David Ansen

Stories by David Ansen

  • Sundance at the Breaking Point

    When I first came to the Sundance film festival, nearly 20 years ago, it was barely on the media's radar. The snow-bound streets were empty, and the word "swag" had yet to be invented.
  • Shanghai Surprise

    It would be nice to report that the final collaboration between James Ivory and his late producing partner, Ismail Merchant, ranked with their best work, such as the luminous "Howards End" and "A Room With a View." Though "The White Countess," from an original screenplay by novelist Kazuo Ishiguro ("The Remains of the Day"), sounds mouthwateringly good on paper, it's a cake that never rises.The setting has glamour galore: Shanghai in 1936 and '37, on the eve of the Japanese invasion. It's a sophisticated, decadent, international city that plays host to a family of impoverished White Russian aristocrats (Natasha Richardson, Vanessa Redgrave, Lynn Redgrave, John Wood, Madeleine Potter) and to a blind American former diplomat named Jackson (Ralph Fiennes), who hides his personal tragedy behind a dapper demeanor. Jackson dreams of opening an elegant nightclub where the horrors of the real world can be shut out. In a city teeming with political intrigue, where Chinese nationalists rub...
  • Snap Judgment: Movies

    The Three Burials of Melquiades EstradaDirected by Tommy Lee JonesAs an actor Tommy Lee Jones rarely makes a false move. A master of understatement, he conveys a sense of enormous power held in check. The same could be said of his first feature as a director, "Three Burials," a laconic tale of revenge, loyalty and redemption on the Texas-Mexico border. Jones plays Pete Perkins, a ranch foreman whose good friend Melquiades (Julio Cesar Cedillo), an illegal-migrant worker from Mexico, is shot in cold blood by a trigger-happy, racist border patrol-man (Barry Pepper). The politics of illegal immigration is not what interests Jones and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga ("21 Grams"), who imbue Pete's quixotic quest to bury his friend in Mexico with a streak of pitch-black humor, some bawdy detours and a touch of sanguine, sun-baked poetry Sam Peckinpah would have liked. Opens 12/14.The ProducersDirected by Susan StromanMel Brooks's 1968 comedy "The Producers," about a Broadway producer and...
  • The Five Best Actresses

    1. JUDI DENCH , "Mrs. Henderson Presents." A delight as a deliciously imperious dowager. 2. VERA FARMIGA, "Down to the Bone." A revelation as a working-class junkie struggling to get clean. 3. CONNIE NIELSEN, "Brothers." Brilliant as a Danish soldier's conflicted wife. 4. NAOMI WATTS, "King Kong." Who else could really sell this interspecies love story? 5. REESE WITHERSPOON, "Walk the Line." Hard to believe she's not really a Nashville star.
  • The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter

    Annie Proulx's 1997 short story "Brokeback Mountain" is one of the great modern love stories: its chiseled-from-rock prose lodges in your memory forever. It's the story of two itinerant cowboys--Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), a part-time rodeo rider, and Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger), a laconic ranch hand--who fall into a physical relationship in 1963 while herding sheep in the Wyoming mountains. Ennis, as terrified as he is overwhelmed by his feelings, insists that it's a one-shot thing. What both men discover, as the years pass and both marry and raise kids, is that the only vital thing in their lives is their brief, furtive, once-a-year meetings.Director Ang Lee's movie, from a fine and faithful screenplay by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, has already been proclaimed a landmark, a watershed in mainstream movies, the first gay love story with A-list Hollywood stars. But the reason it feels like a breakthrough is that Lee has made it for the right reasons: he recognizes a...
  • The Five Best Actors

    1. JEFF DANIELS, "The Squid and the Whale." Pitch-perfect as a vain, self-absorbed novelist. 2. DANIEL DAY-LEWIS, "The Ballad of Jack and Rose." The last angry gasp of a '60s radical. 3. PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN, "Capote." The artist as Judas. 4. HEATH LEDGER, "Brokeback Mountain." A career-changing change of pace as a gay cowboy. 5. DAVID STRATHAIRN, "Good Night, and Good Luck." Channeling Edward R. Murrow's fierce integrity.
  • The Bloom Is Off The Book

    The story of a young girl, sold by her family into slavery, who rises to become the reigning geisha of her day, bears more than a small resemblance to "Cinderella," though it happens to be set in Kyoto in the 1930s and '40s. The "Cinderella" echoes, present in Arthur Golden's best-selling novel, come through clearly in Rob Marshall's ornately appointed movie of "Memoirs of a Geisha," starring Ziyi Zhang as the exotically pale-eyed Sayuri. There are nasty godmother figures, and the equivalent of an evil stepsister in Hatsumomo (Gong Li), Sayuri's bitter rival, who plots at every step to thwart her ambitions. And no fairy tale would be complete without a Prince Charming, who comes in the distinguished, handsome form of the Chairman (Ken Watanabe), a rich, kindly businessman whom Sayuri meets as a child and secretly vows to love forever.Marshall's movie plays out, however, less like a classic fairy tale than a lurid, bitch-slapping Hollywood melodrama from the '40s, complete with...
  • The Five Most Disappointing Movies

    1. ELIZABETHTOWN: Cameron Crowe goes tone deaf in this limp love story. 2. MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA: Sayonara, authenticity. A sumptuous but silly vulgarization of the novel. 3. KINGDOM OF HEAVEN: Who'd have guessed the director of "Gladiator" could make the Crusades dull? 4. BEE SEASON: A miscast and humorless mangling of the book. 5. 9 SONGS: It was touted as a breakthrough: real sex in a real movie with real actors! And it was really boring!
  • Hooray for Holidays

    Are we in a bad mood, or what? Never mind the real world, which is bummer enough. This may be remembered as the Year of the Depressive Movie. When I toted up my top-10 list, I wasn't surprised at how few big studio movies there were: it was a dog year for Hollywood. What stood out was how heavy my favorites were--tales filled with paranoia, terrorism, broken hearts and busted families. The times demand darkness; in these indelible movies, anguish is transformed into art. Besides, did I have a choice? Even our hit summer movies this year sprang from nightmares--the traumatized "Batman Begins," the tragic "Revenge of the Sith," the dark, apocalyptic "War of the Worlds." When our romantic comedies ("Mr. and Mrs. Smith") are about assassins, our musicals ("Rent") are about AIDS and our kiddie fare ("Charlie and the Chocolate Factory") is misanthropic, where do we turn for comfort? To penguins, and Jane Austen. What dark treats do the holidays hold? Plenty. Here are the delights and the...
  • Your Mother Hates Me! But It's OK Because I Hate Your Mother.

    The Stone Family is one of those big, lovably eccentric American movie clans that date back as far as Frank Capra's "You Can't Take It With You." Matriarch Sybil (Diane Keaton), professor dad Kelly (Craig T. Nelson) and their colorful brood are warm, life-embracing, gay-friendly, middle-class New England bohemians. Just the sort of folks, in other words, that give social conservatives nightmares. In the sentimental comedy "The Family Stone," the Stones gather to celebrate the holidays and to meet eldest son Everett's (Dermot Mulroney) bride-to-be, Meredith Morton (Sarah Jessica Parker).Unfortunately for Meredith, she's everything the Stones despise, an uptight, dressed-for-success New York careerist who doesn't like to hug. "They hate me!" she wails to her fiance after her first disastrous encounter. She's got that right. Edgy youngest daughter Amy (Rachel McAdams) doesn't even try to hide her contempt. West Coast slacker son Ben (Luke Wilson) is aghast, in his stoned-out way. Mom's...
  • Heaviness For The Holidays

    Are we in a bad mood, or what? This may be remembered as the Year of the Depressive Movie. When I toted up my top-10 list, I wasn't surprised at how few big studio movies there were: it was a dog year for Hollywood. What stood out was how heavy my favorites were--tales filled with paranoia, terrorism, broken hearts and busted families. In these indelible movies, anguish is transformed into art. Even our hit summer movies this year sprang from nightmares--the traumatized "Batman Begins," the tragic "Revenge of the Sith," the apocalyptic "War of the Worlds." When our romantic comedies ("Mr. and Mrs. Smith") are about assassins and our kiddie fare ("Charlie and the Chocolate Factory") is misanthropic, where do we turn for comfort? To penguins, and Jane Austen. What dark treats do the holidays hold? Plenty.The terrorist act that kicks off Steven Spielberg's "Munich" was seen as it unfolded on television around the world. The Palestinian group Black September invaded the Olympic Village...
  • Two Cultures Clash, And Two Lovers Leap

    Our mental picture of the English settlers' landing in America tends to look as stiff as a grammar-school pageant: Englishmen right, with muskets; Indians left, bearing corn. Terrence Malick's "The New World" wipes clean our palette. The visionary director of "Badlands" and "The Thin Red Line" dispenses with pomp and rhetoric, and plunks us in a grassy field that would become Jamestown, Va., where, in 1607, weary, armor-clad white men make first contact with "the naturals." Barely clothed, faces painted, the natives circle the newcomers, poking, sniffing, licking, curious to see what these hairy fellows are made of. It's an astonishing scene, at once monumental, lyrical and almost comically intimate. You can feel the grass underfoot, the humidity in the air. This is, for the Europeans, the dawn of a new world; it's also nothing more or less than a bunch of wary, frightened men in a field, who may or may not have a future. And for Chief Powhatan's tribe, it's the beginning of the end...
  • Fantasy Vacations: Kids Save Narnia, An Ape Tours New York

    I gave my heart to Peter Jackson's gargantuan "King Kong" at the moment when the grizzled giant gorilla gave his heart to Naomi Watts's Ann Darrow. As the scene opens, they're on a high ledge over Skull Island, where the terrified wanna-be actress realizes the big galoot who carried her off in the palm of his hand is her protector, not her enemy. A vaudeville veteran, she tries to communicate by entertaining him with old routines. Kong is enchanted. A spark of understanding passes between beast and beauty, and lo, the cinema's most venerable interspecies love story is born again.There's a similar moment of cross-species magic in "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," directed by Jackson's fellow New Zealander Andrew Adamson. It occurs early, when Lucy (Georgie Henley), the youngest of the Pevensie children, first emerges from the wardrobe into the enchanted land of Narnia. There she encounters a Faun (James McAvoy) with hooves for feet, an umbrella in his...
  • The Pitter Potter of Magical Feats

    Sexual attraction has entered the Harry Potter universe. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is now 14, and he's one of four contestants competing in the dangerous Tri-Wizard Tournament. The first event requires him to capture a golden egg that's guarded by a ferocious Hungarian flying dragon. Terrifying as this is, it pales in comparison with having to ask the beguiling Cho Chang (Katie Leung) to Hogwarts's Yule Ball. Now, that takes courage.The hormonal confusions of adolescence threaten the camaraderie of Harry, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson). But if the teenagers are experiencing growing pains, the movie series has come into its own. "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" may not reach the lyrical heights of Alfonso Cuaron's stylish "Prisoner of Azkaban," but this fourth installment, directed by Mike Newell, has a stronger tale to tell. And the storytelling is so assured that its 144-minute running time feels half that--unlike the first two movies, which felt twice as long as...
  • Snap Judgment: Movies

    Innocent Voices Directed by Luis MandokiThe brutal civil war in El Salvador is seen through the terrified eyes of 11-year-old Chava (Carlos Padilla), who knows that when he turns 12 he'll be conscripted into the government's Army and forced to kill. Based on screenwriter Oscar Torres's childhood, Mandoki's gripping film may pull on the heartstrings too knowingly, but it's hard to forget the sight of the village's children lying silent and still on every rooftop, praying the recruiting soldiers below will pass them by.North Country Directed by Niki CaroNo matter how much dirt Charlize Theron rubs on her face to play Minnesota iron miner Josey Aimes--who mounts a class- action sexual-harassment suit against her piggish employers--she's still too refined for the part. Niki ("Whale Rider") Caro's intermittently stirring drama is loosely based on a true story. You'll be properly enraged by the humiliations Josie and her fellow women have to endure, but Hollywood contrivances and...
  • Falling in Almost-Love

    In "Shopgirl," Claire Danes finally gets the screen role that fulfills the promise of her TV series "My So-Called Life." As lonely, yearning salesgirl Mirabelle Buttersworth, a transplanted Vermonter selling gloves at Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills while dreaming of being an artist, Danes is heartbreakingly damaged, radiantly depressive. And so, for the most part, is this haunting adaptation of Steve Martin's novel. Written by Martin, directed by Anand Tucker ("Hilary and Jackie"), it's a minimalist almost-love story told with epic flourishes.Two men enter Mirabelle's life, neither a perfect fit. In a laundromat she meets the scruffy, zonked-out Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman), a font designer who has to borrow money to take her on a date. At her counter at Saks, she meets Ray Porter (Steve Martin), a dot-com tycoon twice her age, with homes in Seattle and L.A. As soon as Ray starts to court her, the sweet but immature Jeremy takes a back seat. Ray makes it clear that he wants to...
  • Nobels: A Pinter Perfect Recipient

    Until Harold Pinter won the Nobel Prize in Literature last week, only three playwrights working in English had won this honor: George Bernard Shaw, Eugene O'Neill and, in 1969, the man whom Pinter often referred to as his major influence: Samuel Beckett. Heavyweight company indeed.The 75-year-old English playwright hadn't been predicted to win, but it was hard to argue with the choice. Like Beckett, whose plays could be mistaken for no one else's, Pinter has created a singular (though much imitated), instantly identifiable style. In such unnerving classics as "The Caretaker," "The Homecoming," "The Collection," "Betrayal" and "No Man's Land"--paranoid chamber dramas as noted for their pregnant pauses for what is left unsaid as for their terse, insinuating dialogue--Pinter gave us chillingly thrilling glimpses of human relationships as a nasty game of psychological one-upmanship.He wrote as an outsider, having grown up Jewish and working class, and early on feeling the bite of...
  • CURIOUS GEORGE

    It's party time, 2:30 in the morning, and George Clooney, a dapper, urbane Hollywood star of the old school, is surrounded, not surprisingly, by a small sea of women oohing and aahing over his latest movie. Each wants to stake a lasting claim on his bachelor body, as she digs her hand deeply into the small of his tuxedoed back. Each is rewarded with his devilish smile, and a gaze that signals rapt attention. Seemingly tireless, Clooney has been going full tilt since the previous morning, plugging his latest work, and he has hours to go before he sleeps. Famous for his revelry, his posse of loyal buddies, his practical jokes, the party boy will stay out until 8 a.m., when he finally dispatches his driver and calls it a night.Off screen, Clooney exudes the same easy charm that defines his movie persona--not something that holds true of most movie stars. But the actor, it turns out, has surprises up his sleeve. The above party was no Hollywood glamorama but part of the opening-night...
  • Feasting At The Festival

    Imagine a Wal-Mart superstore that contains Prada boutiques, antiquarian bookstores, Japanese comic books and semiautomatic weapons, and you have an inkling of the Toronto Film Festival's vast, eclectic largesse. It's become North America's most important film festival by offering... everything. You can catch up with movies unveiled at Sundance and Cannes, get a juicy taste of Hollywood's fall offerings and sample movies from Cameroon to Croatia. The big studios love to showcase potential Oscar entries in Toronto: local audiences are notoriously friendly, star-struck and likely to leap to their feet in applause.I spent six days at the festival, and there were 256 movies to choose from--and almost as many publicists trying to convince you that theirs was the one to see. For a movie critic, this is the equivalent of the Tour de France, except that you rarely see sunlight and no one's testing you for illegal substances. Fortunately, if a movie should prove beyond hope, you can dash for...
  • SNAP JUDGMENT: MOVIES

    The Aristocrats Directed by Paul ProvenzaClose to 100 comics spin baroquely disgusting variations on one classic dirty joke. That's the whole movie, and it's hands down the funniest of the year, both pushing the boundaries of bad taste and exploring how those boundaries keep shifting. Gilbert Gottfried, Sarah Silverman, Bob Saget and a mime are standouts. The cumulative effect is oddly uplifting: it may be (and feel free to quote me) the first feel-good movie made out of fecal matter.
  • EYE OF THE BEHOLDER

    Jim Jarmusch had it from the start. So did Gus Van Sant. So, it seems, does Miranda July. It's an original way of looking at the world. A sensibility unmistakably their own. A singular style.When Jarmusch's "Stranger Than Paradise" appeared in 1983, you knew you were hearing a new cinematic voice: droll, hip and oblivious to the conventions of Hollywood storytelling. Jarmusch has stayed true to his minimalist vision for 21 years. His latest, "Broken Flowers," which won the Grand Prix in Cannes in May, is his best work in a decade. Bill Murray stars as Don Johnston, a well-to-do suburban ladies' man who learns he may have a 19-year-old son he never knew about. The news comes via an anonymous letter in a pink envelope just as the latest of his girlfriends (Julie Delpy) deserts him, but it hardly gets a rise out of the stone-faced lothario. Pushed into action by his excitable neighbor Winston (Jeffrey Wright), who fancies himself a sleuth, the impassive Don hits the road on an...
  • SNAP JUDGMENT

    2046 Directed by Wong Kar WaiNo one captures the ache of missed romantic connections like the director of "In the Mood for Love." In this gorgeously melancholic fresco of love affairs, Tony Leung Chiu Wai plays a womanizing pulp-fiction writer in '60s Hong Kong whose fragmented memories shuttle between the beautiful women in his life, including Ziyi Zhang and Gong Li. The ravishing images are tinged with regret and loss: no passion can assuage the jaded hero's solitude.
  • HOT DESIGNER GENES

    Along with hundreds of other strangely docile folks in white leisure outfits, Lincoln Six-Echo (Ewan McGregor) and Jordan Two-Delta (Scarlett Johansson) live in an underground, rigidly controlled environment in the not-too-distant future. They are told they are the survivors of an ecological disaster that has contaminated the world. A few lottery winners will get to leave these sterile quarters to live on an idyllic island. It's the dream they live for.And it's all a lie, as Lincoln and Jordan will eventually discover in Michael Bay's high-octane sci-fi thriller "The Island." There is no contamination. There is no island. What Lincoln and Jordan don't know--and here we come to a few spoilers, though nothing that isn't given away in trailers--is that they are not humans but clones, paid for by rich clients who want to extend their lives by having genetic doubles whose body parts can be harvested. Cursed with a curiosity they weren't programmed to have, Lincoln and Jordan escape to...
  • SNAP JUDGMENT: MOVIES

    Hustle & Flow Directed by Craig BrewerGritty on the outside, soft in the center, this tale of DJay (Terrence Howard), a pimp who finds redemption as a rapper, is another "ya gotta have a dream" crowd-pleaser. Brewer does better with the men (Anthony Anderson as a wanna-be producer, Ludacris as a sellout rap star) than with the broadly drawn, comic-pathetic hookers. But Howard redeems this lumpy fantasy. Soft-spoken and mysterious, he presides over the movie with a dangerous, feline grace.Dark Water Directed by Walter SallesThis dank, dark and disturbing psychological horror film is a remake of a Hideo Nakata chiller, but the film it most evokes is Roman Polanski's "Repulsion," another tale of mental instability and bad real estate. Divorced mom Jennifer Connelly, her daughter (Ariel Gade) and her daughter's "imaginary friend" move in to a leaky Roosevelt Island, N.Y., apartment, and the nightmares begin. Salles ("The Motorcycle Diaries") builds dread masterfully, but don't...
  • SNAP JUDGEMENT: MOVIES

    Hustle & Flow Directed by Craig BrewerGritty on the outside, soft in the center, this tale of DJay (Terrence Howard), a pimp who finds redemption as a rapper, is another "ya gotta have a dream" crowd-pleaser. Brewer does better with the men (Anthony Anderson as a wanna-be producer, Ludacris as a sellout rap star) than with the broadly drawn, comic-pathetic hookers. But Howard redeems this lumpy fantasy. Soft-spoken and mysterious, he presides over the movie with a dangerous, feline grace.
  • A LAST DANCE

    At the age of 86, decades after he'd announced he was done making movies, Ingmar Bergman--the brilliant, angst-ridden Swede who virtually defined and ruled the art film in the 1950s and '60s--has given us one more. It's likely that "Saraband," which stars Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson as Marianne and Johan, the long-divorced couple from 1973's "Scenes From a Marriage," is Bergman's swan song. But it is anything but mellow or nostalgic. It's as urgent, personal and emotionally savage as anything he's done: a fierce and moving examination of familial and conjugal love--its limits, its frailty, its destructiveness, its necessity.The 63-year-old Marianne has not seen her ex-husband in 30 years when she impulsively seeks out the reclusive, caustic Johan, now 86, at his country home. But "Saraband" isn't really a sequel to the earlier film. Marianne becomes a witness to the family crisis that erupts after her arrival. This involves Henrik (Borje Ahlstedt), Johan's 61-year-old son from...
  • IS ANYBODY MAKING MOVIES WE'LL ACTUALLY WATCH IN 50 YEARS?

    She was "America's sweetheart." For 10 years in a row she appeared on the list of the top-10 Hollywood stars, and in 1943 she was the most popular star in the world, her pinup a keepsake accompanying American soldiers to war. But when was the last time you saw a Betty Grable movie? Can you, in fact, think of the name of a Betty Grable movie?Stardom is as unstable as an atom. Exposed to time, it mutates. If your name is Grable, it can be as ephemeral as a passing fashion. If your name is Gable, it's as permanent as marble. After the headlines and the gossip fade, there are only the movies you've left behind to argue your case. But which ones will last is not so easy to predict. Could anyone have guessed, when a transplanted working-class Brit started his career in light '30s comedies such as "Topper," that Cary Grant would leave more lasting movies behind than any other actor in history? His films weren't the prestige items that won best picture or earned him any acting prizes (those...
  • WITCHY WOMAN

    Instead of doing a straight- ahead remake of the popular ' 60s TV show "Bewitched," Nora Ephron came up with an ingenious spin: she's made a movie about other people making a new TV series of "Bewitched." The twist is, the producers unwittingly hire an actual witch to take the role of the nose-wiggling Samantha, the part originally played by Elizabeth Montgomery.Isabel (Nicole Kidman), the witch in question, has never acted in her life, which is just fine with her leading man, Jack Wyatt (Will Ferrell), a vain, down-on-his-luck movie star who hopes to resurrect his flagging career with the show, and wants all the close-ups. Isabel, on the other hand, is tired of getting anything or anybody she wants with a snap of the fingers. She wants to be needed for herself, without using magic, and she's naive enough to believe Jack's interest in her is genuine.This pop-Pirandellian concept, written by Ephron with her sister Delia, yields some healthy laughs. The comedy works best on the set of...
  • REVIEW: THIS MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR WILL SPIRIT YOU

    I can't imagine anyone who saw "Spirited Away"--the most wondrous and mysterious of animated films--wanting to miss "Howl's Moving Castle." Hayao Miyazaki seems to be one of those artists (and there aren't many) who just can't fail to make magic. His latest, which he freely adapted from a novel by Diana Wynne Jones, concerns an 18-year-old girl, Sophie (voiced by Emily Mortimer), who is transformed into a stooped 90-year-old (Jean Simmons) when the enormous, jealous and overdressed Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall) casts a spell on her. The witch once lost her heart to the vain, gorgeous and inscrutable wizard Howl (Christian Bale), who lives in that mobile, four-legged castle.I won't even try to describe the plot, which in characteristic Miyazaki fashion flies off in one unexpected direction after another. It involves Sophie's quest to break her spell, a war, a fire demon (a funny but distractingly familiar Billy Crystal) and questions of the heart. Miyazaki does not play by the...
  • SNAP JUDGMENT: MOVIES

    My Summer of Love Directed by Pawel PawlikowskiOn a sweltering Yorkshire day, two girls, one on horseback and the other pushing her scooter, meet in a field. Working-class Mona (Natalie Press), who lives above a pub with her born-again, ex-con brother Phil (Paddy Considine), is lonely, impulsive, smart but rough around the edges. The haughty, self-dramatizing Tamsin (Emily Blunt) is spending the summer in her family's Tudor manor. In Pawlikowski's seductive, quietly spellbinding "My Summer of Love," these two needy girls lose themselves in a love affair that has more to do with faith and yearning than reality. Press and Blunt are major discoveries: in this sly and wonderfully atmospheric gem, they conjure up the role-playing raptures of youth with perfect poetic pitch.