Year Director Running Time MPAA Rating Title Comments
2009 Jason Reitman 109 R Up in the Air A well written romantic comedy starring George Clooney as frequent flyer Ryan Bingham. The reason Ryan flies so much is that his job sends him all over the country to fire people at companies that don’t want to do the “dirty work” themselves. Since this job has him away from home over 200 days a year, he is “up in the air” quite a bit and the film is more about that lifestyle than about firing people. One day Ryan’s boss hires a perky young woman by the name of Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick). She introduces the idea that the company could save a lot of money by firing people remotely via video conferencing rather than in person. Ryan, not wanting to lose out on future frequent-flyer points, insists that Natalie doesn’t understand the business of firing people. So the boss sends them out together so Natalie can experience the process in the field. The rest of the film is their experiences as they fly around the country together. Along the way Ryan meets Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), an attractive woman closer to his age than Natalie and who also is a very frequent flyer. The film also features J.K. Simmons and Sam Elliott in minor roles. Clooney is quite good in this as he demonstrates how to travel efficiently as well as how to fire people without getting emotionally involved. The ‘R’ rating doesn’t really do this justice, since there is no violence and only a glimpse of nudity; the seemingly gratuitous use of the F-word is dispensed with early on, leaving the rest of the film’s dialogue quite tame by comparison.
2004 Jay Roach 115 PG-13 Meet the Fockers If you saw “Meet the Parents” in 2000, then you will be familiar with the character, Gaylord “Greg” Focker, played by Ben Stiller. In that film he met his fiancée’s parents, played by Robert De Niro and Blythe Danner. In this sequel, the cast is reunited to meet Greg’s parents, played by Dustin Hoffman and Barbara Streisand. Also added to the cast this time is a scene-stealing toddler in the role of De Niro’s grandson (nephew of Greg’s fiancée). While there are a lot of funny scenes in this movie, many of them are crude and embarrassing, to say nothing of poor taste. And I still don’t like Ben Stiller.
2009 Nancy Meyers 120 R It’s Complicated A romantic comedy that isn’t very funny. Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin are a divorced couple who are having trouble staying divorced. Which is a big problem since Baldwin has already remarried. And Streep is finding herself attracted to her architect (Steve Martin). I found very little to laugh about and the one big potential laugh had already been given away in the preview trailer. So for me it was a waste of talent, not to mention time.
2008 Rob Minkoff 104 PG-13 The Forbidden Kingdom Although filmed in China, this martial arts fantasy is 99% English language dialogue. It is a curious mix of story telling that borrows from such famous titles as “The Wizard of Oz” (1939), “Lord of the Rings” (2001-2003) and “The Karate Kid” (1984), though the main plot is based on Chinese mythology. Unfortunately it does not entertain as well as any of them. It is somewhat predictable and is probably not the best showcase for this first-time collaboration of martial arts stars Jet Li and Jackie Chan. The main character is Jason (Michael Angarano), a boy who lives in South Boston (it appears that Jason is meant to be of high school age, but the actor was about 21 at the time of filming). Jason's favorite type of movie is martial arts films and he likes to hang out at a Chinese pawn shop where he can buy them on DVDs. One day he discovers a golden (or bronze?) fighting staff in the back of the shop. The shop owner tells him it is a weapon that is waiting to be returned to its rightful owner. Later, a gang of thugs forces Jason to assist them in robbing the pawn shop and Jason attempts to use the staff to fight them off. But then something magical happens and he finds himself in China, though not in the present, but in some mythical past era. After an encounter with a drunk (Jackie Chan as “Lu Yan”) he learns that he must return the staff to the Monkey King (Jet Li, who also plays the monk) before he will be able to return home. So the main part of the adventure is Jason and Lu Yan trying to reach the Monkey King. There is plenty of action and even a love interest for Jason (Liu Yifei as "Sparrow"). Younger teenage boys may enjoy this but adults will probably not be as impressed (especially if they’ve seen better films in this genre).
2002 Cédric Klapisch 122 R L' auberge espagnole Also known as “The Spanish Apartment,” this French-Spanish romantic comedy is very multilingual. The main character, Xavier (Romain Duris), is French, but for most of the film he is sharing an apartment in Barcelona with a varying number of other foreign students who speak Spanish, Danish, German, Italian and English. So when they are all together they speak English since it is the only language they all know. In addition, the official language in Barcelona is Catalan. Xavier decides to leave Paris and his girlfriend (Audrey Tautou in a disappointingly minor role) to spend a year in Barcelona to obtain a graduate degree in Spanish economics for a job he has been promised when he returns. Upon arrival he is befriended by Jean-Michel and Anne-Sophie, a newlywed couple who also arrived on the same flight and he stays with them while trying to find an apartment. Eventually he is accepted by the existing residents of l’auberge espagnole and now his real adventure begins. There is little privacy in the crowded apartment so everyone is pretty much aware of everyone else’s love lives, though some discoveries are made along the way. Xavier learns a lot about life and love from his roommates and other residents of Barcelona. At times it is almost like a travelogue for Barcelona. The comedy aspect of the story is more of the amusing predicament variety than the laugh out loud type. Unfortunately, Xavier turns out to be the least interesting and least likable of these students; he is not the most cheerful fellow and is shockingly rude to his mother. The DVD offers optional English subtitles, but when they speak English the subtitles are suspended, which can be a problem because of the many accents. For this film I found that it works better if you turn off the DVD subtitles and turn on the Closed Caption feature of your TV. Rated ‘R’ for nudity and language. I’m not going to promise that everyone will like this movie but I will say that at least I didn’t feel it was a complete waste of time.
2002 Ram Gopal Varma 155 NR Company This Hindi language film is a long but very exciting crime thriller set in Mumbai, India, and other locations in the eastern hemisphere. The “Company” is an underworld gang headed by Mallik. He hires Chandu to be his right-hand man and they pretty much take over the other gangs in Mumbai. But when the heat from the police gets too hot, they sneak off to Hong Kong and start running the business from there. It is a fairly complicated story with many characters and so it is sometimes difficult to keep track of everyone. For English speaking viewers, the subtitles may be difficult to keep up with as they often disappear from the screen too soon, which only adds to the difficulty of following the story. But if you stick with it I think you’ll find it well worth the effort. Although it does not have an MPAA rating, it probably should be considered an ‘R’ because of the violent shootings of so many people (which should not be surprising given the subject matter). As a side note, which is no reflection on the content of the film, I found that the quality of the digital transfer from film to DVD was very poor, resulting in some very odd digital “artifacts” that were an annoying visual distraction. I’ve never seen this particular problem in any other DVD; I certainly hope that some day it is given the quality of transfer that it deserves.
1975 Lina Wertmüller 117 R Seven Beauties Italian: “Pasqualino Settebellezze.” One does not often think of comedy and the Holocaust at the same time, but the success of another Italian film, “Life is Beautiful” (1997), shows that it can be done. But long before that came this film about one man’s unusual experience during World War II. The film opens with a long montage of WW-II footage accompanied by a poetic narration, the meaning of which can only be evaluated after seeing the entire film but even then it is a little vague. Then we are introduced to Pasqualino Frafuso (Giancarlo Giannini) as he attempts to elude capture by the Germans. Eventually he is captured and forced to work at a prison crematorium in Germany. During all this we occasionally get flashbacks to his life before the war and see how on the one hand he was a ladies man in his town of Naples but at home he had seven ugly sisters. He gets into some trouble that lands him in prison but he manages to get himself released for army service. But now the question is, can he be as clever at getting out of his wartime prison? This film has a very wide range of emotion, running from the very funny to the ghastly and horrifying. It includes what is probably the most unusual sex scene you’ve ever seen, being simultaneously bizarre, repulsive and funny. There are a number of very disturbing images in the war part of the story including the kind of nudity you don’t really want to see. It is a very powerful film with great acting and storytelling. As long as you are prepared for the “ugly” side of the movie you will most likely appreciate its achievment as a work of art.
2009 Terry Gilliam 122 PG-13 The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus This is a very strange fantasy about a man who engages in contests with the devil. The director, Terry Gilliam, is perhaps best known for his animation interludes in the old TV series, “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” If that rings a bell then you will have some inkling as to how wild Gilliam’s imagination is. But I will tell you that his contributions to Monty Python were never the reason I watched that show. His visual fantasies in this film are indeed very imaginative but the characters and overall story did not generate much enthusiasm in me. The title character, played by Christopher Plummer, is immortal. His immortality was his prize when he beat the devil in one contest centuries ago. In this story, the devil goes by the name of “Mr. Nick” and is played by singer Tom Waits (but he does not sing here). The setting of the story appears to be a strange mix of present-day technology and 19th century fashions. It was filmed in both the UK and Vancouver, British Columbia. Dr. Parnassus and his crew are carnival entertainers who take their horse-drawn mobile theater around town, setting up for shows anywhere they think they can draw a crowd. On his stage he has a magical mirror that sends anyone who passes through it to a very colorful fantasy land. Mr. Nick shows up to offer Parnassus a new challenge in the form of collecting souls for the devil and this new contest is a large part of the plot. At the same time there is a character known as Tony who joins the carnival crew though very unusual circumstances and his story becomes a major subplot. Production of the film began with Heath Ledger in the role of Tony, but because Heath died during production, three additional actors were hired to play the part in the scenes filmed after his death: Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell. I have enjoyed some of Gilliam’s earlier films but for me this is not one of his best. Visually it is very impressive but otherwise it didn’t really make me want to see it again.
1989 Simon Wincer 359 NR Lonesome Dove This is an excellent western, well worth the six hours it takes to watch it. Originally presented on TV as a four-part miniseries in February of 1989, it features a great cast including Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, Danny Glover, Diane Lane, Robert Urich, Rick Schroder, Chris Cooper and Barry Corbin. It is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Larry McMurtry. There is an awful lot that happens in the six hours but the central story arc involves a cattle drive from Lonesome Dove, Texas, all the way to Montana, where they become the first people to establish a cattle ranch in that state (or rather, territory at the time). The driving force behind the cattle drive is a pair of former Texas Rangers (Duvall and Jones). It’s a massive effort involving huge risks including dust storms, attacks by Native Americans and encounters with horse thieves. It is not rated but I would guess it might qualify for PG-13. Highly recommended.
1978 Ingmar Bergman 93 NR Autumn Sonata Swedish: “Höstsonaten.” A serious dialogue-driven drama about an estranged mother and daughter. Ingrid Bergman is Charlotte and Liv Ulmann plays her daughter, Eva. Charlotte drops in for a visit after an absence of seven years. She is an accomplished concert pianist but her career greatly interfered with her family life, not only neglecting Eva but also Eva’s disabled sister, Helena. Charlotte’s visit lasts only one night but most of that time is spent in deep emotional discussions with Eva about their past and present relationship. They both give strong performances, especially through the use of facial expression. The scene involving the playing of a piano piece by Chopin is especially powerful and moving. With only a handful of additional actors and almost exclusively a single location, it is a very compact story, almost like a stage play in a small theater. Just as a point of trivia, this was Ingrid Bergman's last film (not counting made-for-TV movies) and the only time she was directed by Ingmar Bergman.
2010 Albert Hughes + Allen Hughes 117 R The Book of Eli This is about a man of unswerving faith, trying to ensure the survival of the last remaining copy of the Bible, thirty years after an apocalyptic war that devastated the planet. Eli (Denzel Washington) has been walking across America, headed for the west coast, the entire 31 years since the war. Eli believes that God spoke to him and will protect him on his journey. Along the way he ends up in a small shambles of a town where a group of survivors are under the control of “Carnegie” (Gary Oldman), who is sort of like a mob boss. He has been searching for a copy of the Bible, hoping to use the power of its words to extend his control of the surviving population. Eli and Carnegie are among the few survivors old enough to remember what the world was like “before.” Once Carnegie realizes that Eli has a Bible, the action ramps up in the battle for possession. Although Eli has been traveling alone up to this point, Carnegie’s daughter (Mila Kunis) joins him on his mission. The film also features Tom Waits and Malcolm McDowell. Unlike the recent post-apocalyptic film, “The Road” (2009), this movie is much more violent, owing more of a legacy to the “Mad Max” series of films. If what I’ve said so far has you interested, I think you’ll probably enjoy the action, suspense and surprises in this movie.
2007 Chen Shi-Zheng 88 R Dark Matter The ending of this movie took me by surprise in a way that made me wish I had done a little more homework before watching it. You might react differently but since the story is based on a real event I think it is reasonable to identify that event, especially since it is not the only event of its type and some people appear to have assumed it was based on a different event (but if you don’t want to know, skip to the last sentence). On November 1, 1991, Lu Gang, a former physics student at the University of Iowa, returned to the school and committed a murder-suicide. Lu had graduated from Beijing University in 1985 and came to the U.S. to get his doctorate degree. For the purposes of the movie, the student’s name was changed to Liu Xing (played by Liu Ye) and the school was not identified. Also, his area of study was changed to cosmology and his thesis was about a theory of dark matter (which, if you haven’t heard, is an unseen substance that makes up the majority of the mass of the universe). Although inspired by the Lu Gang incident, the plot of this film does not pretend to be an accurate recreation of events. But it does tell the story of how a brilliant Chinese student with high hopes of success in America, encountered cultural and political barriers that shattered his dreams. His cultural “fish out of water” experiences were based on the director’s own experience when he first came to the U.S. in 1987. The cast also includes Meryl Streep in a supporting role as a university patron who enjoys helping Chinese students become familiar with American culture. For an American production there is a surprising amount of English subtitles because of the many Chinese speaking parts. Naturally I was interested in the science in the story but that was only the “MacGuffin.” Overall I would only rate the film as average.
2007 Billy Ray 110 PG-13 Breach Very good suspense thriller about how the FBI brought down one of their own, Robert Hanssen, for selling secrets to the Soviets. Excellent casting with Chris Cooper as Robert Hanssen, Ryan Phillippe as Eric O’Neill, the young FBI employee assigned to covertly investigate Hanssen, and Laura Linney as Kate Burroughs, the agent guiding Eric’s under cover work. Some details of course were changed but for the most part it is a true story. Hanssen was arrested in 2001 and is now serving a life sentence.
1941 John Baxter 81 NR Crook’s Tour This is an odd little comedy with a very British sense of humor and also somewhat dated in its style. What is unique about it is that its two lead characters, Charters (Basil Radford) and Caldicott (Naunton Wayne), first appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Lady Vanishes” (1938) and were played by the same actors in both films. And in fact this is the second of three “spin-off” movies that kept these two characters alive as a result of their British audience appeal in Hitchcock’s film. Although the characters were used again after that, Radford & Wayne never repeated the roles beyond 1943. I only discovered this film because it is included as an “extra” on disc #2 of the Criterion Collection DVD release of “The Lady Vanishes.” That is probably the only place you will be able to find it. As I said it is a bit dated but I found it to be quite funny at times and often just plain absurd. The basic plot is that Charters and Caldicott are on a tour of the Middle East when their touring car runs out of gas in the desert. A passing sheik (Charles Oliver) is able to help them refuel but they abort the original itinerary and return to Baghdad. While waiting for a train they go to a restaurant featuring an “Owl Dance” by a woman who goes by the stage name of “La Palermo” (Greta Gynt). There they are mistaken for German agents. And thus a comedy of errors ensues as the Germans try to retrieve the secret message that was mistakenly passed to Caldicott.
2008 Ole Christian Madsen 136 NR Flame and Citron Danish and German: “Flammen & Citronen.” A violent but very well done action thriller set in Denmark, during the Nazi occupation, 1944. A true story, “Flame” and “Citron” are nicknames of two Danish resistance fighters in Copenhagen who worked as a team and as friends. They were considered heroes for their achievements in killing Danish supporters of the Nazis. Their real names were Bent Faurschou-Hviid (Flame) and Jørgen Haagen Schmith (Citron). The story gets rather tricky as you soon realize it is difficult for any of them to know who to trust. The atmosphere created by the photography is impressive. There is no MPAA rating but it probably should be considered an ‘R’ for the graphic shooting violence and some sexual scenes.
2009 Ricky Gervais + Matthew Robinson 99 PG-13 The Invention of Lying A clever romantic comedy that could be described as the inverse of “Liar Liar” (1997). In that film, Jim Carrey was under a spell that forced him to tell the truth in a world where lying is commonplace. In this film, Ricky Gervais lives in a world where the concept of lying simply doesn’t exist. But one day, in a moment of desperation, he discovers that he can say anything that isn’t true and everyone will believe him. He keeps this discovery to himself and learns how to use it to great advantage. He tried dating an attractive woman (Jennifer Garner) but of course she tells him what she really thinks of him and nixes any possibility of future dates. So naturally he tries to use his secret ability to change that. Some of his lies, however, start to have consequences that he never imagined. Most of the jokes based on this concept are quite good; the writers came up with some pretty good ideas about what people would say if they spoke what they really thought without reservation. And by the way, Ricky Gervais also co-wrote and co-directed this picture in addition to his starring role as the liar, Mark Bellison. The only thing that might put a dent in this for some people is what I would call a religious parody that develops out of one of Mark’s lies. It seems harmless enough to me but you never know who might take offense to that sort of thing. There is also some dialogue that seems a bit too adult to be in a PG-13 movie but I guess I’m falling behind the times in terms of what is acceptable conversation for that age group. The film also features Rob Lowe, Tina Fey, Jeffrey Tambor, Edward Norton & Philip Seymour Hoffman (the latter two, in uncredited cameo roles).
2001 Albert Hughes + Allen Hughes 122 R From Hell This crime thriller is one in a long line of films about Jack the Ripper. The title of course suggests that whoever he was, he must have come from Hell. As usual it takes place in the dark of night in 19th century London, making for a dark and scary world. Each story about the Ripper offers its own explanation of who he was, why he killed all those women and what became of him, but I won’t give away this film’s answers. I will explain that in this telling, Johnny Depp plays Inspector Frederick Abberline, who is investigating the latest string of murders of prostitutes. He also happens to be a bit psychic as well as an opium addict. Along the way he takes a liking to one of prostitutes who is in danger of becoming a future victim (Heather Graham as Mary Kelly). The film also features Ian Holm and Robbie Coltrane. As you might imagine, this is pretty bloody and definitely deserves its ‘R’ rating (which also covers nudity, language and drug use). But in the end it is just another Ripper story and really doesn’t stand out among the many.
2008 Lary Charles 101 R Religulous Comedian Bill Maher takes the “Michael Moore” approach to film making in this documentary style investigation of religion. He interviews Christians, Jews, Muslims, ex-Mormans, evangelists, creationists and even a man who believes he is a direct descendent of Jesus. He does not make a lot of friends. He was kicked out of the Vatican and not granted any interviews there. If Maher is sincere in this film it is clear that he is an atheist or at the very least a skeptic. He takes all of his targets to task for their irrational beliefs, often mocking them on camera. In the context of what Maher set out to accomplish here I’d say he did a very good job of poking fun at religion, but at the same time I would expect many people to be greatly offended.
2004 Danny Boyle 99 PG Millions A cute story about a little boy who finds a large bag of money and tries to give it away to the poor without causing suspicion. The setting is somewhere in England, so the money in the bag is in various denominations of Pounds Sterling (over £200,000). Curiously the story also is set around an event that I guess some people thought was going to happen but still hasn’t: the conversion of the British Pound to the Euro. So in this context, the boy (and his older brother) actually have a time limit to spend the money or somehow convert it to Euros before the Pound becomes worthless. The story is also part fantasy because the boy frequently has visions of saints, whom he talks to as if they were old friends. Also, the boy believes the money is a gift from God and that is why he feels so strongly about giving it to the poor. However, things get more complicated when he learns the true source of the money. The young actor, Alex Etel, who plays seven-year-old Damian, is a treat to watch.
1983 Andrei Tarkovsky 125 NR Nostalghia Although the director was Russian, this entire film was made on location in Italy (mostly Tuscany), so most of the dialogue is in Italian. Tarkovsky (1932-1986) was known for poetic films that are difficult to comprehend and this one is no exception. This is the fifth film of his that I have seen, but the only ones I really thought were good were "Andrei Rublev" (1966) and "Solaris" (1972). Though even those two can be a struggle to appreciate. I previously declared that his film, “The Mirror” (1975), was the most confusing film I’ve ever seen, but this one ranks right up there. There is very little dialogue and many long takes in which nothing happens. The main character, Andrei Gorchakov (Oleg Yankovskiy), is a Russian poet visiting Italy in the company of a woman translator (Domiziana Giordano). It is stated that he is there because he is writing a biography of an 18th century Russian musician who had studied in Bologna, but he never seems to do anything that has any obvious relevance to that line of research. Most of the time he is just wandering alone in old run-down buildings or historic ruins. He does take an interest in Domenico (Erland Josephson), who is supposedly a former asylum inmate and who is probably the most interesting character in the story. Several times there were scenes in which no one was identified, none of the characters spoke and nothing happened; a complete mystery. Granted, there is some beautiful photography in this, but it was so boring that it doesn’t help.
2006 David Leaf + John Scheinfeld 99 PG-13 The U.S. vs. John Lennon This documentary tells the story of antiwar political activism in the United States in the 1960s and ‘70s, with particular emphasis on the role of John Lennon’s message of “make love not war” and “give peace a chance.” Through a series of interviews with many people (both those who supported John and those who did not) and historical footage of Lennon, the discussion turns to the conspiratorial way that the administration sought to deport Lennon in an attempt to silence his voice in the antiestablishment movement that they so feared. The legal battle on that account dragged on for years but eventually Lennon won his appeal and received a “green card.” This could also be looked on as a biography of John Lennon from one particular point of view. The film also features many of his songs (only from his solo career, none that were recorded by The Beatles). I think most people who are fans of John Lennon will find this interesting as well as those just interested in that particular protest movement.
2010 Pierre Morel 92 R From Paris With Love Very energetic, violent action film set in Paris, France. You could also call it a “buddy” movie, where U.S. Embassy employee James Reece (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is somewhat reluctantly teamed up with unconventional agent Charlie Wax (John Travolta). Wax has just arrived from the U.S. and quickly takes Reece on a wild ride from one shoot-out to the next. Initially the mission appears to be a drug bust but it soon escalates into something more serious. Wax proves to be extremely proficient at his job, shocking his new partner with the high body count. The assignment is interfering with Reece’s love life but he sticks with it because it means a promotion. Travolta injects a good sense of humor into his character for much needed comic relief from all the violence. There’s nothing particularly complex about the story but it is a good one with surprises. The action is exciting but be prepared for the intense gun battles.
2009 Sophie Barthes 101 PG-13 Cold Souls A weird comedy starring Paul Giamatti as himself (even though this is a work of fiction). I would place the weirdness on par with such films as “Being John Malkovich” (1999) and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004). As in the case of the latter, the premise relies on the existence of an unusual medical procedure and so injects a bit of science fiction into the plot. In that film it was the ability to delete a memory and in this film it is the ability to extract and store one’s soul and optionally rent donated souls. As in real life, Giamatti is an actor. He is currently struggling to develop his character in a stage play. When he hears about the soul extraction procedure he decides to try it on the theory that it is his soul which is interfering with his acting. Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn) performs the extraction and Paul’s soul is placed in a storage facility for safe keeping. Then the unthinkable happens - his soul goes missing. There is also a subplot involving a Russian woman (Dina Korzun), which for a long time is very mysterious but eventually it becomes clear how she fits in to the main story. It’s definitely more weird than funny but if you liked those other two films then I would recommend you give this one a try. I won’t tell you how it ends but I will say that it most likely will leave you hanging and wondering about it.
2009 Quentin Tarantino 153 R Inglourious Basterds There is some very extreme violence in this film but at the same time it is a remarkably well conceived story. Supposedly the director spent ten years writing the script and it certainly paid off. I would categorize it as "historical fantasy," which is to say that it takes place in a historical setting but is only something the writer wished had happened. And I'm sure many viewers will feel the same at the end. The setting is Paris, France, during the German occupation in WW-II. It stars Brad Pitt as Lt. Aldo Raine, the leader of a group of Jewish-Americans whose mission is to kill and scalp as many Nazis as possible. And yes, they show the scalpings. One of their adversaries is Col. Hans Landa, played superbly by German actor Christoph Waltz (who won Best Actor for this at Cannes). In fact, many of the actors are either German or French but there are a couple well known Americans in smaller supporting roles such as Mike Myers as General Ed Fenech and Rod Taylor as Winston Churchill. And there are so many French and German speaking parts that a significant portion of the film has subtitles. If you are “comfortable” watching violent movies made by Quentin Tarantino, then you will feel quite at home with this one. Everything about it with the exception of the graphic violence, is so good, I wish it were not so violent so that more people could appreciate the film’s other attributes. I knew going into it that it was two and a half hours but when it was over I said, “where did the time go?” By the way, if you think the title is misspelled, the director did that deliberately but refuses to explain why.
1998 Bryan Singer 111 R Apt Pupil Having just recently read the novella by Stephen King, on which this movie is based, there were really no surprises except for one major scene which was dramatically altered from the book. As is so often the case, King’s original words are much more dramatic and horrifying than the translation to film. Some elements from the book were completely omitted but more generally the story was simply compressed to fit this screenplay, losing much of its impact as a result. There is one shockingly violent episode in the film but the book contains many more such incidents. I only rented this because I had just read it and was curious to see how the story was brought to the screen. I don’t think the movie really captures the true evil of the two main characters the way they appear in the book. The book starts the story in 1974 but for unknown reasons the movie shifts it to 1984. Todd Bowden (Brad Renfro) is a teenager who, after writing a paper about it for school, becomes obsessed with the Holocaust. One day, by chance, he recognizes a man from his neighborhood as a former Nazi concentration camp officer living under the assumed name of Arthur Denker (Ian McKellen). Eager to hear about the Nazi horrors directly from a living participant, Todd threatens to reveal Denker’s true identity if he won’t tell his stories about the camp. But later, Denker helps Todd cover up a problem at school and now they are blackmailing each other. For anyone else who has read the book I can tell you that the movie ending is very weak compared to the book, primarily because one significant subplot in the book was left out of the film entirely. If you enjoy Stephen King, skip this movie and just read the book (it’s part of the collection titled “Different Seasons” which also contains the seeds of two other movies, both better than this one).
2009 Joel Coen + Ethan Coen 106 R A Serious Man A preposterous but very funny story about a Jewish family in a suburb of Minneapolis in 1967 (filmed partly in Bloomington). And with the exception of a few anachronisms, they did a very good job of recreating 1967 suburbia. The focus of the story is on the husband, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), who is a physics professor. He is indeed a very serious man, but one day a series of absurd bad things start happening to him and his family. It is a case of “Murphy’s Law” where anything that can go wrong, will (and at the worst possible time). A student tries to bribe him; his wife is seeing his best friend (Fred Melamed) and demands a “gett” (Jewish divorce) and kicks him out of the house; his unemployed brother (Richard Kind) is getting into trouble with the law and it just goes on and on. And his rabbis are amusingly unhelpful. The very beginning of the film will make you think you rented the wrong movie because it starts with a seven-minute film in Yiddish (but with English subtitles) featuring actor Fyvush Finkel, set in 19th century Europe. You’ll have to decide for yourself whether it has any connection with the main feature. The real film ends somewhat abruptly but at a point where the near-term consequences of the most recent events are clear enough that the directors probably felt no need to actually show what happens next. Not knowing Hebrew is a slight disadvantage but there is an extra program on the DVD which explains the words used in the film. There is a recurring theme of the song “Somebody to Love” by Jefferson Airplane (a new Top-40 hit in 1967). The lyrics are used in a very funny context near the end of the film, so it helps if you remember them. There is also an interesting use of a Jimi Hendrix song while one of the rabbis is telling Larry a story. The dialogue is very rich with cultural, religious and ethnic references that may require research and multiple viewings to fully grasp. Even Larry’s physics lecture appears to be relevant; as some other amateur critics pointed out that the unknown end of the story is like the unknowable state of the famous “Schrödinger’s Cat” from quantum physics.
2008 David Koepp 102 PG-13 Ghost Town Although the premise of this comedy is hardly original, this new story built on that premise gave me some good laughs. That premise is that when some people die, they still hang around as ghosts because there is unfinished business between them and the living. And then somehow they find a living person who is able to communicate with them. I’m sure many of you will recall how that idea was used in “Ghost” (1990). Here, it starts out with Frank Herlihy (Greg Kinnear) meeting an untimely death but finding himself still on Earth (in Manhattan) as a ghost. Then we are introduced to the main character, Dr. Pincas (Ricky Gervais), a dentist about to undergo a colonoscopy. However, after the procedure a very strange thing happens. As he walks around town, a growing crowd of people start following him but apparently nobody else can see them. They are the ghosts who have discovered that Dr. Pincas can see them and they all want him to help them resolve their remaining issues with their living relatives. Frank’s ghost approaches Dr. Pincas and makes a deal that if the doctor will help him resolve a problem with Gwen, his surviving widow (Téa Leoni), Frank will stop all the other ghosts from bothering him. Dr. Pincas agrees but then proceeds to fall in love with Gwen. There were a few awkward moments in the dialogue but for the most part it was an enjoyable romantic comedy. I particularly remember one scene where Dr. Pincas is asking his surgeon (Kristen Wiig) if anything unusual happened while he was under anesthesia; the dialogue must have been very difficult to deliver but the result is hysterical.
2009 Scott Cooper 111 R Crazy Heart This drama is about a small-time country singer, “Bad” Blake (Jeff Bridges), who has a drinking problem and tries to straighten out after a life-changing experience. He drives from gig to gig all around the southwestern U.S., performing at whatever taverns and bowling alleys his agent can book. While in Santa Fe, he agrees to an interview with Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the niece of the bar owner. He becomes attracted to her during the interview and a relationship begins. There is also a subplot about his association with another singer, Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell). To their credit, both Bridges and Farrell do their own singing and they’re not bad. I’m not a fan of country music but the story is about Blake trying to clean up his lifestyle and his relationship with Jean. If you do like the music that’s a bonus. Bridges is very believable as Bad Blake and I enjoyed Gyllenhaal’s performance as well (I usually do). I did think that they glossed over his rehab phase, leaving somewhat of a hole in the story and parts of it were fairly predictable. It also stars Robert Duvall as his friend, Wayne. Rated ‘R’ mostly for language. If you have a choice I would recommend “Walk the Line” (2005) as a better movie about a country singer.
2010 Martin Campbell 117 R Edge of Darkness Mel Gibson stars as Boston police homicide detective Thomas Craven in this exciting crime thriller. No, it’s not another “Lethal Weapon” movie. Even though his character is a cop, I think you’ll find that Thomas Craven is quite a different man from Martin Riggs. Det. Craven is a cop who loses his daughter, Emma (Bojana Novakovic), in a drive-by shooting and even though the police think Thomas was the target, the detective soon reaches the conclusion that his daughter had been in some kind of trouble and that she was the target. So the main plot is Det. Craven’s search for who and why. And the closer he gets to the truth, the more dangerous the search becomes. I didn’t know this before, but this film is based on a very successful 1985 BBC mini-series of the same name and as such is basically a condensed version of that. Martin Campbell directed both this movie and the original mini-series, so he obviously knows the material. The ‘R’ rating is for some language but probably mostly for the bloody shootings.
2009 Robert Schwentke 107 PG-13 The Time Traveler's Wife I usually like time travel stories but this one disappointed me. Eric Bana stars as Henry DeTamble, who, at an early age, discovers that he is cursed with a genetic factor that causes him to randomly be transported through time. And using the old cliché from “The Terminator” (1984), only his body is transported, not his clothes (good thing he has 20/20 vision). In most cases he experiences a step back in time and then after a period that ranges from minutes to weeks, suddenly returns to his original time. But there were a couple instances when he found himself in his own future. There is little rhyme or reason as to where he ends up in time and space but on many occasions he finds himself visiting his future wife, Clare, when she is a young girl. But at the point when he first meets her as an adult (Rachel McAdams), he has not yet taken those jumps back, which means she has met him in the past but he hasn’t. Naturally, being married to a man who randomly disappears poses a unique set of problems and that is what much of the story is about. Since Henry’s parents were not time travelers it is a complete mystery as to how he acquired this genetic trait. And although he supposedly has no control over his destinations, one jump he makes early in the film seems too coincidental to not have been by design. The story is set in Chicago and much of it was filmed there but some scenes were shot in Toronto. I’m sure some people will like the love story here but somehow this particular combination of love story and science fiction did not work very well for me.
2005 Deepa Mehta 117 PG-13 Water Hindi language drama set in Varanasi, India, in 1938. This is a fascinating but sometimes shocking story (in the cultural and moral sense) about the ancient, though still practiced, tradition of expelling widows from their families to live an austere life in isolation from society. And in the case of the central character, also the tradition of parents who marry off their daughters when they are still children. Eight-year old Chuyia is informed that her 58-year old husband has died and that she is now and forever a widow. Seeing his body at the funeral may have been the only time she ever even saw him. But being a slave to tradition, her father drops her off at a widows house (known then as an "ashram"), never to see her family again. There, a subplot is introduced involving Kalyani (Lisa Ray), an adult resident widow who befriends Chuyia. Although these widow’s are shunned by society and even considered “unclean” they are permitted to leave the compound to visit the river. On one such occasion Chuyia and Kalyani meet an upper class man who is a follower of Gandhi and is willing to ignore the fact that Kalyani is a widow, in order to court her. It is beautifully photographed and the young actress, Sarala, who plays Chuyia, gives quite a good performance in her very first film role (especially considering she doesn’t speak Hindi). The production of this film was so controversial that protests and riots by misinformed Hindu fundamentalist groups caused filming in India to be canceled and the production moved in secret to Sri Lanka, which even involved recasting the actors. If you enjoy foreign films, this is one worth watching.
1999 Takashi Miike 110 NR Audition Japanese: “Ôdishon.” I would strongly recommend against seeing this due to the ghastly nature of the violence. This is a horror film that steps beyond what I would consider entertaining in that genre. Mr. Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) is a widower who is looking for a new wife. A business associate suggests that they conduct an audition for a film and this would be a unique way to find a potential mate. Aoyama is drawn to one of the applicants and starts dating her. However, she soon turns out to be the date from hell. I won’t give any more details but I will mention that the director does put you through some serious confusion at times regarding what is a dream sequence and what is not. But again, I will stress that unless you are accustomed to watching extreme horror and mutilation, don’t watch this. The version of this film that I saw is labeled the “uncut special edition” which is unrated, suggesting that it is more extreme than the ‘R’ rated version. I don’t doubt it. Curiously the uncut version is actually shorter.
2008 Neil Burger 113 R The Lucky Ones Fred Cheaver (Tim Robbins), Colee Dunn (Rachel McAdams) and T.K. Poole (Michael Peña) are three soldiers heading home from the war in Iraq. They meet for the first time on the flight back to the U.S. but when they land, the airport is just coming out of a blackout and no ongoing flights will be available for days. They team up to rent a car and drive cross-country to their separate destinations. Cheaver has just ended his service and wants to see his wife. Dunn is carrying a guitar that belonged to a fellow soldier who died in the war and her goal is to deliver it to his family in Las Vegas while she is on leave. Poole is also on leave and intends to visit his fianceé before going back. They are three very different personalities and don’t always get along so well but it makes for an interesting road trip as each one reevaluates their future plans. Along the way the three become friends. Fine performances by all three of the leads. An enjoyable, mostly serious drama with a good sense of humor.
1927 Alan Crosland 89 NR (but considered ‘G’ for TV broadcasts) The Jazz Singer This is the famous “first talkie” starring Al Jolson. It turns out that it is actually 90% a silent movie, complete with title cards inserted for the dialogue. Only when Jolson sings do we really see true synchronized voice and picture. Earlier in the film you see his character as a young boy singing but it is clearly overdubbed and not well synchronized. It’s nothing great as a movie but it does have its place in history. It tells the story of Jakie Rabinowitz, who as a boy, wanted to sing to a public audience rather than follow his father’s footsteps singing at the synagogue. So he runs away from home and becomes a jazz singer under the stage name of Jack Robin. This film was made back in the days when performance in “blackface” was still an acceptable form of entertainment. From today’s perspective it is generally considered politically incorrect or racist but I really don’t know how it was viewed in 1927.
1957 Akira Kurosawa 125 NR (TV-L) The Lower Depths Japanese: “Donzoko.” A very depressing and chaotic film based on a play by Maxim Gorky. It is presented very much like a play by being confined almost entirely to a single room. Unlike the Russian setting of the play, this is set in Japan sometime within the period 1603–1868 (known as the Edo period). However, the confining space of the set doesn’t really give you any sense of the condition of Japanese society of the time. The location is a slum or flophouse on the edge of the local landfill. An assortment of forlorn characters who clearly would otherwise be homeless, mill around inside this dwelling, talking, drinking, arguing, dancing, fighting and occasionally coming and going. No real plot. Only one real highlight near the end in a scene where the men are all drunk on sake and dancing around the room in a moment of inspired lunacy. Kurosawa has made many very good films but I do not consider this one of them. I’ve read much praise of this film but I just don’t see it.
1951 Akira Kurosawa 166 NR The Idiot Japanese: “Hakuchi.” A complex story of love and jealously based on the novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Kurosawa transplants the story from Russia to the Japanese island of Hokkaidõ and its capital city of Sapporo. Although I haven’t read the novel, a brief summary that I saw suggests that this film does quite well at retaining the core elements of the novel, though of course the names of the characters have all been changed from Russian to Japanese. The central character is Mr. Kameda (Masayuki Mori), who describes himself as an idiot, in reference to the effects of a traumatic experience when he was about to be executed but was reprieved at the last instant. He is a very sensitive and empathic person who has a very calming effect on others. He meets a Mr. Akama (Toshirô Mifune) who tells Kameda about the woman he loves, Taeko Nasu (Setsuko Hara). However, a Mr. Kayama (Minoru Chiaki) also has his eyes on Taeko and eventually Kameda also joins to form a love quadrangle. And to make matters worse, she is also the mistress of Mr.Tohata (Eijirô Yanagi). But then there is the second woman, Ayako (Yoshiko Kuga). Kameda takes an interest in her but so does Kayama and so you get a triangle intersecting the quadrangle. It was not easy to get all that straight. But that is really just the setup of this very long but fascinating drama. It will have you on the edge of your seat near the end. It can be a bit slow at times but often that is just to build the tension of the scene until it is as thick as molasses.
1950 Akira Kurosawa 105 NR Scandal Japanese: “Shûbun.” This is one of Kurosawa’s less successful efforts at social commentary. There are actually two scandals going on here. One, concocted by paparazzi and a tabloid magazine, and the other is a real scandal that threatens the outcome of the resulting defamation lawsuit. The use of the word “paparazzi” is mine, as the term did not exist until it was inspired by the 1960 film, "La Dolce Vita." Nevertheless, the risk to celebrities from libelous journalism existed long before Fellini’s film and in fact Kurosawa himself was a victim of this type of thing. And speaking of the use of words, it is curious that in “Scandal” the word “scandal” is spoken in English, as if there was no such word in Japanese. As I saw this film on TV, I can’t speak for the DVD edition, but the English subtitles I read seemed quite adequate to properly convey the story, though there were no subtitles at all during the opening credits, not even for the film’s title. The story has Toshirô Mifune as "Ichirô Aoye," a portrait and landscape painter and Yoshiko Yamaguchi as "Miyako Saijo," a popular singer, becoming the victims of the paparazzi. An opportunistic lawyer, Mr. Hiruta (Takashi Shimura), approaches Mr. Aoye, offering to represent him in a lawsuit against the magazine publisher. When Aoye discovers the lawyer’s personal circumstances, he takes pity and hires him. However, those same circumstances also conspire to interfere with the trial. Although at first it may seem to be a story about the artist and the singer, I think it is more accurate to portray this as a story about the lawyer, and his struggle to do right by both his family and his clients. And indeed it is his character more than any other that helps maintain the interest in an otherwise weak plot. If your main interest is to see the best of Kurosawa, I would skip this one.
1955 Akira Kurosawa 103 NR (TV PG) I Live In Fear Japanese: “Ikimono no kiroku.” Although this film is distributed under the title “I Live in Fear” it is sometimes also known by the title, “Record of a Living Being.” Toshirô Mifune normally plays characters who are about his own age but here he stars as a much older man, Kiichi Nakajima, who is the head of an extended family as well as the owner of the family business. Set ten years after the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the man has become paranoid about the threat of future H-bombs. He wants to sell the foundry and move his entire family to Brazil. He has already squandered millions of yen on construction of an underground dwelling and so the family tries to have him declared mentally incompetent. Another Kurosawa favorite, Takashi Shimura, stars as Dr. Harada, a dentist who volunteers as a mediator at family court and thus becomes drawn into this family’s squabbles. It was a time of atomic bomb testing in the Pacific and post-war fears of atomic wars, so the topicality of the film in 1955 was quite authentic, but for that very reason the public wasn’t ready for such a film and it ended up being Kurosawa’s largest financial failure at the box office. Now, 55 years later, most of us can view it with a slightly different perspective. It provides a good look, almost like a documentary, at family life and social customs of 1950s Japan.
1963 Akira Kurosawa 143 NR (TV 14-L) High and Low Japanese: “Tengoku to jigoku” (literally, “Heaven and hell”). A fascinating kidnapping thriller, loosely based on the novel, “King’s Ransom,” which is part of the “87th Precinct” series by Ed McBain (aka Evan Hunter). Kingo Gondo (Toshirô Mifune) is part owner of a large shoe company and is in the middle of a power struggle with the other major stockholders. At this most inopportune moment, Gondo receives a ransom call demanding 30 million yen for his son, but it is quickly learned that the kidnapper mistakenly grabbed the boy’s friend, Shinichi, the son of Gondo’s chauffeur. Gondo’s dilemma now is whether to pay the ransom to save another man’s son, or use the money as originally planned, to leverage his take-over of the company. The first hour of the film is all about the kidnapping and making the ransom drop off, and the remainder of the film is the police investigation. The kidnapper’s plan for the drop-off is quite impressive and the implementation of it on film is a thrilling sequence. You could think of this film as “Law & Order: Yokohama.” The police are shown working through a very lengthy process of gathering evidence to figure out who the kidnapper is and where he might live. Except they have a lot more detectives assigned to the case than in any episode of “Law & Order.” The title, in either translation, refers to the contrast between Gondo’s world and the kidnapper’s world, though you could argue that “High and Low” adds other allusions to the plot.
1970 Akira Kurosawa 140 NR (TV 14) Dodes'ka-den Japanese. The title is sometimes spelled as, “Dodesukaden,” which apparently means “Clickety-Clack.” This may be one of the strangest movies that Kurosawa made. It alternates between weird, sad, funny and boring. There is no plot. It is a character study of a group of families who live in terribly depressing shacks in what appears to be the middle of a landfill (and in fact, the exterior sets were built on a dump near Tokyo). Each is given an introductory look and then the screenplay just rotates amongst the different families. The first family we see is a mother and son. The boy is apparently retarded and is under the delusion of having a job as a streetcar driver and every day dresses the part and drives his imaginary car in a type of pantomime. And as he drives the invisible car he says “Dodes'ka-den” over and over. There are a couple of town drunks. A business man with a floppy leg and a very exaggerated facial tic. A man with a sick wife and her overworked niece. A man with five children who question their parentage. And assorted others. Perhaps the most touching story is about the beggar and his little boy who are virtually homeless and penniless compared to the other families. They live in the shell of an old automobile and dream of building a mansion on the hill. So the price of enjoying the good stories in this collection is putting up with the boring ones. It was a box office failure originally and does require some perseverance to get through it. This was Kurosawa’s first color film.
1949 Akira Kurosawa 122 NR (TV PG) Stray Dog Japanese: “Nora inu.” A rookie cop (Toshirô Mifune) loses his Colt pistol to a pick-pocket and the chase is on to capture the thief and recover the weapon. Under the guidance of the lead officer on the case (Takashi Shimura), he learns a lot about what it takes to be a successful homicide detective. It all takes place in the intense heat and humidity of summer and they do a very good job of conveying that feeling to the audience, starting right with the opening credits over a close-up of a dog rapidly panting in the heat. I wasn’t especially impressed with the acting in this, with the exception of Shimura, but otherwise it is a decent detective story.
1948 Akira Kurosawa 98 NR (TV PG) Drunken Angel Japanese: “Yoidore tenshi.” I found this to be one of the least interesting of Kurosawa’s films. It is a dreary story about a doctor who is willing to treat all patients even if they belong to the local mob. Dr. Sanada (Takashi Shimura) finds himself treating Mr. Matsunaga (Toshirô Mifune), who turns out to be the head mobster in the local area. The doctor discovers that Matsunaga is suffering from TB and tries to treat him but the patient is hostile and is afraid of losing his reputation if he submits to treatment. He becomes a pathetic character who disregards all the doctor’s recommendations. And to make matters worse, a power struggle develops when a former mob boss returns from prison. Very little to recommend here.
1947 Akira Kurosawa 108 NR (TV PG) One Wonderful Sunday Japanese: “Subarashiki nichiyôbi.” A surprising and charming little romantic comedy. In postwar Japan, a young couple meet on a Sunday morning for a date. But they are so poor that they have a hard time finding entertainment that they can afford. She is an optimist and he is a pessimist but most of the time she is able to swing him around to having fun on the cheap. The entire film is just this one day they spend together from morning till late at night. At times it may seem a bit corny but it is definitely romantic, funny and has a perfect ending.
1946 Akira Kurosawa 110 NR (TV PG) No Regrets for Our Youth Japanese: “Waga seishun ni kuinashi.” A dull political drama set in Kyoto, 1933-1946. Inspired by two historical events, one being the “Takigawa Incident,” in which a professor at Kyoto University was suspended for his alleged Marxist teachings and as a result the remaining professors all resigned. And second, the Sorge spy incident which involved the arrest of Hotsumi Ozaki, who was hung for treason. The screenplay fictitiously links these two events by having the spy as a former student of professor Takigawa (renamed “Yagihara” for the film). In this film the student/spy is named Noge (Susumu Fujita). The political aspects of the story are really the background in this film, as it is more about the professor’s daughter, Yukie (Setsuko Hara). She is romantically inclined towards Noge and the main thread of the story is her relationship with him and how her life is changed by his dedication to his cause.
1945 Akira Kurosawa 58 NR (TV PG) The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail Japanese: “Tora no o wo fumu otokotachi.” Also sometimes referred to as “They Who Step on the Tiger’s Tail,” it is Kurosawa’s shortest film. And at under an hour it may not even qualify as “feature length.” It is hard to classify but I will attempt by calling it a period costume comedy. Based on the 12th-century generals and brothers, Yoshitsune and Yoritomo Minamoto, this film portrays Yoshitsune’s attempt to escape a death threat from Yoritomo. Yoshitsune attempts to reach friendly territory by disguising himself and six of his men as mountain ascetics. Added to this crew is a porter, who, as far as the story is concerned, is the comic relief. The actor in this role, Kenichi Enomoto, was in fact one of the leading comedians in Japan at the time. The story, minus the porter, is also the basis of the Japanese plays "Kanjincho" and "Ataka." Although Enomoto’s performance is a bit over the top at times, this short film is a good piece of entertainment. But it may be difficult to find outside of a larger collection of Kurosawa films.
1944 Akira Kurosawa 85 NR (TV PG) The Most Beautiful Japanese: “Ichiban utsukushiku.” A WW-II propaganda film which highlights the hard work and dedication of the female employees of a precision optics factory. It shows how they bear up (and sometimes break down) under the pressures of making their daily quotas and avoiding mistakes. Their product is used by their military and so is critical to the war effort. It was a little shocking to hear them chant in assembly, “we will do our best to help destroy America and Britain.” But of course, in 1944, they were our enemy. The opening credits call it “An Information Bureau Movie of the People.” More interesting as a historical document than a source of entertainment. Kurosawa’s intent was to make a documentary, but clearly he has blended documentary with dramatic fiction.
2010 Tim Burton 108 PG Alice in Wonderland Tim Burton has a habit of taking classic stories and reworking them in dark tones, both visually and emotionally. His revised approach to Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass" is no exception and he has taken the extra step of presenting it in 3D, which I must say did not provide significant added value. Although I grew up knowing about this story, I don’t recall ever having actually read the books, so I cannot offer a comparison. The character of Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is 19 in this retelling and living in what looks like 19th century England. Once again she starts seeing the rabbit and in the middle of an unwanted marriage proposal she chases after him and down the rabbit hole. There she finds the other classic characters including the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter), the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) and of course, Tweedledee & Tweedledum (Matt Lucas). Some of the characters are portrayed by actors in makeup (Depp & Wasikowska) while others are computer animation characatures (Carter & Lucas) and finally, an assortment of animal animations with human voices, such as the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry) and the White Rabbit (Michael Sheen). The story is a classic battle of good vs. evil with Alice caught between the Red Queen and the White Queen. Overall I was not impressed, though I did enjoy Tweedledee & Tweedledum and Carter’s Red Queen.
1943 Akira Kurosawa 79 NR (TV PG) Sanshiro Sugata Japanese: “Sugata Sanshirô.” This is Kurosawa’s first film as a director. It has been remade several times by others but this is the original. It is a martial arts story set in 1882. Sanshiro Sugata (Susumu Fujita) seeks a jujitsu instructor but when he observes a demonstration of the new sport of judo he switches to the judo instructor (Denjirô Ôkôchi). With his new skills he engages in three matches against strong opponents. Along the way, Sugata learns about his own strengths and weaknesses and even finds a potential love interest. It is a simple plot but executed well. Not a bad start for a first-time director and it reveals some of his technique and style that appear in his later films. Anyone with an interest in Kurosawa should see this.
2010 Paul Greengrass 114 R Green Zone A very exciting war action film set in Iraq, just after the 2003 American invasion. This is a fictionalized account of the search for weapons of mass destruction. Matt Damon plays “Miller,” a soldier tasked with inspecting suspected WMD sites which have been identified by military intelligence. When every site his team checks out turns out to be devoid of WMD materials he starts to question the source of the intelligence. Also stars Greg Kinnear. This is almost nonstop action right from the first frame and it does get very intense at times. Nothing I would call gory, just lots of gun battles and explosions. This story does take the stand that the Bush administration lied about WMDs to justify the war. I’m not going to get into a debate about that but I just thought it was worth mentioning to better characterize the movie.
2005 Andrey Kravchuk 99 PG-13 The Italian Russian: “Italianetz.” A very moving story about a six-year-old Russian orphan and his unrelenting efforts to find his birth mother. Supposedly based on actual events. When an Italian couple agrees to adopt Vanya (Kolya Spiridonov), the other children at the orphanage give him the nickname “Italian.” But while waiting for the adoption paperwork to be completed, Vanya realizes that if he learned to read he might be able to sneak a look at his file and obtain a clue to his mother’s whereabouts (mind you, he doesn’t have any knowledge that she is even alive). Either Vanya is a very quick study at reading or the adoption process is extremely slow -- perhaps a bit of both, but he does get a clue and off he goes. Of course the woman who runs the adoption agency is furious and the chase is on to retrieve the runaway orphan. I won’t tell you how it ends but I will predict that you will feel at least a little bit cheated out of the ending you think you are going to get but don’t. However, it won’t leave you wondering how it ended; just a certain detail will be missing. Whether or not the film’s portrayal of the orphanage is realistic, you can’t help but feel sorry for the kids. It also may be a bit unrealistic to expect a six-year-old with no formal education to be capable of the things Vanya does, but the young actor really makes you believe.
2008 Philippe Claudel 117 PG-13 I’ve Loved You So Long French: “Il y a longtemps que je t'aime.” A somewhat depressing drama about two sisters, Léa (Elsa Zylberstein) and Juliette (Kristin Scott Thomas), reuniting after a long separation. The reason they have been apart so long and why Juliette (the older sister) is so morose, is revealed only in very small doses slowly over the course of the film. Léa discovers that even she didn’t know the whole truth about Juliette’s past. And what Léa’s husband knows about it makes him very uneasy about having Juliette as a guest in their home. It’s a story about love and pain that won much praise at film festivals and from critics but did not generate much enthusiasm from me.
2010 Jon Favreau 124 PG-13 Iron Man 2 Robert Downey Jr. returns as billionaire inventor, Tony Stark, the man with the "Iron Man" suit of armor. The government still wants Tony to hand over his invention to the military. At the same time, a man in Russia (Mickey Rourke as "Ivan Vanko"), is plotting revenge on Tony. Apparently Vanko's father used to work with Tony's father but had somehow been disgraced. Gwyneth Paltrow returns as Pepper Potts, Tony's secretary/girlfriend, but Terrence Howard is replaced by Don Cheadle in the role of his friend, "Rhodey." New characters include sexy Scarlett Johansson as Natalie and Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury. Natalie & Nick represent a new subplot that may be continued in the next sequel (which is almost certain to be made). There’s nothing terribly original about the plot here but there is lots of action and explosions. Tony is under attack by Venko and facing competition from others trying to supply the military, while still facing possible death due to the diminishing effectiveness of the high-tech gadget in his chest that saved his life in the first film. It’s probably not as good as the first film but if it’s action and special effects you want, this has it.
2010 Lee Unkrich 102 G Toy Story 3 As in the first two “Toy Story” movies, this is about the adventures of a group of toys that come to life when no people are watching. It is mostly the same set of toys and celebrity voices, though many new toys are added as part of the adventure. The boy, Andy, who owns the toys, is now grown up and heading off to college and the toys find themselves being donated to a day care center. But the toys soon realize they’d rather be in Andy’s attic than in the day care center but they encounter a major obstacle in their attempt to escape. Plenty of laughs for both kids and adults, though the fact that this is the third time around for the same basic premise means that some of the novelty may have worn off for those who have seen the previous two films. It is available in a 3-D version in some theaters, though the 3-D is in no way essential to the enjoyment of the film.
2010 James Mangold 109 PG-13 Knight and Day A fun romantic comedy set in the midst of a wild action spy thriller (fasten your seat belts but don’t take it too seriously). Cameron Diaz stars as June Havens, who is trying to get to her sister’s wedding. At the airport she literally bumps into Roy Miller (Tom Cruise) and later finds herself on the same flight with him. After visiting the plane’s restroom, June is informed by Roy that he has shot the pilot and must now land the plane. June has become unwittingly caught up in a spy vs. spy adventure involving a top secret invention. She doesn’t know whether to believe Roy or any of the other alleged CIA agents she encounters. It’s one chase scene after another, set in many exotic locations around the globe and involving the impressive work of over 70 stunt persons. I guess you could say it has its share of clichés common to this type of movie, but it’s still a pretty good plot with some unexpected turns.
2010 Pierre Coffin + Chris Renaud 95 PG Despicable Me A very funny animated feature which will definitely give “Toy Story 3” a run for its money. I enjoyed “Despicable Me” more and I think that is in part due to it being a fresh new idea rather than the third reworking of an old idea. Here we have a world in which the bad guys are in competition to perform the most outrageous thefts imaginable. When one villain steals the Great Pyramid, another plots to steal the moon. The latter plan is the idea of a man named “Gru” (voiced by Steve Carell). He is a very mean spirited man who lets no one stand in the way of his evil deeds. The main conflict of the story arises when his competition in evil, “Vector,” steals a gadget essential to Gru’s plan. Gru’s idea for getting the device back involves adopting a trio of cookie-selling orphans whom he plans to use to infiltrate Vector’s fortress. The little girls are impossibly cute and begin to tug at Gru’s heartstrings. This is also a 3-D film and I would say it it employs that technology to greater effect than “Toy Story 3,” so in this case I would recommend the 3-D version if you have a choice. Stay for the end credits because they are interrupted a few times with extra animation sequences that deliberately take advantage of the 3-D effect for its own sake.
2010 Christopher Nolan 148 PG-13 Inception A very complicated and confusing mental exercise with a mind-blowing climax. The first 15 minutes are especially confusing and disorienting, as you try to gain a sense of what is going on. I am quite sure that I will understand it more fully if I see it again. But the basic premise is that Leonardo DiCaprio and his associates are experts in the use of a technology that allows them to enter another person’s dreams and control them. A Japanese businessman (Ken Watanabe) hires DiCaprio to use this technology to influence another businessman (Cillian Murphy) to take actions that will give Watanabe the upper hand in the marketplace. At the same time, DiCaprio is struggling to cope with some side effects of his previous usage of this dream technology and brings in a new member to his team (Ellen Page) to compensate for his declining abilities. They determine that this new assignment will require multiple levels of dreams within dreams, and thus the extra level of difficulty in following the story. The movie is full of action and special effects, some reminiscent of “The Matrix” (1999) -- so although well done, the effects are nothing new to movie making. Trivia: In what is apparently just an amazing coincidence, there is a song used in this film as a plot device, "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien," sung by the late French singer, Édith Piaf. In this film, actress Marion Cotillard plays the role of DiCaprio's wife, Mal, but in "La Vie en Rose" (2007), Cotillard played Édith Piaf! If you liked “The Matrix,” I think that is probably the best reference for deciding if you will like “Inception.” And as I suggested before, it will probably require more than a single viewing to fully get your head around this complex tale.
2010 Ridley Scott 140 PG-13 Robin Hood An exciting action adventure set in 12th century England. This is what you might call the “back story” of Robin Hood, about how he became the legend. It begins when he was Robin Longstride (Russell Crowe), an archer in the service of King Richard the Lionheart (Danny Huston), returning to England via France, from the Crusades. Great period sets and costumes. Many battles fought with bow and sword. Also starring Cate Blanchett as Marion Loxley, William Hurt as William Marshal, Mark Strong as Godfrey and Max von Sydow as Sir Walter Loxley. Beautifully filmed on location in England and Wales.
2009 Brian Koppelman + David Levien 90 R Solitary Man Michael Douglas plays a 60-something* divorcé and philanderer who is trying to put his life back together after having been caught in shady dealings at the car dealership he used to own. Predictably his chain of affairs does nothing but get him into more trouble. I would also describe him as a bit arrogant. Susan Sarandon plays his ex-wife and Jenna Fischer is his daughter. And in a small but wonderful performance, Danny DeVito plays an old friend (which works out perfectly since the actors are old friends in real life). But in addition to the predictability, the clichéd estrangements and a general sense of hopelessness for the main character, resulted in a film without a lot of impact. (*) My little asterisk above is because in the official synopsis from the film company, Michael’s character is described as “fifty-something” but lets face it, the actor was 65 when he made this film.
2009 Cheryl Hines 84 R Serious Moonlight This is an unusual romantic comedy starring Meg Ryan and Timothy Hutton. Meg Ryan really shows her natural sense of comedy in this role. Ryan and Hutton are a married couple who live in a nice large country home. Before the audience gets a chance to really know much about them, the domestic crisis begins when she learns he is leaving her for another woman (Kristen Bell). Not funny, right? But wait till you see how she tries to stop him from leaving. She is convinced that she can make him love her all over again. Then in the middle of all this, something goes terribly wrong. Hutton is quite good also; I won’t give away the details, but if you see this you will appreciate the sacrifices he made to play this character. It’s a very small cast and nearly the entire story takes place in their house, so in that sense it is more like a play. It was written by the late Adrienne Shelly, who wrote “Waitress” (2007). The ‘R’ rating is only because they threw in several uses of the F-word, which was totally unnecessary; there is no sex and very little violence (in fact, the official rating just calls it “threatening behavior”). Fans of Meg Ryan will really enjoy this movie.
1964 Masaki Kobayashi 161 NR Kwaidan Although this Japanese film is quite long, it is actually four separate ghost stories by the same director. (1) “The Black Hair.” (2) “The Woman of the Snow.” (3) “Hoichi, the Earless.” (4) “In a Cup of Tea.” Since there is no connection between the stories, you could watch them separately at your convenience. The longest one is “Hoichi, the Earless” which runs about an hour and the other three average about a half-hour each. The first and last stories are probably the best of the four.
2009 Sam Raimi 99 PG-13 Drag Me to Hell If you like being scared and grossed-out by a good horror film, check this one out. It’s no “Exorcist” but I’m pretty sure it will make you jump a few times. Christine (Alison Lohman) is a loan officer at a bank in Pasadena. An old woman with a glass eye requests an extension on her mortgage but Christine turns her down, thinking it will help her get a promotion. But the old woman puts a curse on Christine and she is soon visited by the demon Lamia (Greek mythology: a child-eater). And then, as they say, all Hell breaks loose. Also appearing in this film is Justin Long, who plays Christine’s boyfriend. You may recognize him from the “Macintosh vs. PC” commercials in which he represented the Mac. And David Paymer stars as Christine's manager at the bank. He played "Ira" in "City Slickers" (1991). The DVD also includes an “unrated director’s cut” of the film which doesn’t change the story in any way but makes a few of the more violent scenes a bit edgier, just enough to no longer qualify for PG-13. However, even the theatrical version still presents some very nightmarish images.
2009 Michael Hoffman 113 R The Last Station A very good period drama starring Christopher Plummer as Russian author, Leo Tolstoy. The story is about the final days or weeks of his life (it is not clear what the time span is) and is based on a novel by Jay Parini. Helen Mirren plays his wife, Countess Sofya. The only other well known actor is Paul Giamatti as Vladimir Chertkov. I think the main sense of the film is that it is a love story about Leo and Sofya, with a secondary love story involving one of Tolstoy’s followers, Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy) and Masha (Kerry Condon), a young woman he meets at a Tolstoyan commune. Love between Leo and Sofya is difficult because she doesn’t share his idealogy and so this is the main conflict in the plot. And in fact, similar differences exist between Valentin and Masha. However, as you will see, neither Leo or Valentin are model Tolstoyans (obviously rather ironic on Leo’s part). Plummer and Mirren are very good together as this senior couple struggling to stay together in spite of their differences. The ‘R’ rating is just for some nudity in the love-making of the younger couple. Beautifully photographed in Russia and Germany.
2002 Joe Carnahan 105 R Narc A high tension, violent police drama about the investigation of a cop killing in Detroit. The case has grown cold and the police department assigns Nick Tellis (Jason Patric), an undercover narcotics agent on suspension, to start a new investigation. He is promised a nice, safe, desk job if he solves this case. After reviewing the file, he requests to team up with the dead cop’s former partner, Henry Oak (Ray Liotta). Oak is not happy about working with Tellis and they suspect the whole thing is more about department politics than solving the case. Nevertheless both are under pressure to get the job done. The search for the killer takes them into some very rough neighborhoods and encounters with some very unsavory characters. Of the two cops, Tellis is the only one with a family and his wife is not happy about his new assignment. Actors Liotta and Patric are excellent in these roles. It’s not a pretty picture but if you like your police dramas rough, this is a very good one. I don’t think I need to explain why it is rated ‘R’.
2009 Michael Moore 127 R Capitalism: A Love Story Perhaps not Michael Moore’s most entertaining documentary, this exposé of the abuses of both capitalism and democracy does do a pretty good job of highlighting some of the economic problems of recent years and even showing a few examples of a potentially better way to run a business. Some of the problems he covered took place here in Illinois but I had not been aware of them at the time, so in that regard it was certainly educational. Some of his attempts at satire fell a little flat for me.
1994 Rajkumar Santoshi 154 NR Andaz Apna Apna A crazy romantic comedy from India. It is almost entirely in Hindi so you will need to activate the subtitles. It is pretty funny at at times, but I think the reason I'm not overly enthusiastic about it is because many of the comic devices employed seemed "old" and because of the exaggerated and often silly style of acting. You could almost call it cartoonish. The story has its roots in classic opera or even Shakespeare, and being a “Bollywood” movie, they do break out in song occasionally. It also seems to have been influenced by the “Pink Panther” movies -- you even occasionally hear the theme music from those films. And you could also probably say the director was influenced by “The Three Stooges” and any number of kung fu movies as well. Without giving away the plot twists, the short explanation is that two young men who initially don’t know each other, Aram and Prem, both read in the news about a beautiful heiress who is looking for a husband. Then, simultaneously they both scam money from their fathers, so they can travel to where the heiress is interviewing prospects. They meet on a bus and develop both a friendship and a strong rivalry for the girl’s attention. A variety of complications fill out the very long and occasionally confusing plot. It’s one of those films that did poorly on it’s initial release but has gained a strong following over time. I would hate to discourage you from trying this one, but it is definitely not like your typical Hollywood comedy, so if you do find it too strange, I’ll understand.
2009 Oren Moverman 113 R The Messenger A very good and powerful drama about stateside military personnel. Will (Ben Foster) is a young decorated soldier home from Iraq and with just a few months left of his term of service. To fill the remaining time, the Army assigns him to work alongside Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) in the somber task of notifying families when soldiers have been killed in the war (”Casualty Notification”). Tony is an old hand at this and teaches Will all the rules of etiquette and protocol involved in confronting the “NOK” (next of kin), which are very interesting to hear about. They don’t dwell on the notifications for the whole film, rather, after about five of them, the story changes focus to the personal life of Will and also the friendship that develops with Tony. Although the film came to what I thought was a rather abrupt ending, it’s not really as jarring as some films that do that. A very impressive performance by Woody Harrelson (he was nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar) and a well written original screenplay (also nominated). The ‘R’ rating is for both language and graphic sex scenes. On the DVD there is a 24-minute documentary film, “Notification,” that looks at the real life Notification officers and some of the families that have been the recipients of their message, one of whom worked with the Army to improve their procedures. Definitely worth watching after the feature movie.
2009 F. Gary Gray 109 R Law Abiding Citizen An incredible crime thriller about a man who is very upset with the criminal justice system. At the very start of the film we see Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler) and his family attacked in a vicious home invasion. Prosecuting attorney Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx) sends the criminals to prison, though one of them cuts a deal for a reduced sentence. Nick puts the case behind him, but ten years later some very unusual events bring the case back to the forefront. I’ve had movies make me jump when they’ve caught me off guard before, but never quite like the shock I got in this film. The violence is very graphic, so be forewarned. But it is a great story very well done. I have seen a surprising number of reviews that criticized the ending (which I won’t reveal) but in hindsight I will agree that it does raise a serious issue of morality. However I don’t quite see how the questionable morality of one of the characters makes it anything less of an exciting and suspenseful movie.
2010 Roman Polanski 128 PG-13 The Ghost Writer A very engaging political thriller starring Ewan McGregor and Pierce Brosnan. Instead of being a spy, here Brosnan plays a fictitious former British Prime Minister, Adam Lang (though the character was probably meant to suggest Tony Blair). McGregor (who’s character is never named) has been hired to ghostwrite Lang’s autobiography. Lang has retired to an island off the coast of Massachusetts, and it is here that the two meet to discuss the conversion of Lang’s own memoirs into a book for publication. As the writer learns more about Lang, he tries to investigate certain mysteries about Lang’s past and the puzzle of what happened to the previous writer assigned to this task. The film also features Jim Belushi in a small role as the writer’s publisher, but he looks so different (completely bald) in this role, it was only his voice that gave him away. The film also features Olivia Williams, Kim Cattrall, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Hutton and Eli Wallach (at age 94!).
2010 Robert Schwentke 111 PG-13 Red As there have been a number of films with the same title, I’ll clarify that this is the “Red” that stars Bruce Willis. Although this won't rank up there with the "Die Hard" films, this “spy vs. spy” action comedy did have its moments. Seeing Helen Mirren in a formal gown operating high-powered automatic weapons was pretty funny. Bruce Willis plays a retired CIA agent who somebody is trying to kill with ridiculous amounts of firepower. I was initially disappointed by the plot because of the very long time it took to find out why, but the second half of the film was pretty entertaining. Another highlight is an amazing combination of special effects and stunt work in a scene that has Willis walking out of a moving car -- you have to see it to understand, but you’ll know it when you see it. The story has a romantic angle involving Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker) who has been carrying on a telephone-only relationship with Willis and is suddenly thrust into his world when he drops in for a visit. Part of what makes this work as a comedy is the fact that eventually Sarah finds that she enjoys this high risk lifestyle. Other major stars include Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Ernest Borgnine and Richard Dreyfuss. As you might expect, Malkovich’s character is a bit of a loose canon, a real wacko. Although there are a lot of gun battles and explosions, the camera avoids graphic depiction of the victims, thus ensuring the PG-13 rating.
2009 Juan José Campanella 129 R The Secret in Their Eyes Spanish (Argentina): “El secreto de sus ojos.” An excellent crime mystery with a secondary romantic theme (though the director states in his commentary that the love story is the main story). A retired member of the court decides to write a novel about a case he worked on over twenty years ago. The case involved the rape and murder of a young newlywed bride. As he struggles with the task of writing, the film tells the story of the case in flashback. He had been very obsessed with it, even to the point of continuing to pursue a suspect even after the case had been officially closed. And even in the present he still has unresolved issues with it. The romantic angle is between him and his former female boss in the court. It is a truly fascinating story with an amazing climax. The ‘R’ rating is for a graphic depiction of the rape as well as other graphic nudity and a few scenes of violence but nothing worse than you might see in a TV police drama; there is also some strong language in the subtitles. I hope the subtitles won’t dissuade you from watching this; unfortunately there is no English audio track, though if you understand Spanish or French those are available on the DVD. And although the director’s commentary track also requires subtitles, it is one of the best commentaries ever; an authentic lesson in film making.
2010 Tom McGrath 95 PG Megamind It’s beginning to look like most animated features now are being released in 3D and of course the theaters love it because they charge so much more ($4 extra here). I saw the “flat” version of “Megamind” and did not feel left out. There were a few instances where it was quite obvious that a scene had been designed to jump out of the screen at you but if you decide you like this film it won’t be because of the 3D effects. It’s a fairly entertaining feature but for my money, “Despicable Me” (released earlier this year), was much better. The story is in part a parody of the live action feature, “Superman” (1978), including a reference to Marlon Brando’s role as Superman’s father. In this warped version of the story, two different alien babies land on Earth, one who is raised by a wealthy family and grows up to become the superhero, “Metro Man” (voiced by Brad Pitt), while the other baby, who happens to have blue skin, is raised by criminals inside a prison (talk about an unlikely premise), and adopts the name “Megamind” (Will Ferrell). As adults the two superbeings are constantly battling each other, though Metro Man usually wins the day. The “Lois Lane” substitute is a character named Roxanne Ritchie (Tina Fey), a TV news reporter. And I suppose in a way, her cameraman, Hal, could be considered the equivalent of Jimmy Olsen. I won’t tell you what happens from there but it is your basic good vs. evil story. Another film that this may remind you of is “The Incredibles” (2004), which I would also consider better than this.
2010 Doug Liman 107 PG-13 Fair Game A rather ho-hum recreation of the events surrounding the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts) by the White House back in 2003, after her husband, U.S. Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson (Sean Penn) made public statements which contradicted the President’s claim about Iraq attempting to purchase uranium from Niger.
2008 John Woo 148 R Red Cliff Chinese: "Chi bi." A thrilling war epic set in the year 208 A.D. The Emperor of the Han Dynasty sends his Prime Minister, Cao Cao, to conquer two southern kingdoms controlled by warlords Sun Quan and Liu Bei. Two major battles ensue, one on land and the second on water, the latter at a place called Red Cliff (along the Yangtze River). The scale of the battle scenes is tremendous; a true “cast of thousands.” And these are some of the longest battle scenes I’ve ever seen anywhere and they are also quite violent as you might expect (though not what I would call extreme, considering other films I’ve seen). Both battles employ some very unique strategies. It is based on an actual war to unify China, which is also the subject of the popular Chinese novel, "Romance of the Three Kingdoms," though supposedly this film is more based on historical accounts than the novel, but I’m sure much “poetic license” was involved in any case. As long as this film is, I have since learned that what I saw was a shortened Americanized version and that the full “international” edition is in two parts with a combined running time of over four hours. So I’ll have to find a copy of that and watch it again and decide which cut is better.
2009 John Woo 141 R Red Cliff II Chinese: "Chi bi xia: Jue zhan tian xia." I was misled into thinking this was a sequel to the film “Red Cliff” (2008) which I watched earlier the same day. However it turns out that this is actually “Part 2” of the original “international” cut of the 2008 film. Which explains why 90% of this film is exactly the same as the first one, except that it is missing the first battle that is obviously in “Part 1” of the international cut. So my advice is to either watch only the condensed American release of “Red Cliff” which runs 148 minutes, or try to find both parts one and two of the international edition.
2010 Tony Scott 98 PG-13 Unstoppable A very exciting action film about a runaway freight train. Denzel Washington stars as one of the railroad employees who gets caught up in the effort to stop the train before it causes a major disaster. It starts with a series of human errors that results in a half-mile long train barreling across Pennsylvania with nobody at the controls. It’s a no-brainer as far as plot is concerned; it’s just pure edge-of-your-seat action and thrills. In a way it is comparable to watching a live police chase on CNN, though with much more at stake than a few vehicle collisions. The story is based on a real runaway train in 2001 in Ohio (known as the “CSX 8888 incident”), in which the train got away from the engineer in basically the same way the movie shows it. Although the movie is set in various fictional towns in Pennsylvania, much of the filming took place in Ohio, in addition to Pennsylvania and New York. I’m sure most people will find this entertaining.
2008 Hayao Miyazaki 103 G Ponyo Although this is marketed by Disney, it is actually a Japanese animated feature, "Gake no ue no Ponyo," which has been re-voiced with English-speaking actors, including, Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, Tina Fey, Cloris Leachman, Liam Neeson, Lily Tomlin, Betty White and Laraine Newman. And by the way, this is traditional hand-drawn animation, not computer generated. It’s a simple children’s story but it is cute and imaginative with beautiful animation. The story is about a five year old boy in Japan who finds a magical goldfish with a human girl’s face, and names her Ponyo. And because of the magic, many otherwise impossible things happen to them. Definitely suitable for all ages.
2009 Steven Soderbergh 108 R The Informant! Matt Damon stars as Mark Whitacre, an executive of ADM (Archer Daniels Midland). This is the true story of how, in the 1990s, Mark went to the FBI to tell them about a price fixing scheme in which ADM was a major participant. Mark assisted the FBI by recording meetings related to the scheme, but Mark's story about what was really going on at ADM kept changing. It became very confusing as to just what Mark was really trying to accomplish and what his involvement was. The film also features Scott Bakula as one of the FBI agents working with Mark. Although billed as a comedy, I have to say it didn’t make me laugh very much. It certainly is a bizarre story, especially considering that it really happened.
2008 Tom Hooper 503 TV-14 John Adams A superb historical drama in seven parts about the life of John Adams. Originally presented as an HBO mini-series. Wonderful performances by Paul Giamatti in the title role and Laura Linney as his wife, Abigail. David Morse plays George Washington and Tom Wilkinson is Benjamin Franklin. The drama begins just before the American Revolution and continues to cover the first fifty years of the United States as an independent nation. While perhaps not as historically accurate as a documentary would be, I don’t think any of the liberties taken seriously distort the history. No official MPAA rating but the TV-14 rating is probably for a couple brief scenes of nudity and a couple examples of very primitive surgery. Each episode is a little more than an hour in length except for Part 2 which runs about 92 minutes. On DVD it spans 3 discs. Highly recommended.
2010 David Fincher 120 PG-13 The Social Network A somewhat interesting dramatization of the ups and downs experienced by Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) during their creation of the popular web site, “Facebook.com.” Actually it would be more accurate to say that Zuckerberg is the one who created the web site in the pure technical sense, as he was the computer genius who wrote all the code, while Saverin was the financial side of the venture. I have no idea how close to the truth the film portrays these young men or the events depicted, but it is true that he was sued by the Winklevoss brothers for stealing their idea and turning it into Facebook. And that wasn’t the only legal difficulty Zuckerberg faced. A large part of the film involves those legal matters. A lot of the dialog in the film is very technical and will only be understood by the most hardcore computer nerds, but you can easily gloss over that since it isn’t essential to understanding the story. The film will probably have greater appeal amongst high school and college students (which appears to be supported by the ratings on The Internet Movie Database). In my opinion it is overrated.
2010 Shawn Levy 88 PG-13 Date Night This action comedy is probably more stupid than funny but I did get a few good laughs out of it. Steve Carell and Tina Fey star as the Fosters, a married couple who like to go out on a date once a week. On one such date they try to get into a crowded restaurant in Manhattan by pretending to be another couple who don't seem to be responding to the call for their table. Unfortunately, it turns out that the no-show couple, the Tripplehorns, are in some kind of trouble and the Fosters are soon mistaken for the Tripplehorns. So now you have a mistaken identity chase movie. There is one pretty funny sequence during a car chase when they get locked bumper to bumper with a taxi, but other than that a lot of the comedy is pretty dumb. They managed to get a PG-13 rating but some of the dialog is nevertheless very crude. The two stars are certainly talented comics but this screenplay could have been better. If you do decide to watch this, stay to the bitter end because there are out-takes both during and after the end credits.
2010 Dean DeBlois + Chris Sanders 98 PG How to Train Your Dragon This entertaining animated feature is set in the time of the Vikings on a remote northern island. A boy named Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) is the son of Stoick (Gerard Butler), the leader of the village, but is an embarrassment to his father because he is somewhat of a weakling as Viking males go. Hiccup dreams of one day killing a dragon, so as to improve his image amongst the other Vikings, but especially to impress the beautiful Astrid (America Ferrera). One day he shoots at a dragon but only injures it. When he finds the fallen beast he prepares to kill it but discovers he cannot. Instead he nurses him back to health, in effect taming him as a pet, which he names “Toothless.” But he keeps this a secret while his father sends him to school to learn how to kill dragons. The story clearly has its roots in the old “Lion and the Mouse” fable. The casting department made the unusual choice of hiring actors with Scottish accents to voice the adult characters. I don’t know what real Vikings sounded like but I doubt they sounded Scottish. In addition to Gerard Butler as Stoick, they hired TV talk show host Craig Ferguson to be the voice of Gobber, the village blacksmith (Hiccup is his apprentice). Ferguson’s delivery makes “Gobber” a memorable character. I was not as impressed, however, with the voice chosen for Hiccup. The animation is very good and it is an action packed story. Originally released in 3D, I only saw it on DVD so I can’t comment on the 3D effects.
2010 Danny Boyle 93 R 127 Hours A very powerful recreation of a true story. You probably heard about it in the news in 2003, when a man had gotten trapped in a remote desert canyon and was forced to cut off his own forearm in order to escape. Most of the film then is a one man show deep in this narrow canyon as he struggles to free himself and keep from going mad. James Franco stars as the adventurer, Aron Ralston. The movie is based on Aron’s book about his experience. There’s no sex or violence in the movie but it is rated ‘R’ because Aron does, not surprisingly, swear a bit and there is that rather bloody scene of him cutting off his arm. It’s really a very scary situation he was in and the film really makes you feel his pain, agony and fear.
2010 Martin Scorsese 138 R Shutter Island A very good psychological thriller based on the novel by Dennis Lehane. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels, who, in 1954, goes to investigate a reported escape of a patient at the high security mental hospital located on Shutter Island. Not long after arriving at the island, a hurricane strikes, creating the favorite Hollywood device of a dark and stormy night. Daniels meets with the head psychiatrist, Dr. John Cawley (Ben Kingsley) to learn more about the missing patient. During the course of the investigation, Daniels keeps having nightmares and visions about his service in WW-II and about the recent death of his wife. When the doctor fails to fully cooperate with the investigation, Daniels begins to suspect that some very suspicious things are going on at the hospital. It will probably keep your head spinning as to what really is going on. The film also features Max von Sydow as Dr. Jeremiah Naehring. The ‘R’ rating is for some violence, nudity and disturbing images as well as for occasional strong language.
2010 Nicole Holofcener 90 R Please Give A very good dramatic comedy, though it’s a bit difficult to pin down exactly what it is about. It’s about a number of things that involve several people who are connected either by being neighbors or relatives of neighbors or clients or customers. Alex (Oliver Platt) and Kate (Catherine Keener) are a New York City couple who are in the business of buying furniture and artwork from the families of the recently deceased and then selling the items at a profit in their store. The apartment next to theirs is occupied by a 91 year old woman (Ann Guilbert) who is looked in on periodically by her two granddaughters, Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) and Mary (Amanda Peet). Alex and Kate actually own the old woman's apartment and are waiting for her to die so they can use it to expand their apartment. And they have a teenage daughter, Abby (Sarah Steele) who likes expensive jeans and worries about her complexion. You get to know these characters through their mutual interactions and their assorted problems. All these characters are very well played and the comedy is more of the subtle variety than the slapstick kind. It may not sound like much of a story but it is very rich and well written. I will say that the opening sequence during the credits is a bit of a shocker. It relates to the fact that Rebecca is a technician at a breast cancer clinic and so throughout the opening credits you are "treated" to explicit close-up views of women of all ages having their breasts examined by a machine. And if that isn't enough to give the 'R' rating there is also quite a bit of colorful language used throughout the film (even by the grandmother).
2010 Steve Pink 99 R Hot Tub Time Machine I’ll say right up front that I’m not recommending this and it was probably a foolish choice to watch it in the first place, but it is the kind of movie that could have had a much broader appeal if it had been produced by, for example, the people who made the “Back to the Future” movies. As it is, it is a very crude and rude comedy. It reminds me of an expression I heard somewhere I don’t remember but it goes like this: “from the gutter to here ain’t up.” I decided to give it a viewing because it is a science fiction story about time travel. And it features two well known actors, John Cusack and Chevy Chase. If you strip away all the parts of the story that are offensive, it would still be a pretty funny movie. But it is rated ‘R’ with good reason. The use of bad language is pervasive with a capital ‘P’, some of the gags are very disgusting and offensive and of course there is very graphic nudity and some graphic violence as well (but not much); oh, and of course some drug use. I did appreciate the references they made to “Back to the Future” (1985) including the casting of Crispin Glover as Phil the bellhop (if you will recall, he played “George McFly”). The story is about these four guys who go on a weekend ski trip. When they discover their lodge accommodations include a hot tub, they all jump in and party all night. The next morning however, they start noticing little details here and there that don’t make any sense, such as very obsolete clothing styles and seeing Ronald Reagan on TV. Eventually they figure out that they are in 1986 instead of 2010. They decide that no matter what, they must repeat whatever they had originally done in 1986 all over again so as not to alter their own futures. They can’t go back to 2010 anyway until the hot tub repairman (Chevy Chase) fixes it. I won’t go any further with the plot but you already know that much of it is offensive. To its credit though it does have a good ending. If I still haven’t dissuaded you from watching this, then you just might like it.