day. (Seen 30 November 2005)

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince 2 out of 4 stars

Let’s face it. It’s basically the same movie every time. The main interest for people who are not rabid fans of the novels is seeing how the young actors have matured and filled out (quite nicely in most cases). Some characters have dropped out (I kind of miss Harry’s loutish Muggle relatives, the Dursleys), and others have been added (Jim Broadbent was born for this series). But it’s still the same movie. And unless you’re an addict or devotee (and I do not begrudge them their enjoyment; I have one such creature in my own house), you can only see it so many times before it gets to be tedious. I know the books are densely plotted because they are all lying about our house and I can see how thick they all are. But this movie is typical of the adaptations, in that it runs 153 minutes but it is hard to come up with a list of plot points that takes more than three or four sentences. Still, you cannot fault the production or the performances. Alan Rickman, in particular, is having the time of his life, boiling up smoldering intensity underneath an implacable exterior. Can any actor time his lines and his pauses with more unassailable precision? And Helena Bonham Carter makes the screen come alive with her pure weirdness whenever she appears. Also, it’s good to see young Tom Felton come into his own with a meatier part this time. (After several scripts that mainly instructed him, “Draco sneers,” it must have been a refreshing change to get this one, which mostly instructs him, “Draco skulks.”) Toward the final stretch, there is an emotional scene between Harry and Dumbledore, where they look fondly back on the whole saga (never a good sign, by the way, for a movie character). For his part, Harry tells his mentor that he seems the same as always—which serves to remind us that, before Michael Gambon took over the role, Dumbledore was originally played by the late, lamented Richard Harris. Dumbledore, in contrast, points out how much Harry has changed in six years—which serves to remind us that, in audience years, it has actually been eight. And by the time it is over, it will have been ten. For some of us, it will feel like twenty. (Seen 22 July 2009)

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix 2 out of 4 stars

I’ve pretty much decided that these movies cannot be seen in isolation from their source novels—even though that is the way I insist on sizing up films. There is just too much detail in the novels to pack into the movies, but the filmmakers have clearly opted to make the movies for the books’ fans rather than attempt to “cinema-tize” them to make them work properly in the different medium. So what we have is the film equivalent of, say, the Twin Peaks TV series or, to a lesser extent Babylon 5, where to fully appreciate it you pretty much had to study ancillary data—mainly on the internet in those cases, by reading the novels in the case of Harry Potter. In another way, the movies have become like more recent TV offerings (X-Files, Lost, Smallville, etc.), inspired by Lynch’s work, which have an over-arcing storyline, which is incrementally advanced with each new installment. Consequently, we get this movie, taken from the longest of the novels to be adapted to date, but which has the shortest running time (138 minutes). The result is a story that seems strangely sparse on incident (for a series of books crammed with so many characters and details) and fairly incoherent to those who have not read the books or who do not live with someone who has. It is tempting to look for a political message in this story of government repression in a hoary institution of education. For example, is Imelda Staunton’s poisonously autocratic administrative meddler meant to be Margaret Thatcher? It’s not out of the question, but it’s not really a good fit. Staunton’s Delores Umbridge is every bureaucrat, who ever got carried away with her own sense of power. The obvious target is fascism or McCarthyism. But, when you think about it, the fictional political context of a government that stubbornly refuses to acknowledge or deal with an accumulating external threat looks like an indictment of politicians who refuse to buy into the war on terror. One particular bonus: we get to see exactly what Tim Burton sees in Helena Bonham Carter. (Seen 16 November 2007)

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone) 3 out of 4 stars

You’ve probably already seen this, so you know that director Chris Columbus pretty much got everything right. And even Hollywood would have to work pretty hard to mess up a story that so perfectly expresses the fantasies of most 11-year-olds, i.e. to find out that you really are more important and talented than the rest of your boring and mean family. HP&tSS is pretty much an ideal children’s movie, which makes it very suitable for former children as well. Not that you or I won’t quibble with certain aspects since, after all, that is part of the fun of watching an Event Movie like this, particularly one based on a wildly popular set of novels. The character of Harry is a bit problematic since, he has to do double duty as the hero and the point-of-view character. That works okay in books but it makes for a hero who has to do an awful lot of reacting to what everyone else is doing on the screen. And it doesn’t help that, as a superior being, he isn’t quite real, while his two closest chums are very real and winningly played by two great young actors (Emma Watson and Rupert Grint). But no actor of any age, let alone a child, would have an easy time going up against the array of British (and Irish) acting immortals assembled here. What a feast for a film buff! In the end, we have to be swept up with the magic. After all, Harry is every young legendary hero braving danger to seek his destiny. He’s Arthur, he’s Frodo, he’s Luke Skywalker. And what an Olympian host of Merlins/Gandalfs/Obi-Wans he has to guide him! (Seen 6 December 2001)

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban 2 out of 4 stars

¿Y tu muggle también? When I first heard that Alfonso Cuarón would take over the directing helm from Christopher Columbus in the Harry Potter franchise, I was intrigued. We would be going from the American guy who gave us Macauley Culkin in two Home Alone movies to the Mexican filmmaker who had given us Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna as two randy teenagers on the road with a sexy older woman. Was Harry about to grow up really, really fast? But Cuarón had also given us the movies A Little Princess and a updated version of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, with Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow. With that last film, the good news was that Cuarón had shown that he can do gothic. The bad news was that he can get a bit silly about it. In the end, the characters and settings from the first two Harry Potter movies are so well established and the general formula for the story lines so familiar that I’m not sure that it makes that much difference who is directing the movies. Still, as the critics have noted, this movie is “darker” than the first two, and Cuarón has succeeded in putting his mark on the series. Familiarity and repetition are the gravest problems for a series of sequels, but this film manages the happy accomplishment of raising our interest in the latter half with a few genuine surprises and a nifty time travel sequence that explains a number of odd events that, at first, seem like sloppy storytelling. Otherwise, the main interest in these movies, for those of us who are not already rabid fans of the books, is keeping track of which major British stars have not yet made an appearance and how much screen time the likes of Maggie Smith and Emma Thompson will actually get. As Gary Oldman makes his exit toward the end, he says something we all know to be true, raising the question of why the movies are about Harry at all and not about the much more interesting Hermione. (Seen 3 August 2004)

Harry, un ami qui vous veut du bien (With a Friend Like Harry) 2 out of 4 stars

An isolated house and an unshakable new acquaintance who really, really wants you to get back to your writing. All you need is a big snowstorm and you really would have the Gallic version of Misery. This is the sort of slowly building suspense story, springing out of ordinary enough events that inevitably has to be labeled “Hitchcockian.” But since it is French, the resolution isn’t nearly as neat or immediately comprehensible as American audiences might prefer. Still, this tale of old schoolmates having a chance meeting in a lavatory that leads to strange events indeed does have its moments. It also has a perverse attitude that can be either disconcerting or darkly funny, depending on your bent. After it is all over, there is really only one real question left to ponder: was that a monkey or a gibbon with a propeller on its head? (Seen 14 May 2001)

Hasards ou Coïncidence (Chance or Coincidence) 2 out of 4 stars

With a title like Chance or Coincidence and a poignant story of ill-fated lovers—not to mention the sudden appearance of a snowbound plane wreck—can this be anything other than the Gallic equivalent of The Lovers of the Arctic Circle? But the writer and director here is Claude Lelouche, who has been at this sort of thing for four decades—as far back as his 1966 international hit A Man and a Woman and more recently with the 1995 update of Les Miserables. This time we have a relentlessly cheery tale of loss and sorrow, with a globetrotting dancer heroine who takes us from Italy to France, Hudson Bay, New York City, Mexico, and Turkey. In pursuit of her is a man she has never met, a somewhat wacky perspectiviste (“futurologist”) who is reminiscent of Pierre Richard in all those old Francis Veber comedies. Somehow it all works, and we are swept away on this journey, even during the slow and sad bits in the second half. In that way, this film is like life itself, but with the good fortune to have an optimistic guide to show us the way. (Seen 20 May 1999)

The Haunting 2 out of 4 stars

Question: If you wanted make (or remake) a spooky, atmospheric, unbearably suspenseful ghost story, would you A) give a few thousand dollars to a couple of guys in their 20s who have never made a movie before or B) give millions of dollars to a Dutch guy mainly known for making one movie about a speeding bus that can’t stop and another one about a bunch of tornadoes in Oklahoma? If you have trouble with that one, you just haven’t been paying attention this summer. Jan De Bont’s The Haunting is best appreciated if 1) you haven’t seen, or through some miracle, can’t remember having seen Robert Wise’s 1963 version and 2) you have never taken the Disneyland haunted house ride which is every bit as good as this computer-effects-laden spectacle. The main problems with this film are that it isn’t particularly scary (a bad thing for a haunted house movie) and that it just doesn’t deliver on the expectations that it sets up for at least some really imaginative effects based on our introduction to Hill House and its strange rooms and its odd artifacts. But at least the house itself is really cool. And some amusement can be derived from the brief turns by the housekeeper and her husband (a barely seen Bruce Dern, by far the creepiest thing in the movie), the insistence of Liam Neeson’s clueless psychologist on continuing to scribble notes even as all hell is breaking loose around him, and the notion that someone would actually build the gates of hell into their house. (Seen 2 August 1999)

Hawking 2 out of 4 stars

It’s difficult to judge a documentary like this because, to us mere mortals, it seems like all you would have to do is point a camera at Stephen Hawking for an hour and a half and just let him talk and you would have a fascinating movie. And that’s really saying something when you are talking about a man who is about as physically immobile as a person can get. Stylistically, as a documentary, this one is pretty standard in that it consists largely of talking heads, scant but fascinating archive footage and a judicious amount of recreations with actors. But it nearly doesn’t matter how director Stephen Finnigan put it all together. What makes the film riveting is its subject, the titular theoretical physicist/cosmologist who, as the film makes clear, is not only one of the most significant physicists in all of history but also a well-entrenched pop culture icon. To be clear this is a biography—actually, an autobiography since it is co-written by and narrated by Hawking himself—rather than an in-depth exploration of Hawking’s ideas and conclusions. We get glimpses of him as a child and a young man and a fair amount of (tasteful) information about his two marriages. The portrait that emerges is of a man with an intellect comparable to Einstein’s but who loves popular culture and relishes his place in it. Perhaps the greatest irony in his story is that he does not believe in God or an afterlife and yet his life is like a religious miracle. Given only a couple of years to live when first diagnosed with neuron motor disease, he keeps on going. (He is now 71.) He is truly a man who, since his youth, has had to live every single day knowing it could well be his last. And better than anyone else could have, he has shown us how to do just that. (Seen 23 September 2013)

He Liu (The River) 1 out of 4 stars

Definitely not based on a Bruce Springsteen song, Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang’s The River barrels along at the pace of an Indiana Jones action adventure. But only when compared to Tsai’s last movie, Vive l’Amour. Compared to any other movie, it moves at the speed of molasses in January. Within the Arctic Circle. Tsai’s minimalist filmmaking approach worked to fascinating effect in Vive l’Amour, but here it mostly seems tedious. At one point a character (who perhaps has consumed a gallon of coffee off-camera?) urinates for five minutes straight, prompting scattered applause from the audience. The story is about a young man who takes a brief role in a movie as a dead body floating in a polluted river. He subsequently begins suffering a horrible pain in his neck. As before, Tsai’s intent is not exactly (or even inexactly) clear. Is this meant to be an environmental cautionary tale à la Todd Haynes’s Safe? Or is Hsiao-kang’s debilitating disease meant to be a metaphor for homosexuality? Or for AIDS? Or is it about something totally different? Whatever the intent, when you walk out of the theater, your neck will hurt. (Seen 28 May 1997)

Head On 1 out of 4 stars

I’d say that this movie wants to be the Greek-Australian gay Trainspotting. Based on a novel called Loaded, it covers a 24-hour period in the life of a fairly troubled 19-year-old in Melbourne. Ari is not the least bit interested in looking for a job, insisting that there is no work to be had. He has a serious drug problem. He has a huge appetite for sex, mainly on the spur-of-the-moment with male strangers, but he doesn’t want to be seen as gay. And he is completely at odds with his immigrant Greek parents, who are as controlling as they are hotheaded. In other words, he is a catastrophe waiting to happen. Underlying this powder keg of emotion is a persistent sense of hostility between just about every ethnic group in the country. The one potential positive note in Ari’s depressing life is a new blond acquaintance who seems to be interested in striking up some sort of relationship. Ari is played by the strikingly handsome Alex Dimitriades, who was previously in The Heartbreak Kid. While fairly provocative, I’m afraid however that, as an alienated youth film, Head On doesn’t have half the style of Trainspotting and, as a modern immigrant saga, it isn’t nearly as enlightening as My Son the Fanatic. (Seen 25 May 1999)

Headless Body in Topless Bar 1 out of 4 stars

This film has such a good title that it is actually trademarked! (The filmmakers explained to me that you can trademark words in a logo, but you can’t copyright a title. That’s why we have more than one movie called The Heartbreak Kid, Bad Boys, etc.) Headless Body in Topless Bar was an actual headline in The New York Post in the 1980s. Screenwriter Peter Koper and director James Bruce took the basic events from the news article and embellished them to make a movie that is part black comedy and part psychological drama. Basically, a man comes into a topless bar on a slow night near closing and ineptly tries to rob the place. (The robber is a few fries short of a Happy Meal, if you know what I mean.) When the robbery goes awry, he has to figure out what to do with the customers who are now all witnesses. Naturally, he does what any master criminal would do in this situation. He makes them take turns telling their innermost secrets. It seems he had some therapy in prison and now he wants to try it out on others. (“An encounter session from hell,” the program notes aptly call it.) The whole thing feels like a play, and in fact Bruce and Koper had planned to do it as a play first until movie financing suddenly came through. The stuff can be quite entertaining at times, but the problem is that this sort of thing relies a lot on the shock value of the personal revelations. In an age where fathers regularly go on Oprah to talk about how they sleep with the daughters’ boyfriends, how are we supposed to be shocked anymore? The stripper turns out to be a lesbian. (Yawn.) The corporate lawyer has kinky sex toys in his brief case. (Zzzzzz.) The only real emotional involvement comes at the end when it’s time to find out if any hostages survive the experience. The cast includes Paul Williams (Phantom of the Paradise, Smokey and the Bandit) as a man in a wheelchair and David Selby (forever remembered by some of us as Quentin Collins on the original Dark Shadows series) as the lawyer. (Seen 11 June 1995)

Headrush 1 out of 4 stars

For those who felt that, as an examination of the Dublin drug scene, Veronica Guerin just what wasn’t light-hearted enough, there is this alternative by first-time feature director Shimmy Marcus. Of course, it’s not meant to be taken seriously, but still it takes a bit of courage to make a fun-loving comedy about drugs in Dublin these days. At heart, this is a buddy caper comedy, the antecedents of which are older than Hope and Crosby. But the humor here derives more from the school of Cheech and Chong, in which the audience is to find lads under the (continual) influence endlessly funny. Sometimes it’s genuinely funny, and sometimes you just figure that you are meant to be on drugs yourself to appreciate it. As a movie, it wants to veer (as so many do these days) from laughs to fright and back. But, despite a couple of bloody scenes, there is no palpable tension or sense of menace here. Steven Berkoff is on hand as the drug lord, who is meant to do for this flick what Gerard McSorley did for Veronica Guerin. Unfortunately, he reminds us too much of the blustering bald guy on Coronation Street. In the end, much as we would like to share the film’s desire to have some good harmful fun, this has been done better before. My advice: hold out for the good stuff. (Seen 16 October 2003)

The Heartbreak Kid 2 out of 4 stars

This film has no overt connection to the 1972 U.S. movie by Elaine May (with Charles Grodin and Cybill Shepherd) of the same title. Rather, it is an Australian film which centers on an ethnic Greek community. The film opens with an engagement party. But as the camera draws back, we see Christina enclosed in her parents house, surrounded by family while a teenager full of energy and life runs down the street setting off car alarms. This sets up the essential conflict of the story. Christina, a high school teacher who is smothered by her family and by her fiancé (Greek Australian men generally come off as pigs in this flick), winds up having an affair with that teenager, who just happens to be her student. The end of the story is much more upbeat and uplifting than is probably justfiable by reality, but hey it does let you leave the theater feeling pretty good about things. (Seen 19 May 1995)

Heaven’s a Drag (To Die For) 2 out of 4 stars

This is the fourth movie I have seen in the 1995 Seattle film festival which deals with the loss of a loved one to AIDS. And it is the third one which is at least partly a comedy. Heaven’s a Drag is from Britain and for a while it seems to be a gay version of Blithe Spirit. By the end, however, it has more in common with Ghost. When Simon’s lover Mark dies, he all too easily puts him out of his life. We learn that this is because Simon has learned to shut off his emotions due to the way his father rejected him when Simon came out to him. But Mark’s ghost will not leave Simon alone. While the situation is played for laughs, the ending of the story is actually quite touching. It is marred, however, by a couple of details. One is an all-too-convenient letter that Simon’s father wrote on his deathbed and which his mother was saving for just the right moment. The other is Mark’s final ascent into heaven which is visualized as Mark had always thought it would be while he was alive—complete with homoerotic angels. In any event, the film clearly had a powerful effect on the audience. This is the only screening I can remember when there were absolutely no questions for the director after the movie. (Seen 4 June 1995)

Heaven’s Gate 2 out of 4 stars

It’s quite an achievement for a filmmaker to have your movie’s title take on its own meta-meaning in the language and culture. Michael Cimino, for whom the world seemed to be his oyster after his 1978 triumph with The Deer Hunter, achieved that feat with this flick. The words Heaven’s Gate have become Hollywood shorthand for a creative and financial disaster of biblical proportions. After the immediate heat of the debacle in 1980 began to cool, however, one heard voices that said, hey, the movie wasn’t nearly as bad as it was made out to be. In fact, some said, it was, if not an underrated masterpiece, then at least a fairly good flick. So what’s the truth? Well, in its defense, there are plenty of much worse movies out there. On the other hand, it really is kind of a mess. It does have the feel of a project that got way out of hand and went on way too long and then had to be edited way too much. It also has the feel of a slight story that the filmmaker thought was way more momentous than it was. A fictionalized account of the range war in Johnson County, Wyoming in 1892, the movie nearly comes off as Marxist propaganda. The land barons are so evil and the immigrant settlers are so hapless that none of them comes off as full-blooded characters. In fact, somewhere near the middle, the film actually comes to a dead stop for a discussion among the settlers that would do Ken Loach proud. The main leads—Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken and Isabelle Huppert—all do their best, but their motivations and aims remain opaque enough to keep us from caring very much about who winds up with whom. Anyway, you know you have some interesting casting when Sam Waterston is a cold-blooded villain and Brad Dourif is one of the good guys. John Hurt’s character is amusing, but you wonder why he is there since he only seems to drink whiskey out of his flask and make caustic asides. Trivia note: this is one of the last screen appearances of Joseph Cotten. (Seen 15 July 2012)

Hedwig and the Angry Inch 2 out of 4 stars

At one point in the course of this gender-bender glam-rock musical, the title character exclaims, “Tommy, can you hear me?” Hedwig, who can best be described as a German-American quasi-transsexual who bears an eerie resemblance to Rachel Griffiths and who has hair that is sometimes like Farrah Fawcett’s and sometimes like Suzanne Somers’s, is invoking the name of her erstwhile love object and bane of her professional career: Tommy Gnosis. But the line is also a nod to the granddaddy of all rock operas, The Who’s Tommy, which was also about one of life’s victims looking for mass adulation when what was really needed was some measure of inner peace. The film’s clever parodying of pop music trends may remind some of This Is Spinal Tap, while its gossipy take on glam pop stars’ foibles and love lives may put others in mind of the more recent Velvet Goldmine. Still others, thanks to its encouragement for audience sing-along with some catchy tunes, may see it as a successor to The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The talent behind this paean to androgyny is director/co-writer/star John Cameron Mitchell who played Hedwig for years off-Broadway. The most familiar face in the cast is SCTV alum Andrea Martin’s, and it’s great to see her again, if only in a small role. (Seen 26 October 2001)

Heist 2 out of 4 stars

This movie is about a… well, I guess the title gives it away. Since this is written (and directed) by David Mamet, we expect to be misled and confused and surprised, and we are. We also expect characters to do a lot of repeating of what someone else has just said, kind of like a Dr. Seuss book, and that happens too, although not so much that it gets annoying. And, as we expect, there are cons and double-crosses and triple-crosses, and in the end, after all the cons have been revealed, we aren’t sure if there isn’t one last con and it just may be on us. Gene Hackman’s character has reached the end of his useful criminal life, and we know that Mamet can infuse this theme with heat and emotion because of his play (and screenplay) for Glengarry Glen Ross. But Hackman and his gang, since they are con artists, are strangely subdued and inscrutable. It’s up to Danny DeVito and Sam Rockwell, as DeVito’s itchy-trigger-fingered nephew, to provide the histrionics. The one actor to actually come up with a real, identifiable, sympathetic character is Patti LuPone in a small role as (and the flying public won’t be reassured by this) an alcoholic supervisor of security at an airport. But the best speeches are reserved for Delroy Lindo, who gets to tell some very amusing anecdotes, especially one about a Bible that stops a bullet. (Seen 3 December 2001)

Helicopter Mom 2 out of 4 stars

When compulsive readers of end credits get to the very end of this movie, they will chuckle at the following: “Any resemblance to real persons, events or locations is purely coincidental. Really, Mom, this isn’t about you.” Yeah, right. Actually, I have absolutely no idea how the mothers of director Salomé Breziner or writer Duke Tran would react to this movie, but for a viewer it sure has the feel of filmmakers trying to work out their parental issues on screen. The very funny Nia Vardolas (My Big Fat Greek Wedding) is the way-too-over-involved helicopter (emphasis on the part of the word that sounds like hell) mom of the title. This definitely-over-compensating single mother is trying to give Shelley Winters as Lenny Baker’s mom in Next Stop, Greenwich Village a real run for her money. She just can’t leave poor 17-year-old Lloyd alone—even when he is at school. Her meddling is of truly monumental proportions. This is a woman who lovingly grills her kid about what he thinks about while self-abusing. As played by erstwhile Disney Channel star Jason Dolley, Lloyd is meant to be sensitive, but he’s really just kind of boring. The comedy plot is set in motion when mom decides for him that he is gay—not so much out of any real insight but because, as she candidly concedes, she just can’t accept the idea of someday sharing him with another woman. Even his irresponsible deadbeat dad (Mark Boone Junior of Sons of Anarchy) has a nicer way with him. Any movie where a teenager gets outed in about the most humiliating and jumping-the-gun way possible is going to have to have A Message, and here that message is that we really shouldn’t be too quick to put labels on young people or to force them to put labels on themselves. Lisa Loeb, who also contributes music to the soundtrack, is on hand as Lloyd’s most encouraging teacher. And Skyler Samuels (American Horror Story and Scream Queens) plays the nicest pretty spoiled rich girl I have ever seen in a movie. (Seen 5 February 2016)

The Help 2 out of 4 stars

It’s hard to know how to feel about this movie. It deals with a very important subject, and its heart is clearly in the right place. For its efforts, it was rewarded with a Best Picture Oscar nomination and three acting nominations. (Octavia Spencer picked up a statuette for playing the sassy maid Minny.) The reality was that any Hollywood movie about the birth of the civil rights movement was going to have to negotiate two major potential pitfalls: 1) trivializing the subject matter and 2) turning it into a story about some heroic white liberal. It just about gets past those two obstacles—but barely. References to dramatic and consequential real-life events contrast with a tone that often feels like a comedy. And the whole thing is, in the end (dare I say it?) basically a chick flick. The filmmakers (Tate Taylor directed and adapted the screenplay from Kathryn Stockett’s novel) do come perilously close to making the movie mainly about Emma Stone’s spunky aspiring writer. But the caliber of the acting from Spencer and (especially) Viola Davis just about saves the day. Despite the melodrama, we do get some sense of the anguish of the legacy of race relations in America and a reminder of how things were not so very long ago. Unfortunately, the story also can’t help but remind us that, not so long ago, servants were pretty much the only roles available to African-American actors. (Seen 27 July 2012)

Help! 2 out of 4 stars

A decade before he made Three Musketeers movies and two decades before he made Superman movies, Richard Lester made Beatles movies. The first was A Hard Day’s Night, and it all seemed so natural and improvised that a lot of us assumed that all he did was follow the Fab Four around with a camera. (It was actually carefully plotted and scripted.) Help! was more like a real movie (and it was in color), but it was still a lot like hanging around with the Beatles—or how we kids imagined hanging out with them would be. It was essentially a James Bond spoof (a lot of things were around that time were), but in many ways it was also like a Pink Panther movie. John, Paul, George and Ringo were actually quite natural screen presences with a low-key, unruffled charm that contrasted nicely with all the chaos ensuing about them. The film’s humor is quirky in a way that is familiar from numerous British film and TV comedies—even including Monty Python—with a sly satirical eye on politics and society. There are also many wonderful sight gags, starting with a bit where the lads arrive home to four adjoining semidetached brownstone houses only to have it revealed that all the front doors lead to one large ultra-modern domicile. The main villain is Leo McKern, more than a decade before Rumpole of the Bailey. The mysterious woman is Eleanor Bron, who subsequently confessed she had not been a Beatles fan. Truly comical villainy is provided by Victor Spinetti and Roy Kinnear as the bumbling Foot and Algernon. But for my money the most laughs come from Patrick Cargill as the uber-urbane Scotland Yard superintendent who constantly delivers great lines like, “Oh come on now lads, don’t be windy, where’s that famous pluck?” Oh yeah, and the lads find time to stop and perform seven great songs. (Seen 23 August 2013)

Un Héros Très Discret (A Self Made Hero) 3 out of 4 stars

Don’t you just hate it when the war is suddenly over and you say to yourself, damn, I forgot to join the Resistance! That is the dilemma facing young Albert at the end of World War II. Un Héros Très Discret is a bit reminiscent of Preston Sturges’s 1944 classic Hail the Conquering Hero, but with two key differences. First, Mathieu Kassovitz’s nebbish doesn’t stumble into his false hero persona unwittingly like Eddie Bracken but rather plots it deliberately, inserting himself expertly among Resistance veterans, like Woody Allen in Zelig. Second, this movie is French, which makes the joke more deliciously cynical than in the American version. After all, real-life French politicians—no need to mention anyone (like François Mitterrand) by name here—have been known to conveniently re-invent their wartime experiences. Director Jacques Audiard pushes that point by telling the story in a pseudo-documentary format, oddly using Jean-Louis Trintignant as the present-day Albert even though he bears not the slightest resemblance to Kassovitz (who, incidentally, directed La Haine). 20th century French angst aside, the film wittily validates our suspicion that in politics, work, and life in general, image counts for more than substance and that history belongs to the best spin doctors. (Seen 15 April 1997)

Hey Babu Riba 2 out of 4 stars

This is a bittersweet, nostalgic story from Yugoslavia. Four teenage boys and the girl they are all in love with (and who happens to be their coxswain) are in a rowing race on the Adriatic Sea. But the rowers don’t stop at the finish line. They keep right on going to Italy, so that their friend can be reunited with her exiled father. But it turns out that the young lady is pregnant. Whodunnit? Switch to the present day. The four boys are middle-aged men and spread out all over Europe. On the occasion of their girl friend’s funeral, they come back to Yugoslavia for a reunion. After reminiscing and briefly meeting the daughter of their departed friend, we go back to the 1950s to see How It All Began. The picture painted is one of a Yugoslavia casting off the ugly overcoat of Stalinism. The young protagonists have a continual love affair with American culture. The girl is nicknamed Esther, after Esther Williams. The musician is called Glenn after Glenn Miller. They covet blue jeans and American cigarettes. In the course of the movie, we see all of them lose their virginity, start smoking, and generally grow up. On the whole, wry and humorous. (Seen 29 May 1987)

The Hi-Lo Country 2 out of 4 stars

Non-Americans (e.g. Sergio Leone, Wim Wenders) have turned out some of the best westerns, but so far Stephen Frears doesn’t have anything over the home guys. Based on a novel by Max Evans, The Hi-Lo Country is an elegy for a dying era. Its protagonists, Billy Crudup (looking strangely like a young Tommy Lee Jones) and Woody Harrelson (looking, as usual, half-crazed), are meant to evoke a dying breed of cowboys in post-World War II New Mexico. In fairness, the current political climate probably isn’t exactly right for getting nostalgic about a time when arguments were settled by drawing a gun and no social situation couldn’t be improved by taking a few swigs of whiskey before, during or after. I just don’t think that many people these days are asking themselves, hey, whatever happened to the good old days when you could pee all over someone you didn’t like in a bar or when a guy’s principles wouldn’t let him get involved with a married woman because his best friend is already having an affair with her (unless, of course, he got good and drunk first)? The film’s main problem is that it hinges on the relationship between Crudup and Harrelson and their friendship is described way more than shown, so we don’t really buy into this huge bond they are supposed to have. Anyway, Sam Elliott makes a dandy villain, James Gammon has one of the best western character faces in the movies, and Penélope Cruz is way too foxy to believe that Crudup would actually prefer Patricia Arquette (looking strangely like a young Karen Black) over her. (Seen 19 August 1999)

Hideaways 3 out of 4 stars

Sometimes what you want is a nice, haunting dose of good old Irish magic realism. And who better to give it to you than a French director and a talented leading cast of young English actors? Working from a script by Kilkenny’s Nick Vincent Murphy, director Agnès Merlet gives us the dark fairytale Ireland of our imaginations. After an opening stretch that could have been whipped up by a Gaelic Gabriel García Márquez, we get down to the main story involving Rachel Hurd-Wood (Peter Pan, Solomon Kane), Harry Treadaway (City of Ember, Fish Tank) and Thomas Sangster (Love Actually, Nanny McPhee). Merlet’s previous films include the French biopic Artemisia and the thriller Dorothy Mills, also filmed in Ireland. Probably the less you now about the story, the better, so just let me say that it is intriguing, haunting and more than a bit romantic. In introducing it at the Galway Film Fleadh, chairwoman Kate O’Toole (who has a small role in the film) called it “a fairy tale.” That’s about right, although it is kind of a dark one. But then all then all the best fairy tales are. (Seen 11 July 2012)

High Art 2 out of 4 stars

Sort of a lesbian variation on A Star Is Born, this film debut by Lisa Cholodenko purports to explore the worlds of art, photography, publishing, and drugged-out bohemianism. Radha Mitchell (who looks a bit like a young Mariel Hemingway) plays a woman on the next-to-bottom rung of the corporate ladder at a snobby photography magazine. Everyone keeps talking about how obsessed she is with her career, but mostly we see her meekly fetching coffee for a jerk male editor. She has a major life-changing awakening when she meets her upstairs neighbors who, unlike her boring yuppie boyfriend who merely makes cocktails with alcohol, do serious quantities of heroin while lounging around 24 hours a day. Her main object of fascination is Ally Sheedy who, as she gets older, looks strangely like Tammy Grimes. Which is weird because Grimes (where did she go anyway?) actually shows up as Sheedy’s Jewish, German-hating mother. Anyway, the movie should please fans of soap opera as well as people who are turned on by love scenes between women. (Seen 28 August 1998)

High Fidelity 2 out of 4 stars

One of the British TV programs I’ve enjoyed most during our sojourns in Ireland is called Cold Feet. Sort of a cross between Thirtysomething and Men Behaving Badly, this comedy cum soap opera about three couples coping respectively with commitment, marriage and children has never failed to crack me up. Last autumn I happened to catch a few minutes of the Americanized version and it left me completely, uh, cold. Maybe it’s because I had already seen the scene where they got arrested making love in the bed in the shop window. Maybe I’m just an anglophile snob. But I suspect that it truly lost something in the translation. The reason for mentioning this, of course, is that High Fidelity is a popular novel by Englishman Nick Hornby (whose other novel, Fever Pitch, dealt similarly with obsessive hobbies and male relationship problems) which has been transplanted by his fellow Brit Stephen Frears to Chicago and made into a John Cusack vehicle. The movie truly does have its moments, most of which revolve around the manic discussions between Cusack and his hired help in his eclectic, funky record shop. And lots of guys in (or who remember) their 20s will relate to the bleak sense of going nowhere romantically or career-wise. But there’s way too much of Cusack talking to the camera, and the romantic plot never achieves the same level of emotional climax as the film version of Fever Pitch. But the cast is strong and easy to watch. The standout is Jack Black, who seems to be a younger Meat Loaf clone. (Seen 14 April 2000)

High Heels and Low Lifes 2 out of 4 stars

The title is calculated to bring a bit of a smile to the face, not unlike that of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, another British caper film. This movie is aimed squarely at the funny bone, which shouldn’t be surprising since the director is comic actor Mel Smith (Not the Nine O’Clock News, etc.), who has previously helmed The Tall Guy and the Mr. Bean movie. Wearing the high heels of the title are the American Mary McCormack and the Briton Minnie Driver, who by now has totally erased any memory we might have still had about the weight she put on for her first film role in Circle of Friends. A running gag has this pair described time after time as “attractive,” and that they are. Driver plays a nurse, and another running gag has her repeatedly administering first aid to people who are shot as a result of the girls’ lamebrain schemes. You see, they decide to take matters into their own hands when they overhear a safe deposit robbery in progress. And, given the incompetence of the London police in this film (one of the cops on the case is much more into real estate than crime-solving), they are wise to do so. Also on hand is Michael Gambon as a crime boss referred to not so affectionately by his gang as “the old poof.” (Seen 13 July 2001)

High School Musical 3: Senior Year 2 out of 4 stars

The first surprise is that the big opening number, the final tense minutes of a climactic championship basketball game, is the one we would have expected as the big closing number. Okay, it may be a bit disingenuous to talk about this manifestation of a hugely profitable Disney franchise in terms of surprises, but there are a few, and that’s a good thing. The main surprise is that so many young children and their parents (I’m not sure how many actual high schoolers are fans of the High School Musical monolith) are queuing up to see what amounts to a good old-fashioned musical of the sort that was a pre-1960s Hollywood staple. By that I mean, to the extent there is even a plot, it is a thinly crafted device on which to hang the real point of the movie, which is one energetic singing-and-dancing number after another. Indeed, there is so much singing and such a high emotional (well, teen angst) content that this nearly qualifies as a rock opera. One may sneer at this dream of high school life, with gleaming white hallways and lockers, free of graffiti, and hormonally charged teenagers who kiss only infrequently and briefly, but it’s not a bad place to go. The cast is truly talented, and the choreography is first rate. (A gravity-defying number by star/heartthrob Zac Efron in a rotating hallway, reminiscent of Fred Astaire’s neat trick in Royal Wedding is particularly eye-catching.) Have we finally seen the last of this mammoth money-maker? The big finale nearly promises this is the case. But you would have to be a fool to rule out High School Musical: The College Years or, more likely, High School Musical: The Next Generation. (Seen 26 October 2008)

High Season 2 out of 4 stars

There’ll always be an England. Even if all of England is in Greece on holiday. This amiable, pleasant comedy is one of those delightful, low-key British comedies that seem so urbane and witty because everybody is talking with those neat accents, and just asking for a glass of Scotch sounds like a gem from Noel Coward. The movie stars Jacqueline Bisset, and it’s nice to see her doing some respectable (and very nice) work after all the trash she has done over the years. She plays a photographer who lives on the isle of Rhodes with her adolescent daughter. She has an off-and-on estrangement with her sculptor husband with whom she has irreconcilable artistic differences. Add to the mix a nice old art historian with a nasty little secret, a bumbling, young British agent and his ditsy wife, an energetic young Greek entrepreneur who worships British tourists as the source of his livelihood, and Irene Pappas who is great is his mother: a perpetually mourning widow of a Greek war hero (he died from a fall off a cliff while dancing drunk) who resents all foreign invaders. The characters meet, mix, misunderstand, change partners, and get totally confused in a series of events that are too complicated to explain but which unfold simply and naturally on the screen. It’s sort of a Mediterranean Night’s Comedy. Beautiful scenery, some pretty good laughs, and a touching moment or two. (Seen 27 May 1987)

Highway of Heartache 0 out of 5 stars

There is a reason why some movies are shown at midnight. This not-ready-for-primetime flick is the first (and maybe only?) movie by Canadian Gregory Wild. It is a campy, kitschy soap opera which, he proudly says, has something to offend everyone. Well, I suppose there are people out there who would be offended by this flamboyant musical (like when his big-haired country singer heroine Wynona-Sue Turnpike lights her cigarette on the male member of a man who has just been electrocuted), but few if any of those people will even be aware that this film exists. About ten or fifteen minutes of this John-Waters-on-steroids stuff would have been amusing, but 86 minutes was way too long. The sad thing is that in his comments after the screening (yes, I stayed), Wild indicated that he thinks he has made a great statement against oppression and bigotry. I’m afraid that any such message lives purely in Wild’s own mind. If his intended broadside on country-western culture had been anywhere near the mark, then he might have at most succeeded in pushing his own sort of bigotry. As it is, I mainly just came away with the feeling that I should have gone to bed earlier. (Seen 28 May 1995)

El Hijo de la novia (Son of the Bride) 3 out of 4 stars

The title suggests that we might be in for a story of late-in-life romance, and that is accurate, but not in the way you might be thinking. The bride is a woman suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and whose husband is finally planning to give her the church wedding she has wanted for decades. (She is played radiantly by Norma Aleandro, who starred in 1985’s The Official Story.) The love story about that pair is secondary and in deliberate contrast to the life of the true protagonist, their 42-year-old son who, in all-too-modern fashion, is burning the candle on both ends trying to keep the family restaurant going in one of the worst economies on the planet, Argentina’s. Constantly barking at suppliers, creditors and staff in person and on his mobile phone, Rafael barely keeps the restaurant running, let alone giving due attention to his daughter, his ex-wife or his lover. His pressure-cooker lifestyle compares sadly to the unabashedly romantic life his father has led. Will he straighten out his life and get his priorities straight? Probably, with some help from a newly returned childhood friend who looks and acts eerily like Roberto Benigni. Juan José Campanella directed the film, which is loosely based on personal experiences. (Seen 13 July 2003)

Hilary and Jackie 3 out of 4 stars

I like Gwyneth Paltrow and Judi Dench just fine, but it’s really criminal that the Academy Awards didn’t reward the fine performances of either Emily Watson or Rachel Griffiths in this extremely well-made film. Being about classical music and about a disease, this flick may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but you can’t help but be mesmerized by Watson’s and Giffiths’s acting gifts. As a composition, the film is like a fine-tuned musical work, dividing itself into movements and building a structure that spirals back on itself, finally meeting itself where it began. While its two-sisters-and-a-husband subplot may put you in mind of John Boorman’s The General, its spirit and appeal is more similar (and superior) to another musical biography, Shine. In addition to being a fine movie, Hilary and Jackie may even be somewhat accurate. For what it’s worth, Hilary and her husband seemed to think so when I caught them on an Irish chat show a while back. (Seen 31 March 1999)

Hill 16 2 out of 4 stars

After the film festival screening of his impressive no-budget debut movie, writer/director Dermot Doyle gobsmacked me by mentioning that that his original cut was something like 4 hours long. He described how much work it took to get it down to the current running time of 2 hours 5 minutes. The bad news is that it is still too long by quite a bit. The film is an impressive demonstration of how current technology makes it possible to produce a completely professional-looking feature film for peanuts, as long as the filmmaker can produce crisp writing, competent actors and skillful editing. Hill 16 really looks and feels like a multi-million-dollar/euro movie. Part teen comedy, part film noir, part suspense thriller, this movie about a 16-year-old who finds an attractive teacher taking an interest in him is nothing but entertaining and engaging. Sure, the actors, led by Conor Ryan in the lead role, are too old to be playing secondary students, but we’ve gotten used to that over the years. The problem is that there is a long build-up to a climax built around a revelation that is meant to be startling, but the twist is way too easy to see early on and (here’s where the running time is a problem) we have way too much time to think about it. Still, the writing and execution are adroit enough that we will definitely want to give Doyle’s next film a look. (Seen 8 July 2005)

The Hippopotamus 2 out of 4 stars

Earlier this year, the very funny and delightful Stephen Fry was the subject of an Irish police investigation for remarks he made on Irish television in 2015 about a hypothetical meeting with God. (There was a complaint from a member of the public, and there is an anti-blasphemy law on the books in Ireland, so…) Perhaps a better understanding of Fry’s thinking on spiritual matters can be had by reading his 1994 satirical novel The Hippopotamus. There is now this film adaptation, directed by John Jencks. Your enjoyment of it will depend entirely on how much tolerance/indulgence you have for the central character and omnipresent narrator, one Ted Wallace. A prodigious consumer of spirits, he is both a poet and a critic—that is, pretentious and judgmental all in one package. I, for one, find him very funny, and UK TV and film veteran Roger Allam has a field day bringing him to life. We meet him as he attends a staging of Shakespeare and is so appalled by the quality of the performance that he creates a scene in the theater and is consequently sacked by his editor. Fry has said that he based the character on “a compendium of Simon Gray, Kingsley Amis, John Osborne and others,” so that will give you an idea of what you are in for. A chance meeting with the daughter of his ex leads Wallace to an English country house full of sympathetically daft types and a mystery to solve. Wallace continues to be provocative and outrageous. The host family (Matthew Modine and Fiona Shaw at the head) and their guests are quirky and occasionally kinky, including a bit of horseplay (in a literal sense). It’s a bit reminscent of Fry’s own filmmaking foray, Bright Young Things, which was an adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies. A better comparison, though, is to Toa Fraser’s 2008 film Dean Spanley, which also dealt with spiritual themes. Whereas that one took a benign approach to wish fulfillment, The Hippopotamus, by contrast, is having none of it. Fry and his creation Wallace are determined to destroy one’s belief in the supernatural with the tenacity of a Sherlock Holmes story or an episode of Scooby-Doo. (Seen 13 September 2017)

Hîrtia va fi albastrã (The Paper Will Be Blue) 3 out of 4 stars

This compelling movie by Radu Muntean has the feel of certain films that have come out of the Balkans. As with those films, the immediate theme is the chaos and sometimes random violence that came as knock-on effects of the fall of the Soviet Union. But the larger theme is one that has been noted before on these pages—the absurdity that arises in the heat of war. It is fascinating to see this theme cast through the events in Bucharest in December 1989 since, to those of us who didn’t live through it personally, the Romanian revolution seemed a relatively quick and painless affair. But, as this film makes clear, nothing ever happens quickly or painlessly enough when guns are involved and confusion reigns. Those of us who weren’t there can only take it on faith that these events were as confusing and maddening as portrayed here. But it feels absolutely authentic and I tend to give it the benefit of the doubt. The story is told mainly from the point of view of young Costi, a militia member, who is gung-ho to support the revolution. His commander, Lt. Neagu, is more cautious and concerned with following protocol. In the course of a long night, Costi embarks on an odyssey that causes his path to cross with that of both free-lance fighters and the regular military, as well as ordinary citizens. The sense of menace laced with dark humor reminds us of nothing so much as Martin Scorsese’s After Hours. In the end, we learn that one has less to fear from one’s fellow Romanians than from bureaucratic confusion. (Seen 13 July 2007)

His & Hers 2 out of 4 stars

When you go to film festivals, you often find yourself seeing movies that you never hear about again. Especially if they are independent productions and/or documentaries, many do not have a life much beyond the festival circuit. A happy exception to this syndrome is this touching Irish documentary by Ken Wardrop. I didn’t get a chance to see it a year and a half ago at the Galway Film Fleadh, but fortunately I got another chance after it became something of a hit in Irish cinemas and now in a DVD release. The setup is deceptively simple. Point the camera at a bunch of women and let them talk about the men in their lives, then put the film snippets together in order of age from a baby to a rest home resident. The end result is like a compressed nine-decade story of a virtual Irish woman’s life and, secondarily, an implied life story of a virtual Irishman. The right thing here would be to point out how that, even though the interviewees are all Irish, their story is universal. And that is true. But what’s more interesting is that Wardrop has captured something very basic about the Irish character itself, specifically as it exists in the geographical center of the country. And this may explain the popularity of the film. Irish viewers can see themselves in a way that they usually do not, even in their country’s own movies and television. Besides, there is something pleasant and satisfying about spending an hour and quarter with nice, friendly, hard-working, loving people. Wardrop has done a lovely job with what he has described as a tribute to his own mother. (Seen 20 November 2010)

The History Boys 3 out of 4 stars

Now that U.S. Congressman Mark Foley is unemployed, he might want to consider a teaching job in a secondary school in northern England. He would seemingly fit right in, according to this exhilarating adaptation by Alan Bennett of his own prize-winning play. Set in 1983, the film presents a fairly idealized version of an institution of learning and of English society. The setup is a demographically correct class of precocious male students, anointed as “the Oxbridge set,” who cram for an exam (and subsequent interviews) that will determine whether they will be admitted to Oxford or Cambridge. At one point, one teacher posits to another that the transmission of knowledge is an erotic act, and in this school it very nearly always is. There is all kinds of longing (and, occasionally, consummation) between and/or among the staff and the, um, student body. The chief transmitter of knowledge is played by corpulent Richard Griffiths (most widely known as Harry Potter’s obtuse Muggle uncle and, before that, as amorous Uncle Monty in Withnail & I), and he represents an old-fashioned love of general knowledge and well-roundedness for their own sakes. His nemesis is the young, flashy and pragmatic teacher played by Stephen Campbell Moore. In its sentimental stretches, the movie plays like an update to Goodbye, Mr. Chips. At its most freewheeling, it is like a highbrow version of Welcome Back, Kotter, with the charismatic Dominic Cooper as a slick, ultra-confident version of the John Travolta character. I loved this movie—for its dialogue, for its performances, for its celebration of the exuberance of youth and for its sheer love of the process of learning, along with the occasional fatuousness that comes with it. This movie will arrive in U.S. cinemas at an interesting time, shortly after a national election which may be, at least partly, determined by a sex scandal. How will American audiences react to a film nostalgic for a time (that may or may not ever have existed) in which schoolboys bemusedly tolerate the groping of a beloved teacher and brush it off as part of their education? (Seen 10 October 2006)

The Hitch-Hiker (The Persuader) 2 out of 4 stars

For much of my life Ida Lupino was that woman who guest-starred on the Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour with her husband, Howard Duff. But in addition to a long acting career in movies and television, she was one of the first women to break through the Hollywood glass ceiling and sit in the director’s chair. It is therefore entirely appropriate that one of her films be shown at the Women in Cinema film festival. The Hitch-Hiker (1953) could well be the reason your mother always warned you never to pick up strangers. The title character (played by William Talman in a scruffier, pre-Hamilton Burger phase) is a frightening fellow indeed. Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy are the unlucky stiffs who give him a lift. Forty-five years later the film seems crude compared to the slick and intense action/suspense fare that Hollywood routinely churns out today. But The Hitch-Hiker still has the power in places to make your squirm. And it features many fine examples of that old movie cliché/convention: television and radio news bulletins usually contain a story that affects you personally at that precise moment. (Seen 27 January 1998)

Hitchcock 2 out of 4 stars

This 2012 movie by Sacha Gervasi—whose previous film was the entertaining documentary Anvil: The Story of Anvil—is a textbook case of a movie about the true story of making a movie, in this case Psycho. Firstly, it is shot in a style made to look like a Hitchcock movie. Secondly, we get all those little moments that make us say, aha, so that’s how that came about. Furthermore, we get today’s movie personalities doing impersonations of yesteryear’s movie personalities. Anthony Hopkins is very good—if not quite uncanny—as the very familiar Hitch. (An added bonus for Irish viewers is that he also looks and sounds eerily like the current finance minister, a fact that hasn’t gone unnoticed by Dublin’s satirists.) Most impressively, Scarlett Johansson really does seem to be Janet Leigh. But the show is largely stolen by Helen Mirren, as Hitch’s wife Alma, and to a lesser extent Toni Collette, as his indefatigable assistant. One gets the feeling that Hitch would have finished no movie without them. There are lots of walk-ons of famous collaborators (look, it’s Tony Perkins, look, it’s composer Bernard Hermann), the strangest of which is Ed Gein, whose real-life case inspired Robert Bloch’s source novel. It isn’t exactly Gein’s ghost. (He actually lived more than two and a half decades after the release of Psycho, in a mental hospital.) He seems to be, instead, something dark inside Hitchcock’s own psyche. The movie, which in the end is really a late-in-life love story, is interesting and entertaining enough, but it falls prey to the ultimate pitfall of celebrating one of history’s greatest movies by making a movie. It can’t help but seem pale by comparison. (Seen 7 February 2014)

Hitchcock, Selznick and the End of Hollywood 2 out of 4 stars

Of course this isn’t really about the end of Hollywood. I think we all know it is still there. But this PBS documentary by Michael Epstein (who previously made the more riveting The Battle Over Citizen Kane) is about the end of a Hollywood system, where the producer was king and the director was just a hired hand. As a historical document, this is fascinating stuff to watch, especially early footage of Alfred Hitchcock (there isn’t so much on David Selznick), and in a way it’s like a double episode of Biography. This pair make a good contrast, with Selznick being raised in America as a virtual princeling by his movie tycoon father and Hitchcock being repressed in England by a stern father and a strict Catholic upbringing. Epstein’s narrative (read by Gene Hackman) is rather one-sided. Selznick is portrayed as a controlling meddler with little innate talent (despite having produced Gone With the Wind) who was a chronic womanizer on the side. Hitchcock, on the other hand, is just an artist who wants to create and is a devoted husband. Epstein doesn’t have Hitchcock’s assistants spill dirt on him the way he has Selznick’s do. But Eptstein’s premise is valid. The struggle between these two men represented a major sea change in power in Hollywood from producers to directors. Particularly fun are the tales of intrigue behind the making of Rebecca, Spellbound and Notorious and humorous speculation on Raymond Burr’s character in Rear Window. (Seen 28 May 1999)

Hitchcock/Truffaut 3 out of 4 stars

A must-see for film nerds, this documentary will be of interest to anyone who appreciates or wants to understand how and why movies are made. Much of the footage is from a series of interviews in the Beverly Hills Hotel in 1962 conducted by 30-year-old film critic-turned-director François Truffaut with 63-year-old cinema master Alfred Hitchcock at the height of his career—just a couple of years after he made Psycho. To hear Hitch explain to his devoted younger friend and disciple his theory and approach to filmmaking is an amazing experience. This footage is supplemented with more recent talking-head sequences of such Hitchcock admirers as Martin Scorsese, Wes Anderson, David Fincher, Richard Linklater, Paul Schrader and Olivier Assayas. We learn how Hitch’s attention to visuals went all the way back to the silent era when he began making movies in England. We see his storyboarding technique and use of lighting and how he was able to conceive how shots would look in frame even when his directions made no sense to the actors. We also get to hear him speak the famous line where he likens actors to cattle and explains why he was not particularly interested in their ideas since they had no idea what the frame was meant to look like or why. We also get detailed examinations of key scenes in many of his classics, notably Vertigo, as well as a detailed analysis of the first half-hour of Psycho, leading up to and including the iconic shower scene. Along the way we also get a cursory review of the life and work of Truffaut but mainly only to compare and (mostly) contrast his work with Hitch’s. While this movie, directed by Kent Jones, focuses largely on filmmakers’ visions and on technical aspects, a lovely portrait emerges of the warm relationship between two very different men of different generations and cultures who profoundly admired and respected one another. (Seen 30 October 2016)

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy 2 out of 4 stars

It is, of course, not the least bit unusual that a popular book or television show should be adapted for the big screen. A familiar title is a huge advantage in marketing a movie. But this time things are different. Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was both a popular series of books and a television series and also a radio play. This story was always intended to move from medium to medium. So, this isn’t a case of an old favorite being appropriated for a standard popcorn action flick (like S.W.A.T.) or a satiric comedy (like Starsky & Hutch). Adams himself was involved in this movie until his all-too-untimely death four years ago this month, and the Hammer & Tongs duo of director Garth Jennings and producer Nick Goldsmith seem well suited to the task. Still, a lot of time has gone by since the story first sprang into our consciousness in the 1980s. How to update a story extremely familiar to millions of its fans? Early on, things seem to be going the Gus Van Sant-style shot-by-shot remake route. Different actors but the same dialog. Two or three main characters have become Americans. Jim Henson’s Creature Shop makes some truly wonderful Vogons. By the second half, however, we see how things have really been updated. New (earth) technology has obviously been taken into account. In a nod to current events, Sam Rockwell seems to be playing Zaphod Beeblebrox (the clueless president of the galaxy) as George W. Bush. The scenes in which Bill Nighy, as a spaced-out Slartibartfast, shows Arthur Dent the planet-making shop are exhilarating in a way that BBC series couldn’t be. And we find that Arthur Dent’s story has become an old-fashioned love story. Would I trade this movie for the original series starring Simon Jones, who will always be the one and only real Arthur Dent (and who makes a ghostly cameo here)? Not for a nanosecond. Will I buy the DVD of this movie when it comes out? Of course, I will. It’s part of the family now. (Seen 12 May 2005)

Hjem til Jul (Home for Christmas) 3 out of 4 stars

I kept wanting to call this movie Christmas Stories, probably because it is directed by Norwegian Bent Hamer, who previously made the odd and endearing Kitchen Stories. (His other films include O’Horten and the Charles Bukowski adaptation Factotum.) And that’s what this is really. Hamer adapted his various vignettes from a collection of stories by Levi Henriksen. The filmmaker has added a framing story, set in the war-torn Balkans, and weaved the stories together in a way to make them seem like one large story, set in a small Norwegian town on Christmas Eve. Only afterwards, upon reflection, do we realize that we have seen six distinct stories. Each is poignant in its own way, some have their unsettling moments and all are laced with a wry sense of humor. How all its strands will be resolved is so hard to guess that this nearly qualifies as a mystery story. Despite the holiday setting, Hamer does his best to avoid easy sentimentality. (He is, after all, a Scandinavian.) But by the time we have witnessed several acts of kindness, tentative and non-tentative acts of love, the birth of a baby, a magical light in the sky and a fair amount of redemption, it is hard to avoid the lump in the throat. (Seen 19 February 2011)

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey 4 out of 4 stars

The parallels were ominous. A massive hit motion picture trilogy returns in the form of a trilogy of prequels. The anticipation among rabid fans and the financial stakes are huge. Was Peter Jackson going to be reborn as George Lucas? Fortunately, there is a huge fundamental difference between the Star Wars empire and the Lord of the Rings (and, yes, this word must now be used) franchise. In the end, Lucas was indulging himself with the backstory of his own entertaining but not terribly profound tribute to old movie serials. Jackson, on the other hand, is adapting the most influential fantasy writer in recent history. Jackson does open himself to charges of bloat. Some have said that the famous sequence of the Dwarves (editorial note: that’s Tolkien’s preferred plural) eating and drinking all of Bilbo’s provisions seems to go on forever. Making what looks to be eight or nine hours of movies about a single novel could be considered excessive. Sure, Charles Sturridge and Michael Lindsay-Hogg got nearly eleven hours out of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, but that was a TV miniseries. The irony is that Jackson has really only done what Tolkien himself did. He has taken The Hobbit and expanded it and retold it and drawn it out until it had to be sectioned in three parts. Of course, when Tolkien did it, he called it The Lord of the Rings. With Jackson’s adaptation of Tokien’s trilogy, fan anguish centered on the bits that got left out. With the Hobbit trilogy, it may well focus on the bits that got added in. Characters are brought in from the LoTR movies who weren’t in the source novel. We also get characters who were only referred to in the novel, such has Radagast the Brown and the mysterious Necromancer, who is credited as Benedict Cumberbatch. Jackson is clearly intent on knitting the new movies as closely as possible to the earlier three—beyond what Tolkien himself did. So is the movie any good? I do wonder what non-fans and casual viewers will make of it all, but you know what? I don’t really care about them. What I care about is that Jackson continues to deliver pure cinematic magic. As before, the cast is pretty much perfect and, in fact, Martin Freeman (as Bilbo) is extremely engaging and sympathetic and is really an even better point-of-view character that Elijah Wood’s Frodo. Clearly, there is more to say on this. [Related commentary] (Seen 15 December 2012)

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies 4 out of 4 stars

There are people (at least one of them lives in the same house as I do) who will assume that I am giving this movie a coveted top rating only because it is by now a habit with me when it comes to movies by Peter Jackson set in Middle-earth. That might even be true. I can certainly understand how people might be tired of sitting through hour after hour of fantasy battles between mythical creatures punctuated by heartfelt speeches about legacy and honor. Okay, that was an out-and-out lie. I actually don’t understand how anyone could get tired of that. Me, I just want more of it. But then, as I have always said, film reviews tell us way more about the reviewer than they do about the film. So, yes, I was predisposed to love this movie since I have always loved Tolkien and Jackson’s treatment of his work. And I love this movie in spite of (not because of), as one critic wag had it, the fact that it is the shortest of all six of Jackson’s Middle-earth movies. This is actually my favorite film of the Hobbit trilogy and for much the same reasons that The Two Towers was my favorite of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The story of people under siege who eventually come to realize that they must fight for survival rather than trying to hide themselves from danger is one that Tolkien and Jackson excel at. Ditto the theme of the king who has lost his way and only belatedly finds where his true duty lies and what sacrifice he needs to make. Another theme the two movies share is the rare Tolkien love triangle—something in fact so rare in Tolkien that Jackson actually had to make it up for this movie. But it worked for me, despite the unintentional echoes of Evangeline Lilly’s (her name alone proves she was born to play an Elf) persistent love triangle on TV’s Lost. Though he doesn’t really get all that much to do except to look on concernedly, Martin Freeman is definitely the best Hobbit ever, and he brings a very welcome point of view to all the fantastical goings-on. And given the monumental themes and drama, the humor provided by the likes of Stephen Fry, Ryan Gage and Billy Connolly is especially appreciated. But for pure fanboy delight, you cannot beat Christopher Lee—now in his tenth decade—doing the most fluid of ninja moves as he batters Orcs. That is truly movie magic. (Seen 19 December 2014)

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug 4 out of 4 stars

The slow-motion rollout of Peter Jackson’s long-awaited adaptation of the Lord of the Rings prequel continues. Because the story is so familiar (well to Tolkien aficionados anyway) and was so hyped for weeks, if not months, leading up to the latest movie’s release, this entry in the saga—more than any other to date—suffers from the phenomenon of déjà vu. That’s actually kind of astounding, given that this movie—more than any other to date—departs from Tolkien’s text. The Lord of the Rings movies had their changes and omissions, but they were emphatically faithful to the overall narrative and, more importantly, the spirit of the books. And the first Hobbit movie—apart from relatively brief detours into the world of the Necromancer and Radagast the Brown—stuck pretty darn close (some who got bored with the opening tea party scene might even say slavishly close) to the original text. But this movie—with not only a cameo by Sauron himself (never mentioned in the book) but also major roles for Orlando Bloom’s Legolas and Evangeline Lilly’s Tauriel involving not only plenty of orc slaying but also something of a love triangle with Aidan Turner’s Kili the Dwarf—significantly rewrites the original story. That trend can only be expected to accelerate as the third and final (we assume anyway) flick bridges the gap between this trilogy and Jackson’s first one. How should we feel about this? Personally, I am okay with it. To my mind, Jackson has made the Middle-earth saga his own—at least in the movies—and has earned the right to tweak the details. In fact, I can imagine Tolkien (who was always against a movie adaptation but mainly because of the limitations of the film technology of his time) making similar tweaks if he had taken a mind to go back and blend his various books more closely. I am not blind to the effect of thinness—from the sheer cumulative length of all the movies—that is apparent in these latest movies, but they still earn my top rating. The magic is always there—even when the action resembles a ride at Disneyland. Martin Freeman’s Bilbo is exceedingly good company and his tense banter with Benedict Cumberbatch’s dragon was a great warm-up for the recently resumed series of TV’s Sherlock. (Seen 23 December 2013)

The Holiday 1 out of 4 stars

Take a plot more or less lifted from a Maeve Binchy novel, throw in a reasonably large cast of well-known faces, including some English ones, all involved in various romantic shenanigans and, well, it’s like someone told writer/director Nancy Meyers, hey, why don’t you make a movie like Love Actually? The best thing in this movie is good old Eli Wallach who, in his mid-90s, plays a long-retired screenwriter who continually evokes the glory days of Hollywood and encourages heartbroken Kate Winslet (who has clearly been told to try being as much as possible like Emma Thompson) to have “gumption” like the leading ladies of the 1930s and 1940s. The problem with this is, it keeps reminding us how much better those movies were than this one. The other mistake was to make Cameron Diaz a producer of movie trailers, who is constantly working on one for a cheesy, by-the-numbers formula movie with James Franco and Lindsay Lohan. It’s virtually begging us to see that the same sort of people were behind this movie. Now, predictability is not entirely a bad thing in a feel-good, holiday entertainment, but in this case that’s like saying that water is essential for life—to a drowning man. But even the relentless lack of surprises would be survivable if there were just one line of truly witty dialog. It is quite an achievement that the likes of Winslet, Jude Law and Jack Black could all be made to be so convincing as uninteresting people. (Seen 27 December 2009)

Holiday Inn 2 out of 4 stars

This 1942 classic often gets listed among top holiday movies, mainly because it introduced Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” as sung by Bing Crosby. I have read more than once that some critics actually consider it superior to Michael Curtiz’s White Christmas, the quasi-remake which came out a dozen years later. Actually, it’s not. And I’m not saying that just because it’s in black and white and doesn’t have Danny Kaye. In this iteration, Crosby plays the same role as in the 1954 movie and also the Dean Jagger part as well. His foil is Fred Astaire, who is his rival for not one but two different women (Virginia Dale and Marjorie Reynolds). While Curtiz’s flick is most definitely a “Christmas movie,” this one (directed by Mark Sandrich), as its title implies, covers all the holidays of the year—although Christmas is always reserved for the main emotional wallops. Crosby and Astaire are always very watchable and listenable and so are good holiday company. And Berlin’s music is top notch stuff. But in the end the simple romantic travails of a crooner and a hoofer do not have the same resonance as Jagger’s retired general feeling displaced in his golden years or—more importantly—that long-awaited snowfall in the final reel. (Seen 26 December 2012)

Hollow Man 2 out of 4 stars

First of all, the special effects in this movie are super-cool. The scenes where Kevin Bacon and a gorilla “shift” are exactly the sort of stuff that computers were made for. Changing the title from The Invisible Man to Hollow Man suggests (to the naïve anyway) that perhaps this will be more character study than thriller. And Bacon’s brilliant but arrogant and morally vacant jerk of a character, as well as the general atmosphere of secret Pentagon research and animal experiments, certainly makes things feel creepy and full of foreboding from the get-go. The fact that Bacon likes to watch an attractive neighbor, whose apartment windows conveniently face his own (plus a later shower scene) strongly suggests that this is going to be a Brian De Palma-style Hitchock homage. But director Paul Verhoeven (Robocop, Showgirls, Starship Troopers) isn’t settling for just that. By the time this flick is through, it will remind you of any number of trapped-people-playing-cat-and-mouse-with-a-monster movies, notably Ridley Scott’s Alien. And then it will remind you of any number of monster-that-refuses-to-die thrillers, notably James Cameron’s The Terminator. But, on the other hand, did I mention that the special effects are super cool? (Seen 7 August 2000)

Hollywoodland 2 out of 4 stars

For much of its running time, this schizophrenic movie, built around the Hollywood career and death of George Reeves, plays like Chinatown meets JFK. Clearly, director Allen Coulter and writer/producer Paul Bernbaum were right to expand the narrative beyond merely Reeves’s life which, on its own, would have been suitable fodder for maybe a quickie TV movie. But the result is that the movie feels a lot like (pre-World Trade Center) Oliver Stone: lots of spinning of conspiracy insinuations where the obvious version of events is almost certainly the right one. And, after a series of Rashomon-like visions on the part of Adrien Brody’s private investigator, the filmmakers pretty much lead us to that conclusion. The movie has a nice feel for the time and place, but the story of Brody’s character feels like a mostly unrelated appendage. Sure, I guess it serves to draw comparisons between real folk and the beautiful people, and it sort of allows the film to explore what happens to us when our myths die. But it all seems rather forced. The real revelation is that beefed-up Ben Affleck can convincingly play a shallow but ambitious pretty boy. He’s actually quite good, and his association with the comic-book-infused oeuvre of Kevin Smith and one bona fide superhero movie (2003’s Daredevil) bring an unexpected resonance to the man who never really wanted to be Superman. (Seen 10 October 2006)

A Home at the End of the World 2 out of 4 stars

I just hope that President Bush doesn’t see this movie because he will right away want to try to pass another constitutional amendment. Actually, this movie about an attempt to create an alternative kind of family doesn’t fit comfortably into anyone’s political agenda, and that’s just as well. The film focuses mainly on characters and relationships, rather than plot points. That fact, plus a whimper of an ending, means the story worked better as a novel (by Michael Cunningham, who also wrote the screenplay) than it does as a movie. As with the book, the early scenes of the movie are the best part. The character of Bobby Morrow is certainly a haunting one. It is a bit jarring that Erik Smith’s portrayal of the teenaged Bobby seems way more centered and confident than Colin Farrell’s adult version, which nearly seems to have been lobotomized. Farrell also has the unfortunate task of working to maintain a straight face as he tells Robin Wright Penn that he has never before been with a woman. Since the 1960s, there has been a small virtual sub-genre of movies about two men and a woman, with a complicated set of romantic attractions among them, trying work out some sort of three-way relationship. Notable previous entries in this sub-genre would be Rob Cohen’s A Small Circle of Friends and Andrew Fleming’s Threesome. At the risk of damning with faint praise, so far A Home at the End of the World is the best of the lot. (Seen 14 October 2004)

Home for the Holidays 2 out of 4 stars

What is there about family holiday get-togethers that make us dread them for weeks, grit our teeth during the whole experience, and then feel incredibly sad when suddenly it is time for us to go home to our “real” lives? Jodie Foster’s second film, Home for the Holidays, catches these emotional contradictions nicely while exaggerating the tics and quirks of familiar relative types (in this case, the, ahem, Larson family of Baltimore) just enough to be humorous and entertaining. The large and talented cast includes lots of familiar faces, including the too-seldom-seen Geraldine Chaplin as an eccentric aunt. The main drawback is a too-good-to-be-true romantic subplot which probably wasn’t even necessary for the movie’s shameless feel-good ending. But, hey, it’s the holidays. And over-indulging is a time-honored holiday tradition. (Seen 8 November 1995)

Home Is the Hero 2 out of 4 stars

The Cork Film Festival has been so kind as to give me a useful primer on life in the west of Ireland, in the form of an archival screening of this rare 1959 Irish film. According to Home Is the Hero, I can look forward to emotional family rows, neighbor children peeking in the windows, lots of drinking and silliness in the pub, and the occasional case of manslaughter when things get out of hand. Swell. Can I go home now? Directed by and starring Yanks (Fielder Cook and Arthur Kennedy, respectively), the rest of the cast is made up of players from Dublin’s Abbey Theatre. The film is adapted from a piece by Galway playwright Walter Macken, who plays the title role of Paddo O’Reilly. Paddo is a tragic figure in the vein of Lennie in Of Mice and Men. The lads in the pub love him because he can perform just about any silly feat of strength he is asked to, e.g. breaking off the neck of a beer bottle with only his two hands. He is less adept at simple math puzzles, which is where the trouble starts. Time has dated this story, which is essentially a soap opera, but it still has some power. It takes a while to sort out the family members, in part because Macken and Kennedy, who play father and son, are practically the same exact age. (Seen 9 October 2002)

Un Homme et une Femme (A Man and a Woman) 2 out of 4 stars

I actually had a reason for revisiting this specimen of 1960s euro-chic at its glorious height. It was partly filmed in Deauville, Normandy, where my upcoming novel is partly set. (Yes! Shameless plug! Deal with it.) Number six on the list of scores of films directed by the prolific Claude Lelouch, it had a real cultural impact at the time. New York critics wrote about it and the ear-worm of a theme melody by Francis Lai was inescapable on the radio. Written by frequent Lelouch collaborator Pierre Uytterhoeven (with uncredited help from Lelouch), the story is so much manipulative pop romance twaddle. Yet there is something mesmerizing about it all the same. The title characters, as played by Anouk Aimée and Jean-Louis Tringtignant in their attractive prime, are impossibly stylish and elegant. Their respective careers qualify as glamorous. She’s a movie script supervisor. He’s a racing test driver. The production reeks of Nouvelle Vague tics, like the way things switch from color to monochrome and back. The pair meet after dropping their kids back to their Deauville boarding school after a weekend visit. Beautiful but scattered, Anne misses her train. No problem. Dashing and capable Jean-Louis can give her a lift back to Paris in his Mustang. They talk, they flirt, they bond. The narrative’s romantic tease goes on for the better part of two hours. In between he is at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Monte Carlo Grand Prix. In the future when climate change has totally transformed the culture, audiences watching this at archival screenings will marvel at the amount of driving he does. Will they get together in the end? Will they be happy? Will the price of petrol cramp his lifestyle? Despite our better instincts, we have to keep watching to find out. Be on the lookout for this classic to get name checked in the aforementioned upcoming book. (Seen 7 February 2017)

Homo Heights 1 out of 4 stars

You either get drag queen humor or you don’t. If you are an aficionado, 92 minutes of it is barely enough. If you’re not really into it, five minutes could be more than sufficient. To the extent that drag queen movies seem to be a de facto sub-genre of gay cinema, Homo Heights is a cut above most examples I have seen. But it still mostly seems (to me) to be the same joke over and over. What stands out here is 1) the fact that lesbians for once get equal screen time with the queens, 2) the opening title sequence is inventive and fun, and 3) Quentin Crisp. Eighty-seven-year-old Crisp is the best thing in the movie as he methodically reads his lines with the aplomb of a doddering Noel Coward. To the credit of writer/director Sara Moore, Crisp’s lines sound as if he had written them himself when only one of them was. In addition to Women in Cinema, Homo Heights is also slated to play at the 1998 Seattle International Film Festival, I’m guessing at midnight. (Seen 25 January 1998)

The Honeymooners 2 out of 4 stars

No, this isn’t another big-screen update of an old TV situation comedy. It is, in fact, what the filmmaker Karl Golden calls the first Irish dogma film, although it is unclear whether this is for aesthetic artistic reasons or out of financial necessity. Shot on video, this flick looks way better than a home movie, which is the minimum threshold movies shot on video have to get over. The plot is as old (and timeless) as It Happened One Night. It’s our hero’s wedding day, and things are not going as he had planned. It also happens to be the birthday of a waitress at Dublin Airport, and that isn’t going the way she would have hoped either. It is no shock to dyed-in-the-wool movie buffs that these two wind up meeting and fighting with each other over a period of a few days. Will they finally get fed up with each other and go their separate ways? If you believe that even for a moment, well, then I have a real live little leprechaun I would like to sell you! While very familiar in its material, the movie does have its moments. It is particularly notable for its unusually harsh view of rural Irish people, specifically in Donegal. The locals come off as a cross between Ma and Pa Kettle and those backwoods fellows in Deliverance. (Seen 12 July 2003)

Hong Meigui, Bai Meigui (Red Rose, White Rose) 2 out of 4 stars

Winston Chao (The Wedding Banquet) plays such a jerk in Hong Kong’s Red Rose, White Rose that one irate audience member started badmouthing him out loud until the rest of the audience hushed her. Chao plays a “respectable” Chinese man who has been British educated. One thing he has learned is to put women in one of two categories. The “red rose” is more fun but you wouldn’t want to marry her. The “white rose” is, well, the opposite. But Chao is not only a jerk; he is just plain dumb because in his case the red rose is the lovely Joan Chen (The Last Emperor, Twin Peaks), who decides to end her marriage after he has initiated an affair with her. But he dumps her and marries a woman who is more “respectable” but also so neurotic (thanks largely to him) that she spends entire days sitting on the toilet. As Stanley Kwan’s film so colorfully puts it, the red rose winds up emotionally like the red stain left after a mosquito has been killed. (Seen 27 May 1996)

Hongfen (Blush) 2 out of 4 stars

In some ways Blush is kind of like a Chinese Gone with the Wind. It involves two very different women (who both come to love the same man) and how they cope when their whole world is turned upside down by political and military events. Having said that, I have to add that Qiuyi and Xiao’e are not exactly Scarlett and Melanie. They are prostitutes who generally have a good life in a high-class brothel. That all changes after the Communists come to power in 1949 and the pair are forced to become true “working girls.” Tough, streetwise Qiuyi slips out of the rehabilitation center and takes refuge with one of her best former customers, the young idly rich Lao. Unfortunately for both of them, Lao’s family is about to lose everything they have. Meanwhile, Xiao’e goes through re-education and becomes a textile worker. We follow the characters’ paths which intersect over the years in true soap opera fashion until they reach a bitter conclusion. The material is based on a story by Su Tong whose writing also formed the basis for Raise the Red Lantern. (Seen 9 June 1995)

Hope Springs 1 out of 4 stars

Colin Firth is so stereotyped in the role of the uptight, repressed, romantic-object Englishman that he might as well just be done with it and have his name legally changed to “Mr. Darcy.” The character he plays here is largely indistinguishable from the one he played (much better) in Love Actually and, when we see his character’s artistic rendering of the fiancée who jilted him, we would not be surprised if it was Bridget Jones. Still, there is nothing wrong with one more romantic comedy, where the tightly-wound Brit gets warmed up by a free-spirited American girl. I’m speaking generally, of course, since there is plenty wrong with this particular one. We really do want to root for Firth and the comely Heather Graham to get together, and we really do want to like the quirky small-town residents, and we even really do want to hiss at Minnie Driver as the fiancée who shows up to try to wreck everything. But it’s not fair that we should have to put in more emotional effort than the filmmakers did. The director is Mark Herman, who seems to do romantic comedy better when it is a subplot to a story about aspiring musical performers. (His c.v. includes the enjoyable Brassed Off and the intriguing Little Voice.). While the cultural clash between down-home America and the English is a rich lode to mine for humor, I ended up amusing myself at the spectacle of a British Columbia town festooned with the stars and stripes everywhere and pretending to be New England. (Seen 27 November 2004)

Horrible Bosses 2 out of 4 stars

In case we are too slow to get the idea, someone actually says that the plot hatched by three main characters of this movie is just like Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. But instead of wanting to get rid of a father and a wife, these guys want to get rid of their bosses. Never mind that such a plot would be evil, the movie tries to excuse this by having the bosses be really disgusting and having the guys come up with their plan while drinking. (Well, that certainly excuses them morally.) Anyway, we’re pretty sure that they’re too incompetent to pull it off, so our sense of right and wrong is hardly tested. Still, it is interesting to ponder the notion that these generally nice guys (Jason Bateman, Charlie Day, Jason Sudeikis) can be offended by, respectively, abusive treatment, sexual harassment and extreme obnoxiousness, but that murder can be justified. But we are not meant to take any of this seriously anyway. Director Seth Gordon and his cast provide quite a few laughs. Standouts include Jamie Foxx, as the obligatory seemingly streetwise black guy who would of course know all about offing people, and the three titular bosses. Kevin Spacy has played this role before and deserves credit for not simply phoning it in. Colin Farrell has a great time in a cartoonish role. And Jennifer Aniston looks strangely like Kate Jackson as Day’s predatory dentist boss. The only problem with her character is that the sort of guys who really enjoy movies like this probably would actually want to work for her. (Seen 19 January 2012)

The Hot Chick 1 out of 4 stars

Here’s another movie I’m embarrassed to say I have seen. It’s essentially a teen comedy version of Prelude to a Kiss. Body exchange and gender-bending comedies like this often provide a comic actor a chance to stretch his or her acting muscles and impress the audience with genuine thespian skills. Like Tom Hanks in Big. Or Steve Martin in All of Me. Or Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire. It comes as no surprise that Saturday Night Live alum Rob Schneider doesn’t quite measure up to those performances. He deserves credit for at least playing his role (as a high-spirited teenage girl who improbably winds up with the body of a vulgar thief who is so inept that the word “petty” would be a compliment) straight—although that’s probably not the best word choice. Anyway, we don’t believe for a minute that there is really a nymphet inside Schneider’s disheveled frame. But that’s probably part of the joke. Which is the point here. This isn’t a movie movie. It’s a joke movie. Viewers who try to take the film seriously will have to somehow reconcile conundrums like why the heroine’s nubile best friend, her father and her mother would all be attracted to Schneider. Or what girl has (seemingly) changed bodies with her weepy, overly sensitive quarterback boyfriend. He, of all of people, is no stranger to gender-bending situations, since he is played by Matthew Lawrence, who played Robin Williams’s son in Mrs. Doubtfire. That film is definitely a class act next to this one, which takes the idea of bathroom humor extremely literally. (Seen 15 December 2002)

Hot Hot Hot 2 out of 4 stars

The title may sound like the name of skid row strip joint, but… yeah, well, that’s probably not an accident. This Luxembourg/Belgium/Austria co-production written and directed by Paris-born Beryl Koltz is a type of film we haven’t seen for a while: a tale of sensual late blossoming. Rob Stanley plays a turtle-like man in his 40s who fears to peek out of his shell. But he is forced to change when the aquarium where he works is closed for renovations and he is transferred to the leisure park’s spa where, instead of fish, he will be working with (mostly naked) human beings. Repeatedly referred to by the alliterative mouthful Ferdinand Fairfax from Fish Land, our hero finds himself becoming attracted to more than one of his co-workers. There is a sweet quirkiness to the whole thing that reminded me a lot of another film I enjoyed 16 years ago, Jevon O’Neill’s Bob’s Weekend. Dark touches are woven rather seamlessly into what is largely a humorous series of events. The ensemble of odd characters includes Joanna Scanlan as the dowdy substitute manager who turns out to have a very attractive side, Amber Doyle who mops a floor like an elaborate modern dance and Wendy Kweh as a mesmerizingly beautiful blind masseuse. (Seen 12 July 2013)

Hot Tub Time Machine 2 out of 4 stars

It’s rather ironic that Chevy Chase, who rose to fame in large part by impersonating President Gerald Ford whom he did not at all resemble, actually does now kind of look like him now. Chase, of course, is on hand as a sort of totem for the 1980s, which is when his film career peaked. But a better link is Crispin Glover, whose eclectic career includes the original Back to the Future, which is the nexus of 1980s pop culture and movie time travel—both of which this flick by Steve Pink (Accepted) riffs relentlessly. The movie’s poster really does say it all. This really is The Hangover meets Back to the Future. The 1980s jokes are no better or no worse than the ones in Frank Coraci’s The Wedding Singer, which jumped the gun on 1980s nostalgia way back 12 years ago. (Among its provocations, it does have the fearlessness to include a zinger of a Michael Jackson joke.) So the main attraction is the raunchy and gross-out set pieces typical of a hard R American comedy (although this one was filmed in Canada), but I do have to say that there are several very good time travel and time travel movie references. For my money, most of the laugh-out-loud moments involve the running gag about our heroes’ foreknowledge that Glover’s bellboy character has only one arm in 2010. Mostly though, the flick serves to remind those of us who actually recall the 1980s why we usually try to avoid doing so. (Seen 19 May 2010)

Hotel for Dogs 2 out of 4 stars

In a comparison that will be of absolutely no use to anybody, this movie has at least two things in common with Slumdog Millionaire: 1) it recounts the travails of young orphaned siblings, and 2) at one point there is a depiction of a notable mishap involving a makeshift toilet. This live-action romp, which is basically One Hundred and One Dalmatians meets Rube Goldberg, is as sure-fire an option for a family outing as you can hope to find. No cuteness was spared when it comes to dogs or kids (mainly Emma Roberts and Jake T. Austin). Do the dogs look at you with big wet eyes and cock their heads heartbreakingly to one side? You betcha. Are the dog catchers uniformly wretched excuses for human beings who take sadistic pleasure in their job? You have to ask? Are Emma and Johnny Simmons absolutely the cutest teen couple you will see all year? Hopefully. Will some of us tear up merely at seeing clips of the cast and crew with their own pets during the closing credits? None of your business. If there is a revelation here, it is that young Mr. Austin, whose other jobs have included giving voice to Dora the Explorer’s cousin Diego, shows that he can do much more on screen than the mugging required for the Disney Channel (in his case, The Wizards of Waverly Place). This is always dangerous to say, but he seems to be one young actor to watch. (Seen 15 March 2009)

The Hours 3 out of 4 stars

What could be more depressing than a movie where everyone is depressed? It speaks volumes about the magic of movies that a film, in which depression is a constantly running theme, could be exhilarating—certainly not because of the subject matter but just from seeing an extremely well-made film. In other words, there’s no reason to be afraid of Virginia Woolf—or a movie about her and her writing. As one character explains, Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway was about a woman’s entire life summed up in a single day. Novelist Michael Cunningham, screenwriter David Hare and director Stephen Daldry (displaying the same sensitivity and love of art he demonstrated with Billy Elliot) play off this idea by giving us the lives of three women (including Woolf herself) in three single days, but woven together to make one whole experience. This isn’t just about mental illness; it’s about how life keeps repeating itself and how literature gives us awareness and appreciation for it all—and maybe even sometimes provide a bit of salvation. The standout here is Nicole Kidman as Woolf. Her performance is more than a great makeup job. No other role of hers prepares us for the level of work she does here. Ed Harris does his usual fine job in a part that seems calculated for getting an Oscar, and Jeff Daniels is surprisingly good as his former partner. As for the ubiquitous John C. Reilly (The Good Girl, Chicago), let’s hope that someday he will get a movie wife who doesn’t cruelly disappoint him. But, as with most movies that feature Philip Glass’s music, one of the main stars is the music. The Hours is clearly a “woman’s movie,” but it is the best possible kind of woman’s movie—one that anyone and everyone can enjoy. (Seen 17 March 2003)

House of Dark Shadows 2 out of 4 stars

As much as possible, I try to judge motion pictures on their own merits and not primarily as an adaptation of some book, stage production, comic book, video game, theme park ride or, as in this case, serialized daytime gothic drama. But it’s really hard with this flick because, frankly, it would not exist but for the legion of fans that the Dark Shadows series garnered during its five-year run on ABC. As I watched it again for the first time in decades, I tried to see it as if I were a DS virgin, but it’s really impossible. I suspect that, objectively, the film is fairly mediocre. While the production standards are light years away from the television source (no muffed lines, no cardboard-like sets, actually seeing police cars speed to the vampire’s house, watching the Collins family gather around the dining table, etc. etc.), it’s still a pretty cheap film. The story is essentially a rehash of the Dracula story, but with the twist that we actually get to see things from the vampire’s view and even hope for his salvation. But it’s neither scary enough nor emotionally involving enough to be very satisfying as a movie. What it does satisfy is the fan’s desire to see a favorite story redone in a tidy and compact form for posterity. But our favorite elements from the TV series (the alluring enchantress Angelique and the emergence of Barnabas and Dr. Hoffman as time-traveling supernatural mystery-solving duo) were, necessarily, omitted. Moreover, there is the disconcerting fact that, in the movie, all the old familiar characters are killed off. I have to wonder, after all these years, if a movie that was in narrative consistency with the series (rather than alternative telling) would not have been better. Anyway, the movie (for which most DS fans are ultimately grateful) comes with a couple of cinematic footnotes. It was the penultimate big screen appearance of Hollywood veteran Joan Bennett (1933’s Little Women, 1950’s Father of the Bride, 1960’s Desire in the Dust). Her last feature film appearance would be in the Dario Argento thriller Suspiria. It was also the second-to-last time that Oscar nominee Grayson Hall’s face would be seen on the big screen. Her last on-screen role would be this movie’s sequel Night of Dark Shadows, and she would lend her voice to the rather strange 1975 flick Pick-up. (Seen 11 May 2007)

The House of Mirth 2 out of 4 stars

Atypically, Terence Davies’s last dramatic film (he says he’s not interested in doing any more), released in 2000, was a straightforward literary adaptation. A faithful rendering of Edith Wharton’s 1905 novel about New York society, it clearly shows the director’s visual and musical touches but the very personal themes that generally mark his work are seen only subtly here, as an implied critique of class-based society. It is like a Merchant-Ivory movie but with a deeper artistic sensibility behind the camera. Gillian Anderson (at the time still with her X Files TV gig) plays the tragic heroine Lily Bart, who is trapped not only by the strict conventions of her time but also by her lack of financial sense and the dllemma of being too sentimental to marry for money and too practical to marry for love. There is something in her voice that suggests that, in a later time, she could have been Blanche DuBois. Fans of drawing room chitchat could do worse than this movie, and the current financial climate makes it well worth a look. It features several familiar faces and some solid supporting players. Laura Linney and Anthony LaPaglia acquit themselves well as the story’s chief villainess and a refreshingly plain-spoken suitor, respectively. (Seen 17 October 2008)

How About You 2 out of 4 stars

I had been wanting to see this movie ever since it came out two years ago, since it was directed by Anthony Byrne, whose two previous films (the short Meeting Che Guevara and the Man from Maybury Hill and the feature Short Order) fascinated me. Unlike those two, however, Byrne here works from someone else’s screenplay (Jean Pasley) which is adapted from a story by Irish chick lit queen Maeve Binchy. You can’t get much farther away from the previous subject matter. A typical enough sentimental, feel-good Christmas story, Byrne keeps things intriguing visually by doing interesting things with the camera and making the most of the picturesque County Wicklow location. But what really makes the movie worth seeing is the cast, which includes (by my count anyway) two Oscar wins and six Oscar nominations. Most of those belong to Vanessa Redgrave, who has the plum role of the retired veteran performer who wallows in her faded glory—something Redgrave can do quite well, except maybe for the faded part. If we want to quibble, I suppose there is an air of predictability, if not inevitability, about the plot, and things do get tied up a bit too neatly by the end. But this is precisely the sort of thing most of us are looking for around the holidays, and this is much better than a lot of things we could be watching. (Cf. The Holiday.) (Seen 23 December 2009)

How Harry Became a Tree 2 out of 4 stars

What we have here is a Chinese story adapted into a film directed by a Serbian and filmed in Ireland with an Irish cast. And there is a temptation to look for an allegory in this fable about rural life. Is it saying something about Irish history? (It is set in 1924, soon after partition, civil war and the establishment of the Free State. But there is barely a reference to any of that.) Or is it really about director Goran Paskaljevic’s native Balkans? In fact, it’s not hard to see Colm Meaney, in the title role, as a tin pot, small town Slobodan Milosevic, trying to stir up animosities among various people to enhance his own importance. While the comparisons are valid, the story is universal. There is something very Irish about the characters and setting, but it is not hard at all to imagine the story taking place in any other rural place in the world. While its message about the senselessness of violence and the violence of senselessness sounds heavy, the film is mostly wryly funny. And it is quite a bit less violent than a lot of movies out there, particularly Paskaljevic’s own absurdist look at Belgrade, Powder Keg (a.k.a. Cabaret Balkan). The cast, which also includes Adrian Dunbar and Cillian Murphy, are uniformly fine. And happily, it is not nearly as dreary as other films on similar topics. (Cathal Black’s Korea comes to mind.) But make no mistake, this tale of small town life is definitely not Ballykissangel or Waking Ned Devine. (Seen 7 March 2002)

How the West Was Won 2 out of 4 stars

If for no other reason, the courts should show at least some leniency for Microsoft because co-founder Paul Allen used some of his stock riches to restore Seattle’s Cinerama Theater. One of this treasure’s features is the ability to show movies in the original Cinerama format, a three-camera/giant curved screen process that presaged Imax and, arguably, the whole virtual reality thing. The clear highlight of a day of true Cinerama movies at the Seattle film festival was the clearly the 1962 Hollywood mega-blockbuster How the West Was Won. While the first screening was not without its glitches (a third of the screen suddenly went blank about an hour into the movie, followed by an unscheduled intermission), the technology holds up rather well. Mountain aerial shots are still thrilling, and this film (which boasted no fewer than three top-tier directors: John Ford, Henry Hathaway and George Marshall) exploited the medium to its fullest. Other thrills include a white water rapids ride, a buffalo stampede, a quiet horse-and-cart ride through magnificent Monument Valley, and the moving-train gunfight to end of all of them, involving George Peppard, as a High Noon style marshal, and Eli Wallach, foreshadowing his role in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Film-wise, however, this flick is pretty darn corny. Other than a chance to see a lot of great Hollywood stars in their prime (Peppard and Debby Reynolds have big roles; John Wayne has a cameo), it is interesting from a historical/sociological point of view to see how mid-20th-century Hollywood mythologized 19th-century America. Interestingly, a lot of these archetypes are still around: the wilderness survivalists (James Stewart, Henry Fonda), the religious zealot (Karl Malden), the high-stakes gambler (Gregory Peck), the unstoppable force of corporate expansion (Richard Widmark), and the family man (Peppard) who doesn’t trust the government to protect him from society’s more menacing elements. (Seen 2 June 2000)

How to Be a Latin Lover 2 out of 4 stars

Among numerous satisfying things about this very silly comedy is that Rob Lowe has found the role he was absolutely born to play. We have always know he was best suited to playing gigolos, and now he has matured to the point where he can play aging gigolos. He is but a supporting player here, though, as the star of this bilingual sex farce is Mexico’s Eugenio Derbez. Like the rest of the cast, he and Lowe are clearly having a great time. It is often a bad sign when the cast look as though they are having more fun than the audience, but in this case they just about get away with it. Derbez plays Máximo, a man determined since his impoverished childhood to use his good looks to have the good things in life. That works okay for a quarter-century, but then his sugar momma (veteran comedian Renée Taylor) replaces him with a younger man. Pampered, spoiled and incapable of looking after himself, Máximo looks up the widowed sister (Salma Hayek) and nephew he has ignored for years. Will this family re-connection teach him to be less shallow and materialistic? Will sharing a room with a precocious ten-year-old help him to put his values in order? If you’re not sure of the answers, this movie is made for you. Fortunately, young Canadian actor Raphael Alejandro is just the right amount of cute and funny not to wear out his welcome as the heart-warmer. Comedy reliables like Linda Lavin and Rob Corddry are on hand, as well as Rob Riggle and Rob Huebel as a pair of dimwit brothers in a droll sequence of gags. Kristen Bell is quite funny as a woman in an unhealthy relationship with too many cats. And we even get Raquel Welch in a featured role, prompting the questions, where has she been and why don’t we see more of her? She gets one of the best bits in the whole movie, which can be best described as disarming. The screenplay is by Jon Zack and Chris Spain, and the helmer is actor/director Ken Marino. (Seen 22 September 2017)

How to Cheat in the Leaving Certificate 2 out of 4 stars

The dreaded “leaving cert” is the grueling series of three-hour exams that one has to take to successfully complete secondary education in Ireland. Like similar exams all over the world, they can be quite traumatizing, and Graham Jones, an Irish film student in London, decided to make a subversive movie on the subject. His original idea was to actually engineer an elaborate plot to cheat in the exam and make a documentary about it, but in the end he settled (probably wisely) for making a fictional psuedo-documentary about such a plot. Shot in grainy black and white, the film builds slowly but gradually takes on a quasi-Mission: Impossible intensity as the student conspirators build their team and plot their strategy to steal copies of the exam from a fortress-like warehouse. The appeal of this story is universal, but adding to the fun for Irish viewers are cameos by some well-known figures, including singer Chris De Burgh (who provided part of the financing) as a filling station attendant. The film has been a success in that it has been denounced by the Department of Education. Also, the government has recently announced that there will be jail time for anyone caught cheating in the leaving cert. (Seen 29 May 1998)

How to Make an American Quilt 2 out of 4 stars

I don’t know much about quilt-making, although my grandmother was pretty good at it, as is my wife and her neighbor friends. But I do know that this movie has aspirations to be a patchwork even though it is way too hung up on symmetrical design. It’s schematic to the point where we know exactly the moment when one of the fine older actors is about to go off on a tale about her youth. But it’s hard to say anything too negative about this clearly heart-felt film, adapted from Whitney Otto’s novel and, perhaps inevitably, directed by an Australian (Jocelyn Moorhouse). The movie, released in 1995, is most notable for assembling an impressive cast of several generations of fine female actors. The size of the cast guarantees that none will get a huge amount of screen time. Some get their moment or two to shine. Others, like Claire Danes (as a younger version of Anne Bancroft’s character), Melinda Dillon, Esther Rolle, Gail Strickland and Holland Taylor, are gone before they even have a chance to register. But even the briefest female roles have more heft than any man’s. This being a “women’s film,” the guys merely run the gamut from secondary to one-dimensional. The protagonist is Winona Ryder (nearly midway between Beetle Juice and becoming Spock’s mom), and she is surrounded by the considerable presences of Ellen Burstyn, Lois Smith, Jean Simmons, Kate Nelligan and the late, lamented Ms. Bancroft. And, as if that weren’t enough, we have the poet and sometimes actor Maya Angelou, who gives the film most of the heft that it has. Her no-nonsense character is the only one who is all about getting down to work rather than drawing attention to herself. That’s generally a good approach, both for films and for quilts. (Seen 25 June 2009)

How to Marry a Millionaire 2 out of 4 stars

For trivia-obsessed film geeks, this movie is significant as the first one photographed in CinemaScope, although The Robe was the first CinemaScope movie actually released. (This one was second.) Directed by Romanian-born filmmaker Jean Negulesco and based on two plays (Zoe Akins’s The Greeks Had a Word for It and Dale Eunson and Katherine Albert’s Loco), the movie needed the widest format available just to contain all its glamour. The basic plot is as simple as it is predictable. Three attractive fashion models make a plan to marry the richest men they can find by renting a luxurious Manhattan penthouse they can’t afford to give the impression they are in the right circles. Will they end up marrying purely for money or might they actually find true love? No spoilers here. A good indication of the level of seriousness here is the number of blatant in jokes that only the most reclusive of viewers could have missed in 1953. Marilyn Monroe actually speaks the line, “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend” (referring to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, her other movie that year). Betty Grable supposedly mis-identifies a trumpeter on the radio as Harry James (her husband at the time). And tough-as-nails Lauren Bacall tells suitor William Powell that she really does like older men, like Roosevelt, Churchill or “old fella what’s his name in The African Queen"—referring, of course, to her real-life older husband, Humphrey Bogart. (Seen 13 March 2011)

How to Steal a Million 2 out of 4 stars

Three years after he made a huge splash in Lawrence of Arabia and two years after she had appeared in My Fair Lady, Peter O’Toole and Audrey Hepburn made their only movie together. Both in their mid-30s and in the primest of their prime, the pair bring so much physical beauty to the screen that it nearly hurts our eyes. O’Toole has the mysterious but affable chancer role that normally went to Cary Grant. (Three years earlier Hepburn had starred in Charade with the sixtyish Grant, who was winding down his long leading-man run.) And in the same year that he played a grungy Mexican bandit named Tuco in Sergio Leone’s classic The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, here is a nicely scrubbed-up Eli Wallach, as an American computer magnate pursuing Hepburn, essaying the kind of role that we would associate with someone like Ralph Bellamy—although Wallach invests it with a fair amount of Yankee energy that brings a bit of sympathy to a basically one-note character. Directed by William Wyler, this is the kind of caper flick/romcom that current stars can’t seem to pull off anymore. Set in the heart of Paris and featuring two of the world’s most relaxed and elegant stars, the movie virtually drips with sophistication. While not the classic that some of the stars’ other films are, this is a delightful bit of pure escapism. (Seen 31 January 2009)

Høyere enn himmelen (Beyond the Sky) 3 out of 4 stars

Remember Harriet Andersson who used to be in all those old gloomy black-and-white Ingmar Bergman movies? Well, she’s back. Her persona’s outlook isn’t a whole lot brighter than before, but she’s in a much more fun movie (Beyond the Sky from Norway). Twelve-year-old Mari has a bad case of adolescence. Everything and everyone bugs her. She has no friends. And her seemingly angelic little brother may just actually be the Anti-Christ. When retiring teacher Miss Kjaer (Andersson) rudely snubs the principal at her official farewell, Mari senses that she has found a soul mate. They strike up a friendship—or at least as much of a friendship as you can have between two people who treat everyone like dirt. Mari learns that Miss Kjaer has secrets in her past, which explain how she got to be a temperamental spinster. The two undertake a journey that results in Miss Kjaer finding her old love and Mari discovering her first one. But just when you think this strange film is headed for Disney territory, it confounds you. I liked it. (Seen 23 May 1995)

Hugo 4 out of 4 stars

It takes no small amount of chutzpah for a filmmaker to invoke the memory and work of pioneer movie legend Georges Méliès in making his own bit of cinematic magic. One of the few who could get away with it is Martin Scorsese, who quotes liberally from Méliès’s movies without it ever seeming like he is stealing or exploiting. As Méliès himself would agree, a movie needs to create its own self-contained world in which the viewer can become immersed and regard as real—no matter how fantastic the images. And that’s what Hugo does. From the first dizzying, swooping scene that hurls us into Paris’s Gare Montparnasse (making us flinch as we think we are going to collide with passengers on the train platform), we are drawn into the station’s nooks and crannies as we follow Hugo scurrying up and down ladders and stairs and across suspended walkways. Consistent with the film’s concept of the world as a machine, the station is like a gigantic clockwork, a larger version of the mysterious automaton at the heart of the story’s mystery. An example of Scorsese’s comfort and sincerity with his homage to his master and inspiration is the trotting out of the old story about the Lumière brothers’ movie of a train arriving at a station and how it made the audience run in fear. Then Scorsese stages his own scene of a training barreling into a station (based on an actual derailment at Montparnasse) and, as in the story, we jump out of our seats. But Hugo isn’t just about artifice and spectacle. Working with an almost entirely English cast (exceptions are Atlanta-born Chloë Grace Moretz and Long Beach-born Michael Stuhlbarg), Scorsese has coaxed flawless performances, beginning with young Asa Butterfield, who was a standout in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang and is reported to have the title role in the upcoming adaption of Orson Scott Card’s sci-fi novel Ender’s Game. The supporting players are top-notch, including three that Harry Potter fans should recognize and the very welcome Christopher Lee, whose presence reinforces the movie’s links with cinema history. (Personal trivia note: Gulliver McGrath, the young fellow who plays Stuhlbarg’s character as a child, and Moretz will turn up as cousins in Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows movie.) Not only has Scorsese shown Woody Allen (cf. Midnight in Paris) how to create the old Paris of romantic Americans’ dreams, but he has made a 3D movie better than James Cameron’s Avatar. Don’t take my word for it. Cameron said it himself. [Related commentary] (Seen 4 December 2011)

8 femmes (Eight Women) 2 out of 4 stars

A snowbound house. The phone line has been cut. And the head of the house is lying in his bed with a knife in his back. Five, no, make that six family members and two household staff (all female) are stuck in the house for the duration. There’s nothing else to do but to start drinking copious amounts of alcohol, spilling a seemingly endless number of family secrets, and pointing fingers at one another. Oh yeah, and frequently break out into song. That’s right, this is your basic French Agatha Christie bitchfest musical. “Liberally” adapted from a play by Robert Thomas, this film by François Ozon boasts the most amazing collection of French female actors we have seen in one movie. Where else can you see Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Fanny Ardant, Emmanuelle Béart and Danielle Darrieux chewing the scenery (and belting out songs) together? Of course, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen Deneuve sing onscreen. Our earliest memories of her include 1964’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and at one point this film actually suggests that this could be a twisted sequel to that classic. Guys, you in particular should see this movie for at least two very good reasons: 1) we get to see two of France’s greatest female actors wrestle on the ground and kiss, and 2) I’m still trying (but not very hard) to get the image of Béart undoing her cute little maid’s uniform out of my head. (Seen 8 October 2002)

Hukkle 2 out of 4 stars

This is hardly fair. The film festival program described this debut Hungarian feature as a cross between Twin Peaks and Microcosmos! How can you not go see something when it’s described that way? Well, if you also noted that there was no dialog in the whole movie, that might put you off. Fortunately, the film (which is actually Gyorgy Palfi’s film school thesis) is quite watchable. No dialog, fortunately, doesn’t mean no sound. The soundtrack is filled with all kinds of sound effects, notably the titular sound (hukkle is Hungarian for “hiccup”) which emanates at regular intervals from an old man sitting on a bench by his house, as a sort of metronome for the film’s myriad proceedings. (Actually, we also get a bit of background voices from a television, as well as one or two mumbled conversations and a song at the film’s end.) There is definitely something Lynchian about the film, which focuses on a small, isolated town that seems perfectly normal but has a dark secret lying beneath the surface. There is, in particular, a fascination with insect life, which may be mirroring what is going on in the human world. Visually, the film looks like a documentary. As a narrative, its style can best be described as elliptical. But if you hang in there and pay attention, you will discern a strange tale not unlike a creepy movie like The Wicker Man. (Seen 10 July 2003)

Hulk 3 out of 4 stars

So, why did so many people not like this putative summer blockbuster? After all, die-hard Marvel comic book fans can’t fault the portrayal of the title character. This isn’t the Lou Ferrigno Hulk, whose big trick was lifting the backend of a car. This is the original Stan Lee/Jack Kirby Hulk who explodes through massive walls and leaps over the desert in a powerful bound. This film is nothing if not faithful to the original comic book version of the “jolly green giant.” I suppose what people didn’t like was the film’s apparent pretentiousness. Instead of Bruce Banner becoming the Hulk through a freak accident, in this incarnation he is actually born the Hulk, setting up a dark oedipal tragedy as he confronts the father who made him what he is. In a strange way, Ang Lee has married the emotional drama of The Ice Storm to the fanciful action of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. So, what’s not to like about that? Isn’t that a bit like what Tim Burton did with his Batman? The Hulk was always a creature derived from the movies. He was a strange combination of Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde crossed with King Kong. The comic book’s original sensibility was that of a 1950s sci-fi movie about the U.S. army fighting giant creatures marauding in the desert. (The timing of the film’s negative portrayal of the U.S. military may not have helped this movie either.) So, it is a bit jarring to see the Hulk as some sort of southern Gothic family drama. But, hey, it works for me. After all, you can only watch so many tanks getting thrown through the air. The cast is great. Eric Bana is eerily like a young Harrison Ford. Jennifer Connelly has great eyes, although she may be getting typecast as an academic involved with brilliant men with complicated medical histories. No one plays military guys better than Sam Elliott. And Nick Nolte didn’t even need makeup or wardrobe playing the father who, in one of several nods to the Bill Bixby TV series, is called David. (Seen 30 July 2003)

Hully Gully 2 out of 4 stars

You may remember me writing a couple of months ago about a short film called Hully Gully. Well, now the writer/director Pablo D’Stair has since expanded it into what more or less qualifies as feature length for purposes of this web site (54 minutes). While very much a variation and extension of the original short, it has now been opened up to include three more characters and additional locations beyond the two main characters’ home. (Filming was done in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and Gaithersburg, Maryland.) I’m not going to pretend that watching this flick isn’t work. Everything about it is anathema to those with fickle attention spans. The takes are long, the camera is static, there is much talking, there are no stunts or special effects and, like everything else we have seen from D’Stair to date, it is in black and white. In other words, this is an art film and in fact, if shown in a museum, could nearly qualify as an art installation. That is not to stay that it is not entertaining or without its rewards. The original short worked as a visual showcase for music tracks by the Detroit Cobras. Now the songs are mainly provided by the Sad Little Stars with additional tracks by No and the Hickories—all of which I personally enjoyed more than the previous soundtrack. The extra running time makes the movie feel more like an actual story rather than a talky music video but, if you go rushing too fast to locate a plot arc in there somewhere, you will likely find yourself falling off the edge of the earth. As always, the heart of the movie is the relationship between Daphne and Reggie. She’s a writer. He always seems to be working on a joke. The actual words spoken are nearly incidental to the couple’s body language—which is just as well since the music and Reggie’s cockney accent and everybody’s penchant for chain smoking make it hard to catch all if it. I guess that makes this mumblecore. But its epically wide frame and beautifully smoky monochrome hues make it a gloriously and idiosyncratically rendered mumblecore. Jim Jarmusch, watch your back. (Seen 9 January 2015)

Hunger 3 out of 4 stars

I still had the same question going in that I had when I didn’t see this movie in Cork last year. Do we really need one more movie about Bobby Sands? In fact, in the early going, this gives every indication of being yet one more film that portrays the IRA prisoners as nothing more than victims. Moreover, the movie is clearly an art film, meaning that we have carefully framed compositions and long stretches with little or no dialog. All that seems to be left to us is to get to the passion play that is the death of Bobby Sands. But then something amazing happens in the middle stretch. There is an extended scene (mostly in a single take that seems to on for ages) in which Michael Fassbender, as Sands, has a conversation with Liam Cunningham, as a priest. The dialog comes flowing at a mile a minute and it is so well written and so well played that we are gobsmacked by how well it is done. Essentially, it is two republicans debating the merits of a hunger strike as a political weapon. The issues are all laid out. There is no fix put in for one side or the other. Also, crucially, there is a scene in which we see a stomach-churning, heart-rending IRA atrocity, so it is established (as some other flicks have declined to do) that there were two sides in this war. In the end, this is still a passion play. Sands, after all, was a martyr. Fassbender and director Steve McQueen have gone to extraordinary lengths to make death by starvation very real for their audience. Is this art or a quasi-snuff film? The argument can be made either way, but I vote for art. (Seen 10 July 2009)

The Hunger Games 3 out of 4 stars

I willingly went to the first couple of Harry Potter movies, but I had to be dragged to the last few (by my kid). I have managed to get through the Twilight films with having to see only one. So I was a bit apprehensive about, once again, being led to the latest tween/teen franchise movie. The good news is that this flick is surprisingly good. Most of the credit has to go to director/co-writer Gary Ross, but a good portion must also go to source novel author Suzanne Collins (who also co-wrote the screenplay) for maintaining a fair amount of artistic control of the project. And also to the casting of very talented young actors, first and foremost Jennifer Lawrence who builds on the promise that earned her an Academy Award nomination for Winter’s Bone but was largely obscured in X-Men: First Class. Special mention has to be made of Stanley Tucci for a brilliant portrayal that should make every viewer ashamed to watch TV chat shows or reality television. The Hunger Games has been compared to everything from Paul Michael Glaser’s The Running Man to Norman Jewison’s Rollerball to Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale in terms of its dystopian theme of people being forced to fight to the death for the amusement of the masses. But I would cite its most significant forerunner as being Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus in its theme of one hero rising up from slavery to inspire rebellion. The strength of the movie is that, despite its sci-fi premise, it maintains a tone of reality. The only real stumble is the appearance of a pack of holographic dogs toward the end that moves things into video game territory. And, after a strong climax, the denouement is a bit weak, clearly signalling that we are in for sequels. I, for once, will be looking forward to them. (Seen 24 March 2012)

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire 2 out of 4 stars

Talk about The Hobbit dragging things out. In fairness, The Hobbit was only one book and Hunger Games was indeed always three tomes (although apparently to be four movies, though). But at least each Hobbit movie continues a forward-progressing narrative. For a large stretch of Catching Fire’s 146-minute running time, it threatens to be the exact same movie as the first one. (Remember, while invariably a remake, a sequel is supposed to at least seem like a different movie.) The main differences are an introductory segment that deals with the aftereffects of the first film’s events and a pretty darn exciting ending that really should have been the ending of the first movie. But aside from all this quibbling, the film continues the quality and tone of its very-well-done predecessor. It’s only the sense of repetition that undermines the effect. Some of the cast—like Elizabeth Banks’s professionally shallow chaperone, Lenny Kravitz’s designer and, especially, Donald Sutherland’s evil president—get to show growth in their characters. Newcomer Sam Claflin (more or less Orlando Bloom’s replacement in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides), as Finnick, provides a more satisfying dose of youthful testosterone than so far supplied by Liam Hemsworth or Josh Hutcherson. And it’s great to see Amanda Plummer (as the “tick tock” lady) in what would be the most high-profile movie of her very interesting three-decade film career. Now that the revolution is truly and properly underway, maybe the next movie will feel like an actual continuation of the story. (Seen 11 January 2014)

Hunt for the Wilderpeople 2 out of 4 stars

This little gem, set in the wilds of New Zealand, has the warm heart and zany comedy that will remind some of vintage Disney. Mostly, though, it has the quirky charm and character-driven antics we have long come to associate with Australasian cinema. Beefy Julian Dennison plays Ricky, a supposed problem orphan whose string of crimes are listed ominously (though they sound perfectly innocent) more than once by his officious caseworker. He finds happiness and acceptance when placed with foster parents in what is apparently the single most remote spot in New Zealand, but circumstances soon force Ricky and his misanthropic foster father (Sam Neill at his most grumpy and grizzled) to go on the lam in the wilderness. The two are a classic odd couple, as Uncle Hec seems to have stepped out of the 19th century and Ricky likes to rap and spout haikus. Things spin further and further out of control as they become a media senstation and the subject of an over-the-top manhunt. The movie is nothing but continuous make-you-smile fun, although it does include a couple of genuinely sad moments. Rhys Darby contributes a hilarious bit as the aptly named Psycho Sam. Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne adds an aura of enchantment as a beautiful young girl who appears, as if by magic, on a horse. Adapted from a book by Barry Crump, the film is written and directed by Taika Waititi, who had a small acting role in Green Lantern and has previously directed Eagle vs Shark, Boy and the vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows. (Seen 6 July 2016)

The Hurricane 3 out of 4 stars

Canadian director Norman Jewison has a very impressive list of films on his résumé. It includes everything from the original Thomas Crown Affair to Jesus Christ Superstar to Moonstruck. And he has already established firmly his insights into America’s racial tensions with In the Heat of the Night and A Soldier’s Story (also starring Denzel Washington). His impressive new film takes us back to a quainter time when a professional athlete could not only get arrested for a serious crime but might also be innocent of the charges. You could argue that the story of Ruben “Hurricane” Carter’s false arrest and imprisonment should do for American justice what Jim Sheridan’s In the Name of the Father did for British rule in Northern Ireland. But the harrowing aspect of Sheridan’s film was the sense that what happened to Gerry Conlon could have happened to any Irishman in England. The Hurricane has so many Oliver Stone-style paranoid conspiracy touches (emphasized by Dan Hedaya’s obsessed Inspector Javert/Lt. Gerard-style cop) that the unintended effect is the sense that this injustice could have happened only to Carter and not necessarily to any other African-American in the wrong place at the wrong time. But what elevates the movie above well-intentioned moralizing are Washington’s amazing performance, in which he makes yet another icon (cf. Cry Freedom and Malcolm X) a flesh-and-blood human being, and the moving story of his developing relationship with a young admirer who was inspired to pull off a virtual miracle. (Seen 4 February 2000)

Le Hussard sur le Toit (The Horseman on the Roof) 2 out of 4 stars

This is a pretty movie. It has pretty scenery, pretty stars, and pretty photography. Its swashbuckling young star Olivier Martinez is sort of a kinder, gentler Antonio Banderas. He plays an Italian ex-patriate in Provence who is pursued by Austrian assassins because he is plotting to free his homeland. Juliette Binoche is the enigmatic noblewoman whose path keeps crossing his. More worrisome than the Austrians, however, is the cholera plague that is killing people everywhere they go. Crows are flocking everywhere to poke at the corpses (yuck!), and we see them so often I have to wonder if the director (Jean-Paul Rappeneau who did the 1990 Cyrano de Bergerac) never got over seeing Hitchcock’s The Birds. (Seen 17 May 1996)

Hustruer III (Wives III) 2 out of 4 stars

If you are one of those people who got frustrated waiting since 1977 for sequels to Star Wars, pity the poor hard-core fans of Anja Breien’s 1975 film Wives. They had to wait a decade for Wives II: Ten Years Later and then eleven more years for Wives III. On the other hand, the latest film doesn’t have to resort to tacky makeup effects to do flashbacks, since the principal cast is still intact from the first film. This final(?) installment of the Norwegian trilogy follows the three childhood friends as they reunite once again, this time to celebrate a 50th birthday. There are some predictable developments (a parent with Altzheimers, a cancer scare), but there are also some wonderfully goofy misadventures. This trio has a nice chemistry, not unlike the three leads in The First Wives Club. And there is definitely something touching in catching glimpses of these women at 30 with long straight hair in the disco 1970s (Downtown playing in the background) and then seeing their current incarnations, looking (but not acting) matronly and wistfully singing “September Song.” (Seen 21 May 1997)

Hype! 2 out of 4 stars

Doug Pray’s documentary Hype! serves at least three functions that I can see. It provides more than enough footage of Seattle grunge bands to please devotees of the music. It also provides a chronicle of the rise and decline of Seattle’s grunge scene. And it explores how the music industry and the mass media exploit, package, and commercialize a “new” music trend. The film deftly follows the evolution of punk to grunge in the 1980s and the rise of Sub Pop Records. Just when lots of people thought the grunge thing had crested, Nirvana released their breakout hit album Nevermind and the phenomenon kicked into an even higher orbit. One of the film’s best sequences is when it shows an array of high-priced grunge fashion wear (accompanied by a Muzak version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”) aping the cheapo clothing the grungers were buying at places like Valu Village. If you are patient enough to sit through all the closing credits, you will be rewarded with the ominous warning: “Your town is next.” Shown on the same program with Hype! was John Kiester’s (of Almost Live) short That Night which is only mildly amusing as it chronicles a woman’s realization that maybe she has outgrown her friends and Seattle’s party scene. The Seattle audience displayed its hometown pride, if not objectivity, in voting Golden Space Needles to Hype! and That Night for Best Documentary and Best Short, respectively. (Seen 9 June 1996)

Hysteria 1 out of 4 stars

My friend Michael and I decided that Hysteria is what might have resulted if Roger Corman had been the one to make King of Hearts. We are set up for a classic style horror movie, complete with spooky mansion and mad scientist, but what we get is something more weird than scary. The director of this Canadian/UK production is The Netherlands’s Rene Daalder, who made Massacre at Central High two decades ago. The mad scientist is none other than Patrick McGoohan of The Prisoner fame with gray, frizzy hair. And, of course, since this is a really weird movie full of bizarre characters, Amanda Plummer is on board (as McGoohan’s Igor). The premise is that McGoohan’s renegade psychologist has set up an illegal asylum/cult to work on his own aberrant psychotherapy experiments. He is aided immensely by cuts in state support for public health institutions, so I suppose this can be seen as a worst-case scenario for private managed health care. This is the first movie where someone has escaped from a scary house and then has turned around and gone back in for no good reason where it didn’t really bother me. (Seen 7 June 1997)

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