This page contains reviews of films seen during the months of July to September 2009


“Sugar”-Over the years, we’ve seen so many clichéd sports films: the player who rises from nothing to make it to the big leagues or the team that’s put together out of seemingly nothing and goes all the way. If those films are the typical “sports” films, “Sugar” is the anti-sports film. Miguel Santos, aka Sugar (played with charm and sincerity by first-time actor Algenis Perez Soto), is a young Dominican pitcher who has dreamt of major league success while playing at the Dominican academy of the fictional Kansas City Knights. Leaving his family and girlfriend behind to play A ball in a completely alien location, Bridgetown, Iowa, he finds himself in a place where he barely understands a word or the local culture. Written and directed by a talented young couple, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, “Sugar” is less about baseball than it is about the experiences of a young maybe not-so-talented man facing reality. If you try to imagine the dramatic scenes that might create serious tension in a film like this, well, although they are hinted at (drinking, racial situations, womanizing), they never actually come to fruition and I give credit to the filmmakers for avoiding them. Miguel is treated with tremendous warmth by the Higgins family (Richard Bull, Ann Whitney, and Ellary Porterfield) who take him into their Iowa farm home and treat him like family. But it’s obvious from the expressions on Sugar’s face that all is not right in his world. In the end, “Sugar” is an intelligent film about the human spirit. Former major league pitcher, Jose Rijo, appears. Recommended. (In Spanish with English subtitles and in English) B+ (9/26/09)

“O’Horten”-This is an offbeat, oddly appealing look at a 67-year old Norwegian train engineer named Odd Horten who is retiring after 40 years on the job. Odd (Baard Owe) seems quite conservative in his lifestyle and methodical in his approach to life, going everywhere in uniform while lovingly smoking his pipe. But he manages to miss the final run on his train following a party in his honor by fellow engineers, and he seems suddenly challenged to keep himself busy. Odd spends his time out at night, and it doesn’t take him long to find himself meeting, conversing and interacting in oddball situations. A trip to the airport to talk about selling his boat to an old acquaintance finds him picked up with suspicion and searched by the police. After running into a nude young couple in a swimming pool, he discovers elderly Trygve Sissener (Espen Skjonberg) lying prone in the street and accompanies him back to his home. which is decorated with African art. Sissener tells tall tales and proposes driving blind through the streets of Oslo. “O’Horten” is a meditation on the plight of an older single retired man and the challenges he faces after his steady routine is gone. Written and directed by Bent Hamer (“Factotum”), and with a charming performance by Baard Owe and the supporting cast, “O’Horten” is recommended for movie aficionados who appreciate something just a little different. (In Norwegian with English subtitles.) B+ (9/25/09)

“Paris 36”-This film, whose real title is “Faubourg 36,” is the story of a a group of Parisians attempting to keep open a music hall on the outskirts of Paris in 1936. The main protagonist, Pigoil (Gerard Jugnot), seen at the beginning being charged with murder, relates the events involving the music hall that got him to that point. The story involves a panoply of characters, including the son he has lost to the wife who has abandoned him for another; the nasty anti-semitic gangster Galapiat (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu) who becomes owner of the theater and attempts to shut it down; Jacky (Kad Merad), a weak comedian who finds himself forced to perform in front of Galapiat’s right-wing cohorts; Milou (Clovis Cornillac), a young handsome leftist; Douce (Nora Arnezeder), the lovely young singer who provides cheer to all, especially Milou, but who is coveted by the nasty Galapiat;and a mysterious elderly gentleman who lives across the street and is afraid to leave his home (Pierre Richard, notable for his 1972 performance in “The Tall Blonde Man with One Black Shoe”). The problem with “Paris 36” is that the plot and presentation are hokey and sentimental to an intolerable degree and loaded with clichéd characters and situations. Although some of the characters are appealing, especially Douce, the plot seems almost laughable at times. (In French with English subtitles) C- (9/19/09)

“The Express”-The story of Ernie Davis, the great running back who suceeded Jim Brown at Syracuse, went on to be the first black winner of the Heisman Trophy. and died tragically of Leukemia at age 23 before ever playing an NFL game, is told here in a fairly perfunctory manner. Rob Brown is handsome and sincere as Davis; and Dennis Quaid is effective as the tight-lipped and tough coach, Ben Schwartzwalder. The football scenes are weak. Davis, who was very fast, seems to be lumbering down the field in most shots. The film emphasizes the racism that young blacks like Ernie Davis experienced, even in the north, more than a decade after Jackie Robinson broke the color line in major league baseball. But the film’s theme is completely undermined by misrepresentation of facts. A game between Syracuse and West Virginia is portrayed as occurring at West Virginia, with the crowd screaming harsh racial epithets against Syracuse’s black players. Seems, however, that that game was really played at Syracuse. And so it’s hard to give much weight to the rest of the film’s portrayal of the racism experienced by Davis, including scenes in which he’s shown being pummeled by white Texas players after being tackled during the Cotton Bowl at Dallas on January 1, 1960. C+ (9/18/09)

“Sunshine Cleaning”-It takes place in sunny Albuquerque, NM, a place I know well, it has “sunshine” in its title, and it has three stars who should give off lots of light (Amy Adams, Emily Blunt, and Alan Arkin), but “Sunshine Cleaning” is a dreary film. Adams and Blunt are Rose and Norah Lorkowski, two sisters slightly down on their luck, who start up a crime scene cleanup business without any idea of what they are getting themselves into. Rose is an unmarried mother whose young son spends a lot of time with his grandfather, Joe (Alan Arkin), a man who seems to come up with one bad idea after another for making money. At the heart of the film are the ups and downs of the relationship beween Rose and Norah, a relationship colored by the tragedy of their mother’s suicide. But instead of some brightness emerging from this rather pathetic situation, the characters all seem spiritless and aimless, and the drab photography and sets don’t help at all. Rose, despite her good looks, spends time in motels with Mac (Steve Zahn), her boyfriend in high school who married someone else. Dispirited Norah fails in an attempt to make friends with a woman (Mary Lynn Rajskub) she meets due to photos she found at a crime scene. “Sunshine Cleaning” includes a half-hearted attempt at an upbeat ending that just produces yawns. It’s a shame such a good cast was wasted on this downbeat and purposeless story. C (9/11/09)

"State of Play"-With a rather unexpected and jarring opening scene, in which a young man knocks people over in the street as he runs desperately through Georgetown only to meet an unhappy fate, followed by a scene of an attractive redhead waiting to board a Metro train, and another unhappy fate, “State of Play” gets off to a rousing start and rarely lets up. Soon, when suspicions are raised about Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) who has been investigating a major military contractor, we’re introduced to Cal McAffrey (a rather longhaired and somewhat rotund Russell Crowe), a reporter for a major Washington newspaper (whose boss is played by Helen Mirren), and a longtime friend of Congressman Collins and his wife, Anne (Robin Wright Penn). McAffrey soon finds himself working with a young pretty blogger for the same newspaper, Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), to find out just what’s going on and they seem to be doing, as is often the case in such films, better than the police. And what is going on is, of course, at the heart of this thriller which contains the usual ups, downs, and switcheroos, until it reaches it’s surprising but slightly disappointing ending. Directed by Kevin Macdonald (“The Last King of Scotland”), “State of Play” is beautifully filmed in D.C., and definitely emits a Washington aroma. Russell Crowe is impressive (not surprising); Ben Affleck is a little stiff; Robin Wright Penn is delightful as a wronged political wife; and Rachel McAdams is cute and perky but seemingly extraneous to the plot. I might have given this film an “A” except that it isn’t original. Instead, it’s an American remake of a British TV series that was broadcast only a few years earlier. B+ (9/7/09)

“Rudo y Cursi”-From writer/director Carlos Cuarón, “Rudo y Cursi” is a funny, colorfully photographed, and intelligent film about two half-brothers from the Mexican sticks who work as laborers, but who desire success in the Big City and the opportunity to build their mother a dream house. Beto (Rudo) (Diego Luna) is a married banana plantation foreman who takes life a little too seriously and has a gambling problem. Tato (later Cursi) (Gael Garcia Bernal) thinks he can sing and hopes to start a career. But both are very good soccer players and they are discovered by Batuta (Guillermo Francella), who narrates the story about their rise and fall in the tough business of professional soccer in Mexico City. Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal, deservedly the most successful Mexican movie stars, provide contrasting experiences in their handling of success. Rudo, a goalie, has to deal with being far from his wife and children while being tempted by gamblers. Cursi, a striker, is handsome and can sing up to a point and finds himself living his dream when the gorgeous model Maya (Jessica Mas) throws herself at him. Guillermo Francella is wonderful as the soccer scout with a cynical viewpoint of life and a different beautiful girl on his arm every time we see him. This is a first-rate look at a highly competitive brotherly relationship and its ups and downs. Recommended. (In Spanish with English subtitles). A- (9/5/09)

“Adventureland”-For once, a coming-of-age film which is tasteful and in which the hero is neither a complete nerd nor does he have to jump over hoops to get the girl. “Adventureland” is an amiable film about James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg), a very smart but somewhat socially innocent kid from Pittsburgh who thinks he’s about to spend the summer in Europe and the fall at Columbia University, only to find that his father’s economic situation requires him to spend the summer working in a rather pathetic job running games at an amusement park run by the likes of Bobby (Bill Hader) and Paulette (Kristen Wiig). Although frequently sucker-punched by his childhood friend Tommy Frigo (Matt Bush), and in need of some lessons in relating to young women, James does quite well for himself when he meets and falls for the lovely Em (Kristen Stewart), and then the rather voluptuous Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva) who both find him appealing. Complications ensue when we discover that Em is already involved with the married park mechanic, Mike Connell (Ryan Reynolds, who seems unlikely in this role). “Adventureland” is loaded with appealing and amusing characters, including James’ park sidekick, Joel (Martin Starr), and the young lady Joel would like to get to know better, Sue O’Malley (Paige Howard--yes, another of Ron’s daughters). Filmed at Kennywood Amusement Park in West Mifflin, PA, “Adventureland” is a surprise delight in this age of tasteless coming-of-age films. Jesse Eisenberg (reminding me a little of Michael Cera) and Kristen Stewart are a pleasure to watch, and Margarita Levieva, a young actress (and former gymnast) originally from Russia, is wonderful as a hot young thing who knows exactly how to use her assets. B+ (8/29/09)

“Duplicity”-The world of corporate espionage is at the heart of this comedy-thriller starring Clive Owen as Ray Koval, and Julia Roberts as Claire Stenwick. Koval and Stenwick are spies who either love or hate each. It’s not quite clear about that or whether they’re on the same side. But right from the start, when we see the CEOs of two major corporations battling each other in slow-mo on an airport tarmac, we know that there are going to be some dirty doings between their companies. That the CEOs are played by the wonderful Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson makes it even better. Unfortunately, writer/director Tony Gilroy employs one of the most used and abused clichés in recent movie-making, the time jump, so that we’re constantly being taken back and forth in time to the point that confusion can become a problem for the viewer who isn’t paying very close attention. Owen and Roberts provide their usual professional performances, with neither standing out. They’re both in danger of becoming acting clichés, if they haven’t reached that point already, by taking on these types of roles. Ultimately, “Duplicity” is a halfway decent espionage film with a light touch, a good supporting cast, and somewhat of an unexpected surprise ending. B- (8/28/09)

“Katyn”-In early 1940, more than 20,000 Polish officers and civilians were murdered by being shot in the head and buried in ditches. The Nazis, upon discovering the bodies, blamed the Soviet Union but the Nazis weren’t believed. Later, the Soviets blamed the Nazis. It wasn’t until 1989 that the Soviets finally admitted their guilt. The historical record shows the slaughter was the idea by Lavrentiy Beria of the Soviet NKVD, approved by Joseph Stalin. Needless to say it was a significantly traumatic event in Polish history and to the Polish psyche. In “Katyn,” and based on a fictional account of the real-life events, director Andrzej Wajda provides the human side, telling the story from the point of view of the women and children left behind. With a fine cast of Polish actors, “Katyn” puts us through the pain of uncertainty that befell the women left behind after they watched their husbands carted away in railroad cars as Soviet prisoners. Wajda saves the primary event for the end. When one of the officer’s wives is brought his belongings, she finds a blood-stained diary he kept right up to the end. In flashbacks, we see the officers driven to the forest in black wagons, where large graves had already been dug by earth-movers ready to cover the bodies with dirt. As each officer approached the grave, he was shot in the head by the Soviet soldiers with an ease befitting the inhumane and cold-blooded behavior of a ruthless regime that had not agreed to the Geneva Convention. And so it goes. B+ (8/22/09)

“Surveillance”-Written and directed by Jennifer Lynch, famous for the disaster known as “Boxing Helena” (1993), “Surveillance” begins with a murderous attack on a sleeping couple by a pair of masked characters, followed by the arrival in a rural western town of a pair of federal agents played by Bill Pullman and Julia Ormond. Pullman and Ormond’s characters don’t seem quite right and neither do the police personnel they’re visiting and their guests, some of whom seem right out of recent comedy features or maybe Saturday Night Live. In fact, nobody in this film is really funny and nothing seems quite right. As we soon discover, it isn’t. Pullman and Ormond’s characters begin an investigation about recent events that concern two survivors present at the station, the high-as-a-kite Bobbi (Pell James) and cute little Stephanie (Ryan Simpkins). Gradually we discover the horrors that led to this setting and the ultimate not terribly surprising truth of the activites of the local police and the identities of the murdering perpetrators. “Surveillance” is loaded with creepy characters, creepy activities, and a creepy ending. Lots of blood and death and an utter lack of what used to be referred to as “redeeming social value.” This film serves no purpose other than to creep out the viewer. But it’s not clever creepy. It’s just pathetic. F (8/21/09)

“The Class”-American film distributors obviously think very little of American audiences. The French title of this film is “Entre les murs” or “Between the Walls,” but in the US it gets the simplistic title of “The Class.” Well, between the walls, are a teacher named Mr. Marin (François Bégaudeau, former teacher and author of the book upon which the film is based) and a group of surly French teens, and we watch how little progress is made over the course of one school year (symbolized at the end by a session in which Mr. Marin asks many of the students what they learned over the past year--the answer is almost nothing--although one of the nastier girls does manage to mention reading Plato’s “Republic” and then demonstrates that she learned little or nothing from it). When the school year begins, the teachers are shown either living in fear or cynical about what they’re about to experience as they attempt to teach their subjects to resistant and, in many cases, nasty minds. The one thing that stands out is that the nasty characters in Mr. Marin’s class are clever in their responses to his teachings and in their attempts to disrupt the learning process. One may think that the students are enhancing the educational process by democratizing the classroom, but although they’re obviously not really dumb, especially when one considers the clever comments and observations they make about the teacher and the system, they are stubbornly resistant to learning. At the heart of the mess is an absolute lack of respect for authority which makes them, in their minds, equals with their teachers. If the purpose of this film was to define the problem, it succeeded. But frankly, I didn’t enjoy watching these kids (who were real students, not actors) belittling the one thing that would give them a chance to get out of their current rundown life circumstances. They’re clever in their retorts but when they get older and hopefully a little smarter with life’s experiences, they’ll realize how stupid they were. I was initially angry at this film but after some thought and in retrospect it serves the good cause of emphasizing the societal need to redirect the thinking of modern youth. However, in the face of issues like poverty and economic problems, racial injustice, global warming, the decline of an intelligent and independent media, and the growth of the electronic domination of people's minds, this seems a hopeless endeavor. (In French with English subtitles) B (8/15/09)

“Live and Become”-When black Ethiopian Jews occupied Sudanese refugee camps in the 1980s, a rescue effort brought many to Israel to begin a new life. In “Live and Become,” a Christian mother sends her son to replace a Jewish boy of about the same age who has just died and the Jewish mother agrees to take him. Upon arriving in Israel, the boy somehow convinces authorities that he’s Jewish and is renamed Schlomo (Moshe Agazai). But he never forgets that he’s really not Jewish and desperately misses his mother. Some significant adjustment problems result, leading to his being adopted by a warm, left-wing and not particularly religious family. Played as a teen by Moshe Abebe, and as an adult by Sirak Sabahat (a handsome young man who actually lived some of the experiences portrayed in the film), Schlomo finds himself adjusting despite having to deal with his own guilt, hostility, and racism (including from the father of a potential white girlfriend, Sara (Roni Hadar)). Directed by a Romanian, Radu Mihaileanu, “Live and Become” contains some of the warmest performances I’ve seen in recent times. Especially outstanding are Yael Abecassis as Schlomo’s adoptive mother, Yael; Roni Hadar as a young woman who sees the best in Schlomo right from the beginning and loves him joyously and without equivocation (her performance is delightfully endearing and funny); and especially Yitzhak Edgar as Le Qés Amara, an older Ethiopian Jew who becomes a father-figure to Schlomo. The film also stars Roschdy Zem (“Indigenes” and “The Girl from Monaco”) as Schlomo’s adoptive father. If you want to experience something new, original, intelligent, and human, this film is for you. (In Amharic, Hebrew, and French with English subtitles) A- (8/14/09)

“Aleksandra”-Directed by Aleksandr Sokurov, “Aleksandra” is a stark tale of an elderly but tough-minded Russian woman who travels by foot and by military transport trains resembling cattle cars to a military base in Chechnya to see her grandson, Denis (Vasily Shevtsov), an officer. Played by the opera star Galina Vishnevskaya (widow of Mstislav Rostropovich), Aleksandra seems utterly out of place on the base but is greeted mostly with courtesy as well as curiosity by the Russian soldiers. The biggest impact of the film occurs when Aleksandra ventures into the local Chehnyan town and connects with local women in the marketplace, especially Malika (Raisa Gichaeva), who invites her back to her severely war-ravaged home. The film reaches its apex when she sits in a tent and discusses family, love, and the war with her grandson. This is not the kind of film you choose to watch for mindless entertainment. It’s harsh and was filmed in the real locations with temperatures apparently well over 100 degrees. It’s a serious film about humanity and the effects of war. B+ (8/9/09)

“Knowing”-When we are subjected to tripe such as this we know that we are in the depths of movie hell. “Knowing” starts out with a relatively promising sci-fi premise, as we see Lucinda, a young obviously obsessed schoolgirl in 1959 writing a long series of numbers instead of drawing a picture of what she thinks the world will be like in 2009, the class assignment. The pictures are to be placed in a time capsule at the school and retrieved 50 years later. Fast forward to 2009 when the time capsule is opened and young Caleb Koestler (Chandler Canterbury) is given the envelope with Lucinda’s numbers. His father, John (Nicolas Cage), a professor at MIT, quickly discerns that the numbers have forecast major disasters throughout the past 50 years and there are three more to come. Each series of numbers gives the date, the longitude and latitude of the location of the disaster, and the number of people who die. The final one, though, only has a date and “EE” written backwards. But unfortunately, the film descends into apocalyptic-UFO baloney to the ultimate degree. “Knowing” could well be one of the ten worst films I’ve ever seen. The ending in particular reminded me of another of the top ten worst films of all time, “What Dreams May Come” with Robin Williams. Miss this film at all costs. F (8/7/09)

“What Just Happened”-Barry Levinson (“Liberty Heights”) directs this slice-of-Hollywood life story aimed at providing insight into the pressures and stresses of life in the movie production business. Robert De Niro gives a pleasing low key performance as Ben, a movie producer with a bluetooth cell phone almost permanently attached to his ear. Ben is struggling to make a living to support two ex-wives and their children. Worse, although he’s offered the affections of a younger woman (Moon Bloodgood), he’s still stuck on his second former wife, Kelly (Robin Wright Penn), who has little emotionally or physically to offer him. Curiously, despite being divorced for two years, Ben and Kelly are still in therapy. Ben also has to deal with high-strung creative people, including an insufferable and double-crossing director (Michael Wincott) who insists on an animal death scene offensive to audiences, and a seemingly uncooperative actor (Bruce Willis as himself). In his daily life, he drives around engaging in one phone call after the next, and deals with a weak-minded agent (John Turturro), a powerful studio head (Catherine Keener), and a competitor (Stanley Tucci) who may or may not be sleeping with his ex-wife. With the addition of a cameo by Sean Penn, “What Just Happened” has a fine cast, and some humorous moments, but ultimately it doesn’t have the pizzazz that turns a run-of-the-mill film into a memorable one. B (8/1/09)

“Push”-Filmed in the streets of Hong Kong, “Push” is a sci-fi film which imagines that the human race contains groups of people with unusual powers who are fighting each other as well as a government agency called “the Division.” There appear to be four primary types: sniffers, who can gain insight into people and events by, well, sniffing things; watchers, who see the future and draw pictures of it; movers, who can mentally move things around; and pushers, who can control other people’s minds. Led by pusher Henry Carver (Djimon Hounsou), the Division is dominant, but its true goals are never made clear, while the film centers around its attempt to find both a young woman, Kira Hollis (Camilla Belle), who has escaped from a Division facility after surviving the application of a special drug, and a case containing that drug. Chris Evans is our hero, Nick Gant, a mover, who, with the help of 13-year old Cassie Holmes (Dakota Fanning), a watcher, attempts to defeat not only the Division, but also a local Asian gang, trying desperately to use their powers to find the case and its contents. Strangely, the Asian gang seems to be the only group to include a fifth class of special people, the “yellers” (?), people who can scream so loud that everything, including people, will break. Although the premise is clever, and the film benefits by having been made in the exotic locale of Hong Kong, it falters for a variety of reasons, including the fact that the plot trips all over itself due to inconsistencies in logic. At one point, for example, Nick writes instructions to each member of his group explaining what they must do at a particular moment in the future. Since he’s a mover and not a watcher, it’s unclear how he is able to give each member of his group just the right written instructions for the just the right moment. But the biggest weakness in “Push” is its cast. Chris Evans is pleasant and generically handsome, but lacks the star power and charisma that might have pushed this film over the top into success. Dakota Fanning is, as usual, charming and effective as the watcher Cassie, worried about what she is seeing in her future. But the character at the heart of the story, Kira, is played by the lifeless Camilla Belle. Ms. Belle is generally expressionless, and although she and Nick are supposedly lovers, there is zero chemistry between her and Chris Evans. With a first-rate cast and a really good writer who could have scripted a more original and insightful sci-fi plot, a la “Blade Runner,” “Push” could have been something special. Instead, it left me cold. C+ (7/31/09)

“Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer”-Since I’m very interested in jazz vocals, it surprised me how little I knew about Anita O’Day, considered one of the finest jazz vocalists of the 20th Century. And I venture to guess that if I asked 20 people on the street to identify Anita O’Day, I’d get 20 puzzled looks. This documentary introduces us to a very talented, but troubled, lady whose career spanned from the 1940s to 2006 when she died at age 87. Anita O’Day was an attractive, smart, fast talking, and tough lady who could make incredible sounds with her voice. One commentator described her as an “instrument” to supplement the band. She started out singing with Gene Krupa, moved on to Stan Kenton, and then, after starting a relationship with drummer John Poole, found herself turning into a drug addict. But she survived that and managed to make loads of albums, including one just before she died. The film has a variety of observers providing insight into her life and the world of jazz, including singers Margaret Whiting and Annie Ross. A good film for those interested in learning more about a really talented person who has received little attention in the world of media hype that we have today. Anita O’Day could rightly be referred to as a “character” in the world of sophisticated pop music, but what a talented character she was! B+ (7/26/09)

“The Great Buck Howard”-When John Malkovich is the lead or a primary character in a film, his rather unusual and, might I say strange, demeanor affects the entire experience. He’s not one of my favorite actors, but every once in a while he does hit the jackpot. This isn’t one of those times, although Malkovich’s Buck Howard is enough of a quirky character to make the film slightly amusing. Colin Hanks appears as young Troy Gable who, forced by his father to attend law school against his will, chooses to leave school and to take a job as the road manager for Buck Howard, a magician/mentalist based loosely on the career of The Amazing Kreskin. Buck, who never fails to remind people that he appeared many times on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, is on the downside of his career, appearing in slightly seedy theaters in small towns. If the auditorium is mostly empty, Buck doesn’t notice, especially when he performs his big closing feature, amazing the audience when he uses his mental powers to find his monetary payment for the show, hidden somewhere in the audience. Colin Hanks is appealing as the young man who isn’t quite sure about his career, but is sure that he’s attracted to Valerie Brennan (Emily Blunt), a young woman reluctantly assigned to do PR for Buck. Unfortunately, despite being the son of Tom Hanks, who appears as Troy’s father, Colin just doesn’t have the star power that his father has had for many years. He’s handsome and pleasant, but there’s no magic. I’ve always enjoyed Emily Blunt’s performances, but this one seemed forced, especially her American accent (she’s British, of course). And finally while John Malkovich’s quirkiness is in many ways just right for a character as unusual as Buck Howard, in far too many other ways it’s quite distracting. “The Great Buck Howard” had a chance to provide enlightenment about mentalism, magic, the potential of a young dreamer who isn’t happy with his lot in life, or the life of a traveling entertainer on the downside of a career. But “The Great Buck Howard” doesn’t cash in. C+ (7/24/09)

“Noise”-Written and directed by Matthew Saville, “Noise” is almost exactly what it’s called. A young woman, Lavinia (Maia Thomas), gets on a suburban train outside of Melbourne, Australia, only to find seven people shot to death and herself in a confrontation with the killer. The film explores the people involved with and connected to the search for the killer, but it’s far from a typical police procedural. In fact, it centers on one police constable, Graham McGahan (Brendan Cowell), who is distracted by noises he is experiencing in his head in the form of tinnitus (a whistling in the ear). And the filmmakers make sure we not only hear some of what Graham is experiencing but also a cacophony of noises and sounds that make up life in this Australian suburb. Having a boss unsympathetic to his health problem, Graham is assigned to sit in a police information van in Sunshine, the suburb where the murders have occurred, and he finds himself in the company of the boyfriend of another recent murder victim, a young woman found near a drainage ditch, as well as other police and characters who wander in. “Noise” was filmed mostly at night and the photography emphasizes the almost neon colors of the night to match the sounds we hearing constantly. The cast does a fine job in this original concept film. B+ (7/19/09)

“Days and Clouds”-Directed by Silvio Soldini (“Bread and Tulips”), “Days and Clouds” once again raises in my mind the question of the purpose of serious movie-making. To entertain? To enlighten? To be clever, mysterious, or maybe even funny? Certainly, at least one of these elements is usually involved in arthouse cinema. What about to depress and force the viewer to experience the downbeat aspects of real life daily existence? With first-rate performances by Margherita Buy (as Elsa) and Antonio Albanese (as Michele), this film exposes us to a marriage that is going through an extreme crisis. Elsa and Michele, parents of a grown daughter (Alba Rohrwacher) who is involved in running a restaurant, live in a beautiful home in Genoa and have dozens of friends as well as possessions, including a boat. Elsa, immediately after graduating from an art restoration program, discovers that her husband has lost his job and that they are perilously close to financial ruin. The home, the boat, and the luxuries must all go. Maybe the friends too because both are too proud to talk to their friends about their problems. The descent of this marriage is at the heart of the film and “Days and Clouds” is unconvincing about any positive future for this couple. Michele, who had been a partner in a substantial business, can’t find new work at his experience level and takes on more and more demeaning and temporary jobs. Michele’s nerves finally give out when he is in the middle of wallpapering a neighbor’s apartment and he simply walks out. Anyone who chooses to watch this film is guaranteed two hours of the misery of these two unhappy people. Is there a point? Had the film contained some humor or demonstrated the couple’s emotional resources to deal with the crisis and save themselves I might have been impressed. But the momentary positive feelings in the lame and unconvincing final scene left me thinking that this couple’s future is hopeless. This film never approaches the charm and humor of Soldini's "Bread and Tulips." (In Italian with English subtitles) C+ (7/18/09)

“The Edge of Love”-It is London in the middle of the Blitz. An articulate young man named Dylan (Matthew Rhys) runs into his first love, a singer named Vera (Keira Knightley), and the attraction is obviously still in bloom. But Dylan is already married to the beautiful and tempestuous Caitlin (Sienna Miller), and Vera is about to be courted by a young soldier, William (Cillian Murphy). Seems like the making of a good fictional story, except that Dylan is Dylan Thomas, the great Welsh poet, and the characters and story are from real life. The director, John Maybury, in a feature on the DVD, talks of how he wanted to show the claustrophobic nature of life during the Blitz as the four main characters find themselves living on top of each other, sharing intimate space that likely never would have occurred in a more normal time. When William goes off to war, Dylan, Caitlin, and Vera go off to Wales to live near the sea and the crossed passions become even more painfully obvious. When a numb William returns, obviously shell-shocked from war, he blows up from suspicions that Vera’s child was fathered not by him, but by Dylan. “The Edge of Love” has a fine beginning, demonstrating the passions and attractions of these interesting characters. But the film ultimately concentrates too much on the faces of the leads, many with tears, as they demonstrate their lust, anger, self-loathing and fears. Thomas, considered one of the finest poets of the 20th Century, is portrayed as a selfish boor, making it appear rather strange that the same person could write such beautiful and insightful words. “The Edge of Love” also explores the unusual friendship of Caitlin and Vera (maybe more so, as in one scene they find themselves in a bathtub together, but this titillating scene goes nowhere). “The Edge of Love” finally becomes far too claustrophobic and almost painful to watch. Matthew Rhys has the deep sonorous voice that reminds us of the real Dylan Thomas, and Sienna Miller is attractively angry and lusty as Caitlin who apparently was as unfaithful as Dylan. Unfortunately, Keira Knightley is just too much Keira Knightley, and there is little sense of an actor exploring a character’s dimensions. Cillian Murphy is pleasant but has little to do except look lovestruck at the beginning, blankly tormented upon his return from war, and perplexed at what ultimately happens to him. This film had great potential but the filmmakers failed to carry through. And so “The Edge of Love” received little attention in this country. Not surprising. B- (7/17/09)

“Confessions of a Shopaholic”-I tried this so-called comedy, but I had to turn it off after an hour. It was insufferable, silly, banal, and unfunny. Isla Fisher tried her heart out but there’s little to be done with an awful, demeaning script. In the portion that I saw, the only good moment came when Kristin Scott Thomas entered as a French fashion editor, and that lasted probably less than a minute. D- (7/11/09)

“The Secret Life of Bees”-Based on the novel by Sue Monk Kidd, “The Secret Life of Bees” is a touching albeit sentimental film about a young white girl, Lily Owens (Dakota Fanning), in the South of 1964, who has “issues” about the mother she accidentally killed and the nasty father (Paul Bettany) who resents her very existence. The father wants Lily to believe that her mother intended to abandon her, but Lily wants to believe otherwise. Dakota Fanning, who was about 14 when this film was made, demonstrates acting skills far beyond her years as Lily abandons her father, taking along the black housekeeper, Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson), who has been beaten by a virulent racist and instead of being treated as a victim has been arrested by local police. Using a clue left behind by Lily’s mother, the two travel to South Carolina and find themselves welcomed into the home of the sophisticated black Boatwright sisters, August (Queen Latifah), a beekeeper and honey entrepreneur who is connected mysteriously to Lily’s mother; June (Alicia Keyes), a musician; and May (Sophie Okenedo), a disturbed woman since the death of her twin as a child. “Bees” is a well made film with a good cast but is hurt to some extent by the saccharine nature of the circumstances and some of the characters. August, who is undoubtedly intended to be a lot older than Queen Latifah (who was 38 at the time of the filming) is a little too warm, friendly, and perfect. Also, events occur that are a bit predictable as when Lily travels into town with young Zach (Tristan Wilds) and sits with him in the “colored” section of a movie theater. Despite its flaws, “The Secret Life of Bees” is worthwhile because it is beautifully photographed, and the cast does a lovely job. B+ (7/3/09)

“Battle in Seattle”-The other day a friend was asking about non-stressful movies. Well, this isn’t one of them. Written and directed by Stuart Townsend, “Battle in Seattle” is a docudrama with a clear intent: to show the evils of the World Trade Organization (WTO) which is said to favor corporations over human needs and the needs of third world countries, the motivations of the mostly peaceful protestors during the 1999 WTO meeting in Seattle, Washington, and the results of police-state-like tactics to regain control of the streets. “Battle in Seattle” centers on several protestors, including Jay (Martin Henderson), a protest leader; Lou (Michelle Rodriguez); and Sam (Jennifer Carpenter), the group’s lawyer. When some of the protestors turn to violence and higher officials pressure him to act, Seattle’s mayor (Ray Liotta) is forced to bring out the storm-troopers. One of them happens to be Dale (Woody Harrelson), who becomes quite conflicted when his pregnant wife (Charlize Theron) is seriously injured by a fellow police officer in the downtown melee. This film got little attention by the public at the box office for the obvious reason that it’s not exactly “fun,” and is clearly politically motivated (the end-titles include a summary of promises made and not kept by the WTO after the 1999 riots). Of note in the cast is Andre Benjamin as Django, an unusually upbeat protestor. B- (7/1/09)

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