Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2017
Scott R. Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France
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To Catch a Thief 2 out of 4 stars

On one hand, this movie is timeless because so much of its appeal comes from the eternally gorgeous scenery in and around Cannes. On the other hand, this quite entertaining entry from the legendary Alfred Hitchcock is a bit dated. For one thing, when Jessie Royce Landis, as a plain-spoken nouveau riche American tourist eyes up suave Cary Grant, it comes as a jolt when we realize that she is sizing him up for her daughter and not for herself. Landis was only eight years older than the fiftyish Grant, whereas the actor playing her daughter, the radiant Grace Kelly, was a quarter-century his junior. Audiences in the 1950s were apparently conditioned to see male movie idols like Grant as ageless. Also a bit old-fashioned is the pace of what is meant to be a suspenseful mystery, especially when compared to current fare in the genre. But the leisurely pacing, like that wonderful scenery, is really one of the film’s pleasures. The mystery—something about a copycat cat burglar incriminating Grant’s retired jewel thief—is a typical Hitchcockian MacGuffin. We really don’t care that much and, besides, it’s just an excuse to watch the debonair Grant banter with Landis and an uptight English insurance official and, especially, the otherworldly beautiful Kelly. (In a touch that seems macabre with hindsight, one sequence has Kelly driving recklessly on a windy road high above the Mediterranean.) And this gets us to what else is old-fashioned about the flick. Grant is one of those seemingly repressed Hitchcock heroes who has the girl chasing him when it seems like it should be the other way around. And when they do get together, we get but a discreet display of (literal) exploding fireworks. (Seen 4 October 2008)

To Die For 3 out of 4 stars

Okay, what if we took the basic facts of the Pamela Smart case (you know, the teacher who convinced her teenage lover and his friends to kill her husband?) and turned it into a black comedy? And we make Pamela an aspiring TV star so we can turn the whole thing into A Comment on the Media? (Lord knows we need more movies that satirize the media. Personally, I only saw two others all weekend!) To Die For looks like it will be Gus Van Sant’s first film to reach a “mainstream” audience. In commercial terms, this is a great comeback from the fiasco of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and somewhat less challenging for Middle America than My Own Private Idaho. This movie is a wonderful collaboration of talents. The entertaining script is by Buck Henry who also does an acting turn as an apoplectic school teacher. The whole cast, led by Nicole Kidman who is great as the murderously ambitious bride, is uniformly wonderful. Kidman looks so kittenish she seems to have turned into the young Ann-Margret. Matt Dillon doesn’t have a lot to do as the hapless victim. The kids who play the duped teenagers are much more convincing than Dillon ever was when he played those roles. The real standout, however, is Illeanna Douglas as Dillon’s sister. She appeared a while back in a film called Grief where she was equally great. It turns out that Van Sant is perfect to direct this film. Even though it is played for laughs, his understanding of adolescents and street life (well established in his early films) has led him to create a film that explains to me for the very first time how a woman could convince teenagers to commit a murder. Danny Elfman’s typically spooky carnival sounding score is perfect for the subject matter. (Seen 28 May 1995)

To Have and Have Not 3 out of 4 stars

Despite this 1944 classic’s enviable literary credentials (William Faulkner co-wrote, based on Ernest Hemingway’s book), it is clear what this movie was at. Howard Hawks’s film wants to live off the some of the magic of Casablanca, which Bogart had made two years earlier. Despite the passing similarities (American cynic in a warm, exotic locale; a piano player; political struggle between Vichy and Free France; freedom fighters trying to escape to carry on the struggle; etc.), this doesn’t soar to the heights of the earlier film. It doesn’t help that the villain, played by Dan Seymour, looks like Dom DeLuise doing a Marlon Brando impersonation. But it is a classic anyway, mainly because of Bogart’s relationships with his two main co-stars. Capt. Morgan’s humanity is defined by his relationship with his alcoholic friend Eddie, superbly played by Walter Brennan. More memorable, of course, is the real-life chemistry between Bogart and his leading lady (a quarter-century his junior), the mesmerizing Lauren Bacall—in her movie debut and soon to be the married Bogart’s next wife. What she does with a cigarette in this flick would take decades of anti-smoking education to undo. Within a couple of minutes, Bacall delivers two of the most smoldering and memorable lines in Hollywood history: (after kissing Bogie) “It’s even better when you help” and “You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and… blow.” (Seen 7 July 2010)

To Kill a Mockingbird 4 out of 4 stars

This film by Robert Mulligan and its source novel by Harper Lee are among those rare works of literature that actually change the way succeeding generations think. To watch it now—55 and 53 years after the appearances of the book and movie, respectively—it is striking how strongly it registers on issues that still preoccupy American society. The trial of Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), which is the centerpiece of the film, confronts unequal treatment of African-Americans by the legal system and uncomfortably (at least by current standards) pits that problem against the question of the virtual prosecution of rape victims. What makes the lessons taught by the trial so powerful is that we are seeing it all through the eyes of children. The trial is but one—albeit a disturbing one—interlude to what is otherwise a series of mostly idyllic vignettes from a Depression-era childhood in the South. But the innocent juvenile adventures are occasionally interrupted by some of the scariest scenes in the movies, usually involving a memorable performance by James Anderson as a nasty piece of work. Familiar faces populate the cast. Alice Ghostley appears briefly as an aunt. Paul Fix is the laid-back trial judge. William Windom is the smarmy prosecutor. And what a shock at the end to see the mysterious Boo Radley revealed as a very young and fair-headed Robert Duvall! But the linchpin is, of course, Gregory Peck earning his only acting Oscar (on his fifth nomination), the perfect actor to play the perfect father and the perfect man. The beauty of his performance is that he is just awkward enough that he doesn’t seem completely too good to be true. No matter the effect this movie had on people’s feelings on race relations, it definitely made lots of people wish that Gregory Peck was their dad. (Seen 14 January 2015)

To Rome with Love 2 out of 4 stars

His follow-up to Midnight in Paris, think of this as part of Woody Allen’s European tourist series—along with Match Point and Vicky Cristina Barcelona. These films may have all been shot in Europe, but—despite their postcard imagery—their real geographical locations are firmly in Allen’s own mind. The Woodman previously paid homage to his idol Federico Fellini in his 1980 movie Stardust Memories, but this feels like an additional bouquet to the Italian master and to Italian cinema in general. In a way, you can think of it as having Allen (who takes a role in the film) wandering through his exalted Italian cinema the way Owen Wilson rambled through his own vision of the Lost Generation in Midnight in Paris. It’s also a bit of antipasti consisting of Allen’s greatest hits. Roberto Benigni’s story revisits the theme of Celebrity. The strand with Alec Baldwin and Jesse Eisenberg is a bit of a variation on Midnight in Paris. The sex farce featuring Penelope Cruz evokes, well, a lot of Allen’s movies. On its own, the movie is diverting but not overly memorable. Seen in the context of Allen’s body of work, it’s like reading a friend’s heartfelt love letter that got somehow delivered to you by mistake. (Seen 9 March 2014)

To Russia with Love 3 out of 4 stars

Definitely not to be confused with a James Bond movie with a similar title, this documentary by Louise Wadley chronicles the story of Dublin housewife Debbie Deegan, who founded a charity to help one wretched orphanage in western Russia. While the film is essentially non-critical, it gives Deegan enough screen time to let viewers decide for themselves if she is a saint, a shameless self-promoter or something in between. Whatever the verdict, Deegan is certainly an interesting subject. An unstoppable blonde earth mother who can talk without a trace of self-consciousness about squalid toilets while having her nails manicured or sipping wine in her affluent suburban kitchen. Strangely, the strongest angle in terms of cinema, her quest to bring her adopted Russian daughter’s best friend back to Ireland, is somewhat underplayed in the final reel. But the impact of a woman who has gone to great effort to do a least a little bit of good for children in a strange country remains. (Seen 8 March 2001)

Todo sobre mi madre (All About My Mother) 2 out of 4 stars

This movie ends with a dedication to a string of powerful female actors as well as writer/director Pedro Almodóvar’s own mother. But you don’t have to wait that long to figure out where he is coming from. The opening title of this potboiler appears over a dubbed version of the not coincidentally similarly titled Bette Davis classic All About Eve, which our heroine Manuela is watching on TV with her adored Adonis of a teenage son. Actually, you know where Almodóvar is coming from even before the movie starts if you have seen even one or two of his previous films (everything from Labyrinth of Passion to last year’s Live Flesh). In other words, fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy movie. If you’re hungry for melodrama, you’ve definitely come to the right place. Like most of Almodóvar’s other work, this flick is drama queen heaven. The cast of characters also includes the exquisitely named stage actor Huma Rojo, who plays (who else?) Blanche DuBois in a production of A Streetcar Named Desire, as well as sundry denizens of Barcelona’s sexual demimonde and the breathtaking Penélope Cruz (Open Your Eyes, The Hi-Lo Country) as the unlikeliest and unluckiest nun ever. For those in need of a cinematic emotional release, All About My Mother has something for every woman as well as something for every woman trapped in someone else’s body. (Seen 6 January 2000)

Tokyo Cowboy 3 out of 4 stars

Here’s another of those screwball romantic comedies. Tokyo Cowboy is an assured first feature by Canadian Kathy Garneau. Filmed in British Columbia, this movie is very hard not to like. Its star Hiromoto Ida is totally charming as No, a young Japanese man who dreams of going to North America and becoming a cowboy. (After the screening Garneau said it’s a good thing that Hiromoto has finally gotten an agent. He turned down a role on The X-Files because he thought it would involve pornography!) After being fired from his job as a fry cook, No heads to BC to look up his old grade school penpal Kate who once sent him a photo of herself on a horse. In one of the more improbable aspects of the story, after graduating from college Kate has moved back to her small hometown with her female lover and is so uptight about anybody knowing she is a lesbian that she virtually hides out in her house. (The odd thing is that Kate is an artist, while her lover Shelly who seems not the least bit concerned about public opinion is a school teacher.) Throw into the mix Kate’s mother who encourages No to woo her daughter and a postal carrier (who deeply wishes he were Native American) who coaches No on how to be a cowboy and to romance women. This film does the gentlest job I have ever seen of dealing honestly but positively with racial and sexual conflicts. While a couple of minor characters exist purely to be unlikable, the main characters are all treated with sympathy and understanding. Like its star, this film can’t help but charm. (Seen 29 May 1995)

Tokyo Nagaremono (Tokyo Drifter) 2 out of 4 stars

The main mystery about this 1966 Japanese classic is: why did the film festival show it at 3:30 in the afternoon instead of at midnight? It starts off in black and white, like it’s going to be some gritty film noir type of thing. But the style keeps changing throughout the movie. At some moments it seems like one of those swinging 1960s James Bond movies. At other times it seems like a musical or a Three Stooges comedy. The plot deals with Tetsu and his boss who are gangsters trying to go straight, using their ill-gotten gains to go into legitimate business. But of course, they can’t escape their past so easily. Another gang (which hasn’t gone straight) tries to muscle in on their action. After a little bloodshed, Tetsu has to go away to avoid the heat, hence becoming the “Tokyo drifter” of the title. He even has his own theme song which he sings (with full orchestral accompaniment) as he sadly walks along. (At one point, the sound of his singing alerts some assassins that he is drawing near.) He has a girlfriend who also spends a lot of time singing sadly in what appears to be a sound stage, although it’s never quite clear to me what she’s doing there. Tokyo Drifter is one perplexing hoot. (Seen 26 May 1996)

Tom and Huck 1 out of 4 stars

Do we really need yet another adaptation of Mark Twain’s classic novel? Not really. But apparently Disney needed a vehicle for its hot property, teeny-bopper cover boy Jonathan Taylor Thomas. Tom Sawyer provides Jon an opportunity to play a 19th-century version of his Home Improvement character, but he is upstaged regularly by his fellow adolescent pin-up Brad Renfo (the child-in-jeopardy in The Client) who plays a sensitive, brooding Huckleberry Finn. The action/suspense elements of the tale have been emphasized for the benefit of 1990s audiences, but this movie is harmless fun. Unless, of course, you are one of those wimpy parents who shelter their kids from anything that might give them an adrenaline rush. If so, then it may be too intense for your kids. (Seen 23 January 1996)

Tommy Tiernan: Crooked Man 2 out of 4 stars

In introducing this filmed version of his comedy act, Tommy Tiernan quipped that it was the first major Irish concert film since Rattle and Hum. He also said it was a thrill to be seeing it on the big screen, since it was a direct-to-video release. (I’ve already seen it for sale at my local Tesco.) Filmed at the City Limits comedy club in Cork, the irrepressible Tiernan gives vent to his id as he pontificates on everything from religion to marriage to children and the state of Ireland. His humor derives largely from the outrageousness of his statements and his willingness (compulsion?) to tweak notions of political correctness or just mere politeness. As with all the best comedy, there is an underlying truth to much of what he says. Early on in the monolog, he talks about Ireland’s drastic comedown in the wake of the boom years of the so-called Celtic Tiger. Speaking admiringly of all the “five-star hotels” that were built during those years, he adds with a bit of classic Irish insecurity that “we’re really just two-star people.” An indication of how entertaining Tiernan is, the film’s 75-minute running time flies by. The film’s director is fellow stand-up veteran Richard Ayoade, star of the British sitcom The IT Crowd and director of last year’s Submarine. (Seen 7 November 2011)

Tomorrow Never Dies 2 out of 4 stars

If you can’t get in to see Titanic or you just don’t want to hassle the queues, you can see a ship sink in Tomorrow Never Dies. And a bunch of explosions. And some breathtaking chase scenes. And a lot of produce stands chopped up by helicopter blades. (Don’t ask.) In his second outing as 007, Pierce Brosnan firmly establishes himself as the second best James Bond. Which is to say, he’s no Sean Connery but he definitely out-Roger Moores Roger Moore. Judi Dench (Queen Victoria in Mrs. Brown) has settled quite nicely into the role of M. Joe Don Baker gets increasingly loutish in the frequently superfluous role of Bond’s CIA contact. And still in the role of Q after 34 years, ancient and stooped Desmond Llewelyn brings home just how long the Bond movies have been turned out. The villain this time is Jonathan Pryce, a Rupert Murdoch/Ted Turner type who invokes William Randolph Hearst in manipulating world events in order to have something interesting to cover. But is that really his game, or is he just ticked because he’s an Infiniti spokesman and Tomorrow Never Dies is the world’s most expensive BMW commercial? (Seen 20 December 1997)

Tonight Is Cancelled 2 out of 4 stars

Here is Exhibit B in my indictment of what I am calling The Curse Of The Framing Love Story (cf. A Thousand Kisses). Once again, we have a compelling story about a subject that has, to date, received little attention in international cinema, but it is undone because the story has been relegated to secondary status in favor of a love story that, by nearly any calculation, should be compelling, but isn’t. The ultimate story here is about the war in Kosovo at the dawn of the 21st century. During the war, a young man named Edi was taken captive for three years. When he was finally released, he found that his girlfriend Aida had waited for him. A few years later an Irish director arrives and wants to make a movie about their story. And that’s where the trouble begins, since the device of a movie within a movie doesn’t usually work out unless there is a really good reason for it. Here there isn’t. To be fair, the director character (played by Mark O’Halloran, who played Bobby Sands in H3 and also wrote the screenplays for Adam & Paul and Garage) has some good moments as the business of independent filmmaking gets some ribbing. But the movie just feels schizophrenic. The story of the war and the separated lovers feels nearly like an afterthought, while we get endless scenes of Aida wandering around doing interior monologs about her frustrations with her relationship with Edi. These scenes feel like an entirely different movie—specifically a European art house film, or perhaps a parody of one. More confusion is added by another plot strand—involving a man at a bus station mistaken for a pen pal fiancé—that has no discernable relation to the rest of the movie. In the end, however, the movie is at least partly redeemed by the light it shines on Kosovo and the war and, in particular, Bubulina Lajçi as Aida, who makes the best of thankless role and brings something of the spark of the young Jean Seberg. Director Brendan Grant seemed to acknowledge the film has some problems when he introduced at the Film Fleadh. He concluded by saying, “At least it’s short.” (Seen 14 July 2007)

Toots 2 out of 4 stars

This belongs to that genre of documentary which consists of biographies of famous figures by one of their children or grandchildren. A couple of years ago filmmaker Kristi Jacobson made this well researched movie about her grandfather, Bernard “Toots” Shor. And this is no vanity project. Shor is a great subject. He pretty much qualifies more or less literally for the term “larger than life” in every sense. And he is the sort of figure that, in telling his story, one tells the story of his age. Shor’s dream was always to be a “saloonkeeper,” and he succeeded in spades. For a couple of decades his eponymous restaurant/bar in the heart of Manhattan was the place to go. It attracted the famous as well as everyone else. Politicians and celebrities rubbed shoulders with athletes and journalists. The job of Shor, who was described as his own best customer, was to hang around the joint all day and night and drink and provide vintage male companionship to his luminous patrons. The film has the usual trove of still photographs, but it is aided immensely by footage in which Shor was the surprise guest on Ralph Edwards’s This Is Your Life and a subject of Edward R. Murrow’s Person to Person, in which Shor and his family are interviewed in their own home. The faces that come and go to Toots’s joint include Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, presidents Eisenhower and Nixon, Joe DiMiaggio, Marilyn Monroe and lots of Jackie Gleason, who figures in many of the best stories. Reminiscing talking heads include Walter Cronkite, Mike Wallace, Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra, Gay Talese and Frank Gifford who, it turns out, was a frequent visitor to Shor’s and a close friend. The film does not shy away from Shor’s mob connections, although it places them in a Damon Runyon context of loveable mugs before a new generation of drug-pushing criminals moved in and gave gangsters a bad name. One of the best stories is told by Shor’s daughter Kerry (and the filmmaker’s mother) about how Shor arrived at the last minute for her Catholic confirmation with John Wayne in tow. The two had been drinking since the night before. This fascinating and nostalgic film did not get a proper release, but it can be acquired through the web site (Seen 2 January 2009)

Tootsie 3 out of 4 stars

More than three decades later, it is easy to forget just how good this comedy about gender identity was. Seeing it today, it does not feel a bit out of date. It is one of those amazing movies that was both ahead of its time and comfortably in its own time. Much of its success has to do with the incisive writing of Larry Gelbart, who wrote the story with Don McGuire and the screenplay with Murray Schisgal. Other people reportedly contributed to the screenplay but, interestingly, the only woman in the bunch was the uncredited Elaine May. In the end, the film really tells us more about actors in general—and New York actors in particular—than about the politics of gender. Dustin Hoffman, fresh off his Oscar win for Kramer vs. Kramer, was an inspired choice for the lead. Not only did he seem an unlikely candidate to convincingly pass himself off as a woman, but the film plays off his reputation for being a difficult actor. The overall cast is extremely strong. Bill Murray steals his scenes as Hoffman’s playwright roommate. Teri Garr is at her neurotic best as the actor friend Hoffman beds and betrays. Jessica Lange is sympathetic as his struggling co-star, and Charles Durning is at his genial best as her father, who becomes smitten with Hoffman’s alter ego. The late George Gaynes is brilliant as the hack soap opera star, and Dabney Coleman, as the director, reprises his sexist turn from Nine to Five from two years earlier. And let us not forget this movie’s director, Sydney Pollack, as Hoffman’s apoplectic agent. As a social statement, this is a funny kind of movie. First, there is the dubious proposition that gender inequality is only worth considering when a man experiences it. Moreover, there is little suggestion that Hoffman’s character has actually learned anything when it comes to his own behavior toward women. In the end the film is best appreciated for its quality comedy rather than for social commentary. After all, the flick is not so high-minded that it doesn’t resort to limiting Geena Davis (her first movie role) to little more than parading around in her underwear. (Seen 16 July 2016)

Total Eclipse 1 out of 4 stars

Obviously typecast for life, Leonardo DiCaprio plays yet another wild, screwed-up but brilliant young poet. (Okay, so The Basketball Diaries is the only other case, but hey, I’m quick to spot a trend.) This is the true story of two of the greatest French poets of the late 19th century, Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine. It is directed by Agnieszka Holland whose previous work includes such reptitive titles as Europa, Europa and Oliver, Olivier as well as the 1993 version of The Secret Garden. Total Eclipse captures the tempestuous relationship between Rimbaud and Verlaine, although they generally come off as whiny, self-indulgent, and self-destructive. And they were certainly all of these things. (No wonder the Republicans want to cut off funding for the arts!) But, even though the screenplay is drawn from their own letters, we don’t get a sense of how talented these men were—especially Rimbaud who is considered one of the great poets of all time, even though he stopped writing by the time he was 20. The reason for this may be that the movie doesn’t really try to present their poetry, probably because French Symbolist poetry is notoriously difficult to translate. (Seen 6 November 1995)

Touch Gloves 2 out of 4 stars

Documentaries can be divided into two basic categories. There is the “talking heads” approach, and there is the “fly on the wall” style. Touch Gloves by Felipe Jorge is something of a hybrid. It is an in-depth portrait of a boxing club in Haverhill, Massachusetts, north of Boston near Lawrence and Salem. We get many sequences of the owners, trainers and participants of the club talking to the camera, but we also get extended segments where the camera follows them around in “you are there” style before, during and after matches. Filmed over a year (ending in May 2016), we get a real feel for the personalties and activities of all involved. The principal talking head is owner/manager Ray Hebert, who has plenty to say and a lot of passion to share. One gets the feeling he needed little coaxing from the filmmaker to share his philosophy of life, his interest in giving local young people something to work hard at and for, and his opinions on just about everything else in general. In the course of the film’s 74-minute running time we also meet a wide array of other people, including trainers, budding pugilists (whose ages run from adolescence to late 20s) and some of their family members. Is the film of interest to those not already steeped in the sport? Your mileage may vary, but there is an awful lot of human interest to be found here in men dedicating themselves to providing an outlet to local kids that instills hard work, self-discipline and commitment. In one of the more emotional moments, for example, we learn that Hebert keeps the gym going with his own retirement money. While the cast is male-dominated, we do meet a couple of young women who demonstrate that boxing is not just for guys. Director Jorge notes that the “documentary was made with absolutely no budget and no film crew except for one night when I had a friend help capture extra footage,” but it doesn’t look it. In fact, it looks as slick as anything you might see on television. Particularly effective are some of the boxing match sequences in the latter part of the film which are set to music—emphasizing the near-ballet aspect of the sport during its more emotionally involving moments. By the end you really feel like part of the club’s extended family. More info on the film, including a trailer, can be found at (Seen 31 May 2016)

Touching the Void 3 out of 4 stars

This docudrama is so intense that I could barely walk on my own two legs leaving the theater. Everyone else seemed to be affected similarly. I had to find a place to warm up and get some water to drink. Never have I seen a more riveting marriage of movie adventure and talking-heads documentary. Directed by Kevin MacDonald, it is based on Joe Simpson’s book about his and Simon Yates’s ascent of Siula Grande, one of the world’s highest peaks, in a remote part of Peru. (Things did not go routinely.) Simpson’s and Yates’s heads are on camera (as well as Richard, an acquaintance who waited for them at their base camp), telling us in detail and with understated English matter-of-factness about the ordeal. At the same time, MacDonald has recreated the events with breathtaking photography in the actual place that it happened. The recreated scenes on their own would make one heck of a movie thriller, though we might find bits of it hard to believe. But with the real guys’ running commentary, we know it is all true and are never allowed to forget that it all really happened. Nor do we ever forget that these are real people, dealing with something most people never come close to, but who are still very human. (At one point Richard confesses thinking that, if only one climber returned, he hoped it would be Simon.) This flick is the most excitement a person can have while watching a movie. When it comes out on DVD, I might carry around a copy, just in case anyone ever asks why I never got into mountain climbing. (Seen 17 October 2003)

The Tourist 2 out of 4 stars

It is immediately clear from the beginning that this will be a Hitchcockian suspense/romance laced with comedy, shot in picturesque locations with attractive people wearing gorgeous clothes. The only real question left is whether the male lead, Johnny Depp, will be playing Cary Grant or Gene Wilder. Given Depp’s devotion to character acting and consistent eschewing of standard leading man roles, why is it so surprising that he plays it much closer to Wilder? The story calls for Depp’s character to be a bit of buffoon, i.e. an American as seen through the eyes of Europeans. (The most amusing running gag is Depp’s insistence on speaking to Italians in Spanish.) This means that Depp, whose personal charisma has long been in evidence, must play the character as devoid of charisma but still must convince us that Angelina Jolie would be drawn to him. And the audience has to identify with him because he is our point-of-view character. This is a tall order. Maybe too tall for any human being. (Jolie has it easier. She just has to be eye candy, a task she accomplishes without breaking a sweat.) It is tempting to describe this movie by comparing it to other movies, but its central plot twist cannot withstand even the slightest of hints. (BBC critic Mark Kermode made a comparison and I immediately had it all figured out before I even saw the movie.) In the end, this is one of those movies that is diverting enough but ultimately frustrates because we want it to be so much better. And (here’s one more thing I never expected to write) maybe it would have been better if it had starred Gene Wilder instead of Johnny Depp. (Seen 15 December 2010)

Tower Heist 2 out of 4 stars

The fact that this stars Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy primes us to expect a comedy. And while it qualifies for that genre, Brett Ratner’s caper flick generally plays it pretty straight. At least when Murphy is not on camera. When he’s around, it’s a whole different movie, specifically one featuring what is essentially his Alex Foley character from Beverly Hills Cop. Also on hand is Matthew Broderick, more or less playing the same character he played in The Producers. A nice touch is having perennial nice guy Alan Alda play the sleazy Master of the Universe (clearly modeled on Bernie Madoff) who makes off with the titular tower’s staff’s pensions. His character also has echoes of Donald Trump whose eponymous tower plays the titular one. Also welcome is Téa Leoni, who is (as usual) underused but who at least gets a good drunk scene in a bar. On the whole, the flick is pleasantly old-fashioned in that it takes some time to develop characters and un-spool its plot in an orderly fashion. And it has a nice feel for the character of life in New York City. While the heist itself is not right up there with The Italian Job, it does offer some pleasingly tense moments. (Seen 17 February 2013)

Town & Country 1 out of 4 stars

If you’re still steaming about that big tax cut the super-wealthy are getting from President Bush, you might feel better to know that people who can actually afford a fabulous Park Avenue apartment as well as a lovely house in The Hamptons may be far less happy than you. That’s the apparent point anyway of this comedy by English director Peter Chelsom, who has previously given us such quirky flicks as Hear My Song and Funny Bones. The Manhattan setting, the ensemble cast of familiar faces, and the soundtrack of jazz pieces and standards make us think of a Woody Allen comedy. At times, Garry Shandling even seems to be doing a Woody Allen imitation, the way Kenneth Branagh did in Celebrity. But we get déjà vu as we follow a dumb-faced Warren Beatty and a buddy through numerous unfunny scenes. Where have we seen this before? That’s right, this is the Ishtar of sophisticated, romantic comedies. Which is to say that it isn’t very sophisticated, it isn’t very romantic, and it frequently isn’t comedic. Like Ishtar, this film had problems in production, which dragged on far longer than scheduled. In fact, it seems to have been begun so long ago that marital infidelity, ditzy but good-looking women, and husbands hemming and hawing about their sexual orientation were all still considered titillating and droll. In spite of it all, the movie does have its moments, chief of which is a minor role by Charlton Heston, who good-naturedly and (rare for this film) hilariously plays on his NRA association. (Seen 4 May 2001)

Toy Story 3 out of 4 stars

Who would have thought that one of the most moving moments in the movies this past year would involve a toy spaceman coming to the realization that he is not a real person? I am one of the last people on the planet to see this movie, so you probably already know that it is not only an incredible technical achievement but also a considerable artistic one. It is sly and clever and manages to avoid the sappiness that would have seemed inevitable. Some parents apparently think this movie is too scary for young children. (Maybe because it features a neighbor child who is a walking argument for infanticide and a hound from, well, if not hell then from one of George Booth’s New Yorker cartoons.) I think those parents are scarier than this movie. (Seen 24 January 1996)

Toy Story 3 3 out of 4 stars

Over breakfast, my ten-year-old asked how many stars I was giving Toy Story 3. When I told her, she shot back, somewhat accusingly, “Is that because it’s a children’s movie?” Actually, I’m not even sure it meets my own personal definition of a “children’s movie.” Like so much entertainment produced since baby boomers came of age, it really seems to be aimed as much (or more) at the parents as the kids. In fact, the original Toy Story is where it all began, in terms of computer-animated feature films. Not just in terms of the technology, but in terms of the conventions. The seers at Pixar decreed that such movies must be full of pop culture references as well as humor that will appeal to viewers of a certain age—in addition to the spectacle and action required by tykes. The miracle of the first Toy Story was not how much it impressed us with technical breakthroughs in animation but the fact that the filmmakers were not content to merely produce a showcase for the technology and were determined to make a decent bit of film literature. The (presumably) final movie in the series remains true to that spirit. What’s amazing is how much the technology and the artistry behind it have improved but do not distract because we take this kind of movie for granted now. And, as with the previous movies, it is amazing how much emotional power the filmmakers get out of what is very nearly an allegory. I won’t go as far as Mark Kermode and say that this constitutes the best movie trilogy of all time (hello? The Lord of the Rings?), but I will say that it is one of the better ones. No matter what age you are. (Seen 4 August 2010)

Traffic 3 out of 4 stars

Okay, you’ve already seen this movie. Or you’ve heard so much about it before and since the Oscars, that it’s old news. So, I’ll just tell you my favorite bits. I like the scene where the White House chief of staff lectures Michael Douglas on the size of egos “inside the Beltway,” followed by a party scene in which the movie illustrates this very fact by featuring cameos by a bunch of real live politicians. I like the scene on the airplane where Douglas asks a bunch of government people traveling with him to “think outside the box” on America’s drug problem (as if people who have honed their job skills by watching their backs and mastering political ploys could suddenly start operating like a hip, young Internet startup), and they all just give him blank stares. I like the scene where Topher Grace lectures Douglas about how the drug problem is really about white people exploiting black people. The only question is why Grace looks so self-righteous and Douglas so chastened, when Grace is the one going to the inner city to buy illicit drugs while Douglas undoubtedly buys his scotch from white people right in his own suburb? I like the irony of seeing Dennis Quaid putting the moves on someone else’s wife (like happened with his real-life wife), playing against a co-star who herself was fraternizing with a co-star. And I like Douglas’s final big scene where he gives an important speech, just like he did in The American President, except that in that movie his speech was a fantasy of what everyone thinks they would like their president to say and in this movie he can’t even finish the speech because he knows it is pure bull. [Related commentary] (Seen 13 April 2001)

Traição (Betrayal) 2 out of 4 stars

Like Getting to Know You, this Brazilian film dramatizes several short stories by a single author, in this case Nelson Rodrigues. But here the three stories, while sharing some of the same actors (notably Fernanda Montenegro of Central Station), are all self-contained and helmed by separate directors. And, as the movie’s title might suggest, the common theme among them is not exactly undying loyalty. The first episode is a bit of fluff about a young man’s first affair with a married woman. It’s a bit like something from the old Love American Style TV show. The second one is by far the most interesting. It finally answers the age-old riddle: what if Humbert Humbert had been engaged to marry Lolita’s older sister and Lolita had been possessed by Satan? The final segment is a Tarantino-esque stand-off involving a love triangle in a seedy hotel. By the end, this omnibus has turned out to be less like Love American Style and more like a Brazilian Night Gallery. (Seen 3 June 1999)

Train de Vie (Train of Life) 2 out of 4 stars

Since Life Is Beautiful became a big hit and won some Oscars, the inevitable question is: Are we now due for an onslaught of poignant yet funny serio-comic movies dealing with amusing characters being swept up in the Holocaust? The fact that this French language film has shown up suggests a definite maybe. In fairness, writer/director Radu Milhaileanu’s script had been around for years and reportedly was even pitched to Roberto Benigni at one point. It’s not hard to see Benigni in the central role of the town idiot who continually comes up with inspirations that get his Central European shtetl past one more disaster. The most audacious of his visions is for all the villagers to escape the approaching Nazi troops by constructing their own deportation train and delivering themselves to Russia and then to Palestine. The merry singing and dancing atmosphere of the town combined with the frequent close calls with buffoonish Nazis make this strange fable something like Fiddler on the Roof meets To Be or Not To Be. The movie is consistently funny and suspenseful, but the question lingers as to whether, given the subject matter, this isn’t all in bad taste. A twist ending endeavors to put things back into perspective, but the whole message seems fairly trivialized when viewed next to Benigni’s masterpiece. (Seen 30 May 1999)

Trainspotting 3 out of 4 stars

This is a charming little Scottish comedy in the tradition of Local Hero and Gregory’s Girl. NOT! Actually, it is somewhat reminiscent of Bill Forsyth’s quirky films but in a Sid and Nancy sort of way. Created by the crew that gave us the neo-Hitchcockian Shallow Grave, Trainspotting follows the adventures of one Mark Renton and his assorted mates (who have names like Spud and Sick Boy) as they cope with their dead-end, nihilistic, Generation X world. Although the details are rather sordid, the film itself is amazingly entertaining and laced with a blackly comic touch. We can see early on where things are headed when a subtitle alerts us that we are entering the “worst toilet in Scotland” (a gross understatement, by the way) and a hallucinating Mark winds up deep sea diving in said plumbing fixture. As a comedy of social mores, this is 180 degrees from Sense and Sensibility. As a comment on Scottish society, this is the anti-Braveheart. Definitely worth seeing if you’re not put off by heavy heroin usage, criminal activity, excrement, and the odd dead baby. (Seen 2 April 1996)

T2 Trainspotting 2 out of 4 stars

Arguably, Danny Boyle’s seminal 1996 film Trainspotting was not the sort of movie that cried out for a sequel. Its comically bleak (or was it more bleakly comic?) take on nihilistic drug culture said what it wanted to say and ended on about as upbeat a note as it could reasonably get away with. Yes, Irvine Welsh, who wrote the source novel, did write more books about Mark Renton and his misguided mates, but that does not mean these lads needed to become an entertainment franchise. Still, the idea was kind of irresistible not least because young Mr. Renton went on to become Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Sick Boy wound up being Sherlock Holmes on weekly U.S. television (not to mention dodgy Roger Collins in Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows movie). Doomed golden boy Tommy (seen here only in fleeting flashback) went on to be an American doctor on Grey’s Anatomy. It would be fun to see the gang back together after so much time. The essential narrative choice was to see the lads having cleaned up their act (which would be boring) or not (which would be depressing). In the end, Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge follow the inexorable rule of sequels by telling more or less the same story over while giving the impression he is taking the story forward. Boyle has his tongue in his cheek—as evidenced by the title which tweaks the whole idea of sequels—but not so much we cannot wallow in a bit of nostalgia or invest in the characters’ fates. Familiar faces provide moments that are poignant (James Cosmo as Renton’s dad) and funny (Kelly Macdonald as grownup school pupil Diane). Themes and memories get rehashed by the characters, nearly to a meta level. The film’s timing was right, as the flick works pretty well as a cockeyed tribute to Lou Reed and David Bowie. Most of the heart and humanity of the enterprise is provided by cast addition Anjela Nedyalkova—a sort of Etta Place to Ewan McGregor’s and Jonny Lee Miller’s Butch and Sundance—and particularly by Ewen Bremner’s Spud who—even more than the first time around—makes us laugh and cry at the same time. (Seen 17 June 2017)

Trancers 2 out of 4 stars

This low-budget science fiction thriller is probably mainly of historical interest. To see it now, one would dismiss it as a cheap rip-off of Blade Runner and The Terminator, so it’s important to know that it was made before either of those movies. Jack Deth is a hard-boiled cop (trooper, as they will say in the future) in a time when old Los Angeles is somewhere under water. An evil villain has gone back in time to kill the ancestors of world leaders. So Jack is sent back to stop him. I couldn’t help thinking what they could have done with a bigger budget, but it still is a pretty clever film. Helen Hunt (Project A) plays the girl who falls in love with him and learns how to singe trancers and that “dry hair is for squids.” (Seen 31 May 1987)

Transamerica 2 out of 4 stars

I missed this Oscar-nominated film the first time it was in cinemas, so I was glad to get a chance to see it at the Galway Film Fleadh, as part of a tribute to Irish actor Fionnula Flanagan, who all too convincingly plays Felicity Huffman’s smothering mother. Written and directed by Duncan Tucker, it is a standard enough road movie—where the journey is not just across the country but also a passage through life, as well as yet one more look at the state of America as family. The twist, of course, is that our protagonist is on the verge of sex-change surgery and her traveling companion is the son she fathered during her one brief sexual relationship. That setup provides plenty of opportunity for mix-ups, confusion, awkward situations and plenty of emotional baggage—and the film makes the most of all of it. Huffman deserved her Oscar nomination, although she is hampered by the need to use a gratingly husky voice. And she isn’t helped by the coincidence that her character has the same name as one of her fellow Desperate Housewives. Depending on where you’re coming from, this movie will make you depressed about the state of the American family or oddly hopeful. (Seen 11 July 2007)

Tranvía a la Malvarosa (Tramway to Malvarosa) 2 out of 4 stars

The tramway of the title refers to a Valencia streetcar that occasionally glides past the hero Manuel, sometimes in the night like a ghost, with a beautiful young girl as its passenger. He has never spoken to this girl, but he has had a crush on her ever since she has spent her summers in his provincial small town. This coming-of-age story set in Franco’s Spain in the 1950s divides its time between Manuel’s first year of university in Valencia and his hometown. Nothing particularly extraordinary happens—with the possible exception that Manuel gets to go to bed with a spacey prostitute played by the lovely Ariadna Gil (Celestial Clockwork, Libertarias). In the course of the movie, Manuel is exposed to new political ideas, questions religion, witnesses military overbearing-ness, deals with the death of a friend, and gets a girlfriend. Generally pleasant and nostalgic, the movie is directed by José Luis García. (Seen 5 June 1997)

Travels with My Aunt 3 out of 4 stars

While not the most remembered of George Cukor’s many movies, this one is a personal favorite of mine. It’s a tour de force for Maggie Smith, who is glorious in her most fluttery, dithery, angularly stanced self-absorbed mode. The lovely set design and the costumes (the former Oscar nominated, the latter Oscar winning) nearly suggest that this should have been a musical, not completely unlike Cukor’s My Fair Lady of eight years earlier. But the singing and dancing mostly occur in Smith’s (also Oscar nominated) distinctive voice. Adapted from a Graham Greene novel, the film tells the familiar story of the stuffy Englishman (he’s a banker, just in case we don’t get it) whose horizons are broadened significantly by an exuberant, free-living woman. In this case, the woman claims to be an aunt who he thought had died years before, and she promptly drags him across parts of Europe and Africa as part of a complicated but ultimately romantic scheme. Alec McCowen is the nephew, and there a couple of surprising American appearances in Louis Gossett Jr. as Smith’s faithful African companion and Cindy Williams (of Laverne & Shirley fame) as a free-spirited backpacker. Because of the types of roles she has often played, we thought Smith was old even back when this was made, and she was (convincingly) playing much older than her age here. But she was only in her late 30s and nearly ten years McCowen’s junior. So it comes as a nice visual surprise when she appears in flashbacks looking and acting so much younger. It is an additional bit of magic for a movie that, as they so often do, exhorts the joys of living life completely irresponsibly. (Seen 20 December 2008)

Un 32 Août sur Terre (August 32nd on Earth) 2 out of 4 stars

Its title and capsule description made me think at first that this might actually be a reissue of Un Samedi Sur la Terre (A Saturday on Earth), which also involved an automobile mishap. But, no. If anything, August 32nd is a bit more coherent, possibly because it is Canadian rather than French. One might describe it as a screwball romantic comedy for hard-core film school denizens. One of the two principals has a Jean Seberg poster prominently displayed in his apartment, so it is easy to see why he carries a torch for Sylvie, who is deliberately reminiscent of the legendary star of Breathless. The story doesn’t always make sense, but then what can you expect from a film that is literally off the map, not to mention the calendar? A centerpiece of this meditation on nothing less than Life, Death and Love is an improbable excursion south to the U.S. that does for Utah what Cold Fever did for Iceland. This is the directing/writing debut of Denis Villenueve. (Seen 29 August 1998)

The Trigger Effect 2 out of 4 stars

David Koepp has had a screenwriting career that has ranged from the low-budget paranoid thriller Apartment Zero to the big-budget paranoid thriller Mission: Impossible. Now he has directed (and written) his first feature, The Trigger Effect, and it turns out to be a… c’mon guess. The opening scene shows wolves tearing apart a carcass just a short distance from a nice, civilized suburb, and we are about to be reminded that our proximity to these creatures is not just geographical. From there we have a nicely done chain of events seemingly inspired by the classic short film La mort du rat, culminating in a blackout in a movie theater. (This eerily mirrored a real-life projector problem at the first screening of this film, its world premiere.) Kyle MacLachlan (Twin Peaks) and Elisabeth Shue (Leaving Las Vegas) are a yuppie couple who learn how thin the veneer of civilization is when a power failure knocks out electricty and telephone service over a massive area. In an instant, news, communication, ATM machines, sources of gasoline, and other trappings of modern life are cut off. This is a fascinating premise which deserves more exploration than it gets here. But the film has several nicely tense moments and the good grace to end on a hopeful note. (Seen 9 June 1996)

The Trip to Italy 2 out of 4 stars

This is the middle installment of what is (to date anyway) a trilogy. I have seen the first and third entries but did not review them because I saw them as series on UK television. Maybe this one was a TV series as well but, if so, I missed it. So I have seen it as a movie, which is how these things get seen outside the British Isles. Got all that? Good, because it gets more confusing. Directed by Michael Winterbottom (maker of lots of movies in all kinds of varying genres), these Trip movies/series give every impression of being documentary food travelogues, featuring actors Steve Coogan (best known as Alan Partridge) and Rob Brydon (best known as Uncle Bryn on Gavin & Stacy) as our guides. What is really going on, though, is that they are playing fictional versions of themselves. (One give-away is that their family members are played by other actors. Another is the occasional bits of casual sex and infidelity.) This makes these things quasi-spinoffs of Winterbottom’s 2005 adaptation (of Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman) A Cock and Bull Story, in which Coogan and Brydon first did this meta-narrative trick. In The Trip the boys go to England’s Lake District, and in The Trip to Spain they go to Spain. In this one, well, you figure it out. So, what to say about it? The scenery (Liguria, Tuscany, Rome, Amalfi, Capri) is gorgeous. The food is gasp-worthy. You can nearly taste the wines yourself. This is primo travel/food porn of the highest order. Appreciation of the non-stop banter will depend on the taste of the viewer. Personally, I cannot get enough of it. When Coogan and Brydon go into one of their impersonation contests (favorites are Michael Caine and Hugh Grant), I am in stitches. I lap up all of the obscure film references like a starving puppy. The mutual slagging gets nearly brutal at times—to the point where this ostensible comedy starts to feel like something nearly profound. For a work consisting largely of time-wasting laddish repartee, these things always manage to end on a strangely moody, wistful, melancholy note. (Seen 3 September 2017)

Triple agent 3 out of 4 stars

As the title suggests, this is a spy thriller. Well, actually, since it was written and directed by veteran French director Eric Rohmer, this flick is a “spy thriller” in roughly the same way that an episode of Dr. Phil is a “medical drama.” If you have ever seen any of Rohmer’s films (My Night at Maud’s, Claire’s Knee, Autumn Tale and scores of others), you know that they include a lot of talking. I mean, a whole lot of talking. Chat, chat, chat. So how does Rohmer (who is now 84) go about telling a spy story? Well, with a lot of conversation. Usually, with his films I find I have to work hard to keep interested, but there is a payoff at the end. This one was actually pretty interesting all the way through, but the ending was kind of a letdown. The setting is Paris, and the time frame runs from 1936 to 1943. Arsinoé is a Greek woman married to Fiodor, a former general of the Russian White Army, who is now in exile. Like any good Rohmer character, Fiodor is quite a talker, but for all his banter he gives away precious little to anyone as to who he might really be working for or what his true aims are. We get a lot of information about pre-war European politics and intrigues, punctuated by newsreel footage from the time. There is no indication that Rohmer means for us to draw lessons for application to the current world situation, but it won’t be lost on any American neo-cons in the audience that the fruits of the endless chatter among French politicians about peace is the sight of German troops goose-stepping down the Champs Elysées. (Seen 12 October 2004)

Trojan Eddie 2 out of 4 stars

“When I look at you, I want to yell, ‘Man overboard!'” With that line, Richard Harris aptly sums up the title character of this Irish sort-of film noir. I don’t want to say that Eddie—a small-time huckster and occasional, ineffectual criminal—as played by Stephen Rea, has “victim” written all over him but, if you were to look up the word hapless in the dictionary, I’m pretty sure you would find his picture right there. One can’t really blame Eddie if he looks a bit shell-shocked and gun-shy all at once. On the one hand, he has the local godfather (Harris, who now holds the patent on weird, aging Irish characters) getting pissed in the local pub and going ballistic as he recounts the various bodily injuries he has dealt people over the years. On the other hand, Eddie has a cocky young partner who is bonking Harris’s new bride (young enough, by the way, to be his great-granddaughter) twenty minutes after the wedding ceremony. This whole set-up reeks of bad news, so the twist ending comes as rather a pleasant surprise. The director is Gillies MacKinnon (Small Faces), a Scot who previously explored problematic Irish relationships in 1992’s The Playboys. (Seen 14 April 1997)

Tron 2 out of 4 stars

When a movie’s appeal is built entirely on the state-of-the-art technology that created it, it’s inevitable that it will eventually feel as dated as, well, as your old Commodore 64 that you’ve left in your closet out of pure nostalgia. And that’s the main reason to see this film again, 20 years after its initial release. Its use of computer-generated animation was such a cool concept back then and, of course, pointed to the future of action/adventure movies. Its virtual reality plot premise, on the other hand, was merely an update of such other fantasies as The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland and Fantastic Voyage. But in hindsight, it’s hard to believe that Tron came five whole years after Star Wars, which it more or less aped with its vicarious video game approach to action, the triangle among its heroes, and its storm trooper-like villains. Tron looks like the older movie, thanks largely to the fact that Star Wars told a great story that evoked timeless myths while Tron threw around a lot of computing buzz words that only add to the dated feel of the flick. (Soon after I saw Tron for the first time I suddenly became not only a Unix user but also a Unix administrator and was amused to learn that there actually existed a tron program, for “trace on,” that wasn’t nearly as exciting as the movie would have had us believe.) This movie represents perfectly how the center of moviedom’s sense of wonder and imagination shifted from Disney to George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. If there is any other reason to see Tron today, other than nostalgia, it is to see the title character (and his user counterpart) played by Bruce Boxleitner and Peter Jurasik as the accounting program Crom. These two, of course, would go on to star together in a much better science fiction saga, Babylon 5. (Seen 28 February 2002)

Tron: Legacy 2 out of 4 stars

Of course, I had to see this movie. And so did lots of other people, apparently. It was, after all and appropriately (given its premise), the subject of one of the longest internet teases in many cycles. It was cool to see Jeff Bridges reprise his role from the 1982 original, although Kevin Flynn seems to have been genetically spliced with the Dude from The Big Lebowski. But what I really wanted was to see and hear Bruce Boxleitner again. He has always been around since he had the title role (as well Flynn’s friend Alan Bradley) nearly three decades ago, but he has been hard to find since he headed the cast (for most of its run anyway) of the late, lamented series Babylon 5. His welcome but small role here adds immeasurably to the film and makes one wish that director Joseph Kosinski could have trotted out David Warner as well. (Instead, we get an un-credited Cillian Murphy as his son.) As with the original, the premise does not pass the laugh test and works best if we think of the virtual computer world as Narnia or Oz and, in fact, it is pretty darn entertaining and satisfying on those terms. Olivia Wilde is strangely appealing as a new life form who is an interesting combination of feral, punk and childlike athlete. The influences seen in this flick remind us of all the films that were originally influenced by Tron, notably the Wachowskis’ Matrix movies—although the beginning minutes may put some viewers in mind of Spider-Man or even Batman. Escapism is the order of the day and the mythic elements are so up front that the story is nearly an allegory. Special mention needs to be made of the chameleon-like Michael Sheen, who seems to David Bowie playing the m.c. in Cabaret. Seen 12 January 2011)

Trouble Every Day 2 out of 4 stars

There is something truly amazing in this movie that caused to my heart to leap out of my chest. At one point early on, an American couple on their honeymoon arrive at a hotel in Paris and, without any problem whatsoever, they get a king-size bed! I obviously stay at the wrong hotels. Anyway, after seeing director Claire Denis’s Vendredi soir, I wasn’t exactly clambering to see another one of her films, but how could I resist one that is about cannibals? In the end, Trouble Every Day is like Denis’s other films, except that there is a bit more dialog and bit more blood. The trouble with this movie is that any summary you can make of its plot makes it sound way more interesting than it really is. Basically, some scientific experiments gone awry have turned two of the movie’s characters into ravenous cannibals. One of them is Béatrice Dalle, whose huge mouth has always looked ready to devour any man who comes along. The other is Vincent Gallo, who looks a bit like a young Frank Zappa. In the end, the film cannily uses the vampire/cannibal gambit as an allegory for the carnal nature of human lust, exploring how people compartmentalize their animal urges into an otherwise civilized life. Interestingly, I had a different reaction to Dalle’s feedings than to Gallo’s. I don’t know if this has something to do with myself or years of enlightenment from the women’s movement or just Denis’s handiwork, but I found myself feeling that Dalle’s (male) victims nearly deserved what they got, having willingly and recklessly accepted her advances, whereas when Gallo goes after the comely hotel maid, who seems to welcome his advance, at least at first, I felt decidedly uncomfortable. (Seen 8 July 2003)

The Trouble with Dick 2 out of 4 stars

The kind of delightful surprise you usually only find at film festivals. A quirky independent U.S. comedy with a style all its own. Features Susan Dey (Partridge Family, L.A. Law). Dick is a freelance (read unemployed) science fiction writer who is bombarded with rejection from publishers and from Susan Dey but constantly attacked by his California airhead landlady and her sexpot teenage daughter. I can’t remember a movie where every line and every scene seem so carefully planned to work independently and yet build on everything that has gone before. The scenes portraying the action in Dick’s novel about an escapee from a prison planet chain gang are hilarious. (Seen 22 May 1987)

Troublesome Creek: A Midwestern 3 out of 4 stars

The real mystery is why anybody farms. Think about it. At the beginning of each season you have to borrow tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars from the bank. If you’re lucky, you can pay it back at the end of the season from revenues that are wholly dependent on the weather, the markets, and pure chance. If you’re really lucky, there will even be money left to live on. Troublesome Creek is a heartfelt documentary by Jeanne Jordan and Steven Ascher about Jordan’s family in southwest Iowa and captures the period during which the elder Jordans throw in the towel, retire, and pass the family farm (what they don’t auction off to pay the bank) to one of the sons. The film purports to de-romanticize people’s ideas about family farms but then serves up scenes straight out of Norman Rockwell paintings. There are really two stories in Troublesome Creek. One is about the end of the family farm as an economically viable entity. The other is about the difficulty of seeing one’s parents reach the end of their “useful” lives. The movie wants to find a bad guy in all this, and the finger keeps pointing at the bankers. But, of course, the situation is much more complex than that. In any event, the film is a real tear-jerker, especially if you have any roots in farming and/or the Midwest. (Seen 3 June 1996)

Troy 2 out of 4 stars

Have you ever thought about how many clichés we have in our language because of the ancient story of the Trojan War (e.g., face that launched a thousand ships, beware Greeks bearing gifts, Achilles’s heel, etc. etc.)? The number of cinematic clichés has now increased a bit as well, thanks to this movie by Wolfgang Petersen. Obviously, this film got green-lighted because epics are “in,” after the success of The Lord of the Rings. In typical studio think, however, the suits figure that the lesson of TLotR’s success is that people want epics, but what it really means is that audiences respond to films that are well crafted and inspired by passion. If Petersen has any passion at all for the Trojan War, it doesn’t come across. He made a truly classic war movie in 1981 with Das Boot, but that was set in the intimate confines of a German U-Boat. There are a thousand boats in this flick, but there is little life in any of them. Trusting the source material instead of trying to make it “cinematic” (9.9 years of the Trojan War seem to have vanished in the rewrites) is another lesson from TLofR which has been ignored. The biggest problem is Brad Pitt. This is an actor who can be effective enough in certain kinds of roles, but as a classical Greek Rambo, he just doesn’t work. His Achilles swaggers like a rock star and emotes by pouting and knitting his brow. It doesn’t help that old hams like Peter O’Toole provide an unfavorable contrast by making so much more out of the thin material. Main lesson to be gleaned from the story: the guy who claims to be interpreting what the gods are saying always gets it wrong. (Seen 26 May 2004)

True Blue 2 out of 4 stars

This is basically Chariots of Fire with oars. A British production, True Blue is said to be based on a true story about the Oxford rowing team and its dream of beating its rivals at Cambridge in The Big Race. I suppose it’s a sign of the state of things in Britain these days that four-fifths of the film is taken up with petty politics and power struggles among the team and its coach which nearly wreck the team’s chances. The villains are a group of arrogant American rowers who join the team as ringers and then insist of running everything their way. (Perhaps these exchange students are picking up degrees at Oxford before going on to get MBAs and becoming Microsoft product managers?) If you can survive ‘til the end of the movie, the final race is quite stirring in the best English tradition. (Seen 13 March 1997)

True Grit 3 out of 4 stars

So I officially have a new favorite movie for 2010. Like the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men, this new adaption of True Grit is a masterfully made, beautifully composed, compelling, character-driven piece of work. Despite some superficial similarities, however, this movie is very different from their 2007 prize-winner. It gives us exactly what we want from a western: a strong sense of time and place, vividly drawn characters and a respect for what we think of as the American character, mythic or otherwise. Over the years, the western genre has gotten a bad rap for being morally simplistic, telling stories of white hats vs. black hats. But this movie gets it right. The characters are all flawed and the difference between right and wrong is ambiguous in the lawless badlands. But by the end of the story, there is a clear and satisfying sense of what is right and what is wrong. Jeff Bridges astounds and entertains as he growls and drawls in a way that no sentient being should have a right to expect to be intelligible. Matt Damon continues to demonstrate that we underestimate his abilities as an actor at our own peril. And, as the narrator and the center of the story, the amazingly self-possessed Hailee Steinfeld is clearly every bit as precocious as the girl she plays. John Wayne, your legend will always be secure, but the Coens have found, with apparent ease, a way to work successfully outside your shadow. (Seen 24 February 2011)

The Truman Show 2 out of 4 stars

This is another film that fell between the cracks. But I made a point to track it down—even if it was a whole year later—because this is the only movie that, in advance of its release, I was actually lobbied via email by complete strangers to see it. And, of course, I was never in the right country at the right time. I did have a chance to see half of it on an airplane once, but I quickly changed the channel to give it a fairer chance at a later date. So was it finally worth the wait? Yes and no. When I first heard about The Truman Show, I figured it was an American remake of my beloved Louis 19 le roi des ondes, but that would turn out to be the more inside-joking EDtv. Instead, Truman turns out not be so much about the media at all but really about Life itself (and about unloading baggage). And it’s definitely qualified to explore The Big Issues, given a writer like New Zealander Andrew Niccol (Gattaca) and a director like Aussie Peter Weir (Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Last Wave). It is definitely clever and sometimes touching. And the climactic confrontation between Jim Carrey and Ed Harris does evoke a classic Father/Son, God/Man contest of wills. But with this much talent involved, I guess I expected more. And Carrey’s “serious” role required so little stretching on his part, can he really have been surprised when he didn’t get an Oscar nomination? (Seen 4 May 1999)

Trumbo 2 out of 4 stars

What is it about Hollywood movies about the Hollywood backlist—and specifically those about the Hollywood 10? For one thing, you would expect there to be more of them, but strangely it’s not a topic that has frequently gotten the big screen treatment. Martin Ritt’s The Front (1976) was nearly a Woody Allen comedy, although Allen was involved as only the main actor. Karl Francis’s One of the Hollywood Ten (2000) was fairly embarrassing. This more recent treatment by Jay Roach (Austin Powers, Meet the Parents) is a good summary of the era and the events but, strangely, almost too good in that the history is attended to at the expense of the human characters. I suppose the challenge of writing a scenario about one of the all-time great screenwriters is that people like me cannot help but watch while wondering what Trumbo himself would have done with the story. The script by John McNamara (working from Bruce Cook’s book) has a definite point of view, which is to say that the film is deliberately one-sided. Apart from his eccentricities and periodic chats with his family, there is not much to humanize Trumbo. He is Gary Cooper in High Noon but without any wavering or self-doubt. The one scene that might have taken him off his pedestal for a moment—in which he devastates his daughter on her birthday—is more than amply explained as being the pressured result of trying to earn a living while on the blacklist. Thankfully, Bryan Cranson’s performance never lets him be less than watchable. Trumbo’s antogonists do not fare so well as characters. To name one, Helen Mirren plays Hedda Hopper as an even more cartoonish version of Angela Lansbury’s character in The Manchurian Candidate. In the end, the film falls prey to the usual problem with biopics—especially flattering ones—in that characters end up spouting much exposition and time passes in bursts. At one point we are taken aback when Trumbo returns home from eleven months in prison to find that his moppet of a daughter has turned into Elle Fanning. You could also be forgiven for missing the fact that nine other people went to prison as well—ten if you count Louis C.K.’s invented composite character. Supporting characters like John Goodman’s schlocky B-movie producer and Christian Berkel’s Otto Preminger add needed humor and life, but much of the running time feels like being cornered at a party by one of your chatty liberal neighbors. (Seen 30 April 2017)

Trust Me 2 out of 4 stars

This is yet another indie flick that makes sure that we know what a hell hole the entertainment business in Los Angeles is. But this one is a cut above the really low-budget ones by filmmakers venting about not being able to get their movies made. This one is written and directed by veteran actor Clark Gregg, who also stars. Gregg is one of those stalwarts who shows up over the years in movies big and small (The Adventures of Sebastian Cole and Choke, which Gregg also directed) and who broke through to nerd icon status by playing a SHIELD agent in post-credits sequences of Marvel Avengers-related blockbusters, dying heroically in the Avengers movie and getting resurrected for a Joss Whedon TV series. For this personal poison pen letter in which he plays a former child actor turned talent agent, Gregg has assembled a great cast. Felicity Huffman gets to chew scenery as a dragon lady producer, Allison Janney is deliciously slimy as an amoral casting director, and it is no surprise that Sam Rockwell excels as Gregg’s sleazy rival. The key role though belongs to young Saxon Sharbino as the extremely talented actor whose life collides with Gregg’s and may be his ticket to the success that has always eluded him. Everyone involved is clearly having a good time. And why wouldn’t they when they’re in a movie that has echoes of everything from Sunset Boulevard and All About Eve to even Lolita and Chinatown? Even the very title tastes bitter by the end. (Seen 3 July 2014)

Truth 1 out of 4 stars

An emotionally and mentally damaged young man is haunted by a childhood of abuse by a monster of a mother. Now he finds himself smitten with someone. Will this relationship be his salvation? Or are we in Psycho territory? There isn’t too much doubt since, at the very beginning, we are shown an agitated Caleb fumbling around the kitchen for the biggest knife he can find. The rest of the movie shows us how things got to that point. If not for that initial quasi-spoiler, the first half of this flick would be even more tedious since Caleb and Jeremy’s relationship—which begins online—is characterized by earnest “How did that make you feel” conversations about childhood issues and addiction recovery. Because the two lovers are not particularly interesting, it is only the promise of coming mayhem that keeps us alert. Things go suddenly dark when Caleb makes a devastating discovery about Jeremy—one that would have worked better storywise with a little foreshadowing. While the movie gives every indication that it is meant to be a thriller, the final scenes are strangely without suspense. Even the shocking ending seems to work hard at squandering the tension it should have. The coda at the end seems borrowed from Brian De Palma. Rob Moretti, who plays Jeremy, performs triple duty, as he is also the writer and director. While not in the ideal showcase, Sean Paul Lockhart proves credible in a serious lead acting role as Caleb, transitioning from porn flicks in which he used the name Brent Corrigan. As his mother, Suzanne Didonna does a sickening, i.e. effective, job as a sadistic shrew who would warp any child. (Seen 27 March 2015)

The Truth About Cats & Dogs 2 out of 4 stars

Somewhere between making the seminal black teen comedy Heathers in 1989, the Bruce Willis commercial disaster Hudson Hawk in 1991 and the Josh Hartnett abstention comedy 40 Days and 40 Nights last year, director Michael Lehmann made this quasi-feminist Cyrano de Bergerac variation in 1996. Since this time out Cyrano is a woman, she doesn’t even need a huge nose to feel unworthy of the object of her affection. It’s enough simply not to be a beauty of supermodel proportions. The whole romantic triangle involving a photographer (Ben Chaplin) and a tall, slender model (Uma Thurman) comes off as nearly absurd because, as played by Thurman, the model isn’t nearly as appealing as Janeane Garofalo, who is supposedly the “smart but ugly one.” And that’s really the point of the movie. For a silly comedy, the film does raise some serious questions about whether love between two people depends more on the mind or the body. The examination climaxes, so to speak, with a rather uncomfortable phone sex scene. (Seen 18 January 2003)

Tuntematon sotilas (The Unknown Soldier) 3 out of 4 stars

This movie is billed as the Finnish Platoon. However, this is World War II and not Vietnam. Yet the comparison is apt in many ways. As the movie shows, this war was not Finland’s finest hour. The Finns changed sides more than once, depending on which way things seemed to be going. The movie follows a platoon of young recruits (a few have serious acne problems) as they invade Russia and then get driven back in a bloody retreat. This is probably as gory a war movie as I have ever seen. Although it runs nearly three hours and there is not a single note of music in the entire soundtrack, the time passes quickly. The screening got off to an inauspicious start when they showed a print with French instead of English subtitles. The linguistic wimps in the audience who couldn’t read French remonstrated. From the lengthy credits, I would say virtually everyone in Finland worked on this movie. And judging from the last hour, half of Finland was blown up to make it. (Seen 25 May 1987)

Twelve and Holding 3 out of 4 stars

Michael Cuesta’s previous film, L.I.E., was uncomfortably frank in its non-judgmental way of looking at the darker side of people in general and of adolescents in particular. This one isn’t any less so. It follows the fortunes of three young friends, all dealing with somewhat more than the usual pubescent pressures. Jacob is trying to cope with his feelings of guilt and inadequacy after the tragic death of his more outgoing twin brother. That event has also led the obese Leonard to try to break his family’s well-entrenched cycle of behavior. And Malee, in a big hurry to grow up, is desperate to find the adult male love that her father has denied her. In the film’s firm refusal to heed conventional morality, it is reminiscent of Todd Field’s In the Bedroom in more than a few ways. But despite its provocative characters and situations, it never feels as prurient as a Larry Clark movie. The film features such strong talent as Linus Roache and Annabella Sciorra as parents, but it is the three main young actors who shine. Zoe Weizenbaum is frighteningly convincing as the sexually precocious Malee. And Conor Donovan (currently seen as the Boston lad who grows up to be Matt Damon in The Departed) is deceptively good as Jacob and his twin brother. Because of his well-directed performance, I was certain that the two characters must have been played by two different actors. (Seen 15 October 2006)

12 in a Box 2 out of 4 stars

I’m not sure this 2007 UK flick by John McKenzie ever got properly released before, but it seems to have hit the home video outlets mainly on the strength of Miranda Hart’s participation in the cast. Disappointingly, though, hilarious sitcom star Hart has only a minor role. She and the rest of the cast play an array of familiar quirky English types. The setup is that a dozen people have been invited to a school reunion dinner at a remote country estate (self-selected since they had registered on a past pupils web site) only to find that their mysterious, dying and absent host has set up an odd challenge for them. They will each collect a million quid if every single one of them remains on the grounds without leaving for 96 hours. Other conditions apply, mainly for the purpose of making the collective task more awkward. It comes as no surprise that in the course of the four days mishaps occur, tempers fray and there is the odd bit of misbehavior and dissension. It’s the sort of material that easily could have gone over the top and/or very dark, but in McKenzie’s hands the tone remains feather light—even when things turn a bit fatal. It’s the kind of movie where much of the first fifteen minutes is spent with the various characters merely telling each other their names. Still, despite the lackadaisical pacing, by the end it still manages to accumulate a fair amount of suspense as to how exactly things will turn out and provides a nice twist at the end. (Seen 7 April 2007)

Twelve Monkeys 4 out of 4 stars

Okay, here’s a question. What if those deranged-looking homeless people wandering around the streets shouting about a coming apocalypse are really from the future and they actually know what they’re talking about? Another question: If someone sent you back in time to 1996 to gather information on a catastrophe that wiped out most of humanity, once you got here how could you be sure you weren’t just crazy? This wonderful film by Terry Gilliam explores these questions via a Terminator-like plot, but as a Gilliam film this is definitely closer to The Fisher King (with touches of Brazil thrown in) than it is to Time Bandits. (You may also be reminded of Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder.) No one spins magical but disturbing cinematic imagery like this former Python. Bruce Willis has his best role ever as the increasingly confused protagonist. And Brad Pitt makes a refreshing break from his recent beautiful, angst-ridden young men roles to tear into this one as if it had been written for Jim Carrey. (Seen 15 January 1996)

20th Century Women 2 out of 4 stars

This film definitely hit a nerve with me, and not only because I myself lived for a while in Santa Barbara in the 1970s (although a bit earlier than 1979 when this movie is set). It got into my head because it includes two creatures named Maximilian and Carlotta and by the end of the film they are, well, sorry, spoilers. (And, no, I do not seriously think writer/director Mike Mills is actually even aware of my first book.) But enough of trying to make this review about me. Mills has done quite a nice job of evoking the particular time and place, and many touches ring true for those of us who lived through the era—especially, but not exclusively, in California. The single mom, the makeshift family, the prominence of therapy and the rise of punk music are all elements that hit home. It was also the high-water mark of the sexual revolution before the fear of HIV/AIDS descended. If anything, Mills is a bit too insistent on driving home the historical points. The scene where everyone watches Jimmy Carter’s so-called “malaise” speech brings to mind the way Hal Ashby used footage of Richard Nixon’s election in Shampoo. A subsequent scene in which people sitting around a dinner table in an improvised-feeling discussion of things personal and political makes this feel like a Ken Loach-style treatise on feminism. In the main role, Annette Bening cannot be faulted for a performance that is never anything but real and authentic and requires her to smoke perpetually and compellingly in a way we have not seen since the 1940s. She has the wonderful kind of lived-in face that female actors in their late 50s are too often discouraged from having or showing. Her character is inspired by Mills’s own mother, whom he has evoked effectively and movingly in interviews. Unfortunately for me, she comes off less identifiable as written in the film’s scenario. By the end we feel we have seen only her implacable side and not the full character that is hinted at. Greta Gerwig does a great job, demonstrating she can play something besides her usual Greta Gerwig character. Billy Crudup does what he can with what is essentially the Schneider character from One Day at a Time and, as the point-of-view character, Lucas Jade Zumann effortlessly portrays the tricky balancing point between childhood and manhood. (Seen 14 February 2017)

28 Days Later 3 out of 4 stars

I’ve been trying to figure out who Cillian Murphy is like, and I think I have it now. He’s very much like the young Michael Sarrazin, who played the (male) ingenue in a number of movies in the late 1960s and early 1970s, notably the depressing They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Murphy, who has starred in an impressive few Irish films (Sunburn, Disco Pigs, On the Edge, How Harry Became a Tree), gets his first international starring role in this ostensible thriller by Trainspotting director Danny Boyle. Like M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs, this film begs to be called “the thinking man’s Night of the Living Dead.” It similarly pretends to be a monster movie but is really about more serious issues: in this case, the very nature of civilization, community and family. The monster aspect is moderately scary, although those thrills are somewhat blunted by its low-budget-proclaiming, jittery-handheld-digital-camera, Blair Witch Project-style, indecipherable action shots. What is really creepy about this movie is the disturbingly plausible images of a deserted London city center, a wall of 9/11-style posters for missing loved ones, mounds of corpses, etc. Like Signs, this flick plays on some of our deepest terrors—such as finding ourselves completely alone and losing the all-too-shallow feeling of safety that we work at creating for ourselves. And, like Signs, the film suggests that, no matter how bleak things look, we should never give up hope. (Seen 6 November 2002)

Twilight 2 out of 4 stars

In a way, this film is to The Maltese Falcon as The Golden Girls was to Three’s Company. It’s a fine Los Angeles-based film noir in which, along with everything else, our hero is grappling with old age. (Most 1940s cinematic PI’s drank and smoked too much to live this long.) In the lead role, it’s hard to totally accept Paul Newman as someone who looks back on his life and feels he squandered it. But since he’s Paul Newman we don’t really care. The writing and direction here are exemplary, which is to be expected since Twilight is helmed by Robert (Places in the Heart) Benton, who also directed Newman in Nobody’s Fool. Newman is ably supported by a strong cast that includes Gene Hackman, Susan Sarandon, Stockard Channing and the always affable James Garner. In fact, the film is so cast-rich that it can afford to use an actor like Giancarlo Esposito in a throwaway Cheech Marin-like not-quite-sidekick role. (Seen 5 February 1998)

The Twilight Saga: Eclipse 1 out of 4 stars

Oh, just drive a stake through my heart now. I know a lot of people (including my own kid) love the books and/or the movies, and that’s okay. And I’m certainly not adverse to using vampires for romantic literary fodder. (Cf. my copious writings on Dark Shadows.) But this is my web site, and I have to call it as I see it. And this movie is tedious and squirm-inducing. But then I’m not the target audience, and that’s okay. British director David Slade is, by all accounts, a good director, and I concede that he has surely done his source material justice. But, in the end, this is a chick flick through and through and one aimed squarely at the “young adult” demographic. We have to wade through interminable minutes (hours?) of oddly coiffed and costumed young people going on and on about their feelings, only to be rewarded by a bit of mostly CGI action, followed by an extra dollop of people further discussing their feelings. I get that the vampires and werewolves are an allegory for school cliques or gangs or cults or ethnic groups or whatever. And that this is about a young woman trying to define who she is a person. But that’s the problem. Forgive my old-fashioned thinking, but vampirism should be a curse, not a lifestyle choice. Like other comics, books, movies and TV shows of its ilk, Twilight has literally and figuratively brought vampires into the daylight when they should, by nature, be creatures of the night. The three leads, in varying degrees, are not without appeal. Kristen Stewart is like a young Sigourney Weaver. Robert Pattinson has that quasi-James Dean thing going for him, although I don’t know if these early roles will age well for him. And Taylor Lautner has the torso (and charisma) of a young Lorenzo Lamas. “Doesn’t he own a shirt?” quips Pattison at one point. Maybe not. He goes topless even in sub-freezing temperatures at night on a frigid mountaintop. (Seen 19 August 2010)

Twin Town 1 out of 4 stars

The film Trainspotting has been so co-opted by the mainstream culture it means to tweak that the Bank of Ireland is now running radio spots consisting almost entirely of a rendition of the thick, Scottish, sarcastic opening monologue (“Get a car. Get a cardigan. Get married. Get a house in the suburbs. Get a baby.”) from the film. I mention this because every article and review I have read thus far about Twin Town deals mainly with whether it is the “Welsh Trainspotting.” It is executive-produced by Trainspotting’s creative team, and it features lots of crudity and drug use, but there’s where the similarities end. Directed by Absolutely Fabulous actor Kevin Allen, this poison pen letter to his erstwhile home of Swansea doesn’t know if it wants to be merely a tasteless comedy or a vicious revenge melodrama. It stars Rhys Ifans and Llyr Evans, who are really brothers, as two no-account, car-stealing, joyriding brothers who are called “the twins,” although they aren’t actually twins. Got that? (Seen 29 April 1997)

Twist 2 out of 4 stars

The maddening thing about this earnest 2003 Canadian film is that it takes two promising ideas and then combines them, inadvisedly. On one hand, this is a cinéma vérité type gritty drama about young men surviving on the streets of Toronto through prostitution. But it also draws its characters and its plot points from Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist. Now this isn’t exactly a new idea. Seth Michael Donsky did a similar update in his 1996 film Twisted. (Side note: you can become very, very confused trying to sort out all the movies out there titled Twist, Twisted, Twister, etc.) But where Donsky’s film embraced a somewhat campy gay storyline, Jacob Tierney goes purely after social realism in Twist. Some scenes appear to have been largely improvised by the actors, presumably in an effort to heighten a sense of realism but, unfortunately, this has the unfortunate effect of reminding us that this is a movie because it comes off as if the actors are struggling to come up with lines. Its main asset is the compelling Nick Stahl in the Artful Dodger role (here called Dodge). He keeps our interest and sympathy, even when the action stalls. Fagin is played by Gary Farmer, known for such movies as Powwow Highway, Dead Man and Smoke Signals. (Seen 27 February 2012)

Twisted 2 out of 4 stars

Here is a first-time writing/directing effort that, while far from perfect, is at least more interesting than most. This is a re-telling of Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist set in a New York City street-hustling, drag-queen-populated demimonde. Director Seth Michael Donsky managed to get William Hickey to play (and overact) the Fagin character, who here is pimp for street kids. The tragically doomed Nancy character becomes a sensitive young man named Angel, who strikes up a friendship with the homeless Lee—much to the displeasure of Angel’s brutal lover Eddie. The tender and wholesome story of Angel and Lee’s friendship makes a strange juxtaposition with the dark scenes of sex and violence that also populate the movie. In the end, the movie probably needed to be either more dramatic or more campy. According to Donsky, who is from New York, the film was intended to be much more tongue-in-cheek than the Seattle audience took it. (Seen 27 May 1997)

Twister 2 out of 4 stars

I really worry that the hordes of people lining up to see this movie may think they are actually going to see a reissue of Michael Almereyda’s 1988 low-budget film about a dysfunctional family with Harry Dean Stanton and Crispin Glover. Well, it’s not that movie, okay? You have seen this one before. Oh sure, instead of tornadoes it was a burning skyscraper or a shark or dinosaurs. (And before that it was a book about a whale, but let’s not put too fine a point on it.) Be honest. You’re not forking over seven dollars to gain a whole new insight into the human condition. (Or even to find out if Bill Paxton’s and Helen Hunt’s characters get back together.) You’re paying to see cars, houses, cows, and tanker trucks fly through the air. You won’t be disappointed. (Seen 14 May 1996)

2 by 4 3 out of 4 stars

2 by 4 is a good name for this movie because that is what you feel you have been whacked with by the time it is over. Like Elizabeth Gill’s Gold in the Streets, this film deals with the trials and tribulations of young working-class Irish men trying to make a living in New York City. At least that’s what it seems to be about at first. But, as we soon see, that’s like saying Midnight Cowboy was about a bus trip to Florida. Jimmy Smallhorne (who directed, co-wrote and stars in the movie) said that he wanted to make a film for (blue collar) Ballyfermot rather than for (posh) Dublin 4, but I’m not sure what the lads in Ballyfermot will think of this portrayal of the kinky New York demimonde or the hero’s confused sexuality. The film is extremely raw and frequently confused. But I give it three stars mainly for its final wallop of an emotional climax that is powerful without being over-the-top. (Seen 10 July 1998)

2 days in the Valley 3 out of 4 stars

When people talk about this movie (well, guys anyway), they will probably refer to the great fight scene between Teri Hatcher and Charlize Theron. Let me just say that it is a wonderful fight that is not about scratching or pulling hair or the usual babe cat fight clichés but a real punch-‘em-up of the kind that usually gets assigned to Bruce Willis or Sly Stallone. And it’s over all too quickly. 2 days in the Valley (would it have killed them to capitalize the d?) looks like it could be one more new young director’s attempt to emulate the increasingly tiresome Quentin Tarantino, so it’s no small relief to find that it aspires more to be like some southern California variation on the Coen Brothers. There is an ensemble of familiar faces (many cast against type), and the plot is woven deliberately and intelligently in unexpected ways. There is no small amount of blood, but the film isn’t so much interested in lingering over violent or cruel acts as intense situations. In the end it is actually rather sentimental. Most importantly, writer/director John Herzfeld’s movie successfully does what a film of this type needs to do: it regularly confounds our expectations. (Seen 30 September 1996)

Two for the Road 2 out of 4 stars

Six years after she starred in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Audrey Hepburn starred in another romantic comedy/drama that was graced with the music of Henry Mancini. Two for the Road came out the same year as Wait Until Dark (1967) and it would be nine years until Hepburn would return to the screen, in Robin and Marian. Her co-star in this flick was Albert Finney (four years after his triumph in Tom Jones), sounding and acting conspicuously like Cary Grant. In fact the director, Stanley Donen, had worked with Hepburn and Grant just four years earlier on Charade. This is a movie that relies heavily on the charm of its two stars. The pair and their bantering-to-bickering relationship are on screen for the film’s entire running time. If you get tired of them, the film is a disaster. If you adore them, it will end too quickly. The premise is an interesting one. A couple’s marriage, from youthful passion to sniping middle age, is played entirely in the course of periodic journeys they make over the length of France during a ten-year period. And the narrative does not follow a chronological path but rather a geographical one. Much needed comic relief comes from an amusingly obnoxious American couple they travel with, played by Eleanor Bron and William Daniels (who would go on to feature in St. Elsewhere and Boy Meets World). Another strangely familiar and strangely young face is that of Jacqueline Bisset, who plays an early rival for Finney’s attentions. The movie is pretty much irresistible for anyone who has traveled in Europe with a significant other. If it has a logical flaw, it is the notion that a man could possibly be unhappy while traveling through France with Audrey Hepburn. (Seen 4 June 2009)

2012 2 out of 4 stars

Excuse me, I was just going over my major disaster movie checklist. Let’s see. Estranged couple get back together? Check. Kids finally bond with dad? Check. Jerk in authority disregards pleas of concerned scientist? Check. The dog gets saved? Check. Lots of spills, chills, excitement? Oh yes. Irwin Allen is alive and well. This spectacle by Roland Emmerich so relentlessly follows the strict formula of the 1970s disaster flick king and so unabashedly mines humor in throw-away lines (“I feel like there’s something coming between us,” says Amanda Peet, discussing a relationship problem just before a crevice opens up in a supermarket) and even in music and the supposedly serious dialog is so hackneyed that the movie comes pretty close to being a comedy. It’s as if the movie knows there is no chance we will take any of this seriously, so it doesn’t either. Better to laugh with the audience than to be laughed at by it. It knows that the crowds have come for the thrills and the spectacle. And the movie delivers, although filmmakers like Emmerich now run the risk that audiences are becoming increasingly CGI resistant. Paradoxically, as the effects get better, the illusion becomes harder to maintain, especially when things are so over the top. This is the kind of movie where no moment of an escape sequence does not have pavement crumbling right beneath the car’s or plane’s wheels. And where characters all but literally have the name “Dead Meat” attached to them. Emmerich’s similarly themed The Day After Tomorrow was based on a book co-written by conspiracy-minded late-night AM radio host Art Bell. This time he actually has a character (played by a wild-eyed, long-haired Woody Harrelson) that seems partly based on Bell. The ultimate joke is the notion that the Art Bells of the world are one step ahead of the rest of us. [Related commentaries here and here] (Seen 2 December 2009)

2016: Obama’s America 2 out of 4 stars

This political advocacy documentary was a bit of a surprise in that it seemed to come out of nowhere to quickly become the fourth highest grossing documentary of all time. Its commercial success challenges the notion that it’s the left that goes to the movies while the right prefers to listen to AM radio. While this is essentially an extended infomercial in favor of Mitt Romney (who does not feature at all in its running time), it is at least an interesting and thoughtful one. Co-writer/co-director/onscreen narrator Dinesh D’Souza caused a stir two years ago with an article in Forbes in which he argued that President Obama was largely a creature of his late father’s anticolonial ideology. On its face, the argument seemed a stretch in that Obama hardly knew his father. The film amplifies the argument by first giving us some (fairly even-handed) biographical info data on the president as well as D’Souza making the case that he is in a unique position to understand Obama’s mindset because of a number of parallels in their respective histories. It turns out that, in D’Souzas view, it is not actually Obama’s father who has influenced him but rather his late mother who fed him an idealized version of his father and his world view that was more hers than his. In the end, D’Souza makes a largely circumstantial case that Obama is some sort of Manchurian candidate who has been weakening America’s global power and will accelerate that course in a second term to weaken America. The problem is that there is no way to prove or disprove this except to reelect Obama and see what happens. Most voters, however, will make their decision based on the president’s record and the relative strengths of his opponent rather than a pop psychology profile. (Seen 19 October 2012)

Tying the Knot 2 out of 4 stars

Now this is an example of the right way to make a film in the genre that I personally have dubbed advocacy cinema. This documentary by Jim de Sève has a definite point of view, and it puts forth its case the old-fashioned way: with facts and case histories. It uses clips of President Bush to cast him as stubborn and mean-spirited, but it doesn’t resort to taking him out of context to do it. This film serves as a useful overview of past and recent events and debates in the ongoing debate over same-sex marriage. And it puts forward its view that laws forbidding it are unjust and unfair, by presenting a number of personal stories, notably a police officer and a rancher, both of whom have lost their partners. In doing so, it establishes two things that no reasonable person can really doubt. One is that there are many same-sex couples who are in committed relationships, which are more long-lasting than a lot of different-sex ones. Another is that the lack of marriage rights for same-sex couples gives rise to unfair situations. Beyond this, people will agree or disagree with the film, depending on their own personal beliefs. It asserts that marriage is basically whatever society says it is. It dismisses religion as not particularly relevant in the matter. (A historian explains that marriage didn’t become a sacrament until many years after the founding of Christianity and that marriage was largely a legal arrangement for managing assets until the Victorian age.) So, the two main obstacles that advocates of same-sex marriage face are 1) quite a few people won’t dismiss the religious component as readily as the filmmakers, and 2) even if we accept that marriage is what society says it is, then there is still the problem that American society (in most states anyway) at the moment, through its elected representatives, wants to keep marriage between a man and a woman. This may not be fair, but then there is no explicit provision in the U.S. Constitution that life has to be fair. The film’s implicit answer to this is that same-sex marriage is a basic human right. Its main argument for this is to compare the ban on same-sex marriage to laws that banned interracial marriage during the era of segregation. We have yet to see how that question will ultimately get resolved. In the meantime, this film has made a serious and worthwhile contribution to the debate. (Seen 17 October 2004)

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