Year Director Running Time MPAA Rating Title Comments
2011 Alexander Payne 115 R The Descendants A sad story with occasional comic relief. At first it seemed a bit boring but eventually it became more interesting, but not enough to qualify for greatness. George Clooney stars as Matt King, a wealthy resident of Hawaii and a descendant of Hawaiian royalty. He is separated from his wife and not on good terms with his two daughters. The story starts with an accident (off camera) in which Matt's wife ends up in a coma. The rest of the film is about Matt and his daughters coming to terms with Mrs. King's condition and trying to reconnect as a family. But things become more complicated when Matt learns his wife was having an affair before the accident and now he wants to meet her lover. With so much critical praise for this film, I was expecting something greater. I wouldn’t call it bad, but neither did it make me feel I got my money’s worth. The ‘R’ rating is for profanity, especially from the children.
2011 Tomas Alfredson 127 R Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy This movie is very complicated. The first time I saw it, I found it incomprehensible and was often bored. On the possibility that I was having a bad day, I went to see it again some weeks later. Although I still don't understand the story entirely and am confused about who various characters were, I did come to realize that I had previously mistaken some scenes for the "present" when in fact they were flashbacks, and possibly vice versa. While it may be a spy movie, this is a snooze compared to the "Bourne" films. Lots of conversations with long pauses and very little action. I have not read the novel by John le Carré, nor have I seen the 1979 TV mini-series; so I can't say if either of those would have helped or hindered. I'll give it good marks for the acting and cinematography, but be well rested before watching this or you may doze off.
1964 Steve Binder 113 NR (G) The T.A.M.I. Show This is a must-see for all fans of popular music from the 1960s. It is a live concert that was filmed in 1964, with special “Electronovision” cameras, providing what was then an amazing 800 lines of video detail and then transferred to film. The acts appearing in the film are: Chuck Berry, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Marvin Gaye, Lesley Gore, Jan and Dean, The Beach Boys, Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, The Supremes (before Diana Ross), The Barbarians, James Brown and the Flames, and the Rolling Stones (before the death of Brian Jones). This concert footage has rarely been seen, and was only released on home video for the first time in 2010. Incomplete versions appeared on TV from time to time but the DVD has the complete original film. Hands down, the most amazing performance was James Brown. Words fail me. If you like any of these acts, you must take this trip back in time to see these performances. Great shots of the audience, too, which consisted of local (Santa Monica) high school students. “T.A.M.I.” stands for “Teenage Awards Music International.” If you watch closely you may catch a glimpse of actress Teri Garr as one of the go-go dancers during Marvin Gaye’s last number.
2009 Niels Arden Oplev 153 R The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo Swedish: “Män som hatar kvinnor.” A fantastic murder mystery thriller. Very well crafted story that holds your attention throughout the two and a half hours. The literal translation of the original Swedish title is "Men who hate women" which is clearly one of the main themes of the story. Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) is a magazine publisher who has just been convicted of libel and must start serving his sentence in six months. In the mean time, he is invited to help an old man, Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube) solve a forty year old mystery involving the disappearance of his niece, Harriet. He soon discovers that a mysterious young woman named Lisbeth (Noomi Rapace), who happens to have a penchant for tattoos and body piercings, is the perfect assistant for his investigation, due to her genius for research via computer (i.e., hacking). The film follows this investigation to its shocking conclusion. The 'R' rating is not to be taken lightly. There are some *very* disturbing scenes involving violent rape and other unpleasant acts of violence, as well as some non-violent graphic sex. But if you are willing to watch such things you will discover an excellent movie. The DVD does offer an optional English audio track if you don't like subtitles. An American remake of this film was released in 2011, which I expect to see and review soon for comparison. Note: the DVD includes a diagram of the Vanger family tree, but it contradicts the movie in making it appear that Harriet’s father was Henrik’s nephew rather than his brother. I do not know if the diagram agrees with the book or not.
2011 David Fincher 158 R The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo It's not often that an American remake of a foreign film stands up as well to comparison with the original (released in 2009) as does this one. This is basically the very same exciting mystery thriller set in the same location (Sweden), with, in some cases, very similar looking actors, but with English as the primary spoken language. It also contains similar R-rated content that is equally shocking and disturbing, including *very* violent rape scenes. The literal translation of the original Swedish title is "Men who hate women" which is clearly one of the main themes of the story. For those unfamiliar with the story, it is about Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), a magazine publisher who has just been convicted of libel. Soon after, he is invited to help an old man (Christopher Plummer) solve a forty year old mystery involving the disappearance of his niece, Harriet. He soon discovers that a mysterious young woman named Lisbeth (Rooney Mara), who happens to have a penchant for tattoos and body piercings, is the perfect assistant for his investigation, due to her genius for research via computer (i.e., hacking). The film follows this investigation to its shocking conclusion. In this remake, the overall plot of the original remains, with only minor changes to the details of how some of the clues are found and how the story ends. Not having read the book, I cannot say which version of these details are from the book. The remake also adds a few things not in the Swedish version, such as a flashback to the original search for Harriet's body and an expanded look at something Lisbeth does near the end of the movie. Having recently watched the Swedish original, I already knew the plot and so was paying more attention to spotting the differences. The two films are so similar that it is difficult to say which is superior, though for the moment I am inclined to give the Swedish version a slight edge. I don't think you can go wrong regardless of which version you choose to watch, but be mindful of the extreme graphic violence.
2010 John Madden 114 R The Debt This film is a spy thriller of sorts and is actually a remake of the 2007 Israeli film, "Ha-Hov" (aka "The Debt"). It is a fictional tale about a group of Mossad agents who, in 1965, were on a mission to capture a former Nazi concentration camp doctor, "The Surgeon of Birkenau" (played by Jesper Christensen). The story jumps back and forth between that time in East Berlin and 1997 in Israel. So most of the main characters are portrayed by two different actors rather than employing aging makeup. The agents are Stephan Gold (Marton Csokas & Tom Wilkinson), Davit Peretz (Sam Worthington & Ciarán Hinds) and Rachel Singer (Jessica Chastain & Helen Mirren). Rachel joins the group in East Berlin because they believe the Nazi is posing there as a gynecologist. It's one of those stories where eventually the past catches up with the "present" (1997). It does have some good moments of high tension and suspense, but a number of things served to reduce my enjoyment. The way the characters were introduced at the beginning was a bit confusing, which did not help generate interest. And at one point, Rachel makes use of a "spy camera" which was so obviously technologically impossible in 1965, that it seemed like very careless filmmaking. Worthington & Hinds did not look enough alike to be playing young & old David. Generally the acting was pretty good, most notably, Christensen was very good as Doktor Bernhardt / Dieter Vogel. It's not too intense as far as the 'R' rating goes, but early on there is one very graphic scene that serves to give the audience quite a jolt. Maybe I'm nitpicking too much on this one and many people may like it, but somehow it failed to grab me.
2008 Robert Kenner 94 PG Food, Inc. An eye-opening documentary about how a few multinational corporations are in total control of the food you eat. It is sort of like a “60 Minutes” exposé that goes behind the scenes to reveal what is happening to the animals being raised as food, the crops being grown as food and feed, and the workers and farmers who are at the bottom of the corporate system. Then there are the laws that have been manipulated by corporate lobbying and conflicts of interest within the government agencies who are supposed to be the watchdogs. Some of what you see may be disturbing and may make you think twice about what you are buying at the supermarket, but I urge everyone to watch this.
2011 Michel Hazanavicius 100 PG-13 The Artist Old is new. The first “silent” movie of the 21st century. To be more precise, it is about 98% silent. But just as movies were 100 years ago, it is also black & white and square (i.e., not widescreen). And technically, this is a foreign film, being a production of France and Belgium, but because it is silent, that doesn’t matter. And in any case, the title cards for the dialogue are in English. There is also a musical score so you will not be sitting in total silence. It is a romantic comedy set in Hollywood from 1927-1932, when the studios were transitioning from silent movies to the “talkies.” The lovers are George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a major silent movie star and Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), a young actress just breaking into show business. During the course of their on and off romance, we see how the changes in the movie industry of the time are having drastically different effects on their respective careers. The film also features a few American stars such as John Goodman, James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller and Malcolm McDowell. It’s a fun story that cleverly reinvents the silent movie for a modern audience, and will be especially appealing to those who have seen some of the great silent films of the past. One thing that struck me as a bit odd about this production was the director's decision to use Bernard Herrmann's love theme from Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo" (1958) during one section of the film. I suppose it depends on whether you recognize the music or not, but if you do, even if it seems to fit the action, it will momentarily take you out of the fantasy. Kim Novak reportedly took great offense to this, which seems a bit extreme. Part of me enjoyed the effect of recognizing the music but at the same time it did distract me from my immersion in the story. Highly recommended.
2010 Michael Winterbottom 112 NR The Trip British actors, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon take on roles as themselves in this buddy road trip comedy. The premise is that Steve is between acting jobs and accepts an assignment from a newspaper to tour northern England and review a series of restaurants along the way. He had planned to take his girlfriend, Mischa (Margo Stilley), but she was traveling to America, so he invited fellow actor, Rob, to take her place on the trip. The whole movie is basically one long conversation between Steve and Rob, as they go from one restaurant to the next over the course of a week. Rob is an impressionist and a frequent highlight of their conversations is the two of them trying to outdo each other impersonating various actors such as Michael Caine, Sean Connery and Hugh Grant. Both of them obviously love to hear themselves talk and it’s a wonder they are able to remain as civil with each other as they do. You also get to see some of the north English countryside, though it appears it was filmed during rather chilly weather. It’s difficult to say who will appreciate the humor in all this. It was never boring but their banter did become a bit repetitive. It may be that it is too “British” for American audiences. I enjoyed it but I wouldn’t go out of my way to recommend it. As for the lack of a formal MPAA rating, there is no violence, no sex (not on camera anyway) and only limited profanity. It might make you hungry, though, watching them eat all the time. As a side note, this film is actually a reedited version of a six-part British TV miniseries, which means the film is missing over an hour of material from the series.
2011 Mike Cahill 92 PG-13 Another Earth The title of this movie and the premise of a duplicate of planet Earth appearing in the sky (dubbed "Earth 2") can easily give you the impression that this science fiction tale is going to be about space travel and encountering beings from another world. It turns out that it is really a very Earth-bound drama about two people who are connected by a common tragedy, and how the speculations about Earth 2's inhabitants influence their lives as the impending "first contact" between the two planets draws near. Although the science is a bit flimsy (e.g., no acknowledgment at all about the massive tidal effects of another planet coming so close), the human drama is strong, featuring the co-writer of the screenplay, Brit Marling, as recent high school graduate Rhoda Williams and William Mapother as music professor John Burroughs. Rhoda plans to study astrophysics at MIT, but on the night the discovery of Earth 2 is announced, events on “Earth 1” change her life forever. The unusual ways she attempts to cope with this change is the heart of this story. So while it wasn't the type of story I was expecting, it turned out to be a very good drama with great performances by Marling and Mapother. I could go on an on about the improbabilities, paradoxes and scientific inaccuracies in this story, but that would be missing the point. Approach this as a human interest drama that just happens to have a science fiction twist to it, and I think you will be surprised. I won’t give away the ending, but I will say that I later read an interpretation of the ending that I think is absolutely fantastic and I wish I had thought of it myself, but I would be happy to tell you about it after you’ve seen the film.
2011 Steven Spielbert 107 PG The Adventures of Tintin This 3D animated feature is a nearly nonstop action adventure which has its origins in a comic strip, first published in a Belgian newspaper, in 1929. The combination of 3D with the advances in computer animation realism creates quite a startling image. Except for the human faces, which in most cases are somewhat caricature-like, you feel immersed in a very real environment, with very life-like action. The hero of this adventure is "Tintin" (voiced by Jamie Bell), a young journalist with a boyish face, along with his dog, "Snowy." It starts with Tintin purchasing a model ship from a street vendor. He quickly discovers that somebody else desperately wants that ship and the whole thing turns into a treasure hunt, which takes him across the globe, by land, sea and air. It's a wild ride, though sometimes a bit predictable. In fact, the opening title sequence includes "flat" animation silhouettes which, in hindsight, reveal much of the story. It was, however, more exhausting than entertaining. The Tintin character may actually be the least interesting of the cast. As a warning to fans of the original comic books, which I have never read, I understand that this movie is a blend of three of the original stories and so probably not entirely true to any one of them.
2011 George Clooney 101 R The Ides of March A very good drama about the games people play behind the scenes of a political campaign. George Clooney directs himself as Governor Mike Morris, one of two Democratic candidates for President, during a primary campaign in Ohio. It is important to point out that the story is not about the candidates or their political ideologies; in fact, the film ends before election day, which as you may have guessed is set for the 15th of March. This story is about the campaign workers and the choices they make regarding their job and their personal lives. The story focuses mostly on the people working for Morris. Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is his campaign manager and Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) is second in command. A romantic interest for Stephen is campaign intern Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood). The opposition's campaign is being run by Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti). And representing the media, Marisa Tomei stars as news reporter Ida Horowicz. It’s a very good script that manages to avoid being predictable.
2003 John Crowley 106 R Intermission From a shocking beginning to a shocking climax, this is no ordinary romantic comedy. Set in a working class district in Dublin, Ireland, you have a colorful assortment of characters: a thief named Lehiff (Colin Farrell); heartbroken John (Cillian Murphy), who just broke up with his girlfriend, Deirdre (Kelly Macdonald); Deirdre's withdrawn sister, Sally (Shirley Henderson); police detective Jerry (Colm Meaney); television filmmaker Ben (Tomas O'Suilleabhain); a banker, Sam (Michael McElhatton) who has just separated from his wife of 14 years; and Mick (Brían F. O'Byrne) the bus driver. It’s a great story and I wish I could give it higher marks but the dialogue is seriously profane and obscene. And if that wasn’t enough to generate an ‘R’ rating, they through in a bit of sex, nudity and violence as well. But if you’re willing to tolerate that kind of dialogue for entertainment’s sake, you will probably be well entertained, amused and see some great acting as well. If you don’t have an ear for the thick Irish accents, you better turn on the subtitles, but you still might get tripped up by some of the Irish slang.
2011 Jeff Nichols 121 R Take Shelter Fascinating drama about Curtis (Michael Shannon), a family man who suddenly starts experiencing nightmares and hallucinations involving violent thunderstorms. He tries to hide his condition from his wife (Jessica Chastain) and deaf daughter, but he is terrified that he might be going mad. All the while he treats these symptoms as a premonition and so starts going about the business of upgrading his storm shelter. This all creates a lot of tension within his family and at work. The ending is rather ambiguous, leaving you to reach your own conclusions, though that will no doubt frustrate some viewers more than others. Great performances by Shannon and Chastain. The “R” rating is only for profanity but even that is very limited. This is probably what you’d call a “sleeper” - not much publicity but it turns out to be very good.
2011 Roland Emmerich 130 PG-13 Anonymous A very entertaining costume drama set in Elizabethan England. It uses real historic figures to weave a tale based on what some would call a conspiracy theory. Specifically, it proposes that the plays of William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) were in fact written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans), and that Shakespeare was merely an actor from Stratford-upon-Avon who couldn’t write a poem if his life depended on it. You don’t have to believe this theory to enjoy the film, though I dare say that serious Shakespeare scholars will quickly dismiss it as rubbish. But even such luminaries as Mark Twain, Charles Dickens and Sigmund Freud expressed doubt about the true authorship of the plays. I have my own personal bias in this matter. In eleventh grade English class (1969) I wrote a paper which extolled the theory that the plays were written by Sir Francis Bacon (1561–1626). I had been seduced by an elaborate theory, put forth by Ignatius Donnelly (1831-1901), which claimed that the secret authorship was somehow encoded within the First Folio of the plays. I was not unaware of the Oxfordian theory but as an impressionable teenager, I was swayed by Donnelly. To this day I still think there is a case for reasonable doubt about the authorship of the plays. If nothing else, it is a captivating pastime to read about the various theories. But this is certainly the first time the question of authorship has been given such attention in a feature film. To get the audience further involved in the Elizabethan era, the film also delves into the drama surrounding the politics of the monarchy and the question of who will succeed Elizabeth. Vanessa Redgrave stars as Queen Elizabeth I. (Vanessa's real life daughter, Joely Richardson, plays the young Queen in flashbacks) and the poet, Ben Jonson, is played by Sebastian Armesto. The entire film is book-ended by Sir Derek Jacobi who appears on a stage in present day, to offer prologue and epilogue, not unlike a Shakespeare play. The visual effects which recreate 16th century London are impressive. I enjoyed this very much and I think if you’re willing to temporarily ignore what you were taught in high school, you should be able to enjoy this also. It is not history.
2011 J.C. Chandor 107 R Margin Call A smartly crafted drama that, without naming names, gives us a look inside a major investment firm on the day of its historic collapse in 2008. The story spans just two days and begins with major layoffs, greatly reducing the trading staff of Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey). One of the employees who was let go, Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) leaves behind an unfinished project which he hands off to a younger employee, Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto). Intrigued, Peter works late to analyze Eric's project and what he discovers is so shocking that upper management is forced to come in for an all night session to decide what to do about it. Also featured in the cast is Demi Moore and Jeremy Irons who plays the CEO of the firm. Like I said, they don’t name names but the speculation is that the company represented is suggestive of Lehman Brothers. I wasn’t sure how they were going to dramatize what could easily be seen as a very dry topic but they succeeded in creating believable characters and really letting you get to know them. Definitely worth watching. The “R” rating is for frequent use of the “F-word.”
2011 Jonathan Levine 100 R 50/50 This is an amazing film that takes a very difficult subject (cancer) and makes it an engaging, emotional story with well developed characters. It also manages to balance the serious aspects of the story with just the right amount of humor to break the tension. I want to recommend this to everyone but there is one caveat I cannot ignore, which is that one of the supporting characters, Kyle (Seth Rogen), has a tendency to talk about very obscene things. It’s one thing to have a character who throws out a swear word now and then but the dialogue they gave Kyle could have been toned down without making it any less of a great movie. The main character, Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), is 27 when his doctor tells him he has a rare form of cancer that has a 50% survival rate. Kyle, his best friend, tries to be supportive in his own unique way. His girlfriend, Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), drives Adam to his chemotherapy appointments, and his unexpectedly young (24) therapist, Katherine (Anna Kendrick), admits that Adam is only her third patient ever. And if that isn't enough pathos, Adam's mother, Diane (Anjelica Huston), bears the additional burden of having a husband (Serge Houde) with Alzheimer's. The bulk of the plot is about Adam and his family and friends, coming to terms with his cancer. Great performances by everyone. In addition to what I said about Kyle, the “R” rating also applies to a sex scene, general profanity and drug use. Trivia: the story was inspired by the screenwriter’s own experience with cancer and in that case, Seth Rogan was the real life friend. I am disappointed that this film failed to receive a single Oscar nomination.
2011 Nicolas Winding Refn 100 R Drive Ryan Gosling is outstanding as "Driver" in this violent action thriller about a stunt car driver and auto mechanic who earns extra money at night by hiring himself out as a getaway driver for robbers. And let me repeat the word, violent. As a well written drama this is terrific entertainment, but a lot of people get killed and the brutality is quite graphic. And not surprisingly there is some pretty strong profanity, some nudity but no sex. There is a great supporting cast which includes Carey Mulligan as Driver's very cute neighbor, Irene, plus Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman. A lot of good suspense with surprises at every turn. After all the introductions, the main plot begins when Irene's husband (Oscar Isaac) returns home from prison and Driver tries to help him clear a debt owed to some very unsavory characters. If you are one who doesn't shy away from such movie violence I'm sure you will enjoy this.
2011 Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. 103 R The Thing A scary science fiction thriller and the third such film based on John W. Campbell’s story “Who Goes There?” In terms of the plot, this film serves as a prequel to the 1982 version directed by John Carpenter, though to be more precise, the new story could be inserted between the opening shot of Carpenter’s film, depicting an alien spacecraft approaching Earth, and that film’s first scene on the ground in Antarctica. In contrast, the 1951 film, “The Thing from Another World” is an entirely independent interpretation of Campbell’s story. So essentially, the characters in the new film are the first humans to encounter the “Thing” and discover its horrifying potential. The setting is a Norwegian scientific station in Antarctica and so most of the people working there are Norwegian or Danish. As a result, there is occasional foreign dialogue with subtitles displayed, but most of the film is in English. The special alien creature effects are quite impressive but at the same time quite gory and gruesome, not to mention scary. So this probably should be considered a horror film as well when you’re considering whether to see this. None of the actors are familiar to me but they mostly delivered good performances. It should be noted that the story continues after the end credits have begun, so don’t stop watching when you see the credits; there is another three minutes of the story to see.
2011 Andrew Niccol 109 PG-13 In Time A curious vision of the future in which the only form of currency is the amount of time you have left to live. It’s a very simple and classic tale of the haves and the have-nots but set in a world with a very different basis for wealth. In this alternate universe, some type of genetic engineering has ensured that everyone stops aging when they turn 25. However, everyone is born with a digital clock embedded in their arm, which, at age 25, begins a countdown of one year. If the clock runs all the way to zero, you die. But the time in your clock is also your money. A cup of coffee may cost you 4 minutes and the bus fare is 2 hours. So if you can’t replenish it, you will not last the full year. But just like in the world of cash money, you can earn time, you can borrow time, you can give it away, gamble it or steal it. So there are some people who have accumulated enough time to live many decades beyond their apparent 25 years. This world is also divided into “time zones” which unlike our time zones, represent regions of the country with different levels of time wealth and you must pay a substantial time fee to cross a time zone border. Within this science fiction setting, the main character is Will Salas (Justin Timberlake), who has managed to live a few years beyond 25. His mother, Rachel Salas (Olivia Wilde) is really 50 but looks no older than her son. When Will receives an unexpected gift of time from a man who is tired of living so long, he begins an adventure that takes him to the wealthiest time zone where he meets his love interest, Sylvia Weis (Amanda Seyfried), whose father (Vincent Kartheiser) is a time millionaire. Another important character, Raymond Leon (Cillian Murphy) is a member of the time police. And Johnny Galecki has a small part as Will's friend, Borel. Although the struggles of the poor vs. the rich are nothing new, this unusual context makes it quite interesting, if not always logical. The acting was only average but I enjoyed watching to see how things work out for Will and Sylvia.
2011 Pedro Almodóvar 120 R The Skin I Live In Spanish: “La piel que habito.” A very bizarre and ultimately perverse medical thriller. Almodóvar has a track record for directing very strange movies and this one is no exception. Antonio Banderas stars as Robert Ledgard, a wealthy plastic surgeon in Spain. He lives in a mansion that includes a private medical clinic where he conducts research and can perform operations on clients seeking the ultimate in privacy. There are two women who live there also, but it is not until the second act (a long flashback) that you get the real explanation of how they are connected with Robert. And right off the bat you know something is weird because one of these women appears to be captive in a locked room with video surveillance. I won't reveal any more but once the awful truth hits you, your feelings about Robert will change dramatically. And in fact I can imagine some viewers will feel vaguely ill at the whole idea. It is rated ‘R’ for all the usual reasons, though primarily for graphic nudity, sex and rape. Clearly not a film for general audiences, but if you seek to be truly shocked by a story, this is for you. And you get to see some great acting as well. In Spanish with optional English subtitles.
2011 Lars von Trier 135 R Melancholia This is a story that examines a small group of people reacting to the threat of an end-of-the-world scenario. In fact, the first eight minutes of the film, using surreal super slow motion, reveals the collision of Earth with the giant rogue planet “Melancholia.” As a result, the next two hours is one long flashback, without any suspense as to how things will ultimately end. But that prologue may very well be the best part of the film. The two main characters are Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and her sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Claire and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) live in a large estate where they are hosting a reception for Justine's wedding. But Justine is suffering from melancholia and is not exactly the life of her party. But ironically, Justine's depression seems to calm her response to the impending doom. Coincidentally, a different film, “Another Earth,” was released earlier the same year and also involved another planet approaching Earth, but unlike that film, “Melancholia” does not make any suggestion that planet Melancholia has any people on it. I have to say though, that I found this very trying and don’t expect it to have a large following. It is only the third film I’ve seen by director Lars von Trier and "Breaking the Waves" (1996) was the only one I’ve liked so far, though also probably a film for a niche audience. Supposedly this film was inspired by a bout of depression suffered by the director and interestingly some of the highest praise for the film came from people who admitted to having experienced depression.
2011 Simon Curtis 99 R My Week With Marilyn In 1956, Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), a young man from a wealthy British family, got himself a job in London, working for Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) during the production of his film, "The Prince and the Showgirl." Olivier's female costar was Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams). The two stars did not get along well on the set and Colin was assigned to "look after Marilyn." Marilyn took a liking to Colin and they spent a great deal of time together, especially after her husband, Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott), returned to America. And it's all true, or at least as true as the two books written by Colin Clark, on which the screenplay was based. Other supporting actors include Julia Ormond, Emma Watson, Judi Dench and Derek Jacobi. Michelle Williams is very good in her portrayal of Marilyn, even doing her own singing. Being less familiar with the persona of Olivier, I can't really judge how well Branagh represented him, though most critics seem to have approved. I have to say though that I didn’t really warm up to this picture during the first 40 minutes, but I definitely enjoyed the remainder of the film.
2011 Jason Reitman 93 R Young Adult Charlize Theron stars as "Mavis Gary," a young divorcée, who lives in Minneapolis and writes novels for young adults. One day she gets the crazy idea that she wants to renew an old romance with an ex-boyfriend, Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), who still lives in her home town, Mercury, Minnesota (fictional town). The only problem is, Buddy is married and has a newborn daughter. Does that stop Mavis? No. But when she arrives in Mercury, she runs into a guy she knew from high school, Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), who, upon learning of her intent, attempts to be her moral compass, which of course she doesn't want. Overall, this isn't great, but I must say the best scenes were between Theron and Oswalt. He was quite funny, as well he should be, being a standup comic when he's not acting in films.
2011 David Cronenberg 99 R A Dangerous Method A fascinating, though limited, glimpse at the lives of two of the most famous psychologists of the 20th century, Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen). But the main emphasis of the story is the unusual relationship that developed between Jung and one of his patients, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) and how that, in turn, affected his relationship with Freud. It's a true story, based on the book by John Kerr (after first being turned into a play by Christopher Hampton). When Sabina was first brought to Jung, she was an extremely disturbed woman and Knightley's performance in that capacity is quite impressive, sometimes to the point of being disturbing itself. The role comes with a unique accent which I thought she handled quite well also. It is a dialogue intensive film, with some of the discussions being quite sexually explicit. The 'R' rating also covers some kinky sex scenes but not much nudity. I found it very interesting as well as entertaining, though I appear to be in the minority on this one.
2011 Brad Bird 133 PG-13 Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol A very exciting action movie starring Tom Cruise (for the 4th time) as IMF Agent Ethan Hunt. His impossible mission this time takes him to Russia, Dubai and India, in a race against time to prevent a global catastrophe. His mission team consists of supporting actors Simon Pegg (for comic relief), Paula Patton and Jeremy Renner. Their mission is made even more impossible than usual when the President invokes “Ghost Protocol,” essentially leaving them without their usual support from IMF headquarters (but you’ll have to see the movie to find out why). Terrific stunt work, including a dizzying sequence on the tallest building in the world (the "Burj Khalifa" in Dubai, at 2,723 feet) and lots of clever spy technology. This may be the best movie in the series; it certainly made the most money at the box office.
2011 Phyllida Lloyd 105 PG-13 The Iron Lady Another great performance by Meryl Streep, this time in a portrayal of former British Prime Minister (1979-1990), Margaret Thatcher. However, since this story spans her life from youth through old age, a second actress, Alexandra Roach, plays Margaret (nee Roberts) as a young woman. Her husband, Denis Thatcher is played as a young man by Harry Lloyd and by Jim Broadbent in his later years. The story is presented in alternating time periods, starting with her life in retirement, with flashbacks to earlier events which span her entire career in politics. With the excellent aging makeup, Streep virtually disappears in the scenes in which Margaret is portrayed in the latest years covered by the film. The screenplay appears to be fairly accurate historically speaking, though no doubt some poetic license was slipped in somewhere. A lot of viewers have complained that the film did not go in to enough detail about the major events during her time as Prime Minister and that too much time was devoted to her decline into dementia. But personally, that did not bother me, as the performances by Streep, Broadbent and others carried enough weight to overcome the lightweight history. I knew next to nothing about Thatcher to start with and found it educational in addition to being treated to some great acting.
2011 Sean Durkin 102 R Martha Marcy May Marlene A weird, sometimes creepy, sometimes disturbing thriller about a young woman named Martha (Elizabeth Olsen). Martha has somehow fallen under the spell of cult/commune leader, Patrick (John Hawkes), who assigns her the name “Marcy May.” The film starts with her running away from the farm and calling her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson) from a pay phone in town. Lucy drives three hours from Connecticut to retrieve Martha, whom she hasn’t heard from in years. The story then bounces back and forth between Martha/Marcy’s life in the commune and her new life with her sister and brother-in-law, Ted (Hugh Dancy). The screenplay is very quiet for a long time about just who Martha is, and in fact it is almost an hour into the film before you find out she is Lucy’s sister. I don’t know why some screenwriters like to leave you wondering for so long. The transitions between past and present are sometimes a bit unclear at first, adding to the confusion. As for the name “Marlene,” I'll leave it to any one who decides to watch this to see if they can catch the drift of its significance; it's a somewhat subtle detail which I did not understand until I read other reviews. The film ends very abruptly with no resolution of anything. Most unexpected, but on further consideration, it sets up a disturbing possibility for what might have happened next. Rated ‘R’ for sex, nudity and a bit of violence and profanity, but nothing I would call extreme in any of those categories. Olsen's performance as Martha is very good and if you're looking for a story that becomes more and more unsettling (as it builds up to the reason why Martha ran away from the cult), you might like this. On the other hand, it doesn't always make sense and as I pointed out, has no clear ending. So I won't specifically recommend it, but perhaps my description might intrigue some of you.
2011 Steven Spielberg 147 PG-13 War Horse A somewhat simplistic story about a boy and his horse and an excuse for Steven Spielberg to film more war action sequences. It clearly has the mark of Walt Disney on it down to the comical duck that will make you think you’re watching an Aflac commercial. It is a story told largely from the point of view of the horse and in that regard reminded me of the 1966 French film by director Robert Bresson, “Au Hasard Batlthazar,” which told the story of a donkey and its many owners during its lifetime. Spielberg introduces the horse to us when a young boy, Albert "Albie" Narracott (Jeremy Irvine), observes its birth on a neighboring farm in Devonshire, England. We quickly see the boy and the horse grow up and soon the boy’s father (Peter Mullan) buys the horse for him. But when World War I breaks out, the British Army commandeers the horse for the war effort in France. So just like Balthazar the donkey, “Joey” is shown as he passes from owner to owner. There are indeed a lot of war battle scenes, but since they are not really what the movie is about, they just fill up time in a long story about a horse. It’s not really a serious adult drama, more for a younger audience (it is based on a children's novel), though not too young due to the war action, but at the same time perhaps too long for the intended audience. In contrast, Bresson told his story in only 95 minutes but I must admit they were very slow minutes; Spielberg has given us more action-filled minutes and a lot more of them. Although it was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture (but did not win any), my opinion is that it is overrated. It’s a showy picture but without a lot of substance.
2011 Drake Doremus 90 PG-13 Like Crazy A mostly boring story about a long-distance romance. Anna (Felicity Jones) is a British student studying at a college in Los Angeles, where she meets and falls in love with Jacob (Anton Yelchin). She foolishly overstays her student visa and the next time she tries to visit America, Homeland Security sends her right back to England. From that point on the relationship is rather bumpy, but I won't say how it turns out. In any case I don't really think it is worth your time. It was probably meant for a teenage audience.
2010 Alejandro González Iñárritu 148 R Biutiful Spanish, set in Barcelona, though not where tourists go. A powerful, disturbing and sad story. Javier Bardem stars as "Uxbal," a father of two, separated from his bipolar wife (Maricel Álvarez) who is not fit to care for the children. They are clearly not well off and it is somewhat of a mystery what his source of income is, but it seems to have something to do with providing foreign workers for construction and warehouse operations. He also seems to have an ability to communicate with the recently deceased (before burial) and makes a bit of cash that way also. Uxbal gets bad news from his doctor but doesn't tell anyone, so there is this cloud hanging over him as he struggles to handle his business dealings as well as his domestic problems. A number of subplots deal with some of the illegal aliens Uxbal associates with. It is not for the faint of heart, as one of Uxbal’s medical symptoms is depicted very graphically. Others may be put off by a totally gratuitous and pointless scene in which two men make out in a restroom. Bardem’s performance is definitely worth watching, provided you are prepared for the depth of pathos. Also be prepared for nudity, profanity and drug use, but no significant violence. The young boy who plays Uxbal’s son is also very talented. Foreign dramas often go where Hollywood rarely does and this film is certainly a good example. Only available at the present time with subtitles; no English dubbing. Certainly not a movie for everyone but if I haven’t scared you away, you will probably find it a worthwhile experience. By the way, “Biutiful” is not the Spanish word for “Beautiful” but rather is an attempt to spell the English word as it sounds to a Spanish speaking person.
2009 Daniel Alfredson 130 R The Girl Who Played With Fire Swedish: "Flickan som lekte med elden." A thrilling sequel to the Swedish version of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” (2009). It picks up the story of Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) about a year after the events of the first movie. Journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) is back at his job, now working on a new story which will expose several prominent people involved in sex trafficing. But a sudden sequence of murders in Stockholm for which the evidence points to Lisbeth, has both the police and Blomkvist searching for her, though he believes she is innocent. I won’t give any specifics but I can tell you that you will learn some surprising new facts about Lisbeth’s past. It is an exciting and suspenseful movie and will definitely be appreciated by fans of the first movie. And like the first movie, it contains very strong R-rated elements. But if you were able to stomach the first movie, you should not have any problem watching this sequel, though one new element not in the previous episode is a very explicit lesbian sex scene (they’re really pushing the limits of “R” here). I would also add that there is not much point in watching the sequel if you haven’t seen the original. The DVD includes an English audio track if you don’t want to read subtitles.
2009 Daniel Alfredson 147 R The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest Swedish: "Luftslottet som sprängdes" (literally, "The castle of air that exploded"). The third and final episode of the trilogy which started with “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” (2009). It is perhaps not as much of a thriller as parts one and two, but the story demands a conclusion and this is it. This film resumes the story right from the end of “The Girl Who Played With Fire” (2009) and pretty much expects that you have seen the first two films already. It is difficult to say much about it without giving away the conclusion of part two, but suffice to say that part three centers around a courtroom drama that was inevitable. It also continues the subplot about the investigative story that Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) was working on in part two. Anyone who has enjoyed the first two films will have to see this conclusion. Although this film has much less sex and violence than the other two, it is still an R-rated film for good reason. The DVD has an optional English dubbed audio track.
2010 Debra Granik 100 R Winter’s Bone A very good dramatic thriller set in a small community in the Ozarks, the kind where not only does everyone know everybody, but most of them are related in one way or another. Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is a 17 year old girl who, by default, has become the head of her family, consisting of an ill mother and two younger siblings. Her father apparently was arrested on a drug charge but skipped his bail and nobody knows where he is. And if they do they're not talking. Unfortunately the bail bond is tied to the house and if he doesn't show up for his court date, Ree will lose the house. So the plot is about Ree's efforts to find her father in a community that would rather she left well enough alone. Also stars John Hawkes as Ree's uncle, "Teardrop." Great suspense and intrigue and great acting, especially by Lawrence and Hawkes. Nominated for four Academy Awards and although it didn’t win those, it won 26 other awards. Rated ‘R’ mostly for the drug usage, some profanity and a bit of violence at least one instance of which is rather gruesome.
2010 Tom Vaughan 106 PG Extraordinary Measures Based on the non-fiction book, "The Cure" by Geeta Anand (2006), this film tells the story of John and Aileen Crowly (played by Brendan Fraser & Keri Russell), who have two children suffering from Pompe disease (a rare genetic disorder). John reads about a scientist, Dr. Robert Stonehill (Harrison Ford) who believes he knows how to produce a drug to treat the disease, but does not have the funding necessary to develop it. Out of desperation, John quits his job and uses his business skills to help finance Stonehill's work. The names of the family members are real but I believe the name Stonehill was invented for the screenplay and since the film opens with "Inspired by true events" there are probably a lot of other details that were changed for dramatic purposes. I have to say though that both the writing and the acting disappointed me. Even the casting is questionable in some cases.
2011 Cameron Crowe 124 PG We Bought a Zoo Somewhat predictable, but it's a nice family picture inspired by a real zoo in England. The setting has been changed to California. In this version of events, Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) is a family man whose wife died recently and he and his two kids are struggling to cope. For a combination of reasons he decides the family should move to a bigger house on a larger piece of land, but he never counted on what he ended up buying: a large house in the country on a property that just happens to be a closed-down zoo, with all the animals, that "needs work." His young daughter, Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), a real scene-stealer, naturally falls in love with the animals, but his teenage son, Dylan (Colin Ford), finds the change difficult. The zoo still has a working staff, headed by zookeeper Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson) and together, Benjamin and his new employees work hard to prepare the zoo to reopen to the public. The cast also features Thomas Haden Church as Benjamin's brother, Duncan, and John Michael Higgins as Walter Ferris, the government inspector. Trivia: the real life Benjamin Mee has a cameo role as a visitor to the zoo; also, the real zoo cost him in the neighborhood of $2 million, not an amount that the movie Benjamin appeared to be capable of paying. It’s good light entertainment with an appealing cast and is generally suitable for family viewing (though admittedly some of Dylan’s artwork is a bit disturbing and some shouting matches are a bit intense).
2012 James Watkins 95 PG-13 The Woman in Black A disappointing ghost story, set in England, circa 1916. Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) is a young lawyer who has been assigned to secure documents for probate from an old house belonging to the recently deceased owner. In spite of warnings from the town locals, he visits the house, only to find it is haunted by a woman dressed in black as well as other ghosts. His only friend in this remote village is Sam Daily (Ciarán Hinds), who refuses to believe any of the local superstitions. Radcliffe is very dull and boring as Mr. Kipps, and although the movie is good at making you jump in fright now and then, it really isn't all that interesting. It is based on a novel by Susan Hill, which was previously made into a TV movie in 1989, though with significant differences in the story.
2012 Kevin Reynolds 265 TV-14-DLSV Hatfields & McCoys A three-part television mini-series, dramatizing the famous decades-long feud between the Hatfield family of West Virginia and the McCoy family across the river in Kentucky. Not to be confused with "Hatfields and McCoys: Bad Blood" which is set to be released in June, 2012, direct to DVD. In this History Channel presentation, Kevin Costner stars as Devil Anse Hatfield, supported by Bill Paxton as Randall McCoy and Tom Berenger as Jim Vance. It starts in 1863 during the Civil War and runs the full stretch of the feud into the early 20th century. Although it attempts to be true to the facts of the story, the scenery is completely wrong. I'm not familiar with that area of the country, but I sensed it did not look right and it turns out my suspicions were correct, because it was filmed in Romania. Still, it was a good production with good performances from a large cast, but it’s a story with no heroes, just two large families at each other’s throats for nearly fifty years. Because this appeared on the History Channel, I was surprised at the uncensored use of profanity that one does not expect on that channel.
2011 Robert B. Weide 194 NR Woody Allen: A Documentary If you like any of Woody Allen’s films you will probably enjoy this fairly extensive look at his career. There are apparently two versions of this film. What I saw was the long version which was released on a 2-disc DVD set in February, 2012, and actually consists of two separate films, labeled "Part 1" and "Part 2." Two days before I watched the DVD version, a much shorter version was released theatrically in France. The two-part version first appeared on Public Television in November, 2011, as part of their “American Masters” series. The film includes many revealing interviews with Woody Allen and many others who worked with him, along with many clips from his films. Although not officially rated, it should be considered an "R" film because some of the clips are from his R-rated movies and as such include that level of profanity. Part-1 covers his life from childhood to about 2004 and Part-2 covers his more recent movies that were filmed in Europe, including the popular "Midnight in Paris" (2011). If you've ever wondered "what makes him tick" I think this will give you at least a little insight into this icon of American culture. The DVD set includes additional interviews that were not part of the main film.
2010 Robert Redford 122 PG-13 The Conspirator A period drama recreating the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and the subsequent trial of the accused conspirators in that crime. I thought they did a very good job of giving it the look and feel of the era. They also did quite well in casting actors for the roles of the conspirators who bore good resemblance to the real conspirators (based on photos). Most of the movie concerns itself with the trial, especially as regards one key defendant, Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), the owner of the boarding house where the conspiracy was said to have been hatched. Her defense team consisted of Senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) and the very inexperienced Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy). The cast also includes Kevin Kline (nearly unrecognizable) as Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and Colm Meaney as Major General David Hunter (president of the commission conducting the military tribunal). It is very educational and seems to be very true to the actual events, though clearly they had to compress the details of the trial to make a film of reasonable length. Much of the trial dialog is from the original transcripts. Don’t expect gripping drama, but I think it is worth seeing if you have any interest in this momentous event in American history. A second disc in the DVD set includes an hour-long documentary about the same events, though it “cheats” a bit by including brief clips from the movie.
2011 Gore Verbinski 107 PG Rango I guess you could say that this is an animated tribute to the classic live-action western movies, complete with scenery that looks just like Monument Valley and with plenty of other references to popular films of that genre (which will obviously only be appreciated by the adult segment of the audience). But in spite of excellent computer animation and an Academy Award, it fell a bit short of my expectations. The first ten minutes were so peculiar that I almost gave up. The main character, Rango (voiced by Johnny Depp), is somebody's pet chameleon. His terrarium is accidentally knocked out of his owner's vehicle while traveling a remote desert highway. He makes his way across the desert to a small town named "Dirt." This is not a human town, it is populated by animals, mostly reptiles and rodents. The town is dying due to lack of water and Rango gets caught up in an effort to figure out what happened to all the water. I think the problem is that I didn't like the Rango character. Most of the other characters were fairly entertaining, but I would also say that it wasn’t very funny. The bar has been set very high for animated features, ever since "Toy Story" (1995), and although "Rango" is probably above average, it could have been better. Other well known stars who provided voices for the characters include Isla Fisher, Ned Beatty, Bill Nighy and the director himself, Gore Verbinski. The DVD comes with two versions of the film, the original theatrical version and an “extended” version which runs about five minutes longer. It appears that this extended version was created simply by putting back a number of scenes that were originally deleted for the theatrical release. These deleted scenes are available separately on the DVD so you can view them without having to watch the entire extended version. I think in most cases they were right in deleting them. None of them alter the original plot, but one additional scene is an extension to the original ending. Although it is rated “PG”, this may not be as suitable for children as the rating might suggest (jokes about prostate exams? Seriously?).
2003 Thomas McCarthy 89 R The Station Agent A very good drama about a friendship that develops amongst three people who couldn't be more different. Finbar "Fin" McBride (Peter Dinklage) is a "little person" and is a train enthusiast who prefers solitude. When he unexpectedly inherits a piece of property that includes an abandoned train station, he moves in and calls it home. But his efforts to live in peace and quiet are foiled by neighbors who can't resist befriending him. One is Joe (Bobby Cannavale), who operates the local food-vending truck, which he normally parks right across from Fin's station house. Then there is Olivia (Patricia Clarkson), whose manner of meeting Fin is better left as a surprise. Fin also meets the librarian (Michelle Williams) and a young school girl, Cleo (Raven Goodwin), but it is the trio of Fin, Joe and Olivia, who are the core of the story. From Fin's perspective, Joe is like the stray dog who won't leave you alone and wants to join in on anything you might be doing. And Olivia, well, she is separated from her husband and so is not in an entirely stable situation. But as much as Fin tries to avoid socializing, the three of them gradually grow closer. It's a quiet, short drama that is highly recommended. The "R" rating is just for Joe's occasional crude language and his marijuana habit.
2012 Ridley Scott 124 R Prometheus A scary and grizzly science fiction adventure clearly inspired by “Alien” (1979) and definitely best viewed on a very large movie theater screen. Although not being marketed specifically as a sequel or prequel to “Alien,” it is definitely set in the same fictional universe. Many of the sets certainly have the same look and feel of “Alien” and if you’ve seen that series of films you will feel “right at home” in a manner of speaking. You could say this is “Alien” for a new generation, since fans of the original are likely to find some parts of “Prometheus” to be a bit predictable. The opening scene of the film is a beautifully photographed fly-over of Iceland that concludes at the magnificent Dettifoss waterfall, one which I have had the good fortune to visit in person; it definitely qualifies as awesome. From there the story involves a space mission funded by a wealthy but dying man (Guy Pearce), who hopes his hired crew of "Prometheus" will find the origins of human life in a distant star system. His corporation is represented on the mission by Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron). There are two archeologists leading the scientific expedition, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green). Also featured with a very good performance is actor Michael Fassbender, whose character is similar to one in “Alien” but in case any readers here have not seen “Alien,” I won’t reveal that similarity. Excellent visual effects and some fascinating future technology. It was filmed in 3D but I watched the 2D version; I can’t say for sure but I don’t think I missed anything essential as a result. Rated “R” for the grizzly and violent action and some profanity. If you’ve seen “Alien” or similarly violent science fiction movies you will be well prepared for this experience. I won’t reveal what the crew finds on the remote world they visit but the ending does seem to leave room for a sequel. If you’re a fan of “Alien” you will probably like this, but again with the caveat that some events may not surprise you as much as viewers who have never seen the “Alien” films. But for all the technical film making advances since 1979, the original "Alien" is still the better movie; it was definitely more suspenseful. The new story is not as good and some of the characters engage in some pretty ludicrous behavior.
2012 Gary Ross 142 PG-13 The Hunger Games A surprisingly good action adventure set in the distant future. It is based on the novel by Suzanne Collins. In this version of the future, the U.S.A. has been replaced by the nation of "Panem" which is divided into twelve districts and at some time in their past (at least 74 years prior to the events in this movie), there was a disastrous civil war amongst the districts. In the aftermath, to promote unity and serve as a reminder of the past, the government instituted an annual "game" which pits children (teenagers) from every district against each other in a fight to the death in a survivalist type setting. Two children from each district are selected in a random drawing and sent to the Capitol where they are trained for the event. In this context, the movie tells the story of one such game, primarily from the point of view of the two children sent from District 12: Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). Although as I mentioned, they all get training before the game begins, there is no special allowance made for the differences in age, height and weight of the children selected. And it isn't just a game it is also a reality television program and the people in control are able to manipulate the environment of the game to skew the results to their liking (a little bit like "The Truman Show" (1998) except that in this case the participants know they are on TV; you may also be reminded of "The Running Man" (1987)). So on multiple levels it is not an entirely fair game. Also appearing in the film are Stanley Tucci as the host of the television broadcast of the games, Woody Harrelson as Haymitch, the "mentor" of the contestants from District 12, and Donald Sutherland as the president of Panem. I have not read the book but many who have, complained about how much was left out of the movie and I will say that they could have done a better job of explaining the history of Panem and the games and allowing the audience to become better acquainted with the contestants from the other districts. But even with that missing, the show lasts nearly 2-1/2 hours (though I was never bored).
2011 John Madden 124 PG-13 The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel Senior life crisis meets youthful romantics in present day India. A very good nonviolent story aimed at the mature adult audience (according to imdb.com, the demographic group that gave it the highest ratings was "Females Aged 45+", though surprisingly, those under 18 who cast a vote were quite positive). A great cast of senior actors including Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy and Maggie Smith. Based on the novel "These Foolish Things" by Deborah Moggach, the film opens by introducing us in rapid succession to seven British senior citizens who are strangers to each other (except two are a married couple). And what they have in common is that they all have a personal reason for making a trip to India at the same time and all end up in the same run down hotel in the city of Jaipur. The experience changes all of them. Their hotel manager is a young man (Dev Patel) who inherited the hotel from his late father and has grand hopes of upgrading it. And his girlfriend (Tena Desae) is a call center employee whom he loves in spite of his mother's disapproval. The interaction between the young and the old is a good part of what succeeds, along with the individual subplots created for each of the hotel’s residents.
2012 Joss Whedon 143 PG-13 The Avengers This summer blockbuster is rather unique in its genesis, in that although it is not titled "Avengers 2" it is in fact a sequel, but not to a single prior movie but a sequel to four different superhero movies: "The Incredible Hulk: (2008), "Iron Man 2" (2010), "Thor" (2011) and "Captain America: The First Avenger" (2011). And it seems likely that more will follow. So this new film brings together all the superheroes of those other films into one big ensemble cast to fight the newest evil threat to Earth. There's Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). On the "bad guy" side is Thor's brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston). And then there is Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), a war hero and director of “S.H.I.E.L.D.” Also included from the Iron Man films is Iron Man's lovely assistant, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). The threat I alluded to is instigated by Loki, who is attempting to pave the way for evil aliens to attack Earth and the entire movie is about the superheroes' battle to save Earth. If you liked the other films I mentioned it would be almost impossible for you to not be thrilled by this merger of Marvel Comics characters into a single film. There's plenty of intense action, great stunt work and special effects, though at nearly 2-1/2 hours, it may be too much action. Although Mark Ruffalo has replaced Edward Norton as the Bruce Banner character (the human who turns into The Hulk when he gets angry), I thought that Ruffalo was a good replacement. I think it's fair to say that for character development, it is assumed you have seen these superheroes the their previous films or know about them through Marvel Comics. But even without that experience, if you have an interest in this type of action film, you will probably be well entertained. There are two separate additional scenes shown during the closing credits, so you haven’t seen the whole movie until you’ve seen both of them.
2011 Guy Ritchie 129 PG-13 Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows Robert Downey Jr. returns in the title role in this follow up to the 2009 film "Sherlock Holmes." Both were directed by Guy Ritchie, who also brought along the same cinematographer, composer, editor, art directors and others, giving this new film the identical look and feel of the first one. So I would expect that most people who enjoyed the previous film will like this one as well. I'm always apprehensive of sequels, but this was better than I expected. Also returning in the cast is Jude Law as Dr. Watson, Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler and Geraldine James as Mrs. Hudson. This time out Holmes is up against his nemesis, Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris), whom he suspects in a series of bombings. At the same time, Dr. Watson is about to be married and is looking forward to a honeymoon and retirement from his partnership with Holmes. But the best laid plans... Well, enough said about the plot. New in this episode are the characters Madam Simza Heron (Noomi Rapace), a fortune teller, and Holmes' brother, Mycroft (Stephen Fry). A complex mystery for Holmes to solve in his usual clever way. Lots of detail to pay attention to so be alert.
2012 Mark Andrews + Brenda Chapman + Steve Purcell 93 PG Brave This Disney & Pixar animated feature was a disappointment. State of the art computer animation in 3D, but I was not at all impressed with the story and most of the characters were forgettable buffoons. It is set in Scotland, probably a couple hundred years ago. The main character is a young princess named Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald), daughter of King Fergus (Billy Connolly) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson). When it comes time for her parents to choose a suitor for her, she rebels against this tradition and foolishly contracts with a witch to help change her mother’s mind. Unfortunately the witch’s solution to her problem was not quite what she expected. Although clearly aimed at children, a few scenes may be a bit intense for very young kids. If you do choose to see this, there is a brief extra scene following the end credits, which is connected to something that happened early in the story. Also, like all Pixar films, there is a short animated feature (about 7 minutes), “La Luna,” preceding the main feature.
2012 Wes Anderson 94 PG-13 Moonrise Kingdom A funny, unusual and imaginative romantic comedy (though the romantic couple are much younger than you might be thinking). Filmed in Rhode Island, but set in fictional locations in the summer of 1965. The story is about a 12 year old boy (Jared Gilman) who runs away from his scout troop camp (in the context of the movie they are referred to as “Khaki Scouts” rather than Boy Scouts). Upon discovering the boy's disappearance the scoutmaster (Edward Norton) notifies the local police captain (Bruce Willis), and the search for the boy is underway. At the same time, a young girl (Kara Hayward) also goes missing and the situation gets more complicated. The girl's parents are played by Bill Murray and Frances McDormand. One of the unusual features of the film is the presence of an on-screen narrator (Bob Balaban) who apparently is also a resident of the local community. Great performances by all, with creatively designed sets. Great use of famous actors in roles, which for the most part, are secondary to the child actors. Potentially one of the year’s best films.
2012 Marc Webb 136 PG-13 The Amazing Spider-Man Unlike recent “Spider-Man” movies, this one is not a sequel. It is more of a “restart.” It introduces an entirely new cast and returns to the “origin story” of this superhero, which everyone likely to have an interest in this film already knows involves an encounter between Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) and a spider. There are many plot similarities with the 2002 “Spider-Man” but some of the details have changed. As before, Peter lives with his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field), but Peter's love interest in this version of the story is Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), daughter of Police Captain Stacy (Denis Leary). Also like the earlier film, Spider-Man is faced with an evil foe in the form of a scientist (Rhys Ifans) who tests an experimental drug on himself, turning him into a threat to society which Spider-Man must deal with. But what sets this version of the story apart is Andrew Garfield. I had not been impressed with Tobey Maguire in the 2002 version, so I think Andrew is a definite improvement and I think Peter’s romantic relationship was developed better in the new film. I like Martin Sheen and Sally Field, so that was a plus for me. Both versions are full of intense action and special effects, but with a virtually identical story, your preference will probably hinge on the actors’ performances. And one other detail that comes to mind, I’d say this new version has the edge in the sense of humor department.
2008 Hirokazu Kore-eda 115 NR Still Walking Japanese: “Aruitemo aruitemo.” A day in the life of a modern Japanese family. But not just any day. It is the day the grandparents (Yoshio Harada & Kirin Kiki) commemorate the death of their oldest son, over a decade ago. The two surviving adult children, son Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) and daughter Chinami ("You" - yes, that's her full stage name) and their children visit the grandparents on this occasion. There is no plot and in that sense it may at times feel like a documentary, which comes from the director's experience with that type of film. Yet it is fiction, inspired by his memories of his own family, especially his mother (represented here by the grandmother character). So the viewer just observes the day's events unfolding and experiences the traditions, attitudes, superstitions, secrets, rituals and squabbles of this extended family. In the eyes of the grandfather, the living son does not hold a candle to the deceased "heir," resulting in the tension observed between the two. The grandmother will surprise you when her secret agendas are revealed. If this film gives you insight into 21st century Japanese life, it contrasts with "Tokyo Story" (1953), by Yasujiro Ozu, which addressed similar issues in that era, but "Still Walking" is much easier to appreciate. Both films are "slow" in the sense of a dearth of action, but "Tokyo Story" felt ten times slower than this film. The acting here is excellent and even though you may at first feel that "nothing is going on," you couldn't be more wrong. By the end you will have learned a great deal about this family from "living with them" during this one day and night. As different as Japanese culture may be, I think most people will find something in this family they can relate to. Although not rated by MPAA, it probably qualifies for "PG" if not "G." No English dubbing track available.
2011 Tom Hanks 99 PG-13 Larry Crowne Well, you figure you’ve got Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts; should be good, right? Not quite. It has a few good moments here and there, but not enough to take up the slack elsewhere. Hanks plays the title character, a man with a steady job who suddenly is fired because he doesn’t have a college education, never mind that the job, realistically, doesn’t require a college education. He did spend 20 years in the Navy, but apparently that doesn’t count. His neighbor recommends that he take some courses at the local college, where he meets Julia Roberts’ character, a teacher of one of the courses. He also meets a much younger woman, Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a fellow student who lures him to join her scooter “gang” and teaches him about fashion. Romantically, Talia is taken, but that doesn’t stop her from teasing Larry right in front of her jealous boyfriend (Wilmer Valderrama). The real romance in the plot is between Larry and his teacher. I think part of the problem is that by the time their respective situations allow them to begin a serious relationship, the movie is almost over and you want more but you don’t get it.
2012 Christopher Nolan 164 PG-13 The Dark Knight Rises This is the third and longest of the recent series of Batman films which began in 2005 with "Batman Begins." But that doesn't necessarily make it better. I think the second feature, "The Dark Knight" (2008), was the best of the three, though it has been a long time since I've seen the first one. It features the same actors in the principal roles: Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne, Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon, Morgan Freeman as "Fox" and Michael Caine as Alfred. There are a lot of villains in this story but the scariest and most ruthless is "Bane" (Tom Hardy), who is dead-set on destroying both Batman and Gotham City. Also worked into the story is "Selina/Catwoman" (Anne Hathaway). The fictional city of Gotham, previously represented by footage filmed in Chicago, this time was filmed mostly in Pittsburgh, though there was one aerial scene that looked a lot like Manhattan. There is plenty of action and violence and Batman has a new flying machine (”The Bat”), but I think the story overextended itself and could have done a better job of explaining the motives of "Bane" whose evil plan was quite complicated. Based on reading other commentary, I now know there are details I missed which could have brought a better understanding of the plot, but it is so long it is difficult to catch everything with a single viewing. Also, there are some parts of the story that require you to have seen “The Dark Knight” to understand their relevance.
2012 Daniel Espinosa 115 R Safe House An exciting spy thriller starring Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds, on location in Cape Town, South Africa. Washington plays "Tobin Frost," a former CIA agent who is now in the business of buying and selling government secrets. After years in hiding, he suddenly turns himself in at the U.S. Embassy in Cape Town. From there he is taken to a CIA safe house that is currently the responsibility of the character Reynolds plays, "Matt Weston." But it soon becomes apparent that the CIA is not the only group that wants to get their hands on Frost. So the basic plot is how Weston can maintain custody of Frost until he can be formally turned over to the CIA. Lots of wild car chases and intense gun battles ensue. An attempt to include a romantic subplot with Weston and his girlfriend (Nora Arnezeder) mostly gets lost in the main action plot. The 'R' rating is primarily for all the gun violence.

Asghar Farhadi 123 PG-13 A Separation Persian (Iran): "Jodaeiye Nader az Simin" (literally, "The Separation of Nader from Simin"). An excellent drama about a small family in Iran with an assortment of domestic problems that start with an unsuccessful attempt by Simin (Leila Hatami) to divorce her husband, Nader (Peyman Moadi). She wanted to leave the country with their daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), but he wouldn't leave while his father was suffering from Alzheimer’s. Thus, the separation. But this triggered more problems which are the main subject of the drama. Powerful and moving performances. Highly recommended. You will have to read subtitles, though I will say that these subtitles go by rather quickly at times, so you cannot be distracted for a moment while you watch. But this is a drama you can't turn away from anyway. The DVD has an optional French dubbing track but no English audio. It won the Best Foreign Language Oscar at the 2012 awards show; the original screenplay was nominated.
2012 Mikael Salomon 157 (w/o commercials) TV-14 Coma This medical thriller is a made-for-TV remake of the 1978 film of the same name. It was shown on the A&E channel, spread over two nights, so with commercials, it runs four hours. As far as I can tell, only three characters from the 1978 film were retained in the new screenplay, Dr. Susan Wheeler (Lauren Ambrose), Dr. Mark Bellows (Steven Pasquale) and Nancy Greenly (Claire Bronson). A few veteran actors were brought in to create new characters: Geena Davis as Dr. Agnetta Lindquist, Ellen Burstyn as Mrs. Emerson, James Woods as Dr. Howard Stark and Richard Dreyfuss as Professor Hillside. Although I can't recall the details of the earlier film, both screenplays are based on the novel by Robin Cook, and so the plots are quite similar, though the technology employed for set design and visual effects give it a more up-to-date look. While it may be considered by some to be a futuristic science fiction story, the scary thing is that pretty much everything about it is technically feasible today. It just takes money and an “alternate” ethical mindset. I haven’t read the book so I don’t know what was added or removed from the original story, but there is a lengthy subplot involving a psychiatric patient (Michael Weston) of Dr. Lindquist, which seemed to serve only to make the movie longer. It still has as its core, the medical and ethical issues that Dr. Robin Cook hoped to convey in his novel. In short, the story focuses on medical student Wheeler, who uncovers a mystery at the hospital where she is interning. There is an abnormally high rate of patients who lapse into comas and she is determined to find out why. She soon finds that she doesn’t know who to trust with her discovery. It turns out that Cook had been hoping somebody would remake the movie and he seems generally pleased with the result. I thought it was a pretty good remake, except for seeming longer than necessary, and especially enjoyed seeing Geena Davis, Ellen Burstyn, James Woods and Richard Dreyfuss. I won’t explain in detail but the film does address some of the issues raised by the methods employed to “care” for the coma patients in the 1978 version. Be advised that you will see some graphically explicit medical procedures.
2012 Tony Gilroy 135 PG-13 The Bourne Legacy I found this to be a very exciting action thriller even though, in spite of the title, Jason Bourne is not involved (though his name is mentioned a few times). It would seem that in terms of chronology relative to the first three “Bourne” films, that this story somehow overlaps the timeframe of "The Bourne Ultimatum" (2007). The central character this time is Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), who has a role similar to Jason Bourne, having been given an enhanced skill set in a parallel CIA program to the one in which Bourne was trained. As in the other films, CIA management is out to “get him” and so this is another classic “man on the run” story. The CIA “suits” are largely the same characters and actors as before, providing continuity with at least the previous two films: Ezra Kramer (Scott Glenn), Dr. Albert Hirsch (Albert Finney), Pam Landy (Joan Allen) and Noah Vosen (David Strathairn). No characters from the first film have been carried over. A new addition to this group is Edward Norton as Retired Col. Eric Byer and Stacy Keach as Retired Adm. Mark Turso. For the romantic subplot, they cast Rachel Weisz as scientist, Dr. Marta Shearing. Aaron Cross is first seen in what appears to be a wilderness survival training exercise, hiking alone in the Canadian Rockies (Alberta). However, the greatest risk to his survival turns out not to be the wilderness. It all builds up to an extraordinary chase scene through the city of Manila, Philippines. I think as long as you understand this is not a Matt Damon film, you will probably enjoy it for the action spy thriller that it is. Renner may not have the same persona as Damon, but I thought he was well cast in this role.
2010 René Féret 120 NR Mozart’s Sister French: "Nannerl, la sœur de Mozart." Unlike "Amadeus" (1984), this period costume drama looks at the Mozart family from the perspective of Wolfgang's sister, Maria Anna, better known as "Nannerl." Other than the setting and the costumes, this film is nothing like "Amadeus." But I found it to be a very enjoyable light drama that I think will be appreciated by most fans of classical music, especially those who have an interest in the Mozart family. The story told in this film takes place when Wolfgang (David Moreau) was about 11 and Nannerl (Marie Féret) about 15, which would place this story in 1767. To support the family, their parents, Leopold (Marc Barbé) and Anna Maria (Delphine Chuillot), take the children all over Western Europe, displaying their talents for anyone who will pay (that much is true). Along the way, Nannerl becomes a close friend of the youngest daughter of Louis XV, Princess Louise Marie (Lisa Féret) and also gets introduced to the King's son, Louis, Dauphin of France (Clovis Fouin). History tells us the Mozarts did visit Versailles in 1763 and/or 1766, however, the Dauphin died in 1765, and the Princess would have been 25-28, not 13 as portrayed in the film. But this is no more a documentary than "Amadeus" so if you are willing to suspend such criticism, I think you will find it a pleasant entertainment. The sad side of this story is how Leopold restricted the development of his daughter's talents, simply because she was female (another true detail that survives the fiction). One wonders what the music world lost because of that.
2010 Hark Tsui 124 PG-13 Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame Chinese: "Di Renjie zhi tongtian diguo." This martial arts murder mystery may not have great acting or even particularly good martial arts, but it is definitely a visual spectacular. A cast of thousands, expansive sets, beautiful period costumes, amazing stunts and endless special effects, combined with a fairly complicated plot, it is certainly interesting to watch. This is one of the few Chinese (Mandarin) DVDs to include an optional English language audio track, so you won’t have to read subtitles if you don’t want to; though I did notice sometimes there are significant differences between the spoken English and the subtitles. In fact, in one instance the English dubbing uses the word "turtles" where the subtitles use "beetles" and it later becomes clear that the subtitles are correct. However, you lose the "Dolby 5.1 Surround" effects when you switch to English, which is only in basic stereo. Set in the year 689 AD (Tang Dynasty), the widowed Empress Wu (Carina Lau), is soon to be crowned the first (and only) female ruler of China [that much of the story is true]. A massive 200 foot tall Buddha is being constructed for the occasion, but suddenly the man in charge of the construction, dies from what appears to be spontaneous combustion. Empress Wu decides the only detective good enough to investigate this mysterious death is Detective Dee Renjie (Andy Lau), except that he is serving a sentence for treason, so she must release him, a task she assigns her assistant, Shangguan Jing'er (Li Bingbing). "Di Renjie" was an actual historical figure during the reign of Empress Wu. In addition to the plot being a bit confusing, it also sometimes veers off into the nonsensical. And in spite of the heavy use of visual effects, they are not always state of the art.
2011 Roman Polanski 79 R Carnage A very interesting and dynamic interchange of words amongst two couples in a room. This is a film adaptation of the French play, "Le Dieu du Carnage" (literally, "God of Carnage"), though the dialog is all English. And although it was filmed in France, the director went to great lengths to ensure that it appears to be taking place in a New York apartment. Unlike most films, all the shots were filmed in the sequence of the screenplay and cut to give the impression of real time (not counting the opening and closing credit scenes). Once the camera enters the apartment, you're basically there for the duration. Every now and then the invited couple starts to exit, but the conversation always draws them back into the apartment. The trigger for this conversation is an altercation between two boys in which one strikes the other with a stick causing significant dental damage. The parents of the victim, Penelope (Jodie Foster) and Michael (John C. Reilly), have invited to their apartment, the parents of the aggressor, Nancy (Kate Winslet) and Alan (Christoph Waltz). Everyone starts out very cordial and agreeable, but gradually things heat up and they start saying things that aren't so pleasant (the only reason for the "R" rating is the profanity that enters the conversation at this point). With four great actors, the characters become very believable (though Foster may have over done it a bit). It is fascinating to watch how the decorum erodes little by little (eventually with help from a bottle of Scotch). It’s not a story with a definitive conclusion, but the point of the play is the human behavior during the conversation, not how it turns out. It can be difficult for this type of film to retain the attention of its audience, but for me it succeeded.
1998 James Moll 87 PG-13 The Last Days A very well done Holocaust documentary which focuses on the victims from Hungary. The filmmakers interviewed five survivors who were from various parts of Hungary, but who found themselves rounded up and shipped off to Auschwitz or other concentration camps. As one might expect, the film includes historical footage, some of which was apparently newly-discovered at the time this documentary was produced; some of it naturally is quite shocking, even if you’ve seen this type of thing before. All of these particular survivors made a new life for themselves in the United States after the war, one of them even becoming a member of Congress. Some of the stories these survivors tell are quite amazing. The film was produced by Steven Spielberg and on the DVD, he appears briefly before the film starts, to introduce the film and to promote the Shoah Foundation. The film received the Best Documentary Oscar at the 1999 Academy Awards ceremony.
2012 Rian Johnson 119 R Looper This time travel story takes place, alternately, in 2044 and 2074. It's a very good story that does a good job of obeying the "rules" of time travel and weaving the consequences of those rules into the plot, sometimes quite cleverly. They did, however, add an element of the paranormal to the abilities of a few of the characters, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, just that I wasn't expecting that particular mix of fiction genres. Also, the application of time travel that the folks in 2074 have implemented, is rather cruel and brutal. Though admittedly, films like "The Terminator" (1984) were not using time travel for entirely good purposes, the difference there was that the bad guys were not human. The premise here is that in 2074, organized crime has access to this time travel technology. And due to the difficulty of disposing of bodies in that future society, they send the people they want to kill back in time 30 years, where people have been hired as "Loopers" to kill the victims the moment they arrive in the past and dispose of the bodies without the risks present in 2074. I'd explain why they're called Loopers, but I fear that would give away too much. With that as the setting, this story is about one particular Looper, Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). And since his 30-year-older self is also involved in the story, future-Joe is played by Bruce Willis (the credits label him "Old Joe"). Also featured in the cast is Jeff Daniels, as Abe, the boss of the Loopers (in 2044), and Emily Blunt as Sara, whose role I probably shouldn't divulge here. And I must also mention child actor, Pierce Gagnon, who is quite impressive for his age (probably 6-7). I think most sci-fi fans will enjoy this, provided they are prepared for the R-rated violence.

2012 Malik Bendjelloul 86 PG-13 Searching for Sugar Man This documentary is an amazing true story about an obscure musician from Detroit, “Rodriguez,” who discovered about 27 years late, that the music he recorded in the 1970s, has a huge following in South Africa. If you watched “60 Minutes” on October 7, 2012, you saw an abbreviated version of this story. Rodriguez recorded a few albums in the early 70s but none of them sold and so he had no real following here in the USA. But strangely and unknown to Rodriguez or anyone else here, people in South Africa had discovered his music but they knew nothing about the artist. Sparked by rumors of the artist’s death, people in South Africa attempted to find out who he really was and how he died. Boy were they in for a big surprise. You don’t even have to like his music to appreciate this film. It’s just one of those great “stranger than fiction” stories that is worth knowing about.
2012 Robert Lorenz 111 PG-13 Trouble With the Curve Clint Eastwood stars as Gus, an aging baseball scout whose failing vision is making it difficult for him to evaluate players by sight. His estranged daughter, Mickey (Amy Adams), is a workaholic lawyer with little time for boyfriends or her father. But when she gets wind of the doctor’s report on his eyes, she starts becoming concerned. The main plot involves a promising hitter, Bo Gentry (Joe Massingill), whom Gus is evaluating, but Mickey perceives that her father could use her extensive knowledge of the game to be his eyes. The film also stars John Goodman as Gus’ best friend, Pete; and Justin Timberlake as Johnny, a former player turned scout, and love interest for Mickey. Although it is a pretty good story with a satisfying, if somewhat predictable, ending, I felt Eastwood’s performance was variable and disappointing. His grumpy old man routine often seemed forced and artificial, and not as funny as it used to be.
1976 Clint Eastwood 136 PG The Outlaw Josey Wales An excellent western adventure set near the end of the Civil War. Clint Eastwood is Josey Wales, a Missouri farmer, who loses his home and family in an attack by a marauding gang of Union supporters. He joins a group of Confederate sympathizers until the war ends. But when an amnesty deal for the Confederates goes sour, Wales escapes with a price on his head. So now he is on the run from bounty hunters for the rest of the movie. Others join him along the way, including Native Americans, Lone Watie (Chief Dan George) and Little Moonlight (Geraldine Keams), and pioneer women, Grandma Sarah (Paula Trueman) and Laura Lee (Sondra Locke). The two men most interested in pursuing Wales for the bounty are Fletcher (John Vernon) and Captain Terrill (Bill McKinney). Beautiful extra-wide (2.35 : 1) landscape scenery and great performances all around. If you like westerns and you’ve somehow missed this one, as I obviously did for many years, you owe it to yourself to see this.
2011 Joseph Cedar 106 PG Footnote Hebrew: "Hearat Shulayim." A dramatic comedy set in a community of Hebrew scholars in Israel. Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar-Aba) and his son, Uriel Shkolnik (Lior Ashkenazi) are both well respected scholars in the study of the Talmud. But the elder Shkolnik holds grudges against both his son and his peers, and feels that his life's work has been trivialized by an unethical colleague. But one day he learns that his work will finally be recognized with a prestigious award. But there's a catch. Which I will not reveal. I'm not sure I caught all the meanings in the the story, that viewers who understand Hebrew might pick up on, but I believe the subtitles captured the essence of the story enough for my purposes (there is no English dubbing track on the DVD). It is infused with a good sense of humor, and although not typical of the overall mood, there was one scene that harkens back to a famous routine by the Marx Brothers. I did feel that the story ended sooner than I expected, leaving me to wonder how things played out later. But other than that, it is very good and was amongst the films nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.

2011 Cindy Meehl 89 PG Buck A very enjoyable documentary about horse trainer Buck Brannaman. If you saw Robert Redford’s “The Horse Whisperer” (1998), Buck was a technical advisor for that film. Buck probably doesn’t call himself a “horse whisperer” but he certainly embodies the concept that Redford’s movie was trying to tell in a fictional setting, but this documentary is the real thing. Through interviews and demonstrations of his technique you learn his unique approach to training horses and also learn about his background. “Buck” is short for “Buckshot” which was his stage name when he was a kid performing rope tricks with his brother and father. Unless you’ve got something against horses, you probably will like this movie. Don’t stop watching when the end-credits roll, because part-way through there is an extra brief scene in which Buck’s foster mother tells a joke.
2000 Jan Hrebejk 122 PG-13 Divided We Fall Czech: "Musíme si pomáhat." A tremendously suspenseful drama set in Czechoslovakia during the Nazi occupation. A childless couple take the incredible risk of hiding a Jewish man who escaped from a Polish concentration camp. I won’t go into more detail about the plot but it is an incredible story. I will say that in spite of the serious nature of their situation, the screenplay was written with a good sense of humor in the right places. It was nominated for best foreign film at the Oscars and won several awards in the Czech Republic. You will have to read subtitles but it is certainly worth it. Highly recommended.
2012 Tom Tykwer + Andy Wachowski + Lana Wachowski 172 R Cloud Atlas A huge drama that takes a long time to even begin to make sense. But once you realize that it is really six stories, each in a different time period, you can begin to follow each story individually, but it can take still longer to grasp the thread that links them all. The principal actors appear in multiple stories, but as different characters. For example, Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, Hugh Grant and Doona Bae each play six characters. Most of the stories are separated by large time spans, so except for one character played by James D'arcy, these characters are not meant to be the same person at different ages. In some cases it is easy to recognize the same actor in the different roles, but other times the character and makeup are so different you may not spot all of the roles of a given actor. During the end credits, they help you out by showing you photographs of each role played by each of the actors; you will likely be surprised by some of the revelations. The time periods of the stories range from the mid-1800s to the 24th century. It's a lot to get your head around, keeping track of six plots. It probably would help to watch it a second time, but it does take nearly three hours. I know I missed some small details that would have further connected some of the stories for me. Of the six stories, I only liked three, my favorite being the one set in the year 2144. The diversity of the plots is such that most people will probably not like all six, but may enjoy two or three as I did. I did like the emotional effect generated by the fact that all six stories build to a climax at about the same time. The more connections and threads you are able to grasp, the more you will appreciate the complex web the writers and directors have assembled, even if you aren't impressed by every one of the stories. The 'R' rating should be taken seriously; it has all the "required" elements of sex (including gay), nudity, violence, profanity and drug use; some of the violence is quite graphic. Though I would say that none of those elements fully rises to the level of "pervasive" but are injected periodically. It's a major commitment to watch this movie but if you have the time and are aware of it's general nature as I've described, you might like it even if you don't buy into the main theme. But I also would not blame you for walking out during the first hour.
2012 Ben Affleck 120 R Argo A very good tense drama which recreates the events in 1979-80 when Americans were taken hostage in Iran and miraculously rescued. Although this is not a documentary, it is based on the true story of how they were rescued, some details of which were unknown to the public until President Clinton declassified the mission in 1997 (specifically, the involvement of the CIA). A CIA agent, Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), came up with the crazy idea to pretend that a Canadian film crew was preparing to film a movie, titled “Argo,” and they wanted to scout out locations in Iran for the production. And somehow under this cover of making a fake movie, the hostages would be whisked out of Iran (the six Americans who were in protective custody of the Canadian ambassador). Obviously it worked, but the details are what make this movie (along with a bit of dramatic license). To make the fake movie appear as genuine as possible to the outside world, two real people in the film business were recruited by Mendez: John Chambers (John Goodman) and Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) [actually, Chambers was a real person but Siegel is an invented character]. Goodman and Arkin provide good comic relief in this life-or-death situation. Rated ‘R’ mostly for a considerable amount of profanity. A good article written by the real Tony Mendez about the rescue operation can be found via this Internet link: tinyurl.com/85nbnm4 (you may want to postpone reading that until after seeing the movie).
2012 Robert Zemeckis 138 R Flight A pilot (Denzel Washington) saves a malfunctioning plane from total destruction, saving the lives of most of the passengers, but on the ground he finds not everyone considers him a hero. Although the advertising for this film emphasizes the crash, the film is really about a man coming to terms with his alcoholism. As good as Washington is in this role, for me it felt like déjà vu. So many of his characters in past films have also been heavy drinkers. But if you aren’t as familiar with his work, then perhaps this performance will seem more original to you. I suppose though that what is different here is that this time, the drinking problem is the story and not just a subplot. While recovering from his crash injuries in the hospital, he meets Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a drug addict, and so they find a common bond in their struggle with substance abuse. Also featured is John Goodman as Harling Mays, the pilot’s drug supplier, a very colorful character (Goodman’s characters usually are); and Don Cheadle as the pilot’s lawyer. The 'R' rating is of course partly for the substance abuse but also some significant profanity and some very explicit nudity. The plane crash sequence is pretty intense, so if you are at all sensitive about such things you may not want to see that part of the film. Even though it ran over two hours, somehow the ending seemed a bit rushed; it felt like they left something out.
2012 Colin Trevorrow 86 R Safety Not Guaranteed This is a little romantic comedy that I found to be a lot of fun. I can’t promise it will tickle your funny bone the same way it did mine, but I can tell you that if you can find the preview trailer and like what you see there, then you will probably like the movie. A young woman, Darius (Aubrey Plaza), gets a job as an intern at a magazine publisher in Seattle. Her first real reporting assignment is to travel with one of the veteran reporters, Jeff (Jake Johnson), and another intern, Arnau (Karan Soni), to investigate the author of an unusual classified ad that Jeff had heard about. The advertiser was requesting a partner to travel back in time with him, the caveat being that “safety is not guaranteed.” The three reporters find the author of the ad, Kenneth (Mark Duplass), and the majority of the interviewing and investigative work falls to Darius, while Jeff takes the opportunity to look up an old flame (Jenica Bergere) who happens to live in the same town as Kenneth. So the main plot is about Darius gaining the confidence of Kenneth to find out what he is really up to and determine whether or not he is crazy. I won’t tell you how it ends but I was very satisfied with the results. Trivia: the ad which the story is based on was actually published as a filler in a magazine in 1997 and its original author has a cameo appearance in the film and a crew credit as “time travel consultant.” But beyond that the movie is entirely fictitious. The ‘R’ rating is for some occasional profanity.
2012 Sam Mendes 143 PG-13 Skyfall Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the James Bond film series, an older-looking Daniel Craig appears for the third time as MI6 Agent "007." Also appearing in a recurring role is Judi Dench as Bond's boss, "M." But the character "Q" is now played by Ben Whishaw. Bond's adversary in this film, "Silva," is played by Javier Bardem with bleached hair. Other familiar faces include Ralph Fiennes and Albert Finney (in a pretty good disguise; I didn't recognize him until I heard his voice). In this story Bond is assisted by another MI6 agent, Eve (Naomie Harris), who has a surprise for you at the end. And since Bond always has to have an affair with a beautiful woman, this time she is French actress Bérénice Marlohe as "Sévérine." As usual, the film opens with an exciting action sequence, filmed in Istanbul, following which you will probably be in a state of shock. The man Bond chases in the opening is only a pawn in the employ of the real villain, Silva, whose identity and motivation are something quite different from what you have come to expect from a Bond villain. Unfortunately if you have seen any of the preview trailers, some of them gave away nearly all the major plot points, leaving very little to surprise you. But I did not pay much attention to the trailers so I was generally surprised by the turn of events. In spite of its success at the box office and its unreasonably high rating at www.imdb.com, it is neither the best Bond film nor the best of the Daniel Craig Bond films. There often seemed to be things that did not make sense or places where something that was begging for an explanation went unexplained. As far as this year’s action films go, I’d rather see “The Bourne Legacy” again than this Bond movie.
2012 Steven Spielberg 149 PG-13 Lincoln This portrait of Lincoln’s struggle to pass the 13th Amendment through Congrress was, for me, sufficiently entertaining to pass the 2-1/2 hours easily. It is, however, nothing but speeches and arguments (both political and domestic). So except for the opening Civil War battle sequence, it is definitely not an action film; it is a costume drama. Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln, is definitely the star of the show and probably the best reason to see this; of course nobody knows what Lincoln really sounded like, but Day-Lewis certainly gives a plausible interpretaion. The film also stars Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, David Strathairn as William Seward, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Lincoln, James Spader as W.N. Bilbo, Hal Holbrook as Preston Blair and Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens. Jones also gave a very good performance. And although I thought Sally Field was good as Mrs. Lincoln, it should be pointed out that in the context of the film, Mrs. Lincoln was only 46, whereas Field turned 65 during filming; so that’s one historical error. I have also read that some of the members of Congress who voted against the 13th Amendment, were given false names in the movie, allegedly to avoid embarrassing their living descendants; but given that their true identities are a matter of public record, this seems a pointless concession (especially after the passage of 147 years). Other than those points, the general consensus seems to be that the screenplay is historically accurate, though some historians may tell you that it provides too narrow a view of the history of the 13th Amendment. But this is not a documentary so you’ll have to read a book or two for the complete story.
2012 Ben Lewin 95 R The Sessions A very unusual but true story about a victim of polio who seeks to experience sex before he runs out of time. Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes) is dependent on an iron lung at night and daily nursing assistance. He can only leave his home if somebody pushes his gurney and can't be away from the iron lung for more than a few hours. Otherwise he is an intelligent and thoughtful poet with a good sense of humor. But something is missing from his life: sex. He hires Cheryl (Helen Hunt), who is a sexual surrogate and begins a series of sessions to overcome his fears and achieve his goal. He also frequently consults his priest (William H. Macey) for support and approval in this endeavor. Very good acting performances and a well written script for a story that admittedly may prove to be too sexually frank for some viewers. Thus the 'R' rating which includes total nudity on the part of Helen Hunt. And it isn't just the nudity and graphic sex but also the very open dialog on the subject. Those caveats aside, it is a moving story that was based on an essay by the real Mark O'Brien.
2012 Barry Sonnenfeld 106 PG-13 Men In Black 3 Agents ‘J’ (Will Smith) and ‘K’ (Tommy Lee Jones) are back for a third time, continuing their job to keep Earth safe from space aliens, without letting the general public become aware of their presence. The new plot adds the element of time travel and its unavoidable paradoxes. An alien, Boris The Animal (Jemaine Clement), who has been in prison for 40 years, thanks to K, escapes and goes back in time to kill K. As a result, K suddenly disappears from the present and only J remembers him. Now J must also go back in time in an attempt to prevent Boris from killing K. Of course when J arrives in 1969, he encounters a much younger K, played by Josh Brolin, who gives a very believable impression of what Tommy Lee Jones might have been like at that age. The new head of the Men In Black agency, Agent O, is also portrayed in both time periods, with Emma Thompson as the present O and Alice Eve as the younger O in 1969. An interesting new character, Griffin (Michael Stuhlbarg), is introduced in the 1969 time, who provides an unusual form of assistance to J and K. This MIB episode is still not as good as the first one, but I do think it is better than MIB-II (2002). Some of the jokes from the original are still there, and thus not so funny anymore. But it does benefit from the same director and same musical score composer, providing a familiar feel to this alternate universe. The plot does drag its feet a few times but overall it’s a good story with a pleasing surprise ending. Great special effects also.
2012 Ang Lee 127 PG Life of Pi A lengthy but visually colorful adventure about a teenager lost at sea for over seven months. Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma) lived as a child in Pondicherry, India, where his father operated a zoo and owned the animals but not the facility. His father decides to relocate his family and the animals to Canada, via a cargo ship across the Pacific Ocean. An intense storm sinks the ship and only Pi and a few of the animals survive, including most significantly, a tiger. The story of his survival under these unusual conditions is told in flashback, as the adult Pi (Irrfan Khan) recounts his tale to a writer looking for a good story. The adventure at sea occupies a very large part of the film and anyone familiar with Hitchcock's "Lifeboat" (1944), may be reminded of that film, except that in that boat all the occupants were human (though one could argue that some of them behaved like animals). Even though the details of Pi's journey across the Pacific are quite incredible, the fact that so much film time is spent in that isolated environment, one begins to feel that the director was just thinking, "what amazing thing can we have Pi experience next?" But when adult-Pi finishes telling the writer his story, the plot takes quite a left turn. Personally I was quite taken aback by this unforeseen twist, but some viewers may react differently. I saw it in 3D, but I would say that very little was gained by the 3D effects, so I don't think you will miss anything significant by seeing it in normal 2D. The story is based on the novel by Yann Martel, and my understanding is that the film follows the general plot of the book fairly closely, except that a particular detail in the book was omitted which could have significantly affected viewers' response to that plot twist I alluded to. Other than the fact that it probably could have been cut a bit shorter, it is an entertaining adventure with food for thought at the end. There is some animal violence in this film but if you’ve watched the Discovery Channel you should not be too shocked.
2012 Sacha Gervasi 98 PG-13 Hitchcock Although this is not a documentary, it attempts to give a behind the scenes look at the making of Hitchcock’s “Psycho” (1960) and injects the story with dramatic moments that may or may not be true. Anthony Hopkins is almost unrecognizable under all the makeup which transforms him into Alfred Hitchcock, though he probably sounds more like Hopkins than Hitchcock. Helen Mirren plays his wife, Alma Reville and Scarlett Johansson gives quite a good effort as Janet Leigh, the co-star of "Psycho." The role of Anthony Perkins is rather limited in this movie but James D'Arcy was quite believable as Tony. Hitchcock's composer for "Psycho" and many of his other films, Bernard Herrmann, was portrayed by Paul Schackman; but given the importance of the score that Herrmann wrote, his character is given surprisingly little screen time. Also included is Jessica Biel as Vera Miles. Strangely absent from the cast is the character of Hitchcock’s daughter, Patricia, her absence being all the more peculiar because she was in “Psycho.” Most of the technical details of the actual work of making "Psycho" are treated with admirable accuracy, though I'm not so sure about the details of Alfred and Alma's personal lives. As you may or may not know, "Psycho" was based on the novel by Robert Bloch and in turn, that novel was inspired by the true crimes of Ed Gein in the 1950s in Plainfield, Wisconsin. Gein is portrayed in this film by Michael Wincott, but his story is not accurately given. The similarities between Gein and Bates have been blurred here. "Psycho" follows Bloch's novel pretty closely and so is really not about Gein. But in "Hitchcock" we see Alfred having hallucinations of Ed Gein, which I just didn't buy. There is also a subplot in which Alfred becomes suspicious of the time his wife is spending with screenwriter Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston). Cook had become involved with the Hitchcocks socially and professionally in the mid 1940s and had worked with Hitchcock on "Stage Fright" (1950) and "Strangers on a Train" (1951). Apparently Cook's journal suggests an affair with Alma in 1948, but certainly not 1960. The screenplay of this film was based on the book "Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho" by Stephen Rebello, and I recommend that if you are interested in even more detail than is covered by this film (Janet Leigh also wrote her perspective in "Psycho: Behind the Scenes of the Classic Thriller"). I wish the film had spent more time on the filmmaking details but I suppose the director was trying to avoid having it become a documentary. Having invested much time and effort studying Hitchcock and his films, I have perhaps a different perspective on this movie from the average filmgoer. But it does have its moments, as during the filming of the famous shower scene and Hitchcock's reaction to an audience's reaction to "Psycho." So although some poetic license has been taken, it is probably more accurate than many similar biographic dramas. But at the same time there is so much left out.