Year Director Running Time MPAA Rating Title Comments
2008 Mark Herman 94 PG-13 The Boy In The Striped Pajamas An excellent film based on the novel by John Boyne. It has a heartbreaking finish that you won’t easily forget. This story is a new twist on the subject of the Holocaust. A Nazi officer relocates his family to be near his new assignment at a concentration camp, a detail not imparted to his children. His son discovers the camp (thinking it is a farm) and makes friends through the electric fence with a boy of the same age. That’s as much as I dare reveal. It definitely creates an interesting emotional conflict for the viewer, faced with disdain for the Nazi father but compassion for the family. Wonderful performance by Asa Butterfield as the 8-year-old Bruno.
2008 David Frankel 120 PG Marley & Me A fairly routine family picture that follows the entire life of a dog named Marley and the family that suffers through his unrestrained behavior. Every conceivable type of mischief that a dog could perpetrate is included, making for a rather predictable story. Owen Wilson (not one of my favorites) plays the father in this family and Jennifer Aniston (one of my favorites) plays his wife. I couldn’t believe it when I saw the massively overweight Kathleen Turner as the dog trainer. I found the attention to Wilson’s career as a newspaper columnist to be rather boring. Even placing Alan Arkin as his boss didn’t help much. I’m sure that dog owners may find greater empathy here but I can’t imagine putting up with a dog like that (or not trying harder to train it). It winds up with a very heartfelt ending but other than that I was not particularly impressed. I said it is a “family picture” but I must admit that some of the events in this movie may be confusing or troubling to younger children.
2008 John Patrick Shanley 104 PG-13 Doubt Excellent drama starring Meryl Streep as the very self-righteous principal of a Catholic school in the Bronx in 1964. Without any concrete evidence she makes serious accusations about the priest’s association with the school’s only black student. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Father Brendan Flynn. Many great scenes between Streep and Hoffman. They get into some shouting matches that are a bit overdone but not enough to spoil the whole movie.
2006 Richard Eyre 92 R Notes on a Scandal I almost gave up on this during the first half, because of the heavy doses of personal “girl talk” between the two female leads, Dame Judi Dench (as ‘Barbara’) and Kate Blanchett (as ‘Sheba’). But I have to tell you that there comes a very definite turning point when suddenly you realize that this is the sort of psychological thriller that Hitchcock might have made if he were still alive. Dench and Blanchett are both teachers at a London public school, Dench being the old battle-axe nearing retirement and Blanchett is the newest member of the teaching staff. Dench attempts to develop a friendship with Blanchett but is stunned when she accidentally witnesses a sexual encounter between Blanchett and a 15-year old student. What she does with this knowledge and how it affects her relationship with Blanchett is the core of the movie, rather than the actual “scandal” itself. In Hitchcockian terms, the illicit affair is the “MacGuffin.” While we’ve all read about these teacher-student affairs in the news, it is still a little shocking to see it played out so sensually on the screen. Disturbing is another word that comes to mind. Fans of Dench will no doubt be surprised at this much darker character than any she has played before, but she proves equally worthy here as in previous roles.
2008 David Fincher 166 PG-13 The Curious Case of Benjamin Button This movie is loosely based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald but unfortunately this is not a short movie. If the screenwriter had been constrained to tell this tale in 90 minutes it might have been more interesting. As it is, the roughly 80-year life of Mr. Button spans nearly three hours, but does not contain three hours of entertainment. The unusual premise is that Benjamin is born a normal-sized infant but with the wrinkles and infirmities of an old man (by contrast, in Fitzgerald’s story the “baby” was a full-sized old man). His mother dies after giving birth and the father is so shocked by the baby’s appearance he abandons him on the steps of an old-folks home run by a black family. Benjamin grows to adult size but starts to grow young in appearance, eventually ending life once again as a tiny infant. Seven actors are credited with filling this role though there was at least one toddler and an infant also used but not listed. The longest segment of his life is played by Brad Pitt who first appears in old man makeup and continues until he appears as young as seems believable for his size. The whole story is told in flashback by a woman who reads his diary (which, curiously, you never see him writing). I didn’t find his life all that interesting and his relationship with the woman he eventually marries (also played by multiple actors but principally by Cate Blanchett) was a continual disappointment.
2008 Bryan Singer 120 PG-13 Valkyrie On July 20, 1944, Claus von Stauffenberg attempted to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Even if, like myself, you were unaware that this attempt on his life actually took place, you no doubt realize that no such attempt was successful, given that Hitler's actual cause of death was suicide. From what little reading I did, this film appears to be a fairly accurate account of von Stauffenberg's actions. In the film he is portrayed by Tom Cruise, who bears a remarkable resemblance to a bronze bust of von Stauffenberg. It is a well paced account of the events and maintains one's attention for the full two hours. Cruise’s performance is good but certainly not the highlight of the film, as there are many supporting actors contributing more to the whole. The role of Hitler was very subdued, especially when compared to “Downfall” (2004), but in this case Hitler was merely the object of the conspiracy, not the main subject of the film. It makes for a good history lesson and will no doubt appeal to WW-II buffs, but I did not find it as compelling as “Downfall” (which admittedly set the bar very high). It does contain some war violence, including suicides, but nothing extreme. Although this is an English language film, the first few minutes are in German with subtitles.
2008 Clint Eastwood 116 R Gran Torino If you like Clint Eastwood you will love this. However, if you are especially sensitive to the use of ethnic and racial slurs, you may have a different opinion. I do think though that the way this was handled in the film, when taken in context, fits the profile of these characters and their story. The dialogue is often quite funny in spite of this and while such verbal sparring may be inappropriate and insensitive in more civilized circles, I found this film very entertaining and certainly not an endorsement of such behavior. Eastwood’s character is an old Korean War veteran who’s wife has just died, leaving him living alone in a rough neighborhood with his dog and his 1972 Gran Torino (in mint condition). His next door neighbors are a Hmong family and their shy son is being harassed to join a local gang which happens to include his cousin. This gang is causing a lot of trouble and Eastwood scares them away with his rifle. The Hmong are very grateful but Eastwood just wants to be left alone, though eventually he warms up to them and ends up helping them in other ways. The rest of the story deals with his ongoing interactions with the Hmong, the gang and a young priest who promised Eastwood’s late wife that he would look after him. The on-screen violence is limited to shootings and fist fights. One of the best movies of 2008.
2008 Peyton Reed 104 PG-13 Yes Man I would have to say I only half liked this, because the first half wasn’t as funny as the last. Jim Carrey is Carl Allen, a loan officer at a bank. He not only says no to all his loan applicants but to most other things that come his way in life. But when he attends a motivational seminar, he is inspired to try saying “yes” to everything, no matter what. But he is warned that any time he breaks this “covenant” by saying “no,” bad things will happen. As soon as he leaves the seminar, a homeless man asks him for a lift. He has to say “yes” and thus begins a strange sequence of events which has him trying everything from learning Korean to taking flying lessons. But he also finds a girlfriend (Zooey Deschanel) whom he never would have met otherwise. Ultimately his yes-saying pays off in other ways as well in a sort of “what goes around comes around” type of thing. So it is a mixed bag of some very hilarious moments and some not so funny moments. Supposedly this story is based on a man who actually tried saying “yes” for six months and wrote a book about it.
2008 Danny Boyle + Loveleen Tandan 120 R Slumdog Millionaire A truly captivating story set in present-day India. Based on the novel, “Q & A,” by Vikas Swarup, it tells the story of a young man, Jamal (Dev Patel) in Mumbai, who won the maximum prize (20 million rupees) on the Indian version of the TV game show, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” The key story element around which the film was constructed, is that during the show, his success was questioned as a possible fraud and he was arrested and tortured, in an effort to determine how this poorest of the poor orphan could possibly have known the answers to all the questions. As part of the interrogation session, the film gives us flashbacks to his childhood, revealing the unique events which, serendipitously, gave him the answers. And the third story element is Jamal’s appearance on the game show. Filmed in India amidst the poverty and squalor with nothing left to the imagination, it is at times shocking, funny, sad and uplifting. Although most of the dialogue is in English, some scenes do use native language with subtitles. But some of the English is heavily accented, making me wish all the dialogue had been subtitled. Perhaps when it comes out on DVD, I will watch it with closed-captioning turned on. Highly recommended.
2008 Ron Howard 122 R Frost/Nixon Frank Langella’s portrayal of Richard Nixon is reason enough to see this film. It easily could have been a clownish portrayal but this was intelligent and witty. I can’t say as much for Michael Sheen’s interpretation of David Frost, but that is mostly because I have a poor recollection of what the real David Frost was like in his heyday. This film is based on the play of the same name by Peter Morgan, who also wrote the screenplay. It shows us the behind-the-scenes view of the production of Frost’s 1977 interview with former President Richard Nixon. I have no memory of ever seeing the interview on TV so the event was all new to me. The most entertaining scenes were always the ones featuring Langella. The scenes showing how Frost prepared for the interviews were less interesting. But overall I enjoyed it and found it quite funny at times.
2007 Marc Forster 128 PG-13 The Kite Runner Perhaps I’m overreacting, but there was one scene in this film that I found so disturbing that it was difficult to enjoy the rest of this otherwise very good movie. The scene depicts the rape of a young boy by a much older boy. As it turns out, it is not a gratuitous scene that was invented for the movie but was taken straight from the novel by Khaled Hosseini. Apparently it was intended to be symbolic of the “rape” of Afghanistan by the Soviets and the Taliban. I am also shocked that this film did not receive an ‘R’ rating in spite of such a scene. I certainly hope that any children who watch this will get Parental Guidance. The story starts with a present-day writer, Amir, living in California, but born in Afghanistan. Then we flash back to 1978 and see him as a young boy in Kabul. He and his best friend, Hassan, love to fly kites, and they participate in a local sport in which the objective is to use your kite to cut down other people’s kites. Hassan is the “kite runner” who chases after the falling kites. When the Soviets invade Afghanistan, Amir and his father escape, eventually reaching California. Years later Amir returns to Afghanistan to attempt to locate the son of his friend, Hassan. In order to give the film the look of Afghanistan, it was filmed in far western China where the landscape and indeed even the culture is very similar. The dialogue is only partly in English, so there are many scenes with subtitles.
2002 Neil Jordan 109 R The Good Thief Believe it or not there were two movies released in 2002 with this same title. This is the one starring Nick Nolte. It is an English-language remake of the 1956 French movie, "Bob le flambeur" (which I have not seen). It is a very good heist movie, set on the French Riviera, in Nice and Monte Carlo. Nolte plays Bob Montagnet who is a gambler, a drug addict, but most important, a thief with many prior convictions. He’d rather not go back to prison but now he has been asked to help plan a major casino robbery. He realizes that to have any chance of pulling this off he needs to kick his drug habit. It’s a fairly complicated plan which I won’t reveal but it is very interesting. There is also a major subplot involving a beautiful young girl from Bosnia (Nutsa Kukhianidze, who is herself from The Republic of Georgia). Bob sort of becomes her guardian angel, keeping the pimps at bay (she’s only 17, he’s about 61). This is a role that Nick Nolte was born to play. Very good music in the soundtrack.
1961 Alain Resnais 90 NR Last Year at Marienbad French: “L' Année dernière à Marienbad.” Difficult to describe as it is to watch, something of an experimental art film. The setting is a luxurious European spa, housed in a massive Baroque palace. Nearly 99% of the dialogue is heard in voice-over, spoken by the main character, ‘X’ (Giorgio Albertazzi). Most of the other guests at the spa stand around like mannequins most of the time. For at least the first five minutes or so, you sometimes hear ‘X’ speaking and sometimes brief snippets of conversations amongst other guests but the camera keeps moving and often it seems the voices are not those of the people you see. Eventually it settles in to a largely one-sided conversation between ‘X’ and a woman, ‘A’ (Delphine Seyrig). Another character, ‘M’ is often referred to as “maybe her husband.” ‘X’ insists that he met ‘A’ a year ago, possibly here or maybe at Marienbad. She denies it, but allows that perhaps he is recalling a dream, and in that case she has no objection to hearing the rest of his story. The scenes alternate between their conversation in the present and recreations of his recollections of their prior encounter. It is not always clear which is past and present (or dream and reality), though it often seemed that, in this black & white film, the ‘past’ scenes were usually shown with much lower contrast than the present, but I must admit that I am not sure that effect was used consistently or if it even was a problem with the copy of the film used to make the video (I watched a VHS tape version). It never becomes clear whether X’s story is true or not. Filmed at the Nymphenburg and Schleissheim palaces in Bavaria. Probably good for a film class, but otherwise not likely to appeal to the general public.
2009 David Grubin 113
The Trials of J. Robert Oppenheimer Fascinating biographical film about the career of atomic physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer (often referred to as the father of the atomic bomb). The principal focus of the film is the “trial” which, while never convicting him of any crime, resulted in the loss of his security clearance. It was the era of Communist paranoia and although the FBI conducted continuous surveillance of him for thirty years they were never able to demonstrate that he was a Communist or a spy for the Soviets. This was shown on TV as part of the PBS series, "The American Experience." Since the actual trial was not filmed, actor David Strathairn appears in a dramatic recreation of this event. Original footage of Oppenheimer is included for other events, along with interviews of people who knew or worked with him.
2003 Tsai Ming-Liang 82 NR Goodbye, Dragon Inn Taiwanese: “Bu san.” One of the most boring films ever. And there is so little dialogue, even if you turned off the subtitles you wouldn’t miss much. It is the story of the Fu-Ho Grand Theater, somewhere in Taiwan. This is the last night this theater will be open before it closes its doors for good. They are showing the 1966 film “Dragon Inn” (”Long men ke zhen”). “Goodbye, Dragon Inn” is a film where the camera never moves during a shot. And unlike most films, these shots are minutes long rather than seconds. Many times you will see absolutely nothing move for minutes at a time. You do see parts of the “Dragon Inn” movie that the handful of patrons are watching and in fact most of the dialogue heard comes from that movie’s soundtrack rather than from the people in the theater. You have to wait about 45 minutes before you hear anyone in the theater speak. That only lasts a few minutes and then nobody speaks again. “Dragon Inn” ends, everyone goes home and the theater door is locked up for the last time. To make it even more depressing, it is raining.
2005 Anand Tucker 106 R Shopgirl An intelligent romantic comedy, starring Steve Martin and Claire Danes. It has just the right amount of comic punctuation without being goofy or slapstick. Martin wrote the screenplay based on his own novella of the same title. Danes plays “Mirabelle,” a shy girl from Vermont who works as a clerk at Saks 5th Avenue in Los Angeles. At a Laundromat she meets a scruffy looking character, Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman), who is the epitome of “starving artist.” When Jeremy goes on a long out of town road trip with a band, she falls for a wealthy older man (Martin). Martin tries to convey to her that he only wants a casual relationship but he doesn’t do a very good job of it. Jeremy returns and now she has to choose. There is some nudity but otherwise I would call this a very mild “R” rating. It is a good story and Claire Danes was quite charming.
2008 Guillermo del Toro 120 PG-13 Hellboy II: The Golden Army The original “Hellboy” (2004) was so well done that this sequel was somewhat of a disappointment. Even though it features the same writer-director and principal cast members, something was missing. Though certainly not the great costumes, visual effects and action. Ron Perlman and Selma Blair reprise their roles as Hellboy and Liz. When it is discovered that the mythical Prince Nuada actually exists and wants to resurrect the Golden Army to take over the world, Hellboy and his friends come to the rescue. The costume and makeup departments really worked overtime on this film. And the special effects artists created many unusual creatures. But I felt that the quality of the humor and emotional involvement for the audience just wasn’t up to the same levels of the original film.
2002 Fernando Meirelles + Kátia Lund 130 R City of God Brazilian Portuguese: “Cidade de Deus.” A very fast-paced look at the drug wars in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. It tells the story of a young boy growing up in this environment, who eventually finds a way out by becoming a photographer (although the film is derived from a novel, the author based it on his own life experiences). Lest you think the movie exaggerates the circumstances in Rio’s slums, the DVD includes a nearly hour-long documentary that illustrates the reality of it all. While the story is very good and definitely holds your attention, so many people are shot in this film that it becomes emotionally draining. The drugs, sex and violence all add up to a very strong ‘R’ rating (and even with English subtitles you get a lot of strong language). To witness even children killing with guns is hard to take. You’re in for a rough ride if you choose to watch this. Though if you do, I’m sure you’ll at least agree that it was very well made.
2005 Lasse Hallström 111 R Casanova With over a dozen films and mini-series titled “Casanova,” I will clarify that this is the one starring Heath Ledger in the title role. While Giacomo Casanova was a real historical figure, this is a fictional story that builds on the legend of his affairs with the women of Venice. It is a light comedy with roots in the ever popular “mistaken identity” stories found in Shakespeare and many operas. It was filmed entirely in Venice, Italy, and mostly in authentic historic buildings, some never before opened to the film industry. If this story is viewed as being in three acts, I would have to say that the first act is the weakest and naturally had me wondering about the rest of it. But when Jeremy Irons enters as Bishop Pucci and Oliver Platt as Paprizzio, things definitely picked up. Casanova has committed to marry Victoria (Natalie Dormer) but then falls for feminist Francesca Bruni (Sienna Miller), who is in turn committed to marry Paprizzio but she is also rumored to have a secret lover. Another important character is Francesca’s mother, Andrea (played by Lena Olin, the director's wife). Oliver Platt was excellent in his role as the vain and massively overweight Paprizzio. And there is some great movie chemistry between Platt and Olin. Don’t for a moment take anything in this movie seriously and I think you’ll enjoy the fun. It’s not high brow entertainment by any means but certainly worth a rental.
1987 Tony Bill 90 R Five Corners A minor film in Jodie Foster’s career (at age 25). The story takes place in 1964 in the Bronx. Foster’s character, Linda, just found out that Heinz (John Turturro), the man who attempted to rape her many years ago, has been released from prison and she calls on a friend (Tim Robbins) for protection. Heinz is definitely still a threat to her (as usual, Turturro always plays the most extreme character in the film) and immediately begins stalking her. The tension builds as Heinz becomes more and more unstable. There is also a strange subplot involving two glue-sniffing girls who get involved with two boys they don’t even know and it’s not really until the very end that you see any connection to the main story. Not particularly recommended. I only picked it up because it was free and it stars Jodie Foster. It’s more of a curiosity if you want to see these three actors, who are now big stars, in their early days.
1965 Robert Aldrich 142 NR The Flight of the Phoenix A great survival drama starring James Stewart with a great supporting cast including Richard Attenborough, Ernest Borgnine, Peter Finch, Hardy Krüger and George Kennedy. At first you might think this is just another airplane disaster movie but the plane crash (with virtually the entire cast as passengers) is only the start of the real drama. Stranded in the Sahara desert over 100 miles off course with limited food and water, they must survive until somebody finds them. If ever there was a demonstration of “necessity is the mother of invention” then this is it.
1952 Howard Hawks 97 NR Monkey Business Cary Grant stars with Ginger Rogers and Marilyn Monroe in this slapstick comedy (The Marx Brothers made a film with this same title but the story is completely different). Here, Grant is an industrial chemist seeking an anti-aging formula and testing it on chimpanzees. When he starts testing the formula on himself things start to get out of hand. Rogers plays his wife and they both make good use of their athletic skills for the physical comedy. Monroe appears as the company secretary (employed by Charles Coburn). It’s a silly kind of story and somewhat predictable at times. Not as good as, for example, “Bringing Up Baby” or “His Girl Friday” but good for a few cheap laughs.
2004 István Szabó 104 R Being Julia The story is based on the novel, "Theatre," by W. Somerset Maugham. Annette Bening stars as Julia Lambert, a middle-aged actress in London, 1938. Her husband and manager is played by Jeremy Irons. She tires of her career but when she starts an affair with a man half her age, she comes alive again. When the affair becomes a love triangle, Julia plots revenge, employing her best talents as an actress. Although the climax of the revenge plot is quite a good twist, I must say that the rest of the story did not interest me very much. Annette Bening won a Golden Globe for her performance, so I guess that counts for something, but overall it just wasn’t my type of movie.
2004 Woody Allen 99 PG-13 Melinda and Melinda A uniquely structured comedy by Woody Allen (but not starring Allen). Or to be more precise, only half of it is a comedy (intentionally). Like many of his films this is a conversation movie and in fact it starts right in with four people talking over drinks at a café in New York. They are arguing over whether life is a tragedy or a comedy. Sy (Wallace Shawn) and Max (Larry Pine) are playwrights and take opposite stands. Al (Neil Pepe) tests them by offering a brief story, asking if it would stand better as a comedy or a tragedy. Sy sees the comedy in it and Max detects the tragedy and continues by imagining his own version of Al’s story idea. The central character in Max’s story is Melinda (Radha Mitchell). From this point on, what the audience sees is the story being told at the café. But soon Sy interrupts to spin a different yarn about another Melinda (also Radha Mitchell) but with a more comedic tone. Now the movie alternates between the two stories, with Mitchell being the only player common to both stories, but she is very good at being two different women. There are many similar elements to both stories (even some identical dialogue), so it is possible to occasionally forget which Melinda story you are watching. This also stars Will Ferrell and of course his role is in the comedy version of the story. He is quite funny without being ludicrous. Woody Allen has done better and he has done worse. If you like Allen and/or Ferrell you’ll probably enjoy this.
2008 Matt Reeves 84 PG-13 Cloverfield Manhattan seems to be a real magnet for all manner of destructive forces in the movies, and in this horror movie an unidentified monster of the “Godzilla” variety attacks the heart of the city. The entire movie consists of “home movie” footage recovered by the government in the aftermath of this disaster, which they code-named “Cloverfield.” So what you see is from the point of view of an amateur with a hand-held video camera. Which of course means that the entire film is shaky. We first see a series of randomly taped events in Rob’s life and since the date & time from the camera is displayed we are made aware of this passage of time of about a month. The camera then shows up at a going-away party for Rob, where a friend uses it to record “good-bye” statements from everyone attending. It is during this party that New York is attacked and pandemonium breaks out. Most of the people do the sensible thing and join the evacuation process but a small group, including the camera guy, walk right into the heart of the mess in what seems a hopeless attempt to rescue somebody left behind in an apartment building that is in imminent danger of collapse. Of course in a movie like this if you don’t have a “hero” willing to ignore the incredible danger of the situation you wouldn’t have much of a story. If the shakiness of the film image doesn’t turn you away, this is actually a pretty decent movie of its kind. It’s scary with plenty of action. It has great special effects with effective surround-sound, if you have a home-theater audio setup. And it is suitably short.
1999 Graham Baker 95 R Beowulf A Medieval mess. A castle, the lord of the castle, his beautiful daughter, and a mysterious man calling himself Beowulf (Christopher Lambert). The castle is also home to an evil beast, whom Beowulf has come to kill. Full of so many absurd anachronisms they must have been intentional, e.g., eyeglasses, zippers, even a public address system. Do not confuse this “Beowulf” with the subsequent release in 2007 that features Anthony Hopkins as "Hrothgar." I have not seen that version yet, but it has to be better than this one.
2008 Dwayne Carey-Hill 88 NR Futurama: Bender’s Game This is the third in a series of feature-length cartoons based on the television animated series, “Futurama.” While I have seen the TV series, this is the first of the movie series that I have watched. None of these movie adaptations of the show appeared in theaters, they were only released on DVD. If you are a fan of the TV cartoon, you will probably enjoy most of the humor and parody in this feature, though overall it is somewhat disjointed, being the equivalent of four back-to-back TV episodes. The parodies include “Yellow Submarine,” “Star Trek,” “Twilight Zone,” “Lord of the Rings” and “Star Wars.” If you’re not familiar with the TV series, this is probably not the best way to learn about it - watch an episode or two first, to see if it fits your sense of humor. I got some good laughs out of this but again, as a whole I think the TV episodes were a better vehicle for this particular comedy universe.
2009 J. J. Abrams 126 PG-13 Star Trek This is the best Star Trek movie since "Star Trek: First Contact" (1996). Although it is the eleventh movie set in the Star Trek Universe, it has been dubbed by some as “Star Trek Zero” because the story takes place before the events of the original TV series. This is the story of how James T. Kirk became the captain of the Star Ship Enterprise. A whole new cast portrays the young men and women who became the crew known so well to fans of the original TV adventures. The actors do a very good job of giving us a sense of these familiar characters when they were much younger than we have seen them before. For the most part, the story line and characterizations are consistent with the established canon of the Star Trek Universe, however there are a few exceptions which long time fans will no doubt recognize but which I will not reveal here. Since there is an anticipated sequel to this film (tentatively slated for 2011), it may be that these exceptions will be resolved or explained then. This is an exciting action adventure that should please most Star Trek fans and may gain some new ones.
2008 Louis Leterrier 112 PG-13 The Incredible Hulk Having previously seen “Hulk” (2003), I can easily say that this new version of the story is far more interesting and entertaining than the earlier film. Both films are based on the Marvel® Comics “Hulk” character which was made popular in a live action TV series in the late 1970’s, starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno (both of whom have cameo appearances in this new film, even though Bixby died in 1993). This time around, scientist Bruce Banner is played by Edward Norton. The green monster Bruce becomes when he gets angry is a computer generated creature, though if I recall correctly, in the previous film the creature was much larger; here it is only about twice the height of a man. As is always the case, Dr. Banner is on the run, trying to find a cure for the affliction he acquired which turns him into the Hulk whenever his anger exceeds a certain threshold. His pursuer in this movie is General Ross (William Hurt), who is also the father of Banner’s scientist-girlfriend, Betty (Liv Tyler). A new antagonist is introduced when one of the soldiers on the General’s team attempts to infuse himself with the same super powers as the Hulk, resulting in what you might call a “battle of the Titans.” An action packed film.
2009 Kevin Macdonald 127 PG-13 State of Play An investigative journalist (Russell Crowe) uncovers corruption and conspiracy in Washington, D.C. Where have we seen that before? A political thriller that isn’t all that thrilling and the characters gave me little reason to care much about any of them. Crowe is investigating a number of incidents which point to trouble for his friend, Congressman Collins (Ben Affleck). This continues to support my theory that Affleck should stick with writing and give up acting (though he was not involved in the writing of this screenplay, but maybe he should have been). This film is a remake, and obviously a very condensed version of, a six-part BBC-TV miniseries released in the UK in 2003. Of course the story was modified to be about American politics rather than British (with obvious hints of Halliburton and Blackwater).
2005 Joss Whedon 119 PG-13 Serenity In a far distant future, a large group of people have left behind an overpopulated Earth, and established a new “Alliance” of worlds many light years away from our Solar System. However, the ruling powers of the Alliance have a dirty little secret they must keep under wraps at all cost. They have kidnapped a seventeen year old girl named River (Summer Glau) who is possessed of special mental and physical abilities that may hold the key to this secret. Her brother manages to engineer her escape on board a space ship named Serenity. Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) takes them on a wild space adventure in an effort to keep River safe from recapture and to uncover her secret. There is lots of action and chaos, in fact, the first act is often hard to grasp until you become more familiar with the characters and their place in this new social order. You could make the analogy that Captain Reynolds and his ship are like Han Solo and the Millennium Falcon from “Star Wars,” taking any job for money but getting caught up in a larger than life adventure that is much more than he bargained for. It turns out that this movie is based on characters who appeared in a short lived (14 episodes) TV series, called “Firefly” (2003), and in fact some of the actors from the TV show reprised their roles for this movie. I have not seen “Firefly” but I’m sure that if you have, you will definitely have a head start on understanding what is going on in this movie. For the rest of us, a second viewing is recommended. The only thing I would add is that the writing shows a good sense of humor.
2000 Mike Figgis 97 R Timecode This movie will either drive you mad, give you a headache or both. On the other hand, you may become so frustrated that you stop watching before you reach that point. I would classify it as experimental film making. In more traditional film making, if a story involves multiple concurrent events at different locations, the film will be edited to cut periodically from one location to the next in some sort of rotation to keep the audience up to date on the action at each location. In this film, the story involves four concurrent events but all four are displayed simultaneously on the screen, the screen being divided into four equal rectangles. And not only are you seeing four different scenes at once but you often hear dialog coming from more than one of them, though most of the time they raise the volume in one frame to draw your attention there and fade out the others. Eventually you begin to see that these four scenes are actually part of the same story, as some of the characters move out of one frame and show up in another. At times, two of the frames will actually be the same scene but shot from a different angle. I’m not sure what the director was trying to prove, but I would say that the end result is a film that proves that traditional editing is a good tradition. The story revolves around the employees and prospective clients of a movie production company called “Red Mullet,” which by no coincidence is one of the production companies that made this film. There isn’t really much in the way of plot; you just see, in real time, the lives of these film makers over the course of an hour and a half of this one day but there is a surprise and somewhat bizarre ending. While I survived more or less unscathed I would not want to endure that a second time. The cast includes Salma Hayek, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Holly Hunter & Kyle MacLachlan.
2001 Melissa Martin 101 PG-13 A Wedding for Bella For reasons unknown, this is not the original title of the film, though it is certainly a good fit. It was originally called “The Bread, My Sweet.” This is a story that centers around a small bakery operated by Dominic (Scott Baio) and his two brothers, in an apparently Italian neighborhood in Pittsburgh (and it was filmed in that city). Dominic also has a well-paying “day job” so the bakery is more like a hobby for him. In an apartment above the bakery live Bella (Rosemary Prinz) and Massimo (John Seitz), a senior Italian couple. The young men running the bakery treat Bella as though she was their mother. I don’t want to give too much away but essentially the plot involves a romantic relationship between Dominic and Bella’s daughter from her first marriage. I found it to be a very enjoyable romantic comedy with a very moving finish.
1958 Richard Quine 102 PG Bell Book and Candle “Ring the bell, close the book, quench the candle.” So says Ernie Kovacs in his role as author Sidney Redlitch. Although Redlitch isn’t the main character, Kovacs is definitely the best thing about this rather lame romantic comedy. Top billing goes to James Stewart and Kim Novak. Earlier the same year they both appeared in Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” which I would pick any day over this movie. It is an interesting contrast to see these two stars make two movies so close together that are so different in quality. Also appearing in supporting roles are Jack Lemmon, Elsa Lanchester and Hermione Gingold. They, along with Novak, are secretly all witches and warlocks. Theoretically, witches aren’t supposed to fall in love but Novak finds her upstairs neighbor, Stewart, attractive and casts a spell to lure him away from his fiancé.
2003 Marco Tullio Giordana 367 R The Best of Youth Italian: “La meglio gioventù.” I liked this very much, but just in case you didn’t notice, I will emphasize the fact that this is a six hour movie! On DVD it is conveniently split across two discs, as Act I and Act II. So if you don’t have a whole day free to watch it, you can take it one disc at a time. It also requires reading subtitles for six hours, but I did find these subtitles easier to read and keep up with than many foreign films. It is a story that spans thirty-seven years in the life of two Italian brothers, Matteo and Nicola Carati, while involving them (fictitiously) in real historical events. It starts in Rome, in 1966, with the brothers preparing for their college finals, following which they are going on vacation. Shortly before the vacation, Matteo briefly works at a psychiatric facility and takes a special interest in one of the female patients. This is just one of a series of events that gradually causes the lives of these two brothers to diverge. Given six hours to portray 37 years allows for too many subplots to even begin to describe, but suffice to say it is a very interesting story that rarely failed to hold my attention even for so long. Beautifully filmed in Rome, Florence, Palermo, Stromboli and Turin, as well as in various locations in Norway.
2009 McG 114 PG-13 Terminator Salvation For a sequel that wasn’t written or directed by anyone from the films that preceded it, this installment of the Terminator saga does a very respectable job of being consistent with the story elements established by the first three films. The cast is different, but not entirely unexpected, as this part of the story takes place twenty-one years after the end of episode three. This is the post Judgement Day world that was only briefly glimpsed in the earlier films. John Connor (Christian Bale) is now the Resistance leader he was destined to become and Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin) is just a young man not yet ready for time travel. There are also new characters introduced to ramp up the suspense and create unexpected subplots. The action is very intense at times, and in this future world of deadly robotic machines, the complexity and cleverness of some of the machines is quite impressive. If you’ve been a fan of this series of films you might be disappointed that Arnold Schwarzenegger is not in this new film, though if you are alert, you may catch a glimpse of his face thanks to computer graphics. While you could probably enjoy this as an exciting action feature without having seen the first three films, it will definitely have even greater appeal to those who already know the back story.
1974 Martin Scorsese 112 PG Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore In case you didn’t know, this is the movie that inspired the TV comedy series, “Alice” (1976-1985). The only actor from the movie who also appeared in the TV series, was Vic Taybak as “Mel,” the owner of the diner. I don’t remember much about the TV series but it centered around Alice’s job as a waitress at Mel’s diner. In the movie, Alice is played by Ellen Burstyn and it takes the entire first hour to reach the point in the story where she gets that job. Although Burstyn won the Best Actress Oscar for this role, I was not very impressed by the movie. It’s the story of a 27-year old widow, trying to find jobs to support her 12-year old son and finance her return to her original hometown of Monterey, California. Her son, Tommy, is extremely obnoxious, though I’d have to give the young actor credit for doing that so effectively. The only other acting role that is worth noting is Harvey Keitel, who plays Ben, an abusive boy friend. While working at the diner she meets and falls for David (Kris Kristofferson). This is definitely a woman’s story, told from a woman’s point of view, so hopefully I will be forgiven if I failed to relate to it well. Trivia: Tommy’s girl friend, Audrey, is played by a 12-year old Jodie Foster (this is even before “Taxi Driver”).
2009 Pete Docter + Bob Peterson 96 PG Up A very entertaining animated feature (in 3D at some theaters) about an old man who embarks on a risky adventure to fulfill a promise he made to his wife. He is accompanied on this journey by a young “Wilderness Explorer” who is trying to earn his “Helping the Elderly” badge. It is a very funny and touching story that should find fans of all ages. As is traditional with animated features from PIXAR, there is a funny cartoon short, “Partly Cloudy,” that runs just before the main show. You won’t miss too much if you aren’t able to see it in 3D, but it does add a unique sense of visual depth to the animation. But the story wins the day over any 3D effects. And PIXAR animation always gives a greater sense of depth than old fashioned flat animation even without 3D projection.
1993 Wim Wenders 147 PG-13 Faraway, So Close! German: “In weiter Ferne, so nah!” This is a sequel to the highly acclaimed “Wings of Desire” (1987), also directed by Wim Wenders. It continues the story at a point six years after the end of the previous film. I would consider it essential for you to see “Wings of Desire” before watching this film. “Wings” is definitely superior, but the sequel does have some interesting moments. And where “Wings” was more of an art film, “Faraway” is more of an action thriller. All the principal actors returned for this, including Peter Falk, again as himself. And for some strange reason they shot a brief scene featuring Mikhail Gorbachev as himself. Notable newcomers to the story are Nastassja Kinski as angel Raphaela; and Willem Dafoe as Emit Flesti (You think that’s a strange name? Try it backwards: Time Itself). Former angel, Damiel (Bruno Ganz), is now married to Marion (Solveig Dommartin) and has a daughter who is being taught acrobatics like her mother. The main plot this time is about Damiel’s angel friend, Cassiel (Otto Sander), who now takes his turn at becoming human. His experience with human life is quite different from Damiel’s. Cassiel, as a human, manages to get himself into a lot of trouble but finds interesting solutions. Also, there is some impressive stunt work in this film. It is even longer than “Wings of Desire” and I do feel that it could have been tightened up a bit. It is somewhat confusing at times and even after watching it twice (2nd time with the director’s commentary) there are still parts of the story I cannot explain. The trivia about Emit Flesti’s name is not something revealed by the film, so rather than it being a plot spoiler, I hope it will make it more understandable. I may be downgrading this movie somewhat because the first film was such a unique experience that it simply could not be equaled, even by the same creative talent. But if you approach it not expecting it to be the same, it should prove a satisfactory wrap up of the original story.
2009 Peter Berg 87
Virtuality This was presented on FOX as as made-for-TV movie and apparently was intended to be the pilot for a new series, but the last I heard, the series was dropped before it started. This probably explains why the ending of the movie leaves so many unresolved subplots, since they were supposed to have been resolved in the subsequent series. I certainly don’t have the inside track on why the series was dropped, but maybe one of the FOX executives was as disappointed with the movie as I was. It is a science fiction tale about the first mission to visit another star, which is projected to take ten years in their nuclear powered ship. But in an attempt to market the movie to the “reality show” generation, the network conceived a plot in which the space mission itself is a reality show being watched by the folks back on Earth. Thus the spaceship crew includes the producer of the reality show and its host. One of the subplots, which was the least developed and seemed the most pointless, at least within the scope of the movie, was that while this space mission was going on, Earth was experiencing a severe environmental catastrophe. The most developed subplot involved a virtual reality device that each crew member could use for personal entertainment purposes. It brought back memories of “Brainstorm” (1983) and it certainly could also be compared to the “holodeck” featured in several “Star Trek” series. The thing that made it a subplot was that something started going wrong with the programming of the virtual adventures that caused a violent character to appear who disrupted what was supposed to be a pleasant experience for the user. Well, anyway, I thought this show was too much like a soap opera and didn’t care for the “reality show” angle either.
2002 Danny Boyle 113 R 28 Days Later This is a pretty scary horror film about a virus that spread from chimps to humans. From the opening scene in which the first humans are infected, the story jumps to 28 days later. At this point we pick up our point of view character, Jim, who awakens in a hospital and discovers that he is apparently the only person alive in all of London. Eventually he finds a few other survivors but also discovers the horror of those who were infected but are still alive and have gone completely mad. The few sane survivors attempt to escape from London to another city where they believe they may get help. Some scenes are very bloody and gruesome so be prepared. If you like a good horror film now and then, this is one of the better ones.
2009 Michael Mann 139 R Public Enemies Johnny Depp stars as the infamous bank robber, John Dillinger, trying to keep one step ahead of FBI agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale). The last act of the film where the FBI finally gets their man, outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago, was very well done, but the movie up to that point wasn’t all that interesting. Just lots of gun battles. bank robberies and jail breaks. Action without a lot of substance. Also, don’t rely on this movie for factual information about Dillinger.
2009 Duncan Jones 97 R Moon A very well done low budget science-fiction psychological thriller. The setting is some time in the future when there is a type of fuel being harvested from the lunar soil on the far side of the moon. Why the *far* side of the moon? I don’t think they explained that detail. At any rate, the facility which monitors the huge robotic harvesters is manned by a single person, Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), who is nearing the end of his three-year contract and looking forward to his return to Earth. I had heard that Kevin Spacey is in this film but you won’t see him because it turns out he is the voice of the computer at the moon base, addressed by Sam as “GERTY.” Occasionally, Sam has to don his space suit and drive out to perform maintenance on the harvesters. After having an accident on one outing, some very strange things start to happen back at the base. I can’t really say any more without spoiling the plot. Some of the sets and other details occasionally reminded me of “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968), and perhaps “Solaris” (1972) may be recalled by some viewers. It is a small, well written drama, not some sweeping epic, with more attention given to the human element rather than the futuristic technology. Also, don’t expect a lot of big action sequences or you will be disappointed; it’s not that type of science-fiction movie. I suppose that’s another way in which it is more like “2001” than “Star Wars.” But I would also add that if “2001” was not your favorite sci-fi movie, don’t let that scare you away from this great independent film. Great performance by Rockwell in a role that I would say comes with a “high degree of difficulty.”
2008 Kathryn Bigelow 130 R The Hurt Locker A high tension war drama set in the current conflict in Iraq. The story follows an Army bomb squad unit during the last 38 days of their rotation. And it concentrates on one particular bomb defusing specialist, Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), who seems to thrive on taking even more risk than his job requires. Which of course makes the rest of his unit very nervous. There is of course a great deal of suspense every time James goes to work on another IED (Improvised Explosive Device), which is one of the biggest killers of our troops in this war. You can’t pay them enough to do this. The film makes it seem very real. It does get a bit bloody at times but there have been many war films that were much more intense in that respect. It’s not one of those war movies that numbs you with battle action but rather concentrates on the characters. It is interesting to note in the casting, that the two most veteran actors in this film were given only minor roles: Ralph Fiennes, as "Contractor Team Leader" and David Morse as “Colonel Reed” (Morse’s moment was brief but quite good). It is a very good human character study or psychological study, of which I’m sure this war holds many more.
2009 Nora Ephron 123 PG-13 Julie & Julia Meryl Streep channels Julia Child. In a story that looks at how Julia Child became the famous chef who taught America how to cook the way the French do, Streep literally becomes Child. Her performance is often very funny. The film actually tells two stories and as the title implies, the other story is about Julie Powell, who is played by Amy Adams. Powell is a real person who challenged herself to attempt every recipe in Child’s famous book “Mastering The Art of French Cooking” and not only complete the project in 365 days but write daily blog entries on the Internet so the whole world could monitor her progress. After reaching her goal, Powell published a book about her experience, which then became one of the main sources for the screenplay of this movie. Her original blog, started in 2002, can be found at http://blogs.salon.com/0001399/2002/08/25.html . While Streep’s performance quite naturally overshadows Adams, I enjoyed her performance as well. A very good light comedy.
2009 Neill Blomkamp 112 R District 9 This action-packed science fiction thriller may at times be rather disturbing, both to watch and to contemplate the moral implications, but it is very different from most other science fiction films. It has no stars known to American audiences. It is presented entirely as though you were watching a filmed report on a TV news network. There is considerable use of subtitles because the aliens do not speak English, though it is implied that they understand it; and curiously the humans also understand the alien language but never speak it. I must say though that there were a few times when subtitles might have helped with the South African accent. The story begins at a point, twenty years after the arrival of a huge alien “mother ship” which parked hovering over Johannesburg, South Africa. The aliens inside took no action, so the humans chose to break in and see what was inside. Thousands of aliens were found inside but in poor health. They are bipedal but with heads that resemble prawns, which is what the humans nicknamed them. The humans built a sort of refugee camp, named “District 9” and gave the aliens shelter there but deprived them of their weapons. Much to the disappointment of the humans, the exotic alien weapons only functioned when operated by their alien creators. So all that is just the beginning. The main action centers around efforts, prompted by citizen protests, to relocate the aliens far away from Johannesburg. The main character we observe is the man charged with obtaining signatures from the aliens on the eviction notices. Needless to say, things get ugly. How violent is it? Think “RoboCop” (1987). The aliens are very disgusting to look at but they did manage to make the child aliens appear somewhat “cute.” The story is very well written and will definitely hold your attention. While there isn’t a lot of comic relief, there are such details as the feeding of cat food to the aliens and assigning them human names such as Christopher Johnson.
2004 Kevin Spacey 118 PG-13 Beyond the Sea I’m calling this a musical fantasy biography. Director Kevin Spacey has taken his personal passion about Bobby Darin and turned it into a very unusual screenplay, starring himself as Bobby Darin. And not only that, he does his own singing. It’s a true musical complete with large choreographed dance numbers. It plays fast and loose with the true story of Darin’s life, not that I would know but they admit as much in the end titles. It is a strange telling of the story in that it presents itself as a story about Darin filming his own story within the movie and playing scenes along side the young boy who represents Darin as a kid in an odd form of flashback. With the exception of his hit, “Mack the Knife,” I wouldn’t call myself a fan of Bobby Darin, but a really good movie can overcome an obstacle like that but unfortunately this one didn’t. In a way, making a musical about a person whose life was already about music, is a bit of overkill. And I often found the whole thing a bit corny. I also think Spacey was too old for the part. He was 45 when the film was released and that’s 8 years older than Darin was when he died!
2000 Lone Scherfig 95 R Italian For Beginners Danish: “Italiensk for begyndere.” A rather odd but fun romantic comedy set in Denmark. An unusual assortment of characters are brought together in their efforts to learn Italian at an adult education course. At the same time they are also crossing paths at the local church due to an unusual number of family deaths in a very short period of time and the new “trial” pastor had also recently been widowed. So an odd mix of humor and sorrow, at least at the start. But slowly couples pair up and eventually the class heads off for Venice. It’s not a laugh out loud comedy but I think you’ll find many little amusing bits along the way. This film is also unusual for its adherence to a set of filmmaking rules known as "Dogme 95" (dogme is Danish for dogma), though with some exceptions so I guess it doesn't qualify as "pure" Dogme 95. There are 10 rules so I'll suggest you look up "Dogme 95" on the Internet at en.wikipedia.org , but essentially it requires an extreme lack of artificiality, such as only filming on location with no added props or other decorations not already present, hand-held camera work, no sound or music that doesn't occur naturally in the shot and so on. And also rather strangely, the director must not be credited. While the film does have credits at the end (minus the director), they solve the problem of artificiality in an interesting way which I will leave for you to discover. Although rated ‘R’ this is pretty tame by current ‘R’ offerings; there’s no violence and very little bad language so it must be for the “adult” conversations; the sex scenes are very tame. The DVD has English subtitles but no dubbing track. The filmmaking style may take a bit of getting used to at first but I found it was worth adjusting to it.
2004 Peter Chelsom 106 PG-13 Shall We Dance? This is a remake of an excellent Japanese romantic comedy of the same name that was released in 1996. Although my memory of the original is a little hazy on the details, my first impression of this remake was that it was generally entertaining, but it just isn’t in the same class as the original. Richard Gere stars as the unhappy husband who seeks a change of pace by taking lessons in ballroom dancing (unbeknownst to his family). He is inspired to try that particular diversion after noticing an attractive woman (Jennifer Lopez) gazing out the window of a dance school which he could see from his daily ride home on the Chicago “L” train. The weekly lessons produce a subtle change in Gere so his wife (Susan Sarandon) hires a detective to find out what her husband is up to. The lessons eventually lead to a dance contest. My personal recommendation is to watch the original Japanese film (English subtitles) if you want the better interpretation of this story.
2004 Charles S. Dutton 111 PG-13 Against the Ropes Meg Ryan takes another go at a serious dramatic role in this story inspired by the life of Jackie Kallen. Kallen was an anomaly in the world of professional boxing, becoming the most successful female manager in the sport. The film dramatizes how she got started and made a name for herself with the success of her first boxer. I’ve always liked Ryan in her more familiar romantic comedy roles, so it was interesting to see how she portrayed this more aggressive woman trying to make it in a traditionally all-male environment. She did an interesting thing with her voice, which I hesitate to call an accent, but it was definitely a different style for her. After seeing interviews with the real Jackie Kallen, I’m not entirely sure that Ryan was the best actor, if the goal was to imitate Kallen, but from a purely entertainment standpoint I thought she did pretty well. Overall, however, I would only give this movie an average rating.
2007 Andrew Wagner 111 PG-13 Starting Out In The Evening Frank Langella plays Leonard Schiller, an aging and forgotten author, whose quiet life is intruded upon by an enthusiastic graduate student (Lauren Ambrose) who has chosen to write her thesis about his books. He agrees to weekly interviews but it soon becomes apparent that she wants a more intimate relationship in spite of their forty year age difference. At the same time he is trying to finish a novel he started ten years ago. Their relationship is the most interesting part of the movie but there is also a subplot involving his daughter and her boyfriends, which gets a bit annoying at times. Langella delivers an excellent performance as this reserved man struggling to manage the contradictory feelings that Ambrose has stirred in him. Unfortunately the other elements of the film tend to suffer by comparison. It’s not a bad movie but it doesn’t surprise me that it was not much of a commercial success.
1930 Howard Hughes + Edmund Goulding + James Whale 127 PG Hell’s Angels This is the famous World War I movie directed by billionaire Howard Hughes. It was the most expensive film ever made at the time and reportedly didn’t even turn a profit in the first release. The aerial fighting sequences are most impressive especially considering that it was all done without the benefit of modern special effects technology. Hughes even did some stunt flying of his own but crashed the plane in the process. Some of the film is actually in color but most of it is black & white. For the most part the acting is nothing special, but it does feature Jean Harlow in her first major role and certainly her first in color. The story centers around three students at Oxford, two British and one German. When England declares war on Germany they all enter the air force of their respective countries. The story follows them through two major air fights, first against a German zeppelin over London and later as part of an escape from a bombing mission in France. The battle with the zeppelin is quite interesting and beautifully filmed; the second battle will wow you even more. The version of this film now available on DVD has been restored from an original color print discovered in the estate of John Wayne, ten years after he died. Rather strangely the DVD includes a ten minute intermission after about the first hour, so you have to fast-forward to resume the film if you don’t want to wait. If you saw “The Aviator” (2004), you may recall a major scene that was about the making of this movie.
2008 Nicholas Stoller 111 R Forgetting Sarah Marshall A romantic comedy about a guy who vacations to Hawaii to try and forget the girl who just dumped him but she shows up by chance at the same hotel in Oahu with her new boyfriend. It was often pretty funny, but the down side for me was that they went a bit overboard on the vulgar dialogue and overly suggestive graphic sex and nudity. I don’t mind the occasional sexual encounter scene in a movie, but this type of sexual humor is definitely aimed at a less mature audience. They also apparently hope to draw a large teen female audience because there are two scenes of male frontal nudity. Unrelated to my criticism, I experienced a case of mistaken identity while watching Russell Brand, the actor who plays Sarah’s new boyfriend “Aldous Snow.” I could have sworn it was Johnny Depp because the Aldous character bears a strong resemblance to Depp’s pirate character, “Jack Sparrow.” This misidentification was reinforced when the main character, Peter (Jason Segel), referred to Aldous as “Edward Scissorhands,” suggesting that the filmmakers also saw this same resemblance.
1966 Sergio Leone 178 R The Good, the Bad and the Ugly Italian: “Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo.” Excellent Western starring Clint Eastwood. This is one of the so-called “spaghetti westerns” produced in Italy, though most of the filming locations were in Spain. The version I saw was the “extended English language edition” that runs about 17 minutes longer than the original version released in the USA back in 1967. It takes place during the Civil War. Clint Eastwood is “The Good,” Lee Van Cleef is “The Bad” and Eli Wallach is “The Ugly.” Eastwood and Wallach start out as a team that scams one town after another by Eastwood turning in Wallach for his “Wanted” bounty and then arranging an escape from the hangman’s noose at the last second. Later they become a trio when they join forces with Van Cleef to search for buried treasure. In one famous scene all three of them are in a triangular stand off which seems to go on forever but which is filled with great suspense as the camera zooms closer and closer on each one. Towards the end they get caught up in a Civil War battlefield and the action scenes for that are very well done. Definitely a classic. If you’ve seen this before but only the 161 minute version, you should probably check out this longer version on DVD. It’s possible I’d seen parts of this on TV ages ago but this is definitely the first time I’ve seen the complete film and it was well worth the wait.
2004 Patrice Leconte 104 R Intimate Strangers French: “Confidences trop intimes.” Unusual romantic intrigue. A mysterious woman on the way to her first visit to a psychiatrist, accidentally enters the wrong office. It turns out to be the office of a tax lawyer. At first, neither realizes the error. He thinks she’s a new tax client and she thinks he’s Dr. Monnier. But by the end of her visit, she has revealed intimate details of her marriage and although the lawyer now realizes their mutual mistake, he strangely chooses to let her think he is the psychiatrist. She later discovers her mistake but continues to see him anyway, and he starts visiting Dr. Monnier. It’s all very strange but the mystery and suspense keep you watching. It’s rated ‘R’ only because of the strong language and explicit sexual conversations. Nobody takes their clothes off in this one, but still worth watching if you don’t mind the subtitles.
1994 Wong Kar-Wai 103 PG-13 Chungking Express Chinese: “Chung Hing sam lam.” The literal translation is "Chungking Jungle." But for marketing in America they changed "Jungle" to "Express" to make reference to "Midnight Express" which is the name of the take-out restaurant featured throughout the film. "Chungking" is a reference to “Chungking Mansion,” a building in Hong Kong that is one of the settings for the film. It is a romantic comedy set in Hong Kong and is unusual for a number of reasons. It is actually two stories told consecutively but there are some subtle clues in the first story that hint that the two stories actually overlap somewhat in time. Both stories are about cops who are having a rough time with their respective love lives. There are a number of other similarities that actually tend to blur the distinction between the two cops. Both hang out at the “Midnight Express” restaurant. Both like “chef salad.” And both have aquariums in their apartments. The first cop gets involved with a woman who the audience knows is a drug smuggler but the cop never figures it out. The second cop takes an interest in a girl who works at the restaurant and both of them exhibit very strange behaviors. The cinematographer engages in a number of very fancy camera tricks to create a unique look and feel to some scenes, which may fascinate some viewers and annoy others but I enjoyed the results. It is a low-budget somewhat off-beat movie but I thought it was quite good.
2003 Pupi Avati 107 NR Incantato Italian: “Il cuore altrove” (literally, “The Heart Is Elsewhere”). “Incantato” translates as “enchanted,” but both titles are clues to the nature of the story. Nello (Neri Marcorè) is the 35-year old son of the Pope’s tailor in Rome. His father gets him a teaching job in Bologna in hopes that he will meet a woman and get married. His roommate tries to set him up a couple of times but he ends up falling for a woman he meets by chance, who is blind. People who know her tell him she is wrong for him but he is smitten and must have her. However she doesn’t see the relationship quite the same way and therein lies the conflict of the story. Although billed as a romantic comedy, by the time it was over I didn’t really remember it that way. Romantic, yes, but the sense of humor was overshadowed by the darker side of the story. Perhaps I missed the point but I was a bit puzzled by the ending.
1997 Spike Lee 102 NR 4 Little Girls This is a documentary about the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama, Sep. 15, 1963, which killed 4 black girls. Most of it consists of interviews with the girls’ parents and friends. Photographs and archival news footage of civil rights related events are also included for context. Nothing particularly distinguishes it from other documentary films but it is a good history lesson. Surprisingly the director chose to show the actual photos of the badly burned bodies of the girls.
1959 Alain Resnais 90 NR Hiroshima mon amour A French love story set in Hiroshima, Japan, apparently in the same year as the making of the film. The literal translation is “Hiroshima, My Love.” I found it to be dreary and gloomy. A French actress and a Japanese architect meet and have an affair while in Hiroshima. Filmed in black & white, it was originally planned as a war documentary but evolved into this love story by the time the cameras rolled. I believe that some of the footage depicting the aftermath of the atomic bomb blast was actually a reenactment taken from some Japanese documentary. Might have worked out better if the director had stuck to his original idea for a documentary.
1989 Patrice Leconte 79 NR Monsieur Hire An interesting French crime thriller. Monsieur Hire is under suspicion for the murder of a 22 year old woman but at the same time he is a peeping Tom and stalker of a similarly young woman whose bedroom he can see from his apartment. Eventually she discovers she is being watched and in contradiction to all expectations, starts a tentative relationship with him. Very good plot twists. Monsieur Hire is a very creepy person, well portrayed by Michel Blanc.
2008 Adam Brooks 112 PG-13 Definitely, Maybe A simple but very enjoyable romantic comedy with a very good cast. Ryan Reynolds stars as Will Hayes, the almost-divorced father of 10-year-old Maya (Abigail Breslin). One day Maya asks her father to tell her the story of all the women he dated before he married her mother. He agrees to tell her but with the condition that he will change the names of the women so she won't know which one ended up being her mother. In this way, the majority of the film is the flashback story that Will tells Maya. Also features Kevin Kline, Rachel Weisz and Isla Fisher.
1966 Claude Lelouch 102 NR A Man and a Woman French: “Un homme et une femme.” A very slow paced, low wattage romance. Many wordless scenes. The film alternates between color, black & white and sepia, apparently due to budget restrictions on the use of color film. The couple meet when they both drop their children off at a school and he gives her a ride back to Paris because she missed her train. Their respective pasts are revealed in flashbacks as they get to know each other. Not very interesting. Didn’t like the music either.
2007 Tom McCarthy 104 PG-13 The Visitor A very good and surprising non-violent drama. Richard Jenkins stars as Professor Walter Vale. He teaches economics at a college in Connecticut but also maintains, though rarely uses, an apartment in New York City. On one such rare occasion he is surprised to discover a young Syrian man, "Tarek," and his African girlfriend living in his apartment illegally. He kicks them out but realizes they have nowhere to go and offers to let them stay until they can make other arrangements. A friendship develops and Walter learns to play one of Tarek's African drums, having recently given up efforts to learn piano. But trouble arises when Tarek is arrested and threatened with deportation. The rest of the story involves Walter's efforts to help Tarek in this difficult situation. The only caveat I would offer here is that depending on your position on illegal aliens, you might take issue with Walter’s sympathetic attitude. However, I think this movie is good enough to overshadow the politics.
2006 Pedro Almodóvar 121 R Volver From Spain. The title translates as “Return” or “Go Back.” Penélope Cruz stars as Raimunda, a woman with a troubled and mysterious past. In fact just about everyone in this story has major secrets that eventually come out. I don't know whether to call this a mystery or a ghost story but at the very least it is a bit of both and partly a comedy as well. In the past I have seen two other films by director Pedro Almodóvar and both were very strange yet still entertaining. "Volver" is also a bit strange though not as strange as "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" (1988) or "Talk To Her" (2002). I will try not to give away anything major but in summary, very early in the story Raimunda and her daughter are faced with a major problem that they choose to cover up. Almost at the same time, her Aunt Paula dies and there are rumors that the ghost of Raimunda’s mother has been seen. And in fact, Raimunda’s sister, Sole (short for Soledad) does see her. I can’t say much more but as I indicated earlier, a lot of dark secrets emerge before it is all over, though even at the very end, not all the characters know all the secrets. Cruz gives a good performance here, but my impression is that her appearance was too high class relative to the other characters in the film, making her seem somewhat out of place. Almodóvar clearly likes to titillate and provoke his audience with some very voyeuristic camera work including a scene of Cruz in a very private moment. Female audience members may find it a bit sexist or exploitive at times but there is little doubt he is appealing to the male audience in what I would easily classify a women’s film. The dialogue as translated in the English subtitles is a bit vulgar at times, which probably accounts for the ‘R’ rating; and the only act of violence in the story is not shown, though the end result is. It is an amusing curiosity though not as stimulating as I had hoped.
2008 Ethan Coen + Joel Coen 96 R Burn After Reading Once again the Coen brothers have created a story about a crime that goes terribly wrong. And in the process also created a cleverly convoluted comedy. Without revealing too much, the essence of the plot involves two employees of the “Hardbodies” fitness center (Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt) who attempt to blackmail a former CIA employee (John Malkovich). George Clooney also stars as a federal marshal who is having an affair with Malkovich’s wife and thus unwittingly gets entangled in this amateur blackmail scheme. Although the Coens are known for their very violent comedy dramas, such as “Fargo” (1996), this one is pretty tame in that department. The ‘R’ rating is primarily for excessive use of the F-word. Even the song heard over the end-credits uses it. And I’m sure the rating also was affected by an obscene erotic device that Clooney’s character builds in his basement. But if you liked the sense of humor in “Fargo” you will probably find this film funny also but without the extreme violence. Brad Pitt is unexpectedly funny. And although you might not know the name, J.K. Simmons, you will probably recognize him in the role of the “CIA Superior” which is a small role but a very good performance.
1980 François Truffaut 131 PG The Last Metro French: “Le dernier métro.” Set in Paris during the German occupation. The title refers to the importance of catching the last subway train home before curfew, though that fact has virtually nothing to do with the plot. Catherine Deneuve plays Marion Steiner, the wife of a Jewish theater director. Because of the German occupation he must hide in the cellar of the theater and can only listen to his plays through the air ducts. The story also features Gérard Depardieu as Bernard Granger, the actor who is hired to be the leading man in the newest production, opposite Mme. Steiner. Most of the story revolves around the rehearsals of the play and the love lives of its players and of course the efforts to get Mr. Steiner out of the occupied zone. In spite of Truffaut’s reputaion, I must say that I was disappointed in this movie. I did not find the story very interesting nor did any of the characters earn much sympathy.
2005 Jason Reitman 92 R Thank You for Smoking A very funny satire about a tobacco industry lobbyist (Aaron Eckhart as Nick Naylor) in the 1990s, trying to promote cigarette smoking in the face of all the negative health evidence. At first you might not think such a subject could be funny but the cast and crew of this film has succeeded in making it so (based on the novel of the same name). Interestingly, not one cigarette is smoked in the entire film. It is definitely not pro smoking, and in some respects, isn’t even about smoking. It is about a man who is very good at his job but is widely hated for it. It is also about his relationship with his son (who is played very well by the then 12-year-old Cameron Bright). A lot of great talent in this film including Robert Duvall, J.K. Simmons, William H. Macy, Katie Holmes, Rob Lowe, Dennis Miller and Sam Elliott. The ‘R’ rating is primarily for all the swearing, which is considerable.
2004 Josh Sternfeld 90 R Winter Solstice A disappointing drama about a widower and his two sons. It’s set in a small town where nothing much ever happens and the same goes for this movie. The younger son is struggling to finish high school and the older boy is working but longs to move to Florida, even if it means leaving his girlfriend. The story ends with many loose ends. It was rather depressing actually. It doesn’t even take place in winter, so what is that all about? (I realize the family’s name is “Winters” but I don’t see how that justifies the title).
1966 Robert Bresson 95 NR Au Hasard Balthazar French. “Au hasard” appears to mean either “at random” or “haphazard” and “Balthazar” is the main character of the film, who happens to be a donkey. And to put it simply, the film is the life story of this donkey, beginning with the purchase of the baby donkey for a little girl named Marie. The story quickly jumps ahead to when Marie is now a young adult. Since the story is really from the point of view of Balthazar, we see the “haphazard” life he leads as he is passed from owner to owner, some gentle, some cruel. But Marie keeps coming back into the picture with her own haphazard life and difficult relationships with her parents and various young men who have their eyes on her. It is quite slow paced and is almost like a silent film since the characters say so little. The story is told more through their actions than their words, though this does leave one confused at times. There is very little happiness in this story but one does tend to sympathize with the donkey. Definitely requires a good attention span to sit through this one (and perhaps a bit of caffeine as well). The director has an unusual style that probably won’t appeal to everyone. He also uses non-professional actors, which automatically results in a very different effect. This was never given an MPAA rating but probably qualifies as a PG.
2007 Noah Baumbach 92 R Margot at the Wedding This is a story about an extended family that is so dysfunctional that you want to run away screaming. Margot (Nicole Kidman) travels with her son to visit her sister, Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh), at the family home on Long Island. Pauline is about to marry Malcolm (Jack Black) whom she has been living with for some time. There isn’t really any plot; just a series of conversations and family squabbles. The neighbors are also weird. Margot’s son has such long hair I first thought it was a girl until somebody said his name. Probably Kidman’s least glamorous role. Contains some offensive language and sexual situations (I should have been prepared for that since this is the same director who did “The Squid and the Whale” (2005)). Can’t recommend this one.
2005 Marilyn Agrelo 106 PG Mad Hot Ballroom A fun documentary about a 5th-grade ballroom dancing competition held in New York City. The filmmakers followed the dancing lessons at the various schools participating and then covered the competition. The kids were pretty sloppy at first but the ones who made it to the finals looked pretty good for their age group. Interspersed with the dancing were segments of interviews with some of the children. Some of them were funny and some were very serious but always interesting.
2005 Chen Kaige 102 PG-13 The Promise Chinese: “Wu ji” (the director says that “wu ji” means “greatness that emerges from nothingness” but “The Promise” makes a lot more sense as a title). A visually stunning fantasy romance set in a mythical version of ancient China. A young girl makes a promise to a goddess and grows up to be a princess destined to lose every man she loves. She loves the king’s general but the general’s slave also loves her. And they are all at odds with their enemy, Wuhuan. The emotional involvement of the main characters is not well conveyed to the audience even though the intent is clear. This tends to weaken the full impact of this lavish production. Although this film contains scenes of war and one-on-one combat, it is not a martial arts film after the fashion of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000). But at the same time, those action scenes are enhanced in magical ways in the tradition of such films. While there are many better Chinese films out there (even by this same director), not all are as attractive to the eye as this one. If you are willing to forgive the less than stellar acting and writing, you might enjoy this “eye candy.” The DVD does come with an English language audio track so you don’t have to read subtitles if you don’t want to. However, when I tried listening to the English dialogue I was surprised to find that it was significantly different from the English subtitles. And while I am unable to compare the subtitles with the original Mandarin dialogue, my impression is that the subtitles are more in tune with the intended meaning than the English soundtrack. So if you do decide to watch this, I recommend the subtitles rather than the dubbing track. The American release of the DVD is about 19 minutes shorter than its original release but the missing segments are included as “deleted scenes.” You would have to seek out an import dealer to find the full-length version (which I have not seen).
2008 Edward Zwick 137 R Defiance Led by three brothers, Tuvia (Daniel Craig), Zus (Liev Schreiber) and Asael Bielski (Jamie Bell), a group of Jews manage to survive WW-II by hiding out in the forests of Belarus. It is based on a true story and in spite of occasional losses in attacks by the Germans, the group had grown to about 1200 by the time the Germans retreated from the Soviet Red Army. All told, they spent about two and a half years living in the forest. The movie shows the great hardships they endured, especially in winter and the sacrifices they made for the survival of the whole group. There are some fairly violent gun battles and murders, thus generating the ‘R’ rating. Although it makes for a good history lesson (in spite of some liberties taken) it was not the most interesting WW-II story brought to film. At times the dialogue made it sound like a stage play. Not much suspense or surprise, even without knowing the story details in advance though at times it was very moving.
2009 Nick Hurran 274 (w/o commercials) TV-14-LV The Prisoner This new six-part miniseries (shown on AMC as two episodes per night over three days) is an attempt to update the original 1967 TV series of the same name. Both are British productions, though this new version has only been shown in the USA as of November, 2009. The original consisted of seventeen episodes spread over five months like a regular TV season. On the surface the new Prisoner appears similar, with its little isolated village from which nobody can escape, and if you try, a large white balloon will haul you back. But many other things have been changed, including the true nature of the village itself. And even at the end that nature remains rather confusing. If you’re not familiar with the story, it involves a man who resigns from his job only to suddenly find himself trapped in an unnamed village in the middle of nowhere; and in this retelling it is in the middle of a desert. He quickly learns that everyone there is known by a number rather than a name and that he is Number 6 (played here by James Caviezel). The man in charge of the village is Number 2 (Ian McKellen). In this new version, the writers did come up with some interesting ways that ‘2’ tries to make ‘6’ become a loyal citizen and stop stirring up trouble talking about his other life before the village. Another change was the introduction of Number 2’s wife and son. I’m pretty sure he had no family in the original (in fact, in the original, the position of Number 2 was replaced five times). Then of course there is the attempt to explain what the village really is, which is quite a major alteration of the original concept. It was interesting at times and the use of modern special effects gives it a new look, but overall I think I still prefer the original series (which you probably can rent on DVD if it is not in reruns somewhere on TV). Try to see the original before you consider this new production.
2009 Ruben Fleischer 87 R Zombieland Clearly this is not a movie that will appeal to everyone. But if you are drawn to the twisted sense of humor associated with people enthusiastically killing flesh-eating zombies, you will probably find this entertaining. It is a horror comedy in which a virus has turned most of the population into zombies. Four non-infected people are traveling cross-country in an effort to survive. The story is told from the point of view of a young man, “Columbus,” (Jesse Eisenberg) who gives the audience his set of rules for dealing with zombies. Later he encounters another survivor, “Tallahassee,” played by Woody Harrelson (they decided to name themselves after their home towns). Together they encounter two female survivors, "Wichita" (Emma Stone) and "Little Rock" (Abigail Breslin) and eventually all four are headed west. Tallahassee is in search of the universe’s last Twinkie® and the girls are intent on visiting a California amusement park. Columbus is just intent on scoring with Wichita. The amusement park is used to great comic effect for the climactic final confrontation with the zombies. I’m not a regular follower of zombie movies but every now and then one comes along that stands out and becomes something of a classic in its field. So if you’ve ever seen one that you liked, give this one a try.
2008 Marc Abraham 119 PG-13 Flash of Genius You may not recognize the name, Dr. Robert Kearns, but almost everyone who drives a car today has used his invention: the intermittent wiper. He offered to manufacture it for Ford but they turned him down and stole his invention behind his back. But Dr. Kearns wouldn’t accept defeat so easily and for many years pursued his day in court against Ford and eventually won (he also sued and won against Chrysler but it appears that this movie has combined the two court actions into one to simplify the story). This movie is a very good dramatization of Dr. Kearns’ amazing persistence in obtaining justice and recognition for his creation and also illustrating the personal cost of his obsession. Greg Kinnear stars as Dr. Kearns, Lauren Graham plays his wife and Alan Alda appears as one of the lawyers who attempts to help Dr. Kearns. A very good movie on all counts.
2009 Grant Heslov 94 R The Men Who Stare at Goats I’ll admit that I got a few chuckles out of this movie but not enough to recommend it. It is a very strange, supposedly true story, but it is difficult to say (much less believe) what is true and what isn’t. The movie opens with a statement to the effect that there is more in the story that is true than you would believe, but the disclaimer in the closing credits labels it all as fiction. It is based on a non-fiction book of the same title by Jon Ronson, who does claim it is a true story. In an interview, Ronson was quoted as saying "a huge amount of the stuff in the film really happened, albeit sometimes in a different way." Basically the movie suggests that there was a secret division of the military that was engaged in developing psychic powers as a weapon. Supposedly one of the demonstrated powers was the ability to kill a goat by staring at it. The main character in the film is journalist Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) who discovers the existence of the odd military program by chance and then seeks to interview the people involved, including characters portrayed by George Clooney, Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey. It’s mildly amusing but probably too off-beat for most people.
2009 Roland Emmerich 158 PG-13 2012 This is one of the best disaster movies ever made. Of course the premise is hogwash and the science is seriously flawed, but if entertainment is what you want, you won’t be disappointed. Like many major disaster films it is a long one, clocking in at over two and a half hours, but you won’t mind because it is never boring. Spectacular special effects abound but they also do a pretty good job of letting you get to know the main characters. A big disaster film must of course have a large cast and this one includes John Cusack, Thandie Newton, Oliver Platt, Woody Harrelson, Danny Glover, John Billingsley & George Segal. By the way, when I classified this as a “disaster movie,” I was really thinking of imagined disasters and excluding films based on real historical disasters. But any way you define “disaster movie” I think you will enjoy this, especially if you see it on a large screen with a great sound system.
2009 Richard Curtis 116 R Pirate Radio Apparently the original title of this British release was “The Boat That Rocked” but somebody decided to change it for the American market. It dramatizes and perhaps romanticizes the DJs who fought Britain’s ban on radio broadcasts of Rock & Roll music, back in the 1960s. To circumvent this ban, a group of DJs established a radio station on a ship in the North Sea (actually there were several ships from various European countries but this film makes no mention of that). The most well known actor appearing as one of the DJs is Philip Seymour Hoffman. Kenneth Branagh was quite funny as Sir Alistair Dormandy, the stiff British official charged with stopping the broadcasts from the boat, which was eventually accomplished through legal means in 1967. Naturally, the music played in this film was right up my alley, but overall, I was disappointed in the movie. The last quarter hour was quite entertaining but the rest of the film was not as well done, devoting too much time to the somewhat pathetic sexual exploits of the DJs. I have since learned that the original British version of this was 135 minutes long which means a lot was cut from the American release, in fact, I’m not even sure my local theater showed all of the American version. No doubt the longer version will eventually make it to DVD and then I’ll give it another look to see if the full-length version is any better. And if you think you might find this film interesting I suggest you also do the same. At the very least the DVD ought to include the missing bits as extras. The ‘R’ rating is for nudity and language.
2007 Lee Tamahori 96 PG-13 Next Nicolas Cage, Julianne Moore & Jessica Biel star in an exiting action thriller with a little of the paranormal in the premise. Cage performs a magician act in Las Vegas under the stage name of Frank Cadillac. His secret is that some of his routines are not based on slight-of-hand but on his inexplicable native talent for seeing into the future. But the catch is that he can only see his own future and only up to two minutes in advance. He has tried all his life to maintain a low profile so that his ability won’t be suspected or exploited by others. Moore, who has seen his magic act, is an FBI agent who begins to suspect the truth and attempts to recruit him to assist the FBI in preventing an act of terrorism. To create a third angle on this, the writers conceived a single exception to Cage’s precognition limitations: there is a woman he has been able to foresee days in advance of meeting her for the first time. Also, the terrorists get wind of the fact the FBI has taken an interest in Cage, so they are also chasing after him. I’m sure you could find holes in this plot if you wanted to or complain about the use of clichés, but don’t bother; just enjoy the fun.
2009 Alex Proyas 121 PG-13 Knowing Nicolas Cage stars in this science-fiction thriller that is perhaps a bit too predictable at times but does have some impressive special effects sequences. The story is really quite bizarre and what starts out seeming like a run of the mill tale of the paranormal, transforms into something quite different. It begins when a time-capsule is opened, revealing a set of drawings stored there fifty years before by school children. They had been told to draw their impressions of the future. But one child had filled her page with an apparently random sequence of numbers instead of a drawing. The contents of the capsule were distributed to the present day children of the same school and Cage’s son was the “lucky” recipient of the page of numbers. Cage’s curiosity gets the best of him and he tries to find meaning in the numbers. What he finds is a list of all the major disasters that have occurred in the last fifty years, but the last few dates in the list are in the future. So now Cage is faced with the prospect of knowing about future disasters. This all seems fairly straight forward, but while all this is going on, very mysterious things start happening to Cage’s son, which at first seem totally unrelated and almost feels like a different movie. Eventually this added weirdness connects with the first plot line and leads to the climax of the story. But it’s got so many things that don’t make sense that many people will probably will have trouble sticking with it.
2009 Armando Iannucci 106 NR In The Loop This is without a doubt the funniest movie of 2009. But I have to warn you that there probably hasn’t been a movie with such an unbelievable flood of expletives and vulgar insults since "Glengarry Glen Ross" (1992). This probably explains why there is no official MPAA rating, though I would have thought that ‘R’ would suffice, but perhaps even the MPAA draws the line at this level of swearing. And since it is a British production, they also use swear words unique to their culture. It is a very funny biting satire of both the British and American governments. There really isn’t much of a plot but this kind of screenplay doesn’t really need one. It is more like placing the audience in the position of the proverbial “fly on the wall” in the halls of government in both countries. For the most part the movie is just a series of meetings between British and American officials regarding a possible war in the Middle East. The subjects of conversation are so generic that they could be talking about any world conflict at any time; the subject of the meetings is never really the point of the movie. The film gives you a view of government behind closed doors that is probably everything you think it is but hope it isn’t. The acting is outstanding, though the only actor I recognized was James Gandolfini.
2007 Gus Van Sant 85 R Paranoid Park I don’t know what there was about the trailer for this that motivated me to see it, but it clearly was misleading. To start with it is a bit confusing due to its nonlinear structure. And not only are many scenes out of sequence, many are also repeated later in the film. A particularly annoying feature is the overuse of slow motion. Many scenes were slowed down for no apparent reason other than to make it last long enough to play the background song. And then there was the scene where you couldn’t hear what the girl was saying because it was deliberately drowned out by the music; sorry, I’m not a lip reader. Also, the story doesn’t have much of a resolution of things at the end. You could argue that there was a type of psychological resolution for the main character but not so much for the audience. This main character is Alex (Gabe Nevins), a high school student in Portland, Oregon. He likes to skateboard and there are many scenes of that activity. Paranoid Park is a popular skateboarding park frequented by a “rough” crowd of young people, but Alex goes there sometimes anyway. One day the police start interrogating all the skateboarders at the school because of a suspicious death that occurred on the railroad tracks near that park. Alex appears to know something about it but keeps it to himself. That’s about as much as I can say without giving away the whole story. It’s actually not such a bad story, it just wasn’t presented in a way that appealed to me. The ‘R’ rating is for some language and a rather tame sex scene but mostly it is probably for one very gruesome depiction of the aforementioned death.
2009 Tony Scott 106 R The Taking of Pelham 123 This is a remake of the 1974 movie of the same title (though technically that one was spelled “One Two Three” instead of the digits in the present title). I never saw the original so I cannot make any comparison. This one stars Denzel Washington as the transit center dispatcher who first discovers that the Pelham 123 subway train has been hijacked. The hijacker is played by John Travolta. John Turturro appears as a police hostage negotiator and James Gandolfini is the mayor of New York. Maybe I’ve just seen too many movies with this same type of hostage situation but there weren’t too many surprises here. The last twenty minutes were pretty suspenseful and action packed but the rest of it was pretty ordinary stuff. The criticism I’ve read seems to suggest that the 1974 film is much better, so you might want to consider renting that one instead. Rated ‘R’ for strong language and weapons violence.
2009 Lone Scherfig 100 PG-13 An Education This is a very good British drama which I suppose you might call a “coming of age” story. The screenplay was derived from the autobiography of British journalist Lynn Barber. Some names and details were changed but the general flow of the plot is what really happened. In the film, the character representing Barber is named Jenny. In the story, Jenny is 16 but the actress, Carey Mulligan, was actually about 23 when the film was made. What happens to Jenny is that she meets a much older man, probably about 30. She finds him quite charming and he does a very good job of charming her parents, who clearly would normally have had serious objections to this relationship. The relationship starts to get in the way of her plans to attend Oxford, but I won’t reveal any more than that. Although most of the cast is probably unknown to American audiences, you’ll probably recognize Emma Thompson as the Headmistress of Jenny's school. If you’re interested in the true story behind this, Barber published a summary in her paper, “The Observer,” which can be viewed at this Internet address: http://tinyurl.com/of4taa
2009 Phil Lord + Chris Miller 90 PG Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs It is difficult to imagine a story idea more absurd than this but it has its origins in the 1978 children’s book by Judi Barrett. I don’t know how the film differs from the book, but what we have here is an amateur scientist named Flint who invents a machine that can convert water into food. But when the machine is accidentally launched into the sky, it begins causing “rain” in the form of food. The initial test run produced cheeseburgers but Flint was able to program the machine to toss out any kind of food you like. Now the town has an unlimited supply of food falling from the sky and the mayor has become quite obese (strangely he seems to be the only one getting fat). There is also a love story subplot with Flint and the TV reporter covering the unusual “weather.” If you don’t already know, this is an animated feature. And even though it is only ninety minutes, that still seemed a bit more than was needed to explore the original concept. Not that it was ever boring, but it just seemed at times like they were trying to squeeze the very last drop out of the idea. They also would have done well to eliminate the character known as 'Baby' Brent, whom I found particularly annoying. It’s a cute idea and is pretty funny much of the time though it may have greater appeal to children. As with most animated feature films these days, some of the characters are voiced by well known celebrities, so the adults in the crowd may recognize the voices of James Caan, Mr. T, and Al Roker. And finally, I should mention that this was originally presented in 3D but by the time I got around to seeing it, only the “flat” 2D version was showing.
2009 Spike Jonze 101 PG Where the Wild Things Are This is based on a children’s book of the same title by Maurice Sendak. I looked the book up on the Internet and discovered that the author provided his own illustrations of the story and I immediately saw that the characters in the film were very closely modeled on his drawings. So for those familiar with the book (originally published in 1963) you will no doubt be pleased with the visual realization of the film. This may be the shortest book ever made into a film, as my understanding is that the book contains no more than ten sentences. Max (Max Records) is a boy with a very active imagination. Amongst his play acting routines he likes to run around in a wolf suit. One day he runs away from home while wearing the suit. He steals a sail boat and heads out to sea. Eventually he lands on a remote island where he discovers a group of strange creatures. They look like seven foot tall Muppets; there appear to be seven of them. When they discover Max watching them in the forest, he tells them that he is a king and so they give him a crown and become subservient to him. Like many boys, Max loves to built forts and his new friends are more than happy to build a huge one for him. The games they play are sometimes fun but sometimes surprisingly brutal as in the dirt clod war. Nobody is fatally injured so in that regard these giant puppets are like cartoon characters who never die regardless of how violently they are injured (e.g., Wile E. Coyote in the "Roadrunner" cartoons). I found it interesting but not very entertaining. Even though it is based on a children’s book and is only rated PG, I’m not convinced that it is a movie for children and I think most adults will probably have mixed feelings about it.
2008 Scott Derrickson 104 PG-13 The Day the Earth Stood Still A surprisingly good remake of the 1951 science-fiction classic. Special effects technology not available in 1951 has been used to make interesting variations in the story but overall the plot is basically the same. Earth is invaded by space aliens, landing first in New York’s Central Park. The only envoy who emerges from the spaceship is a human-like being named Klaatu (Keanu Reeves). There is also a giant robot named Gort which comes out to guard the spaceship. The military is bent on destroying the aliens but an American scientist, Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly), wants to communicate with Klaatu and understand his mission. I won’t reveal his mission, but I will say that the threat to Earth that he tells people about is very different from the one in the 1951 film. The earlier film may arguably be the better version, telling the story more efficiently and effectively, but I found the new version satisfyingly entertaining. However, I will admit that statistically, I am in the minority in my opinion.
2003 Michael Schorr 109 PG Schultze Gets the Blues A vastly underrated little gem of a movie from Germany. Interestingly the title is in English even for the German market, but most of the dialogue is German with optional English subtitles. It is a slow, quiet film that you have to let grow on you. A retired miner whose hobby is playing the accordion, discovers late in life that he likes a uniquely American style of music from the deep south known as Zydeco. He is so shocked by his sudden interest in this non-German music that he asks his doctor if something is wrong. Then he begins performing this new music for local audiences. He decides he should visit America to learn more about it and with the help of his music club makes the solo journey of a lifetime. There isn’t much dialogue and the most action you’ll see is some dancing. It won many international awards but didn’t get much play in the U.S. The style is probably too laid-back for young people but I found it to be a very touching story with a good sense of humor. Filmed in Germany, Louisiana & Texas. One thing I feel I should mention that detracts from the otherwise good nature of this movie is a scene in which the English subtitles contain the “N-word” in place of “Negro.” I’m not certain what German word they were translating, so I cannot vouch for its accuracy, but I did read an online discussion of this point that suggests the subtitles are in error.
1994/2008 Wong Kar Wai 93 R Ashes of Time Redux Chinese: “Dung che sai duk.” There are actually two cuts of this film, the 1994 release without “Redux” in the title and the one I saw on DVD which is the shorter “Redux” version released in 2008. The original cut is reported to be about seven minutes longer. It is a visually striking drama involving multiple love stories. They are told by an unlikely narrator, Ouyang Feng, who is sort of an agent for hired assassins. In voice-overs he recounts tales of his clients, his hired assassins and their love interests. Although frequently described as a martial arts movie, there are only a few sword battles and they are stylized through camera and editing techniques in a way that is not typical of martial arts films. None of that Hong Kong style that has people flying about. And furthermore, martial arts isn’t the main focus of the story. I found it very confusing the first time around because some of the characters looked very similar and in fact two characters were really the same person with a split personality, male and female. And it’s not just me, as the director mentioned this perception problem in an interview included on the DVD (he also explains why he created the Redux version; actually it is one of the best director interviews I’ve ever seen). There are also twists of time adding to the confusion and sometimes someone other than Feng is narrating. It’s hard to explain but even as I noted my confusion I sensed that this was a great film and therefore was willing to accept the challenge of understanding it. I recommend watching it at least twice. Beautiful photography with saturated color emphasizing yellows and reds. The subtitles occasionally require speed reading but mostly were quite well done.
2008 Woody Allen 96 PG-13 Vicky Cristina Barcelona Continuing with his recent trend of filming in Europe rather than in New York City, Woody Allen took this romantic comedy to Spain. Grammatically the title is actually three sentences. Vicky. Cristina. Barcelona. Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) are friends who take a summer vacation to Barcelona where they stay with Vicky’s relatives, Judy and Mark. Juan Antonio Gonzalo (Javier Bardem), a local artist, takes a strong liking to both Vicky and Cristina and invites them to fly away with him for the weekend to the town of Oviedo (over 500 miles from Barcelona). Complicating matters is the fact that Vicky is engaged to be married as soon as she returns to the U.S. Cristina is the more free spirited of the two and convinces Vicky to go along on this weekend fling. Both girls are in fact attracted to Juan and then things get even more complicated when Juan’s suicidal ex-wife (Penélope Cruz) shows up and settles into Juan’s guest room. Could it possibly get more complicated? Yes, but I’ll stop there. In case you’re wondering, Woody is not in the cast, though if you close your eyes you can hear his voice in the words. There are not as many laughs in this as I had hoped for; the humor is more in the craziness of the relationships than in strings of funny dialogue. And being a Woody Allen film, there is plenty of dialogue, including a lot of voice-over narration.
2009 Lee Daniels 110 R Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire A powerful, well-written, well-acted drama, but seriously depressing. As the title indicates, this is based on a novel, but it is very easy to believe that things like this really do happen. The central character, Claireece “Precious” Jones (Gabourey Sidibe), is an extremely obese 16-year-old illiterate black girl who is pregnant with her second child by incest. Her mother (Mo'Nique) is on welfare and never married her father. Precious is expelled from public school and must attend an alternative school, and meet regularly with a welfare worker (Mariah Carey). Her mother’s vocabulary consists primarily of the F-word; in one continuous tirade she must have said it two dozen times (needless to say this is rated ‘R’ and also for the rape scene). This won’t be everybody’s cup of tea but if you think you can handle the unpleasant aspects of the story you will not easily forget the experience.
2007 Bent Hamer 90 PG-13 O’ Horten Norwegian with English subtitles. Lest you fall into the same trap I did, I will explain that the title is actually two words, “O’” and “Horten” and not an Irish surname; presumably “O’” is an abbreviation for “Odd.” Odd Horten (Bård Owe), at age 67, retires from a long career as a railroad engineer. He has the expected retirement party, visits his mother in a nursing home and contracts to sell his boat. He experiences a very simple and quiet retirement but from time to time finds himself in a number of unusual but amusing situations. This is very good, though as you might gather, it runs at a very relaxed pace. It is far removed from the world of action but still very satisfying. Highly recommended.
2009 Werner Herzog 122 R The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans Nicolas Cage plays Lt. Terence McDonagh, of the New Orleans Police Department. And he is one bad cop. He will do anything to (a) obtain a conviction in a murder case; (b) pay off his bookie and (c) obtain drugs for himself and his prostitute girlfriend. In spite of being on a cocaine buzz all the time and experiencing periodic hallucinations involving reptiles, he manages to keep his job and earn promotions. Cage’s performance is quite good. One interesting performance detail is how he deals with his character’s back problem and throughout the film walks around with his shoulders tilted down to the right. The film isn’t so much a story with a plot as it is a snapshot of the Lieutenant’s life viewed during the course of a single criminal investigation. It is clear by the end that this snapshot is just one iteration of a repetitive cycle. The ‘R’ rating covers all the bases: strong language, sex, drugs and violence. Some people (but not the director) have claimed this is a remake of the 1992 “Bad Lieutenant” (which starred Harvey Keitel as the bad cop), however I haven’t seen that movie so I cannot offer a comparison. But on its own this version is a very good police drama, provided you are tolerant of the strong content. It also helps if you appreciate Nicolas Cage in his wilder moments.
2003 Mark Achbar + Jennifer Abbott 144 NR The Corporation An excellent documentary that discusses corporate greed, corporate responsibility (or lack thereof) and the relationships between corporations, governments, the environment and citizens. A lot of shocking revelations here. Makes you want to boycott almost every company you ever heard of. And if learning about these types of things upsets you (in the sense that you feel you have been wronged), this will make your blood boil. Includes dozens of interviews with people including corporate CEO’s, the media, authors, scientists, activist groups and others. I think my favorite quote is one by documentary filmmaker Michael Moore, who talked about the irony of corporate funding of his films that oppose corporations. He called it the “greed flaw” of capitalism: “The rich man will sell you the rope to hang himself with if he thinks he can make a buck off it.” The DVD release includes a second disc which contains over five hours of the original interview footage that was edited down for the film. Also, on disc-1, is a very good radio interview with Joel Bakan, the author of the book on which the film is based. Everyone from high-school age and up should see this documentary. It is highly educational and surprisingly entertaining.
2009 John Hillcoat 111 R The Road In the category of “post-apocalyptic” stories, this was a real surprise. A remarkable, touching story, of a man (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) trying to survive the “nuclear winter” following what apparently was a massive atomic war (though the details of what happened are never mentioned). Some of it was even filmed near Mount St. Helens to capture that strange landscape from a real disaster. Mixed occasionally with flashbacks to their life shortly after the war, we see them searching for the most meager of edible items anywhere they can and trying to stay out of sight of other scattered survivors whose intent is uncertain. Sometimes they even come across evidence of cannibalism. The ‘R’ rating is mostly for a few disturbing images, as there really is very little violence. It is a bit scary at times though. Great performance by Mortensen; the boy was quite impressive as well. A brief supporting part played by Robert Duvall was also well done (he is in such heavy makeup that you really need to be familiar with his voice to recognize him). Also featured is Charlize Theron in the flashbacks as a character known only as “Woman” but who is clearly the boy’s mother. Similarly the man and his son are also without given names. The images of this grim landscape are very powerful and make you seriously question how you would fare under such desperate circumstances. The relationship between the father and son is very moving and is very much the reason for seeing this great film.
1992 Joe Berlinger + Bruce Sinofsky 105 NR Brother’s Keeper If you like TV programs about investigations of true-crimes, you will probably enjoy this documentary. In 1990, Delbert Ward, of Madison County, New York, was accused of killing his older brother, Bill. There were four Ward brothers who were farmers and all lived together in a very small run-down house. Delbert signed a confession but many claimed it was coerced. Conflicting stories came out about what people had said and done prior to Bill’s death and complicating matters was the fact that all three surviving brothers were poorly educated, mostly illiterate and apparently Delbert didn’t own a functioning pair of reading glasses. I won’t go into any more details but the film has interviews with friends, neighbors and relatives of the Ward brothers and covers the trial from beginning to end. The case even received TV coverage by Connie Chung. The only warning I have for you about this film is that it includes a very graphic scene of a hog being slaughtered, which I felt was completely unnecessary to show and not really relevant.
1950 John Huston 112 NR The Asphalt Jungle A classic “film-noir” cops and robbers story featuring Sterling Hayden, James Whitmore, Sam Jaffe, John McIntire and even Marilyn Monroe in one of her early film roles. It’s a pretty basic plot of a high-stakes jewel heist and the subsequent pursuit of the criminals by the police. But it is a well written story (co-written by director John Huston) that makes for a great period piece.
2009 John Lee Hancock 128 PG-13 The Blind Side Sandra Bullock stars in this outstanding true-story about a white family in Memphis, that took in a homeless black boy and helped him earn a football scholarship. The boy’s name was Michael Oher and he is now a player for the Baltimore Ravens. Quinton Aaron plays the role of Michael. Although billed as a “sports drama” the screenplay is so filled with good humor that I think of it as a comedy. But it is also a very moving story with a very strong performance by Bullock, backed up very nicely by all the supporting actors. One of the best movies of 2009 so far.
2006 Wang Quanan 91 NR Tuya’s Marriage Chinese: “Tuya de hun shi.” Set in remote Inner Mongolia, this is a very interesting story about a woman struggling to support her family. Tuya’s husband is disabled and so she must herd the sheep and raise their two young children herself. She finally decides that she can’t do it all alone anymore. But to get what she wants she must divorce her husband so that she is free to remarry an able-bodied man, but only one willing to help care for her now ex-husband. Many suitors come by but but most don’t like her terms. I won’t say how things turn out but I will say that I was puzzled by the ending since it was very abrupt and left me wondering what happened. The woman in the role of Tuya, Yu Nan, was the only professional actor, the rest were all local residents. A lot of the Chinese movies I’ve seen (excluding most of the martial arts ones) have featured a central character who is a very strong willed woman and this film follows that pattern. Life in that environment is clearly not easy and both inner and outer strength is essential to survival. So with the real life setting and mostly real life people it can be thought of as a cultural education to watch this, even if the screenplay is fiction.
2007 Denzel Washington 127 PG-13 The Great Debaters An uplifting underdog story based in part on the real life success of the Wiley College (Texas) debate team in 1935. Denzel Washington, in addition to directing, stars as Melvin B. Tolson, the professor coaching the debate team. In the film version of the story, Tolson selected four students from his English class, two primary and two alternates, which included one woman. The film expands the story of the team’s progress towards the national championship by adding a subplot in which Professor Tolson is secretly involved in unionization efforts. When this becomes public knowledge, it threatens to destroy the debate team. Although their ultimate opponent in the film is the Harvard debate team, in real life it was actually the University of Southern California. And unfortunately, because blacks were not allowed to be members of the debate society at that time, they were not allowed to publicly acknowledge their victory. Also worth noting is the performance by Forest Whitaker as the father of one of the debate team members. Although rated PG-13, the film does include some serious racial violence, as well as significant use of the N-word (I am surprised that the N-word does not qualify for an ‘R’ rating).
2008 Robert Luketic 123 PG-13 21 Kevin Spacey stars as a mathematics professor at M.I.T. who assembles a group of students for the purpose of beating the blackjack tables in Las Vegas. The plot is loosely based on an actual case of a group of students who learned “card counting” and used the technique to win a ton of money. In the film we are introduced to Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess), one of Spacey’s brightest students, who is invited to become the newest member of this secret club. He sees it as a way to obtain the money he needs for medical school. Behind the scenes in Las Vegas, however, is a casino security man, played by Laurence Fishburne, who likes to keep an eye out for card counters. I won’t go into any more details but Ben does learn some important lessons and the plot has some good twists and turns. A good piece of light entertainment. By the way, if you’re a fan of the TV series, “NCIS,” you may notice that one of the students on the blackjack team is played by Liza Lapira, who was “Special Agent Michelle Lee” in twelve episodes of that show.
2009 Henry Selick 101 PG Coraline A very clever and imaginative animated feature about a young girl with blue hair named Coraline (voiced by Dakota Fanning). Her family has just moved into a large old multi-family house. Her parents never have any time for her and all the neighbors mispronounce her name as “Caroline.” One day she discovers a secret tunnel in the wall that takes her to an identical house but with nice parents who give her lots of attention. But there’s one problem. Her new “other mother” and “other father” have buttons in place of their eyes. After several visits, Other-Mother tries to entice Coraline to stay and never go back to her real parents. Unfortunately the price of this arrangement is more than Coraline is willing to pay. There are also subplots involving the various neighbors. While this seems like it would be a great story for children, it may be too scary for the younger ones. In these days of computer animation it is surprising to see anyone still using the stop-motion technique but that’s what this is and it was even made in 3D for its initial theatrical release (which I did not see). The DVD includes an alleged 3D version on the flip side but unless you purchase the DVD it doesn’t come with the required 3D glasses (which are not the same type used in the theater), nor does the DVD case even mention that the glasses are required. Most comments I’ve read seem to indicate that the 3D effect on the DVD is very ineffective and actually degrades the viewing experience. So I recommend watching the “flat” 2D version on side one.
2008 Pierre Morel 91 PG-13 Taken An exciting though fairly violent kidnapping thriller (but apparently still within the limits of PG-13). Liam Neeson stars as Bryan Mills, the divorced father of a 17-year-old girl who is kidnapped while visiting Paris with her girlfriend. The kidnappers picked the wrong man to mess with because Mills is a former U.S. government intelligence agent and has exactly the skills necessary to hunt them down. And believe me, “hunt” is the right word. Although most of the violence is just gunfire related, there is a high body count in Mr. Mills’ path. It’s a pretty straight forward “kill the bad guys and save the girl” plot but it is well done and never boring.
2008 Jon Favreau 126 PG-13 Iron Man A very exciting new action-hero adventure starring Robert Downey Jr. as genius inventor and billionaire Tony Stark. I went into this thinking it was just another superhero story but it surprised me. While the plot does have parallels to such superhero films as “Batman” and “The Incredible Hulk,” the back-story on this new hero is quite different. Mr. Stark runs a huge weapons company providing weapons to the U.S. military in Afghanistan. He visits the troops there to demonstrate a new weapon but ends up captured by the enemy. They force him to build one of those weapons for them but he tricks them by building instead an incredible suit of armor that enables him to escape. Back home he abandons weapon building and begins construction of a vastly superior version of this suit. If you’ve seen any of the “RoboCop” movies, you will have some idea of the type of metalic suit Mr. Stark is making for himself, though it goes way beyond that in its capabilities. A very good cast of supporting characters played by Jeff Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow and Terrence Howard. I almost didn’t recognize Jeff Bridges because for this role he shaved his head and grew a full beard! There is some war-action violence but nothing extreme. A special word of advice: do not stop watching when the end-credits roll. There is a very important extra scene after the credits. It appears to be a hint of the sequel currently slated for release in 2010.
2009 Clint Eastwood 133 PG-13 Invictus It has been said before but it is worth repeating, this is the role Morgan Freeman was born to play: Nelson Mandela, as president of South Africa. The story is true and as such has an ending which is a forgone conclusion, but it is a story well told. It is about Mandela’s encouragement of the South African rugby union team, the Springboks, to win the World Cup in 1995, as a means to help unify the people of his country following the elimination of apartheid. It turns out that this was also the team’s very first time participating in a World Cup tournament. The film also features Matt Damon as Francois Pienaar, the captain of the rugby team. Filmed on location in Cape Town and Johannesburg, South Africa. The title match against New Zealand occupies basically the entire third act of the film and gives you a pretty good idea of what rugby is like, at least for those of us not familiar with the game. It is similar to American football but the laws of the game are a bit different. The film is a good history lesson as well as good entertainment.
2008 Baz Luhrmann 165 PG-13 Australia A great sweeping romantic adventure in the outback of northern Australia, set in the years 1939-1941. Nicole Kidman stars as Lady Sarah Ashley, a British woman who travels down under to see her husband on their cattle ranch known as "Faraway Downs." The family wants to sell the ranch but upon arrival she finds her husband murdered. She also discovers a tragic racial situation in which all aboriginal children of mixed race are taken by force to be merged with white society. The film’s introductory remarks inform us that they were known as "The Stolen Generations." Incredibly this "assimilation policy" did not end until 1973. One of these at-risk children lives on the ranch and Lady Ashley tries to hide him from the police. She also must try to sell her cattle but getting them to Darwin poses a problem. The first half of this long epic involves the process of driving the cattle across the beautiful but dangerous outback. Complicating matters are the owners of a competing ranch who want to eliminate the competition at all cost. The other major star in this is Hugh Jackman, who plays Lady Ashley’s love interest. Even though this story is fiction, it is set in a historical period and as such ended up being a bit of a history lesson. I had been unaware that in WW-II, the Japanese attacked Australia. In the film we see this attack and the resulting destruction and confusion as our main characters try to find each other in the rubble. The period of this piece gave the director the opportunity to include references to “The Wizard of Oz” (1939), giving the story another link to reality. Because the film is partly about the aboriginals, the story includes some of their “magic” and other beliefs. The DVD includes an unusual preface, which warns aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders that the film “may contain images and voices of deceased persons.” It is a long but overall very satisfying entertainment.
2004 Michael Radford 131 R The Merchant of Venice A very good film version of Shakespeare’s play. I would never have expected to see Al Pacino performing Shakespeare but here he is in an impressive interpretation of Shylock the Jewish lender. As it turns out, Pacino is expected to appear in a film version of “King Lear” in 2010, so if he does as well with that it should be good. The merchant of the title, Antonio, is played by Jeremy Irons. There is also Joseph Fiennes as the merchant's friend, Bassanio, and Lynn Collins as Portia, the heiress of Belmont. The film follows Shakespeare’s original very closely. Bassanio seeks the hand of Portia but lacks the financial resources to make his bid. His friend, the merchant, obtains for him the funds by taking a loan from Shylock. But Shylock writes into the contract a severe penalty for default on the loan: a “pound of flesh” from Antonio. If you are not familiar with the play I won’t say how things turn out but you can easily enough read it if you are curious. Without checking it word for word I would say the dialogue in the film is true to the language of Shakespeare, which of course can make it difficult to obtain the meaning sometimes even though the language is English. Hats off to the wardrobe crew on this, which was filmed on location in both Venice and Luxembourg. The ‘R’ rating is for some partial nudity and possibly also for the brief but graphic slaughter of an animal. If you like Shakespeare I’m sure you will enjoy this film.
2008 Stephen Daldry 124 R The Reader A very interesting and most unusual love story. Ralph Fiennes stars as Michael Berg, a lawyer in Berlin, Germany. Through flashbacks, he recalls his life, beginning in 1958, when, at age 15, he had an affair with a 36 year old woman who had befriended him when he once fell ill in public. Her name was Hanna Schmitz (played by Kate Winslet, who won the Best Actress Oscar for this role). The title comes from the fact that Hanna enjoyed having Michael read books to her every time they made love. The film’s ‘R’ rating is a result of the many very graphic nudity and sex scenes during this affair that lasted only one summer, after which she suddenly moved away. The young Michael is played by David Kross. Years later while a law student, his class attends a trial and he is shocked to see Hanna as one of the defendants. I won’t give away any more details but the flashbacks continue to bring the story up to 1995 (which serves as the “present” in this story). In addition to the actors already mentioned, there is a very nice supporting part by German actor Bruno Ganz, as Michael’s law professor. This is one of those movies where I knew virtually nothing about it in advance and was pleasantly surprised. I must say though that I did find that Michael’s behavior at various times in the story was a bit puzzling, but I guess that he found great personal conflict in his situation and didn’t necessarily make the choices you or I might have made.
2009 James Cameron 161 PG-13 Avatar A visually stunning science fiction action adventure in the 22nd century. In theaters it is being shown in 3D which gives a more “you are there” feel. The setting is a distant planet known as Pandora, which is home to a non-technological civilization known as the Na'vi. They are human in general outline but are twice our height and their skin is blue. And they are strongly attuned to the natural world in which they live. Enter the people from Earth, whose goal is to exploit Pandora’s mineral resources with little regard for the interests of the native population. To infiltrate and learn more about the Na'vi, they create biological living beings which resemble the Na'vi but which have no conscious mind of their own. The humans are able to remotely control these “avatars” in a way that gives the human controller the sense of actually being in the avatar’s body. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is one of the controllers and he uses his avatar to join one of the Na'vi tribes and learn their ways. Also featured is Sigourney Weaver as Grace, who also controls an avatar. Scully wins the trust of the Na'vi and they make him a member of the tribe. He also falls in love with the daughter of the tribal leader. But now the mineral seekers start destroying the forest in order to begin their mining operation. Naturally the Na'vi don’t take kindly to this and blame Scully for bringing this upon them. The rest of the film is a huge battle between the humans and the Na'vi. As fantastic as the special effects are, at times it seemed like the director was just showing off; the film really could have been a bit shorter. The action sequences are very intense, almost to the point of exhausting the audience. It’s a pretty good story but the special effects do tend to dominate, but the artistic creativity is very impressive.
2009
Jean-Marc Vallée
100
PG
Young Victoria
An overrated costume drama about the early years of the reign of Queen Victoria of England.  It was rather dull to put it simply.  Also, don’t expect a lot of historical accuracy.  The only thing it has going for it are the costumes and the regal sets.
2009
Guy Ritchie
128
PG-13
Sherlock Holmes
Robert Downey Jr. stars in this new interpretation of the classic Sherlock Holmes character.  His powers of deductive reasoning are still second to none but in this film he is much more of an action hero, getting very physically involved with fighting crime, not merely solving the case.  This Holmes is not your typical refined English gentleman.  If you were to take “The Odd Couple” (1968) as an analogy to Holmes and Watson, Downey’s Holmes would be “Oscar” and Watson (Jude Law) would be “Felix.”  The film uses some interesting techniques for giving the audience insight to Holmes’ methodology.  In one approach, they show a slow-motion version of what he is about to do, accompanied by a narration of his thought process, followed by a normal-speed replay as he actually carries out his plan of attack.  In the other approach, you observe a sequence of events and then in a more detailed flashback you see how he pulled it off.  The result is an exciting action crime thriller.  As the saying goes, this is not your father’s Sherlock Holmes (e.g., Jeremy Brett or Basil Rathbone) but this new infusion of action into the legend is very entertaining.