New York Film Critics Circle Awards for 2001

The New York Film Critics Circle recently announced its awards for 2001 motion pictures. Some of the lead awards are:

Best Picture: Mulholland Dr. (Runners-up: Gosford Park, In The Bedroom)

Best Actor: Tom Wilkinson (In the Bedroom) (Runners-up: Jim Broadbent (Iris); Denzel Washington (Training Day))

Best Actress: Sissy Spacek (In The Bedroom) (Runners-up: Naomi Watts (Mulholland Dr.); Tilda Swinton (The Deep End))

Best Supporting Actor: Steve Buscemi (Ghost World) (Runners-up: Ben Kingsley (Sexy Beast); Brian Cox (L.I.E.))

Best Supporting Actress: Helen Mirren (Gosford Park) (Runners-up:Maggie Smith (Gosford Park); Scarlett Johansson (Ghost World))

Best Director: Robert Altman (Gosford Park) (Runners-up: David Lynch (Mulholland Dr.); Todd Field (In The Bedroom))


Top 10 Lists of the Reviewers of the New York Times for 2001

A. O. Scott: A.I.; The Circle; Ghost World; Gosford Park; Our Song; The Gleaners and I; Sexy Beast; Baran; The Man Who Wasn't There; and The Heart of the World

Stephen Holden: In The Bedroom; Amores Perros; The Town Is Quiet; Mulholland Dr.; Gosford Park; Waking Life; Faithless; Hedwig and the Angry Inch; Shrek; and A.I.

Elvis Mitchell: In The Mood For Love; Lumumba; Amores Perros; The Devil's Backbone; Monsters, Inc.; Va Savoir; Sexy Beast; Faat Kine; Amelie; and Ghost World

Dave Kehr: The Royal Tenenbaums; The Tailor of Panama; Amelie; Waking Life; The Circle; Fat Girl; Shrek; Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring; A Chronicle of Corpses; Eureka


Roy's 10 Best Viewed for 2001*: Memento; You Can Count On Me; Traffic; In The Bedroom; A Beautiful Mind; O Brother Where Art Thou; Almost Famous; The Closet; Billy Elliot; Wonder Boys

*Since I see many films the year after their release, some of these are actually from the previous year.


2002 Reviews

Index of Films Reviewed

Here are my reactions to and comments about 2002 films, available either on video or at theaters.


A.I. Artificial Intelligence



The Anniversary Party

Austin Powers in Goldmember


Behind Enemy Lines

Birthday Girl

Black Hawk Down

Blood Work

Bread & Tulips

The Cat's Meow

Charlotte Gray

The Curse of the Jade Scorpion

The Deep End

The Devil's Backbone

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

Donnie Darko

Don't Say A Word


Festival In Cannes

From Hell

Ghost World

Gosford Park

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone


High Crimes

Hollywood Ending

The Importance of Being Earnest


Italian for Beginners

Kate and Leopold

Kissing Jessica Stein



The Last Castle

Life As A House

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

Lovely and Amazing

The Majestic

The Man Who Cried


The Man Who Wasn't There


Men in Black II

Minority Report

Monsoon Wedding

Monster's Ball

Monsters, Inc.

The Mothman Prophecies

Mulholland Dr.

Murder by Numbers

No Man's Land

Ocean's Eleven

Orange County

The Others

Panic Room


The Princess and the Warrior

Riding In Cars With Boys

Rock Star

The Rookie

The Royal Tenenbaums


Sexy Beast

The Shipping News

Sidewalks of New York



Spy Game

Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones

Sunshine State

Thirteen Conversations About One Thing

The Time Machine

Training Day

Under The Sand


Vanilla Sky

Va Savoir

Waking Life

We Were Soldiers

Y Tu Mamá También

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.

"Blood Work"-Based on the novel by Michael Connelly, Clint Eastwood directed this crime thriller about an aging ex-FBI profiler, Terry McCaleb (Eastwood), who has had to undergo a heart transplant and has retired to the comfort of his boat docked in Long Beach, CA. But it doesn't take long for McCaleb, sans private eye license, to find himself right back into investigating the murder of the young Hispanic woman whose heart now resides in his chest. In typical Eastwood fashion, McCaleb ignores most of the rules, including those of his heart doctor (Anjelica Huston), to solve the crime. And in typical Eastwood fashion, McCaleb does it with a combination of guts, charm, and sass. But still McCaleb is a heart transplant patient and so Eastwood has to play the part as low-key as possible, something he would never have been able to do years ago. The story has a few original features, including the motivation of the killer. But alas it also has some of the usual clichés of this genre, including the not very unusual fight to the finish aboard an old wrecked vessel. Jeff Daniels is notable as Buddy Noone, a beach bum whose boat shares a slip with McCaleb's and who ultimately is hired by McCaleb to drive him around. Wanda De Jesús does a nice job as Graciella Rivers, sister of the murder victim. The film, however, contains an annoying though effective performance by Paul Rodriguez as LAPD Detective Arrango, whose bitterness against McCaleb prevents him from doing anything effective in the case. If you like films of this type, "Blood Work" is well done and worth watching. ***1/2 (12/31/02)

"Lovely and Amazing"-The title of this small, intelligent film is not a self-description, but rather represents the feelings of Jane Marks (Brenda Blethyn) towards her single actress-daughter Elizabeth (Emily Mortimer) and, most-likely, her two other daughters, Michelle (Catherine Keener), a miserable married woman with a young daughter, and Annie (Raven Goodwin), an adopted 8-year-old African-American girl. Based somewhat on the family of the first-time director, Nicole Holofcener, who has an adopted younger black brother, "Lovely and Amazing" is about four somewhat neurotic females. Jane is not satisfied with her body and winds up having liposuction performed by a smooth-talking doctor (Michael Nouri), a process almost kills her. Elizabeth, who obsessively picks up stray dogs, has just had a small-part in a film and is looking for another role, but is ultra-concerned with how she appears to others. Michelle, who has never had a job, reveals her misery by being rude or nasty to almost everyone she meets, until she is hired by a charming and attractive 17-year old boy (Jake Gyllenhaal) at a one-hour photo. And Annie, being raised in the middle of a family of insecure white women, eats obsessively and loves playing as if she has drowned whenever she's in a swimming pool. The film contains a rather strong and "revealing" scene in which Elizabeth, after sleeping with a movie star (Dermot Mulroney), stands naked in front of him and asks him to critique her body, both good and bad. The cast is as natural as can be, led by the wonderful Brenda Blethyn as the matriarch of this rather screwy brood. Catherine Keener is also outstanding, literally becoming Michelle, the depressed and angry married daughter. Emily Mortimer (the daughter of John Mortimer, author of, among other things, the "Rumpole of the Bailey" stories) is superb as the more upbeat but slightly ditzy Elizabeth. The performance of Raven Goodwin as the adopted daughter is not to be missed. Her character is spoiled and self-centered (not surprising in this family) and young Raven has a look on her face as if she is winking at the audience to tell them that she knows exactly what she is doing. DVD **** (12/30/02)

"Minority Report"-Filmed by the wonderful cinematographer Janusz Kaminski in a somewhat blue-toned, washed out, and high contrast image (at Director Steven Spielberg's request), "Minority Report" is based on a short-story by the legendary sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick. This film certainly brings up (Stanley) Kubrickian memories, especially of Spielberg's recent "Kubrickian" effort, "A.I. Artificial Intelligence." This is a modernistic film noir (taking place in 2054) about John Anderton (Tom Cruise), chief of the "Pre-Crime" unit of the Washington, D.C. police, which arrests people before they commit murder based on visions of the future by three watertank-bound "precogs." The precogs are Arthur, Dashiell, and Agatha (Samantha Morton in a part as unusual as her mute character in "Sweet and Lowdown" and as beautifully played--I look forward to seeing her play a "real" person in the upcoming "Morvern Callar"). Spielberg utilizes all kinds of visions of future technology in the mid-21st Century, showing that privacy is likely to be a thing of the past in the not-so-distant future. Peoples eyes become their form of identification, allowing even futuristic 3D advertising to talk to them personally after checking their eyes. Everywhere they go, individuals can be seen by various forms of technology, including small spider robots which can find people almost anywhere based on their body heat.

But the futuristic and noir nature of the film is somewhat undermined by a plot cliché of the past: the good cop Anderton (who is plagued by memories of the death of his young son) is charged with a crime (or in this case, a pre-crime--one that Anderton cannot imagine himself committing) and has to go on the run, only to ultimately find the real evil among his colleagues. There are many twists and turns along the way, but the story outline is similar to dozens of other thrillers and police procedurals made over the years and this is a big flaw. However, I'll note that Tom Cruise does his usual workmanlike job as the tough Anderton who is fighting for his life; Colin Farrell is perfectly misleading as Danny Whitwer, the cop sent in by the Attorney General to investigate the value of "pre-crime;" Max Von Sydow is notably mysterious as Director Burgess, Anderton's superior and the founder of "pre-crime;" Tim Blake Nelson ("O Brother, Where Art Thou?") is quite funny as the organ-playing prison guard Gideon; and Kathryn Morris stands out as Lara, Anderton's former wife who ultimately helps save him. One performance among all the others, however, should receive special recognition. Lois Smith plays Dr. Iris Hineman, the eccentric inventor or discoverer of "pre-crime" and her dialogue with Anderton is truly memorable. Despite its flaws, "Minority Report" is still a Spielberg. DVD **** (12/21/02)

"Unfaithful"-Let's get the most important thing about this film out of the way. Diane Lane is truly outstanding. Playing Connie Sumner, a suburban Westchester housewife and mother who is on the edge of boredom and finds herself in an affair with a young Frenchman in NYC, Lane demonstrates a range of emotion and courage rarely seen in a top-of-the-line actress. In one scene on a commuter train taking her home from her affair for the first time, she is seen replaying in her mind all of the experiences of the day and her expressions are a thing to behold. But the film itself is also laden with rather dull acting by Richard Gere, totally miscast as Edward Sumner, the hard-working businessman husband whom Connie has begun to take for granted. Gere generally needs a part with verve and excitement and there's little or none of that here. On the other hand, the young Frenchman, Paul Martel, is played with ultra-charm by French actor Olivier Martinez. One can almost begin to understand Connie's growing sexual obsession with Martel, as she ignores her family and responsibilities. The biggest problem with this film, however, is that it revolves around numerous unlikely coincidences. Connie is windswept in Soho in lower Manhattan, and just happens to fall on top of the perfect potential lover, Martel (as windy as it might get in NYC, I've never seen debris blowing around quite like in this scene). When the director needs a character to reveal Connie's misbehavior to her husband, she just happens to be observed with Martel (in a city the size of New York), by one of Edward's employees in a Soho cafe. And Edward just happens to do something nasty to this employee that causes him to squeal. And these are just some of the unlikely coincidences and incidents that occur to move the plot along. Forget the plot, Lane's performance is worth seeing alone. But otherwise, "Unfaithful" is a fairly weak film with some rather graphic sex scenes. DVD *** (12/20/02)

"Men in Black II"-I enjoyed the silliness of the original "Men in Black," a sci-fi film with the ultimate tongue-in-cheek. And this one certainly carries on the tradition, although I suspect it's a joke that is about played out. This time Will Smith (wonderful as the somewhat cocky Agent J) has to bring back Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones), who had been "neuralized" and turned into a postal employee, to fight off the evil Serleena (Lara Flynn Boyle), a Medusa-like alien seeking the "light" of another race of beings. Meanwhile, Agent J gets a chance at love, meeting Laura Vazquez (Rosario Dawson) in the middle of an alien incident, but can all work out for the best? They all wind-up in various battles against Serleena (big surprise), but the film is loaded with humorous "alien" creatures, including especially the charming but timid "wormguys." For pure unadulterated light fare and a few chuckles, this film is worth a view. DVD *** (12/7/02)

"Austin Powers in Goldmember"-The latest Mike Myers creation gets off to a truly original, funny and almost inspired start, emulating the making of a movie about Austin Powers starring some pretty famous actors, and it ends on a humorous note. But what is in between is pure unadulterated tripe. If you can think of enough jokes and words that have to do with sex and bodily functions, you've just about written the script. In this case, it is highly recommended that unless you really enjoy such bad taste, you leave this one in the cesspool where it belongs. DVD * (12/6/02)

"Thirteen Conversations About One Thing"-Writer/director Jill Sprecher clearly has something in common with Todd Solondz, director of "Happiness," among other films about the "positive" aspects of life. Both have now made depressing films about the possibility of happiness. Sprecher, however, has the advantage. Her film is far more entertaining. This is a film about a group of people some of whom cross paths quite directly and others only on the edge.Time does not necessarily flow from beginning to end, but all the characters have the opportunity to express views on life during the various conversations. "Thirteen Conversations" is the closest thing seen recently to a typical European film in that much of it revolves around talk, and interesting talk it is. Matthew McConaughey is Troy, a young lawyer who is full of joy until he is involved in a motor vehicle accident that appears to endanger the life of its victim. John Turturro is Walker, a fairly nasty self-centered math professor who leaves his wife (Amy Irving) almost without much contemplation, hoping for a relationship with another woman, and finds himself in a far-more miserable situation. Alan Arkin is Gene, an insurance company exec, who is having problems in his life with his ex-wife and son and finds himself exposed to an employee who remains upbeat no matter what misery befalls the poor guy. And Clea DuVall is Beatrice, a young housecleaner, who gives off positive vibes until she finds herself the victim of a motor vehicle accident. The script is sharp and intense. The cinematography is outstanding. And the acting is first-rate. Arkin is notable as the miserable and yet genial Gene. But ultimately, this film has a message that life is full of depressing turns. Most of us know that and don't have to be reminded. But if it comes in the form of well-acted production, I guess we can take it for the moment. DVD ***1/2 (11/25/02)

"Sunshine State"-Wonder of wonders. An intelligent, extremely well-acted film about people and real issues. John Sayles has put together a fabulous ensemble cast, led by Edie Falco and Angela Bassett. We are in or near Delrona Beach, FL, a beach resort where the real estate developers are attempting to buy up the last bit of the old Florida and turn it into the new "resort/strip mall" Florida. Edie Falco ("The Sopranos") is Marly Temple, a slightly worn but intelligent woman who runs her father's ancient motel /restaurant that is an object of desire for the developers. Along the way Marly, who once swam as a mermaid at Weeki-Watchee, meets Jack Meadows (Timothy Hutton), a landscape architect for the developers who doesn't really have his heart in it and inspires her to think about changing her life. Meanwhile, Dr. Lloyd (Bill Cobbs), once a visitor, now a permanent resident, is attempting to rally the public against the officials of the community who are doing all in their power to aid the real estate developers and drive out the local black community which has been along the beach for generations. Along comes Desiree Perry (Angela Bassett) and her new doctor husband Reggie (James McDaniel) to visit her mother Eunice (Mary Alice). Desiree was forced to leave Delrona Beach at age 15 when she became pregnant by a local football star and she's now returning and facing some of those whose lives she impacted. Desiree and Reggie also find a young distant and somewhat troubled cousin, Terrell (Alex Lewis), living with Eunice. These and many other lives intertwine in this panoramic view of life in a changing Florida community. Others of note in the film are Jane Alexander as Marly's mother, a local drama teacher; Miguel Ferrer as one of the developers; Alan King as a golfer/commentator on the scene; Gordon Clapp as Earl Pickney, a corrupt local official bent on suicide; Mary Steenburgen as Pickney's unhappy wife whose job it is to run the local Buccaneer Days pageant; Tom Wright as the local football hero; and most especially Ralph Waite as Marly's father, Furman. Waite has two absolutely precious soliloquies that are worth the price of the film. This is a gem. Highly recommended. DVD **** (11/23/02)

"Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones"-George Lucas had an extremely original idea back in the late 1970s and created "Star Wars." Unfortunately, Lucas keeps making the same movie over and over again but the latest version, 25 years later, lacks originality, verve, humor, and charm, all elements of the first brilliant creation. Princess Leia has turned into the unsmiling and not terribly romantic Senator Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman). The debonair and reckless Han Solo has disappeared totally to be replaced by a group of plodding Jedi, including Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewen McGregor) who seems amazingly unsuccessful considering the Jedi's great skills (and hardly likely to turn into the Alec Guinness version), and Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) who appears to be an afterthought in this production. Luke Skywalker, who was youthful and fun, has turned into his increasingly bitter father, Anakin Skywalker, pitiably played by a wooden Hayden Christiansen. "Attack of the Clones" gets off to a very rocky start when Anakin and Obi-Wan begin an almost interminable chase after an attempted killer of Senator Amidala through the very dark, dreary, crowded and predictable lanes of a futuristic city ("Batman" anyone?). And from there it turns into the equivalent of "Lord of the Rings" because most of the action that follows consists of chases and battles with various ugly aliens and monsters. There's only one more thing I can say about this film: it produced many yawns. DVD ** (11/22/02)

"The Importance of Being Earnest"-What could go wrong? An outstanding British cast plus the delightful and beautiful Reese Witherspoon with an absolutely perfect British accent. A wonderful Oscar Wilde comedy of the social class. And gorgeous British scenery and manor. And yet, there's something missing. Colin Firth, who may just have been in one too many of these types of films, is Jack Worthing, a wealthy young man who has no idea who his parents are, but who loves Gwendolyn (Frances O'Connor of "Mansfield Park"), the daughter of Lady Bracknell (the wonderful, as always, Judi Dench). But one of the things Gwendolyn loves about John is that she thinks his name is Earnest, a name he uses for a fictional brother so that he can escape his country home and come to the city. In the city, Jack has a friend, Algy Moncrieff (Rupert Everett), Gwendolyn's cousin, who is notoriously lacking in funds, but nevertheless curious about Jack's ward Cecily (Reese Witherspoon). Algy arrives at Jack's manor and introduces himself as Earnest, soon falling for young Cecily as she falls for him because she thinks his name is Earnest. With Lady Bracknell providing rather priceless Oscar Wilde commentaries on the social scene, and opposing the pairing of Gwendolyn and Earnest/Jack until he can find his parentage, you can see just what is developing in what should be a rather hysterical situation. Adding to the "fun" are the wonderful Anna Massey as Miss Prism, Cecily's tutor, and a woman with a very important and valuable secret, and Tom Wilkinson ("In The Bedroom" and "The Full Monty") as Dr. Chasuble, the local pastor who has his eye on Miss Prism. And yet, although certainly enjoyable to watch, this version of "Earnest" ends somewhat with a sigh rather than a smile. In thinking it over, I wasn't convinced by either Firth or Everett and I think the direction by Oliver Parker ("An Ideal Husband") could have been snappier. I can't rave but I can recommend a look. If nothing else, it is Oscar Wilde. DVD *** (11/9/02)

"Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood"-Four fine actresses, Ellen Burstyn, Maggie Smith, Fionnula Flannagan, and Shirley Knight are the grown-up Ya-yas, a Louisiana sisterhood established by the most outrageous of the four, Vivi Walker (Burstyn, and Ashley Judd as the younger Vivi) in 1937 when they are girls. The Burstyn version of Vivi is at odds with playwright daughter, Siddalee (Sandra Bullock) who lives in New York with her fiance, Connor (Angus McFadyen). So, the three other Ya-yas venture to NY to bring Siddalee back and educate her on events of her past that she may not have understood in hopes of restoring the mother/daughter relationship. What would appear on the surface to be a rather silly tale of southern womanhood is actually quite effectively told, especially because of the outstanding cast. The four older women are a delight to watch, but especially effective is Ashley Judd as Vivi as a young woman with severe emotional problems. Also, it's actually nice to see Sandra Bullock playing something other than her usual tomboy role and she does this one quite well. In addition, James Garner is a fine Shep Walker, a man who has suffered deprivations but stood by Vivi nevertheless. Despite weaknesses and clichés, I liked this film. DVD ***1/2 (11/8/02)

"Spider-Man"-Directed by a man apparently obsessed with comic book characters, Sam Raimi, "Spider-Man" is a half-way decent film for anyone not expecting more than a very simpleminded experience, but it could have been better. Before seeing the film I couldn't quite picture Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker, the young man who becomes Spider-Man after being bitten by a super-spider. But in retrospect, Tobey Maguire is the perfect Peter Parker because of his standard method of acting as the quiet, almost emotionless kid who seems afraid of his own shadow. What better person to turn into the superpowered Spider-Man? Watching Parker change, little by little, into the amazing wall-climber, is fun. And his glee in flinging himself around and over buildings can be joyful. Wouldn't we all love to be able to do that? But the story!! Peter has loved MJ (Kirsten Dunst) from childhood and can't tell her how he feels. And even after she turns to another, who just happens to be Peter's friend and roommate Harry Osborn (James Franco), and then finally, after being rescued over and over by Spider-Man, tells Peter she loves him, he can't express his feelings and walks away. Ah, but that leaves some romance for the sequels. For Spider-Man will undoubtedly be back to fight against Harry. Why? Because Harry thinks Spider-Man killed his father Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe) who just happened to have been The Green Goblin, one of the silliest evil characters ever in a comic-book film.

One of the things that I liked about this comic-book film was that rather than make New York look dark and gloomy throughout the film (a la Batman), many of the scenes made it look like a real place that exists in the sunshine. And Spider-Man even seemed to fit in in this "reality?" But the Oscorp factory and The Green Goblin himself looked like a scene from a "Batman" film. Out of place. Didn't belong. I just had the feeling that this film could have been a lot more fun if Spider-Man had been battling a more realistic enemy. Finally, where in the world did Raimi find Cliff Robertson to play Uncle Ben? I can barely remember the last time I'd seen him. DVD *** (11/1/02)

"Y Tu Mamá También"-This is the second Mexican film production that has impressed me as far as production values (direction, photography, acting and script). The other was "Amores Perros," a film overloaded with violence and depressing themes. "Y Tu Mamá También" is overloaded with sex: both visual and vocal. This is the story of two college age friends from Mexico City, Tenoch (Diego Luna), the rich kid, and Julio (Gael García Bernal), the working-class kid, who are having a fine time with their girlfriends and have them promise not to sleep with Italians on their joint trip to Italy. The boys make the same promise to the girls who are soon on their way. But not long after the girls leave, the boys meet a young and beautiful Spanish woman, Luisa Cortés (Maribel Verdú), the wife of the annoying cousin of one of the boys. The boys flirt and offer to take her to a fictional beach near Acapulco. Luisa initially rejects them but later, discovering important news about her health and her husband, Luisa changes her mind and decides to go on this road trip with Tenoch and Julio. Both are surprised to learn that she desires this trip, but rush to the maps to find a way to a beach that will resemble the one they described. One of the more intriguing features of this film are the moments when a mysterious narrator interrupts the action to provide information about the ongoing Mexican scene, the backgrounds of the characters, or what they are actually thinking.

Before the road trip begins, the images have been mostly of graphic sex between the boys and their girlfriends and the language has been of graphic descriptions of that sex. When the road trip begins, this almost non-stop sexual gabbing not only increases but the graphic soft-core images also increase to the point that little is left to one's imagination. The sex is an essential part of this tale of maturing by both boys and the frustration of Luisa with her marriage and life, but at the same time the writers and directors could easily have told a similarly interesting and intelligent story without such ultimately tasteless graphic details. I'm not a prude, but there is a difference between limited sexual content in a mature film and a film that literally rams it down our throats. The acting is natural and notable. The theme of maturation is also obvious. This is a noteworthy film, but because of the overdone sexual images and talk, I have to downgrade my rating somewhat. DVD ***1/2 (10/26/02)

"Italian for Beginners"-In a "film" which actually appears to have been made on digital video (and "filmed" extremely well), Danish director Lone Scherfig has given us a simple (Dogme 95) tale of a group of single Danes who have in common an interest in learning Italian. Soon after meeting for class, the Italian instructor dies, but is then succeeded by Halvfinn (Lars Kaalund), a good looking but somewhat nasty restaurant manager. Among those in the class is Olympia (Annette Støvelbaek), an attractive but clutzy bakery clerk. And then there is Karen (Ann Eleonora Jørgensen), a lovely hairdresser who is constantly distracted from her work by the ultimately fatal problems of her disturbed and ill mother. When Karen's mother dies, and Olympia's nasty father dies, we learn that they are in fact sisters who were separated early in life and Karen finds her way to the Italian class and young Mr. Halvfinn. This is a rather delightful tale of the woes and loves of working class people from a Danish perspective. It's intelligent and has a charming upbeat ending in gorgeous Venice, Italy, where the group goes to try out their language skills. Among the relationships, perhaps the most interesting is that between Giulia (Sara Indrio Jensen), an Italian waitress with minimal Danish language skills, and Jørgen Mortensen (Peter Gantzler), an extremely shy Dane for whom Giulia pines. Recommended for its fresh approach. DVD ***1/2 (10/19/02)

"Enigma"-This is hardly the first dramatization of the amazing codebreaking that went on in England during WW II. British and American experts discovered the astonishing enigma machine used by the Germans, a system seemingly impossible to break, and yet they did, significantly aiding the allies' war effort. This time we have a story of personal intrigue that centers around the enigma machine. Tom Jericho (Dougray Scott) returns to the codebreaking HQ one month after a nervous breakdown which resulted from his relationship with the beautiful Claire (Saffron Burrows), only to find that Claire has "gone missing." While being watched by the intimidating agent Wigram (Jeremy Northam), Jericho enlists the aid of Claire's housemate, Hester (Kate Winslet) to attempt to solve the mystery of Claire's fate. Much of what occurred between Jericho and Claire is shown in flashbacks. While Scott seems a little too hangdog throughout the film, Winslet is, as usual, excellent as the somewhat frumpy and vibrant Hester. Together, they manage to obtain highly secret papers and outmaneuver police in their efforts to solve the mystery. Jeremy Northam is pleasantly sophisticated as the agent who seems to know much of what Jericho and Hester are up to. This is a good little film, with an interesting premise and mystery, populated with a first-rate British cast. DVD ***1/2 (10/5/02)

"Festival In Cannes"-Director Henry Jaglom is a quirky independent filmmaker, creating films that are sometimes autobiographical and sometimes not. But they are always unusual and unique. And this film may be his best. First of all, if nothing else, it contains marvelous photography of the ultra-beautiful city of Cannes, France. Of course it takes place during the film festival and the viewer gets a delicious feeling for the kinds of things that may go on behind the scenes at the festival. We see a young woman strolling the waterfront watching celebs. She looks like a tourist, but we later find that her name is Blue (Jenny Gabrielle) and she is in one of the indie films being shown and is the talk of the festival. We see three young woman discussing a movie. One is Alice Palmer (Greta Scacchi), an actress who has written an interesting script about an older woman and plans to direct it possibly with an actress like Gena Rowlands. But almost immediately the three women are overwhelmed by a sleazy guy named Kaz (Zack Norman) who talks his way into involvement with the film, promising the women that he can raise the money. Ms. Palmer is talked into wanting for her lead Millie Marquand (Anouk Aimée). But a Hollywood exec named Rick Yorkin (Ron Silver) also must have Ms. Marquand for his big film to be made with Tom Hanks at virually the same time. There's more intrigue as these interesting and sometimes very charming characters interact and intermingle to give us a feel for how uncertain and happenstance the movie biz and life can be. Others in the film are Peter Bogdanovich as Milo, a director who needs a new film and is being given the run-around by all; Maximilian Schell as Viktor Kovner, a director first seen with a young Italian actress but who ultimately succumbs to the charms of Millie, and Alex Craig Mann as Barry who is initially Yorkin's assistant but romantically latches on to Blue, most likely for his best business interests. Greta Scacchi is wonderful as the beautiful but unadorned actress who wants to be a director but is all too easily manipulated by men. Recommended for those who like something a little different. DVD **** (9/27/02)

"Murder by Numbers"-A cliche ridden film with Sandra Bullock playing the ultimate self-cliche. She's Cassie Mayweather, a tomboy who doesn't really get along well with others and she's a homicide cop. Sound similar to other Sandra Bullock films? "Miss Congeniality" anyone? This is the story of two high school boys (Ryan Gosling and Michael Pitt) who think they are so bright they can commit a perfect random murder. And so they randomly choose a young woman and end her life. And, of course, it's up to Ms. Bullock to solve the crime. Despite the almost standard hostility of police superiors to the heroine, at one point ordering her off the case, Cassie amazingly figures out how they did it and has to risk her life to obtain justice. There's not much in the way of surprises. Not recommended. DVD ** (9/25/02)

"Monsoon Wedding"-Directed by Mira Nair ("Mississippi Masala"), "Monsoon Wedding" is a wonderful slice of life in India, telling the trials and tribulations of an upper middle class family in the middle of a wedding ceremony for an arranged marriage. We see anger, lust, romance, hate, and fear. The father of the bride is wrapped up in his family arrangements for the wedding, not knowing that the daughter has been having an affair with her boss and is frustrated by his refusal to divorce his wife. The wedding arranger, who initially seems silly and simplistic, falls for the lovely young family maid. The groom, an Indian living in Houston, arrives and faces having to get to know his future wife in the very short time there is before the wedding. And during this time she tells him of her affair. And there are other issues, including possible child abuse resulting in one family member being kicked out of the wedding. It takes place in Delhi, a totally different culture, but we discover in watching this film how much we have in common with these people in both physical objects (such as cell phones) and attitudes. In many ways, this wedding could have taken place here just as well. The westernization of the Indian culture is apparent, at least among these fairly well-to-do people. This film is a very good experience to have. I recommend it. **** (9/24/02)

"Monsters, Inc."-Created by Pixar ("Toy Story"), this Disney animated film is undoubtedly a lot of fun for children and still enjoyable for adults, if only to wonder at the animation processes and the originality of the theme. Sully (voice of John Goodman) and Mike (voice of Billy Crystal) are two monsters who work at Monsters, Inc., an organization which sends monsters through special closet doors into the bedrooms of small children to collect their screams. Why? Because the screams bring the energy needed to run the monster society. But there is a catch. The monsters fear being touched by children or their things (such as clothing, toys, etc.) and the monster society has a crack unit dedicated to rubbing out any child or child's object that enters. Sully, who is a first-rate "scarer," makes the mistake of allowing a little girl into the monster society and all hell breaks loose as Sully and Mike try to figure out what to do with her. They soon discover she's not toxic and Sully begins to become attached to this small child he names Boo. The small child is, ironically, the most unrealistic image in the film. Pixar seems to be able to create images of monsters that seem somehow realistic, but unable to create the image of a child that even comes close to reality. The little girl runs around and babbles and seems far more robotic and non-human than any of the monsters, and this is a flaw. Billy Crystal does a fine job of one liners as Mike, the one-eyed green monster. John Goodman gives off a great deal of warmth of his otherwise "monster" character. With lots of running around and impressive effects, this 90 minute animated film is certainly not vital but still worth a watch for curiosity. Other voices employed are those of James Coburn, Jennifer Tilly, John Ratzenberger, and Steve Buscemi. DVD *** (9/21/02)

"Hollywood Ending"-Throughout his career as an auteur director, Woody Allen has played up the neuroses of his characters' personalities, but almost always only as a relatively small portion of the personality of the role. Usually, with Allen's tremendous wit and timing, the neuroses contributed to hysterically funny commentary on life and society. But not in this film! Here Allen is Val Waxman, a movie director so completely neurotic that he has alienated virtually everyone in his life except his ditzy girlfriend Lori (Debra Messing). Among those alienated are his ex-wife Ellie (Téa Leoni). But now that she's an executive at a Hollywood studio and dating the studio chief Hal Yeager (Treat Williams), she decides to give Val another chance and encourages the studio to pick him as director for a film that fits his style, a movie about the streets of New York. Despite his obvious failings, Val miraculously gets the job and is about to begin directing when he experiences a case of hysterical blindness. The rest of the film forces the viewer to watch mostly unfunny scenes about a blind man directing a movie, having little or no idea what he's doing, and having it covered up by those around him. The crew would have to be blind themselves to not realize that Val is incapable of seeing what he's directing. This is without a doubt a low point in Woody Allen's film career. There is very little funny about watching scene after scene of an abysmally neurotic individual being led around by first his agent (Mark Rydell), then by a Chinese translator (for the Chinese-speaking cameraman Val has hired for the film), and finally by Ellie who realizes the film is probably a disaster but helps out anyway. Not much of this makes sense or provides viewing pleasure. I cannot recommend this film. DVD ** (9/21/02)

"Kissing Jessica Stein"-This is an absolutely delightful surprise. I knew the film had received favorable reviews but had no idea how much fun it would be. Jessica Stein (Jennifer Westfeldt) is a young Jewish woman in New York City approaching 30 who seems to have no success with men. After a succession of dates with jerks and bores, she ultimately answers an ad for a woman placed by Helen Cooper (Heather Juergensen), an assistant at an art gallery, and despite Jessica's initial discomfort, they find themselves attracted to an unlikely lesbian relationship. While surrounded by gay friends, old boyfriends, and especially a seemingly pushy Jewish mother, Judy Stein (Tovah Feldshuh), Jessica and Helen come to grips with just who they are and what life is about. This film is funny, charming, beautifully filmed in New York City, and full of tasteful jazz pop music (and an obvious homage to the films of Woody Allen). Westfeldt and Juergensen not only are perfect in the film but they wrote the script and deserve accolades for one of the most charming and fresh new films to come along in a long time. I certainly hope we get to see both of these talented women again in the future. And kudos to Tovah Feldshuh as Jessica's ultimately understanding Jewish mother; and Jackie Hoffman as Jessica's not terribly attractive but pregnant co-worker and friend. Highly recommended. DVD **** (9/20/02)

"Panic Room"-Jodie Foster just doesn't seem like a rich divorcee from Greenwich, CT. But that's the part she plays and with her skateboarding diabetic daughter, she winds up being talked into buying an incredibly large and expensive NYC townhouse with a very special feature, a panic room. That's a room to hide in when someone breaks into the house. And wouldn't you know it, three men break in on the very first night that Meg Altman (Foster) and her daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart) are in the house. The ringleader (Jared Leto) thinks the house is empty. His cohort (Forest Whitaker) is an expert on panic rooms, the unfortunate location of millions of dollars in bearer bonds. When Meg and her daughter realize that the house has been broken into, they, of course, hide in the panic room, the very place the burglars want to reach. But there is a joker, a third burglar, Raoul (Dwight Yoakum), invited by the ringleader who has no compunctions about carrying a gun and using it. That's the setup and the rest is painful and painfully obvious. Gas, explosions, injuries, violence, and blood abound. The director of this film, David Fincher, seems to have a propensity for reasonably empty commercial violent films, including "Fight Club," and "Seven." I can't recommend this film to anyone who watches films for pleasure. DVD **1/2 (9/19/02)

"The Man Who Cried"-Sally Potter, who directed the fairly quirky "Orlando," provides us with another somewhat quirky film. This time it is the story of a young Jewish girl from Russia who is cut off from family and friends after her father (Oleg Yankovsky) leaves for the United States. The young girl finds her way to England where she is now much older, is named Suzie by the customs officials, and has grown into a lovely young woman (Christina Ricci). With a talent for singing, she finds herself in show business with another young Russian woman named Lola (Cate Blanchett). Together, looking for better things, they go to Paris and meet Dante Dominio (John Turturro), an opera singer, and join the company. But in the background is a handsome young Gypsy named Cesar (Johnny Depp, who seems to be getting typecast in these gypsy roles--a la "Chocolat") who is in the opera riding a white horse. Suzie becomes smitten with Cesar, but this is happening just as the Nazis invade and take over Paris. And her ultimate goal is to get to the United States and find her father (which turns out be an amazingly simple activity since all she has is a photo of him in his shtetl garb). "The Man Who Cried" is watchable, but a little too much on the surface. I'd recommend it for anyone who likes this particular cast. Cate Blanchett, for example, is wonderful and realistic with another of her many accents. John Turturro is quite good as the egotistical opera singer. DVD ***1/2 (9/7/02)

"High Crimes"-This is not the best time of year for new first-run movies on DVD. And so I slum a little, watching something like "High Crimes," which is not much more than a warmed-over legal/thriller cliche. Ashley Judd plays Claire Kubik, a lawyer married to Tom, a man of mystery. Why an intelligent attorney would marry a man without an apparent past is beyond me, but so she does. Her husband Tom (James Caviezel), seems to be a nice guy and a good husband, but is suddenly arrested by FBI and charged with the murder of villagers in Latin America while he was a Marine years in the past. Tom says he's innocent, but admits that his real name is Ron Chapman. Claire, being the loving wife, decides to defend him in the court martial with the help of old pro Charlie Grimes (Morgan Freeman), and novice military lawyer Lieutenant Embry (Adam Scott). Is there intrigue? Is the husband guilty? Is everything on the surface what really happened? Well, I won't say in order not to spoil the film for you, but I will say that the ending was fairly predictable. Ashley Judd is effective as Claire, and Morgan Freeman, as always, provides the intelligence and experience, this time of an older wise but alcoholic lawyer. Amanda Peet plays Claire's younger sister and seems superflulous. DVD *** (9/5/02)

"The Cat's Meow"-Based on a true event, "The Cat's Meow" is the story of an ill-fated cruise aboard William Randolph Hearst's yacht in 1924. In addition to Hearst (Edward Hermann) and his mistress, Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst), the guests include Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard), Director/Producer Thomas Ince (Cary Elwes), gossip columnist Louella Parsons (Jennifer Tilly), and Elinor Glyn (Joanna Lumley), the British writer/screenwriter. Hearst is insanely jealous as to Ms. Davies; Chaplin is flirting with Davies and trying to take her away; Ince is trying to get Hearst to combine their film studios; Parsons, a Hearst employee, is visiting from the east, and Glyn is observing. With some fine 1920s music in the background, and excellent sets which bring the yacht to life (the outdoor scenes were shot in Greece), the interactions of the various parties ultimately result in an act of violence that is simply too embarrassing for those on board and a major coverup results. Ed Hermann does a fine job of playing Hearst, here shown as a man who liked to spy on all of his guests, and Kirsten Dunst is impressive as the young Ms. Davies who is torn between Hearst and Charlie Chaplin. Eddie Izzard is surprisingly low key as Chaplin. There's nary a hint of the Chaplin we all know and love.Joanna Lumley is particularly charming as the insightful Glyn who observes, comments, and informs the audience of the secrets of the story. The film is directed by Peter Bogdanovich, who hit it big in the 1970s with films like "The Last Picture Show" and "Paper Moon," but who just never seems to be able to put together a blockbuster film. "The Cat's Meow" is one of his better accomplishments in a long time, but still nothing more than a pleasant speculation on a mysterious Hollywood death. DVD *** (8/30/02)

"We Were Soldiers"-Based on the book "We Were Soldiers Once...And Young," Mel Gibson plays Lt. Col. Hal Moore who led the Seventh Cavalry (yes, the same outfit once led by George A. Custer) into one of the earliest battles of Vietnam in 1965, and one in which a few hundred Americans were surrounded by thousands of Vietnamese soldiers. Gibson is up to his usual stuff as Moore, a tough soldier and family man who was dedicated to his troops ("we leave no one behind, dead or alive"). Moore is first seen in charge of the training of his "helicopter cavalry" with the assistance of Sgt. Major Basil Plumley (played cool and tough by Sam Elliott) and then leaving for Vietnam in the middle of the night, headed for a battle that he knows will be bloody and deadly. And so it is. The film introduces us to some of the soldiers and their wives and children, then to the terrifying battle, and ultimately to the rather distressing scene of a yellow cab driver delivering the telegram no military wife ever wants to receive. Madeleine Stowe is Mrs. Moore who chooses to direct the cab company to bring the telegrams to her so that she can deliver the horrible news herself, thereby making herself into the angel of doom to the new widows at the camp. The battle scenes of "We Were Soldier" are vivid and bloody, and not for the faint at heart. Among the cast, Greg Kinnear is noteworthy as Maj. Bruce Crandall, a helicopter pilot at the heart of the battle, and Barry Pepper ("61*") is quite effective as Joe Galloway a reporter and supposed non-combatant brought in by copter in the middle of the battle, and who finds himself wielding a rifle in self-defense against the onslaught of North Vietnamese soldiers.

In a feature on the DVD of this film, the real Lt. Col. Moore indicates that he felt that no Vietnam film had ever captured the reality of the way the men fighting the battles interacted. It was his opinion that the men were fighting not for country, president, or flag but rather for each other. Considering the American public's attitude towards the military during Vietnam, this may have been vital to survival. But more than capturing this aspect of the deadly fighting, "We Were Soldiers" is ultimately the perfect anti-war and anti-Vietnam film. That so many young men died in such a horrible way for such a useless cause is made clear to anyone who knows the history of that war and what little, if anything, was accomplished. Also, this is the first Vietnam war film that truly brings home the horror of the Napalm that our side used to burn the countryside and the men in it. One of the most devastating scenes shows Napalm bombs gone astray, burning American soldiers almost beyond recognition. What else is there to say? DVD ***1/2 (8/24/02)

"The Rookie"-Jim Morris (Dennis Quaid) was a high school teacher in west Texas with a baseball past. He'd had talent but an arm injury had ended whatever chance he thought he had for a career as a teacher. Morris' father (Brian Cox), a military officer, had moved the family all over the country while Morris was a youth, and had provided little or no encouragement for Morris' dreams. Now coaching the high school team in Big Lake, Texas, and supported eagerly by his wife (Rachel Griffiths) and three kids, Morris tries his arm out again and finds that in his "ripe old" 30s he can suddenly throw the ball harder than ever before, hitting 98 mph. And so, with the encouragement of the players on his high school team, Morris tries out for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. "The Rookie" is based on Morris' true story which, of course, has a happy ending (this is a Disney film). All of the actors do a workmanlike job. Quaid, looking a little too old (he's 48), otherwise fits the part well (he's a native Texan). Rachel Griffiths ("Six Feet Under"), an excellent actress, doesn't get to do much as Morris' wife Lorri, but in the little she does, she shines. And Brian Cox is effective as the cold father who tries to warm up when his son finally succeeds at his dream. The main problem with this film is that it is really nothing more than a "Hallmark Hall of Fame" type of TV film. Laden with heavy and preachy music, there are no surprises. But it's about baseball, nicely paced, and what can be wrong with that? DVD *** (8/23/02)

"Iris"-Based on two auto-biographical books by John Bayley, "Iris" stars Kate Winslet and Hugh Bonneville, respectively, as the young Iris Murdoch, and Bayley, her future husband, and Judy Dench and Jim Broadbent as the elderly versions. In alternating sequences between the young and old we see how Murdoch, the great British novelist, despite her rather wild sexual lifestyle, is attracted to the somewhat bumbling and stuttering Bayley, and then how Bayley, many years Murdoch's husband, has to deal with the horror of his wife's Alzheimer's Disease. That these actors are simply marvelous is without question. The acting is utterly superb. Broadbent, in particular, has the extremely difficult role of playing an elderly and somewhat nervous, but worshipful man who has to handle the increasingly distressing aspects of Iris' mental debilitation. Broadbent, who was equally brilliant as Sir William S. Gilbert in "Topsy-Turvy," was finally properly recognized for his skills with an Oscar for best supporting actor.

"Iris" is about romance among the intelligentsia, and about love and pain, but strangely it fails to truly portray Iris' intellect. The scenes with Winslet and Bonneville would seem to be portraying two budding athletes rather than two emerging writers. We see them biking and swimming nude, but rarely is there any demonstration of Murdoch's views of life and literature. And when there is such an attempt, it seems trivial. The film runs only 90 minutes; certainly the script-writers could have spent a little more time revealing to the audience just who is this Iris, the important subject of their film. A film about the loss of the mind to such a horrible disease as Alzheimer's can be truly important to watch, but the pathos of this film would certainly be greater if it were obvious that the loss here is especially horrifying due to Iris' deep intellect. DVD ***1/2 (8/17/02)

"Birthday Girl"-This is a rather lame attempt at a scam/thriller/heist genre film. Ben Chaplin is John, a British bank employee with a humdrum life and a closet full of porn. He decides to seek a Russian-born mail-order bride and finds himself with "Sophia" (Nicole Kidman), a cigarette-smoking Russian doll who can't speak English but who knows exactly how to manipulate poor John. That he doesn't see Sophia get off the plane at the airport after watching closely, but rather finds her miraculously standing in the terminal waiting for him should have sent off signals, but it didn't. Two French actors (Vincent Cassel and Matthieu Kassovitz ("Amélie")), play the Russian "friends" of Sophia who ultimately move into John's home and take over. And, as a result, John finds himself in the middle of a scam that will just about ruin his life in England. "Birthday Girl" has an interesting premise and some promise, but it's presented in a tedious charmless manner. Ben Chaplin is particularly lacking in charm, seemingly unable to break into even a mini-smile. Nicole Kidman, beautiful as always, is simply too much to believe in the form of Sophia. Cassel and Kassovitz are funny as the Russians, despite admitting on a DVD feature that they do not speak Russian. But the script ultimately is tedious and the film simply has no pizzazz. The ending is pretty silly. DVD ** (8/16/02)

"The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring"-I've consciously avoided the Tolkien series of fantasy tales about Hobbits, rings, and evil and good, believing that these stories were intended for childish mentalities. Well, I still haven't read one page of the books and won't comment on them, but I have now sat through the film, the first of a series. What's it about? Oh, Hobbits, rings, good and evil, and lots of monsters. Most people who have read the Tolkien books probably know the plot outline. Those who haven't probably couldn't care less. And I urge the latter to avoid at all costs this insipid tedious bore of a film. With pretensions of greatness, "The Lord of the Rings" is nothing more than a long drawn-out chase film during which a bunch of undeveloped characters have to fight off one absurd horde of monsters after another, ranging from ghosts, goblins, ogres, and the undead, to a tentacled sea-monster. And after three hours, almost nothing has been accomplished since there are at least two more films coming to finish the story. This film has been compared to "Star Wars." Well, there is at least one obvious gigantic difference. "Star Wars," at least the first of the series, had a strong sense of humor and a great deal of originality. There isn't an ounce of humor in this film, and with monsters constantly chasing after our poor dull heroes, not much originality. DVD *1/2 (8/9/02)

"Storytelling"-Director Todd Solondz makes movies about misery and miserable people ("Welcome To the Doll House" and "Happiness"). This film is certainly a typical Solondz film. It's divided into two parts, the first a story called "Fiction" and the second "Non-Fiction." Each deals with different methods of telling stories, but each is really about the misery of the human condition. In tale #1, Selma Blair ("Legally Blonde") plays Vi, a young college student who is in a writing class with her boyfriend, a victim of cerebral palsy. None of the students appear to have any significant writing talent and the black professor, Mr. Scott (Robert Wisdom), a Pulitzer Prize winner, seems to get pleasure out of letting them embarrass themselves and then telling them the shortcomings of their literary creations. After a brief argument with her boyfriend, the latter accuses her and the other white girls in the class of wanting to have sex with the professor. And so, surprise, surprise, Vi finds herself running into Professor Scott at a bar, and being taken back to his apartment. You can probably guess what happens next, a scene loaded with sexual and racial tensions, because "Fiction" ends with Vi back in class, bitterly reading a fictional account of this experience to her dense classmates and a rather cold professor.

"Non-fiction" centers around a nerdy and obviously unsuccessful documentary filmmaker (and shoestore salesman) named Toby Oxman (Paul Giamatti). The story begins with an extremely painful phone conversation in which Toby tries to make contact with an old girlfriend from college only to be given the heave-ho by the obviously uninterested and married young woman as soon as the opportunity arises. Toby proceeds to make an obviously pathetic film about the attempts of a young boy named Scooby (Mark Webber) to get into college. That Scooby has demonstrated no interest in school or in college appears to be secondary to Toby. But the film is also about Scooby's disastrously dysfunctional family, led by the overbearing father (John Goodman), the mealy-mouthed mother (Julie Hagerty), and the dangerous prissy younger brother, Mikey (Jonathan Osser). Mikey treats the rather pathetic live-in Hispanic maid (Lupe Ontiveros) like a slave, arranges to convince his father to fire her, and a tragic denoument is the result. Why Todd Solondz likes making films about misery and miserable people is not clear. But ultimately there is not much in his dark little tales besides the pain to experience. Is this what you want in a movie-going experience? DVD *** (8/3/02)

"The Time Machine"-Directed by Simon Wells, a great-grandson of H.G. Wells,"The Time Machine" once again tells the tale of a 19th Century scientist who decides to do some time traveling. This time the hero is Alexander Hartdegen (Guy Pearce) a professor at Columbia University whose fiance Emma (Sienna Guillory) was murdered shortly after he proposed, and he decides to go back to change things. Using the machine, which seems to pop up out of thin air (oh, Hartdegen does have lots of equations on blackboards around his den), he travels back to the night he proposed and finds that despite changing some of the events, the result is the same. And so he travels forward in time to see if he can find out why he can't change the past. Initially, he finds himself early in the 21st Century on a tragic night as the moon is breaking up as a result of miscalculations of moon settlers. The film ignores the likely scientific implications of what would happen to earth if the moon were destroyed. And so the shock of this event sends Hartdegen 800,000 years into the future where he comes upon, for anyone who has seen the Rod Taylor version of "The Time Machine," the familiar human and sympathetic Eloi and the horrendous and nightmarish Morlock, a wayward twist in evolution. Ultimately, Hartdegen comes across and must battle the Ubër-Morlock (Jeremy Irons), an Albino-like creature who controls the Morlock. There is, of course, the young and beautiful Eloi love interest, Mara (Samantha Mumba) who amazingly knows English despite 800,000 years of time passage, and who Hartdegen must save from the clutches of the evil Morlock. Despite all of the technical advances of modern films, this film is overrun with cliches and looks surprisingly old-fashioned. The machine itself is familiar, and the Morlock makeup is not terribly realistic or frightening. If you're irresistibly drawn by time-travel movies, it's okay. Otherwise, it's nothing to write home about. DVD **1/2 (7/28/02)

"The Devil's Backbone"-"El Espinazo del Diablo" (this film is in Spanish with English subtitles) is a ghost story, but really quite different from the typical American ghost film. What is intended to horrify the viewer is not really the ghost, but rather the evil inherent in humans in the middle of a dehumanizing war. Taking place in an orphanage in the middle of open territory in Spain during the Spanish Civil War, the film concentrates on a young boy Carlos (Fernando Tielve) who is brought to the orphanage after his father dies. The orphanage is run by Carmen (Marisa Paredes), a one-legged woman, and Casares (Federico Luppi), a distinguished white-bearded teacher, who loves her but whose love is unrequited. They are desperate, having little food left for the boys, but they do have a stash of gold ingots to help support the anti-fascist cause. Living at the orphanage is Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), a former orphan now a helper whose anger and greed are immense, and who, while ostensibly wooing the beautiful young Conchita (Irene Visedo), is actually satisfying the sexual needs of Carmen. Young Carlos hears the story of Santi, a boy of the orphanage who disappeared on the night that a bomb landed in the courtyard but failed to explode. With the bomb still sitting in the yard (now defused), Carlos begins to observe the ghost of a young boy he suspects is Santi. With the help of Jaime (Iñigo Garcés), a boy who initially appears to bully but ultimately turns good, Carlos discovers the truth about Santi's disappearance, but not before the war and Jacinto have wreaked havoc on the place and its inhabitants. Ultimately the boys and the ghost seek their revenge. All of the performances are well done, notably Federico Luppi as the noble teacher. Fernando Tielve is excellent as the young Carlos. DVD ***1/2 (7/27/02)

"Charlotte Gray"-Directed by Gillian Armstrong ("Oscar and Lucinda," "Starstruck," and "My Brilliant Career") and starring Cate Blanchett and Billy Crudup, this film offered great promise. Based on a touted novel by Sebastian Faulks, "Charlotte Gray" tells the tale of Charlotte (Cate Blanchett), a young French-speaking Scottish woman in WW II England whose lover Peter (Rupert Penry-Jones) has been downed in France. Hoping to find him, she volunteers to be a courier/spy, goes through training, and is parachuted into France only to virtually land on two young Jewish boys whose lives soon become significant to her. She meets and falls for Julien (Billy Crudup), a young Communist and resistance fighter who puts her up at the home of his father Levade (Michael Gambon). The two Jewish boys, whose parents have disappeared, are being lodged at Levade's home in the hopes of protecting them from the Vichy government and the Nazis.Unfortunately, this is a rather tepid tale of intrigue. Charlotte seems to have no real purpose in being in France and she finds herself being used in an inexplicable turn of events to harm the resistance movement. The French characters all speak English, some with pronounced British accents, a throwback to the old days before it became fashionable to let characters speak the right language for the part. There is some romance but it is certainly not stirring. Cate Blanchett does a fine job as usual and is gorgeous but that's not enough to carry this film beyond simply being average. A disappointment. DVD *** (7/20/02)

"The Royal Tenenbaums"-The Tenenbaums are a dour bunch. Just about the only member of the family with any spark is Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman), the father, who long ago was thrown out by his wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston) and now, having become homeless and having heard that his wife was planning to marry her very upright accountant Henry Sherman (Danny Glover), strives to return to the family hearth but with a glint in his eye. Royal meets Etheline on the street and gets her sympathy by announcing that he is dying. Royal and Etheline are the parents of three former prodigies who are now all suffering a darn good case of ennui. They are Chas (Ben Stiller), a neurotic widower and mouse entrepeneur as well as father of two boys, Ari and Uzi; Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), the playwright and adopted daughter who has never been allowed by Royal to forget her status in the family; and Richie (Luke Wilson), the former child tennis star who flamed out at the height of his career. But there are also hangers-on, including Eli Cash (Owen Wilson), the next-door-neighbor Tenenbaum wannabe with a drug problem, and Pagoda (Kumar Pallana), the family aide who has a tendency towards stabbing Royal despite being his friend. This film has received a lot of attention and favorable comments, and the cast and outline of the story would seem very favorable for success. But what I saw was a very slow-moving rather dull film that seemed to contain little or no humor and to have no particular point to make. The so-called "prodigies" are so listless and dull as to show almost no sign of life, let alone of intelligence. Whatever life there is in this film comes from Gene Hackman who is, as usual, very good as the somewhat unreliable Royal. Anjelica Huston does a fine job as Mrs. Tenenbaum, but the rest of the cast and the script seem to be sleep-walking. Oh, I almost forgot. Bill Murray is in this film as Margot's husband Raleigh St. Clair, but his character and performance are so underplayed it's easy to forget that he's been in the film. That should give you some idea of how uninspired is the not-so-royal "Royal Tenenbaums." DVD **1/2 (7/19/02)

"Piñero"-Miguel Piñero was a thief, a junkie, an inmate of Sing Sing, and also a Lower East Side poet and Tony award-winning playwright. Interesting combination? Well, I'd sure say so. "Piñero" is his story, told in raw tour-de-force manner by writer/director Leon Ichaso and brilliantly portrayed by Benjamin Bratt who truly becomes the title character. Bratt, unfortunately, has had a career of playing barely noticeable characters such as an FBI agent in "Miss Congeniality." If you saw him there, you wouldn't believe this is the same actor. And actor he is. His performance in this film is stunning and deserved greater recognition. Ichaso tells Piñero's story through timeless vignettes, moving back and forth between various periods, including the early 1970s when Piñero was released from Sing Sing and found the Nuyorican Poets Society and wrote "Short Eyes," a play produced by Joseph Papp (Mandy Patinkin) which led to the Tony, and 1988, when Piñero, his body ravaged by drugs and alcohol, is fading away. The film contains some first-rate and exciting performances from actors who don't often have the opportunity to excel, including Giancarlo Esposito as Miguel Algarin, Piñero's friend and supporter, and Nelson Vazquez and Michael Irby as members of Piñero's entourage, thieves and actors. Rita Moreno, who has been acting for more than 50 years, is, as always, wonderfully sparkling and intelligent as Piñero's mother. And no review of this film could be complete without noting the tough performance of Talisa Soto as Sugar, the prostitute who became Piñero's girlfriend. DVD **** (7/13/02)

"Amélie"-To most moviemakers these days, fantasy involves surreal places, character, and themes. One thinks of "Lord of the Rings" and "Harry Potter." But to Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, fantasy is more about the kinds of things humans really dream about, for example, the power to do justice and find love. And this is exactly what this delightful and clever film is about. Starting with a rapid-paced history of Amélie's early beginnings, showing that she was as a child surrounded by an icy father and a neurotic mother (who can be driven crazy by a suicidal goldfish), the film soon comes to the present in which Amélie is a young relatively innocent Parisian waitress who discovers her desire to bring justice and happiness to those around her, including her own rather dull father. Along the way, she observes a young man who is fascinated with and appears to collect the images left over from photo booths. As luck would have it, she finds his lost collection and proceeds to attract him by returning the collection via clever ruses and clues until the young man becomes obsessed with finding his mysterious heroine. Audrey Tatou has the most gorgeous eyes imaginable and she portrays Amélie with the beauty, wit, and verve the character deserves. She is surrounded by a cast of characters, ranging from an obnoxious vegetable stand owner (upon whom she gains revenge for the misery he brings to his employee), a wizened painter with "glass" bones, a nervous-nelly co-worker who almost finds love with the somewhat crazed suitor of another co-worker; and a neighbor who is easily convinced that her long-lost husband still loved her despite running off with another. Matthieu Kassovitz is warm and attractive as Nino, the photo collector, and Serge Merlin is notable as Dufayel the painter. This film has an excellent and intelligent script, is beautifully photographed with lush colors, delightfully performed, and just a joy to behold. Highly recommended. This film is in French and has English subtitles. DVD **** (7/12/02)

"Waking Life"-Director Richard Linklater has made a series of films about the philosophy of life, including "Dazed and Confused," and "Before Sunrise." This animated film takes those one step further. The animation here is based on digital images of actual actors, turned into animated graphics on a Macintosh (as seen on one of the features on the DVD). In many scenes, it's obvious that these were not simply raw drawings but drawings superimposed over real faces and it works well. Wiley Wiggins is a young man who finds himself in a constant dream state and can't seem to get out of it. While in it, he meets and listens to a series of philosophizing characters, including one who decides to self-immolate. Each character is a virtual college lecturer, analyzing life, reality, particle theory, dreams, and a whole range of other subjects. Included is one bedroom talk scene of Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, the two stars of Linklater's 1995 film "Before Sunrise" which was about two young people meeting on a European train who spend an entire night walking around Vienna while expressing their views on subjects similar to those in this film. "Waking Life" is not for the simple-minded. Very European in its style, it requires the viewer to also be a listener. DVD ***1/2 (7/1/02)

"Gosford Park"-Robert Altman, who has directed some fine films ("Nashville," "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," and "The Player") hadn't had a really good film in a long time. But he and Bob Balaban came up with the idea for this ensemble acting extravaganza by seemingly dozens of outstanding talents. The plot is fairly simple. William McCordle (Michael Gambon), owner of Gosford Park, a large British mansion, is having a shooting weekend for a large number of guests. We see them arrive with their various valets and servants, the rich and wealthy to the upstairs guest rooms and the others to the lower quarters for the working class of the household. With classic Altman style, the camera follows a multitude of guests and servants until we finally begin to understand the relationships of most, including a few who have a motive for the murder that later occurs. The film centers around Mary Maceachran (Kelly McDonald), who serves Lady Constance Trentham (Maggie Smith in a wonderful performance as a total, complete and utter snob) and who ultimately figures out the secrets of some of the characters. But there are so many others in the intrigue, including (upstairs) Sylvia McCordle (Kristin Scott Thomas), the lady of the household who is obviously not too close to her husband in light of his philandering; Raymond Stockbridge (Charles Dance) whose wife, still carrying a torch for McCordle, had brought him along for the ride; Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban), a Hollywood producer making Charlie Chan films and doing a little British manor research; Ivor Novello (a real-life actor played in this fictional version with utter charm by Jeremy Northam); Freddie Nesbitt (James Wilby) who is ashamed of his wife and who is trying to get McCordle's daughter to help him to get a job from her father; and Henry Denton (Ryan Phillippe), an actor who at first makes believe he is a Scottish valet for Weissman, but must ultimately admit his fraudulent behavior. And then there's the downstairs crowd, including Helen Mirren as Mrs. Wilson, the head housekeeper; Clive Owen ("Croupier"), a handsome valet to Stockbridge; Eileen Atkins as the bitter Mrs. Croft, who has been working at Gosford Park for too long; Alan Bates as Jennings the butler; Emily Watson as Elsie the maid who is also a special "favorite" of the lord of the manor; Derek Jacobi and Richard E. Grant as two of the male servants; and Sophie Thompson as Dorothy whose love for Jennings is unrequited.

Before I go further, I must admit that I was a little dazed on first viewing. This is a film that cries out for a second viewing and having it on DVD allows just that. Knowing the outcome helps to understand the motivations of the characters the second time around. If that's a criticism, so be it, but I think not. The acting is brilliant. Not a bad performance in the house. And a lot of subtleties are revealed, just like re-reading a complex book. Also, I was completely blown away by some of these wonderful actors. Standing out particularly were Emily Watson, astonishing as a maid with intelligence and her own ideas about personal involvement; Jeremy Northam who demonstrates a delightful singing talent as he performs songs written and performed originally by the real Ivor Novello; Kelly McDonald, another of the talented young Scottish actors who came out of "Trainspotting;" and finally by Stephen Fry ("Jeeves and Wooster") who portrays a bumbling police inspector a la Inspector Clouseau brought in to investigate the murder and who then proceeds to ignore virtually all the evidence and those involved in the murder. I have to recommend this film for, if nothing else, the amazing natural performances of this incredible cast. "Gosford Park," in addition to the wonder Novello songs, contains tasteful and extremely pleasant background music by Patrick Doyle showing why filmscore subtlety often wins out over scores that knock us over the head with bluster. DVD **** (6/28/02 and 6/30/02)

"The Majestic"-Jim Carrey playing a straight role? Amazing. And yet he does reasonably well as Peter Appleton, a Hollywood scriptwriter caught in the middle of the early 1950s studio system. And then he finds himself caught in a far worse situation: accused by the House Un-American Activities Committee of being a communist. Peter sets off on a drunken drive north along the California coast only to have an accident, go off a bridge, and ultimately find himself washed up on a beach with amnesia. Taken to the lovely and idyllic town of Lawson, Harry Trimble (Martin Landau), one of the locals, claims Peter as his long-lost son (in the war) Luke. Having no memory, Peter goes along and finds himself enmeshed in the lives of the locals. Lawson, he discovers, is a small town which has lost more than its share of young men to the war, including, they had thought, Luke Trimble. And while Peter assumes the role of Luke, elevating the spirits of the town and helping to restore the beautiful local movie theater "The Majestic," run by his "father" Harry Trimble, the FBI continues their search for the "commie" who has disappeared mysteriously. "The Majestic" is a very pretty film, but is predictable and sappy, similar in many ways to Director Frank Darabont's previous major film, "The Green Mile." There is, of course, the lovely, sweet and intelligent (and blonde) Adele Stanton (Laurie Holden) who was Luke's girlfriend and who has had apparently no boyfriends in the almost 10 years since Luke disappeared in WW II. There is the old rundown movie theater which is transformed, seemingly without any signficant funds but with the eager help of the townspeople, into one of the most beautiful movie theaters you've ever seen. And there is the expected inspiration which turns Peter from a man without "convictions" into a brave soul willing to take on the vile right-wingers of Congress in order to give a James Stewart-style speech concerning just what America is really about. This film, had it been made in the 1950s and directed by Frank Capra, might have been a masterpiece. Today, however, it's merely soporific fluff. DVD *** (6/22/02)

"Orange County"-A young surfer dude named Shaun Brumder (Colin Hanks) from Orange County, CA, who really is the best and brightest of his class, decides he'd like to be a writer and attend Stanford University to be near his idol, a professor/writer named Marcus Skinner (Kevin Kline). He's president of his class and he's written a novel about the people around him. But he's up against an utterly dysfunctional family and a bumbling school staff led by college advisor Ms. Cobb (Lily Tomlin), who submits the wrong transcript to Stanford. Somehow, with the help of his girlfriend Ashley (Schuyler Fisk) and his amazingly spaced-out brother Lance (Jack Black), Shaun hopes to make it to the college of his choice. "Orange County" gets off to a promising start. Colin Hanks (son of Tom) and Schuyler Fisk (daughter of Sissy Spacek) are intelligent and personable. They seem to have things under control, but with the help of a rather strange group of friends and family, things deteriorate quickly. This film can't seem to decide if it's going to be on a higher plane of humor than the standard teen flicks, or succumb to the standard teen-flick humor of sex, drugs, and violence. And what's really telling is that the filmmakers couldn't find enough material to fill even 90 minutes. "Orange County" lasts a total of just under 80 minutes, astoundingly short for a feature film. Ironically, the DVD contains deleted scenes some of which appeared quite usable to fill it out. Of note in the cast are Catherine O'Hara as Shaun's slightly alcoholic mother; John Lithgow as his wealthy and confused father; and Harold Ramis as the Stanford Dean of Admissions who ultimately has an earthshaking experience upon meeting Shaun, Lance et al. "Orange County" was written by Mike White ("Chuck & Buck") who also appears as a high school teacher. DVD **1/2 (6/21/02)

"The Shipping News"-Only in the movies could a schlump with no first name and little identity like the main character of this film, Quoyle (Kevin Spacey), wind up with women who look like Cate Blanchett and Julianne Moore. Quoyle can barely open his mouth to express himself. The words seem to get out only by accident. Is he retarded or simply an extremely weak man allowing himself to be pushed around by an attractive woman, if not the rest of the world? And only in the movies could this same man experience a somewhat miraculous transformation into a "journalist" of sorts, writing stories about car accidents and the shipping news for a small paper in Newfoundland. Quoyle's family came originally from Newfoundland, but he knew little of this. After a horrifying marriage to Petal Bear (Blanchett), a sexy, promiscuous, and aimless young woman who mothers his daughter Bunny, Quoyle finds himself on his way to Newfoundland with his daughter and his aunt Agnis Hamm (Judi Dench) who has inspired him to seek out the land of family origins. They move into an incredibly fragile-looking old house which was once the family domain, and Quoyle proceeds to meet and become involved with a group of wonderful Canadian locals, including Wavey Prowse (Moore), a young mother who has been abandoned by her husband; Jack Buggit (Scott Glenn), the publisher of The Gammy Bird, the local paper; Tert Card (Pete Postlethwaite), the editor of the paper who appears threatened by or simply hostile to Quoyle; and Beaufield Nutbeem, another employee of the paper (played with charm by the very talented Rhys Ifans of "Notting Hill"). Quoyle ultimately learns some very dark secrets of his family history, and begins to grow as a person, especially with the attentions of the lovely Wavey.

Based on the novel by Annie Proulx, "The Shipping News" is directed by Lasse Hallstrom ("The Cider House Rules" and"Chocolat"). Despite reservations centering mostly around the peculiarities of Quoyle's character and his amazing transformation, the excellent cast of "The Shipping News" and the barren, cold, and yet beautiful landscapes of Newfoundland turn this film into a worthwhile experience. DVD ***1/2 (6/20/02)

"Black Hawk Down"-Based on true events in 1993, this film is about a troop of special American soldiers sent into Mogadishu, Somalia, to capture a murderous warlord. The Americans are in Somalia as part of a UN operation, and are under the command of Maj. General William Garrison (Sam Shepard) who knows things can go wrong. And, of course, they do. So wrong that a brief action to capture the warlord, scheduled to last less than an hour, turns into an almost full day of battle between the Americans and the warlord's troops. The film, incredibly photographed, is about the battle, but mostly about the attempts by the Americans to bring home their buddies who have become casualties, dead or alive. And so we proceed to almost 1 1/2 hours (after the initial brief introduction and set-up) of sheer horrifying violence. One of the characters complains that he's losing his hearingbecause of the machine-gun fire. That might apply as well to the audience for that is pretty much all one hears for most of this film. The characters run down the streets, fire their weapons, hide behind something, operate vulnerable humvees, fire their weapons, run down the streets, hide behind something, and so on ad infinitum. The characters are not developed sufficiently to really care about them. The stars, hidden behind crew cuts and dirt, look like everyone else and the cast is almost invisible. But among the cast members of note are Josh Hartnett as Staff Sgt. Eversmann, one of those dedicated to rescuing the injured and downed soldiers and helicopter pilots; Ewan McGregor (yes, as an American) as Grimes, the man who specializes in making good coffee; and Tom Sizemore as Lieut. Col. Danny McKnight, one of the more memorable tough guys in the group. If bullets, blood, and guts is your forté, this film's for you. DVD *** (6/14/02)

"Kate and Leopold"-I wasn't expecting much and got exactly what I was expecting. The basic outline: Hugh Jackman is Leopold, Duke of Albany, an inventor. It is 1876, and he is visiting New York to find a wealthy bride. The Brooklyn Bridge is going up just outside the home where he is staying. He sees a man using a modern spy camera and chases after him only to find himself transported through time with the man (Stuart, played by Liev Schreiber) to the New York of today. Whereupon he further finds himself in Stuart's apartment, dog and all, and after about 2 minutes of shock seems to adjust quite well, thank you, to modern appliances. Next, he meets the lovely but annoying Kate McKay (Meg Ryan, playing her favorite kind of boring romantic role), Stuart's neighbor and ex-girlfriend. Ms McKay is in the ad biz, organizing focus groups, and is obviously a modern chick concerned primarily about her career and only secondarily about her love life. Stuart, having traveled through time, knows the truth of Leopold's identity and place in the 19th Century and tries to tell a few people, but astoundingly Leopold goes through virtually the entire film without ever introducing himself to anyone or explaining where he came from. His incredible adjustment to the New York of 2001 is beyond all belief. Despite a few old gentlemanly habits, he finds himself doing pretty much what most New Yorkers do, but with almost no wonderment! Kate, on the other hand, doesn't believe Stuart's story of time travel until the very end when she has miraculously and for no apparent reason been transformed from a hard-nosed business type intent on success in her career to a soft romantic willing to do a little time traveling for love. My favorite scene in this awfully silly film is Leopold performing a margarine commercial for Ms. McKay's agency. The ad execs are bowled over by this articulate Englishman's presentation as if they had NEVER seen or heard a handsome Brit with a charming accent. Maybe a trip back to 1876 would be a good idea! DVD **1/2 (6/14/02)

"The Mothman Prophecies"-I can go for an occasional horror or fright film, but it's not my cinema of choice. Here I was tempted primarily by the cast, especially Laura Linney, one of my favorite actresses, and I was not disappointed in that regard. Based loosely on some alleged sightings and a major tragedy in Point Pleasant, WV, in 1966-67, "Mothman" is about a Washington Post reporter named John Klein (Richard Gere) who is happily married to Mary (Debra Messing) only to lose her to a mysterious vision resulting in a car accident and the discovery of a brain tumor. Two years later, Klein starts out at 1 a.m., to drive to Richmond, VA, about 90 miles south of DC, only to find himself, rather mysteriously, at 2:30 a.m., in Point Pleasant, more than 400 miles from DC. When his car breaks down and his cell phone doesn't work, Klein discovers that he is in the middle of a very strange mystery involving sightings of an extraterrestrial "mothman" figure by many of the local residents, similar to drawings made by his wife before her death. Richard Gere is reasonably effective as the increasingly curious Klein, a man who ultimately finds himself right at the center of the horror. He is also very well supported by Laura Linney as Connie Mills, a local police officer. Linney provides an intelligence and seriousness that the film otherwise does not deserve. The film implies an attraction between the characters played by Gere and Linney, but that certainly is not the center of this rather spooky film about prophecies, visions, and very strange phone calls. Alan Bates provides further fine support as Alexander Leek, a man who has written about similar experiences in the past and who is sought out by Klein for advice, which he provides reluctantly. The overall theme of this film is silly, but I cannot deny that if you want a couple of hours of spooky horror, this is the film for you. DVD *** (6/8/02)

"Monster's Ball"-This is a rather peculiar movie because it doesn't seem to have any raison d'etre. Is it a story? Or is it a character study? Maybe a little bit of both? "Monster's Ball" tells the tale of Corrections Officer Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton), a seeming racist and bully who lives with his racist father (Peter Boyle) and fellow-Corrections officer son Sonny (Heath Ledger), a young man Hank considers a weakling because Sonny has various human traits. Hank and Sonny take part in the execution of Lawrence Musgrove (Sean Combs), and then personal battles result in the tragic death of Sonny. From this point on, the coincidences come fast and furious. Hank hangs out at a restaurant at which Musgrove's widow Leticia (Halle Berry) is a waitress. Hank also just happens to drive by when Leticia and her seriously injured son Tyrell are sitting alongside a road in a downpour, and he offers help. Both find themselves alone and attracted to each other as Hank undergoes a metamorphosis into a decent and generous man who seems to feel right at home with the African-Americans he formerly despised. Is this the result of the tragedies each has faced? Maybe, but it's certainly not clear from the film. Halle Berry is genuinely impressive in this Oscar-winning role as an African-American woman faced with a double-loss in a very short period of time, and then faced with the attentions of a white man who, she ultimately discovers, was a Corrections officer at the execution of her husband. Billy Bob Thornton is good, but his portrayal of Hank is dangerously close, in lack of expression and monotone, to his recent portrayal of Ed Crane in "The Man Who Wasn't There." Of note is Peter Boyle's subtle performance as an elderly racist. DVD ***1/2 (6/7/02)

"Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone"-It's hard to avoid a phenomenon as big as J. K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" series, but the book series is one type of "literature" I'm not likely to read. So, it was off to the movies to find out what it's all about. And with the newly-released DVD of this film in hand, it didn't take long to find oneself enmeshed in the story of the young Harry who is left on the doorstep of the Dursley family in infancy with a lightning-type scar on his forehead and with the promise that he would be "rescued" in due time. Harry is amazingly calm while living with the vile Dursleys, almost as if he knew he'd be rescued. And so he is by the charming giant Rubeus Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane, a wonderful actor who fortunately is showing up more and more) who directs him on his way to a new life at the wizardry school of Hogwarts. It is there he will learn the truth about the death of his parents (and the acquisition of his scar) at the hands of the monstrous Lord Voldemort. The introduction of Harry, greeted as a virtual celebrity, to Hogwarts is the best part of this story, ranging from the "Myst"-like scenery to the wonderful caricatures of professors and students. And what a (British) cast! Maggie Smith as Professor McGonagall who easily morphs between cat and human; Richard Harris as the beloved and bearded Headmaster Dumbledore; Alan Rickman as the dark and mysterious Professor Snape; Zoë Wanamaker as Madame Hooch; and even a ghostly John Cleese as Nearly Headless Nick. But also notable are the young actors, the almost-perfect Daniel Radcliffe as the cool and brave bespectacled Harry; Emma Watson as the seemingly all-knowing Hermione; and Rupert Grint as Ron Weasley whose ability at chess will save the day. While there are some minor weaknesses in the photography (the Quidditch scenery is a little weak), the film has enough for kids of all ages. While there are the standard "fear factors" that always seem to have a role in such fantasy, here they do not overwhelm the story, the characters or the overall charm of the story. DVD ***1/2 (6/1/02)

"Sidewalks of New York"-A round-robin tale of the love lives of six New Yorkers, "Sidewalks of New York" owes some homage to Woody Allen. Ed Burns, who wrote and directed this intelligent and funny film, as well as starred in it, is a talented young guy who loves his city and shows it. New York looks great. The cast is wonderful. Burns plays Tommy Riley, a TV producer who has just been kicked out by his girlfriend. He meets Maria Tedesco (Rosario Dawson), a schoolteacher, at a video store and cleverly develops the possibility of a relationship. Maria had been married to Benny Basler (David Krumholtz) but divorced because Benny felt he hadn't had enough experience with other women. Benny, a doorman/wannabe rock star, is begging Maria to take him back, but meanwhile he notices a cute waitress named Ashley (Brittany Murphy) at his favorite coffee shop. Ashley is having a ridiculous affair with a pretty boring married dentist named Griffin Aretzo (Stanley Tucci). Griffin is on his second marriage and fears another divorce, but this doesn't stop his philandering. His wife, Annie Matthews (Heather Graham) is a real-estate agent who is showing apartments to Tommy Riley at the same time that she is beginning to realize what her husband is up to. And so it goes around. Done in a partly-documentary style, with the six main characters occasionally talking to an unseen filmmaker about their love and sex lives, "Sidewalks of New York" is witty and on point. Stanley Tucci is perfectly obnoxious as the completely worthless Griffin, a man who lies to everyone, including himself. David Krumholtz easily portrays the air of the young man who has married too young and isn't quite sure how to sell himself except to simply be himself. Brittany Murphy is an amazing young talent who does a wonderful transformation from the seemingly ditzy mistress of Griffin into a young woman who completely comes to her senses and realizes the value of a truly caring person. Heather Graham, who was miscast in "From Hell," is perfectly cast here as the upper east side blonde who has married wrong and desperately needs a change, and Rosario Dawson is gorgeous and very charming as the young schoolteacher who is uncertain of what she wants only a year after her divorce. This is a film that did not get a great deal of attention, but it certainly deserves a viewing. DVD **** (5/25/02)

"Vanilla Sky"-I have not seen the original movie upon which this film is based but I see a pattern. The original is called "Abres Los Ojos" ("Open Your Eyes") and was the creation of Alejandro Amenábar, the same man who directed "The Others." Mr.Amenábar obviously is a cousin of M. Night Shyamalan, the director of "The Sixth Sense" and other childish films of the occult. "Vanilla Sky" is directed by Cameron Crowe ("Almost Famous"). Mr. Crowe shouldn't waste his obvious skills on this kind of nonsense. And nonsense it is. Tom Cruise (oh yes, the same Tom Cruise we've been seeing film-in and film-out for years) stars as the egotistical New York rich boy/executive David Aames who is having an unsatisfying affair with Julie Gianni (Cameron Diaz), a woman he ultimately grows to hate despite her obvious ardor for him. Ultimately, he sees her as a stalker, as he finds himself far more attracted to Sofia Serrano (Penelope Cruz--who also starred in the original version of this film). But Julie the stalker, jealous of David's relationship with Sofia, convinces David to join her for an auto ride through Manhattan that results in a tragic accident in which David survives but is severely disfigured. Little happens throughout most of this relatively dull film. David is seen in prison, wearing an expressionless mask ("facial prosthetic") and being interviewed by a psychologist played by Kurt Russell. It seems that David may have committed a murder. Intermingled with hints of a bizarre cryogenics theory (wherein people are frozen at death so that they can be resuscitated at a much later date) we are brought back and forth between the present?, past?, and future? to the point that it is really impossible to tell just what is going on. Although one gets a sense of what the filmmaker is getting at towards the end, the conclusion is a gigantic ho-hum. I certainly got little or nothing out of the "revelations" of the film's conclusion which are mostly lame explanations. Of note in the cast is Jason Lee as Brian Shelby, an author under contract to Aames' corporation, who seems to do little besides provide Aames with women he himself would like to have. Noah Taylor is notable as a strange technical support advisor of the cryogenics company. Timothy Spall, a wonderful actor, is totally wasted in his role as Thomas Tipp, an employee of Aames' company who is on his side against the seemingly sinister "board." The talents of Tilda Swinton are also wasted as an executive of the cryogenics company. This film is a gigantic yawn. DVD ** (5/24/02)

"Lantana"-As one of my closest and dearest friends is a native of Sydney, Australia, a place I've never seen but would love to, movies that take place there are always at the top of my list of films to see. "Lantana" is one of those. And while it is ostensibly a police thriller involving a mysterious disappearance, it is really an intelligent film about the trials and travails of marriage. Anthony LaPaglia, a native of Australia, stars as Leon Zat, a police detective who is in the middle of a serious emotional crisis. While he apparently still cares about his wife Sonja (Kerry Armstrong), he is having an affair with Jane O'May (Rachael Blake), a woman separated for the moment from her husband Pete (Glenn Robbins). Living next door to Jane are Nik and Paula Daniels (Vince Colosimo and Daniella Farinacci), a seemingly content loving couple with three children. And Sonja is seeing a psychiatrist, Dr. Valerie Somers (Barbara Hershey) because of her own emotional marital difficulties. Dr. Somers, on the other hand, finds herself threatened by the comments of a gay patient, concerned that he may be having an affair with her husband, John Knox (Geoffrey Rush), a law dean. While the various entanglements of these characters are a little too coincidental to believe seriously, the film very effectively tells the tale of the disappearance of one of the characters and the suspicion of foul play thrown on another by a third who has observed a strange act by that character. And the circle comes around when Detective Zat, with his partner Claudia (a charming Leah Purcell), investigates the disappearance only to learn secrets about some of the other characters.

The casting of "Lantana" (a flowering shrub in the bush) is outstanding. While Anthony LaPaglia overplays the dour mood of his character a little too much, I was extremely impressed by the performances of Kerry Armstrong as a loving mother and wife who is distraught by the distance her husband shows for her, and by Rachael Blake as the separated wife not quite sure she wants to rid herself of her husband but still willing to fool around and look for another relationship. Barbara Hershey and Geoffrey Rush are outstanding as usual in these slightly different roles (for them) about a couple whose relationship is deteriorating after the recent death of their daughter (incidentally, the film contains a brief explanation for how Hershey's character is an American rather than Australian--that obviously would have been omitted had an Australian actress been cast). While I would have liked to have seen a little more of Sydney, I found "Lantana" to be an extremely worthy and original film. DVD **** (5/23/02)

"From Hell"-The title comes from a letter believed to have been written by the real "Jack The Ripper." The film, directed by the Hughes Brothers ("Dead Presidents") is the story of Fred Abberline (Johnny Depp), a London police inspector with some extrasensory powers who investigates the gruesome murders of a group of London prostitutes who have seen one of their colleagues happily marry, have a child, and then be carried off, along with her husband, by a gang of thugs. The leader of this group of women in the Whitechapel District of the London of 1888 is a redhead named Mary Kelly (Heather Graham) and includes Dark Annie Chapman (Katrin Cartlidge). Despite warnings to stay off the streets, most of the women venture out only to be hideously murdered by an obviously wealthy carriage-born man in a top-hat who is accompanied by a driver-assistant. This is a dark film about horrifying acts, and yet is rather intelligently portrayed with a very good cast, including Ian Richardson as the sinister chief police inspector who seems more interested in preventing Abberline from solving the crime than in helping him solve it; Ian Holm as Sir William Gull, a doctor with some secrets; and Robbie Coltrane, delightful as Sergeant Godley, Abberline's assistant. Abberline ultimately discovers what is going on but finds himself the victim of the powers-that-be. Johnny Depp seems perfect for these kinds of roles, but rarely shows any growth in his acting skills. Heather Graham is a little too pretty and sweet as Mary. DVD ***1/2 (5/18/02)

"The Others"-The problem with seeing a film like this long after its theater run is that if you've heard a tiny bit about the film, you just about know the whole thing. The outline of the story is simple. It is 1945, on a British isle, and Grace Stewart (Nicole Kidman) is living in a large house with her two young children Anne and Nicholas, waiting for Grace's husband to return from World War II. The two children suffer from a disease that prevents their exposure to daylight and thus large curtains keep out the lovely light in those rooms in which the children are located. Grace obsessively goes from room-to-room unlocking a door, entering the room and then locking the door from behind to prevent her children from entering rooms where they will be exposed to daylight. Into this large, dark, and spooky house come three servants who appear, apparently expectedly, on the front step. Led by Bertha Mills (Fionnula Flanagan) as the housekeeper and nanny, the three, including a gardener and a young mute maid, seem perfect for the job but it soon becomes apparent that they are not exactly what they seem. Meanwhile, Anne (well done by young Alakina Mann) begins to see and hear images of people wandering the house and these characters are soon known as "the intruders." The plot is virtually non-existent. The film is loaded with spooky scenes aimed at frightening the audience, and frighten they do. And then this simplistic situation produces a relatively sudden surprise "Sixth Sense"-type ending which is at least partially guessable in advance. Nicole Kidman is fine in the role of the mother obsessed with protecting her children. Fionnula Flanagan, as always, stands out as the somewhat pushy maid who has worked in the house once before. DVD *** (5/17/02)

"Ocean's Eleven"-Wow, a film starring George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, Andy Garcia, Don Cheadle, Matt Damon, Elliot Gould, Carl Reiner, and Bernie Mac! How could it possibly go wrong? Well, first of all, it's a heist picture. Seen any of those lately? Second, it has virtually no script worth mentioning or discussing. Third, the acting is pro forma and totally expected with almost no surprises. The only surprise in fact is Don Cheadle's British accent and he's not even credited on this film despite being a significant member of the eleven. And what are the "eleven?" Well, the slick Daniel Ocean (George Clooney) gets out of jail, pleading that he'll be a good boy. It takes all of one day for him to begin plotting to rob millions from three Las Vegas casinos run by Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia) who just happens to have something that Ocean wants back. The "eleven" are the gang members put together by Ocean, with the help of chief assistant Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt). They proceed to plan and attempt a robbery which is clearly an impossibility. But in a movie, of course, anything is possible no matter how unrealistic the situation. That anyone in their right mind would attempt a robbery which depends, almost totally, on everyone outside the gang acting exactly as predicted, is an absurdity beyond further comment. What more can I say? This picture was predictable and a bore. Not recommended. DVD **1/2 (5/8/02)

"Behind Enemy Lines"-Bearing almost no resemblance to the excellent "No Man's Land," which is about the same war, i.e., the war between Serbia and Bosnia in the early 1990s, "Behind Enemy Lines" tells the tale of a Navy navigator named Burnett (played earnestly by Owen Wilson) who is bored with the Navy and wants out, only to be sent on a last-minute holiday reconnaissance mission by Admiral Reigart (Gene Hackman) with a pilot named Stackhouse (Gabriel Macht). Burnett and Stackhouse think that the mission is a piece of cake, but they make the mistake of flying over murderous Serb soldiers and getting shot down. Stackhouse, who is injured and helpless, is shot and killed by the Serbs, making Burnett realize that he has to run like hell for cover. The film then proceeds to show the amazing and unbelievable pursuit of Burnett by the Serbs. Hundreds, if not thousands of rounds are shot at Burnett and mines explode around him, but none hit the target. Burnett is too good to be true. Running endlessly and avoiding the enemy in the most unlikely circumstancs, along the way Burnett discovers the dirty secret of the Serbs and knows why they have killed Stackhouse and are after him. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, er, aircraft carrier, Admiral Reigart is being stymied by his superior NATO officer, Admiral Piquet (Joaquin de Almeida), in his efforts to save Burnett. But the rescue shall ultimately be launched no matter what the cost. Lacking any true political or moral message, this film consists primarily of macho war images and some darn good computer graphics. DVD *** (5/4/02)

"Ali"-Done in a fluid series of images and vignettes, rather than a continuous story, "Ali" is a vivid cinematic accomplishment about the life and times of Muhammed Ali, former heavyweight champion of the world. It begins in 1964 when the then-Cassius Clay was about to fight Sonny Liston for the first time, and extends into the 1970s when Muhammed Ali regained his heavyweight title from George Foreman in Zaire. Will Smith does a fine job as Ali, portraying a great fighter, an excellent rhymer, a man of religious ideals, and a somewhat problematic lover. I was a little surprised at the emphasis in the early going on Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles), not having been aware of such a close relationship between him and Ali. But after Malcolm X's assassination, the emphasis switches in the second part of the film to Ali's relationships with his wives and girlfriends (Jada Pinkett Smith; Nona Gaye; and Michael Michele). Always, however, at the heart of this film is the magic and boxing finesse of Muhammed Ali, a man who defied the law and won, and defied some of the toughest boxing opponents and usually won. Among the fine performances in "Ali" are Jaime Foxx as "Bundini" Brown, Ali's cornerman, himself a character; Ron Silver as Angelo Dundee, Ali's trainer; Jon Voight in a humorous and somewhat low-key portrayal of Howard Cosell; Giancarlo Esposito as Ali's father, Cassius Clay, Sr.; and Mykelti Williamson as the ultimate fight promoter, Don King. DVD ***1/2 (5/3/02)

"No Man's Land"-This has to be one of the most succinct commentaries on humanity's failures I have ever seen. Telling the tale of soldiers stuck in a trench between the lines in the battle between the Serbians and the Bosnians, "No Man's Land" manages to cover man's stupidity, lack of humanity, arrogance, lack of communication, sloth, and downright evil. Three soldiers, two Bosnian and one Serb, find themselves in a trench in "no man's land," with one lying on a mine that will go off if he is moved. The two standing soldiers (Branko Djuric and Rene Bitorajac) have nothing but enmity and are bent on killing each other, but the Bosnian is concerned about his cohort lying on the mine. They manage to attract the attention of both sides, a cease fire is called, and the UN troops come in to attempt to solve the situation. But there is no solution in this human mess. One decent French UN soldier (Georges Siatidis) is stymied at every turn by his inept superiors, and whatever chance the UN soldiers had to alleviate the situation is overrun by arrogant and pushy newspeople, including a British reporter Jane Livingston (Katrin Cartlidge). When the UN soldiers propose intelligent action, they are prevented by the commander, Soft (Simon Callow) who is more interested in the easy way out and his blonde assistant than in any human solution. Virtually everyone comes off looking bad in this film which is not only anti-war but anti-virtually all of the human characteristics that make life on this planet so dangerous for so many. Seemingly, an easy and obvious subject, but brilliantly portrayed in this play-like tragedy. DVD **** (4/26/02)

"Serendipity"-If you're looking for "light" entertainment, this is the film for you. In fact, it's so "light" it's practically non-existent. Jonathan (John Cusack) and Sara (Kate Beckinsale) run into each other at Bloomingdale's at Christmas over a pair of black cashmere gloves and feel instant attraction. But despite that, Sara refuses to give Jonathan her name and decides that their future should be left up to fate. Jonathan writes his name and number on a $5 bill which Sara immediately spends and she promises to write her name in a copy of a book and sell it to a bookseller. Years pass. Sara is now in San Francisco and engaged to Lars, an esoteric musician (John Corbett), and Jonathan, still in NY, is about to be married to the lovely Halley (Bridget Moynahan). But Jonathan and Sara are unable to forget the other, and they each begin a search that will end with......Can't you guess? Overflowing with coincidences and cliches, this 90-minute romance could just as well have been a nice TV movie. And it doesn't even have a meeting on top of the Empire State Building. DVD *1/2 (4/20/02)

"The Man Who Wasn't There"The Coen Brothers (Joel and Ethan) are undoubtedly two of the most creative people in the movie business. Their films are never predictable or banal. Each one is a unique experience and "The Man Who Wasn't There" is certainly no exception. First of all, this film is exquisitely photographed in black and white by Cinematographer Roger Deakins who deserved an Oscar. The photography alone makes this film worth viewing. But there is far more here than that. This is a humorous and yet disturbing morality play about a rather simple, stoic, and quiet cigarette-smoking barber named Ed Crane (brilliantly portrayed by Billy Bob Thornton) who gets himself into an awful lot of trouble without a great deal of thought about the consequences of his actions. Ed, whose wife Doris (Frances McDormand) is having an affair with Big Dave (James Gandolfini), her boss and the manager of a local Santa Rosa, CA, department store, is tempted by a barbershop customer to invest in a dry-cleaning business. Unfortunately, Ed decides to raise the money by anonymously blackmailing Big Dave, a circumstance which leads to a variety of tragic consequences, including the arrest of his wife for murder, and his own eventual undoing. The film is slowly but deliberately and deliciously paced, carefully unraveling the tale being narrated by the usually quiet Ed. The performances are outstanding. Billy Bob Thornton is wonderful as the barber who doesn't really think of himself as a barber. Tony Shalhoub is fabulously arrogant and effusive as Freddy Riedenschneider, the attorney called in to first defend Doris and later Ed. And others worthy of special mention are Michael Badalucco as Frank, Doris' brother and the "first chair" barber; Jon Polito as Creighton Tolliver, the somewhat slimy advocate of dry cleaning whose fate leads to Ed's undoing; Katherine Borowitz in a small role as Big Dave's strange and obsessed wife; and Scarlett Johansson as Birdy Abundas, the piano playing teen who attracts Ed for her seeming musical talent and possibly otherwise. As is almost always the case, special mention must go to Frances McDormand ("Fargo"), an actress who always provides magic in her portrayals of the female characters in Coen Brothers' films. "The Man Who Wasn't There" is highly recommended. Watch it carefully and enjoy the gorgeous cinematography which makes the significant point that not every film must be made in color. DVD ****1/2 (4/19/02)

"The Deep End"-Beautifully filmed along the shore at Lake Tahoe, "The Deep End" tells the story of Margaret Hall (Tilda Swinton), a mother who will do almost anything to protect her family. Paced deliberately and with great calm, despite the urgency of the action taking place, the film begins with Margaret warning a man in Reno to stay away from her teenage son Beau (Jonathan Tucker), only to find the same man dead on the beach by her home the next day with an anchor in his chest. Immediately assuming the worst, Margaret sets out to get rid of the body and cover-up the deed. But she soon finds herself the subject of blackmail by a young attractive man named Alek Spera (Goran Visnjic). Based on a novel written in the 1940s, and one in which the child was female, rather than male, "The Deep End" proceeds on a different course, carefully revealing a developing relationship between Margaret and the blackmailer, a man who knows of the disturbing relationship between Beau and the dead man. Tilda Swinton, a luminous British actress ("Orlando"), is wonderful as the California mother of three whose husband is away in the Navy and unavailable to help her through her daily crises. Goran Visnjic is also quite good as the blackmailer with a heart. This is a thriller, but one with a difference because it cares more about its characters and what they do than about the "action." Of note in the cast is Peter Donat as Margaret's father-in-law. DVD **** (4/18/02)

"Spy Game"-This rather predictable and tired film uses plenty of the standard spy themes from dozens of other pictures of the genre. Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt) is caught by the Chinese while trying to help Elizabeth Hadley (Catherine McCormack) escape from a Chinese prison. Bishop is to be executed in 24 hours. But back at the CIA in Langley, the powers-that-be are attempting to find reasons to allow Bishop to die. They call in Nathan Muir (Robert Redford) who originally recruited Bishop to find enough dirt on him to support their inclination. But Muir, who is in his last day at the CIA, has other ideas and sets out to use his knowledge, technology, and money to save Bishop in between telling tales (seen in flashback) about Bishop's exploits in Vietnam as a sniper, and later as a spy. Filmed in rather high-contrast images a little hard on the eye, the film is just too glitzy and the various techological and other tricks have been seen before in other forms in a multitude of films of this genre. Pitt here is certainly not the pretty boy one normally thinks of his image and that is admirable. Here he's down and dirty most of the time. Redford, craggy but still amazingly handsome, is just a little too smug for the part. I've just seen too many spy thrillers in which the government agents are sinister bad guys trying to undermine their own. There has to be another theme for these types of stories. DVD **1/2 (4/13/02)

"Mulholland Dr."-I've never been a big fan of films both written and directed by David Lynch, including his TV series "Twin Peaks." I've found them to be somewhat fatuous and overly surrealistic. And so I rented the newly DVD-released "Mulholland Dr." with some reservations, but also with hope since the New York Film Critics Circle had rated it the best film of 2001. And what did I find? Well, an entertaining and yet very mysterious film that requires some substantial analysis for any kind of real understanding of just what has gone on. The film begins with a beautiful dark-haired woman riding in the back seat of a limo being driven up Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles. The car stops, the driver points a pistol at the woman and tells her to get out, but before she can, a car being driven by wild teenagers crashes into the limo, smashing both cars. The dark-haired woman miraculously emerges from the back seat and shakily makes her way down to a residential street, sneaking into an apartment only to be discovered by a young ingenue just arrived from Deep River, Ontario. The ingenue, Betty, has come to occupy the apartment, that of her aunt who is away. Betty (Naomi Watts) initially believes the woman (who calls herself Rita and is played by the stunning Laura Elena Harring) to be a friend of her aunt's but soon discovers that she really doesn't belong in the apartment and has amnesia. The two, however, become friends and Betty, in her best Nancy Drewish manner, decides to help Rita discover her true identity. Rita remembers one thing, a name, Diane Selwyn. Finding the name and address in the phone book, Betty and Rita set out on their investigation.

There are many images and characters intermingled in the story, too many to mention in a short review, but suffice it to say they all appear somewhat strange and mysterious. These range from an extremely dirty man behind a diner; a movie director named Adam (Justin Theroux) who finds himself having a very bad day (including being told which actress to cast in his movie and finding his wife in bed with the pool man); a cowboy who meets Adam in a dark corral in the Hollywood hills and tells him just what he must do, or else; and a somewhat nosy old lady named Coco (Ann Miller) who is in charge of the apartment complex where Betty is staying. This film is undoubtedly about Hollywood, its imagery, plasticity, and false identities, as well as the mythical power of mysterious people who control the movie biz. One of the most riveting scenes takes place in a meeting room wherein two apparent gangsters arrive to make it clear to Director Adam and the other film executives that Adam, against his will, has no choice but to cast a woman named Camilla Rhodes as his star. These images of sinister people running the show are a regular theme in David Lynch's films. Ultimately, Betty and Rita find a blue key and finally a blue box which fits the key. The opening of the blue box leads to the last third of the film in which there is an abrupt shift in the story, as well as the identities of some of the characters. And it is this part that provides the solution to the mystery.

Naomi Watts, a young Australian actress, is simply fabulous as Betty. This is a difficult role and she succeeds beautifully. Laura Elena Harring is both exquisite and excellent as the mysterious amnesiac Rita (she gets the name from a bathroom poster of a Rita Hayworth film). Justin Theroux is perfect as the young, snotty, but rightly outraged director who is in the middle of all the goings-on. And it's good to see Ann Miller ("On The Town," among many others) back in films, despite the fact that somewhere along the line she has had an awful nose job. In some ways, "Mulholland Dr." reminds me of "Memento," a brilliant film that required a second viewing to fully understand. While not as difficult to follow on initial viewing as the end-to-beginning "Memento," "Mulholland Dr." also benefits from a second viewing, especially after considering what's happened in the film and reading others' thoughts on the matter. A second viewing the next day was as fascinating and entertaining as the first, and for that reason, among others, I conclude that this is David Lynch's best film and is recommended. DVD **** (4/12/02)

"Heist"-If you've seen a David Mamet film, you should be familiar with his unique staccato and repetitive dialogue. And this film is no different in its Mamet touch. However, despite a very good cast, including Gene Hackman, Delroy Lindo, Danny DeVito, Rebecca Pidgeon (Mrs. Mamet), Ricky Jay, and Sam Rockwell, this Mamet written and directed film is loaded with cliches of the genre. It begins with a daring jewelry heist in Manhattan, as the gang, led by Joe Moore (Hackman) creates an explosive diversion and then gathers up the jewels. Unfortunately, Moore's face is photographed during the robbery and he can't get to the video tapes. As a result, he's ready to go on the lam with his cohort/wife, Fran (Pidgeon). But Bergman (DeVito), the fence behind the whole thing, has other ideas and pressures the gang (including Lindo and Jay) into another daring robbery of Swiss gold bullion right off a cargo plane. And he imposes one of his men, Jimmy Silk (Rockwell), on Hackman's group. Silk is an obvious slippery type and has his eye on Mrs. Moore and the gold. As always, the techniques and machinations of the robberies are fun to watch, but the film proceeds to use every doublecross cliche ever seen in a film of this sort. And that takes it downhill into mediocrity. If you saw "The Score" with Robert DeNiro you've seen a film very much like this one. DVD *** (4/12/02)

"Bandits"-Barry Levinson directed this colorful film about the "sleepover bandits," two Oregon inmates who escape prison on a cement truck and then begin a life of robbing banks by holding the bank manager hostage in his or her own home the night before the robbery and then having the bank manager open the vault the next morning before employees and public arrive. Starting with what appears to be end of the story, "Bandits" goes back to tell the tale of Joe Blake (Bruce Willis) and Terry Collins (Billy Bob Thornton), and the red-headed beauty who enters their life of crime, Kate Wheeler (Cate Blanchett). Joe is a handsome ladies man and Terry is an intelligent hypochondriac. Kate is an unhappy housewife who finds the fling into crime exciting, especially with two men who collectively would be the one great guy of her dreams. With gorgeous Oregon-California coast scenery in the background, the three (along with a fairly dense stuntman named Harvey (Troy Garrity) who serves as their driver) become famous for their daring robberies and other video-taped stunts. Bruce Willis, as usual, is effective as the tough Blake; Billy Bob Thornton is quite funny as the almost always sickly Collins; and Blanchett is funny and beautiful as the seemingly confused Wheeler. Although this film got little attention in the theaters, and slows down a little before the usual switcheroo surprise at the end, I found "Bandits" to be two good hours of fun and games with a talented cast. DVD ***1/2 (4/5/02)

"Donnie Darko"-A disturbed young man who sees and hears strange things, including a human-sized monstrously-masked rabbit named Frank; a mysterious jet engine crashing into a house; a wild-haired old lady who wanders from street to mailbox; a book on time travel authored by the wild-haired old lady; and a psychology guru who also happens to be a child-porn maven: these are all elements of this rather bizarre film written and directed by 26-year-old Richard Kelly. Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) awakens at night to the sound of Frank's raspy voice telling him to do evil deeds, including flooding the high school and burning down a house. All types of strange and bad things happen while Donnie awaits the end of the world as promised by Frank. This rather mindlessly weird film reminded me of a David Lynch creation ("Twin Peaks"?) and that is no compliment. The only improvement over "Twin Peaks" is that this film does have somewhat of an upbeat ending, although that's certainly subject to debate. Donnie comes from a family in which the children use foul language at the dinner table while their parents sit there with quirky smiles on their faces. Jake Gyllenhaal is Tobey Maguire-like in his lack of expression; Mary McDonnell looks confused as Donnie's mother; Patrick Swayze never gets a chance to show his stuff as Jim Cunningham, the sleazy purveyor of psychobabble; Katherine Ross (yes, the star of "Butch Cassidy" and "The Graduate") is Donnie's psychiatrist playing dangerously with hypnosis; and Beth Grant is wonderfully hyper as Kitty Farmer, a teacher who worships Cunningham and his infomercial mentality. Also of note in the cast is Jena Malone as Gretchen, Donnie's girlfriend; and Drew Barrymore, a producer of the film, who is hopelessly stiff in her part as a high school English teacher. DVD **1/2 (4/5/02)

"K-Pax"-Prot (Kevin Spacey) suddenly appears in Grand Central Terminal in New York City to help out a woman who has been accosted. Even though bystanders tell the police Prot was not involved and was only helping the woman, his behavior leads the police to take him to a mental institution. At the hospital, he is introduced to a psychiatrist, Dr. Mark Powell, played by Jeff Bridges, who has to determine whether or not Prot is sane. You see Prot insists that he is not human, but rather a native of the planet K-Pax which is light years away from earth. While Bridges attempts to research Prot's real name and background with the help of hypnosis, Prot has Bridges wondering and he has the other patients at the hospital convinced that he is who he says he is. And they also believe, as he promises, that when he leaves on a specific day, he will take one of them with him. Despite a little too much of the expressionless monotone which Kevin Spacey occasionally does to perfection, he also throws in the occasional smile, smirk, or figurative wink to show that he is still there. Prot seems to have all the answers, including scientific ones when he is interrogated by astronomers at the Rose Planetarium. So is Prot from K-Pax, a strange land which lacks families and in which the K-Paxians reproduce by bizarre painful procreation, or is he a seriously delusional human? The filmmakers never quite answer the question. The film lets you have your pick. And that's part of its charm. It raises an intriguing question and leaves you guessing. Spacey and Bridges do their job reasonably well, although I kept picturing Bridges in his role in "Starman," when he himself played an alien, a sure thing in that film. DVD *** (3/30/02)

"Bread & Tulips"-So many of the movies we watch these days are about dysfunctional families, and they are often painful to watch. Well, this beautifully photographed film (Italian with English subtitles) is about a somewhat dysfunctional marriage, and it's a delight to watch. Licia Maglietta, who radiates beauty and warmth on the screen, plays Rosalba Barletta, a woman who is left behind by her family at a rest stop while on vacation. Instead of moping about how to get home, Rosalba seizes the day, gets picked up as a hitchhiker, and finds herself in Venice, a place she has never seen before. Initially thinking she'll stay for a day or two, she conveniently misses her train home, gets a job, and starts to make friends, including Fernando (Bruno Ganz), a waiter who has kindly offered her a place to stay. Rosalba interacts with a panoply of humorous characters, including Grazia (Marina Massironi), a neighbor and holistic massage therapist; Costantino (Giuseppe Battiston), the hysterical plumber/detective who is sent to Venice by Rosalba's husband and plagued by his mobile phone; and Fermo (Felice Andreasi), the gray bearded florist who isn't afraid to throw out a customer if they are asking for the wrong kind of flowers. This is a film that makes you smile, laugh, and feel genuinely good with its quirky but human characters and its warm romantic theme. Recommended. DVD **** (3/29/02)

"Life As A House"-As I watched this film I kept wondering if anyone had read the script before starting because it contains so many cliches and unlikely situations as to be almost embarrassing. Kevin Kline is George, an apparently unhappy architect, who is fired by his firm for failure to grow in the job and adapt to new technology, only to become ill, on the very same day, and discover that he is dying of cancer. And this is right after he has destroyed numerous home models in his former employer's office, an act which would land most people in jail. However, George suffers no such fate and instead decides to tear down his miserable oceanside shack, the bane of the neighborhood, and build a beautiful home with the help of his son Sam (Hayden Christensen) in hopes of also building a relationship with Sam. But Sam is miserable and rebellious, and has been living unhappily with his mother, George's ex-wife Robin (Kristin Scott Thomas), who seems unhappy herself in a marriage to a rather boorish and cold fish named Peter (Jamey Sheridan). Against his will, Sam comes to live with George and, of course, gradually starts to appreciate his father. And there just happens to be, next door, a mother and daughter both letting off a lot of heat. Mary Steenburgen plays Coleen, the mother who is sleeping with Josh, one of her daughter's male friends, and Jena Malone plays the teen daughter, Alyssa, who invites Sam to use their bathroom and shower and then immediately walks right into the bathroom, strips, and joins Sam in the shower. Aside from all these sexual fantasies as real plot elements, there is also the classic cliche of the overnight transformation. It doesn't take long for Sam to shed his blue hair, his jewelry in various pierced locations of his facial anatomy, and his eye makeup, and become a handsome hard-working loving son. But worse is the instant and inexplicable transformation at the very end of Robin's husband, Peter. Kevin Kline does a workmanlike job as a man transformed (a lot of transformations are going on in this film) by fatal illness from a curmudgeon who annoys his neighbors and family, to a constructive individual bent on restoring his son and otherwise doing good. I can only recommend this film if you can take an awful lot of classic movie balderdash. DVD **1/2 (3/27/02)

"Riding In Cars With Boys"-We all have dreams and this film, directed by Penny Marshall, tells the true story of Beverly D'Onofrio, a young woman from Wallingford, CT, who has brains and desires to go to college and beyond for a career, hopefully in writing. Based on her book of the same name, the film time-wanders between Beverly's teen years in the mid-to-late 1960s, and 1986, where she is seen driving with a young man (Adam Garcia) who is narrating the story, to an unknown destination. Played with charm and enthusiasm by Drew Barrymore, Beverly finds herself pregnant at age 15 and forced by family circumstances to marry the totally inadequate young man who is the father (Steve Zahn). Beverly soon finds herself living a life on poverty-row with a young child in hand, a junkie husband, and little support from anyone other than her best friend Fay (Brittany Murphy). The story of how she deals with her son Jason, and battles her useless husband and hostile father, is rather endearing, if not perfectly acted or otherwise riveting. Brittany Murphy is notable as Fay, who becomes pregnant at the same time as Beverly, particularly in one funny scene in which Fay impersonates Beverly's mother upon being told of her pregnancy. It is worth noting that the casting of Adam Garcia, a young Australian actor who plays the adult Jason, is rather strange. First, of course, he is Australian but like so many Australian actors does a decent American accent. More interesting is that despite Drew Barrymore being two years younger than Garcia, she plays his mother. Others of note are James Woods as Beverly's policeofficer father who appears to love his daughter but refuses to accept her mistake most likely due to their provincial religious beliefs, and Lorraine Bracco ("The Sopranos") as Beverly's mother who is reduced in this film to simply cleaning up for her while she's pregnant and after. DVD *** (3/23/02)

"Training Day"-This is one of the most repulsive films I have ever seen. Denzel Washington, playing against his usual type, is Alonzo Harris, a narc detective with the LAPD who is to take a younger cop, Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke), through a day of training to see if he'll fit into his unit. Everything Harris asks Hoyt to do is against Hoyt's better instincts: let apparent rapists go despite catching them in the act, smoke marijuana and crack he has stolen from buyers, steal large amounts of cash from crooks, shoot people, and on and on. But Hoyt is innocent at the beginning and thinks he better just go along. Little does he know that Harris is a murderous thug who is using him for his own interests. There are virtually no decent people in this film. It consists of one violent and offensive scene after the next. And it is particularly galling to see Denzel Washington, an actor who usually plays heroic characters, reduced to the nauseating role he plays here. Washington has been nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor. But what he's really doing in this film is relatively easy for most competent actors. He screams, he sneers, he fires two pistols one in each hand, and he pushes people around. This is called emoting and it is not great acting. Great acting involves subtlety. There is no subtlety in this role. Ethan Hawke is not bad as Hoyt, a man who gets pummeled by Harris over and over until he finally arises in total anger and outrage. But there's little subtlety here either (although he's nominated for Best Supporting Actor). That two actors in a film of this sort have been nominated for Oscars is a pitiable commentary on Hollywood's current state-of-mind. DVD *1/2 (3/19/02)

"Sexy Beast"-An acting tour-de-force, "Sexy Beast" tells the tale of Gal (Ray Winstone), a "retired" gangster living happily in his gorgeous poolside home in rural Spain with his ex-pornstar wife Deedee (Amanda Redman). Not far away are their best friends Aitch (Cavan Kendall) and Jackie (Julianne White). But into their happy midst comes Don Logan (Ben Kingsley), a brutish machine-like thug who is on a mission to have Gal join a bank heist in London being organized by the notorious Teddy Bass (Ian McShane). And Don will not take "no" for an answer. Ranging between humor, romance, viciousness, violence, and contrasts of good and evil, "Sexy Beast" is crisp and sharp with intelligent curves and angles. Although the lower class British accents were a little difficult to follow early in the film, nothing of significance was missed and I soon found myself understanding every word. Ben Kingsley is magnificent as the overbearing, screaming, and obviously very frightening Logan, a man who one wouldn't want to meet in real life. Ray Winstone is marvelous as a gangster with a relatively soft and vulnerable side. Ian McShane is notable as the gangleader who is not satisfied with Gal's explanations about the location of an important character. And Amanda Redman is excellent as the loving and supportive Deedee. This was director Jonathan Glazer's first film. I look forward to a lot more from this talented young man. DVD **** (3/15/02)

"The Last Castle"-No one has ever thought of Robert Redford as a great actor, but he's usually made films that have a little more than the usual run-of-the-mill cliches. Not this time. Oh, he's presentable as the cool General Irwin, a great military leader who has been convicted of failing to follow an order of the commander-in-chief (the president), leading to the deaths of eight Americans, and who has been sentenced to a term at a castle-like military prison under the command of Colonel Winter (played reasonably well by James Gandolfini, otherwise known as Tony Soprano). But the film is simple-minded and absurd. Gandolfini's Colonel Winter is a tough and maybe slightly brutal prison warden, but certainly not so brutal as to justify a rebellion by Irwin and the prison inmates. Patently egotistical to an absurdity, Irwin originally maintains that he is at the prison to serve his term and go home to be with his family. Almost immediately, however, he starts plotting to win the minds and hearts of his fellow inmates in order to undermine Winter's authority. That they eventually mindlessly rebel and cause the deaths of both prisoners and innocent soldier/prison guards is an issue that is totally ignored by this film. They are made to look heroic when they are no more than stupid and selfish. Had the screenwriters and filmmakers made Winter into a thoroughly brutish thug, there might have been some satisfaction in seeing him destroyed by the inmates, but there is little or no satisfaction in this film. And no real resolution. This is a whopping silly movie. The cast includes Mark Ruffalo as Yates, an inmate who has difficulty deciding whether he favors Winter or Irwin, and Delroy Lindo in a small part as General Wheeler, Winter's commander as well as an old friend of Irwin's. DVD ** (3/9/02)

"A.I. Artificial Intelligence"-Based on an apparently significantly developed concept of the late and great Stanley Kubrick, this Steven Spielberg film tells the tale of a young boy-robot named David (Haley Joel Osment) who is programmed to love a human mother, Monica (Frances O'Connor). Monica's real son Martin is frozen at a medical facility and seemingly gone due to injury or illness, and so David becomes a cybernetic substitute for Monica and her husband Henry (Sam Robards). When Martin surprisingly returns, David is no longer the center of the parents' attention and is made to look dangerous by the childish pranks of Martin and his friends. And so David, who starts out far more robotic and gradually, by experience and learning, becomes more human, finds himself tossed out in the woods, alone except for a loyal and endearing Teddy Bear friend (the voice of Teddy seemed to me a strange and inappropriate deep male voice). David desires his human mother's love more than anything and begins to seek the "blue fairy" he has seen from "Pinocchio" who changes the little wooden puppet into a real boy. David believes in the "blue fairy" and that by being made real he will be truly loved by Monica. Along the way, he finds that there are other discarded robots, many in distressed condition, with whom he shares a basic danger. Discarded robots are no longer legal and can be hunted for human amusement, usually in the form of hideous and cruel destruction, at extravaganzas called "flesh fairs." David meets Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a robot who lives up to his name, and is escorted, along with Teddy, into the world of dangers. To tell more of the story is unfair and I will stop at this point.

"A.I." is a blend of classic Kubrick and Spielberg. The cool surreal nature of the situation, and the sexual images of Rouge City, the place where Gigolo Joe and David seek out "Dr.Know" (Robin Williams' voice) for information, and especially the entrance into the city via the mouths of female bridge/statues is an obvious homage to Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange" and its sinister futuristic and sexual images and set design. At the same time, the concentration of the story on the passions and desires of a young boy, albeit a robot, is the perfect tale for a director such as Spielberg who is known for childlike classics such as "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "E.T.," "Empire of the Sun" and the Indiana Jones series. This film is fascinating and intelligent simply because of the originality of the concept and theme and its spectacular effects. That said, the film still left me somewhat cold. The final sequence in a futuristic and frozen Manhattan is intriguing and certainly tries to make a point about the evolution of "artificial intelligence" in contrast to the human species. And yet at the same time it reminded me far too much of a repeat of the final section of "2001, A Space Odyssey," although I must admit that the ultimate sequence of "A.I." makes more obvious sense. Films like this should be appreciated because they are so rare and because they are thought-provoking. This is not science fiction for the sake of special effects. Here the special effects serve the story and they serve it well (and the brilliance of the filmmakers is reflected in a variety of extras on the DVD about the making of the film). Despite some weaknesses, anything that came from the mind of Stanley Kubrick and the direction of Steven Spielberg should be seen. DVD **** (3/8/02)

"Don't Say A Word"-The makers of this thriller had conceits about creating a Hitchcockian mystery, but something went wrong. Ten years after a fouled-up bank heist in which the only object stolen is a red jewel which is then taken in a doublecross, and on the evening before Thanksgiving, Dr. Nathan Conrad (Michael Douglas) is diverted from his trip home across Manhattan by a call from Dr. Louis Sachs (Oliver Platt), a former colleague, to see a young woman psychiatric patient at a New York hospital. Dr. Conrad finds himself faced with what appears to be a seriously disturbed young woman named Elisabeth Burrows (Brittany Murphy). His visit to Ms. Burrows, however, winds up dragging him into a nightmare, as his eight-year-old daughter is kidnapped and he is ordered by the kidnappers to get a number from the recesses of Ms. Burrows' mind or face the death of his child. Meanwhile, Conrad's wife Aggie (Famke Janssen) lies in bed immobilized by a broken leg from a skiing accident. At the other end of town, Detective Sandra Cassidy (Jennifer Esposito) is putting two and two together after finding separate bodies, in similar circumstances, in different watery locations off Manhattan. These stories come together rather neatly but oh so predictably. While the start of "Don't Say A Word" is typically appealing and mysterious, the film ultimately degrades into a run-of-the-mill thriller with choppy and confusing scenes as the parties race around to meet a deadly deadline. The bad guys, led by the sinister Patrick Koster (Sean Bean) have just spent ten years in jail, yet have the equipment and technical know-how to keep an eye and ear on all the important characters. They're loaded with up-to-date laptop computers, video equipment, and microphones, and all have been amazingly placed so that they can see and hear virtually everything they need to see and hear. This is absurd and ultimately silly. "Don't Say A Word" ends with another cliche, as the primary characters come together in a Stephen King-like Potter's Field at an island (Hart Island) at the western end of Long Island Sound, a place I'd never heard of despite having grown up not far from where this island is located. Michael Douglas does his usual workmanlike job, no more no less. The performance worth noting is that of Brittany Murphy as the seemingly disturbed Elisabeth who has a story to tell and a secret to reveal. DVD **1/2 (3/1/02)

"Va Savoir"-The French title, meaning "Who Knows?" is quite appropriate to describe this rather intriguing and yet puzzling film about ambiguous intertwining relationships among a group of people in Paris. Ugo (Sergio Castellitto) heads a traveling theater group and appears to be married to Camille (Jeanne Balibar), one of his stars. Although they have connecting hotel rooms, they rarely seem to share affection. Camille appears initially obsessed with her old Parisian lover Pierre (Jacques Bonnaffé) who lives with a dance instructor named Sonia (Marianne Basler). But Sonia is attracted to Arthur (Bruno Todeschini), the half-brother (lover?) of Domenique (Hélène de Fougerolles), who is helping Ugo find the manuscript of a missing play written by one of her ancestors and also appears to be falling for Ugo. And I should add that Arthur is also flirting with Camille. Rather long for a typical French film consisting primarily of talk, "Va Savoir" lasts 2 1/2 hours, but is so well performed that I found myself easily able to maintain my involvement with the characters. Jeanne Balibar is especially noteworthy as the slim, attractive and yet vulnerable Camille. Sergio Castellitto is excellent in portraying Ugo's concerns about his life, his wife, and his theater company, while trying to maintain his cool at all times. The film has a perfect stage denouement in which the characters wind up as if characters in a play and final relationships can at last be discerned. This is for those who enjoy thoughtful, intelligent but actionless European films. It is in French with English subtitles. DVD ***1/2 (2/23/02)

"Maze"-Rob Morrow is writer, director, and star of this rather self-indulgent film about an artist (Lyle Maze) of some reputation who also must deal with the ravages of Tourette's Syndrome. And Morrow won't let you forget it as he suffers curses, jumps, and tics throughout the film. The predictability of "Maze" is obvious in the opening scene in which Maze proceeds to knock paint all over a nude model, a precursor to a later scene in which Maze knocks wine all over a date. Not only is the film about Maze's medical condition but also about love, Maze's love for the girlfriend of his best friend Mike (Craig Sheffer). Callie is a beautiful redhead who is intelligent and thoughtful and played with charm and great ability, as always, by Laura Linney. Mike and Callie have had a long relationship, but Mike is a doctor and is often away from home attending to the needy in other parts of the world. Just as Callie learns she is pregnant, Mike leaves for Burundi (but not after leaving medicine for Maze which he never takes). Callie is, to put it mildly, pissed at Mike's constant absences and turns to her good friend Maze for companionship. You can probably guess what happens next in a film with few surprises other than when Maze will suffer his next tic. DVD **1/2 (2/17/02)

"The Princess and the Warrior"-In 1999, I reviewed "Run Lola Run" and said that it was uniquely European and unlikely to be done by an American director. A few years later, I can say virtually the same thing about this film, also made by Director Tom Tykwer and also starring the rather interesting Franka Potente. This time Potente is Sissi, initially a seemingly dull-witted aide who lives and works in a German mental institution. Unlike the fast-moving Lola, Sissi moves slowly and talks little. One day, when she is out with a blind patient, she's involved in a serious motor vehicle accident in the middle of town which is indirectly caused by a petty criminal named Bodo (Benno Fürmann). But it's also Bodo who comes to Sissi's rescue, crawling beneath a truck under which she is pinned and giving her a quick but life-saving tracheotomy. Sissi miraculously recovers, but now is obsessed with finding Bodo. She succeeds, but Bodo, suffering the residuals of a tragic trauma, is in the process of planning a bank robbery with his brother Walter (Joachim Król), a clerk at the bank, and is not interested in the young woman whose life he has saved. Sissi and Bodo soon find, however, that their fates are intertwined, something which is made crystal clear in the middle of the bank robbery which ultimately costs Walter his life. The cinematography in this film is magnificent and the mystical mood of the film, supplemented by the perfect score, is magical. Franka Potente is stunningly moving as the "princess" of this fable and Benno Fürmann is perfect as the disturbed and intent warrior, Bodo. Much of the film takes place in the mental institution where the patients seem obsessed with Sissi. But unlike "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest," here it is not a patient, but rather Sissi who revolts. For those who appreciate beautifully photographed and unusual and hypnotic films, this one is highly recommended. (German with English subtitles) DVD **** (2/16/02)

"Ghost World"-Thora Birch ("American Beauty") is delightful in this marvelously different film about late-teen angst and alienation. Created by an obviously talented writer/director named Terry Zwigoff ("Crumb"), as well as by co-writer Daniel Clowes, and based on Clowes' comic strip of the same name, "Ghost World" is the story of Enid (Birch), a young woman who has just graduated from high school (well, almost, she has to re-take an incredibly silly art class in the summer) and who lives at home with her relatively innocuous father (Bob Balaban), a man who has great difficulty communicating with his daughter. Enid attempts to plan a life with her best friend Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson). They will get an apartment together and start working because college is not in their plans. But Enid isn't really sure that's what she wants to do. In fact, as it becomes obvious, Enid doesn't have any idea what she wants to do about anything, and she soon finds herself feeling alienated from friends and family. Along the way, after initially playing a mean-spirited joke on him, Enid meets and grows to appreciate another like-soul, a middle-aged record collector named Seymour (Steve Buscemi). Seymour has not had a girlfriend in years and spends the majority of his time collecting things from a distant past (he uses an ancient dial telephone) and selling his records and other paraphernalia at a weekly garage sale with his roommate. Beautifully filmed and well acted, "Ghost World" is paced perfectly. Scenes are timed to move on when a point has been made (something that's rare in many modern films). This is a film about teenagers, but it bears little or no resemblance to the run-of-the-mill teen flick of the day. "Ghost World" is moving and intelligent and I was extremely impressed. Also of note in the cast are Ileana Douglas as Roberta, the fatuous art teacher; and Teri Garr (uncredited) as Maxine, an old girlfriend of Enid's father who has returned to Enid's displeasure. Highly recommended. DVD **** (2/10/02)

"Under The Sand"-Charlotte Rampling ("The Night Porter") plays Marie Drillon, an English professor married for 25 years to a Frenchman, Jean Drillon (Bruno Cremer). After a long drive to their country home near the sea, Marie and Jean decide to go, the following day, to a little-used beach. While Marie lies facing down on the sand, Jean asks if she wants to swim. When she says no, he is seen taking off his shirt, and then he simply disappears. The film now follows Marie, back in Paris, who refuses to accept Jean's death even as she tries to live the single life. "Under The Sand" or "Sous Les Sables" is an interesting study of a lovely middle-aged woman who cannot face the reality in which she has found herself. Every attempt at living, including an affair with a publisher named Vincent (Jacques Nolot), is combined with thoughts of her husband as if he is still around. There is a level of erotic tension and mystery, but ultimately the best thing about this film is not the story but rather the excellent and touching performance of Charlotte Rampling. "Under The Sand" may be a little morbid, but if you like thoughtful films about people and their emotions, and you don't mind subtitles (the film is mostly in French with English subtitles), this film is for you. If not, skip it. DVD ***1/2 (2/2/02)

"The Curse of the Jade Scorpion"-Woody Allen has blown hot and cold in recent years, but although this is not what might be called a "classic," it is still a funny and enjoyable Allen comedy. It is 1940. Allen is CW Briggs, an insurance investigator with the ability to come up with the perfect witty retort at the right moment. But the firm, under the tutelage of Chris Magruder (Dan Aykroyd), has brought in a female efficiency expert named Betty Ann Fitzgerald (Helen Hunt) (Magruder's secret lover) and Briggs is not a happy camper. The relationship between Briggs and Fitzgerald might best be summed up by the term "enmity." But then one night both Briggs and Fitzgerald are hypnotized by a nightclub performer named Voltan (David Ogden Stiers), who uses a green scorpion and place names like "Constantinople" and "Madagascar," to do the dirty deeds of controlling his subjects. Telling them that while under trance they will love each other madly, Voltan finally releases them but does not reveal that he has the power to place both of them under trance merely by mentioning the magic place names. And, not surprisingly, what follows are telephone calls to Briggs, starting with "Constantinople" and orders to engage in specific jewel thefts. When Woody Allen plays the type of character for which he's known, he's hysterical. And in this film he's on his game, making wisecracks left and right. CW Briggs is a very funny character as he faces charges of jewel robberies with seemingly perfect confidence that he will be cleared. Woody Allen is without a doubt one of the most prolific director/auteurs in the film business. While it might be his downfall that he feels the need to create at least one film a year, he's made so many memorable films that his efforts are certainly worthwhile. And it's nice to have one more good Allen comedy on the scene. I should mention that also in the film are Charlize Theron as a beautiful blonde who tries to seduce Allen and fails, believe it or not; Wallace Shawn as one of Briggs' co-workers who helps solve the hypnotic mystery; and Elizabeth Berkley as the perfect 1940-ish office secretary in Briggs' office. DVD ***1/2 (2/1/02)

"Rock Star"-Mark Wahlberg stars as Chris Cole, a copier repairman who really wants to be Bobby Beers, the lead singer of a heavy metal rock group called Steel Dragon. Cole looks like Beers, dresses like Beers, sings like Beers, and even pierces his nipple like Beers. Meanwhile, while worshipping Beers and Steel Dragon, Cole performs in a band whose members are not quite as obsessed as he is and ultimately he is forced to leave. Supported by his ever-faithful girlfriend/manager, Emily (Jennifer Anniston), Cole starts thinking about hiring new backup support when a miracle happens. Out of the blue, he's contacted by Kirk Cuddy (Dominic West) of Steel Dragon and invited to LA for a tryout. And continuing the miracle, he soon finds himself replacing the worshipped Beers as the new lead singer of Steel Dragon. The ultimate fan thus has turned into the ultimate celebrity. What happens next is fairly predictable. Chris, now known as Izzy, becomes a star and is initiated into the world of booze, drugs and sex. And Emily departs, as could be expected. There is one performance in this film that is truly worth noting and it comes from the wonderful British actor Timothy Spall ("Topsy-Turvy") who plays Mats, Steel Dragon's rather degenerate but smart road manager. Spall gets to flirt with the girls and instruct Chris a little about life in the limelight of the rock world. Wahlberg is fairly effective as the rock-star wannabe, and Jennifer Anniston is lovely and quite good at appearing as Chris' "rock" and later her own, but she really doesn't get to do enough in the film. Overall, "Rock Star" presents a fairly unlikely story. There's nothing much original or enlightening here. DVD *** (1/26/02)

"The Anniversary Party"-Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming, who starred together in "Cabaret" on Broadway and have been known for their acting talents, have demonstrated an entirely new area of theatrical ability: writing and directing a first-rate film. "The Anniversary Party," filmed on digital video and transferred extremely successfully to film, is the story of a Hollywood couple with severe marital problems. Cumming plays Joe Therrian, a British writer who has just returned to his actress-wife Sally Nash (Leigh) in the Hollywood hills after an extended estrangement. They are about to celebrate with an anniversary party, inviting friends, co-workers, and neighbors (Mina Badie and Dennis O'Hare as Monica and Ryan Rose, who are hostile due to misunderstandings over the barking of the Therrians' dog, Otis). The guests descend on the beautiful glass house with pool only to reveal that they are a troubled bunch. Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates, a real-life couple, play Cal and Sophia Gold, based apparently on their real personas. Their children are played by their real children, and the Golds are probably the least disturbed of the guests. Sally is confronted with three threats to her marriage, Skye Davidson (Gwyneth Paltrow), Joe's new sexy and fawning ingenue; Gina Taylor (Jennifer Beals), one of Joe's very close and intimate friends; and Sanford Jewison (Matt Malloy), a lover of Joe's at Oxford. The psycho-drama centers around a scene in which each guest makes a presentation of their feelings about the Therrians (apparently mostly ad-libbed by the actors). But the film is completely transformed when one of the guests gives the Therrians a packet of Ecstasy which is then shared with the guests, and the fun begins. The psychodrama is riveting, the performances are outstanding, and the overall effect is of an extremely unique experience in movie-viewing. Other notables in the cast are Jane Adams and John C. Reilly (as a trouble actress/director couple) and Parker Posey and John Benjamin Hickey (as a more centered couple who ultimately save the life of one of the guests who is in danger of drowning on Ecstasy). Recommended. DVD **** (1/18/02).




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