This page contains reviews posted during the months of January to March 2008


“Atonement”-I read and disliked Ian McEwan’s book upon which this movie was based. And so I came to it somewhat prejudiced. But I tried to view it as objectively as possible. It begins brilliantly in England in 1935. With the pounding sounds of a typewriter in the background, a hint at the theme of the film, we view a large country manor at which Mrs. Tallis (Harriet Walter) and her two daughters, Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and Briony (Saoirse Ronan), are entertaining friends and relatives, including the young and restless Quincey cousins, Pierrot, Jackson, and Lola, who are there because of the marital problems of their parents, as well as the somewhat unsettling Paul Marshall (Benedict Cumberbatch). On the day of a planned dinner paty, Briony, age 13, a fledgling playwright, observes events (innocent and not so innocent) and snoops where it is none of her business, without understanding what’s really going on, especially between her sister, Cecilia and her love interest, Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), the housekeeper’s son who was given an education by Mr. Tallis. In one fatal moment, after viewing what she sees as a rape, Briony makes an accusation of a crime that will change the lives of both Cecilia and Robbie. “Atonement” then suddenly moves forward to the beginning of WW II, but unfortunately begins to resort to the current overdone movie cliché of jumping back and forth in time with labels such as “four years later,” “three weeks earlier,” etc. The result is a mishmash which somehow manages to convey Robbie’s experiences at Dunkirk and his ultimate reunion with Cecilia. Briony, originally played with intensity by young Saoirse Ronan, an Oscar nominee, is played by Romola Garai at age 18 and, later, by Vanessa Redgrave as an old woman, and the viewer should take note of the rather unlikely fact that Briony seems to have the same hairdo throughout. At long last, the older version of Briony reveals a secret that exposes the melodramatic nature of the entire affair. James McAvoy (“Becoming Jane”), who seems on the verge of being as overexposed as Jude Law was a few years ago, does a fine job as Robbie whose life seems to be beyond his own control. Keira Knightley, looking far too thin, is barely able to provide the facial expressions that convey her character’s mood of the moment. “Atonement” was nominated for an Oscar. In my humble opinion, there were other more deserving films. B (3/22/08)

“In the Shadow of the Moon”-I thought I’d seen just about everything there was to see about the United States’ moon landing program, including the actual landing, live on TV, in 1969, Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13,” and the incredible HBO series, “From the Earth to the Moon.” Presented by Ron Howard and directed by David Sington, “In the Shadow of the Moon” does provide something new in the form of a documentary about the men who actually went to the moon. Although Neil Armstrong, who is known to value his privacy, doesn’t take part, his presence is felt through the comments, observations, and humor of other moon-program astronauts, including Alan Bean, Mike Collins, Eugene Cernan, Charles Duke, Harrison Schmitt, and James Lovell. What is most revealing is that even these men, who actually traveled a quarter of a million miles through space and are the only humans to have landed on a foreign body, seem in awe of what they did. It’s sad that it was necessary, but during the closing titles, the astronauts make comments about the allegations of a moon-landing hoax. The most telling response? That if it was a hoax, why did they do it nine times? B+ (3/21/08)

“No Country for Old Men”-Although this outstanding film, written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen (“Fargo” and “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”), has several stars, including Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, and Javier Bardem, my sense is that the real star is the magnificent scenery of west Texas and New Mexico. For it is the breathtaking, sundrenched landscapes and the dusty open urban locations that give “No Country for Old Men” its overpowering mood of quiet and simple desperation. It’s 1980, and the film quickly displays a landscape one can only find in the Southwest. The rifle-toting Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), is seeking game in a desert setting in which there is virtually no movement or sound other than the wind and his footsteps. Coming across a tableau of pickup trucks and dead bodies from an obvious drug deal gone wrong, Moss decides to take a briefcase loaded with $100 bills, and then returns to the trailer he shares with his wife, Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald), seemingly undetected. Later, he makes the mistake of returning to the site and, by doing so, reveals his identity to those who want the money back. Despite his realization that the owners of the money will come searching for him, as a tough Vietnam vet he thinks he can hold them off. And searching they do in the form of a gang of Mexicans as well as Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), one of the nastiest psychopathic killers seen on the screen in a long time. Chigurh manages to kill two people within the first five minutes of the film. Suffice it to say that he is not someone you ever want to meet. Joining the search is one local sheriff, Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), a man near retirement who feels the need to seek out Moss in order to protect him but who also seems somewhat ambivalent about his chances. Based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, “No Country for Old Men,” this year’s Oscar winner for best picture, displays a wide range of moods, including the ennui of the small town west, the mindless violence that pervades American society, and the humor that is desperately needed to counteract the horrors of life. Although Tommy Lee Jones’ range as an actor is generally limited, he’s perfect here as the somewhat worn out, but caring sheriff who trails the hunter and the hunted. Josh Brolin is wonderful as Moss, a performance that reminded me of Nick Nolte in his best days. Javier Bardem, the great Spanish actor, has never quite had a part like Anton Chigurh, whose calm demeanor, his ability to track his prey, his random decisions to kill, and his overpowering use of an air bolt weapon and a silenced rifle are all awesomely frightening and devastating in their effect. Kelly Macdonald (an actress who has a thick Scottish accent in real life) gives an amazing performance, with a perfect west Texas accent, as Moss’ tough wife. “No Country for Old Men” contains a great script and some wonderful philosophical dialogue, such as that between Ed Tom and Ellis (Barry Corbin), an elderly relative, late in the film. "No Country for Old Men" fits into a variety of movie genres, but it is clearly one that will be long remembered for all of them. A (3/15/08)

“Into the Wild”-The desire of some people to take highly risky adventures, leaving family, love, and the comfort of home behind, is an eternal mystery to those of us who would never even consider such an undertaking. “Into the Wild,” based on the Jon Krakauer book and directed by Sean Penn, explores the real-life acts and motivations of young Chris McCandless (Emile Hirsch), who abandoned his mother, father, and sister after graduating from college, re-named himself as “Alexander Supertramp,” and headed out across the US for a life of “freedom” and the ultimate, a solo and fateful visit in 1992 to the Alaskan wilderness. Through narration by McCandless’ sister Carine (Jena Malone) and flashbacks to the period between McCandless’ college graduation and his journey into the wild, we learn about the rather miserable relationship of his parents (Marcia Gay Harden and William Hurt) and his desire to get as far away from them and civilization as he could. McCandless’ rejection of much of civilized life is symbolized by his burning of his money, although he later finds jobs in order to pay for paraphernalia he needs. “Into the Wild” is frankly riveting because of the beautiful (mostly western) places and unusual and upbeat characters we meet along the way. These include Wayne Westerberg (Vince Vaughn), who hires “Alex” to run a combine and smiles even when the FBI closes in; Rainey and Jan (Brian Dierker and Catherine Keener), two aging hippies with some romantic problems to whom “Alex” attaches himself for awhile; and Ron Franz (Hal Holbrook), an elderly and lonely man who takes in Alex for awhile and wants to adopt him to continue his family line. Ultimately, however, the most compelling scenes are those during Chris McCandless’ stay in the “magic bus,” a shell of a bus that he discovered in the wilderness and in which he lived while attempting to survive. Emile Hirsch (“Lords of Dogtown”) seems a perfect match for the role of the young man who is willing to abandon all the comforts of life for a “freedom” that involved little or no contact with other human beings. Hal Holbrook, nominated for an Oscar for this role, is very touching as the elderly man who becomes attached to the appealing “Alex;” but I was also very impressed by the performance of Brian Dierker, in his first movie role, as Rainey, a hippie who seems to feel and understand the young man’s pain and wanderlust. Sean Penn has now demonstrated that he is as fine a director as he is an actor. This is one film not to be missed. A (3/14/08)

“Lust, Caution”-The great director Ang Lee has given us a wide range of films which seem to alternate between American and Asian tales, including “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Brokeback Mountain.” This time we are in Shanghai during World War II. The Japanese have invaded China and resistance forces are considering assassinating Chinese collaborators. One is Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), responsible for the deaths of many Chinese. “Lust, Caution” is the story of Wong Chia Chi (Tang Wei) who joins a school acting group only to find herself as a member of the resistance. Tang Wei, in her first movie role, is brilliant as a woman caught between her loyalties to her resistance friends, including the handsome Kuang Yu Min (Wang Leehom, an Asian pop star born in America), and her growing sexual relationship with Mr. Yee, the resistance target. Based on a short story by a leading Chinese writer, Eileen Chang, “Lust, Caution” is a moving and mesmerizing film which concentrates on the cat and mouse flirtation between Wong and Yee and the ultimate surprising denoument which emphasizes the theme of this cautionary tale. A great deal of attention has been given to the sex scenes, which are mildly violent, but it seemed to me that I was seeing nothing more than I’ve seen in other films over the years. Certainly, there is nothing to stop a thoughtful adult from viewing this intelligent film. In addition to Tang Wei’s amazing debut, the film includes a memorable performance by Tony Leung Chiu Wai (“2046,” “Hero,” and “In the Mood for Love”) who has usually been known for playing decent men in romantic roles. My only complaint is that the film runs a little long. It could have used a little more editing. Primarily in a variety of Chinese dialects, with minimal English and Japanese (with subtitles) A- (3/14/08)

“Goya’s Ghosts”-This is a puzzling film. Puzzling that a film directed by Milos Forman could be so disconnected, with an awful script lacking any continuity and with somewhat bizarre casting considering the characters being portrayed (Randy Quaid as the King of Spain?). Sadly, it had the look and feel of a mediocre TV movie. Some of the acting was so weak as to be literally laughable. And what was it about? Well, theoretically, it was about the great Spanish painter, Francisco Goya, played by Swedish actor, Stellan Skarsgard. For most of the film Skarsgard looked lost, as if he were trying to figure out the point of the whole thing. It is 1792 and one of Goya’s portrait subjects, Inés (Natalie Portman), the daughter of a wealthy merchant, is arrested and tortured by the Inquisition, allegedly for engaging in Jewish religious practices. Brother Lorenzo (Javier Bardem) comes to comfort her and, seeing her naked body, finds himself turned on. Meanwhile, Brother Lorenzo is in turn tortured by Inés’ father to prove that anyone will confess under torture. Lorenzo does confess (to being a monkey) and escapes to France. 15 years later, he returns with Napoleonic troops, to arrest the inquisitors and free the prisoners of the Inquisition, including Inés who now looks like a deranged old lady who claims that she had a daughter with Lorenzo. Lorenzo finds the daughter and plans to ship her to a life of prostitution in America. But wait, the English arrive to kick out the French and make more of a mess. Meanwhile, Goya wanders through the film, occasionally sketching just to remind us that he's a famous artist. I won’t go on. It goes downhill from there. If the filmmakers intended to show that Spain was a "hell" of a place in the late 18th and early 19th centuries they succeeded in more ways than one. D (3/9/08)

“Gone Baby Gone”-Ben Affleck, director and co-screenwriter, seems finally to have found his niche in the movie business. Despite a story that includes unlikely elements, “Gone Baby Gone” is a beautifully filmed, well-paced, and well acted thriller/drama about a private detective, Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) who, with his business and romantic partner, Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan), finds himself in the middle of an investigation into the kidnapping of a young girl, Amanda McCready, in Boston’s tough Dorchester neighborhood. As Kenzie, a neighborhood local, and Gennaro delve further into the lives of those around the child, including the drug-mule mother, Helene McCready (Amy Ryan), and her brother Lionel (Titus Welliver), they find themselves working closely with two Boston cops, Det. Remy Bressant (Ed Harris) and Det. Nick Poole (John Ashton), ultimately making discoveries that lead them in the wrong direction and convincing them that their actions have resulted in the death of the young girl. That the film then makes a 180-degree turn and produces a surprise ending goes without saying. Unfortunately, what ultimately develops, in this film based on Dennis Lehane’s novel, is about as far-fetched as one can imagine. The improbable resolution brings this otherwise first-rate film down a peg. “Gone Baby Gone” has some outstanding performances. Casey Affleck, despite occasional mumbling, has great presence. Combined with his co-starring role in “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” he has demonstrated that he is a rising star. The film also contains a brilliant performance by Broadway actress Amy Ryan, a revelation as the messed up mother, Helene. Michelle Monaghan is lovely, but tough, as Angie, Patrick’s girlfriend and co-detective who ultimately makes a hard decision to stand by her convictions (although I found this too to be a somewhat improbable dramatic element). Also of note are Ed Harris as a detective with lots of human frailties; Morgan Freeman as Capt. Jack Doyle, a man who has lost his own daughter to violence and appears to have great empathy; and Amy Madigan as Bea, Helene’s interfering sister-in-law who hires Patrick and Angie and later learns to regret it. Director Ben Affleck has gone into Boston’s run-down Dorchester neighborhood and used it and its local characters (and some are amazingly “real”) perfectly to provide the setting for this disturbing story. “Gone Baby Gone” would have deserved an “A-” if it were not for the weaknesses in the plot and some confusing dialogue and scenes in the middle. B+ (3/8/08)

“Death at a Funeral”-I usually love British farce (think “Fawlty Towers”), but this one misses the boat by several miles. At a funeral at a beautiful English country home for a family patriarch, everything goes wrong. This includes the casket (once the right one is delivered to the house) being overturned by the boyfriend of the dead man’s niece who has mistakenly been given an hallucinogenic drug. He then strips and threatens to jump off the roof. There is also an elderly wheelchair-bound uncle who almost doesn’t make it to the bathroom on time, a diminutive guest who was the dead man’s lover and is blackmailing his two sons, and a variety of characters engaging in utterly inappropriate behavior for a funeral (flirting, seeking medical advice, etc. etc.). The script is lame. The timing is completely off. One scene is downright disgusting. Frankly, there is a barely a laugh in this film. Director Frank Oz, whose last film was “The Stepford Wives,” another misguided effort, should consider going back to his roots with the Muppets. Actors like Matthew McFadyen, Alan Tudyk, Jane Asher, Peter Egan, Peter Dinklage, and Peter Vaughn deserve a lot better. D (3/7/08)

“Margot at the Wedding”-This film raises the proverbial question of just what is the purpose of a motion picture. Is it to entertain in the sense of making us feel good? Or is it to make a commentary about life or some other important issue? Or is it simply to show us a slice of life, no matter how pathetic or depressing? We seem to be in the midst of an onslaught of films about miserable dysfunctional families that frankly don’t seem to have much that either encourages a smile or makes us feel that we’ve learned something about people and life. “Margot at the Wedding,” the latest film from Noah Baumbach (“The Squid and the Whale”) includes some amazing performances. This may be Nicole Kidman’s most accomplished performance as she is dead-on as the subtly malicious Margot who arrives with her young teenage son Claude (Zane Pais), at the family home for the wedding of her estranged sister, Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh), to the jobless and not particularly attractive Malcolm (Jack Black). Margot, accused at one point in the film of having a borderline personality, is overbearing and says whatever she is feeling no matter how painful it may be to others. She proceeds to let Pauline know exactly what she thinks of Malcolm, and it isn't positive. Margot, a writer, apparently already broke up Pauline’s first marriage by writing a fictional exposé of Pauline and her first husband. Jennifer Jason Leigh, wife of Noah Baumbach, who might normally be expected to play the Margot role, is very effective as the sad and insecure Pauline, a woman who doesn’t seem to have enough backbone to stand up to her wretched sister. Jack Black is also first-rate in a serious role as an ineffective man who, while engaged to Pauline, self-destructs by engaging in inappropriate behavior with the young nanny. A relationship that appears to dominate the theme is the seemingly somewhat sycophantic one between Margot and her son Claude who, at one point, sleeps with his mother in the same bed, although separated by a pillow. The final puzzling scene of the film is undoubtedly a clue to what has been going on earlier. A great deal of the cinematography is murky and not particularly pleasant to look at. I can only assume that was intentional considering the flm's negative theme. If you like slice-of-life stories with difficult and miserable characters portrayed by a very good ensemble cast, this film is for you. Otherwise, I’d stay away. B- (3/2/08)

“The Darjeeling Limited”-Eccentric writer/director Wes Anderson has created a rather original and unusual series of films, including the dreadful “The Royal Tenenbaums” and the delightful “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.” That pattern continues with “The Darjeeling Limited,” a film whose purpose defies easy explanation. On the DVD, the presentation begins with a short film entitled “Hotel Chevalier” in which Jack Whitman (Jason Schwartzman) is seen existing (vegetating?) in a Paris hotel room surrounded by unexplained paraphernalia, only to receive a surprise conjugal visit from his ex-girlfriend (Natalie Portman) while “Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)” by Peter Sarstedt plays incessantly in the background via Jack’s iPod. When we enter “The Darjeeling Limited” itself, Jack and his two brothers, Peter (Adrien Brody) and Francis (Owen Wilson) are meeting in India, after the accidental death of their father, for a spiritual trip by train to regain their lost brotherhood. Francis, the oldest and manipulative brother, who is recovering from head injuries in a seemingly self-destructive motorcycle accident, has a surprise up his sleeve for his two brothers at the end of their planned trip. It soon becomes apparent that the three highly unlikely siblings, characters who seem to have jumped life-like from a comic strip, are constantly at odds with each other. The result of their erratic behavior, including the inexplicable purchase of a poisonous snake with the unsurprising on-board snake escape, is being tossed off the train in the middle of India with their collection of weird and cumbersome designer suitcases that once apparently belonged to their late father. That their adventures now continue on foot goes without saying. Although Francis’ spiritual plans (the “itinerary” as he calls it) don’t go quite as he envisioned, the result is something of a spiritual event in which the brothers seem to come together in the end after Francis’ surprise comes to fruition. Although my initial reaction to the bumbling, hostile and otherwise annoying behaviors of the Whitman brothers was not exactly positive, upon further reflection my feelings about the production, with its colorful settings, local characters, and scenery, were slightly more favorable. Of note in the cast is Anjelica Huston as the boys’ mother, and Amara Karan as a willing railroad hostess. Viewing a Wes Anderson film is always a dangerous adventure. This one has its moments, but beware. B- (3/1/08)

“In the Valley of Elah”-How do you make a commentary on war and its effect on the troops without really making a film about the war? Well, as director/writer Paul Haggis (“Crash”) did here, you make a film about a murder investigation concerning soldiers at a base in New Mexico. When a young soldier just back from Iraq disappears from that base, his father, Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones), a former military policeman, comes to investigate. He soon has a local detective, Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), on his side and finds himself dealing with roadblacks placed in his way by a military official, Lt. Kirklander (Jason Patric). But Deerfield has managed to recover his son’s cell phone which contains brief movies made in the war zone, and these and still photos which the son had emailed to Deerfield, provide an exposure of substance abuse and questionable army practices. Tommy Lee Jones, nominated for an Oscar for this role, is intense and effective. Charlize Theron does a fine job portraying a fairly plainjane detective who must overcome the hostility of her fellow cops to prove her ability. Once again Theron plays a role that hides her beauty, although not her charm. Others in cameo roles are Susan Sarandon, as Mrs. Deerfield; James Franco as a military officer; Josh Brolin as Sanders’ boss; and Frances Fisher as a local topless waitress. B+ 2/29/08

Michael Clayton” -Despite the accolades and a slew of Oscar nominations, this film is really not much more than a halfway decent standard thriller with a lot of confusing scenes. some downright dull segments, and a doozy of a hokey car explosion scene. The film gets off to a fairly intriguing start and then, like so many recent films, takes us back four days to find out how we got to the beginning. But the process of getting back to where we started is often plodding and confusing. George Clooney is George Clooney…er…Michael Clayton, a law firm’s “janitor,” clean-up man, or “fixer” who finds himself in the middle of a mess of a lawsuit in which his bipolar colleague, Arthur Edens (the wonderful Tom Wilkinson), is freaking out and turning on the client, a nasty agribusiness which is poisoning the public. Supposedly Edens has been working night and day on this case for years and suddenly has the revelation that the company he’s representing is evil. Tilda Swinton, a fine actress, mysteriously just won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for a fairly undemanding role as Karen Crowder, the nervous but murderous lead counsel for the agribusiness client. The whole thing is undermined by an astonishingly silly scene (the car explosion) that is just too coincidentally convenient to be believed even if we try to give the film a little license. I didn’t hate this film, I just didn’t think it deserved to be treated as something special. B (2/24/08)

“Rendition”-What do we want in a good film? A taut exciting plot? A good cast? First-rate cinematography? A little bit of a twisty surprise at the end? A timely and important theme? “Rendition” has them all, especially raising the issue of our government’s methods for investigating and dealing with terror. Omar Metwally is Anwar El-Ibrahimi, a chemical engineer born in Egypt but educated and living in the US for many years, who is returning to his pregnant wife Isabella (Reese Witherspoon) and child, after attending a conference in South Africa. However, following a suicide bombing in an unidentified north African country in which a CIA agent is killed, El-Ibrahimi is captured and secretly whisked away by the CIA upon landing in Washington. At the direction of a cold and calculated official, Corinne Whitman (Meryl Streep with a southern accent), he is shipped to North Africa for interrogation through torture (including electric shock and waterboarding) by a tough police official, Abasi Fawal (Yigal Naor). This is an act of rendition which leaves Isabella in the dark as to what has happened to her husband, until she makes an inquiry with an old friend, Alan Smith (Peter Sarsgard) who works for an influential US Senator (Alan Arkin). But her distress is mixed with other plot elements in this morality tale, including the involvement of Fawal’s daughter, Fatima, with terrorists, and the distress reaction of a novice CIA analyst, Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal), to the torture of a possibly innocent man. Is torture acceptable in any circumstances? Does it accomplish anything worthwhile other than destroying the subject and producing meaningless responses aimed at stopping the torture? These are among the questions dealt with in this sharp, tense thriller. Oh, there are aspects of the film that deserve criticism, including Reese Witherspoon looking a little too “Hollywood” for her part, and some confusion in the timeline of the story (which is cleared up at the end). Meryl Streep has been criticized for being indifferent to her role, but from my perspective she was perfect in a brief part as a heartless by-the-books CIA official. Alan Arkin, too, is just right in a brief role as a Senator in fear of taking a courageous action because he knows that he will likely be vilified by the superpatriots. In retrospect, I’m rather surprised that this film did not receive more attention. It’s first rate and deserves to be seen. (In English and Arabic (?) with English subtitles) A- (2/23/08)

“Adrift in Manhattan”-One of the genre of films about strangers whose paths cross, often a little too coincidentally, this film by Alfredo De Villa (writer and director) is about a group of troubled and lonely people in Manhattan. Simon (Victor Rasuk) is a young employee of a camera store whose hobby is photographing people, but when he sees and becomes fascinated by Rose Phipps (Heather Graham), an eye doctor sitting alone in a park, his photography borders on stalking. Simon is unusually inexpressive, and the source of his problems may be seen in his relationship with his mother, Marta (Marlene Forte), an attractive woman who seems to relate to him more like a lover than a parent. Tommaso Pensara (Dominic Chianese) is a cultured mailroom worker who is being wooed by a widowed co-worker, Isabel (Elizabeth Peña). Tommaso, whose hobby is painting, is a patient of Dr. Phipps and has just learned that he is losing his eyesight. We also discover that Dr. Phipps, looking unhappy in many of Simon’s photos, is separated from her husband (William Baldwin), a college teacher, after suffering the loss of their two-year old son. “Adrift in Manhattan” is one of those serious films that hopes to explore the difficulties of troubled people in real life. Unfortunately, some of the performances and situations within the film feel pretty artificial which ultimately undermines the quality of the film. C+ (2/22/08)

“Private Property”-Isabelle Huppert is Pascale, a divorced woman living in a rural home with two young adult twin sons, the outspoken and aggressive Thierry (Jeremie Rennier) and the quieter Francois (Yannick Rennier). That their relationship is somewhat unconventional is revealed when Pascale showers without a curtain while Thierry is brushing his teeth, and, later, the two brothers bathe together after a day of muddy cycling. “Private Property” is about the deterioration of their relationships after Pascale reveals that she wishes to sell the house in order to purchase a bed and breakfast with her neighbor/boyfriend, something clearly resented by the brothers, and especially by Thierry whose anger leads to the climax of the film. Isabelle Huppert is a fine actress but this may be one too many films in which she plays an emotionless character, almost incapable of empathy for others (think “The Piano Teacher”). “Private Property,” another film about a dysfunctional family, seems purposeless and is dysfunctional in itself. (In French with English subtitles) C (2/18/08)

“Becoming Jane”-Although she died in 1817 at age 41, Jane Austen is seemingly more popular these days than many contemporary writers. Her books are frequently made into TV shows and movies and, as seen from the film revewed just below, her books and themes can even become their very subject. “Becoming Jane” takes us back to approximately 1795 when Jane (Anne Hathaway) at age 20, still in her formative years, is living with her family on the lower economic fringe of the upper class. Like so many of the young female characters in her books, her mother expects her to make a good marriage (in other words, to marry a wealthy man), but Jane prefers a romantic connection. Although she is being wooed by the wealthy but dull Mr. Wisley (Laurence Fox), a relative of the snooty Lady Gresham (Maggie Smith), she is attracted to a young visiting Irish law student, Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy). Unfortunately, the story of this romance, as portrayed in the film, is essentially fiction, having been based on a few minimal comments in Austen’s letters and a statement late in life by Lefroy, who was then Chief Justice of Ireland, about a “boyish” love for Jane Austen. Not enough attention is paid to Jane’s talents and writing. We do see her sit down to start writing “First Impressions” (later “Pride and Prejudice”) about Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy (some say Darcy was based on Lefroy), but that’s about it for the most significant element of Jane’s Austen’s short life. Anne Hathaway is quite effective as the young, spirited writer who, despite being distracted by domestic pressures, ultimately knows what she wants: a career as a novelist. James McAvoy (“Atonement”) also does a fine job of portraying Lefroy disarming Ms. Austen and then wooing her. Although it’s not necessary, knowing the themes of Austen’s books helps to understand the point being made in the film that Jane’s life was far more difficult than those of most of her characters. Others of note in the cast are the always excellent Julie Walters as Jane’s mother; James Cromwell as Rev. Austen, her father; Joe Anderson (“Across the Universe”) as her very supportive brother Henry; Lucy Cohu as Jane’s cousin Eliza De Feuillide, who ultimately marries Henry; the late Ian Richardson as Tom’s supercilious uncle, Judge Langlois; and last but certainly not least, the lovely and sparkling Anna Maxwell Martin (“Bleak House”) as Jane’s sister, Cassandra, who loses her fiancé to illness and, like Jane, never married. B (2/17/08)

“The Jane Austen Book Club”-Despite an appealing cast, “The Jane Austen Book Club,” based on the novel by Karen Joy Fowler, is not much more than corny fluff. A group of women and one man form a club to discuss Jane Austen’s novels and, not surprisingly, their discussions seem to be concentrated on those elements of the books that reflect on their own personal difficulties. Maria Bello is Jocelyn, a single woman who raises dogs and seems to chase men away, including Grigg (Hugh Dancy), a younger man she has met in a hotel bar. Despite an obvious attraction, Joceyln keeps trying to match Grigg up with Sylvia (Amy Brenneman), the recently unhappily divorced mother of Allegra (Maggie Grace), a lesbian with relationship problems of her own. Prudie (Emily Blunt) is a high school French teacher in a miserable marriage, with a crush on one of her students. The scenes of them flirting, touching and even kissing right out in the open with no one noticing border on absurd. Prudie is also uptight and pretentious during club meetings but the others in the group, except Allegra, seem to accept her overbearing insights into the Austen books. The founder of the club is another single woman, the oft-married Bernadette (Kathy Baker), who seems to just be there until she presents a corny romantic surprise at the end. The film, in which the characters appear to have little else to do but read and discuss Jane Austen’s novels, and think about their own romantic problems, leads to a typical and expected, albeit unlikely, conclusion. Also of note in the cast are Jimmy Smits as Daniel, Sylvia’s ex-husband, who has left her for another woman; Lynn Redgrave as Prudie’s mother, Mama Sky, a disturbed ex-hippie; and Nancy Travis, as Cat, Grigg’s sister, who must come to the romantic rescue of her brother, a man who seems perfectly capable of taking care of himself. C+ (2/16/08)

“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”-With magnificent cinematography by Roger Deakins, and based on the novel by Ron Hansen, this slow moving but mesmerizing film takes us back to 1881 when the James gang, headquartered in Missouri, pulled off the big train robbery at Blue Cut. James (Brad Pitt) leads two lives. He is the ruthless ex-Confederate guerilla gang leader who will kill without mercy. And he’s also “Thomas Howard,” a man who lives with his wife (Mary-Louise Parker) and two children and attends church regularly. James is developing a new gang, including Charley Ford (Sam Rockwell), Ed Miller (Garret Dillahunt), and Dick Liddil (Paul Schneider). Attempting to join the group is young Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), Charley’s brother, who has worshipped James since reading dime novels about him in his early years. But Jesse James, whose older brother Frank (Sam Shepard) has retired after the Blue Cut train robbery, is a deeply suspicious and dangerous man and the various gang members are never at ease around him. Brad Pitt does a fine job of portraying a man who seems outwardly friendly and pleasant but who would kill his best friend without hesitation if he felt it was necessary. When James’ favorite cousin, Wood Hite (Jeremy Renner), is killed by Robert Ford in an altercation over Dick Liddil’s relationship with Hite’s young stepmother, the tension builds because the gang members understand that Jesse James seems to know everything that’s going on. This film apparently had a great deal of production problems, but it really doesn’t show in the final product. The cast is first rate. Casey Affleck particularly stands out as the young man who goes from worshipping James to fearing that he will lose his life to the very man he worshipped. Sam Rockwell is also memorable as Charley, an affable man who looks like he wishes he was far away from Jesse James. Directed by New Zealander Andrew Dominik, “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” despite showing minimal violence, is loaded with cinematic tension that leads to the titular event and beyond. A- (2/15/08)

“Elizabeth: The Golden Age”-The magnificent Cate Blanchett, who played Queen Elizabeth I as a young woman in “Elizabeth” (1998), returns as an older, more powerful, and bewigged queen. “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” concentrates on the relationships among Elizabeth, her beautiful lady-in-waiting Elizabeth Throckmorton (Abbie Cornish), and the handsome pirate who enters their lives, Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen), but in the context of the Queen’s difficulties with the rebellious Mary Stuart (Samantha Morton) and the threatening Catholic King Philip II of Spain (Jordi Mollà) who ultimately decides to send the Spanish Armada to bring down Elizabeth’s reign. With direction by Shekhar Kapur, Elizabeth is portrayed as a human being with frailties (including an unrequited love for Raleigh), but the essence of her authority and power are revealed in Cate Blanchett’s brilliant performance. Rather than fill the screen with minute details of the politics of the era, especially as many of the events are compressed in time and, in some cases, presented out of order, Kapur has created a rather exciting and well-acted story of a significant, albeit fictionalized, moment in British and world history. Geoffrey Rush as the queen’s advisor, Sir Francis Walsingham, and Owen, Cornish, and Morton all provide powerful performances. Despite the historical inaccuracies, with its wonderful cast, “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” is a sight to see. (In English, but also with some minimal Spanish and German with English subtitles) A- (2/9/08)

“Across the Universe”-Clever. Cloying. Original. Over-the-top. Just some of the mixed reactions I had to this entertaining film from one of the most unusual writer/directors around, Julie Taymor (“Frida” and, on Broadway, “The Lion King”). Taymor made the rather amazing “discovery” that the Beatles had written a rock opera. Well, not really. But using the Beatles’ songbook, Taymor and her co-writers created a story in which Beatles’ songs are delivered by the talented cast as if they were actually written for a musical. Jim Sturgess is Jude, a young dock worker from England who comes to the US ostensibly to find the father who abandoned his mother while she was pregnant. He finds him, but he also finds a whole gamut of friends who wind up living together in New York’s Greenwich Village in the late 1960s. These friends include Max (Joe Anderson), a dropout from Princeton who faces the draft; his sister Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood) who becomes the object of romance with Jude; Sadie (Dana Fuchs), a beautiful Janis Joplinesque blues belter who is their landlady; Prudence (T. V. Carpio), a young woman who comes in through the bathroom window; and last, but certainly not least, JoJo (Martin Luther McCoy), a guitarist in the Jimi Hendrix mold who forms a bond with Sadie. With the backdrop of the psychedelic era and anti-war fervor, the story covers the gamut of issues and emotions of that rather turbulent era without going too far. Okay, a few scenes are a little too much and I admit that early on I was wincing at hearing the Beatles’ repertoire coming from the mouths of the film’s characters. But I soon forgot those concerns and was actually looking forward to which Beatles masterpiece was to fit in next. “Across the Universe” has a series of truly memorable scenes, including Bono singing “I Am the Walrus,” and “The Celebrated Mister Kite” performed by Eddie Izzard and a group of tall blue men. The cast of mostly unknowns is very impressive. Evan Rachel Wood turns out to have an absolutely lovely voice. The cast is eager, sincere, and they charm. And best of all they really sing and deliver pleasing renditions of so many familar McCartney/Lennon/Harrison songs. A- (2/8/08)

“2 Days in Paris”-Written and directed by Julie Delpy, and starring her real parents (Marie Pillet and Albert Delpy) as her character’s parents in the film, “2 Days in Paris” is the story of a New York-based couple, Marion (Delpy) and Jack (Adam Goldberg), who arrive in Paris for a brief visit after having been on vacation in Venice. Jack is neurotic, can’t seem to have fun because of a Woody Allen-ish obsession with his health, and seems annoyed at everything around him. Even Marion’s small apartment upstairs from her parents is derided for being crowded and moldy. Marion, on the other hand, seems initially to have things together, but as she has verbal run-ins with cabdrivers, meets more and more old boyfriends with whom she had sex before meeting Jack, and finally gets into a heated argument with a former boyfriend in a restaurant, things begin to unravel for her and for the somewhat jealous Jack. That Jack doesn’t speak French while Marion, a native Parisian, converses with many old boyfriends in her native language, contributes to Jack’s suspicions. Also, the situation is not helped by graphic talk at parties as well as shocking talk from Marion’s parents (her mother tells of an affair she had with Jim Morrison, and her father, who scratches cars parked on sidewalks, makes sarcastic comments in French and runs an art gallery of extreme sexual images). At one low point, Jack screams that he’s not in Paris, he’s in “hell.” In contrast to the charm of “Before Sunset,” in which Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke romanced each other with talk, walk, and observations of the places around them, here Paris seems more like an imposition in the characters’ lives than its usual mythic reputation as a place of great romance. “2 Days in Paris” is original but feels more like a Julie Delpy personal whimsy than a serious commentary on relationships or love. (In both English and French with English subtitles). C+ (2/1/08)

“The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters”-You’re entering another dimension — a dimension not only of childishness and pettiness but also of obsession. A journey into a strange land whose boundaries are as limited as anywhere you can imagine. That’s a signpost up ahead: your next stop: the World of Donkey Kong! This rather surprisingly effective documentary tells the story of three men. One is Walter Day, who founded Twin Galaxies, arbiter of high scores in so-called classic arcade games such as Donkey Kong and Pac Man. Although contending that he and his staff are impartial referees of such scores, they have a far too intimate connection to the second man, Billy Mitchell, then (and now) the high score record holder for Donkey Kong. As portrayed in this film, Mitchell, a restaurant owner in Florida, appears to be a big-talking egotist who doesn’t demonstrate the courage to confront a challenger to his record. That challenger, the third man, is Steve Wiebe, a schoolteacher from Redmond, WA, who despite having a wife and two children, is obsessed with setting the record for a high score in Donkey Kong. “The King of Kong” is the story of Wiebe’s challenge and Mitchell’s reluctance. Although the Twin Galaxies people initially treat Wiebe as an outsider and reject his record breaking score (recorded on tape), they slowly begin to respect Wiebe as he comes 3,000 miles to FunSpot in New Hampshire to play Donkey Kong live and in front of a crowd. That these people are grownups who seem childishly obsessed with an ancient arcade game is at the heart of the message of this film. The best line in the film comes from Wiebe’s young daughter, Jillian, who essentially questions why people will “ruin their lives” to be in the Guinness Book of World Records. She’s the most mature person in the whole film. B+ (2/1/08)

“This Is England”-It is 1983 in England and Margaret Thatcher’s absurd Falklands War is just over. Opening with scenes of England in that era, especially emphasizing the punk nature of teen life, “This Is England” is the story of 12-year old Shaun (Thomas Turgoose in an incredible debut), who is being picked on for not conforming to the non-conforming looks of other kids. His mother, a widow of the war, is nice but of little help. Based on director/writer Shane Meadow’s own life, the film, with real life reminders of the fictional “A Clockwork Orange,” follows Shaun until he meets and clicks with a group of fairly benign skinheads, led by Woody (Joseph Gilgun) and whose members include a young black man as well as a sweet young woman with the peculiar name of Smell (Rosamund Hanson). But ultimately the group is invaded by rougher and more serious skinheads, led by ex-con Combo (Stephen Graham), and Shaun finds himself among thugs who are more interested in hate and violence than mere socializing. “This Is England” is a commentary on the results of the cold-bloodedness of the Thatcher era in England and the anomie into which many young people fell. My only criticism is that it ultimately goes on beyond the point at which Meadows’ point has been made. Nevertheless, it’s a very good and critical look at the effects of change and ultra-conservative political philosophies which encourage racial and ethnic hatred. B+ (1/27/08)

“Golden Door”-The real title of this Italian film is “Nuovomondo” or “new world,” and it explores the experiences of a group of turn-of-the century Sicilian peasants as they make their way to Ellis Island. Directed and written by Emanuele Crialese (“Respiro”), the film begins with a rather strange scene in which Salvatore Mancuso (Vincenzo Amato), a widower, and his brother, with large rocks protruding from their mouths, are climbing a rock strewn hill to reach a cross where they ask for guidance as to whether or not to leave for America. Ultimately, they are inspired by postcards shown to them by Salvatore’s son Pietro (Filippo Pucillo), a deaf mute who seems to understand everything said to him. The cards fire their imagination of a world of man-size vegetables and money growing on trees, and are the sign that the Mancusos were looking for to begin the journey. Aboard ship, Salvatore, a handsome but illiterate man, meets the mysterious “Luce” Reed (Charlotte Gainsbourg), an Englishwoman traveling with the Italian peasants. Much is made of this highly unusual situation, but it remains a mystery to the end. In the end, the Mancusos and Luce discover and must deal with the health and psychological tests, as well as marital requirements, imposed on them by the immigration officials at Ellis Island before they can enter the U.S. Although “Golden Door” portrays how the imagination inspired the courage of the immigrants to undertake this harsh journey, including dreams of rivers running with milk, it nevertheless is just a little too eccentric to be thought of as a straightforward portrayal of the immigrant experience. (In Italian with English subtitles) B (1/26/08)

“Molière”-Consider: a beautifully filmed costume drama which takes place in the mid-17th Century and has one of the wittiest writers of literature as well as a master actor as its central character. Sounds pretty enticing, doesn’t it? The only problem is that anything resembling the real Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, aka Molière, seems to be missing. The film gets off to a rousing start with Molière and his troup of actors returning to Paris after many years on the road to take up residence in a theater donated by royalty. Despite the troup’s specialty of farce and the royal desire for comedy, Molière is considering doing tragedy instead. But then he is summoned to the bedside of a sick woman and returns to announce that the troup will do comedy after all, and it appears we are ready to see an intriguing tale about the creativity of Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, author of “Tartuffe,” “The Miser,” and “The Misanthrope.” But no. Almost immediately a phrase appears on the screen of the type that seems to preoccupy so many directors these days: “Thirteen years earlier.” The remainder of the film is an attempt to create a fictional Molière-like farce in which Molière (Romain Duris) finds himself a virtual captive in the grand country estate of M. Jourdain (Fabrice Luchini), where the married, very rich, and rather empty-headed Jourdain needs Molière to help him woo the beautiful Cèliméne (Ludivine Sagnier), a woman who barely knows he exists. Of course, M. Jourdain just happens to be already married to the gorgeous Elmire Jourdain (Laura Morante), mother of his two children, and the stage is set for Molière to develop an attachment he hadn’t counted on. The fictional farce within the film, however, lays an egg. Despite Molière as its main character and the use of character names and, undoubtedly, lines from various Molière plays, this “farce” is far from it. At the heart of the problem is that Molière, as played by the rather serious Mr. Duris (“The Beat That My Heart Skipped”) hardly ever demonstrates the talents and wittiness that were undoubtedly present in the great 17th Century playwright and actor. And sadly, despite entertaining performances from a cast of wonderful French and Italian stars, including Fabrice Luchini, Laura Morante (“Avenue Montaigne”), Edouard Baer, and Ludivine Sagnier (“Swimming Pool”), the film drags. I doubt Molière would have tolerated this. (In French with English subtitles) C (1/25/08)

“The Rocket”-The original French-Canadian title of this film is “Maurice Richard,” and it is indeed about the great star of the Canadiens of the NHL from the early 1940s until 1960, a man who played on eight Stanley Cup Champions, including during the last five years of his career. Roy Dupuis is a square-jawed, handsome and not terribly talkative Richard who dreams, as a teen, of playing for Les Habitants but has to face prejudices against the French speaking portion of the Canadian population. With the powerful support of his wife Lucille (appealingly portrayed by Julie LeBreton), Richard manages to convince the English-speaking powers of the NHL that he is one of the greatest hockey players ever. But Richard must deal with bullies, like Bob Dill (Sean Avery of the NY Rangers), biased referees, apparent cheating that deprived him of scoring titles, and his own anger (against the bullies of other teams as well as Clarence Campbell, Commissioner of the NHL). That anger, though, leads to a major suspension in 1955 and to the Montreal forum riot that may have finally turned the corner for the French Canadians. “The Rocket” does a good job of portraying the era, even with some weak street sets and less than vibrant photography, although the uniforms and the rinks look just right for the period. With a cast of actual NHL players in supporting roles, “The Rocket” is the best we’ll find to get the feel of what pro hockey was like as it emerged as a major sport. My biggest criticism of this film is the absolute failure to mention Richard’s brother, Henri, the “Pocket Rocket,” who joined the Canadiens in 1955 at age 19 and played on 11 Stanley Cup champions. Admittedly, Henri arrived in the NHL as the film is ending, but to not even mention him once seems a major gaffe. In fact, although Lucille’s family is portrayed vividly, one almost gets the feeling from this film that Richard had no family. Of note in the cast is Stephen McHattie as Dick Irvin, the tough English-speaking Canadiens coach through the 1955 season, and Pierre-Francois Legendre as Georges Norchet, Richard’s brother-in-law who always seemed to wind up watching from the poor seats. (In both English and French with English subtitles) B (1/19/08)

“3:10 to Yuma”-Although it has its flaws, this is an excellent remake or reworking of the 1957 film of the same title, which starred Glenn Ford and Van Heflin. Christian Bale is Dan Evans, a small rancher, a family man (wife and two sons), and a civil war veteran with a prosthetic foot, who is being harassed by rough businessmen who want him off his land because of its increasing value due to the newly approaching railroad system. Russell Crowe is Ben Wade, the leader of a vicious murdering gang of thieves, who has a surprising and unexpected humanity about him, and who also inexplicably dawdles in Bisbee with a barmaid, allowing himself to be captured far too easily. Desirous of raising money to fend off those trying to push him off his land, Evans allows himself to be hired by a railroad man, Grayson Butterfield (Dallas Roberts), to lead a group to take Wade from Bisbee to Contention where Wade is to be placed on the 3:10 to Yuma and ultimate trial and hanging. Wade’s gang, however, is being led by Charlie Prince (Ben Foster in the role of his life), a frightening psychopath, who will make sure that Evans and his group don’t have an easy time. There’s also one more very important figure, William Evans (Logan Lerman), Dan’s 14-year old son who is supposed to stay at home but who, disappointed so far in his father, decides to follow along and who plays a major role in the ultimate outcome. “3:10 to Yuma” is a pleasing and well acted character study of the relationship between the struggling rancher Evans, trying to show his son that he’s courageous and can overcome his difficulties, and Wade, the killer with a heart who is touched by Evans and his beautiful wife, Alice (Gretchen Mol). Wade’s character and behavioral transformation are at the heart of the story but, unfortunately, also add up to the one significant flaw in this otherwise rather brilliant film. Russell Crowe, who always surprises me with his ability to transform himself, plays Wade as just a little too nice, with character traits one could never imagine in a vicious killer like Wade. And, in addition to his inexplicably easy capture, he seems just a “little” too eager to help his captors get him to the train to Yuma which leads to the fairly improbable ending. Aside from the outstanding performances of Crowe, Bale and Foster, others of note in the cast are Peter Fonda as a gray-bearded lawman; Allan Tudyk as Doc Potter, a veterinarian who finds himself serving as a doctor for humans; and Luce Rains as Marshal Weathers. “3:10 to Yuma” is beautifully filmed and loaded with effective sounds and visuals. It reveals just how effective a western can be when it isn’t filled with too many of the old clichés. A- (1/12/08)

“Sunshine”-Having done “28 Days Later,” in which a horrid virus almost destroys the human race, Director Danny Boyle (“Trainspotting”) now takes on another threat to humanity: the approaching death of the sun. In order to save the planet, the spaceship Icarus II has been directed to the sun to set off a mini-big bang with the hope that it will revive the star. With a small crew, including the curiously named Robert Capa (Cillian Murphy), the payload specialist, and a talking and controlling computer named Icarus very reminiscent of HAL in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Icarus II moans and creaks (despite the vacuum of space) its way towards the sun until one of the crew picks up a signal from Icarus I, the unsuccessful previous mission of seven years earlier which apparently landed on Mercury. It is at this point that the crew begins to debate whether or not they should divert to check out Icarus I in order to find if they can make use of any of that previous mission’s supplies, including its earlier nuclear payload. The viewer can’t help but cry out “no, don’t do it,” but, of course, they do and Icarus II finds itself descending into a mini-hell. The theme of “Sunshine” is human frailty, at the heart of most disasters. No matter how important the mission, human weaknesses threaten the goal. “Sunshine” is loaded with spectacular visions of the spaceship and sunlight in space. And its sound effects provide virtually all that’s needed to make the viewer feel the creepiness of being essentially alone millions of miles from earth. But in the end, “Sunshine” unfortunately plunges into some of the standard sci-fi clichés of films of this genre and the end is predictable. Of note in the cast is the very effective Rose Byrne as Cassie, the crew member who seems to have it most “together;” Michelle Yeoh as Corazon, whose job it is to provide green plants and oxygen; Troy Garity (yes, Jane and Tom’s son) as the hysterically uncourageous second-in-command, Harvey; and Cliff Curtis (“Whale Rider”) as the resolute psych officer who enjoys “bathing” in sunlight. B (1/11/08)

“Live-In Maid”-From Argentina, this is the tale of two women during that country’s recent economic crisis. Norma Aleandro is Beba Pujol, a formerly wealthy divorced woman who is trying to keep up appearances and trying to make money by selling, mostly unsuccessfully, beauty creams. She still employs Dora (Norma Argentina) as a live-in maid, although she can’t seem to pay Dora’s wages. Directed by Jorge Gaggero, “Live-In Maid” is a short but intelligent view of how one woman is living a lie, and the other, growing more fed up, is returning to reality despite her affection for her longtime employer. Both actresses are highly effective, and Gaggero provides a pleasingly humane ending. In Spanish with English subtitles. B+ (1/6/08)

“The Kingdom”-This quite visually realistic thriller begins with terrorists wearing Saudi police uniforms attacking, with machine guns and bombs, an American compound in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, killing many. Although the Saudis usually prefer Americans to stay out of their internal affairs, Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx), an FBI agent who has lost his best friend in the attack, arranges for himself and three other agents (Jennifer Garner, Chris Cooper, and Jason Bateman), to fly to Riyadh to investigate the crime. Upon their arrival, however, they find that the Saudis will let them do very little. Needless to say, ultimately, Fleury and his companions convince the Saudis that they can make a significant contribution. The first two thirds of the film constitute a gradual buildup, but just when it appears that the FBI agents have done enough and are being sent home with the eager encouragement of Damon Schmidt (Jeremy Piven), a state department official, all hell breaks loose. “The Kingdom,” directed by Peter Berg (“Friday Night Lights”), is beautifully photographed by Mauro Fiore using hand-held cameras. The sets and locations are astoundingly realistic (especially when one discovers that most of the film was made in Mesa, AZ, and not in the middle east). The action, including a spectacular highway pileup, is first rate, and the performances are sincere and effective. One is forced to wonder if the Saudis are quite as inept in crime solving as they appear here. As for the FBI, one sometimes gets the feeling that without movie and TV successes it would have little to brag about. Of note in the cast is Ashraf Barhoum as Colonel Faris Al Ghazi, a man who initially stands in the agents’ way, but then eagerly and heroically joins them in their search for the terrorist killers. B+ (1/5/08)

“Deep Water”-It has long been a subject of fascination to me how some people are capable of and sometimes even eager to undertake extreme adventures that clearly place them in harm’s way. if you can envision deciding to climb Mount Everest or serving as an astronaut on a mission to the moon, consider also the challenge of sailing alone around the world on a small boat. In 1968, not long after Francis Chichester had returned from the first solo voyage around the world, a trip in which he had made a stop in Australia, a British newspaper, the Sunday Times, proposed a race to circumnavigate the world without stopping and the winner was to receive £5,000. A 36-year old engineer and amateur sailor named Donald Crowhurst, married with four children, decided to participate but he needed monetary support and his contributor contractually required him to start the race and go at least a certain distance or, in effect, face financial disaster by having to repay the costs. This incredible documentary is the story of Crowhurst’s ill-fated voyage begun despite even his own reservations about himself and his catamaran. Using archival film of the participants, audiotapes made by Crowhurst on the voyage, his logbooks, and interviews with participants, supporters, journalists, and relatives, including Crowhurst’s wife, “Deep Water,” narrated by Tilda Swinton, explores Crowhurst’s motivations, his deceptions, and the tragedy that befell him and his family. A- (1/4/08)

“Knocked Up”-This is supposed to be a comedy, but it involves plot aspects that are so unlikely as to be laughable. OK, maybe it is a comedy, of sorts. We are presented with a bunch of useless pot-smoking, beer-drinking louts, spouting the usual (for this type of fiilm) aggressive tasteless sex commentary, whose idea of creativity is to make a website advertising the location of female nude scenes in motion pictures. That they are not making a living yet is apparently beside the point. The leader appears to be the unkempt Ben Stone (Seth Rogen). In utter contrast, we are introduced to the gorgeous blonde Alison Scott (Katherine Heigl), just promoted to being an on-screen interviewer at the “E” channel, but who still lives (in the same bedroom, at least in the opening scene) with her sister Debbie (Leslie Mann) and her husband Pete (Paul Rudd) and their children. Now get this. We are supposed to believe that after Alison goes out to celebrate her promotion, she meets Ben at a club; drunkenly takes him home (where she now suddenly has her own room); has unprotected sex; is, when sober, completely turned off by Ben (Heigl’s look of disgust is absolutely masterful); finds she is pregnant (by Ben); totally ignores her previous distaste and the fact that Ben has no clear form of income, and forms a relationship with him; and then falls in love with him. Anyone interested in buying the Brooklyn Bridge? I’ll admit that “Knocked Up” is superior to and somewhat more serious than other films in this genre, including the recently viewed “Superbad,” and Director/Writer Judd Apatow’s earlier “The 40-Year Old Virgin.” At least, unlike those films, it attempts to deal with some serious issues, including out-of-wedlock pregnancy and male-female relationships. And it has some sincere and earnest performances, surprisingly by Seth Rogen and not so surprisingly by the talented and beautiful Katherine Heigl. Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd are also effective as a very confused married couple. But when we get right down to it, we again find ourselves looking at a film about sex and simplistic social fantasies from a fairly emotionally retarded male viewpoint. C+ (1/2/08)

“Stardust”-I’m not usually one for fantasy adventure stories, but I was intrigued by this film, based on a book by Neil Gaiman, a leading writer of fantasy, and starring Claire Danes, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Robert DeNiro. OK, the story is nonsense, but as a cinematic achievement it’s got some wonderful special effects, and a genuine adventure tale with intrigue and humor. The plot? Well, Tristan Thorn (Charlie Cox) lives in the English town of Wall, which, of course, has a wall which is guarded 24 hours a day and across which no one is to go. Tristan, whose father Dunstan (Nathaniel Parker), once made it across the wall, is in love with Victoria (Sienna Miller), a stuck-up local girl, and promises to bring back a star which has fallen on the other side of the wall in exchange for marriage. Seems the star, upon falling to the other worldly kingdom on the other side of the wall, has turned into the lovely Yvaine (Claire Danes), and Yvaine is being sought by some seriously nefarious characters, including Septimus (Mark Strong), the surviving son (of seven) of the late king (Peter O’Toole), who needs her necklace to become king, and Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer), an elderly witch who needs Yvaine’s heart to regain the youthful beauty of her and her two sisters. Tristan, of course, finds himself in the middle of all this and discovers his real love is not for Victoria. The cast is loaded with earnest and humorous performances, including the ghosts of Septimus' brothers who make wisecracks from the sidelines, and by Robert DeNiro as (would you believe?) a gay captain of a flying pirate ship. In a feature on the HD-DVD, the director, Matthew Vaughn (“Layer Cake”) admits that the film doesn’t have serious themes, but contends that it is pure entertainment. Despite my reservations about fantasy films (I disliked “The Lord of the Rings”), I was genuinely entertained. B+ (1/1/08)

“You Kill Me”-Ben Kingsley, who once played Mohandas Gandhi, as Frank Falenczyk, a Polish hitman from Buffalo with a serious alcohol problem? Yes, and like previous portrayals of tough characters (“Sexy Beast”), Kingsley pulls it off. After being too drunk to do a job, his family orders Frank to San Francisco to enter AA and get cleaned up. There, under the watchful eye of Dave (Bill Pullman), a real estate broker who ultimately finds that he can put Frank to good use for his own business, Frank, who is initially resistant to change, meets Laurel Pearson (Téa Leoni), and attempts to start a new life. With the help of his sponsor, Tom (Luke Wilson), a toll taker on the Golden Gate, and Laurel, Frank seems to be on his way back. But then a gang war breaks out in Buffalo between Frank’s uncle, Roman Krezminski (Philip Baker Hall) and the local Irish leader, Edward O’Leary (Dennis Farina), and Frank knows he has to return to Buffalo. While this isn’t a particularly deep film, it has enough funny and touching moments to make it successful entertainment. Kingsley and Leoni work well together and with a pleasant and professional cast, manage to make “You Kill Me” a rather endearing, if not deeply moving, film about alcoholism, love, murder, and redemption. B (12/30/07)

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