Brief Reviews of Films, A-D

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Brief Reviews of Films, A-D

Alphabetically listed by film title

by Ari Armstrong

Rating system:
An asterisk (*) before a title indicates a film I consider excellent.
A plus sign (+) denotes a very good film.
An equal sign (=) signifies mediocre to good.
A negative sign (-) means avoid at all costs.

- 8 MM The film is highly disturbing -- I'm surprised it got by with an R rating. Nicolas Cage plays a P.I. hired by an elderly woman to investigate a film found among her late husband's belongings. The film, a short 8mm original, is a pornographic depiction of the murder of a young girl. Is the film fact or fiction? To find out, Cage must go undercover into the pornography subculture. My suggestion: This is not an action film. It's a realistic horror film. I suppose there is some slight moral redemption in that the lead seeks to achieve justice, but this can't overcome the raw gruesomeness of the movie. Stay away.

= 10 Things I Hate About You Supposedly, 10 Things is a very loose adaptation of Shakespeare. Like, you know, I guess it might be, but it's *so* not what I'd expect from an adaptation. It's a high school flick about a bad girl and the guy who tries to win her heart. There are some good things about the movie -- in particular the two leads -- and some awfully damned silly things. The central plot devise, in which the guy is initially paid to take out the girl and later gets in trouble for it, has been used, what, 100 times in the last decade? My suggestion: See it if you're in high school. There's even a theme: don't give in to peer pressure. If you're out of high school, rent it if the selection at the video store has dwindled.

* 12 Monkeys Terry Gilliam directs another masterpiece. A virus has killed most of the people on earth, leaving the rest to "live" underground in an authoritarian social system. The leaders of this brave new world send a convict (Bruce Willis) back in time to gather information on the virus, in hopes that a cure might be found. (Pay special attention to the *goal* of these leaders.) Willis tries to keep sane even as he discovers the simple joys of life and love that we take for granted. My suggestion: Watching this film makes for a heavy heart, but perhaps also a freer and more enlightened one. The film rails against the many insanities of our modern culture, but also it celebrates what is good in our lives and seeks to defend this good against those who would destroy it.

Buy 12 Monkeys at Amazon.Com! VHS $12.99 | DVD $24.49

= 1492: Conquest of Paradise Though painfully long, the film captures the nexus in time when Medievalism was giving rise to a new rationality, yet when Imperialism still reigned. I frequently forgot I was watching a Hollywood movie rather than a documentary about Columbus. Many of the scenes are ridiculously boring - it took what seemed like forever for Columbus to help raise some bell into its structure. Ah, but when the bell finally rang, the slo-mo clanging sent shivers down the viewers' spines. Sorry - that was just my girlfriend shaking me awake. I suppose Gerard Depardu (that French guy) does a passable job as the sailor, but I didn't much like Sigourney Weaver as the Spanish Queen - her California-English accent was jarring - though I like much of her other work. Overall, it may be worth seeing as an historical piece, if not for its merits as a film.

* American Beauty All the good things you've heard about this movie are true. Kevin Spacey gives one of the finest performances I've ever seen, and indeed the entire cast is magnificent. American Beauty is one of those movies that simmers in the consciousness, that you think about for days. In a sense, the title is unfortunate, because at first appearance it seems trite. However, the title has deeper significance that reflects the theme of the film. The story focuses on a middle aged man who has become boring and invisible to his family and who hates his job along with the rest of his life. One evening, when he's watching his daughter's dance team -- or more to the point his daughter's sexy friend -- he Wakes Up. In the subsequent weeks he starts living again. The film interweaves numerous sub-themes concerning homophobia, family relations, and pretension. On the technical level, the film is a masterpiece. I have several reservations about the story line, however. The lead's initial motivation for improving his life is discomforting and off putting. And I didn't always relate to the portrayal of beauty -- some characters, for instance, took awe at a plastic bag blowing in the wind. Still, I got the message, and was touched by it.

+ American History X A young racist falls in with a white supremacist group. He starts trouble with local African Americans, which finally lands him in prison. Prison life is hard, and he may not survive either the black gangs or the white supremacy gangs. And the younger brother takes after his elder, idolizing Hitler and finding trouble of his own. One black high school teacher refuses to give up on either brother. My suggestion: The film has a strong individualist bent. While portraying racism as evil, the movie treats racists as persons capable of overcoming their irrational hatreds. Neither does the film paint African Americans as a homogeneous group. Some individual blacks are heroic in their struggles against racism, while others are themselves morally lacking in their treatment of whites. So the view is balanced, and, from what I can tell, accurate. The writing is solid, as is the acting. Not a fun movie, but an intelligent and needed one.

= American Pie This is self-consciously a teenager flick. The plot revolves around four male high school friends whose goal it is to "get laid." The jokes revolve around masturbation and sex. I had my doubts at first, but surprisingly the movie reaches some important moral conclusions, such as that a meaningful, respectful relationship based on values is more important than just sex. And I have to admit some of the sex jokes are hilarious. My suggestion: See it if you're a teen or if you're looking for laughs, but not if you're even mildly prudish.

* Amistad Quite possibly Stephen Spielberg's best film, Amistad is the story of a mutiny aboard a slave ship and the subsequent legal proceedings in the United States to determine the fate of the Africans. The film is based on a true story. Anthony Hopkins gives a rousing performance of John Quincy Adams, defending the Africans before the Supreme Court. By far the best performance is that of Djimon Hounsou, who portrays the leader of the slave revolt. His character is passionate and compelling, and I still am outraged that he did not win an Oscar for his role (he was not even nominated). My suggestion: Definitely see the film, but be prepared for the sickening brutality of the slave trade.

Buy Amistad at Amazon.Com! VHS $13.99

+ Angels and Insects A biologist from the later 1800's discovers a secret by which he knows he's married the terribly wrong woman. Might he and his true match find redemption in love and career? My suggestion: While the film moves a bit slowly at times, I quite like the two lead performances of intelligent, science-minded individuals of integrity (Kristen Scott Thomas is at her usual grace). The theme of the film is retaining a sense of adventure with life despite heartbreak.

Buy Angels and Insects at Amazon.Com! VHS $12.99

= Anna and the King This charming, non-musical adaptation of The King and I details the mostly fictitious encounter between an Englishwoman and the king of Siam (now Thailand). As the king tries to bring modern influences to his country, others react in favor of isolationism. And Anna and the king flirt with impossible romantic feelings. My suggestion: Nicely done, with strong performances. Ultimately, though, there's no compelling reason to follow the story. The worst part of the film was when the king allows two young lovers to be slaughtered, then chalks up their deaths to "fulfilling their destiny." For me, this ruined him as a romantic lead.

+ Antz Woody Allen voices the lead ant, "Z," who quests for individuality and true love in his ant colony. Unfortunately, the dictatorial head warrior ant has plans of his own which threaten Z and the colony. My suggestion: Antz is actually a rather sophisticated critique of collectivism and its analog, totalitarianism. (It took me two viewings to catch the subtleties of this.) Closer to the surface, Antz is a humorous story about a guy (ant) who wants to lead a meaningful life and who gets in big trouble with the authorities over (what else) a pretty, sassy girl (who happens to be a princess). Can Z pull off some heroics and get the girl, too? Sylvester Stalone, Sharon Stone, Gene Hackman, and Christopher Walken add to the delightful cast.

= Any Given Sunday I wish Oliver Stone would knock it off already with the shakey cameras, rough edits, and other MTV-esque filming cliches. Besides that, though, his latest film is pretty good. A coach has trouble holding his team together as a brash young quarterback and a snotty owner's daughter destroy old loyalties and question aging strategies. My suggestion: If you're a fan of football, you'll probably enjoy the movie. An unintended message of the film is how ridiculous are the extremes to which the sport is now taken, sometimes with players actually risking their lives to play. It's just a game!

- Anywhere But Here I thought the film was aptly titled as I sat through it. A daughter is over-controlled by her mother and struggles to grow up. Natalie Portman's character is well-done and intriguing, but the mother (Susan Sarandon) is so ridiculously stupid and annoying that the film is difficult to watch. My suggestion: Every over-controlling, annoying mother should watch it, but normal people should stay away.

+ The Apostle Robert Duval does a brilliant job really of writing and then starring in this poignant if strange film. A Southern evangelical preacher discovers that his wife is sleeping around - with the youth pastor no less - and that his "flock" too has wandered. In a fit of rage the preacher commits a crime, which is serious if strangely understandable. In his flight from justice, the preacher re-baptizes himself as an "apostle" and re-establishes his role of spiritual leader in a new community. Surely the hardest task of the film is to portray a man seriously committed to the work of God even as he suffers bouts of hypocrisy. My suggestion: Believers and non-believers alike should view "The Apostle." Besides being a great film, it is a fascinating study of an evangelical Christian leader. The faith of this man is amazing, almost compelling, if bizarre. Oddly, I didn't feel the revulsion toward the hypocrisy of "The Apostle" that I feel toward many real Christian leaders. Perhaps that's because I felt that the Apostle was authentic, however wrong-headed, in his spiritual journey.

Buy The Apostle at Amazon.Com! DVD $24.49

- Apt Pupil In this Stephen King story, a high school age boy becomes infatuated with an old Nazi party member. The film explores the nature of obsession and of evil. My suggestion: I've never much liked King's work, and this movie is no exception. There's no sympathetic character to follow, and there's no interesting lesson to be learned. We see the spiritual destruction of the boy, but this is presented more as a spookey phenomenon than as a moral lesson.

= Arlington Road A well-crafted thriller, Arlington Road falls apart in its social criticism. The paranoid movie sees society as divided among the political conformists and the terrorists, who potentially number in the "millions." Thus, the film completely ignores the large minority of peaceable, well-reasoned political dissenters in this country. Further, the movie apologizes for the murderous escapades of the ATF and FBI at Ruby Ridge and Waco, thus ignoring the main source of terrorism in America. My suggestion: Find your thrills with a more thoughtful film.

= Armageddon Bruce Willis leads a team of oil drillers to an asteroid in an attempt to drill into the rock, plant a nuclear warhead, and split the asteroid before it crashes into Earth and ends all life. I like the "can do," pro-technology sentiment of the film; Willis is shown at the outset plowing golfballs into the crowd of a Green Peace ship from his oil drilling platform, and his character shows great heroics in attempting to save humanity. Oh, and Willis makes the following request of the government: "The team doesn't want to pay any more taxes. Ever." Hoorah! Unfortunately, only the characters of Willis, Ben Affleck, and Billy Bob Thornton are developed in any interesting way, and Thornton offers the only exceptional performance as a head of NASA. Most of the characters are just filler for dumb jokes. The film also offers only superficial glimpses of what such a catastrophe might do to society; on these grounds, Deep Impact is by far the better of the two films. My suggestion: It's exciting but rather weak.

- Armageddon: The Final Conflict This movie puts the "low" in "low-budget." It's a slow-moving home movie with a bizarre science-religious-fiction story line. A couple of the minor characters are interesting -- the taciturn girlfriend and the eccentric villain.

* As Good as it Gets Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt deserve their Oscars for this film. Nicholson portrays an obsessive-compulsive man who must learn to control his disorder, and also his rude, insensitive behavior, to win the love of a waitress, played by Helen Hunt. The film is both funny and deeply touching - very well written. Kudos also to Greg Kinear, who plays an artist Nicholson (finally) befriends. My suggestion: Don't miss this sweet, funny, compelling film.

Buy As Good as it Gets at Amazon.Com! VHS $16.99 | DVD $20.99

* Ashes and Diamonds I saw this film by accident at the Smithsonian, but I liked it so much I eventually bought and wore thin the video. It is a Polish film from the '50s (subtitled) set against the Communists' rise to power in the country after WWII. The brilliantly played lead - truly fine work - fights in doomed struggle against the Communists, finding love along the way. He is seen as heroic, but his cause as fated to lose. Acclaimed director (and here co-writer) Andrzej Wajda is the Rembrandt of the film world with his contrasting light and darkness. My suggestion: The film may be hard to find as a rental, but it's definitely worth searching out or buying outright. Excellent.

Buy Ashes and Diamonds at Amazon.Com! VHS $20.99

- The Associate A black, female executive (Whoopi Goldberg) can't get ahead in her company because she's not one of the "good ol' boys." After a man in the company takes credit for her ideas and becomes her boss, she quits and strikes out on her own. Potential clients continue to brush her off, though, until she invents a white, male partner. My suggestion: The concept had good potential, but the film is too fluffy to make good on the idea. A sharp, satirical comedy might have been possible, but this film was barely funny, and mostly just dumb.

+ Austin Powers Mike Myers offers "The International Man of Mystery" as a riotous parody of the campy decades-old spy films. Powers' arch-foe, Dr. Evil, freezes himself, so of course Powers follows suit until he must arise to again thwart the doctor's Evil plans. Myers succeeds in writing some very funny scenes, contrasting the older culture with the modern one. Both Powers and Evil have some trouble adapting to contemporary life. My suggestion: A great comedy, especially if you like Bond-type movies. It sometimes falls flat, but overall it's Myers's best work.

Buy Austin Powers at Amazon.Com! VHS $12.99 | DVD $17.49

= Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me A lot of the humor takes off from the first Powers movie. But there's some great new stuff, such as a Freudian joke about a past self, and some catchy new lines like, "You're a sexy bitch, Austin!" And "mini-me" often steals the show. Like with the first movie, some of the humor is pretty dumb. But, overall, it's cleverly funny.

- The Avengers A British secret agent and his beautiful sidekick try to quash the plans of a man who would hold the world ransom by controlling the weather. The problem is, this 1.5 hour movie has enough plot for about ten minutes. I like the civilized, intelligent characters (Fiennes and Thurman, with Connery as the bad guy), but they don't *do* anything. Most of the scenes are completely irrelevant, and what little action is relevant to the story comes off as boring. "Oh, another fight - zzzzz." My suggestion: I hate to see such talent go to waste due to terrible writing. Skip it.

+ Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life Bill Paxton creates a memorable history of Ayn Rand's life and ideas. As many commentators have noted, he tends to over-idealize Rand as he limits his coverage to those points of view approved by Leonard Peikoff's Ayn Rand Institute. Nathaniel Branden receives only superficial and perplexing notice. However, the documentary tells a lot about Rand's childhood and early career as a movie writer, and it shows some interesting footage from the whole of her life. My suggestion: If you've ever enjoyed anything written by Ayn Rand, this film aptly provides an historical context for her work.

* Babe I resisted seeing this movie for a very long time because, well, it's about a pig. It had "lame" written all over it, or so I thought. But I was wrong. Babe is a touching story of a personality who seeks to over-reach his culturally dictated roles of behavior. In this case, the pig wants to herd sheep. Babe is actually quite similar, thematically, to Gattaca. Babe's owner (James Cromwell) is a sympathetic, understanding, vibrant character. The film shows that even every pig will have his day, so long as he has enough heart. My suggestion: See it.

Buy Babe at Amazon.Com! VHS $12.99 | DVD $17.49

- The Bachelor Our man just can't get up the nerve to ask his girlfriend to marry him, so she dumps him. But his inheritance hinges on the wedding, so his friends try to hook him up with other women. My suggestion: This movie sucks. The romance is totally unconvincing. The humor -- what little there is of it -- is in poor taste.

+ Barcelona Two American cousins (strike that - NORTH American cousins, better yet, US cousins) try to get a grip on their romantic lives and on inter-country relations during their stay in Barcelona. One cousin brings the wisdom of "salesman philosophy" to bear on universal problems, while the other tries not to annoy others too much with his nationalism and habit of borrowing things. My suggestion: I had my doubts during the first few minutes, but the film soon won me over with its original wit - it's very funny at times - and its fascination with international relationships. While the central story lacks strength, the writing is very good on a scene-to-scene level. The cast is quite good as well.

Buy Barcelona at Amazon.Com! VHS $12.99 | DVD $

= Battlefield Earth I've seen more mature plots on Saturday morning cartoons. Anyway. An evil race of aliens takes over earth to mine it and enslave what humans remain. A heroic young man takes on his oppressors.

= Batman The first Batman, with Michael Keaton, is cool. Dark, somber, gothic. And of course Jack Nicholson plays a great Joker. See it, once. The second of the series is well-executed, but the story is dumb - something about a giant penguin. The third film introduces the second Batman - Val Kilmer - whom I like in this role. Kilmer brings a cool-confidence to the role, compared to Keaton's quirky darkness. I like both actors, but it would have been nice to have the continuity of a single actor in the role. The third Bat (fourth movie) is George Clooney (from ER). Cheesy performances and silly cartoonish scenes spoil an otherwise mediocre story line. My suggestion: See the odd-numbered movies (1 and 3) if you're into this sort of thing; skip the evens. And pray for Tim Burton to return to the director's chair. (By the way - a friend tells me the 1966 Batman film is quite good, though I haven't yet found it.)

Buy Batman at Amazon.Com! VHS $12.99 | DVD $17.49

Buy Batman Forever at Amazon.Com! VHS $12.99 | DVD $17.49

+ Being John Malkovich How does it happen that John Malkovich portrays John Cusack's character Craig Schwartz, who has taken over the body of John Malkovich? You see, it works like this: Schwartz is a puppeteer who has taken a filing job on the 7 1/2 floor of a New York high rise building to pay the bills. He inadvertently discovers a portal behind a filing cabinet that leads inside Malkovich's head. Schwartz's love interest (one other than his wife), who works on the same floor, comes up with the great idea of charging admission to be John Malkovich for 15 minutes, but love triangles and schemes for immortality put all the characters in danger. My suggestion: The writing is superb; the tapestry of detail finely woven. The performances are top-rate. John Malkovich in particular gives a riveting and complex performance. The theme centers on control and loss of identity. The film is a tragedy and thus ultimately depressing as hell, but also poignant and thought-provoking.

= Beyond the Stars This is a sci-fi flick that's not. That is, the science fiction takes up about 10 minutes of the movie. Fortunately, the normal earthly story works well. An aspiring astronaut befriends a former moon walker while working out the kinks in his relationships with his girlfriend and his father. My suggestion: It's fun to see the big stars interact in a simple, pre-stardom film with a character-driven story. Martin Sheen, Sharon Stone, and Christian Slater head the cast.

= Bicentennial Man A robot starts existence as a "household appliance" but soon acquires emotions, independence, and a sense of humor. Failing to find other rational robots, he strives to make himself human. My suggestion: As the robot (Andrew) gains independence and starts living his own life, the film is touching and inspiring. But then he makes becoming human an obsession, and sacrifices himself for that end. The ending ruined the film for me, as I regard Andrew's actions as horribly immoral.

= Big Daddy Stupid? Of course. But most of Adam Sandler's movies have a way of redeeming juvenile humor with a poignant theme. In this movie, Sandler's character takes responsibility for an orphan in order to prove himself responsible to his ex-girlfriend. Of course that doesn't work, but the experience helps him get on with his life.

= The Big Lebowski A couple of thugs briefly confuse a California slacker (who goes by "Dude") with the husband of a porn queen who has gone missing, perhaps kidnapped. One of Dude's bowling buddies convinces him to ask the husband to replace a rug, which was ruined by a thug. This, with additional "help" from the bowlers, throws Dude's life into an uncharacteristic turmoil. My suggestion: Normally I would expect to hate a movie about unmotivated bowlers and surrealistic experiences. I kind of liked it, though. It's very clever; bizarrely funny. The point of the film is to relax, to ride the rapids. This isn't much, but at least the movie says something. The situational comedy and the dialogue at least keep the film rolling scene to scene.

Buy The Big Lebowski at Amazon.Com! DVD $20.96

= Blade Wesley Snipes plays an ass-kicking "buff" vampire slayer who is himself half-vampire. Another vampire (by bite, not birth) wants to rule the humans. My suggestion: The one strong point of the film is the attempted "scientific" explanation of vampirism that would have, if pursued more rigorously, served to set apart this vampire movie from the host of others. Instead, the plot gets pretty damned silly in the most important scenes. Oh-well.

* Blade Runner It is the future, and humans have manufactured biological humanoid slaves. The trouble comes when one bunch of slaves decides it wants autonomy and escapes to earth. My suggestion: Truly one of the finest films ever wrought. Definitely tops in the sci-fi genre. It'll make your soul weep, and, at times, soar. Opt for the Director's Cut.

Buy Blade Runner (the Director's Cut) at Amazon.Com! VHS $16.99 | DVD $17.49

* Blair Witch Project At last -- a movie that lives up to the hype. But probably that's because the hype followed strong crowd response. The premise of the film is that three college filmmakers journeyed into the Maryland woods to film a documentary about the Blair Witch. They never returned. But the footage of their documentary and journey is found a year later. The entire movie consists of that footage, which makes it seem eerily real. The piece is wonderfully under-emphasized, which is a nice change of pace is this era of mindless explosions and special-effects as ends in themselves. All we see are the three students, a few locals they record, the woods, and the marks of some sinister force. The filmmaking is superb, especially the shots of the woods and the perspective of the cameras. (Sit in the back of the theater, as the hand-held cameras can be shaky.) A fascinating undercurrent is how the camera is used by the characters to filter reality. And the acting is absolutely top-rate. The three college students are always totally believable, in their laughter, in their anger, and in their fear. My suggestion: See it, and in the theater if at all possible.

= Blast from the Past Believing the communists are bombing the U.S. in the early '60s, an eccentric genius takes his pregnant wife underground into an intricate, hidden bomb shelter. 35 years later, their son emerges to seek supplies and a "nice, healthy woman from Pasadena." The cast does well, including Brendan Frasier as the young suitor. The only disappointment is Alicia Silverstone, who for some reason isn't able to pull off her character as the love interest. The movie is supposed to be a romantic comedy. The trouble is, its intelligent social commentary doesn't mesh well with some of the stupid plot turns. For instance, a military jet just happens to crash in the family's yard, just as they are entering the bomb shelter after President Kennedy expresses concern about Cuba on the news. I mean, come on. But there's also a lot to like about the film. The lead is smart, debonair, and polite, a far cry from many in today's culture. The film is mostly a nostalgia piece, then, looking to renew some of the values of the '50s. This makes the film moderately interesting.

= Blue Sky A military man has trouble dealing with his passionate, sometimes unstable wife. As one of the couple's two daughters puts it, "Mom's crazy and Dad's blind -- they're perfect for each other." "Blue Sky" is the name of the government test program of nuclear missiles. Ethical issues of the nuclear program blend with problems of marital infidelity -- can the relationship survive? My suggestion: Both partners of the marriage make disturbingly stupid mistakes. But both also work to overcome these mistakes, so there is some inspirational value to the movie. The film is well-done, but overall there's not enough going on thematically to keep the film interesting.

= Bob Roberts Tim Robbins writes and directs this mock-documentary about a candidate for US Senate, whom Robbins plays as well. The film makes some pointed criticisms of the present US government, but too much of it is a complete waste of time. Robbin's contention is that the power mongers who lead the military-industrial complex (including the CIA and the NSC) use right-wing rhetoric and fundamentalist religious zeal to secure their power. Much of this is true, I'm sure. How often have we heard God invoked in US bomb runs on Middle Eastern countries? However, Robbins is hopelessly stuck in the right-wing/left-wing dichotomy. Either you have to be anti-gay, anti-tax, pro-military, OR you have to be left-liberal. Well, this simply does not exhaust the possibilities. In particular, it completely ignores libertarian thought, which shares Robbin's criticism of military pork and the religious right, while contesting Robbin's support of tax-and-spend, welfare-liberalism. Robbins is with one hand striking against the monolithic, all-powerful State, while with the other hand helping to build up that same State. He would benefit from pointing a healthy dose of his critical abilities toward his own ideas.

+ Bowfinger A second-rate actor-director-whatever finds a cornball sci-fi script that he nonetheless loves and wants to direct. The trouble is, nobody wants to produce it, and the hot star he wants throws the guy out of a moving vehicle. Bowfinger doesn't have the heart to tell the rest of the cast, so he lies. He steals a movie camera and shoots the unsuspecting star with a hidden camera. My suggestion: Worth a look. The acting is hilarious at times, as are the running jokes. The only thing I don't like about the film is its too-obvious and too-frequent exaggeration. It's supposed to be funny, but often it's just dumb. That aside, Bowfinger is a good effort from Steve Martin, taking sort of an Ed Wood slant, though it's not as good as L.A. Story or other Martin classics. The best part of the movie is Eddie Murphy, who plays both the star and the star's twin brother, whom Bowfinger hires as a double. Murphy's work as the brother is his best ever. The character is simple but sympathetic, amusing and big-hearted. An Oscar nomination for supporting actor would not be out of line.

* Braveheart Mel Gibson rightly earns accolades for creating a moving portrait of a Scottish legend who fights to keep British rule out of his homeland. My suggestion: A spirited, though violent, film of freedom and courage. Not to be missed.

Buy Braveheart at Amazon.Com! VHS $20.99

* Brazil Director Terry Gilliam creates a futuristic dystopia in which totalitarianism is complete and completely inhuman. It is how our world would look if wrapped completely in red tape. The film is usually placed in the "comedy" sections of video stores, but the "humor" is the sort that makes you want to cry from despair. A government employee searches for the truth behind a computer glitch by which a man is mistakenly tortured to death. Oops. What a paper-work nightmare! Just as the government worker begins to see what authentic life and love might look like, his own rule-breaking catches up with him... My suggestion: A disturbing look at what certain of our social undercurrents would look like universalized. I promise you won't enjoy watching the movie, but it just might remind you about your humanity. I particularly hope all government workers will watch the film. I count Brazil as easily one of the best ten films of all time.

Buy Brazil at Amazon.Com! VHS $12.99 | DVD $17.49

= The Bridges of Madison County An Italian woman (Meryl Streep) who leads a quiet, boring midwestern life in America with her husband and two children, falls for a visiting photographer (Clint Eastwood) while the family is out of town. My suggestion: A snore of a film, if well-made. The lead woman bothers me. She's so wishy-washy she ends up in a life she detests, and when she finally finds passion she doesn't have the courage to follow through with it.

+ The Brothers McMullen Three Irish-American Catholic brothers in New York struggle with the "C" word (committment) in their relationships. My suggestion: Brothers is fairly strongly played by relative unknowns. While I didn't "buy into" every scene, I enjoyed the film.

Buy The Brothers McMullen at Amazon.Com! VHS $12.99

+ A Bug's Life Grasshoppers demand an annual payment of food from an ant colony. An ant inventor accidentally ruins the payment one year, angering the hoppers and his fellow ants alike. But the ant has a plan: he will find some warrior bugs to fight the hoppers when they return for the next payment, which the hoppers have doubled. The bugs this ant finds are - something else. My suggestion: This computer-animation is a lot of fun. It's witty and the workmanship is superb. The story is rather simplistic - it doesn't approach the profundity of Toy Story - but it is coherent and it has a good message. Make sure you stay for the "out-takes" after the movie!

* Bullets Over Broadway My favorite of Woody Allen's films, Bullets is about a playwright who accidentally enlists the help of a gangster in writing a play. The gangster teaches the playwright a thing or two about artistic integrity. My Suggestion: A strong and funny film with a touching message.

Buy Bullets Over Broadway at Amazon.Com! VHS $12.99

+ Bulworth Warren Beatty's Bulworth is a California Senator who, disillusioned with his sell-out political life, becomes - get this - an honest politician. Beatty has been accused of perpetuating black stereotypes and simplistic policy prescriptions in the film, and the accusations largely stick, but Bulworth nonetheless becomes a compelling alternative to our real politicians, who generally say only what special interests want them to say. The film is quite funny in parts. My suggestion: Definitely see it, if you have any interest in politics or social problems.

Buy Bulworth at Amazon.Com! DVD $24.49

* Casablanca World War has again erupted, and along one of the escape routes at the north of Africa "Rick" has established a classy club. All is well and prosperous for Rick, but then an old flame of his comes into town, and, worse, she brings her politically dangerous, freedom-fighting boyfriend along. Rick must come to terms with his lost love and with the dangers of the war. My suggestion: Casa Blanca is a great movie of romance and heroism. A classic; don't miss it.

Buy Casablanca at Amazon.Com! VHS $14.98 | DVD $17.49

* The Castle Derryl Kerrigan is proud of his Australian home -- it's where he raised his four children, keeps his greyhounds, and admires the electric towers and landing airplanes. But the government wants to take his home and turn it into an airport expansion. Darryl fights for the property rights of himself and his neighbors. My suggestion: Brilliant! The performances, unknown names all, are sincere and alternately touching and humorous. The central theme is standing up for principle, in this case for the principle of property rights against government abuses. The characters are fascinating; the film is well-written on all levels. The humor is homey but clever. Most of us can sympathize with Derryl as we face inane government policies which fly in the face of justice. Go, Derryl! And go see this film!

= The Chamber A young lawyer defends his bigoted grandfather on death row for the bombing of the law office of a Jewish civil rights activist. The blast maimed the activist and killed his two sons. But was the grandfather responsible for the deaths? My suggestion: A rather weak outing by novelist John Grisham, though it does cover some important issues. The main bright spot of the film is the gutsy, raw-emotional performance by Gene Hackman as the grandfather.

+ Chasing Amy Kevin Smith figures out how to make a main-stream film that is still honest and meaningful in this, his third outing. This is a love triangle, but with a couple twists: the lead (Ben Affleck) has fallen for a maybe-lesbian, and in the other corner is his superficially-homophobic partner. (The two guys make comic books together.) The film is alternately funny and shocking as it takes on a host of sexual and cultural issues. A film worth viewing.

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= Cider House Rules "Sometimes you have to break the rules to set things right." Unfortunately, the film never distinguishes between breaking bad rules and blind pragmatism. The film self-consciously takes on morality as its theme, and at this it fails abysmally. It's half-right, though: blind obedience to rules is dumb and often tragic. In the film, a boy grows up in an orphanage but leaves to experience the outside world. He learns to grow apples (thus the "cider house") and falls in with a promiscuous girl. Back at the orphanage, the administrators need him to return. My suggestion: The most over-rated film of the year. The worst part about the film is that every character has a moral flaw. The main girl sleeps around out of loneliness. The head of the orphanage sniffs ether. The lead boy falls for the wrong girl. Sometimes, though, the characters make a strong moral stand, and that's inspiring. But these actions of strong will are constantly undercut by the general wishy-washiness of the film's moral relativism. As moral philosopher David Kelley points out, one can reject bad rules while adhering to sound principles.

* Citizen Kane Even to my untrained eye the film is crafted with an obvious mastery. The perspective of the camera, the use of light, the acting, all is superb. From a technical viewpoint, I can buy into the notion that Citizen Kane is "the greatest film of all time." The story is written with a similar skill, but I just didn't enjoy it. It's the story of a newspaper man who "loves no one but himself" but who craves the love of everyone. The film portrays excellently the psychology and behavior of such a man, but that's all it does. The story just follows the logical progression of this man's life, with all its pain and emptiness, without showing any development of the character. Thus, it watches more like a documentary than a work of art. (It *is* based on the life of a real man.) Of philosophical interest, while the film characterizes Kane as supremely "selfish," he is better understood as a "social metaphysician" as Ayn Rand has described the phenomenon. That is, Kane bases all his decisions on how they will look to *others*, on how he can impress and control *others*. Thus, Kane's "self" is practically non-existent, merely a dim reflection of the opinions of the multitudes.

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= City of Angels Nicholas Cage is strong as an angel who must decide whether to "fall" to earth to be with his human love, played by Meg Ryan. The film is nice as a portrayal of romantic love, but weak because of its implausible pseudo-Christian theology. My suggestion: Not a bad love story, if you can swallow the weird religious stuff.

= A Civil Action Based on a true story: a lawyer in the '60s becomes convinced that a tannery polluted the drinking water of a local community, resulting in the illness and death of a number of children. At first, the lawyer is motivated by the deep pockets of the defendants, but he soon becomes personally caught up in the case. After finally winning a small settlement but failing to capture a moral victory, the lawyer turns the case over to the EPA, which fines the companies substantially. My suggestion: The performances, led by John Travolta and Robert Duval, are good. I don't like the glorification of the EPA, which has in general alternately allowed pollution to run rampant and spent horrendous amounts of money on unjustifiable projects. Based on the facts presented in the movie (which may or may not correspond to reality), it seems clear that the tannery was indeed guilty of gross negligence and put the town at risk by polluting (even though the movie did not attempt to make a scientific link between the pollution and the specific ailments of the children). I would rather the film had attacked the politically controlled court systems, which frequently achieve injustice rather than justice. (The movie did critique the court, but only superficially.) Another problem with the movie is that it failed to find fault with the main lawyer, who nearly bankrupted his partners in irresponsible financial moves related to the case. Fighting to the death can be heroic, but feeding one's friends to the dogs is not. For me, the moral and political problems with the movie outweigh the value of the performances. However, the film is interesting as a history piece and as a window into parts of the culture.

= Clash of the Titans One of the films I watched endlessly on HBO as a child, Clash is a good kids' movie but not very interesting to mature audiences. The determinism of Greek mythology dampens the heroism of the movie, turning it into a soap opera of godly passions. But watch along when you rent it for your kids.

* Clerks Kevin Smith's first film deserves a lot of credit. Filmed in black and white on a shoe-string budget in Smith's off-hours, Clerks takes place in a convenience market where the main clerk must figure out how to get his life together. He has been wishy-washy in love, in his career, in everything, and now he has to get a life or remain a loser. There's some very funny, and also some just plain weird, stuff in this movie. It is basically the arch-type Gen-X film where the lead is not content with the traditional Corporate lifestyle, but wants to pursue his dreams. My suggestion: This is not your typical, pre-fab, glossy movie. But it is honest, quality work. Watch it.

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= Conspiracy Theory A taxi driver who writes a newsletter on conspiracy theories and stalks a woman at the Department of (In)Justice finds himself the target of a real conspiracy. Things are not, of course, as they seem, and even the romance may have a chance. My suggestion: At first I thought the story was boring, but it developed some compelling intricacy. By no means great, but a passable action flick.

* Contact Robert Zemeckis with his characteristically masterful direction creates a loose interpretation of the novel by Carl Sagan. Jodie Foster plays an astronomer who discovers a transmission from an alien intelligence. She gives a strong performance, and Matthew McConaughey does a decent job of playing her love interest. Foster plays the always-rational scientist, McConaughey the theistic spiritual advisor. In Sagan's book, the scientist ultimately converts the theist, though in the movie all the major themes are turned on their heads and the theist converts (at least partially) the scientist. My suggestion: Even though Sagan's book is immensely better than the film, the film also is quite good. I've seen it at least half a dozen times, and I got more out of it with each viewing. Definitely worth checking out.

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Buy Carl Sagan's novel, Contact, at Amazon.Com! Book $5.59

= Corina Corina After a man's wife dies and his daughter stops speaking, he hires a woman to clean house and care for the girl. The three try to become friends, and perhaps a family as well. A major undercurrent deals with racial issues -- the nanny is black whereas the man and daughter are white in a conservative, white neighborhood. My suggestion: Overall the movie is more good than bad. The performances are sometimes stilted and the film tends to drag. However, the friendship between the nanny and the girl develops fairly well, and the film joyfully breaks down racial barriers.

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+ The Cradle Will Rock Tim Robbins creates a wonderful historical piece with a cast of great talent. It's the Depression era, and fascism and communism vie for allegiance. The federal government through its works projects has undertaken to organize a national theater. But when the Congress starts its inquisition against American "reds," the national theater is restricted and one play is shut down entirely. That play, The Cradle Will Rock, deals with the themes of capitalist corruption and the rise of the labor unions. My suggestion: Robbins is a talented film maker, but he's behind the times with his politics. He remains stuck in the left/right, communist/fascist dichotomy. Thus, he fails to see the contradictions in, say, decrying the alliance between the State and manufacturing businesses, while at the same time calling for an alliance between the State and art. Ultimately, it doesn't matter if you're murdered by Hitler or Stalin -- socialism is socialism. Now is the dawn of the libertarian age, something of which Robbins hasn't the slightest conception.

+ Crazy in Alabama It's the era of Martin Luther King's civil rights movement. A middle-aged woman kills her abusive husband to win her freedom. She goes to Hollywood in search of stardom. Her nephew witnesses the murder of a black boy who was trying to win the freedom to swim in a "white only" pool. The sheriff who killed the black boy is also in pursuit of the aunt, and he pressures the nephew not to testify against him in exchange for easing up on the aunt. So the film is about freedom, justice, and integrity. My suggestion: The two plot lines aren't tied together very well. It's basically two movies in one; fortunately both are compelling. The strong point of the film is the nephew's search for justice and his struggle to act with integrity. His character is by far the most compelling.

= The Crying Game The Irish Republican Army kidnaps a British soldier and threatens to kill him if an IRA official is not released by the Brits. Things get complicated when one of the IRA members becomes friends with the soldier and promises to look after the soldier's Significant Other. The focus of the story is the relationship between the IRA guy and the soldier's old flame, which erupts in complications of its own. My suggestion: The Crying Game is a rather odd movie; nothing like what I expected. It's very well done, though. It is a movie of human relationships - the IRA activity is back-drop. The main problem with the film is that it doesn't integrate the first and second parts well enough.

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+ Dangerous Beauty In a time just before war, plague, and the Inquisition come to independent Venice, a beautiful young lady is trained by her mother to be a prostitute to the powerful and wealthy. The woman's true desire is to marry a man who is unfortunately socially "beyond her reach," a man whose father compels him to marry another for reasons of politics and money. At least the life of prostitution permits one the company of books, poetry, and intelligent friends (at least for a time), more than the wives can hope for. The film purports to be based on a true story. My suggestion: The film explores issues of faith, sensuality, and social oppression. Such concerns, however, remain backdrop to the vibrant personality and intellect of the leading lady. The film is definitely worth seeing for its characters (though a couple of the minor figures are poorly played) and for its social critique. Perhaps because of its historical inspiration the film lacks a strong cohesive plot: social events largely drive the story and the film splits into two disjoined parts. See it, nonetheless.

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+ Dangerous Liaisons John Malkovich and Glen Close play two rivalrous friends who compete in sexual conquests, back in the days when sexual impropriety could ruin a person's life and reputation. The problem is, Malkovich's character falls in love with a woman he had intended only to seduce and toss aside. My suggestion: A compelling film about love and honor; see it especially for Malkovich's work.

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* Dead Poets Society A progressive teacher (Robin Williams) comes to the private, traditional and rule-laden preparatory school of his youth. Several boys in his English class discover his old club, "The Dead Poets Society," and decide to renew it for themselves. The students soon learn the conflict between independent thinking and living and the demands of traditional parents and institutions. My suggestion: Dead Poets is truly a great movie. Fine performances deliver a first-rate script.

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= Deconstructing Harry A Woody Allen film in which Allen plays a writer who sometimes blurs the line between himself and his fictional characters. I.e., the film is about Woody Allen playing himself as somebody else. My suggestion: While not Allen's strongest outing, Harry is an engaging story. (Or reality.)

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+ Deep Impact A comet is on a collision course with earth. The film boasts strong performances all around, particularly by Morgan Freeman as the President. A particularly nice sub-plot is of the heroic astronauts who try to save the earth. The film has several problems, however. It progresses in somewhat choppy manner. It assumes a number of implausibilities, such as that the US government could keep the comet secret for over a year. Finally, it has the government doing a number of things that would devastate most of the citizenry in a real emergency, like withholding vital information and freezing prices. My suggestion: Deep Impact is a fairly strong film worth viewing, despite its shortcomings and revolting political implications.

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= Devil's Advocate *Advocate* is a supernatural horror/suspense film with some not-so-subtle moral twists. The Devil (literally) demonizes the legal profession as the perfect instrument of evil and human suffering. This critique of modern law, I like. Satan hires a "hot" defense lawyer who never loses a case despite his reservations of setting criminals free. My suggestion: Al Pacino does well as Lucifer, and Keanu Reeves gives a characteristically mediocre performance as the hot-shot lawyer. The whole heaven/hell thing strikes me as dated, but the film is moderately interesting as a way to see how some Christians view the world. What I *hate* about the film is the way it mis-handles important ethical considerations. It conflates rational self-interest with vanity, it conflates a healthy sensuality with decadence, it reiterates the traditional false-dichotomy of dutiful Christian morality and hedonist-destructiveness. In short, it ignores the by-now fairly wide-spread ethics in which sensuality is harmonized with sensibility, in which self-interest is harmonized with respect for others.

= Dick Who is "deepthroat" who helped bring down President "Tricky Dick" Nixon? In this funny satirical film, it is a pair of teenage girls who by chance become Nixon's official dog-walkers. The movie didn't get nearly the attention it deserved -- it is a poignant and hilarious social critique. With lines like, "Now our leaders will never lie to us again," it's relevant to today's political landscape. And the parody of Woodward and Bernstein is an absolute riot. My suggestion: If you're interested in politics, see it.

= Disney's The Kid An "image consultant" with a bad temper and few friends gets a visit by his childhood self, which forces him to confront his social problems and repression. My suggestion: The film deals with an interesting theme, that of overcoming repression of bad childhood memories. The writers make an effort to appeal both to adults and children, but I have a feeling neither group was very satisfied.

= Doctor Dolittle Eddie Murphy plays a comedic version of the doctor who can talk to animals. My suggestion: While nothing like the great Dr. Dolittle of fiction, the movie is better than I thought it would be. It manages to be funny in parts, and it also creates a passable story of a man who must learn to accept himself for who he is despite whether other people think he's nuts. It's a "light" film, but somewhat enjoyable, probably particularly for a younger audience.

= Dogma A clever outing by Kevin Smith. The film is both self-consciously profane -- at one point a lewd character claims God (played by Alanis Morissette) gave him an erection -- and a spiritual affirmation of Christianity (loosely defined). The story centers on two fallen angels who try to defy God's command to remain in exile by attaining forgiveness from the Catholic Church and thus re-entering heaven. Of course, this will cause the universe to explode. So God's messenger enlists a modern relative of Jesus to stop the affair. (Alan Rickman as this angel is really good; other performances are adequate.) The Christian mythology is intricate if not quite scriptural. One problem with the film is its failure to square the wrathful God with the loving God. According to the film, God just changed her mind at some point. And the murderous rampage conducted by the ex-angel of death in the film is disturbing and inexplicable. At least Smith is critical of the Church's politics and its arbitrary dogma. The humor is alternately dumb and hilarious. My suggestion: A must for Christians and ex-Christians; others may find it tedious.

= Double Jeopardy A.k.a., The Fugitive, Part III. This movie is nothing special. A woman is framed for murdering her husband -- by her husband. After sitting in prison for six years, the woman hunts down the jerk and tries to find her child. A good cast gives so-so performances. My suggestion: Take it or leave it.

- Drop Dead Gorgeous A mock-documentary about a high school beauty pageant. My suggestion: It doesn't work at all. The parodies are exaggerated beyond need and humor. There was a fire alarm in the theater over halfway into the movie, so I've never seen the end, and I never plan to. I was actually relieved to be leaving the movie early.

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