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.

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.

Escape From Tomorrow, a dystopian fantasy about a laid-off worker on the lam at Disney World, comes bloated with marketing bluster: The movie, as its PR people have been trumpeting for months, was shot guerrilla-style at Disney parks in Anaheim and Orlando.

Paving the way for a brand-new subgenre — the gay romantic thriller — the atmospheric neo-noir Out in the Dark tells of a Palestinian university student who seeks refuge from the homophobia of his traditionalist West Bank village in the more gay-friendly atmosphere of metropolitan Tel Aviv.

It was writer-director Nicole Holofcener's good fortune, and her bad luck, to have snagged James Gandolfini for Enough Said, her comedy about two imminent empty-nesters dipping their toes into fresh romantic waters. Given his untimely death, the film is likely to be remembered less for its own modest virtues than as a last chance to say a bittersweet farewell to its star.

For a while in Jamie Meltzer's mesmerizing documentary Informant, I wondered whether subject Brandon Darby, the lefty activist turned FBI informer, was being played by an actor.

But no: It's Darby, and he's a handsome fellow, with haunted eyes blazing out of a bone structure to die for, and with a Montgomery Clift dimple in his chin. Staring straight into the camera, he testifies with the intense calm of a messiah or a madman, which all too often comes to the same thing. Among other things, this powerfully confused man is a study in American extremity.

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.