This page contains reviews of films seen during the months of January to March 2009


“Australia”-Baz Luhrmann, whose last film was “Moulin Rouge,” seems to love BIG movies about love, and with a country like Australia and a place like the Northern Territory just prior to WW II, he has the perfect cinematic location for this melodramatic romantic tale. The cinematography is breathtaking, often encompassing stunning vistas of desert land that makes one wonder why it was a good location for raising cattle. Nicole Kidman is Lady Sarah Ashley, a British woman who comes to Darwin in 1939 to find out what her husband has been up to on their cattle ranch which is surrounded by land owned by cattle baron King Carney (Bryan Brown) who covets the Ashley land. But Sarah discovers her husband has been murdered and that one of her husband’s employees, Neil Fletcher (David Wenham), has fathered a young boy, Nullah (Brandon Walters), with an aboriginal woman and treats Nullah and other aboriginals with disdain and cruelty. When Sarah fires the obviously evil Fletcher, she hires Drover (he has no other name in the film) (Hugh Jackman) to drive her cattle through the “Never Never,” a rather barren land, to Darwin in order to beat Carney to the punch in selling the cattle to the army. The cattle drive is reminiscent of many American western films about battles between good ranchers and evil cattle barons, but those films never wound up with scenes of Japanese Zeros attacking a port town like Darwin. The main theme of this epic concerns the Australian policy, in those miserable years, of taking aboriginal children from their mothers and placing them in institutions (an issue dealt with in the excellent film “Rabbit-Proof Fence” of a few years back) and Nullah’s attempts to remain invisible from the local police are at the heart of this film which ultimately develops into a romance between Sarah, known as “Mrs. Boss” to the locals, and Drover, a man who doesn’t want to be anyone’s “employee” and their attachment to Nullah. Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman do a fine job, in somewhat corny roles, as two people from different worlds drawn together by circumstances. Kidman looks gorgeous and Jackman, not surprisingly, is a stud. But the real star of this film is Brandon Walters, a young aboriginal boy, whose smile can light up a room and who is absolutely alive as the charming Nullah who, aside from wanting to stay with his ultimately ill-fated mother, desires to go on a walkabout (an aboriginal tradition) with his grandfather, King George (David Gulpilil), if he can survive Australian racism and Japanese bombs. As he did in “Moulin Rouge,” Baz Luhrmann goes overboard. In that film, it was a little too much fantasy. In this film, it’s length. “Australia” goes on for 2 hours and 45 minutes. A really good editing job could have tightened the story and removed many extraneous scenes. Also, and I guess it couldn’t have been helped considering the theme, the film ends with about as corny a scene as one can imagine in the circumstances. But ultimately, especially viewed in Blu-ray, “Australia,” Baz Luhrmann’s homage to his homeland, is quite a sight to see. B+ (3/28/09)

“Quantum of Solace”-Let me get one thing clear. This isn’t James Bond, at least the James Bond we all know and love. It does have a British agent named James Bond (Daniel Craig) in the lead, but there’s no “Bond, James Bond;” no “shaken, not stirred;” no smiling or even a smirk; no “Q” with clever gadgets for Bond to use; no clever puns; not even much of the classic James Bond musical theme; and certainly no charm whatsoever. Daniel Craig plays a robotic superhero, a man who can leap tall buildings at a single bound, can survive thousands of machine gun bullets and car crashes with not much more damage than a smudge, and can breathe and walk through fire. And he seems able to find changes of clothes whenever and wherever he needs them. The first forty minutes of this film consists of non-stop action, beginning with a ridiculous car chase amid a hail of bullets that seems never-ending. After that, there’s a semblance of a story about a powerful organization led by Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric of “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”) that controls 60 percent of the water in Bolivia and probably a few other things. They tell M (Judi Dench) they have people everywhere and that seems to be the case as our hero can’t walk into a room without getting into a major battle. The film contains a few bits of homage to the real James Bond, including a classic motor boat chase and, most telling, the death of one of the beautiful young women in the film by being covered with oil (a la the gold-covered girl in “Goldfinger”) as she lies on Bond’s bed. The talents of Mathieu Amalric, a pretty good French actor, are wasted, as is the wonderful Jeffrey Wright as Felix Leiter, hardly getting a chance to show any expression at all. The Bond girls are the lovely Olga Kurylenko as Camille, and the bright-eyed Gemma Arterton as Strawberry Fields. Also on the good side, the cinematography is gorgeous, especially in Blu-ray and the sound is incredible. The special effects are so powerful and overwhelming, though, as to become burdensome. If I had a chance to talk to the producers, I’d tell them movie viewers don't need more empty-headed special effects thrillers, and plead with them to bring back the real Bond, James Bond. C (3/27/09)

“Rachel Getting Married”-Most actors, even in bad movies, do a fairly professional job of acting. Far too many American actors who are said to be “great actors” do little more than play themselves with a little exaggeration for effect. But then there are those moments when actors soar to amazing heights (such as Sean Penn in “Milk” and Meryl Streep in almost anything) to demonstrate that they have extraordinary talent to transform themselves into other personalities and characters. In “Rachel Getting Married,” Anne Hathaway does just that. She plays Kym, an ex-junkie in rehab with deep emotional problems who is returning to the family home in Connecticut for her sister’s wedding. Unlike the Anne Hathaway we’re used to, this character is disturbed, self-absorbed, and angry. We never fail to be aware of the angst she is experiencing because of the body language and the expressions of her face and eyes. The wedding is taking place at her father’s rather large country home which is well-populated for the event with friends and family, many of them musicians, and Kym arrives and almost immediately creates extreme tension. In this Jonathan Demme-directed film, a hand-held camera has been used to make us feel as if we were just dropped into the middle of a real-life event, and little by little, expression by expression, we learn that there is something deeply wrong at the heart of this family, a secret to be revealed as the story develops. “Rachel Getting Married” can be a hard film to watch at times. It contains one scene at a large dinner in the home just before the wedding when almost every guest gets up to tell a story and make a toast. Although this scene goes on much too long, it’s still effective and so realistic that it reminded me of similar real-life events that made me want to squirm in my chair. Demme overdoes some of the extras. There are plenty of musicians already at the wedding, but he unnecessarily adds the arrival of a scantily-clad dancing Samba group at the after-wedding party to the already overly exaggerated wedding events. But the heart of this film is the first-rate cast, including Bill Irwin as Kym’s overly protective father; Rosemarie DeWitt (“Mad Men”) in an excellent performance as Rachel, Kym’s soon-to-be-wed sister who alternately loves and hates her sibling; Mather Zickel as Kieran, another ex-junkie Kym meets at an AA meeting, who turns out to be the best man at the wedding; Debra Winger, still powerful in middle age, as Kym and Rachel’s somewhat distant mother; and Anna Deveare Smith as Carol, Kym and Rachel’s stepmother. B+ (3/21/09)

“Milk”-Is Sean Penn the best actor in the business? I’d say yes after seeing his bravura and Oscar-winning performance as Harvey Milk, a gay man from New York who headed west to San Francisco in the early 1970s and changed the history of the gay rights movement. Penn undergoes a breathtaking transformation to portray with incredible sensitivity a gay man whose life is frequently in turmoil, both romantically and financially, but who harnesses the outrage he feels at the way gays are being treated to eventually become the first openly gay man to be elected a member of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors. When right-wing Christians, led by singer Anita Bryant, begin a campaign to deny gays their rights as equal citizens, the feeling of outrage growing in Milk and his compatriots in the Castro is palpable. Directed by Gus Van Sant, for whom this must have been the most important film of his career, “Milk,” with an outstanding script by Dustin Lance Black (also Oscar-winning), feels almost like a documentary, as if the viewer is watching the actual ultimately tragic events unfold. And what a cast! Sean Penn is supported by memorable performances by James Franco as Scott, his lover who goes west with him but tires of the politics; Emile Hirsch (“Into the Wild”) as Cleve Jones, who initially rejects Milk’s political advances but then becomes his primary aide; Diego Luna (“Y tu mamá también”) as Milk’s second lover, Jack, an emotional wreck; and Alison Pill, as Anne Kronenberg, the lesbian woman who was Milk’s campaign manager and aide at City Hall. And then there is Josh Brolin as the out-of-place Dan White, the uptight and disturbed Supervisor who, after resigning, comes back to City Hall and kills both Milk and Mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber) one day in late November 1978. You won’t forget Sean Penn’s performance or the feelings engendered by this film. This is one of those rare films that tells an important real-life tale and tells it extremely well. A (3/20/09)

“Happy-Go-Lucky”-The great director Mike Leigh (“Secrets and Lies,” “Vera Drake,” and “Topsy-Turvy”) has an extraordinary capacity to create characters to whom we can relate. Although many of his films have been about lower class Brits, “Happy-Go-Lucky” is about a young woman who is reasonably comfortable economically and is extremely comfortable with herself. In fact, Poppy (Sally Hawkins) is so upbeat, smiling, talking, and wisecracking, that at times her enthusiasm becomes genuinely annoying. But Poppy, an elementary school teacher, is also a demonstrably intelligent and warm human being with the capacity to relate to others, and this empathy and warmth makes her something special. Sally Hawkins is truly breathtaking as this wonderful character who deals with a variety of events in her life, including the lack of a romantic relationship; living with a “flatmate,” Zoe (Alexis Zegerman), for 10 years; the theft of her bike; not wholly satisfying relationships with her sisters; a child with violent tendencies at school; and, most of all, an extremely opinionated and off-putting driving instructor, Scott (played with enthusiastic seriousness by Eddie Marsan, an outstanding character actor). How Poppy relates to Scott, an angry lovelorn man, is at the heart of this film. As always, Mike Leigh gets the most out of his cast. In extras on the DVD, some of the cast members talk about how Leigh inculcates the character and his or her life into them so that when they react on screen, they are reacting as the character and not so much as an actor portraying a character. It shows because not long after the film has begun you find yourself feeling like you are watching real people and caring about what happens to them. This delightfully humane film is highly recommended. A (3/15/09)

“Cadillac Records”-I don’t know why filmmakers feel so free to change history. In this film about Chess Records, a Chicago-based record company of the early rock era, Bo Diddley and several of Leonard Chess’ relatives, among others, are nowhere to be seen; Muddy Waters begins recording for Chess in the 1940s although it wasn’t actually called Chess Records until at least 1950; the Rolling Stones, who first came to the US in June 1964, are shown visiting Chess Records before Etta James (Beyoncé Knowles) records “At Last,” her great hit which was actually released in 1961; and Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright) is shown recording Willie Dixon’s “I’m A Man,” a song which was actually sung by Bo Diddley. “Cadillac Records,” written and directed by Darnell Martin, previously primarily limited to TV, can’t really be singled out for criticism in this regard as modification and reordering of historical events seems unfortunately pretty standard in American bio-pics, but I still wonder why it’s done so obviously and carelessly. Otherwise, “Cadillac Records” does a decent job of revealing the early roots of rock and roll, beginning with Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf (Eamonn Walker), and Little Walter (Columbus Short). Adrien Brody is effective as Leonard Chess, a Polish-born Jew who goes from the junk business to owning a club to opening his own recording studio, said to be the best in Chicago at the time. The singers, all black, deal with the virulent racism of the time (their music is referred to as “race music,” and some white singing groups felt no compunctions about taking what they wanted as their own), and with other pressures, including money and drugs. Some of the performances are memorable, including that of Beyoncé who makes us feel the anger and pain of a woman with great talent but born in unpleasant circumstances; and that of Columbus Short as Little Walter, a revelation of acting talent. Jeffrey Wright must be singled out as he is without a doubt one of the finest actors in America today. Wright always convinces us that he is exactly who he is playing, from an ultra-drag queen in “Angels in America,” to Bill Murray’s neighbor in “Broken Flowers,” to this performance as a field hand in Mississippi who comes north to make a name for himself with his blues guitar and his voice. Mos Def is charming as Chuck Berry, but having seen Chuck Berry perform live at an Alan Freed show in the late 1950s, I have to say that the original was a lot more exciting and electrifying than the Chuck Berry of “Cadillac Records.” B (3/14/09)

“Ashes of Time Redux”-This is Wong Kar Wai’s new cut of his 1994 film “Ashes of Time,” about hired assassins in ancient China. At the heart of the tale is Ou-yang Feng (the late Leslie Cheung), a man who has moved to the desert after his lover (Maggie Cheung) married his brother. He spends his time finding killers for others and proeeds to tell his own tale and those of others who pass his way, including a regular visitor, Huang Yao-shi (Tony Leung Ka Fai), a man for whom Ou-yang Feng is hired as both murderer and protector by a woman (Brigitte Lin) with a split personality; a swordsman who is going blind (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) while he tries to fight his way home; and a young girl (Charlie Yeung) who wants revenge. “Ashes of Time” was beautifully photographed by Christopher Doyle (“Hero” and “The Quiet American”) and lovingly restored over several years. It contains a variety of stunningly colorful shots but, unfortunately, the dialogue is so obscure and droning at times that I had a hard time following and staying awake. C+ (3/8/09)

“I’ve Loved You So Long”-Kristin Scott Thomas is utterly brilliant in the role of a woman who has just survived a long horribly traumatic experience and is attempting to come back to life. She plays Juliette Fontaine, who, after fifteen years away, comes to live with a married younger sister, Léa (Elsa Zylberstein), and her family. Although at first virtually expressionless and unable to communicate beyond the simplest emotions, Juliette gradually opens up as she interacts with her supportive sister, as well as Léa’s doubting husband, two young adopted Vietnamese children, and friends and colleagues. Ultimately, although we and characters in the film make value judgments about what she has done, the truth comes out and we discover a different Juliette than the one we thought we knew in the early stages of the film. Kristin Scott Thomas’ performance is breathtaking because it requires her to reveal a wide range of deep emotions, and it’s a shame that it wasn’t recognized at the Oscars, although she did receive a Golden Globe nomination. Elsa Zylberstein also provides an outstanding performance as the younger sister trying to understand what her older sibling has been through. Other notables in the cast are Laurent Grévill as Michel, a man who is attracted to Juliette and empathetic, and Lise Ségur as the wide-eyed and bright older adopted child, P’tit Lys. (In French with English subtitles). A- (3/7/09)

“In the Electric Mist”-Having read several of James Lee Burke’s novels about Dave Robicheaux, the gritty Louisiana police officer, I had a clear idea in my head of what Dave and the characters around him should be like. Alec Baldwin played Robicheaux in a film called “Heaven’s Prisoners” several years ago and that casting seems totally wrong to me. In this film, based on Burke’s “In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead,” Robicheaux is more appropriately played by Tommy Lee Jones, an actor who is perfect for portraying a tough former alcoholic who takes lots of questionable short cuts in his investigations. Directed by Bertrand Tavernier (“Round Midnight” and “Coup de Torchon,”) it was filmed mostly in Iberia Parish, near New Orleans, and although the book was released in the early 1990s, the film insists on mentioning Hurricane Katrina, ignoring the fact that a more recent first-rate Burke novel, “The Tin Roof Blowdown,” covers that tragedy. “In the Electric Mist” concerns the murders of two young women and a long ago murder of a black male in the nearby swamps, (something that had been witnessed by Robicheaux as a young man), while a Hollywood Civil War film is being made nearby. Starring Elrod Sykes (Peter Sarsgaard), a young alcoholic who insists on driving under the influence, and his girlfriend, Kelly Drummond (Kelly Macdonald), the film is being financed by a highly questionable group including the sleazy Julie “Baby Feet” Balboni (John Goodman) and Twinky LeMoyne (Ned Beatty). Needless to say, Dave is suspicious of everybody, especially when the murderer starts aiming at him and ultimately his young daughter, Alafair (Alana Locke). “In the Electric Mist” obviously wasn’t much of a success in theaters, if it was released at all, but now on DVD it’s a decent atmospheric film with some good zydeco music in the background. Considering that it was made by a director as experienced as Bertrand Tavernier, it has some surprisingly weak segues and editing and some questionable casting. Peter Sarsgaard, for example, seems totally miscast as Sykes, and Mary Steenburgen, as Robicheaux’s wife, an ex-nun (although this is not mentioned in the film), wasn’t even close to the way I imagined her from the books. Also in the cast are an aging Levon Helm as the ghost of General John Bell Hood, Pruitt Taylor Vince as an ill-fated officer helping Robicheaux, and Justina Machado (“Six Feet Under”) as an FBI agent who looks nervous when Dave engages in some highly questionable "techniques," but always decides to look away. C+ (3/6/09)

“Traitor”-This film, with a story by Steve Martin, is about Samir Horn (Don Cheadle) a former American military man and explosives expert, born in Sudan, who is now working with an Islamic terrorist group. He is being chased by FBI agent Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce) before the terrorists can do any serious damage. The concept is simple. Is Horn a traitor or will he turn out to be a hero? The film is well-made although it begins to drag until we finally learn the truth. And it has some surprises, but I won’t give away the secrets. Don Cheadle plays Horn as cool and calm as a cucumber, something that seems a little unrealistic considering who and what he’s dealing with. Guy Pearce is fine as Clayton, although his Aussie accent comes through occasionally. All in all, not a bad thriller, but not a great one either. B- (3/1/09)

“Miracle at St. Anna”-Based on a novel by James McBride which is based loosely on an actual Nazi atrocity in August 1944 in Sant'Anna di Stazzema, Italy, “Miracle at St. Anna” is Spike Lee’s homage to the Buffalo Soldiers, the African-American troops in WW II. The film begins in New York in 1983, when a black postal clerk commits an astonishing act of violence against a seemingly innocent man. But the solution to the mystery of why, requires that we go back to the late days of WW II when a group of African-American Buffalo Soldiers, save Angelo, a young injured Italian boy, and then find themselves, with Angelo and local villagers, stuck in a small mountain village surrounded by Nazi troops. Reminiscent of Rachid Bouchareb’s excellent film, “Days of Glory,” which involved heroic Algerian soldiers in the French Army during WW II, men who were similarly mistreated as minorities by the majority culture, “Miracle at St. Anna” makes it clear over and over that the story is aimed at showing that black American soldiers were just as heroic as whites despite the racism of American society and some of their military superiors. Although the film lasts well over two hours and should have been edited down by at least 40 minutes, it’s genuinely entertaining, mostly because of the mystery and the appeal of the interaction between the soldiers and the Italian villagers as they wait for the arrival of American troops to save them. The film also emphasizes the religious faith of so many of the characters, something that seems ultra-ironic in light of the final result. The use of the word “miracle” in the title reminds me of a situation in which a single survivor of a disaster that kills many thanks God for the “miracle” of saving him. No such miracle was available to the dead. The film contains effective performances by Derek Luke as Sgt. Stamps, the level-headed leader of the soldiers; Omar Benson Miller as Train, who finds, saves, and becomes attached to young Angelo, played beautifully by a first-timer, Matteo Sciabordi, and who is labeled "chocolate giant" by the boy; Michael Ealy as Bishop, the young sergeant who, despite his surroundings, has sex on the brain as he interacts with the beautiful English-speaking villager, Renata (Valentina Cervi); and Laz Alonso as Corporal Hector Negron, the Hispanic black who commits the shocking crime in New York almost 40 years later. B+ (2/28/09)

“RocknRolla”-Intrigued by the cast, especially the presence of Tom Wilkinson, I had to see this Guy Ritchie film, and I have no regrets. This underrated film turns out to be a classic of London gangsterism with a plot that is almost too intricate to describe and yet flows logically. An up-and-coming gang, led by One Two (Gerard Butler) and Mumbles (Idris Elba) do some business with the longtime top gangster in London, Lenny Cole (Wilkinson), whose right-hand man is the cool, tough Archie (Mark Strong). But Cole, without their knowledge, double-crosses them and they find themselves owing him substantial sums. Cole, who seems to control almost everything in London, is asked to do favors, for a substantial payment, for a Russian, Uri (Karel Roden), who wants to build a new sports arena. Uri, in his pleasure at doing business with Cole lends him his favorite “lucky” painting which is almost immediately stolen, and when Uri and his lackeys arrange a delivery of seven million euros to pay Cole, Stella (Thandie Newton), Uri’s accountant, hires One Two, Mumbles and associates to steal the money which they are happy to do in order to earn the funds they need to pay back Cole. Uri is now pissed and wants his painting back. And that’s just the beginning. Beautifully filmed and with an intelligent and witty script, “RocknRolla” contains some overlooked memorable performances. These especially include Tom Wilkinson as the bald and cocky Lenny Cole; Mark Strong as Cole’s cool enforcer; Gerard Butler and Idris Elba as clever thieves who find themselves in the middle of a mess; Toby Kebbell as Johnny Quid, Cole’s rock and rolling existentialist druggie “son;” and Thandie Newton as the ultra-cool and sexy accountant at the heart of almost everyone’s troubles. This is a first-rate film of its genre and is highly recommended. A- (2/27/09)

“Religulous”-A disclaimer: I come to this movie either as cynical or more cynical about religion than Bill Maher. He was raised a Catholic and admits to having thought about “God” even as an adult. I have never been a believer. That said, this documentary has to be viewed in two separate ways: (1) the filmmaking techniques, and (2) the philosophical issues raised by Bill Maher. As to the first, it’s hardly the best documentary I’ve ever seen; spotty and choppy at best. Scenes of Maher sitting in a moving car. talking to the director about himself and his views, are interspersed with scenes of Maher interviewing various people, including religious leaders, a Jesus portrayer, and visitors to religious sites, among them a Christian theme park. Maher manages to zing most of his interviewees with questions they had apparently never in their wildest dreams considered. Most come off looking befuddled by Maher and even by their own comments. In a few instances, it seemed that Maher prematurely cut off his interviewees' comments, but I could hardly imagine them improving on what they’d already said. There is zero logic on the religious side and even those who think they know the Bible are surprised when Maher contradicts their “knowledge” of that document. Maher does a rather good job of raising serious questions about the logic, sense, purpose of, and dangers from religion in virtually all its forms. When he is asking questions he tries valiantly to do it with a straight face and to be as respectful as possible, but he doesn’t always succeed. Some quickly realize that Maher seriously disagrees with their faith and they walk out on him, but others manage to only embarrass themselves. One of the most telling moments is when Democratic Senator Mark Pryor of Arkansas, an Evangelical, replies to Maher’s comments about the seriousness of the Senate with a comment that there is no IQ test requirement for the Senate. Maher looks stunned. B+ (2/21/09)

“Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa”-I never dreamed that I would be watching animated films at this point of my life, but the incredible advances in animation and the often adult humor added to those films makes the viewing a potentially worthwhile experience. The original “Madagascar” was clever, especially the portrayal of the wild and very funny King Julien (voice of Sacha Baron Cohen) who has got to “move it, move it, move it.” This time our little gang of Central Park animals, including Alex the Lion (Ben Stiller), Marty the Zebra (Chris Rock), Melman the insecure giraffe (David Schwimmer), and Gloria the sexy hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) are attempting to return to New York via a disaster of a penguin-operated airplane slingshotted out of Madagascar. Needless to say, they don’t make it far, but wind up in an African animal reserve where Alex was originally born. The rest of the story is pretty predictable and cute, but not particularly memorable other than the rather hysterical portrayal of Makunga (voiced perfectly by Alec Baldwin), the incompetent but nasty challenger to the throne of Zuba (Bernie Mac), Alex’s father. Although the filmmakers got the “move it” theme in briefly in the beginning, a repeat of the full-blown song would have helped. The biggest weakness in the film is the voicing of the main character Alex by Ben Stiller who makes Alex sound more like a mouse than a lion. Also of note is the deep macho voicing of Will i Am as Moto Moto, the big, tough hippo who is trying to woo Gloria. B- (2/21/09)

“Soul Men”-In this comedy, Samuel L. Jackson and Bernie Mac play Louis Hinds and Floyd Henderson, once “The Real Deal,” backup singers of 1960s soul hits to Marcus Hooks (John Legend) who went off on a starring career of his own. When an aging Hooks dies and an Apollo Theater TV special is planned, Floyd, who has been put out to pasture by his nephew, somehow convinces the bitter ex-con Louis to join him on a road trip from LA to New York. Seems that Floyd had an intimate relationship with Odetta, Louis’ “woman,” and Louis hasn’t gotten over it despite the passage of many years. Driving along in their El Dorado, Louis and Floyd “MF” their way east, gradually reviving their act until they meet the late Odetta’s singing daughter, Cleo (Sharon Leal), all hell breaks loose, and a few laws are broken as well. “Soul Men,” directed by Malcolm D. Lee, has its moments, but to my ear listening to one “MF” and a variety of other curse words for almost two hours, is not particularly funny. Some of the musical performances aren’t bad, especially the finale at the Apollo as Louis and Floyd await the police. Sharon Leal provides a nice presence as the young woman who turns out to be the daughter of one of the two. Also in the cast is Sean Hayes (“Will & Grace”) as Danny Epstein, the Apollo show producer, but he doesn’t really get a chance to do much, and Adam Herschman as the goofy Phillip, sent by Epstein to pave the way for Louis and Floyd to make it to New York. Herschman’s funniest feature, unfortunately, is his Afro-like hairstyle. Samuel L. Jackson does his usual workmanlike job as a man outwardly tough but soft when things matter. And Bernie Mac is very appealing as Floyd, the man who just wants to revive his lost singing career. Isaac Hayes appears as himself, and it is a very sad footnote that Bernie Mac and Isaac Hayes died within two days of each other in August 2008. The film is dedicated to them. Too bad it couldn’t have been the real deal. C+ (2/20/09)

“Frozen River”-This film takes us way up north to the New York-Canadian border where the Mohawk Reservation straddles the line and the St. Lawrence River. Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo) is a struggling mother of two boys, ages 5 and 15, whose gambling addicted husband has abandoned them just as they were about to purchase a new doublewide mobile home to replace the dilapidated house in which they were living. Desperately in need of money, Ray meets, in somewhat hostile circumstances, Lila (Misty Upham), a young woman from the reservation hoping to regain her baby from a relative. They soon find a commonality of need and begin working together smuggling illegal aliens across the border via the reservation and the ice on the river. This film is about poverty and desperation in a bleak landscape, and there is little that might cause the viewer to smile other than the brilliant performance of Melissa Leo, who literally becomes Ray Eddy. Leo’s performance in this indie film, written and directed by first-timer Courtney Hunt, is the kind that is more often than not overlooked when it comes to movie awards. But Leo’s transformation into a desperate mother was so profound that it deservedly has been nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress. But as wonderful as Leo is, there is also a superb and subtle performance by Misty Upham, a young native American actress, as Lila. This film is not easy to watch, but it exposes the kind of desperation that must motivate many people in these desperate times, and it contains two performances that are not to be missed. A- (2/16/09)

“Bottle Shock”-When I visited the Sebastiani Vineyards in the Napa Valley in 1971, I had no idea that California wines were on the verge of a tremendous breakthrough. This film, based on actual events, tells how a British wine merchant in Paris, Steven Spurrier (Alan Rickman), traveled in 1976 to the Napa Valley, collected a variety of California wines, and subjected them to a blind wine tasting against French wines by French wine experts. The California wines won and the roots of the success of the California wine industry and this charming film were born. “Bottle Shock” tells its tale from two points of view. First, that of Spurrier, a somewhat crusty Brit, whose Paris wine store is struggling to survive and who seems alien when he arrives in a beat-up rented car in the laid-back Napa Valley of the mid-1970s. But most of all, it’s the story of Bo Barrett (Chris Pine), whose father, Jim (Bill Pullman), is struggling to operate Chateau Montelena in Calistoga, California. With the help of young Gustave Brambila (Freddy Rodriguez of “Six Feet Under” fame), who eventually became a master winemaker of his own, and a lovely intern, Sam (Rachael Taylor of Australia), the Barretts batttle each other and the grapes to try to produce a superb world-class Chardonnay and survive their numerous setbacks. With luscious Napa Valley scenery at the heart, “Bottle Shock” is an uplifting film that will make you want to run out and try some Chateau Montelena chardonnay. Dennis Farina provides humor as Maurice, Spurrier’s Paris wine-tasting neighbor, and Eliza Dushku is the spirited Jo, who runs a local bar in Calistoga and ultimately saves the day for Chateau Montelena. B+ (2/14/09)

“Everybody Wants to Be Italian”-Although the cast is watchable, the plot of this awkwardly titled film is preposterous. Jake Bianski (Jay Jablonski) who is Polish, owns a fish market in the North End of Boston where his employees and fellow workers, including Steve (John Kapelos), Gianluca (John Enos III), and Papa Aldo (Richard Libertini) are encouraging him to find a nice Italian girl. They introduce him to a gorgeous veterinarian, Marisa Costa (Cerina Vincent), whom they mistakenly believe is Italian. The concept is utterly undermined by the fact that Jake is still obsessed with and stalks Isabella (Marisa Petroro) despite the fact that she has been very unavailable for many years. Somehow Jake's immature behavior doesn't prevent Marisa from going out with him, but Jake refuses to hide from Marisa his “involvement” with Isabella and then there's this banal silliness about each thinking the other is Italian, a plot element that seems to go nowhere. No woman, especially a professional, in her right mind would continue to see a character such as Jake after witnessing his behavior and hearing his admissions of undying love for another (unavailable) woman. She'd think he was crazy and head as far as she could in the other direction. And yet somehow the film has the typical, and in this case ridiculous, happy ending. C- (2/13/09)

“Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist”-Starring a cast of fine young actors who play high school kids but really should have been identified as college age, “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” is the kind of atmospheric romantic comedy that can only make you smile. Nick (Michael Cera), depressed over his breakup with Tris (Alexis Dziena), is encouraged by two of his gay bandmates, Dev (Rafi Gavron) and Thom (Aaron Yoo), to head from their homes in New Jersey for a night in New York playing at a club and then searching for the elusive band “Fluffy.” But while Nick and friends are performing, three young ladies appear: Norah (Kat Dennings), her soon-to-be-drunk friend Caroline (Ari Graynor), and their bitchy school classmate Tris, apparently bent on making Nick jealous. Circumstances put all these characters into motion as they travel around lower Manhattan, on foot, by van, and in Nick’s beat-up but beloved Yugo alternately searching for “Fluffy” and for Caroline who has disappeared. Needless to say, Nick finds himself connecting with Norah, although he needs to be pushed at times by his friends especially when the obviously manipulative Tris is coming on to him. Michael Cera, portraying a character with more confidence than in his previous films, has an air of smooth innocence as he gradually finds himself becoming more and more atttracted to Norah. Kat Dennings is impressive, almost glowing, as the beautiful Norah who finds herself hanging out with a “real,” courteous, and funny young man. Among the rest of the cast, Ari Graynor stands out as the wacky Caroline who wanders around the city in somewhat of a stupor, connected to her friends only by a cellphone. Full of colorful shots of New York at night “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” is a simple, funny, and charming film about young people with only the rare gap in taste. A- (2/8/09)

“Vicky Cristina Barcelona”-The highs and lows of romance have long been the primary theme of Woody Allen’s films. Here, once again, he hits the jackpot with the story of two beautiful young American women spending a summer in Barcelona. Vicky (Rebecca Hall), instinctively romantically conservative, thinks she’s knows what she wants, and what she wants is her nice but relatively unexciting fiance Doug (Chris Messina), back home in New York. Her best friend, Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), on the other hand, is more wild and prefers excitement in her romantic life. So when they meet Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a handsome, thoughtful, but brutally honest painter who invites them for travel (and sex) on a weekend excursion to Oviedo, it's Cristina who wins out and off they go. But things don’t turn out exactly as expected for either Vicky or Cristina, especially when Juan Antonio’s crazy ex-wife Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz) puts herself back into the picture. Woody Allen’s purpose is the exploration of the sexual desires, neuroses, and feelings of his characters, but he does so in the context of a loving homage to the people and the locale. Like so many of his New York-based films, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” shows us the local scenery at its best, including Gaudi’s eccentric and beautiful church, the Sagrada Familia. But the heart of this wonderful film is the simplicity of its tale about the uncertainties of love and romance. The cast and their performances are all first-rate although it must be noted that Penelope Cruz is a revelation as the artistically talented but violence-prone ex-wife. Patricia Clarkson is notable as Judy Nash, who, with her husband, puts Vicky and Cristina up for the summer and who makes a valiant attempt to open Vicky’s mind to a possibly mistaken life choice. This is undoubtedly Woody Allen’s best film since he made the switch to making films based in Europe. Highly recommended. A (1/31/09)

“Wanted”-This is the kind of movie of which you don’t need to know much about the plot because it’s utter nonsense.... Oh well, here goes. Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy) is a schlemiel of a guy who is barely making it through life. He’s picked on constantly by his chubby female boss, taken advantage of by others, and his girlfriend is making it with his best friend. And then he meets Fox (Angelina Jolie, doing her best to relive her Lara Croft and Mrs. Smith roles) who rather roughly introduces him to an ancient order of weaver/assassins led by Sloan (Morgan Freeman). Sloan reveals to him that his father, who was a member, has been murdered by a rogue named Cross (Thomas Kretschmann), and that Wesley has the inherited talent to become one of them and go after Cross. After initial hesitation, Wesley joins and goes through as rough an initiation as one could possibly imagine (healing each time in the group’s magic baths), emerging as a talented killer, but with a lingering conscience. Needless to say, of course, nothing in the film is quite how it first appears and all hell ultimately breaks loose. So much for the plot. Directed by Timur Bekmambetov, a Russian filmmaker, “Wanted” consists of empty-headed hyperaction to the nth degree with loads of blockbuster special effects (and a few that are reminiscent of “The Matrix.”) It’s both an eyeful and an earful, but the violent theme is so devoid of redeeming social value, and the script so hokey, that it raises some questions in my mind about what exactly is going on in the minds of the people who make such films. C+ (1/30/09)

“Appaloosa”-Written in part, directed by, and starring Ed Harris, “Appaloosa” is a somewhat peculiar film of the western genre, based on a novel by Robert B. Parker, a writer far better known for thrillers than westerns. It’s the 1880s. The New Mexico territorial town of Appaloosa is being terrorized by Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), a nearby ranch owner. When the local marshall takes two deputies to Bragg’s ranch to pick up two killers working for Bragg and never returns, the leaders of the town hire Virgil Cole (Harris) and his sidekick Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) to provide law and order. But soon thereafter, Cole becomes a little distracted when an attractive single woman, Allison French (Renee Zellweger), arrives by rail and immediately starts a flirtation with Cole. Complications ensue, including Allison’s flirtation with seemingly any man she meets, and a murder trial which results in the need for Cole and Hitch to take Bragg by railroad to another town for hanging. On the DVD, the filmmakers make a point about their efforts to be as accurate as possible in the scenery and clothing of this western town. I can’t say that their efforts were worth it since “Appaloosa” didn’t look much different than many earlier westerns. And to make it worse, the script is almost deadly, with the stars showing not much more than vacant expressions and looking dazed most of the time. Viggo Mortensen’s character seems to spend more time picking up, touching and carrying, and laying down his shotgun than actually talking. As director and writer, Harris obviously intended this film to be slow-moving and thoughtful, but unfortunately it felt more like watching a clock that was just about winding down to a stop. Harris, Mortensen, and Irons are all good actors, but like most good actors, they need some riveting dialogue to keep the audience awake. I don’t know what to make of Renee Zellweger. It seems like it was just the other day she was making an incredible musical splash in “Chicago.” Now, she seems a little too dowdy, uninspired, and just not right for the part. “Appaloosa” has a few interesting scenes, and Viggo Mortensen does a good job as Cole’s educated sidekick who fills in Cole’s language gaps, but overall I have to say that “Appaloosa” is a dud. C (1/23/09)

“The Last Mistress”-Taking place in France in the 1830s, writer/director Catherine Breillat’s “The Last Mistress” (“An Old Mistress” in the original French) is undoubtedly intended to reflect the sexual morés of the latter part of the previous century when Choderlos de Laclos wrote “Les Liaisons Dangereus.” Ryno de Marigny (Fu’ad Ait Aattou) is a handsome 30-year-old upper class Frenchman, with a reputation as a libertine, who is about to marry Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida), the granddaughter of the elderly Marquise de Flers. The Marquise, played with great charm by French writer Claude Sarraute, is a highly open-minded woman who asks to hear the details of Ryno’s 10-year relationship with Vellini (Asia Argento), a 36-year-old Spanish woman who had been married to an elderly Frenchman, so she can be certain that that relationship has ended. Ryno is glad to oblige and offers, in minute, often sensual, details how he met and was seduced by Vellini while the Marquise revels in Ryno’s story, possibly thinking of her own wild 18th Century youth. Catherine Breillat is a writer/director with an established reputation as a feminist challenging the long-established attitudes of males towards sexually aggressive women. Here, Asia Argento is a seductive revelation as Vellini, a dark-haired and mysterious woman who knows exactly what she wants and how to get it. Argento, seen sometimes lolling on sofas like a character from a Goya painting or puffing on a cigar, gives a memorable performance, one that is so hot she literally burns up the screen. Complementing her is former model Fu’ad Ait Aattou, a handsome young actor who can’t help but keep the viewer’s attention with his articulate tale of sexual intrigues. “The Last Mistress” has some rather graphic sexual scenes and certainly isn’t for everyone. But if you like unusual foreign films with a challenging view of accepted morés, this film’s for you. (In French with English subtitles). Based on Asia Argento’s performance alone, it deserves an A- (1/18/09)

“Tropic Thunder”-In an attempt at ridiculing aspects of Hollywood filmmaking, director/writer/actor Ben Stiller and co-writer Justin Theroux have instead created a self-parody of that part of the American filmmaking community that caters to the lowest common denominator. From fart joke visuals to guffaws about blown-up body parts, “Tropic Thunder” descends into the kind of humor that appeals to minds yet unformed. The premise is that a group of undisciplined actors, whose success has been based to that point on the worst taste imaginable, are gathered in a tropical location to make a film about a rescue in Vietnam. But the film-within-the-film's director (Steve Coogan) and author (Nick Nolte), in an attempt to teach the stars a lesson, drop them into the jungle where they wind up engaging in an actual battle with Asian drug runners whose leader is a nasty child. The joke gets old after about 45 minutes and the film descends into a world of tasteless, boring and repetitive excess. The film is ultimately degrading, not necessarily to the subjects of the awful jokes, but rather to the audience which is forced to sit through mind-numbing visuals such as watching the half-naked Jack Black (fartman Jeff Portnoy) riding on the back of a water buffalo or the unfunny Ben Stiller (Tugg Speedman) wearing a Panda headdress and feathers (where did they come from?) after he has attacked and killed the poor thing. Still, a few performances are worth noting. Robert Downey, Jr., is surprisingly effective in the middle of this mess as Australian actor Kirk Lazarus who has darkened his skin to play an African-American and is regularly ridiculed by a real African-American, the humorously named Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson). Tom Cruise appears as the bald nasty, overbearing studio head, Les Grossman, and has received praise for his performance. But watch closely. Although the part is certainly a departure for Cruise, all he really does is rave and overact. Subtlety, an important element of good humor and acting, is nowhere to be seen. D (1/16/09)

“Brick Lane”-Based on the novel by Monica Ali, “Brick Lane” is the story of a young woman from Bangladesh who, after her mother’s death, is forced as a teenager to leave a younger sister behind and marry an older man living in London near Brick Lane, an enclave of Bengali immigrants. The story quickly moves 16 years into the future as Nazneen (Tannishtha Chatterjee) is married to the soon to be unemployed Chanu (Satish Kaushik), and is the mother of two young teenage girls. Living in a block of particularly ugly apartments, Nazneen is emotionless in her life circumstances and Chanu, though sincere, seems self-oriented and not particularly good at responding to the needs of his wife and kids. To aid the family finances and to give herself some meaning, Nazneen begins a sewing business that ultimately leads to meeting the young and handsome Karim (Christopher Simpson), who brings her materials to sew, invites her to meetings of young Muslims, and begins a flirtation. One of the elements of Monica Ali’s book is a contrast between Nazneen’s life in the big city and the life she left behind in Bangladesh, demonstrated through letters from her sister. Although the letters are mentioned in the film, the issue of life-style contrast is virtually ignored. The leads do a fine job of portraying the rough life of Muslim immigrants in an alien city, especially after 9/11, but somehow the script fails to spark any real excitement into the tale. The biggest concern in the film seems to be whether the family will finally return to Bangladesh, an issue not quite sufficient to raise this decent film to a higher level. B- (1/15/09)

“Man on Wire”-Before the World Trade Center (WTC) was even completed in the early 1970s, a young Frenchman, Phillipe Petit, dreamed of walking on a wire between the twin towers. In August 1974, he completed this incredible dream with the help of a group of characters, both French and American. This eye-opening and cheerful documentary recreates through film (some archival and some acted), photos, and interviews, Petit’s planning of and ultimate accomplishment when he actually traversed the wire eight times between the two WTC buildings. His earlier efforts, including a wire crossing between the steeples of Notre Dame, and the stanchions of the Sydney Harbor Bridge, provide a prologue to the memorable WTC event which even now, knowing it was actually done, seems almost impossible to believe. Aside from the astounding nerve that it would take to step out onto a wire 110 stories above the ground, Petit also demonstrates an amazing cool and a cleverness in the planning of the attempt which required a great deal of equipment and rather heavy wire as well as a group of accomplices willing to help him in what could only be called a “crazy” (and illegal) effort. Documentary filmmaker James Marsh introduces us to the variety of helpers, some friends and some strangers, as well as Petit’s then girlfriend, Annie Allix, who describe the doings with wit and awe. Films today are loaded with special effects showing human beings doing things one doubts could ever be done. Here’s a delightful film that proves that sometimes these things really happen. Recommended. A- (1/9/09)

“Reprise”-This fine Norwegian film, directed in an unconventional style by Joachim Trier, an up-and-coming Danish director, is the story of two young men who are both aspiring to be writers. And writers they become, but in the process they go through a series of highs and lows in their personal, professional, and love lives. Anders Danielsen Lie is Phillip who is the first to publish and the first to crash after being hit by a car in Paris while enjoying a holiday with his attractive and supportive girlfriend, Kari (Viktoria Winge). Erik (Espen Klouman-Høiner), on the other hand, has a more difficult time getting his book published and lingers in a relationship with a girlfriend, Lillian, whose face does not appear until the moment when she discovers Erik has been lying to her. Phillip and Erik are part of a group of young Oslo men who seem not to have quite outgrown their adolescence. One in particular, Lars (Christian Rubeck), is outwardly a mysogynist but one with a secret hankering for porn. Anders Danielsen Lie and Espen Klouman-Høiner are very impressive as is the entire cast in this beautifully-filmed story of the efforts of these two young men to outgrow their youthful anxieties. Viktoria Winge is also notable as the wide-eyed and lovely Kari who is pushed to the edge by Phillip’s emotional vacillations. “Reprise” is the kind of intelligent film about real people that American filmmakers rarely produce. For the moment, we have to thank European directors for giving us delicious works of art such as this. (In Norwegian with English subtitles) A- (1/9/09)

“The Duchess”-Georgiana Spencer, the subject of a biography by Amanda Foreman, from which this film is based, was an extraordinarily unusual Englishwoman of her day (the late 18th Century). Married to the Duke of Devonshire in 1774, she managed to turn herself into something of a celebrity in fashion and politics if not in other areas, in some ways resembling the modern celebrity of Diana, Princess of Wales, a descendant of Georgiana’s brother. This film, starring Keira Knightley as Georgiana really doesn’t do much of a job of analyzing that celebrity, but instead focuses on Georgiana’s personal life with the Duke (Ralph Fiennes), Bess Foster (Hayley Atwell), Georgiana’s friend who in effect became the Duke’s live-in mistress in a long-term ménage à trois, and Georgiana’s lover, Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), who much later became Prime Minister of England. In doing so, “The Duchess” provides a rather insightful look at the life a woman of the upper class and the English system in which, even in that class, the husband utterly controlled the finances, the women, and the children. Keira Knightley, a young actress who has been disappointing in some recent roles, rises to the occasion and provides a first-rate performance as Georgiana, an obviously independent-minded woman who is married off by her mother (Charlotte Rampling) to the Duke so that he can have a male heir. In effect, the Duchess becomes somewhat of a slave to the Duke’s whims and needs. Ralph Fiennes, an actor of some subtlety, is effective as the rather dull single-minded (i.e., the need for a male heir) Duke who seems to have little human feeling and no compunctions about bedding as many women as he desires while denying his wife her own romantic needs. Hayley Atwell is very appealing as Lady Elizabeth Foster (Bess) who has been deprived of her three sons for years due to an unhappy marital split, and finds the powerful Duke and Duchess useful to regain control of her children and for emotional sustenance (she became the second Duchess of Devonshire after Georgiana’s death). This film has been highly criticized for its failure to explain Georgiana’s celebrity and for lack of depth. But the theme of male power and control over women in the England of the late 1770s, the culture that gave birth to our own country, is a powerful one and sufficient to make this costume drama worthy. Dominic Cooper is appealing as the lovelorn Earl Grey (yes, the tea was named after him) and Simon McBurney is notable as Charles Fox, a politician friend of the Devonshires. Georgiana does eventually give birth to a male heir and, although it’s not mentioned in the film, it is somewhat of an irony that her son, William Cavendish, the 6th Duke of Devonshire, lived to age 67, never married, and never had a male heir. B+ (1/3/09)

“Paranoid Park”-Director Gus Van Sant seems to go back and forth between Hollywood-type films such as “Good Will Hunting” and “Milk,” and his own independent creations, such as “My Own Private Idaho,” and this film which has received some very high praise. For example, NY Times critic Manohla Dargis has included it among the five films she believes should receive an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. Newcomer Gabe Nevins is Alex, a young skateboarder whose curiosity about a questionable Portland, OR, skateboarding hangout (Paranoid Park) and a nearby rail yard gets the better of him and leads him to involvement in an act of violence. The film uses occasional flashbacks and grainy images from the camera of cinematographer Christopher Doyle (”2046” and “Hero”). It also contains some rather long contemplative shots of Alex walking, scenes which seem more like time fillers than scenes of great moment. One of those appears to take place at a seaside location, although Portland is far from the Pacific. With a script by Gus Van Sant from a novel by Blake Nelson, the story unfolds, showing us how Alex, who seems to be a nice kid in the midst of the marital breakup of his parents, got into this mess and how he is dealing with the knowledge of his involvement in a possible crime. One of the notable features of this film is the use of novice actors, some of whom are not “acting” in the conventional professional sense. No one in the film appears amateurish, but at times it’s obvious that the conversations sound like real people chatting, something that’s rarely seen in feature films. Gabe Nevins does a good job of portraying Alex who stays rather cool and calm (maybe too much so) considering the circumstances. Also worth noting is the performance of Lauren McKinney as Macy, a friend who seems to like Alex even if he doesn’t notice. “Paranoid Park” is an interesting, but not completely satisfying experience. The praise from such as Manohla Dargis (and Times critic Stephen Holden who listed it in his “honorable mention” films for 2008), raises questions in my mind about just what makes up a “best film.” To me, such a film is one which “knocks your socks off” and leaves a significant lasting impression, due to a combination of originality, acting, theme, and other cinematic virtues. That wasn’t how I saw “Paranoid Park.” B+ (1/2/09)

“American Teen”-I went to an all-boys high school in New York City in a very different era. But I still found myself relating to the experiences and emotional upheavals of the Warsaw, Indiana, high school seniors who are the subject of this well done documentary by Nanette Burstein (“The Kid Stays in the Picture”). It’s made crystal clear from the beginning that Warsaw is a “red state” community populated mostly by whites and Christians. So, its not surprising that the most intriguing of the teens is a young lady named Hannah who has artistic impulses and desires, doesn’t fit in with the “in” group, suffers depression and fears, and can’t wait to get out of Indiana and head west to California. The other main subjects are Jake, a boy with acne and an inferiority complex who somehow manages to date a couple of cute girls, even if only briefly; Megan, the self-centered and controlling class beauty who dreams of making it to Notre Dame, from which almost all of her relatives have graduated; Mitch, the good-looking athlete who finds himself attracted to Hannah but ultimately succumbs to social pressures from his usual peer group and sends an unfortunate text message; and Colin, the school basketball star who has suffered from paternal pressures about basketball success and college admission that almost undo him. One of the saddest dynamics in the film is the parental pressure, some rather unfortunate, that is placed on these kids. Hannah’s fears are understandable when we witness her mother trying to discourage her goals and desires to leave Warsaw by warning about the potential dangers and pitfalls involved in the life of a young woman in the “big city.” Megan feels, justified or not, that her father cannot tolerate her attending any college other than Notre Dame, and Colin’s Elvis-impersonating father is so proficient with put-downs and baiting about a military alternative to college, that Colin almost fails. It’s important to remember, however, that all of these people were functioning in the face of cameras, lighting, and other movie-production equipment for almost a year, and there’s no way to tell how living with that surreal situation affected their behavior. Also, it must be said that it’s a little difficult to believe that the filmmakers were present at so many significant moments in the lives of these kids, including the very moment one of them views a romantic breakup communicated via text message, and during an actual act of vandalism committed by one of the kids. Nevertheless, “American Teen” reveals quite a bit about teen life in modern mid-America, and is recommended. B+ (1/1/09)

“Eagle Eye”-This film uses electronic devices, technobabble, and special effects to a level that can only be described as ultra-overkill. To the extent that the film has a plot, suffice it to say that Chicagoans Jerry Shaw (Shia LeBeouf), whose brother has just died mysteriously, and Rachel Holloman (Michelle Monaghan), whose young son has just left by train with his school band to visit Washington, D.C., are suddenly confronted by a mysterious big brother (or should I say “big sister), a woman’s voice on their cellphones who literally sees all, knows all, and seems to control all. Shaw and Holloman, suspected of terrorism, are chased by a horde of law enforcement officers, including FBI Agent Morgan (played by Billy Bob Thornton) and Defense Department Agent Zoe Perez (played by Rosario Dawson). Meanwhile, Shaw and Holloman are given instructions at every step of the way by this voice, whether by phone, electronic sign, or a multitude of other electronic means, while police cars and military planes crash, all types of things blow up, and just about everything else electronic seems to be under the female voice’s instant control. What’s the goal behind the mysterious voice? Well, something sinister as I’m sure you can guess. But by the time one reaches the end of this techno-miasma, one could only hope for an immediate stay at a nice quiet resort without a computer, cellphone, or HDTV in sight. C- (12/31/08)

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