David Ansen

Stories by David Ansen

  • 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.
  • 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...
  • 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...
  • 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...
  • 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...