New York Film Critics Circle Awards for 2000

Best Picture: Traffic (Runners-up: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; The House of Mirth)

Best Actor: Tom Hanks (Cast Away) (Runners-up: Benicio Del Toro-Traffic; Javier Bardem -Before Night Falls)

Best Actress: Laura Linney (You Can Count On Me) (Runners-up: Gillian Anderson-The House of Mirth; Bjork-Dancer In The Dark)

Best Supporting Actor: Benicio Del Toro (Traffic) (Runners-up: Willem Dafoe-Shadow Of A Vampire; Fred Willard-Best In Show)

Best Supporting Actress: Marcia Gay Harden (Pollock) (Runners-up: Frances McDormand-Almost Famous; Ellen Burstyn-Requiem For A Dream)

Best Director: Steven Soderbergh (Traffic and Erin Brockovich) (Runners-up: Ang Lee-Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Terence Davies-The House of Mirth)


Top 10 Lists of the Reviewers of the New York Times for 2000


A. O. Scott: Yi Yi (A One and A Two); Traffic; Chicken Run; Before Night Falls; Beautiful People; Not One Less; Time Code; Chuck and Buck; You Can Count On Me; and Jesus' Son.

Stephen Holden: The Decalogue; Yi Yi (A One and A Two); Traffic; Humanite´; Beau Travail; Nurse Betty; The Color of Paradise; Human Resources; You Can Count On Me; and Cast Away.

Elvis Mitchell: Hamlet, George Washington, Calle 54, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Praise; Black and White; Before Night Falls, Ratcatcher; Requiem For A Dream; The Yards

My own 2000 Top 10 List is based on the movies I saw and reviewed during that year. Some were actually released in 1999. In order, my favorite films that I saw in 2000 were:

The Emperor and the Assassin; The Insider; Beautiful People; All About My Mother; Sweet and Lowdown; Boys Don't Cry; Cradle Will Rock; Buena Vista Social Club; Titus; and Gladiator



Roy's 2001 Reviews

Index of Films Reviewed

Here are my reactions to and comments about films I viewed during 2001, available either on video or at theaters.

All The Pretty Horses

Almost Famous

Amores Perros

A Beautiful Mind

Before Night Falls

Best in Show

Billy Elliot


The Body

Bride of the Wind

Bridget Jones' Diary

Calle 54

Cast Away

The Cell


The Closet

The Contender

Cotton Mary

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Dancer In The Dark

The Dish

Dr. T and The Women

8 1/2 Women

Enemy At The Gates

The Gift

The Golden Bowl


Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Hollow Man

The House of Mirth

In The Bedroom

In The Mood For Love

A Knight's Tale

Legally Blonde

The Legend of Bagger Vance

The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg

The Luzhin Defence



The Mexican


Moulin Rouge

Nurse Betty

O Brother, Where Art Thou

Pearl Harbor

Planet of the Apes

The Pledge


Proof of Life


Red Planet

Remember The Titans

Requiem for a Dream

Saving Grace

The Score

Shadow of the Vampire



Spy Kids

State and Main


The Tailor of Panama

Thirteen Days

3000 Miles To Graceland



Up At The Villa


With A Friend Like Harry

Woman On Top

Wonder Boys

The Yards

Yi Yi (A One and A Two)

You Can Count On Me

My rating system:

*A loser, a bomb. Miss it at all costs.

**An acceptable film, but not much more.

***A decent film with some virtues.

****An excellent film. Recommended highly.

*****A one of a kind. A great film.

"In The Bedroom"-This film does what so many American films do not. It portrays real people with real feelings and expressions. Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson ("The Full Monty") are Ruth and Matt Fowler of Camden, Maine. They are the parents of a young college age lad named Frank (Nick Stahl) who is having an affair with Natalie Strout (Marisa Tomei), a young mother of two boys who is on the verge of divorce. William Mapother is Richard Strout, Natalie's estranged husband, who is angry at the loss of his wife, the loss of access to his sons, and at the idea that his wife is sleeping with young Frank Fowler. What follows is a tale of a violent act that leads to significant consequences. But what is most telling about this film are, first of all, the magnificent performances by Spacek and Wilkinson as the ultimately pained and distressed parents. As marvelously directed by a newcomer, Todd Field (seen in the past as an actor in small secondary roles in films such as "Eyes Wide Shut" in which he plays Nick Nightingale, the piano player), Spacek and Wilkinson portray their feelings far more through moods and expressions than with words. Just watching Spacek sitting on a couch smoking a cigarette provides torrents of emotions about what is going on in her mind. She is one of the best American actresses and deserves accolades. Wilkinson, a British actor using a perfect American accent, gets to do more than Spacek, but nevertheless completely wraps the viewer up in the magic of the events on the screen. The pacing is slow and deliberate and incredibly tantalizing. I could barely take my eyes away from the screen for fear of missing a nuance. Although I wasn't totally satisfied with the casting of Marisa Tomei, her performance made me forget for the moment that she once won an Oscar for an incredibly silly role in a silly movie called "My Cousin Vinny." This "indie" is what making films for adults should be about. One only wishes Hollywood felt the same way. Theater **** (12/29/01)

"A Beautiful Mind"-Russell Crowe gives an astonishing performance in this Ron Howard-directed film as John Forbes Nash, Jr., who comes to Princeton as a graduate student in the mid-1940s and immediately demonstrates that he is equal parts mathematically brilliant, socially inept, and somewhat disturbed. But in the middle of his social difficulties he finally hits on an ingenious mathematical theory that makes his graduate career at Princeton a success despite not having attended classes, and he moves on to the world of a defense lab in the early cold war period. Nash, despite his lack of finesse with women, is fortunate enough to have as a student a young beautiful woman named Alicia (played by Jennifer Connelly, an actress whose talent seems to grow with every performance) who falls for him and ultimately becomes his wife. But there are serious troubles ahead as Nash begins to be obsessed with spies and Russian plots. Ed Harris appears as William Parcher, a defense department employee, who appears to be at the center of the government's efforts to stop a Russian nuclear attack on America. But Nash's problems have only begun and this film is about his monumental success in overcoming these difficulties and becoming one of the great mathematicians in America, the ultimate winner of a Nobel Prize in 1994. This is a true story, although it's obvious that there have been embellishments. One can research Nash to learn the nature of his difficulties, but I won't mention them here for fear of ruining the enjoyment of the film. I do want to mention a notable performance by an intelligent young British actor, Paul Bettany (Chaucer in "A Knight's Tale"), as Nash's Princeton roommate Charles. Theater **** (12/25/01)

"The Golden Bowl"-Ismail Merchant (producer), James Ivory (director), and writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala have made many outstanding costume period dramas about British life either in England, the continent, or India ("The Remains of the Day," "Howard's End," "A Room With A View," and "Heat and Dust"), but the magic seems to be fading. It seemed to start to go downhill with "Jefferson In Paris" and then more recently in a Merchant-directed film "Cotton Mary." "The Golden Bowl," based on the Henry James novel, would seem to be a perfect subject for them and an intelligent audience and at one time it might have been. But the genre seems to have become stilted and passé. The cast appears in gorgeous sets and costumes, befitting a period piece (it begins in 1903). Kate Beckinsale (in one of her best performances) is Maggie Verver, the daughter of an American billionaire, Adam Verver (Nick Nolte). Maggie marries a charming but poverty-stricken Italian prince (Amerigo, played by Jeremy Northam), only to have her father marry her friend Charlotte Stant (Uma Thurman), without knowing that Charlotte has already had a relationship with Amerigo and continues to be obsessed with him. With Anjelica Huston and James Fox in support, the tale only seems to plod along. Maggie becomes suspicious of Charlotte and Amerigo and Charlotte acts incredibly guilty while her husband is obsessed with collecting art for a museum to be built in a coal-mining city in America. But in reality, little has gone on between Charlotte and Amerigo who realizes, after a single passionate encounter with Charlotte, that he continues to love Maggie and their small son dearly. If this story is about revenge which Maggie ultimately gets on Charlotte by having her shipped back to the boring United States to live with her wealthy husband as he builds his museum, it's almost lost on the viewer. Nolte is far too laid-back in playing a powerful billionaire although he ultimately gets what he wants, returning to the US with his wife to build his museum and protecting his daughter from her "mother-in-law." I have no doubt that there is a great deal more depth in the James novel. It's just not obvious in this film. DVD *** (12/22/01)

"Moulin Rouge"-A musical of spectacularly bright colors (lots of red), sounds, and images with religious overtones? Can this be the same Moulin Rouge that was occupied by José Ferrer as Toulouse-Lautrec in 1952? I think not. Instead, we have a fantasy of two innovative Aussies, Baz Luhrmann (director and writer) and Craig Pearce (writer). Luhrmann, who created the wonderful Australian film "Strictly Ballroom," and had done little since except "Romeo and Juliet," and Pearce have brought us a rather bizarre tale of a young visionary named Christian who believes in the magic of love ("all you need is love"). Christian comes to Paris around 1900 to write, only to find himself shanghaied into a zany theatrical group of actors headed by John Leguizamo as Toulouse-Lautrec, who are attempting to put together a play (appropriately titled "Spectacular, Spectacular") for Harold Zidler (Jim Broadbent), the red-headed, red-bearded and rather loud owner of the Moulin Rouge. The latter is a nightclub with a corps of dancer-courtesans led by the simply gorgeous Satine (Nicole Kidman). While Christian is preaching love, and himself falls for Satine, Zidler is attempting to get financing from The Duke (Richard Roxburgh), an evil man who also wants Satine and who represents money, wealth and everything non-spiritual.

Not a bad plot. But what ultimately undermines this film is EXCESS. For example, Christian is a poet who sings late-20th Century songs to represent his turn-of-the-century poetic talents (Elton John's "Your Song," The Beatles, Whitney Houston, and even a little of "The Sound of Music"--using this type of music is, of course, a humorous twist). Some of the performances, sung by the actors themselves, aren't bad, but the singing is overdone just like everything else. A single song is rarely enough. Instead, it has to be parts of many songs. The dancing is potentially wonderful. For example, there is a sensuous tango that would have been outstanding done by the two leading dancers with minimal support. But instead the two leads are almost lost behind legions of other dancers, something that also ruins the can-can sequence. The first half of the film is almost mind-numbing with action and imagery, and only minimally relaxes in the second half. And the action is never simple. There always seem to be dozens of people around, even a few hanging outside the window from the roof, and the dialogue sounds more like harangues than conversation. Most of the successful musicals in movie history have been relatively simple and elegant (think of the films of Astaire and Rogers, or "Singin' In The Rain). This film is overblown and hysterical (not in the humorous sense) and never simple and elegant. The actors do not have a chance to standout because of the activity going on around them. Rather, they appear as pieces on an astoundingly animated gameboard. DVD **1/2 (12/21/01)

"The Score"-I've never been a big fan of Robert DeNiro, although I recognize that he has real talent when he wants to apply it. But in this film, he looks disinterested in his part, as if he were simply going through the motions. If an unknown had read the part the way DeNiro does, I guarantee he would never have been cast in this movie. It's a "heist" film, something "new" under the Hollywood sun!! A predictable script. DeNiro is Nick, a jazz club owner in Montreal who also happens to be a high tech burglar. But he usually pulls his jobs away from home. This time he's tempted by an associate and fence, Max (Marlon Brando), to join an outside smart aleck named Jack (Edward Norton) in breaking into the Montreal Custom House and stealing a priceless French gold sceptre. The actual scenes of the heist are reasonably interesting and suspenseful, but the logistical details required for success in this "score" are so complex, strenuous, and time-consuming, that it is painfully obvious it would be tempted only by complete idiots. And talking of cliches, the film has the usual doublecross twists at the end. Yet, when the film ended, I felt nothing but a yawn. It's a serviceable film, nothing more. Nice shots of Montreal. Angela Bassett is wasted as Nick's flight attendant girlfriend. Brando is always fun to see, and Edward Norton is amusing when playing Brian, the slightly retarded janitor character Jack creates to work at the Custom House while he surveys the security system. DVD *** (12/21/01)

"Hedwig and the Angry Inch"-This is the story of a young boy from East Berlin who grows up, meets an American soldier who convinces him to have a sex-change operation in order to marry him and leave Germany, and who comes to the US, is abandoned and turns to rock and roll. The sex-change operation was only partially successful, leading to the Angry Inch, also the name of Hedwig's rock band. Just a basic down-home plot with sexual identification issues (Hedwig's male lover in the band is actually actress Miriam Shor). John Cameron Mitchell wrote, directed, and stars in this rather strangely mainstream exotica (even Blockbuster is renting it) which originated as an off-Broadway play. And he tells am amusing tale of his adventures discovering and teaching a young rock singer named Tommy Gnosis (Michael Pitt), only to have Tommy steal his music and become a star. Hedwig tells his/her story from the vantage point of stages in a series of Red Lobster type restaurants called Bilgewater's. The scenes of Bilgewater customers trying to eat their mundane meals while Hedwig rocks and struts, singing of his life and sex-change operation, are really funny. The music is surprisingly good, written mostly by co-star Stephen Trask, one of the band members. While the film is better at the start than it is at its rather murky end, it's an amusing and original film and definitely worth a look. John Cameron Mitchell is definitely someone to watch. Comic actress Andrea Martin is notable as Hedwig's agent. DVD ***1/2 (12/15/01)

"Pearl Harbor"-This three-hour film gets off to an excruciatingly bad start with a hokey story about two Tennessee kids, Rafe and Daniel, who grow up to be army pilots just before the US enters World War II. The embarrassing script tells of Rafe (Ben Affleck) falling in love with beautiful nurse Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale) almost immediately after she passes him in a vision test despite his apparent inability to read the letters on the chart. Rafe and Daniel (Josh Hartnett) are surrounded by, of course, a group of pilots on the make. And would you be surprised to know that Evelyn is surrounded by a bevy of other beautiful nurses? The glitzy high-contrast photography early in the film exaggerates the silliness of the story as well as the imagery. Rafe volunteers for the RAF and goes off to England to fight with the British against the Luftwaffe and appears to have been killed when his plane crashes into the Atlantic. So, of course, a romantic triangle is bound to occur, as Daniel, thinking Rafe has died, falls for Evelyn. But we all know that Ben Affleck's character couldn't possibly have died this early in the film. In the meantime, the pilots and the nurses have been shipped off to join the US naval fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

Having survived this early portion of the film, the viewer is now treated to an incredibly vivid recreation of the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, but only after struggling to read absolutely awful and almost unreadable subtitles used during the scenes of the Japanese military planning of the attack. The portion of the film re-creating the attack is awesome. The scenes of lovely sunfilled Hawaii suddenly invaded by low-flying Japanese planes are stunning. The visuals of the actual bombing of the American ships and air bases are breathtaking and horrifying. The use of genuine ships in the actual Pearl Harbor of today, supplemented by astounding computer graphics (including a touch of "Star Wars"), is enough to make one feel just a little of what it might have been like to have been there on that terrible morning. The scenes of severely injured soldiers and sailors arriving at an unprepared hospital while nurses and doctors panic are enough to demonstrate the apparent lack of preparedness of the American military. FDR (Jon Voight), however, is there to inspire America and, back at the plot, Rafe and Daniel wind up joining Col. Jimmy Doolittle (Alec Baldwin) in the almost-suicidal mission to bomb Tokyo to revenge Pearl Harbor and inspire the American cause.

The cast seems completely secondary to the battle scenes. No one truly stands out, although Jon Voight is good as FDR and Alec Baldwin is charming as the daring Doolittle. Affleck, Hartnett, and Beckinsale are pretty faces aimed at humanizing the war story. But the war story is human enough and doesn't need the glitzy look of the stars. Of note in the cast is Cuba Gooding, Jr., as Dorie Miller, a heroic cook on the "Arizona," and Dan Aykroyd as a decoder who warns of a potential attack but who is, of course, ignored. The DVD contains a detailed account of the making of the film, and is certainly worth a look. DVD ***1/2 (12/8/01)

"Shrek"-While most people think animated films are for children, the filmmakers want adults to pay their way in too and so they often include adult humor and innuendos in their kids' films. This funny animated film is no exception. What we really have is a wonderful cast of Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz and John Lithgow putting on a puppet show. The puppets in this case are incredibly effective animated characters telling the story of a big green ogre named Shrek (Myers) with a Scottish accent, who wants to protect his turf in the woods and likes a solitary life. But the local evil Lord Farquaad (John Lithgow) has decided to kick out all of the fairytale characters and place them in Shrek's backyard. In order to rid himself of these unwanted guests, Shrek and his jive-talking "friend" Donkey (Murphy) set off to free Princess Fiona (Diaz) from a lava surrounded castle which also happens to be guarded by a fire-breathing dragon, and bring her back to marry Farquaad. As you might expect, complications, including romance, get in the way. Other than a series of jokes about bodily functions such as flatulence, clearly in poor taste and aimed at children, the humor is enough to make you laugh. Murphy is excellent as the Donkey character. Myers is a perfect ogre with charm even he doesn't realize he has. This is something to see especially now that it is available on DVD which is loaded with extras about the making of the film. DVD ***1/2 (12/2/01)

"Planet of the Apes"-More than 30 years since the original version, Charlton Heston once again appears (uncredited), but this time as an elderly ape who knows the secret behind the real story of the apes and the humans. And he tells his son Thade (Tim Roth), the vicious military leader of the apes, the secret of the humans' history of technology. And what does he show him? A gun. The irony drips. As for the basic plot, Leo (Mark Wahlberg) is an astronaut aboard a ship loaded with apes, including the delightful chimp Pericles, who are to be used in space experiments. When Pericles disappears into a space warp of some sort, Leo follows behind and, after entering the warp and experiencing time travel into the future (noticeable only if you read the readouts on his ship's panels) finds himself on a planet where the apes are in charge and the humans are used as slaves. Wahlberg is virtually expressionless in this film which is regrettable because it undermines any sense of concern the viewer might have. But nevertheless Leo is befriended by Ari (Helena Bonham Carter), an ape human-rights advocate, and leads an escape from the ape stronghold. Leo and his friends battle the apes, seemingly continuously. Leo ultimately discovers the secret of the apes when he finds the ruins of a spaceship which has crashed years in the past. The costumes and makeup are well done. But the film lacks a coherent story. It seems to be simply going through the motions with an occasional unsuccessful effort at intrigue or sci-fi originality. The ending is extremely facile, almost laughable, and undoubtedly aimed at a sequel. In the cast, Paul Giamatti is wonderfully funny in this film as Limbo, an orangutan dealer in human slaves who winds up with the humans. Others of note are Michael Clarke Duncan as an ape general; David Warner as an ape senator and Ari's father; and Estella Warren as Daena, a beautiful blonde human, who demonstrates no acting abilities whatsoever. In fact, the DVD contains a film of her audition. Tim Burton, the director, was obviously so impressed with Ms. Warren's past synchronized swimming talents, that he couldn't resist hiring her and putting in as brief a costume as possible under the circumstances. DVD ** (12/1/01)

"Vatel"-This sumptiously photographed and decorated (i.e., set and art decoration as well as costumes) film tells the little-known but apparently true tale of Francois Vatel (Gérard Depardieu), the steward to the Prince de Condé (Julian Glover), a military prince suffering great debts who wants to get into the good graces of Louis XIV (Julian Sand) in order to improve his economic and professional situation as a possible war with Holland approaches. De Condé invites the king and his royal entourage to his palace for a weekend of incredible displays and pleasures, all arranged by Vatel. Vatel is shown as an amazingly effective leader who arranges large meals and shows, with fireworks, music, and all, seemingly with little or no effort. This is in contrast to the royal characters who are shown, not surprisingly, as selfish, venal boors. It's obvious that Vatel is repulsed by the king and his followers, but has no choice due to his misplaced loyalty to de Condé. Adding to the plot is an intrigue involving the Marquis de Lauzun (Tim Roth), an advisor to the king, who happens to be very interested in one of the Queen's ladies in waiting, Anne de Montausier (Uma Thurman). But Mlle. de Montausier is also desired by the king and desirous of Vatel. The performances are all as one might expect with such a talented cast. Strangely, although all the characters are French, the film is loaded with British actors speaking in English accents. Other than Thurman, an American, the only non-English actor is Depardieu, an actual Frenchman, who must speak English with a French accent. This is somewhat off-putting, but not enough to undermine Depardieu's subtle performance. Thurman is lovely and once again demonstrates her outstanding acting talents, and Roth is perfect as a somewhat sleazy royal, a part it seems to me he has played before. Also of note is Timothy Spall ("Topsy-Turvy"), as Gourville, an aide to the Prince. DVD ***1/2 (11/23/01)

"The Yards"-Leo Handler (Mark Wahlberg) is a 24-year-old just out of prison returning to his single mother (Ellen Burstyn) and hoping to get his life straightened out. But immediately he gets tossed into the whirlwind of the corrupt subway repair business centered around his uncle Frank (James Caan) and the boyfriend of his cousin Erica (Charlize Theron). The job of the boyfriend, Willie (Joaquin Phoenix), is to do Frank's dirtywork in making sure that a minority company's repair jobs look bad. Apparently Leo had been the fall guy for the misdeeds of Willie and others in the past, leading to his prison sentence. Once again, Leo finds himself accused of a crime committed by another: a railyard murder. And Leo has the ability to make the entire corrupt business and governmental world around the yards collapse by coming forward. There's a decent premise here but the stars get in the way. With the exception of Burstyn, I felt like I was watching Wahlberg, Caan, Theron, Phoenix, as well as Faye Dunaway as Leo's aunt, rather than characters in the film. This is one of those films with a glitzy cast that just leaves one relatively cold at the end. It's a film that can be watched for a couple of hours of very basic entertainment, but for anything more, forget it. DVD *** (11/21/01)

"Songcatcher"-There was a time when it was thought that all the mountain people in the Appalachian Mountains were dirty and ignorant with little or no culture, and then their culture, going back to the Scots and Irish who came to America in the 18th Century, was discovered in the form of their music early in the 20th Century. This is a nice tale of a musicologist, Dr. Lily Penleric (Janet McTeer), who has been passed over for a professorship at the university at which she teaches. She quits and comes to live with her sister, a schoolteacher, in the mountains of western North Carolina in what appears to be around 1910. And almost immediately she discovers the wonderful songs of the mountains and the banjo and fiddle playing. Aided by the young Deladis Slocumb (Emily Rossum), Dr. Penleric listens to the music of Viney Butler (Pat Carroll), Rose Gentry (the singer Iris DeMent), and others. But there's more than songcatching to be done. There are battles of love and life to be fought with and against men like Tom Bledsoe (Aidan Quinn) and others. And there's even some lesbianism that raises the ire of the community, as well as cheating in the mountains and arson. Janet McTeer ("Tumbleweeds") is a wonderful actress but her portrayal of the intelligent and serious Dr. Penleric was just a little too stiff. The character needed to loosen up just a little earlier in the film than she actually did. Aidan Quinn is at his best as the mountainman who has been to and knows the "outland." And Emily Rossum is a delight as the young Deladis, full of talent and wide-eyed young beauty. DVD **** (11/20/01)

"Amores Perros"-How does one take this movie? If symbolically, it is about how "love's a bitch," what the title approximates. But maybe it should be called "Life's a Bitch," or maybe even "A movie can be a bitch." Nothing new there. Don't we already know that? If taken literally, it shows three separate but minimally connecting stories about people, their dogs, and either their mistreatment of their dogs or of their fellow humans. These three tales literally collide at a street corner when two Mexican youths (with nothing better to do with their time than raise money by fighting Cofi, the black Rottweiler belonging to one of the two, against other dogs, usually to the death), being chased in their auto just after Cofi has been shot during a fight and one of the boys has stabbed the shooter, crash horribly into a car being driven by a beautiful and famous model who is accompanied by her dog. The third main character, El Chivo, a wino and former guerrilla, who is at the corner waiting to assassinate a businessman, and who is accompanied by his band of pet dogs, rescues the injured Cofi from the now smashed car of the two youths. There is a great deal of angst in this film, mostly on the part of the viewer. The most absurd story of the three is that of the seriously injured model whose rich boyfriend buys her an apartment with rotten floors which break under their feet. Does this stop the model from allowing her dog to run around, ultimately running down the hole and being trapped with rats? Of course not. These two seemingly capable people, i.e., the model and her boyfriend, never think to cover the hole. And even later, when the dog is rescued, the holes (there are more now which occurred during the rescue) remain so that either the dog can return to the rats or the rats can rise to the apartment. Life's a bitch.

The production values of this Mexican film are excellent. Beautifully filmed. Well-acted. And there are all types of assurances that the dogs have not been mistreated in making the film. In fact, on the DVD, there is a small film showing that the dogs are all professionals and literally had their own air-conditioned trailer while the film was being made. But the movie portrays the most vicious dogfighting and dog-killing ever seen in a movie. I could find nothing in the way of redeeming social value other than the ultra-obvious attempt, as described on the DVD, to show how life can be miserable for rich or poor, ugly or beautiful. But life can also be miserable for the poor viewer. And I had to take breaks from this film, more than 2 1/2 hours long, in order to catch my breath. I went back each time out of morbid curiosity. Spanish with English subtitles. DVD *** (11/20/01)

"Bride of the Wind"-In the mid-1960s, the humorist Tom Lehrer did a song called "Alma," noting that "all modern women are jealous" about the woman who had just died after having been married to three of the great creative men of the 20th Century, Gustav Mahler, Walter Gropius and Franz Werfel. This film tells her story. Alma (Sarah Wynter) was a lovely young woman in Vienna at the turn-of-the-century when she met and married Mahler (Jonathan Pryce), the leading classical composer of his age. After Mahler died, she continued a relationship with Gropius (Simon Verhoeven), the great architect, started a new one with Oscar Kokoscha (Vincent Perez), the expressionist painter (and one man she never married, although she had a daughter with him), and finally winding up with Franz Werfel (Gregor Seberg), the novelist. This film is lush, made entirely in Vienna and directed by Bruce Beresford ("Driving Miss Daisy"). It does a fine job of telling Alma's tale, although it never really catches fire. Sarah Wynter, an Australian, is hauntingly lovely as the beautiful Alma. Jonathan Pryce is musically distracted as Mahler. Vincent Perez lends an air of dynamism to the film as the artist Kokoschka. Certainly one of the great real-life romantic tales and worth a watch. DVD ***1/2 (11/18/01)

"The Closet"-François Pignon (Daniel Auteuil) is a drag. He's boring, his wife has left him, and his son has no interest in him. And now he discovers that he's about to be fired from a company he's worked for, as an accountant, for 20 years. Fortunately, when considering suicide, Pignon meets his gay neighbor Belone (Michel Aumont) who suggests that the company won't fire him if they think he's gay. When this ploy works in a politically correct age (and Pignon works for a condom manufacturer), Félix Santini (Gérard Depardieu), a homophobic personnel director, is urged by a co-worker (Thierry Lhermitte) to play up to Pignon to avoid losing his own job. That this, of course, leads to very funny complications is obvious. What isn't obvious is how well Director and Screenwriter Francis Veber tells his story. All of the characters are interesting and charming, even a couple of homophobic oafs who beat up Pignon, thinking that he's been ogling teen boys when in fact he's simply waiting to see his son at his school. While many directors and screenwriters might have taken this film in an embarrassing direction, Veber's version is well-acted fun with a tremendous cast of the leading French stars, including especially Auteuil, usually seen in more serious roles. Also of note in the cast are Michèle Laroque as Mlle Bertrand, Pignon's boss who initially dislikes him and then discovers his true "virtues," and Jean Rochefort as Kopel, the company director. In French with English subtitles. Known as "Le Placard" in French. DVD **** (11/17/01)

"Calle 54"-This marvelous concert film is Fernando Trueba's homage to Latin Jazz. Each performer is introduced via a brief showing of the artist in his or her natural habitat, and then they play. And do they play! Each performer gives a spectacular performance, exquisitely recorded and filmed in bright and unique colors: Paquito D'Rivera, Eliane Elias, Gato Barbieri, Michel Camilo, Chico O'Farrill, Jerry Gonzalez and the Fort Apache Band, the late Tito Puente, and many others. In the midst of most of the performances is a Steinway Piano. What a lucky piano. If you like jazz, especially Latin, you will absolutely love this film. If you like music and aren't familiar with Latin Jazz, try it. You can't help but be blown away by these extremely talented people. DVD **** (11/16/01)

"Legally Blonde"-Reese Witherspoon ("Election" and "Pleasantville") is delightfully hysterical as Elle Woods, a ditzy blonde sorority girl from Bel Air who loves to shop and is seemingly on the path to domestic bliss with Warner Huntington (Matt Davis), a rich boy from the east. But just when Elle thinks she's going to become engaged to Warner, he announces that it's time for them to split so that he can return east, go to Harvard Law School, and become a Senator with a "Jackie, not a Marilyn," as his wife. But Elle is an ambitious young woman and somehow gets herself admitted to Harvard Law School to chase Warner. What happens at Harvard is downright fun. Elle discovers that despite her "valley girl" persona, she's got integrity and smarts. The vision of a character like Elle, in her hot pink outfits, at Harvard Law School is humorous enough, but Reese Witherspoon, a young actress of seemingly boundless talent, plays it to the hilt, supported by a delightful cast including Luke Wilson (as a lawyer booster of Elle's and a potential substitute for Warner), Selma Blair (as Elle's rival turned friend, Vivian), Victor Garber (as a professor and criminal defense lawyer who gives Elle a big boost and then almost causes her to quit), Jennifer Coolidge (as a beauty shop friend taught the "famous bend and snap"), and Ali Larter (as a murder defendant and sorority sister of Elle's who gives her her first big legal break). Silly, sort of mindless, but you can't help but have a big smile throughout this film. DVD ***1/2 (11/9/01)

"With A Friend Like Harry"-Imagine yourself driving with your spouse and three young children to your country home for a vacation. You stop at a rest stop and go to the bathroom and there you run into an individual with a rather strange demeanor who reminds you that this person knew you 20 years earlier at school. You barely remember this person, but the individual, while standing in the bathroom, starts asking about things you did, like writing, when you were a teenager at school. You finally get away from this rather strange interlude, are back in your car with your family, and you suddenly see the stranger driving up in the parking lot and ask to come along to your vacation house, accompanied by a friend, for a visit for "old-times sake." And you know that in order to come to your vacation house, these two people are going very far out of their way from their stated intended destination. Would you act sheepishly and say okay, "just follow me?" Or are you more likely to give excuses and get away from this person as fast as possible? Well, I suspect most people would take the latter course. But not Michel (Laurent Lucas). He and his wife Claire (Mathilde Seigner) inexplicably agree to invite along Harry (Sergi Lopez), Michel's strange and distant classmate, and his rather innocent and bubbly girlfriend Plum (Sophie Guillemin) and things go downhill from there. Even when Harry and Plum hang around, something that would undoubtedly annoy most people, Michel and Claire act like they are old friends, inviting them to dinner and to do things with them and their children. But Harry has his own motivations and it soon becomes clear that he is obsessed with Michel and plans to make significant changes in his life, whether he likes it or not. Well filmed and somewhat suspenseful, I found the basic premise so unlikely, however, that it undermined the later events which were fairly predictable. While the end is somewhat of a twist, the film as a whole simply doesn't hold up and can't be recommended. This film is in French with English subtitles although the DVD has a dubbed version. DVD **1/2 (11/2/01)

"The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg"-The great Detroit Tigers' slugger, Hank Greenberg, was a Jew born in the Bronx. He wound up as a hero for Detroiters because he doubted Lou Gehrig would be gone from the Yankees anytime soon (this was in the early 1930s). Centered around Greenberg's ethnicity as a Jew in major league baseball and its effect on him, baseball, and his fans, this wonderful little documentary provides a great deal of insight into the mind of America in the years just prior to World War II. Greenberg did not change his name to hide his ethnicity. Although not religious, he was obviously conscious of and proud of his heritage and he was also a very big man who would occasionally confront those who slurred and slandered him simply because of his ethnic background (including entering the opposing team's locker room). But most of the time he simply responded by hitting homers and driving in runs (183 in 1937). Later, when Greenberg played for the Pirates in 1947, the same year that Jackie Robinson entered baseball, Greenberg had the opportunity to provide some moral support for Robinson who later called him a "hero." Told via many older interviews, as well as a few recent ones, we hear the views of fans, mostly Jewish, about the pride that Greenberg instilled. Those fans and friends include the late actor Walter Matthau, Professor Alan Dershowitz, and current US Senator from Michigan Carl Levin. This documentary is loaded with excellent motion picture footage of Greenberg and his teammates, including Charlie Gehringer, Rudy York, and Harry Eisenstat, another Jew who was a pitcher for the Tigers. For a look at both a good piece of baseball history and a commentary on American intolerance prior to World War II, this approximately 90-minute documentary is highly recommended. DVD **** (10/20/01)

"Bridget Jones's Diary"-I believe this film had a chance to be a first-rate British comedy. The story, based loosely on Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice," is about a chubby but attractive young British woman who fears being a spinster and seems to always be falling all over herself, figuratively if not literally, and who finds herself caught between two men who dislike each other intensely, one a little slimey (Hugh Grant as the "Wickham" character) and the other a little too stiff and straight (Colin Firth playing, of course, the Mr. Darcy character). The film has an excellent British cast, including Jim Broadbent ("Topsy-Turvy") and Gemma Jones ("The Duchess of Duke Street") as Bridget's parents, Shirley Henderson ("Topsy-Turvy") as her friend Jude, Hugh Grant as her boss and lover Daniel Cleaver, and the inimitable and handsome Colin Firth as Mark Darcy (yes, THE Mr. Darcy of the last incarnation of "Pride and Prejudice" on "Masterpiece Theater") who finally is recognized by Bridget as a proper romantic interest. But for some reason the whole thing falls relatively flat and part of the blame has to go to the star, Renee Zellweger, who, despite a halfway decent British accent, is simply not British enough (she's from Texas) and not funny enough in a British sort of way to make this movie into something special. I believe a British actress (and I can think of a perfect one) could have ignited this film. Instead, we get a half-baked romantic comedy with embarrassing scenes in which Bridget is either incapable of intelligent thought or is placed in embarrassing situations such as wearing a Playboy bunny outfit while everyone else is dressed appropriately for an afternoon outdoor party. The ultimate blame has to go to Director Sharon Maguire for casting Zellweger in a totally inappropriate part. In an interview on the DVD, Renee Zellweger herself expresses surprise about the casting choice and I believe the British public was also up-in-arms about it. How right they were. DVD *** (10/13/01)

"Blow"-I had trepidations before watching this "true story" about the drug business, but I was "blown" away by the extremely interesting tale of George Jung (Johnny Depp), a self-starting drug dealer who goes from a small-time purveyor of marijuana in the Manhattan Beach, CA, of the 1960s, to the top of the cocaine importing business in the 1970s, down to a final blow as a long-term inmate in federal prison where the real-life George apparently still remains until 2015. George is a man bent on self-destruction. As excellently portrayed by Johnny Depp, George is a miserable kid in Massachusetts with a miserable mother (Rachel Griffiths) who gets as far away as possible from home, only to marry the same kind of woman as his mother (his wife Mirtha is played by Penelope Cruz), miserable women who both ultimately turn him in to the police. Comparable to "Traffic" in its portrayal of the drug business, as well as its tremendous growth in the US in the 1970s, "Blow" is one incredible portrayal of a true loser. George can't do anything but sell drugs and he repeats mistake after mistake, only to lose his real love, his daughter Kristina. Early in the story, George meets a young woman in Manhattan Beach named Barbara (Franka Potente-"Run Lola Run") and falls in love. There is a scene in which George and Barbara are having dinner with George's mother and father (Ray Liotta). I thought it quite amusing that these two American women are portrayed by a German (Potente) and an Australian (Griffiths-"Hilary and Jackie" and "Muriel's Wedding"). Casting is always fascinating. Others of note in the cast are Paul Reubens (yes, "PeeWee Herman") as Derek Foreal, an early partner of George's who finally screws him figuratively; and Jordi Molla as Diego, another of George's partners and an obvious "fatal" mistake of the type George can't ever seem to resist. DVD **** (10/6/01)

"A Knight's Tale"-This simplistic fluff is what one might call a "cute" movie. Heath Ledger stars as William Thatcher, a medieval peasant boy who dreams of changing his stars and takes the opportunity to fraudulently turn himself into a knight so that he can participate in jousting. There isn't much more to this film, except a fairly unexciting romance with a young woman named Jocelyn (Shannyn Sossamon) who always seems to be sitting in the royal box but who never is clearly identified. Frankly, a young blacksmith named Kate (Laura Fraser) seems more attractive and likely for William, but nothing develops between them. Instead she simply makes his armor, using a new technology of course, and joins his merry band of supporters which includes, believe it or not, Geoffrey Chaucer (humorously played by Paul Bettany) who is first seen walking naked down a country road and then turns himself into William's PR man. The creators of this film had the humorous idea that fans of jousting tournaments in the middle ages would have had the same kind of rooting habits as those of modern-day sports fans. And so, a crowd at a joust early in the film is heard and seen to not only be chanting to Queen's "We will, we will, rock you," but also to be doing, believe it or not, the "wave." DVD **1/2 (10/6/01)

"The Luzhin Defence"-John Turturro seems to make a specialty of playing unusual characters, and his Alexandre Luzhin certainly fits the bill. Based on a novel by Vladimir Nabokov, the film concerns Luzhin, a chess savant who seems incapable of normal socialization or discourse. He arrives at a magnificent Italian water resort in the 1930s to play in the chess world championship, but is discombobulated, distracted and and somewhat disheveled. Also present is Natalia Katkov (Emily Watson), a young beautiful socialite, whose mother desires that she go after a young handsome count, but Natalia is taken with Alexandre and has other ideas. Played against flashbacks to Alexandre's childhood in which his obviously unhappy parents help push him into an inward world of chess, Luzhin is a brilliant chess player but seemingly totally lost as an individual. Natalia hopes to do something about that. But lurking in the background is the very sinister Valentinov (Stuart Wilson), a man who took the young Alexandre to make him into chess champion and then dropped him unmercifully when he decided that Alexandre was not good enough. Valentinov is now back to secretly champion the side of Alexandre's prime opponent, Turati (Fabio Sartor). Valentinov is not satisfied with merely supporting Turati, he must maliciously help him along. Unfortunately, Valentinov's motivations are not explained. The cast is excellent. Turturro totally becomes the confused Luzhin. Emily Watson is quite wonderful in portraying Natalia's determination to ignore her mother's wishes and to join with Alexandre. Geraldine James ("The Jewel In The Crown") and Peter Blythe ("Rumpole of the Bailey") are notable as Natalia's parents. DVD ***1/2 (9/29/01)

"Spy Kids"-Every once in a while I like to check out a "family" picture to see what is being made for kids. This one turns out to be a rather silly film about a pair of retired spies (Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino) with two kids (Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara) who all find themselves back in the "spy" business fighting off a band of evil characters seemingly headed by the seemingly diabolical Fegan Floop (Alan Cumming) who has a knack for turning humans into cartoon-like creatures. Oh, there's the usual about stealing an artificial brain and installing it (and its clones) in an army of dangerous robotic children. There are the usual boat chases, hand-to-hand combat, and special effects. I realize that this is all intended as fun, but I still try to imagine someone with the talents of the director Robert Rodriguez ("El Mariachi" and "From Dusk To Dawn"), who is only 33, actually attempting to make something intelligent for children rather than this commercial banality. Rather than stars, this film deserves yawns. DVD **1/2 (9/28/01)

"Malena"-From Giuseppe Tornatore, the director of "Cinema Paradiso," this coming-of-age movie has some charms but ultimately seems flat relative to the virtues of the director's earlier classic. Monica Bellucci, a gorgeous Italian model, plays the delectable Malena Scordia, the wife of a war hero who becomes an apparent war widow in a seaside Sicilian town. Malena turns on every man and boy and turns off every woman as she walks through town wiggling her bottom in tight skirts looking as if she knows that every man is watching. And she is talked about by virtually everyone and followed by local boys, especially young Renato Amoroso (well done by Giuseppe Sulfaro) who ultimately becomes obsessed and protective of this beautiful woman. He dreams of growing up and having her. But the loss of her husband and the refusal of the local women to allow her to be hired makes Malena desperate for work and she falls into the oldest profession, soon prostituting herself for the Nazi officers who have taken over despite the empty promises of Il Duce to keep them out. Young Renato grows in the role of Malena's self-appointed overseer and protector, ultimately providing Malena's chance to restore her reputation after being beaten and shorn by the local women following the liberation of the town by the Allies. The film is beautifully photographed in a lovely Italian setting, but unsuccessfully tries to change from a sexually prurient look at Malena and the local males' obsession with her, into a more serious consideration of Malena's growing misfortunes. Worth a look, but don't expect "Cinema Paradiso." DVD ***1/2 (9/22/01)

"The Tailor of Panama"-I once tried to read this book (by John Le Carre) and never finished it. I did finish the movie and I now know why I didn't finish the book. Following the Panama Canal's transfer from the US to Panama, the British send into Panama a completely corrupt agent named Andy Osmond (Pierce Brosnan-totally miscast) who immediately plots to corrupt someone else for his advantage. That poor soul is Harry Pendel (Geoffrey Rush), a British tailor who serves the wealthy and less-wealthy alike, is happily married (Jamie Leigh Curtis) with two children, and who has the weakness of not having been completely honest about his past in England. Osmond proceeds to convince Pendel to provide him with information or misinformation (doesn't seem to matter to Osmond) that he can use to create interest in an invasion of Panama, and poor Harry's life (and those of some of his friends go downhill from there). The plot is contrived and the ending weak and banal. So weak and banal, in fact, that the DVD presents a somewhat different and even weaker alternative ending. Brosnan is wrong for this part because he's too well known in hero parts (James Bond!). The producers should have found an actor less good-looking and capable of being completely sleazy. Geoffrey Rush is, as always, excellent as Harry Pendel. Jamie Leigh Curtis looks lost. Here was a chance for some interesting and innovative casting. Catherine McCormack gets to play a well-dressed embassy official who spends more time in bed with Osmond than in the embassy doing her job. Brendan Gleeson ("The General") is noteworthy as Mickie Abraxas, a former idealist turned wino. Also of note is Harold Pinter as the ghostly "Uncle Benny." DVD **1/2 (9/15/01)

"3000 Miles To Graceland"-Whew, watching this piece of trash is like stepping into a sewer. Kevin Costner (he is awful!) and Kurt Russell constitute the heart of a gang of Elvis lookalikes who rob a Las Vegas casino of millions of dollars during Elvis week. And they do it with the help of, among others, Christian Slater, David Arquette and Howie Long. Oh, in the background, while the robbery is going on there is the expected floor show with an Elvis impersonator and a bevy of beautiful showgirls. But this isn't funny. No, not in the least. Because the robbers, in a vicious display of semi-automatic rifles, mow down dozens of guards, police and bystanders. And that's just the start of the film. We are then, I gather, supposed to feel something for the murderous thieves who go off and get involved in the usual cliched shenanigans of films of this genre. Who's got the money? Who's doublecrossing whom? Who's going to die next? And to top it off, there's a rotten little kid in the middle of this whose mother, played by Courtney Cox, is chasing after Russell's character despite knowing that he is responsible for the deaths of many people. And the violence doesn't end with the robbery. No, it goes on and on and on. Virtually everyone Kevin Costner's psychotic character meets comes to a violent end. And at the end, would you believe the filmmakers have one of the thieves and his girlfriend (I think you can guess who) sitting on a big yacht on a lovely body of water enjoying the scenery and the money! Yucch! Excuse me. Are they kidding? This film gets one star for production values, and that's it. DVD * (9/8/01)

"The Body"-What would happen to the Catholic Church if the remains of Jesus Christ were discovered in Jerusalem? Well, that's the premise of this mildly entertaining film. Olivia Williams ("Rushmore") is Sharon Goldban, an Israeli archaeologist with a British accent, who discovers a body in a dig in the middle of Jerusalem and finds that all of the indications point to it being the body of Jesus. The Vatican sends in Father Matt Gutierrez (Antonio Banderas) to investigate and attempt to cover-up should it be the real Jesus, but Father Gutierrez is not about to be manipulated, even by his own church, and his faith is truly tested. The film has some silly holes. For example, Sharon Goldban is seen working the dig virtually alone, but the dig is clearly so large that it had to have required dozens of other workers. Considering the importance of the dig, there is virtually no security and even a young boy is able to enter and steal things. Of course, the site is of major political importance to virtually everyone, including the Palestinians who are threatened by this potential find and its likely distraction of attention away from their interests. And this results in the usual intrigue and violence. The premise is interesting and the film is worth watching, especially for its scenery. However, the script is ultimately lacking dramatic impact. There is a hint of attraction between the beautiful archaelogist, a young widow, and the handsome priest, but certainly this was not a theme that could be followed too successfully. Of note in the cast is Derek Jacobi as Father Lavelle, a priest/archaeologist, whose faith is fatally destroyed by the find in the dig, and John Wood as Cardinal Pesci, who is more interested in protecting the Church than in finding the truth. DVD *** (9/7/01)

"Memento"-If you like doing or creating puzzles, this should be the movie for you. If you don't like them, well, this should still be the movie for you. The ultimate film noir, made in sun-laden and typically almost barren southern California, "Memento" is without a doubt one of the most original films I've ever seen. The basic premise is that Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), a former insurance claims processor, has lost his wife and his short-term memory to a rapist-murderer and is bent on finding and killing his wife's killer. In the process, he deals regularly with two people who may or may not be friend or foe, Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) and Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss), and manages to tell everyone about a man named Sammy Jankis, a man whose wife had filed an insurance claim for a similar condition. Leonard's "condition," which causes him to lose all memory of events, conversations, and people within moments, requires him to take photos, make cryptic notes, and place tattoos on his body in order to remind himself of what is going on around him and provide him with the "facts." But this film does not tell its story in the usual manner. The opening scene gives a hint of what is to come. Shelby is seen killing someone but the entire scene is time-backwards from end to beginning, and so is the film. Each scene (in color) is followed by a scene of the events that came immediately before it, beginning with the end of the previous scene, and these scenes are intermingled with scenes in black and white that explain much (it's not initially clear just when the black and white scenes are taking place). In this way, the story is told from end to beginning and it is painfully apparent within a short time that the viewer is being forced to follow the story much as Leonard is experiencing it, by having no memory of what came before. All of the actors are outstanding and perfect in their parts. Pearce ("L.A. Confidential") once again surprises in a first-rate noir role. Carrie-Anne Moss ("Chocolat" and "The Matrix") is showing her talents outside of sci-fi and is starting to have a very promising career. And Joe Pantoliano ("The Sopranos") is wonderfully jolly as the mysterious Teddy. Just who and what is he?

My friend and fellow reviewer on this website, Dave F., advised me that one must see this film twice to understand it. I initially scoffed at this notion. Why would I not understand the film the first time? But Dave was absolutely correct. I watched it again the afternoon after first seeing it and was astounded to see holes filled and little hints that I hadn't noticed the first time, including one very revealing subliminal scene. "Memento" is directed by Christopher Nolan from a short story by his brother. The DVD contains a revealing interview by the NY Times' movie critic Elvis Mitchell of Nolan. This is one for the ages. See it twice! DVD ****1/2 (9/3/01-9/4/01)

"Enemy At The Gates"-World War II films were once a dime a dozen, but then faded away. In recent years, however, the WWII flick has returned with a vengeance with such films as "Schindler's List," "Saving Private Ryan," and this one from Director Jean-Jacques Annaud ("Seven Years in Tibet"). Director Annaud reports that he got the idea for this film from a short article he read about a Russian war hero at the siege at Stalingrad, a sharpshooter named Vassili Zaitsev. Jude Law portrays Vassili as a country boy who knows how to shoot but who almost accidentally finds himself turned into a war-hero by Danilov (Joseph Fiennes), a PR officer of the Red Army. Vassili is so good that he is charged with mowing down the German army officers who wander around the battle scene oblivious to the danger that lurks. But the German army realizes that the Russians are inspired by this hero and send in an ace sniper of their own, a brilliant marksman named Major Konig (Ed Harris) to catch and destroy the Russian hero. There is enough graphic violence in this film to make it very clear that Stalingrad was one of the worst battles in human history, but the story centers around the standoff between Vassili and Konig. Ed Harris is wonderfully cool as Konig, and Law is at his best as the young, nervous, but skilled Russian sniper. There couldn't be such a story, of course, without a little love interest and that's provided by Rachel Weisz as Tania, a smart young woman whose parents have been taken away and killed by the Nazis and who as a result, despite her language talents, wants to fight as a soldier. Despite some stilted dialogue and the corniness of a fairly muted love triangle (with Danilov, Vassili, and Tania), "Enemy At The Gates" is rather good at portraying the battle between Russians and Germans at Stalingrad and the individual battle between Vassili and Konig. Others of note in the cast are Bob Hoskins as Nikita Khruschev, Stalin's right-hand man at Stalingrad, and Ron Perlman as Koulikov, brought in to advise Vassili but who suffers the ultimate fate by not truly understanding how dangerous a character Konig really is. DVD ***1/2 (9/1/01)

"The Dish"-Back in July 1969, we watched our TVs with amazement as Neil Armstrong took that "one small step for man" on the moon. A breathtaking experience it truly was, but most of us who saw those pictures had no idea that they came through loud and pretty clear thanks to a satellite dish located in a sheep meadow in Parkes, New South Wales, Australia. "The Dish" is a sweet, funny, and inspiring film based on that true story. It is about the crew of the Parkes satellite dish and the people of Parkes. Sam Neill is Cliff Burton, head of the station, who, along with Mitch (Kevin Harrington), the incredibly shy Glenn (Tom Long), and the American Al (Patrick Warburton), take the dish through two crises, one caused by electricity and the other by wind, to guarantee that the world got to see Armstrong on the moon. The humor is subtle and Australian, and two of the best performances in the film are those of Roy Billing (Mayor Bob Mcintyre) and Genevieve Mooy as his wife, May. These two pro charmers literally steal the film. It's not a great drama, but certainly there is enough to tell a darn good story about a small town on the other side of the planet which played a pretty significant role in making sure that we all got to see a very important moment in human history. DVD ***1/2 (8/31/01)

"In The Mood For Love"-Starting with an interesting and unique premise, this film finds Mr. Chow (Tony Leung) and Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung) renting next-door apartments in 1962 Hong Kong and moving in simultaneously. Mr. Chow's wife and Mrs. Chan's husband are usually away and unseen. Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan are pleasantly courteous to each other until they realize that their spouses are having an affair. It becomes painfully obvious that the two are attracted to each other, but are too caught up in wondering how their spouses started their affair and in their need for propriety. There is certainly tension in wondering whether Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan will ever become romantically involved, but this film unfortunately drops the ball. About three quarters of the way through, the story simply grinds to a halt. A disappointing ending to a very promising start. Video *** (8/18/01)

"The Mexican"-Jerry (Brad Pitt) and Samantha (Julia Roberts) have a romantic fight because Jerry has been ordered by his gangster bosses to Mexico to find and bring back a famous pistol, and he has to do it because he's messed up other assignments and his life is at stake. Jerry goes off to Mexico to find the gun and Samantha heads for Las Vegas to get away. Jerry rents a beat-up pickup truck and finds himself in very unpleasant-looking Mexican circumstances, while Samantha finds herself in the middle of a gunfight between two thugs, with Leroy (James Gandolfini) the apparent winner. Leroy is, of course, trying to get Jerry to turn the valuable pistol over to him. This film, with an absolutely wretched script and an obsession with bathroom scenes, alternates between Jerry's silly adventures in Mexico and Samantha and Leroy's bizarre travels in America. Jerry can't hold on to anything and can't stay out of trouble. And Leroy turns out to be a gay killer with a heart. Give me a break!! James Gandolfini's performance stands out only in contrast to his well-known "Tony Soprano" role, but Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts are hopeless in this pitiable film. It tries desperately to be funny and scary and is neither. And an attempt at a Rashomon-like portrayal of the history of the gun is embarrassing. I recommend staying away from this tripe at all costs. DVD *1/2 (8/17/01)

"Chocolat"-The luminous Juliet Binoche is Vianne, a woman who arrives in a small and extremely provincial French town, accompanied by her young daughter, both dressed in red cloaks. While the town is under the almost total control of the ultra-religious, self-righteous Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina), the town mayor, and Lent has arrived, Vianne is intent upon opening a chocolaterie, a store filled with what appear to be magical Mayan chocolates. Although she and her daughter arrive carrying relatively small suitcases, Vianne somehow produces all the accoutrements for a beautiful business filled with Mayan sculptures and images. In fact, the magical nature of this woman appears to be a primary element of the early portions of the film, but by the second half Vianne seems to have lost whatever "powers" she had and has become human, brought down by the insufferable Comte and the prejudices that plague the town. Directed by Lasse Hallstrom ("The Cider House Rules"), "Chocolat" questions the Church and the Comte de Reynauds of the world for imposing their limited view of the joy of life on others who may not agree. The local priest (Hugh O'Conor) is portrayed as a simpering tool of the Comte. Others, such as Caroline Clairmont (Carrie-Anne Moss, doing very well for once in a non sci-fi role), follow the Comte out of fear and thus reduce their chances to enjoy the life that is around them. But not surprisingly there are plenty of others who will ultimately fight the prejudices and inspire a rejuvenation of this town. They are led by Armande (Judi Dench), Vianne's wonderfully independent landlady and Caroline's mother; Josephine Muscat (Lena Olin--who is the wife of director Hallstrom) who, in rebelling against her abusive husband Serge (Peter Stormare), also rebels against the Comte's abusive town leadership; and Johnny Depp as Roux, a handsome river gypsy, who inspires the Comte's ultimate downfall while falling for the beautiful Vianne. Also of note is Victoire Thivisol ("Ponette") as Anouk, Vianne's young daughter. The ending of this film is somewhat predictable but the trip getting there is delightful. DVD **** (8/10/01)

"Before Night Falls"-In contrast to "Pollock," this real-life story of another artist (this time Cuban writer/poet Reinaldo Arenas) creates genuine drama around the miserable circumstances of the takeover of his country by the Castro regime. Javier Bardem is excellent as Arenas, a gay writer living under a regime which has ultimate distrust of free expression and hatred of things gay. Arenas finds himself becoming an outcast and ultimately spends a nightmarish prison sentence in El Morro, the Cuban prison at the entrance of Havana harbor. Finally able to leave Cuba in 1980 via Mariel, as a result of the Cuban government's attempt to rid itself of "undesirables," Arenas moves to New York City where he is shown making interesting observations about the differences between the Communist and Capitalist systems during an interview. Unfortunately, soon thereafter he develops AIDS.

With mostly Spanish-speaking actors, including Bardem, who is a native of Spain, it was surprising that the director, Julian Schnabel, chose to have most of the dialogue in English. The accents make it difficult to understand everything that is being said. And what an irony that Arenas is shown speaking English in Cuba and Spanish in NY. Yes, that makes a lot of sense. There are many fine performances with one cameo by Sean Penn, and a dual appearance by Johnny Depp as, first, a prison queen who can smuggle materials out of prison in his body cavities, and then as Lieutenant Victor who makes Arenas' departure from prison very uncomfortable. Olivier Martinez is also touching as Arenas' last friend in New York City. Schnabel, a New York artist turned director, also directed "Basquiat," that tale of another struggling artist who ultimately succumbs to tragedy. DVD ***1/2 (8/4/01)

"Pollock"-What's your image of a great painter? In my imagination, great painters are also intellects who can discuss the world of arts and letters. But if the image of Jackson Pollock, one of the great painters of the 20th Century, as portrayed in this film is accurate, then there is the likelihood that there are artists who express themselves almost totally by their work. Ed Harris, who also directed this film, is very powerful as an extremely disturbed, alcoholic, Pollock whose primary source of communication is his work as well as occasional moments of rage. The opening scene of the film is certainly a portent, showing Pollock during the height of his success autographing a copy of the Life Magazine article that practically guaranteed his success in the commercial art world. Pollock is shown methodically signing and then becoming expressionless or at the very most pained by his experience. And this is one of the unfortunate flaws of the film because rather than tell a real dramatic story, it seems more a retelling of various distressing episodes in Pollock's rather short life, climaxing in the alcoholic car crash that ended it all in the Hamptons on Long Island in 1956. Marcia Gay Harden is excellent as Lee Krasner, the intellectual New Yorker who worships Pollock's talent and marries him, only to be thrown over for a younger and more beautiful woman (Jennifer Connelly) when Pollock is at his artistic prime. I read that Harden worked long and hard to develop her New York accent for this film. In the early scenes, the accent was far from accurate, but Harden adjusted well and the weakness in the accent disappears. Others in this film of note are Jeffrey Tambor as the critic Clement Greenberg who did not fear Pollock's rath; Bud Cort as Howard Putzel who gave Pollock an early boost in the art world; and Amy Madigan (Harris' real-life wife) as Peggy Guggenheim, the wealthy artworld sponsor who also didn't hesitate to become physically involved with the object of her support. Val Kilmer has a short role as the artist Willem DeKooning, but Kilmer makes him look more goofy than serious. While the story of Jackson Pollock is worth knowing, simply because of Pollock's importance in the world of the arts, I can't strongly recommend this film because of its lack of a strong coherent dramatic script. DVD ***1/2 (7/27/01)

"The Gift"-Directed by Sam Raimi, a man whose career is filled with supernatural stories, comic book type characters (he's currently doing "Spiderman") and films about "evil," "darkness" and "the dead," has gone a little further off the deep end with this interesting but ultimately disappointing film (based on a script written in part by Billy Bob Thornton) about a psychic in a southern American location (it was filmed in Georgia) who gets in the middle of an awful lot of strange events and strange people. Effectively played as an otherwise normal and intelligent woman by Cate Blanchett, the psychic, Annie Wilson, has lost her husband to a horrible work accident and is left with three boys who miss their father, is being threatened by Donnie Barksdale, the violent husband (Keanu Reeves) of one of her customers (Hilary Swank), is trying to help a seriously disturbed automotive mechanic (intensely portrayed by Giovanni Ribisi) who has suicidal and murderous tendencies, and then finds herself in the middle of a grisly murder discovered as the result of her psychic abilities. A normal person would have cracked up, but Annie Wilson remains strong and intent, despite dreams of floating bodies, murderous attempts on her life, dripping blood, and dead people in her bathtub. Reeves is particularly effective, for once, as a violent redneck who thinks Annie is a witch. Greg Kinnear does a pleasant job as Wayne Collins, an advisor at the school of Annie's son, whose fiance, Jessica King (Katie Holmes), meets a distinctly unpleasant end. If you like supernatural films, it's not too bad, but otherwise it's silly stuff and over-the-top. DVD *** (7/21/01)

"The Pledge"-Sean Penn gets off to a good start as a director in the early portions of this film about a just-retired policeman who is obsessed with finding the killer of a little girl. Jack Nicholson is initially effective as Detective Jerry Black, a Nevada detective who, on his last case, has made a promise to the parents that he will find the killer and he is determined to carry out that pledge even after the apparent killer has been caught and commits suicide. Early on the film is very well paced and acted, but the story ultimately goes sour for a variety of reasons. The film contains some effective brief appearances by such as Benicio Del Toro (as a disturbed Indian), Aaron Eckhart (as the cop who has taken over Detective Black's assignments and not surprisingly is not as instinctive and adept as Black), Helen Mirren (as a doctor who is consulted by the stranger and stranger Nicholson character), and Robin Wright Penn (as the mother of a little girl who befriends Black and unknowingly endangers her child). The script is based on a book by Friedrich Dürenmatt, but the ending, intended to be ironic, is simply annoying and unsatisfactory. DVD *** (7/20/01)

"Thirteen Days"-This is a thriller in the true sense of the term as the events depicted seem fairly close to the reality of the Cuban Missile crisis that almost led to a nuclear war in October 1962. I was 17 at the time and was just starting my second year of college. I distinctly remember baseball events of that October, including the Giants beating the Dodgers in a playoff, the launch of one of the original seven astronauts from Cape Canaveral just as the Giants' dastardly victory was being completed, and of my early sophomore year of college, and yet strangely I have only a limited memory of these frightening events. I can only imagine that it was the result of general public denial of the real danger. Kevin Costner stars as Kenny O'Donnell, special assistant to JFK, with one of the worst fake Boston accents I have ever heard. Costner amazes in his mediocre acting talents. But that bad acting can be ignored in the face of the tensions that arise when the Kennedy White House learns of the presence of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. Bruce Greenwood and Steven Culp are quite effective as JFK and RFK (neither with quite the accent that the real brothers had, in strange contrast to the absurd accent presented by Costner) as they battled the forces of the military mind. This film makes the Kennedys look like saints dedicated to saving mankind while their advisors, McGeorge Bundy (Frank Wood), Dean Acheson (Len Cariou), Gen. Maxwell Taylor (Bill Smitrovich), and Gen. Curtis LeMay (a wonderful performance by Kevin Conway), look like militaristic maniacs dedicated to getting us into a war regardless of the possible dire consquences to mankind. The drama centers around Costner (who it should be noted is one of the producers) and his family. One would have no idea that JFK had a family, although Jackie makes a brief insignificant appearance at the beginning of the film and then disappears as if non-existent. Bobby Kennedy's large family is nowhere to be seen. One clever sequence has a real "Kennedy" in the form of Christopher Lawford (looking a lot like his father), son of Pat Kennedy Lawford, as Commander William Ecker, a reconnaisance pilot who follows O'Donnell's instructions and claims not to have been shot at by the Soviets. In contrast to the many fictional films about the dangers of nuclear war, this one is really frightening, especially for someone such as I who lived through it. Recommended for anyone who thinks that the world can solve its problems militarily. DVD ***1/2 (7/14/01)

"Unbreakable"-I'll say one thing for this film: it is certainly an original idea. Bruce Willis is David Dunn, a man who survives a horrible train accident without a scratch and gradually begins to realize that there is something unique about the fact that he is virtually never ill or injured. On the other hand, he is faced with Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) who suffers from a bone disorder that renders his bones extremely brittle and often broken. Price, an expert on comic-book art, eggs Dunn on to the idea that there is something very special about himself. The movie then plods slowly but surely towards the ultimate and only slightly surprising conclusion. In the meantime, Dunn is faced with marital problems (his semi-estranged wife is played by Robin Wright Penn) and a young son who believes a little too vehemently that his father is special. The director, M. Night Shyamalan ("The Sixth Sense") has established his interest in stories dealing with the occult and extra-human senses. He obviously has some talent. It's a shame that he can't direct his talents towards more interesting and serious subjects. DVD *** (7/13/01)

"Cast Away"-Imagine an extended episode of the TV series "Survivor" in which there is no one to vote off the island and, in fact, little or no way to get off the island. Well, that about sums up this film which is also the most extensive product-placement motion picture ever seen. Tom Hanks is Chuck Noland, an executive for Federal Express, who finds himself on an uninhabited Pacific island after surviving the crash of one of his company's planes. He has left behind his girlfriend Kelly (Helen Hunt), and manages to survive a very extended stay on this island without going mad, partly due to a photo he has of Kelly in a pocket-watch and partly by inventing a "friend" in the form of a volleyball named Wilson. The heart of the film is, not surprisingly, Hanks' stay on the island from washing up on the shore after the crash to finally making an effort to leave via a raft he has built. The scenery is lovely, although some of the features on the DVD reveal that even many of those scenes were not real and were in fact digitally recreated by computer and in the studio. Some of the film was shot in Fiji, so obviously some of the scenery is real, but the film is fairly depressing as one is forced to imagine what it would be like to be in the situation of Hanks' character. Years ago, filmmakers would invent fictional products for their films. But in today's highly commercialized world, the filmmakers had no hesitation to use a real company and to present images of that company throughout the film. Hanks flies on FedEx planes, instructs FedEx employees in Moscow (at the beginning of the film), and ultimately finds seemingly dozens of FedEx packages on the beach after the crash. I'm not quite sure why Federal Express wanted to be associated with such a depressing situation, but so it is. Helen Hunt, with a relatively small role, is miscast as usual. She's not my idea of a love interest left behind. I could think of a lot more appealing actresses for that role. DVD *** (6/30/01)

"You Can Count On Me"-From the deft and witty script by Kenneth Lonergan (also director and actor) to the mesmerizing performances of Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo as a brother and sister who were orphaned during childhood, this is one of the best films I've seen in a long time. And there's a lot going on despite the seemingly simple tale. Samantha (Sammy) Prescott (Laura Linney) is a young single-mother living in a town in the Catskills in upstate New York, trying to balance the needs of her young son Rudy (Rory Culkin) with the uptight and irritating demands of her new boss Brian (Matthew Broderick) at the local bank at which she works. Suddenly, she is faced with the return of her brother Terry (Mark Ruffalo), a young drifter whose life has been rather aimless since the tragic deaths of their parents in a car accident. Terry takes a liking to his 8-year old nephew Rudy but being somewhat emotionally retarded, takes him into inappropriate situations, including a visit to the boy's rather hostile father. This wonderfully photographed film (made near Phoenicia, NY, in the upper Catskills) deals with a whole range of issues, including aimlessness, loneliness, parenting, marital morality, and sibling love/rivalry and the script is loaded with humor to balance the pathos. Laura Linney is beautiful and incredibly talented and certainly deserved the Oscar nomination she received. Mark Ruffalo is a delightful surprise. Initially, his character seems down and depressing, but he displays a wonderful virtuosity that allows Terry to bloom. Kenneth Lonergan has a nice role as a laid-back priest providing consolation to Sammy as she deals with her brother. This is one that should not be missed. DVD **** (6/29/01)

"Proof of Life"-Meg Ryan and Russell Crowe chose to have a very public affair during the making of this film and it obviously attracted too much attention away from the production. As I recall, this film got little fanfare when in the theaters. And so, I was very pleasantly surprised to discover that it is a first-rate adventure film about the "K & R" (that's "kidnap and ransom") business by director Taylor Hackford ("An Officer and a Gentleman"). Although filmed primarily in Ecuador, the location is a fictional South American country located in the Andes. David Morse is Peter Bowman, an engineer who is employed by an oil company to build a dam that will help it win support for the oil pipeline it wishes to build. Bowman is kidnapped for ransom by mountain rebels just as the oil company is going out of business, leaving no kidnap insurance. Russell Crowe is Terry Thorne, a "K and R" specialist who is brought in initially under the mistaken belief that the oil company has insurance, but one look at Mrs. Bowman (Meg Ryan) is sufficient to make Thorne return from England to help out on his own. With the aid of Pamela Reed as Bowman's sister, and David Caruso as Dino, another "K and R" specialist, Thorne proceeds professionally to attempt to extricate Bowman from the Andes mountains where he is being kept rather crudely by the terrorists. Crowe and Ryan work well together, creating an emotional tension that ironically does not go anywhere near what was apparently going on off the set. Ryan is particularly appealing as the distressed wife, Alice, who can't help but be fascinated by this courageous man who desires to free her husband. The film is extremely well paced and suspenseful as well as beautifully photographed in the Andes. The acting is crisp and professional; and the climax is a rather thrilling military-style operation into the mountains. I enjoyed this film thoroughly. DVD ***1/2 (6/23/01)

"State and Main"-An old familiar movie cliche with a twist: a movie crew suddenly arrives in a small New England town, virtually takes over, and upsets the apple cart. But the twist is that the writer and director of this film is David Mamet who always adds an intelligent perspective, this time about truth and purity, and a sharp script of special Mamet-dialogue. William H. Macy is Walt Price, the director of the film within the film, "The Old Mill." Unfortunately, the town the movie people have chosen for the film no longer has an "old mill," as it burned down in 1960, and the movie personnel go on a search for an alternative to save the big "old mill" scene. Philip Seymour Hoffman, wonderful as usual, is Joseph Turner White, the screenwriter of "The Old Mill" who seems lost without his missing typewriter until he meets Ann Black (Rebecca Pidgeon) who almost immediately realizes that she no longer wishes to be engaged to the stuffy and righteous town lawyer/politico Doug McKenzie (Clark Gregg) because of the allure of the shy Mr. White. Mr. McKenzie sees opportunity for local greed in the filming of "The Old Mill" in this small Vermont town. The stars of "The Old Mill" are Alec Baldwin as Bob Barrenger, who favors young girls, and Sarah Jessica Parker as Claire Wellesley, who only needs a few hundred thousand dollars more than the 3 million she is already being paid to do a topless scene. Barrenger almost undoes the making of the film by having an auto accident with the underaged Carla Taylor (Julia Stiles) as a passenger, thus giving McKenzie the opportunity to threaten Barrenger and the film's production. White is the unwitting witness to the accident who has to decide whether he must tell the truth and possibly ruin his film career. This film is witty and fast-moving. The dialogue short and sharp as usual in a Mamet film. Others of note are Charles Durning as the mayor and Patti Lupone as his demanding wife; David Paymer as the cynical producer; and Ricky Jay as Carla's father who seems unaware that his daughter is not as innocent as she seems. DVD ***1/2 (6/22/01)

"Shadow of the Vampire"-Was F.W. Murnau's 1921 German film "Nosferatu" about the real thing? Was Max Schreck, who played Count Orlock in that film, a real vampire? Willem Dafoe is brilliant as well as brilliantly made-up to play Schreck as a mysterious and frightening character able to pull a bat out of the air and suck its blood. John Malkovich does one of his better jobs as Murnau, the obsessed and drugged director who has found Schreck to play his vampire, and who cares little about what havoc he wreaks on the set of the film, so long as he can finish his production. In one scene Murnau is lying in bed after injecting himself with laudanum. On the walls of the room are various strange designs, one of which is clearly a swastika. It could only have been placed there as symbolic of the mental state of this obsessed and evil character. "Shadow of the Vampire" is also the story of the making of an early motion picture, with the camera operator turning a crank on the camera while the action is in motion. It all seems a little bit too easy, especially considering the poor lighting of several scenes, but ultimately this is secondary to the overall theme. This film is best taken with a good bit of humor. Dafoe's transformation into Schreck is astounding and is worth the price of the picture. DVD ***1/2 (6/16/01)

"O Brother, Where Art Thou?"-One of the first things that is noticeable about this very funny film is the photography by Roger Deakins and digital image experts that makes Mississippi in the 1930's look dry and dusty and a little ancient. But ultimately the script and the music take the cake. George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson are wonderful, individually and collectively, as Ulysses Everett McGill, Pete, and Delmar, three fugitives from a chain gang who are seemingly headed for McGill's home to seek buried treasure. But McGill is obsessed with hair pomade and this appears to be his likely downfall as the police have dogs expert in pomade sniffing. Very loosely based on Homer's Odyssey, the three meet up with a multitude of unusual characters, including a blind railway-handcar prophet, three Sirens, and Cyclops in the form of Big Dan Teague (John Goodman), a vicious racist thief. Written and directed by the brilliant and original Coen Brothers (Ethan and Joel), I found this humorous commentary on the superstitious Southern culture, combined with delightful basic American bluegrass music as both background and essential plot element, to be a very pleasant and surprising delight. Others of note in the cast are Holly Hunter as Ulysses' wife Penny (Penelope, get it?); Michael Badalucco as an hysterical (in more ways than one) George "Babyface" Nelson; Chris Thomas King as Tommy Johnson (and looking a lot like Robert Johnson); and Charles Durning as a white-haired oafish Mississippi governor. The DVD contains an excellent short feature with Roger Deakins about the digital imaging and the likely digital future of motion picture photography. Highly recommended. DVD **** (6/15/01)

"Yi Yi (A One and A Two)"-If you'll look above, you'll see that Stephen Holden and A.O. Scott of the New York Times rated this Taiwanese film as one of the best of the year 2000, and they were right. My only criticism of this film is that it is a bit long, running about 2 hours and 45 minutes. It is the tale of a family in Taipei going through some woes and reevaluations. The father of the family, N.J. Jian (Nianzhen Wu), is a little morose. He's having business problems and is annoyed with his business partners who aren't listening to his advice on the hiring of a computer software expert from Japan (Issey Ogata); his brother-in-law A-Di (Hsi-Sheng Chen) owes him money and is having problems deciding between his pregnant wife and his old girlfriend; his wife Min-Min (Elaine Jin) is having a crisis because her mother (who lives with the Jians) has just gone into a coma and Min-Min can't decide what her own life is about; his daughter Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee), a high school student, is learning about the dangers of friendship, especially with boys; and his 8-year old son Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang) is also rather morose, in part due to his father's mood and in part due to his mistreatment at the hands of older girls and his nasty schoolteacher. But what really throws N.J. for a loop is his chance meeting with his love of 30 years earlier, Sherry (Su-Yun Ko), at a hotel during A-Di's wedding early in the film. N.J. discovers that Sherry is living in America and married to an American but that she is still smarting from having been abandoned by N.J. so many years earlier.

This is what quality cinema is about: human needs, desires, foibles, and experiences. The acting is perfect. The characters are wonderfully modern and the film gives a truly realistic feeling of daily life in Taipei. The script, written by Director Edward Yang, is masterful as is the directing. Yang cleverly employs the use of distant shots, often having the characters' voices heard over scenes of scenery or sets, and yet also allowing the viewer the intimacy of the people and the family situation. Needless to say, this film is highly recommended, but only to those who value a truly human film which does not need the car crashes, violence, sex, and special effects which Hollywood so often relies on. DVD **** (6/9/01)

"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"-I have no doubt that this rather beautiful and intriguing film is more exciting and spectacular on a regular movie theater screen than it is on a TV screen, but it still has an impact on a TV screen of sufficient size. Beautifully filmed by cinematographer Peter Pau and directed and produced by Ang Lee ("The Ice Storm," "Eat Drink Man Woman," and "Sense and Sensibility"), "Crouching Tiger" tells the story of Chinese warrior Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat) and his fellow warrior and love, Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh). The story, which is certainly not the strongest feature of the film, concerns the theft of Li Mu Bai's special sword, which he has given to Sir Te as a gift, by the renegade daughter of Governor Yu. This young lady, Jen (Zhang Ziyi), has secretly been learning the martial arts from her servant, an outlaw named Jade Fox, and has also learned and adopted her hostilities. What follows is not especially deep, but what is memorable about this film are the incredible balletic martial arts scenes in which the participants literally fly at, around, and over each other, leaping over buildings, walking on walls, and eventually, standing on branches of bamboo trees while engaging in some of the most spectacular kung fu battles ever seen. Director Ang Lee has also provided another special touch in the form of a wonderful score, highlighted by the cello music of Yo Yo Ma. As for the cast, I was particularly taken with the performance of Michelle Yeoh ("Tomorrow Never Dies"), who is lovely and soft-spoken in this film (when not engaging in kung fu battles), but who comes across so incredibly differently in an interview feature on the DVD. Zhang Ziyi is also spectacularly energetic as the cute young and rather hostile Jen who ultimately is tamed by Lo (Chen Chang), a bandit she meets in the desert, and by Li Mu Bai and Shu Lien. If for no other reason, this film should be seen for its beauty and its unique special effects, obviously from the imagination of Ang Lee. I also highly recommend, if being viewed on DVD, that the language be set to Mandarin with English subtitles in order to capture the real flavor of the sound of the beautiful Chinese language. DVD **** (6/6/01)

"The House of Mirth"-Based on the novel by Edith Wharton, this film tells the sad tale of Lily Bart (Gillian Anderson), a New York City socialite shortly after the turn-of-the-century. Lily is beautiful and needs a husband but is tragically in love with Lawrence Selden (Eric Stoltz), a man who doesn't meet her financial needs. Hoping to find a husband with money, Lily proceeds to do almost everything wrong in her life, from creating large gambling debts to refusing to take help from caring friends. Worse, Lily uses little in the way of common sense and finds herself terribly mistreated by her Socialite "friends," becoming a debtor as well as an outcast in Society. Sumptuously filmed (in Glasgow, Scotland, primarily), "The House of Mirth" certainly has its flaws, especially in the script where the motivations of characters are not always clear. But the acting is outstanding, starting with the rather surprising Gillian Anderson who here goes far beyond her expressionless performances in TV's "The X Files." The supporting cast includes excellent performances by Laura Linney (in a nasty role for a change), Dan Aykroyd (as a man who takes advantage of Lily financially and hopes for other advantages), Elizabeth McGovern as a good friend and advisor, Terry Kinney and Anthony LaPaglia. Although at the outset it appeared to be a Jane Austen-type tale set in America, by the end it was clearly Edith Wharton. DVD ***1/2 (6/2/01)

"Requiem for a Dream"-From the director (Darren Aronofsky) of the rather strange and esoteric black and white film "Pi," comes this rather different and yet similar, but far more colorful, modern view of the disastrous effects of many forms of addiction. In this American "Trainspotting," Ellen Burstyn is simply fabulous as Sara Goldfarb, an aging widow in Coney Island, whose son Harry (Jared Leto), his girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly) and his friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) enter the drug trade in their neighborhood only to find themselves dragged further and further down in the morass. But what makes this film different is that rather than displaying in detail the use of the drugs in standard time, Aronofsky presents the images as high-tech movie short-cut visuals that tell you exactly what is happening without belaboring the point. He then displays the affects of the drugs via the various images of the person's behavior (from slow to extremely hyper). This is quite stunning and effective. The most telling character is Mrs. Goldfarb who, sad and alone, becomes obsessed with her appearance after receiving a call indicating she might appear on television. She then, with the encouragement of a doctor, enters into an addiction to diet pills (uppers) that drastically converts her into an almost psychotic-appearing hag. A depressing theme, but the performances of everyone in the cast and the originality and intelligence of the director make this an extremely worthwhile film. DVD **** (5/28/01)

"Best in Show"-Christopher Guest, screenwriter/actor/director with his own unique sense of humor ("Spinal Tap" and "Waiting For Guffman"), has here created a world of wacky dog show participants that presents both the subtle and harsh "realities" of the dog show world. The film is loaded with situations that cannot help but make one laugh and Guest is smart enough not to overdo most of the humorous situations. Guest himself is wonderful as Harlan Pepper, a southern Bloodhound owner, who likes to dress like his dog, certainly resembles him, and can tell a mean fly-fishing tale. Catherine O'Hara is Cookie Fleck, a woman with a raunchy past, who somehow wound up happily with ultra-nerd Gerry Fleck (played amusingly by co-screenwriter Eugene Levy, buck teeth and all), and the owner of a Norwich Terrier destined for the "best in show' arena. Michael McKean and John Michael Higgins are a pair of "Queens" who obsess over their very competitive Shi-Tzu. And Jane Lynch and Jennifer Coolidge are a contrasty Lesbian couple whose previously successful French Poodle seems destined for further success at the Mayflower Dog Show. On the other hand, Guest goes a little overboard in his portrayal of an ultimate yuppie couple, mutual braces and all, played with enthusiasm by Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock, and his portrait of a tasteless and obnoxious dog show announcer played unremittingly by Fred Willard who seems to make a career out of such roles. This is a funny movie although I can't say it left me rolling on the floor. But its intelligent humor far exceeds that of many of the tasteless movie comedies of this modern era. DVD ***1/2 (5/17/01)

"All The Pretty Horses"-Based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, this pretty film is about a young Texan, John Grady Cole, who has just lost the family ranch due to the death of his grandfather and decides to take off on horseback with a friend to Mexico for some adventure. Matt Damon is Cole and Henry Thomas is his pal, Lacey Rawlins. It is 1949. When they start off for Mexico, it is palpably clear, according to movie cliches, that there will be romance, danger and probably a prison stay in the foreign country they seek out. And, sure enough, there are no surprises. Cole and Rawlins meet up with a teenager, Jimmy Blevins, who reeks trouble. But they allow him to stick around anyway. And, sure enough, he brings lots of trouble. Blevins is played wonderfully realistically by Lucas Black, with one of the thickest southern accents around. The film follows its natural path, with Cole falling for the daughter of a rich Mexican ranch owner, Rocha (Ruben Blades), for whom Cole and Rawlins are working. Alejandra (Penelope Cruz) is beautiful and wild and nothing but trouble for Damon. He knows it and he takes the chance anyway. And, sure enough, she brings trouble. Slow-moving, though watchable, this film is so predictable that it hurts. Matt Damon renders the young Mr. Cole as a perfect young man, almost painfully caring and good. Henry Thomas is notable in the role of the sidekick who ultimately gets frustrated and leaves, but not after almost being killed in a Mexican prison. The film contains an interesting and excellent short appearance by Bruce Dern as a kindly and caring Texas judge. DVD *** (5/12/01)

"Sunshine"-This three-hour film tells the tale of a Hungarian Jewish family, the Sonnenscheins, from their shtetl roots in the 19th century through family growth and angst to the middle of the 20th century. Concentrating on three generations, "Sunshine" tells the tale of a family assimilating to a great degree due to the anti-semitism that was profound in Europe. With the three generations of Sonneschein males played by Ralph Fiennes, the first, Ignatz, becomes a judge but is forced to change his name to a more Christian-sounding appellation in order to reach a higher level in the Hungarian judiciary. Thus, Sonnenschein becomes Sors (pronounced "Shorsh"). Ignatz's son, Adam Sors, becomes a great fencing champion, but only after converting to Catholicism in order to join an Officer's Club which allows great fencers the best opportunities. Each male family member seems to be a clone of the previous generation, falling into the same traps and making the same self-deprecating mistakes. Ivan, the final family member (literally and figuratively), witnesses his father's ignoble death in a Nazi concentration camp, standing helplessly in a crowd of thousands while a handful of Nazis commits atrocities, and then makes the same mistakes as his father and grandfather by succumbing to the Communist regime and joining its police force and participating in its brutalities. There is also love and romance. Actor Fiennes seems to be succumbing to a role stereotype in which he plays the cool, rather unfeeling, lover who falls into the wrong relationships. Ignatz marries his "sister" (actually cousin), Valerie, played in a luminous way by the wonderful Jennifer Ehle (and later, as an older woman, by Ehle's real mother, the great Rosemary Harris). Adam falls for Hannah (Molly Parker) who is engaged to another, and when he finally gets her as his wife, winds up in an affair with his rather annoying and pushy sister-in-law, Greta (Rachel Weisz). Finally, following the poor romance patterns of the family males, Communist Ivan falls for a beautiful married police officer, Carole Kovacs (Deborah Kara Unger), a relationship that can only fail. Other performances of note are William Hurt as Andor Knorr, an anti-fascist destroyed in part by Ivan's police activities; James Frain as the younger Gustave Sonnenschein; and John Neville as the elder Gustave. This film tells a tale worth telling, but it runs too long. I felt that it started losing its impact in the third hour and that it should have been reduced by at least a half hour. Still, it's worth viewing for a stark view of the anti-semitism of Europe and its impact on a single family through the middle of the recently-ended century. DVD ***1/2 (5/11/01)

"Quills"-What is sanity and what is madness? In this rather picaresque tale of the Charenton insane asylum in France in the very early 19th century, we meet the Marquis de Sade (brilliantly played by Geoffrey Rush), an inmate who has lived through the harshness of the French Revolution and who is driven to write his bawdy and angry tales no matter how difficult the task may be. There is also the beautiful Madeleine (Kate Winslet) who is driven by basic human desires to help the Marquis get his works published. There is the young Abbe Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix) who possesses basic humanity and thus treats the inmates with care and concern. And finally there enters, at the behest of the "sane" Napoleon, the evil Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine), who reports that he is there merely to administer. Michael Caine, as usual, is wonderful in his cool portrayal of a cruel madman who cares little or nothing for the inmates or the asylum, and who ultimately destroys most of what is in his path. The script by Doug Wright is often brilliant and funny, although ultimately the film goes a little over the top at the end. Others of note in the cast are Billie Whitelaw as Madeleine's blind mother, Madame LeClerc; and Amelia Warner as Simone, Dr. Royer-Collard's young but scheming wife. As in any story about the Marquis de Sade there are some very rough moments, but overall a very successful film about the true meaning of madness. DVD **** (5/5/01)

"Hamlet"-I must be a purist. Somehow a truncated version of Shakespeare's "Hamlet" done in New York City around the Denmark Corporation just doesn't do it for me. Oh, the play is easier to understand in this format, and the cinematography is outstanding, but watching Ethan Hawke as the "sweet prince" when one has seen Olivier, is like watching Marv Throneberry play first base when one has seen Gil Hodges. Sam Shepard is a little too alive for the ghost and Kyle MacLachlan as Claudius kept reminding me of his performance in "Blue Velvet." I kept expecting Bill Murray, as Polonius, to crack a joke, but I must admit that he did a fine death scene after being shot through a mirror by Hamlet. And Julia Stiles was perfectly forgettable as the doomed Ophelia. I was impressed only by Diane Venora as Gertrude, Hamlet's ill-advised mother, who created an atmosphere of sincerity in the part, possibly because she her roots on the Broadway stage. If you like the "Classic Comics" version of serious works of art, check this film out. Otherwise, I'd stay away. DVD ** 1/2 (4/21/01)

"Billy Elliot"-What are the usual ingredients of an outstanding film? A story containing elements of humanity, compassion, struggle, desire and creativity? Well, they're all here in this delightful little film about a young boy in a northern England mining town who discovers that he has an interest in and ability for dancing. What makes it particularly poignant is that the boy is living in the midst of the worst mining strike in British history which has put both his father and brother out of work. And the misery is worsened by the recent death of his mother. Jamie Bell is a revelation as "Billy," who has the good fortune to be taken under the wings of the local ballet instructor, Mrs. Wilkinson. Julie Walters ("Educating Rita") as Mrs. Wilkinson is delightfully pushy, a cigarette hanging from her lips, as she encourages the young dancer. But in this town Billy has to deal with the prejudices of the local macho mentality. Gary Lewis and Jamie Draven do a fine job as Billy's father and brother, respectively. Lewis, as Billy's father, in particular shows wonderful depth in portraying a striking miner who grows from outrage that his son would be interested in an artistic endeavor rather than manly sports to full and complete support and who then has to struggle with the never-before-considered possibility of crossing the picket line to support his son's endeavors. Jamie Bell's performance is one that will be hard to forget as it is loaded with charm and pizzazz, especially in the wonderful dancing scenes through the streets. DVD **** (4/20/01)

"Nurse Betty"-Neil LaBute, who has in the past explored the sinister aspects of male/female relationships ("In The Company of Men"), this time directs a humorous film about love and violence in a world of questionable reality. Betty Sizemore (Renée Zellweger) is a simple waitress in Kansas obsessed with a soap opera and its characters, who soon finds herself minus one husband and on her way to California to seek out the prime "doctor" (Greg Kinnear) on the soap who she now believes is real and was meant for her. Following close behind are her husband's killers (played wonderfully by Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock) who believe she has something that they must have. Zellweger is delightful as the deluded Betty who turns soap-opera viewing into a reality of her own. Freeman is perfectly suave as a warm-hearted killer obsessed with Betty. And Chris Rock is deliciously hysterical and sarcastic as Freeman's more serious and goal-oriented partner. The cast is loaded with good performers, including Aaron Eckhart as Del Sizemore, Betty's sleazy husband; Tia Texada as Rosa, a California woman who finds herself hosting the bizarre and obsessed Betty who has magically transformed herself into a nurse (soap-opera style); Crispin Glover as Roy, the simple-minded but goal-directed fellow from back home who finds Betty in the nick of time; and Allison Janney as the soap-opera producer who doesn't quite know what to make of Betty. This film could have been botched and embarrassing to watch, but LaBute's original and talented flare, plus the talents of the cast, especially Zellweger and Freeman, makes it a genuinely enjoyable experience. DVD ***1/2 (4/13/01)

"The Legend of Bagger Vance"-Directed by Robert Redford, and containing the usual gorgeous vistas (this time mostly of golf courses) associated with Redford's more recent films, "Bagger Vance" is nothing to take seriously. Matt Damon is Rannulph Junuh, a local Savannah golf hero who has suffered the trauma of WW I, and who, due to an obvious post-traumatic stress disorder, has abandoned the love he had for Adele Invergordon (Charlize Theron), a wealthy local beauty. When the depression hits and Adele is faced with serious economic problems after her father has built a beautiful new golf course and then committed suicide when no one comes to use it, Adele decides to have a glamorous match between two golf greats, Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen, to bring fame and fortune to the course. The powers-that-be in Savannah insist on a local golf star being part of the game and bring Junuh back from his misery. Junuh has lost his swing but suddenly there appears Will Smith as Bagger Vance, the calm, cool and collected caddie who will inspire Junuh to regain his earlier prowess. The story is narrated by Jack Lemmon as Hardy Greaves who, as a boy, played a major role in Junuh's efforts in this match. The ending is not surprising. Nothing really stands out in this film other than the beautiful vistas. There is no depth to the story or the acting, but it's still worthwhile as a way to pass a couple of hours. DVD **1/2 (4/7/01)

"Red Planet"-Hollywood has run out of new sci-fi ideas about travel to the planets. This picture about a journey to Mars in 2025 to "save the earth," has every cliche in the book times two. With a crew led by Carrie-Anne Moss, and including Val Kilmer, Terence Stamp, Benjamin Bratt, and Tom Sizemore, everything goes wrong as soon as the ship hits the Martian atmosphere and it is all downhill, literally and figuratively, from that point. A robot from the ship built to look like a wild animal becomes, shockingly, a wild animal. There are, of course, sinister bugs there to devour at least some of the crew. The commander, Kate Bowman (Moss), in the midst of the effects of a severe radiation assault on the ship, launches the crew towards Mars' surface and then miraculously, of course, saves the mother ship from imminent demise. She is told she has seconds and somehow makes it after minutes. The only survivor of the trip to the surface faces an impossible task of returning to ship just in time to accompany Bowman home to earth. Will he make it? Of course, defying all scientific possibility and logic.The most interesting member of the cast is Moss, who appeared in "The Matrix," and who seems destined for a career in sci-fi films. I wonder why. She is attractive and has a strong voice that would seem to cry out for at least an attempt at a more serious role. In any case, "Red Planet" is a cliche-laden bust and cannot be recommended even for sci-fi nuts. DVD *1/2 (3/31/01)

"Cotton Mary"-The team of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory has often produced lush and wonderful films about the British culture ("Howard's End" and "A Room With A View," for example). This time, however, their efforts to deal with the effects of the Anglo-Indian colonial relationship falls flat on its face. A good cast accomplishes little. It is 1954 on the Malabar Coast of India. Mahdur Jaffrey plays Cotton Mary, a hospital nurse who desires more than anything to be part of an English household and she gets her chance when Lily Macintosh (Greta Scacchi) gives birth to a baby girl but is unable to breast feed her. Mary steps in and does everything to make sure the child is well and to make sure that Lily becomes reliant on her, so much so that Lily eventually invites her to leave the hospital and join her household to care for the child. Mary is portrayed as obsessed with proving that she is not "just" an Indian but is actually "Anglo-Indian," and she will stop at nothing to prove to her fellow Indians how important she is by living in the Macintosh household. On the other hand, Greta Scacchi's character has little chance to develop, other than as an incredibly naive and manipulated individual who allows Mary to talk her into firing an Indian servant who has clearly been as devoted and loyal to the Macintosh household as Mary is self-serving. The part of Abraham, the loyal servant who is wronged, is played beautifully and with subtlety by Prayag Raj. When Lily decides to find him and rehire him, but fails later in the film after learning the truth of Mary's false accusations, I actually felt sorrow for the fact that Abraham would not be found and rehired. "Cotton Mary" also stars James Wilby as Lily's husband, John, a reporter who is often away leaving Lily to increase her depression and sorrow, and Mahdur Jaffrey's lovely daughter Sakina Jaffrey, who plays her niece, Rosie, who eventually starts an affair with John and finally gives away Cotton Mary's secrets. The theme is clear but the movie is muddy. A good theme that just didn't come to fruition in the form of a sharp and intelligent production. DVD *** (3/28/01)

"Remember The Titans"-This is the story of the integration of a high school (T.C. Williams) in Alexandria, VA, and its football team and the difficulties encountered by the parties. Denzel Washington is Herman Boone, the black coach who is made head coach replacing the white coach, Will Patton as Bill Yoast, known to his overly enthusiastic 11 year old daughter Sheryl as "Coach." The film portrays Alexandria as a sleepy southern town which is just experiencing integration and the problems that go with it. Boone asks Yoast to stay on as assistant coach and leads all of the players on a soul-searching two week camp in Gettysburg, PA. Some undergo a magical transformation from hate to love. Others don't. This is a button-pusher film. It makes you choke up and even cry occasionally, in watching these young football players go from hatred to teamwork and even affection. It's hard to imagine that it really happened like this, but it's fun to watch. In fact, I had been living in Alexandria for three years at the time of the "true" events of this film, the fall of 1971. When I arrived in the fall of 1968, it was my understanding that Alexandria had recently desegregated. I have no recall whatsoever of any such integration problems being in the news during the time portrayed in the film. The film gives the impression that the success of the T.C. Williams football team "brought the town together." I remember hearing of T.C. Williams but have absolutely no recall of its football team. Alexandria, in fact, was at that time a fairly large town directly across the Potomac from Washington, D.C. Although it certainly had some features of a southern town, a large portion of the population included people like me from other places who were there to work for the U.S. government. I'd say it was a reasonably cosmopolitan place for that time, and hardly the town portrayed in the film. That said, the film, from Disney, has its virtues. Denzel Washington gives his typical strong performance as a tough individual who knows exactly who he is and what he wants. Will Patton does an interesting turn as the coach who suffers being demoted and has to resist the racism of some of his friends and colleagues. Ryan Hurst is very good as Gerry Bertier, an All-American player who experiences true growth and then a horrible debilitating injury. DVD ***1/2 (3/25/01)

"Dancer In The Dark"-I have to be honest. I only really saw about half of this film. I fast-forwarded through the rest simply to see what ultimately happened. In fact, I'd say this film was one of the most bizarrely anti-movies I've ever seen. The Icelandic singer "Bjork" plays a factory worker from Czechoslovakia with a young son in the state of Washington in the distant past. Selma, Bjork's character, is going blind from a genetic disease and she is saving money so that her son can have an operation and be saved from blindness. Selma is also enamored of movie musicals and is rehearsing for "The Sound of Music." In the meantime, she is befriended by a strange group of fellow travelers, one of whom is a neighbor cop who is going broke and covets the money Selma is saving for her son's operation. What happens after this is almost unspeakable. I hated this movie. I hated the singing and dancing, which was almost purposely unpleasant, sort of like a scene in the movie theater during which Bjork and Catherine Deneuve (as her friend and supporter) talk during a musical and annoy another viewer. I hated the theme. While I found Bjork mildly appealing as an actress, she has little or no talent for singing and listening to her is painful. The rest of the cast was off. Catherine Deneuve playing a factory worker in Washington made no sense. Bjork's character is supposed to be from Czechoslovakia and yet sounded nothing like a Czech. Why get an Icelandic singer/actress to play a Czech with an Icelandic accent? The combination of American and foreign characters seemed completely off and out of place and time. While some have seen virtue in this film, I saw only distress. I highly recommend that it be missed. DVD * (3/24/01)

"Wonder Boys"-Professor Grady Tripp's (Michael Douglas) life is at a lowpoint. His wife has left him and he's distracted by pot. His married lover, the Chancellor of the University, Sara Gaskell (Frances McDormand) is pregnant with his child. A once successful novelist, his latest book is obsessive and overlong, and his life is occupied by his gay and confused literary agent and editor, Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey, Jr.), a beautiful young student who lives in his house (Katie Holmes), and a morose but talented writing student named James Leer (Tobey Maguire) who has shot the dog of the Chancellor's husband (Richard Thomas) and has stolen the latter's prized Marilyn Monroe jacket. Confusing? It sure seems so when one contemplates the description. But this rather interesting situation, centered around a special university celebration of writing, ultimately seems to slowly and gradually fit together. Tripp is a man on a journey towards self-discovery, as are many of the other characters, and one of the pleasures of the film is the pace at which he and the others achieve it. Despite having a few unlikely situations (the handling of the dog, for example, and Tripp's almost total failure to deal with a dog bite), the film takes us down a road to understanding of the characters and their potential. I was particularly taken with Michael Douglas' performance, one of his best. Frances McDormand as always is outstanding as the frustrated and uncertain lover. At first, Tobey Maguire plays his usual stone-faced role, but ultimately he is given a chance by Director Curtis Hanson ("L.A. Confidential") to show some expression and charm. Robert Downey, Jr., provides his usual insight into an interesting and intriguing character. Definitely a unique experience for a recent American film, a genre usually loaded with commercialism. This film is certainly not in that category. The film also contains some excellent work of singer Bob Dylan, including an original song "Things Have Changed." There is a wonderfully humorous video of Dylan doing the song on the DVD. DVD **** (3/17/01)

"Almost Famous"-It is 1973 and we are about to relive Director Cameron Crowe's real life fantasy experience of touring with a rock group and writing for "Rolling Stone" magazine. Starring young Patrick Fugit as William Miller, the Crowe alter ego, this rather delightful film takes us into the world of a mid-level rock group traveling the country by bus surrounded by "band-aids" (aka groupies despite the denials in the film) and fellow travelers. Miller is a precocious 15-year-old with a mature deep voice and an uncanny writing ability who somehow convinces his uptight professorial mother to allow him to go off on his own. The mother (Frances McDormand) is portrayed as cynical and yet amazingly liberal in permitting her son an unsupervised trip with "Stillwater," the rock group of four young men led by Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup). Hammond is talented, immature, uncertain about himself, and charming, and he allows young Miller his opportunity to see the rock world from the inside despite knowing that Miller is a writer/rock critic and ultimately "the enemy." Along the way, Miller meets and falls for "Band Aid" Penny Lane, wonderfully done by Kate Hudson (Goldie Hawn's lookalike daughter who appears to have a great deal of talent and a wonderful future in films). The film has some other excellent performances, including Philip Seymour Hoffman as rock critic Lester Bangs, Fairuza Balk as Sapphire, another of the "Band-Aids," Zooey Deschanel as William's sister Anita who becomes an airline stewardess in rebellion against her mother, and Jason Lee as Jeff Bebe, Hammond's competition for control of "Stillwater." The original music performed by the group is somewhat forgettable but the film has a background of 1973 era songs that are familiar and fun. Having lived through this era, I had a sense that despite Director Crowe's efforts, it seemed more 1990's than 1970's, but apart from that, the film has an upbeat feel that ultimately is worth the trip. Notably humorous is a scene on a private plane during a thunderstorm during which the passengers think they will die and make ultimately regrettable confessions (which reminded me of a similar scene from the TV show "Seinfeld.") DVD **** (3/16/01)

"The Contender"-There are several different ways of looking at this film. One is as an example of our current political culture in which a candidate or nominee's personal and sex life becomes an open target. Another is as an example of the double standard, and how women are treated somewhat differently than men in the process. And another might be as an indication of just how refreshing the political world might be if we had some principled people who stood up for what they believe (assuming they believe anything). Jeff Bridges is President Jackson Evans, a Democrat, who must appoint a new vice-president after the death of the elected vice-president. Rather than choose the obvious example, a male governor who has made an apparently heroic rescue attempt (William Petersen), President Evans chooses Sen. Laine Hanson (Joan Allen), an attractive and tough woman who grew up as a Republican but switched to the Democratic Party. Gary Oldman is wonderfully wicked as right-wing Cong. Shelly Runyon, the head of the committee that will evaluate Sen. Hanson's nomination and he proceeds to bring up, as slyly as possible, as much dirt as possible about Sen. Hanson's private life, even back to her college days. There is a great deal going on in this film, and some of it turns into an extremely interesting surprise. Joan Allen is outstanding as Sen. Hanson, who must refuse to wither under an incredible assault on her character. Jeff Bridges is fine as the president, although some of his movements reminded me of his old "Starman" role. Christian Slater does a nice turn as a young congressman who initially sides with Runyon, but ultimately knows the difference between right and wrong. There are elements of the film that are a little fantastic, such as Runyon's wife turning on him and the ultimate finale of the president's speech to Congress, but alas they make the viewer, especially the liberal or progressive viewer, feel great. If that's what you are, I recommend this film highly. DVD **** (3/9/01)

"Hollow Man"-Director Paul Verhoeven, who has made a career of directing fairly mediocre science fiction films ("Starship Troopers" and "Total Recall") and titillating films ranging from the good to the absurd ("Basic Instinct" and "Showgirls") has here combined both themes in a film laden with thriller cliches. Kevin Bacon is Sebastian Caine, in charge of a group of Defense Department scientists working to discover means of making people invisible and then returning them to normal form. Caine and his cohorts (including Elizabeth Shue and Josh Brolin), working in a highly protected below-ground environment, ultimately decide to experiment using Caine as a guinea pig. But unlike the gorilla which they manage to return, they can't do it with Caine who has developed some kinky ideas about just what he can do as an "invisible man." What begins as a fairly intriguing science fiction flick with plenty of incredible special effects, turns into a tale of an invisible monster wreaking havoc on friend and stranger alike. The ending is equivalent to a remake of "Alien" except that the characters are stuck in a below-ground compound rather than in a spaceship and the enemy is their invisible "friend" rather than an alien monster. There is even the ultimate horror cliche of the last grasp of the monster after it is thought he is already dead. If the creators of this film had had as much imagination about the plot as they had with the special effects, they might have produced something special. The DVD is loaded with interesting short documentaries about the making of the film and the special effects. DVD **1/2 (2/17/01)

"Woman On Top"-This is a pleasantly surprising little romantic comedy starring Penelope Cruz in the role of Isabella Oliveira, a lovely young chef from Bahia, Brazil who has a serious problem with motion sickness. As a result, she makes certain demands on her husband Tominho (Murilo Benicio), an owner of a local restaurant at which Isabella is the chef. As a result of those demands, Tominho makes a mistake and drives Isabella away. Off she goes to San Francisco to seek a new life and new career where she teams up with Monica Jones (Harold Perrineau, Jr.) a wonderfully charming transvestite and old friend from Bahia, and the two quickly become TV stars at the behest of a young producer, Cliff Floyd (Mark Feuerstein) who is smitten with Isabella. In many ways, this film is cliche-ridden but ultimately entertaining because of a couple of significant differences, including the relatively unknown cast and the lovely Brazilian settings and music which dominates the soundtrack. Don't expect depth. Just light charm, but it's worth it to see an old-fashioned romance told in a somewhat different way. DVD ***1/2 (2/16/01)

"8 1/2 Women"-If you've ever seen a Peter Greenaway film ("The Draughtsman's Contract," "The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover," "Prospero's Books," and "Pillow Book," among his most well-known), you have a pretty good idea that setting out to watch a new Greenaway film can be a dazzlingly puzzling and bizarre experience. This film is little different. Philip Emmenthal (John Standing), inspired by his son Storey (Matthew Delamere), ultimately decides to drop his status as a poor grieving (wealthy) widower who owns Pachinko parlors in Japan and become a hedonist par excellence. The two manage to find a bevy of mistresses for the Emmenthal mansion in Switzerland, ranging from Asian (Vivian Wu), a former nun (Toni Collette), a woman obsessed with horses (Amanda Plummer), and the ultimate, Palmira, played by a rather ravishingly sexy Polly Walker, who appears to love the elder Emmenthal and is worshiped by the younger, but the latter's feelings remain unrequited. All ultimately falls apart in this eccentric film about male sexual fantasies. Greenaway can never tell a story in a straightforward way and this film too is loaded with bizarre scenes like none one has ever seen before. It is difficult to discern a theme of any depth and, unfortunately, at the end of this unusual journey, as in many Greenaway films, one can only sum up with a gigantic "ho-hum." DVD **1/2 (2/16/01)

"Dr. T and The Women"-This may be the film that ultimately proves that Director Robert Altman is mostly surface, and little substance. It is about a Dallas gynecologist named Sullivan Travis (Richard Gere) who caters to wealthy Texas women who seem to have difficulty staying away from his office. The film is loaded with scenes such as the opening classic Altman-type scene at Dr. T's office, in which patients and nurses are shown entering the office and otherwise talking and moving around with the camera following their every alternative move. By the end of this scene, one has more a sense of Grand Central Terminal than of any doctor's office one has ever been to. But it is also a hint of the chaos that is about to enter Dr. T's life. He soon finds that his wife (Farrah Fawcett) is mentally disturbed, his daughter Dee Dee (Kate Hudson) is likely about to marry the wrong person, and that the woman who enters his life after his wife is hospitalized is not quite what she appeared to him to be. That latter is Bree (Helen Hunt), an assistant golf pro just off the pro circuit, and so much seemingly down-to-earth in contrast to the women normally surrounding Dr. T, that he is carried away. This theme of upper class and Texas-tacky glitz versus earthiness could have been better developed, but ultimately the film ends with a somewhat Oz-like fantasy that really avoids the issues. Gere is admirably low-key in this role, Hudson is very promising as young Dee Dee Travis, and Tara Reid is interesting and amusing as Dee Dee's sister Connie. Others notable in the film are Shelley Long as Dr. T's swooning chief nurse and assistant, Laura Dern as one of the Dr. T family relatives who oozes Southern "charm," and Liv Tyler as the intended maid of honor for Dee Dee's wedding. DVD *** (2/9/01)

"Up At The Villa"-Based on a story by Somerset Maugham, this film takes place in approximately the same time and place as "Tea With Mussolini" and is about as deep. Kristin Scott Thomas stars as Mary Panton, a young and beautiful pre-WW II British widow without significant resources who is relying on the kindness of friends and staying alone at a beautiful villa near Florence. Wooed by the older, wealthy and clearly boring Sir Edgar Swift (James Fox), Mary contemplates a dull marriage with him while flirting with other younger and more dangerous men, including Rowley Flint (Sean Penn), unhappily married and available for fun and adventure, and a young Viennese who is illegally within Italy, Karl Richter (Jeremy Davies). Mary makes a fatal mistake with Richter and requires Rowley's help to extricate herself from potential serious legal problems. These main characters are surrounded by idle British and Americans, including Anne Bancroft (Prince San Ferdinando) and Derek Jacobi (with the unlikely name of Lucky Leadbetter and far too much makeup). The film has a Masterpiece Theater quality about it, is worth watching, but is ultimately forgettable. Sean Penn, teamed with talented and sensitive British actors, such as Thomas and Jacobi, seems unusually stiff and stilted in his delivery. He seems to be trying much too hard to seem sophisticated when his usual sassy charm would have been preferable. DVD *** (2/3/01)

"Saving Grace"-Brenda Blethyn ("Secrets and Lies" and "Little Voice") stars as Grace Trevethyn, a woman living in a beautiful estate home in Cornwall, who suddenly finds herself, after the suicide of her husband, destitute and desperate for ways to make money so that she can save her home. And with a bit of agricultural skills and her handy Scottish gardener, Matthew (Craig Ferguson, who also co-wrote the screenplay), she embarks on a highly questionable and unorthodox means of making money for someone of her background. Pure fluff and silliness, but Blethyn is always fun to watch, and Ferguson is delightful as the gardener who is devoting more attention to the plants in Grace's greenhouse than to his pregnant wife Nicky (Valerie Edmond). So typical for even a light British film, the performances are all good and charming, especially Martin Clunes as the local doctor, and Tchéky Karyo as Jacques, the ultra-charming Frenchman to whom Grace goes for her ill-gotten gains. The photography is excellent, especially as it takes place in a lovely sea-side portion of Cornwall. DVD ***1/2 (1/20/01)

"Traffic"-This is a brilliant film, beautifully directed and photographed by Steven Soderbergh, in multiple hues and muted natural colors (blue for the official scenes of the conservative world; yellow for the world of the drug cartels of Mexico; and more natural muted colors for the world of the American drug lords in San Diego). "Traffic" contains an important element of movie magic, it makes you forget, most of the time, that you are watching actors. The story proceeds seemingly along three separate lines, but ultimately they all interact. Michael Douglas is Judge Robert Wakefield, appointed to be the U.S. Drug Czar, who faces a severe problem with his own daughter, Caroline (Erika Christensen). Catherine Zeta-Jones is Helena Ayala, a wealthy pregnant San Diego wife whose world is suddenly disrupted by the arrest of her husband, Carlos, a vicious drug lord. Providing some humor in this part of the story are Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman as Montel Gordon and Ray Castro, DEA agents who are protecting the prime witness against Ayala, Eduardo Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer, cousin of George Clooney). But the most impressive part of the story involves the Mexican drug cartels in Tijuana and Juarez, and centers around a fabulous and memorable performance by Benicio Del Toro as Javier Rodriguez Rodriguez, a decent Mexican police officer who is caught between the cartels and the corruption of Mexican government officials. Del Toro, who is wonderful to look at, simply becomes his character and his expressions are deep feeling and priceless. Others of note in the film are Dennis Quaid as Arnie Metzger, a sleazy adviser to Mrs. Ayala, and Amy Irving as Mrs. Wakefield.

The theme of this film, the virtual hopelessness of the "war on drugs," is reflected especially in two scenes. In one, Douglas as Wakefield, who has just found his daughter in the clutches of an extremely severe drug habit, breaks down during a White House speech and declares that the "war on drugs" is ultimately a "war" on members of "our own families." In another scene, Miguel Ferrer as Eduardo Ruiz ridicules Don Cheadle as DEA agent Montel Gordon, asserting the utter hopelessness and ultimate pointlessness of destroying one drug dealer while so many others will manage to keep the drugs flowing. The brilliance of this film, however, has one flaw. And that is that while beautifully and imaginatively done, it is not an original conception. It is based on a British TV series called "Traffik" which was shown here on PBS, and had virtually the same plot except that it was located in a European setting. Theater ****1/2 (1/13/01)

"The Cell"-As this film had been listed by Roger Ebert as one of his ten best films of 2000, I was curious and rented it on DVD. Well, what Ebert saw in this film is totally beyond me. It is a revolting and sickening story of a monstrous serial killer of women whose mind is entered by a well-meaning therapist played by Jennifer Lopez via surreal sci-fi techniques. Vincent D'Onofrio is totally wasted as the killer. Vince Vaughn is weak as an FBI agent hoping to find the killer's latest victim before she dies a horrible death and who also winds up doing a little mind-hopping. This film, which is laden with special effects, is undoubtedly a "Matrix"-wannabe, but it doesn't come close. If you enjoy watching real nightmarish and gruesome horror, as well as how Hollywood types envision the mind of a psychotic killer, this film is for you. I suspect that it's not for most people. A must-miss as far as I'm concerned. DVD *1/2 (1/7/01)

"Mifune"-This is certainly a wacky view of life in Denmark. Kresten (Anders Berthelsen) is a seemingly happy businessman in Copenhagen who has just married the boss's daughter. But his father's death forces him to return to a dilapidated farm where the only living occupant is his retarded brother, Rud, who is entertained by Kresten's impersonation of the Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune as a samurai. Finding himself in a difficult situation, and destined to be involved in a quickie divorce situation, Kresten hires a housekeeper (Iben Hjele of "High Fidelity") who was a prostitute in her former life. And they find love, but only after a great deal of shenanigans, much of which could have been avoided if they had simply talked to each other. Almost all the characterizations are of weird individuals. And yet the film has an odd charm. Video *** (1/6/01)


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