2003 Reviews


Click on any of the following titles to be taken directly to the review. 


About A Boy

About Schmidt


All Or Nothing

All The Real Girls

Amandla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony

Anything Else


Assassination Tango

Auto Focus

The Banger Sisters

The Battle of Shaker Heights

Bend It Like Beckham

Bloody Sunday

Blue Crush

The Bourne Identity

Bowling for Columbine

Catch Me If You Can


City By The Sea

City of Ghosts


Confessions of a Dangerous Mind


The Crime of Father Amaro

The Dancer Upstairs

Die Another Day

Down With Love


8 Women

The Emperor's Club


Far From Heaven

Femme Fatale

The Fast Runner

Finding Nemo

The Four Feathers

Freaky Friday


Full Frontal

Gangs of New York

The Good Girl


He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not

The Hours

The Housekeeper


Igby Goes Down


It Runs In The Family

The Italian Job


L'Auberge Espagnole

Laurel Canyon

The Life of David Gale

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

Man on the Train

The Man Without A Past

A Mighty Wind

Moonlight Mile

Mostly Martha

My Big Fat Greek Wedding

The Mystic Masseur

Nicholas Nickleby

Nowhere In Africa

Personal Velocity

The Pianist

The Piano Teacher

Pirates of the Caribbean


Punch-Drunk Love

The Quiet American

Road To Perdition

Rabbit-Proof Fence

Raising Victor Vargas

Read My Lips

Real Women Have Curves

The Recruit


Roger Dodger

The Safety of Objects



Sex and Lucia

Shanghai Knights



Standing In The Shadow of Motown

Sweet Home Alabama


Talk To Her

Till Human Voices Wake Us

28 Days Later...

25th Hour

24 Hour Party People

The Weight of Water

Whale Rider

White Oleander

The Widow of Saint-Pierre

Winged Migration

New York Film Critics Circle Awards for 2002

Best Picture: Far From Heaven (Runners-up: About Schmidt; Talk To Her)

Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis (Gangs of New York) (Runners-up: Jack Nicholson (About Schmidt); Greg Kinnear (Auto-Focus))

Best Actress: Diane Lane (Unfaithful) (Runners-up: Julianne Moore (Far From Heaven); Isabelle Huppert (The Piano Teacher))

Best Supporting Actor: Dennis Quaid (Far From Heaven) (Runners-up: Chris Cooper (Adaptation); Willem Dafoe (Auto-Focus))

Best Supporting Actress: Patricia Clarkson (Far From Heaven) (Runners-up: Parker Posey (Personal Velocity); Hope Davis (About Schmidt))

Best Director: Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven) (Runners-up: Pedro Almodóvar (Talk To Her); Alexander Payne (About Schmidt))


Top 10 Lists of the Reviewers of the New York Times for 2002

Elvis Mitchell: Bloody Sunday; Catch Me If You Can; Morvern Callar; Paid In Full; Personal Velocity; Spirited Away; Talk To Her; 24-Hour Party People; What Time Is It There?; and Y Tu Mamá También

A. O. Scott: Talk To Her; The Fast Runner; Adaptation; Far From Heaven; The Pianist; Spirited Away; Storytelling; Gangs of New York; Lovely and Amazing; and Punch-Drunk Love

Stephen Holden: Talk To Her; Y Tu Mamá También; The Hours; About Schmidt; Adaptation; Far From Heaven; Chicago; Sunshine State; Gangs of New York; and The Pianist

Dave Kehr: Spirited Away; About Schmidt; Talk To Her; Punch-Drunk Love; Time Out; In Praise of Love; I'm Going Home; Mahagonny; Windtalkers; and Warm Water Under A Red Bridge


Roy's 10 Best Viewed for 2002*: Mulholland Dr.; Sunshine State; Monsoon Wedding; Amélie; No Man's Land; The Man Who Wasn't There; The Princess and The Warrior; Gosford Park; Lovely and Amazing; and The Anniversary Party

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

My rating system:

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

**An acceptable film, but not much more.

***An average film with some virtues.

****An excellent film. Recommended highly.

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

"Anything Else"-Woody Allen rides again, returning finally to his basic themes of love, romance, and social and business angst. This may not be Allen's best film, by far, but its the best film he's made in a long time on this theme. This time Woody is David Dobel, a schoolteacher with dreams of being a comic writer, and also an adviser to young Jerry Falk (Jason Biggs), the real Allen figure in the film. Falk is a writer of material for comics and hopes to write a novel, but he surrounds himself with characters destined to make him fail. His agent, Harvey (Danny DeVito), does little for him and charges far too much for his inept services. Falk is afraid to hurt Harvey by moving on to a new agent. Falk lives with a beautiful young woman who wants to marry him only to split with her after meeting the girlfriend of a friend and falling in love. The new girlfriend, Amanda (Christina Ricci), is the worst thing for him. She's a little nuts and is not particularly turned on by our local hero. To make matters worse, she invites her self-centered mother Paula (Stockard Channing) to live with them, making it virtually impossible to breathe (and do some other things). Falk has no backbone, afraid to do anything that will change his life for the better. But he has Dobel nearby to advise and push him towards improvements in his life. "Anything Else" contains the usual Allen touches, including appreciative New York scenes, good music (including an appearance by the great Diana Krall), and the usual Allen shtick. Other than "Sweet and Lowdown," which was atypical of Allen's many films since he didn't play a role and centered the film on a non-Woody type character, I liked "Anything Else" better than any Allen film since "Husbands and Wives." DVD ***1/2 (12/28/03)

"Pirates of the Caribbean"-I swore I would not watch a film named after a Disneyland ride. But when I saw that Elvis Mitchell, NY Times film critic, named this his best film of the year, I had to see what was up. And I was extremely surprised. For what is on the surface a silly, childlike pirate film is actually an extremely well done and highly entertaining film. Reminding me a little of Burt Lancaster's "The Crimson Pirate," this rollicking adventure story, with tremendous production values and exciting music, is about a rather bedraggled looking pirate named Captain Jack Sparrow (hysterically portrayed by Johnny Depp). Sparrow has been kicked off his ship, the Black Pearl, now under the control of Carptain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) and a "skeleton" crew of cursed men who must gather up gold doubloons and return them to their rightful place before the curse can be lifted. The daughter of the local Governor (Jonathyn Pryce), Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), just happens to have the last of the gold which she took as a child from the neck of Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), the local blacksmith who produces fine swords. The cursed crew of the Black Pearl comes a-calling. Of course Will, who turns out to be a central figure in the cursed crew's attempts to end the curse, happens to be in love with Elizabeth, but Elizabeth has also received an offer of marriage from an officer of the local British navy. There's plenty of action and, although it gets a little tedious towards the end, most of the film is quite a ride. Recommended. **** (12/27/03)

"Amandla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony"-This uplifting documentary portrays the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa in the context of its music. Told in interviews and documentary footage, as well as some performances, "Amandla" is inspiring by showing the patience of the African people while being oppressed by the white minority. Under the leadership of Hendrik Verwoerd, the white South Africans took away the rights and often the homes of South African blacks, forcing them to live in degraded conditions in townships. The segregation of apartheid was obviously extremely difficult to accept, especially when leaders such as Nelson Mandela were locked away for many years. This film shows how the people responded with music which grew louder over the years until it reached a crescendo in the early 1990s, and apartheid finally ended. Many of those interviewed are not familiar, but all present a surprisingly upbeat view of the situation and the necessity and role of music in their lives. Leading the way are two who are famous, namely Hugh Masakela and Miriam Mikeba. Recommended. DVD **** (12/26/03)

"L'Auberge Espagnole"-This French film set primarily in Barcelona, Spain, tells the wonderful tale of a young Frenchman named Xavier (Romain Duris). Trying to find a career for himself, Xavier is encouraged by a family friend who is part of a gigantic bureaucracy in Paris to learn Spanish and economics so that he can help place him in a good job. And so, after struggling through another bureaucratic maze called the Erasmus program, Xavier leaves his girlfriend Martine (Audrey Tautou) and his annoying mother behind, and lands in Barcelona to enter a program of study. At the airport he meets a doctor and his bride, Anne-Sophie, finding them useful later when he can't otherwise find a decent place to stay. While the doctor goes off to work, he asks Xavier, who is temporarily staying with them, to accompany the shy Anne-Sophie (Judith Godrèche) around Barcelona, leading to the first of several romantic complications in Xavier's life. Ultimately, he is invited to share an apartment with several other young people, each from a different country. This is the one of the best films I've seen about the sexual and social tensions of life in one's 20s while away from home. Not only must Xavier deal with the strangeness of Barcelona and its languages (Catalan as well as Castillian Spanish) but also with the personalities and languages of his friends and roommates, the need to find time to do his studies, and the sexual tensions of youth while, on the one hand, supposedly in love with a girl at a great distance, and, on the other, surrounded by all kinds of young and attractive people, including even a lesbian from Belgium who teaches Xavier a little about the art of seduction. This production and its cast are first-rate, although Audrey Tautou ("Amelie") has little to do and does not stand out, and Barcelona is beautifully displayed. When Xavier finally has to return to Paris and face a dull life in the same bureaucracy from whence he started, the pain of loss of the exciting carefree life he was living in Barcelona is palpable. This is a delightful film, and is highly recommended. (Primarily in French, but also in other languages, including English and Spanish, with English subtitles where necessary) DVD **** (12/23/03)

"Freaky Friday"-I will admit that my threshold for enjoyment of comedies is fairly high. Raised on the likes of Groucho Marx, Sid Ceasar, Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Jackie Gleason, and Charlie Chaplin, it's a rare comedy today that will get significant praise from me. Although rather tastefully done for a comedy with potentially significantly tasteless situations, "Freaky Friday" is still mere fluff, although certainly enjoyable fluff for an hour and a half. Jamie Lee Curtis is Dr. Tess Coleman, a psychiatrist who is attempting to deal with her upcoming marriage (to the fairly emotionless Ryan, played by Mark Harmon), a wild and crazy teenage daughter named Annabell (Lindsay Lohan), and the stresses and strains (read cell phones and other technological devices) of daily life. Somewhere along the line, following a scene in a Chinese restaurant with somewhat stereotypical overtones, Tess and daughter Annabell wake up to find themselves in each other's bodies destined to discover just what makes the other tick. The idea of the wild teen suddenly finding herself in a middle-aged body and the staid psychiatrist occupying a teen's body is certainly one potentially quite funny, but this one joke deal tires quickly. Long before the situation had been used up by the filmmakers, I found myself wishing they'd get to the point where they return to their own bodies. Jamie Lee Curtis does a fine job of becoming her own daughter and Lindsay Lohan quickly turns from a wild and crazy teen into a staid and proper doctor mom. "Freaky Friday" is recommended for the teen set. Otherwise, it's painless for an hour and a half. DVD *** (12/22/03)

"Seabiscuit"-Telling the tale of the wonderful and popular race horse, Seabiscuit, director Gary Ross, begins the film using a lame documentary-style introduction that unfortunately gets things off on the wrong hoof. If the viewer didn't already know this was a drama, he could certainly have thought he was about to see a documentary about industry and the depression. The choice of David McCullough, historian and voice of many PBS documentaries, made it even more jarring. But the introduction of the characters via this wrongheaded documentary style eventually leads to the heart of the story. Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges), a wealthy auto dealer from San Francisco, Tom Smith (Chris Cooper), a rather quiet and strange horse trainer, and Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire), the somewhat taller than usual jockey, finally come together when Howard, on Smith's advice, buys a small horse that seems to have little to recommend him as a thoroughbred. Smith saw what Seabiscuit had, a lot of heart and a tremendous ability to outrun his opponents, especially when they were right on his tail. Based on the fabulous book by Laura Hillenbrand, "Seabiscuit" has to leave out a lot of detail (and so I highly recommend the book to all), but it lovingly and beautifully shows the growth in popularity of this wonderful horse who became a national celebrity during the depression. Tobey Maguire is particularly touching as the young and vulnerable, but tough, Pollard who loves his mount and will do everything he can to see him win the great match race versus War Admiral, even letting his friend, George Woolf (Gary Stevens), ride Seabiscuit in this great race at Pimlico after Pollard has suffered a devastating injury. While I wasn't exactly overwhelmed by Jeff Bridges as Seabiscuit's owner, I did appreciate the fact that the filmmakers did not create tension where it didn't have to exist. So, when Howard's first marriage ends after the tragic death of his son, his second marriage to Marcela (Elizabeth Banks) is shown as a happy one in which both fully support and love each other and "the Biscuit." The supporting cast is excellent, including Cooper as the quiet and knowing Smith, the real jockey Gary Stevens as Woolf, the rider who came to the rescue for the big race, and Elizabeth Banks as the ever-supportive wife. But there is one cast member that especially cannot be forgotten and that is William H. Macy as Tick Tock McGlaughlin, the racing broadcaster who is shown hysterically using multiple sound effects to support his effusive broadcasts. Despite its weaknesses, "Seabiscuit" is a delightful film, especially as it tells a true tale of a great racehorse. DVD **** (12/19/03)

"The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers"-Having seen and disliked the first of this series, I wasn't really planning to watch its successors. But some positive reviews made me curious. So I have to admit that this second in the "Rings" series is a better film than the first, but not by much. With the good guys fighting off monsters virtually the entire picture, it reminded me of a third class "Wizard of Oz" (with a significant "Star Wars" element thrown in). The scene that I thought really reached Ozian proportions was the one in which the evil warriors of Mordor march through the black gate as Frodo and Sam look on. The costumes seemed intentionally similar to the monkeys of Oz. "The Two Towers" has a little bit more character development than the first film, and a hint of romance, but otherwise it is three hours, once again, of simplistic good vs. evil. Peter Jackson seems to know how to direct little other than massive battle scenes between monsters and heros.The biggest talent among the filmmakers, no doubt, resides with those who created all the revolting evil characters. The script is rather insipid. Six hours so far, with three to go, just to get Frodo into Mordor to destroy the ring and save the world? As for the cast, Elijah Wood as Frodo Baggins was unfortunately mediocre. He seemed to have a glazed look of fear on his face throughout, saved only by Sean Astin's "Mr. Frodo, Mr. Frodo." I liked Mirando Otto as Eowyn. She was very appealing although she had little to do except look longingly and lovingly at Aragorn. Yes, Viggo Mortensen is definitely the heroic and romantic type. And what of Liv Tyler and Cate Blanchett, who seemed to be in the film all of eight seconds? I admit I was glad to see the wonderful Ian McKellen return as Gandalf, now "the white" rather than "the gray." Possibly the best thing in the film is the split personality of the hysterical computer-generated Gollum/Smeagol, although I still have no idea who or what he is and I could barely understand his whining about half the time. I think I managed to figure out that "precious" is the ring. I have to admit that I got a laugh out of the living trees. Certainly an amusing idea, despite the fact that the joke wore off long before their last appearance in battle (what else?). The scenery in New Zealand was impressive, although I doubt Peter Jackson had anything to do with that. However, having seen Nos. 1 and 2, I now concede that I am curious enough to watch No. 3 when it comes out on DVD. I can't imagine where all the good reviews for these films are coming from. *** (12/13/03)

"The Battle of Shaker Heights"-Anyone who has watched "Project Greenlight" on HBO is very familiar with the creation of this film. The directors, Efram Potelle and Kyle Rankin, were winners of the second PG contest, as was Erica Beeney, who wrote the screenplay. We watched as all three struggled to make a film under the microscope established by the producers and the distributor, Miramax. Virtually nothing Potelle or Rankin did was done without being questioned and at the end, Miramax insisted on changes that turned the film into something both Beeney and the two directors had not intended. Sounds like a recipe for disaster, and the reviews were fairly lukewarm. So it was rather a surprise to find "The Battle of Shaker Heights" to be a rather pleasant light entertainment, professionally done. Shia LeBeouf, an up-and-coming young actor, is Kelly, a high school kid who loves battle recreations, but otherwise doesn't have too many friends due to his outspoken nature. He totally ignores one interested young lady who both attends school with him and works with him. No, Kelly, who feels ignored by his artist mother (Kathleen Quinlan) and seems to despise his father, a former druggie and convict, decides to go after the beautiful blonde sister (Amy Smart) of his one friend Bart (Eldon Henson). But the sister, Tabby, just happens to be at least four years older than Kelly, a grad student at Yale, and engaged to be married. Overall, I found this little film to be rather charming, despite weaknesses in the casting and the plot. Certainly, it's better than I would have expected after watching Project Greenlight. DVD *** (12/12/03)

"Till Human Voices Wake Us"-An Australian film, this stars two good actors (Guy Pearce and Helena Bonham Carter). Unfortunately, it has an extremely weak plot and script. Pretending to be literary, the characters quote T. S. Eliot and such, but nothing they can do can save this silly ghost story. Told from the perspective of two portions of the main character's life, the story is about Sam Franks, a psychologist whose father has just died. While bringing his father back to the town of Genoa to bury him, Sam (Pearce) momentarily meets a young lady named Ruby (Carter) and dreams of a childhood girlfriend, Silvy (Brooke Harman). Sam then strangely comes across Ruby again after she has fallen from a bridge into a stream and he saves her, only to recall the drowning of his beloved girlfriend Silvy. Ruby starts acting in a bizarre manner and Sam places her under hypnosis. It isn't long before we realize that Ruby is not who she appears to be. Guess who? DVD **1/2 (12/12/03)

"Assassination Tango"-Robert Duvall's real-life girlfriend, Luciana Pedraza, is from Argentina and is apparently a pretty good tango dancer. This is undoubtedly the inspiration for this interesting little film, written and directed by Duvall, about an assassin from Coney Island. Duvall is getting up there in years but still manages to do a serviceable job as a hit man named John Anderson who lives in Brooklyn with his girlfriend (Kathy Baker) and her 10-year-old daughter whom he adores. That they don't know his occupation is obvious. When Anderson is sent to Argentina to wipe out a retired general, he is delayed in carrying out the job and, having always been interested in dancing, finds himself intrigued by a lovely young woman (Pedraza) who dances a mighty sexy tango. She introduces him to the dance and they talk and flirt with little or no consequences. Meanwhile, Anderson, a very low-tech killer, manages to accomplish his job but in an unexpected way which makes it difficult for him to get out of Argentina safely. The highlight of this film is the dancing and it is almost as if we are watching two completely separate films, one about the tango and another about a killer. DVD *** (12/9/03)

"Man on the Train"-A man with a headache emerges from a train seeking aspirin. When he gets the aspirin and finds himself needing water, he is invited to the home of another man, a retired teacher who seeks companionship. The first man, Milan (Johnny Hallyday) is a bank robber, laden with pistols among his belongings. The second man, Monsieur Manesquier (Jean Rochefort), finds himself attracted to the life and attitudes of the tougher Milan. Milan, on the other hand, admires the genteel life of Monsieur Manesquier. This is an intelligent and thoughtful study of two men who dream of the path that wasn't taken. Both Rochefort and Hallyday do a wonderful job of portraying men attracted to lifestyles completely opposite their own. Like many French films, "Man on the Train" consists mostly of conversation, although it takes a sudden "thriller" turn at the end. In French with English subtitles. DVD ***1/2 (11/25/03)

"Winged Migration"-This one is really for the birds. A French production crew took four years to create this rather spectacular study of migrating birds in flight. It's not a scientific documentary. It's more of a work of art following the paths of different birds in migration over different portions of the globe. Somehow the camera miraculously flies with the birds and the viewer has the opportunity to actually sense what it is like to be soaring above the earth with these magnificent creatures. The birds fly over the desert, into NY harbor, and through Monument Valley, to name just a few of the great places we see. But it's not all happiness and beauty. The filmmakers don't forget the reality of life, and we also see birds being shot by hunters and other birds slogged down in industrial waste. If you can't imagine watching birds for 90 minutes or so, forget your preconceptions, you won't forget this film. The DVD contains a "making of" feature that is almost as interesting as the film itself. Recommended. DVD **** (11/21/03)

"The Housekeeper"-Jean-Pierre Bacri plays Jacques, a middle-aged sound engineer in Paris whose wife recently left and who is now lonely and living in a messy apartment. He decides to hire a housekeeper, calls a number seen on a bulletin board at a local bakery, and winds up hiring Laura (Émilie Dequenne), a young attractive woman who seems eager to clean houses. Although Jacques seems well aware of his age relative to Laura's and he attempts to remain as distant as possible, Laura eventually asks to move in, albeit temporarily, claiming that she has no place to live. Respectful of Jacques' privacy, Laura however finally succumbs and throws herself at the surprised employer/landlord and it doesn't take long for Jacques to find himself attached to the beautiful young woman. When Jacques' wife returns and wants him back, he drives off with Laura to visit a friend at the beach in Brittany. This is somewhat of a male fantasy. Ultimately, however, it has the kind of ending one must expect in a situation like this. And yet the ending is so abrupt that it is nothing but charming and funny. Good acting, good photography, and a decent film although hardly memorable. The director is Claude Berri ("Jean De Florette" and "Manon of the Spring"). In French with English subtitles. DVD *** (11/16/03)

"Finding Nemo"-I've always wondered about Disney films and the classic fairy tales. They are laden with horror and horrifying characters. "Snow White" is a victim of an evil witch. Bambi's mother is killed. The classic fairy tales are loaded with ugly characters and frightening situations. Hansel and Gretel, Rumplestiltskin, and so on. Do these tales serve a purpose of educating children about the reality of life? Well, I've heard that said, although my own recollection is that I found most of those fairy tales revolting and unsettling. And how does this relate to "Finding Nemo"? Well, in one important sense it is an enchanting and beautifully animated film about a fish father, a clown fish named Marlin (Albert Brooks), who loses his only child, Nemo (Alexander Gould), to an Australian diver who catches Nemo from the sea in a net and places him in a dentist's office aquarium in Sydney. Marlin had promised to care and protect Nemo and now he is dedicated to finding Nemo no matter what the cost. On his way, he finds himself accompanied by the hysterically funny Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), a blue fish whose memory is suspect. But what kind of experiences do we, the viewers, and the characters go through in this film? "Finding Nemo" begins with Marlin's wife Coral and potential offspring (eggs) being eaten by a monstrous fish, leaving only Nemo. Nemo is then captured by a gigantic evil-looking human. On their way, Marlin and Dory have to fight off all kinds of horrifying characters and situations, including sharks, whales, a rotting submarine hull, and painful jellyfish. Being a Disney film, one has a pretty good idea that there will be a happy ending, but in getting there the characters are faced with situations that would send most people back home where they would permanently lock their doors and never leave.

The animation from Pixar is spectacular and alone worth watching. The Pixar animators are geniuses. In one of the specials on the DVD, they explain how they wanted to create a realistic looking undersea world, but not one so realistic that it failed to look like an animated film. They succeeded beyond one's wildest imagination. And many of the characters in the film are delightful, especially with the help of the clever actors used to bring them to life. How can one ever forget Crush, the "surfer-Dude" turtle who guides Marlin and Dory through the EAC (East Australian Current). on their way to Sydney Harbor? Andrew Stanton, the brilliant writer and director of this film, provides the voice of the charming and helpful Crush. Hey Dude! And I suspect Gill (Willem Dafoe), the angel fish in the aquarium who inspires his fellow denizens of the tank, including Nemo, to escape and return to the sea, will long be remembered. And what about Nigel (Geoffrey Rush), the friendly Pelican in Sydney Harbor who becomes a hero in Nemo's efforts to rejoin his father? Despite the negativity, "Finding Nemo" is an acoomplishment in animated movie-making one should not miss. **** (11/7/03)

"Respiro"-Two things attracted me to this Italian film. One was the apparent theme of a carefree independent woman who drives her neighbors crazy, and the other was the appearance of Valeria Golino, an actress rarely seen since her first big Hollywood role in "Rain Man" although she did appear most recently in "Frida." Golino did not disappoint. She is beautiful and interesting as Grazia, a woman not quite like that billed in the trailer for this film. Grazia is a mother of three, including one son, Pasquale (Francesco Casisa), who adores her. Grazia and her family live on a Mediterranean island that undermines the ideal that most of us have of such a place. Instead of it being a sun-laden paradise, this Italian island is bordering on hell. The place is hot and arid, and the youth attack each other, fighting and embarrassing each other by stripping those who should be their friends. There is no apparent reason for this. Along a stretch of beach, a large group of dogs are kept locked up in a dark forbidding hole. All we can hear are their barks, yelps, and apparent cries for release. The people of this island are downright nasty. But Grazia is not simply an independent, carefree woman. Rather, her behavior is at times strange and inexplicable, in a way that can only be explained by illness rather than independence of mind. And her neighbors don't like it one bit. They plan to send her off to a hospital in Milan, even gaining the aid of her good-looking husband Pietro (Vincenzo Amato). Considering that he has such a lovely if not slightly strange wife, Pietro is aloof and distant, certainly encouraging Grazia in her hostile behavior. And when she hears of the neighbors' plan for her, she disappears, riding off on her Vespa, to be hidden in a seaside cave by her adoring son Pasquale. When the neighbors search for her and don't find her, there is a sense that they are relieved rather than distressed. This is an irritating rather than satisfying film. Things happen for no apparent reason. In one scene, Pietro takes one of the family dogs which is sleeping peacefully with Grazia on the bed and disposes of it. I could see no reason for this other than that Pietro wants to hurt his wife. If there was a purpose to the theme of this film, I missed it. I recommend that you miss this film. (In Italian with English subtitles) DVD ** (11/2/03)

"It Runs In The Family"-This is a dysfunctional family film that is actually fun, partly because it is loaded with good actors, many from the Douglas family. Kirk Douglas plays Mitchell Gromberg, an elderly and retired lawyer who has difficulty with his speech following a stroke. But he still is married to Evelyn (Diana Douglas, who divorced Kirk in 1951 and is the mother of Michael Douglas). And Michael plays their son Alex, also a lawyer, who is married to Rebecca (Bernadette Peters), a psychiatrist. Their children are Asher (Cameron Douglas, Michael's son), a 21-year-old who isn't quite sure what direction his life is taking, and Eli (Rory Culkin), the youngest who is exploring his growing interest in females. The Grombergs are like most families. They love each other and yet bicker and fight. They are, of course, well-to-do. Their apartments in New York and Mitchell's house in upstate New York are both sumptious and luxurious. One wouldn't expect a film about middle class people living in ordinary conditions, would we? Despite some silly scenes, including an unauthorized pyrotechnic funeral (of Mitchell's brother Stephen who has died naturally at a nursing home), the characters work well together along with two young women who provide a spark to the lives of both Asher and Eli. They are Peg (Michelle Monaghan) who likes Asher despite the fact that he seems aimless in life, and Abby (Irene Gorovaia), a tough chick with a nose ring (at age 12) to whom Eli is attracted. The Grombergs go through several crises (maybe a few too many for one film), including the sudden death of Evelyn, and manage to deal with them. I found this dysfunctional family to be enjoyable to watch, partly because I got to see the amazing Douglas family interact with each other. DVD ***1/2 (10/31/03)

"City of Ghosts"-Imagine a film that shows the exotic land of Cambodia, beautifully photographed, and containing nary a sympathetic character. That's "City of Ghosts." Matt Dillon, who both co-wrote and directed the film, plays Jimmy, an insurance con-man in the US. When the FBI discovers the con, Jimmy immediately leaves for the far east, seeking his "mentor" Marvin (James Caan). After traveling through Thailand and running into a series of characters and incidents, Jimmy finally finds Marvin in Cambodia where he is, inexplicably, dealing with a ruthless ex-general in order to build a large casino resort. And this in a country in which poverty practically defines the land. Dealing with such characters as Emile (Gerard Depardieu), the hotelkeeper in Pnom Penh, and Kaspar (Stellan Skarsgård), a cohort who is engaging in suspicious activities, Jimmy finds himself in the middle of a mess in which Marvin seems to be a victim of Khmer Rouge type terrorists. But ultimately, who cares? None of these characters has any redeeming social value. Matt Dillon is, as always, Matt Dillon. And James Caan could just as easily be Sonny Corleone as Marvin. "City of Ghosts" is loaded with holes one could easily walk through. The script is dense, confusing and makes little sense. Natascha McElhone appears attractively as Sophie a woman who is inexplicably attracted to Jimmy despite knowing his useless background. The best in the film is the performance of Kem Sereyvuth as Sok, a Cambodian who befriends, transports, and helps Jimmy, also for inexplicable reasons. DVD **1/2 (10/31/03)

"Whale Rider"-Every once in a while a film comes along that is truly magnificent in every way. This is one of those films. Beautifully photographed, wonderfully acted, and telling a warm and insightful tale of the human spirit, "Whale Rider" simply elevates the magic of the cinema to a higher level. Keisha Castle-Hughes is Pai (Paikea Apirana), the granddaughter of a Maori chief in modern-day New Zealand. She and her relatives live in a rural town near the sea where they value the ocean and worship the whale. They believe an ancestor, also named Paikea, had survived a shipwreck at sea and arrived in what is now New Zealand riding on the back of a whale. Pai, named after that ancestral leader, was the survivor when her mother and brother died during childbirth, but her grandfather Koro (Rawiri Paratene) cannot accept the idea that a girl could possibly lead her people. Pai's father, Porourangi (Cliff Curtis), is an artist who moved to Europe after the losses of his wife and son, and is not interested in the traditional Maori ways. Mentally bound by the traditions of male leadership in a modern world, Koro seeks out the first-born males of the local families to train them for future leadership, and rejects Pai who it soon becomes clear has, unlike the boys, all the requirements and spirit of a future chief. The casting director who discovered Anna Paquin for "The Piano" must be somewhat of a genius as she discovered the tremendously natural, beautiful and talented young actress Keisha Castle-Hughes who simply glows on the screen, especially in a wonderful scene in which, dressed in Maori garb and makeup, she tearfully describes to an audience her family background and situation. And this amazing scene is soon followed by the climax of the film in which a group of whales become beached and are saved in a scene that has to be seen to be believed. The acting is as natural and charming as one can imagine. In addition to the dynamic performances of Ms. Castle-Hughes, Rawiri Paratene and Cliff Curtis, the delightful Vicky Haughton as Pai's grandmother, Nanny Flowers, and Grant Roa as Pai's uncle who teaches her an important element of Maori tradition, must be mentioned. Ultimately, the director, Niki Caro, deserves great applause. This is a wonderful film that should be seen by everyone. Very highly recommended. ****1/2 (10/24/03)

"28 Days Later..."Just imagine waking up in a hospital bed and there is no one to be seen. You get out of bed and head for the street. You are in London and it is totally deserted, no matter where you look. That is what faces Jim (Cillian Murphy) until he discovers the horrifying truth: that a virus has killed most of the population and turned the remainder into maniacs of rage, ready to spread the virus to the survivors upon contact with their bug-driven anger. And Jim is not alone. He soon discovers Selena (Naomie Harris) and Mark who teach him quickly the ways of the surviving in the midst of this nightmare. Selena and Jim ultimately wind up with a father (Brendan Gleeson) and his daughter (Megan Burns) as they head, ever-vigilant for the infected, for an army camp where the soldiers had been broadcasting that they knew the answer to the virus. When they find the camp they find another form of horror, the human kind. This is a truly nightmarish and yet intelligently done horror film. Directed by Danny Boyle ("Trainspotting"), it's quite timely and not only portrays the dangers of unknown viruses but the evil that often lurks in the human character. One other of note in the cast is Christopher Eccleston as Major West, the commander of the army camp near Manchester. DVD ***1/2 (10/24/03)

"Read My Lips"-A young woman, Carla (Emmanuelle Devos), who needs hearing aids and can read lips works in an office as a secretary but also has ambitions to advance in the company's construction business. Insecure in her work and unhappy in her almost non-existent personal life, she thinks she's going to be fired but instead is allowed to hire an assistant and she dreams of hiring a young man for the job. And so she does, but the young man, Paul (Vincent Cassel), is an ex-con and sleeps in the office closet until Carla starts giving him some direction. Their lives become intertwined even when Paul has to leave the job to work for a gangster to whom he owes a great deal of money. When Paul realizes that the gangster, Marchand (Olivier Gourmet), has stashed away money in his apartment, he decides to use Carla's lip-reading talents to learn just what Marchand and his cohorts are up to. One could look at this film as a thriller or a film about the lives of two individuals living on the edge (each "on the edge" of a different thing). I prefer the latter view. Paul and Carla, working together, become more and more interdependent and attracted. Although the story has some big holes, including an unlikely scene in which Carla reads the most complicated scenario from Paul's lips, it has the entertaining performances of two first-rate French actors. Emmanuelle Devos is far more attractive than the character is supposed to be and hardly sounds like a person with a severe hearing loss, but she is riveting nevertheless and received French acting awards for this role. Vincent Cassel ("Irreversible") is perfect as a rather easy-going but plotting ex-con. DVD ***1/2 (10/20/03)

"The Man Without A Past"-Nominated for a best foreign language Oscar, "The Man Without A Past" is an intriguing look at a side of Finland one would never expect if one is used to seeing Scandinavian countries in travelogues. A man arrives in a city by train only to be beaten by a trio of thugs and left for dead. He ultimately winds up in a hospital and is determined to be dead, but miraculously recovers and finds himself in an area of ultimate poverty. Discovered lying near a body of water by two boys, he's taken in and nursed back to health by the boys' parents, but he remembers nothing of his identity, occupation, or reason for being in the city. The man starts an amazing recovery, renting himself a container to live in from a crooked security guard, getting a sweet "killer" dog, and ultimately clothing, a job, and a girlfriend (Kati Outinen) from the Salvation Army. The man (Markku Peltola) seems to inspire those around him, even turning a Salvation Army band into somewhat of a rock group to the pleasure of his neighbors. But the man can't quite stay out of trouble. When he tries to open a bank account, he finds himself in the middle of a robbery and in trouble with the law. A scene in which a lawyer arrives from the Salvation Army to help, and then argues the law with the police officer is wonderfully symbolic, representing a theme of wretched government and bureaucracy. The director, Aki Kaurismäki, apparently has no love lost for his native Finnish government. This is a strange but endearing film. (In Finnish with English subtitles) DVD ***1/2 (10/19/03)

"The Safety of Objects"-Like a junior Todd Solondz, Director Rose Troche has created this member of the hall of fame of movie misery. The film starts with animated figures of each character in each of four families coming out of a house with the actor's name attached. In some ways this is a perfect beginning because the film's characters rarely rise above the level of cartoon figures. It tells the rather overbearing tale of four families, each in the middle of an extraordinary crisis. Glenn Close is Esther Gold, a woman whose son lies in a coma in a bedroom while her daughter Julie (Jessica Campbell) seems rather miserable. Patricia Clarkson is Annette Jennings, a single woman looking for love with two young daughters, one clearly disturbed, and who has to deal with an ex-husband (and his fiancé) who is absent from his children's life and seriously misunderstands Annette's difficult situation as a mother. Mary Kay Place is Helen Christianson, a woman with marital problems, growing distant from her husband. Dermot Mulroney is Jim Train, a lawyer who has not been made partner in his firm despite his hard work, and who, in protest, returns home in the middle of the day, lying about leaving due to a bomb threat. He finds himself enmeshed, first in hostility from his wife (Moira Kelly) who is somewhat pissed about his rarely being home, and then in the attempt by Esther Gold to win an automobile for her daughter in a shopping mall stunt. It doesn't help that Jim's son Jake (Alex House) loves playing with and talking to dolls. In the mix also is Randy (Timothy Olyphant), a lawncare worker, who reacts in unusual and unexpected ways to some of the characters. Glenn Close is excellent as Esther Gold and young Kristen Stewart does a fine job as the curious and intelligent (but a little too trusting) Sam Jennings, Annette's older daughter. This film puts the viewer in the middle of a group of people one would really rather not know about, and the situations, despite some explanation at the end, seem overly artificial and much too coincidental. DVD **1/2 (10/17/03)

"Down With Love"-Wow, this is a bad attempt to re-create a Doris Day/Rock Hudson type film from the early 1960s. It's super-stylized, loaded with overdone impressions of 1960s filming style, sets, costumes and acting. Renee Zellweger is Barbara Novak, a woman from Maine who has written a book called "Down With Love," telling women how to be equal with men, both sexually and in the workplace. Coming to New York to get the book published, she finds herself frustrated in promoting her book when Catcher Block (that's a name?) (Ewen McGregor), a men's magazine feature writer, will not cooperate in her promotional scheme. Catcher is just too busy chasing women, including Gwendolyn (Jeri Ryan), a stewardess, to find time to help a "spinster" from Maine. But then Catcher gets the idea to trick Barbara (who he now realizes is quite attractive) into falling in love so that he can write an exposé showing that she's not really the woman she portrays in her book. Catcher works for the hapless publisher Peter MacMannus (David Hyde Pierce) who just happens to be in love with Barbara's editor, Vikki Hiller (Sarah Paulson). Oh, you can just imagine the madcap comlications that occur!!! The worst part about this film, apart from the attempts to be smutty where the 1960s films were simply cute, is the fact that Ewen McGregor's character is not charming or attractive in any way. At least back in the Day/Hudson days, we rooted for the two to come together and fall in love. Here, the idea was almost repulsive. This film should be avoided. DVD ** (10/11/03)

"The Dancer Upstairs"-Can't say I've ever been a big fan of John Malkovich, the actor. But having seen this film by John Malkovich, the director, I may have to reconsider my view of this man's talents. "The Dancer Upstairs," based on a novel by Nicholas Shakespeare, is a taut, compelling tale of a police detective with integrity named Rejas (Javier Bardem) in a Latin American country (although it looks and sounds a lot like Peru) in "the recent past." Rejas finds himself investigating a sudden outbreak of terrorist activity in the country which soon approaches a revolutionary level. Citizens are murdered, sometimes randomly, dead animals are strung up around the city, and buildings are bombed. In one case, based on an actual incident in Peru, a young boy performs a suicide bombing. Although the presidential palace attempts to take over the situation via martial law, Rejas and his assistants are allowed to continue their investigation. Against this backdrop Director Malkovich also presents the very human side of Rejas' life, showing his rather superficial wife, his lovely young daughter who leans towards the ballet, and the ballet instructor, Yolanda (Laura Morante), to whom Rejas finds himself very attracted. Behind the terror is a mysterious man named Ezequiel (Abel Folk) whom Rejas had run into several years earlier and who is now running the terror from a surprising location. The cast performs with intelligence and charm. Javier Bardem, having already made an Oscar-nominated impression in "Before Night Falls," does another fine job as the detective who will continue his investigation despite various roadblocks along the way. Fortunately, John Malkovich chose to stay out of this film and remain behind the camera. Good job. My only criticism of this film is that the actors are forced to speak, unnaturally, mostly in English. Their accents are often hard to decipher and I felt that I missed some of the script. Otherwise, this is a film worth seeing, especially for its rather timely theme. In English, but with occasional Spanish and native languages and subtitles. DVD ***1/2 (10/10/03)

"Nowhere In Africa"-Before the Holocaust, some German Jews were able to foresee the horrors ahead and leave Germany. This brilliant movie tells the story of one such family, the Redlichs, who move, rather unusually, to Kenya. Walter Redlich (Merab Ninidze), a German lawyer, goes first and almost dies of Malaria before he can have his wife Jettel (Juliane Kohler) and daughter Regina join him. Redlich is engaged as a farmer on a British-owned farm that closely resembles a desert, but it's enough to keep him going. Helping is Owuor (Sidede Onyulo), an African cook of great charm. Jettel initially is distressed, not only by the living conditions but also by her ambivalence toward her husband and her hostility towards the Africans. Regina (played by both Lea Kurka and Karoline Eckertz as she ages) adapts quickly, forming friendships with the African children and ultimately shows more emotional wisdom than her parents. "Nowhere In Africa," which is beautifully filmed, demonstrates the stresses of life in an alien environment, made even more so when WW II breaks out and even the German Jews are treated as enemy aliens by the British in Kenya. The character portrayals, the moods, the human interactions, and the flirtations are all touching. And the struggle of life and emotion goes on until Walter, following the war and the end of Nazi Germany, starts to contemplate returning to Germany to take up the role of judge. By this time, Jettel has adapted almost totally and she and Regina have become quite comfortable and happy in their lives in Africa. Among the excellent performances, so naturally done, are those of Matthias Habich as Susskind, another German Jew living near the Redlichs and a man clearly attracted to Jettel; and Sidede Onyulo as Owuor who interacts lovingly with the young Regina and remains loyal to the family as long as possible, despite being far from his own family. The two girls playing Regina at different ages are a delight to behold. This film won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film and deservedly so. "Nowhere In Africa" is very highly recommended. This wonderful German film, directed by Caroline Link, shows how, unlike so much produced in Hollywood, great films about real human beings and real emotions can be made. (In German with English subtitles) DVD **** (10/3/03)

"The Italian Job"-How many ways can one say cliché? How many times in recent years have we seen super-slick films about incredible heists in which there is a doublecross and the victims retaliate in an astoundingly clever and technological way? Or does it just seem that way? And how many times has Edward Norton been in those films? Boy, this is one guy who seems bent on destroying whatever credibility he has had as a genuine actor. That said, "The Italian Job" is still mindless fun. A gang pulls off an incredibly clever heist of $35 million worth of gold bullion in Venice only to be doublecrossed by one member who shoots and kills the senior member of the gang, John Bridger (Donald Sutherland). They will get revenge, this time with the help of Bridger's daughter Stella (Charlize Theron). Unlike her father who used his safecracking skills for crime, Stella does it legally for the police. But, of course, she can't help but be drawn into a plot to avenge her father's death and the loss of the gold bullion. For the gang, left for dead by the doublecrosser, has discovered his new identity and location in Los Angeles and the plot begins. Based loosely on a 1969 film of the same name with Michael Caine, this version also cleverly uses tiny Mini-Cooper autos as essential plot elements. The cast is good with Seth Green as the computer nerd Napster (or Lyle), Mos Def as Left Ear, the explosives expert, and Jason Statham as the British and charming Handsome Rob. But the star is Mark Wahlberg as Charlie Croker, the gangleader who wants to avenge his friend's death and finds himself falling for the beautiful Stella (who wouldn't?). DVD *** (10/3/03)

"Bend It Like Beckham"-Some of the most popular ethnic films of recent years have centered around funny families and the weddings they are planning. We've recently seen "Monsoon Wedding" and "My Big Fat Greek Wedding." And now "Bend It Like Beckham" tells the tale of an Indian family in London which is planning a very traditional wedding for one daughter, but has another younger daughter who has very different ideas about and interests in life. Jes Bhamra (Parminder Nagra) wants to play football (soccer) and she's good. One day a young woman who plays on a woman's team, Juliette (Keira Knightley), sees Jes playing in a park with some male friends and encourages her to join her team, coached by the charming Irishman, Joe (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers). Although attraction to Joe by both young women is an element of the story, the film is really about the struggles of a young woman of one culture to be free and join the activities of the culture in which she lives. The excellent director, Gurinder Chadha, admits that the film is loosely based on her own experiences when she sought to break out of her Indian family's old-world traditions and become a writer and a woman of her own. "Bend It Like Beckham" is about cultural misperceptions and yet is also a good sports film about Jes's humorous attempts to do everything she can to participate with her team over the objections of her parents. The cast is wonderful. Parminder Nagra, with lovely big eyes and a great smile, is memorable as the tough little Jes who ultimately learns to bend it like Beckham (then the male star of Manchester United, one of Britain's leading football teams, who has since been traded to a Spanish team and who is also famous for being married to a "Spice Girl."). Anupam Kher, an Indian movie star, is perfectly tough and yet sympathetic as Jes' father who ultimately breaks in Jes' favor due to his own love of the game. And finally one can never omit reference to the great Juliet Stevenson who plays Juliette's rather confused mother.This is a must-see. Highly recommended. DVD **** (9/27/03)

"A Mighty Wind"-Christopher Guest has made some amusing films, including the classic "Spinal Tap." "A Mighty Wind" is his attempt to make fun of the folk singers of the 1960s era, but although the film has some amusing moments, it's ultimately fails because it misses the political heart of that era and tries to be funny about the apparent mental illness of one of the characters. Presented in a quasi-documentary manner, like most of Guest's film, it centers around three folk groups which are being brought back together for a TV concert in honor of a recently deceased promoter. One of the groups, the Folksmen, is so realistic as to simply not be funny. Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer (the old "Spinal Tap" trio) do a fine job portraying this harmonizing group of singers of relatively banal songs. The second group is probably the closest to pure parody. They're called "The Main Street Singers," clearly intended to be Guest's version of the "New Christy Minstrels." This group is a little bawdy and corny and lacks the usual sincerity of the 60s era folk groups. One of the members is portrayed by the wonderful Parker Posey, but she has little to do in the film. The final group (or duo) is the real dud. Eugene Levy is simply unfunny as Mitch, the mentally disturbed part of "Mitch and Mickey." With the delightful Catherine O'Hara as Mickey,this could have been an hysterical put-on, but instead Guest gets carried away with Mitch's strange behavior. Nowhere to be seen is any mention of the political motivations that inspired the birth of the popular folk song groups of the 1960s and 1970s. Of note in the cast are Bob Balaban as the son of the late-promoter and Jane Lynch as Laurie Bohner, the raunchiest of the "Main St. Singers." I was hoping "The Mighty Wind" would be great fun. Instead, it was something of a dud. DVD **1/2 (9/26/03)

"Confidence"-There is a long tradition of scam and swindle movies, including such classics as "The Sting" and "House of Games." I don't know if "Confidence" quite makes it as a classic, but it turns out to be a pretty good member of that genre. Edward Burns is Jake Vig, the head of a clever group of con artists who unfortunately make the mistake of conning the accountant of a big-time and dangerous hood nicknamed "The King" (Dustin Hoffman). In the process one of Vig's gang is murdered and Vig wants revenge. But he also has to please King to try to return his money. In order to get on King's good side, Vig agrees to pull off another con, this time against a rival of King who just happens to be the head of a major bank (Robert Forster). Vig has his usual gang, including Gordo (Paul Giamatti) and Miles (Brian Van Holt), but he needs a beautiful woman and brings in the quick-witted Lily (Rachel Weisz). From this point on there is no telling what is the truth and what is the con. "Confidence" has a clever script, despite a couple of holes, and an excellent cast, including Luis Guzman as an LA cop on Vig's payroll and Andy Garcia as an agent tracking Vig down. The film is loaded with twists and turns and is almost impossible to describe and yet it all made sense. Edward Burns has been criticized for his acting style, but I found him the perfect gang leader. Cool, tough and smart. Dustin Hoffman is delightful as the fast-talking and depraved "King." "Confidence" is an enjoyable member of the con-game genre. DVD ***1/2 (9/19/03)

"Confessions of a Dangerous Mind"-I remember watching Chuck Barris on "The Gong Show" and wondering what was the makeup of this weird character's brain. He certainly seemed to be wacky, if not on drugs, as he jumped around, danced wildly, and gesticulated while introducing some of the worst "entertainers" in history. But little did I realize that I was watching the genius who invented the concept that was to become today's reality television. Among his creations were the wildly successful "The Dating Game" and "The Newlywed Game," both of which were on the air for many years. Based on Barris' autobiography, "Confessions" is directed by and stars George Clooney as a CIA agent who initiates Barris into the world of international intrigue and murder and it tells a quite humorous and sometimes sad tale of an ambitious, albeit unhappy young guy from Philadelphia. Sam Rockwell does an outstanding job as Barris, a singularly difficult role since Barris' personality was literally all over the place. Barris wants to make it in show biz and finds himself involved with various young women, most of whom he can't relate to. Fortunately for him, one young woman, Penny (Drew Barrymore), is in love with him and nothing he does, no matter how pitiful, can stop that. Director Clooney, to make the film feel like an actual documentary, includes short interviews with real-life people who interacted with Barris, including Jaye P. Morgan, the singer who appeared on "The Gong Show," and Jim Lange who hosted "The Dating Game." The cast of this entertaining film also includes Julia Roberts as a woman of intrigue and Rutger Hauer as a fellow CIA spy. Whether Barris was really involved as a hit-man for the CIA will probably never be known, but as the subject of this film, it's darn intriguing. DVD ***1/2 (9/12/03)

"Irreversible"-Whether this film is reversible or irreversible is beside the point. It is one of the most unremittingly difficult movies to watch I have ever seen. In fact, the film gave me a migraine right in the middle. The opening half hour is astoundingly unpleasant to watch, with glaring music and sounds and the camera twisting and turning in all directions, making it almost impossible to figure out what is going on. It takes awhile, but one finally figures out that two men are seeking someone out with anger and hate in the midst of a nightmarish gay bar with a revolting name I won't mention. After asking dozens of men in this establishment for the creep they are seeking, they find him and an act of horrific violence occurs. And then suddenly, we are in the scene just before the descent into this hell-hole of a bar. And it becomes clear that this story will unfold backwards. Is this another "Memento?" Well, in the format, yes. But in the depth of the story, no. There is no mystery as we see the events unfold backwards. One man, Marcus (Vincent Cassel), and his beautiful girlfriend Alex (Monica Bellucci) are headed to a party, taking along Alex's ex, Pierre (Albert Dupontel). At the party, Alex becomes upset and decides to go home by herself, but she makes the mistake of taking an underpass in which she is attacked by a vicious criminal. The assault and rape scene is astoundingly brutal. How Ms. Bellucci did this scene without experiencing trauma is beyond me. But the violence of this film appeared totally gratuitous and without redeeming social value. This is one film I recommend you avoid at all costs. DVD *1/2 (9/3/03)

"Identity"-The only thing that elevates this film above the usual genre of slash and kill thrillers is the cast. John Cusack, Amanda Peet, Ray Liotta, Alfred Molina, Rebecca DeMornay, and Clea Duvall make this otherwise dreadful film tolerable. It's "And Then There Were None" or "Ten Little Indians" in the midst of a horrendous rainstorm in the southwest. All the characters find themselves stuck at an eerie motel after a series of washouts and accidents prevent them from going on their way. Among the group is Rhodes (Ray Liotta) who introduces himself as a cop transporting a killer (Jake Busey). The killer escapes and one by one the members of the group start to die off. With each body, the members of the group find a roomkey numbered consecutively from 10 down. Things get a little intriguing when the killer himself is found dead and later when the bodies of the dead disappear. However, "Identity," becomes wearisome very quickly. The rain pours down throughout the film, and the characters run helter-skelter. Ultimately, there is a fairly unsurprising twist at the end, which can be guessed if you watch the beginning of the film closely. DVD **1/2 (9/2/03)

"Raising Victor Vargas"-Victor Vargas (Victor Rasuk) is a 17-year-old kid on the streets of Manhattan's Lower East Side who is finding his way. Surrounded by street punks whose idea of talking to a girl is to immediately talk dirty, Victor tries to pick up the pretty Judy (Judy Marte) at a swimming pool where she is hanging out with her friend Melonie (Melonie Diaz). But Victor is rebuffed because Judy, having to deal constantly with street punks, has raised her guard as high as it will go. Teen life is hard enough, but in this environment it's tougher. Meanwhile, Victor is growing up under the "supervision" of his confused religious "old-world" grandmother (Altagracia Guzman) from the Dominican Republic who blames Victor for the adolescent yearnings and actions of his younger brother Nino (Silvestre Rasuk) and almost succeeds in making him feel unwanted. Judy and her friend Melonie tell each other that they only need each other, but when Victor's friend Harold shows an interest, Melonie takes off her glasses and literally lets her hair down. So it's left to Victor to continue to seek out Judy and so he does, ultimately breaking down some of the barriers against boys Judy has raised. "Raising Victor Vargas" is a genuinely lovely and sad film about adolescent life in the streets of New York. The cast of young actors is excellent with each performer acting as naturally as one could possibly imagine. Writer and Director Peter Sollett has put together a little gem. DVD **** (9/1/03)

"Kandahar"-Made not long before the events of September 11, so closely related to the exotic land of Afghanistan, this haunting and tragic film is based to some extent on the real-life story of the star, Nelofer Pazira, who plays Nafas, an Afghan woman whose family escaped and emigrated to Canada and who has returned to stop her sister from committing suicide in Kandahar on the day of the last eclipse of the 20th century. Nafas is on a trip of destiny and will not allow herself to stop despite being exposed to the nightmares of sickness, starvation, tyranny, mutilation and the oppression of women, who must all wear the horrific burkas that cover their heads and bodies. Along the way, Nafas meets a black American seeking God who serves the local people as a "doctor," as well as various victims of the oppression of the Taliban, including men begging for legs (after being blown up by mines), beggars and thieves, and finally an eerily beautiful group of women in colorful burkas crossing the desert on the way to Kandahar for a wedding. Directed by the Iranian director, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, this film is like no other you've seen and certainly provides us with great insight into the world our own troops entered only a short time later. DVD **** (8/30/03)

"All The Real Girls"-Striving to make a simple film of poetic images (one of the best is of a loom in a factory), screenwriters David Gordon Green (also director) and Paul Schneider (also actor) have put together this pleasant although not altogether successful film about the difficulties of young love. Schneider plays Paul, a young man who initially looks shy and naive but turns out to be the town lover boy, someone who has had sex with most of the young women in this small North Carolina town. Young Noel (Zooey Deschanel) returns from school and falls for Paul which angers Noel's brother Tip (Shea Whigham), Paul's best friend. Green and Schneider were obviously trying to make a film about the realities and pains of young romance, but this one doesn't completely ring true. Noel is attractive and exciting, at least for a small town girl, and makes one mistake that instantly turns Paul off in the midst of a seemingly upbeat romance. At the very same moment, out of the blue, the filmmakers have Noel drastically cut her beautiful auburn hair, totally changing her image. It's apparent that this is simply a film device intended to symbolize the change in the relationship. It's a mistake. The film would have made more of an impact if Noel hadn't changed her appearance (and her behavior) so suddenly and without explanation. The film also has subplots about Paul and his mother (played with charm and sincerity by the wonderful Patricia Clarkson) and about the mother's brother Leland (Benjamin Mouton) and his young daughter, but these seem lost in the story of Paul and Noel. Zooey Deschanel (who was quite funny in her brief role in "The Good Girl") is impressive and someone to watch. "All The Real Girls" is beautifully filmed by Tim Orr. DVD ***1/2 (8/29/03)

"He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not"-Audrey Tautoo ("Amelie") plays a young bright-eyed artist named Angélique who is madly in love with a married doctor (Samuel Le Bihan). What we initially see appears to be a story of a single woman waiting for her lover to drop his pregnant wife and join her in exotic pleasures, including a trip to Florence. Along the way some bizarre things happen, such as Angélique borrowing a friend's moped and crashing it. No explanation is given at the time. Upon reaching a climax in the story, with Angélique demonstrating great frustration at her doctor's failure to come through for her,we suddenly are thrust back in time to the beginning and start to see the story over again, this time from the doctor's perspective. And a lot of the strange things that were left unexplained in the first version are explained in this re-run. The film gives the impression of a comedy during the early stages, but later turns decidedly more dramatic and sour. While the actors do a good job, the ending is a disappointment and the film makes you wonder what the filmmakers had in mind. Can't recommend this one. (In French with English subtitles) DVD **1/2 (8/22/03)

"Bowling for Columbine"-Documentary filmmaker Michael Moore, now an Oscar winner for this intelligent, frightening, funny, and sarcastic look at the American gun and fear culture, always has to tell it like it is. He's got the courage to ask obviously hostile people questions that they wouldn't dare try to answer. A native of the depressed Flint, MI, Moore relates the widespread gun culture of his native Michigan to a couple of former members of the Michigan militia, namely Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, and proceeds to present a chilling interview with Nichols' brother, a Michigan farmer. Then Moore goes out to Colorado and demonstrates the curious possible interaction of the military-industrial complex and the minds of the Columbine High School killers. Showing Lockheed-Martin producing weapons of mass destruction only a short distance from Columbine, Moore can blow holes in almost any silly corporate spokesman's comments. When the Lockheed-Martin spokesman, asked about the connection between the weapons his company produces and the killings at Columbine, says that America only uses its military weapons for defensive purposes, Moore proceeds to itemize virtually all of the legal governments overthrown with US support since WW II (Iran, Guatemala, Chile, Vietnam, among others), and the vast numbers of citizens of other countries killed either by or with the aid of America.

Michael Moore wants to know why there are so many more killings by gun in this country than in virtually any country in the western world and in doing so he discovers that although Canada has a vast number of guns, it also has an incredibly low gun violence rate and many Canadians leave their front doors unlocked. In noting this point, Moore proceeds to investigate the media/government fear mentality that pervades America and is virtually absent in Canada. Michael Moore does not have all the answers but he certainly raises some incredibly interesting and insightful points on the obsession of many Americans with guns and violence and fear. In doing so, he manages, to his own amazement, to encourage Michigan-based K-Mart to withdraw the sales of handgun bullets, and to engage in a marvelously cynical interview with Charlton Heston, head of the NRA, who had been showing up with his minions in locations where guns had been used for horrifying violence, including Columbine and in Flint after a 6-year-old boy shot a young girl at a local school. Strangely, my favorite moment in the film is when Moore tries to interview Dick Clark (yes, "American Bandstand" and all that) about the hiring of welfare mothers, including the mother of the young girl killed by the 6-year-old boy) at his Michigan restaurant. Clark, known for being genial, demonstrates his true nature as he shuts the door of the van in which he is sitting right in Moore's face. DVD **** (8/17/03)

"Chicago"-I love musicals and "Chicago" hit the bullseye. Of course, I'm coming to this film a little late. It's already won an Oscar and lots of other awards, but I can now say that it deserved them all. My experience with musicals begins as early as "Singin' In The Rain" in 1952 and, on Broadway, with "My Fair Lady" in 1956. I've seen plenty, including the original "Gypsy," but before "Chicago," with the possible exception of "West Side Story," I'd never seen a Broadway musical converted so well to the screen. Director and choreographer Rob Marshall is indeed a genius for having integrated the theatrical musical numbers with the story in as seamless a manner as one can imagine. From the very start when we see Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones) arriving at the theater to perform sans her sister whom she has just killed after finding her in bed with her husband, the film gets off to a rousing start as Kelly performs the great and sexy "All That Jazz." And it's on from there to Roxie Hart (Renée Zellweger), leaving the same theater and leading her lover back to her marital apartment only to find that he has lied to her about her chances to be a star in the theater, and is tired of her. So Roxie proceeds to pump him with bullets and quickly join Velma in the Cook County jail charged with murder. Catherine Zeta-Jones is simply hot as Velma, a star going downhill while she enviously watches Roxie manage to create attention in the press to build up her eventual case in the courts. And who would play the lawyer for both, a "razzle-dazzler" named Billy Flynn? Why no other than an absolutely perfect Richard Gere who manages to smoothtalk, sing and even tap-dance better than I could ever have imagined. Everyone in this film demonstrated talents beyond what would otherwise have been expected, especially Renée Zellweger who apparently had never sung before in public. Queen Latifah is absolutely divine as the prison matron "Mama" Morton, belting her number out like Sophie Tucker used to do. Even John C. Reilly, playing Roxie's somewhat sad cuckolded husband, Amos Hart, does a wonderfully touching performance of "Mister Cellophane." With all the outstanding musical numbers, the one that stands out above all others is the incredibly wicked and funny "Cell Block Tango" in which the women inmates describe why and how they killed their men and wound up in jail. And I also must mention the "Cabaret"-like marionette number, "We Both Reached For The Gun," which is brilliantly accomplished. Others to note in the cast are Colm Feore as the DA, Christine Baranski as the reporter Mary Sunshine, and Taye Diggs as the bandleader. Unless you hate musicals, if you haven't already seen "Chicago" you're in for an extremely rousing and entertaining experience, almost as if you were in a live theater. DVD ****1/2 (8/16/03)

"The Life of David Gale"-Two things attracted me to this film. The excellent cast and curiosity about the critical reviews attacking the film's ending. Kevin Spacey, Kate Winslet and Laura Linney star in this tale about the death penalty in Texas. Not surprisingly, they do their usual excellent job. Spacey portrays a professor of philosophy, David Gale, whose life is brought down by a series of events, including an accusation of rape and culminating in his conviction in the apparent rape/murder of his good friend and colleague, Constance Harraway (Laura Linney). Both hadbeen active in Deathwatch, an organization aimed at ending the death penalty. At virtually the last minute before his scheduled execution, Gale gives an extended interview to reporter Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet), ostensibly to make it clear to Gale's young son that he was innocent. But there is far more going on in this story, and the ultimate outcome was the subject of a great deal of review criticism. Yes, the ending is hokey and far-fetched, but yet a somewhat different perspective on the entire anti-death penalty theme. I would forgive the film the ending and still say it's not a bad film to watch. Kate Winslet and Laura Linney are pros who are, as always, a pleasure to watch. DVD *** (8/8/03)

"Solaris"-What in the world were Steven Soderbergh (director) and George Clooney (star) thinking when they made this film? This is a downright dull "2001, A Space Odyssey"-Wannabe. Clooney is Kelvin, a psychologist living in a future unnamed city who is called to a space station near the planet Solaris by a friend. The friend, Gibarian, explains that something strange is happening on the station and that he needs Kelvin's help. Kelvin immediately heads for space only to find that Gibarian is dead, having committed suicide and that only two members of the crew survive. Those two members try to warn Kelvin, and he soon finds out the secret that Gibarian was mysteriously describing: that the crew members' dreams recreate human images of people they either know or once knew. Kelvin is completely thrown off when he finds himself in bed with his dead wife (Natascha McElhone), now fully reborn. And that's pretty much it. The film moves excruciatingly slowly, with multiple and dull flashbacks, and through many pretentious, stylistic scenes that provide little ado about very little. This is one to be missed. DVD ** (8/8/03)

"Ararat"-Director and screenwriter Atom Egoyan has made some wonderfully thoughtful films, the most famous being "The Sweet Hereafter." "Ararat" is undoubtedly a production extremely close to his heart and the collective hearts of the Armenian people. Told through modern-day characters in Toronto who are making a movie also called"Ararat," this film is the story of the genocide of the Armenian people in Turkey in 1915, something, the movie reveals, the Turks continue to deny. David Alpay is Raffi, a young man whose mother Ani (Arsineé Khanjian) is an art historian and expert on the Armenian painter, Arshile Gorky, said to have survived the genocide although his mother did not. Raffi is involved in the production of the film-within-the-film and discovers the story of his people by watching as the film is made and interacting with the various participants, including the director (Charles Aznavour), a producer (Eric Bogosian), an actor (Elias Koteas) who is part Turk and doubts the story of what happened to the Armenians, and Raffi's mother who is a consultant. While the tale unfolds in a somewhat convoluted fashion with coincidental intertwining of characters and their involvement in the events portrayed, ultimately most of the story of the Armenian genocide comes from Raffi as he answers the questions of a very inquisitive and thoughtful Canadian customs officer (Christopher Plummer), following his return from a trip to Turkey to see and photograph the locations of the events of 1915. Unfortunately, Raffi has returned with sealed tins of "exposed film," something the customs inspector finds highly suspicious. Despite ponderous aspects of the production, "Ararat" is quite a moving experience and must be recommended to those who enjoy serious and thoughtful films, especially one which educates about an event most know little of. DVD **** (8/2/03)

"The Quiet American"-In the early 1950s the battle in Vietnam was between the French and the Vietnamese, but Americans were beginning to make inroads into the involvement that led to the nightmarish Vietnamese War. Graham Greene, the British novelist, wrote this rather unflattering portrayal of American involvement during that era. This production by Director Philip Noyce ("Rabbit-Proof Fence") seems true to the original novel. Michael Caine is Thomas Fowler, a married British journalist, who lives with his young and beautiful Vietnamese lover, Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen). Fowler is essentially treading water in his job until a young American, Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser), arrives and shakes up his world. Not only does Pyle fall in love with and decide to go after Phuong, but Fowler begins to wonder at just exactly what role Pyle is playing in Saigon. Michael Caine's performance as an aging and threatened man is brilliant. Brendan Fraser rises to a new dramatic persona, so far from those of his typical roles in such films as "The Mummy." Do Thi Hai Yen is wonderful as the lovely and uncertain Phuong. "The Quiet American" contains a spectacular scene of an explosion that actually occurred in Saigon in the early 1950s, and it was filmed in the exact location of the original explosion. This scene is amazing to watch, especially as Fowler, a witness to the explosion, descends into a form of hell. Highly recommended. DVD **** (7/29/03)

"Nicholas Nickleby"-There have been so many versions of Dickens' classics that it cannot be at all easy to make a new one. However, Douglas McGrath, director and screenwriter (with some help from Charles Dickens), was inspired by a marvelous cast and an outstanding cinematographer, Dick Pope ("Topsy-Turvy"). Charlie Hunnam plays Nicholas as an almost angelic young man, but not to the point of silliness. In fact, his portrayal of a young man of warmth and caring is just right. Nicholas and his sister Kate (Romola Garai) have just lost their dear father and, leaving the beauty of Devonshire with their mother (Stella Gonet), find themselves in gritty London in mid-19th century. They seek help from their cold, meanspirited uncle, Ralph Nickleby (Christopher Plummer) who immediately ships Nicholas out to Yorkshire to work at a "school" run by the notorous and slimy Wackford Squeers (Jim Broadbent) and his equally hateful wife (Juliet Stevenson). In this den of misery, Nicholas meets the sympathetic and deformed "slave" Smike (Jamie Bell), saves him, and the two take off for London for a new life. Meanwhile, back in London, Ralph Nickleby is denigrating his own lovely niece Kate by exposing her to the likes of the sleazy and lascivious Sir Mulberry Hawk (Edward Fox). "Nicholas Nickleby" is ultimately a story of growth and concern for family and in this wonderful story Nicholas and Smike meet a newly expanded family consisting of characters such as the dramatic and humorous Vincent Crummles (Nathan Lane), Mrs.Crummles (Barry Humphries aka Dame Edna), Mr. Folair (Alan Cumming), the cheerful Charles Cheeryble (Timothy Spall), and the beautiful Madeline Bray (Anne Hathaway). Jim Broadbent and Juliet Stevenson stand out as the evil Squeers, but another performance that requires mention is that of Heather Goldenhersh as Fanny Squeers, Wackford's daughter. Simply unforgettable. This may not be true Dickens exactly, but it's a delightful and charming couple of hours of wonderful characters and a heartwarming story. DVD **** (7/28/03)

"The Pianist"-Making movies about the horrors of human experience must be an incredibly difficult experience. There are the obvious themes of man's inhumanity and other oppressive circumstances to be recreated. Many such films have been made and once in a while, a great movie maker makes a great film about this monumentally depressing subject. Not long ago we had "Schindler's List," and now Roman Polanski has created this amazing epic of survival, "The Pianist." I hadn't realized that Polanski himself was a survivor of that horrid era of the 20th Century. But having survived the Nazis while growing up in Krakow, Polanski was determined to make a film about the Polish experience with Nazi Germany. And his subject came to him when he read the autobiography of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a young pianist in Warsaw, who survived the Warsaw Ghetto through amazing circumstances and help from unexpected sources, including humane non-Jewish Poles and at least one humane German soldier. Szpilman, played with perfection by Adrien Brody, was part of a somewhat upper middle class Jewish family in Warsaw who, like so many others, couldn't quite believe the Nazi threat to their daily lives let alone to their very existence. They waited too long only to be dragged down and destroyed. But the pianist Szpilman had some lucky breaks and the fortitude to survive. Brody had to play this role with minimal expression because the circumstances simply did not allow for much more and Polanski so directed. This wonderfully produced film, as magnificently realistic as one could possibly get, and actually filmed in Warsaw, follows Szpilman through the series of fortuitous circumstances which ultimately saved his life after his parents and siblings were dragged off to their deaths in concentration camps. The photography is gorgeous and the sets are brilliant. For anyone who hasn't seen it, it is a must-see. We need to be reminded constantly of what humans are capable of doing, both as monsters and as humans, and this time Roman Polanksi has done it with near perfection. DVD ****1/2 (7/25/03)

"Laurel Canyon"-Lisa Cholodenko, writer and director of this film, says she was inspired by Joni Mitchell and her song "Ladies of the Canyon." Frances McDormand plays Jane, the Joni Mitchell stand-in, but here Jane is not a singer but a wild and crazy record producer living in a beautiful house in Laurel Canyon. Jane smokes like a fiend and certainly has no inhibitions about her sex life. Living with her is Ian McKnight (Alessandro Nivola), a free-living British rock singer whose group is cutting a record at Jane's in-house studio. Into this situation comes Sam (Christian Bale), Jane's son, and Alex (Kate Beckinsale), his girlfriend. Both are graduates of Harvard Medical School and they come to LA for Sam to work at a leading hospital and Alex to work on a dissertation on genetics of fruit flies. Sam is embarrassed by his mother and her way-of-life, but Alex, from an uptight eastern family, begins to enjoy the excitement and sensuality of the music-making and frolicking that goes on around the house and in the pool and is tempted to join in. Sam meanwhile meets a beautiful fellow doctor, Sara (Natascha McElhone), who makes it quite clear that she's interested in him. I liked this film up to a point. My biggest complaint is that the character of Alex is simply wrong. Here's a Harvard Med graduate concerned about very complex genetic issues, and yet she is played by Kate Beckinsale and portrayed in the script as a somewhat empty-headed groupie. There is not a single sign of intellect in the character. To make it worse, Sam, as portrayed by Christian Bale, is simply dull and uptight. He moans and groans about his mother and is worried about every move Alex makes. On the other hand, Frances McDormand is, as always, simply wonderful as the free-living Jane. On the whole this film fits fairly well into the genre of LA flicks, movies that try to give an impression of what life is like in the Valley and the Hills around Los Angeles. DVD ***1/2 (7/18/03)

"Shanghai Knights"-I enjoy watching Jackie Chan although I must admit that his films are pretty darn weak. And this is certainly one of his weakest. Chan is back as Chon Wang (it sure sounds like John Wayne), the son of the keeper of the Chinese emperor's royal seal who is murdered by an evil Brit. Chon's sister, Chon Lin (Fann Wong), who tried to defend her father with her amazing fighting talents, passes on the father's dying request that Chon Wang get back the seal. There begins a trip to London where Wang and Lin meet up to try regain the seal from the evil Lord Rathbone (Aidan Gillen) and ultimately save the British royal family. But along for the ride is Chon Wang's absurd "sidekick," Roy O'Bannon (Owen Wilson), who proceeds to put his foot in his mouth throughout the film. As usual, Jackie Chan's fight scenes are wonderfully weird in the "Drunken Master" tradition, but the film is simply repetitious and boring. Owen Wilson's character becomes so downright annoying that one wishes he would disappear. DVD **1/2 (7/18/03)

"Punch-Drunk Love"-Critic A.O. Scott of the New York Times loved this film. He said: "And poetry is perhaps the best way to think about Mr. Anderson's [referring to Director Paul Thomas Anderson] suave, exuberant balance of free-form inspiration and formal control. In this, his fourth feature, he is still very much a movie-mad adolescent, sprinkling his work with gleeful allusions and playful rip-offs of whatever strikes his fancy. But even as it calls to mind everything from Freed Unit MGM musicals to 'The Searchers,' 'Punch-Drunk Love' goes far beyond pastiche." Say what? Did he really say "The Searchers?" Could A.O. Scott have seen the same film that I just saw? Impossible. Far from poetry, "Punch-Drunk Love" is the closest thing to a real nightmare I've seen on film in some time. Ranging from images of meaningless flashing colors and star symbols to downright ugly and depressing sets, the story of "Punch-Drunk Love" is unmitigatingly unpleasant. Adam Sandler, doing a fairly decent job for a change, plays Barry Egan, a very disturbed small-time entrepeneur in the San Fernando Valley, near Los Angeles, with a penchant for breaking things, including windows and whole bathrooms, whenever exasperated by his seven sisters. Egan clearly cannot stand his overbearing sisters who call him constantly to pressure him and who have obviously driven him crazy since childhood talking about him and exposing his problems. At the start of the film, Barry sits in a dreary warehouse in early morning considering ways of turning a commercial food offer into frequent-flyer miles despite the fact that he had never been on an airplane up to that point. Thinking he has found a loophole in an offer from a food company, Barry buys loads of pudding which he stockpiles thinking the offer can be redeemed instantly. Obviously intensely lonely, he calls a phone sex service run by Dean (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and, being vulnerable, gives them everything they ask for, including his Social Security number. Needless to say he lives to regret this when the corrupt phone sex service starts making monetary demands which will result in violence.

Then there appears Lena Leonard (Emily Watson), an attractive friend and co-worker of one of Barry's sisters. For no reason one can possibly comprehend, Lena virtually throws herself at Barry, trying initially to attract him by asking for a favor and later, despite being exposed to his eccentricities and babblings, asks Barry to come with her to Hawaii where she is going for business. This relationship makes no sense. Lena exists in the film for no reason other than to provide the socially inept Barry with some affection. She is not explained and her character is not developed. Lena appears far too lucid to be interested in a character as loony as Barry Egan."Punch-Drunk Love" is the product of Paul Thomas Anderson ("Magnolia"). He is obviously bent on making bizarre films about characters in the San Fernando Valley (a la the frogs in "Magnolia"). But at least "Magnolia," as difficult as it was to take, had a story that made some sense and had some genuine character development. "Punch-Drunk Love" doesn't have time for that. This weird unpleasant mish-mosh lasts less than 90 minutes. DVD *1/2 (7/11/03)

"Heaven"-From a script in part by the late great Krzysztof Kiezlowski (the "Red," "White," and "Blue" trilogy), "Heaven" raises all sorts of moral and ethical dilemmas. Cate Blanchett stars as Philippa Piccard, an Englishwoman living in Italy. She is a popular teacher, but has seen a businessman named Vendice kill and destroy her husband and several children through his drug dealing. So, after seeking help from the police and failing, she sets out to kill Vendice by planting a bomb in his office. Unfortunately, something goes seriously wrong and the bomb kills several "innocent" people. Philippa finds herself in the hands of the Carabinieri, the Italian police, who suspect she is a terrorist. But present among the Carabinieri is Filippo (Giovanni Ribisi), a translator who starts to fall in love with Philippa and plots her escape. "Heaven" is beautifully filmed with loads of fly-overs of gorgeous Tuscany landscapes. And it is, in somewhat typical European style, methodical in its presentation. Full of extended scenes of facial expressions with the characters thinking about what they will say long before saying it. One of the themes raised is whether we, the audience, can be sympathetic to an individual who has murdered several people, even if most by mistake. Having an actress of Cate Blanchett's appeal is somewhat unfair since it's hard not to sympathize with her. And yet in some ways, she is perfect for the part as Philippa is intended to be a good decent person driven to violence only because of hr anger for the damage caused by Vendice's drug-dealing. Giovanni Ribisi, seemingly always a little boyish in his look, does a fine job here as the young policeman possessed by Philippa's inherent decency and beauty. This was apparently intended to be a trilogy (with "Hell" and "Purgatory") but Kiezlowski died far too young before it could be completed. Kiezlowski's tale is directed very well by Tom Tykwer ("Run Lola Run"). (Partly in English and partly in Italian with English subtitles) DVD ***1/2 (7/5/03)

"Gangs of New York"-After having seen repeated trailers and promos for this film, I was beginning to wonder if an entire film really existed. With the release of the DVD, I found that, yes, it did, and it is quite an extravaganza about the violence in New York City in the Civil War era. Director Martin Scorsese made a film in the early 1970s called "Mean Streets." It was about hoods in modern-day Little Italy in New York, but that title could just as easily have been applied to this latest Scorsese epic. The "mean streets" here are only a few blocks from what is now the Little Italy neighborhood. The area in question was called "Five Points," around the corner from what is now Foley Square in lower Manhattan. In the early 1860s it was probably the toughest neighborhood in a very tough city. "Gangs of New York" begins in 1846 with a battle between the Nativists led by the impossibly tough and frightening William Cutting (aka Bill the Butcher), played with astounding tenacity by Daniel Day-Lewis, an actor who completely takes over a role, and the Dead Rabbits, a gang of Irish immigrants led by Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson). Vallon, who brings along his young son Amsterdam, is killed in the battle by Cutting and the boy is taken off to an orphan/school. Sixteen years later, in 1862, Amsterdam returns in the form of Leonardo DiCaprio, a young man bent on revenge but who is initially captivated by his father's killer.

Bill the Butcher runs the Five Points with an iron hand and a deadly talent at knife throwing. Anyone who comes his way must tread very lightly. Included among these is William Tweed (Jim Broadbent), the notorious Tammany Hall boss, who is eager to attract Irish immigrant votes, something the nativist Cutting couldn't care less about. Leonardo DiCaprio does a fine rather low-key job as Amsterdam and Cameron Diaz is pleasant as the tough Jenny, the woman who takes to him in the midst of incredible violence and filth. The set and art direction is rather spectacular, and the performance of Daniel Day-Lewis stands out. However, Scorsese lets this film run on and on (close to three hours) and doesn't let up in stultifyng scenes of death and destruction, culminating in a spectacular re-creation of the horrifying and deadly draft riots of 1863. A director of Scorsese's talents should have been able to better edit this film in order to make it tighter and a little more subtle. Others of note in the cast are Henry Thomas ("E.T.") as Amsterdam's friend who inexplicably gives away the secret of his identity, and Brendan Gleeson ("The General") as Monk McGinn, who gets elected to sheriff with the help of Tweed's Tammany Hall and unelected from life with the help of Cutting's butcher knife. In sum, this is a big spectacular film with seemingly endless violence, but little in the way of subtlety of theme. DVD ***1/2 (7/3/03)

"The Mystic Masseur"-Directed by Ismail Merchant ("Cotton Mary"), usually the producer of the Merchant Ivory films such as "Howard's End" and "The Remains of the Day," "The Mystic Masseur" is the story of Ganesh (Aasif Mandvi), an ethnic Indian in Trinidad and his rise from schoolteacher to writer of books on Hinduism to pundit and mystic. Based on an early novel by V.S. Naipaul, an Indian native of Trinidad, this film tells the intriguing tale of Ganesh's efforts to live his dream to become a writer, only to find himself incredibly successful as an advisor ("mystic masseur") to the ethnic Indians of his island on virtually all matters, including health. But Ganesh is pulled towards politics, a mistake which he later regrets when he finds himself a small fish in the big pond of the capital city of Trinidad. Unlike "Cotton Mary," Merchant's last film which was disastrously dull, "The Mystic Masseur," while certainly not at the rapid pace most Americans expect in films, is a tale worth watching and contains various themes of hope, ethnicity, love, and ambition. In addition, it is full of pathos and humor, including in particular the tale of Ganesh's on-again/off-again marriage to Leela (Ayesha Darker) and the interactions of Ganesh with Leela's conniving and greedy father Ramlogan, portrayed by the wonderful Indian actor Om Puri ("East Is East" and the TV series "White Teeth"). If you like an intelligent tale about exotic people in an unusual location, you will enjoy this film. DVD ***1/2 (6/27/03)

"Sex and Lucía"-The title makes it sound like a soft-core porn film and in a way it is. It contains some rather graphic sex scenes, but "Sex and Lucía" is clearly intended to be a serious film. However, regrettably, it is ultimately a very confusing film whose theme is rather obscure. Lucía (Paz Vega) is a waitress who essentially throws herself at Lorenzo (Tristán Ulloa), a writer, and they become a couple. But he starts to act strangely and Lucía is led to believe he has been killed in an accident. She departs, without investigating, and goes to an island which Lorenzo had talked about on many occasions. The film is somewhat of a mystery showing Lorenzo involved with a multitude of characters, most of whom wind up on the island, including Elena (Najwa Nimri), a woman with whom he fathered a child as a result of a single night of love on the island. Lorenzo meets and adores the child, Luna, but it becomes clear that the child has died somewhere along the line, although how is not clear. Into the mix are Belén (Elena Anaya) who was caring for Luna; Belén's mother, a porn star; and the mother's boyfriend who also winds up on the island. Are these all "real" people or figments of Lorenzo's imagination? Frankly, I reached a point in this film where I no longer cared. Director Julio Medem, who also wrote the script, got carried away with this aimless story. (In Spanish with English subtitles) DVD **1/2 (6/13/03)

"Swimming"-Actually released in 2000 and presented at Sundance, "Swimming" is noteworthy for an early performance by Lauren Ambrose ("Six Feet Under"). Here she portrays Frankie Wheeler, a young woman coming of age in Myrtle Beach, SC, and part-owner of a restaurant with her brother. While nicely photographed, the sound on this film is weak with far too much background noise. Frankie is surrounded by friends and relatives but seems aloof and distant until she meets an eccentric young man in a van who orders hamburgers for his dog, and Josee (Joelle Carter), an attractive young blonde hired as a waitress. Josee, who isn't a very good waitress, seems to inspire the otherwise somewhat lifeless Frankie. In the mix is Nicola (Jennifer Dundas), a friend whose tattoo parlor is next to Frankie's restaurant. Her role in this film, unfortunately, is confusing and unclear. I found the premise of the film promising, but ultimately "Swimming" is blah and impossible to get excited about. Lauren Ambrose, a talented young actress, was apparently picked to be Claire on "Six Feet Under" on HBO based in part on this film and that's not surprising as her performance here is much like that of Claire in the TV series. DVD ** (6/10/03)

"Frida"-This biographical study of the late Mexican artist Frida Kahlo has been criticized for its portrayal of some of the characters, including Geoffrey Rush's portrayal of Leon Trotsky. But ultimately "Frida" is wonderful entertainment and somewhat enlightening too, even if not a perfect portrayal of all the true characters. This is certainly nothing new in movie biographies. Salma Hayek found the ultimate movie role for her when she decided to make this film. She becomes Frida Kahlo, even if some of Frida's injuries from a terrible bus accident are somewhat forgotten mid-film only to be brought back later in the story. Overall, Hayek seems inspired and transformed by Frida, and she has to get a great deal of credit for this, but let's not forget the director, Julie Taymor ("Titus"). Taymor took what could have been a decent interesting biographical story and made it wonderfully exciting through visuals and graphics that defy easy description. Alfred Molina provides a fine performance as the great Mexican artist Diego Rivera, a man of principle when it came to his art but not to his wives. Frida, who thought she could tame Diego, marries him and suffers some of the same shame as Rivera's earlier lovers. I liked Valeria Golino as Rivera's still jealous ex-wife and Roger Rees as Kahlo's German Jewish father. Not perfect but still a very worthwhile cinematic experience. DVD **** (6/8/03)

"About Schmidt"-Based on the book by Louis Begley, "About Schmidt" is the story of a fairly dull man named Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson), just retired from his job in the insurance industry, whose wife suddenly dies and finds himself lost and aimless. His somewhat alienated daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis) lives in another city and is engaged to Randall Hertzel (Dermot Mulroney), a man for whom Schmidt has nothing but contempt. Having purchased a Winnebago with his wife just before her death, Schmidt begins a journey in this rather large vehicle on his way to his daughter's wedding in another city. In the process, Schmidt learns a little bit about himself although he is resistant to any material change in light of his age and state of mind. Nicholson is a revelation. Although certainly a wonderful presence in American films, he's usually played nothing but himself. Here, however, other than the wedding scene in which Schmidt suddenly turns into Nicholson, we have a truly amazing performance in which Nicholson transforms himself utterly into a character unlike anything we've ever seen before. Kathy Bates is dynamic as Randall's rather independent and opinionated mother. Hope Davis stands out as the frustrated daughter of her rather misanthropic father. Also of note are Howard Hesseman ("WKRP In Cincinnati") as Randall's happily remarried father, and Len Cariou as a friend of Schmidt's who, it turns out, was intimate with Mrs. Schmidt many years earlier. If for nothing else, Nicholson's performance makes this a highly recommended film. DVD **** (6/7/03)

"The Recruit"-Okay, here's the basic premise. Walter Burke (Al Pacino) recruits James Clayton (Colin Farrell), a young computer wunderkind, for the CIA. Clayton, after initially resisting, is sent with a group of other recruits to the CIA's training camp where he is told that nothing is as it seems. And so it appears. There he meets Layla (Bridget Moynahan) and finds himself attracted. The group is told that one of the group will ultimately be an independent spy with little or nothing to save him or her should they be captured. After seemingly being kicked out of the training camp, James is informed by Burke that he will be that spy and his job is to find a mole within the agency. Layla is the target. At this point, the film turns from a fairly interesting psychological drama into standard CIA/thriller fare. Twists and turns abound. And who's the bad guy? You guess. A weak ending, but otherwise entertaining fluff for a couple of hours. Al Pacino has become a complete caricature of himself. Farrell is a nice new young tough-guy presence on the movie scene. DVD *** (6/7/03)

"Talk To Her"-When Pedro Almodóvar makes a film you can be sure that it will be unusual and yet full of warmth and humanity. "Talk To Her" certainly does not disappoint. Unusual? Well, how about a story about a man who worships and cares for a woman who is lying in a seemingly endless coma, having been diagnosed as being in a vegetative state? Benigno (Javier Camára) is just such a man. Having seen Alicia dancing at a studio across from his apartment and having fallen for her, Benigno has the unique opportunity to care for Alicia after she is severely injured and brought to the hospital in a coma. His primary method is to talk to her as if she is awake and listening. At the same time, he encourages a writer, Marco (Darío Grandinetti), to do the same thing with his gored bullfighter girlfriend Lydia (Rosario Flores), but Marco, sensing a disconnect with Lydia cannot do so although feeling a sense of connection to the unique Benigno. Benigno ultimately goes too far, but in the meantime we see Almodóvar's world of communication, whether real or imagined, and how human and warm it can be. Of note in the cast is Geraldine Chaplin as Katerina, Alicia's ballet instructor and friend. Films like this are rare gems. Highly recommended. (In Spanish with English subtitles) DVD **** (6/6/03)

"Die Another Day"-This 40th anniversary James Bond flick (I saw the first, "Doctor No" in 1962) gets off to a fairly good start. It reminded me of the early films, although with the catch of having Bond being caught and imprisoned by North Koreans and not terribly well received by "M" (Judi Dench) upon his return to England. Ultimately "Die" goes overboard, using every technological and cinematic computer trick in the book and it's just too much. This time the evil genius is Gustave Graves (Toby Stephens) who is really an evil North Korean named Colonel Moon who has undergone DNA replacement and turned into a caucasion! Pierce Brosnan is fine as Bond, and Hallie Berry is a delight to watch as Jinx, the American agent. I was also intrigued by the beautiful Rosamund Pike as Miranda Frost, the fencing champion whose loyalties are initially unclear. The wonderfully funny John Cleese appears as "Q" but isn't given enough to do. How many more excessive Bond films can there be? DVD *** (6/6/03)

"Adaptation"-Like its predecessor, "Being John Malkovich," "Adaptation" is a strange film written by the same man, Charlie Kaufman. And in this film Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) is the protagonist, a depressed and nervous screenwriter trying to adapt "The Orchid Thief" by Susan Orlean and experiencing writer's block, while being tormented by his far more relaxed brother Donald (also Nicolas Cage) who seems to have more talent for writing. Like "Malkovich," this film descends into theater of the absurd, but in doing so Kaufman tells an interesting tale about John Laroche (Chris Cooper), the orchid thief, and Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep), the New Yorker writer who has written the book about Laroche. "Adaptation" is about the fear of creativity, and the high price one often pays for originality. Chris Cooper and Meryl Streep are outstanding and Nicolas Cage does a fine job of portraying two very different men. The ending gets a little silly, but seems to be a necessary part of the overall theme. DVD ***1/2 (6/2/03)

"Drumline"-The story is a cliché. The new star of the team arrives at a Southern college and immediately shows he's a little arrogant and not what you'd call the best team player. And, of course, he immediately meets the most beautiful girl on campus who instantly, of course, is attracted to him. The star has conflicts with his superiors on the team, including the coach, and is dropped from the team. The magical relationship with the lovely young lady continues until a low point seems to end it. And then, rising from the ashes, the star is suddenly reinstated and everyone loves him. And, of course, the team wins the championship. Seen that before? Well, that's the story here except with a little twist. The star is not an athlete but a drummer and he's "playing" for his college marching band in a world apparently as competitive as sports. The novelty is enough to make this a winning film. Nick Cannon plays Devon Miles, the extremely talented but sassy kid from New York City who comes to Atlanta A & T to play drums for the marching band. The band is run by Dr. Lee (charmingly portrayed by Orlando Jones), a man who believes in quality music as opposed to his local nemesis at Morris Brown University who plays whatever it takes to win the big BET championship. Devon runs into trouble with Dr. Lee and Sean Taylor, the head of the drumline (Leonard Roberts), as he refuses to follow the rules and, worst of all, can't read music. In the mix is the lovely young lady Laila (Zoë Saldana of "Center Stage"), always ready to provide a smile and some encouraging thoughts, ultimately leading Devon to mature and reveal his talents for being a part of the team. Despite the clichés and a not terribly thrilling script, the experience of watching a marching band in the making is extremely interesting and fun. And the cast is very personable. That's enough to recommend this enjoyable film. DVD ***1/2 (5/26/03)

"25th Hour"-From Director Spike Lee, this is an incredibly tedious film about a punk drug dealer named Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) who has been turned in to the police and ultimately sentenced to seven years in prison. The film follows him on his final day of freedom before entering prison, watching him interact with his rather dull friends, a stock broker who seems good and bad in alternate scenes (Barry Pepper), a schoolteacher named Jacob Elinsky who appears to have failed in socialization when he was in school (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and Monty's girlfriend Naturelle (Rosario Dawson) who is much too good for Monty. The title gives the film's secret away: it seems to take 25 hours to watch. But what's worst about this film is Edward Norton, an actor who appeared to have some talent in his first big feature, "Primal Fear," but who now appears to be playing himself in every film and, unlike some of the big stars who are famous for doing that, like Nicholson and DeNiro, it's not a very interesting self. Of note is Anna Paquin as a 17-year-old student of Elinsky who seems to be coming on to him and then seems strangely shocked when he actually kisses her, and Brian Cox as Brogan's father. Not recommended. DVD ** (5/2503)

"Comedian"-After the completion of his incredibly successful TV show, Jerry Seinfeld is back where he began, attempting to build a stand-up routine from scratch. In this rather entertaining documentary (if you like stand-up comedy), Seinfeld is shown working out at a range of comedy clubs, including NY's Gotham Club and Caroline's. The film portrays the agony and the ecstasy of a stand-up comic, a job which can result in incredible riches, as in the case of Seinfeld, and poverty, as in the case of most other stand-ups who struggle to make a name for themselves. One of those is Orny Adams, a talented comic but one who seems to be trying a little too hard. Both Seinfeld and Adams are managed by George Shapiro, the common denominator. Adams is incredibly nervous and at one point is advised by another comic to calm down. Adams' nervousness appears to be both the cause of his failures and his success, as he finally winds up doing a routine on David Letterman. But that was in 2000 and now, three years later, he is hardly a household name. Seinfeld, on the other hand, really doesn't have to worry. Shown doing a new routine on Letterman in the spring of 2001, Seinfeld is as good as ever. But ultimately the winner in this film is the old pro Robert Klein. Klein looks as calm and natural as ever and in doing so his comedy is priceless. That's the secret as far as I'm concerned. This film starts slow, but builds to an interesting look at what makes stand-up comedians tick. DVD ***1/2 (5/23/03)

"The Emperor's Club"-This film has a fine theme about the need for ethics in life. Unfortunately, the script and presentation are extremely hokey. Kevin Kline portrays William Hundert, a classics teacher at a prep school for boys in the mid-1970s, as almost a super-being who seems to have no need for a personal life but would rather spend his entire existence teaching somewhat bratty rich kids about the Roman emperors. Into his life comes Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch) who is clearly unhappy with himself, an ultra-brat, and the son of a jerky US Senator (Harris Yulin), but somehow attractive to those around him, including Hundert. Hundert is in charge of a traditional school classics contest and stretches his own ethics to allow Bell into the final contest of three students. This contest, redone years later when all the boys are adults with similar results, places a great burden on Hundert, a man who believes that history makes one good but who finds that one cannot easily overcome the modern ethos of "me, myself, and I." Embeth Davidtz has a strangely small and insignificant role as the married teacher who obviously cares for Hundert, although he hardly notices, and then, after divorcing her husband, apparently marries Hundert and becomes a seemingly minor part of his life. Rob Morrow is practically invisible as a fellow teacher who later gets the Headmaster job that Hundert deserves. Not recommended. DVD **1/2 (5/10/03)

"Catch Me If You Can"-This is a humorous, clever tale told by Director Steven Spielberg of the real-life adventures of teenager Frank Abagnale, Jr (Leonardo DiCaprio). Frank, who came from New Rochelle, NY, observed a father (Christopher Walken) who seemingly had everything, including a beautiful French wife (Nathalie Baye), but whose life was collapsing around him. Getting a hint from his father's not-so-clever ways, Frank begins a life of crime in which he miraculously impersonates an airline co-pilot, a doctor, and finally a prosecutor, all while becoming an expert on kiting checks. This story would be laughed off the screen if it weren't for the fact that the essence is true, albeit difficult to believe. But Steven Spielberg knows how to tell a good tale. We watch Frank Jr. get more and more brazen in his impersonations and crimes, while all the time being more and more charming. To contrast Frank's charm, there is Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks), the outwardly serious FBI bank fraud expert, who is betting his reputation on catching this clever crook. "Catch Me If You Can" starts slow but builds to a rather funny crescendo with a surprisingly happy ending. Leonardo DiCaprio becomes totally immersed in the character of Frank and it is by far his best performance. Christopher Walken plays a real person for once, and does it very successfully. Tom Hanks is, well, Tom Hanks. Need I say more? One last note: the opening titles of this film are the best I've seen in years. Truly creative. I wonder why Hollywood has never given Oscars for titles. DVD **** (5/9/03)

"Bloody Sunday"-In incredible cinema verité style, using hand-held cameras exclusively, often with extended continuous-action sequences, Director Paul Greengrass, a "Brit," tells the story of the massacre of 13 civil rights marchers by British troops in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, on January 30, 1972 (another 14 marchers were injured). This is not documentary and it's not the real thing, but it sure feels like it. There is no classic movie dialogue: we see the people going through their activities of the day from the morning through the end of this miserable bloody Sunday. The action centers around Ivan Cooper (James Nesbitt), an MP and civil rights leader who has organized this march in an effort to strengthen this peaceful movement so as to weaken the IRA's violent activities. Cooper is bent on having the march but worried in light of the thousands of British troops in the area. The British are shown as eager to make trouble. The British commander, Major General Ford (Tim Pigott-Smith), is talking violence before the march has even begun and sets the tone and mood for the British soldiers who ultimately get carried away by repeatedly referring to the "hooligans" they will be rounding up and shooting if necessary. Brigadier Maclellan (Nicholas Farrell), away from the action in HQ, is clearly disturbed by the throught of unnecessary violence but doesn't have the heart or guts to stop it. And predictably the violence occurs. The film portrays the British as having killed and wounded unarmed demonstrators and then lying to the press and the world by claiming that they were under fire. "Bloody Sunday" is an extremely powerful film about the excesses of the military, the hate that can develop among peoples of similar heritages, and the struggles that lead to so much ridiculous misery. An excellent film for our times. DVD **** (5/3/03)

"Standing In The Shadow of Motown"-If you like great music, you can't help but love this film. This is a documentary about a group of musicians who called themselves "The Funk Brothers." Were they well known? Obviously not. And yet they played on dozens of No. 1 songs when they were the background musicians for a little record company in Detroit known as Motown. "Standing In The Shadow of Motown" beautifully tells the tale of these musicians, most surviving but a few who have passed on, through the wonderful storytelling of the survivors of the group and relatives of the deceased. The latter included James Jamerson, a great bass player, who got little recognition despite playing some of the most famous notes in modern music history. He died in 1983. We hear from Joe Hunter, Richard "Pistol" Allen, Bob Babbitt, Uriel Jones, and Joe Messina, and through them we learn of the great talents of the late Eddie "Bongo" Brown and Earl Van Dyke, among others. These were the great studio musicians behind the likes of the Motown stars like Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, Martha and the Vandellas, Smokey Robinson, The Four Tops, and The Supremes. And is there music on this film? Of course, and it is played beautifully by the surviving Funk Brothers and sung by a tremendous group of singers, including Joan Osborne, Bootsy Collins (he's got to be seen to be believed), and Ben Harper. I guarantee you that after seeing this film, the magical Motown sounds will linger in your mind long afterwards and make you wonder about just what happened to really great music. DVD **** (5/2/03)

"Real Women Have Curves"-Based on the play by Josefina Lopez who also co-wrote the screenplay, "Real Women Have Curves" deals with a theme not often seen in American films: the relative happiness of overweight women with minds of their own, who in this case are also Hispanic. America Ferrara plays Ana, a young woman just graduating from Beverly Hills High School with excellent grades who hopes to go to college. Her English teacher, Mr. Guzman (George Lopez), believes she can get into Columbia University in New York City, but Ana has to live with the old-fashioned attitudes of her Mexican-born parents, Carmen (Lupe Ontiveros) and Raúl (Jorge Cervera, Jr.). Carmen is an overbearing mother who believes her daughters should get married and have babies. She is shocked by the thought that her daughters might have other ideas about life and are capable of thinking for themselves. The older daughter, Estela (Ingrid Oliu), runs a dress-making business that produces good products but is always on the edge of disaster. Ana, having graduated, is dragged into the business, initially against her will, but later she develops admiration for the efforts of Estela and her workers. The film contains a humorous scene that summarizes the theme when all the women in Estela's overheated factory strip down to their underwear and admire each other's ample bodies. Lupe Ontiveros is, as always, excellent as the mother who can't see her daughter's modern views. America Ferrara, in her first film, is lovely and intelligent as the daughter who has to deal with the struggle between the ethnic traditions of her family's culture and the fact that she is American born with American attitudes. Ingrid Oliu is notable as Estela, a woman who has also rejected her mother's overwhelming pressure to marry and has become a businesswoman struggling to succeed in a tough business. (In English and Spanish, with some English subtitles) DVD ***1/2 (4/26/03)

"The Crime of Padre Amaro"-Gael García Bernal ("Amores Perros" and "Y Tu Mamá También"), at age 24, is fast becoming the heartthrob of Mexico. Here he is Padre Amaro, a handsome young priest who arrives in a Mexican village to be placed under the tutelage of an older priest, Father Benito (Sancho Gracia). But we soon see that all is not as one might expect. Padre Benito regularly sleeps with a local restaurant owner, Augustina Sanjuanera (Angélica Aragón), and is very close, financially and otherwise, to a major drug dealer in the community. Seeing this, Padre Amaro becomes very vulnerable to the advances of a teenage beauty, Amelia (Ana Claudia Talancón), the 16-year-old daughter of Augustina. "El Crimen Del Padre Amaro" (original Spanish title) is incredibly cynical about the Catholic Church. The Church officials in this film are shown engaging in a wide range of inappropriate behavior for officials of a religious organization preaching morality: money laundering, lying, sex, and a whole range of ultimate hypocrisy. The one priest who seems genuinely dedicated to helping his people and who rejects the hypocrisy of the others, Padre Natalio (Damián Alcazár), is the one priest the Bishop is trying to destroy. But this incredibly cynical message, valid or not, is unfortunately told in the form of a soppy soap opera which distracts from the more serious issues. Padre Amaro falls for Amelia who pays a very heavy price for her attraction to a priest. While a film with such a controversial themes could have been tension-filled and scintillating, the reality is that this film is not. (In Spanish with English subtitles) DVD *** (4/25/03)

"Rabbit-Proof Fence"-Taking place in 1931, this incredible film tells the essentially true-life story of three "half-caste" Aboriginal girls (ages 8-14) who are taken from their homes and mothers under a racist Australian law to be trained in the ways of whites. This was the "stolen generation" of aboriginal children, a nightmarish practice that apparently continued until, believe it or not, 1970. Phillip Noyce, an Australian director usually known for Hollywood thrillers ("Patriot Games" and "The Bone Collector"), took on the assignment of finding three young girls to play these difficult parts and he succeeded behind his wildest dreams. Everlyn Sampi is Molly, the oldest and most aggressive; Laura Monaghan is Gracie, next youngest; and Tianna Sansbury is Daisy, the youngest. Ordered removed from their home by A.O. Neville (Kenneth Branagh), a man who actually did this work for 25 years in western Australia, the girls are torn from their mothers in an overwhelmingly powerful scene, and transported more than 1,500 miles to a school to "improve" half-caste aboriginal children. Molly immediately realizes she cannot tolerate the situation or the people and plots an escape and return home. But few girls had succeeded in such an endeavor, usually caught by the tracker, Moodoo (David Gulpilil), an aborigine himself. Moodoo, however, had not previously dealt with the challenge of the intelligence of Molly who leads and inspires Gracie and Daisy to follow her along a fence (the longest in the world) built to keep rabbits on one side and farmland on the other. This rabbit-proof fence extends all the way from the area of the school back to their home and provides the girls with a guide on their incredible trek. Although Moodoo appears to be intent on finding the girls, it soon becomes clear that he has great respect for the girls' intelligence and courage.

The three young stars play the parts of Molly, Gracie and Daisy to perfection. Everlyn Sampi in particular is brilliant as the smart, hard-nosed Molly, who will not let anything stop her return to her mother. Kenneth Branagh is perfectly smooth and bureaucratically sinister as Neville, a man who apparently never considered what he was doing to be evil. Director Noyce has created a memorable film about the grit of the human spirit in the face of evil. Of note is an excellent documentary on the DVD about Noyce's search for the three young actresses in this film and how they were prepared to perform as well as they did by acting coach Rachel Maza. Highly recommended. DVD ****1/2 (4/20/03)

"Faithless"-This Swedish film ("Trolösa") was released in 2000. Written by Ingmar Bergman and directed by Liv Ullman, it centers around an elderly gentleman named Bergman who appears to conjure up a beautiful woman named Marianne (Lena Endre). The two sit and talk in his secluded beachside home and create a story about a woman named Marianne who is married to a successful orchestra conductor, Markus (Thomas Hanzon). All seems well with them and their young daughter Isabelle until a family friend, David (Krister Henriksson), stays over one night when Markus is away and suggests that he sleep with Marianne. While she initially rejects him, they soon begin an affair that will end in tragedy. But this movie is not so much about the tragedy as how the characters get there. Like most European films, it is loaded with talk, but supplemented with enough motion to make the story extremely interesting about human desires and foibles. The film has one major weakness. It's length. It runs approximately 2 hours and 25 minutes and could have been cut to at least two hours without great loss to the impact of the human tale being told. One thought that occurred to me was to contrast the approach of a European film about a wife being unfaithful to her husband, with the American film "Unfaithful" starring Diane Lane. Each winds up with tragedy, but the American film chooses to go in the direction of an unlikely criminal plot twist, whereas the Swedish film sticks to a very possible human story. (In Swedish with English subtitles) DVD ***1/2 (4/19/03)

"City By The Sea"-Once upon a time, a film starring Robert DeNiro would have been a blockbuster, getting lots of attention from the media. Now, DeNiro seems to have retired from the biggies and reduced himself to mediocre cop films. This is certainly one of them. This time DeNiro is Vincent LaMarca, a NYC homicide detective whose father was executed in Sing-Sing and whose son, a junkie, is wanted for a murder of a drug dealer in Long Beach, NY. The plot is fairly standard fare. DeNiro does a decent job as LaMarca but not much more than is necessary to play a cop. He seems to be just going through the motions. To contrast his fairly lackluster performance, there is the wonderful Frances McDormand who plays LaMarca's downstairs girlfriend Michelle. McDormand's performance of a woman who cares for LaMarca but is put-off by his inability to communcate about his problems is full of nuances in a film that doesn't deserve it. Others of note in the cast are Patti Lupone as LaMarca's ex-wife Maggie and James Franco as LaMarca's son Joey. DVD **1/2 (4/18/03)

"8 Women"-Looking a lot like a stage play as it takes place essentially inside a single room, this French comedy is about a group of women stuck in a house in a snowstorm after the murder of the only man in the house, the husband of one of the women, Gaby (Catherine Deneuve). Gaby's daughter Suzon (Virginie Ledoyen) has just returned after being away for awhile and looks forward to seeing her father, but her sister Catherine (Ludivine Sagnier) discovers their father lying in bed face down with a knife in his back. The women in the house, unable to call the police or leave, begin to question each other and note mysterious goings on as if each is really an incipient Hercule Poirot. In addition to Gaby, Suzon, and Catherine are grandmother Mamy (Danielle Darrieux) who sits in a wheelchair but really can walk; Augustine (Isabelle Huppert), Gaby's wacky sister; Chanel (Fermine Richard), the housekeeper who has eyes for other women; Louise (Emmanuelle Béart), the beautiful maid with a reputation for being more interested in her employers than in her work; and Pierrette (Fanny Ardant), the victim's sister who mysteriously and suspiciously appears at the front door. The cast is excellent and the chatter is fast and furious. And there's one more thing that should be noted besides the fact that it has a surprise ending. It's also a musical. Each character gets to sing at least one song, expressing her involvement in the story. This type of talky French film with music is hardly for everyone. If you like your films a little different and you're good at reading subtitles, this is for you. DVD (In French with English subtitles). ***1/2 (4/11/03)

"Femme Fatale"-This is an extremely stylized thriller which gets off to a decent albeit confusing and unlikely start and then, unfortunately, goes downhill fast. It's the story of a "bad girl" (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) who doublecrosses her cohorts in a rather daring jewel robbery at the Cannes Film Festival and then disappears into dreams and confusion. Antonio Banderas is in this film, but should have known better. Director Brian DePalma gets the blame. DVD *1/2 (4/11/03)

"Secretary"-Just out of a mental hospital where she has been treated for self-abuse (including cutting), Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) returns home to her dysfunctional family. Her father is an alcoholic and her mother (Lesley Ann Warren) dotes on her with a slightly crazed look, conditions that help explain Lee's problems. Although tempted to return to her prior sharp objects, Lee decides to look for a job and immediately finds herself employed as a secretary for a lawyer of unusual tastes, Edward Grey (James Spader). Among other things, no computers for this lawyer; only typewriters. And when Lee flubs a few typed letters, Grey, who is aware of Lee's self-abusive activities, decides to try a spanking, something that will awake in Lee a whole new form of pleasure from pain. And so begins this most unusual relationship. This slightly kinky and provocative film has a wonderful cast. Maggie Gyllenhaal has all the right expressions, ranging from fear of the unknown upon returning to the world outside of the mental home, to joy and conniving as she attempts to provoke Grey into giving her the pain that will bring her pleasure. James Spader, who seems to be making a career of playing somewhat creepy characters, is a perfect Grey, a man who certainly engages in extraordinary work and romantic activities. Despite its erotic tone, "Secretary" is ultimately a fine tale of emotional growth and the discovery of romance in the strangest places. DVD **** (4/5/03)

"Far From Heaven"-With the lush music of Elmer Bernstein, and the gorgeous photography (almost too colorful) of Edward Lachman, writer/director Todd Haynes has created an homage to the corny 1950s romance melodramas of Douglas Sirk, including "All That Heaven Allows," "Written On The Wind," and"Magnificent Obsession." But what Haynes may not have understood is that no one took those films very seriously and "Far From Heaven" is virtually a parody of those films. The script is loaded with stilted and awkward speech, filled with clichés associated with the seemingly innocent past: "Pop," instead of "Dad," and terms like "swell," and "gee." A young boy talks to his mother ("Mother," not "Mom") as if he is talking to his schoolteacher. Even in Sirk's films people weren't this corny. With one notable exception, the characters are cartoon-like, as if "Father Knows Best" had been crossed with "The Brady Bunch." Looking at this film is also quite an experience. We see a surfeit of lush scenery that begins in the fall (a fall so beautful I doubt anyone has ever seen one like it) and everything, from the grass and the leaves in the trees, to the cars and clothing are ultra-color-coordinated. Julianne Moore's red hair, for example, is a perfect match to her clothing and that of her friends. One is almost "blinded" by the intensity of the colors.

This is a melodrama to the nth degree. Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) is a happy upper middle-class Hartford, CT, housewife in 1957, very comfortable in her social setting. Outwardly, all is well. Her husband Frank (Dennis Quaid) is a successful salesman. They have two children, a gorgeous house, and lots of friends. All that's missing is a dog. But as in many of the Douglas Sirk films, all is not well below the surface. Frank Whitaker is struggling with homosexuality and Cathy, upon learning of her husband's "problem" finds herself attracted to their tall, intelligent and understanding "Negro" gardener, Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert). In a 1950's Hartford portrayed as almost as racist as a southern city of the time, Cathy is far too friendly with Raymond and both pay the consequences. While the story seems to be dealing with serious issues, they seemed unlikely and out of place in this particular setting. Ultimately, while I admired many of the technological production values, including the wonderful sets, "Far From Heaven" left me cold. Julianne Moore has seemingly played one too many 1950s housewife, although she does it very well. Dennis Quaid is good as the confused husband (who seeks psychiatric help for his "ailment"), and Patricia Clarkson is notable as Cathy's best friend, Eleanor Fine. But the standout performer of this film is Dennis Haysbert and this is due, in part, to the fact that he is given lines that make him sound, unlike the rest of the cast, as a normal person. The contrast is palpable and very noticeable. DVD *** (4/4/03)

"Mostly Martha"-This is a delicious little film about a chef named Martha Klein (Martina Gedeck) who is obsessed with the kitchen she runs and seems to have little life outside cooking. Even her psychiatrist hears about little but her cooking. We watch as Martha and her staff create the most delicious looking and sounding meals imaginable. Martha has a sister and an 8-year old niece, Lina (Maxime Foerste), and is expecting a visit from them to put some spice in her life when she receives a call telling her that her sister has died in an accident and she must take Lina once she's released from the hospital. Martha, who shows very brief signs of having any life beneath her hard exterior, finds it tough-going with Lina, and Lina finds it hard to accept that she cannot go home again. But into their lives comes Mario (Sergio Castellito), a warm, charming and happy Italian chef hired by the restaurant owner to assist Martha. As you might imagine, Martha is not happy with this situation, but you can also guess the eventual outcome. It need only be said that this film is lovely to look at, and warm, charming and delightful. Sergio Castellito ("Va Savoir") is absolutely wonderful as the man Martha initially rejects but ultimately needs in her life. This is an upbeat film that I can highly recommend. (In German with English subtitles) DVD **** (3/30/03)

"The Weight of Water"-Made in 2000 and just released on DVD, this film, based on the book by Anita Shreve, tells alternate tales of the nighttime murders of two young Scandinavian women on a small lonely island off the coast of New Hampshire in the 1870s, and of four people in the present sailing to the same island for sun and surf and some photo-investigating about those murders. The 1870s tale of the developments leading up to the murders and the eventual trial is told rather clearly and crisply with Sarah Polley as Maren Hontvedt, who survives the slaughter and ultimately testifies against the accused, Louis Wagner (Ciarán Hinds). The characters, who most likely would have spoken to each other in their native language, here speak English with an accent, thus lending an air of unreality to the situation. In the present, we meet Jean Janes (Catherine McCormack), a photographer who has asked her brother-in-law, Rich Janes (Josh Lucas), to take her and her husband Thomas (Sean Penn) to the island in his large sailboat. She plans to check out the island and photograph the site of the murders, but becomes curious about just what happened over 100 years earlier. Into the mix, however, we find Adaline Gunne (Elizabeth Hurley), Rich's girlfriend, and the air on the boat is laden with sexual tension, especially involving Jean, Thomas and Adaline. The story in the present climaxes when a storm hits and the group of four must hope that their boat can get them back to shore. This climax occurs at the same time as the truth comes out in the 19th Century story. The latter is far better told than is the tale of the present-day sailers. Sarah Polley is quite effective as Maren who knows the truth about the grisly deaths of her sister and sister-in-law. But the modern-day tale is a mishmash, hard to follow the motivations of the characters. Sean Penn, usually outstanding, here seems totally uncomfortable, as if embarrassed by the script. Catherine McCormack and Elizabeth Hurley, both English, seem miscast in this New England situation. Of note in the cast is Katrin Cartlidge as Karen Christenson, sister of Maren, and one of the murder victims. Cartlidge, an excellent and relatively young actress ("No Man's Land" and "Career Girls"), sadly died not long after the making of this film. Overall, "The Weight of Water" had good tales to tell, but really muddied the waters. DVD **1/2 (3/28/03)

"Auto Focus"-The public is often interested in the private lives of celebrities, but sometimes those lives go to extremes that the public cannot even imagine. This is such a story. Bob Crane (Greg Kinnear) was a man who started out as a DJ in Bridgeport, CT, moved to Los Angeles with his wife and three kids in the early 1960s, and ultimately found glory as the star of "Hogan's Heroes," a sitcom which ran on television from 1965 to 1971. Crane was interested in photography and was apparently leading a successful family life when he met John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe), a video expert in the period long before video was prevalent in most homes. Carpenter encouraged Crane's lusts and together they started what was to be a downward spiral for Crane, obsessing over women and their bodies and the use of video and still images to capture their lustful experiences. In 1978, Crane was murdered in his apartment in Scottsdale, AZ, while engaged in local dinner theater. "Auto Focus" speculates on who may have been responsible for the murder, but the film is really about Crane's lustful downfall. Greg Kinnear has taken on a somewhat courageous role and done it well. His moments of alternate innocence and lust are played to a fine point. Willem Dafoe has had experience with playing evil before (Shadow Of The Vampire), and here he gives John Carpenter just the perfect element of sleaze necessary to cast doubt on this man's intentions. The film is raw and gritty and contains some rather graphic sexual material. It's not for prudes. Although only about 100 minutes long, the film drags as it approaches its climax (yes, a pun), becoming repetitious about Crane's obsession with sex and video. Notable in the cast are Rita Wilson as Anne Crane, the first wife, who suffers as Crane becomes a distracted star and sex maniac; Maria Bello as Patricia, a "Hogan's Heroes" co-star who thinks she can tame the wild Crane and becomes his second wife; and Ron Leibman as Crane's agent, a man who tries to tell Crane that his private life is killing his career but doesn't really know how to stop it. DVD ***1/2 (3/22/03)

"Roger Dodger"-Roger (Campbell Scott) is a fast-talking smooth operator who thinks he's great with women. But it doesn't take long to discover that he's just the opposite. In an early scene, he's being kicked out as a lover by his boss, Joyce (Isabella Rossellini), who obviously wants nothing more to do with him despite and probably because of his begging and childish behavior. Later, he's shown making a fool of himself by alienating most of the women he meets. Into this situation comes Nick (Jesse Eisenberg), Roger's 16-year-old nephew from Ohio, who thinks Roger is a wiz at getting women and wants to learn. Roger decides to give Nick some lessons. Before he knows it, Nick finds himself in a nightclub with adults and watches as Roger manages to bring over two attractive and interesting women, Andrea (Elizabeth Berkeley) and Sophie (Jennifer Beals). As Roger introduces Nick to the wonders of women and liquor, we soon discover that Nick, despite his innocence, has a lot more charm and potential than Roger. Campbell Scott is excellent as the smooth-talking but inept womanizer, but the character is extremely hard to take, and it's obvious that most around him feel the same way. This is the first time I've seen Elizabeth Berkeley and Jennifer Beals play roles in which they are real women, beautiful but totally confident in their ultimate rejection of Roger and his view of life. Jesse Eisenberg does a fine job as the young and innocent Nick, a quick learner. This is a good indie film which will not likely have a large audience. DVD ***1/2 (3/21/03)

"Personal Velocity"-Based on her own short stories, writer/director Rebecca Miller has created three portraits of women, each woman in some way seeking either something new in her life or searching for meaning after trauma. The first story is that of Delia (Kyra Sedgwick), a woman with three kids, living in a small town in upstate New York, who loves her abusive husband but finally reaches the breaking point after one last violent episode. This portrait takes on Delia's journey with her kids to a new location and the start of a new life despite her toughened demeanor and her frequent recalls of the pleasures, and pains, of her past life. Greta (Parker Posey) is in a very different place in life. She comes from a privileged background, is reasonably successful by most standards as a cookbook editor, and is seemingly happily married to a decent good-looking man who adores her. But there is something wrong and when Greta suddenly finds herself very successful as the editor of the new book of a major novelist, Thavi Matola (Joel De La Fuente), she realizes that her ambition and her lust are going to ultimately lead to profound changes in her life. In telling each of the first two stories, Rebecca Miller shows a brief TV reference to an incident in NYC in which a driver is shot and then crashes into a pedestrian on Varick Street. The third portrait is that of Paula (Fairuza Balk) who had been walking with the victim of that accident, but then, in shock and horror, runs away in a traumatic daze. She's pregnant and has left her lover behind as she drives upstate to see her mother, picking up a strange young man along the way. Filmed in digital video, "Personal Velocity" is good because it's original. Kyra Sedgwick and Parker Posey are especially wonderful in their edgy roles. But that takes nothing away from Fairuza Balk who plays the dazed Paula to the hilt. Unfortunately, the story of Paula is the least satisfying and seems rather aimless (something Rebecca Miller practically admits on the DVD when she indicates she wrote the last story simply as an add-on to the first two). While Kyra Sedgwick has the tough role of an abused mother, Parker Posey has to get the kudos for her wonderfully cynical and lusty part. I didn't love this film, but I did like it a lot. DVD ***1/2 (3/21/03)

"White Oleander"-Ingrid Magnussen (Michelle Pfeiffer) is a hard-edged artist living in the Hollywood Hills with her 12-year old daughter Astrid (Alison Lohman) when she kills her boyfriend and is immediately sent to prison. "White Oleander" (the flower used to poison the boyfriend) is about the experiences of the artistically-talented daughter as she is passed from foster home to foster home, but still under the overbearing influence of her mother during visits to prison. Astrid spends her teens going through a lifetime of experiences. First, she lives with a Jesus-loving former stripper, Starr (Robin Wright Penn in a totally different role for her), who ultimately shoots Astrid in a fit of jealousy over Starr's live-in boyfriend Ray (Cole Hauser). Then, after recovery, she is placed in an institutional foster home where she learns to get even tougher in order to survive, but also meets a fellow artistic spirit, the warm and caring Paul Trout (Patrick Fugit). But before Astrid is old enough to decide on her future life, she makes one more sojourn to the Malibu home of an unsuccessful actress, Claire Richards (Renée Zellweger), who is living a marital lie with her mostly absent moviemaking husband (Noah Wyle). Always in Astrid's background is her mother who, due to her own intelligence and misery, is attempting to teach Astrid to be independent in thinking and solitary in her emotional life. Not surprisingly, Astrid rebels. This is a better film than I expected, although the details of Ingrid's lovelife and her motivation for murder are not made very clear. Michelle Pfeiffer is excellent in this serious role. Alison Lohman, a lovely young actress, is a revelation in a very difficult part. She is someone I hope we see a lot more of in the future in good roles. And Renée Zellweger is wonderfully vulnerable as the sweet but terribly sad Claire. Not a great film, but certainly one worth seeing. DVD ***1/2 (3/15/02)

"Moonlight Mile"-Based loosely on some life experiences of writer/director Brad Silberling (boyfriend at the time of murdered actress Rebecca Schaeffer), "Moonlight Mile" tells the tale of Joe Nast (Jake Gyllenhaal), a young man who had just moved to the hometown (and home) of his fiancé Diana when she is murdered by a total stranger. Living in the home with his fiancé's parents (Dustin Hoffman and Susan Sarandon), Joe, who seems to have no relatives of his own, is almost totally passive as he allows the father, Ben Floss (Hoffman), to guide him towards being the "son-in-law" he was meant to be. Most likely a real life Joe would have run as far as possible in the other direction, but this Joe stays (due to a guilty conscience to be revealed later) and is manipulated by Ben and the outwardly tough mother JoJo (Sarandon). Now this sounds like a recipe for a very morose film. But along comes a new element, a sassy young woman named Bertie (Ellen Pompeo), to whom Joe is attracted in the midst of his grief and it is she who gives this film some life. Jake Gyllenhaal, showing signs of a Tobey Maguire-syndrome, is almost expressionless for the first three-quarters of the film. Hoffman and Sarandon are fine but their characters seem nothing like parents who have just lost their only child. On the other hand, good-looking andwith a spark in her eyes, Ellen Pompeo portrays Bertie, the postal clerk and barmaid whose boyfriend has long been MIA in Vietnam, with wonderful verve. Without her this film would have gone nowhere. Of note in the cast is Holly Hunter as a prosecutor hoping to enlist the aid of the family in bringing the killer to justice. Overall, a disappointment. DVD *** (3/14/03)

"All Or Nothing"-"If you knew what was going to happen when you get up in the morning, you'd never get out of bed." So says Phil (Timothy Spall), a London cab driver with a perennial hangdog expression on his face. Phil lives with Penny (Lesley Manville), a grocery store clerk, in a run-down South London apartment complex. They have two overweight children, Rachel (Alison Garland), a cleaning lady at a home for the aged, and Rory (James Corden), a lazy, bitter, and unemployed oaf. And living in the same complex are Penny's friends Carol (Maureen Bailey), an alcoholic at the end of her ropes, and Maureen (Ruth Sheen), who can see the bright side of things despite the adversity around her. Carol's sexy daughter Samantha (Sally Hawkins) parades aimlessly around the apartments until an emergency finally brings out the best in her. And Maureen's daughter Donna (Helen Coker) becomes pregnant from a brief and rather miserable relationship. A recipe for depression? You might say so, but it is portrayed brilliantly by the great British director Mike Leigh ("Secrets and Lies" and "Topsy-Turvy"), with outstanding photography by Dick Pope, Mike Leigh's regular cinematographer. Despite the rather seedy circumstances, the characters never fail to be interesting, although at times the lower-class British accents can be tough to understand. The entire cast, led by Timothy Spall and Lesley Manville, is amazing. These actors know their stuff and with the classic Mike Leigh method of directing, totally become the down-and-out characters they are portraying. This is a film for those who like intelligent and well-made films about the human condition. And despite the depressing subject, the film ultimately is uplifting, both in script and spirit. Highly recommended. DVD **** (3/7/03)

"The Widow of Saint-Pierre"-This little-known French film from 2000 is worth noting. Taking place in 1849 on the island of Saint-Pierre et Miquelon, not far from Newfoundland, this very interesting film tells the true story of Madame La (Juliette Binoche), the wife of Captain Jean (Daniel Auteuil), the humane local French commandant. Madame La is what might today be called a "bleeding heart" as she befriends a convicted murderer, Neel Auguste (Emir Kusturika), who is facing the guillotine while being held in her husband's custody. With her husband's love and understanding, she turns Auguste into her protegé in building a greenhouse, growing flowers, and doing various other good deeds for the community. The convict does so well that he becomes a favorite and even a local hero, marries, and sees the general mood of the community grow against his execution. But the local politicians must see the law obeyed and they do everything they can to obtain a "widow" (guillotine) from the French government, and an executioner, for without both the execution cannot proceed. With delightful and intelligent performances by the three main stars, Binoche, Auteuil and Kusturica (primarily a director from Bosnia), "The Widow of Saint-Pierre" demonstrates in many ways the battles between the moralistic forces of law and often opposing tendencies of humanity. (In French with English subtitles) DVD **** (3/6/03)

"Road To Perdition"-Besides Paul Newman's best supporting actor nomination, this film has been nominated for Oscars in categories such as cinematography, sound and art direction. No wonder. The film is good to look at, the sets are gorgeous, and the sound is excellent. There's just one thing missing. A story worth caring about. Tom Hanks is Mike Sullivan, a killer who tries to hide his occupation from his nice little family (a wife, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, and two sons, Michael (Tyler Hoechlin) and Peter). Sullivan works for John Rooney (Paul Newman), an Irish member of Al Capone's mob in the Illinois countryside. When Rooney sends Sullivan with Rooney's son Conner (Daniel Craig) to talk to an outspoken member of the local mob, things go wrong in two ways with murder being committed and the event being witnessed by Sullivan's son Michael. The result is a story of flight by Sullivan and Michael after Sullivan's wife and other son are murdered by Conner Rooney. And also, of course, there is the obvious revenge theme. While some have portrayed this story as one about the development of a relationship between a father and a son, the fact remains that the story consists of almost unbridled violence. People are constantly being shot, and for little reason. The only growth the young Michael seems to be experiencing is in learning the fine arts of his father's occupation as a killer and bank robber. There are virtually no sympathetic characters in this film, other than the boy. As for the script, it's somewhat banal. And as for the acting, Hanks is certainly different as a killer, but there's little in his performance to write home about. And although Paul Newman has always been one of my favorites, he seems to be just going through the motions. There's virtually nothing here worthy of an Oscar. Of note in the cast are Stanley Tucci as a very mild-manner Frank Nitti, and Jude Law as a somewhat bizarre killer/photographer. DVD *** (3/1/03)

"My Big Fat Greek Wedding"-Based on Nia Vardalos' one-woman play, I found this story of the marriage of a Greek woman and a WASP man to be quite charming. Okay, it's got some stereotypes, but that's the nature of comedic films about ethnic groups. Nia Vardalos is Toula Portokalos, a 30-year-old Greek woman who is single and is pressured constantly by family to get married to a Greek man, have children, and take care of her family. After starting as a dowdy hostess at her family's Greek restaurant, Toula comes to her senses and undergoes a makeover, turning her into a lovely young woman with a sparkle in her eyes. And she soon captures the attention of Ian Miller (John Corbett), a local teacher. There's not much in the way of plot tension. Toula and Ian fall for each other and the challenge here is not to get them together, but rather to introduce each other to the ways of their very different families. Michael Constantine is the ultimate Greek father who thinks every word comes originally from Greek, with Lainie Kazan as Toula's more understanding mother. Louis Mandylor is notable as Tula's funny brother Nick, as is Gia Carides as Toula's sexy big-haired cousin Nikki. I'm not quite sure why the public went so crazy over this film, resulting in a very long run in the theaters, but it's certainly a pleasant film to view. DVD ***1/2 (2/28/03)

"The Fast Runner"-When I was a child I saw the 1922 documentary "Nanook of the North," a classic film about the life of an Inuit (Eskimo). "The Fast Runner," aka "Atanarjuat," is the first film about the Inuit seen since that time. Made mostly in digital video, this exquisite film tells the tale of a group of Inuit, based on an Inuit legend. After a shaman comes to the clan community and brings evil, the clan leader Kumaglak is killed and another rival for power, Tulimaq, is chased away, leaving Sauri (Eugene Ipkarnak) as the leader. The film quickly passes in time to the adulthood of two Inuit brothers, Atanarjuat (Natar Ungalaaq) and Amaquaq (Pakak Innuksuk), the sons of Tulimaq. Atanarjuat is attractive, pleasant, and, most importantly, a good hunter. And he's attracted to Atuat (Sylvia Ivalu), who is already promised to Oki (Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq), the clan leader Sauri's sour son, but who clearly loves Atanarjuat. In a bizarre fight in which each allows the other to smash him in the head, Atanarjuat ultimately wins Atuat as his wife to Oki's everlasting resentment. "The Fast Runner" is breathtakingly filmed in the frozen north, showing the customs and lifestyle of the Inuit in incredible detail. One of those customs was to allow men to have more than one wife. Thus, Oki's sister Puja (Lucy Tulugarjuk) becomes Atanarjuat's second wife. Since Atanarjuat and his brother live together, Atanarjuat sleeps in a small tent/hut with his two wives as well as with his brother and his brother's wife. When Puja, a troublemaker, attempts to have sex with Atanarjuat's brother, virtually in front of everyone else, she is kicked out of the family group and sent home crying miserably. She complains to her brother and father, the clan leader, that Atanarjuat tried to kill her. Oki, who has disliked Atanarjuat for some time, begins to plot to kill Atanarjuat with Puja's help. The rest of the film is the tale of the murder attempt on Atanarjuat and his later return to the clan after a breathless escape, naked, over the ice. The vision of Atanarjuat running naked over the spring ice and melt, being chased by Oki and his two henchmen intent on killing him, is a sight to be seen.

This tale of Inuit life is, I guarantee, like nothing you have ever seen before. It reveals the humanity of these people, their wonderfully different lifestyle, and yet their similarities to other human cultures. The incredible photography captures every nuance of color in a world of white, from the blues of the sky, the beauty of the spring wildflowers, the reds of the fire, and the various shades of white, beige and gray in the snow, the igloos and the furs worn by the Inuit. While I don't know much about the actors in the film, I suspect they were all amateurs, but they came through like naturals. The New York Times reviewer A.O. Scott called this film a "masterpiece." I couldn't agree more. (In the Inuktitut language with English subtitles) DVD ****1/2 (2/22/02)

"The Four Feathers"-Do you remember the Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland films in which they, as kids, decide to "put on a show" and then they produce a half-way professional show? Well, this film has the same feeling of amateurism/professionalism. There was a perfectly good version of this story made in 1939 with Ralph Richardson and John Clements. But someone got the bright idea to remake this anachronism about the British colonial mentality in the Sudan at the end of the 19th Century. The result is a professional looking film but one with an overall sense, from a casting and acting point of view, of "let's put on a show." The actors appear to be dressed up in nice costumes, going through the motions. Heath Ledger's performance as Harry Faversham, the British officer who resigns his commission just as his troupe is to go off to war, and then receives the four feathers of cowardice from his friends, is astonishingly stiff. Wes Bentley is woefully miscast as Jack Durrance (the part played by Ralph Richardson in the earlier version), the British lieutenant who is ultimately saved by Harry in the Sudan. Kate Hudson is fair as Ethne, the woman both men love, but who really loves Harry, the apparent coward. The film does have one notable performance, that of Djimon Hounsou ("Amistad"), as Abou, the native who saves Harry in the desert and then befriends him against all odds. The plot of this film was appropriate for the 1930s, the beginning of the end of British imperialism, but hardly for a film at the beginning of the 21st Century. After quitting his troupe and receiving the four feathers, Harry (Ledger) suddenly becomes so brave that he goes to the Sudan on his own and is witness to the destruction of most of his troupe in a battle with rebels. The suddenly heroic Harry saves the now blinded Jack (who doesn't realize who his saviour is until he returns to England by feeling Harry's face), and ultimately finds himself thrown into prison with hundreds of others where he escapes with the help of Abou. The script is fairly simple-minded, hardly makes a point, and is loaded with significant plot gaps. This is a remake that should not have been made. DVD **1/2 (2/21/03)

"Possession"-Based on the novel by A.S. Byatt, "Possession" is about two couples, one in the 19th Century and one in the late 20th, but there is little resemblance. Roland Mitchell (Aaron Eckhart) is an American literary research scholar in London who discovers (actually steals) previously unknown letters of a significant 19th Century poet named Randolph Ash (Jeremy Northam), indicating that Ash was not the perfect husband everyone thought he was. He takes the letters to a British scholar, Dr. Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow) and the two begin an investigation of Ash and a woman who may have played a previously unknown important role in Ash's life, Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle). I won't go into the details, but I will say that the unraveling of the mystery of the Ash/LaMotte relationship via literary sources is unusual and fun. The movie is beautifully filmed and worth a watch. It even has a slight resemblance to the current "The Hours" in that it jumps back and forth between the stories of Mitchell and Bailey, on the one hand, and, on the other, Ash and LaMotte, and as it has a scene in which a female character puts rocks in her skirt and walks into a river to drown, a la Virginia Woolf. Northam and Ehle are superb as the 19th Century couple, demonstrating intelligence in their actions and their thoughts about the serious matters of their relationship. On the other hand, Eckhart and Paltrow seem somewhat wooden and silly unlike how their characters, supposedly serous researchers, should behave. Mitchell and Bailey are supposed to be serious scholars, but one quickly forgets that from the way they are portrayed. This is not a great film. It would have made a fine TV mystery, say a "Masterpiece Theater" on PBS, but it is enjoyable and worth a rental. DVD ***1/2 (2/15/03)

"Full Frontal"-Various Hollywood types are invited to a party for an indie producer named Gus (David Duchovny). But what we initially see is a movie made by some of these people, including screenwriter Carl (David Hyde Pierce), and the interactions of various personalities. The movie-within-a-movie stars Francesca (Julia Roberts) as Catherine, a reporter interviewing actor Nicholas (Blair Underwood, also playing Calvin, the actor who is playing Nicholas, the character who is not sure whether Catherine has a crush on him). Carl is married to Lee (Catherine Keener), a somewhat wacky human resources executive who is unable to fire employees in the normal way. Lee has a sister named Linda (Mary McCormack) who is a massage therapist who is heading for Tucson to meet the man she met on the Internet and believes is a local and younger artist, but is, in fact, a local theater director (Enrico Colantoni), currently directing a play about Hitler starring an overbearingly arrogant young actor (Nicky Katt). Oh, there is more going on here, including an unusual massage session by Linda of the party's primary honoree Gus. I guess you get the picture. The interactions of these "real" people, and the interactions of the "film" people, are apparently intended to present a commentary to some extent on reality and the relative merits of film. The film-within-a -ilm is done in standard commercially crisp images, while the "real" people scenes are done in grainy video, as if life is grainy and films are crystal clear. But just when we think we have it all worked out, the director, Steven Soderbergh, throws us a little loop at the end when Linda and the theater director meet at the airport on the way to meet each other in Tucson, and it's apparent that either he isn't sure what is reality or we aren't supposed to be clear on that subject. Of all the cast, David Hyde Pierce stands out, giving an excellent performance. DVD *** (2/14/03)

"Igby Goes Down"-The dysfunctional family film is close to becoming a cliché. But not when the production is witty, sharp, and original as it is in "Igby Goes Down." Igby (Kieran Culkin) is the younger of two sons of Mimi (Susan Sarandon), a wealthy New York woman who has managed to ignore the mental illness of her husband (Bill Pullman) and is well along in ruining Igby too. Having watched the disaster that was his parents' marriage, Igby is bent on one thing: frustrating his mother's desire to see that he graduates from high school. Being kicked out of or leaving one private school after another, including a military school where he has learned as little as possible about discipline, Igby finally decides to split, hiding out in a loft owned by his mother's super-wealthy friend and his own godfather, D.H. (Jeff Goldblum). And in existing in the loft, Igby becomes involved with Rachel (Amanda Peet), D.H.'s mistress, and Rachel's seemingly avant-garde druggie friend Russel (Jared Harris). "Igby Goes Down" is the story of the attempt of a young man (age 17), frustrated and disturbed by his surroundings, to break out and away. In doing so, he meets the equally freespirited Sookie Saperstein (Claire Danes) who befriends and then betrays him. But always he must also deal with his older and "Republican" brother Oliver (Ryan Phillippe). Kieran Culkin, reminding me of a younger Robert Downey, Jr., gives an outstanding performance as Igby, making sympathetic a character who could have been portrayed as simply a spoiled brat. Overall, the ensemble cast is excellent. Susan Sarandon hits the jackpot as the pushy and overpowering mother Mimi. Ryan Phillippe is perfectly preppie as the ultra-manipulative older brother. Claire Danes gives one of her best performances as the earnest Sookie who can't avoid helping and then hurting young Igby. Amanda Peet becomes the young woman, Rachel, who allows herself to be used and wrung out by Goldblum's heartless D.H. character. Beautifully filmed in and around New York City, "Igby Goes Down" is exactly what a film like "The Royal Tenenbaums" was not, with witty and sharp dialogue and realistic characters. It is one of those films that you know, as soon as you've seen the first scene, that it's going to be an experience well worth having. DVD **** (2/8/03)

"24 Hour Party People"-If this film hadn't been on the top-10 list of Elvis Mitchell of the New York Times (see list above), the title would have turned me away. The actual picture certainly turned out to be completely different from what I envisioned when I heard the name. What "24 Hour Party People" is is a rather clever and interesting "mockumentary" about the development of rock music in Manchester, England from approximately 1976 when the Sex Pistols emerged, to the mid-1980s. The film centers around Tony Wilson (Steve Coogan), a real-life British TV celebrity who, while hosting various rock shows and documentaries on British television, decides to get into the business of creating rock groups. Steve Coogan is wonderfully mocku-serious as narrator Tony, telling his own story, showing off his unsucessful marriage to Lindsay, played by Shirley Henderson ("Topsy-Turvy"), who just simply loses interest and walks out on him (don't worry, he meets and marries Miss UK later); and his variously successful and unsuccessful attempts to create rock groups and a club in Manchester. Wilson creates The Factory record line, opens the Hacienda club in Manchester, and helps create Joy Division (later New Order) led by Ian Curtis (Sean Harris). Harris provides an amazing performance as the uptight and wacky Curtis, Joy Division's lead singer until he went home one night and hanged himself. The Factory and the Hacienda ultimately descend into the world of drugs, an irony in that the drug dealers make more money from the Ecstasy used by the Hacienda's patrons than the owners of the club make from selling liquor. The music in this film was not exactly my cup o'tea, but the film is never dull. There are fine performances by Coogan, Harris, Andy Serkis (as Martin Hannett, a demanding record producer), and Danny Cunningham as Shaun Ryder, lead singer of the Happy Mondays. Say one thing or another about this film, but it is certainly original, funny and quite serious at the same time. DVD ***1/2 (2/7/03)

"Sweet Home Alabama"-I like Reese Witherspoon. She's worth a shot even if the picture looks a little lame. Here she plays Melanie Carmichael (nee Smooter), a downhome Alabama girl who has moved to the big city (New York), become a success in fashion design, and engaged to the wealthy and JFK, Jr.-like son (Patrick Dempsey) of the Mayor (Candice Bergen) of the Big Apple. The problem is that Melanie has invented a well-to-do past that doesn't exist and has conveniently forgotten to tell her fiancé that she's already married to her childhood sweetheart back in Alabama. So off Melanie goes to fix things up and she makes a darn mess. The premise of this film is certainly humorous, but the middle of this film is downright meanspirited. While visiting her hometown, her parents (Fred Ward and Mary Kay Place), and her friends, including Bobby Ray (Ethan Embry), she manages to insult or hurt virtually all of them. Nice homecoming! But what she's really there for is to get her husband Jake (Josh Lucas) to sign papers to allow a divorce. And guess what? Jake is still special in Melanie's heart despite her darndest attempts to fight him off. You can guess the ultimate outcome of this film. It's not hard. It has its moments, but it's otherwise fairly run-of-the-mill. Reese Witherspoon is always fun. Josh Lucas, looking very Paul Newman-like, is charming as Jake but doesn't get much to do. Ethan Embry is fine as Bobby Ray, a friend whom Melanie "outs" for her own selfish reasons. Candice Bergen is getting typecast. Her obnoxious Mayor-mother is very similar to the part she played in the Sandra Bullock film "Miss Congeniality" and she'd be advised to try something else. DVD **1/2 (2/7/03)

"The Banger Sisters"-Goldie Hawn is 57 years old and still looks like a bombshell. Here she plays Suzettte, an aging but still wild former groupie. Just fired from a bartender job on Sunset Boulevard, Suzette decides to head for Phoenix to see if she can borrow some money from her old friend and fellow groupie Vinnie (Susan Sarandon) who is now a very straight-laced and wealthy society woman with two daughters and a lawyer husband. Along the way, Suzette picks up Harry (Geoffrey Rush), a screenwriter with some very strange habits and needs, ostensibly on his way to Phoenix to shoot his father. "The Banger Sisters" is actually quite promising at its beginning with a cheerful and sexy performance by Goldie Hawn and an eccentric performance by Geoffrey Rush as he undergoes a great change upon being "exposed" to Suzette. But the film goes wrong midway when Suzette meets up with Vinnie (now known as Lavinia) and her family. Her affect on Vinnie and her family is simply impossible to believe or accept and must be classified as ultra-contrived. What starts out as a potentially interesting human comedy winds up as the equivalent of a mediocre "TV sitcom." Of note in the cast is Eva Amurri, Susan Sarandon's daughter, as Ginger, Lavinia's somewhat wacky teenage daughter. DVD **1/2 (1/31/03)

"Blue Crush"-Not since "Endless Summer" have I even considered watching a film about surfers, but some interesting comments about this film in the New York Times piqued my interest. Based loosely on an article by Susan Orlean ("The Orchid Thief") called "Surf Girls of Maui," "Blue Crush" tells the tale of three young surfers, one of whom is hoping to win the big and very dangerous pipe competition at the north end of Oahu. What makes this story a little different is that here the surfers are young women who have to prove something extra in an athletic world dominated by men. Kate Bosworth ("The Horse Whisperer") does a nice job as Anne Marie, a girl who has had an almost-fatal accident at the beach where the competition is held and must overcome her fears and bad dreams if she is to make a name for herself. She lives with her two biggest supporters and fellow surfers, Eden (Michelle Rodriguez) and Lena (Sanoe Lake, a genuine Hawaiian surfer), and her younger sister Penny (Mika Boorem). The girls work as maids at a big resort and ultimately Kate meets Matt (Matthew Davis), an NFL quarterback who is accompanied by some of his teammates at the resort (including the rather funny Faizon Love as an NFL lineman). But the romance and the background incidents are not the center of the story. This film is really about surfing and especially surfing by women; and about the attitudes of those involved, especially the pressures on the women and the aggressions of local males. The surfing scenes are spectacular and worth the price of the film. The DVD contains a feature explaining how the surfing scenes were filmed. DVD ***1/2 (1/25/03)

"About A Boy"-This picture gets off to a rocky, almost embarrassing start, and then takes a quick turn for the better. Hugh Grant is Will, a wealthy do-nothing (he lives off royalties from a Christmas song written by his father) whose only interest in life seems to be meeting women for short relationships. He even invents a 2-year-old son in order to attend a single parents club meeting populated mostly by women. At this point it looked like an ultra-clichéd and silly idea for a comedy, but along comes young Marcus (Nicholas Hoult, doing a fine job in his first film) and his depressed mother Fiona (Toni Collette) and Will's life starts to change. Marcus, a young schoolboy who has to survive being abused daily by his classmates, befriends Will and brings him into the family of man. Along the way, Will discovers and falls for Rachel (Rachel Weisz), but not her strange son, Ali. Based on a book by Nick Hornby ("High Fidelity"), this film is directed by the Weitz brothers, Paul and Chris ("Chuck & Buck"). Hugh Grant is a little more effective than usual because he has a fairly decent script and he gets a sympathetic role. "About A Boy" is a serviceable comedy. DVD *** (1/24/03)

"The Bourne Identity"-This film has all the elements of a standard CIA thriller. The problem is that it's so standard as to be monumentally flat. Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) is found floating in the middle of the ocean with a couple of bullet holes in his back and a case of amnesia. Nursed back to shape by the crew of a fishing vessel, Bourne is finally put ashore with one clue as to a Swiss bank account and little more. He ultimately finds money and passports in the safe deposit box of the noted account, but immediately discovers that all types of law enforcement officials are after him. In his attempt to escape and learn more about himself, he picks up Marie (Franka Potente) and they start out on a mission to discover who Jason Bourne is and what he was doing in the middle of the ocean. By the time the film ends Bourne, who seems to have a great memory for all of his various spy techniques despite his amnesia, seems to finally know who he is and why the CIA was trying to kill him. But as for the motivations of the characters, well frankly I had no idea. If the film explained those motivations, I must have missed it. Oh, there's something about an experimental CIA program involving assassins in which Bourne was involved and we do figure out that he screwed up his assignment, but the film contains virtually no explanation for why Bourne is being hunted by his own employer. Chris Cooper and Brian Cox, both fairly good actors here playing CIA officials, look like stiffs in this film. Their talents were wasted. Damon has his usual smug look on his face throughout the picture. Only Franka Potente ("Run Lola Run"), the young German actress, provides some appealing moments as she tries to figure out whether hanging out with Bourne is a good idea. Julia Stiles is in this film but I cannot imagine why she took her silly part as a CIA assistant. I can't recommend this film, even for simple mindless entertainment. DVD ** (1/20/03)

"The Hours"-Based on the award-winning novel by Michael Cunningham, director Stephen Daldry ("Billy Elliot") has created a masterpiece. From the screenplay by David Hare to the totally moving score by Philip Glass, to the acting of an amazing ensemble cast, "The Hours" is a movie that will make you understand more about the emotions and pain of others, ranging from the mental illness of Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman) to the angst of an AIDS sufferer, poet Richard Brown (Ed Harris). "The Hours" tells stories of three women which appear to be unrelated, but it soon becomes apparent that there is more going on than initially meets the eye. And that raises one of the few criticisms of the film. The opening credits are shown over a montage of events in three times and places, the rural England of the early 1920s, Los Angeles in 1951, and New York in the present. But the titles identifying the places and times are intermingled with the opening credits and anyone not familiar with the story is warned to watch closely.

Suffice it to say that the plot centers around the ultimately doomed author Virginia Woolf. In the midst of misery from mental illness, Woolf is writing her great novel "Mrs. Dalloway," about a day in the life of a London woman that begins with buying flowers and ends with far more significant and momentous events about the emotions of people and the turmoil of life. The second story is about a married woman named Laura (Julianne Moore) in the LA of 1951 who is reading "Mrs. Dalloway" and planning a birthday cake for her sweet husband (John C. Reilly) while being closely watched by her young son who senses that something is very wrong in his mother's state-of-mind. The third story concerns a modern-day New York book editor, Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep), who is planning a party for her close and very ill friend Richard, a man who is not particularly happy about attending Clarissa's party, let alone an award ceremony honoring his poetry. To Richard, Clarissa is "Mrs. Dalloway," and this is reflected in Clarissa's angst about what she believes to be the pettiness of her life in caring for daily details as well as for Richard. To go any further about the plot is to give away too much. The three stories are superbly intermingled and ultimately the connections, both literal and thematic, are revealed. The cast is out of this world. Nicole Kidman, totally transformed by a prosthetic nose, is superb in portraying Woolf's depression. I watched Meryl Streep, possibly our greatest actress, in awe. The subtle ways in which she portrays the emotions of her character are truly amazing. Julianne Moore demonstrates again her tremendous ability to portray the depths of inner turmoil of a beautiful woman while appearing almost normal on the surface. Ed Harris gives a powerful performance as the angry and frustrated Richard, one that deserves Oscar consideration. And the rest of the cast simply glows: Allison Janney as Clarissa's somewhat ignored lover Sally; Claire Danes as Clarissa's observant daughter, Julia; Stephen Dillane as the worried Leonard Woolf; Jeff Daniels as Louis, Richard's former lover; Miranda Richardson as Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf's sister; Toni Collette as Kitty, Laura's neighbor in southern California; and John C. Reilly as Laura's innocent husband who has no idea that she is miserable. "The Hours" is literally about the hours that pass in the lives of unhappy people, but you will not be unhappy to spend the hours (2) watching this wonderful film. Theater ****1/2 (1/18/03)

I watched "The Hours" again on 7/4/03 on DVD. I have to say that I was even more impressed upon a second viewing than I was when I first saw it back in January. I gave this picture only ****1/2 stars at that time. It is a truly great film. Upon further consideration, it deserves a ***** rating.

"The Good Girl"-Justine (Jennifer Aniston) is living a life of "quiet desperation." She's married to a dull pot-smoking housepainter named Phil (John C. Reilly) and works at the makeup counter in a boring Texas retail department store called Retail Rodeo. While Phil seems totally attached to his friend and co-worker Bubba (Tim Blake Nelson), the childless Justine seems to have little more than the acquaintance of Gwen (Deborah Rush), a woman at the Retail Rodeo with whom she talks and has lunch. But then Justine notices a new store employee named Holden (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is really "Tom," but who has visions of literary greatness and has named himself after J. D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield. Holden too is desperate, having left college due to depression and an alcohol problem, while facing two seemingly robotic parents at home. Justine's life, however, at this point, begins to be anything but dull. She starts an affair with Holden, engaging in extremely risky behavior for such a small town. And then Bubba, having seen Justine and Holden together at a motel, begins to use his information for his own purposes. Jennifer Anniston is magnificent as she successfully turns herself into a relatively unglamorous bored and confused young small-town woman. The rest of the cast is equally excellent. Notable are Deborah Rush in a small part as Justine's ill-fated friend Gwen; Zooey Deschanel as a wacky store clerk who loves to insult the customers; and Tim Blake Nelson as Bubba, the man who "loves" Justine's husband as a best friend, but who also knows what's in his own best interests. Written by Mike White ("Chuck and Buck") who also appears as a security guard at the store, and directed by Miguel Arteta (who did "Chuck and Buck"), "The Good Girl" tells a tough tale of the potential effects of the humdrum small-town life. DVD **** (1/11/03)

"Signs"-It's painfully obvious that the director of this film, 32-year-old M. Night Shyamalan ("The Sixth Sense" and "Unbreakable"), has been having trouble outgrowing his childhood. "Signs" is like a long childhood nightmare in which one expects the main character, Graham Hess (Mel Gibson), to awaken and discover that all is well. And in some ways that is exactly what happens. Hess is a man of the cloth who has lost his faith due to the horrible accidental death of his wife, leaving him living with his two young children, asthmatic son Morgan (Rory Culkin) and water-phobic daughter Bo (Abigail Breslin), and his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), on a lovely farm in Bucks County, PA. But it's not bad enough that Mrs. Hess has died only six months earlier because of the bad driving of a local vet (played by director Shyamalan), and that Hess has lost the faith which was his occupation, but Hess' nightmare worsens as a result of the mysterious crop circles that appear in the cornfields on his farm and the TV reports from the rest of the world of similar occurrences and the possibility of an alien invasion. In what is painfully obvious from the beginning, Hess' newfound cynicism about God and religion is about to be challenged by the events around him. In Shyamalan's favor, it should be pointed out that he takes the more subtle approach, cutting out most of the potentially hokey scenes that he could have used in the film to make it a standard horror flick. But in doing so in a story with such an apparent theme, Shyamalan reduces "Signs" to a sluggish pace, making it a film which is, frankly, not very scary. In too many scenes Gibson looks like he's simply in a daze, while the ending of the film, in particular, is far too facile. Of note in the cast is the excellent Broadway star Cherry Jones as Office Paski. DVD *** (1/10/03)

"The Piano Teacher"-In an interview on the DVD of this film, Isabelle Huppert, the star, says that it is about a woman who wants to be loved but not seduced. This certainly raised some questions in my mind about Ms. Huppert, about whether she in fact understood the psychological nature of the very character she was playing. Erika Kohut (Huppert) is far beyond someone who simply wants to be loved without being seduced. She lives in a small apartment with an oppressive mother (Annie Girardot), a woman who feels she has the right to know exactly what her middle-aged daughter is doing at all times. Erika even sleeps in the same room with this overbearing opinionated woman. Meanwhile, Erika is a professor of classical piano at a conservatory and shows little or no emotion in dealing with her students, other than an expressionless nastiness which later turns in to sadism. Erika is sexually repressed to the ultimate; seen exploring a peep show, leering over sexual activity in an auto in a French drive-in, engaging in self-mutilation, and being unable to interact with anyone who shows an interest in her. Eventually, however, a young attractive man, Walter Klemmer (Benoît Magimel), comes along who refuses to be turned away. Although Walter is an engineering student, he is also a classical pianist and, having fallen for Erika's attractiveness, finds his way into her conservatory classroom over her objections. The depravity of Erika's sexual urges soon become apparent and Walter is driven to extremes to deal with this increasingly disturbed woman. Isabelle Huppert is a wonderful actress performing a courageous role. But "The Piano Teacher" is tough to take and recommended only for those who truly enjoy gritty foreign films and psychological studies. French with English subtitles. DVD ***1/2 (1/1/03)


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