This page contains reviews posted during the months of July to September 2008


“The Witnesses”-Directed by longtime French director, André Téchiné, this interesting film takes place in 1984 and centers around a somewhat troubled couple played by Emmanuelle Béart as Sarah, who is a writer of children’s books but an unhappy new mother, and her police detective husband, Mehdi (Sami Bouajila, seen recently in the first-rate “Indigènes”), who we soon discover is bisexual. They are friends with an older gay doctor, Adrien (Michel Blanc), who has brought his young gay friend, Manu (Johan Libéreau), into their lives to complicate things. But what really gets in the way and disrupts all is the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic. André Téchiné does a fine job of turning a potentially depressing tale into an interesting story of the couple’s difficulties because of their sexual experimentation and the loyalty of friends. (In French with English subtitles) B (9/28/08)

“The Host”-I’m not usually a fan of monster films, but I’d heard some good things about “The Host,” a Korean film about a family battling a sea monster along the Han River in Seoul. What makes “The Host” a little different is that the film has a sense of humor and a little bit of a message. A grandfather (Hie-bong Byon), his slightly addled red-headed son Gang-Du (Kang-Ho Song), and Gang-Du’s young teen daughter, Hyun-Seo (Ah-sung Ko), members of the Park family, run a foodstand along the shore of the Han River where locals come to relax and enjoy the view and the sun. One fine day is rudely interrupted when a monster emerges from the river and starts gathering people, including Hyun-Seo, and dropping them into an inescapable sewer across the river. In typical fashion, the authorities emerge to do more damage than the monster by scaring everyone about a virus that has supposedly come from the monster. Despite being held captive by the authorities, Gang-Du receives a cell phone call from Hyun-Seo (otherwise believed killed by the monster), and tries to convince his captors that his daughter is alive. The remainder of the film is the battle of the Park family, including another son and an archery-expert daughter, Nam-Joo (Du-na Bae), to find and save Hyun-Seo. “The Host” is a fine film simply because the members of the family are an appealing bunch and real, and the monster is sufficiently scary and yet not so overwhelming that the film descends into absurdity. On top of that, “The Host” is beautifully filmed and certainly gives us a deep understanding of the waterways and sewers beneath the bridges of Seoul. (In Korean with English subtitles) B+ (9/27/08)

“The Counterfeiters”-This is a rather startling World War II film, based on real events, about a Jewish master counterfeiter, Sally Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics). After being arrested for his criminal activities, Sorowitsch is placed in a concentration camp. But when the leader of the camp turns out to be Sturmbannführer Friedrich Herzog (David Striesow), the man who had originally arrested him and is familiar with his talents, a decision is made by the Germans to utilize Sorowitsch and a group of other Jewish printing experts and concentration camp inmates to counterfeit British pounds and US dollars. Ultimately, “The Counterfeiters,” based on the book by one of the men, Adolf Burger (August Diehl), concerns the moral dilemma the men face when they realize that by not helping the Nazis they will likely die and that by doing what the Nazis have requested, they are collaborating in aiding the German war effort. Karl Markovics, an Austrian actor, is powerful as the reticent Sorowitsch who, although having spent his life in illegal activities, has not forgotten his humanity. David Striesow is impressive as the German officer who must encourage, cajole, and threaten the members of the camp counterfeiting ring. August Diehl also provides a memorable performance as Burger, a former activist who is willing to sacrifice himself by refusing to serve the Nazis. This film won the Oscar for best foreign language film. (In German with English subtitles) A- 9/20/08

“Water Lillies”-The orginal title of this pretentious French film about the sexual awakening of teenage girls is “Naissance des pieuvres” or “Birth of Octopuses.” That should give you some idea of the intentions of the 20-something female director, Céline Sciamma. The film is about the summer activities of three young ladies, approximately age 15 or 16, who appear to be utterly unsupervised (there is not a parent or relative in sight). Two, Anne (Louise Blachère), who is somewhat larger, gawkier, and less socially mature than the others, and Floriane (Adele Haenel), who is the sexpot of the trio, are synchronized swimmers. The third, Marie (Pauline Acquart), less physically developed than the other two, seems to take an interest in the pool activities, but it is obviously not the swimming that interests her. Ultimately, although I am certain that Ms. Sciamma had a point to make about the growing sexual curiosity and interests of teenage girls, I found the lack of any real semblance of plot made this film uncomfortable to watch and, in the end, rather aimless. (In French with English subtitles) C- (9/19/08)

“Chicago 10”-1968 was a tumultuous year, made even stranger by the events that surrounded the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Led by anti-war activists Abbie Hoffman, David Dellinger, Jerry Rubin, and Tom Hayden, among others, protestors descended on Chicago only to find that Mayor Richard Daley had turned the Windy City into a police state. The battles that ensued ultimately led to one of the weirdest trials (of the protest leaders) in American history overseen by Judge Julius Hoffman, who was so overtly biased for the prosecution that it was impossible to imagine a fair trial. “Chicago 10,” through vintage scenes of the gathering of the protestors and the battle in the streets, as well as animated scenes of the trial itself, attempts to portray the events and mood of the times. Just listening to the treatment of the defendants at the trial, voiced by well-known actors, including Hank Azaria, Nick Nolte, Mark Ruffalo, and Roy Scheider, who read the literal statements of the parties from the transcript, is sufficiently surreal to make the film’s point. B- (9/14/08)

“The Life Before Her Eyes”-Based on the novel by Laura Kasischke, and beautifully filmed at recognizable locations in Connecticut (including sites in New Haven and Fairfield Counties), director Vadim Perelman (whose only other film was the successful “House of Sand and Fog”) presents a psychological thriller that has just a few too many bumps and curves. We learn about the young Diana (Evan Rachel Wood), a sexy and rebellious high school senior, who is befriended by a much straighter classmate, Maureen (Eva Amurri, the beautiful daughter of Susan Sarandon). The two spend a great deal of time together talking about their lives and their futures until they are confronted in the girls’ bathroom at the school by a Columbine-like killer who presents them with a “Sophie’s Choice” of sorts: that he will kill only one of them and they have to choose. And we are taken 15 years into the future where an older Diana (played by Uma Thurman) is married to a professor and has a young daughter, Emma, but is obviously psychologically scarred by the events of 15 years earlier. Maureen is nowhere to be seen. Obviously, the mystery is what ultimately happened in the bathroom and the filmmakers are not about to let you know until the very end. If you watch closely though, there are hints throughout the film of what’s to come. My problem with “The Life Before Her Eyes” is that the journey to the end is so filled with flash-forwards and flashbacks between the life of the young Diana and the older Diana, that the story becomes a jumble of confusing and repetitious scenes. So much so that even at the end I wasn’t absolutely certain what had happened. But reviewing the events and script hints, it all came clear. Evan Rachel Wood is right-on as the lovely but mixed-up teen, and Uma Thurman is effective as the psychologically scarred older version of Diana, although there is a disconnect in the fact that the two actresses really don’t resemble each other besides being blonde. With a cleaner script and presentation, I suspect this could have been a very successful film. Instead, it doesn’t deserve more than a C+ (9/5/08)

“Redbelt”-Writer-director David Mamet thrives on stories about clever deceptions, double-crosses, and greed (think “House of Games,” “The Spanish Prisoner,” and “Heist”). In “Redbelt,” he tells the tale of Mike Terry (the appealing and impressive Chiwetel Ejiofor), a jujitsu instructor who is very good at what he does but doesn’t make much money. His Brazilian wife, Sondra (Alice Braga), who has her own clothing business, is annoyed at his financial situation and lets him know it. The film begins with a bizarre rain-filled visit to his jujitsu studio by a seemingly crazed young woman (Emily Mortimer) who has just knicked his car outside the studio, and who freaks out and fires a weapon when she is innocently touched by Joe Collins, a police officer and Terry’s prize pupil. Suffice it to say that this event sets in motion a series of events that wind up with Terry being easily manipulated by a Hollywood actor, Chet Frank (Tim Allen), and a coterie of ultra-manipulative hangers-on, into joining a jujitsu fight card that Terry ultimately suspects smells to high heaven. Terry seems like a pretty smart guy and so it’s a little disappointing when we see how easily his ego is employed by the manipulators and some seeeming friends into acting against his own self-interest. “Redbelt” has the staccato tone of a typical Mamet script, and includes a group of regular Mamet stars, including his wife, Rebecca Pidgeon (who seems to have made a career of appearing primarily in films or TV shows directed or written by her husband), Joe Mantegna, Ricky Jay, and David Paymer. The film has a satisfying but somewhat surreal ending that takes place just outside the fight ring. B- (9/4/08)

“Smart People”-The problem with “Smart People” is that it’s about unhappy people and it’s hard to make a comedy about such characters. Dennis Quaid plays Lawrence Wetherhold, a tenured professor of English in Pittsburgh who is a miserable grouch who has never gotten over the death of his wife, and takes it out on the world in general, including his students. He lives with his brilliant but miserable teenage daughter Vanessa, played by Ellen Page (doing a fine job but who needs to break out of these snippy smart-mouthed teenager roles before she is fatally typecast). There is also the little-seen student son James (Ashton Holmes) of whom Lawrence seems almost oblivious, especially with regard to his burgeoning talents as a writer. Into this family situation comes Chuck (the appealing Thomas Haden Church), Lawrence’s disliked brother-by-adoption, who initially seems hopeless but eventually shows more maturity than his brother by, among other things, encouraging Vanessa, a stiff-lipped Young Republican, to have some fun. Finally, there is Dr. Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker), an attractive doctor who takes a difficult to fathom interest in Lawrence, her former English professor, despite his serious flaws and her own romantic difficulties. Dennis Quaid overdoes the grouch early on to such an extent that the film feels uncomfortable, and even at the end it’s apparent that he hasn’t quite had a sufficient metamorphosis despite the expected upbeat ending (which occurs mostly behind the closing titles). C+ (8/31/08)

“Protagonist”-This documentary concerns four men who seemingly have little in common, but it’s ultimately demonstrated that their adult lives were shaped to some extent by traumatic events in their youth. The filmmaker, Jessica Yu, uses her husband, the writer Mark Salzman, who tells of growing up in Connecticut as a kid who was frequently picked on by others, and who found inspiration in David Carradine’s TV Kung Fu portrayal. Salzman eventually decided to learn martial arts but chose a jerky and abusive teacher and then rejected it when he matured into the Chinese scholar and writer he became. Unfortunately, Salzman’s story, though well told, was the least compelling of the four in terms of the theme. The others are Mark Pierpont, a gay man who found himself as the “black sheep” of his family as a youth and then tried to reject his homosexuality by turning himself into a fanatic evangelical preacher; Joe Loya, a Mexican-American who, having been beaten by an abusive father in LA, emulated him by abusing others physically and mentally as a bank robber, before an epiphany turned him into a commentator/writer using his intellect; and Hans-Joachim Klein, whose mother died in a concentration camp although his father was a Nazi sympathizer, and became a young German terrorist in league with Carlos the Jackal, ultimately being involved in several deaths in a 1975 attack on OPEC officials in Vienna before realizing that what he was doing was useless and absurd. The film's use of puppetry and Greek philosophy to offset the four stories unfortunately seemed more amateurish than impressive. In addition, the editing seemed questionable as the film jumped much too abruptly back and forth between the various protagonists and their stories, thus losing its punch. Ultimately, “Protagonist” was too contrived to be really effective. (Partly in German with English subtitles). C (8/30/08)

“Stop-Loss”-Kimberly Peirce (“Boys Don’t Cry”) directed this interesting anti-war, anti-Bush film about a group of Texas soldiers who are traumatized in Iraq by the death and destruction they witness, and then have to face their families, girlfriends, and wives. Ryan Phillippe is effective as Sgt. Brandon King, the leader of the group, but also the one who goes AWOL in anger and frustration when told, on the day that he thinks he’s getting out of the military, that he’s been “stop-lossed” and must return to Iraq. Although the pain of some of his comrades, including Tommy Burgess (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Steve Shriver (Channing Tatum) is revealed, it’s Brandon King who runs off, accompanied by the beautiful and tough Michelle (Abbie Cornish), who had been Steve Shriver’s girlfriend, on a hopeless journey to see a US Senator he thinks could help him. “Stop-Loss” effectively demonstrates the trauma and pain that American soldiers have experienced since the beginning of the Iraq war, made even worse for those who, as a result of small-print in their military service contracts, find that they have to return over and over to the dangers of Iraq. Abbie Cornish, who is Australian, plays the tough, gritty Texan, Michelle, to perfection. Also of note in the cast is Victor Rasuk (“Bonneville”) as the severely injured but still upbeat Pvt. Rico Rodriguez. B+ (8/29/08)

“Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day”-It seems a little strange to have a film about London in WW II populated by American stars, including Frances McDormand (Guinevere Pettigrew), Amy Adams (Delysia Lafosse), and Lee Pace (Michael Pardue), but director Bharat Nalluri just about pulls it off. Miss Pettigrew is a just-fired down and out servant sleeping in a train terminal, who cleverly walks right back into a job as Delysia Lafosse’s social secretary. Seems Delysia is living somewhat of a lie with three men in her life and her bed, each offering an important element of life (potential career, housing, and love). She needs direction which is provided by the almost-Mary Poppins-like Pettigrew. In this busy film about a single very active day, the very talented Frances McDormand and the very appealing Amy Adams work beautifully together to tell a funny but hectic story of love and confusion. And to top it off, the cast includes the debonair Ciarán Hinds (HBO’s “Rome”) as Joe Blumfield, a seemingly frivolous women’s underwear designer, who turns out to have real character, and Shirley Henderson (“Topsy-Turvy” and “Harry Potter”) as his nasty fiancé, Edythe Dubarry. “Miss Pettigrew” is good fun although it seemed a little more like a Masterpiece Theater television spot than a feature-length film. B+ (8/23/08)

“The Great Debaters”-Although it resembles those sports films about teams overcoming great adversity to reach a surprising pinnacle of success, “The Great Debaters” concentrates on a genuinely important theme: the wretched Jim Crow racism that pervaded the Southern States for decades after the Civil War, and the role education played in the battle to overcome the evils of this virulent hatred. The film is based on the true story of little Wiley College of Marshall, Texas, and its 1935 debating team directed by the confident and opinionated Professor Melvin B. Tolson (Denzel Washington, who also directed). Tolson, a poet and scholar, chooses the real-life 14-year old James Farmer, Jr., who was later one of the founders of the Congress of Racial Equality (Denzel Whitaker), and the fictional Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett), and the smooth but somewhat hot-tempered Henry Lowe (Nate Parker). A left-winger, Tolson gets himself into hot water with the right wing Texas legal authorities due to his efforts to organize farm workers in rural Texas, but ultimately brilliantly leads the debate team to success and to a prized invitation to debate the national champion Harvard Crimson (in real life, it was the team from the University of Southern California). This is one of Denzel Washington’s finest performances as he exudes confidence and leadership in carrying out Tolson's important goals. Young Denzel Whitaker (who happens to be named after the star and director) is impressive as the team researcher and later lead debater in the Harvard debate, and Nate Parker and Jurnee Smollett do a fine job as brilliant members of the team whose attraction to each other gets in the way. In addition. Forest Whitaker is, as always, impressive as James Farmer, Sr., a preacher and black leader in this small east Texas town. B+ (8/15/08)

“The Bank Job”-This British heist film is based on the true story of the 1971 so-called Baker Street Robbery, although the apparent involvement of British national security and the imposition of a special national security notice quieting the press, makes it impossible to determine the accuracy of most of the details. Suffice it to say that “The Bank Job” involves photographs taken of a British royal in a very compromising situation, and which happen to be stored in a safe deposit box of a Lloyd’s Bank branch on Baker St., by Michael X, a black leader from Trinidad. When national security agents are told that they cannot officially break in to the bank to retrieve the photos, they arrange for the hiring of a gang of thieves to do the job although the gang has no idea that the real purpose of their illegal activity is to retrieve the photos. Not only are the walkie-talkie communications between the robbers and a lookout picked up by a nearby ham radio operator making identifications of the thieves a lot easier, but the safe deposit boxes in the bank are also loaded with questionable materials involving a madam, porn filmmakers, and payoffs to corrupt police. As a result, the members of the gang find themselves in the middle of a genuine murderous mess while they attempt to negotiate they’re way out. “The Bank Job” has a low key script, an excellent cast, and is full of clever twists and turns as directed by Roger Donaldson (“The World’s Fastest Indian” and “No Way Out”). Jason Statham is tough and self-confident as Terry Leather, a garage owner with a lovely wife (Keeley Hawes) and two children, who is lured into setting up the heist by the beautiful and mysterious Martine Love (Saffron Burrows), a childhood friend. who has been blackmailed by a national security agent into arranging this deal. Others of note in the cast are Stephen Campbell Moore (“The History Boys”) as gang member Kevin Swaine; Peter Bowles (“To The Manor Born” and the “Rumpole” series) as Miles Urquhart, a high level national security official; and David Suchet (TV’s Hercule Poirot) as Lew Vogel, a rather smooth-talking but nasty porn producer. “The Bank Job” involves a rather complicated plot and the British filmmakers could have made a real hash of it, including lots of Hollywood special effects, but they decided to concentrate on presenting the story in a down-to-earth fashion and the result is very effective. B+ (8/9/08)

“The Band’s Visit”-The basic premise of this film is the arrival in Israel of a stiff-looking blue-uniformed Egyptian police ceremonial “orchestra” who are there to perform at a new Arab cultural center, only to find themselves stranded at the airport. I thought this was going to be a comedy of sorts about Arab-Israeli relations, but instead, when the band takes a bus and finds itself in the wrong small town in the desert, “The Band’s Visit” turns into a touching, if slightly uncomfortable, tale about loneliness and the need to connect. Sasson Gabai plays the band’s leader, Lieutenant Colonel Tawfiq Zacharya, an officious and reticent man who finds himself being hosted for the night by the intriguing and beautiful Dina (Ronit Elkabetz), the owner of a local diner of sorts. When all realize that there is no bus until morning, Dina takes in both Tawfiq and Haled (Saleh Bakri), a young, attractive, and flirtatious band member, for the night. Filmmaker Eran Kolirin provides a twist when he has the obviously lonely Dina aim her interest at the older Tawfiq, instead of the younger Haled, when they go out for a night “on the town.” “The Band’s Visit” is loaded with eccentric but real characters and there is no effort to glamorize life in a remote Israeli town. The discomfort of those band members suddenly dropped into an alien location and the locals who find themselves providing food and shelter could almost be cut with a knife. The leads (both Israeli and Palestinian actors) are very effective and Ronit Elkabetz, a star in Israel, is memorable as the needy but sexy Dina. (In Hebrew and Arabic—and some English—with English subtitles) B+ (8/8/08)

“Shine a Light”-This is one of Martin Scorsese’s documentary films about rock groups (see “The Last Waltz” for probably his best effort), but it is really one of the most beautifully filmed rock concerts ever made, and it’s about the eternal greatest rock band ever, the Rolling Stones. Scorsese doesn’t really succeed in creating a documentary, starting out trying to make it look like the Stones gave him a hard time setting up the shoot, and he does manage to insert a few very old interviews in which the young Jagger is seen being asked over and over about how long he expected to go on, and even was asked whether he expected to be doing “this” at age 60. The ever confident Jagger answered “yes.” The tireless Mick Jagger, who is now 65, continues to rock like he’s 20. Leading the Stones in this concert at the Beacon Theater in New York City, Jagger gyrates and wiggles all over the stage, completely dominating the image and the sound, well at least when Keith Richards isn’t on the screen. Band members Charlie Watts and Ronnie Wood, unfortunately, are seen only as occasional background characters. However, Christina Aguilera in incredible stiletto heels, provides some additional oomph when she joins Jagger for a really hot “Live With Me.” And at the end, Jagger makes everyone (well, at least me) happy by performing “Brown Sugar” and “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.” Forget Scorsese’s “documentary” attempt; this is simply one great Stones concert. B+ (8/2/08)

“The Year My Parents Went on Vacation”-Imagine that at age 12 you were happy and enjoying yourself when suddenly your parents, looking frightened and in a panicky rush, tell you that they are leaving on vacation and taking you to stay with your elderly paternal grandfather. They are in so much of a rush that they leave you on the street near the grandfather’s apartment and never bother to check to see if he is there. It is Brazil in 1970 and this is what happens to Mauro (Michel Joelsas) who finds himself alone in a Jewish neighborhood in São Paulo, when it turns out that his grandfather Mótel, who was Jewish, has just died. At the same time, the country is caught up in excitement over the World Cup in which Brazil is a major factor, and is being run by a right-wing dictatorship which is cracking down on leftists. Mauro is taken in by a very reluctant elderly Jewish man, Shlomo (Germano Haiut), and by the community, but the boy, despite distractions from neighborhood children and the soccer matches, waits seemingly eternally for his parents to return. “The Year My Parents Went on Vacation” alternates between moments of friendship and distraction and moments of despair as Mauro finds it difficult to pull himself away from the phone and his late grandfather’s apartment in hopes that he will be there when his folks return. Directed by Cao Hamburger, the film ultimately is more morose than hopeful and that made it difficult to watch at times. Young Michel Joelsas does a wonderful job as the abandoned boy and Germano Haiut is touching as the elderly man who finds himself more and more attached to the young boy. One of the finest performances comes from 11-year-old Daniela Piepszyk, as Hanna, a young girl who runs a peeping-tom business for neighborhood boys in the back of her mother’s clothing store, and charmingly befriends Mauro. (In Portuguese and Yiddish, with English subtitles) B (7/27/08)

“The Other Boleyn Girl”-Although telling a little known tale of 16th Century history, the story of Mary Boleyn (Scarlett Johansson), the sister of Anne Boleyn (Natalie Portman), “The Other Boleyn Girl” fails to live up to the standards of so many of the great movies and TV series of the past about the Tudors in general and Henry VIII (Eric Bana) in particular. It seems that Mary (here the younger sister but who may have been older in real life) was a mistress of Henry VIII and is believed to have had one or two children with the king (even while already married to William Carey (Benedict Cumberbatch)). This film does do a fairly decent job of demonstrating how upper class women were treated as utter pawns, sexually and otherwise, in the political struggles of the Tudor age. Used in as cynical a manner as possible for political gain by their father, Sir Thomas (Mark Rylance), and their uncle, Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk (David Morrissey), the two sisters rise to the occasion and manage to battle each other in their attempts to gain the affections of old Henry, with the well known unfortunate result for poor Anne. Sadly for what could have been a bright new look at Henry's reign and behind-the-scenes manipulations, the script is weak and lacking in dramatic innovation. As is often the case in such tales, the story is loaded with historical inaccuracies, but worse, it skips over or gives barely a mention to some very significant details (such as Henry’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon). In addition, some of the acting, especially that of Natalie Portman, is overdone or lackluster. Jim Sturgess ("Across The Universe") seems more like a sad sack as George Boleyn, than the brother of the two lovers of the king. and a part of the scheming Boleyn/Howard family. Of note in the cast is Kristin Scott Thomas as Mary and Anne's mother, and Ana Torrent as the angry Katherine of Aragon. The whole thing comes across as a costumed soap opera producing just a few too many yawns. C (7/26/08)

“Mamma Mia!”-When the Broadway play “Mamma Mia” opened, I thought it was a joke. Silly costumes and plot and oh those ABBA songs! Never had any plans to see it, but when the movie version was announced and it was clear that it would star Meryl Streep and be filmed in the Greek Islands, I had a different reaction. I’m going to have to see it because it sounds like fun. Well, if you enjoy musical production numbers and are not turned off by the music of ABBA, this movie turns out to be something of a joy. It’s unrestrained, over-the-top, overacted and yet delightful, especially because of the enthusiasm of the cast members who looked like they were having a great time amid the gorgeous Mediterranean and Greek scenery. Meryl Streep, doing another of her many incarnations as an actor, truly vamps it up as Donna, a single middle-aged woman who operates a somewhat rundown hotel on a Greek island, and whose daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is getting married to Sky (Dominic Cooper of “The History Boys”). Sophie, 20 years old, has never been told who her father is When she discovers her mother’s diary, it leads her to the idea that one of three men is her father. And so she invites Sam (Pierce Brosnan), Bill (Stellan Skarsgård), and Harry (Colin Firth) to the wedding without telling her mother. As you can imagine, things get very lively. “Mamma Mia” is pretty much non-stop music. The ABBA songs seem to fit perfectly although there were moments when I wished the characters would just stop for a moment and talk rather than burst into song. Christine Baranski and Julie Walters are hysterical as Donna’s friends who had performed with her years earlier. Baranski has one number that almost outdoes everything else in the film and that’s saying a lot. At the heart of the film, though, is Amanda Seyfried (“Big Love”) who is so gorgeous she glows, has a lovely voice, and a presence that indicates stardom. Pierce Brosnan, Stellan Skarsgård, and Colin Firth join in the fun, with Brosnan especially right in there singing away and doing a good job even with a limited voice. Incidentally, don’t walk out when the story ends. There's a production number during the titles that must not be missed. Theater. A- (7/20/08)

“I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With”-Jeff Garlin (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”) is from Chicago and was once a member of Second City. He’s also married with two children and is successful in Hollywood. His character in this strangely titled light indie film, James Aaron, is similar but hardly as successful in life. He lives in Chicago with his mother (Mina Kolb), is overweight, works for Second City, and has trouble relating to women. Written and directed by Garlin, “I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With” is a contemplation of the life of a nice man who isn’t really unhappy but who wouldn’t mind if things in his life were more satisfying, especially if he could lose weight, have a more exciting career, and get involved with a woman. James walks around town, chats with friends and acquaintances and snacks while sitting on his car parked, seemingly permanently, next to Wrigley Field. And then both his professional and love life take a wrong turn. Co-starring the bitingly funny Sarah Silverman and the appealing Bonnie Hunt, “I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With” is like a sample of food served at the grocery store. It’s just a starter. The real meal comes later. B- (7/18/08)

“Bella”-This is the story of Joe (Eduardo Verástegui), a young man working as a chef in his brother’s restaurant who decides to chase after Nina (Tammy Blanchard), the young woman his brother has just fired for being late. Joe, who is of Mexican descent and is handsome but heavily bearded, was seen earlier in the movie clean shaven and on his way to sign a big soccer contract. So what’s happened to change his life? Before we find out, we follow Joe and Nina around New York as they converse and relate to each other, ultimately going out to Long Island to have dinner with Joe’s family. Does this sound dull? Well, maybe, but the two actors are delightful and the dialogue is just right as we discover that Nina is pregnant and doesn’t want the child. Alejandro Gomez Monteverde, director and co-screenwriter, has produced a gem of an indie film and even cast his beautiful wife, Ali Landry, in a small but important part. Some have argued that the film is pro-choice or pro-life. Frankly, although it’s about a pregnant woman considering an abortion, the real life of the film is the humanity demonstrated by the two main characters and by Joe’s mother (Angélica Aragón) and father (Jaime Tirelli). A lovely movie about human beings. B+ (7/13/08)

“Bonneville”-There are far too few major films for middle-age female stars. Obviously, most big flicks these days are either action movies or romances, and that leaves out actresses like Jessica Lange unless they can find a good script which tells an interesting story about female characters. “Bonneville” tries hard but doesn’t quite succeed because the script just isn’t distinct or witty enough. Jessica Lange plays Arvilla, a recent widow in Pocatello, Idaho, who wants to spread her late husband’s ashes to the winds as he desired, but his rich snotty daughter Francine (Christine Baranski) (from a previous marriage and almost the same age as Arvilla), has other ideas. She demands that Arvilla bring the ashes to Santa Barbara, CA, for burial or lose the house, owned by Francine, in which Arvilla lived with her husband. Arvilla, accompanied by two fellow Mormon friends, Margene (Kathy Bates) and Carol (Joan Allen), starts out in her late husband’s old Pontiac Bonneville convertible with plans to drive to the airport and fly to Santa Barbara. But Arvilla decides to make it into a road trip and the three begin one of those proverbial journeys of discovery. Traveling through beautiful western scenery (almost a cliché these days for road trip films), the three women meet a few characters along the way, including young Bo (Victor Rasuk of “Raising Victor Vargas”), and the much older Emmett (Tom Skerritt), a truck driver who finds the single Margene to be of great interest. “Bonneville” is a pleasant entertainment, but not much more. There are humorous angles, including Carol’s uptight Mormon principles (against drinking coffee and alcohol, and gambling) which ease little by little as the adventure continues, and Arvilla’s desire to grant her late husband’s wishes at the same time she complies with Francine’s demands. But ultimately, the trip is unmemorable. Of the three women, Kathy Bates stands out for her delight in playing a fun-loving character like Margene. Joan Allen, who has tremendous versatility, including playing a tough FBI agent in the “Bourne” films, does a workmanlike job as the wispy uptight Mormon wife who learns to let down her hair and have a little fun. Jessica Lange plays her character as a little spacy and airheaded and this is unforunate as a more interesting portrayal of the widow might have enhanced the value of this film. B- (7/12/08)

“Definitely, Maybe”-A light romantic comedy which occasionally gets too close to real life (especially when it makes the 1992 Clinton campaign and Bill’s later political problems an important element of the story), “Definitely, Maybe” has some charms. Will Hayes (Ryan Reynolds) is in the process of getting a divorce when his young daughter Maya (Abigail Breslin), asks about how he and her mother met. Hayes is reluctant, but ultimately tells Maya the story of the three women who played a serious role in his love life (with names changed so that she-and we-have to guess which of the three is Maya’s mother, the ultimate point of the film). Will, desirous of a career in politics, comes to New York to join the Clinton campaign, and leaves behind his lovely college girlfriend Emily (Elizabeth Banks). He then meets the tough talking beautiful copy girl at headquarters, April Hoffman (Isla Fisher), and later winds up being involved with a truth-telling magazine writer, Summer Hartley (Rachel Weisz). Needless to say, the point is to figure out just who is Maya’s mother and which one Mr. Hayes will wind up with. Unfortunately, Ryan Reynolds just doesn’t have a great deal of charisma. He’s good looking, nice, and sincere, but the magic just doesn’t seem to be there. On the other hand, Abigail Breslin (who wowed us in “Little Miss Sunshine”) has done it again. The kid is a star. Of the three female adult stars, the one who stands out here is Isla Fisher, who can easily switch from charm to anger to apathy, all to keep us guessing, and all while looking great. Kevin Kline appears in an interesting role as a sarcastic hard-drinking political writer. “Definitely, Maybe” is for those who like romantic comedy. It would have felt more pleasant, though, if the politics had been fictional. B (7/6/08)

“Persepolis”-Every once in a while, a film comes along like this one that is a gem of unique creativity and tells an important story. Done mostly in beautiful black and white animated images, “Persepolis” is the story of the life and experiences of Marjane Satrapi (who co-wrote and directed the film), growing up in Iran under the Shah until his overthrow, under the regime of the Ayatollahs, and then during the Iran-Iraq war. While concentrating on Marjane, including her educational excursion to Vienna and life in Paris, “Persepolis,” through clever and gorgeous animated imagery conveys the history and horror of the Shah’s oppression and an even worse nightmare of repressive life under the succeeding religious regime. It’s also subtly political on other issues pointing out, for example, that the Iran-Iraq war was fed by the “west” (guess who?) which armed both sides. But “Persepolis” is primarily a dynamic personal story of a bright young woman forced out of her own land and culture who wound up living in a variety of circumstances, including in the streets of Vienna, and survived romantic failures and depression. The voices of the characters are effectively portrayed by Chiara Mastroianni as Marjane, Catherine Deneuve as Marjane’s mother, and Danielle Darrieux in the important role of Marjane’s grandmother. This is one animated film that is meant for adults and should not be missed. (In French with English subtitles) A (7/5/08)

“Vantage Point”-The film editors of “Vantage Point” probably deserve an Oscar because one can only imagine that it was an incredibly difficult undertaking. This thriller is about a presidential visit to Salamanca, Spain, in which all hell breaks loose when terrorists make an attempt on the life of the president. There are shootings, explosions, car chases, kidnappings, chases on foot, doublecrosses and on and on, all told from a variety of different perspectives. Approximately every 15 minutes, the images rewind and we’re taken back to the beginning of the story, each segment focusing on a different character until at long last we understand (or at least we have a general idea) what has occurred and who is who. Dennis Quaide does his usual workmanlike performance as Thomas Barnes, a Secret Service agent previously shot in an attempt on the life of the president (William Hurt). Now he is returning to action and he gets plenty of it. Forest Whitaker is amusing as Howard Lewis, an American tourist with a video camera, who, finding himself in the middle of an utter mess, never takes his finger off the camera button, and ultimately plays a significant heroic role. Others of note in the cast are the fairly stiff Matthew Fox as Barnes’ partner; Eduardio Noriega as a local cop who comes under suspicion; Edgar Ramirez as a somewhat reluctant terrorist; and Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer as Veronica, a woman at the heart of the plot. “Vantage Point” includes an amusing appearance by Sigourney Weaver as Rex Brooks, a cable news director, who finds herself dealing with a rebellious reporter, Angie Jones (Zoe Saldana). For the genres of thrillers and action movies, “Vantage Point” certainly has its merits. The actual plot and the motivations of the terrorists are a little murky, but the film is rather creative and original in its style. All in all, a decent film to view if you like thrillers and action movies. Otherwise, stay away. B (7/4/08)

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