David Ansen

Stories by David Ansen

  • Movies: With the Chicks

    It was in 2003, during the heated run-up to the war in Iraq, when the Dixie Chicks took to the stage at Shepherds Bush Empire in London and lead singer Natalie Maines remarked that she was ashamed that President Bush came from Texas. You see that moment in "Shut Up & Sing," a startlingly intimate documentary by Barbara ("Harlan County") Kopple and Cecilia Peck. It's clear that it was a jokey, off-the-cuff aside, said more to please the antiwar crowd than as a political provocation. Little did the Dixie Chicks know the firestorm they'd just set off."Shut Up & Sing" makes us flies on the wall as it follows the media furor. We're backstage with their manager, Simon Renshaw ("It'll be over in three days, tops," he predicts). We're in the conference room with the damage-control rep sent by their "very concerned" sponsor Lipton Tea. We're with their families as band members Emily Robison and her sister, Martie Maguire, raise their kids, compose their music, deal with the bans by...
  • Women on the Verge

    Pedro Almodovar's latest film includes child abuse, murder, cancer, a corpse stashed in a freezer, a ghost and a village obsessed with the dead--in other words, it's one of his most benign movies. That's the wonderful paradox of "Volver," which Almodóvar describes as "a meeting of 'Mildred Pierce' and 'Arsenic and Old Lace'." It's a mellow melodrama, filled with comedy, compassion and a sense of female community. The great Spanish director's fourth triumph in a row--following "All About My Mother," "Talk to Her" and "Bad Education"--"Volver" (which means "coming back") flows effortlessly between peril and poignancy, the real and the surreal, even life and death.If the all-male "Bad Education" was Almodóvar's darkest recent film, the all-female "Volver" is his most embracing. It's about three generations of women overcoming bad marriages, crimes of passion, adultery, familial feuds and, not insignificantly, the evils of TV. The setting is working-class Madrid and La Mancha, Almodóvar...
  • As the World Burns

    Watching Alejandro González Iñárritu's "Babel," it quickly becomes clear that the movie's guiding principle is Murphy's Law. Whatever can go wrong, will.As in "Amores Perros" and "21 Grams" --the two previous films in what Inárritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga are calling a trilogy--three separate tales are woven together in ways that are not always immediately apparent. In Morocco, a goatherder gives a hunting rifle to his sons and, while practicing in the hills, one of the boys fires at a tourist bus winding down the road in the far distance. Inside the bus is an American couple (Brad Pitt, given a few wrinkles and gray hairs, and Cate Blanchett) trying to patch up a shaky marriage. The boy's bullet hits Blanchett in the shoulder, and the badly wounded woman is taken to a nearby village where her husband desperately tries to find help. It's immediately assumed to be an act of terrorism, and international pressures to find the culprit are set in motion. Meanwhile, in Tokyo, a...
  • Snap Judgement: Movies

    Directed by Christopher NolanTaking off from Christopher Priest's novel, Nolan and his screenwriting brother, Jonathan, have whipped up a dark, tricky, tale of two rival magicians in turn-of-the-20th-century London. Hugh Jackman's upper-class Angier and Christian Bale's working-class Borden are obsessives who will go to any length to outshine the other. Part of the fun is learning the tricks of the illusionist's trade. The ubiquitous Scarlett Johansson plays Jackman's assistant, spy and lover, Michael Caine his designer of illusions. The beguiling Rebecca Hall is Bale's wife, and a sly David Bowie plays the inventor Nikola Tesla. This cerebral thriller is a sleight-of-hand act itself: it proceeds by misdirection, and culminates in triple-whammy twists.
  • Inside the Hero Factory

    Clint Eastwood's tough, smart, achingly sad "Flags of Our Fathers" is about three anointed heroes of World War II--three of the men who appeared, backs to the camera, in the legendary Joe Rosenthal photograph of six soldiers hoisting the American flag on Iwo Jima. It was an image that electrified a nation at war. The military wanted these men to be larger than life to raise desperately needed money for the war effort by selling war bonds. So the government, sensing, as one character says in Eastwood's film, "that a picture can win or lose a war," plucked them off Iwo Jima, where the 35-day battle was still raging (and where the other three men in the photo had been killed), and paraded them in front of cheering crowds. It was all for a good cause, but it was pure PR, and it ate away at the insides of these media-proclaimed heroes, who believed that the men who deserved the glory were the ones who had given their lives.Watching Eastwood's harrowing film, which raises pointed...
  • Magicians at War

    "Are you watching closely?" asks the narrator of Christopher Nolan's "The Prestige" as the camera prowls amid a large collection of black top hats incongruously spead across a forest floor.  The meaning of this image, like much else in this tricky, twisting tale of rival magicians at the end of the 19th century, won't become clear until the end of the tale.  Nolan, a deft sleight-of-hand artist himself, practices what he preaches: like many magic tricks, his film is built on misdirection: getting you to watch one hand closely, so that you don't see how the other hand pulls the rabbit out of the proverbial hat.Whether Nolan is working on independent brain-teasers like "Memento" or mainstream blockbusters like "Batman Returns," his movies share a dark brooding mood, a chilly emotional climate and protagonists (you can't really call them heroes) defined by their obsessions.  Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) fit snugly into his gallery of the grim, haunted...
  • Get That Mole Removed

    Martin Scorsese's profanely funny, savagely entertaining "The Departed" is both a return to the underworld turf he's explored in such classics as "Mean Streets" and "GoodFellas" and a departure. What's new is that he's hitched his swirling, white-hot style to the speeding wagon of narrative. For all his brilliance, storytelling has never been his forte or his first concern. Here he has the devilishly convoluted plot of the terrific 2002 Hong Kong cop thriller "Infernal Affairs" to work from, and it's a rich gift.Screenwriter William Monahan has done a terrific job transposing the story to ethnically fraught Boston. He's added many savory (and unsavory) new elements while staying true to the cat-and-mouse twists and turns of Alan Mak and Felix Chong's original script. (Strangely, there's no acknowledgment that it's a remake until deep into the end credits.) "The Departed" is the tale of two moles. Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) is a clean-cut rising star in the Boston Police Department...
  • Romp and Roll

    The drag queen host (Justin Bond) of the Brooklyn salon that gives John Cameron Mitchell’s “Shortbus” its name, surveys the room where a frisky and friendly orgy is in full swing, and pronounces: “It’s just like the '60s … only with less hope.”It’s a great line, destined to be much quoted. It’s also not a bad description of Mitchell’s boundary-breaking movie, his first since the cult hit “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” There’s a distinct echo of the '60s in Mitchell’s open embrace of sexuality in all its gender-blurring varieties, but the idealism of what in those days was called “the sexual revolution” comes tempered by three decades of AIDS, neofundamentalism and Internet pornography. What’s remarkable is that a glimmer of utopianism still beats in “Shortbus"’s large, polymorphous-perverse heart.The first thing you need to know about Mitchell’s movie is that it contains lots of real and totally graphic sex. One of the first things we see is a very flexible young man attempting to...
  • Snap Judgment: Movies

    All the King's MenDirected by Steven ZaillianDespite Sean Penn's meaty, lip-smacking performance as the populist demagogue Willie Stark--novelist Robert Penn Warren's fictional version of Louisiana Governor Huey P. Long--this tale of corruption, compromise and betrayal never gets under the skin of its subject. How does Stark turn from idealist to thug? That's the question you want answered, and Zaillian doesn't tell you. His focus, true to the novel, is on Jude Law's journalist Jack Burden, who gets sucked into Stark's orbit and loses his moral bearings. But we don't care about Burden or his mopey pursuit of his childhood sweetheart (Kate Winslet). This stiff-in-the-joints movie has little feel for its setting or period, and crucial chunks seem to have been left on the cutting-room floor. Robert Rossen's Oscar-winning 1949 version has nothing to fear. --David AnsenThe Last King of ScotlandDirected by Kevin MacdonaldForest Whitaker, uncorking the power that he usually holds in check,...
  • World Economy: Plenty of Cash Is Not Enough

    The curse of plenty lives. The latest World Bank list of nations at risk of political and economic collapse counts 26 such "fragile states," up sharply from 17 in 2003, and includes a striking number that are seeing rising revenues from oil (Angola, Nigeria), tourism (Cambodia) or aid (Timor-Leste, Afghanistan). The newcomers on the list are Cambodia, Central African Republic, the Comoros, Ivory Coast, Eritrea, Guinea, Kosovo, Nigeria, Republic of Congo, Solomon Islands, Timor-Leste, Togo, Vanuatu and West Bank and Gaza. "When these resources bring wealth quickly it can actually hurt the rest of the economy," notes Vinod Thomas, head of the World Bank's Independent Evaluation Group, which did the study.The bank says that rising revenues have put upward pressure on local currencies, increased the temptation for corruption and, in many of these fragile states, eroded incomes, institutions and governance. Cambodia, for example, has been growing at about 5 percent a year, faster than...
  • Movies: The Good, the Bad, The Hilariously Gross

    The studios like to use the Toronto Film Festival as a launching pad for Oscar hopefuls. Last year "Crash" was unveiled here, and look where that ended. There's a risk involved, of course: every major U.S. media outlet has critics and journalists scoping out the prospects, and if they turn against you, you can kiss your Oscar prospects goodbye. Darren Aronofsky's "The Fountain" was the first to fall, a ludicrous farrago about the search for eternal life that hops from the Spanish Inquisition to the present and into the future. No eternal life for this dud. Nor for the convoluted and artificial noir "The Black Dahlia," a grave disappointment for fans of Brian De Palma. But it is hard to even speculate about the Oscar race with a straight face after seeing Christopher Guest's latest comedy, "For Your Consideration," which skewers Hollywood's obsession with the golden statuette with dead-on malice. Catherine O'Hara plays an over-the-hill actress whose supporting role in "Home for Purim...
  • Up From the Ashes

    In Oliver Stone's "World Trade Center," on the morning of September 11, 2001, a Port Authority cop named Will Jimeno is doing his everyday job, shooing away prostitutes and panhandlers from the bus terminal, when he hears a loud rumble overhead. The camera pans, not up at the sky, but down the street, to reveal the shadow of a low-flying plane climbing the face of a building. Stone never shows the planes crashing into the Twin Towers. He's letting us know, right from the start, that we will see history unfold as it happened on the ground, from the perspectives of ordinary men and women.The policemen portrayed in "World Trade Center" are real guys, and Stone is telling a true story. His heroes are not prepared for the disaster that looms. Most of the cops in the little squad headed by Sgt. John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) decline to volunteer to go into the buildings, but a few, including Jimeno (Michael Peña), step forward. The men are obviously frightened, especially when they hear...
  • Lukewarm Waters

    If you got to "Miami Vice" looking for nostalgia, you're barking up the wrong palm tree. Yes, it's called "Miami Vice" and the two leads are named Sonny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs, but there any resemblance to the '80s TV show ends. There's not a pastel T shirt in sight.On the subject of expectations, fans of Michael Mann--and anybody interested in stylish, hard-bitten cinema should be a fan--may expect something on the ambitious level of "The Insider," "Heat" or "Ali." They, too, should adjust their gaze. This down-and-dirty tale of drugrunning, which sends Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) on a treacherous undercover mission from south Florida to Para-guay, Havana, Colombia and back again, is a straight-ahead genre movie. It's filled with Mann's signature macho verisimilitude, but essentially it's the stuff of what, in saner fiscal times, would have been a B movie. "Miami Vice" delivers the thrills, atmosphere and romance it promises, but it doesn't resonate like...
  • A Busload Of Losers

    A dysfunctional family, led by a workaholic patriarch, take a road trip, and the journey mends their wounds. This was the premise of one of 2006's most mirthless comedies, the formulaic "RV." As if to prove that God is in the details, along comes "Little Miss Sunshine." Same premise. Totally different results. This indie, a sweet, tart and smart satire about a family of losers in a world obsessed with winning, is an authentic crowd pleaser. There's been no more satisfying American comedy this year.Greg Kinnear plays the gratingly optimistic dad of the Hoover clan, a motivational speaker with a 9-step program for success that nobody seems to want. Toni Collette is the mom, desperate to keep her fractured clan together. This is not easy when your son (Paul Dano), an en-raged, alienated Nietzsche-reading teenager, has taken a vow of total silence, and your brother (Steve Carell), a suicidal Proust scholar, has just been let out of the hospital after his boyfriend jilted him. Adding to...
  • 'Pirates 2': Jack Sparrow Boogaloo

    When Johnny Depp's kohl-eyed Jack Sparrow sashayed across the screen in the first "Pirates of the Caribbean," the impact was instantaneous. The last thing one expected in a big summer extravaganza was a star turn that pulled the rug out from under you. His hilariously fey, tipsy pirate made every scene a leap into the comic unknown: you had the feeling that Depp was getting away with something. It felt liberating, and turned what was otherwise a solid but routine period adventure movie into a larkish blockbuster.Any movie that grosses $653 million worldwide demands a sequel, whether the material warrants it or not. But "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" starts with a disadvantage: there's no way it can recapture that subversive thrill of surprise. Now we expect the unexpected from Depp. The producer, Jerry Bruckheimer; the director, Gore Verbinski, and the screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, deal with this dilemma in a typical Hollywood way. They've made everything...
  • Movies: The Big Guy's Back. We Missed Him.

    There was headscratching and second-guessing when director Bryan Singer announced he was abandoning his wildly popular "X-Men" franchise to make "Superman Returns." Would the Man of Steel fly for a new generation of moviegoers? Could Singer resurrect the series Richard Donner and Christopher Reeve revitalized in 1978, which sputtered out in 1987, three sequels later?Singer did the right thing. From the start of this gorgeously crafted epic, you can feel that Singer has real love and respect for the most foursquare comics superhero of them all, as well as a reverence for the Donner version, which serves as his visual and emotional template. In "Superman Returns" (written by Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris from a story they cooked up with Singer), the caped crusader for truth, justice, etc. (Brandon Routh) returns to crime-ridden Earth after a five-year detour amid the remains of his home planet. Back in Metropolis--where, as Clark Kent, he gets his old Daily Planet job back--he...
  • Life in the Fast Lane

    From a teeming nascar speed-way to a dilapidated Southwestern town on the old Route 66, "Cars" fills the screen with super realistic computer animation so fanatically detailed, so packed with shiny goodies that it could have been made only by the folks at Pixar. Visually, each of their movies, from "Toy Story" to "Finding Nemo," has redefined state-of-the-art CGI, and "Cars" is as eye-popping as anything Pixar has done. But "Cars" inspires more admiration than elation. It dazzles even as it disappoints. This time around, John Lasseter and his co director, the late Joe Ranft, seem more interested in dispensing Life Lessons than showing us a roaring good time.Lasseter's biggest risk is making a movie in which no human or animal forms intrude. All the main characters are cars, and frankly, it takes a while to see the souls hidden under the metallic hoods. Our antihero is the rookie racing-car sensation Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), a go-it-alone, look-out-for-number-one showboat...
  • Summer Docs

    The blockbuster success of "March of the Penguins" and "Fahrenheit 9/11" shocked a lot of people. At least for a moment, the documentary was lifted out of the art-house ghetto and into the mainstream. Call me naive, but I've always found it shocking that this doesn't happen more often. Why is "X-Men: The Last Stand" playing in 3,690 theaters while "The Heart of the Game" is currently playing in two? Now I had a good enough time at that third X-Men installment, but for sheer edge-of-your-seat entertainment value, it was no match for this true-life story of girls basketball. The fact is, the heart of the movie game is rigged: you can find "The Break-Up" playing on four screens in the same multiplex, but in most parts of the country the delicious "Crossing the Bridge" will only be available, eventually, on DVD. Here are three nonfiction movies that, pound for pound, outsmart and outpunch just about every Hollywood giant now dominating summer screens.‘The War Tapes’From the start,...
  • Surviving the Cure

    Those who take their X-Men very, very seriously may not be overjoyed with "X-Men: The Last Stand," the third (and probably not last) installment. Brett ("Rush Hour") Ratner has replaced director Bryan Singer, whose movies had a richer, more burnished look. Singer felt more deeply about these outcast super-human mutants, using them as metaphors for any and all minorities. He savored the subtexts beneath the gaudy Marvel Comics surface, lingering on the teenage angst.But if "The Last Stand" lacks the gravitas of Singer's sagas, it's also free of their occasional tedium. Ratner's version is friskier, shallower--and more fun. The director zips through this apocalyptic tale in 105 minutes, barely lingering to mourn the early death of Cyclops (James Marsden) at the hands of a resurrected Phoenix (Famke Janssen), whose telekinetic powers now surpass even those of Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen). The latter earns his knighthood by keeping a straight face while wearing a...
  • Thou Shalt Not Like It

    The Roman Catholic Church can rest easy. Ron Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman struggle mightily to cram as much as possible of Dan Brown's labyrinthine thriller into a 2-hour, 28-minute running time, resulting in a movie both overstuffed and underwhelming. This film is not likely to topple Christianity as we know it, though it could do serious damage to Audrey Tautou's hopes of a Hollywood career.Tautou plays Paris police cryptologist Sophie Neveu, whose grandfather, a curator at the Louvre, is murdered at the beginning of the film. As readers of Brown's spectacularly successful novel know, before he dies, the grandfather leaves behind a set of riddles and clues. He also selects the only two people in the world capable of unraveling them: Sophie, and Harvard "symbologist" Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks). Unfortunately for Langdon, the French cop in charge of the investigation, Bezu Fache (Jean Reno), is convinced he's the killer. And so the chase begins, Robert and Sophie trying to...
  • A Disappointing 'Da Vinci Code'

    The Roman Catholic Church can rest easy. Ron Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman struggle mightily to cram as much as possible of Dan Brown's labyrinthine thriller into a 2-hour-28-minute running time, resulting in a movie both overstuffed and underwhelming. This film is not likely to topple Christianity as we know it, though it could do serious damage to Audrey Tautou's hopes of a Hollywood career.Tautou plays Paris police cyryptologist Sophie Neveu, whose grandfather, a curator at the Louvre, is murdered at the beginning of "The Da Vinci Code." As readers of Brown's spectacularly successful novel know, before he dies, the victim, Jacques Sauniere, leaves behind a set of riddles and clues. He also selects the only two people in the world capable of unraveling them: Sophie, and Harvard "symbologist" Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks). Unfortunately for Langdon, the French cop in charge of the investigation, Bezu Fache (Jean Reno), is convinced he's the killer. And so the chase begins,...
  • Movies: Summer Escapes

    With the arrival of "Mission: Impossible III" and "Poseidon," the summer-movie season has officially begun. The scores get louder, the special effects more special, the body count rises precipitously. What would summer escapism be, traditional studio thinking goes, without mass carnage?But watching the new "Poseidon," which attempts to resurrect the disaster movie by remaking the belovedly cheesy 1972 "The Poseidon Adventure," gives one pause. In the wake of "United 93," a real-life disaster movie that opens a raw wound in the audience, do we really have an appetite for this genre? After Katrina, are the hundreds of dead bodies that pile up in Wolfgang Petersen's movie--in which a luxury liner capsizes after being hit by a rogue wave, wiping out all but an intrepid gaggle of B-list movie stars--so easy to shrug off? Disaster movies may work best when we think they can't really happen to us.The movie is just what you'd expect: skimpy, almost laughable characterizations surrounded by...
  • Flight of the Intruders

    A feeling of dread permeates "United 93." It starts even before you enter the theater--unless for some reason you are unaware that you're about to see a movie about the one hijacked plane on September 11, 2001, that didn't reach its target, the one that crashed into a field in Pennsylvania after the passengers heroically and desperately broke into the cockpit and overwhelmed the hijackers.The dread builds to almost unbearable dimensions as director Paul Greengrass takes us step by step through the events of that day, crosscutting between the doomed United flight and the flight controllers on the ground struggling to comprehend the multiple catastrophes in the skies.Sight unseen, "United 93" has provoked outrage (even though the victims' families have all given it their seal of approval). Many people will simply decline the invitation to re-experience this nightmare. What can't be argued is Greengrass's mastery at creating an almost documentary sense of reality. That's his specialty,...
  • Surprise, Surprise!

    When was the last time a movie caught you totally by surprise? It's a phenomenon that happens less and less often, because Hollywood spends many millions of marketing dollars to ensure there are no surprises—to see that you know as much as possible about the film before you go to see it. The studio's real product is the hype itself. If the movie's actually good, all the better, but that's not really the point.Foreign films, on the other hand, because they have little or no marketing budget, slink across our borders like illegal aliens, hiding in plain sight. Unheralded by TV spots, full-page ads, magazine covers or gossip columns, they barely stand a chance commercially. But for the moviegoer, there's an upside to this obscurity: a foreign film, being terra incognita, can startle you with the unexpected. For a critic, the thrill of discovery is even rarer. But it hit me, in all its glory, the other day at a screening of Jean-Pierre Melville's "Army of Shadows." I've seen a lot of...
  • Snap Judgment: Movies

    'Friends With Money'Directed by Nicole HolofcenerThis delicious, seriocomic tale of four friends in affluent, liberal, west L.A. grappling with midlife crises, metrosexual spouses and household remodeling takes on an avoided subject: money, and how it affects our relationships. Rich Joan Cusack, successful but angry fashion designer Frances McDormand, unhappily married screenwriter Catherine Keener and pot-smoking housecleaner Jennifer Aniston (the only one without bread, or a husband) are characters we come to know intimately. Holofcener gets the milieu beguilingly right, but the abrupt ending leaves you wanting more.
  • All the Way to the Bank

    March is a little on the early side for a Hollywood studio to release a good movie (some years you have to wait until May) but hey, life is full of surprises. "Inside Man," a bank-heist thriller with a tricky, nothing-is-as-it-seems playfulness, is the kind of solid, mass-appeal entertainment that Hollywood is supposed to knock out in its sleep but rarely pulls off even when wide awake. As unexpected as some of its plot twists is the fact that this unapologetic genre movie was directed by Spike Lee, who has never sold himself as Mr. Entertainment. But here it is, a Spike Lee joint that's downright fun."Inside Man" was written by first-timer Russell Gewirtz, and though it has its share of holes that become visible when all the dust settles, it keeps you in a state of cheerful suspense while it's unfolding. The question this robbery movie raises is not your standard "Whodunit?" nor even "How did he do it?" nor even really "Will he get away with it?" It's something a little more...
  • Snap Judgment: Movies

    Directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc DardenneBruno (Jérémie Renier), a feral, 20-year-old petty thief, fathers a child with his 18-year-old girlfriend, Sonia (Déborah François)-- then, without telling her, sells him on the black market. Having committed this unforgivable act, he tries to undo it. Unfolding in real time on the scruffy working-class streets of industrial Belgium, this harrowingly intense odyssey charts Bruno's desperate search for redemption. Like the Dardennes' earlier gem "Rosetta," the masterly "L'Enfant" walked off with the Palme d'Or in Cannes.
  • Bloody Good Flicks

    Horror movies don't win Oscars or respect--"The Silence of the Lambs" being the exception that proves the rule--but their bad-seed status has given them a freedom denied to more respectable genres. If the social drama is our superego, then the horror movie is our id, our wild, unruly inner adolescent. Sometimes it spews vile unspeakable rot and sometimes it utters uncomfortable truths that the grown-ups aren't allowed to say.Case in point: the angriest, most head-on mass-media artistic attack on the Iraq war came last year in the form of a deliberately shlocky TV horror film called "Homecoming," shown as part of Showtime's "Masters of Horror" series. Directed by Joe Dante, who's best known for "Gremlins," it was a zombie movie in which dead American soldiers come back to life. Their mission? To vote the administration that sent them to their graves out of office. And one of the more pointed anatomies of the post-9/11 divide between the haves and have-nots in America came last year...
  • Snap Judgment: Movies

    A team of oddly good-looking high-tech thugs led by Brit Paul Bettany breaks into the lakeside home of Harrison Ford--a computer-security specialist for a Seattle bank--holding his wife and two kids hostage. They need Ford's expertise to pull off a cyberheist. There's almost nothing you haven't seen before in this slick, preposterous, but occasionally exciting thriller. An angry Ford absorbs, and dishes out, massive punishment for a fellow his age, while Virginia Madsen is sadly wasted as his wife.