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.

Overused and much misused, the word "provocative" has become a double-edged sword, especially when it's swung in the direction of independent cinema. At its best, the genuinely provocative film — off the top of my head, anything by Bunuel, Shaun of the Dead, Holy Motors -- shocks in order to expand our vision of the world it encompasses. At its most dispiriting, it's an exercise in cheap thrillage, designed to goose a presumptively stuffy bourgeois audience while positioning a director as some sort of iconoclast.

A massive explosion rocks a covered market, but Central London still looks mighty handsome in the British thriller Closed Circuit. So does the actress Rebecca Hall. Decked out in blacks, creams and grays, she and her city both are sleek, elegant and more than a little forbidding, even if they're softened by pockets of olde worlde soul.

"She's so pretty, she could be in any movie," a fan gushed after a screening of Joe Swanberg's Drinking Buddies. There's a lot more to Olivia Wilde than her feline loveliness, which, combined with a challenging stare that dares you to dismiss her as fluff, reminds me of a young Michelle Pfeiffer. But not much of that is allowed out to play in this strained comic drama about two young couples struggling to answer universal questions in particular ways.

The raucous comedy Austenland, in theaters this week, pokes fun at Americans' reverence for what they have been taught to see as a gracious British heritage — muslin, bonnets, tea time at the stately home with the blue-bloods, good manners.

As well it might. For most of the English 99-percenters I grew up with, heritage meant feet up in front of the telly, watching Top of the Pops.

Austenland, a clunky broadside aimed at the cult of Jane Austen, is worth seeing primarily for its end credits, a mix of pop oil and water so joyfully dippy it might have produced a stifled giggle even in Herself.

I Give It a Year is about what you'd expect from the warped mind of Dan Mazer — Sacha Baron Cohen's close collaborator on Da Ali G Show­, Borat and Bruno. Which is to say: a raucously funny comic romance that's deaf and blind to the blithe spirit of romantic comedy.

Returning from sleep-away camp, my teenage daughter, who'd hitherto declared reading a foreign pursuit, announced that she was now a "bookie." Ruthlessly suppressing my inner jig, I nodded casually and asked how this literary epiphany had come about. A cabin full of reader-girls, it seemed, had turned her on to Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson series. And so it came to pass that, over the next few weeks, my child holed up at the library and indulged a burgeoning obsession with Greek mythology.

Our Children, a quietly devastating Belgian domestic drama, opens with a shattered young woman on an IV drip. Then the action moves swiftly back to that same woman, radiantly in love and eager to tell Andre, the man her beloved calls father, that she's planning to marry his boy.

For the charming but skin-deep documentary When Comedy Went to School, filmmakers Mevlut Akkaya and Ron Frank gained enviable access to pioneer stars of Borscht Belt standup.

Jasmine, once a wealthy Manhattan socialite, comes to us a jabbering wreck in Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine. We meet her staggering off a plane in San Francisco to stay with her down-market sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins).

The bottom has fallen out of Jasmine's glamorous world, in which she oozed style and made the trains run on time for her husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin), a financier who gave lavishly to charity with others' money. The name Madoff never comes up, but Hal went to jail, Jasmine is left with mountains of debt, and it's not hard to do the math.

In Girl Most Likely, a likable but warmed-over comedy about rediscovering the nutso family you thought was holding you back, the gifted Kristen Wiig plays Imogene, a playwright on the skids after a brief sojourn into minor Manhattan celebrity.

"I don't mind putting something pleasant out into the world," said filmmaker Andrew Bujalski in a recent New York Magazine interview.

You don't hear that too often outside the sphere of general-audience entertainment, let alone from a writer-director widely credited with pioneering mumblecore, the slackerish mini-movement that never really was.

I'm So Excited! a less-than-exciting new romp from the great Pedro Almodovar, dusts off one of the hoariest plot tricks in the farceur's playbook: Trap a bunch of upstanding citizens in a confined space with no exit, and watch their ids — along with their secrets and lies — come out to play.

You might expect big action from a movie about the hijacking of a cargo ship by Somali pirates. But after a preliminary flurry of roughing-up, the Danish drama A Hijacking is mostly about the excruciating process of getting to "yes" when language is the least of the barriers between two very different mindsets.

Horrific and uplifting, the excellent documentary Call Me Kuchu is partly framed as a portrait of David Kato, Uganda's first openly gay man. An activist of enormous courage and persistence — against odds that make the U.S. fight for marriage equality seem like a cakewalk — Kato was a savvy political strategist, with wit, charm and joie de vivre to burn. And he loved a good party, with his friends in drag where possible. But he was terrified of sleeping alone on his farm.

After the killing of Osama bin Laden in May 2011, the soldiers of the paramilitary force JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command) who carried out the operation were lionized as national heroes.

They earned more ambivalent treatment in Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty. And according to Dirty Wars, a documentary based on a book by investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill, their shadowy outfit has pretty much taken over America's global war on terrorism — and in flagrantly unconstitutional ways, he claims.

In The East, a slightly batty, weirdly involving new thriller about corporate espionage and eco-terrorism, rising star Brit Marling (last seen as Richard Gere's daughter in the drama Arbitrage) plays Sarah, an ambitious young private intelligence operative and former FBI agent.

Driving home from a screening of the ravishing new Israeli film Fill the Void, I caught sight of a young man in full Hasidic garb, trying to coax his toddler son across a busy Los Angeles street. My first thought was, "He's a boy himself, barely old enough to be a father, and they both look so pale."

My second was, "I wonder what his life feels like?" This is the more open mindset that director Rama Burshtein asks from audiences going into her first feature, a love poem to the ultra-Orthodox world as seen from within.

Long a darling of the New York indie scene, Noah Baumbach came to filmmaking with a solid pedigree: His father is a film theorist and his mother was a movie critic at the Village Voice (where I've contributed myself).

What's left to know about Venus and Serena Williams? Probably not much that the tennis titans would be willing to share, given how heavily exposed they've been already, and how eager the press has been to wedge the sisters into ready-made narratives about race, celebrity and the daughters of a Svengali.

When a husband steps out on his wife while she's getting chemo, she's entitled to a weekend in the Mediterranean with Pierce Brosnan, right?

Right, but I believe he went there quite recently with Meryl Streep, did he not, albeit without the cancer? I didn't much care for Mamma Mia!, but the garish musical at least embraced its vulgarity with a full heart and a toe-tapping ABBA soundtrack. And now that I've seen Love Is All You Need, I'd settle for Streep doing the splits.

Like last year's fracking drama Promised Land, the new movie At Any Price is about farm people getting pushed around by corporations — except that there's no Matt Damon to rescue them, cleanse his soul and snag Rosemarie DeWitt in the bargain.

Among the semi-literate journals submitted by his high-school students, jaded French literature teacher Germain (Fabrice Luchini) is jazzed to find a rough diamond from a new pupil, Claude (Ernst Umhauer).

In weekly installments, the ingratiating but enigmatic teenager, who looks as though he just stepped out of a Pasolini movie, chronicles his efforts to insinuate himself into the family of one his classmates, an amiable but awkward underachiever named Rapha (Bastien Ughetto).

Responding to the death of Margaret Thatcher earlier this week, film director Ken Loach told The Guardian: "Mass unemployment, factory closures, communities destroyed — this is her legacy. She was a fighter, and her enemy was the British working class."

In 1981, avant-garde theater director Andre Gregory collaborated with his friend Wallace Shawn and French filmmaker Louis Malle on an oddball project they called My Dinner with Andre.

Now enshrined as a classic — and one of the most-lampooned films in the history of American cinema — the movie is a talky two-hander in which Gregory (or someone very like him) gassed away about his globe-trotting adventures in spiritual enlightenment, while Shawn (or someone very like him) listened in disbelief, then grew entranced.

If you want to tell a story, the professional tale-spinners say, make something happen.

That's true, but a happening can be defined as elastically as the teller needs it to be. Sometimes it's a shift in a character's inner landscape — a change in her responses to the common hurts and losses that she's lugged around from childhood — that moves us more than a third-act gunshot ever could.

Half an hour into Paul Weitz's new comedy, Admission, it dawned on me that I was watching an Americanized About a Boy -- which admittedly was also directed by Weitz. Both movies are adapted from other people's novels; both cobble together families out of the waifs and strays of modern life.

But where About a Boy was both funny and wise about urban alienation, Admission settles for skin deep.

A few weeks ago, I asked a class of college undergraduates what the 1960s meant to them.

"That flower-power thing?" one young man volunteered brightly.

The further we get from that misunderstood decade, the more the many strands of its rebelliousness get reduced to a pop-culture T-shirt slogan, a cartoon strip starring tie-dyed youth with stoned eyes and floor-mop hair.

I grew up on "Hava Nagila," and I'll admit it's not the catchiest of tunes. The ingenuous Hebrew lyrics ("Come! Let us rejoice and be happy!") don't wear well in our age of knowing irony and ennui.

Hip young Israelis wince at the very mention of the song, and for many Diaspora Jews, a few bars of the tune are all it takes to recall that excruciating moment late in a fancy wedding or bar mitzvah, when the band invites all remaining guests (tipsy uncles included) to kick up their heels — and then go home already.

It's hard to imagine an upside to the civil war now causing unspeakable suffering in Syria. But the conflict has turned out to be a break for the makers of Inescapable, a feverish political thriller written and directed by Ruba Nadda, a Canadian of Syrian origin whose last film was the languorous 2009 romance Cairo Time.

Pages