[National Review Online, November 9, 2004] If you're of a certain age, when you hear the name “Alfie” a song immediately starts up in your head. You might even be able to sing mentally through the entire theme (though for some of us it veers into a part where Tom Jones is going “wo, wo wo,” and then there's a verse about Georgy Girl). But the line you remember for sure is, “What's it all about, Alfie?” In other words, What is the meaning of life? Is it only about pleasure? Does “life belong only to the strong”? What about that “old Golden Rule”? Wo, wo wo?

The Incredibles

[National Review Online, November 8, 2003] How do you make a kids' movie that adults can stand to watch - and watch over and over again, once it comes out on video? One approach is to load it with references to pop culture, so everyone can feel fashionably knowing. But five years later those same refs will be unfashionable, and in a couple of decades incomprehensible. Or you could go for plenty of gross stuff, bathroom jokes and double-entendres. That might amuse the less mature segments of the grownup audience, but it wears mighty thin on repetition, and makes responsible parents uncomfortable. Is there any solution? Well, how about an enthralling plot, compelling characters, genuine humor, and a stirring message? It's so crazy it just might work.


[National Review Online, October 29, 2004] I hope Jamie Foxx has a nice Oscar-sized spot dusted off on his mantle, because if there's any justice in the world, he'll be going home with a statuette next February. His starring performance in “Ray,” a biography of Ray Charles by director Taylor Hackford, is gripping from the start. It's not just the dazzling grin, not just the swaying head and tottering walk, but most of all the voice-a little higher and faster than you'd expect, with a hint of a stutter. Every time he speaks there's a jolt of energy, and it always comes as a surprise.

I [Heart] Huckabees

[National Review Online, October 12, 2004] Toward the end of “I [Heart] Huckabees,” the “existential detective” Vivian Jaffe (Lily Tomlin) is talking with a client. As the camera swings back her way we discover that she has unexpectedly taken out a pair of large, bone-colored knitting needles and is busily working some black yarn. This startling visual distraction must mean something (recall Chekhov's famous dictum that a gun seen in the first act must be fired in the next), so the viewer immediately does a mental Google on “knitters.” Top result is Dickens' cruel Madame Defarge. Compare and contrast: Vivian Jaffe is like Mme Defarge in these ways; she is not like her in those ways.

Shaun of the Dead

[National Review Online, September 27, 2004] Just as the fire department tells us we should rehearse what we'd do in case of fire (planning escape routes, designating a safe meeting place), disaster movies do us the psychological service of forcing a quick march through “the worst that could happen.” At the end we see that you win a few, you lose a few, some cars are up in trees, and only the most attractive of the young people have survived. This should have the effect of sending us straight from the theaters to our Stairmasters, but instead we head straight for the comfort food, judging by the looks of the crowd that shows up at the next disaster movie. We can't say they didn't warn us.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

[National Review Online, September 17, 2004] The most distinctive thing about “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” is the thing you need to forget right away. It's the thing you probably know already: everything in this movie is a fake. That's not unusual, of course; there's a reason “Hollywood” is an adjective. But this movie is faker than most. The action was shot in just 26 days on a sound stage in London, the actors standing before a bluescreen and emoting in a visual vacuum. Everything else, apart from the props actors actually touch, was generated in a computer. The tiny, live elephant inside a glass dome, the airplane dashing along under the sea, the 90-foot robots stomping down Fifth Avenue, all were computer-drawn.

The Manchurian Candidate

[National Review Online, July 30, 2004]Judging from audience response, the tale told in “The Manchurian Candidate” still packs a wallop. Twists in the plot were met by gasps, and a retaliatory punch in the nose with applause. It seems to have everything a summer thriller needs. I have to say “seems to have” because I'm a fan of the original version, released in 1962.

The Door in the Floor

[National Review Online, July 23, 2004]That loveable rascal! Americans have a soft spot for men who live with gusto, especially the ones whose gusto is applied to coaxing favors from the ladies. In “The Door in the Floor” Ted Cole (excellently portrayed by Jeff Bridges) is one of these familiar figures: fifty-plus but trim, bed-rumpled hair, slouching around in a flowing dressing gown, ice cubes clinking in a glass, and rasping out the kind of profundities we expect from a writer and artist (not from a real writer and artist, from the kind they have in movies).

I, Robot

[Our Sunday Visitor, July 2004] Robotics designers have a problem; it's called the “uncanny valley.” Humans like humans, and we like robots, but we want to know which is which. A robot can be made to look increasingly human, and for awhile we find it appealing. But if its skin texture becomes too realistic and movements too lifelike, suddenly it becomes horrifying. Instead of seeing a clever human-like contraption, we think we're seeing a disturbed, distorted human. It has fallen into the uncanny valley. This is the creep-factor behind a lot of sci-fi and horror, from Frankenstein to “Blade Runner.”

Raising Helen

[Beliefnet, April 26, 2004] Wait just a minute till I get you hooked up to the Wince-O-Meter. Thumbs snug? Good. OK, just relax and listen to what comes over the earphones. I got news for you little lady. I’m sexy. I’m a sexy man of God. And I know it.” Wow, I never saw the dial do that before.