Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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Scott R. Larson

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

One-word titles are good. Especially when they seem so simple but have so many potential layers of meaning. For instance, does this title refer to, say, a camera? Or someone’s mind? Or both? Writer/director Carmel Winters explained at the Galway Film Fleadh that this movie began as some kind of training for counselors and then became a play. The film goes for a cinéma vérité approach, creating the illusion that we are largely looking at found footage from various recording devices. The story it tells is a hard one to watch. It involves child abduction as well as molestation and/or potential molestation—although it has to be said that the most disturbing aspects are created in the viewer’s mind rather than depicted explicitly. Whether the result amounts to exploitation or artistic courage is a hard one to call, but I have to say, as much as I admire the talent involved, my life would be no worse if I had not seen it. The main role goes to Aisling O’Sullivan, who is very good in a very challenging role. In one way, Winters was lucky to get her and, in another, O’Sullivan actually undercuts the faux documentary approach because she is simply one of the most familiar faces on Irish television. This is especially so when she plays a particularly hard-to-watch scene with Mick Lally, one of the few actors whose face would be even more familiar than O’Sullivan’s. (Seen 9 July 2010)

Snatch 3 out of 4 stars

Until now British director Guy Ritchie has been best known for 1) writing and directing a 1998 sleeper crime caper hit called Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and 2) fathering Madonna’s second child. Now he can also be deservedly known for another crime caper film, reuniting some of the people from the previous one but also including, in a testimony to his current hipness and coolness, some well-known American stars. Snatch tells a rambling, not completely unfamiliar tale of a fabulous diamond and the small-time crooks who run afoul of big-time crooks because of it. The film is jam-packed with colorful and amusing characters, practically all of whom are male and who invariably have such colorful monikers as Franky Four Fingers and Bullet Tooth Tony. The sprawling cast is invariably fine, and it’s a testimony to everyone involved that the likes of Benicio Del Toro (in a small but pivotal role, sporting a very strange accent) and Brad Pitt (as a pugilistically endowed Irish Traveller) fit into the ensemble seamlessly. The real star here is Ritchie’s directing style, which marries the neo-gangster milieu of Quentin Tarantino with the energy and dark British humor of Trainspotting to provide a dizzying, madcap pace that sweeps you along quite satisfactorily. Other cast members include Jason Stratham as the narrator Turkish (named by his parents for an airline disaster), looking a bit like an English Woody Harrelson; Stephen Graham, as his sidekick Tommy, looking somewhat like Teller of Penn and Teller; and Alan Ford as the fight fixer Brick Top, who prides himself on his extremely efficient method for disposing of the bodies of people who cross him. (Seen 14 September 2000)

Snatched 2 out of 4 stars

This is the harrowing story of two women trapped in an Amy Schumer movie but who manage to escape—only to find themselves landed in a Romancing the Stone pastiche. Luckily for me, I was primed by word of critic/internet mouth not to expect much and so was delighted when the film then exceeded expectations. And why wouldn’t it? The scenarist is Parks and Recreation writing veteran Katie Dippold, who also penned the recent Ghostbusters remake. The director is Jonathan Levine, whose oeuvre includes All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, The Wackness and 50/50. Yes, it’s the usual contemporary fare of raunchy humor exploiting personal insecurities and society’s rampant shallowness, but at least it’s smart while doing all that. Very welcome is the return of Goldie Hawn, long since past her early trademark ditzy blonde persona. Young Goldie is nicely referenced in a photo album that reveals that Hawn’s neurotic, ultra-cautious character was once the kind of fun-loving adventuress her daughter now longs to be. (We first meet Hawn’s Linda as she searches the web for ways to deal with a depressed cat, and that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about her.) As mother and daughter chafe and fight and get tested and learn to respect one another as well as how to embrace life itself (sorry, I just made it sound more profound than it actually is), we meet a great array of comic relief characters along the way. These include Randall Park as Schumer’s jerk musician boyfriend and Christopher Meloni as a hilarious subversion of the standard heroic rescuer. Special mention must be made of Ike Barinholtz who, as Schumer’s nerdy film-obsessed brother, is strangely reminiscent of Dick Shawn in It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. Also, Wanda Sykes and a mute Joan Cusack, as a bizarre pair of potential rescuers, should get their own spinoff. Yes, it’s the kind of movie where Hawaii stands in for South America, but you still have to like a flick that so firmly sticks to its message that no one’s going to get you out of your mess except yourself. (Seen 30 May 2017)

Snow Falling on Cedars 2 out of 4 stars

With its spooky Pacific Northwest setting and small town intrigue over a body mysteriously given up by the sea, Snow Falling on Cedars can’t help but initially put us in mind of Twin Peaks. But this flick has loftier things in mind. It takes what is essentially a simple courtroom murder mystery with a heavy element of bitter childhood romance and piles on mood and artful photography. Sometimes so artful and dark to the point that we can’t tell what’s actually going on. (So what was the thing with the fish and the bodies on the beach anyway?) Two things elevate this effort above a pretentious exercise. One is the serious portrayal of the shameful treatment that Americans of Japanese ancestry received in the wake of Pearl Harbor. The other is film icon Max von Sydow in a typically masterful performance as a defense lawyer who acts as the movie’s conscience. (Another fine performance is turned in by Max Wright as a fussbudget coroner.) As with his hit Shine, director Scott Hicks shows that he is adept at wresting emotion from an adverse situation. But, as with that movie, he also shows that he is much better at accusing than explaining. Only perfunctory reference is made to the legitimate paranoia that people on America’s West Coast felt about Japan at the time. The film’s source is David Guterson, who did something that really annoys us would-be novelists. He actually finished his first novel and it became a bestseller. (Seen 31 May 1995)

The Social Network 3 out of 4 stars

In subject matter, this movie is reminiscent of Martyn Burke’s 1999 made-for-cable movie Pirates of Silicon Valley, in which Noah Wyle played Steve Jobs and Anthony Michael Hall played Bill Gates. (Gates, as played by an actor, makes a very amusing appearance in The Social Network, as does then-Harvard president Larry Summers.) And both movies owe a debt to an earlier made-for-cable flick, Glenn Jordan’s 1993 flick Barbarians at the Gate, in which James Garner played RJR Nabisco CEO F. Ross Johnson and Jonathan Pryce played private equity financier Henry Kravis. All these movies tell fascinating behind-the-scenes business stories with an entertaining comic touch. In a BBC radio interview, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (working from Ben Mezrich’s book The Accidental Billionaires) said that he approached the story like Kurosawa’s Rashômon, using the legal hearings of the two main lawsuits against Mark Zuckerberg to present different versions of the same story. But that’s not the way it turns out. Certainly, facts that are disputed and cannot be ascertained are presented as such. But there is no doubt as to the basic facts of the history of Facebook or as to Sorkin and director David Fincher’s take on the psychology of the main characters. What is striking for those of us not steeped in the culture of Ivy League schools is how hide-bound and caught up in elitism and resentment Harvard seems to be in the 21st century. Despite the film’s uber-nerd ambiance, the macho dynamics are not that far removed from Fincher’s Fight Club. In a way, this movie may be this generation’s Citizen Kane. But whereas the story arc of Orson Welles’s classic ended with a dying old man uttering the cryptic word “Rosebud,” this flick ends with a 23-year-old man, on the verge of becoming a billionaire, repeatedly refreshing his laptop screen, trying to make a human connection. Each is tragic in its own way, and neither may or may not have anything to do with the real person it is based on. (Seen 13 October 2010)

Soft Lad 1 out of 4 stars

Jonny Labey, who has the title role in this northern England angst fest, is best known for his role on the BBC soap EastEnders—as is the film’s writer/director Leon Lopez. The flick’s other principal actor, Daniel Brocklebank, is a fixture on ITV’s venerable Coronation Street. So perhaps it should be no surprise that this big screen outing would nothing but pure soap opera. And we’re not talking Douglas Sirk standard motion picture soap opera. We’re talking watch-things-go-from-bad-to-worse, actors-desperately-whining, small screen style soap opera. The setup is that Labey’s David is elated to get into the dance school he has always dreamed of but is torn because he is hopelessly in love—and has been carrying on an affair—with his sister’s husband, Jules. Upset with Jules’s unsupportive reaction to his school acceptance, David goes off to lose himself in a wild tear through the clubbing scene and immediately meets the nicest guy in the whole world. We think maybe things will work out nicely for him, but then, well, soap opera kinds of things happen. Everybody’s level of emotional distress keeps getting ratcheted up to the point where our hearts and our ears cannot take anymore. It all ends on the most hopeless note possible—except there is an additional brief final scene that seems to want to say, and then he lived happily ever after. Suzanne Collins comes off the best in the anguish department, as David’s properly gobsmacked sister. Craig Stein also does well as David’s too-good-to-be-true new boyfiend. (Seen 27 January 2017)

Solaris 3 out of 4 stars

Now that Steven Soderbergh has hit the big time with commercially successful films like Erin Brockovich and Traffic, he seems to be using his newfound clout to make the sort of personal flicks that explore human psychology (like his baffling 1996 film Schizopolis) as well as remake movies that have special meaning for him (like his 2001 hit Ocean’s Eleven). This remake of a 1972 Russian sci-fi flick falls into both categories. Like Andrei Tarkovsky’s original, it is really a metaphysical and emotional exploration masquerading as a science fiction movie. The premise is as old as Forbidden Planet and umpteen Star Trek episodes. Space explorers from earth encounter a planet that begins playing with their minds, their memories and their fears. The film is less interested in giving a technical explanation for what is going on than in examining the hero’s (George Clooney) guilt over the death of his wife (the enthralling Natascha McElhone), who has mysteriously appeared aboard the space station orbiting the enigmatic planet Solaris, which looks a bit like a giant brain. No less than McElhone’s character, the movie is haunting, with compositions and pacing that say “art film.” Solaris is also something of an homage to many great science fiction classics. It has an surprisingly dark (in the lighting sense) view of life on earth à la Blade Runner, the claustrophobic atmosphere of Alien, and a perplexing metaphysical ending reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey. This flick may not be fast-paced enough for the usual sci-fi audience, but it’s a challenging and rewarding to those who love film. (Seen 9 December 2002)

Solntse (The Sun) 2 out of 4 stars

Aleksandr Sokurov is a Russian director whose movies can best be described as “art films.” For example, he is known for making a movie that consisted of a single, 90-minute continuous shot. A project of his is to make a quartet of movies about major 20th-century historical figures. Moloch dealt with Hitler, and Taurus was about Lenin. This third in the series deals with Emperor Hirohito of Japan, the only Axis head of state to survive World War II. In tracing the hours before, during and after the surrender of Japan, this low-key film paints a portrait of a man rather isolated from his country as well as from the global events to which he is intricately tied. As the film reminds us, Hirohito was a marine biologist by training, and he surely must have pondered the idea that he was meant to be descended from gods and therefore biologically different from other men. When the time comes to renounce his “divinity,” it seems to come more as a relief than a sacrifice. The idea of scenes portraying conversations between Hirohito and U.S. General Douglas MacArthur is tantalizing but, as dramatized here, they are disappointing. As played by Robert Dawson, MacArthur is strangely subdued and nearly befuddled—nothing like the figure Americans know from their history. Indeed, the entire film seems rather lifeless. Even, at the end, when we learn that the man who has recorded Hirohito’s renunciation of divinity has committed hari-kari, we still get no sense of a momentous occasion. (Seen 9 July 2005)

Una Sombra Ya Pronto Serás (A Shadow You Soon Will Be) 1 out of 4 stars

This movie, set on the Argentine Pampas, is about various people who are on the way to somewhere but never seem to get very far. A down-on-his-luck circus man is headed to Bolivia. A young couple is trying to get to Ohio. Someone else wants to go to Japan. We don’t know where the mysterious Lem is headed, but he is driving a Rolls Royce with New York plates. We also don’t know where the nameless hero of this film is headed, but his journey starts and ends at an abandoned train. No matter how far he travels, he seems to be in the same place and he keeps running into the same people. We learn that he is a computer programmer (hmmm, wonder what that means…) who emigrated to Italy and has returned without his wife or daughter. There is a bit of a plot involving people wanting to use the programmer’s computer knowledge to pull off a gambling caper. But the film is really more interested in weirding us out (why does that bus keep driving by with the grand piano on top?) and indulging in long-winded philosophical discussions. (I have to say, it does feature one of the funniest lovemaking scenes I have ever seen, involving a car stuck in a flooded road and some sausage that falls out the back door.) The film’s director Hector Olivera made a much better film eleven years ago (A Funny, Dirty Little War) which took a blackly funny look at political and military excesses in Argentina’s recent history. (Seen 31 May 1995)

Some Mother’s Son 3 out of 4 stars

In a strange way, the election of Margaret Thatcher was about the best thing that ever happened to the modern IRA. Her no-nonsense, make-no-deals approach to the “Northern Ireland problem” actually spurred the Provos to make use of two effective weapons they are not particularly known for—passive resistance and the ballot box. Some Mother’s Son (directed by Terry George who co-produced with Jim Sheridan; star Helen Mirren also has a producing credit) tells the story of the 1981 hunger strike in Maze Prison which led to the death of ten IRA prisoners. Mirren provides the point of view as a Catholic widow who has no use for the IRA or its violence. She is shocked one Christmas to learn that not only is her son an IRA member but that he has been arrested for killing a British soldier. Through her, we see how the republican movement broadened its appeal through the prisoners’ hunger strike as they demanded to be treated as political prisoners. The film is fairly even-handed, although Thatcher’s political minions are clearly the villains. By contrast, the hunger strikers—in their blankets, beards, and flowing hair—are extremely Christ-like. This is particularly true of John Lynch (who first came to prominence as a conflicted young IRA member in Cal) playing the 27-year-old Bobby Sands who was elected to Parliament even as he martyred himself. (Seen 9 October 1996)

Something’s Gotta Give 2 out of 4 stars

There is something in this flick that I never ever expected to see. And, no, I don’t mean Diane Keaton’s entire nude body at this stage of her life. No, I somehow never expected to see Keanu Reeves in a romantic comedy playing the Ralph Bellamy character. Keaton is glorious and reminds us why so many men fell in love with her when she played the title role in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. (For years after that movie, the personals were full of “men seeking Annie Hall type” ads—er, not that I spent much time looking at them.) Jack Nicholson plays a riff on his high-living astronaut character from Terms of Endearment, the one about whom Shirley MacLaine ends up exclaiming, who thought you would turn out to be a nice guy? Reeves plays the perfect man and, strangely, doesn’t even look old enough to play a character slightly younger than himself. With the screenplay for this romantic romp, director Nancy Meyers (along with star Keaton) does for late-in-life romance what she did for motherhood in 1987’s Baby Boom. Her story leaves us with at least two uplifting messages: 1) there can be great comfort in being with someone relatively close to your own age, and 2) a woman in her late 50s can be very desirable. A less optimistic and subtler message, however, is that women like Keaton are all too often attracted to jerks and egotists instead of to really nice guys. (Seen 11 February 2004)

Somewhere in the City 2 out of 4 stars

Somewhere in the City is a delightfully amusing comedy that features an extended ensemble cast of characters who mostly live in the same apartment building in New York City. You will probably laugh most at Sandra Bernhard’s New Age-ish counselor (whose clients listen patiently as she talks endlessly about what’s going on in her life) who is desperate to find Mr. Right. But I was most amused by young “Che” who passionately but fruitlessly tries to foment revolution among spacey twentysomethings, as his mother watches from a distance in a dark limousine and frequently rings him on his cell phone. Then there is the young Chinese woman who is desperately looking for a husband so that she can get a green card and who adapts to American culture at an amazingly rapid rate. There’s also a very funny scene where a frustrated actor (and acting teacher) discusses his small role in an upcoming Hollywood remake of I Dream of Jeannie starring Madonna. And this barely scratches the surface of the various subplots. Iranian-born Ramin Niami directed this diverting and good-natured feature. (Seen 7 June 1997)

Son of Rambow 4 out of 4 stars

This movie checks so many boxes that it is hard to know where to begin. It is about friends. It is about brothers. It is about absent parents. It is about movies. It is about assimilation. But mostly it is about the sheer joy of creativity. Oh yeah, and it’s also about the French. The setup is familiar enough. Two young lads from completely opposite backgrounds become unlikely best friends. William has a vivid imagination that plays out in the myriad doodles in his book. Since his family’s religion forbids watching television, let alone movies, he doesn’t realize that he is a natural-born storyboard artist. But his new friend, aspiring filmmaker Lee, recognizes it instantly, and a friendship for the ages is born. Not to oversell this wonderful film, but Bill Milner, who plays William, has something like the young Lukas Haas in Witness, in a somewhat similar role. And Will Poulter, as Lee, is amazingly evocative of the young River Phoenix in Stand By Me. The pair’s filmmaking exploits have a real-life basis in the childhood of writer/director Garth Jennings, the Hammer & Tongs guy responsible for various music videos and the big-screen version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. To appreciate how truly great Son of Rambow is, just compare it to the admittedly dissimilar Water Horse: Legend of the Deep, with which it shares some basic themes, and see how much better this flick is at capturing truths about childhood and life and the thrill of adventure. (Seen 24 April 2008)

Songs for Amy 3 out of 4 stars

How’s this for a pitch to Hollywood? The Hangover meets Once. That doesn’t exactly do justice to what this flick is like, but it may give you a better idea than nothing. A homegrown Galway production, this film by Konrad Begg consciously makes the city and its environs—and its music scene—a character in the story. Aspects of it feel familiar. As in Once and its more comic predecessor The Commitments, we have in Sean Maguire’s character the aspiring musician trying to make it but held back by his own deep-rooted lack of self-confidence. And, though it may be stereotyping to say this, no one does drunken carousing like the Irish, and this movie has some of the funniest bits you’ll ever see in an account of a stag night gone terribly wrong. And we have the familiar elements of a romcom, including the very romantic notion that just writing the right song (or songs) can change your life. There is a wonderful array of colorful characters in the movie. Two of the standouts among a very entertaining cast are Ford Kiernan, as the ill-tempered drummer Sled, and Kevin Ryan, as the ego-bound Irish pop star who has made good in America. You come away feeling like you’ve been at an all-night party. (Seen 11 July 2012)

The Sons of Katie Elder 2 out of 4 stars

People like me, who have fond memories of watching westerns like this during their youth, tend to think that one can psychoanalyze America by studying the characters, plots and themes of these horse operas. Maybe you can, and maybe you can’t. We tend to think of the classic westerns as touting a conservative philosophy, mainly because of the liberal use of firearms. But it’s more complicated than that. As this 1965 Henry Hathaway film reminds us, the villains in this genre were often wealthy land owners and businessmen, aided at least tacitly by less than rigorous law enforcement, bankers, merchants, etc. The good guys here have no money to their names, dubious personal histories (or futures) and, frankly, have been pretty lousy sons to their saintly, recently deceased mother. Still, there is enough spirit of not backing down from a fight and a clear view of right and wrong to gladden the heart of any Bush die-hard. The Sons of Katie Elder is also an example of major Hollywood star vehicle of the era. It’s the sort of movie that used to get made where slow-moving John Wayne, who turned 58 the year the movie was released, could play the much-feared career gunslinger as well as older brother to the very Italian Dean Martin (10 years younger), to Earl Holliman (21 years younger) and to Michael Anderson Jr. (36 years younger). (Kate Elder wasn’t just saintly. Her womb’s staying power was very nearly miraculous.) If westerns like this do indeed provide a mini-allegory of the American character, it may well lie in the fact that the Elders fight viciously among themselves, but when the chips are down they stick together. (Seen 22 January 2004)

Le Souffle (Deep Breath) 2 out of 4 stars

What is it with French films and the word “breath” (souffle). Maybe it’s because the French smoke so damn much that they are obsessed with airflow. Anyway, one thing the French do really well is films about adolescence, and here’s another one. American films rarely tackle the subject seriously, and they rarely use young actors in a central role who are right at the dawn of puberty. This film by Damien Odoul has it all down. Everything is here: the rage, the frustration, the confusion, the physical urges, the boredom, the contrariness. As angst-ridden David, the young actor Pierre-Louis Bonnetblanc hardly seems to be acting at all. The setting is extremely primal: a rustic farm that doesn’t seem to have changed in the past 200 years and where animals seem to be butchered constantly. David’s father has more or less abandoned him, and the boy is spending the summer at his uncle’s farm. The local men are having a barbecue and drinking session, and David is initiated into the manly ritual of excess alcohol consumption and retching one’s brains out. It turns out that erasing David’s inhibitions for the day is not a great idea. With all the strange, jittery, black-and-white photography and disturbing dream and hallucinatory sequences, this film turns out, stylistically, to be the Blair Witch Project of coming-of-age films. (Seen 9 October 2002)

The Soul of a Man 3 out of 4 stars

Remember when Wim Wenders was a feature film director? He gave us classics like The American Friend (lately quasi-remade as Ripley’s Game), Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire. His new career seems to be music documentaries. A few years ago he practically single-handedly revived the careers of several Cuban musicians with Buena Vista Social Club. Now he’s done for African-American blues what he did for Latin rhythm with this new documentary. It starts out a bit cheesy, with Wenders putting words in the mouth of soul singer Blind Willie Johnson and having them read by Laurence Fishburn. Things get stranger when Wenders actually makes himself one of the subjects of the documentary, although he is not named. He also confuses things a bit by inserting faux archive footage of Johnson and another of the film’s two other two subjects, Skip James. (J.B. Lenoir completes the triumvirate.) By the end, however, Wenders has made a major accomplishment. He has infected us with his own love of soul and blues and linked his subjects to social progress and civil rights. Not content to stop there, he plays with the word “soul” by making a metaphysical connection as well. In addition, Wenders cannily connects us to his subject with contemporary tribute performances by the likes of Nick Cave, Bonnie Raitt, Lou Reed and Los Lobos. (Seen 11 July 2003)

Soul Surfer 2 out of 4 stars

This is a case of a movie that is a bit ordinary and bland in filmmaking terms, but the story (based on actual events) is so riveting that it overcomes everything else. The director is Sean McNamara, whose work has mainly been in TV and films aimed at younger audiences. He has a very solid cast (Dennis Quaid, Helen Hunt, AnnaSophia Robb) but, aside from Robb, their main job is to look concerned, worried or devastated. Most of the work rests on the shoulders of Robb (previously seen in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Bridge to Terabithia), and she carries it fine. The film is adapted from the book written by Bethany Hamilton, Sheryl Berk and Rick Bundschuh about the devastating shark attack that Hamilton suffered and how her religious faith helped her to continue her dream of being a competitive surfer. Most everything about the film rings true and perhaps that is actually a drawback—since we are so accustomed to movies being so heightened. It plays more like a TV movie of the week than a cinematic release. On the other hand, it’s refreshing to see an entertainment that deals unabashedly with a family’s religious faith. Because it is so grounded in truth, in a strange way it may be more likely than Jaws to make you wary about ever going into the ocean again. (Seen 8 August 2012)

The Sound of Music 4 out of 4 stars

The aerial camera soars over the breathtaking Austrian Alps, then it zooms in on the tiny figure with her arms outstretched. I hear a song coming on. Yes, it is the beloved film version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s glorious musical retelling of the story of the Von Trapp family. Coming a year after Mary Poppins, this cemented Julie Andrews not only as the queen of 1960s movie musicals but also the governess children all over the world longed to have. The Austrian locations do their best to steal the show, but the undeniable star is the music. You may not like every single song on the soundtrack (and, if so, there’s probably something wrong with you), but I defy you to get any of them out of your head once you have heard them. Andrews’s vocals showcase her at her absolute best. And the Canadian Christopher Plummer is so convincing as an Austrian naval officer that, for years after first seeing the movie, I honestly believed that he really was an Austrian. The supporting players are all impeccable, including the recently departed Eleanor Parker as the baroness anxious to snare the captain, as well as the children. Angela Cartwright, who played Brigitta, was already familiar to American audiences as Danny Thomas’s TV daughter, and she would go on to feature in Lost in Space. Nicholas Hammond, who played Friedrich, would have a busy acting career that would include playing Peter Parker in the 1970s TV series The Amazing Spider-Man. (Seen 29 December 2014)

Source Code 3 out of 4 stars

The good news is that the U.S. military has developed incredibly sophisticated and imaginative tools for fighting the war on terrorism. (This being a Hollywood movie, that means home-grown terrorism.) The bad news is that this is only true in movies like this. The other bad news is that there is really no good point at which one can take a bathroom break during this movie. The good news is that is how good this movie is. The plot is like something out of a classic Twilight Zone episode or even one from Doctor Who. So it is a credit to Ben Ripley’s screenplay and, especially, Duncan Jones’s direction that, while we are watching it, it seems like much more. That is because it tells the story strictly from the main character’s point of view, with a minimum of special effect distraction, given the fantastic premise. This is one of those movies that I wish everyone (including me) could see with absolutely no pre-information, but unfortunately very few will have seen it that way. Comparisons to other movies do the prospective viewer no favors, except perhaps to lure him in. But if I were going to make a comparison (other than the obvious ones) that captures the spirit of the film, it would be to Alexander Hall’s 1941 fantasy Here Comes Mr. Jordan or its 1978 remake Heaven Can Wait by Warren Beatty and Buck Henry. But that doesn’t really prepare you for the fact that this is a fairly tense thriller. While Jones did not write this one, it also has a fair amount in common with his brilliant Moon in its exploration of the themes of identity and reality. One of the best bits, and a good example of the film’s wit, is some nifty voice casting toward the end that is both funny and perfect. [Related commentary] (Seen 13 April 2011)

Souvenir 2 out of 4 stars

This is essentially one of those films that a filmmaker makes for himself and for other filmmakers. The writing/directing debut of Michael Shamberg, whose previous credits include producing music videos, Souvenir is a technical tour de force featuring the intriguing images of Chris Marker (best known as the director of La Jetée, on which Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys was based). There is no coherent plot here, but the story (such as it is) involves an American sports journalist in Paris, a collision on the street, and a computer. It was a bit anti-climactic after seeing the film to learn that Shamberg didn’t know for sure what it all meant either. For me, it works best as a Franco-American art-house variation on Jacob’s Ladder with a dash of 2 by 4 thrown in for good measure. In the end, it is yet another attempt by an artist to recreate the non-linear structure of a dream on film. Kristin Scott-Thomas has a cameo as a solicitous woman who can’t decide if she wants to speak French or English. (Seen 25 August 1998)

Soy Cuba (I Am Cuba) 2 out of 4 stars

We are at an interesting point in time for revisiting this stunning bit of propaganda. Nearly half a century after the Cuban revolution and with Fidel Castro out of power and likely on his deathbed, it is poignant to see how much hope and idealism and spirit there was at the beginning of Fidel’s reign. Made by Soviet filmmaker Mikheil Kalatozishvili in 1964, the film unabashedly celebrates Cuba’s beauty and spirit, while also justifying its regime. Maybe there are still people around who will love this movie for political reasons, but its main attraction has to be for cinema aficionados because of its filmmaking mastery. There is little of the crudeness that is often associated with Communist propaganda films. Poetic and lyrical, the movie begins with a couple of long tracking shots that would make Brian De Palma envious. And for a black-and-white film, its hues are at times breathtaking, with the apparently very blue Cuban sky showing up as black in high-contrast shots. Four stories offer escalating justifications for bringing down the Batista government and pushing out American influence. At one point, American sailors who have nearly raped a Cuban woman, sing a song that is meant to convey Yankee arrogance. Later, insurgents sing their own song that is meant to convey Cuban pride. In the final vignette a peasant, who has declined to get involved in the rebellion just before seeing his wife and children nearly killed by government bombing, is inspired to take up arms after all. In this effort to fire up patriotism, this movie isn’t so different from ones made by Hollywood about World War II, featuring John Wayne and other stars. And, as with those movies, Soy Cuba’s ultimate impression is affected not only by changes in cinematic styles but also by knowing what came after. (Seen 14 October 2006)

Space Cowboys 2 out of 4 stars

I almost gave this flick three stars just for the final shot alone, which was more breathtaking and eloquent than most of the previous two hours. But it’s just hard not to like this vehicle for four beloved actors, which is essentially a feel-good summer action/comedy. Star/director Clint Eastwood and writer Ken Kaufman (who prepared for this by penning Muppets in Space) use the same approach as the TV mini-series Lonesome Dove (which, like this, co-starred Tommy Lee Jones), i.e. spend lots of time getting to know some over-the-hill coots so that we come to like and care about them and then (eventually) throw them into some serious adventure. And things do get surprisingly tense in the latter part. James Garner and Donald Sutherland are mainly along for a bit of comic relief, so the movie is carried mainly by Eastwood and the very necessary Jones, who single-handedly makes the whole chemistry thing work. These two are actually fit enough to make you believe that they could actually pass the NASA fitness tests. The plot is preposterous, and no, I don’t mean the part about NASA sending geezers into space; the film is quick to point out the John Glenn precedent. No, it’s the subplot about NASA personnel being so clueless about US/USSR Cold War collusion. But park your logic and just enjoy a mostly enjoyable story that is guaranteed to cheer not only the aged but also those who hope to be lucky enough to someday become aged. Also on hand are Marcia Gay Harden, looking strangely like Parker Posie, and William Devane who, as he gets older, is eerily becoming a dead ringer for Joe Isuzu himself, David Leisure. (Seen 30 July 2000)

Spanglish 2 out of 4 stars

In our recent survey of movies touching on the issue of immigration into America, it would have been worthwhile to include this 2004 flick written and directed by James L. Brooks. Brooks’s movies never quite seem to let us forget that he has been producer of a number of groundbreaking TV sitcoms, like The Simpsons and the classic Mary Tyler Moore show (one of the feature players of which, the wonderful Cloris Leachman, is present here). The idea of Spanglish seems to have been to take the point of view of undocumented Hispanic immigrants (à la El Norte) in southern California but make it sort of a romantic/family/culture-clash kind of comedy. We can identify the flick as standard “white liberal guilt” fare in that the Mexican characters are fairly idealized and the Anglos are mostly nutty. And we pretty much know that the film was made by “a man” because, of the two main female characters, one is a relentless shrew and the other is a near saintly goddess, who looks like, well, a film star. (Flor the maid is played by Spanish actor Paz Vega, whose title role performance in Sex and Lucia marked male heterosexual art house denizens for life.) Flor is basically everything a dad could want in Mary Poppins—and more! Dad is played by Adam Sandler, which is not as off-putting as it might have sounded at the time of the film’s release. The only weird thing is that, as he attempts to be more mature and serious than usual, there are times when he unnervingly reminds us a bit of Garry Shandling. (Seen 30 July 2000)

Spawn 1 out of 4 stars

I pride myself on being an arrested adolescent, so I really wanted to like Spawn. I’ve never read the comic book, but then I don’t really need to. Like The Crow, it’s basically The Count of Monte Cristo with lots of cool violence. If there’s anything that appeals to the adolescent psyche more than “You’ll be sorry when I’m dead,” it’s “I’ve come back from the dead to make sure you’re sorry.” But we know that things have gone terribly wrong when our dark, brooding, tragic anti-hero acquires not only a little cute dog sidekick but also a cute little kid friend. And then there are the villains. Amazingly, John Leguizamo plays basically the same unrelentingly obnoxious character he did in The Pest, except as an obese clown. When his endless satanic references finally include Apocalypse Now, it merely serves to remind us that his co-conspirator Martin Sheen actually used to be a classy actor in quality movies. (Seen 18 August 1997)

Special 3 out of 4 stars

I knew nothing about this movie before I saw it. And, of all the reactions I might have expected to have, it never occurred to me that feeling sorry for Terry Gilliam would be one of them. You see, this is the kind of film that Gilliam might make if he had absolutely no budget (hard as it is to imagine a Gilliam film with no budget). Its tale of a man who might (or might not) be crazy has echoes of The Fisher King. What it really is, though, is a near-perfect update of Don Quixote (a movie that Gilliam has famously always wanted to make) to the cinematic age of Kevin Smith. Michael Rapaport plays Les, a very non-assertive parking enforcement officer (he is referred to at least once as a “meter maid”), who takes part in a clinical drug trial. Soon after beginning his drug course, he finds himself developing what seem to be super-powers. Since we see things mostly from Les’s point of view, we ourselves cannot always be completely sure what is real and what is not. Les’s progress is, in turns, hilarious and poignant. Not since A Beautiful Mind has a movie gotten us so well inside the head of someone who may be delusional. Like Don Quixote, however, this movie (written and directed by Hal Haberman and Jeremy Passmore) is ultimately about persisting in the face of everything life throws at you. Sometimes the mere act or surviving is a superhuman act of heroism. (Seen 11 October 2006)

Spectre 3 out of 4 stars

This is the first proper James Bond film in years. Make no mistake, this is not the same as saying that this is the first good James Bond film in years. Skyfall was a very good movie and was, if anything, a bit better than this one. But this is a proper Bond movie in the sense that the familiar cinematic world of 007, as we knew it and felt comfortable with since the 1960s, has finally been put back into place. With the 2006 Casino Royale reboot essentially turned Bond into Jason Bourne. Gone were Moneypenny and Q and all that somewhat frivolous touches that were part of the franchise. Sam Mendes’s two films have essentially put all the original pieces back into place—not without some fanciful re-imagining and tweaking of the original material but still very comfortably familiar. Moreover, the four most recent movies have a rigid continuity to them that is unprecedented in Bond films. They could nearly be classed as a tetralogy. What is not back is the overt mugging and winking that Bond was all too prone to, even in the halcyon Sean Connery days. Daniel Craig maintains a hard edge that alerts us to always take him seriously. And not only are decades of 007 film tradition back but, thanks to various legal resolutions, some early elements are back on the table (beginning with the book Casino Royale, which had previously been lost to the official Bond movie producers). So how is this as a movie? In brief, Naomie Harris and Ben Wishaw are brilliant, and it is great to see their characters get more to do than in the past. Andrew Scott, as an uber-bureaucrat, is every bit as creepy here as he is when playing Moriarty to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock. Christoph Waltz is unsettlingly Willem Dafoe-like as the big baddie. And Léa Seydoux may just be the best Bond girl ever—for a whole host of reasons. Not the least of them is that, following tradition, her name (Madeleine Swann) is a play on words but, in a refreshing break from tradition, this jeu de mots is one that is cleverly literary rather than groaningly laddish. (Seen 30 October 2015)

Speedway Junky 1 out of 4 stars

Those of you who have been lamenting the absence of Jonathan Taylor Thomas during the last season of Home Improvement happily can see him playing virtually the same exact role in Speedway Junky. Except that he swears a lot and uses the F word. And he’s a bisexual hustler on the Las Vegas Strip. And he’s a nasty little weasel who can’t be trusted. But except for that, it’s exactly the same character. I suppose this role is meant to establish Thomas’s credentials as a Serious Actor, but somehow when he swaggers around talks tough street talk, well, let’s just say that he better not stop answering those calls from Disney just yet. Director Nickolas Perry’s previous effort was a lively and fun teen romantic comedy short called Must Be the Music. Unfortunately, here he is basically doing a teeny-bopper version of Midnight Cowboy. But his fresh-faced young actors from Beverly Hills, or wherever they come from, just don’t provide the same energy as when this film’s executive producer, Gus Van Sant, casts real street kids in his own films. Or, for that matter, when he casts actors like Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix, as he did in My Own Private Idaho. Still, Jordan Brower is fairly effective in what is basically Phoenix’s role from Idaho. Also on hand is Daryl Hannah as a cocktail waitress who gives Brower’s friend the best birthday present he ever had. (Seen 20 May 1999)

Speriamo che sia femmina (Let’s Hope It’s a Girl) 2 out of 4 stars

The big crowd pleaser at the film festival so far. The joys and sorrows of a wacky family living in rural Italy. Big name cast. Liv Ullmann, Catherine Deneuve, and Philippe Noiret speak Italian. (Seen 16 May 1987)

Spider 3 out of 4 stars

If you don’t get enough of Ralph Fiennes playing a homicidal weirdo in Red Dragon, you will definitely want to check out Spider. In contrast to his latest Hollywood turn, he gets lots of screen time here—practically all of the film’s 98 minutes. But you will have to listen carefully, because he mumbles his dialog all the way through. This sort of thing is lots of fun for actors but usually not very entertaining for most audiences to watch. But, in this case, it’s worth the effort. Canadian director David Cronenberg (yes, sick, twisted, weird David Cronenberg, who’s made a bunch of creepy movies like The Brood, Scanners, Videodrome and Crash) has made a serious and thoughtful adaptation of a novel by Patrick McGrath that takes place largely in the protagonist’s mind. It’s sort of the dark flipside of A Beautiful Mind—without the uplifting ending. As with that movie, the less you know about this one before you see it, the better. And that’s all I’ll say. (Seen 9 October 2002)

Spider-Man 3 out of 4 stars

Okay, so I wasn’t the first in line to see Spider-Man when it opened in the USA (because I was in Ireland). And I wasn’t the first to see it when it opened in Ireland (because I had just returned to the USA). But I finally saw it, and it was definitely worth the wait. Let’s face it, Sam Raimi, the warped genius behind the Evil Dead movies and Darkman, was born to bring the web-slinger to life. To be successful, he just had to do two things, and he accomplished them beyond our greatest hopes: 1) he had to make us feel what it would be like to climb up the side of a New York skyscraper and swing across to another one, and more importantly 2) he had to make us feel all the frustration, fear, confusion, anger and lust of a nerdy teenager. Decades before 90210 and Dawson there was Peter Parker, and Raimi has made him real. And long before 9/11 comic book guru Stan Lee was making his comics virtual love letters to New York City, and the movie reflects this. In the best tradition of comic-books-turned-into-movies, Spider-Man is a romance (like Richard Donner and Richard Lester’s Superman movies) and it is also about the duality of a hero and villain whose stories are inextricably tied by fate (like Tim Burton’s Batman). It is amazing how the principal actors’ well-established personas work so well in their roles. Tobey Maguire’s glum youth shtick (The Ice Storm, The Cider House Rules) is perfect for Peter Parker. And Willem Dafoe’s wacko expressions are made for playing a comic book villain. Also, James Franco won an Emmy for playing James Dean in a TV movie, and he seems to be playing Dean here as well, as the clueless son of the Green Goblin. (Seen 3 July 2002)

Spider-Man 2 3 out of 4 stars

In the early days of comic books, the stories were told mainly in the word balloons. The drawings served to illustrate what was mostly recounted in the text, which makes sense when you consider that comic books were begot by pulp magazines. When Stan Lee and his bullpen of Marvel artists ushered in the so-called “silver age” in the 1960s, things changed. The Marvel guys told the stories like they were movies. The artwork got much better and more cinematic. The action was seen at different angles, as if through the lens of a camera. The action was more dramatic and the settings more impressive, as if staged by choreographers and art directors. The funny thing is that, when comic books began being translated to television and film, they didn’t work that well because the state of technical effects simply couldn’t do justice to the imaginations of the comic book artists. Beginning with Richard Donner’s Superman and continuing with Tim Burton’s Batman, however, things began to change. New generations of film directors, with new tools at their disposal, could finally create moving images to rival the drawings on the page. With the two Spider-Man movies, Sam Raimi has shown himself to be an ideal filmmaker for this genre. He has completely caught the spirit of the comic books (particularly, the original ones, with which I am the most familiar), including the soap opera aspects of Peter Parker’s personal life and Marvel gang’s love affair with New York City. Thanks to Raimi, we willingly buy into the idea that one person can make a 75% difference in the crime rate of the nation’s largest city and that every crime and/or natural disaster seems to happen within earshot of Peter Parker. We even buy into the notion of “being a hero,” even when “hero” here is more or less synonymous with “vigilante.” Raimi pulls off the amazing feat of evoking all the feelings we had when reading the comic books but making it all seem so real. Alfred Molina’s Dr. Octopus, in particular, is much more a three-dimensional person on the screen than he ever was on the printed page. A really nice touch is the way his serpent-like mechanical arms “talk” to him, like the demons in some Greek tragedy. It’s just one of many flourishes that make this film a wonderful piece of entertainment that will be hard to beat as best movie of the summer. (Seen 20 July 2004)

Spider-Man 3 2 out of 4 stars

Around the time a second sequel gets released to a major blockbuster, the critics (and sometimes the audience) decide that the really sweet juice has all been sucked out of a great idea. “Threequel” is the new buzz word going around about this summer’s spate of second sequels, and it’s not being used in a kind way. So, has Spidey come down with franchise fatigue? It appears so. Because each new sequel has to be bigger and better, there’s the overload factor. And then there’s just so many characters to deal with. This film not only brings back every character from the first two movies (even the dead ones) but feels compelled to add new ones (Gwen Stacy and her dad) from the comic book, which hadn’t been worked in yet. On top of this, since this is a Marvel movie, Stan Lee has to be in there (it’s in his contract). And since it’s a Sam Raimi movie, his brother Ted and Bruce Campbell have to be in there too. And, while the soap opera aspects were always what made Spider-Man more interesting than most super-heroes, this movie dwells on Peter Parker’s romantic and emotional travails to such a point that we nearly have a chick flick with lots of cool CGI. To be sure, there is lots of good fun here and, as always, the film is a delight to those with long Spidey memories. Still, there are some uncomfortable moments toward the end. And I’m not just talking about Tobey Maguire trying to be young John Travolta. It’s the way his hair goes all greasy when he goes over to the dark side. (Shudder!) Makes us remember Hayden Christensen in Revenge of the Sith. (Seen 19 June 2007)

Spider-Man: Homecoming 2 out of 4 stars

For the record, the actor who best matched the look and tone of Peter Parker as embodied in the original Steve Ditko/Stan Lee comic was Andrew Garfield (2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man). The director who best delivered the feel, spirit and themes of those books, though, was far and away Sam Raimi (2002’s Spider-Man). Now we have the third big-screen launch—in the space of a mere decade and a half—of the beloved web singer, so what do director Jon Watts and star Tom Holland bring to this new Spidey-verse? Well, think of the gifted young Mr. Holland as the Marty McFly version of Spider-Man. This has the breezy, comic feel and thrills of a Back to the Future movie. Surrey man Holland’s American accent is impeccable, but did his dialect coach give him nothing but Family Ties reruns to watch? It is hard to shake the feeling Holland is not actually Michael J. Fox’s clone—except for fun moments like when he is made to do a bit from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. (In one of many gags that pay off very humorously, we learn that Spidey’s trademark skyscaper swinging does not work nearly so well in the suburbs.) The title refers not only to a climactic high school event but also to the fact that this flick, following Captain America: Civil War marks our hero’s long-delayed integration into the proper Marvel universe. The cost, though, is that Spider-Man’s original story has been jettisoned or at least retrofitted to mesh with the Avengers’ storyline, making Tony Stark his distracted mentor/father figure (think the old sitcom Family Affair) and Jon Favreau’s Happy Hogan his grumpy Mr. French. It’s not clear to me if this Peter Parker even had an Uncle Ben (which is just as well because I did not want to go through that whole episode yet another time) and Stark definitely had it right when he dubbed Marisa Tomei’s Aunt May “aunt hottie.” Villain-wise, Michael Keaton has now completed the long transition from DC super-hero to Marvel baddie (by way of a bit of deconstruction in Birdman), shedding Bruce Wayne’s riches for alienated blue-collar revenge as the Vulture. If you are not a rigid comic-book-source purist, there is absolutely no reason not to have a grand time enjoying this. Never has Spider-Man felt so young. Holland is so convincing as an adolescent we do not even blink when he mentions he is 15, and the high school scenes could be right out of a Disney Channel sitcom. Among the students, a highlight is Zendaya, who channels Ally Sheedy’s loner character from The Breakfast Club to hilarious effect. (Seen 13 August 2017)

The Spiderwick Chronicles 3 out of 4 stars

Thanks to Steven Spielberg, for some years now every fantastical adventure movie involving young children must also deal with the messy family dynamics of modern American life. The Spiderwick Chronicles is no exception and, in fact, dwells quite consciously on the fact that the Grace family is a broken one. Things actually get to the point that, in the final scenes, our angry young hero Jared virtually commits a shocking act of patricide before our very eyes. Indeed, while the target audience is clearly a young one, this is a fairly intense movie on several levels. With its group-of-people-holding-off-supernatural-creatures-in-an-isolated-house storyline, it follows the format and conventions of a standard horror movie. It nearly could have been titled Night of the Living Hobgoblins. Its delight not only in childhood fantasy but also in the dark side of such fantasy is reminiscent of the films of Joe Dante. In the end, it more than does its job. It gives us a few thrills and allows the young hero to scold his mother and older sister, aren’t you sorry now that you didn’t listen to me! It also raises the question of whether there is now a deficit in American child actors. No fewer than two of the children in this movie are played by the very talented English actor Freddie Highmore (Finding Neverland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), and the other is played by the Irish actor Sarah Bolger (who came to our attention with her sister in In America), all playing completely convincing Yanks. At the other end of the age scale, it is good to see 78-year-old Joan Plowright, as the great aunt who may hold the key to mystery. (Seen 5 May 2008)

Spin the Bottle 2 out of 4 stars

The hero of this madcap comedy, Michael McElhatton, wears a haircut that is a clear homage to Jim Carrey’s in Dumb and Dumber (which, I think, was in turn some sort of homage to Moe of the Three Stooges). His sidekick is Peter McDonald (of I Went Down and When Brendan Met Trudy), who is unrecognizable in a hat and wig that are apparently the same ones used by Dana Carvey in Wayne’s World. These details alone should give you an idea of the level of humor we are dealing with here. The plot is reminiscent of The Blue Brothers, involving McElhatton’s attempts to reform his old band after getting out of Mountjoy Prison. The best predictor of whether you will enjoy this flick’s specifically Dublin humor is this: If you enjoy the D’U’believables, you may well like this. If you hate the D’Unbelievables, you probably won’t like this. If you don’t know who the D’Unbelievables are, then this will probably just confuse you. The film’s quality level rises above mere self-indulgence thanks to the brilliant use of a few Irish TV personalities playing themselves as well, as a wicked parody of TV reality talent shows and of the inexplicable boy band phenomenon. The movie also has an unexpectedly poignant aspect since McElhatton’s mother is played gamely by veteran Irish TV actor Pat Leavy, who died suddenly in April. (Seen 13 July 2003)

The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie 2 out of 4 stars

Here is another sentence I never expected to write. This movie gives us the best opportunity most of us will ever get in our lifetime to study David Hasselhoff’s leg hair. Now let’s move on. I have never watched an entire episode of SpongeBob SquarePants on television, but I’ve read quotes from his creator, Stephen Hillenburg, claiming that the humor doesn’t come out of pop culture references. Well, that may be true for the small-screen version, but it’s definitely not true for the big-screen edition. The movie is replete with references to movies and movie clichés. And you have to respect (if not admire) a movie that can simultaneously send up Easy Rider and Finding Nemo, no? I also read a quote by a media professor in The New York Times to the effect that SpongeBob is “naïve” and non-hip and “pre-irony.” Well, I don’t see it. The whole thing seems to me to be perched in that strange animation zone that is too simple for many adults but too edgy for the smallest of children. Still, my five-year-old Little Munchkin seemed to like it okay, and I got a few laughs out of it myself. (She brought me to a Galway cinema, where it is still playing, months after its opening, for Father’s Day.) I’d prefer to avoid that whole so-called controversy where someone or other suggested that SpongeBob was gay. This seems a silly thing to say about an obviously asexual cartoon character. On the other hand, the movie opens with singing pirates. You work it out. (Seen 19 June 2005)

Sporlaust (No Trace) 1 out of 4 stars

Don’t you just hate it when you’re having a really great time partying and celebrating and getting drunk and eating magic mushrooms and then, before you know it, it’s morning and you’re waking up next to a dead woman? That’s what happens to Gulli, who has the added complication of being an Olympic swimmer, so bad publicity is even more of an annoyance. This little suspense number by Iceland’s Hilmar Oddsson (Tears of Stone) comes very close to being a nifty thriller, but our interest keeps getting deflated by odd pacing or things that just don’t make sense. One of the nice touches is the social tension among Gulli’s group of friends, who come from varying economic backgrounds. But we never get anything like the payoff the film needs to justify itself. And, when the film finally ends, it’s with a freeze frame of people laughing, just like one of those old Police Squad TV parodies. (Seen 17 May 1999)

Spy 2 out of 4 stars

Forget Billy Gardell. Melissa McCarthy should be teamed more often with British action star Jason Statham. They make a great comedy duo. The Stath (veteran of such macho fare as the Transporter movies, the Crank movies, the Expendables movies, the Fast & Furious movies, you get the idea) is a brilliant running gag in this movie, as the quintessential loose cannon/rogue/renegade/authority-challenged field agent bursting to take on everything and everyone himself. Another great running gag is how all of McCarthy’s assigned undercover identities are the most pitiful female stereotypes ever. When this action comedy isn’t distracting us with chase scenes, fight scenes, occasional instances of startling violence and potty-mouthed rants, it mainly serves up extended (and very funny) sequences of banter between McCarthy and Statham—when it isn’t delivering extended banter between McCarthy and Rose Byrne as an over-the-top Eurotrash uber-mean girl. It’s the kind of movie where it is constantly clear how much fun the actors are all having, and you don’t mind because you’re not meant to take any of this James Bond-meets-Nine to Five mash-up seriously anyway. Let’s just say that, as a deconstruction of the Bond-style spy thriller, it’s not exactly Kingsman. But the comedy is first-rate, thanks to a large talented cast. Standouts (according to my biases anyway) are the Brits Peter Serafinowicz, as a hormonally overcharged Italian operative, and the wonderful Miranda Hart, as McCarthy’s friend and confidante back at the office. To the extent that Hart is known so far in America, it is probably for her role as Chummy on the sentimental BBC series Call the Midwife, but her part here is more aligned with her eponymous role in her hilarious eponymous BBC sitcom. Write/director of this flick is Paul Feig, whose other helming credits include Bridesmaids and the upcoming Ghostbusters remake. (Seen 9 July 2010)

Spy Game 2 out of 4 stars

Seeing this flick was an eerie experience, and not just because the theater was nearly empty since everyone else was seeing Harry Potter. It was because right after the movie I got in my car and immediately heard a report on the radio about conflicting stories about a CIA agent who may or may not have been killed in a faraway prison uprising. And that’s just what happens in this movie! (Except it’s China in 1991 instead of Afghanistan in 2001.) Hollywood movies always tell us useful things that we never knew before, and this one is no exception. For example, we learn that most CNN reports are actually deliberate leaks by various CIA factions trying to sway public opinion. Also, we learn that when you retire from the CIA, they don’t throw you a party on the last day—although, if you’re a good guy, your secretary might buy you a bottle of scotch. It’s amazing how differently this potboiler of spying, counter-terrorism, political assassinations and special ops plays now than it would have just three short months ago. But while the film is full of echoes of current events, it is most enjoyable for its echoes of other movies. Like the way Robert Redford (definitely the coolest 64-year-old I know) plays a CIA agent who reminds us of the one he played 26 years ago in Three Days of the Condor. Or how the story structure subtly and deftly mimics that of The Usual Suspects. Spy Game’s craven bureaucrats and politicians are basically the same ones that were cynically cutting loose valiant and loyal heroes in the Rambo movies. Best of all, when Redford tells Brad Pitt never to risk his own life or money for an “asset,” he is basically Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca saying, “I stick my neck out for nobody!” (Seen 26 November 2001)

Spy Hard 2 out of 4 stars

Spy Hard is not produced by the same team who did Airplane! and the Police Squad! TV series and movies (all of which also featured Leslie Nielsen), but you’d hardly notice. The main difference is that Spy Hard does not have anywhere near the same number of great gags in the closing credits. In fact, this almost could have been another sequel to The Naked Gun, but maybe George Kennedy couldn’t be lured away from his Breath Assure ads—although I’m sure O.J. Simpson would have been game to reprise his old role. Anyway, Spy Hard doesn’t attain quite the satirical zaniness of Jim Abrahams and the Zucker brothers, but it’s close enough. The opening is a great send-up of the James Bond movies, and people who got more than a little tired of Macauley Culkin may appreciate a scene where his persona gets pummeled by two intruders in an homage to Home Alone. The numerous “celebrity” cameos include the inevitable Dr. Joyce “I’ll do anything for a buck” Brothers and Ray Charles as a bus driver in a Speed parody. (Seen 15 June 1996)

Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams 2 out of 4 stars

Here’s an idea. What about Antonio Banderas playing James Bond? Okay, they might have to rework the whole British thing (maybe Jaime Bond could report to the European Union), but he certainly does have suave screen presence to burn. One review I read about this sequel said that Banderas and Carla Gugino were almost too sexy to be in a kids movie, and that’s about right. Writer/director/producer Robert Rodriguez clearly has a lot of fun making these movies, and I guess it shouldn’t be too big a surprise that he is a natural for making escapist kids entertainment, since all his movies (El Mariachi, From Dusk Till Dawn, etc.) have essentially been cartoons. What’s interesting is how the Spy Kids movies push the same buttons as the Harry Potter movies, i.e. children whisked away to quasi-adult world, where virtually anything is possible, where kids have most of the power, and where the population, both child and adult, is divided very clearly into good guys and bad guys. The main difference between the Spy Kids’ world and Harry Potter’s world is that the Spy Kids have really cool parents (and grandparents) instead of having no parents, who have been replaced by extremely uncool parents. At the end of the day, the Spy Kids’ gadget-infused (Hispanic) American world is just more fun than Harry’s dark, repressed English private school world. But it’s all still kid’s stuff. (Seen 8 December 2002)

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold 3 out of 4 stars

These days I am drawn to movies that feature Cold-War-era Berlin, particularly if they include Checkpoint Charlie, which (yes, this is another shameless plug) features in my upcoming book. This classic John le Carré adaptation begins with a tense situation at that famous crossing point, then spends the whole rest of the movie working its way back to the Berlin Wall for a tense replay of that initial scene from a different perspective. The title, which became something of a catch phrase in popular culture, refers to the desire of intelligence people to get out of the grim world of espionage and back to a more normal life. Though this is a thoroughly British story, the director is American Martin Ritt, whose oeuvre encompasses everything from The Long, Hot Summer to Hud to Sounder to Norma Rae plus lots of other—often topical but sometimes funny—films that you know. Shot in melancholy black and white with a moody score, the film has the pervasive feel of a world with no good options and, typical of Le Carré, blurred lines between the good guys and the bad guys. Richard Burton was a busy movie actor when he played dour Alec Leamas with weaknesses that seem to mirror the actor’s own. Claire Bloom is perky and winning as the idealistic librarian who fancies him. Oskar Werner is sly and opaque as the East German target of Leamas’s mission. Irish thespian patriarch Cyril Cusack is on hand as Control, the equivalent of M in the 007 movies, and Bernard Lee (M himself) is on hand in a different role. Rupert Davies is the first of several actors (to be followed by James Mason, Alec Guinness, Denholm Elliott and Gary Oldman) to play George Smiley, here a minor but crucial character in the grand cat-and-mouse game. If the Bond movies were aimed at our inner adolescent boy, the le Carré adaptations have always been aimed at the bitterly regretful grown-up cynic in us all. That is why they are better. (Seen 19 July 2017)

The Spy Who Loved Me 2 out of 4 stars

In his third outing as James Bond, Roger Moore finally hit his stride as 007. Or maybe we are just getting used to him. He is a tad more relaxed and looser in the role and not quite so robotic. When he ogles the comely young women inevitably served up to him, he actually looks like he might be interested. We can date Bond movies by their references to other movies, and so the fact that we see a woman eaten by a shark and we have a memorable seven-foot tall henchman called “Jaws” tells us this comes just a couple of years after a certain Steven Spielberg blockbuster. The villain this time is veteran German actor Curt Jurgens, as a Blofeld-like maniac who, as these villains tend to do, goes after both the Americans and the Soviets. But this time the super-powers have copped on and are cooperating, leading Bond to join forces with the title spook—giving this flick the essential structure of a romcom. Unfortunately, the titular spy is the weak link in the whole enterprise. Played by future (and present) Mrs. Ringo Starr, Barbara Bach, she is certainly attractive in an exotic way, but in no way (even by Bond standards) is she convincing as the Soviets’ top agent. Even her banter is disappointing because it’s as though her lines were kept to no more than she could memorize for any one scene. On the other hand, the stunts continue to get better and here we are treated to solid examples of a car chase, a ski chase and good underwater action. For those of us who pay attention to the really important things, it is good to see that Moore’s Bond has gone back to vodka martinis after switching to bourbon in Live and Let Die, in an apparent effort to distinguish himself from Sean Connery. (Seen 6 May 2012)

St. Elmo’s Fire 2 out of 4 stars

Wags dubbed this 1985 flick by Joel Schumacher The Little Chill, since it demonstrated post-boomers in their 20s could be just as self-involved as baby boomers in their 30s were shown to be, two years earlier, in Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill. It also helped (along with The Breakfast Club, which shared three of the same stars and was released the same year) give rise to the term Brat Pack. It follows the American Graffiti formula of following a group of young people’s various and interweaving stories. And, seen today, much of the movie comes off as a fairly insightful satire of the yuppie vacuous-ness and self-absorption of the 1980s. It nearly works as an update to Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies, i.e. sort of an late-20th-century American version of Stephen Fry’s Bright Young Things. The only problem is that, by the end, it becomes clear that we are meant to actually take fairly seriously the utter drama of how absolutely hard it is to be 22 and, like, you know, have to go to work and pay bills and stuff. In the 1980s there is no worldwide cataclysm to shake our characters out of themselves, as happened in Waugh. In addition to reminding us how young actors like Emilio Estevez, Rob Lowe and Demi Moore once were, the film does also make some cogent observations on its time period, specifically the growing material culture and hedonism of the 1980s, as well as the tendency for young adults to abandon their biological families in favor of ad hoc ones formed with their friends. Perhaps the movie’s greatest insight is to presage endless sitcoms about friends hanging out in bars and, later, in coffee houses. (Seen 14 September 2006)

St. Trinian’s 2 out of 4 stars

Most every country has its own peculiar brand of movie comedy humor that plays well at home and, in some cases, abroad as well. The French, for example, to judge from their comedies seem never to get enough of funny actors bulging their eyes and blowing their tops. The English, on the other hand, seem to enjoy very, very posh people looking very silly and being put into extremely embarrassing and compromising situations. As it happens, I enjoy that too. I don’t feel particularly good about myself for that, but there it is. Something I don’t do automatically is laugh at men dressed up as women. But I have to say that all Rupert Everett, all done up as headmistress Camilla Fritton, had to do to have me in stitches was simply to strike a pose. There was no real joke and it was repeated ad infinitum, but I never got tired of it. Ditto for his turn as Camilla’s brother Carnaby, a man so rigid you could nearly see the stick up his… you know. This 2007 movie was a revival (all tarted up for today’s youth) of a 1950s film series originally based on a series of cartoons by Ronald Searle that essentially did for education what Charles Addams’s cartoons did for family life. To be clear, if this movie’s humor were any broader, this could only be shown on IMAX. It’s replete with shameless mugging, sight gags, tweaking of community values and a fair number of in-jokes. The most blatant of these is an underscored reference to the 1984 film Another Country which starred Everett and Colin Firth, who is pitch perfect here as the soulless authority figure of Minister of Education. Hence another jokey reference in the name of Camilla’s dog, Mr. Darcy. And the dog provided my single biggest hearty laugh, which ended with the minister’s aide sympathetically volunteering, “Not the headline we were hoping for, sir.” (Seen 22 May 2010)

St Trinian’s 2: The Legend of Fritton’s Gold 2 out of 4 stars

Like many sequels, this one is aimed squarely at people who enjoyed the first movie but found that it gave them only half as much as they wanted. Indeed, much of the screen time covers the exact same material (freeze frames of the school’s different cliques with instructive subtitles, annoying dog getting overly familiar with Colin Firth’s leg), like a torch singer belting out her best known songs one more time during the encore. Most of the same crew are back, although we have lost Russell Brand and picked up David Tennant, as the piece’s villain. And while the first movie made passing references to movies ranging from the Harry Potter series to caper flicks like the Mission: Impossible series, this flick casts a wider net of allusions that takes in everything from Pirates of the Caribbean to The Da Vinci Code to The Exorcist and even a Lord of the Rings reference as well as a possible nod to Shakespeare in Love. But, as before, the main attraction seems to be watching young women all done up in all sorts of styles of dress and grooming, striking poses and walking to the beat of energetic pop music. It’s not the sort of thing that makes one feel good about oneself while watching, but (and this is more confession than advice) it still all made me laugh almost all the way through. (Seen 12 June 2010)

St. Vincent 2 out of 4 stars

There is just enough incidental detail and idiosyncratic notes in this familiar tale of a young boy finding a sort-of role model in the most unlikely of places that it feels as though it must be generally based on actual events. As in the previous year’s Bad Words, we have a misanthrope thrown together with a young boy and inevitably forming some sort of bond. Whereas Bad Words mainly went for laughs, St. Vincent’s writer/director Theodore Melfi gives us humor mainly to supplement the poignancy. Young Jaeden Lieberher plays Oliver, whose parents are in the midst of an acrimonious divorce and who is adjusting to a new home, a new school and life with a mostly absent working single mother. His default minder turns out to be next-door neighbor Bill Murray, who gives every appearance of living out his golden years on a downward spiral. While it might be predictable that Murray, against all odds, could actually turn out to be some kind of male role model the lad needs, the character of Vincent also turns out to be more complex and nuanced than we might have expected. This is another one of those movies about how Americans form families wherever they find them, but it is also a tribute to everyday people struggling to keep their heads above water against all odds. We might expect more belly laughs, given the presence of actors like Murray, Melissa McCarthy and Chris O’Dowd, but the humor is more low-key. While the ending may bring a lump in the throat, the movie doesn’t quite sell out. To its credit, it isn’t so much feel-good as feel-good-enough. (Seen 25 January 2015)

Stadtgesprach (Talk of the Town) 2 out of 4 stars

Talk of the Town is really much funnier than it deserves to be. It’s basically the same idea as TV’s Frasier: a radio call-in shrink solves other people’s problem but can’t begin to deal with her own. In the case of Hamburg’s “Monika in the Morning,” however, the people in her life tend to have the embarrassing habit of calling her up to discuss her problems on the air. As the film opens, Monika seems to have it all together. She is a successful professional and happy with her single life. But when she turns 30, a time bomb seems to go off and she goes searching for a man. All too quickly, she finds Mr. Perfect, but that relationship turns out to be problematic, to say the least. One of the funnier running gags is that, depending on how her love life is going, Monika’s on-air advice runs the gamut from dopey female submissiveness to militant feminimism. At times, this film seems a bit similar to the less successful German-language comedy An Almost Perfect Affair, but at least it has the good sense not to shortchange totally the serious points that it raises. (Seen 28 May 1996)

The Stag (The Bachelor Weekend) 2 out of 4 stars

The set-up promises the Irish answer to The Hangover, but what we actually get is a fairly humorous meditation on manhood and male bonding in the post-macho 21st century. Fionan is one of contemporary Dublin’s most cultured and sensitive males—so much so that he shows much more interest in the design details of his upcoming wedding than in the notion of having the traditional stag night with the lads. So the bride (the now all-too-familiar Amy Huberman) pushes best man Davin to organize a stag over Fionan’s protests—and to include her none-too-refined brother, addressed invariably as The Machine (definite article never omitted). Whereas Fion and Davin and their mates are all intellect and culture, The Machine is pure id. He is impulsive, impetuous and adventurous—and just the thing to turn the planned reflective weekend ramble in the quiet woods into something way out of the Dubliners’ comfort zone. Hugh O’Conor (The Young Poisoner’s Handbook) and Andrew Scott (Moriarty on BBC’s Sherlock), as Fionan and Davin, have their metrosexual characters down to a tee. As The Machine, Peter McDonald eats up a role that is a day-and-night to the roles he has played in movies like I Went Down and as the dad in TV’s Moone Boy. Despite the lightness of the material (the script was written by McDonald and director John Butler), the film actually makes some nice points about male relationships and it pays off handsomely with a surprisingly touching lump-in-the-throat feel-good finale. (Seen 9 January 2015)

Stage Beauty 2 out of 4 stars

Every certain number of years, there is a major shift in the world that sours that fortunes of some while giving new opportunities to others. The transition from the horse and buggy to the automobile was one such moment. Another was the advent of talking pictures, which was bad news for movie stars who had strange accents or other issues that were deemed to make their voices unsuitable for the sound era. This movie deals with yet another such moment in the history of performing arts, imagining what it might have been like around the time that women were finally allowed to perform as actors on the stage in England. What became of the men who had built a career around playing women in Shakespeare’s plays? What was it like for aspiring female thespians who finally got their chance to perform in public? Being a movie, in the end this is yet another loving tribute to the wonder and power of the performing arts, but it is a fairly effective one, rather than a typical exercise in self-congratulation. A running theme is that any actor should be able to play any role, so it is no accident that the play that the plot revolves around is Othello, which has a long history of white actors playing a black man. And the filmmakers slyly force the point further by having the cast of this BBC production, about a very English subject, led by two actors who couldn’t be more American: Billy Crudup and Clare Danes. Coincidentally or not, they are supported by two English actors who have a fair amount of success playing Yanks, Tom Wilkinson and Ben Chaplin. As a historical/romantic/paean-to-acting comedy, the whole thing is quite enjoyable, especially Rupert Everett’s turn as a somewhat kinky Charles II. The film also has many great lines. My personal favorite, delivered wearily by a deadpan Edward Fox: “Every time we are about to do something truly horrible, we always say that the French have been doing it for years.” (Seen 15 September 2004)

Stand by Me 3 out of 4 stars

Rob Reiner’s third outing as a big screen director (after This Is Spinal Tap and The Sure Thing) was where he firmly established himself of deserving inclusion on the A List. He would follow this with such solid hits as The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally… and Misery which, like Stand by Me, was a Stephen King adaptation. King’s novella The Body eschewed the author’s usual horror mode in favor of a coming-of-age tale set roughly in the same year when King himself would be the age of the characters. As a film, it works as part rude (these are 12-year-old boys after all) adolescent comedy and part adventure story with some life messages. The inclusion of Richard Dreyfuss in wrap-around segments as the adult Gordie adds unnecessary sentimentality, but the young actors, who all get to play out their own various problems from home, are all first-rate. It’s a nice exercise in nostalgia—with selected pop songs from the era on the soundtrack and the lads singing the theme from the TV western Have Gun—Will Travel—but it doesn’t overplay it. The flick also provides early roles for Kiefer Sutherland (a year before The Lost Boys) and John Cusack (from The Sure Thing). Hauntingly, life would imitate art for the young cast. Like his character, Wil Wheaton would go on to be a writer (and blogger), as well continue an acting career that has included Star Trek: The Next Generation and a recurring role on The Big Bang Theory. And, sadly like his character, River Phoenix did have his life cut short all too soon. (Seen 6 August 2016)

Standby 2 out of 4 stars

The main thing that romcoms have going for them is predictability. We pretty much know how things are going to play out, but we go along for the ride, secure in the sense that everything will turn out all right in the end. In exchange for letting the filmmaker get away with a story that has been told hundreds of times before, we only ask that we can get emotionally involved to the point where we worry that, maybe this time for once, it won’t all turn out okay. And we want to care about the characters enough that we actually want them to get together. That’s not too much to ask, is it? This flick, directed by filmmaking brothers Rob and Ronan Burke and penned by Pierce Ryan, certainly has the right premise: a chance meeting of two people who clicked in their wayward youth but were then separated because they lived in different countries. Brian Gleeson is the quintessential romcom lead. Recently dumped by both his employer and his fiancée, he glumly works at a job he hates (with his mother) at the information desk at Dublin Airport. Who should suddenly walk into his life but the beautiful American (Canadian Jessica Paré) with whom he had a fling eight years earlier when he was in the States on a J1 visa. They are each other’s one that the other never forgot. As she has to kill time until she can get a flight home, they have just one night in Dublin to see if they can recapture the magic. This is sure-fire stuff, so it is kind of amazing that we find ourselves not really caring that much one way or the other—mainly because, I have to say, of Gleeson’s consistently glum attitude to everything. Moreover, the film accomplishes the feat of making Dublin’s vibrant nightlife scene actually seem kind of boring. Having said that, there are a few well-earned chuckles along the way and a fairly good payoff at the end. (Seen 9 July 2010)

Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures 3 out of 4 stars

The title of this documentary is perfectly apt since motion pictures were certainly legendary director Stanley Kubrick’s life, and this film tells his story largely through the use of pictures—since there seem to be no filmed interviews with him. Other than a snippet of a radio interview, we get precious little of his own voice. But the film is rich in both still and moving pictures. From childhood home movies to tons of behind-the-scenes film lot photos, we watch the heavy-lidded Kubrick mature from a young man who looks a bit like Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean to an old master who resembles Salman Rushdie. The movie was made by Kubrick’s brother-in-law, Jan Harlan, who worked on many of Kubrick’s movies. Consequently, the result isn’t so much a journalistic investigation as a tribute and a defense against many of the stories that have circulated about Kubrick for years. (One of the many published quotes that flashes by says that “Howard Hughes was a party animal” next to the notoriously reclusive Kubrick.) What the film lacks in critical objectivity it more than makes up for in a wealth of information. In addition to the flood of photos, we get all the right clips from the Kubrick classics as well as interviews with his widow and children and most of his major stars. The ailing Kirk Douglas (Spartacus) and Ryan O’Neal (Barry Lyndon) are the only obvious absentees. Among many other things, we learn that Kubrick never intended to direct A.I. himself and that he personally asked Spielberg to direct it. Also, the two major films he never made would have been about Napoleon and about the Holocaust. But the most intriguing tidbit didn’t make it into the film. In a post-screening discussion, Harlan mentioned that Kubrick began working on the idea for Eyes Wide Shut two decades ago and that he was seriously considering Woody Allen for the role eventually played by Tom Cruise! (Seen 7 June 2001)

Star Maps 2 out of 4 stars

It seems to be a given these days that any movie dealing with Hollywood is bound to turn ugly—especially if it is a low-budget independent film. Miguel Arteta’s Star Maps manages to deal with street prostitution, a depressingly dysfunctional family, and television studios—as if they were all part of a single continuum. Carlos is an aspiring actor who sells his body for his disgusting pimp father, under the cover of selling maps to movie stars’ homes. Things look up when a Heather Locklear-ish star of a prime-time soap picks him up for some kicks and offers to give him a part on her show. Star Maps gets in some good zingers about the Hollywood mentality (an increasingly easy target, it seems) but in the end, like many similar films, it mainly feels like some frustrated filmmaker’s personal therapy project. (Seen 26 May 1997)

Star Trek 3 out of 4 stars

Well, he did it. J.J. Abrams actually made Star Trek cool again. The Starfleet Academy prequel that had been rumored and discussed among fans for years finally came about, and it wasn’t the total disaster that many had feared. Indeed, to use the over-used term, the franchise has been successfully rebooted. So, is this a prequel or a sequel (yes, the argument can easily be made for that) or a “re-telling” or “re-imagining,” more akin to what Smallville did for Superman? The right answer, I suppose, is: all of the above. Crucially, the presence of Leonard Nimoy gives this new installment the sense of continuity and credibility that DeForest Kelley’s cameo did in the very first episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. And it’s a tribute to the filmmakers’ sleight of hand that Zachary Quinto comes closer to physically evoking the Spock we remember from the original TV series than does the 78-year-old Nimoy. By the time we get around to meeting Scotty (guess I can look forward to whole new generation of jokers asking me to beam them up), the fact that he looks nothing like James Doohan matters not a bit and we accept immediately that Nimoy recognizes him as a young version of his old comrade. And what would a reboot be if we did not have the obligatory in-jokes. Best ones: the fact that, in the series, Uhuru’s first name was never used and that you really didn’t want to be a guy in a red shirt that we hadn’t heard of before when heading down to the planet’s surface. You want quibbles? Okay, here are quibbles. They have really over-done the accents with actors (Russian born Anton Yelchin as Chekov, Englishman Simon Pegg—whose wife is Scottish—as Scotty) who clearly know better. And it was great that the story included Capt. Pike, the first captain of the Enterprise, but it would have been even better if they could have also worked in Number One, the first officer played by Majel Barrett in the pilot. Or at least her Nurse Chapel character, although fans more anal than I can probably point to documentation that she did not come on board until later. But then, why busy up a movie that is already plenty busy, just to please the likes of me? (The Roddenberrys are acknowledged, if you wait until the very end of the credits.) Being a 21st-century movie instead of a 1960s TV series, the flick inevitably differs in many ways from its source. For one thing, the original series did not have such good explosions and cool transporter effects or, for that matter, product placements. Nor do I remember James T. Kirk having such a consistent tendency to go sliding over the edges of precipices. But, in one way, this flick is entirely consistent with previous Star Trek movies. The best ones have always been the ones involving time travel (The Voyage Home, Generations, First Contact), and this one is no exception. [Related commentaries here and here] (Seen 20 May 2009)

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan 2 out of 4 stars

Is it really thirty years since this sophomore outing of the Star Trek movie franchise? At the time we noticed how much older the crew looked since the 1960s TV series. Now we look back at them and they seem like babies. What else we notice is how much the filmmakers tried to make this film look like Star Wars—which is the reason these movies started getting made in the first place. One could arguably consider this the first proper Star Trek movie, since Star Trek: The Motion Picture was essentially a padded TV episode with a bigger budget and lots of endless lingering over the more expensive Enterprise models. In this movie, Trek made a conscious effort to grow up, taking advantage of being free of its television restrictions. When a vessel is hit by photon torpedoes, there is real fire, real damage and real casualties. A particularly intense scene involves the villain Khan putting creepy-crawlies into the ears of Walter Koenig and Paul Winfield. The reality, though, is that the film doesn’t hold up on re-viewing as well as it does in the memory. It is saddled with two of the worst hams to ever grace a sound stage: William Shatner and Ricardo Montalban. We cannot help but focusing on one’s hair and on the other’s chest, trying to figure out whether or not they are real. This film is mainly remembered for its finale in which Spock selflessly sacrifices himself to save the crew (and, we thought, to free Leonard Nimoy from the role forever). But even that emotional scene is undermined by Shatner’s drama queen antics. This is also the film that introduced us to Kirstie Alley, who played the Vulcan Lt. Saavik. The role would be played in the subsequent two movies by Robin Curtis. (Seen 10 August 2012)

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock 2 out of 4 stars

In seems like a blip in Star Trek history now, but for two whole years in the 1980s the iconic Mr. Spock was officially dead. He valiantly sacrificed himself at the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in 1982, and that was that—until 1984. Of course, Trek fans never really believed the Powers That Be would let Spock stay dead, and the title of this movie was merely the first in a long series of teases about whether Spock would indeed be resurrected in some way. In fact, this entire movie is one long tease to that effect. Conventional wisdom has it that the odd-numbered Trek films are the weak ones, and this one does indeed have its problems, but it is really no better or worse than its predecessor. In fact, the continuity between this one and The Wrath of Khan is so strong that they could really be seen as two parts of the same movie. ST3 suffers from run-of-the-mill villains (rogue Klingons played by the likes of Christopher Lloyd and John Larroquette) and the fact that the somewhat interesting character of Lt. Saavik becomes somewhat less interesting, as Robin Curtis takes over from Kirstie Alley. And, as always, there is the problem of William Shatner’s hammy acting, which induces cringes at moments that should be emotional high points. On the positive side, the plot has Kirk and crew going rogue and actually stealing the Enterprise, which is much more entertaining than when they are merely following rules and procedures. And we get to go to Vulcan, which is always interesting. Looking back now, we can appreciate how good DeForest Kelley was as Dr. McCoy. The early movies hinted at a character much more intriguing than the attention-grabbing Kirk. Too bad we didn’t get to see more of him. (Seen 26 August 2012)

Star Trek: First Contact 2 out of 4 stars

What is there to be said? Of course, you will go to see this movie. Or you already have. Or you will again. It’s Star Trek. And you won’t be disappointed. First Contact is full of the violence and passion and action that was usually (and necessarily) lacking in the TV series. The special effects are great. And this Enterprise crew isn’t old and decrepit yet. Oh, sure, they threaten to go to the well yet one more time on a few things. (Going back in time to save the future again? Are they really going to blow up The Enterprise again?) But on the cool side, this installment answers some of those longtime nagging questions like: Who invented the warp engine? Who were the first extra-terrestrials to have open contact with earth? Does The Enterprise have one of those holographic doctors and, if so, why don’t they ever use it? And, most importantly, what would Counselor Troi be like if she got really drunk? (Seen 22 November 1996)

Star Trek: Insurrection 2 out of 4 stars

I think the product tie-ins of the Star Trek franchise may have finally gotten out of hand. At one point in this movie, in the heat of battle Commander Riker dramatically calls for a special ship control we have never seen before on the bridge, and it turns out to be (I swear I’m not making this up) a standard video game joystick! Anyway, never fear, this outing of the Enterprise E crew features the usual action and space battles we’ve come to expect from the movie series—up to and including the inevitable scene where the ship’s bridge is for the thousandth time reduced to a darkened shambles that looks like it will take months, if not years, to put right. But there is something different this time. This is kinder, gentler Trek. I mean, Picard and some others beam down to a planet with a bunch of crewmen we’ve never seen before, and none of them dies! In fact, the whole movie is laced with romance and comic relief and more than one groaner moment. We even get a cute kid with a cute pet! I think the filmmakers (Jonathan Frakes directed) were going for the lighthearted tone of Star Trek IV (a.k.a. the “saving the whales” movie). But I’m afraid they overshot and went dangerously close to the flavor of Star Trek V (a.k.a. the “please don’t let William Shatner ever direct again” movie). (Seen 11 December 1998)

Star Trek: Nemesis 2 out of 4 stars

The people who keep saying that Rick Berman (who took creative control of the Star Trek franchise after the death of Gene Roddenberry) is ruining the much-loved sprawling sci-fi saga seem to be right. It’s not a good sign when watching reruns of the Next Generation TV series is more fulfilling than watching a brand new big-screen movie installment. The best things the series had going for it were the challenging philosophical questions and the mix of characters. In this film, the issue of cloning is explored with less ingenuity than the U.S. Congress. Moreover, we see two characters get married and another die (sort of, I think, maybe), and the emotional impact is minimal. Maybe because the climactic scenes too obviously ape the end the second Star Trek movie, The Wrath of Khan, which was legitimately a real tear-wrencher. Part of the problem is that TV-series-derived feature films tend to indulge in too much gentle self-mockery. (I lost count of the times that one or more of the characters winkingly referred to the fact that in Star Trek the captain always goes on the away mission against the advice of everybody.) Sadly, the Star Trek movies have mostly become an exercise in seeing how badly the Enterprise can be demolished but still keeping going in the face of overwhelming odds. Not unlike the state of creativity of the Star Trek franchise itself. [Related commentary] (Seen 2 January 2003)

Star Trek Into Darkness 3 out of 4 stars

With its alternate timeline setup, J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek reboot four years ago basically implied that subsequent movies would necessarily be alternate tellings of classic Star Trek stories. And that’s just what this is. Although everyone who cares already knows which story is being retold here, let’s just say that Into Darkness not only reworks a classic episode of the original series but also the feature film it inspired. Fans (and people who enjoy clever writing in general) can enjoy the way screenwriters Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof have deconstructed the originals and turned them in on themselves. Everyone else can just enjoy the roller-coaster ride which, not incidentally, gives the audience precious little time to ponder any plot holes or, more importantly, the fact that the longer this new film series goes on the clearer it is that these really aren’t the same characters we grew up loving. As time goes on, the new incarnations will have to earn our love in their own right. So far Simon Pegg and Anton Yelchin are doing the best job in that regard. On the other hand, poor Karl Urban as Bones is saddled (and wasted) with reciting recycled McCoy-isms from the original series. No, the triumph of this movie is in its momentum, pacing and spectacle. In a fabulous tour de force, Abrams turns the Enterprise into James Cameron’s Titanic, as the center of the ship’s gravity shifts dramatically in one direction and then another. If you need an explicit example of how well this don’t-let-them-catch-their-breath style of filmmaking works, ask yourself if you noticed or cared why Alice Eve’s character had a completely different accent than her father. Or, more importantly, why it was exactly that at one point she had to strip down to her underwear. Then, if you are an adolescent male (either literally or in spirit), ask yourself if you care. (Seen 19 May 2013)

Star Wars 3 out of 4 stars

By the time I first saw Star Wars (subtitled, in a small Argentine city) in 1978, I had heard so much hype about it from my friends in the States that I was a bit let down. Sure, the special effects were great and the action seemed non-stop. But the story was kind of juvenile and melodramatic, and the tone deliberately aped the old Saturday afternoon serials my parents would have watched. What was all the fuss about? It took another viewing a couple of years later to Get It. This film had the thrill of the new yet was instantly familiar. It was King Arthur and The Lord of the Rings and every other heroic epic that essentially tells the same story over and over. If there is any doubt that this was a seminal work, we have only to look at the steady stream of baby-boomer-produced state-of-the-art-special-effects homages to the comic books and cartoons of our youth (often with scores by John Williams) that have dominated the box office since. At least one Seattle reviewer has deplored George Lucas’s (minor) reworking of his own cultural icon. To this I can only say: Give me a break! I for one prefer my art/culture/entertainment to be living and breathing rather than frozen, mummified, and stuffed. (Seen 31 January 1997)

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace 3 out of 4 stars

First of all, I want to apologize for taking so long to see and write about this movie, since I know a lot of you have been waiting to get my opinion before deciding whether to bother seeing it for yourselves. Well, it’s okay now to go see it. As you’re probably already aware, this movie is all about an evil trade federation that wants to take over the galaxy. But enough about Lucasfilm’s product and marketing tie-ins. As for the actual film itself, some of the “real” critics have been down on it. Their problem, as far as I can determine, boils down to the fact that it is not sufficiently similar to the original Star Wars. This is patently ridiculous for two reasons: 1) hey, you so-called movie “experts,” in case you hadn’t noticed, this is a different film! and 2) it actually is exactly like the original Star Wars. I mean, like any good sequel, I mean, prequel it’s the same story all over but done bigger and better to make you think it’s all new. That it achieves this is all the more amazing since we not only pretty much know what will happen to all the characters by the end of this movie, but we know exactly what will become of them and their descendents years in the future. But most importantly, this movie is just a grand spectacle adventure like Hollywood used to make with westerns like The Magnificent Seven which, not incidentally, was actually based on a Japanese samurai film which is what inspired George Lucas to start making these movies in the first place. Except those movies didn’t usually have an adorable little kid piloting racing pods and a space ship, but that’s where the marketing part comes in. Anyway, for the record: Jar Jar Binks didn’t bother me, and I thought it was really cool the way Ewan McGregor made himself sound just like Alec Guinness. I’m just glad, however, that Jake Lloyd didn’t try to sound like James Earl Jones. (Seen 7 June 1999)

Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones 2 out of 4 stars

I can’t believe I’m giving only two stars to a Star Wars movie. But what choice do I have? The one thing that all of the previous films had going for them was that they were loads of fun. Even the widely derided Phantom Menace was fun, thanks to some really good battle scenes. This film takes itself too seriously and doesn’t have the writing or acting strength to pull it off. (It goes without saying, however, that the visuals are superb.) Even the best lines (like when an exasperated Obi-Wan tells his apprentice that “you will be the death of me”) fall flat. And most of the lines aren’t as good as that one. More importantly, this film makes us realize how good Alec Guinness, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill were in the original trilogy. Phantom Menace at least had the commanding screen presence of Liam Neeson. Unfortunately, Ewan McGregor doesn’t quite fill his shoes, playing Obi-Wan a bit too prissy. In the crucial role of the teenage Anakin, Hayden Christensen is pretty and pouty. When he declares that he has just slaughtered women and children, he glares as if he had just wrecked the family car. And don’t get me started on the love story, which actually makes the one in Pearl Harbor seem profound by comparison. The only actor who fills the screen suitably is the always-dependable Christopher Lee, who has to the most formidable octogenarian working in the movies today. For most die-hard Star Wars fans, it will be enough to see Boba Fett as a child, to learn how Luke Skywalker’s uncle and aunt fit in, and to find out where all those storm troopers came from. But the sad truth is that most of the new trilogy’s story was largely described or implied years ago and we have had way too much time to create a fuller, richer backstory in our own imaginations than this trilogy provides. Aside from trivializing the mystery and menace of Darth Vader, these films make the Jedi—who had been built up in our minds to be as glorious as the Knights of the Round Table—seem like a clueless and ineffectual committee. (Seen 17 May 2002)

Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith 3 out of 4 stars

This movie deserves my three-star rating (not to mention the boodles of cash it is generating) for the same reason that English soccer player David Beckham deserves to be a multi-millionaire. Beckham is extremely gifted and talented and beautiful to look at, both in terms of his physical appearance as well as the way he can move on a soccer pitch. The only thing that ruins his perfection is when you have to listen to him talk. Similarly, this final(?) Star Wars movie is exquisite in its imagery (Ewan McGregor on a giant lizard fighting an evil android driving a big razor wheel thingie is particularly impressive) and its action/battle scenes are breathtaking, just as we have come to expect. But George Lucas has tried to turn the comic book charm of the very original film into a tragedy of epic proportions. But Lucas still writes as if for a comic book, and a fairly juvenile one at that. It doesn’t help that places and characters have names like Naboo and Count Dooku. And even the venerable term “Wookies” starts to sound embarrassing when repeated often enough in this context. We have long accepted that Yoda, the all-wise and all-knowing Jedi master, cannot for the life of him get a participle out from in front of a verb, but why can no one in this movie say the word “children”? After our anti-hero slaughters some kids (a nasty habit picked up in the previous movie), the act gets trivialized by the fact that everyone keeps saying, “He killed younglings!” Given what has to be recounted in this installment, a lot of the story is devoted to what is essentially a soap opera. But the lines delivered by Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman make the teen-oriented shows on the WB seem like Masterpiece Theatre by comparison. And I don’t blame any of the actors; they have all done fine work elsewhere. Revenge of the Sith is redeemed entirely on the strength of scenes with no meaningful dialog. The biggest emotional impact comes when we first see the infamous Darth Vader helmet and hear its wearer draw his first ominous breath (the single best line Lucas has written for the film), soon followed by set-up scenes for the original Star Wars. It is worth noting that said emotional impact is owed entirely to our memories of that first movie. But that’s more than enough. [Related commentary] (Seen 19 May 2005)

Star Wars: The Force Awakens 3 out of 4 stars

This is one of those movies where there is nearly no point in reviewing it. If you haven’t already seen it, then you don’t want to know anything about it. And, if you have, you already have it more than well discussed. But let’s forge ahead anyway. Let me start by spoiling it for people by saying that, in a lot of ways, it is basically the same movie as George Lucas’s original Star Wars (the one that got rebanded episode four). But you don’t care because what made that movie work (and was noticeably less true in the prequels) was the frenetic pace that never let you catch your breath or gave you time to think too much about things. The other key thing that the original trilogy had—and that the prequel set did not—was the character of Han Solo. You cannot overestimate how much his likeable rogue kept Lucas’s penchant for pretentiousness in check. And it is so much more satisfying to see the original actors (having aged, as nature intended) instead of other actors playing them younger. Sky Movies on UK television has been playing the six first Star Wars movies nonstop, and dipping into them over the holidays has really driven home how much better the new movie looks in comparison. Abrams and crew have wisely returned to the original’s roots of paying homage to Saturday matinee swashbucklers. There are the requisite ooh-and-aah moments where this or that beloved character (or piece of technology) is revealed and, impressively, one genuinely shocking moment that dispels the aura of mere fanboy service. And for those of us who know County Kerry, there is the excitement of seeing at the film’s end a very familiar landmark become integrated into Star Wars mythology. J.J. Abrams is not only a creative genius in his own right but he has now proved himself to be the ultimate safe pair of hands for everyone’s most beloved franchises. (Seen 23 December 2015)

Stardust 2 out of 4 stars

Before English director Matthew Vaughn made the super-hero deconstruction Kick-Ass and the latest X-Men movie, he directed the crime thriller Layer Cake and this comical fantasy. While the setup is reminiscent of the Narnia movies (our heroes pass from the “real” world into a fantastical one that needs saving), the tone is much closer to The Princess Bride. The movie is funny but not so much that you cannot take it seriously if you want to. There is something for everyone: a flying pirate ship, an attractive romantic couple (Charlie Cox and Claire Danes), big stars (Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert De Niro, getting the chance to mug shamelessly), a fine secondary villain in the form of Mark Strong, and some beloved faces in smaller character roles, like Peter O’Toole, Rupert Everett, Ricky Gervais, David Kelly and even good old Ian McKellen as the narrator. There is nothing not to like here and at times, such as when the aforementioned flying pirate ship appears, there are visual flourishes that remind one of a Terry Gilliam movie. But there isn’t the hard edge of Gilliam movie. This is less like an artist’s vision than a group of attractive, talented people having a good time. We have a good time too, and that’s just fine. (Seen 11 June 2011)

Starship Troopers 2 out of 4 stars

The financial success of Independence Day has made it okay to spend millions of dollars on jingoistic inter-species war movies. The special effects in Starship Troopers are first rate and the battle scenes (when we finally get to them) are exciting. The deliberately flat early scenes, however, remind us that Dutch director Paul Verhoeven made a much better war adventure in 1979 called Soldier of Orange. On the other hand, the numerous gory human-versus-insect scenes remind us that he also made the mindlessly violent 1985 film Flesh + Blood. (The naked bodies in the coed shower scenes also remind us that he made 1995’s Showgirls, but enough comparisons!) The militaristic, fascist society depicted here is reminiscent of the one in Verhoeven’s classic Robocop (which, like Troopers, was scripted by Ed Neumeier) but with none of that film’s delightfully sardonic wit. Worse, Neumeier’s subtle message is quite likely to be lost on the film’s target audience. To most, it will matter less that the filmmakers’ tongue is in the cheek than that the insect’s tentacle is in someone’s brain. (Seen 10 November 1997)

Starsky & Hutch 2 out of 4 stars

The young man who sold me a ticket for this flick quickly sized up my approximate age and country of origin and pronounced, “You must have been a fan of the series.” Not really. The Starsky and Hutch TV series aired during my television dark period when I watched little TV. My roommate in Columbus, Ohio, on the other hand, was a huge fan, so I was exposed to some second-hand, passive S&H viewing. But it would take something of the quality of Hill Street Blues to get me interested in watching cop shows. Big screen remakes of old TV shows generally fall into two categories. Either they appropriate a title and general premise to help sell a mostly unrelated movie (e.g. S.W.A.T.) or else it is an excuse to parody the original, as in the Brady Bunch movies. This one falls squarely in the latter category. Basically, Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson superimpose their own well-established screen personas onto the material and proceed not only to send up the series but also to take potshots at everything from Easy Rider to Saturday Night Fever, cop movies and buddy movies in general, and (especially) the 70s. One amusing running gag is the bulkiness of 70s-era technical gadgets. Another is the way the movie is set in “Bay City” (the end credits even it was say filmed on location in Bay City), yet no effort is made to disguise endless obvious Los Angeles locations. The film is harmless enough fun, and is aided quite a bit by how right Stiller and Wilson look for their parts. (Seen 28 April 2004)

Start the Revolution Without Me 2 out of 4 stars

Our retrospective of the career of the late Gene Wilder continues with this zany 1970 comedy directed by Bud Yorkin and executive-produced by Norman Lear, the team that would the following year unveil the seminal sitcom All in the Family. The writers were Fred Freeman and Lawrence J. Cohen, who had serious 1960s sitcom cred, having written for The Andy Griffith Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Gilligan’s Island and Bewitched. Filmed on location in France, the story is a broad pastiche of both Dumas’s The Corsican Brothers and Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. Wilder (a year before Willy Wonka) and Donald Sutherland (the same year as M*A*S*H) play two sets of twin brothers who were mixed up at birth. They are supported by a wealth of British talent, including rubber-faced Hugh Griffith as a hapless Louis XVI, Billie Whitelaw as his scheming and serially seductive queen, and Victor Spinetti (of both A Hard Day’s Night and Help!) as the deliciously named Duc d’Escargot. Also on hand are Swedish nymphet Ewa Aulin (seen two years earlier in Christian Marquand’s Candy) and none other than Orson Welles himself as a sort of narrator in opening and closing segments. Running gags include the constant reminder that the year is 1789, plotting and scheming that becomes impossibly convoluted, and the weird bedroom antics through which Wilder’s Corsican puts his long-suffering wife (Rosalind Knight). The humor approaches the standard set by Mel Brooks, even anticipating the end-of-film breaking of the fourth wall in Blazing Saddles. The cast seem to be having a great time, and there are many genuine laugh-out-loud moments. In fact, the story is so engaging that it actually comes as a disappointment when the filmmakers do not carry it through to the end and instead opt for a we-aren’t-taking-any-of-this-seriously jumble of a finale. Best character name: peasant Wilder’s farmgirl fiancée Mimi Montage. (Seen 24 September 2016) 3 out of 4 stars

If I ever undertake an important project, I don’t think I will agree to let Chris Hegedus, Jehane Noujaim or D.A. Pennebaker film it from beginning to end. The team made their name with The War Room, which documented the successful campaign of Bill Clinton for the US presidency. But subsequent film subjects haven’t fared as well. Moon Over Broadway ended up chronicling a major commercial/artistic fiasco. And this film, about the extremely quick rise and fall of an Internet company, is even starker in its unblinking capture of well-laid plans going awry with the cameras rolling. The dramatic relationship of high school buddies and twentysomething business partners Kaleil Isaza Tuzman and Tom Herman is the sort of stuff we usually only see on celluloid in fiction or fake documentaries like This Is Spinal Tap or The Left Side of the Fridge. It’s amazing to watch it unfold, as opposed to watching people talk about it after the fact. And the filmmakers were prescient (or lucky) in their choice of a subject since the rise and fall of makes a dandy portrait of the whole dot-com implosion in general. In addition to all the political in-fighting between the partners, whose differences surface early in encounters with well-heeled venture capitalists, it would have been nice to see more of what the employees of the company (screen titles inexorably track their rising numbers) were doing. But then, maybe not knowing what all of those people were doing is part of the point. (Seen 1 June 2001)

Stay 2 out of 4 stars

While essentially a soap opera, this adaptation of Aislinn Hunter’s novel spends enough time in its diverse observances of the residents of its Connemara locale that it somewhat avoids the dreaded chick flick tag. At least in part an exploration of moving between different cultures, the film is clearly a labor of love for its writer/director Wiebke von Carolsfeld, who has spent most of her life in Canada and who anxiously wanted to film this (mostly) Irish story. Taylor Schilling (currently of Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black) plays the Canadian Abby who is living with older archaeologist Aidan Quinn (currently of TV’s Elementary) in a picturesque cottage. When their relationship hits a crisis, she heads home to Montreal for a visit. That’s pretty much the story. Dramatic tension rests on decisions Abby needs to make—and the reasons she’s struggling with them—and on a bit of mystery over what drove Quinn to self-imposed exile on the Atlantic coast. The story is nearly too gentle, and other, more colorful depictions of quaint Irish rural life still loom in our memories. Still, there is a fairly unexpected development at a funeral that creates a welcome bit of excitement, as well as the novelty of seeing young Barry Keoghan (of Irish TV’s Love/Hate) playing a youth who, for once, does not commit a shockingly violent act. (Seen 15 February 2014)

Stealing Beauty 2 out of 4 stars

After several heavy movies filmed in exotic locations (The Last Emperor, The Sheltering Sky, Little Buddha), Bernardo Bertolucci has returned to Italy to have some fun with a bit of fluff. In a way, Stealing Beauty is for Bertolucci what Smiles of Summer Night was for Ingmar Bergman. The slight plot involves a 19-year-old American (model/rock star daughter Liv Tyler) who comes to Tuscany to visit friends of her late mother’s. The friends’ country villa is sort of an extended family compound where acquaintances come and go and life is a continual sunny holiday. Tyler captivates all the males, young and old, and early on we learn that she is a virgin. From that point on the film becomes an exercise in how and with whom she will lose her virginity. As the title might suggest, the film is pretty to look at and the cast, which also includes husband and wife Jeremy Irons and Sinead Cusack, is pleasant enough company. Strangely, Tyler kept reminding me of a lightweight Sandra Bullock, an impression only reinforced by the fact that her character’s name is Lucy, the same as Bullock’s in While You Were Sleeping. (Seen 8 June 1996)

Steamboat Bill, Jr. 4 out of 4 stars

Even those of us who should know better tend to think of the earliest movies, say the ones before 1930, as technically crude or primitive. After all, they didn’t even have CGI back then. But, as we learned three years ago at the Cork Film Festival program The Magical World of Georges Méliès, the whole raison d’être of the flickers from the very beginning was to create convincing illusions. This year the Cork festival has given us a prime example of such early film art. It is not the various weavings of the plot that stays with us after the lights have come up on this 1928 silent masterpiece starring the legendary Buster Keaton. It is the heart-stopping series of set pieces in the final stretch depicting a destructive hurricane and the numerous close escapes that Keaton has in navigating the havoc. A disaster sequence that nearly puts James Cameron’s Titanic to shame, it leaves us wondering, how’d they do that? Especially since computers and miniatures were clearly not involved. We have all, at one time or another, seen the famous bit where the side of a house falls on top of Keaton, leaving him unscathed as he is left standing inside a window. But there is much more going on before and after. In eight subsequent decades, the only real improvements to this sort of entertainment have been color and sound. (Seen 14 October 2008)

The Stepford Wives 2 out of 4 stars

The late writer Ira Levin has contributed a couple of major enduring metaphors to the culture. He gave us the embodiment of dread of our own offspring with the title Rosemary’s Baby. He also gave us the specter of Nazis in hiding with The Boys from Brazil. But surely his greatest contribution to the language was The Stepford Wives. Even people who have never read the novel or seen either film adaptation will use the term “Stepford wife” to describe a woman dulled by domesticity. My memory of Bryan Forbes’s 1975 movie is fairly chilling and creepy, sort of a feminist-era Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Despite being scary on its own merits, it also worked as an allegory for bland conformity in a conservative society. Frank Oz’s 2004 redo, on the other hand, is more of a comic send-up. Nicole Kidman takes on the Katharine Ross role but seems less a victim because she is a recently fired high-power TV exec recovering from a breakdown. That twist further plays out in the ending, which differs quite a bit from the original. The tone is more like an extended episode of Desperate Housewives. The titular wives range from earth mother slob (Bette Midler) to scarily self-controlled (Glenn Close in top form) to male (Roger Bart). The husbands range from bland (Matthew Broderick) to slovenly (Jon Lovitz) to smugly creepy (Christopher Walken). While the flick has its moments, Stepford without the dread isn’t really Stepford at all. (Seen 20 October 2012)

Stepmom 2 out of 4 stars

Chris Columbus’s previous movies (Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire) tended to consist of a lot of laughs followed by a good dose of lump-in-your-throat sentimentality at the end. Columbus’s latest film gets to the lump-in-your-throat sentimentality very quickly and then spends the rest of its running time pushing yet farther and deeper into wrenching emotional territory. If you are prone at all to getting a bit weepy during a flick, definitely bring a large box of tissues. (But, hey, don’t take my word for it. Ask the lady across the aisle from us who was sobbing uncontrollably for two hours straight.) This is a good movie for actors, especially Susan Sarandon, who gets to be motherly, radiant and wrathful and (best of all for an actor) have a Disease. Julia Roberts gets to be glamorous, sympathetic and earnest and pretend that she belongs behind a camera instead of in front of one. But luckiest of all is Ed Harris, who gets to kiss Julia Roberts a lot. As I watched this with an Irish audience (who would know a thing or two about serious grieving and mourning), I couldn’t help but ponder what the rest of the world must think of America’s attitude toward death. As Stepmom shows us, it is but one more occasion for collecting warm Kodak moments. (Seen 7 February 1999)

Still Alice 3 out of 4 stars

Four decades ago the movie Jaws made young people scared to swim in the ocean. Three years ago this movie this movie caused people of a certain age to panic if they forgot someone’s name or could not find that word on the tip of their tongue. It’s not a horror movie, though. Quite the opposite. It is a low-key portrait of an affluent, educated family dealing in the most normal and human way possible with their own particular bad luck. Wife and mother Alice is a brilliant professor of linguistics and so understands better than most people the consequences of her early-onset Alzheimer’s diagnosis at the age of 50. As Alice, Julianne Moore is impeccable, and it is no surprise that she swept the acting awards for 2014, including her first Oscar win, after three previous nominations. Kristen Stewart, moving well beyond her Twilight performances, is also very good as her youngest child with whom the rest of the family have the most problematic relationship. The characters and their lives all seem very real, making the situation’s impact all the more heartbreaking and relatable. It is impossible to watch the movie and not ponder how you yourself would react in Alice’s place and what you would do. The issues of mortality and the trauma of experiencing the loss of one’s self were by no means academic for married writing/directing team Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, who were working from a novel by Lisa Genova. Glatzer had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, and insisted on making movies for as long as he could. The filmmakers were unable to be in the audience when Moore paid tribute to them in her Oscar speech and, sadly, Glatzer died 16 days later. (Seen 18 July 2017)

Stoned 2 out of 4 stars

Given that this movie is about a man who is famous for having been found face down in a swimming pool, I have to wonder if the director (longtime producer/first-time helmer Stephen Woolley) was tempted to make the movie a deliberate remake of Sunset Boulevard. There is no William Holden-style voiceover, but never mind. Brian Jones’s life itself was a remake of Sunset Boulevard, except that it was the Norma Desmond character who wound up in the pool. In contrast to Walk the Line, this is not a standard musical biopic, although I suppose it is a fairly standard one for rock stars who die young. What we get is not so much a chronicle of the rise of the Rolling Stones or even of Jones’s life so much as a detailed explanation of why Jones died. And the story is compelling, if at times hard to watch. We get a portrait of a shy young man who loves rhythm and blues with a passion (he never wanted to do “pop music like the Beatles”) and is responsible for getting one of the most renowned musical groups in history off the ground. Then, when they become successful, his neuroses cause him to sink into reclusion, drink, drugs and mind games with those about him. In the title role, Leo Gregory has the advantage of playing a well known person who is by now fairly dim in our memory, and his portrayal is touching, human and frightening. Paddy Considine (who starred in the Woolley-produced In America) is like a mixture of Lothaire Bluteau and a young Stephen Rea. He is completely sympathetic in a role that is both William Holden and Judas Iscariot. Also standing out is David Morrissey, as longtime Stones retainer Tom Keylock, who manages to combine arrogance and smarminess all in one oily package. They say that if you can remember the sixties then you weren’t there. This movie will bring them back for you anyway. (Seen 14 October 2005)

Stones in Exile 2 out of 4 stars

I’m guessing that this documentary will mainly be of interest to Rolling Stones completists or people who have a very particular interest in the time and place examined. It is directed by Stephen Kijak, whose previous work includes producing and penning the interesting but uninspiring indy film Never Met Picasso and co-directing an intriguing film fanatic documentary, Cinemania, and directing the well-received music documentary Scott Walker: 30 Century Man. It is surprising how much candid footage there is of the Stones, their families and hangers-on during their months of recording at the villa Nellcôte on the French Riviera. During his recent interview with Larry King, Mick Jagger said that he and (I think it was) Charlie Watts had asked each other if they remembered anyone filming during that time and they couldn’t. Watching the footage, it’s not particularly shocking that their memories would be hazy. It is hard to believe now, but there once was a time long, long ago that such footage would have ended the career of a performer, but the Stones are of an epoch when it only enhances their legend and interest in their resultant album Exile on Main St. And that’s the point. While not without artistic merit, the film essentially functions as an infomercial for the album’s re-elease. Think of it the equivalent of a really interesting “extra” on a DVD release. [Related commentary] (Seen 28 May 2010)

Stormbreaker (Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker) 2 out of 4 stars

If Brick could serve to remind us that film noir heroes are really so much adolescent fantasy, then why can’t a flick do the same for cinematic secret agents? But whereas Brick took itself as earnestly as a teenager in love, this movie is played largely for laughs. Just about every character in the movie is from a cartoon, with the actors enjoying themselves immensely, as they do a spy genre send-up. The only one not allowed in on the joke is the central figure of 14-year-old Alex Rider, who is required to be sullen and alienated throughout. This is in spite of the fact that he is gifted with amazing prowess and intelligence and looks like a young male model (which Alex Pettyfer, who plays him, actually is). Apparently, our young hero is a tad annoyed to discover, on the untimely demise of his guardian/uncle, that a lifetime of professional martial arts training and instruction in multiple foreign languages was not a standard upbringing after all. There are some fairly decent action scenes, but the true joys of the movie are found in performances like those of Bill Nighy (playing the M role, as having been embalmed since the Victorian age) and Stephen Fry (in the Q role, appropriately under cover at Hamley’s super toy store). The film’s summer/autumn releases on either side of the pond provide good timing tie-in-wise, as the plot involves major havoc about to be wreaked from lethal liquids. But the terrorist behind it all is no jihadist. He is a megalomaniac American who (if I heard Mickey Rourke’s accent right) hails from Texas. Old farts may envy young Pettyfer’s youth and beauty, but they can take heart in the fact that the film’s producer has indicated that he will not reprise the role (adapted from a popular series of books by Anthony Horowitz, who wrote the screenplay) in any sequels. He is already too old. (Seen 15 August 2006)

The Story of Us 2 out of 4 stars

Every so often in the middle of a movie something will happen to make the audience go “ooh” and “aah.” When I dutifully took the missus to see The Story of Us (instead of Fight Club! Aargh!) that moment came when Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer said to their two kids something like “see you in another month.” I don’t think anybody in the theater could actually believe that there are still people who send their kids away to camp for the whole summer! Director Rob Reiner, who seems to be at his best when adapting Stephen King, here veers as he did with When Harry Met Sally more or less into Woody Allen territory. But, where Allen’s films are usually about beautiful young women falling in love with Woody Allen, this film is about why marriage is something worth sticking with. Married people who watch this flick will definitely have the strange sensation of hearing actors say things that they themselves have at one time or another said to or heard from their spouse. And the ending certainly makes a strong and emotional (if hurried) case for why marriage is worth suffering through, although it is delivered a bit improbably. A good deal of this movie is depressing, but it has several funny bits as well. Reiner, in a supporting role, gives himself a wonderfully droll monologue on matrimony as anatomical metaphor, and there is an Allen-esque sequence that takes a counselor’s Freudian observation amusingly literally. Other notable cast members are Paul Reiser plausibly playing a schmuck, Rita Wilson looking positively Frances McDormand-like as Reiner’s wife, and Bruce Willis’s assorted hairpieces. (Seen 15 October 1999)

Storyville: The Naked Dance 2 out of 4 stars

At this point in American political history it probably wouldn’t hurt to have a better understanding of southern men’s traditional attitudes toward sex. This documentary isn’t a bad place to start. Directed by Anne O. Craig and Maia Harris, it recounts the history of Storyville, New Orleans’s old red light district which bordered the French Quarter from 1898 until World War I. The film was intended for PBS but, sadly, may never be shown—at least in the current political environment—because it consists largely of artful old photographs of women in various stages of undress. (These include a very interesting one of a woman with a large dog, but we won’t go there.) Storyville is quite non-judgmental about prostitution, which was after all legal in this place and time, and instead focuses nostalgically on a colorful time and place spanning the end of the Victorian Age and the blossoming of a golden age for jazz. There is also a strong sense of loss over the ornate buildings which made up the district but were razed when brothels became a scapegoat for a pandemic of venereal disease in the U.S. military. (Seen 28 January 1998)

The Straight Story 3 out of 4 stars

For my first Halloween in America in five years, I thought I would revise an old tradition and go see the scariest movie I could find. The choice, hands down, was David Lynch’s latest. Lynch has brought us such unsettling weirdness as Eraserheard, Wild at Heart and Lost Highway, but that’s not even the scary part. The scary part is that The Straight Story is a G-rated flick for Disney! Oooooh! The strange thing is that Lynch’s offbeat point-of-view works so well for this based-on-actual-events tale of rural America. Of course, for the first reel or two we keep expecting the quirky take on Americana to be punctured suddenly by, say, an ear in a field or a homecoming queen’s body wrapped in plastic, but Lynch’s smirky set-up never delivers a punch line. Instead, he quite earnestly tells us the entire story of Alvin Straight (played poignantly by Richard Farnsworth, who has to have the most mournful eyes in Hollywood) and his six-week journey from Iowa to Wisconsin. Without the usual Lynch shocks and gore, we are left to ponder the beautiful images that this director is so good at but which tend to get lost in the aberrant. Here is a perfect example of a film that is artful without being arty. And the recurring theme of looking to the stars is a welcome echo of Lynch’s most beautiful movie, 1980’s The Elephant Man. (Seen 31 October 1999)

Straight to Hell 2 out of 4 stars

You might think of this film as Repo Man goes West. It is directed by Alex Cox, who did the wonderful Repo Man, not to mention Sid and Nancy. This time he is lampooning Sergio Leone’s westerns and is using the same set in southern Spain that Leone used in his spaghetti westerns. You can probably identify some kind of plot to all this, but there really isn’t much point. It all seems kind of improvised and appears to be full of “in” jokes. There are some wonderfully funny bits and parodies as well as weird images that stay with you. Everyone in this town is hooked on coffee and is after money. Many of the parts are taken by members of the Irish band The Pogues, and apparently the film is based on some of their songs. Previous familiarity with this music seems to help one appreciate the movie. The main thing missing here is some central character, preferably a real film icon, to do the same thing for this movie as Harry Dean Stanton did for Repo Man. Dennis Hopper might have filled that role, but he is on screen for only a few minutes and then he is cast against type. (He doesn’t smoke a joint or hit a woman or anything.) This is the first movie I have seen where the credits list a Sex and Cruelty Consultant. Also, the acknowledgements express thanks to “every bar in southern Spain (too numerous to mention).” (Seen 5 June 1987)

Strange Planet 2 out of 4 stars

This young urban romantic comedy from Australia starts and ends at New Year’s Eve. We have a set of three wacky female friends and set of three humorous but introspective male friends and they spend a lot of time (I mean, a lot of time) sitting around talking about relationship problems. And, if this makes you think of a certain US situation comedy, well, you’re not far off. The twist here is that the girls and they guys don’t actually know each other, although their paths keep intersecting over the course of the year. One of the women makes a New Year’s resolution not to watch any more movies with Cary Grant or Meg Ryan, but writer/director Emma-Kate Croghan has clearly made no such resolution, as this movie’s romantic coincidence-driven plot would not be alien to either of those actors. The always-reliable Hugo Weaving is on hand as a television executive who spells trouble for one of our lasses. Typical painfully funny touch: one character’s wife breaks up with him by phone at midnight on New Year’s Eve. The title comes from a Twilight Zone episode. (Seen 24 May 2000)

Strangers on a Train 3 out of 4 stars

It took only about a year for Patricia Highsmith’s first novel to be adapted as a film (this one). Her second one, The Price of Salt, took 63 years. (It was last year’s Carol, directed by Todd Haynes.) In between, some of her books featuring homicidal arriviste Tom Ripley were adapted by the likes of René Clément, Wim Wenders and Anthony Minghella. But it was this first collaboration with her kindred soul of a filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock—working from a screenplay by a team that included Raymond Chandler and an uncredited Ben Hecht—that still looks the most memorable. The premise—two complete strangers meet by chance (or is it?) on a train and one proposes committing murders to benefit each other in order to obscure their motives—has long become a classic. The ordinary man minding his own business but then caught up in a nightmare is pure Hitch. So is the long lead-up to the extended tense finale, in this case involving the most out-of-control carousel you will ever see. Like Tom Ripley, Bruno Antony is one of the most mersmerizing and appalling characters to hit the big screen. He reminds us how the civilized are at the mercy of the brilliant but criminally insane. This penultimate role for Robert Walker was his apex. His life, which ended tragically because of a bad reaction to a sedative the same year this movie was released, had haunting echoes of this story, i.e. mental instability and a bitter end to a marriage. (Walker’s wife Jennifer Jones famously left him for producer David O. Selznick.) Likewise, this was a high point for Farley Granger, who had appeared in a similarly themed Hitchcock flick, Rope, three years earlier. Unlike the unlucky Walker, though, Granger would have many decades of acting roles ahread of him until he passed away in 2011. (Seen 1 May 2016)

Street Trash 1 out of 4 stars

Just when you thought that movies have pushed the bounds of good taste as far or farther than they could go, along comes Street Trash, which redefines what really bad taste means. I mean, really! A game of keep-away with a dismembered male member? Argh! Let me be clear here, I am giving one star because I think the people who made this movie would be crushed if they got more. The plot centers on a bunch of low-life street people in New York City who live for their next swig of booze. The main thing going on is that the local liquor store is selling a bunch of really old whiskey (called Viper) that someone found hidden away. But apparently this stuff is so old that it has changed chemically somehow. And it’s not good for you. It affects everybody a little differently, but the main thing it does is dissolve you from the inside. (Although one fat bum drinks it and expands and expands until he explodes in beautiful Technicolor and slow motion.) Most of the suspense is in seeing who actually drinks the stuff and what disgusting thing will happen to them when they do. There is also a homicidal maniac who, of course, went crazy in Vietnam. The most hilarious scene involves a Mafia don and a young subordinate who are interrogated together at the police station. The young kid spills his guts and his venom (figuratively this time) on his boss, mistakenly believing that he is going to be part of some witness protection program. There are some really twisted minds behind this flick. But I will say this: I didn’t fall asleep once through the whole thing. (Seen 7 June 1987)

Strictly Ballroom 3 out of 4 stars

Baz Luhrmann’s first feature film seems fairly restrained compared to the four that followed. (The most recent is The Great Gatsby.) It had things in common with other movies coming out of Australia around the time, i.e. it had the feeling of a zany comedy but was laced with serious drama. And it was infused with pop music. The camera was unsparing in its examination of the characters’ faces, their choice in clothes or the bad toupees. As it happened, the subject matter was something that Luhrmann had grown up with—the world of competitive ballroom dancing. On paper, the story is trite and predictable. As executed, it was a major crowd pleaser of 1992. In the end it is a parable of youth and rebellion. Young Scott wants to dance his own steps in the upcoming ballroom championship. The older generation does everything it can to make sure he dances the same steps that have always been danced for years. Scott is forced to choose between living up to expectations and being true to himself (in the process crushing what he thinks is his father’s dream). And then there is Fran, the girl who dreams of dancing with him, even though he is totally self-absorbed. In the end, the youngsters uncover and triumph over the corruption of the older generation. And Luhrmann pulls it off against all the odds. Particularly lovely is the performance of Barry Otto as Scott’s long-suffering father who makes the most of stolen moments when he can dance his own steps for himself while everyone else is too busy to notice or care. (Seen 24 August 2013)

Striptease 2 out of 4 stars

When you go to see this movie, of course, it will be because you want to be inspired by the noble tale of a mother trying to get her daughter back from her no-good ex-husband. And, furthermore, you will go because you will want to be edified as this woman chastises her boss for using napkins at his fine establishment which she thinks are sexist. Yeah, right! We all know you’ll really go because you want to see Demi Moore (more or less) naked and, if you’re a woman, so you want to see how well her body has held up after a couple of bouts of childbirth. (Not too badly, by the way.) I understand that this film started out originally as a thriller. The filmmakers, however, have wisely turned it into a demi-comedy, so at least now we are laughing with the movie instead of at it. Ving Rhames (who did some interesting work with Moore’s hubby Bruce in Pulp Fiction) is the best thing in the picture as Moore’s protective bouncer friend. Burt Reynolds has now entered the character actor phase of his career as a (literally) slimy congressman who appears to be Hollywood’s riposte to all the slagging it has been getting from the politicans lately. (Seen 1 July 1996)

Stuart Little 2 2 out of 4 stars

Falcons are scary. Especially when they have James Woods’s voice. I know this because, for the first time in decades, I have seen a movie (this one) through a child’s eyes. Stuart Little 2 will forever be remembered in my family as the first movie my little munchkin saw in a real cinema. And the experience nearly overwhelmed us. But we came through it just fine, thank you very much. While the movie was a bit intense in places, it barely merits its PG rating in the States. Despite all the computer-animated action and adventure, you couldn’t find a gentler family film than this one. The Littles of New York City are so darned civilized and positive that they make the Cleavers of Leave It to Beaver seem downright rough-hewn. In fact, this Stepford family would get to be a bit much if it wasn’t for some comically cynical touches, like the miniature car that gets vandalized when abandoned on a Manhattan street or Nathan Lane’s voice performance as the family’s self-absorbed cat. (Also, the reliably goofy Steve Zahn has a welcome bit part as an alley cat.) Perhaps the best touch (from a film buff’s point of view, anyway) is the inclusion of a clip from Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which after all this sequel improbably mirrors in its tale of female deception and dizzying heights. (Seen 9 August 2002)

The Stunt Man 3 out of 4 stars

We lucky attendees at the 1980 Seattle International Film Festival got to be the first ones to see this wonderful movie 33 years ago. The director Richard Rush had fought the studios to film the screenplay (based on Paul Brodeur’s novel, it was adapted by Rush working with Lawrence B. Marcus) his own way. After a rapturous SIFF reception, it played for months at a single Seattle cinema until it finally got a belated release. It never became a massive hit, but it achieved a certain vindication when it picked up three Oscar nominations—for directing and writing and for Peter O’Toole’s spellbinding lead performance. While My Favorite Year (which O’Toole made a couple of years after this) is my sentimental favorite of all of O’Toole’s movies, this is the one to watch to see O’Toole do what he does best. His portrayal of the imperious, egomaniacal filmmaker Eli Cross is spellbinding, and O’Toole is at his peak in terms of exuding mesmerizing charisma. Word had it that he based the performance on his experience working with David Lean on Lawrence of Arabia. The younger protagonist is Steve Railsback, already typecast by his haunting performance as Charles Manson a few years earlier in the TV movie Helter Skelter. The love interest is Barbara Hershey, never looking better. As the studios feared, the film is hard to categorize—and that is wonderful thing. It is like the marriage of a madcap comedy and European art film (thanks in part to a great score by the French-named American composer Dominic Frontiere) with a bit of end-of-the-1970s existential angst thrown in. The long action takes and swooping crane shots sweep us away—never more than when a crane drops O’Toole into frame, looking like nothing so much as God Himself. (Seen 29 November 2013)

The Sum of All Fears 2 out of 4 stars

It is easy to see why American moviegoers flocked to this flick last year. In the first summer after 9/11, it was cathartic to see an actual depiction of a major terrorist attack on the U.S. homeland—an even worse one than 9/11 since it involved a nuclear device—and see the nation survive. The terrorism angle made the movie, and by extension the Tom Clancy novel it was based on, seem amazingly prescient. Except that everything else about the film is extremely dated. The superpower standoff plot is reminiscent of such paranoid 1960s fare as Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove. Moreover, the story is more or less a good old Hitchcockian tale of an ordinary man (Ben Affleck as a wet-behind-the-ears version of the Jack Ryan character) caught up in extraordinary circumstances, which create a nightmare situation where no one believes he knows what he is talking about. Also making the movie feel dated is its portrayal of the CIA as a crack organization that is mostly on top of things, if only the politicians would pay attention. In another regard, the film is either dated or prescient depending on your point of view, with its message that war happens as a result of mistakes and misunderstandings and because political leaders lose their heads too easily. Seen today, the movie is a virtually a tailor-made Hollywood commentary on the situation in Iraq. Arms inspections (in this case, in Russia) are seen to be working, and drawing a link to one or two terrorist acts and going off to war is seen as disastrous. Interestingly, however, the real villains, once identified, are dealt with ruthlessly and efficiently. (Seen 22 February 2003)

Summer of Sam 3 out of 4 stars

A while back one of my correspondents took me to task for lavishing knee-jerk praise on Limbo simply because it was directed by John Sayles, and he cited Summer of Sam as having “more depth of character.” Maybe it’s just a difference of Pacific Northwest mindset versus Eastern Seaboard mentality, but I’ll still take Limbo’s sensitive exploration of tentative connections and the acceptance of risk over Spike Lee’s yelling and screaming Bronx denizens. Where Summer of Sam excels is as a love-hate portrait of America’s largest city and as an exercise in nostalgia capturing a moment where disco met punk and where New York seemed to be going to hell in a hand-basket, so much so that no one thought it odd four years later when John Carpenter made a movie (Escape from New York) in which the government totally gives up on the place and walls off Manhattan to make it a maximum-security prison. Summer of Sam’s neighborhood also makes a fascinating contrast with Eyes Wide Shut’s upscale Manhattan yuppies. And despite the latter’s notoriety, John Leguizamo and Mira Sorvino (in the type of performances that Hollywood likes to reward with Oscars) generate way more heat and eroticism here than Tom and Nicole. Oh yeah, and this film’s orgy scene is better too. (Seen 30 July 1999)

Summer of the Flying Saucer 2 out of 4 stars

I was very keen to see this flick because I read it was about aliens landing in County Mayo. After all, I myself am an alien that landed in County Mayo. As it turns out, this is a part of Mayo that would be very familiar to the likes of lottery winner Ned Devine. In other words, this is an unabashed shaggy dog story. (The movie was actually filmed in east County Galway. Typical of the slagging Mayo gets from Galway, one person associated with the film told me, “There was no suitable place in Mayo.”) The time is the summer of 1967 and young Danny Mullaney has returned home from school in the city to his tiny, conservative, close-minded, stick-in-the-mud village. He attracts a few stares because student life in Galway has transformed him into Greg from the Brady Bunch kitted out like John Lennon. As if that’s not enough, he soon learns that a space craft has crash landed in the vicinity and the young space woman is the girl of his dreams. The flick is good, inventive, low-budget fun. It was written and directed by Martin Duffy, who gave us more serious-minded tales of youthful adventure in The Boy from Mercury and The Testimony of Taliesin Jones. Robert Sheehan is very likeable in the lead role. Also on hand is Hugh O’Conor (Chocolat), once again playing a vaguely neurotic priest. The story is framed by Patrick Bergin, as the adult Danny, relating the story to his students years later. Don’t be too quick to jump up and leave when the credits roll or you will miss one final gag. (Seen 12 July 2008)

Summerspell 2 out of 4 stars

The entire Wisdom family is getting together for a holiday. Since this is a movie, you can pretty much figure that things won’t go well. But rather than the larger-than-life revelations and confrontations we often get in movies of this type, Summerspell is firmly rooted in the plausible and authentic. Lina Shanklin’s film is rich in atmosphere and mood, and its 1948 west Texas setting rings true—largely because the story is based on Shanklin’s own childhood. The cast, which primarily features stage actors, is uniformly fine. Their faces are all strangely familiar, not because we have seen them in other movies but because they all look like people that we have met somewhere or maybe are related to. Unfortunately, Hollywood has primed us to expect more devastating secrets to come out at the end. Better to forget about that and just enjoy the lovely photography and go with the story for what it is. (Seen 25 January 1998)

The Sun Also Rises 2 out of 4 stars

This movie is Exhibit A for those people who are always going on about how the movie is never as good as the book. Ernest Hemingway’s novel, first published in 1926, is considered one of the great ones and, indeed, the first great modern one. The film adaptation—written by Hemingway friend Peter Viertel and helmed by veteran director Henry King (Stella Dallas, The Song of Bernadette, Captain from Castille, Twelve O’Clock High, Love Is a Many Splendored Thing) toward the end of his career—has clearly inspired less devotion than the book. As an example, it is instructive for those whose main complaint about a film adaptation is that it doesn’t follow the book closely enough. Viertel’s approach was essentially to cut and paste from the book since it was so heavy in dialog to begin with. In fact, he wrote in his memoir that the book was written so cinematically that he didn’t feel that a treatment for the studio was even necessary—although they wanted one anyway. But—and here is another one of my movie laws—movies set in a particular historical era generally tell us much more about the era in which the movie was made than about the period in which it is set. Hence, this movie tells us more about the 1950s than the 1920s. Viertel and other commentators make clear that this was producer Daryl F. Zanuck’s midlife crisis movie which explains why, as one commentator pointed out, the actors are closer to Zanuck’s age (Tyrone Power, Mel Ferrer, Errol Flynn all in their 40s) than to those of the characters in the book (in their 20s). But no matter how many patented Hemingway lines wind up in the movie, it still doesn’t manage to evoke the same distaff and decadent atmosphere of the post-World War I expatriate community as the book. The novel’s accomplishment was how much was suggested by things that were not said explicitly. A visual medium like film, by definition, makes everything explicit because it is all there in front of our eyes. As counter-intuitive as it may seem to book lovers, slavishly following the book is not really the best way to make a movie. Capturing its spirit for a different medium is. (Seen 13 May 2011)

The Sun, the Moon and the Stars 1 out of 4 stars

You could pave a pretty darn nice motorway to hell with all the good intentions that went into this movie. Directed by Geraldine Creed, The Sun, the Moon and the Stars (a reference to tarot cards) tells the story of a mother and two daughters who have a less than idyllic holiday on Ireland’s east coast. Mom, a victim of gender discrimination, has just quit her job of eleven years. Shelley, the adolescent daughter, is a real pill who mostly sulks and longs for her father who is separated from her mother. The story’s pacing is slow and mostly predictable, apparently relying on the characters for viewer interest. The most intriguing of these is supposed to be Abbie, an allegedly flamboyant American woman (played by Angie Dickinson) who paints her house bright pink and snorkels. For some reason the girls get the idea she is a witch, but in the end she is just there to set everyone’s life right, sort of like a partying version of Mary Worth. (Seen 30 October 1996)

Sunburn 2 out of 4 stars

The title refers, of course, to what happens to the Irish when they actually spend the summer in a place where summer doesn’t mean merely that the rain gets a little warmer. The movie itself is about what happens to young adults anywhere when they get away from home and have to do a bit of growing up. Sunburn is not nearly as grim as other young-Irish-in-America fare as Gold in the Streets and 2 by 4 because it is not about raw economic survival but rather about young men and women having a lark in the Work Abroad program. The best high concept I can come up with for this one is to take one of the Roddy Doyle flicks (The Commitments, The Snapper) and send it to Where the Boys Are. Cillian Murphy is fine in the central role of Davin, the perpetual screw-up you can’t help but care about despite the fact that he is always bad news. (That and his fine features naturally make him irresistible to women.) Barry Ward (who played the troubled son in Family) is equally good as Robert, the way-too-nice lad who is the natural target of every practical joke as well as Davin’s schemes. Ingeborga Dapkunaite, who starred in Burnt by the Sun, turns up as an older woman who is not quite ready for the gaggle of friends that come with an Irish lover. All in all, Sunburn is an amusing rite-of-passage tale that makes pleasant alternative to the usual mindless teen comedies. (Seen 6 February 2000)

Sunset Heights 2 out of 4 stars

Set in Derry, Northern Ireland, a “few years in the future,” Sunset Heights uses a classic literary device: change the time, location and/or trappings of a situation so that it can be seen with fresh eyes. In this case, it is Ulster’s long-running sectarian conflict that is given a different spin, by projecting the current situation into a future where law and order has broken down completely and rival gangs are running things. Sort of an Irish spin on Escape from New York, except without the budget. The gangs aren’t labeled as Nationalist or Unionist, but it isn’t hard to tell which is which. Politics, however, aren’t what this is about anyway. It’s about cycles of mistrust, revenge, and rationalizing violence. The point is reinforced by a running theme of paganism, involving what amounts to a ritual sacrifice in a stone circle, a murdered preacher who won’t stay dead, and a serial child killer. In a macabre and tragic coincidence, this first-time writing/directing effort by Colm Villa had its premiere at the Galway Film Fleadh the same night that three youngsters were murdered in the North, apparently because of their mother’s religion. (Seen 11 July 1998)

Sunshine on Leith 2 out of 4 stars

The Scottish entry in the wave of jukebox musicals kicked off by the wildfire success of Mamma Mia!, this one basically swaps Edinburgh for the Greek islands and the Proclaimers for ABBA. (My earliest recollection of this sub-genre in the modern pop era is 1978’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which starred the Bee Gees and Peter Frampton as Billy Shears and which really wasn’t very good.) For those of us who have only a passing familiarity with that popular band fronted by the Reid twins, it is surprising how well their song lyrics actually lend themselves to a coherent and touching narrative. And, in the end, that is what these movies amount to: an exercise in stringing together the songs to make a story. And that story gets a bit soap opera-y. In other words, like Mamma Mia!, this is basically a chick flick but one of interest to music aficionados. It has to be said that the performances are lovely, particularly Peter Mullan and Jane Horrocks as a couple whose marriage is tested on their silver wedding anniversary. By the time we get to the show-stopping flash mob of a finale, inevitably featuring the best known Proclaimer song “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles),” the real star is the city of Edinburgh. Indeed the film, by veteran actor Dexter Fletcher, puts so much emphasis on its Scottish-ness that, by the end, you find yourself desperate for a plate of haggis and a tall glass of peat-flavored single malt whiskey. (Seen 11 August 2014)

Superbad 2 out of 4 stars

This normally wouldn’t have been my first choice for an all-too-rare film viewing (hey, I was really constrained by my time slot), but I have to admit that I was intrigued by this description of Superbad slipped by an Irish Times critic into his interview with the film’s stars: “It’s like Brideshead Revisited with tequila shots.” Whoa, hey, I’m there! Every time I have seen the Michael Lindsay-Hogg/Charles Sturridge TV version of Brideshead, I always gotten an insatiable craving for dry martinis. Would this movie send me to the nearest off-license in search of José Cuervo? Is it really “like Brideshead Revisited with tequila shots”? Well, maybe, but only in the same way that The Simpsons is like Long Day’s Journey Into Night with donuts. Rest assured that the shock/gross-out humor that is its Porky’s/American Pie heritage is intact, although in the film’s defense I will say that, unlike most of its predecessors, the (adult) viewer’s discomfort comes less from embarrassment for the actors than from embarrassment at being reminded of one’s own adolescence. The movie which, as one critic put it, shares creative DNA with The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up, aims higher than being another Porky’s. It wants to be another American Graffiti, with a similar end-of-youth/multiple-adventures-in-a-single-long-night framework. And it does capture something of the psyche of young men at that age: the social and masculine insecurities, the male bonding, etc. But, in the end, its comic excesses (there are many laughs) and its putative serious moments do each other no favors. Bottom line: I need a scotch on the rocks. (Seen 17 September 2007)

SuperClásico 2 out of 4 stars

Ole Christian Madsen’s follow-up to his 2008 hit, the World War II resistance thriller Flame & Citron, was this zany romantic comedy. Christian is a Danish wine-seller, who enjoys his wares perhaps a little too much, which may or may not have something to do with his business’s bleak situation. His attractive and zestful wife (Paprika Steen of Festen) has moved to Buenos Aires and is shacking up with a younger Argentine hunk, who happens to be a soccer star. Upon receiving the divorce papers, Christian decides to pack up and bring their teenage son Oscar to Argentina in a final effort to win her back. Much of the humor—and the movie is very, very funny—derives from the culture clash between Christian and his wife’s new world. There is also a sweet side story when young Oscar falls head-over-heels for a young tour guide. Christian is in much need of adult guidance, and he gets it in the unexpected form of the stern housekeeper Fernanda, who is just a bundle of surprises. If there is an American remake, she will almost certainly be played by Swoosie Kurtz. (Seen 12 July 2012)

Supercop 2 out of 4 stars

Another salvo in Jackie Chan’s assault on the mainstream American movie market, Supercop is one of the action star’s Hong Kong movies re-titled and dubbed into English. The problem with this, of course, is that the cheesy subtitles are often the best part of any Hong Kong action movie. (A favorite recent example is the film Full Throttle in which the protagonist is told no fewer than three times he should move his car or it will be “toaded.”) So instead of cheesy subtitles we have cheesy dubbing reminiscent of the Billy Kwan spoofs on Seattle TV’s Almost Live. There is a plot here, but you probably won’t be able to follow it. Judging from Chan’s perpetual rolling-eyes expression, he can’t follow it either. Not to worry, the film does not take itself the least bit seriously. The stunts may seem tame compared next the technical tricks used in the big-budget summer blockbusters, but they get extra an extra boost from the fact that they are clearly performed just as we see them on screen. (Seen 29 July 1996)

Superman Returns 2 out of 4 stars

By a strange coincidence, I had only finished formulating my thoughts on what constitutes an actual movie remake, when I finally got around to seeing Bryan Singer’s take on Superman. Now I have to decide whether this qualifies as an actual remake of Wim Wenders’s classic Wings of Desire. The case is pretty compelling. The scenes of the Man of Steel, hovering above the earth, listening to cries of help (not unlike prayers) from all over the world with his super-hearing—not to mention the basic plot of a celestial being falling in love with a mortal—seem as though they were lifted directly from Wenders’s exquisite film. But hold on, not even Hollywood could be silly enough to attempt a remake of Wings of Desire, right? Oh, wait, sorry, I forgot. It’s already happened, back in 1998, with Brad Silberling’s City of Angels. Never mind. For the record, Singer’s film actually makes a better remake and, indeed, it better catches the tone of Wenders’s film. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t make a great Superman movie. The Christ parallels in Richard Donner’s 1978 film were tolerable, but here the religious imagery just gets out of hand, especially the numerous scenes of crowds looking prayerfully skyward as Supe’s life hangs in the balance. Frankly, there has been a worrying trend for Superman to become fodder for chick lit, beginning with that Lois & Clark series, followed by Smallville and now with this movie. Romance is perfectly acceptable in the Superman canon, and Richard Lester understood that in his helming of Superman II. But this movie, which purports to be a sequel to Lester’s film, goes beyond romance to soap opera. (Suggested new title: My Super Ex-Boyfriend.) Still, the action set pieces are definitely worth the price of admission, but as a story, the film leaves us wanting. In the title role, Brandon Routh is perfectly acceptable—but just not as good as Christopher Reeve. Kate Bosworth, who is very good when playing a surfer girl or Sandra Dee, is just plain miscast here. (Margo Kidder is still the definitive Lois Lane.) And Kevin Spacey, while always very watchable, only serves to remind us that he was allowed to create a much more chilling villain in Singer’s first film. [Related commentary] (Seen 23 August 2006)

Das Superweib (The Super Wife) 2 out of 4 stars

The 1993 comedy Maybe… Maybe Not was one of the funnier comedies I had seen at the time. It was a silly farce that had a subtext about tolerating people who are different than ourselves and not taking sexual stereotypes for granted. The director of that movie, Sonke Wortmann, is back with another silly comedy, this time about marriage, careers and, inevitably, the movie business. The story is about a woman who manages to divorce her no-good director husband and then write a novel about their marriage—all accidentally! (It’s too complicated to explain.) The film is good-natured and amusing throughout, although it never quite achieves the sweetness of the earlier film. Probably because Wortmann, like a lot of directors these days, is more intent on taking potshots at the movie industry. Veronica Ferres has the energetic title role. Til Schweiger, who starred in Maybe… Maybe Not, is on hand in a bit part lampooning movie stardom. (Seen 27 May 1997)

Surveillance 2 out of 4 stars

An FBI agent is gulping down cups of joe while driving into a small place that is in the back of beyond. The locals act odd and quirky. There are strange noises on the soundtrack. And there is constant tension, even though you don’t know exactly why. Yep, this is another Lynch film. But not that Lynch. This is the second film of Jennifer Lynch, 15 years after her first one, Boxing Helena. Now maybe it’s not fair to compare her work to her father’s. But, if she didn’t want that to happen, maybe she should have made a sweet romantic comedy instead of a movie about agents coming to a rural place to investigate a grisly series of murders. And she shouldn’t have people enjoying their coffee so much. This flick stars Bill Pullman and Julia Ormond, and I think it is safe to say that they are cast against type. Indeed, as the cliché goes, this is Bill Pullman as you have never seen him before. Even though much of the film is taken up with law enforcement people questioning witnesses, the tension becomes increasingly unbearable. And, as it turns out, completely and utterly justified. The esteemed lady who introduced the movie at the Galway Film Fleadh screening said that it “stays with you.” Indeed it does. And, depending on your cup of java, that may or may not be a good thing. (Seen 10 July 2008)

Swann 1 out of 4 stars

It has been noted that the best career move an artist can make is to die. Indeed the more bizarre the death, the more benefit commercially. Swann, adapted from a novel by Carol Shields, explores this phenomenon. It is also about how writing as commerce has degraded the storytelling tradition. The film’s premise is an intriguing one. A rural housewife named Mary Swann is the victim of her husband Angus’s bloody murder/suicide. She leaves behind a number of anguished, primitive, handwritten verses on fragments of paper. Eventually, something of a literary cult builds up around her and she is declared the “new Emily Dickinson.” Literary groupies flock to the small Ontario town where the local librarian (Brenda Fricker) keeps Mary’s memory alive. Chief among the interlopers is a trendy feminist author (Miranda Richardson) desperate for a follow-up bestseller. The film gets some humor out of the exaggerated adoration of the dead poet (her single posthumous tome is dubbed Swann Songs), but the overall tone here is glum and moody and the story meanders aimlessly. And, despite the film’s disapproving view toward the mythologizing of Mary Swann, director Anna Benson Gyles more or less does the same thing herself with brief, stark, stylized flashbacks of Mary—not to mention repeated glimpses of a photograph of Mary and Angus that looks like something Annie Leibovitz might have shot during the Great Depression. (Seen 17 April 1997)

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street 3 out of 4 stars

This is what a lot of us, not unreasonably, were expecting Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows to be like. After all, the two movies are nearly the same story. Wronged man returns from the dead (figuratively or literally) and wreaks havoc on his old stomping ground with more than a bit of help from a strange woman who is drawn to him. In hindsight, the Dark Shadows movie might have been better if Johnny Depp’s performance had been more Sweeney Todd and less Willy Wonka. If this film is more compelling and Depp is able to project more raw passion than he would in the 2012 flick, it surely has to do entirely with the source material: Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s 1979 musical adaptation of Christopher Bond’s 1973 play. Burton and this musical turn out to be a match made in heaven (by way of hell). A horror show laced with bits of sweet romance, it is right up Burton’s dark alley. If this musical hadn’t already existed, Burton might have had to invent it. The cast is well chosen, including the always reliable Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall and Sacha Baron Cohen (currently paired with HBC in another big screen musical, Les Misérables). Also sound are young Ed Sanders and Jamie Campbell Bower—who seems to have the tween franchise business totally sewn up these days, with appearances in Harry Potter, Twilight and the upcoming Mortal Instruments movies. (Seen 3 February 2013)

Sweet and Lowdown 2 out of 4 stars

The big question was, of course, would Sean Penn do a Woody Allen imitation the way Kenneth Branagh did in Celebrity? The answer, thankfully, is no. Penn creates a real, live character, which is precisely the movie’s aim. Allen sets the story up with Zelig-like documentary trappings to give the impression that jazz guitarist Emmet Ray was a real person, although this distracts from the story since Allen and his real-life jazz authorities are somehow unconvincing in their supposedly extemporaneous reminisces. Anyway, the movie is really about Allen’s well-known love of jazz music and about real-life guitar legend Django Reinhardt, whose presence dominates the film and who even appears briefly (played by an actor). Technically, the film is great. As always, the photography (by Fei Zhao) is exquisite and the performances are top-notch. Samantha Morton (the English actor who starred in This Is the Sea and Jesus’ Son) is particularly poignant as Ray’s innocently loyal girlfriend. But somehow, as is often the case with Allen’s “serious” films, there is a strange lack of energy or appeal that his more satiric movies have. It probably doesn’t help that Penn’s character is a nearly irredeemable jerk. (Seen 7 February 2000)

Sweet Charity 3 out of 4 stars

The first of five feature films directed by legendary director/choreographer Bob Fosse (the others were Cabaret, Lenny, All That Jazz and Star 80), this is the one that aimed to—and succeeded—in bringing the magic of Broadway to the screen. Its source material seems unlikely. The stage version was written by Neil Simon with songs by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields and was adapted from the classic 1957 Federico Fellini film Nights of Cabiria. In the process, the story went from a poignant tragicomedy to something of a romcom. It is intriguing to ponder what the movie would have been like if Fosse’s wife Gwen Verdon had reprised her stage role. The generous Verdon did provide behind-the-scenes support to Shirley MacLaine in the role of the perpetually hopeful titular protagonist. And MacLaine definitely dominates the whole thing. She kicks, she struts, she marches, she mugs and she gives it her all until we have no choice but to submit to her total command. John McMartin reprised his role as the love interest Oscar, Chita Rivera and Paula Kelly get to strut with MacLaine, big numbers are sung by the likes of Sammy Davis Jr. and Stubby Kaye and Ricardo Montalban shows up as the suave Italian movie star. The songs are classics, notably “If My Friends Could See Me Now,” “Big Spender” and “Rhythm of Life.” And the New York locations actually manage to give the movie version something that the stage version was not able to. (Seen 29 March 2015)

The Sweet Hereafter 3 out of 4 stars

Tragedy strikes a small, isolated town in the Pacific Northwest. As the residents try to come to terms with the tragedy, an outsider arrives and begins to peel away the seamy underside of this seemingly idyllic place. No, it’s not Twin Peaks revisited. Despite some apparent similarities, this is a bit more serious stuff from Canadian director Atom Egoyan, who for once is working with adapted material (a novel by Russell Banks). As in his earlier films (Family Viewing, Exotica), Egoyan voyeuristically explores the dark and twisted side of family life. Despite the aching nature of the accident around which the story revolves and the tawdriness of the some of the community’s goings-on, the film has a solemn dignity and thoughtfulness to it that make the trip to Egoyan’s strange corner of the universe worth the while. It is easy to see why The Sweet Hereafter was a triple winner at Cannes. (Seen 29 September 1997)

Sweet Home Alabama 2 out of 4 stars

This is the romantic comedy for people who have absolutely no need to be surprised. We know exactly where this movie is headed within the first three minutes. (Days or weeks sooner, if you saw the trailer first.) All you need to know is that Reese Witherspoon has the Katharine Hepburn role, Josh Lucas has the Spencer Tracy role, and former teen comedy star Patrick Dempsey, who has shockingly matured into more or less playing JFK Jr., has the Ralph Bellamy role. Dempsey’s character has to be the most understanding man on the planet. Candice Bergen is on hand as his mother, but she’s still essentially playing Murphy Brown. This is yet another case of a Hollywood movie promoting ideas that no one in Hollywood actually believes, i.e. 1) people from hick towns, who have made it in the big city, should stay in touch with their roots, 2) Democratic politicians are pompous hypocrites, and 3) white southern people are actually really cool. (Seen 22 December 2002)

Sweety Barrett (The Tale of Sweety Barrett) 2 out of 4 stars

A simpleton of hulk with a heart of gold. A precocious little boy with a father, who is in and out of jail, and a poor mother, who tries to manage on her own. The most dastardly villain of a corrupt policeman, who terrorizes everyone. Is there any question that you’ll need your hanky several times before this melodrama is over? In his debut film, writer/director Stephen Bradley has more or less made the Irish Sling Blade. Indeed, the fine actor Brendan Gleeson (I Went Down, The General) makes the title character a worthy companion to other tragically simple heroes of such films as Of Mice and Men and To Kill a Mockingbird. With a lesser lead actor, this movie could have descended into all kinds of maudlin excesses. But Gleeson keeps things on an even keel, not getting too sticky-sweet or too charming. Still, your heartstrings do get tugged without mercy. And you will want to hiss out loud every time Liam Cunningham, as the most dishonest garda in the history of the Irish republic, comes on screen. (Seen 16 May 1999)

The Swimmer 3 out of 4 stars

Coming only a year after The Graduate, it’s a wonder that this flick, directed by Frank Perry (with uncredited help from Sydney Pollack), didn’t strike a similar chord with young audiences. After all, it has a similarly jaundiced view of post-war materialism and the emptiness of the American Dream. But it didn’t have young stars like Dustin Hoffman and Katharine Ross to lure in audiences or the music of Simon & Garfunkel. Instead, it had an array of great character actors, many from the stage, and a rather dramatic Marvin Hamlisch score. But its chief asset was the mighty Burt Lancaster, who spends virtually the whole movie in tight swimming trunks. In his mid-50s, the man was a Greek god who still had the body of a 30-year-old. He was perfect to play the quintessential human animal confused by society’s artificial environment. The premise of the story is odd. Lancaster walks out of the woods into the backyard of friends for a dip in their pool. He then realizes that there are a string of pools across suburban Connecticut leading back to his house and decides to swim them all to get home. Since this is adapted (by Perry’s wife Eleanor) from a famous John Cheever New Yorker story, you can be sure that the trek will be both metaphysical and allegorical. As Lancaster works his way toward home (in more than one sense of the word), we get more and more of his backstory and see the reactions of people who are increasingly familiar with him. The many great faces he encounters include the likes of Kim Hunter, Marge Champion, Dolph Sweet, Jan Miner (Madge the manicurist of Palmolive fame), Diana Muldaur (later of Star Trek: The Next Generation) and a very young Joan Rivers, wearing her original face. It is all amazingly watchable and, in turns, funny and poignant. Yet, more than four decades on, its implicit social critique plays very differently. Those beautiful backyards with pristine pools and a pitcher of martinis always at the ready are looking pretty good about now. (Seen 16 February 2014)

Swimmers 2 out of 4 stars

Despite the glorious warm weather, I went indoors to see this movie by writer/director Doug Sadler. This was in spite of the fact that the film festival program notes described it with the dreaded words “raw and riveting family drama.” If that makes it sound like a serious chick flick, well it is, but not in a bad way. While it won’t change the world or even your life, it is quite well done for what it is: a simple story of a family’s travails and coming-of-age story. There is a medical crisis, a father out of work who can’t handle pressure, and a mysterious young woman returning home years after an emotional trauma. The cast is very good, beginning with young Tara Devon Gallagher, as the point-of-view character. Cherry Jones is the mother, and the father is Robert Knott. I had to keep checking my eyes to make sure that it wasn’t Ed Harris playing the dad, and afterwards Sadler explained that Knott is actually a friend of Harris’s and that Harris had recommended him for the role. I was also driven crazy trying to remember where before I had seen Shawn Hatosy, who plays the middle brother. Thank God for the IMDB, which reminded me that the Maryland actor (of all people) had played the young Brendan Behan in the film adaptation of Behan’s Borstal Boy! Rounding out the cast is Sarah Paulson, looking strangely like Winona Ryder in role that Ryder might actually have played. (Seen 10 July 2005)

Swimming with Sharks 3 out of 4 stars

Unfortunately, Swimming with Sharks will inevitably be compared to The Player. This is because 1) the young man getting an education the ways of Hollywood is played by Frank Whaley who bears a bit of physical resemblance to Tim Robbins and 2) it has a similarly dark and cynical ending. But even though this feature by first-time director George Huang draws upon his own experience working for producer Joel Silver and includes numerous Hollywood references, this film is not primarily “about” Hollywood. It is really about the relationship between two men and how one mentally traumatizes the other. Kevin Spacey plays the studio big shot and it is for him, as they say, the role of a lifetime. He makes Buddy Ackerman a monster, but at the same time he lets us see just enough the inner man to keep him from being a cartoon. (The script also gives him a back story to keep him from being a total villain.) He is a true joy to watch. Just when I thought I was getting a bad case of déjà vu all over again, this black comedy sucked me in and kept me involved until the very end. The cast also includes Michelle Forbes who played Ensign Ro on Star Trek: The Next Generation. (Seen 27 May 1995)

Swingers 2 out of 4 stars

This low-budget film was something of a cult hit in the States. It played for six or seven years (or maybe it was months) in Seattle, but somehow I never got around to seeing it there. Of all the places to finally catch up with it, it is now playing in Dublin, a city whose exuberant nightlife makes a nice contrast to the film’s dark, car-dominated Los Angeles expanses. Not much happens plot-wise, sort of in the same way that not much happened in 1960’s Ocean’s Eleven. But, if anything, the characters in this flick are a Rat Pack manqué. Auteur/star Jon Favreau’s character and friends want to emulate the hipness and glamour of an earlier era, but reality always falls short—just as it does for their Hollywood dreams in general. And let’s not even talk about their relationships with women. In the end, Swingers is an effective portrait of being single and on the make in contemporary L.A. with more than a few chuckles and wry observations along the way. Favreau, who here makes himself a vulnerable and sympathetic Woody Allen-like figure, went on to play a more professionally successful (Bill Gates-like) character on NBC’s Friends. (Seen 17 September 1997)

Switchblade Sisters (Playgirl Gang) (The Jezebels) 1 out of 4 stars

Switchblade Sisters was originally released in 1976. Now, two decades later it has been plucked from obscurity and restored for a home video release under the auspices of Quentin Tarantino. No one is more surprised than the director, Jack Hill, who has been “out of the business” for 15 years. The film is about a girl gang, sort of a ladies’ auxiliary to the boys’ gang, called the Dagger Debs. There are lots of knife fights, an attempted rape (in a girls’ juvie) and a more controversial rape involving the leader of the boys’ gang and the Debs’ new girl. There are also lots of knife fights and other action. In short, it’s a trashy send-up of the gang movies of the 1950s. Director Hill was present for a midnight showing at the Seattle film festival. Afterwards, in the middle of his explanation that what he was really trying to do was to make a female version of Othello (hey, now I get it!), a woman walked onto the stage and took the microphone away from him to protest something. I don’t know exactly what, since she didn’t hold the mike close enough to her mouth for me to hear what she was saying and she was drowned out by booing anyway. This is just the sort of moment I go to the film festival for! (Seen 25 May 1996)

Synthetic Pleasures 2 out of 4 stars

Iara Lee’s documentary Synthetic Pleasures tackles a wide-ranging topic: mankind’s efforts to bend nature to its own will. In 85 minutes, the film can barely enumerate all the ways that we do this. Much time is spent on computers and virtual reality as well as on artificial environments such as shopping malls, Japan’s indoor beaches and ski slopes, and the increasingly elaborate amusements in Las Vegas. But that is just the beginning. We hear people (like Timothy Leary) talk about mind-altering drugs, and we see people turn their bodies into art via tattoos, body piercing, and cosmetic surgery. We meet a cryonics expert who has frozen his late wife with the expectation that she will one day be revived. One of the most fascinating people shown is a fellow who “lives” in cyberspace as he pedals everywhere on on a 105-speed recumbent bicycle outfitted with computers, modem, and cell phone. There is so much (maybe too much) that the mind boggles. The film is content to gape at all that it sees, but one longs for it to take a stronger point of view on all this. (Seen 26 May 1996)

Syriana 2 out of 4 stars

When you don’t get to see a high-profile movie until months after it’s made its big splash, you can easily have the reaction that I did upon finally seeing it: it’s both better and worse than I was primed to expect. Some of the commentary I had heard caused me to expect rank propaganda. The film is propaganda, but it is not rank. On the other hand, Stephen Gaghan’s screenplay for Traffic had prepared me to expect something of high quality. But not only is Gaghan not as good a director as Steven Soderbergh but this different subject matter seems to have stymied his sense of dramatic narrative as well. Syriana offers three ways to view it. It can be seen as a suspense thriller, but the characters are strangely un-involving (the oil executives seem borrowed from old episodes of Dallas) and the climax makes little sense logically or dramatically. It can be seen as a 1970s paranoid political thriller, with George Clooney more or less as Warren Beatty in The Parallax View, but since 9/11 we know way too much about the CIA. The field man frustrated that no one reads his memos rings true all right but not (after hunts for Saddam and Osama) the agency’s cold, methodical efficiency at dispatching human obstacles. Finally, the movie can be seen as a political statement, especially since the filmmakers have declared that this was indeed their motivation. That, however, opens up a discussion too vast for a hit-and-run review like this. For the sake of brevity, I will note only that this is a fictional movie based on a book that purports to be non-fiction, which puts it in the same company as 2004’s The Day After Tomorrow. [Related commentary] (Seen 21 March 2006)

Szabadság, szerelem (Children of Glory) 2 out of 4 stars

It is really strange to watch an eastern European film that is so clearly a creature of Hollywood. The sensibility of filmmaking in that part of the world is so different that it is downright jarring to see Hungarian actors in Hungarian locations conforming so closely to American entertainment conventions. The subject is the Hungarian revolution of 1956, and no Hollywood cliché is spared: the wisecracking friends, the kid brother, the love story—it’s all here, right down to the climactic everything-hangs-on-it sports duel. This is obviously explained by the participation of co-screenwriter Joe Eszterhas, who was born in Hungary and was around the age of 12 and living in the U.S. when these events occurred and who, of course, went on to become an A-list screenwriter of such movies as Flashdance, Basic Instinct and Showgirls. But you know something, despite the movie’s obviousness, it still has huge power in spite of itself, not only because the effort that went into is clearly heartfelt, but mainly because we know that these events really happened. Behind the stock movie characters, the frustrations and courage of the Hungarian people come through. Particularly wrenching are the latter scenes where the revolutionaries pin their hopes on other countries, particularly America, coming to their aid, now that the nascent free government has pulled out of the Warsaw Pact. It was not the first, nor the last, time that such brave people waited in vain. (Seen 18 October 2007)

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