Older Reviews


After almost 50 years of marriage, Leo Tolstoy’s devoted wife, muse, passionate lover and sometime-secretary abruptly finds her financial and domestic security threatened when her husband renounces his noble title, copyrights, property and even his family in favor of poverty, vegetarianism and celibacy. Sparks fly between husband and wife, between the famous writer and his agent, well, between just about everyone in the cast! Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren are extraordinary as the Tolstoys, and the story is riviting and moving.


Two lonely seniors (Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn) fall in love and embark on a happy romantic interlude ... but not all is what it seems. That's all I dare say about the plot of this touching little film. Google it and you'll see reviews pro and con. I'm squarely pro. Read more

THE ROAD (2009)
It's long and winding, and you can't take your eyes off it for a second

In a devastated, monochromatic post-apocalyptic world, a man (Viggo Mortensen) and his young son (Kodi Smit-McPhee, in an amazing performance) head for the ocean, dragging their few belongings in a cart. Along their difficult journey they must constantly forage for supplies and hide from cannibal hunters. Along the way, the man recalls in dreams and brief flashbacks the good moments of his past life with his wife (beautiful Charlize Theron, seen only in flashback), but these respites are few and far between. Eventually, the journey becomes so difficult that the man begins to turn savage, much to the horror of his son, and when they do finally reach the beach, the boy is faced with the toughest decision of his young life. DO NOT let anyone tell you THE ROAD is too depressing a journey.

FAIL-SAFE (1964)
Mankind-0, Technology-1

A series of human and computer errors sends a squadron of American B-58 bombers past their fail-safe point and onto a direct course to nuke Moscow. The stalwart President (Henry Fonda), seeking to convince the Soviets it’s a horrible mistake, not a preemptive strike, orders the Strategic Air Command to help the Soviets shoot them down. But one jet manages to elude the Soviet missiles, which dooms the Russian capital and forces the president to make a decision that still makes me squirm. Directed by Sydney Lumet, FAIL-SAFE is a brilliantly crafted and suspenseful diatribe on the heavy price we risk paying by relying too heavily on technology – and if you think this near-50 year old film has lost its relevancy, you haven’t been reading about Iran and North Korea.

Bloody good fun for boys and ghouls!

ZOMBIELAND is a not altogether bloodless horror farce about four survivors of a post-apocalypse battling zombies. With the wonderful Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg and, in a hilarious cameo, Bill Murray, Zombieland is more fun than a barrel of, well, zombies.

Starch with your brainwash?

I’ve seen THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE so many times and know its plot so thoroughly that it no longer holds any surprises for me. Yet I still find it riveting and never cease to marvel at all the performances, especially Frank Sinatra as the military intelligence man who tries to foil a Communist plot to do a very bad deed. In 1953, Sinatra won his only Oscar, as Best Actor, for his G.I. role in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, but it's for CANDIDATE he truly deserved it. His acting is superb, as is that of co-stars Lawrence Harvey, Angela Lansbury and James Gregory, thanks in no small part great part to John Frankenheimer's strong direction. PLEASE don't bother to see the 2004 remake with Denzel Washington. A mess. (Trivia notes: In his karate fight scene with a Korean bad guy, you can see Sinatra actually break his hand as it slices through a table. JFK loved this film, and Sinatra was so upset after his assassination that he had the film shelved for years.)

Bridges is Bad to the bone

Jeff Bridges has played grumpy bears so well for so long that his latest, Country singer Bad Blake, wouldn't appear to be much of a stretch. But after spending 112 minutes in the company of this down-and-almost-out, growling booze-and-cig-throated character convinced me why Bridges won Oscar for Best Actor for the role. And not just for acting – singing, too. From the start of the movie when Bad discovers his latest gig is in a beat-up Arizona bowling ally to the end when he finally realizes that songwriting is more important to him than love or even whiskey, CRAZY HEARTS is full of heart and worth your time.

VOYAGER (1991)

Sitting alone and grief-stricken in the Athens airport after suffering a heart-breaking loss, globe-hopping engineer Walter Faber (Sam Shepard) flashes back to his student days in Switzerland just before World War II, when he abandoned his pregnant lover Hannah after she announced she was getting an abortion and refused his proposal of marriage. As the film unfolds over a 20-year period, Walter recalls via flashbacks within flashbacks that Hannah subsequently married Walter’s best friend and bore a child, that she later divorced him and he committed suicide, and that recently, on a sea voyage from New York to Paris, Walter had an affair with a spectacularly sweet and pretty young student (Julie Delpy) who reminded him of Hannah. The affair ended abruptly and tragically when Walter made a startling discovery about the girl. VOYAGER is a beautifully acted fiim, and despite its sensitive theme, tastefully scripted and photographed.


LIFE AQUATIC, like director Wes Anderson's first film, HARD EIGHT, serves up an offbeat plot, strong cast, quirky characters and clever dialogue. The inimitable Bill Murray stars as Steve Zissou, an eccentric oceanographer and film documentarian in the Jacques-Yves Cousteau mold. Steve and his eclectic crew ("Team Zissou") – including his granite-faced wife (Angelica Huston); sharp-tongued pregnant magazine feature writer (Cate Blanchett); and a young pilot (Owen Wilson) who may or may not be Zissou's son by a previous relationship – set out to find and take revenge on a monster shark that recently chewed up Steve's beloved friend and partner. It's not all smooth sailing, but along the way Zissou learns a few lessons about himself and the others. This litttle film is a gem. Every scene, whether featuring a cartoon seahorse suspended in a champagne glass, a Team Zissou military-style raid to rescue their accountain (Bud Cort) from pirates, or simply a static shot of Zissou staring across the ocan, is slightly askew and worth repeated viewings. And be sure to stick around for the end credits, an homage to BUCKAROO BANZAI. Also check out the soundtrack, a collection of familiar David Bowie songs all sung in Portuguese

CHOKE (2008)

CHOKE is a grey comedy about a sex-addicted med-school dropout named Victor (the brilliant Sam Rockwell), who is the sole support of dementia-inflicted mom (Angelica Huston). Hospitalized and years of abusing drugs, abducting young Victor from a string of foster mothers and running from the authorities, she claims to no longer recognize him and thus won’t tell him the one thing he craves so desperately to know: the identity of his father. To pay for her expensive upkeep, Victor splits his time between working at a goofy Colonial American theme park and conning sympathy money out of strangers he picks randomly to rescue him from choking in restaurants. One day, while visiting his mother, Victor meets Paige (Kelly Macdonald), who proposes a most unorthodox treatment for his dying mom, and who turns out to be … well ... I’ll leave it at that. There’s really nothing more I can say to make this quirky movie sound as enchanting as it is. Don’t miss it.

In war, you have to choose a side

In 1944, Nazi Germany was on the brink of defeat but stubbornly resisting surrender, so in a daring push to gain key intelligence, the U.S. Army began recruiting German prisoners to spy behind their own lines. DECISION BEFORE DAWN is the story of the mission of three war-weary men who take on this thankless job, each for his own reasons. Director Anatole Litvak filmed in post-war Germany because of the surplus of bombed-out buildings and tanks, weapons and uniforms, and so accurate and realistic were the script, acting and setting that anyone watching the filming in Wurzberg in 1950-51 might have wondered whether the war ever ended. This not your typical war picture: no stereotypes, no action heroes, no grand and glorious finale, simply a realisatic depiction of a key period of time during the final days of World War II in all its tragedy and irony, co-starring three extraordinary actors now long departed – Gary Merrill, Richard Basehart and Oskar Werner (as a young German spy-recruit torn between his love of the Fatherland and loathing of its Nazi oppressors).


Brian Weathersby (Paul Dano) is a shy 28 year-old mattress salesman, youngest sons of grandparent-aged parents (veterans Ed Asner and Jane Alexander, both excellent). Unfulfilled by his work, he pursues his lifelong goal of adopting a Chinese baby. One day a young woman buys a mattress for her dad. Brian delivers it, and soon finds himself swept up in a romance with the lovely but quirky Harriet "Happy" Lolly (the extraordinary Zooey Deschanel). But to win her over, he must deal with their individual insecurities, plus her bearish and overbearing braggart of a father (John Goodman) with deep pockets, bad back and his daughter's best interest at heart. When Brian gets the baby, Happy chickens out and breaks up with him. Do warm hearts trump cold feet? Find out for yourself in GIGANTIC, a funny, surreal love story about the anxiety and pressures that come when two people with crazy families collide unexpectedly and fall for each other.

A funny movie about getting serious

Isabelle “Izzy” Grossman (Amy Irving) works for a chic New York bookstore uptown and pays frequent visits downtown to her down-to-earth grandmother Ida (Reizl Bozyk, the legendary Yiddish theatre star, in her only film role). Anxious for her granddaughter to settle down, Ida turns to the local marriage broker (Sylvia Miles). Although shocked and annoyed, Izzy allows the matchmaker to introduce her to Sam Posner (Peter Riegert), who sells pickles below Delancey Street. Believing him to be too working-class for her, Izzy sets her sights on a famous writer. But once Izzy discovers the real man inside each of these men, it's the pickle vendor who turns out to be the kosher one. Irving and Riegert are a pairing made in Hollywood heaven, and every scene is a delight.

Silent but deadly powerful

This 1928 French masterpiece focuses a silent but unblinking lens on Joan's trial (based on actual trial records), imprisonment, torture and execution. It's shot predominately in close-ups of the alternately grim and mocking faces of judges and onlookers, and the sad, ravaged face of their defendant. I guarantee you will never forgt those faces. The doomed Joan is portrayed by Renée Jeanne Falconetti, giving what is regarded as one of the greatest performances ever recorded on film. The original edit, long thought to be lost in a fire, was miraculously found in perfect condition in 1981 in a Norwegian mental institution. Incredibly painful yet beautiful to watch. (Trivia note: This was Falconetti's first and only film role.)

Going home reminds you why you left

Daniel Craig, a fine British actor with 20 years in films prior to Bondage, gives a touching performance as Joe Scott, an aging and all-but-washed-up Hollywood star adrift in a haze of drugs, sex and squandered fame. When he learns of the sudden death of his childhood best friend, he returns to the small English seaside village where he grew up to attend the funeral. There, he's flooded by memories of the summer of ’72 – a summer of innocence, discovery and tragedy that set him on the path to his current life. This powerful drama about love, loss and redemption features a nostalgic soundtrack of songs by Scott Walker, Roxy Music, David Bowie and others. Watch for two scenes in particular: Young Joe and his girlfriend Ruth dancing and lip-syncing to the Roxy song, "If There Is Something," and the wordless final minutes of the film in which loose ends are tied up. Craig (who also executive produced) is superb, as is Claire Forlani (MEET JOE BLACK) in a small but indelible performance as Joe's grownup girlfriend who had married his now dead  friend.


If you share my love of time travel stories, take time to see this Spanish mystery-thriller. Relaxing in his back yard, Héctor spies a topless woman in the woods. Investigating, he finds her now lying dead on the ground. Suddenly, a man pops with a bandaged face pops out of the bushes and stabs him in the arm with a pair of scissors, then starts chasing him. Héctor flees to a nearby building where a mysterious technician (writer/director Nacho Vigalondo) hides him in metal vault-like contraption. Moments later, Héctor emerges to find himself now in the recent past and, from the front of the hillt building, sees his house, wife and himself in the distance. The scientist explains that as a result of unauthorized time travel experiments he's conducting, Héctor is observing his "mirror image" from the day before. From then on (or from then back, as the case may be), events go horribly awry as the increasingly discombobulated time traveler tries set things right. Is he successful? Wish I could say, but after two enjoyable viewings, I’m still confused. This version (with has hard-to-read yellow subtitles) is being remade, with David Cronenberg directing. But don’t wait – catch the Spanish version now on Netflix. More

Movie making magic then and now

In the classic “I coulda been a contender” scene in 1954's ON THE WATERFRONT, Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger are talking in the back seat of a cab. The cab seems to be moving because of the traffic sounds and lights moving across the actors' bodies and faces – but of course it's not. The scene was shot in a studio, a detail none-too-subtly obscured by closed window blinds on the vehicle's rear window. Watch the scene, not merely to see how hard it is to believe today that the cab is really moving, but to marvel at how easy it is not to care because of the power of the acting.

And here’s a short video on the state of today's special effects.
Click here

As good as romantic comedies get

AS GOOD AS IT GETS treats us to direction, writing and acting as good as it all gets. Starring Jack Nicholson as an obsessive-compulsive, misanthropic, homophomic bigot (and that's being kind) who gets involved in the lives of a single mother (Helen Hunt) and gay neighbor (Greg Kinnear), each of whom winds up growing as a result of knowing and helping the others. At its heart, this an old-fashioned feel-good romantic comedy, though it takes a while to see the romance part. Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture and winner for Best Actor and Best Actress, it’s ranked number 140 on Empire's "The 500 Greatest Movies of All Time" and even higher on my personal list of favorite films.

Safari, not so good

If you’re squeamish about animal hunting – especially if the animal is a manTHE NAKED PREY may not be the prey-fect movie for you. But if you can make it through several pretty graphic scenes to the end, you’ll be rewarded by an entertaining lesson on how to survive in the wild and what “will to live” really means. A group on safari runs into a reclusive African tribe who seems friendly enough. But when an arrogant member of the party refuses to gift the chieftain, the men are seized and killed, one by one, each in a different, creative and horrifying way. (Hint: you may never want to think about meat turning slowly on a rotisserie again.) One man (Cornell Wilde, who also directed), the safari guide who had tried to talk the others into giving the gifts, is spared from death but stripped of clothes and weapons, set free to run, and then pursued like an animal by a party of relentless tribal warriors. Trust me, it's a jungle out there.


Bittersweet parting

This exquisitely crafted British classic was directed by the great David Lean and based on Noel Coward’s 1935 half-hour one-act stage play “Still Life.” It’s one of filmdom’s great romantic tear-jerkers. Simply told and emotionally honest, BRIEF ENCOUNTER is a peek into the quiet desperation involved in a brief extramarital love affair between two married, middle-class Brits who meet in the refreshment tea room of a railway station and continue to see each other over seven weekly meetings. Laura (Celia Johnson) is a wife and mother hungry for escape from her humdrum life and sterile marriage; Alec (Trevor Howard) is a kind young doctor. The  passion between them is obvious, yet the film maintains chaste minimalism throughout – a credit to the writing, direction and British sensibilities of the time. You'll want a box of tissues nearby for the ending.

Dream or reality - which is the nightmare?

VANILLA SKY, directed by Cameron Crowe and starring Tom Cruise and Penelope Cruz, is the American remake of the Spanish film OPEN YOUR EYES (1997); and while I prefer the earlier, slightly less complex version, I think this one does it justice. What can't do justice to this part mystery, part love story, part sci-fi multi-layered film is a synopsis. All I'll say is that's its about a young man named David (Cruise) who has wealth, good looks and a gorgeous f**k buddy (Cameron Diaz) who adores him. But just when he thinks he's found true love with an enigmatic dancer named Sofia (Cruz, same role as in the original), he's in a car accident that leaves his face horribly disfigured and loses his dream life ... or is all just a dream? After several viewings, I'm still trying to figure it all out. Cruz is wonderful in both films, though I think she's better in the Spanish-language version. And here's something I never thought I'd say: Cruise is terrific. His persona fits the role of David perfectly. My only quibble is that I think director Crowe, in his zeal to top the Spanish version, added unnecessary plot points and symbolic elements. I get the feeling he's saying, "Look how clever I am," which comes across even in his commentary track.

Two Woodyisms from MANHATTAN (1979)

Isaac Davis (Allen): “Why is life worth living? It's a very good question. Um... Well, there are certain things I guess that make it worthwhile. uh... Like what... okay... um... For me, uh... ooh... I would say... what, Groucho Marx, to name one thing... uh... um... and Wilie Mays... and um... the 2nd movement of the Jupiter Symphony... and um... Louis Armstrong, recording of Potato Head Blues... um... Swedish movies, naturally... Sentimental Education by Flaubert... uh... Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra... um... those incredible Apples and Pears by Cezanne... uh... the crabs at Sam Wo's... uh... Tracy's face...”

Female Party Guest: “I finally had an orgasm, and my doctor said it was the wrong kind.”
Isaac: You had the wrong kind? I've never had the wrong kind, ever. My worst one was right on the money.”

Christmas in Vermont with old friends

WW II vets Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye form a song and dance team. Ten years later, convinced that success has turned his partner into a workaholic, Kaye finangles an introduction to singing sisters Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen. When the girls travel to a Vermont lodge to perform a Christmas show, the boys follow, only to discover that their former C.O. is the owner of the picture postcard-perfect property which, due to a dearth of snow and guests, is foundering. A series of romantic mix-ups follows as the performers try to help the General. Of course all ends well with everybody singing the title song. WHITE CHRISTMAS brims with great stars and songs and dance routines, not to mention old-fashioned holiday spirit. For me, it’s an annual reunion with screen friends long gone, and a reminder of the unabashedly sentimental and romantic Hollywood musicals from my youth.

Stressed-out scientist stresses metal stress

Most of the cast of this little-known gem is British, as are the look and feel of the film, but the lead actor is Jimmy Stewart. Aeronautical engineer Theodore Honey is the quintessential absent-minded professor: eccentric, forgetful, brilliant – a sober version of Stewart's Elwood P. Dowd, character in HARVEY. Honey’s math shows that the passenger aircraft Reindeer, manufactured by his employers, has a deadly structural design flaw that manifests itself without warning after a certain number of flying hours. Of course, nobody believes him despite the recent, unexplained crash of one of the planes. En route to the crash site to gather evidence, Honey discovers that he is aboard a Reindeer which is rapidly approaching the predicted deadline. He warns the crew and several passengers, but after a safe landing, Honey is ridiculed by almost everyone. Then, moments later, the tail of the Reindeer Honey has been testing falls off and proves him a hero. Mixed in with the suspenseful will-it-or-won't-it-crash moments, NO HIGHWAY IN THE SKY is filled with others of gentle humor and tremendous warmth.

Choose your soul benefactor wisely

Jabez Stone (James Craig) is a hard-working New England farmer with an adoring wife struggling to make an honest living. But a streak of bad luck tempts him to bargain with Scratch (Walter Huston), aka the Devil, and in return for seven years of good fortune, Jabez mortgages his soul. Time passes and Jabez prospers. But days away from the deadline, after he has gained a fortune yet lost his friends, wife and self-respect, he repents and enlists legal counsel from the one man who might save him in the trial for his soul: the legendary orator and politician Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold). Despite a rigged jury, unsympathetic judge and the wiliest of prosecutors, the Devil himself, Jabez wins and gets to keep his soul, albeit barely. As for Scratch, he's momentarily defeated but ever the optimist, and in the final scene, he warns us as he points a bony finger directly at the camera that his quest foor new souls never ends, so we'd better keep a tight hold on ours. Directed with great flair by William Dieterle, THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER brings Stephen Vincent Benét's classic short story to life with inspired, noirish visuals, an evocative Oscar-winning score by Bernard Herrmann, and an indelible performance by the great Huston as the diabolical, yet humorously impish, Scratch.
Jabez Stone sells his soul

Lusty, busty Western

THE OUTLAW, produced and directed by that billionaire who flew planes and wound up a hermit, Howard Hughes, is an odd take by an odd (and first-time) director on the legendary relationship of Doc Holliday (Walter Huston) and Billy the Kid (Jack Buetel) in which the two gunfighters evolve from outlaw enemies, to outlaw pals, to almost father and son, and finally, to a parting of ways over a woman played by buxom newcomer Jane Russell. (She was so buxom, in fact) that Hughes designed a special bra for her to skirt censorship.) This is another Huston gem and likely the strangest Western you’ll ever see. The direction is strange, the story is strange, the dialog is strange, the acting is strange, and the relationships among the characters, really strange. But all that strangeness is fascinating and fun to watch, if occasionally tedious due to the leisurely pacing.

Three guys go a little nuts in La-La Land

These three Blake Edwards-directed movies, though decades old, are repeatedly watchable. 10 is about a hugely successful song writer (Dudley Moore) consumed with middle age angst who temporarily abandons his level-headed, longtime love (Julie Andrews) to pursue to amazing lengths the perfect woman of his fantasies (Bo Derek). Alas, in the flesh, Bo turns out to be totally Bo-ring. The wildly farcical S.O.B.(Standard Operating Bullshit) is about a hugely successful film director (Richard Mulligan) whose monumental box office flop drives him to four unsuccessful (and very funny) suicide attempts. In a burst of creativity, he figures out how to re-edit the nursery rhymish film starring his ex-wife (Julie Andrews) into a soft porno in which she bares her boobs for the first time in her career. (Scuttlebutt at the time was the film was Edwards' F.U. to Hollywood for typecasting Andrews, his real-life wife, as a perennial virgin, and there are many "in" references to this throughout,) THAT’S LIFE! is about a hugely successful architect (Jack Lemmon) whose middle-age hypochondria blinds him to his wife's (Andrews) truly serious medical crisis. As was Lemmon's specialty, he makes laugh and cry, sometimes in the same scene. What these films have in common, besides their wealthy, successful main characters, is a peek at Hollywood navel gazing by a director who knew where all the lint was buried, blurry lines between comedy and pathos, and wonderful acting by A-list actors including Lemmon, William Holden, Robert Preston, Robert Webber and others, plus a host of lesser-knowns with small parts who enrich every scene. Rent one, rent all.

Orson Welles: The Commercial Years

Listen to the Great Orson Welles, reduced in later years to voicing badly written commercials about peas and prairie-fed chopped beef, mouthing off to his British directors during a recording session


DODSWORTH is an astute and refreshingly mature drama about love, marriage and divorce. Middle-aged Midwestern Magnate Sam Dodsworth (Walter Huston) is head of an automobile manufacturing company. His slightly younger wife Fran (Ruth Chatterton), a shallow and vain woman in obsessive denial about her age, talks him into retiring and taking her to Europe. Immediately, she begins to view herself as a sophisticated world traveler, and Sam as boring and unimaginative. Craving excitement and attention, she begins a series of flirtations which Sam patiently indulges until she announces she's leaving him for a titled gentleman. Heart-broken, Sam roams to Italy where he runs into Edith Cortright (Mary Astor), a divorcee whom he'd met en route to Europe. The two fall in love and Sam agrees to let his wife divorce him. But then Fran's engagement is foiled by the nobleman’s Old World mother (she refuses to give her consent, calling Fran too old, an irony that hits her hard). She calls off the divorce and begs Sam to take her back and take her home (where their first grandchild has just been born, another ironic twist). He agrees – more out of loyalty than love – but in the climactic scene moments before the ship sails for America, Sam realizes the marriage is over. DODSWORTH was perhaps the first Hollywood film drama (based on a novel by Sinclair Lewis) of the sound era that so forthrightly addressed the complexity of a failing marriage and impending divorce, made especially compelling since Sam Dodsworth is such an admirable and upstanding character who means well and tries so hard to uphold the ideal of marital commitment. Sharply directed by William Wyler and wonderfully acted (Huston had done it on Broadway), the film is still relevant after 77 years. (Trivia note: Watch for the brief but memorable appearance of 20-something David Niven in one of his very earliest film appearances, as a shipboard Lothario.) Clip

Haven't we learned anything about the economy in 77 years?

The first of director Frank Capra's dramas dealing with tough social issues, AMERICAN MADNESS takes us inside a mid-size bank during the Depression years. Wonderful Walter Huston (the grizzled prospector in THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE 16 years later) is the amiable, deeply caring bank president with a lot on his plate including a hostile Board trying to stop his making loans to customers whom they consider to be bad risks, a dishonest employee who steals and an honest one with a record for stealing (Pat O’Brien), a robbery, a bored wife who appears to be having an affair, and a massive run on his bank that threatens to wipe out his 25 years of faithful service to his bank and community. You'll see echoes of IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, which Capra made more than a decade later. Dated as it may look, it raises banking and economic issues eerily similar to current ones. Click here for an excellent overview/review. (Trivia note: Capra was a well-known stickler for detail. Example: in several scenes, his camera treats us to an inside look at the mechanics of locking and unlocking a giant valut, and how cash was hand-delivered and allocated among the tellers. I found this stuff quite interesting.)

Boy, could Obama use an angel now!

In GABRIEL OVER THE WHITE HOUSE, set in the Great Depression, Walter Huston plays newly elected president "Judd" Hammond, an affable but apathetic and mildly corrupt party hack with little else on his agenda besides coddling his nephew, romancing his secretary, and ignoring the plight of the unemployed. But when he is seriously injured in an auto accident and wakes from a coma, Hammond has been totally transformed by the angel Gabriel. The now driven President Hammond becomes an outspoken advocate of integrity and economic justice, regarded as a hero by some, a dictator by others. Unilaterally enacting strong measures, he makes powerful enemies, yet manages to right many wrongs before abruptly dying. To this day GABRIEL is controversial for its frank acknowledgment of political policies based on scripture and its association of policies too "liberal" by some and with religious beliefs too "conservative" for others (sound familiar?). Nonetheless, the film is astonishingly prophetic in its portrayal of the failures of Wall Street and government, and its sincere commitment to Biblical principles is fresh and interesting. (Trivia notes: Remember the dying sea captain in MALTESE FALCON who brings the Black Bird to Sam Spade? That was Walter in an unbilled cameo in his son John's first directorial effort. He was also the grandfather of actress Angelica. Walter, John, Angelica Huston – three generations of Oscar winners of whose contributions to American cinema no critic ever said, "Hustons, we've got a problem!").

FALLEN (1989)
Demon-strably unsettling

Immediately after a sadistic serial killer named Reese is executed, the cop who captured him, John Hobbes (Denzil Washington), is tasked with finding a killer who seems to be copycatting Reese. But this is no copycat, Hobbes discovers; it's the concentrated evil that escaped Reese's body upon his death – a demon called Azazel that is now hopping from one body to another to continue killing, and to terrorize Hobbes and his family. Some reviewers called this thriller less than thrilling, but I found it intense and unsettling.

A man survives a plane crash, but can he survive life afterwards?

Architect Max Klein (Jeff Bridges), one of the few survivors of a terrible air crash and dubbed by the media “The Good Samaritan” for having led others to safety, has emerged feeling godlike and invulnerable. Disconnected from his wife (Isabella Rosselini) and son, he feels close only to another survivor, Carla (Rosie Perez), a young mother immobilized with grief and guilt over the death of her infant son. Their struggle to survive the survival is intricately set up in the first 111 minutes of the film; the final 10 pays it all off: in flashback, as Max lies suffocating from an allergic reaction to a strawberry, we see him moments before the crash walking in slow-motion through the rapidly descending plane, comforting terrified passengers with a smile, a nod, a few words. He then takes the seat next to a frightened young boy who is traveling alone, assuring him all will be well. This exquisite final sequence, its masterfully edited visuals perfectly underscored by a passage from Gorecki’s painfully beautiful “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs,” culminates with Max’s jolt back to breath and sanity.

SHUTTER (2004)

Until its final scene, SHUTTER is a mostly predictable, albeit pretty good, revenge tale about a professional photographer and his new bride who, after accidentally hitting a woman with their car, discover mysterious shadows in their photos. You'll spot most of the scary moments a mile away, but the film's closing image, the ghost's revenge on the last of three characters, will haunt you. I promise.

"A Gay Fantasia on National Themes"

This Mike Nichols-directed HBO film based on Tony Kushner's prize-winning play is an astonishing mix of philosophy, politics, and gay soap opera. Various plotlines weave around a gay couple, Prior (Justin Kirk) and Louis (Ben Shenkman), whose relationship crumbles when Prior contracts AIDS and starts having fever-fueled religious visions of an angel (Emma Thompson) proclaiming Prior to be a prophet. Unable to cope, Louis flees and starts a relationship with Joe (Patrick Wilson), a closeted Mormon who works for Roy Cohn (Al Pacino), the venomous right-wing lawyer notorious for his ruthless behind-the-scenes machinations and gay-bashing, himself deeply closeted. Other characters include Joe's depressed and hallucinating wife (Mary Louise Parker) and stern but open-minded mother (Meryl Streep), a caustic drag queen/nurse (Jeffrey Wright) friends with both Prior and Louis, and the gloating ghost of Ethel Rosenberg (also Streep), whose conviction of spying and subsequent execution, and her husband's, resulted from Cohn's prosecution. Be prepared: ANGELS is a complex, dialogue-heavy tale that requires rapt attention and perhaps a second viewing to fully appreciate its breadth and depth. For me, it was a moving experience worth it every minute of the six hours.

TIN MEN (1987)
Tin-acious salesmen

In the early '60s, Baltimore is the epicenter of the aluminum-siding business, and the men who sell the stuff  ("tin men") care about basically two things in life: making sales (legal and otherwise) and owning the latest model Cadillac. Two of these guys (Danny DeVito and Richard Dreyfus, perfectly cast), who work at competing companies, have a minor collision (Dreyfus’ Caddy is fresh off the lot with 1/16th of a mile on it!). This triggers a major war of one-upmanship starting with DeVito busting out Dreyfus’ car windows and quickly escalating to Dreyfus seducing DeVito’s beautiful, bored wife (Barbara Hershey). Written and directed by Barry Levinson, TIN MEN is both funny and poignant. Watch for several of Levinson’s signature coffee shop scenes replete with hilarious dialogue, and check out these quotes from the movie.

Take time (travel) to help someone you love

This is a classic “what-if” time travel, romantic love story in the tradition of BUTTERFLY EFFECT. A young street hustler seeks to save his drug addicted-girlfriend from an overdose by visiting key moments in her past (his time machine is a La-Z-Boy recliner festooned with Christmas tree lights). After a number of failed rescue missions, he realizes the only way to fix her life is for them never to meet. FETCHING CODY is an inventive and emotionally engaging little film that I highly recommend, especially if you're into tales about time travel.

TAP (1989)

Want to watch some real dancing? Skip Michael Jackson videos and catch TAP, a lovely homage to the world of traditional tap starring such aging but still then-energetic legends as Jimmy Slyde, Sandman Sims, Henry LeTang, and Harold Nicholas (one half of the incredible team, the Nicholas Brothers), plus three contemporary tappers: Gergory Hines, Sammy Davis, Jr. and a young Savion Glover. The movie centers on an oft-recycled plot, “Will the hero (Hines) go straight or stay crooked” and is packed with sometimes totally illogical excuses to dance. But who cares? Once these pros start tapping, logic be damned. Sadly, most of the cast is now gone, including Davis and Hines, but a grown-up Savion Glover carries on the tradition, and thank goodness for celluloid.


A follow-up to the enormously successful CASABLANCA (1943), PASSAGE TO MARSEILLE capitalizes on the considerable talents of many of the same cast (Humphrey Bogart, Claude Rains, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet) and crew. Told in a flashbacks-within-flashback structure, the story centers on Matrac (Bogart), a freedom-loving French journalist who sacrifices his happiness and security to battle Nazi tyranny. The film opens as a French liaison officer (Rains) tells Mantrac's story to a British reporter. Years earlier, Mantrac was married and deliriously happy, but he was framed by pro-fascists and sentenced to Devil's Island. After escaping to sea with several others, the group was picked up by a French vessel that was then commandeered by one of its passengers, a pro-fascist (Greenstreet). With the help of the prisoners, the ship's patriotic captain defeated the mutiny, enabling Mantrac to enlist in the R.A. F. and battle against Nazism. (Sounds confusing, but it's really not.) Okay, so by modern standards, PASSAGE is over-produced, over-directed, over-acted and over-scored (by Max Steiner); but overall, it's a pretty good film and darned fun to watch with popcorn. Incidentally, Bogart makes absolutely no attempt to speak with a French accent. But who cares – it's Bogart.

Bertolucci. Brando. Butter.

In the many years since I first saw LAST TANGO IN PARIS, Bernardo Bertolucci’s controversial film about a middle-aged American (Marlon Brando) who, mourning his wife’s death, takes up a wild sexual relationship with a free-spirited Parisian girl (Maria Schneider) in an empty flat, I remembered only random scenes: Brando weeping on a Paris street corner, Brando cursing his wife's corpse, and of course, Brando using butter in a way Julia Childs never imagined. In the U.S., TANGO was X-rated and branded pornographic, and to see it was to brave picket lines and police wrath, which I did. I didn’t get much of the story at the time, but I loved Brando speaking French, the music (Gato Barbieri), and the painfully realistic acting and dialogue, much of it either improvised or, to accommodate Brando’s inability (or unwillingness) to memorize lines, scribbled on bits of paper stuck outside camera range. Watching and understanding more now, I am in awe of the power of the Bertolucci’s masterpiece. Brando, perhaps the most inventive of all American actors and one my idols, makes even the tiniest bit of business (like unraveling a paper lampshade) fascinating to watch, and Schneider, then a newcomer, more than holds her own (especially in the nude!). Do the TANGO if you haven’t seen it; see it again if it’s been a long time since you did. The music, photography, and Brando dancing dead-drunk will blow you away.


A finely acted and highly suspenseful man-vs.-system drama produced by Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack, both of whom passed away shortly after the movie was released. George Clooney stars in the title role as Mr. Fix-It for a major law firm – disheveled in in appearance and spirit. A lawyer and former D.A., Clayton plies his contacts with the police and in the criminal justice system to bail the firm's wealthy corporate clients out of legal messes. When one of the firm's senior partners and Clayton’s close friend Arthur (Tom Wilkinson) appears to have suffered a nervous breakdown while preparing a lawsuit for his firm's most lucrative client, Clayton is ordered by his boss (Pollack) to rein him in. Though juggling the increasing pressures of personal and job problems, Clayton investigates, and he learns that just as he has been saying, Arthur has uncovered evidence of corruption against the client. This gets him killed and Clayton fingered to be next. Clayton's boss, worried that his firm’s pending international merger will fall through, gives him a huge “bonus” to look the other way, money Clayton desperately needs to pay off a mob loan. So what does Clayton take the money and run, or what? You’ll have to stick it out till the final scene to see. (Be sure to watch the credits at the end.)


Ruby and Sam meet cute and fall in love hard. All goes well until he (Vincent D'Onofrio) confides to her (Marisa Tomei) that he’s from the distant future. GREAT, just what Ruby needs – another loser. As a matter of fact, she’s currently seeing a therapist (Holland Taylor) for help with this very issue. Yet weird as Sam is, he seems to be the best thing that's ever happened to her ... and she to him. Ah, but what about this time traveler thing? HAPPY ACCIDENTS manages to keep Ruby and us guessing until the end. Hint: keep your eye on the therapist!


FROST/NIXON, based on the play by Peter Morgan and directed on film by Ron "Opie" Howard, dramatizes the historic David Frost-Richard Nixon TV interviews of 1977. At heart, it’s a David-Goliath tale with Frost as the modern-day David. A popular TV personality abroad who craved success in America, Frost got the big idea to conduct a paid interview with the disgraced president. Nixon agreed to do it, thinking the exposure would boost both his image and bank account. The interviews are dramatized as boxing rounds, with Nixon scoring point after point with his self-serving answers and diatribe-like jabs. But in the final interview, David manages to sling a fatal rock in the form of a query about the Watergate cover-up. Flummoxed, Nixon breaks down and does a pseudo-mea culpa, admitting to letting down the American people and "probably" having broken the law. The hour or so leading up to that dramatic moment is both intense and entertaining. Michael Sheen is dynamic as the fiercely driven Frost who rose above his “just an entertainer” status to ferret out a confession and apology that no accredited journalist had been able to extract. As Nixon, Frank Langella, who had done the role on stage, shows us the disgraced President's multiple sides brilliantly. And all the supporting actors are equally fine, including Kevin Bacon as Nixon's loyal aide, Sam Rockwell as one of Frost's researchers (and conscience), and in a riveting cameo, Patty McCormick as ghostly Pat Nixon. (Movie trivia: Aging movie lovers may remember Ms. McCormick as the evil 10-year old Rhonda Penmark in the 1956 shocker, THE BAD SEED.)

DOUBT (2008)

Set in a Bronx Catholic elementary school in 1964, DOUBT centers on a fierce war of wills between an iron-gloved nun (Meryl Streep) and a popular priest she accuses of sexually abusing a black student. He vehemently denies the charge and has a logical answer for every piece of the nun's circumstantial evidence, but nothing sways her; she's absolutely convinced the priest is guilty. Much of the film’s emotional dialogue tackles themes of religion, morality, and authority, but the basic question comes down to, did he or did he not molest the boy? Clues to both points of view abound, which of course is why the movie is titled DOUBT, but without talking with the author, there’s no way to know for sure. Here's what I think: any movie that provokes so much debate about such an important topic is a movie worth seeing. And this one happens also to offer performances and dialogue as good as they get.

W. (2008)

The movie trailer led me to expect a pot-shotting parody, but in fact, W. is a serious, sad, scary and damned entertaining (if necessarily simplified) look at George W. Bush the son, the man and the president, and obviously the product of exhaustive research. Josh Brolin is Oscar-worthy as the Dubya we may at least think we know, acting the role rather than merely impersonating his way through it. The same is true for the other actors, including Richard Dreyfuss as Cheney, James Cromwell as Bush Sr., Ellen Burstyn as Barbara Bush, Toby Jones as Rove, and Scott Glenn as Rumsfield. Only Thandie Newton as Condie comes off as a caricature. Her facial and body "business" is silly and distracting. I watched the film twice in a row, the second time with Director Oliver Stone's engaging and literate commentary turned on. He concludes it by saying, "To me, W. feels like Bush. It may not be Bush, but it feels like him." I totally agree. Whatever your take on Bush, don’t miss this brilliantly written, directed, acted, photographed and edited film. Then re-watch it with Stone’s commentary!

Thanks for the Memories

Reading that Dolores Hope had reached her 100th birthday made me think about her husband Bob, who passed away in 2003 at the same age. And that made me long for his good-natured humor and those of his ilk like Red Skelton, George Burns and so many others now long gone and now replaced mostly by smut and snark peddlers.

STAR TREK (2009)

Star dreck

Kids, graying Trekkers and movie critics are going gaga over the reboot of STAR TREK. But I, who consider myself all three, hereby declare that four decades after it first blasted off into the final frontier, Gene Roddenberry's "Wagon Train to the stars" has finally gone where no one should care.

JACK CARDIFF (1915 - 2009)

Color master

A true legend in his own time, Director of Photography Jack Cardiff has passed away at 95. He directed several pictures (SONS AND LOVERS, YOUNG CASSIDY, DARK OF THE SUN) but will be best remembered as a DP of such classics as THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP, A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH, BLACK NARCISSUS, THE RED SHOES, UNDER CAPRICORN, THE AFRICAN QUEEN, THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA, and WAR AND PEACE.
In collaboration with directors Alfred Hitchcock, John Huston, King Vidor and, perhaps most importantly, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (The Archers), Cardiff made color into a genuinely and dynamically expressive element in filmmaking. The flames shooting from the burning engine of David Niven's plane, Ava Gardner in a yellow dress against a midnight-blue sky, the red shoes themselves - they vibrate with color, and once seen, they're never forgotten.


Will (returning home late): “Hi. I'm sorry.”
Liv: “You smell of perfume.”
Will: “Well, I don't know how I do.”
Liv: “Nor do I.”
Will: “I love you.”
Liv: “Is that an answer?”
Will: “It's the truth. I feel as if I'm tapping on a window. You're somewhere behind the glass but you can't hear me. Even when you're angry, like now, it's like someone a long long way away is angry with me.”


Jude Law is an inventive and appealing young British actor skilled in drama, romance and light comedy. In BREAKING AND ENTERING, a bit of all three, he plays an architect named Will who professionally is a success, but on the home front, rapidly losing touch with his longtime partner (Robin Wright Penn) and her autistic daughter. Will and his partner's state-of-the-art architectural studio is burgled by a local gang. Staking out the property after the second break-in, he foils a third attempt and chases a teenage thief back to a tiny flat, which serves as a home and tailoring business. Returning the next day on the pretext of needing a jacket sewn, Will meets the boy's seamstress mother (Juliette Binoche), a lonely Bosnian refugee, who is clueless about her son’s nefarious activities. Initially intending to expose the boy, Will instead initiates an affair, which leads to self discovery and hard choices for the conflicted but basically decent man. With a smart script and interesting performances by Law, Penn, Binoche and several quirky, quickly fleeing characters, B&E is fresh and fun and for sure worth your time.


Cosmo (Ben Kingsley): The world isn't run by weapons anymore, or energy, or money. It's run by little ones and zeroes, little bits of data. It's all just electrons.


When a highly skilled if unorthodox team of corporate security experts termed "sneakers" is hired by two government agents (whose government, we're not immediately sure) to retrieve a universal code-breaker – the code-breaker, as one of them calls it – there ensues a lighthearted thriller about computers, cryptography, espionage, secrets, deception and betrayal. Robert Redford is the grungy group's guru, a middle-aged techno-anarchist on the lam from the Feds since college because of a computer prank. His merry band includes a goofy electronics specialist and conspiracy nut (Dan Aykroyd), a cheerful blind hacker (David Strathairn), a stern ex-CIA operative (Sidney Poitier), and a young and randy break-and-enter expert (River Phoenix). Their nemesis: an unbalanced computer genius (Ben Kingsley), the old college chum of Redford's who got caught for the prank and is now out to dominate all the world's 1's and 0's and to get even for being the one who went to jail. The gizmo everybody wants, which can decode any encrypted message, isn't a plausible invention, but it's for sure the perfect "McGuffin" (Alfred Hitchcock's word for any thingamajig upon which a plot hangs). SNEAKERS is lots of fun – I sneak a re-look about twice a year.


THE TENANTS, based on a Bernard Malamud novel, examines the animus between Jews and African Americans in the incendiary atmosphere of 70s’ Brooklyn. Harry Lesser (Dylan McDermott) is a Jewish novelist laboring to finish a novel 10 years into the writing. Convinced that he must complete it in the same environment where it was started, Harry is the sole tenant in a condemned Brooklyn tenement. Enter another writer – a Black militant anti-Semite named Willie Spearmint (Snoop Dogg). The two form a tenuous relationship based on Harry’s offer to help the nascent writer, but his well intentioned critiques of the Willie's stories about death to all white people create escalating conflict. And then when Harry starts an affair with Willie's white Jewish girlfriend (Rose Byrne, currently co-starring with Glenn Close in a terrific TV series, “Damages”), all hell breaks loose. The explosive, inevitable end to all this reveals the slippery nature of the human condition, and the human capacity for violence and undoing.