This page contains reviews posted during the months of October to December 2008


“Ghost Town”-Most American “comedies” aren’t really that funny. Like so many, “Ghost Town” is based on a single joke and a silly one at that. Ricky Gervais (”The Office” and “Extras”) is Dr. Bertram Pincus, a misanthropic dentist in New York City who goes for a colonoscopy, “dies” on the operating table, is revived, and then, like the kid in “The Sixth Sense,” sees dead people everywhere. The joke, of course, is that this sour man, who dislikes interacting with people (he can stuff cotton in the mouths of his patients to shut them up), suddenly is confronted wherever he goes by ghosts asking for him to perform favors among the living. The lead ghost, for the purposes of the film, is Frank (Greg Kinnear) who had recently died (in one of those nauseating movie scenes of someone being suddenly smashed by a bus) and left behind a beautiful wife, Gwen (Téa Leoni). Frank is annoyed with Gwen’s new boyfriend and wants Dr. Pincus to make certain that she doesn’t marry him. Of course, it just happens that Gwen and Dr. Pincus live in the same building and Gwen has had a couple of unfortunate experiences in her interactions with the nasty and rude Dr. Pincus. Personality changes, romance, and hilarity (?) ensue. Well, the premise did have possibilities, especially when combined with Ricky Gervais’ rather unique monotonal/droll approach to character. But the film fails to follow-up, and we spend most of our time watching a rather unfunny and annoying dialogue between Frank and Dr. Pincus. The thought kept occurring to me that there must be plenty of yet untapped real-life situations as fodder for comedy scriptwriting. So can’t they do better than jokes involving the paranormal? Incidentally, the one really funny person in the film is Kristen Wiig (of “Saturday Night Live”) who plays a surgeon with a sprayed-on sun tan who has an uncanny knack for bumbling conversation. C+ (12/30/08)

“Hellboy II: The Golden Army”-Director Guillermo del Toro (”Pan’s Labyrinth”) obviously has a childlike but intelligent sensibility, plus an incredibly talented crew of makeup, special effects, and CGI magicians. He also has a sense of humor, and it’s that element that helps make this film about comic book paranormal creatures successful. The Johnny Winter-like Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) of the demon world decides to begin a war with the human race by releasing horrifying creatures (”tooth fairies”-- which, as he describes them to their future victims, are “the reason why you were afraid of the dark”) so that he can ultimately find and unleash a sleeping ultra-powerful golden army. Hellboy (Ron Perlman) and his pro-human otherworldly buddies, including the C3PO-like Abe Sapien (Doug Jones), his fiery girlfriend Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), and the rather funny Germanic gas-man Johann Krauss (voice of Seth McFarlane) leap into action to help Nuada’s decent twin sister, Princess Nuala (Anna Walton), save the world. Ron Perlman has just the right element of swagger in his Hellboy portrayal and the rest of the good guys are lighthearted enough that they are downright fun to watch. The film is loaded with astonishing special effects creatures that require one hell of cinema conjuring and creativity. As a general rule, I’m not overly fond of horror, fantasy, paranormal, and superhero films, but I’ll certainly give them a chance when made by superior artists of the film world. Guillermo del Toro is one of those. B+ (12/29/08)

“Up the Yangtze”-In the early 1990s, the Chinese government began an immense undertaking, the damming of the Yangtze River at Three Rivers Gorge. Many warned that this would result in an environmental and human disaster, but the dam was built nevertheless. Director Yung Chang, a Canadian, returns to China to see the land of his grandfather and finds it a very changed place. “Up the Yangtze” is an enlightening documentary about the effects of the completion of the dam on the local population, especially those living in the areas that were flooded, including the agonies resulting from the failure of corrupt local officials to provide appropriate transition aide. The documentary centers on the Yu family, a poor family living in a shack along the river. The parents are poor and illiterate and grow their own vegetables on land nearby in order to survive. The oldest daughter, who wanted an education, is instead sent to work on a Yangtze River cruise ship to earn money. The film is quite revealing about life on these cruise ships which serve primarily western tourists. The staff must speak English and are given westernized names so that the guests won’t have to worry about pronouncing Chinese names (the Yu’s daughter, Yu Shui, becomes “Cindy”). Initially tight-lipped and angry, Cindy ultimately prospers, learning improved hygiene, style and makeup techniques from her fellow crew members. But most importantly, by the time the family’s home is lost under the waters of the rising Yangtze, they are better dressed as they head for their new quarters, obviously having benefitted from Cindy’s labors. “Up the Yangtze” includes stunning timelapse images of the flooding due to the rising river waters. (In English and in Mandarin with English subtitles) B+ (12/28/08)

“A Girl Cut in Two”-This is a film by French director Claude Chabrol with a plot that raises too many questions about the characters’ behavior and motivations. While we all know that there is plenty of seemingly irrational behavior in the world, romantic or otherwise, we expect characters in films to have some logical basis for their behavior unless their irrationality is an essential part of the theme. Said to be inspired by the story of the turn-of-the-20th century New York murder of Architect Stanford White by Harry K. Thaw, which had the lovely chorus girl Evelyn Nesbit in the middle, “A Girl Cut in Two” concerns a puzzling triangle involving an older middle aged and married novelist, Charles Saint-Denis (Francois Berléand), a lovely 20-something TV weather reporter, Gabrielle Deneige (or Gabrielle Snow as she’s called in the subtitles) (Ludivine Sagnier), and a rich good-for-nothing, Paul Gaudens (Benoît Magimel), who demonstrates no redeeming social value whatsoever. As the story develops, Paul’s obsessive nasty, arrogant, and adolescent behavior becomes understandable since he is clearly unstable, something which is made even more obvious by later events and revelations. But the actions and choices of Charles and Gabrielle are hard to explain. Charles woos and conquers the gorgeous and loving Gabrielle Snow, the dream fantasy of just about any man his age, and then he inexplicably and cruelly freezes her out of his life after he had just celebrated her birthday by taking her to what was obviously a sex club of sorts. If her willingness to participate in the club’s business was a kind of failure in his eyes, providing some explanation for his wordless and sudden rejection of this beautiful and willing young woman, that explanation never appears in the script. The result of the novelist’s inexplicably boorish behavior is that Gabrielle turns to the aimless and vacuous Paul as if there were no other men in the world. These flaws in the logical motivations of the characters weaken the film which is otherwise supported by strong performances by the three leads. What’s worse is a strange and disconnected scene at the end that almost seems to want to make the metaphorical title of the film into a literal one. (In French with English subtitles) B- (12/26/08)

“Burn After Reading”-The Coen Brothers, Ethan and Joel, who collectively write and direct their own films, create movies with an edge. I doubt you’ll ever see a straightforward comedy, drama, or romance from them. “Burn After Reading” seems to have several hard edges and themes, including the angst of middle age and the questionable competence of the CIA, and involves a group of Washington area adults having career and romantic problems. Centering around what appears to be a computer disk containing intelligence secrets that turns up at Hardbodies, a gym where Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) and Chad Feldheimer (a very funny Brad Pitt) work, and attempts by the two to blackmail the source, Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich), a former CIA analyst, or sell it to the Russians, “Burn After Reading” eviscerates the intelligence community mentality and competence (and the public perception of the way that community functions) while also exploring the marital problems of almost all the characters who seem to be sleeping with or somehow connected to each other. George Clooney plays Harry Pfarrer, a loquacious and very insecure married government employee who is seeking something (love?) from a variety of women, including Cox’s wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), a very up-tight and unhappy physician. The consequence of all their interactions is a classic Coen Brothers black comedy which should be a spectacular success considering the themes and the cast, but isn’t. Ultimately, the film fails to achieve that success because it involves mostly unpleasant, sometimes loquacious, characters who are hard to root for since they are either much too dumb or utterly self-centered. And simply because it’s just too over-the-top. Of note in the cast are Richard Jenkins (”The Visitor”) as the manager of Hardbodies who seems to like the lovelorn Linda, but she never notices, and David Rasche as a CIA official who has the difficult and funny job of explaining the inexplicable events to a higher official played by J. K. Simmons. B- (12/24/08)

“Hancock”-Whereas Batman’s angst was considered a significant element of “The Dark Knight,” I found a somewhat more interesting premise in the cynicism and angst of John Hancock (Will Smith), a down-and-out alcoholic who just happens to have superhero powers (he can fly, is awfully strong, and can withstand bullets). Hancock (a nurse asked him for his “John Hancock” at a time when he had lost his memory), likes to save people but couldn’t care less about the incidental damage (in the millions) that he causes by destroying property. As a result, the D.A. wants to put him in jail and the public would be happy to see it happen despite the heroics. Then along comes Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman), a P.R. man who is saved by Hancock and decides to save him in return by turning him into a popular hero. But we know something is fishy when Ray introduces Hancock to his beautiful wife, Mary (Charlize Theron), their eyes lock, and you can feel the electricity between the two. There’s either a sexual connection or a history, or both. “Hancock” is fun for its unusual premise of having a bum for a superhero. Will Smith, as always, exudes charm even when he’s being nasty. Jason Bateman does a fine job as the man in the middle. And Charlize Theron, as usual, is dynamite as the gorgeous wife with an unusual secret. Notable in the cast is Eddie Marsan who plays a bad guy who thinks he’s very clever, but whose hands are eventually outplayed. B+ (12/23/08)

“Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson”-Hunter S. Thompson was a complex man. He came from Kentucky, had some problems with the law, doesn’t seem to have gone past high school, but could write and began a career as a sincere and earnest journalist who obviously tended to favor progressive points of view while at the same time was a gun fanatic who eventually stored many loaded guns in his home in Woody Creek, Colorado. He got caught up in the drug culture of the late 1960s and when artist Ralph Steadman joined him in his efforts, they created the so-called “gonzo journalism” that carried him to fame. He wrote about the Hell’s Angels, the 1972 presidential campaign, his view of our culture as reflected in life in Las Vegas, and a multitude of other subjects that became books or Rolling Stone articles. And despite a rather interesting life and a multitude of interesting and famous friends and acquaintances, two marriages, and a son, he eventually took his life by shooting himself after making it clear to his friends and loved ones that that was exactly the way he was going to go. This documentary by Alex Gibney (“Taxi to the Dark Side”) does an outstanding job of introducing us to this rather unusual man who contributed quite a bit to the literature of American society (and even became a character in "Doonesbury") from the late 1960s until his decline and ultimate death in 2005. With narration and readings by Johnny Depp, who played Thompson (Duke) in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” the film presents commentary by Thompson’s wives, particularly Sondi Wright, his first wife, and others who knew him, including Pat Buchanan, Sonny Barger of the Hell’s Angels, Douglas Brinkley, Jimmy Buffett, Ralph Steadman, and Jimmy Carter. My reaction to “Gonzo” is that I really didn’t know Hunter S. Thompson before, but now I have a much clearer idea of what he and "Gonzo" were all about. B+ (12/22/08)

“Encounters at the End of the World”-Like he did in the fascinating documentary “Grizzly Man,” Director/Narrator Werner Herzog wanted answers to some unusual questions, this time about Antarctica and the world, especially after seeing magnificent images of underwater explorations by a friend. So off he went with cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger to McMurdo Station. With occasional otherworldly music in the background, Herzog introduces us to McMurdo, a place of ugly buildings, gigantic buses, mud, and earth-moving tractors; life-preserving training methods in case of whiteouts; a cast of fascinating characters; and the incredible beauty of the continent and the South Pole, whether above ground or below the sea. While trying to learn the nature of the inhabitants, Herzog finds mostly highly educated people who are willing to do manual labor to live and experience this strange part of the world. One man described them as people at “loose ends” who fall to the South Pole. One of the more disturbing moments comes when an Antarctic scientist states unequivocally that the human race is doomed and that the scientists at the Antarctic have already set up an underground memorial for the human race deep in an ice tunnel that will not thaw, so that some future alien race that arrives on the lifeless planet will know about the intelligent creatures who once lived here. Herzog doesn’t get the answers to all his questions, but he provides us with an incredible and beautiful meditation on a part of the world that few experience. Recommended. A- (12/20/08)

“Milarepa”-It’s not every day that we get to see a film made by a Tibetan Monk and especially one that brings reminders of themes from films as diverse as “Kung Fu Panda” and “Mongol.” Neten Chokling’s “Milarepa” is an homage to a great 11th-12th Century monk named Milarepa who was born as Thopaga into a wealthy family. When Thopaga’s father dies while the boy is still young, the father turns over his estate to Thopaga’s uncle and aunt to protect all until Thopaga is old enough to marry. Not surprisingly, the uncle and aunt are greedy and selfish and treat Thopaga and his mother miserably, ultimately depriving them of Thopaga’s inheritance. As a fairly undistinguished teen, Thopaga is sent by his mother to study sorcery in order to gain revenge and he eventually succeeds, in fact so well that he learns to regret his evil deeds and to begin contemplating the benefits of the teachings of Buddha. There the film ends with a promise of a sequel in 2009 about Milarepa’s enlightenment. Made in a valley on the border of India and Tibet, “Milarepa” is lovingly filmed and sufficiently well acted to provide a deep sense of life in this ancient time and alien world. Although the portions of the story dealing with sorcery are humorous, the ultimate realization by Thopaga of the futility of vengeance is powerful. “Milarepa” is certainly not a film for everyone, but anyone curious about the history of cultures alien to ours, the foundings of Buddhism, and life in 11th Century Tibet should see this film. In Tibetan with English subtitles. B+ (12/19/08)

“The Dark Knight”-With direction by Christopher Nolan who made the wonderful “Memento,” “The Dark Knight” gave promise of being something special as a new Batman film. And it certainly had its share of praise. Some had even called it the best picture of the year! What first hit my eye was the very obvious choice by the filmmakers to use real scenery rather than the ultra-cartoonish dark and bleak Gotham of past Batman films, a place that seemed never to see the sun. In fact, “The Dark Knight” gets off to a rousing James Bondish start, including a surreal and clever bank robbery by clown-faced men and an excursion by Batman to Hong Kong with all the special effect trappings one would expect. In addition, the film includes such a first-rate cast that I couldn’t imagine what could go wrong. But it does go very wrong and turns into an extended convoluted mess of a film that seriously needed a better script and some very good editing. This time Batman/Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is having serious feelings of guilt about his continuing efforts as a vigilante, while a mad painted-faced terrorist, The Joker (Heath Ledger), demands that Batman reveal his identity or people will die, and die they do. It seems that the D.A., Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), with the aid of police official James Gordon (Gary Oldman), has been doing a great job of rounding up and prosecuting Gotham’s criminal element, a mob whose assets have been stolen by The Joker. But The Joker, who cares little about money, upsets the entire apple cart with his diabolical efforts to unmask the dark knight. The late Heath Ledger is a revelation as the strangely humorous Joker, but even his brilliant portrayal of the painted-faced murderer grows wearisome as the film hits us with an over-the-top multitude of explosions, car chases, crashes, and death, including the deaths of at least two major characters. So, whereas the beginning of this film brought excitement and hope, the middle and end brought tediousness to such an extent that I no longer cared what was happening on the screen and only wished for a quick end. Unfortunately, that end came after 2 hours and 25 minutes of confusing chaotic and mindless violence. Let me note, however, the fine efforts of the cast, including Maggie Gyllenhaal as Rachel Dawes, Harvey Dent’s girlfriend and Bruce Wayne’s secret love; Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox, Bruce Wayne’s techno guru; Michael Caine, once again as Alfred Pennyworth, Bruce Wayne’s assistant; and Eric Roberts as Salvatore Maroni, one of Gotham’s mobsters. C (12/13/08)

“The Edge of Heaven”-The sensitive Turkish-German writer/director Fatih Akin (“Head-On”) once again explores a variety of human concerns in this film about a group of people in Germany and Turkey whose lives touch, sometimes a little too coincidentally. In retrospect, although the plot seems complex in description it is rather easy to follow on screen: Nejat Aksu (Baki Davrak) is a young professor in Germany of Turkish ancestry whose father (Tuncel Kurtiz) accidentally kills Yeter, a prostitute (Nursel Köse), whom he had invited into his home for sex and companionship. Nejat returns to Istanbul to find Yeter’s daughter Ayten (Nurgül Yesilçay) to help pay for her education, but the young lady is not the student he thought she was, but rather an activist member of a group of young Turks opposed to their government who has escaped Turkey and headed for Germany. As the film progresses, it begins to center on Ayten and the people with whom she becomes involved, including a young German woman, Lotte (Patrycia Ziolkowska), and her mother Susanne (Hanna Schuygulla). “The Edge of Heaven” concerns the effects of intercultural contacts, love (both romantic and parental), death, and political zeal on the lives of the characters. The cast is splendid. This film deservedly won Best Screenplay at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival and is recommended. Although portions of the film are in English, it is primarily in Turkish and German with English subtitles. A- (12/12/08)

“Mongol”-This film is the tale, supposedly the first of a trilogy, of the rise of Genghis Khan in 12th Century Mongolia. The creation of Russian director Sergei Bodrov (”East-West”), “Mongol” is exquisitely filmed and of epic proportions, telling the story of young Temudjin whose father, the local khan, is killed by a rival only to have the father’s followers abandon him and his mother. Temudjin had just met and chosen Börte as his bride but he was just nine and had years to wait before marriage. “Mongol” follows Temudjin through a series of trials and tribulations, fighting former friends who had become enemies and finding and losing Börte at various points along the way until at long last he gained the confidence to put together a great army and become the leader of his people. I found this tale rather intriguing because of its alien culture and distant history, even with the obvious gaps needed to keep the film at a reasonable length. Bodrov chose to take a few pointers from Hollywood and use a few too many segues that were just a little facile. For example, in one scene, the young Temudjin, escaping his enemies, breaks through ice and falls into frozen waters. In the immediate next scene, he’s lying on the ground with no explanation as to how he escaped the frigid deep. Despite weaknesses of this sort, the basic outline of the story is consistent with Genghis Khan’s younger life, although one might quibble with the Hollywoodish good looks of the characters and the portrayal of Khan as a decent and thoughtful man who is ruthless only to his enemies. Although the cast is unfamiliar to those of us in the west, the stars are wonderful and worth noting. Japanese star Tadanobu Asano is a fine Temudjin with the beautiful novice Mongolian actress Khulan Chuluun as Börte. And not to be forgotten is the Chinese star Honglei Sun as as the powerful Jamukha, Temudjin’s bloodbrother, who turns into his rival for power. "Mongol" was deservedly nominated for an Oscar as Best Foreign Language film. In Mongolian and Mandarin with English subtitles A- (12/6/08)

“WALL-E”-The wizards of Pixar, led by Director Andrew Stanton (”Finding Nemo”) and sound designer Ben Burtt (“Star Wars”), have created a masterpiece of an animated film loaded with graphic realism, amazing sound effects, and surprising and wonderful subtleties of character, sound, and theme. In fact, “WALL-E” is is one of the best films of the year. WALL-E is a very clever but lonely robot with a heart and soul, who roams an abandoned garbage-laden city rounding up trash and turning it into cubes, but also saving valuable and unusual items for his collection. Rather unexpectedly, he does it to romantic tunes from an old tape of “Hello Dolly,” and the viewer is quickly made very aware that this city of garbage is on Earth and that humanity has disappeared from the planet. Exquisitely animated and photographed, “WALL-E” is loaded with humorous references to modern life, including my favorite: the Macintosh boot tone which occurs when WALL-E has used his solar panels to recharge his batteries. But “WALL-E” isn’t just a children’s tale of futuristic robots. No, it’s a serious film with some very adult themes about loneliness, the need for love, and the possibility of salvaging life on the planet Earth. All of these themes center around the arrival, by spaceship, of an egg-shaped blue-eyed flying robot named EVE (for Extra-terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator) who ultimately leads WALL-E to a spaceship where the surviving humans are vegetating and growing fat under the control of a computer reminiscent of HAL in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” While watching “WALL-E,” I couldn’t help but consider the astounding originality of this film, whether it be in the form of characters, themes, story, sound, homages to other films and, best of all, animation. This film is a wonder and should not be missed. I saw it in Blu-ray and recommend that format for this film. A (11/27/08)

“When Did You Last See Your Father?”-Based on a memoir by British poet/author Blake Morrison (played in the film by Colin Firth), “When Did You Last See Your Father?” is a touching tale about the way a young man reacts to an utterly overbearing and sometimes downright obnoxious father, but one who also seems to love his family. The adult Blake leaves wife (Gina McKee) and children, to return to his parents’ home in the country when he learns that his father, Arthur (played by the wonderful Jim Broadbent) is dying. In flashbacks to his youth and teen years, the viewer sees how Arthur, a physician, was seen by his son as a cheapskate and verbal abuser, as well as a man who is seemingly unfaithful to Blake’s mother (played resolutely by Juliet Stevenson). Led by Colin Firth and Jim Broadbent, the cast is first rate and includes a nice performance by Elaine Cassidy as a young Scottish housekeeper who captures Blake’s young eye. B+ (11/26/08)

“Everything’s Cool”-After Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” there didn’t seem to be a lot more to be said about global warming, but Daniel Gold and Judith Helfand have presented this effective documentary about the efforts of some, including journalist Ross Gelbspan, to get the message out. What especially comes through are details about right-wing efforts to distract the American public, via propaganda and governmental action, and raise doubts about the validity of the global warming threat to mankind. And even more compelling is the evidence presented that those who argue against the validity of global warming are more often than not in the pay of oil/energy producers. B (11/22/08)

“Kung Fu Panda”-Many of the animated films of recent years have included plot themes and humor meant to appeal to adults to supplement the basic elements designed for the pleasure of the primary audience which is, of course, children. “Kung Fu Panda,” although beautifully animated, lacks any real adult-oriented element and limits itself to a fairly basic plot about an overweight, lazy, and poorly coordinated panda named Po (voice of Jack Black) who dreams of kung fu heroism and who is, to the shock of all, chosen by the elderly master, the turtle Oogway, as the “Dragon Warrior.” The Dragon Warrior must protect the people of the valley from the evil leopard, Tai Lung (voice of Ian McShane), who has escaped from confinement after many years. Needless to say, the kung fu master Shifu (voice of Dustin Hoffman) and his students, the Furious Five (led by the Tigress--Angelina Jolie), find it difficult to believe that Po is the real Dragon Warrior until Oogway convinces Shifu that he must have faith in the choice. “Kung Fu Panda” provides a pleasant fantasy for children to believe that their wildest dreams can come true, although it ultimately descends into a simplistic battle between good and evil. B (11/15/08)

“Transsiberian”-It seems to me that if you’re going to tell the story of a thriller about a couple who are about to find themselves in a great deal of trouble in an alien environment, you’d want to have appealing characters to draw the empathy of the audience. But that’s not what the filmmakers give us in this film. Instead, we meet the ebullient and innocent Roy (Woody Harrelson), a church-going midwesterner, and his dour wife, Jessie (Emily Mortimer), an amateur photographer, who are having marital difficulties, and yet decide to take the risk of a difficult ride aboard the Trans-Siberian Express from Beijing to Moscow because of Roy’s fascination with trains. They then proceed to make every behavioral mistake in the book. In fact, if there is ever a choice in their actions, they make the wrong one. “Transsiberian” drags interminably aboard the train as it proceeds from China into Russia while Roy and Jessie are introduced to another couple, a Spaniard, Carlos (Eduardo Noriega), and his American girlfriend Abby (Kate Mara), whose behavior practically screams out that they are not what they appear to be. If ever there was a need for caution, this situation cries out for it, but Roy and Jessie act like two ultra innocents allowing themselves to be practically led around by their noses by the sinister characters, including Grinko (Ben Kingsley), a Russian narcotics cop. After what seems like an eternity of watching the unsympathetic couple (especially Jessie who cannot tell the truth no matter how likely it is to help) get themselves more and more entwined in a mess, “Transsiberian” takes a surprising turn but fails to follow through while it descends into a predictable violent and totally unrealistic battle in the Siberian snow, and concludes with a hasty wrap-up. C- (11/14/08)

"Flight of the Red Balloon"-Pretentious is the word that kept coming to mind as I watched this mind-numbing French film without either a plot or a resolution. With a background of melancholy piano music, we watch ordinary events in the lives of Suzanne (Juliette Binoche), a somewhat frazzled puppetry voice actress (her puppet scenes are incredibly grating on the ears); her young son, Simon (Simon Iteanu), a pleasant but ordinary child; and his new nanny, Song (Fang Song), an expressionless film student just arrived from Beijing who is interested in “The Red Balloon,” the film to which this movie allegedly makes homage, and who seems to be aiming her video camera at everything in sight. The film is loaded with references to red balloons and visions of a red balloon flying with seeming intelligence over the parts of Paris in which the characters are located. If there is a story (and I use that word hesitantly), it’s presented in as minimalistic style as possible, concerning the kinds of daily chores and annoyances we all have, including moving a piano and getting it tuned; Suzanne’s loneliness and anger due to an absent husband/ex-husband/lover, and the passive-aggressive “friend” who has occupied a downstairs apartment in Suzanne’s house despite paying little or no rent. I’ve seen two other films by this director, Hsiao-hsien Hou of Taiwan, one which I liked called “Three Times” and one, “Millenium Mambo” which is similar to this film in theme, including absence of plot and any apparent meaning. Unless you like staring at the screen, listening to melancholy music, and watching almost nothing happen, stay away. (In French with English subtitles) C- (11/11/08)

“Jellyfish”-This Israeli film introduces us to three woman in Tel Aviv whose paths cross at a wedding. Batya (Sarah Adler) is a depressed and seemingly aimless waitress who finds a mysterious mute young girl on a beach only to lose her again, although gaining some meaning in her life. The bride (Noa Knoller) injures her foot in the lady’s room during the wedding and is unable to go on her honeymoon. As a result, she and her new husband, Michael (Gera Sandler), wind up in a noisy hotel near the beach in Tel Aviv and cross paths with an attractive woman guest whose intentions they both completely misread. The third is Joy (Ma-nenita De Latorre), a Filipino woman who was present at the wedding as caretaker of one of the guests and who has left her own son behind in the Phillipines in order to find work as a caretaker of elderly Israelis. Playing on her name, Joy’s life seems joyless until she meets the initially nasty elderly mother of a stage actress. “Jellyfish” is a nice little film about human contact and the surprising experiences we all have interacting with strangers. Notable in the cast is Sarah Adler, an attractive actress whose eyes say an awful lot. (Primarily in Hebrew with English subtitles). B+ (11/8/08)

“Get Smart”-The original TV series, created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, featured Don Adams as Maxwell Smart, a bumbling secret agent for “Control” in its battle against the evil “Kaos.” Smart always seemed to need his beautiful assistant, Agent 99 (Barbara Feldon), to come to his rescue. Adams emphasized all his famous lines, such as “Would you believe...?” in a comedic manner that made them memorable for years to come for those who saw the show. Steve Carell doesn’t quite channel the ghost of Don Adams in delivering his lines. Oh, the scriptwriters attempt to throw in a few of the old Maxwell Smart lines but if you’re not listening carefully, you’ll miss them. In this feature film version, Anne Hathaway is a beautiful Agent 99, but one who seems more dominatrix than assistant, until she goes through an expected and impossible romantic transformation at the end. Carell is pleasant and humorous, but hardly funny in the way of Don Adams, and the story seems like a predictable weak-sister version of a thriller rather than the sharp comedy it should have been. The wonderful Alan Arkin plays The Chief but he seems dispirited because he doesn’t have any really good lines. Dwayne Johnson, formerly known as The Rock, is adequate as Agent 23; and Terence Stamp, becoming a cliché unto himself, once again plays a bad guy, the evil Siegfried. The best performances are turned in by Masi Oka (“Heroes” ) and Nate Torrence as two “Control” tech nerds. When they were on the screen, it lit up. Unforunately, the writers of this “Get Smart” were not Mel Brooks and Buck Henry. C (11/7/08)

“Starter for 10”-The title refers to a glib line from a British gameshow host on a program called University Challenge. Brian Jackson (James McAvoy) grows up in Essex with his working-class friends, including Spencer (the first-rate Dominic Cooper), dreaming of competing on the game show. And, as the magic of movies would have it, he talks his way into admission to Bristol University and almost immediately finds himself involved with two gorgeous young women (just like in real life, eh?), one of whom is on the college’s Challenge team. “Starter for 10” has a first rate cast, including Rebecca Hall as Rebecca Epstein, a left-wing social protestor; Alice Eve as Alice Harbinson, the sexy blonde whom Brian helps make the Challenge team; Benedict Cumberbatch as Patrick Watts, the supercilious Challenge team captain, responsible for the previous year’s loss; and Lindsey Duncan and Charles Dance as Alice’s parents. Unfortunately, what might have been either an interesting drama or a downright good comedy goes astray with a script loaded with either too much male fantasy or unlikely embarrassing situations. C+ (11/2/08)

“Sex and the City”-Watching this feature-length version of the HBO TV show is like watching a runway show at New York’s Fashion Week. The four women stars seem to change outfits every three seconds, presenting a panoply of what’s available to well-to-do younger middle aged women in New York. And indeed the film contains an actuial runway show at Fashion Week. Surprise, surprise. If this were an original film about new characters, one might say that it was a good look at love in the big city. But these women come with lots of baggage from the years on HBO, and they don’t seem to have learned too many lessons. One of the major elements of the “friendship” of these four is that they enjoy picking on each other and pointing out the errors of the others’ ways (Samantha’s weight gain, Miranda’s unfortunate comment to Big, Charlotte’s “accident”) only to have their amazing friendship go on eternally. Samantha (Kim Cattrall), about to turn 50, is living in LA with Smith (Jason Lewis), now a successful actor. In fact, Smith is so successful and busy at work that the sex-crazed Samantha is bored out of her mind in her beach house in Malibu until she notices the handsome and sexually successful hulk next door. But living in LA doesn’t stop Samantha from showing up in New York every time one of the east coast girls is having a crisis, which is quite frequent. Charlotte (Kristin Davis) is the exception as she is portrayed as happily married to Harry (Evan Handler) with a cute adopted daughter. At least life is going well for one of the four. But Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) is, as usual, furious at husband Steve (David Eigenberg) because he admitted to a one-night stand during a period of marital abstinence. Of course, they separate, giving an excuse for an apartment hunting trip in Chinatown. David Eigenberg has the misfortune of playing a character who seems always to be begging to be let back in and the viewer has to wonder why. Cynthia Nixon plays Miranda as one of the most unappealing characters in a romantic story. She almost always looks uptight and unpleasant, especially when around a man. Frankly, if I were Steve, I’d be glad to be rid of her. But, of course, the story centers on Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), for whom living with Big (played rather stiffly by Chris Noth) isn’t good enough. No, she has the audacity to raise the spectre of marriage after 10 years of on-and-off relationship, and suffers the consequences. Big is portrayed, as usual, as an adult with adolescent sensibilities. It seems unlikely that Carrie, a well-known writer on sex and the city, couldn’t have done better somewhere along the way. Jennifer Hudson provides an appealing presence as Carrie’s assistant, Louise, hired primarily to help put Carrie’s life and apartment back together after a disastrous experience. “Sex and the City” runs about 2 1/2 hours. B- (11/1/08)

“CSNY Déjà Vu”-This is a documentary about a concert tour performed in 2006 and aimed at protesting George W. Bush and the war in Iraq. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young set out to draw attention to the outrages of the Bush Administration and its war policy through a series of concerts, using some of their classic songs from the 60s and 70s, but also trying to impress and shock the audience with some new songs by Neil Young, including “Let’s Impeach the President” and “Living With War.” Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, somewhat dissipated and mostly looking their ages, are well intentioned but obviously not terribly politically effective (I hadn’t previously heard of this tour). It seemed obvious that their performances and voices, which were a little rocky at the start, strengthened as the tour went on. A couple of the things that make the film interesting are quotes, throughout the film from reviewers, some of whom were obviously biased to the right, and particularly the angry right-wing “my country right or wrong” comments of a group of audience members, especially in Atlanta. Inevitably, the film shows a great deal about the ignorance of these audience members. How anyone could attend a CSNY concert and not expect a political commentary is beyond me. Had these people never listened to CSNY’s songs before? What also fascinates are the knee jerk attitudes of right-wingers, especially southerners, who automatically associate protesting a war with (1) lack of patriotism, (2) not supporting the soldiers fighting that war, and (3) with so-called “anti-Americanism.” That Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young were arguing FOR the soldiers and FOR the basic American right of protest is simply beyond the imaginations of these people. Fortunately, there were also plenty of audience members who were obviously thrilled with CSNY’s songs and performance and in agreement with their political stance. B (10/25/08)

“Control”-Just what causes a young man, seemingly successful, to commit suicide? “Control,” made in crisp black and white cinematography, attempts to explain what happened to Ian Curtis, the lead singer of Joy Division, who took his life at age 23. Sam Riley is Curtis, a thin quiet young man in a somewhat depressing small city in depressed Thatcheresque England. Without any real explanation other than immaturity, the film reveals Curtis making the mistake of marrying too young, only to become a rock star as the leader of his post-punk band. His affair with a young Belgian woman, Annik (Alexandra Maria Lara), the effects of drinking and epileptic seizures, combined with his inability to give up his attachment to his unhappy young wife, Deborah (Samantha Morton), puts Curtis on the downhill spiral that led to his fate. Based on a book by Deborah Curtis, “Control” is an effective meditation on the era in which it takes place, but mostly on the way alienation, immaturity and fame rarely work well together. Samantha Morton does a fine job of playing the slightly dowdy and virtually abandoned wife and mother. B+ (10/24/08)

“The Visitor”-How unusual to view an intelligent, captivating American film about human beings! Richard Jenkins (“Six Feet Under”) has the role of his life as Walter Vale, a taciturn and bored Connecticut college professor and widower who is simply going through the paces of life until ordered to attend a conference at NYU. When he arrives at his New York City apartment, he discovers to his surprise that a young foreigh couple, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), a Syrian, and Zainab (Danai Gurira), from Senegal, are occupying it. Although Tarek and Zainab agree to leave immediately, Walter is intrigued and invites them to stay until they find something else. Walter, who loves music and whose late wife was a pianist, is fascinated by Tarek’s African drum playing and finds himself entwined in their lives, especially after Tarek is arrested and placed in detention by immigration authorities. It may seem out of character for Walter, initially portrayed as a cold college professor, to be intrigued by this couple, but he is a man who is starving for excitement and affection. The cast is delightful, including Hiam Abbass as Mouna, Tarek’s mother, who arrives suddenly at Walter’s apartment only to discover what has happened to her son. The interplay of the characters feels very real and is genuinely moving and New York City is beautifully portrayed as the real place it is, a place of both potential creativity and danger. This is an intelligent movie for grownups and is highly recommended. A (10/17/08)

“Iron Man”-If it weren’t for the quality of the cast, which includes Robert Downey, Jr., Jeff Bridges, and Gwyneth Paltrow, “Iron Man” would be a total failure. Based on the comic strip of the same name, the film tells the story of an egoistic ultra-self confident and brilliant billionaire arms manufacturer, Tony Stark (Downey), who finds himself injured and captured by warlords in Afghanistan. When ordered by the warlords to build a horrifying weapon, Tony, despite being watched closely by video cameras, instead turns himself into an ironbound superhero, another ultimate weapon. After overwhelming his captors and returning home, he announces that his company will no longer manufacture arms, a decree that horrifies his assistant, Obadiah Stane (Bridges), who begins to plot against Stark. Gwyneth Paltrow is charming as Pepper Potts, Stark’s assistant who obviously adores him although Stark seems hardly to notice. But Terrence Howard is completely wasted as a military type who needs Stark’s destructive weapons output. Full of special effects, “Iron Man” is probably aimed at a ten-year old mentality. For me, it was one big ho-hum. C+ (10/16/08)

“Snow Angels”-This is a tragic tale of depressed and confused people, starring Kate Beckinsale and Sam Rockwell as an estranged couple with a young daughter. Glenn (Rockwell) has had serious emotional problems, including attempted suicide, and is trying to get his act together. He’d like to get back with Annie or at least keep seeing his daughter, but Annie (Beckinsale), a waitress, will have none of it, especially since she’s seeing Nate (Nicky Katt), the husband of her friend and co-worker Barb (Amy Sedaris). “Snow Angels,” directed by David Gordon Green (“All The Real Girls”) and filmed in Nova Scotia, also centers around a young high school student, Arthur (Michael Angarano), who works at the restaurant and whose parents are also going through marital woes. In fact, almost everyone except Arthur and his young friend Lila (Olivia Thirlby of “Juno”) seem to have made a mess of their lives. The cast does a fine job, but the story is ultimately too much of a downer to make viewing this film rewarding. It is simply too dysfunctional to be functional. C+ (10/4/08)

“Married Life”-The premise? In this pseudo-noir film, a husband (Chris Cooper) is bored with his wife (Patricia Clarkson) and in love with a much younger widow (Rachel McAdams). His friend (Pierce Brosnan), however, becomes smitten with the young widow and discovers something interesting about the wife, while the husband is contemplating poisoning the latter. Let me get to the heart of the problems with this film. Considering that Cooper, Clarkson and McAdams are established stars, their acting is very weak and stilted and I can only blame the director, Ira Sachs, who wrote the rather dreadful script. Only Pierce Brosnan is pleasant to watch, but there is absolutely no chemistry between or among these actors. Finally, the script has more than enough unlikely plot elements, and to top it off the plot drags interminably. Far too often the actors look like they’re thinking that they would like some direction before they continue. D (10/3/08)

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