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Blogs AN AFFAIR OF LOVE (2000) (***1/2)

Sometimes smaller films that I hear are good sneak past my radar. Most of the time in lieu of a disappointing Hollywood film that has been beaten into my subconscious by millions of dollars of high-profile marketing. Thank God for lots of movie channels and TiVo. But I digress.

This French film is the most erotic picture I’ve seen since I first watched Luis Buñuel’s masterpiece BELLE DE JOUR. It reminded me of that film a lot, which hurt the impact at first, but once AFFAIR moves into territory that BELLE does not it takes on a true emotional poignancy.

AN AFFAIR OF LOVE is the American title and it’s really not a great one. The French title is A PORNOGRAPHIC AFFAIR, which is more fitting, yet gives a completely wrong impression about the film. The story is about sex, but it is not pornographic is the least. It is, however, quite erotic, which is a word that is wrongly used in terms of porn in America. Porn is all about mechanics; eroticism is about the mind, which plays a far bigger role in sexual intercourse then most people are comfortable with.

Blogs WINTER PASSING (2006) (***)

This quirky film is in the small sub-genre of “kids dealing with emotional stress because of the turbulent relationship of their artist parents” films. Reese Holdin (Zooey Deschanel, HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY) is a struggling actress in New York City, who can’t even drum up the strength to go to her mother’s funeral. Then a book publisher named Lori Lankey (Amy Madigan, FIELD OF DREAMS) informs Reese that her mother has willed her a collection of letters that she and Reese’s father Don (Ed Harris, APOLLO 13) wrote to each other while they were working on some of their best known books.

With the promise of $100,000, Reese heads back home to find former Christian rock guitarist Corbit (Will Ferrell, ANCHORMAN) and Shelley (Amelia Warner, QUILLS), Don’s much younger, former student, living in the house while Don has moved into the garage. Don is so distraught that at times Shelley has to spoon-feed him. And like all “great writers” in films, he’s eccentric/borderline crazy. He has Corbit move all his bedroom furniture out onto the lawn so they can hit golf balls in the room. Oh, those kooky creative types.

Blogs TRISTAN & ISOLDE (2006) (***)

Having been released in January 2006, I had little faith that this film would be any good for the start of the new year is often the dumping ground for the studios’ crap. However, I am surprised to report that TRISTAN & ISOLDE might not be BRAVEHEART, but this Romeo and Juliet-like tale does understand that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Well, these three people aren’t little, but you get my point.

Set during a time when the united Irish wrecked havoc on the various clans of Britain, Tristan (James Franco, SPIDER-MAN) is adopted by Lord Marke (Rufus Sewell, DARK CITY) after the boy’s parents are killed by the Irish. Lord Marke is fighting to unify the British clans so that they can stand up to the brutal Irish king Donnchadh (BRAVEHEART). During a battle, Tristan is believed killed and then set afloat on a raft in the ocean for a burial at sea.

Blogs TRANSAMERICA (2005) (***)

This road trip film is pretty typical of parent-child bonding films, but with an interesting twist — the son doesn’t know that his father is a pre-operative male-to-female transsexual when he meets him.

Stanley (Felicity Huffman, TV’s DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES) is about to have surgery and fully become Bree. However, her psychiatrist Margaret (Elizabeth Pena, LONE STAR) won’t sign off on the operation, unless Bree comes to terms with Stanley’s past being her own past, which includes a son named Toby (Kevin Zegers, WRONG TURN), who has been arrested in New York City for prostitution.

So Bree travels to NYC and bails Toby out of jail posing as a missionary from the Church of the Potential Father. Eventually, Bree agrees to drive Toby across the country to L.A., where he hopes to launch his career as a porn star. Bree plans to swing by Texas and dump Toby with his stepfather, which turns out to be a big mistake.

Blogs SHOPGIRL (2005) (***1/2)

Steve Martin adapts his short novel and stars in this perceptive story of how love needs two people on the same path for it to work.

Mirabelle Buttersfield (Clare Danes, STAGE BEAUTY) is an aspiring artist, who works at the glove counter in Sak’s in Beverly Hills. While at the Laundromat, she meets frumpy, graphic designer Jeremy Kraft (Jason Schwartzman, RUSHMORE), who asks her out on a date. His disorganized and self-centered life is hardly what Mirabelle is looking for or needs.

Then one day, Ray Porter (Martin) comes into the store and buys a pair of gloves, which end up on Mirabelle’s doorstep with an invitation to dinner. Mirabelle goes out with the older man, but is more reluctant to commit to a physical relationship than she was with Jeremy, who was her own age, and has now left town to go on tour with a rock band that’s really into self help books.

Blogs ROLL BOUNCE (2005) (***)

Set in the 1970s, a group of African American kids lament the closure of their local skating rink. In turn, they have to venture to the rich part of their city to go to the Sweetwater Rink, which is a high-tech wonder dome.

Xavier (Bow Wow, upcoming THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS: TOKYO DRIFT) is the leader of his group, which includes trash talking Junior (Brandon T. Jackson, ENVY), Boo (Marcus T. Paulk, TAKE THE LEAD), Naps (Rick Gonzalez, COACH CARTER) and Mixed Mike (Khleo Thomas, HOLES). There’s also a new girl in the neighborhood named Tori (Jurnee Smollett, EVE’S BAYOU), who can’t skate to save her life, but can go toe-to-toe with any of the boys in the comeback war when they start ripping on her looks.

Blogs MRS. HENDERSON PRESENTS (2005) (***)

This new entry in the British sub-genre of “nude inspirational” films has recent widow Laura Henderson (Judi Dench, MRS. BROWN) buying an old, rundown theater and eventually putting on a nude revue.

It is just prior to WWII reaching England and Mrs. Henderson is bored with widowhood, so she hires impresario Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins, MERMAIDS) to run her Windmill Theater, putting on at first a successful musical revue. However, once the other theaters in town begin copying their style, the Windmill begins to lose money. This spurs Mrs. Henderson to suggest live nudes, which Van Damm wonders whether Lord Cromer (Christopher Guest, WAITING FOR GUFFMAN) will allow.

So Mrs. Henderson persuades old family friend Cromer to okay the nude revue with the stipulation that the women not move. So with government approval, Van Damm sets out to discover his beauties, literally running over star Maureen (Kelly Reilly, PRIDE & PREJUDICE). However, the bombing of the Germans and a row between Mrs. Henderson and Mr. Van Damm over his previously unknown wife threaten the survival of the theater, despite boasting that it would never close.

Blogs IN HER SHOES (2005) (****)

Every now and then a film comes along that strikingly makes me sit up and notice what so many other films lack. For IN HER SHOES, it wasn’t that the main characters were so well developed, but that so many of the supporting character were dimensional as well. In so many others films, these smaller characters would be just there to listen to the main characters talk, but here they are fleshed out and given a history with the main characters.

On the surface the story, based on the best-selling “chick lit” title by Jennifer Weiner, seems clichéd. Maggie Feller (Cameron Diaz, BEING JOHN MALKOVICH) is the typical blonde, party girl, who just mooches off her family to survive. However, her evil stepmother Sydelle (Candice Azzara, CATCH ME IF YOU CAN) has had enough and kicks her out after she gets plastered at her high school reunion, forcing her on her frumpy, lawyer sister Rose (Toni Collette, THE SIXTH SENSE), who has surprised herself with her recent affair with the handsome partner at her law firm named Jim Danvers (Richard Burgi, CELLULAR).

Blogs FREEDOMLAND (2006) (**)

This crime thriller has something to say, however I don't know if the filmmakers really know what that exactly is.

Distraught and bleeding, Brenda Martin (Julianne Moore, BOOGIE NIGHTS) stumbles into a hospital, claiming that she has been car jacked near the projects. Detective Lorenzo Council (Samuel L. Jackson, JACKIE BROWN) wonders why a white woman would be down in that neighborhood so late at night. Brenda works at the community center with the kids. But what she is unable to say at first is that her 4-year-old son was in the car when it was stolen.

Council frantically sets out a search for the child, but things get worse when Brenda's cop brother Danny (Ron Eldard, HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG) gets involved sending an army of cops down to the projects, where the residents don't like the lockdown for a missing white kid when their children go missing and no one really bothers. With racial tensions high in the projects, Council is offered help from Karen Collucci (Edie Falco, TV's THE SOPRANOS) and her organization that finds missing children — dead or alive. Council has to balance uncovering what happened to Brenda's son and his loyalty to his community. He doesn't trust Brenda, but he doggedly wants to uncover the truth. Other key characters include Council’s white partner Boyle (William Forsythe, THE DEVIL’S REJECTS); Felicia (Aunjanue Ellis, RAY), a black woman who works with Brenda; and Felicia’s abusive boyfriend Billy (Anthony Mackie, MILLION DOLLAR BABY).

Blogs THE FAMILY STONE (2005) (***)

This dramedy has a keen eye for family politics, especially when one member brings home someone they don't particularly like.

Everett Stone (Dermot Mulroney, ABOUT SCHMIDT) is bringing his uptight, conservative girlfriend Meredith Morton (Sarah Jessica Parker, TV's SEX IN THE CITY) home to meet his liberal family during Christmas. His cynical, college-aged sister Amy (Rachel McAdams, THE NOTEBOOK) has already met Meredith and doesn't paint her is a positive light for the rest of family. Matriarch Sybil (Diane Keaton, SOMETHING'S GOTTA GIVE) doesn't want Everett to marry Meredith, because she thinks that he can do better. His father Kelly (Craig T. Nelson, TV's COACH) wants to stay out of the fray. However, Everett's frumpy brother Ben (Luke Wilson, THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS) thinks Meredith is quite remarkable. The other Stone's include deaf and gay Thad (Tyrone Giordano, A LOT LIKE LOVE), Thad's African-American, significant other Patrick (Brian J. White, BRICK), pregnant Susannah (Elizabeth Reaser, STAY) and Susannah's young daughter Elizabeth (Savannah Stehlin).

Blogs X-MEN: THE LAST STAND (2006) (***)

In wrapping up the X-MEN trilogy, 20th Century Fox has made a solid and sometimes shocking conclusion to the series, but have cheated fans of the superhero mutants by trying to cram too much into one short film. Avid purist fans of the comics will be very disappointed while fans of the films will be entertained with a fun, adventure that actually has some interesting ideas in it.

Warren Worthington II (Michael Murphy, SALVADOR) has been ashamed of his son Warren Worthington III (aka Angel) (Ben Foster, HOSTAGE) for he has wings. Worthington II has discovered Leech (Cameron Bright, BIRTH), a mutant who can suck the powers away from any mutant who comes close to him. The billionaire uses Leech to develop a serum that will cure mutants.

Blogs NACHO LIBRE (2006) (***)

When I first heard the premise for this film I was very excited. With Jack Black (KING KONG) playing a monk who dreams of becoming a luchador (Mexican masked pro-wrestler), I couldn't wait.

However, I always try to keep my expectation on any film grounded. Especially when I felt director Jared Hess's last effort, NAPOLEON DYNAMITE was patchy. However, Hess and his wife Jerusha wrote the screenplay along with Mike White, who I have come to really like from his previous work like SCHOOL OF ROCK and THE GOOD GIRL. I'm glad to report that the film was better than I expected.

Ignacio (Black) is an orphan raised by the fellow monks to become a priest. However, ever since he was a child, he has dreamed of wrestling under the moniker, Nacho. Spurring Ignacio to follow his dreams is the arrival of the beautiful Sister Encarnación (Ana de la Reguera, Mexican telenovela star), who also catches the eye of the mean priest Guillermo (Richard Montoya, ENCINO MAN). Nacho not only wants to impress Encarnación, but also wants to prove to the other priests that he is worth more than being their slave.

Blogs THE DA VINCI CODE (2006) (**1/2)

Based on Dan Brown's controversial bestseller, Ron Howard's new thriller reminded me of Joel Schumacher's ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER'S PHANTOM OF THE OPERA in that fans of the source material will probably like the faithfully adapted film, however for everyone else they may have problems with the quality of the source material.

The controversy surrounding the book and the film centers on the story's premise that the Catholic Church has been in a covert war with a secret group descended from the Knights Templar, which have been protecting the bloodline of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. So as one could guess, Jesus having sex with a "whore" might ruffle some feathers in certain circles. However, one should take the film at face value; it's a thriller with a complexly thought out, alternative history twist. Its intricate conspiracy theory is actually ingenious. The religious debate that the subject presents is also interesting. However, the film isn't nearly as remarkable in the area of religious debate as the equally controversial film from Martin Scorsese — THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST.

Blogs THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (1972) (***1/2)

Representing the archetypical 1970s disaster film, THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE starts poorly, but makes up for it with just enough thrills to make it a good entertainment.

With a large all-star cast, the beginning peeks into the lives of the characters. Rev. Frank Scott (Gene Hackman, HOOSIERS) is a rebellious preacher on his way to Africa. He believes that God doesn’t want us to play the victim, but be the hero in our lives. Det. Lt. Mike Rogo (Ernest Borgnine, MARTY) is a loud-mouthed cop, who is married the younger and beautiful former prostitute Linda (Stella Stevens, THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE). James Martin (Red Buttons, THE LONGEST DAY) is a lonely health nut, who befriends the scared singer Nonnie Parry (Carol Lynley, THE CAT AND THE CANARY). Acres (Roddy McDowall, PLANET OF THE APES) is a waiter, who works on the ship and serves as the survivor guide through the levels of the ship. Belle Rosen (Shelley Winters, LOLITA) is an over-weight woman, who panics easily and is married to the caring Manny (Jack Albertson, WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY). Susan Shelby (Pamela Sue Martin, TV’s DYNASTY) is a pretty teen, who is taking care of her intelligent, but pushy, little brother Robin (Eric Shea, 1968’s YOURS, MINE AND OURS). Capt. Harrison (Leslie Nielsen, NAKED GUN) is the stoic head of the ship, who tries desperately to save the vessel when the giant wave comes racing toward them.

Blogs POPEYE (1980) (***1/2)

This film is the oddest title on Robert Altman’s resume. Based on the legendary comic strip character created by E.C. Segar, this musical has an oft-kilter feel that’s hard to put a finger on.

First and foremost, the casting is perfect. Robin Williams (HOOK) is wonderful as the muttering sailor man, who is looking for his long-lost Pappy (Ray Walston, TV’s MY FAVORITE MARTIAN). He arrives in Sweethaven, a seaside town built on a hillside, which is a magnificent feat in production design. Bluto (Paul L. Smith, MIDNIGHT EXPRESS) is a bully who runs the town for the never-seen commander. His Taxman (Donald Moffat, CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER) wonders the streets collecting taxes for every move anyone makes. Bluto is engaged to the ditzy and clumsy Olive Oyl (Shelley Duvall, THE SHINING), but she doesn’t seem to want to marry the large Bluto, running out on their engagement party.

Blogs PIRANHA (1978) (***)

Going in I was expecting a shlock-fest, but I should have known better with Joe Dante (GREMLINS) as the director and John Sayles (MATEWAN, LONE STAR) as the writer. Honestly, the film is a Roger Corman JAWS rip-off, but it’s a good one.

Paul Grogan (Bradford Dillman, THE SWARM) lives in a cabin and drinks most of the day, pinning over the break-up of his marriage. Maggie McKeown (Heather Menzies, SSSSSSS) is a young detective, who is looking for a young couple that has disappeared into the woods. She ropes Paul into helping her look for the kids at an old seemingly abandoned military outpost deep in the woods. There they unknowingly release mutated piranha into the river, which leads to a summer camp and new lake resort.

Blogs PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925) (****)

Coming out in the same year as screen classics like THE GOLD RUSH and BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN, PHANTOM OF THE OPERA doesn’t match the quality of those films, because it’s not trying to be those films. What the film succeeds in doing is taking a fairly simple story with thin-characters and lifting the material to another level with iconic imagery and action. The film isn’t about emotional subtlety, but grand notions. You could say it’s one of the first truly great popcorn flicks.

Much of its success lies in the hands of Lon Chaney (LAUGH, CLOWN, LAUGH) as the Phantom. Having done his own make-up, Chaney creates one of the greatest character design feats in cinema history. Because the face of the Phantom has become an icon of pop culture, the lead up to the big reveal is not nearly as shocking as it was in 1925, however we still anticipate it with eagerness. The filmmakers (created director is Rupert Julian, uncredited directors have included Ernst Laemmle, Edward Sedgwick and even Chaney) knew exactly how to play that moment. They even filmed it with flare, having the camera go out of focus like its scared of the Phantom’s hideousness and to enhance the skull-like look of the creature.

Blogs NIGHT MOVES (1975) (****)

Arthur Penn is best known for his revolutionary BONNIE & CLYDE. NIGHT MOVES is a thriller/neo-noir that finds a way to use the actions of a genre to embody its main character.

Gene Hackman (THE CONVERSATION) plays former pro-football player turned private eye Harry Moseby. The character has an internal need to figure everything and everyone in his life out. However, for as much as he wants to believe he is in control of his investigation, the mystery is playing itself out around him with or without his involvement.

His wife Ellen (Susan Clark, PORKY’S) owns an antique shop and wants Harry to join a real agency. She’s also having an affair, which Harry discovers one night when he goes to meet up with her at a movie she is attending with friends. Instead of confronting her, he confronts her lover Marty Heller (Harris Yulin, TRAINING DAY) as if he needs to collect all the info before confronting the perpetrator.

Blogs MY LITTLE CHICKADEE (1940) (**1/2)

I love W.C. Fields, so I had to see this film. It’s really not a W.C. Fields film, but more of a Mae West flick though.

West (SHE DONE HIM WRONG) plays Flower Belle Lee, a hussy in the Old West who gets kicked out of town for romancing a masked bandit. She is unable to return to respectable society until she marries. On the train out of town, she meets Cuthbert J. Twillie (Fields, THE BANK DICK), who she thinks is loaded, but is really a conman. She goes through a sham marriage with him and when they arrive in the next town he ends up being made sheriff. While in town, Flower Belle is courted by the shady bar owner Jeff Badger (Joseph Calleia, GILDA) and his rival — the town’s newspaper owner Wayne Carter (Dick Foran, TV’s LASSIE).

Blogs THE MISSION (1986) (****)

This Cannes Film Festival winner and Oscar nominee is a quiet, observant film about the good and bad of Christianity. Set in 18th Century South America, Jesuit priests aim to convert the Guaraní Indians to Christ. As the startling opening sequence displays, not all approaches were successful.

Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons, REVERSAL OF FORTUNE) succeeds with a peaceful approach, spurred by love and respect of the Guaraní, whose very existence is threatened by the war raging between the Spanish and the Portuguese. Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert DeNiro, GOODFELLAS) is a mercenary, who kills and enslaves the Guaraní. Then a tragedy makes Mendoza rethink his ways and repent for his sins by serving the people he once murdered. The Guaraní had an advanced culture before the Jesuits arrived, but the beautiful missions served as their protection — for it kept them safe from the rule of the warring European powers.

Blogs A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH (STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN) (1946) (****)

This British film from master filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger was released in the U.K. under the title A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH and in the U.S. as STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN. The British title is far better for it holds various meanings.

Squadron Leader Peter D. Carter (David Niven, THE PINK PANTHER) is about to bail out of his burning plane, however he doesn’t have a parachute. He puts out a distress call so that his fellow pilots can be picked up where they parachuted out. He reaches an American girl named June (Kim Hunter, PLANET OF THE APES), who is taken by the way Peter handles himself. Peter’s friend Flying Officer Bob Trubshawe (Robert Coote, THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR) waits for him in heaven, however he never arrives. Conductor 71 (Marius Goring, THE RED SHOES), an angel assigned to pick up Peter, missed Peter in the damn English fog.

Blogs JULIA (1977) (***)

This true-life tale follows the friendship of playwright Lillian Hellman (Jane Fonda, KLUTE) and her politically active friend Julia (Vanessa Redgrave, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS).

The two were very close as young girls, but began to grow apart after college. At the start, Hellman is struggling to become a writer, living with her lover and fellow writer Dashiell Hammett (Jason Robards, MAGNOLIA). For a good portion of the film, we watch as Hellman struggles to become famous and how she reacts to celebrity when it comes. Meanwhile, Julia is actively engaged in the resistance going on in Germany against the new Nazi leadership.

Due to its structure where it periodically flashes back to when Lillian and Julia were kids, the film seems to take too long to solidly develop the friendship and because we follow Hellman’s life after Julia we loose track of Julia and her opinions. As it stands, the film acts more as a sad longing for a past friendship that has slipped away and the guilt that Hellman feels for not being as exceptional as Julia.

Blogs INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956) (****)

One of the classic sci-fi films of the 1950s, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS is the perfect product of its times. Miles J. Bennell (Kevin McCarthy, THE HOWLING) is a recently divorced doctor in a small California town. His old flame Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter, 1970s AIRPORT) has moved back in with her father after getting a divorce as well. She comes to see him about her cousin Wilma (Virginia Christine, 1964’s THE KILLERS), who believes that her uncle isn’t really her uncle despite the fact that he looks and sounds just like him.

This starts the building strangeness going on in the town, leading up to an urgent call from Bennell’s friends Jack and Teddy Belicec (King Donovan, THE DEFIANT ONES, & Carolyn Jones, TV’s ADDAMS FAMILY). They found a body — it’s the size of Jack, but without any physical definition like fingerprints. As we all know by know, the town is being taken over by alien replicants birthed from giant seedpods.

Blogs THE HILLS HAVE EYES (1977) (***1/2)

Before creating the horror icon Freddy Kruger, Wes Craven launched his career with two gritty horror films — THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972) and THE HILLS HAVE EYES (1977). In HILLS, we learn right from the start that there are dangerous people leaving in the hills of an abandoned nuclear test site in the desert.

The Carter family is heading out that way to see an old silver mine that’s been in the family for years. The old gas station owner Fred (John Steadman, THE LONGEST YARD) warns them not to go out there, because he knows the secret that the wild people in the hills are hungry cannibals. As the Carters head for the mine, they get into a car accident, stranding them in the middle of nowhere. Angry ex-cop and patriarch Big Bob Carter (Russ Grieve, FOXY BROWN) and his no-good son-in-law Doug Wood (Martin Speer) head out into the night to find help.

Blogs HOUSE OF WAX (2005) (**1/2)

Paris Hilton gets killed in the most poetic way in this film and that gains my respect right from the start. This horror flick is really not a remake of the classic Vincent Price horror film. The similarities are only in name and the fact that both films do feature wax museums.

Carly Jones (Elisha Cuthbert, THE GIRL NEXT DOOR) and a bunch of her friends are heading out on a road trip to see a big football game. Her boyfriend Wade (Jared Padalecki, CRY_WOLF) has a very combative relationship with Carly’s tough-guy brother Nick (Chad Michael Murray, FREAKY FRIDAY). Dalton (Jon Abrahams, PRIME) is a white guy, hip-hop wanna-be, who idolizes Nick. Also along for the trip are football fanatic Blake (Robert Ri'chard, COACH CARTER) and his girlfriend Paige (Hilton). Most of the cast is really just there to pad the body count.

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