Year Director Running Time MPAA Rating Title Comments
2003 Michael Rymer 182 TV-14 Battlestar Galactica This is the TV movie that launched the new version of the 1970s TV series of the same name. Beyond the more serious tone of this version of the story, the superior acting and special effects, the main thing that sets this apart from the original is the insidious plot twist of introducing Cylons who are indistinguishable from humans. And just in case you don’t know, the original Cylons were mechanical robots. This is an excellent sci-fi movie very well written. The use of hand-held camera work gives it a documentary feel at times, which was intentional. Edward James Olmos stars in the "Commander Adama" role.
1950 William A. Seiter 88 NR Borderline A rather lame crime drama staring Fred MacMurray, Claire Trevor and Raymond Burr. Don’t waste your time.
1952 Hal Walker 91 NR Road to Bali A very bad movie starring Bing Crosby and Bob Hope.
2004 Clint Eastwood 132 PG-13 Million Dollar Baby Although I don’t approve of boxing as a sport, I did like “Rocky” (1976). And while this movie is a good drama with fine acting, the story is 180 degrees from “Rocky.” This is a heartbreaking drama about a crusty old boxing coach (Clint Eastwood) who reluctantly takes on the role of trainer for a 31 year old woman whose only ambition in life is to win a boxing title. Hopefully that clarifies the nature of this film without giving away too much. I went into it knowing very little and was quite surprised by the turn of events. This is for people who appreciate a good heart-felt drama, no matter how it turns out, but I have to admit that the nature of the story did not inspire me to want to see it again. Also I wanted to mention Morgan Freeman’s naration. I thought it was used to good effect in “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994) but in this movie it seemed intrusive. A few scenes may be a bit too graphic for some.
2003 Siddiq Barmak 83 PG-13 Osama A very good drama based on a true story. In Afghanistan, a young girl and her mother are left with no male family members to support them yet the Taliban won’t let females go out on their own. Desperate to circumvent these Taliban restrictions in order to get work, the mother disguises the girl as a boy, renaming her/him, “Osama.” The girl must now try to avoid discovery of her deception. The actors are all amateurs recruited in Afghanistan and they do a very good job.
2005 Robert Rodriguez + Frank Miller + Quentin Tarantino 124 R Sin City An exciting return to “Film Noir” with modern touches. However I must advise that there is very strong violence plus nudity and sex. If you don’t want to see beheadings and yellow blood, stay away. As a matter of fact, some of the violence is so extreme that they switch to inverse silhouette images for those moments. But if you can handle that you will probably enjoy this set of three stories which overlap in time and place. Filmed in black & white with occasional use of color for selected characters. The most impressive performance was Mickey Rourke as “Marv” the big tough guy with a heart. Sort of reminded me of Ron Perlman’s portrayal of “Hellboy” (2004).
2004 Paul Haggis 112 R Crash This “Crash” is the 2004 film by director Paul Haggis. It is an excellent urban drama. One of those films where several concurrent storylines gradually start to intersect in very interesting ways. It examines some very disturbing social realities in a powerful way. Matt Dillon does an outstanding job of making you cringe at his racism. Many other good performances as well, though I’d say that Sandra Bullock’s role did not suit her.
2005 George Lucas 140 PG-13 Star Wars III Revenge of the Sith You waited 28 years to find out how Darth Vader became what he was in the first-released “Episode IV” of the Star Wars film series. Now Episode III, the last to be filmed, closes the circle. To date I have only seen the six films in the order they were released, so some time I’ll have to do a marathon and watch them in the correct story line sequence. In a way this film is an anticlimax because if you’ve seen the original three movies you know where the plot of this episode must go. The opening space battle sequence is a visual spectacular. So much detail and movement that you almost feel dizzy with its realistic imagery. Very nicely ends with all the characters properly positioned for a seamless transition to the original trilogy.
2004 Stephen Chow 99 R Kung Fu Hustle Chinese: “Gong fu.” This is a crazy comedy built around kung fu action and cartoon-like special effects. In this town, the local “Axe Gang” are feared even by the police. Two young men, not too bright, want to prove themselves worthy of membership. They decide to play tough with the residents of a downtrodden apartment complex known as “Pig Sty Alley.” What they don’t realize is that several “retired” kung fu masters are living there who are all still in top form and manage to defend their little community in a series of fantastic kung fu brawls, enhanced wildly by special effects. When even the “Axe Gang” is embarrased by defeat they hire other martial arts specialists to fight back and this raises the intensity of the conflicts to another level. It’s a very simple story so it is really all about the action and the humor. There is a bit of fairly brutal violence during the opening of the film, and at first I was worried that the whole movie would be like that but that tone was quickly replaced by your basic good vs. evil fight scenes leaning more towards comedy than brutality, though still with the occasional “edge” to it.
2004 Walter Salles 126 R The Motorcycle Diaries Spanish: “Diarios de motocicleta.” True story based on the life of Ernesto Guevara, before he became “Che Guevara”, focusing on a motorcycle trip he took with a friend across South America. Very good. Better than “Sideways.”
2005 Ron Howard 144 PG-13 Cinderella Man Another excellent film from Ron Howard. Russell Crowe plays an out of work boxer who makes a surprising come back. There is an excellent supporting role by Paul Giamatti. A great underdog story. Although I don’t approve of boxing as a sport (I keep saying that don’t I) the combination of the fight choreography and the editing of the fight footage makes a very impressive visual effect, especially on the big screen.
2005 Christopher Nolan 140 PG-13 Batman Begins Probably the best “Batman” movie of them all. Definitely better than your average superhero movie. Incredibly dense with action. Wait till you see the “Batmobile” in this one! It is very different in tone from the 1989 “Batman” by Tim Burton, more serious, I guess you’d say.
2005 Steven Spielberg 116 PG-13 War of the Worlds Steven Spielberg has gone back to H.G. Wells’ original novel rather than the 1953 movie for his inspiration in this action-packed story of an alien attack on Earth. As an example, the design of the aliens’ “tripod” machines is Wells’ original vision. The aliens are much scarier and more deadly than in the earlier film, thanks in part to the first-rate special effects. In a theater with a good sound system the klaxon horn sound from their machines is quite startling. Tom Cruise stars as a father trying to escape the devastation with his children. Unfortunately this family angle was probably the weakest part of the film. It was quite entertaining most of the time and occasionally downright terrifying, but in some ways it was just another disaster movie. Interestingly, this version did not make any direct suggestion that the aliens came from Mars.
2005 Luc Jacquet 80 G March of the Penguins Originally produced in French as “La Marche de l'empereur.” The USA version is in English, with Morgan Freeman narrating. Basically a National Geographic special about the Emperor Penguin in Antarctica. It shows the complete annual cycle of how they find the same mating grounds every year and raise their young in the most dangerous climate on earth. It is a wonder the species has survived at all. This truly is survival of the fittest. Filmed on location under what were obviously very difficult conditions. Extra footage during the end credits gives a brief look at the filmmakers in action. If you like nature programs on PBS I’m sure you will like this.
1998 Deepa Mehta 101 NR Earth There are several films titled “Earth”; this is the one from India by director Deepa Mehta. It is based on Bapsi Sidhwa’s novel, “Cracking India” (originally published as “Ice-Candy-Man”). It tells the story of the violent break up of India when British rule ended in 1947, as told from the perspective of a young Parsee girl in Lahore (which became part of Pakistan). Although this is not typical of me, I did in this case read the book, and did so before watching the film. The book is quite shocking and disturbing, both in terms of the horrors it describes as well as the frank dialog coming from the characters. I guess you could say it is loaded with culture shock as well. But after the book I have to say the movie was a disappointment. While there is almost nothing in the film that isn’t in the book, I can’t say the same for the reverse. The film is a mere shell of the book. Important characters are left out and it compresses a four year tale down to what seems like a few weeks. If you’re looking for something really different to read, I recommend the book, but you can probably skip the film, or at least, see it first.
2004 Bill Condon 118 R Kinsey Based on the life of Alfred Kinsey, the “sex doctor,” who attempted to scientifically study the sexual behavior of humans. Liam Neeson stars and Laura Linney plays his wife. Both turn in very good performances, and John Lithgow gives a noteworthy performance as Kinsey’s father. While other R-rated films exhibit more skin, you have probably never seen a film which contains so much frank discussion about sex. The result is a movie that will put almost everyone ill at ease at least occasionally. It just goes to show that even today most of us are not ready for the kind of openness that Kinsey promoted. It’s a good story but be prepared to be offended or shocked by any number of explicitly discussed or graphically portrayed subjects.
2002 Spike Lee 134 R 25th Hour Edward Norton stars in a gritty drama about a drug dealer who is caught and sentenced to seven years in prison. The majority of the film then is his “25th hour,” his last day and night before entering prison, spending one last night out with his friends. He ponders how he got to this point and wonders how he will survive in prison, knowing that even if he does, he won’t be the same person. It is very much a conversation drama rather than action. And although there is an air of depression about the central character’s situation, the story manages to draw you out of that feeling by the end. I must admit (and I offer this as advice for viewing this film) that I was totally misdirected by the way the director (Spike Lee) interlaced “present time” and flashback scenes. It was only by listening to the director’s commentary with a second viewing of the DVD, that I discovered my error. Lee explained that he deliberately avoided the traditional clues that a given scene is a flashback, assuming that audiences these days don’t need that anymore. Well, I guess I still need that because I definitely mistook some of the flashbacks for “present time” and therefore misunderstood the true sequence of events. Good acting by Norton and a strong supporting cast. Lots of 4-letter words.
2005 David Dobkin 119 R Wedding Crashers Hilarious comedy about two young lawyers whose “hobby” is crashing weddings on a regular basis. They have it down to a science. They win the girls for a night and move on the the next wedding. But when they crash the wedding of the daughter of the Secretary of the Treasury (Christopher Walken) one of them (Owen Wilson) falls for one of the Secretary’s other daughters, and the third daughter latches on to the other lawyer (Vince Vaughn) and won’t let go (a “stage three clinger”). Some of the humor is a bit crude but in general it is just a laugh out loud riot. Note that this review is based on the original R-rated version shown in theaters. The DVD includes the original and an “unrated” version which just adds more nudity and some extra footage but nothing that could not still qualify as ‘R’ (just more of it).
2005 Andy Tennant 118 PG-13 Hitch A great comedy starring Will Smith as Alex Hitchens, the “Date Doctor.” He helps his clients make the right moves to successfully court the woman of their dreams. The main focus of the story is one particular client who is a first class klutz and proves to be quite a challenge for Hitch. At the same time, Hitch meets a woman he likes but is afraid to reveal his true occupation, which of course leads to trouble.
2004 Tony Scott 146 R Man on Fire Denzel Washington stars in this thrilling kidnapping story, set in Mexico. Dakota Fanning plays the adorable kid. Very violent including scenes of torture. Inspired by real events in both Mexico and Italy and is also a remake of a 1987 French-Italian film of the same name. It has been reported that during the first week of filming there were 24 actual kidnappings in Mexico City.
2003 Andrey Zvyagintsev 106 NR The Return Russian: “Vozvrashcheniye.” A haunting story of two young brothers in Russia who one day find that their father has returned from a 12 year absence. He takes them on a fishing trip that takes some unusual turns. The younger boy who has never really known his father doesn’t trust his motives and even refuses to call him Dad. I won’t give away the ending, but I will say that a number of interesting questions remain unanswered when the credits roll. This is the director’s first feature film after making only commercials and I’d say it is a very good start. The actor who plays the younger brother bears a striking resemblance to Haley Joel Osment (”The Sixth Sense”) and performed very well. If you are confused by the fact that the younger brother is only referred to as "Vanya" in the film (at least in the subtitles), but "Ivan" in the credits, I have since learned that "Vanya" is a nickname for "Ivan" though generally reserved for children.
2005 George Clooney 93 PG Good Night, and Good Luck. This film is rather dry (because its focus is so narrow) but is short and to the point. Edward R. Morrow used his position at CBS News in the 1950s to confront Senator Joseph R. McCarthy’s assault on the civil rights of alleged communist sympathizers. The filmmakers did a good job of recreating the look and feel of 1953 (right down to the black & white photography). And then there is the smoking. Today, movies and TV show so few people smoking that it was actually a distraction in this film to see so many people smoking so pervasively.
2004 Omar Naïm 94 PG-13 The Final Cut Interesting science fiction drama that examines the dark side of a technology that would record your entire life (as you saw it), to be edited down to a 90-minute “rememory” video for your grieving survivors. Robin Williams plays a “cutter” - a man whose job it is to edit these life-long recordings to produce the presentation video. While editing one particular man’s life, he spots a familiar face that brings back a horrible childhood memory. Williams has not done very well in these serious dramatic roles and although I found this film to be more enjoyable than “One Hour Photo” (2002), he did not create a strong character here. I must admit that I had previously fantacized about having a device that could record everything you see (and hear), but after seeing this movie, I would definitely recommend a user-controlled On/Off switch! Not a great movie but an interesting, if controversial, concept. Think carefully about the very last shot. At first I thought it was a technical error but later learned that this apparent violation of the “rules” of this movie, was intentional.
2004 Hirokazu Kore-eda 141 PG-13 Nobody Knows Japanese: “Dare mo shiranai.” Inspired by a true story from Tokyo, but the real incident was even more tragic: “Affair of the Four Abandoned Children of Nishi-Sugamo” (published in 1988). A quietly shocking and heartbreaking story about some children who were truly “home alone” most of the time. The children have different fathers but the same mother. Excellent. Subtitles only.
1998 Chen Kaige 161 R The Emperor and the Assassin Chinese: “Jing ke ci qin wang.” The story of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, it is based on the same historical events as Zhang Yimou’s 2002 film, “Hero,” but here director Chen Kaige has attempted to be more historically accurate while still taking liberties such as adding fictional characters and events. The costumes at least do match paintings from that period. The trouble with early written histories of Chinese emperors is that often they were written by members of the succeeding dynasty and thus quite biased. Here the emperor is revealed to be quite brutal, not letting the slightest bit of sentimentality get in his way. As told here, he is trying to unify the seven separate kingdoms of China in the 3rd century B.C. Looking for an excuse to attack one of these kingdoms he plots to have an assassin found there who will come after him. This is the emperor who had those thousands of terra cotta warriors made to guard his tomb. He is also credited with construction of an early version of the Great Wall. It is beautifully filmed and has many memorable (and sometimes shocking) scenes. Some of it was clearly filmed in very cold weather revealed by the visible breath of the actors.
2005 Andrew Adamson 140 PG The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe While the special effects were very impressive in this famous children's story, I was not so impressed with the story itself.
2002 Chris Wedge 81 PG Ice Age A wonderful animated feature set in Earth’s Ice Age. An unlikely trio of mammals: a mammoth, a sloth and a sabre-toothed tiger, combine forces to return a lost human baby to it’s tribe. The mammoth is voiced by Ray Romano, so when you hear him you might be reminded of “Raymond Barone” from his TV series. The sloth is a creature that still exists but the other two are extinct and the story also features other extinct animals such as the dodo birds, which is quite a funny sequence. The animation quality is first-rate and the story combines humor and real drama.
2005 Dean Parisot 90 PG-13 Fun With Dick and Jane A light comedy starring Jim Carrey and Téa Leoni. This is a remake of a 1977 film which starred Jane Fonda in the “Jane” role but the story has been updated to reflect the economic events of the last several years. My records show that I have seen the 1977 film but I have no memory of it whatsoever. The premise is basically the same: Dick and wife Jane run into financial difficulties and experiment with robbery as a new source of income. The new film has a lot of funny gags, some more successful than others but it does build to a pretty good conclusion.
2005 Rob Marshall 145 PG-13 Memoirs of a Geisha In 1929 a poor Japanese family sells their two young daughters as servants and one of them grows up to be a highly sought after Geisha. A lavish costume drama takes too long to tell a story that did not really appeal to me. The highly jealous Geishas were quite nasty to each other.
2003 Campbell Scott 111 PG-13 Off The Map This wonderfully original story is a quiet drama about an unconventional self-sufficient family living in the northern desert of New Mexico, near Taos. The father, played superbly by Sam Elliott, has been in a deep depression for months. One day an IRS agent named William Gibbs (Jim True-Frost) arrives, after hiking miles through the desert to find their remote home, to inform them they are delinquent on their taxes, even though their income is very small due to the use of barter. His arrival becomes a turning point for the family, which includes Joan Allen as Elliott’s wife and first-time child actress, Valentina de Angelis, as their 12-year old daughter. Gibbs is also deeply affected by his encounter with this family and ends up staying with them and takes up painting. Don’t let the word depression mislead you. This movie is full of surprising moments and a good sense of humor. If, after seeing the movie, you want to have a closer look at the paintings created by the “William Gibbs” character, you can see them at http://www.stanberning.com/pages/OTM/otm.html . Produced in 2002 and shown only at film festivals in 2003, it finally was distributed theatrically in March, 2005.