This page contains reviews posted during the months of April to June 2008


“My Blueberry Nights”-This film by writer/director Wong Kar Wai (Kar Wai Wong, western style), is controversial because it has been praised and reviled by a variety of film critics. Wong, whose previous Hong Kong films, “In the Mood for Love” and “2046,” established his name in the world of cinema, came to the US to make this film with the unusual choice of singer Norah Jones as his star, but also with a stellar cast of Jude Law, Rachel Weisz, Natalie Portman, and David Straitharn. The film is beautifully photographed by Darius Khondji, has appealing background music from Ry Cooder and songs by Norah Jones and Cat Power (Chan Marshall, who also appears briefly in the film), and outstanding performances, especially by Weisz, Portman, and Straitharn. Some have said that Norah Jones can’t act. I watched her closely and, although the film doesn’t require her to do a great deal of emoting, I felt that she did a fine professional job, appearing quite natural for someone who had never before acted. She plays Elizabeth, a young woman in New York who has just gone through a painful breakup with her boyfriend and is distressed. She finds solace hanging around a café run by Jeremy (Jude Law), who seems to have nothing more to do than chat with Elizabeth and serve her blueberry pie. Ultimately, “My Blueberry Nights” turns into something of a road trip in which Elizabeth, seeking to distract herself from the pain of her breakup, goes on a journey of discovery, first heading for Memphis where she works as a waitress and runs into police officer Arnie Copeland (Straitharn), drowning his marital sorrows in alcohol, and his sexy estranged wife, Sue Lynne (Weisz) who seems to purposefully aggravate Arnie by strutting around the same bar. Following an unfortunate resolution of that situation, Elizabeth heads west and finds herself in Nevada, where she meets the wisecracking, seemingly self-confident but vulnerable poker-playing Leslie (Portman), before ultimately heading home to New York. Coming from a non-western writer/director, it’s not surprising that a lot of this film consists of dialogue, rather than action, but there is enough drama and action to turn this interesting film into a rather pleasant experience. I was impressed by the performances of Rachel Weisz (as a sexy southern alcoholic) and Portman, pulling off possibly the best performance of her career, as a character within a character. David Straitharn, as always, is wonderful portraying a man who, having lost his sexy wife, can’t face life. B+ (6/30/08)

“In Bruges”-Written and directed by Martin McDonagh, “In Bruges” is without a doubt one of the finest black comedies to come along in years. The situation initially seems rather tame. Ray (Colin Farrell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson) are hit men. Ray, pulling off his first job, has made a terrible blunder and, as a result, their angry boss, Harry Waters (Ralph Fiennes), has shipped them off to Bruges, a beautiful city in Belgium, to await instructions. Ken is happy to be a tourist in Bruges, joyfully checking out the medieval sites and canals, while Ray thinks Bruges is the worst place on earth (the colorfully descriptive word he uses, to be blunt, is “shithole”). But when Ray comes upon a movie set and meets both a dwarf actor, Jimmy (Jordan Prentice), and a beautiful drug pusher, Chloe (Clémence Poésy), things start to unwind, especially when Harry Waters decides to come from England with violence on his mind. One of the things that makes “In Bruges” different and worthwhile is that none of the gangsters are stereotypes and the acting by the principals is brilliant. Brendan Gleeson portrays Ken as charming and thoughtful while Colin Farrell's Ray is hysterically cynical despite being guilt-ridden. Ralph Fiennes portrays a character like none I’ve seen him play before. Harry Waters is a family man who cares about his children and yet is capable of extraordinary anger and violence while also sticking to his principles. Martin McDonagh’s script is sharp and witty and the cast is outstanding. Of note among the supporting cast, Clémence Poésy, a young French actress, is delightful as the young pusher who falls for Ray; and Dutch actress Thekla Reuten is memorable as Marie, the pregnant owner of the hotel where Ray and Ken are staying, who will not be pushed around by anyone even with guns drawn. A- (6/28/08)

“Things We Lost in the Fire”-This is the story of Audrey Burke (Halle Berry), a woman who lives in a lovely house in Seattle with her husband Brian (David Duchovny) and young son (Micah Berry) and daughter (Alexis Llewellyn). There are the usual tensions in the marriage, including Brian’s friendship with Jerry Sunborne (Benicio Del Toro), a childhood friend and heroin addict. But when Brian is suddenly killed while trying to save a woman being beaten by her husband, Audrey has to face a new life alone, and she turns to Jerry, the man she has long resented, by inviting him to stay in the garage which had been damaged in a fire. Jerry, despite his drug problems, is a sincere and warm human being who connects with Audrey’s kids and ultimately as a result becomes the butt of her anger and frustration over the loss of her husband. This film is indeed an American film (albeit with a Danish director) about human beings, but unfortunately goes wrong due to a weak script and the lack of spark between the primary characters. Halle Berry and David Duchovny just don’t connect as a couple, and no matter how hard she tries, Halle Berry just didn’t impress me as being a real widow in distress. The film also tends to jump back and forth in an unlikely way between moments when Audrey is weak and Jerry strong, and vice versa. Both Micah Berry (no relation to Halle) and Alexis Llewellyn are wonderful as Audrey’s children. Others worth noting are John Carroll Lynch as Howard, the next-door-neighbor who befriends Jerry, and Alison Lohman as Kelly, a young recovering addict who helps save Jerry. A nice try by Director Susanne Bier but nowhere near the quality and originality of her previous film, “After the Wedding.” B- (6/27/08)

“4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days”-Watching European films always makes me ponder the distinct difference in approach to filmmaking between American (or Hollywood) and European directors. American films, even when serious (which is unfortunately rare) are virtually always theatrical, attempting despite serious themes to entertain the audience. European films, on the other hand, tend to be about what humans experience in their daily lives and when pain and angst is the subject, “entertainment” often is the last thing on the filmmaker’s mind. Here, Cristian Mungiu, writer and director, offers a detailed look (highly reminiscent of the intense style of another recent Romanian film, “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu”), at what happens in 1987 Communistic Romania when two young women, Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) and Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) seek an abortion for the latter. Mungiu uses no background music and extended single shots to portray the agony of Otillia, the main character in this film, who is hellbent on helping her friend. Her obsessive need to act comes despite the fact that Gabita, a fairly dull young woman, has lied about important things, including the length of her pregnancy and the arrangements, and placed a great deal of the burden of carrying out the details on Otillia. Ultimately, Otillia must compromise herself in a variety of ways in order to achieve the desired goal. “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days” is relentless, revealing the harsh living conditions of urban life in Romania at the end of the Communist regime, and the vile chill offered by the abortionist, a man ironically known as Bebe (Vlad Ivanov). Some have commented that this film is apolitical, offering no viewpoint on abortion. A single shot, showing the aborted fetus seems to force an argument to the contrary. Anamaria Marinca provides a memorable performance as a young woman intent on going through a bit of hell in order to help her not terribly sympathetic friend. (In Romanian with English subtitles) A- (6/21/08)

“Jumper”-A young fellow named David (the always boring and bland Hayden Christensen) figures out that he can teleport himself anywhere, abandons his obnoxious father, and begins to steal from a bank. How? He just teleports himself into and out of the safe. But soon he finds out that he’s not alone and that there are other people (with a group name I could not understand, although it was used several times in the film) who want to destroy him and other “jumpers.” Apparently, this battle has been going on for centuries. Oh, yes, there’s a pretty innocent girl (Rachel Bilson) who David likes and who gets caught up in this mess. And, of course, there is the main whatever they’re called (?), the white-haired Roland (Samuel Jackson), whose entire part in this film is chasing and attempting to kill David and another, more experienced jumper, Griffin (Jamie Bell). There are lots of jumps from place to place, a few good shots of scenery, and absolutely no plot or purpose. There is no character development or any attempted sci-fi explanation for all this silliness. The fellow at Blockbuster who rented me this film suggested that I watch the deleted scenes, claiming that there was more plot in those scenes than in the film itself. You know what? He was right. Very bizarre that the filmmakers would include scenes to prove that they had little judgment in putting together this worthless film. D- (6/20/08)

“Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”-Considering the relative talent of the people who made this film, including Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, one would think that after so many years had passed since “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” (1989), they could have come up with a unique, funny, and interesting adventure for old Indy. But despite a cast that includes the wonderful Cate Blanchett and Jim Broadbent, the new up-and-coming young star, Shia LeBeouf, and the return of the lovely and spunky Karen Allen, this fourth “Indiana Jones” adventure is too full of chases (whether on foot, motorcycle, truck or whatever), ultra-over-the-top and yet hardly scintillating special effects, and a denouement that almost seems to come right out of the recent “National Treasure” film. Add to that the aburdity of old Indy surviving a nuclear blast and a completely silly supernatural ending, and this “Indiana Jones” is nothing more than a tired retread of so many mediocre fantasy and sci-fi adventures. I was eager to see this film since I witnessed the preparations for the Marshall College motorcycle chase scene which was filmed at Yale University, and that chase, early in the film, wasn’t half bad, although it’s amazing how much preparation in New Haven went for nought (the stores along Chapel St., whose windows were completely redone to look like the 1950s, are never seen). Harrison Ford, looking his age, does an adequate job as Henry Jones, Jr., aka Indiana, while Shia LeBeouf was a significant improvement on some of the past Indiana Jones sidekicks (anyone remember Short Round?), but the talents of Cate Blanchett, a magnificent actress, are completed wasted in her role as a cartoon Soviet agent, Irina Spalko. Two other talented British actors, Ray Winstone and John Hurt, are barely noticeable. The return of Karen Allen and her lovely smile, however, brought a smile to my face. Too bad the filmmakers couldn’t have come up with other smart moves similar to that. Theater. C (6/14/08)

“Lions for Lambs”-Essentially a political commentary on the state of contemporary American war policy and the media, “Lions for Lambs” presents three connected stories. Tom Cruise is perfect as Senator Jasper Irving, a slick, smooth talking right-wing politician who calls Janine Roth (Meryl Streep), a liberal journalist, to his office to inform her of a new military action in Afghanistan which is beginning as they talk. The two proceed to argue the relative merits of the so-called “war on terrorism.” In the second story, the troops are heading for the snowy hills of Afghanistan. Two of the soldiers, Ernest Rodriguez (Michael Peña) and Arian Finch (Derek Luke), come to symbolize the failure of this action when they are attacked, fall from the helicopter, and wind up injured on the snowy ground with little or no support from the American side despite the best attempts by Lt. Col. Falco (Peter Berg). In the third story, Robert Redford, who directed this film, plays Professor Stephen Malley, engaged in a meeting with a promising student, Todd Hayes (Andrew Garfield), who has become cynical about his studies. Through Malley’s attempt to inspire Hayes to take a major interest in what is going on in our society rather than simply opt for a comfortable life, we learn about the connection of Malley to Rodriguez and Finch. Although the production values are less than stellar (despite the Afghanistan scenes, the film comes across like a play), “Lions for Lambs” does a decent job of addressing some of the important issues of the day, including the right’s tunnel vision view of fighting the so-called “war on terrorism,” and the media’s culpability by failing to question the misinformation coming from the government. Meryl Streep does a fine job, although the part of a weary journalist forced to listen to right-wing propaganda didn’t need her great talents. Redford is right on as the aging but still caring professor. B (6/13/08)

“Nanking”-We don’t really need to be reminded of man’s ability to be violently destructive of objects and fellow humans, but it is a lesson worth relearning to find that a country and a people we now think of as peaceful and a close ally was once capable of horrors almost beyond belief. That country is Japan which invaded China in 1937 and proceeded, in November 1937 and the early portions of 1938, to destroy the beautiful capital, Nanking, while at the same time pillaging, raping, and murdering the residents. “Nanking” is a documentary with a great deal of impressive footage from the actual events. And it is powerfully enhanced by the commentaries of actual participants, including elderly Chinese who were then 9 or 10 and witnessed unspeakable horrors; elderly Japanese who were there as soldiers, and by the performances of actors reading the actual comments, thoughts, and observations of courageous westerners present at the “rape of Nanking,” who did all they could do protect as many locals as possible. Among others, there was Minnie Vautrin (Mariel Hemingway), a missonary who ran the Ginling Girls College; Bob Wilson (Woody Harrelson), a minister; John Rabe (Jürgen Prochnow), a Nazi businessman who, despite his political beliefs, became humane in light of the horror he was witnessing; and George Fitch (John Getz) who managed to smuggle films of the nightmare out of China and back to the western world to seek help, which never came. This film is not entertainment in the usual sense of the term, but it is incredibly well done and extremely enlightening about human evil. A (6/6/08)

“The Kite Runner”-I have to admit that I was wary of this film, but pleasantly surprised by the story of two friends in pre-Taliban Kabul, Afghanistan. Amir (Zekeria Ebrahami) is a wealthy but shy and wary boy, and the other, Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmoodzada), is the gutsy son of a servant of the household. Spending a great deal of their time engaging in the local custom of running kites, Amir ultimately witnesses a terrible act that changes his relationship with Hassan and disrupts the household. When the Russians invade, Amir and his father escape and move to the United States. The adult Amir (Khalid Abdalla, who appeared in “United 93”), now a novelist living in San Francisco, receives a call requiring him to come to Pakistan and finds himself in the midst of the nightmarish Afghanistan of the Taliban. Despite a few soap opera elements, “The Kite Runner” is an effective film about guilt and redemption with wonderful cinematography and an outstanding score. It has particularly moving and memorable performances by the two young boys, especially Ahmad Khan Mahmoodzada, the boy playing Hassan. B+ (6/1/08)

“Cassandra’s Dream”-Woody Allen seems to have taken a serious turn, although this certainly isn’t the first time that he’s made a film with little or no humor. There is literally not a joke in sight. The film concerns two outwardly decent British brothers, Ian (Ewan McGregor) and Terry (Colin Farrell), who work at mundane jobs but have dreams of money and success. Ian, who helps run his father’s not terribly successful restaurant, seems to have his aims just a little higher than his brother, as he brags of investing in the California hotel business although he doesn’t have the money, and Terry is an auto mechanic who’d like to open his own sports store but has a very bad gambling habit. These desires and bad habits ultimately get the two brothers into a great deal of trouble. Woody Allen, who, as usual, wrote the script and directed the film, is concerned about issues of morality and guilt. But in “Cassandra’s Dream,” those issues are so thickly obvious you can cut them with a knife. Colin Farrell is particularly impressive as a young man who gets talked into doing something he considers repellent, and lives to regret it, falling into a deep depression. Ewan McGregor is just right as the far more amoral brother who lets his dreams ruin his judgment. Others of note in the cast are Sally Hawkins as Kate, Terry’s earnest and loving girlfriend; Hayley Atwell as Angela, the beautiful actress Ian meets by accident and who inadvertently encourages his dreams of success; and Tom Wilkinson as Uncle Howard, a man at the heart of Ian and Terry’s dilemma and fate. Unfortunately, although “Cassandra’s Dream” contains serious themes and good acting, Allen’s script just doesn’t go beyond the ordinary. I knew exactly what would happen at the end, and it did. B (5/31/08)

“I’m Not There”-Director/Screenwriter Todd Haynes has not made many films, but the ones he has made, including “Far From Heaven” and “Velvet Goldmine,” show a distinct interest in societal and theatrical world culture. In “I’m Not There,” he’s given us what can only be called a unique meditation on the life and work of Bob Dylan. But although Dylan is heard throughout the film, he’s never really there. Haynes presents a variety of characters who provide aspects of Dylan’s life, personality, and attitudes. There’s Woody Guthrie (Marcus Carl Franklin), a young boy seeking his way out of his roots with tall stories and a guitar; Jack Rollins (Christian Bale), a singer who impresses with his insights but manages to embarrass as well; Robbie Clark (Heath Ledger), an actor who played Rollins in a movie and finds that his personality clashes with his love life; Ben Whishaw as Arthur Rimbaud, a poet who speaks Dylanesque truth; and ultimately there is Jude Quinn, played with remarkable realism by the wonderful Cate Blanchett as the most Dylan-like character, sometimes offering his exact words as he debates interviewers, including a BBC interviewer, Keenan Jones (Bruce Greenwood), about his own relative importance or unimportance. “I’m Not There” is not for everyone but should enthrall anyone who has cared about Bob Dylan and wants insight into what’s made him tick. Cate Blanchett, and the other Dylan portrayers stand out. The cast also includes notable performances by Julianne Moore as Alice Fabian, an apparent Joan Baez stand-in; Charlotte Gainsbourg as Claire, Robbie Clarks’s estranged French-born artist wife and the mother of his kids; and a brief appearance by Michelle Williams. Of the varying primary characters, the most puzzling is Billy the Kid, played by Richard Gere, representing I suppose Dylan’s rebellious outlaw streak. My harshest criticism of this original film is that it goes on a little too long. B+ (5/24/08)

“National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets”-Films of this sort almost defy a review. Like the Indiana Jones films, they really have no theme and no purpose other than mindless entertainment. “National Treasure 2” succeeds in providing just that. In this sequel to “National Treasure,” Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicolas Cage) is outraged by an accusation that his ancestor, Thomas Gates, was involved in the planning of the Lincoln Assassination. He knows that his great-grandfather was actually a hero who stopped a traitorous southern group from finding the lost and very valuable golden city of Cibola by refusing to decode a cipher, and he’s intent on proving it to clear his great-grandfather’s good name. How can he do that? Well, by getting into impossible places, solving lots of utterly amazing clues, and finding Cibola. With the help of his estranged girlfriend, Abigail (the relatively unexciting Diane Kruger) and his sidekick, Riley Poole (the fairly funny Justin Bartha), Gates manages to get into Buckingham Palace as well as the oval office in the White House to find clues that no sane person would ever expect to be discovered, let alone solved, and to get the president (Bruce Greenwood) alone in a tunnel under Mount Vernon to find out if there really is a book that contains all important presidential secrets. “National Treasure 2” is loaded with special effects and precarious situations, including a rather destructive car chase through the streets of London (with no legal consequences of course) as Gates and his cohorts battle the evil Mitch Wilkinson (Ed Harris), the man who produced the evidence that blackened the Gates family name and who is intent on finding Cibola before Gates. The only redeeming thing in this film is the cast, including Jon Voight as Gates’ father, Patrick; Helen Mirren as Gates’ angry but clever mother; and Harvey Keitel as an FBI agent observing the events from afar. B- (5/23/08)

"The Orphanage"-Supernatural films are not really my shtick, but I'd heard good things about this Spanish film and decided to try it out. Laura (Belén Rueda) and her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) buy the ultra-gothic and very creepy building near the sea that was once the orphanage from which Laura was adopted as a child. They bring their young adopted HIV-positive son, Simón (Roger Princep), along with them, as Laura proposes using the large house and grounds to care for children with special needs. But, as things happen in films like this, Simón begins to see and play with invisible children and, following a visit by an unsettling old lady, Benigna (Montserrat Carulla), who seems to know a little too much, Simón disappears. Laura becomes obsessed with finding him despite the months that go by and the many hints of ghosts afoot in the house and she soon becomes convinced that the ghosts have kidnapped young Simón and are playing games with her. "The Orphanage" is loaded with eerie scenes and sounds (none of which seem to stop Laura from exploring nooks and crannies and outdoor sheds in the dark), and includes a scene in which Geraldine Chaplin as the medium Aurora, sees the ghosts of the children of the orphanage. "The Orphanage", which has a tragic and yet upbeat ending, was directed by new director J. A. Bayona, and produced by Guillermo Del Toro ("Pan's Labyrinth") which should give you some idea of the quality of the production. Despite my reservations at the subject matter of the film, what ultimately makes it worthwhile is the wonderful performance by Belén Rueda as the obsessed Laura. In Spanish with English subtitles. B+ (5/17/08)

“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”-This true life story seems on its surface almost too unbearable to watch. Jean-Dominique Bauby (Matthieu Amalric), editor of Elle magazine, living life to the fullest, suffers a stroke at age 42. goes into a coma, and winds up in a hospital in Berck-sur-mer, France. He suffers from locked-in syndrome, a horrifyingly confining condition in which he is unable to move anything but his left eyelid. Yet, he manages through an astoundingly tedious blinking method to write the book from which this movie was made. Directed by artist Julian Schnabel (who also directed “Before Night Falls”), and photographed by the excellent cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, the story of poor Mr. Bauby is raised to the level of high art because much of it is seen from Bauby’s point of view and because it is magically turned into as upbeat a tale as possible. Schnabel uses a variety of often beautiful imaging techniques that convey Bauby’s visions and sensations. In doing so, he not only shows us how Bauby managed to make the most of his dreadful situation with the help of Henriette Durand (Marie-Josée Croze), a speech therapist who taught him how to communicate by blinking when the correct letter was expressed, and Claude (Anne Consigny), a young woman hired to utilize the technique to help Bauby write his book, but also shows enough of Bauby’s pre-stroke life to give us an idea of what was lost. Scenes in which Bauby visits his three children and in which he shaves his elderly father (Max Von Sydow), too old to leave his apartment, are incredibly sensitive and touching. And it certainly didn’t hurt that the cast is outstanding, including the beautiful Emmanuelle Seigner as Céline, Bauby’s estranged partner and the mother of his three children who nevertheless visits him regularly and even reluctantly helps him communicate with the woman who succeeded her in his affections. Matthieu Amalric deserves an award for having the courage to play the part of a man who can move only one eyelid. Highly recommended. In French with English subtitles. A (5/16/08)

“Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead”-This is the kind of film that often makes me wonder what the filmmakers were thinking when they decided to shoot it. It has a great director, Sidney Lumet, and stars the wonderful Philip Seymour Hoffman, but from the opening extended and graphic scene of Hoffman’s character, Andy Hanson, having rough intercourse with his wife, Gina (Marisa Tomei) in Rio, one gets the strange sensation that it’s headed in the wrong direction. And when we see the central event of the film moments later, only to be followed by multiple time transitions to events and conversations before and after the central event, things go from bad to worse. Andy Hanson is a man on a mission to make some money. He talks his weak brother, Hank (Ethan Hawke), into doing a robbery of a “mom and pop” jewelry store of which they have some knowledge. But weak Hank, without telling Andy, brings along an armed cohort, Bobby (Brian F. O’Byrne) to actually do the dirty deed and all goes downhill from there because the mom and pop store turns out to be owned by the Hansons’ parents, Nanette (Rosemary Harris) and Charles (Albert Finney), and Nanette, who wasn’t supposed to be in the store, also has a gun. One of the problems with this film is that none of the characters are particularly likeable and watching what happens to them brought, at least to me, a gigantic ho-hum if not a sense of disgust. The title is based on the saying: if you die, may you get to heaven a half hour “before the Devil knows you’re dead.” Well, in this film that would certainly be an appropriate saying for the fate of most of the characters. C+ (5/10/08)

“Starting Out in the Evening”-Leonard Schiller (Frank Langella) is an elderly, mostly out-of-print, novelist living on the upper west side of Manhattan, attended to by his single daughter Ariel (Lili Taylor), just turning 40. While Ariel, an exercise instructor, is clearly uncertain about her love life and thinks about her former relationship with Casey (Adrian Lester), a relationship the ending of which her father disapproved, into Leonard’s life walks a mysterious and precocious redhead, Heather Wolfe (Lauren Ambrose), a graduate student doing her thesis on Leonard and his writing. Heather convinces Leonard to talk about the relationship between his life and his novels and, because Leonard resists, the two ultimately play a sensual cat and mouse game. In addition to the fact that I could make little or no sense of the title (does the “evening” refer to the fact that it is late in Schiller’s life?), the entire situation seems unlikely. Schiller is clearly a man who prefers to express himself by sitting at his old typewriter and putting his words on paper. He looks uptight and tired whenever he is being pressed by Heather. She, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to know when to stop asking questions and, aside from being attractive (well that could be important to an old man, although he certainly doesn’t show it for the first three quarters of the film), seems to bring little of importance to Schiller other than stirring up things he didn’t want stirred up. In the form of Ariel, Lili Taylor gives a very appealing and upbeat performance (maybe her most appealing), despite playing a character with some obvious neuroses. Adrian Lester also does a fine job as the man with set opinions about life who walks back into Ariel’s life. Frank Langella, a wonderful actor, is a little too taciturn to give the character of Schiller the obvious intellectual capacity that he deserves. Finally, Lauren Ambrose (“Six Feet Under”) is quite forceful and sexual as the mysterious Ms. Wolfe. “Starting Out in the Evening,” has a European art film feel to it. I’m not sure it succeeds, but it certainly presents an unusual and original exploration of characters quite different from the run-of-the-mill Hollywood film. B- (5/9/08)

"The Golden Compass"-Based on the novel "His Dark Materials: Northern Lights," by Philip Pullman, a book with an anti-authoritarian religion theme, one would be hard pressed to conclude that religion is the sole target in this interesting fantasy film. Here, the theme seems pretty obviously centered on the evils of authoritarian institutions (the Magisterium), which could be either governmental or religious in nature. We are in an alternate universe, an alternate England, one in which people's souls or essences accompany them in the form of small animal/bird creatures called demons. Young Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards doing a fine job in her first role), accompanied by her cute and friendly demon Pan (voice of Freddie Highmore), which changes from bird to animal at will, is an orphan living near her uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), at an Oxford college. Lyra overhears a discussion among Magisterium and college officials on the subject of dust, something that the Magisterium has made verboten (Philip Pullman has explained that dust constitutes a metaphor for human wisdom, science and art). But dust is also a subject that Lord Asriel wishes to explore in order to possibly connect with other worlds. The Magisterium, not surprisingly, wants Lord Asriel out of the way at the same time it is using characters called Gobblers to kidnap children in order to take them to the frigid north and separate them from their demons, thus giving the Magisterium complete control over their minds. Given a special device to learn the truth, an alethiometer (a golden compass), of which all but one were destroyed by the Magisterium, Lyra finds herself on an adventure to battle the Magisterium and save some of her friends who have been victims of the Gobblers. With excellent cinematography and first-rate special effects, director/screenwriter Chris Weitz ("About A Boy"), does a good job of keeping ones attention. Despite some predictably frightening aspects of the story, "The Golden Compass" makes its points well and is loaded with interesting characters played by an outstanding cast. That cast includes Nicole Kidman as the evil Mrs. Coulter (couldnt have asked for a better name); Ian McKellen as the voice of the magnificent snow bear, Iorek Byrnison, who befriends Lyra and helps conquer her enemies; Sam Elliott as Lee Scoresby, a cowboy aeronaut friend of Lyra's; Eva Green as Serafina Pekkala, a good witch/warrior; Derek Jacobi and Simon McBurney as members of the Magisterium; Jim Carter, Tom Courtenay and Clare Higgins as Gyptians, good gypsy-like characters; and the voices of Ian McShane, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Kathy Bates. While I am not usually a fan of fantasies, this one has an important and worthwhile theme. B+ (5/3/08)

“Juno”-Diablo Cody truly deserved the Oscar for the crisp, intelligent and original script of this film. And Ellen Page provides an absolutely breathtaking performance as Juno MacGuff, a quick-witted, sarcastic and tomboyish high school girl, who talks her friend Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera) into sex and finds herself unhappily pregnant. Although Juno considers and rejects abortion, this film is certainly not an anti-choice polemic. Instead, it is a delightful exploration of the emotions of a young girl who believes she has made a good choice to have the child and give it to a young couple in need. Unfortunately, we quickly learn that the young couple, played by Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman, are not exactly what they seem on the surface. Stories of this sort often have annoying plot twists and turns, such as anger and abuse from outraged parents. Here, Cody’s script makes the right move and presents Juno’s father and stepmother (played with great skill by J. K. Simmons and Allison Janney) as shocked but completely and joyfully supportive. It’s choices like this that make “Juno” such a delightful experience. Another excellent move was the casting of the charming, up-and-coming young actress Olivia Thirlby as Juno’s closest and supportive friend, Leah. Rainn Wilson makes a brief but hysterical appearance as a drug store clerk. Highly recommended. A (5/2/08)

“Love in the Time of Cholera”-Occasionally, when a movie is based on a major novel, there is the question of whether or not one can critique the plot without having read the novel. In this case, knowing that the film is based on a novel by the magic realist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, I have to presume that the novel is significantly superior to the film because the plot borders on utter silliness. In late-19th Century Colombia, a telegraph clerk, Florentino Ariza (played by Unax Ugalde as a teen and by Javier Bardem as an adult), falls madly in love with Fermina Daza (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) upon first sight at age 16. Although the teenage Fermina seems to return the feeling, later for no obvious reason she completely rejects Florentino and follows her father’s plan by marrying a successful man, Dr. Urbino (Benjamin Bratt). Florentino, totally obsessed with Fermina, promises to wait forever, but as the many years pass, he finds that he is highly attractive to women and manages to ring up an incredible total of conquests. At last, after more than 50 years, Florentino once again has the opportunity to romance Fermina. Despite beautiful scenery and cinematography, the script of “Love in the Time of Cholera” manages to turn Marquez’s novel into a soap opera of sorts. The actions and motivations of the characters are unlikely and yet predictable. Javier Bardem does a good job of portraying a man who, while obsessed with one woman, manages an amazingly successful sex life, even romancing a college student in his 70s. On the other hand, Giovanna Mezzogiorno is lovely to look at, but somewhat stiff and inconsistent in her portrayal of a woman who seems to love Florentino one minute and reject him the next. The script never explains Fermina's mercurial moods and Fermina’s friend Hildebranda (Catalina Sandino Moreno) seems to have more pizzazz and sex appeal although that certainly wasn’t intended by the filmmakers. But the biggest problem with this film is the language used. Gabriel Garcia Marquez writes in Spanish and, for authenticity, the characters ought to be speaking Spanish. Instead, the filmmakers chose to make this an English language film despite the fact that the major stars of the film are Europeans. I believe this was a major mistake. C+ (4/27/08)

“The Savages”-Wendy Savage (Laura Linney) is a single not terribly successful playwright who lives in New York City with her cat and is having an affair with a married man (Peter Friedman). Jon Savage (Philip Seymour Hoffman), her distant brother, is a college professor living in Buffalo and about to lose his Polish girlfriend. Their elderly father, Lenny (Philip Bosco), with whom they have had little contact in years, lives in Sun City, AZ, and his mind is fading with dementia. When Lenny starts doing disturbing things and his elderly girlfriend suddenly dies, Wendy and Jon are forced to come to Arizona to arrange their father’s affairs. With bitingly sarcastic images of the banal sun-drenched life for the retired elderly in Arizona, “The Savages” first gives the impression that it will be a parody of sorts, but it is not. Instead, it’s a serious drama. The film contains the expected brilliant performances by Linney (nominated for an Oscar), Hoffman, and Bosco, wonderful actors all, and is about how the pains of growing up affect relationships, the ways that siblings grow apart and their differences and jealousies, the responsibilities of children for their elderly parents, the challenge to rise to the occasion to deal with a parent’s declining days, and the need of the siblings to reconcile during this crisis. Written and directed by Tamara Jenkins (“Slums of Beverly Hills”), “The Savages is never dull and yet, being a story about a profoundly unpleasant aspect of life, it seems almost too real. At times, with the actors as incredibly effective as they are, I felt as if I were watching a documentary about real people. Ultimately, however, watching Laura Linney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Philip Bosco perform is worth it no matter how depressing the situation may be. A- (4/26/08)

“Charlie Wilson’s War”-A movie directed by Mike Nichols and starring Tom Hanks is virtually guaranteed to be of high quality. And “Charlie Wilson’s War,” letting us in on an unusual and interesting bit of American history, fits the bill. Telling the true-life story of a fun-loving, womanizing 1980s Texas Congressman who serves on the committee that deals with the CIA and its budget, and who develops a very serious streak when he observes the tragedy of the Soviet attack on the Afghan people, “Charlie Wilson’s War” is a combination of history, comedy and drama. Tom Hanks is simply ideal as the Texas representative whose interests range from hot tubs, drugs and sex to supplying stinger missiles to the Afghan mujahaddin (the freedom fighters struggling against an onslaught of death from Soviet helicopters). Philip Seymour Hoffman is simply brilliant as the smart and cynical Gust Avrakotos, Charlie’s CIA contact; Julia Roberts is first rate as Joanne Herring, a wealthy right-wing Texas matron who both sleeps with Charlie and inspires him to meet with Pakistan’s President Zia so that he will get involved in the Afghan situation; Amy Adams (“Enchanted”) is attractive and charming as Charlie’s Congressional aide, Bonnie Bach; and Emily Blunt (“The Devil Wears Prada”) appears in the brief but funny part of a seemingly uptight young woman from Texas whose demeanor undergoes a 180-degree change once she’s alone with Charlie in his Virginia apartment overlooking the Iwo Jima Memorial. With an excellent script from Aaron Sorkin based on George Crile’s book, “Charlie Wilson’s War” is inspiring and frightening. Inspiring by showing that one man can overcome a lot of flaws to do something worthwhile, and frightening in that this one unknown Congressman was able to affect and change American foreign policy through the CIA’s covert actions without any obvious involvement from the president, and the state and defense departments. Highly recommended. A (4/25/08)

“Reservation Road”-With what appears to be a rather excellent cast, including Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Ruffalo, Jennifer Connelly and Mira Sorvino, and directed by Terry George (“Hotel Rwanda”), “Reservation Road” seemed very promising. But despite the director and cast, ultimately it doesn’t quite make it due to a rather unlikely story and a rather uninspired script (by Terry George and the author of the novel on which the film is based, John Burnham Schwartz). Dwight Arno (Ruffalo), a divorced lawyer, is driving with his young son back to Connecticut from a Red Sox game and is in a hurry to get his son home to his mother, Arno’s remarried ex-wife, Ruth (Sorvino). Driving too fast in the dark, he accidentally strikes and kills the young son of a college professor, Ethan Learner (Phoenix), and his wife (Connelly), and then drives away from the scene. Ethan, left with his wife and young daughter Emma (the marvelous Elle Fanning), finds himself utterly frustrated with the lack of police results and becomes obsessed with finding the man who killed his son. That this obsession is threatening his marriage is clearly secondary to his need to find the killer. The theme ostensibly is how the two men deal with their opposite concerns: anger and fear. The problem is that “Reservation Road” depends on too many highly unlikely coincidences for its ultimate dénoument. And it doesn’t help that at least part of the cast seems to be sleepwalking through much of the film. Both Phoenix and Ruffalo seem to feel that the intense pressures on them can only be displayed by lack of any expression on their faces. Jennifer Connelly, on the other hand, gives an excellent performance as a young mother who must deal with the pain of losing her young son in an instant but also the need to continue her life in order to care for her daughter. B- (4/19/08)

“Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story”-This is a takeoff on the recent movie bio-pics of such entertainers as Ray Charles and Johnny Cash and is rather amusing, if not hysterically funny. Having accidentally killed his talented brother with a machete and, as a result, gained the eternal enmity of his father (“The wrong kid died”), Dewey (John C. Reilly) becomes a guitar-strumming singer who seems to follow in the footsteps of an awful lot of real-life performers. In fact, Dewey changes with the times, going from style to style of, among others, Buddy Holly to Roy Orbison to Johnny Cash to Bob Dylan. Dewey marries his teenage girlfriend, a la Jerry Lee Lewis, who supports him but thinks he’ll fail. They have lots of babies until Dewey is led astray by Sam (Tim Meadows), one of his bandmembers, who introduces him to drugs, and by the lovely Darlene Madison (Jenna Fischer), the June Carter of this tale. Along the way, John C. Reilly gets to sing some surprisingly effective new songs and does a bangup job of performing. Considering that this film was produced by Judd Apatow (“Knocked Up” and “Superbad”), it shouldn’t be a surprise that the humor ranges from a couple of unfunny full frontal male nudity scenes, the standard Will Ferrell-type underwear in the street scene, and bizarre portrayals of Chasidic Jews (would you believe named “L’Chaim and Mazeltov”?) as rock empresarios, to a quite funny scene in which Dewey meets the Beatles in India. The meeting of Dewey with the Maharisihi and The Beatles, played by Paul Rudd (John Lennon), Jack Black (can you imagine him as Paul McCartney?), Jason Schwartzman (Ringo Starr), and Justin Long (George Harrison), is not to be missed. While “Walk Hard’ is hardly “Walk The Line,” it contains a few gems among the dross. B (4/18/08)

“There Will Be Blood”-Director/writer Paul Thomas Anderson, who brought us the excellent “Boogie Nights” and the witheringly bizarre and creative “Magnolia,” here devotes his attention to a masterwork centering on the awesome willfulness of one man, Daniel Plainview. Played by Daniel Day-Lewis, who won the Best Actor Oscar for this role, with an intensity rarely seen in modern film, Plainview is a silver prospector turned single-minded oil magnate in early 20th Century California. When Plainview is confronted by Paul Sunday (Paul Dano) who provides information about an ocean of oil under his father’s land in Little Boston, California, Plainview and his young son, H.W. (Dillon Freasier), arrive to overwhelm the locals, most of whom belong to a fanatic fundamentalist church, with tales of flowing riches. Soon, the first well is going up and when the gusher arrives and explodes, H.W. is injured and deafened, leading to an unfortunate change in his previously close relationship with Daniel. “There Will Be Blood” is about Plainview and how he views and relates to the world. Based somewhat on Upton Sinclair’s novel “Oil,” the film exposes the greed, obsessions, anger, cruelty, and sometimes murderous hatred of the intense and unpredictable oil man, who ultimately descends into madness. At the heart of the film is the powerful conflict between the ultra-pragmatic Plainview and the religious fanaticism of Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), Paul’s brother, who leads the Church of the Third Revelation. Plainview and Eli battle back and forth almost as if in an eternal wrestling match of belief/disbelief and power. “There Will Be Blood” contains some breathtaking scenes of intensity, such as Plainview’s pummeling of Eli in the mud, Eli’s conversion of the unwilling Plainview who cooperates for practical reasons despite his intense dislike of Eli and religion, and Plainview’s ultimate interaction with Henry Brands (Kevin J. O’Connor), a man who claims to be his half brother. Not only is Lewis’ performance one of the most memorable in years, but the film contains outstanding acting from Paul Dano as well as O'Connor and the young Dillon Freasier. Also of note in the cast is Ciaràn Hinds (“Rome”) as Plainview’s oil company assistant, Fletcher Hamilton. “There Will Be Blood” is one of those films that can't help but raise a variety of interesting questions about theme and characterizations. For example, although Paul Sunday, in the form of Paul Dano, is seen early on informing Plainview of the oil on his father’s land, he’s never seen again in the film, and we only see Dano as Eli Sunday, thus raising speculation about whether or not Eli and Paul are the same person. Although minimal references to Paul do occur, the possibility of a split personality remains to the bitter end. “There Will Be Blood” also includes a vital and appropriate score from Jonny Greenwood and ends, despite the dedication of the film to Robert Altman, with an obvious visual and classical musical homage to the great director, Stanley Kubrick. Because of its originality, creativity, and thrilling performances, “There Will Be Blood” is one of the best films in years. A (4/12/08)

“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”-Based on the Broadway musical by the great Stephen Sondheim, “Sweeney Todd” is about a young barber named Benjamin Barker who is taken from his beautiful wife and daughter by the evil and lascivious Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) and shipped out of England. When he returns many years later, he is a dark, cynical and brooding man who calls himself Sweeney Todd (Johnny Depp), intent on returning to Fleet Street where he will eventually find a new companion, Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), baker of rather revolting meat pies. When Mrs. Lovett tells Todd that his wife has killed herself, while their daughter, Johanna, has become Judge Turpin’s ward, Todd plans revenge. Stephen Sondheim’s briilliant musicals have explored a variety of subjects from the problems of aging Broadway couples (“Follies”), to the social problems of a single New York man with married friends (“Company”) and 19th Century Swedes (“A Little Night Music”), to artistic creativity (“Sunday In the Park With George”). But there is a darker side to some of Sondheim’s musicals, such as his exploration of the character of people intent on murdering presidents (“Assassins”). “Sweeney Todd” fits into the latter mold as a horror story with a score of haunting but humorous melodies about a man who slits the throats of his customers while Mrs. Lovett turns them into popular meat pies. Directed by Tim Burton who seems to thrive on dark and bizarre tales, and with songs sung by previously non-singing actors, “Sweeney Todd” does a good job of portraying the sinister London hatred that has descended on the vengeful Mr. Todd. Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter are quite effective as the murderous pair, certainly sounding adequate performing Sondheim’s memorable songs. Alan Rickman, as usual, provides the right mood for playing the nasty and condescending Judge Turpin. Also of note are Timothy Spall, in a part similar to that he played in “Enchanted” (see immediately below) as Beadle Bamford, Judge Turpin’s henchman; Sacha Baron Cohen (“Borat”), doing a quite funny turn as the ill-fated fake, Signor Adolfo Pirelli; Jamie Campbell Bower as the young, wide-eyed Anthony Hope who falls for Johanna; and young Ed Sanders as Toby, in the part of a character who was named Tobias Ragg in the original and who was played by an adult. “Sweeney Todd” contains several scenes of bloody violence, but in the context of a musical, they seemed surreal and not particularly frightening. B+ (4/5/08)

“Enchanted”-This is the tale of a young Snow-Whitish/Sleeping Beautyish/Cinderellaish young thing called Giselle, who, as a cartoon character, falls for the handsome prince and immediately finds herself thrown down a well by the evil Queen in the form of an old hag, only to land in the middle of Times Square in real-life New York. Followed by the prince (James Marsden) and the Queen’s evil henchman, Nathaniel (Timothy Spall), Giselle (Amy Adams) wanders and ponders New York before she is rescued and taken in by a handsome young but skeptical lawyer, Robert (Patrick Dempsey), and his daughter, Morgan (Rachel Covey). Ultimately, the Queen (Susan Sarandon) will follow with the classic poisoned apples and lots of mayhem ensues. With a fine cast led by the beautiful and delightful Amy Adams, “Enchanted” is about how Giselle gradually is changed by real-life experiences from a simplistic cartoon character into a woman with real interests and desires. The novelty of the film, which has the usual sugar-coated musical numbers, including an extravagant production in Central Park, is that Disney is spoofing its own ultra-sweet animated films for children. B (4/4/08)

Return to top