Al's Movies Page

Some General Comments:

Latest (7/21/05) news is that I have become a shameless promoter of buying DVDs from If you click one of the links on this page and buy that DVD from Amazon, I get a piece of the action (i.e., a small percentage). It's all in the name of keeping these reviews coming and paying the rent.

You know, I write most of this just for my own amusement and so I can look back later and see what I saw when. Does that make me self-centered?

I'm beginning to think that I'm becoming a "sucker" for movies, being more absorbed in them as I watch, being less able to maintain critical distance. This is good for my enjoyment, but bad for my review writing.

Recently signed up with Netflix and so far it seems like a bargain. However, after watching a lot of movies over the last 3 weeks (through 7/1/04) while being out of work, I've come to think that most movies are junk and a huge waste of time, even though I'm very selective about what I watch and generally try to stick to the ones that get the best reviews. Stuff like Radio, Bagger Vance, Gods and Monsters, and Singin' in the Rain are mostly good just to kill a couple of hours.

You'll note below that I often stop watching a movie when I lose interest in it. I am very jealous of my time and have a low tolerance for boredom. Nobody pays me to review movies. Sometimes that means I am even unfair about it, and stop too soon. Get over it.

I have a steel-trap mind when it comes to movie titles and casts, especially the older thespians. I blame it on my mother, who as we watched old movies on TV would say, "That's Paulette Goddard" and the like. I never did quite get a handle on Gene Tierney. Too bad it doesn't make me any money. But I like the best old movies as well as good new ones. Now, about those reviews...

2004 REVIEWS on another page.

Recent (2005) Video Viewing:

Love in the Afternoon (1957) Audrey Hepburn is cute and winsome, Maurice Chevalier is cute and winsome, aged Gary Cooper is handsome enough, but that wasn't enough to keep us watching for more than half an hour. Part of the problem was a mush-mouthed John McGiver, who has provided good comedic support in other movies, but here is a tedious embarrassment. Another part is that Coop seems uncomfortable cast against type as a suave wolf. The first half hour sets up the characters and prepares an elaborate meet cute for Hepburn and Coop. Hepburn's dreamy-eyed wandering afterwards goes on too long, and we got bored. So let's say 2.5 stars--it's not awful, and I did actually laugh a couple of times--and a bit more for Hepburn fans or if you want to see the world's most annoying little yappy dog get smacked. Not for Coop fans. 7.4/10 at IMDB. Viewed 8/4/05

What the Bleep do We Know? (or What the #$*! Do We (K)now!? in various Greek characters) (2004) Pretentious, annoying, and phony mix of science (and sometimes pseudoscience) and spirituality. I found it a good example of what I might call philosophitis. Naive newcomers to philosophy are often heard to say things like "matter isn't solid" or even "reality doesn't exist." My response is to kick a rock and say "I refute it thus." Matter is still solid and will always be solid, as a day's normal bumps and bruises demonstrate; that we have redefined "solid" to filter out the naive physics of billiard-ball atoms doesn't mean that you can walk through walls. This movie needs a dose of common sense. Here's a typical sequence in this movie: talking head offers scientific gibberish, then spiritual gibberish, triumphantly demonstrating a connection when there isn't even sense; cut to meaningless and noisy graphic of following a worm hole or rabbit hole or other colorful tube; cut to dull trivia from the life of a photographer (played by Marlee Matlin). The talking heads are not identified, and many seem to have a similarly vague new age religion to peddle. We gave it up as a bad job within half an hour. And what is Marlee Matlin, Hollywood's charity case? Forgive me for being an ungenerous pig and saying what others only think, but will somebody please tell her that she shouldn't be talking in movies unless backed up by subtitles? 5.4/10 at IMDB (25.7% rated it a 10, 20% rated it a 1--you love it or hate it), 35% at, and Ebert is overgenerous at 2.5 stars in a foolish review. If it isn't obvious, I really hated this movie, perhaps because I love good philosophy. Viewed 8/2/05

Open Range (2003) Kevin Costner ("Charley") and Robert Duvall ("Boss") are likely pals in this western. It's a bit slow and sometimes predictable (sometimes not), yet there's a heart here and more attention to character and motivation than is typical in a western. Some details in the final shootout get lost through inadequate direction and/or editing, and that's annoying--we want to know who gets shot and when and in what body part. But this is a minor carp about an otherwise generally satisfying movie. Satisfying, but far from classic. Three stars. 7.5/10 at IMDB, 3.5 stars from Ebert. Viewed 7/31/05

War of the Worlds (2005) Saw this in the theater. It's very impressive from start to finish as a special effects feast, but the homelife drama is rather too familiar and poorly handled. Overall the story shown here is the Independence Day version of Wells' novel, i.e., generally stupid in its logic and scientific details. The acting is good (Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning, mostly; Miranda Otto is completely wasted), the music is fine, but the script is lacking. Overall I think I like the first one better, but there is a lot of impressive money visible on the screen here, and if I want eye candy I'll definitely see this one again. Alas, the audience cries out in vain for a good battle scene of tripods versus human army and air force. That's criminal. 2.5 stars. Two stars from Ebert (who hates the look and the science of the "Erector set" tripods and wrote an awful review), 6.8/10 at IMDB (where the 1953 version rates a better 7.2/10). Viewed 7/31/05

Contact (1997) Fascinating but often irritating science fiction from the pen of Carl Sagan. Jodie Foster plays "Ellie," a driven SETI investigator who spurns unscientific beliefs, such as religion. The SF payoff is a bit underwhelming (been done too many times on Star Trek), and the subsequent Congressional investigation is heavy-handedly ironic, and the injustices along the way are just heavy-handed, and there's too-frequent melodrama, but even so, the journey is a lot of fun, Foster is good as always, and the concepts are better than you get in run-of-the-mill SF. Three stars. 7.3/10 at IMDB, 3.5 stars from Ebert, three stars from Maltin. Viewed 7/27/05

Alaska (1996) "A missing father. A desperate search. An unforgettable adventure." Well, not quite unforgettable. Thora Birch (as Jessie) has some charm, and Charlton Heston provides some interest as an unsympathetic big game hunter (what was he thinking?). There are occasional cute moments--way too cute--and a little suspense, but mostly this is a tedious exercise in illogic and scenery photography (the true star of the film). For unregenerate Disney fans only, two stars for everyone else. 5.7/10 at IMDB, three stars from Ebert (I wonder about that man sometimes), 2.5 stars from Maltin. 7/26/05

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003) It seems that Allan Quatermain (Sean Connery), Captain Nemo, Dorian Gray, Tom Sawyer, Dr. Jekyll, the Invisible Man, and other characters from the Victorian era all get together to save the world from some evil villain. Lots of ridiculous "action" and cheesy "special effects" make this an embarrassing waste of two hours which I'm sorry to say I watched to the end. I'll say two stars overall, because there might have been a decent movie made from these ideas, and the vampire lady is cool. 5.4/10 at IMDB, no review at Ebert's site. 7/25/05

Welcome to Mooseport (2004) Gene Hackman plays a recently retired and very popular President of the U.S., and Ray Romano plays "Handy Harrison," his plumber. I found this an obvious and stupid comedy with unfunny jokes, and gave up after half an hour or less. The wife mostly liked it. Ebert gave it three unbelievable stars, apparently largely on the charm of the lead actors, IMDB is more realistic at 5.3/10. 7/24/05

Shine (1996) Geoffrey Rush plays David Helfgott, a brilliant child pianist who wins second place too often to suit his tyrannical father (well played by Armin Mueller-Stahl). Comparing this to Million Dollar Baby, I'm inclined to think that if the father had been less demanding, David still would have gone nuts, but never would have been more than just another mental patient on the scrapheap of life. Rush well deserves his Best Actor Oscar (recalling Dustin Hoffmann's win for Rain Man), but if you want to know every word he says, put the subtitles on, because his mouth goes a mile a minute here. I'd be inclined to say four stars except for the simplistic view of why people break down that is the subtext of this movie, so 3.5. Ebert gives it four, 7.6/10 at IMDB, 3.5 from Maltin. Viewed 7/23/05

Mrs. Dalloway (1997) Vanessa Redgrave as the title character shops for flowers for her upcoming party, remembers her past, agonizes over the progress of the party, and finally contemplates suicide. The movie also follows the troubles of "Septimus" (Rupert Graves), who suffers from "shell shock" after WWI. The link between these two characters is a bit tenuous and not apparent until late in the film. So I was a bit confused by all the young men in the film, but fortunately the wife was present to help me through it. It was interesting enough as it went along, but the party was tiresome and at this point I can't remember the ending beyond the final soliloquy. Ebert says 3.5 stars in a good review, I'll go with Maltin and say three, IMDB has 6.9/10. 7/20/05

My Family (or Mi Familia, 1995) An episodic tale of multiple generations of the Sanchez family of East L.A. I felt uninvolved and unmoved much of the time, but the closing story of Jimmy (played by Jimmy Smits), Isabel (Elpidia Carrillo), and their son is endearing, affecting, and sometimes beautiful. It doesn't make up for the melodrama and soap-opera rest of the film, unfortunately, so overall I rate it three stars, worth seeing. I do tend to dislike the multigenerational thing, so perhaps of this kind it's exceptional. At any rate, Ebert lapped it up and gave it four stars. 7.1/10 at IMDB, three stars from Maltin. Viewed 7/19/05

Million Dollar Baby (2004) Best Picture and three other Oscars winner "keeps viewers on the ropes," "packs a wallop," and "delivers a knockout punch." Other than that, it's got interesting characters, if not as deep as Dostoyevsky, at least they seem real enough. Doesn't avoid every movie cliché, given that trainer Clint Eastwood ("Frankie Dunn") is at first violently resistant to taking on a female boxer ("Maggie Fitzgerald" played by Hilary Swank) but is eventually won over by her spunkiness and so on. Maggie's family is a caricature. But fortunately, it's not what I'd feared going in: "another stupid boxing movie." It's pretty smart, actually, and worth seeing, perhaps most of all for me because it encouraged me to examine my own life and consider unexplored possibilities--becoming the next heavyweight champ, perhaps. 3.5 stars from me, 8.4/10 at IMDB (#67 in their top 250), Ebert says four stars and calls it the best of the year. I'd argue with that if I could find a list of 2004 movies, but I'm too lazy for that right now. Viewed 7/15/05

In the Heat of the Night (1967) Effective drama with an average who-dun-it plot. The focus is on the changing relationship between Sidney Poitier ("Mr. Tibbs") and redneck cop Rod Steiger ("Chief Gillespie"). Steiger won a Best Actor Oscar, movie won Best Picture and three other Oscars. Who am I to argue? I found it slack at times, with a slight letdown ending, but overall a good, thoughtful (i.e., not much action) movie that avoids the obvious melodramatic and cliché possibilities, so 3.5 stars. IMDB has 8/10, not on Ebert's slow and fat web site, Maltin says 4 stars. Um, sorry about the "fat" thing. Viewed Viewed 7/13/05.

Not released yet
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My Review
Teknolust (2002) Continuing my review of Tilda Swinton's work. This is a futuristic fantasy-comedy in which she plays Rosetta Stone, a scientist who has created three clones of herself, which she also plays. The clones appear to be adults but they are mentally very immature. It's a slight movie, both in theme and in length (about 85 minutes), and it's not much of a piece of work, either. Swinton is excellent as always, and the movie is by turns unsavory and sweet, satirical and touching. The scientific mumbo-jumbo is absurdly unpersuasive but not played for laughs. It was okay, but I can't really recommend it. 2.5 stars, or 3 for Tilda Swinton fans; not for children. Ebert's review isn't available, and IMDB rates it 4.9/10. Viewed 7/10/05.
The Leopard (1963) After fifty minutes of this amateurish film, we gave up. I realize that what I just said will strike some as ridiculous, since this much-acclaimed move was directed by much-acclaimed Luchino Visconti. What I saw was a tedious opening scene with loud praying interrupted by shouting outside, the scene going on way too long. Later there was a battle between two groups in which we have no interest, in which trumpeting was relentlessly repetitive and incredibly annoying, being much louder than the gunshots, shouting, and explosions. Then there is a scene where carriages are stopped by rebels on a road, with much tiresome shouting and confusion. This scene, at least, had some tension. The music was overbearing and frequently inappropriate. The photography is nice and is probably the center of the director's intentions, but after fifty minutes I expect to feel somewhat involved with the characters and the plot. In this case I had developed no feeling for any character (hardly having been given a chance by the director--there are few close-ups and not much one-on-one dialog) and the plot seemed obscure. We saw the "original version" in Italian with subtitles, not the dubbed version. Ebert rates it a "Great Movie," IMDB has 7.7/10. Viewed 7/10/05.
Man on Fire (2004) Denzel Washington ("John Creasy") stars as a washed-up government tough guy who takes on a bodyguard job to protect adorable and precocious Dakota Fanning ("Pita"). For about fifty often slow minutes the focus is on their relationship and how she "brings him back to life." Then things turn ugly. Denzel is always watchable, and his work here is up to par, but the choppy/jazzy editing, the music video direction, and the story left a lot to be desired. In the end I called it "just another stupid hit man movie," which perhaps is a bit too slighting to be accurate. It at least tries to be a bit more than sleazy violence, and sometimes succeeds. I can’t help wondering, for those who have seen it: why didn’t Creasy have a butt bomb in place before he crossed that bridge? The wife liked it better. Ebert and I give it 2.5 stars, 7.4/10 at IMDB. Viewed 7/6/05.
The Ring (2002) A video tape is killing people! Run for your life! This silly but often goosebumpy and tense remake of the Japanese Ringu (1998) stars Naomi Watts (very good job) as a journalist who believes she will die in seven days. Her quest to save her life and discover the secret of the murderous video tape kept our interest for two hours, but ultimately the silliness of the story and tastelessness of the ending overwhelm all other values. Note to director Gore Verbinski: please don't start every new scene with a loud, startling noise; this is not how one builds suspense. Rates a whopping 7.4/10 at IMDB, Ebert restores sanity by giving it the correct two stars. Viewed 7/5/05.
The Red Shoes (1948) Moira Shearer is more than charming and dances wonderfully in this ballet fairy tale. Anton Walbrook and Marius Goring give vigorous and memorable support to the star (don’t tell Walbrook he’s not the star, eh?). Ebert rates this a "great movie" and he's written a great review about it which you can see at his site. The ending will not make all viewers happy. I’ll say 3 stars because it needs more ballet and it seems a bit aged. 8.1/10 at IMDB. Viewed 7/4/05.
Carrington (1995) This is half of a truly great movie. Emma Thompson ("Dora Carrington") and Jonathan Pryce ("Lytton Strachey") form the oddest of couples in this “true life” biopic, and it is their characters that make the first hour of this what-might-have-been-if-only eminently entertaining. Where the movie goes wrong, in my opinion, is too single-mindedly focusing on the wacky relationships and sexual escapades of the characters and too little on their deeper and more lasting interests and characteristics. You'll love seeing Carrington and Lytton together, but when they're apart you’re impatient to see them together again, and alas, there just isn't enough of that in the last half of this movie. IMDB has 6.6/10, Ebert gives it four stars. By all means, see the performances and don’t worry too much about the script; this is Emma Thompson’s best role ever (that I’ve seen, anyway) and Jonathan Pryce is just as brilliant. Can I say three stars and call it a “must see”? Viewed 7/3/05.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) Who knew it could be so much fun to be crazy? Jack Nicholson stars as, well, Jack Nicholson as Randle Patrick McMurphy. If you like Jack, you probably love this movie. I like Jack, but the movie still has a couple problems for me. The whole bus ride, fishing trip thing seems phony and silly, though there is a good laugh when Jack introduces his fellow loonies as doctors. Anyway, you've probably already seen it unless you're under thirty, and if you are you'll probably see it sooner or later anyway, so why are you listening to me? It's worth seeing and I give it 3.5 stars. IMDB rates it 8.7/10 and Ebert has it as a "Great Movie" but also gives it ***, so go figure. One of his reviews is excellent. Supporters Brad Dourif and Will Sampson deserve a special nod for creating the most memorable and likable (or touching, for Dourif) characters in the generally likable gang of loonies. Viewed 7/2/05.
Emma (1996) Gwyneth Paltrow is the eponymous Emma in this version of Jane Austen's novel. The novel was also the basis for Clueless, which I haven't seen. Emma is a clueless matchmaker who constantly tries to enforce her version of other people's lives on them, with generally dismal results. It is by turns amusing and tedious. Jeremy Northam is effective as the well-named Mr. Knightley. Paltrow has the second longest neck in movies, right after that weird Jedi bit-part character in various Star Wars movies, but otherwise she's pretty and adorable. The whole thing seems a bit slack and irritating. I bet Tilda Swinton could have made it work. Three stars. IMDB viewers rated it 6.9/10, Ebert says three stars. Viewed 7/1/05.
The Manchurian Candidate (2004) I liked the black-and-white original, and I like the new version about as well. The emphasis is different here. In the original, Frank Sinatra spent most of the movie trying to find out the truth about what happened in Korea. Here, Denzel Washington learns fairly early what happened to him in Iraq and he spends much of the movie trying to convince others of his discovery. This is not an improvement, though it’s probably a good idea for those who have seen the original. The movie works, I think largely because the characters and the picture of modern politics are so interesting. Liev Schreiber ("Ray Shaw") deserves special mention for his effective handling of a complex role; the same should be said for Meryl Streep ("Senator Shaw"), who does the original Angela Lansbury part just as effectively as her celebrated predecessor. A chintzy 6.8/10 at IMDB, Ebert rates it three stars (and the original gets four stars, though he's not explicit about why he liked the first one better). I'll say 3.5 stars. Viewed 6/30/05.
Fellowship of the Ring After many viewings I find two parts of this movie to be the most interesting and entertaining: the entire Mines of Moria sequence, and the quieter moments of conversation. Gandalf and Frodo, Aragorn and Boromir, and the Council of Elrond. The Black Riders are more overtly threatening than their counterparts in the book, but less creepy. Four stars, of course. Viewed 6/28-29/05.
Not released on DVDLust for Life (1956) I saw this about ten years ago and thought it the role Kirk Douglas was born to play. This time he seemed a bit over the top, but James Donald as his brother Theo was perfect in his restrained and compassionate role. Anthony Quinn won Best Support for his work here, and reasonably so. Directed by Vincente Minelli in fine style, with sites and minor characters that recreate Van Gogh's familiar works. The story of Van Gogh's life is interesting enough that nothing special was needed to make a good movie, which this is--a straightforward and fascinating, though hardly upbeat, movie. Three stars. 7.4/10 at IMDB, Ebert's review is not available from his website. Viewed 6/27/05.
Buy from me! The Bank Dick (1940) W. C. Fields remains pretty funny to this day, and this is one of his best movies. The supporting cast is exceptionally good here, with notable work by Grady Sutton, Una Merkel, Franklin Pangborn, and others. The drinking jokes aren't that funny any more, but Egbert Sousé (Fields) and his family are exquisite. 7.5/10 at IMDB; Ebert includes it in his Great Movies list. Viewed 6/27/05.
Creature Comforts (1989) Director Nick Park, of Wallace and Gromit and Chicken Run fame, achieved his first great success (at least that I know of) by winning an Academy Award for the claymation short, Creature Comforts. That short has been packaged with three others on DVD. It's a mixed bag, and unfortunately not that great. All the shorts are based on a good initial concept, and all of them grow tiresome at some point. Anyway, Wallace and Gromit is funnier. Of these four, I liked Not Without My Handbag the best, not least because of its similarity to the Lenore comics. Adam, Creature Comforts, and some thing about a pig were all less amusing. I give this compilation 2.5 stars--marginally worth watching. 7.7/10 at IMDB; review not available at Ebert's web site. Viewed 6/26/05.
Marat/Sade or The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat . . . etc. (1967) After greatly enjoying Quills, I wanted to see "the other de Sade movie." The first twenty minutes consisted of tedious and largely incomprehensible singing and raving, so I shut it off. I guess I just didn't get the joke. Reviews on Netflix excoriate the sound quality of the DVD, which is probably why I couldn't understand the dialog and the sung words, but my guess is I would have hated it all the same. IMDB has 7.5/10, Ebert gives it four stars. Viewed 6/15/05.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) Hideo Miyazaki is sometimes called the "Walt Disney of Japan" because of the popularity of his work in feature-length animation. I loved his Princess Mononoke and have read the black-and-white "graphic novel" version of the Nausicaä manga (comics) several times--it's a marvelous piece of work, though somewhat confusing the first time through because it's vast and complex. Naturally I was eager to see this movie version. It was a huge disappointment. The story is completely different, far less complex, and much inferior. For comparison, imagine having read the Lord of the Rings trilogy and then seeing "the movie version" which gave you instead the story of The Hobbit. It's that different. In addition, in the (Disney-managed, I presume) English language dubbing, the name of the eponymous character is pronounced in three syllables ("NAW-sick-uh") instead of the presumably correct four ("naw-SICK-a-uh"); but then I don't know what the Japanese original does with this. These faults aside, for those who haven't read the manga, this movie must be confusing because there's just too much story here, told and untold. On the plus side, this viewer would likely be enchanted by the richness of invention and the strangeness of the animals and the environment. Possibly, if I hadn't read the books, I would have liked this about as well as I liked Princess Mononoke, that is, very much indeed. Either that or I would have been totally confused. I guess I recommend it with deep regrets that it mocks what it might have been. Later note: In reading at IMDB I discovered that the movie was done before the manga; given that, my comments must be taken with many grains of salt. As for how the two differ, for those who have read the manga, a writer at IMDB sums it up splendidly: "The anime [movie] omits the Dorok, Wormhandlers, Children of the Forest, Heedra, a half dozen minor but distinct tribes, and of course Kushana's backstabbing family. In the manga, the God Warrior and even the forest mold colonies have significant dialogue and character development. There's no way you could fit all that in a single movie, and Miyazaki wisely did not try. The two media are really independent stories that use the same characters and concepts." (Stolen from FrankUy) Rates 8.1/10 at IMDB (which may be based mostly on the Japanese language version), not on Ebert's web site. Viewed 6/18/05.
Gods and Generals This is a long (3 hours), ambitious, superficially accurate, and overly-reverent story of the beginning of the Civil War and three subsequent battles, largely told with the focus on Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. Jackson is effectively played by Stephen Lang. There is a lot of praying in this movie, and a lot of God talk, which is probably accurate but gets tedious. The battles are interesting and very different from on another, but not especially exciting. The closeups of the action seem to fall into a pattern that becomes tiresome. Perhaps the most irritating aspect of this movie was that it seemed to be biased in favor of the Confederacy, with much talk of "defending against the invaders" and the "second War of Independence." The Northerners are seldom shown praying, and in one case a Union officer talks long and reverently of Roman gods. According to this movie, God was on the side of the South. The war is essentially blamed on Lincoln's actions, with little notice of the firing on Ft. Sumter and only lip service given to the evils of slavery. This movie is one part of a trilogy put together by Ted Turner. I don't recommend it except for Civil War fanatics, of which I am not one, who will enjoy scrutinizing it for historical innacuracies. Two stars. 5.7/10 at IMDB, Ebert doesn't have it. Viewed 6/16-17/05.
Audition (Ôdishon, 1999) I like challenging movies, movies that are hard to like, and this is a big one in that category. Unfortunately, I have to play the spoiler somewhat to rate this move at all, because by telling you that this is a horror movie I will change your perception of the first hour, if you happen to see it. Middle-aged father Shigeharu Aoyama (played by Ryo Ishibashi) wants a wife (the first died nine years before), so a movie industry friend sets up an audition for actresses to give Shigeharu a large selection of pretty women to choose from. He makes his selection, Asami Yamazaki (played by Eihi Shiina), and “gets more than he bargained for.” The first hour is low keyed and often a bit slow, but much of the last hour is an intense, hellish vision of sadism. Normal “horror movies” like Gothika, Scream, and Alien will not prepare you for the evil images presented here; it’s off the scale; this is the movie that has given me bad dreams and practically PTSD flashbacks. If you like intense experiences, even unpleasant ones, you’ll want to see this. That aspect aside, the acting is fine (Ishibashi is very appealing), the camera work and editing are interesting if not always successful (is it live or is it a dream?), and so on. I don’t remember the musical score at all. To explain why this movie is worth seeing, I have to be even more of a spoiler. Asami is the “sadist,” but given that we are shown how she got this way, we don’t hate her even when she’s doing the most awful things and relishing it. Like Quills, this is worth the experience, I think, to be shown that even the most “abnormal” and “depraved” among us are not “monsters” but only human. Given what the movie tries to do, it’s a great success and deserves four stars; as “entertainment” it must be rated a bomb unless you consider being grossed out and scared “entertainment.” The IMDB score is surprising, 7.3/10; younger viewers liked it better, and hardly anyone rated it a bomb. Viewed 6/12/05.
Quills (2000) Continuing my acquisition of the work of Kate Winslet. This is the story of the Marquis de Sade (Geoffry Rush) in a madhouse run by an abbe (Joaquin Phoenix) and attended by laundress Winslet. de Sade writes and publishes his notorious stories despite the best efforts of the abbe to prevent it, and this is the pivot on which the plot turns. This cast, soon joined by Michael Caine, is excellent. Rush deserves special mention as he clearly relishes and makes the most of his meaty and often creepy role. Winslet is delightfully naughty when reading de Sade’s works aloud to various listeners. Caine turns in his usual excellent performance, making his despicable character drip sleaze. Amelia Warner as Caine’s wife is a scene-stealer and very toothsome in a small but delicious role. Phoenix, an actor we usually like, alas seems miscast and unconvincing as a religious man, but his role is fairly small. The conclusion is first illogical, then depressing, finally laboredly ironic, and so not very satisfying. The approach to sex, as you might expect, is very adult and unashamed, though generally restricted to words, not deeds. Some viewers will find it thoroughly hateful—the values here are quite different, and in some ways liberating in a way that I like a lot, so I’ll say 4 stars. Maltin (2.5 stars) says it leaves a bad taste; indeed, it is something of a downer. If you think “delightfully naughty” is an oxymoron, you probably should skip this one. 7.3/10 at IMDB, Ebert gives it 3.5 stars. Viewed 6/5/05.

Valentina Cervi in Artemisia
Artemisia (1997) “True story” of Artemisia Gentileschi (played by a “luminous” Valentina Cervi), female artist in Italy at a time when there were no others. This is a sensationally interesting and entertaining movie, small in scale, with Cervi in a winning performance as a failed nun experiencing “real life” and pursuing her dream. I find it reminiscent of The Governess (also excellent) and much better than Girl with a Pearl Earring. Artemisia’s father, played by Michel Serrault, is an appealing character because he supports Artemisia’s ambition and rejoices in her talent. Her mentor and lover, Tassi (played by Miki Manojlovic), is also very good and good to look at. By turns inspiring, erotic, and comic, this is must viewing for feminists and MCPs. Maltin (2.5 stars) calls it “accomplished if uninspired,” I find it both and say four stars. 7.0/10 at IMDB, Ebert gives it three stars. Viewed 5/31/05.
National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978) I managed to live through the last twenty-seven years without seeing this “classic.” I anticipated something resembling Porky’s, which I know only by reputation and osmosis, and although the cast is largely excellent, overall I think my anticipation was pretty accurate. It’s gross, exploitative (but not nearly enough), and funny. John Belushi, may he rest in peace, is always watchable, but here he’s the ultra-animal and gets too little screen time in this very limited role. Ebert gives this four stars, perhaps more for its “groundbreaking” qualities than its effect on him these days. Rather like Citizen Kane in that respect. Two stars, or three for Belushi fans. IMDB says 7.5/10. Viewed 5/30/05.
Star Wars Episode III (2005) We saw this in the theater around May 29th. The movie has been widely praised for its last hour and criticized for its first hour. I found the first hour engrossing and entertaining, but then I like big special effects battle scenes, and the last hour, which has a lot of swordplay, was less interesting. Certainly the setting on the lava planet is vastly impressive—you can really see the bucks on the screen in this movie—but doesn’t make much sense and seems gratuitous. Hayden Christensen is less wooden than in Episode II, but chemistry with Natalie Portman is still lacking, and some of the dialog in their scenes together is truly lame. And let’s face it, he just doesn’t have the voice of Darth Vader, and that particular transition is unconvincing (but fortunately brief). In a lot of ways the script feels “mailed in,” as though all concerned were totally sick of the series, but the special effects are definitely state-of-the-art. So, by all means, see it if you’ve seen the first five; and if you haven’t don’t bother. I’ll say three stars for the special effects, one and a half for the script, with the acting somewhere in between. 7.9/10 at IMDB, higher for younger viewers, 82% at, Ebert gifts it 3.5 stars, saying it “has more action per square minute” than previous episodes. He does have a way with words.
In the Time of the Butterflies (2001) I notice that I tend to choose my videos based on the director, the female lead, and the genre. In this case it was female lead, Salma Hayek, who we found delightful in Frida. She’s good here, too, but this TV movie is often grim in telling the “true story” of the four Mirabel sisters in Trujillo-era Cuba. Really not much here that’s new and interesting, and it hardly pushes the envelope. 2.5 stars. 6.4/10 at IMDB. Viewed 5/23/05.
The Deep End (2001) Continuing the Tilda Swinton video festival, following Orlando and Female Perversions, she goes three-for-three, hitting three home runs as far as I’m concerned. In this effort she plays a mousey-looking mother who is desperate to save her teenaged son from something terrible that I won’t tell you about. The focus is very much on her mounting terror and desperation. I don’t find the resolution completely satisfying, but there’s also a very good performance from Goran Visnjic to make this somewhat unpleasant film worth seeing. 3 stars; 6.8/10 at IMDB, Ebert says 3.5 stars. Viewed 5/16/05.
The Opposite of Sex (1998) Christina Ricci turns in a good performance in a rather unlikable role as a bratty and manipulative teenager. Her voice-over commentary is often amusing, but the plot is a complex helter skelter of suburban angst and gay issues. Lisa Kudrow is charming in a quirky role, keeping my interest while Ricci was off-screen. Entertaining, but not much more than that since the sense of reality is sometimes sacrificed to the plot. Call it 3 stars. 6.7/10 at IMDB, 3 stars by Ebert. Viewed 5/12/05.
Antonia’s Line (1995) This Best-Foreign-Film Oscar winner left me largely unmoved. It’s interesting enough, in an episodic, low key, and rather unfocused way, and there is some charm in the characters, but it all seemed a bit superficial and left me finally unsatisfied. 2.5 stars. 7.4/10 at IMDB, Ebert says 4 stars. Viewed 5/8/05.
Cabin Boy (1994) I know Chris Elliott can be funny, but his work in the first twenty minutes of this film was so painfully, embarrassingly unfunny that I quit watching. He plays a sneering, smug, spoiled-rich-boy character who (I presume) gets his comeuppance, but who cares? I never got there. Think Big Fat Liar with the focus on the nasty film executive instead of the “appealing” kids. My son (age 9) likes it, however. Rates a dismal 4.4/10 at IMDB, not available from Ebert’s site. Viewed 4/27/05.
The Man Who Cried (2000) I wanted to see this because it’s directed by Sally Potter, whose work I loved in Orlando. This was less visually sumptuous and far less entertaining. Christina Ricci essentially sleepwalks through this film, and the film suffers because she’s the focus; she left me dry-eyed at the crucial ending scene. Johnny Depp is cute but his role is unimportant. Cate Blanchett makes the most of her tasty role and is the best feature of this 2 star film. 3 stars by Ebert, 5.9/10 at IMDB. Viewed 4/27/05.
Fantastic Planet (1973) This French animated feature is considered a classic, but for me it was largely silly and boring. I dozed through it. The premise is that human beings are living on a planet inhabited by giants who treat them as both pets and vermin. The animation is primitive and the backgrounds are surreal rather than persuasively alien. The aliens are too humanoid to be really interesting. The worst problem with the film was that the subtitles were often unreadable, requiring frequent pauses to puzzle them out. It’s not worth the work. Maltin gives it 2.5 stars, I’d say 1.5 unless you happen to be fluent in French, then 2 stars. Not available at Ebert’s site, 7.4/10 at IMDB (maybe they’re seeing it on VHS?). Viewed 4/25/05.
The Incredibles (2004) I don’t remember when we saw this on DVD, probably around the start of May. The start is slow and dismal, but it soon picks up and becomes a good deal of fun. Voice work and animation are both up to par or better, the story is okay, the main villain is kind of underwhelming. Overall it’s right in the bag with other recent Pixar efforts such as Finding Nemo, not as good as Toy Story 2. Three stars. Ebert says 3.5 stars, IMBD has a whopping 8.3/10 (#90 in their top 250).
Hideous Kinky (1998) Despite the sensational title, this is a quirky and somewhat endearing tale of a woman, Julia (Kate Winslet), and her two small girls struggling to survive in Morocco on too little money. Julia quickly takes up with Bilal (Saïd Taghmaoui), a poor native of the region who is also struggling. She also wants to become a Sufi. The heart of the movie is the relationships between these four characters, but Julia's pursuit of Sufism is a driving force of the plot. The setting is colorful and interesting, but the story telling is often seriously lacking. It's very episodic, which isn't necessarily bad, but too many of the episodes are glimpses of local culture which are more puzzling than enlightening. Winslet is excellent, as always, but the little girls, Bea (Bella Riza) and Lucy (Carrie Mullan), are simply delightful. IMDB rates it at 6.1/10, and Ebert gives it three stars and shows the date as 1999. I'm feeling generous and will say three stars. Viewed 4/18/05.
Tarzan Disney's version of the classic tale is often little more than an engaging music video (music by Phil Collins), but I find it very watchable and quotable, my favorite of the non-Pixar Disneys. It is, of course, a preposterous story, a romantic fantasy-melodrama, but I find it works because the characters work and because there is good chemistry between them. My favorite character is Jane (voice of Minnie Driver), whose laugh is a throaty, sexy delight; Ebert calls her "a peppy British girl with lots of moxie." The "cute animal" friends of Tarzan, Terk (Rosie O'Donnell) and Tantor (Wayne Knight), provide plenty of effective comic relief. It's not the sort of movie to change anyone's life, but it's a diverting couple of hours that might lighten a drab day. IMDB rates it at 7.1/10, and Ebert gives it four stars (while misquoting it at least three times). I call it a "guilty pleasure" and say 3.5 stars of fluff. Viewed 4/17/05.
Lord of the Rings We watched the entire extended-version trilogy for the umpteenth time. I find it endlessly entertaining, though with many low spots. The characters, the music, and the special effects are mostly what keep me coming back for more. But what's really special here is the vision, provided by Tolkien and Peter Jackson. Middle Earth lives in these movies in a way that has rarely been equalled. Viewed through 4/16/05. See my full review here.
Female Perversions (1996 or 1997) This is a hard-edged look at the life of a brittle, oversexed, overwound female attorney, Eve, played by Tilda Swinton who we last saw in Orlando. Eve is up for a judgeship, something she's wanted since age six; but she's hallucinating, and her sister is charged with shoplifting. I see this as a portrait movie: it's All About Eve. We see her at work, at sex (several ways), dreaming, screaming at her sister, laid-back and drinking with female friends, on the edge of lunacy, and finally, comforting a troubled girl. Swinton handles these challenges so artfully that it's hard to see it as acting. Critical opinion is sharply divided on this film (about 50% at Rotten Tomatoes), and it's easy to see why: it's challenging, feminist, and rule-breaking. It's a probing and perhaps disturbing look at female roles in modern society. I liked the symbolism of Eve's dreams while not being able to decode it into a simple commentary on Eve's life, and much the same can be said about certain parts of the movie. The dream sequences, unfortunately, don't add much to the overall effect and could perhaps have been omitted with profit. This is not a movie of pat and comfortable answers, and much is left unresolved at the end. Indeed, the ending comes as a shock because it doesn't provide a normal dose of closure. I like it a lot and Ebert gives it 3.5 stars. IMDB's ratings are interesting: overall 5.5/10, though the rating that gets the most votes is 10/10 (Excellent) and a standout in their demographics is that women aged 18-29 rated it at 7.2/10. Viewed 4/2/05.
T2: Judgment Day "Extreme Edition" (1991) We had seen this probably twice before and liked it a lot as the best of the series. The "Extreme Edition" adds 16 minutes of generally negligible footage. It's essentially a nonstop action and chase film with some thoughtful undercurrents. Directed by James Cameron, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger--very effective in this role--with vigorous support from Linda Hamilton ("Sarah Connor"), Edward Furlong ("John Connor"), and Robert Patrick ("T-1000"). Hamilton does an excellent job with a difficult role, looking haunted, hunted, and lethal by turns. Furlong is an appealing punk, too smart for his own good, very natural. The script does an amazing thing with Patrick, making his most natural-seeming remarks carry a huge weight of sinister overtones. Maltin gives this a stingy 2.5 stars because it's familiar material, but I think T2 outdoes the original in every way, with a good sense of humor and only occasional very minor lapses into the gratuitous or tedious. 8.1/10 at IMDB, Ebert says 3.5 stars. Viewed 4/1/05.
Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970) is a dated but watchable tale of giant computers trying to take over the world. Stars a rather wooden (if you prefer, suave) Eric Braeden as computer mastermind and James-Bond-wannabe Dr. Charles Forbin, creator of the Colossus computer. Colossus is a truly huge super computer which has been given control of all U.S. defenses, including the ability to launch nuclear missiles. Colossus is untouchable behind impenetrable lethal defenses and cannot be switched off or otherwise put under human control--clearly necessary if it controls the entire U.S. nuclear arsenal. What could possibly go wrong? Biggest technical faux pas of the script is a doozy: Colossus wants access to all communications (including tapping everyone's telephone) but authorized input is solely by keyboard. Silliness like this aside, the mounting tension is well handled and the conclusion may appeal to those that like 1984. Scores 7.0/10 at IMDB, not available at Ebert's web site. I'll say 3 stars because I liked it in 1970. Viewed 3/29/05.
The Notebook (2004) When all other values are sacrificed to portray the ultimate in romance, the result is something as thin and trivial as The Notebook. For what it is, it isn't all bad, because the four principals are very appealing. The young couple, Rachel McAdams (rich girl "Allie") and Ryan Gosling (poor boy "Noah") have great chemistry, though they do an awful lot of super-passionate kissing, which gets tedious. McAdams has a face like a cartoon, with huge mouth and eyes and red hair, and somehow, looks very pretty anyway. The old couple, James Garner ("Duke") and Gena Rowlands ("Allie") are cute and comfortable and we might all hope to have our "golden years" wind down this gracefully. The story takes no chances and is shamelessly predictable and formulaic (you could say "classic," I suppose), the logic of plot details is dubious, the settings are impossibly gorgeous, and [spoiler alert!] the obligatory villains all turn out to have hearts of gold in the end. The first half hour is mostly a succession of "meet cutes." It's all quite pleasant, sentimental, and forgettable. Those who love Somewhere In Time will love this, too. Rates a ridiculous 7.8/10 at IMDB, and soft-in-the-head Ebert gives it 3.5 stars. He should drop in to Rotten Tomatoes for a reality check, where it scores a dismal 49%. I'll say 2.5 on the strength of the sincere and very professional performances. Viewed 3/28/05.
Orlando: A Biography, click the link for a review of the book by Virginia Woolf and the movie starring Tilda Swinton. Viewed 3/20/05.
Before Sunrise (1995) There aren't many movies I know of where the entire time is taken by two people talking to each other. My Dinner with Andre does about as much with this format as can be done intellectually, and succeeds; Before Sunrise tries to do the same romantically, and fails. It plays like an improv exercise, and not a great one. Julie Delpy, stunningly beautiful in Kieslowski's White, here looks almost mousy. Ethan Hawke, the other player, stammers unmercifully. For me, it was a complete bore and I gave up after half an hour. The conversation just wasn't very interesting, and there was a lot of music video-travelog. I knew I was in trouble when I got bored by the scenery during the opening credits. This was a bad way to enter the movie, and my mood perhaps never recovered. But I blame the movie and give it 2 stars; Ebert gives it 3, and IMDB has it at 7.7/10. This effort is followed by a sequel, I gather rather similar, filmed with the same stars, in 2004, and called Before Sunset. I won't be seeing it, I think. Viewed 3/14/05.
The Taming of the Shrew Last weekend we saw a local production of Shakespeare's most popular comedy, so we were encouraged to rent the Elizabeth Taylor - Richard Burton - Franco Zeffirelli 1967 version for comparison. Taylor and Burton are well suited to these roles, but although Taylor is a perfect Kate, Burton's Petruchio seems a bit detached, with a false-sounding laugh: all teeth and mouth, and no belly, if you see what I mean. The production is excellent, extremely colorful, but a bit frenetic. The focus is almost entirely on the two principals, with the minor roles getting short shrift, with the possible exception of Michael York's Lucentio. This is unfortunate but not tragic. If you want to see a short, "popular" version of the play, you could hardly do better than this. For me, the play is the real problem. The change in Kate's personality is truly a hard sell, and although Taylor does as much with this as I can imagine being done, it still doesn't quite ring true. One can't help waiting and wishing for a final explosion of shrewish wrath that one knows isn't coming. Rated 6.8/10 at IMDB, Ebert's review, if any, isn't available at his web site. Viewed 3/14/05.
The Pianist (2002) The presumably true story of classical pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman and how he survived WWII in Poland. Played by Adrien Brody, Best Actor Oscar winner for this performance. Szpilman is not a hero, mostly does nothing to help others, he's a survivor who often asks for help; this movie shows in grim detail how he survived. Darker than Schindler's List, a more relentless portrayal of the Nazi horror (though never inside a concentration camp), but I think less involving, less affecting, and less personally relevant than that great movie. I can imagine watching Schindler's List many times (three times so far), but not The Pianist. But it isn't a bad movie and it rates highly at IMDB, 8.4/10. Ebert gives it 3.5 stars; I just can't get excited about it, so I'll say 3. Viewed 3/8-9/05.

Richard III (1995) Ian McKellen delivers a masterful, nuanced, and endlessly fascinating portrait of Shakespearean evil. This is an "alternate history" version of the play, a lavishly realized fascistic England in the '30s. I don't see that this aspect of the film really "says" much about either element: Shakespeare's vision of calculated and self-conscious villainy, or the director's vision of Nazi Germany. It's elaborate but insubstantial window dressing which will delight some (i.e., me) and distress or annoy others. What's remarkable is that it works so well, seeming to me not a distraction but an enhancement. The art direction aside, this is streamlined Shakespeare, with a substantially reduced word count, which is likely to be distressing to some viewers and indeed troubles me. The acting is exemplary, though I think Annette Bening as Queen Elizabeth should have been more passionate about the loss of her children. Her terror and grief should not leave the viewer dry-eyed. Nigel Hawthorne deserves special mention as an excellent Duke of Clarence, and his stroll in a downpour is a memorable scene. In brief, I like this movie very much indeed, above all for Ian McKellen, and would rather have it on my shelf than Olivier's standard, though excellent, treatment. Rated 7.5/10 at IMDB, apparently not reviewed by Ebert. Viewed 3/6/05. Note: McKellen wrote the screenplay with Richard Loncraine and it's available at Sir Ian's site.

Troy (2004) Brad Pitt is very impressive as Achilles in this revisionist version of (mostly) the Iliad. The film is suitably large-scale, if not quite epic, but the focus is very much on the hero, and that's fortunate because he's worth watching. Seeing him in action, effortlessly and believably killing a large and grotesque warrior in almost the movie's first scene, one can easily suspend disbelief about the hero's invincibility. His "rage" over the death of Patroclus (Garrett Hedlund) and during his abuse of the dead Hector--the climax of the Iliad--are unfortunately underplayed, but his physical presence and current mood always command attention. Pitt cannot be blamed for the movie's other shortcomings, which are mostly script choices and the overall look and feel of the physical reality. That is, the "thousand ships" look like special effects, the plain of Troy looks like a desert with nary a crop in sight for miles, and the battles seem pretty routine, lacking the vivid reality of the incomparably more impressive battles in the Lord of the Rings. The attempt to make a love story out of Briseis (Rose Byrne) and Achilles doesn't come off and is a distraction from the true business of the movie. It would have been better to make more of the essential Patroclus-Achilles relationship, but I suppose that wouldn't have been "box office." But what of the Greek Gods? They're absent here except as statues, and that's a choice I can live with. Greek Gods (or indeed, any gods) have never been portrayed effectively in movies that I've seen. Typical is Clash of the Titans, where venerable actors in white drapery sit around in front of pillars and clouds. It just doesn't work, so the Gods are missing--better that than a silly failure. Another annoyance are the motivations thrown in our faces, such as that these people will be remembered for thousands of years, which seemed ridiculously out of place. 7.0/10 at IMDB, Ebert gives it two stars. I think it's marginally worth seeing for Pitt's performance and the generally good cast (and not much else), so 2.5 stars. Viewed 3/4/05.
Mystic River (2003) Three boys are playing, one is abducted and abused. How does this affect their adult lives? This movie gives the viewer a drab and grim picture of life, a life of smoking and drinking and violence and vengeance, where everyone grimly follows their own path to destruction. We sympathize with lowlife "Jimmy Markum" (Sean Penn) because he loves his daughters to excess and loses one horribly. But we don't like how he responds to that change in his life. Instead of trying to carry on in the best movie tradition, he rashly, but cold-bloodedly, destroys what remains of his life and the lives of his other daughters, for vengeance. Alas, this is no Shakespearean tragedy. Shakespeare gives us tragedy in spades, but makes it palatable and even uplifting with his language, his humanity, and the stature of his characters; Mystic River lacks these qualities. Late in the movie "Sean" (Kevin Bacon) delivers a faux Shakespearean philosophical commentary, but it plays like embarrassing teenage poetry, lacking depth and even sense. The acting (two Oscars), directing, cinematography, and so on are exemplary; it's story, theme, and tone that leave this viewer disappointed. I felt the same way about Pulp Fiction, but not about Heavenly Creatures, and the differences are instructive. In Heavenly Creatures, the story is all about the relationship between two extraordinary girls; the tone is first crazily upbeat, then reality closes in and things get desperate. We learn to love the girls, and suffer along with them. In Mystic River, the story is all about crimes and violence and revenge, and we never learn to love the characters, and so it's just unpleasant. The who-dun-it had me guessing, but I like my suffering to have a point. Two stars. It scores well at IMDB with 8/10, and Ebert gives it four stars. Viewed 3/2/05.
Titan A.E. (2000) An animated space actioner from director Don Bluth, who isn't doing mice for once. The film has some strengths, mostly in the visuals: it's usually good looking and sometimes awesome in its grandeur. Hitched to this artistry is a collection of comic book cliches and plot. Ebert gives it 3.5 stars and praises the use of animation "to visualize the strangeness of the universe in ways live action cannot duplicate," yet the sentient aliens are all humanoid bipeds in the one medium where this bit of speciesism could easily have been avoided. We've had "sensors" in the mainstream mind since the original Star Trek, yet Titan has radar! The evil Drej are invincible, except when their fighting ships are up against a man with a hand gun. The Drej are pure energy, yet they fly around in spaceships and use verbal communication. You get the idea. Ebert should bone up on some post-Star Trek science fiction before he reviews any more SF movies. The SF concepts aren't the only weakness; pacing seems forced and frantic, the soundtrack is too often loud rock music, and the script is illogical and phony. I can't recommend this movie to anyone over the age of about twelve (my son, age 9, likes it a lot--but then, he can't watch Saturday morning cartoons). 6.4/10 at IMDB, I waffle between 2 and 2.5 stars. Viewed 2/27/05.
Spider-Man 2 (2004) We saw this in the theater last year and on video yesterday. I liked it better the second time, primarily for the awesomeness of Doc Ock and the intensity of their battles, but also because of the acting of Rosemary Harris ("Aunt May"). This woman takes the commonplace words of the script and with her rock-solid sincerity and emotion effortlessly (seemingly) tugs these old heart strings. The movie is not without problems, which Ebert apparently is blind to (he gives it 4 stars; but then he liked Daredevil, too). The illogic I mentioned in my previous review; this time I was struck by the relentless portrayal of Peter's haplessness. Did he really have to go away from that party hungry? 7.9/10 at IMDB, I give it 3.5 stars. Viewed 2/27/05.
Cold Comfort Farm City girl goes to live on a farm and improves the lives of all she touches. This tired plot gets a good and funny treatment from director John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy) in a made-for-BBC feature. The characters are Dickensian, riotously reminiscent of the peasants in Monty Pythyon and the Holy Grail (e.g., "Dennis, there's some lovely filth down here"), and equally grubby. However, we were almost ready to turn the thing off after half an hour because the accents and colloquialisms were impenetrable ("Cross beam got out of skew on treadle.") The last hour, however, is much clearer to the non-Brit. Attractive but not gorgeous Kate Beckinsale is well suited to play "Flora Poste." One can recall with pleasure everyone repeatedly addressing Flora as "Robert Poste's child," Eileen Atkins ("Judith Starkadder") calling herself a dead woman, and Sheila Burrell ("Great Aunt Ada Doom") saying she "saw something nasty in the woodshed." If the miracle cures all begin to seem a bit too Pollyannaish, at least they aren't dwelt on excessively and there is quite a bit of self-parody to leaven the final impression. In all, a pretty good comedy. 7.1/10 at IMDB, Ebert rates it three stars, and I agree. Viewed 2/26/05.
Enigma This is a Hollywood-version story of the cracking of the Enigma code of the Nazis during WWII. Well, not exactly, but it's about those people at that time and how they had to crack a new version of the old code. But the real focus is on the disappearance of the old girl friend "Claire" (Saffron Burrows) of the master code breaker hero "Tom" (Dougray Scott), and the hero's developing relationship with a clerk "Hester" (Kate Winslet). I was interested in the code breaking, and the relationship, and not much in the disappearance of the girl friend. In short, it was an acceptable who-dun-it with some mystery (mostly provided by spy-type "Wigram," effectively played by an arch Jeremy Northam in a role that would have been perfect for George Sanders), some confusion over the varied raft of code breakers, and few thrills. Ebert rates it three stars, apparently because he liked Winslet's performance and the "verbal fencing" between Tom and Wigram. Rated at an unexciting 6.6/10 at IMDB, I'd say 2.5 stars. Viewed 2/24/05.

Vermeer's Girl

Girl with a Pearl Earring (2003) I knew going in that this movie would be "slow," but when the wife said it "moved like a frozen tortoise" I had to agree. This period piece (1660 Netherlands) has a plot not unlike that of The Governess, with a girl born in the wrong class, adrift upon the economic deep, landing as a menial to a man up to his eyeballs in the latest technology. There it was cameras, here it's paint. Now, a camera takes a picture in an instant, but paint is slow to dry, so we get two very different kinds of movie. Griet (Scarlett Johansson) scrubs, chops veggies, boils laundry, buys meat and pigments, and gets dissed and wrongly accused at every turn, all of which are somewhat tedious. She also earns the respect of artist Vermeer (Colin Firth) because she sees colors in clouds. Well, that's nice; but slimy, aged Vermeer patron Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson) has noticed the hapless Griet and he has an eye for vulnerable beauty. Will Griet fall victim to her own hormones and the dark good looks of her boss, fall into the clutches of aged lust, or give herself to the remarkably clean-looking and handsome butcher's son (Cillian Murphy)? If you care, take a look at this Girl, but I see some melodrama (including twirled mustaches) here where Ebert says there's none. It's all quite low-keyed and subtle, with as little dialog as I've ever seen in a movie. I should mention the cinematography and art direction, which are sensational but repetitive (the look is Vermeer throughout), and the score, which is repetitive but has nice chords. That title painting really is awesome; rather than see this one again I'd prefer to just get a good look at the painting. I understand there's a sequel in the works called Girl with a Red Hat--see any similarities? 7.3/10 at IMDB, I rate Girl at 2.5 stars, Ebert says four. Who you gonna believe? Viewed 2/21/05
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) Take the narrative flow of Memento and the star power of Jim Carrey ("Joel") and Best Actress nominee Kate Winslet ("Clementine"), mix in a huge dollop of sentimental romance and some snappy dialog, and you get Sunshine. Which perhaps makes it sound pretty good, and it is. Carrey fans note, he plays a pathologically shy "nice guy" and rarely gets to stretch his face. Winslet fans will recall Juliet in Heavenly Creatures when seeing her as another loose cannon. Told mostly in reverse chronological order, there is plenty of confusion for the first half hour, but it all gets sorted out if you're paying attention and happen to be older than about ten. The principals are on-again, off-again lovers, with Clementine getting Joel into uncomfortable situations for goofy (or no) reasons. Fortunately, there's little attention paid to their fights and a lot paid to their adventures, because watching a couple fight is generally tiresome. Later on there are some interesting visuals as Joel's memories are erased (you knew that, right?) Girlwatchers will want to see Kirsten Dunst's uninhibited antics in tee shirt and panties. 8.6/10 at IMDB, Ebert says 3.5 stars, I say 3. Viewed 2/20/05.
The Prisoner Watched episode one of this 60s TV series and my first comment was, "this looks like 60s TV." Patrick McGoohan plays prisoner "Number 6." He's been put in The Village (everything in this series has to be capitalized), a sort of Fantasy Island resort, because he knows too much. The Malevolent Powers want Something from him, some Information he has but refuses to divulge. McGoohan glowers, refuses the proffered sexy maid, and tries again and again to escape. It all seemed a bit synthetic, suggesting Stepford Wives done by Kafka, but there was enough going on and enough campy social allegory to keep one interested for this rather slow and clumsy fifty minutes. Production values seemed pretty good, considering, but the music was overbearing and frequently inappropriate, suggesting "gee, isn't this fun" while "6" is getting more and more steamed. I'm ambivalent about seeing more of this series, wondering how they can possibly keep making it interesting. Surely he doesn't just keep trying to escape, ever more ingeniously, and keep getting caught? Do they do a Fugitive-like anthology with the repeated escapes just a framing story? Well, I'm not sure that's enough curiosity to carry me through another episode. One can't help thinking that James Bond would have been out of there in a nanosecond, after, that is, some sack time with that maid. Viewed 2/19/05.

Harry Lennix as Aaron in Titus

Titus is a movie directed by Julie Taymor, of Frida fame. Apparently before Frida she mostly did classic plays, and Titus is the most recent of these (1999). Based on Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, it tells of a Roman hero who suffers greatly for his allegiance to Rome and its most recent emperor. Indeed, "greatly" hardly begins to tell the tale. When the play opens, Titus has lost twenty-two of his twenty-five sons in various battles. Within fifteen minutes he's killed the twenty-third himself. But this is only the beginning of a tale drowned in blood, and it says something about Elizabethan society to learn that this potboiler was virtually Shakespeare's most popular play. One has to wonder why anyone but a sadist or a masochist would want to see this play. Well, if you're going to, Taymor's Titus seems a reasonable choice. She brings to this production the same impressive skill and vision that made Frida memorable. Alas, for the non-Shakspearite, the result is still dismal. Only a couple of visuals (most notably, the marching soldiers at the beginning) and two speeches by the eponymous character are memorable. The rest is an exercise in viewer endurance as the plot reveals one abominable work of villainy after another. Anthony Hopkins has all the gravitas needed for this role, and Jessica Lange is also effective, but the revelation is Harry Lennix as the venemous Aaron, a villain that out-Iagos Iago but that Shakespeare miraculously makes admirable and even sympathetic. I'd give it 3.5 stars for the production, but 1.5 stars for enjoyment. Viewed 2/13/05

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow We saw Sky Captain in the theater when it was new (2004), and at the time I was left wondering what all the fuss was about. Its special effects have been highly praised, but after various installments of Lord of the Rings it just didn't seem that impressive. But reviewing it this weekend, I was more entertained. The effects are not as flawless and thumpingly real as those of LotR, but the're still pretty darn good. The story is thin, and the campiness wears thin, but as a twenty-first century Indiana Jones it works well. Jude Law and especially Gwyneth Paltrow are appealing and have great chemistry together; Angelina Jolie, regrettably, looks uncomfortable and doesn't impress, and the other support is pretty weak. All in all, the movie captivates while Law and Paltrow are striking sparks from each other, and it impresses when the screen is full of CGI machines, but otherwise . . . eh. 2.5 stars. Viewed 2/12/05

Bryce Dallas Howard in The Village

The Village M. Night Shyamalan, director of The Sixth Sense, Signs, and Unbreakable, has crafted another fascinating and mostly satisfying movie. The Village stars Joaquin Phoenix and excellent newcomer redhead Bryce Dallas Howard (daughter of Ron Howard) as the lovers in a horror/thriller/romance that takes unsettling turns and makes unsettling comments on modern life. Inhabitants of a village straight out of nineteenth century America live and work in isolation, surrounded by a dangerous forest inhabited by "those we do not name." The feel is mythical and allegorical, and not terribly involving until a touching love relationship is revealed between young lion "Lucius" (Phoenix) and blind girl "Ivy" (Howard). Then things get even more strange and Ivy "faces her greatest challenge." The film tries hard and mostly succeeds, but I was troubled by the awkwardness and seeming discomfort of the actors in trying to make their archaic language sound natural. I was also troubled by the "village idiot" role of "Noah," played by Adrien Brody. These quibbles aside, the story and setting do hold your attention, and the payoff is generally satisfying. If the final surprise is not all that surprising (veterans of Twilight Zone marathons will have guessed long before it is revealed), still it is not dissatisfying. The "horror" here is welcomely minimalist (reminiscent of The Blair Witch Project) rather than gross and gory, but it also at times seems rather contrived. Rated a mediocre 6.5/10 at IMDB, I give it a well-earned three stars. Ebert calls the villagers "Stepford Pilgrims," not without some justification, and rates it one star. I think he missed the boat, being unwilling to give the movie a chance. Viewed 2/5/05.

The Missing Cate Blanchett and Tommy Lee Jones star in this pretty ordinary western. This is not the west of John Wayne and Gary Cooper; it's modernly gritty and Indian-mystical, which doesn't hurt, but doesn't change the fact that it's a basic shoot-em-up with really evil bad guys and semi-evil good guys. Jones is effective in his role as miscreant white Indian. Cate Blanchett, from whom I always expect much, turns in a disappointing run-of-the-mill performance as a frontier Christian/feminist/healer/single mom. At one point during the viewing I said to the wife, "How many stupid people are there in this movie?" It has some moments of excitement, but also too many moments where the creaking of the plot drowns out the soundtrack. If you're desperate to watch a western you haven't seen six times, this will probably satisfy you. Or if you're a big T.L.J. fan, you'll like this. But otherwise, forget it. Rated R for some graphic violence. Gets 6.4/10 at IMDB, and Ebert gives it two stars. I agree with Ebert. Viewed 2/5/05.
The L Word I haven't seen this Showtime series, but from the preview it's pretty clearly not interested in presenting a realistic view of lesbianism, instead offering soft-core porn to titillate middle-aged (or teenaged) boys. You don't even need to see the video preview; the array of "perfect" eye-candy anorexics lined up in a row on the web site is enough to turn the stomach of anyone who respects the lifestyle choice or genetic predisposition of this much-abused minority. Really despicable exploitation which has earned a GLAAD nomination for Best Dramatic Series. Go figure. I suppose they spelled "lesbian" right, eh?

Wallace and Gromit

The Incredible Adventures of Wallace and Gromit Three goofy claymation shorts from the creator of Chicken Run, Nick Park. Wallace is a not-too-bright inventor and window washer, Gromit his newspaper-reading dog who knits. In "A Grand Day Out," Wallace discovers that they're out of cheese, the supreme treat in this household. So he decides that they're going to fly to the moon, which is of course made of cheese. In "The Wrong Trousers," an Oscar winner, Wallace gives a pair of robotic trousers ("NASA surplus") to Gromit for his birthday, but in fact it is Wallace who spends the most time wearing the device. In "A Close Shave," Gromit is convicted of sheep stealing and Wallace finds a friend. Crazy inventions going wrong, odd newspaper headlines, exquisitely deadpan villains, occasional "film noir" lighting, and Gromit's calm competence in the face of Wallace's optimistic "everything's under control" are continuing sources of fun in these delightful half-hour comedies. Not always gut-bustingly uproarious, but hits a consistently high percentage of gags that work, I seriously recommend Wallace and Gromit. Scores 9.0/10 at IMDB (188 votes), showing how silly the IMDB system is. Ebert gives a similar compilation 3.5 stars. Viewed 2/3/05.

Salma Hayek as Frida Kahlo

Frida We saw this in 2004 and wanted to see it again. Salma Hayek plays Frida Kahlo, famous Mexican artist. As portrayed here, Frida turns her monumental personal tragedies and suffering into colorful and disturbing art and a ferocious hunger for sensual experience. Backed by a vibrant score by Eliot Goldenthal, this movie remains constantly fascinating and energetic. If there is a weakness here, it's probably in the character of Diego Rivera (played by Alfred Molina, the Doc Ock of Spiderman 2). The womanizing artist seems pale and tired next to fireball Frida. Indeed, most of the men in this movie, including her German-Jewish father and Leon Trotsky, seem fragile and weak in comparison. The direction is skillful and occasionally verges into delightful fantasy, as when Rivera becomes a rampaging King Kong. As well, Kahlo's art is often recreated by the actors, and one is sometimes fooled by which is live, and which is paint. Ends in a poignant blaze of glory. 7.5/10 at IMDB, Ebert gives it 3.5 stars. I rate it a 10. Viewed 1/30/05. Here's part of what I said in 2004: "Sexy without being gross, inspiring without being 'inspiring,' full of passion without being fatuous, this is the nearly perfect story of Frida Kahlo, artist. One of the most colorful movies in recent memory, and with a gorgeous soundtrack..."

Unbreakable Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson star as a seemingly-invulnerable man and a man with "bones of glass," respectively. This is a quirky, low-key, low-budget, atmospheric film from M. Night Shyamalan, director of The Sixth Sense and Signs. This film is not as effective or interesting as either of those, which is to say, I liked those better. There are things to like here, but not that many. Willis is so low-keyed as to seem like a sleepwalker at times. He does not respond to statements or even questions from other characters except with a long-suffering sigh. His estranged wife, played by Robin Wright Penn, is almost as soporific, and their son looks like a plot device rather than a human being--though one of the pleasures of this movie is Willis's character's palpable love for his clinging son. There is an air of gloom throughout the whole movie that makes it generally unappealing, and the plot does not provide enough payoff for me to recommend Unbreakable for your viewing pleasure. What I find most irksome, perhaps, is this gloom; Willis starts out and stays depressed, but it's never clear why. His marriage is troubled, but unsatisfyingly troubled, because--realistically--husband and wife don't talk it out. There is an early strong hint of infidelity, but that can be cause or effect. Jackson has the most interesting role; we understand where he's coming from and I sympathize with his deep and persistent anger. His obsession is less understandable and verges on mystical nonsense. In the last half hour the movie almost comes to life, but this is somewhat spoiled by the final twist at the end--it's silly and annoying, nothing remotely like the delightful shock payoff of Sixth Sense. 7.1/10 at IMDB, Ebert gives it three stars. I recommend this for Shyamalan fans only.
Return of the King Featurettes We've been watching the extras provided with the extended RotK DVDs. None of them have been dull, and most have been almost as fascinating as the movie itself. Highly recommended. Viewed 1/22-23/05, with a few to go.
eXistenZ (1999) is an unpleasant, thought-provoking mess. Set in a grim future where entertainment is almost exclusively through virtual reality, which occurs when the user plugs his body into an ugly organic "pod" not unlike the control array of a Playstation. The movie starts with an introductory demonstration of the latest product of the world's greatest programmer, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. The demonstration is interrupted and a chase ensues. The nightmare deepens and one becomes confused along with the characters: what is reality and what is virtual? I don't want to say much about the plot, because this is very much a plot-driven movie, a Chinese-box puzzle. Unfortunately, the surface is ugly, with lots of grossness that seems unnecessary and silly, and there's little here that's entertaining. The final payoff is unfortunately stupid and one is left feeling cheated. I said this movie was "thought-provoking," and it does make one think about the kind of entertainment we pursue, where vicarious murder might provide the "high," and perhaps even a bit about human behavior and why we sometimes do what revolts us. Jude Law co-stars. IMDB has this at 6.7/10, way too high. Ebert's review is puzzling and satirical, then he gives it 3 stars. Is he nuts? Or did I just miss the point? In rethinking my experience of the movie, I realize that I overlooked some clues and just put them down to "illogical script" or "poor direction." If I had taken everything seriously, and thus had been engaged with the puzzle instead of just "getting it" at the end, I might have enjoyed the experience a tiny bit more. But I'm pretty sure I still wouldn't have liked it. Viewed 1/21/05.
When the Sky Falls This tells the story of a reporter (real-life Veronica Guerin) in Dublin who tries to expose the criminals profiting from the drug trade. The movie Veronica Guerin was a remake of this movie, and I like the remake better largely because I'm a Cate Blanchett fan, I prefer the music, and I enjoyed seeing how Guerin cajoled, weaseled, and tricked information out of her sources, an angle that was missing from this film. Joan Allen is very effective in this role, however, and the expanded role of Mackey (Patrick Bergin), a violent cop who is a bit too eager to bend the law himself, is a definite plus. This film focuses more on family, less on journalistic practice, and may be slightly more violent than the remake. Pete Postlethwaite has a much-too-brief cameo role; I say "much too brief" because his presence was one reason I was eager to see this film. All in all, it's too much like Veronica Guerin for me to recommend seeing both movies; I think the remake is a trifle better overall. Ratings on IMDB are a virtual tie; Ebert gives Veronica Guerin three stars and but this movie isn't on his web site. Viewed 1/13/05.
All That Jazz The story of how choreographer Joe Gideon (played by Roy Scheider, based on the life of Bob Fosse) worked, lived, loved, and drove himself to the point of death. After a nothing special opening music video, the first hour is mostly fascinating, both for the drama of Fosse's life and the backstage view of modern dance. The brief scenes with Angel of Death Jessica Lange, popping up like a Greek Chorus throughout the movie to comment on the action, were at first confusing, then just tiresome. Unfortunately, after the first hour the movie takes a sentimental turn when Joe is hospitalized for heart problems. The remainder of the movie is the longest death scene ever filmed (possibly excepting The Passion of the Christ), and probably the most whiny and self-pitying. This second hour largely consists of four rather brief dance numbers intercut with hospital scenes, a long sequence where Joe escapes his bed and roams the hospital, and finally a long production number with Joe in a modernized "This Is Your Life" setting, complete with large audience and two gratuitous topless babes bouncing to the music. It was stomach-turningly self-indulgent. You would think no one ever faced death before. There was also a great deal of repetition, as though director Fosse edited the film "choreographically." There are also some very good things in this movie, and for me most notable was a scene with Joe instructing his daughter (charming 12-year-old Erzsebet Foldi, who went on to the American Ballet Theater) in a dance studio. And Fosse's dance numbers are generally very good and sometimes brilliant. But it's not enough, and I found this viewing more an exercise in patience than an entertainment. Maltin gives it 2.5 stars; I'd put it at 1.5, though the last hour is definitely in the "bomb" category. IMDB has it at an incomprehensible 7.5/10, with almost 25% of voters rating it a 10. These can only be out-and-out Fosse fans. Viewed 1/6/5.
Veronica Guerin A dive into the grim underworld of the Ireland drug trade. Based on a true story, this is how a ballsy, driven woman challenged the rule of the drug lords. This is very much Cate Blanchett's movie, and you'll look in vain for any traces of Galadriel in her performance. Guerin's brass is beyond belief and provides an education in ruthless journalistic tactics. Guerin is not only pushy, she uses her sexiness to tease out facts and her wiles to trick hapless interviewees into telling more than they intend. She is also tricked in her turn. As such it is required viewing for all would-be journalists and an education for the general viewer. I have nothing but praise for Guerin and Blanchett. Some of the director's choices, however, were annoying. I disliked the flashback structure, and I positively squirmed with impatience at the music-video ending before the "where are they now?" ending. But these are very minor annoyances; this is a movie that demands to be seen. Parents, however, are "strongly cautioned." I understand there was another movie on the same subject, When the Sky Falls; I'll be seeing that soon. 3.5 stars. Viewed 1/5/5
Lord of the Rings For the first time we watched all three extended DVDs over successive days, and the experience hasn't palled yet. Now I'm rereading the books, and greatly enjoying the riches the books have that the movies lack. Viewed 12/30/04 - 1/1/05

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