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.

As Ugly Americans go, Manhattan corporate attorney Sam Chao (Daniel Henney) has a lot going for him. He's a handsome dude with perfectly symmetrical features, a toned bod we get to peek at all but naked, and facile charm to burn.

It took years for our fictions to consider the Holocaust narrative. And for an even longer time, a stunned silence hovered over the fate of "Hitler's children" — ordinary Germans during and after World War II. That embargo, too, is lifting, with a significant trickle of novels, movies and television dramas that imagine what it felt like to be the inheritors of the worst that humans can do to other humans.

In the decade since Israeli director Eytan Fox made Yossi & Jagger, the precursor to his sublimely tender new drama Yossi, Israel has undergone two significant changes. A tacit and active homophobia has given way, at least in the open cultural climate of Tel Aviv, to a matter-of-fact acceptance of gay rights. At the same time, Israeli cinema has bloomed, becoming a thriving international presence in just about every genre.

If Tolstoy was right about every unhappy family being unhappy in its own way, the cinema of domestic dysfunction will likely never die. But it has gotten awfully droopy, mired in familiar plotting, quasi-wise psychobabble, or — in the case of so many comedies — a knowing prankishness (I'm looking at you, Judd Apatow) that wearies the soul.

There isn't much to say about Struck by Lightning, except that it's one of those interchangeable teen movies that lands in theaters in early January, the morgue for films nobody knows what to do with. That it was released at all is likely due to the clout of Chris Colfer, who plays Kurt on Glee and who wrote the screenplay, along with a companion young adult novel, as a vehicle for what appears to be his own blossoming savior complex.

We know from the outset that there's a death coming in Michael Haneke's Amour, a magisterial study of mortality that carried off the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival — and currently tops best-picture lists all over the world. But when we first meet Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) and Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), retired Paris music teachers in their 80s, they're in the pink and enjoying a piano recital given by one of Anne's former pupils.

You might know Lizzy Caplan, eternal sidekick, as Jason Segel's girlfriend on television's Freaks and Geeks. Or as the struggling comedienne from Party Down, or the vampire vegan on True Blood, or from the movie The Bachelorette earlier this year?

It would take a heart of stone — or zero tolerance for soap — to resist Any Day Now, a full-throttle weepie about a West Hollywood gay couple trying to adopt a neglected boy with Down syndrome.

In Hyde Park on Hudson — a sly, modestly subversive dramedy about a crucial weekend meeting between England's King George VI and American President Franklin D. Roosevelt on the eve of World War II — the diffident young monarch (Samuel West) confides his frustration over his lifelong stutter while the two men enjoy a postprandial drink expressly forbidden by their womenfolk.

"Wrinklies," a widely accepted British term for elderly people, is by a generous margin more affectionate fun than the anodyne euphemisms we use here in the United States, where many of us fear crow's-feet almost as much as we do death. It's no accident that Americans have no equivalent term of endearment beyond the horribly neutered "senior citizen." Or that Hollywood movies mostly ignore the old — or consign them to the demeaning Siberia of crazy old coots (Jack Nicholson) or wacky broads (Jane Fonda, Betty White and so many more).

Ungracefully aging rockers have long been stock figures of fun at the movies, with Bill Nighy topping the burnout charts in Love, Actually. Lately, though, a slew of former rock kings have enjoyed fresh renown via documentaries like Anvil, The Other F-Word and the upcoming Beware of Mr. Baker, many of which chart a Christ-like saga of meteoric rise, catastrophic fall and painfully slow resurrection. That's if their shot livers don't kill them first.

When my nieces were small, I took them on a day trip to the Museum of the Moving Image on London's South Bank. We had fun touring a puckishly curated journey through the history of cinema, until my younger niece flushed the toilet in the noir-inflected bathroom — and set off the famous shrieking strings that amp up the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, creating the most terrifying moment in American cinema.

After he'd finished reading Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, did director Joe Wright scribble on the last page, "Needs more pep?"

Wright is, after all, the man who put the cute little ampersand in Pride & Prejudice and gave us a giggly Lizzie Bennet rendered by Keira Knightley. Knightley is back again in the title role as the Russian chick who loves and loses and throws herself under a train.

The Oscar race for best foreign-language film rarely comes without a helping of muslin-and-bonnet dramas stuffed with misbehaving royals, masked balls and burgeoning job opportunities for food stylists. As heritage cinema goes, however, the year's Academy Award entry from Denmark is a firecracker.

It's rare these days to see an old-fashioned, elegant chamber-piece movie about life and art — let alone one with Christopher Walken as, of all things, a steadying influence.

Disability biopics, especially the kind that bring audiences to their feet at Sundance, rarely have anywhere to carry us but on a linear journey from pity via empathy to tearful uplift.

Simon and the Oaks, a handsomely upholstered Swedish drama about two troubled families trying to survive World War II, is based on a runaway best-selling novel by Marianne Fredriksson. The film was made with money from several Scandinavian countries once occupied by the Nazis, as well as from Germany itself. It won a truckload of Swedish Oscars, and in the accolades heaped upon the movie, the word "epic" is thrown around with abandon.

Not counting Twilight, Emily Bronte's 1847 novel, Wuthering Heights, has been plundered, adapted and remade to death, including, it's not commonly known, by Luis Bunuel and Jacques Rivette. Most people know the book through movies, television miniseries, or even from the hilarious Monty Python semaphore version.

Dang if Home for the Holidays season hasn't rolled around again — that jolly time of year when screenwriters dust off childhood memories of mildly distressed families and distress them further for our sentimental education. Yet if it seems a little early-autumn yet for that sort of thing, please welcome a surprisingly superior specimen of the genre, courtesy of the best indie ensemble money can buy.

Among the many remedies we have flung at our foundering inner-city schools is a force we have reckoned without: Maggie Gyllenhaal, raising hell in the feistily titled Won't Back Down as a harried single mother eking out a living selling cars in a proletarian city, nobly represented under lowering skies by Pittsburgh.

The idea for 17 Girls, a woozy fever dream about a bunch of French provincial high-school girls who make a pact to get pregnant together, came from a similar, well-publicized 2008 event in Gloucester, Mass.

Late in How to Survive a Plague, a fair-minded, careful history of the AIDS-activist movement ACT UP, comes an affecting montage that bears witness to the triumph and the tragedy of the New York-based group's radical crusade — a push to get affordable treatment for a disease that, at its peak in the late 1980s, was killing millions worldwide.

Overheard after a screening of The Master:

"So I guess this is an unfinished print?"

"Nope. This is the one they're rolling out."

And it's true that there are moments, especially toward the end of its meandering 137 minutes, when The Master feels like a series of brainy but disconnected thoughts about 20th-century America. That's how writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson works, and for those who don't insist on coherence or closure in narrative any more than they do in life, it's part of the thrilling madness of his method.

Bradley Cooper has the wolfish grin and raffish charm of a cardsharp — or a baby hedge-fund manager. So at first you may find him a tough sell as a writer of prose so sensitive and "interior" that even an admiring old-school editor tells him it's unpublishable.

Hold on, though. The writer has moral flaws, and a name, Rory Jansen, that's better suited to a designer of racy swimwear than a crafter of lambent sentences about the inner workings of the psyche.

In Girl Model, an alarming documentary about the trafficking of Russian child models to the Japanese fashion market, a garrulous modeling agent explains his philosophy: To expiate his own past bad behavior, he says with papal solemnity, he approaches model recruitment as a religious calling, not to mention a fatherly responsibility to do right by the girls, give them a better life than they have now and protect them from harm.

Hot topic du jour, discuss: Do women rule the world?

First the girls took over the schools, with their stellar grades and all. Then they got the lion's share of the jobs. (Not quite true, but the claim generates Web punditry by the ton.)

Of the roughly 80,000 Chinese children adopted in the United States since 1979, almost all are girls, abandoned at birth by their parents because of China's one-child policy, coupled with inheritance laws that favor boys.

Set in contemporary Denmark and in Thailand, Mads Matthiesen's Teddy Bear is a sweetly muted domestic drama struggling to contain a fierce and ancient folk tale.

The hero, Dennis — a 300-pound bodybuilder with a lovable touch of Shrek — has an absent father and a tiny witch of a mother whose parenting is a twisted cocktail of dominatrix and coquette. (If your mother conducted bathroom business with you alongside at age 38, you'd have issues too.)

What's an American family these days? Many different things, but while television — a domestic medium to its marrow — has an affectionate finger on the pulse of the changing modern family, movies often seem stuck in a sorry dysfunction held over from the late 1960s, when we awoke to find that jolly Beaver Cleaver had morphed into miserable Benjamin Braddock, and while Mrs. Robinson tippled discreetly in the bedroom, Father, far from knowing best, went clueless or missing.

Late in The Green Wave, a soulful look back at the brief 2009 people's movement for democratic elections in Iran, a former United Nations prosecutor and human rights activist observes that the protest, despite being brutally quelled by the forces of President Ahmadinejad, was "a tidal wave" that would sweep through the Middle East.

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