This page contains reviews of films seen during the months of April to June 2009


“Righteous Kill”-Robert De Niro and Al Pacino are together for the first time throughout an entire film. Some might say “what could be better?” But this film, like many others, proves that they are less actors than screen personalities. While De Niro’s acting talent is superior to that of Pacino’s, both seem to be dialing in the kind of performances one would expect from two guys who are ideal for playing full-of-bluster New York tough guys and not much else. The situation? De Niro is “Turk” and Pacino is “Rooster," and, of course, they are detective partners. A serial killer is executing bad guys and it appears to be one of our cop heroes. The script is predictable, and the acting is pretty mediocre, even from a first-class performer like Brian Dennehy. The best thing in the film is the appearance of Carla Gugino as Karen Corelli, a pretty detective who is involved in a kinky sexual relationship with Turk. John Leguizamo and Donnie Wahlberg as cops who suspect Turk of being the serial killer, are barely noticeable in this film. “Righteous Kill” has a “surprise” ending but if you follow the clues and use a little logic, it won’t be much of a surprise. C+ (6/30/09)

“He’s Just Not That Into You”-This comedy raises many issues about the ways that men and women interact with each other, especially in the dating/romantic/sexual aspects of human relationships. The basic problem with a film like this is that there are really no rules in life and there’s no way to summarize the “rules” of male-female romantic relationships. It all depends on the securities, insecurities, feelings, and lack thereof of those involved. Here, we’re presented with a group of beautiful people all living near each other and interacting in a variety of ways. All these attractive folk [played by movie and TV stars such as Scarlett Johansson (Anna), Ginnifer Goodwin (Gigi), Jennifer Connelly (Janine), Jennifer Anniston (Beth), Drew Barrymore (Mary), Ben Affleck (Neil), Kevin Connolly (Conor), Bradley Cooper (Ben), and Justin Long (Alex)] live, play and work with each other in, of all places, Baltimore. No, not likely. Not to insult Baltimore, but had it been LA or NY, maybe I could have accepted it, but still, even then..... Okay, let’s forget that everyone in the neighborhood seems to look like a movie star (incidentally one of the jokes in the features on the DVD is Justin Long and Ginnifer Goodwin in character joking about Neil looking a lot like Ben Affleck!) The title of the film would have you think that it’s strictly about cold men aloof to the women they meet and sleep with. But we also meet the single Conor and the married Ben pining away for the hot Anna (well, of course, it is Scarlett!) and both ultimately getting rejected, and then there’s Neil who is passionate about his woman (Beth), even after she kicks him out because he fears marriage. At the heart of the film’s title is Ginnifer Goodwin’s character, Gigi, who seems pathetic at the start, so incredibly insecure that she waits desperately for calls not likely to come and finds herself making embarrassing calls to men who probably have forgotten who she is, and the lessons taught by Justin Long’s character, Alex, who thinks he knows all the “rules” about how men react to women in such social situations. But there are also “lessons” about marriage and co-habitation (the married couple breaks up and the couple living together succeeds in the end). Virtually all of the characters are exaggerations or stereotypes, but people who act like them do exist, as do so many other types who might react completely differently. That said, despite all its flaws, I found “He’s Just Not That Into You” to be an enjoyable experience because of the beautiful and talented cast and because I remember well my own experiences in the dating wars and could relate to some extent to all of these youthful dating, romantic, and sexual dilemmas. B+ (6/28/09)

“Waltz with Bashir”-This innovative film is an animated documentary about the experiences of young Israeli men in the war in Lebanon in the early 1980s. Inspired by the dream recollections of a friend about being chased by 26 dogs, writer/director Ari Folman, who is unable to remember much of his own experience in Lebanon, interviews friends and acquaintances from that time to help him recall his own experiences. “Waltz with Bashir” is beautiful and horrifying in parts. I was particularly taken with the scenes of the beachfront in Beirut, the contrast between the lovely waterfront and the brutal destruction taking place. The animation of “Bashir” is not Pixar animation, but a completely different perspective on that specialty that seems perfectly suited for providing a balance between reality and imagination. The film makes it clear, through the stories told in the present by men in their 40s who were then not much more than 20, that there was and is nothing glamorous about this or any other war, and offers us insight into how war affects the minds of those who have no choice but to participate. (In Hebrew with English subtitles). A- (6/26/09)

“A Thousand Years of Good Prayers”-This is a simple indie movie for a fairly limited audience: one that’s interested in the experiences of different cultures within the US, with only a simple script consisting mostly of dialogue. Directed by Wayne Wang (“The Joy Luck Club”), “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers” is a story about Mr. Shi (Henry O), an elderly Chinese man who travels to Spokane, WA, to visit his newly divorced daughter, Yilan (Feihong Yu). That they are uncomfortable with each other is apparent, but Mr. Shi, despite language barriers, manages to get around town on his own and even meet an older Iranian woman (Vida Gharemani) in the park. That Mr. Shi and the elderly Iranian woman manage to communicate is somewhat of a miracle, although it later turns out that their communication skills were obviously flawed. Henry O does a fine job of portraying a quiet humble man who has hidden some secrets from his daughter, and discovers that she has also hidden secrets from him. Feihong Yu is attractive and appropriately reticent as the daughter who tries to live her life without interference from a father she hasn’t seen for many years. B- (6/19/09)

“Crossing Over”-Another of the genre of Los Angeles-based films that tell the stories of a group of unrelated people whose paths interconnect in a variety of ways (think “Crash” and “Magnolia,” for example), “Crossing Over” concerns people dealing with the issue of immigration, illegal or otherwise, and naturalization. Harrison Ford is Max Brogan, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent whose humanity controls the way he does his job. Cliff Curtis (“Whale Rider”) is Hamid Baraheri, Brogan’s ICE partner, whose father is about to become a citizen while his ill-fated sister works in a shop where fraudulent credentials are being produced. Alice Eve (“Starter for 10”) is Claire Shepard, an Australian actress so desperate to get her green card and work in the entertainment business that she winds up as a temporary sex slave for an INS agent (Ray Liotta) who is married to a caring immigration lawyer played by Ashley Judd. Summer Bishil is Taslima, a 15-year old Muslim girl in the country illegally who makes the mistake of informing her class that she sympathizes with the murderers of 9/11. There’s more. There’s the story of a young Jewish singer (Jim Sturgess) who cleverly figures out how to gain a green card by becoming “religious”; and there’s a young Asian boy who makes a serious mistake the day before he is to become a citizen, but is lucky enough to meet another caring ICE agent. Despite frequent cuts from one story to the other, there’s little confusion and everything gels. My biggest criticism, and it's true for most films of this genre, is that the interconnections and coincidences are just too much to believe. Here, the script ultimately goes over-the-top in ways I won’t reveal in order to make its point and serve its theme. Despite the negatives, though, “Crossing Over” is entertaining and worth seeing. B+ (6/14/09)

“Gran Torino”-This is not Clint Eastwood at his best, either as actor or director. With Eastwood channeling his old “Dirty Harry” character, “Gran Torino” is the story of Walt Kowalski, an elderly Korean War vet and former auto factory worker in Michigan who can’t stand his own family and is bitter about the way his neighborhood is changing as well as just about everything else. Living next door to a Hmong family doesn’t help and it gets worse when young Thao (Bee Vang) attempts to steal Walt’s 1972 Gran Torino as part of a challenge from a neighborhood Asian gang. Thao’s intelligent sister, Sue (Ahney Her), starts to charm Walt who ultimately is surprised to discover that he has more in common with the Hmong than he does with his own family. Eastwood gets to show off his Harry Callahan-like firepower on a couple of occasions as Thao and Sue find themselves pursued by local gang-thugs, and the three begrudgingly grow closer. The problem with “Gran Torino” is that it has a few too many flaws, including a script loaded with racist terms that makes it uncomfortable to watch (it sounded as if the screenwriters made a list of every offensive reference to Asians and used them one by one); a series of artificial and/or silly scenes, such as Walt’s attempt to introduce Thao to offensive “man talk” at a local barbershop; and, worst of all, some weak acting. The latter comes especially in the form of Christopher Carley as Father Janovich, a friend of Walt’s late wife. In an early scene in which the “padre” is trying to convince the cynical and nasty Walt to come to confession, Carley’s performance sounds like an amateur’s audition tape. Carley does, however, seem to improve as the film goes along. Bee Vang and Ahney Her, making their movie debuts, are a pleasant surprise as the Hmong brother and sister. C (6/13/09)

“Notorious”-When the events that take place in this movie occurred in the early 1990s, they seemed to me no more than soundbites on the news, having little impact on my life. “Notorious,” however, brilliantly brings to life the world of rap music that resulted in an East Coast/West Coast rivalry and the ultimate murders of Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie) in Las Vegas, and Notorious B.I.G. (Jamal Woolard) in Los Angeles. Woolard, making his feature debut, is awesome as Christopher “Biggie” Wallace, a young overweight man from Brooklyn who initially falters in his desire to become important by entering the world of drug dealing and winding up for a time in prison, only to discover a talent for rap music and an uncontrollable desire for women. With the support of Sean “Puffy” Combs (Derek Luke), Wallace becomes Notorious B.I.G., a rap star on the ascendant, leaving behind his first girl friend and young daughter in Brooklyn, discovering and becoming involved with the outrageous Lil’ Kim (Naturi Naughton), and ultimately tossing her over for the singer he married, Faith Evans (Antonique Smith), the mother of his son, Christopher (who actually plays his father as a young boy at the beginning of the film and does it very well). Under the watchful eye of his Jamaican mother, Violetta (Angela Bassett who unfortunately plays the part sans accent), Wallace is a bundle of drive, talent, and desire, but, as portrayed in this film, finds himself innocently in the midst of what appears to be a murderous rivalry (the murders of both Shakur and B.I.G., have not been solved to date). The film’s executive producer is Sean Combs, and certainly events are portrayed from his point of view. I don’t know enough about the details to say how accurate they are. But as a movie experience, “Notorious” is effective, entertaining, and enlightening about the world of young African-Americans who expressed themselves (and express they do) with their rather powerful, violent and sexually suggestive rhymed lyrics. This is a world in which anger and desire breaks through into artistic creation unlike any seen before. A- (6/12/09)

“The International”-Directed by Tom Tykwer (“Run Lola Run”), “The International” is in many ways a very typical thriller with a theme of international immorality and evil at all levels, whether it be banking, arms industry, or government, but with a sense of the hopelessness of fighting against it. Clive Owen does his usual job as the good guy, an Interpol agent named Louis Salinger who, with the aid of a New York Assistant District Attorney, Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts), investigates a major world bank that has no compunctions about killing anyone who gets in its megalomaniacal way. Of course, this theme presents a flaw in the very fabric of the film which starts with the rather easy murder of one of Salinger’s colleagues right in front of him on the street, and makes one wonder throughout the film why Salinger is immune from being equally victimized. The presence of the Naomi Watts character is a little puzzling. She really doesn’t add much and isn’t a romantic interest for Salinger since she’s already married and has a child. “The International” is beautifully filmed in a variety of international locations, including Milan, New York, Berlin, and Istanbul, but it includes a seemingly unending shootout inside the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan, and the plot is tepid and unsurprising. The violence at the museum takes the movie down the wrong path and the theme is ultimately too disheartening for this genre of film. C+ (6/11/09)

“Defiance”-The premise is simple and based on a true story: it is the fall of 1941 and the four tough Bielski brothers in Belorussia, led by the two older brothers, Tuvia (Daniel Craig) and Zus (Liev Schreiber), escape to the forest after the slaughter of their parents and other fellow Jews by the Nazis and Nazi collaborators. Others begin to join them and before long they have a rather large community that needs food and shelter, especially from the frigid Belorussian winter. They also need weapons and, as might be expected, tensions begin to build between the brothers and with other upstarts in the group. “Defiance” is an inspiring story about astounding grit and amazing survival in the forest among Jews during World War II, a theme rarely heard before especially in these circumstances. Daniel Craig, leaving his James Bond role far behind, is appealing and appropriately tough as the leader who has to make instant decisions, sometimes involving life and death. Liev Schrieber is also fine as the brother who is more interested in revenge against the Nazi killers. The cast includes several appealing actors, including Jamie Bell and George MacKay as the younger Bielskis; Alexa Davalos as Lilka, the woman with whom Tuvia ultimately finds love; Allan Corduner (“Topsy-Turvy”) as Shamon Haretz, a teacher who carries his books everywhere; Mark Feuerstein as a young intellectual who learns to cope with the survival needs of the forest; and Iben Hjejle (“High Fidelity”) as Bella, Zus’ love interest. This story of the struggle of these people to survive is bound to have you in tears. B+ (6/7/09)

“Revolutionary Road”-When Richard Yates wrote the novel upon which this film was based (1961), the nation was in the relatively early stages of the movement of city dwellers to the suburbs. So, a story about the angst of such a move by a young smart couple from Manhattan to the Connecticut suburbs was a natural. But is it relevant today when suburban living is so well established in our society? “Revolutionary Road” is about Frank Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his wife April (Kate Winslet) who, in a brief introduction in the film appear smart and destined for great things, but who move in 1955 to a relatively standard suburban home in Connecticut, have two children, and then find their lives deteriorating. Is it really suburban living or is it the personality quirks of the protagonists that is bringing them down? Frank works in the city for his father’s old firm, is bored out of his mind, and is having an affair. April dislikes everything about suburban life and wants to bring some excitement into their lives by picking up and moving to Paris, a decision she presses on Frank with disastrous consequences. In this film directed by Winslet’s husband, Sam Mendes (“American Beauty”), DiCaprio and Winslet provide a powerful presence on the screen due to their talent and their looks. They are an awesome couple and so their marriage difficulties make an even greater impact on the viewer, especially as April’s emotional disturbance becomes more and more obvious. “Revolutionary Road” includes some outstanding supporting performances, especially that of Michael Shannon, who was properly nominated for an Oscar for his performance as John Givings, the outspoken mentally ill son of the Wheelers’ friend and real estate agent, Helen (Kathy Bates), and who serves as a virtual one-man Greek chorus. Also notable are David Harbour as Shep Campbell, the Wheelers’ neighbor who covets his neighbor’s wife; Jay Sanders as Frank’s boss; Dylan Baker as Jack Ordway, Frank’s outspoken co-worker; and Zoe Kazan as the young lady at the office with whom Frank has an affair. But there’s one more essential element of this film and it is the cinematography which is brilliant and painfully sharp, thanks to the great Roger Deakins (“The Reader,” “Doubt,” and “No Country for Old Men”), one of the best in the business. A- (6/5/09)

“The House Bunny”-Looking for a little humor among all the serious and violent films, I stumbled across this almost embarrassing film starring Anna Faris. She plays Shelley Darlingson, a longtime resident of the Playboy Mansion who is seemingly evicted by Hef just after her 27th birthday. Initially living out of her car, Shelley, clad in the briefest of outfits (of course), spends a night in jail for an “innocent” misunderstanding with a cop and then lucks into a job as house mother for a bunch of socially retarded sorority sisters about to lose their house. Needless to say, she inspires the uninspired and turns the house, Zeta, into the sexiest and liveliest house at the college. Along the way, she saves Zeta from being taken over by the nasty rich girls, led by their arrogant house mother, Mrs. Hagstrom (Beverly D’Angelo), and discovers that Hef had nothing to do with her Playboy Mansion eviction. The problem is that the writers, although having a rather cute premise for a simplistic comedy, included jokes that could only make you wonder what in the world they were thinking (such as the weird Exorcist-like sounds emanating from Shelley’s mouth when she meets somebody). Overall, the humor is aimed at the lowest common-denominator, an utterly unsophisticated teenage audience. Frankly, having once been a teenager who appreciated fine films, I feel sorry for that group if this is what they find funny. And it also didn’t help that the acting borders at times on amateurish. Anna Faris is appealing and yet just a little too zealous. The cast includes some forgettable performances (Rumer Willis and Katherine McPhee), but, on the other hand, includes two young actresses who stand out from the crowd. One is Lindsay Lohan look-alike Emma Stone who plays Natalie, the overly thoughtful leader of the Zetas, and the other is Kat Dennings (who was wonderful in “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist”) as a Zeta who undergoes an amazing transformation. Colin Hanks also appears as Shelley’s far too serious and dull love interest. C- (5/29/09)

“Changeling”-Based on a true story: It is 1928. Los Angeles, California. A woman named Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) returns home from work to find her 9-year-old son, Walter, missing. After some time. the LA police produce a young boy found in DeKalb, IL. Although Ms. Collins initially denies the boy is her son, Captain J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) insists that he is and she rather docilely takes him home where she confirms to herself that he is not the boy she gave birth to. She continues to complain to the incredibly self-righteous Captain Jones who decides she is becoming a nuisance and, without warrant or hearing, instantly has her committed to the “psychopathic” ward of a local hospital which handles women who have made the LA police unhappy in one way or another. Hard to believe something like this could happen in this country, doesn’t it? Close to the way we pictured the Soviet Union treating its citizens? With the background of a first rate recreation of the LA of 1928, Clint Eastwood directs this film from utter exasperation at the way Christine Collins allows herself to be pushed around, to outrage at the way she is abused by the LA police, and finally towards a triumphant, albeit painful denouement when the LA police discover the mass serial killing of boys at a local ranch and the LA police are investigated for their outrageous and corrupt behavior. My problem with Angelina Jolie in this role is that she shows far too little emotion, something it’s hard to imagine in the circumstances. John Malkovich has the unusual role of a good guy for a change, here playing Rev. Briegleb, a local minister who protests regularly on the radio against LA police incompetence and corruption. Jason Butler Harner is eerily disturbing as Gordon Stewart Northcott, the serial killer of young boys who might not have been discovered if it were not for Christine Collins’ protests. This isn’t Clint Eastwood’s best film, but it nevertheless provides an interesting look at a strange tale that could only have happened in a town like the LA of 1928, in some ways a paradise and in some ways a hell. B+ (5/24/09)

“Valkyrie”-This film got a lot of bad publicity when it was being made, but the end result is a fairly exciting and well done historical drama about the July 1944 attempt, led by Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise), to kill Adolph Hitler shortly after the Normandy Invasion, in order to end the Nazi regime. With an excellent cast, including Carice van Houten (“Black Book”) as Mrs. von Stauffenberg, Kenneth Branagh as Major General von Tresckow, Bill Nighy as General Friedrich Olbricht, Tom Wilkinson as General Friedrich Fromm, Terence Stamp as Ludwig Beck, and Eddie Izzard as General Erich Fellgiebel, “Valkyrie” follows the real-life events closely, showing the truth of the adage that war is unpredictable. The major problem with the film, of course, is the inevitable lack of suspense for anyone who knows history. Also, it would have seemed more authentic with fewer British accents and actors who could actually speak German (the film begins with Stauffenberg speaking in German but quickly switches to English--later, only Hitler has the semblance of a German accent). Tom Cruise, who looks a lot like the real Count von Stauffenberg, is quite effective as the officer who was disgusted by what the Nazis were doing and managed to find others who agreed with him and were willing to put their lives in jeopardy to destroy Hitler and the Nazis. If for nothing else, this film deserves praise for recreating the tale of this brave man. B+ (5/23/09)

“Incendiary”-Michelle Williams, an absolutely wonderful actress, seems to find herself in the middle of many depressing and/or obscure films, like this one. She’s scheduled to appear in an upcoming Martin Scorsese film called “Shutter Island”; so let’s hope she gets more attention because she’s worth it. Here she plays a young British mother, somewhat estranged from her bomb squad police officer husband. She has just begun an affair with a reporter, Jasper Black (Ewen McGregor) and is engaging in sex with him at the exact moment her husband and young son are killed during a terrorist explosion at a soccer match. The now distracted, dismayed, and guilt-ridden young woman, nameless in the film, finds herself being pursued by two men, Black, and her late husband’s former co-worker, Terrance (Matthew Macfadyen), both of whom have connections, in different ways, to the bombing. At first I was slightly taken aback by Williams’ British accent, but I soon forgot all about it and found her performance riveting. I wish I could say the same for the film. “Incendiary,” written and directed by Sharon Maguire (“Bridget Jones’s Diary”), deals with the lust and guilt of the primary characters, but seems to lose its way at the end when it turns exclusively to scenes reflecting the mental distress of Williams’ character. B- (5/22/09)

“Taken”-Liam Neeson plays Bryan Mills, a sort of nihilistic superhero (to his daughter) in this simplistic and violent film about a retired secret agent whose 17-year old daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace), is kidnapped almost immediately upon landing in Paris, a trip about which Mills was skeptical. Fortunately for Kim, she happens to be talking on a cell phone to her Dad at the exact moment the kidnappers enter, and Mills promises her he’ll find her at the same time he’s recording the sounds in the room. With the little information he has, and seemingly with almost no effort, Mills jets to Paris, finds the kidnappers, and kills just about everyone in his way. Mills’ outrage at the taking of his daughter is understandable and acceptable. His vigilantism, in which absolutely no object or person stands in his way, is not. There’s little suspense, other than one brief moment when Mills is briefly stopped, but that soon passes and Mills goes on his merry way until Kim is found. Did I give something away? Only a very slow person would think this film could have any other ending. Famke Janssen appears as Mills' nasty ex-wife, mother of Kim, now living with a rich and indulgent husband (Xander Berkeley). C- (5/16/09)

“Last Chance Harvey”-This is a light romantic comedy with little or no substance, but with two very talented stars who make it pleasantly watchable. Dustin Hoffman is Harvey Shine, a commercial jingle composer in NY on the edge of losing his job who travels to London for the wedding of his somewhat estranged daughter Susan (Liane Balaban). After Harvey’s divorce from Susan’s mother (Kathy Baker), his daughter has become more attached to her stepfather (James Brolin) than to her somewhat bumbling dad Harvey and he knows it. Feeling down and out he stumbles onto a friendship with Kate Walker (Emma Thompson), a local middle-aged woman who seems awkward around men and comfortable with her single life. Although Harvey had been planning to leave London without attending the wedding reception, Kate talks him into going and things start to happen between them when he buys her a dress and takes her to the event. Emma Thompson is one of the most intelligent and appealing stars no matter what kind of character she’s playing. Her expressions and charm make you feel like you know and understand her. Dustin Hoffman does a fine job of being the kind of guy who often embarrasses people with his awkwardness but who here rises to the occasion and “shines” at the reception. The cast includes the wonderful Eileen Atkins as Kate’s mother, Maggie, who has suspicions about her new neighbor. This is a decent film for a rainy day. Just don’t expect any great revelations. B (5/15/09)

“Nothing But the Truth”-Based loosely on the jailing of Judith Miller for refusal to reveal a source in the Valerie Plame case, and written and directed by Rod Lurie, “Nothing But the Truth” tells the story of Rachel Armstrong (Kate Beckinsale), the wife of a novelist and mother of a young son, who, as a reporter for a major Washington newspaper, publishes a story outing as a CIA agent Erica Van Doren (Vera Farmiga), the mother of one of the children at her son’s school. When Patton Dubois (Matt Dillon) is appointed special prosecutor, he brings Armstrong in front of a grand jury and demands that she reveal her source. She refuses and the judge (played by the First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams) jails her for contempt until she agrees to talk. Nothing will deter Rachel, not even the possible alienation of her husband (David Schwimmer) and son, tragic consequences that befall Erica Van Doren, or the threat of criminal charges by the prosecutor, and she lingers in jail in apparent defense of the right of a reporter to protect a source. “Nothing But the Truth” contains some terrific performances from Kate Beckinsale, Vera Farmiga, Matt Dillon, and from Alan Alda as Alan Burnside, the distinguished but seemingly self-centered lawyer hired by Armstrong’s paper to represent her. It also provides a good examination of some very important first amendment issues about freedom of the press and government power, summed up in a dynamic speech to the Supreme Court by Burnside about how dangerous it is for this country to undermine the free press when it comes to investigating possible wrongdoing by the government. But the script by Rod Lurie, who also directs, lets down all of the principles seemingly at the heart of the film when it reveals, at the very end, the source of Armstrong’s story and demonstrates that her decisive and stalwart actions to defend the first amendment made little sense under the circumstances. B (5/15/09)

‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”-This film requires the viewer to suspend disbelief in just a few too many ways. While it’s not so hard to accept a fantasy about a man who is born old and grows young, it’s a lot harder to accept the method of telling the story. We have to believe that Daisy (Cate Blanchett), one of the main figures in the story, would wait until her 80s, on her deathbed and barely able to speak, to tell her daughter (Julia Ormond), for the first time, the story of Benjamin Button, a rather significant person in their lives. “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” contains a certain amount of symbolism, including a story about a clockmaker who kills himself at sea after making a train station clock that runs backwards in honor of the dead of WW I, including his own son. This curious symbolic tale, however, is almost forgotten until the the story of Benjamin Button comes full circle right after the clock is removed and replaced with a digital clock that runs in the right direction. Is there an intended connection? Well, obviously, but your guess is as good as mine as to what it really means. Meanwhile, we have to slog through over 2 1/2 hours of a rather unmoving story about a man who is born with an old body but young mind and gradually grows younger while his mind ages. What surprised me was that despite the presence of Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, two very appealing stars, and a rather unusual tale based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, I felt little real connection with any of these characters. Benjamin Button’s rather ordinary life (apart from the obviously unusual nature of his aging) keeps intersecting with Daisy, whom he meets when both are “young.” But Daisy is hardly a typically romantic ideal, seeming more self-oriented and removed than one would expect of a character in this situation. The film’s score was morbidly repetitive and the soundtrack was a little too noisy at times with background sounds, making dialogue hard to hear, especially when Captain Mike (Jared Harris), already having a very thick accent, was talking. Of note in the cast were Taraji P. Henson as Queenie, the New Orleans woman who raises Benjamin; and Tilda Swinton as Elizabeth Abbott, a married woman whom Benjamin meets in Russia and with whom he has his first affair. The film was directed by David Fincher (“Zodiac” “Fight Club,” and “Panic Room”) B- (5/9/09)

“Elegy”-This is the kind of film that is guaranteed not to make money in this country. Why? Because it’s a relatively simple and yet serious adult tale about aging, romance, and male wanderlust, moves slowly, and requires an attention-span beyond a minute. Based on the novel “The Dying Animal” by Philip Roth, “Elegy,” directed by Spanish director Isabel Coixet, is about David Kepesh (Ben Kingsley), a professor and cultural commentator of advancing age who is single and interested in his young female students, especially the beautiful Consuela Castillo (Penelope Cruz). Kepesh, who already has a longstanding bed partner in an often-out-of-town businesswoman (Patricia Clarkson), becomes obsessed with Consuela. At the same time, he demonstrates his obvious feelings of guilt at being in a relationship with a woman 30 years his junior by refusing to join Consuela at her family gatherings. Ben Kingsley provides just the right touches as an intellectual with confused romantic desires, and Dennis Hopper, an unusual choice, is wonderful as George O’Hearn, Kepesh’s poet friend, who shares in the romantic deeds and tales. Despite a couple of annoying scenes, including one in which Kepesh immaturely spies on Consuela and is quickly discovered, the film soars when Penelope Cruz is on the screen. Having finally gained recognition for her acting talents in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” here Ms. Cruz gets the opportunity to show her talent in a far more sensitive and subtle performance. Also in the cast are Peter Sarsgaard as Kepesh’s somewhat estranged doctor son Kenny, and Deborah Harry as O’Hearn’s wife, Amy. If you like to see films with themes for mature adults as well as some very good acting, this film is for you. B+ (5/8/09)

“The Reader”-Is Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) a monster or simply an amoral and illiterate woman who was swept up in the tide of what the writer/philosopher Hannah Arendt once called the “banality of evil”? Based on the excellent novel by Bernhard Schlink with a screenplay by playwright David Hare, “The Reader” raises all kinds of moral and social issues and views the Nazi atrocities of the the Holocaust in a way that could never have been imagined in the days when I was growing up in the 1950s. In those days, SS prison guards were seen clearly as cold-hearted brutal monsters and no one could have made a film dealing with the “humanity” of such creatures. But from the perspective of 60+ years, things change and now we have a film that begins in Berlin in 1958 and presents us with 15-year old Michael Berg (David Kross), having an intense and erotic affair with Hanna, a lonely older (36 or so) trolley car ticket-taker. Hanna likes to have books read to her, possibly the reason why she starts sleeping with Michael. And when she is promoted to an office job, she disappears. Years later, when Michael is in law school he attends the trial of a group of women who were SS concentration camp guards, now charged with the deaths of hundreds of camp victims, including many in a locked burning church. Michael is horrified to see that the lead defendant is Hanna Schmitz. Forward to the 1980s-1990s and we find that the events of his youth have turned the adult Michael (Ralph Fiennes) into a taciturn individual, especially when it comes to the deep secrets of his youth, and Michael ultimately has to make a decision about his feelings about Hanna, who played such a formative role in his life. As for the cast, Kate Winslet is powerful as Hanna, although I never quite forgot I was watching Kate Winslet, an element that may have made Hanna more sympathetic than she deserves. Winslet is a wonderful actress who seems to have no compunctions about appearing naked on the screen. While the nude and lovemaking scenes are quite erotic, my sense is that they were overdone, ultimately becoming a distraction from the real issues in the early stages of the film. David Kross, a young German actor, is very appealing as the sincere, lovestruck but intelligent teenage Michael who later finds his world turned upside down by the events that occurred in his country in his infancy. Ralph Fiennes does a fine and sensitive job as the pained adult Michael, and Lena Olin is powerful as the camp survivor whose book led to Hanna’s trial. The Swiss star Bruno Ganz appears in an important role as Michael’s law professor who raises questions about the important themes of the film. “The Reader” is directed with great intelligence by Stephen Daldry whose last film was the marvelous “The Hours,” and was filmed, at least in part, by the great cinematographer Roger Deakins (“Doubt” and “No Country for Old Men”), and it shows. “The Reader” is entertaining and intensely thought-provoking. A- (5/2/09)

“Frost/Nixon”-Having been in Washington, just a few blocks from the White House, during the entire Nixon presidency, and having stood outside the White House the day Nixon flew away in his helicopter, I feel a special attachment to this story about David Frost’s post-Watergate interviews of the only president to resign from office in disgrace. This Ron Howard-directed film contains powerful performances by the leads in a portrayal of a battle of the minds between a well-known TV host and interviewer and embittered ex-president trying to restore his political status and authority. While Frank Langella (“Starting Out in the Evening”) provides only a characterization of the real Richard Nixon and Michael Sheen (“The Queen”) is not quite the David Frost that I remember, nevertheless when together on the screen there is magic. The DVD of the film contains portions of the actual interview, thus providing a basis for insight into how an historical event such as this is dramatized. In the real interview, Frost looks much more confident and cocky and Nixon much calmer, than their film portrayals. In the film, for dramatic purposes, Frost is made to appear somewhat inept at the start, allowing Nixon to ramble on and use up valuable time. It’s only when he approaches the segment about Watergate that he rallies and conquers. Nixon, on the other hand, is given a little more humanity and empathy than he deserves. However, when all is said and done, “Frost/Nixon,” based on the play of the same name, is a dynamic and effective portrayal and highly recommended. The supporting cast includes Matthew Macfadyen, Sam Rockwell (as James Reston, Jr.), and Oliver Platt (as Bob Zelnick) as Frost’s support team with Reston and Zelnick encouraging Frost to effectively put Nixon on trial. On the other side there is Kevin Bacon as Jack Brennan, Nixon’s post-presidency chief of staff, portrayed as an uptight ex-military officer bent on protecting Nixon and helping to restore his reputation. With all these men, I suppose Ron Howard felt the film needed some eye candy and that’s provided by Rebecca Hall (“Vicky Cristina Barcelona”) in a charming performance as Frost’s girlfriend, Caroline Cushing (incidentally, although the film makes it appear that Frost met Ms. Cushing on a plane just prior to his meeting Nixon, the fact is that in real life Frost and Cushing had been involved in a relationship for several years at that point). A- (5/1/09)

“The Wrestler”-Mickey Rourke deservedly received an Oscar nomination for his intense and appealing performance as professional wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson, on the downhill side of his career and possibly his life. Director Darren Aronofsky, who thankfully has progressed from films like “Pi” and “The Fountain,” here presents a down-to-earth human story, about a lonely and seemingly decent man who receives wild adulation in the ring but seems only to achieve scorn or neglect in his private life, usually due to his own flaws or poor behavior. Rourke’s co-stars are Marisa Tomei, showing off some of her finest assets, as Randy’s stripper friend whom he’d like to know better, and Evan Rachel Wood as Randy’s bitter daughter, Stephanie, with whom he manages to share at least one sweet reunion. Some of the scenes, including the one in which Randy is working as a deli clerk and has to deal with annoying customers, are priceless. This is a fine film. A- (4/26/09)

“A Secret”-Taking place in France at a variety of times between 1936 and 1985, and based on real-life events, “A Secret” tells the story of a French Jewish family, the Grimbergs, some of whom survived the Holocaust. It begins in 1955, where young François Grimbert (the family name has been changed) who is unathletic in contrast to his parents, Maxime (Patrick Bruel), a gymnast, and Tania (Cécile De France), a swimmer, fantasizes about a non-existent athletic brother and eventually discovers a toy in the attic which leads to his being told the story of his parents’ past, shortly before WW II, when they were married to other people and his father indeed had an athletic son, the apple of his eye. The film also stars Ludivine Sagnier who usually plays the femme fatale but here appears as a young Jewish woman who marries a man who can’t take his eyes off her brother’s wife, even at their wedding; Julie Depardieu as Louise, a loving member of the family; and Mathieu Amalric (“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”) as François at age 35, who finds that his father shows more feeling about the loss of his dog than he did about the loss of his wife and son in the Holocaust. “A Secret” is a touching tale about human desires and romantic frustration, even in the face of the Nazi scourge, although at times I found myself feeling that the script could have been a little tighter. Portions of the film are quite effective, others not. The 1985 portion, done in black and white, makes an important point but I found the flashbacks and flash-forwards sometimes abrupt and confusing, especially early in the film. (In French with English subtitles) B (4/24/09)

‘’Timecrimes”-Writer/director/co-star Nacho Vigalondo, who was nominated in 2005 for an Oscar for best live action short film, has here engaged in a little self-indulgence by making this film about Hector (Karra Elejalde), a man who, while sitting on a chaise in his backyard and looking around with his binoculars, sees something going on in the woods nearby, investigates, and finds himself in the middle of a time travel nightmare. You see, after discovering a naked young woman (Bárbara Goenaga) in the woods and being attacked by a man whose entire face is covered with bandages, he runs off, and winds up in a nearby time travel laboratory, being accidentally sent backwards in time for a few hours. After Hector sees himself in the distance in his house, the young man at the laboratory (Vigalondo) warns him to stay put or risk ruining his life, but he can’t stop his impulses and sets in motion a series of events that seem to have no likely end. The sci-fi premise is a curiosity although the basic plot has flaws in its time travel logic (how did these events start?). As for the film quality, the acting is adequate but the photography and lighting seem a little too amateurish to be taken seriously. (In Spanish with English subtitles) C (4/18/09)

“Body of Lies”-With Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe starring, and Ridley Scott directing, what could go wrong? Well, a weak script, a lot of clichés, and a tepid plot. Watching “Body of Lies,” the thing that kept coming to mind was: haven’t I seen this before? Yes I have: another thriller about middle east terrorists threatening havoc on the western world, and the doings of the CIA as it tries to find and infiltrate the group. Leonardo DiCaprio is Roger Ferris, a handsome self-confident agent who is constantly undermined by his boss, Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe), a bumbling and uncaring bureaucrat back in Washington who spends more time watching his kids than paying attention to what his agent has to say. “Body of Lies” has distracting irrelevant scenes such as the one in which Ferris takes over a CIA office, kicks out the local head agent, and hears him say “I’ll meet you on the way down.” Well, he doesn’t. And it has, of course, the pretty Iranian nurse (Golshifteh Farahani) who treats Ferris for dog bites, becomes his love interest, and, not unexpectedly, a target of the terrorists. Oh, the film has a couple of twists and turns, with Mark Strong playing a tough, clever, and manipulative Hani Salaam, head of Jordanian security who tells Ferris never to lie to him. Ferris promises never to lie and then what do you think Ferris does? For these reasons as well as its predictability and lack of innovation, in the end, I found “Body of Lies” to be a big yawner. C+ (4/17/09)

“Slumdog Millionaire”-Viewing an Oscar-winning film for the first time without any real preconceptions can be an interesting experience. Will it stand up to the hype or be disappointing? I had no idea that the plot of this British/Indian film was as depressing as it turns out to be and I was surprised at how confusing the presentation of the story is in its early stages. Jamal Malik (Dev Patel as the adult Jamal) is shown being tortured by the police for allegedly cheating on the Indian version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” Is the show over or still going on? For the purposes of cinematic drama, we have to wait to find out. The police inspector (Irrfan Khan of “The Namesake”) wants to know how a kid who grew up in the colorful but filthy slums of Mumbai (the former Bombay) could possibly know the answers to the show’s questions when far more educated people fail. And so Jamal tells him his story, in flashbacks of course, of growing up as an orphaned Muslim in Hindu India with his opportunistic brother Salim (Madhur Mittal as the adult Salim), and being taken in by and escaping from thugs who maim children in order to turn them into perfect beggars. Jamal also describes how he meets and becomes emotionally attached to a young orphan girl, Latika (Freida Pinto as the adult Latika), and how they are separated, usually with the participation of Jamal’s nasty older brother, Salim. While viewing Jamal’s tale, we learn how he gains the information he will need and his motivation to participate on the “Millionaire” show hosted by the sleazy Prem Kumar (Anil Kapoor). The film takes the form of a jumble of sounds (sometimes very loud) and images as we see the experiences of a young man who somehow survives being mistreated seemingly at every step of the way. “Slumdog Millionaire,” of course, leads to the inevitable happy ending, but getting there exposes us to the ultra-poverty and misery of life as a “slumdog” (a term apparently invented by the screenwriter) in the streets of poverty-ridden India. While watching I wondered how the people of India would react to the negative images of their world presented by this film. “Slumdog Millionaire” is produced and directed by westerners, but based on the novel “Q&A” by Vikas Swarup, an Indian lawyer-diplomat. Director Danny Boyle (“Trainspotting”) has put together a very good cast of young actors, many from the real streets of Mumbai, and leads us along the smelly path to the joyous and possibly best (Bollywood-like) scene in the film that occurs over the end-titles. Would I have voted for this film to win the Oscar. No, I would have voted for “Milk,” but I must admit that “Slumdog Millionaire” is an unusual experience, although I believe the hype it has received goes beyond its ultimate qualities. B+ (4/11/09)

“Doubt”-Taking place in a Catholic school in the Bronx in 1964, and based on the Broadway play of the same name by director and screenwriter John Patrick Shanley, who grew up in that neighborhood, “Doubt” contains some of the finest acting you will see in a long time. Meryl Streep is simply brilliant as Sister Aloysius Beauvier, the principal of the school, who seems to spend all of her time looking for trouble and whose approach to life is ultra-strict and full of absolutism. Philip Seymour Hoffman is marvelous as Father Brendan Flynn, the local parish priest who has a more humane view of what the Church should be doing and tries to ease the life at school of a young friendless boy, Donald Miller, the first black student there. I guarantee that you will never see better performances by two actors than when Streep and Hoffman are together in one scene battling each other verbally. When the somewhat innocent Sister James (the delightful Amy Adams), sees a few things at the school concerning Donald Miller that don’t seem right to her, she brings her concerns to Sister Aloysius who becomes convinced, with absolute moral certainty, that there is something inappropriate going on. After being confronted, Father Flynn stirs the congregation with a sermon on the subject of “doubt.” “Doubt” is a multi-themed story about the approach of the Sisters of Charity at a Catholic school; the role of the Church in a modernizing world; the issue of child abuse by priests; and the conflict between true belief and humanity that's represented by the approaches of Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn. However, it should be noted that while it can't be certain that this was intended by John Patrick Shanley, the title in the context of a story about priests and nuns in a Catholic school, can also raise the intriguing question of the basis of faith, and whether, considering the Church's crusading, inquisitional and missionary history, and Sister Aloysius' approach, the true title of this film should have been "Certainty." "Doubt" also contains the brilliant, albeit brief, performance of Viola Davis as Donald Miller’s mother. When Mrs. Miller and Sister Aloysius converse on a walk from the school to nearby Parkchester, where Mrs. Miller works, sparks almost literally fly. Although the ending of the film is peculiar in light of the portrayals of the characters in the rest of the story, the overall effect of “Doubt” is stunning, both in theme and especially in performance. Beautifully photographed by the great cinematographer Roger Deakins, and perfectly compact in its presentation, my biggest criticism of the film is that I would have liked to have seen a few more people in the outdoor Bronx scenes. This is one film not to be missed. A (4/10/09)

“Let The Right One In”-Vampire movies are not really my thing, but I was intrigued by the favorable reviews this Swedish film had received. Beautifully photographed in a snow-covered Swedish town, “Let The Right One In” is the story of a unique attachment between two “youngsters.” Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) is a lonely 12-year old boy being picked on by bullies at school, but who, despite carrying a knife, can only imagine the courage to get back at them. One day he meets a strange young neighbor, Eli (Lina Leandersson), who tells him that she is 12, “more or less.” But we soon realize that Eli is hardly a typical 12-year old girl, as the man with whom she lives kills a young boy to harvest blood for her, and then forgets to bring the blood home when he is interrupted in the middle of his act. Eli is forced to kill a popular local man for his blood at the same time that she is trying to encourage Oskar to stand up to the bullies. “Let The Right One In” doesn’t exactly provide a positive theme for young viewers, but it does offer us an intelligent and well-acted tale about this unusual friendship. Kåre Hedebrant is fine as young Oskar, but it is Lina Leandersson, looking slightly disheveled most of the time, who steals the film with just the right look and approach to the role of a thirsty but nice vampire in the form of a young girl. B+ (4/10/09)

“Tell No One”-Having read Harlan Coben’s novel on which this movie is based, I had a disadvantage in watching this wonderful French thriller as I knew the ultimate outcome. But viewing the film made it clear to me that “Tell No One” is one of the most effective, well-acted and paced thrillers I’ve seen in years. Although Coben’s book is about American characters, screenwriter/director Guillaume Canet has translated it perfectly into a story about French characters and filmed it beautifully in Paris and the French countryside. A pediatrician, Alexandre Beck (the excellent François Cluzet), believes his beloved wife, Margot (Marie Josée-Croze of “The Barbarian Invasions” and “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”), was murdered by a serial killer eight years previously. When he begins to receive email messages hinting that she may still be alive, including one that says “tell no one,” Beck becomes agitated and extremely curious. But he soon finds himself on the run because he is the subject of a police investigation in which it is now believed he not only physically abused and killed his wife but has also just killed her best friend. With the help of family and friends, including the father of one of his patients, Beck does everything he can to prove his innocence and discover the truth. The basic plot sounds a little clichéd, but as directed by Guillaume Canet, “Tell No One” is as suspenseful and mysterious as a thriller can be, especially considering the excellent cast which includes Kristin Scott Thomas as Helene Perkins, Beck’s sister’s lover; Marina Hands (“Lady Chatterley”) as Beck’s sister, Anne; Nathalie Baye as Beck’s lawyer; André Dussollier as Beck’s father-in-law, an ex-cop; and François Berléand as the police inspector. “Tell No One” is a mystery thriller not to be missed. In French with English subtitles. A (4/4/09)

“Synecdoche, New York”-“Synecdoche” is a term which refers to a situation in which a part of a thing or its material is used to refer to the thing or vice versa. Two examples I’ve seen are “wheels” to refer to a car, and “plastic” to refer to a credit card. Writer-director Charlie Kaufman (“Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation”), who undoubtedly has the strangest imagination of anyone in Hollywood, uses that symbolism for this theater-of-the-absurd story of the life and hard times of an upstate New York theater director. The film follows the life of Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who is about as screwed up as one can imagine, as well as the women in his life. He’s morose, thinks about and fears death constantly, and seems to always be suffering from a variety of symptoms. So, it’s not terribly surprising when his painter wife, Adele (Catherine Keener), takes their young daughter and runs off permanently to Berlin. Inexplicably, considering what appears to be a clichéd production of “Death of a Salesman” (starring young actors) he’s put on in Schenectady, NY, where he lives, he’s given a major genius grant and begins a theater production to outdo all theater productions. Using an extremely large hangar-like building in New York City, Caden attempts to recreate his life and everything and everyone around him, continuing the massive production for years on end without an audience and even, apparently, without a real understanding of where he’s going. Not only does he continue to hire actors, but the set grows to resemble a full-blown recreation of New York City within the building, and life and his production begin to overlap in ways that might be compared to an M.C. Escher painting. “Synecdoche, New York” is loaded with potential themes and hints about those themes. Is it an existential tale about the meaning of life or its lack thereof? Is it about how the lives of theater people result in a blurring of reality? Is it about the way humans spend their short time on earth worrying about minutiae and potential illness? Or is it about a variety of other things? The fact that this film is subject to so many interpretations should elevate its status, although at the same time, it must be said that viewing it is an effort and requires a very open frame of mind. Charlie Kaufman’s film is thus definitely not for anyone who is looking for simple-minded entertainment. As always, Philip Seymour Hoffman is outstanding, utterly into his miserable but creative character. The cast is loaded with first-rate performances by such as Samantha Morton as Hazel, Caden’s friend and occasional lover whose life is entangled with his; Michelle Williams as Claire Keen, Caden’s star who ultimately becomes the mother of his second child; Jennifer Jason Leigh as Maria, Adele’s interfering sister whose accent grows more Germanic as time goes on; Hope Davis as Madeleine Gravis, Caden’s egotistical therapist; and Tom Noonan/Dianne Wiest (yes, both) and Emily Watson as, respectively, the alter egos of Caden and Hazel in the production (and in life?) If you decide to see this film, be prepared. Charlie Kaufman is one-of-a-kind. Whether he’s been successful or not depends a lot on your approach to films which require the viewer to think and analyze exactly what is going on. B+ (4/3/09)

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