2004 Reviews

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

Against The Ropes

The Alamo

American Splendor

Bad Santa

The Barbarian Invasions

Before Sunset

Big Fish

Bon Voyage

The Bourne Supremacy

Bubba Ho-tep

Bus 174

The Butterfly Effect

Calendar Girls

I Capture The Castle

Capturing The Friedmans

Casa de los Babys

City of God

The Clearing

Coffee and Cigarettes

Cold Mountain


The Company

The Cooler


Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights

Dirty Pretty Things


The Door In The Floor

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Facing Windows

Fahrenheit 9/11

The Fog of War

Garden State

The Girl From Paris

Girl with a Pearl Earring

Good Bye Lenin!




House of Sand and Fog

The Human Stain

I'll Sleep When I'm Dead

I'm Not Scared

In America

In The Cut


Intolerable Cruelty

I, Robot

Kill Bill: Vol. 1

Kill Bill: Vol. 2

King Arthur

The Ladykillers

The Last Samurai

Le Divorce

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Lost in Translation

The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra

Love Actually

Lucía, Lucía

The Magdelene Sisters

The Manchurian Candidate

Man on Fire

Maria Full of Grace

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Matchstick Men

Mean Girls


The Missing

Mona Lisa Smile

Monsieur Ibrahim


The Mother

Morvern Callar

Mystic River

My Wife Is An Actress


Once Upon a Time in Mexico

Open Range

Open Water


The Other Side of the Bed

Owning Mahowny


Pieces of April

Runaway Jury


School of Rock

Searching for Debra Winger  

The Secret Lives of Dentists

Secret Window

Shattered Glass

Something's Gotta Give

The Son



Spider-Man 2

The Station Agent

The Stepford Wives

Swimming Pool


The Terminal


13 Going On 30


The Triplets of Belleville

21 Grams

Under The Tuscan Sun

Veronica Guerin

Wicker Park

Zhou Yu's Train



New York Film Critics Circle Awards for 2003

The New York Film Critics Circle recently announced its awards for 2003 motion pictures. Some of the lead awards are:

Best Picture: Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Best Actor: Bill Murray ( Lost in Translation)

Best Actress: Hope Davis (American Splendor and The Secret Lives of Dentists)

Best Supporting Actor: Eugene Levy (A Mighty Wind)

Best Supporting Actress: Shohreh Aghdashloo (House of Sand and Fog)

Best Director: Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation)

Best Foreign Film: City of God

Best NonFiction Film: Capturing The Friedmans



Top 10 Lists of the Reviewers of the New York Times for 2003

Elvis Mitchell: Pirates of the Caribbean; 21 Grams; The Triplets of Belleville; Elephant; Capturing the Friedmans; Lost in Translation; Raising Victor Vargas; American Splendor; The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King; The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (restoration)

A. O. Scott: Master and Commander; Mystic River; The Son; Spellbound; The Barbarian Invasions; The Man Without A Past; The Triplets of Belleville; Finding Nemo; Bus 174; A Mighty Wind

Stephen Holden: Angels in America (shown on HBO); Mystic River; The Fog of War; Capturing the Friedmans; Lost inTranslation; House of Sand and Fog; The Barbarian Invasions; American Splendor; Thirteen; City of God


Roy's 10 Best Viewed for 2003*: The Hours; Whale Rider; Rabbit-Proof Fence; The Fast Runner; Bloody Sunday; Bend It Like Beckham; The Quiet American; Raising Victor Vargas; The Pianist; All or Nothing

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

2004 Reviews


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.

"Open Water"-I've always thought that people who do crazy things like mountain-climbing are asking for trouble. Well, scuba-diving isn't mountain climbing but it seems close enough to me and "Open Water" proves my point. This film, originally photographed in digital video, tells the disturbing tale of a young couple, Susan (Blanchard Ryan) and Daniel (Daniel Travis), who leave their suburban house and busy business schedules behind to go on vacation where they will be scuba diving. Despite warnings on the diving boat to stay with the group, they go off on their own and, as a result of this and a miscount of divers returning to the boat, find themselves stranded in the middle of the ocean surrounded by sharks. The rest of the film is literally of the two treading water, talking, and interacting with the creatures around them. "Open Water" clearly conveys the slowly developing horror that surrounds these two when they realize that they are lost and possibly abandoned with little hope. Although there are slightly amateurish aspects to the film, created by Chris Kentis and his wife, Laura Lau, "Open Water" certainly will make anyone think twice about ever jumping off a boat in the middle of the ocean with the confidence that the boat will be there when they surface. DVD ***1/2 (12/30/04)

"The Mother"-This British drama has a very unusual and difficult tale to tell. May (Anne Reid) and her husband Toots (Peter Vaughn) come from the suburbs to visit their two children in London. It's obvious that both adult children have grown extremely distant from their parents. Their son, Bobby (Steven Mackintosh) is doing well. He's married with children and living in an upscale townhouse in which a conservatory is being constructed by Darren (Daniel Craig), who just happens to be a married man having an affair with May's daughter, Paula (Cathryn Bradshaw). When Toots dies suddenly, May can't face going home to an empty house and imposes herself upon her children, especially Paula who ultimately expresses great resentment against her mother for failing to encourage her in life. May comes to Bobby's house and watches Darren do his work, admiring his form and personality and ultimately falls into an unlikely affair with this man who is half her age. Darren is charming and self-centered, enjoying the admiration that comes from this older woman. May, needless to say, is a woman attempting to break away from her years of drudgery as a suburban housewife caring exclusively for her husband, but she does it in a completely self-absorbed way showing no true feelings for her children. Anne Reid goes through an amazing transformation from the frumpy and dull housewife to an older woman with some life and charm, at least for the young man who catches her eye. "The Mother," with wonderful performances by Anne Reid, Cathryn Bradshaw and Daniel Craig, explores themes of parenthood failure, loss, rejection, infidelity, and betrayal. A most unusual and serious film. DVD ***1/2 (12/29/04)

"Garden State"-Zach Braff, who hasn't exactly hit the jackpot as an actor, has here directed and starred in a clever and well-made little film about a struggling young actor nicknamed "Large" from LA, returning after many years to New Jersey because his paraplegic mother has died in an accident. We follow Braff as Andrew Largeman, who must come to grips with the fact that he caused his mother's paraplegia as a young child and has been medicated ever since by his psychiatrist father (Ian Holm). At the cemetery, Large runs into some old friends who are cemetery workers, including Mark (Peter Sarsgaard) who invites Andrew to a party where the adventure begins. Braff's intention was to tell tales of things and events he knew about from growing up in New Jersey suburbs and, at the same time, to show Large opening up to the joy of life because of his friends and the equally eccentric young epileptic, Sam (Natalie Portman), he meets at a doctor's office. I suspect that this film hit home with people in Braff's age range but it equally hit home with me. Natalie Portman, playing just a regular person for a change, rather than a space empress, is a revelation as Large's new love interest. The acting is natural and the story poignant and humorous. I enjoyed this film with one exception, that being Braff's strange concept of canine humor. DVD ***1/2 (12/28/04)

"Wicker Park"- Josh Hartnett stars as Matthew, a young man who has recently moved with his fiancé (Jessica Paré) from NYC to Chicago to work for her brother. Matthew is about to leave for China on business when he believes that he overhears, in a restaurant phonebooth, the girlfriend he lost two years earlier when she simply disappeared from his life. Rather than leave for China, Matthew undertakes to find Lisa. "Wicker Park," a Chicago neighborhood, is the setting of one of the silliest and convoluted stories I've seen in a long time. Going back and forth in time in as confused a manner as possible, "Wicker Park" attempts to show us how Matthew met Lisa (Diane Kruger), the lost girlfriend, lost her, and then discovers another young lady named Lisa who is really Alex (Rose Byrne) who also happens to be the girlfriend of Luke, one of his close friends (Matthew Lillard). That Alex turns out to be at the heart of all that is going on soon becomes obvious but the ridiculous motivations and silly plot techniques ultimately bury this very messy film. In addition, the acting borders on stiffness. Not recommended. DVD ** (12/28/04)

"The Girl From Paris"- Sandrine Dumez (Mathilde Seigner) has a job teaching computers in Paris, but she's always wanted to be a farmer. And this is one young lady who wants to live out her dream. After studying agriculture, she journeys to the Vercors region of France and purchases the farm from Adrien (Michel Serrault) who is tired of the hard work and the loneliness after the death of his wife. Adrien insists on being able to live in his farmhouse for 18 months after Sandrine's purchase and he sits and watches as she changes the farm, first turning the old cowbarn into a hotel/tourist attraction and making cheese from the herd of goats she lovingly takes out to the orchard to graze. "The Girl From Paris" contains exquisite scenery in the French Alps and excellent performances by Seigner and Serrault as well as Jean-Paul Roussillon as Adrien's old friend who has traded in his own farm for a luxury Volvo. Directed by novice director Christian Carion, "The Girl From Paris" is a charming look at the contrasts between city and farm life, the hustlebustle versus the quiet and dangers of the country, and of the romantic and social needs of a 30-year-old girl who thinks she can do the hard work of a farm on her own and those of a much older man who resents and then begins to appreciate Sandrine's presence. (In French with English subtitles). DVD ***1/2 (12/25/04)

"The Manchurian Candidate"-It is difficult to review this film without comparing it to the original 1962 version which I saw again only recently. Suffice it to say that the original is in black and white, taut, crisp and clear. In that film, Laurence Harvey is Raymond Shaw, the son of a manipulative political mother (played by Angela Lansbury) who wants to make her husband, Raymond's stepfather, president of the United States through a nefarious brainwashing plot that begins in Korea/Manchuria. Frank Sinatra is Major Marco, whose dreams lead him to solve and stop the plot, with the mysterious encouragement of Eugenie Rose Chaney (Janet Leigh), but only after a shocking denouement. In the 2004 version, Denzel Washington is Major Marco and Liev Shrieber is Raymond Shaw, but there has been a game of musical chairs from the original version. One character, the stepfather, has been removed and, to replace him, characters who did one thing in the first version must do other things in the remake in order to help modify the plot. Senator Eleanor Shaw (played brilliantly, as always, by Meryl Streep), a widow, wants to make her son Raymond, now a congressman, into a national figure. The plot now starts in Desert Storm and involves a corporation which, inexplicably, contains the word "Manchurian" in its title. And Eugenie Rose has become Rosie (Kimberly Elise), a federal agent who endears herself to Major Marco, a man who is either onto something or is outright paranoid. I can't say how I would viewed this film had I not recently seen the original. But suffice it to say that this version seemed to be trying too hard to fill in the holes created by the missing pieces from the original. I suspect that a fresh look at this film would reveal a pretty decent thriller that ends in some pretty nasty and shocking violence. The theme of corporate control of political figures should not be overlooked. DVD ***1/2 (12/24/04)

"King Arthur"-This is not the "King Arthur" of "Camelot" fame. This Arthur (Clive Owen) is forced into a 15-year service for the Romans in Britain in the early first Millennium, and leads a band of dwindling knights, including a few with familiar names such as Galahad (Hugh Dancy), Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd) and Gawain (Joel Edgerton). Doing the bidding of Rome, these knights, who sit at a round table for purposes of equality, fight the Woads, the forces of Merlin (Stephen Dillane), a raggedy but clever horde of native Brit rebels. Just as these knights are about to be granted their freedom from Rome's control, they are forced into one last extremely dangerous task of saving a Roman family on the other side of Hadrian's Wall. Needless to say, Arthur inspires his troops, saves, among others, a boy and a young Brit woman named Guinevere (Keira Knightley) from death at the hands of the Roman priests, and ultimately leads his knights into battle with Merlin's forces against the invading Saxons, led by Cerdic (Stellan Skarsgård) and his son, the sinister Cynric, played deliciously by German actor Til Schweiger. "King Arthur" is beautifully filmed and contains two of the most spectacular battles I've ever seen. One, on an ice field in the north, is completely unique. The other, in contrast, is all about fire. Keira Knightley, who has yet to turn 20, is wonderful as the gritty, intelligent and very tough Guinevere who knows how to use a bow and arrow and engage in hand-to-hand combat. Clive Owen, growing in his stature as a film star, has the perfect aura of leadership to be the Arthur of a slightly modified legend. Notable in the cast is Ray Winstone, recently seen as Henry VIII on PBS, as Bors, one of Arthur's toughest and funniest knights. Recommended. DVD **** (12/23/04)

"De-Lovely"-In the 1940s "Night and Day," a biopic of Cole Porter, the great songwriter, was made with Cary Grant as Porter. It bore almost no resemblance to Cole Porter's real life. This time, Director Irwin Winkler has attempted a more realistic approach, making it quite clear that Porter was gay despite being married to Linda Lee Thomas for 35 years. I have always loved the great standard songs that were written in the first half of the 20th Century and Cole Porter was at the heart of this amazing period, along with other greats like Jerome Kern, George Gershwin and Irving Berlin. Any movie that presents his music is worth seeing and "De-Lovely" does a decent job of reminding the older among us and introducing the younger to these amazing songs. I only wish Winkler had had a better overall approach to the story. Told using the rather stilted and clichéd technique of having an elderly, dying Porter (Kevin Kline) sitting in a theater of his youth next to Gabriel (Jonathan Pryce) and watching what appears to be a play of his life, we get an impression that not much more happened in Porter's 73 years than his difficult marriage to Linda Lee (Ashley Judd). Sure it's a romance, but hardly a standard one since Porter was usually flirting with the latest good-looking guy to come along. The film makes it clear that Linda Lee knew this and accepted the arrangement. The sets are gorgeous and the costumes (by Georgio Armani) are exquisite and just right for the periods involved (1920s on). The musical numbers are fine, as far as they go. Just when we think we're going to get a real production number, the film cuts away to one of far too many shots of Cole and Linda looking at each other (lovingly, distracted, perplexed, disturbed and so on). Alanis Morrissette does a nice job singing "Let's Do It, Let's Fall In Love" but it would have been nice to see a little more of her performing. The wonderful jazz pianist, Diana Krall, with her luscious deep voice, starts "Just One of Those Things" and immediately the film cuts to dialogue, with Krall's voice lost in the background. We do get to hear a decent version of "Let's Misbehave" sung by Krall's husband, Elvis Costello, and there is a delightful funny production of "Be A Clown" in the back lots of MGM, but the music, which should really be the star of this film, gets chopped and cut far too often to truly appreciate all of its greatness. Parts of the script are vague and the casting and acting leaves a lot to be desired. Monty Wooley, who was an American, is played by the very British Allan Corduner, but he's simply "Monty." One would never know he was "The Man Who Came To Dinner." Other parts are played by actors who bear no earthly resemblance to the real thing (for example, Keith Allen as Irving Berlin). Some of the performances, especially early in the film look amateurish. Kevin Kline and Ashley Judd do well as the main characters, but what saves this film is the music. Despite the weaknesses, I never fail to be moved when hearing such lovely melodies as "Night and Day," (performed by John Barrowman), "Begin the Beguine" (sung by Sheryl Crow), and "Every Time You Say Goodbye" (sung by Natalie Cole). So, don't expect a masterpiece, but do expect to watch a sumptious production and hear some of the best popular songs ever written. DVD ***1/2 (12/23/04)

"The Door In The Floor"-This film is taken from the first third of a book by John Irving called "A Widow For One Year." That book is about a woman named Ruth Cole who has been widowed in early middle age. Here, however, we see only the part in which Ruth (Elle Fanning) is still four years old. Her father, Ted Cole (Jeff Bridges), is a rather nutty writer of children's books who also thinks he's an artist, and her mother, Marion Cole (Kim Basinger), is a lovely but damaged person as the result of the loss of two teenage sons, a loss which haunts both parents. Marion's black and white photos of her two sons line the walls and rooms of their beautiful beach home in East Hampton, NY, and Ruth, the replacement child, is obsessed with the photos of the brothers she never knew. Marion, separating from Ted, fears that having Ruth was a mistake while Ted appears intent on his own self-indulgent sexual hedonism. Into this rather distressing situation comes Eddie O'Hare (Jon Foster), a young Exeter student who is hired as Ted's summer writing assistant but is really needed because Ted has lost his driver's license. Eddie is immediately taken with the beautiful Marion and soon finds himself obsessed by her loveliness. "The Door In The Floor" is the name of a rather dull story that Ted has written for children. Ted's reading of a part of it during the film demonstrates what appears to be a rather unlikely banal children's tale. But the situation in this film is certainly not banal. If anything, it's weird and painful. And the performances don't help. Jeff Bridges does a good and typical job, for him, as the rather eccentric and narcissistic writer. Kim Basinger looks great but her acting is stiff and stilted. Jon Foster seems to be in the middle of the "Summer of '42," rather than modern-day Long Island. Elle Fanning, like her sister Dakota, is a natural as the young child in the middle of a messy family situation. "The Door In The Floor" doesn't quite make it. When you reach the end, you realize that you haven't really cared about these characters. As an aside, Mimi Rogers has a role as a rich woman who is Ted's sexual prize of the day. She has little to do except stand totally nude in front of the camera. One wonders why an actress would take such a role. DVD *** (12/18/04)

"I, Robot"-Based on the writings of Isaac Asimov, "I, Robot" stars Will Smith in a rather typical role for him, as tough and independent Del Spooner, a detective in Chicago in the year 2035. Del's problem is that he lives in a world now full of robots doing all sorts of human chores, but he doesn't trust any of them despite the famous three rules that are built in to the robots and intended to guarantee that they do no harm to humans. When scientist Dr. Alfred Lanning, the inventor of the robotics needed for these advanced robots, appears to kill himself by jumping out of a very high window, Del smells a rat (or is it a robot?). In typical good cop/bad cop circumstances, Del is ridiculed by his colleagues and his boss (Chi McBride) because no robot has ever done harm to a human. But, of course, Del is right and after fighting off hordes of evil robots, ultimately gets to say the line no character could resist under the circumstances "Somehow 'I told you so' just doesn't quite say it." Del is aided in his cause by Dr. Susan Calvin, played robotically and almost without expression by Bridget Moynahan. "I, Robot" has a theme which in many ways rings true for our times: that only evil results from those who feel that humans need protection by losing their civil liberties. Somehow, people like George Bush and John Ashcroft might learn something but this fairly simple-minded film is probably a little too complicated for them. The special effects are intriguing. The robots seem amazingly real, but the film simply turns into a vehicle for the technical effects people to show off their skills. It's intriguing but ultimately loses something along the way. It's worth a viewing but not much more. DVD *** (12/17/04)

"Collateral"-Tom Cruise, usually the good guy in his films, brings little or nothing to this role as Vincent, a gray-haired hired killer who happens into the "cleanest cab in LA," operated by Max (Jamie Foxx). Max is a good guy, dreaming of starting up a limousine business, when Vincent talks him into accompanying him to five locations around LA. At the first stop, Max rudely discovers Vincent's true profession when a body lands on top of his cab, ruining the taxi's reputation, and then Max becomes a captive of the cold-blooded hitman. The film and the characters seem to sleepwalk through the various hits, with any drama occurring only occasionally and briefly. "Collateral" has little or no tension until the very end when Max becomes the proverbial knight in shining armor to save the life of a young woman (Jada Pinkett Smith) he has only just met. I'm still trying to figure out the title. I can only assume it's intended to refer to Max as "collateral damage" in Vincent's murderous pursuits. This dull film is not recommended. DVD **1/2 (12/17/04)

"I'll Sleep When I'm Dead"-Director Mike Hodges ("Get Carter") directed Clive Owen in "Croupier," and now tries his hand at directing him in a noir-type revenge story about local British hoods and the violence they engender. Although the film is somewhat murky about the details of the characters' pasts, it appears that Will (Clive Owen) was a local gangster who suffered a breakdown and left town to live the life of a hermit in a trailer in the woods. When we first see him, he is sloppily dressed, with a shaggy beard, doing some work cutting lumber. Back in town, young Davey (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), is a cool man-about-town who likes the ladies and is also dealing drugs. But Davey has obviously angered someone. He is followed by a dark car and then brutalized by a local gangster, Boad (Malcolm McDowell), which eventually leads to Davey's suicidal death. Will, Davey's older brother, decides to return to town just in time to learn of Davey's death and immediately he wants to know why. "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead" is slowly paced but effective. Will is virtually a superhero, similar to the Clint Eastwood character "Preacher" in "Pale Rider." Will knows exactly what to do to find the man responsible for his brother's death and exactly how to look cool doing it. While "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead" is not hard to watch, the details are a little confusing. Charlotte Rampling, almost 20 years senior to Owens, is Helen, either Will's former wife or former girlfriend (it's not made clear), and seems to serve little or no purpose. The casting in that regard is a little strange. Owen is, as usual, effective as the cool hero and Malcolm McDowell has made a career of playing obnoxious thugs. He's perfect as Boad. DVD ***1/2 (12/11/04)

"Maria Full of Grace"-American writer/director Joshua Marston has created this original and surprising first-rate film about a young woman from a suburb of Bogota, Colombia, who quits her dreary job at a rose plantation, and is soon talked into working as a drug "mule," carrying in her stomach pellets of heroin to the United States. Maria (Catalina Sandino Moreno) first believes she'll be working alone but quickly discovers that she's one of several young women on the plane carrying these horrifying pellets in their stomachs with the goal of getting through US Customs in New York. Another of the girls is her friend Blanca (Yenny Paola Vega) and there is also Lucy (Guilied Lopez), a young lady she has met when being interviewed by the druglord in Bogota. When Maria forgets the address she's supposed to list on her customs form, Lucy provides her sister Carla's address in New York City, information that will come in handy later. The film gives us a pretty good idea of what the "mules" must go through, including the ability to swallow whole 50 or 60 of these dreadful pellets. If any break while in the stomach, the carrier will die. Needless to say, it's not surprising that most of the women look ill aboard the plane to New York and that things start to go wrong as soon as they land and find themselves involved with customs agents and uncaring drug traffickers. Catalina Sandino Moreno, appearing in her first film, is lovely and yet amazingly tough in the role of a hard-nosed 17-year old girl in a strange land dealing with a singularly disturbing and unhappy situation. Her performance elevates this film to a special level. Also of note is Patricia Rae as Carla, Lucy's sister. Recommended. (Primarily in Spanish with English subtitles.) DVD **** (12/10/04)

"The Bourne Supremacy"-If you read my 2003 comments about "The Bourne Identity," the predecessor of this film, you'll see that I didn't think much of that film and recommended against seeing it. "The Bourne Supremacy" is a different story. Well, actually it's a continuation of that story... First, we see a CIA deal going down in Berlin, being overseen by Agent Pamela Landy (Joan Allen), but everything goes wrong and the deal is interrupted by a killer (Karl Urban) who leaves behind the fingerprints of Jason Bourne (Matt Damon), the former CIA hit man with amnesia, now living quietly in Goa, India, with his girlfriend Marie (Franka Potente). When Bourne realizes that he is being chased by a killer, the same man who tried to frame him in Berlin, a battle ensues and the killer leaves India thinking he has murdered Bourne and Marie. But, of course, Jason must go on and he re-emerges to begin travels aimed at finding the killer and discovering why the CIA, as he believes, is after him. Back at Langley, Pamela Landy is being harassed by Agent Ward Abbott (Brian Cox) who seems intent on finding and killing Bourne while Landy would prefer to catch him and learn why he apparently broke up her Berlin deal. In many ways, this is standard thriller fare, with the ultra-clichéd good cop/bad cop routine. But the film is so well paced and filmed in genuine locations that it is a great deal of fun to watch. Director Paul Greengrass ("Bloody Sunday") makes a point on the DVD of the importance of using real locations for this film and I think he was absolutely correct. Watching "The Bourne Supremacy" is like a super high-tech, spectacularly photographed episode of "The Amazing Race." Like virtually all thrillers, you can't take the story seriously and the outcome is somewhat but not totally predictable. At least this one has wonderful production values that are a delight to watch. Many scenes were filmed with hand-held cameras. Greengrass literally had the camera right in with the characters. We've all seen car chases, but this film has two wild ones, including a chase through the crowded streets of Goa and an imaginative and unique chase through the streets of Moscow. The cast is good. As in my comments about "The Bourne Identity," I still don't know why Julia Stiles bothered being in this film since her part is not much larger than in the first film. She and Franka Potente really don't have much to do. But Matt Damon does a much better job in this "Bourne" than in the previous film as a well-trained CIA killer who single-mindedly knows exactly what he has to do to save himself. DVD ***1/2 (12/9/04)

"Hero"-Director Zhang Yimou, best known for serious films about Chinese history and culture, including "Raise The Red Lantern," has always demonstrated an affinity for color as part of his overall dramatic tapestry. Zhang has said that he always wanted to make a martial arts film and "Hero" was his first, with the current "House of Flying Daggers" his second. "Hero" is a spectacularly beautiful film, not only because of the colors we see but also because of the incredible scenery and the excellent cast, including Jet Li, the famed martial arts star, and the young Chinese star Zhang Ziyi ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"). Jet Li plays a nameless local official in Qin approximately 2,000 years ago who has been brought before the King (Daoming Chen), to explain how he has disposed of the three assassins who had tried to kill the king because of his ruthless attempts to take over the various Chinese kingdoms and unite China. The three assassins, Sky (Donnie Yen), Broken Sword (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung), all from Zhao, are martial arts masters. In what we soon realize is a "Rashomon" type tale, Nameless first tells his version, is then contradicted by the King who tells another likely version and then, ultimately, we learn what appears to be the truth. With magnificent music, including violin solos by Itzhak Perlman, spectacular scenery of places rarely if ever seen, and a fascinating tale that fits right into Zhang's interest in Chinese history, "Hero" is one of the best films I've seen in several years. In fact, I liked it so much, I watched it twice, something I rarely do. The martial arts in this film fit the story perfectly, are not overdone, and are a sight to be seen. Of particular note are, first, a scene of a battle in the woods between Flying Snow and Moon (Zhang Ziyi), Broken Sword's servant, in which autumn leaves are swirling to a breathtaking effect, and, second, a scene at a lake in which Broken Sword and Nameless fight on and above the water as if they could walk on the surface. This film is a sight to see. Highly recommended. (In Mandarin with English subtitles.) DVD ****1/2 (12/4/04)

"Spider-Man 2"-Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is having a crisis. His Spider-Man powers seem to be fading and using them seems to separate him from everything he loves, especially the young actress, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). So Peter has to decide, ultimately, whether or not to continue his spidery pursuits of criminals. This "to be or not to be" theme is the heart of "Spider-Man 2," the second in this series of "Spider-Man" films. There are no real surprises. You can guess that Peter/Spider-Man ultimately win the day over the evil Doc Ock (Alfred Molina) who has become a "spider-man" of his own via a disastrous nuclear fusion experiment. The experiment, of course, was sponsored by Harry Osborn (James Franco), son of the late Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe), the Green Goblin who was defeated in the previous film. Everyone seems to be after Spider-Man, including the rather humorous news editor J. Jonah Jameson (J. K. Simmons), whose astronaut son becomes engaged to Mary Jane, thus inspiring Peter to new heights. "Spider-Man 2" is fun but not necessarily innovative. It's supposed to take place in New York City, but in typical movie fashion the alley-less Manhattan is shown with miles of alleys and a non-existing elevated train line that ends precipitously over a river. Don't expect too much and you'll enjoy this light cartoonish fare. DVD ***1/2 (12/3/04)

"The Son"-Brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne ("La Promesse") are unusual filmmakers . Their themes are usually about working-class people and their film techniques are different from most. On the DVD of this film, the brothers brag about the fact that they don't shoot films like other directors. "The Son" is a perfect example and raises some thorny issues about how art films should be made. From the very first scene, the camera focuses almost exclusively on the head of the star, Olivier Gourmet, who plays Olivier, a carpentry instructor at a trade school in Belgium. Olivier is an ordinary man engaged in a very unglamorous profession. He wears glasses and overalls and has sawdust all over his clothing. We hear the noise of the carpentry shop, sometimes painfully loud, but no music. Suddenly, Olivier is asked to take on a young man (unseen) who has come to the school and wants to become part of Olivier's carpentry class. Olivier almost immediately says no, seemingly without thought, but then finds every excuse possible to leave his classroom and check out this new student, even peering through windows and following the boy in the street. Olivier looks disturbed and hell-bent at the same time and the secret is revealed later when Olivier receives a visit from his former wife, Magali (Isabella Soupart). I won't reveal the secret, but I will say that Olivier eventually allows the young man into his class and we follow them on a trip into the country to pick up lumber from the lumberyard owned by Olivier's brother. The question raised in my mind by this film is an old one. Just what is the point of the cinema? Is it to entertain? Certainly, but can't entertainment also be thought-provoking art? Of course. Which brings us to the next question in this somewhat circular issue. Shouldn't thought-provoking art films be entertaining? Obviously that's completely subjective. "The Son" is thought-provoking in making one wonder about the motives of the characters (especially Olivier) and other themes (to mention these would give the plot away). But, is it entertaining to watch a film that is so down-to-earth and so painfully realistic that we begin to know intimately the hairs and marks on the neck of the main character's head? I found the techniques used by the Dardennes Brothers in this film to be claustrophobic and pretentious. The technique defeats the point of the film. The camera does not have to aim at Olivier's head and face almost continuously in order to tell the story of this man's severe emotions. When it did occasionally pull away for a moment, it was almost like coming up for air. But no sooner would one take a breath of fresh air, then the camera would once again suffocate us with the Dardennes' affected technique. And the ultimate affectation of this film is that it ends abruptly, just as a real story is about to emerge. (In French with English subtitles) DVD **1/2 (11/27/04)

"Zhou Yu's Train"-Gong Li ("Raise The Red Lantern"), one of China's most radiant film stars, is Zhou Yu, a young long-haired ceramic painter who meets and falls madly in love with Chen Ching (Tony Leung Ka Fai), a poet who lives in a distant city. In order to see her lover, Zhou Yu takes the train twice weekly, passing some extraordinary scenery in the Chinese landscape. On the train, she meets Zhang (Honglei Sun), a veterinarian, who is utterly charmed by her beauty although not so certain about her somewhat puzzling actions and personality. Chen Ching has written a poem about Zhou Yu which becomes the central theme of the film. Zhang continuously meets Zhou Yu and tries to win her heart but it is clearly with Chen Ching (strangely emotionless for a poet), until he announces that he is moving to take a job teaching far off in the outer provinces. With this, Zhou Yu begins to become more interested in Zhang but she remains torn between the two. Directed by Zhou Sun, "Zhou Yu's Train" is beautifully filmed and romantic, and yet confusing. Throughout the film we see a woman with short hair (is it Zhou Yu younger or older or someone else?) who appears to be contemplating the events in the life of Zhou Yu and her two men. This character, unnamed, is also played by Gong Li, leading to the confusion. Even at the end, the film has been sufficiently surrealistic that the apparent explanation of events becomes hard to accept. Did I hear that right? Did that really happen? These are the questions you're bound to ask. The best part of "Zhou Yu's Train," however, is the impressionistic mood and scenery and, of course, Gong Li, who is a wonderful actress. (In Mandarin with English subtitiles) DVD ***1/2 (11/26/04)

"The Terminal"-Steven Spielberg, director of this film, has often been on the edge of providing pablum for the masses. This time he's over the edge. With a top-notch cast, including Tom Hanks and Catherine Zeta-Jones, Spielberg has still managed to give us a film that is shallow and unsubstantial. He provides us with a simple story of a man arriving at an international air terminal in New York (except it bears no resemblance to a real New York airport) who finds that his eastern European country has been overrun, his passport is useless, and he can't be allowed into the United States. Temporarily stateless (or "unacceptable"), the man, Victor Navorski (Tom Hanks), must spend all of his time in the airport's international terminal until the problems in his country are settled. Unfortunately, Spielberg turns what could be a charming, simple tale into a fairy tale and therein lies its failures. Everything that happens is just beyond belief. Navorski can barely speak English, and yet somehow he understands the fast patter of the airport security director, Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci), telling him what he must or must not do. Carrying a suitcase, it's not long before he loses it (without a mention of the loss), and yet somehow manages to wear fresh clothing in almost every scene. It doesn't take him long to find a completely abandoned airline gate in which to settle in like home. And before long, he's made friends of a number of terminal employees who provide him with food and other necessities, and has met a beautiful airline flight attendant, Amelia Warren (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who is in the middle of a messy relationship with a married man. And when he needs some money, he demonstrates his amazing building talents and is hired as a construction worker (off the books, of course) at the airport, making enough money to afford to buy nice clothing later to impress the flight attendant (who never seems to be surprised that Victor is always in the terminal when she arrives from a flight). The story simply is not believable and the techniques Spielberg uses to move the plot even less so. The only thing going for this film is the cast, especially the second-line actors, who are charming and fun. These include Kumar Pallana, who is quite funny as Gupta Rajan, a slightly crazy cleaning man from India who insists that anyone who wants to search his trash must have an appointment; Diego Luna ("Y tu mamá también") as an airline food service worker who is madly in love with a customs agent, Officer Torres (Zoe Saldana), and needs Victor's help to woo her (the reason is never explained); and Chi McBride as another terminal worker who has championed Victor. Tom Hanks, as always, is effective as the man with the eastern European accent who prowls the terminal, but Catherine Zeta-Jones seems miscast as a woman who is unlucky in love. DVD *** (11/24/04)

"I'm Not Scared"-It is southern Italy in the 1970s. A group of children are playing in open countryside and come upon an abandoned house where they carouse until time to return home. One of the boys, Michele, age 10, returns to find his sister's lost glasses and discovers a hole in the ground. He peers in and sees the foot of what might be a dead body, but upon returning later is severely frightened by the apparition of what appears to be a deranged child. Michele, who lives with his parents and younger sister, in a town that looks like not much more than a few houses on the edge of nowhere, continues to be curious and returns to the hole, providing the child with water and bread. Slowly but surely we learn that the child is a kidnap victim and that Michele is living in the middle of a sinister plot to raise ransom for this child's life. It is all too apparent that the director, Gabriele Salvatores ("Mediterraneo") wanted to tell a story of a brave boy who ultimately shows courage in helping to save a life. The problem is that while the film is beautifully photographed, the script is mediocre and loaded with plot devices that serve the ends of the story but make little or no sense. Michele goes back to the hole repeatedly alone despite an obviously horrifying situation. Not likely. A normal kid, in his right mind, would bring help along, at the very least. Instead of being concerned for the child in the hole, Michele seems more curious than concerned, almost as if visiting the hole is a lark, something to do on a hot afternoon in the boring place he lives. He gives the child water and brings bread, but insists on lowering himself into the hole to take back the remnants of the loaf of bread the obviously starving child has not yet eaten. When Michele, at home, learns of the serious threat to this child's health, he shows little or no signs of alarm. At one point he even helps the child (now known as Filippo) out of the hole for a look at the outside world and then bizarrely returns him to this dark dungeon, with Filippo's cooperation, only to be discovered by one of the kidnappers. This is one of the many weak and unlikely plot devices created to move the story along.

Meanwhile, Filippo's behavior makes no sense. He seems to show a suicidal impulse to stay where he is. Not once does he beg to be released from the hell hole in which he is living. Why should this child behave in such an unlikely manner? He's been kidnapped, not institutionalized. The entire story is unfortunately hokey. Unlikely things repeatedly happen that are obviously done just to help tell the tale. At a climactic point in the film, Michele, who has climbed every wall and fence without difficulty, finds himself unable to climb a fence. This sudden inability to do what he has done throughout is obviously necessary for the next important scene in the film. And that's the problem with "I'm Not Scared." Too many things happen that are inconsistent or illogical. And these scenes ruin the intended theme of this somewhat creepy film. (In Italian with English subtitles) DVD **1/2 (11/22/04)

"The Other Side of the Bed"-This 2002 film is a funny sex comedy and musical about the relationships of a group of young Spaniards. As the film opens, we see two young women singing over the prone, sleeping bodies of their boyfriends/lovers. The song is lame. The singing isn't that great. But when the film gets going, it turns into a rather charming and humorous look at the pains and pleasures of young love. Paula (Natalia Verbeke) tells her curly-haired boyfriend Pedro (Guillermo Toledo) that she has someone new and is leaving. Pedro immediately goes into a funk and visits his friends Javier (Ernesto Alterio) and Sonia (Paz Vega) to tell them of his loss. They console him, and then we are surprised to learn that it is Javier who is having the affair with Paula. Paula insists that Javier leave Sonia, but he can't, drawn to both women. Pedro is introduced to one of Javier's co-workers, Pilar (Marîa Esteve), a pretty but dull young women who talks in epithets. Sonia eventually shows sympathy for Pedro and you can guess where that leads. At various points, the characters break into song and dance. Although the songs are hardly memorable and the dancing is perfunctory, they are done with tongue-in-cheek and aid in the romantic flow the film. The cast is very appealing. (In Spanish with English subtitles) DVD ***1/2 (11/20/04)

"Facing Windows"-This Italian film, actually titled "La Finestra di Fronte," is a wonderfully charming film about a 29-year-old woman in Rome with two kids and a husband who annoys her. They argue frequently and live in an apartment with a view into another apartment across the way. There, the wife, Giovanna (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), watches a young very handsome single man, Lorenzo (Raoul Bova), as he entertains dates and she becomes very intrigued. But in the meantime she and her husband (Filippo Nigro) come across a well-dressed elderly man (Massimo Girotti) in the street who has lost his memory and needs help. They reluctantly take him in and the man ultimately tells them his name is Simone, but he remembers little else. The man called Simone occasionally walks off into a Jewish neighborhood in Rome, looking haunted. In the process of trying to help Simone, Giovanna finally meets Lorenzo and becomes extremely attracted, only to learn that Lorenzo is soon departing for a new job. While dealing with a jumble of emotions about Lorenzo and her marriage, Giovanna slowly but surely learns the secret and real name of the elderly man and discovers that he is a Jewish master pastry chef who has an intriguing history from his days of dealing with the horrors of World War II. "Facing Windows" contains themes of love, lust, loyalty, survival and compassion. This absolutely delightful film won the Italian best picture award. Giovanna Mezzogiorno is breathtakingly lovely and vulnerable as the wife and deserved accolades for her performance. Massimo Girotti, who died shortly after making this film, is heartbreaking and inspiring as the old man with memories possibly too painful to remember. Highly recommended. In Italian with English subtitles. DVD **** (11/19/04)

"The Clearing"-This is one of those films that seems to have no reason for existing. It's a thriller but not thrilling. It has three stars (Robert Redford, Helen Mirren, and Willem Dafoe) who usually take on far more demanding and interesting parts. Each looks like he or she is sleepwalking through the film. And it adds up to little. Redford is Wayne Hayes, a Pittsburgh business executive, who lives in a beautiful suburban home with his wife, Eileen (Helen Mirren). Wayne leaves home one morning, takes a lingering look at his wife by the pool, and disappears. Meanwhile, we see Willem Dafoe as Arnold Mack, a former employee of Wayne's business, leaving home as if it is an ordinary day. But it's not. He kidnaps Wayne and they head for a hike in the mountains, assertedly to take Wayne to Arnold's superiors who are waiting for him. Meanwhile, back at the home, the FBI, in the form of Agent Ray Fuller (Matt Craven), has moved in to help with the search. "The Clearing" has a few minor twists and turns but ultimately winds up a dud. It has an ending that is surprising only because of its resemblance to reality. DVD **1/2 (11/19/04)

"Before Sunset"-Richard Linklater made a delightful film in 1995 called "Before Sunrise." It starred Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy as Jesse and Celine, two young people who meet on a European train and spend all night walking around Vienna, talking about a multitude of subjects. At the end, when they are about to leave each other, Jesse, the American, suggests that Celine, the Parisian, meet him again in six months at an appointed spot in Europe. The film ends. With "Before Sunset" we are re-introduced to these characters nine years later and find out what happened at the appointed date and time nine years earlier. Jesse is now an author, married with a child, and on a book tour of Europe. His book, not surprisingly, is about his night in Vienna with Celine, although it is described as fiction. Celine arrives at a bookstore in Paris where Jesse is appearing to sign and talk about his book, and the two wander off into the streets of Paris, knowing Jesse has a limited amount of time as he must catch a plane. "Before Sunset" resembles a European film because it is essentially made of conversation but also lovely shots of Parisian streets and parks. Jesse and Celine talk about themselves, philosophy, and romance as they wander Paris, ultimately winding up on a boat on the Seine. Although both appeared to be equally adept at conversation in the original, here Jesse seems more far awkward and limited conversationally. On the other hand, Celine has a lot of interesting things to say, and she is charming, articulate and emotional. This film, although still ambiguous at the end, leaves the viewer with a far better idea about Jesse and Celine's future than the first film. Julie Delpy is wonderfully attractive. I wish her talents were given greater exposure in the movie business. DVD ***1/2 (11/12/04)

"The Stepford Wives"-This remake of the 1975 original is so strange and messed up that it cries out for comparison with the original. In the original, Katherine Ross plays Joanna Eberhart, a young photographer, whose husband Walter (Peter Masterson) talks her into moving to a seemingly charming town in Connecticut named Stepford. The original version was realistic, with a sense that the place and the people could actually exist. It had a town, police and stores. Gradually, Joanna and her friend Bobbie (Paula Prentiss) begin to realize that there is something strange in the town as the women either are or become perfect housewives who seem to have no brains and to be concerned only with cleaning their homes and serving their husbands. This original's ultimate conclusion was what you would expect from a horror story by Ira Levin ("Rosemary's Baby").

The current remake stars Nicole Kidman as Joanna, but this time she, like virtually all the characters in the film, is a caricature of a real character. In the opening scene, Joanna is a TV executive with such hateful ideas for TV shows that one of her "reality show" victims tries to shoot her and Joanna finds herself fired and moving to Stepford with her somewhat dull husband Walter (Matthew Broderick) to get away from the stress of life in New York City. When they arrive at the modern version of Stepford, there is nothing there that remotely resembles a real place. The whole town is essentially a monstrous exurban gated community with massive homes. All the men appear normal and belong to the Men's Association, and all the women seem perfect (much earlier than in the previous film). In this film it's Bette Midler who plays Bobbie. The remake is clearly intended to be a comical version of the original but it goes wrong in so many ways, including the direction by Frank Oz. The filmmakers can't seem to make up their minds just what the men are doing to their wives to make them perfect. Are they robots or simply women with computer chips in their brains to change their behavior? And it's not really that funny. Interestingly, the deleted scenes on the DVD, particularly a scene involving Bette Midler as the "new, improved" version of Bobbie, reveal a great deal about this confusion among those putting this film together. Others in the cast are Glenn Close as Claire Wellington, an over-the-top Stepford wife; Christopher Walken in a robotic performance as Claire's sinister husband; Faith Hill in a bland performance as a Stepford wife who enjoys square dancing just a little too much; and Roger Bart, who is quite charming and funny, as Roger Bannister, a gay man who befriends Joanna and Bobbie, but also turns into a"Stepford wife." DVD **1/2 (11/11/04)

"Intermission"-The opening scene of this Irish film set in Dublin is a shocker. A seemingly charming young man (Colin Farrell) walks into a food shop, charms the young lady behind the counter, and then commits a completely unexpected act of violence, and runs. This is just the beginning of a multi-character film in which a seemingly unrelated group of people meet and interact at various points to show the rough side of Dublin. Cillian Murphy is John, an aimless store clerk, who has jilted his lovely girlfriend Deirdre (Kelly McDonald) for no apparent reason. His best friend Oscar (Davis Wilmot) is unable to make it with women his own age and starts considering older women. Deirdre's sister Sally is a frustrated young woman with a mustache. Jerry Lynch (Colm Meany-Ireland's Gerard Depardieu?) is an extremely egotistical and self-centered cop who gets to emote for a documentary filmmaker. These and others somehow come together in various ways, including a totally botched and funny bank robbery, in which John is involved simply to impress his girlfriend. A little convoluted at the start, "Intermission" is well acted, funny, and poignant about tough life in Ireland. A good film, but not great. DVD ***1/2 (10/30/04)

"Saved!"-How do you make a film that is both a parody of Christian fundamentalist schools and at the same time somewhat respectful of the basic tenets of their religion? Well, Director Brian Dannelly has done a fair job of it. Using the standard formula for films about high school girls (see, for example, "Mean Girls"), we have a group of ultra-Christian girls whose every other word is "Jesus," and who call themselves the Jewels. They are led by Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore) (compare the group, The Plastics, led by Rachel McAdams in "Mean Girls") and include followers Mary (Jena Malone) and Veronica (Elizabeth Thai). But we also have some very out-of-place characters, including Hilary Fey's cynical cigarette-smoking wheelchair-bound brother (Macauley Culkin) and an apparently nasty Jewish girl (Eva Amurri) who is undoubtedly just screamingly angry at having been placed in the middle of these overly zealous Jesus lovers. Mary (an obviously appropriate name) makes love to her just-announced gay boyfriend in order to save him, thinking that this is what Jesus wanted her to do. Of course, she immediately becomes pregnant, considers claiming a virgin birth, and then tries to hide the pregnancy from her schoolmates and her mother (Mary-Louise Parker), another religious zealot who is flirting with Pastor Skip (Martin Donovan) the head of the school. Suffice it to say that the most zealous of the group turns out to be the least Christian, has her comeuppance, and all winds up well with the world. Some of the parody is quite funny. But ultimately "Saved!" deteriorates into that standard high school formula film that I mentioned earlier and the religious theme is almost forgotten except to remember that the good guys, including the Jewish girl, are really the true "Christians." My favorite and most obvious line from the film: "Why would God make us so different if he wanted us to be the same?" Enough of this already. DVD *** (10/15/04)

"Fahrenheit 9/11"-Michael Moore ("Bowling for Columbine") has hit one out of the ballpark with this exposé of George W. Bush, who needed the Supreme Court to make him president, and of the bizarre and unanswered questions about his family's connections to the bin Laden family and to the Saudi royal family. Moore shows images of George W. Bush looking dumbstruck as he sits in a classroom in Florida on September 11, 2001, after being told that the second plane had hit the World Trade Center. This man, who forced his way into the presidency by questionable means, sits and does nothing despite the obvious nature of the attack on the United States. Moore then proceeds to discuss the government's decision to allow the bin Laden family to leave the US immediately after 9/11, without being questioned by the FBI, and the background and connections of the Bush family, not only with the bin Ladens and the Saudis, but also via major money makers such as the Carlyle Group. Many on the right have tried to question Moore's facts, but to my knowledge the facts in this film have been checked and found to be accurate. Moore seems to be the only major media person in the United States willing to ask these questions. Unfortunately, as a result, we get no answers. If you're thinking of voting for George W. Bush on November 2, see this film. If you don't have serious doubts about George W. Bush after watching "Fahrenheit 9/11," you're wearing blinders. DVD **** (10/10/04)

"Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind"-Charlie Kaufman ("Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation") is undoubtedly one of the most original thinkers in Hollywood scriptwriting. His stories are like no else's. This film is certainly no exception. Joel Barish (Jim Carrey), a commuter to Manhattan, gets the impulse to jump on a Long Island RR train on a wintry day and head for Montauk, at the eastern end of Long Island. There, on a barren and cold beach, he meets Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet), a pretty but aggressive young woman with blue hair. They seem to hit it off and head for Clementine's apartment where she is picking up her toothbrush so she can stay over with Joel. While Joel sits in his car in front of her building, a young man (Elijah Wood) knocks on Joel's window and asks him what he is doing there. Neither Joel nor the viewer can figure out why he is asking this strange question. But by the time the film is finished we will understand. For next we see that Joel has been abandoned by Clementine who, having become bored with Joel, has had her memory of him totally erased by Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) with a new technique to erase specific memories. Joel is frantic and ultimately decides to have his own memories of Clementine erased. In the process, he meets the doctor's zany staff of Stan (Mark Ruffalo), Mary (Kirsten Dunst), and Patrick (Elijah Wood). While the three cavort around Joel's apartment, Joel lies still, his memory being erased, and frustrated when he changes his mind but is unable to act. The heart of the film consists of the many scenes of life between Joel and Clementine that flash through Joe's brain as they are gradually disappearing from his memory. The memories disappear from the end of their life together to the beginning and it becomes obvious that Joel ultimately understands the source of the love he had with Clementine, but too late. This Kaufman tale has the usual bizarre twists and turns and is a darn good revision of the usual story of love. Although Kirsten Dunst seemed a little stiff in her role as Dr. Mierzwiak's secretary and more, the others performed exceedingly well. This is an unusual straight role for Carrey and he succeeded beautifully. Kate Winslet is lovely and yet wacky, as her hair changes colors and her mood shifts as well. This is like no love story you've ever seen before. The middle of the film can be a little repretitive and confusing, but the ending is worth waiting for. DVD ***1/2 (10/1/04)

"The Alamo"-The story of the birth of the state of Texas is intriguing. We all hear the myths but rarely see any details. This film attempts to provide some details about the legendary characters who lived, fought or died at the Alamo, ranging from William Travis (Patrick Wilson) to Jim Bowie (Jason Patric) to Davy (he called himself David) Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton) to General Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana (Emilio Echevarría ). Unfortunately, the direction of the film is somewhat heavy-handed, and the drama is a little too plodding. With better direction and several cuts, this could have been a first-rate adventure film. Still, the production values are good. The San Antonio setting looks genuine and we certainly discover how General Santa Ana managed to win an easy victory at the Alamo, only to be destroyed by the raggedy forces of Gen. Sam Houston (Dennis Quaid) leading to the birth of an independent Texas (which became a state only a few years later). Back at the Alamo, while the self-confident but seemingly fatalistic Travis and the seriously ill (with "consumption") Bowie (he of the famous knife of the same name) appear to be struggling initially for control, in comes the smooth, clever, and somewhat naive (he thought the battles were over) Crockett who leads by example and by his fiddle-playing. Billy Bob Thornton's portrayal of Crockett is undoubtedly far closer to the real Crockett than was the Fess Parker coonskin cap TV version of the 1950s. This is a Crockett who only wears a fur hat because he is portrayed that way in the theater and wants to make the public happy. Later, in the middle of the final battle, Crockett apologizes to a dead friend for bringing him into this mess and we get the feeling that the whole thing was likely a tragic mistake that could have been avoided with a little less hardheadedness. Several important details, however, are left unanswered. There is little or no explanation for the initial situation. We are left to wonder just why the various characters find themselves holed up in the inadequate Alamo, a partially completed mission facility and not a fortress. Why Sam Houston never arrived to support the loyalists at the Alamo is also unexplained. Later, Houston appears to be retreating only to suddenly turn into Wellington at Waterloo, destroying the Napoleonic Santa Ana's forces in 18 minutes. The story provides some good historical background, but "The Alamo," taken as a whole, is a drawn out affair. DVD *** (10/1/04)

"Mean Girls"-I wonder what would happen if a film about high school girls actually had actors who were the right age. Here, Tina Fey ("Saturday Night Live") has created a tale about a young lady raised in Africa via home schooling who suddenly finds herself dropped into the midst of an American high school loaded with all the standard movie high school characters, ranging from the nerds to "The Plastics," the empty-headed beauties who think they run the school. The Plastics are led by Regina George, the blonde bombshell played by Rachel McAdams, a young Canadian actress in her mid-20s. Her followers are also beyond high school age. The only one even close is the star, Lindsay Lohan, who was high school age when the film was made. Lohan is Cady Heron, the home schooled girl, who first encounters nerd friends, decides to sabotage The Plastics by joining them, and soon finds herself becoming one of them. This is a morality play in which Cady gets into enough trouble in school to realize that she must return to her roots in order to save her soul. Tina Fey has tried hard to make this funny but the situation has been played out too many times before. Lohan and McAdams are very good, but the script ultimately leads to yawns. Been there, done that. DVD *** (9/25/04)

"Coffee and Cigarettes"-It's black and white, it's a talky, it's got lots of smoke and lots of java. It's got to be avant-garde. And so, Jim Jarmusch, one of the more original filmmakers of our time, has put forth another of his little eccentric films. If you've ever seen "Night on Earth" or "Mystery Train," you'll have some idea of what lies ahead as you begin this film. "Coffee and Cigarettes" consists of vignettes of one to three individuals sitting around in a cafe, restaurant, dive, or hotel bar, smoking and consuming coffee or tea. The groups range from a single woman reading a gun magazine to a wonderful segment in which Cate Blanchett plays two cousins. One is somewhat like herself in that she is a celebrity and well-dressed while the other is obviously of a lower economic strata and has a deep Australian accent. The short conversation quickly reveals their differences. In another intriguing segment, the actor Alfred Molina plays himself (and yet not) fawning over his fellow British actor Steve Coogan ("24 Hour Party People") who comes off as self-obsessed. Others participating include Bill Murray as Bill Murray being a waiter for no particular reason, chatting siblings Joie and Cinqué Lee (Spike's brother and sister), Steve Buscemi, Iggy Pop, and Tom Waits. Some of the segments seem to pass without incident, others are intriguing. Overall the film is certainly different. If you like this sort of thing, check it out. DVD ***1/2 (9/24/04)

"Bus 174"-Not long ago I reviewed "City of God," the incredible story of aimless and violent youth in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. "Bus 174" complements that film by showing us the true story of one of those youths. Sandro do Nascimento grew up in a slum, saw his mother murdered, and was present when killers massacred a group of homeless youths near a church in Rio in 1993. For unknown reasons, Sandro boarded a city bus in Rio in July 2000, taking hostage several passengers, including three young women. Without ever being clear on what he was demanding, Sandro held a gun to the women's heads, threatening to kill at least one by a specified time. This was a rare hostage situation in which live TV was able to record the events in full view because Sandro and his victims were inside the stationary bus, clearly seen through the windows, and surrounded by helpless and incompetent police officers. At various times Sandro and his victims are seen and heard yelling out the window at the police. The director, José Padilha, decided to show the story of the Bus 174 hostage situation as a reflection on the societal nightmare of Sandro's upbringing and the violence in the past in which he was a victim. Among other things, we see the wretched conditions of the Rio jails in which the Rio street youth are held by an apparently inept and likely corrupt justice system. What comes through without question is that the police are incompetent and that Brazilian society is uncaring about the poverty and misery that produces these violent children and situations. "Bus 174" is enlightening, although cinematically it tends toward the repetitious. Over and over we see scenes of Sandro threatening the women and we hear interviews with some of the hostages. Padilha is good at appropriate cuts to the background stories, and the film finally reaches its climax when Sandro, after many hours, suddenly walks off the bus with his pistol at the head of one of the young women. That the inept police manage to kill both brings the story to its seemingly inevitable tragic ending. This is powerful stuff. Recommended for those who are interested in serious social issues. In Portuguese with English subtitles. DVD ***1/2 (9/18/04)

"Man on Fire"-Director Tony Scott ("Spy Game" and "Crimson Tide") apparently wanted to create an artistic thriller a la "Traffic." The film is loaded with artsy cinematic images. The camera jumps, shakes and various kinds of transitions from scene to scene are used. But when we get right down to it, this is just another violent thriller starring Denzel Washington. In fact, this film is so violent, it could well be the ultimate revenge film. This time Denzel Washington is Creasy, an alcoholic former military type, who is visiting his friend Rayburn (Christopher Walken) in Mexico City when there is an outbreak of kidnappings. Rayburn encourages Creasy to take a job as a bodyguard for Pita (Dakota Fanning), the young daughter of a wealthy couple played by Marc Anthony and Radha Mitchell. Despite attempting to be aloof from Pita, Creasy soon finds himself becoming attached to the young intelligent and outspoken girl. Ultimately, and not surprisingly, Pita is kidnapped during an attack in which Mexican police officers participate and Creasy is seriously wounded. Later, Creasy learns that the girl has been killed in a botched attempt to pay a ransom. Then, as in so many "hero" thriller films, Creasy quickly recovers and sets out to find and kill every individual who participated in or profited from Pita's kidnapping. "Man on Fire," unfortunately, quickly descends into scene after scene of vengeance killings by the single-minded bodyguard. "Man on Fire" has a few not terribly surprising surprises, and ultimately has a good news, bad news, happy ending. Giancarlo Giannini portrays a former Interpol cop whose placement in Mexico seems unexplained. Mickey Rourke is a typical sleazy lawyer and Rachel Ticotin is good as a helpful reporter. DVD *** (9/17/04)

"Bon Voyage"-We are in France at the beginning of World War II. Actress Viviane Danvers (Isabelle Adjani) is receiving praise for a new film but soon she is followed home by a seemingly sinister man, André Arpel, who forces his way into her apartment. Next we see Vivianne calling old boyfriend Frédéric (Grégori Derangè) who arrives thinking she desires him but instead finds that Arpel is dead and he is needed to dispose of the body. When Frédéric crashes the car in a heavy downpour and the trunk opens to reveal the body, he winds up in prison charged with Arpel's death. But when the Nazis approach Paris, Frédéric manages to escape with Raoul (Yvan Attal), and the adventure begins. The story gets a little complicated as we soon meet the lovely but bookish Camille (Virginie Ledoyen) who is helping a physics professor (Jean-Marc Stehlé) transport heavy water to England. Vivianne is traveling with her favorite government Minister, Jean-Étienne Beaufort (Gérard Depardieu), and all are being watched by a somewhat mysterious reporter, Alex Winckler (Peter Coyote) who speaks French and German. As you can imagine, the paths of all of these and other characters cross over and over. "Bon Voyage" is a thriller, an adventure story, a comedy, and even has a few serious elements. While it tends toward the hectic, "Bon Voyage" has a pleasing cast of first rate performers. Grégori Derangè emerges as a potential new handsome leading man of the French cinema and Virginie Ledoyen ("8 Women") is beautiful and charming as the seemingly innocent Camille. Over the years the French films seen in the United States have more often than not been serious and talky with little action. This production certainly provides a different approach by French filmmakers. "Bon Voyage" is beautifully photographed, a little zany, and fun to watch. (In French with English subtitles) DVD ***1/2 (9/10/04)

"The Ladykillers"-In 1955, Alec Guinness starred in the original version of this film as the leader of an ultimately bumbling criminal band renting from an old lady and pretending to be a real group of musicians. When they try to kill the old lady, their fates are settled. It's a classic, not to be outdone and worth watching on the DVD recently released. The current version of "The Ladykillers," from the Coen Brothers, changes the story somewhat. Rather than London, the setting is Mississippi where the "worldly" charms of Professor Goldthwaite H. Dorr (Tom Hanks) convince an initially cynical Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall) that she should allow him to rent a room and use her basement for his "band's" rehearsals. The band, made up of four recruits to help Dorr rob the local riverboat casino, that just happens to be parked behind Ms. Munson's house, brings together jive-talking Gawain McSam (Marlon Wayans), the "inside" man, The General (Tzi Ma), who knows how to dig tunnels, Garth Pancake (J.K. Simmons), the know-it-all with irritable bowel syndrome (a fatal flaw), and Lump Hudson (Ryan Hurst), the dumbbell who is there for his strength if nothing else. Amid scenes of wonderful gospel music at Ms. Munson's church, Dorr's little merry band digs its way toward the casino and the riches lying inside. When their plot is discovered by the old lady and she tells them they must return the money and attend church, the little band seals their fate by plotting Ms. Munson's untimely death. Tom Hanks is quite funny and different as the smooth-talking southern accented poetry quoting Professor Dorr. Irma P. Hall is delightful as the bowlegged tough-talking Marva, a woman who knows just what is going on around her, although constantly worrying about whether her cat, Pickles, will get out the door. With the help of some very good gospel music, the Coen Brothers have created another little delight. As a copy of an original classic, this version of "The Ladykillers" pales significantly in comparison. But it's still a funny film with a good cast and worth a view. DVD *** (9/8/04)

"Good Bye Lenin!"-It is 1989, the waning days of the GDR (East Germany) and young Alex (Daniel Brühl) is marching in protest against the regime. At the same time, his mother (Katrin Sass) is a happy participant in the bureaucracy of the GDR, until, that is, she sees Alex being manhandled by East German police during a protest march, has a heart attack, and falls into an 8-month coma. During the time she is in her coma, the GDR and the Berlin Wall collapse and the people of East Berlin begin to become westernized. When Alex's mother finally emerges from her coma, her doctor warns Alex that she must avoid excitement and he proceeds, with the help of his sister (Maria Simon), girlfriend (Chulpan Khamatova), and friends, to make her believe that the GDR continues to exist and that, among other things, people are leaving West Germany in droves as refugees to avoid the stresses of capitalism. The situation is a little contrived and ultimately gets a little repetitious, but Alex's insistent attempts to make his mother believe that nothing has changed are amusing. He has friends create video tapes of broadcasts showing the refugees pouring into East Berlin and ultimately enlists the help of a former German cosmonaut who has now descended to become a cab driver in the new western post-Berlin Wall era. Writer and Director Wolfgang Becker certainly has a point to make about the need for human continuity and how people could make as much of life as possible under an oppressive regime as it existed prior to the Wall collapsing, even down to enjoying the east's proletarian pickles. But the commercial and technological temptations of the west (including Coca Cola) are also obvious and it's clear that even with the stresses that come with greater freedom in life, that life is ultimately to be preferred. (In German with English subtitles). DVD *** ((9/4/04)

"Dogville"-Lars von Trier, the Danish director, makes unceasingly morose films often centered on depressed or abused women ("Breaking The Waves" and "Dancer In The Dark"). This one is too, but despite being three hours in length it is exceedingly interesting and watchable. Filmed on a soundstage in which the Rocky Mountain town of Dogville is outlined in chalk with minimal props, it doesn't take long for the viewer to forget the annoyance of this strange scenery and to feel that one has entered an actual town. But this Depression-era town is like no Rocky Mountain, USA, town anyone could possibly imagine. And that may be due to the fact that von Trier has never been in America and only imagines what an "ideal" American town is like. This town and its people ultimately represent all towns and all people because von Trier is undoubtedly attempting to bare the disturbed human soul."Dogville" brought to mind such filmmakers, writers, and playwrights as Bergman, Brecht, Shirley Jackson and Thornton Wilder. This is an "Our Town" gone weirdly wrong. Initially we see a rather quiet town populated by simple souls. Tom Edison (Paul Bettany), a young philosopher who envisions himself as a writer despite rarely writing, lives with his father (Philip Baker Hall) and knows everyone in this small town, from the blind old man (Ben Gazzara) who never leaves his house to Vera (Patricia Clarkson), a woman with a houseful of children and a husband (Stellan Skarsgard) with a wandering eye. There is Ma Ginger (Lauren Bacall), a store owner known for her care of the Gooseberry trees and her pies that result, and Liz Henson (Chloe Sevigny), a young attractive woman who hates the attention of the men in town, especially that of Tom, the most handsome and eligible bachelor. Into this town wanders Grace Margaret Mulligan (Nicole Kidman) who is being chased by gangsters and fears for her life. Tom befriends her, but the town initially is hesitant to take her in, fearing that it will endanger them. After the angelic Grace, with Tom's urging, agrees to do work for all, they let her stay and gradually she becomes part of the town despite being asked to work harder and harder to satiate the town's guilt for harboring her. The people of this sleepy little town gradually reveal their nasty side, turning Grace into a virtual prostitute for the local men. Grace, on the other hand, seems always to be forgiving no matter how monstrously she is treated (including the application of a heavy chain around her neck, attached to a heavy metal wheel which she must drag around). The story has a somewhat surprising ending, but one that naturally follows from von Trier's vision of the evil in the human soul. It has been said that von Trier's aim was to criticize America and its foreign policy. That is not clear; but what is clear is that von Trier has an extremely cynical view of the human psyche. And considering the violence and abuse in human history, past and present, that shouldn't be too surprising. Virtually all of the performances are first rate and the film has an excellent narration by John Hurt. DVD **** (9/3/04)

"Monsieur Ibrahim"-Films with humane themes are always at the top of my list but this French film, although seeming to be trying hard, miserably fails. The problem is that it is so full of artificial and unpleasant circumstances that it undermines the heart of any humane theme it might have. The film is based on a play by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt and reading about the play online indicates to me that certain significant elements, such as the boy's father being a Holocaust survivor, are omitted from the film. In the film, Moses Schmitt, aka Momo (Pierre Boulanger) is a 16-year-old Jewish boy living with his morose father in a Paris neighborhood surrounded by streetwalking prostitutes. Momo lives in a dark dreary apartment amid dusty old books and we learn that his mother has abandoned him shortly after birth for no apparent reason. The father has also tortured him with stories about an older brother who left with the mother. Despite stealing tins of food from the local "Arab," a storeowner named Ibrahim Demirdji (Omar Sharif), the boy is befriended by Monsieur Ibrahim, a Turkish Muslim (and not an Arab) as if he were a son. In their conversations, Monsieur Ibrahim implies to Momo that everything one needs to know is in the Koran. Not only does Ibrahim forgive Momo his trespasses, but he gives him cat food to pass off as paté for the father. This nastiness is unexplained. Ultimately, Momo and Ibrahim grow so close that when Momo's father dies, he out-of-hand rejects his mother (who arrives out of the blue--no explanation given for her abandonment or return) and takes off on a road trip to Turkey with Monsieur Ibrahim. In effect, Momo has totally rejected his Jewish heritage and is heading for Ibrahim's Islamic heritage. I won't describe the end other than to say that it again is completely artificial and unlikely in its circumstances like much of the film. Although this film has been viewed positively as a warm story about a relationship between a Muslim man and a Jewish boy, the film could easily be interpreted to be anti-Semitic. Why? Well, everything good seems to occur when Momo is with the Muslim Ibrahim, while everything bad ( including a miserable father, an abandoning mother, a dreary apartment and life, and old books which do not provide the knowledge that Monsieur Ibrahim's one book, the Koran, provides) occurs when Momo is living his life as a Jew. Omar Sharif is wonderful as the old man Ibrahim and Pierre Boulanger provides a fine performance in this intriguing role of the unhappy French boy. (Mostly in French with English subtitles). DVD *** (8/27/04)

"Hidalgo"-This is one of those epics that is beautiful and fun and yet you want to fast forward at times through some of the drawn-out desert scenes. Supposedly based on the true-life adventures of Frank Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen), "Hidalgo" tells the tale of a man who was part American Indian who witnessed the mistreatment of Indians at Wounded Knee, suffered in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, and ultimately chose to concentrate on racing his mustang, Hidalgo, in long-distance races. Challenged to race in an incredibly difficult 3,000 mile race across the Arabian desert called the "Ocean of Fire," Hopkins accepts almost without thought and finds himself in all types of adventures, ranging from escaping a monumental sandstorm, saving a pretty damsel (the beautiful daughter of Sheikh Riyadh (Omar Sharif), played by Zuleikha Robinson), from the clutches of evil Arabs bent on stealing the Sheikh's champion horse, being seduced by Lady Davenport (Louise Lombard) whose horse is also a favorite in the race, and generally avoiding the dastardly deeds of various riders and outlaws bent on preventing him from finishing this grueling ordeal. The photography is beautiful but the desert scenes are drawn out. The thrills are a little too clichéd, and the result of the race is unsurprising. The film's end, however, provides a genuinely warm and touching conclusion to this epic adventure. Viggo Mortensen is an effective action hero who reminded me a little of Ed Harris in this role as a tough western hombre. While not totally satisfying, "Hidalgo" is fun, especially for those who love watching horses and the horse who plays Hidalgo is alone worth watching in this film. DVD *** (8/14/04)

"13 Going On 30"-Jennifer Garner leaves Sydney Bristow ("Alias") behind and takes on a new and funny persona as Jenna Rink, a 13-year-old girl (played beautifully as a teen by Christa Allen) who wishes she was 30. She's cute and nice and not part of the in-crowd at school. And she has a nerdy but nice boyfriend named Matt. But when sprinkled with a little wishing dust, Jenna wakes up to find that she is indeed 30 and living a life she doesn't like. And in that life she once again meets Matt (Mark Ruffalo) now talented and attractive. Jenna finds that she has turned into a pushy and obnoxious magazine editor but with her 13-year-old persona she decides to do something about it. Garner is surprisingly funny as the at-times awkward and at other times chic Jenna. Ruffalo does a workmanlike job as the amused Matt, and Judy Greer plays Lucy Wyman, Jenna's co-editor. As a teenager (Alexandra Kyle), Lucy was a total bitch but Judy Greer, although funny, doesn't quite carry off the character's basic obnoxious nature in the adult version. "13 Going On 30" is not quite a repeat of "Big" which emphasized the fantasy of a kid in a grownup's body whereas this film tries to make a point about the various paths life can take, but it does the job, is entertaining, and provides some hope that Jennifer Garner can grow in her acting talents. Notable in the film is the amusing Andy Serkis (of LOTR Gollum fame) as Jenna's editor-in-chief. DVD *** (8/13/04)

"Kill Bill: Vol. 2"-With a quick recap of "Kill Bill: Vol. 1," telling the story of the massacre at the wedding chapel, The Bride (Uma Thurman) resumes her efforts to kill all of the assassins, and especially Bill, her former lover who shot her and left her for dead. Whereas the first film (or first half of the story) was practically nonstop action and violence, "Vol. 2" takes a slightly different, more verbal tack. But first we see The Bride, now revealed to be Beatrix Kiddo, come up against the formidable brother of Bill, Budd, played coolly by Michael Madsen. Wielding her incredible Hanzu sword, Beatrix soon finds herself buried alive and we learn how she was taught her amazing King Fu talents. Will Beatrix emerge from the ground? Well, of course, and the remainder of the film tells how she finally defeats her enemies and finds Bill plus a little surprise. I found this film a little too verbose for the subject matter. Quentin Tarentino is a master of slick filming and unusual and clever violent scenes. But he's not a master at dialogue or theme. Plenty of homages to past thrillers, but Tarantino gets carried away, especially in the final scenes of talk between Beatrix and Bill (David Carradine). This film has one totally redeeming feature, however. And that is Uma Thurman who is a feast for the eyes under any circumstances. DVD ***1/2 (8/12/04)

"The Human Stain"-Based on the rather serious novel of Philip Roth, "The Human Stain" ultimately fails due to astonishingly bizarre casting. However, it's still worth watching simply because of the unusual and telling story from a significant novelist about race, political correctness, and self-deception. "The Human Stain" is the story of Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins), a dean and professor at a western Massachusetts college who is accused of racism when he refers to missing students (who turn out to be black) as "spooks." Of course, Silk meant the term to refer to their ghostly nature since he had never seen them in class, but in a world of political correctness this one word costs him his job and, later in the day, his wife, Iris (Phyllis Newman), who dies of the shock of the accusation and its consequences. Silk, who has portrayed himself as Jewish, hiding for years his true ethnicity, finds himself alone in his big house and rejected by those who were once his friends. But he manages to gain the friendship of Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise) a local novelist who is actually telling the tale. And what a tale it is. We look back on the young Coleman Silk (Wentworth Miller) who turns out to be an African-American from New Jersey who looks white and realizes his advantage, ultimately rejecting his own mother (Anna Deavere Smith) and family after the act of revealing his true race costs him his first love (Jacinda Barrett). The current and now jobless Coleman Silk, who is obviously at least in his early 70s, miraculously falls into an amorous relationship with a young but very hardened beauty, Faunia Farley (Nicole Kidman), a local woman who does various odd jobs, including cleaning and milking cows. Unfortunately, Farley has a disturbing background and a very disturbed ex-husband, Lester (Ed Harris), who wishes harm to his ex-wife and the old professor. Silk's lawyer and his friend Zuckerman warn him that this relationship will fail and could threaten his life, but Silk replies that this may not be his first love, or his best love, but it is his "last love" and he will not abandon Faunia despite the danger from Lester. "The Human Stain" is an interesting and unusual tale but it is difficult to accept the obviously British Hopkins (who, unlike so many British actors, can't seem to rid himself of the vestiges of his British accent when necessary) as the aging African-American from New Jersey, especially when compared to the actor playing the young Coleman, Wentworth Miller, who bares absolutely no resemblance to Hopkins. And then there's the casting of Nicole Kidman in the very strange role of a tough and bitter broad who is loving one minute and angry the next. Kidman actually does a wonderful job in this role but cannot escape her beauty which serves only to undermine the nature of the part. Gary Sinise is fine as Zuckerman but has little to do other than narrate, and Ed Harris, as always, is powerful as the mysterious and angry Lester Farley. Loaded with flaws, "The Human Stain" still has enough good acting and a story with thoughtful themes to make it worth viewing. DVD ***1/2 (7/24/04)

"Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights"-I think this film would have had a better chance if it hadn't attempted to rip off the title of the original "Dirty Dancing." Interestingly, although it has a vaguely similar theme, this film is based somewhat on the true experiences of the film's choreographer, JoAnn Jansen, who was brought to Havana in 1958 by her parents just as the Batista regime was about to fall. Here, the story centers on Katey Miller (Romola Garai), a high school senior who arrives in Havana in 1958 with her family and immediately feels out of place among the wealthy, stuck-up American kids with whom she is forced to socialize. Katey ultimately is attracted to a young Cuban waiter, Javier (Diego Luna), at the hotel where the family lives and becomes intrigued by the sensual dancing and culture of the locals. While her family tries to force a relationship with a young wealthy American (Jonathan Jackson), Katey finds herself training for a dance contest with the far more down-to-earth Javier and learns something about the local history and violence of the Batista regime. The story of the Castro takeover is a little too serious for this very"romantic" film, but the class and cultural differences are portrayed sufficiently to make the point. Ultimately, though, the film is about dance and Latin music and there's certainly plenty to enjoy. The cast is headed by the intriguing young British actress Romola Garai ("Nicholas Nickleby" and "I Capture The Castle") who, at age 21, seems to be creating a niche for herself. She does a good job of changing her British accent into that of an American, but she will quickly regain her real accent as she is soon to be seen in the upcoming "Vanity Fair." Diego Luna ("Y tu mamá también") does a fine job as the young Cuban who realizes that he's not likely to hold onto this young beautiful American girl as the revolution descends on Havana. Patrick Swayze is the only hint of the original "Dirty Dancing," appearing here as a Latin dance instructor encouraging young Katey to enter the big dance contest. Ultimately, "Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights" turns out to be a decent diversion for those who enjoy good sexy dancing with a little romance. DVD *** (7/24/04)

"The Barbarian Invasions"-Surprisingly, this film from Director Denys Arcand is a rather cheerful film about a man's dying days. Filled with excellent French-Canadian actors,"The Barbarian Invasions" is the story of a reunion of sorts. Rémy (Rémy Girard) is in the hospital and dying of cancer. He's an atheist, a professor, smart, witty, randy, and a little bitter, especially towards his son Sébastien (Stéphane Rousseau) who has become a conservative businessman in Great Britain. Rémy apparently has been anything but conservative as he finds himself surrounded not only by his son and ex-wife, but also by, among others, two former mistresses. Like so many non-American movies, "The Barbarian Invasions" is a film filled with talk and human emotions. Friends arrive and discuss the present and the past. Although Rémy initially argues with Sébastien, we soon see that the son is extremely able and willing to use his slightly crooked business techniques to make his father's closing days as comfortable as possible, even arranging for a closed portion of the hospital to be reopened for his father's greater privacy. Ultimately, Sébastien decides to bring in Nathalie (Marie-Josée Croze) the daughter of one of Rémy's friends, because she is a junky and knows exactly where to get heroin to ease Rémy's pain. This situation may not sound cheerful, but the script is delightfully positive and the acting superb. Rémy's final days are spent in the pleasure of the company of those he loves. This is a wonderful film. Highly recommended. DVD **** (7/17/04)

"Against The Ropes"-Jackie Kallen is a real-life successful boxing promoter. In "Against The Ropes" Meg Ryan plays a fictionalized version of Kallen. Whereas the real Jackie Kallen was from Detroit and had been a journalist and was married and a mother, the Meg Ryan version is from Cleveland, single, and grew up in the boxing world. Meg tries hard but just doesn't seem right as the tough talking Jackie who decides to take on the rather scary Cleveland boxing promoter LaRocca (Tony Shalhoub). She finds Luther Shaw (Omar Epps), a tough guy from the hood, and decides to make him a boxer. With the reluctant help of Felix Reynolds (Charles S. Dutton), Shaw, despite every effort to resist learning to be a pro athlete, ultimately succeeds. At first he adores Kallen, but when she seems to be putting her own image ahead of his, he turns on her and Kallen finds herself on the outside looking in. But this is fictional sports fantasy, and knowing that the real Kallen is a success, you can just imagine what happens at the end. "Against The Ropes" is tolerable to watch if not artistically exciting. Meg Ryan, it would seem, needs to take another look at the twists and turns of her recent career. If "In The Cut" and this film are indications of her future, she's in trouble. DVD *** (7/16/04)

"Secret Window"-Wasting the talent of such as Johnny Depp, this stinker, based on a story by Stephen King, should be missed. I admit that I didn't watch the whole film. I viewed the first 20 minutes or so until the completely predictable death of a pet dog, and then I watched the end of the film out of curiosity. I have no doubt I missed nothing in between. Depp is a writer who is in the process of being divorced by his totally unlikely wife, played by Maria Bello. He lives alone in a remote country house, wearing his ratty bathrobe and sleeping most of the time. Ultimately, he is interrupted by a frightening southerner (John Turturro) who asserts that Depp's character stole a story that he wrote. Depp then starts muttering to himself, wondering if he could have plagiarized the story. Insipid is a nice word for this worthless story. The actors looked like they weren't even trying. This is a miss-at-all-costs. DVD * ((7/10/04)

"The Butterfly Effect"-With a mediocre script and poor acting performances, this film is hardly worth describing except to say that it is about a young man, Evan Treborn (Ashton Kutcher) who manages to travel back and forth in time by reading portions of his diaries. Evan's goal is to change things in the past but each time he makes a change he finds things are screwed up in different ways, encouraging him to keep going back to make changes. Ultimately, he figures that no one will be happy unless he makes the ultimate trip back. The premise was certainly interesting. The film, however, leaves a great deal to be desired. Amy Smart ("The Battle of Shaker Heights") is pleasant as the young lady of Treborn's dreams. DVD ** (7/9/04)

"Cold Mountain"-"Cold Mountain" left me, well, cold. I had been very wary of this story and seeing the film at last showed me why. Actually, it's not as bad as I thought it would be, but it was close. Into the pre-Civil War town of Cold Mountain, NC, comes the lovely Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman) with her reverend father (Donald Sutherland). Almost immediately the lovely Ada spies a good-looking laborer, Inman (Jude Law), and is attracted. But before they have a chance to have much of a relationship, Inman must leave with the confederate troops as the Civil War breaks out and the lovely Ada is almost immediately threatened by the obnoxious Teague (Ray Winstone), head of the local Home Guard which will round up and shoot as many confederate deserters as it can find. With the help of the rather frightening and ultimately acrobatic Bosie (Charlie Hunnam), the Home Guard will play a major role in these characters' future. Inman, who keeps the lovely Ada's photo nearby at all times and who has fought valiantly up to this point, inexplicably deserts his fellow Rebs after recovering from a near-fatal battle wound, and heads for home on foot (to return to the lovely Ada he hardly knows?). This rather extended and somewhat tiresome trip requires him to avoid being seen as much as possible as he could be easily shot for desertion. "Cold Mountain," directed by Anthony Minghella ("The English Patient" and "The Talented Mr. Ripley") presents the highlights of his long trek home while, at the same time, we see the struggles of the now orphaned and almost starving lovely Ada who takes in the rugged Ruby Thewes (Renée Zellweger) to help her run her farm. "Cold Mountain" is loaded with an interesting cast, especially noteworthy since so many are either English (Jude Law, Eileen Atkins, Ray Winstone, and Charlie Hunnam), Australian (Kidman), or Irish (Brendan Gleeson as Ruby's wastrel of a father). It seems that the southern accent is rather easy to portray. But there are enough American actors like Zellweger and Kathy Baker, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Giovanni Ribisi and Natalie Portman in brief roles. The romance of the lovely Ada and Inman is awkward and their fate ultimately predictable. Zellweger's downhome performance is noteworthy. The Weinsteins, who produced this film, thought it should gather awards. A viewing will easily reveal why it was ignored at Oscar time. DVD *** (7/3/04)

"Spartan"-With the unique patter of a David Mamet script,"Spartan" is a fairly tepid thriller about a military agent caught up in an assignment to find the kidnapped daughter of a high U.S. government official (the president?) Val Kilmer seems to be going through the motions as Scott, an ultra-confident tough cookie, who finds out later that he has been hoodwinked by a political plot aimed at making it look like the daughter has drowned in a boating accident rather than having been kidnapped for prostitution in the middle east, and thus protecting her father from a scandal. Mamet, who also directed, has his characters talk in his now almost-clichéd style of awkward brief sentences, a style unlike any heard in normal conversation. Mamet also apparently has a deeper political purpose to his story, the conclusion raising serious doubts about the credibility of high level politicians and the gullibility of the media. But as worthy as the theme may be, the vehicle for getting there is weak. Derek Luke is pleasant as Curtis, an enthusiastic, but inexperienced aide to Scott, and Tia Texada is enthusiastic as Jackie Black, a tough soldier who wants to impress Scott. Others of note are Ed O'Neill and William H. Macy, a Mamet regular. DVD **1/2 (7/2/04)

"Bubba Ho-tep"-The creation of this indie film required some imagination. Elvis Presley, aka Sebastian Haff (Bruce Campbell), is an elderly disabled resident of a decrepit nursing home in Texas. One of the other residents is Jack (Ossie Davis), an elderly black man who claims to be JFK. The explanation: Elvis: "No offense, Jack, but President Kennedy was a white man." And Jack replies: "They dyed me this color! That's how clever they are!" And into this strange mix comes, believe it or not, an ancient Egyptian mummy bent on sucking souls from the bodies of the residents. Now this certainly sounds like a recipe for a movie disaster of epic proportions, but strangely it works and that's in part due to the intelligent script and the poignant portrayals by both Campbell and Davis. Haff tells a story explaining that he's the real Elvis and how he got there and Campbell, providing a touching portrayal of an elderly Elvis, makes you believe him and feel for his current state. Ossie Davis is hysterically serious as the apparently deluded Jack. When confronted with the horror of the evil stalking the nursing home, they somehow rise from their unhappy situations and go after the mummy to save their souls. On the DVD, the filmmakers discuss whether this is a comedy, a horror film, or a drama, and clearly it is all three. Quite a combination for a 90-minute film! Recommended for its unique approach and for the acting of both Campbell (who really hits the Elvis button) and Davis. As Elvis says: "Thank you. Thank you very very much." DVD ***1/2 (6/26/04)

"The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra"-I had never heard of this indie film until it was mentioned by a friend. Just out on DVD (I doubt it ever played in more than a handful of commercial theaters, most likely in LA), it attempts to be a parody of sci-fi films of the 1950s such as "It Came From Outer Space" and "This Island Earth." The trouble is that the filmmaker, Larry Blamire, who also stars in the film, has made the script so hokey and the effects (I hesitate to call them "special") so mediocre and obvious that the film becomes a self-parody. A rocket ship looks like a toy, a mutant looks like something put together in a backyard, and a skeleton character has obvious strings pulling the arms and legs. No matter how bad the sci-fi films of the 1950s were, they weren't this bad and the acting wasn't as atrocious as that we see here. Blamire admits his film is silly and I have to admit that it does have some funny stuff. The problem is that the cast tries so hard to be bad with an abominably silly script that it's hard to tell what's parody and what is simply bad writing and bad acting. A real parody, to be worthwhile, must be a little more subtle than this. With lines like "Betty, you know what this meteor could mean to science. It could mean actual advances in the field of science," do we laugh? How about this? "Sorry, sometimes my wife forgets that she is not an alien from outer space." The film is in black and white. It stars a cast of unknowns, including Fay Masterson as Betty, wife of Dr. Paul Armstrong (Blamire), and Jennifer Blaire (Blamire's real wife) as Animala, a cat-like creature who is pretty entertaining. Masterson, as the adoring wife of the idiot scientist, and Blaire are the best things in the film. DVD ** (6/25/04)

"Bad Santa"-"Bad Santa" is a BAD movie. I mean really bad. The premise? Billy Bob Thornton is Willie, a degenerate slob who annually manages, unlikely, to get jobs as a department store Santa Claus so that he and his "elf" partner, Marcus (Tony Cox) can ultimately rob the store. They then use the winnings to survive until the following Christmas season. Someone told me this film was a funny putdown of Christmas. No, sirree. This film is not funny and is more of a putdown of the movie business itself. Willie is a drunk and foul-mouthed to the nth degree. In fact, this film may set the record for the use of four letter words. It's also mean-spirited and lacking anything that would provide "entertainment." In the cast, sadly, is the late John Ritter as a department store employee (portrayed as a nerd) who is shocked at Willie's behavior and language, including his sexual activities in a customer changing-room, and complains to the completely cynical store security head, Gin (Bernie Mac). Does Gin do something about it? Sure, he joins the illegal activity and ultimately pays a very stiff price. Loads of fun! If you like a constant onslaught of four-letter words from characters with no redeeming social value whatsoever, this film is for you. Otherwise, run as fast as you can in the opposite direction. DVD * (6/25/04)

"The Station Agent"-This charming little indie film tells the story of three people who normally would have little in common but wind up as friends under unusual circumstances. Finbar ("Fin") McBride (Peter Dinklage) is a dwarf whose job as an assistant in a model train store in Hoboken, NJ, has ended abruptly with the death of his friend, the owner, Henry Styles (Paul Benjamin). Henry leaves Fin an old train depot in a rural part of New Jersey and Fin heads there on foot, hoping to lead a solitary life watching trains. But no sooner is he there than he meets two characters, Joe Oramas (Bobby Cannavale), who is running a mobile food stand which just happens to be parked right outside Fin's train depot, and Olivia Harris (Patricia Clarkson), a separated woman and artist grieving the loss of her son, who almost runs Fin down twice on a rural road. Joe is lonely and loves to talk and talk, but Fin initially won't have any of it. Fin is also wary of Olivia who suddenly befriends him with a bottle of wine. Slowly but surely the three begin to become friends as Joe and Olivia follow Fin in his walks along a railroad "right-of-way." With emotions running the gamut from fun to intense anger, "The Station Agent" shows what life can be like for a dwarf in our society, with people staring and ridiculing, but also being protective. And then Fin has the opportunity to compare his own problems with those of his new friends. Patricia Clarkson is, as always, wonderful as the pained Olivia and Bobby Cannavale provides humor as the hot-dog man who would rather run away from his stand and be with people. Peter Dinklage makes a tremendous impact as the little man at the center of this tale of basic human emotions. DVD **** (6/18/04)

"City of God"-This is the story of a slum community in Rio de Janeiro and what a story it is. Brilliantly portrayed through the eyes and narration of young Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), "City of God" explores a slum world of violence that almost defies imagination. From the opening thrilling shots of knives being sharpened and the attempted escape of a chicken on the block, we can tell that we are in the hands of intelligent filmmakers who are about to explore violence in a whole new way. The City of God is a fearful place, overrun with young hoods who seem to have no purpose in life other than to lie, steal, cheat and murder. Rocket finds himself caught in the middle, although he is fortunate enough to have the talent to be a photographer and to ultimately capture the images of this hell of a world. Literally caught between a phalanx of hoods with guns on one side and police with guns on the other, Rocket proceeds to tell the story from the beginning which is the 1960s. We see, in story interludes, the development of this hoodlum community into the 1970s until it is controlled, after untold numbers of shooting deaths, by two men, Carrot (Matheus Nachtergaele), a fairly benign drug dealer, and Li'l Ze (Leandro Firmino), a ruthless psychopathic drug dealer who is calmed only by his more peaceful cohort Benny (Phellipe Haagensen). Rocket, although occasionally caught up in the crime, would like to escape but has little choice as he is forced to live among these murderers. Ultimately, another peaceful character, Knockout Ned (Seu Jorge), is forced into the picture when Li'l Ze is rejected by Ned's girlfriend. Li'l Ze initially embarrasses Ned in public and rapes his girlfriend, but ultimately decides to kill and his murderous rampage forces Ned from his life of peace into a life of revengeful killing. This turns into a wholesale war in the City of God. Based on a true story, "City of God" also shows the incompetence and corruption of the local police, some of whom are gun runners to the hoods. The movie is spectacularly filmed and paced. The acting is as natural as one could possibly imagine. Many films contain violence for the sake of violence, but not this one. Here we experience a tale that explores an unfortunate reality of Brazilian life and we see the cycle of violence with our eyes wide open. In Portuguese with English subtitles. DVD ****1/2 (6/11/04)

"Mystic River"-Director Clint Eastwood has brought us an interesting mystery that delves into the minds and personalities of a group of earthy characters portrayed by an ensemble cast of first-rate actors. It's a dynamite combination and yet I found this film to be ultimately sour. Taking place in the streets of Boston, Eastwood's cast attempts to put on Boston accents that are occasionally so thick that at times they can barely be understood. To make it worse, the sound recording seemed to be below the usual standards for modern films with far too much background noise drowning out the dialogue. In a way, it reminded me of watching a British film about people with incredibly thick northern English accents. That said, the story starts out with three boys playing in the street only to have one, Dave Boyle, kidnapped by pederasts and kept for several days until he escapes. The others, Jimmy Markum and Sean Devine, look on perplexed as Dave is driven away. When we next see them, they have grown up and apart. Sean (Kevin Bacon) is a police detective; Dave (Tim Robbins) is married and has a son; and Jimmy (Sean Penn), who has spent time in prison for robbery, is married to the tough Annabeth (Laura Linney) and has three daughters. The trouble begins when Jimmy's daughter Katie (Emmy Rossum), planning to run off with a neighbor boy Brendan (Tom Guiry), is murdered. On the same evening Dave returns home at 3 a.m., with blood all over him and a gash in his abdomen. His wife Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden) immediately becomes frightened and suspicious and when the police, in the form of Sean and his partner, Whitey Powers (Laurence Fishburne), start inquiring about Dave, Celeste loses her cool, leading to the ultimate denouement. The cast is overpowering. Sean Penn, as always, portrays a character with amazing intensity but with enough subtlety to make him real. Tim Robbins is extremely effective as Dave, the man who has never gotten over his childhood experience. Laura Linney, usually full of vim, vigor and charm, is here amazing as the tough, worshipful wife of the very rough Jimmy. Marcia Gay Harden gives Celeste the vulnerability she needs to egg the story on. Kevin Bacon and Laurence Fishburne do a fine job as the seemingly good guy, bad guy cops. Eventually the solution to the mystery becomes obvious, but then there develops another mystery as to the motivations of Sean, the detective. I found the ending disturbing and morally obtuse. DVD ***1/2 (6/10/04)

"The Company"-With the apparent inspiration of actress Neve Campbell, who has studied dancing since childhood, "The Company," directed by Robert Altman, serves as almost a docudrama about the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago. The story is truly incidental to the ultimate intent of the film, which is to reveal what life is like in such a company. With members of the actual Joffrey playing the dancing parts, we get to see the trials and tribulations of professional dancers and the creative process, which can be awe-inspiring or downright silly. Malcolm McDowell plays Alberto Antonelli, the somewhat egotistical head of the company, and Neve Campbell is Ry, one of his newer up-and-coming dancers. James Franco, apparently along for the ride simply to give an excuse to show Ry's private life, is her boyfriend, a chef in a trendy restaurant. In a way this is a perfect situation for a director like Altman who prefers ensemble films and likes to move quickly from scene to scene ato show atmosphere rather than drama. And there is lots of atmosphere. The film contains some spectacularly wonderful dance numbers, including a fascinating duo to the tune of "My Funny Valentine" performed outdoors during a developing thunderstorm, and a solo done by a ballerina on a swing. What we learn is that the life of a professional dancer is difficult, is less glamorous than imagined, and requires an incredible amount of will and strength. The dancers are driven and work constantly, rarely taking breaks for to take a break is to lose their momentum. The film ends with a major dance number created around animal characterizations that, while beautifully danced, seemed more appropriate for a theme park show than for a major company like the Joffrey. No matter, this film is worth seeing for anyone who loves or is intrigued by modern dance. DVD ***1/2 (6/5/04)

"Monster"-Aileen Wuornos was a hooker turned killer who was eventually executed for murder. In this otherwise fairly mundane film about her transformation from a disturbed highway prostitute into a murderer, Charlize Theron makes an amazing transformation of her own from one of the most beautiful women in the world into a blonde worn out hag. Wreaking of a messed up childhood, which is hinted at in the film, Theron totally becomes Wuornos. This film is not only about Lee, as Wuornos was known to her friends, but also about Selby (Christina Ricci), Lee's lover and ultimate turncoat. As "Monster" begins, Lee is already bereft, sitting under a highway overpass and considering suicide. But she goes on and walks into a bar, meeting the lonely Selby. Despite protestations about not being a lesbian, Lee takes Selby up on her invitation to come home with her and the relationship begins. Selby is totally passive, seemingly allowing Wuornos, despite her protestations, to control her life as they move from hotel room to rundown house. Although Wuornos attempts to get a regular job, she literally wreaks of her regular occupation and is unable to break into that other world. She returns to hooking and eventually meets a "john" who makes the mistake of beating her to a pulp and threatening her life. Wuornos turns the violence on the john and her career of murder begins. There are those who have argued that Aileen Wuornos acted in self-defense and had sexual relations with many other men during the time of the killings and did no harm to them, only turning on those who were violent to her. That is not the way she is eventually portrayed in this film, finally killing a man who doesn't even solicit sex from her. Without knowing more details of the case, it's hard to pass judgment on the filmmakers in this regard. However, despite Theron's amazing performance, the film drags, repetitious in its portrayal of the dull hopeless relationship of Lee and Selby. With better direction and more imagination, this film might have taken off. DVD *** (6/4/04)

"The Last Samurai"-It is 1876, and Custer and the 7th Cavalry have just been wiped out by the Sioux along the Little Bighorn. Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise), a former member of that troop from the Civil War, is now remorseful about the murderous killing by the Army of innocent Indian women and children and is resorting to alcohol to alleviate his disturbing memories. He is recruited by Colonel Bagley (Tony Goldwyn), an officer he despises for his stupidity and lack of feeling, to go to Japan to help train the Emperor's soldiers in the use of modern weapons. In Japan, Algren is in the process of training raw recruits when a threat develops from Samurai headed by Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe). Katsumoto, at the end of a thousand year Samurai tradition in Japan, thinks of himself as fighting on behalf of the emperor, but the Emperor is weak and has been subjected to intense pressures to modernize Japan and, in the process, destroy the Samurai. Before the troops can be adequately prepared and over Algren's objections, Bagley orders them to battle and it isnt long before Katsumoto and his fellow Samurai warriors rout the Emperor's soldiers and capture Algren despite his bravest efforts. Apparently impressed with Algren's pluck and courage, Katsumoto keeps him alive and brings him to his village. He is cared for by Katsumoto's newly widowed sister Taka (Koyuki) (the husband having been killed by Algren), who at first despises Algren but then gradually begins to become impressed by his spirit and demeanor. Meanwhile, in contrast to the Bushido philosophy and manner of the Samurai, Algren demonstrates to Taka and others in the village the ways of a tough but sensitive man of the west. And as he lives among them, Algren gradually begins to admire the Samurai life and to transform himself into one of them. "The Last Samurai" is beautifully filmed and extraordinary at revealing the contrasting philosophies of two very different warriors. One, a western man like Algren whose view of battle is close to that of the mercenary, and, second, Katsumoto, to whom fighting is part of the everyday life of the tradition-rich Samurai warrior. Ken Watanabe provides a very strong and handsome presence as Katsumoto in this excellent film of divergent cultures and philosophies, and Tom Cruise has never been better. Others of significant note in the film are Koyuki, showing the quiet wonderment of Taka at this strange man who is living in her home; Timothy Spall (who played the musical role of the Mikado in "Topsy-Turvy") as Simon Graham, a translator and photographer at the final battle; the amusing Billy Connolly as Zebulon Gant, Algren's right-hand man; Masato Harada as Omura, the minister who fills the Emperor's ears with hate for the Samurai; and Togo Igawa as General Hasegawa, a Samurai turned modern soldier who pays the ultimate price for leading his men into a hopeless battle. DVD **** (5/29/04)

"The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King"-After six hours of "The Fellowship of the Ring" and "The Two Towers," we are faced with another three dreadful hours of pretty much the same thing: Frodo (Elijah Wood) still has the ring and is headed towards Mordor to try to dispose of it in the fires of Mount Doom, accompanied by Sam (Sean Astin) and the obviously treacherous Smeagol/Gollum (Andy Serkis, who actually gets to be seen at the start of this film); Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and Legolas (Orlando Bloom) are wandering around trying to think of ways to save mankind; Gandalf (Ian McKellen) is on his white horse telling everyone what to do; another Middle Earth city faces attack from the Mordorian legions of Auks and other "friendly" characters; and Eowyn (Miranda Otto), a woman of beauty and pizzazz, is mistaken in her belief that Aragorn is attracted to her when unbeknownst to her, he's really in love with the utterly vapid and expressionless Arwen (Liv Tyler). Other than the performance of Sean Astin, the acting is pretty much non-existent in this film. It's all posturing, with little or no expression. Elijah Wood still looks like an animal in the headlights during most of his scenes. Thankfully, he has Astin along to provide some real emotion as Sam may well be the only character in this film who demonstrates any spirit at all. Everything else is utterly predictable. Once again we have "Star Wars" meets "The Wizard of Oz" with a little bit of "Alien" and "Them" thrown in. This film won an inexplicable Oscar for Best Film. It deserved an Oscar for special effects (but even those grow wearisome after a multitude of repetitions). But that's about it. The rest is as over-the-top as any film I've ever seen (do the battle scenes ever end?). Peter Jackson, the director, didn't know when to cut. I have no doubt he could have significantly edited this film without any loss to whatever story it has. And then there's the end. The end that never ends and the end that is unexplained. The elderly Bilbo and Frodo must sail off into the sea for no apparent reason. I'm sure Tolkien had a reason but it's certainly not obvious here. And it wasn't obvious to the other characters who were shocked and surprised by Gandalf's pronouncement that Frodo must go. With the departure of Frodo and the elderly Bilbo, thankfully, after nine long weary hours, the series was over. DVD **1/2 (5/28/04)

"Osama"-Like its unique predecessor, "Kandahar," "Osama" tells of miserable life under the Taliban in Afghanistan before 9/11. The film, made by Siddiq Barmak, is beautifully filmed, giving the viewer a clear and depressing view of the misery of the Afghan existence in the Taliban-era. And "Osama" is especially effective in portraying the virulent anti-female policies of the Taliban. Marina Golbahari is the unforgettable young girl whose mother and grandmother are so desperate for food that they cut her hair and send her out dressed as a boy to work (something females could not do), a potentially fatal undertaking if she is discovered by the Taliban. What makes it seem so foolhardy is that Taliban are everywhere with their black beards and semi-automatic rifles peering with suspicion at everyone and everything everybody does to be certain that no one is enjoying themselves in any way. Named "Osama" by one of the boys (who knows her secret), the young girl is finally caught up in a desperate situation when the Taliban round up all the boys, including Osama, for re-training to their militaristic and hateful way of thinking. In one astonishing scene, the boys are taught how to wash their bodies by a deranged mullah who will eventually be the bane of Osama's life. This is a tragedy, but it is encouraging that in such a short period of time, two enlightening and extremely well-done films have emerged from a country like Afghanistan to allow it to tell its story. We can only hope that the people of Afghanistan have only good things to look forward to, but I suspect they have a very long way to go. (English subtitles) DVD **** (5/22/04)

"Miracle"-While the cold war was still red hot, an Olympic hockey game between the USA and the USSR was big news. In 1980, Americans were glued to their TVs to watch the young upstart USA hockey team, led by coach Herb Brooks, play the older, more experienced and dominant Soviets. As Al Michaels, TV broadcaster, asked at the end of the game as the USA team won, "Do you believe in miracles?" It was a truly great moment in sports. "Miracle" recreates the experience. Kurt Russell, looking a little too much like an Elvis impersonator, does a fine job of becoming coach Brooks, who had been cut as a player from the gold medal winning 1960 USA Olympic team and who was going to do everything in his power to win at Lake Placid in 1980. Initially ignoring his wife (the marvelous Patricia Clarkson) and totally ignoring the views of the amateur hockey powers, Brooks selectively chose the kind of young players he thought could meld into a team and put them through an extremely rigorous training program. It worked. "Miracle" is loaded with what would normally be thought of as sports film ultraclichés: the super tough coach who, despite cynicism from those around him, knows exactly what he's doing and molds the young upstart team which ultimately wins the unbelievable game at the end. But this really happened and this film makes it seem so real that when you watch the big medal-round game versus the Soviets at the end, it's almost as if you are watching the real game and you can ignore the clichés. The cinematography of the action on the ice is truly astounding (the techniques used to film these scenes are explained on a special feature on the DVD). In addition, a cast of young hockey players turned actors, as well as actors with some hockey experience perform as well as one could possibly expect. I was particularly impressed with Michael Mantenuto as Jack O'Callahan who suffers what appears to be a serious injury at the worst moment and then rises to the occasion; Patrick O'Brien Demsey as Mike Eruzione, the team captain; and Nathan West as Rob McClanahan. And not to be forgotten is Eddie Cahill as Jim Craig, the young goalie who overcomes family concerns and plays the game of his life in Lake Placid. Kurt Russell is hardly known for his acting ability, but here he comes through by transforming himself into Herb Brooks. For having re-created so well such a great sports moment, "Miracle" is undoubtedly one of the best sports films. DVD **** (5/21/04)

"The Fog of War"-This is a mesmerizing documentary interview with Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense for JFK and LBJ, and later head of the World Bank, and one of the most detested men in America during the Vietnam era. Here, McNamara, with the help of filmmaker Errol Morris ("The Thin Blue Line"), describes the lessons he learned while making many of the decisions he made that cost many Americans their lives during the 1960s. With incredible images and music by Philip Glass, "The Fog of War" surprisingly reveals McNamara in a good light as a man who was thoughtful and pained by what he found himself doing. Not surprisingly in the circumstances, McNamara comes off well, but Lyndon Baines Johnson does not. DVD ***1/2 (5/17/04)

"Paycheck"-Ben Affleck has gone astray recently and this film provides some explanation. Ben is simply a stiff as an actor. I laughed when John Woo, the director, compared Affleck on the DVD to Cary Grant. Not in looks, charm, or talent. Sorry John. Woo also thinks this film is like Hitchcock. Again, sorry John. Here Ben is Michael Jennings, a reverse engineer used by futuristic companies to create amazing machines based on the original creations of others. Jennings doesn't seem to mind their requirement that his memory of the job be erased at the completion of the undertaking. So, when Jennings finishes a three year job for the sinister James Rethrick (Aaron Eckhart) and finds himself with an envelope full of seemingly meaningless items rather than the $90 million he expected, the "fun" begins. And it is loaded with every cliché known to this genre of film from gun battles to car and motorcycle chases. The chases, the mysterious gunslinging characters, the involvement of the FBI which, as usual, doesn't seem to have a clue, and, of course, the beautiful maiden (Uma Thurman), all bring yawns. Well, maybe not Uma who is fun to watch no matter how bad the script. "Paycheck" is a mess. Not really clever, and it is full of holes, whether from bullets or otherwise. Paul Giamatti, Joe Morton, Michael C. Hall, and Colm Feore play stock characters. DVD **1/2 (5/16/04)

"The Triplets of Belleville"-There is a genre of movies that can simply be called "weird." This animated French film fits the category to a tee. It is the story, if one can call it that, of an elderly lady who blows a whistle, but never talks, and who obsessively encourages her grandson to become a bicycle racer. When the seemingly mindless grandson is kidnapped from the Tours de France by gangsters, grandma and dog Bruno (who never fails to bark at passing trains) take off by sea to save grandson. Ultimately, they meet up with one of the most bizarre group of characters seen on film, the now-elderly singing Triplets of Belleville, three ladies who are so frog-obsessed that they eat them in every way possible, even like popsicles. The animation is strangely fascinating and writer/director Sylvain Chomet undoubtedly intended some commentary on other animated films and on European and American culture, but I must admit that I kept wondering why in the world he went to all the trouble of creating this bizarre film. The best things in it are Bruno, who has the train schedule down pat, and the Triplets' rather amusing theme song. With very few words in any language, "Triplets" has more grunts and expressions than anything else as a form of communication. DVD *** (5/15/04)

"In America"-An Irish family of four is seen crossing from Canada to the US, stating that they are tourists. That they are illegal is totally forgotten in this fantasy about their moving to and settling in Manhattan. Suffering from the ravages of losing their young son to cancer, Johnny (Paddy Considine) and Sarah (Samantha Morton) settle into a hovel of apartment in a drug-infested building with their two daughters, Christy and Ariel (Sarah and Emma Bolger). Despite the fact that they are suffering from the loss of a child, Johnny and Sarah allow the two young girls to leave the apartment alone while they make love and conceive another child. Most of the neighbors seem warm and loving, including the local waitress. The apartment miraculously turns lush and comfortable, and on Halloween Christy and Ariel are allowed to trick or treat and thus meet the amazing and unrealistic Mateo (Djimon Hounsou), an artist suffering from the never-mentioned AIDS, but who immediately turns from an angry ogre into a loving caring friend of all. "In America" is loaded with such hokum. Director Jim Sheridan, supposedly basing this story on his own childhood, even has the impossible five figure hospital bill paid for miraculously after Sarah gives birth. The acting is fine. Sarah Bolger stands out as the amazingly cute, intelligent, and insightful older daughter. But ultimately it is impossible to take this story seriously when everything, including a monumentally absurd attempt to win a carnival ET doll, seems too good to be true. DVD *** (5/14/04)

"Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World"-Stories of sea battles between warships of powerful European nations and of early America were once a staple of Hollywood, as were pirate films. But other than the occasional disaster epic such as "Titanic," the ocean-going adventure genre film had almost ceased to exist. "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" brings it back with a vengeance. One of the most exhilarating cinematic creations seen in a long time, "Master and Commander" brings us aboard the HMS Surprise commanded by Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe). We follow the ship's crew through moments of fear, death, joy and elation as they are either chased by or chasing the French warship, the Acheron. One of the pleasant surprises of this film is that the crew is not full of stereotypes. In fact, the crew seems like a group of real people, including the young midshipman Blakeney (Max Pirkis) who loses his arm in battle not long after the film begins. When the Surprise enters into a battle of cannon-fire with the Acheron, it remains for the ship's doctor, Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), to save as many as possible. Maturin also serves as the captain's friend and advisor. In this saga, the Surprise sails from the coast of Brazil around Cape Horn (and through the usual monstrous storms) to the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific where the ultimate battle hopefully will occur. "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" is exquisitely filmed. It comes as close as I've seen (without the smells, obviously) to giving us the feeling of what it might have been like for the sailors to be cooped up in a relatively small box on a vast ocean without much in the way of pleasure, especially women. Crowe and Bettany (who also appeared together in "A Beautiful Mind") interact like genuine old friends. The cast otherwise is marvelous. Highly recommended. DVD **** (5/8/04)

"Girl with a Pearl Earring"-Johannes Vermeer was a 17th-century Dutch painter from Delft who created some of the most exquisite images ever put on canvas. His paintings were mostly of people in rooms with wonderful lighting and lush colors and details, although he did the occasional landscape and portrait. This film, based on the novel by Tracy Chevalier, is about one of those portraits, the "Girl with a Pearl Earring." Not that much is known about Vermeer's life and Chevalier took the opportunity to speculate on how this magnificent painting might have been created. The film tells the story of Griet (Scarlett Johansson), who becomes a maid in the tense Vermeer (Colin Firth) household, overseen by Maria Thins (Judy Parfitt), Vermeer's mother-in-law. Thins tries to help her son-in-law obtain commissions for his art, but it's painfully obvious that Vermeer's wife Catharina (Essie Davis) doesn't trust him and that Vermeer has little or no interest in his wife (other than to have children) because is oblivious to the subtleties of his wonderful talents. Griet is intelligent and perceptive, and when Vermeer becomes distinctly attracted to the young maid, the wife looks on with pain and fear. The real power, however, lies with a gentleman named Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson), Vermeer's primary patron. Van Ruijven loves to manipulate and ultimately insists that Vermeer make a painting of Griet for him, thus adding to the already tense situation. "Girl with a Pearl Earring" is not so much a story as it is a contemplation of Vermeer's paintings. The script is minimal but the images are fabulous. From the opening scene of Griet chopping and slicing the most sensuous looking vegetables one may have ever seen to the extraordinary images of Vermeer's home and studio, the film looks almost like a living Vermeer painting. From the art and set design to the incredible cinematography (Eduardo Serra), this film is a joy to behold. If there was nothing else, this film would be recommended. But under the direction of Peter Webber, "Girl with a Pearl Earring" is also a meaningful exploration of creativity and the pressures of marriage. DVD **** (5/8/04)

"Calendar Girls"-A few years back the women of the Rylstone Women's Institute in North Yorkshire, England, posed "nude" for a calendar to raise money for a cancer center in honor of the husband of one of the women who had died of leukemia. "Calendar Girls," with some minor changes, tells their story. Here the women are from Knapely, a rather idyllic rural community in the north of England. Some are stuffed shirts and others are quite open to experimentation. With the inspiration and leadership of Chris (Helen Mirren), several of the women ultimately decide to pose, but only after making sure that they will not be exposed to the photographer. They initially fear their wild idea will be a failure but ultimately they succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, with several finding themselves in the United States, signing autographs and appearing on major American TV shows, including the Tonight show. The cast is delightful, especially Mirren, Julie Walters as Annie (the widow), Linda Bassett, Annette Crosbie, Celia Imrie and Penelope Wilton. "Calendar Girls" produces some genuine laughs and will undoubtedly occasionally choke you up, but does go somewhat dramatically overboard. And yet it's a fun couple of hours. DVD ***1/2 (5/5/04)

"The Cooler"-This gambling casino fantasy stars three wonderful actors, all of whom provided Oscar-worthy performances. William H. Macy is Bernie Lootz, a loser of such proportions that he has the talent to cool off hot hands at the gaming tables at the Shangri-La Casino in Vegas run by the overbearing and merciless Shelly Kaplow (Alec Baldwin). Bernie and Shelly have been together for years, but that hasn't stopped Shelly from taking ultra-advantage of Bernie's luckless life or from physically abusing Bernie by smashing his knee cap. Bernie wobbles around, seemingly content with a life without love, without cream for his coffee, and without purpose. Shelly, who is being pressured by other powers-that-be at the casino to upgrade the facility from the old basic casino to a new family-style Vegas attraction, wants Bernie around to guarantee the house's continued winnings. Whenever someone looks like they're on a roll, Bernie is called in to cool them off and all he has to do is step near the table. But into Bernie's life comes the lovely Natalie (Maria Bello), a casino waitress, who initially looks uninterested but then seems to hang around Bernie's activities. Before he knows it, Bernie finds himself in a relationship with Natalie and in love, and Bernie's whole outlook on life has changed. In one of the funniest scenes in a long time, Bernie walks into the casino with a strut and a smile on his face and suddenly the cooler has turned into the heater. Now, wherever Bernie goes, the customers start to win, and win big. Needless to say, Shelly is not at all happy and he has violence on his mind. "The Cooler," despite being located in a Vegas casino, is in reality a fantasy film headed for what we all hope will be a fairy-tale ending. Alec Baldwin received a deserved Oscar nod for his powerful performance as the single-minded casino head, but William H. Macy and Maria Bello were equally powerful in portraying two characters whose lives seemed beyond their controls and who discover love in the strangest way. Other noteworthy performances are from Ron Livingston as the smart-aleck Larry Sokolov, who tries to convince Shelly that change is needed and on the way; Ellen Greene as the waitress with never enough cream for the coffee; and Paul Sorvino as an addicted over-the-hill lounge singer. This is a delightful film worthy of admiration for three actors inspired by their characters. Recommended. DVD **** (5/1/04)

"Big Fish"-Billy Crudup is Will Bloom, a young man whose father, Ed Bloom (Albert Finney), a self-centered man, has been telling seemingly tall stories all his life and Will is tired of the whole thing. Will hears of the impossibly large fish that Ed caught on the day Will was born and believes none of it, becoming embarrassed at his father's endless whoppers. Little by little we begin to see Ed's version of life, about his adventures as a young man in Alabama (the young Ed is played by Ewen McGregor), running into one of the biggest men ever seen, Karl the Giant (Matthew McGrory, who really is 7'6"), learning about his future fate from a witch (Helena Bonham Carter), and becoming a member of an unusual circus troupe led by a canine-like Amos Callaway (Danny DeVito). When the senior Ed becomes seriously ill, Will returns from Europe with his pregnant French wife Josephine (Marion Cotillard) and starts to see his father in a new light, especially after hearing about him from others. Meeting a younger version of the witch (also played by Carter), Ed discovers what his father did to save an unusual town and its people and learns the truth about the unusual way his father met and married his mother, Sandra (played by Alison Lohman as the young Sandra and Jessica Lange as the contemporary Sandra). "Big Fish", the creation of Director Tim Burton ("Edward Scissorhands") is seemingly about faith and discovery, with the aim to teach Will a big lesson. The film is loaded with unusual images and strange characters, but ultimately it fails because it never rises to the level of inspiration and Will's conversion seems strained and unlikely. Albert Finney's performance is uninspired and feels very much like a caricature of his old self. Black-haired Billy Crudup is miscast as the offspring of the blonde Lohman/Lange and the light-haired McGregor/Finney characters. Tim Burton has made some intriguing films, including "Beetlejuice" and "Ed Wood," but "Big Fish" seems more in league with "Sleepy Hollow" and "Planet of the Apes." "Big Fish" is only mildly amusing, and in the end the whoppers and the central theme just don't seem to be that impressive. DVD *** (4/30/04)

"Love Actually"-The theme is that love is all around. Somewhat shocking for a British film. Sounds more like a hokey American film. But the writer/director Richard Curtis ("Notting Hill" and "Bridget Jones' Diary") managed to cast some of the most delightful actors around and put together a rather cheerful two hours of fun. "Love Actually" portrays characters and love stories moving in every direction, some of which cross paths, even if only momentarily. There's the single prime minister (Hugh Grant) who is intrigued by Natalie, one of the employees at 10 Downing Street (Martine McCutcheon) until he catches her flirting with the US president (Billy Bob Thornton); there's a sexy young thing in an office (Heike Makatsch) trying very hard to seduce the prime minister's brother-in-law Harry (Alan Rickman); there's a shy couple (Martin Freeman and Joanna Page) who are stand-ins for a porn film and who meet under rather bare circumstances; there's a widower (Liam Neeson) mourning the loss of his wife (although dreaming about Claudia Schiffer) and caring for his stepson Sam (Thomas Sangster), who happens to be in love with a young lady at school and is afraid to tell her; there's Sarah (Laura Linney), an employee in Harry's office who is woefully in love with Karl (Rodrigo Santoro) but has no idea how to tell him or show him even when she finally winds up in bed with him; there's Billy Mack (Bill Nighy), a cynical pop singer, who constantly insults his best friend and manager (Gregor Fisher); there's Jamie (Colin Firth), a writer who has been disappointed in love who goes off to live in a villa in Italy and meets a lovely Portuguese housekeeper (Lúcia Moniz); and there's an interesting trio of Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Mark (Andrew Lincoln) and the woman at the center of their friendship (Keira Knightley). There are wonderful performances by others, including the marvelous Emma Thompson as Harry's wife, the prime minister's sister; and Kris Marshall as Colin who can't seem to find a woman in England but decides to go to Wisconsin to meet sexy babes and succeeds beyond his wildest dreams. With any lesser cast this film could have been a corny and confusing disaster, but with this wonderful group of performers it has to succeed in making you smile. DVD ***1/2 (4/29/04)

"Kill Bill: Vol. 1"-This is Quentin Tarantino's fourth film ("Reservoir Dogs," "Pulp Fiction," and "Jackie Brown") and he makes sure you know it when reading the introductory titles. It is also one of the most violent films ever made and yet the violence is reduced utterly to comic book status. With martial arts carried to a degree that reaches pure art, people smash and slash each other. They crash into things and have their heads and limbs cut off, but never do you imagine that any of this is real. Uma Thurman is, as usual, stunning as The Bride, a member of the Deadly Vipers Assassination Squad headed by Bill (the unseen David Carradine), who is the victim herself of an assassination attempt by the other DVAS, including O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu), Elle Driver (Darryl Hannah), Vernita Green (Vivica Fox), and Budd (Michael Madsen). Her entire wedding party is murdered, but The Bride, who had been pregnant, amazingly survives despite a bullet to the head and, after waking up years later from a coma, decides she will avenge the wedding tragedy and will "kill Bill." The rest of this film, told somewhat out of sequence and with the partial use of Japanese animé, is as slick as slick can be. With a powerful sword made of "Japanese steel," which can cut right through other blades, The Bride goes after O-Ren and Vernita. And when the film ends, we have more to look forward to in Vol. 2, just out in the theaters. If you like martial arts and slick films, this is a masterpiece. If you like a little substance, it's not. Tarantino's films are loaded with allusions to other films, but that hardly seems enough to justify this cinematic creation. On production values alone, the film rates highly but I can't go beyond the rating I'm giving simply because Tarantino is obsessed with violence simply for the sake of violence. When you see cartoon-like images of blood spurting out like fountains from injured people, you know you are in the hands of a very strange filmmaker. DVD ***1/2 (4/16/04)

"Casa de los Babys"-John Sayles ("Sunshine State") writes and directs his own films which often consist of vignettes of life rather than plot-driven tales. "Casa de los Babys" is about American women in Mexico waiting to adopt babies. We see the women, played by Darryl Hannah, Lili Taylor, Marcia Gay Harden, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Mary Steenburgen, and Susan Lynch hanging out at a hotel (known locally as the Casa de los Babys) run by a cynical Señora Muñoz (Rita Moreno, in a rare Spanish-speaking role), shopping, eating out, louging around their rooms, lying on the beach, and all the time waiting and talking about impending motherhood. Some have been there for months and the local authorities don't seem in a rush to help them. Each of the women has a story. One has had and lost three children; one is a recovered alcoholic; another is an annoying incessant complainer who doesn't seem to be telling the truth about her life. But we also see other aspects of local life, including homeless Mexican children who prowl the streets looking for money, a place to sleep, and probably some love. And then there are the locals who look for work or who work in menial occupations serving these American women preoccupied with motherhood and some of whom are downright bitter about it. The film contains a powerful scene in which Eileen (Susan Lynch), an Irishwoman from Boston, tells the housekeeper (Vanessa Martinez) of her dreams of being the mother of a young daughter while the housekeeper replies in Spansh to an uncomprehending Eileen that she was the mother of one of the children given up for adoption to Americans. Sayles is saying quite a lot about the great divide between how Americans see the world and how everyone else sees us. Also notable are Darryl Hannah's portrayal of the intense Skipper, who is dealing with her past losses; Marcia Gay Harden, who seems capable of almost any portrayal, as the unpleasant Nan, an American with a bit of klepto in her; and Lili Taylor as Leslie, a tough-talking New Yorker. Mostly in English but with some Spanish and English subtitles. DVD ***1/2 (4/16/04)

"Timeline"-I'm a sucker for a time travel story if it seems to have any value at all. "Timeline," unfortunately, doesn't have much. Based on the Michael Crichton novel of the same name, "Timeline" tells the story of a group of archaelogists at a place called Castlegard in France who are being supported by a high tech company, ITC, in the New Mexico desert. When a couple of the archaelogists break through into a tunnel no one has been in before and find a note from one of their colleagues that was written in the 14th Century along with a lens from his eyeglasses, the archaelogists want to know what is going on. They soon find that ITC has hit upon a machine that connects with a worm hole in the fabric of time and can send people back to Castlegard in the middle of the Hundred Years War. So, a team of crack archaelogists are sent, almost without thought, back to rescue Professor Johnston (Billy Connolly) and they immediately find themselves being hunted by the English forces bent on killing as many Frenchmen as possible. The team is led by Professor Johnston's son Chris (Paul Walker) and his love interest Kate (Frances O'Connor). One of the things that makes time travel stories fun is the interaction of the parties, old and new, so that the wonders of time travel can be considered, as well as the catches in the time warp that have to be carefully considered and avoided (for example, no one should dare try to change history). But here it's simply an adventure story. All we see, other than one somewhat inane romance, is running, chasing and fighting. The romance is between a time traveler, André Marek (Gerard Butler) and a significant historical figure in the battle about to take place, Lady Claire (Anna Friel),who is supposed to be hanged by the English thus providing the inspiration for the French victory. But Marek falls in love with and saves Lady Claire, a glitch in history that is left essentially unexplained. The archaelogists know that they have a limited time in which to return to the present and that time is clicking by. And so the viewer knows that the film will come down to a climax in which at least some of the time travelers will make it home at the very last second. Cliché anyone? And even the production values fail. The battle scenes in the 14th Century look more like a scene from a recreation at Busch Gardens than anything resembling the real thing. There's a cute catch at the end involving our romantic couple (when Marek is urged to join the group heading home, he responds "I am home,"), but hardly surprising and hardly enough to raise this film from its very pedestrian level. DVD **1/2 (4/15/04)

"The Magdalene Sisters"-For some reason, despite the incredible history of power, death, wars, and pain associated with some established religions, many assume that religion automatically provides the moral leadership that will lead to better humans. The Crusades, the Inquisition, the wars between Christian sects, and the current state of affairs in the Middle East, all demonstrate that religion, in and of itself, can lead just as easily to evil and human suffering as to human decency. In recent times the Catholic Church in America has suffered through a scandal of immense proportions due to the abuse of children by seemingly "holy" priests. "The Magdelene Sisters" provides another excruciating example of this. It is 1964, and three young women are about to discover the immense power of the Church in Ireland. Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) is raped by a cousin at a wedding. Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone) flirts with boys at the orphanage where she lives. Rose (Dorothy Duffy) has had a child out of wedlock. The parents of both Margaret and Rose turn their Catholic-based moral outrage on the girls and ship them off to a Magdelene Sisters laundry to work as virtual slaves, under lock and key. Joining them is Bernadette who has been scorned by the holier-than-thou administrator of the orphanage. Under the scornful and tyrannical leadership of Sister Bridget (the amazing Geraldine McEwan), the girls are essentially imprisoned by the church for a life of slavery. They work all day in a laundry under close watch prevented from talking by those who have been there for many years and the uncaring Sisters in charge. They eat slop while the nuns eat far better food. They can neither leave the convent nor talk to anyone outside. They are stripped naked by the nuns and ridiculed. This is, unfortunately, a true story. Amazingly, the film advises that the last Magdelene Sisters laundry closed as recently as 1996. The cast is superb. Geraldine McEwan is raw evil as a nun who cries when watching "The Bells of St. Mary's," but who demonstrates less than zero feelings for her fellow humans. The young women are powerful, especially Anne-Marie Duff as Margaret who spends four years in this hell because she was the victim of a sexual attack, and Nora-Jane Noone as the flirtatious orphan sentenced to this Church based prison simply for looking and talking to boys. Also of note is Eileen Walsh as Crispina, who is in the convent because she has had a child sans marriage and feels that she can communicate with her child through a St. Christopher's metal she wears. Her pain is palpable. This is a distressing, but significant film. Highly recommended. DVD **** (4/10/04)

"Shattered Glass"-This is a true story. Stephen Glass (Hayden Christiansen) was a fraud. Outwardly a nonfiction writer for The New Republic in the middle 1990s, Glass was actually creating elaborate fiction and passing it off as fact. Ultimately, he was found out and fired by newly appointed Editor-in-Chief Chuck Lane (Peter Sarsgaard). "Shattered Glass" tells their story. Glass, age 25 in 1998, is portrayed by Christiansen as a somewhat nerdy and annoying figure, one who kowtows to the boss, spreads favors to his equals, and gives pompous advice to his underlings, generally advice that he never follows himself. Glass is self-confident but always expressing self-doubt. Whenever anyone wants to see him, he asks pleadingly "Are you angry at me?" Well, obviously he had deep-seeded guilt feelings. After writing an astounding and fake story about a hacker convention at which a teen hacker received an amazing job from a Silicon Valley software firm named Jukt Micronics, a writer at Forbes Digital, Adam Penenberg (Steve Zahn), became suspicious and did the research which ultimately proved the story was a fake and brought Glass down. "Shattered Glass" is an interesting story but is lacking in some respects. Peter Sarsgaard, despite some rave reviews, is pretty lackluster as Lane, a man who one would think would be a little more animated (nervous, disturbed, and outraged) at what he is learning about one of the leading writers on his magazine. Christiansen ("Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones"), on the other hand, is fairly effective as the surreal Glass. Hank Azaria, who plays Michael Kelly, the editor of The New Republic prior to Lane, comes across more as an editor-in-chief than does Sarsgaard as Lane. Also notable in the cast is Chloë Sevigny as Caitlin, an editor who supports Glass until the truth finally comes out. Sevigny, however, is never given the opportunity to show the intelligence that would be required of an editor/writer at a magzine like The New Republic. "Shattered Glass" had great potential but tripped a little over its own shards. DVD *** (4/9/04)

"House of Sand and Fog"-After seeing "21 Grams" just a few days ago, I wondered about my reaction to another film with a similar tragic theme. But "House of Sand and Fog" reminded me of exactly why some films about human tragedy succeed where others simply don't work. Based on the novel by Andre Dubus III, "House of Sand and Fog" is a tragedy of almost Shakespearean proportions and works simply because it's about people and a situation that one could actually imagine happening. In other words, one can relate easily to this depressing situation. Kathy (Jennifer Connelly) is evicted from her home overlooking SF Bay when the county makes a mistake about unpaid taxes. Almost immediately, Col. Bahrani (Ben Kingsley), a prideful former Iranian officer who tries hard to make his peers believe he continues to be successful in America, bids successfully on the house, moves his family in and starts making changes in order to get a substantial increase in value in a resale. But Kathy, who is a depressed recovering alcoholic who inherited the house from her beloved father, desperately wants her house back and starts by seeing an attorney (Frances Fisher) in hopes that Bahrani's purchase can be stopped. Into the mix comes Lester (Ron Eldard), a deputy sheriff who is sympathetic and, although married with two children, very attracted to the beautiful Kathy. When the county admits error and is willing to buy back the house, Kathy finds that Col. Bahrani will not budge, insisting that her problem is with the county and not with him. Bahrani, who treats his wife (Shohreh Aghdashloo) almost as a possession, is unmoved and his intransigence is ultimately the source of a complex tragedy that brings down almost all of the characters. Ben Kingsley is truly amazing in his ability to portray a character as single-minded as Bahrani, while having played so many other far more sympathetic characters just as well. Shohreh Aghdashloo is a dynamo as Bahrani's wife, a woman frustrated by her husband's backwards approach to marriage and by her inability to understand much of what is going on due to a language barrier. Jennifer Connelly once again establishes her right to be described as one of the best young actresses around today. Also of note is young Jonathan Ahdout as Bahrani's teenage son Esmail, who finds himself caught between his instinct for caring for a fellow human's plight and obeying his strict and insistent father. I was afraid of"House of Sand and Fog" but I was incredibly moved by the time it was over. DVD **** (4/4/04)

"Something's Gotta Give"-It's a lot of fun watching two old pros in action. Here, Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton come together in a film which provides a rare opportunity for a story about love amongst the oldsters and even between young and old. We initially see Harry Sanborn (Nicholson) approaching an ultra-beachside home in the Hamptons with his young girlfriend Marin (Amanda Peet). They believe no one, especially Marin's mother, Erica Barry (Keaton), is home, but home she is. And not only Erica, but her sister, Marin's aunt, Zoe (Frances McDormand). And we get the expected difficult introductions as Erica meets a boyfriend of her daughter's who turns out to be older than she is herself. Harry is uncomfortable and wants to leave only to be talked into staying. Harry then suffers a heart attack, is saved by Dr. Julian Mercer (Keanu Reeves), and returns back to Erica's house to recuperate while Marin returns to New York. Not surprisingly, Erica, although a successful playwright, has been divorced for years and appears to have lost the touch for romance. So what might happen here? Both Dr. Mercer and Harry find themselves intrigued by this attractive, intelligent and giggly woman. Keaton and Nicholson play together almost like a team. In fact, at times their dialogue sounded improvised and natural. Both are genuinely funny as is Frances McDormand who has one absolutely hysterical scene. Amanda Peet, as lovely as she is, always seems to blend into the background so that I usually can't remember who she is until I see her. Keanu Reeves demonstrates no new acting talent. Paul Michael Glaser appears as Erica's ex, and Jon Favreau has a small role as Harry's assistant. "Something's Gotta Give," directed and written by Nancy Meyers ("What Women Want") is an enjoyable if not memorable romantic comedy. It's primary flaw is that it starts to get old in the last half hour. 90 minutes would have been just perfect for this kind of humor. DVD ***1/2 (4/2/04)

"21 Grams"-A few years back, the director of this film, Alejandro González Iñárritu, made a film in Mexico called "Amores Perros." It was literally about how life is a "bitch" and portrayed misery for both humans and dogs. One of the central aspects of that film was that the story was about the intersecting lives of three main characters or groups of characters. Iñárritu has done it again. "21 Grams," written by Iñárritu and Guillermo Arriaga, has virtually the same theme and style. Also reminding us of the style of another recent film, Paul Thomas Anderson's "Magnolia," we initially see puzzle-like scenes that seem to be disconnected and out of sync only to find that they ultimately come together to tell the story of three people whose lives intersect in utter misery. Sean Penn is Paul Rivers, an unhappily married mathematician who is desperately ill and awaiting a heart transplant. Benicio Del Toro is Jack Jordan, an ex-con full of guilt who has found Jesus but who doesn't seem to be impressing his wife and children with his obsessive religious beliefs. Naomi Watts is Cristina Peck, a reasonably happy wife and mother of two daughters, who spends her time swimming at a recreation center and taking care of her lovely family. All are ultimately joined by the occurrence of a nightmarish tragedy that winds up giving Paul a new heart, Jack even more misery and reason to question his belief in Jesus, and Cristina utter despair. But the tragedy that brings them together is only the beginning. This film is depressing in an unrelenting manner. The acting is brilliant. No question. Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, and Benicio Del Toro are at the top of their form, all wonderful performers who deserve accolades. "21 Grams" is beautifully filmed, with alternating cinematic styles to reflect different scenes and moments of time. The supporting cast is also excellent. Charlotte Gainsbourg ("My Wife is an Actress") is fine as the somewhat whiny and obsessed wife of Paul Rivers who wants only to have a child with her sick husband despite having only recently aborted a child. And Melissa Leo is very powerful as Marianne Jordan, Jack's very unhappy wife. Iñárritu seems obsessed with the misery of daily life. We get it constantly on the evening news. Do we also need to spend money for "entertainment" to have this misery beaten into our heads? "Magnolia" and "Amores Perros" each ran far longer than two hours, driving this viewer to distraction. "21 Grams" is ONLY 2 hours long , thankfully. DVD ***1/2 (3/27/04)

"Dirty Pretty Things"-What might life be like as an illegal immigrant in London where you aren't allowed to work and you're being haunted by immigration police? This is the general theme of this excellent film about two people struggling to survive and reach their dreams under difficult circumstances. Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a doctor from Nigeria who was forced to run from his native land when falsely accused of a crime. Now he drives a cab by day and works at night as a desk clerk in a somewhat seedy hotel, rarely sleeping. And he shares a flat with a young Turkish woman, Senay (Audrey Tautou), who dreams of living in New York if she can only avoid the immigration officials. "Dirty Pretty Things," however, is not simply about the life and troubles of immigrants. It's also a thriller. When Okwe discovers a human organ in a very inappropriate place in one of the hotel rooms, he begins to wonder just what's going on in the hotel and he soon discovers a sinister and revolting practice being conducted by one of his fellow workers at the hotel. Sergi López is perfectly sleazy as Sneaky Señor Juan who, upon discovering that Okwe is a physician, tries to drag him into the nightmarish business he has established on the premises. Chiwetel Ejiofor is powerful as the sincere and caring Okwe and Audrey Tautou is attractive and charming as Senay, a woman who is almost willing to do anything to achieve her dreams. Directed by Stephen Frears ("High Fidelity" and "The Grifters"), "Dirty Pretty Things" is an insightful film with a real edge. DVD **** (3/26/04)

"Gothika"-Why is it that some people who win Oscars seem to have no judgment for quality roles? Halle Berry is one of those. Here she descends into the role of Dr. Miranda Grey, a psychiatrist at a penal institution for the mentally ill run by her husband, Dr. Douglas Grey (Charles S. Dutton). To make it as spooky as possible the filmmakers present the institution as downright dreary. In fact, the place looks like it belongs on another planet. Grey is seen walking the poorly lit barren and forbidding hallways to her miserable little office after treating an apparently psychotic patient (Penelope Cruz) and chatting with a very friendly colleague, Dr. Pete Graham (Robert Downey, Jr.). Her trip home will not be routine. Traveling in a heavy rain, she sees a strange young woman in the middle of the road, runs off the road to avoid her, checks on the girl and then wakes up to find herself a patient in the institution having apparently committed a murder. Treated like a psychotic patient by the very people she was working with only a few days before (including her friend Dr. Pete who is now, rather inappropriately, treating her), Miranda begins to realize that she is possessed and not crazy. Of course, Miranda considers herself a rational person who doesn't believe in the paranormal or in ghosts. When Dr. Graham insists he doesn't believe in ghosts, Miranda replies "Neither do I, but they believe in me. " "Gothika," directed by French actor Matthieu Kassovitz, tries hard to outdo fright films like "The Sixth Sense," because, believe it or not, Miranda sees dead people. But it hardly makes it. The ghost story turns into a virtually standard police procedural with a truly hokey solution. And the final scene in the film was completely unnecessary after the "rational" explanation for all of the doings going on in the film. Halle Berry has talent. So do Downey and Dutton. We can only hope that they find themselves in more serious films with parts that let them demonstrate that talent. DVD *** (3/20/04)

"Veronica Guerin"-If you think of movies about Ireland, what comes to mind? Films like "Michael Collins," "The General," "Bloody Sunday," and "The Boxer?" These are films about Irish toughs, often murderous. And one fine actor often appears: Gerard McSorley, who here plays John Gilligan, a man that the family of Veronica Guerin wishes she had never met. This time we have a film, produced by the prolific Jerry Bruckheimer, that isn't about the IRA but rather about drug dealers in Dublin. Veronica Guerin was a real-life Irish journalist who decided to go after these drug dealers and died doing so in 1996. Cate Blanchett does a wonderful job of becoming Guerin, a reporter who becomes obsessed when she sees neighborhoods overrun by needles, sickness, and death. But Guerin is married, has a son, and never learns to protect herself. She appears never to consider that she may be endangering her family. let alone herself. Interacting with a variety of local hoods, including John Traynor (Ciarán Hinds), who leads and misleads her, Guerin is portrayed as obsessed to the point of total recklessness. Nothing stops her: a gunshot through the window of her house, an intruder shooting her in the leg, and a brutal assault from a leading drug dealer. Guerin simply gets up and goes on her way with the ultimate tragic result. The postscript tells us that Guerin's efforts paid off in the end by driving the drug dealers from Dublin, but meanwhile we are shown the end of the life of a woman who was simply asking for trouble. The film has an excellent cast, including Brenda Fricker as Guerin's mother, and fine production values, but it makes you crazy watching a woman simply driving herself towards doom. DVD ***1/2 (3/19/04)

"Morvern Callar"-In this film from 2002, Samantha Morton is Morvern Callar, a young woman in Scotland who wakes up to find her boyfriend has committed suicide and left behind a novel on the computer (written for her) which he urges her (in his suicide note) to have published. Morvern, however, doesn't take the usual steps. Instead of arranging for the body to be taken away for a funeral, she tells no one and disposes of the body herself. Morvern shows no emotion whatsoever. And it isn't surprising when she goes to the computer, changes the name of the author to her own, and ships it off to a publisher. She takes the money her boyfriend has left behind for a funeral and begins a life of hedonistic pleasure, going off to a resort in Spain with her friend Lanna (Katherine McDermott). Not much else goes on in this film. Described by the director Lynne Ramsey as a character study, Morvern doesn't seem to have much character to study. As portrayed by Samantha Morton, she shows little or no expression and certainly little in the way of ethics. One of the problems with this film is that we have no idea who Morvern is and what her relationship was with her boyfriend. We're simply dropped into the situation without any background and, as a result, it's impossible to get an idea whether Morvern is being herself in her somewhat bizarre reactions or is deeply disturbed by the suicide. Things happen without explanation. At one point Morvern simply walks into a room where Katherine is having a good time in bed with a guy, insists that she pack and leave immediately, and then takes her into the hinterlands where she ultimately abandons Katherine on a deserted road. Another problem with this film is that it is almost impossible to understand much of the dialogue. Katherine McDermott has a very deep Scottish accent and even that is often drowned out by background noise. It may be that this was intended by the director, but a few subtitles might have helped. DVD **1/2 (3/13/04)

"Mona Lisa Smile"-This opened to tepid reviews at best. And so I viewed it with caution. Despite some flaws, though, I found "Mona Lisa Smile" to have several genuine virtues, including a very good cast and a wonderful soundtrack. Julia Roberts is Katherine Watson, an art teacher who arrives from California at Wellesley in 1953. Katherine, with feminist views, is looked on with shock as she tries to encourage her students to think for themselves about something other than becoming a wife. But Katherine finds Wellesley to be, as she describes it, "more a finishing school than a college." Despite the apparent brilliance of several of the students, including Betty Warren (Kirsten Dunst) and Joan Brandwyn (Julia Stiles), it becomes apparent that these young women are thinking more of the men they will marry than any careers they may desire. Not surprising for 1953. Katherine, however, simply doesn't look like 1953, not even like the bohemians of that era. In fact, as portrayed by Roberts, she more closely resembles a time traveler from the present who is dropped into the midst of a place with archaic views on the role of females in society. But otherwise, the film's theme is a good one and interestingly developed. The cast is excellent. Roberts does the best she can to play against her usual type. Dunst and Stiles are rather powerful as the wealthy young women who have to deal with the pressures of their era and of their social milieu. Maggie Gyllenhaal is excellent, as usual, as Giselle Levy, a free-spirited girl who is somewhat ethnically out of place. Also notable is Ginnifer Goodwin as the not-so-gorgeous and perfect Connie Baker who at first allows the insecurity of Kirsten Dunst's character to interfere in her lovelife but then happily awakens to what has been done to her; and Marcia Gay Harden as the extremely repressed Nancy Abbey who faces a life alone while she watches "I Love Lucy" and teaches the young women how to cross and uncross their legs. And then there's the soundtrack. Tori Amos appears in the film transformed from a modern pop singer to a band singer of the era, doing an excellent rendition of "You Belong To Me." And in the background we hear from no less than Alison Krauss, Celine Dion, Macy Gray, and Mandy Moore. Is this film a little hokey? Sure. But put it all together and it's an interesting and rather enjoyable experience. DVD ***1/2 (3/12/04)

"School of Rock"- Virtually all of Jack Black's manic personality comes through in this very light film about a guy who is failing in his rock mania only to take a job, on false pretenses, as a substitute teacher at a private school. Joan Cusack, in a demeaning role as a somewhat emotionally deprived school principal, puts Dewey Finn (Black) into a classroom without really checking his qualifications or ID. Does Dewey teach anything? Making believe he is his roommate, Ned Schneebly (Mike White), a real substitute teacher, Dewey teaches the only thing he knows how: rock music. Although making incredibly loud sounds in the classroom, the denizens of the school appear to be mostly deaf and everyone is shocked and amazed when it turns out that Dewey has turned a class of young scholars into a pretty wild rock band. The premise is cute but the presentation is repetitive and ultimately dull. There is nothing much here except a lot of loud rock noises and Black's maniacal ravings. Sarah Silverman has the rather sour role as Ned's nasty and unpleasant girlfriend Patty who finally gets a door slammed in her face when Ned realizes how negative she is. Too bad for Sarah. Too bad for the viewers. DVD ** (3/6/04)

"Searching for Debra Winger"-The actress Rosanna Arquette was deeply affected by the theme of the classic film "The Red Shoes" in which a ballerina is forced into a choice between love and career and ultimately chooses suicide. Arquette was also aware of the actress Debra Winger's decision to simply walk away from her career, at least for the moment. So Arquette decided to make this documentary in order to seek out the views of a variety of famous actresses, both in Hollywood and in Europe (including at Cannes), on subjects important to them, such as careers, aging, marriage, children, and female film roles. Along the way, she interviews a substantial number of film stars, including Robin Wright Penn, Jane Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave, Meg Ryan, Whoopi Goldberg, Diane Lane, Martha Plimpton, Charlotte Rampling, and, of course, Debra Winger. What comes through is that whereas the public tends to put these women on a pedestal as superstars in the glamorous movie business, the women are quite human with human concerns about their own daily lives and careers. They acknowledge the difficulties of handling and balancing careers, children, and men, with men often coming out on the short end of the stick, so to speak. Not surprisingly virtually all want to be treated as professionals and as artists, but often feel like bodies being figuratively examined by the men running the film business. One of the terms heard most often when referring to how male executives often view actresses is "f---ability." You can guess the missing letters. Where, they wonder, are the roles for middle-aged women equal to the roles available to actors like Sean Connery, Harrison Ford, and Jack Nicholson. Along the way, we also get a peek into the reality of being in the limelight. Jane Fonda, who admits leaving her career upon pressure from her now ex-husband Ted Turner, describes her desire for intimacy rather than the need for a few more film roles and also the deep-seated fears than many actors feel before performing. The emphasis on looks and beauty (seen, for example, these days in articles about the Oscars which seem more concerned with the gowns worn than the performances performed) comes through in this quote of Ally Sheedy from the film: "Or even if you have to walk in, in a tight fitting shirt and look sexy. You know what I mean? It's like that's what you're about in that scene, that stays with you for the whole day and it goes on and on and on. And then people say 'why are there so many 13 year olds that are bulimic?' Hello." Although the film tends to run a little on, overall I think Rosanna Arquette has done a fine job of covering an interesting and provocative subject in the entertainment world. DVD ***1/2 (3/6/04)

"Pieces of April"-This may be one of the shortest features I've ever seen, lasting only about 75 minutes, but it's chock full of dysfunctional family drama. Katie Holmes is April Burns, a young lady who has obviously been in rebellion against her mother and family back in Pennsylvania and is now living in somewhat harsh conditions in New York City with her earnest and cheerful boyfriend Bobby (Derek Luke). With her mother Joy (Patricia Clarkson) seriously ill with cancer, April invites the family to her crowded little apartment for Thanksgiving dinner for a last reunion. When the film begins, it's obvious that April is having a hard time getting started, and the Burns family, including Dad Jim (Oliver Platt), brother Timmy (John Gallagher, Jr.), and annoying sister Beth (Alison Pill), are having a hard time leaving home since they cannot believe that they will have a good time with April. So what happens when you're about to have a turkey dinner for your family under such circumstances? The oven breaks and April must search all over her decrepit building for a neighbor who will let her use their oven. In the process, she runs into a whole gamut of characters, including an initially cynical but then helpful couple (Lillias White and Isiah Whitlock Jr.), a Chinese family that she can barely communicate with, and an extremely weird single guy named Wayne (Sean Hayes) with a dog and a brand new oven. Meanwhile, Joy is bitter and the family makes multiple stops along the way, almost as if they never really want to reach their destination. Patricia Clarkson is brutally effective as the miserable Joy who can't decide if she loves or hates her daughter. Katie Holmes is excellent in the tough role of the rebellious April. Derek Luke is charming as the smiling and pleasant Bobby who will not let anything get between him and his love for April. Alison Pill is notable as the fawning daughter Beth. This film covers a wide range of emotions in a short period of time and does it very effectively thanks to the writing and directing of Peter Hedges ("About A Boy"). DVD ***1/2 (2/28/04)

"Matchstick Men"-The scam picture is nothing new but this one does have a clever twist. Roy Waller (Nicholas Cage) is a highly neurotic, twitching, con man who teams with Frank Mercer (Sam Rockwell) to swindle innocents out of their hard earned money. Roy is really neurotic, having to open and close doors three times each and obsessed with the cleanliness of his home. But away from home he's a cigarette smoking mess. Roy and Frank concoct a plan to swindle a businessman, Chuck Frechette (Bruce McGill), but into the mix falls Roy's never before seen 14-year-old daughter Angela (Alison Lohman) who seems to take to Roy and to the life of a con man (or woman) with ease. When Roy can't find his all-important medication to control his neuroses, he goes to a psychiatrist recommended by his partner. The psychiatrist, Dr. Klein (Bruce Altman), puts Roy back on medication and all seems well but, as the viewer will ultimately discover, it's not. Nicholas Cage, an actor I used to find annoying, seems to have found his niche in playing characters with quirky personalities (e.g., "Adaptation") and he is excellent here as the confused and anxiety-ridden Roy Waller. Alison Lohman, who stood out as a troubled teenager in "White Magnolias" impresses once again. Lohman, who is actually in her early 20s, amazingly looks and seems to be 14. Sam Rockwell ("Confessions of a Dangerous Mind") is also first-rate as Frank, a smooth talker who could talk almost anyone out of their earnings. Directed by Ridley Scott, "Matchstick Men" is well done and fairly clever although ultimately lacking the sharpened pace that a film of this type needs. Despite it's weaknesses, including an end that seemed unnecessary, it's a fun and clever film. The DVD has a very good feature on the making of the film. DVD ***1/2 (2/27/04)

"The Missing"-It's the late 19th Century and we are in gorgeous northern snow-covered New Mexico. Cate Blanchett stars as Maggie Gilkeson, mother of two daughters living in the wild, who is angered by the visit of her hated father Samuel Jones (Tommy Lee Jones), a white man who had abandoned her as a child and spent many years living with Apaches. Brake Baldwin (Aaron Eckhart), who would like to marry Maggie, is there to protect the little family, and after Maggie has sent Samuel packing following a brief visit, Brake and another ranchhand accompany the older daughter Lily (Evan Rachel Wood) on horseback to town where a fair is going on. They promise to return by sundown. When they don't return as promised, Maggie and the younger daughter, Dot (Jenna Boyd), start out to find out just what happened to them and ultimately have to enlist the aid of Samuel in order to find Lily, who has been captured by a group of renegade Apaches for sale in Mexico. This junior league "The Searchers" has a fine cast. Blanchett and Jones, as always, are riveting. Both of the girls (Wood and Boyd) are very good in tough circumstances. But ultimately this Ron Howard-directed film is just too full of clichés and lacking originality to stand out. We have the standard story of two individuals with enmity between them regaining their affection due to the need to join together to fight adverse circumstances, and the adverse circumstances provide the overdone theme of parental search for a lost child, this time in a western setting. We know who will succeed and all we can do is wait, and it seems interminable at times, for the final battle and family reunion. Howard also had the problem making such a film in an era of modern ethnic and racial sensibilities. Howard tries to solve that by including a few white men among the evil Apaches and having a good Apache and his son join the Gilkeson side. But it's too obvious and doesn't help turn this film into anything but an also-ran. DVD *** (2/27/04)

"Sylvia"-This is the story of Sylvia Plath, the poet and writer, who took her own life in 1963. Gwyneth Paltrow does a serviceable job as Plath, an attractive American student at Cambridge in the mid-1950s who meets, falls in love with, and marries the British poet Ted Hughes (Daniel Craig). Even before their marriage we have hints of psychological disturbance as we hear of Plath's earlier attempts at suicide. What doesn't help her situation is that Plath is highly suspicious, with cause, of her attractive new husband. Moving rather slowly, the film never seems to delve into the heart of the problem. We see and hear about the problems but never get a real sense of the intellectual or emotional depth of these people. The literary achievements of the main characters are also pretty much ignored. Plath's famous novel,"The Bell Jar," is mentioned only in passing. Even with the information provided and scenes of Plath's loneliness and disturbance, by the time we reach the end, Plath's death seems like a surprise rather than the inevitable. Daniel Craig seems a little too aloof and cold, even early in their relationship, as the handsome Ted Hughes. The passion between the two never seems to come through. The excellent Blythe Danner, Paltrow's real-life mother, plays her mother Aurelia. Jared Harris is good as Al Alvarez, a literary critic with whom Plath flirts after she has discovered Hughes' affair. The real-life story of Hughes and Plath had to have been more dramatic than portrayed here. DVD *** (2/21/04)

"Runaway Jury"-Almost nothing that happens in this film is realistic and most of the activities of the main characters are either illegal or unethical. But "Runaway Jury," another of the series of films based on John Grisham novels, is loaded with good actors and this ensemble is the film's saving grace. How bad can it be with John Cusack, Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, and Rachel Weisz? After a senseless murder rampage in a stockbroker's office in New Orleans, the widow of one of the victims sues a gun manufacturer, claiming that the gun company is liable for the death of her husband. Dustin Hoffman is Wendell Rohr, the crusading lawyer bent on bringing the gun company to its feet. But the defendant has an ace up its sleeve in the form of Rankin Fitch (Gene Hackman). Fitch runs a totally illegal high-tech jury control operation which should guarantee a victory for the defendant. But there is a joker in the jury pool who plans to control the verdict himself and will use the rivalry between Fitch and Rohr to his advantage. No point in describing the plot. It's full of twists and turns and ultimately reveals a twist at the end that can only bring a smile to those of us who dislike guns intensely. "Runaway Jury" is also one of those films that makes you think that with high tech, the bad guys can learn everything there is to know about a person and follow them every step of the way. Thankfully, I don't believe we've quite reached that point yet. Also as I recall reading, this is the first time Hoffman and Hackman have worked together and these old pros are genuinely fun to watch. John Cusack, while hardly a great actor, is one of my favorites. There's just something about his attitude. He is complemented beautifully by an Americanized Rachel Weisz who normally has a delightful British accent, and is first rate as Marlee, a woman of mystery who makes things very uncomfortable for both Rohr and Fitch. DVD *** (2/20/04)

"Intolerable Cruelty"-How appropriate to have watched this Coen Brothers film on Valentine's Day! Ethan and Joel Coen (directors and screenwriters) here created what can only be called a zany comedy about the wonders of marriage, prenuptial agreements, divorce and alimony. Beginning with an hysterical scene in which TV producer Donovan Donaly (Geoffrey Rush) comes home early in the day only to find his wife hanging out with Ollie the pool guy (and Donovan has no pool), "Intolerable Cruelty" proceeds to tell the story of Miles Massey (George Clooney), an extremely successful and totally cynical divorce lawyer, and his fascination with Marylin Rexroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones), the ultimate Hollywood golddigger. The Coens take what could have been a rather banal comedy about divorce lawyers, and instead bring us the very funny likes of Ed Hermann as Rex Rexroth, Marylin's rather stupid and wealthy as well as philandering husband; Cedric the Entertainer as Gus Petch, a private investigator who always "nails the a--" of his intended subject; Paul Adelstein as Wrigley, Massey's amiable and effective sidekick; Jonathan Hadary in the very funny role of Heinz, the Baron Krauss von Espy, the concierge who nails Marylin's a-- in court, and Billy Bob Thornton as Howard Doyle, the innocent Texas oil millionaire who is the subject of Marylin's prenuptial agreement post-Rex Rexroth. Oh, the details don't really matter. Clooney and Zeta-Jones really gel in their antagonism and attraction. There is dynamite in their appearances together in this first-rate comedy. DVD ***1/2 (2/14/04)

"In The Cut"-What in the world were Susanna Moore (author of the novel and screenwriter), Jane Campion (director and screenwriter), Nicole Kidman (producer), and Meg Ryan and Mark Ruffalo (stars) thinking when they made this wretched film? I had read Susanna Moore's novel and been rather shocked by the violence and graphic sex, and I couldn't imagine how it could be made into a film. Now I know. It can't. This is clearly a low point in the careers of all. I'm not sure it's worth mentioning, but Meg Ryan plays Frannie, a somewhat zombie-like writer living in Manhattan who seems to hang around with weird and creepy types. While interviewing a student of hers for a book, at a bar no less, she witnesses a shocking sex act and soon learns that the woman involved was murdered possibly by the man she saw. Soon, she is being questioned about what she might have seen by Detective Malloy (Mark Ruffalo) who just happens to have a tatoo like the man involved in the sex act. Does Franny run? No, she continues in her zombie-like way to get involved with Detective Malloy, sexually and otherwise, despite the continued murders, including of one of her loved ones. Mark Ruffalo mumbles throughout most of the film and Meg Ryan (can this really be Meg Ryan doing these things in this film?) looks like she forgot how to move her mouth. This film is graphic where it doesn't have to be. The script is dull and banal and the acting is atrocious. Need I say any more? Miss it at all costs. DVD * (2/13/04)

"Capturing The Friedmans"-This is an amazingly well-done documentary about an astonishingly painful subject. The Friedmans were a family of five in Great Neck, NY. The father, Arnie, had been a musician in the Catskills and was an award-winning computer teacher. He and his wife, Elaine, were the parents of three seemingly normal boys, David, Seth, and Jesse. And then, almost suddenly in the late 1980s, their lives literally fell apart. Postal inspectors investigated the father for sending a magazine of child porn through the mail and the police, searching with a warrant, found a stack of similar porn behind the family piano. But that wasn't enough of a problem, the police noticed that Arnie taught computer classes in his home and began to inquire of the students as to whether they had been molested. The film gives the clear impression that the police had made up their minds and began using an interrogation technique that encouraged the incriminating statements of the youths. But it wasn't just Arnie who was charged with this horrible crime. The youngest son, Jesse, then a late teen, was also shockingly charged. Directed by Andrew Jarecki, who originally started out to make a film about birthday party clowns, of which David Friedman is a very successful example, "Capturing The Friedmans" proceeds to use astonishing home videos and other interviews to probe into the facts surrounding the charges and ultimately the pleas and imprisonments of both Arnie and Jesse. You cannot watch this film without feeling involved and the pain of the parties. We hear from the family, Arnie's disbelieving brother, the police, the lawyers, some of Arnie's students, and Debbie Nathan, an investigative journalist who has written extensively on this subject, especially on the McMartin Pre-School case that occurred earlier in southern California. She expresses significant doubts about such cases because they seem to fit a pattern of "mass hysteria." I was shocked to hear the judge state her conviction that she had no doubt of the guilt of the Friedmans. No trial had yet been held (in fact there was never a trial) and thus no evidence had ever been introduced. One minute you hear things that convince you that Arnie and Jesse were being railroaded on the charge of child molestation. And then you hear things that make you begin to wonder. "Capturing The Friedmans" is literally a film you will never forget. On DVD, it comes with a second DVD loaded with extras. One absolutely fascinating bit, as exciting as if part of the film, is a raucous debate, almost an angry argument, that breaks out among participants of the film at the New York City premiere. This is not to be missed, no matter how painful it is. DVD **** (2/7/04)

"Under The Tuscan Sun"-I needed a touch of lightness and romance for my latest cinematic viewing, and "Under The Tuscan Sun" was just right for that purpose. Based on Frances Mayes' popular book of the same name, this film takes a few liberties and tells the tale of a Frances Mayes (Diane Lane) who has just gone through a miserable divorce and been "taken" for an awful lot by her ex-husband. She's a college professor and writer who needs a change in her life. She's talked into a trip to Tuscany by her pregnant lesbian friend Patti (Sandra Oh). While traveling with a gay tour group by bus, Frances eyes an old villa, stops the bus, gets off, and buys it with little thinking, only to have second thoughts when she sees all the work that needs to be done and realizes that she's alone in a totally foreign environment. But as things often occur in films of this genre, Frances is soon surrounded by charming people, including a delightful Italian family, a group of Polish laborers working on her house, a friendly Italian lawyer (Vincent Riotta) whom she met while buying the house, an eccentric woman (Lindsay Duncan) who gives her some very good advice to overcome her depression, and ultimately her friend Patti, who arrives to stay, still pregnant, after having been jilted by her lover. Ordinarily in a film of this type, one would expect Frances to meet the perfect guy and the story would then proceed to be about their up-and-down romance, but that's not quite the case. Possible suitors come and go and Frances finds herself distracted from one particularly attractive guy by other things she must do. The scenery is exquisite, as one might expect. The story is charming, although Frances looks put-out for most of the film. Some of the things she does seem unlikely, like failing to follow up on a relationship with a guy whose good looks, charm, and love-making ability have appeared to snap her out of her depression. Ultimately, however, this film is a charmer and good fun for passing a couple of hours. DVD ***1/2 (2/6/04)

"Thirteen"-We live in a culture that idolizes glitz, glam, sex, and clothes. It's everywhere, whether in magazines, billboards, movies, TV, or Super Bowl halftime shows. Our culture undoubtedly has a profound effect on many teens, especially girls, who have to deal with unmitigating peer pressure. "Thirteen" is about such a teen, a girl in Los Angeles named Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood). Upon arriving at school, Tracy sees that the most popular girls are the ones wearing the right sexy clothes, makeup, and appropriate body piercings. The one that stands out is Evie (Nikki Reed) and Tracy begins to emulate her. Before long, they are best friends as Evie leads Tracy down a very dangerous road that includes theft and drugs. Meanwhile, Tracy's mother Melanie (Holly Hunter) is trying, despite her own weaknesses, to give Tracy and her brother Mason (Brady Corbet) a decent home, but Tracy will have none of it. She's obviously reeling from the departure of her father who has little time for her, and is angry at the appearance of her mother's latest lover, an ex-Cocaine addict named Brady (Jeremy Sisto). The performances in this rather shocking film are riveting. Evan Rachel Wood is powerful as the attractive but disturbed teen, and Nikki Reed is doubly impressive as she co-wrote the script with Director Catherine Hardwicke, based on her own experiences as a 13-year old. Holly Hunter is dynamic as the caring but somewhat gullible mother who finally learns just what her daughter is turning into. Jeremy Sisto ("Six Feet Under") is very good as Melanie's slightly messed up but decent boyfriend, and Deborah Kara Unger gives off just the right sense of disinterest and self-interest (until the very end) as Evie's mother. This film about an unpleasant subject is not for everyone, but if you're interested in the subject as well as some very powerful movie performances, "Thirteen" is recommended. **** (2/6/04)

"American Splendor"-"American Splendor" is indeed splendid. This biographical study of Harvey Pekar, writer of the Ameican Splendor comic books, is an original sight to behold. With a mixture of comic book scenes, actors in roles, and the real-life people behind the scenes and often narrating, this film shows how a man who could only be described as a schlemiel becomes something in life. Harvey (played by Paul Giamatti) lives in Cleveland and is essentially a loser. He's failed twice in marriage, has throat problems affecting his ability to talk, his apartment is a mess, and he has a reasonably dull job as a file clerk at a VA hospital where his co-workers are hardly the inspiring types. After meeting and befriending Robert Crumb (James Urbaniak), who goes on to success as an underground cartoonist, Harvey finally gets the idea, after one of many of his life's frustrations, to write about himself, and Crumb agrees to illustrate the Pekar writings. Ultimately, after the comic books he writes have become a success, Harvey receives a letter from a comic book store clerk in Delaware, Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis), and he invites her to Cleveland where they almost immediately click and get married. Harvey goes on to appear regularly on David Letterman before making a scene on the show and getting kicked off. But everything he does, good or bad, becomes a subject for his comic books, even his battle with cancer. This delightful film is poignant and funny. Giamatti and Davis both deserved greater recognition for their incredible performances (Davis was, however, awarded by the NY Film Critics Circle as best actress for this performance and for "The Secret Lives of Dentists" reviewed just below). And, believe it or not, the rather miserable Pekar still winds up with a reasonably happy ending in his film. I must mention the hysterical performance by Judah Friedlander as the "nerd" Toby Radloff, one of Harvey's co-workers, and the excellence of this performance is emphasized by the opportunity to compare it to the real Toby who appears later in the film. The splendor of this film and of Harvey Pekar's life is not to be missed. **** (2/5/04)

"Lost in Translation"-Writer and director Sofia Coppola has created a mini-masterpiece. This wonderful film, which doesn't exactly have a complex plot, is loaded with meditations on a variety of themes, ranging among loneliness, communication problems between alien cultures, marital difficulties, hotel living, celebrity worship, and the commercialization of both the media and Japan. Bill Murray is Bob Harris, an actor who arrives in Tokyo to do commercials for a Japanese whiskey company, and seems to be bored by the whole thing and wishing it would be over soon. Scarlett Johansson is Charlotte, a young wife whose husband (Giovanni Ribisi) is so busy with his job that he barely has time to look at her before running off to do his work, sometimes for several days. Both Bob and Charlotte are pretty much alone in a large hotel, are having trouble sleeping, and are doing what they can to occupy their time during the day and even when awake in the middle of the night. Harris' marriage has obviously been reduced to the banal as his wife sends him faxes and FedEx's carpet samples to his hotel room for him to examine, while his conversations with her are hardly scintillating. Eventually, Bob and Charlotte meet in a hotel bar, enjoy each other's company and start going places and doing things together, especially in the evening. They attend parties and try karaoke (Murray is quite funny, reminiscent of the lounge singer he played on "Saturday Night Live," one of his best SNL characters). Sofia Coppola has presented the doings of these characters in a meditative vignette manner, moving with ease from image to image and scene to scene. I was intrigued by Harris' withdrawal every time someone would fawn over his celebrity. There is no specific plot, but so many subtle happenings occur and the sights are so joyful to the eye (the images of Tokyo are a vision to behold) that this viewer found the film to be a delicious treat. Tokyo does not come off well, loaded as it is with neon advertising and pachinko-type games, but hopefully it is not as bad in real life as it appears here. Murray has already been nominated for an Oscar and deserves the recognition. Johansson, who even now is only 19, has grown into a lovely young woman and her character presents just the perfect attitude of curiosity about and attraction to the more famous Harris. Will these two, ages apart, get together? That's certainly one question to wonder about. DVD **** (2/3/04)

"Once Upon a Time in Mexico"-It has been relatively slow-going early this year for those of us movie watchers who rely mostly on the newly issued DVDs, although things may be picking up in the near future. "Once Upon A Time in Mexico," however, may be the low point of this year's video watching. The DVD of this film contains some entertaining extras, including shorts by Director Robert Rodriguez on how easy it is to make films like this using the computer equipment he maintains in his own home. All types of amazing scenes are reduced to relatively easy computer technology, a fascinating subject in and of itself. But, unfortunately, having the technology to do these amazing special effects and even create one's own movie music with just a keyboard and software is not enough to make a movie worth watching. "Once Upon a Time in Mexico" is an empty-headed bloodbath and that's about it. Following up on his early success with "El Mariachi" (1992), Rodriguez brings back his guitar-wielding hero, this time played by Antonio Banderas, to present a confusing story of a murderous CIA agent named Sands (Johnny Depp), a retired FBI agent named Jorge (Ruben Blades), and their efforts to prevent a cartel head named Barillo (Willem Dafoe) from killing the Mexican "El Presidente." Mix in a couple of beautiful women like Selma Hayek as Carolina, El Mariachi's departed lover, and Eva Mendes as a law enforcement officer with mixed allegiances, and you have what sounds like it might be an interesting plot line. This story, however, gets off on the wrong foot when Sands' thug murders an innocent elderly guitar-maker for virtually no reason and the film descends into scene after scene of senseless and humorless violence. That's not to say that Rodriguez doesn't think he's making a humorous film. There is the occasional chuckle when Depp, as Sands, picks up his cell phone and says "Can you hear me now?" But Rodriguez, obviously desirous of following in Quentin Tarantino's bloodletting footsteps, just doesn't have it. For all the special effects and violence, "Once Upon a Time in Mexico" is essentially a gigantic bore, lacking any redeeming social value. DVD *1/2 (1/31/04)

"The Secret Lives of Dentists"-Is this supposed to be a dark comedy or simply a nightmare. I'd say "bad dream" is the best way to describe it. David and Dana Hurst (Campbell Scott and Hope Davis) are a married couple with three young daughters who also work together as dentists. All seems to be fairly well until one night David sees Dana caressing another man backstage at an opera in which she is performing. At the same time, David is accosted in the audience by an angry patient named Slater (Denis Leary) who soon takes on the role of David's conscience. There is no obvious reason why Slater should become David's conscience other than that he seems fairly obnoxious and stupid, but nevertheless David, with Slater's help, begins to wonder what his wife is up to and imagine the sexual escapades in which she might be involved. At the same time, as Dana seems strangely absent as a wife and mother, David must also care for three rather annoying children, including the youngest daughter who clings to him continuosly. As Dana seems to be absent more and more, and the kids become more and more annoying, David's imagination grows wild and the Slater/conscience does everything in his power to encourage David's worries and obsessions. This rather morose little film reaches a climax in a series of scenes in which each member of the family becomes severely ill with the flu and winds up throwing up. Sounds like a fun flick, doesn't it? Campbell Scott is expressionless throughout this film, but this may be appropriate to the character as his wife mentions that he never smiles. Hope Davis is fine as the frustrated wife who appears to be growing away from her dentist/partner. DVD **1/2 (1/30/04)

"Le Divorce"-The team of Merchant/Ivory has produced some classics and some absolute duds. "Le Divorce," directed by James Ivory, is closer to the latter than to anything one might think of as "classic." Based on a successful novel by Diane Johnson, this film tells the tale of two sisters, Isabel and Roxeanne. Isabel Walker (Kate Hudson) arrives in Paris from Santa Barbara, CA, to be with her sister Roxy (Naomi Watts) during the latter's second pregnancy, only to appear just in time for Roxy's French husband Antoine to walk out without explanation. What initially starts out as a story about Roxy and her marital problems turns quickly to a tale centering on the self-centered silliness of Isabel who immediately takes up with Antoine's much older uncle, Edgar (Thierry Lhermitte). There is also an element of examination of the contrasts between the attitudes of the French and Americans about life and love, but this potentially interesting theme is not explored well or sufficiently. The scriptwriters couldn't seem to make up their minds about whether the film is a comedy, a tragedy, or a simple drama. Matthew Modine runs around crazed as the jilted husband of the woman who is now seeing Antoine. Leslie Caron is Antoine's outwardly pleasant but inwardly nasty mother. Glenn Close seems appropriate as Olivia Pace, an expatriate American writer, who hires Isabel and coincidentally happens to be an ex-lover of Edgar. Isabel and Roxy have a brother who is totally obsessed with the value (American values) of a painting owned by the Walkers but which is in Roxy's possession, leading to a whole convoluted discussion of French law as to the distribution of assets in a divorce. Some of the casting is strange and off-putting. Roxy and Isabel are both rather attractive blondes whose parents are portrayed by Sam Waterston and Stockard Channing, neither of whom resembles the two younger women in any way. And some of the relationships seem highly unlikely, such as that between Isabel and Edgar, possibly due to the casting. On the other hand, Naomi Watts is beautiful and effective as Roxy (Roxeanne de Persand). All in all "Le Divorce" is a mish-mosh and only successful to a limited extent. DVD *** (1/30/04)

"Spellbound"-Many years ago I remember the National Spelling Bee being won by someone spelling "antidisestablishmentarianism." I was very impressed and always proud of my own spelling ability, albeit imperfect. This delightful documentary follows eight young people in their efforts to win the National Spelling Bee in 1999 in Washington. Coming from different parts of the country and all kinds of cultures, many of these kids are outcasts at home because they are the intellectual or nerdy types but when they are in competition they are joyfully surrounded by their own kind. Among others, there's a young Hispanic woman from Texas named Angela; a brilliant young woman of Indian (India) ancestry named Nupur; a smart kid from a seemingly well-to-do family in New Haven, CT, named Emily; and a young man named Neil from California whose father strongly encourages him by putting him through his spelling paces. Although one mother raised the issue of whether this competition, part of which was shown on ESPN, is actually a form of "child abuse," each and every one of these kids in the film seemed to thoroughly enjoy their participation and had a genuine sense of reality about them. Where the "bee" seems to go a little haywire, though, is in the use of words that are incredibly obscure. Some words were so "foreign," I had neither heard of them nor recognized them even after they were spelled. But it's also interesting how often the kids are eliminated (by the ring of a bell) by everyday words. In this documentary, which I highly recommend, the ultimate winner succeeds with the spelling of a fairly common word: logorrhea. Could you have spelled that? DVD **** (1/23/04)

"Open Range"-Director and star Kevin Costner has created a real old-fashioned western about a battle between a rancher, the evil Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon) and his gang of thugs, and a small group of cattle herders whose cattle graze on open range, something that the evil Denton Baxter doesn't like. The cattle herders are led by Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall) and Charley Waite (Costner). After Baxter's men, in an effort to steal the cattle, kill one of Spearman's men and seriously injure another, a teenager named Button (Diego Luna), Spearman and Waite plan to seek revenge in a gun battle in the center of the town. I should mention that there is a lovely lady in town who has caught Waite's eye. She is Sue Barlow (Annette Bening) who Waite and Spearman first take to be the local doctor's wife only to find that she is the doctor's unmarried sister. And so the romance element enters the tale. Every western cliché in the book, right? Well, yes, and yet strangely this film works. Duvall and Costner, two clichés in and of themselves, work very well together as a pair of wranglers who are decent men but also know how to kill if they have to. Despite Costner's usual weaknesses, he manages to pull off the part of the good-looking tough who is brooding, but good and caring (he'll even rescue a dog in a flood). Bening is just right as a middle-aged but still very "handsome" woman who doesn't want to miss her first real chance for love. The scenery (it was filmed in Alberta, Canada) is gorgeous. The script is playful and just right. And some of the supporting cast, including Diego Luna and the late Michael Jeter as a stable owner who joyfully helps Waite and Spearman in their big battle, are fun to watch. I never expected to really like this film but, surprise, I did. DVD ***1/2 (1/23/04)

"I Capture The Castle"-The British usually make taut dramatic films with good casts and good scripts. Not this time. "I Capture The Castle" is a somewhat drippy story of a writer who suddenly drags his wife and two daughters into a chilly castle and then descends into fatal writer's block. After the wife dies, James Mortmain (Bill Nighy), the writer, remarries a slightly wacky artist named Topaz (Tara Fitzgerald), but his two daughters seem to have to fend for themselves in life. And then two young Americans arrive, Neil and Simon Cotton (Marc Blucas and Henry Thomas). They have inherited the estate, including the castle for which Mortmain owes years of rent. And they are as if they had no lives before arriving in England. Both are taken with the older redheaded sister Rose (Rose Byrne) and things get sticky when both brothers find themselves at various times attracted to or engaged to Rose. Both Blucas and Thomas are quite stiff in these roles, providing absolutely no charm, something desperately needed by this film. In fact, the only charm comes from the main attraction, the lovely Romola Garai ("Nicholas Nickleby") who plays Cassandra Mortmain, the younger and more intelligent daughter of the castle and also the story's narrator. This is not Masterpiece Theater. One example of how things went wrong was the casting of Mrs. Cotton, the boys' mother. Sinéad Cusack, one of my favorite British actresses, usually seen as warm, intelligent and very British, is the bad American-accented Mrs. Cotton covered over with an awful hairdo and clothing and with no opportunity to shine. Bad casting and bad presentation. "I Capture The Castle" is one of those rare British cinema mistakes. DVD ** (1/19/04)

"Lucía, Lucía"-Starring the luminous Cecelia Roth ("All About My Mother"), this film is really named "The Cannibal's Daughter" ("La Hija del Canibal") in its native Mexico, but it has nothing to do with cannibals. Rather, it's about the mysterious disappearance of the main character's husband. While waiting at the airport to fly to Brazil with her spouse for a New Year's celebration, Lucía (Roth) suddenly realizes that her husband has failed to appear to board the plane after going to the restroom. In a total quandary, she returns home only to receive a call soon thereafter informing her that her husband has been kidnapped by a group called "Worker's Pride" and a ransom is demanded. Lucía also receives a message from her husband informing her of "inheritance" money in a safe deposit box to be used to buy his freedom. Meanwhile, Lucía is befriended by two neighbors, an older man named Félix (Carlos Álvarez-Novoa) and a young man named Adrián (Kuno Becker), who are both clearly enchanted by the lovely Lucía. The story gets somewhat convoluted as the three attempt to pass the money onto the kidnappers while often being interrupted by the police. This film by Mexican director Antonio Serrano ultimately reveals a fairly standard plot element involving Mexican government and police corruption. But the story primarily centers around the relationships among Lucía, Félix, and Adrián, with Lucía realizing that she no longer loves her husband and is very attracted to young Adrián. Like so many other films that attempt a combination of comedy, pathos and mystery, this film is ultimately undermined by a confusing and silly plot line. So many things happen concerning the search for Lucía's husband, that the viewer almost begins not to care. On the other hand, the interrelationships among the three main characters are a pleasure to watch, especially from the wonderful Roth and the articulate and impressive performance of Carlos Álvarez-Novoa. (In Spanish with English subtitles) DVD ***1/2 (1/17/04)

"Swimming Pool"-Directed by Francois Ozon ("8 Women'), "Swimming Pool" is slow-moving but sufficiently mysterious and enticing. Sarah Morton (Charlotte Rampling) is a writer of British police procedural novels and we first see her looking bitter and miserable as she makes her way through London to the office of her publisher, John Bosload (Charles Dance). Bosload mentions that he has a house with a pool in the French countryside and offers it to Sarah so that she can be refreshed and start writing again. Looking far more relaxed and happy, Sarah arrives at the lovely house in Luberon in the South of France, and settles into the joys of peace and solitude, noting only that the promised swimming pool is covered over by a tarp. But Sarah's relaxation is soon utterly disrupted by the arrival of Julie, Bosload's French daughter. Julie (Ludivine Sagnier) is a beautiful young and lively woman who soon disrupts Sarah's life by bringing home men and engaging in loud sexual activity. But Julie also tweaks Sarah's curiosity and soon we see Sarah snooping and starting to write a new book based on Julie. A great deal of the first half or so of this film shows Sarah simply doing things around the house and in the town. Some may find this dull, but I found the slow attention to detail to be riveting. Just watching the character move things around revealed aspects of her personality that were important to the story. "Swimming Pool" turns from a story about two women into somewhat of a thriller when Julie invites home a waiter who had been flirting in town with Sarah and they swim and engage in sex while Sarah watches from her balcony. The film has a twist at the end that I will not reveal, but suffice it to say that there are several hints along the way that all is not as it might appear. I found some of the later plot lines to be unlikely, which diminished somewhat the excitement of the growing plot. Any potential viewer should be warned that there is a great deal of nudity. Ludivine Sagnier is an extremely attractive young woman who is shown in most of her glory, especially around the now uncovered swimming pool, and Rampling also doesn't disappoint. Rampling and Sagnier are wonderful, totally immersing themselves in their parts. Ultimately, though, the murkiness of the plot somewhat undermined my total enjoyment of this film. (Mostly in English but with some French, and accompanying English subtitles) DVD ***1/2 (1/16/04)

"My Wife Is An Actress"-This French film from 2001 is about a sportswriter married to a well-known actress who seems content until an acquaintance asks him how he feels about his wife kissing other men in the films she makes. Yvan Attal is Yvan who is married to the actress Charlotte (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and he is also the director and screenwriter. When Charlotte goes to London to make a film with John (Terence Stamp), a leading British actor, Yvan grows more and more jealous, travels back and forth between Paris and London by train, and seemingly does everything in his power to destroy his marriage over fears that his wife is attracted to John. This film is funny and charming, with a wonderful jazz score, but it has some real weaknesses. Stamp, at this point in his life, is just wrong as a potential romantic interest for the young and lovely Charlotte and he plays his part rather stiffly. That Charlotte would be interested in him or that Yvan would be jealous seems unlikely. Despite coming from an obviously intelligent family, Yvan ultimately comes across as hyper and humorless. When Charlotte has to do a nude love scene with John, she jokingly asks the director to have everyone in the crew nude and he complies. Yvan just happens to walk onto the set at the exact moment of total nudity and he fails to see any humor in this rather hysterical situation. Attal, the screenwriter and director, unfortunately includes another unlikely coincidence. Later in the film, when Charlotte returns to Paris to try to work things out with Yvan, she just happens to emerge from a cab just in time to see Yvan kissing a young woman on the street (rather innocently, of course, but Charlotte doesn't know that). Despite these weaknesses, this film has some strengths too. Attal and Gainsbourg, a couple in real life, are wonderfully natural and work very well together. There is a sideplot involving Yvan's sister and her Jewish identity. The question is whether or not her soon-to-be-born child (with her non-Jewish husband) should be circumcised, and this is very funny. Even with its weaknesses, including a rather abrupt romantic resolution at the end, I was charmed. This is ultimately a good romantic comedy and certainly worth a look. (Mostly in French with English subtitles) DVD ***1/2 (1/9/04)

"Owning Mahowny"-Philip Seymour Hoffman is Dan Mahowny, a somewhat dull Canadian bank vice-president, who slowly but surely becomes addicted to gambling. Making bigger and bigger bets with his local bookie, Frank Perlin (Maury Chaykin), Mahowny ultimately realizes that he has money at hand at the bank and starts to embezzle larger and larger amounts so that he can carry on his gambling in Atlantic City and Las Vegas. The Atlantic City casino head, Victor Foss (John Hurt), realizing he has a perfect mark, does everything in his power to encourage Mahowny's gambling habits. Mahowny's story, based on real life events, is revealed in this fairly low budget film (just check out the sets) which can't seem to make up its mind whether it's a quasi-documentary or a drama. Philip Seymour Hoffman, who can be a stunning performer, here is simply dull because, frankly, Mahowny really isn't that interesting a character. Minnie Driver is completely miscast as Mahowny's adoring and simplistic girlfriend, Belinda. John Hurt, a wonderful actor, is asked to play nothing more than a classic stereotype. Not recommended. DVD ** (1/5/04)

 "Northfork"-The Polish brothers, Michael and Mark, are creators of unusual art films, certainly none intended for the commercial market. This was demonstrated earlier with "Twin Falls, Idaho." Now, continuing with a series of films named after towns, the Polishes present "Northfork," a story full of allegorical observations about a town in Montana in the mid-1950s which is about to be destroyed as the result of the construction of a dam. The basic plot seems simple on the surface. Six men, including Walter and Willis O'Brien (James Woods and Michael Polish), are assigned to "help" the residents of Northfork evacuate before the territory is inundated by a new lake created by the dam. If they succeed, they gain 1 1/2 acres of "lakeside" property. If they fail, then they receive nothing. In doing so, they must interact with a group of holdouts, including one man, with two wives, who has built an ark and awaits a sign from "God" before he will leave. Meanwhile, a young boy, Irwin (Duel Farnes), is seen alternating between being seriously ill and cared for by the local priest, Father Harlan (Nick Nolte), and being up and about, interacting with a group of highly unusual characters who appear to be spirits searching for a lost angel. These characters, Flower Hercules (Darryl Hannah), Cup of Tea (Robin Sachs), Cod (Ben Foster), and Happy (Anthony Edwards), are trying to decide if Irwin is the angel they seek. Filmed in muted colors, "Northfork" attempts to portray issues of life and death and spirituality. Ultimately, while thought-provoking, "Northfork" fails because it is overwhelmed by its own weirdness. Claire Forlani, Peter Coyote, and Kyle McLachlan are seen in brief roles. Nick Nolte is excellent as Father Harlan. DVD *** (1/2/04)




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