Ella Taylor

Ella Taylor is a freelance film critic, book reviewer and feature writer living in Los Angeles.

Born in Israel and raised in London, Taylor taught media studies at the University of Washington in Seattle; her book Prime Time Families: Television Culture in Post-War America was published by the University of California Press.

Taylor has written for Village Voice Media, the LA Weekly, The New York Times, Elle magazine and other publications, and was a regular contributor to KPCC-Los Angeles' weekly film-review show FilmWeek.

Many years ago I taught a course in the sociology of deviance to a class of fledgling Boston-Irish policemen. I enjoyed them enormously because they didn't write down everything I said and cough it back up on the test. A waggish friend called them "your heroic coplets."

Like his magnificent 1996 film Hamsun, Swedish director Jan Troell's latest bio-pic is a richly detailed portrait of a great man riddled with flaws and undone by adulation.

On the face of it, Torgny Segerstedt seems the very inverse of Knut Hamsun, the Norwegian writer revered, then reviled during World War II for his Nazi sympathies. Segerstedt, a former theologian turned high-living editor of a Gothenberg newspaper, made it his mission to put out the word about the threat posed by Hitler to his country, and to liberal democracy everywhere.

I was a college sophomore in London when Jan Palach, a shy young Czech student, set himself on fire in Prague's Wenceslas Square in January 1969. The British campus revolt was in full flow, but the images of Palach's burning body, and the mass silent vigils that followed his death a few days later, made me feel how puny were the stakes of our revolution next to the failed protest against Soviet occupation, following the Prague Spring, that triggered Palach's desperate final act.

Josh Boone's The Fault in Our Stars is the kind of careful, listless adaptation that makes a critic want to rave at length about the wonderful novel on which it's based.

Of all Disney heroines, Aurora, aka Sleeping Beauty, was the least inspiring. Not her fault: How much spark can you wring from a Forever Nap, especially one that's cut off by a kiss from a prince named after the Duke of Edinburgh?

No fewer than three comedies about finding love in midlife open this week, all of them shiny with major stars. Is it time to stop whining about the dearth of romantic comedy for mature audiences? Only if you prefer quantity to quality.

I teach in a film school, and if there's one genre I find it hard to get students on board for, it's classic melodrama. Perhaps because they've been reared on distancing irony and the suspension of belief, they misread the symphonies of pent-up emotion, the passionate address to questions of good and evil, of class, gender and race as phony.

By the time the Nazis got around to taking Hungary in 1944, the country was already fatally compromised by its economic alliance with Fascist Germany and Italy on the one hand, and a shaky pact with Stalin on the other. Imagining that its loyalty to a protective leader, Regent Horthy, would save them from the fate suffered by other European Jews, Hungary's highly assimilated Jewish community fell prey (along with the Regent himself) to the extreme right-wing Arrow Cross party.

Is an artist's life relevant to her reputation as an artist? Not so much, perhaps, but many of us want the bio anyway, especially when the artist in question is as tantalizingly elusive as Vivian Maier (or Mayer, or Meyer, as she variously spelled it to confound the curious), a reclusive Chicago nanny whose posthumously discovered trove of street photographs swelled into a cause celebre after her death in 2009.

Many years ago, the great and grumpy British TV writer Dennis Potter (The Singing Detective, Pennies From Heaven) rounded a corner in a prominent New York art museum and stood wondering whether the coiled thingy on the wall in front of him was a work of art or an emergency fire hose.

Feared and feared for in equal measure, today's teenagers are prisoners of pop and punditry. Branded as bad seeds or delicate flowers, they take shape in the public mind as either neglected or overprotected by their parents, abused by or abusive of the Internet, oversexed or terrified of sex. Is coming of age the pits, or what?

Unhinged by crises both monetary and amorous, a provincial Frenchwoman tells the employees at her restaurant, "I'll be back." Then she takes off in her ancient rattletrap with no escape plan beyond an illicit smoke and a drive to clear her addled head. Turns out she'll be gone a while.

Yes, there's a road movie in Bettie's cards. Yes, there will be formative ordeals. And yes, the payoff will be uplift, along with one of those toothsome al fresco country lunches where Mediterranean types wave their arms around and argue in friendly fashion.

Decades after the end of World War II, the partly burned body of a young woman was found in a wooded area near the Norwegian town of Bergen. Her possible connection to a long-simmering Norwegian scandal, one dating back to the war, became the subject of a novel by Hannelore Hippe — and, in turn, of Two Lives, a new thriller loosely based on that novel.

In the opening scene of Adult World, a modestly scaled comedy of the sort that littered the prime-time landscape before TV and film traded places, we meet Amy (Emma Roberts), a poet-yet-to-be with her head in a plastic bag. A poster of Sylvia Plath trembles with significance on her bedroom wall.

With a running time of more than nine hours, Claude Lanzmann's monumental 1985 documentary, Shoah, was never destined to become a mass audience draw. But this sober, taxing, utterly absorbing attempt to document the Holocaust grows ever more essential precisely as our collective memory is increasingly eroded by the reductive shorthand of emaciated bodies or piles of shoes discarded by concentration-camp inmates as they went to their terrible fate. For Lanzmann, understanding trumps empathy.

Long after many another serviceable movie premise has gone to its grave, the brief encounter will live and be well.

Talk about an unbeatable package: Nothing more urgently captures the disappointment of lives congealed by routine than does the sudden midlife romance; nothing so pointedly speaks to the undying desire for completion by another who understands and accepts us as no one else does; nothing so completely resounds with the fantasy of escape. And nothing so neatly contains all that unruly desire within the 11th-hour return to common sense and responsible self-sacrifice.

The Chilean matron at the heart of the wonderfully unsettling comedy Gloria looks like any ordinary woman confronting the familiar dilemmas of late middle age. For other reasons, though, you may feel as though you've met her before.

Knee-deep already in collective scrutiny of its painful World War II history, Germany wades in up to its own neck with a viscerally unsparing drama — originally a TV miniseries — set to screen in two parts in selected U.S. theaters.

Generation War tracks five jaunty young childhood friends as they prepare to scatter from a Berlin bar in 1941 to do their bit for the Thousand Year Reich. With Kristallnacht fresh in memory and Stalingrad looming, you'd think even these frisky young things might know better than to expect to reunite unscathed for Christmas.

What's a domestic melodrama without a mom to kill off, to sicken, to render monstrous or otherwise AWOL?

We are awash in war films, and why is it that nonfiction films such as Dirty Wars or Iraq in Fragments increasingly resort to the dramatizing techniques of narrative film, while fiction films strain toward procedure, as if to avoid the sticky business of interpretation altogether?

The Invisible Woman is slow to build — but worth its wait in gold. A little over halfway through, this terrific drama bears fiercely down on the steep cost of being two of the significant women in the gilded life of Charles Dickens.

I'll say this for Neil LaBute: The man sticks to his guns. Critics may carp about his sour vision of human nature, but he keeps plugging away at his micro-studies of the cruel struggle for interpersonal domination.

LaBute is a master of stagecraft, of course; I'm not sure why he works in film at all, other than to broaden his audience. Aside from the substantially more cinematic Nurse Betty, almost all of his movies are essentially stage plays, ably transposed to the screen but with minimal concession to the switch in medium.

"We tell ourselves stories in order to live."

That endlessly quoted line from Joan Didion's The White Album echoes with more than the usual resonance for the two adversaries duking it out for control over the movie adaptation of Mary Poppins in Saving Mr. Banks.

For 20 years Walt Disney, reportedly on his young daughters' say-so, had tried to wrestle a green light from P. L. Travers, who wrote the original novels about the discipline-minded governess who flew in through a London window to save a troubled family from itself.

It's hard to think of a social issue more certain to drive people into blinkered encampment than the question of sexual consent. There are times when "no means no" seems like an incomplete response to an enormously touchy problem — especially as it affects teenagers, a demographic not known for prudent lust management.

To many baffled outsiders over 40, Bikini Kill frontwoman Kathleen Hanna was a weirdo riot grrrl bopping up and down onstage in her bra and panties, bellowing atonal revenge lyrics at anyone who'd keep her and her fellow women down.

To her ardent young following of 1990s Third Wave feminists, though, Hanna was an alt Messiah, hacking out a space for women in the punk-rock mosh pit and sounding an enraged alarm on behalf of victims of sexual assault.

A tantalizing nugget lies half-buried in Mark Mori's engaging documentary about Bettie Page, the 1950s pinup who's inspired an endlessly self-renewing retro-cult of fans both male and female.

In the middle of a screening of Mary Harron's The Notorious Bettie Page, it seems, a voice was heard yelling "Lies! All lies!"

The ghost of Federico Fellini hovers wickedly over The Great Beauty, a fantastic journey around contemporary Rome and a riot of lush imagery juggling past and present, sacred and profane, gorgeous and grotesque.

"I didn't live a lot of lies. But I did live one big one. It's different, I guess. Maybe not."

So said disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong to filmmaker Alex Gibney early this year, just hours after he confessed to Oprah that he'd doped during his seven wins of the Tour de France.

Costa-Gavras' propulsive 1969 thriller Z, a thinly veiled account of the assassination of a Greek democratic politician by a military junta, shaped the political passions of many in my upstart generation. It also instilled in one impressionable young critic-to-be the conviction that the revolution would come packaged with the likes of Yves Montand as boyfriend material.

Other than a single shouted expletive toward the end of All Is Lost, the only words we hear from its central character — a sailor adrift alone on the Indian Ocean — come right at the beginning, in a note of apology to unknown recipients for unspecified sins.

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