Reviews

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Sister Helen (2002)

A- | ***½ | +3-2| Teens & Up

God bless Sister Helen Travis, with her foul mouth, black wimple, "I ♥ Jesus" T-shirt, and irascible, abrasive attitude. She might be a bit crazy, this feisty, diminutive 69-year-old Benedictine nun living in a rundown South Bronx building with as many as 20-plus male drug addicts and alcoholics abiding by her strict regiment of curfews, urine tests, community service, and biweekly house meetings. But she’s also the best thing that’s happened to many of them in a long time. Read More >

The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977)

A- | ***½ | +1| Kids & Up*

In retelling these tales, the Disney animation house inevitably, yes, Disneyfied Milne’s creations, as it did everything it touched, from the dwarfs in Snow White to the satyr in Hercules. Read More >

Pieces of April (2003)

B+ | *** | +2-2| Adults

The film’s central conceit involves an unexpected culinary snag of anxiety-nightmare proportions mere hours before April’s family is to arrive, which forces April to appeal for help to her hitherto unknown neighbors, the previously anonymous faces in the hallways of her apartment building. It’s an updated version of the Pilgrims and the Indians — a point the film drives home just a bit too cutely as April tries to explain the meaning of Thanksgiving to a large Asian family: "There came a day when they knew they needed each other, when they knew they couldn’t do it alone." Read More >

Sleeping Beauty (1959)

A- | ***½ | +1| Kids & Up*

A worthy successor to the early classics Snow White and Pinocchio, Sleeping Beauty is the one great fairy-tale adaptation of Disney’s post-war period, outshining Cinderella and unrivaled until 1991’s Best-Picture candidate Beauty and the Beast. Read More >

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

A+ | **** | +1| Kids & Up*

The story is the classic Robin Hood tale, and it’s all here: the fateful shooting of the King’s deer; Robin’s ignominious duckings upon his first meetings with Little John (Alan Hale) and Friar Tuck (Eugene Pallette); Robin’s penchant for entertaining wealthy victims in high Sherwood style before relieving them of their gold; the trap archery contest which a disguised Robin wins by splitting his opponent’s arrow; the return of Richard (Ian Hunter) from the Crusades disguised in monk’s attire. Read More >

Don Q Son of Zorro (1925)

A | **** | +0| Kids & Up*

Don Q Son of Zorro, named one of the year’s ten best films by The New York Times, actually outdoes its predecessor, with a stronger and more sophisticated plot, better pacing, more interesting and complex characterizations, grander production values and set design, and more consistent action. Read More >

The Black Pirate (1926)

A- | ***½ | -1| Teens & Up

Fairbanks’s astonishing acrobatics remain dazzling today, and the climactic battle includes some great underwater footage of an aquatic assault on the pirates. This film includes Fairbanks’ most famous and widely copied stunt, riding down a sail on the edge of a knife; but my favorite is the scene in which he cuts loose the corner of a billowing sail and then holds on as the wind carries him up off the deck of the ship and high into the rigging. Read More >

Good Boy! (2003)

C | **½ | +0| Kids & Up

Take Two: The genial, blandly amusing tale celebrates the bond between man and dog, and occasional mildly crude humor is limited to flatulence jokes and the like. Kids won’t notice, but attentive parents will be irked that the filmmakers saw fit to insert fleeting depictions of an apparent homosexual couple in the supporting cast. Read More >

The Mark of Zorro (1920)

A | **** | +2| Kids & Up*

You haven’t seen Zorro until you’ve seen Douglas Fairbanks Sr. as Zorro in the 1920 silent swashbuckling classic. Read More >

The Mark of Zorro (1940)

A- | ***½ | +2| Kids & Up*

Powers can’t match the original Zorro’s astonishing acrobatics and doesn’t try — but the rousing climactic duel against Basil Rathbone’s villainous Captain Esteban, one of the best swordfights ever filmed at that time, almost makes up for it. Read More >

Robin Hood (1922)

A- | ***½ | +1| Kids & Up*

Silent action king Douglas Fairbanks Sr. is the most exuberantly athletic of Robin Hoods, for sheer physicality perhaps outdoing even Errol Flynn’s definitive performance. Read More >

The Kid Brother (1927)

A+ | **** | +1| Kids & Up*

As a first introduction to silent film, I would pick The Kid Brother over the best of Chaplin (Modern Times, City Lights) or Keaton (The General, Steamboat Bill, Jr.) every time. Read More >

The Big Sleep (1946)

A | **** | -1| Teens & Up

The dialogue is hard-boiled and crackles with wit, the plot is fast-paced and nearly impenetrable, and Humphrey Bogart is coolly unflappable in Howard Hawkes’s stylish noir classic The Big Sleep, based on the Raymond Chandler novel. Read More >

Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

A | **** | +1| Teens & Up

A haunting, harrowing war movie, an emotionally devastating character study, and an extraordinarily restrained example of animé or Japanese animation, Grave of the Fireflies is a unique and unforgettable masterpiece. Read More >

The Count of Monte Cristo (2002)

A- | *** | +3-2| Teens & Up

Like The Mask of Zorro, Monte Cristo balances its anachronistic sensibilities and over-the-top set pieces with genuine emotion and a real moral dimension — even, in Monte Cristo, a spiritual dimension. This is an action movie that’s also a morality play, a tale of injustice and vengeance that actually reckons on God, faith, and divine justice. Read More >

I’m Going Home (2001)

A- | ***½ | +1| Teens & Up

From nonagenarian writer-director Manoel de Oliveira, who’s been making movies for over seven decades, comes a sad, thoughtful character study of an aging French actor named Gilbert Valence (Michel Piccoli). On stage, in productions of Ionesco’s Exit the King and Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Valence gives impressive readings of the dramatic death-speeches of aged protagonists; but his own words in a key moment of frailty and finality, though equally haunting, are much more prosaic and anticlimactic. Read More >

A Man for All Seasons (1966)

A+ | **** | +4| Kids & Up

The screenplay, well adapted by Robert Bolt from his own stage play, is fiercely intelligent, deeply affecting, resonant with verbal beauty and grace. Scofield, who for years starred in the stage play before making the film, gives an effortlessly rich and layered performance as Sir Thomas More, saint and martyr, the man whose determined silence spoke more forcefully than words, and who then spoke even more forcefully by breaking it. Read More >

Signs (2002)

B- | **½ | +2| Teens & Up

Signs has the heart that was lacking in Unbreakable, but stumbles badly in its treatment of the paranormal, in this case the world of "X-Files" / "Twilight Zone" sci-fi. Glaring practical problems increasingly sap the movie’s plausibility, until eventually suspension of disbelief becomes possible only by not thinking about it. Read More >

X2: X-Men United (2003)

A- | ***½ | +1-2| Teens & Up*

Where other super-hero movies, like James Bond movies, take place in a static universe in which nothing really changes and the essential mythology remains the same, X2 is set in a world in flux. The plot is part of an ongoing story-arc reaching back to X-Men and building toward a future X3. Read More >

It Happened One Night (1934)

A- | ***½ | +2| Teens & Up

She’s fleeing from her concerned father (Walter Connolly) and returning to the shiftless beau (Jameson Thomas) she married in a civil ceremony to spite her father (who had her whisked away from the service, so it’s not final legally or sacramentally). Read More >

Sabrina (1954)

A- | ***½ | +0| Teens & Up

The prologue, with its storybook-like, slightly arch voiceover narration finely read by Audrey Hepburn, suggests a charming fairy tale with a satiric subtext. And, indeed, Sabrina, Billy Wilder’s delightful romantic comedy starring Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart, and William Holden, is a sort of Cinderella story, with a chauffeur’s daughter who is transformed into the belle of the ball and dances with the prince — except that the "prince" is, if not a beast, at least a shallow cad, while the real love interest is almost more a frog than a prince. Read More >

Friendly Persuasion (1956)

B | *** | +2-1| Kids & Up*

Scenes of silent, unstructured Quaker meetings are contrasted without comment or judgment to the boisterous singing of the local Methodist church, but — despite Eliza’s best efforts — the film is largely an account of the compromises the Birdwells are and aren’t willing to make. Their principles are repeatedly put to the test, at the local fair, on the Sunday morning ride to the meeting house as a smug neighbor blows past Jess’s slow horse every week, and so on. One of the best vignettes concerns an impasse between Jess and Eliza over the shocking purchase of an organ, and the delightful way the conflict is finally resolved. Read More >

Bringing Up Baby (1942)

A+ | **** | +0| Kids & Up

The zaniest, most delightful, most romantic screwball comedy of them all, Bringing Up Baby features Katherine Hepburn at her effervescent best and Cary Grant in a marvelous performance combining stuffiness and injured dignity with his usual debonair charm. Read More >

Secondhand Lions (2003)

B | *** | +1-1| Kids & Up*

In the end, though, Secondhand Lions is a pleasant and entertaining film that’s neither as demanding nor as satisfying as the superior Holes. The setup promises more early conflict than the first act delivers, and the story-arc doesn’t give the protagonist enough to do. Beyond that, the film gestures at moral lessons it never quite fleshes out or illustrates, and what ought to have been a key plot point is relegated to a tacked-on coda, depriving it of the crucial significance it should have had. Read More >

What’s Up, Doc? (1972)

B | *** | +0| Kids & Up*

Yet where Hepburn’s character was merely flighty, Judy Maxwell exists, like the Cat in the Hat and Bugs Bunny (note the title line and the carrots she munches in one scene), in the mode of the Trickster archetype, with inscrutable motives, capricious behavior, and almost preternatural abilities, capable of whimsically making Bannister’s life a living nightmare — or putting things to rights again at a moment’s notice. Read More >

Holes (2003)

A- | ***½ | +0| Teens & Up

Holes manages that rare trick of faithfully evoking what was special about the book without becoming slavish or by-the-numbers. Davis captures the book’s blend of coming-of-age realism, tongue-in-cheek grotesquerie, fantasy, and adventure, and capably navigates the plot’s multiple timelines and settlings. Read More >

The Guys (2003)

A- | ***½ | +2| Teens & Up

Unsurprisingly, the film is true to its theatrical roots: low-key, set mostly within the confines of an upper West Side apartment, centered on the conversation between the fire captain and the writer. In keeping with the minimal production values of the stage play, the film was shot in nine days on a limited budget. Dramatic 9/11 footage, flashbacks of the missing firefighters, even a romance between Nick and Joan were all proposed by Hollywood producers, but the filmmakers rightly sensed that anything like this would have been disastrous. Read More >

Matchstick Men (2003)

B | *** | +1-2| Teens & Up*

When his supply of meds unexpectedly dries up, Roy predictably disintegrates, much to Frank’s concern. Soon, though, Roy is seeing a psychiatrist (Bruce Altman, Changing Lanes), who not only provides the medication he needs, but gets him talking and thinking about his life — in particular the woman who walked out on him fourteen years ago, and whether or not she was pregnant at the time. Read More >

Fantastic Voyage (1966)

B+ | *** | +0| Kids & Up

A landmark of 1960s sci-fi, Fantastic Voyage remains compelling entertainment despite dated special effects, deliberate pacing, and indifferent dialogue and acting, thanks in part to the genuine wonder it brings to its premise. Read More >

Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

A | **** | +1| Teens & Up

Sullivan wants to address the problem of human suffering, but his producers argue, rightly so, that he doesn’t know enough about suffering to make a movie about it. But their attempts to dissuade him backfire when he decides to go on the road with ten cents in his pocket in an effort to experience poverty first-hand. Read More >

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