Brief Reviews of Films, E-M

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Brief Reviews of Films, E-M

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.

= Ed TV A "real TV" station decides to air the life of a normal guy (Ed, played by Matthew McConaughey) during all waking hours. The move is a big risk, but Ed pays off, coming up with romantic tension and family squabbles that keep ratings high. Too bad for Ed that he can't escape the show when he decides he's had enough. What to do, what to do. My suggestion: The characters are well-played, but the story is pointless. There are some pretty funny moments. The theme is privacy -- everyone deserves it. In the end the movie is mostly a self-pity piece from the Hollywood crowd. I just feel so sorry for these stars making $10 million a year. Excuse my while I dry my eyes.

- Eden A woman with MS feels controlled, and pitied, by her husband, who is a high school teacher. She wants to become a teacher herself, but he discourages it, even though she connects with one of the students (who has a crush on her). She finds escape in the belief that her spirit can leave her body and travel the earth. So the question is whether she will isolate herself from her life, or come to terms with her husband. My suggestion: Watching the film was frustrating; some very good strands were overwhelmed by the stupidity of "astroprojection," which makes the lead character seem silly rather than sympathetic. It could have been a great movie about authentic romance; instead it is just a dumb story with a few redeeming scenes.

+ The Edge I long avoided this film because I thought it was a testosterone-action flick about a couple of guys fighting each other in the woods. That basically is the story, but the film delves much deeper to deal with the importance of intelligence, education, and good character. Anthony Hopkins ably portrays a well-read billionaire who crashes with two others in the Alaskan wilderness. He has a couple of problems: he has crashed with a guy (Alec Baldwin) who is fooling around with his wife, and he is soon pursued by a man-eating bear. I might best describe the dominant theme of the movie as, "The re-discovery of Life." My suggestion: Worth a look. The writing is excellent - poignant and smartly humorous.

Buy The Edge at Amazon.Com! VHS $12.99

= Elizabeth "The Virgin" Queen Elizabeth of England must defeat challenges to her throne from the Spanish, the French, the Pope, and a deceitful lover. My suggestion: The film is probably more interesting for its historic value than for its artistic merits. It is artful in many respects, though; the acting and cinematography is good throughout. I think I was disappointed with it overall because I was hoping for a more heroic center. Elizabeth came to her thrown quite by luck and kept it only by the Machiavellian actions of her closest adviser (played by Geoffrey Rush, who steals the show). Her childish, self-destructive love affair doesn't help matters. Probably the best part of the movie (as art) comes at the end with the juxtaposition of Elizabeth and the Virgin Mary.

+ Enemy of the State A young lawyer (Will Smith) gets caught up in the National Security Agency's plot to murder a congressman and recover a tape accidentally made of the crime. Of course, the NSA has access to the latest in surveillance technology. My suggestion: As a movie, Enemy is riveting. Too much of the plot is overly fortuitous, from the main character's ties to the video tape to his contact with a friendly, former NSA operative, but the story has enough strength to get through the strained scenes. As a social commentary, the film is powerful in its portrayal of a corrupt and nearly omniscient Federal agency, the members of which commit the most heinous of crimes while sipping juice blends. It's a "brave new world," as Gene Hackman says in the movie. I promise you won't be as loose with your transmitted communications after seeing the movie. You never know when phrases which include terms like "bomb," "cocaine," "white house," "Allah," or "heroine" might be monitored by the Feds. (Oops. How about, "Great Allah! Check out that blonde bomb delivering pizza in the White House!")

= Entrapment A beautiful young insurance agent tries to convince an aging thief to join her in the heist of all time. Trouble is, the old codger can't figure out if she's loyal to her job or just using her office to help further her criminal career. Can there be trust among thieves, or love? My suggestion: Another glossy, high-budget movie that sucks. I hate the glorification of crime.

= Entropy An aspiring film maker has trouble with his first feature film -- and with his girlfriend. Then things totally fall apart for him. My suggestion: Strange but interesting. It's the story of lost love, with an MTV twist (U2 is featured). The film has heart and sincerity.

+ Erin Brockovich An unemployed, divorced mother of three gets side-swiped by a reckless driver, but her lawyer loses the case. So she demands a job at the law firm. At first she is shunned by her peers, but she perseveres in researching a water contamination case. My suggestion: The theme of the self-made woman plays nicely -- Brockovich's dedication to her work is admirable. Julia Roberts is wonderful as the scantily clad lawyer's assistant. But Albert Finney as Brockovich's boss steal's the show. His funny, sensitive performance should net him an Oscar nomination, in my estimation.

= Ever After Drew Barrymore plays a realistic Cinderella who falls in love with the local prince and inspires him to progressive thinking. My suggestion: It was a good idea to make a Cinderella story that might really have happened, but this story falls somewhat flat. So Cinderella has an evil stepmother and falls for the prince - this isn't really enough for a good movie. There's too much back-drop and not enough plot. There's no heroic struggle. The romance is believable, but uninspiring. The film is mildly entertaining but not great.

= Everyone Says I Love You A musical comedy from Woody Allen that hosts an outstanding cast including Goldy Hahn and Allan Alda. Allen plays a man divorced but still friendly with his previous wife who pursues a lovely woman in Europe (Julia Roberts). My suggestion: A quality musical that lacks a compelling story; pretty good.

Buy Everyone Says I Love You at Amazon.Com! VHS $16.99

+ Fargo A favorite target of the dipshit-right for its violence, Fargo actually is about how violence dooms one to a horrible end. The basic story is how a man, deep in debt, hires a couple thugs to "kidnap" his wife so he can get the ransom from his father in law. Chasing down the criminals is the local police officer, a pregnant woman who values her peaceful, loving relationship with her husband. My suggestion: See this film. The faint-of-heart may be disturbed by the violence, however.

Buy Fargo at Amazon.Com! VHS $10.46

= Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas A masterfully executed film by director Terry Gilliam, lead Johnny Depp and crew, Fear and Loathing nevertheless left me - uninspired. I mean, who wants to see a couple of middle age druggies puking and wandering aimlessly around Las Vegas, tripping all the while? My suggestion: While the subject matter of the film is not to my tastes, Fear and Loathing is interesting as a history piece of the post-hippie '70s, for the same reasons that some documentaries are interesting.

+ Fight Club I hated this movie. And then I found it bizarrely affecting -- a real mind-twister. A corporate yuppie becomes disillusioned with his consumerist life and develops certain pathologies, such as insomnia and a penchant for beating the hell of out his friends. Thus is born fight club. My suggestion: The film is a neo-Marxist critique of capitalism. As a libertarian who loves capitalism, I sympathize with the notion that modern society is in many respects pathological. True, many people "work at jobs they hate in order to buy shit they don't need," as a character in the film puts it. I attribute those problems not to the free society but to root philosophical and psychological problems which are also the cause of Statism, the opposite of (genuine) capitalism. True to Marxist form, the film suggests that capitalism (really the state-industrial complex) will implode of its own devices. I don't buy that historical determinism. In my view, a sound philosophical revolution can improve society absent some kind of melt-down. Fortunately, most people are fairly resilient and largely immune from the cultural problems of the day. Even though the film suggests many people would be willing to jump headlong into chaos, in reality most people find a way to avoid cultural pitfalls and find a healthy lifestyle. My generation is known for beating its own path, living to be happy instead of to buy things. Money and material things are means to an end. But the problems Fight Club points to are real and they need to be addressed. For that reason, the film is worth a look.

+ Flirting Two quirky students in neighboring Australian prep-schools (one all boys, one all girls) clash a bit with their mates, but find that they're made for each other. Uptight schoolmasters and, of greater consequence, political turmoil in the girl's home of Uganda, threaten to put a damper on the time the couple spends together, but not on the quality of their relationship or their mutual maturation. My suggestion: Fine performances by Noah Taylor, Thandie Newton, and the supporting cast, which includes a delicate Nicole Kidman. The story develops slowly and simply, yet with a great wealth of feeling and determination. The relationships are deeply touching far beyond the central romance. The film is about students, but the characters are always human, never child-stereotypes. The film was categorized "romantic comedy," and it is smartly funny at times, but it is the story of a romance with natural good humor, not a "comedy" with romantic devices. The romance develops with integrity, intelligence, a buzzing passion, and a pure decency.

Buy Flirting at Amazon.Com! VHS $8.99

= For Love of the Game A baseball pitcher gives everything he's got to the game. It takes him a while, though, to learn to give everything he's got to the love of his life. My suggestion: There's big drama to the movie that usually works. But the baseball side of the movie is more inspiring than the romance side. The pitcher's cheap flings give rise to a more serious but hardly nurturing long-term relationship. The woman stays with him I guess because of his charming smile, his "well gee, ma'am" sweet-talk (a Kevin Costner trademark), and his nice ass. The only thing I was drawn to care about with the relationship was the daughter of the woman, who became attached to the pitcher.

- Forces of Nature Most of the film is just downright boring. It's about a guy trying to get to his wedding in Georgia who keeps running into catastrophes that impede his travel. Of course, he winds up traveling with a vibrant, beautiful woman who gives him second thoughts about his wedding plans. In general, both characters are painfully annoying. (I blame the writing, not the acting.) For some time I thought Forces was going to be one of the worst romance films I'd ever seen. However, there is redemption in the end, which almost makes the film worth viewing. But not quite.

= Forest Gump A mentally challenged boy grows up to become a star runner, military hero, and successful businessperson. Tom Hanks won accolades for his performance of Gump. My suggestion: Many admirers of Ayn Rand note, rightly in my view, that Gump lacks a compelling story because good things just "happen" to the character without any heroic struggle on his part. This quality of the film seems to appeal to the dreams many people have of winning the lottery, rather than to the desire to work hard and intelligently for success. In this respect, I don't much like Gump. However, I do think the aformentioned critics get a bit out of hand; Gump does have some redeeming qualities, such as a deep sense of honesty. So, don't go out of your way to see Gump, but don't avoid it at all costs, either.

Buy Forest Gump at Amazon.Com! VHS $11.21

= The Fountainhead This 1949 make of Ayn Rand's novel fared poorly, and not without reason. Gary Cooper plays Howard Roark, who refuses to compromise his integrity as an architect and who falls for strong-willed Dominique Francon (Patricia Neal). Like the novel, the film celebrates the spirit of individuality and denounces collectivism. My suggestion: If you're a Rand fan, see it. If not, stick to the book. I would like to see a more joyous Roark than what Cooper plays. The film has an austere feel to it; it lacks the electric-passion of the printed story.

Buy The Fountainhead at Amazon.Com! VHS $16.99

+ Four Weddings and a Funeral Hugh Grant plays an Englishman who seeks love through the events suggested in the title. The film is very often funny and sometimes touching. What I don't like about it is that Grant's character pines over a non-committal woman and then contemplates marrying someone (else) he doesn't love. My suggestion: A rather good comedy, even if I dislike some of the romantic aspects of it.

Buy Four Weddings and a Funeral at Amazon.Com! DVD $12.99

+ Free Enterprise Enterprise -- as in U.S.S. A science fiction fanatic gets the chance to meet his childhood hero, William Shatner, a.k.a. Captain James T. Kirk. Our protagonist struggles to find motivation in his career. His girlfriend is great, but she gets tired of his slacker ways. Meanwhile, Shatner doesn't quite live up to his idealized role. He's eccentric and sometimes socially awkward. My suggestion: I love this movie -- but then I'm a Star Trek fan. Even non-fans should enjoy it, however. I think Shatner does his best work here. He reveals humor and vulnerability in his performance. (He plays a fictionalized version of himself.) The writers do a fine job integrating the themes of personal aspirations, hero worship, and romance. Nicely done.

+ French Kiss Meg Ryan's character, deathly afraid of flying, allows her fiance to go off to France on vacation without her, where he promptly falls in love with a local. This emboldens the woman scorned, who decides to chase after her beloved. On the way, she gets mixed up with a French local of her own who complicates her plans. My suggestion: French Kiss is fun. The humor between Ryan and Kevin Klein is bubbly and intimate. Ryan does well playing the transition from timid soul to self-confidence, and Klein is great as the seeming-scumbag who turns out to have a heart and a dream.

Buy French Kiss at Amazon.Com! VHS $12.99

+ Galaxy Quest Yea! This is one of those films that could have gone either way: bright and funny or dumb and boring. Not only is it genuinely funny, but it carries an important theme relating to the significance of art. Sure, it makes fun of the Star Trek phenomenon, but it does so respectfully and in tribute. In Quest, the cast of a sci-fi television show gets whisked into space by a race that doesn't conceive of fiction, for the purpose of fighting a tyrant. My suggestion: Quest on! See this movie, especially if you've ever enjoyed an episode of Star Trek.

* The Game Michael Douglas portrays a bored and cynical business executive who agrees to play an unusual game to add a little excitement to his life. The problem is, he doesn't know the rules, or even whether the game-masters are out to destroy him. My suggestion: Definitely see this movie. I was skeptical at first, and in general I dislike "suspense" movies, but this one is a most notable exception. This is a thriller that actually has a point, which is to savor life and learn to live joyously.

Buy The Game at Amazon.Com! VHS $16.99 | DVD $20.96

* Gattaca In this futuristic piece, a simple cell scan can instantly decode and describe an individual's entire DNA structure, checking for inborn traits such as intelligence and longevity. People judge others primarily by their genes. Into this world is born a "love-child" (Ethan Hawk), whose parents take the crap-shoot of normal sex rather than the scientific process of gene selection. His non-optimal genes officially ban him from his career of choice, space travel. However, he breaks the rules to get what he wants anyway. My suggestion: It's highly implausible that people generally could ever believe genes to be as deterministic as they are viewed in the film. Genes are important, but so are a lot of other factors (such as "free will"), and most people understand this. Swallow the back-drop, though, and Gattaca is a compelling story of a man who fights for what he wants with all his strength and all his courage. Well written and inspiring.

Buy Gattaca at Amazon.Com! DVD $20.99

= The General's Daughter A brilliant young military woman is murdered in the strangest of circumstances, and a military cop has to solve the crime while struggling with his loyalty as a soldier. To make matters worse, the woman's father is about to enter high-level politics. My suggestion: John Travolta is characteristically tops, but the story is just too implausible to be compelling. The film is about trust and betrayal, but those themes don't play out so well with the forced plot devices.

= Girl, Interrupted An 18 year old girl graduates high school in the '60s without any direction and tries to kill herself. She lands in a mental institution, and to get out she has to figure out her life. My suggestion: The cast does a great job. The theme of individual responsibility is an inspiring one. Ultimately, though, a film in which a person finds the will to become normal is not nearly as good as one in which a normal person does something extraordinary.

+ Gladiator The son of a Roman Caesar betrays his father and his father's trusted general to ascend to the throne. The general escapes, only to be sold into slavery and to eventually return to Rome as a gladiator. There he meets his enemy in a struggle of revenge and power. My suggestion: Stay away if brutal violence on screen troubles you. The filmmaking is good, the performances are passable. The characters evoke sympathy, but Rome does not: it is a violent, crude place.

= Go Go feels like a Quentin Terantino film, only with younger, hipper characters. The writing is excellent and the ensemble of mostly unknown actors carries it off superbly. Like Pulp Fiction, Go interweaves three plot lines and hosts plenty of gratuitous violence. Unlike Pulp Fiction, Go is not tied together by any profound theme. It's all story and no heart. The characters do really dumb things, and their self-destructive actions are portrayed as cool and funny. This bothers me. The promos say the film "defines a generation." I do know people who are similar to the characters in Go. However, for the most part these people have smartened up and shed the narcissism and self-destructive tendencies of the Gen X mentality, moving instead into the competing Gen X ideals of balance, intelligence, and personal growth. My suggestion: Go doesn't offer much inspiration or thoughtful social criticism (though there is a little of the later), but it's worth viewing for its artistic merits as a film and as a revelation of aspects of the culture.

= Godzilla The big lizard goes to NYC and must be killed. That's worth about 10 minutes of story, drawn out to about triple that, so the movie relies heavily on a number of sub-plots, including one about Godzilla's off-spring (and of course one about a human romance). Even that doesn't cut it, so the audience must suffer through 15 minutes or so of boring prologue. My suggestion: It's your run-of-the-mill pointless "action" film, not terrible but in no way remarkable.

+ Gone with the Wind A petty, materialistic, flirtatious woman of the Old South finally, through the turmoil of the Civil War, learns what is "true love," both with a romantic partner and for an estate. All the leads are terrific, and the cinematography is good if at times dated. The lead ("Scarlette") is agonizingly immature through the entire film up until the final minute, when she suddenly grows up. Her character development is thus abrupt and unbelievable. Fortunately the other leads fare better (the character of Rhett Butler, finally Starlette's main romantic interest, is particularly compelling). My suggestion: Though I have serious problems with the way the central plot develops, the film is perhaps THE classic, worth viewing as a quality saga as well as a history piece. Be prepared - it's very long.

Buy Gone with the Wind at Amazon.Com! VHS $18.87 | DVD $13.48

* Good Will Hunting Matt Damon and Ben Affleck write a beautiful screenplay about a young genius who must learn to overcome his self-doubts and fears and grab ahold of life. Damon plays the lead, who had a troubled childhood but who nonetheless developed his extraordinary mental abilities. A college professor "discovers" him and introduces him to a psychotherapist (played by Robin Williams), who helps him see what's important in life. My suggestion: See this outstanding film.

Buy Good Will Hunting at Amazon.Com! VHS $16.09 | DVD $20.99

= The Green Mile A giant black man is accused of murdering two young girls and sentenced to death. This man has a supernatural gift: he can heal sickness and infirmity. The main prison guard comes to learn of this gift, as well as of the prisoner's innocence. But can he do anything about it? My suggestion: It was difficult for me to buy into the supernatural themes of the story. Given that, though, the film was carried out fairly well. I hated the ending. The prison guards ought to have fought a lot harder for what they knew was right.

* Grosse Pointe Blank John Cusack plays a hit-man who grows weary of his profession and the alienation it brings. He decides to attend his high school reunion, where he pursues his old flame and, if he can survive, a new way of life. My suggestion: I loved this film. It's violent, in a purposely excessive way, but precisely in order to point out the absurdities at the edge of violence. Its theme is that violence bars one from happiness. Cusack is at his best (and he's always good). See it.

Buy Grosse Pointe Blank at Amazon.Com! VHS $16.99 | DVD $20.99

* Groundhog Day A rude and ill-mannered weather reporter (Bill Murray) repeats the same day (Groundhog Day) over and over. Everything stays the same but for the impact Murray's actions have on the day. Will the weatherman learn to love life and other people, and, if he does, does it matter, since every day starts the same? My suggestion: One of my very favorites, Groundhog Day reminds us to make the most of life. It's pretty funny, too.

Buy Groundhog Day at Amazon.Com! VHS $12.99 | DVD $20.99

= Harry's War A patriotic, conservative postal worker visits his eccentric older woman friend, who wants to give him her antique shop. Trouble is, the IRS is after the old woman for tax evasion, and by extension it's after poor Harry. After IRS agents repeatedly abuse their power, Harry declares war on the IRS. My suggestion: This is the sort of movie I'd love to grant an asterisk (my highest rating), but I just can't bring myself to do that. Its theme is good and the vilification of the IRS is altogether too realistic for comfort. But too much of it defies belief. The old woman has a functional tank in her yard that Harry ends up using -- which came from where? And the lead characters often act in stupid, naive ways. But the spirit of the film is wonderfully subversive.

- The Haunting A psychologist disguises a study of group-fear as insomnia research. Of course, he picks a large, abandoned house alleged to be haunted. But the scientist's data are skewed, as the house turns out to really be haunted. The haunting, we learn, has something to do with an evil man and the children he imprisoned. My suggestion: Lame story, not scary. I'd been lead to believe the special effects were cool, but I didn't find them very impressive.

+ Heat, with Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro, is the story of a gang of sophisticated thieves (led by DeNiro's character) who see their lives turn to ruin in the wake of their violence. DeNiro finds the love of his life, but is forced to abandon her and ends up shot by the cop played by Pacino. The other thieves fare about the same. My suggestion: The film is not entirely enjoyable precisely because it is a tragedy. However, it is well-done, and it provides a good moral theme. See it, but not when you're in the mood for something uplifting.

Buy Heat at Amazon.Com! VHS $12.99

- Hideous Kinky A confused and irresponsible mother drags her daughters across Malaysia in an effort to "find herself" or some such bullshit. My suggestion: The daughters are interesting characters, but the mother is pathetic. I hated the film.

High Fidelity A Chicago music store owner struggles to grow up -- to commit to a career and to his girlfriend. His musically elitist and strange employees also strive for personal growth. My suggestion: The performances save this movie. John Cusack in particular is characteristically great. The writing is funny, though in at least one scene I thought it was a bit mean-spirited. Ultimately, though, the story is unsatisfying, because the lead character is frustratingly immature through most of the movie. It's great that his character develops, but the achievement of normalcy isn't much of an inspiration.

* Hoop Dreams A powerful documentary about two young basketball stars who dream of playing in the NBA. The film follows the pair from eighth grade into college. My suggestion: I'm in awe, really. I know the critics all praised it, but I never imagined it would be so good. Watch this film if you are a movie buff who appreciates the fine art of capturing human drama on camera. If you are a white suburbanite who wants to get a little better feel for life in black inner-city neighborhoods. If you are a young sports fanatic who dreams of going pro. If you are an aging sports fan who lives in the glorious past. If you are a father with issues or a mother who struggles to do better for your family. Watch this film if you've ever had a dream, and maybe had a little trouble catching it. It will give you ample opportunity for reflection.

= Hope Floats After learning on a talk-show her husband and best friend have been having an affair, a woman moves back to her small home town with her daughter and tries to re-create a life. My suggestion: The film's a lot better than I thought it would be; it's not the sappy romance I expected. It's about dreams, the expectations one has for one's self, and the shattering of illusions. The talk-show bit is a dumb gimmick, but it's not representative. I found the central romance uncompelling, but other elements of the story were well-developed.

Buy Hope Floats at Amazon.Com! VHS $13.99 | DVD $24.49

= The Hudsucker Proxy After the President of Hudsucker Corporation jumps out of a window, the Board decides to hire a dolt as President to depress the stocks, so that the members of the board can buy up the loose stock for cheap. But the guy they hire has a seemingly idiotic idea that might turn out to be brilliant. My suggestion: This movie offers an interesting critique of the "corporate mentality" and praises the virtues of free thinking, but overall the film isn't very compelling, and it's a little too dumb in parts.

+ The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Disney) This Disney animation benefits from Hugo's grand and heroic, tightly-woven plot about a disfigured, lonely man who acts nobly for friend and country. (Some Disney features lack a compelling story.) Very well done. My suggestion: Well worth viewing.

+ The Hurricane A boxer is framed for murder and imprisoned. A teenage boy reads the boxer's book and decides to help free him. My suggestion: A fine movie. A must-see just on the grounds that it chronicles a chapter of racism in America. The critics are singing praises to Denzel Washington as the boxer, and, while he did a fine job, I thought Vicellous Shannon as the youngster was even better.

+ Immortal Beloved I wish Gary Oldman would spend all his time making such fine films as Immortal Beloved, rather than those ridiculous "action" movies like 5th Element and Lost in Space which boast Oldman as their sole strength. Oldman portrays the rude and difficult yet passionate Ludwig van Beethoven brilliantly, making us feel both Beethoven's alienation resulting from mean behavior and deafness and also his musical fervor. The film is worth seeing merely for its portrayal of Beethoven, but what's truly remarkable about the film is the fictitious love tragedy it lays over Beethoven's life. In a way I wish the love story were true. The sadness is devastating, and yet in a way, redeeming. My suggestion: See the film, particularly if you have any interest in Beethoven's music.

Buy Immortal Beloved at Amazon.Com! VHS $12.99

- In Love and War A young Ernest Hemmingway is injured in WWI and falls in love with his nurse. My suggestion: If there's something here that's supposed to make a compelling story, I couldn't find it. The plot barely coheres, there is no theme, and the romantic relationship is petty.

+ In the Company of Men A hate-filled businessman convinces his friend to help him "get back" at women by finding a vulnerable one to first seduce and then emotionally devastate. They find a lovely deaf secretary. I can't give away more of the plot without spoiling the experience, but it strikes me that two key lines come at the end: "I was talking to myself," and, "How does it feel to hurt someone?" My suggestion: The most disturbing film I've seen in some years. As revolting as it is brilliantly crafted. The writing is superb. Don't miss this film; you will rarely feel more terrible, but you might come to better appreciate what's valuable in life.

Buy In the Company of Men at Amazon.Com! DVD $20.99

- Independence Day "ID4" was deeply disappointing. Cheesy, trite, written by formula, this movie stole scenes from lots of actually decent films. Completely stupid, unbelievable plot. My suggestion: Do anything besides watch this movie.

+ The Insider According to the film, tobacco companies intentionally added chemical agents to make their products more addictive. A scientist for the industry is fired, and eventually agrees to reveal his story to 60 Minutes. As an added twist, corporate finances interfere with the integrity of the news program. My suggestion: I oppose legal suits by government agencies per se. But all the politics aside, the film is terrific: well-written, suspenseful, and powerfully acted. For me, the best element of the film isn't the story of tobacco, but instead the struggle of the newsman (Al Pacino) to maintain his journalistic integrity in the face of financial pressures.

+ Inventing the Abbotts Two brothers react differently to the wealthy family in town. One blames the wealthy man for the poverty of his own family, while the other views the Abbott's wealth with indifference. The film explores the social rifts that can come with differences of income, as well as the possibility of living beyond these rifts. Perhaps even romance can survive social-envy and social-haughtiness. My suggestion: The film treats important social concerns with a light and breezy and yet respectful feel. Mostly it's the story of a kid growing up and finding love. It's enjoyable to watch. Well-performed.

* The Iron Giant A giant robot has landed on earth without any memory of his past. A young boy discovers and befriends the giant. Unfortunately, the government is also interested in the robot -- interested in destroying him. My suggestion: You won't find a more touching animated film than this one. Don't let the kid-veneer put you off -- the film deals with important themes of independence. You are what you make of yourself. Sub-themes deal with friendship, loyalty, and perverted government. And the humor is intelligent and genuinely funny! The most perfect film of 1999.

- Jakob the Liar Jakob, played by Robin Williams, finds himself taking care of a young girl in a Jewish ghetto under Nazi oppression. Jakob also finds himself lying to the community about the advancing Russians because everybody mistakenly thinks he has a radio. The film does at times show heroism in the face of horrible evil. However, because of Jakob's lies many community members put themselves at greater risk and remain unable to form a viable resistance to the Nazis. My suggestion: See Life is Beautiful instead, which is truly a remarkable film.

* Joe Versus the Volcano Joe (Tom Hanks) suffers from fear, perpetual boredom, and hypochondria. When a doctor tells Joe he is terminally ill, he finally "wakes up" and starts to enjoy life. Joe encounters three women along his journey (all played by Meg Ryan): a timid soul, a self-loathing extrovert, and a self-confident, independent type. This third character represents a "transcendence" of the traditional humble/haughty split. My suggestion: Don't be fooled by the dumb-comedy subterfuge of the film. It deals with important themes in a joyous manner. I've been enamored with the film since first I saw it.

Buy Joe Versus the Volcano at Amazon.Com! VHS $12.99

= John Carpenter's Vampires The movie was exactly what I expected: dumb. (Somebody else paid to rent it.) Lots of profanity and blood.

- Johnny Mnemonic It's a dark future in which many people suffer from a debilitating disease and corporations control society. Human runners smuggle information downloaded into their brains. My suggestion: Keanu Reeves at his absolute worst. The story is mostly incoherent, the acting is terrible, and the filming and effects are amateurish.

- Just the Ticket A total loser tries to win back his motivated, beautiful girlfriend. He succeeds, which is disgusting as the guy never reforms his character but instead only gets lucky. So all the lead characters are annoying, and the plot is disintegrated and boring.

+ Keeping the Faith A priest and a rabbi -- no, really -- meet their long-lost childhood friend, who has grown up into a smartly attractive businesswoman. Of course this makes for one helluva love triangle. But the priest is, well, a priest, and the rabbi is pressured to date only Jewish girls. My suggestion: Interesting film. The love triangle works, and even seems fresh, all while maintaining a reasonably respectful attitude toward the respective religions. The warm friendship between the characters (Jenna Elfman, Ben Stiller, and Ed Norton) is compelling. The humor is well-written, and Anne Bancroft is delightful as the rabbi's mother.

= Laborynth A nice kids' film from Muppet Man Jim Henson. An adolescent wishes her baby brother away to the fairy king (David Bowie) and spends the rest of the film trying to find her brother in the laborynth reminiscent of Alice's Wonderland. My suggestion: A great movie for kids. I liked it well enough.

+ The Last Supper Left-wing roommates invite conservatives over for dinner and kill them. My suggestion: This film is a biting critique of dogma and violent tendencies of both the right and the left. It explores the rationalizations that come with heinous acts. The films finds comfort in a centrist politics, though I would argue that a "radical" politics can be sensible and civilized. The film is provocative and worth seeing - the ending in particular will make you think.

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= Leaving Los Vegas I read somewhere that Nicholas Cage, after viewing the just-completed film, said something like, "This is a great movie, but who's going to watch it?" Cage plays a drunk who moves to Vegas to drink himself to death. There, he builds a relationship, of sorts, with a local prostitute. Much of the film is from the perspective of the sloshed lead; I left the theater feeling nauseous. My suggestion: You might want to see the film for its strong performances, but it's depressing as hell - anything but an inspiring story. It just pisses me off to see people willfully ruining their lives.

- Lethal Weapon 4 First there was this flame-thrower burning buildings, then there were some explosions and a burning house, followed by a car chase, and finally some karate fighting. Plot, you ask? Oh, yea. The two bad-ass cops and friends have to stop a bad Chinese guy from importing crime lords to the States, even as the cops' families grow. My suggestion: The movie fails on its own demerits of dumb story and corny dialogue. But I have a particular problem with the movie in that it spews anti-gun propaganda even as it glorifies a flagrant abuse of the most rudimentary rules of firearm safety. Mel Gibson's character quips that the inexplicably included flame-thrower is perhaps "a spokesperson for the NRA." Later there is an anti-gun propaganda poster behind a scene at the police station (even though most *real* cops oppose gun-control). This, as Gibson shoves his gun at point-blank range into his friend's face, as a funny joke. Ha, ha. This, as the movie-cops hold guns to the heads of people to get information. How exciting to watch these abuses of basic human rights. This, from the too-often ignorant and hypocritical Hollywood crowd. This, from Mel Gibson, who gave such a stirring performance in Braveheart. Shame on you, Mel.

= Liberty Heights A pair of Jewish brothers and their friends cope with prejudice, inter-racial relationships, romance, and family problems. My suggestion: The plot is a bit scattered; there are several story lines which connect at the edges. For me, the strength of the film is the way it deals with racial issues. The younger brother makes friends with a black girl in his class, much to the chagrin of both their parents. The film is warmly humorous and a fascinating history piece.

= Life Two black men are framed for murder by the police early in the century and sent to prison for life. My suggestion: This film is what it set out to be: a mildly funny comedy that also critiques racism in American culture. There's nothing really great about the movie (the funniest line is, "You gonna eat your corn bread?"), but it's a solid outing from Eddie Murphy.

* Life is Beautiful As I write, Life is Beautiful has already won the 1999 Academy Awards for Best Actor and Best Foreign Film (from Italy). It deserves its high praise. A Jewish Italian courts his Princess with cleverness and comic style. The two live happily ever after -- until the fascists come to power and ship the Jews to concentration camps. At the camp, the man keeps his son safe by convincing the child that they're involved in an intricate game, the winner of which wins a real tank. Steven Speilberg is reported to have disapproved of the film's tragi-comic take of the holocaust. Whether that report was mistaken or Speilberg simply changed his mind, he eventually expressed his hearty approval of the film to its writer-director-lead Roberto Benigni, who did remarkable work with the movie. Never have I laughed so uproariously and wept with such agony during the course of one movie. That's the real feat of the movie -- to show that life is beautiful, despite the horrible atrocities sometimes committed. You must see this movie.

= A Life Less Ordinary A janitor who's trying to write a pop novel gets canned, so he gets pissed at his boss and kidnaps the boss's daughter in a panic. The trouble is, he's a rather sweet fellow and not good at all at collecting a ransom. Fortunately, the daughter's a big help in that regard. Oh - and God has sent a couple bad-ass angels to play cupid. My suggestion: The cast is great (Ewan McGregor, Cameron Diaz, Holly Hunter), but all of the characters act annoyingly stupid. The story, too random and implausible, is uninspiring. However, the film is mildly funny in parts.

= The Lion King The original is the phenomenal box-office success; Simba's Pride is the straight to video follow-up. A young lion must take his place as king of the pride-lands. My suggestion: The animation and the music are superb, leaving the formulaic story to eat dust. It's an ok kids' series.

= Living Out Loud A woman whose husband has left her strains to etch out a new life for herself, in the process befriending the elevator man in her apartment building and a singer at a local club. My suggestion: There are plenty of things to like about this film. The acting is uncommonly fine; both Holly Hunter and Danny DeVito perform with a grace and subtlety that leaves room for human grittiness. Hunter completes her role largely through her expressions and body language. And Queen Latifa does well as the singer. The actors had lots of help from the script. The humor is complex and lightly emphasized. Some of the most impressive elements of the story are told simply through omitting scenes. (The only analogy I can think of is "Cubist" architecture, in which the spaces are at least as important as the material.) This feature of the writing, along with scenes taken from the lead's imagination, makes for a deeply layered, mature film. You have to actually *watch* the movie. Further, the film doesn't cower from hard issues (like drugs and latent homosexuality). The best part of the movie is that both main characters finally strive to *do something* with their lives. They rise to what normalcy *should be*. However, this leaves little to inspire those of us who start normal and want to partake of greatness. This problem is minor relative to the broader worth of the film.

= Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels A young gambler gets in over his head, putting his life and the lives of his friends in danger. To get money quick, the friends plan to rob a gang with stolen drug money. My suggestion: The plot is clever and intricate, and the characters are interesting. If there were some sort of compelling theme, the movie would be terrific. As is, it's fun.

- Lost in Space I was hoping for a thrilling, heroic adventure through the far reaches of space. What I got was a plot that boggs down in inexplicable intricacies. The dialogue and characterization are unimpressive, a complete waste of Gary Oldman's fine talents. Hopefully the sequel, if made, will be better. My suggestion: Skip it.

+ Love and Death on Long Island A British writer with Luddite sentiments happens to nonetheless wander into a movie theater, where he accidentally views the wrong movie, called College Hot Pants 2. The writer almost leaves the trashy movie early, except that he sees in one actor a rare expressive talent that transcends the mundane format. The writer begins to obsess about the actor, and finally vacations to America's East to search him out. My suggestion: The two leads are wonderful. Any story of obsession is inherently an uncomfortable one, but here at least the obsession is rooted in genuine beauty, so it is understandable and it relates a passion for excellence.

= Mall Rats Kevin Smith's second effort (after his terrific Clerks), Rats is a "light" romantic comedy that takes place mostly in (you guessed it) a Mall. My suggestion: Smith himself poked fun at Mall Rats in his next film, Chasing Amy. It's funny in parts, but nothing to get too excited over.

+ The Man in the Iron Mask The Musketeers ride again to replace their evil king with the king's long-lost twin brother. My suggestion: The chivalry is perhaps a bit melodramatic at times, but it is well acted and supported by a fairly strong story. Pretty good.

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= Man on the Moon I never heard of Andy Kaufman until the movie about him came out. Jim Carrey, who plays Kaufman, is a much bigger star than the strange comedian he portrays. I hate most of Kaufman's alleged comedy. While occasionally funny and clever, mostly it is stupid and banal. My suggestion: The film is worth viewing for Carrey's outstanding performance, but that's about the only reason.

= The Man Who Knew Too Little The Inspector in the Pink Panther series is merely a bumbling, comical idiot. The movie with Bill Murray tries to do one better: Murray's character believes he's involved with a "real theater" performance rather than a bombing plot. My suggestion: Funny in parts, but mostly dumb. It doesn't even try to come up with a good story to backdrop the jokes.

= Mansfield Park The latest Jane Austen adaptation. A young, poor girl is sent to live with her wealthy relatives, where she grows into an intelligent, good-hearted if introverted, young woman. Of course the story line revolves around the development of romantic relationships. My suggestion: The dreariest Austen adaptation, tediously drawn out. The interesting story is the integrity of the central character, who fends off the romantic advances of a morally questionable character. There are also some pointed social critiques, particularly concerning slavery. Unfortunately, these critiques never work themselves into the story line.

+ The Mask of Zorro Sure, it's melodramatic, sure, it's formula driven, and sure, I felt like I was in a cross of Star Wars and the Batcave for a moment when Master Zorro was training the young rebellious Zorro Knight, but I enjoyed this movie nonetheless. I just like to see the good guy win, and with such style! Anthony Hopkins plays the aging Zorro who trains the new masked hero (Antonio Banderas) to help the elder defeat his old enemy and save California from tyranny. My suggestion: Well cast, joyfully spirited. If the story is "fluffy" in parts, well, I can live with that.

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- The Matchmaker A north-American woman goes to Ireland for her job and finds the locals eager for romance. My suggestion: Incredibly boring. I couldn't stand to finish watching it.

+ The Matrix Wow! A Keanu Reeves action movie that doesn't suck! (No way, dude!) In fact, The Matrix is perhaps the best all-out action movie this half of the decade. Only two scenes of the movie bothered me: a bit of cheesy Kung Fu fighting from Reeves (which drew laughter from the audience), and part of the explanation for the background of the "matrix" that strains credulity. I can't give away the plot without ruining the experience, so I'll say only that humankind is fighting for survival, and the world is not as it seems. There's some nice filmmaking beyond the excellent, extra-cool raw action sequences. I enjoyed all the performances. The love story is subtle and even touching. The heroism is inspiring, the betrayal haunting. And there's plenty to think about in terms of the metaphysical quandaries. My suggestion: See it! I've heard the film compared with Blade Runner, which is ridiculous -- The Matrix isn't even in the same league. However, it is a thoroughly enjoyable, engaging film, comparable to or better than the Terminator series.

= Meet Joe Black The Angel of Death (aka, the Grim Reaper, Joe Black) goes on holiday in this cinematic remake, stealing a human body (Brad Pitt) and finding a wealthy communications exec (Anthony Hopkins) with whom to experience life. In exchange for the privilege of living with the family, Death extends the exec's earthly stay. My suggestion: The film was unreasonably bashed by some critics. Overall it is a quality movie. I enjoyed the performances - Hopkins is wonderful. There are some problems with the story. First, the whole idea of there being an Angel of Death who might want to take a holiday strikes me as weird, if not silly. Second, the romance between Death and the exec's daughter is too fortuitous - Death just happens to steal the body of a man who had captured her heart that very morning. Hopkins's character makes the movie. Faced with the certainty of death, this honorable man draws close to his family and orders his business affairs. This passion for life in the character raises the film beyond its problems.

- Men in Black "MIB" follows a ridiculous plot, if such the story-line can be called, about a secret government agency which must control the hidden alien (off-planet) population on earth. (The backdrop had potential to become mildly interesting, but the story is pointless.) The enemy is a large, sentient cockroach. The film tries to be funny, but fails. Miserably. What annoys the hell out of me is that the local Rocky Mountain News critic, Robert Denerstein, recommended Men in Black over the truly wonderful film, Contact. My suggestion: There's this little gadget in the movie that makes people forget their contact with aliens. If only it worked for the film, as well.

- The Messenger (Joan of Arc) A great cast in a terrible, terrible movie. The story is split into two quite distinct segments: Joan's ass-kicking of the English, and her trial for heresy. It's like watching two movies consecutively, neither of which is satisfactory. In the second part, out of nowhere appears a grim Dustin Hoffman as an imaginary persecutor. Joan is torn between her belief she was led by visions from God and her realization that she has succumbed to other motives. This ruins any sympathy one might feel for the French exploits in the first part of the film. The film unravels in trying to criticize the Medieval superstitions of the Catholic Church while concurrently taking those superstitions seriously as motivations for Joan. The film would have been more successful had it either taken Joan's religion seriously and avoided the psychological angst or put the religion in the background and focused on the politics.

- Mickey Blue Eyes The previews contain all the funny moments of this tedious film. It's pretty much like Analyze This, only worse. A British art seller falls for the daughter of a mafia boss. My suggestion: Forget about it.

+ A Midsummer Night's Dream (William Shakespeare's) The film is largely a magical portrayal of the classic play. The visual interpretation only adds to the work's grace. Far and away the best part of the film is the play-within-the-movie about two lovers who talk through a hole in a wall. It's tearfully funny. I can't recall any other movie with scenes so uproarious. And the best character is Bottom, created by Kevin Klein to be both comical and touchingly soulful. The rest of the movie is fair but not outstanding, with the exception of Puck. Several of the actors have trouble delivering Shakespearean lines in a natural, convincing way. In general, Shakespeare is not sufficiently plot-driven and Romantic in the Randian sense to fully draw me in. But he remains arguably the best author in the English language so far as pure usage goes, and Midsummer is an inspired adaptation of his work.

+ Mighty Aphrodite Woody Allen as the lead tries to save the hooker whose child he adopted. Mira Sorvino plays the funny and sweet prostitute. My suggestion: Love, sex, humor, life-problems - typical Woody Allen themes in an exceptional film.

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= Mighty Joe Young A girl and her friend gorilla both lose their parents to poachers. The girl grows up with the gorilla and vows to protect him, who because of a rare genetic condition grows to gigantic proportions. Fear of poachers leads the now young woman to relocate to a reserve in California, but even there the pair is not safe. My suggestion: Typical Disney -- fun action without much brains. But what can you expect from a re-make of a King-Kong take-off? I enjoyed it, though; Joe is sympathetic and humorous.

+ Monte Python I love Monte Python, but, then, I like British humor. My favorite is The Life of Brian, a parody of Jesus Christ in the parallel story of Brian, who lives in the same time period and who accidentally wins religious converts. Runner up is the Holy Grail, in which King Arthur searches for the precious cup. My favorite scene is when Arthur encounters an "anarcho-syndicalist" community that fails to recognize his authority. The Meaning of Life is also good, though a bit random. My suggestion: All the films have their moments of dumb humor, but all also are hillarious at times (as well as poignant in terms of social criticism). Not to be missed.

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= Mr. Holland's Opus An aspiring composer, faced with bills and a new baby, accepts a job teaching music at a high school. At fist he is discouraged about taking the job, but he soon learns to appreciate his new profession. Holland must also come to terms with his deaf son. My suggestion: A pretty good movie. It's frustrating to see Mr. Holland confused about his goals, but inspiring to see him finally figure things out and achieve a good life.

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- Mission Impossible Think 007, but without the witty dialogue. The stunts are great, the music is great, the story sucks and the characters suck. I found the second installment slightly more tolerable than the first, even though the central romance is trite and the plot is ridiculous.

= Mission to Mars The first mission ended in the death of the crew, except for one stranded member. A second mission seeks to rescue the lost astronaut -- and unveil the secrets of the Red Planet. My suggestion: The story had such potential -- it's too bad the film falls totally flat. It could have been a wonderful mystery and adventure story. It turned into an interminable series of dissociated scenes, some of which were executed well enough, but which never meshed into a compelling plot. The climax is a glitzy let-down.

= Mulan Disney creates a charming animated film about a girl from ancient China who takes her crippled father's place in the fight against invading armies. While the film is a nice portrayal of a girl who saves a patriarchal society, it lacks adequate development of Mulan's character and rise to success. It is, of course, rather formulamatic. My suggestion: A reasonably quality film, but don't go too far out of your way to see it, unless you have kids to take along.

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+ Mumford A small-town psychiatrist helps the locals deal with their problems. But trouble is brewing for the analyst, too. A lawyer and another town psychiatrist get curious about his mysterious past, and one of his patients starts pulling at his heartstrings. My suggestion: The characters are wonderful. Charming. The theme is a rich one centering on authenticity in human relations. Well done!

= Murder at 1600 There has been a murder at the White House, and Wesley Snipes plays the cop who must unravel the suspicious circumstances. Is the President involved? My suggestion: A reasonably decent crime film, though not something to get too excited over.

+ Muriel's Wedding Muriel, awkward and scorned by the local cool elite, escapes into dreams of getting married. She has a spark in her, though, so she tries to overcome family problems and confidence problems to find a friend and, maybe, love. My suggestion: You've got to give this one some time. I hated Muriel at the beginning of the movie, but by the end she'd won my heart. The character develops compellingly and with respectful humor.

= My Dog Skip A mother gives her lonely boy a puppy who helps the boy grow into a young adult. Skip offers surprising support in the areas of love, friendship, and patriotism. My suggestion: The performances are nicely done. This is one of those growing-up films with no strong plot -- more of a "tapestry" piece. I enjoyed the characters and their relationships, but ultimately the story doesn't go anywhere, maybe because it tries to go so many places at once.

= Mystery, Alaska Tell me if you've heard this one before: an underdog sports team (hockey, in this case) competes against a top organization -- and may just have a chance of winning. But this movie is far from being just another Mighty Ducks with grownups. Rather, Mystery does a fair job of integrating themes of love, jealousy, and loyalty into the sports story. It manages to be touching, and humorous, without overdoing it. And Burt Reynolds as the town's judge and reluctant hockey coach gives a truly fine performance. My suggestion: Worth viewing.

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